TORONTO — Hull Kingston Rovers return home relieved. The Toronto Wolfpack wonder what might have been.
The first Super League side to visit Toronto prevailed 28-22 Saturday in a rugby league playoff nail-biter that could have gone the Wolfpack's way. The result left both teams with one win and one loss and five games remaining to play in the Super 8s Qualifiers, still in the hunt to secure Super League status.
"We had more than opportunities to win the game," lamented Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley. "I thought we beat ourselves quite often.
"I'm sure it was a great game to watch for the neutral. But for us as a group it was frustrating."
Added captain Josh McCrone: "We probably did well to be within six points at the end the way we played ... When you go out to play football, you want to put your best foot forward and me personally and as a team, I don't think we did that today "
The second-year Wolfpack repeatedly laid siege on the visitors' goal-line, repelled by hard-nosed defence or denied by their own errors.
Toronto, which topped the second-tier Betfred Championship during the regular season with a 20-2-1 record, had lost its two previous encounters with teams from the top-flight — 66-10 in May to Warrington Wolves and 29-22 in 2017 to Salford Red Devils, both in Ladbrokes Challenge Cup play.
The three Super League losses aside, Toronto boasts a 41-3-2 career record in its rise from the English third-tier.
Hull KR, whose history dates back to 1882, showed Super League resilience — bending but not breaking while mounting two comebacks to the Wolfpack's one on the day.
Handling errors by Chase Stanley and McCrone killed off early Toronto attacks just metres from the HKR goal-line before Nick Rawsthorne dove over in the corner for a 6-0 Wolfpack lead.
The visitors responded with two tries after Toronto gave away possession.
Adam Quinlan retrieved a Toronto kick at his own try-line and raced up the field. Speedy winger Mason Caton-Brown eventually ran him down but Quinlan lobbed the ball over his head to Junior Vaivai, one of three HKR players in support, and the New Zealand-born U.S. international ran it in.
Former Wolfpack captain Craig Hall gave HKR a 12-6 lead after intercepting a Gareth O'Brien pass near the visitors' try-line and racing 90 yards for the 25th-minute score. A late penalty made it 14-6 at the break.
The Wolfpack turned up the pressure in the second half and the visitors began to make mistakes. Toronto led 16-14 — on an Andrew Dixon converted try and two O'Brien penalties — before HKR went ahead 26-16 on converted tries by Chris Atkin and Chris Clarkson in the 60th and 63rd minutes.
Toronto answered with another Dixon try in the 73rd minute to cut the lead to 26-22. Hall then added a 40-metre-plus penalty for the coup de grace in the 76th minute to make it 28-22.
"A tough game for a coach to sit through," said a clearly relieved HKR coach Tim Sheens an Australian with a glittering coaching CV that stretches across both hemispheres. "But to our credit we hung on and got away with a win."
It marked only the Wolfpack's second loss in 21 home games (19-20-0) — and their second straight after a 30-12 defeat by Featherstone Rovers in the regular-season finale July 28.
Toronto lost Blake Wallace late in the first half when he failed a head injury assessment after his head slammed into the turf while tackled.
O'Brien kicked three conversions and two penalties for Toronto before 7,540 at Lamport Stadium. Danny Tickle kicked four conversions and Hall booted another penalty for HKR.
The visitors delivered some bone-crunching tackles, including one early Tommy Lee challenge that sent six-foot-four 245-pound Ashton Sims flying backwards. Later in the half, Tickle did not live up to his name in steamrolling O'Brien.
The Super 8s Qualifiers pit the bottom four teams in the top division against the top four of the Championship in a round-robin competition.
The top three finishers earn Super League status while No 4 takes on No. 5 in what is dubbed the "Million Pound Game" to see who joins them.
Hull KR, which finished 10th in the 12-team top-flight this season at (8-14-1), lost 28-10 to Salford in their playoff opener. And with Leeds Rhinos their next opponent, a win was needed Saturday.
The Wolfpack are off until Sept. 1 when they host the London Broncos, the only Championship team to beat them this season.
Toronto was without both its first-choice wingers, injured in last week's 14-0 playoff-opening win over Halifax RLFC. High-scoring Liam Kay (ankle) is done for the season with an ankle injury while Mattie Russell sat out due to concussion protocol.
Hull KR was missing captain Shawn Lunt, veteran Australian Todd Carney, Justin Carney (no relation) and Maurice Blair.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press