Hull FC 36 Castleford Tigers 10: match report
IN a two act play, Hull FC brought the curtain down on act one to rousing applause, the scene set for a fascinating finale.
Defeating Castleford 36-10 at the KC Stadium on Saturday, Hull cruised into the play-offs with a solid, if unspectacular performance.
It was a steady end to a first act which has had many twists and turns.
Slowly but surely though, the script has developed nicely in the latter stages to suggest Hull may well have a big part to play in the final scenes of the season.
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Whether there is a fairytale finish is yet to be seen, but when the second act starts next Sunday, as the Black and Whites play host to Huddersfield Giants, Hull will be confident of a first play-off win in five years.
From the moment the players walked on to the field with their children before the game, there was a feeling there was plenty to celebrate.
Unfortunately, for Hull, that mind set seemed to creep into their game in the opening 40 minutes.
It was arguably everything that coach Peter Gentle didn't want in the build-up to a play-off game, as the contest was littered with penalties and mistakes.
The stop-start nature did little for the game as a spectacle, and prevented the Black and Whites from finding any momentum to allow them to get into their stride.
Throwing the ball around with a carefree nature, Castleford cared little about the pattern of the game, or the constant interruptions.
For the Tigers it seemed almost like a training ground exercise at times.
In that respect Hull's defence were at least afforded a workout, and in conceding just two tries, will take the most pleasure from their solidity without the ball.
Going forward, the clinical edge that was evident a week earlier was not in such big supply.
It would have been foolish to expect another 13-try show, and a return of 36 points was profitable reward for their efforts.
But Hull will know they'll find Huddersfield much harder to crack when the stakes are higher next week.
With no fresh injuries and England international Danny Tickle returning for the final 20 minutes of the game, Hull can head into the play-offs confident and healthy.
Tickle's return to the bench was one of two changes for Gentle, who also recalled Kirk Yeaman at the expense of Jordan Turner, who missed out with a niggling injury.
The coach had stressed two weeks ago the need to find a settled side and he now looks set on a formula he hopes can take Hull all the way to Old Trafford.
Half-back pairing Brett Seymour and Aaron Heremaia were not as dominant as they had been against the Bulls, while Richard Horne came up with some uncharacteristic errors at full-back.
But team performances is what Gentle has asked for, and that's what he got.
Standing out from that 17 were players who will be crucial to Hull's long-term future, and one who will be badly missed.
Danny Houghton may not be regarded in the wider game as highly as St Helen's hooker James Roby or even Wigan's Michael McIlorum, but on this season's evidence he is a match for both, and Hull wouldn't swap him for either.
The 23-year-old was at his best again, surging forward from dummy-half, supporting breaks, taking on the line and putting in his customary relentless defensive performance.
His work rate was matched by Saints-bound second-rower Willie Manu, who while set for pastures new, gave everything for the cause again as the Castleford defence struggled to cope with his aggression.
Showing subtlety to his game too, it was Manu's drop of the shoulder that opened the gap for him to score the first try.
Any thoughts of a one-sided contest looked to be over though when Jordan Thompson leveled the scores soon after, as the Tigers started to look the most threatening.
All that changed just before half-time, when Heremaia's grubber kick to the corner was missed by both Yeaman and Tigers winger Ben Blackmore, allowing Tom Briscoe to gather the ball for a simple score.
A six-point advantage for Hull then became eight on the half-time hooter as Jamie Foster kicked a penalty from in front of the posts. From that point, the hosts never looked back.
A dour contest was lit up early in the second half with three quick tries from Richard Horne, Houghton and Mark O'Meley, with the Australian prop showing great desire to force his way over despite having three defenders on his back.
To their credit, the Tigers kept pushing forward and got some reward thanks to Oliver Holmes' try, but it was left to Hull to have the final say as Chris Green capped a breakthrough season with a late try.
As Gentle explained after the game, now a new competition begins and the slate is wiped clean.
What has gone counts for little, but a look back at their last two outings will at least give Hull the confidence they need.