Hull KR’s 10-year stay in Super League was brought to an end in dramatic fashion following a 19-18 golden-point defeat to Salford in the controversial Million Pound Game at the Lightstream Stadium.
Salford looked destined to make the drop as they trailed 18-10 with two minutes left but hit back with two last-gasp tries to draw level.
Gareth O’Brien, who was wide with both difficult conversion attempts, struck the decisive blow in the first minute of extra time with an outrageous 50-metre drop goal.
Hull KR had not even touched the ball in added time before referee Phil Bentham blew his whistle to end a match that will live long in the memory of both sets of supporters, for contrasting reasons.
Fighting broke out as Salford fans invaded the pitch and that could produce more worries for owner Marwan Koukash when the Rugby Football League probes a second case of crowd trouble this season, although he was all smiles as he held aloft a mock £1million cheque.
While the Red Devils celebrate a reprieve, Hull KR face an uncertain future as players and fans wait anxiously to discover if chairman Neil Hudgell decides to keep the team full-time in the Kingstone Press Championship, with rival clubs already circling to pick up the cream of their players.
The result will foster mixed feelings for former Australian national coach Tim Sheens, who quit his role as director of rugby with Salford to take over as head coach of Hull KR from next season.
There was little hint of the drama to come after the home side, deflated by their agonising one-point defeat to Huddersfield, began the match full of energy and thoroughly deserved their 10-0 lead.
Prop Adam Walker crashed over from short range for the first try, which was goaled by winger Josh Mantellato, who produced an acrobatic finish for the second, while skipper Terry Campese was held up on his back as he tried to add a third.
Salford looked lethargic at that stage and they suffered a blow when powerful centre Junior Sa’u was forced off with a rib injury after only nine minutes, but they gradually worked their way into the contest.
Second rower Ben Murdoch-Masila took a pass from former Hull KR captain Michael Dobson to barge his way over on 19 minutes and substitute winger Niall Evalds accepted a cut-out pass from full-back O’Brien to add a second try 10 minutes before the break.
O’Brien’s conversion levelled the scores but Hull KR finished the first half strongly, with hooker Shaun Lunt coming up with a third clean break, and Mantellato kicked a penalty on the stroke of half-time to nudge them back in front.
Salford might have gone in front but for a magnificent trysaving tackle by scrum-half Matty Marsh on Dobson but there seemed to be no way back after Thomas Minns, operating on the wing in an enforced reshuffle following injury to Cockayne, won the race to a grubber kick by substitute centre Graeme Horne to claim Rovers’ third try on 56 minutes.
Mantellato’s touchline goal put two scores between the sides but Evalds sparked the late fightback by going over at the left corner on 78 minutes and, in the last desperate act, right winger Greg Johnson crossed at the other corner to tie the scores.
Among Hull KR’s opponents in the Championship in 2017 will be Toulouse, who clinched promotion from League 1 with a 32-22 victory over Barrow in the play-off final in the south of France.