WHILE relegated Hull KR were battling away in the Championship last year, Wakefield Trinity winger Tom Johnstone spent most of his season facing his own demons after a knee reconstruction had blighted his exciting progress.
Both parties, then, were desperate to make their Super League return last night but it was undoubtedly only the England hopeful left celebrating at the end.
Looking like he had never been away, Johnstone scored a marvellous hat-trick to mark his first league game since suffering that painful injury last April in true style.
To think, Trinity head coach Chris Chester had toyed with the idea of leaving him out as well to allow Mason Caton-Brown to continue from where he left off last year.
It was also a welcome return to KCOM Craven Park for Chester himself; he was sacked as Hull KR boss – ironically after a loss to Wakefield – just three games into the 2016 season.
Rovers, of course, were relegated that year but their loss has certainly been Trinity’s gain.
Seeking to build on last year’s near-fourth finish, they impressed in their opening Super League game last night, not least with their clinical work in attack but also with the manner they defended their line against opponents who were limited to Chris Clarkson’s solitary 56th- minute try. Jacob Miller was at the heart of most of the visitors’ best creative moments while up from the likes of David Fifita, Keegan Hirst and debutant Pauli Pauli caused plenty of issues.
Reece Lyne excelled at centre and the damage would have been far greater if Liam Finn had not converted just two of their six tries.
The win was forged early on, though, Wakefield crucially making Tim Sheens’ side pay when they were reduced to 12 men in the 12th minute.
Matty Marsh blatantly pulled back Johnstone as the 22-year-old tried supporting a break and the yellow card was inevitable.
Johnstone, fittingly, instantly scored his first as Wakefield found space far too easily down Rovers’ right-edge.
When Justin Carney, the marauding Australian winger who otherwise performed well, conceded a penalty for incorrectly playing the ball, the visitors struck once more.
Again they attacked that left edge and – for all their handling was slick – it was again far too easy to penetrate.
Matters got worse, for Sheens’ side though.
By the time, Marsh returned they were actually only 8-0 down as Finn had fluffed both conversion attempts .
But just seconds after the Rovers player put them back up to 13, Trinity scored again anyway, Ireland captain Finn amazed at being able to dummy his way over via some more paper thin defence.
This time he did convert and it was crucial the struggling hosts stopped the slide.
The introduction of captain Shaun Lunt off the bench did instantly pep them up, the ex-England hooker bringing some direction and injecting fluidity into their attacks as he began linking with former Leeds colleague McGuire.
But twice they criminally wasted great attacking position, once when Marsh dropped a pass on the first tackle after space had been created direct from a scrum and then again when Chris Clarkson nudged one forward to Thomas Minns.
Earlier, Tommy Lee had fumbled, too, and the glaring profligacy was highlighted further when Johnstone eased in for his second try with just 90 seconds of the half remaining for an 18-0 interval lead.
To their credit, the East Yorkshire club clearly came out for the second period with a different mindset.
They were unfortunate to see a Marsh effort ruled out for obstruction and, as McGuire’s kicking started to improve matters, Trinity were made to work hard.
They just managed to deny Carney a try and – after Johnstone almost muscled over for his treble – they did finally break, McGuire’s astute looping pass furnishing Clarkson, Ryan Shaw improving.
Wakefield had ignored the chance of an easy two points not long before and, with the Rovers crowd sensing a comeback at 18-6, they had to dig deep again.
Nevertheless, Johnstone – who was so strong and physical throughout – made sure with a world-class finish in the 67th minute, collecting another fine Miller pass before sailing through the air to finish one-handed in the corner.
There was time, too, for Ryan Hampshire to cross on debut and they will now look forward to next Friday’s home game against Salford Red Devils with relish.
Hull KR: Quinlan; Shaw, Heffernan, Minns, Carney; McGuire, Marsh; Jewitt, Lee, Mulhern, Blair, Greenwood, Clarkson. Substitutes: Kavanagh, Salter, Lunt, Masoe.
Wakefield Trinity: Grix; Jones-Bishop, Lyne, Tupou, Johnstone; Miller, Finn; Fifita, Wood, England, Ashurst, Horo, Arona. Substitutes: Hampshire, Kirmond, Pauli, Hirst.
Referee: Chris Kendall (Huddersfield).