965 points. +429 points difference. 25 wins from 30. 166 tries. League Leaders’ Shield, Man of Steel and Coach of the Year. All of these statistics and accolades went to Castleford Tigers this season as they dominated all before them in the 2017 edition of Super League, so what happened on Saturday night?
Well, the distraction of Zak Hardaker’s surprising omission days before the Grand Final will have, as Daryl Powell said in his post match interview, been a distraction that the Tigers didn’t need. While nobody can question the full back’s ability, scandal and issues have followed him for years and led to his move from Leeds Rhinos to Penrith last season and then, this season, to West Yorkshire rivals Castleford. A player doesn’t get nominated twice in three years for the Man of Steel award, winning with the Rhinos in 2015, without being a highly capable player but one has to suggest that with his issues and midjudgements he is starting to look like another Rangi Chase; undoubted ability but not at all reliable. Hardaker’s omission saw Cas move 40 try man Greg Eden to full back which, with all due respect to the incoming Jy Hitchcox, the threat on their left edge was somewhat diminished. Having said that, after seeing the match on Saturday I’m not convinced Eden would have made much difference had he been on the left flank.
The errors the Tigers made in play saw to that and, as a result, they didn’t look like scoring all night – they weren’t able to play their natural game of throwing the ball out wide and hurting teams. Blame has been accredited to the conditions caused by the weather but the conditions were the same for both teams and, while they also made their fair share of handling errors, Leeds were in total control as they scored 24 unanswered points. A team can only play what is in front of them and Leeds did that regarding both the team and conditions and their big game experience came to the fore. Powell used the old saying ‘you have to lose one to win one’ in his post match interview and that may well be true – by no means does this defeat mean that Castleford won’t be back next season.
Big game players for the Tigers didn’t seem to step up on Saturday night – Luke Gale, Ben Roberts and Grant Millington all seemed to be a bit off the pace and will have disappointed Cas staff, fans and viewers at home as nobody can disagree that they have all have superb seasons. Big games require big performances and that was lacking from those in orange and black. Powell suggested that 10 or 11 of his players had their worst games of the season in the biggest game of the season and, while disappointing, it is probably true.
While Castleford were poor, however, part of that may well have been down to how well Leeds and, especially, the departing Danny McGuire, controlled the whole game. Much like in the semi final, Leeds defended high and aggressively which saw a lot of Castleford’s fifth tackle kicks as clearing kicks rather than attacking, threatening kicks as they simply looked to get out of their half. However, Leeds kept coming back and, as can be seen from Briscoe’s first try, Watkins and Briscoe’s disallowed ones and both of McGuire’s, the eventual winners were having the attacking kicks that their opponents didn’t with grubbers into the in goal and high kicks to the corners causing Castleford problems throughout the night. The Tigers’ fans worries about stand in full back Greg Eden’s fallibility under the high ball rung true with McGuire’s first try after he failed to catch it and that will have been a weak spot the Rhinos knew about and used to their advantage. The gameplan designed by Brian McDermott was superb and meant that, whatever Powell’s was, Castleford couldn’t get into theirs.
It is a shame that the team who won the league by a mile don’t get the biggest trophy of the season but, as has been said by many, this has been the way for twenty years plus and, when the season started in February, everybody knew that this would happen. I have no doubt that Castleford will come again as they are more than a mere flash in the pan – but next season they will have to deliver in the big games far better than they have this season as there will be added pressure and expectation surrounding them.
Leeds, however, will be delighted to have dominated a team who had previously beaten them eight times in a row – a run which, unfortunately for Castleford, came to an abrupt and devastating end on the biggest stage of all.