A warm, pleasant evening greeted the Mend-a-Hose Jungle last Thursday as Castleford Tigers hosted their local rivals, Wakefield Trinity, in a highly-anticipated clash that saw the Tigers finally being crowned as deserved league leaders.
In their 91-year history, Castleford Tigers have never had a team that has finished top of the league, whether that be the old First Division or the 1996-founded Super League, moreover, their last trophy was the Regal Trophy 23 years ago. Last Thursday night, these pieces of unwanted history were destroyed forever as the Tigers dispatched Trinity with relative ease to lift the League Leaders’ Shield in front of the Sky cameras and in full view of their long-suffering fans.
The Tigers have been a revelation
Prior to this momentous event, 2017 had already been and will still be considered as the greatest Super League competition yet and for one reason: the Tigers. Lighting up the league, and the sport in general, Castleford Tigers have upset the apple cart so much that there are no apples left to disturb. They have defied, and continue to defy, their critics who assuredly proclaimed that “the wheels would fall off” eventually. But, ten points clear going into this third Super 8s game, the Tigers’ wheels were well and truly fixed on.
The potential to secure the league leaders’ title in this fixture: a home tie – where the Castleford faithful are renowned for their vociferous and passionate backing of their team – against their arch-rivals and the team that relegated them in 2006, was surely too good to be true. Say that to Daryl Powell and his chargers.
“It’s just an awesome feeling. It’s a good news story for rugby league, I think the people there, the supporters, have been awesome all year and the boys have been superb,” captain, Michael Shenton.
Castleford were, understandably, nervous in the opening exchanges as Greg Minikin and Tigers’ stalwart, Jake Webster, came up with uncharacteristic mistakes as Liam Finn nudged the visitors ahead with a penalty goal.
On nine minutes, however, Castleford struck with attacking vigour – a common occurrence in almost every game the Tigers have played this season – as Zak Hardaker showed why he should be England’s first choice full-back for the upcoming World Cup in November, sliding over a well-taken try. Luke Gale converted to make it 6-2.
But this kicked Trinity back into life and they responded just six minutes later as Dean Hadley, deputising at hooker in place of the recently impressive, but injured Kyle Wood, fed Reece Lyne who sent winger Ben Jones-Bishop in at the corner. As Finn missed the conversion, the scores remained level.
It took just five minutes for the Tigers to reply midway through the first half as, on the back of a cheeky one-on-one rip by Paul McShane, Mike McMeeken somehow stretched out of three tacklers to reach for the line. Although referee James Child claimed a no-try on the field, video referee, Phil Bentham, overturned his decision, albeit with many replays, on the clear evidence that McMeeken’s remarkable stretch had in fact touched the whitewash.
The home fans were, by now, in a joyous mood, and this mood improved even further when Hardaker again showed his classy credentials with a wonderful run out of nothing to create an opening for Webster to hold off two defenders and cross for his first of the night. With a near-capacity crowd of 11,235, the overwhelming majority being Castleford fans, the ground descended into raptures as daylight, courtesy of an 18-6 lead as Gale converted all three efforts, was finally established between the two teams.
The champagne was put on ice, however, as Trinity hit back again, just a minute before the break. Mason Caton-Brown – playing centre in place of the injured Joe Arundel – burrowed his way through a soft defence to bring Trinity back into the contest at just the right time.
Wakefield were also the first team to score following the break as captain, Danny Kirmond, stepped out of some more poor tackling to bring his side back to within four points. With Finn converting, the visitors were only two points behind and there appeared a tense atmosphere at the Jungle for the first time during the game.
Four minutes later, these fears were quelled as a devastating spell – which Castleford have become renowned for – saw the Tigers open up a 34-16 lead. First, Greg Eden – returning from what had initially been feared as a career-ending injury – collected a superb cut-out pass from scrum-half Luke Gale to rack up his 35th Super League try of 2017.
Then, just three minutes later, Webster got his second after Bill Tupou had knocked down Hardaker’s pass as he looked to find the former New Zealand international. Webster – a popular figure amongst the Castleford faithful – completed his first ever hat-trick in the English game on the 63rd minute as he stormed onto a well-timed Roberts pass. Just two minutes after Webster’s exploits, Gale slotted over a drop-goal to open up a four-try lead.
With ten minutes to go, Webster then recorded a memorable fourth as he again charged onto a pass, this time from the equally impressive McMeeken. Trinity would not lie down though and scored a consolation as Max Jowitt – who showed up well in place of the injured Scott Grix – pounced on a Tupou offload with eight minutes to go.
The Tigers were, however, determined to be the last on the scoresheet on this historic night and, who else but Zak Hardaker – a vital cog in Castleford’s astonishing season – supported a break by, yes that man Jake Webster, to record his second of the night. Gale’s conversion left the scores 45-20 and this how it would stay when James Child called time.
Cue elation. The Castleford fans could not, and still many do not, believe what they had witnessed on this night and in 2017 in general. As the name of each player was called up to the podium from where the Shield would be held aloft, cheers from every corner of the “old girl” as Castleford Tigers’ chief executive, Steve Gill, calls the stadium, greeted the announcement. Sheer pride and euphoria exploded into a deafening boom as captain, Michael Shenton, a long-term Castleford Tigers’ player and fan, lifted the Shield into the air.
“It’s just an awesome feeling. It’s a good news story for rugby league, I think the people there, the supporters, have been awesome all year and the boys have been superb,” coach Daryl Powell.
The fireworks that greeted this gesture were reminiscent of how the Tigers had lit up the Super League season as a whole and as Sweet Caroline – the adopted victory anthem for the club – was belted over the microphone and around the stadium, many Castleford fans began to dream whether the “big one” – the Grand Final – was a possibility too. After all, all that stands between the Tigers and Old Trafford is a home semi-final. Backed by their dedicated fans, the Tigers have lost only once since July 2016 at home. A fortress is what awaits any challenger that arrives Thursday 28 September.