Castleford Tigers go into this week’s Grand Final against Leeds Rhinos looking for a ninth straight win against their big-city rivals. The Tigers went into their semi-final play-off against St Helens last Thursday having finished top by a Super League-record ten points and a massive 17 in front of the Saints.
The fact that Leeds ended the season in second, ten points behind Castleford, emphasises just how dominant the Tigers had been throughout 2017. In any other sport, they would already be crowned “champions”. Now, they must face a Rhinos side whom they have beaten four times already this season in a one-off game to be justifiably awarded the title.
For the sake of Rugby League and, to save the governing body’s (RFL) blushes, Castleford have to win this high-profile game.
Daryl Powell and Michael Shenton are joined by Brian McDermott and Danny McGuire as they answer questions from the press! pic.twitter.com/1U3egR2gW4
— Castleford Tigers (@CTRLFC) October 2, 2017
Castleford have lit up the Super League this season, playing expansive rugby league and catching the eyes as well as the hearts of neutrals up and down the country. The fact that they had already won the League Leaders’ Shield – the prize of finishing first – by Round 3 of the Super 8s play-offs underlined their dominance.
2017 has been Castleford’s year
Over the course of 2017, Castleford have played 33 games, but lost just six – that is more than an eighty percent success rate – and have registered over thirty points in an astonishing 17 matches. Rarely has a team so utterly dominated the top flight in a season such as how the Tigers have done in 2017.
One has to go back as early as Super League IX in 2004 to find the record that Castleford smashed in 2017 of the biggest margin over their nearest table rivals. Leeds were the conquerors that year, ending the season nine points clear of Bradford Bulls in second. The Rhinos did go on to secure their first Super League title that year, but Leeds had always been there or thereabouts at the end of season play-offs.
For Castleford, their lofty heights of first was a new experience. Finishing fourth, fifth, fifth in their last three respective seasons, they have kicked on this season to a degree that has left some pundits claiming that they have “revolutionised” rugby league and are the prime example of how it should be played. Their free-flowing, skilful and opportunistic brand has attracted new interest for both the club and the game as a whole. With the off-the-field management of rugby league by the Rugby Football League (RFL) leaving a lot to be desired, the product on-the-field, largely as a result of the Tigers’ ascent to prominence, therefore continues to kick on.
Grand Final the “be all and end all”
The concept within rugby league, as manufactured by the RFL themselves ever since the introduction of Super League in 1995, that the team who finishes top cannot call themselves champions – unless they win the showpiece “Grand Final” at the end of the season – means that if Castleford, by far and away the most impressive and best performing team in the Super League in 2017, lose on Saturday, their astonishing season could just fade away into insignificance, making a mockery of the sport as a whole. The team responsible for much of the headlines and positivity surrounding this year’s Super League and the team that has blown away almost all of its competitors could potentially come away with nothing when it matters.
— Castleford Tigers (@CTRLFC) September 28, 2017
Sure the League Leaders’ Shield is hugely significant – the prize for the most consistent team over the course of a season – and should in fact be the ultimate prize, but the RFL’s “golden child” – the Grand Final – takes precedence. It is no surprise therefore that fans of other rugby teams keep jibing at Tigers’ fans that they “have won nothing yet” and that fans will see if they can win “when it matters”. Does not the course of the season matter?
Because of how the RFL has dressed up the Grand Final as some kind of finale to end all finales to a season, the 2017 season could count for nothing if Leeds Rhinos beat the Tigers after eight unsuccessful attempts to do so successively. The RFL wants its play-offs system to work, and preaches that the phrase “every minute matters” is rugby league’s tagline. Unfortunately, all the hundreds of minutes that Castleford have thrilled their audiences with in 2017 matters little to the eighty they will play on Saturday.
The season rides on eighty minutes
Eighty minutes will define whether the Tigers have had a successful season or not. Imagine being the best team, scoring the most goals and conceding the least, thoroughly entertaining fans and neutrals alike and earning massive praise whilst doing so throughout a Premier League season. And, in the process of doing this, accruing the most points by a clear distance, but then having to play second in the table to be able to call yourselves champions.
For the sake of Rugby League, Castleford must win on Saturday. The RFL have already confirmed that over 60,000 have already been sold for Old Trafford and are heading for only their second sell-out ever (2015 was the other). Let’s not kid around, this is because the neutrals want to see a new team at Manchester. And, they want to see the Tigers in the flesh after such an impressive season. A Leeds Rhinos victory – whether or not it may be fully deserved on the day – will be a travesty for the sport.
GRAND FINAL || Castleford Tigers will face Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford in the 2017 Grand Final! pic.twitter.com/JEtjbsqz6d
— CasTigers Faithful (@CasFaithful) September 29, 2017