Castleford have made it into the rugby league grand final for the fist time and will face Leeds Rhinos. Neil Hudson reports
Leeds Rhinos may have been there before but for Castleford Tigers, making it to the grand final is breaking new ground.
Walking through the centre of Castleford on Friday, the ‘morning after the night before’ feeling was unmistakable. There was a pre-noon torrential downpour and you could be forgiven for thinking this was the cause for most of the streets looking so empty, but you would be wrong. A little rain (even a lot of rain) does not tend to put off your average Yorkshire shopper.
Following Thursday night’s antics at Wheldon Road, in which the Castleford Tigers made history by making it into the Super League Grand Final for the first time, it seemed as though half the town was queuing to get tickets for the all-important final at Old Trafford this Saturday.
The queue inside the Carlton Lanes Shopping Centre numbered in the hundreds, kinking back on itself and then snaking towards the entrance doors, with some people having waited almost three hours to get their hands on the coveted tickets.
Such was the impact of the Tigers’ victory, it drew Castlefordians from far and wide. One of this dedicated bunch was Andy Kitchen, a 55-year-old operations director. He works in south Wales and had driven from there to his home town to stand in line with hundreds of others in the hope of snagging a ticket or two.
“It’s something they’ve never done. It’s taken 91 years and it’s also the first time there has been a golden point Super League semi-final,” he said.
Castleford has a lot in common with many Northern towns. Parts of it are in decline, with some shops boarded up, while others have plants growing from their roofs and the paint is peeling on more than a few. There are some sections which would clearly benefit from investment but generally the town centre is clean and its people friendly.
It has the feel of a place which is deeply proud of its Yorkshire history. Accents fall thick on the ground here, so woe betide anyone south of Sheffield who may have to contend with the linguistic nuances of “agin” (next to), “si’thi” (see you) and endlessly being called “luv” or told “ey up”.
Fish trader Kevin Price, 34, who works for fishdirect.com on the outside market, said the town centre was definitely quieter than usual.
“Everyone is off buying tickets for the game. I went to the game and the atmosphere was unbelievable, especially when we won.”
Unfortunately, he won’t be attending the final but he will be recording it. “I’ll be working but I expect that the town will be pretty dead on that day. A lot of people follow rugby league and so they will be at the game.”
For many, the St Helens game had it all - high drama, excitement, disappointment and tension by the bucketload. One person in the queue joked: “Fingernails? What fingernails? I don’t think I have any left.”
The sentiment summed up the post-match mood of elation which is clearly evident in the town. Despite St Helens being 10-8 up at halftime, Castleford ran away with the match in the second half, at one point leading 20-10. But St Helens fought back until Luke Gale’s fateful drop goal led to a draw.
A few years ago, prior to the introduction of the “golden point rule”, the match would have run on and the Saints would have still had a chance to come back. But the showdown was effectively guillotined what turned out to be one of the most thrilling games in rugby league history.
Now the town has a hiatus, time to revel in its well-deserved glory, to assess and prepare for what could turn out to be an even greater challenge and an even greater prize. In a world where ‘norms’ are frequently being turned on their heads, one would not discount Castleford emerging victorious on Saturday.
Student Harrison Hall, 21, who is doing a masters degree in Liverpool, travelled from there to secure himself two £40 tickets on Friday.
He said: “It’s cost me over £100 to come here. I’ve been a big Cas fan all my life, I’ve followed them right through university, which has been expensive sometimes.
“When they won, everyone was emotional. Everyone was hugging the people next to them. I think it’s hugely important for the town, it gives us a big lift. This is something we’ve never done before, we’re just a small town so this is a big deal for us. That’s why everyone seems to be walking around with a smile on their face.”
While the queue for tickets outside the stadium was said to be just as long as the one in the town centre, at least those in town were afforded the comfort of a roof over their heads. Indeed, management at the shopping centre laid on a special cordoned-off area and security guards to patrol the queue, which even at 1pm was being joined by newcomers, while those near the front looked weary but determined.
Only a matter of metres away, on the main pedestrianised precinct outside, stand around a dozen or so immense garish plastic planters in yellow and black, each one baring the name of a Castleford Tigers player, a mark of the reverence with which the town holds these modern-day ambassadors.
While the mood in Castleford the day after their historic victory could be described as one of understated joy, one can only wonder what the celebrations might be like if they win again this weekend.
THE GAME THAT HAD IT ALL
At one point, the Tigers led 20-10 but three late tries from St Helens gave the visitors the momentum
Luke Gale kicked a penalty to force the 22-22 draw
It was his stunning drop-goal in golden-point extra time that brought the nail-biting encounter to a sudden end
The victory over St Helens means Castleford Tigers will now go into the Super League Grand Final for the first time in the club’s history... they face Leeds Rhinos after their win over Hull at Headingley