CASTLEFORD TIGERS highlighted exactly why they are being tipped as dark horses for honours this year with a very impressive 44-16 demolition of promoted Leigh Centurions to open their Betfred Super League campaign.
Castleford’s horses may not be so dark after a performance which combined power, pace, guile and, for the most part, suggested their defensive problems of recent seasons may be behind them.
It was Leigh’s first Super League game since 2005 and they provided some early fire, including a scuffle with just 30 seconds on the clock after Paul McShane tipped Gareth Hock in a tackle.
But, after blasting through the Championship and Qualifiers last year, when they lost only three games in all competitions, they soon learned the top-flight is a different proposition.
It was 26-0 at half-time and Castleford ran in seven tries – all converted by Luke Gale – which was an impressive return for round one, in freezing conditions.
The one slight disappointment for Castleford – who lost Rangi Chase to a neck injury in the first half – was a flat final quarter, when Leigh ran in two of their three tries after trailing 44-4.
Castleford defied an horrendous injury list to finish fifth last season and have strengthened since then.
Jesse Sene-Lefao was particularly strong in the middle of the field and both he and fellow recruit Greg Eden were among the try scorers while former Man of Steel Zak Hardaker provided the pass for one score and produced a try-saving tackle, on Cory Paterson, at the other end.
Record try-scorer Denny Solomona’s defection to rugby union with Sale does not seem to have dampened Castleford’s firepower and winger Greg Minikin, one of the competition’s most exciting young prospects, began the year by touching down twice.
Tigers’ Australian forward Grant Millington is one of the most under-rated – outside his adopted town anyway – players in Super League.
He came off the bench after an opening spell of biff and barge and provided two moments of quality to steer Tigers into a 12-0 lead and set them on course for their big opening win. Millington turned and offloaded to Gale for the opening try after 19 minutes and then five minutes later provided the final pass, after some excellent ball movement close to the line, for Sene-Lefao to cross.
Leigh had given a good account of themselves up to that stage, but lost their way once Tigers got in front.
Two more tries in the final eight minutes of the half, both scored by Minikin, put Castleford in total command.
The first came from a high pass by Hardaker after the full-back has slipped past his opposite number, Mitch Brown.
Gale booted a penalty goal on 36 minutes and Tigers went further clear when Minikin crossed again following a forceful run by his centre Jake Webster.
Webster won a penalty at the start of the second half which led to Junior Moors crashing over from close range.
Ryan Hamphire, who spent last season at Castleford on loan from Wigan, nipped over from close range to break Leigh’s duck soon afterwards.
Another former Castleford man, Danny Tickle, blew a chance when he knocked on after Eloi Pelissier’s kick had hit a post and Tigers scored in the next set.
Hampshire spilled Gale’s kick, Greg Eden hacked on and the scrum-half touched down, though there was an interminable delay before video referee Ben Thaler gave the green light.
Eden’s try came soon afterwards from a pass by captain Michael Shenton, who made a strong return after missing all but the opening half an hour of last season due to a knee injury.
Late tries to Matty Dawson and Tickle, both converted by Martyn Ridyard, gave Leigh a semblance of respectability, but it was very much Tigers’ night.
Castleford Tigers: Hardaker, Minikin, Webster, Shenton, Eden, Chase, Gale, Lynch, McShane, Springer, Sene-Lefao, McMeeken, Massey. Subs: Millington, Moors, Cook, Roberts.
Leigh Centurions: Hampshire, Higson, Crooks, Brown, Dawson, Ridyard, Drinkwater, Hock, Hood, Tickle, Paterson, Stewart, Hansen. Subs: Pelissier, Vea, Green, Weston.
Referee: Robert Hicks (Oldham).