Castleford Tigers’ assault on the league leaders’ shield wilted in the baking heat of the south of France on Saturday.
Heading to the Catalan Dragons knowing a win would earn them top spot for the first time in their 88-year history, Daryl Powell’s Tigers failed to bare their claws as they were beaten 28-6.
It really wasn’t the outcome – or the performance – Castleford would have envisaged having already defied so many on-field odds this season, including reaching the Challenge Cup final and cementing a top-four finish in the competition.
But Castleford’s shortcomings shouldn’t overshadow the diligence with which Catalan Dragons have attacked their final three games of the season to secure their own place at the play-off table.
Satisfied Catalan head coach Laurent Frayssinous said: “I’m very happy because we had a good performance against a top team in front of our fans in our last game at home.
“I am also happy with the defensive attitude.
“That is what we have focused on over the last few weeks and that is what we need to keep on building for next week.”
Reflecting on his side’s strong end to the year he added: “After (defeat to) Salford, it was a tough two weeks, not just for me, but for the players. We have worked hard and gained three wins to finish our season and have started to build a winning mentality. You can see the benefit of that hard work and our attitude.
“It is awesome to see how the players are enjoying being out there, doing stuff together, and we need to keep sticking to that mentality and attitude.”
The fine margins involved at the top of the table this season mean that Cas now end the season in fourth and must go to St Helens – the club who instead take the shield – in the first round of the play-offs.
Catalan will go to Leeds for a tough-looking elimination clash, but will go in confidence after this.
In a tough opening to the game, both sides were willing to chance their arm and pass the ball out wide.
Catalan were the beneficiaries of the adventurous play, with Morgan Escare scoring the try of the game as the ball passed through seven sets of hands – including his own twice – on its way to the full-back touching down in the 33rd minute.
Thomas Bosc added the goal to take the scores to 6-0.
Escare then produced a piece of individual brilliance with eight seconds remaining of the first half.
Latching on to Daryl Millard’s offload, the Catalan number one dived full-length to twist his body and touch down in the corner.
After the break, the tries continued to flow.
Ben Pomeroy intercepted and raced clear before the ball was sent to the left to Sam Williams, who drew the cover defence and sent in Zeb Taia in at the corner.
Bosc added the conversion to take the scores to 16-0.
Castleford hit straight back, though.
Bosc knocked on 30 metres from his own line to gift field position to the hosts.
The Tigers ran a play down the right-hand side, Luke Dorn taking the ball to the line before offloading to Oliver Holmes whose quick hands to Kirk Dixon allowed the winger to score in the corner.
Marc Sneyd added the conversion from the touchline to take the scores to 16-6.
Tigers knew they had a chance to go on and have a real crack at top spot at that stage, but Catalan clinched the win on the hour-mark.
Ian Henderson managed to squeeze his way over after Dorn had again gifted them field position 20 metres from the Castleford line. Bosc added the conversion to take the scores to 22-6.
Henderson was proving a menace to the Castleford defence, and five minutes later he picked up and pushed away four would-be defenders before feeding Elliott Whitehead, who himself pushed away two defenders on his way to scoring in the right corner. Bosc again added the conversion as the Catalans extended their lead to 28-6. That was that for Castleford’s challenge – although the fact they started the season as 200-1 rank outsiders to finish top means they could still leave the field with their pride intact.
Catalan Dragons: Escare, Oldfield, Pomeroy, Duport, Millard; Bosc, Williams; Elima, Henderson, Anderson, Taia, Whitehead, Baitieri. Subs (all used): Lima, Maria, Pelissier, Garcia.
Castleford Tigers: Dorn, Dixon, Webster, Shenton, Clare; Sneyd, Finn; Lynch, Clark, Jewitt, Holmes, Hauraki, Massey. Subs (all used): Huby, Millington, Wheeldon, Ellis.
referee: Ben Thaler.