CASTLEFORD TIGERS are heading for their first Grand Final.
Sixteen days after undergoing emergency surgery to remove his appendix, Luke Gale booted Tigers to Old Trafford with a drop goal six minutes into golden point extra-time of tonight’s play-off against St Helens.
The Dream Team scrum-half had earlier kept his cool to level the scores with a penalty after the hooter at the end of normal time.
His one-pointer sealed a 23-22 victory and Tigers will play either Leeds Rhinos or Hull – who meet tomorrow – in the decider a week on Saturday.
Tigers, the Betfred Super League leaders, finished 17 points ahead of Saints in the table, but the visitors were the better team last night.
They scored five tries to Cas’ three, but Mark Percival managed only one conversion while Gale had a 100 per cent record with the boot.
Cas scored after 49 seconds and were 8-0 ahead inside as many minutes, but Saints clawed their way back into the game and led by two at the interval.
A magnificent defensive effort kept Tigers in it and they seemed to have the game won when they went 20-10 ahead with 16 minutes left.
Remarkably, Saints rallied to score three tries in the final 10 minutes and just one goal would have sent them to the final.
With 27 seconds left – after Cas had regained possession from a restart – Gale’s kick was picked up by Saints full-back Ben Barba, but Ryan Morgan was penalised for obstruction and Gale landed the goal to square the scores.
Gale and Smith both missed with attempted one-pointers before Gale sent the ball between the posts.
The game was action-packed from the start, when Zeb Taia dropped the restart and following the scrum, Gale worked a one-two with Jesse Sene-Lefao and supplied Zak Hardaker who sliced through a stunned Saints defence.
Gale converted and then added two more when Paul McShane won a penalty on the final tackle, awarded against Jonny Lomax, after Saints’ Luke Thompson had knocked on.
Adam Milner – one of the unsung heroes in Tigers’ side – did remarkably well to halt Saints’ Dream Team centre Percival and then steal the ball in front of the posts after a thrilling run on 12 minutes.
Four later, though, Morgan Knowles’ fierce tackle on Alex Foster jarred the ball loose, McShane was penalised for interference on Lomax and in the next set Regan Grace dived over at the corner for an unconverted try from a brilliant pass by Barba.
Saints had worked their way back into the game, but an error by Percival – who made ground on Cas’ right, but then passed into touch, put them back under pressure.
James Roby just managed to ground Gale’s kick in-goal from an onrushing Hardaker, then the full-back’s kick to the corner wasn’t taken by Percival and Greg Minikin touched down.
Referee James Child said no try and video assistant Phil Bentham eventually agreed, deciding Minikin had knocked-on.
Eight minutes before the break Matty Smith grubbered over the line and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook claimed a touchdown, but Child – who had a good game – said no and Bentham agreed the Saints substitute forward had knocked-on.
The Londoner was heavily involved in the second quarter. Three minutes before the break he seemed to knock-on playing the ball, but Child saw some interference and McCarthy-Scarsbrook was held up over the line by Grant Millington and McShane.
On the next play Roby worked some magic out of acting-half and his pass sent Knowles diving between the posts. Percival’s goal made it 10-8 at half-time.
A pass into touch by Roberts 20 metres from his own line could have proved disastrous, but Luke Douglas was held up over the whitewash by Millington and Junior Moors, before McShane made a try-saver on Roby.
Seventeen minutes into the half, with Tigers having been under the cosh, they turned defence into attack to score a crucial try.
Gale sent Greg Eden on a run along the left wing, he beat two defenders and turned the ball inside and Gale was on his shoulder to cross and also add the conversion, opening a four-point lead.
Grace intercepted from Mike McMeeken to save a try at one end and might have gone the full length of the field if Hardaker hadn’t nailed him – and seconds later Milner came to Tigers’ rescue by tackling Tommy Makinson into touch just short of the line.
Two minutes later Milner plunged over at the other end – from a pass by McShane, whose 40-20 kick had set up the attack – and Gale added the extras.
That made it 20-10 with 16 left, but Makinson went over to give Saints hope, Percival crossed and then Morgan touched down and a 22-20 it looked like Tigers’ dream was over.
Cas coach Daryl Powell said: “It was unbelievable. We chucked a 10-point lead away and I thought it wasn’t going to be our day, but the character of our players shone through.
“It was an awesome team effort and to be going to Old Trafford is fantastic.”
Castleford Tigers: Hardaker, Minikin, Webster, Shenton, Eden, Roberts, Gale, Massey, McShane, Sene-Lefao, Foster, McMeeken,Milner. Subs: Millington, Moors, Cook. Unused: Springer.
St Helens: Barba, Makinson, Morgan, Percival, Grace, Lomax, Smith, Douglas, Roby, Thompson, Knowles, Taia, Wilkin. Subs: Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Peyroux, Fages.
Referee: James Child (Batley).