LEAGUE LEADERS Castleford Tigers are expecting Friday’s home derby against second-placed Leeds Rhinos to have the intensity of a semi-final, their full-back Zak Hardaker says.
Tigers are on a seven-game winning streak against Rhinos, including a record 66-10 success when the sides met at the Jungle in March.
The arch-rivals could be on track to clash in the Grand Final at Old Trafford next month and that makes Friday a big game for Tigers, despite them having nothing to play for on the table.
“It was a great, gutsy win for Leeds against Hull last week,” said Hardaker – three times a Super League champion with Rhinos.
“Us and Leeds have already got a semi-final spot, but they still need a win to make sure they get second. Everyone wants to play well at this time of year and momentum is really important.
“Every team will be going for the win in every game, no-one will be easing up – especially us. We have got four huge – and difficult – games coming up and we will be going into each one trying to win.”
Asked if he believes this week’s derby could be a Grand Final dress rehearsal, Hardaker said: “If Leeds keep where they are it’s something that could happen, but we are just fixed on getting as many wins as we can and making sure we play well. We have got a home semi-final coming up which is huge for us. We want to keep going, that’s the big thing.
“Reporters have spoken about it, saying we’ve got nothing to play for, but internally last week’s game at Huddersfield was huge for us and it was a really good win so we will go into this week quite happy and quite confident.”
Tigers trailed 12-6 at the break, but scored three unanswered tries in the opening 22 minutes of the second half.
“Huddersfield have been going really well the last few weeks,” Hardaker reflected. “They’ve probably been one of the most in-form teams, alongside ourselves.
“They are a dangerous side, they had a slim chance of making the top four so it was quite a crucial game for them.
“We knew they were going to come out firing and they certainly did that.
“We weathered the storm a bit, though we didn’t end our sets as well as we’d have hoped. Half-time came at a good point for us, we got together and regrouped and talked about what we needed to, then we started off the second half really, really well.
“I thought we controlled the second half quite well and it was a good win.”
Castleford have been capable of stepping up a gear when needed this year and Hardaker added: “That’s what we are getting to grips with and finding out about ourselves.
“We have got special players who can do special things and pull us out of a dark hole. There was a move when Galey [Luke Gale] gave it to Greg Eden, he was one-on-one with Jermaine McGillvary – a fellow England international – and skinned him.
“We have got the kind of players who can do that.”
n An outstanding season for Castleford Tigers Academy didn’t end the way they had hoped; they went down 37-12 to Wigan Warriors in the Super League Academy Grand Final yesterday.
The Warriors were quick to make home advantage count and although the young Tigers dug their claws in, Wigan put the game beyond Castleford around the hour mark.
Robbie Storey and Jacques O’Neill touched down for Tigers with Calum Turner adding conversion points.