THEY WERE the best team in the country for all but the final 80 minutes of last season and have been a top-five side in each of the past four years, but coach Daryl Powell is still keen to stress Castleford Tigers’ status as Super League “upstarts”.
Castleford have fallen from grace slightly since 2017 when they finished 10 points clear at the top of the table only to come unstuck against Leeds Rhinos on the big stage of the Grand Final.
But Powell’s team have beaten all their top-flight rivals this year, other than runaway leaders St Helens and are already all-but assured of a place in October’s semi-finals, when they will be one game away from a return to Old Trafford and possible redemption for last season’s disappointment.
Even so, Powell feels Castleford are still regarded as poor relations of the so-called big clubs, such as Wigan Warriors who they visit in the opening round of the Super-8s on Friday evening.
Tigers were beaten 28-12 at Wigan in April, but avenged that with a dramatic 19-18 home success two months later when Jamie Ellis’ late drop goal proved the difference between the teams.
A fierce, derby-style rivalry has developed between the two clubs in recent seasons and with home advantage in the semi-finals possibly at stake this week Powell is expecting another ferocious encounter, but he insists Wigan remain the glamour outfit.
Reflecting on past meetings, Powell said: “We have had a good battle with them.
“They are a good quality team and an outstanding club and we are the upstarts a little bit, I think.
“We have got ourselves into the top-four and we feel like we are a genuine top-four club now and we are there by right.
“We are challenging teams like Wigan by right.
“We want to use every motivation we’ve got and them being the big-time team they are we want to get after them.
“We are looking forward to it.”
The situation on the league table will add extra spice to this week’s encounter.
Castleford were third in Super League at the end of the regular season, one point behind Wigan.
According to Powell, that makes Friday a “key game” before his men take on both Challenge Cup finalists either side of the Wembley weekend.
“After it we’ll either be in front of them or three points behind,” he said of the clash in two days’ time.
“Then we play Warrington a week before Wembley and Catalans the week after so there needs to be a fantastic attitude from us.
“We’ll go after all three games and then we’ll see where we are.
“We are in a great position regardless, we are third with a decent cushion [over fifth-placed Huddersfield Giants].
“We don’t want to rely on the cushion because we want to get second, but we’ve just got to get on with our season.”
It would take a spectacular collapse for Castleford to drop out of the play-offs places or for there to be any change to the current top-four.
Warrington, who face the distraction of Wembley in little more than two weeks’ time, are six points ahead of Huddersfield with seven games to play and Castleford hold a nine-point advantage.
However, Powell stressed: “I don’t think you want to be looking at it that way.
“It is about performance, standards and winning games. We are trying to win a Grand Final, we are not trying to cling on to anything.
“We are trying to be positive about everything that’s in front of us. We have got an opportunity to do that. From everything I see from the players, I don’t see any reason why that’s not possible.”
Castleford are within a point of second spot despite an injury-ravaged season. The positive from that is they are expecting a host of influential, first-choice players back for when the really big games come along at the end of the campaign.
“We’ll get Grant Millington and Greg Minikin back at some point down the track, Luke Gale and Peter Mata’utia as well,” said Powell. “We need a little bit of luck with injuries over the back end of the season as everybody does, but we’re due a bit I think.”
Powell gave his players almost a week off after their win at Widnes in the final game of the regular season, as a “reward for a lot of hard work” over the 23 rounds.
Mata’utia, a recent signing from Leigh Centurions, is expected to miss the trip to Wigan due to a hamstring problem, but Joe Wardle (ankle) could be back in contention. Powell expects Gale, who suffered a fractured kneecap at the end of April, to be available for the home game against Catalans on September 1.