CASTLEFORD TIGERS’ second win of the season at Headingley has probably ended Leeds Rhinos’ hopes of the treble.
Tigers came out 29-22 victors in a pulsating clash and Wigan Warriors will go two points clear, with just one game to play, if they win at St Helens tonight.
Rhinos, who have lost all their three games since the Challenge Cup final, will miss out on a top-two finish should Huddersfield win at Hull this evening and then beat Rhinos next Friday.
The visitors, who had lost their previous three, played with the freedom of a team with nothing at stake on the league ladder.
They offloaded magnificently and scored some thrilling tries, particularly back-to-back touchdowns just after the break, when they ripped Leeds’ defence to shreds up the middle.
Thier last-ditch defence was equally impressive, particularly when Leeds were pressing strongly for an equaliser late on.
Luke Gale had a storming game against the club where he began his career and his half-back partnership with Ben Roberts was devastating.
Luke Dorn made a big contribution and the pack were also excellent, particularly Grant Millington.
Leeds have been the best team all season, but they aren’t at the moment. They put in a big effort and their response after conceding 12 points at the start of both halves was impressive, but they have lost their air of invincibility.
They looked weary and made far too many mistakes. The performance of teenager Jordan Lilley was a positive for Rhinos and Stevie Ward and Adam Cuthbertson also had big games, but Rhinos were second-best.
Lilley made his first start, at hooker, after three appearances off the bench.
That allowed Cuthbertson to switch to prop – with Kylie Leuluai dropping to the bench, from where he made a big impact – and Kevin Sinfield started in the stand-off role, so Rhinos played with two half-backs.
Sinfield hobbled off just four minutes into the second half, which led to Joel Moon moving into the No 6 position. It will be a huge shame if that is Sinfield’s final action at Headingley in a Rhinos shirt.
Lilley now seems to be Leeds’ third-choice hooker and under-19s rake Robbie Ward is set to leave the club at the end of the campaign after not being offered a new deal.
Kallum Watkins returned from an ankle injury in the centres, so Carl Ablett moved into te second-row, replacing hand injury victim Mitch Achurch.
Tigers’ only change was Matt Cook’s return from a one-match ban among the substitutes, in place of Gadwin Springer.
Tigers went ahead after only five minutes. They received a penalty for offside and then the feed at a scrum when Watkins was ruled to have played at Gale’s kick, which went into touch.
Gale sent Millington bursting into a gap and the No 7 was in support to take the return pass for a try which he also converted.
Referee James Child handed the decision on to video due Joe Cobb and Sam Ansell, who gave the try.
The main bone of contention was Jamie Peacock following through with his knees, but no action was taken.
In the next set Adam Milner dropped the ball in Peacock’s tackle, Child awarded a penalty and Cas again took advantage, Denny Solomona crossing from Michael Shenton’s pass after Roberts and Gale had handled.
Gale’s conversion made it 12-0 after just eight minutes, but then Leeds got their first penalty – for offside – and scored from it.
On the final play Sinfield hoisted a kick to the corner and Ryan Hall made a fine take to touch down.
In the next set, McGuire dummied to kick on the last and ghosted into a gap.
He then kicked to the corner, Mike McMeeken spilled the ball and Joel Moon touched down.
Child signalled no try and was correctly overuled by his video assistants. Sinfield’s goal scored the scores after just 14 minutes.
Rhinos thought they had gone ahead moments later, after back to back penalties, when Zak Hardaker powered over from Sinfield’s pass. Child said it was a try and with tedious inevitability, the video refs ruled it out for an obstruction.
That was probably the right call, but after Adam Quinlan’s try for St Helens against Castleford a week earlier, how can anything be an obstruction?
All supporters, players and anybody associated with the game want is consistency, but that is lacking.
The perception is increasingly that officials, rather than players, are having the major effect on results and whether that is the case or not, it will drive spectators away from the game if the governing body doesn’t get a grip.
Tigers were unfortunate not to regain the lead on a couple of occasions after that, Gale breaking clear and then Solomona being brought down just short after an outstanding take from the half-back’s kick.
But it was Leeds who struck next, 10 minutes before the break, after Brett Delaney had been held up over the line, Hall getting over for an unconverted try from McGuire’s pass.
Cas deserved to be at least level and they were four minutes before the interval, after Hall’s pass was dropped by Cuthbertson.
Dorn stretched over from Gale’s pass, there looked to be what many people would consider an obstruction, but Child said try, the video refs – possibly fed up or bored of overturning him – decided to give it this time and a missed conversion sent the sides in level at the break.
Parity didn’t last long as Tigers grabbed the game by the throat with sensational, back-to-back tries.
Sinfield had just gone off when Cook broke up the middle for the first and Gale was in support to score, then Roberts followed a similar path, played a one-two with Gale and dived jubilantly between the posts.
Gale converted both to make it 28-16, but Leeds hit back quickly, Cuthbertson crashing over from a pass by Lilley, who added the goal to register his first points for the club.
Brad Singleton (twice) and Cuthbertson were held up over the line as Rhinos pounded away and a remarkable tackle by Dorn kept Ablett out.
Having absorbed all that pressure, Tigers finished strongly and sealed the points when Roberts landed a drop goal with six minutes left.
Child was poor throughout and it is a mystery how he continues to be appointed to important games.
The penalty count finished 7-7 (5-4 in Cas’ favour before the break).