SUPER LEAGUE leaders Leeds Rhinos came from behind to grind out a precious 22-14 win over weary Castleford Tigers at the Jungle.
Tigers led twice in the sort of derby everyone expected; close, hard-fought and intense, with some thrills and spills.
Cas, who were backing up from a draining defeat at Huddersfield Giants just four days earlier, produced a remarkably resilient display, though they were running on empty in the second period.
The hosts were 14-12 up at the interval, becoming the first team this season to lead against Rhinos at the end of the first half and equalling the highest score against Leeds.
Cas’ early eight-point lead was also the biggest deficit Leeds had faced in 2014, but Tigers could and probably should have been further clear.
Rhinos hit back to take an eight-point lead early in the second half and they controlled the game after that, keeping Cas pinned down close to their own line.
Cas had just one serious attack in the second half, immediately after Leeds’ third try and once that came to nothing they seemed to sense the game was up.
Both defences were impressive, but Rhinos’ finishing out wide was outstanding, with Ben Jones-Bishop and Kallum Watkins sharing their four tries.
Jones-Bishop returned on the wing for Rhinos in place of Ryan Hall, who was rested after his recent heavy workload.
Jones-Bishop came in on the right-flank, so Tom Briscoe switched to the left, alongside Joel Moon.
Stevie Ward was among the substitutes after a three-game lay-off due to an ankle injury, replacing Ian Kirke.
Though Leeds’ team was again named with Carl Ablett at scrum-half, Kevin Sinfield hooker and Chris Clarkson second-row, they lined up at second-row, stand-off and hooker respectively.
It was the sort of conditions the injured Rob Burrow would have relished, but Leeds are making a decent job of coping without him.
But Leeds were magnificently led by a huge performance from ageless prop Jamie Peacock who played the full 80 minutes.
Jordan Tansey was recalled at full-back for Tigers – in place of James Clare – and another ex-Leeds man Ashley Gibson came into the centre, taking over from Michael Channing.
Liam Finn returned at scrum-half and other changes from last Sunday’s game saw Jake Webster and Scott Wheeldon start, with Weller Hauraki – Cas’ third former Rhino – and Grant Millington dropping to the bench.
In late changes to the teamsheet, Frankie Mariano and Adam Milner – originally on the bench – started, with Craig Huby and Daryl Clark among the substitutes.
Tigers coach Daryl Powell made full use of his bench – with four changes in one go mid-way through the opening half.
Some of the changes to the two line-ups contributed to the opening try, after eight minutes.
Briscoe knocked-on in midfield, deep inside his own half and following the scrum Milner passed to the short side from acting-half and Kirk Dixon slid over, catching Birscoe out of position, with Marc Sneyd adding the extras from wide out.
Then five minutes later Zak Hardaker was shoved into touch by Justin Carney to give Cas a scrum near Leeds’ line, Mitch Achurch was penalised for holding down Mariano and Sneyd took the two.
In Cas’ next attack Finn and Wheeldon shoved Briscoe back in goal to force a drop out and that would have led to a second try, had Andy Lynch’s offload been able to find a team-mate in front of the posts.
In the next set Danny McGuire had a touchdown ruled out by video referees Ben Thaler and Steve Ganson, but a first knock-on meant Cas had to drop out.
Following that, Watkins made a strong run and slipped the ball to Jones-Bishop and he touched down at the corner.
The video refs decided there was no obstruction in the build-up and Sinfield converted to make it 8-6 at the end of the first quarter.
Only a slip on the greasy surface denied Clark and then Hardaker made a brilliant tackle to hold Finn up over the line as Cas continued to look the more threatening team. But after Hardaker’s try-saver, Leeds were awarded a penalty to carry them up field and the resulting set saw Watkins power over at the corner from a pass by the full-back.
First sight suggested a possible obstruction in the build-up, but the video duo thought not and Sinfield added the extras to make it 12-8 on the half hour.
Two minutes before the break Liam Sutcliffe was trapped in possession on the last 40 out, then Rhinos were penalised for not standing square.
Watkins shot out of the line and missed Sneyd, who then stepped past Hardaker and Ablett for a stunning solo try, which he also converted to send Cas in 14-12 ahead at the interval.
It was almost more after the hooter sounded when Clark – who Rhinos struggled to get to grips with all night – broke clear and kicked to the corner, but Jones-Bishop got there to snuff out the danger.
McGuire looked to have taken a bad knock two minutes into the second half, but got up to put across a kick which Hardaker palmed on to Watkins.
The defence were caught out of position and the centre’s pass sent Jones-Bishop over at the corner for his third try, though this time Sinfield could not convert.
Cas got the benefit of a howler by referee Richard Silverwood, who ruled Ward had knocked-on the re-start, when the ball clearly went backwards.
Some outstanding goalline defence – particularly Kylie Leuluai on Andy Lynch – kept Cas out Leeds countered to go further in front on 54, following a knock-on in his own half by Michael Shenton. Sutcliffe had a run and fed Watkins, who slid and then reached over for his second touchdown, improved by Sinfield to make the gap eight points.
That’s how it stayed, though Leeds did most of the attacking in the final quarter.
Referee Richard Silverwood’s penalty count finished 3-2 to Cas tleford (2-1 to Tigers in the first half).
Cas could take plenty of credit from their effort, but will wonder what would have happened if they had longer to prepare.
As for Leeds, it wasn’t a pretty display, but they proved they can tough out close games if necessary.
The derby theme continues tomorrow, as Tigers’ under-19s are at home to their Rhinos counterparts, kick-off 1pm.