SUPER LEAGUE’S play-off system doesn’t necessarily reward the best team.
It crowns the side who can handle the pressure of a one-off game, played in unfamiliar conditions in front of a massive crowd.
That’s what makes Saturday’s Grand Final so intriguing. On the face of it, Castleford Tigers are red-hot favourites.
They finished 10 points ahead of opponents Leeds Rhinos in the Super-8s table and are on an eight-game winning run against their near-neighbours, four of those victories coming this season.
When the teams met in March, Tigers handed Rhinos a record 66-10 drubbing. Castleford have six players in the Betfred Super League Dream Team, to Rhinos’ one and their side boasts the newly-crowned Man of Steel.
They have Super League’s best attack and second-meanest defence, its top try scorer and a points-difference advantage of 303 over this weekend’s opponents.
Nobody outside Headingley expected Rhinos to reach the Grand Final, but equally it won’t be a huge shock to anyone if they collect the trophy for the eighth time. The one thing Tigers lack – and Rhinos have oodles of – is big-game and Grand-Final experience. Only Zak Hardaker, Michael Shenton and Joel Monaghan, who is unlikely to play this weekend, have featured in a title decider.
It’s quicker to list the Leeds men who haven’t rather than the ones who have: Ashton Golding, Matt Parcell, Liam Sutcliffe, Brett Ferres, Anthony Mullally and Jack Walker of the Rhinos players in with a serious chance of featuring in two days’ time.
Cas coach Daryl Powell and his assistant Ryan Sheridan played for Leeds in the first Grand Final, 19 years ago, but Rhinos boss Brian McDermott won three as a player and has a similar record since becoming coach in 2011.
This isn’t the Leeds team that won six Grand Finals from 2007-2015, being without Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai, but they know what it takes. They also have the added motivation – not that it is needed – of wanting to send Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow out on a high. And a Rhinos win would cap a remarkable transformation from last year, when they were – for much of the campaign – in serious danger of relegation.
The Grand Final seemed a long way off in March, but Rhinos are where they deserve to be; they have been the second-best team and are going into the showpiece in good form.
The overall standard this year has been poor, but Leeds’ 20 wins equals their total of two years ago – when they won the treble – and they were five points ahead of the third-placed team.
Remarkably, if Rhinos do win it will be the second successive year in which a team has been crowned champions after conceding more than 60 points in a regular-season game.
So far Rhinos have shown no signs of being able to beat Tigers or even compete with them over 80 minutes. But Leeds did out-score Cas 18-8 in the second half of last month’s meeting, though that was after trailing 30-6 at the break.
Cas will be at full strength. It will be a strong Leeds team, but the loss of Stevie Ward (with Keith Galloway and Brett Delaney already missing) is a blow.
In Luke Gale Tigers have the competition’s most influential player, Hardaker has won three Grand Finals with Leeds and their pack has been hard to hold all year. If Cas can handle the occasion they should win, but that’s a big if.
The pressure is on Tigers as favourites and league leaders, which will suit Leeds who often perform best when they’ve been written off. But Rhinos will have to produce their best performance of the season.
They have to start well and maintain it. Rhinos were outstanding for half an hour against Hull in last week’s semi-final, but led only 12-6 at the break and were four points adrift in the second half.
Leeds also need to take their chances if and when they come. Leeds were blown away from the start in the Super League meeting at Wheldon Road, but in all the other games it was close for a spell before Cas stepped on the gas and Leeds couldn’t go with them.
Logic suggests Cas will win, probably by at least a couple of scores and if they do it could be the start of a long period of success because this team is only going to get better.