Peter Smith: Play-off system needs addressing following Castleford’s spectacular season

Michael Shenton lifts the league leaders' shield.
Michael Shenton lifts the league leaders' shield.

IN THE battle to be crowned Betfred Super League champions it will be interesting to see if Castleford Tigers benefit from their success so far or are victims of it.

Castleford probably celebrated winning the league leaders’ shield more than any other team have done and why not? They have waited longer for it.

Greg Minikin, Zak Hardaker and Mike McMeeken celebrate with the league leaders' shield.

Greg Minikin, Zak Hardaker and Mike McMeeken celebrate with the league leaders' shield.

It is the first time Castleford, who became a senior club in 1926, have topped the elite competition table and they are entitled to enjoy the moment.

It is not so much where they are now that is impressive as where they have come from. The club was relegated twice, in 2004 and 2006 and at a very low ebb when Daryl Powell took over as coach four years ago.

Since then they have been on a steady upward curve, culminating in last week’s win over Wakefield Trinity which secured top spot with four games in hand.

Castleford were one win away from the shield in 2014 and arguably the best-performing team in the Super-8s last term, despite an horrific injury list.

And they have built their team the right way. They haven’t gone all out for big-name signings, but Powell has a smart eye for up-and-coming talent and has also worked wonders with players rejected by other clubs.

Paul McShane, the former Leeds Rhinos and Wakefield hooker who has been in outstanding form this year, has been perhaps the best example of that.

Powell spotted Mike McMeeken’s potential in a struggling London Broncos team and he has become one of the most influential forwards in the competition.

Most significantly, Tigers play the game as it should be played. They don’t wrestle or grind their way to wins, like some Super League champions have done; they do it with flair and style. Not only have they been the most consistent team in the top-flight this year, they have also been – by a long way – the best to watch.

The adulation they have received in the media hasn’t gone down well at rival clubs, but Castleford are setting a standard for others to follow.

Here’s the ‘but’. They haven’t won the big prize yet. That remains the Grand Final at Old Trafford in October.

Whoever wins that will be the champions and if Tigers fail to go on and see the job through it will, ultimately, have been a disappointing season. It will also raise serious questions about the current way of determining the champion team.

More emphasis is being placed on the league leaders’ shield, which now carries its own prize money and Castleford’s players received medals, which hasn’t happened in the past.

Sometimes teams finishing top of the table have struggled to build on that. Huddersfield Giants are the prime example.

They celebrated top spot in 2013 and did not win either of their play-off ties, failing to even reach Old Trafford.

Castleford are in a different situation because they have secured the shield so early – and a week before the competition breaks for the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final weekend.

That has given them time to get the celebrations out of their system. They have four more games before the semi-finals and that could be a good or a bad thing.

On one hand, they will have an opportunity to refocus. On the other, it may be difficult to maintain their concentration through a run of games which, to them, don’t mean anything.

For most of the sport’s history rugby league’s champions have been decided through a series of play-offs.

That doesn’t necessarily crown the best or most consistent team and one of the flaws of the current format is it fails to sufficiently reward the league leaders.

For all their dominance this year, Tigers’ only real advantage is being at home in a sudden-death semi-final.

The team finishing second – currently Leeds Rhinos, who are 10 points adrift – will gain the same benefit.

Under previous systems the table-toppers would have had an extra life and/or a week off before the play-offs begin.

That is something that needs to be addressed and the pressure will mount if Tigers’ aren’t celebrating again at Old Trafford in little more than six weeks’ time.