AS preparations go for the Super League semi-finals, this could not have been much worse for Castleford Tigers.
Daryl Powell hoped to see his side make it six wins in a row and maintain their momentum ahead of Friday’s crucial sudden-death meeting at Wigan Warriors but instead they stuttered badly.
It was always going to be difficult to beat the League Leaders’ Shield winners – the West Yorkshire club have not won in St Helens since 1992 – but they wanted to at least demonstrate their title credentials against the current favourites.
However, they failed to make their mark and, for the first time in more than three years, were even kept scoreless.
More worryingly, half-back Jake Trueman – in the same week he was shortlisted for Super League’s Young Player of the Year – hobbled off injured in the 50th minute.
There was some concerned faces on the Castleford bench as ice was applied and, of course, he has little time to recover before their biggest game of the season.
It was disappointing for us. It was a poor performance. We started pretty well but we just made too many errors and physically we got beat tonight. We weren’t great in terms of our ruck control and the game was played at two different speeds.Daryl Powell
Little went right for the visitors; Powell wanted to see his combinations fine tune but too often their execution was lacking.
England scrum-half Luke Gale, strangely, had an off-night with his passing and it was Saints who showed far more clinical touches.
Trailing 18-0 at half-time, Castleford needed to start the second period brightly but all that occurred was Mitch Clark spilled with the first carry.
Next they were penalised for a high tackle, Danny Richardson slotted the goal, and on the back of another penalty in the next set, Ben Barba stretched over for his second try of the night. Richardson did the rest. 26-0. Game over.
Theoretically, these sides could play each other again in the Grand Final in a fortnight’s time although it will take some effort for Castleford to overcome Wigan.
Saints, looking polished, will be clear favourites to beat Warrington Wolves on Thursday.
Castleford lost for a fourth time against the Merseysiders this season and have not beaten them since Gale’s famous drop-goal won them the semi-final 12 months ago.
Powell gave the likes of Mike McMeeken, Junior Moors and Greg Eden a rest so that was one bonus. Furthermore, hopefully captain Michael Shenton as well as potentially second-row Oli Holmes, will return from injury.
Importantly, Joe Wardle also got some valuable minutes under his belt on his own return from injury; the head coach won’t be short of options.
That said, the second-row did spend time in the sin-bin after a professional foul on the breaking Tommy Makinson in the 20th minute. It could be argued Wardle prevented a likely try but, by the time he returned, Saints had advanced their score from 6-0 to 12-0 regardless.
Peter Mata’utia, who has hardly put a foot wrong since his move from Leigh Centurions in July, will be disappointed by the way in which Morgan Knowles rounded him with ease after Luke Douglas’s initial bust and offload 30m out.
Once Wardle returned, they showed much more resistance when defending three successive sets on their own goalline, only to then allow winger Regan Grace to scamper clear down the left and supply Barba. Richardson added his third conversion and Saints were in command.
The visitors will, though, be smarting; they began the game with real purpose and drive but, crucially, could not make any of their early pressure count. Gale dabbed in a couple of ineffectual grubbers, Greg Minikin dallied collecting one promising Mata’utia pass while Nathan Massey surged close but could not get over the goalline.
In fairness, Saints – who rested the likes of Mark Percival, Jonny Lomax and Jon Wilkin – defended manfully and were very well-organised.
They were rewarded for their early staunchness when, on the back of two penalties, prop Matty Lees straightened up and powered through Grant Millington and Massey between the posts in the eighth minute.
It demonstrated just why he was shortlisted for Super League’s Young Player of the Year alongside Trueman earlier this week and was also the young front-row’s first try for the club.
Barba slipped Tommy Makinson through on a kick return, the England winger beating Mata’utia and leaving Wardle left with the decision whether to lay on or not.
He did and was brandished with the yellow card. Saints duly punished their rivals and never really let up.
However, Powell was not overly concerned. He said: “It was disappointing for us. It was a poor performance. We started pretty well but we just made too many errors and physically we got beat tonight. We weren’t great in terms of our ruck control and the game was played at two different speeds.
“They were way too good for us but we’ll be right next week. We’ll be in a good place. I’m pretty confident of that. We have to put it behind us, move on and make sure the team we know we can be turns up next week.”
St Helens: Barba, Makinson, Morgan, Costello, Grace, Fages, Richardson, Amor, Roby, Lees, Taia, Peyroux, Knowles. Substitutes: McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Ashworth, Bentley.
Castleford Tigers: Mata’utia, Minikin, Webster, Roberts, Clare, Trueman, Gale, Watts, McShane, Millington, Wardle, Sene-Lefao, Massey. Substitutes: Milner, Clark, Maher, Laulu-Togagae.
Referee: Scott Mikalauskas (RFL).