CASTLEFORD TIGERS maintained their dominance, but Leeds Rhinos gained some self-respect in an entertaining Magic Weekend finalé.
It was all square at the break, but a strong third quarter set Tigers on course for a 29-18 victory. It was their sixth successive win against Rhinos and though Leeds were much improved from the 66-10 humiliation in March, Cas were still too good.
They defended their line strongly and were clinical during the crucial spell in the second half, with Greg Eden scoring a hat-trick to extend his lead at the top of the Betfred Super League chart.
Tigers were all over Leeds like a rash in the opening stages and could have been at least 12-0 ahead inside seven minutes. But after conceding an early try and looking like they were going to be blown away Rhinos dug in, were deservedly level at the break and had chances to go in front.
The major talking point of the opening 40 was video referee Ben Thaler’s decision to rule out a long-range touchdown by Eden for an obstruction near his own line.
Rhinos were fortunate it was a televised game and the penalty allowed them to level the scores, but they also got over Cas’ line four times without getting the ball down.
That was credit to Tigers’ defence, but Leeds were left to regret their missed opportunities as two tries by Eden in four minutes early in the second half put Cas firmly in control. Rhinos were never in front, but did give Cas some anxious moments after a poor start. They were outclassed in the second half, but didn’t give up and scored the game’s final two tries.
Ashton Golding had a fine game at full-back, Liam Sutcliffe had an excellent first half and Joel Mon and Jamie Jones-Buchanan worked hard.
Luke Gale was Tigers’ star man and he had quality support across the field, particularly from Paul McShane, Adam Milner and Junior Moors.
At the end of Tigers’ first set Gale put up a high kick which was well claimed by Zak Hardaker and he forced his way over the line, but was held up by Tom Briscoe and Danny McGuire.
That was a warning and moments later the scrum-half repeated the trick, this time the ball was tipped back by Michael Shenton and Gale regathered to go over for the opening try.
He added the extras and Leeds, who looked like rabbits in the headlights at that stage, had a huge escape on seven minutes when Shenton broke clear and turned the ball inside to Gale, but he knocked on the poor pass with the line open.
Leeds’ first opportunity came after 13 minutes when Greg Minikin knocked on after getting out of his own in-goal. Milner held Brad Singleton up over the line, but Leeds scored when Jones-Buchanan and Adam Cuthbertson worked the ball to McGuire and his neat pass was finished by Kallum Watkins. Sutcliffe’s conversion attempt rebounded away off a post. Stevie Ward was the second Leeds player held up over the Cas line, by Mike McMeeken, on 24 minutes and Anthony Mullally became the third a couple of minutes later, McShane getting under the big front-rower.
McShane made a good tackle on McGuire from Brett Ferres’ pass after it looked as though Golding had tackled Hardaker in the air, but referee Phil Bentham awarded a turnover rather than penalty.
Cas did get a penalty close to Leeds’ line on 32 minutes when Eden was shoved over off the ball by Briscoe from Gale’s kick. Gale teed up Shenton, but he spilled the ball in Watkins’ tackle.
Five minutes before the break Rhinos kicked into touch near Tigers’ line. But that is where Cas can be most dangerous. Moors fed Hardaker and he sent Eden scorching away. The winger held off Golding and Hall who had cut across from the other flank.
But Rhinos’ players persuaded Bentham to hand the decision on. He thought it was a try, but video assistant Thaler decided Shenton had obstructed Watkins. Play went back for the penalty almost in front of the posts and Sutcliffe took the two to square the scores.
Soon afterwards he got over the line but could not get the ball down and in the same set McGuire’s kick forward off Watkins to Handley and the touchdown was ruled out. Gale made a hash of a drop goal attempt a minute before the break and straight afterwards Shenton got over from Gale’s pass, but Golding held him up.
Thaler backed Bentham’s call of no try and then made his own judgement in the same set when Golding got underneath Moors. Rhinos’ handling was good for the most part, but on 46 minutes Ash Handley fumbled playing the ball and Cas punished the error in ruthless style as Milner, Gale and Shenton linked to send Eden swooping over and Gale converted.
That was a classy try, but Eden’s second – four minutes later – was even better as Eden dived over from a remarkable pass by Shenton and Gale’s conversion made it 18-6.
Grant Millington had a touchdown ruled out by Bentham and Thaler after Milner dropped the ball in front of Leeds’ posts, but Leeds conceded again moments later, on 56 minutes. Tigers’ superior kicking game is one of the biggest differences between the sides. McGuire lobbed a kick straight at Tom Holmes and he raced the length of the field to end any prospect of a Rhinos fightback.
Eden completed his hat-trick – his second of the season against Rhinos – to take his tally for the Super League campaign to 18.
Gale landed his fourth goal, but Eden’s error allowed Rhinos a rare attacking opportunity and Moon forced his way over for a well-taken try, which Sutcliffe improved from the touchline. Gale booted a one-pointer, but Leeds were rewarded for a strong finish when Sutcliffe went over and added another fine goal.
Rhinos were without Keith Galloway who has undergone minor knee surgery and Mitch Garbutt (quad injury) was missing for a third successive game. Long-term casualties Jimmy Keinhorst (hand) and Carl Ablett (knee) remained on the injury list, but Watkins was back after England duty and Brett Delaney (concussion) also returned.
Jordan Baldwinson dropped out from the team which beat Barrow Raiders in the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup and Leeds went with an unusual bench including winger Handley, half-back/hooker Rob Burrow and second-row Delaney alongside lone prop Mullally. Handley was brought on in the first half as a straight swap with Briscoe, but Mullally got only a few minutes and Burrow was left on the bench until almost the midway point of the second period.
By contrast, all Tigers’ substitutes were forwards including former Leeds player Alex Foster. He replaced groin injury victim Ben Roberts (groin) in the only change to the side which crushed St Helens in the Cup. Long-termers Olly Holmes (knee) and Larne Patrick (hand) were the other players on Cas’ casualty list.
It took referee Bentham 23 minutes to award the game’s first penalty. The count finished five-three in Leeds’ favour (two-one in the first half).