WHAT BEGAN as a rout turned into a sensational thriller at Elland Road last night.
Castleford Tigers gained a small measure of revenge for last year’s Betfred Super League Grand Final defeat with a 25-24 win, but Leeds staged a remarkable rally.
Cas scored at a point per minute in the opening 24,but Leeds scored 24 of the next 25, Luke Gale’s drop goal on the stroke of half-time, which made it 25-10, proving the difference.
Leeds scored five tries to four and Watkins had a touchline conversion attempt to win it two minutes from time, but could not find the target.
Over the last few years it’s been clear that if Cas are below-par, Rhinos can match or outplay them. The second half of last year’s Super-8s clash and the Grand Final were examples and Leeds were the better team, for much of Friday night’s game.
But if Tigers play well, Leeds don’t know how to cope. They were red hot in the opening 24 minutes and Leeds melted, going 24-0 down.
After that, Leeds began to make tackles and played some lovely stuff with the ball. They had a couple of tries disallowed and a player held up over the line twice, so for them it was a case of what might have been.
Overall though, Cas probably deserved the win for the way they played in the opening quarter. They didn’t do a great deal with the ball after that, but didn’t need to.
Leeds’ win at Saints a week earlier was built on a gritty determination to hang on when the opposition looked ready to roll over them.
Tigers’ didn’t given them the chance. Playing at a higher level from the first set, they pulverised Leeds in the opening exchanges.
Leeds looked like frightened rabbits as Gale and Jamie Ellis kicked them to death and the way Tigers kept the ball alive was a flashback to last season’s best form.
Ex-Leeds men Alex Foster and Paul McShane were impressive early on and Greg Minikin and Junior Moors also made an impact.
Rhinos were unchanged from the win at Saints. Brad Dwyer is now fit after a rib injury, but had to settle for 18th man duties.
Jack Walker came on after Cas’ fourth try, in place of Matt Parcell, with Ashton Golding moving to hooker. Leeds looked better for that change, though the damage had already been done.
Jack Ormondroyd – who was in the initial 19-man squad – is set to play on dual-registration for Featherstone Rovers at Batley Bulldogs tomorrow, along with Leeds’ young centre Harry Newman.
Leeds were still without Liam Sutcliffe (ankle), Adam Cuthbertson (hand), Stevie Ward (calf), Mitch Garbutt (knee), Brett Ferres (knee), Jimmy Keinhorst (knee) and Nathaniel Peteru (biceps).
But Tigers also fielded a side which was a long way below full-strength, without captain Michael Shenton who was unavailable.
Oliver Holmes and new signing Liam atts were both suspended and Jesse Sene-Lefao underwent surgery to repair knee damage during the week, joining shoulder injury victims Greg Eden and Joe Wardle on the casualty list.
In changes to the side which beat Salford Red Devils two weeks ago, Jy Hitchcox came in on the right-wing and Minikin moved to centre. Adam Milner stepped up off the bench to start at loose-forward and Moors and Jake Trueman returned among the substitutes.
After six minutes James Clare was tackled in the air by Tom Briscoe from a towering kick by Gale.
The next time Leeds had possession was eight minutes later and by then they trailed 18-0.
Four tackles on from the penalty Gale grubbered between the posts and his half-back partner Jamie Ellis read it perfectly, running through to touch down.
Gale converted, Rhinos were penalised from the restart and Cas struck again with a sensational try on the last tackle.
Leeds couldn’t deal with Ellis’ kick, Roberts kept it in play and with Rhinos stacked on their left, Tigers moved play the other way and Clare dived over at the corner from Minikin’s pass.
Next set, Minikin made a break and though Leeds eventually managed to halt him, Elli hoisted a kick on the lat and this time Alex Foster made a brilliant catch before getting the ball down.
Gale added a third conversion and then Leeds started to play. Kallum Watkins made a good break, Richie Myler split the defence with Briscoe in support, but Ben Roberts made a try-saving ankle tap and then Mikolaj Oledzki – with his first touch – appeared to have got the ball down from Joel Moon’s grubber.
Referee Chris Kendall thought so, but video assistant Ben Thaler spotted a knock-on. In the next set Cas surged to the other end and on the last Junior Moors crashed over from first receiver. Cleverly done, but from a defensive point of view, very soft.
Leeds at least ensured they wouldn’t be nilled, 13 minutes before the break. Myler’s kick was well claimed by Watkins and he showed great strength to get the ball down, though he couldn’t add the extras.
Neither team could deal with kicks. Rhinos added a second try six minutes later in similar fashion, Ash Handley this time scoring after Myler had put boot to ball.
Watkins’ conversion made it a 12-point ball game, but Rhinos stood and watched when Gale booted a drop goal as the half-time hooter sounded.
Moon got over the line a minute into the first half. When his own kick was batted on by Handley, but the ball had gone forward.
Brad Singleton was sin-binned for running in after a high tackle by Ablett on Moors, but Leeds continued to press.
Walker’s break forced a goal-line drop out and Golding was held up over the line before Handley scored a lovely try. Stepping through from Myler’s pass. Walker’s goal cut the gap to nine points.
Handley had a poor start, but was excellent in Leeds’ fightback, as were Golding and Watkins in particular.
Rhinos were now chancing their arm and they levelled the try count when Watkins crossed a second time, after Marcell, Moon and Myler had handled.
In a frantic finale, Minikin was held up over the line and video ref Thaler ruled out a possible Trueman touchdown due to an obstruction.
At the other end, Oledzki was held up and then Hall got over at the corner from Handley’s pass. Kendall said no, but Thaler overruled him. Watkins’ conversion from the touchline could have won it, but he was off-target.
The penalty count was 10-8 to Cas, 4-2 in their favour in the first half).