Wigan Warriors 22 Castleford Tigers 12 - visitors' unbeaten record ends as Zak Hardaker and Jackson Hastings make the difference
Castleford Tigers' unbeaten record went west at Wigan Warriors last night, but their gutsy performance suggested Daryl Powell’s side will have a say in this year’s title race.
Weakened by the absence of two of their three specialist half-backs, Castleford dug deep and were in the contest until the 75th minute, when Wigan finally went two scores clear.
The meeting between two sides with a 100 per cent record was the first real blockbuster of the Betfred Super League season and lived up to that billing from start to finish.
It was a hard, fast battle between two well-matched sides; low on errors, high on commitment and sprinkled with high-quality tries.
Both teams scrambled brilliantly in defence, but in the end Castleford were left ruing their inability to make more of their territory and possession in the opening period.
They were the better team, but the hosts found a way to snatch a half-time lead and though Castleford made an excellent start after the break, Wigan had the better for the second period.
The brilliance of former Tigers full-back Zak Hardaker and Wigan’s half-back Jackson Hastings was the difference between the sides, though two-try Derrell Olpherts had a fine game on Castleford’s right-wing and Oliver Holmes was again strong in the pack.
Olpherts’ opener was a walk-in after 15 minutes, from a fine pass by Peter Mata’utia on the last tackle of a penalty set.
Paul McShane, Cas’ third-choice kicker, behind the injured Danny Richardson and Gareth O’Brien, landed a tremendous touchline conversion and Tigers looked comfortable until Wigan levelled, out of the blue, 10 minutes later.
Hastings made the initial break, but the chance seemed to have been wasted when Bevan French over-ran him and the half-back had to hang on.
But then Harry Smith - starting in place of the injured Thomas Leuluai - dipped a shoulder from 20 metres out and shimmied through a gap; a desperate ankle tap by Grant Millington brought him down, but the young stand-off managed to pop out and offload which Hardaker took to go over for a try which he also converted.
Tigers regained the lead on the half hour through a McShane penalty, but Wigan snatched the advantage - psychological as well as on the scoreboard - three minutes before the interval.
A penalty carried them into the danger area and French, playing on the left-wing in his first appearance of the season, went over at the corner off Liam Farrell’s pass. Hardaker’s goal from the corner sent Castleford in four points adrift.
They hadn’t got what they deserved from the first 40 minutes, but parity was restored eight minutes after the break at the end of an explosive passage of play.
A two-score deficit would have left Tigers with a mountain to climb and it took a terrific tackle by stand-in half-back Jordan Turner on Morgan Smithies to prevent Wigan taking a stranglehold.
But then Greg Eden countered from a kick to the corner and though Hastings got back to pull him down, Castleford profited at the end of a long spell of pressure.
It was a merited score, though almost disallowed. Referee Chris Kendall and his near-side touch judge felt Olpherts hadn’t been able to get the ball down from Mata’utia’s pass, but the in-goal official disagreed and the try was awarded.
McShane was narrowly off target with the conversion attempt and Wigan went back in front soon afterwards with an outstanding try.
Hardaker began the attack with a dazzling run from close to his line and early in the set Hastings kicked behind Olpherts and French read the plan perfectly, running through to touchdown unopposed.
Hardaker’s kick bounced away off a post, but Wigan had the edge after that though Castleford held on grimly - and threatened a couple of times - until four minutes from the end when Sam Powell forced his way over from acting-half.
Wigan Warriors: Hardaker, Bibby, Isa, Farrell, French, Smith, Hastings, Singleton, Powell, Clubb, Bateman, Smithies, Partington. Subs Shorrock, Bullock, Byrne, Harvard.
Castleford Tigers: Evalds, Olpherts, Mata’utia, Shenton, Eden, Turner, Trueman, Hepi, McShane, Watts, Blair, Holmes, Massey. Subs Millington, Milner, Bienek, Martin.
Referee: Chris Kendall (Huddersfield).