Wounded Castleford Tigers can still spring a Challenge Cup surprise – Peter Smith
AS PREPARATION for a Betfred Challenge Cup semi-final, a 60-6 defeat at home to your fiercest rivals isn’t ideal.
When that comes 24 hours after the opponents in said semi-final have scored 62 points themselves, the big game suddenly looks like too steep a mountain to climb.
That’s the situation Castleford Tigers find themselves in this week, ahead of the club’s biggest match since the 2017 Super League Grand Final.
After they won their opening two ties in golden-point extra-time, against Hull KR and Salford Red Devils, it seemed Castleford’s name might be on the Cup this year.
Tigers didn’t come out of their quarter-final in top form, but they were winning, having lost only once in seven competitive fixtures.
Since then, the wheels have come off and Tigers have gone down to three successive defeats.
Still, Castleford are two wins away from lifting the trophy and clearly the Challenge Cup is their best chance of lifting silverware this season.
Their last Cup semi-final was in 2014 so they are not in a familiar position and it would be hard to blame either coach Daryl Powell or his players for having had an eye on this weekend’s huge clash with Warrington Wolves.
Powell took no chances last week and Tigers were missing several big names who Powell expects to be available for the semi-final. Injuries have begun to bite and Castleford couldn’t afford to lose any more in what was likely to be a physical battle against Leeds, but there is danger in putting all eggs into one basket and Tigers will go into the tie at Leigh in poor form, on the back of one of the heaviest home losses in their history.
Warrington went strong against Salford Red Devils last weekend and, though they were in decent form anyway, gave their confidence a boost with a 62-18 success.
That came less than a week after a Super League win over Tigers and maybe they will be too confident, but the Cheshire outfit are certainly in a stronger position, with more senior players fully fit and their attack in very good shape.
Judging by the mood at the Jungle last Friday and on social media since, many Tigers fans have given up on Wembley as a lost cause. It isn’t, because semi-finals are not ordinary games. Nine years ago today, Rhinos were embarrassed 50-8 at home by Wigan Warriors – and the following month they beat the same opposition in a Cup semi-final.
Leeds (2014), Hull KR (2015) and Salford (2020) have all upset the odds in semi-finals against Warrington during the past few seasons and Tigers defeated this weekend’s rivals in Super League round one.
When Castleford get all or most of their most experienced and influential players on the field, they can beat anyone.
Clearly, even with players back, Castleford will need to be a lot sharper in defence and – having taken him off in the first half against Leeds because of their fragility in that area – Powell has a decision to make on scrum-half Danny Richardson.
Powell has a history of dropping or replacing halves when they aren’t getting their defence right and Richardson certainly needs to step up his game, but he isn’t the only one.
The incentive is there, but if Tigers lose it’s difficult to see how they will get their season back on track.
Powell will join Warrington at the end of the campaign and in other cases – for example Tony Smith at Leeds and Wigan Warriors under Shaun Wane – teams have gone on to win a major trophy after their coach has announced his departure.
Tigers are in a slightly different position because Powell is going to a rival club and a replacement, Lee Radford, has already been confirmed.
Some Cas fans are suggesting Powell should leave immediately if Tigers lose on Saturday.
It will be a shame if that happens. Powell has transformed Tigers during his eight years at the helm, taken them to finals, won a trophy and produced teams who, on the whole, have played some glorious rugby. He deserves a proper farewell.
Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click HERE to subscribe.