Castleford Tigers tonight defeated Leeds Rhinos at Elland Road – but they so nearly blew it.
Ash Handley admitted post match that Cas always seem to start strong against Leeds and tonight wasn’t any different; just five minutes were on the clock when Jamie Ellis raced onto half back partner Luke Gale’s grubber into the in goal area to put the visitors 6-0 up. That lead was doubled shortly after when James Clare found himself in acres of space yards out having seen his teammates shift the ball the whole width of the pitch. Leeds were all at sea and were 12-0 down.
Three minutes later the Tigers scored their third try of a sensational start. A crossfield kick saw Alex Foster – formerly of Leeds – soar above all others and get the ball down. Gale again converted and Castleford were in dreamland.
Leeds thought they had finally got on the scoreboard in the twentieth minute when youngster Mikolaj Oledzki thought he had grounded a grubber kick. His celebration showed confidence but, alas, it was misplaced – he was deemed to have knocked on. Keen to not give the Rhinos a route back into the game, Daryl Powell’s men soon added to their healthy lead. On the Leeds line, Paul McShane passed out from dummy half to find Junior Moors with space to the line slightly right of the posts, staggeringly without any meaningful defence to halt his progress. 24-0. Surely a match winning lead?
It has often being said that you should never write the Rhinos off and they hit back. Richie Myler’s chipped kick to Leeds’ right channel invited Kallum Watkins to claim in the air. Initially it seemed that the tackle was completed but he somehow managed to place the ball down on the line. It marked the beginning of a comeback from the hosts and his fellow centre Ash Handley crossed shortly after, fresh from his brace against St Helens last week. Watkins converted and it was 24-10 – Leeds were back in the game. Luke Gale struck a long distance drop goal in the final seconds of the first half, adding to Cas’ lead.
It was vital that the Rhinos started the second half strongly with the next try of the match being vital. Leeds thought they had crossed almost immediately as Joel Moon raced into a gap in the left corner but it was deemed that a Rhinos teammate had knocked on in the build up. Leeds were, however, building up a head of steam and suddenly seemed to be a threat every time they ran the ball. Referee Chris Kendall dampened the gusto of the Rhinos, though, as Brad Singleton was handed a yellow card on 46 for a high tackle. While Castleford may have fancied their chances of extending their lead during the Cumbrian’s ten minute absence, the Rhinos were instead the team who scored next. Working the ball out to the left, Handley’s cut back run and sidestep past a seemingly injured Ben Roberts saw him cross for his second of the game, his captain converting. 16-25, game on.
With eleven minutes left on the clock, Leeds set up what seemed an unlikely grandstand finish. The ball was worked out to Watkins who delivered a trademark sidestep and shrugged off the attentions of opposite centre Greg Minikin, sliding over in the corner. Crucially, he missed the conversion with it seeming to clip the bottom edge of the crossbar. It left Leeds five points behind. The Rhinos again set up camp in their opponents’ territory and displayed composure and strength as they drove the ball forward. With minutes remaining, the ball found it’s way to winger Ryan Hall. It seemed that there was no way to the try line but the England star didn’t see it the same way; incredibly, he managed to ground the ball just before his arm touched the whitewash with video referee Ben Thaler overruling Kendall’s no try call. 24-25.
It fell to Watkins’ boot – a kick won it for Leeds, a miss left them falling agonisingly short. As it went, the kick was short and Castleford closed the game out. Both teams, however, had delivered a sensational game – the visitors’ opening twenty was exhilarating and, while their defence took centre stage for the rest of the game, it ultimately delivered the two points.
Leeds started poorly, making it all to easy for Castleford to build up their lead. However, their steel and determination was admirable; it would have been in their minds that they were thrashed by the Tigers last March 66-10. This Leeds team, though, is one that can’t be written off. Considering the absence of first choices Stevie Ward, Adam Cuthbertson, Liam Sutcliffe and Mitch Garbutt among others, their performance was impressive. That isn’t to take anything away from the Tigers’ win – their opening period ultimately won them the game and gave them small revenge for Leeds’ 24-6 Grand Final win last October.
Brian McDermott: “It’s a funny game to sum up. I thought we were very courageous. “At 24-0 down, we went at Cas and cracked them a couple of times. For the first 15 minutes, there was just too much wrong with our game. I don’t think we were unbelievably poor. There were just too many things not right and Cas exploited them. We needed to be better in that first 15 minutes and for that reason we didn’t deserve to win.”
Daryl Powell: “On balance, Leeds probably just shaded us over the 80 minutes. But we’ll take it and move on. We’re in a good spot, we’ve won four straight and there’s loads to come from us. It was an interesting game. I couldn’t believe that throw-away drop goal just before half-time won us the game.