There is something special in the air at Castleford – and it is not just the overwhelming smell of malt from local kilns which engulfs this particular part of West Yorkshire these days. For years, the Tigers’ time in and out of Super League has predominantly been about survival, but since Daryl Powell arrived as head coach four years ago, the tide has slowly been turning for one of rugby league’s most historic clubs.
A Challenge Cup final in 2014 and three top-five finishes began the turnaround, and many believe this may be the year Castleford finally emerge as title contenders. On this form they are correct to do so.
Victories against newly promoted Leigh and Warrington were impressive yardsticks, but at times here, Castleford were unstoppable. There was a moment when Luke Gale was waiting to make it 24-0 when the half-back watched the replay of their fifth try on the big screen and simply stood and applauded – and how right he was to do so on a night where the Tigers were utterly sublime.
Castleford could have eased up after half-time; by that stage they led 30-0 against a Leeds side who were without more than half a dozen first-team regulars. The game was up, Leeds’ race was run. But they would not relent, with six further tries in the second half sending out the strongest message yet about their title credentials this season.
This was rugby league at its breathtaking best. “We were really good tonight,” Powell said. “The maturity of our team has come on so much but time will tell as to how far we can go.”
As we all know, sport by its very nature is cyclical – and perhaps this was a night which underlined the transition Super League is going through now. As much as Castleford are riding on the crest of an early-season wave, these are testing times for Leeds, who were subjected to the biggest losing margin in their Super League historyon a catastrophic night for the former champions. “As crazy as it sounds, I didn’t think we were miles off in the first half,” said the Leeds coach, Brian McDermott. “Our pride is hurting but I thought that was one of the best offensive performances I’ve seen.”
It is hard to argue with the latter part of McDermott’s post-match mantra at least. At times you were left almost holding your breath wondering what Castleford would do next when they were on the attack – more often than not, they scored a try of the highest order.
It took only three minutes for the procession to begin, when Luke Gale and Zak Hardaker combined to send Greg Eden in, a move the trio would repeat on two further occasions later in the night as both Eden and fellow winger Greg Minikin finished with hat-tricks. A chastening enough night for Leeds was perhaps made worse by the fact Gale, half-back partner Paul McShane and Hardaker are all former Rhinos players – and Hardaker is actually still technically their employee, only on a season-long loan to the Tigers.
Mike McMeeken would follow Eden and Minikin on to the scoreboard before the latter secured his hat-trick with the try of the night, as an instinctive cross-field kick from Gale – undoubtedly the competition’s finest half-back right now - following yet another Castleford break was superbly collected by the winger, who was playing part-time rugby 18 months ago. Leeds registered consolation tries through Anthony Mullally and Joel Moon in the second half but they could not stop Castleford from continuing to run riot. Hardaker’s try preceded scores from McShane and Jake Webster, before Gale and Michael Shenton later followed suit.
The buzz pre-match was about how Castleford were looking to send out a statement to the rest of Super League. This was about as emphatic a message as they could have delivered.