THERE was one last, rousing rendition of ‘Sweet Caroline’ at Wheldon Road last night and, despite defeat, Castleford Tigers supporters could certainly sing it with pride.
The Neil Diamond hit from 1969 has become a bizarre soundtrack for the West Yorkshire club’s remarkable season, thousands of fans of all ages singing along in unison, normally after another win at the rickety but atmospheric old ground.
Daryl Powell’s side had lost just twice on home territory before this, the likes of champions Wigan Warriors, 2013 League Leaders Huddersfield Giants and beaten Grand Finalists Warrington Wolves all unable to nullify their all-consuming presence.
But, on their return in this Super League elimination play-off, Warrington this time did just enough to progress into the last four and, so, they will now wait to see if St Helens, with ClubCall, choose them or the victors of Huddersfield and Catalan Dragons for next week’s semi-final.
It was hard on Castleford. But having exceeded all expectations this term, rising from the ashes of 12th last year to being just 80 minutes from a first-ever top spot in 2014, they have undoubtedly limped into this play-off series and, cruelly, when it mattered most, lost a third successive game for the first time this season.
The Challenge Cup final defeat to Leeds Rhinos last month was the start of their slide. It may have been just their first visit to Wembley in more than 20 years but it came with a price. Powell’s men have looked out of sorts since, highlighted by the inept display in Perpignan that cost them the League Leaders Shield, but underlined last Friday when an embarrassing 41-0 thrashing at St Helens in their opening play-off left them battered, bruised and at an all-season low.
However, here, they somehow rallied to discover yet another performance from their well, showing once more some of that old magic, spirit and endeavour. Indeed, they trailed by just two points heading into the final quarter, Luke Dorn’s stunning try raising the roof.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, there was just no final finish. Powell has been praised for his squad rotation this term but, unfortunately, they were down to the bare bones here with five forwards missing through injury.
When Nathan Massey was chaired off after just seven minutes, the situation just got worse.
Yet his team-mates rolled up their sleeves and played their part in a fiercely-fought play-off which, let’s not forget, was the first Castleford - with their best ever Super League finish of fourth - had ever hosted at Wheldon Road..
They got off to a poor start when Ben Harrison charged down Jamie Ellis’s kick and Warrington’s Ryan Atkins strolled home for a fourth-minute opener that Stefan Ratchford improved.
Warrington were far from slick, however, and when Paul Wood came up with his second spill, Castleford struck via Ellis in the 23rd minute.
His hoisted kick was palmed down by James Clare and Ellis was on hand to pick up.
Marc Sneyd dragged his simple conversion attempt wide, though, and when the recalled stand-off – Liam Finn was dropped – compounded that error by cheaply fumbling in the next set, Tony Smith’s side capitalised, working an overlap for Joel Monaghan.
Ratchford was off target and Castleford, though frustrated by lax officiating of the ruck area, refused to yield, coming close to replying again just before the interval only for the visitors to twice thwart crucial passes.
Phil Bentham finally awarded a penalty for interference in the 53rd minute but, ironically, against Castleford. And it was a sign of Warrington’s respect for their opponents that Ratchford opted to take the two points.
Their prop Roy Asotasi almost crept over in the next set but fumbled going for the line and, so, when the hosts earned a penalty next, they moved it wide where Dorn finally found some space to dummy and cut his way though for a quality score.
Sneyd made it 12-10 but, soon after, Ratchford darted out of dummy-half and squeezed out a pass to Richie Myler who found Gareth O’Brien racing between the posts for Ratchford to restore the eight-point advantage.
Rhys Evans scored their third try with 15 minutes to go after another questionable penalty was awarded against Castleford, Ratchford again improving.
When the full-back was caught high by Weller Hauraki he slotted another two points.
Monaghan got his second try as Castleford inevitably tired but, when Evans was yellow-carded for a professional foul on Daryl Clark with five minutes to go, Michael Shenton went over.
Clark – who now joins Warrington in a £185,000 deal –showed real spirit to race back 70m to deny the intercepting Monaghan a hat-trick.
It was the sort of character that has underpinned his side’s outstanding campaign, regardless of its denouement.
Castleford Tigers: Dorn; Clare, Channing, Shenton, Carney; Sneyd, Ellis; Lynch, Clark, Huby. Holmes, Hauraki, Massey. Substitutes: Dixon, Milner, Millington, Wheeldon.
Warrington Wolves: Ratchford; J Monaghan, Bridge, Atkins, R Evans; O’Brien, Myler; Hill, M Monaghan, England, Laithwaite, Waterhouse, Harrison. Substitutes: Higham, Asotasi, Currie, Wood.
Referee: Phil Bentham (Warrington).