YOU HAVE to feel for Daryl Powell. The Castleford Tigers’ head coach who has done so much to transform the club since arriving in 2013 could only watch on helplessly as his gutsy side suffered an agonising defeat that ended their hopes of making Super League’s top-four for a second successive season.
There was the obligatory bizarre refereeing decision, the video officials somehow missing a blatant obstruction when awarding a try for Adam Quinlan that finally put champions St Helens in control of a remarkable game.
Even then, resilient Castleford – who had been behind 18-0 inside just 15 minutes but led 24-18 early in the second half – almost staged an incredible finish with Junior Moors’s 79th-minute try creating a frenetic finish.
However, there was no repeat of the game here against Saints in June when Benny Roberts kicked a match-winning drop goal in the final second, and instead, Powell is left to mull what could have been.
He must wonder, too, what would have happened if the whole Justin Carney saga had not imploded in recent weeks, the Australian winger absent for a second successive game after being placed under investigation by the club for a much-publicised altercation involving a team-mate.
Powell, and Castleford, have worked so hard to become a real contender in Super League but their graft has been undone for this year, at least, after three consecutive Super 8s defeats.
Saints, instead, followed up their win at Leeds to move up to third six points clear of the Tigers in fifth with just two games to go.
Granted, fourth-placed Huddersfield are still just four points ahead, but it is unlikely they will lose any, never mind all, of their remaining three games and, nevertheless, they have a hugely superior points difference, too.
Castleford’s run-in is tough as well at leaders Leeds next Thursday and second-placed Wigan Warriors the following Friday.
Yet you would not be surprised if they won one or both of those games given the class and spirit in their ranks which shone through again last night. In the brilliant Luke Dorn they have a quality full-back who inspired their initial fightback and Roberts, the silky Samoa international, produced some genuine skill.
Any illusions St Helens might have had that Castleford already believed their season was over were quickly dispelled as Scott Wheeldon and Oli Holmes dumped Mark Percival into touch in the first set as the St Helens centre dared to try going down the short side in his own half.
Indeed, when the hosts’ insatiable defence pushed Adam Swift back behind his own line from Ben Roberts’s neat grubber in the resulting set, forcing an early drop-out, you sensed another famous night could be on the cards at Wheldon Road.
However, Powell’s side could not score from that possession and instead Saints raced into that lead following two tries from Swift and another from Percival.
They could have been 24-0 down if Roberts had not denied Jon Wilkin but that tackle was a turning point.
Two converted tries from the excellent Dorn, who showed dazzling footwork, and Roberts, playing in his favoured No 6 role, saw them draw level just before half-time and then Roberts skipped away again early in the second half following Mike McMeeken’s fine break-out for Luke Gale to add his fourth goal and an incredulous advantage.
However, Percival added his second converted try soon after and, though Gale’s penalty edged Castleford in front once more, the unfortunate Roberts suffered a wicked bounce at the restart to knock-on and give Saints an instant shot. Quinlan duly scythed through for that controversial try as the visitors gained a 57th-minute lead they would not relinquish.
Tommy Makinson swiftly added another try and, though Denny Solomona scored following Gale’s fine pass, there would be no late heroics at Wheldon Road as Swift, instead, completed his hat-trick before Moors edged over
Castleford had welcomed back captain Michael Shenton and Oli Holmes but were without Nathan Massey, Matt Cook, Jake Webster and, of course, Carney.
Grant Millington made his 100th appearance for Castleford while Scott Wheeldon celebrated his 200th Super League game.
Castleford Tigers: Dorn; Gibson, McMeeken, Shenton, Solomona; Roberts, Gale; Lynch, Milner, Millington, Moors, Holmes, Wheeldon. Substitutes: Boyle, Maher, Springer, McShane.
St Helens: Quinlan; Makinson, Percival, Jones, Swift; Burns, Walsh; Amor, Roby, Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Wilkin, Turner. Substitutes: Richards, Greenwood, Flanagan, Thompson.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).