IT IS A GOOD job he passed that fitness test, isn’t it?
Luke Gale, just 16 days after having his appendix removed, took to the field last night to remove St Helens from the Super League semi-finals, sending Castleford Tigers to a first Grand Final in one of the most remarkable finishes in the sport’s history.
The England scrum-half insisted he was not sure if he would be fit in time for this huge contest,
But he was and held his nerve not once but twice on a dramatic night at Wheldon Road as the League Leaders’ Shield winners managed – just – to keep on track for a first league title success in their 91-year history.
Gale slotted a difficult penalty with only 28 seconds remaining to send the game into golden point extra-time and then, after he and Saints’ Matty Smith both missed drop-goal efforts, the Man of Steel candidate got them home in the 86th minute before sprinting off in delight.
Yet gutsy Saints will be kicking themselves after England centre Mark Percival – otherwise brilliant – managed just one conversion from five attempts. Tigers had battled back from an interval deficit to lead 20-10 with just 11 minutes remaining with none of the late drama predicted.
However, fourth-placed Saints – famed for late finishes and having already ended Castleford’s one-year unbeaten record at Wheldon Road last month – staged a stunning comeback with three tries seemingly to seal their place at Old Trafford against Leeds Rhinos or Hull FC a week tomorrow.
Tommy Makinson started it after Ben Barba evaded Michael Shenton to send the winger over in the 69th minute and it was the brilliant Australian full-back Barba who then slipped in Percival soon after as jaded Castleford threatened to collapse.
Percival missed both conversion attempts, though, so they still trailed 20-18. Nevertheless, they created a superb score from 50m out for Ryan Morgan in the 77th minute as Regan Grace sent Alex Walmsley marauding clear and James Roby supported.
Gale held his nerve not once but twice on a dramatic night at Wheldon Road as the League Leaders’ Shield winners managed – just – to keep on track for a first league title success in their 91-year history.The YP’s Davev Craven
But Castleford won back a short restart and, with just moments remaining, referee James Child awarded them a penalty that Dream Team No 7 Gale successfully negotiated to set up a first golden point semi-final.
For rugby league purists, there will be delight this morning that Castleford have reached Old Trafford. They have led Super League from the off, played some stunning football and finished 10 points clear of the rest.
Saints, for all they have flourished towards the finish and were magnificent last night, were fully 17 points adrift; even some of their own fans conceded it would be farcical if they went on to become champions.
Admittedly, Castleford may still fall at the last hurdle, but, if that does occur – and it would take a brave person to bet against them – at least now there will be a new Grand Finalist at the table, something the sport has badly needed for some time.
For all Gale will dominate the headlines, though, Adam Milner was just as crucial a player after a remarkable 90 seconds or so for the long-serving loose forward.
Having already produced one vital tackle and ball-steal on Percival in the first half, he was on hand to rescue his side again in the 62nd minute.
Makinson looked certain to score after yet another incisive play from the mesmerising Australian full-back, but the tireless Milner somehow got across to thunder the winger into touch.
Soon after, the Castleford forward was then down the other end, muscling over from close range for the try that put them 20-10 in front. By that point, Castleford had pressed 14-10 ahead after Gale had sent Greg Eden racing away and then supported himself to score, but it would never be that simple.
Castleford may have started the first half at an electric pace via Zak Hardaker’s first-minute try, converted by Gale, but they ended it looking worryingly frazzled having seen Saints edge 10-8 ahead just before the break.
Saints’ veteran master craftsman Roby stepped out of dummy-half in the shadow of the Tigers’ posts and then turned back on himself to find prop Luke Thompson plundering through a yawning gap untouched for Percival to improve.
It had been coming; Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook almost touched down Matty Smith’s teasing grubber five minutes earlier and they had already capitalised on Alex Foster’s handling error when Barba arrowed a pass for the young winger Regan Grace to dive in after 16 minutes.
Castleford’s other first-half points came from a Gale penalty and, at the start of the second period, things did not initially improve for Castleford either.
They immediately looked jaded as Saints pressed again and Roberts’s game disintegrated with three awful handling errors.
However, eventually, they got there, reaching a first championship final since 1969.
Castleford Tigers: Hardaker; Minikin, Webster, Shenton, Eden; Roberts, Gale; Massey, McShane, Sene-Lefao, Foster, McMeeken, Milner. Substitutes: Millington, Moors, Cook. Not used: Springer.
St Helens: Barba; Makinson, Morgan, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Smith; Douglas, Roby, Thompson, Knowles, Taia, Wilkin. Substitutes: Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Peyroux, Fages.
Referee: James Child (Dewsbury).