MAYBE Leeds Rhinos should just get the chequebook out and try signing Luke Gale to ease all this pain.
The gifted scrum-half, who hails from East Leeds and came through the Academy ranks at Headingley but never played for the first team, returned to haunt his hometown club yet again last night and deliver a brilliant win for Castleford Tigers.
Their hopes of reaching the Super League top-four semi-finals may have ended a week previously in defeat against St Helens, but it certainly did not mean their season is over as they clearly illustrated by punching another huge hole in faltering Leeds’s hopes of lifting the League Leaders’ Shield.
Rhinos – who saw captain Kevin Sinfield limp off with a dead leg early in the second period – have now lost three successive games since winning the Challenge Cup at Wembley, all of which means if second-placed Wigan Warriors avoid defeat at St Helens tonight they will replace the West Yorkshire club at the top with just one game remaining.
More worryingly, perhaps, both St Helens and Huddersfield – who Leeds visit for their last Super 8s game in a week – can overhaul Brian McDermott’s side, too, and relegate them to a third-place finish and away semi-final, unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Of course, all this sort of happened last season as well when Leeds lost all four games after prospering at Wembley, but most people thought they were better prepared for the challenge this time around.
Brilliant back-to-back long-range tries from Castleford at the start of the second period, moments after Sinfield departed, proved that is not the case as the visitors gained the advantage they would never let slip.
It was 16-16 at the break but Matt Cook, the industrious back-row, made a searing break down the middle, bumping off defenders at will, fending away the England winger Ryan Hall before holding off Zak Hardaker to find Gale who dived over in front of the visiting fans.
Next it was Benny Roberts, the silky Samoan stand-off, whose fast feet left Mitch Garbutt grounded before advancing clear prior to performing a lovely one-two with Gale again, who reverse passed to his half-back partner for a glorious score.
Gale – the 27-year-old who must be nearing an England debut after learning his trade at London Broncos and Bradford Bulls – improved both as Tigers went 12 points clear but they had done the same at the start of the first period only to be hauled in.
Sure enough, Adam Cuthbertson barrelled over in the 53rd minute for Jordan Lilley, the 19-year-old hooker making an excellent first competitive start for Leeds in the injured Paul Aiton and Rob Burrow’s absence, converting with Sinfield off.
Tom Briscoe motored clear as Leeds sought another immediate riposte, but Denny Solomona tracked back to deny the winger and, from then on, the resilient visitors simply would not let up as they dug deep to deny their opponents.
Luke Dorn, the full-back so instrumental again, somehow denied Carl Ablett in the corner when it seemed a try was certain and so, instead, when Hall dropped the ball with no one near, Roberts’s 73rd minute drop goal sealed it for Daryl Powell’s side.
Castleford, who had won 31-24 at Headingley in June, were 12-0 up inside just nine minutes.
Gale slipped Grant Millington through a gap in midfield with a lovely short pass and then supported to take the return ball and cross over.
He converted and was involved again when Ben Roberts switched play on the last tackle and Gale found Michael Shenton who sent Solomona in at the corner.
Leeds fans clearly were concerned yet, in even less time it had taken Castleford to streak into such a lead, they had been pegged back.
Sinfield switched play himself with a brilliant pinpoint crossfield kick for Hall to expertly collect for his first try and then Danny McGuire exploited a gap on the last tackle to surge clear and dink ahead for Joel Moon to add another on 15 minutes, Mike McMeeken making a hash of clearing things up. Sinfield improved both but the hosts were frustrated when Zak Hardaker had another effort ruled out, Stevie Ward deemed to have blocked Shenton.
Hall added his second try on the half-hour, proving too strong for Ashley Gibson in the corner from McGuire’s cut-out pass.
Dorn replied, however, in the 36th minute when Leeds were insistent McGuire had been obstructed, one of a number of contentious video refereeing decisions that – although this was technically correct – continue to infuriate many in the sport.
There was too many hold-ups, delays and confusion last night regarding decisions from the officials; fans will lose patience and drift away.
That said, as long as the likes of Gale and Roberts continue with the sort of magic they produced, there is still so much still to love.
Leeds: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Cuthbertson, Lilley, Peacock, Ablett, Ward, Delaney. Substitutes: Singleton, Garbutt, Walters, Leuluai.
Castleford: Dorn; Gibson, McMeeken, Shenton, Solomona; Roberts, Gale; Lynch, Milner, Millington, Holmes, Moors, Wheeldon. Substitutes: Cook, Boyle, Maher, McShane.
Referee: James Child (Dewsbury)