COULD Wakefield Trinity Wildcats be the Castleford Tigers of 2015?
The latter, of course, came from 12th in 2013 to run riot among Super League last year.
After an hour of yesterday’s thrilling game, Daryl Powell’s new-look Castleford side seemed equally as comfortable again, so much so that not even the staunchest Trinity supporter would have suggested their own side, trailing 22-6, could undergo such a drastic transformation of their own in the year ahead.
The visitors certainly had plenty of fight, illustrated by the fact they held four different home players up over their own line in the second period, but they still looked destined to start a difficult campaign with a loss.
Yet, remarkably, James Webster’s side – 12th last term and favourites to get embroiled in a relegation scrap when the new structure fully kicks in after 23 rounds – dug deep to conjure up an astonishing finish, shrugging off all that energy-sapping defence to score three tries in 10 minutes for a famous win that left their derby rivals visibly stunned.
When Pita Godinet scrambled over from a kick in the 66th minute for Craig Hall to make it 22-12 it looked nothing more than a meagre scrap against the run of play.
But then, as Castleford’s discipline inexplicably waned and their kicking game deserted them, Ali Lauitiiti – the big Samoan still capable of moments of brilliance aged 35 – strode free to add a second and suddenly the Challenge Cup finalists were frayed.
Hall, who debuted along with quietly impressive half-back Jacob Miller and ex-Catalan prop Lopini Paea, slotted his third conversion and Trinity sensed blood.
Inevitably, the man who seized the opportunity when Andy Lynch conceded yet more ground with a needless high tackle, was scrum-half Tim Smith, the Australian who Webster has always intended building his side around since taking over from Richard Agar last June.
With four minutes remaining, and the vast majority of the packed Wheldon Road ground now on edge, Smith delivered one of his trademark flat passes to open up the middle of the Tigers defence and Danny Washbrook – who had bombed a clear break moments earlier – eased through untouched between the posts for Hall to win it with the simplest of conversions.
Just how Castleford’s defence, usually so steely, had been dissected with such ease just 10 metres from their own line and with so much at stake remains to be seen although there had been a warning sign in the manner in which hooker Paul McShane dummied his way past some lax markers for Trinity’s sole try of the first period.
Powell was furious afterwards, questioning his squad’s mentality and labelling their capitulation as “unacceptable” but, equally so, credit has to be given to the character of Webster’s side.
They will have to play far better to have any chance of following Castelford’s exploits – they reached Wembley and a highest-ever Super League finish of fourth – but clearly the all-important desire is there.
Kick-off was delayed for 10 minutes as fans poured into the stadium, contributing to a near-capacity 10,728 crowd, and there was further hold-ups after McShane’s try after some Trinity ‘fans’ threw smoking flares into the in-goal area, an incident that might lead to action from the RFL.
Castleford have lost a raft of stars from that attractive 2014 vintage, not least Man of Steel Daryl Clark and talisman prop Craig Huby, but the early signs were positive.
Powell gave debuts to five of their new signings – Luke Gale, Scott Moore, Denny Solomona, Junior Moors and Steve Crossley – but there was no spot for Ben Roberts, the Samoa star recruited from Melbourne Storm, given the coach preferred Liam Finn at half-back.
However, full-back Jordan Tansey and centre Ashley Gibson must also have felt like new arrivals given the duo played just half a dozen games each last year in their first season at Wheldon Road.
Out of favour then, the pair have worked hard over the winter and were given an early chance to impress here.
Tansey, so often a dangerously mercurial player, showed new maturity, proved safe under the high kicks and handled well, too, but the luckless Gibson was sidelined after just seven minutes due to a strained hamstring.
Solomona, meanwhile, was an instant hit.
When arriving from London Broncos during the off-season, the New Zealander thought he would be firmly behind fans’ favourite Kirk Dixon for a right flank spot.
But after Dixon announced his shock retirement last month due to a neck injury, the 21 year-old got his shot yesterday and duly grabbed two clinical first-half finishes that his predecessor – in attendance to say his farewells to the crowd at full-time – would have been proud of.
With inventive scrum-half Gale also crossing, but crucially adding just two conversions, the hosts were good value for their 16-6 interval lead, ex-Melbourne second-row Moors also proving a real force in possession and in defence.
Gale, Michael Shenton, Justin Carney and Crossley all got over the line in the second period but were prevented from grounding by that superb scramble defence from Wakefield.
Finn finally found Carney in the 59th minute but the Australian winger was one of the worst offenders as his side then imploded, spilling possession three times to encourage the visitors. They took the invite.
Castleford Tigers: Tansey; Solomina, Gibson, Shenton, Carney; Finn, Gale; Lynch, Moore, Millington, Holmes, Moors, Massey. Substitutes: Crossley, Milner, Boyle, Webster.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: Hall; Owen, Collis, Lyne, Riley; Miller, T Smith; Scruton, McShane, Paea, Kirmond, Washbrook, D Smith. Substitutes: Godinet, Anderson, Annakin, Lauitiiti.
Referee: R Hicks (Oldham).