Grand Final: Confident Holmes shrugs off Hardaker absence

Oli Holmes breaks through the Wakefield Trinity ranks. (Picture: Scott Merrylees)

THEY HAVE won difficult games before without two of their main stars so Oli Holmes sees no reason why Castleford Tigers cannot shrug off the shock absence of Zak Hardaker in tomorrow’s Super League Grand Final.

The England full-back, only pipped to Man of Steel by club-mate Luke Gale on Tuesday night, was sensationally dropped for the showpiece by head coach Daryl Powell yesterday following an unspecified breach of club rules.

Castleford Tigers' Zak Hardaker, during the 2017 Betfred Super League Grand Final press conference at Old Trafford, Manchester. (Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Wire)

It is undoubtedly a significant blow for the League Leaders’ Shield winners as they face Leeds Rhinos at ld Trafford in the biggest game of the club’s 91-year history.

Nevertheless, second-row Holmes maintains they will be ready to press on and are confident of overcoming the surprise loss of such a crucial player.

“Before our games with Wigan recently, Sam Tomkins was saying we haven’t proven ourselves in big games,” he said, referring to the Warriors full-back.

“But we went there and won that game without both our half-backs Luke Gale and Benny Roberts.

There can’t have been any better preparation for Saturday either than that semi-final we had against Saints last week. Battling back from behind twice, taking it into extra-time and winning again, scraping through when we needed it most.

Oli Holmes

“There can’t have been any better preparation for Saturday either than that semi-final we had against Saints last week.

“Battling back from behind twice, taking it into extra-time and winning again, scraping through when we needed it most. That’s given us confidence. We’re all looking forward to this.”

The timely return of Holmes will be a bonus for Powell, too, the hard-hitting forward having missed that epic semi-final against St Helens with a groin problem.

Jy Hitchcox has been drafted into Castleford’s 19-man squad, the 28-year-old Australian who has played just nine games for the Tigers this term.

With prolific winger Greg Eden expected to switch to full-back in Hardaker’s absence, Hitchcox or veteran ex-Kangaroo Joel Monaghan are the options out wide for Powell.

Holmes, 25, said: “Jy’s been named in the 19 and I’d expect him to play now.

“He’s been class for us whenever he’s come in and is always a bundle of energy.

“He’s good defensively, is a strong runner and now there’s an opportunity for him to grab with both hands.

“He’ll have been guessing he wasn’t going to play but, if he does now, fair play to him.”

Holmes conceded he was sweating on his own place after that troublesome injury.

“I was nervous,” he said.

“When I first did my groin in that game at Wigan, it had been my first game back after originally tweaking it.

“But I’d actually torn it the second time so it was a nervous wait.

“There was a couple of days before I had the scan and could see the extent of the damage.

“I did originally hope to get back for the semi and I was there or thereabouts but it probably would have been a risk to play.

“‘Powelly’ decided not to risk it and I just hoped we’d win to get to the final.

“The boys did the job but I was saying to myself I hope I get back in – there’s always the chance that might not happen!”

Pontefract-born Holmes has missed large chunks of the campaign himself, earlier knee problems meaning he has made just nine appearances so far.

However, with his defensive prowess particularly, he strengthens Castleford considerably and is expected to start with Alex Foster dropping to the bench.

Amid all the Hardaker furore, Leeds sprung a surprise of their own by including in their 19-man squad Stevie Ward, the England hopeful who dislocated a shoulder in last Friday’s semi-final win over Hull FC.

Rhinos head coach Brian McDermott suggested at Monday’s press conference that the in-form back-row was out of the final but the club said yesterday the player would be given as long as possible to prove his fitness.

“We weren’t expecting him to be named and we’ve not done any video on him,” said Holmes.

“We don’t expect him to play but, if he does, we know plenty about him.

“He’s been tremendous for them this year and has been getting them forward these last few weeks. I’ve never dislocated my shoulder but I know when Greg Eden did his it was four weeks or so he missed.

“He’ll be in a lot of pain but maybe they will jab him up and send him out there.”

As Castleford go in search of their first ever league title in 91 years, Holmes admitted: “It will be the greatest day in the club’s history if we do win and, having been part of the club since I signed as a 16-year-old in 2008 and seen what it’s been through, it would be just amazing. It will be one of the best days of my life and a remarkable achievement for the club, coaches, players and staff.”

Holmes scored a try in the 2014 Challenge Cup final loss to Leeds and said: “We’re hoping for a bit of redemption for that day.

“It was a great experience playing at Wembley and, personally, to score as well. I think we’ll be better for that experience now as well. Whoever handles the pressure best will come out on top on Saturday. We can’t wait for it.”

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