CASTLEFORD Tigers head coach Daryl Powell believes “all the pressure” is on champions Wigan Warriors in tomorrow’s Super 8s game.
He has a point; as much as the prevalent talk this week has been about the untimely illness of Castleford’s scrum-half Luke Gale, it is the reigning champions – not the side seeking to dethrone them – that have to deliver in the immediate future.
Admittedly, resurgent Wigan are in stellar form, winning seven of their last nine Super League games to maraud into semi-final contention despite initially worrying about even securing a top-eight berth at the end of the regular season.
However, if they lose against their frontrunning West Yorkshire visitors tomorrow, Shaun Wane’s side must go into their final Super 8s game at Wakefield Trinity in a week’s time still needing a result to qualify.
Castleford, meanwhile, secured top spot for the first time in their history three weeks ago so they know they have essentially been bullet-proof ever since, their home semi-final safely secured.
Furthermore, Powell’s side have continued winning, beating Huddersfield Giants and Leeds Rhinos since their triumphant crowning against Wakefield with their only defeat in 17 league matches being the 26-12 home defeat to St Helens on August 3.
They have earned, then, the right to be able to accommodate a potential loss now, not that that has ever crossed their minds.
Granted, with England No 7 Gale missing due to emergency appendix surgery, there will be plenty of interest to see how they cope without the influential player who last week broke Bob Beardmore’s club record 334 points in a season set in 1983-84.
Also, Gale’s half-back partner Benny Roberts, who has been similarly impressive this term, was yesterday left out of the 19-man squad having not recovered in time from an injury picked up against Leeds last Friday.
It means there could not only be a call-up for Tom Holmes, the 21-year-old scrum-half who recently announced he would join Featherstone Rovers, but also 18-year-old half-back Jake Trueman, who joined from Bradford Bulls after they went into liquidation in January.
At least one of them is expected to feature tomorrow and, in particular, it would be fascinating to see the teenager in action.
Trueman’s only senior display so far for them was briefly off the bench when a heavily-depleted Castleford – minus their England contingent of Gale, Michael Shenton and Zak Hardaker – beat St Helens 16-12 in June.
However, he has impressed the Castleford hierarchy with his application, skills-set and displays for the club’s Under 19s side.
“We’ve got a couple of bits and pieces (injuries), but there’s no pressure on us for this game,” insisted Powell, who could also use prop Grant Millington or hooker Paul McShane in the halves.
“We’ll go there with some confidence and whichever team takes the field will be competitive. We’ve got Macca who has played there a fair bit, Millington played there last week for a period, and there’s Tom Holmes and Jake Trueman.
“I just need to decide what the best for us is going to be on the day. It’s going to be a tough game but we’ve got some options and we’re piecing that together at the moment.
“All the pressure is on them (Wigan); they’ve got to win the game. We can go there and play and we’ll certainly have some intensity and confidence about us.
“The pressure is on them at home – that’s the way I see it.”
Wigan are without their own talisman as England captain Sean O’Loughlin is missing due to a calf strain.
Furthermore, memories will still be fresh of when Castleford vanquished them 54-4 at Wheldon Road in April, one of the definitive displays that underlined Tigers’ title potential, having also beaten Wigan at DW Stadium earlier that month.
As is stands, St Helens, Wakefield Trinity, Wigan and Hull could all still finish fourth to set up a semi-final appearance at Tigers who remain favourites to lift a maiden league championship.
However, Powell is not concerning himself with who may eventually be their opponents on Thursday week.
“Whoever we play in fourth are going to have some momentum behind them, just because they’ve got into fourth as a result of this battle that’s ongoing,” he said.
“It will be tough no matter what happens – and it’s interesting to see who will finish third and fourth. They’ll all be tough teams but we’re at home, and that’s the biggest advantage for us. It’ll be highly unlikely I’d say I prefer one team to another, even if I had private thoughts one team would be easier – which I don’t, to be honest.”
Other players missing for Castleford are forwards Junior Moors and Larne Patrick plus winger Jy Hithcox but the experienced Matt Cook and Oli Holmes return up front and ex-Australia winger Joel Monaghan is looking to push his way into the 17.
Meanwhile, on Gale, Powell added: “Clearly we need to be mindful it’s a possibility that he might not make it (semi).
“We’re going to have to play about and see who is the best fit but we see plenty of that in practice, too. There’s a bit of water to go under the bridge yet.”