a full-house of more than 11,200 will have put a smile on the face of Castleford Tigers’ bank manager, but the home team failed to give their supporters much to cheer about as they were outplayed by Super League leaders Leeds Rhinos.
Castleford have yet to beat Leeds since Daryl Powell took over as coach 23 months ago and they rarely threatened to end that sequence in a hard-fought, but surprisingly one-sided contest.
Leeds never quite managed to shake Castleford off, but they were in control throughout and would have won by a greater margin than 26-12, but for some magnificent goal-line defence from their opponents.
Leeds’s Brett Delaney, Brad Singleton and Adam Cuthbertson were all held up over the Castleford line and on another occasion Liam Sutcliffe stepped through, but dropped the ball before he could touch down. That was a rare error by Sutcliffe, who filled in at stand-off for injured Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield for the third successive game.
With Sinfield having announced he is to leave the club at the end of the year, to try his hand in rugby union with Yorkshire Carnegie, Sutcliffe, 20, has an opportunity to stake a claim for his spot.
The youngster impressed again, controlling the game alongside veteran half-back Danny McGuire. He also converted three of the visitors’ five tries.
Tom Briscoe was one of Leeds’s in-form players before suffering a shoulder injury in the defeat at Warrington Wolves last month. He has undergone surgery, but is facing around three months on the sidelines and Leeds seem to have found a solid replacement in 19-year-old Ash Handley.
He was up against a fearsome opponent in Castleford’s Australian wing Justin Carney, but Leeds’s management showed faith in their man by continuing with him on the right-flank, rather than switching him with the bigger and more experienced Ryan Hall.
Handley was one of Leeds’s top performers in what was a strong team display. Castleford, as expected, targeted him, but he handled some tricky kicks in good style, was solid defensively and chased back to make a try-saving tackle on Carney in the second half.
Carney made some important tackles himself, but was below his best on attack, although his one-two with Michael Shenton did create a late touchdown for the captain and he had one disallowed himself, due to an obstruction.
The game was out of reach by then and Castleford will feel they under-performed in arguably their biggest fixture of the season so far.
They struggled to gain field position and were unable to make enough of the limited chances which came their way.
Shenton scored both their tries and did well in the left-centre, but the home team’s star man was veteran prop Andy Lynch, who has been one of their most consistent performers this year, at the age of 35.
Lynch could not have given much more in an all-action effort, but generally Leeds’s pack dominated, with Cuthbertson and Singleton again catching the eye.
Cuthbertson scored the clinching try, twisting over from Rob Burrow’s offload with 13 minutes left, soon after a 16-6 interval lead had been stretched when Ryan Hall went over at the corner from Joel Moon’s pass.
Leeds kept Castleford out following Hall’s career-first sin-binning, for a professional foul in the fifth minute and went ahead as he returned to the field, Jamie Peacock, McGuire and Singleton creating Moon’s first try since last August.
Moon then put Hall in, but Shenton reacted quickly to touch down Liam Finn’s kick, with Luke Gale landing the first of his two conversions.
A similar try, created by Sutcliffe and scored by Stevie Ward, gave Leeds a healthy half-time advantage which they protected with ease to tighten their grip on top spot ahead of Monday’s visit of bottom club Wakefield.
Castleford Tigers: Dorn, Clare, Gibson, Shenton, Carney, Finn, Gale, Lynch, Moore, Millington, Holmes, Webster, Massey. Substitutes: Milner, Cook, Boyle, Wheeldon.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker, Handley, Watkins, Moon, Hall, Sutcliffe, McGuire, Singleton, Aiton, Peacock, S Ward, Ablett, Cuthbertson. Substitutes: Burrow, Delaney, Achurch, Yates.
Referee: B Thaler (Wakefield).