IF Leeds Rhinos do finally succeed in their pursuit of that elusive Challenge Cup success they will perhaps look back at this game as a defining moment.
Everyone knows about the Super League champions’ tortuous recent record in this competition, including reaching and losing the last three finals.
But for more than an hour here last night it looked like they could fall at the very first hurdle after a stirring performance from Castleford Tigers, their lowly West Yorkshire neighbours who continue to look redefined under temporary coach Danny Orr.
They led 12-10 after Jamie Ellis’s 54th-minute converted try and such had been the desire and spirit of their display up to that point there was every indication they might just hold on for a second successive win under Orr’s command.
Yet, while ever Leeds have the impish threat of Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow in their ranks, they always have that capacity to rise when it matters most.
It was the England scrum-half who ushered Chris Clarkson over from short range just before the hour mark and then popped up with two typical individual finishes to give the final scoreline a deceiving look.
Relieved Leeds coach Brian McDermott admitted: “A lot of credit has to go to Castleford.
“They were always going to have a dig but the way they played made it so tight for us.
“They were the factor in how competitive that game was; it wasn’t us that was off.”
There was another “immense” effort from Jamie Peacock, the veteran prop McDermott reckons would be a leading Man of Steel contender if it was voted for on the first half of this season, while Brett Delaney, in his 100th game for the club, showed once more why he has been one of their best value imports for some time.
All eyes were on Rangi Chase again, though, as speculation continued that this would be the England star’s last game for Castleford ahead of a move to St George-Illawarra.
Orr said: “I don’t know anything new on that.
“If he’s here next week, he’s here. I just had a chat with him and he’s really dirty with himself as he feels he let the side down with his kicking game.
“That shows how much he cares but he’s a world-class player and I’m actually quite proud of them all.
“We knew Leeds would come out strong but we weathered their storm in the first half and finished it well.
“We did well in the second to go in front through Ellis but then they raised it and we didn’t go with them. Danny (McGuire) really stepped up and hurt our tiring defence. He can do that.”
Leeds had hit the front as early as the seventh minute when Kallum Warkins – the England centre increasingly linked with his own move to the NRL – barely had to move to collect Kevin Sinfield’s perfect rehearsed crossfield kick after Moon and Burrow had made the initial inroads.
However, whereas so many times this season that would have prompted the onset of a meek capitulation, here Castleford stuck firmly to their task.
They had a little luck along the way, admittedly, with Leeds twice having further efforts ruled out for forward passes but it should not take anything away from the visitors’ resilience.
Jordan Tansey, the gifted full-back who started out at Leeds but made a series of bad personal decisions to see his career go off the rails, was at the heart of it and seemed to be everywhere.
Rarely does Ryan Hall make a clean break and not beat the last man. Even if the defender gets there, he is inevitably shrugged off by the muscular England winger.
Yet Tansey held his position perfectly after Sinfield slipped Hall through from halfway and tailed him before dragging the international down.
He was at it again, making a crucial tackle when Sinfield crept through himself – Delaney spilling a gilt-edged pass at the next play – and the ex-Hull FC man also popped up in some of Castleford’s best attacking moments.
Orr’s side took the lead in the 18th minute following some fine enterprise, Ellis’s pass giving Michael Shenton space down the right where he linked with Ellis again before Chase, inevitably, arrived in support.
Ellis converted and they splintered Leeds once more when the hefty prop Jonathan Walker bundled through, the hosts fortunate that the lightning fast Daryl Clark slipped when trying to evade the cover.
However, the hosts crucially struck first early in the second half when Moon – who looked sharp in the centre from the off – delivered a big sidestep to cruise through from halfway, McGuire finding Burrow who just managed to shake off the desperate attentions of Shenton.
Remarkably, it was his first try since scoring against Wakefield in the play-offs last September.
Clark had to be on his toes to drag down Stevie Ward in a clear race between two of the country’s leading young players, Ward, in particular, proving forceful once more last night.
But then, after Watkins made another error on his own 20m, Chase’s grubber found Ellis perfectly between the posts and the scorer added the conversion to regain the lead.
Castleford hoped that would be enough to see them repeat their famous 1998 Challenge Cup win on this ground but, ultimately, Leeds had other ideas and they make Monday’s draw.
Leeds: Hardaker; Watkins, Ablett, Moon, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Peacock, Ward, Delaney, Jones-Buchanan. Substitutes: McShane, Kirke, Clarkson, Achurch.
Castleford: Tansey; Clare, Shenton, Thompson, Carney; Chase, Ellis; Mason, Milner, Huby, Holmes, Hauraki, Massey. Substitutes: Walker, Clark, Gilmour, Boyle.
Referee: P Bentham (Warrington).