IT lived up to its billing as one of the games of the season but it was Leeds Rhinos who emerged victorious from Wheldon Road last night to enhance their position at the top of Super League.
Castleford Tigers had already brought champions Wigan Warriors and Grand Finalists Warrington Wolves to their knees here this year and, at times, it looked like the leaders may succumb too.
Indeed, Leeds coach Brian McDermott admitted it was their toughest examination yet but, in the end, greater finishing quality from his side with right-sided pair Ben Jones-Bishop and Kallum Watkins each scoring a brace, was the difference.
Jones-Bishop has been the one to largely miss out this year given Leeds’s abundance of three-quarter talent.
But he came in last night with England winger Ryan Hall rested and scored in each half, his second in the 47th minute delivering his side a lead they would never relinquish despite the superb efforts of Castleford’s Daryl Clark, Grant Millngton and Craig Huby.
Leeds are now three points clear of St Helens and face Wigan at Magic Weekend next Saturday in increasingly impressive form.
Castleford, though, may point to the fact their opponents had two days’ extra rest as being crucial, the hosts having lost an epic encounter 29-28 at Huddersfield on Sunday with Leeds having overcome Wigan last Friday.
It was perhaps inevitable they would run out of steam but Daryl Powell’s side – who remain in third – will also rue missed chances in the first period.
They led 14-12 at half-time and will, truthfully, think they should have been further ahead. There was a little too much excitement at times when opportunities were there to build pressure.
Andy Lynch and Millington both strived to get out off-loads that amounted to nothing and Lynch – unusually for the prop celebrating his 150th game for the club – came up with a cheap knock-on too.
Leeds, though, with Ryan Bailey making his 300th club appearance, were more patient and ruthless with their possessions. That said, they were behind at the interval for the first time this season.
Castleford had taken the lead when Kirk Dixon crossed for his third try in as many games.
Tom Briscoe had gifted the ball over to offer up the chance and was then rooted to the spot when Adam Milner’s fine cut-out pass found the home winger.
Hooker Milner and Frankie Mariano had been set to start on the bench but, in a late switch, were swapped for Clark and Huby moments before kick-off.
Marc Sneyd curled over the first of his two conversions and his tactical kicking kept turning Leeds too.
From one, Zak Hardaker was bustled into touch by some excellent Michael Shenton and Justin Carney defence while – after Sneyd had stretched the lead with a penalty – another of his kicks saw Briscoe’s night get worse as he was picked up and driven behind his own line by Liam Finn and Scott Wheeldon. It came to nothing, however, and instead, Leeds responded.
It was one of their typical shifts wide with Watkins making the crucial killer strike to set up Jones-Bishop in the corner.
Sinfield struck the first of two excellent touchline conversions, the second coming after Watkins had put on some of his trademark footwork to score.
In between, Clark made a searing break only to stumble when Hardaker approached. Leeds were also grateful to Hardaker when he somehow prevented Finn from getting over the line.
They did earn reward for their efforts, though, two minutes before the break via a try of real individual quality from Sneyd.
Showing wonderful footwork from 10m out, he eluded Watkins as the England centre shot out of the defensive line, then stepped around Hardaker before doing likewise to Carl Ablett for a try he converted himself.
Another darting Clark run almost saw them score again after the hooter but Jones-Bishop just got back to recover his initial mistake. Instead, it was he who then scored that crucial try early in the second period after Hardaker brilliantly knocked down Danny McGuire’s high kick and Watkins made the pass.
Castleford had another immediate chance but Kylie Leuluai produced a stunning tackle to deny Lynch and, when Shenton spilled later on, the visitors struck again. Liam Sutcliffe sliced through and Watkins was on hand to finish off his 11th of the season with Sinfield converting the 54th minute score.
Castleford never capitulated. But neither could they find the magic that has lit up their year.
Castleford Tigers: Tansey; Dixon, Gibson, Shenton, Carney; Sneyd, Finn; Lynch, Milner, Wheeldon, Holmes, Webster, Mariano. Substitutes: Milner, Millington, Hauraki, Mariano.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Jones-Bishop, Watkins, Moon, Briscoe; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Clarkson, Peacock, Achurch, Clarkson, Delaney. Substitutes: Ward, Singleton, Sutcliffe, Bailey.
Referee: R Silverwood (Mirfield).