CASTLEFORD TIGERS gained revenge after two defeats earlier in the season, but their 24-22 victory at Wheldon Road last night was another indication Hull FC are a side who could challenge them for the big prize this year.
Just 10 days after Hull dumped them out of the Challenge Cup, Castleford moved a step closer to the Super League leaders’ shield and maintained an unbeaten home record stretching back almost a year.
Hull, however, finished with the wind in their sails and went close to continuing their stranglehold in a storming final quarter.
Castleford led 20-4 at half-time and held a 14-point advantage with nine minutes left, but were hanging on desperately at the end as the Albert Kelly-Marc Sneyd half-back combination clicked.
Amid the praise heaped on Castleford’s attack this year, their defence has largely gone unnoticed, but that is where their big improvement has been.
They survived heavy pressure for spells in the opening period and took their limited opportunities in clinical fashion to open a 16-point interval lead.
The win extended their lead in Super League to eight points, with Leeds Rhinos remaining second and Hull third, though Salford will climb above them both if they beat Huddersfield Giants tomorrow.
Another of Castleford’s strengths is their full-back-scrum-half combination, which is the best in the competition.
After an early scare, Luke Gale scored one try and set up another and then Zak Hardaker celebrated his new contract with a second long-range try in as many games.
Castleford made the most of some poor handling by the visitors in the opening 40, but Hull showed great resolve.
They could have thrown the towel in at the start of the second half, but battled back and did not concede a try after half-time.
They found gaps in Castleford’s defence on the edges in a frantic finale and out-scored the home team by four tries to three.
A remarkable piece of skill created the opening try for Hull after just six minutes. Adam Milner’s knock-on gave them an attacking opportunity and they opted to kick for touch when Castleford were caught offside.
That gamble was rewarded when Sneyd, Kelly and Jamie Shaul worked the ball across field to Jake Connor and he ducked under a swinging arm from Hardaker before flicking a stunning pass out of a tackle to send Mahe Fonua over.
Hull had raced into a big early lead in both their previous victories, but this time they failed to build on a strong start and after the sublime came the ridiculous as a series of errors handed 14 points to Castleford in a 10-minute spell.
The home side went in front within six minutes. Sneyd’s poor pass near his own line was meant for Liam Watts, but went to ground, was tapped into the air off Gale’s boot and the scrum-half regathered to amble over unopposed.
He converted and added a penalty soon afterwards when Hull were caught offside. On 22 minutes Gale kicked across field, Fetuli Talanoa dropped the ball backwards over the line, it went through Shaul’s legs and Mike McMeeken was on hand to touch down for a simple try which Gale improved.
The game was already drifting away from Hull and Castleford took a firmer grip, surviving five sets on their own line before countering to score a try out of nothing.
Shaul and Josh Griffin went close, but were denied by Michael Shenton and Jake Webster and having weathered the storm Castleford, almost inevitably, struck with a brilliant long-range try just before the interval.
Shaul chipped over the defence and the ball rebounded off Gale to Hardaker who accelerated clear to score between the posts, making the conversion a formality.
Hull’s tactic of building their advantage through penalty goals worked in the Cup tie and Castleford adopted a similar approach this time, Gale taking two more points following a ball steal 10 minutes into the second half.
The game got scrappy after that. Tigers’ Jy Hitchcox had a touchdown ruled out as play had stopped for an earlier offence and Sika Manu crossed for the visitors from Sneyd’s kick, but video referee Phil Bentham spotted a knock-on by Mark Minichiello.
Hull gave themselves hope with 14 minutes left when Fonua scored his second try, from Kelly’s pass and Sneyd added the extras, but that seemed to be extinguished when Gale landed a penalty nine minutes from time.
It was all Hull after that though, Sneyd twice converting from the touchline after Talanoa had crossed at the corner and the home team were hugely relieved to hear the final hooter.
Castleford Tigers: Hardaker, Hitchcox, Webster, Shenton, Eden, Roberts, Gale, Sene-Lefao, McShane, Millington,Massey, McMeeken, Milner. Substitutes: Foster, Springer, Patrick. Unused T Holmes.
Hull: Shaul, Fonua, Connor, Griffin, Talanoa, Kelly, Sneyd, Bowden, Houghton, Watts, Minichiello, Washbrook, Manu. Substitutes: Fash. Thompson, Taylor, Turgut.
Referee: C Kendall (Huddersfield).