IT seems incredulous to suggest that after 26 weekly rounds, 22 wins and 849 points scored at an average of almost 33 per game, the real work is only truly going to begin now for Castleford Tigers.
Nevertheless, it is as concrete as the very fact they have just finished top of the first division for a first time in their 91-year history.
When beating Wakefield Trinity 45-20 on Thursday, they achieved that notable feat, securing the League Leaders’ Shield having over-powered and outclassed their derby rivals.
They have inflicted the same damage to so many teams this season. But they are not champions. Tigers know that more than anyone. To be that, they must win a home semi-final and prosper over 80 minutes in what would be a maiden Grand Final on October 7. As they say, ‘them’s the rules’.
Still, the media has received criticism for waxing lyrical about Castleford’s exploits. I stand by everything I have written, though; they have been a joy to watch for the majority of the season, a breath of fresh air for a sport that, frankly, needed an injection of excitement.
Similarly, it has been argued that Daryl Powell’s side have achieved nothing yet and will not unless they win that Grand Final.
Still, the media has received criticism for waxing lyrical about Castleford’s exploits. I stand by everything I have written, though; they have been a joy to watch for the majority of the season, a breath of fresh air for a sport that, frankly, needed an injection of excitement.Dave Craven
This is where the debate becomes so opaque; when a club has been around for nearly a century and has never finished first you have to celebrate when it does.
Rightly, Castleford did that amid joyous scenes at Wheldon Road on Thursday.
However, for all Powell has claimed the Shield is the “biggest prize”, that surely has to be merely mind games on his part; yes, it is the most difficult to achieve in many ways but he knows a champion side is the one that goes the extra mile to do what is required in the final hour.
Statistics prove only 50 per cent of the League Leaders since its introduction in 2003 have gone on to win the Grand Final and just twice in the last six years. It is a sobering thought.
Warrington topped the table last term but missed out on the big prize just as they did in 2011.
The 2013 leaders, Huddersfield Giants – who had not finished first since 1932 – did not even enjoy a night out in Manchester, losing at home to Wigan in their opening play-off and then again at Warrington.
They were afforded two stabs at it all. In the current format, Tigers only have one. That said, for all the similarities in terms of history, Powell’s side is superior in many ways to that Giants vintage.
Powell is clearly a canny coach and his words may well just be rhetoric to alleviate some of the pressure which will, inevitably, arrive with that semi-final.
They have been so superior many will expect them to finish the job. The biggest lead by any Super League side was by Leeds, who finished nine points clear of Bradford before going on to beat them in the 2004 final. Castleford, though, are 10 points ahead of nearest rivals Leeds, underlining how, with four games still to go, they could obliterate such record.
Clearly, though, they are also just one bad performance away from hopes of being champions ruined.
Can they handle that pressure? I think they can. It will be fascinating if they do.
That said, improving Hull have not won the title in 34 years so that would be some tale, too.
It was always obvious every minute would never matter but, for Castleford these next few weeks certainly do. It should be fascinating.