THERE are signs Castleford Tigers could be gearing up to go one better than last year’s Grand Final disappointment.
The 2017 Super League leaders climbed to third in the Super 8s table with a comprehensive 36-4 conquering of Challenge Cup final winners Catalans Dragons.
That opened an eight-point gap over fifth-placed Huddersfield Giants and they are now virtually assured of a place in next month’s semi-finals.
Castleford weren’t at their best with ball in hand against Catalans, but their defence, having let them down at times this year, was strong and they maintained concentration in the second half, which is another Achilles heel.
Importantly, Man of Steel Luke Gale and fellow play-maker Ben Roberts both returned from injuries which had kept them on the sidelines since April. Gale was particularly impressive, handling in the build-up to four of Castleford’s six tries and missing with only one of his seven kicks at goal.
“With the ball we were a bit untidy, we made a few too many errors,” said Castleford’s coach Daryl Powell.
“There wasn’t a great flow to the game, it was too fragmented to enjoy it that much, but we needed to win the game and a massive positive for us was the way we defended.
“That is as good as we have defended this year. We were aggressive and we really got after them.
“I was just pleased to win. We have got fresh players coming back in who haven’t played for a while and combinations will have to be gradually built.”
Castleford have maintained an interest in the title race despite a host of injuries.
Of their current situation, Powell added: “It is a great win and it puts us in a fantastic position.
“It will be pretty tough to get us out of the four now and we’ve got four games left to build momentum.
“We are going to be one game away from a Grand Final which is awesome based on what’s happened to us this year.”
Castleford did the hard work in the first half as they built an 18-0 lead, counter-attacking superbly after long spells spent on their own line.
Gale was involved from the start and played a key role in the opening try after 14 minutes.
His excellent pass sent Peter Mata’utia dashing for the line and he turned the ball back inside to put Michael Shenton over.
Gale also created the second score, just before the half hour, with a fine pass to Greg Eden and then his half-back partner Jake Trueman got in the act for the third late in the half.
Trueman took Paul McShane’s offload from a standing start and some outstanding footwork carried him through the defence for a fine score.
Eden’s second try, on 42 minutes after Gale and Shenton had handled, put the game out of Catalans’ reach, but the visitors – including 12 of their Wembley 17 – avoided a whitewash soon afterwards when Josh Drinkwater set up a close-range score for Brayden Wiliame.
Catalans’ discipline often lets them down and they had two players sin-binned in the second half.
Julian Bousquet was yellow-carded for kicking out and moments after his return Wiliame went to the sin-bin after he delayed a tap restart.
Tigers didn’t take advantage of the first spell against 12 men, but benefited the second time with back-to-back tries in the closing stages. Eden completed his hat-trick from Shenton’s pass and Castleford scored a spectacular try in the next set.
Grant Millington’s huge charge from near his own line began the move and Mike McMeeken was in support.
It looked like Gale would finish the move off, but he didn’t have the legs and opted instead to put Oliver Holmes over.
Gale booted his fifth conversion and then completed the scoring with a penalty goal.
Of the return of two of his star men, Powell said: “It is great to have them both back.
“Competition for places is going to be pretty tough until the end of the season.”
Castleford Tigers: Mata’utia, Clare, Wardle, Shenton, Eden, Trueman, Gale, Watts, McShane, Millington, Holmes, McMeeken, Massey. Substitutes: Roberts, Moors, Milner, Clark.
Catalans Dragons: Mead, Duport, Langi, Wiliame, Tierney, Albert, Drinkwater, Belmas, Da Costa, Moa, Julien, Garcia, Bird. Substitutes: Casty, Bousquet, Goudemand, Edwards.
Referee: G Dolan (Widnes).