REGARDLESS of what any coach says, the principal aim the week before Wembley is to see all players come through their last match unscathed.
Daryl Powell achieved that as his Castleford Tigers side, with a raft of fringe members getting a chance, produced a spirited performance, if always inevitable result, at Warrington last night.
He rested seven of his likely squad to face Leeds Rhinos in next Saturday’s Challenge Cup final, their first since 1992, while another – Justin Carney – completed his two-game suspension.
However, trailing just 18-10 early in the second half, against a Warrington side always likely to be eager to impress after their semi-final loss against Leeds, it looked like Powell’s charges may come up with a victory that would have been stunning even by their meteoric 2014 standards.
Oli Holmes, impressive in the Castleford pack along with the excellent Nathan Massey, bustled his way over for a try in the 47th minute to offer belief.
Liam Finn converted but, unusually for the scrum-half, then fumbled when readying himself to kick downfield soon after and Rhys Evans profited with the first of his brace to ease any Warrington nerves.
Stefan Ratchford converted and did so again soon after when Finn gave away a soft penalty interfering on Ryan Atkins, Anthony England crashing over off Mickey Higham’s dummy-half work.
Castleford, who brought on youngsters Brad Day and Will Maher for their first-team debuts, predictably became ragged given the significant changes in their overall make-up.
Ratchford exposed gaps to add Warrington’s sixth try before Joel Monaghan, and Evans with his second, turned the screw, Ratchford finishing with four goals.
Castleford are replaced in fourth by their victors due to an inferior points difference and hopes of the League Leaders’ Shield are perhaps now gone.
But, of course, lifting the first Challenge Cup since 1986 has always been their priority even if the way Castleford started it was clear Wembley was far from their minds.
Swift, strong and slick with their use of the ball in the early sets, Powell’s side looked intent on only one thing – stretching their unbeaten run to eight games.
Twice they camped down in Warrington territory, Finn’s astute kicking creating regular repeat sets as they posed continual questions for Tony Smith’s side.
However, the hosts answered them every time. After successfully defending 18 consecutive tackles – Castleford prop Scott Wheeldon eventually had a score ruled out by the video referee for a knock forward – they went up the other end to open the scoring in the fifth minute.
Admittedly, there was a touch of fortune to it as Gareth O’Brien’s kick ahead bounced wickedly to elude young full-back Ben Reynolds and bounce into the grateful arms of Atkins. Likewise, after probing Castleford had spent four consecutive sets on their opponents’ line, they came away with nothing and were instantly punished.
This time Jordan Tansey’s poor pass finally went to ground and, soon after, Michael Monaghan nonchalantly dummied his way past Adam Milner to cruise into space and feed O’Brien.
When full-back Tansey – gaining a rare appearance – then haplessly messed up a kick, Warrington were gifted another chance which Chris Bridge duly capitalised on, sliding over from close range before adding his third conversion to make it 18-4 after 25 minutes.
Yet quickly Castleford forced a fourth drop out, Bridge going off injured in the process, and this time they reaped the dividends with a wondrous score.
Finn, who showed a willingness to run the ball more than usual, made the initial inroad before scrum-half Jamie Ellis fired out a long pass to James Clare.
The winger had no right to score given the number of defenders speeding across.
But he leapt acrobatically to squeeze in and touch down one-handed for a superb finish, securing his eighth try of season and maybe giving Powell a little something extra to think about.
Castleford crossed first in the second period via Holmes but Warrington eased home.
Warrington Wolves: Russell; J Monaghan, Atkins, Bridge, Evans; Ratchford, O’Brien; Hill, M Monaghan, Harrison, Waterhouse, Westwood, Grix. Substitutes: England, Wood, Laithwaite, Higham.
Castleford Tigers: Reynolds; Tansey, Channing, Gibson, Clare; Ellis, Finn; Lynch, Milner, Wheeldon, Mariano, Hauraki, Jewitt. Substitutes: Massey, Holmes, Day, Maher.
Referee: J Child (Dewsbury).