Castleford’s 23-4 success at Salford Red Devils opened up a 10-point gap over second-place Leeds Rhinos on the Betfred Super8s table, with five games remaining.
Tigers have a points difference advantage of 334 over Leeds and realistically pole position is theirs.
Last night’s victory means Castleford can not finish any lower than second, guaranteeing a home semi-final, which puts them in a very strong position to secure a first appearance at Old Trafford in two months’ time.
Castleford, without centre and captain Michael Shenton due to a back injury, did not have it all their own way against a Salford side who have now lost six successive games in all competitions.
They led 12-0 at the interval, but Salford scored soon afterwards and applied huge pressure before two tries in five minutes ensured it would be Tigers’ night.
The visitors struggled to cope with the wet conditions in the third quarter, but defended strongly and their ability to fashion a try out of nothing stunned Salford.
Full-back Zak Hardaker is poised to put his hands on the League Leaders’ Shield for the second time in three seasons, with two different clubs.
His move from Leeds Rhinos, where he was a treble winner in 2015, has been a major factor in Castleford’s transformation from a team capable of upsetting the top teams to one closing in on the big prize.
Hardaker is arguably playing better now than when he was Man of Steel two years ago and his brace of tries – both converted by Luke Gale – were the difference between the teams in the first half.
His opener came after just seven minutes, courtesy of an outstanding run out of dummy-half by Paul McShane, who was deemed surplus to requirements at Leeds four years ago.
Hardaker struck again 14 minutes before the interval, splicing through this time off some excellent play by winger Jy Hitchcox.
Salford’s Ryan Lannon had a try disallowed by referee Chris Kendall, for obstruction, moments before Hardaker’s opener.
The man in the middle was overruled by his video assistant Ben Thaler twice in quick succession.
Initially he thought Grant Millington had scored for Tigers after stealing the ball from Jake Bibby, but Mike McMeeken had also been involved in the tackle.
Then Manu Vatuvei, the giant Test winger signed recently from New Zealand Warriors, crossed for Salford and Kendall indicated a try, but Thaler spotted an obstruction.
Vatuvei did get on the scoresheet just three minutes into the second half, when he touched down a low kick by Todd Carney just before the ball rolled dead. There was no conversion, but Salford went close to narrowing the gap on four occasions during a spell of fierce pressure.
Kriss Brining, Craig Kopczak and Lannon were all held up over the line and Lannon crossed, but Carney’s pass was forward.
After 19 minutes pinned near their own line, a penalty lifted the pressure and, characteristically, Tigers took advantage, the excellent McShane dummying over brilliantly from acting half for a converted try which made it 18-4. That was the decisive moment and Castleford made the points safe six minutes later, after a searing break by Hardaker. Gale, in support, was tackled, but managed to return the ball to the No 1 and his long pass sent Hitchcox over at the corner. Gale added a drop goal five minutes from time.
Salford Red Devils: Evalds, Johnson, Bibby, Jones, Vatuvei, Lui, Carney, A Walne, Tomkins, Hauraki, Murdoch-Masila, Lannon, Kopczak. Substitutes: Griffin, Brining, Krasniqi, Murray.
Castleford Tigers: Hardaker, Monaghan, Webster, Minikin, Hitchcox, Roberts, Gale, Millington, McShane, Sene-Lefao, O Holmes, McMeeken, Massey. Substitutes: Milner, Springer, Cook, Foster.
Referee: Chris Kendall (Huddersfield).