Written off as title contenders, largely on the basis of a 46-6 defeat at St Helens in round one, they are eight points off top spot and already out of the Challenge Cup.
However, with all their top-four rivals still in the knockout competition, that could prove to be a blessing in disguise and Castleford, who have two games in hand on pace-setters Saints, are having what would be considered by most standards a strong campaign.
Maintaining their performance for the full 80 minutes had been their Achilles heel before the Magic Weekend derby against Leeds Rhinos two days ago, but an emphatic victory highlighted what they are capable of when they find some consistency.
It was their 10th win in 11 meetings with Rhinos, the exception being the 2017 Grand Final. That clearly still hurts, but there are signs Tigers have learned from that painful lesson. They ran out at Newcastle’s St James’ Park without ‘Man of Steel’ Luke Gale, who is on the long-term casualty list, and Ben Roberts, Greg Eden and James Clare were also unavailable, but Castleford made light of those absences by producing an all-round display which left their West Yorkshire neighbours brutally outclassed.
Tigers ran in three tries in each half and though Leeds salvaged a small measure of pride with two touchdowns in the final 23 minutes, Castleford’s defence was strong when it needed to be. Leeds did have a couple of opportunities in the opening period, but both Matt Parcell and Adam Cuthbertson, two of their better players on the day, were held up over the line.
In the second half, with Castleford 28-0 ahead and the result already decided, Parcell was kept out on successive plays by Paul McShane and then Michael Shenton, who combined with Jake Trueman. It is unlikely a Leeds try then would have affected the outcome, but Castleford’s desire to protect their line was an encouraging sign for coach Daryl Powell.
Trueman started at scrum-half, which allowed McShane to switch from the halves to his preferred role of hooker and Adam Milner to revert to loose-forward.
Castleford, who had lost their previous two games, looked a more balanced and potent side as a result.
Shenton is also doing a good job filling in Castleford’s problem position of full-back, but their outstanding player was second-row Alex Foster, who began his career at Leeds. After spells with Featherstone Rovers and London Broncos he was due to join Bradford Bulls for 2017, but was left without a club when the Odsal outfit went bust.
Offered a trial by Castleford, he has made remarkable progress and is now among the most promising young forwards in Super League. A strong runner with an eye for the line, he also clearly enjoys facing Rhinos and his touchdown on Saturday extended his try-scoring run against them to four games.
Jy Hitchcox had already got Castleford off the mark and Junior Moors powered over just before the interval. Jamie Ellis converted all three and added two penalties, including one from half-way after the hooter.
Leeds rallied from 24-0 down in the sides’ meeting in March, but Michael Shenton’s converted try at the start of the second half meant there was no prospect of a repeat. Teenage prop Mikolaj Oledzki marked his first Super League start with a well-taken try to avoid a whitewash, soon after Parcell crossed only for referee Chris Kendall and video assistant Ben Thaler to spot an obstruction.
Kallum Watkins converted, but Milner and Oliver Holmes went over after that, Ellis taking his goals tally to seven, before Ferres scored a last-gasp consolation following a one-two with Tom Briscoe.
That came after Mike McMeeken had been sin-binned for delaying a tap restart and could not disguise the fact Rhinos were outplayed in every department. Most tellingly, Castleford were too big and strong and lack of size in the pack is taking its toll on the defending champions, who look long-shot outsiders for a top-four finish.
Already without casualties Liam Sutcliffe, Brad Singleton, Carl Ablett and Mitch Garbutt, as well as the suspended Anthony Mullally, injuries to Jack Walker, Kallum Watkins and Nathaniel Peteru added to their woes. Parcell was also hurt, but had to go back on.
Castleford were on top from the start and Leeds never got into the game, making too many errors early on.
Their defence could not cope with Tigers’ power and creativity was lacking when they did get attacking opportunities. It was Leeds’ sixth successive Magic Weekend loss and their most embarrassing to date.
Castleford Tigers: Shenton, Minikin, Webster, Foster, Hitchcox, Ellis, Trueman, Watts, McShane, Sene-Lefao, Wardle, McMeeken, Milner. Substitutes: Moors, Millington, Holmes, Massey.
Leeds Rhinos: Walker, Briscoe, Watkins, Handley, Hall, Moon, Myler, Oledzki, Parcell, Peteru, Jones-Buchanan, Ward, Delaney. Substitutes: Cuthbertson, Dwyer, Ferres, Smith.
Referee: C Kendall (Huddersfield).