Castleford Tigers showed once more last night that they have every chance of returning to Old Trafford for a second successive year and maybe going a step further this time around.
They dominated Huddersfield Giants in the second period, keeping their rivals pointless, to secure a fourth successive win with a semi-final looming in just three weeks.
Daryl Powell’s side remain third, but are still in the hunt for second spot; they are just one point behind rivals Wigan Warriors, who host fourth-placed Warrington Wolves this evening.
Prop Junior Moors scored two tries having been switched to second-row, proving too powerful too often for the Huddersfield defence. However, it was his front-row colleague Liam Watts who was arguably the pick of the bunch. He led superbly up front and the towering forward has certainly strengthened his bid for an England call-up since joining from Hull FC in March.
To complete the front-row master class Paul McShane gave another polished display at hooker and also comfortably took over goalkicking duties from the absent Luke Gale
It was always possible that once Huddersfield’s stunning run recently came to an end – 11 wins from 12 – and their top-four hopes were finally ended that they might lose momentum.
This, indeed, was a third successive loss, but the scoreline is misleading; they were competitive for the majority of this West Yorkshire derby and still only trailed 22-12 in the final quarter.
Nevertheless, conceding four tries in the last 14 minutes will hurt Simon Woolford who has overseen an impressive change in defensive attitude since taking charge in May.
Man of Steel Gale failed to shake off a knock suffered the previous week, but young half-back Jake Trueman continues to bely his tender 19 years.
Joe Wardle was also absent, suffering a calf injury in Castleford’s final pracice session,meaning he missed out on the chance to face his younger brother Jake.
Huddersfield started brightly, scoring inside just the second minute when Greg Eden spilled a steepling Danny Brough kick to allow them an early chance.
Adam O’Brien burrowed over from close range, referee Ben Thaler awarding a try on the field before seeking confirmation from video official Phil Bentham. Footage was inconclusive so the score was given.
Brough converted, but the hosts responded almost immediately, Eden atoning for his previous error by finishing off a crisp handling move.
Paul McShane, kicking goals in Gale’s absence, could not convert and his side had to scramble to deny Giants again when teenage centre Wardle fended Jake Webster to make a scorching break. James Clare did just enough to force winger Innes Senior to step on the whitewash as the youngster tried to finish off.
Webster was then held up at the other end before a great tackle from Jake Mamo denied Eden a second. Instead, Lee Gaskell benefitted as the Huddersfield stand-off burst through Moors’s attempted tackle to score from 20m out, leaving Brough a simple conversion.
Castleford remained threatening, however, and on one of the few instances in which they attacked down their right side during the first half they secured their second try.
Marauding Mike McMeeken held Giants defenders at arm’s length just long enough to provide the offload for an onrushing Webster, McShane improving.
After Giants full-back Jordan Rankin kicked out on the full, Castleford enjoyed seven successive sets attacking their line but, remarkably, the visitors looked set to somehow hold out.
However, Aucklander Moors finally muscled over and McShane added the extras for a 16-12 interval lead.
Huddersfield had their chances at the start of the second period, not least when Senior had a flying dive for the corner only to be nudged out once more by a desperate Clare.
Jordan Turner was also held up over the goalline, too, but, soon after the ex-Hull FC centre had to be helped off the field with a suspected medial ligament injury.
Crucially, it was Powell’s side who scored first in that second half to extend their advantage. They never looked back.
Michael Shenton, the captain who had another fine game at centre, got them in position with a wonderful kick return.
Clare then finished off strongly in the corner in the 58th minute although it was the speed of Peter Mata’utia’s fired cut-out pass that did the damage allied to a slight defensive misread from the youngster Senior.
McShane curled over the conversion before McMeeken, Moors, Mata’utia and – with his first of the season – Grant Millington all crossed, Jesse-Sene_Lefao and Greg Minikin both making successful returns from injury.
Castleford Tigers: Mata’utia; Clare, Webster, Shenton, Eden; Roberts, Trueman; Watts, McShane, Millington, Moors, McMeeken, Massey. Substitutes: Minikin, Milner, Sene-Lefao, Clark.
Huddersfield Giants: Rankin; Mamo, Turner, Wardle, I Senior; Gaskell, Brough, Lawrence, O’Brien, Matagi, Ta’ai, Roberts, Hinchcliffe. Substitutes: Leeming, Clough, Smith, English.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield)