Former Rugby League World editor Alex Davis relives the pain of a night to forget at Old Trafford when Castleford Tigers saved their worst till last and blew the chance of Super League glory.
WHEN I was asked to write this segment, I thought of all the games I’d read about in recent editions. There’s been talk of trophies, memorable international victories and even doughnut-inspired thrillers. As a Castleford fan born in the mid-90s, it’s not like I have an abundance of choice when it comes to top-tier successes.
I’ve seen the Tigers relegated twice at the hands of our local rivals Wakefield, and promoted twice in style in finals against Whitehaven and Widnes. And while I have memories of all of these moments, I was only 11 when we achieved our latest promotion at Headingley against the Vikings so I can’t really pick that triumph for this piece.
Since then, Castleford have, by and large, been a pretty mediocre Super League side. I saw us lose in extra-time in the Challenge Cup semi-final against Leeds in 2011 to a Kevin Sinfield penalty (I’ve still not forgiven him despite his incredible fundraising exploits in recent years). Sinfield wasn’t finished, of course, helping the Rhinos beat us again in the final at Wembley in 2014.
But that game was at the very start of the era under Daryl Powell which brought so much relative success to my club in my lifetime. This most definitely culminated in our 2017 season. The Tigers finished top of the division for the first time in the club’s history by a full 10 points, only losing three Super League games on the way to the playoffs. That memorable season culminated in a home tie with St Helens with the winner progressing into the Grand Final.
If you were asking me in which game I had experienced the most joy in my time supporting the Tigers, it would most definitely be this one. The euphoria of sealing an Old Trafford trip with an extra-time Luke Gale field goal was quite the experience. But how could I pick that game as the “match of my years”? In the end, despite my elation at the time, it ended up meaning nothing.
So instead of profiling that game, I’ve decided that this piece should centre around Castleford’s crushing 24-6 defeat to the Rhinos in the Grand Final that followed as the “match of my tears”.
Despite seeing the Tigers in three major finals over the years, this one stands out in every possible way. In our Challenge Cup Finals against the Rhinos in 2014 and St Helens in 2021, I was pleased to be there and comfortable with our title as rank outsiders and ready for the inevitable defeat. That wasn’t the case in 2017. How could it have been? We’d absolutely dominated the Super League from day one, dishing out countless hammerings, beating our opponents four times through the season including an absolute pasting at the Jungle.
But things had already started to unravel even before gameday had dawned. In the week leading up to the big game, I was dragged kicking and screaming off cloud nine. Zak Hardaker, a former Rhinos favourite who had been in outstanding form all season at full-back, was set to be suspended by the club and dropped.
All this was happening to a club and team heading into the biggest game in their history with very little experience of any game on this scale against an opponent who were ready to field countless Grand Final winners who had all made the Theatre of Dreams their home from home.
It also gave head coach Powell a big headache. Who was going to replace Hardaker? If Greg Eden moved from his wing position it would mean you were taking the top try scorer off the left wing he’d made his own all season – 38 tries in Super League, almost double the number of any other player. In the end, Powell didn’t have much choice. Jy Hitchcox was called in to take the vacant wing spot with Joel Monagahan not favoured despite his previous Grand Final experience with Warrington.
Even given the tumultuous week which had proceeded the game, as the teams came out, I was beyond hopeful that we could make history on that day. We’d shown all season that if we performed, Leeds wouldn’t be able to cope. We still had Man of Steel Gale on the pitch in the halves, and a future winner of the top individual prize in Paul McShane was lining up at hooker.
The atmosphere before the game amongst the Cas fans was electric and something I will never forget. The belief was palpable when compared with the Wembley appearances I’d experienced. To be honest, my pre-match pride at seeing the Tigers walk out at Old Trafford was the closest this match came to literally being the “match of my tears” because once the game kicked off, it was clear that my wait for a victory in a top-tier final was going to go on.
Instead of tears, I experienced what can only be described as silent resignation as we were out enthused and outplayed all over the park by an incredibly experienced Rhinos side. Yes, it was only 7-0 at half-time but for anyone who was watching that game, it was clear that Castleford’s heads had come clean off before they’d even stepped on the pitch and that a turnaround was about as likely as the sun coming out on Grand Final day.
In the second half, Tom Briscoe added a second try to his first-half effort while a Danny McGuire brace piled on my misery along with his two field goals and Kallum Watkins’ three conversions. Alex Foster’s scrappy late consolation provided only an interesting quiz answer as the Tigers’ only Grand Final try scorer to date.
To this day, I’ve still not watched any kind of highlights of that game, even though I regularly visit the previous Super League rounds as I remember just how much fabulous rugby we played that year. I was in need of that more than ever this year with the Tigers’ efforts in 2023!
Only Powell and his players truly know exactly what went wrong on that day. All I hope is that it doesn’t prove to be our biggest opportunity to win the big one and one day I can see us win a trophy in a major final. It’s scary to think that I’m now older than my dad was when Castleford last won the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1986 and that was Cas’ third victory in his lifetime!
Having said all that, my dad and I have renewed our season tickets once again for next season as, like many others throughout the north of England, we hope that next year is the year that our trophy drought finally ends.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)