Why Castleford should be praised and not lambasted after semi-final defeat

Photo courtesy of Richard Long

It will be a shame if all Castleford end up with out of the glorious Daryl Powell era is one League Leaders’ Shield.

They were well beaten by Wigan on Friday night and critics were quick in jumping on their failure, comparing it to their similarly one-sided defeat in last year’s Grand Final to Leeds.

But let’s be fair here. Castleford, that’s little old Castleford with its 40,000 population, have only failed to win the Super League title in the past two seasons because they’ve lost to Wigan and Leeds, who have won 12 of the last 22 titles between them and 32 in the history of the sport.

Playing a champagne brand of rugby league out of a bouncing, albeit dilapidated stadium, Castleford have turned themselves in to the team everybody wants theirs to be, the shining light in what has been a difficult couple of years for the sport on and off the pitch.

A tank of a pack, guided round by the marauding, masterful Paul McShane, creating space for the halves to propel the ball wide in a manner that enables their exciting outside backs to score try after try; this team and this era will no doubt be remembered fondly by Castleford fans, and it’s far from over yet.

Don’t forget this is a club that was relegated twice from Super League in 2004 and 2006, as well as finishing bottom of the table in 2008.

They finished level on points with bottom-placed Widnes in 2012 and only started to move up the table in 2013 after Powell was brought in to replace the departing Ian Millward, who had managed one win in 18.

In Powell’s first full season they finished 4th, when incredibly they could have snatched the League Leaders’ Shield had they beaten Catalans in the final round of the season, and have gone on to establish themselves as a solid top half club.

They were 5th in 2015, 6th in 2016 and an excellent 1st last season.

There was understandably disappointment at both performances on the big stage, but Castleford were facing seasoned teams with unrivalled experience on these stages.

They had the Zak Hardaker drama ahead of last season’s Grand Final and they missed Jake Trueman and Junior Moors desperately on Friday night, with Luke Gale’s conservative first half kicking for territory never really enabling them to get on the front foot offensively.

Their two big chances were when McShane knocked on over the line and when Jake Wardle threw a forward pass to his winger in what was the only period of play that Wigan’s defence ever looked like buckling.

They’ll have to take those near misses in to the off-season, and it will be interesting to see what Powell decides he needs to improve his squad, and push them another couple of steps forward.

But perhaps more importantly, while they are riding a crest of a wave, they need to do what they can to improve things off the pitch.

The aforementioned stadium desperately needs a replacement, despite the beauty and tradition of the old place, The Jungle just isn’t suitable for fulfilling the commercial needs of modern day sport, especially given the crossroads rugby league and Super League in particular finds itself at.

Had standards been enforced during the licensing period, there’s every chance this Castleford team would never have been built, as they would have been in the Championship.

There will be Castleford fans who remember being thumped 40-12 by Widnes on a Thursday night in 2012 when they were barely tens in numbers, and there couldn’t be more contract to some of the fantastic, sometimes five-figure crowds, that have been seen at The Jungle over the past couple of years.

It is now that these times need to be captured, and now that the work needs to be done to ensure they can be maintained.

I’m sure those behind the scenes are doing everything that they can to bring it all to fruition. It will get even tougher for Castleford to maintain their current level, let alone improve it, in the mean time.

But the fact that they are there, and that they have done it with a British coach, developing unfashionable players, some of whom had been discarded by clubs on numerous occasions, gives hope to any club from any town, that they can have their day again.

They have brought through their own youth players in to the first team, in some cases selling them on to ensure that the club can compete financially, and they have come out of the other side of that tunnel, being able to pay transfer fees themselves in recent years to attract players in what is an increasingly rigid and diminishing player pool.

Only four teams have won the Super League title. Warrington will have their fourth tilt at it next weekend against Wigan.

Castleford may well get their chance again.