THE PRE-SEASON Grand Final rematch proved to be more of an ordeal than a trial.
A dominant opening few minutes set league leaders Castleford Tigers on course for a 16-4 win over Betfred Super League champions Leeds Rhinos, but as an indication of how either side will fare this year, it was meaningless.
Terrible conditions dictated proceedings and what might have been an interesting clash between last season’s two best teams was instead a throwback to the old winter rugby era, before 1996.
Snow before the game turned into driving rain and sleet by kick-off and it was bitterly cold throughout.
One of the lasting images from a dour afternoon will be Leeds winger Ryan Hall hugging himself in a desperate – and vain – attempt to get warm.
With steam rising when the players packed down and individuals becoming increasingly hard to identify in the mud, it was a surprise not to see either hooker sent-off for ‘foot up’ in a scrum.
In terms of gaining match fitness it was a useful exercise, but both teams made a host of errors and there was almost no open rugby.
The 3,656 frozen souls who braved the elements did their best to create an atmosphere, but by early in the second half it was obvious all everybody wanted was for the final hooter to sound.
The 43 players on show put in a huge effort and credit to Tigers’ groundsman Stuart Vause for producing a playable pitch, but most sympathy must go to the kitmen, who are likely to need an extra order of Vanish – particularly Leeds’ Glynn Bell, faced with the Herculean task of restoring the team’s shorts to their original white.
That’s a shame, because both coaches fielded their strongest-available line-ups, with 28 players backing-up from the title decider three months ago.
Tigers fielded 15 members of their Grand Final team in a 23-man squad, the only absentees being Greg Minikin – who is recovering from a shoulder operation – and Jy Hitchcox, not selected.
Leeds – who used 20 players – were without Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire from their Old Trafford team, plus Brett Ferres and Stevie Ward who are both recovering from off-season surgery.
Nathaniel Peteru, the New Zealand-born forward signed from Gold Coast Titans, was among the substitutes for Rhinos and was introduced early in the second half, though he must have wondered what he is doing here.
He got stuck in, had a couple of strong carries and was held up over the line, by Paul McShane and Greg Eden, midway through the half.
By that stage Eden was at full-back, having moved from the left-wing.
Ben Roberts, awarded squad No 1, started as Tigers’ last line of defence. He was involved in Cas’ opening try, but let one goal line drop out bounce past him and spilled another inside his own half. It was hard to blame him, in the circumstances.
McShane had a strong game for Cas and new signing James Green – a starting prop – did well early on, scoring the hosts’ second try.
Second-rowers Carl Ablett and Jamie Jones-Buchanan were Rhinos’ most effective players, though Brad Dwyer did went well off the bench and Anthony Mullally also made an impact.
Ablett blotted his copybook by being sin-binned for dissent in the second half.
Referee James Child – who was in charge of last year’s Grand Final – awarded 16 penalties, nine of them to Castleford.
After the opening 11 minutes, by which stage Tigers led 12-0, there wasn’t much between the teams, though Castleford were deserved winners.
They possibly looked a little more match-ready, having spent last week on a warm weather training camp in Lanzarote, though the freezing conditions must have been a shock to the system.
Both teams will expect to be sharper when they begin the real business, Rhinos at Warrington Wolves on February 1 and Castleford a day later away to St Helens, especially if it is a better night.
The most impressive aspect of Tigers’ performance was their kicking close to the line.
They forced eight drop-outs, to three earned by Rhinos and all of their tries came after Leeds had been trapped in-goal or had to force the ball dead.
Rhinos had the first set and the next 10 minutes went as follows: goal line drop out, drop out, try, penalty, drop-out, try, penalty – at the end of which Tigers were two scores in front.
Junior Moors, Luke Gale, Roberts and Michael Shenton worked the ball to Eden and he cut inside to cross after five minutes.
The second try came two minutes later when Green took the ball at first receiver close to the line and crashed over, Gale converting both.
At that stage Cas looked good, but then the conditions took over and Leeds had most of the first-half play as Tigers got bogged down at their end of the field.
When Leeds received a couple of penalties and managed to force two drop-outs later in the opening quarter, they also got on the scoreboard.
Mullally came off the bench and made an instant impact, being held up over the line twice, Roberts being on the spot both times, assisted first by Matt Cook and then McShane.
After the second occasion, Jones-Buchanan squeezed out an offload and Matt Parcell hacked on and followed through to touch down. Richie Myler – rather than last year’s first-choice marksman Kallum Watkins – took kicking duties and shanked his conversion attempt wide from almost in front of the posts.
Tigers’ defence looked in good shape and they withstood some heavy pressure before the interval, though knock-ons by Liam Sutcliffe and Jack Ormondroyd – close to the line – helped their cause.
After the break the situation was reversed; Leeds could not get away from their line due to a series of errors and penalties and Tigers dominated, without managing to ask many questions of a resolute defence
On 48 minutes Leeds conceded a drop-out and Mitch Garbutt was penalised for a ball steal.
Unlike Rhinos earlier on, Tigers made the pressure count as Gale slipped out an offload to send Oliver Holmes over at the corner. Jamie Ellis – who replaced Jake Trueman at half-time – could not convert and the try completed the scoring.
Other than when Peteru was held up, Leeds didn’t really threaten in the second half, though Tom Briscoe did get over the line on a kick and chase, but Child spotted an earlier knock-on.
Castleford Tigers: Roberts, Clare, Webster, Shenton, Eden, Trueman, Gale, Moors, McShane, Green, Wardle, McMeeken, Massey. Subs (all used): Milner, Sene-Lefao, Holmes, Foster, Cook, Lo, Ellis, Millington, Aston, Egodo.
Leeds Rhinos: Walker, Briscoe, Watkins, Sutcliffe, Hall, Moon, Myler, Garbutt, Parcell, Singleton, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Cuthbertson. Subs (all used): Delaney, Mullally, Dwyer, Golding, Keinhorst, Peteru, Ormondroyd. Referee: James Child (Batley).