Leeds Rhinos and Castleford Tigers will go head-to-head for the third time in 2017 when they meet at Headingley Carnegie on Friday night. So far, the Tigers have been much the better of the two and have comfortably taken the spoils in each of the two meetings, most recently the 29-18 win at Magic Weekend. But, can Leeds finally get one over on their rivals this time around?
It is not just this year that the Rhinos have struggled against Daryl Powell’s side. In fact, their losing run now stretches back just over two years and to when Castleford travelled to Headingley and won 24-31 in the 2015 regular rounds. The Tigers have won the following 5 matches between the two since then, with an ‘aggregate score’ of 225-100 in their favour further showing their current dominance in this fixture.
As well as having the upper hand over the last 6 games, the Tigers also have it in regards to league positions too. Castleford head into this game 6-points clear of the Rhinos who sit third. Cas are also in more impressive form having won their last 7 league games, whereas Leeds have been much more inconsistent over the same amount of games, winning 4 and losing 3.
All of that would seem to point towards another Tigers win, however, it is not the league form that will have given Leeds and their fans a glimmer of hope for Friday, it is the display that Castleford gave on Sunday as they crashed out of the Challenge Cup after losing to Hull FC. In the Quarter-Final, Cas were not the entertaining, unstoppable force that we have come to know this year, with the well-drilled attacking moves that have brought them so much success not quite working out and the defence, which is the best of all top-flight teams by a distance, was uncharacteristically soft.
That game could prove to be useful for Leeds, who now have a blueprint on how to beat this red-hot Castleford outfit, and they could try to emulate the Hull FC performance as they try to stop Castleford extending their winning sequence over Leeds. And, although this is a league game, meaning the style of the game will be slightly different to how it was in the Cup on Sunday, it could be worth Leeds attempting to execute a game-plan that has worked against this opposition, as the results show that what the Rhinos have tried against the Tigers in the past two years has been ineffectual.
There are a couple of other factors that may give Leeds an extra boost, too. The first of those is home advantage. This may sound simple, but Leeds boast a very strong home record, losing just once at home this season and twice since last July. Castleford haven’t visited Headingley since last May when Leeds were in the middle of their disastrous 2016, so will face a much tougher test this time. But, then again, they haven’t lost at Headingley since 2013 so have reason to be full of confidence that they can come out on top once more.
The other factor is Leeds’ improved defence. In the four games that the Rhinos have played in all competitions since keeping Warrington to nil on 26th May, they have conceded 58 points (just 6 more than Cas) at an average of 14.5 points per game, only conceded 20+ points once and kept Featherstone scoreless too, the second team they have done that to in under a month. If we compare that to the four games prior to Warrington, when McDermott’s men conceded 94 points at an average of 23.5 points per game, conceded 20+ in two of the games and 30+ in one of them, then we can see that they have considerably hardened up in defence. If the Rhinos can continue to show this improved defensive resolve on Friday, it will give them a much higher chance of getting the better of what has been a devastating Castleford attack for large parts of the season, as the Rhinos know all too well.
Of course, beating the stand-out side in the league won’t be as simple as that. The likelihood of the Tigers being off-colour two weeks in a row is low considering how naturally their style of play appears to come to them and the quality within the squad. Daryl Powell will also be demanding a response after the Cup disappointment, and will look at an opportunity to strengthen their chances of clinching a different piece of silverware as the perfect way to move on from that.
Friday night’s game is set up to be another huge contest between these two West Yorkshire rivals, but whether or not Leeds will have enough to down the Tigers for the first time since the 2015 Easter Weekend remains to be seen.