Classy Castleford have maiden Grand Final success in their sights
Tigers can shake off Hardaker absence and halt Rhinos' surge
Castleford v Leeds
Sky Sports Arena, 6pm Saturday
The sold-out signs are up at Old Trafford for the 20th Betfred Super League Grand Final and the packed house could see history made as Castleford bid to be crowned champions for the first time in their 91- year existence.
If the Tigers triumph, they will become the first club to crack the cartel of Leeds, Wigan, St Helens and Bradford, who between them have won every title since rugby league became a summer sport in 1996.
Cas would land a huge gamble having been backed from 25-1 at the end of last season all the way down to odds-on for the Old Trafford showpiece.
If there is any sporting justice, Castleford and their backers will be celebrating and the bookmakers will be paying out.
The Tigers dominated Super League XXII from the outset, finishing ten points clear of Leeds after the Super 8s.
An early marker was laid down in a 66-10 March mauling of the Rhinos at The Jungle and three more comfortable wins over Leeds have followed.
The seasonal aggregate score is 156-64 in Castleford’s favour. Over the four games, the Rhinos have led for a total of just 13 minutes and Cas have been in front for 243.
Until two days ago, the runaway table-toppers looked solid favourites but then the Tigers’ former Leeds full-back Zak Hardaker was suddenly axed from their squad due to what Cas described as “a breach of club discipline”.
Hardaker has missed three league games this year. Cas won two narrowly and lost the other heavily to Hull, although on all three occasions, other star names were also missing.
Bookmakers reacted by easing the Tigers to 4-6 from 1-2 while the Rhinos were trimmed to 13-8 to win a record-breaking eighth Grand Final.
Hardaker was in the Leeds team who won at Old Trafford in 2015 and ten survivors will line up for Leeds this time, including captain Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, who will both be playing their final game for the club.
The Rhinos' big-game experience is their strongest suit. Since 2010, they have contested six Grand Finals and five Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Finals.
In that period, Cas can muster just one Wembley appearance - they lost 23-10 to Leeds in 2014.
That day, Leeds stuck to the most dour but effective gameplan imaginable, which is a worry for anyone planning to back over 36 points.
That bet would have been a winner six times in the last ten Old Trafford finals but the weather could be a factor this time.
The forecast is for afternoon rain easing off during the match.
That won’t suit Castleford’s free-flowing style and the history books don’t provide much comfort either.
Only Wigan (in the inaugural final in 1998) and St Helens have won the Super League showpiece at their first attempt.
Leeds, Bradford, Hull and Warrington all lost on their first visit to the Theatre of Dreams.
And Cas coach Powell was correct to point out that the tag of favourites means very little on these occasions.
The last six Grand Final favourites have all lost and five of the Rhinos’ seven triumphs have come as underdogs.
However, the bottom line is Castleford are a better team than Leeds. The Hardaker affair and the weather are casting a cloud for punters.
The stats say the gulf between the teams is around two converted tries but in the circumstances, backing the favourites to get home by between six and ten at 11-2 could be the way to go.
Referee James Child awards an average of 17 penalties a game, which is above the norm, and it is 6-1 against your nominated team opening the scoring with a penalty goal. That is worth chancing.
After the nail-biting drama of the semi-finals, an 80-minute draw is a runner at 22-1 but despite the disruption, Cas may still have the class to stop the Rhinos' charge.
Castleford to win by six to ten points
2pts 11-2 Betfred
Cas penalty first scoring play
1pt 13-2 Betfair, Paddy Power
Leeds penalty first scoring play
1pt 6-1 general
Castleford to win Grand Final
2pts each-way 12-1 February 9
Eden is an able deputy
Zak Hardaker isn’t the first-high profile international full-back to miss a Grand Final.
Last year, victorious Wigan went into battle against Warrington without injured Sam Tomkins and in 2008 a back problem ruled out Leeds number one Brent Webb.
Stand-in Lee Smith produced a brilliant man-of-the-match display as the Rhinos defeated St Helens and Greg Eden’s switch from the left wing could put him at the forefront of the race for the Harry Sunderland Trophy at a tasty 16-1.
Cas coach Daryl Powell has a number of options to fill in on the left flank.
That’s the most likely position on the pitch to score a try so punters should take a close look once the teams are announced.
It could certainly be worth backing Leeds hooker Matt Parcell to touch down at 3-1.
The Australian is the Rhinos' top tryscorer with 17 and has notched in 13 of his 29 appearances.
Parcell will attract interest at 10-1 in the man-of-the-match betting as will Leeds legends Rob Burrow (20-1) and Danny McGuire (8-1) who have both won the award before, but second-row Stevie Ward looks a better bet at 25-1.
Ward, who missed the 2015 final through injury, has made a miraculous recovery from a dislocated shoulder he suffered just a week ago. A strong showing in a Leeds win would be quite a story.
Only Wigan prop Ben Flower in 2014 has been sent off in a Grand Final and no one has ever been sin-binned but arbiter James Child is not afraid to produce a card.
He has issued three reds and 20 yellows in the Betfred Super League this season. Mr Child is 10-1 to brandish the expulsion tool and 5-2 to dismiss a player for ten minutes.
G Eden man of the match
1pt 16-1 Coral, Ladbrokes
S Ward man of the match
1pt 25-1 general
M Parcell to score a try
1pt 3-1 BoyleSports
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