Daryl Powell had said in the buildup to this game that Castleford would inevitably suffer a blip this season but he surely cannot have expected it to come so soon. Given how outstanding the Tigers have been in the opening month of the season, this was uncharacteristic from a side who have swept all before them thus far.
Credit must go to Salford, who continue to show plenty of signs under Ian Watson that they have all the credentials to avoid the qualifiers this season. Despite the brilliance they have displayed in their opening four games, Castleford’s attack simply fell apart in the driving Manchester rain with a performance that, on recent standards at least, was nigh on inexplicable.
They had clung on to a lead for well over an hour before a penalty and subsequent drop goal from Gareth O’Brien sent the Tigers into panic mode – and the last 60 seconds was a microcosm of their afternoon. Castleford fought their way downfield but, instead of going for a drop goal to level the game, the Tigers chanced their arm: and it backfired.
As Powell rightly alluded to post-match, Castleford were almost unrecognisable at times. “People have been talking in the week about us going all season unbeaten – we’ve put that to bed pretty quickly,” he joked. “There’s some lessons to learn from this; it’s our real first tight assignment and we’ve come up short. I thought we were unrecognisable.”
In many ways, it had to be O’Brien who proved to be the difference. He has previous in that regard, scoring the drop goal which kept Salford in the Super League last year in the Million Pound Game. Nothing will top the significance of that moment, of course, but this was another indicator that Salford are moving in the right direction under Watson.
Powell is rightly lauded as one of the finest British coaches in the game, but the job Watson is doing at Salford should not be overlooked. Consistency is their biggest issue this season but with this admirable never-say-die attitude, the Red Devils have all the hallmarks of a top-eight side without question.
“We’ve been good in parts but we’ve not been seeing these kinds of games out,” Watson said. “It’s a statement like we’ve been making throughout this year. We’re getting to the places we want to be as a club now.”
It looked like it would be business as usual for Castleford after five minutes when Luke Gale touched down his own kick, but Salford’s response was far sturdier than the four sides who have succumbed to Castleford so far this season, as one of two tries for the forward, Ben Murdoch-Masila, reduced the gap to two at half-time.
Yet when Castleford opened up an eight‑point lead courtesy of the Super League’s top try-scorer, Greg Minikin, shortly after the restart it looked to be a telling advantage given the horrendous conditions. But Zak Hardaker’s misjudgment of a Michael Dobson kick led to the Red Devils fighting their way back into the contest again courtesy of Murdoch‑Masila’s second – and by then, points were at a real premium.
Enter O’Brien. His penalty made it 12-12 before, with four minutes remaining, he nervelessly kicked a drop goal to put Salford ahead. At that stage Castleford had been behind for only 13 minutes all season long, and that chaotic ending put paid to any chances of escaping without defeat here.
Champion sides are judged on many things in rugby league; how Castleford respond from this setback at home against Catalans next Sunday will perhaps give us the firmest indicator yet about their title credentials this season.
Salford O’Brien; Johnson, Welham, Sa’u, Carney; Lui, Dobson; Walne, Tomkins, Mossop, Murdoch-Masila, Griffin, Flanagan. Interchange Brining, Krasniqi, Kopczak, Carney.
Tries Murdoch-Masila 2. Goals O’Brien 2. Drop goal O’Brien.
Castleford Hardaker; Minikin, Webster, Shenton, Eden; Roberts, Gale; Lynch, McShane, Massey, Sene-Lefao, McMeeken, Milner. Interchange Millington, Moors, Cook, Springer.
Tries Gale, Minikin. Goals Gale 2.
Referee P Bentham. Attendance 5,221.