Ahead of the biggest event of the Rugby Super League calendar, Jamie McEvoy prepares us for what’s in store at Old Trafford on Saturday
It’s been another thrilling season in the Betfred Super League. Castleford Tigers have claimed their first ever League Leader’s Shield, running away at the top of the table, whilst regular heavy-hitters Wigan Warriors failed to qualify for the play-offs for the first time since 2006.
The Super 8s format — still fresh from being introduced in 2015 — proved to be the downfall of Salford Red Devils.
Meanwhile, Warrington Wolves suffered a miserable season as they surprisingly failed to finish in the top 8, instead competing in (and winning) the Super 8s Qualifiers table.
It has all led up to this moment; Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos will clash at Old Trafford on Saturday evening. Since the League’s birth, the stadium has hosted both fantastic and shocking moments, from Sean Long’s winning drop-kick for St Helens in 2002, to Ben Flower’s mindless punch of a floored Lance Hohaia in the opening minutes of the 2014 final.
It is poetic that Castleford have made fought their way to the final. They were by far the superior team this season, and after a mixed decade in the top flight since their promotion in 2007, they finally have their shot in the limelight.
A nerve-wracking and well-earned semi-final victory against St Helens could not have been more deserved for the Tigers. Castleford spent 70 minutes of the game in front, before a late flurry of tries from Saints appeared to have won the game for the away side. However, Luke Gale converted a penalty kick to send the game into golden-point extra time, before playing hero again with the decisive drop goal.
Gale and fullback Zak Hardaker — both Man of Steel nominees — have been the league leaders’ stand out players, and they will undoubtedly be integral to any hopes of being crowned Super League champions this weekend.
Facing Castleford will be league table runners-up Leeds Rhinos, who managed to hold off Hull FC at Headingly Stadium in an equally thrilling encounter. Leeds squandered a 12 point lead after tries from the Black and Whites either side of half-time from Gareth Ellis, Mahe Fonua and Sika Manu.
Yet they powered on to reclaim the lead and book their place at Old Trafford. Even if they do not emerge victorious on Saturday, The Rhinos have reached their tenth Grand Final, equalling Saints’ record number of appearances. The disappointment of last year’s ninth-place finish is most definitely behind them.
This weekend’s showdown will mark a farewell to Leeds veterans Rob Burrow and Danny Maguire, who will surely be looking for a fairy-tale ending to their careers with The Rhinos.
It will be an extremely closely-contested final between the two sides, yet Castleford will be confident they can overcome a Rhinos team that they have already seen off four times this year, including an early season demolition when they battered the West Yorkshire side 66-10 at The Jungle.
The 2017 Super League Grand Final takes place at Old Trafford, Saturday 7th October, at 6 pm, and is live on Sky Sports Main Event and Arena.