Luke Gale’s drop-goal right on half-time proved to be the winning score as Castleford Tigers withstood a Leeds Rhinos fight back by the skin of their teeth to win 25-24 in a real thriller in front of a record crowd at Elland Road.
The 23,246 attendance did not quite beat the all-time Super League record, but it was the biggest in Leeds’ history and the fans who came to the famous football ground saw the match of the season so far.
The Tigers looked back to their 2017 best as they raced into a 24-0 lead in the first 23 minutes, but the Rhinos hit back strongly and were only denied victory when Kallum Watkins could not convert Ryan Hall’s 78th minute try.
Conditions were much better than in the Grand Final and anything Cas had previously come across this season and it showed as they looked back to their old selves right from their first set, with some exciting attacking rugby.
They were ahead from the fifth minute as Jamie Ellis did well to come up with a clean pick up after Luke Gale had put in a nice little grubber kick in behind the Rhinos defence and dived over for the opening try, which was converted by Gale.
Two more tries followed before 12 minutes were played with the Tigers opening an incredible 18-0 lead.
Their second try was a classic after Ellis’s kick to the right was taken by Jake Webster and the ball kept alive in a thrilling move all the way across to the left wing where Greg Minikin - playing at centre - sent James Clare over.
Gale added the touchline conversion and within two minutes was adding his third goal after Ellis’s high kick was taken by Alex Foster under pressure and the former Leeds man forced his way over.
In between Minikin had made a lightning break and the Tigers were on fire at this stage as they finally got on a good pitch and were showing their delight.
Leeds did finally settle to look dangerous themselves and came close when Mikolaj Oledzki got on the end of Richie Myler’s grubber kick only to knock-on right on the backline.
However, within a minute Cas went straight down the other end and Junior Moors burst onto Paul McShane’s pass close to the line to score the Tigers’ fourth try. Gale’s goal made it 24-0, the points coming at more than one a minute.
To the Rhinos’ credit, though, they swiftly hit back as Kallum Watkins did well to force his way over the line after collecting Myler’s kick.
A second Leeds try followed six minutes later when the Cas defence briefly hesitated, allowing Ash Handley to catch Myler’s crossfield kick and dive over. Watkins added the goal to cut the deficit to 14 points.
Cas forced some pressure of their own late in the half with McShane’s grubber forcing a drop-out and further pressure ending when Gale was tackled just short of the line on a sixth tackle play.
Right on the hooter Gale landed a long range drop-goal and it was 25-10 to the Tigers at the break.
Leeds knew they needed to score first after the break and looked unlucky when Handley got to a Joel Moon kick first and knocked it back to the following up Moon who raced over only for a forward pass to be given.
A flashpoint following a high tackle by Brad Singleton led to the Rhinos player being sin-binned, but instead of hitting Leeds’ chances they produced a huge effort to get back in the game.
Cas went close when Clare was bundled into touch, but the play suddenly opened right up and the home team forced a drop-out after Jack Walker made a great break, Ryan Hall took it on and his kick through was only just defended.
Leeds made further light of their man down as they scored their third try with Handley brushing off a weak tackle to race through to score.
Back came the Tigers, but instead of touching the ball down on a typical left edge move Ben Roberts found himself bundled into touch.
After returning Singleton was held up over the line and Cas lost Webster to injury, meaning they were now without both their first choice centres.
They were hanging on a bit and even more so when Watkins raced over for his second try. He could not add the conversion from wide out and they remained five points behind.
Two great chances to clinch the game were spurned by the Tigers as Minikin was held up over the line on another left edge move and substitute Jake Trueman also raced for the line only to have his effort ruled out by the video referee for an obstruction.
The Rhinos threw everything into what looked like one last attack and were rewarded when Hall was awarded a try in the corner. It looked like he may have touched the sideline as he attempted to get the ball down and referee on the pitch Chris Kendall gave no try, but video ref Ben Thaler went the other way.
However, Watkins could not kick the touchline conversion and the Tigers were able to breathe a sigh of relief and see out the remaining 90 seconds for a memorable, if tight, win.
Scorers - Leeds: Tries Watkins 2, Handley 2 Hall; goals Watkins 2. Castleford: Tries: Ellis, Clare, Foster, Moors; goals Gale 4; drop-goal: Gale.
Leeds Rhinos: Golding; Briscoe, Watkins, Handley, Hall; Moon, Myler; Mullally, Parcell, Singleton, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Delaney. Subs: Walker, Smith, Oledzki, Walters.
Castleford Tigers: Roberts; Hitchcox, Webster, Minikin, Clare; Ellis, Gale; Massey, McShane, Millington, McMeeken, Foster, Milner. Subs: Cook, Moors, Green, Trueman.
Referee: Chris Kendall.