Castleford Tigers went four points clear at the top of the Betfred Super League after a heroic second half display carried them to a memorable 16-12 victory over St Helens.
This was never going to be a re-run of the cup mauling of the Saints, especially with so many first teamers missing, but the stand-ins did the club proud as they held Saints scoreless in the second half to come from eight points behind at the break to collect a precious two points.
After a difficult first 40 minutes when they understandably in the circumstances struggled to produce their usual attacking fluency Cas dug it out to underline the fantastic spirit running through the club right now.
A poor first half saw a marked dip in quality from all the previous Cas home games this year and they trailed 12-4 at half-time.
On paper it was still a relatively decent Tigers team despite the absence of five players through injury and as many again through choice as head coach Daryl Powell chose to rest some star names.
Saints were noticeably more committed than in their recent Challenge Cup hammering and showed their intent in the second minute with a strong break and offload by Alex Walmsley that set Adam Swift racing for the line only to be well tackled.
Castleford’s first attack saw Tom Holmes’ high kick allowed to bounce and it was collected by Greg Eden, but he was tackled 20 metres out.
Saints came close in the sixth minute as Matty Smith’s kick down the line caught the home defence out and Ryan Morgan got to the ball only to spill it over the line under pressure from Joel Monaghan.
The Tigers’ efforts were hindered by several handling errors, the first of which denied them five metres out when Jake Webster lost the ball close to the line.
St Helens did open the scoring on 13 minutes when Matty Smith’s pass went behind his team-mates, but Mark Percival picked up, seemed to run behind his own player and was allowed to carry on to go over virtually unopposed for a controversial try that was converted from the touchline by Tommy Makinson.
Ben Roberts lost the ball a metre out to end a dangerous Cas attack and several more dropped balls let the visitors off the hook.
The Tigers did get their first points on the board, however, when after three penalties near the Saints line they moved the ball right where Kieran Gill was able to go over for a try on his senior debut.
Paul McShane, kicking in the absence of Luke Gale, was unable to convert and from the restart set Cas then handed possession over deep in their own half after Holmes dropped Junior Moors’ pass as they looked to spread the ball.
From the resulting visitors attack they scored their second try, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook charging over from close range. Makinson’s goal made it 12-4 at the break.
Cas did have one last attack in the half, but it ended when Webster’s attempted flick pass went over Gill’s head and into touch five metres out. It was that kind of half for the Tigers.
The errors were much less frequent in the second half when belief gradually grew that the Tigers could actually pull off an unlikely win.
They defended their line heroically at times, starting two minutes in when Luke Thompson was held up over the line.
It was Cas’s turn to go close when Moors wrestled his way over the line only to drop the ball under a tackle.
But the ball was soon back at the other end and the recently introduced Jy Hitchcox, in his first Tigers game of the season, produced two bits of good defence to keep the visitors out.
First, he did well to claim a high ball with players charging at him then he timed his tackle well to deny the speedy Regan Grace as he looked set to race in down the touchline.
Cas held out well against further pressure brought about by having to drop-out under the posts. Greg Eden then gave them some respite as his kick forced a drop-out at the other end. A minute later Saints had to kick out again after Roberts’s grubber had kept the pressure on.
The pressure on the St Helens defence told in the 58th minute when Mike McMeeken sold a clever dummy to open up some space and charged through the gap he created for a fine individual try that was goaled by McShane.
Grace looked set to claim another score for the visitors as he raced for the line only to once again be denied by Hitchcox.
But it was the Tigers celebrating eight minutes from time as Holmes chased Greg Minikin’s kick ahead, got to it first and raced in to give his side the lead. He was taken down high by Makinson as he got over the line, but no further penalty came.
McShane, however, kicked the conversion to make it 16-12 and Cas held on in the remainder to seal possibly their best win of the season in the circumstances.
Saints still had chances late on to turn it back round, but Percival was denied by yet more defensive heroics from Hitchcox and for Walmsley to get the ball over the line only to be ruled to have done a double movement.
In the end what had looked unlikely at half-time became likely and the Sweet Caroline song at the end has scarcely been sung with such gusto.
Scorers - Castleford: Tries Gill, McMeeken Holmes; goals McShane 2. St Helens: Tries Percival, McCarthy-Scarsbrook; goals Makinson 2.
Castleford Tigers: Eden; Gill, Webster, Monaghan, Minikin; Roberts, T Holmes; Lynch, McShane, Massey, Foster, Larroyer, Sene-Lefao. Subs: McMeeken, Moors, Hitchcox, Trueman.
St Helens: Makinson; Swift, Morgan, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Smith; Walmsley, Roby, Amor, Taia, Wilkin, Knowles. Subs: Lee, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Douglas, Thompson.
Referee: Chris Campbell.