Grand Final Preview: Leeds to upset favourites Castleford to secure Super League title

Castleford captain Michael Shenton and Leeds skipper Danny McGuire with the Super League trophy
Castleford captain Michael Shenton and Leeds skipper Danny McGuire with the Super League trophy
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A fierce local West Yorkshire derby in front of a sell out crowd at Old Trafford? The stage is set for either upstarts Castleford or seasoned champions Leeds to claim the biggest domestic prize of them all. Super League columnist Raj Bains casts an eye over the Grand Final...

"In a battle of form against experience, on this occasion, it feels like experience might just hold out - back Leeds to nick this by a narrow margin, send their legends out on a high, and make it eight titles in thirteen years."

Leeds Rhinos to beat Castleford Tigers by 1-12pts @ 12/5

Castleford Tigers vs Leeds Rhinos
Saturday 7th October
Live on Sky Sports Main Event

As far as narratives go, this game isn't struggling for them. An all West Yorkshire derby between two neighbouring clubs with no love lost, a seven time champion side with legends leaving the club against an up and coming force who've brushed aside all who've stood before them so far this season - if it had been written, you'd think it might sound a bit much.

In truth, this fixture means an awful lot to both sides, which is only natural. Leeds may've been here and done it before more than anyone else, but given how close they came to relegation last season, this year has been all about restoring pride and telling their detractors exactly where to go. An eight title in thirteen years would be the perfect way to do that.

Cas, on the other hand, haven't been here before. A rugby league town through and through, this is arguably the biggest game in the history of the club, being contested by what many have already begun to call the greatest Tigers team to ever pull on the shirt. Their unbelievable Super League record speaks for itself, but it wouldn't be the first time a side finished top of the table but fell short of the biggest prize.

In terms of momentum and talent, there's no looking past Cas, and the odds reflect that quite clearly. Their attack has been sublime, but with a solid defence too, they've been able to reach heights few had predicted them to. Luke Gale, fresh from having his appendix removed in emergency surgery and defying doctors orders to play in the semi-final, was rightly named 'Man Of Steel', and his leadership, playmaking and kicking game will be central to his side's game plan at Old Trafford.

A spanner in the works, however, is the unfortunate mess surrounding star full-back Zak Hardaker, who's behaviour off the field has once again cast doubt on his future on it. The club aren't releasing details of how he breached club policy, but omitting what may be their biggest talent from a game of this magnitude is a courageous decision, with the Tigers putting principle above the will to win.

Hardaker - a fromer Man Of Steel in 2015, a candidate again this year and former hero at Leeds - will be a huge miss both with and without the ball, and that's likely to force a reshuffle in the backs, with try scoring machine Greg Eden likely to fill it at the back, with Jy Hitchcox taking his position out on the left edge.

In the Rhinos camp, the mood couldn't be any more different. Having thought they'd lost inspirational forward and future captain Stevie Ward after he dislocated his shoulder just last week, he's been miraculously passed fit for the Grand Final, giving Leeds a major boost in the pack.

Much like in 2015, too, when the club secured a domestic treble, there are parting legends wishing to bow out on a high, with long standing halfback pair Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire each playing their final game as a Rhino this evening. Having both been present and central to this unprecedented run of Leeds success since 2004, they're both former Harry Sunderland award winners, and they'll be desperate to finish their time at Leeds as champions.

Neither side is lacking motivation or an appropriately sentimental story coming in to this fixture, but there's no doubting that neutrals want to see a Castleford win and a new name on the trophy. Experience may have a major part to play, however, even with the Tigers recent faultless record against their big city rivals.

With only captain Michael Shenton in their ranks having appeared in this fixture previously - he scored for St Helens in a loss against Leeds back in 2011, before being taken off injured - the Rhinos have at least 15 that are likely to play who've been to Old Trafford and done the job in hand previously. In a one off game of this magnitude, that might count for a lot. A sell out at Old Trafford, it's an atmosphere unlike any other in domestic rugby league, and that's a lot for a side making their first appearance in the fixture to digest all at once.

Most had been expecting a resounding win for the Tigers, all things considered, but given how disrupted their preparation has been in comparison to Leeds, that view has somewhat narrowed. There is still some value in looking at Cas in the +13pts win market, as they're not a side to stop scoring once they've started, but chances of that happening were dealt a severe blow by Hardaker being omitted from their side.

This isn't the first time Leeds have come to Old Trafford the more unfancied side, and in the past, that has only worked in their favour. They haven't come second in the big dance since 2005 - when they were turned over in a West Yorkshire derby against Bradford - but boast a record of seven wins from nine games in the Super League era, so they're no strangers to turning up and getting the job done, despite what the markets might be suggesting.

Match Verdict

All things considered, this feels like the type of game where the Cas fairytale just falls short of the Hollywood ending so many want, with the Rhinos an impossible side to write off once this fixture rolls around. These games don't tend to be won by massive margins, with percentage rugby and committed defence a common theme, so you'd be smart not to back either side running away with it.

With their preparation knocked, there is a growing feeling that the Rhinos experience will be enough to see them through - to further underline that point, Leeds coach Brian McDermott has six of these titles to name already, three times each as a player and then as a head coach, while Daryl Powell, his opposite number, has none. That's not the type of record you can just turn a blind eye to.

The longer the game goes on and the tighter it becomes, the more likely Leeds are to win. Castleford will have to start fast and put a big bumper between them and the Rhinos if they're to win it, which isn't out of the question, but not as likely as it may've been a week ago. In a battle of form against experience, on this occasion, it feels like experience might just hold out - back Leeds to nick this by a narrow margin, send their legends out on a high, and make it eight titles in thirteen years.

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Leeds Rhinos to beat Castleford Tigers by 1-12pts @ 12/5

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