Published in Rugby League World in 2009
Leeds Rhinos 16
Castleford Tigers 23
Friday 24th September 1999
Play-offs – Elimination Semi-Final
1999 was a great year to be a Castleford Tigers supporter.
Easily their best season in the summer era, Cas were a minute away from getting to Wembley and one game away from making Old Trafford. The club also provided Super League with its Man of Steel; Adrian Vowles, a likeable Queenslander who – someone once said – gave the impression that he was held together with plasters.
Coach Stuart Raper was the man who made everything possible. Son of Johnny – one of Australia’s seven ‘Immortals’ – and brother of hooker Aaron, Raper came to Wheldon Road with the club in crisis in 1997. With relegation very much on the cards, Raper turned the season around spectacularly. The Tigers even won at champions Bradford in the top-eight play-offs of the old Premiership competition.
1998 saw more improvement, underlined by a memorable Challenge Cup run that started with a last-minute Andrew Schick try knocking out Leeds at Headingley on Valentine’s Day, before Bradford – remember Shaun Edwards’ brief and unhappy spell there? – were given the same treatment in the fifth round. The Cup run was ended by eventual-winners Sheffield in the quarter-finals; the game when Keith Senior floored Barrie-Jon Mather with one of Rugby League’s more infamous punches.
Steady progress was being made under Raper but no-one expected us to push so closely for honours in what turned out to be a wonderful 1999 campaign. Hull, York and Salford were put to the sword in the Cup meaning that Cas were in the semi-final where they met London Broncos. Unfortunately, a last-gasp Steele Retchless try handed the game to the southerners in one of the finest-ever matches in Challenge Cup history. Having looked certain to win with just minutes remaining, the defeat was agonising and Dean Sampson’s distraught reaction at full-time, captured by BBC cameras, summed up the mood of the whole town.
But there was still the league to concentrate on, as they say. The Tigers found themselves in third on a couple of occasions, sometimes fourth before ending in fifth, the last of the play-off places, one place above Gateshead Thunder in their one-and-only Super League campaign. The highlight for Cas in the regular season was probably a league double over reigning champions Wigan with Danny Orr crossing twice in the Wheldon Road match up. Thirty matches brought about 19 wins and three draws.
Finishing fifth, no-one gave Cas a prayer in the play-offs. Surely they were cannon fodder for fourth-place Wigan, in a game which was to be the first-ever game of Rugby League played at the JJB Stadium. But Raper had other ideas – one of which was to make his squad watch videos of Canterbury’s incredible run from ninth (yes, ninth!) to the NRL Grand Final the year before.
It worked. Against the odds, Wigan’s team of stars were humbled 14-10 on their own turf as the Tigers set up a dream date at Leeds, their biggest rivals, on the ground where Retchless had so ruthlessly had broken Cas hearts six months earlier.
The Rhinos had already won the Challenge Cup and were keen to send coach Graham Murray back to Australia with a Super League winner’s ring as well. They were also saying farewell to Brad Godden and Marc Glanville while, conversely, Keith Senior was making just his second appearance for the club. Before the game, Ronnie The Rhino held up a sign taunting Wigan’s absence, but 80 glorious minutes later, the joke wouldn’t seem quite as funny to the Southstanders.
The game started wonderfully for the visitors as 11 minutes yielded 12 points for Cas. Dean Sampson broke through to set up a Michael Eagar try which Orr conveted for a 6-0 lead after seven minutes. Then, with the fans still celebrating behind the sticks, Aaron Raper kicked a superb 40-20 and then laid on a brilliant flat ball for Adrian Vowles to score. Orr goaled and Cas’s fans were in heaven.
The game calmed down after its whirlwind start and the only other scores in the half were a penalty to each side.
The second half saw Leeds come back – but only after the Tigers controversially had a try disallowed. The second Barrie McDermott mistake in as many minutes saw Orr swoop on the loose ball and race 70 metres to score. Ref Stuart Cummings wrongly ruled that a Cas hand had freed the ball. To intensify the sense of injustice, Leeds got the penalty for offside and Iestyn Harris reduced the arrears to 4-14.
After another Orr penalty for a McDermott infringement, Francis Cummins scored two very similar tries in the left-hand corner in a five-minute spell which nearly blew the roof off the South Stand. Both were converted magnificently by Harris to break Lewis Jones’s record for goals in a season at Headingley. 16-16, with 14 minutes to go, and the ‘smart’ money was on Leeds.
But the South Stand’s gloating was promptly ruined by another McDermott knock on. Then Andy Hay was offside but Orr missed the goal. The incident at least halted Leeds’s momentum.
Man of the match Aaron Raper then halted it further. In the 73rd minute, he kicked a drop goal to inch the Tigers a point ahead at 16-17. With time against them, Leeds then went for the short kick off, Morley tapped it back but McDermott knocked on.
Soon after Darren Rogers kicked ahead and regathered but Paul Sterling raced back to knock down the inside pass to Eagar five metres from the line. It was a smart enough play, made even more amazing given that Sterling’s left eye was closed. How could he have even seen the ball to save the try?
But the Tigers didn’t have to wait long for their clinching try. A Keith Senior knock on turned the ball over, and on the next play, Aussie second-rower Dale Fritz saw that Lee Jackson had come up too quickly and went through the gap to score his first try of the year. Orr’s goal gave Cas an unassailable seven-point lead and a trip to Knowsley Road, one win away from Old Trafford.
After that Raper was taken off and kissed by his coach and brother, Stuart, for his wonderful performance. In his 80 seconds on the pitch, Fijian prop James Pickering managed to get himself into a fight with a frustrated Godden in his last Leeds appearance.
Fritz’s last try had been two years earlier in the Australian Super League for Perth Western Reds against Hunter Mariners – who were coached by Graham Murray! And, of course, it had been Cas who had beaten Leeds at Headingley in the Challenge Cup in Murray’s first game in charge. His last, against the same opposition, must have hurt even more and his last act as coach was to have a post-match pop at Cummings. But in fairness, Murray deserved better – he had presided over a superb two seasons at Headingley and successfully constructed a platform for future Rhinos success in Super League.
So Cas went to St Helens but couldn’t raise themselves for a third-straight week. Ellery Hanley’s team beat them 36-6 en route to a stunning Old Trafford success against Minor Premiers Bradford. Kevin Iro’s try secured a famous 8-6 win.
Castleford were Super League’s ‘Club of the Year’ in 1999 and, until Wigan in 2007, they were the only side finishing outside the top three to make a serious impact on the Super League play-offs.
Ten years on, Cas have put together another excellent side. Can McGoldrick, Sherwin, Westerman, Owen and Shenton et al have the Tigers’ faithful dreaming as they did ten years ago?
Leeds: Harris; Sterling, Senior, Godden, Cummins; Powell, Sheridan; Masella, Speak, Fleary; Morley, Farrell, Glanville. Subs: Jackson, McDermott, Hay, St Hilaire
Castleford: Flowers; Gay, Maloney, Eagar, Rogers; Orr, Davis; Sampson, Raper, Sykes, Harland, Fritz, Vowles. Subs: Tonks, Hepi, Pickering, Wells
Half-time: 2-14. Attendance: 16,912. Referee: Stuart Cummings