The only thing that rises higher than the temperature when we get to this stage of the Super League season are the nerves, and how that was evident here.
A fortnight ago, a narrow victory riddled with so many errors would have been unacceptable from a St Helens side in pursuit of an unprecedented fourth successive Super League title. But back to back below-par performances, including defeat to Salford last week, have led to their position at the top coming under increasing threat from Wigan, and a third successive defeat here could have caused real panic among the reigning champions.
This was very much a case of win by any means necessary and to that end, it was job done. But the fact only goal-kicking separated the Saints and a Castleford side, who themselves looked to be showcasing end-of-season nerves, underlines we are reaching the most important period of the year.
Perhaps the one positive for Kristian Woolf’s side here is that they held off an impressive comeback from the visitors in the final quarter to re-establish a four-point lead over Wigan with five rounds of the regular season remaining. Leading 20-0 with 15 minutes remaining, the scratchy play from both sides suggested it was highly unlikely Castleford could cause the Saints any meaningful worries.
But a hat-trick from Bureta Faraimo would have brought the contest firmly back into the balance had it not been for three missed conversions from Castleford. In contrast, all three of St Helens’ tries were converted by Tommy Makinson, coupled with a penalty from the boot of the winger. And that proved to be enough for the league leaders to hold on and calm any fears among their supporters with the business end of the year approaching.
While St Helens sit four points clear at the top and are practically assured of a top-two finish – and a free week at the start of the playoffs – Castleford are in a far more precarious position. A fortnight ago, they were hunting down the top four but consecutive defeats have left them looking over their shoulders, with just a two-point buffer between themselves and the teams outside of the top six.
There was no shortage of effort here, as their coach admitted afterwards, but a frustrating lack of quality prior to the quick burst of tries from Faraimo, which ultimately proved to be mere consolation. “We had a crack,” Lee Radford, the Castleford coach, said. “We’re just a bit disjointed and I thought they were too. The errors were uncharacteristic from both teams but we had a dig. The effort was there but the quality was lacking.”
Both sides were, as Radford said, disjointed for the majority of the afternoon. But St Helens started the better and they broke the deadlock when Curtis Sironen capitalised on an error to force his way across the line from close range. Makinson converted and the hosts doubled their lead soon after when Morgan Knowles powered his way through, with Makinson again making no mistake from in front to make it 12-0.
Castleford enjoyed plenty of possession throughout the first half but did very little with it. There were barely any clear-cut chances for the visitors, though the bright spot for them here was the long-awaited Super League debut of Tongan international Sosaia Feki, who signed for the Tigers over two years ago but has suffered horrendous luck with injuries, including a ruptured achilles that kept him out for over a year.
A penalty from the boot of Makinson after half-time extended St Helens’ lead to 14 before they were awarded a penalty try when Joe Batchelor was fouled in the act of scoring. Castleford seemed well-beaten at that stage but they fought commendably in the closing stages, with Faraimo’s well-taken hat-trick making it slightly nervy. The Tigers’ profligacy from the kicking tee however, meant it was never quite as nervy for St Helens as it should have been.