For 80 minutes at least, everything felt normal. The roar when Derrell Olpherts scored a sensational one-handed try was what you would expect in this part of the world. The rendition of Sweet Caroline which accompanies every Castleford Tigers victory was, for anyone who has heard it before, routine. But this was not an ordinary day.
Rugby league found itself as the only frontline act on a scant Sunday of sporting action. Barring another act of defiance from the sport’s authorities when clubs meet in Huddersfield on Monday, this was the last scrap of sporting normality for some time.
At best, rugby league fans will have the option to watch round eight of the Super League season from television if the games are played behind closed doors. The alternative is following the rest of British sport and shutting down for a few weeks. The feeling from many outsiders of how perplexing it has been for rugby league to carry on regardless was shared by supporters here.
“We shouldn’t be playing,” said Dave, a St Helens supporter, before the match. “There’s a social responsibility to protect fans and help public health.” He and hundreds of Saints supporters travelled across the M62 to see the reigning champions slump to a fourth defeat in seven league games, against a Castleford side who were much the stronger of the two sides.
“It’s admirable that rugby league tries to carry on when everyone else has stopped, but it could be to the detriment to the health of fans, players and officials, which can’t be a good thing,” said Alex, a Castleford fan from Sheffield. The rugby felt somewhat immaterial on a day such as this, though Castleford did their best to make a spectacle given the extra publicity for the sport.
“It was typical Castleford and that pleased me – but there’s an eery feeling everywhere at the minute,” their coach, Daryl Powell, said. “Rugby league is pretty parochial in terms of the towns it’s played in, and it would be difficult without it. It’s a confusing scenario and I’m looking forward to getting an indication from the RFL on it.”
Castleford scored five tries to St Helens’ three to move joint-top of the table here, including two well‑taken finishes from Olpherts, the latter of which a sublime one-handed effort in the corner. The visitors – who have now lost as many games this year by mid-March as they did in the entirety of last season in all competitions – were, in contrast, woeful.
It may not matter too much if the season is postponed this week, but something is yet to click for the Saints under their new coach, Kristian Woolf. Tommy Makinson scored their only points of the first half but by the time he did it was 14-4. Their other two tries came in the final seven minutes; by then, the game was long gone.
For now, it is all eyes on the RFL. The governing body’s chief executive, Ralph Rimmer, said before the game that no options are off the table, they will continue to follow government advice and, perhaps most bizarrely, it is still not ruling out sanctions against Leeds for their refusal to fulfil their fixture in Catalans on Saturday, after a player was tested for coronavirus – a test which came back negative.
Here, Castleford’s players were able to celebrate with their supporters post-match, and in any other season, this kind of victory would leave most associated with the Tigers encouraged about what is to follow over the next few weeks. Unfortunately, nobody really knows what is going to happen from one day to the next right now.