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5 October 2017, 12:37
Our rugby league pundits give their views ahead of the Betfred Super League Grand Final between Castleford Tigers a
Castleford's preparation for the Grand Final against Leeds on Saturday has not quite gone to plan with Thursday's news that key player Zak Hardaker has been dropped from their squad over a disciplinary matter.
The news came just two days after the 25-year-old was named runner-up to team-mate Luke Gale for the Man of Steel award and two days before the biggest game in the club's 91-year history.
Castleford, who have never won a league title, were the favourites for the Old Trafford clash against Leeds having been the outstanding team throughout 2017. However, the loss of Hardaker has swung the odds in favour of Leeds, who will be looking for their eighth Super League title.
The Rhinos may be the most successful side of the Super League era, but they also have a point to prove after a disastrous 2016 season, which eventually saw them fall into the Qualifiers and fight for their Super League status.
The Grand Final has all the makings of a classic as young-pretenders Castleford go up against old-hands Leeds and how experts give their views Saturday's Super League showpiece.
Picking out potential match winners for Saturday's Grand Final at Old Trafford is no easy task. There will be quality all over the pitch yet there can be no doubt that Adam Cuthbertson is crucial to Leeds Rhinos' chances.
I expect him to be at the centre of a lot of chances they create. If Castleford can shackle Adam they have a chance of lifting the title. But it won't be easy to restrict his offloads and he's been particularly good at slipping offloads very late after being tackled. If he's up for it, he is going have a major say in where the trophy goes.
In Luke Gale, Castleford still have a potential matchwinner but the loss of Zak Hardaker is a hammer blow for the Tigers - he has been tremendous for them and has been an integral part of their success this season.
Castleford will need to box this off and not let it impact their preparation - no doubt it will though, as someone else is going to have to slot into the pivotal full-back position and no one in their squad will be able to do that to the level that Hardaker has done for them this year.
Another key man for Cas is Mike McMeeken - he's a huge human being and brilliant at scattering players, then offloading and bringing his team-mates with pace into play. He's young, aggressive and he's going to have a major say too.
I think this game is so finely balanced, it's so even, because of different factors. Quite rightly, Castleford Tigers should start as favourites, because they have the best attack, they've only dropped three games all year and they've been sensational. But if you look at the pedigree of Leeds, their experience and the emotional side of that team - who say goodbye to two iconic players in Rob Burrow and captain Danny McGuire - they know what needs to be done. The support staff know how to prepare a team for the big stage.
And to some extent, getting this side to a Grand Final was the most impressive part of this season, and I think that's the reason you saw a speechless and really emotional Brian McDermott in his post-match interview with Bill Arthur last week. There are always questions that get asked when teams don't fulfil their potential, there are always fingers pointed and it starts most of the time with the man at the top. McDermott was under a huge amount of pressure and he has proved all those doubters wrong. He has done remarkably well.
With my connection to the Leeds Rhinos, I played there and worked there for over two decades, I'd be delighted to see Leeds take this trophy, but you can't deny that the Castleford Tigers have been fantastic to watch and have so much to admire about - the way they play the game and how magnanimous they are when they have lost.
I give Cas Tigers the edge but I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Rhinos gave them a good fight and it came down to golden-point drama as it did in that semi-final.
As far as key men go, Luke Gale is an individual that also allows everybody else to play. He would be my one to watch. On the Rhinos side, I think the opposing No 7 will have just as much to say in this game. Rob Burrow has been in many finals and he knows exactly what to do. It might be that he comes off the bench at a point in the game where things are in the balance, and he's done it hundreds of times before where he's come on and changed the game.
I think we're in for a special night at Old Trafford.
The 20th Super League Grand Final already promises to break new ground, whatever the outcome. The Tigers become only the 7th different club to contest a Grand Final and appear for the first time following a truly magnificent season, while the Rhinos equal the record for any team in terms of Grand Final appearances. They also hold the rather enviable record of most victories at Old Trafford with seven trophy lifts in the last 11 seasons!
There are also some rather romantic sub-plots to this one - with Leeds' Rob Burrow playing his final game before retirement on the biggest possible stage. He is an individual who has single-handedly rewritten the rules for what it takes to be a rugby league player. It's not just size or strength or speed - it's heart and intelligence and courage.
And what about Luke Gale? The Castleford half-back and the newly crowned Man of Steel scored a try and nailed two pressure kicks, including a 40m drop goal in golden-point extra time to secure the Tigers' place in the 20th Grand Final, just 16 days after an emergency operation to remove his appendix. Heart and courage personified.
So, West Yorkshire will decamp to Manchester on Saturday to witness what promises to be one of the very best Grand Finals in the modern era - and we'll be there to bring you every hit, every try and every emotional breathless moment. Can't wait!
The loss of Zak Hardaker has played straight into the hands of Leeds. Castleford have been by far the most entertaining team to watch and we were all looking forward to seeing what a full-strength Cas side could do on the big stage.
The loss of Hardaker is a big disappointment and will be the sort of distraction that this team does not need heading into the biggest game of their careers.
Old Trafford is a tough place to go and play and they have to get their mental preparation just right for the atmosphere that is going to hit them when they walk out. Daryl Powell was in the stadium on Monday and said how intimidating a place it was - and that was when it was empty!
It will be interesting to see how they plug the hole left by Hardaker - he had so much influence on how they played and Powell will know that re-shuffling his team will weaken them in other areas.
Leeds will be even more confident heading into the final - they are well aware of what Hardaker can do and will have even more swagger on Saturday.
The Rhinos love when these big occasions come around and it really does bring the best out of them, however they will need to keep their emotions in check as they have two greats retiring.
Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire epitomise their never say die attitude and a Grand Final win will be one heck of a send-off.
The key man for Castleford is Luke Gale - he has been the most confident player I have seen all year in Super League and crucial to how they play. He influences all their big plays and everything he has done has just worked. Saturday will be a pressure-cooker environment and the big question is can Gale and Castleford handle it?
For me, the key man for Leeds is hooker Matt Parcell and I am really looking forward to his battle with Paul McShane. Parcell will need his forwards to win the battle against the Cas forwards, and if they do that and give him the room he needs, then he will have a field day.
The neutrals and romantics will say Castleford will win the Grand Final and complete the fairytale of a truly magnificent and memorable season.
Leeds haven't beaten Cas in their last eight attempts, with the aggregate scores being 156-64 in their four meetings so far this year, so the stats say the Tigers all the way and with the game's leading scorer and a coach that encourages them to play rugby league at its best, you'd be brave to tip a Leeds win.
But here's the thing: the Rhinos are going to their 10th Grand Final, they've won the title eight times in all! So they've been there and done that and got the t-shirt. Plus they have two legends bidding farewell in Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow - and like in 2015 when Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai bowed out with the treble, Leeds emotions will be running high.
So both sides have good reasons to win - Castleford have played with such spirit all year and with much panache... Leeds know how to win on nights like this, so quite frankly I can't split them.
All I know is it'll be another memorable Super League night at the Theatre of Dreams and I wouldn't miss it for the world!
Watch the Super League GRAND FINAL LIVE ONLY on Sky Sports Main Event and Sky Sports Arena, Saturday from 5pm this weekend. Want to watch but not got Sky Sports? Buy a NOW TV pass from £6.99!
(c) Sky News 2017: Grand Final panel: Will Castleford or Leeds triumph?