Castleford Tigers against the Leeds Rhinos in the Super League Grand Final doesn’t kick-off until 6pm on Saturday but the drama has already begun.
Thursday saw both teams announce their 19-man squad for the showpiece event at Old Trafford with Leeds showing their hand first.
Eyebrows will have been raised with news forward Stevie Ward was named in the squad less than a week after dislocating his shoulder in the play-off semi-final victory over Hull FC at Headingley.
Head coach Brian McDermott feels it will give Ward has much time as possible to prove himself fit to face a Castleford side who have been the standout performers in the Super League this season.
Much of the Tigers’ success so far this term has been down to star full-back Zak Hardaker, who finished second at the Man of Steel awards to club team-mate Luke Gale in midweek.
The eyebrows will have gone flying into oblivion then when the Castleford squad was later announced on Thursday and Hardaker’s name was missing from the roster.
Cas, who are 20/39 to win in 80 minutes against Leeds, have confirmed the England full-back is unavailable for the final after a “breach of club rules”, which will come as a major blow to head coach Daryl Powell.
Scrum-half Gale recovering from his appendix operation for the semi-final has been a real saving grace and even more pressure is now on the playmaker’s shoulders in the absence of attacking threat Hardaker.
Leeds, who are 29/20 to win in 80 minutes, have plenty of Grand Final experience and will now face a side who have no players that have lifted the famous trophy.
Hardaker had enjoyed the privileged three times at Leeds.
The game is still too close to call but Castleford will have to overcome plenty of disruption to their preparations if they are to claim their first Super League crown on Saturday.
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