Luke Gale went from the operating table to the hero of the hour as he landed a golden point match winning drop-goal for Castleford Tigers to sink St Helens in an unbelievable play-off semi-final.
After a thrilling match that swung one way then the other the scores were locked together at 22-22, thanks to Gale’s nerveless penalty right on the hooter, and it was all down to who scored first in overtime for who would be going to Old Trafford next week.
Gale had a first go with an effort from more than 40 metres out that went wide. Matty Smith then missed for Saints from 35 metres out. But there was no denying Gale in the fifth minute of injury-time as he struck his field goal sweetly from 30-plus metres out and the ball sailed between the posts to spark wild scenes of celebration.
It will be the Tigers’ first appearance in the Grand Final and it could not have been achieved in any more dramatic circumstances.
Cas could not have wished for a better start to their big night as Seb Taia knocked on from the kick-off and from the resulting scrum the Tigers were ahead.
There were only 50 seconds on the clock when a move from the back of the scrum saw Jesse Sene-Lefao and Luke Gale combine to give Zak Hardaker some space and the Man of Steel contender beat two men to get over the line for the opening try.
More pressure followed and Gale, passed fit to play after his appendix operation, kicked a penalty goal to give the hosts an eight-point lead in as many minutes.
Saints gradually found their feet, however, and only great defence by Adam Milner stopped a dangerous run by Mark Percival.
The visitors could not be stopped on 16 minutes, though, as Regan Grace squeezed over in the corner following a crisp left flank move. With no conversion from the touchline it was 8-4.
Cas came close again as Gale’s grubber was chased by Hardaker, but James Roby got back to touch the ball down with referee James Child not taking the decision upstairs.
The Tigers then thought they had stretched their lead when Hardaker’s kick to the corner was not dealt with by Percival and Grace. Home winger Greg Minikin aimed to drop on the ball only to have knocked on according to the officials.
Hardaker was back in defence soon after, clearing up a dangerous Jon Wilkin grubber to concede a drop-out.
Back came Cas on their next set, however, as Jake Webster made a 50 metre break from his own half. The ball was then moved on well before Webster could not hold onto Minikin’s pass five metres out and Saints were relieved.
It was the Tigers’ turn to breathe a sigh soon after with Matty Smith’s grubber knocked on over the line by Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, the video referee confirming no try.
Webster was tackled just short as the hosts looked dangerous once more in an end to end contest and Gale’s grubber forced a drop-out that came to nothing.
Saints were helped up field by a controversial penalty just before the end of the half and took advantage go in front when James Roby’s clever pass sent Morgan Knowles over for a try converted by Percival.
Early Cas pressure in the second half came to nothing then Saints had a strong spell that only came unstuck thanks to some fantastic home defence with Tommy Makinson tackled just short, Luke Douglas held up over the line and the ever dangerous Roby superbly tackled just short by Paul McShane
A Jonny Lomax grubber forced a drop-out, but the Tigers survived with their line intact and then went on to have a great spell of their own.
Mike McMeeken’s break and offload threatened before they scored their second try as Gale and Jesse Sene-Lefao combined to give Greg Eden some space and the winger made a stunning break from his own half before finding Gale on his inside in support to take the pass and score a try he converted.
Saints looked set to hit back with a fine move of their own with Makinson racing for the line only to be tackled into touch by a terrific try saver by Adam Milner.
His great friend McShane followed up with a 40-20 kick and from the resulting set it was Milner going from defence to attack to get the ball down over the line for a close range try that took some scoring.
With Gale adding the extras it was 20-10 and Cas had one foot at old Trafford according to some fans.
But they reckoned without St Helens who produced a stunning fight back in the last 10 minutes.
After Alex Walmsley was held up over the line, Makinson got the try he had threatened earlier with a strong finish from Ben Barba’s pass.
Next Percival spun over to get the ball down after more good work by Barba, but crucially the centre missed with the conversion attempts to keep his side two points behind.
Saints threw caution to the wind two minutes from time when they ran the ball from half-way on the last tackle and Ryan Morgan completed an amazing move to score a try that looked set to break Tigers’ hearts.
Again Percival failed to goal and it was not quite all over as Cas got the ball back from the restart. They had seconds left and it looked like they had missed their chance when Gale’s grubber was easily fielded by Barba. But referee James Child, so often the villain of the piece as far as Tigers fans are concerned, came up with a penalty decision after spotting that Morgan had taken Michael Shenton out off the ball.
It was not an easy penalty chance and the hooter went while he was lining it up, but Gale sent the ball between the posts and it was all down to that dramatic extra-time when Gale emerged as the hero once again.
Scorers - Castleford: Tries Hardaker, Gale, Milner; goals Gale 5; drop-goal Gale. St Helens: Tries Grace, Knowles, Makinson, Percival, Morgan; goal Percival.
Castleford Tigers: Hardaker; Minikin, Webster, Shenton, Eden; Roberts, Gale; Massey, McShane, Sene-Lefao, Foster, McMeeken, Milner. Subs: Millington, Moors, Cook, Springer.
St Helens: Barba; Makinson, Morgan, Percival, Grace; Lomax, Smith; Douglas, Roby, Thompson, Knowles, Taia, Wilkin. Subs: Walmsley, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Peyroux, Fages.
Referee: James Child.