Wigan’s play-offs hopes slipped from their hands after a crushing defeat in their final home match of the season.
Fans saw the worst - and, all-too-briefly, the best - of Wigan in a barmy game which crushed, revived and then dashed fans’ dreams over 80 agonising minutes.
Their chief tormentor was teenage halfback Jake Trueman, who registered an impressive hat-trick in the first-half on his full Super League debut to help Castleford to a 20-0 lead by the break.
They extended their lead early in the second-half but, incredibly, a three-try blitz in nine magical minutes cut the margin to 10 points and raised faint hopes of an incredible comeback.
But Michael Shenton’s try put the game out of their reach, and Wigan were ultimately left cursing their lifeless, error-littered display in the opening 50 minutes. Castleford are good enough - and for most of the opening half they were flawless - without being handed gift-wrapped chances.
This defeat struck a damaging blow to their chances of claiming a top-four finish to the season next week. They will need to beat Wakefield next Saturday AND hope either St Helens or Hull FC lose their final matches to secure a place in the play-offs.
Given those two matches take place beforehand - Saints face Salford on Thursday and Hull FC travel to the Tigers the day later - they may go into the final match knowing they can not be involved in the post-season party.
Table-toppers Castleford were the only Super League side Wigan hadn’t beaten this year. They won both fixtures - both in April - on their way to claiming the league leaders’ shield.
Coach Daryl Powell was missing his star halfbacks Luke Gale and Ben Roberts, but 18-year-old Trueman proved he was a capable deputy.
Wigan, as expected, were without captain Sean O’Loughlin due to a niggling calf injury - some may see this rudderless display as further evidence of the influence the England skipper has on the side. They have now lost all seven Super League matches they have played without him this season.
Sam Tomkins led out the Warriors in his absence, wearing a classy retro-shirt to commemorate 30 years since the club’s victory over Manly.
Some of the players from that historic night - including Steve Hampson, Shaun Edwards, Andy Gregory and Nicky Kiss - were given a vocal reception before the game began at a frantic pace and in niggly fashion.
But the home fans were soon silenced by a dominant display by the Tigers as they registered four unanswered tries before the break.
Despite a makeshift halfback combination - Trueman partnered hooker Paul McShane - Cas’ attacks were expansive and crisp. In the fifth minute, Greg Eden swept over for his 38th Super League try of the year from a well-weighted stabbed kick by Trueman.
Wigan defended aggressively, for a spell, but were again unlocked by a kick - this time Trueman touching down a dribbled poke through from McShane, who added the conversion to open up a 10 point lead.
Castleford’s flashier players make the headlines but their unheralded players down the middle make the metres, and win quick play-the-balls, and Wigan were well out-played in that area.
In the 25th minute, Trueman darted over for his second after Anthony Gelling had palmed down Mike McMeeken’s pass.
In repeat sets taking the ball out of their line, Wigan turned over the ball every time - Joe Burgess, Taulima Tautai and Liam Farrell with the errors - to put themselves under more pressure.
Fleet-footed Trueman jetted over for his hat-trick and open up a 20 point margin.
Just before half-time, Wigan caught a break and began carving out some half-chances, but when they went to pull the trigger their attack misfired.
That trend continued into the second-half - Wigan were wasteful with their few chances, and Cas’ clinical with theirs as Greg Minikin squeezed in at the corner. McShane added the goal to make it 26 and, suddenly, thoughts of a Wigan victory turned to considering the for-and-against permutations.
Slowly, though, Wigan improved - or Cas’ faded, or a marriage of the two - and before the hour-mark, Tom Davies showed nice footwork and strength to touch down in the right corner. George Williams’ conversion attempt was wide.
But that try put some spark into their attack and, from the next set, Sam Tomkins chased a kick through and had the poise to ground the ball. Williams’ goal reeled in the margin to 16 points with more than a quarter of the game to go.
Joe Burgess was helped from the field injured - in the reshuffle, Willie Isa moved to centre and Gildart to the wing - as Wigan continued to press. And the Tigers line eventually creaked, Leuluai jinking through for a try which sparked a brief melee, before Williams tagged on the extras to make it a 10-point game.
Tony Clubb did exceptionally well to track down Jake Webster after he intercepted, but moments later - after Williams had left the pitch - Shenton weaved over from close range to restore Cas’ 16-point lead.
Wigan battled on and Isa and Minikin exchanged tries before the hooter ended Wigan’s misery.