The axing of Zak Hardaker has cast a huge shadow over Castleford’s preparations for their maiden Grand Final at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Here we examine all the major talking points surrounding the Super League title decider against Leeds.

The Hardaker effect

It could have been worse. Had Castleford been forced to go into the biggest game in their history without Luke Gale, the consequences would have been potentially disastrous. But Hardaker is not only the second most important player for the Tigers, he is officially the second most influential player in Super League, having finished as runner-up to Gale in the Man of Steel votes cast by fellow players, with the rest some way behind. Hardaker has re-captured the form that earned him the Man of Steel award in 2015 and so leaves a big hole to fill at the back of the Castleford defence.

Can the Tigers win without him?

They have won two of the three games Hardaker has missed in 2017 so the answer is clearly yes. Greg Eden, who was once dubbed “England’s Billy Slater” after beginning his career as a full-back, switched from the wing to help the Tigers beat Huddersfield and St Helens and, although he was on the losing side against Hull, Castleford were missing another seven players that day as coach Daryl Powell rested his key men ahead of the semi-final. Powell also has the luxury of a ready-made wing replacement in either the experienced Joel Monaghan or Australian Jy Hitchcox, who has not let the side down when called upon this year.

The miracle men

News of Hardaker’s suspension has over-shadowed the amazing recovery of Leeds back rower Stevie Ward and pushed into the background the remarkable story of Gale. Gale underwent emergency surgery to remove his appendix but played in his side’s semi-final against St Helens just 16 days later and came up with a man-of-the-match performance. Ward spent last Friday night in hospital after doctors were unable to re-locate his shoulder which had popped out during the Rhinos’ semi-final victory over Hull in which he scored the opening try that evening. The operation was undertaken on Saturday and, after scans on Monday showed the damage to be minimal, he was included in coach Brian McDermott’s 19-man squad. He remains a big doubt for Saturday’s final but even to be in contention displays astonishing powers of recovery.

The big-match experience

Castleford’s biggest test could come when they walk out in front of a sell-out crowd of just over 72,000 at Old Trafford. While the Tigers are making their maiden Grand Final appearance, Leeds will equal St Helens’ record of 10 and are aiming for a record-extending eighth victory. Skipper Michael Shenton and former Warrington winger Monaghan, who could benefit from Hardaker’s exclusion, are the only Castleford players who know what is is like to run out at Old Trafford, whereas the Rhinos can boast a combined total of 47 Grand Final appearances amongst their squad. Castleford have recent Wembley experience but Shenton, Jake Webster, Oliver Holmes and Nathan Massey are the only survivors from the team that lost 23-10 to Leeds in the 2014 Challenge Cup final.

A fitting send-off for McGuire and Burrow?

Leeds managed to send departing trio Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai out on a high in 2015 with their Grand-Final victory over Wigan and the current crop will be desperately hoping to do the same for long-serving duo Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow who will be playing their last matches for the club. McGuire admits it provided him with extra motivation two years ago and there is some sadness Castleford’s way that veteran prop Andy Lynch will not get the chance to bow out on the biggest stage.