Brown hails "real deal" Cas
St Helens coach Nathan Brown says surprise packet Castleford are the "real deal" as Super League's top two prepare to go head to head.
This time last year, the Tigers were bottom of Super League with a solitary win from their first nine matches and coach Ian Millward was picking up his P45.
Millward's successor Daryl Powell has already watched his side claim the notable scalp of champions Wigan at The Jungle this year and victory by nine points on Friday night would take them above Saints into top spot.
"They're playing terrific footie," said Brown, who has guided St Helens to seven league wins out of seven so far.
"I don't think at the start of the year anyone would have expected either us or Cas to be where we are at this stage.
"But they are where they are through playing good footie, it's not a fluke. They scored 36 points against a very good Wigan side and that proved they're the real deal."
A cautious Powell still maintains a top-eight spot is the club's realistic goal this year but concedes the visit of the leaders, who have won their last 11 meetings with the Yorkshiremen, will provide him with a yardstick to measure their potential.
"Saints have clearly been the best side this season so this is a massive test for us," Powell said. "We should know a fair bit more about ourselves."
The match will mark the 414th Super League appearance of St Helens skipper Paul Wellens, who will break the record set by Leeds centre Keith Senior in 2011, while Jamie Peacock will also reach a notable landmark in Leeds' home game against Wakefield.
The Rhinos are celebrating "JP Day" by handing out face masks of the former England captain to mark the 500th appearance of his career.
That total includes a warm-up match for Great Britain in 2006 which does not count as an official fixture.
That will not stop the celebrations at Headingley but more fittingly Peacock is set to officially bring up the milestone in the derby against his old club Bradford next Thursday.
Wakefield and Hull KR, who go to Warrington, will both be aiming to turn the tables on their opponents after losing to them in the Challenge Cup last Sunday.
The Wildcats have lost four players to injury from the side thrashed 60-6 by the Rhinos while Warrington's England forward Ben Westwood will be missing only his second Super League game in more than 12 months as they look to follow up their 28-24 win over the Robins.
Iestyn Harris takes charge of Salford for the first time when they visit his old club Bradford.
His predecessor Brian Noble was under orders to deliver a top-eight finish but Red Devils chairman Marwan Koukash has deliberately lowered the expectations on Harris, who warns it may take some time for him to make his mark on the team.
"We live and die by our results but the next five or six weeks will be about getting the performance level to where I believe it needs to be," Harris said.
"It's difficult to come in partway through a season and bring in different philosophies and different cultures."
The Bulls, who won the 2006 World Club Challenge under Harris' captaincy, are almost back to full strength with the return of Matt Diskin, Lee Gaskell and Adam Sidlow and will fancy their chances of finally wiping out their points deduction.
"Bradford have been improving steadily this year," Harris said. "Francis (Cummins) has done a very good job in extremely difficult circumstances.
"What he has got is a team that plays with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It's a good challenge for us."
Wigan can climb into the top four for the first time this year if they make it four wins in a row against London Broncos, who have lost all seven matches so far and average just 13 points a game.
"They're down in confidence at the minute so, if we start the game really fast and we complete our sets, we should be okay but it's about us concentrating and doing what we do best," said Wigan coach Shaun Wane.