Rugby League World magazine finds out how Daryl Powell has transformed the fortunes of Castleford Tigers in less than a year at the helm…
Daryl Powell knew that he had to fundamentally change the culture of Castleford Tigers soon after arriving at the club last season, both on and off the field. One brief moment during the winter summed up an approach that has already yielded significant rewards.
It went something like this. One member of the Tigers squad had left his orange peel on a chair in the players’ room at the Mend-a-Hose Jungle. When Powell quizzed those left in the room, they blamed another player who had already gone.
Powell told one of the remaining players to pick it up for him and put it in the bin.
“What would you do if he missed a tackle on the field?” Powell reasoned. “You’d clear up after him. That’s how it works.”
That is a tiny microcosm of Powell’s approach to coaching, but in many ways it sums up neatly some of his key beliefs. Get the little things right and the rest will follow. Look after your teammates and work for each other, and you’re halfway there.
Another is ingraining the rich history of Castleford RLFC into the thoughts of the current squad. Club legends Malcolm Reilly, John Joyner and Alan Hardisty all spoke to the team during the close season. Powell himself compiles clips of famous Castleford triumphs to show his squad.
“Players come in here nearly every day, and throughout a season your bodies get beat up, your minds can get battered and tired at times, and I think it’s about keeping the place fresh,” Powell told Rugby League World from his Tigers office.
“It’s all about doing little things within the environment that help players enjoy what they’re doing, and one where they can see why we do things.
“And I think the history of the club is a big thing as well, and I tried to latch onto that straight away last year. I was a supporter of the club in my earlier years and I used to watch some unbelievable players play the game here. I thought we needed to be proud of what that is, and make sure we latch onto that to make us stronger as a club.
“We’ve had people like Malcolm Reilly, John Joyner, Alan Hardisty and Keith Hepworth here, and talk about guys like Lee Crooks and Tawera Nikau all the time. Some of those guys came in and spoke to the players about what the club meant to them right at the start of pre-season training.
“Justin Carney said to me he didn’t know who Alan Hardisty was until he came and spoke to us. Justin’s a really respectful guy and he went up and spoke to him afterwards. The players are interested in what’s gone before, and I tried to do something at Featherstone, which has also been a really successful club in the past. I think you need to have that, and if you can connect the past and present then that’s great.
“Since then Malcolm Reilly has done some mentoring with Damien Fleming here. He had a good chat to him about how he approaches his game, self confidence and attitude – all those kind of things. I think it’s a great connection to have.
“Then I’m always doing little videos on the history of the club and where it’s come from – how outstanding it’s been and some of the massive successes it’s had. Because that’s where we want to go back to – we need to be seen as a top eight team that competes in every competition in a really positive way.
“And I don’t see any reason why we can’t do that. The feel about the place is great at the moment both on and off the field, and it’s a matter of retaining that. We’re going to have some knocks here and there but I think the history helps you to recognise what type of club you are, and Castleford’s been a pretty successful one in the past.”
That Powell can talk in terms of being a top eight clubs less than 12 months into his tenure is remarkable enough in itself. When he took over in May last year, the Tigers had won just three matches – two of them under caretaker coach Danny Orr. At half-time of Powell’s first game in charge at Catalans Dragons they trailed 30-6.
But his impact was almost immediate. They ended up losing just 39-30 in France, hammered rivals Wakefield at Magic Weekend seven days later and picked up 11 more points before the end of the campaign, including a run of three straight wins.
This season they have kicked on significantly again, winning six of their first seven matches at the time of writing despite being overlooked by virtually every pundit pre-season.
“I thought while it wasn’t an easy fix, I’d seen so much potential in Castleford for a number of years because their youth development had always brought through outstanding young players. I felt like the culture just needed to be stiffened up.
“You could se that there was a lot of high quality players within the squad that could well in Super League, and just thought it was a perfect job. I know it looked like the team was struggling, but what I saw was good quality players. I remember Shaun McRae at the start of last season talking about the quality of their roster, as he put it, and I agreed with that.
“The depth wasn’t fantastic and that was an issue when I first got in. And I think the boys just needed to start enjoying the environment again and enjoying what they were for here for. They needed to pull together as a group of people, and I thought Danny Orr had started to do that – you could see that there was a definite shift.
“I jumped in and tried to do what I’ve always done which is to help boys enjoy what they’re doing and build a culture within a club that builds a consistency in the way you go about things.
“We started the process last year and got the rewards, and we’ve started to bear fruit from having a really positive pre-season.”
Cut to the Chase
Powell did have one significant issue that needed addressing soon after his arrival at Cas – that of Rangi Chase’s future.
“Pretty much straight away I sat down with Rangi and asked him what he was thinking, and he wanted to play somewhere else and have a fresh challenge. The best analogy I can use is Iestyn Harris when he left Leeds, and I was the coach then.
“I was confident that Kevin Sinfield would step up along with other players like Rob Burrow and Danny Mags (Maguire) – we had a lot of players that I felt would improve as a result of Iestyn leaving.
“I pretty much thought the same here. Rangi was an elite player and had done a fantastic job at Castleford, but there is always life after a player, and I thought that we’d be okay. Signing halfbacks is tough at the moment and there’s not a massive amount of top quality halfbacks around at the moment, but I believed that we’d be okay.”
They’ve been more than okay, with the Tigers leaving Chase’s Red Devils in their wake after 12 Super League rounds, sitting four wins above them in the table. Each of Powell’s signings – the injured Ashley Gibson apart – have played a part, with Luke Dorn, Frankie Mariano, Scott Wheeldon, Liam Finn and the evergreen Andy Lynch all contributing and giving Castleford a depth that they clearly lacked last year.
Finn’s arrival has certainly captured the imagination, with Powell bringing in his on-field leader from four years of stunning consistency in the Championship at Featherstone to supplement his squad.
“I think Wakefield were considering signing him and it didn’t happen, and I just thought it would be perfect for us. Brett Seymour was working hard but wasn’t quite in the place he needed to be, and it just seemed like a no brainer to me. I knew Liam and knew that he’d be able to deliver.
“Our first game against Halifax at Christmas rubber stamped it for me. He was only on for 15 minutes or so, but his organisational ability fitted in straight away, and straight away the players respected him.
“He’s never going to be the quickest player in the land, but between his ears he’s pretty sharp, and he’s done a great job of getting himself in and looking like an accomplished Super League player.”
Now Powell and Finn have eyes on the Super League play-offs. It was always that way, the coach insists, despite the threat of relegation ahead of this season.
“I think we’ve got to make ourselves a top eight team, and with the new structures being put in place being a top eight team is massively important for this club and any in Super League. The battle for that top eight is where it’s at, and we’re not going to look down, we’re going to look up and strive to be better every week.”
The other key issue at Castleford Tigers at present is the stadium – both their current home, which has been positively rocking to the strains of “Sweet Caroline” on more than one post-match occasion this year, and the latest plans for a new ground.
“It’s incredible – it’s one of the best places to watch and play Rugby League,” Powell says of what was Wheldon Road when he was stood on the terraces as a youngster.
“In the games against Wigan and Hull when we won near the end, it was immense in terms of atmosphere. I think there’s a real connection between the players and the fans, and I tried to start that when I first came to the club. I think that’s important – if you believe in them, they will support you and take you through a couple of tough times. They believe that you will put the effort in and work hard, and that’s a good mix to have. We know when we rock up away from home we know there will be black and amber at one end of the ground in big numbers.
“There’s the new stadium on the horizon, and hopefully that can be massive for the club because from a financial perspective it would give the club so much more opportunity from the corporate side. Those income streams would really help to stabilise the club, which is in a good position at the moment.
“We want to be challenging to win things and I don’t see any reason why this club can’t do that. It’s got the history, and now there is the mentality within the club that we want to get better at everything we do.
“It wasn’t too long ago that Castleford just lost out in a semi-final, and we want to be in those games. If you’re in the top eight then you give yourself an opportunity to have a pop at the perceived bigger clubs, and I think we’re very much capable of that.”