League Express Editor Martyn Sadler speaks to Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell about the Tigers’ prospects in 2019.
Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell must be getting used to bad news.
In 2017 he was hit by a thunderbolt just two days before the Grand Final at Old Trafford when the club revealed that star fullback Zak Hardaker would miss the big game after testing positive for cocaine.
In late April last year, he saw his star halfback Luke Gale sustain a knee injury and miss four months of the season. And now Gale has suffered an Achilles tendon injury that will probably keep him out of the 2019 season. Powell, however, responds philosophically to his ill fortune, pointing out that the absence of star players is all part of the game.
“First and foremost we are thinking about Luke,” says Powell, who moved quickly to snap up Jordan Rankin from Huddersfield Giants.
“He missed much of last season and he was just coming back from that injury and then he suffers a freak injury, rupturing his Achilles.
“He is a big part of the team, but sometimes you get dealt some rough cards and it won’t be the first time nor the last. We have to deal with it and out of difficult situations come opportunities for other people.
“We have Jamie Ellis, for example, who injured his knee just before we played Featherstone. We are just checking on that to see where he is at.
“And then we have Jake Trueman, who would have had more responsibility this season anyway, because expectations have risen since his excellent season last year, and the second season is always a little more difficult.
“Jake is going to have to keep his feet on the ground and work hard to continue improving as a player. With Luke not being in the team, it puts a little more pressure on Jake and I’m confident he is going to step up, but he needs to improve his organising ability with the team. We have been talking to him about doing that, and Luke’s injury will heighten the need for him to succeed in that aim.”
The Tigers have received a dispensation to discount Gale’s salary on its salary cap, giving them room in theory to enter the recruitment market, which, apart from in the case of Rankin, they have been notably absent from in the close-season. And Powell isn’t unhappy about that. He points out that a noticeable feature of his squad is its strength in depth, which comes at least partly from the club’s ability to keep hold of some of its best players.
“When you have a season like we did in 2017 you want to retain the players who got you into that position and you spend a fair bit of effort and money in trying to achieve that,” he says.
“Last year we recruited during the season. We had a list of players we wanted to recruit and two of them became available. Liam Watts was at the top of the list and we spoke about Peter Mata’utia at the start of the season and approached Leigh, but he wasn’t available at that point. When we did sign him it took him a while to settle in and see how we play, but now, having spent time in pre-season with him, I’m confident we will see his quality.
“Liam left Hull in controversial circumstances, but he has been great with us. He has had a fantastic pre-season with us and he has grown in terms of leadership. He is international quality, and he is going to have to make sure the England coaches see that. It should be one of his targets. For some reason it hasn’t happened for him yet.
“People have asked me why we haven’t recruited a centre to replace Jake Webster, but we have Greg Minikin, Tuoyo Egodo and Alex Foster who can play in that position as well as Ben Roberts. You need to create the space to allow players to thrive in your system. If you look at Luke Thompson at St Helens, he is possibly the best frontrower in the competition now after the way he played for England. But he wasn’t recruited, he came through the St Helens system and we have to give the same type of opportunity to players to come through and prosper within our club. Greg now has a great opportunity to grab that centre position.
“I hope that by the end of the season he is an embedded player in our team. So I don’t buy into the idea that we have to be continually signing new recruits. We signed two in mid-season and our squad has been deep for a number of years. We’ve had some significant injuries to deal with and I think we’ve handled them pretty well.
“We have a player like Matt Cook who is an experienced player who improves year on year, his fitness has improved and the boys love him. He’s a very popular member of the squad and he was unlucky last year to suffer a bicep injury. That hurt us towards the end of the season because we lost that depth that he helped to provide.
“Then we have Alex Foster, who I love as a player, especially his ability to play in the centre or the back row. He does a lot of the simple things exceedingly well and he’s as tough as teak. His injury last year hurt us as much as anyone’s injury, because he does a lot of quality things for the team.
“In terms of keeping the players who other clubs wanted, Adam Milner is the obvious example.
“Adam has played for England now and there is still some improvement in him. He has grown to become an outstanding player for us and the retention of players like him is important. It’s difficult to retain players when a team is doing outstandingly well, because of course they all want more money and that’s just the way it is. You create a problem for yourself because players improve within your system, which is what you want them to do, but then you have to enhance their salaries.”
During his time at Castleford, Powell has a record of signing players from outside Super League and turning them into Super League players.
“I don’t know whether we are the best or not at recruiting, but we have been good at recruiting players with ability and getting them to express their talent and become good Rugby League players,” he says.
“Getting the best out of players is what Rugby League should be about. Even players who come from other Super League clubs are players we want to play better than they ever have.”
The Tigers’ captain during 2019 will once again be Michael Shenton, with Powell making no bones about his admiration for the former Great Britain centre, whose form last season must have brought him close to selection for England.
“Different international coaches want different types of players, but I don’t think there’s a better player in the competition at putting his winger in for tries,” argues Powell.
“And then you see the number of subtle touches that he contributes in every game. As a leader, as a player and as an individual he has been outstanding. He is certainly capable of playing for England even today.”
And in response to his team’s failure to win the crucial matches of the last two seasons, Powell admits that he has made some modifications to his pre-season strategy.
“The two previous seasons were similar in their pre-season content. We trained a certain way and it was successful for us. When it came down to those two big games the opposition played better than us and we had too many players who didn’t perform to their optimum ability.
“We had to take note of that and do something about it. So our training has been a bit tougher this year and a bit more basic and focused on specific elements of the game, although you don’t know whether you will see any differences until the season gets under way. We have trained differently, and the players can see it, and what we want to see now are different performance levels in specific elements of Rugby League.”
Finally, Powell is emphatic about his aims for the 2019 season.
“We are absolutely aiming for both major trophies,” he insists. “You take each game as it comes in the Challenge Cup, while we have been really consistent in Super League and we want to win something. We will go hell for leather in every competition. It’s going to be a massive challenge but we want a challenge and that’s what we play for.
“That is the desire and will of everyone at this club.”
2019 Squad: 1 Peter Mata’utia, 2 James Clare, 3 Greg Minikin, 4 Michael Shenton, 5 Greg Eden, 6 Jake Trueman, 7 Luke Gale, 8 Liam Watts, 9 Paul McShane, 10 Grant Millington, 11 Oliver Holmes, 12 Mike McMeeken, 13 Adam Milner, 14 Nathan Massey, 15 Jesse Sene-Lefao, 16 Junior Moors, 17 Alex Foster, 18 Matt Cook, 19 Ben Roberts, 20 Jamie Ellis, 21 Mitch Clark, 23 Will Maher, 24 Cory Aston, 25 Tuoyo Egodo, 26 Kieran Gill, 27 Calum Turner, 28 Lewis Peachey, 29 Jacques O’Neill, 30 Robbie Storey, 31 Lewis Carr, 32 Jordan Rankin
INS: Peter Mata’utia (Leigh Centurions – July 2018), Liam Watts (Hull FC – March 2018), Jordan Rankin (Huddersfield Giants)
OUTS: Jake Webster (Bradford Bulls), Gadwin Springer (Toronto Wolfpack), Garry Lo (released – May 2018), James Green (Bradford Bulls – August 2018), Jy Hitchcox (Bradford Bulls), Brandon Douglas (Doncaster), Kieran Gill (Newcastle Thunder – season-long loan), Joe Wardle (Huddersfield Giants)
Sunday 30 December: Castleford Tigers 56 Featherstone Rovers 0 (at Mend-a-Hose Jungle)
Sunday 20 January: Leeds Rhinos (A, 3.00m) (Kallum Watkins Testimonial)
Director of Rugby: Jon Wells
Head Coach: Daryl Powell
Assistant Coach: Danny Orr
Assistant Coach: Ryan Sheridan
Head of Strength & Conditioning: Jamie Bell
Head Physiotherapist: Matt Crowther
Head of Youth: Darren Higgins
Player Welfare Manager: Andy Lynch
Home Kit: Amber shirt with three black hoops
Away Kit: Black shirt with amber shoulders