It is a cold December morning at Castleford Tigers, with preparations well underway for the new season. The players are out training, the coaching staff are crunching the GPS numbers and all minds seem focussed on 2020 and nothing else.
But if you stand still for too long in professional sport, you quickly fall behind: which is why the key men at Castleford are about to sit down for their latest 2021 recruitment meeting. Yes, you read that right: despite 2020 not even being here yet, head coach Daryl Powell, head of rugby Jon Wells and other key members of the Tigers’ coaching staff are already looking ahead to 2021.
Castleford have very kindly invited me behind the scenes to learn about the depth clubs go into – as well as the time they spend – on recruitment and retention. Even before getting to the ground, I was surprised to learn the focus would be entirely fixed on what their squad looks like in 2021, meaning the Tigers are planning for a season that is still almost 15 months away.
Joining Powell and Wells are assistants Ryan Sheridan and Danny Orr, plus head of analysis Ste Mills. We start with an overview of Castleford’s current cap situation: the Tigers still have cap space under the £2.1million limit as it stands. Looking ahead to 2021, there is inevitably less already committed to contracted players next year – though there are potential players who could leave before then and unfolding situations happening all the time.
“Retention is just as important as recruitment in these meetings,” Wells tells me, as the team look at two players who are out-of-contract at the end of this season that have an option for an extra year in the club’s favour. One of them will almost certainly be retained, as Powell praises the impact the player has on the group. It feels as though, with unanimous support for Powell’s comments in the room, that decision has already been made.
Interestingly, I got the feeling that the coaching staff already have a fair idea on which way they will go with many of the other out-of-contract players, despite the season not even starting yet. It’s emphasised to me that the first three months of any season is crucial in regards to locking in and finalising those decisions.
Wells explains that he is already being inundated with calls from agents regarding player options for 2021. It seems that Australian agents, in particular, know what positions Castleford are looking to improve – but it’s suggested that there is a lack of understanding from them about what they and other Super League clubs can do financially.
We then jump into some primary targets, including three forwards in the NRL. One in particular is unlikely to stay at his current club due to cap restraints. The agent has already made contact with Castleford, and I’m impressed to discover that all the coaches have effectively done homework on him; watching clips that Mills has distributed prior to the meeting so they can have a frank discussion about any key target.
“He’s got a good fend on him,” Powell says. “He’s exactly what we’re after.. he does his job,” Sheridan adds, before Powell admits the player reminds him of Liam Watts. This is the level of detail that underlines one of my major lessons from this day: clubs do not guess on recruitment by any stretch of the imagination. This is almost a whole year out from any new signing arriving at Castleford, and every inch of their game – and personal life – is scrutinised. It’s arguably the latter that’s as important; every player is analysed as a person, with consideration over whether they’d fit the Tigers’ social group.
That’s how the conversation rolls onto domestic targets – as it’s mentioned that one Super League forward whose contract expires this year is close friends with Junior Moors and Jesse Sene-Lefao, and would perhaps give Castleford an advantage in a likely race for his signature when clubs are allowed to officially approach players later this year.
In almost every instance of a particular player being discussed, the staff are conscious of two things: whether they would fit the Castleford culture, and if they would fit in with the way Powell likes his teams to play. Again, this is where it becomes apparent that clubs don’t guess. They take their time, and the reason why these meetings happen so far in advance is that it gives teams the opportunity to give due consideration to a signing, rather than panic.
What’s also apparent is that recruitment appears to be half-rugby, half-accountancy in terms of the knowledge required. Most player conversations boil down to money, and how Castleford would be able to accommodate their salary given how they will spend close to the full cap in 2021. That’s the case with one current Tigers player, too.
It feels as though this player – whose contract ends this year and is constantly mentioned by the staff – is key to their plans. Granted, people could always leave through the year to change the financial situation, and Powell insists he is frequently speaking with players who could fall into that bracket if they become frustrated with a lack of minutes, or want a new option somewhere else.
But this one player, in particular, is, in the coaching staff’s words, important to the rest of the recruitment process. With clubs often not able to make a final decision on existing players until midway through the season, it means the chance of missing out on big-name targets is high. In a list of over 50 domestic players that are out-of-contract this year, a meticulous, detailed discussion ensues about which ones are credible targets that would both want to join, and improve, Castleford in 2021. Names are scratched off, some are placed in a maybe category and just three or four remain by the end: including a prominent pivot who is likely to get serious interest when he is on the open market later this year.
We finish with an agreement on who the primary targets are to study for the next meeting, and Mills agrees to collate footage to send to the coaching staff. There is also one key insistence from Powell to his team: 2017 is long gone. While the desire from some Castleford fans may be to re-create that year all over again, Powell is not interested in that.
He is trying to evolve his squad and take the club in a fresh direction. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain: with the level of detail he and his coaching staff go into when it comes to recruitment to find the next big thing for Castleford, there is no shortage of dedication in trying to achieve that goal.