On the eve of their opening match of the 2020 Super League season, MARTYN SADLER talks to Castleford Tigers coach DARYL POWELL about his club’s prospects.
A YEAR AGO, when I previewed the 2019 season with him, I wrote that Tigers’ coach Daryl Powell must have been getting used to bad news.
In 2017 he had been 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 2018 he had seen his star halfback Luke Gale sustain a knee injury and miss four months of the season. And just before the start of the 2019 season Gale had suffered an Achilles tendon injury that ultimately kept him out for the full season.
Powell, however, responded philosophically to his ill fortune, pointing out that the absence of star players is all part of the game and that it wouldn’t affect his preparations. Now, twelve months later, I remind him of his words in 2019.
“It was a significant issue losing one of our key players right at the start of the pre-season,” he admits.
“But you don’t want to show that it will be a big issue. You have to believe that you can perform with the squad that’s available to you.”
Of course Gale will be absent again, but this time because he has transferred to Leeds Rhinos during the close season. So, unlike a year ago, the Tigers won’t have to adapt to playing without the player who had been their star man, winning the Albert Goldthorpe Medal three years in a row.
“For the last two years Luke Gale hasn’t played for us, so we hope we won’t have these big issues at the start of this season,” says Powell, who believes he has a more than satisfactory replacement for his departed star scrum-half in Danny Richardson, who he recruited in the off-season from St Helens.
“Danny has been phenomenal right from the start. Galey had a big influence and we wish him well. But now we have a couple of good halfbacks who are both British and have formed a great friendship with each other. I am really looking forward to seeing how their partnership unfolds to see where they can take us.
“There were a few reasons for signing him. You look at the potential of a player and assess his current skill set. Danny is a really good communicator and he has a cockiness about him that you always want to see. He’s a self-assured young man and we believe he has a fair bit of development within him that we can help him with. He’s a good kicker of the ball and we want him to take the line on and play instinctively.
“St Helens had three high qualify halfbacks and only two places available, so Danny was the one who largely missed out. Coaches go different ways based on their preferences. 2019 was a tough year for him, but that helps us because we now have a very highly motivated player.
“Players go through different stages in their careers, they get injured or lose form and a coach has a different preferences and a player’s motivation ebbs and flows, as no doubt Danny’s did, but I can’t speak highly enough of him now.”
Richardson, 23, will partner Jake Trueman, 20, at halfback for the Tigers in 2020, with Trueman having returned from the Great Britain tour without having played a game.
“It was an interesting trip for him, allowing him to see how elite players go about their work. He has come back with more confidence. So far in his career he has not been a big communicator; he’s self-assured but in a quiet way but I think we’ll see him more vocal on the field alongside Danny.
“I thought that Great Britain should have played him in the last game of the tour. They hadn’t been playing well anyway, so what was there to lose? He did feel as though he was going to play in the last game, but ultimately we ended up getting him in a little earlier than we might have done. So maybe it has benefited us in the long term, but I would really have liked to see him play.”
Another player who Powell expects big things from is George Griffin, who the Tigers signed from Salford and who Red Devils coach Ian Watson regretted losing.
“Rugby League is a really tough game and you need certain qualities in key positions,” says Powell.
“We will play George in the front row, whereas he played in the back row for Salford. For me he is a frontrower and he has shown that already. I loved watching him play last year; I marvelled at how hard he works. You look at the stats and he is consistently making 50-plus tackles, playing big minutes and he’s such a tough character. He does all the little things well and he’s a great guy too, fitting seamlessly into the group.
“We kept an eye on him all the way through the season. The more I watched him, the more impressed with him I was. I can see exactly why a coach would not want to lose him, because he is such a worker with a great engine. Some people are standard bearers, and we have a number of them, but I can see him being right up there.”
The Tigers’ only overseas signing for 2020 is Sosaia Feki, who joins from the NRL’s Cronulla Sharks, while he has also signed a winger in Derrell Olpherts from the Red Devils.
“On the wings we’ve signed a bit more size. The challenge for James Clare and Greg Eden is that we have two new wingers coming in and there is a lot of competition for those places. We needed a little more size in the outside backs to get speed in the rucks early in sets. Sosaia looks strong and quick and he has fitted in well.
“Greg’s got to nail his game. He has always had an instinct to play the game – you put him away and he’s as quick as anyone. When we were flying he was getting into open space a lot, but that won’t always happen and he perhaps needs to broaden his game.
“I coached Derrell at Featherstone. Salford picked him up from Newcastle and did a really good job with him. He’s got a natural physicality and I think Ian Watson has done a great job with him. We just need to improve a few little things and his natural physicality will make sure he makes a great contribution for us.”
Tyla Hepi will join the Tigers at the age of 26 from Toulouse Olympique, after having made four Super League appearances off the bench for Hull KR in 2013.
“Tyla has replaced Mitch Clark’s role in the team,” explains Powell.
“He did well against Bradford on Boxing Day, but he is still coming to terms with our speed and the way that we train. That will be an evolution for Tyla. But he’s a great kid and he is another who has fitted in immediately. He’s a goer and is similar to Mitch in that he’ll go at 100 miles per hour at everything. There are some challenges for him in Super League, but from what I’ve seen so far he’ll really have a go at it.”
Apart from Gale, the other major player to leave the Tigers in the close-season was Greg Minikin.
“Greg had a direct decision to make and he chose Hull KR,” says Powell.
“Whether that was for the opportunity or the money, I’m not really sure. But I was disappointed to see him go and I wish him all the best.
“Peter Mata’utia has trained in the centres throughout our pre-season. He will be an option at fullback, but is more likely to play in the centre. But Jordan Rankin will start at fullback for us.
“Apart from Mata’utia, we also have Cheyse Blair and Michael Shenton competing for centre places. When you look at our centres, Michael hasn’t missed any training sessions and I’ve been very happy with him. He looks in good nick and he will captain the team again.”
And Powell is clear about his aims for the new season, while contemplating how the new reserve structure will impact on his players.
“The utopia is being able to play a certain way. We haven’t had all the pieces of the jigsaw available to do it and we have had to rein the pieces in during the last two years.
“We have dual-registration with York and Keighley, but I’m not sure how many players will go out. I am a massive fan or reserves. It will be very testing but it’s necessary.
“Jacques O’Neill, for example, only played five or six games last year, but he couldn’t play anywhere else. To expect him to step straight into a Super League team on that basis is probably unreasonable.
“We have been in and around the play-off places. We want to do it again and then be in a position to compete for a trophy.
“Our initial target is the top five. The last three years we have been in a Grand Final (2017), one game away (2018) and then two games away. But we want to be in the shooting match at the end.”
2020 Squad: 1 Jordan Rankin, 2 Derrell Olpherts, 3 Peter Mata’utia, 4 Michael Shenton 5 Sosaia Feki, 6 Jake Trueman, 7 Danny Richardson, 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 George Griffin, 17 Alex Foster, 18 Cheyse Blair, 19 Daniel Smith, 20 Junior Moors, 21 James Clare, 22 Jacques O’Neill, 23 Matt Cook, 24 Tyla Hepi, 25 Greg Eden, 26 Calum Turner, 27 Lewis Peachey, 28 Brad Graham, 29, Joe Summers, 30 Robbie Storey.
INS: Sosaia Feki (Cronulla Sharks), Cheyse Blair (Melbourne Storm), Danny Richardson (St Helens), Tyla Hepi (Toulouse Olympique), George Griffin (Salford Red Devils), Derrell Olpherts (Salford Red Devils).
OUTS: Greg Minikin (Hull Kingston Rovers), Luke Gale (Leeds Rhinos), Jamie Ellis (Hull Kingston Rovers), Mitch Clark (Wigan Warriors), Will Maher (Hull Kingston Rovers), Cory Aston (London Broncos), Tuoyo Egodo (London Broncos), Kieran Gill (Newcastle Thunder), Chris Clarkson (York City Knights).
26 December: Castleford Tigers 14 Bradford Bulls 20
12 January: Widnes Vikings Castleford Tigers
19 January: v Toronto Wolfpack (H) (Michael Shenton 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: Keith Lambeth
Head of Analysis: Steve Mills
Home Kit: Amber shirt with black trimmings
Away Kit: Yellow shirt with white chevron