After a harrowing year, Castleford are starting over from scratch, as new head coach Craig Lingard tells STEPHEN IBBETSON.
CASTLEFORD fans recently received something they have not been used to for some time now – good news. In fact, two pieces of good news.
Most obviously there has been the arrival of Martin Jepson, founder of Ergo Real Estate and a club sponsor in recent seasons, as a significant shareholder, with a vow to invest a seven-figure sum into the club’s infrastructure immediately.
But there was also the RFL’s admission that Castleford should have received a higher grading score than their actual indicative score, the club having made an error in their submission, and therefore should have been placed eleventh in the rankings.
Suddenly, there is real hope again that the Tigers can stay in Super League for 2025 and beyond.
It is a welcome lift for a supporter base that has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress, on and off the field, in recent years.
The past twelve months have brought this all into the open, with dire results and performances taking Castleford to the brink of relegation from Super League.
A tumultuous year saw Lee Radford leave as head coach after only three games, assistant Andy Last step up and then get the boot himself, before Danny Ward finally dragged them over the line.
Ward’s decision not to stay on – itself taken by many as a worrying sign of their future prospects – meant that the Tigers were searching for a fourth new coach in one year, and they arrived at a man already in the building since May.
Craig Lingard initially applied for the head coach role before it was given to Last, but he was brought in as an assistant anyway and combined that duty with serving a fourth and final season at the helm of Championship overachievers Batley.
It means that, as he prepares to complete a remarkable journey, detailed in the next issue of Rugby League World out this Friday, through pretty much every level of the game to reach Super League, he has already formed some impressions on where things have gone so badly wrong of late.
“I was going between Batley and Castleford. The environment and the atmosphere in the camps was like chalk and cheese,” he recalls of last season.
“For whatever reason, the group didn’t seem as together as it needed to be, and I guess that showed in performances on the field.
“How you start the season is really important, because that sets the platform for where you go. I think maybe the World Cup impacted on the pre-season. Andy Last was with England and Lee Radford was with Samoa, so they were delayed coming back.
“From speaking to the players, that seemed to have a massively detrimental impact. They didn’t start with the intensity and the discipline that they needed to start with, and that had an impact all the way through the season.”
While some fear Castleford are only on a downward slope, Lingard believes the worst should be behind them.
“As bad as last season was, I think it maybe needed to happen, to generate some changes and make a fresh start,” he adds.
“Again I might be speaking out of turn, but looking back I think the club have maybe looked back and held onto 2017 too much without dealing with the changes that were needed.
“Because of how bad it was last season, it’s maybe helped make some changes and have that fresh start, rip the script up and start again.”
The theme of Castleford’s recruitment for 2024 has been of bringing the age profile down significantly.
Gone are Greg Eden, Kenny Edwards, Niall Evalds, Bureta Faraimo, Mahe Fonua, Nathan Massey, Suaia Matagi, Adam Milner, Daniel Smith, Jordan Turner and Gareth Widdop, all 30 or above at the end of last season.
Of the ten incomings to date, the oldest is 27-year-old Nixon Putt. Sam Wood is 26, Elie El-Zakhem and Luke Hooley 25, and Samy Kibula and Rowan Milnes 24 (as is Luis Johnson, currently on trial).
Josh Hodson, Sylvester Namo and Innes Senior are all 23 while Josh Simm is the youngest of the crop at 22.
“It’s funny, recently we did a skill drill warm-up and we put oldies against youngies. The oldies started at 25, so that’s the difference (to last season),” says Lingard.
“That’s been needed, getting the player age down. It means we can get them out on the field longer, we can ask more of them, put them under a little bit more stress and strain and see what they can do.
“How they’ve trained so far, I think if we’d tried to train like this last year with the group we had, we wouldn’t be able to.
“The players who have come in are younger and yes, they’re inexperienced, very few of them have played over 100 Super League games. But they’re players who still have something to achieve in the game.”
And something to prove, with this being either a first chance at this level, or another chance, having not yet made the breakthrough.
Some might call it penny-pinching – and with off-field progress of greatest concern, who can truly blame them – but Castleford have gone for proven experience in recent years and that got them nowhere. Now, at the very least, there is a hungry group.
Their three overseas signings – offloading backrowers Putt and El-Zakhem plus Namo, a prop signed with an ACL injury who may only debut come March – have a total of zero NRL appearances, like fellow quota players Liam Horne and Charbel Tasipale, who remain from last season.
Lingard has also signed three players familiar to him from his Batley days in centre Hodson, another Super League newcomer, plus fullback Hooley and prop Kibula, who have eleven top-flight appearances between them.
Wood – whom Lingard is keen to play as a centre – and halfback Milnes both join from Hull KR having shown promise but failed to nail down a regular starting place, similar to wingers Senior (on loan from Huddersfield) and Simm in their nascent careers to date.
“A lot of the players that we’ve brought in, we want them to be successful not just this year, but the next four, five, six, seven seasons,” explains Lingard.
“With the age profile we’ve got, there’s now a lot of players in that age bracket where we can hopefully build a sustainable squad around them for the foreseeable future.
“We know not all of them are going to be successful, but if we can get 75 percent of the players we’ve brought in to be successful, then that bodes well for the future of the club.”
Considering the lack of pedigree, fans already weary from four successive bottom-half finishes are likely keeping their expectations low.
And Lingard has no issue with a dose of realism, aware that Castleford will have to claw their way back step by step.
“It’s not being negative or defeatist to say that we’re at the bottom of the pile. You only have to look at the betting already – they’ve got London bottom and Castleford second-bottom,” he says.
“We finished eleventh last year, and eight points below tenth. It’s not like we were close to tenth or close to the play-offs. We were a mile off. What we’ve got to do is find a way to bridge that gap.
“The first thing we have to do is be difficult to beat. Last year teams just knew that if they got in an arm wrestle with us and went set-for-set for 15-20 minutes, we’d be the ones that would break first.
“We’ve got to make sure we change that mentality as a group. We’ve got to be more resilient, more determined and more desperate. We’ll be under the pump at times and we need to come through the other side of that adversity.
“We’re doing that in pre-season – the first six-week block of training is all about putting them into a position they’re not comfortable in, taking them outside their comfort zone, trying to challenge them physically and mentally and seeing what we’ve got.”
Lingard is used to being an underdog – such has been the way throughout his coaching career, not least with Batley.
On one of the Championship’s smallest budgets, he led the Bulldogs to a play-off semi-final in 2021, the Grand Final in 2022, and then the 1895 Cup final at Wembley in 2023.
“To achieve that in three consecutive seasons, with the budget that we worked with, it just shows you don’t always have to have the most money and the best players on paper to be able to achieve something,” says Lingard.
“I guess we’re in a similar place now at Castleford. We might not spend as much as other people but what can we achieve with the players we’ve got? It’s about trying to get the players we have got to buy into that collective goal of trying to achieve something.
“That’s the challenge that you like as a coach. It would be great to walk into a club and be told ‘you can spend what you want and bring in whoever you want’, but that doesn’t always work (and bring success).
“The challenge that we’ve got here is trying to replicate what we did at Batley.”
It’s a great challenge, but one that Lingard might be uniquely equipped to take on.