EARLIER this month, Castleford announced that their former winger and current Sky Sports broadcaster Jon Wells was to join the club as their new head of rugby. A fortnight into his new role, League Express’ AARON BOWER meets Wells for an exclusive interview.
Aaron Bower (AB): I suspect it’s been a whirlwind few days since you joined Castleford – how has the bedding-in process been?
Jon Wells (JW): It’s been very busy, but very productive. I had a really interesting first 48 hours, and my wife was joking that I should have resigned there and then having done my first bit of business with the Liam Watts deal! I’m massively flattered to be offered the position, and it’s one I am going to run in conjunction with my work with Sky. I see it as an evolving role, simply because I don’t know what I’m doing at the moment – but I’ll spend lots of time with the club, tap into the knowledge of a few people, and I think Daryl is delighted because he’s a fresh pair of eyes to take the workload off him: but not with the coaching side of things, I must stress that.
AB: Having gone into broadcasting following your retirement, did you ever envisage being in an administrative role at some point?
JW: I was doing Sky, and that was it as far as I was concerned. It’s something I take incredibly seriously – and I still will. But this is a situation whereby I can do both roles.
AB: People have questioned you over a supposed ‘conflict of interest’ – but will it be difficult balancing the two jobs?
JW: No. I think they can compliment each other, too. If I’m honest, I’d say that’s nonsense that there’s a conflict of interest; you can wear two hats easily enough. When I’m doing my Sky work I’m impartial, and when I’m doing my Castleford work, I’m fully behind the club. That’s it.
AB: Given that, and your past relationship with Castleford, was it therefore easy to accept the role?
JW: Pretty much. I needed to consider the fact that I’ve got two young daughters, and they need a dad. That’s my one danger now – not balancing the two jobs, more the fact I’ve got to consider my family! My job description is massive at Castleford, and I think it’ll become more obvious and detailed as we go on, but my most difficult challenge will be time-management and making sure I can still be dad at home.
AB: So talk us through the main day-to-day responsibilities of your role, Jon.
JW: Straight off the bat.. just to try and take a bit of pressure off Daryl Powell. Recruitment and retention is a part of that, and as I say, we showed in the first 48 hours I was at the club what we are capable of. I join at a perfect time, because you don’t have to beg people to join and sell them a vision: it sells itself these days. From an admin point of view, I’m looking to link up the commercial and football side of things; there’s a hard-working core of staff there, but they need another body – and hopefully I can do that. But mainly, it’s about and helping take the off-field workload from Daryl.
AB: Can it benefit Castleford that you come in having seen things from a different perspective for several years?
JW: I hope so. I’ve been a player, spectator, broadcaster and now I’m in an admin role – I just need to be a referee for a day and I’ve got the full set! We’ve got good, articulate players like Kevin Sinfield who are being retained within the sport post-retirement, and it’s important for the game to retain players who’ve retired, I believe. But yes, I have been looking at things from a different angle for the last few years.. hopefully that’s a benefit.
AB: This Castleford must feel like worlds apart from the one you played for – they’re a progressive, ambitious club, aren’t they?
JW: The right word there is progressive. A lot has been achieved in the last three or four years, but you look at what’s to come. I was privy to some information that was handed out by our MD in terms of our turnover and ticket sales, and we’re on a steep upward curve. The big prize then is our new stadium – far from being a myth these days, we are now going to be in a new stadium: that is a reality. That will be part of my remit moving forward too, helping deliver that.
AB: Talk us through the timeframes regarding Axiom and the new stadium then, Jon.
JW: As far as I’m aware, construction on the stadium begins in the third quarter of 2019, with a view to being ready for the start of the 2021 season. I wouldn’t underline that quote, because we’re in the hands of the developers, but we’ll be getting more and more involved as this goes on and try and hold them to those timescales.
AB: The town of Castleford has such an affinity with Wheldon Road – but is it fair to say it’s holding the club back from truly reaching its potential?
JW: I think you’d be daft to say no. You look at it the other way, and while Wheldon Road will always be our spiritual home, what a new stadium offers in terms of corporate and commercial opportunities is incredible. You look at other clubs like Warrington and St Helens, and there’s no argument that a brand new stadium brings out the best off the field, as well as on it.
AB: What happens to Wheldon Road when you do move?
JW: I just can’t see a situation where Wheldon Road wouldn’t be part of our day-to-day operations long-term. We’re in a very healthy position thanks to some hard which has been done in recent years that means it becomes an asset we do not need to get rid of. I think that would be a hugely important part of our tradition and ethos moving forward. I reckon, off the bat, that would become a pretty useful training facility for us, perhaps.
AB: You enter an admin role at a very interesting time with the off-field drama, shall we call it. How involved will you be in all of that?
JW: I’m not sure yet. Mark Gratton is taking the seat there around the table at the moment and I think there is potential for me to sit there. Because of the role with Sky, the polite thing to do would be to ask for permission from people – but I don’t mind if I’m not sat at the table. There are some big decisions to be made in regards of structure, and we’re at a watershed moment in the sport. I think we’ll have an outcome that will suit everyone, though.
AB: What’s your gut feeling on what the best idea moving forward for the structure is?
JW: I would be surprised if you saw 14 teams next year. I don’t think the talent pool can support that now – but in three or four years, if you make reserve grade mandatory, who knows. I also think 10 teams is unlikely because you’re asking two turkeys to vote for Christmas. There might be some natural wastage that would lead you down that path, but that would be a tragedy. By the process of elimination, I think you’ll expect to see 12 teams. The jury is out on the rest in terms of the Super 8s, though.
AB: You mention reserve grade – it’s high on the agenda of a lot of people..
JW: ..and it’s high on my agenda, too. I’m a product of reserve grade, and I know what it can do for young players. I see it as the proving ground for the game, as the jump between Academy and first-grade is too big a risk for coaches who are in a results-operated industry. It’s the same for young guys, too. There’s a lot of pressure on asking young lads to jump straight up and it’s daunting. It’s an important part of the game we need to get back in. Tony Smith said when we scrapped it that the league had set off a ticking time bomb: I would tend to agree with him.
AB: You’re clearly a fan of it, then – how soon could Castleford have a reserve grade side?
JW: Next year. That’s the hope, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. We have the appetite for it – whether the appetite is the same game-wide, we’ll see.
AB: The perception of the club has changed dramatically in recent years, Jon – the club are now in a position where if they don’t win something this year, it’s been a failure, hasn’t it?
JW: Isn’t that a nice problem to have as a club? That we’re seen as a side who, not just have potential, but are realising some of it, too. I think most people still see the two big trophies as the Grand Final and the Challenge Cup, and if we’re not competing for one of those two trophies this year.. there’s an old adage that you’ve got to lose one to win one; we’ve lost a Challenge Cup final and a Grand Final – it’s obvious what the next step is now, isn’t it!