This article, written by Gareth Walker, originally appeared in issue 399 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 400 is currently in production and will be on sale from July 11. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
NB: Since this interview was published, Marc Sneyd has signed for Hull FC
You’d have got long odds on Liam Finn and Marc Sneyd being the most talked about halfback pairing in Super League back in early December.
Then, Finn was still working as an electrician while on a part-time contract at Featherstone, while Sneyd was hoping to make the most of being a makeweight loan signing in the deal that took Rangi Chase from Castleford to Salford.
By their own admissions they knew very little about each other – and Finn’s only target on joining the Tigers later that month was to get into the 17 somewhere.
Fast forward six months and the pair are steering a Castleford team with very real top four aspirations this season. Finn has taken his long-awaited second chance at top-flight rugby with both hands, and Sneyd has displayed the rich potential he fleetingly showed at Salford, often as a fullback.
“I just had the mentality that I was signed as a bit of cover, so I was concentrating on trying to get in the 17.” – Liam Finn
It’s the most unlikely success story in Super League this year, but a fascinating one nonetheless. Sneyd admits the only thing he knew about Finn when he signed was the world record for consecutive goal kicks he set with Featherstone in 2012.
Finn was not much different himself.
“The first thing I knew about Sneydy was when Mark Aston rung up and said he was going to play for Ireland in the World Cup,” Finn told Rugby League World from the Tigers’ hospitality marquee at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle.
“I got to know where he was playing, and just thought, ‘Good, that’s another Super League player for us’. Unfortunately it fell through on red tape and I didn’t get to meet him then, thought nothing of it, and when I came here he was already at the club.”
That was just four days before Castleford’s Boxing Day friendly with Halifax, a game that the Tigers ended up drawing. Finn started as a substitute and actually replaced Sneyd with 15 minutes to go – a spell that was enough to convince Daryl Powell that he could comfortably make the step up from the Championship.
Still, neither player was even guaranteed a starting spot. They were two of five halfback options at the club, with Luke Dorn training in that position, Jamie Ellis already in place and Brett Seymour attempting to win a permanent deal with the club.
But come January, Sneyd and Finn started at halfback together for the first time in a friendly at Bradford, and the Tigers won 66-10. The rest is history – not that you will find either player resting on their laurels over their starting position, despite Dorn being used mainly at fullback and Seymour having left the club in early March.
“I don’t think it’s guaranteed still, because Jamie (Ellis) is playing well too,” Finn reasoned. “He took his chance when we had a short turnaround over Easter – we beat Warrington quite convincingly and I didn’t play.
“Then he played again against Huddersfield and did really well. All three of know that any of us could be playing at any time.”
Sneyd added: “Daryl still mixes it up now with putting Jamie in. It was never nailed on for us to be starting halfbacks.”
Goal kicking showdown
Still, the pair have undoubtedly forged an excellent partnership, with their differing styles appearing to compliment each other perfectly.
Finn has taken on the role of chief organiser and playmaker that he filled with such distinction under Powell at Featherstone. Sneyd is a constant threat with ball in hand, with his pace and step causing defences problems every weekend.
But neither can be pigeon-holed into just those categories, with Finn proving a threat to defences himself and Sneyd maturing into a halfback with game sense and control, going alongside his individual skills. Both have also defended well when targeted by rival attacks.
They seem to fit together perfectly, with Ellis adding a further dimension with his own contributions both at halfback and hooker. But the prolific Finn and Sneyd did have one early issue to settle – who would be taking the conversions.
“Dicko (Kirk Dixon) was kicking at first but he didn’t play in a friendly we had against York,” Finn explained.
“Me, Sneydy and Jordan Tansey did a ten kick competition to see who was kicking that day. Sneydy kicked ten and I think me and Tansey got nine, so he kicked against York.
“When Dicko got injured Sneydy went straight in and pretty much hasn’t missed since. It hasn’t been a problem for me. I enjoy kicking and don’t mind doing it as a job. But I also don’t mind that bit of recovery after a try that I haven’t experienced for the last ten years!”
Sneyd had no qualms about the additional pressure on his young shoulders.
“I can’t not kick in a game. I just really enjoy that responsibility.”
With the goal kicking sorted, it was then a matter of forging an understanding with ball in hand. It didn’t take long. With Sneyd and Finn steering the ship, the Tigers won their first five Super League matches.
“With the players that Daryl brought, I think the main thing was trying to gel everyone together in a quick period of time,” Sneyd explained. “I think everything got simplified a bit and everyone just bought straight into it. It just clicked straight away. Whether we were expected to be where we are, I’m not too sure.
“It’s quite easy to strike up an understanding here with the structures we have. Everybody seems to know what’s going on.”
For Finn, the focus early on was very much on a personal level rather than worrying about where the team’s prospects in Super League.
“To be honest I didn’t think that much about it because I was just trying to get myself in the team” he said. “I just had the mentality that I was signed as a bit of cover, so I was concentrating on trying to get in the 17. I wasn’t too worried about thinking about how we were going to go at first, but once I got in the team I started to realise we had a bit of potential.”
That much was apparent very early on, especially when Wigan were among those first five scalps in a thrilling home game. Last gasp wins over the current champions and Hull FC in consecutive home games established a feel-good atmosphere at the Jungle that is still going strong, aided by the club’s post-match anthem “Sweet Caroline”.
“It’s awesome actually,” Finn smiled. “I think the Wigan game was the best one, and then Hull the week after. Two weeks on the trot we won in the last couple of minutes, and when it all comes down to that last second, it intensifies everything. This place took off for those two games, and it’s been like that every week, especially when we’ve won.”
Sneyd agrees. “Whether we win or lose, they don’t seem to shut up – they’re constantly singing for 80 minutes. When you need a bit of something from somewhere, they become your second wind and pick you up when something hasn’t gone right. You can’t fault them – the fans have been absolutely outstanding.”
Another group that the pair is quick to praise is the coaching staff. Powell has rightly earned plenty of plaudits for the outstanding job he has done in turning the club’s fortunes around, but questions about his influence are met with responses that also highlight the role of his assistants Ryan Sheridan and Danny Orr.
“All three of the coaches for me have been pretty massive,” Sneyd said. “We do quite a lot of kicking with Danny, and individually work with Ryan Sheridan on passing and things like that it’s helped me out massively in comparison to what I was like when I first came here.”
Finn feels that the fact the coaches played in the same positions as him and Sneyd has also been a significant bonus.
“It does helping having experienced halfbacks on the coaching staff and they’re all pretty different as well. Sometimes that can be a worry when you have two coaches that have played in similar positions, but they’re totally different. Shez breaks everything down and works on the finer stuff, and Daryl has to look after the bigger picture because he’s in charge of everybody.
“Danny then comes in and adds a bit of both – some of the bigger picture and some of the detailed stuff. It works pretty well, especially for us as halfbacks – we get the best of it because all three are ex-Great Britain internationals so we can pick their brains whenever we want. If one’s busy we can just get the other.”
The conversation turns to both players’ futures. Sneyd’s in particular has been the focus of much attention, with Powell making no secret of his desire to keep him at the club beyond this season’s loan, and Salford officials vociferous on their desire to keep a player who is contracted to them for 2015.
Sneyd is still only 23, and the attention on him from supporters at both clubs could easily have proved a distraction. His form on the field is enough to suggest that simply hasn’t been the case.
“It’s not distracted me at all,” he insisted. “I just let most things go over my head to be fair. Obviously a lot of people are asking me the question, but the fact is that I’m contracted at Salford.
“I haven’t really spoke to anybody – my agent will sort all that out. I’ve just been concentrating on playing here, and then we’ll see what happens. I haven’t thought about it. My agent says he will sort if out and he’ll speak to me if he needs to. It’s not really got to the stage where it’s been a problem, I’m just carrying on and enjoying it.”
At the time of the interview Finn had no deal in place for 2015 and beyond, but just three days later it was confirmed he had signed a new two-year contract – with a third year option – to remain at the club, cementing his status as one of the success stories of the season.
“I just signed for this year, for the club to see how I go and for myself, to see if I could adapt to it. Now I’d like to carry on and play for as long as I can at this level.”
The press release that accompanied Finn’s deal highlighted his willingness to continue improving.
“It’s pleasing that I’ve managed to do a good enough job to earn a new contract and hopefully I can kick on and establish myself as a Super League player,” it read.
“Hopefully now I can concentrate even more on my rugby and try and improve and not just be a Super League player, but be a good Super League player.”
The result of Castleford’s fine first half of the season is a change in expectations of what they can achieve – from outside the club at least.
Powell stressed in the May edition of Rugby League World that he always felt the club should be in a position to challenge for trophies, but while few others may have agreed back in February, his Tigers side are now seen as a very real threat by rival teams. Will that change anything from the squad’s point of view?
“I think everyone’s attitude has grown and grown as the season’s gone on,” Sneyd responded. “The atmosphere going around at training is absolutely massive at the moment. I think everyone believes whatever game we go into that we can win it.
“Daryl’s big thing was just to compete in every game that we play. Whether we win or lose, he was kind of happy if we were competing. Everyone has carried on doing the same, and it seems to be going well.”
Finn added: “We break it down into smaller parts of the season, which helps me a fair bit, to focus on a short period of time and then move on and see where we are after that. It helps you to concentrate and not look too far down the track.”
Surely though neither of them could have anticipated the side starting so strongly, and the pair of them becoming one of the most dominant halfback pairings in the competition.
“For me probably not,” Sneyd said. “In my expectations we were probably pushing to make the play-offs with a real good chance, but for me, we’ve started off over-achieving. But we’re not getting too carried away with it. We want to carry on what we’ve been doing.”
“The speculation hasn’t distracted me at all. I just let most things go over my head to be fair.” – Marc Sneyd
Finn goes a step further. “Definitely not. I was speaking to one of my best mates at the start of the season about the situation, and I was just on about breaking into the team at some point. I thought the starting team would have been more or less sorted out when I got here in late December. I just wanted to do my best in training and break into a team that was doing pretty well, and then try and retain my spot.
“Once I was starting at the beginning of the season I just got on with it and didn’t have time to think about it, and then I had a couple of weeks out last month. I didn’t want to at the time but it’s probably really helped me, and Jamie did really well then as well. So no, I didn’t expect to be in this position but hopefully now I can kick on.”
If Finn, Sneyd and the Tigers do, this story of the unlikely lads could have its best chapters still to come.