From part-time labourer to Man of Steel: the rise and rise of Luke Gale

It is, in many ways, one of the more extraordinary journeys to the pinnacle of British rugby league.

For most Man of Steel winners, the career trajectory is fairly straightforward. Emerge as a talent in the Academy, make an instant impression at first-team level in Super League and eventually earn the sport’s biggest individual accolade: the Man of Steel award.

But for the 2017 winner, things have played out much, much differently.

As Luke Gale collected the award on stage in Manchester last night, he must have surely cast his mind back a decade or so ago at one stage in the evening – because back then, things were very different indeed.

In 2007, Gale had found himself unable to force his way into the first-team at hometown club Leeds. With no option to dislodge the likes of Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow in the embryonic years of the Rhinos’ golden generation, he found himself leaving Leeds and starting afresh elsewhere.

His first move? Part-time rugby with third-tier side Doncaster – which meant the harsh reality of finding a day-to-day job, too.

Gale recalls: Obviously when you’re growing up – and I’d been at Leeds since probably 12 years old in the scholarship system – it was hard to leave. But you’ve just got to move on and keep trying.

“I worked part-time with my dad. I did some manual labour and it was only six weeks. I say six weeks, but my dad says I lasted six days! I told him that it wasn’t for me!

“It just made me more determined, if I’m honest. But Doncaster was good. You were playing against adults there and I learned to run a team at a young age. I think it gave me a good grounding really.”

Gale was named the third division’s Young Player of the Year in 2007, before in 2009, catching the eye of a Super League coach. That man, ironically, was the current Leeds coach and the man whose side he will be trying to beat in this weekend’s Grand Final: Brian McDermott.

McDermott then, of course, was coach of London, and Gale continues the story: “It was Brian there who gave me my first Super League game, so there’s a few different stories in this week’s game!

“He was good, really good in fact. He was straight with his ways but he helped me massively and gave me my first shot so, yes, I owe him a bit.”

But eventually, the lure of home and playing back in Yorkshire would prove too strong a temptation to resist and, with his reputation burgeoning, 2012 saw him move back north with Bradford Bulls. Gale would spend three years at Odsal, but even by the time that stint came to an end in 2014, there were few, if any, talking him up as a standout half-back in Super League.

However, it was his next move which would prove to be an inspired one.

“I can remember meeting Daryl Powell for a coffee in his mansion – he has a big farmhouse – and we had a chat. We probably spoke about rugby for an hour and I remember ringing my agent and saying ‘I want to sign for Cas’.

“So it was probably an hour’s chat and I knew I wanted to play for him. The rest is history. I owe Daryl and his staff – who are outstanding as well – everything really. He’s been really good for me. You learn your trade more. He’s taught me the skills of a half-back and what he’s made here is a superb team; I can’t speak highly enough of him

“I spoke with a few sides after Bradford got relegated. A few things were in the pipeline but that chat with Daryl made me want to be a part of it.”

And after crafting his reputation and his game under Powell, both Gale and Castleford arrive on the biggest stage of all this weekend after four seasons of trying.

Together, they stand on the brink of creating genuine history for Castleford, with Gale at the heart of it all – as he has been so often this season, fortnight lay-off for that appendix business we all know so much about.

“It means everything to the town,” Gale says. “Even walking around Castleford, people tell you how much it means and they live and breathe rugby league. It’s massive for the area. It’s probably brought the area a lot closer as well and given everyone a real lift.”

It’s been a heck of a journey so far. And given Gale’s progression to the top of the sport, you suspect it may not be over just yet, either.