Written by Callum Walker
It was March 15 and Castleford had just beaten reigning champions St Helens at home by a convincing margin, 28-14.
Wind the clock forward seven months and the Tigers have won just once in nine games – the solitary victory being 37-30 over Salford which didn’t look entirely comfortable either.
In that time, such a catastrophic loss of form would hardly have been believable. But, this downturn in form has its roots all the way back to 2017 and what was Castleford’s best ever top-flight season. That year the Tigers finished top by a record margin, blowing the rest of the challengers away. Yet, the week leading up to the Grand Final was one of the lowest. The Zak Hardaker debacle ruined what should have been an incredibly special week for Tigers fans.
From that moment on, the stubbornness of head coach Daryl Powell to try and promote an in-house fullback after the incident hurt Castleford badly. And, it took an injury to star halfback Luke Gale for Powell to delve into the transfer market and pick up playmaker Jordan Rankin in January 2019. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Tigers and Rankin as he established himself as first-choice fullback.
But, that time spent waiting for someone that could actually play number one cost Castleford dearly. A third-place finish in 2018 and fifth in 2019 demonstrated just how far the Tigers were slipping in such a short space of time. And, compounded by the lack of inventive recruitment – only Liam Watts has improved the team since that illustrious 2017 season – the club has failed to build on what should have been the beginning of a grand legacy.
A great start to the 2020 season – with five wins from seven – as new signing Danny Richardson began to look the part had much of the Castleford faithful hoping that 2017 wasn’t just a mere flash in the pan. In fact, the way the Tigers dismantled champions St Helens in the last game before lockdown was an incredibly high note for the West Yorkshire club to sign off on.
❤ This Castleford Community.
Huge thanks to the anonymous Tigers’ fan who has donated a large sum of money to help recognise local key workers with signed 2020 shirts!
— Castleford Tigers (@CTRLFC) October 20, 2020
But, a series of rule changes and a lack of bodies has hurt Castleford badly. With Powell often criticized for failing to come up with a plan B, the new six again rule has enabled other teams to explore more off-the-cuff play. That, however, has disadvantaged the Tigers who play to a strict and stable formula that isn’t supposed to be broken.
Add into the mix the mounting injury problems – an issue that has plagued the club since Ben Cooper left as strength and conditioning coach at the end of the 2018 season – and the second half of this season has been a recipe for disaster.
The Tigers have never been able to spend vast amounts of money behind the scenes on improving playing, coaching or backroom staff. But, the truth is, Castleford spend up to the salary cap and it is Powell who has opted to stay away from a marquee signing. That means that some players are perhaps on inflated wages, and, with an ageing squad and few signs of any youngsters breaking through, it is a worrying time.
Time is a great healer and, by this time next year, all of these worries could have passed quietly under the bridge. The signing of Niall Evalds is positive, but with many other positions such as wing, centre, halfback, prop and second-row very understaffed, it will take more than just Evalds to sort the problem.
Powell has been at the Jungle for seven years; in that time, he has taken the Tigers from perennial strugglers to silverware hunters. But, every coaching job becomes stale in the end. Tony Smith, for example, won three Challenge Cups at Warrington but lost his way after nine years.
Of course, it begs the dilemma that “the grass isn’t always greener”. But, Powell and the club need to do a lot of watering before that statement can fully ring true.