It almost seems crass to suggest that Daryl Powell’s tenure as Castleford Tigers head coach will be defined by the result in Saturday’s Betfred Challenge Cup final, in which his side will meet St Helens.
Since taking over in 2014, Powell has turned the Wheldon Road club from Super League water-treaders (and occasional relegation battlers), into play-off mainstays, via three major finals and a League Leaders’ Shield.
The former Featherstone Rovers boss has restored the ‘Classy Cas’ moniker, and brought the good times back to the Mend-A-Hose Jungle, with Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline providing the perfect soundtrack to a remarkable 2017 campaign.
However, it’s impossible to deny that this weekend’s showdown under the Wembley arch will have a significant impact on how history reflects on his stewardship when he passes the reins on to Lee Radford and moves his things into the Warrington coach’s office at the end of this season.
The Tigers were last here in 2014, when they fell short against the Leeds Rhinos’ ‘Golden Generation’, who were on a mission to end a run of eight Challenge Cup final defeats in nine visits.
Three years later, it was Leeds again for the Tigers, this time in the Betfred Super League Grand Final. Castleford had been the standout side all season, winning the League Leaders’ Shield with apparent ease, before bowing out with a whimper on a torrid night at Old Trafford.
Fast forward another four years and here we are again, on the eve of what is only Castleford’s third trip to Wembley since they last lifted rugby league’s most famous trophy 35 years ago.
There’s no argument that ending that drought on Saturday would represent Powell’s highest honour as a coach and would be a fitting way for a man who has etched his name into Castleford folklore to sign out ahead of his departure.
There’s also no doubt in my mind that regardless of the result this weekend, Powell’s seven years at the club have, overall, been a success. When you take a holistic look at the transformation in the time since he took over a side rooted to the bottom of the table, Castleford, as a club, are almost unrecognisable.
And yet, if Daryl and his side do fall short again on Saturday, his inability to deliver success in a major final will undeniably go down as a sizable blot on his copybook.
So transformation, definitely, but the question he has one last chance to answer this weekend is; into what?
Castleford are now established competitors. They expect to be in the play-offs at the end of the season, they expect to be involved in big occasions just like this. But the step they have, as of yet, been unable to take, is to become winners.
For all of their dominance in the 2017 regular season, they were a rabbit in the headlights that night at Old Trafford. And in the seasons that followed, it’s looked at times like they’ve hit some sort of psychological barrier, stopping them from getting over the line in big games.
If they are to be successful on Saturday, they have to get the mentality right. There’s going to be plenty of emotion flying around in the build-up and on the day; there are a number of high-profile players also leaving the club at the end of the season. Will they shrink into the shadows in that last-chance saloon, or can they use it as motivation to banish the ghosts of their previous shortcomings?
Of course, they face no easy task. St Helens have been the dominant side in the last three seasons and are looking to end a Wembley hoodoo of their own. They’re not short of motivation themselves either. With the likes of Lachlan Coote and Kevin Naiqama moving on at the end of the season, this is their final opportunity to fill the one piece missing in this group’s puzzle.
On paper you have to make Castleford clear underdogs; they’ve had a hugely disrupted few weeks since the semi-final, and much of the squad that will take the field on Saturday have played very little rugby, in almost complete contrast to a St Helens team that is now so established that it pretty much picks itself.
If history teaches us one thing about the Betfred Challenge Cup final, however, it’s that favourites can fall.
From a neutral perspective, this final is a mouth-waterer. The weather forecast is promising an absolute scorcher in London, meaning we’ll get a wide, fast track at Wembley, something that will suit Castleford’s attack-minded approach down to the ground. If they can avoid an arm-wrestle, and a game of rugby league football breaks out, this could go either way.
There’s so many storylines as well… Daryl Powell’s last season, the return of fans to rugby league’s big day out in the capital. It’s been 13 years for Saints, 35 for Castleford, fand or one the wait will go on, but perhaps the most interesting narrative of them all is that we will finally get a definitive answer…
Daryl Powell’s Castleford Tigers; Serial competitors, or winners?