Clark relishes chance to go up 
against former coach Burrow

Daryl Clark, seen in action for Castleford against Leeds, earlier this season.
Daryl Clark, seen in action for Castleford against Leeds, earlier this season.
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The slogan emblazoned across their website reads: “We are awesome, we are Airedale.”

It is a fairly bold declaration from Airedale Academy yet, when it comes to producing stellar rugby league hookers, the school in one of Castleford’s toughest areas certainly lives up to its billing.

Two of its alumni go face-to-face in tomorrow’s Tetley’s Challenge Cup final when Castleford Tigers’ Daryl Clark – a leading contender for Super League’s Man of Steel – goes up against Leeds Rhinos star Rob Burrow at Wembley in perhaps the most fascinating of numerous enticing individual match-ups.

Furthermore, when Castleford last won the cup in 1986, it was another former Airedale High School (as it was then known) pupil – Great Britain international Kevin Beardmore – who pulled on the black and amber No 9 jersey.

His twin brother, scrum-half Bob, claimed the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, too, as they brought Hull KR to their knees in a 15-14 success.

Clark, still just 20 years old, is among the favourites to take that honour tomorrow as one of the most exciting talents in the British game, his electric acceleration and piercing runs regularly terrorising defences.

That is something Burrow, 31, has been doing in a similar style for years, helping Leeds to six Grand Final wins but, as yet, proving without a win in five Challenge Cup attempts.

The England international will hope to correct that tomorrow, but Castleford, who have emerged from the depths of Super League last season to a leading contender now, will prove dangerous foes.

Many neutrals point to Castleford’s lack of experience in such occasions – only Andy Lynch, Garreth Carvell and Weller Hauraki have played in Challenge Cup finals before – as a crucial factor.

Clark, though, has at least had a taste of Wembley.

“I went when I was 14, 15 and 16 as our school team played in the national finals,” he said.

“I think we’re the only team to win it three years on the bounce.

“We didn’t play the final there, but you got to go walk around at half-time at Wembley and got in for free.

“It’s funny as my first year on the school team, Rob was coach.

“He was good. It was not so intense – just a mess around really – but he was part of that as he went to Airedale as well.

“He’s still a massive player now, but was massive then as well and to have a professional player like Rob around us was a real buzz for the team.

“We didn’t go to Wembley that year, though – when he left we won – but when we started the school team he was there helping pick and select.

“I’ve not had time to see him before this but he’s an Airedale lad, too, and having known him from my school days as coach it’ll be good to play against him in the actual final.

“It’s going to be a bit different from schools rugby. I know what it’s like, but it’ll be completely different and I’m looking forward to it. Ben Crooks was in our school side and he played with Hull FC at Wembley last year.”

The comparisons between Clark and Burrow are obvious; despite physical disparities – Clark stands at six foot and his opponent is just 5ft 5ins – they each have an innate ability to leave defenders grasping at thin air.

Clark is hoping to show that on the biggest stage tomorrow, but added: “We’ve got to break tackles and get quick play the balls for that to happen.

“I am always looking for a bit of open space and hopefully I’ll be able to take it.

“Hopefully it’s a warm day and a dry surface. It’s a pretty big field so it will suit my game and obviously it’ll suit his too.”

It is Castleford’s first trip to Wembley since 1992 and uncapped Clark, who is almost certain to be included in England’s Four Nations squad, admitted: “Winning this would be massive for the town.

“It’s been a long time since any glory trips away or big finals and, with me living locally as well, just walking to the shops I’ve been getting stopped all the time with people saying how massive it is.

“Before the semi-finals we spoke to players from the ’86 team and different sides who have gone to Wembley with Cas and talked about what it means to the club and the occasion.

“We know how big it is and it’s obviously the biggest game I’ve ever played in.

“The semi-final win over Widnes was, but this goes to a different level with 70,000 or 80,000 fans there so it’ll be a special day. But we’re all staying relaxed and just looking forward to it now. We know how dangerous Leeds can be but we’ve plenty of quality and know we can do this.”

Burrow, meanwhile, conceded his opposite number has been “absolutely outstanding” this year but pointed to Castleford’s power as a unit as their greatest strength.

“They have a lot of strike threats, but Cas are really playing well as a team not just individually,” he said, with the sides level on points in Super League in joint-third.

“I always enjoy playing against Cas for obvious reasons, but it gives it a little extra spice now being at Wembley and it’s going to be a fantastic match.

“We obviously really enjoy being there. We’ve not managed the right result yet, but every year’s completely different.

“It’s only people in the press who bring up the ‘hoodoo’ thing, but it’s nothing like that. The only reason we’ve not won it is we’ve not managed to perform on the day. We have in the Grand Final, but not Challenge Cup.

“But we take every year as it comes and we know we need to have a 10 out of 10 performance to beat Cas’.”

A perfect 10 at Wembley could certainly end that miserable run for Leeds, but the battle of the nines from one of Castleford’s most deprived areas will surely be the epicentre of an epic battle.