WHEN you remind Adrian Vowles that it is 20 years since he and Castleford Tigers produced those memorable exploits of 1999 he can scarcely believe it.
One reason is he can remember it all so vividly; the unfashionable West Yorkshire club written off by all and sundry yet surging undaunted to within a few seconds of Wembley and just 80 minutes from Old Trafford.
Vowles, the popular ball-handling Australian loose forward who led Castleford with such grit and so unflinchingly, even ended up as Man of Steel.
“That was an added extra really,” he recalled to The Yorkshire Post, from his Queensland home.
“You know, I was just happy to get an invite to the dinner.
“When I went I was having a few beers and for all the other awards they read out all the other candidates.
“So, for the Man of Steel I thought they were doing the same when they started talking about me. But then all of a sudden they said I was the first Castleford player to win Man of Steel...
“It took a while for it to sink in. I was just looking at the Cas crew at the table and then I realised I’d actually won it.
“It was an amazing feeling, one because I was the first player to win it for Cas but also because I was the first Queenslander to do it and only the second Australian.
“But that award was as much my team-mates’ and coaching staff’s as it was mine.
“I probably thought Daryl Powell would win. He’d had a good year. It was a very proud moment for me. I just can’t believe it’s 20 years ago!”
It is with rich irony that Powell, then coming towards the end of his storied playing career at Leeds Rhinos, is now, of course, Castleford coach.
He saw the current Tigers side’s season end in the second round of the play-offs at Salford Red Devils last Thursday.
They had mounted their own challenge from fifth but came unstuck; in 1999, Vowles’ Castleford started from the same spot and looked capable of going all the way having won at both champions Wigan and Challenge Cup holders Leeds.
The 14-10 success at star-studded Wigan marked the first game of rugby league at what is now known as the DW Stadium.
Castleford, whose Australian coach Stuart Raper had taken over with the club staring at relegation in 1997, then went to Headingley where they had cruelly lost the Challenge Cup semi-final a few months earlier to a late, late try from London Broncos’ Steele Retchless.
However, this time they triumphed, tries from Vowles, Michael Eager and Dale Fritz doing the damage in a 23-16 success that ended Graham Murray’s hopes of a double in his last campaign in charge at Leeds.
A third successive away trip proved too much, though, as Castleford were vanquished 36-6 at St Helens, Ellery Hanley’s stellar side who would go on to edge minor premiers Bradford Bulls at Old Trafford.
To this day, Castleford’s bid to win a maiden league title still goes on.
Club icon Vowles, now 48, recalled: “As a team our goal was to make the play-offs.
“The pressure was on us to make the semis but once we knew we’d made it, Stuart Raper said ‘there’s no pressure now – let’s just go out, play footy and enjoy it.’
“We’d worked hard to get there and that allowed us to do that.
“But we came into those semi-finals in form. We’d played some really good rugby and believed we’d beat Wigan at Wigan.
“They scored early and I think maybe they thought they had the game won there and then.
“But we just worked hard and we got tries from Michael Eager and myself to get that win and then came Leeds.
“We always believed we could beat them. That was just our mindset – be it at home or away. And that’s how it went. They were two great games of footy and the support was just phenomenal. It was amazing. After we won both those games we went back to the club and all had a beer with the fans.
“We had a really close-knit team and group, the supporters were really good and we had a lot of good people there. We all inter-mingled with the fans and when you do that it’s always great; you celebrate your wins and do everything together.
“When we went to St Helens we thought we could do it but unfortunately it was just one game too much for us.
“They were a good team and our record at Saints was pretty poor. We believed if we’d won that game we’d have had what it takes to beat Bradford but St Helens were too good on the night. “When you compare it to ‘97 when we just escaped relegation, two years later we just missed out on the Grand Final. It was a terrific year.”
Castleford saw local youngster Danny Orr – now assistant coach – in inspirational form at stand-off and Jon Wells, the club’s current director of rugby, had also emerged through the Academy. They had Australian talent such as experienced scrum-half Brad Davis, no-nonsense centre Eager and Raper’s brother Aaron who brought real class at hooker plus the unmistakable Great Britain prop Dean Sampson. “There were so many players that played such a big role,” continued Vowles.
“One of the players who I thought brought the best out of everyone was (full-back) Jason Flowers. The reason was he loved taking the mick out of people.
“He could do a great impression of Stuart Raper. At the right time, of course.
“But he was always a laugh and players were always playing pranks on each other.
“The Australians and the English guys all bonded well, partners bonded well and we were really good mates off the field and I think that’s what transferred onto the field.
“We believed in the way that Stuart Raper was coaching and we had that great support.
“Jason is one of those players who was always a good laugh and everyone was fair game in terms of who he had a crack at.
“He lightened the mood when it needed to be. Me and Danny (Orr) clicked straight away. We got on so well and I class him as one of my best mates.
“That was the other thing – we spent so much time together with him and (wife) Rachel. We’ve stayed in contact.
“But that Cas side improved year on year; in ‘99 we missed out on the Challenge Cup final by a whisker and came one game short of the Grand Final. I’ve great memories of my time.”
Vowles joined from North Queensland in 1997 and went on to play more than 140 games before a switch to Leeds in 2002.
He left Headingley mid-season, though, to become player-coach at Wakefield Trinity before being released near the end of 2003 to head home.
But he returned to Wheldon Road two years later to help relegated Castleford win back their place in Super League.
Aussie was the first Tiger as Man of Steel
ALTHOUGH Adrian Vowles was Castleford’s first Man of Steel winner – 22 years after the award started in 1977 – the club has had more success than any other in recent times.
The formidable loose forward, as skilful as he was uncompromising, claimed the British game’s most prestigious individual prize as the top-flight competition’s best player in 1999.
He was only the second Australian to do so following on from Gavin Miller, another hardened No13 who claimed the award while starring for Hull KR in 1984.
Castleford did not boast another recipient until 2011 when Rangi Chase, their maverick Australian stand-off who would later represent England, prospered.
However, that started a run of three victors in just seven years as homegrown hooker Daryl Clark secured it in 2014 and then England scrum-half Luke Gale when Tigers reached their first Super League Grand Final in 2017.
Castleford have another player shortlisted for this year’s award which is named on Sunday.
Prop Liam Watts, though, is seen as an outsider in the nominated five that includes Salford star Jackson Hastings, Wigan’s England stand-off George Williams. Warrington No6 Blake Austin and St Helens full-back Lachlan Coote.