Castleford Tigers v Catalans Dragons: James Clare driven on by desire to earn Challenge Cup Final spot at Wembley

FOR CASTLEFORD Tigers back James Clare, tonight’s meeting with Super League leaders Catalans Dragons could be a significant step on the road to Wembley.

PROVE IT: Castleford tigers'  James Clare scores a try against Hull KR. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com
PROVE IT: Castleford tigers' James Clare scores a try against Hull KR. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

The 30-year-old will return from injury, 23 days before Castleford’s Challenge Cup final date against St Helens.

Clare played for Tigers in their 2014 Cup quarter- and semi-final wins, both times after Justin Carney was suspended, but missed out on the big day when his fellow wing was recalled.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Surgery in January on a long-term knee problem kept him out of the side until last month and threatened his chances of making up for that disappointment this term.

DECISIONS: Castleford Tigers head coach Daryl Powell. Picture by Ed Sykes/SWpix.com

He returned for three successive Super League games and was a substitute when Castleford shocked Warrington Wolves in the last four of the Cup three weeks ago.

After the injury ‘flared up’ again, he sat out Tigers’ next two matches, but has an opportunity this evening to prove his fitness and show coach Daryl Powell what he can do.

“It feels great to be back,” said Clare of the prospect of making his return as Tigers look to extend an eight-game unbeaten home record against the French side.

“Hopefully, we can test ourselves against an extremely good Catalans team and fight for a place in three weeks’ time at Wembley as well.

MISSING IN ACTION: Paul McShane is absent from the Castleford Tigers line-up to face Catalans Dragons due to being on England duty. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

“I want to see if I can get a bit of form personally and put myself in the shop window and kind of knock on Powelly’s door and say ‘I want to be playing in the final at Wembley.’”

Missing more games would have reduced Clare’s chances of being selected in the Wembley squad, but the local product believes the slate is still clean.

He said: “Daryl has always made it clear he has not got a team for Wembley, he is going to pick purely on form.

“Whoever is the best player the week or two weeks or three weeks leading into the game will play.

“He has had that philosophy for numerous years now, so (tonight) is an opportunity to get out there and play well and get your own fitness back and confidence in your own game and hopefully do a job for the team.”

Clare was at the beginning of his career seven years ago, but knows time is running out in his quest to play on the big stage.

“It is something I didn’t think about personally until I spoke to the senior players about how often finals come around,” he said.

“Daryl mentioned he only played in two Challenge Cup finals and he had a long career. For somebody as good as him to only manage to get into two of them, it shows they are extremely special.

“It is in the back of your mind, that it’s only three weeks away, but at the same time we are focusing on the job we’ve got now and wanting to play well and put the performances in so he has no reason not to put you in the team.”

Castleford, who ended a four-game losing run in the league when they beat Wakefield Trinity eight days ago, are without three players who have been selected for tomorrow’s mid-season Test.

Man of Steel Paul McShane will make his England debut and Peter Mata’utia and Suaia Matagi are in the Combined Nations All Stars squad.

That will make Tigers’ task harder, against a Catalans team missing England full-back Sam Tomkins and winger Tom Davies, but Clare insisted: “We are incredibly proud of all three of them, especially Paul who has been so close for such a long period of time.

“He was probably unlucky at the end of 2017 to not be in the England set up and he is a real leader for us on the field and a mentor off it.

“Hopefully, the kind of form he has had for us, he can show that in an England jersey and do his country proud as well.”

Adam Milner and Jacques O’Neill will share acting-half duties against Catalans. Clare predicted: “You will see a different Castleford team compared to the way we play with Paul.

“That can either be dreadful because you are missing the best player in the league, the Man of Steel winner, or it can go phenomenally well because it is something a bit different and something Catalans haven’t seen.

“It will be interesting to see, but Adam and Jacques are two very talented players and I think we will be all right.”