CASTLEFORD Tigers head coach Daryl Powell believes his side have the “maturity” to make history tonight and become the first side in the club’s 91-year existence to be crowned champions.
The vast majority of the West Yorkshire town where rugby league is so intrinsic will be at a sold-out Old Trafford to witness their maiden Super League Grand Final.
More than 30,000 fans – Castleford’s entire population is only around 40,000 – are set to descend on Manchester to see their club tackle the traditional might of derby rivals Leeds Rhinos.
All season Tigers have led from the front, their entertaining style allied with a new-found defensive grit underpinning a dazzling rise to the top, where they lifted a first League Leaders’ Shield by an emphatic margin,
Nevertheless, with the brutal nature of play-off football, that will all feel like it counts for nothing unless they prosper over tonight’s 80 minutes and lift the Super League trophy as champions.
Furthermore, the ‘Zak Hardaker affair’ is far from ideal, one of their leading players being dropped after yet another off-field misdemeanour, about which the club were only informed on Thursday morning.
Still, those in the Castleford camp remain confident they can overcome the subsequent reshuffle and live up to their favourites tag against opponents who have won seven Grand Finals since 2004 alone.
In 2014, his first full season in charge revamping the Tigers, Powell lost a Challenge Cup final 23-10 against Leeds, but he believes they are now far better prepared for the examination ahead.
“There’s a maturity about this team we didn’t have then,” said the ex-Great Britain centre, who grew up watching Castleford.
“Leeds on the day were outstanding; I thought they had a real good strategy and shut some parts of our game down.
“But we’re a different team now that has grown in the last three years and this year in particular we’ve been able to add the defensive steel to the game that we’ve played.
“We’ve matured our attacking game so we’re getting a whole lot out of our players on a consistent basis. Now, we just have to play well, hold our nerve, make sure we don’t get rattled by the atmosphere – that’s important – and play our game that we’ve done all year.
“We’re mindful of the challenge Leeds will present; they’ve been playing really well in recent weeks and their offload game –and constantly putting you under pressure with those offloads – it’s important we shut them down.
“We finished top and the manner in which we did it was a huge achievement, but this is different.
“It’s a massive game where the best team will come out on top to be crowned champions.
“It’d be awesome to do that and right there at the top of my achievements.”
Castleford’s last final success was against Wigan in the now defunct Regal Trophy in 1994 while the last of just four Challenge Cup victories came as long ago as 1986.
Before their last Wembley outing, the legendary former Castleford loose forward Malcolm Reilly – who starred in their 1969 and 1970 Challenge Cup glories – came to speak to the club’s players.
But Powell, 52, said: “I’ve not done anything like that this time.
“I’ve left them alone this week. I don’t think any big build-up is needed; everything has been done, everything is in place. We just need to get out there and play.
“There’s so many quality players who have been through this club, though, and that’s why it means so much to me to see what we’re doing now and have those very same people talking so positively about our players.
“Bob Beardmore (‘86 Lance Todd Trophy winner) was telling me the other day he thinks it’s the best rugby that’s ever been played at the club. That sort of thing is really important to me. But now we have to go again.”
Leeds are boosted after back-row Stevie Ward yesterday passed a fitness test just a week after dislocating his shoulder in the semi-final win versus St Helens.
He spent last Friday in hospital and said: “There was a dark few hours a week ago as I thought my season was over, but I’d like to say a massive thank you to the nurses, doctors and specialists who helped me and our physio team.”
Rhinos’ coach Brian McDermott said: “Stevie has had to pass every test we have put in front of him, which he has done, because he would not want to put the team at risk just so he could be at a Grand Final; he wants to play an integral part in the game for us.”
Ward, 23, missed Leeds’s 2015 Grand Final win over Wigan with a knee injury.