IT SEEMS strange that Castleford Tigers head coach Daryl Powell can speak about his relief at avoiding the relegation dogfight yet, almost in the same breath, decree his squad as potential Grand Finalists.
Yet that is exactly the position the reigning coach of the year finds himself in and, under closer examination, it is easy to understand why.
It is perhaps most down to the fact this Super League campaign is so competitive; Castleford were looking over their shoulders not long ago but now, on the back of a pleasurable five-match winning run, know another victory at Hull FC tomorrow will see them move to within just three points of leaders Leeds Rhinos with two more regular rounds to go.
Asked what it feels like to be now guaranteed a top-eight spot – six points in front of both Hull and Hull KR, they can not now be caught – Powell was candid.
“I’m relieved, to be honest,” he said.
“It’s always good to know we’re not going to drop into what could be a bearpit of a situation.
“I don’t think anyone wants to be in there; we don’t know what’s going to come and if you look at the make-up (of the Middle Eights) it is pretty tough.
“But we’re happy where we are and, as I see it, we’ve got a great opportunity now. I’ve it tried to sell the big picture to the boys; they know what we have to do. And I think we have the tools to do it.”
The man largely in charge of those tools is Luke Gale, the in-form scrum-half who has just been named Super League’s player of the month.
“He has played well,” said Powell, about the 27-year-old who has been pulling Castleford’s strings since joining from Bradford Bulls at the end of last season.
“But I think while he’s played well, you have got to reward for a lot of players around him going well, too.
“I think he’ll be the first to say that the forward pack has been incredible, to be honest.
“And the players around Galey are all doing their jobs and that makes a half-back’s job really easy.
“He’s obviously got a fair few accolades this year and played really well recently.
“He’s had a good season, no question.
“He’s getting better and learning all the time, whether it’s about how we play or about the people around him.
“Our combinations are getting better, our backline is looking excellent and so he has a fair bit of artillery and is using it pretty wiseley.”
Undoubtedly, Castleford, with winger Denny Solomona having scored 11 tries in just five games since returning from injury, are faring much better than the last time they ventured to the KC Stadium.
That was in mid-May when the Tigers, beaten Wembley finalists last August, collapsed to a 40-14 sixth round loss in the Challenge Cup.
Powell admitted: “It was down near the Widnes one away as one of our worst (displays).
“I think we started poorly and got a little bit better – but it was poor.
“Yet we knew that was the time our season flipped around, to be honest.
“We had a good chat when we got back here and decided we’d move on.
“I think the players have been unbelievably good since then and we have some focus and groove about us.
“We know it will be a tough challenge.
“They are going to be a pretty desperate team for obvious reasons (Hull are eighth but only by virtue of better points difference over Hull KR who also play tomorrow).
“It was a really, really disappointing part of our season but it’s in the past and we’re in a different place now.
“When you look who plays each other this week all the teams above us are and by the very nature of that someone will lose and gives us the chance to close the gap.
“When I look down our teamsheets and the opposition, I’m always in a pretty confident state of mind.”