Challenge Cup Final - Castleford Tigers v St Helens: Coach Daryl Powell on verge of delivering a trophy for Cas

WILL today be the time Daryl Powell finally secures his first major trophy as a head coach?

Final preparations: Castleford's Michael Shenton during the captain's run session. Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

Given his Castleford Tigers’ side’s status as underdogs for the Betfred Challenge Cup final against St Helens, clearly the bookmakers think the 55 year-old’s long wait will have to go on a little further yet.

However, the odds are, of course, only one small indicator and this famous competition has seen plenty of surprises in its 125 year history.

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Castleford defeating Saints – in the clubs’ first-ever meeting in a major final – would not even be such a big shock; in many ways, there is little between the two sides.

Powell, who leaves for Warrington Wolves at the end of the season, is one of the most highly-respected coaches in Super League and has experience of big occasions, both as a player and coach, even if that maiden win still eludes him.

Just as he was starting out his coaching career, his Leeds Rhinos side narrowly lost the 2003 Challenge Cup final against Bradford Bulls in Cardiff while, in his first full season at Castleford, they were outmanoeuvred by Leeds in the 2014 Wembley final.

Three years later, as emphatic League Leaders’ Shield winners, they saved their worst performance of the season for the most important night of the year when they lost a Grand Final to Rhinos.

As many as eight players from that night could line-up again for Castleford again this afternoon and, with that painful memory having burned them so fiercely, you sense they will not let another such occasion pass them by.

In his sights: Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell is hoping to bring the Challenge Cup back to his boyhood club. (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images)

Powell, too, feels he has learned lessons from those disappointments and – at yesterday’s Captain’s Run at Wembley – said their preparations had been a little bit more relaxed”.

“We’ve got through the week looking to enjoy it and I think we have enjoyed it,” he said.

“We’ve had a really good build-up, we are raring to go and now it’s about putting a performance out there.”

And that, as always, is the key; can Castleford deliver the performance?

Few would argue that they cannot beat any side on their day, even after losing stellar talents such as Luke Gale and Zak Hardaker from their stylish vintage of four years ago.

Powell knows his side can execute under pressure – the excellent semi-final win over Warrington proved that – and now they must repeat that calibre of display to overcome the back-to-back Super League champions.

They have only defeated Saints once in their last nine meetings but that will not concern them; the sole victory came before lockdown last year and is a relatively recent reminder of how best to undo their rivals.

Getting his selections right will be crucial, too; Powell revealed yesterday that, from his 21-man squad, former Saints scrum-half Danny Richardson and Australian Cheyse Blair are two players overlooked for today.

Richardson’s omission means the coach must be happy with the fitness of Jake Trueman, the gifted 22-year-old half-back who has not played since the semi-final six weeks ago due to a back issue.

That will be a significant boost for Castleford and Powell said: “He has trained well. He’s ready to go. It hasn’t been the ideal prep’ for him, but he is a quality player and a tough player as well so he’ll handle it okay.

“I’ve got a couple of calls to make so I’m going to go a bit football this week and make the decision a little bit late.”

Those decisions could surround the make-up of his bench – with the likes of forwards Daniel Smith and Jesse Sene-Lefao likely to be fighting over a spot – and perhaps the fitness of veteran prop Grant Millington.

Powell is blessed with almost being at full-strength and there has certainly been no unwanted surprises like Hardaker’s infamous ban two days out from the Grand Final in 2017.

With temperatures set to soar past 30 degrees, the heat could also play a part in his thinking and is another reminder of the critical need to control the ball; nobody wants to be chasing this Saints side around if possible.

Powell – aiming to see Castleford lift the Cup for a first time since 1986 – admitted: “It’s warm just walking about, so the boys are going to have to be outstanding. But it’s the reason they do all the training, to be able to stand up to weather like this.

“It’s going to be challenging for both teams and the team that comes up with the best control in the game and manages the conditions the best will have a real good chance of winning the game.”

Neither side is flush with Challenge Cup victors; Castleford’s Liam Watts won it twice with Hull FC and England hooker James Roby has won it three times for Saints but that is it.

The Merseyside club have their own pressures, too. Since lifting the Cup on four occasions in five years between 2004 and 2008, when Sean Long, Kieron Cunningham and Paul Sculthorpe reigned, illustrious Saints have only visited Wembley once, freezing against Warrington Wolves two years ago.

Justin Holbrook was in charge that day. Kristian Woolf is now coach and experiencing a Challenge Cup final for the first time.

His side have been unconvincing at times in recent weeks, not least eight days ago when they struggled to overcome Wakefield Trinity.

Granted, with a plethora of stars, such as England’s Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, Alex Walmsley and Mark Percival, they can come alive in an instant.

But Powell may well feel he has never had a better chance to break that duck. And bring Castleford long-awaited glory.