THERE is utter conviction from Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell his side has never been better prepared for the play-offs: now they just need to qualify.
The maths is simple: if the West Yorkshire club wins at reigning champions Wigan Warriors in their last regular-round fixture on Thursday evening they will secure fifth place and the final play-offs spot. Even if they do not prosper, should badly-faltering Hull FC fail to beat leaders St Helens on Friday, Castleford will be safe on the right side of the cut.
With that in mind, they are certainly well-placed for the end-of-season battles, but it is Powell’s belief that is most intriguing.
Two years ago, his Castleford side finished 10 points clear in Super League, claiming first place for the only time in their 93 year history, only to stumble badly in the Grand Final following the infamous Zak Hardaker revelations
They had been close to finishing in pole position in 2014 too – Powell’s first full season in charge – while 12 months ago they came third only to lose out at the semi-final stages with a bitterly disappointing 14-0 loss at, ironically, eventual champions Wigan.
So why does Powell, whose side were sixth before last week’s 44-12 destruction of rivals Hull, now feel so confident about his current squad’s chances of potentially bringing a first-ever league title to Wheldon Road?
Firstly, he says there will be no nightmare recollections from last year’s events at DW Stadium.
“We dipped out of that game with not much of a fight really,” he recalled to The Yorkshire Post. “I thought we just lost our composure completely.
“We were pretty passionate to win but had too much red mist in our heads, to be honest, and we just got rattled by the game.
“That was probably impacted by the year before as well. I think, at the moment, we look in the best shape from a play-offs perspective that I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here. Obviously we got rattled a little in 2017 with some of the things that happened before the final [Hardaker’s drugs ban days before Old Trafford loss to Leeds Rhinos] but I just think we’re in a good place.
“We have calm heads, the boys know what they have to do, we’re playing in a way we’re comfortable with and we’re defending tough so the combination is good. We just have to deliver now.”
Overcoming Wigan will not be easy; Adrian Lam’s side, after a sluggish start to the campaign, are now well in motion and know victory will secure them second place and a preferable route to Old Trafford.
Warriors are seeking a seventh successive win and Powell conceded: “They look good at the moment. They look fluent and have a couple of good young kids coming through in that pack.
“They are very aggressive and get under people’s skin; our job is to take that away from them.”
Castleford have every chance of doing that; they have become more resolute in defence themselves of late, making them one of the competition’s most difficult sides to break down.
They may not be as slick as two years ago but this Tigers side does certainly seem to have a thicker skin, which is what is always needed at this treacherous time of year. Switching Pete Mata’utia from full-back to centre has strengthened their right edge but there has been other factors in their recent transformation.
“We changed our training about 10 weeks ago,” revealed Powell.
“We really stepped up how hard we were working. That has really helped and the players recognise as much.
“We are more durable now; before we were conceding points way too easily and some of that was because we weren’t quite fit enough.
“We’re in a far better place defensively; things go against us and we hang tough.
“We’ve conceded far fewer points recently, averaging just over 12 per game in our last nine games, so we’ve been really good for a few weeks now.
“That’s been our biggest improvement. In our last four games we’ve conceded four tries and one was a breakaway which was pretty unlucky.”
It works both ways, though.
“We’re looking a bit sharper with the ball,” he added.
“I think that’s as a result of getting a little fitter.
“Our legs are a bit better from an energy perspective and that means generally your heads are a little bit clearer as you’re in better nick.”
When it comes to this time of year, there is little margin for error, but Powell is adamant that his squad are gaining the requisite quota of battle-hardened qualities.
“I think we’ve been in a play-off kind of mindset for a few weeks now,” he said.
“The St Helens game was a real tight one [losing 4-0]. We didn’t quite get that but last week we knew we were out if we lost so we’re getting used to the pressure of needing to win.
“And this is a big game away at Wigan.
“Our mentality is great at the minute; you can see that we are in a good place.
“Our attacking game is coming together again and we are defending OK.
“It is up to us really and we can’t go and put in anything less than a quality performance.”