Weekend interview: Early taste of coaching puts Daryl Powell on right path

IT WAS a man with the wonderful name of Walt Watts who first truly took Daryl Powell under his wing amid the world of rugby league.

Castleford's head coach Daryl Powell. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.

He was coach of the Under-18s side at Redhill, an infamously tough and now sadly defunct club nestled in the heart of Castleford’s Airedale area where opponents never particularly enjoyed venturing.

It was Watts’s guidance that put Powell on the road to turning professional, becoming embryonic club Sheffield Eagles’ first signing in 1984 and, later, garnering a reputation as a centre of some repute who would win 33 caps for Great Britain.

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Powell, of course, is now a coach himself, preparing to take Castleford Tigers into a new Super League season at Hull KR tomorrow at the end of a week which has seen plenty of discourse about the profession given Australian Wayne Bennett’s controversial appointment as England national boss.

Did Powell – now aged 50 and tipped by many as a potential England coach – always know he wanted to get into the role which must, at times, be as difficult as walking on water?

“I suppose playing at Sheffield Eagles, in and around Gary Hetherington who made me captain at 19, meant there was an early advancement into a leadership role of sorts,” he recalled to The Yorkshire Post.

“That is a starting point that gets you thinking about the game in a lot more detail.

“I then coached the Under- 19s pretty early at Leeds Rhinos, too, and if you have someone encouraging you to do that – Gary always did – you start thinking about the game a fair bit more and that advances you towards whether you’d like to coach.

“But my first coach gave me a taste of what it’s about.

“He was a bloke called Walt Watts, the grandad of Liam Watts, who now plays at Hull FC.

“He was great, a really positive character who just got so much out of me as player.

“I enjoyed playing for him and it was massive for me, someone like him giving confidence and believing in you, at Redhill.

“I only played one year there at Under-18s but then got signed by Sheffield and I put that down to him.

“I was a latecomer to rugby league as I’d only played one year before then but he was a dyed-in-the-wool rugby league man from Airedale; it was ingrained in his family, and it really rubbed off on me.”

At the other end of the spectrum, however, from the grassroots level of the junior game to the eliteness of international rugby league, Bennett’s arrival as England coach has caused a bit of a furore, in some quarters at least.

Now aged 66, the distinguished Australian is rated the greatest coach of his generation having won seven league titles Down Under and led both Queensland and the Kangaroos to glory.

He surely should be the man to now get the very best out of a talented England side that has progressed under Steve McNamara, the comparatively young Yorkshireman, in recent campaigns but still fallen short?

However, some critics are saying the national coach should be English – Powell, Super League Coach of the Year in 2014, Leeds Rhinos’ garlanded Brian McDermott and Wigan’s gnarly Shaun Wane have all been mentioned.

For his part, the Tigers chief sees both sides of the argument.

“You talk about Wayne Bennett and you talk about a superb coach who, when you look at the history, is the best in the business,” said Powell.

“He rivals Alex Ferguson in football; he is that sort of character.

“He’s been around a hell of a long time and you can’t argue with that so in some ways you have to applaud the RFL but in others shouldn’t we have someone English?

“Brian McDermott is the ideal candidate for me; based on his coaching career he has showed that he has got everything needed.

“I’d have preferred a British coach and I think that is really important – Steve’s been doing the job from Australia (McNamara is also an assistant coach at Sydney Roosters) and it’s really difficult to do that from there.

“It’s important, then, they now get the back-up staff from this country, an in-depth knowledge of the competition and who’s going well.

“Overall, I haven’t got a massive problem with it (Bennett’s appointment) but history will show if it’s a great appointment or not.

“We’ve got the players capable of winning a top-end tournament and, hopefully, that will now be the case.”

It is, of course, more than 40 years since a side from these shores last lifted a major international rugby league title, Great Britain raising the 1972 World Cup in France.

Powell, perhaps, was in the side that has come closest to ending that run since, featuring in the 1990 home Ashes Test series against Australia that the Lions lost by an agonisingly narrow margin.

Another Castlefordian, Malcolm Reilly, someone Powell rates as the greatest coach he ever worked with, led that side which included such luminaries as Ellery Hanley, Garry Schofield, Martin Offiah and Andy Gregory.

“Malcolm really created a real identity for the team and everything built around that, something Steve has done a massive amount of work on, too,” he explained.

“People believed in Great Britain and wanted to play for that. Malcolm spoke with huge passion for his country and that’s difficult for an overseas coach.

“I’m not saying it’s insurmountable as it’s done in lots of other sports but identity is going to be really important to how they play.

“That 1990 side was a really good team. The pack, in particular, and how they fronted up against Australia’s pack was impressive. We’re probably at that point now; we’ve such great physical specimens in there and something a little bit different with what (James) Graham brings, while (Sam) Burgess is back and what he can do speaks for itself.

“We’ve a great chance of doing something special. We’re not far away. It’ll be interesting to see how the style changes, though, and what Wayne wants to play.”

And would he like to take charge himself when Bennett’s time is up perhaps?

“I’ve not really thought about it,” maintained Powell, who would undoubtedly initially be an ideal deputy to the iconic figure. “I was involved in 2011 (as assistant) when Steve was there and enjoyed that but I’m not someone who looks like that.

“If things come around I have a look on their merits and then decide, but it’s not something I’ll be hankering for. We’ll wait and see.”

It’s Castleford that is central to his current thinking, just as it was back in those formative years under Watts.

“Redhill was an unbelievably vociferous and intense place to play,” he adds. “It was quite difficult for opponents but from a home perspective it was pretty good.

“There was a fair slope on that pitch – it was alright playing downhill – but I was really disappointed when the club folded as it was part of my rugby league heritage.”