Why Jon Wells is glad to be back at the '˜coal face' with Castleford Tigers

'I've got soft with the TV stuff; the changing room banter is still as brutal as it was 10 years ago but I'm not used to being called out every day!'

EXCITING TIMES: Castleford Tigers' director of rugby' Jon Wells, pictured at Elland Road during Monday's photcall ahead of Friday night's game against Leeds Rhinos. Picture: James Hardisty.

For the best part of a decade, Jon Wells has been used to watching Super League from a commentary gantry and pointing on his big screen while asking players after games about how they were won and lost.

For the last week and a bit, though, the former Castleford Tigers, Wakefield Trinity and Harlequins winger has been back in where it all began; the inner sanctum of club football.

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Wells, now 39, has returned to his first love Castleford to take on the new role of director of rugby.

Like many contemporaries who have done likewise – Jamie Peacock at Hull KR and Gareth Ellis at Hull FC for instance – he is using his vast experience in a new way but, undoubtedly, it is a transition readjusting to the daily battle with that dressing room humour.

“It has been very interesting, to say the least, but the (role) it’s also very complementary from a personal point of view,” continued Wells, who will continue his work with Sky Sports while operating at Wheldon Road.

“One complements the other. I’m back involved at a club level seeing how structures are working, how the video works, the developments that have been made in coaching styles and all of that will help me doing the TV stuff.

“At the moment, the Cas role is nominally a part-time role –there’s been nothing part-time about it so far! – but I’m a week and a bit in and I am enjoying it.”

Daryl Powell

Kippax-born Wells, who made more than 1oo appearances for Castleford between 1997 and 2002 including many alongside current Tigers assistant coach Danny Orr, admits he was never expecting to return to the sport in this way.

“It was a complete surprise,” he said, appointed by the League Leaders’ Shield holders last week, at the same time as Steve Gill announced he would be standing down as chief executive in May.

“I first got wind of it when (Castleford head coach) Daryl (Powell) gave me a call and said the club would be getting in touch.

“I think it’s borne out of the club’s development on the field and realisation they’re pretty thin on the ground in terms of staff.

Jon Wells

“They have a great set of staff who are working incredibly hard but there’s just not enough of us.

“With Steve Gill taking a step backwards from operational duties they felt there was a space for somebody else to come in.

“I’ll be fulfilling some of Steve’s roles and essentially I’m a distraction sponge for Daryl. He does an incredible job and all the coaching team do. My job is to try and leave him to do what he does best – focus on the lads on the field –and try and link up the other departments within the club.

“I’ve got a broad remit – I’ll tell you that!”

Daryl Powell

Castleford finished top for the first time in their history last year and also reached a maiden Grand Final.

But Wells added: “It’s been an interesting look in for a first week with a set of fresh eyes.

“Because of the success on the field there’s been an awful lot of other aspects of the club that have kind of – not got away with stuff as that’s the wrong context – but there’s not been any pressure on.

“We’re all old enough and wise enough to know we’re not going to have success year after year so this is a little bit of strategic planning, some succession planning and it’s a role that’ll probably grow I imagine in the next couple of years.”

Part of the role is recruitment and retention, with Wells quickly getting to business last week securing the signature of Hull FC prop Liam Watts.

That wasn’t a preordained deal to make him look good either; it was done on the hoof.

Jon Wells

“I think we made a fairly decent statement the first couple of days when we came in,” added Wells, who famously has a law degree to his name.

“We heard Liam Watts may be available. We had his signature within 36 hours.

“I think we moved pretty quickly there and that sent a statement there to the rest of the league and to our fans that we mean business.”

Something which is close to Wells’ heart, though, which is sure to be high on the agenda is reserve grade rugby which is – to the dismay of many – still only an optional commitment for Super League clubs.

Castleford currently don’t have one but he said: “I’m a huge advocate of a reserve grade system.

“I would love to see that back and we have to have a couple of chats. I think it’s one of the things in (RFL rugby director) Kevin Sinfield’s inbox. I’ll have a chat with him to see what the appetite is around the league.

“We’d like to be in a position to run a reserve grade anyway but we just need to know if there’s going to be enough opposition to play against.

“In recent experience it’s been difficult; that jump between top year academy at 19 and first grade is a bigger risk for a coach.

“He doesn’t very often get to see very often that player playing with his systems. A lot of these guys are out on dual-reg and when they do play these games are few and far between.

“I think bringing it all under one roof (will help), creating that real clear pathway from scholars, Under-16s, Under-19s and into a reserve grade then when a coaching department can really make an assessment of a player and see how he’s going to be able to make that step up.

“I’ve alway seen reserves as a proving ground for professional players. It’s how I came through the system and a lot of my contemporaries did the same.

“I remember (ex-Leeds, Warrington and Great Britain coach) Tony Smith saying when it was binned off eight or nine year ago saying that they have started a ticking time bomb and I personally feel that’s what we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

“It won’t be a silver bullet that fixes it, but we’ve got eyes on it now and there’s certainly people who are starting to think in the same way.”