POWER-PACKED WINGER Justin Carney’s two-match ban caused dismay among almost everyone connected with Castleford Tigers, but it was a golden opportunity for lifelong fan James Clare.
The Aussie’s suspension ruled him out of last weekend’s Tetley’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Widnes Vikings and meant Clare got a place in the team instead.
Clare, 23, is hoping to keep his spot when Tigers visit Warrington Wolves for a First Utility Super League fixture in two days’ time and he reckons a good performance then could put him in the frame for Wembley.
Carney will be hot favourite to return for the Cup final showdown with Leeds Rhinos on August 23, but Clare has pledged not to give up his place without a fight.
He said: “Justin obviously picked up the ban which gave me the chance and I’m obviously thankful he did that!
“We’ve got great depth in our squad so that if anyone steps in we’re confident we’ve still got a great team.
“There’s so much competition for places and that’s the way it has been the whole year.
“That’s what we’ve had to deal with week-in, week-out, so hopefully we’ll just have to perform the best we can, train the hardest we can and Powelly (head coach Daryl Powell) will make the decisions.
“Justin has got one more suspended game so hopefully I’ll play at Warrington, give it my all, put everything I can into Powelly’s hands and hopefully force him to pick me.”
Even if he doesn’t make the Wembley team, Clare has enjoyed the finest moment of his career so far as a member of the first Castleford side to win a Challenge Cup semi-final since 1992.
“It was an unbelievable feeling for me,” he said of the 28-6 thrashing of Widnes Vikings three days ago.
“I remember being at the semi-final against Leeds a few years back.
“I wasn’t even signed at Cas back then. This is my third year now, but back then I was just in the Academy and not even pushing first team.
“I was just training part-time on an evening so I went there as a supporter, just as a fan.
“It was very disappointing to lose, but we went one better on Sunday and it was an incredible feeling.
“We’ve got one more week and then it’s an even bigger step up and hopefully we can do it.”
Tigers will get an opportunity to avenge that semi-final loss when they face Leeds in the first all-West Yorkshire Wembley final since 1973.
“If we wanted anyone in the final I, personally, would have chosen Leeds,” Clare said.
“It would be extra special to do it against the best team in the competition at the moment, who have been Super League champions so often for a good number of years now.”
Before they can fully concentrate on that Tigers have a trip to Warrington to deal with.
Ahead of round 24 they are fourth in the Super League table, two points off top spot and a similar number above fifth-placed Wolves.
“It’s very special to be in contention for everything – the League Leaders’, the Grand Final and now, obviously, Wembley,” Clare said.
“It’s not very often chances like that come. I know some people will say we’d like to rest a few of our big guns going into Warrington, but that’s not the case at all as far as I’m aware. We want to go out there and win that too.”