ELEVEN YEARS after he last coached in a Challenge Cup final, Castleford Tigers’ Daryl Powell is relishing being back in rugby league’s biggest knockout game.
Powell was coach of Leeds Rhinos when they were pipped 22-20 by Bradford Bulls at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in 2003.
The wheel has gone full circle with the former Great Britain international – who has been out of Super League for most of the time since – now preparing to go up against Leeds with Tigers at Wembley tomorrow.
“Being able to coach in big games is a pressure situation, but it is enjoyable, everything that goes with it,” Powell said of his return to the big time.
“It is a coaching and a playing achievement for us and games like this are special, but when you get there you want to win it.
“It is tough to go there and lose. It was a pretty tough loss in 2003 and I thought we were really unlucky that day.
“I thought we were the better side over the 80 minutes, but we didn’t quite get it done. But I think we have got a great opportunity now, what we’ve built up this year and the way the players have gone about their business. They are very much capable of winning this game and that’s the way we are approaching it.”
Powell is no stranger to big games at club level.
Before hanging up his boots he played for Leeds in their 1998 Grand Final defeat by Wigan Warriors and was a member of the team which beat London Broncos the following year in the last final at the old Wembley. He was also at stand-off the following year against Bradford Bulls at Murrayfield and as well as coaching Leeds in the 2003 decider, he led Featherstone Rovers to a Northern Rail Cup showpiece and three second tier Grand Finals.
Most of Cas’ team will be experiencing the big stage for the first time, but that’s not a concern for Powell.
He said: “I thought the way we managed the semi-final was very good.
“We have got Danny Orr and Ryan Sheridan on the coaching staff who have played in finals as well and we were so calm.
“The players went about their business the way we’d prepared, they didn’t get ruffled at all. It was a real calm and composed performance and I think we need to deliver that again.”
Leeds are in a different situation. Finals have become almost a yearly event, but they haven’t lifted the Challenge Cup since Powell’s victory as a player 15 years ago.
“It is tough when you lose finals,” Powell conceded. “That game is 2003 was a tough one and Leeds have had to go through that six times, which is difficult. But I don’t think that makes them any more motivated than us. It might make them a bit more nervous, I don’t know. It will be the team that stays the most composed on the day. I am not a massive believer in getting nervous for big games too much.
“It is a piece of grass and you are playing against opposition. We’ve played against them before and competed – we’ve competed against everybody – and I just think the calmer we can stay and the more we can focus on our game, I think we’ll be fine. I am not too worried about the players and the way we’ll go about it. I think the big games we’ve played in this year, we’ve generally delivered.”
For Leeds, the Challenge Cup is the missing piece of the jigsaw. Players who featured under Powell – including Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Ryan Bailey – have won every available honour, other than the famous knockout trophy.
But Powell insisted he doesn’t feel sorry for his former charges, when it comes to their Cup record. “They have had huge careers,” he said. “Look at the Grand Finals they’ve won. They are well-decorated players at international level and I don’t feel sorry for them. It is one of those things, you work hard, you play in finals and some you lose, some you win. I wouldn’t feel sorry for blokes like them, who have had magnificent careers. They have had some tough things happen to them, but I think everybody who plays at the top level in sport gets those.” But he added: “I have enjoyed seeing how they’ve been the foundation of the club over a number of years.
“Top-quality professionals, outstanding rugby league players and when I bump into them I’ll have a good chat with them. They are good fellas. I know Tony Smith (who took over from Powell as coach) got a lot of credit for what happened at Leeds, but I felt like I had an influence in terms of the foundations. A lot of things needed to be done when I took the job there and I was a pretty inexperienced coach then.
“Nevertheless, I think I learned a lot from it and from subsequent challenges I’ve had. I’ve got a lot of support from a lot of people along the way, at each club I’ve been at. This is probably the best support I’ve had anywhere, in terms of the staff we’ve got and the board and (chairman) Jack Fulton. The way they’ve gone about their business has been superb.”
Tomorrow will be Tigers’ first Challenge Cup final since 1992 and Powell feels the club and his players deserve a day in the spotlight.
“We’ve gone to a new level this year for us,” he said. “We’ve stayed pretty calm and focused all the way through it.
“We’ve got rattled a couple of times here and there, but we’ve generally come out of tough situations and the players have been great.
“I think it has been a huge effort from everybody to stay composed and I don’t see any reason why that won’t continue.”