NINETEEN YEARS ago Daryl Powell was part of a Super League first and he is on the verge of making history again today.
Powell played at stand-off for Leeds Rhinos when they were beaten by Wigan Warriors in the inaugural Grand Final.
This evening he will coach his hometown club Castleford Tigers against his former side as they bid to become champions for the first time.
Powell – whose assistant Ryan Sheridan was his half-back partner in 1998 – has transformed Tigers since taking over in 2013.
Third-bottom that year, a massive 22 points behind leaders Huddersfield Giants, Tigers have become a genuine force in the European game and topped the table by 10 points from second-placed Leeds this season.
Castleford have never before finished as leaders of the elite competition, but Powell – who coached Rhinos from 2001-2003 – reckons a win at Old Trafford this evening would eclipse that.
“It’d be at the top of my coaching career,” he said.
“We finished top and the manner in which we did it was a huge achievement, but this is different now.
“It’s a massive game where the best team will come out on top and to be crowned champions for us on this stage would be awesome.”
Despite being without full-back Zak Hardaker, dropped for breaching club rules, Tigers are favourites to record a ninth straight win against Leeds – and fifth this season.
Powell is not relying on past results and is aware his team are heading into an atmosphere and type of pressure they’ve not faced before.
“We just have to play well,” Powell stressed.
“We have to hold our nerve, make sure we don’t get rattled by the atmosphere – that is important – and play our game that we’ve done all year.”
The aggregate score between the teams this season is 156-64 in Castleford’s favour, but Rhinos have shown some impressive form since half-time of last month’s defeat at the Jungle, when they trailed 30-6.
They are on a three-game winning streak and Powell stressed: “We are mindful of the challenge Leeds will present.
“They’ve been playing really well in recent weeks.
“They have an offload game – and constantly put you under pressure with those offloads – and it’s important we shut them down.”
Powell was in charge of Tigers when they were beaten 23-10 by Rhinos at Wembley in the 2014 Challenge Cup final.
They failed to deal with the occasion that afternoon, but the coach believes they are a better – and more confident – team now.
He said: “There’s a maturity about this team that we didn’t have then.
“Leeds on the day were outstanding. I thought they had a really good strategy and shut some parts of our game down, but we’re a different team I think that has grown in the last three years and this year in particular we’ve been able to add the defensive steel to the game we’ve played.
“We’ve matured our attacking game and we’re getting a whole lot out of our players on a consistent basis.”
Last year, when Tigers finished fifth in the Super-8s, they had the second-best attack, but second-worst defence.
This year they have scored more than any of their rivals and only St Helens conceded fewer. Powell described that defensive improvement as a “key element” in their success. He added: “Obviously there are two sides to the game.
“We’ve been a good attacking side for a few years, but defensively we’ve been a little bit leaky so that was a big focus.
“I think after last week there’s a little work to be done still on our try line D, but over the season we’ve really improved our defence.”