Challenge Cup Final '“ Catalans Dragons v Warrington Wolves: Former Castleford Tigers star Daryl Clark aims to make it third time lucky
The Castleford Tigers hooker not only won Man of Steel, but also claimed Super League’s Young Player of the Year, earned Dream Team recognition for the first time, scored at Wembley, made his England debut and earned a big-money move to Warrington Wolves, too.
He certainly fitted in a lot. But there is that ‘almost’ caveat; Clark, just 21 at the time, could not quite inspire his home-town club to success in the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup final.
Castleford, in the early days of Daryl Powell’s reign, were eventually undone by Leeds Rhinos, their fierce rivals whose ‘golden generation’ at last ended their hoodoo in the competition by prevailing 23-10.
Four years on, Clark – having also lost to Hull FC in the 2016 affair – hopes finally to correct his personal anomaly by helping favourites Warrington defeat Catalans Dragons in today’s latest Wembley final.
Recollecting his previous Challenge Cup finals to The Yorkshire Post, he said: “I remember it being a great experience in ’14 even though we lost.
“I’d never experienced anything like that – Wembley – before. I was pretty disappointed as I don’t think we were ever really in the game.
“But it comes and goes so quickly. You have got to enjoy the moment, but at the same time not get caught up in all the emotion, which does happen to a lot.
“I know I’ve been guilty of that in the past; that was my first final. I didn’t know what to expect.
“But now I’ve been there a couple of times I know what it feels like and I know what it feels like to lose. Hopefully those previous two finals will hold me in good stead come Saturday.
“It’d be huge if we can do it at Wembley this time – and I don’t have to walk up those steps as a runner-up again.”
One of the reasons Castleford never made their mark was due to the Leeds tactics of nullifying the ball-carrying potential of robust Australian winger Justin Carney.
“Justin Carney was playing really well at the time for us so they just kept kicking the ball into touch,” recalled Clark.
“It slowed us down, we kept having to start with scrums, they kept it away from Justin and it was pretty smart.
“It made for a boring game, but they got the win and that’s all they were bothered about.
“With Catalans they’re a big forward unit and I’m sure they’ll come at us down the middle just like they did against St Helens in that semi.
“But they’re pretty similar to how we play and I can see it being an interesting battle.”
Just as interesting will be the battle of Clark, who is most bookmakers’ favourite to win the prestigious Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, with Catalans hooker Micky McIlorum.
While the Warrington star is all guile and grace, his rival is more renowned for his aggressive, no-nonsense approach, which acts as such a fillip for his colleagues.
“Looking at that semi against Saints he seems to be back to his best this year,” said Clark about the former England hooker who switched from Wigan to Perpignan ahead of this campaign.
“He is another dangerous player in their ranks. We need to be smart with him. We know what he can do and he is a threat.
“Steve McNamara seems to have turned Catalans around really well.
“They’ve just beaten the best team in the competition and we had a 22-22 draw with them in July. We won’t count that result the other week; that was completely different.”
Catalans lost 56-6 at Warrington a fortnight ago, but having secured their Super League safety by edging them into eighth spot at the split, head coach McNamara opted essentially to write-off the Super 8s.
He rested seven players for that fixture in Cheshire and did similar when Les Dracs hosted Wigan a week ago, subsequently losing 35-6.
Understandably the former England coach has opted to put all his eggs in this Wembley basket.
He is right to do so as Catalans – whose only other final appearance was a 2007 loss to St Helens – must perform at their optimum level if they are going to win the first trophy of their 18-year existence.
Furthermore any success today would also be the first time a French club has won the Challenge Cup; it is a glorious chance to give the sport of rugby league a massive lift in France.
Stunning Super League leaders Saints in that shock semi-final defeat they were top-class and they now require a performance of similar ilk.
However, Warrington – also chasing a Grand Final – have their own reasons for wanting to make their mark this afternoon.
Aside from Clark’s story there are plenty of others, like that of Kevin Brown, the veteran former England stand-off who lost the final with Huddersfield against Wolves in 2009.
Clark, though, knows Warrington should have prospered two years ago.
“That was a pretty tough one to take,” he said, about the defeat to Hull. “We were 10-0 up with 20 minutes to go and lost 12-10.
“Then there was that Ben Currie chance at the death where nine times out of 10 he dots the ball down. It was a different experience to ’14; this time around we had a great chance of winning only to throw it away. ”
Coincidentally it was McNamara who gave Clark his England debut in 2014.
Asked what he was like as a coach, he said: “It’s pretty tough going just off the England experience. You’re only there three or four weeks and don’t work too much on too many things as there isn’t time. But he’s definitely done well with Catalans.
“In 2014 I was never expecting Man of Steel so to win that, reach a first Challenge Cup final and get that England debut, it was the best year I’ve had up to pres’.
“Even though we lost at Wembley we finished fourth in Super League, which, overall, was a pretty good season for Cas’ if you looked at the year before and the year before that.
“But now I’m back at Wembley and, hopefully, it’ll be third time lucky.”