Rugby League: Resurgent Tigers mark out new territory in the Super League jungle

Castleford were facing extinction, now they are looking for expansion. Dave Hadfield reports
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The Independent Online
THERE were times last season when Dean Sampson wondered whether there would still be a Castleford for him to celebrate his testimonial with this year. Like everyone else, the Great Britain prop and the rugby league club's longest-serving player had his doubts.

"There was this feeling that Super League didn't really want us and there was a stage where everyone was rubbing their hands together and thinking that we were going to save them the job of kicking us out," he says.

"When Stuart Raper arrived as coach he drew on that. All through that campaign in the second half of the season he was telling us that no one was going to help us but us."

Cas escaped relegation and now they are not merely strengthening themselves on the pitch, but reinventing themselves as the sort of rugby club without which Super League would be unthinkable. There has been an undercurrent of thinking - sometimes articulated, sometimes not - that Super League is about clubs in large centres of population. Castleford is a small town and not a notably prosperous one - "It's taken so many knocks that sometimes there has only seemed to be the rugby team left," says Sampson - and is hemmed in by other equally parochial league towns.

A hopeless case? Not according to the club's marketing and media manager, Michael McDonald - like Raper, an Australian from the Cronulla club in Sydney - who is taking the lead in transforming the Tigers' image.

"This has been known as a very traditional club and not particularly forward-thinking," he says. "The challenge we face is to move it forward on and off the field and we have decided to meet that challenge head-on."

Not everything he and the club have in mind will be guaranteed immediate popularity. The proposed move out of town to a new stadium will not please those who stroll across the street to enjoy the atmosphere at Wheldon Road.

"We will listen to everybody's opinions, but the fact is that when people go for entertainment these days, they want to do it in comfort," McDonald says.

Equally heretical is the idea that Castleford should break out of their traditional heartland and attract spectators from rival territory, like Wakefield and Featherstone, as well as the broad acres beyond.

"Super League provides the best players and the best competition. There are a lot of people out there who just need a bit of prompting to come and see the quality of players involved in Super League. They can watch us as well as watching their local club," McDonald says. "We don't want to lose the passion that people in Castleford have for their club, we just want to spread it wider."

McDonald has a template for his vision of a club that transcends its locality and becomes bigger than its home town. He has studied the success of the Green Bay Packers in American football and has spoken to them about some of the techniques they have used to spread their appeal outside their obvious catchment area.

Much of this echoes what has already been achieved at Bradford, but however often the Bulls and the Packers invoke marketing as the key to their success, they need to do the business on the pitch to make it work.

That is the task for Raper - who admits he would now be back on the beach in Cronulla if Cas had gone down - and his players. Sampson, a cornerstone of a decade's-worth of Castleford sides of varying quality, believes that they have got what it takes.

The club's squad has been growing - in both senses. "We've got a squad of around 25 players who could go into the first team now, which hasn't been the case in the past," he says. "And where I always used to be the biggest in the pack, now I'm one of the smallest.

"It's going to be harder for us this year, because people will be expecting more of us. But I honestly think that we can make the top four. We're not up there with Wigan and Bradford, because we haven't got their personnel, but we can be in the next group with St Helens, London and Leeds."

The Challenge Cup tie with Leeds today is an early test of Castleford's new sense of purpose and optimism. "So far it's a lot of words," says Raper. "It's heading in the right direction off the field, but we have to turn it all into results on the paddock."

Failure to do so at Headingley will create a yawning, anticlimactic, seven-week gap until the start of Super League. It's a reminder that the Chinese do not regard the Year of the Tiger as propitious.

"It's been a big build-up and it could all come crashing down," Sampson says. His 10 years at Castleford have made him a realist. He also discovered the other week that the operation is not yet unrecognisably slick.

Arriving to pick up the proceeds from his pre-season testimonial match against Sheffield, he was expecting a cheque. "But they hadn't been to the bank, so they gave it me in big bags of coins."

It is a good metaphor for Castleford's situation as they try to convert a wealth of tradition into a new currency.