Castleford are set to take a major gamble on the fitness of Craig Huby in the Challenge Cup final against Leeds Rhinos on Saturday afternoon.
Huby, the cornerstone of the Tigers’ pack, dislocated his left elbow in the semi-final against Widnes Vikings, less than two weeks ago. The injury resulted in him being sent to hospital to have the elbow slotted back into place.
It was thought he would miss the final, but the inspirational prop forward seems to be on the verge of a remarkable recovery. He trained with his team-mates at Wembley on Friday – admittedly a light session with his elbow heavily strapped – and was due for a fitness test on Saturday morning.
“If he’s confident and I see him do one or two things, then he’s in,”said his coach, Daryl Powell. “We need to give him as long as possible. He’s a pretty important player to us.”
The experienced substitute, Garreth Carvell, stands by to come into the starting line-up, but the opposing coach, Brian McDermott, is fully expecting Huby to line up for Cas. “For the average man it would be two months, but I think they’ll manage to get him out there,” McDermott said.
Powell has described this as his perfect final, but denies that he harbours any bitterness over the manner of his departure from Leeds in 2002. He is not, he insisted, the coach the Rhinos pushed out into the cold. “There are a lot of misconceptions about that,” he said. “It was my choice to stand down.”
Looking back, he says he did not feel quite ready to take on the responsibility at Leeds on a long-term basis, in what was his first season after retiring as a player. He then took on a director of rugby role, initially for two years, after which he was due to resume as coach.
The trouble was that his successor as coach at Leeds, Tony Smith, was just too successful and, as his contract was extended, Powell’s return to the coaching role was pushed further back. “I didn’t want to be that long away from coaching, which is why I went to rugby union [in 2005].” He believes he learnt a lot from his time at the helm of Leeds Tykes, but he was always destined to return to his first love, which he did by taking the coaching job at Featherstone Rovers.
So impressive was his work there, that he was the obvious candidate when the post at his home-town club, Castleford, became available.
In his first season, he has converted them from wooden-spoon contenders to a top-four Super League side. “We’ve done really well,” he admits. “There’s been a consistency about our performances.”
Powell is philosophical about the leaks about players leaving or supposedly leaving this winter – including key men like Huby, Marc Sneyd and Daryl Clark. “That’s rugby for you,” he said.
One important contributor brought in this time has been the scrum-half, Liam Finn, who was without a club until Powell, who had coached him at Featherstone, swooped at the start of this year. “I know I wouldn’t be in Super League if it wasn’t for a coach who understands my game and had faith in me,” Finn said. “I’ll always be grateful to Daryl.”
Although Powell, who has made great play of the spirit of ’86, when Cas last won the Challenge Cup, will not name his 17-man squad until today, he is certain to recall Justin Carney, who has completed a two-match suspension.
Leeds have had a more relaxed build-up than has been the case in the previous lead-ups to their six successive cup final defeats.
However, earlier this week their hooker Paul Aiton was named as one of 17 former Cronulla players who have been listed as having a case to answer in Australia over alleged use of illegal supplements at that club in 2011.
McDermott says that has had no impact on the team’s preparations. “All it is at the moment is a report from Australia that might not be right,” he said.