I spoke to Daryl Powell, the former Great Britain player, for League Express in late 2008 shortly after he was appointed as the new coach of Featherstone Rovers – a job he has excelled in.
You won 33 Great Britain caps, Daryl. What are your fondest memories?
The 19-12 win over the Aussies at Wembley in 1990 was absolutely fantastic. It was my first Test match on home soil and it was massive for us to beat them like that. We really competed with Australia back then and came so close to winning an Ashes series and we showed that again in Melbourne in 1992 when we hammered them 33-10. Malcolm Reilly was a great coach, outstanding as a person as well as a coach. He stuck by his principles and got the best out of a lot of players, including me.
When did you first play Rugby League?
I was a late starter! I played soccer until I was 17 but I was probably too aggressive. I played League for Glasshoughton and then Redhill before signing for Sheffield Eagles, a brand new club, complete with my long hair and moustache! I was their first-ever signing.
Why did you choose Sheffield when top-flight clubs wanted to sign you?
I thought I would get more of an opportunity there and was proved right. Hull KR had about 12 Australians in their 13 back then because that was in pre-quota days. Castleford were also interested but I knew I could make a name for myself at Sheffield. It was tough though. We were on £200 per week at first, but that only lasted one week as our sponsors went bust! A few players left because they couldn’t honour the contracts but I felt I owed the club something and I’m glad I decided to stay.
What were the highs and lows of your time there?
We made two Premiership finals at Old Trafford, against Swinton and Oldham, and I scored a hat-trick in each game. I remember travelling to Old Trafford for the Swinton game in 1989 with Tina Turner blaring out and we felt great. It felt like we’d arrived and it signalled the start of big things for Sheffield. I also played international football when I was at Sheffield and enjoyed a testimonial in 1993/94. Gary Hetherington’s judgement on players with superb and he picked up Mick Cook, Mark Aston, Paul Broadbent, myself and various Australians. As for the lows, I had big problems with Achilles injuries, needing both of them operated on. I thought I’d have to retire at 27 but they eventually got sorted.
Tell us about your spells in Australia.
I played for Balmain in 1988 just before Ellery came over and took the club to the Grand Final. I won a coaching scholarship which got me free flights to Australia so Dave Topliss recommended that Balmain signed me and I ended up getting four first-grade games and scoring two tries. I also played alongside Wally Lewis at the Gold Coast in 1991.
You signed for Keighley in 1995 as they were on the brink of promotion only for Super League to keep the Cougars consigned to the lower divisions.
I signed on April Fools’ Day and I think that says it all! Four days later the news of Super League broke and we weren’t going to be in it. It was so hard for the club to take after they’d done so much only to have the rug pulled from beneath them. But I still had some wonderful times at the club with blokes like Brendan Hill, Chris Robinson, Martin Wood, Nick Pinkney and Jason Ramshaw who were great characters.
You then went to Leeds in a rather bizarre transfer.
Gary [Hetherington] picked up a group of us from Keighley because they were going into administration. For something like £30,000 he got myself, Darren Fleary, Phil Cantillon, Simon Irving and a couple of others. I’d thought my top-flight days had come to an end so this was a great chance for me to prove some people wrong and I’d like to think that I did that. But it took a while for me to prove to Graham Murray that I still had what was needed to play at that level.
How good a coach was Graham Murray?
He developed a real tough edge at Leeds, something the club had lacked for a long time because they had always been seen as the big-spending, under-achieving fancy dans. Graham was great at putting a group of people together and getting them to grow as a collective unit. He did a lot of little things that made a big difference – for example he introduced a ‘next seat’ policy. If you walked into a room you couldn’t sit in your cliques, you had to sit in the next available chair, whoever it was next to!
Was your form in 1998 and 1999 at Leeds the best of your career?
It was close to the best but you get noticed more at a club like Leeds compared to Sheffield or Keighley. I was playing with internationals, which makes things easier.
Why did the wheels begin to fall off when Dean Lance took over?
Dean was a very different animal to Graham in the way he coached and he found it difficult to take over. In Graham’s last year, Dean came over to watch us play against Wigan and I think he thought, ‘How can I better this?’. It would have been better if he hadn’t come over at all because it didn’t help anyone. It also has to be said that we could have been stronger for him. The team was coming to an end, Marc Glanville and Brad Godden had already left and we missed them and when I was coach I had to get rid of players out of necessity.
When you finished playing at the end of 2000 you took over as coach of the Academy side. How many games did that last before you got the first-team job?
One game! I had the pre-season, though, and coached guys like Chev Walker, Matt Diskin, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow – so many quality players. Then the club parted company with Dean after a home defeat to Hull and I was offered the job.
Was there any hesitation on your part?
Yes there was. I’d played with most of the players which I knew would make it harder and some of the players – Brett Mullins, Brad Clyde and Jamie Mathiou – were close to Dean. It was always going to take a lot of managing. There were a lot of injuries and with Mullins it was a question of making sure he was looking after himself. There was a culture at the club that needed to be sorted out and it probably took about 18 months.
You released some high-profile players after 2002 – Ryan Sheridan, Ben Walker, Andy Hay and Karl Pratt and you were rewarded with a very good 2003 season.
I still talk to Andy and Ryan is at Featherstone with me but I did what I had to do – it wasn’t out of vindictiveness or anything. We had a good team in 2003 and came so close to winning the Challenge Cup and getting to the Grand Final. That play-off defeat to Wigan hurt so much. I’ve never felt so bad in my life as after that game because I was so desperate for us to do well with it being my final year.
Your departure from Leeds was even more bizarre than your signing as a player. It was announced that you would step aside for two years with Tony Smith taking over before you took over again in 2006. What that really ever going to happen?
Well it was certainly the plan. I’d gone into coaching straight from playing and Gary felt I should take some time out to study some coaching methods but after Tony won the Grand Final in 2004, Gary told me that they’d give him another year and I knew that three years out of the game would be too much. So I started to look at other options and found myself a job in rugby union.
Are you excited at your new role at Featherstone?
Very much so. I enjoyed my time in union but League is my first love and it’s great to be back. Ryan Sheridan will be my assistant coach and it’s great for us to have signed Iestyn [Harris]. He’ll be here mainly as a player and I’m really looking forward to working with him again. I’ve spoken to other clubs but the timing wasn’t right. I feel that this is a great job for me.