Castleford Tigers star Gareth O’Brien feels like he is playing for his rugby league future as the 2020 season nears conclusion.
O’Brien signed a short-term contract with the Tigers after former club Toronto Wolfpack withdrew from Super League after financial struggles caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result O’Brien and a number of other teammates were left in limbo and were forced to find a contract elsewhere.
The former Salford Red Devils star fortunately landed on his feet in Castleford, but does admit he is playing for his rugby league future with Toronto’s future still uncertain.
“Yes, I feel that every game you want to play to the best of your ability anyway, so especially with all the uncertainty at Toronto it does perhaps add a little pressure. But, I have to try to put that in the back of my mind, I know ‘Cas have got Niall Evalds, who I am good friends with coming in next year coming in as a full-back,” O’Brien stated.
O’Brien is unsure whether his future lies in Castleford, but is doing everything to put himself in the shop window for an opportunity in 2021.
“As for opportunities at Castleford in 2021, I am not too sure there will be anything there but you never know. But if I play well and put myself in the window there may be other clubs who are interested so I’ve got to push the pressure to the back of my mind and just play the game. If I do the simple things well I am sure it will go a long way,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien on Toronto’s financial struggles and enjoying life in Canada
Prior to the restart the Toronto squad hadn’t been paid in months and many were left struggling financially. Despite the problems O’Brien and his teammates faced he still remembers his Toronto experience very fondly.
“It was brilliant. Being over there I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is a fantastic city to live in, the people have such passion for sport, especially ice hockey it is massive in the city, but sports in general Raptors in the NBA, Maple Leafs in the NHL and Toronto FC in the MLS, they just love their sport,” O’Brien stated
For a city that probably had no clue what rugby league was two years ago to be packing with over 10,000 people in the Grand Final last year just shows there is a market there. This is why I am hoping the club gets through this difficult patch and we are allowed to stay in the game because I think there is so much potential there and it would be a shame to see it crashing down after three years,” O’Brien added.
The differences between Super League and the Championship
Prior to his stint at Castleford, the 28-year-old played in Super League for Warrington, Salford and Widnes, but dropped down a tier to experience life in Canada. Despite the belief that the Championship is an inferior competition, O’Brien spoke on the competitiveness and quality of the division.
“There are a lot of great players in the Championship and it is a tough competition, as far as quality I don’t think there is much difference. Super League is probably a faster game, so I think the speed of the competition is the main difference. Physicality wise it is a game of rugby league everyone is big, everyone is strong in the case not much different at all. It is just maybe a bit different in terms of fitness levels, the professional guys train every day whereas the part time players work all day and go training until 21:00 and go work the next morning,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien enjoyed a prolific year in 2019 playing in the Championship for Toronto, winning Player of the Year before playing in the Championship Grand Final, a game the 28-year-old is most remembered for.
The Castleford star nailed a dramatic field goal in extra time of a relegation deciding clash against Hull Kingston Rovers in 2016 to ensure Salford retained their place in Super League for the following season. Despite this, O’Brien doesn’t think he had an advantage heading into the Championship Grand Final.
“I am not sure. Those games are just one off games, it is in the moment and you don’t think about pressure all you think about is winning. I have been involved in three of them now, it is mad. After the first one I didn’t want anything to do with them again, but ended up in two more,” O’Brien joked.
O’Brien reserves special praise for his former Salford boss Ian Watson
O’Brien has played for several successful coaches in his career namely Tony Smith and Brian McDermott. However, the 28-year-old believed his former boss at Salford Ian Watson had the biggest influence on him.
“I’d have to say Ian Watson at Salford personally. I left Warrington after three or four years, I was in and out of the team and Tony Smith gave me the opportunity to find and play regular rugby and was at a stage where I needed to play week in and week out,” O’Brien stated.
“I played with Watto (Ian Watson) at Swinton, so we knew each other quite well and he brought me to Salford. It was 2016 and we ended up in the Million Pound Game. We got done for salary cap breaches, I think without the points deduction we would have finished eighth,” the 28-year-old said.
“He gave me a chance at that was the first year I switched to full-back as well. He sort of put that thought into my head and asked me if I’d fancy having a go at full back and it sort of came naturally to me and I enjoyed it. I wasn’t doing anywhere near as much tackling so I was out of the defensive line, which was nice,” O’Brien added.
“But yeah I owe a lot to Watto. He stuck with me over two seasons there, I did have a blip at one stage where he left me out of the side for a bit but was nothing but upfront with me about how I can improve and get back into the team. When it came to me moving onto Toronto he never stood in my way either, it was a case of you have got to do what is right for you and your family. I have a helluva lot of respect for Watto, he is a great coach and it was shown last year when Salford made the Grand Final,” O’Brien said.