When he arrived at Castleford Tigers on loan from Toronto Wolfpack just over 12 months ago, Gareth O’Brien was facing uncertainty over what his future in rugby league held.
The financial problems which had seen the Canadian side withdraw from the 2020 Super League season when it restarted following its pandemic-enforced suspension meant O’Brien and his team-mates had gone months without being paid – and are still fighting to get the money they are owed.
Toronto’s subsequent failure to gain re-admission to the competition for the 2021 campaign left those players out of contract too, although O’Brien was one of the lucky ones after impressing enough during that eight-game stint to earn a three-year contract with the Tigers.
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Even given the nature of the Wolfpack’s demise, the 29-year-old feels fortunate to have played a part in rugby league’s North American adventure, but at the same time is grateful for the opportunity he has seized at his new home in West Yorkshire.
“It was crazy,” O’Brien said, reflecting on the events of the past year. “The not getting paid was not something I’d wish on anyone and not knowing what your future holds rugby-wise.
“It wasn’t nice, and it’s not been resolved, but that doesn’t really matter at the minute. I’m at Cas now and enjoying my rugby here, and that sort of stuff will take care of itself.
“Cas threw me a lifeline by bringing me in on loan and I enjoyed my short spell there, and I’m very fortunate and owe them a lot that they had the faith in me to sign me on a permanent basis.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last 12 months and I’m really looking forward to the next two years as well.”
O’Brien had already spent a short time at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle earlier in his career, playing two games for Cas during the 2013 season while on loan from hometown club Warrington Wolves, and had discussions about joining the Tigers from Salford Red Devils prior to deciding on a switch to Toronto in 2018.
Castleford head coach Daryl Powell finally got his man last year though and, having been a long-time admirer of a player who is comfortable either at full-back or in the halves, and is delighted with what O’Brien has brought to the team.
“He’s been class,” Powell said. “He’s not the most vocal of half-backs and we’ve been trying to work on him from that perspective, but he’s one of the toughest and I really like the way he goes about his game.
He’s been class. He’s not the most vocal of half-backs…but he’s one of the toughest and I really like the way he goes about his game.
Castleford head coach Daryl Powell on Gareth O’Brien
“He’s prepared to run at the defensive line, his kicking game is pretty solid and tidy at the moment, and he’s got a pretty good relationship with Danny [Richardson] the way things are going. He’s been great whether he’s played full-back or half-back for us.
“They’re similar positions now, but what full-back does is put a lot of pressure on you physically and it’s really tough.
“To be able to do both, slotting in and out of both and play either, equally as effectively is tough to do. He’s shown he can play both positions excellently.”
Likewise, O’Brien believes he is flourishing under Powell’s guidance and is determined to help give the head coach something to celebrate at the end of the year before he departs for Warrington in 2022.
“I’ve worked really well with him,” O’Brien said. “It’s good playing for a coach who has got that sort of faith in you and backs your ability when you might not be that confident at that time.
“He’s a great coach and it’s a shame he’s moving on, but he’s done a great job here at Cas and he’s going to a good club in Warrington, so we want to finish the season strong for him as well.”
Recent wins away to Leeds Rhinos and reigning champions St Helens, not to mention last week’s 23-18 derby win at home to Wakefield Trinity, have put Castleford in among the teams fighting to make the Super League play-offs.
This year’s Challenge Cup runners-up head into Thursday’s match away to another play-off contender in Hull FC, which is live on Sky Sports, sitting just outside the top six on win percentage and O’Brien is confident they are in a good position to compete for a maiden Super League title.
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“I don’t think many pundits or people on the outside would have thought we’d have gone to Leeds and won and gone to St Helens and won,” O’Brien said.
“Then we backed it up against Wakefield which was a tough old game. We’ve got the wind in our sails now and a lot of confidence from it.
“Since the Challenge Cup final [in July] we’ve had a switch in mentality that we’ve got another trophy to aim for, it’s still in our hands and the last three wins have given us a boost in confidence, and we’re well in the fight now.”
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