O’Neill on the rise

Posted: Sunday 28th February 2021 - 5:00 PM

This article is taken from February's edition of Castleford Tigers' monthly magazine ROAR, which you can read for free by visiting castlefordtigers.com/roar.

O’Neill strongly laid down his claim for a starting spot in Daryl Powell’s matchday team. He's a tough young player who displayed impressive performances and a lack of care for opposition reputations. In this interview with ROAR, Jacques talks about his desire to get more even more game time, his Cumbrian roots and how Paul McShane is a terrific mentor for him.

The 21-year-old Cumbrian-born player shone in a difficult season for the Tigers, making 12 appearances and scoring twice. But it was not those figures that showcased why he is one of Super League’s brightest prospects, it was his hard yard running, his impactful tackles and his fearless attitude that really stood him out.

“It was a weird year but it probably my best year at Cas, especially in the First Team,” said O’Neill.

“I say it was a bad year overall 2020, but it was a great year for me to be honest, obviously we had started by playing normal COVID-free and then COVID came in and my goals were to just play as many games as I want, I was not really looking for like a set number of matches. I just was looking to play rugby and show Powelly (Daryl Powell) what I could do.”

There was a run of games where Jacques had been part of the matchday squad, firstly coming off the bench before starting games towards the later stages of the season.

“I think I missed maybe one game before my injury when we came back and so was playing more or less every week, which was great for me obviously because I could get my match fitness and show what I could do really. Last year I was getting some of my goals and I wanted to do that by doing my business, so I try to play hard rugby.”

After scoring against Hull KR in the Tigers’ penultimate game of 2020, Jacques, unfortunately, suffered a knee injury which meant he had to leave the field, however, a small stroke of good fortune was that he did not require surgery and he is aiming to be ready for Round One in March.

It was a disappointing end for O’Neill who had begun gathering match rhythm and plaudits for his courageous efforts. Efforts such as when the young Tiger decided to go face-to-face with a veteran and one of the best-ever Super League forwards, Gareth Ellis, in the Challenge Cup.

Both the Tigers youth coaches and Daryl Powell over the past few years have been developing O’Neill’s fearlessness and aggression, to ensure he becomes a high-quality rugby league player.

“I was always quite aggressive when I was younger growing up, Powelly, for example, was saying perhaps I was too aggressive and so it’s much more controlled aggression now. When you’re younger you might get away with it a bit more, at this age you need to know you can’t do this, or you can’t do that.

“Daryl’s been great for me, he’s taught me and made me a better player and how to channel my aggression in the way that a good player uses it, instead of being silly. Now I just try to go about my business, I don’t need to give lip out on the field, and I can do what I do but I don’t need to be that person who is gobbing off.”

Castleford’s Head Coach describes Jacques as a ‘go-getter’ and has been working hard with him to get him playing as both a hooker and a loose-forward. When asked which position he preferred, he confirmed he would play anywhere Daryl Powell told him to.

“I like hooker, 100% that is me I think, there is more to my game at hooker when I’m playing there, whereas at #13 Powelly tried to introduce a few tip-ons and ball-playing but I just like running hard and tackling at #13. When I play at #9, I can introduce a short kicking game and a running game, a quick running game, out of #9. If Powelly said ‘Listen you are playing here this week’ I would be like ‘Yeah fine, what do you want me to do?’ and I’ll go do it for him.”

In front of Jacques in the hooker position though is the reigning Steve Prescott Man of Steel, Paul McShane, who often lends his knowledge and experience to the 21-year-old.

“With Macca (McShane) in front of me I don’t even need to say how good he is, everyone knows that.

“Me and Macca get on great, he really looks after me, it is good to have someone like that in front of me. He is Man of Steel, best in the league, so he is awesome to learn off, which is great for me - we have a little bet on at the minute, about me putting some weight on and him losing it, which is good. He is always setting me challenges and I appreciate that from him. My goal is to put size on, last year I was playing at 85kg and this year I want to be playing at 90 or above if I can hold it well.”

2021 is the latest chapter in Jacques O’Neill’s rugby league story which began back in Cumbria during his school and amateur playing days, an area full to the brim with highly potential young talents as Jacques describes.

“Cumbrian rugby league amateur wise is really good, we were in the nationals and playing against teams in the heartlands such as Wigan clubs and go strongly against them. A lot of players I was with are in and around Super League talent level, in my own team there was me and Brad Walker from my school and amateur club. Brad’s at Wakefield now and there are so many more players in our team who could have played Super League, but they might just get missed, I could have got missed but thankfully I didn’t.”

He was identified by the Castleford youth setup and was asked if he would like to join our Scholarship side, the only problem was it’s a long journey to and from Cumbria to Castleford, especially at such a young age.

But this has made the success of becoming a Super League player all the sweeter for both Jacques and his mother, who would drive him to training twice a week to help him try and achieve his goal to become a professional rugby league player.

“I think I got scouted at a school game, a national final and it was actually two Cumbrian teams and after that final, I got a phone call. It was Cas asking how I felt about coming down and playing for the Under 16’s. That was a massive thing for me, my mum and I always thought I was good enough, but it never became a reality that I was going to play Super League, I always just wanted to play for Barrow which would have been great. But when they said they wanted me to come to Cas and I went down, played in the 16s and made captain straightaway I was taken aback.”

“My mum was travelling twice a week to help me out, that was the only thing for her as I grew up, she wanted the best for me so I could do what I wanted to do, so she backed me and she would take me to training twice a week – over two-hour journeys, it’s a long way! I’m privileged to have a mum like I do to be fair, I know not a lot of parents would probably do that, to travel that way twice a week just for me to try fulfilling my dream.”

So, what is the next dream for Jacques O’Neill?

Simple - the same one as every Tiger in the 2021 squad, silverware success, and O’Neill believe this season could be THE season for Castleford Tigers.

“I was talking to Macca the other day and I was saying ‘You’re going to get Man of Steel again’ and he said, ‘I’d love to win something as a team this year’, and so would I and I’ve seen the boys be so close but now I’m in the team I want it even more. We have a great squad this year, we’ve signed some good players, we have some good depth and I think this is the year for us.”

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