You would be forgiven for thinking there was some confusion about who the current Super League champions are. Ask anyone from Castleford, particularly those responsible for the sound system at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle, and they might leave you with the impression that it is Daryl Powell’s Tigers. Queen songs and commemorative scarves filled the Wheldon Road air after their League Leaders Shield victory was sealed in July but those pesky rules got in the way, leaving Leeds Rhinos to carry off Grand Final honours. Oh, and the actual Super League trophy.
We can argue all day about whether this is just. Of course any sane competition in sport would place greater emphasis and bestow titles on the team that finishes top of the pile at the end of the league season. But this is rugby league and Super League is not any sane competition. Rules is rules and as a consequence we can all have a good laugh at Castleford for blowing it when it really mattered, scant consolation for us for the fact that they so cruelly knocked us off our own path to Old Trafford in that extra-time thriller in September.
Powell and his troops will be looking to get the monkey off their back in 2018 then, and go one better by lifting the title. Reflecting on his side’s Grand Final defeat to the Rhinos Powell opined that you have to lose one to win one, which makes some sort of sense in as far as his side will no doubt be wiser for the experience. But it is not strictly true. Try telling it to Terry Griffiths for example, who carried off the world snooker title in his first appearance at the Crucible in 1979. Or conversely the Buffalo Bills, who appeared in four Super Bowls in a row in the early 1990s and lost them all. They still haven’t won one.
The side that dominated the league in 2017 is largely still intact apart from one rather conspicuous figure. The overwhelming black shadowy thing looming over the 2018 Cas vintage is the probable loss of Zak Hardaker who was sensationally and unceremoniously dropped from the Grand Final squad just days before the game as it later transpired that he had tested positive for cocaine. Hardaker turned in another monumental performance in 2017, every bit the equal of his Man Of Steel winning effort for Leeds in 2015 and his absence and the furore surrounding it was almost certainly a big reason why the Tigers couldn’t quite get it done at Old Trafford. Uncertainty surrounds the currently suspended Hardaker who somehow still hasn’t been dealt with. Hardly surprising given that there appears to be nobody in charge of the RFL and even when there is they will be told what to do by Ian Lenaghan, Gary Hetherington and Eamonn McManus in any case. For now, don’t expect to see Hardaker but do expect the Tigers’ efficiency to take something of a hit.
Veteran prop Andy Lynch has finally retired along with the sparsely used former Warrington winger Joel Monaghan, but apart from that the losses have been kept to a minimum and consist mostly of fringe players. Ben Crooks, Kevin Larroyer and Larne Patrick have stepped down a division with Leigh Centurions while perhaps it is with some surprise that we note that promising half Tom Holmes has been allowed to join Featherstone Rovers. Offsetting that loss both Jamie Ellis and Cory Aston have arrived to assist Luke Gale in the midfield now that Ben Roberts looks likely to convert to fullback to fill the Hardaker-shaped hole in that position. Gale was named Man Of Steel in 2017 but was widely panned for some uninspiring performances in England’s World Cup campaign. Yet for now he remains unchallenged as the best English scrum half in the competition and will again be key to the Tigers’ hopes.
Among the names coming in are the versatile Joe Wardle who joins from NRL outfit Newcastle Knights following the now fashionable one-year stint down of the Englishman down under. The former Huddersfield man played 17 times for the Knights and will add to Powell’s options in both the second row of the pack and perhaps in the centres. You can pretty much throw Wardle in anywhere and he will give you seven out of ten every week, but he may not be the kind of inspiring difference maker that you might expect a side looking to push on from such a successful season to recruit. Similarly Gary Lo shone brightly in Papua New Guinea’s World Cup journey but is largely untried at the highest level of the domestic game. He has spent the last two years playing in the Championship with Sheffield Eagles after starting out in his homeland with the PNG Hunters. A winger who has scored more than a try per game for the Eagles, he might just turn out to be the perfect fit for a side which loves nothing better than to give it a bit of width and watch their wide men rack up the points. Both Denny Solomona (spits) and last year’s top try-line botherer Greg Eden can attest to that.
The Tigers have it tough to start out with a visit to our very own Saints on the opening weekend. Justin Holbrook has changed the culture at Saints, talking recently of the importance of finishing in the top two and therefore getting a home semi-final come playoff time. All of which is a pleasant change from the previous philosophy under Keiron Cunningham which at times made us Saints fans feel like we should be lucky to be competing for a top eight spot in a salary capped sport. If the Tigers can past that test they have it a little easier with a home clash with everyone’s favourites for the wooden spoon Widnes Vikings before taking on both Hull clubs as February turns into March.
While it is unlikely that Castleford will dominate the regular season in 2018 in quite the same way as they did last term they are still a very realistic contender for the top four and could, with a fair wind and an opponent who isn’t Leeds, make up for their Grand Final heartbreak.