After ending the 2017 Super League regular season and Super 8s a record ten points ahead of nearest rivals and, ultimately, their Grand Final conquerors Leeds, Castleford Tigers can definitely stake their claim as the most impressive team of last season, breaking records along the way and playing scintillating rugby league. Their fans, therefore, while disappointed with their performance and result on the massive stage of Old Trafford, will be hoping to go one step further in 2018 while also carrying on with the style and intensity that became the norm for the Tigers in 2017.
Recruitment then, thus far, seems to be disappointing on the surface of it. While there isn’t any need at all for wholesale changes – why would they after sweeping all before them last season? – the players who have been brought in hardly smack of starting thirteen quality, perhaps only just making it onto the bench. That, however, can’t be said for one recruit – Papua New Guinea winger Garry Lo. A man who had a highly effective Rugby League World Cup campaign recently, scoring two tries in the team’s run to the quarter finals, the former PNG Hunter had a huge impact during his time with his first English club. Kingstone Press Championship team Sheffield Eagles were fortunate enough to have the 24 year old monster in their ranks and, after a try scoring record of fifty from forty-six matches, the Tigers won the race with other Super League clubs to bring in Lo.
His signing may well give an indication to the future custodian of Castleford’s full back jersey as, with Lo almost certain to slot in on the left flank, 2017’s Super League top try scorer Greg Eden may well move to the position he has called his own before in his career, such as at Huddersfield Giants. The former Brisbane Bronco played there in the Grand Final following Zak Hardaker’s late expulsion from the squad and, while he couldn’t demonstrate the confidence and calmness Hardaker exhumed on the field, very few players would have been successful in getting to grips with playing his first game in the position for a while just 48 hours before the biggest game of the season – I feel that, with a full off season under his belt, Eden will enter the 2018 season as a solid full back for the Tigers.
This would also allow Samoan half back Ben Roberts to continue his superb partnership with Englishman Luke Gale at six and seven respectively, a pairing which contributed hugely to the Tigers’ 2017 campaign. Roberts started last season as third choice in the halves behind Gale and the troubled Rangi Chase but, when the latter departed, he stepped in like he had been there all season and his elusive running and creativity threatened opponents week in, week out and, while he has been spoken of as an option for full back, keeping him in the team’s engine room is of paramount importance.
I am pretty sure that recruitment would not have been Daryl Powell’s off season priority, instead focusing on the retention of the bulk of a squad which shone so brightly last season. The 2017 Coach of the Year has done just that with only Joel Monaghan (retiring), Tom Holmes (Featherstone Rovers) and Kevin Larroyer (Leigh Centurions) being notable departures showing that, while there is a question mark over Zak Hardaker’s availability, the core is still intact. He has, therefore, sought to bring in depth which offers options for him, both off the bench and from players outside of the seventeen to keep his first choice side on their toes. Jamie Ellis has returned to a club he played for between 2012 and 2014 to offer more options in the halves while Mitch Clark and James Green have joined to offer more depth in the forwards. Second rower Joe Wardle has returned to familiar shores following a year in Australia with Newcastle Knights and seems to be the most likely, alongside Lo, of the new signings to be regular features in the starting thirteen.
2018 seems then to be a case of more of the same from the Tigers with pretty much all of the League Leaders’ Shield winning squad still at Wheldon Road, just with greater strength in depth at the club. Nobody can question Powell’s coaching ability so it wouldn’t be a shock to see more young players stepping up for Cas next season with both centre Tuoyo Egodo and half back Jake Trueman showing great potential towards the end of 2017, both scoring hat tricks. As a Leeds Rhinos fan, I am quietly hoping for the Tigers to fall back into the pack but I can’t see it – I feel that 2018 may well be the year of the tiger, one where they may well go a step further than last season.