Losing a Grand Final is hard to take but losing a Grand Final after dominating for the most part of the regular season is heart-breaking.
That is exactly what happened to the Castleford Tigers in 2017 – Daryl Powell’s side finished ten points clear of nearest rivals Leeds Rhinos and there is some irony in the fact that Brian McDermott’s men went on to defeat the Tigers in the showpiece event at Old Trafford.
But Castleford cannot afford to focus too much on that disappointment. It is time to focus on the upcoming campaign. The 2017 season was almost perfect from a Tigers perspective but that Grand Final defeat hurt. All the indicators suggested that this was going to be Castleford’s year to win on the biggest stage of all but it just wasn’t to be. In 2018 though, the Tigers can make up for their shortcomings by going one better.
Zak Hardaker, one of Castleford’s top talents, was dropped by Powell ahead of the Grand Final for a breach of club rules. Hardaker’s situation came to light just days before the Grand Final and many believe that the Tigers were distracted to a certain extent ahead of their clash with Leeds.
In 30 Super League appearances last season, Hardaker scored 17 tries – a statistic that shows just how important he is to the team. Ahead of the 2018 campaign, with Hardaker likely to cop a similar ban that was handed down to former team-mate Rangi Chase, eyes will be on just how Castleford aim to deal with his absence, perhaps by switching Ben Roberts to full back.
Powell and the Tigers frustrations both in the Challenge Cup and in the Grand Final will have been quite a learning curve for the Castleford boss. The Tigers showed plenty of potential in 2016 and it wasn’t a huge surprise to see Powell’s men go deep into the playoffs this time around. At just 52 years old, he could be in charge of Castleford for another decade or so and the next plan of action will be to build a dynasty.
Unfortunately for Castleford, the likes of Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors and St Helens will all be gunning for the title next season. To be the best, you have to beat the best and a difficult campaign looks likely. The Tigers do boast the quality to cope with the pressure of defending the League Leaders Shield but it isn’t as simple as that. Rugby matches are NOT won on paper as we well know.
Leeds have been there and done it all on the biggest stage and that experience was telling in the Grand Final. Castleford will improve for their 2018 effort and Powell could lead his side back to Old Trafford at the first time of asking. As of November 23rd, the Tigers are a general 6/1 shot to win the Grand Final – an achievement that would send neutrals wild after an era of Leeds, St Helens and Wigan dominance.
Castleford were as close to the finished article as it gets and Powell knows it. Adding a couple of fresh faces to the squad is key but the Tigers will be there or thereabouts once again. A bright and successful future is on the horizon for this Castleford Tigers side, Powell needs to make sure that his side can fulfil their potential for many years to come.