Castleford were one of the biggest surprises of last season, a breath of fresh air as Super League‘s stale structures took their last, faltering steps before this year’s big relaunch.
Daryl Powell’s team reached a Challenge Cup final and finished in the top four, no mean achievement for a club who could have so easily gone out of existence in the recent past.
There have been some changes to the Tigers’ squad for the 2015 campaign, with new halfbacks arriving.
One man who is still in place at the Jungle is England centre Michael Shenton, and he is convinced that Daryl Powell is the man who can keep his squad focused.
“We’ve got a coach here who keeps us pretty grounded,” Shenton told Love Rugby League.
“At the moment, we’ve got a lot of hard work to do, to integrate the new boys, and not get that second season sydrome.
“It’s going to be tough, though, with 12 teams, who I think have all strenghtened this year and look really strong.
“And if you break the season down and look at our fixtures, then you think, ‘If we’re not firing here then we could be struggling.’
“I don’t think we’ll be resting on our laurels and just telling us ourselves, ‘We’ll be okay, we’ll just build on last year, we can do it and it’ll all just fall into place.’
“The boys are working really hard on making sure that doesn’t happen.
“But you never know where you are until that first Super League game. You know, once you come to that game, that it’s on, and you know where you’re at.
“We did shock a few people, we shocked ourselves a little bit, but we kind of knew that we had something special, that something had clicked into place.
“It’s the same kind of feeling that we’ve got this season. We know what kind of level we’ve got to get to.”
One experienced campaigner who is still at the club is halfback Liam Finn. The Irish international concurs with Shenton, in that last season is something to build on.
“We don’t want to look to last year too much, but we need to pick the bones out to see what we were good at,” he said.
“We played a lot of good rugby, but early doors we played a lot of very basic and simple rugby, where we completed sets and put teams under pressure as to where they had to start their sets of six from.
“That’s what we built our game on. Perhaps by the end of the season, we’d evolved, and ended up playing too much.
“The type of play we used at the beginning of the season was what we needed at the back end – putting teams under pressure and making life as difficult as possible for the opposition.
“Everybody starts from scratch come February, and the team who works hardest and plays smartest will come up with results.
“Straight away, we need to get out that mentality that we’ve done the work and we’ll be there automatically. We need to put the foundations in place again this season, and really work hard early doors to defend well and start getting our game together.
“Luke Gale and Ben Roberts are pretty high profile signings, in the halfbacks, and we probably didn’t have that last year, we had quite low-profile halfbacks at the start of the season, and it probably helped with the surprise element.
“So they should bring something to us that’s a little bit different.
“I don’t think we’ll change our structure. Our coaching structure is how Daryl Powell wants to play, and I don’t think it will particularly change.
“We’ve lost different types of player, and that naturally changes how you play, but the way that Clarky plays is not so much in the structure but as an individual.
“Obviously, he’d be a loss to any Super League team, and any rugby league team in the world, I would suspect. It’s obviously going to change the way we look as a team.”
Back rower Frankie Mariano knows that recapturing the fine team spirit that the Tigers had in 2014 is important to their chances of success this time around.
“I wouldn’t say we’re rebuilding it from scratch,” said the former Hull KR man.
“The players who have stayed still have that mentality, we still had that bond between us.
“The new boys have fitted in nicely, they clicked from day one, so that made it easier.”We’re just continuing on from last year, really.”
One thing that Shenton feels has benefited Cas is being in big games, like last season’s Challenge Cup final.
The manner of the defeat to a very professional Leeds team has hopefully taught some hard lessons to the Tigers’ younger players.
“Being involved in them is absolutely key to learning from the experience,” said Shenton.
“It’s about taking it all on board, and breaking your game down and looking at what the opposition did.
“That example of Leeds is a great one – they’d lost a few before, and their mindset was, ‘We’re not losing another.’
“I’ve never seen a team execute a game plan so ruthlessly. It was boring, but they broke our game down and looked at our threats.
“They knew that we were a threat from yardage, because we’d scored the most tries from within our own half.
“They knew our back three was dangerous, so they killed the ball. And then they got into the game and waited for us to make errors, and it happened.
“We had a few guys without the experience and the occasion got on top of them. A lot of their guys stepped up and played their game.
“That’s really important for us to learn, in those big games, to play our game, to stick to a game plan, and to get into a game.
“If you look at that game, we had Andy Lynch kick our first ball on the first set of six, and that shows that we weren’t on it. It was too scrappy.
“We need to learn how to stop teams doing that to us, and if they do, to learn how to counteract it.
“But you have to be in those big games to learn how to do it.
“We learned a hell of a lot from it.”
Mariano, meanwile, has confidence in his team-mates, and knows that working hard is going to be key to chances of success in 2015.
“As long as every player plays to their potential, we’ll be sweet,” he said.
“It’s when you start thinking about it, the nerves kick in, and you start to think that you need to perform.
“We don’t need to perform, we just need to do our jobs, that’s all.
“If everyone does their job right, then we should be good.”