After making such impressive progress last season, from 12th in the table to fourth, captain Michael Shenton admits Castleford Tigers are having to start again.
Man of Steel Daryl Clark has left the club – to join Warrington – and they have also lost their longest-serving player Craig Huby, to Huddersfield.
Other departures have included Marc Sneyd (joined Hull), Jamie Ellis (Huddersfield), Weller Hauraki (Salford Red Devils) and Dan Fleming (Bradford Bulls).
But eight players have come in – Scott Moore, Mike McMeeken, Matt Cook and Denny Solomona from London Broncos; ex-Melbourne Storm pair Ben Roberts and Junior Moors; Steve Crossley from Featherstone Rovers and Bradford Bulls’ Luke Gale – and Shenton reckons Tigers will be stronger once the recruits have settled.
Tigers have won all three of their trial games so far, against Featherstone Rovers, Bradford Bulls and Doncaster, but Shenton reckons they are still a work in progress.
“To build on last year is a massive goal of ours, but it’s easier said than done,” Shenton conceded. “We have got so many new faces coming in, so it’s a bit of a rebuild. We have signed some quality players. We have got to integrate those new guys, but they’ve been great. They really do want to play well for us.
“They have really bought into the standards we have set as a benchmark to play in this team and they have trained the house down.
“Obviously there’s a bit of work to do, but it takes time. You can only train for so long each day. There’s always something crops up that you have to work on, or you’ve got video sessions to fit in, but now we have started playing we’ve started seeing where we’re at. We can start working more specifically on certain areas of our game, which is really good because there’s less than three weeks now until we play Wakefield in the first game. It is coming together, but it takes time.”
Losing players of the quality of Clark and Huby in particular would affect any club, but Shenton has no doubt Tigers will cope.
“It’s just sport, people leave,” he said. “It is a shame we’ve lost the Man of Steel and Craig is a big loss, but it just means somebody else is motivated to step up and fill their boots. Adam Milner is a quality player in his own right. He got a bit overshadowed last year by Daryl, which any hooker would, the form he was in. He has got a massive point to prove, as does Scott Moore and all the players we’ve signed from London. Daryl has given them a chance, because London didn’t have a great year last year.
“Those guys want to do well and so do the boys who were here last year – even the ones who played well and regularly.
“You have got to find that motivation and I think it’s there just to prove people wrong. People are saying Castleford won’t be able to back it up. We were good at blocking it out last year and this year will be the same. We are motivated to build on last year and be a team that surprises people again.”
All clubs will be stepping into the unknown this year as rugby league adopts its controversial new format which will see the 12-team Super League and Kingstone Press Championship split into three divisions of eight after 23 rounds.
The top-eight in Super League will go into a new-style play-offs, leading to a straight shoot-out between the top-four teams for a place in the Grand Final. The bottom four will go into a separate competition against the Championship’s leading quartet, to slug it out for spots in Super League 2016.
“We have started talking about it,” Shenton said of the new format. “It is hard to break down, because I don’t know of any other sport that has got this structure. Until we see how it unravels it is hard to say what’s going to happen.
“All I know is, this year, 12 teams, looking at their squads, are really strong. There’s a lot of depth in each team, every game is going to be that much more physical than last year and I think the quality is going to be higher.
“There is no doubt we have got to improve, because every other team will improve.
“Teams will look at us and think we have had the biggest turnover of players, so we are the team that’s got the most work to do in the off-season.
“It is a big ask for us, but I think we are more than capable of doing it.”