FOR MOST of Castleford Tigers’ players, tomorrow’s visit of Leeds Rhinos will be their first chance to get ‘back on the horse’ after the Grand Final agony of Old Trafford three months ago.
Tigers’ senior squad returned from a warm-weather training camp in Lanzarote two days ago and the majority of them will be playing their first – and only – pre-season game, against the team who shattered their title hopes.
“I don’t think the Grand Final will ever be forgotten,” second-rower Mike McMeeken admitted. “It was the first time we’ve got there and we didn’t perform on the day.
“It will still be in our minds and driving us and keeping us hungry to this year go one step farther. We have to learn from the mistakes we made in the Grand Final and improve as a whole team.”
Tomorrow’s game will indicate if Tigers have progressed over the closed-season.
“It’ll be a good test,” McMeeken added. “The last time we played Leeds they beat us over at Old Trafford, but we are playing pretty much a full-strength side and coming off the back of the Lanzarote trip we’ll be raring to go.
“It is a massive game for us, it’s a chance for us to get our combinations ready for that first game at St Helens, which is going to be a really big game in itself.”
Though Castleford are among the title favourites this season, McMeeken is expecting it to be a closer race than last year when they finished 10 points clear at the top of Betfred Super League.
“We surprised a few people last year, I don’t think many people had us in for league leaders at the beginning of the year,” he recalled.
“It is up to us now to kick on from there.
“Teams are going to be coming after us, they are going to want to beat us at our own stadium and everyone’s going to want to knock us off. That’s going to make us raise our game. We can’t have any off games. If we want to be where we were last year and competing for silverware come October we have to be on our game every week.”
McMeeken reckons Tigers’ squad now is at least as strong as last year’s. He said: “We’ve recruited well.
“In the halves we’ve got Jamie Ellis who has proved in the past he is a class player, he is still young and he’s a good signing.
“We saw in the World Cup how dangerous Garry Lo can be carrying the ball from our end. He’s a strong player and hard to pin down and there’s others knocking on the door for the first team as well.”
McMeeken was one of six players named in last year’s Super League Dream Team and went on to be a member of England’s World Cup squad.
“I plan to take a lot from that experience and put it into my game come Super League,” he said. “I didn’t get to play many games over there – only the friendly game and the game against France – but in the time I got on the field I took a lot from it.
“Also, in training, I got a lot of experience from working with Wayne [Bennett, England’s coach] and the players in my position.
“It’s not every day you get to go to a World Cup in Australia and experience that whole campaign.
“It would be stupid of me not to take something from that and I definitely have done.”