THE FINAL three days were disastrous, but up until then Castleford Tigers had a remarkable campaign.
Losing, first Zak Hardaker to a drugs suspension and then the Grand Final, against an inspired Leeds Rhinos side, will cast a shadow over the close-season, but when the dust settles Tigers will reflect on a year during which they firmly established themselves among Betfred Super League’s big guns.
Tigers, relegated twice in the summer era, have made huge progress since Daryl Powell took over as coach in 2013 and can be proud of what they achieved this year, though they fell just short of their main goal.
Hardaker’s failed drugs test and provisional suspension was a massive blow and came at the worst-possible time, on the Thursday before a Saturday Grand Final.
It probably contributed to what happened at Old Trafford, when Tigers produced a nervy, error-ridden performance which fell well below the standards set during their league campaign.
Hardaker was the only member of Tigers’ squad with a Super League winner’s ring and on the day 16 of their 17, Michael Shenton being the exception, were making their first Grand Final appearance.
That showed. Tigers failed to handle the conditions and the occasion and were outplayed by a team who are masters at both.
The experience, though, will be good for them and they will enter 2018 determined to go one better.
They are already the bookies’ favourites to win the title next year and that is because in 2017 they were by far the best and most consistent team over the course of the season, losing only seven times in 34 competitive fixtures.
They secured the league leaders’ shield, for the first time in the club’s history, with four games in hand and finished 10 points clear of second-placed Leeds, who they beat four times.
Not only that, but they did it in style.
In what was a disappointing season overall, in terms of the standard of play, Tigers raised the bar on attack and were hugely entertaining to watch.
With a much-improved defence setting the platform, Tigers ran in an impressive 965 points during the league campaign. They finished with a points difference advantage of 429 – that’s 284 better than anyone else – and their average score was roughly 32-18
Tigers boasted Super League’s two best players in Man of Steel Luke Gale and runner-up Hardaker, who were among six Castleford men in the Dream Team, along with Greg Eden, Shenton, Grant Millington and Mike McMeeken.
In what was a disappointing season overall, in terms of the standard of play, Tigers raised the bar on attack and were hugely entertaining to watch.The YEP’s Peter Smith
Eden – who had a touchdown ruled out by video referee Phil Bentham in the Grand Final – was Super League’s top try scorer and finished just one short of Tigers’ season record, set last year by Denny Solomona.
He was among the best signings of the campaign after returning to the club following spells with Huddersfield Giants, Hull KR, Salford Red Devils and Brisbane Broncos and was one of several Tigers players unlucky not to be called into England’s World Cup squad. Paul McShane and Adam Milner were others.
The number of tries scored by Eden and Solomona in the past couple of years is a credit to the way Tigers play and also the service provided by Shenton – another surprise omission by national boss Wayne Bennett – and Gale, who has been selected.
McMeeken is the only other Tigers player on England duty and exemplifies what Powell is all about: spotting unheralded talent and bringing it to the fore.
Powell was coach of the year and Castleford took the best club honour at Super League’s awards night. The league leaders’ shield is a consolation prize, but it was Tigers’ first top-flight silverware since 1994.
Tigers also featured in the best game of the season, their astonishing golden point extra-time play-off win over St Helens.
Until the very end, what was impressive about Tigers was their adaptability and the strength of their squad.
They were relatively injury-free for most of the campaign, but when key players dropped out others stepped in seamlessly.
The best example of that was the home win over Saints in June.
Missing six players due to injury or international duty and playing a third game in 10 days – against a side who’d had a nine-day rest – Tigers pulled off a spirited 16-12 win.
It was a similar story when Castleford, without both first-choice half-backs, won at Wigan in the penultimate game of the Super-8s.
Scrum-half Jacob Trueman featured in both those matches, scoring a hat-trick at DW Stadium and looks to be a future star.
He will have a job on his hands displacing Gale or Ben Roberts, though the latter could be an option at full-back if Hardaker is ruled out.
Tigers under-19s finished second in the league and were Grand Final runners-up to Wigan so the future looks bright.
The likes of Nathan Massey, Milner and McShane have found their best form under Powell and all had a big season.
However, with Andy Lynch having retired and Larne Patrick released, Tigers will need to strengthen up front, as well as possibly at full-back.
The big question mark hanging over Tigers from this year concerns their form – or lack of it – in big matches.
They lost a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup quarter-final at Hull, almost came unstuck in their home Super League semi-final and were well-beaten at Old Trafford.
They weren’t as convincing in the second half of the season as the first and opponents have now had time to figure out Tigers’ style of play, though most of them were unable to stop it.
Super League is likely to be more competitive next year, but Joe Wardle is a good signing and Cas have kept most of their squad together so should be competing for honours again in 2018.