The wait is just about over for fans with the Betfred Super League roaring back into action this week.
The new season gets under way tonight with Hull FC hosting Huddersfield Giants and Warrington Wolves taking on Grand Final winners Leeds Rhinos, but among the tasty opening matches it is Castleford Tigers’ trip to St Helens tomorrow night that is likely to arouse most interest.
Can the Tigers start the 2018 season the way they started last year? Can Cas put down a marker for their campaign on a ground where they have never won a competitive match? Or will St Helens prove the real deal this year after ending last season in scintillating form and almost denying Castleford the Grand Final they had worked so hard to reach?
There’s many more questions thrown up about this fascinating opening match and we probably will not get answers to some of them, but it is straight into the deep end for both teams with excitement levels cranked up right from the off.
Cas have been installed as favourites to go one better than last year with most bookmakers and are joint favourites with St Helens and Wigan Warriors with sponsors Betfred while the Rhinos, Challenge Cup winners Hull and Warrington Wolves are the other teams fancied.
All the bookies agree it does look an open race, but with Cas at the head of the markets it certainly brings a new pressure to the team as they have always been seen as outsiders before even with the progress they have undoubtedly made since Daryl Powell walked through the door as head coach.
Will the experience of a nightmare Grand Final last year spur the Tigers on? Or will they find it hard to hit the heights of 2017? Only time will tell, but whatever they achieve this time it is set to be another exciting ride for fans with the team set up to continue to be the competition’s great entertainers.
Many saw Castleford as a breath of fresh air in their Super League performances last year, running away with the league title by an incredible 10 points and scoring an equally amazing 150 tries along the way.
With Zak Hardaker the only major absentee from their 2017 side more of the same attacking flair is on the cards and there could even be an addition in 2018 if Ben Roberts can adjust to playing at full-back.
What the team will undoubtedly lose in defensive solidity with Hardaker’s loss they can gain from having another attacking weapon in Roberts, whose elusive running style and ability to pick a pass is well suited to an attacking full-back role he is likely to be allowed at Cas.
Similarly Greg Eden will bring attacking flair if he is asked to fill the full-back’s role, although fans will want to see him stay on the wing where he was such a huge hit on his return to the club last year, being unlucky not to break the club’s tries in a season record because of a shoulder injury.
All the other ingredients of what made the Tigers such a special team are still there with Michael Shenton and Jake Webster the best all-round centre combination in the league and the multi award-winning Luke Gale the pivot round which the side revolves.
Potentially they have added more quality with winger Garry Lo and back rower Joe Wardle the pick of some useful recruits and prop James Green looking good in pre-season. Young half-back Jake Trueman has been tipped to have a breakthrough year by head coach Daryl Powell and he is part of a squad that appears to be overall stronger than last year with cover for every position.
Powell is pinning hopes on that increased competition for places driving the team on to challenge for honours again.
So, what of their rivals? Saints do look to be a big threat after the way they improved in the second half of last year while Leeds cannot be discounted as all at Cas will testify to.
Hull will miss the retired Gareth Ellis, but as the team to give the Tigers most trouble last year they must go closer in the league this time.
A possibly resurgent Warrington are something of an unknown quantity under a new coach, but will not lack ambition while Wigan Warriors will not sit back after a poor season by their standards last time.
Local rivals Wakefield Trinity, meanwhile, have to be respected after the progress they have made under Chris Chester and Huddersfield Giants, along with Saints, were the other big improvers under a new coach in the second half of last year and will be dangerous if carrying that on into this season.
What of the other four teams in the competition? Widnes have a lot of improving to do, although they were badly hit by injuries last year, while Catalans will be as hard to predict as always. Salford are tipped by many to struggle after losing some key personnel and Hull KR will quickly find out whether their year out of the top flight has had any affect on them. They have recruited wisely in Danny McGuire, however, and may be this year’s surprise top eight team.