Castleford: The Contenders

Castleford: The Contenders

For a club that suffered two relegations in three years (2004 and 2006), finishing high in Super League and competing for Rugby League’s biggest prize wasn’t something that Castleford Tigers have been known for. The previous three seasons have turned their reputation on its head, they went from the Super League strugglers to the team that will be a great side one day, based on their recent league finishes in the previous three seasons (2014 – 4th, 2015 – 5th, 2016 – 5th). 2017 is the year where the club have finally become a great side (2017 – 1st after eighteen games, six points clear).

No doubt the acquisitions have played a big part in the Tigers progression, they targeted the NRL and brought over players who weren’t in the picture at their previous club. The club’s top try scorer this season, Greg Eden, is the perfect example of this. He didn’t see much game time in his stint with the Brisbane Broncos, Castleford coach Darrel Powell provided the player with an opportunity to reignite his career at the club he started his professional career with. With thirty Super League tries in eighteen games so far, Eden is on course to break the Super League try scoring record which stands at forty, set by former Castleford winger Denny Solomona last season.

The capture of Leeds Rhinos full-back Zak Hardaker on a one year loan has been another significant piece of business by the Tigers. After his spell at Penrith didn’t work out, the full-back returned to England and obviously wasn’t going back to Leeds after disagreements which led to his move to Australia in the first place. He has been ever present for the Tigers so far, seventeen appearances and three tries to his name. With the departure of Luke Dorn before the start of the season, it was important that the Tigers signed a quality replacement. Hardaker has been a winner throughout his career, three super league titles and two challenge cups is a great achievement. The Tigers need to be signing more players of this calibre to achieve their targets.

Although their hard work is paying off now, it’s not been an easy ride for the Tigers in recent times. Denny Solomona walked out on the club during the winter, despite having two years remaining on his contract. He stated that he was “retiring” from Rugby League, although it was obvious to see that he was plotting a move to Rugby Union side Sale Sharks. For any club, losing one of your key players in this fashion is a real blow. Castleford have not let this situation affect them, in fact I’d say they’ve improved. Maybe this situation provided them with the fire they needed to improve their fortunes on the pitch. They deserve a pat on the back for how they have dealt with the situation.

The Tigers have had a strong season in 2017, they currently lead the Super League by six points after eighteen games. Their form so far has separated them from the rest, fifteen wins and only three losses is their greatest win to loss ratio of the Super League era at this point. It’s difficult to look past them, their form puts them in a strong position for Grand Final glory. Only four teams (Leeds, Wigan, Bradford and St Helens) have managed to win the Grand Final since Super League began in 1996, proving how difficult it is to achieve this feat. For Castleford to become the fifth, they’ll need some luck in the injury department. It is vital that they keep their players free from injury as best as they possibly can.

It is public knowledge that Castleford Tigers have been crying out for a new stadium, it is what they need to progress to the next step as a club. Winning a Grand Final is also another step that creates progress, in terms of reputation and income. For a club like Castleford, achieving this feat will provide them with further funds to add to their development plans. The Tigers have provided the foundations, they need to keep at this level to catapult themselves in to the rugby elite.

Wolves Rising

Wolves Rising

After the 2015 super league season, it was vital that Tony Smith and the Warrington Wolves went back to the drawing board. The seasons performance had flashes of previous times in the Wolves’ history, a time that fans won’t want to remember quickly where the club just managed to keep their heads above water in England’s top division. Of course, this time was long before the reign of top boss and figurehead Smith, who has guided the Wolves to three Challenge Cup successes, and also two losing grand finals.

Coming up to the first quarter of the 2016 super league season, and it seems that Smith went back to the drawing board, and didn’t leave much space. The Wolves have been in imperious form, with eight wins from their opening ten matches and alone at the summit with a bit of breathing space. I beg the question, what it is that the Wolves and Smith have done to achieve this feat? How can a team go from zero to hero in such a short period?

As most Warrington fans can tell you, a major improvement is most definitely the quality of players that have been brought in. Kurt Gidley, a twelve-time Australian capped player, has brought the x-factor in my opinion; He has without doubt brought composure and skill that the Wolves were lacking last season, as well as a sublime goal kicking game that was also nowhere to be seen for the Wolves in 2015.

Since his appointment in 2009, Smith has considerably directed the Wolves into a much better light. They are now considered as one of the big teams, part of the “big four”, with the other three (Leeds Rhinos, Wigan Warriors and St Helens) being the only clubs currently in Super League who have won the competition. This shows how far the Wolves have come, a team who are yet to win the competition, are considered by most an outfit that have what it takes to win the big time. What’s interesting is that the current squad is arguably the best squad Smith has put together, raising the question, could this be their year?

It’s been a great start, but it’s far too early for any team to get carried away. The Wolves have made their statement, thrown their hat amongst it, if they are to get over the line and claim that eluded first Super League title that they so desperately require then they need to keep their consistency going. The teams that have managed to win the competition have all had two things in common, consistency and dedication. It’s going to be a tough ask for anyone to win this competition, the Wolves have been unlucky in Super League, many fans have wished that Smith and co could turn their Challenge Cup success into Super League success… Well the chance to do that may be here. Of course, any team winning any trophy need that little bit of luck with injuries, if the Wolves can keep 80% of their squad healthy all season then they really do have a strong chance.

 

Battle of the drop

Battle of the drop

Norwich City versus Sunderland, battle of the drop… That in essence is what this is. The Canaries are enjoying being back in the big time after a brief spell away, but their happiness could be in jeopardy come Saturday afternoon.

A remarkably average season down at the bottom of the premier league this season has left us with this matchup potentially being the only end of season relegation type drama, that could be over before it’s even begun if the Canaries find the key to victory.

If the Canaries are to find the win to put them seven points clear of their opponents Sunderland, and most probably condemn the visitors to relegation, then Dieumerci Mbokani is the man that they need to focus around. The DR Congo international is currently their joint-leading goal scorer with five (yes, five with just five games to go) and seems to be the man that comes up with the goods when it matters. Mbokani’s injury time winner over relegation contenders Newcastle two weeks ago has ignited the Canaries belief of survival.

Sunderland have been knocking on the door of relegation for a few seasons now, and if they are to experience another moment like the one at the emirates last season when they managed to keep a clean sheet and draw 0-0 with Arsenal that cemented their survival, then a victory is a must on Saturday in East Anglia. For Sunderland to achieve this feat then they will have to do something they haven’t managed to do in 450 minutes of football against Norwich… beat the Canaries.

If that wasn’t bad enough, add in the fact that the Mackems haven’t won a game since the 2-1 victory over Manchester United over two months ago. Two interesting statistics that must surely have Sunderland fans wondering if their get out of jail cards may have ran out in 2016. As premier league history can tell you, when you dance around relegation and fail to improve, then your time will come. This looks to be Sunderland’s time, but nevertheless the Mackems have still got a chance, and sometimes that is all they need.

This is must win game for Sunderland, judgement day will be upon them come Saturday. When you need to win its important that you have goal scorers in your squad, and Sunderland have certainly got that in Jermain Defoe. The former England international has had a career of scoring goals at important times, his goal at the 2010 World Cup for England in the 1-0 victory over Slovenia to gain the three lions access into the knockout rounds was one of his biggest. He is tried and tested, and with twelve goals so far this season, he is the man who can provide the Mackems with the goal that they need.