HALIFAX-HUDDERSFIELD head into the new season buoyed by their runner-up spot in the Yorkshire Inter-District League six-man championship, where they lost out to Sheffield only on an afternoon count back.
They also have highly-regarded Lee Shepherd as the union's team coach, which captain Dave Pullen says has increased optimism further ahead of 2017.
“The league itself didn't really pan out the way we thought it might do,” recalls Pullen, whose side finished fifth, unable to overcome the damage caused by defeats in their first two matches.
They then strung three wins together ahead of playing defending champions Sheffield at Bondhay in their penultimate match.
“We got to that Sheffield match thinking, 'actually, we can win this and it could be really tight at the top',” says Pullen, “but Sheffield being Sheffield, and playing at Bondhay, a particularly tough track, they did us there (26-10) and that was, in a sense, the end of the league season for us.
“I think it was just sad that we finished fifth, because I don't think we deserved to finish fifth. If we had won the last one against Leeds I think we would have finished third.
“The season itself just sort of petered out a little bit, but I think there was a bit more focus in the six-man team championship, and what a final event that was of the season.
“To have four teams within two shots (Bradford and York were the others) is pretty impressive and pretty close, and everyone will turn around and look back and say, 'well, if I could have been just one shot better'.”
For the six-man championship, Halifax-Huddersfield were without a key player, Jamie Smith, who had hurt his back the week before.
“He used to be a member of Bradley Hall and has just moved back there from Ogden so he would've been around his own track,” says Pullen. “He had also won the union stroke play at Bradley Hall.”
Pullen acknowledges that losing out to Sheffield only on count back at Bradley Hall was an immense achievement given the resources of the champions, the biggest union in the county.
“The depth of the squad that Sheffield has is immense,” he says. “When we played the match at Bondhay I think the combined handicaps of the guys who played for them was about three.
“I had some good players playing – including Aron Schnacke, who had turned back as an amateur – but if you put our team together the handicap was about 10. A difference of six shots is one per game. That's tough.”
Pullen's side had made a sterling tilt at title success in 2015 before being bested by Sheffield, and he expressed his admiration for York having usurped the South Yorkshire union a year earlier.
“I think York did really well when they won the league because obviously they had been struggling. In previous years they had not been brilliant and then they got a young side together, which we have tried to do in the last 12 months.
“We have taken the average age of the team down considerably, from players who were, like 41, 42. Now you look at the side and we have got players in their mid-twenties who could play for donkeys years for us.
“We've got young players like Huddersfield's Josh Morton who I think, if he can focus over the next couple of years, will be the best player in the union.
“He practises a lot, he has got a good mental attitude, he is difficult to faze, he is very keen and very interested. As a junior he may have been a big fish in a small pond, but coming into the senior ranks he has matured a lot. Jake Hamilton, also Huddersfield, is another tremendous player.”
Pullen is certain that Halifax-Huddersfield's talent, young and experienced alike, will benefit from being schooled by Shepherd.
“Lee has stepped up as the union team coach and he is very keen,” says Pullen. “He has already come to me and asked when can we start doing stuff with the lads.
“He has moved recently to Willow Valley and it has extended the facilities available as there are short game areas and all sorts of things there, more than he had at the Galpharm (Stadium driving range, Shepherd's previous base).
“Coming second in the six-man was a great achievement and so the season was not a waste, but it could have been better.”
Pullen's side did have a decisive say in the league's outcome, their victory over York at Sandburn Hall in July allowing Sheffield back into the race after their defeat against the 2014 champions on the opening weekend.
“It is all set for us to move forward, but we just need to get that extra five per cent out of everybody,” he says. “We have a good young squad who will play for each other and people like Graham McLean; he had decided he had had enough, but I think next year he might be starting to miss it and play. He will bring quality and experience to the team.”
Look out for reviews and captains' thoughts on Leeds and East Riding unions - online on Sunday