THE Boxing Day friendly is not ordinarily a fixture rugby league players look forward to avidly but, for Castleford Tigers’ captain Michael Shenton, this year’s will almost hold the same attraction as a cup final.
Barring any late mishaps, the England centre will finally return from a knee reconstruction and end a frustrating 10-month period out of action when Hull FC arrive at Wheldon Road on Monday.
Shenton tore his cruciate during last season’s opening game at Hull KR in February and, agonisingly, did not play again.
He was, in fact, fit and able to feature once more in September only for Castleford head coach Daryl Powell to make the difficult decision, with their top-four hopes ended, not to risk him during the final run-in.
“There were four games to go and I wanted to play,” Shenton told The Yorkshire Post.
“Daryl told me he knew that, but they were going to take the decision off me just so I’m fresh for this year.
“He said something to me quite smart in that once the season was over those four games – those few after all I’ve played in my life –would mean nothing to me.
“He was right. It was difficult to hear what he was going to do, but a bit of a compliment as well, which was nice.
“It took the weight off my shoulders a little bit, I could enjoy training with the boys and make sure I was right to go for pre-season.
“That also meant I was extra hungry coming in again now whereas some of the boys, in the first week back, might still be a little bit mentally fatigued from the previous campaign, especially those who had to play every game.
“I could drive the standards and energy in that sort of way; I’ve been important in making sure training’s been really good this pre-season and that’s been a job of mine. But I’m really excited to be getting back out there playing.
“The body feels in pretty good nick; I can’t imagine it will feel much better than it does now.
“It’s a little bit tired from pre-season but, all in all, I’m in pretty good shape and I think the team is as well.”
That Castleford finished fifth last season despite missing the influential 30-year-old for the entire campaign, and a raft of other leading players injured for long periods, is testimony to Powell’s quality in getting the best out of his squad.
They have secured top-five berths in each of his full three seasons in charge and the belief from many is that they could make their biggest tilt yet at reaching a maiden Grand Final in 2017.
Granted, they have lost the services of winger Denny Solomona, who scored a record-breaking 42 tries last season, in a controversial move to Sale Sharks and veteran full-back Luke Dorn, who has returned to Australia, but their recruitment looks promising and current players are developing well, too.
Castleford have signed England full-back Zak Hardaker on a season-long loan from Leeds Rhinos as well as exciting wing/full-back Greg Eden from Brisbane Broncos plus explosive forward Jesse Sene-Lefao from NRL Grand Final winners Cronulla Sharks. They should all debut against Hull.
Furthermore, ex-England half-back Rangi Chase, who won the 2011 Man of Steel when last at Tigers, is fully back in the fold and, according to Shenton, “looking so sharp” after initially joining on a short-term deal in July.
Scrum-half Luke Gale, who led the side in Shenton’s absence, made his England debut in the autumn and veteran prop Andy Lynch is fit again after missing most of 2016 with a broken leg.
Long-serving Shenton – in his second spell with Castleford after spending 2011 and 2012 at St Helens – added: “I’m pretty excited to see some of the new boys in with me, too, against Hull.
“It’d be nice to get them all out there but, obviously, people like Galey won’t play.
“But I’m really looking forward to it and it’s a good challenge as well; it’s Hull FC and not just a Mickey Mouse match.”
With the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand at the end of 2017, he has one eye on forcing his way back into the international side, having not featured since the Four Nations tournament two years ago.
“I’ve been in and out of it for the last few years and last year put a real dent in that, too, missing a full season,” said Shenton, who has won nine caps since debuting in 2008. “It’s always awesome to represent my country and tour as well. I’ve never played for England in a World Cup either so you never know.
“But my main focus is on Cas and doing well here; making my mark for them is the most important thing.”