THE new season may still be very much in its infancy but Castleford Tigers are already facing a crucial junction in their campaign.
The reasons are two-fold: they travel to Bradford Bulls this evening without the suspended Rangi Chase desperate to prove they are no longer, as has often been the accusation, a one-man team.
However, Ian Millward’s side are equally keen to make sure they deliver consecutive victories for the first time in almost 12 months and illustrate they can begin to find the sort of consistency that has eluded them for so long.
They stunned champions Leeds Rhinos with a 14-12 triumph at Wheldon Road last Sunday and realise if they are to mount a serious bid to secure play-off football come the end of this season they must now follow up with an immediate success at Odsal.
For their captain Michael Shenton, this latest West Yorkshire derby is massively consequential.
“Leeds was a great performance with really encouraging signs from the guys,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“We really stuck in there and played for the full 80 minutes which, in fairness, our fans aren’t really used to with Cas teams.
“We were down to 12 men at one point too but really rose to the challenge.
“It was great for confidence and great to see all the hard work we put in during pre-season does actually pay off.
“But the key now is to keep that going and maintain that same mentality; we can’t just turn up one week against Leeds.
“We have to be up for tough away games too at places like Bradford where it always seems to be cold, windy and difficult. That’s the challenge – to be mentally strong each week.
“Leeds is done and dusted now and Bradford is an even bigger game for us.”
Achieving a win whenever their England half-back Chase is unavailable is ordinarily an onerous task for the Tigers.
The 2011 Man of Steel, with all his flamboyance and game-breaking skill, is traditionally so integral to their cause.
He will be missing this evening, though, after being banned for two games for a reckless high tackle on Leeds’s Zak Hardaker, the sort of needless disciplinary failure that sometimes creeps into his game and frustratingly juxtaposes with all that aforementioned brilliance.
Shenton, the former England centre back for his second spell at his local club after a two-year run at St Helens, is aware of the importance Castleford have regularly placed on Chase’s shoulders but believes they can now forge their own identity without him when needed.
Tigers coach Ian Millward has drafted in young Warrington half-back Gareth O’Brien on a month’s loan and he gets a chance to impress when he debuts this evening.
The 21-year-old is highly-rated by Wolves boss Tony Smith and is seen as the natural successor to Lee Briers when their talismanic playmaker finally hangs up his boots. “He’s not a bad replacement for us as he’s played at a pretty high level at Warrington,” explained Shenton.
“It’ll be tough for him coming in, trying to direct the team and getting used to our game plan after just a couple of training sessions.
“But we won’t put everything on him like we do with Rangi. We can cut Rangi out of our game plan and be a bit more structured.
“We’re disappointed to be missing him – he is just outstanding at times – but we can’t rely on one person.
“This is a good chance for us to put a statement out that Rangi not playing doesn’t mean Cas Tigers aren’t going to turn up and deliver a win.”
Shenton says O’Brien – who only on Sunday was playing for Swinton Lions at York – is fully aware of how crucial his new colleagues see the televised contest.
“It’s a big game for us and he knows that,” added the 26 year-old. “We’ve spoken to him and he realises how important this fixture is for this club. Bradford are going to be challenging for similar spots to us come the end of the season and we’re keen to get ahead of them now. But it’s great for Gareth to get some starts here. He can show what he can do and he’s pretty excited by the chance of playing Super League again.”
Castleford too often lacked the basic tenets of desire and professionalism last season when they stumbled in joint-bottom with Widnes Vikings.
Yet, helped by the acquisition of seasoned players such as Shenton, Jake Webster, Lee Gilmour and Weller Hauraki, there has already been a clear improvement in application.
They started poorly in their opening game at Warrington but tellingly did not throw the towel in against the Challenge Cup holders while that display against traditional rivals Leeds epitomised what Millward is demanding.
Shenton admitted: “As a first win as captain, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. But it was great for the fans more than anyone and the club itself which had really built the game up and invested some money into it.
“To get back-to-back wins is pretty difficult in Super League but it’s something we know we have to start doing.”