A DESIRE to force his way back into the England reckoning is one of the driving forces behind Castleford Tigers’ Mike McMeeken as he continues his return from injury this evening.
As Wakefield Trinity arrive at Wheldon Road, much of the pre-match talk has been about the visitors’ ‘big-bopper’ Dave Fifita, who has just signed a lucrative new deal with Trinity.
The impressive Australian prop has been scattering defenders regularly on his way to the top of the Steve Prescott Man of Steel leaderboard.
However, that is something hard-running second-row McMeeken – another powerful forward of some size – became renowned for himself, especially when Castleford surged to the League Leaders’ Shield and Grand Final in 2017.
Such blistering form earned him a place in the Dream Team plus England’s World Cup squad that year but – though named in the England Performance Squad last July – a dip in form saw him miss out on selection against New Zealand in the autumn.
Furthermore, McMeeken was omitted entirely from Wayne Bennett’s latest EPS three weeks ago although, in his defence, he had been injured since the opening day of the campaign.
With England, I was injured for the first two months of the season so it is what it is. It’s just down to me now to put in some performances to get back in.Mike McMeeken
The 24-year-old was concussed in Castleford’s first match in February and then pulled a hamstring in training meaning he did not feature again until last week’s 20-18 loss at Huddersfield.
“The result aside, it was good to be back out there and now I’m looking forward to facing Wakefield as well,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“When you’re out injured like that, you just have to try and stay positive.
“It wasn’t an ideal start to the season but the physios and conditioning staff have been great getting me back in shape and I came through fine.
“With England, I was injured for the first two months of the season so it is what it is.
“It’s just down to me now to put in some performances to get back in.
“I took a lot from that 2017 World Cup but I was a bit disappointed with my performance last year.
“I had a good pre-season this time, though, and now I just want to kick on and get cracking again.”
Granted, in his absence, Castleford did start this campaign well and they are up to third although have won just two of their last six games, perhaps adding greater importance on tonight’s West Yorkshire derby.
“We’ve been disappointed with some of the recent results, especially as there’s been some narrow losses we should probably have won,” explained McMeeken.
“But we’re starting to get some players back from injury now and we want to start climbing the table further.
“We know what Wakefield will bring. They have been going very well ever since Chris Chester came in, and they have found their style of play.
“They have some big, strong forwards and some dangerous backs.
“Even though they have some key players missing they remain a dangerous side and we’ll be wary of that.”
Dealing with the aforementioned Fifita, whose 76 tackle busts so far is more than any other player in the competition, is certain to be key.
Plenty of sides have tried stopping the powerhouse but he has reached career-best form and that is easier said than done.
Castleford’s own pack will relish the challenge and former London Broncos forward McMeeeken admitted: “He is playing very well. The metres he’s been making are excellent and he is killing it in Super League.
“He is massively helping their team and it is up to us to limit the metres he is making.
“If we can do that, it takes out a big part of their attack.”
Fourth-placed Wakefield are seeking a fourth straight win but have been decimated by injuries.
Already missing Dream Team duo Bill Tupou and Tom Johnstone, they saw half-back pairing Danny Brough and captain Jacob Miller both injured in Friday’s 30-20 win over champions Wigan Warriors.
It has forced some rejigging for head coach Chester with untried half-back Ben Reynolds recalled from a loan spell at Featherstone Rovers to make his Trinity debut with full-back Ryan Hampshire likely to switch alongside him.
Max Jowitt is set to move from wing to full-back with Trinity having re-signed Mason Caton-Brown, the wideman who left them for Toronto Wolfpack last summer but, most recently, has been playing sevens in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, Wakefield did have some good news yesterday when it was announced in-form hooker Kyle Wood had extended his deal until the end of 2021.
He is in his second spell with the club and was already under contract until the end of next season, but Chester is delighted to prolong his stay.
“It’s great news that Woody’s signed up for the next couple of years,” he said.
“He’s been a big part of the squad since I’ve been here and he’s a great bloke to have around.
“He’s found his home here at Wakefield and I think it’s good business all around.
“His form this year has been outstanding and I’m looking forward to working with Woody over the next few years.”
Wood, 29, actually hails from Castleford but has spent most of his career at Huddersfield – where he also had two spells – and Wakefield.
He has often played 80 minutes with Trinity having been without Australian hooker Tyler Randell since he was injured in their opening day defeat at London Broncos.
Wood, who is an ever-present so far this year, said: “I’m really excited for the next few years. I’ve enjoyed my time here so far.
“We’ve got a great squad and we’re playing well, so it was a no brainer to sign.
“To keep people like Dave (Fifita) at the club is great and we just want to keep building. The aim is to be playing in semi-final rugby and for myself personally I want to be playing in a Challenge Cup or Grand Final.”