FOR the first time in 2015, there are no professional rugby league matches being staged anywhere in the country this weekend.
But while supporters wonder how they will occupy the next few rugby-free weeks, before pre-season fixtures begin on Boxing Day, players themselves are already being pushed to the limit.
Pre-season is the time any player dreads; hours in the gym or plodding up muddy hillsides, with no game to look forward to at the end of it.
Castleford Tigers are two weeks into their preparations for 2016 and doing it tough as the club’s coaching staff take an old school approach.
The club recently put an appeal on social media for donations of unwanted telegraph poles.
They were inundated with offers and the donated items are being used to back-breaking effect, carried up and down the Wheldon Road training pitch as part of a gruelling new fitness regime.
There are no exemptions and at 36 and preparing for his 16th season in Super League, veteran front-rower Andy Lynch is expected to work just as hard as any of his much younger teammates.
“It is hard work that has got to be done,” said Lynch. “If we want to improve as a team next year we have got to go above and beyond to get better next season.”
Castleford were nearly-men this year, missing out by one place on qualification for the play-offs and Lynch admits: “We have probably got to believe a bit more than we did last season. We probably believed we were around the top-four, but next year we have got to push on and believe we can get into the top-four.
“It comes down to believing in ourselves and what we can do.
“We have got to get that mentality of being able to kick on and win that game. We are doing tough stuff in pre-season to try and help us get through games. What we do now stands us in good stead.
“It is very hard at the moment. The conditioning team are throwing stuff in there to try and shock us. It is just like in games really, if things don’t go right in games, it is how you react [that counts].
“What you do in pre-season – in the gym or running up hills – is going to transfer to game day.”
“It gets tougher every year. Every team wants to get bigger, better, stronger, faster and more agile. Every team wants to get that edge and they are all going for it now.”
Despite his advancing years, Lynch - who has also had spells with Bradford Bulls and Hull - says he is still enjoying being put through the mill and while that continues, he plans to play on.
“I don’t think it will be my last year,” he reveals. “I will keep going, I think. I have got one more year on my contract, but all being well I will be going around again after next year.
“I am feeling great. Pre-season is when you find out [if you still want to do it]. I still get up excited about training. It is always good to have competition from all the young lads coming in. Once they start beating me I will retire, but at the moment I am not doing too bad.”
For Castleford, the challenge next year is to move from contenders to winners and Lynch reckons they are close to making that leap.
“We have been that close in the last few years,” he reflects. “We have actually put Cas back on the map. I think it was a bit of a bad place for a couple of years before that and it is nice to see, for the players as well as the fans, that we are a recognised force in Super League.
“I think that’s what fans want, that we are a recognised team who give our all every week. To win some silverware would be absolutely amazing.”
He adds: “The players they’ve brought in strengthen our squad massively. There’s competition for places again, you could go through two teams who would be evenly-matched if they played against each other. What you want is competition on the training field and on the field itself. If we can build that I think it is going to bring the best out of us and on game day too.”