IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of their painful Grand Final defeat against Leeds Rhinos, Castleford Tigers captain Michael Shenton wondered out loud whether the club’s best chance of lifting a maiden league championship had just disappeared.
You could understand his point; Tigers had roared to the League Leaders’ Shield – the first in their 91-year history – utterly annihilating teams at times, playing an exhilarating brand of rugby that left many opponents clutching at shadows.
They finished a record 10 points clear of nearest rivals Leeds, rightly earned a place at a first Grand Final, had Coach of the Year Daryl Powell at the helm, Man of Steel Luke Gale in their ranks along with four other Dream Team members and many more at the top of their game.
The time was right to finally claim the title – only to deliver by far their worst performance of the season when it mattered most, meekly losing out 24-6 against Rhinos with a catastrophic, error-ridden display.
All the portents were there but they blew it and it was easy to see why – at that point – Shenton could feel they might never get another chance like it.
Move forward four months, however, to the eve of the new campaign and the ex-England centre has had plenty of time to reconsider that assessment.
Castleford start all over again at St Helens on Friday and, asked if they can go one step further in 2018, he said: “It’s a big challenge, but of course.
“Having had a look at it last year and the season we had, we definitely want to back that up with another quality season and give ourselves the best opportunity we can to get back in those big games.
“I think once you get a good feeling for it and you get a feel for those big games – that little taste of silverware we got last year as well – you do get hungry for more.
“We don’t want to be a team that people say ‘oh they had a good year that year’.
There’s plenty to prove, we know that – nobody needs to tell us we didn’t do the job at the end. It definitely hurts, but we are definitely hungry to do it again.Castleford Tigers’ captain, Michael Shenton
“We want to back that up; we want to know this group of players is good enough to be challenging for a long time.”
Clearly, after performing so abjectly in that Old Trafford decider and also stumbling at Hull FC in the Challenge Cup quarter-final, there remains question marks about whether they can deliver under pressure. It is something Powell hopes his squad will have learned from in readiness for this term and Shenton, too, believes it can become a positive.
“When you put yourselves up there at the top, you are up there to get knocked off,” said the 31-year-old, who enjoyed the finest form of his career last term.
“What you have got to do is use that bit of motivation, but then not take too much notice of it.
“There’s plenty to prove, we know that – nobody needs to tell us we didn’t do the job at the end. It definitely hurts, but we are definitely hungry to do it again.
“It took a while to get over it, but I think we’re now ready to give it a good crack.”
Although the bulk of Castleford’s squad remains, there is one notable absentee in 2018 – Zak Hardaker, the England full-back who was suspended on the eve of that Grand Final after failing a drugs test which is expected to see him banned for two years.
Nevertheless, Powell is renowned for his canny recruitment and with the likes of explosive Papuan winger Garry Lo, ex-Huddersfield Giants second-row Joe Wardle and former Tigers half-back Jamie Ellis coming in, they are certainly in a position of strength.
Still, with the likes of Warrington Wolves and Catalans Dragons expected to be back in the top-eight mix after dicing with relegation last term, Shenton realises it is unlikely his side will ever have such a comfortable ride again.
“I think this year will be even tougher,” he said. “There’s been lots of changes in and around the league, coaches and players coming in and we are expecting a real challenge.
“It’s going to be really difficult to be as consistent as we were last year, but that’s the goal. The winning mentality we grew last year is still there.
“We are in a good place to build on that and I think we’ve added some depth in some of the players we’ve brought in. They are hungry to come in and do well.
“We’ve got players who’ve seen what we did last year and want to play in those games and others who played and want to go one step further.
“We’ve got a good dynamic in the team at the moment and a great coaching staff.
“It’s a really good feeling about the place, like it was last year, but everyone knows what we are about and we have to handle that.”
Saints, of course, lost out at Castleford in a thrilling and dramatic Super League semi-final and are expected to improve themselves in 2018 under Australian coach Justin Holbrook.
Furthermore, the West Yorkshire club have not won at Saints since 1992 so their opener is undoubtedly an instant test.
Shenton – a 2011 Grand Final loser with St Helens during two years away from Wheldon Road – admitted: “It’s a big game and a good indicator of where we’re at.
“It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s all we are focused on now.
“They will definitely be a big threat with the ball and they’ve always got great intensity but we’re fresh and raring to go.”
It will be fascinating to see just how this Castleford team do react as they seek to make up for that biggest disappointment of all.