The 2017 Super League season will live long in the memory of Castleford Tigers' fans. With just seven losses from 34 competitive matches, a League Leaders' Shield in their cabinet alongside a maiden Grand Final appearance, with six Dream Team nominees and the Man of Steel and Rugby League Writers' Player of the Year in their ranks, having received the Club of the Year and with the Coach of the Year leading the team. Besides being the highest points' scorers with the top try scorer in the league on the wing, and ending the regular season and Super 8s top - for the first time in Castleford's 91-year history - with a record ten points separating the club and their nearest rivals and with a 300-plus points average, Castleford Tigers announced themselves onto the scene in 2017 like no other team in history.

The Tigers experienced Old Trafford for the first time in the Super League era and, though the end result was painful, it was perhaps a vital learning curve for 17 players that had just one Grand Final appearance between them (Michael Shenton). The intense feeling of disappointment amongst the fans and the whole club is still very raw. But, on reflection, this frustration, if channelled correctly, can drive the standards of the players wearing the Castleford Tigers' jersey even higher and can propel the team to even greater success in 2018. Can the Tigers, therefore, go one better next year?

Absence of Zak Hardaker

Zak Hardaker, having resurrected his career at Castleford Tigers following a period of uncertainty at former club Leeds Rhinos, had played a vital role in the Tigers' scintillating season in 2017.

Yet, just two days before the Tigers would play the most important match in their history - the Super League Grand Final - he was omitted from the Tigers' squad. Although it would be after the Grand Final that the news would be confirmed, he had failed a drugs test after testing positive for cocaine.

Despite no update since then regarding Hardaker's future, it looks likely that the 26-year-old will face a two-year ban from the sport.

As such, this leaves Castleford in somewhat of a quandary. The signing of Hardaker on a permanent basis in late June 2017 - for a fee of £150,000 - was a huge risk given the Pontefract-born Hardaker's controversial past, which now appears to have backfired on the club.

Zak leaves a huge gap to fill at the back; his defensive ability is second to none in the game, while his attacking capabilities improved no end under Daryl Powell's tutelage.

With the signing of Jamie Ellis on a three-year deal from newly-promoted Hull KR, could Daryl Powell, therefore, be looking to Samoan Ben Roberts to make the No.1 shirt his own? At 32 years of age, Roberts does not have many years left in the game. And, perhaps Powell is keen to move Roberts to fill Hardaker's gap before the latter returns in, possibly, two years' time.

But, could this work? Being a fullback is not just about catching the high ball; a good fullback needs to exert his authority by organising the defensive line, but he also needs to know the structures and timings of every attacking play: abilities which come naturally to Hardaker. Greg Eden already showed throughout 2017 that he was not a fullback, and, with few rumours circulating about Castleford dipping into the market for Hardaker's replacement, Roberts arguably seems the best option.

His elusive and dynamic running game is suited to the fullback position, as is his strong defence and great work ethic. When he has played at the back for the Tigers in the past, however, his positioning and lack of an authoritative voice have often let him down. Yet with a pre-season to work on his weaknesses, moving Roberts to fullback could well prove an inspired choice as the Tigers look to kick on in 2018.

New signings have potential

Speak to most Castleford fans and they seem disappointed with their club's recruitment for 2018. On the back of such a successful season, many believe that the board should be taking advantage and recruiting players to lay a marker down to the rest of the league.

But, although Super League rivals such as Warrington have signed big with the likes of Tyrone Roberts and Ben Murdoch-Masila, Powell has continued his policy of signing young or untapped talent.

Garry Lo, a 24-year-old, Papua New Guinean international, looks an absolute monster on the wing. If scoring 50 tries in 46 appearances for Sheffield Eagles over the course of two seasons isn't enough proof of his quality, his seemingly unstoppable ball-carrying power and hard-hitting defence so far at the current World Cup has left Tigers' supporters thrilled that Powell was able to acquire his signature before other Super League or NRL clubs came calling.

Although Sheffield and Castleford agreed that Lo would play for the former when not in the Tigers' squad, it looks increasingly likely that this will not happen; with Greg Eden's try-scoring exploits in 2017, Greg Minikin could be the potential casualty on the wing to make way for the human wrecking ball.

This competition for places in the backs can drive the standards of the club on the pitch even further in 2018.

Castleford's first confirmed signing was Scottish international Joe Wardle. Before Wardle left England at the end of 2016 to join up with the Newcastle Knights in the NRL, he was a key player for the Huddersfield Giants where he played over 140 matches, scoring 62 tries in the process. Whether playing in the centres or the second row, he is a powerful runner and strong defender and will provide both quality and depth to the Castleford squad.

Castleford's recruitment has also been bolstered with the signings of Jamie Ellis and Mitch Clark from Hull KR.

Ellis, having played for the Tigers for two-and-a-half years, knows what the club means to the fans and can slot back in straight away, offering competition for places in the halves. Clark, meanwhile, is an unknown quantity for Tigers' fans. At only 24 years of age, he still hasn't hit his prime as a prop yet. And, with a determined ball-carrying game and an aggressive defence, Clark has the potential to be yet another gem to be unearthed by Powell, following in the footsteps of those such as Mike McMeeken who came to the club a nobody, but is now being touted as one of the most talented backrowers in the competition.

James Green has been the most recent to sign on the dotted line with Castleford for 2018.

After a disappointing season with Leigh Centurions - where he played just nine times - he comes with a point to prove. Determined to make the most of his chance, Green will be hungry to earn a new contract and impress his new fans and, after signing from a relegated side, will be cheap. With this in mind, this signing may be yet another shrewd one by Powell.

Whilst Castleford fans may question some of Powell's decisions above, it is clear that these incoming players are definitely an improvement on those whom they are replacing. Lo, in for the outgoing Joel Monaghan, has the potential to become one of Super League's most exciting wingers.

Both Green and Clark - who replace the retired Andy Lynch and the injury-prone Larne Patrick in the front row - appear determined to grasp their opportunity with both hands and will give the Tigers an aggressive go-forward which they so desperately lacked in 2017, while Wardle is head-and-shoulders above Leigh-bound Ben Crooks. Jamie Ellis, meanwhile, not only plugs the gap left by the departure of young half-back Tom Holmes, but can offer the Tigers another attacking dimension with his quality kicking game.

Players want to stay

A trophy-hunting team need to retain their best players and have as little disruption as possible. The Tigers, in the past, have often lost their best players at the end of the season to so-called "bigger" clubs.

Yet, now, players want to stay at Wheldon Road, enthusiastic and excited about what the future holds.

Half-back and the Tigers' talisman, Luke Gale - currently on England duty at the World Cup - is already signed up until 2021 while Paul McShane, Greg Minikin, Gadwin Springer, Kieran Gill, Matt Cook, Mike McMeeken, Junior Moors and Grant Millington all signed new deals in 2016 and 2017. No more are Castleford losing out to their rivals; the players love the club - demonstrated so avidly in 2017 - and are more eager than ever to right the wrongs of October's Grand Final.


Players need security and Castleford offers that; Daryl Powell signed a new deal in 2016 until the end of 2020, while his assistants, Danny Orr and Ryan Sheridan, head of physio Matt Crowther, and head of strength and conditioning Ben Cooper are all signed up until the same year.

This commitment from the backroom and the stability it produces is crucial for any club; 2017 saw the Tigers come so close to reaping the rewards, and with an established setup becoming more and more impressive each year, the structures are in place for Castleford to go from strength to strength and make 2018 one to remember.

As bookies' favourites, 2018 could well be the 'Year of the Tiger' which 2017 was so close to being. There is an impressive aura around the Castleford club presently; the players, coaching staff, boardroom and the fans are all singing off the same hymn sheet. The players love the fans and the fans love the players. And, united in a bond to give the fans success after the heart-wrenching Grand Final, the Castleford team have the genuine quality and camaraderie to make 2018 a year to really remember.