Finally, after months of waiting, the new Rugby League season is upon us with pundits and fans predicting who will finish where in the Super League, Championship and League One. After being thrashed 46-6 by St Helens in Round One of 2018, Castleford Tigers will be hoping for more success in Round One of 2019. Challenge Cup holders Catalans Dragons are the visitors to the Jungle on Friday night and while pundits such as Garry Schofield have tipped an away victory, Castleford should come away with the spoils.

Settled squad

While much has been made of Castleford's latent activity in the transfer market this off-season, the Tigers will go into the new season with a settled squad. Though the backline - particularly the right edge of Greg Minikin and James Clare - looks weak, Castleford's forward pack looks very strong. The likes of Grant Millington, Junior Moors, Mike McMeeken, Jesse Sene-Lefao and Matt Cook have been at the club for a number of years whilst Liam Watts will get a full pre-season with the club for the first time, and Mitch Clark is likely to carry on where he left off in 2018.

An impressive forward pack laid the platform for the Tigers in their recent 26-24 friendly victory over Leeds, while the backline looked strong offensively, but weak defensively.

Injury to Luke Gale

The news that Luke Gale would be out for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon was met with cries of disbelief from the Castleford faithful. Yet, if the injury was going to happen at all, it's better that it happened weeks before the new season begins rather than during the first few months.

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It enabled Castleford to gain salary cap dispensation from the RFL and the Tigers announced the signing of Australian halfback/fullback Jordan Rankin from Huddersfield in a swap deal that saw Joe Wardle go the other way.

The signing of Rankin made sense; a livewire playmaker that can make something out of nothing, Rankin will bring that creative spark that the Tigers missed in 2018. Plus, it also allows teenage halfback Jake Trueman to do what he does best: organise the team around the field.

Too often in 2018, Trueman had to shoulder most of the responsibility, which was, for a teenager that perhaps only got his chance because of injuries to Gale and Ben Roberts, hardly the best way of easing him into the side. Nevertheless, he gained a great deal of experience, and this will stand him in good stead going into the 2019 season.

The Dragons, meanwhile, have lost Josh Drinkwater to Hull KR but gained Matty Smith from St Helens.

Drinkwater turned Catalans' season around almost single-handedly in 2018, steering them to a Challenge Cup victory. Therefore, it was a great surprise that the Aussie moved to Hull KR at the end of the year. Smith, on the other hand, has had a few stagnant years at Saints, hoping to revitalise his career in the south of France. It may take time for him and Sam Tomkins to settle which Castleford can exploit.

Home advantage

Castleford's Jungle is renowned for its hostile atmosphere - in fact, Catalans' recruit Sam Tomkins called it a "horrible place" - which should be taken advantage of. To be taken seriously, the home form needs to be right up there with the best - something which the Tigers have set down as a marker in recent years. And, with the lack of away support on Friday night, Castleford's home crowd can spur their side on to victory.

It remains to be seen how much the cold weather will affect both sides. Whilst the Tigers have built up a reputation for playing free-flowing Rugby - something which is far easier to do once the grounds harden - Catalans are used to playing in the heat of Perpignan. A forward battle would suit the Dragons with their huge pack, but Castleford are still likely to throw the ball around regardless of the weather.

Underdogs

With Castleford being underdogs to gain silverware in 2019 - indeed, head coach Daryl Powell is under considerable pressure himself to win a major final - this could work in their favour. Overwhelming favourites to win the Grand Final in 2017, the Tigers crumbled and since then, have struggled to replicate the form that saw them finish top by a record ten points. 2018 was a rebuilding stage after the loss of Zak Hardaker, but with the addition of Peter Mata'utia, Castleford should now be looking upwards rather than down, starting on Friday night.

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