In the Know | Castleford Tigers | Sunday 11th March

Ahead of tomorrow’s Betfred Super League clash with Castleford Tigers we spoke to League Express and Rugby League World journalist Alex Davis (@AlexDavis02) about all things Castleford and their start to the 2018 season.
Castleford come into the game following back-to-back wins against Widnes and Hull FC. What have you made of The Tigers start?
After the humiliation of the Tigers’ opening round defeat to St Helens, every Cas fan will be ecstatic to see the Tigers sitting on four points from their opening three games. You do, however, get the feeling that the Grand Final defeat and the manner of that defeat still hangs over the club somewhat. It might take a while for that feeling to go for both the players and the fans. We’ve not seen anywhere near the best from the Tigers yet in 2018 but things are slowly falling into place for them.
Despite bringing in quite a few new signings, for the most part, the core of the side has remained the same. How important do you think this has been for Daryl Powell and Castleford?
With several key players being signed up to new and improved deals in 2017, it was always going to be a case of quality not quantity with off-season signings. The most important signings for Castleford were the new contracts for players like Luke Gale and Grant Millington. Castleford always had the problem of losing their best talent to rival clubs but signings like those signal the change of attitude at the club.
Obviously, the glaring omission this season is Zak Hardaker. How do you think the trio of Ben Roberts, Jamie Ellis and Luke Gale are working together?
Jamie Ellis has only recently come back into the team having missed the first game away at St Helens but he was man of the match against Hull FC and looks like he will prove to be a shrewd capture for the Tigers. Playing next to the great organiser that is Luke Gale, it gives Ellis the freedom to express his ability and he is doing just that. Having a halfback at fullback can be a positive but Ben Roberts has got to improve his fitness levels so his fatigue doesn’t affect his skill level. There’s no doubt he can be a success at fullback but he will have to work harder than anyone else in a Tigers shirt in training if he’s to do so.
Greg Minikin has scored in each of the last two games for Castleford. How good has he been in the early stages of the season so far?
Greg Minikin is an outstanding young talent and his inclusion in the England Knights Squad is fully deserved. He’s a strong carrier of the ball and, when you have players inside you with the experience and skill of Jake Webster and Mike McMeeken, it’s hard not to score tries really. His try against Widnes was really well taken, beating two defenders to score when Castleford needed a moment of magic. He’ll be one to watch, especially with Greg Eden not available.
Castleford are known for the strength in their pack while The Red Devils have impressed down the middle, also. How do you see the forward battle panning out?
Like most Rugby League games, the forward battle will probably be where this game is won and lost. Castleford don’t have the biggest pack but they do have the most skilful one in Super League: Players like Junior Moors and Grant Millington can hurt any team with their footwork and ball skills. Salford will badly miss Craig Kopzcak up front but still possess some big units in the pack. Clever work from Josh Wood and Logan Tomkins from dummy half is the key to unlocking the Tigers: James Roby did it perfectly earlier in the season for St Helens, allowing Ben Barba and his pace to dictate.
How do you see the game going overall?
If Salford are to win, they need to control Paul McShane and the Tigers pack. That’s easier said than done, especially when Castleford are at home having only lost two games at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle in 2017. The crowd always gives them a real lift allowing them to roll down their short pitch. When Luke Gale is playing behind a dominant pack, Cas are unbeatable.
Score Prediction: Castleford Tigers 34-18 Salford Red Devils

In the know | Hull Kingston Rovers | Friday 23rd February

Ahead of tonight’s Betfred Super League clash with Hull Kingston Rovers we spoke to Hull Daily Mail’s Gareth Westmorland (@G_Westmorland) about all things Hull Kingston Rovers.
Hull KR got promoted back to Super League last season and currently have one win and two losses. How do you think they’re adapting to life back in the Betfred Super League?
Gradually, we’ve seen a steady improvement from Rovers across the first three rounds. Though riding on the wave of positivity ahead of the season opener against Wakefield, Trinity knocked KR down a peg or two and I think the pace of the game shocked a few Robins players. That said, to come out the following week and push the defending champions close, but for a clinical period by Leeds in the final ten minutes of each half, says something about the mental toughness of the team. Finally, a win against Catalans last time out was clinched and it appears Rovers are learning their lessons.
Hull KR made quite a few new signings in the off-season. Who’s impressed you the most?
Danny McGuire is the obvious choice here. He’s yet to get off the mark in terms of try-scoring in Red and White but the all-round calmness he brings to the team cannot be underestimated. In years gone by, Rovers have been erratic in their play but McGuire – along with coach Tim Sheens – has tried to keep things simple and against the Dragons last week, it paid off. I’m also interested to see the progress of Will Dagger, the young full-back signed from Warrington Wolves, across the course of this year if not his three years in east Hull.
Danny McGuire hasn’t been named in the squad. How do you expect KR to set up on Friday especially in the halves?
Tim Sheens is likely to field Chris Atkin and Matty Marsh in the halves first up. They’re the two recognised, specialist play-makers but the trick up KR’s sleeve is that they have numerous players who can also play with ball in hand well. Maurice Blair, Tommy Lee, Adam Quinlan have all played in the halves at some stage of their career, so expect them to also get in on the action. Quinlan returns at full-back with Andrew Heffernan likely to come straight back into the team at centre. Nick Scruton should come off the bench as he returns from a shoulder injury, with the impressive Robbie Mulhern and Lee Jewitt beginning up front for KR.
Of course, there’s a lot of connections between Hull KR and Salford with the likes of Tim Sheens and players such as Justin Carney. Do you think this could have an impact on the game?
It would be silly of Sheens not to use his thorough knowledge of the Salford players. He signed a lot of the Red Devils stars that are currently at the club and of course, poached some from them to Rovers in Carney and more recently prop Jordan Walne, youngster Connor Williams and formerly of Salford, Tommy Lee. Sheens doesn’t entertain talk of politics or a real rivalry between the two sides. Obviously, a lot has gone on in the last 18 months – that Gareth O’Brien drop-goal remains in the nightmares of KR fans to date – but we’re back to square one, in a way.
Quite a rivalry has built-up between the two sides in recent years. What do you expect from the game?
I expect a similar battle to that of the Challenge Cup game last year. Rovers started like a house on fire and built up a healthy lead before Salford found their way back into the game. I think the home side have been unlucky in both of their games this season. Wigan got the bounce of the ball plenty of times, whilst Wakefield just hung on a fortnight ago. Rovers have to remain in the contest throughout and having a win under their belts last week may just be the catalyst for some momentum gained. Salford, in contrast, will be desperate for their first victory and I’ll tip them to come out all guns blazing.
Overall, what do you think the season holds for Hull KR?
Survival is the ultimate aim, no matter how it comes. Reaching the top-eight will be tough but as Salford and Wakefield have shown in previous years, it’s not impossible. It’ll take an almighty effort to escape the Qualifiers for the first time but even if KR do finish in the bottom-four, I am tipping them to secure their place in Super League 2019. Eighth would be a massive achievement and everything after that is a bonus, however many Robins fans, I’m sure, would take a comfortable finish in the middle 8s once more.
Score prediction: Salford 16 Hull KR 24

In the know – Swinton Lions

This year we’ll be introducing a new feature on our website called ‘In the Know’ which will see us quiz a journalist on our upcoming opponents and to start things Tom Bramwell (@tmbrmwll) of the Manchester Evening News has told us everything we need to know about Swinton Lions and Sunday’s game.

Swinton narrowly avoided the drop in 2017. What did you make of their season and their heroics to stay up?

I thought it was pretty incredible with everything that was going on off the field that the players could put in the performances they did and get the results they needed to stay in the Championship. To be totally honest, I just couldn’t see it happening, especially when John Duffy went to Featherstone and Chris Atkin’s move to Hull KR was brought forward. So much credit has to go to Stuart Littler for how he stepped up into the head coach role and helped the side to kick on – going to Odsal and getting that result against Bradford in his first match in charge is one that will live long in the memory.

The Lions have recruited quite heavily in pre-season. What do you make of their new signings and how do you think they can impact Swinton this year?

I’ve been very impressed with their recruitment, especially as no one was really sure what to expect because of the financial situation. Gabe Fell was long talked about as a future star at Wigan and I think if Sam Tomkins hadn’t returned, he’d have had plenty of chances in the first team by now, so he’ll be a good replacement for Jack Murphy. I haven’t seen much of Hayden Hansen who has come in from Redcliffe Dolphins in Australia, but I know the club are very excited to have him on board and think he can bring something special this season. George Tyson is the one that stands out for me though – I’ve been impressed whenever I’ve seen him play for Oldham or Sheffield and I’m sure working with Stuart Littler, who was such a good centre himself, will only help him develop his game even further.

Who do you think will be the key players for the Lions this season and why?

Josh Barlow has re-signed and he often gives the team a big lift, whether it’s breaking the line, getting an offload away or putting in a big hit, so I think he can be really important – provided he keeps his discipline in check! Mike Butt had a fantastic 2017 season and I’d expect him to get plenty of chances to demonstrate his finishing skills this year with centres like Tyson, Chris Hankinson and Rhodri Lloyd playing inside of him.

There has been a lot of activity of the field. Do you think the Lions can stabilise progress both this season and going forward in the coming year?

A lot of the signs coming out of the club are really, really positive – particularly the launch of the Swinton Lions Academy with The Rugby College and more progress with the development at Agecroft. I think Andy Mazey is doing a great job as chairman to steady the ship after such a turbulent time last year, and in Stephen Wild they’ve got a director who is incredibly passionate about the club and has a wealth of experience in the financial sector – I’m confident the club is in good hands and it’s no more than the fans deserve, especially after all their fundraising efforts last year.

Of course, there’s a lot of history between the Clubs added to by Stuart Littler and Ian Watson being coaches. How good is it to see the derby back and what does it bring?

Local rivalries are one of the things that make this sport so great and this derby is no different. I’m sure the players and staff on both sides are excited to be able to kick off their pre-season games with a match that will be this fiercely contested – there’s no friendlies in rugby league really, is there? It seems the two clubs have a fantastic relationship off the field though, but with Stuart and Ian having played and coached together, that probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise.

How do you see the game going?

It’s always a bit of an unknown kicking off pre-season, but with so many new recruits, I won’t be expecting Swinton to look anything close to the finished article. The warm-up matches they’ve got lined up will be all about building up the relationships and understanding between the players, as well as their fitness. For Salford, I’m really keen to see how Rob Lui and Jack Littlejohn get on in the halves, because I think that partnership will be the key to the entire season. Hopefully, we’ll also get a look at Levy Nzoungou and Ben Nakubuwai because I expect they will be further examples of more really astute recruitment from Ian and his coaching staff.

Score prediction: Salford 24-10 Swinton.

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