CASTLEFORD Tigers are taking their strongest squad to the KC Stadium for their first pre-season game on Sunday.
The new-look Tigers could include all eight close season signings against Hull FC – with only Lee Gilmour of the new boys a doubtful starter – and will be captained for the first time by international centre Michael Shenton, who has returned to the club from St Helens.
Head coach Ian Millward expects at least 21 of his 24-man first team squad to be available and is pleased the players will be given a big test of how far they have come in pre-season training with Hull also set field their strongest available line-up.
He told the Express: “Everything’s been really positive. We’ve had a really good pre-season, it’s been very productive.
“The players were given a couple of breaks over the holiday period when they were off for four days and had to come in for a day then off for four and back in again for a day. They’ve worked very hard and earned the opportunity for that before getting down to some hard work again.
“But everyone’s just dying for a game. They’ve been enjoying their pre-season, but they want to play now.
“Hull have bought a lot of new players and they’ve openly said they want to win a trophy in 2013 so it gives us a great opportunity to look at where we’ve been going and see how we stack up against a team that has probably got every right to finish in the top four.
“It will be a good test for us and just what we are needing at this stage of our preparations.This game will give us a chance to be consistent for the full 80 minutes.
“We just want to start playing now and put the new structures we have been working on into place on the pitch. We are going to use our first team squad with none of the young kids playing.”
Millward is pleased to have a much fitter squad to start the season this time round with none of his senior players currently sidelined with a major injury and Jamie Ellis, Kirk Dixon, Lee Gilmour and Jamie Ellis all coming through operations successfully.
Back row forward Gilmour and prop Steve Nash are both nursing small injuries picked up in training, but the rest of the senior players are all making the trip to Hull.
Millward said: “We’ve got a squad of 24 and we expect 21 of them to be available for the first friendly on Sunday.
“We’ve got late fitness checks on Steve Nash and Lee Gilmour while the only member of our first team squad who will definitely not play is Charlie Martin as he is still coming back from surgery. He’s been out 12 months after having a major hip operation.
“Steve and Lee have both picked up minor injuries in training. They are both back injuries just from some physical training sessions, but they are not expected to be out for long. Lee had a shoulder reconstruction last year, but he is fine with that.
“Everyone who has had surgery since last season has come through okay and we’re raring to go.”
Millward is delighted with the efforts of the players in a long pre-season and pleased with the impact made already by the new signings.
He added: “The new boys have been absolutely fantastic and have brought a breath of fresh air to the place. Every one of them has had a positive impact.
“Weller Hauraki and Keith Mason are the most recent to come in and they’ve been very good. They have helped take us up to another level. The other guys have set the benchmark and it’s been very good. I’m very happy with every team member, the existing players have also stepped it up in training.
“The coaching staff have been challenging the boys and they have been excited to accept those challenges both physically and mentally.
“My main focus for pre-season has been on hard work and I have been really impressed with the attitude from everyone in the squad.”
Sunday’s match kicks off at 2pm and will celebrate Kirk Yeaman’s testimonial with the England international centre looking forward to a match against a side he always enjoys playing against.
He said: “I think it’s a bit of a fresh start for both sides. We’ll have players like Gareth Ellis and Daniel Holdsworth playing for the first time plus a former Cas player in Joe Arundel, while Cas have some new recruits themselves.
“Jake Webster is a player I know well from the derby matches and Jamie Ellis is a former team-mate too, so we know what they’ll bring to the side. I have a lot of time for Castleford and their fans and I’ve always enjoyed playing at the Jungle, as we used to call it.”