SKIPPER Stuart Dickens believes Featherstone Rovers must improve in 2012 if they are to repeat last season’s exploits.
Bookmakers have already installed defending champions Rovers as odds-on favourites to finish top of the Co-operative Championship for a third consecutive season.
But long-serving prop Dickens (pictured) expects a tough challenge in a division in which eight of the ten teams are from Yorkshire.
“For us to win things again next season I think we are going to have to improve again,” he said.
“I think next season is going to be even harder. We’ve finished top of the league for the last two years and only lost three league matches in those two seasons so it is going be difficult for us trying to maintain that standard and to do that we are going to have to raise the bar again.
“Hopefully, if we all get our heads down and work hard and we keep learning from the coaches then I am sure we have the players and the coaching staff to kick on.
“Last season we finished top of the league and also won the Grand Final pretty convincingly so I’d imagine all the other teams are saying we are setting the standard and they’ve got to try to catch us.”
Dickens tips Halifax - coached by former Rovers player Karl Harrison - as one of Featherstone’s main rivals next year.
“Karl Harrison has gone to Halifax and I think they are going to be really strong. I think they will have the mentality and hard work that Karl will take bring with him,” he said.
“Sheffield also look as though they’ve strengthened and they finished last season really well. I think Leigh have probably still got a bit of recruiting to do but I think Bob Beswick has signed for them and a few others .
“It’s going to be a pretty competitive league. There are only two Lancashire sides so there’s going be a lot of local derbies which generally leads to more intense games and can even things out a bit at times.
“Hopefully, it might also improve attendances. If there is less travelling involved, you would like to think other clubs might bring a few more supporters with them next season. It was a bit disappointing last season.
“I think 150 to 200 fans was the most that visiting teams brought to Featherstone whereas it doesn’t matter where we go we generally take at least 500 or 600. At Widnes at the end of the season I think we took over 1,000 fans which was phenomenal.”
Dickens feels Featherstone have an excellent squad after signing six new players. He expects keen competition for places in the front row after the recruitment of Dominic Maloney, Nathan Freer, Anthony England and James Lockwood.
“I think our squad looks stronger for next season. I think we’ve got a few more players and a bit more depth,” he said.
“We’ve signed some good young players who are I am sure will be keen to make their mark.
“In the past we’ve had four or five established front rowers and one or two young kids but the six front rowers we’ll have next season are all established first team players so there’s going to be some competition there.
“In the last couple of seasons we’ve struggled with injuries and ended up playing with three front rowers at the back end of the season so I think Daryl Powell was keen to make sure that didn’t happen again.”
Dickens believes Rovers silenced any doubters with their 40-4 win over Sheffield Eagles in this year’s Grand Final after their heartbreaking extra time defeat against Halifax in the previous season’s final.
He said: “After the way we lost last year against Halifax a few people had raised questions about us but we never doubted ourselves.”
“We knew if we turned up and we played to our best against Sheffield we were confident we could get the job done. It was nice to get that out of the way. It’s taken a bit of pressure off and taken away any question marks about us.”
Dickens, 31, who has spent his entire career with Rovers apart from one season in Super League with Salford City Reds, is relishing the 2012 campaign after resuming training with his teammates on Tuesday evening.
“I am still really enjoying my rugby. Obviously, when the team is successful it makes it even better,” he said.
“We had a couple of weeks off after the Grand Final and since then we’ve been doing our own training programmes so hopefully everyone is coming back pretty fit.
“We’ve been training pretty hard on our own for the last four or five weeks so I think everyone should slot straight back in.
“I think I will be the oldest in the team by three or four years this time. There’s a lot of young kids coming through and they keep you on your toes.
“In addition, the coaching staff keep challenging you all the time and challenging you to improve so I think I can still play a lot better than I have done. As long as I think I can keep improving, it helps me to enjoy playing as well.
“There’s lots of really good young players coming through the system at Featherstone. I think it’s a really good envirornment for them at the club and obviously with the first-team being successful it hopefully gives them added motivation to kick on and push themselves to progress through the ranks as well.”