SHEFFIELD Eagles must learn to live with the expectations of continued success as they start the new season on Sunday.
Last year with a squad lacking in depth and after a dismal start in the Northern Rail Cup they were the surprise package reaching their first Championship Grand Final before losing to Featherstone Rovers.
This time around coach Mark Aston has a squad of around 25 strengthened by signing players with a proven track record. Significantly there are no loan players whose presence, or lack of, added to selection problems last season.
That’s made the club contenders to improve on last season’s fourth-place finish followed by a strong performance in the play-offs and a second Grand Final.
Pre-season games produced inconsistent performances and a better assessment of those hopes will be possible after the four Rail Cup group games that start the season before the Championship kicks in next month.
Aston has a double target from Sunday’s trip to Second Division Workington Town – the first step to a place in the knockout stages of the competition and seeing his best 17 players claim their places.
“The Rail Cup’s a competition we want to progress in,” said Aston. “We’ve got new players in and we’re hitting the ground running this year with a bigger squad and we can rotate the team a bit more.
“The next four games all the players will get a chance and it’s a great opportunity to settle on the best team.”
The new signings will be in the spotlight. Dominic Brambani has returned to the club after three seasons and his partnership with Simon Brown at half-back is crucial. Both have great kicking games with Brambani adding a more direct approach.
Michael Knowles, signed from Barrow, gives options in the back row and the return of Liam Higgins with his power and stamina important with interchanges reduced to 10 this season.
Aston has plenty of choice in the outside backs. Misi Taulapapa is restored as an Eagles player after an abortive move to Hull KR plus the signing of Scott Turner (Dewsbury), Nev Morrison (Hull FC), Duane Straugheir (York) and Vinny Finigan who spent last season on loan from Bradford.
Yet again the Eagles will flit between Don Valley Stadium and Bramall Lane for their home games – with the venue for some still to be decided.