Another week, more doom and gloom, more uncertainty and more changes to the season ahead!!!
This last week is traditionally the most depressing’ in the calendar of a normal year, so with all that is happening it was always going to be a dire one for all of us lot craving a bit of rugby to watch, wasn’t it? However, as another tough week comes to an end, the only certainty in the future is, once again, that everything is uncertain. The season has now been put back two weeks and although the guys are all in at training, they must wonder exactly when things will get anywhere near normal again and even indeed when they will get playing at all!
In such a cold and very dark January, things are nothing if not mundane for all of us. Covid continues to ravage the country and it’s certainly ironic that it’s the only thing that I have ever known that was made in China, that’s lasted more than a year!!
Here at home after another week of asking the three questions I outlined in the last Diary, it’s been a time of not doing anything besides getting up, walking once a day and going to bed. Mind you, I’ve again been guilty of drinking endless amounts of tea and coffee, which usually means that the dishwasher is full by tea time. Then, because there’s no mugs left to drink from, if we’re thirsty, we have to drink wine! And, we always seem to be thirsty these days!!! Every cloud or just a recipe for disaster? Who knows and indeed who at present even cares!!
As I say, it’s been another really quiet week at Hull FC and indeed across the game and it was pretty indicative of that boring state of affairs when one of the top news stories of the last 7 days was one wishing ‘Happy Birthday’ on Thursday to Josh Bowden. That said, it did get me to thinking that if ever there was a player that needs a big season this year, it was Josh. I contemplated the fact that although our Prop should now be in his prime, thanks in part to injury and patchy form, he has never really had what you could call a good season. I still sort of thought of him in his mid-twenties, but I then noticed that he had just passed his 29 years milestone. I concluded that although there is always a place for 100% tryers at prop and indeed that most teams have them and perhaps need such stalwarts, for his own benefit and peace of mind he could really do with a stonking 2021 season.
Josh really is a big lad who has never shirked his responsibilities in the tackling department, however he also showed towards the end of last season, that he’s a ‘Biggun’ who is quite mobile too when he gets rolling. He often links in the line and has a good pass on him for a prop, in fact he has all the attributes you could wish for in a top-quality front rower. Except perhaps that he has never consistently looked a top-quality player!
In his defence, he’s never been one to stand out for the fans, he has suffered some shocking injuries and when he has been fit he’s not always been given game time. All that has led to a deal of ‘in and out’ form and he’s somehow never really got going for me. So, I concluded with his 30th calling next time around, 2021 could well be a seminal season for Mr. Bowden. I just hope that Brett can find something in there that other coaches have failed to realise. Otherwise, Josh will sadly go down as one of those 100% props that never quite made it into the big time. We’ve had a lot of those, most of whom, it has to be said, it’s hard now to remember. Big year for Josh then!!
Well, I’m told that training on the all-weather pitches at Hull University has, on a couple of days this week, been dire. For it apparently never stopped hailing and raining throughout. It was barely above freezing as well and several of the players found it really tough going. However, the most up-beat member of the squad appears to have been Josh Reynolds who was said to be, “Lapping it up!”. What a change it must be for him and yet as I said last week, the guy has a point to prove and he’s started out well on the road to proving it. The HDM reported too that he had linked up already with Marc Sneyd and was really looking forward to playing with a structured, organising sort of player who would he said, complement his more open off the cuff game. Of course, it’s another big year for this Josh too and I’m really looking forward to seeing him and Sneydy together, along with Jake Connor chiming in from full-back, aren’t you?
In the last year of his contract and yet only 20 years old, it’s also a big year for a young player I admire quite a bit; Connor Wynne. It seems that the lad has felt a bit left out in the past couple of seasons and even had a long chat with Josh Griffin about his future and lack of personal confidence at the end of last season. I have always thought that he had some promise and it seems that ‘Griff’s’ words of wisdom and some encouragement from our new Coach has seen the lad get himself back to where he wants to be and he’s now enjoying life again. Connor is certainly very complimentary about our new Coach and said to the HDM that Brett has come in and “changed a lot.”
He added, in way of an explanation, “To be honest last season I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there in pre-season and no one likes pre-season, but I’m actually enjoying it this year. I feel in such a better place head-wise mentally and I feel a lot fitter. Brett’s going to be great to learn off, though, I’ve watched some of his games, he was a small full-back but he just did everything right. He’s said as long as I work hard and push myself then hopefully we can get the best out of me. He also wants me to play on the wing as well, which I’m happy to do and get as much game time as I can.”
Connor has as a player a great pair of hands and a footballing brain, as well as a fair turn of speed and so it was interesting to hear that Hodgson wants him to play a bit of wing as well. I don’t say he is the answer by any means, but we do need some speed out wide and it seems that the club agree, as it is something they are trying to address with a new signing if we can find anyone. Still, it’s good to hear from a young player that things are going well in training and that even the fringe player are feeling involved and valued by the new regime. Culture and camaraderie in a Club are paramount and as a completely new broom Hodgson has the chance to not only break up the hierarchy and clicks that have developed over the period of the last coaching set up, but to also give a lot of self-esteem back to those who were marginalised by it.
My piece in the last Diary on the need for the club to ensure they pursue Adam Pearson’s line about making the KC a fortress, (so that the fans are therefore given more hope of a win when they approach matches and contemplate buying their season tickets), brought me some interesting Mail last week. Harry Southern in Goole wrote to say that his kids had, a couple of years ago, got fed up with home games and lost interest because in their words ‘we never win’. Whilst Sue in Willerby commented that the issue isn’t even about winning, but rather about being convinced everyone is trying their best and playing for the fans, or as she said, “Putting their heart and soul into it every week”. However, my pal Bill Dalton, our Club historian and font of all knowledge FC wise, actually confirmed this view with some sobering statistics on the matter when he commented, “I wondered if you’d realised that from Seasons 2015 to 2020, we won only 38 of 77 Super League games at the KC? That’s an average of just under 50% at 49.3%. Even in the Cup-winning seasons we lost 6 of 15 home games each year”
Of my comparison of our recent record against our record when we played in our old home, Bill continues, “I recall using the phrase “Fortress Boulevard” some years ago when comparing our record there over 107 years and despite some tough campaigns we actually had a success record of home wins there of 75%. In the days when we all first venturing into the old place, (in the 50’s) there was never a question of whether we would win, it was a question of “By how many”. Those days have to return. If the supporters are short of encouragement towards the team, who else but the players and their perceived attitudes, do we blame for that cynicism?”
Man, those are certainly sobering statistics, well put and certainly somewhere for Brett Hodgson and his team to start from. You will never be a successful club long term without winning you home games and that’s why our two Wembley victories glorious though they were, are now seen in isolation because we failed to equal those feats in the week in week out domestic programme. Great teams do that, but at the KC we never have!! It might not be attractive to watch and you might squeak a few wins and be lucky at times, but you have to develop a siege mentality at home and as I said last week, others have to be scared to come to play you there. That’s what good teams do in the weekly rounds. Surely, we have to address things and improve on that average at home don’t we?
Incidentally Bill is helping the Club out on their website with a couple of pieces from an historical angle on a Monday and Thursday. His pieces are always interesting and worth a look if you’re searching for something meaningful to read in these dark times. I know I big Bill up a bit in here but the time the bloke spends correlating his statistics and providing interesting articles etc. in amazing and something perhaps as FC fans we sometimes take for granted. The thing is a lot of Clubs don’t have a Bill Dalton or anyone with such an encyclopaedic knowledge of their own Club and we are lucky to have him and indeed over the years the Diary would have been a lot less informative without him too!
Whilst we are on people I like, I have a sneaking admiration for Harry Rednapp, he’s my type of bloke and is never one for understatement. When asked the other day about his time in Coaching and the volatility of the profession, he said that as a manager in Football you are really only ever 5 defeats away for the sack. That’s probably very true and although RL is a little less unstable than that, there is little doubt that although the owners are a bit more patient in our game, fans are fans and some of them aren’t as long suffering! Lee Radford had his critics from day one and so, it follows I think, that if our new Coach is to keep his credibility with some of the ‘settee coaches’ and ‘virtual curtain twitchers’ of the message boards, he needs a good start. Then again on the other hand, he also needs time to bed his side and his ideas in and to see how they go. It is only really when we see how the players respond to him in a game day scenario that we will start to get a clue if Adam’s punt on an untried Coach is to pay-off.
Brett will think he knows what needs to be done, but until he’s seen his team out there in a proper match environment he won’t know for sure and nor will we. I guess what I’m saying is that his plans for the season, with testing every day, shifting start dates for the campaign and some poor weather conditions for the start of the pre-season, plus the unique circumstances surrounding the virus, make for a tough old start all round and so we have to give the bloke a chance. He needs a bit of time and for us to cut him some slack before we judge him, which we’ll be able to do after 10 or so games. That said with relegation returning and the usual 12 team league in place, we have to get it right pretty quickly, we can’t be playing catch up for that will see us in big trouble. All that can hardly be what Brett dreamed would be the circumstances that would surround his first coaching job, can it?
Still all we as fans can do is look at the pointers and hints there are in what he does, to help us assess just what we have got in Brett Hodgson. I’d say personally that he’s doing OK and I point to two examples in the last couple of weeks. Firstly, the way that he handled the arrival of Josh Reynolds, giving him a week to settle in, before he did any meaningful training was certainly a departure for our club in such circumstances and then there is the way he is handling Jamie Shaul and his rehab after that knee operation.
There is little doubt that when you have an injury as serious as the one that Jamie has suffered, then the mental challenges of overcoming it and getting on with life whilst you do, often far outstrip the physical issues that you face. It was certainly interesting to read this week about the steps that the Club and particularly our new Coach are taking to address this. Aided by the structured recovery programme devised by the medics, the strength and healing processes take care of themselves, but it is the length of time and uncertainty in that process, that often affects players.
Hodgson said last Monday, that the Club were aware of this and had devised a strategy to ensure that Jamie keeps busy and feels involved throughout the next 7 months or so, until he has fully recovered. The reconditioning and strength staff will be concentrating on building up the muscles around the injury whilst our coach has ensured that Jamie is involved with the younger players programmes and is honing his knowledge of the full back-role from our boss (because let’s face it you would have to go a long way to find a better full-back than Brett). Furthermore, they are ensuring that he is in and amongst the rest of the lads as much as possible.
It’s certainly a bit of a sad situation because Jamie must have been excited about Brett’s appointment, (and how it could help his game) but at the same time frustrated because he was injured in such a way at such a critical time. He’s a great attacking full-back but one that perhaps just needs the final push to be a truly great player. No one is better positioned than Hodgson to help him make that final leap and it’s sad that Shaul finds himself side lined for so long. I know folks who have had the same injury, who are not rugby players and they have had a long and at times frustrating journey back to something like full fitness. However, they have at least been able to get back to work pretty soon.
When your work is playing a high intensity sport like Rugby League that is not possible and it must be pretty frustrating when you see your mates playing games and indeed others doing well in your position. Add to that the fact that you can’t do much at present outside work because of the lockdown and Jamie will be struggling a bit. For me, it’s great that the club are approaching this in such a responsible fashion and let’s hope that Shaul is back training soon as he starts to build his fitness back. Incidentally whilst we are on the subject of our regular local full-back we seem to be short of information as to whether he has signed a new contract as well, don’t we?
Well, the shocking rise in Covid cases, combined with the latest lockdown measures to combat it, must inevitably, I think, ensure any hopes of getting fans back for the start of Super League whenever it is. The start has been put back two weeks and who knows if that will be extended in the future?
This will present Hull FC and the rest of the Super League clubs with a huge dilemma as they will struggle balancing their commitments to the broadcaster on one hand with the expectations of paying spectator on the other. That’s before we even get round to the thorny subject of player welfare. Last year, although the FC season ticket holders saw just a couple of their allotted home matches, we all accepted what a tough predicament the club and game was in, as it went into lockdown and then returned behind closed doors.
However, getting those same fans to part with cash again, in the current climate, will be an even tougher ask, well it will be until there is a degree more certainty as to what they will get for their money. Most of us lot on direct debit have just kept on paying, whilst season tickets are now on sale and are apparently going well.
It would however be interesting to know just how many season ticket holders we at present have. The 2020 situation could not be helped from the sports point of view, but there is little doubt that the fans missed out a lot last year and that’s not just in the case of them getting their money’s worth, but also in them missing out on their weekly experiences. Everybody to a person, both in the ranks of the owners and the supporters themselves, is yearning to get those terraces and seats filled again.
However, the big conundrum is what does the game do if there is a more stringent lockdown required, or if there is another prolonged delay in letting fans back in? If elite sport carries on in the way it is doing at the moment, the broadcasters will still have their rugby league slots to fill in early spring. I saw an interesting theory on that one the other day when someone in the media suggested that a way out of this problem could be to bring in a behind closed doors televised competition for the early part of the season. Something like a regionalised round-robin to guarantee fixtures and culminates in a four-team knock out?
The article continued with the assumption that with that scenario playing out, the broadcasters would be satisfied, the players would have a genuine prize to win and the fans would not necessarily be losing Super League games, off their season tickets. For me however such a competition would have to not be viewed as a ‘needs-must’ filler, but one that fulfils the same role as the old Yorkshire Cup, BBC2 Floodlit or John Player; trophies that were loved by players and fans back in the day.
It is not a perfect solution, nor one that is likely to happen predominantly because of the need to consider player welfare. You simply couldn’t have an additional competition adding to the players burden of fixtures and so the actual Super League programme would have to be adjusted and with it the price of season tickets. However, it’s good to see that folks are at least thinking about how we get the game going again and surely we have to be flexible and have to give thought to any solutions that keep all sides happy and give us all a bit of rugby to either watch or play in.
I mean to say in the end was anyone surprised to hear that the season has been put back to 25th March, because I wasn’t? Let’s face it, only a fervent optimist would believe that the Championship could commence at the end of February, or that the Super League could begin on its scheduled date of 11 March. The Super League Clubs decided on that later date (for now) so as to allow there to be the chance to play during the Easter period and it was something that all of us expected would happen. It’s also expected that the clubs will decide to forgo the Magic Weekend in Newcastle, which in any case is unlikely to attract a sufficient number of supporters to be financially viable anyway.
The loss of the Easter Derby game to later in the season was something I anticipated too. The fact is those games are for Hull and Hull KR, Wigan, Leeds and Saints at the very least, some of their biggest earning games in the season. To risk them having to be played in empty Stadia once again was pretty unthinkable for the owners and so a switch to later in the season, when hopefully some of us will be allowed back into games was inevitable really.
Losing the Easter derbies will be a blow to traditionalists, whilst for me they can go forever, because I hate them, but that’s a personal opinion and another story altogether. Moving them does at least give clubs a better chance of hosting those clashes with bumper crowds. It will be the second year running that Easter goes ahead without the traditional fixtures after they were cancelled in 2020 as part of the five-month shutdown. That of course would have been Super League’s first Easter since the double-header was scrapped due to player welfare concerns.
Similarly, the Championship clubs may decide to pull out of the Summer Bash, although the implications of doing that are more serious than for Super League, because that event is the only occasion on which Championship clubs actually are broadcast by Sky Sports, so to miss out on that opportunity would be unwise and the clubs should think hard before thinking they could do without that exposure.
So, all our competitions face making some difficult choices in the light of the current pandemic. Even though we now have the chance to vaccinate against it, it will be a long time before enough people have received the vaccine to justify crowds returning to matches. In our great game there is little doubt that we still face a long, hard road ahead and when all this mayhem is to be finally sorted is quite frankly anyone’s guess.
Now, in addition to all that, plans are still going ahead for the new season and the RFL laws committee will meet next Wednesday to discuss the rules for the 2021 Super League, Championship and League 1. They will be spending some time on whether to continue with the changes introduced to Super League last summer with no doubt the biggest debate being on whether to bring back scrums. You’ll remember that scrums were temporarily removed on the restart of the season, and that after listening to medical advice. This was no doubt in a bid to make it safer for those involved and reduce the risk of players contracting Covid-19. The ‘six again’ rule was also introduced to replace a penalty for the majority of ruck infringements, rather than persisting with the usual stoppage in play. They said at the time that the move was to try and have quicker play-the-balls and fewer players involved in and around the tackle. The Committee will no doubt look at the way these changes affected the game for good or bad, but mostly they will also have to take on board the latest health concerns and measures needed to limit the spread of the virus.
The thing is of course with relegation back on stream at least for now, we are all looking for a level playing field from the off and we don’t want to be seeing the laws chopping and changing as the year progresses and for me that could well be a factor in determining any changes they decide upon next Wednesday.
The committee will also inevitably have to look to see what credence there is in the changes brought in by the NRL for the 2021 Telstra Premiership, to make it “faster, more free-flowing, entertaining and unpredictable”. You’ll remember that I covered these in detail just before Christmas and several had a few worthy elements to them.
The most high-profile of those changes is to be the introduction of a two-point drop goal for kicks taken from more than 40 metres out. Others see a six-again to be called for 10-metre infringements, injured players must be interchanged if a trainer ask for play to be stopped and a handover will be ordered when a player does not make a genuine attempt to play the ball correctly with their foot. I get all of those and particularly like the one about playing the ball with your foot because at present some players do and some don’t ,whilst referee’s sometimes let it go and sometimes don’t. That’s a really grey area in our sport and if it is in the rules then it should be policed properly. So, I’d be pleased to see that come in over here too. We will however have to just wait and see what comes out of next Wednesday’s meeting although I think, with the current virus related situation, scrums may be put on the back burner again for this year.
So, there we are, I’ve had a go at writing down what I’ve been thinking about and interested in, as week two of pre-season has unfolded ‘with a whimper’. I hope that at such a seminal time in the future of our game and indeed the Club we all love, if you can, you’ll all consider signing up for your season tickets in good faith and in the sure knowledge that you are in fact doing something to ensure your club continues to exist! These are tough times both to survive as far as the Club is concerned and keep the faith as far as we are. I guess like me, many of you are just realising what an important and all-consuming part of our lives the week in week out sojourn of supporting Hull FC has been over the years and how we are missing that involvement and trying in vain to fill the hole it leaves in our lives.
We have to hope that things will return to normal and in the mean-time, keep believing in our owner, our administration, our players and ourselves. Myself I just can’t wait to see the lads run out again, whoever they are playing and I hang onto the hope that better times are just around the corner.
Thanks for all your support, correspondence and messages, the Diary will be back next week, but in the meantime stay safe and Keep Believing.