It’s a huge year for rugby league and the Black and Whites have to be in the midst of it all.
Another new dawn is upon us with the 2023 Super League season beginning this Thursday night. The stakes are enormous, not just for Hull FC, but for the whole sport of rugby league.
For the dozen top-flight clubs and indeed, those below, the incentives have rarely been bigger. Judgement day is on the horizon as IMG’s club grading and overhaul is revealed, a new broadcasting deal is negotiated, and a new RFL CEO position is filled. It’s a sequence of changes that have to prevail.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg with plenty of questions to be answered as the year goes on. Yet in the Hull FC camp, there’s optimism creeping into play and plenty of it. It’s all within good reason. The Airlie Birds have hit the restart button, moved training base, and brought in new off-field staff and five new players. It’s all been fronted by a new head coach in Tony Smith. It’s all fresh and it’s all welcome.
Under Smith’s guidance, there is a buy-in, there is positivity, and there is infectious energy. You can’t help but jump on the ride, emphasised by 7,500 club members and a minimum of 13,000 fans set to watch Hull’s opener against Castleford on Sunday afternoon.
As always, the club’s hardcore supporters have done their bit – now it’s up to the players who must back up their words with actions where it matters most: on the field. Simply put, this is a huge year for the Black and Whites who must become a force again. They have to perform in games and perform well whilst challenging for the Super League play-offs.
They have to show fight, compete every week, and stand tall in moments of adversity. They have to do it with style, with finesse, and make people fall in love with them again.
It’s high-standard stuff, but this is a makeshift era – clubs this year will either rise up or get left behind, with IMG making the league structure changes that, fingers crossed, reinvent rugby league into a more attractive commercial enterprise to drive the sport forward.
It’s imperative that Hull ensure they are at the centre of those plans by being as strong as they can be both on and off the field. In short, after two tough years, they have to become relevant again.
Whilst the exact criteria for IMG’s club grading system is unknown, you can hazard a guess of what it will entail. Going off the last time Super League had licensing, things like stadium quality and Academy production were big. Ironically, Hull’s emphasis on both has been substantial in recent times. They are in talks for a new lease to secure their future at the competition’s best stadium with their Academy going from strength to strength including a purpose-built hub at the Univeristy of Hull.
Elsewhere, the club is self-sufficient again after the coronavirus pandemic and has a record amount of commercial partners with membership totals also exceeding last year’s figures. All in all, Hull are in a good place off the field to receive the top grade, with club chairman Adam Pearson confident they will do so. Whilst this in theory preserves their top-flight status, it’s on the field where the challenge is now presented.
On field expectations
Embracing the new methods of Tony Smith and co, the Hull squad quickly drew a line on last year. Now, there is a welcome freshness about them and there seems to be both a rediscovered hunger and a desire. Time will tell, and actions speak the loudest, but those components will serve them well.
It’s a simple game rugby league and its basic fundamentals are just that. Run harder, hit harder, and more times than not, you’ll come out on top. If Hull can first get and then sustain that idealogy, then they will taste what they consider as success this year. They’ve got to enforce their standards all season and make sure they don’t slip away. That’s their expectation and the results will then take care of themselves.
Whilst the team unit is crucial, you can’t look past new half-back Jake Clifford as the glue to hold it all together. The Australian has been brought to the club as the final piece of the puzzle, tasked with steering the side around the park and bringing a bit of organisation to their attack.
Also adding some vital leadership to the side, Clifford has already impressed in Hull colours and was named as the joint favourite for the prestigious Man of Steel award with a couple of bookies earlier this week. He’s set for a huge year and is fully focused on the challenge ahead.
Davy Litten has had an encouraging pre-season. The 19-year-old is tall, athletic, and skillful and whilst he will have to bide his time waiting for his next first-grade chances, the opportunities will come, and when they do, watch him go. The teenager is fearless, comfortable at the back, and with a rugby league IQ beyond his youthful years.
Going into every season, there’s a sense of the unknown. We don’t know who will surprise us and who will flatter to deceive. Hull’s competition is stiff. There’s St Helens, the competition benchmark for the last four years – then there’s Wigan, Huddersfield, Catalans, Leeds, Salford, Warrington, Castleford, and the noisy neighbours that will all fancy their chances.
The quality of other teams has to be respected and taken into consideration, but if Hull can get themselves into the play-off picture, then after the last two years, that will be considered a success. A sixth-placed finish is more than achievable should they stay injury free and stay on track for the full year. That’s not to say they can’t finish higher, but it has to be the absolute minimum target for the club this season.