TONY SMITH tells STEPHEN IBBETSON how he has refreshed Hull FC ahead of his second season in charge.
ACROSS his long coaching career, there is one achievement in which Tony Smith takes much pride.
It isn’t one that can be measured, as such, but it’s there to see nonetheless – improving every club he has worked for.
He has done so with Huddersfield, Leeds, Warrington and Hull KR, before turning his attention to the west side of the East Yorkshire city.
In his first year in charge of Hull FC, there were few signs of great improvement. Like several of the seasons which preceded it, 2023 was often a difficult watch for the Old Faithful, their team blowing hot at times but cold more often.
The end result was a tenth-placed finish and ten wins, both one worse than the previous year. They scored fewer points per game than in any season this century. The gap to the play-off places – which Hull have reached once since 2017 – was eight points.
It was generally acknowledged when Smith was appointed at the end of 2022 that this was no easy job, turning around a club with both a short- and long-term record of underachievement. Last year only reinforced the point.
“You learn every year, but I think you learn most in the first year or so. There are not many places I’ve been where year one goes swimmingly, (except) Leeds Rhinos in 2004,” says Smith, who was relegated with Huddersfield, finished tenth with Warrington and came last with Hull KR in his maiden full seasons at each.
“Usually when you go in as a head coach, you’re there to improve or change the culture if necessary. There’s usually a reason why you’re going into a club.
“To recognise and see what’s necessary, sometimes you’ve got to live through it all, go through a season and see what the problems are and what the good things are in the club. Then you try to change what’s necessary.
“I found out a whole lot last year. It was interesting going through all that, in order to learn some stuff. I thought we needed to make some changes, both on and off the field, and we have.
“We’re hoping all those changes improve us. Only time will tell, but we’ve certainly made some adjustments from where we were in order to freshen things up.”
For starters, the age profile of the squad has come down significantly from twelve months ago.
Kane Evans and Josh Griffin left during the season, Tevita Satae and Brad Dwyer moved on after it, while Scott Taylor and Jamie Shaul have retired. All were in their thirties, a mark now exceeded only by Danny Houghton, Carlos Tuimavave and Ligi Sao.
Nine new signings have been recruited, with an average age of 25. They include fullback Jack Walker, a Grand Final winner seven seasons ago but still only 24, winger Liam Tindall at 22, and 23-year-old forward Franklin Pele.
Smith says: “We’re a whole lot younger as a group. That’s a good thing. I think we needed to freshen things up and get some young blood in there.
“We’ve been able to go a bit harder (in pre-season) because we’ve got a bit more youth there. We’ve been able to incorporate some more physical games and a bit more contact, where some of our older bodies weren’t able to cope with it so much last year.
“By changing some of the people playing for us and the way we go about training, we’ve been able to up our intensity early.
“Hopefully they’ll be able to maintain that throughout the season. That’s the real test for every club and every player, to keep on improving as the season goes on, not just to have a big off-season and hope that’s enough to get you through.
“I think there have been some players here who approach that probably was. There’s got to be a different mindset.”
Four of Hull’s nine additions come in the front row, where French prospect Damel Diakhate (signed following a trial in the latter months of last year) won’t necessarily be expected to make an immediate first-team impact but their other three newcomers – Jack Ashworth, Herman Ese’ese and Pele – all will.
A key element of Hull’s recruitment strategy was adding size to a pack not considered as fearsome as in previous years, and with Ese’ese and Pele – 107 and 120kg respectively – joined in making the move from Australia by Jayden Okunbor, a six-foot-five, 108kg backrower or centre, they’ve clearly had some success.
“We’ve added some big bodies, but they’ve got to acclimatise and make the changes to our sport over here – because it is a different sport to where they come from, with different conditions, different ways of playing and different interpretations of rules,” says Smith.
“They’ve been good. They’re developing relationships and combinations with their fellow players. They’re getting to know the culture, and starting to have an impact on the culture too, which is what we wanted them to do, all the new boys. They each bring a different skill-set to us.
“I think they’ll add some dimensions to the way we can play this year. We were a little limited in terms of the way we could play against teams last year.
“I think we’ll have a couple of choices to make this year, in terms of how we want to play, whether we play a bit more direct some days, through the middle. I don’t think we had as much choice to do that last year and that’s mainly down to personnel.”
The other area of significant change is in the spine, where Jake Clifford has returned to the NRL after just one season, while Ben McNamara and Joe Lovodua have both been allowed to leave.
In comes Fa’amanu Brown – a late arrival in January after helping New Zealand win the Pacific Championship – and Morgan Smith, who are both capable of playing in the halves or at hooker, plus Walker, to complement Tex Hoy and Jake Trueman.
Trueman will miss at least the first few weeks of the season as he finishes his recovery from the Achilles rupture suffered last August, just the latest cruel setback in his young career. And Hull, in turn, will miss him – Smith admits they did last year, just as he was beginning to hit his stride.
“The biggest impact on us last season, for me, was losing Jake Trueman. Jake was just getting to the point where he was running the team,” says the coach.
“He was the man in our team, the one with the calm head, the one who the players would go to looking for direction on the park. They talk about Hull falling away, and I think a lot of it had to do with Jake Trueman not being there.
“Early on, we’re going to miss him, but hopefully he’ll be back not too far into the competition, I’d say around early March.
“In the meantime we’ve got a few options there. Nu Brown has been training mostly at halfback since he’s arrived. Morgan Smith has been playing and training mostly in the halves. Tex Hoy has probably split his time between half and fullback. And I’ll mention another kid who controlled really well for us (in Hull’s first pre-season game against Bradford), Jack Charles.”
One piece of consistency in that spine will be Danny Houghton, who is gearing up for an 18th – and potentially final season, with thoughts of retirement in his mind at season’s end.
Houghton was a leader of the group long before taking the captaincy role officially in 2018, and remained so after the honour was passed on at the end of 2021. So when Tuimavave, the pick as skipper in Smith’s first season at the MKM Stadium, expressed a wish to give it up, Houghton was the natural choice to retake the baton.
“Prior to me getting here, he probably wasn’t enjoying his rugby as much,” says Smith of Houghton, who could play at the age of 36 should Hull make the play-offs.
“Certainly the burden of being captain was weighing on him. It felt like a burden for him, and he expressed that when I got here.
“But I think he’s got the skip in his step again. He’s enjoying his rugby. This is almost definitely – although never say never – his last season.
“I asked him if he’d take (the captaincy) on again. Carlos wanted to concentrate on himself again. He had a disrupted season through injury and Carlos wants to focus on getting himself right.
“I think it wore a bit on Carlos last year, particularly because he was injured. He wanted to help the team more and he wasn’t able to.
“I think it’s right for Danny to take it back again and for him to finish off his career as captain of this club.
“He deserves that accolade and all the recognition he gets for being the great pro he has been for many years. He leads by example. He’s not a great talker but he’s not shy to say what he believes and feels.
“He’ll be well supported by (new vice-captain and fellow born-and-bred Hullensian) Brad Fash, who has been here a long time now. Brad bleeds FC, just like Danny does. He’s black and white through and through and he holds that with great honour. It may be a way of developing Fashy into a captain of the future.”
It’s a welcome future focus at Hull, whose direction hasn’t always been clear of late. Smith’s record is of driving clubs forward, and this one has a long way to travel.