TONY SMITH has taken charge of more than his fair share of pre-seasons.
This has been the 18th of a club coaching career which has passed through Huddersfield Giants, Leeds Rhinos, Warrington Wolves and Hull KR.
But it’s the first at the helm of Hull FC, after taking on the role only months after leaving their cross-city rivals.
Smith has a big job on his hands, picking up a club that had two underwhelming seasons under Brett Hodgson to continue a tale of underachievement which stretches much further back in time.
He was appointed to make changes and he says the squad has been very receptive to everything he has done so far.
“The attitude has been great. Each week we’ve progressed, which is what we’re about. We’re trying to get better each week and each day,” says Smith.
“The players have really embraced that. You’ve always got some nervousness going into a season about whether you’ve done enough of this or that, and we’ll get some of those answers in the friendlies, but it’s so far, so good.
“The players have been really quick in terms of their approach to some changes and doing things differently.
“We’re bringing some new things as well as adapting to what they’ve done there in the past as well. It’s been really enjoyable; they’re a good bunch.”
The timing of Smith’s appointment, weeks after the end of the 2022 season, meant he had no part in putting together a squad already in place.
Only one signing has been made under his watch, but Smith is happy with the group he has to work with.
“There wasn’t much room for movement; the only movement we’ve had is Jake Connor (allowed to return to Huddersfield Giants) and Jake Clifford as his replacement, and I’m quite comfortable with all that,” he says.
“I’ve got to know the rest of the squad and there’s a lot of capability within it. I’m pleased with it; there’s some really good talent, some really good experience and some really good youth. There are good young guys coming through to put pressure on some of those experienced players. I think it’s a good blend.
“I’m happy to work with these guys and try to help them be as good as they can be. If we do that, we can do some good things together. Time will tell, but they’ve got the right approach to it, a strong desire to do well and want to get better. I can’t ask for any more.”
Halfback Clifford is set to be a key addition, alongside fellow Newcastle Knights recruit and fullback Tex Hoy.
Smith says of the Aussies: “They’re adapting to the weather; it hasn’t been an easy start for them! They went a couple of weeks without seeing sunshine and we reassured them that we do get sunshine here.
“But they’ve mixed in well; they’ve embraced what we’re doing but also the environment and the adventure of coming to another country and a different culture. There’s a lot of things to adapt to and they’ve been terrific with us.”
Clifford and Hoy are set to be part of an entirely new-look Hull spine alongside Jake Trueman, signed from Castleford Tigers with a serious knee injury that will rule him out of the opening rounds of the season and present a challenge for Smith in putting together the nucleus of his team.
“Jake Trueman hasn’t been training with the boys yet, so he’s going to have to do his (pre-season) on the run once he gets back playing. We’ll look forward to his addition when he returns,” he says.
“But Jake Clifford and Tex Hoy have adapted really well. Jake is a really good communicator, he enjoys running a team, he’s very vocal, and I think the players appreciate that.
“They like a halfback who is very good at communicating his message and making it clear. Everyone has responded to it really well and that’s important in his position in particular. He takes on that role of getting the team around the place.
“I think that will complement Jake Trueman when he returns as well, having somebody who can run the team and then he can add his bits towards that as well once he returns.
“And we’ve got some other options there that are working well. Ben McNamara has been working with Jake Clifford and we’ve also got Joe Lovodua and other options and possibilities. Even Danny Houghton and Brad Dwyer are capable of playing there.”
Dwyer is one of two additions from Leeds Rhinos, alongside Liam Sutcliffe, rounding out the total of five signings made by the club.
“Brad is a really mature young man, he speaks up and speaks his mind and is a really good communicator also,” says Smith of Dwyer, who he coached previously at Warrington.
“He’s very keen to impress and to make an impression on the team. Brad is Brad, I’ve worked with him before and he’s a goer. He doesn’t die wondering and I think that’s a great attribute that he brings to the team.
“Liam has settled in well also, although I hadn’t worked with him before. He’s more laid back but he’s knowledgeable and he passes on his knowledge at the appropriate times. He brings a wealth of experience to us.
“He’s got a calming presence and that’s good too; it brings a different dynamic. He’s got confidence in what he does and his abilities and that spreads on to some of the younger boys who aren’t quite as experienced.”
Bringing through more young players has been identified as a key focus for Hull in recent times, with Smith fully on board with those efforts.
He says he is striking up a particularly good relationship with former Castleford player Michael Shenton, who heads up the Academy but is also contributing to the first team.
“Having Michael Shenton between the two, the Academy and the first team, really keeps us in tune and in touch,” says Smith.
“He’s involved in both; it’s great experience for him and also for my players to get the input of a fantastic player and talented young coach.
“He’s also able to take things that we’re doing in the first team and put it into action in the Academy and use it with the junior teams.
“We’ve got a nice link-up there, so we’re all on the same page, along with Pete Riding who heads up the whole junior development programme. He’s often at our sessions and I’m often at his to see what they’re doing.”
Smith says that the club’s move into a new training facility at the University of Hull ahead of this pre-season has been hugely beneficial in bringing the different areas of the club together, as well as providing an improved base for the first team to prepare for the Super League season.
“It’s a great place to go to work, all very modern. We’ve got everything available to us. It’s worked out well,” adds Smith.
“We’ve got a good relationship with the uni and the boys have embraced being in that environment. They were ready for a change of venue. It’s been a shot in the arm for us.”
Time will tell if Smith’s appointment has the same kind of effect on Hull.
When appointed, he stated his wish to become the first coach to win Super League with two different clubs, having previously done so twice with Leeds.
But he is well aware of the long journey for Hull to travel before they can even be mentioned in such a vein, and he has no desire to put specific expectations on his players.
“The goals we have set are to get better each day that we turn up for training and to get better each week and to compete in each and every game,” he says.
“We’re not talking about what we’re going to do or not going to do this year; we’ll end up where we deserve to end up. We’ll do that by taking care of each and every week as best we can.
“I can honestly say I’m not going to make any outlandish claims. If we do anything, it’ll be because we deserve it. We’ll either be really successful because we deserve it, or we won’t be as successful as we’d like to be because we don’t deserve it.
“It’s all going to be down to hard work and attitude and being able to lift ourselves when it gets tough. That’s the game.
“Every team wants to win things, but not every team can. What we can do is do our best each week, so that’s the only promise I make.”
Squad: 1 Tex Hoy, 2 Adam Swift, 3 Carlos Tuimavave, 4 Liam Sutcliffe, 5 Darnell McIntosh, 6 Jake Trueman, 7 Jake Clifford, 8 Ligi Sao, 9 Danny Houghton, 10 Tevita Satae, 11 Andre Savelio, 12 Jordan Lane, 13 Brad Fash, 14 Joe Lovodua, 15 Joe Cator, 16 Kane Evans, 17 Cameron Scott, 19 Ben McNamara, 20 Jack Brown, 21 Connor Wynne, 22 Mitieli Vulikijapani, 23 Josh Griffin, 24 Matty Laidlaw, 25 Davy Litten, 26 Harvey Barron, 27 Will Gardiner, 28 Denive Balmforth, 29 Jamie Shaul, 30 Scott Taylor, 31 Nick Staveley, 32 Charlie Severs, 33 Brad Dwyer, 34 Kye Armstrong, 35 Lewis Martin, 36 Manoa Wacokecoke.
Ins: Jake Clifford (Newcastle Knights), Brad Dwyer (Leeds Rhinos), Tex Hoy (Newcastle Knights), Liam Sutcliffe (Leeds Rhinos), Jake Trueman (Castleford Tigers).
Outs: Aidan Burrell (released), Jake Connor (Huddersfield Giants), Luke Gale (Keighley Cougars), Jacob Hookem (Castleford Tigers), Jordan Johnstone (Widnes Vikings), Manu Ma’u (Catalans Dragons), Will Smith (Wests Tigers), Marcus Walker (Newcastle Thunder).