Simon Says: Woolford’s Giant turnaround

Before the season came shuddering to a halt, Huddersfield Giants were enjoying a hugely positive start in Super League, in contrast to last year. What’s changed? We asked their head coach, Simon Woolford to explain.

There is a new sign erected in Huddersfield Giants’ gym this year.

Simply, it reads: “Huddersfield Giants. The best defensive team in Super League.”

There’s a good likelihood that if you read that sentence after a sip of your drink, you spat it out in shock.

Huddersfield Giants were, in fact, the second worse defensive team in Super League last season. Only relegated London Broncos conceded more than the 776 points they leaked in 2019. That works out at 26.76 points per game.

Clearly, that sign wasn’t created to illustrate a fact, unless delusion was of the most extreme sorts within Giants headquarters.

But no-nonsense coach Simon Woolford isn’t one to clutch at straws. You need only watch a post-match press conference following a defeat to work that one out… or even better, take a seat near him during a game (parental advisory notice is strongly recommended).

“Let’s face it, we’d be kidding ourselves if we really believed in that after last year,” he said in one of several typically blunt comments.

“Last year as a group we came up with some standards that, if we’re brutally honest we didn’t stick to and live or die by.

“One of the main things that was nowhere near was our defence, let’s be honest, it wasn’t the only thing, but speak to any coaches and they tell you defence wins you premierships. We said we’re going to work hard on our goals and our pre-season. We knew there’d be a lot of work to be done on our ‘D’ and we came to the conclusion that the main principle would be hard work, honesty and respect.”

The season is now two months old. The best defensive team in Super League? Well, it’s Leeds Rhinos actually, but Huddersfield are a close second, having conceded 78 points in five games.

In comparison to last year, their points per game against is down to 15.6, over 10 points down on last season. That figure includes a barmy 10-minute lapse in which they conceded 20 points while Aidan Sezer was in the sin-bin against Wigan. If you exclude that period, that figure would look a helluva lot nicer indeed.

“We were annoyed with that game generally.

“But mainly that period of the game because it went against everything we’d been working towards. We’ve really set some high standards in the opening weeks and that was the total opposite, but all in all, we’ve got to be happy.

“But take away the Wigan game and we’re well and truly on track. The guys were reluctant to put a number on points a game to consider our standard but generally, it’s around the 16-point mark, if you can keep them under that we have a really good chance of winning the game.

“There are things we still haven’t been doing well but the attitude has been really good and probably the most pleasing aspect of the season so far.”

For hard-to-please Woolford to say that, something must have gone right. Though clearly, it has.

Five Super League games in and they have four wins – including the scalp of Super League champions St Helens, to who they inflicted a first home league defeat on in almost two years.

“At the end of last year, we said things had to change,” he explains.

“It was an awful year. We were scrapping for relegation all year; we nearly went down. I’ve said it a million times now, but you can’t win a competition in February and March, but you can lose one and that’s exactly what we did. We hardly won any of our early games and that was us done in for the whole year.

“It’s not the only reason, but we had so many injuries at the start of the season that it crippled us. We went into the first game against Salford without 11 players.

“We changed a few things in the pre-season, and it seems to have worked.”

So, what is it, exactly, that has changed?

“It’s a good question.

“I think last year we just didn’t have that resiliency. When I first came in 2018, players had a lot to play for, their livelihoods were in jeopardy, we were bottom of the ladder and we had some real resiliency. You don’t win 12 out of 13 without some resilience.

“I think we lost that last year, everyone was too comfortable, we started poorly with a lot of players out. Teams scored too frequently and too easily.

“But now the attitude is better, I wouldn’t say we didn’t focus on our ‘D’ last season but there has been a lot of focus on it this off-season. To be consistently in our team you have to defend hard and so far, it’s been first class. We haven’t been perfect, we’ve been broken down a few times, but we’ve just kept turning up and covering our mate when they’ve made an error.”

Woolford is keen to reiterate the commitment of his players to a more rigorous regime, but likewise, the players have expressed their gratitude towards a more purposeful culture instilled by Woolford and his coaching staff.

“Rugby League is a passion, not a job, to be successful you’ve got to love turning up and getting better and I think we missed that last year. I think we had a mindset of getting in early for training, get the job done and go home. We needed to change that, and we’ve worked hard on that mindset.

“So, during the pre-season, we had long days and long breaks to allow the players to socialise and have coffees. The boys bought into that and we’re a lot closer as a group this year. The closer you are the harder you want to work for each other.”

So far, so good. But falling into old habits is all too easy, as is falling in love with yourself.

“We’ve got to keep making each other accountable and improve,” he says.

“Coaches and players. We’ve got to make sure we’re coming to be better and improve. Attitude doesn’t slip. Winning is like losing, it becomes a habit. We had a poor performance against Wigan and came back against St Helens. We put a few wrongs right and for me, after last year, that was a massive response. It’s coming to training with a purpose and wanting to be better. The majority of our group are doing that.”

The only issue with Huddersfield’s success is the absence of Woolford’s no bullshit pressers.

Within the media, he is one of the most popular coaches in Super League for his honest – brutally honest, assessments. You’re not struggling for a good pull quote after a Giants defeat.

“I need to work on it really,” Woolford says, though he’s quickly discouraged by this writer!

“Sometimes I look at it and go ‘Jesus’. One of my own trademarks is thinking about things, you probably don’t believe that!

“But what you see, that’s me, I don’t try to be someone I’m not, I try to be genuine, some want to pick that to pieces but that doesn’t bother me, I’d rather tell it as it is than come speak to the press and pretend to be well-educated, a professor and pretend to be smarter than everyone in the room.

“Sometimes I say the wrong thing and I have in the past looked at things and thought I probably shouldn’t have said that.

“It’s important to make sure we show the positives but I’m just always looking at ways to improve, I think sometimes we can be a bit negative because of that.”

“But we haven’t played anywhere near a complete game, we’re gonna ******* strive to be perfect. Luke (Robinson) and I are looking for perfection.”

Woolford wants perfection from himself as a coach too. He knows his emotions get out of control sometimes. Though not as bad as at the start of his coaching career, when he was slapped with a nine-month ban after breaking a window after his team conceded a try.

“I try to avoid windows at all costs now,” he jokes. He can’t, however, avoid cameras, which often capture his rage.

“It’s something I try and work on, but I just get too emotional!

“I purposely don’t hold the mic, I let them translate and try to manipulate what I’ve just said up in the stand. Ollie (Richardson) will be down on pitch side and he’ll say that’s not really a message, I just say ‘Get them the ****ing message!’.

“We have a couple of moments from time to time, but I can’t change that. I’m a competitor, I had a good career out of being a competitor and I won’t ever lose that.”

Eventually, Woolford wants to be competing for trophies. Will 2020 be too soon? It’s too early to tell yet. But they’re on the right track.

Behind the scenes, Woolford and his team have had to wade through various problems, namely their salary cap, which has needed plenty of working out as a result of coaching casualties before him.

“It was always going to be a job that wasn’t going to be an overnight fix.

“I was lucky that they really bought into what I was selling them when I first came but, to be honest, I knew it wasn’t always going to be like that and there would be a tough period. I never thought we’d be looking at relegation but there was always going to change.

“It’s funny, Andy Kelly made the point to me not so long ago that since I got here there have been 14 or 15 players leave, that’s quite a big number, the fact we’ve got another 11 or 12 off-contract is unbelievable to think what’s changed, it goes to show what a big job it was when I came in.

“We’ve made massive inroads; it was always going to be a work in progress over a few years. But Sezer, Gavet and Kenny (Edwards) have made a difference, Ash (Golding) will make a difference once he gets playing, we’ve got so much scope again in 2021, it just goes to show the actual size of the job when I got here, we’ve still got a lot to go but there’s a lot more we can do yet too.”

This feature was first published in Rugby League World, Issue 468, April 2020