MARTYN SADLER talks to Wakefield Trinity coach CHRIS CHESTER about his club’s prospects for the new season.
NO ONE likes to make excuses for a poor season, and coaches in particular are usually anxious to avoid giving the impression that their season was disrupted by injury setbacks.
But Wakefield coach Chris Chester, if he were so inclined, would have far more justification than most other Super League coaches to claim that the fates were stacked against him in 2019.
Of 29 Super League games, his star winger Tom Johnstone completed six matches before going down with an an anterior cruciate ligament injury in a match at Hull FC on 15th March.
His centre partner Bill Tupou only played 15 games, suffering a groin injury against Salford on 1st April that kept him out for three months. Matty Ashurst suffered a foot injury early in the season, and later had an operation on a disc in his back, restricting him to eleven Super League matches in all.
For three players who had all been selected in the 2018 Super League Dream Team to play just 32 matches between them the following season would have been a blow for any club.
But they weren’t the only injury problems for Trinity.
Danny Brough broke his thumb in April and, although he would return earlier than anticipated, he showed obvious signs that the injury was still a problem.
Tinirau Arona suffered a knee ligament injury against Huddersfield Giants in early May, while David Fifita was carrying a foot injury for much of the second half of the season, eventually accepting the need for surgery in mid-August.
Young forward James Batchelor was out for eight weeks at one point of the season with a knee injury, while veteran Craig Huby was released from his contract at the end of June after failing to recover from a shoulder injury.
Inevitably the effect of all these injuries was to sabotage Trinity’s top-five hopes and demote them to the relegation battle, where they survived by beating London Broncos on the last day of the regular season.
Clearly the Wakefield coach will be hoping for more luck on the injury front in 2020, and he will certainly be hoping not to be dragged into the relegation battle.
“It was a crazy year and we need to move on from injuries,” says Chester.
“Early last season we were third in the comp and looking okay but things seemed to spiral downwards from there.
“To have had 22 major operations to players had a massive effect on our results.
“What we need to do is to learn lessons from last year. Maybe I played players who weren’t always fully fit. You want senior guys on the field as soon as you can, but bring them back too early and they break down again.
“We had two or three last year who were struggling with their bodies. Craig Huby, for example, was injured in the second game of the season and then retired and we had a lot of freakish injuries.
“Our relegation struggle, particularly in the last week of the regular season, was one of the worst experiences of my life. I knew what was at stake and I tried to keep it away from the players and shoulder the responsibility myself. I kept the players away from the press and tried to keep a cool head.
“It was a great relief when we survived and I felt for David Ward, who did a fantastic job with London.
“I got emotional after the game, which is unlike me. It meant so much that we kept our Super League status. I knew how bad things could have got if we’d gone down.
“I thought the pressure of the Middle Eights had been substantial, but having experienced that relegation battle last year, coming down to the last game, I would much prefer the Middle Eights.”
Chester is confident that things will improve in 2020, however.
“I think we are in a better position now,” he argues.
“We are not going into a season with question marks over certain individuals, such as whether they will last half a season, never mind a full season.
“In terms of quality and depth we are stronger than last year and better positioned to manage an injury crisis.”
Trinity have made a number of notable signings, including former Broncos captain Jay Pitts alongside his team-mate Alex Walker, Chris Green and Joe Westerman from Hull FC, Ryan Atkins from Warrington Wolves, Adam Tangata from Halifax and Josh Wood from Salford Red Devils.
“We wanted genuine competition for every position in the team,” says Chester.
“Where we struggled over the last couple of years, the interchanges had an effect on us. A couple of years ago we signed some big blokes who couldn’t play enough minutes, given the reduction in interchanges.
“So our strategy this year has been to sign players who can play big minutes.
“I feel we have a better balance. We have nobody that we are worried about in terms of breaking down.
“Jay Pitts is an 80-minute player, as he showed for the Broncos, and Joe Westerman regularly plays 80 minutes at lock. We’re bringing in players with points to prove, who will bring some real energy into the team.
“I thought Jay was excellent for London, which just shows the professionalism of the guy. We sorted his contract a few months earlier, but he scored the winning try at Hull KR the week before London played us in that relegation decider. I could have throttled him at the time, but it showed what a genuine guy he was, knowing well that he wouldn’t be at the Broncos next season. What they went through was really tough on them.
“We have Alex to play at fullback, but Rocky Hampshire and Max Jowitt are targeting that position as well. We didn’t think Rocky was going to sign and at the time Alex became available. We discussed Rocky’s deal with him and his agent and common sense prevailed at the end of the season. He filled in really well on the wing at the back end of the year and he played a lot at fullback. I think he’s very good at both those positions and at halfback. I need him to put the heat on Milky (Jacob Miller) and Broughy.
“Milky will be the captain on the field and he will have learned a lot from last year.
“Ben Jones-Bishop will be out of action for a while and so it’s probably time for Lee Kershaw to step up this year. He’s still very young and really raw, but he’s a great backfield runner who carries the ball really strongly. He’s a great guy in the dressing room and is really good to coach.
Ryan Atkins or Bill Tupou could also fill in on the wing if necessary, so we have some depth.”
Inevitably there will be a focus on veteran halfback Brough, who recently celebrated his 37th birthday, but Chester insists he has no doubt about his effectiveness.
“Danny has been off the drink for three and a half months now. He is a fierce competitor. At 37 years old he is one of the fittest in the team. He is in good shape and he is looking after himself better now than he’s ever done.
“I thought he played well last season, particularly when we needed him to, in the relegation game, for example.
“His partnership with Milky probably took longer to gel than we expected. But he competed for everything and he is in the best shape I’ve seen him for a long time. He still has explosiveness and he’s a bit smarter between the ears. He was a breath of fresh air last year. I’m expecting some big things from him.”
And Chester is looking forward to having Matty Ashurst fit for the start of the season.
“The whole of the left edge looks more at ease when Matty Ashurst is around,” says Chester.
“You look at that left edge, with Johnstone, Tupou and Ashurst. Matty talks with his actions on the field, he’s good defensively and he knows how to get his message out. If they can all stay healthy we’ll be a threat to every other team in the competition.”
Chester will, however, be without several stars at Hull KR, with Alex Walker, Ben Jones-Bishop, David Fifita, Tinirau Arona, Chris Green, Jordan Crowther, Joe Arundel and George King all missing from the side that will travel to east Hull.
2020 Squad: 1 Alex Walker, 2 Tom Johnstone, 3 Bill Tupou, 4 Reece Lyne, 5 Ben Jones-Bishop, 6 Jacob Miller, 7 Danny Brough, 8 David Fifita, 9 Kyle Wood, 10 Tinirau Arona, 11 Matty Ashurst, 12 Danny Kirmond, 13 Joe Westerman, 14 Jay Pitts, 15 Craig Kopczak, 16 James Batchelor, 17 Chris Green, 18 Adam Tangata, 19 Jordan Crowther, 20 Joe Arundel, 21 Max Jowitt, 22 George King, 23 Josh Wood, 24 Jack Croft, 25 Brad Walker, 26 Titus Gwaze, 27 Lee Kershaw, 28 Ryan Atkins, 29 Ryan Hampshire, 30 Yusuf Aydin, 31 Connor Bailey, 32 Ollie Greensmith, 33 Romain Navarrete, 36 Kelepi Tanginoa.
INS: Alex Walker (London Broncos), Joe Westerman (Hull FC), Jay Pitts (London Broncos), Chris Green (Hull FC), Adam Tangata (Halifax), Josh Wood (Salford Red Devils), Brad Walker (Widnes Vikings), Ryan Atkins (Warrington Wolves), Kelepi Tanginoa (Manly Sea Eagles), Romain Naverrete (Wigan Warriors – loan)
OUTS: Anthony England (Bradford Bulls), Tyler Randell (released), Justin Horo (released), Craig Huby (released), Keegan Hirst (Halifax), Chris Annakin (Dewsbury Rams), Pauli Pauli (Salford Red Devils), Ben Reynolds (Leigh Centurions), Luke Hooley (Batley Bulldogs).
26 December: Leeds Rhinos 30 Wakefield Trinity 4
12 January: Wakefield Trinity 18 Hull Kingston Rovers 6 (Danny Brough Testimonial)
Head Coach: Chris Chester
Assistant Coach: Stuart Dickens
Assistant Coach: Lee Gilmour
Assistant Coach: Liam Finn
Head of Youth: Mark Applegarth
Head of Performance: Martin Clawson
Strength and Conditioning Coach: Joel Fulford
Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach: Ashley Robinson
Head of Medical: Ryan Carmody
Medical Assistant: Dave Cooper
Home Kit: White shirt with a red and blue chevron
Away Kit: Charcoal with a purple and grey chevron