Tony Smith’s Hull KR vision – breaking the cycle of survival and the “injury curse”

Tony Smith knew when he arrived at Hull Kingston Rovers that things had to change.

He joined a club that hadn’t finished in the top-half of Super League for seven seasons, a club that had been relegated from Super League once and was facing another battle against the drop when he stepped through the doors midway through 2019.

His plan? In the short-term, it was to keep them in Super League. Now, in the long-term, it’s to stop the club being happy just to retain Super League status every year.

“We’ve got to try and break out of this bracket of being around the foot of the table,” he said.

“I managed to do it some years ago at Huddersfield, we gained promotion in the first instance. Then in the returning year we finished ninth, but at one stage midway through the year we were sixth, and it meant we were in a solid position and it allowed us to recruit the following year and it gave that club the breath of fresh air to break out of that cycle. Huddersfield became a pretty strong club for years after that.”

But doing that is easier said than done. Constant relegation battles make the club a less attractive prospect compared to those higher up the ladder. As a result of that, the club can’t attract the better players and have to pay over the odds to players who would consider them. Over the years the Robins have paid good money to seasoned pros in the hope of staying up for another year. But it’s a constant short-term, survival approach.

Smith knew they had to stop doing that for the club’s long term prospects. So he broke the cycle. They went away from their normal approach of signing recognised talent perhaps past their best. Instead, they signed younger players with potential but not as much experience. In some cases, they signed players with no Super League experience at all.

It’s a risky strategy, but one Smith believes the club had to take.

“The reality is if you keep trying the same thing you’ll get the same results. We have to try and do something different to push us up the table. It might not happen overnight but we believe it will aid us long-term.

“There’s a yo-yo situation for many clubs, some have never broken out of it, dare I say Widnes has been one of those teams, Leigh have been up and back down, I go back as far as Halifax being in the top grade and not being able to get back in again.

“Most people know my views on promotion and relegation, but people are excited by it and disgruntled at the thought of it going. So we have to work with it and find a way to get past it.”

As it stands, the Robins haven’t been able to shoot up the league as Smith desires, though maybe they didn’t expect to either just yet. Six games in, they are 11th with one victory from six games.

A major issue has been injuries, a problem that plagues the Robins every single year. Many at Craven Park blame bad luck, but the longevity of their issues have left some to believe it’s more than misfortune.

Smith believes there is an element of both.

“Sometimes it can be down to recruitment,” he said.

“We probably assessed some of that and decided to go down a different route in many respect,s going with some younger players that haven’t had the same history of injury as some veteran players end up having. That was part of the theory to recruit the way we did.

“Plus my own personal theory, some is down to luck, but some is down the physical domination of games.

“When you’re at the top and dominating, you’re not immune to injuries, but you pick up less because you’re dominating the physicality of the game and you don’t put your body under as much stress, and we’ve been on the backend of physicality things because of who and how we can recruit and we’ve missed some size in our pack with the unfortunate injury of Mose, along with others. But we may still have been light on some packs in the comp.

“Some injuries can be because you’re put in difficult or awkward positions, which is just unfortunate, but that doesn’t exempt you. I think that’s a bit of the case here. I’m not sure about a curse, we joke about it, but I think it’s more that phsyical domination.”