It's that time of year, after much anticipation and plenty of your squad selections, we finally have an idea of how the Giants will line up in 2020, as the official squad numbers are released. Of course, we know squad numbers aren't everything. That's clear just from the 2019 game counts for the Seniors and the Wardles, compared to those of Cudjoe, Uate and Ferguson.
But they do still mean something. To be given a 1-17 shirt comes with certain expectations, certain responsibilities, but also certain faith. For a young player or newcomer to be given the shirt that once represented Brett Hodgson, Leroy Cudjoe or Luke Robinson is no small achievement. And there's been one hell of an overhaul in that 1-17 this year; only six of our 2019 squad have retained their number, with 3 moving roles, 4 having left the club, and 4 dropping out of the starting 17 altogether
Let's look at that initial 17 in a little more detail
McGillvary, Turner, Gaskell, Matagi, Bruno and Ukuma maintain their squad numbers for last year, with very little surprise. With Ukuma likely to be used all around the pack this year, it makes sense to give him a "bench" number, while the other 5 will almost certainly be the favourites to start in their respective positions.
Some changes to our starting 17 were easy to predict. Golding and Sezer were brought in to be a key part of our spine, and the #1 and #7 shirts were always going to be theirs. Similarly, with the departure of Kruise Leeming, Adam O'Brien was comfortably the frontrunner for the #9 shirt, but don't fall into the trap of thinking he gets it by default. If there were any doubts about how highly regarded he was at the club, Woolford - a former hooker himself - has named him our new vice-captain. New signings James Gavet and Kenny Edwards push Paul Clough and Aaron Murphy out of the starting squad and Joe Wardle takes the #12 shirt left vacant by Alex Mellor.
The most striking thing about these numbers, however, is the faith that the coaching staff clearly have in our young players. Jake Wardle and Darnell McIntosh have been rewarded with the #3 and #5 shirts respectively, at the expense of their more experienced teammates; while the Polar Twins - Matty English and Oliver Wilson - come in to round out the bench with Murphy and Ukuma. Our younger players, those four in particular, played a huge role in keeping us in Super League in 2020 and make no mistake, they are fully deserving of their reward.
Darnell's 2019 transition to fullback was always going to be tricky, playing the role for the first time. While he didn't have a bad season a few costly errors has seen him return to the wing, and while the club has gone in a different direction at the back, few can doubt his ability, not least by the try-line. In his own words, he's got a lot of people to silence and even more to make proud. I can't wait to see what he can do.
Matty English's performances to date speak for themselves, but by all accounts he's surpassed even his own high standards in preseason. Speaking to giantsrl.com, Woolford said:
"Matty English nearly earned himself a starting jumper, he's been great in the pre-season I believe he's come on a long way, he'll play a big part in our team this season and we feel the sky is the limit for him."
Wardle and Wilson in particular should take pride in their new roles. Wilson wasn't really expecting to get much game time at all last year but took his chance and really impressed. And Wardle has replaced one of the most recognisable faces in the side. Speaking of...
With younger players coming into the starting squad, other players must make way. There's two ways to look at Murphy's move to the bench. Edwards and Wardle were likely to be ahead of him on form, but more importantly, he ended up playing more games at Loose Forward than he did in the back row last year. Having him and Ta'ai on the bench gives us options, given their versatility in the pack.
The remaining three outgoing players from 1-17 (Cudjoe, Uate and Clough) have all established themselves as top-class players, but have had serious injury troubles in recent years that have prevented them from reaching their potential. It's a bold move to drop them from the side, but I'd certainly expect them to feature in the Giants' 2020 campaign.
Wardle for Cudjoe is one of the biggest surprises on a Giants teamsheet in a while. It sees the breaking up of the longest-running wing/centre pairing in the league, but allowing Leroy to return to the side gradually, likely through the reserves, is the best move for both the club and him as an individual. After a long stretch out of the game, the last thing you want is to have to spend 80 minutes tackling Alex Walmsley or Liam Watts live on Sky Sports.
Outside the 17
I know the squad numbers don't mean everything, but 1-17 in particular seem to be taken seriously behind the scenes. After that, it's something of a free-for-all. Obviously you can't have everyone in the 17, but there'll be plenty outside of those numbers who will be giving everything in training and including the reserves to make sure they get their shot.
Oliver Roberts played a fair few games with an injury last year and as a result, his performances were not what we had come to expect after a good few years with the club. Should he get back to full fitness, he'll be challenging for a spot every week. It's unlikely we'll be expecting AOB to put in 80 minutes every week, so Tom Holmes, Reiss Butterworth and Oliver Russell will be looking to work their way into the side. Adam Walne was arguably the most improved player for us last year, after spending the end of 2018 on loan in the championship, he took his chance and impressed on every performance, eventually only being dropped due to injury. Don't write him off just yet.
And that's before we even get to the hungry young talent in the side. In 5 years time, players like the Senior twins, Sam Hewitt and Jon-Luke Kirby will likely be getting starting squad numbers, and they'll want to build on their positive 2019 seasons to bring that about as soon as possible. But of all the youngsters, I'm tipping Dom Young to have his breakout season in 2020, at the very least making a name for himself in the reserves, but hopefully with a chance to shine in Super League too
Much like 2019, our side has a good balance between academy products and signings from elsewhere. We've maintained 6 academy graduates in our starting lineup, and looking at the whole squad, we've gained one extra compared to this stage last year. Our overseas signings look much more impressive heading into 2020, with Gavet taking the available non-fed spot, while Sezer and Edwards replace Seb and Frawley on the overseas quota (with one spot still remaining).
While our 1-17 may look a lot younger, with the likes of Cudjoe and Uate being replaced the likes of Jake Wardle and Oliver Wilson, we've still maintained a good balance of youth and experience. When we kicked off our Super League season in 2019, our squad had an average age of 28 years, 1 month and 21 days. When we do so again in Perpignan this February, that drops by just 4 months, to 27 year, 9 months and 25 days.
Let's hope - for all our sakes - that's where the 2019 comparisons end.