We're just days away from Super League 2018. As much as we love a good preview, you have to ask...how do you make predictions in a sport like Rugby League? In 2017 the top 8 wasn't decided until the penultimate game of the regular season, with the Giants clinching 8th place and yet somehow remaining in contention for the semi-finals until Round 5 of the Super 8s. The semis themselves were close affairs, with team of the season Cas only pulling through thanks to a penalty on the hooter. 40 minutes into the Million Pound Game, it looked certain that we'd be saying Au Revoir to the Dragons. And two years on the trot we've had the league leaders drop into the qualifiers the year after finishing top. So, I ask again, how the hell do you predict a sport like Rugby League?
With great bloody difficulty, is the answer. Last year's post "Why you're wrong to write off the Giants" stuck to a theme. We could be contenders, we could be right at the top of the table, we could brush 2016 off as an anomaly, but only if we could keep a fit squad. Unfortunately, that was a big if.
We ended up in an injury crisis that matched that of the previous year. We lacked consistency in the halves as Brough, Gaskell and Ridyard struggled with injuries, with Brierley and Rankin only available for part of the season. We spent nearly the whole year without our previous season's best attacking and defensive back rowers in Tom Symonds and Michael Lawrence. And despite the fact Jake Mamo was lighting up Super League, sadly he only did so across 9 games. We made one signing and one loan in the middle of the season to deal with this and brought in Turner and Ridyard, both of whom showed real promise before prematurely ending the season to injury. Like I said, it was a big if.
But it wasn't all bad news. In fact, you can break our season into 3 acts. The first was awful. After a few early wins we conceded 48 points at home to Hull with more than half our starting squad on the side-lines, it felt like 2016 again. The next week we lost 30-0 at Leigh. The whole miserable affair really hit its peak in April, where after 2 wins in 11 games we crashed out of the Challenge Cup to Championship strugglers Swinton Lions. We were predictable and error prone in attack and looked half-hearted in defence.
Then, suddenly, we turned it around. A surprise win at Headingley saw us break into a much stronger run of form. We started picking up wins…convincing ones at that. And while there were losses too, they weren't the hammerings we were growing accustomed to. In fact, for the rest of the regular season, only Salford managed to beat us by double figures, and only Saints joined them in beating us by more than a single score. This stronger form carried on into the Super 8s, and culminated in our revenge on the drubbing Hull gave us, scoring 46 points at the KCOM in one of the best wins of the season. Unfortunately, that's where the good run ended, and we lost our final 4 games, including an embarrassing 52-14 loss at the AJ Bell, killing our top 4 hopes. As disappointing as it was, if you'd told me after the Swinton game we'd still be in contention for the semi-finals in Round 5 of the Super 8s, I'd have laughed in your face.
So, after a poor season, with plenty of injuries, matched with only two off-season signings, we're now being tipped for the Grand Final success. Ha, just kidding, we're not Wigan. Nope, as usual the pundits are predicting doom and gloom for the Claret and Gold. Many are backing us for the bottom four, some are being brave and pushing us up to 7th or 8th. But look at our squad when it's at full strength. We've got one of the most formidable props in the league in Seb Ikahihifo. We've got one of the best support players and probably the best fullback in the league in Jake Mamo. We've got arguably the best winger in the world in Jermaine McGillvary. We've got a tackling machine and surely the most underrated player of 2017 in Ryan Hinchcliffe. And while his discipline can get him in trouble, on his day there's no beating Danny Brough's kicking game. Player for player I'd say we're a better side than we were in 2015, when we were Super League semi-finalists. I genuinely believe the Giants have it in them to do something spectacular this year.
To try and predict how our season will pan out, we need to really look over what went right and what went wrong last year, and weigh up how likely we are to stretch that glorious second act to a whole season. Here's five things we need to work on, and three things we've already got to our advantage
Things that need work
A settled halfback pairing
One issue that keeps cropping up with the Giants is consistency. As we said above, we can be the worst team in the league for a few months and then look like world beaters the next. A settled halfback pairing can work wonders for a team, and the Giants haven't had that for a while. While Brough has been consistently in the mix (injuries aside), over the past two years we've had Brierley, Gaskell, Rankin, Ellis, Ridyard, Kyle Wood and Sam Wood stepping into the halves. Brough and Rankin went really well in the preseason games, and with Gaskell set to cover an injured Leroy Cudjoe at centre, we could see this pairing for some time.
A plan of attack
Probably the worst aspect of our attack last year was its predictability. Teams had gotten wise to our techniques and we hadn't freshened things up enough to be competitive. As mentioned above, it's hard to do so when you've got a different set of halves every week, but ultimately, we need to carry on and try some new things. Thankfully, I saw a glimpse of that in our first two preseason games. We were passing the ball around more fluidly, and it was a joy to watch. While a settled halfback pairing will be a factor, credit also has to go to Adam O'Brien, whose distribution was really good in the Wakey game. Having Mamo in the mix will make all the difference as he's one of the best support players I've seen at the John Smiths' in some time.
Last Tackle Plays
Really this could have been covered in the last section, but in my opinion, it was such a big issue in 2017 that it deserves its own paragraph. Far too often last season we'd see the forwards make good metres down the pitch, only for us to pull out a panic move on the last tackle (or on the second, for some reason). We have a lot of skilled kickers in our side. As halfbacks Brough, Rankin and Gaskell would be the first three that come to mind but Mamo's not bad with his boot, and Kruise even nabbed a 40/20 at Headingley last year. I'd like to see us utilising this in 2018, and put more effort into forcing repeat sets, instead of trying outrageous things to score every time we're within 10 metres
Clean it up
Too many penalties. Too many errors. As good as Kruise was last year, he gave away more penalties than anyone else in the league. He's not the only one guilty of poor discipline, as a side we give away too many soft penalties and had too many needless errors. For us to improve this, we need our senior boys to lead by example. A prime example of this is Danny Brough. He may well be playing for a contract extension this year, and if his temper keeps getting him sin-binned, not only will it cost us on the field, but it could weaken his chances of getting a deal. On his day, his game management and kicking game are second to none, but those talents are no good to us from the stands
This particular issue crops up in two ways. The first is when we're in the lead and we let it slip, either through complacency or poor decisions. The second – and this is much more prevalent – falling behind and having a defeated mentality. We as a team need to be able to pick ourselves up and carry on when things look their worst.
The kids are alright
Considering we've been thin on bodies in recent years, and we only signed two players following Rapira and Mason's departures, it may seem strange to argue that squad depth will be an asset for us. But I believe some of our younger players who were maybe thrown in at the deep end last year will be much better as a result, and will allow for better squad rotation. Players like Sam Wood, Matty English, Tyler Dickinson and Darnell McIntosh are making good cases for their spot in the first team. I think Matty in particular is set for a huge year with us, he was one of our best forwards in the preseason games.
Following on from the last point, this year we have more players with strong utility value than I can remember in recent years. When you talk about players who cover multiple positions, you usually mean someone who clearly has a main position, but can do a shift elsewhere if necessary. But players like Murphy, Gaskell, Hinchcliffe, Bruno, Rankin, Ukuma, Mellor and McIntosh aren't just 'good enough' to provide cover in 2 or more positions, they excel in them. Mellor and Roberts really provide utility value with their ability to play in the forwards and the backs. There was a time we said the same of Bruno, but after watching him in preseason, I think we'll see him at prop before we see him back in the centres
The element of surprise
The fact that some people were surprised at Ikahihifo's inclusion in the Dream Team last year shows just how much we were flying under the radar. In a below average season for the club, players like Seb, Kruise, Oli, Hinchcliffe and McIntosh were putting in fantastic performances to very little recognition. While a Super League coach will be more clued up than the average fan, I still think we're going into this season very underestimated, and we should be using this to our advantage.