With Super League 2020 just around the corner, the likes of McGillvary, Sezer and Edwards are understandably being talked up and getting plenty of attention, but the rest of the squad is maybe a little under-the-radar outside of the Giants faithful. But there are plenty of players with the potential for an interesting 2020 (for good or for bad). While this is by no means an exhaustive list, here’s five players whose stories you should keep an eye out for in 2020!
I know, I know. This is meant to be a list of players who are a bit more under the radar, so starting with literally the first name in our squad might seem a strange choice. But of the four new signings to get a starting squad number for the 2020 season, Ashton seems to have had the least fanfare. Maybe it’s because he’s the least experienced, maybe it’s because he’s the only Englishman, maybe it’s because he’s come to us from Featherstone, which is somewhat less exciting than Perpignan, New South Wales or Canberra.
But make no mistake, the Giants’ success in the back end of the 2020 season could well hinge on the performances of the Jamaica international when he returns to the side. In the run up to our January friendlies, I’d heard nothing but positive things about Ashton’s pre-season efforts, so I made a point of keeping an eye on him in the two games he played. Aged just 23 and coming off the back of a year spent largely in the Championship, you wouldn’t be surprised if he were a little reserved, and happy to keep his head down. But one thing I kept coming back to was how vocal a player he was on the field. In defence, there was no question he was in charge, and the results spoke for themselves – not only did we avoid conceding a single try with Ashton at fullback, but the opposition never even got close. Wakefield got some good field position (albeit mainly from penalties) and tried out a fair few attacking plays, but we had no trouble shutting them down.
In our hunt for a new #1, tightening up our defence will certainly have been seen as a priority, especially with a new halfback pairing set to revitalise the attack. And while I think his defensive skills will be a huge asset to us, he’s no slouch going forward either. At times, it almost felt like having an extra halfback on the field. While he is unfortunate to start the season with a nasty hamstring injury, once he's back I cannot wait to see what he has in store
When people ask me which young Giants players have the biggest futures, I find myself spoilt for choice. Players like Jake Wardle, the Senior twins and Sam Hewitt have all had excellent early careers, but the one name I come back to is Matty English. He was only 21 throughout the 2019 season, and on first glance doesn’t necessarily look like your average prop, but every time he took to the field you knew he’d make an impact. As a young forward, his best years are well ahead of him and he’ll only get better. He featured against Halifax and Wakefield in our preseason, and looked like the toughest bloke on the field both times.
He’s been rewarded with the #14 shirt for this season, and was allegedly unlucky to miss out on a starting squad number. Pending fitness and fatigue, I’d expect him to be one of the safest bets on the team-sheet, and – following his success at the England knights - to start pushing for international selection in the next few years.
Things just haven’t gone Ollie’s way in recent years. He impressed for Ireland in the 2017 World Cup, and really put himself on the map. Plenty of clubs were allegedly offering big money to draw him away from Huddersfield, including Wigan and a few Austrialian sides, but he made the decision to stick with the club and signed a huge five year deal in February 2018. A month later, he got that sinking feeling, as he suffered one of the more unusual Rugby League injuries – his new bathroom sink exploded, leaving him with a chunk of porcelain in his foot.
Despite this, he went on to play the following week, at one point coming off to have his foot glued up, before going back out for another twenty minutes. And that’s, sadly, been his story for the past two years. While the extent of his injuries haven’t always been made officially public, we know he’s played through the pain barrier more than once, often whilst waiting for surgery. Naturally, he wasn’t at his best at this time, but it would be unfair to question his attitude or work ethic.
Still, the uncomfortable truth is that Rugby League is a results-based game. And with Edwards, Ta’ai, Wardle, Murphy and Hewitt all seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order, Ollie will have to work as hard as he’s ever done in the reserves to get himself back into that first team. I honestly believe he’s got the drive to do that, but it all comes down to whether he can regain that 2017 form after a stop-start two years.
If Roberts needs inspiration on working his way back into the first team, he need look no further than Adam Walne. Adam was in the exact same situation as Ollie this time last year. He was unquestionably out of favour with the coaches, he’d been offered out on loan the previous season, and he was the only senior player sent to play in the “academy” friendly. A way back into the squad seemed unlikely, but an early injury crisis saw him unexpectedly brought into the side for round 1. He took his chance and was one of the true surprise packages for the start of our 2019 season. He ran the ball hard, he brought some aggression to the pack, and while injuries may have helped him into the side, he kept his place for the next 4 rounds on merit.
Unfortunately, the injury crisis giveth, and the injury crisis taketh away, and his return to form was interrupted with a serious shoulder problem that left him sidelined for the next four months. He featured again in July and August, but never really got back to full fitness and missed the final few crucial games of the year.
What we saw when he was fit, however, was very impressive. He proved reliable with the ball in hand, not making a single handling error all year, and was one of maybe 2-3 players to come out of our awful nilling by Leeds with any credibility. After two impressive preseason outings in 2020, if he can get a good run in the side he’ll be looking to prove that early stretch in 2019 was no fluke.
Jon Luke Kirby
I’m ashamed to admit that in recent years, I’ve not watched anywhere near as much of our Academy as I’d have liked. On the rare occasion I’ve caught our Baby Giants in action, one player has impressed without fail. Jon Luke Kirby is one of the latest players to come from the Giants production line into Super League, having played in the final three games of the 2019 season. In his brief time on the big stage, he lived up to his reputation, with a very impressive debut at Hull FC, ending the season with zero errors and keeping up a 93% tackle success rate
Listening to the Giant Podcast, our new Head of S&C Ollie Richardson was full of praise for the young forward, commenting on both his athleticism and his attitude. 2020 may not be the year he becomes a first-team regular, but he’ll certainly be getting game time in the reserves, and I’d be amazed if he didn’t get his shot in Super League once more.