It’s been a period of steady decline for Huddersfield Giants since they carried off the League Leaders Shield back in 2013, but there were signs in the second half of last season that under Rick Stone the Giants could be back on track.
Stone took over the reins from Paul Anderson towards the end of the 2016 regular season after the former Bradford and Saints prop had begun to stagnate in the role. Slowly, surely the Giants have improved under the stewardship of Stone and after a run of nine wins in 14 outings were in contention for a semi-final spot entering the final weeks of the 2017 Super 8s before falling away again. Now they will look to produce their best form from the get-go and banish any suggestions that they may slide back into obscurity and the indignity of the Qualifiers.
Stone hasn’t changed much in terms of personnel for 2018. Only prop Adam Walne from Salford Red Devils and utility forward Colton Roche from Bradford Bulls have been added to the Giants squad, while the only major losses are halfback Jamie Ellis who has joined Castleford Tigers and 2008 World Cup winning front rower Sam Rapira who has taken up an offer from Toulouse in the Championship. There’s an argument that Stone’s squad could have done with a little more reinforcement to turn it into a genuine semi-final contender but there are still reasons for the Giants to be confident this time around.
Chief among those is the presence of Jermaine McGillvary. The 29-year-old winger was the man of the tournament for England at the World Cup recently, and has scored 142 tries for the Giants since joining the club in 2007. His next appearance for the Giants will be his 200th, a figure that is particularly pleasing for the West Yorkshire side considering the amount of interest in McGillvary from both NRL and Super League clubs following his exploits with England. McGillvary is one of the home grown stars of Super League at a time when fewer and fewer seem to be coming through and can be relied upon to be in the vicinity of the top of the try-scoring charts year in and year out.
Complimenting him in the backs is fullback Jake Mamo. The former Newcastle Knights man scored 12 tries in just nine appearances for the Giants in 2017 before a foot injury ended his season prematurely. He looks a genuine star, and a player who excites fans who should add something special not just to Huddersfield but to the competition as a whole in 2018. The problem is that the rest of the backline looks a little stale, with doubts about whether Leroy Cudjoe, Jordan Turner and company can still have a significant impact on Super League. Aaron Murphy is an under-rated performer but you get the feeling that if injuries hit in the three-quarters it could prove fatal to the Giants’ semi-final hopes and even their top eight prospects.
If there are doubts about the three-quarter line then the same questions must be asked of the halfbacks. Danny Brough is one of the best scrum halves of the Super League era, but is not getting any younger at 35. He also enters the season under the added pressure of having disgraced himself in being sent home from Scotland’s World Cup squad having been deemed too inebriated to board a flight to travel to the team’s crucial final group game with Samoa. He can hardly put that down to lack of experience or immaturity so disciplinary issues are never an unlikely outcome with Brough. Alongside him Lee Gaskell and Jordan Rankin are both capable but suspiciously limited players who have it all to do to prove that they can help Brough make the Giants truly competitive at the top end of the table. Brough’s kicking game will always be a major asset to the Giants but at some point Stone is going to have to come up with another solution to the midfield puzzle.
A lesson from last year might be to make a better start to the season. The Giants won just two of their first nine games last term, although that run did include draws with both Wigan and St.Helens. Their tenth outing was a 31-12 victory over eventual champions Leeds Rhinos at Headingley and signalled a run of five wins in seven outings which hauled them back into the top eight mix. An away trip to Hull FC in their opener might not be conducive to making that good start before both Warrington and Saints visit the John Smith’s Stadium and March begins with a visit to Wakefield. At least a couple of wins on the board by then are essential if the Giants are to give themselves a reasonable platform from which to mount a realistic challenge for the top eight and so give themselves a shot at the semi-finals.
In all likelihood they will come up short of that, but should have enough to stay clear of the bottom four and the August crap shoot with the best that the Championship has to offer.
Up front Tom Symonds will be like a new signing after missing much of 2017, while Sebastine Ikahihifo made more tackle busts than anyone else in Super League last season and was among the Giants most consistent performers in the pack. Ollie Roberts will look to build on a great World Cup with Ireland while stalwarts like Ryan Hinchcliffe, Ukuma Ta’ai, Dale Ferguson, Paul Clough and Daniel Smith all remain.