Back to back Challenge Cup wins have brought the good times back to Hull FC. Their 2016 win over Warrington ended an 11-year period without a trophy for the black and whites and they backed it up by beating Wigan and making all our August Bank Holidays that little bit brighter in the 2017 final. Now, they go in search of the Super League title that has still managed to elude them despite their cup heroics.
Lee Radford’s side have made the last four in each of the last two years but have not reached the Grand Final since they were beaten by Saints in 2006. It remains their one and only appearance in the end of season showpiece. Their 2018 vintage looks strong enough to mount a serious bid to put that right despite the loss of one or two key players.
Chief among these is Gareth Ellis. The former Wakefield, Leeds and Wests Tigers man has finally retired after a glorious 18-year career at the highest level. Ellis picked up 17 Great Britain caps and 16 England caps along the way, and was a Grand Final winner with Leeds Rhinos in 2007 after winning the World Club Challenge with the Headingley club in 2005. He has made 82 appearances for Hull FC since joining the club in 2013 and there is no doubt that Radford’s side will miss his leadership qualities and outstanding work rate.
Also on the way out of the KCom Stadium is winger Mahe Fonua. A try-scorer in both of FC’s Wembley final triumphs (he bagged two in the 18-14 win over Wigan in 2017) Fonua has joined Ellis’ old club Wests Tigers for 2018 after scoring 31 tries in 58 appearances for the black and whites. He will be as sorely missed as Ellis but Radford will hope that his replacement, former Parramatta Eels USA international Bureta Fairamo will be good enough to fill the void. Fairamo did not manage a single appearance in his short spell with the New Zealand Warriors in 2017 and will arrive on Humberside keen to make up for that lost time. How well he goes will be one of the keys to whether FC can either repeat their Challenge Cup success and win it for a Wigan-esque third year in a row, or finally make that final step towards a Grand Final.
The pack is boosted by the return of Micky Paea. The 31-year-old played for Hull in the 2014 and 2015 seasons before opting for a two-year stint with the Newcastle Knights in the NRL. He made just 20 appearances in that time and returns to the city where he made 96 appearances having also spent two seasons with Hull KR before crossing town. Paea should still be among the premier front rowers in Super League and should provide at least some of the power up front that they will need in the absence of Ellis.
Elsewhere it is very much the same Hull side that has been steadily improving under the watchful eye of Radford. Albert Kelly was a Man Of Steel nominee in 2017 after he made the switch from Rovers, while halfback partner Marc Sneyd may consider himself unfortunate to have missed out on selection for Wayne Bennett’s England World Cup squad. Those two will again form one of the most formidable halfback partnerships in the competition. They’ll be supplying a three-quarter line that although missing Fonua, still has the likes of Carlos Tuimivave, Josh Griffin and Fetuli Talanoa in its ranks. Tuimivave scored 12 tries last term splitting his time between centre and stand-off, while fullback Jamie Shaul managed 17 and was another unfortunate not to make the plane to Australia for the World Cup.
The go-forward will be provided by not only Paea but also Scott Taylor, Liam Watts, Mark Minichiello, Sika Manu and of course the irrepressible Danny Houghton. The 2016 Man Of Steel was superb once more in 2017 and will be absolutely pivotal to the airlie birds’ hopes of success in 2018. Everything goes through him in attack and defensively he has been a rock, leading the team with 1123 tackles last season.
FC open their campaign with a home meeting with Huddersfield Giants before they face a trip down under to play Wigan in the first ever Super League game to be played on Australian soil. Notwithstanding the pointlessness of the whole preaching to the converted exercise, it could have a massive effect on how they start the year. When they return home their first Super League assignment will be away to 2017 runaway league leaders Castleford Tigers before the revamped Warrington Wolves head to the KCom at the start of March. After that it is Leeds away before things get perhaps a little gentler with a trip to Salford on March 16. It’s a fearsome start for FC who will have to hope that it doesn’t take too much out of them either in terms of their energy levels or their confidence should the results not go their way.
Despite the tough start you should fully expect FC to be in the mix for a top four place come the end of the regular season and the Super 8s. Whether they will have enough to reach the Grand Final or even win it will depend largely on fitness and form at the back end of the season as it does for all of the major players. Yet with a slice of luck, and if Radford can keep the team focused regardless of the trials and tribulations they are likely to endure in the early part of the season, it could just be their year.