Season Review: Hull KR
THE Hull KR class of 2020 was often great to watch but finished 11th in the table for the second straight year and leaked an average of over 30 points per game.
Fast-forward 12 months and the Robins became a side that could threaten any opponents on its day, and who gatecrashed the Play-Offs ahead of much more fancied rivals.
That progression and development was one of the stories of the 2021 Betfred Super League season, with Tony Smith and his team rightly earning significant credit for the way they went about their business.
Smith’s recruitment for this year was excellent - the additions of Ryan Hall, Korbin Sims, Brad Takairangi and Albert Vete from the NRL added undoubted quality and depth to the squad.
But still, there was very few - if any - pundits tipping KR to even challenge for the Play-Offs at the start of the campaign.
“I think we’ve reacted well to having that underdog tag, I think we had it even from the first interview of the season when people kept asking us about relegation,” experienced boss Smith said.
“We’ve been able to handle that and show people how wrong they can be, and being the underdog can inspire, it can help and sometimes take the pressure off players to a certain degree.
“They’re a good bunch, a good group, they try hard every week and I’m really proud of what they’ve done and the way they go about their business.”
The Robins’ competitiveness was evident from Round One, when a Hall hat-trick helped them overturn an 28-4 deficit and take eventual League Leaders Catalans to golden point.
After losing at St Helens, the Robins then edged past Huddersfield in a thriller and comprehensively beat Leeds, while a 26-22 win at Castleford had those early season doubters already changing their tips.
But it was probably mid-June by the time everyone accepted that KR were in the Play-Offs race for keeps, as a gritty 18-8 victory at Wigan underlined the team’s growing confidence.
There was a late season stumble too - with an injury list mounting up, Smith’s team lost a derby thriller to Hull FC, at home to Wakefield the following weekend and then at Huddersfield just four days later.
At that stage, their stretched squad looked increasingly vulnerable, but they regrouped again, easing past Leigh and then came up with a season-defining win at home to Castleford that would ultimately seal their sixth-placed spot.
“It was not pretty but very gutsy,” Smith said after the tense encounter. “We had to dig in there, we had to find a way against a couple of things. But we found it.”
Smith had players standing tall right across his squad throughout the entire campaign.
Veteran overseas duo Kane Linnett and Shaun Kenny-Dowall were towers of strength in the red and white, providing experience, solidity and a cutting edge out wide.
New recruit Takairangi added to that and even filled in at stand-off when injuries hit, while Luis Johnson produced his best season yet in the professional game and was one of a host of players to significantly improve under Smith.
Young half-backs Mikey Lewis and Rowan Milnes can be added to that list and will benefit immensely from their experiences in 2021, while Jordan Abdull was among the best players in the whole competition on his day and earned a Steve Prescott Man of Steel nomination.
Others that merit mention include winger Hall who rolled back the years on the left flank before injury ended his season prematurely, reliable forwards George King, George Lawler and Matty Storton, plus quick-fire hookers Matt Parcell and Jez Litten, whose styles so complimented what Smith was trying to achieve with the ball.
“I think most people have said how much they enjoy watching Hull KR play, the style and the entertainment,” Smith added.
“We’ve been given a whole lot of credit and recognition for the way we’ve played this year.”
Smith’s best work in an outstanding career has been in rebuilding and developing clubs, and the Robins now look well placed to move forward again in 2022.
He has retained all of the key figures from this year’s squad, several of whom will be better players from their experiences this season.
Lachlan Coote is a major signing from St Helens, the kind of player that can take a team to the next level, and Smith has also made shrewd recruits in talented Huddersfield utility Sam Wood and Championship forwards Greg Richards, Tom Garrett and Frankie Halton.
It would take a brave pundit to write the Robins off again in 2022.
Star man - Kane Linnett
It could be any one of several in truth, but for sheer consistent quality, it’s difficult to look beyond the performances of Betfred Super League Dream Team player, Kane Linnett. An ever present for Smith’s side, he thrived in the permanent move to the back row, providing industry, leadership and a regular threat to opposition defences. Linnett was part of a left-side attack that thrived throughout the year, and his influence on the Robins side could be illustrated by hearing Smith or any of his team-mates talk about his weekly contribution.
Season highlight - Play-off victory over Wolves
The Robins were predictably big outsiders when they rocked up at Warrington in the first round of the Play-Offs, missing nine key men against a team touted as title contenders. But 80 minutes later it was the travelling Robins army in raptures, half-backs Abdull and Lewis and hooker Litten having inspired a memorable 19-0 win at the Halliwell Jones Stadium. After weathering an early storm, Smith’s side completely outplayed their opponents despite the sin binning of Albert Vete, writing a new high into their fairytale story of a season.
Rising star - Mikey Lewis
Lewis had two loan spells at York City Knights during the season but ended the campaign as one of the most effective running half-backs in Super League. That was one of a number of clear measurements of Lewis’ development under coach Smith, along with his increasing organisational responsibilities within the team. He placed a big role in the crucial late season win over Castleford and scored seven tries in 10 league starts. The 20-year-old looks certain to be one to watch again in 2022.