Super League: Can Hull FC or Hull KR prove the doubters wrong and claim honours?
THIS time 12 months ago, Peter Gentle and Craig Sandercock found themselves walking into the unknown.
Appointed as the new head coaches of Hull FC and Hull KR respectively, the Aussies knew they were walking into a hotbed of rugby league.
They knew expectations would be high but, importantly, they also knew time was on their side.
From day one they each stressed a long-term vision for their clubs.
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They warned it would take time to change cultures, introduce new systems, and bring in the right personnel.
And with that their key objective in 2012, success on the field was something of a secondary concern.
Thankfully, for both Gentle and Sandercock, the knowledgeable fans on either side of the city accepted it as a year of transition.
Finishes of sixth for Hull FC and 10th for the Robins simply would not have been acceptable in any other circumstance.
And they will certainly not be accepted this season.
Both squads have now been radically overhauled, and both men have two full pre-seasons, and one full Super League campaign, under their belts.
Quite simply, it is time to really start showing their worth.
At Hull FC, confidence is high heading into the new campaign.
Although only lifting his side one place up the league ladder in 2012, Gentle impressed his boss Adam Pearson in his first season in the UK, so much so he was handed an extension to his original contract at the KC.
Impressive in the way he managed his players, and how he spoke in the media, he was quick to clear out the dead-wood left by the previous management, and there were genuine signs of progress.
However, when their season ended in the play-offs at Warrington, the gulf between FC and Super League’s top two of Wigan and Warrington was still clearly evident.
Gentle now has a much-improved squad at his disposal as he heads into 2013.
Backed to the hilt in the market by Pearson, Gentle’s standing and reputation in the game attracted quality players.
Gareth Ellis and Daniel Holdsworth are the star additions, whilst Gentle’s presence was also enough to convince Shannon McDonnell to jump ship from KR, and for former Rovers captain Ben Galea to reverse his decision to retire.
The owner, and fans, will feel he now has the tools to deliver a much-improved campaign.
Despite it being a transitional season, FC finished just four points short of a top-four finish last year.
Given the improvements made, breaking into that top four now has to be the target.
However, having failed to bring in a second top quality half-back as intended, Gentle still remains short in a key area, and come the business end of the season, fans may well fear that could be the difference between achieving their goals or not.
Across the river at the Robins, a big year lies in wait for Sandercock.
His first season in Super League proved difficult, and his frustration at times was clear to see.
Key decisions went against his side time and again, as did a dreadful injury list, as not once was he able to select his strongest starting 17 in the campaign.
In the end, it cost crucial league points which eventually led to Rovers missing out on the top eight for the first time in four years.
On many occasions, the Robins were beaten by the narrowest of margins, having gone toe-to-toe with some of Super League’s best.
Those two factors helped fans stay patient, but with chairman Neil Hudgell saying he will review his coach’s future at Easter, Sandercock can be under no illusion and will know he needs results this year.
He, like Gentle, has attracted players who should make a big difference in the likes of Travis Burns and Cory Paterson.
In Burns, they have a half-back who has proved himself in the NRL, and at 28, could have joined the Robins with his best years ahead of him.
Paterson’s performances in pre-season have been impressive, and suggested he will have a big impact in both defence and attack.
However, whilst money has been no object for Hull FC and Gentle, Sandercock has had to work to a budget at the Robins, and that should always be remembered.
Chairman Hudgell – furious with what he perceived as a lack of commitment from some senior stars last season – felt money, which far from falls off trees in east Hull, had been wasted, and has cut the cloth accordingly.
Rovers’ target still has to be to improve on last year though, with a top-eight finish, and perhaps a serious tilt at the Challenge Cup, the main aims.
Sandercock will also want to see his side of young players develop into genuine Super League stars.
Should he achieve those goals, taking Rovers forward with his hands somewhat tied, he would surely deserve an extended contract.
Ask most so-called rugby experts today their predictions for the season ahead and they’ll give the same answer – Hull will finish the year ahead of Rovers once again.
They have spent more money, have greater squad depth, and more big name stars.
But if Super League has taught us anything in recent times, it’s not to write any side off.
Twice dismissed as contenders after average Super League seasons, Leeds Rhinos have produced the goods in the play-offs to be crowned champions at Old Trafford.
Last season, Wakefield Wildcats surprised many with the quality of their performances, and a finish inside the top eight.
So come this season, who will be the side to defy the odds and prove the doubters wrong?
Will it be Hull FC or Hull KR?
Will one of them, or perhaps even both, end the season with silverware?
We can only hope.