IF YOU ask Chris Thorman about Seb Ikahihifo, the Huddersfield Giants assistant coach will tell you the club’s hulking prop has done things this season he has never before witnessed in the sport.
That Thorman not only represented England during his own career and played in the NRL as well as in Super League with Hull FC and Giants before heading into coaching, hints that this Tongan giant must truly have some remarkable attributes.
I’ve been like that my whole career; trying not to disappoint my team-mates rather than worrying about myself and calming down to just play the game for what it is.Huddersfield Giansts’ Seb Ikahihifo
For one, the GPS data gleaned by his West Yorkshire club shows that Ikahihifo, who weighs in at 17 stone, can accelerate quicker over 10m than any other player in their ranks including England winger Jermaine McGillvary and dazzling Australian full-back Jake Mamo.
Thorman, who has to study footage religiously as part of his role, recalls watching the 26-year-old beat 10 defenders from Castleford Tigers – the competition’s runaway leaders this term – when on one 60m burst.
Furthermore, he has seen him brush off some of the sport’s most seasoned, gnarled defenders – England captain Sean O’Loughlin, reigning Man of Steel Danny Houghton and the formidable Gareth Ellis – like no one else before.
After beating Houghton, Ikahihifo almost then rounded Hull’s electric full-back Jamie Shaul, too. Props aren’t supposed to do these sorts of things.
It has been some transition given Sydney club St George Illawarra did not even give Ikahihifo one NRL game before releasing him from his contract early in May last year to move to the north of England.
After adapting to Super League last term, playing just 11 games due to injuries, he has proved a revelation this time around, illustrated when being picked in the competition’s Dream Team earlier this week.
Only three players from outside the top-four clubs gained representation, Wigan captain O’Loughlin being one and Salford’s Ben Murdoch-Masila the other along with Ikahihifo who shone despite playing for a Huddersfield side that came in eighth.
Some of the Auckland-born forward’s statistics are quite staggering especially a competition-best 165 tackle busts in 2017.
For comparison, his nearest rival – St Helens’ England centre Mark Percival – managed just 127.
Ikihifio’s 73 offloads, such a devastating weapon for Rick Stone’s side, were only bettered by Leeds Rhinos’ Adam Cuthbertson.
Yet, remarkably, the player has revealed that for much of his career he has stressed and panicked about his ability to even complete the basic function of holding the ball let alone scatter defenders like skittles.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Ikahihifo explained what he has changed this year to help him eradicate that issue.
“My body has matured so I am probably coming into my prime now at 26 but there’s been a change of routines, too, especially my morning routines,” he said.
“I do stretching, read books, research things. I’ve changed some things. Typically, back home you train hard and try and get ahead of everyone.
“But I think training smarter was my go this year.
“I’ve been reading things by (American self-help author) Tim Ferriss and stuff like Think and Grow Rich.
“It’s about setting goals, visualisation and meditation.
“It was all new to me. At work it panned out for me as I am a guy with a lot of anxieties.
“I do get nervous and that calmed the nerves. When I go and play games now I don’t get as nervous.
“It’s been good to have; I do a lot of deep breathing exercises to just calm me down.”
Considering his vast talent and ability, it is eye-opening to see just how much Ikahihifo has had to battle with his own self-doubt.
It was a regular occurrence before games and he explained: “It was because I think about my own team; I wasn’t worried about the other side.
“I was just thinking about us and I’d be sitting beforehand thinking ‘I can’t drop the ball today, I can’t miss a tackle, I can’t make that mistake.’
“I’ve been like that my whole career; trying not to disappoint my team-mates rather than worrying about myself and calming down to just play the game for what it is.”
Ikahihifo, who also bucks the trend by regularly playing 60 minutes or more during games, says he has not suggested the same sort of approach to his team-mates.
“I’m a guy that keeps to myself,” he said. “I don’t really talk to the guys about this sort of thing.
“But I wanted to improve this year and get that mental side right as I am always worried about whether I’ll hold the ball or am I going to drop the ball today.
“I was really worried about that but all this calmed it down and it’s definitely been the best year of my professional career.
“I put that down to the coaching, too, and my team-mates for making me look good,” he added.
A quiet, unassuming and humble man, Ikahihifo’s rise is a reminder that some players need time before truly flourishing.
After debuting in 2012, there were signs during his four first-grade seasons with New Zealand Warriors that he could be a forward of some repute but they were all too fleeting.
He struggled for a consistent run of games, something he hoped to remedy when moving to St George on a two-year deal ahead of the 2016 campaign.
However, things did not go well there for Ikahihifo either given he did not gain any first-team action and, instead, spent time in their reserve grade side alongside Shannon Wakeman, the Australian prop who joined him at Huddersfield this season.
It is a mark of just how good he has been this campaign, though, that he made that Dream Team.
Undoubtedly, prop has been the most competitive position of all in Super League with Castleford’s Grant Millington getting the nod alongside Ikahihifo but a raft of other stellar front-rows missing out.
“I didn’t really expect it,” he conceded.
“Picking the props must have given a lot of people headaches as there’s so many good ones.
“When you look at Alex Walmsley, Scott Taylor, Adam Cuthbertson, Liam Watts…
“It could have gone either way. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I wasn’t going to get picked; I was actually surprised that I DID get picked!”
For all his personal accolades, it has still been a quite difficult season for Huddersfield.
Having finished bottom last term and survived the threat of relegation in the Qualifiers, they started poorly again.
Nevertheless, they improved in the second half of the campaign and, at times, looked mightily impressive before trailing off in the Super 8s.
Consistency is the key in 2018 and Ikahihifo said: “We got 25 points in total and only won two games in the Super 8 so we have to improve next year.
“We started slow but if we can start fast next season and play like we did in the second half of this year then there’s chances of the top-four.
“There’s definitely positive signs here.”