WHEN Hull FC sold two of their best players last autumn, not many people would have envisaged them now being top of Super League and looking like serious title contenders.
Indeed, the transfer of both England loose forward Joe Westerman and prolific winger Tom Lineham to Warrington Wolves could easily have suggested Grand Final potential was the last thing on their minds.
However, as the Airlie Birds prepare to face their old pals at the Halliwell Jones Stadium tonight, they do so as part of the most eagerly anticipated game of the domestic season so far.
Hull, so vibrant and confident, are in first place after 17 rounds, two points ahead of a Warrington side in second who, like them, are seeking a so far elusive maiden Super League title.
Hull had finished eighth last term before allowing that duo to leave so was head coach Lee Radford ever doubtful about sanctioning the six-figure deals?
“Whenever you let a player go it is always a big decision,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“But we’d got to a point where we knew we had good numbers in those positions for this season so that had some bearing on it.
“We knew we’d be strong in the back-row and had players coming in of high quality.
“And the rise of Curtis Naughton and form he showed throughout the season on the wing just made me a little bit more comfortable there, too.”
The recruitment of NRL back-rows Frank Pritchard and Sika Manu has more than offset the loss of former Castleford Tigers star Westerman while Melbourne Storm wing/centre Mahe Fonua has, similarly, enjoyed a fine debut season for Hull. On the back of a seven-game winning run, Radford added: “Obviously we’re going well since (transfers) but everyone is flying and fit as well which is one of the main things.
“Over the last two seasons that’s not always been the case. We had 14 out at one point going into the eights last year.
“We’re healthy at the moment and it’s been a really tough decision when naming the squad for this Friday.
“Some players have missed out who probably aren’t playing too badly at all. It’s a hard one on some but credit to them all.
“They’ve been fantastic. Obviously they’ve been disappointed but there’s been no sulking or moping about.”
It was Naughton’s second try late on that edged Hull the game 26-24 when Warrington arrived at KC Stadium on Easter Monday but he, like Leon Pryce, has been left out tonight.
Lineham grabbed two in that fixture on his first return and has scored a dozen tries in 16 games so far for Warrington.
“I’m sure he and Westy will be looking forward to it,” added Radford. “Tommy has been scoring tries like we knew he would and, for me, Westy has probably looked a bit tidier these last three or four weeks. He’s been getting his hands on the ball more which is what he’s about.
“I think out of all the teams we’ve played, with the ball Warrington are one of the most dangerous.
“I said during the week we have to be very good defensively and how good we are at that will dictate how we go in general but hopefully it will be a classic.”
Australian scrum-half Chris Sandow and England hooker Daryl Clark have been in form for Warrington.
“They have threats all over the field not just Clark and Sandow – but we’ve got some pretty decent players opposite them as well,” continued Radford.
“They’ve got a Clark, we’ve got a Houghton, they’ve got a Sandow, we’ve got a Sneyd.
“Like most big games it will be who comes up with the quality on the night.
“The team that is most clinical will come away with the points – and we’re hoping we’ve ticked all the boxes to do that.”