DESCRIBING Hull FC’s Jake Connor as “annoying” would normally light the blue touch paper in derby week but Hull KR’s Danny McGuire has added an important caveat – he actually respects that trait.
The rival half-backs are set to go up against each other on Good Friday: Connor, the supremely confident emerging England talent against McGuire, the eight-time Grand Final winner who remains Super League’s greatest try-scorer and has done it all.
When Rovers won the last derby in such dramatic circumstances, Jimmy Keinhorst scoring in the final seconds on the opening night, helpless Connor could only watch on from the sidelines given he was serving a one-match ban incurred for dissent during a friendly.
He has been hampered by injury, too, but made his return during Saturday’s epic Golden Point win in Perpignan, getting the nod in his preferred stand-off role ahead of the mercurial Albert Kelly, who started on the bench.
McGuire said: “I really rate him; he’s one of the best players in the comp’ in my opinion. He’s really skilful and there’s not much he can’t do. He’s got a good kicking game. He’s definitely a player for the future and for now.
“He’s niggly on the pitch and I actually don’t mind it – the competitive streak and competitive edge. If everyone played the game the same it’d be boring to watch. Everyone likes a bit of a character and someone who does stuff differently.
I really rate him; he’s one of the best players in the comp’ in my opinion. He’s really skilful and there’s not much he can’t do. He’s got a good kicking game. He’s definitely a player for the future and for now.Danny McGuire on Jake Connor
“He’s a bit annoying sometimes when you play against him but I respect him for that edge that he’s got. He wants to win and I’m sure he’ll be doing the same on Friday. It’ll be interesting if we come up against each other.”
It remains to be seen what Hull coach Lee Radford will do; Australian Kelly – who has long held off Connor’s advances for the No 6 role – made a positive impact when coming on against Catalans, his team-mate shifting back to the centre for part of the game.
McGuire, meanwhile, is looking forward to reacquainting himself with an old friend, too.
Gareth Ellis, of course, was supposed to have retired after Hull’s 2017 Super League semi-final defeat at Leeds Rhinos.
Indeed, there was a famous image taken of him embracing his former Rhinos team-mate McGuire – then still with Leeds – at Headingley.
However, aged 37, the brilliant forward came out of retirement earlier this season to use all his experience to help steer the club out of a 13-match losing run.
McGuire said: “I speak to him regularly and Gaz will probably tell you the same, he probably wishes he had carried on playing.
“He was still playing unbelievably when he decided to retire.
“He’s one of the best I’ve played with and so competitive. He’s given Hull a massive lift coming back, is such a good professional and it’s great for young players to be around someone who’s achieved so much in the game.
“I was surprised to see him come back – I think he’s a bit daft – but he’s obviously still playing really well. I watched some of his clips against Catalans and he’s still bending forwards and sticking his shoulder in. He’s definitely someone we’ll have to watch out for on Friday.”
Rovers have won their last two matches, beating Leeds and then narrowly seeing off Championship Leigh Centurions in Thursday’s Challenge Cup tie.
A second derby win of the season would set them up nicely although they face a tough trip to second-placed Warrington Wolves on Easter Monday.
At 36, McGuire could be one of those afforded a rest by coach Tim Sheens in the second instalment of the holiday programme.
But he said: “To be honest, I haven’t spoken to Tim about it. At the minute, with injuries, I’m not sure we’ve got much depth to be able to rotate too much.
“It’s literally whoever comes out of the game fit and able will probably play again on Monday.
“At the minute it’s taking me three or four days to get over a game so I’m not sure I’ll be in the best state but I’ll definitely put my hand up and go again if it’s the right thing for the team.”
Rovers are also without Ryan Shaw for the Easter period after the winger was hit with a two-game penalty notice for a Grade C dangerous throw against Leigh.
Catalans’ Brayden Williame has been handed a one-game ban for a high tackle on Connor during that eventful game in Perpignan.