Super League 2019 – Hull KR endure testing times but Neil Hudgell remains optimistic

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IN HIS 15 years as Hull KR chairman, Neil Hudgell has witnessed all manner of things.

There has been the joy of promotions, the utter despair of the unlikeliest relegation ever as well as arguably the most controversial transfer in Super League history when Paul Cooke crossed the river to the Robins.

Throw in having to deal with Australia Test star Willie Mason – one of the competition’s biggest overseas flops – and it only touches the surface of what the lifelong fan has encountered.

Yet, in all that time, did Hudgell ever envisage the East Yorkshire club’s Craven Park stadium being closed for almost two months due to a fallen floodlight pylon?

“In a word…No,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “Little comes as any surprise being in this sport, but that did.

“How lights that are no more than five years old “just” fall over defies belief. It could have been catastrophic, though fortunately it wasn’t.

NEW FACE: Hull KR's Kane Linnett. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

NEW FACE: Hull KR's Kane Linnett. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com

“Thankfully with great support from the council we’re now back open and focussed on Round One.”

It was on November 30 that one of the pylons at the ground toppled over during high winds, forcing the club to declare a major incident.

Fortunately, nobody was injured but – after an evacuation – health and safety checks were forced on the three remaining floodlights and the stadium was shut down completely a week later.

The playing squad and coaches had to relocate to Hull University to prepare for the new Super League season, which starts at home to derby rivals Hull FC next Friday, while office staff also had to make alternative working arrangements.

Our home form needs to be consistent; and I think it’s key we start well with three from four being at home. Our trial games have shown we’ve plenty to do, but the early signs are encouraging.

Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell

Rovers had to move their first pre-season friendly against Widnes Vikings on January 13 to Championship club Featherstone Rovers but they were able to host Shaun Lunt’s testimonial versus Toronto Wolfpack as planned last Saturday.

Hudgell was pleased with the way in which everyone dealt with the unusual situation during a difficult seven-week period.

“Fortunately the disruption to the playing department has been minimal,” he added.

“We’ve lost some significant revenue through cancelling Christmas parties, functions etc but are expecting insurance to cover that.

Hull KR's Adam Quinlan (centre) will be missing for the first half of the season through injury. Picture: Simon Cooper/PA

Hull KR's Adam Quinlan (centre) will be missing for the first half of the season through injury. Picture: Simon Cooper/PA

“Staff have adapted; there’s been a lot of hot desking and remote working, which reflects modern-day working practices in any event.

“And the closure did enable us to cement our partnership with the University of Hull where we took our pre-season mostly; it’s worked really well for both parties. We’re talking terms on possibly moving there full-time in 2020.”

The club is using a temporary light to replace the missing pylon but they are now able to concentrate fully on that enticing opening game.

Although Rovers were forced to battle for survival via the Qualifiers last year after earning promotion back into Super League at the first attempt, there is plenty of belief around East Hull that they will be challenging higher in 2019.

The signing of Australian Kane Linnett, who won an NRL Grand Final with North Queensland Cowboys alongside Johnathan Thurston in 2015, is a real boost for Tim Sheens’s side, while fellow countryman Mitch Garbutt has arrived from Leeds Rhinos to further bolster their pack.

With the likes of Chris Atkin and Robbie Mulhern having enhanced their reputations on England Knights’ tour of Papua New Guinea, and the return of valuable assets Danny Addy and George Lawler after injury ruined their 2018, there are ample reasons to be positive, not least Danny McGuire wanting to bow out in style before retirement.

OPTIMISTIC: Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell. Picture: Simon Hulme

OPTIMISTIC: Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell. Picture: Simon Hulme

Granted, the continued absence of former captain Shaun Lunt following his meningitis scare last autumn, and Australian full-back Adam Quinlan due to a knee reconstruction, do pose problems. But, asked for his own thoughts ahead of the season opener, Hudgell said: “Cautious optimism is how I’d describe it.

“I think we have a stronger squad, with more depth than last year. Tim seems reasonably happy with what he’s got but, like most coaches, always still wants just one more player.

“The loss of our player of the year Adam Quinlan for the first half of the season is a blow, but Will Dagger – if selected – will hopefully seize his chance.

“If we stay fit and healthy we can have a crack at anyone.

“Our home form needs to be consistent; and I think it’s key we start well with three from four being at home. Our trial games have shown we’ve plenty to do, but the early signs are encouraging.”

Of course, there is the bigger picture, too; Hudgell is a director of Super League as well so what does he hope for the competition as a whole?

He said: “Generally, a better and more entertaining product as well as an end to the internal squabbling with other parts of the game and a coherent strategy to take us into the next TV deal to ensure the best deal possible is put on the table by Sky.

“But specifically? Confirmation of a compulsory reserve side in 2020.”