WATCH: Hull FC v Wigan Warriors - Jake Connor fighting back after a season to forget

IT has been a tough season for Hull FC’s Jake Connor and that was even before Covid-19 struck both the sport and his club.

Last autumn, the gifted back was starting for Great Britain in New Zealand, his talents earning him the lofty status of Lion.

However, come March, new England coach Shaun Wane did not even deem him worthy of a place among his 31 best players.

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It was a kick in the teeth. And a reminder.

Later, Connor also lost his much longed-for stand-off role at Hull and – after five months of lockdown – could only earn a place on the bench for Andy Last’s first game in charge.

Unquestionably one of Super League’s most creative players, consistency has proved a nagging issue and, with FC boasting halves of Albert Kelly and Marc Sneyd’s quality, the phrase ‘three into two doesn’t go’ also springs to mind.

Nevertheless, ahead of this evening’s Challenge Cup quarter-final against Wigan Warriors, there have been encouraging signs that the 25-year-old may slowly be finding the balance to his game that is needed to see him finally come of age.

With chief orchestrator Sneyd sidelined by a knee injury for the last three games, Connor has taken on some of that responsibility, reduced the number of his maverick plays and steadily started to show he can guide a team after all.

Hull FC's Jake Connor.

He has helped fashion back-to-back wins over Wakefield Trinity and Castleford Tigers although, ironically, he could be handing back to Sneyd today after the double Lance Todd Trophy winner returned to training on Wednesday weeks ahead of schedule.

Kelly, though, is absent due to a hamstring strain so Connor will still get to be in the middle, rather than at centre or on the bench, knowing he will have to be pitch-perfect if Hull are to overcome a Wigan side that has won four of five games since the end of lockdown. On that England setback – Connor had been a regular in Wayne Bennett’s matchday squad for the previous two years and was Wane’s most glaring omission – he had no qualms.

He said: “It’s always going to be disappointing.

“But that’s what happens when you’re not playing at the level you should be and you have indifferent performances.

“I’m confident in myself, though, and I just need to get back playing well and put my name in that picture.

“But I’m not too focused on that now; I’m focused on Hull and playing well. That’s my number one goal.”

He feels he is growing in to the other half-back role. “I had a tough first few games but I’m finding my feet now and getting better every week which is a pleasing sign,” he said.

“I’m liking it. It’s different when playing scrum-half compared to stand-off as I have to organise the whole team but I’m improving.”

Since joining from Huddersfield Giants ahead of the 2017 campaign, whenever switched from centre, his displays in the playmaker role have tended to have been a mixed bag but he maintains that has not knocked his confidence.

“I wouldn’t put it down to that; if anything I don’t lack confidence,” said Connor.

“If anything it’s just not playing well sometimes.

“Stuff happens and you just hit a bad patch and go through the motions.

“But I’m finding my feet now and getting some consistency in my game and I feel good as well so that helps.”

Hull, who won the Cup in 2016 and the following year when Connor featured, only reached the last eight after beating Castleford 29-16 in Sunday’s sixth round.

They had defeated Wakefield the previous Thursday so this is their third game in 10 days.

Last expects Wigan to roll out England captain Sean O’Loughlin, the 37-year-old who he rates as arguably Super League’s greatest-ever loose forward – “when he plays, he makes them better” – but someone who has not featured since February 13.

Asked how Wigan can be defeated, Connor said: “Exactly the same as how we beat Cas.

“Our middles were outstanding then; we did not lack any energy and they always put their ball players under pressure.

“It’s a big one for our middles; if they do a job like that again against Wigan we won’t be far off.”

With that in mind, the Hull pack will hope O’Loughlin does not make it as he does strengthen them immeasurably.

Either way, Connor will be out to make his own mark, subtle or otherwise.

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James Mitchinson

Editor