30 Jun 2020

The Lowdown: Where were we?

It's been over a hundred days since our last fixture so we look back at the season so far.

So, as we were saying...

...The Cowbell Army will be hoping a big improvement from their last performance, that's for sure. The 0-18 loss to the Wolfpack consisted of two parts - a lacklustre performance from the Giants and an efficient, ruthless showing from a Toronto side determined to get their first win at the early pacesetters in a Wednesday night game in the rain that is still the strangest experience of the season so far. 

We were rudely interrupted then, and yes, if you've forgotten about the season so far or you missed the first couple of rounds, you did read that right - Huddersfield Giants have set the pace so far this season. 

They went into the break with a record of four wins and one defeat, coming against the League Leaders. All in all, pretty good. 

They are 5th in the table on Points Difference, but their record in impressive, 8 points from 5 games, with two games in hand on first placed Wigan on 10 points. 

But caution is always the way in Huddersfield so lets ask some simple questions: "How good has the first part of the season been?", "Why were they better than last season?", "How good can they be in the next 15 rounds?", and finally "Can they do something?".

How good has the first part of the season been?

Well, in the first five games, you can't really complain about the performance in 380 minutes of 400 (95%) of the action served up in 2020. It had statement wins (12-10 against St Helens), hard, gritty wins with a late winner (12-10 against Salford), a dominant performance that probably should have been more (22-4 against Hull KR) and a brilliant attacking performance (32-12 against Catalans). Oh, and then there's best bit - they've all been away from home. 

So that's the 380 minutes (we'll get into that later), but what about the 20 minutes? You're asking - what happened there? 

Well, an Aidan Sezer sin-bin was the catalyst and without it, the Giants could legitimately claim they'd be five-from-five right now. Prior to the Sin Bin, they were 10-4 up in the game and had ground the Wigan side into the defensive dogfight that has seem them come on top in other games against Top 5 sides this season. 

Then it all fell apart, with Sezer seeing ten minutes in the fridge and the Giants conceded four tries; two from Liam Marshall (including the Try of the Season contender above), one from Sam Powell and one from Dom Manfredi. Jermaine McGillvary summed the mood of the team up after the match:

"Not every team that gets a man sent-off concedes tries, and we conceded four of them, so it was nowhere near where we've been at and where we want to be."

If we take a closer look at some of the tries conceded in that 1200 seconds of play. Here we see Marshall's first try, and you can see the issues caused by losing Sezer, mainly with the effect on the sliding defence. 

As we can see in the Diagram below of Liam Marshall's first try, Wardle is covering a dual defensive role while the Giants are down a man, with the wing defence consisting of Jermaine McGillvary, Jordan Turner and Lee Gaskell supported by Joe Wardle connecting from the centre. 

Liam Farrell's run takes out Wardle on the transition to wing defence, and the narrow positioning of McGillvary allows Bevan French to make the cutout pass to Marshall to score. Either an early recovery run from Louis Senior, who was too far away from the attacking Wigan player, or a wider starting position for the three wing defenders could have prevented the try, but the extra man could have allowed the middle-defence to shift earlier and released Joe Wardle to cover. 

The Marshall try of the season contender, shown above, can be explained by an off-kilter positioning game during the kick-off, leading to a big gap emerging. Even from the kick itself, the team seems off-balance with the routine, with several jumping the gun on the run-up and having to step back. 

The Giants had overloaded the near side, with a 5-7 split from the aside from the kicker, but the positioning of Louis Senior in the sweeping role behind the under-loaded side ironically left the overloaded side without deep cover, which led to the try. 

The ironic thing is that the chase is accurate, compact and in a position to deny space and make the tackle... but Senior's positioning, providing cover to the underloaded side, meant that the play wasn't compact enough to pen the Wigan side in. 

The kick-off itself came from a try conceded through the middle from a dummy-half scoot, which would disappoint Simon Woolford and the coaching staff, but the other two were direct results of having to shift the team around due to Sezer's absence for the last few minutes of the second half. 

Despite the scoreline being as large as it is, there were lessons to learn but evident solutions to the problems presented. In the pre-season game against Halifax, Ashton Golding played in the full-back role and after sustaining an injury in the highly impressive first half in the pre-season win at Wakefield Trinity. When we come back, he will return to the full-back role potentially creating a positional battle between Golding, McIntosh, Sam Wood and Senior for the 1 & 5 jerseys. 

Alright, that's the losses dealt with - what about the wins? Well they share a two things in common; they are tight and they feature tough defensive performances. The Giants are the second lowest scorers in 2020, scoring just three more points than Toronto Wolfpack, the bottom placed team. They excel in the defensive department, conceding no more than 12 points in any of their victories this season. 

The attacking side of the game, despite the wins, hasn't yet clicked into gear and the extended layoff will not help. As well as being 11th in tries scored, they are 10th in number of attacking kicks, have had the second lowest number of carries, the lowest number of tackle busts, third lowest number of metres, the lowest number of clean breaks and the second lowest number of dummy runs. 

They its undeniable that the resolute defence of the Giants, especially the goal-line defence is a key facet of the side in 2020. They have conceded 15.6 PPG this season, a massive decrease on the 26.7 last season. Their tackle efficiency is similar, and increasing from 85.66 to 85.72, which is good enough for the middle of the pack.

Why were they better than last season? 

Well, to put it simply, there is more experience, more fluency and more quality in the attacking phase and more ruthlessness in the attacks they throw at teams. While too often last season they wouldn't be able to muster enough in either attack or defence, this season, they've been steely in defence and efficient in attack. 

Individual performances from... you guessed it, Aidan Sezer have contributed massively to the ruthless attack that's managed, providing 54% of the Assists in 2020 and assisting 42% of the teams points overall, also scoring 36 points out of the teams 88 on the season. He has provided 18 of the sides 45 attacking kicks on the year and has been the centre of the team. 

The Sezer Effect is real. The team is calmer in sticky situations, able to grind out results (most noticeably at Salford where the side were lethargic before half-time before an act of brilliance from the half-back leveled the game) and unfortunately, the side can be a little brittle when he isn't there. Simon Woolford spoke about it on The Super League Show earlier this season;

"Seze is really composed which is really important in the halves... he makes it look easy. Not much rattles him... he's a calming influence on the team. He recognises the numbers... those are the sort of things someone who has 160 NRL games brings you."

Sezer has led the team in defence, with his tackle in the Salford game pushing Ken Sio out to touch a prime example. 

There have been great strides made by other players in the squad, most notably Adam O'Brien, who has played nearly every minute of this season, scored 3 tries and been the Giants top tackler in 2020 and 8th overall in Super League. Michael Lawrence has had a well documented purple patch, especially in defence in 2020 and has led the middle-defence with aplomb. 

The answer for the improvement must also rise at the performance side. Much was made of the pre-season training programme and the commitment shown in pre-season, but the effect on the squad has been immense. They look fitter, more organised and more dominant in the tackle. This has had a great effect on the side in the opening 5 weeks. 

Youth are also making great strides, with Jake Wardle, Darnell McIntosh, Matty English, Innes Senior and Louis Senior getting more minutes and looking more experienced for the game time they had in the season. They are developing into the core of a team and with many of them now signed up for the long-term, this is something that Giants fans can keep an eye on over the course of the rest of the season and beyond. 

How good can they be in the next 15 rounds?

With a 4-1 record after five games, the Giants are top of the points per game table and have a record worth shouting about in the early part of the season. It's the best start to a season in years and the club can be confident going forward that they are better than they were in 2019. 

But how far in the season can a 4-1 record take you in the next 15 games? Well, lets look back in the history of Super League. There have been 18 sides in the last five seasons that have had a 4-1 record after 5 games (or better), lets see how they did:

2015 - Leeds (1st, 4-1), St Helens (2nd, 5-0), Warrington (6th, 4-1)

2016 - Warrington (2nd, 5-0), Wigan (3rd, 5-0), St Helens (4th, 4-1), Widnes (7th, 4-1)

2017 - Castleford (1st, 4-1), Hull FC (3rd, 4-1), Wigan (7th, 4-0-1)

2018 - St Helens (1st, 5-0), Wigan (2nd, 4-1), Castleford (3rd, 4-1), Wakefield (7th, 4-1), Leeds (9th, 4-1)

2019 - St Helens (1st, 5-0), Warrington (4th, 4-1), Castleford (5th, 4-1)

The average position of these sides is 3.7, and four of the last five champions gave started with a record of either 5-0 or 4-1. Now, this doesn't mean the side will be champions (obviously, this is Huddersfield. It's never that simple) but it does mean that the club should be looking upwards rather than downwards in 2020.  

What the Giants need to avoid, however, is the slump. The four sides who went 4-1 on better in the first five games and didn't make the playoffs all have won thing in common. 

Wakefield 2018 - Lost five straight games between R5 and R10. 

Leeds 2018 - Won two games in twelve

Widnes 2016 - Won 4 in 17 after the start

Wigan 2017 - Won 3 games in 11 after the start. 

The Giants need to keep the momentum going and keep picking up wins in they are to carry themselves into something special. Avoid the slump, and the company that they are keeping with their record in the first five games is prestigious. 

Can they do something?

While they were knocked out of the Challenge Cup in their last match, focus from August 2nd should be focusing towards bringing the Giants back to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. With the squad they have, the talent it possesses and the experience it has to guide it, don't rule it out and don't rule out 2020 being memorable for more than just the extended break.