They’ve been Grand Finalists once and Challenge Cup winners three times in the Betfred Super League era, yet in recent years Hull FC have been on the slide. Against the backdrop of annual expectation from a demanding fanbase, the Black and Whites have dropped further and further away from contention.
Having been Super League semi-finalists in 2016 and 2017 – the same years they won back-to-back Wembley finals – they have since recorded league finishes of eighth, sixth, sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th in a spell which ended the coaching reign of Lee Radford and made quick work of successors Andy Last and Brett Hodgson.
Even in Tony Smith’s first season in charge, Hull were underperformers throughout 2023, but the two-time former Super League-winning coach, who also has multiple Challenge Cup triumphs and a World Club Challenge to his name, has been backed to get one of the Northern Hemisphere’s biggest clubs back on their feet in 2024 and new signing Franklin Pele is chief among those showing belief in Smith’s methods.
“He’s been awesome,” the former Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs front-rower tells Betfred. “You can just tell he’s a real old-school coach and he’s really good at man-managing and talking to us players. He’s really keen to know his players, so I’ve had a good time with him recently and he’s been pretty awesome for the team as well.”
The 56-year-old coach has looked to add a force and steel into the FC pack this year after a debut season in which opposition sides too often found them all too easy to dominate in the ruck.
“[I bring] a bit of size, and that’s helped a lot with the other players in the team, we’ve got a bit of size in our pack now,” Pele adds. “So hopefully we can get the team on the front foot and generate some ruck speed, and I like to think I bring a bit of that and a strong carry with the ball as well.”
Heman Ese’ese is another player who is expected to add some presence in the middle forwards after spending 2023 working under Wayne Bennett at the NRL Dolphins. And it was a family connection which encouraged the former New Zealand and Samoa international to sign up with Smith, with his uncle – former Leeds Rhinos star Ali Lauiti’iti – having spoken highly of his time with the coach at Headingley.
“My uncle used to play for Tony Smith, so that played a role in it,” explains the 29-year-old. “I was picking my uncle’s brain about Tony and what he’s like as a coach on and off the field, and he had nothing but high praise for him. That made my decision easier, and the other international signings I know from overseas, and I wanted to be a part of the young, youthful team.
“He’s been in the business for a while now so he knows what he’s talking about and what he wants his team to do. He’s been really great with me, asking how I am and how my family is, so he’s not just all about footy, he’s about off the field as well so he’s been nothing but tremendous for me.”
For fellow new signing Fa’amanu Brown, the switch from Newcastle Knights means a second chance to taste the British style of rugby league having spent a year with Featherstone Rovers in 2021. And the former Wests Tigers, Canterbury and Cronulla Sharks man says he’s hoping to find regular playing time under Smith at the MKM Stadium.
“I’ve never been able to play consistent football at the elite level, so now that I’m in this role after a good year playing internationally for New Zealand I know this is the pressure moment I’ve always wanted in my life,” he says. “As a kid you grow up wanting to be a rugby league player, and that comes with pressure, and so for me now this is a challenge that I need to rise above.
“I believe the team is knitting together really well, Tony has recruited really well but also the experienced boys who have been here for a while obviously know what it’s like and so we just need to be ourselves coming into this team.
“There’s 36 weeks of rugby league, it’s a long year, so Tony and the team have spoken about everyone buying in because you need to have that ‘next man’ mentality. It’s a long year ahead and people go down injured, so everyone’s got to be prepared to play.”
The Airlie Birds get the campaign underway with one of the biggest games of any Super League season, the home derby clash with Hull Kingston Rovers on Thursday, February 15, kick-off 20:00 GMT.