Trust The Process: How Huddersfield Giants Are Plotting To Upset Wigan Warriors

'The biggest thing for us is to ignore Wigan and focus on what we do.'
08:00, 26 May 2022

There was the odd raised eyebrow last month when Huddersfield’s England international Chris Hill claimed that boss Ian Watson should be coaching in Australia’s NRL.

But the methodical and unassuming Giants head coach continues to quietly make waves, with Saturday’s Betfred Challenge Cup Final against favourites Wigan his latest shot at glory.

Watson led unfancied Salford to the 2019 Grand Final and the Challenge Cup Final a year later. Nobody saw that coming. The underdogs may have lost both times but he’s done it again with Huddersfield, perennial underachievers finally looking like the real deal, having blossomed since the 45-year-old’s arrival last season.

“I’m loving it, I won’t lie,” Watson told The Sportsman this week as he sets about plotting the downfall of a club who have lifted the Challenge Cup more than any other. 

“The first six months in this job were really, really tough,” he added of his arrival into a Huddersfield dressing room lacking belief, direction and cohesion. The transformation since has been remarkable.

“I’d been brought in for a reason and I had to find out what those reasons were,” he admits.

“We went through a really sticky patch where people were questioning things, not understanding what we wanted to be about as a group or where we were heading. What we’ve done is got our identity back and that was done by our senior pros Leroy Cudjoe, Jermaine McGillvary and Michael Lawrence.

“Halfway through last year was a real turning point for me in terms of enjoying the project, and then this year has just been another level.”

The Giants are now a top-four Super League side, and 80 minutes from lifting rugby league’s most prized Cup silverware. Yet still they are written off, with mighty Wigan big favourites to win Challenge Cup number twenty. 

That, according to Watson, suits the Giants just fine. In fact the former Wales international is adamant his side will win.

“We must remember what we are about as a group, put that performance out and I’m sure it will be good enough to win.

“I don’t want us to play the game on emotion or play the game too early, your energy levels will just be gone. We need to keep things as normal as they can be, cap the excitement of the young lads but use their energy.

“The biggest thing for us is to ignore Wigan and focus on what we do.”

Key to Huddersfield’s hopes is the form of their playmaker Tui Lolohea, a sparkling Tonga international revitalised by Watson at both Salford and Huddersfield after a nightmare spell at Leeds. 

The 27-year-old sits second in the Steve Prescott Man of Steel standings to determine the sport’s player of the year. He goes up directly against the man occupying top spot, the game’s current outstanding talent Jai Field.

Lolohea played in those two final defeats for Watson at Salford and is hungry, like his coach, to make it third time lucky. And he acknowledges it is his battle with Field that could influence the destiny of the trophy.

“For any athlete to win a final is on the top of your list, “ Lolohea tells The Sportsman.

“It will be tough and I’ll be going up again Jai who is probably the best player in the comp at the minute. I have a lot of respect for him and it will be a big test for me.”

Super League great Kevin Brown played in Challenge Cup Finals for both Wigan and Huddersfield, as well as being part of that Salford side with Watson and Lolohea that lost two years ago. 

“I cannot wait for Tui Lolohea and the battle with Jai Field who is the best runner of the ball in the competition,” Brown tells me. “Tui is playing happy and Watson has done that by taking the shackles off him. He just floats around and plays like he’s playing touch and pass in the garden.”

Watson hopes that Lolohea and his “wise old men” Chris Hill, Theo Fages, Chris McQueen and Ricky Leutele, who have won finals in the UK and NRL, will guide Huddersfield’s hungry young stars through the cauldron of noise and kaleidoscope of colour that envelopes these big games.

“All that experience helps, it will educate the younger players who might get carried away, it will keep them level-headed. My focus is to keep us as normal as possible, especially when those energy levels start to lift the closer we get to kick off,” he adds.

One key selection for Watson surrounds his rising star Will Pryce, a poster boy for the British game at the start of the season derailed by a ten-match ban that ends this week. Watson says Pryce has been “outstanding” in training and would have no qualms in throwing him straight back in. That selection may be influenced by the fitness of half-backs Fages and Oli Russell. The ideal for Watson would be to keep that partnership in tact and watch the Pryce box of tricks explode off the bench.

Then after the team selection comes the team talk, that one chance to switch his players on, hype them up or calm them down, before walking down the tunnel into the experience of a lifetime. How much thought do head coaches in elite sport give to what they say in that one priceless moment before the big game? Is it a learned Churchillian troops-rouser, a calm choice word or two, or something completely off the cuff?

“Sometimes I will plan my team talk, sometimes I will go off a gut feeling,” he says,

“I normally always write something down in the morning, and I will prep something. But I will gauge the mood on the day and might not go with it. It’s usually from my gut feeling based on simple messages. Players don’t need too much before a game like this.”

And what of Watson himself, who rarely displays emotion, as he gets used to the big stage and all that comes with it? What is he going through stood in the shadows if the tunnel ahead of that long walk?

“I won’t be thinking about the crowd, the noise or the occasion,” he insists.

“I’ll just be thinking how quickly I can get changed out of my suit into the tracksuit, and back out there.”

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