This season has been one of big differences for Huddersfield Giants and, as Ollie Roberts told Get ’em Onside, it is a great relief to have secured their top eight spot and, with it, their Super League status for 2019. The game which saw them confirm their survival was an impressive victory over fellow West Yorkshiremen Castleford and, despite a poor start, it was a match which showcased the improvements the Giants have made in recent weeks.
“We didn’t start that game too well and Castleford came out all guns blazing. We managed to claw our way back into the match and go in level at half time and Simon was a bit mad with us,” Roberts confessed. “He had a word with a few of the boys, told them some specific stuff that they needed to do and that we needed to sort out our defence and the rest would look after itself. We went out there in the second half all focused on our defence, on working together and doing the right things – it paid off.” Such has been the team’s turnaround in recent weeks, Roberts acknowledged that the come-from-behind victory over Castleford may not have been one the Giants would have completed earlier in the season. Now, however, they are a totally different beast and the Ireland man gave an indication of aspects of play which have changed since Woolford’s arrival into the Kirklees club. “We’ve changed a few plays around and the way we play the game. It’s more the little things we have changed – things like the kick chase, pinning teams back and make them work hard. Our tackle technique has changed and we have been winning games through defence – don’t get me wrong we are attacking well but we’ve been defending teams off the pitch.” Keeping Castleford to only eighteen points – none in the second half – at Wheldon Road is no mean feat and shows the strength in defence the Giants now possess.
The guarantee of Super League status being confirmed a week before the league split is a far cry from where Huddersfield were earlier in the campaign. Just two wins in their opening seven matches saw Rick Stone dismissed as head coach in late March and, with their Super League survival in grave danger, Roberts admitted the stress in the camp didn’t help the players. “The stress was unreal. Some of the boys had just bought houses or found out they were having kids – proper big stuff – and we were in a losing streak so there was a bit of panic, a bit of meltdown going on. When you’re panicking at home, you’ll be panicking on the field and it wasn’t good.” It was obviously very hard for the squad and the Ireland international spoke candidly of the situation and, when asked what the players did to keep together and working towards their common goal, he was quite clear. “You just have to keep going – you can’t really quit!” he expressed. “We were pretty mentally strong and, at the end of the day, it’s our job. We couldn’t just throw the towel in – the only people who could rectify the situation was ourselves.”
Stone’s departure saw former Super League star and Giants captain Chris Thorman take the hotseat on an interim basis ahead of the club’s appointment of Woolford and Roberts believes that Thorman’s was the sort of man the players needed in charge at that time, adding that he brought a sense of positivity and enjoyment to training. “A lot of the boys bought into what Thorman did,” he explained. “He’s very much for the boys, he’s in and around it, mingling with them so the boys could relate to him and listened to every word he said. He’s played for the club and elsewhere so he knows the game and players respect that.”
As well as the big difference the appointment of Woolford has made and the aforementioned changes he has made to how the Giants go about their rugby, Roberts explained that the return of a former backroom staff member has also played a big part in their turnaround. Mark Andrews was a member of Nathan Brown’s coaching staff before the Australian returned to his native land for the NRL. Andrews – known as ‘Bumper’ – was with the Giants in 2009 and 2010 and returned to the club to assist Woolford and Thorman. Of his return, Roberts expressed an admiration for what ‘Bumper’ brings to the fold. “His motivation is phenomenal,” before adding that “he’s back again to hopefully put the club back in the right direction and I think they are all doing a great job. All of the boys have bought into what they are doing and I think all of our mental attitudes have changed.”
A strong mentality is something Roberts has had to possess, both through his early career and, specifically, this season as he suffered a bizarre foot injury which led to him missing part of the season where the Giants were struggling. “Being out injured is one of the worst feelings ever. You’re watching and seeing the boys trying to do a job and you just can’t help…” he admitted. “I did my hamstring just after my foot injury so I had a patch in the middle of the season where I wasn’t playing but, since I’ve been back, I’ve kept my place in the team and long may that continue.”
Now, Roberts has been able to showcase his ability while helping Huddersfield ease to Super League safety and, such is his talent, the Giants moved to secure the former Bradford Bulls forward on a five-year-deal before the start of this campaign. “I went out to the World Cup last year with Ireland and I went hoping to prove a point to myself and put myself in the shop window a bit,” he expressed, admitting that he was keen to catch the eye of the NRL clubs. “I got a bit of interest from a couple – no contract were spoken about but they’d declared an interest – once I’d come back.” Roberts revealed that there was also Super League interest but he was always keen to remain with the Giants. “We sat down with Huddersfield and spoke about what we could do. I wanted to stay, the club has been really good to me and Richard Thewlis [Giants managing director] has helped me through so much. He was there to sort my deal with me and he really did look after me, spoke openly and we sorted a deal together to keep me there for the next five years.”
Offering an insight, however, into the state of mind the Giants players may have been in earlier in the season, Roberts explained that the deal could so easily have ended before it had really begun. “You only really ever have a one year contract because if you get stuck in the Million Pound Game and you go down, the contract gets terminated – there is no back up or anything like that,” he admitted. Now, though, Roberts is looking forward to the rest of the campaign with the Giants as they aim to make their mark on the Super 8s. “The aim now is to push on and finish as high as possible,” the back rower said. “Getting into the top four will take a lot of work but I feel that we are the team in-form at the minute and we are doing things right. There is nothing stopping us pushing and we aren’t taking our foot off the gas.” While it looks like a big ask, it should be noted that the Giants have won nine of their last ten Super League matches – including victories over Wigan and Castleford, two of the four teams above them in the table following their Friday night 40-28 victory over Wakefield. “Earlier in the season, we sat down and had a meeting as a team and realised that we had so much to do to get into the top eight,” Roberts admitted. “We knew we had to win eight from nine or something like that and then we looked at who we were playing. We had some big teams to play,” he said and, now, having turned their season around, even if they don’t reach the top four come the end of the season, the chances are the Giants will have had a huge say on the make up of Super League’s Semi-Finals come the Autumn.
On the surface, then, it looks like Roberts’ career is one which has gone swimmingly. However, there have been circumstances and difficulties off the field which actually led to the Huddersfield star turning his back on the sport, something he admitted for the first time during this interview. In the past, Roberts has acknowledged mental health issues he has suffered with, predominantly anxiety, and explained to Get ’em Onside the scale of impact they had on his early career. “It was massive for me,” he admitted, adding that “if I didn’t have my family behind me, truthfully, I’d have quit rugby properly. It never got out before but I basically quit three times.” With the support of his family, each time he was persuaded to go back to the game. “I’d organised a deal with Salford, they’d offered me a contract [in late 2012/early 2013] and I told them that I wanted to have a look around Bradford. My cousin was there and it’s a lot closer to home,” he explained. The aspect of Bradford being a lot closer to home makes even more sense when you realise that, such was Roberts’ anxiety about being out of the safety of family, his mum regularly drove him to training. “It completely fit the bill for me and I loved the place, they were still in Super League at that point. I’d seen Stu Barrow and Paul Medley [involved with the youngsters at the Bulls at the time] a couple of times about it and they were great,” he explained. “I had a meeting and discussed a contract with the club. When I got home, I thought I really liked the club and the place and that I was going to go there so I drove up to sign the deal.” However, Roberts then admitted that he had something of a panic attack once he had returned home after signing and spoke candidly about it. “I went to my room and thought ‘what have I just done? Have I done the right thing? Nah, I can’t do this. I’m going to cancel this, it’s not right,'” he explained. “I don’t know if it was going to a new place and new things, I don’t know what the worry was, but I shut down totally and thought that I couldn’t play rugby.” He then called up the club to inform them and ended going to speak to them again. “I told Stu and Paul that I was quitting and Stu told me to go up there to talk to him. I drove up there and told them all about the problems I was facing. I basically said that I thought I’d messed up, that I didn’t want to waste their time and that I felt bad on them – they’d taken a punt on me.”
In response, the club reacted by telling Roberts that any support he needed, they would help with. “They told me that ‘whatever you need, we will do. We’ve seen you play and you will be something special, buy into it, stick with us and we will sort it,” he explained. “Bradford moved mountains for me. I had a bit of a separation problem when I was away from my mum and I found it hard to be on a coach with the team. I don’t know why – and I can laugh about it now – but I hated travelling without my mum,” he admitted. “At the time it was a massive thing for me, it’s hard to describe but it’s like having a total block on it, I physically couldn’t do it, my mind wouldn’t let me.” The support the club showed with this and a willingness to support their young player, however, shows the best in human nature. “They just told me to get to the game, however I needed to, and play to your best. A couple of weeks later, we were playing away to Huddersfield and the club suggested that I jump on the coach to the game with it being so local,” he explained. “They told me that if I needed anything to just say, go to the front of the coach or whatever, and that we would pull over if we needed to. My mum was going to be in the car behind and I could jump out if I needed to. They wanted to help me and start the trips small before building them up and, the season after, I was on the coach every match.” Barrow and Medley are two people that Roberts spoke highly of and, with them working with England and Warrington respectively, they have been recognised for both their coaching and other off-field abilities.
One of the more remarkable stories Roberts spoke of regarding his mental health was an evening with his Bradford team-mates and then Bulls coach Francis Cummins. “We went to a pub together and we thought we were just going for a meal but, when we got there, Franny told us we were upstairs in a meeting room. We all sat in a circle together and just spoke, we had to say something that nobody else in the circle knew about ourselves.” Understandably anxious about this, Roberts admitted to not being sure that he would be able to open up. “‘Do I tell the boys, do I not?’ I was thinking. I didn’t want them to think I was a weirdo or anything.” In the group that evening were John Bateman, one of Roberts’ closest friends, and his cousin which led to Roberts feeling he was in a safe space. “People like Matt Diskin opened up about difficulties he’d had and then it came to me – I decided to be honest. I unloaded everything, I told them about when I was younger, turning down the chance to tour Australia with an England junior team,” he revealed, joking that he must have been the only person then to turn down the chance to represent his country.
“When I’d opened up in that room, all of the lads just clapped and said well done. They didn’t make a big fuss of it at all which I was glad about. I went home that evening, though, and I’d got some texts. One was from Michael Platt, a tough bloke and, looking at him, you’d think he was a hard nut, but he texted and said that he was nearly in tears… Diskin and Chev Walker texted as well…” Mental health awareness is something rugby league has led the way in in the sporting world and the trust that act would have built up between Roberts and his team mates was palpable. “I knew they’d back me and trust me and that was me opening the door to moving forward with everything really,” he explained.
“Without my family, I’d have fallen at the first hurdle really and left rugby,” Roberts revealed and, with the support of those near him, he has improved his state of mind to the extent that he is now a Super League regular who has also played at the World Cup. He does, however, still suffer at times, the difference now though is that he is able to cope with those moments. “I still get anxious and panicky a bit at times now where I smash myself over and over,” he admits. “Sometimes when we are doing video at training and I’ve scored six tries, made five clean breaks but let one try go through against me, it’s that one try which stays in my head and bugs me,” indicating a desire for perfection which has unquestionably helped him become the player he is today. “I’ll pick at those instances – it doesn’t matter that I did those good things, that one bad moment will bug me.” Shortly after the aforementioned evening in a pub with Bradford, the club went into administration – something Roberts explained didn’t affect him in a bad way due to his lack of commitments at the time – and knew that relegation was imminent. “They lost their backer and a lot of money and my agent told me that there was a bit of interest from a couple of clubs, one of which was Huddersfield – they’re really keen.”
“I quite fancied Huddersfield and my agent told me he’d arrange a meeting with Paul Anderson [then head coach] and go see him. I’d obviously seen him on TV and thought he was a big, scary bloke who would be as firm as anything with me,” he shared. “He told me what he thought, what he wanted me to do and where he saw me over the next two years at the club. When I left that room, my brain went straight to overdrive panicking, I got in the car and got home as quick as I could. I told my mum that I couldn’t sign there, I’d signed the contract and was like ‘what have I done?’ I was thinking I was going to have to quit again but she just spoke to me.” Often, the calm voice of someone close is what a person with mental health issues needs to aid their clarity and Roberts, a clearly family orientated individual, needed that to help him. “She told me to call him and talk to him, tell him what my issues are and just speak. I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to do that, I thought I’d messed up beyond belief. She told me that I was too good to pack in, that I wasn’t done and shouldn’t throw it all away. My mum actually rang him with me and I ended up going back to the club to see him,” he told Get ’em Onside. “I sat across from him and unloaded again, told him everything and he was just sat staring at me. He just asked me what I was worrying for then stood up and gave me a hug. It was such a relief to be honest,” Roberts added, clearly a big admirer of ‘Baloo’. “He said that I didn’t have to worry about anything and that if I needed anything I went to him. It took the edge off everything then.”
Anderson’s support and compassion went further than those initial meetings and Roberts noted that there was often moments where his head coach checked in to ensure that he was well. “He’d sometimes message me in an evening to ask how training had gone and how I was feeling,” he disclosed. There was, however, a big worry for Roberts looming as Huddersfield headed on an army camp as a team bonding exercise. “I really didn’t want to go on that camp, I’d hardly been away from home before and I didn’t want to do it.” Anderson’s support, however, eased the back rower’s concerns. “He told me that he needed me to come and told me that the boys were having their phones confiscated when we got there. When we get there, you give me your phone and I’ll give you it back when we get in there – if you need to go ring your mum or ring your family, you take it and you do that. He said there wouldn’t be a forfeit or anything – the coaches all knew I had it – just hide it from the other boys.” One wouldn’t expect that all coaches would do such a thing on a team trip away, something Roberts was aware of. “He bought into me and I bought into everything he was saying to us. I decided to test myself and, while I had my phone with me, I wasn’t going to use it. I didn’t actually pick it up or turn it on once while we were there and, after, Paul asked if I’d used it. I told him that I hadn’t,” keen to repay his coach’s faith and belief in him.
Clearly, Anderson was the sort of coach who was supportive of his players and Roberts backed that up, emotional about the lengths he went to in order to ensure he felt comfortable. “He told me the full schedule of the trip, minute by minute, and made clear that it was just between me and him – he wanted to make me feel ok and prepared for it all so I wasn’t worrying or getting ambushed.” Roberts mentioned other off field issues he had to deal with throughout that season, issues which the club and Anderson supported wholeheartedly with and, when they had been sorted, he ensured that he didn’t look back. “I got on with everything and began to grow out of the mental stuff, I learnt how to deal with it all.” At the start of the 2016 season, Roberts made his first appearance under Anderson in a friendly at Hull KR and crossed for the opening try. “I don’t know who was happiest, me or Baloo. Straight after the game he came to me and said ‘this is it now, we’ve cracked it. He was phenomenal with me to be honest,” he beamed.
His departure from the club was understandably hard for Roberts due to their relationship but the remaining presence of Thorman ensured that the support and awareness was always there. As a result, Roberts’ career has since been one with an upward trajectory – the NRL interest ahead of this season indicates that – and the fact that Huddersfield have the Ireland international contracted for the foreseeable future shows the faith and belief that the club still have for the 23-year-old. With the stability afforded by the new deal, Roberts is now aiming high with the Giants. “We want to win silverware. You don’t join the game to tick over and make a wage, you are in it to win. Personally, I want to win everything and I know that the club want to win. With the new coach and where we are going, we believe we can be a top four team going forward.”
Having conquered the demons which perhaps hindered his early career, Roberts is still young enough to make the big impression on the game his talent suggests he could. The Brighouse-born forward isn’t averse to doing things the hard way and having fought through his own troubles as well as a difficult season with the Giants, they now have the Super 8s to look forward to. Going forward, if the club and Roberts can maintain their remarkable recent progress, he may well just win the silverware he craves with the Giants.