Blacklock raises the bar

All eyes will be on Hull?s try-scoring Australian signing as they open their season against the world club champions on Friday

Few people in rugby league would be entirely surprised if Hull FC defeated Leeds in the opening fixture of Super League X at the KC stadium on Friday.

By the same token, however, most would be seriously taken aback if, at the end of the season, the Black and Whites were to turn over the new world club champions in the Grand Final.

It is an attitude that sums up a club which has been threatening to break the dominance of the game?s top four for several years now, without quite managing to do so.

In each of the past two seasons Hull started well enough and showed they were capable of beating the best, but as the 28-game marathon that is the Super League progressed, they fell away.

Various reasons have been cited, particularly injuries, and there?s no doubt the club has not enjoyed the best of fortune in that respect, but when it comes to consistency, the problem may be mental as much as physical.

Coach John Kear is adamant that the club?s problems have never been all in the mind. Having taken over from the Australian Shaun McRae, Kear and his backroom staff have taken the practical approach to keep a talented squad at its best, week in week out.

Conditioning and individual and collective improvement have been the key words throughout the close season.

In both respects, Hull?s two new overseas signings have already proved their worth.

Between them, Stephen Kearney and Nathan Blacklock have racked up close on 400 games in the brutal Australian National Rugby League (NRL), and both appreciate the importance of preparation and looking after themselves.

What supporters want to see, however, is impact on the field, and the arrival of Blacklock in particular has raised expectation levels.

When Kear talks about the X- factor, about his team having the ability to turn defence into attack, he?s talking about Blacklock.

Anybody who can top the NRL try-scoring charts for three consecutive years, as he did for the St George-Illawarra Dragons between 1999 and 2001, is a very special player.

Although he was not quite as prolific in his last three seasons as the previous three, there were reasons that went beyond the rugby field, where he was often double-marked.

Blacklock admits that not being selected for New South Wales in State of Origin games left him disillusioned, and the 28-year-old had become stale.

He even switched codes for a short spell, scoring tries for the New South Wales Waratahs instead, but didn?t relish playing games in stadiums that were almost empty.

?Put simply, I needed a change, a big change, and this is it,? he says. ?I needed to get my appetite for the game back, and to do that I needed to work with new people and play against different teams, in front of crowds who had never seen me before.

"Everything feels new, and that puts you on edge. It?s a feeling that I have missed.?

Blacklock?s enthusiasm for Hull and the region appears to be genuine, and Kear says he has been hugely impressed by his positive impact in the dressing room as well as on the pitch.

That the club has got more for its money than a like-for-like replacement for the speedy finisher Colin Best is already apparent. Few wingers have the ball in their hands as often as Blacklock, and you never know where he?s going to pop up next.

?After training hard all week I don?t want to waste the game walking up and down on the touchline, waiting for the ball to come to me,? he says.

?I didn?t start playing until I was 13 or 14 ? I used to play football before that ? and when I did, I always wanted to be half-back, so I was in the action.

"They kept putting me on the wing because I could run, but I?ve always reckoned I only need to be out there when it matters, like in defence.?

He says the stadium is superb, having already sat in the stands to watch joint tenants Hull City in their chase for promotion, although one characteristic of the British spectator does puzzle him.

?I?ll have to get used to them arriving 15 minutes before the start and leaving as soon as the whistle blows. In Australia, the supporters hang around for hours to talk over the game. Maybe it?s the cold over here.?

Beat the Rhinos on Friday and the odds are that a fair number will indeed linger to savour the triumph. Kear is keen to stress that the game is simply the first of many, but Blacklock knows the importance of the fixture.

?It?s a chance to measure where you are against the champions, both as a team and as a player,? he says.

?Afterwards I?ll look at myself in the mirror and ask myself whether I matched my opponent?s intensity and enthusiasm, and if we?ve all done that, it?ll be very interesting to see how we come out of it.?

If everybody in the squad follows his example, this could be the year of the breakthrough on the banks of the Humber.