The Hull derby: inside the game which divides families and is unlike any other

Ross Heppenstall
Danny Houghton Hull FC Mikey Lewis Hull KR Alamy

The Hull derby kicks off the new Super League season

To outsiders, Hull has always seemed a little different. Traditional phone boxes – and in cream too, rather than red – can still be found there; an iconic symbol of the city’s independence.

They have a street named ‘The Land of Green Ginger’, call their main station ‘Paragon’ and locals talk of ‘tenfoots’, the access roads behind houses. Yes, Hull is stuck out on a limb at the end of the M62 and its inhabitants have the rarest of accents.

But, when it comes to rugby league, there is something special about Kingston upon Hull, to give the city its full name. It boasts two huge Super League clubs in Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers and with it a deep-seated rivalry which splits the city in two.

In derby week, tribal passions are ignited and reach fever pitch on game-day. Thursday night at the MKM Stadium, when the Black and Whites host Rovers in front of around 20,000 fans in the Super League season opener, will be an occasion to increase the heartbeat.

Robins star Mikey Lewis, one of the finest young English talents in Super League, has grown up immersed in the derby rivalry. The 22-year-old was a boyhood Hull FC fan and hails from Black and White territory on the west side of town.

Lewis told Love Rugby League: “Being a local lad from just off Anlaby Road, the Hull derby is huge for me and my family. These are the games you always look for first when the fixtures get released because it means so much.

“The rivalry splits my family but it’s good because the banter flows in derby week. They know I’ve got a job to do and that my Black and White days are done.

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Mikey Lewis
Mikey Lewis – Alamy

“I’ve put them to bed and you can put them in a grave if you want because I’m not really bothered about them. But yes, it divides my family.” Let it be remembered that Hull FC and Rovers dominated the sport four decades ago.

Some 95,000 fans descended on Wembley for the 1980 Challenge Cup final and a homemade sign on the A63 leading out of Hull simply read: LAST ONE OUT, TURN THE LIGHTS OFF.

Both clubs were in their pomp then – Hull were champions in 1983, and runners-up either side of that, plus winners of the Challenge Cup in 1982 and losing finalists in 1983 and 1985. Rovers won back-to-back titles in 1984 and 1985 and lost at Wembley in 1981 and 1986.

While the Robins have lived in FC’s shadow for much of the Super League era, it is Hull KR who have enjoyed superiority in recent seasons.

Hull FC coach Tony Smith, who counts the Robins among his former clubs, told Love Rugby League: “I think Thursday’s derby has captured everyone’s imagination.

“It’s a great way to kick off Super League and everyone understands the rivalry, probably even more so when you live in the city and you know the pressure that the fans put on this game and on each other!

“The fact that Hull KR have enjoyed an upturn in fortune, and are seen as a coming force in the game, has been a big thing in the past couple of seasons.

“We want to flip that on its head as best we can and the interest within the city on Thursday’s game is huge. But I think everyone within the game is intrigued by it too.

“I was in charge of Leeds when we played Bradford in the mid-2000s and those derbies were played in front of massive crowds. I’ve never been part of Saints-Wigan but the Hull derby is quite unique and, living here, you understand that.

“Neighbours can be rivals and see each other every day, so they have to live with the outcome of the derby match. Whoever wins has the bragging rights until the next time we meet, whereas the loser has to cop it!

“As players and coaches, we understand how much it means because we know what’s at stake and you can feel it in derby week. There are two points on the line but it’s more than that. The atmosphere in Hull derbies raises the hairs on the back of your neck. It’s electric.”

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Smith is hugely respected within the game for his achievements at Huddersfield Giants, Leeds Rhinos, Warrington Wolves and Hull KR.

He got Huddersfield promoted to Super League, delivered Leeds’ first league title in 32 years, won three Challenge Cups at Warrington and guided Rovers into the play-off semi-finals for the first time in 2021.

The 57-year-old said of his spell in charge of the Robins: “I loved coaching that group of players. I helped to develop the club and am very proud of the time I spent there.

“Now I’m loving my new role, new project and new challenge at Hull FC. The club has been singing out for success and it’s been a while now since their back-to-back Challenge Cup wins in 2016 and 2017.

“But the fanbase want some new history and titles, so we want to get on track for delivering those. How long it takes, I’m not sure, but they’re hungry for success and I can understand why.”

Tony Smith, Hull FC Hull FC coach Tony Smith

Lewis often bumps into fans from both sides of the divide when he is out shopping and socialising or even just filling his car with petrol.

“It’s a hard one to explain because I’m a face of rugby league in a sports-mad city,” he said. “My missus and my dad, who I’m really close to, have experienced it as well but it’s something I enjoy.

“You can see how much it means to people because that was me as a kid, watching my idols and wanting a picture or autograph. If I saw them in a supermarket or filling their car up, I’d want to speak to them so I totally understand.

“But I get so much support from my mum and dad, and my nan and grandad. That means so much to me.”

Lewis says Hull’s sporting scene goes far deeper than rugby league. He is an ardent Hull City supporter and is hoping to see them back in the Premier League next season.

Under the ambitious ownership of wealthy Turkish businessman Acun Illicali, the Tigers are bidding to reach the Championship play-offs. Lewis added: “Hull is a massive sporting city and it would be ace to see City back in the Premier League.

“Since the new owners came in, they’ve really got the fans behind the club again. What they have done off the field, with the way the owner has turned Hull City around, is crazy.

“I’ve been to watch them a few times this year with my best mate and the atmosphere is mad. With all the boxers we’ve had from Hull as well in recent times, the likes of Tommy Coyle and Luke Campbell, the city is sports crazy.

“You’ve got the ice hockey team at the arena as well, plus a massive amateur rugby league scene, as well as FC and Rovers, of course.”

Smith, meanwhile, began coaching in Super League over two decades ago and is credited with improving every club he has worked for.

Asked how long he planned to continue, he said: “I’m not sure, but whilst I’m still loving it I’ll keep doing it. I’ll know when the time’s right for that, but I love these projects and the challenges they bring.

“When I took over at Leeds, they were probably ready to go in terms of being successful. But the other clubs were about a rebuild and a rejuvenation of the culture.

“I love being part of that and when we get Hull FC going – and hopefully it’ll be soon – there will be a great feeling of satisfaction at being successful.

“I like to leave a good legacy wherever I go and I’d love to get back involved in the sharp end of the season, when the play-offs begin. I miss being a part of that and we’re working really hard to get Hull FC back up there.

“We’ve made a lot of changes because we needed an overhaul – some of it has been personnel changes but also attitude and how we approach the season.

“Hopefully we got most of those decisions right but time will tell and the great test is the regular season.”

Lewis goes into the 2024 campaign with confidence pumping through his veins after playing a starring role in England’s 3-0 Test series win over Tonga last autumn.

He scored on his debut in the first Test at St Helens and was emotional when interviewed live on television afterwards. The half-back added: “It meant so much to me and has made me want to do it every year.

“It gave me confidence and has set me up nicely for the new season, but there are lots of ways I can improve and being more consistent is my goal this year.”

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