Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Saturday's Coming: Leigh

Relativity is a fascinating thing - especially in the universe of expectation that is the Betfred Championship.

If - when - Hornets chase down the stupefyingly dull Sheffield Eagles to finish 10th, we’ll have had another season beating the odds. Success. Crack open the Pomagne.

But if you’re Leigh, burning a million quid to end up favourites for the shield would be a catastrophe.

In a super-competitive top four, Leigh currently sit 6th - usurped by the sheer audacity of Halifax and Featherstone: two points shy of Fev (with a superior points difference) - and with the little matter of London squatting like a speed-bump in 5th, with a one point advantage.

But whatever Leigh do, they struggle to make headlines beyond the one-man tsunami of column inches that is Derek Beaumont. If you took a cursory glance at the frankly astonishing amount of coverage he gets, you’d think that he just releases a monthly statement about how he’s not walking away from Leigh. A closer look reveals that the outspoken Centurions owner is - it seems - a walking magnet for a media hungry for controversy.

Indeed, only a month ago there were reports that Beaumont had been fined £7,500 (£2,500 suspended until the end of next season) for breaching RFL operational rules relating to conduct and social media use. The RFL says that, having pleaded guilty at an Independent RFL Operational Rules Tribunal, Beaumont was fined because his comments on social media breached rule D1.1(b) Conduct prejudicial to the interests of the Game and improper conduct; Rule C2.6 Failure to adhere to Codes of Conduct; Rule C2.10 Behaviour Standards; C2.11 Behavioural Standards - Unacceptable Behaviour. He was also found guilty of breaching both the RFL’s Respect Policy and Social Media Code of Conduct.

Leigh began the season in disastrous fashion - losing five of their first six games. In terminating the contract of coach Neil Jukes, Beaumont claimed full responsibility for the start that Leigh have struggled to overcome: “… I am still very much involved in the fight to get this Club into the top four of the Betfred Championship from where it can kick on to regain its place in Super League.” he said in March.

“It is a challenge that is becoming increasingly more difficult but is not insurmountable at present. I take full responsibility as the owner of the Club for the position it finds itself in. Ultimately any decisions the Club has made have been under my leadership and I have agreed with them and enabled them to happen.”

Since then, tyro coach Kieron Purtill has steadied the ship and got Leigh playing closer to their potential. But he understands the expectations at Leigh Sports Village. Speaking ahead of their recent Challenge Cup tie with Salford (which they won 22-10), he admitted: “There are massive implications for the club if we’re not in the top four - on and off the field.”

“We’ve got to be there. Everyone knows the funding in the Championship isn’t the same. We invested heavily in our squad so there’s going to have to be cutbacks or things addressed if the money’s not there.”

With the pressure on, Derek Beaumont has responded the way he always does - by chucking a bucket of cash at a former NRL player. This time it’s former Gold Coast Titans, Newcastle knights and Sydney Roosters utility back Brendan Elliot, who scored 19 tries in 39 NRL appearances.

Speaking in the Leigh Journal this week, Beaumont  said: "It is a very difficult period at the Club as it really is up in the air as to where we will finish, but I have to make decisions on the basis that we will make the four to put us in a good place to mount a challenge to return to Super League, if we do, as it will be too late once we know our fate.”

"There will also be a further announcement of another overseas player this week which will complete our recruitment for the season, and I believe with everyone fit and free from suspensions, we will have the quality to be serious contenders in the Qualifiers should we make them.”  Leigh have also signed former Salford prop Adam Walne from Huddersfield Giants.

Last week, Leigh pulled off a 12-man comeback to win convincingly at Mount (un)Pleasant. The Centurions played 74 minutes a man short after Jamie Acton was red-carded for a high tackle.

Trailing 12-4 at the break,  Leigh stormed back scoring 26 unanswered points to win 12-30. Harrison Hansen and Ilias Bengal weighed in with two tries each.

Hornets come into Saturday’s game on the back of a confidence-boosting victory over Swinton. What mattered last week was not so much the nature of the win - only that we did. Indeed, we are delighted that Alan Kilshaw’s lads can run for 80 minutes, because we needed every last one of them to grab the points.

Leigh, of course, will be a wholly different proposition - though they are prone to lapses in focus, evidenced by their seven defeats this season. Indeed, they have points in them - having shipped the most in the top six with 442 in 20 games. That’s an average of 22 per game!

After the Swinton game, Alan Kilshaw said that getting anything from the remaining three fixtures would be a bonus - but this competition chucks up a few freak results every season, so why not this one? Leigh are more scared of losing games then they are interested in winning at the moment - and Hornets have nothing to lose.

All the pressure is on Leigh. Let’s turn the screw.

See you Saturday - don't forget, it's a 5pm kick-off.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Smith Stars in The Late Show

Hornets 28 - Swinton 26

On the hottest day of the year, Hornets and Swinton served up a nail-biting, blockbusting barnstormer of a game that gave us knavish tricks, heroics - and a grandstand finish worthy of any great piece of theatre.

For 80 minutes both teams went toe-to-toe, in a relentless battle of wills. Swinton hell-bent on breaking the game up: loitering in tackles, sprawling and spoiling - and not averse to some stone-cold gamesmanship (the worst culprit, Bracek, who - late in proceedings - lay as if shot in the in-goal to give his team time time to recover; only then to jump to his feet and acknowledge the hail of boos from the home fans. Pretty cheap we thought).

Hornets on the other hand strove to play some expansive football -  but too many times the last pass to an edge was misjudged. Given the contrast in styles and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the participants, what unfolded was a fascinating contest.

Swinton raced into an early 0-12 lead courtesy of a 40/20 that led to walking anger-issue Tyson finding space to score, then the Lions capitalising on a Hornets penalty to send Brown in up the edge.

Hornets hit back almost immediately. Having forced an error the ball was shifted to Seta Tala who engaged the cogs to grind his way through a mass of defenders to score from 20m. Smith the extras, 6-12.

Swinton stretched the lead courtesy of a couple of Hankinson penalties - the first of which led to 26-man handbags after Hornets forced a knock-on from the kick-off.

While Swinton were more than happy to feed on penalty scraps, Hornets stuck to the task of trying to play football - and were rewarded on 23 minutes when good hands through the channel saw Seta Tala draw the winger to send Richard Lepori in: 10–16.

If it were not hot enough, the introduction of Jo Taira raised the temperature. Virtually his first contribution was to land an almighty bell-ringer of a tackle on Brown to force a drop-out, only to be judged to have applied a shoulder. He then got snagged for the high shot that allowed Hankinson to take another 2 points (10-18), but he made amends two minutes later when he boomed in off a short ball to score. Unstoppable.  Morgan Smith added the extras and you could feel the momentum shift.

As the game headed for the break Hornets threw the kitchen sink at Swinton, who were now a mess of petulance and errors. Indeed, as much as Hornets didn’t want half-time to come, Swinton clung to the ropes desperate for the hooter.

Half-time, a head-spinning 16-18.

The second half continued where the first had left off: Swinton all niggle and cheap penalties, desperate to stem any momentum. and when Barlow milked a 45th minute penalty in embarrassing fashion, Hankinson added yet another two (16-20).

The game now attritional, both sides refusing to yield.

Swinton - somehow gifted a mystery penalty - again ignited a scuffle in the aftermath, but Hornets continued to move the ball. Seta Tala bundled into touch on the hour with support and tackles top spare. But it was a rare moment of fluidity as both sides struggled to establish a rhythm.

As the visitors sought any means to breach the Hornets defence, an acting half kick into the in-goal on 68 minutes pinball around, Jones the first to react and touch down. Hankinson a simple conversion and Swinton ten points clear with eleven minutes to play.

Hornets sucked in for one last big push. A great 75th minute approach set lay the platform and when George King came blasting onto a short, flat ball five metres out, he wouldn’t be denied. Morgan Smith the two: 22-26 with four minutes to play.

Hornets went straight back on the attack, again putting the ball through hands - but the last pass to Rob Massam was hurried and over-cooked.

All Swinton had to do was play out the set, kick it long and the game was theirs.

But wait…

The set was perfectly executed: five one-man drives. The ball was sent to Hankinson to dispatch downfield, but Morgan Smith saw one last opportunity and stretched every sinew to charge down the kick. As the ball fell behind the helpless Hankinson, Smith gathered it on the run to dart 30 metres and plant the ball under the black dot to tie the scores. Cue mayhem! The main stand on its feet; Alan Kilshaw skipping up the touchline punching the air. Bloody marvellous.

Morgan Smith then the coolest man in the ground to add the conversion and give Hornets the lead for the first time with less than a minute remaining.

Pretty much everyone anticipated one last Hail-Mary short kick-off, but Swinton elected to kick harmlessly to the 30m line. Two tackles later it was all over: the home fans delirious, the Swinton fans shellshocked.

Having scored five tries to three, it’s clear that Hornets had the footballing edge. And lovers of irony will see the chargedown of Hankinson’s late kick as redress for Swinton’s penalty-pinching tactics.

As Hornets gird-up for a horrible run-in, we can do so with confidence. This was a blistering team effort, every one of the 17 giving every ounce they had. It was a good afternoon to be a Hornet.

In the wash-up, this was a game that had everything. Passion, commitment and a heart-stopping finish. That the bottom end of the Championship is somehow dismissed as a sideshow for those with Super League ambitions is criminal. This was Rugby League in its finest, purest form.

Simply breathtaking.