Monday, 20 August 2018

It ‘Aint All Rovers Till The Fat Lady Sings

Hornets 24 - Featherstone 33

What a difference six weeks makes. Way back in the sweltering heat of early July, Featherstone Rovers - abetted by a freak performance from Rhinos dual reg rake Brad Dwyer - nailed 80 points on a try-hard Hornets. But back then, the world was a different - sunnier- place. Fev were riding high on a wave of optimism: looking good for a top four finish, a place in the qualifiers beckoned teasingly - along with all the financial rewards that brings, in terms of central distribution, bigger gates, bigger plans…

Fast forward to a muggy, drizzly day at Spotland and lo - before us sit Featherstone Rovers. No top four, no cash bonanza. No Brad Dwyer. Shorn of motivaton, incentive and a one man points machine, Featherstone proved to be an altogether less challenging proposition as - for an hour - they looked like they’d really rather be somewhere else.

Hornets on the other hand sniffed the opportunity to add to Rovers’ woes and - with only a 16-man squad available to the departing Alan Kilshaw - came agonisingly close to upseting the odds.

Despite conceding a drop-out from Fev’s first set, Hornets set to work early doors. Having hoodwinked an offside penalty at a scrum, Hornets marched straight downfield where they forced a drop-out of their own from a Danny Yates kick. The Hornets pack drove Featherstone backwards, Ben Moores revealed a cheeky grubber and - as the Rovers defence debated a reaction, Lee Mitchell reached in to score. Tyler Whittaker the two - plus a penalty shortly afterwards - saw Hornets with a comfortable 8-nil lead after 10 minutes. The visiting fans audibly disgruntled at Hornets' audacity.

Their ire rose further as Hornets stuck to playing what football was on offer: Jo Taira punching holes in the defensive line; a teasing break by Luke Adamson and Tyler Whittaker; then Taira again, smashing the wind out of Maskill to force a knock-on.

On the quarter mark, the traffic was decidedly one-way - and as Hornets kicked high over a retreating Rovers defence, the ball tipped tantalisingly from Miles Greenwood’s fingers.

The let-off roused Rovers from their slumbers - and they got lucky when the ball squirmed free following a last-tackle kick going nowhere to give them a repeat set at close quarters. Hornets stood firm and went back downfield, but a moment’s hesitation at a dropped pass saw the visitors work the ball wide on the free-play for Thackeray to capitalise on a stretched right-edge defence to score. Hardman the extras and - after half an hour - the Featherstone fans finally had something to be less grumpy about.

Things got less miserable still just two minutes later. Lewis Hatton was removed for a head check after a collision in a tackle and, while Hornets were reshuffling their middles, Featherstone exploited the situation: Davies hitting a flat ball to score as Hornets scrambled back into shape. Unfortunate. Hardman the conversion and Fev ahead 8-12.

With the half counting down, more determined defence forced a Rovers knock-on. Hornets worked their way back to the visitors’ goal-line and Tyler Whittaker looked to have touched down a kick into the in-goal - but referee Mr Bennet gave a drop out instead. Hornets' response was clinical. A solid set to stand Rovers on their own goal-line, then Rob Massam launching from acting half through a hapless Whylie on the last tackle to score. Tyler Whittaker good with the boot and Hornets headed for the sheds 14-12 up. And deservedly so.

Hornets began the second half capitalising on a flurry of Featherstone errors: a knock-on first set; then Robinson making a total hash of a Whittaker bomb. Hornets were swift and direct in response: Billy Brickhill piling in from close range only to be called ‘held-up’. No matter. Hornets moved the ball across the face of a static Rovers defence and when Yatesey launched a lofted kick towards a hesitant Whylie, there was only going to be one winner as Rob Massam gathered in the air to score. Tyler Whittaker on target from the touchline and Hornets 20-12 up before most of the Rovers fans had got back from their fag-break.

Then, a momentum shift. Hornets again switching on too late at a free-play - this time Newman with the try. Then Mr Bennet reading a Rovers knock-on as interference. Newman again up the edge to score and - against the run of logic - Featherstone somehow ahead at 20-24 going into the final quarter.

With the game now an arm-wrestle, both sides struggled for impetus: Thackeray involved twice, firstly hoofing the ball dead - spitting his dummy after gleeful Hornets celebration. Then the target of an absolute bell-ringing tackle by Jo Taira that saw Newman square off against Seta Tala in the aftermath. A shaken Featherstone taking the two - then a Thackeray drop-goal on 71 minutes. The Rugby League equivalent of parking the bus.

Hornets regatherted the kick-off and - 45 seconds later - Seta Tala latched onto a Danny Yates kick behind a flat-footed defence to close the gap to 24-27. Six minutes to win it - and Hornets had every intention of doing so, working the ball to Massam, who skinned Whylie and pinned back his ears, only for a despairing dive from Taulapapa to halt what looked like a nailed-on try.

Back in possession, Rovers huffed and puffed their way downfield - Jo Taira (now playing in the centre) and Richard Lepori darting back to snuff out a break. Somewhere in what appeared to be a perfectly good tackle, Mr Bennet saw a high shot and - with seconds left on the clock - Davies came rumbling in from close range to score through a weary defence. Hardman completing a perfect afternoon with the boot; Featherstone flattered at 24-33.

There’s no doubt that this was a tough one to swallow. Again Hornets gave it absolutely every ounce - their depleted side putting in a monumantal shift against a Rovers outfit unrecogniseable from a month ago. Yes, Featherstone are clearly in the ‘not-remotely-arsed’ zone - but to turn round an 80-point drubbing to a point where Hornets were one Taulapapa tackle away from a win they would have deserved is a feat to be lauded.

Ultimately, both sides leave this game contemplating the relativity of success and failure. Fev head for the Shield final with their season in tatters, Hornets stare down the barrel of relegation having - again - come tantalisingly close. But Featherstone have burned three or four times Hornets’ budget this year to end up in the same half of the split - and just nine points better. Not much of a difference at all.



Thursday, 16 August 2018

Sunday's Coming: But Killer's Going!

A week is a long-time in Rugby League - and what a week this has been. Ahead of this weekend’s clash, both Hornets and Featherstone have been dealing with the challenges of life in an increasingly difficult Championship.

Edged out of the top four by Halifax, Featherstone don’t have a great deal to gain from schlepping round the Championship shield. Along with fast-imploding Leigh, Fev bring a 16 point advantage into this competition and, with only 14 points available over its seven protracted weeks, they face a series of dead rubbers before taking their guaranteed spot in the final. The flaw in the system brutally exposed - though the arse might drop out of Leigh long before the final comes round.

Featherstone come into Sundays game on the back of two results that are eyecatching for different reasons. Two weeks ago they made history when they became the first side to beat Toronto on their own patch - a 16-man Fev squad claiming a 30-12 win over a clearly ‘not-arsed’ Wolfpack preparing for the Super 8 Qualifiers.

In contrast, Rovers struggled to a 26-12 home win over Batley last week - having been locked at 6-all at the break. With Batley ahead on the hour mark, it took a quick-fire triple from Thackeray, Cooper and Maskill to wrench the game away from the Bulldogs.

The win came at a price for Fev, though: Scott Wheeldon with a leg injury in the first minute - and his replacement Sam Brooks removed with a eye socket damage.

Off the field, the failure to reach the top four has sparked some deep introspection at Post Office Road. This week Rovers’ General manager Davide Longo was in the spotlight as he offered answers to questions on the club’s intentions and viability going forward - given that the club had invested heavily in personnel yet  - in the words of his coach John Duffy - “…  not achieved what we wanted to achieve…”

On finishing 5th in a four-horse race, Longo said: “Featherstone Rovers will experience a potential 55% cut in central distribution funding, therefore immediate action is required in order to remain sustainable.”

In an extensive interview on the club’s website, he admits that Feathewrstone “… rolled the dice…” on making the top four, but maintains: “This was a calculated risk from a club who wanted to push on after securing our status as the country’s best part-time club last season, but as is necessary in sport, we had a plan for if this did not materialise as expected.”

“We are now executing that plan, by reducing the deficit and cutting where we need to cut.”

In terms of where those cuts will fall, he said: “It is imperative that we reduce the playing budget, but we are in the process of a thorough recruitment operation” and: “We are in communication with the coaching staff over the current situation. There will be a need to reduce the number of coaching staff in our setup for next season, but we are consulting with them to come to a solution.”

Click here for the full interview.

Meanwhile…

Hornets fans were rocked this week by the bombshell news that Alan Kilshaw will leave at the end of the season. In a club release this week he said: “I believe I have taken the club as far as I possibly can under the increased restrictions.”

In what has been a challenging season beset by financial concerns, budget disparity and a relentless injury list, Hornets have stuggled hard against what Killer says are: “… a unique set of circumstances out of the control of the playing and coaching staff which has impacted and halted the progression we had made in 2016 and 2017.”

Having delivered Hornets’ first League Title win of any kind for almost a century in the odds-busting win in Toulouse in 2016, Killer went on to defy the odds again last year, keeping Hornets in the Championship. But this year has seen the squad and the club stretched to breaking point in its battle for Championship survival

“I count myself incredibly lucky to have coached such a historic and traditional rugby league club and thank each and every player and member of support staff who I have worked with during my time here.”

He went on: “Finally I would like to thank the supporters and members of this club who have stood by me and the players and have backed us week after week during my tenure. Keep turning up and backing whoever comes in next because a club is only as good as its members.”

With six games to go, there’s still the opportunity for Hornets - and Killer - to go out with a bang. There remains a chance that Sheffield could blow-up and, with nothing to lose, Hornets could spring a shock or two.

Given Alan Kilshaw’s ability to upset the bookies, whilst there’s still even the slimmest of chances, we wouldn’t write the season off just yet.

See you Sunday.