Monday, 17 September 2018

Strange Times

Hornets 16 - Leigh 24

It’s been a surreal week; one in which perspective has been bent like the melting clock in Dali's picture. Nothing is at it seems. Everything is in flux.

Having begun in doubt, it ended with the crazy notion of an unscheduled, unaccounted-for, unbudgeted Championship/League 1 survival shoot-out game in which both participants are likely to struggle to find 17 players willing to cancel hard-earned holidays or drag their battered bodies round one more time, just so Ralph Rimmer can sleep at night pretending to have out-negotiated Robert Elstone.

All the talk ahead of Sunday’s game was of this Ridiculous Relegation Shithouse Playoff™: What? When? Where? Who? And, for the love of god, why?

Pretty much everyone we spoke to ahead of the Leigh game (and we’ll get to that debacle shortly) was scratching their heads as to why the RFL (and it was their decision) didn’t just go for the simple, straightforward option of two up and no relegation. But then it wouldn’t be Rugby League if it hadn’t come up with the most convoluted, hard-to-execute, shithouse plan available.

And it was to this backdrop that Hornets took a laughably bereft Leigh to the wire in a stop-start contest that delivered 22 penalties courtesy of the eccentric refereeing style of Mr McMullen.

His interpretation of the laws left players, club officials and fans alike confused and frustrated in equal parts as what started as an intriguing contest between contrasting philosophies degenerated into a series of skirmishes that crushed the rhythm out of the game.

But it had started so well: Hornets with some early pressure after Blagbrough had flapped at a high kick, then Richard Lepori exposing Leigh’s woeful lack of pace out wide as he skipped and skinned the visitors’ entire right edge defence from 60 metres. Tyler Whittaker the two and the Leigh fans stunned into silence.

Staright from the kick-off Hornets went back to Leigh’s dodgy right edge. This time Seta Tala with the break, Richard Lepori in support and his inside ball slotted Danny Yates undert the black dot. Too easy, it seemed. Tyler Whittaker the extras and Hornets 12-nil up after just six minutes.

Again, Hornets went back to the same spot, but this time Leigh’s defence was awake to hold Rob Massam up in-goal. A whirlwind start.

Leigh finally troubled the scoreboard after 15 minutes when Walne went plodding in from close range, Reynolds on target: 12-6

Leigh’s lack of pace was highlighted again on 18 minutes when their winger Bailey broke with open field ahead of him, only to get caught by prop Jo Taira. Not a good look.

But Bailey overcame his embarassment two plays later - the spare man on a big overlap to walk in by the flag. Reynolds hoisted the conversion attempt comedically wide: 12-10.

Leigh took advantage of Hornets’ switch of hookers on 20 minutes; with the defensive line rejigging, they put the ball through hands to send Bergal in at the corner. Reynolds better from the other touchline and - from nowhere - Leigh ahead 12-16.

Thankfully, Leigh’s discipline is pretty ordinary and Tyler Whittaker slotted home a pair of matching penalties to send the sides in at the break locked-up at 16-all.

The second half began a bit of a shapeless mess. Plenty of huffing and puffing from Leigh, ending in a series of knock-ons as they ran out of ideas: Hornets forcing passes, snagged for obstruction…

On 51 minutes frustrations boiled over: a 26 man scuffle ending with Larroyer and Toby Adamson yellow-carded as instigators. Then just five minutes later both sides reduced to eleven - Bergal appearing to throw a punch/push at Richard Lepori: both players sent to consider their actions.

This heralded a phase where both sides struggled to control the ball; Mr McMullen ticking his way thorugh the ‘I-Spy book of Penalties’ to compound the fragmenting nature of the game.

With 17 minutes still to play, Leigh blinked first in an attempt to break the deadlock; Reynolds’ drop-goal attempt 30 feet wide. Feeling left-out, Hornets went upfield where Tyler Whittaker was rushed into missing his attempt by even more.

The stalemate was broken on 63 minutes when Luke Adamson landed a resounding slap around the chops of Hutchinson. Reynolds edging Leigh ahead with the penalty.

Hornets hearts were broken on 65 minutes when a last tackle Leigh kick going nowhere was - seemingly - knocked on by Larroyer, who planted the ball down more in hope than expectation. With pretty much everyone in the ground anticipating a scrum, Mr McMullen gave a try. Reynolds the two and Leigh flattered at 16-24.

With 15 to play Hornets were compelled to chase the game, but passes were forced, fumbled: Rob Massam the preferred outlet, but unable to capitalise (a high ball squirming from his fingers, bundled into touch as he rounded his opposite number). Ultimately - despite their best efforts - Hornets were unable to unlock a Leigh defence that pretty much parked the bus, hanging on to grab the win.

As the Hornets players gathered together after the hooter, we were left to contemplate 80 minutes that represented the season in microcosm: undoubted commitment - but too many errors and no real abilty to find the knock-out punch with opponents on the ropes.

In reality, though, you have to consider the journey both sides have taken to get to this point. Hornets against the odds, plugging away: Leigh having burned £1.2 million to finish the season eight points better. Their future as uncertain as ours.

Indeed, Derek Beaumont spent a sizeable chunk of the second half bemoaning the performance of Mr McMullen. Like a punchy ex-fighter recounting his ‘could have been a contender’ moment, he was overheard saying: “This was the guy who did us over at Barrow. If it wasn’t for him, we’d have made the top four.”

While he goes off to stare into the void that used to be Leigh’s bank account, Hornets look to suck in for a big finish to 2018. Swinton’s defeat at Barrow (instigated by three Raiders tries scored while George Tyson was sat in the sin-bin) leaves the door open for a way of avoiding the Ridiculous Relegation Shithouse Playoff™. Two wins for us and two defeats for Swinton salvage our season.

It’s a surreal world for sure - and the melting clock is ticking.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Sunday's Coming: Leigh (Plus an Existential Crisis)

Where to start with the profligate basket-case that is Leigh Centurions. Rumoured to have burned a jaw-dropping £1.25m this year (a £750k + a £500k parachure payment from SL’s slush-fund), the Leythers spectacularly imploded: missing out on the top-four, brutally cost-cutting to get to the end of the season, a mass player exodus - and owner Derek Beaumont turning off the money-tap as he prepares to walk away from the burning wreckage.
Bonfire of the Vanities: Derek Beaumont burns a million quid.

We have the list of departees as: Daniel Mortimer , Kyle Lovett. Peter Matautia, Harrison Hansen, Bodene Thompson, Jordan Thompson, Ben Crooks, Craig Hall - and ‘football director’ Keiron Cunningham .

Word from the mean streets of Leigh is that Centurions coach Kieron Purtill has been busy converting local amateurs playing in Leigh’s reserve side to first-grade contracts to make-up the numbers.

Leigh are still a very capable side though, coming into Sunday’s game on the back of a 54-10 flogging of Swinton (who were nilled in the second half - force-fed 34 unanswered points). Indeed, since the arse fell out of the club, Leigh have won four of their last five games - their only defeat coming at Post Office Road against a Fev side with only 14 fit players.

That defeat will probably cost Leigh home advantage in the final of the ‘Trophy That No-one Wants To Win™’ - the  Championship Shield.  Lovers of irony will appreciate that two clubs who bet the farm on getting in the top four, failed, suffered a player exodus, made a shitload of noise in the media about having lost a fortune, then packaged it as a ‘restructure’ to make themselves feel less guilty about their reckless spending, wlll have their hubris rewarded with a cup final.

Derek Beaumont was trying his hardest to put a positive spin on the Championship Shield in a statrement on the club’s website last month: “… before I go we have the chance to win one last thing, something we have never won before, and it would be great if we could go out on a high from such a low position and get that final to be at LSV and lift the Shield for our outstanding fans…”

After the Featherstone defeat, that’s highly liklely to be another target missed.

It’s interesting that we debate the significant risks involved in gambling everything on (over-) reaching for the promised-land of Super League on the day when the game faces what feels like one of the most decisive days in its recent history.

Today the Championship and League one clubs stand against a proposed SL restructure/re-cut of funding that could see money funneled out of the lower tiers and into the top flight beyond the new TV deal in 2021.

Cash Crisis: the figures provided at Thursday's
Championship/League 1 Clubs Advisory Group
Press Conference at Odsal.
Indeed, the two issues of ’structure’ and ‘funding’ have become inextricablty entwined as i) Super League Europe Ltd. seek to remove the ‘jeopardy’ of putting four clubs in peril every year - and maintain the level of funding that they’ve become used to: ii) Championship and League 1 clubs seek to maintan a more open pathway to Super League and retain the level of central funding that they see as vital to their survival and iii) the RFL dithers somewhere in between, given that the money it receives from the TV deal - as a governing body - is generously handed down from Super League Europe Ltd for distribution.

So what we have here is a three-way stand-off: Super League controls the money, but can’t push through a structure change; the RFL controls the structure, but not the money coming into the game; the Championship/League 1 clubs (plus the seven RFL council votes held by the community game) have the voting clout to stifle Super League’s plans, but have no control over the amount of funding they receive.

It’s a divisive issue - and one that will test clubs’ consciences and alliances to the limit. Given TLCRF80mins position of treating anything that Super League Europe Ltd does with extreme suspicion (they do what’s good for them first and don’t consider the whole-game), we stand behind any option that helps secure the future of all clubs - big and small.

There are clubs in Super League who were previously in the Championship - and clubs in League 1 who were previously in ‘The Elite’ - and everyone could do well to remember that success is cyclical. Votes cast today represent one moment in time, so we urge clubs to consider what’s best for the whole game, long-term.

See you Sunday - assuming we're still here...