Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Friday's Coming: North Wales Crusaders

What better way to spend a Good Friday than queuing all the way to Wrexham to see Hornets take on 'Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™' at the Nversty f n Vwls.

Wrexham this morning: total gridlock
And, my, how things have changed since last we visited. Having spent every opportunity last year to pontificate on the evils of Dual Registration, Clive Griffiths has had a Damascene conversion. Having leapt eagerly for Widnes' teat, Griffiths said pre-season:  "Denis (Betts) and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to loans and dual registrations. It's going to be a long, physical and demanding season and a professional partnership with Widnes will certainly prove an added advantage."

A Rugby League miracle, ladies & gentlemen. Hallelujah!

Having played the hypocrisy card, Griffiths has assembled a robust outfit that looked like it might shock a few sides this season - certainly the additions of Michael Platt, Stephen Wild and US World Cup forward Mark Offerdahl caught the eye.

Having nabbed a couple of early wins over Barrow and Swinton, Crusaders now sit two places and one point above Hornets in the table having lost the last four games straight - including a 66-nil tanking at Featherstone in the cup.

Last week, Crusaders were in the game at 10-6 at the Keepmoat until bouncing bundle of fun Jono Smith got himself sin-binned for a professional foul on the hour mark - sticking out a leg at the play the ball to try and buy a couple of seconds to get back to marker. Doncaster scored off the next set. 

Most notable contribution came from Gary Middlehurst who weighed in with two tries to secure a bonus point.

Indeed, with the bottom six packed tightly together, any points are vital -  which gives what has already become a bit of a spicy fixture a bit of an extra frisson.

Interesting footnote to this preview is that, this week, agricultural Cumbrian battering ram Ryan MacDonald has been released from his Crusaders contract early to 'pursue his career elsewhere', after he admitted to Clive Griffiths that that the Championship was a bit tougher than he envisaged.

MacDonald has been replaced with former French international Sebastien Martins.
who's been playing with Queensland Cup side Central Queensland Capras. Martins previously played in UK competitions with Catalan Dragons, Hull KR, Leigh and Whitehaven Depending on his jet-lag, he may play on Friday. 

The Crusaders side at Doncaster last week was:

1 Tommy Johnson, 22 Adam Clay, 17 Stuart Reardon, 3 Christiaan Roets, 5 Rob Massam, 7 Jamie Dallimore, 28 Craig White, 8 Jonny Walker,  9 Craig Ashall, 10 Mark Offerdahl, 12 Gary Middlehurst, 13 Jono Smith, 14 Stephen Wild. Subs: 15 David Mills, 19 Karl Ashall, 21 Simon Stephens, 26 Matt Reid.

Directions to 'Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™'

Take the M56 toward North Wales/Chester/Runcorn.
At junction 15, exit onto M53 toward Chester/Wrexham.
Continue onto the A55.
At junction 38, take the A483 to Wrexham/Chester.
At junction 5, take the A541 exit to Wrexham//Mold.
Top of the slip road go left onto the A541.
Through a coupe of roundabouts (passing Sainsbury's on your left).
The ground is, about half a mile on your left.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Hornets Fast-Forward Past Slow-Motion Whitehaven

Hornets 20 Whitehaven 16

Previously, rugby league fans might've questioned whether all the plutonium in West Cumbria's water-table constitutes an illegal dietary supplement. But on this showing, the 770 fans that saw a patched-up Hornets scrap and scramble to victory over a sluggish, half-speed Whitehaven might suggest a test for mogadon instead.

As Hornets got sucked like quicksand into Whitehaven's world of slow-motion torpor, it took a gutsy second-half performance to shake off the dead weight of the visitors and take the points that lift them off the bottom of the table.

'Haven applied all the early pressure, but - despite a 40/20 and a ten-minute encampment in Hornets' 20m zone, they showed their slow-hand early to reveal that they were bereft of ideas.

As it was, Hornets launched the first proper attack of the afternoon on 15 minutes when Lewis Sheridan was unable to capitalise on Paul Crook's teasing crossfield kick.

Off the hook, Whitehaven somehow fashioned a scrappy last tackle try that exemplified their rather tedious brand of anti-football: Mitchell reversing over the goal ine from 5 metres, with all the grace of a bin-wagon doing a three-point turn.

Southernwood converted: 6-nil - to the low-hum of gentle snoring.

Having coughed possession on the first tackle, Whitehaven beat a leaden retreat to their own line as Hornets began to build pressure. A good kick and chase from Ryan Millard forced a drop-out and swift hands across the line slotted Gaz Langley in by the flag. Crooky wide with the conversion attempt. 4-6.

Time and again, Hornets drove Haven back under their own posts, with repeated repeat sets, but with the visitors looking short on ideas, John Cookson fumbled the ball early in the tackle count and Whitehaven exhaled.

Completely against the run of play, Whitehaven awoke to summon up a 39th minute break through centre-field, but with the line at their mercy they came up with a comedy-pass that saw the ball bounce harmlessly forward.

Half-time 4-6.

For lovers of irony, it was Whitehaven that caught Hornets napping - gathering the kick-off ball and bundling Southernwood over by the posts. He converted his own try to give 'Haven a 12-4 lead.

Hornets had clearly had enough of Haven's clueless blunt-instrument tactics and hit the gas.

On 46 minutes a mercurial 70 metre break from Wayne English left a back-pedaling 'Haven defense grasping at shadows and, as they came crawling back upfield, quick-fire hands to the left threaded Lewis Sheridan in for a clinically executed try.  8-12.

Then, on 53 minutes, it was Gaz Langley soaring to snaffle an inch-perfect lofted Paul Crook chip to score. Crooky with the two; Hornets in front at 14-12 and the opining from the visitors to our right went up a notch.

On 56 minutes, Wayne English made the extra man on a sweeping passing move; his neat inside ball creating a huge hole for Ryan Millard to step through and score. Crooky hit the target and at  20-12 there was really only one team interested in winning this one.

'Haven strove desperately to suck the last drops of life from the game, but Hornets stood resolute as the visitors' impotent prodding became ever more flaccid.

Haven's three back-to-back sets on 70 minutes provided their epitaph for this game: 18 stumbling drives that came to nothing - their best shot, an attempt to shove Doran in backwards from 5 metres. Wretched.

In the 75th minute, referee Stokes awoke from his own slumbers to award Whitehaven the first offside penalty of the day. Only now did the visitors consider giving the ball to possibly the fastest winger in the league, and Calvert took his one chance well to score out wide. Southernwood slammed the conversion attempt haplessly wide and Hornets comfortably batted out the last five minutes to grab a vital 20-16 win.

Whilst this wasn't pretty, we'll gladly take a perfunctory win - especially one against a team whose pig-ugly game plan seemed to involve making time stand-still and hitting the opposition on the break as it nodded off.

And, while Hornets celebrate further progress in the Championship, quite a few West Cumbrian rugby league fans will be waking up wondering just what the hell happened to their team at Spotland.

Sleep well, everyone.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Hornets Win Battle of Brains v Brawn

Hornets 14 - Batley 10

It's been coming.

Every week the Hornets faithful have seen glimpses of the major improvements that their team has made in this challenging season. 'All we need' to do', they said, '… is to put all the improvements into one 80 minutes'. Wait no longer.

In this tough, tight wrestle amidst a Biblical hailstorm, Hornets repaid the faith of their fans with a win that not only rolled over one of the Championship's most durable outfits, but which saw resolute defence and boundless enthusiasm nil last year's Championship grand finalists in the seond forty minutes.

In the run-up to the game, Batley coach John Kear displayed a Nostradamus-like ability to predict his team's downfall: “I have watched three of Rochdale’s games and they are taking teams very close… but at some stage they are going to upset someone. We have just got to make sure it’s not us.”

As it turned out, it was - and Hornets didn't hang around with making Kear's prediction come true. After just two minutes Ryan Millard scythed through the heart of the Batley defence, but his slipped pass was fumbled by Sean Casey with the line begging. No matter…

As Batley's big pack ploughed a furrow up the centre of the park, Hornets continued to play the more imaginative football and, after 10 minutes, conjured up a well-crafted try: first Chris Baines going very close off a Ryan Millard short pass, the next tackle Wayne English slipping the ball to Mike Ratu who bulldozed his way through his opposite number to score. 4-nil.

Batley's response was bizzarre, as they hoisted the kick-off into Row Z of the Pearl Street stand, but the resulting Hornets pressure came to nought as Batley guided a last tackle kick dead in goal, then were helped upfield by a penalty for an unspecified ruck offence.

But Hornets continued to play the only real football on offer. A 17th minute repeat set off a Ryan Millard kick, then Wayne English on a skating 40 metre kick-return setting Sam Te'o loose only for the momentum to break down when Batley were penalised for lying on at the tackle.

Reward for Hornets' patient persistence came on the 20th minute when Paul Crook ran an unstoppable angle off a short ball at close range to score. 8-Nil, and Batley barely in the game.

The 24th minute saw the descent of a swirling hailstorn and the deterioration in conditions seemed to suit Batley's rudimentary approach. On the half hour, with their attack going nowhere, Batley shipped the ball through a series of panicky passes on the 20 metre line where Blackmore found enough space to surprise himself by scoring. 8-4.

The 35th minute served up a harsh reminder of how Championship sides can leap on any error and make it count. A sloppy carry gave Batley soft possession on the Hornets 20 metre line. The error was brutally punished in the next play, as Greenwood scored in the corner. Paterson's conversion slutched in off a post and - against the run of play - the Bulldogs went in at the break 10-8 up.

Batley started the half with another freak kick-off as the wind saw them start with the ball 12 metres inside their own half. From the resulting possession, Batley launched a high kick to the corner where a clash of bodies saw Blackmore touch down. But with Sam Te'o deemed tackled in flight, Hornets survived and took the game back to Batley.

On 48 minutes Paul Crook unleashed a monster of a 40/20, but with players queuing up on the left, the wet ball slipped from Ryan Millard's hands and it was Batley with the let-off.

The second half descended into a battle of attrition. Hornets endeavouring to play round a well-drilled Bulldogs defence; Batley resorting to the blunt-instrument approach, sending waves of forwards crashing into a robust, resolute Hornets resistance.

Fittingly, it was the second half's only real passage of lucid football that produced the try that broke Batley hearts. On 70 minutes Hornets set-up camp on the Batley 20. Quick hands to the left found just enough space for Sam Te'o to squeeze in and score. Crooky slammed home the two from the touchline and Hornets had 10 minutes to hang onto their 14-10 lead.

With time ebbing away, Batley persisted with Plan-A and came up with, well, nowt. 

The final hooter brought the main stand to its feet as Hornets grabbed that all-important inaugural Championship win. Indeed, this was a victory for brains over brawn. Whereas Batley were happy to just roll-in the big lads and hope Hornets would crack under the strain, Hornets sought to play smart, controlled rugby whenever they had the opportunity.

Afterwards, Man-of-the-Match Paul Crook said that the team had '… been on a learning curve this last few weeks…'.  But the big lesson this week is, without doubt, that winning feels a whole lot better then losing.

Team Sheet Hornets v Batley

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sunday's Coming: Batley Bulldogs

Batley Coach John Kear sat by us at last week's game against the All Golds scribbling furiously in his notebook: a measure of the thorough approach that has made The Gallant Youths perennial Grand Finalists  - and the perfect template for how a 'small' club can take on the economic might of the Championship's over-ambitious Super League dillusionists and win, on their own terms.

In their own Challenge Cup game, Batley overcame a slow start (leading only 14-4 a the break) to eventually beat Kells by 54 to 4. They drew a plum tie against Super League leaders Castleford in the next round - the club where coach John Kear had a great playing career. That tie's been made more interesting after the Bulldogs confirmed the signing of Castleford second-rower Charlie Martin last Friday. 
John Kear - not as grumpy as his
book cover suggests.

The week before in the Championship, the Bulldogs threw away a 6-nil half time lead to go down 12-20 against Doncaster at Mount Pleasant. But possibly their most eyecatching result of the season thus far was their gritty 10-8 victory over Halifax at the Shay.

At first glance John Kear looks to have assembled a moneyball-style squad of low-profile grafters, but there are plenty of threats - most notably from ex-Sheffield flyer Vinny Finigan who plays outside ex-Hornets favourite Lee 'Pogo' Paterson. In the other centre channel is Alex Bretherton, who's played on both sides of the Heavy Woollen divide.

Up front, another ex-Hornet Byron Smith will pile it in all afternoon - but the primary threat could come from ex-Wests Tigers, North Sydney Bears and Halifax half Ben Black. We say 'could' because his absence from recent Bulldogs line-ups suggest that he's still struggling to shake off the effects of a pre-season knee operation that was expected to sideline him for 'three to four weeks'. Let's hope another week will sort him out...

Speaking recently, John Kear said of his side: “I’m not expecting us to be playing our best rugby until two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through the season…” Needless to say, we hope you're right John.

Hopefully, amongst Kear's notebook scribbles is a recognition that ruthless flogging of the All Golds hints at Hornets emergence as a genuine Championship side. The consensus amongst those we've spoken to is that, if last week's Hornets side took on the Hornets that beat the All golds last season, it'd win by 20 points or more. 

And, with several of last week's side having outstanding games, Ian Talbot should have a few selection headaches this weekend.

Having evolved beyond Championship 1 standard by some way - let's hope Sunday sees us take that next evolutionary step and turn good performances in to results. We #believe it's not far away. See you Sunday.

RFL Match Preview
Rochdale Hornets v Batley Bulldogs (3.00)

Rochdale Hornets coach Ian Talbot could stick with a similar team from the one that recorded a 76-4 victory over Gloucestershire All Golds last week.

Mike Ratu, Chris Baines and Dave Llewllyn all impressed on their first appearances of the year.

Talbot said: “A few players put their hands up. They earned their chance and they took it with both hands.”

“It was a good performance. We have improved considerably from last season, but not enough to get that first in the Kingstone Press Championship – yet.

“You know you’re going to be up against it when you play a team coached by John Kear, but we’ll give it our best shot.”

Batley Bulldogs could be without Mark Applegarth, who is struggling with a knee injury, but Ben Blackmore is available.

Batley coach Kear said: “I have watched three of Rochdale’s games and they are taking teams very close. They are just falling away in the last 20 minutes, but at some stage they are going to upset someone. We have just got to make sure it’s not us.”

He added: “They’re not that far away from a Championship win and last week will have done their confidence the world of good.

“Our own season has been consistently inconsistent. We’re having some tremendous periods and some indifferent periods, and we’ve got to try to put 80 minutes together.”