Thursday, 21 June 2018

Sunday's Coming: Toulouse

Mark Khierallah: Né dans le arrondissement
Français de Darlinghurst.
On a weekend of international sport, there’s only one game in town - and Toulouse come to Spotland on Sunday on the back of a rare defeat; downed 16-18 by Leigh in Albi last week.

Clearly, we’d love to think that this heralds the the point in the season where they quietly fade into a mid-table malaise - so we went in search of clues: starting with reports on the Leigh defeat (All translations are ours, courtesy of our O-Level French and a bit of Google translate).

In their post match analysis (‘The Centurions Spoil the Party’ - ah, bless), TOXIIIC said on their website: that the result was “… regrettable for TO, whose outcome was not deserved, but who were confronted with cold English realism.” Ah, we love it when they get bitter over a 2-point loss.

The first wobble in Toulouse’s annual choke-fest? They hinted as much in their match report, saying: “(Toulouse) stalled in the race for the Top 4 against a direct competitor, and will start again next Sunday in Rochdale…”

Having led 16-14 after the break, TO’s reporter produces a small onion and cries about how two Leigh penalties snatched the win for the Leythers after TOXIIIC had two try claims struck off.

Leigh’s win was built on determined defence. Or, as La Depeche put it in their report: “The big defensive pressure imposed by the English damaged the beautiful mechanics of Toulouse.”  So getting amongst them reduces their effectiveness.

In summary, sheep-farmer and part-time coach Sylvain Houles said: “"Our execution and our passing work were poor. It's frustrating because (the game) was largely winnable. But they put us under a lot of defensive pressure and made us make mistakes.” He concluded “ We lacked control, playing too early or moving the ball too early - our timing needs reviewing”.

As we know, TOXIIIC don’t deal with defeats too well, but genuine local French prop Maxime Puech is looking at it philosophically (with a shrug, we assume): “We did not seize opportunities to score. We were unclear when (Leigh) showed up. We had to be ’sharper’ in our game. We made too many mistakes. And we didn’t always defend very well.”

He went on: “We’re still in the race, but this failure can put you under pressure before going to Rochdale and then Sheffield.”

“Let's not forget that last year we lost to bottom teams. (We) do not take any team lightly and prepare (for) all the matches as if we are facing big guys. And it's about going to Rochdale before thinking of Sheffield.

When asked last week whether promotion to Super League remains realistic goal this year, Toulouse president Bernard Sarrazain was pretty circumspect for a man into this for a million Euros a season: “We have never been so close to the ‘summit’. But it's going to be complicated. It's been 10 years that we have been working on it. There are teams of (a) very high level. Our first goal is to finish in the top four of the championship (then play) the finals. To achieve this, we have to win five of our last seven games.”

With five defeats already, Toulouse cling precariously to second place on-points difference from Featherstone - and only a point ahead of Halifax who have the same number of wins.

Ones to watch are stand-off Jonathan Ford (the championship player with by far the greatest gulf between his ability and the effort he expends) and fullback Mark Kheirallah, French League’s Australian poster-boy after he once scored a try against Australia in a game where France got flogged.

Toulouse are likely to be missing Aussie second-row Rhys Curran. who has damaged a wrist, but they have taken Wigan prop Joe Bretherton on loan until the end of the season.

Hornets come into Sunday’s game on the back of a frankly horrible performance at London that had no merits whatsoever. Having been forced to endure the worst view in British RL, the long-suffering Hornets fans had their faith tested to the limit as London handed out a brutal lesson in creativity and defensive dominance.

If it’s true that Hornets always respond to a poor performance by producing a better, grittier display, then this is the weekend to do it. The key is staying with Toulouse for as long as possible. Winning set-to-set on attack and defence will lay the platform. And keeping Ford quiet will be key.

Don’t forget: Sunday’s game has been moved to a 4pm kick-off to avoid a clash with popular quiz show ’Catchphrase’.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

No Fun

London 68 - Hornets nil

There are lots of reasons to dislike the Ealing Trailfinders stadium.

Its plastic pitch makes the game a discomfiting ‘uncanny valley’ experience. The fact that all sideline seating (capacity a couple of hundred, tops) is reserved for season ticket holders leaves visitors little choice on where to stand. With no ‘opposite side’, Hornets’ loyal contingent found themselves perched in a corner, some choosing to watch from the car-park as it offered marginally more elevation. It has all the atmosphere of an asteroid - unconfined by stands or terracing, any attempt to engage with the action gets blown into the ether.

It’s also £20 to get in - yes, £20 to stand in the corner of a large plastic carpet, with the game happening ‘somewhere over there’. It’s a ball-ache to get to: notwithstanding the drive, the train, and the tube that eats half your day, it’s a just-irritating-enough half hour walk to try and find the ground hidden in one of London’s leafier suburbs, deep in the heart of *nion country.

All of this would be enough to piss off the hardiest of visiting supporters - but as Hornets sank without trace, shipping 12 tries and ten Kieran Dixon goals, it made for a difficult, disheartening, demoralising afternoon and a funereal return journey that landed fans back at 10.30pm and a hundred quid lighter.

For eight minutes, though, this was - deceptively - a decent contest. Hornets holding their own early doors. But once Broncos stand-in scrum-half Cunningham got his eye in, he single-handedly orchestrated a deluge of unstoppable one-way traffic.

Pitts opened the scoring after Cunninhgham produced some sleight of hand to unzip the defence and from there it became a parade. Dixon was next on the scoresheet, exploiting some over-eager defending, then a chip to the corner for Dixon to grab his second. On 24 minutes Pitts slipped in from the back of the ruck - and two minutes later, Pewhairangi snaffled a loose Rob Massam pass to stride untouched to the line.

Cunningham created one for himself on the half hour after a harmless looking Hornets clearing kick was returned with interest by Dixon; then Pewhairangi threw an outrageous dummy to step in and score. Dixon on target and Hornets shellshocked. 38-nil at the break - Hornets poor value for the nil.

The second half began with a freak try. Pewhairangi with a bit of a panic kick, the ball rebounding from the crossbar into the hands of the unrushing Evans. London then went ahead of the clock when Pewhairangi left Luke Adamson clutching at air to thread Walker in. 49 minutes, 50-nil

From there on in, London pretty much racked the cue. They ran a few shapes, moved the ball around and scored when the opportunity arose. Pewhairangi his hat-trick on the hour from a Cunningham kick, then Cunningham in off a Pewhairangi  kick. All very perfunctory.

Even Hornets' bad luck ran out here: returning hooker Dec Gregory removed with a head injury; Luke Adamson limping off with a knock to the knee.

The coup-de-grace came with eight minutes remaining, with Walker scoring London’s 12th: somewhere in the distance, someone clapping.

Post match Alan Kilshaw was pretty forthright: “I feel sorry for anybody who travelled from Rochdale to see that - we made far too many errors and weren’t able to defend our line.”

Can’t argue with any of that.

It was about as bad a Rugby League experience as it’s possible to have. Every single aspect of the day a blight on the soul. On the train on the way back, even we asked ourselves: “Is this really worth it?” Indeed, it wasn't so much the defeat in itself (London are a good side), but the manner of it. In 80 minutes, Hornets failed to impose their presence on the game in any way, shape or form.

If you’re looking for positives from this game, don’t bother. The only good news is that, not only did Swinton also lose, Toulouse began their annual choke-fest early this year, going down at home to Leigh - and coming to us next week on the back of a defeat.