Thursday, 15 March 2018

Saturday's Coming: Normanton (via Featherstone)

As you whistle down the A655 from J31 of the M62 en-route to Belle Vue, Wakefield, you unwittingly drive past a town with a long Rugby League history. Over to your right - the other side of that field and round the double roundabout signposted for the Welbeck Landfill - is Normanton: home of Sunday’s visitors Normanton Knights.

The town of Normanton has a long Rugby history that predates the creation of the Northern Union,

The first rugby club in Normanton was established in 1879 and was based at the Midland Hotel.  In 1883, they became founder members of the Yorkshire rugby union’s intermediate competition - which was the third tier of Yorkshire football - alongside Hull KR and Keighley!

Following the split, Normanton joined the Northern Union in 1898 and played at semi-professional level until 1906, playing in the  Yorkshire Senior Competition Division 2 (East). It was during this period that Normanton produced a Challenge Cup shock - beating the mighty Leeds in Round One, before losing to Batley.

In 1905–06 the competition changed its format (la plus ca change) reverting to a single division of 31 clubs. Normanton struggled in 26th position and ended the season in such financial difficulty that the The Northern Union ‘kindly’ allowed  Normanton to forego their game at Millom to avoid the expense of travelling.

Ironically, Normanton folded at the season’s end - as did Millom, who finished one position below Normanton in 27th.

But the area was a hotbed of Northern Union football a new junior club, Hopetown Rovers, was formed in time for the new season, joining the Wakefield and Dewsbury District League, and playing on Normanton Common. The club we have today is a continuation of that - having become Normanton ARLFC and Normanton Knights in the early 1980s. They have played at their current home at Queen Elizabeth Drive Field since 1949 - and two of their highest profile professional alumni are David Topliss and Ben Westwood.

Since beating Leeds in 1900, Normanton have reached the third round of the challenge cup twice, Losing to Widnes in 2007 and Workington in 2014.

The new Challenge Cup format introduced in 2015 saw the Knights reach the fourth round of the competition for the first time in the club’s history, beating Myton Warriors, Shawcross  and Oulton Raiders: their cup progress - yet again, 115 years on - was halted by Batley.

Last year saw Normanton climb to their highest level in over a century when they defeated Milford Marlins in a nail-biting promotion final by 22-20, lifting the knights into the NCL Premier Division.

Fast Forward to this year’s Challenge Cup  and the Knights have defeated the Royal Navy (11-12 - in golden point extra time), Rochdale Mayfield (4-8)  and Batley Boys (18-nil) to reach this stage. Conceding just 15 points across three games indicates a game built on solid defence.

Speaking to this week, Knights coach Paul Seal sees Saturday’s game (which will be live-streamed on the BBC) as both a reward for his side’s cup exploits thus far and a test of their capabilities: “We wanted to play a Championship side, the top level you can play at this stage of the competition and we’ve managed to get that, so we’re really looking forward to it. We’re taking the game seriously and hoping to put up a good account of ourselves, not just turning up to make a day of it. We’re actually going there with a serious attitude to try and cause an upset.”

As the NCL Premier League has only completed one round, it’s a bit early to assess Normanton’s third-place position, gained by an 18-10 home win over the other Hornets from Wath Brow - but we did notice that one of their three tries scored came from ex-Hornet Stuart Biscomb and we know all about his hard-running, blockbusting style. The other two came from left centre/wing partnership Lee Hammond and Tom Alexander, so eyes-on up that edge.

Hornets come into the game having put 12-man Barrow back in their box. Regardless of the numerical advantage, Hornets played pretty much all of the football on offer to run in five aesthetically pleasing tries that left the visitors’ defence in tatters.

Needless to say, Barrow coach Paul Crarey has had the onion out this week, shedding a small tear for the cruel unfairness of Rugby League: “We were in total control until that point (the red card). We looked good and we looked structured. I think with all the players running in, the decision is harder for the referee. All of our lads said it wasn’t a red, but it was difficult for me to see up in the stand. But I think Jarrad just patted him on the stomach and it all erupted.”

We think the secondary contact of a player clearly in distress just compounded the severity of the incident. Made the referee’s job significantly easier, we think.

In the end, the result was the boost Hornets needed after what’s been a challenging start to the year.

In his post-Barrow summary, Alan Kilshaw noted that, whilst Hornets played some good stuff, the quality of defence was the cornerstone of a second half performance full of desire and passion; and he feels that there’s still plenty of room for further improvement.

Looking ahead to this weekend, Killer recognises that Normanton are going well and that it’s an unusual for Hornets to go anywhere and not be the underdog. And - especially after last season’s disappointment at York - you sense a determination not to be Monday morning’s front page story.

As with all games of this nature you’re damned if you win and damned if you don’t. Win by 50 and people say “Well, what do you expect?”; win by two scores and people say you’re crap; lose and you’re Goliath in a giant-killing.

In terms of progress for the club, a good cup run would do wonders for confidence - and for the bank balance. So let’s get over to Featherstone on Saturday at 2pm, get behind the lads and let's see where this year’s Challenge Cup takes us.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Hornets Play Their Cards Right

Hornets 24 - Barrow 12

Jarrod Stack’s red card for his brutal assault on Gary Middlehurst on the half hour turned this game on its throbbing head. As the Cumbrian radio commentators railed about how referee Mr Rosleigh had spoiled the game, Middlehurst hauled himself off the floor - a walking metaphor for Hornets who stepped up to hand a brutally blunt Barrow a lesson in imaginative, expansive football.

The game had begun tilted in the visitors’ favour: Mr Rosleigh producing a bizarre decision as Barrow coughed a short kick-off only to be handed the feed at the consequent scrum. Fortunately the visitors ran up a cul-de-sac of their own making, handing over the ball no more than 15 metres from  from where the original scrum took place.

Barrow struck lucky again four minutes later. This time Jo Taira landing the first of a series of bell-ringing shots, forcing the ball free. Barrow again given the feed. Jo’s response was swift, next set landing another blistering tackle.

On 10 minutes, Hornets shrugged off the setbacks: first Danny Yates’ scampering break came to nought when his pass slipped teasingly from the supporting Middelhurst’s grip. Then Lewis Palfrey launching a teasing, kick only for the chasers to be deemed offside. No, us neither…

On the quarter hour mark Barrow produced a rare moment of lucid football: a last tackle ship to an edge where - somehow - Cresswell wriggled past a clutch of gathering defenders to score by the flag: nil-4.

Hornets looked to have caught a break when Barrow dropped the kick-off possession cold on the first tackle, but - again - Mr Rosleigh saw a ripping offence that gifted Barrow 50 metres. Having bludgeoned their way upfield, Hulme arrived at pace off a short ball to crash-in. Marwood finding his range to ease the visitors out to nil-10.

The game then degenerated into a disjointed scrap: forced passes, more oddball refereeing and a string of 50:50s going Barrow’s way: Marwood’s 25th minute penalty carrying the air of inevitability.

Then came Stack’s brain fart: an appallingly executed tackle chopped Middlehurst to the floor; Lepori leading the Hornets’ charge into the ensuing affray; the incensed Hornets fans now baying for Mr Rosleigh to act accordingly. Stack saw red, Lepori yellow and you could sense the momentum shift.

Hornets went straight on the attack: Rob Massam bundled into touch as Hornets doubled-up their wingers up the right edge: Barrow hanging on until the hooter to go in at the break hoping a 12-point lead would be enough.

Hornets emerged after the break in determined mood and three rapid-fire tries knocked the guts out of the visitors. A spat of handbags after just three minutes revealed Barrow’s modus operand, but Hornets shipped the ball wide where Earl Hurst went close and Lewis Palfrey was on hand to exploit the numerical advantage. Barrow then slammed a high shot into the impressive Dec Gregory. From the ensuing possession Hornets drove the Raiders back towards their own line where Pat Moran arrived, booming onto a short-ball to bully his way over. Palfrey the extras for 10-12. Then, on 50 minutes Hornets produced a try out off the top drawer to take the lead. A last tackle kick to the left flank, Rob Massam showing great strength and awareness to keep the ball alive, Deon Cross alert to the opportunity, looping round the outside to score. 14-12 - Barrow’s body language a picture.

Reduced to breaking up the flow of the game, Barrow were reduced to one man drives and scraping penalties. Hornets on the other hand played some tidy direct football and - on the hour mark - Jo Taira produced the sweetest of short lay-offs for Lee Mitchell to score on his 150th outing. Lewis Palfrey the extras, Hornets now rampaging at 20-12.

Barrow continued to poke and prod at a resolute defence, but on 68 minutes Hornets produced an acrobatic aerial try: Rob Massam soaring above his opposite number to take a pinpoint kick in-flight for a spectacular touchdown that brought the main stand to its feet. 24-12 and Barrow all but gone.

The visitors did produce some late pressure: held up over the line twice and forcing a couple of drop-outs, but Hornets stood firm to seal a deserved win.

It would be easy to surmise that Hornets were handed a red ‘get out of jail’ card. But the reality is that the only real football on show came from the home side - and Barrow’s plan-A reliance on big lads running straight and hard needs a bit more finesse when things go south.

Ultimately, you can only play the cards you’re dealt and Hornets did what was necessary as Barrow ran out of luck, gas, ideas and time. It was the win we needed and we can build from here. Hornets the better side: hands down.