Thursday, 14 February 2019

Saturday's Coming: Toulouse

In October, TO XIII President  Bernard Sarrazain made a bold claim: "In 2019, we want to win everything and give us the means to make it happen."

Having made the qualifiers last year on a budget of €1.2M, Sarrazain has given  sheep-bothering coach Sylvain Houles an increased budget of  €1.6M  in 2019 - that's about £1.4m. But the choking has started early in Blagnac this year.

Two games into yet another push for Super League and Houles' Toulouse find themselves winless - marooned in the 'pointless zone', having shipped 60 points (losing 24 – 16 at  Leigh and at home to Widnes by 36-24).

In La Depeche this week, the analysis of TO's stuttering start was pretty straightforward. In an article headlined "Ignition Delayed", they wrote: "TO are (still) looking for a first success. After the setback on the first day in Leigh, Toulouse failed to rebound when they welcomed Widnes, showing offensive and defensive deficiencies. Losing Rhys Curran, the morning of the game, had a negative impact on the behaviour of a team that must take its mark."

And already there are hints that patiences are wearing thin down by the Garonne:  "On Saturday, they receive Rochdale, humbled on their own turf by Toronto (6-58). Forcibly, Toulouse are obliged to go for the victory to launch their season and leave this unflattering eleventh place."

Indeed, the pressure to win is all pervading this week - but Toulouse still have one itch they'll never be able to scratch. A La Depeche article headlined 'Bounce-back against Rochdale' opens with the line: "Toulouse will have to return to success next Saturday, in Blagnac, facing an old acquaintance, Rochdale, who, in 2016, deprived them of the League One title."

Let it go boys, let it go...

On Wednesday, TO travelled to Paris for a training session with a Sydney Roosters, side en-route to Wigan. Sylvain Houles  said: "I hope it will bring us the energy to rebound (against) Rochdale."

Post the Widnes defeat, Houles pointed the finger of blame specifically at Mark Kheirallah and Johnathon Ford - implying they'd failed to 'live up to their reputation'. Maybe the pair are a little too comfortable in their comfort zone?

This weekend, Houles expects Tyla Hepi and ex-Leigh and Swinton wing Ilias Bergal back on deck, having missed the Widnes game. They'll line up alongside New TO hooker Dean Part, who moves to the South of France via Barrow, having cut his teeth in the New South Wales Cup at Wentworthville Magpies and Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles.

In an interview on the TO website this week, Parata underlined the imperative to win: "I think Rochdale are within our reach. We have all the necessary qualities to produce a big game at home. We respect this team, (Hornets)  like all the teams of the Championship that we face, but after two defeats we have no choice but to make ourselves respected at the outset and get this victory that will launch our season."

When asked if he could put his finger on why his side had had such a lousy start, Parata said: "Against Leigh, we lacked freshness and against Widnes, our discipline failed us at crucial moments." Lacked Freshness? In the first game of the season? Jeez, are the players as bored with this soap-opera as we are?

He sees 'focus' and 'being realistic'  as the keys to addressing TO's early slump: "If we put these bases in place, we can beat any team in this Championship." Except the good teams, obviously.

Hornets jet out to Blagnac this week also looking for a first win - but the panic levels in the camp are significantly lower than those at Toulouse.  Defeats to Toronto and Toulouse wouldn't define our season, whereas two losses have already seen Toulouse's promotion ambitions described in their local press as 'handicapped'.

Too soon to call it a relegation four-pointer?

If you're heading for Toulouse, have a safe trip: see you there.

Monday, 11 February 2019

No Alarms and No Surprises

Hornets 6 - Toronto 58

There were no real surprises here. A team of full-time ex-NRL and Super League talent milking a £2m budget landed a perfunctory win over a part time team with a tenth of the resources. The end.

Indeed, Toronto Wolfpack rolled in like the circus it is: all 'look at me' fanfare, big-time Charlies and the dead-eyed joy of a bloke cracking a whip at a broken lion for the hundredth time to meagre squeals of sadistic delight.

Here at TLCRF80mins, we watch a lot of Rugby League - and seldom have we seen a team this good been so indifferent in the execution of its task. Slick? Yes. Strong? Yes. Well drilled? Undoubtedly.

However, even with their polish and quality they're hard to watch. Maybe it's the requirement to tread water in the Championship for another season that dulls the spark? Another year of pounding plucky part-time players whilst London Broncos undertake what should have been their victory tour of Super League. A sense of deja-vu. On Groundhog Day. All over again. No surprises there, either.

In the early exchanges, Hornets held firm, but when the Toronto cogs engaged they looked brutally frictionless - producing three quick-fire tries before the quarter mark. Firstly, Russell on the end of what would become a familiar looping shift to the left touchline, then Mellor backing up an O'Brien break on half way - the combination reversed on 19 minutes: O'Brien under the black dot and the visitors easing away at 0-16

Less than a minute later, Toronto found themselves stood under their own crossbar for the first time this season. Good approach work from Hornets took them close to the Wolfpack's line, where Adam Lawton's first touch in a Hornets jersey saw him haul defenders into the in-goal and score. Cue the music! Dan Abram slotted the extras and - briefly - we had a game on our hands.

Toronto's response was ruthlessly direct: Manly exile Lussick barrelling in from half a metre. Two minutes later that left-edge shift sent Leutele in out wide for 6-26. The only respite, Hornets newly signed Brandon Wood slamming Chase Stanley into Row E with a tackle that raised the main stand to its feet.

As the half drained away, Toronto's sheen became tainted by a rush of penalties: referee Mr Smith putting the visitors on a team warning that straddled the break. Within 5 minutes of the restart, Jon Wilkin was dispatched for what looked like the use of a shoulder.

Like all good circuses, the second half delivered a parade - six tries at regular intervals split evenly between one metre crash-overs and that seemingly unstoppable left-edge shift.

Russell out by the flag on 48 minutes; Stanley too strong on 53 minutes; Russell a carbon-copy hat-trick on 55 minutes; Emmitt backing in like a bin-wagon on the hour.

Then some respite as Hornets strove to push forward, but Toronto's defence proved immovable. Two late tries -  Russell's 4th (identical to its triplet predecessors) and Sidlow (slumping in on the siren) blew out the scoreline.

In the end, it was all a bit routine (or should that be 'poutine'?). The cameras got what they wanted, The Toronto circus rolls cheerlessly on and Hornets get to consider the fact that games like this won't define our season.

It's unlikely we'll play a faster, more skilful, better drilled side than this all season. The games that will make or break our Championship challenge will be against the sides in the lower half of the competition.

So, no reason to be alarmed. Nothing to see here. Move along.