Sunday, 20 January 2019

Stats Entertainment?

Oldham 24 - Hornets 8

The 68th Law Cup underlined Hornets' complicated relationship with this venerable trophy. For local rivals locked in an ongoing two-way battle, it has a singularly one-way history; Hornets having won it just 20 times to Oldham's - now - 45.

The raw stats themselves tell a tale where Hornets are a distant second, stragglers in a two-horse race. And if the stats don't lie, they also act as a brutal metaphor for Sunday's game at the Vestacare, where Hornets looked second best in every department.

Yes, we know it's hard to make judgements on a pre-season game where a new coaching team is fundamentally distilling its permutations down to its best thirteen, but as a benchmark for comparative development, Oldham look like they'll be a proper handful in League 1 this year, whilst Hornets remain a work in progress.

It remains heartening that the Law Cup still comes with a modicum of needle and this one started with a running punch-up in back-play - Oldham's Owen throwing jabs at Stu Howarth, the referee choosing to ignore the flagging touchie.

And it was Hornets who made the early running: Ben Morris bundled into touch by the flag, then given a penalty for ripping the ball - but one unforced knock-on and a cheap penalty later, Hornets found themselves stretched as Oldham moved the ball wide where McComb found space by the flag. Hewitt added the extras to give the home side a 6-0 lead.

Hornets continued to misfire: more cheap turn-overs, a knock-on over the line. Then on 22 mins a wild cut-out pass (sender unseen - sight-lines not the best at the Vestacare) was snaffled by the home defence; Oldham drove close to the line where Bowman was the straight-runner onto a short ball to score the simplest of tries. Hewitt the two: 12-0.

The chance for redress came immediately. Jones Bishop coughed the kick-off, only for Stu Howarth to throw a shocker of an interception pass. But Hornets continued to create - and squander - chances: a pinpoint 40/20 by Scott Moore spectacularly blown by a first-tackle knock-on.

With the half ebbing away Hornets took the ball close to the Oldham line, but ran out of ideas/tackles. More scrappy play followed, Oldham piggy-backed downfield courtesy of a poorly timed high-shot from Seta Tala, where they forced a drop-out. There was just enough time remaining for former Hornet Holmes to hit a peach of a ball at pace to score from 40 metres, rounding Dan Abram on the way under the black dot. Hewitt three from three and Hornets heading for the sheds 18-nil down. Not quite how the visiting fans had envisaged it.

Hornets began the second half in familiar fashion - shipping a cheap penalty for lying on. But they did make amends three minutes later when Stu Howarth launched a teasing lob to the corner where Ben Morris took advantage of some flapping defending to plant the ball by the flag. Abram wide with the conversion attempt; 18-4.

The next 20 minutes were a pig-ugly arm-wrestle. Oldham happy to defend their 14-point cushion, Hornets happy to run from acting half at every opportunity. Just past the hour, Oldham put the game to bed: a direct approach set ending with Greenwood stepping past Dan Abram from the back of the ruck to score; Hewitt his fourth from four for 24-4 (try saying that with a mouth full of cake!)

Hornets did rally in the closing stages, Stu Howarth's kick to the corner gathered in-flight and touched down acrobatically by the impressive Brandon Wood for his second try in two games. Dan Abram wide with the kick: final score 24-8.

All-up this was a bit of a mess. Whilst we know that the whole idea of pre-season games is to try permutations and flush rust and mistakes out of the system, it's hard for fans to be rational when you've paid fourteen-quid to watch 75% of a game over some bloke's shoulder.

Hereby hangs the dichotomy at the heart of the Law Cup: the opposing tensions of supporters' emotional investment versus the pragmatic needs of a coach to experiment, evaluate and eliminate.

And, on this evidence, 2019's tricky equation remains some way from being solved.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Sunday's Coming: The Law Cup

The Birth of a Classic(o)
The Law Cup was first played for in 1921 to raise money for the Rochdale and Oldham Infirmaries  - and was originally known as the ‘Infirmaries Cup’.  As recorded in Hornets' Annual Report and Accounts from that year, a local MP – Mr A.J.Law – provided “a handsome Silver Cup for the Competition” and the winners received gold medals “the gift of Rochdale and Oldham gentlemen”.

At the first game, everyone concerned, including the players of both Clubs, gave their services for free contributing to a donation of £348 3s 7 ½ d to each of the two hospitals. Following the creation of the NHS, proceeds from the match in the 1948/9 season were distributed to local charities and the cup was referred as the ‘Charity Cup’. During the 1949/50 season it was decided that the majority of the proceeds would be used “for fostering of junior Rugby League games" - and the trophy renamed The Law Cup named after its original benefactor.

To date, the Law Cup has been contested 67 times -  including a replay after the first game at Rochdale ended in a scoreless draw. The replay a week later at Oldham was won 12-2 by the Roughyeds.

Oldham have won the cup 44 times to Hornets 20. The cup was  shared in 1954 and 1976, both games drawn.

The record attendance for a Law Cup game is 14,000 for a 34-0 Oldham home win in 1926 - just edging out the 13,900 present at the Athletic Grounds three years previously, when Hornets won 13-5.

A bit of needle
Don't come running to us when you hurt yourself.
It wouldn't be the Law Cup without a bit of spice chucked into the mix.

This week the Oldham Chronic bent the truth a little, pointing out that twelve of the previous 15 Law Cups  have been contested at Spotland, with only three played:  "... on the Oldham side of Summit Hill."

Scott Naylor was happy to get a little dig in. Speaking to the Chronic last month he said: "This is a game with our close rivals that doesn't need bigging up. Like all derbies, it's a massive game for both clubs and both sets of fans and it's nice that Rochdale are coming to us for a change."

"Their new coach, Carl Forster, is clearly more comfortable at the thought of coming to Oldham for a pre-season game than were some of his predecessors."

But Naylor has a short memory. Indeed, it's not entirely fair to blame Hornets for not wanting to play in Oldham when Oldham don't always play in Oldham.

Yes, it will be the first Law Cup to be played 'in Oldham' since 2011 (when Tony Benson's side  won 34-28)  - but we did quite happily travel to Stalybridge in 2017, winning that one 24-12.

As it stands., Oldham currently hold the venerable trophy having won 28-24 at Spotland last January - and if last weekend's pre-season results are any indicator - this year's Law Cup promises to provide a serious challenge.

A look at Oldham
Notwithstanding Hunslet Parkside's shock win over Fev, the most eye-catching result of last weekend was Oldham's 24-10 win at Big Spending Barrow. And, whilst Paul Crarey was careful enough to lay down a carpet of excuses, the Raiders side did contain Spedding, Dallimore, Charnock, Crellin, ex-Salford forward Walne, Jono Smith. And Deon Cross. Oops!

Reports suggest, though, that Barrow were out-enthused by Oldham - so no room for complacency.

Indeed, Naylor has put together a useful looking squad for 2019 - and it's one that's hotly tipped to win League 1 (even by Garry Schofield!).

Our four to watch out for are:

Ben Calland: The second rower is product of Salford's academy and (as Ray French might say) a 'former Blackbrook amateur' who cut his teeth playing for Corrimal Cougars in the Illawarra competition down-under. Sacked off a promising Judo career to play Rugby League. Did we mention that he's Matt Calland's brother?

Ritchie Hawkyard: the vastly experienced utility back is a former Scottish international with 378 pro- and semi-pro games under his belt. Having started his career at Bradford Bulls, he spent nine years at Swinton before moving to Keighley Cougars. Featured last week at Fullback.

Scott Law: Former Halifax and Hornets prop with huge experience. Keighley's 2018 player of the year played 200 games for Cougars over a nine year stint. A proper 'old-skool' prop who takes teams forward.

Zack McComb: the Huddersfield U19s product was signed last year from Siddal. Prior to that he had a stint at Batley that saw him play on dual-reg with Oxford and Gloucester All Golds. He weighed in with two tries last week playing outside former Hornets three-quarter Jack Holmes.

Hornets, are you ready?
CRATE STUFF: Bring your own terracing
Sunday sees Hornets' first trip to the newly-named Vestacare stadium since its refurbishment and the installation of a lovely 3G pitch. The newly configured ground also comes with the now infamous 'touchline wall' at the grandstand end - though we are assured that the RL touchlines are moved in to avoid any potential collisions. Spectators are still advised to bring a beer-crate to stand on though as the refurb didn't include raised standing on the touchline.

Hornets come into the game off the back of a thorough test by Mayfield. It's fair to say that it was hard to gauge a team performance given the permutations used, but what was clear is that the class of 2019 brings a sleeves-rolled-up work ethic and a willingness to do the hard yards on attack and defence.

The nature of the game did give us a chance to check out individual performances and there were a few that caught the eye. Early doors Jack Cottington and Ryan Millington got through a ton of work, Seta Tala put himself about and Dec Gregory looked sharp. In the second half Scotty Moore (Sponsored by TLCRF80mins) showed some deft touches as he engaged the footy cogs for the first time in a year, Shaun Ainscough looked solid going forward and mopping-up at the back. And Lee Mitchell looked every inch skipper material. Lots of positives.

Sunday is the next step towards galvanising individual capabilities into a team performance - and, for sure, Oldham are a very different proposition.

However it plays out, the A627M El Clasico never disappoints. Two traditional rivals going at it for 80 minutes. What's not to like? See you there.