Thursday, 30 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - S.W. Scorpions

This Sunday sees stoic ex-Hornet Mike Grady haul his nascent South Wales Scorpions side the length of the country - most likely for another defeat.

Mike Grady: subtitles available for those
who don't speak Widnes...
We appreciate that building from the bottom up in the Valleys is a long-game - and that the biggest investment the game can make in development on the fringes of the UK’s League map is patience - but you have to question the sanity of any game that drags students and part-timers 350 miles to get a flogging in front of 400 people, then dumps them back home at 1am.

Indeed, whilst the rest of Rugby League seems obsessed with splitting into eights, League one has done it organically, without outside interference - the top 8 ‘Heartland’ clubs effectively a separate tier from the bottom six development outfits. Yes, we understand all the arguments for compelling them to play clubs of a higher level in order to drive up standards, but it’s now been 56 weeks since a southern side beat one from the north in League 1. Long enough to draw a conclusion?

It’s counterproductive to the game as a whole - fans pay to watch a contest, but - increasingly it seems, in Top Eight v Bottom Six games, the result is pretty much a foregone conclusion. And it does little for morale or credibility for developing clubs to be offered up as cannon-fodder to more experienced sides who, in turn, are now under pressure to rack-up cricket scores and who are lambasted when the ‘Southern’ teams dare to put up any resistance.

And when final league placings - promotion, even - can be decided by who rams the most points through the development clubs; and when a basket-case club like York gets gifted an easier ride by playing more of the bottom six and fewer of the top eight, you have to think that the format doesn’t really treat anyone fairly.

Indeed it was York’s turn to take a free swing at Scorpions last week - bangng them 60-nil at Mountain Ash. What did anyone really learn from that: other than that getting thumped every week probably doesn’t make Grady’s job any easier?

Even with the experience of Paul Emanuelli and Jonny Leather on-board, Scorpions are averaging a 36 point losing margin this season - their only win in 16 coming against London Skolars last month (26 - 20, in London).

Meanwhile it was a week of deep introspection for Hornets fans who saw their side produce a heroic 12-man performance at Swinton, only to fall just short. Plenty’s alread been said about Gaz Langley’s 9th minute brain-fart, so we’ll not rake it over - instead we’ll once again marvel at the vacuum that is the top-eight (or is that becoming a top seven, with Newcastle seemingly unable to shake off their stasis?).

We think it’s interesting that - in order to make the rest of Rugby League ‘interesting’ - the sport as a whole has felt compelled to manufacture the pressure and jeopardy that exists at the top of League 1 .

After last week, everyone got stuck looking at positions in the league - but the really interesting stuff is at the opposite side of the table, where just two points separates third from seventh. One win - it really is that tight. Over the next few weeks the margins will become increasingly fine - and every week will see that leading pack churned relentlessy. Every Minute Matters? Too bloody right. By our fag-packet calculations, points difference could separate 4th, 5th and 6th.

All we have to do is keep winning and stay in the mix. However it pans out, six clubs who will have had realistic promotion expectations back in March will find themselves back here next season for more of the same.

Unless of course, the RFL has a plan for the game at our level. And what are the odds on that?

Monday, 27 July 2015

12-Man Hornets Heroics Not Quite Enough

Swinton 20 - Hornets 16

Heroics from 12-man Hornets were not enough as a stultifyingly dull Swinton capitalised on their numerical advantage to cling-on and take the points in a contest where you’d be hard-pushed at times to spot the side a man short.

On a day that required cool heads and concentration, the afternoon started pretty badly: Hornets coughing the kick-off possession, then a soft penalty - Ex Hornets Littler and Robinson combining to give the home side a pretty soft first minute lead.

Then - just as Hornets seemed to have regained their composure - a moment of madness from Gaz Langley. Penalised for swearing at a touch-judge, he then swore at the referee who produced a yellow card. Just for good measure he swore at the referee again as he passed by - and Mr Thomason was perfectly happy to convert the yellow to a red. 9 minutes gone…

Hornets responded positively, forcing a 13th minute drop-out. Then - on 15 minutes - Wayne English looped in off a short-ball to score. 4-all. Game on.

Tempers frayed further on 20 minutes - Dale Bloomfield and Littler engaged in handbags; then Hornets pressing hard - good field position off a direct approach-set squandered by an obstruction.

On 22 minutes, Swinton applied some basic physics, running their biggest forward at Danny Yates to create space for Thorley to score. Mort the extras 10-4.

Hornets again responded well - keeping play tight and direct in centre-field, stealing metres out of every tackle. But - having forced Swinton backwards - a soft (and dubious) penalty for interference not only let them off the hook, but gifted them a platform to work the overlap and put Rothwell in at the corner. Mort the two off the touchline: 16-4.

With half-time fast aproaching, Hornets continued to play the more progressive football: a great approach-set, but an undercooked last-tackle kick; then a better set forcing a drop-out. On 38 minutes Danny Yates’ dink into the in-goal was allowed to bobble, but his touchdown was deemed incomplete and Swinton went to the sheds breathing a sigh of relief.

A second half that Hornets would dominate began in scrappy fashion - both sides trading penalties and dropped balls. On 48 minutes a rare moment of Lions lucidity launched Robinson towards a certain try in the corner, but a remarkable tackle by Dave Hull sent the winger crashing into touch.
Then another scare - a Littler interception, a 60 metre dash, the ball slipped to Robinson - this time Wayne English scything down the winger in full flight.

With Hornets holding their own in what was now a tight arm-wrestle, Paul Crook began unleashing his repertoire of kicks. Twice forcing repeat sets, Swinton now on the ropes. Indeed, cometh the hour-mark cometh the Man - Crooky hoisting a huge cross-field kick, Dale Bloomfield soaring to catch and score. Crooky the 2 off the touchline. 16-10 and only one side playing any discernible football.

Within a minute a great charge-down and regather by Jordan Case put Hornets back in an attacking position, but a hurried pass too many saw the chance go begging.

Having soaked up half an hour of pressure, Swinton finally got to apply some of their own: Beecham taking a flat pass at pace to score through a stretched Hornets defence. Mort wide with the conversion attempt. 20-10 with 10 to play.

Hornets again responded positively and had redressed the balance within two minutes: Lee Paterson’s audacious show & go to create space for him to blast 70 metres for a great solo try. Crooky the two and Hornets in serious search of something from the game. But - despite heavy pressure in the last five minutes - Swinton hung-on just long-enough. Gutting.

We write here often that good teams have to find ways to win. That Hornets came within four points with only 12-men is testimony to their guts and determination. Certainly, Hornets finished the stronger side, but in the end it was just too much to ask.

Again, this was a weekend where the top eight got a shake-up. Barrow unconvincing at Oxford, North Wales falling apart at home against Oldham, York getting a free bag of points on their easy-street run-in. A cursory glance at the table today shows just two points - one win - separating third from seventh. It’s that close. Next week Oldham play Keighley and Swinton go to Newcastle: And Hornets get a shot at racking up some points aganst Scorpions. It’s not over till it’s over folks.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - Swinton Lions

This week brings another tense local derby as 5th placed Hornets take the short trip to 6th placed Swinton. To date, one point separates the teams: Hornets having one more win, but Swinton with a game in hand; Swinton margially ahead on points difference. All a bit tight.

A closer look at the fixtures reveals that Swinton are amongst the clubs most disadvantaged by League 1’s lop-sided bias: Swinton, Newcastle and North Wales play 14 games against top 8 teams plus 8 against the bottom 6 whereas York play 10 games against top 8 plus 12 against bottom 6. Keighley, Oldham, Hornets and Barrow 13 games against top 8 plus 9 against bottom 6.
Lions like Vimto:
Swinton - the porn 'tache years

Compared with York, that’s essentially an 8 point ‘deficit’ for the Lions to make-up against teams in the top eight. Not an easy task - but one they’re clearly having a bloody good go at. Last week they chipped away at it further, completing a hat-trick of victories over Keighley this season with a 22-14 win at Cougar Park. No mean feat.

For us the strike threat comes from a familiar source, two ex-Hornets: the combative, attritional Stuart Littler and the ducking/darting winger Shaun Robinson. By our reckoning, Litller - now 35 - has played the full 80 minutes in every single game this season. Impressively durable.

Also keep an eye on points machine Ian Mort who earlier this month scored six tries and kicked 11 goals in the Lions’ 96-4 flogging of Oxford.

Elsewhere this weekend, York travel to South Wales for another gift two points, Oldham travel to North Wales, Keighley host a fast-fading Newcastle and it’s Barrow’s turn to get a free swing at Oxford - so it’s important to be a positive part of the change that occurs in the top five this weekend, not a victim of it.

Earlier in the week we tried to crunch the numbers on the remaining games, predicting wins, losses and winning margins and then extrapolating the results to the end of the season’s placings. Even predicting conservatively, it’s tighteer than we imagined: potentially points difference separating fourth, fifth and sixth. What IS key, though is that - first and foremost -  we have to engineer a win of any kind against the teams around us.

Back in May, Hornets’ 28 - 16 win at Spotland was tighter than the scoreline suggests - and there’s no doubting that Sunday’s game will require another North Wales/Newcastle scale effort to some away from Sedgely Park with something. Indeed, in his comments post the Coventry win, Ian Talbot identified the quest for consistency as a primary component of the run-in.

However youlook at Sunday’s game, it’s there for the taking. And it’s going to be a belter, so get yourself over to Whitefield and let’s do our bit.

Monday, 20 July 2015

By Hook - or by Crook.

Hornets 50 - Coventry 22

It’d be churlish to complain too much about a victory in which Hornets nailed 50 points onto a one-dimensional opposition who came with - and stuck to - a game-plan designed to prevent Hornets playing at the right end of the field. And, while Hornets did play some scintillating football in short-spells, this was a win ground-out against a Bears side who’d come to make things awkward and feed of whatever scraps they could find. Primarily - Coventry spent 80 minutes playing five drives and a big kick deep into the Hornets half, hoping for an error. A plan so ugly, even its mother would struggle to love it.

Indeed, in may ways this game mirrored the previous fixture at Butts Park - Coventry chucking everything at the game for half an hour before running out of steam; Hornets comfortably securing the game in the third quarter.

It was a scrappy, hectic start from all parties involved. A third minute Danny Yates kick hitting the corner post; Referee Mr Leatherbarrow indicating a 20m restart - and much debate as to what circumstances dictate when/if the corner post is in/out of play.

Hornets then shipped a soft penalty in the middle of the park. Gifted an easy 40 metres the Bears’ Phillips arrived off a short-pass to crash in and score. So far, so ‘meh’. Nil-4: all a bit flat.

With Coventry coughing the kick-off possession, Hornets  had a chance to run with the ball. First a nice approach set saw Wayne English’s dink into the corner force a repeat set; then a short, flat ball cannoned off Woz Thompson’s chest with the line begging.

On 12 minutes a beautifully slipped Jordan Case pass launched Danny Yates into space. As he weaved and teased his way through the gathering defenders he was somehow held-up under the  posts. Coventry undid their good work with a needless penalty, whereupon Paul Crook dived in from acting half to level the scores. Crooky improving his own try 6-4.

Hornets continued to press and, whern Danny Bridge hit a short-ball to score after 17 minutes (Crooky the extras), Hornets looked to have steadied the ship at 12-4. But when Crooky overshot a 40-20 by a metre and Wayne English was trapped in-goal off a hit and hope kick, Coventry took advantage - Hughes going up the blind side off a telegraphed pass to score. A bit too easy, really: 12-8.

Three minutes later Hornets were caught napping again, allowing the rotund Jack Morrison to barrel 50 metres downfield; from whence a flapping last-minute kick into the in-goal was left to bobble for Cooper to touch down amongst the chaos. Parker the two and - somehow - Hornets 12-14 down. Just shoddy.

On the half-hour, the introduction of Alex McClurg and the switch of Paul Crook to out-half flicked the switch. James Tilley held-up over the line, then another Jordan Case break finding Danny Bridge whose teasing kick behind defenders was just over-hit. Right in the hooter Matt Haggarty crashed through from short range to give Paul Crook an easy conversion. Half time 18-14.

Coventry began the second half in peculiar fashion. Gifted a penalty 20 metres from Hornets’ line they elected to kick into their deficit. *nion-style they took the points to trail 18-16. Most people incredulous. Hornets hit the gas.

Led by the influential Paul Crook, Hornets increased the tempo. A teasing 45th minute Crooky bomb was lost in flight by the Bears defence; Crooky followed up his own kick and - juggling the ball with his fingertips - managed to touch-down. His touchline conversion the icing on the cake: 24-16.

Then two tries in two minutes that effectively killed the game as a contest: Danny Jones skittling defenders to grab his inaugural Hornets try; then a delightfully delayed pass from Paul Crook to put Jordan Case in for a deserved try. 36-16: Coventry hoisting the kick-off straight out; Crooky sliding the ball into the in-goal to force a drop-out. Hornets response was clinical: quick hands right for Dave Hull to shrug-off defenders and score.

Two minutes later Paul Crook produced another 1-metre special to grab his hat-trick. Hornets effectively home and hosed at 46-16.

Coventry did rally briefly to grab a late consolation (Cooper off a short-pass to score), but when Danny Yates forced a 76th minute drop-out off a cheeky kick, Hornets swept the ball wide to give Dale Bloomfield a clear run to the line. Full time 50-22.

In the wash-up, this was - eventually - a fairly comfortable win for a Hornets side that played most of the football on offer. Certainly, the switch of Paul Crook to stand-off triggered a clear refocus in Hornets’ approach, his cool head and right decisions at the right time giving his side more go-forward.

But Coventry are no mugs: they came with a plan, compelled Hornets to start their sets under their own posts and capitalised on the errors when they came. We’ve said here lots of times that one of these development sides WILL upset the form book at some point ( Oldham’s unconvincing 32-4 win at Skolars also billed as an ‘ugly win’ by Scott Naylor) - so the priority for Hornets - and the teams around us - is to win first and then worry about they style in which it’s done.