Sunday, 28 June 2015

Hornets Sleepwalk to Victory in Slo-Mo Show

Hornets 32 - Hemel 14

There’s a scene in The Matrix where the action flicks into extreme slow-motion and we see Keanu Reeves dodge a bullet. This game was much the same - it started slowly and - as Hemel sucked every last drop of momentum out of the game - decelerated to the point where time itself seemed to stand still.

It was obvious early on that this was going to be a bit of a low-intensity contest as both sides tested the theory of stasis - engaged in a shadow-boxed opening quarter that reminded you of the ghost of a memory of a game you’ve half forgotten.

In the 14th minute, the inertia was temporarily broken as Danny Bridge spun out of a tackle to score from close range. Danny Yates unsuccessful with the extras: 4-nil. Then pretty much nothing to report until the 26th minute, when the return of John Cookson gained warm appreciative applause from the crowd. His introduction gave Hornets the go-forward they needed. Indeed, when Hemel’s Lloyd-Jones was sin-binned for attacking Cooky’s standing leg on 28 minutes, Hornets pressed hard: Jordan Case’s perfectly good try struck off for an unseen forward pass. No matter.

One minute later Danny Yates embarked on a mazy run, bamboozling static defenders to score. Yatesey wide with the conversion: 8-nil.

From the kick-off possession Hornets engineered a decent approach set: Ryan Smith’s teasing kick-through seeing Hornets regain possession as the gathering winger was shunted out of play.

Less than a minute later John Cookson arrived with real intent onto a short ball - punching in to score from close range to the biggest cheer of the afternoon. Yatesey with the two for 14-nil. Cookson a clear catalyst for a more determined, direct approach.

On 38 minutes, Hornets again pressed hard off the back of a solid approach set: Danny Yates again, showing and going all the way to the goal line for another well taken solo try. An easy two for 20-nil and Hornets looking to have shaken off the torpor.

But with the timekeeper clearing the hooter’s throat, Hemel’s most rotund lump Mbaraga was allowed to trundle through a huge hole to score a soft try. The sound of one hand clapping as the teams departed at the break at 20-4.

Hornets tried manfully to start the second half with more pace and purpose, but were gradually sucked into Hemel’s black-hole of anti-football. An early Danny Yates kick forced a drop-out; Hemel glacially slow to recommence play, then a frankly shocking pass from poor Ryan Smith let the Stags off the hook. Off the back of a mess of Hemel penalties, Hornets got Alex McClurg was ‘held-up’ over the line at the end of a headlessy aimless set. Then Warren Thompson adjudged similarly, despite being face-down on top of the ball in the in-goal. On 54 minutes Jordan Case finally got the ball down to Referee Mr Ansell’s satisfaction off a flat ball. Yatesey the two; 26-4.

Just past the hour mark - with the last dregs of energy draining from the game - Hornets were distracted enough for Brown to collect the ball wide on the right to score. 26-8. The home fans exhaled and gazed longingly at their watches.

With all motion now at a virtual standstill, the game became scrappy: two sides clearly out of ideas. The closest thing to action being Hemel’s Coleman taking a dive after a kick-through to con a penalty out of Mr Ansell. To add insult to apathy, that man Mbaraga came barelling through a retreating defence like a bin wagon negotiating a tricky corner to score a shocking slow-motion try. Young converted. Somehow it was 26-14.

Hornets did suck in for a big finish. The reintroduction of John Cookson for the last ten minutes again put Hemel on the back-foot. and, when Danny Bridge hit a flat ball at pace on 77 minutes to score (Yatesey with the extras), the result was given a thin veneer of respectability at 32-14.

We wrote in our preview of the sense in dragging part-time players the length of the country to act as cannon-fodder for the established teams. In credit to Hemel, they did a decent job on sucking the life out of every minute of this game - but it was one that they never really looked like winning. As for Hornets, it was a stodgy, disjoined performance in which Danny Yates, Wayne English and the returning John Cookson provided hints of what this side is really capable of.

Indeed, much as Hemel never looked like winning, Hornets were never in real danger of losing this one - and, once that jeopardy is removed it’s hard for either party to assume otherwise. And that, we think, was part of the issue - two teams required to play out pre-ordained roles. In our search for positives, it was a winning return to a lush Spotland after our annual hiatus - and a try-scoring return for John Cookson, which was good to see.

But, ultimately, you have to think of it like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. It may have been in slow-motion, but at least we dodged the bullet.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Saturday's Coming - Hemel Stags

People forget that Hemel have been around a while.

The original Hemel Hempstead Amateur Rugby League Football Club played their first match on 5 April 1981 and spent the next 15 years ploughing through the southern/London leagues before embarking on a stint in the Rugby League Alliance (A-team) competition in 1997. When the Alliance league was scrapped, the newly-named Hemel Stags became a stalwart of the RFL Summer Conference.

They celebrated their last season as a community club by beating Underbank Rangers 17-10 in the National Conference League Division 3 Grand Final at Featherstone in 29 September 2012.

In their two seasons in the semi-pro ranks, Hemel have finished both times in the playoffs. But the restructure of the league - and the injection of 8 good quality ‘heartland’ sides - have effectively created a two-tier competition in which Hemel have struggled to gain any real traction this year, with only three wins from eleven games, shipping an average of 42 points per game in the process. Last weekend saw them ship 70 points for he second time this year - blitzed by 70 to 10 at Pennine Way by York.

Indeed, the split in tier three has been the subject of much conjecture the last week or two as to whether it’s good for developing sides to get pasted by established clubs in this lop-sided division.

Our view is that, unless the RFL would consider North & South ‘conferences’ to ensure more even games and minimise the onerous travelling requirements (we’re still not convinced that dragging part-time players the length of the country to play in a non-contest in front of 180 people makes for a credible competition), throwing teams in at the deep end will ineveitably raise standards as the ‘new intake’ edge their way closer to their Northern counterparts.

And as that improvement continues, it’s only a matter of time before one of the top eight takes one of the ‘Southern six’ a bit too lightly and becomes Goliath in a giant-killing. And Hornets have to be sure that  - this week - it isn’t them.

Indeed, as the top eight tightens up to the point that every last drop of air twixt teams gets squeezed out, even the most perfunctory victory could catapult you up or down three or four places. And in this high-pressure, airless, compressed league-within-a-league, the points difference accrued against the bottom six has become the new bonus-point - which could prove critical at the sharp end of the season.

Having burned a huge chunk of their points advantage in the defeats against York and Keighley, Hornets have been sucked back into the scramble: York going the other way having banked a +60 last week to hike them up to fourth.

This weekend six of the top eight play each other (Crusaders play Keighley , York play Swinton and Barrow play Newcastle), so there’s plenty of opportunity for movement - as long as Hornets are ruthless enough to wring as many points as possible from their return to a lush, green Spotland.

Ultimately, the weeks of playing away always take their toll - and this shorter-than-usual hiatus has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved. Indeed, it’ll be good to be home - and  with half a season down it’s time to suck in for the big push to September.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Hornets stutter in Lawkholme Freak Show

Keighley 54 - Hornets 20

In 1724, French philospher Bernard le Bauvier de Fontenelle said: “The greatest hurdle to happiness is the expectation of too great a happiness.” A pioneer of ‘the enlightenment’,  he perfectly nailed this disappointing freak-show of a game at Cougar Park, where pretty much everything that could go wrong, did.

Having travelled in decent numbers - and with expectations buoyed by last week’s thriller at Cefn Mawr - Hornets’ supporters had their hopes put through the emotional wringer.

After a pretty even start, back-to back penalties swept Keighley downfield where relentless pressure eventually told; Handforth ducking in to score from close range. Lawton with the first of a flawless afternoon with the boot 6-nil.

Then the first of a chain of freak moments that swept the game in the Cougars’ favour. A last tackle hoist & hope kick from Handforth looked destined for the stand roof, but it swirled in the wind, dropped like a rock in the in-goal and popped straight up into Gabriel’s hands. Even the locals rubbed their eyes in disbelief; 12-nil.

On 15 minutes, Hornets applied some pressure of their own. A good approach set ending with a Danny Yates kick sparking panic in the home in-goal. A drop-out ensued. Two minutes later, somenifty footwork by Jack Ashworth and smart play up the blind-side by Paul Crook sent Dale Bloomfield in out wide. Crooky just wide with the conversion: 12-4.

On 22 minutes another moment of freakish luck for the home side. Hornets pushing hard up the right channel, the ball knocked loose from Danny Yates hands, White gathering to sprint 90 metres to score. 18-4. Gutting: You could see the body language slump.

Indeed, when Handforth followed up a break through some very ordinary tackling in centre-field to send Paul March under the black dot two minutes later, you could sense an irreversible slide: 24-4.

A well made try on 26 minutes - Brad Hargreaves the beneficiary after quick hands to the edge - gave Hornets some respite at 24-8: but another gift interception off an awful pass from Wayne English saw Gabriel stroll in and score. 30-8.

Most annoyingly, Hornets went in at the break 22 points adrift having been the better side with ball in hand - but the freakish nature of the home side’s fortune left Hornets with a metaphorical mountain to climb.

Keighley started the second half with real intent: Handforth dummying a last tackle kick to skate into open field, Dale Bloomfield pulling off a last-ditch tackle to stop Gabriel in his tracks. Hornets responded well: Jordan Case producing a last tackle dink & chase, but unable to force a drop-out.

With Handforth calling the shots, Keighley began to build pressure. And when Lynam arrived on a short ball after 52 minutes, he found enough space to wriggle through and score: 36-8.

Hornets rallied briefly with Ant Walker barrelling in to score on 55 minutes, but a dropped ball followed by a penalty two tackles later undid all the good work. Hornets’ defence caught static as Brooke scored. 42-14.

On 68 minutes another moment of serendipitous oddity as a last tackle Hornets kick into the in-goal was snaffled by White who pinned back his ears to sprint 105 metres to score; 48-14. And, if that were not enough freakery for a Sunday afternoon, a last tackle kick from Sherriffe pinballed off a series of defenders’ legs to land plumb in his brother’s hands with the line begging: 54-14.

With six minutes remaining Paul Crook produced a dummying run to score - and add the extras to bring this fragmented screwball mess of a game to a close at 54-20.

Having effectively gifted Keighley 24 points, this game was - in reality - much closer than the score suggests, but in games that are won or lost by inches, you can’t really afford to give a good side like Keighley such a massive leg-up.

As it was, an afternoon that began with such expectation ended in head-shaking disbelief. Bernard le Bauvier de Fontenelle would’ve had a field day.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sunday's Coming - Keighley

There’s really only one angle to any preview of a game with Keighley this season - and that’s the long shadow cast by the tragic loss of Danny Jones. Notwithstanding the heartbreaking impact on his family, friends, team-mates and the wider RL family, there’s little we can write here that’s not been said already. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to comprehend or articulate the impact that such a loss can have on a club and its community.

But Hornets fans can empathise more than many. When we lost our own Karl Marriott (28) and RL legend Roy Powell (33) to heart attacks weeks apart in 1998, the club was shaken to its roots. While both incidents occured around training sessions, that shock of senseless loss; of strong, fit men cut down in their prime; of keystones removed, resonates just as cruelly.

To the Keighley branch of our RL Family, the small comfort we can offer is that, whilst it doesn’t feel remotely possible that time will smooth the jagged edges off this painful loss, slowly, imperceptibly it will. Week by week, game by game. Danny Jones - like Karl & Roy - won’t be forgotten as long as fans like us carry them with us as part of our clubs’ legacy.

As it is, Sunday sees Keighley and Hornets contest the top of the division. The game of the day, it promises all the things that make us love this incredible sport of ours: drama, passion, intensity  - and, yes, emotion. So get down there and soak it all up - for even in the darkest of times, Rugby League can be life-affirming stuff.