Sunday, 19 May 2019

All Aboard The Emotional Rollercoaster

Hornets 30 - Swinton 40

This was a dizzying, disorientating defeat that left Hornets' sizeable and noisy support reeling in the aftermath. Having crackled with invention and ideas before the break, Hornets spent the second 40 minutes running through treacle - whereas Swinton found their feet, gained momentum and sped away, leaving Hornets fans with a collective 1,000 yard stare; brains whirring in disbelief.

Swinton started the brighter, ahead after just five minutes when they lofted a kick up Hornets right edge for Butt to out-jump Shaun Ainscough; Smith converting. Hornets' response was swift: Luis Johnson taking the ball to the Lions' line, Scott Moore producing a pinpoint pass to Brandon Wood who crashed in to score. Dan Abram the first of a perfect afternoon with the boot.

Hornets went straight back on the attack, fuelling their progress by feeding off Swinton's escalating error-count. Indeed, they looked certain to extend their lead when Shan Ainscough broke up the right with support in his wake. Ainscough opted for the inside pass to James Worthington, but  - somehow - the centre fumbled the ball with the fans already on their feet.

Two minutes later, Hornets attacked the same spot, this time Dan Abram stepped off his right to leave defenders clutching at air, slipping Dec Kay in by the posts. Abram the two, and Hornets looking good value for the 12-6 lead.

But Hornets were hit by an almost immediate sucker punch: some frankly awful defending up the right channel ushering Halton almost 40 metres to score: 12-10

On the half hour, Shain Ainscough reciprocated - exposing Swinton's defensive frailties up the same edge to dive in for the 100th try of his career. Dan Abram the two off the whitewash and Hornets' supporters in fine voice.

With the game approaching half-time, Harvey Livett capitalised on a Swinton error to kick the ball into the in-goal and win the foot-race to touch down. Abram the extras: Hornets comfortably in-charge at 24-10.

The talk in the stands was that Hornets had to score first after the break to quell any threat of a Swinton comeback. As it was, Swinton scored within a minute of the restart (Ashton up Hornets' left channel).

Hornets looked to have steadied the ship four minutes later when Shaun Aisncough grabbed his second to extend Hornets lead to 30-14. But 36 hours later, we're still processing what happened next...

Swinton found an extra gear - and Hornets, simply, couldn't go with them. Just ahead of the hour, Swinton produced a double-punch combination: back-to-back tries from Lloyd and Hansen - the latter after the defence failed to snuff-out a kick going nowhere. Hornets clung to the ropes for 13 minutes.

Then again two tries in two minutes. This time Fairclough and Paisley crossing through a flat-footed defence - the latter this time a walk-in off a Dec Kay Fumble. With 14 minutes remaining, Swinton held a Lazarus-like lead at 30-34.

Hornets hauled themselves off the canvas to go in search of redemption, but Swinton were resolute. As time ticked down, all it needed was was one chance. One chance...

It came in the 75th minute when Hornets were awarded a penalty within striking distance of the Lions' line. Like a punch-drunk boxer running on muscle-memory Hornets probed for an opening, but that one last swing proved fateful. With Swinton short on numbers up the right, Harvey Livett launched a huge cut-out pass towards Brandon Wood - only for Ashton to snatch the ball from the air and run 90 metres to administer the coup-de grace. Smith finally found his kicking boots to seal the deal at 30-40.

Whilst the post-mortem on this one will be disturbing and complex, it requires the answer to a single question: how can a team that played with so much vigour and dynamism before the break fall apart so badly?

36 hours on, we still don't have a clue.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Saturday's Coming: Swinton Lions at the Summer Bash

WELCOME TO BLACKPOOL: Time for Hornets to kick arse beside the seaside. 
(Photograph: Dougie Wallace from 'Stags, Hens and Bunnies: A Blackpool Story')

It's apt that the Summer Bash at Blackpool comes at the mid-point of the season, because this year's game agains fellow cellar dwellers Swinton provides the point around which our season could tip one of two ways.

Win and we could leapfrog Barrow, off the bottom of the competition (assuming the Raiders lose in Blackpool to Sheffield) and within points difference of Swinton, over whom we have a game in hand (admittedly, it is a points difference of 136!).

Lose and Swinton head off into the middle distance on 6 points, leaving Hornets looking for three more wins than the Lions in the back half of the season to overhaul them.

It is - literally - a pivotal game.

If last month's meltdown at Heywood Road was this season's nadir, Saturday at Bloomfield Road provides an opportunity for redemption and renewed optimism.

The remainder of the Championship season has effectively been boiled down to a three-way shoot-out involving Hornets, Swinton and Barrow. The aim? Finish top of this triumvirate of underachievement. A task made even more interesting by the trip to Barrow the week after Blackpool. Indeed, if you needed further proof of the importance of the next two weeks, Swinton's only two wins of this campaign came against Hornets - and at Barrow.

Everyone will know by now that Hornets v Swinton has been bumped back to a 3.30 kick off so that the weekend can open with a game that no-one's really interested in (T'onto v TOXIIIC) and which should guarantee an empty stadium for the cameras.

The new kick-off time means that Hornets' game now clashes with Catalan v Wigan at the Nou Camp in Barcelona. It also means that, in order to accommodate Dragons v The Pies, our game has been moved from Sky's mainstream sports channels, now hidden away behind the red-button. Those of you hoping to record our game will have to set your boxes for the replay at 10pm on Sky Sports Arena. I'm glad they've told us that now - because that would have been a very tricky sell to sponsors six months ago.

Swinton prepare for Saturday's game with a raft of injuries. Forwards Will Hope, Ben Austin and Jamie Acton have been joined by Lewis Hatton who has had surgery on a finger injury and will be out for six weeks. Swinton's depleted pack will feature former Hornets Gavin Bennion and Billy Brickhill. Michael Ratu is unlikely to play.

Hornets come into this game needing a win like oxygen - and the performance against York last weekend shows clear signs of improvement. Indeed, we reckon it's the closest we've got to York for quite a while, given their formidable bogey-team status. The inclusion of the four recent acquisitions looked pretty seamless and the spine of the team looked pretty solid (we like Ben Moores at Loose forward as he poses a running threat).

So we travel in hope, at least. Saturday gives the whole club a chance to regain some equilibrium after a challenging first half of the season. It's certainly a great opportunity for the fans to get together, make some noise and enjoy the event.

If you're still considering your options for Saturday, we urge you to get over to Bloomfield Road - even if it's just for our game. Tickets are still available from the club office - and everyone Hornets sells helps offset the costs incurred in participating in the Summer Bash.

So do yourself and the club a favour: get over to Blackpool and bring your singing voice. 'Kiss-me-quick' hats are optional. See you there.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Hornets Put In A Knight-Shift

Hornets 18 - York 24

There's not doubt that the outcome of this game feels like a corner turned. Ignore the fact that York clung on for a win that served to underline their credentials as an unconvincing third-placed outfit - forced into scrapping and scrambling by a patched-up Hornets side with its cracks grouted by loanees, trialists and players filling-in out of position.

While the high-flying Knights foundered and flailed (held, yet again, to a single second half try), Hornets looked organised, energised and workmanlike.

Hornets started with a bang: two Dan Abram 40/20s in the opening exchanges putting the visitors under early pressure, but it was the Knights who took the lead against the early run of play: working the ball tidily around the middle of a retreating defence for Marsh to score under the black dot, then full-back Bass making the extra man on a looping run from the back of the scrum for 0-10 after 16 minutes. York now with some momentum.

They capitalised on the quarter mark when Whiteley broke up the guts of the Hornets defence to be reeled in by Jack Johnson. But Hornets coughed-up a sloppy penalty on next play and York smuggled the ball wide for the otherwise hapless Mazive to find space by the flag.

Hornets continued to drive forward and were rewarded for their persistence on the half hour mark when a neat dink into the in-goal caught defenders napping, Lewis Sheridan quickest to react and get a hand on the ball. 6-14.

Having clawed their way back into the game, Hornets switched off with seconds of the half remaining: Bass reprising his extra-man role to score a carbon copy try to send the visitors in 6-18 up at the break.

The second half began with a flurry: Hornets applying pressure from a steepling Sheridan bomb, York contributing a knock-on. From the resulting play Joe Ryan was forced dead-in-goal to let York off the hook. Jack Johnson was then held-up in goal, but Hornets cane up with a poor last tackle option.

After 10 minutes of one-way traffic the pressure finally told: Liam Carberry hitting a flat-pass from acting half to crash through defenders and score. Abram the two and Hornets back in the race at 12-18.

Almost immediately, York produced a response: Blagbrough in off a short-pass after Robinson had stepped his way through the middle of the Hornets defence. 12-24: Hornets now in a 20 minute run chase. York's response? Go where they're comfortable - suck the daylight out of the game and turn it into a scrappy mess; happy to concede penalties and knock-ons to dissipate any possible momentum.

But Hornets strove to play what little lucid football remained. As the game drew into its closing phase, Hornets shipped the ball wide to Brandon Wood who showed great strength and determination to bypass Mazive and - somehow - plant the ball in the corner. Dan Abram a quality kick from the touchline and Hornets within range of a point at 18-24.

With 10 minutes remaining Hornets threw the kitchen sink at a York side happy to rope-a-dope their way to the final hooter. Their desire to park the bus almost backfired on 75 minutes when Dan Abram chased his own 50 metre downtown kick into the in-goal where Slater took an age to make his mind up: Abram a finger-tip away from the touch-down. York happy to concede a drop-out and stagger to victory.

Indeed, Hornets were the better side for long tracts of this game: enthusiastic, hard-working - enterprising, even. Certainly they looked organised and committed to the cause, which is a noticeable improvement.

As for York, if this is how good you have to be to be third in this competition, we can go into the second half of the season with at least some optimism. And with Swinton - at Blackpool - just round the corner, we can at least travel in hope.



Thursday, 9 May 2019

Sunday's Coming: York City Knights

We have good news and bad news.

The good news is that we have it on excellent authority that the posts are already up for Sunday's visit of York City Knights. So well done to the currently depleted Spotland Ground Staff as it was a bit breezy earlier in the week.

The bad news is that - since the Stadium debacle back in March - the RFL's darlings on this side of the pond have been on a relentless run of form that has taken them to fifth in the table with eight wins from 12 games. What caught our eye is that they've played eight of those 12 games at home - with only two of those being defeats, both to teams above them in the table (Toronto and Sheffield).
York's last three defeats have all come away from home.

Apart from the the tonking of Barrow (56-nil!) and a 22 point winning margin over Halifax, this has all the hallmarks of a team that gets the job done (they have the second smallest positive points difference in the competition). Indeed, in the last month they have bookended a narrow four-point loss in Toulouse with wins over Widnes and Batley, by seven and four points respectively. So staying in the arm-wrestle is absolutely key to competing with James Ford's side.

This was evident last week when York almost came unstuck against Batley, as the Bulldogs ramped up their second-half defensive effort to get within a score of nicking the game. Leading comfortably by 22-10 at half time, York found Batley's high-intensity approach after the break difficult to manage, the visitors restricting the Knights to a single second-half try as they chipped away at the margin, but were beaten by the clock.

Having had a look at the highlights, Batley capitalised on York's flaky right edge, isolating Judah Mazive on three occasions to score.

In the last week, Ford has been quoted in York's local press as asking for 'more support' from his board if his side are to sustain their early season form. He wants investment in his squad and in his side's training 'environment'. But his immediate concern is the injury crisis that has his squad down to the bare bones. He said: "We're going to struggle to field 17 players next week. We picked up another couple of injuries (against Batley)".

Hornets come into the game on the back of an all-too familiar pumping by Featherstone Rovers - which will, no-doubt, have given Matt Calland a few extra things to consider - though we do hear on the grape-vine that local reinforcements are on the way.

More than anything, though, the club needs a confidence-boosting performance - and instilling belief is the biggest coaching challenge of all. See you Sunday.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Plus ça change...


Hornets 10 - Featherstone 56

So, anything happen while we were away? Other than the departure of Carl Forster and the appointment of 'the fans' choice' Matt Calland as his replacement?


Chucked in at the deep-end with the game against his former club Featherstone looming, Calland only had a couple of sessions with the squad before getting a fairly abrupt assessment of the scale of the task in hand.

In a championship that's becoming increasingly stretched between full-time and part-time, haves and have-nots, Fev have had - by their standards - a pretty ordinary season thus far. They arrived at Spotland sitting in 7th with a six-and-six record, but boarded the bus home having demonstrated the clear existence of two parallel championships within the one competition: Hornets reduced to chasing shadows at times as the visitors rammed home ten-tries in a one-sided contest.

Those anticipating some sort of messianic miracle were instantly disappointed: Hornets started the game with a knock-on and 45 seconds later Rovers rake King slumped in from acting half. Chisholm added the extras and Fev were up and running.

With the lion's share of the early possession, Featherstone added to their early score with a quick-fire double whammy: Harrison hitting a short-ball to score under the black-dot on 10 minutes, followed by Chisholm in the same spot after a prestidigitatious exchange of passes up the guts of a sloppy defence. Chisholm converting both and Hornets 18-nil down with 12 minutes gone.

Hornets rallied briefly around the quarter-mark when a rare attack saw the ball shifted wide for Shaun Ainscough to score by the flag for 4-18

There was brief respite as the game became scrappy, which suited Hornets. But when Featherstone found themselves with space to work off a 25th minute penalty, quick-hands worked the ball to Carey who scored out wide.

Hornets ended the half with their best spell of pressure, forcing a drop-out, but getting snagged in possession on the last tackle - a feat they repeated just four minutes later.

The sides retired to the sheds at a modest 4-22.

Hornets started the second-half brightly: Luis Johnson held-up in-goal. But the pressure was short-lived as Featherstone again produced a three-minute two-punch combination that sucked the air out of the contest: Hardcastle with a walk-in through a flat-footed defence, Cooper under the sticks after another huge break up the heart of the Hornets defence. Chisholm on-target and, at 4-34 with half an hour remaining, it became a question of 'how many'?

Featherstone added another double either side of the hour: Carey in the corner after a sweeping move that had Hornets clutching air, then Cooper straight through the middle from 25 metres. Too easy: 4-44.

With 10 minutes remaining Hornets centre Ben Morris stole the ball from a bemused Davis to score (Abram the two) - but Featherstone produced yet another rapid brace: Makatoa in off a short-ball, Golding from close range gliding through a defence gone AWOL. Chisholm on target to give Featherstone a rudimentary 10-56 win.

From a Hornets supporters point of view, this was the difficult first step on a journey of rehabilitation as the new coaching team seeks to reignite what looks increasingly like a side with a confidence crisis.

In the media surrounding Calland's appointment he said that coaching Hornets is 'the job he always wanted'. And supporters now have the coach they always believed could improve Hornets' fortunes.  The test for both starts here.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Hornets Suffer the Chill Factor

Salford 76 - Hornets 6

It was a evening of cold comfort at the AJ Bell Stadium on Friday nights as a Hornets side fresh from a day at work froze in the face of a Red Devils onslaught.

Steered effortlessly round the park by Jackson Hastings, Salford ran in 13 tries; with Chamberlain and Inu sharing 12 goals equally. Conversely, Hornets looked big on graft and light on craft, struggling with the pace of Salford's attack right from the whistle.

Salford were 18-nil up on the 9 minute mark with tries from Burke, Evalds and Dudson: running at twice the rate of the clock didn't augur well. There was some intense debate amongst the noisy Rochdale contingent in a frugally thin crowd as to whether Hornets should've taken the two points at 6-nil to avoid the duck.

By the half-hour mark, Hornets had stemmed the torrent to a mere 34-0 before Shaun Ainscough followed a Dan Abram kick into the in-goal for Hornets' only score of the night. Cue the singing from the Hornets fans.

Indeed, most of the singing came from the Western end of the AJ Bell stand, the home crowd applauding further tries from Chamberlain, Tomkins, Evalds and Bibby politely. All the atmosphere of an asteroid,

Hornets went to the break at 40-6.

The second half looked much like the first, Hornets back-pedalling as Salford added tries by Bibby, Evalds (twice in four minutes), Griffin, Lui and Inu.

By some distance the highlight of the second half  was the banter between the Hornets fans and the poor frozen in-goal judge at the Western End who had - literally - nothing to do and even went for a pee at one point.

Post Match Hornets assistant coach Anthony Stewart said: "The effort was good but we didn’t expect that score. There were some positive performances from some of the lads but others were not on top form."

“Salford are a team that attacks really well and it was a top performance from them. We will take the positives and move on from there but we needed more from some of our lads tonight.”

In the end it was a disappointing show all round. Salford coach Ian Watson had put a rocket up his players in the week and, on the night, went with his strongest available side. Salford were sharper, bigger, faster and far superior in every department. It's a shame that the people of Salford don't get behind them in numbers.

As it was, it was the worst of all worlds: a thumping away from home and no big Cup dividend to soften the blow. And, as attention turns back to Good Friday's absolute must-win Championship dog-fight of a game at Swinton, Hornets put their Cup dreams back on ice for another year.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

Friday's Coming: Salford

UNHAPPY CHAPPY: Ian Watson runs out of fingers to
count the ways in which Salford are awful at the moment
Salford are riding on the crest of a slump at the moment. Four straight defeats has seen the Red Devils slide down the Super League Ladder to a heady 7th - with a worse points difference than bottom club Leeds.

Ex-Hornet - and former tippy-toed half-back - Ian Watson is an unhappy coach. Speaking after his side's 23-6 home defeat to Hull, he envisages changes: "After that performance there will need to be changes," he said in the League Express this week. And he thinks the problem lies between his players' ears: "We need to re-shape; not the way we play, but some individual mentalities."

Ooh, do name names, Watto: "... the guys who are playing should be taking their opportunities and not leaving me to make that choice. At the moment I feel like I have to make the choice and that's the problem. We have said the same thing over the last four weeks, We are not saying the same things again next week. We will be making changes." But who? Who's been idling around for a month? We need to know!

Watson has been missing a few first choice names of late, but Junior Sa'u and Tyrone McCarthy should be back for Friday night's game.

He's disappointed with his players, though: "They're a committed group, but we're desperately disappointed. We've come up against four big teams and we should have won the majority of the games. We're putting pressure on ourselves. We feel as though we're beating ourselves at the moment." Excellent, long may it continue. If only we knew where it was all going so terribly wrong.

"We're not starting games well, and good teams don't let up in patches of the game. We're our own downfall and we're lacking experience in certain areas, as well as composure."

As if that's not enough, over in UKIP's preferred RL read 'League, Weakly', Watson also revealed: "We are not building enough pressure on the opposition goal line and it's  coming back and biting us."

He went on: "It's the same old same old. We are talking about errors and poor discipline (they lost the penalty count 7-9)."

"They held the ball, we didn't hold the ball enough once we got into those right field positions, especially in the first half when we bombed a couple of chances and they went down to 12 men."

There's never really a good time to catch a Super League side, but this does sound like a Salford outfit foundering in the grip of a confidence crisis. Which we are delighted to hear.

Hornets go into this tie on he back of a curate's egg of a performance against a pretty ordinary Halifax side. For 50 minutes, Hornets matched the visitors and showed decent resilience, before the game slid almost imperceptibly out of our reach. But if we can maintain a good level of performance more evenly over the 80 minutes and Salford continue to wobble, who knows? We think that the miracle is unlikely to happen - but we've seen Rugby League miracles happen.

Ultimately, it'll be good to see Hornets go round at the AJ Bell - even though it means navigating the bloody M60 on the first Friday night of the Easter Holidays. Whoever came up with that one needs pulling through with a pineapple.

We're pretty sure if we'd've played it at home on a Sunday at 3pm we'd get a bigger crowd.

But we are where we are. Get there if you can - there a few Hornets fans getting together in the main/AJ Bell stand, so let's fly the flags, make some noise and get behind the lads.

See you there,

Monday, 8 April 2019

Whistle While You Work



Hornets 24 - Halifax 48.

This was the archetypal game of two halves, hamfistedly glued together by an over-officious refereeing performance that saw Hornets slammed 15-5 in the penalty count.

For 40 minutes Hornets matched a Halifax outfit that looked like it'd much rather be somewhere else, but in the second half they were swept away by a tidal wave of unlucky breaks, dubious decisions and a Halifax side that had clearly had a rocket up their arse at half time.

But it was Hornets who started with a bang, Lee Mitchell hitting a short-ball at pace after just two minutes to glide under the black dot. Abram the extras - and on target again with a penalty five minutes later to give Hornets a comfortable 8-nil lead.

But on 10 minutes, Mr Crashley made his first intervention. Fairbank's break up the guts of the Hornets defence had defenders scrambling back, loanee Jack Higginson adjudged to have loitered too long in the tackle and shown the yellow card.

Halifax took instant advantage of their numerical superiority, Tyrer racing onto a kick into the space vacated by Higginson to get Halifax on the board; Tyrer improving his own try. 

Almost immediately Hornets were gifted an opportunity to respond: a frankly awful pass from Laulu-Togagae fell to Lee Mitchell, but Hornets panicked the ball wide where the last pass bounced harmlessly into touch.

On the quarter-mark, Tyrer again exploited Higginson's absence to grab his second try of the afternoon to give Halifax the lead at 8-10.

Higginson's return paid immediate dividends: Hornets executing a neat, looping shift up the right channel where he proved too strong for a retreating defence. Hornets back in the box-seat at 12-10.

With the game approaching the half hour mark, Mr Crashley became increasingly whistle-happy. The result was a sucker-punch double for Woodburn-Hall - the first coming from a blatant obstruction.

But Hornets sucked in for a big finish and got their reward in the last minute of the half when Ellis Robson out-muscled three defenders to plant the ball down. Dan Abram with the two and Hornets with the momentum at 18-22.

Indeed, Hornets began the second half in similar fashion, Ben Moores denied two tries in rapid succession. First his lunge to touch down his own kick into the in-goal was ruled out, then his reaction to a sloppy carry by Fleming was penalised as 'ripped'. Halifax, then marched straight upfield where Sharp went in by the flag. It kinda set the tone for what was to come.

As Mr Crashley became increasingly pedantic - and Hornets became increasingly frustrated - Halifax eventually crawled on top of the game.

Woodburn-Hall grabbed his third after a period of sustained pressure and - on the hour - Laulu-Togagae used a static attacker as cover to create a big enough hole to step through. No obstruction call was forthcoming.

We then saw a bit of refereeing that resembled a Two Ronnies gag. Hornets defence hit hard in the tackle, tipping the Halifax ball carrier onto his back. Whilst the travelling fans bayed for a 'tipping' penalty, it was obvious that the player concerned hadn't passed the vertical. However, at the conclusion of the NEXT tackle, Mr Crashley blew and gave a penalty for his interpretation of the offence that had happened the TACKLE BEFORE.  Just awful.

Despite this, Hornets continued to plug away and it was Ben Moores who went closest, the ball slipping from his fingers with the line begging as he looked to push a pass to Brandon Wood.

As the game moved into the closing stages, Halifax struck with a late brace: Saltonstall spinning away from defenders; Laulu-Togagae allowed to step through from close range.

Last word, though, went to Hornets: Carl Forster piling through defenders to score on the hooter, Dan Abram with the conversion.

This game was a great example of how big momentum shifts can hinge on individual moments: Dan Abram's attempted intercept that slipped from his grasp, Halifax scoring from the resulting scrum; the wayward pass to Brandon Wood off a Halifax error when Hornets were a man down; Ben Moores double denial early in the second half. Add the added impetus of Mr Crashley's surrealist interpretation of the laws and you can at least see how the game slid slowly away from Hornets.

Yes, it's frustrating - infuriating, even. This is a pretty ordinary Halifax side, but they capitalised on every opportunity that came their way. Maybe the need to be more ruthless is the lesson to take away from this one.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Sunday's Coming: Halifax


Halifax come over the hill on Sunday for what is now our local 'derby' - and by their recent standards, they're having a somewhat ordinary start to their season.

Having reached the SL Qualifiers in 2017 and 2018 (finishing 3rd and 4th respectively) Halifax currently sit 8th in the comp with a 4 and 4 record and a -75 points difference - giving Richard Marshall's side the dubious honour of topping the Championship's 'League within a League'

Halifax scraped past League 1 Hunslet in the Cup by 24-28 last week, and have all the hallmarks of a team struggling to find rhythm: either losing games by a sizeable margin or edging unconvincing victories. Their only dominant thus far win a 26-nil drubbing of Dewsbury last month.

Last week, though Halifax had to come from behind to beat the League 1 leaders - despite having led early doors. Hunslet took a 16-6 lead into the break and were hanging on to a six point lead with 70 minutes gone. But two fortuitous late tries - one off a Hunslet fumble, the second from a pass deflecting off a defender - proved enough to earn Halifax a home tie against London Broncos in the next round.

Our three to watch are:

Quentin Laulu-Togaga'e: Having begun his career at Souths Logan Magpies in the Queensland Cup, Tongan international QLT has plied his footy trade in the UK. He earned a reputation as a bit of a points machine in his five seasons at Sheffield with 183 tries (and smashing the club's 'tries in a season' record). He also weighed in with 22 more scores in his 33 games for Manchestoronto. Since then, his career has stuttered a bit. Four tries in four games for Halifax in 2018, before heading into Super League with Castleford where he looked to have made a good step-up (scoring 6 tries in his 9 games), but eyebrows were raised when he wasn't retained at the end of last year.

Scott Murrell: the dynamo at the heart of the Halifax side, Murrell looks every inch like a bloke who's won a place on the team photo in a raffle. But his laid-back style belies his influence on the Halifax side. Fundamentally, everything goes via his hands or his right boot, so if you can persuade him to have an off-day, Halifax as a unit will follow. Murrell has played over 175 games for 'Fax since his move from Hull, KR in 2013, so it's fair to say that Richard Marshall has built his team around Murrell's abilities. Most interesting to us is that he has accrued a career total of 10 drop-goals. So if it's a tight game - get to the kicker.

Steve Tyrer: since joining from Widnes in 2012, Tyrer has kicked 668 goals for Halifax. Thats about 112 goals a season. Or more than 4 per game. Bloke's a machine - doesn't miss. No penalties.

Hornets come into the game also having nicked a challenge cup tie against League 1 opposition. Having struggled to make headway against an obstinate and agricultural Whitehaven side, Hornets played some of their most expansive, high-tempo football for some time - in the last minute of each half! Finishing both halves strongly was the key to a workmanlike win and if Fozzy can instil that desire to move the ball at pace more often, we'll be a hard team to stop.

Of late, Halifax have had the wood over Hornets, so we go looking to break another sequence of defeats - and given Halifax's current malaise, now is a good time to get them.

Games against our nearest Yorkshire rivals have always been tough, combative affairs and if Hornets can stay in the game and stifle Fax's playmakers, this one too could come down to who blinks first.

We're looking forward to this one. See you Sunday.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Rec'd: Hornets Shatter Haven Cup Dream At The Death

Whitehaven 21 - Hornets 22

A smash & grab raid. A get out of jail free card. A sting in the tail. Roll out the clichés for this one because this game had an extraordinary twist that not one of the 889 people present saw coming.

Hornets trailed to a pugnacious, obdurate 'Haven side for 79 minutes and 59 seconds of this slow-mo car-crash of a game - but Dan Abram's conversion of his own sucker-punch try as the siren sounded was enough to whisk this cup-tie from under Whitehaven's nose.

With an eerie sense of deja-vu, the home side were up and running after just six minutes when Phillips raced onto a kick, caught Dec Kay off balance and skated in to score. Moore added the extras and the travelling Hornets contingent looked skywards.

Hornets did hit back when Ben Morris showed good determination to crash in and score. Abram the two and, briefly, Hornets had parity.

Offered the opportunity to take points, Whitehaven gratefully accepted, Holliday adding a penalty to regain 'Haven's lead.

Just past the quarter-mark the home side were gifted another boost: Dam Abram pedantically sin-binned for throwing the ball away. Given some of Whitehaven's somewhat agricultural tactics in the tackle, it felt like a bit of an over-reaction from referee Mr Rossleigh.

Haven took immediate advantage; shifting the ball wide where Moore made the extra man. Holliday raised the flags and 'Haven looked set to go to the break with an 8-point advantage.

But Hornets weren't quite done, producing an early contender for try of the season as Brandon Wood, Ben Morris and Dec Kay inter-passed through a back-pedalling home defence, Kay finishing with a stepping flourish to rouse the travelling support. Dan Abram added the two and at 14-12 at the break we suddenly had a game one our hands.

The second half, though, became mired in a near-stasis: both sides locked in a pig-ugly wrestle, with fluid football at a premium. The only respite was a pair of somewhat dubious penalties to Whitehaven, both dispatched by Holliday to extend his side's lead to 18-12 on the hour mark. Hornets now needing two scores to win.

On 70 minutes 'Haven's Forrester took the inevitable drop goal (which didn't really change matters) and, when Moore added yet another penalty on 74 minutes it looked like a done deal at 21-12.

But wait...

With three minutes remaining, Hornets worked the ball close to the 'Haven line where Shaun Ainscough bullied his way over to score: Dan Abram unable to add the extras from out-wide.

21-16 with one minute left on the clock.

Hornets then produced the set of the season: big metres made on approach, Whitehaven finding themselves shunted down the hill onto their goal-line, their defence stretched just enough for Dan Abram to exploit a chink of daylight and slip through under the black dot. Disbelief all round. Abram then the coolest head in the ground to slam home the conversion as the hooter sounded to give Hornets the lead for the first time.

If you're looking for positives, the stats tell an interesting story. Hornets out-scored Whitehaven three tries to two and kept 'Haven tryless in the second-half. On the down-side, 'Haven took 8 points from sloppy penalties and it was nearly - though not quite - enough to see them through.

Ultimately, a win is a win - especially in knock-out football. And you have to credit Hornets for going the whole distance to find a way to drag victory from the maw of defeat.

For 79 minutes and 59 seconds of this game it looked like Hornets would - once again - fall foul of the Recre' hoodoo. But these lads CAN run for 80 minutes and it's Hornets in the hat for the next round.





Thursday, 28 March 2019

Up Fer't Cup: Whitehaven

There's no easy way to say it. The Recre' is a graveyard.

And when the Hornets ball came out of the draw hot on the heels of the Whitehaven one, the flashbacks started.

Last year in the Challenge Cup, Alan Kilshaw's tenure reached a nadir as his Hornets side were brutally dicked 38-nil, shipping five tries to Carl Forster's fired-up League 1 outfit. In the 'haven side that day were Dan Abram (who kicked nine goals and scored a try), Ellis Gillam and Fozzy himself - so he'll be acutely aware of just how slippery this particular banana skin is.

The good news, though is that 10 of Hornets' starting 13 that day have buggered off elsewhere, leaving just Dec Kay, Ben Moores and Lee Mitchell to suffer a dreadful case of deja-vu.

In contrast Whitehaven's 2019 side contains nine of last year's winning side - including half-back pairing Callum Philips and Dion Aiye who did so much damage last year.

'Haven come into the game on the back of a very odd victory indeed: 16-30 at West Wales Raiders. Nothing in particularly unusual there - but the game kicked off In Llanelli at 11.00am last Sunday morning. God knows what time people had to be up to make that happen.

Whitehaven took only 90 seconds to open their account at Stebonheath Park last week and were cruising comfortably at 6-26 at the break. The second half, though, belonged to the home side, clawing their way back to 16-26 at one stage. A 65th minute try from full-back Chris Taylor ensured they job got done, but West Wales did keep 'Haven scoreless for 36 minutes in this game. Haven's man of the match was that man Callum Phillips who weighed in with a first half hat-trick of tries.

But 'haven coach Gary Charlton is a hard man to please, disappointed with their second half performance. In the Whitehaven News this week he said: "I was very disappointed with our second half performance. At 26-6 up, I thought we took our foot off the gas. I thought we weren’t as clinical as we were in the first half and we went away from everything that we had to do."

Luckily, he identified the issue: “Our problem was our defending. We’re not as fluent as what we should be moving forward and that’s what we need to work on. I just said to the boys that if you give away penalties then you’ll concede tries."

He is looking forward to Sunday, though: “I know the lads are looking forward to it and pulling off another good Cup win... I know Fozzy’s return with Rochdale has created a lot of interest.”

Charlton may have to try and do it without both first choice wingers, though. Strike threat Andrew Bulman fractured his cheekbone and eye socket at West Wales. Bulman scored six tries in a 74-6 home win over Wigan St. Patrick’s in the last round, equalling the club's record for tries in a game. On the other edge, Dave Thompson was withdrawn at West Wales with a knee injury. He'll be assessed this week.

Hornets come into Sunday's game in search of a catalyst to ignite the season. Last weekend's heavy defeat to Widnes was a challenging watch at times despite the disparity in resources. The one positive was that we did match a very good Widnes side for 20 minutes. The last hour was a bit of a parade, though.

So we gird up our loins once more and head for darkest West Cumbria. A win would not only boost morale, but open the door for a decent cup run. We believe that it's always best to get the worst team in the cup at home UNTIL you're the worst team left in the cup, then you want the biggest team in it away from home - and bank the cheque.

So, who's up for the cup? See you in Whitehaven

Monday, 25 March 2019

A Zero Sum Game

Hornets 4 - Widnes 50

On days like this, it seems you can't win: literally and metaphorically.

As the 'new' Widnes machine steams on as if nothing has happened, Hornets were reduced to bit-part players as the hand-wringing League media focused on how a criminally mis-managed club that's burned millions of pounds could haul itself back to zero points by beating a fan-owned team of part-timers in their own back-yard. Anthony Gelling on Rugby AM even referred to it as an 'underdog story'. Yeah? No.

For all their troubles, Widnes remain a slick, well-oiled unit - well-organised and, by far, the fastest-breaking side we've seen this season. Indeed, it was their pace on the break that gave Hornets problems all afternoon.

Having hoofed the kick-off straight into the Pearl Street stand, Hornets had first use of the football - but Widnes were first on the board after just five minutes: Ince in out wide from the visitor's first meaningful attack.

Hornets pushed back. A set played within the Widnes 10m zone ended with Tyler Whittaker stepping through a flat-footed defence to level the scores. The huge travelling support silenced.

And so it stayed, past the quarter-mark: Hornets now attuned to the arm-wrestle: a hard-hitting copy-book tackle by Ryan Millington on Harrison Hansen setting the standard.

But Referee Mannifield's freestyle jazz interpretation of the laws piggy-backed Widnes upfield where Hansen hit a short ball at close range to slump in and score. Owens added the two for 4-10.

From the resulting kick-off, Widnes' out-half Craven produced a huge 40/20 and the ball was moved wide to Buckley who scored by the flag. Owens in target; Hornets reeling.

The half ended with a double-whammy from Ince: Hornets closest response came from Ben Morris who was unable to execute his pass to Lee Mitchell due to a clash of heads: the Hornets skipper stretching, but unable to reel-in the spiralling ball with the line at his mercy.

Hornets began the second half in positive fashion: good shape, good defence. But when Owens found a gap to release Brand after 52 minutes, you could feel Widnes move up a gear.

Two sucker-punch tries in quick succession just past the hour (Wilde going 80 metres from the back of a scrum, Roby first to react to a dink into the in-goal) blew-out the scoreline and a last minute 90 metre effort from Ince brought down the curtain on a difficult afternoon.

The Widnes fans celebrated like they'd won the cup - which those of you of a certain vintage will recall they used to do on a regular basis - but today it was all about the Vikings wiping off their penalty for going into administration.

In the end, whilst it was a hard game to enjoy for the Hornets faithful, they can console themselves with the thought that the revenue raised from the game exceeded budget forecast threefold. So at least Widnes helped us balance our books this week. And from a business point of view, THAT is a big win.



Thursday, 21 March 2019

Sunday's Coming: Widnes


Let's start with the elephant in the room. The Widnes that comes to Spotland on Sunday is not the Widnes that tanked so spectacularly just three games into a brand new season. That previous Widnes somehow had millions of pounds worth of Super League funding - and £370,000 of its parachute payment - through its hands, yet still ended up with less than a grand in the bank.

Saved - this time - at the absolute death by a consortium comprising Chris Price, Jason Shaw, Roger Harrison MBE, Stuart Murphy, David Dean, Tracey Glendinning, and Rod Steele, it's been revealed that the club had already had an early advance of its RFL distribution - and it's gone back to Super League this week to ask for the outstanding £130,000 of the previous administration's parachute payment.

New CEO Phil Finney said earlier this week: "We're going to have to present to Super League and explain why we should continue to receive it. It will be really helpful if we can retain it." But there is no 'continuity' - the business that the parachute payment was earmarked for no longer exists. And as the new business is less than a month old, there's nothing to 'retain', surely?

With the club snatched back from the brink, everyone envisaged an exodus - but it's been a trickle rather than a flood. Adam Tangata, Krisnan Inu and Wellington Albert were all let go (Albert and Tangata have since engaged lawyers claiming a breach of contract and a failure to adhere to TUPE regulations), Academy players Sam Walters and Jarrod O’Connor were transferred to Leeds Rhinos for an undisclosed fee, Liam Hood went to Leigh and four members of the back-room staff were also laid off.

Speaking in League Express, coach Kieron Purtill said: "... last week was the first time that we almost got back to normal, with not having to worry about players leaving or being paid."

CEO Finney revealed the plan to support this 'new normal': " ...we have to aspire to finish as high as we can this season and look to getting as much central funding as possible for 2020.”

This week has seen the Chemics unable to register new signings Dom Speakman and Luis Johnson due to the new owners' business plan awaiting RFL sign-off -  and the club has also given marquee player Anthony Gelling two-weeks leave to take care of family issues.

The upshot of this chaos is that Widnes were docked 12 points and sent to the bottom of the Championship - but with five wins from six games, they've already chipped away at the deficit and see Sunday as an opportunity to haul themselves back to zero points.

Last week Widnes pipped Bradford 25-20: the bulls denied a last minute shot at victory with a try under the black dot controversially struck off for obstruction. We've watched it a couple of times - it's 50:50 at best.

Hornets come into the game following a run of the mill loss at Leigh that offered no nutritional value whatsoever. It just sits alongside all the other Leigh defeats in the back of the memory, half forgotten until the next time we dust them off.

But if history counts for anything, it's rare that we get to play Widnes at such a low-point. Indeed, when was the last time Widnes needed to beat Hornets in order to only be two points behind us?

We should spare them that indignity by beating them. It wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to them this season by some distance. See you Sunday.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Deja-Vu at the LSV


The omens weren't good.

Wins against Leigh are few and far between. At the LSV the Centurions notched up their 13th consecutive victory in a sequence stretching all the way back to 2004. And, in that time, Hornets sides of variable provenance have shipped way more than the 46 points here.

This addition to the Leigh canon of defeats, feels harder to bear if only for the utilitarian ordinariness of the current Centurions side. Whilst it is well-drilled and smooth of movement, it does have the air of 12 panel-beaters bashing through their sets with a stoic determination.

But in Danny Richardson they had a craftsman match-winner - and regardless of how deeply irritating he might be - he proved the difference on the day: untouched by human hand and given free rein to stroll around behind the ruck adding a veneer of polish to proceedings.

In a first half car-crash of back-pedalling and penalties, Hornets looked stunned in the headlights: Richardson directing traffic as the game slid inexorably - inevitably, even - away from Hornets.

Three tries in the opening quarter (Thornley off a short pass, T. Adamson looking interested from short-range, Bentley finishing a Ridyard break) set the scene. Hornets did knuckle down to some improved defence for the period approaching the half hour - indeed even managed to test the Leigh defence - but it was brief respite.

On the half hour Pownall crashed in by the flag, with Scott Moore shown the yellow card for what looked like a badly timed accidental contact rather than the wilful high-shot indicated by referee Mr Griffiths. Leigh took full advantage of the extra man, going to the other flank where McNally scored unopposed. Richardson hit his fifth goal from five and Hornets went to the sheds 30-nill down, desperately seeking answers.

Whatever was said in the dressing rooms worked. Hornets came out the second half a different proposition: digging in hard on defence to resist a wave of Leigh attacks. For 30 minutes Hornets put up some stubborn defence to frustrate Leigh and their endlessly whining fans - but the effort emptied the tank and Leigh followed though with three tries in the last ten minutes (Bentley again following McNally break; Hood stepping through a flat-footed defence and McNally getting his second after an exchange of passes involving Ridyard and Thornley).

Just as it looked like the Hornets faithful were heading home with nothing to cheer, Hornets pushed upfield where hard-working Ryan Millington launched himself onto a delicious flat-pass from Callum Wood to score by the posts. Dan Abram slotted the extras for 46-6.

There's no denying that this was a challenging watch: the first 40 minutes a bit of a shapeless, sprawling mess in which individual efforts to stem the tide failed to cover the unit's shortcomings.

We spoke afterwards about Hornets needing to find a rhythm - and the top-start nature of the season thus far hasn't helped that: whilst the engine turns, it struggles to fire. Indeed, this was what gave Leigh the advantage: they have a clear pattern and flow - and the man to make it tick.

In the wash-up - whilst disappointed in the outcome - it's hardly a new experience. Hornets don't beat Leigh. So let's consign this to history and move on.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Sunday's Coming: Leigh

In a week to forget, there's been a few things to remember.

For starters, remember Danny Richardson? He played played 34 times for Saints last year -  scoring six tries, kicking 150 goals and ending the season in the Super League Dream team. An impressive launch pad for any young player. His reward? Replaced in Justin Holbrook's affections by Theo Fages and dumped out on loan to Leigh.

Fast-Forward to last week and Leigh ran-in six tries against hapless Swinton - with Richardson leading the charge as the Leythers cruised home 30-12. Most of the damage done in the last ten minutes of the first half when Leigh steamed in 16 points (one controversially as referee Greg Dolan allowed Leigh to play the ball after the hooter had sounded) to go in 20-nil up at the break.

Leigh currently sit plonked in 7th place in the BetFred Championship with three wins and three defeats from their six games. The win at Heywood Road last week was their first away win of the season: their most eye-catching defeat came at the hands of York the week before going down 9-8. One for the purists.

If you're looking for a hint in previous form, the stats don't make good reading on Leigh v Hornets fixtures: the Leythers having now won 12 games straight, home and away. Hornets' last win came all the way back in August 2004 when Bobbie Goulding's side of kids and misfits demolished Leigh 44-18 at Hilton Park. At 18-nil that day, the Hornets faithful were in full voice, when a Leigh fan in front of us turned round and said: "Sing all you like, we haven't started yet."  At 30-nil, Andy 'Pugwash' Birch tapped the guy on the shoulder and said: "You'll be sure to let us know when you've started, won't you?" Genius.

But that was then and this is now. As work began last week to build 103 homes (we know, we couldn't believe that either) on the site of Leigh's former home, we head for Leigh Sports Village  - which has all the aesthetic charm of an Eastern European sub-station. And Hornets travel there in the wake of the now infamously embarrassing postponement last weekend. We agree entirely that health & safety protocols must be adhered to, to ensure the safety of players, officials, staff and fans. Indeed, the ground staff must have learned a great deal from Sunday's incident, given that they were able to remove the covers in similar conditions on Tuesday.

Parking that in the past, Sunday provides Hornets with a challenging task and an opportunity to benchmark progress against one of the more capable sides in this year's Championship. Since they tanked in spectacular fashion last year, Leigh have assembled a useful looking team, but it still looks reliant on the venerable efforts of veteran Micky Higham to steer them round and haul them through. His head-to-head with Scott Moore should be worth the admission money alone.

Ultimately, most people at the LSV this weekend will expect Leigh to win at a canter; but it needn't be so, and we should look to that 2004 side for inspiration. This season has had a stalling, stuttering start for Hornets and it needs a spark to give us all a much needed boost. 15 years is too long to wait, so why not this team, this time, this season?

We could do with a game to remember - and you wouldn't want to miss that would you?

See you Sunday.






Monday, 11 March 2019

In Search of Answers

Much like you we are waking up this morning questioning pretty much everything about yesterday's debacle: a punishing embarrassment meted out on our club by what appears to be the wilful intransigence of parties beyond our control.

Whilst our club regathers, regroups and strives to recover from this damage to our reputation, we feel that nothing constructive can be gained at this time by trying to call-out the parties concerned.

We understand the difficulties our club faces in endeavouring to negotiate a resolution to this miserable situation - and we will cover it in detail when the dust has settled.

For some insight, though, we look to the statement of York Chairman Jon Flatman.

"There is a clear issue to resolve when both teams players, staff and officials want a game to occur and issues created via the Stadium Management company and contractors result in a different outcome."

"The match commissioner was clear that the pitch was playable and he tried his very best to reason with a group of individuals who had a different agenda. Health & Safety is a primary concern of all parties, however it is not correct to use this backdrop to mask a different agenda."

While we await answers, all we - as a Fanblog - can ask is that fellow Hornets supporters retain their faith that everyone at the club works as hard as they possibly can to deliver success under difficult circumstances; that the RFL stands in our corner over this issue and plays a guiding role in its resolution; and that the York fans consider the possibility that, being a tenant of a football landlord, their club might at least want to check the legalities of their lease. There but for the grace of god and all that...

Ultimately, you can only wish for others what they wish for you. And Karma has a long shelf life.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Sunday's Coming: York


Current darlings of the RFL and its attendant media, the new, new iteration of York City Knights come to Spotland on Sunday - giving Hornets a proper bogey to lay.

In recent seasons, James Ford has had the wood over Hornets - the 26-20 Cup upset defeat at Bootham Crescent (2017) and the 34-20 shambles of a loss on neutral ground at Featherstone (2015) just two that stick in the memory/craw (delete as applicable). In between (2016) they banged us 40-12 at their place. Shall we move on?

York arrive on the back of four consecutive wins after their narrow opening-day defeat against Toronto Wolfpack. Then, after a narrow win at Dewsbury, York have flogged Barrow 56-nil, won at Odsal and edged Leigh 9-8. No slouches.

Despite the impressive start, Ford remains grounded. Speaking in the York Press this week he said : "We’re still learning and finding out about ourselves at this level and we’re still trying to improve. We’ll keep that mentality."

And the mind-games started as early as Monday, Ford citing his side's status as underdogs for this weekend's clash: "“We’re going to Rochdale and Rochdale will be the favourites... we’re away from home and they were in the Championship last year. We’ll need to turn up and be prepared to work incredibly hard, work harder than them, to give ourselves the best opportunity to win the game.”

And Ford puts his side's early success down to hard graft: “You’re only as strong as your weakest link and we’ve got a squad that never gives in and who work incredibly hard."

Indeed, Ford has built a side that finds ways to win tight games. After the one-point win over Leigh he said: “We’re used to having that kind of mentality. We won six games by two points last year and lost one by two, so we had a six-to-one ratio of winning these close games..."

The key here is that this is a side greater than the sum of its parts. A fan comment after the Leigh victory captured that perfectly. 'Peter S1947' wrote: "There are no real stars, but this team attack and defend as a unit and play themselves to a standstill." So matching York's work-rate will be a key requisite if we are to break the hoodoo.

Making the York machine tick is former Hunslet, Doncaster, Fev, Wakefield and Hull KR utility Ben Cockayne. He's paired with fellow ex-Robin Connor Robinson in the halves and they provide a more than handy fulcrum for Ford to run his big pack off. Their playmaking efforts are supplemented by the return to Bootham Crescent of hooker Kriss Brining - back at York after a two season hiatus in Super League with Salford Red Devils. So some quality at the core.

There's also been a return for another former Knight: Joe Batchelor's one-month loan spell from St Helens has been extended until the end of the season. Saints signed Batchelor from York after he caught their eye in last season's promotion campaign.

Hornets come into the game buoyed by last week's deserved win over Barrow. Bar Barrow's early try, Hornets looked comfortably in control throughout and produced some pretty impressive goal-line defence to shut-out the Raiders for 70 minutes. It's that level of commitment that will make the difference on Sunday.

Certainly we've seen week on week improvement from Carl Forster's side and York will provide a good benchmark for what's possible this term.

Beyond that, it's a great chance to lay this bogey once and for all. See you there.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Hornets Have Lift-Off

Hornets 20 - Barrow 8

We have ignition - as Hornets got their 2019 campaign off the ground with a convincing win over a pretty mediocre Barrow Raiders. Built on a backbone of stern goal-line defence, punishing running round the ruck and the faultless boot of Dan Abram, Hornets progressively hauled the game out of Barrow's reach, looking comfortably in control for the most part.

But it began with a brief Barrow burst. On three minutes a Charnock lob to the corner saw Brandon Wood outnumbered by Jarrod Stack and rangy PNG international winger Amean who scored by the flag. Dallmore slammed the conversion attempt wide into the Pearl Street end. The next time the visitors would trouble the scoreboard was 70 minutes away, with the game gone.

As the rain came crashing down, the game became a wrestle - which looked to suit Barrow's attritional style. Indeed, with efforts struck off for obstruction and a knock-on over the line after a spell of sustained pressure, the visitors looked likely to add to their total. But Hornets stood firm.

The introduction of Adam Lawton on the quarter mark paid instant dividends. With not quite his first or second touch this week, he stepped and dummied his way past defenders from 25 metres, running straight over the top of full-back Cresswell to grab his third try in three games. Abram the first of a perfect afternoon with the boot and Hornets with a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

With errors and penalties breaking up the flow of the game, both coaches would have been glad to get to the sheds and iron out the wrinkles.

Barrow began the second half with a great opportunity to grab the momentum. Shaun Ainscough fumbled a swirling bomb, Tyler Whittaker mopping up snagged in-goal. Directly from the drop-out Hornets were snagged for another penalty and Dallimore opted to kick for goal. As it was, he slammed the kick against a post from bang in front and you could sense the shift in confidence.

Within five minutes Hornets were up the other end where Barrow fullback Cresswell made a complete hash of a Dan Abram bomb and, on the next set, Ben Moores produced an outrageous step from dummy half to stroll in under the black dot untouched. Dan Abram hit the target and Hornets looked good value for their 12-4 lead.

With Hornets now playing what little football was on offer, Barrow sought to suck the pace out of the game - only to get pulled on 55 minutes for interference. Dan Abram with the penalty to stretch the lead to 14-4. 

On the hour mark Hornets looked likely to score again: a huge break up the guts of the Raiders' defence from Ben Moores was taken on by Sitaleki Akauola, but hands in the ruck saw the ball slip free: Mr Dolan giving a knock-on. No matter...

Within four minutes Hornets found themselves again camped close to the Barrow goal line, where Liam Carberry arrived at pace off a short Dan Abram pass to skittle defenders and score. Abram raised the flags: 20-4.

Barrow flickered briefly in the 73rd minute when Amean took advantage of a fumbled ball to score by the flag. Dallimore again hitting the post for a 0/3 return.

The last five minutes saw the visitors put in their best spell of the game, but knock-ons and a lack of ideas proved too much of an impediment: Hornets strong-arming them out of the last five minutes to grab a vital two points.

This was a solid, rather than spectacular performance - built on hard-work and determination. And there was more week-on-week improvement for all to see - most notably in a much better kick-chase that penned Barrow deep in their own territory for long spells.

Satisfying too was Swinton's late, late choking at Halifax which leaves Hornets out of the bottom two and breathing hard down Batley and Dewsbury's necks. A launch pad for the rest of the season? Next week's game against RFL darlings York will pose a genuine test for sure, but it's better to go into into it with the boost of a win.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Sunday's Coming: Barrow

We don't know if someone at Barrow won the lottery, but Paul Crarey's pre-season recruitment had the hallmark of some serious investment. Crarey added Deon Cross, Jake Spedding and Tee Ritson alongside Papua New Guinean trio Stargroth Amean, Wartovo Puara Jr and Willie Minoga. The three PNG guys all sign from Queensland Cup side SP Hunters. Crarey also added ex-Super League forwards Jordan Walne (Salford/Hull KR) and Josh Johnson (Huddersfield). Oh, and Gareth Hock.

Barrow come to Spotland on the back of two interesting results. Last week's 20-all draw with Dewsbury came after the raiders led 14-8 in the second half, but needed a late Ryan Johnson try and Lewis Charnock conversion to snatch a point after Dewsbury had chased them down. The other eye-catcher came the week before when Barrow were roundly thumped 56-nil at the RFL's current darlings York.

Barrow's only win this year came on the opening day at Batley. No mean feat: but the Raiders seem to have been hit with a wave of early early injuries

Not only has Crarey been missing Dan & Shane Toal and Luke Creswell, gun Cumbrian fullback Tee Ritson has joined Ryan Duffy, Declan Hulme and Gareth Hock on the long-term injury list. Hock busted a shoulder in the second round of a charity boxing bout back in December and faces a four month absence after recent surgery. He is yet to start a game for Barrow.

Jamie Dallimore, though, is available again having sat out the last two games with a suspension for Dangerous Contact. Not bad - even by his own low disciplinary standards - just four games into a new season.

Speaking in the NW Evening Mail after last week's draw, Paul Crarey was mindful that, whilst his side were really good in the first half, they were guilty of trying too hard: “The first half, I thought we were really good," he said, "... and we came out in the second half and I think we tried too hard at times."

Was it, we wondered, a matter of composure and control? Crarey again: “We tried to force the ball towards the back end of the game when we needed composure and a couple of things let us down. We were in control, we lost control and then at the end it was just a free-for-all where everyone was trying to drop a goal from 20 or 30 metres out.

“You could feel the tension before the game after what happened last week and confidence would have been a bit low, but it was a point salvaged at the end.”

Hornets come into the game on the back of a patchy, but promising performance at Batley - unlucky in the end to go down 18-12 in a game where neither side really hit their straps.

Like last week, Sunday's game is another opportunity to take something from another team in the Betfred Championship League Within A League.

But you know what you're going to get with Barrow: a big pack grinding you backwards, robust, rangy three quarters and persistent pace up the edges (augmented this year by the addition of Deon Cross). And, of course, you get Jamie Dallimore irritating the life out of you. They compel you to win your individual battles right across the park - so you have to be switched on for the full 80 minutes.

Generally speaking, Hornets v Barrow contests tend to go with home advantage, so a great chance to get 2019 up and running - and with Swinton at Halifax, a good chance to steal a march on the Lions.

See you there.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Ground-Dog Day

Batley 18 - Hornets 12

You know what you're going to get from a day out at Mount Pleasant. A robust encounter, a couple of flaky reffing decisions, a moment when you think the result is on and then the game almost imperceptibly whisked from under your nose.

The 2019 version of the 'Batley Game Scenario' had all the frustrating hallmarks of the previous seven previous trips there - all of which ended in defeat. A proper bogey team.

Despite an early try up the hill by former Hornet Lewis Galbraith - taking a sabbatical out on the wing - Hornets matched the home side in for most of the first 30 minutes. But it was attritional stuff, both sides camping out in each other's halves with little to show for their efforts.

Hornets did show signs of threat out wide where Shaun Ainscough, Paddy Flynn, Jordan Case and Brandon Wood teased and probed, but once the ball moved infield the game threatened to stall as both packs cancelled each other out.

The second Batley try had an air of the inevitable about it. Piggy-backed upfield by back-to-back penalties and consolidated by three moments of questionable interpretation of the Laws by Mr Staveley, Batley shoved the ball back to their left edge where Galbraith ducked under a tackle by Jordan Case to score on the half hour mark. Scott two from two with the boot.

But Hornets continues to press and when Adam Lawton entered the fray he had an immediate impact - ploughing over defenders from close range: this week with his second touch. Dan Abram the extras and Hornets went to the sheds 12-6 down - having had the advantage of the slope.

The majority of the second half was one for the purists - comprising almost entirely of 'arm-wrestle' interspersed by both teams launching decidedly unchallenging kicks downfield. Hornets did threaten briefly - a kick through bouncing off a Batley player, regathered in space only for Mr Staveley to call play back for offiside - ignoring the touch by the Bulldogs defender to the travelling fans' frustration.

Batley showed their intent on the hour when Scott slotted home yet another penalty to extend Batley's lead to 14-4. Yawns all-round.

The last ten minutes produced a flurry of activity which hinted that - under the veneer of workman-like endeavour - there was a game struggling to get out.

Batley lit the blue touch-paper on 70 minutes when Bambani's kick found its way to Wood, who had just enough space to send Pound-Shop Vin Diesel Reittie in by the flag.

Hornets' response was imnmediate. A short kick-off regathered; some excellent approach work; some pressure built close to the line and Lee Mitchel arriving on Stu Howarth's shoulder to crash in and score. Abram the two from wide out - and Hornets left with five minutes to salvage an unlikely draw.

Despite some frenzied Hornets attack, Batley clung-on to nick it. All eerily familiar.

In the wash-up, this was game decided on what didn't happen, rather than what did. Despite lots of decent field position, Hornets couldn't really find that killer pass or kick to unlock a robust Batley defence. And our kick-chase was pretty ordinary all afternoon - often a solitary effort, gifting Batley a running start on returning the ball.  Discipline was an issue too: eight first half penalties inviting Batley to attack the Hornets line, the final count of 12-6 telling its own story.

But it would be too uncharitable to just complain. Hornets' workrate was excellent and the defence was pretty solid bar the extreme edges. Indeed, the effort was there for all to see - it just deserved the reward of more incisive football off the back of it.

It's also worth remembering that this was the eighth consecutive defeat at Mount Pleasant - showing that even the more successful Hornets teams of recent years have failed to break the cycle.

Let's just hope we get to go back next year to do it all again.



Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Sunday's Coming: Batley

Hornets move from the sunny foothills of the Pyrenees to the shimmering heights of Mount (un)Pleasant, Batley in search of the win that gets 2019 off the launch pad.

Coming up against the twin behemoths of Toronto and Toulouse in the first two games presents a distorted picture and this weekend gives Hornets a chance to take a more accurate reading of our Championship potential - against  Batley team also looking for its first two points.

Batley started their campaign with a narrow 18-22 home defeat by Barrow before getting spanked 42 -14 at Featherstone. Last week saw the 'Dogs mount a huge second half comeback to fall just short - going down 20-18 at Halifax, having trailed 18-nil at the break. And it came at the hands of three of our four to watch.

The first Batley try was 'Made in Rochdale': Jo Taira's short Pass sending Paul Brearley under the black dot. Their last was a typical Danny Yates effort - backing up a break before stepping inside defenders.

Our fourth Batley player to keep an eye on is Dom Brambani. Having begun his career playing in the Bycroft Cup in Queensland, Bradford born Brambani 'came home' in 2010 and his career since has been a bit of a Tour de Yorkshire, starting at Castleford then onto Halifax, then Dewsbury -sandwiched between two stints at Sheffield (where he clicked up 176 games). He joined Batley in 2016. His most interesting stat? In his UK career he has scored SIXTEEN drop goals. That puts him in Paul Harkin territory (ask your dad).

So, much like last week, we have two winless teams desperate for points: can you really have a relegation four-pointer before February is out?

Hornets' game in Blagnac showed promise in patches. Any neutral watching the first half-hour would have struggled to pick out the full-time side, and in the last quarter Hornets matched their hosts in the arm-wrestle. Most of the damage was done in the 15 minutes either side of half time: two quick-fire doubles plus a try on the hooter effectively blowing out the scoreline. The main cause was the concession of cheap penalties late in the tackle count: four times Toulouse were piggy-backed upfield where Jonathan Ford prised the defence open.

Indeed, when Hornets played Toulouse in their own half, they were reasonably well-contained and full of errors, but once you put them on the front foot on your own 20m line, you're in all sorts of trouble.

The good news is that Carl Forster will have Scott Moore, Stu Howarth and Seta Tala available for selection this week which should give the team a more balanced look.

It is a big one this weekend. In the Betfred Championship 'League Within a League', Batley are an immediate competitor - and we need to be taking wins from the sides around us. With the Bulldogs under pressure to deliver and Swinton finding an increasing number of ways to lose, a win by any means gives us a crucial head start.

Games that really mean something this early in the season are pretty rare  - but this one sets the true tone for the weeks to come. Let's get over there in numbers, make some noise and make a difference. See you Sunday.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Toulouse? Or not to lose? That is the question...

Toulouse 42 - Hornets 12

People will just look at the scoreline here and make a judgement.

But for the second week running, the BetFred Championship's smallest club faced off against the might of the competition's fun-time big guns. Another week, another opponent  packed to the gunnels with NRL and international experience - and another visible improvement by Hornets that augurs well for the vital games over the next few weeks.

Given the punishing start to the season, it's an interesting thought experiment to compare and contrast the styles of Toronto and Toulouse - and there are noticeable differences. Toronto are a machine: they tick, they whir, their cogs engage and they efficiently hand you your arse with a polished confidence verging on conceit. Toulouse, on the other hand, have more flair - but they are prone to errors, play off the cuff and they see their arse a bit if the game's not going their way.

And so it was on Saturday: an underwhelmingly casual Toulouse side matched stride for stride in the first half hour by a hard-working Hornets: and when Elliot Jenkins dinked a neat kick behind a sauntering Maurel for Brandon Wood to score after 14 minutes, it was a fair reflection of Hornets dominance. Dan Abram slotted the extras off the touchline and it was Gallic shrugs all round in the main stand.

Toulouse finally deigned to play off the back of a rush of soft penalties late in the tackle count/ Piggy-backed upfield, louche cannon Jon Ford unleashed his whip-like pendulum of a pass three times to set up Marguerite, Robin and ubiquitous irritant Kheirallah. He also snuck in for one himself when Parata turned provider.

Having contained Toulouse for 30 minutes, Hornets went to the sheds 22-6 down: Imperative that they scored first after the break.

Ah...

En route back from le pissoir, we heard Mr Mannifield blow his whistle to start the second half and, as we crested the steps to return to our seat, we were just in time to see Marguerite put the ball down by the flag - effectively killing the game as a contest.

It was another penalty on 47 minutes the gave Toulouse a platform to attack: Ford again the fulcrum in a swift shift that saw Bergal reach through defenders and score.

But Hornets weren't quite finished, producing a 20 minute period of steady pressure that culminated in DR loanee Sitaleki Akauola crashing through from close range. Dan Abram the two and Hornets once again looking pretty tidy. Indeed, they went straight back on the attack, but a teasing Dec Gregory cut-out pass was snaffled from the air by Robin who went 70 metres to score.

There was still time for Barthau to capitalise on a tiring Hornets defence, on the end of a move - yet again - involving that man Ford.

In the end, this didn't look like a 30 point ball-game. Indeed, in comparison to previous years' league fixtures here, this one shows a decent improvement.

The weight of expectation is huge down by the Garonne: we were told that the club president went into training this week and read them the riot act.
You could sense the palpable relief in the ground at TO's first win of the season: you really would think they'd won a final.

As for Hornets, the real business starts next week against a Batley side struggling to find its stride: no wins from three and a narrow defeat at Halifax at the weekend despite being gifted 14 penalties to six. Certainly, the last two results win't define Hornets season. Toulouse will do something very similar to at least half the clubs in the Championship this season - and Toronto were one minute away from nilling promotion rivals Widnes at the weekend.

People will just look at the scoreline here and make a judgement - but they'll be wrong. Mostly because they weren't actually there to see this game unfold.

The RFL BetFred League Within a League starts next week at Mount Pleasant. The hard work starts now.

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.




Thursday, 7 February 2019

Sunday's Coming: 'Toronto' Wolfpack

I TAKE IT BLACK: Part-time TV pundit and Mancunian coffee-shop magnate
Jon Wilkin models the imaginatively designed new Wolfpack away jersey
When Toronto visited Spotland last year, they came with a few odd requests. Firstly they said they wanted two dressing rooms to accommodate their squad and their extensive entourage of staff (including a cortege of masseurs to warm up their players). Secondly, they wanted the hot water putting on before the game because a couple of their players like to have a shower BEFORE they play. Prima donnas? Much?

This year, London Broncos are off the mark in Super League with a big win over Wakefield, while Toronto find themselves back at Spotland for another turn around the Championship.

The Fallowfield-based side opened their 2019 account with an unconvincing 14-0 win at newly promoted York - and new Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott assessed the performance with a dour Yorkshire realism.  In Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail he said: “I’m not going to tell you that we were off. I thought we were OK, nearly good,” he said after the game. “I just think York was outstanding and that’s why it was a real contest.”

McDermott did, however, like his team’s attitude and stern defence. Speaking on the Wolfpack's website he pointed out:  “In any game that you play, regardless of the level or contest, if you can stop the opposition from scoring any points you’ve got to take some credit. I thought our attitude towards things not going our own way, and hard work, was brilliant. We can build upon that for sure.”

In the wake of the win, part-time pundit Jon Wilkin believes the club can make it to Super League. “Yes, I believe this Club can make it to Super League," He said.  He went on: "We are among the favourites, rightly so, but hard work trumps talent. We’ve got to work harder than everyone else because we’re not going to beat people just because we’re better individuals.”

McDermott concurs. In the York Press he said: "There's a bit to work on in offence - our kicking game was shocking for the first 25 minutes of the game and York's was nearly 10 out of 10. But I'm going to keep coming back to the hard work aspect of it and the attitude when things aren't going our way."

Indeed, York didn't allow Toronto to have things their own way at all. It took the Wolfpack 24 minutes to crack the home defence - and it needed a further two tries in the last 12 minutes to secure the points.

In a tight game, half-back Joe Mellor proved the difference: directing traffic and weighing in with a try fir good measure.

But when you look down the Wolfpack team-sheet, the scale of York's achievement is pulled sharply into focus: Sunday's visitors  really do look like a Super League side in waiting. Some of the CVs in there are serious heavy duty.

Our Four to Watch

Between them, our Four to Watch don't only have over 500 NRL games under their belts, they also have an array of international caps and representative honours.

Chase Stanley  (Centre) - 110 NRL games for Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, Melbourne Storm and the St. George Illawarra Dragons. He's also been capped by the Kiwis and New Zealand Maori. Last year he scored 9 tries in 19 games for Toronto.

Ricky Leutele (Wing) - joins Toronto this year after eight years and 129 games for the Cronulla Sharks. He played in the Sharks first ever premiership victory in 2016 - effectively winning them the game by making "... one of the most famous tackles in Cronulla’s 50-year history", stopping Marika Koroibete after the siren to secure a 14-12 victory. He also has 6 Samoa caps.

Josh McCrone (Half-Back) - 161 NRL games with Canberra Raiders and St. George Illawarra Dragons and 3 Rep. appearances with Country Origin. His most famous contribution to the Toronto cause was his dismissal for persistent dissent in their televised cup defeat at Warrington last year.

Darcy Lussick (Prop) - 55 games for Manly, 53 games for Parramatta and 2 NSW City appearances. Plays the game very close to the edge - famously charged with contrary conduct  for pulling Aaron Woods' pony-tail in a game against Wests Tigers. Reportedly left Manly after a bust-up with coach Trent Barrett.

Hornets come into the game having signed king-sized Salford prop Adam Lawton on a month's loan and he could be in contention for a debut against the Wolfpack. Fozzy thinks it's a great capture"  “It’s a great capture for us," he said. "... it’s no secret that we have been working to strengthen our forward pack and Adam gives us size and power. He’s a skilful player and cut his teeth in Super League and got some good experience at Widnes."

“He will go really well for us and I’m looking forward to seeing him play.” Oh, so are we.

Much like last year, Hornets had an enforced break on the Championship's opening weekend - the Dewsbury game falling foul of the weather - so a season opener against the League's biggest contender is an exciting opportunity to really benchmark our capabilities.

Last year's fixture saw Toronto steal victory from an imperious Hornets - at the death - on the back of a deeply dubious penalty.  A similar attitude to relentless hard-work is required this time too if we are to halt the juggernaut.

The bottom line, though, is that Toronto have, thus far, burned about £4m to end up in the same 2019 Championship as Hornets. This is year four of their five year plan to get into Super League and, right now, they remain as close to achieving that as we do - so we imagine that expectations are high, tolerance levels are pretty slim and 'nearly good' isn't nearly good enough. As York discovered, all the pressure to perform is on the Wolfpack. And if you can frustrate them, match their work-rate and play a bit of football, you give yourself a shot at overturning both the odds and their balance sheet.

We've seen in recent years that if Hornets stand together, anything is possible. We need every voice we can muster on Sunday, so bring a mate or two and help get the season off to a bang. We can't wait: see you there.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

A Closer Look at: Toronto Wolfpack

Prologue
When we wrote last year ahead of the visit of Toronto Wolfpack, we wrote about the building of a myth. A cash-fuelled juggernaut that, whilst generating a tsunami of coverage, told you nothing about the club's true substance.

One year - and one failed promotion punt later - and this has an eerie sense of deja-vu about it.  We're not sure that either of us really thought we'd be doing this again. Yet here we are.

Another sweep of the media hauled us down yet another rabbit hole -  but this one is different, with different forces at work. Indeed behind the fanfare, the furore and the flag-waving facade we see a hungry beast that craves two things: cash and exposure.

Notwithstanding a 2019 salary cap of $3.4 million (£2m), we see a club prepared to spend eye-watering amounts to secure that coverage: with the coverage it garners trumpeting just how much it's prepared to spend. An endless Möbius loop of hubris wrapped in a cult-like adherence to the party line (the majority of media we viewed just parroted the press-releases verbatim with no interpretation or comment).

But if you ask questions - dare to query the opacity of the Emperor's clothes - you will get slapped with being negative, a luddite anti-expansionist or merely jealous. In reality, it's none of these things.

It's just hard to believe that a rising tide lifts all boats when you have a supertanker amongst a fleet  of pedalos - how can anyone be grateful to get dragged along in its wake whilst frantically pedalling to stay afloat?

In the face of all these metaphors, we tried to join the dots in search of a redemption story...

Everything is fine
Of late, reality seems to have at least looked through the letterbox at Lamport Stadium, if not having actually knocked at the Wolfpack's door.

Firstly, Toronto missed a payroll payment in December - payments delayed until the 'ownership group' stepped in. David Argyle dismissed it as a 'blip', blaming a volatile economy in Q4 for making it "tough to create additional liquidity." Tell us about it mate, we had to get a dozen people to chip in £100 and shift a few football cards to help offset the cost of new posts - that's what we call a liquidity issue.

Argyle then went on to announce a new $10-million investment that should steady the good ship Toronto for a while: the new investors seemingly Canadian-owned purveyors of 'isotonic beverages, alcohol and wellness products', promising the shared-revenue distribution of Wolfpack-branded product lines in '... more than 40,000 outlets in Canada, the U.S. and Europe as well as online.' All sounds a bit Nathan Barley to us. Totally Mexico.

Judgement Day
Secondly, we read this week of Salford lawyering-up to try and get the now significantly overdue £20k fee they are owed following the transfer of performing drop-goal seal Gareth O'Brien.

While the Red Devils' prime the bailiffs, Toronto's 'head of  marketing & communications' Jon Pallett told League Weekly: "The Wolfpack are one of the biggest spenders on transfers in the last two years in the entire RFL structure and have been involved in a number of  signifiant transfer deals. In all of these we have kept up with our commitments on full." Ah, that's ok then...

But last summer, Mason Caton Brown's Wolfpack debut was delayed after his transfer fee to Wakefield Trinity ran late (Wakefield withheld his registration until the cash came through).

In a bizarre twist, back in November the club was served with a winding-up order by its own lawyers. According to seriousaboutrl.com, Toronto owed a six figure sum in unpaid legal fees - burned in successfully defending Ryan Bailey against a charge of refusing to take a drugs test after he feared that water he'd consumed could not be validated as uncontaminated. Money well spent there...

A Toronto spokesperson told League Weekly at the time: “This matter is in hand and the payment issue is being resolved. This relates to our small UK subsidiary company and not to Toronto Wolfpack in Canada.” Ah, the old 'registered in two jurisdictions' deal: interesting, given that the incident at the centre of the old Bailey case (Ryan, that is), took place at Lamport Stadium - which we're pretty sure is in Canada.

You can read the full Ryan Bailey anti-doping judgement by clicking here - it is a fascinating read, we recommend it.

TV Evangelists
Accounting/legal glitches apart, the Wolfpack's management team have been beavering away behind the scenes to put together their own TV deal, which will see all of their games shown on Sky.

According to multiple sources, TWP currently "... pays for the TV production of its own home games as it strives to build its brand..." claiming a reach of 140 million homes across 19 countries. It's impressive stuff - though we suspect they're just counting dishes, not actual eyeballs. Unsurprisingly, such big shiny numbers have caught the eye of the RFL’s commercial head Mark Foster. Speaking via TWP's website he said:  “We saw with the reaction to Sky’s live coverage of the £1M Game between the Wolfpack and London Broncos in Toronto last autumn what a massive boost that was to the profile of the Betfred Championship."

Sky's coverage? David Argyle says that staging last year's Million Pound Game cost the club $250,000 in TV production and other costs. So who's paying this particular piper?

On 2019's deal, Foster said: "This couldn’t have happened without the co-operation and support of Sky Sports and Toronto Wolfpack and we wish to thank both organisations for helping us to broadcast in the UK and around the world what will be a fantastic Championship as well as League One in 2019.”

Jeff Hagan, Toronto Wolfpack’s Director of Broadcast Production and Distribution (yes, they have one of those too), chipped in: "All matches are available for live publication on Sky Sports platforms in the UK while Canadian and global broadcasters are also able to pick up each game."

Speaking in tongues
What we found interesting is that, in describing the TV deal, there's some very subtle language going on: so let's un-(wolf)pack it.

In their statement "Toronto Wolfpack Confirm 2019 Broadcast Arrangement" they say: "Toronto Wolfpack will produce all of the team’s Betfred Championship games in both the UK and Canada in 2019."  This reads to us like Toronto will effectively become the production company responsible for 'filming'/packaging each of their own games - thus becoming the content creator.

"... agreement has been reached for all matches to be available for live publication on Sky Sports platforms in the UK...." So, effectively, Sky becomes the 'broadcast platform' - the content distributor.

What we don't have are the details of the transaction between creator and distributor. Is Toronto paying for the airtime? Is Sky paying for the content? Or is Sky getting free content with access to potential new viewers? And who splits the advertising revenue how may ways? Whichever way it plays, the RFL and the other championship clubs appear to be missing from the loop here.

In terms of advertising revenue, that looks to have been locked-down in favour of Toronto's sponsors. They say: "The Pack’s diverse range of sponsors and partners will also benefit from an amplified reach and opportunity to access new markets, while opposing teams in the Betfred Championship will gain exposure from a minimum of two televised games against the Wolfpack."

Dying of exposure
As a former freelancer, big organisations used to tell me that if I did stuff for free, It'd lead to lots of 'valuable exposure' - but it's a fallacy: you can't pay your phone bill with 'exposure'. They get you for free and sell your efforts at a profit.

Yes, this broadcast deal gives the Championship the coverage it desperately needs, but it also means that casual TV sports viewer and ardent league fan alike will only ever see the Championship through a quite literal Toronto Wolfpack lens. Which by its very nature will provide a somewhat distorted view.

Your average couch potato will just be happy that there's 'rugby on the telly', but as anyone in the media knows, the producer dictates the narrative - and for 2019, all other clubs have non-speaking walk-on parts in Toronto's weekly broadcast to the masses.

Epilogue
So is there any salvation to be had?

The closest thing we found to common-sense comment comes from Jon Wilkin. Newly recruited to the Wolfpack, he comes with all the zeal of a convert, yet maintains what we consider to be an honest perspective. Speaking to Sky Sports ahead of last weekend's 14-nil win at York, he balances the need to raise the game's profile, whilst recognising the needs of the clubs that these 'global brands' must scramble over to put the game on a credible world stage.

He sees it as a crossroads for the game: "... how receptive we are to a new entity like Toronto - how receptive the game is to new ideas and a different way of thinking - will determine what the short-term future of rugby league looks like..."

Wilkin also recognises that there isn't just one way to drive expansion: "One is to push boundaries and establish new markets, and the other is to make sure your existing market is as strong as possible. I believe you can develop the current clubs and infrastructure and the grassroots system of our game, but also at the same time looking to new markets and exploring new markets. It has to be a two-pronged approach to growing the game."

"I grew up in Hull, I played 16 or 17 years in St Helens, I've been around traditional rugby league areas my whole life, and there is as much work needed in those areas as there is in new markets. The frustration from existing rugby league fans is they'd like to see potential investment brought back in."

Ultimately, he believes: "... we need to think bigger, but we also need to remember that the base of that pyramid needs to be strong. That's the game's challenge, but that's what's exciting as well."

We think it's pretty simple: those who drink at the well shouldn't forget those who dug it. But the problem remains that Toronto are bigger than the sport - and they know it. More cash, more resource, more leverage, more reach, more attitude and, as Wilkin puts it, more 'clout'. It opens doors that are closed to everyone else, allows them to bypass conventional channels and loads the dice in their favour on and off the field.

For us, it just feels a bit too exploitative. But the juggernaut rolls on...

Sources:
League Weekly: "Devils Chase Pack for 'unpaid' O'Brien Fee" (John Davidson) - February 4 2019
thestar.com: "Missed payroll just a glitch, says Toronto Wolfpack" (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press) - January 6 2019
mirror.co.uk: "Toronto Wolfpack keen to re-enter Challenge Cup if controversial bond is dropped" (Walker) - January 6 2019
bbc.co.uk: "Toronto Wolfpack: Financial investment will fix payroll issue" (January 7 2019)
nationalpost.com: "Toronto Wolfpack says missed payroll was just a blip, with new funds coming in" (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press) - January 6 2019
torontowolfpack.com: "Toronto Wolfpack Confirm 2019 Broadcast Arrangement"
torontowolfpack.com: "Toronto Wolfpack 2019 Games To Be Shown Live on GameTV" 
Loverugbyleague.com: "Paper Talk - Toronto face winding up order" - December 3 2018
seriousaboutrl.com: "Wolfpack UK to be wound up?" (Redhead) - December 3 2018
brandsmiths.co.uk/blog/21: "PRESS RELEASE – UKAD V RYAN BAILEY" - January 3 2018
Sport Resolutions (UK) Anti Doping Panel: SR/NADP/885/2017 "DECISION OF THE ANTI-DOPING TRIBUNAL" (Between UK Anti-Doping and Ryan Bailey) - December 8 2017
Wakefield Express: "Carter confirms Caton-Brown's transfer fee is now paid" (McKenna) - August 2018
seriousaboutrl.com: Wolfpack UK to be wound up? (Redhead) - December 3 2018
thegazette.co.uk/notice/3155541: "Petitions to Wind Up (Companies) - the Matter of TORONTO WOLFPACK (UK) LIMITED" - November 20 2018
skysports.com: "Jon Wilkin says Toronto Wolfpack would bring 'showbiz' factor to Super League" - January 31 2019