Sunday, 20 January 2019

Stats Entertainment?

Oldham 24 - Hornets 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Sunday's Coming: The Law Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our four to watch out for are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Up and Running

Rochdale Mayfield 12 - Hornets 18

Drizzle Kicks: a bit of a damp one at Mayfield
Every day is a school day and, at late notice, Hornets class of 2019 assembled at a soggy Mayfield Sports Centre to take on Rochdale Mayfield for its first lesson of the year. With a squad including 13 new signings, there was much for Carl Forster to learn as his heavily rotated side saw off an impressive Mayfield side which played with an eye-catching combination of directness and off-the cuff spontaneity.

Indeed, a clash of styles was evident as Hornets' structured approach was countered by Mayfield's desire to take risks and go off script - and it made for an entertaining (and occasionally fractious) contest.

The new Hornets era began with Seta Tala losing the flight of the kick-off and gifting Mayfield an early attacking chance. As it was they forced the ball into touch and when Dec Gregory bought a penalty from non-square markers, Hornets eased 80 metres upfield, but were unable to build early pressure.

Mayfield too struggled to capitalise on early possession and when handbags loomed after a Hornets break off a dropped pass, the home side were stretched up the right channel where Seta Tala opened the scoring to give Hornets a 0-4 lead.

Mayfield hit back: forcing a drop-out off a Sheridan dink into the in-goal - and then looking to have scored, only for referee Mr Smail to spot a forward pass.

With the rain now persistent, the game became scrappy and it took until the 28th minute for new-boy Callum Wood to skip across the face of a retreating defence to extend Hornets' lead. Tyler Whittaker with a simple conversion and Hornets looking comfortable at 0-10.

But the home side produced a maverick, touch-finding kick-off to build some momentum and when Hartley followed a 33rd minute kick into the in-goal, the Hornets defence hesitated just long-enough for him to touch down. Hartley added the extras and - as the gloom gathered - the sides headed for the sheds at 6-10.

A much-changed Hornets emerged for the second half  - and Mayfield took advantage forcing an early drop-out driving Dan Abram backwards with virtually his first touch. Things got worse when Mr Smail snagged Hornets for offside at the drop-out. Mayfield took full advantage. Connaughton arriving at pace to crash in from close range; Sheridan popped over the extras and Hornets fans raised eyebrows as Mayfield too a 12-10 lead.

It didn't take long for Hornets to seize back the initiative: Stu Howarth lofting the ball into space, Brandon Wood winning the race to touch down (12-14).

Three minutes later Hornets went left again, this time some neat interplay unzipped the defence for skipper Lee Mitchell to score: 12-18.

With conditions now the dominant factor, quality football was at a premium and it took an old-skool kerfuffle involving Seta Tala and the entire Mayfield side to raise the tempo a little.

How They Lined-up
Hornets were first to respond: Scott Moore showing a deft touch, kicking long for Shaun Ainscough to chase, the winger harrying the cover into touch. Mayfield then produced a last hurrah of their own - held up over the line after a neat chip and chase.

In the end, Hornets had just enough in the tank to see off a Mayfield side that looks more than capable of putting in a serious challenge in the NCL Premier league this year. And in doing so, there was a lesson to be learned by both sides.

Whilst looking for structure, shape and execution, Hornets could learn from Mayfield's desire to back themselves in moments of impromptu creativity. In contrast, the surety of a disciplined structure would give Mayfield a platform to play the way they want  and reduce the risks in doing so.

All up, this was a tough hit-out for both sides, with RL in Rochdale the real winner.

And with Oldham springing a suprise victory over Barrow at Craven Park, next week's Law Cup should provide another test of Hornets' progress.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Saturday's Coming - Rochdale Mayfield

And so it begins...

2019's odyssey gets underway with a game against Mayfield. A great opportunity to showcase the fact that Rugby League is alive and kicking in Rochdale. The game will be played for the Steve Gartland Memorial Trophy in tribute to a player and coach who gave both clubs outstanding service and whose absence remains felt in RL circles in the town.

The teams last met in 2016's Challenge Cup Hornets running out 40-14 winners in what might be euphemistically described as a 'feisty' contest.

Three years on - in a new era of entente cordiale - Hornets and Mayfield recently announced a partnership with the aim of not only boosting interest, participation and support for the game in Rochdale, but also providing opportunities for ambitious local players to step-up into the semi-pro-ranks in their home-town (following in the footsteps of Andy Duffy, Steve Prime, Steve Turner, The Hilton Brothers, John O’Donovan, John Stapleton, The Corcoran brothers, Sam Butterworth, Lewis Sheridan - and, of course, Rochdale's very own Jo Taira and Seta Talatoka).

Mayfield ended last season's NCL Premier season in 8th spot with 8 wins from their 22 games - shipping precisely 500 points on the way. They'll begin this year with a trip to Kells in round 1 of the Challenge Cup on the 26th January - a cliff-hanger guaranteed (see what we did there?!). Their NCL Premier season kicks off on Saturday 2nd March with a trip to one of Rugby League's more idiosyncratic arenas - Underbank Rangers.

It's a new Era for Hornets too - new coach Chris Forster assembling a new-look side around a core of players from the last couple of seasons.

We've been keeping a note on signings and - whilst it may not be the definitive list - we have the 2019 squad as:

Dec Kay, Ben Morris, Seta Tala, Paddy Flynn, Danny Price,
Shaun Ainscough, Elliott Jenkins.

Ben Moores, Stu Howarth, Dec Gregory, Callum Wood.

Scott Moore, Dan Abram.

Lee Mitchell, Joe Ryan, Carl Forster, Mike Weldon, Ryan Millington,
Jack Cottington, Ellis Gillam, Liam Carberry, Nathan Reidy.

About The Stephen Gartland Foundation

Saturday's game will be played for the Steve Gartland Memorial Trophy - and in support of the Stephen Gartland Foundation.

The Stephen Gartland Foundation was created to support local communities in small ways that make a big difference.

The Foundation’s mission is not only to raise awareness of the importance of mental/physical wellbeing - it also raises funds for local community causes and supports the development of local rugby talent.

For a look at some of the great things that the Stephen Gartland Foundation supports, take at look at their Facebook page by clicking here