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.


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

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, 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.

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...

League Weekly: "Devils Chase Pack for 'unpaid' O'Brien Fee" (John Davidson) - February 4 2019 "Missed payroll just a glitch, says Toronto Wolfpack" (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press) - January 6 2019 "Toronto Wolfpack keen to re-enter Challenge Cup if controversial bond is dropped" (Walker) - January 6 2019 "Toronto Wolfpack: Financial investment will fix payroll issue" (January 7 2019) "Toronto Wolfpack says missed payroll was just a blip, with new funds coming in" (Neil Davidson/Canadian Press) - January 6 2019 "Toronto Wolfpack Confirm 2019 Broadcast Arrangement" "Toronto Wolfpack 2019 Games To Be Shown Live on GameTV" "Paper Talk - Toronto face winding up order" - December 3 2018 "Wolfpack UK to be wound up?" (Redhead) - December 3 2018 "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 Wolfpack UK to be wound up? (Redhead) - December 3 2018 "Petitions to Wind Up (Companies) - the Matter of TORONTO WOLFPACK (UK) LIMITED" - November 20 2018 "Jon Wilkin says Toronto Wolfpack would bring 'showbiz' factor to Super League" - January 31 2019

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Sunday's Coming: Dewsbury Rams

Dewsbury come to Spotland on Sunday having built a new squad around veteran half-back Paul Sykes. And, speaking in the Yorkshire Post this week, Sykes seemed to be getting his club's excuses in early

“We’ve got a lot of young kids and to get them up to speed with the Championship level will be difficult..." He said.  "... we have got potential and I think we will go all right provided we can stay fit and healthy... we’re going to be underdogs, but we like a challenge."

His sentiments are echoed by his coach Lee Greenwood - himself catapulted into the Championship spotlight after coaching stints at Siddal and the University of Gloucestershire All Golds.

Speaking after his side's 34-nil pre-season pounding at York, Greenwood said in the Dewsbury Reporter: “It showed what the coaching staff probably already knew, some lads aren’t quite ready for this level yet. Some lads have got a bit to go yet before being ever ready for this level, and that is just the harsh reality of it. “

But Greenwood remained philosophical about the importance of pre-season results, saying that everyone in his squad was given a "fair chance" over the Rams' four friendlies. He says that the games were more about: "... getting to know the players as quickly as we can and knowing where we are at. It has all been about getting ready for game one, we have got new coaching staff obviously myself as new head coach. There is a number of lads who were here last year and a number of new lads who have come in as well."

With 16 new additions to the squad, Greenwood has his work cut out galvanising them into a unit. The sixteen include Harvey Burnett, Alex Brown and Jordan Andrade from Bradford Bulls and - as seems popular at the moment - three new signings from the Keighley Cougars fire sale.

But whist the 'ins' make interesting reading, it's one major 'out' that really caught our eye - the retirement of half-back Gareth Moore, who's proved a pain in Hornets' backside on more than one occasion. Squeezed between the twin-forces of injuries and running a business, Moore gave the game away at the end of last year any the age of 29.

Half back duties have been picked up by well-travelled scrum-half Simon Brown, who's CV includes Leeds, Doncaster, Sheffield, York, Halifax, Batley, Hunslet and Sheffield (again - having been hauled out of retirement) - a proper Tour de Yorkshire.

Greenwood's expectations for the season? "... hopefully we will be tough to beat throughout the year,” he said in the Yorkshire Post.

But he concedes that the Rams are a club 'in transition'. Again in the YP he said: "We are in a transition period and probably for a season we will have to stick with being very difficult to beat and getting our fair share of wins.”

“I am learning about individuals every week and every session. It is early days and it’s going to take a bit of time to get to know people and who needs to play where.”

Which is good. Every 'bit of time' where there's doubt and confusion presents an opportunity to capitalise.

Whilst Hornets too are a work in progress, the progress v Warrington was evident. And whilst some gobshites might see a narrow defeat to a second string Wolves as somehow indicative of standards at our club, the four point margin was pretty much par for Championship sides playing Super League opposition in friendlies: Fev going down by four to Leeds, Toulouse going down by four to Catalans Dragons, Barrow nicking a late draw against Wigan and Leigh getting pumped 20-nil by London Broncos. So nothing much to see there, move along...

The challenge this week is for Carl Forster to alight on a thirteen that he likes the look of. There's still some contention around the half-back spots and the sooner that conundrum gets solved, the easier progress will be. Scott Moore, Tyler Whittaker, Elliot Jenkins, Stu Howarth and Dan Abram have all filled the berths in pre-season - but the selection that poses the greatest threat is still a hot topic for debate amongst the Hornets faithful.

As always - the advent of a new season calls for the most devout of beliefs and extreme faith in the boys to deliver. At this stage of development, Dewsbury provide the perfect test - a test of opposing transitions. Indeed, this one could simply boil-down to who wants it most on the day.

Let's want it more. See you Sunday.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Done and Dusted

Hornets 20 - Warrington 24

Well that's pre-season done - and what have we learned? Mostly that playing together over time yields improvements in understanding and teamwork. No real rocket science there - but Hornets did show a tangible improvement in the space of a week as Carl Forster and Tony Stewart continue to mould this new squad into a unit that can hold its own in the Championship.

Augmented by some South-Sea muscle and a smattering of Super League experience, Warrington's tyro Wolves provided a sharp test - as Hornets once again took their DR Partners to the wire in an entertaining contest.

Hornets were out of the blocks immediately: a shift left after just five minutes saw Stu Howarth slot skipper Lee Mitchell into a yawning gap to score: Dan Abram the extras.

It took Warrington a good 15 minutes to get up to speed, but once there they showed an incisive edge with a triple whammy of three tries in nine minutes that effectively won them the game. First-up the eye-catching Riley Dean backed up a Thewlis break to race under the black dot, then added his own extras.

Anglin then squirmed in from close range before the rangy Akauola bounced in off a post to score. Dean with another two conversions to give the visitors a 6-18 lead just past the quarter.

With the arm-wrestle tightening, Scott Moore was unlucky to receive a yellow card for what looked like a case of clumsy mistiming, but 12-man Hornets stood firm and went to the sheds trailing by 12.

Not to be outdone, Wolves' wing Collins began the second half with a yellow card of his own for talking back: the visitors then belied their numerical disadvantage to fashion a Jamie Abram try off a Dean break for 6-24.

As the hour mark ticked round, Hornets found a way back into the game. A Carl Forster pass launched Mike Weldon in centre field, the back-rower showing a handy turn of pace to blast in from 40 metres. He was followed to the whitewash seven minutes later by Shaun Ainscough who rose to gather a Stu Howarth kick and crash through his opposite number to score.

And when Hornets shipped the ball through hands to the right for the impressive Jordan Case to touch down (Abram the two) - it left Hornets with two minutes to try and carve out the win. But Warrington's defence clung-on and, in the end, the result came down to goal-kicks.

Dinky dynamo Dec Gregory picked up the sponsors' Man-of-the-Match for a non-stop display of perpetual motion at the back of the ruck; Shaun Ainscough took the supporters' vote - and you couldn't argue with either really.

In this final test before the serious business starts next weekend, whilst Hornets still look like a work in progress, there is clear progress in the work done thus far - with more to come under meaningful match conditions.

Once again, every gobshite pundit and bar-room bullshitter in the game is writing Hornets off. Indeed, we heard it first hand at the weekend from the assistant coach of a club that should know better. But that's ok by us - let them all underestimate us. It works to our advantage.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Saturday's Coming: Warrington Wolves

The Immortal Joey Johns: 'No, mate - YOU
are the biggest signing in Warrington's history
As we all know, every year is Warrington's year - and this year is no different. In a close-season that has generated a tsunami of headlines, the Wire seem to have won the hype-war in announcing their signing (for 2020) of Illawarra St George five eighth and England fulcrum Gareth Widdop.

Now we've been to both Wollongong and Warrington and we're pretty sure where we'd rather spend our days (You definitely can't hear the sound of surf from the Halliwell Jones) , but Widdop sees the Wire as a club at which he can 'win things' and says that Simon Moran, Karl Fitzpatrick and Steve Price have given him an "... opportunity to come home and live out a childhood dream..."

Warrington chief executive Karl Fitzpatrick understands the power of an understatement: "This is arguably the biggest signing in the club's history and quite possibly in the history of Super League," he said (forgetting that both Andrew Johns and Alfie Langer have preceded Widdop in the primrose and Blue). He went on: " Bringing in this world-class player is a major boost for the sport in this country.... a fantastic addition to an already formidable squad... demonstrates the ambition of Warrington Wolves..."

Meanwhile, back in 2019, the Wire come to Spotland on the back of a fairly routine 38-12 pre-season blow-out against a wobbling Widnes (who this week are beset by rumours of their impending implosion ignited by a messy take-over wrangle in which each of the three protagonists appear to have said "I don't want it").

Star of the show was former Canberra Raiders half Blake Austin, weighing in with his debut try and a handful of try-assists in a barn-storming 70 minute showcase. He was ably supported by Jake Mamo - another new acquisition - who clocked up a hat-trick playing mostly out-of position on the wing and having started on the bench!

The DR Menu: Wire name a squad packed with future talent
For Saturday, though, Warrington have named a side comprising 'future talent', most eye-catchingly Harvey Livett and Pat Moran who have both turned in excellent performances in Hornets jerseys over the last couple of years. The squad also includes former Penrith and Wests Tigers' Tongan forward Sitaleki Akauloa who played 24 games in Super League last term.  New signing from. London Matt Davis will also feature. Individual clash of the day sees Dan Abram line up opposite his brother Jamie. One way or another, tea round the Abram house should be interesting on Saturday evening.

We anticipate a stern test as Carl Forster looks to iron out the not unsubstantial wrinkles that made the Law Cup a hard game to enjoy. Indeed, in his post-match comments, Forster accused his side of 'panicking' when they got into good positions: forcing passes and committing errors that gave Oldham plenty of cheap ball.

On an afternoon of few highlights, a couple of things stood out for us: the left-edge partnership of Ben Morris and Brandon Wood looks like it has plenty of potential (and points) in it - and Scott Moore put in another sterling shift at half and hooker, an eye-catching 40/20 the pick of his contribution.

Elsewhere there was a lot of graft, but little craft - so Saturday provides the opportunity to fine-tune some key aspects of the side before the serious business begins on February 3rd.

See you Saturday.

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