Thursday, 14 February 2019

Saturday's Coming: Toulouse


In October, TO XIII President  Bernard Sarrazain made a bold claim: "In 2019, we want to win everything and give us the means to make it happen."

Having made the qualifiers last year on a budget of €1.2M, Sarrazain has given  sheep-bothering coach Sylvain Houles an increased budget of  €1.6M  in 2019 - that's about £1.4m. But the choking has started early in Blagnac this year.

Two games into yet another push for Super League and Houles' Toulouse find themselves winless - marooned in the 'pointless zone', having shipped 60 points (losing 24 – 16 at  Leigh and at home to Widnes by 36-24).

In La Depeche this week, the analysis of TO's stuttering start was pretty straightforward. In an article headlined "Ignition Delayed", they wrote: "TO are (still) looking for a first success. After the setback on the first day in Leigh, Toulouse failed to rebound when they welcomed Widnes, showing offensive and defensive deficiencies. Losing Rhys Curran, the morning of the game, had a negative impact on the behaviour of a team that must take its mark."

And already there are hints that patiences are wearing thin down by the Garonne:  "On Saturday, they receive Rochdale, humbled on their own turf by Toronto (6-58). Forcibly, Toulouse are obliged to go for the victory to launch their season and leave this unflattering eleventh place."

Indeed, the pressure to win is all pervading this week - but Toulouse still have one itch they'll never be able to scratch. A La Depeche article headlined 'Bounce-back against Rochdale' opens with the line: "Toulouse will have to return to success next Saturday, in Blagnac, facing an old acquaintance, Rochdale, who, in 2016, deprived them of the League One title."

Let it go boys, let it go...

On Wednesday, TO travelled to Paris for a training session with a Sydney Roosters, side en-route to Wigan. Sylvain Houles  said: "I hope it will bring us the energy to rebound (against) Rochdale."

Post the Widnes defeat, Houles pointed the finger of blame specifically at Mark Kheirallah and Johnathon Ford - implying they'd failed to 'live up to their reputation'. Maybe the pair are a little too comfortable in their comfort zone?

This weekend, Houles expects Tyla Hepi and ex-Leigh and Swinton wing Ilias Bergal back on deck, having missed the Widnes game. They'll line up alongside New TO hooker Dean Part, who moves to the South of France via Barrow, having cut his teeth in the New South Wales Cup at Wentworthville Magpies and Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles.

In an interview on the TO website this week, Parata underlined the imperative to win: "I think Rochdale are within our reach. We have all the necessary qualities to produce a big game at home. We respect this team, (Hornets)  like all the teams of the Championship that we face, but after two defeats we have no choice but to make ourselves respected at the outset and get this victory that will launch our season."

When asked if he could put his finger on why his side had had such a lousy start, Parata said: "Against Leigh, we lacked freshness and against Widnes, our discipline failed us at crucial moments." Lacked Freshness? In the first game of the season? Jeez, are the players as bored with this soap-opera as we are?

He sees 'focus' and 'being realistic'  as the keys to addressing TO's early slump: "If we put these bases in place, we can beat any team in this Championship." Except the good teams, obviously.

Hornets jet out to Blagnac this week also looking for a first win - but the panic levels in the camp are significantly lower than those at Toulouse.  Defeats to Toronto and Toulouse wouldn't define our season, whereas two losses have already seen Toulouse's promotion ambitions described in their local press as 'handicapped'.

Too soon to call it a relegation four-pointer?

If you're heading for Toulouse, have a safe trip: see you there.

Monday, 11 February 2019

No Alarms and No Surprises

Hornets 6 - Toronto 58

There were no real surprises here. A team of full-time ex-NRL and Super League talent milking a £2m budget landed a perfunctory win over a part time team with a tenth of the resources. The end.

Indeed, Toronto Wolfpack rolled in like the circus it is: all 'look at me' fanfare, big-time Charlies and the dead-eyed joy of a bloke cracking a whip at a broken lion for the hundredth time to meagre squeals of sadistic delight.

Here at TLCRF80mins, we watch a lot of Rugby League - and seldom have we seen a team this good been so indifferent in the execution of its task. Slick? Yes. Strong? Yes. Well drilled? Undoubtedly.

However, even with their polish and quality they're hard to watch. Maybe it's the requirement to tread water in the Championship for another season that dulls the spark? Another year of pounding plucky part-time players whilst London Broncos undertake what should have been their victory tour of Super League. A sense of deja-vu. On Groundhog Day. All over again. No surprises there, either.

In the early exchanges, Hornets held firm, but when the Toronto cogs engaged they looked brutally frictionless - producing three quick-fire tries before the quarter mark. Firstly, Russell on the end of what would become a familiar looping shift to the left touchline, then Mellor backing up an O'Brien break on half way - the combination reversed on 19 minutes: O'Brien under the black dot and the visitors easing away at 0-16

Less than a minute later, Toronto found themselves stood under their own crossbar for the first time this season. Good approach work from Hornets took them close to the Wolfpack's line, where Adam Lawton's first touch in a Hornets jersey saw him haul defenders into the in-goal and score. Cue the music! Dan Abram slotted the extras and - briefly - we had a game on our hands.

Toronto's response was ruthlessly direct: Manly exile Lussick barrelling in from half a metre. Two minutes later that left-edge shift sent Leutele in out wide for 6-26. The only respite, Hornets newly signed Brandon Wood slamming Chase Stanley into Row E with a tackle that raised the main stand to its feet.

As the half drained away, Toronto's sheen became tainted by a rush of penalties: referee Mr Smith putting the visitors on a team warning that straddled the break. Within 5 minutes of the restart, Jon Wilkin was dispatched for what looked like the use of a shoulder.

Like all good circuses, the second half delivered a parade - six tries at regular intervals split evenly between one metre crash-overs and that seemingly unstoppable left-edge shift.

Russell out by the flag on 48 minutes; Stanley too strong on 53 minutes; Russell a carbon-copy hat-trick on 55 minutes; Emmitt backing in like a bin-wagon on the hour.

Then some respite as Hornets strove to push forward, but Toronto's defence proved immovable. Two late tries -  Russell's 4th (identical to its triplet predecessors) and Sidlow (slumping in on the siren) blew out the scoreline.

In the end, it was all a bit routine (or should that be 'poutine'?). The cameras got what they wanted, The Toronto circus rolls cheerlessly on and Hornets get to consider the fact that games like this won't define our season.

It's unlikely we'll play a faster, more skilful, better drilled side than this all season. The games that will make or break our Championship challenge will be against the sides in the lower half of the competition.

So, no reason to be alarmed. Nothing to see here. Move along.




Thursday, 7 February 2019

Sunday's Coming: 'Toronto' Wolfpack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Four to Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

A Closer Look at: Toronto Wolfpack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue
So is there any salvation to be had?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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