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.