Thursday, 31 May 2012

Look Out, Here Come: Workington

With six wins from eight, high-flying, big-spending Workington come to… er… town on Sunday looking to consolidate their position in the Cumbrian cartel of clubs going shit or bust to get out of Championship 1 this season.
Like Hornets, ToWn had a Sunday off last weekend, but the week before - while Hornets were pushing water uphill at Neath, Worky were brutally dicking Doncaster, coming back from 18-nil down to rout the Dons with 45 unanswered points.
Indeed, ToWn are gambling big on grabbing a top-four berth. Ex-Hull forward Jamie Thackray, ex-England international Mark Calderwood have been been joined at Derwent Park by Hull utility forward James Newton, who 's signed on dual reg. terms.
But Worky don't really 'do; Hornets of late, losing four from four last season. And Stanky is under no illusion of the importance of Sunday's game. Quoted in the press this week, he said: “Workington have started well and are desperate for promotion and have spent a lot of money."
“We have to roll up our sleeves but our games are fast running out of time. If we lose then the chances of us going up are very slim.”
“This is probably one of the most important games in the club’s recent history. I want the players to knuckle down and play to their full potential."
With several players still unavailable through injury, Stanky has moved swiftly this week to bring ex-Hornets Chris Clough and Danny Samuel back to Spotland to bolster the squad and increase his options.
Indeed this season - and next - could well hang on Sunday's 80 minutes. This IS a make or break game. So let's see who wants it most.

Monday, 21 May 2012

This Is A Low

Scorpions 32 Hornets 30

Perspective is a wonderful thing. But whichever angle you look at this result from, it was a scrappy, clunking, miserable mess.

Out enthused by by a perfunctory Scorpions who stuck to their 'keep it simple, play direct' game plan, Hornets contrived to hand the Welsh side their first win at the Gnoll in 2012, having had ample chance to take control of the game.

Indeed, Hornets started the brighter: Danny Davies feeding Dale Bloomfield in by the flag after 7 minutes. Paul Crook, wide with the conversion attempt. But the Scorpions hit back almost immediately: Hornets defence napping as Mossop strolled in from first receiver. 

Hornets regained the advantage on 20 minutes when a rare passage of lucid football saw Wayne English score wide out. Paul Crook closer, but still no cigar from virtually the same spot.

But the lead lasted just three minutes, defenders switching off late in the tackle count to allow Mossop to mug Hornets from acting half. And things got worse on the half hour when - having repelled some sustained pressure - Hornets lost track of Parry who obliged with four points.

Right on the hooter Hornets again found half a dozen slick passes, as quick hands across the line saw Danny Davies burst through to score. From much the same spot, the outcome of the conversion attempt was much the same. Half time 16-12 to the Scorpions - and Hornets with a finger-hold in the game.

The second half started in frantic fashion. Hornets forcing repeat sets to no avail; tempers becoming frayed. But it was the home side that composed itself quicker, trooping downfield to send ex-*nion wing James (the world's most rotund winger) trundling through some ordinary tackling in for his debut try.

To their credit, Hornets struck back almost immediately when John Cookson crashed in off a short ball - only for him to execute a needlessly wilful head tackle from the restart that saw him sin-binned.

The 12 men dug-in and the line held. Hornets even had the audacity to work the ball out wide to Dale Bloomfield who showed great pace and persistence to get the ball down by the flag. Crooky found his kicking boots and Hornets led by 24-20 with 15 minutes remaining.

But in typical fashion, Hornets switched off at the kick-off, the Scorpions regained the lofted ball and, just four tackles later, Parry was planting the ball through a crowd of defenders. For good measure, Mossop added his hat-trick try on 73 minutes and Hornets were gone at 32-24.

Yes, Dale Bloomfield almost snuck a hat-trick when he dived in on a bouncing ball in the in-goal. And, yes, Wayne English was denied with a last-ditch tackle after a Chris Baines interception. And, yes, Steve McDermott weaved his way through to plant the ball under the black dot in the 79th minute - but it was all too little too late. The final score of 32-30 flattering a Hornets side that never really got to grips with this game and, for whom, cohesive football is becoming an increasingly rare commodity.

Ultimately, this was a victory for teamwork. Whilst Hornets are undoubtedly better man-for-man than their opponents, the Scorpions were greater than the sum of their parts, and their noisy on-field celebration after the final hooter showed how much it meant.

And, from our perspective, it made for a quiet, sullen five hour journey home.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Look Out Here Come: SW Scorpions

A leek yesterday

Hornets travel to the Valleys on Sunday looking to build a bit of momentum in the chase for the top four. But while Hornets were busy chipping away at a stubborn Gateshead defence last week, the Scorpions found themselves with a weekend off at very short notice, under very peculiar circumstances.

Their game against London Skolars was postponed less than half an hour before kick-off because the Skolars' pitch was so poor a standard that the match officials and match commissioner considered it a health & safety risk. Ridiculously, Skolars did offer to host it on two adjacent school fields, but neither was suitable. Rumours that they also offered to play it as a game of touch on a nearby Costco car-park have proven untrue.

So, with his squad suitably rested after a pointless 8-hour round trip, Scorpions coach Dave Clark has a full strength complement of players to choose from on Sunday - including their big signing from Neath RFC, winger Kevin James (who made his Rugby League debut at Spotland two weeks ago). Also back in contention is club captain Neil Dallimore, missing for the last three months through injury and a shoulder operation.

Clark is pumped-up for Sunday: "I'm expecting a good level of intensity from our players, and if we do that then we'll compete. A win isn't far off." 

However, in our case, it's about 260 miles off, so with Hornets travelling the day before to prepare thoroughly Clark knows Stanky's taking this one very seriously indeed: "They've a very aggressive pack and ambitions to be in the top four, so it's a big challenge. We're progressing as a team, and that's important for us. We can see improvements." 

Let's hope his optimism is misplaced on Sunday.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Hornets Stumble, Thunder Rumble - Mustn't Grumble

Hornets 46 - Thunder 26

The afternoon had an unfamiliar feel. Firstly the line-up. Having scrutinised the video of the previous week's defeat at Doncaster, Stanky dropped Dave Newton, John Cookson and Chris Baines into the U23s - and drafted U23 second rower Andy Unsworth into first team action. An assertive, but brave move.

And the game had an oddly unfamiliar look to it too. This was an awkward, stuttering affair where Hornets really only sparked into life with the hour approaching, and where superior fitness & pace were enough to take the game away from a hardworking Gateshead who used their size advantage to exploit a generous Hornets defence,

Indeed, before Hornets fans had chance to get comfortable, Thunder had shot into a shock 8-nil lead, replicating an overlap on the right in the 5th and 8th minutes for Beasley and Thackeray to score.

After 20 minutes of faffing around, Hornets finally worked the ball to Dale Bloomfield who obliged with a well taken try; followed in quick succsession by first Jonny Leather finishing well, stepping off his left foot to score on 29 minutes, then Paul Crook skating through on 31 minutes to take the score to 18-8 and the regulars exhaling as normal service appeared to be resumed.

But on the last pass of the last play of the last set of the half, Hornets switched off as Gateshead fed another lumbering leviathan forward into a lacklustre defence - this time Payne slumping in to send the teams in at 18-14 at the break.

And the second haf started in much the same vein: Gateshead piggy-backed downfield off a series of daft penalties, for Neilson to plonk himself over the line from close range to edge Thunder ahead at 18-20.

Hornets temporarily roused from their slumber just four minutes later as a rare passage of lucid football saw Gary Middlehurst drag Hornets back in front. But the relief was short-lived as Gateshead's now obvious 'Plan-X' was put into play: this time huge lump Waller ambling through some very ordinary tackles to re-establish the visitors' 2-point lead at 24-26.

This sounded the alarm and Hornets finally engaged the cogs, with three tries in 8 frantic minutes to seize the momentum. A well constructed try from Danny Davies on 54 minutes was followed by a brace from Wayne English on 57 and 62 minutes and Thunder were spent.

Wayne English could've had a deserved hat-trick had his juggling acrobatic effort not been pulled back for a dubious forward pass. Paul Crook sealed his man-of-the-match effort backing up well to score in the 71st  minute to deny Gateshead any chance of a bonus point. He ended the afternoon with a 22 point haul, missing only one conversion from eight attempts.

In the end this was a hard-earned, if unspectacular, win. Hugely out sized in the pack, Hornets did enough to stem the slow tide of the rumbling Gateshead forwards and when they worked the ball through hands they had enough pace and technique to out-fox a Thunder side that played a basic, no-frills game off the back of a steadily escalating penalty count.

It'd be churlish to moan, though. It's three points in the bag, no bonus point conceded and, with Oldham going down in a spectacular second-half collapse at Doncaster, it reignites the chase for the top four.

But there's still much to be done ahead of next week's odyssey to Neath, where the 'real' SW Scorpions will pose more of a challenge. Hopefully Newton, Cookson & Baines will return with new vigour from their soujourn in the reserves and Hornets can kick-on, gain confidence and establish a bit of momentum.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Look Out, Here Come: Gateshead

Having shipped 11 tries in a brutal 58-6 humping by Workington, Gateshead Thunder Coach Kevin Neighbour hasn't been a happy man this week.

He's been reflecting on where it all went wrong in what he says was: "…  probably our worst performance so far this season".  With so many to choose from,  he proved rapier-like in his analysis: "…  you have just got to hold your hands up and say we were beaten by the better side…"

Slumped winless at the foot of CC1 with just 2 bonus points to their name, this season is already taking on a familiar look for the perennial Geordie whipping boys. But Kev's keen to put things right - oh yes!

"This week will be one in which we will work smarter and harder to prepare for Rochdale, who will be looking to get back to winning ways as quick (sic) as they can. We will see in training who will step up to the challenge to rid the memory of Sunday's performance."

"We just need to re-group now, dust ourselves down, get on with training and focus on our next game against Rochdale." A good plan. 

But they'll have to do it without club stalwart Chris Parker. The prop with over 100 appearances to his name announced his immediate retirement at training last week. Thunder have also released threequarter Ashley Wiliams.

Neighbour finds his side also shorn of half-back Sam Walsh, currently serving  a belated five-match ban, after being found guilty of biting Whitehaven's Craig Calvert back in February. Clearly the RFL disciplinary have been chewing it over. Walsh had been previously banned for two years in 2010 , having provided a sample containing banned anabolic steroids, he was handed a second chance by Gateshead when his suspension finished at the end of January.  Insert your own punchline here.

Ultimately, hooker Ryan Clarke knows exactly what the team need to work on ahead of Sunday: "We need to cut out the penalties and errors to stay in the arm wrestle more. If we do that we will compete with teams." Wise words indeed, mate.

Hornets Deluge Too Much For The Squ-Welsh

Hornets 46 - Scorpions 24

On a wet and horrible night, Stanky handed debuts to 8 players, but the mix of enthusiasm and experience proved too much to handle for a SW Scorpions side that had an equally experimental feel to it. Featuring a mix of regulars, Wigan reservists, union trialists and Welsh U18 players, the Scorpions really only handled the pace of the game once Stanky withdrew four first team regulars in the second half, but by then the damage was done.

Playing high tempo football from the whistle, Hornets leapt into an early lead. A lovely show & go from Phil Wood created enough space for him to scoot in from 40 metres on 2 minutes. And just 2 minutes later a slick interchange of passes between Alex West and Barry Clarke up the right channel carved open the Scorpions and Clarke picked a peach of a pass inside to Paul Crook. With the extras added to both, Hornets were 12-nil to the good after five minutes.

It didn't get much better for the visitors. They carried the ball for the first time in the 8th minute and came up with forward pass. From the resulting possession Hornets set up camp in the Scorpions half and, direct from a 10th minute scrum, Barry Clarke looped through weak tackling to score in the corner.

On 14 minutes, Hornets capitalised on another SW error, as Dean Gorton hit space off a short pass, only to be recalled for a forward pass. But it merely delayed the inevitable as just two minutes later Gary Middlehurst blasted onto a short Will Chadwick pass to crash in and score. Crooky good with the boot for 22-nil.

Despite the conditions, Hornets continued to play with creatvity and confidence: Gary Middlehurst unveiling a tricksy short kicking game that had the visitors defence backpedaling. But the Welsh side stuck to their simple, direct game-plan and it finally came to fruition after 26 minutes when good hands in traffic fed in Crow off a short pass. Wildbore converted for 22-6.

Normal service was resumed on the half hour: Hornets forcing a drop-out, the ball worked to Jonny Leather who stepped into space, executed a quite exquisite back-handed flick pass to Barry Clarke who planted the ball by the corner flag. In swirling, sopping conditions Paul Crook hoisted the ball between the uprights from the touchline. 28-6

Directly from the kick-off a neat Gary Middlehurst pass found Jonny Leather arriving at pace and he steamed in from 50 metres. Crook added the extras. 34-6 at the break.

Hornets began the second half seamlessly. Gary Middlehurst's dink behind the defence bait enough for Will Chadwick to bite, sliding in to score. Crooky added the 2: 40-6.

Four minutes later Jonny Leather's break up the right instigated a quick exchange of passes with Alex West, Leather going back for the last pass to score under the black-dot. Crooky converting; 46-6. Job pretty much done.

With Stanky withdrawing Crook, Wood, Bowman and Middlehurst, South Wales found a bit of breathing space and, as Hornets played through the sets the Scorpions gained confidence and fashioned three well-taken tries: James on the end of good handling on 52 minutes; Crow off a neat Wildbore show & go on the hour and Morgan stepping through a napping defence to score from half-way on 70 minutes.

With time ebbing away and the conditions increasingly poor, referee Sharpe pulled up with what looked like a groin injury. After treatment and a consultation with both sides it was decided to call an end to matters five minutes early and both sides left the field to warm applause.

In the end, this was an obligation fulfilled. But don't be misled that this was just a training run. Both sides were committed and competitive - and it's encouraging to see the talent coming through at Hornets. Steadied by a few experienced hands, the 'espoirs' play without fear; a fast, slick game on attack and working hard in numbers on defence.

Will Chadwick was named man of the match - worthy because of his dynamo attitude to getting round the field, but also because he was felled by a horribly mistimed tackle from Curtis. It was clearly an accident and it was heartening to see the player responsible apologise to both Chaddy and the referee; Chadwick's acceptance and a handshake drew applause from a surprisingly healthy crowd.

The debut of new signing Joe Fitzpatrick was also positive. Though he lacks match fitness at the moment, he put himself about, landed one or two bell-ringing tackles and augments Gary Middlehurst's 'mongrel' attitude in the pack.

All in all, an entertaining, well-contested match. And - at last - some reasons to be cheerful for the Hornets regulars.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Watch Out Here Come: SW Scorpions

Behold an exercise in futility. Two teams who've failed to qualify for the second phase of a competition that's already been and gone, compelled to play a dead rubber on a Wednesday night, where one of the teams: a) has already failed to show up and: b) has to travel the length of the country. Only on planet Rugby League could something so mind-bogglingly stupid occur.

But occur it must, so we are compelled to go through the motions. With more important things like the league to be faffed with at this stage of the season, I imagine that both coaches involved will use this as an opportunity to give fringe players/reserves a run.

Stanky has already indicated that his side will have an 'experimental' look about it - using it to give Gary Middlehurst some much needed gametime after his enforced sabbatical, and to run the rule over ex-Swinton prop Joe Fitzpatrick who's signed on a trial basis.

As for the possible shape of the Scorpions side, your guess is as good as mine. All I do know is that getting back to Neath at 2.30 in the morning will be a monumental pisser.

The one positive attached to the game is that those fans turning out will receive a voucher to get into Sunday's league game with Gateshead without charge. Eminently fair and a generous reward for the hardy-souls who'll rock-up on Wednesday. Whilst there's no doubt that this will have all the feel of a reserve game it will come with all the cost connotations of a regular fixture, so it makes sense to make it as attractive as possible.

Ultimately, though, any game of Rugby League on a Wednesday night has to be better than watching crap telly. And having paid £21 to watch Huddersfield bore Hull into a coma on Easter Monday, £12 feels like a bargain. 

So look on it as a much needed donation to our club or an opportunity to watch two games for six-quid each. And buy a fistful of Golden gamble tickets too. As they say at Central Park these days: every little helps!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Of Pilgrims and Progress

Doncaster 48 - Hornets 26

After the doubts of the last 7 days, it was a small, but hardy knot of the Hornets faithful that chose to test their faith with a trip to Doncaster.

And if it's better to travel in expectation than to arrive, you have to consider just what those expectations are. Certainly the most realistic of Hornets fans would have hoped for any improvement on the previous encounter with Donny. But, my, though they got their wish in the end, they had to wait a long time for their reward.

The early encounters were pretty even: Donny fashioning a try from a Chris Baines chargedown as Fawcett capitalised on a static defence and fed Colton in for a try by the flag.

But Hornets dug in and scrapped back, with Danny Davies slipping a neat pass to Dale Bloomfield who crashed through his opposite number to score out wide.

At four-all after 20 minutes, the game looked evenly poised, but by the time the half time hooter sounded, Hornets had shipped four tries as Doncaster gained momentum - piggy-backing upfield off needless penalties and finding the killer pass when it mattered. Spiers on 21 minutes (route one from short range), Colton on 22 minutes (overlap out wide), Kesik on 29 minutes (slumping in from acting half) and Fawcett after 32 minutes (off a neat pass resulting from a Cooke kick) looked an awful lot like last week as the teams retired at 26-4.

Whatever was said in the sheds at the break had the desired effect, as Hornets came out fired up and playing slick, high-tempo football for the first time in weeks.

With only two minutes gone, Danny Davies shrugged off his opposite number, blasted into space and threaded Dale Bloomfield in at the corner. Then, from the kick-off possession Hornets - courtesy of monster drives from Danny Ekis and Phil Braddish - powered close to the home side's goal line, where quick hands found Dean Gorton who steamrollered  the home centre on his way to the line. Three minutes later, it was Davies again, terrorising  Waterman, accelerating away to find Paul Crook with a well-picked inside ball. Crook in turn found the supporting Paul O'Connor and, with the extras added, three tries in nine minutes had the home side wobbling (and the home fans silenced) at 26-20.

It was clear that Doncaster needed a break to stem the momentum and it came via an uncharacteristic fumble from the ever-reliable Paul Crook. Doncaster settled the ship with a steady six and worked Chris Spurr in for a try after 55 minutes. The game swung again.

Quick-fire tries from Fawcett and Butterfield left Hornets forcing passes in desperate pursuit of a bonus point, but to no avail. Despite good hands from Phil Braddish to score under the black dot with time ebbing away, there was still enough remaining for the languid Cooke to produce his one pass of the day to send Hodson in at the corner.

In the wash-up, Hornets were well-beaten, but they did show character to drag the game back within reach and with a little luck this may have been a closer encounter.

What is becoming clear is that the gulf in this division lies not in ability, but in teams' ability to gamble large amounts of money on a marquee player they believe will be the difference between 4th and 5th. As one Doncaster supporter helpfully pointed out yesterday: "the reason you don't like Cooke is that you can't afford him". Very true - but six into four don't go and at least one club is going to find out that they couldn't afford whichever ex-Super League basket-case the've gambled their season on either.

And you have to ask yourself, in the modern game - especially at our level - whether that's progress of any sort.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Observer Puts The Boot In

Once again the Rochdale Observer has shown its true colours, persisting with its morbid obsession that bad news sells papers.

In a week that has seen a collective crisis of confidence from everyone from Stanky down to the bloke in front of me who shouts "Rubbish" at everything (including when we're winning), the Rochdale Observer, it emerges, has sought to stir-up people's shaken faith in an attempt to whip it into another bad-news story.

In a statement issued to Members, Chairman Mark Wynn has articulated the frustrations that the Rochdale Observer's on-going machinations have aroused, and addressed them with candour. 

The statement reads:

" Sunday’s result was a major disappointment for everyone at the club, but the reality is we are currently only 6 games into the season. We sit joint 5th in the league having won 3 and lost 3. We have everything to play for and this Sunday’s game away to league leaders Doncaster is the next test we face."

"A throw away comment in a much larger interview from Stanky is seized upon by the Rochdale Observer. The worst part of this is that The Rochdale Observer told the club that at the beginning of the season that if we wanted match reports to appear in the paper then we would have to PAY for the privilege ourselves. Now when they feel they have the sniff of a bit of negative news they are giving us top billing FOR FREE!!"

"I think that says more about the mind set of the Observer editorial team than it does about Hornets."

"Let there be no mistake John is 100% committed to the club and the lads, as the club is to them! It can’t be any simpler."

"Are things perfect at Hornets? No, far from it.  Can we do things better? Absolutely, a lot better, and we aim to be better. "

"Off the field we haven’t shown the improvement that the team has shown on it and perhaps we have become complacent. But we must re-focus and re-double our efforts to give the team the infrastructure and support they need to produce the results on the field we strive for. "

"We will be running a series of events to stimulate interest in the club and to raise vital funds to give the players the best chance of success. We are hosting a Players V Supporters Twenty/20 Cricket Challenge at Milnrow Cricket Club in July, and to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the greatest moment in Hornets history when we won the Challenge Cup. We will be running a supporters trip to Wembley. With Hornets assistant coach Chris Hough helping out at Littleborough RUFC we are also looking into having a special Cross Code Challenge. For these events to be a success we need supporters to get behind them and back the team."

"Let's be clear, we are currently doing it tough, but to use a phrase from American Football Coach, Lou Holtz ''Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I`ll show you someone who has overcome adversity''.

Way back at the start of the season, TLCRF80mins had a call asking whether we'd be prepared to write Hornets match reports for the Rochdale Observer as they'd laid Mike Floyd off as a cost-cutting measure. They thought - as we'd most likely be at most of the games anyway -  that we might want to do it while we were there.  For free. At our own expense.

Needless to say, we didn't call the Observer back. To ask supporters to back-fill a lack of professional resource gratis, depriving a professional journalist of what was a relatively tiny fee would've had my trade unionist dad spinning in his grave (if we hadn't cremated him, obviously). In fact their blazé attitude it was a major factor in the (re)launch of TLCRF80mins (where we write reports for free and don't give them to the Observer!).

Most scarily, it magnified the Rochdale Observer's active dis-investment in any other sport coverage other than football in the town.

For many years the Rochdale Observer has been a twat to Hornets: happy to amplify bad-news and bury the good. And this most recent event clearly shows that this is one area of their expertise that doesn't seem to have diminished in-line with their reduced resources.

The bottom line is that the Rochdale Observer has been a shambling 'zombie' newspaper for a very long time now. My understanding is that it's written, edited and compiled out of MEN Media's offices in Manchester, with no presence in - or connection to - our town any more. Stories are gathered and written by the same small central pool of journalists that work on all of their local papers covering Manchester satellite towns; student placements are used as cheap resource to back-fill the shortfalls; local communities are 'invited to contribute' - local people writing their own stories for their neighbours to read. It's pathetic, unprofessional and risible.

Unless it's sock-puppeting council propaganda or wringing its hands over this month's 'Rochdale's sickest child', the Observer neither says nor contributes anything to the life of our town -  an anachronism.

I'd suggest that Hornets fans boycott it, but as no-one buys it anyway perhaps we should just sit by and let it slip quietly away in a fug of its own negativity.

Watch Out Here Come: Doncaster (Again)

If there's any such thing as a moot preview, this is it. Everything we need to know about Doncaster has been revealed in the last seven days.

Last week's game came as a sobering, staggering jolt. Over 80 minutes, every Hornet had their confidence peeled away, leaving one or two very raw nerves exposed.

In such circumstances it's a matter of reflex to rail and vent - and many did. But after the shock and the shouting, we were all left to look inwardly and question the point of it all. 

Yes, we can talk about Paul Cooke, and dropped passes and missed tackles and the wind or any number of things. But what's gone is gone, so we must keep the faith that things can (in the words of D:Ream) only get better.

But faith is a complex, ephemeral commodity. It's an easy thing to have in good times.  But in hard times, it's something you need to work hard to maintain - and now's the time for Hornets everywhere to suck-in, swallow-hard, stand-fast and stay together.

Stanky said this week that the problem we face isn't a technical one, but one of attitude - and we agree.

To paraphrase US democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson:  "What counts now is not just what we are against, but what we are for. Who leads us is less important than what leads us - what convictions, what courage, what faith - win or lose. A single man doesn't save a century or a civilization - but a committed group wedded to a single principal can."

So let's pull on our colours, go to Doncaster and get this season back on track.