Monday, 30 July 2012

A Lesson in Economics

Hornets 12 Whitehaven 31

For the first 40 minutes this was a collossal battle. But - despite giving everything - Hornets eventually succumbed to Whitehaven's superior expenditure.

Once again this game proved an object lesson in how signing PNG internationals and ex-SL mercenaries can provide mediocre teams with just enough class to scramble out of this division.

However, it was Hornets that started with a bang. Just three minutes in a neat interchange of passes threaded John Cookson through a glaring gap only for referee Mr Turley to strike off the try for an obstruction only he saw.

And three minutes later, swift hands up the left fed Wayne English on an arcing run through a flat-footed defence. Mr Turley again adjudging obstruction and no try.

Haven capitlised, taking the ball upfield where Hornets allowed the peripatetic Rooney enough space to skip through tackles and score after nine minutes.

But Hornets stuck to the plan and - after 15 minutes - some great approach work by the forwards gave Paul Crook possession 10 metres from the Haven Line. Crook dinked a teasing grubber into the in-goal and was first to react, pouncing on his own kick to score. Mr Turley happy this time. Crooky added the extras and Hornets were level.

With Hornets pack making good metres in the tackle and Wayne English wreaking havoc coming into the line, Whitehaven were driven backwards and a good period of pressure came to fruition when tidy hands from Tony Stewart fed Jonny Leather in on 30 minutes. Crook added the two and Hornets had the lead they deserved.

But with the half ebbing away, a lapse of concentration at the ruck gave Rooney the half second he needed to burst into space and slip Palfrey in under the black dot. Rooney added the extras and the sides went in locked up at 12-all.

The second half began in similarly tight fashion. For 18 minutes the game had a chess-like feel - move and counter move: both sides producing unrelenting defence. It fell to Haven's PNG international to break the deadlock - Parker loping away from the cover defence, creating just enough space to send Calvert in by the flag.

But Hornets weren't done. With Sice coughing the restart kick-off, Hornets laid seige to the Haven line, the best chance of a repeat set falling to Dave Newton who fumbled the ball with the Haven defence back-pedalling. From the resulting possession Rooney kicked a casual 40/20 and quick hands from the scrum saw Parker score. Rooney added the two - and a drop-goal two minutes later to shut out the bonus point.

While a tired Hornets scrambled, scrapped and struggled to maintain their shape, Haven found enough space to squeeze Hamzat in at the corner. And with a last minute Hornets drop-out failing to go ten metres, Sice added a gift two points to all but seal the season for both clubs.

There's no doubt that Hornets were beaten by a better team on the day. No arguments about that at all. Rooney was allowed sufficient space to boss the game and Parker is way too good to play at this level.

Whilst the defeat brings a whole host of future challenges firmly into focus, it's not the end of the world. On the other hand, a win was absolutley imperative for Whitehaven who have wagered big on gaining promotion. Indeed, I'd loved to have been a fly on the wall in their dressing room at half time. As would their bank manager, I imagine.

And, whilst it's disappointing from a Hornets point of view, the big-spending four in Championship One continue to laugh. All the way to the bank.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Look Out Here Come: Whitehaven

Forget whatever other sporting events might be happening elsewhere in the country this weekend. The only game of any meaningful import takes place at Spotland where Hornets are on the verge of running down a fast-fading Whitehaven and relieving them of the fourth promotion spot.

And you can smell the fear from here.

Having been bent over by Barrow to the tune of 48-16 , Whitehaven coach Don Gailer reckons his team will '…come back stronger against promotion rivals Rochdale Hornets'. 

But they didn't get a flogging by Barrow because they were the poorer team; oh no.
Gailer reckons it's because 'haven were 'rusty after 18 days without a match'. Er… right.

Reaching for a small onion, he said: “With six games left, no team should have to sit out two weeks and it hurt us really badly. You can prepare on the training field all you want, but there’s nothing like match fitness.”

Mate, if your team's not match fit with six games of the season remaining, have a look at yourself. And he's getting his excuses in early: “Three games in six-and-a-half-weeks hasn’t been an ideal preparation. But we just have to get on with it. You can do as much work as you want on the field but it doesn’t beat a battle. You can’t emulate match pressure on the training field.” 

Well, he'll get as much pressure as he can handle on Sunday, as  Hornets victory by 13 or more will see them leapfrog Whitehaven into fourth place and leave Gailer staring down the barrel of life in the League of (Slow) Death next season.

Unsurprisingly, Gailer is talking big talk to talk up his sides chances, big-style. Gazing in Churchilian fashion into a setting Cumbrian sun (maybe), he pledged “We will fight back. There’s no panic and with five games left we know what we can do.”

But there's one thing that Don and TLCRF80mins does agree on. This week he said, "All the games are huge from here on in – every one’s as big as the other" - and he's dead right.

That Hornets have clawed their way back into contention as the season comes to the boil is a fantastic feat - but the job's not over til it's over. This is the first of five cup-finals we have to win. And these are - let's face it - the only games that really matter this summer.

Sunday's game v Whitehaven is proudly sponsored by TLCRF80mins.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Hornets Turn The S-Cru

Hornets 34 NW Crusaders 6

Despite North Wales Crusaders best attempts to spoil, niggle and grind this game to a standstill, an impressive Hornets packed them off back to Wrexham with a lesson in focus, control and clinical finishing.

While their Welsh counterparts tried everything in the book to take the momentum out of the game, Hornets played some neat football around them - and with three tries struck off for dubious forward passes, this drubbing could've been even more comprehensive.

Crusaders' gameplan was obvious from the off. Whilst the Hornets forwards ripped into some stern defence, every tackle brought two, three - sometimes four attendees to lie on for as long as referee Sharrad would allow. Hornets finally found a way through after 14 minutes when a cracking cut-out pass from Gary Middlehurst found Jonny Leather who blasted 70 metres downfield, held just short by some desperate cover. A quick play the ball and some smart handling worked the ball across the field for Dale Bloomfield to score in the corner. Paul Crook - cool as you like - stroked over the extras.

Five minutes later, Hornets conjured up a second for Bloomers - Steve Roper jinking into space with the supporting Wayne English providing the crucial pass. 

With 20 minutes gone, Crusaders had created precisely nothing, but got a lucky break when a searching pass from Crook was plucked out of the air by Sheen, who ran it back under the Hornets posts. Johnson added a simple two - and that was the last the scoreboard would see of the visitors.

Hornets forwards continued to make good yards, and a blockbusting break from Gary Middlehurst created just enough room for him to find Steve Roper with a delicious one handed pass, Roper outpacing the cover from 30 metres to score. Crook added the extras and Hornets went in at the break 16-6 to the good having totally dominated the first 40.

Hornets began the second half as they'd finished the first: props Braddish and Ekis - ably supported by the redoubtable Danny Samuel - drove the Welsh back upfield, and Steve Roper terrorised a back pedalling defence, taking play to the edges where Hornets had a clear upper hand in strength and pace. With three minutes gone, Roper unzipped the Welsh defence to send Wayne English coasting in, only for Mr Sharrad to call play back for a seemingly invisible obstruction.

Hornets regained advantage from a Welsh error, and - from the resulting scrum - Roper and English repeated the feat, this time to the referee's satisfaction. Crook added the extras followed shortly after by a penalty and, with the Welsh blowing out of their not insubstantial arses, it was clear that the visitors were a busted flush. Their solution? Lie on a bit more in an attempt to stem the tide.

For 15 minutes, it appeared to work, frustrating Hornets and fans alike. It even gave Crusaders the opportunity to launch the odd attack, but laboured approach-play and some impotent jabbing was nowhere near enough to break down Hornets stern defence.

Having shot their bolt, North Wales were driven backwards - a string of penalties giving Hornets the position and possession for Steve Roper to find Wayne English with a slick short ball - English somersaulting in for a spectacular try.

With time ebbing away, Hornets sucked in to deliver the coup de grace: slick hands at pace saw Tony Stewart find Jonny Leather with a pinpoint pass: Leather hitting the afterburners to score by the flag. Nice.

In the end, this was a good old-fashioned flogging - the scoreline hugely flattering a North Wales Crusaders side who played no discernible football in 80 minutes, and whose sole objective was to rip the momentum out of the game. Their impressively noisy fans deserve better.

As for Hornets, over the last three games, they've scored 96 points and conceded just 10. Impressive stuff. More importantly, it now puts us within striking distance of Whitehaven - the next visitors to Spotland. Win by 13 or more next week and we go fourth. 

Game on.

You may recall that, when Crusaders beat our U23s in a pre-season friendly, one of the more excitable sons of Glyndwr shouted loudly in my face how they were going to win the league (amongst other things). I said to him (quite calmly, under the circumstances) not to get too excited and that, over the two league games, Hornets would score 100 against them. As it was we managed an aggregate of 86-24. How about that then, eh? Eh?

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Look Out, Boyo - Here comes NW Crusaders

Whales, yesterday.

Having flogged hapless Gateshead on consecutive weekends to the tune of 108 points North Wales crusaders are probably the form team in Championship 1's also-rans chasing pack.

Having played a game more than both Hornets and Whitehaven and with a minus 96 points difference, their local paper's exhortations that the Crusaders are "… back in the promotion hunt…" stretches even the most optimistic outlook to extremes. 

But coach Clive Griffiths is a happy chap. Reaching for an aquatic metaphor, he said: “There’s five games to go and I’m sure that there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge yet. We’re happy to be where we are the moment." So why spoil such contentment? A Hornets win on Sunday would pull us closer to Whitehaven and leave the Crusaders in their 'happy place' - which suits us here at TLCRF80mins Towers just fine.

However, Clive's had his calculator out and continues to fuel unrealistic expectation with a combustible combination of maths and hubris. According to the Daily Post, Griffiths: "… says his players know a top-four place is still not mathematically out of their grasp and are motivated right until the final day, which could see a winner-takes-all game against Whitehaven…" Played, no doubt, on the moon given the likelihood of that too.
Griffiths has also said this week: “The league table is always in the back of your mind. If Oldham hadn’t got that late drop goal on the weekend, then we would have been sixth." And if I had tits I'd be my sister, Clive.

A 12-man Hornets bent the Crusaders over to the tune of 50 points earlier in the season, but they do seem to have toughened up their act since then, with Andy Gorski and Dave McConnell following the scent of new fivers down the A55 after being loaned out by Swinton. 

Ultimately, Griffiths sees their season hanging on the next three games (against Hornets, South Wales and the Skolars): "… (they) are going to be vital." he said. "If we’ve any hopes of getting in the play-offs, we’ve to get a couple of wins in these games.”

Good luck at Neath and London.

Friday, 13 July 2012

A Design for Life

Or: how a bit of radical thinking could stop Rugby League from eating itself.

Let's face it, while Rugby League is the greatest game in the world, the structure of the semi-pro game outside SL sucks. Indeed, there may be those who might suggest - given the ongoing debacle at the Bankrupt Bulls (or 'Bradford Bust', depending on your preference) - that Super League sucks as well. 

But wherever your loyalties lie, pro- and semi-pro Rugby League in the UK needs reviewing with a critical eye, rather than us all adopting the fingers-in-ears la-la-la not-listening everything's-rosy approach favoured by Sky and those fans of SL teams now critically dependent on suckling at TV's teat.

Championship teams with genuine ambitions of playing at a higher level are compelled to take part in a three-yearly scramble for promotion with no guarantee of success, and Championship 1 teams look set to play in the 'League of (slow) Death' (©TLCRF80mins 2012) where they'll compel lads who have work on Monday morning to travel for 16 hours  to some of the RFL's far-flung development backwaters to play in front of tiny crowds. On a human level alone, this is frankly ridiculous.

Maximising costs and minimising potential audiences (by effectively killing away support), seems the wrong way round to us - so we've put on our thinking caps to try and find a structure that would increase intensity of competition, boost crowds, manage costs and stimulate sustainable development, progress and growth.

A league model designed to accommodate 4 divisions of 10 determined by league positions at the end of the season. Based on recent placings, the divisions would be:

Division One: Wigan, Huddersfield, Warrington, Catalan, Hull, St Helens, Leeds, Bradford, Hull KR, Salford.

Division Two: Castleford, Wakefield, London B, Widnes, Halifax, Batley, Dewsbury, Leigh, Keighley, Featherstone.

P&R similar to RFU/PremierRugby model - which we've adapted and added to below.

At Division 3, in order to cap travel time to around 3 hours one-way, reduce the associated cost/travel burden on clubs (Gateshead to Neath is 6 hours 2 minutes according to AA RoutePlanner - ridiculous for part-time players playing in front of 300 people), and maximise potential away support, we'd consider splitting into two conferences as follows:

Division 3 North: Swinton, Hunslet, York, Workington, Barrow, Oldham, Whitehaven, Hornets, North Wales Crusaders, Gateshead,

Division 3 Midlands & South: Sheffield, Doncaster, London Sk, SW Scorpions, Northampton, Hemel, Gloucester, Coventry, Bristol, AN Other

In all divisions, teams play each other three times to give them 27 games. The first 18 games are played as regular home & away rounds with gate receipts kept by the home club (as currently). The venue for last phase of 9 games to be determined by the aggregate score of the first two games between clubs, with winner getting home advantage and gate receipts split (as in the Challenge Cup). 

The 'Back 9' could be promoted as 'The business end of the season' and they'd have significantly more purpose and interest than four meaningless NRC games.

Top two in each conference to play off to be Division 3 champions. Champions go up to Division 2.

Minimum standards for promotion to Super League.

Automatic promotion and relegation between the club that finishes bottom of Super League and the club that wins the Championship. Promotion and relegation would, however, be subject to the Minimum Standards criteria which require certain standards to be met across all areas of a professional club's business.

Clubs wishing to play in Super League would have to fulfil a list of criteria to be determined by the RFL and agreed by Championship clubs. This 'minimum standards plan' might cover areas including stadium specification &  ground tenure, club administration and key roles, financial status & business/budget plan for playing at a higher level, community development programmes, medical & safety, marketing, plans to increase attendances, plans for adherence to the salary cap and playing/contractual commitments. The purpose of the minimum criteria would be an attempt to ensure a base level of on- and off-field standards for all clubs to operate by.

Clubs wishing to play in Super League would be asked to submit their minimum standards plan to the RFL by a predetermined deadline. If their plan meets the standards, the club would be granted a 'promotion licence' that would remain valid for three years. Their submission would then be reviewed when/if a club finishes top of the Championship, to validate that the standards remain in place. 

Clubs could review/up-grade/amend their plans at any time during that licence period, but the revised plan would replace its predecessor only for the remainder of the licence period. Clubs which did not submit a minimum standards plan at the outset would not be permitted to submit one during an existing licence period, but could do when submissions were invited for the next period.


Yes, yes - we know that this isn't 100% perfect, but what we're pretty sure of is that our proposed structure contains more concerted thinking on the state of the (semi)pro game in the UK than has been done by the RFL in the last ten years.

And it doesn't take much - a bit of lateral thinking, a little consideration for the players & the fans and a love of the greatest game in the world. Things clearly in short supply at Red Hall.

Monday, 2 July 2012


Gateshead 0 -  Hornets 32

This was a scrappy, bitty game that never really gained any rhythm or fluidity. An almost over-keen Hornets often forced passes or took the wrong option, while a frankly impotent Gateshead could still be playing now and be no closer to scoring.

Despite a completion rate struggling to reach 50%, Hornets were clearly on-top throughout and got the first strike in early doors when Paul Crook snuck through  flimsy tacklng on half-way to out-pace and out-muscle the covering defence to score; his conversion attempt fading the wrong-side of the upright. 

With Hornets playing the only discernible football on offer, there was an air of inevitability about Gary Middlehurst's 12th minute try off a crafty Steve Roper pass. Again, Crook was uncharateristically awry with the boot. 8-nil.

And so it stayed until the break, the game locked in a fumbling, stumblling stasis. Hornets doing everything but score, Thunder struggling to complete sets. At least the sun was out.

Hornets started the second half with, visibly, more purpose. With Roper and Hough bringing the forwards onto balls at pace and Wayne English chiming into the line at every opportunity, Hornets adopted a much more direct approach. With both Gary Middlehurst and Phil Braddish fumbling try-scoring opportunities, the opening score of the second half took ten minutes to arrive - Jonny Leather showing good footwork to jink in and score. Crooky broke his duck and the game was afoot.

Following some neat approach work, Wayne English's mesmerising run sucked in defenders and his neat drop-off pass found Chris Hough in support to plunge through defenders to score on the hour.

Gateshead's sole contribution of interest came shortly after when willing lummox Waller responded to being held up short by headbutting Dayne Donohue. His red-card was followed by yellows for Hornets' Dave Newton and Thunder's Walsh. Hornets responded by marching upfield where Gary Middlehurst strolled in for his second off a tidy inside pass. 26-nil and a somewhat more accurate representation of Hornets' dominance.

There was still time for Paul Crook to bookend a 16-point contribution with a stepping, dummying try by the posts. And at 32-nil, it'd be churlish to complain too vociferously. If Hornets had beaten Gateshead by 52-20, it'd look like a proper thrashing - but the same wining margin with a nil at one end offers greater satiafaction.

And I'd rather have an ugly 32 point win than a pretty defeat any day of the week.