Tuesday, 27 August 2013

"I have hope in March that I might share in the glory of September…"

In quite possibly the world's greatest Rugby League poem 'Ode to a New Season', Thomas Keneally writes of his excitement and optimism as a new season approaches. In it he weighs his hopes against the possibility of glory at the season's end. And now we find ourselves staring down the barrel of September with glory seemingly as distant and elusive as it was in the cold of late February.

It's been a frustrating, fragmented and, at times, fractious summer. Too infrequent fleeting glimpses of hope erased by withering defeat against Skolars, Crusaders, Scorpions and, most irritatingly, Hemel. Spare a thought for the hardy few that swallowed all four.

It's been an enlightening season too - the dawning realisation that the Kingstone Press Championship 1 has proven far more competitive than anyone dared imagine. Gateshead and the All Golds finding their feet late in the season to stir up the top four; Hemel bringing the blunt-instrument juggernaut of their Conference momentum into the semi-pro ranks; Oxford, a ready-made side of obstinate utilitarians; South Wales - awkward grafters we've never really been able to work out; Skolars, the league's ugliest side, spoil you to a standstill and feed off your frustration - now seemingly in a position to sign ex-SuperLeague players as the power in London shifts; Oldham, always competitive, but prone to lapses (Oxford/All Golds); key though is their ability to summon up a win when it really matters. And Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™, clearly not here to make friends, but in signing each of their key competitors' best players have simultaneously strengthened themselves and weakened their opponents. If only they had the decorum to win with grace…

This Sunday brings the University of Gloucestershire All Golds to Spotland for the first time. Driven off the field by two of Rugby League's good guys in Lionel Hurst and Brad Hepi, they found a bit of form at the back end of the season, and got a couple of deserved wins under their belt. Interesting to see Brad get his boots back on to play alongside his son Tyla in their narrow defeat by Gateshead. Most impressive though was their recent draw against Oldham at Whitebank, striking twice in the last three minutes to grab a share of the spoils. A reminder that you can't take any side for granted in this competition.

Indeed, in our last push for a favourable playoff draw, there's no room for complacency

With Skolars grabbing a bonus point in last Friday's defeat to Crusaders, they leapfrog Hornets into third. Assuming a Hornets win against the All Golds (sorry Lionel) , a win for Skolars at Oxford on Sunday would compel a 4th placed Hornets to travel to London in week one of the playoffs - though we would get a second bite at the cherry as highest placed loser, playing the winner of 5th v 6th - currently Hemel and Oxford - at home in week two.

But however it plays out, we'd have to win four consecutive games to secure promotion. For those who love a quadratic equation, here's the play-off format:

Week 1
3rd-placed club v 4th-placed club (Match A)
5th-placed club v 6th-placed club (Match B)
(2nd-placed club have a bye to Week 2)
Week 2
2nd-placed team v Winner Match A (winner to Play-off final, loser at home in Week 3) (Match C)
Losing team Match A v Winning team match B (loser eliminated) (Match D)
Week 3
Losing team Match C v Winner Match D (winner to Play-off final, loser eliminated) (Match E)
Week 4
Kingstone Press Championship One play-off final: 
Winner Match C v Winner Match E

So here we are, fellow Hornets - crunch time.  The point at which our 'hope in March' becomes harsh reality. 'Glory in September'? Only one way to find out. Come on Hornets, let's go and make it happen. 

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The A627M El Classico Delivers - As Hornets fall Just Short

Hornets 25 - Oldham 30

Bit of a rushed report from the airport today as I'm travelling with work, but bloody hell, what a game that was.

The A627M El Classico has a history of frenetic, full-blooded encounters and this game had the lot - end to end stuff, 40/20s, nine tries, a bumper 1000+ crowd, a couple of punch-ups and a cheeky drop goal packed into 80 minutes of spectacular effort.

After a first minute break by Danny Davies and Gaz Langley (increasingly, Rugby League's most entertaining double act), Oldham went straight back upfield for Palfrey to score.

Hornets kep plugging away and a well engineered Danny Yates try gave Hornets parity just two minutes later.

With neither side giving an inch, It took close to half an hour for Hornets to break the deadlock, with Wayne English scooting in from close range. In a strange case of deja vu, Oldham marched back up the field where Gilchrist fed off a smuggled Hobson pass to score.

With the hooter imminent, Hornets found Paul Crook with the space and composure to drop the goal that gave the home side a 13-12 half time lead.

But it was Oldham that started the second half with more purpose and, in a lightning ten minutes pulled Hornets completey out of shape with a tripple try-whammy from Thompson, Langtree and Clarke (who looked to have received the decisive pass from a player with a foot in touch).

Hornets dug deep, hitting back with two tries in three minutes from the right-side strike duo of Gareth Langley and Daniel Davies - and went looking for the converted try that would steal the game. To no avail. Oldham just about held firm and Hornets had to settle for the bonus point.

Scant consolation - but what a fantastic advert for KP Ch1 Rugby League.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thursday's Coming - Oldham

In quite possibly this year's biggest shock since Simon Cowell realised that he's no longer the only bastard in his relationship, Oldham choked spectacularly on Sunday to cough up a 24-all draw with competition whipping boys University of Gloucestershire All Golds.

Leading 18-nil after half-time and by 24-12 with three minutes remaining, it was a formidable capitulation that all but gifted the KP Ch1 title to Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™, who have three games to play, chasing a four-point deficit.

On the face of it, Chairman Chris Hamilton has been surprisingly sanguine. Speaking in the Oldham Chronic this week he said: “If it is going to be the play-offs for us, then so be it. With the coaches and players we have I would definitely be more confident this year than I ever have been."

Hmm, given Oldham's form in previous Grand Finals, we wouldn't be too sure Chris…

But with a trip to Spotland to end their season, Hamilton is putting the enbarrassment of Sunday behind him:  “We’ve got to knuckle down for the Rochdale game on Thursday now. We’re looking forward to that one.”

Captain Lewis Palfrey and Danny Langtree are both likely to return for the A627M El Classico after missing Sunday's draw. Scott Naylor has also added Swinton Fringe utility forward Chris Clarke to bolster his squad for their shot at the playoffs.

Big loss in the Oldham side will be Dual Reg. centre - and the club's top scorer - Jon Ford who will sit out the rest of the season after dislocating an elbow at London Skolars (using Oldham logic, as having a Dual Reg player in their team actually makes them Salford's reserve side, Ford's absence should please the Whitebank faithful).

As everyone is keen to point out, form counts for nothing in these encounters. Quite simply, the team that wants it most will win. It can't come quick enough for us. Bring it on - it'll be a cracker.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Hornets Rumble Past Persistent Thunder

Hornets 29 - Thunder 22

Ignore the scoreline. The facts hide the truth that this was a game in which Hornets were comfortably in control, but in which a combination of factors contrived to keep a vastly improved Gateshead in close contention.

With only two conversions from six attempts and a series of bombed tries midway through the second half, Hornets should have been out of sight by the hour mark, but Gateshead gratefully accepted their series of 'get out of jail free' cards and made Hornets work hard for the win.

Hornets began at lightning pace. Picking up possession deep in Thunder territory, the ball was shipped rapidly to the right where Wayne English made the extra man and he slipped Gareth Langley in by the flag after just 90 seconds.

Hornets repeated the move ten minutes later, with the same outcome, Gaz Langley squeezing into the corner.

Hornets continued to build steady pressure and when Warren Thompson returned a goal-line drop-out with serious intent, Wayne English switched his 'extra-man' trick to the left, sending Martin Waring in for a well-taken try on 22 minutes.

On the next foray into the Gateshead half, Dannies Yates and Davies exchanged passes, unzipping the defence sufficiently for Gaz Langley to grab his hat-trick. 16-nil: no conversions!

Thunder dug deep to find a response and, after Danny Davies fumbled wth the line begging, they marched swiftly upfield to create two quickfire tries of their own. First Heil finding space out wide, followed by Payne running off an Ollett break. Hardcastle added the two and, seemingly out of nowhere, Gateshead found themselves only 16-10 down at the break.

Hornets began the second half with purpose, mixing up the attacking options to put Thunder's defence in ragged retreat. On 50 minutes, Paul Crook took the ball to the gain line with a teasing run, Danny Davies continued the move and he found Danny Yates with space to scamper for the line. Crooky added the two. 22-10.

Two minutes later, Davies and Crook repeated their mesmerising double-act, the last pass finding Gaz Langley on a well-timed inside run towards the posts to score his fourth of the day. Crooky added the two for 28-10 

Hornets continued to press, but a tricky break created by Paul Crook and Gaz Langley saw the last pass go to ground; then John Cookson was adjudged to have grounded the ball short as he lunged for the line. 

Having ridden their luck, Gateshead fashioned a rare attack. Hardcastle threw the most outrageous of dummies to scoot under the posts untouched. He added the two for good measure and the bonus point was back on the table. But when Danny Yates slotted over a cool 66th minute drop-goal to give Hornets a crucial 13 point cushion, it looked like a done deal.

However, Hornets continued to find new and interesting ways to bomb opportunities where it looked easier to score, and with their line somehow remaining intact, Thunder launched one last foray downfield where Heil stepped away from defenders on 20 metres to send Stamp in for a late, late try. Hardcastle added the two - and at 29-22 , that drop goal took on a whole new, crucial importance - with both sides seemingly hanging on for the hooter.

In the end, this was the most uncomfortable one-sided game you could imagine. Hornets playing plenty of slick, expansive football; Gateshead robust, durable and looking every inch a team that's finally found its feet.  But let's not get too downhearted. On any other day, passes would've stuck and you'd be looking at a very different outcome.

And with Oldham coughing up two tries in the last two minutes to concede a draw at Whitebank to the All Golds, it seems both sides will have a little work to do ahead of Thursday's televised A627M El Classico.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Sunday's Coming - Gateshead Thunder

When we tipped Gateshead to beat Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™ by two points last weekend, one or two of their fans took the piss. But with four minutes remaining at Filtrona Park last week, Gateshead were clinging desperately to a two point lead. You could hear the squeaking sphincters from here.

As it was, Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™ hooker McConnell snuck in for a try at the death to whisk the game from under Thunder's noses. Cruel.

Needless to say, Kevin Neighbour was disappointed at having come so close: "We've turned a massive corner over the last six  weeks," he said. "I'm just gutted that 30 seconds cost us the game late on. No-one would've backed us to take Crusaders right to the death a few weeks ago and it's disappointing that we got beat today."

"You can see the confidence in the players now, they trust each other and have a fantastic attitude."

Having started picking up wins and gaining a bit of momentum, it's too late for Gateshead to get in the last playoff berth (they'd have to win all three games by significant margins and for other results to go in their favour), but if they can maintain their confidence, they have a chance to have a say in the top four run in, especially with Hemel Stags making the long-trip North on the last Sunday of the season.

One of these men is going to New Zealand
But the big news from the North East this week is the announcement that this will be Neighbour's last season at Gateshead. Having played 200 games for Thunder and having coached the side for the last two years, his decision to emigrate to New Zealand brings to an end a 15 year career at the club. And that level of commitment deserves recognition.

As for Hornets, if the lads can maintain the level of intensity shown in last week's eerie deja-deja-vu second half performance, then we have a solid chance of taking this third in a series of five 'cup finals'. Indeed, as some wag near me said after last week's game, "… perhaps Tol should give his half time team talk before they go out at three o'clock…"

Monday, 5 August 2013

Hornets Cut Loose to Squash Scorpions

Hornets 36 - South Wales Scorpions 10

With the sideshow of Welsh *nion lump Andy Powell cancelled due to (his) lack of interest (he withdrew on the morning of the game due to 'illness'), at least everyone at Spotland could concentrate on the business at hand.

Having lost to a fast-improving Gateshead last week, South Wales coach Dave Clark was looking for a response - and he got one, almost instantly.

Hornets started awkwardly; dropping the ball in the very first set to give the visitors the platform to launch Powell in at the corner to give the Scorpions a first minute lead.

Powell then hoisted a 40/20 and the Welshmen turned the screw in the Hornets 20m zone - but despite the Scorpions' best efforts, the Hornets defence stood firm.

For almost 20 minutes the game became a real hand-to-hand contest, slugged out at close quarters in the middle third of the field. When South Wales did threaten, the redoubtable Wayne English provided a solid rearguard.

The arm-lock was finally broken when Hornets' half-backs combined to produce a well-crafted try; Paul Crook taking on the Scorpions line, creating space to send Danny Yates in to score. Crooky added the two and Hornets' edged ahead.

With time almost up,  the Scorpions drove Hornets back under their own posts, and some determined approach play created space for Powell to slip though a retreating defence. Wilcox added the two and, at 6-10, Hornets supporters raised eybrows and looked skywards.

With Ray Myers' finger on the hooter and Hornets in possession deep in their own half, a response looked unlikely. But Dave Hull's strong break was backed up by Martin Waring; and he showed good awareness to pick out the supporting Danny Yates who finished a flowing 60 metre move in style to level the scores as the hooter sounded. Half time 10-all, the first 40 the tightest of tussles.

Hornets began the second half with visible intent, and a clear increase in intensity. Danny Yates slammed a 40/20 downfield from the first set, John Cookson drove the ball into the gathering defenders and slipped a neat pass outside to Andy Ainscough who steamed in by the posts to open his account for the season. Crook added the two.

Hornets maintained patient pressure and it took Dave Llewellyn only five minutes to stretch Hornets' lead - crashing through a tangle of bodies to score following a series of strong forward drives.

With Hornets now in the groove, Paul Crook sent a 40/20 downfield, and off the back of some hard, direct running, Chris Baines spied the narrowest of gaps to step through and score. Crooky with the exras and South Wales a busted flush.

With South Wales hoisting the kick-off into the main stand, Hornets set up camp in their 20m zone, repeatedly forcing the Scorpions backwards with a series of searching kicks. It was only a matter of time before it paid off and, on 68 miniutes, the ball was shuttled to the right side where Danny Davies squeezed Gaz Langley through the narrowest of gaps to score by the flag.

The right flank proved fruitful again seven minutes later, this time it was Paul Crook with the pass and Danny Davis with the finish to end a sequence of 30 unanswered points.

Once again this was the archetypal game of two halves: the first a genuinely close contest with both teams refusing to yield; the second Hornets on top from the very start, playing with confidence and at a much higher tempo.

In a game entrenched in the forwards for long periods, it's doubtful whether Wigan's show-pony Powell would have made any real difference. Indeed, given the commitment of both packs in the first-half, whichever of the Scorpions players has to make way for him has every right to be pissed-off.

As for Hornets, another fantastic second-half hauled the game out of the reach of a troublesome opposition. Certainly when we play with pace and confidence, we look the part - but with Gateshead going painfully close to rolling over North Wales, Hornets will have to be switched on for the full 80 next week.