Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Sunday's Coming: Play-Off Special - London Skolars

"The only reason that you came, so what you scared for? Don't you always do the same? It's what you're there for, don't you know..."

In the Arctic Monkeys song 'Dancing Shoes' Alex Turner writes about the fear that grips us all when we're faced with the thing we want the most - and the compulsion to just wait and see what happens. He observes that if you don't seize the moment, nothing will ever happen. This Sunday's Qualifying Play-off against London Skolars provides one of those heart-in-your-mouth moments that requires you to swallow hard and show your mettle.

Despite the fact that London Skolars have shaken off their 'also-rans' label and geared-up for a serious tilt at honours this season, there seems to be a severe case of vertigo at the New River Stadium - and if Skolars aren't careful, they'll struggle to shake off the tag of chokers. Twice this year they've arrived at 'must-win' games only to find the air a bit thin for their liking.

Gifted a route to the Northern Rail Bowl final courtesy of games against SW Scorpions and two undercooked 'expansion' teams, they couldn't sustain their solid start, going down 24-42 to Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™. Fast forward to last Sunday's game at Oxford, where they clawed their way back into a game they did everything to lose, only to run out of time, shipping a shock draw at Iffley Road and conceding third place to Hornets on a (quite significant) points difference, having won a game fewer.

Head to head over three games this season, Hornets hold a narrow 88 - 72 lead over Skolars. Back in April, Hornets beat them 40-16 in a Late Trains Cup cross-group dead-rubber before slugging out a pig-ugly 32-24 home win later that month. We then succumbed to Skolars' unique brand of anti-football, going down 32 to 16 at the New River Stadium in June.

Certainly, a Skolars line-up featuring former Harlequins, Bradford and (NSW Cup) Windsor Wolves forward Mike Worrincy, former Keighley handful Jermaine Wray and the free-scoring Dylan Skee has 'awkward' written all over it. Their squad also includes former GB wing Gareth Raynor who made his debut for the Skolars at the All Golds back in June - a genuine strike threat.

Despite the seam of quality running through their team, Skolars still have the dubious honour of being the ugliest side we've seen this season. The way they spoil you to a standstill and feed off your frustration is almost admirable in the level of application it requires. Indeed, having the leakiest defence in the top six might be a reasonable indication of why they strive so hard to unsettle their opposition.

Take last week for example. Leading 12-nil after 25 minutes only to find themselves 26-18 down on the hour, it seems they resorted to type. Already on the way to the wrong-end of the penalty count, Skolars had Ollie Purslow sent off for fighting after a high tackle sparked a brawl (Oxford's Clarke was also dismissed). That unsettled Oxford sufficiently for Skolars to grab two tries and salvage the draw. Afterwards Oxford coach Tony Benson said: "We've improved a lot… but the fight didn't help us." Quite.

Joe Mbu was a bit more circumspect: "I have mixed emotions… we played a bit naively. Even when we were dominant at the start of the game our failure to complete our sets was a concern."

Ahead of the forthcoming game Mbu said: “There’s certainly been a change of intensity around training this week. There seems to be a lot more focus and there’s a good feeling about the place. Rochdale always peak towards the back end of the season... they’ll be looking forward to this game and it won’t be easy for us. A lot of things are riding their way, but we’ve got a game-plan and if we execute that then we’re confident we can get a result.” We await that with interest, though we fear that it just might be another 80 minutes of bare-arsed spoiling...

In the wash-up, Skolars have had a good season. Their loss by only six points to Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™ on Cup Final Weekend, is a good indicator of how far they've come and what they're capable of. That they lost after leading twice at 8-nil and 14-12 hints that they may still be struggling to shake off that chokers tag.

Ultimately, here at TLCRF80mins towers, we think Sunday's game will come down to who wants it most. The first of three wins required to achieve this season's goal. Nerve wracking, for sure - but big games ARE the only reason that we came. So what ARE we scared for? 

Time to believe, folks. Get on your dancing shoes..