Thursday, 25 June 2015

Saturday's Coming - Hemel Stags

People forget that Hemel have been around a while.

The original Hemel Hempstead Amateur Rugby League Football Club played their first match on 5 April 1981 and spent the next 15 years ploughing through the southern/London leagues before embarking on a stint in the Rugby League Alliance (A-team) competition in 1997. When the Alliance league was scrapped, the newly-named Hemel Stags became a stalwart of the RFL Summer Conference.

They celebrated their last season as a community club by beating Underbank Rangers 17-10 in the National Conference League Division 3 Grand Final at Featherstone in 29 September 2012.

In their two seasons in the semi-pro ranks, Hemel have finished both times in the playoffs. But the restructure of the league - and the injection of 8 good quality ‘heartland’ sides - have effectively created a two-tier competition in which Hemel have struggled to gain any real traction this year, with only three wins from eleven games, shipping an average of 42 points per game in the process. Last weekend saw them ship 70 points for he second time this year - blitzed by 70 to 10 at Pennine Way by York.

Indeed, the split in tier three has been the subject of much conjecture the last week or two as to whether it’s good for developing sides to get pasted by established clubs in this lop-sided division.

Our view is that, unless the RFL would consider North & South ‘conferences’ to ensure more even games and minimise the onerous travelling requirements (we’re still not convinced that dragging part-time players the length of the country to play in a non-contest in front of 180 people makes for a credible competition), throwing teams in at the deep end will ineveitably raise standards as the ‘new intake’ edge their way closer to their Northern counterparts.

And as that improvement continues, it’s only a matter of time before one of the top eight takes one of the ‘Southern six’ a bit too lightly and becomes Goliath in a giant-killing. And Hornets have to be sure that  - this week - it isn’t them.

Indeed, as the top eight tightens up to the point that every last drop of air twixt teams gets squeezed out, even the most perfunctory victory could catapult you up or down three or four places. And in this high-pressure, airless, compressed league-within-a-league, the points difference accrued against the bottom six has become the new bonus-point - which could prove critical at the sharp end of the season.

Having burned a huge chunk of their points advantage in the defeats against York and Keighley, Hornets have been sucked back into the scramble: York going the other way having banked a +60 last week to hike them up to fourth.

This weekend six of the top eight play each other (Crusaders play Keighley , York play Swinton and Barrow play Newcastle), so there’s plenty of opportunity for movement - as long as Hornets are ruthless enough to wring as many points as possible from their return to a lush, green Spotland.

Ultimately, the weeks of playing away always take their toll - and this shorter-than-usual hiatus has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved. Indeed, it’ll be good to be home - and  with half a season down it’s time to suck in for the big push to September.