Monday, 19 September 2016

The Miracle of Blagnac

Toulouse 22 - Hornets 24

If you thought that the age of miracles had passed, think again.

At the Stade Ernest Argeles on Saturday Rugby League witnessed a moment of divine inspiration as Rochdale Hornets overcame ridiculous odds to hand Toulouse as lesson in grit, determination and commitment.

Hornets' bloody-minded refusal to be bullied or intimidated by Toulouse proved the difference as the RFL's annointed club, coach and player of the year all choked under the weight of expectation.

But don't imagine for a moment that this result was due to Toulouse's failure to show up on the day. Hornets were bold, imperious - withstanding an early onslaught to emerge worthy champions.

The day began with typical Toulouse hubris: the RFL's Ralph Rimmer glad-handing the Olympique directors, each of whom bore a champagne flute and a huge cigar. Clearly, a coronation was expected. Ha.

The opening exchanges were even. Hornets solid; direct. Toulouse probing for gaps. Hornets with an early chance - James Tilley's show and go, the ball falling loose 2 metres from the TO line.

The home side exhaled. Working the ball back upfield, Ford's dink into space forced a repeat set, and when he kicked into the in-goal on 11 minutes, Canet pounced to score. Kheirallah the extras: 6-nil.

Crooky drilled the kick-off deep, the ball bouncing dead. TO forced to drop-out.

In the approach, Dave Cookson was slammed into the ground, clearly in distress. The home crowd jeered as he received treatment. This would become a pattern.

Two minutes later TO targeted a struggling Cookson, Curran launched into space to score from distance. Kheirallah the conversion to double the lead.

Michael Ratu replaced a staggering Cookson and, immediately, TO went that way. Curran this time the provider, White through the hole for 16-nil. The home crowd now animated.

Not for long. Having soaked up the early pressure, Hornets began to play. On 21 minutes the ball was shipped wide; Josh Crowley produced a delicious delayed pass and Jack Holmmes finished in style by the flag. Paul Crook the coolest man in the stadium, the extras off the touchline for 16-6.

Hornets now had the momentum: Chris Riley chasing a steeping Crooky bomb, sacking Kheiralla forcing a knock-on. Then Crooky's kick into the in goal, the resulting chase and tackle deemed a shoulder charge.

TO did rally briefly, Hornets scrambling and scrapping to hold firm as Toulouse showboated, then ran out of ideas - the errors mounting.

In response Hornets continued the barrage. Jo Taira now adding to Toulouse's woes - his wrecking-ball approach incensing the home crowd. On 39 minutes a huge Danny Yates break right through the guts of the TO defence had blue shirts scrambling to cover, and when James Tilley slipped a cute kick into the in-goal the home side was compelled to drop-out.

As Tilley steamed the ball back at the defence, he copped a high-shot. Crooky cool as you like, the penalty slotted right on the hooter. Half-time 16-8: Toulouse wobbling - coming up with lots of errors and clearly not relishing the physical approach.

The second half began with TO trying to mix it. A 41st minute chicken wing tackle on Matt Hadden from Ader overlooked by the officials.

No matter. Hornets forced TO backwards and, when Jono Smith slotted Michael Ratu through a retreating defence it looked like a well executed try, but referee Mr Crashley struck it off for obstruction and when Jono made his thoughts known, he was despatched for 10 minutes.

TO's response was immediate, Ford forcing a drop-out. The crowd now febrile, smelling blood in the water. But on 50 minutes TO blew-up.

Jack Holmes brutally spear-tackled, Hornets used the penalty to advance downfield where Danny Yates embarked on a weaving run to put Lewis Galbraith in at the corner. Crooky off the touchline for 16-14. The crowd stunned into silence.

This was the moment that tide turned. Not only had Hornets not conceded when reduced to 12, they scored with an overlap. You could sense a real shift in dominance.

On 53 minutes another miracle offload from Jo Taira saw Trigger bundled into touch; then Taira on defence landing a shuddering hit on Mika to force the ball loose. TO now riddled with errors.

They flickered briefly: Minga's effort denied for a forward pass to give Hornets a let-off.

On the hour another horrendous spear tackle saw Jo Taira receive concerned treatment - the home crowd baying as he lay motionless, booing as he staggered to his feet. Their frustration was palpable as Kriouache was given 10 minutes for a dangerous tackle.

A string of penalties and a repeat set gave TO a platform to build some concerted pressure, but the Hornets defence was magnificent. And, in one last desperate attempt to break Hornets' resolve, TO produced a third horror-tackle - smashing Jono Smith's nose in the process.

Indeed, every tackle was now a borderline assault and when Hornets were eventually handed a penalty, the febrile home crowd went nuts.

From the resulting play Danny Yates produced a pinpoint kick for the corner; Michael Ratu out-muscled Minga in the air and dropped the ball out of the back for Jack Holmes to squeeze in at the corner. Mayhem in the Hornets camp. Silence from the locals. Hornets in front at 16-18. Amazing.

With TO now a shapeless mess, Hornets continued to play swift, direct football and - when Chris Riley showed incredible determination to bounce through tacklers to plant the ball down on 74 minutes to stretch Hornets' lead, the locals headed for the exits. Lovely. Crooky added the conversion to equal Walter Gowers' 86 year club points record and, with three minutes remaining, the it looked like a done deal.

In the closing phases, TO chucked the kitchen sink at an immovable Hornets defence, and with one minute to play found space for Ader to squeeze in at the flag. Kheirallah the two. 40 seconds on the clock.

Hornets kicked deep, TO moved the ball wide to their strike player Mika who hit the gas. And as the Hornets defence swarmed round him, the ball slipped from his grasp as the hooter sounded. A truly astonishing victory.

In the end, the bullies of League 1 found themselves bullied to a standstill by 17 lads who'll all be at work this morning. With TO players shell shocked, Paul Crook hoisted the trophy. It was a delight to see.

Ultimately, this was an astonishing performance. Every single Hornets player won his battle with his opposite number and TO's supposed big names were reduced to a shambolic mess.

But was also slightly surreal - Hornets handed the trophy in an empty stadium, 3,000 French weekends ruined.

Finally a word on Alan Kilshaw, Paul Berry and Jason Viller. These guys have produced one of  - if not the - greatest results in our club's long history. No-one gave Hornets a chance. And Killer's team have moulded this group of lion-hearted lads into a unit that refused to yield under impossible odds.

The Championship awaits and Rochdale Hornets go there as champions.

A miracle, ladies and gentlemen.

An actual, bloody miracle.