Tuesday, 27 March 2018

We're taking a short break to watch try and watch 20 games of
Rugby League over two weekends. See you back here for the
London Broncos game.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Northern Exposure

Hornets 17 - Manchestoronto Wolfpack™ 18

There’s a point in the story ‘The Emperors’ New Clothes’ where a child points out that the most powerful man in the kingdom is not regaled in finery, but is exposed for all the world to see.

At Spotland on Friday night, the myth woven around ‘Toronto’ Wolfpack was unpicked as they had their  very own ‘Emperors’ New Clothes’ moment, exposed within the game as a fake threat as Hornets’ part-time players led from the front from the 70th second to the 70th minute; cruelly robbed of glory as a late, late penalty spared ‘Toronto’ total humiliation.

As it was, their veneer of invincibility has been destroyed and the door is now open for other Championship clubs to follow Hornets’ lead and inject a major dose of reality into the Wolfpack’s business plan.

After the game, Alan Kilshaw commented on what he and his staff could achieve if they had their players for the same number of hours that Paul Rowley has his. Indeed, this result poses another major question about the ‘Toronto’ project: if their coach has highly-paid professional players for 30 hours a week, but can only come-up a single point better than Rochdale Hornets, then either the players hearts aren’t in it and they’re just taking the money - or the coach isn’t very good.

So which is it?

We sat in pretty close proximity to owner David Argyle on Friday night and he spent much of the time shifting awkwardly in his seat as he watched the embers of 3 million Canadian Dollars get blown away by 17 lads with bigger hearts.

Indeed, Hornets were up and running before Toronto had touched the ball: Billy Brickhill outmuscling his opposite number to a short kick off to give Hornets possession. Five tackles and 60 seconds later, Earl Hurst showed greater appetite to challenge for a high ball than Kay to score out wide. Lewis Palfrey on target from wide out. to give Hornets a blistering 6-nil start.

Toronto responded by knocking on in their first set, then shipping a penalty for a high-shot. Hornets marched straight downfield, but a promising attack was pulled-up as the ball was ripped loose in the tackle.

The visitors did rally briefly - held up over the Hornets line in the 11th minute, then the ball shipped wide for Kay to score. Brierley (clearly comfortable back at Championship level) slotted the extras for 6-all.

Hornets weren’t fazed by this at all: rock solid defence began to frustrate a Toronto attack that increasingly relied on five drives and a Brierley kick & hope.

Even when Brierley went aerial, Dec Kay was solid under the bomb, Hornets looking comfortably in control.

Home hearts skipped on 16 minutes when ‘Toronto’ broke up the right aided by the bounce from a poor pass. But the best they had was a Brierley kick followed by a knock-on. All very ordinary.

Clearly bored by ‘Toronto’s’ aimless huffing and puffing, Hornets drove the visitors back under their own posts where debutant Morgan Smith unleashed a neat flat pass for Gary Middlehurst to crowbar his way between lazy defenders and score. Palfrey the two and Hornets by far the best value for their 12-6 lead.

‘Toronto’ continued peppering the Hornets defence with an array of increasingly impotent Brierley kicks: first Earl Hurst showing steady nerves under a high kick, then Dec Kay’s fluid gather and run to clear the lines. The visitors clearly out of ideas.

On the half hour, Deon Cross reached for the intercept with open field ahead of him, only for the ball to slip from his grasp. No matter, the much vaunted Quentin Laulu-Togaga'e (looking more BLT here than QLT) knocked-on to give Hornets a late attacking platform, only for a short Dec Gregory pass to go awry in traffic.

Hornets spent the remainder of the half swatting away a procession of meandering ‘Toronto’ attacks to go into the sheds deservedly ahead at 12-6.

Hornets began the second half with a solid, steadying set. ‘Toronto’ on the other hand started nervously, Whiting’s pass finding the ball-boy with pinpoint accuracy. They followed this up by coughing a penalty at the scrum. Just garbage.

Toronto did finally break the Hornet’s defence when they exploited Dave Allan’s injury to sweep 60 metres. But having gone that far, they ended the set by simply getting tackled and handing over the ball. The next set they shipped a penalty for lifting over the vertical (put on report) and it was Hornets’ turn to show their Harlem Globetrotters’ skills keeping the ball alive across a scrambling ‘Toronto’ defence.

Having sucked their blowing pack into centre field, Lewis Palfrey hoisted a high kick to the corner where Rob Massam out-jumped Laulu-Togaga’e, producing a miracle one-handed catch to score.
Hornets 16-6 up. Total bedlam.

‘Toronto’ briefly revealed what they’ve paid a fortune for when McCrone was allowed to run to close the gap (Brierley the extras: 16-12) - but then spent the next 15 minutes prodding feebly at the Hornets defence: Dec Kay again looking quality under the high ball.

On 66 minutes, ‘Toronto’ played their last desperate card: start a fight and hope that it’d disrupt Hornets’ momentum. Earl Hurst landed a big shot, black shirts started jumping in from all directions, Kay threw a punch and, for all the world, it looked like the outcome was only going one way. Referee Mr Rossleigh showed ‘Toronto’s’ Kay and big-money signing O’Brien yellow cards - then also dispatched Lewis Palfrey similarly. Oh - then gave the penalty to ‘Toronto’…

In the resulting reshuffle, Maitua squeezed through a shifting defence to tie the scores at 16-all. Brieley hoofing the conversion attempt low and wide.

Hornets sucked in for a big finish. One more time they drove a the ’Toronto’ defence back to their goal-line - and when the ball was snapped to Morgan Smith he slotted the drop goal to re-establish Hornets’ lead. ’Toronto’s’ body language a picture.

Indeed, Hornets saw this as the chance to platy some football and put this game to bed. On 36 minutes Billy Brickhill launched the Tank Rob Massam up the left flank: straight through a flailing  Laulu-Togaga’e, he raced 50 metres, lining-up O’Brien. We’ll never criticise a winger for backing himself - Massam has a big weight and speed advantage over O’Brien - but the ‘Toronto’ full-back showed his class, hauling Massam down, with Dec Kay inside with a clear run to the line.

Off the hook, ‘Toronto’ trundled back downfield for one last attempt to bore us into submission. With Hornets defence scrambling well to repel the Wolfpack’s clueless, one-dimensional fumblings, The touch-judge seized his chance to get on telly, to draw Mr Rossleigh’s attention to an unseen offence.

Even now we have no idea what the penalty was for, but Brierley made no mistake to edge ‘Toronto’ back in front at 17-18.

With the game running on fumes, Hornets moved the ball wide in search of a break - winning a penalty for an off-the ball tackle five metres inside the visitor’s half. Hornets pointed to the posts, fans’ hearts in mouths. The impossible just one kick away.

As it was, Lewis Palfrey pulled his kick short and Toronto were able to hold out for a one-point win that broke Hornets’ hearts.

But there are so many positives: not just for Hornets, but for the Championship. On this cold Friday night in a small ex-mill-town, a club owned by 95 of its supporters took a team owned by a multi-millionaire mining tycoon to the very edge of humiliation. Proving that it IS possible to thwart ‘Toronto’ Wolfpack’s cash-laden juggernaut. That it IS possible to over-achieve when everybody believes.

But mostly Rochdale Hornets proved that its what beats underneath the badge that matters most. And money can’t buy you a soul.

The door is open for the rest of the Championship. Take your opportunity: the emperor is naked.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Friday's Coming: Toronto Wolfpack

Match previews are usually pretty straightforward to write. A look through the club’s website, a quote or two from their local paper, a browse through their last couple of match reports, knit it together with a few opinions and - usually/hopefully  - we get an informative and entertaining window on the forthcoming opposition.

But this one has been very different. Having approached it in the usual way, we came up against a dizzying amount of hype and hyperbole. Journalists and publishers falling over themselves to find an angle from which they could marvel at the concept of a ‘the first transatlantic sports team’. And herein is the issue. The more you read, the more you see that story of the Toronto Wolfpack brand is one shaped by similar soundbites, carefully layered to build the picture they want you to see. And they are a ‘brand’ - in so much as they exist in your head long before you actually see them in the flesh.

One man who should know about the power of brands is CEO - and former advertising executive - Eric Perez. His quote from last year bears this out: "It's fair to say we're the hottest team media-wise in the world right now in rugby league. Everyone's got their eyes on us. We've got tons of interest globally”

They exist as much ‘in perception’ as they do on the field: the creation of a modern sporting mythology. Every League fan we’ve spoken to has an opinion on them. Whether you think of them as standard-bearers for extreme expansion in the untapped sporting nirvana of North America, or a bunch of brash mercenaries braying for attention in a sport desperate for any sort of media approbation, you’ll have an opinion too. And it might not reflect the shiny, happy picture that the zealots would have you admire.

So we ignored the hype, followed our nose - and went down the rabbit hole…

Welcome to Moose-Side
This Friday sees ‘Toronto’ Wolfpack come to to Spotland. Well, we say ‘Toronto’, but they’re more like the Harlem Globetrotters: a curiosity, a freak show, a Rugby League themed circus that rolls through your town and for which you should be endlessly grateful.

Having effectively relocated to the student suburbs of Fallowfield, Manchestoronto Wolfpack™ (MTW™) won’t be calling on their much vaunted sponsor Air Transat to haul themselves the 12 miles round the M60 on Friday tea-time.

Based at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Platt Lane Sports Complex, in South Manchester, one does feel compelled to question as to whether they are actually a ‘Canadian’ team other than in name.

This year not only will they will play all 11 away games in a single run, they’re also playing two ‘home’ games in the UK - one at the Magic Weekend v Toulouse and their game v Halifax at London Skolars (a cheaper trip for ‘Fax Fans, tho’). Chuck in the Summer Bash and their 650 Canadian season ticket holders will feel severely short-changed by their club playing the majority of their games in the UK.

But that’s all part of the pretence that MTW™, the RFL and a fawning media want us to buy into. The IDEA that there could be a transatlantic sports team shuttling backwards and forwards is pioneering, radical, exciting. The reality of a bunch of highly paid ex-Leigh players and a few old NRL faces running drills in the rain in Manchester seems somehow less romantic - and would glean far fewer column inches.

Their case isn’t helped by the appointment of former Salford CEO and Swinton Commercial Manager Martin Vickers as their ‘UK Business Development Manager’ with a brief to develop sporting and commercial relationships in the UK, suggesting that they have at least one eye on establishing/capitalising on their new Manchester roots.

Follow the money
The two things that everyone knows about MTW™ is that they are both ruthlessly ambitious and extremely well-funded.

Reports from both BBC Business and the Financial Times indicate that last season's budget was 3.4m Canadian dollars (about £2m), and this year’s is expected to be more. And that kind of spending power gives you some serious leverage at Championship level.

Since the end off last season MTW™ have shipped out 10 players and bought in 11 more. The three highest profile departures involved the spontaneous ‘release’ of the ‘Triumvirate of Trouble’ Fuifui Moimoi, Ryan Bailey and Dave Taylor. Australia’s Channel 7/sportingnews.com reported that the three were “reportedly sacked by the Toronto Wolfpack for sneaking out and missing curfew twice on the club's pre-season trip to Portugal”. The Canberra Times offered: “ twice breaking team protocols” as the reason for the sackings.

As an interesting epilogue to this incident, all three players have washed-up in unusual settings: Moimoi has been playing *nion at  Bradford & Bingley in the North 1 East league, the sixth tier of English rugger; Taylor has gone back to hometown Rockhampton to play for the Capras in the Queensland Cup; and Bailey has signed for Workington Town.

MTW’s™ most recent marquee acquisition is Salford full-back Gareth O’Brien. Having signed for an undisclosed and “significant” fee only a week ago, we can’t understand why any player would want to take a step down to an easier level to play for a Championship club owned by a multi-millionaire mining tycoon.

The ’tycoon’ in question being 57 year-old  David Argyle, Executive Chairman of Toronto-based oil shale development business Irati Energy Corp and CEO/Founder of Brazil Potash Corp. - a bloke with a finger in lots of mining, minerals and resources pies.

Unless you’re keen to hear his opinions on Potash mining in South America, Argyle is a hard man to find a quote from. But we’re assured that he’s in it for the long-term.  Speaking to BBC News back in February, MTW’s™ Australian General Manager Scott Lidbury commented: "David is 100% in it for the long term…He has a very strong vision, he is a big driver of Toronto as a regional centre of rugby excellence, for both codes."

Hmm, we’re never comfortable with League cosying up too close to *nion.  Though Argyle does have an impeccable League link: he started his career with BHP in Australia, who were sponsors of the Illawarra Steelers!

Having steamed through League 1 last year, MTW™ saw a financial loss  on the season.  But Lidbury went on the record in February to insist that it was all part of a longer-term business plan designed to plot a course to the cash-rich promised-land of Super League. In a BBC article he said: “Promotion this year is obviously the goal. We would be disappointed if we did not finish in the top four."

Behind what is either the best or the most ridiculous idea Rugby League has ever had is Eric Perez. Depending on which version of the Wolfpack story you read, he accidentally caught Leeds v Bradford on TV via a hooky Sky-box in Gibraltar. Or whilst he was channel-hopping in Birmingham. His reaction now forms the foundation of the MTW™ creation myth “It was the most Canadian Sport that I’d ever seen, that I’d never heard of”:  defined by him as having speed, athleticism, non-stop play and a bit of biff for good measure.

Regardless of how it happened, there’s no zeal like the zeal of a convert - and Perez set out to not only take Rugby League to his homeland, but to build a bow-wave of enthusiasm that would resuscitate the Canadian national team, establish a domestic competition and create a top-flight team that would play in the highest tier available in the Northern Hemisphere.

Where pretty much everyone thought it sounded too far-fetched to be plausible, Perez  pushed on regardless: “I had a plan. Nobody understood what I was doing," he said in an Esquire interview. "Nobody believed it could happen. But I was determined, almost relentlessly, to make it happen.  Somehow I did."

When he pulled in 8,000 people to watch Canada take on the RAF in a friendly, Perez knew he might be onto something. Everything beyond that point just builds on the story. Pulling in financiers, sponsors  -  and the Paul Rowley/Brian Noble axis that fanned the spark into something viable. The open trials, the ‘Last tackle’ TV show to find local talent, the signing of FuiFui, the debut against Siddal…  you can’t deny, it’s been a juggernaut.

Perez took a huge risk, put his life on hold and put his solvency on the line. In one interview he was scarily candid: “There were times I didn’t even know how I was going to pay rent. I didn’t know if I was going to eat a meal that night. Should I have some 40-cent pasta or should I try to eat something with some meat in it. That’s how it was to start rugby league in Canada.”

Reality Bites
When you hear it framed in those terms, it’s hard not to be swept away by the momentum and the emotion of it.

But it also makes us think:

- If the ‘Toronto Wolfpack’ project feels so much like a facade - essentially a half decent British-based team, based in the North-West, building UK commercial relationships - travelling 12 miles for Friday night fixture in Rochdale and...
-  If it is a club rubbed out of the ether whose essence is defined by big spending, big names and a ruthless ambition to get into Super League at all costs, with two-thirds of the British game serving only as justifiable collateral damage and…
- If they’re not even going to set foot in Canada until May and the only thing that makes them ‘Toronto’ is a word under the badge…

... is this the thing that Eric Perez thought he was going to get? Is this what he wanted? Is it honest? Authentic? Credible? Canadian?

Like Leeds and Bradford on Perez’s TV, Rugby League works best when it has a sense of place. The identity that comes with being anchored in a community where it means something to those it represents. The Wolfpack’s fundamental issue is that it is neither ‘of’ nor ‘in’ Toronto. It shows us nothing of the Canadian nature of the club; and it is disconnected from the community it was created to represent. As it stands, it fails on all fronts.

Despite admiring Perez’s passion, commitment and tenacity, it still feels like ‘Frakenstein Footy’ - built off-plan, rushed into existence, created for world domination -  a ruthless unstoppable force in search of its soul.  Indeed, when the monster realises that the angry villagers can’t see past its outward appearance it destroys the man who created it.  For Eric’s sake - if for no other reason - we hope that this ends differently.

“Toronto Wolfpack plot financial path to Super League rugby”: Bill Wilson, BBC News 2 February 2018 
“Wolfpack kicks transatlantic rugby audiences into play”: Andy Bounds, Financial Times, April 14, 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack's grand ambitions”: Fiona Symon Financial Times, April 13, 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack hope to succeed where French failed”: Chris Irvine, Sunday Times February 4 2018
“Wolfpack Still Hunting”: League Express, 19 March 2018
“David Anthony Argyle P.Eng, MBA - Executive Profile & Biography”: Bloomberg.com, accessed March 20 2018
“Building companies to unlock superior value”: Forbes & Manhattan, Corporate Presentation 2017
“Toronto and Toulouse to play at Magic Weekend”: Matthew Shaw, Total Rugby League December 11 2017
“Transatlantic rugby club Toronto Wolfpack choose Manchester Metropolitan as UK base”: mmu.ac.uk, 20th November 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack cross the Atlantic for rugby league home opener”: Neil Davidson, Toronto Globe and Mail May 1 2017
“Wolfpack hoping to create a Canadian rugby revolution as trans-Atlantic team begins play in Toronto”: Tristan Fitzpatrick, The Athletic May 5, 2017
“How a jet-setting team from Toronto could save British Rugby League”: Ben Machell, Esquire 19 June 2017
“Toronto Wolfpack: Meet the first transatlantic rugby league team”: Dave Woods, BBC Sport 24 February 2017
“Wolfpack win Kingstone league, earn promotion to second division”: Morgan Campbell, Toronto Star, 9 September 2017
“Wolfpack move so hard to resist - OB” League Express, 19 March 2018

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Hornets Take Cold Comfort from Cup Win

Normanton Knights 8 - Hornets 20

It’s hard to win in games like these: in every sense. The underdog chucks the kitchen sink at you and will always come out of the contest with all the credit. In arctic conditions that numbed the senses, this was a game that singularly failed to spark  - and which froze to a near standstill as the weather (like the game) deteriorated into a swirling, icy mess.

It’s also a cup challenge to bear the relentless barracking of the community side’s fans - and, boy, do the Normanton crowd really love a moan and a swear. Every pass is forward, every tackle is high, every player is offside. And god forbid that you go down with an injury - you’ll just be called a ‘soft c*nt’ by the local crew of man-children who think that touch-judges are called ‘linos’ and that they can ‘flag’ for offside.

Hornets started with a bang as Rob Massam broke the defence direct from a scrum and sprinted 60 metres to score up the guts of the Knights. Lewis Palfrey knocked over the extras and Hornets’ 2018 Cup was up and running.

After just 6 minutes, though Gary Middlehurst was slow getting out of a tackle, removed from the fray with what looked like an eye injury. Fijian triallist Seta Tala was introduced for his Hornets debut.

Normanton then offered 15 minutes of stern resistance before Hornets carved a neat break up the left edge: Rob Massam eating up the metres before dropping off a tidy inside ball to send Danny Yates scampering home from 40 metres.

From the kick-off, Jo Taira’s fumble was compounded by a penalty for a Hornets hand in the ruck to give Normanton their first decent attacking platform, but a knock-on on the 2nd tackle enabled Hornets to stride downfield, where Dec Kay came chiming into the line as the extra man to score off a well executed last-tackle play. Lewis Palfrey the two and Hornets looking comfortable at 16-nil.

Around the quarter mark, the game entered a scrappy period, Hornets forcing passes, coughing up easy possession, helping Normanton build some pressure. And, when Hornets shipped a last-tackle penalty on the half hour, the home side went close: held-up on the 4th tackle. Needless to say, when Knights full-back Connor Wilson popped up in the right place at the right time to score on the half hour, the home fans were more than happy.

Hornets’ response was swift. A direct approach set took play close to the Normanton line; Dec Kay drawing defenders to the right edge. Hornets whipped the ball left, where Rob Massam raced through to score by the flag to put Hornets in control at 4-20.

But all the hard work was almost undone. Awarded a penalty as the hooter sounded for the break, Lewis Palfrey’s kick for touch went seriously awry; Hornets compelled to scramble and back-pedal to prevent what looked like a certain score. A poor end to a decent half.

In contrast, the second half was an ice-cold non-event.  Interspersed with horrendous snow flurries, in plummeting temperatures both sides struggled to make any meaningful progress, And as the game disappeared into the descending blizzard, Hornets error count began to mount. In a forgettable three minutes Lewis Palfrey produced a shocker of a last tackle kick, failed to make touch with a penalty for the second time and coughed up a penalty for obstruction.

With razor-sharp horizontal snow now slicing across Post Office Road Jo Taira gave up a soft penalty in possession, Lewis Palfrey hoofed a last tackle kick directly into touch and Normanton full-back Wilson followed a 70th minute kick into the in-goal for the only score of a wretched second half.

Being positive, this was a banana-skin avoided. Yes it was a poor game played in awful conditions, but the truth is that Normanton never looked like winning it and Hornets never looked like losing it. And as the fans headed home to defrost their extremities, Normanton took the plaudits for a game effort - but it’s Hornets in the hat for the Round Five draw.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Saturday's Coming: Normanton (via Featherstone)

As you whistle down the A655 from J31 of the M62 en-route to Belle Vue, Wakefield, you unwittingly drive past a town with a long Rugby League history. Over to your right - the other side of that field and round the double roundabout signposted for the Welbeck Landfill - is Normanton: home of Sunday’s visitors Normanton Knights.

The town of Normanton has a long Rugby history that predates the creation of the Northern Union,

The first rugby club in Normanton was established in 1879 and was based at the Midland Hotel.  In 1883, they became founder members of the Yorkshire rugby union’s intermediate competition - which was the third tier of Yorkshire football - alongside Hull KR and Keighley!

Following the split, Normanton joined the Northern Union in 1898 and played at semi-professional level until 1906, playing in the  Yorkshire Senior Competition Division 2 (East). It was during this period that Normanton produced a Challenge Cup shock - beating the mighty Leeds in Round One, before losing to Batley.

In 1905–06 the competition changed its format (la plus ca change) reverting to a single division of 31 clubs. Normanton struggled in 26th position and ended the season in such financial difficulty that the The Northern Union ‘kindly’ allowed  Normanton to forego their game at Millom to avoid the expense of travelling.

Ironically, Normanton folded at the season’s end - as did Millom, who finished one position below Normanton in 27th.

But the area was a hotbed of Northern Union football a new junior club, Hopetown Rovers, was formed in time for the new season, joining the Wakefield and Dewsbury District League, and playing on Normanton Common. The club we have today is a continuation of that - having become Normanton ARLFC and Normanton Knights in the early 1980s. They have played at their current home at Queen Elizabeth Drive Field since 1949 - and two of their highest profile professional alumni are David Topliss and Ben Westwood.

Since beating Leeds in 1900, Normanton have reached the third round of the challenge cup twice, Losing to Widnes in 2007 and Workington in 2014.

The new Challenge Cup format introduced in 2015 saw the Knights reach the fourth round of the competition for the first time in the club’s history, beating Myton Warriors, Shawcross  and Oulton Raiders: their cup progress - yet again, 115 years on - was halted by Batley.

Last year saw Normanton climb to their highest level in over a century when they defeated Milford Marlins in a nail-biting promotion final by 22-20, lifting the knights into the NCL Premier Division.

Fast Forward to this year’s Challenge Cup  and the Knights have defeated the Royal Navy (11-12 - in golden point extra time), Rochdale Mayfield (4-8)  and Batley Boys (18-nil) to reach this stage. Conceding just 15 points across three games indicates a game built on solid defence.

Speaking to rugby-league.com this week, Knights coach Paul Seal sees Saturday’s game (which will be live-streamed on the BBC) as both a reward for his side’s cup exploits thus far and a test of their capabilities: “We wanted to play a Championship side, the top level you can play at this stage of the competition and we’ve managed to get that, so we’re really looking forward to it. We’re taking the game seriously and hoping to put up a good account of ourselves, not just turning up to make a day of it. We’re actually going there with a serious attitude to try and cause an upset.”

As the NCL Premier League has only completed one round, it’s a bit early to assess Normanton’s third-place position, gained by an 18-10 home win over the other Hornets from Wath Brow - but we did notice that one of their three tries scored came from ex-Hornet Stuart Biscomb and we know all about his hard-running, blockbusting style. The other two came from left centre/wing partnership Lee Hammond and Tom Alexander, so eyes-on up that edge.

Hornets come into the game having put 12-man Barrow back in their box. Regardless of the numerical advantage, Hornets played pretty much all of the football on offer to run in five aesthetically pleasing tries that left the visitors’ defence in tatters.

Needless to say, Barrow coach Paul Crarey has had the onion out this week, shedding a small tear for the cruel unfairness of Rugby League: “We were in total control until that point (the red card). We looked good and we looked structured. I think with all the players running in, the decision is harder for the referee. All of our lads said it wasn’t a red, but it was difficult for me to see up in the stand. But I think Jarrad just patted him on the stomach and it all erupted.”

We think the secondary contact of a player clearly in distress just compounded the severity of the incident. Made the referee’s job significantly easier, we think.

In the end, the result was the boost Hornets needed after what’s been a challenging start to the year.

In his post-Barrow summary, Alan Kilshaw noted that, whilst Hornets played some good stuff, the quality of defence was the cornerstone of a second half performance full of desire and passion; and he feels that there’s still plenty of room for further improvement.

Looking ahead to this weekend, Killer recognises that Normanton are going well and that it’s an unusual for Hornets to go anywhere and not be the underdog. And - especially after last season’s disappointment at York - you sense a determination not to be Monday morning’s front page story.

As with all games of this nature you’re damned if you win and damned if you don’t. Win by 50 and people say “Well, what do you expect?”; win by two scores and people say you’re crap; lose and you’re Goliath in a giant-killing.

In terms of progress for the club, a good cup run would do wonders for confidence - and for the bank balance. So let’s get over to Featherstone on Saturday at 2pm, get behind the lads and let's see where this year’s Challenge Cup takes us.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Hornets Play Their Cards Right

Hornets 24 - Barrow 12

Jarrod Stack’s red card for his brutal assault on Gary Middlehurst on the half hour turned this game on its throbbing head. As the Cumbrian radio commentators railed about how referee Mr Rosleigh had spoiled the game, Middlehurst hauled himself off the floor - a walking metaphor for Hornets who stepped up to hand a brutally blunt Barrow a lesson in imaginative, expansive football.

The game had begun tilted in the visitors’ favour: Mr Rosleigh producing a bizarre decision as Barrow coughed a short kick-off only to be handed the feed at the consequent scrum. Fortunately the visitors ran up a cul-de-sac of their own making, handing over the ball no more than 15 metres from  from where the original scrum took place.

Barrow struck lucky again four minutes later. This time Jo Taira landing the first of a series of bell-ringing shots, forcing the ball free. Barrow again given the feed. Jo’s response was swift, next set landing another blistering tackle.

On 10 minutes, Hornets shrugged off the setbacks: first Danny Yates’ scampering break came to nought when his pass slipped teasingly from the supporting Middelhurst’s grip. Then Lewis Palfrey launching a teasing, kick only for the chasers to be deemed offside. No, us neither…

On the quarter hour mark Barrow produced a rare moment of lucid football: a last tackle ship to an edge where - somehow - Cresswell wriggled past a clutch of gathering defenders to score by the flag: nil-4.

Hornets looked to have caught a break when Barrow dropped the kick-off possession cold on the first tackle, but - again - Mr Rosleigh saw a ripping offence that gifted Barrow 50 metres. Having bludgeoned their way upfield, Hulme arrived at pace off a short ball to crash-in. Marwood finding his range to ease the visitors out to nil-10.

The game then degenerated into a disjointed scrap: forced passes, more oddball refereeing and a string of 50:50s going Barrow’s way: Marwood’s 25th minute penalty carrying the air of inevitability.

Then came Stack’s brain fart: an appallingly executed tackle chopped Middlehurst to the floor; Lepori leading the Hornets’ charge into the ensuing affray; the incensed Hornets fans now baying for Mr Rosleigh to act accordingly. Stack saw red, Lepori yellow and you could sense the momentum shift.

Hornets went straight on the attack: Rob Massam bundled into touch as Hornets doubled-up their wingers up the right edge: Barrow hanging on until the hooter to go in at the break hoping a 12-point lead would be enough.

Hornets emerged after the break in determined mood and three rapid-fire tries knocked the guts out of the visitors. A spat of handbags after just three minutes revealed Barrow’s modus operand, but Hornets shipped the ball wide where Earl Hurst went close and Lewis Palfrey was on hand to exploit the numerical advantage. Barrow then slammed a high shot into the impressive Dec Gregory. From the ensuing possession Hornets drove the Raiders back towards their own line where Pat Moran arrived, booming onto a short-ball to bully his way over. Palfrey the extras for 10-12. Then, on 50 minutes Hornets produced a try out off the top drawer to take the lead. A last tackle kick to the left flank, Rob Massam showing great strength and awareness to keep the ball alive, Deon Cross alert to the opportunity, looping round the outside to score. 14-12 - Barrow’s body language a picture.

Reduced to breaking up the flow of the game, Barrow were reduced to one man drives and scraping penalties. Hornets on the other hand played some tidy direct football and - on the hour mark - Jo Taira produced the sweetest of short lay-offs for Lee Mitchell to score on his 150th outing. Lewis Palfrey the extras, Hornets now rampaging at 20-12.

Barrow continued to poke and prod at a resolute defence, but on 68 minutes Hornets produced an acrobatic aerial try: Rob Massam soaring above his opposite number to take a pinpoint kick in-flight for a spectacular touchdown that brought the main stand to its feet. 24-12 and Barrow all but gone.

The visitors did produce some late pressure: held up over the line twice and forcing a couple of drop-outs, but Hornets stood firm to seal a deserved win.

It would be easy to surmise that Hornets were handed a red ‘get out of jail’ card. But the reality is that the only real football on show came from the home side - and Barrow’s plan-A reliance on big lads running straight and hard needs a bit more finesse when things go south.

Ultimately, you can only play the cards you’re dealt and Hornets did what was necessary as Barrow ran out of luck, gas, ideas and time. It was the win we needed and we can build from here. Hornets the better side: hands down.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Sunday's Coming: Barrow

Barrow come to Spotland on Sunday having made a bit of a boom start to their Championship challenge.

Having been flogged 56-16 at London in Round 1, the Raiders produced two startling results that made the Championship take serious notice of their intent. First of these was the 8-all draw with the travelling Rugby League Circus that is ‘Toronto’ Wolfpack, followed one week later by an eye-catching 24-20 win over Leigh Centurions that edged Neil Jukes closer to the exit.

Normal service was resumed in Round 4, with a 32-12 defeat at Batley. Last week saw Barrow frustrated as their home game with Dewsbury fell victim to the weather.

Rather than implement wholesale changes, Paul Crarey has fine-tuned his promoted side for life in the Championship.

He’s added Italian international prop Alec Susino who comes via Cronulla Sharks Holden Cup side and Mounties in the Sydney Shield. He’s joined by fellow Italian international, hooker Dean Parata signed from Manly’s NSW Cup feeder outfit Blacktown Workers. From closer to home, prop Glenn Riley took the well-trodden path from Whitehaven. Oh - and they signed Jono Smith too: and we know what he’s capable of…

A glance down the Barrow squad reveals a side big on ‘awkward quality’ - lots of familiar names who are a proper handful if left unpoliced.  The Toal brothers Shane and Dan, Lewis Charnock, Martin Aspinwall, Karl Ashall, Jarrad Stack - give these guys half an inch and they’ll unzip you.

Indeed, winger Shane Toal scored a hat-trick against Leigh - and he’s our one to watch this week. Crarey says of him: “He's opportunist and has a desire to have a go and compete with players… we play a system which suits (our wingers) and they're heavily involved.”

Notable absence from Sunday’s line-up will be irksome wonder-half Jamie Dallimore - serving a three-match ban for a Grade C dangerous contact in the Batley game - a cannonball tackle on Dane Manning. Naughty.

Hornets come into Sunday’s game on the back of a harsh French lesson in finishing. Despite Alan Kilshaw’s young team competing well with a huge - and hugely experienced/expensive (delete as applicable) - Toulouse pack, the French side were ruthlessly clinical with ball-in-hand: exploiting every half chance to maximum effect. And it’s that level of stone-cold execution that Hornets must strive to emulate as we go in search of the vital first points of the season.

As our Online Bucket Collection comes to a close, we’ll have the actual buckets out again on Sunday. We’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of not only Hornets fans, but fans across the game and it;’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll get pretty close to the £2,000 mark. Cheers everyone - see you on Sunday.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Hornets Get The French Kiss-off

Toulouse 54 - Hornets 6

Once again we return from Toulouse asking readers to ignore the scoreline. Yes, Toulouse have a team rammed with big-name mercenaries pocketing a fortune to belittle smaller clubs. Yes, they play like the Harlem Globetrotters at times. Yes, they’ll probably buy their way into Super League at some point - and good luck to them: that’s their journey and we’re all just roadkill in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But this blown-out scoreline isn’t really representative of the effort that this young, untested Hornets side put in. And it’s artificially bloated by two gut-wrenching interceptions, a slouchy bounce or two and a dropped ball. As Alan Kilshaw pointed out in his post-match press conference, you don’t need to gift Toulouse 24 points, they’re more than capable of scoring them themselves.

But then they’d have to work for it - and they’re not right keen on the concept of hard graft.

Indeed, if there’s a lazier player in the Championship than Jonathan Ford, I’d be amazed. Prodigiously talented, he plays when he wants and causes endless damage - but he expends less of his energy and talent than any player we’ve seen. He slopes along at 40%, knowing that it’s more than enough to get by at this level - and when he released a languorous kick behind the Hornets defence after three minutes, he stood back and admired his handiwork as Barthau scored.

Hornets did dig in for a spell, sucking Toulouse’s big pack into a centre-field grind, while Ford hung around in back-play, seemingly contemplating a trip to the tea-bar for a bovril or a packet of crisps.

Meanwhile, Ader was busy gallically shrugging off Earl Hurst to score. ‘Bof!” The home fans were roused from their slumbers by the feverish honking of the house band.

Hornets simply went back to work, driving Toulouse back into the corners with some nicely controlled sets. Due reward came when debutant Dec Gregory exposed Ford’s bone-idle tackling technique, scooting through to release Richard Lepori up the right edge: Gregory going back for a neat return pass that sent him scampering under the posts. Ford slouched back under his crossbar to a hail of ridicule from the travelling fans.

Referee Mr Rossleigh had waited over 20 minutes to award his first penalty (to Hornets) and his second (also to Hornets) came hot on its heels, but as Harvey Livett looked to spread the ball up the narrow-side, Toulouse winger Maurel snaffled a poor pass off the floor to go 70 metres and score.

In a bizarre moment of deja vu, Hornets were awarded a penalty when Luke Adamson was tackled in back-play supporting a Richard Lepori break. But when Danny Yates launched a long pass, it too was snatched out of the air - this time Marcon going 80 metres to score. Two gifted tries gave the home side momentum - and when Curran broke free after 36 minutes he too looked certain to score, but a great chase and tackle from Rob Massam halted his progress. As it was, Barthau stepped through a stretched Hornets defence to score on the next play. Exasperating.

Pretty much the last action of the half was Toulouse’s Kiwi lump - Mika crunching in to score. Half time 32-6 and the game basically gone.

Hornets were compelled to shuffle the backline for the second half: Jack Johnson removed feeling the effects of a head-knock, Richard Lepori moved to full-back and debutant Billy Brickhill slotted in at right centre - where he grew in stature was the half progressed.

28 points up, Toulouse staged a ludicrous assault on Luke Adamson: two players trying to hold him in place while Puech rained down punches. Mr Rossleigh consulted his touch-judge and dismissed both Adamson and Puech for 10 minutes. Having been outnumbered three to one, Adamson left the field to a tirade of jeers from the home supporters. Sporting.

After 15 minutes of sterling resistance, the Hornets defence cracked: a quick-fire double whammy from Kriouache and Canet doing the damage. And when Ford finally emerged from an hour’s nap to slide a kick into the 10m Union in-goal, Marcon scavenged on a Rob Massam slip to score.

The game ended with yet another moment of fortuity for the home side, Dec Gregory clipping the ball into Canet’s hands to take them over the half century.

All-up, it was a tough day at the office. Toulouse have a well-drilled, high quality side that looks like it can do some serious damage this season (assuming they don’t choke, d’accord).

Hornets gave it as good a dig as they were able. Competing well for periods, but looking vulnerable when the ball found its way to the enigmatic Ford, who slinks around with all the intensity of a bloke with more pressing things on his mind. They must wash his jersey once a month…

We were impressed with debutants Dec Gregory and Billy Brickhill. Gregory is a compact dynamo whose impact belies his size; Brickhill a solid, hardworking debut that oozed promise. Fellow debutant Blake Turner was overshadowed a bit by opposing forwards with serious NRL credentials, but it won’t be the same every week.

Special mention to the hardy knot of Hornets fans who made the trip to the South of France - especially given the weather conditions leading up to the game. Having sung themselves hoarse for the cause, they gave the home fans a lesson in heart , soul and passion. Indeed - unlike the scoreline - they were impossible to ignore.