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.