Monday, 30 April 2018

Ghost Busted

Hornets 12 - Sheffield 38

Losing to Sheffield Eagles is a bit like being haunted. You don’t really see them coming as they creep up on you out of your peripheral vision, spook you when you’re at your most vulnerable and then disappear back into another dimension leaving you feeling somewhat disconcerted.

Indeed, much like ghosts, you never really believe they actually exist until you’re confronted by them.

It was a patched-up, hacked-together Hornets given the ghastly task of dealing with the Eagles. Cut apart and reassembled by an ever growing injury list, Hornets hadn’t got past the warm-up when they lost Lewis Hatton; Earl Hurst conscripted as a late replacement.

With triallist Tyler Whittaker drafted in at half-back and Billy Brickhill playing long-minutes at hooker,  hard-working Hornets clung to this game for longer than they had any right to - clawing themselves back within a score at one point, only for multiple injuries to finally take their toll.

Jo Taira, both Adamson brothers, Pat Moran and Dave Allen were all lost to injury and, in the end, Hornets simply ran out of bodies, as Sheffield kept trundling away in the middle distance.

The Eagles got off to a dream start, Millar the last man in a string of passes to score by the flag after five minutes. Then, cue the intervention of referee Mr Hewer, who put in a horror-show of missed incidents, a lack of attention and a shocking understanding of the laws.

Having gifted the visitors five consecutive sets on Hornets 10m line, only for them to come up empty, he handed them a sixth opportunity to run at a tiring defence. Burns plunging in from acting half on 15 minutes had an air of the inevitability about it.

Fatiguing and frustrated, Hornets continued to hold back a Sheffield onslaught, but on the half hour  Makelim (looking a couple of stones heavier then the last time we saw him in the Ron Massey Cup), rumbled into the line like a runaway bin-wagon to score. Having slogged their guts out on defence, Hornets found themselves 18-nil down.

But their response was positive: Danny Yates creating space, Lee Mitchell hitting a neat ball at pace steaming straight through Makelim to score.

Having grabbed a foothold in the game, Hornets switched off just long enough for Eagles’ lump James to burst through from a metre to score, but with half-time looming Hornets went straight down the other end where Billy Brickhill bulled his way over from acting half, Tyler Whittaker added thew two and Hornets went to the sheds only 10-22 behind.

Hornets began the second half with a bang. Sheffield prop Offerdahl coughing the ball; Matty Hadden ruthless as he stretched out to score. Tyler Whittaker the two and Hornets in it at 16-22. Game on!

As it was, Sheffield took advantage of a couple of penalties to march downfield where Ashworth was first to respond to a kick seemingly going nowhere. Fozzard the extras and the 12 point gap re-established at 16-28. And there it stayed for the best part of half an hour; Hornets pushing hard for an opening, Pat Moran looking most likely, but adjudged to be held-up. As the injuries clocked-up, Hornets were compelled to shuffle the line-up, but some heavy-duty scrambling kept the visitors at bay until the 72nd minute when Fozzard stepped away from knackered defenders to put the game to bed.

That Toole scored at the death following a scramble in the in-goal to blow-out the scoreline is neither here nor there, as a busted, broken Hornets left the field to the appreciation of the home supporters.

In the week, Alan Kilshaw had said that he was looking for a response from his side and he - we - got it. Whilst lacking fluidity and finesse, his patched-up side gave it a dig, but were beaten in the end by a side heavy on process and light on excitement.

Add a rising body-count that saw Luke Adamson go back on the field with what looks like a broken thumb, and the fact that Hornets never gave up the ghost, whilst they may be physically busted, at least the spirit remains.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Sunday's Coming: Sheffield Eagles

We never had North Queensland Cowboys second-row Jason Taumalolo down as a philosopher - but this week he spoke on the subject of doubt. Describing his personal turmoil arising from his side’s winless start to the season, he said: “After five losses you start to wonder what you are doing wrong. You start to question whether you are playing good enough footy to be at the top grade level.”

For the avoidance of doubt: if ever there was such a thing as a ‘must win’ game, Sunday’s outing v Sheffield Eagles is it.

Sheffield have been scrapping it out with Hornets and Swinton this season - their two wins over both giving the Eagles a slim advantage.

But last time out at home they were brutally flogged 72-20 by a resurgent Leigh - shipping 50 points in a disastrous first half.

Sheffield have hardly pulled up trees this season - and their primary strike weapon Garry Lo has finally (it seems) buggered off to Castleford, only to be stood down as he ‘assists police with an enquiry’ - which removes a key danger-man.

This means that our one to watch is Eagles’ new full-back Corey Makelim. The former Parramatta Eels Holden Cup player comes with some decent shop-floor experience, having played for Guildford, Cabramatta and Mounties in the Ron Massey Cup, and for Cabramatta and Mounties in the Sydney Shield (weighing in with 10 tries at the Aubrey Keech Reserve last year). Makelim also appeared for USA in last year’s World Cup. He made his Sheffield debut against Leigh a fortnight ago.

Makelim comes into a side struggling to find its rhythm - Eagles coach Mark Aston having singled out the lack of consistency from his senior players as a key factor in his side’s ordinary showing this season. Another is the growing divide between the big-spending clubs at the top of the Championship and the ‘have nots’ at the bottom end. We’ve often tagged Aston as a bloke who talks sense, and his interview in the Sheffield Star last week underlines our opinion.

- On the cashed-up clubs at the top: “When you invest the money that some of the clubs in this league have, you’d expect there to be a divide. There are four or five teams up there, the likes of Toulouse, Toronto, London and Leigh - they are all full-time. They are getting more in one day than we get in a week.”

- On their profligate spending habits: ”Some of those teams may be paying one or two players more than we are paying our entire squad.”

- On Championship survival: “What we are doing is being realistic. We are fighting at that bottom end, there is no doubt about that. We are fighting for our survival, and that is important for people to understand. It is hard, it is tough.“

- On the continual battle for success: “We have plenty of things off the field going in the right direction, and some things that we need support for. There is certainly a scrap on at the bottom end of the Championship and we just need to make sure that we survive and that is the key.”

All of which sounds eerily familiar to everyone at Hornets, who face the same challenges.

Indeed, last weekend’s performance at Whitehaven was ‘challenging’ to say the least. It wasn’t so much the defeat (as Dewsbury can testify) as the manner of it. Not so much a test of belief, more an act of apostasy.

Having reached what Alan Kilshaw described as a ‘our lowest point’, Sunday sees the start of the crawl back to some form of redemption. We read much in sport about how we shouldn’t worry about results - get the performance right and the results will come. But Hornets need a win like oxygen at the moment: by any means possible.

We’ve quoted author/thinker James Baldwin here before (he has an incisive view on the human condition) and he says: “There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now.”

See you Sunday.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

A sorry state of affairs.

Whitehaven 38 - Hornets 0

I find myself writing this on Monday 23rd April. To the rest of the country it’s St George’s day, but in our house it’s my late dad’s birthday. Only fitting then that I start by apologising to my dad.

When I was a kid, he would never leave a game before the end, and he drummed into me the same principle: Games last 80 minutes and  - come hell or high water - you stay to the death. Even when we were getting tubbed, he’d walk us up to the Milnrow Rd end of the Railway Side where we’d watch the last painful minutes from a position of rapid exit.

It’s a good principle: you ask 80 minutes’ commitment from your players, so - as a supporter - you should reciprocate. No leaving to miss the traffic; no getting the uncrowded bus; no getting back for an early tea - you put your 80 minutes in.

It’s been a principle that’s been sorely tested over the years. The 40-nil at Wakefield: the last ten minutes watched from the gate. The 30-7 at Dewsbury (after we’d led 7-nil at half time), watched from the top of the popular side steps.

But at Whitehaven on Sunday, 47 years of resolve cracked and I was pretty much back at the car as the final hooter sounded in the distance. Sorry, dad - but you had to be there. Or maybe better that you weren’t…

For once, we have a quite literal nothing to report on a performance so disgraceful that I”m reminded of another thing my dad used to say: “If you’ve nothing good to say, don’t say anything”.

The facts are that a Hornets side devoid of a clue was out-performed, out fought and out-enthused by a hard-working League 1 side who cruised to victory with embarrassing ease - made worse by the fact that they played a quarter of the match with a man-short (Forster and Reece sin-binned) - and scored during one of those periods with men to spare up the edge.

Haven tries to man of the match Phillips (2), Abram, Holliday and Parker, plus nine from nine kicks from Abram did the damage - most scored from sloppy play or through frankly awful defending.

Even on the worst of days, you’d cop the 38 if any resistance were offered, but Whitehaven could have declared after 70 minutes and Hornets would have struggled to string together three meaningful passes.

If losing without a fight is unacceptable, then being annihilated by a League 1 side without offering even cursory resistance disrespects those staunch Hornets fans who’d forked out to travel to West Cumbria. All supporters ask is that it appears to matter when the team pull on our shirt.

Indeed, if you’d have pulled 13 fans from the terrace and played them at the Recre’, they’d have been flogged too - but with more dignity.

So I’m sorry. Sorry to my dad for walking out on my team. Sorry to my fellow supporters for not being able to stomach another minute of this execrable turd of a game. Sorry for questioning my faith in my club.

But mostly I’m sorry I went to Whitehaven to witness this debacle.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Up fer t'cup. Sunday's Coming: Whitehaven

Ah, the magic of the Challenge Cup. Rosettes, rattles, tin-foil trophies - living the dream…

Hornets 2018 ‘Road to Wembley’ continues on Sunday with a trip up the M6 to Cumbria’s most famous Rugby League graveyard, Whitehaven’s Recreation Ground.  Firmly established as pretty much every club’s bogey-ground, the curse of the Recre’ haunts better sides than Hornets. Indeed, having travelled up there in hope dozens of times since I was a kid, you could almost count the wins on the fingers of a boxing glove.

Alan Kilshaw understands the challenge ahead:  “Nobody ever wants a trip to Cumbria, especially not to the Recreation Ground.” he said recently. “We need to embrace it. That is what the Challenge Cup is all about, visiting the old, traditional grounds and playing teams you wouldn’t normally get to play when you are not in the same division.”

Cup Action: Carl Forster gets his hands on some silverware.
At least the RFL put our ribbons on it...

At the Recre’ Killer goes head-to-head with a very familiar face, former Hornet Carl Forster.

When Whitehaven appointed 24 year-old Forster as player-coach in 2016, he became the youngest coach in the professional game - and he’s built a team in his own hard-working, no-nonsense image.

Forster played 12 games for Hornets in 2013, appearing in the famous playoff final win at Leigh. He scored one try in Hornets colours and was a popular presence around the club. “I’m actually looking forward to playing Rochdale because I spent time there on loan and there’s some good people at the club,” he said in the Whitehaven News earlier this week.

But he’s not letting his fondness for Hornets divert his eyes from the prize: "There’s no pressure on us against a Championship side who are expected to win. That was the mindset we had for the last round and the game with Dewsbury, and it will be no different this time. All the pressure will be on Rochdale to come to a League One side and roll us over…”

Another ex-Hornet in the ranks is tackling machine James Tilley - who was a League 1 champion with us in 2016.

If winning is a habit, then the momentum sits with the Cumbrians. Currently sitting fourth in an ultra-competitive League One (just two points behind joint-leaders Doncaster, Bradford and York) Whitehaven go into the Sunday’s game on the back of five straight wins - one of which was the eye-catching 25-18 cup defeat of Dewsbury Rams.

Haven have a few injury niggles in the camp: loose-forward Stuart Howarth hs an ongoing hamstring injury, utility back Jordan Burns is due for a scan on knee injury which has seem him sit out the last three weeks, and Forster himself is keeping an eye on a shoulder injury picked up in last week’s 84-6 annihilation of the hapless West Wales Raiders - that’s 17 tries, but only 7 converted!

Foiled again: We're seriously considering it!
For any club at our level, the Challenge Cup dangles the mythical carrot of a ‘big payday’ against a Super League side - and ‘Haven chairman Tommy Todd has that in mind too. Speaking in the News & Star recently, he said: “We would really like to get through to the next round and earn a plum draw against one of the Super League clubs. That’s what we are in it for, to earn some valuable money for the club.”

Equally, a win for Hornets will see us progress into the last 16 of the Challenge Cup for the first time since 2009 - but the ‘magic of the cup’ comes at a heavy price these days.

The last round at Normanton yielded less revenue than if we’d’ve forfeited the tie and raffled off the match ball (it’s a split of gate revenue after costs). It certainly didn’t cover our costs - and that’s just one of the glitches in the Challenge Cup that the RFL needs to look at. And neither club received a penny from the BBC for the live-stream of the game.

We also learned recently that the further you go in the cup, the longer you wait for your prize money. Rather than pay out round by round, the money is accumulated and only paid out when you exit the competition. So in terms of cashflow in clubs living hand to mouth, it can actually be better to get the hell out of the cup, bank the cash and get on with your season. Not much ‘magic’ there.

Unlike Toulouse - the rest of us must suck-in, swallow hard and fulfil our obligation to the world’s oldest RL Cup competition. Certainly going another round will boost the RFL prize pot available to us (at some point in the future) - and there is still the opportunity to draw a big club and, hopefully’ play them on a day when the sun shines.

In the name of tradition, for the love of our great game and to support our magnificent club, get yourself up to Whitehaven if you can. Brunch at Tebay, lunch at Keswick, a drive through some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet - and a chance to say “I was there” when we break the curse of the Recre’. It’s the cup - let’s get up for it. Embrace it...

All together: “We’re the famous Rochdale Hornets and we’re going to Wem-ber-lee…”

See you there.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Hornets Victims of RFL Whistleblower Policy

Hornets 15 - London 30

In an archetypal game of two halves, the work done in Hornets’ top quality opening 40 minutes was systematically dismantled in the second half of the John McMullen show.

Seldom have we seen the shape of a game so directly impacted by the actions of the referee. Mr McMullen was simultaneously pedantic and sloppy, picky and laissez-faire. The only consistency in his performance was his extreme level of inconsistency.

So unconfident was he in his own level of performance that, before the game, he actually asked the RFL time keeper to keep an eye out in case he missed a free-play. That he then went on to mis-interpret two, indicates that he actually knows that he doesn’t understand the laws.

As it was, Mr McMullen gifted London three back to back penalties in the opening stages which gave the visitors a platform to pound the Hornets goal-line. Four sets later - and having run out of ideas - London were stood under their own crossbar after Ben Moores mugged a napping defence to steal in from acting half-back to give Hornets an early lead.

These early exchanges set the pattern for the half. Mr McMullen working his way through the I-Spy Book of Stupid Penalties, London all thud & blunder with the ball, Hornets working hard to repel a pretty one-dimensional attack: London caught in possession twice on the last tackle.

After half an hour of mounting a rear-guard action, the pressure finally told on Hornets’ hard-working defence. Again, after multiple repeat sets, London finally managed to string three passes together, Dixon looping in as the extra man to score out wide; Sammut the extras - the crowd close to mutiny.

Hornets hit straight back: regaining the lead with a Harvey Livett penalty, then a great break by Dec Kay took Hornets deep into London territory. But the momentum was sucked out of the game when Sammut ‘old-headed’ Mr McMullen, starting a punch-up at the play the ball and giving the Broncos defence a chance to regather.

With the half ebbing away, both sides exchanged knock-ons under the visitors’ posts and, with the last kick of the half, Dec Patton slammed home a drop-goal to send Hornets into the sheds leading 9-6. Stat of the half was a Hornets completion rate of 80% versus London’s shoddy 50%.

London began the second half at a noticeably higher tempo and three quick-fire tries shifted the balance of the game: on 45 minutes, Dixon again arcing in to score - then a carbon-copy double from Adebyi (the first after a string of penalties) taking London into a 9-22 lead.

But Hornets hit back: on 56 minutes London knocked-on a Hornets last tackle kick, Deon Cross gathered the loose ball in open field and sprinted away for a certain score - only for Mr McMullen to somehow interpret the situation as a Hornets offside, rather than the Free-Play it was. Perhaps he should have consulted the time-keeper. Disgraceful.

Dixon’s hat-trick try on the hour sent the obligatory taxi-load of London fans into paroxysms: he converted his own try to extend the London Lead to 9-28.

But Hornets keep on coming: building pressure to send in Dec Kay off a short-ball for a well-worked try. Harvey Livett the extras and 15-28 a more reasonable reflection of Hornets’ contribution.

There was still time for Mr McMullen to leave his grubby stamp on the game. Hornets forced into a 78th minute drop-out found touch with a short-kick, but despite being 40 metres away, he over-ruled his touch-judge marking the point at which the ball exited the field of play to award London a penalty in front for Hornets not propelling the ball 10 metres (despite the touchy clearly indicating that they had). Shite, to be honest,

But if you thought that that was as bad as it got, the game reached a refereeing nadir in the 78th minute.

London coughed the kick-off possession, Richard Lepori gathered the loose ball and touched down - only for  Mr McMullen to bring Hornets back to feed a scrum. He clearly has no understanding of how a free-play works - and you began to think Oscar Wilde was right when he said “Once can be considered unfortunate, but twice looks like carelessness”.

Hopefully RFL Timekeeper Colin Morris had a discreet word afterwards.

In the end Hornets strove hard against a full-time side abetted by some frankly terrible refereeing. Indeed, a 15 point margin against a full-time side would be impressive enough - but for two perfectly good tries to be chalked off through some indifferent officiating sticks in the throat. 12 more points would show you just how close Hornets are to matching the supposed quality of the full time outfits in the Championship.

But we need to be given a fair-go - and, on this showing, Hornets might have to wait a little longer for a victory under Mr McMullen’s control.