Sunday, 29 July 2018

All Very Matter of Fax

Halifax 38 - Hornets 6

Hornets were undone at the Shay by a Halifax gameplan that is so simple, it’s verging on the brutal.

Halifax strip away all pretence of craftsmanship in favour of raw metres: relentlessly grinding you backwards, dropping any sort of a kick behind you looking to force an error, then playing what little football they have in them off the back of the scraps.

And when the gameplan doesn’t yield rewards, they have the unfaltering patience to persist until it does.

Architect of this unadorned, stripped back approach is Scott Murrell. Fittingly the anti-athlete, he has the physique of a bloke who’s won a place on the team photo in a raffle, the brain of a demolition contractor and a tidy knack for picking the right pass at the right time.

But for close on 20 minutes Hornets frustrated the home side, by simply refusing to budge when Halifax came trundling at them. Having resisted repeat sets, Hornets defence finally cracked when Grix came barrelling onto a short-ball from close range to score.

This heralded a ten minute period where Halifax simply denied Hornets the ball. Indeed, the next time Hornets carried the ball in any meaningful way, the home side had added tries by Fairbank and Butler to lead 16-nil.

With eight minutes of the half remaining, Tyrer took advantage of some sloppy defending to grab another try, his conversion taking Hornets into the sheds 22-nil down - all the points scored in one 15 minute spell.

Hornets began the second half with noticeably greater purpose. Indeed it took only three minutes for Lewis Hatton to arrive at speed onto a short ball to prove that the home side were equally susceptible to a more direct approach. Tyler Whittaker added the two for 22-6.

Then the game simply ground to a halt. For 20 minutes Hornets resumed their obdurate defence, while Halifax ran Plan-A at them ad nauseam. Hornets fans were roused from their slumbers by the sound of distant clapping as Tyler thrilled the home fans with a penalty.

On 60 minutes Halifax’s bloody-minded doggedness paid of when Moss scored off a Butler break. Ten minutes later, Kaye followed suit. By the time Tyrer capped-off the game with yet another penalty, most Hornets fans were struggling to remember what had happened in the previous 77 minutes.

Final score 38-6.

There’s no denying that Halifax are stultifyingly good at what they do. It’s easy to see how they grind teams down: their commitment to simply nudging you backwards for 80 minutes may not be pretty to watch, but it is ruthlessly effective.

Effective enough to secure fourth place in the Championship - and congratulations to Richard Marshall and his players for finding a way to thwart the big-spending, full-time clubs and give his side a shot at glory.

In the wash-up, Hornets were beaten by a better side - and there’s no shame in that. The removal of Dec Gregory (shoulder) and Morgan Smith with injuries could be a concern though.

As it is, Hornets can now focus on the next phase of the season: park what’s gone before, boil down the lessons learned and see the 8s as an opportunity to recharge, regroup and have a real go at staying up.

Early reports have Hornets at home to Dewsbury Leigh and Featherstone and away at Swinton, Batley, Barrow and Sheffield (dates TBC).

With 14 points to play for - and Leigh and Featherstone already 16 points clear of the bottom six -  the Shield per-se is a foregone conclusion. But at the opposite end, the Relegation Shitfight™ is where the real action is going to take place.

If we’re going to overcome the odds, we’ll need everyone on deck. The real test for all of us starts now. And that's a fact.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Sunday's Coming: Halifax

Freshly returned from our Wild West adventure, Hornets now make the somewhat shorter trip to Championship surprise package Halifax - who need to win to secure their place in the top four.

With Featherstone and Leigh both needing snookers to get into the mix, Halifax are in the box seat.  But the implications of a Halifax win will be felt most at Leigh, where this week there’s been an implosion of catastrophic proportions as the reality of the situation came crashing in.

With their promotion dream all but over, Leigh owner Derek Beaumont has pulled the plug and instigated an exodus of expensive mercenaries in an attempt to slash costs ahead of the prize that no-one wants to win: the Championship Shield.

Notwithstanding the fact that Leigh have burned £3million in the last two years to end up in the same 8 as Hornets, the player departures leave Sheffield facing a heavily depleted Leigh at the weekend - which could unfairly tip the balance of the relegation fight too (all other clubs in the Championship Shit Fight™ having faced a full-strength Leigh previously). So thanks, Derek - not only have you f*cked-up Leigh’s season, you might well have f*cked up ours and Swinton’s too (as if anyone needed another reason to dislike Leigh).

While Beaumont has been raking twenties into a pile and rifling his pockets for a lighter, Richard Marshall’s Halifax have been steadily getting on with the business of winning Rugby League games  and come into Sunday’s fixture on the back of a momentum-boosting defeat of Toulouse.

Interestingly, that win sucks TOXIIIC back into the chasing pack and they now need a win against Dewsbury on Saturday to avoid the possibility of missing the cut should Fev win in Toronto and London win at Barrow (the former is a distinct possibility as the Wolfpack rest some of their first-choice players). But however this weekend’s games play-out, our most eye-catching observation on the Championship table is the 16 point gap between 6th placed Leigh and 7th placed Batley - indication, if any were needed, of the ‘two league’s in one league’ nature of the competition.

Over at the Shay, Marshall has signed  Huddersfield Giants centre Sam Wood on loan deal until the end of the season - with another Super League signing mooted ahead of the transfer deadline. Having made his debut for Huddersfield two years ago, Wood has only played six games for them, spending most of this year on loan at Workington.

On the injury front, Halifax are likely to be without forwards Adam Tangata (knee) and Shane Grady (foot) for Sunday’s game - both of whom played key roles in last week’s win over TOXIIIC.

Behind 14-13 with 10 minutes to go last week, Halifax  dug deep for a converted Grady try and then stood firm in the face of a desperate Toulouse barrage. According to the Halifax Courier, the game ended “… with Toulouse within a metre of the try line”. It’s ‘goal-line’ - but we get their drift.

The result makes Sunday a cup final for Halifax: win and they are guaranteed a place in the Qualifying 8 with the dregs of Super League. What has brought Fax to this point is desire - finding ways to win against the odds. After the Toulouse game Richard Marshall identified ‘wanting it more’ as the deciding factor - and it’s that desire that Hornets will have to match if we are to ruin Fax’s impending party.

There’s no doubt that there was plenty of desire on show in Toronto, but Hornets were often architects of their own downfall, cursed - as we have been all season - by sloppiness and switching off at key moments (indeed, if there’s any lesson to be learned from our Championship stay, it’s that you have to stay on-point for every play of the full 80 minutes).

On the plus side, Hornets took every opportunity to move the ball around against the Wolfpack and - on several occasions - carved the Canadians wide open, but were unable to deliver the knock-out punch.

A performance of similar intensity against Fax should make for an interesting contest. And with a party to spoil, who wouldn’t want to be there? We’re heading for the main stand rather than do the Yorkshire ‘standing behind the posts’ thing.

See you there.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Saturday's Coming: Toronto

When we wrote about Toronto back in March, we were taken aback by the sheer volume of media hype surrounding the club. Journalists were falling over themselves to toe the party line, spit out the soundbites and create a sense of frontier excitement around what is essentially a load of ex-Leigh sluggers and ex-NRL journeymen coached by Paul Rowley. And fronted by Nobby off the telly.

A parochial sporting media desperate for any sense of pioneering exoticism lapped it up. The Rugby League revolution would be televised. For a tenner a month, on Premier Sports.

But amidst the hoo-ha, they let the facade slip in that now infamous televised Challenge Cup game at Warrington. The tactics used to bully weaker teams were put under the extreme scrutiny of multiple camera angles, a referee’s microphone - and a Wolves side in no mood to be pushed around on their own patch.

In less than an hour, 18 months of PR-induced sheen was tarnished. Toronto revealed as a bunch of narcissist gobshites with a thug complex.

Four months on from our original piece, Toronto have already won the Championship: racing undefeated through the season on a wave of hubris (a draw at Barrow and a one point win at Spotland their ‘low points’). 

It seems, though, that all-conquering success has come at a price. 

Toronto are no longer seen simply as the uber-expansionist’s giant-leap into an exciting North American unknown. Previously considered a ‘concept’ - a conceit even - the reality of Rugby League’s Wild West adventure is now on Super League’s horizon.

And it’s not a reality they like the look of.

In League 1 and the Championship, clubs have - for two years - been voicing concerns over the way the RFL has bent over backwards to accommodate Toronto.

Notwithstanding weakened teams flying out there for a flogging (Batley travelled with only 16 players - one of those was assistant coach Danny Maun who’d come out of retirement to play); the administrative burden of arranging 23 visas; visa issues leaving players stranded at Manchester Airport; the costs incurred by feeding 23 people for four days; bending the operating laws to play games to a timetable that suits them; Air Transat flying teams out of Manchester and back to Glasgow (with teams having to pick-up the £1000+ tab for a coach to get players back to the North West) while the RFL fly officials back via Air Canada to Manchester; no limit on overseas players and the uneven playing field of a mining magnate shovelling cash into a bottomless pit of dubious potential - it is a difficult trip for players to go out there and perform to the best of their ability.

As such, clubs have been ‘beta testing’ the Toronto experience on behalf of the RFL for two years - and the list of snags goes on and on and on. But amidst clubs’ valid concerns about Toronto’s negative impact on the credibility and integrity (and this is a theme we’ll come back to) of the competitions they’ve butchered, no-one at Rugby League’s top table has given much of a shit - until now.

Logic v Logistics
Unless you’ve been stranded in a Thai cave for the last six months, you’ll have noticed that Toronto have run-away with the Championship to become racing certainties for promotion to Super League.

But now they’re on Super League’s radar, the ‘elite tier’ of the game are having doubts about the validity and credibility of Toronto’s potential inclusion in the top flight.

In a brutally honest interview with last week, Hull KR Chairman Neil Hudgell voiced that - at Super League’s highest level there is a “… cautiousness about the Toronto experience…”

Whilst admitting that they could open up new TV markets in North America, Hudgell appears somehow surprised that the problem with Toronto is “… the logistics of getting there, and fixture scheduling!” The fact that 26 other clubs have been banging that drum unheard for two years gives you some insight into the contempt for which the game outside Super League is held. But wearing our most munificent hat, we should be glad that someone else is actually listening.

Pretty much everyone has already wondered exactly how Toronto have managed to inveigle their way into our game and re-write the operating laws to suit them. Now - better late then never - Hudgell (and SLE Ltd) is now on the same page as the rest of us.

“There’s some due diligence that still needs to be done with Toronto, that should have been done before they were allowed into competition.” he said. “Super League clubs are being asked to deal with some of the issues, that should never have been issues if the due diligence had been done in the first place.” Yeah, true - but clubs on far smaller budgets, far fewer resources and part-time playing staffs have been dealing with those issues already. Only now Toronto are coming your way do you see the tsunami of bullshit trailing in their wake.

Smoke v Mirrors
To his credit, Hudgell sees the passion of the ownership to deliver Rugby League in North America, but has his doubts about the authenticity of the Wolfpack project. “I’ve met the owner of Toronto (David Argyle),” he said.  “He’s a very passionate guy and he’s a top businessman, and there is some potential, but at the minute I think the jury is wondering about the longevity of it, and how it fits with the Super League competition.”

Much like it fits with the League 1 and Championship competitions, Neil: deeply uncomfortably. And when you peel back the veneer, you’re left with something that’s somehow less enticing.

“On the logistic side of it, as on the strategic side of it, there’s no way they can repeat this year’s championship, without compromising the integrity of the competition,” said Hudgell. “And if weather-wise, climate-wise they can’t play at home for three months, that really is a serious problem that has to be addressed.”

So after two years of smoke and mirrors, has the game finally had its ‘emperor’s new clothes’ moment?
Is the circus that is Toronto Wolfpack about to run out of road? If Neil Hudgell and Super League have their way, it just might.

“I have a real long-standing issue about integrity, compromising integrity, and there are things that compromise integrity of the competition,” Hudgell said. “Fixtures are one, Visas another… there’s a whole range of things that the game needs to tackle on that.”

Maybe we should just be grateful that people with a level of influence in the game  are finally seeing the light. “I don’t want to be downbeat on the Toronto experience,” Said Hudgell, ”… but I do think it hasn’t been given the necessary due diligence, before they were given entry to the competition.”

The full interview with Neil Hudgell is here

Excitement v nervousness
If you thought Hudgell was a lone voice, think again.

Super League Europe Ltd’s new Propagandist Sock-Puppet in Chief™ Robert Elstone revealed in ‘League, Weakly’ that he is ‘nervous’ about Toronto’s potential promotion. Quoted in an article quoting him in a podcast (and quoted by us having listened to said podcast), Elstone said that he’s “… asked for a report on Toronto.”

Indeed, Elstone is a very diligent chap: “I’ve asked for due diligence done to date. I’ve asked for projected future due diligence.”  He also seems very interested in terms: “I’ve asked what the promised terms are in terms of any commercial arrangements and I’ve asked where they sit in terms of minimum standards.”(sic)

He went on: “One of the minimum standards, I think, is playing a home-away season - so I don’t know the answer to that.”

His big concern seems to be the potential longevity of the project v the potential ROI on SLE’s potential investment.

“Toronto is an opportunity (but) really, honestly (they) make me slightly nervous.” he said. “In one sense they can be exciting, but anyone who’s been in the sport a long time knows there isn’t  a great track record in making those expansions stick.”

Elstone v Argyle
Elstone sees Toronto owner David Argyle as key to any real long-term success: “We are ultimately backing the intentions and actions of one individual. His actions to date have been positive. His intentions are great today, but we can’t be certain they are going to be great in five years’ time.”

So is Toronto an expansion too far for a Super League newly obsessed with realising the value of its participants? “We can’t afford to turn our back on anybody in that respect, but it’s clearly very random. (when) You talk about expansion, you would go where there’s a natural footprint of players, participation, audience. There isn’t that, but there’s a guy who’s prepared to invest in making sure that there’s a future there.”

So is Super League rolling out the red carpet in anticipation of a Canadian invasion? “I think we have to proceed with optimism, but with a degree of caution on it.” Hardly a resounding fanfare.

It seems, ultimately, Elstone’s money might be on another runner. “I really like the idea of Toulouse,” he said.

Sixth Sense

Hornets 32 - Leigh 54

There were long periods in this game where a neutral would have struggled to tell which of the sides involved had spunked a million and a half quid up the wall, and which one was a part time team on a tenth of the budget.

Indeed, Leigh’s eventual victory - bloated by two late, late tries against a valiant Hornets defence out on its feet - merely entrenches their sixth position (given wins by Featherstone and London).

Which feels about right to us - on this showing Leigh probably are the sixth best side we’ve faced this season and we reckon we’ll see them again when the shield comes round.

Battled out in front of the Championship’s second biggest attendance of the day this was a pendulum of a game in which the momentum swung both ways.

Leigh got off to a scorching start, three tries in the opening 16 minutes - Larroyer up the guts from distance, Hall dummying his way up the left edge and Crooks off a flick pass so far forward as to look deliberate - had the visitors up with the clock at 16-nil. Needless to say Leigh’s sizeable following were very happy at this.

Then Hornets shook themselves to life. On 18 minutes Rob Massam piled straight through his opposite number to get Hornets on the board at 4-16.

Five minutes later, Richard Lepori perfectly read a wild Leigh pass going nowhere, snatching it from the air to run 50 metres unopposed - exposing Leigh’s chronic lack of pace out-wide in the process.
Morgan Smith banged home the extras and at 10-16 we had a game on our hands.

Hornets turned the screw further on the half hour when Ben Moores burrowed in from acting half on the last tackle for a real mugging of a try. Morgan Smith the two and Hornets level at 16-all. Bedlam!

Leigh were then snagged offside at the kick-off. With the visitors now visibly wobbling, Hornets marched straight downfield where the Suva Express arrived at full speed onto a short ball  - Jo Taira taking defenders over the line with him to give Hornets the lead. Morgan Smith raising the flags: Hornets 22-16 up.

The Leigh fans now less happy, bleating for offside at every play the ball and forward at every pass - but mostly just skriking after being forced to swallow 22 unanswered points.

With the half ebbing away, Leigh did summon up the wherewithal to play some football; Bailey in after a frantic exchange of passes. Reynolds added the two and the sides went to the sheds locked at 22-all.

It was, by some significant distance, the best first half of Rugby League at Spotland this season. Played at breakneck speed with Hornets on top for long periods.

The second half began with possibly the worst try conceded at Spotland this season. Hornets unable to complete a last tackle kick, Leigh barrelling the ball into the corner where they knocked on, the loose ball gathered by Lee Mitchell in what was the free-play - but he then dropped the ball. Leigh regathered and - with pretty much everyone in the ground anticipating a Hornets scrum, Referee Mr Race waved play-on. Mata’utia put the ball down. Just embarrassing for the game.

Mr Race continued with his dadaist interpretation of the laws as Leigh knocked on the kick-off, but were waved to play-on. Ben Moores felt moved to question Mr Race’s optician’s prescription and was shown the yellow card. Disgracefully bad officiating.

Mortimer scored from the resulting play, so at least the Leigh fans were happy (22-32).  But 12-man Hornets weren’t done. A lofted kick into the end-zone saw Rob Massam soar like an eagle to snatch the ball from the reaching fingers of Bailey and touch down to close the gap to 26-32.

With the momentum edging back their way, Hornets produced a flawless 80 metre set to drive Leigh back into the corner. And when Mata’utia hit Ben Moores high and late on the last tackle, they looked a bit of a ragged mess.

As it was, they managed to pin George King in-goal to force a drop-out and send Hall into the line as the extra man to score through a stretched defence. Their composure just about reghained. On the hour, the reintroduction of Leigh captain Hansen paid dividends when he ran hard and straight at a tiring defence. But Hornets weren’t finished quite yet.

Another interception by Richard Lepori swept Hornets upfield. With defenders gathering, he fed Morgan Smith who tied defenders in knots before shipping the ball back to Lepori for his second. Leigh chasing shadows. Hornets within touching distance at 32-44.

Hornets continued to press and probe, but it was evident that the tanks was close to empty. Indeed two late tries from Mortimer and Dawson exploited that to blow-out the scoreline.

Despite the result, Hornets were magnificent. Showing guts, craft and a never say die attitude that augurs well for the next phase of the season. Again, this game served to remind everyone of the standard that this side is capable of playing at. And if we can carry that into the shield, Hornets have a shot at confounding the odds.

As for Leigh, you’d imagine that a full-time side would have to do better than shipping 32 points to a part-time outfit to fulfil any real ambition of going up. 

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Saturday's Coming: Leigh

Relativity is a fascinating thing - especially in the universe of expectation that is the Betfred Championship.

If - when - Hornets chase down the stupefyingly dull Sheffield Eagles to finish 10th, we’ll have had another season beating the odds. Success. Crack open the Pomagne.

But if you’re Leigh, burning a million quid to end up favourites for the shield would be a catastrophe.

In a super-competitive top four, Leigh currently sit 6th - usurped by the sheer audacity of Halifax and Featherstone: two points shy of Fev (with a superior points difference) - and with the little matter of London squatting like a speed-bump in 5th, with a one point advantage.

But whatever Leigh do, they struggle to make headlines beyond the one-man tsunami of column inches that is Derek Beaumont. If you took a cursory glance at the frankly astonishing amount of coverage he gets, you’d think that he just releases a monthly statement about how he’s not walking away from Leigh. A closer look reveals that the outspoken Centurions owner is - it seems - a walking magnet for a media hungry for controversy.

Indeed, only a month ago there were reports that Beaumont had been fined £7,500 (£2,500 suspended until the end of next season) for breaching RFL operational rules relating to conduct and social media use. The RFL says that, having pleaded guilty at an Independent RFL Operational Rules Tribunal, Beaumont was fined because his comments on social media breached rule D1.1(b) Conduct prejudicial to the interests of the Game and improper conduct; Rule C2.6 Failure to adhere to Codes of Conduct; Rule C2.10 Behaviour Standards; C2.11 Behavioural Standards - Unacceptable Behaviour. He was also found guilty of breaching both the RFL’s Respect Policy and Social Media Code of Conduct.

Leigh began the season in disastrous fashion - losing five of their first six games. In terminating the contract of coach Neil Jukes, Beaumont claimed full responsibility for the start that Leigh have struggled to overcome: “… I am still very much involved in the fight to get this Club into the top four of the Betfred Championship from where it can kick on to regain its place in Super League.” he said in March.

“It is a challenge that is becoming increasingly more difficult but is not insurmountable at present. I take full responsibility as the owner of the Club for the position it finds itself in. Ultimately any decisions the Club has made have been under my leadership and I have agreed with them and enabled them to happen.”

Since then, tyro coach Kieron Purtill has steadied the ship and got Leigh playing closer to their potential. But he understands the expectations at Leigh Sports Village. Speaking ahead of their recent Challenge Cup tie with Salford (which they won 22-10), he admitted: “There are massive implications for the club if we’re not in the top four - on and off the field.”

“We’ve got to be there. Everyone knows the funding in the Championship isn’t the same. We invested heavily in our squad so there’s going to have to be cutbacks or things addressed if the money’s not there.”

With the pressure on, Derek Beaumont has responded the way he always does - by chucking a bucket of cash at a former NRL player. This time it’s former Gold Coast Titans, Newcastle knights and Sydney Roosters utility back Brendan Elliot, who scored 19 tries in 39 NRL appearances.

Speaking in the Leigh Journal this week, Beaumont  said: "It is a very difficult period at the Club as it really is up in the air as to where we will finish, but I have to make decisions on the basis that we will make the four to put us in a good place to mount a challenge to return to Super League, if we do, as it will be too late once we know our fate.”

"There will also be a further announcement of another overseas player this week which will complete our recruitment for the season, and I believe with everyone fit and free from suspensions, we will have the quality to be serious contenders in the Qualifiers should we make them.”  Leigh have also signed former Salford prop Adam Walne from Huddersfield Giants.

Last week, Leigh pulled off a 12-man comeback to win convincingly at Mount (un)Pleasant. The Centurions played 74 minutes a man short after Jamie Acton was red-carded for a high tackle.

Trailing 12-4 at the break,  Leigh stormed back scoring 26 unanswered points to win 12-30. Harrison Hansen and Ilias Bengal weighed in with two tries each.

Hornets come into Saturday’s game on the back of a confidence-boosting victory over Swinton. What mattered last week was not so much the nature of the win - only that we did. Indeed, we are delighted that Alan Kilshaw’s lads can run for 80 minutes, because we needed every last one of them to grab the points.

Leigh, of course, will be a wholly different proposition - though they are prone to lapses in focus, evidenced by their seven defeats this season. Indeed, they have points in them - having shipped the most in the top six with 442 in 20 games. That’s an average of 22 per game!

After the Swinton game, Alan Kilshaw said that getting anything from the remaining three fixtures would be a bonus - but this competition chucks up a few freak results every season, so why not this one? Leigh are more scared of losing games then they are interested in winning at the moment - and Hornets have nothing to lose.

All the pressure is on Leigh. Let’s turn the screw.

See you Saturday - don't forget, it's a 5pm kick-off.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Smith Stars in The Late Show

Hornets 28 - Swinton 26

On the hottest day of the year, Hornets and Swinton served up a nail-biting, blockbusting barnstormer of a game that gave us knavish tricks, heroics - and a grandstand finish worthy of any great piece of theatre.

For 80 minutes both teams went toe-to-toe, in a relentless battle of wills. Swinton hell-bent on breaking the game up: loitering in tackles, sprawling and spoiling - and not averse to some stone-cold gamesmanship (the worst culprit, Bracek, who - late in proceedings - lay as if shot in the in-goal to give his team time time to recover; only then to jump to his feet and acknowledge the hail of boos from the home fans. Pretty cheap we thought).

Hornets on the other hand strove to play some expansive football -  but too many times the last pass to an edge was misjudged. Given the contrast in styles and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the participants, what unfolded was a fascinating contest.

Swinton raced into an early 0-12 lead courtesy of a 40/20 that led to walking anger-issue Tyson finding space to score, then the Lions capitalising on a Hornets penalty to send Brown in up the edge.

Hornets hit back almost immediately. Having forced an error the ball was shifted to Seta Tala who engaged the cogs to grind his way through a mass of defenders to score from 20m. Smith the extras, 6-12.

Swinton stretched the lead courtesy of a couple of Hankinson penalties - the first of which led to 26-man handbags after Hornets forced a knock-on from the kick-off.

While Swinton were more than happy to feed on penalty scraps, Hornets stuck to the task of trying to play football - and were rewarded on 23 minutes when good hands through the channel saw Seta Tala draw the winger to send Richard Lepori in: 10–16.

If it were not hot enough, the introduction of Jo Taira raised the temperature. Virtually his first contribution was to land an almighty bell-ringer of a tackle on Brown to force a drop-out, only to be judged to have applied a shoulder. He then got snagged for the high shot that allowed Hankinson to take another 2 points (10-18), but he made amends two minutes later when he boomed in off a short ball to score. Unstoppable.  Morgan Smith added the extras and you could feel the momentum shift.

As the game headed for the break Hornets threw the kitchen sink at Swinton, who were now a mess of petulance and errors. Indeed, as much as Hornets didn’t want half-time to come, Swinton clung to the ropes desperate for the hooter.

Half-time, a head-spinning 16-18.

The second half continued where the first had left off: Swinton all niggle and cheap penalties, desperate to stem any momentum. and when Barlow milked a 45th minute penalty in embarrassing fashion, Hankinson added yet another two (16-20).

The game now attritional, both sides refusing to yield.

Swinton - somehow gifted a mystery penalty - again ignited a scuffle in the aftermath, but Hornets continued to move the ball. Seta Tala bundled into touch on the hour with support and tackles top spare. But it was a rare moment of fluidity as both sides struggled to establish a rhythm.

As the visitors sought any means to breach the Hornets defence, an acting half kick into the in-goal on 68 minutes pinball around, Jones the first to react and touch down. Hankinson a simple conversion and Swinton ten points clear with eleven minutes to play.

Hornets sucked in for one last big push. A great 75th minute approach set lay the platform and when George King came blasting onto a short, flat ball five metres out, he wouldn’t be denied. Morgan Smith the two: 22-26 with four minutes to play.

Hornets went straight back on the attack, again putting the ball through hands - but the last pass to Rob Massam was hurried and over-cooked.

All Swinton had to do was play out the set, kick it long and the game was theirs.

But wait…

The set was perfectly executed: five one-man drives. The ball was sent to Hankinson to dispatch downfield, but Morgan Smith saw one last opportunity and stretched every sinew to charge down the kick. As the ball fell behind the helpless Hankinson, Smith gathered it on the run to dart 30 metres and plant the ball under the black dot to tie the scores. Cue mayhem! The main stand on its feet; Alan Kilshaw skipping up the touchline punching the air. Bloody marvellous.

Morgan Smith then the coolest man in the ground to add the conversion and give Hornets the lead for the first time with less than a minute remaining.

Pretty much everyone anticipated one last Hail-Mary short kick-off, but Swinton elected to kick harmlessly to the 30m line. Two tackles later it was all over: the home fans delirious, the Swinton fans shellshocked.

Having scored five tries to three, it’s clear that Hornets had the footballing edge. And lovers of irony will see the chargedown of Hankinson’s late kick as redress for Swinton’s penalty-pinching tactics.

As Hornets gird-up for a horrible run-in, we can do so with confidence. This was a blistering team effort, every one of the 17 giving every ounce they had. It was a good afternoon to be a Hornet.

In the wash-up, this was a game that had everything. Passion, commitment and a heart-stopping finish. That the bottom end of the Championship is somehow dismissed as a sideshow for those with Super League ambitions is criminal. This was Rugby League in its finest, purest form.

Simply breathtaking.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Sunday's Coming: Swinton

There’s not a lot of leeway in Sunday’s game against Swinton.

Last week the Lions scraped past Dewsbury, which hauled the Rams back into the Championship’s ‘Relegation Shit Fight’™. The result squeezed Swinton ahead - now 8 points to Hornets’ 6 - leaving Hornets no real choice other than to win on Sunday to maintain touching distance of the teams above.

The grey lining within the grey cloud that is the 2018 Championship season is that, having suffered three consecutive drubbings, Hornets points difference has been shot to blazes, so even a win will not be enough to lift us off the bottom of the table.

But 8 points would put us within a draw of Dewsbury in 10th and within two points of Sheffield (both of whom have far superior points differences).

Having come back from an early 10 point deficit, Swinton raced into a 12 point lead, but Hankinson’s red card opened the door for a late Dewsbury fightback. Ironic that it was his earlier drop goal that proved the difference in the end. Panto Villain George Tyson also weighed in with a brace of tries.

Once again, we come into an increasingly rare home game needing a big response on the back of a battering. The less said the better about last week’s disappointing showing at Post Office Road. We know they’re a decent side, but…

For the past month, this Sunday’s fixture has looked like the most likely win of a tough run-in, so we find ourselves - again - seeking a win at all costs ahead of Leigh, Toronto and Halifax. Jesus, just typing that makes me shake my head.

For us, this regular season  - and this criminally imbalanced Championship - can’t end soon enough. Let’s get to the 8s where there are 14 points up for grabs in as good a shape as possible and set about salvaging the season from there.

With so much on the line, Sunday’s game should be an intense affair (especially if the last two Spotland encounters are anything to go by). Two of the game’s oldest local rivals going at it: it’s what Rugby league is all about. We’re banking on a bed-wetting thriller.

See you there.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Hard Times

Featherstone 80 - Hornets 4

“If you wish to reach the highest point, begin at the lowest…”
Pubilius Syrus

Pubilius Syrus was a smart bloke - pretty much the inventor of the soundbite and the guy from whom Shakespeare stole most of the phrases we think of as his.

But he was wise bloke too - and we’ve looked to his relentless optimism for inspiration as Hornets slipped beneath a tsunami of points at Post Office Road.

Crazy though it sounds, this game was a contest until the 20th minute. Had Hornets not dropped a Featherstone drop-out and gifted the home side possession for Walton to score and Hardman to convert to make it 12-nil, it would have felt like a good first quarter, but the introduction of Leeds DR utility Brad Dwyer on 21 minutes effectively changed the complexion of the game.

In the 19 minutes before the break, Dwyer scored four tries - pretty much at will; an unplayable force at the heart of a Featherstone side too big, to strong, too fast and too smart in every department.

Hornets did play some football of note at the start of the second half: kick to the corner by Tyler Whittaker deflecting off a defender, the ball whipped wide to Rob Massam who scored by the flag.

But it was a brief respite for the knot of Hornets fans stood shellshocked in the sun.

In 18 minutes after the break, Dwyer grabbed two more tries to equal Featherstone’s tries in a game record, Lockwood competing his hat-trick too. We can’t lie - it was tough to watch, as Featherstone racked-up 14 tries. Some of them painfully soft : Hornets shipped tries on the hooter in both halves.

Post match Alan Kilshaw attempted to pick through the debris: “I don’t think its a good competition at the moment, the way it’s structured. At the start of the season you get your funding and you know where people are going to finish. I’ve got a mixture of lads there who’ve played League 1, amateur, bottom-end Championship or Academy - against a team who are pushing for Super League.”

With the AGM looming, everyone will be looking for a quick fix - but what Kilshaw says is true. Clubs with vastly superior funding will always batter clubs who scrape by hand-to-mouth. And whilst it IS bloody horrible to watch, as a fan-owned club, the fans have a level of responsibility to help deliver that ‘fix’.

Our mate Pubilius Syrus said: “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm” - and he’s right. When we’re winning, getting to finals, gaining promotions, everyone wants to take their share of the glory. But if we win as a club and lose as a club, everyone should also want to take their share of meeting the challenges our club faces on a day-to-day basis.

Last word goes to Pubilius Syrus: “Where there is unity there is always victory."

A wise bloke indeed.