Monday, 17 September 2018

Strange Times

Hornets 16 - Leigh 24

It’s been a surreal week; one in which perspective has been bent like the melting clock in Dali's picture. Nothing is at it seems. Everything is in flux.

Having begun in doubt, it ended with the crazy notion of an unscheduled, unaccounted-for, unbudgeted Championship/League 1 survival shoot-out game in which both participants are likely to struggle to find 17 players willing to cancel hard-earned holidays or drag their battered bodies round one more time, just so Ralph Rimmer can sleep at night pretending to have out-negotiated Robert Elstone.

All the talk ahead of Sunday’s game was of this Ridiculous Relegation Shithouse Playoff™: What? When? Where? Who? And, for the love of god, why?

Pretty much everyone we spoke to ahead of the Leigh game (and we’ll get to that debacle shortly) was scratching their heads as to why the RFL (and it was their decision) didn’t just go for the simple, straightforward option of two up and no relegation. But then it wouldn’t be Rugby League if it hadn’t come up with the most convoluted, hard-to-execute, shithouse plan available.

And it was to this backdrop that Hornets took a laughably bereft Leigh to the wire in a stop-start contest that delivered 22 penalties courtesy of the eccentric refereeing style of Mr McMullen.

His interpretation of the laws left players, club officials and fans alike confused and frustrated in equal parts as what started as an intriguing contest between contrasting philosophies degenerated into a series of skirmishes that crushed the rhythm out of the game.

But it had started so well: Hornets with some early pressure after Blagbrough had flapped at a high kick, then Richard Lepori exposing Leigh’s woeful lack of pace out wide as he skipped and skinned the visitors’ entire right edge defence from 60 metres. Tyler Whittaker the two and the Leigh fans stunned into silence.

Staright from the kick-off Hornets went back to Leigh’s dodgy right edge. This time Seta Tala with the break, Richard Lepori in support and his inside ball slotted Danny Yates undert the black dot. Too easy, it seemed. Tyler Whittaker the extras and Hornets 12-nil up after just six minutes.

Again, Hornets went back to the same spot, but this time Leigh’s defence was awake to hold Rob Massam up in-goal. A whirlwind start.

Leigh finally troubled the scoreboard after 15 minutes when Walne went plodding in from close range, Reynolds on target: 12-6

Leigh’s lack of pace was highlighted again on 18 minutes when their winger Bailey broke with open field ahead of him, only to get caught by prop Jo Taira. Not a good look.

But Bailey overcame his embarassment two plays later - the spare man on a big overlap to walk in by the flag. Reynolds hoisted the conversion attempt comedically wide: 12-10.

Leigh took advantage of Hornets’ switch of hookers on 20 minutes; with the defensive line rejigging, they put the ball through hands to send Bergal in at the corner. Reynolds better from the other touchline and - from nowhere - Leigh ahead 12-16.

Thankfully, Leigh’s discipline is pretty ordinary and Tyler Whittaker slotted home a pair of matching penalties to send the sides in at the break locked-up at 16-all.

The second half began a bit of a shapeless mess. Plenty of huffing and puffing from Leigh, ending in a series of knock-ons as they ran out of ideas: Hornets forcing passes, snagged for obstruction…

On 51 minutes frustrations boiled over: a 26 man scuffle ending with Larroyer and Toby Adamson yellow-carded as instigators. Then just five minutes later both sides reduced to eleven - Bergal appearing to throw a punch/push at Richard Lepori: both players sent to consider their actions.

This heralded a phase where both sides struggled to control the ball; Mr McMullen ticking his way thorugh the ‘I-Spy book of Penalties’ to compound the fragmenting nature of the game.

With 17 minutes still to play, Leigh blinked first in an attempt to break the deadlock; Reynolds’ drop-goal attempt 30 feet wide. Feeling left-out, Hornets went upfield where Tyler Whittaker was rushed into missing his attempt by even more.

The stalemate was broken on 63 minutes when Luke Adamson landed a resounding slap around the chops of Hutchinson. Reynolds edging Leigh ahead with the penalty.

Hornets hearts were broken on 65 minutes when a last tackle Leigh kick going nowhere was - seemingly - knocked on by Larroyer, who planted the ball down more in hope than expectation. With pretty much everyone in the ground anticipating a scrum, Mr McMullen gave a try. Reynolds the two and Leigh flattered at 16-24.

With 15 to play Hornets were compelled to chase the game, but passes were forced, fumbled: Rob Massam the preferred outlet, but unable to capitalise (a high ball squirming from his fingers, bundled into touch as he rounded his opposite number). Ultimately - despite their best efforts - Hornets were unable to unlock a Leigh defence that pretty much parked the bus, hanging on to grab the win.

As the Hornets players gathered together after the hooter, we were left to contemplate 80 minutes that represented the season in microcosm: undoubted commitment - but too many errors and no real abilty to find the knock-out punch with opponents on the ropes.

In reality, though, you have to consider the journey both sides have taken to get to this point. Hornets against the odds, plugging away: Leigh having burned £1.2 million to finish the season eight points better. Their future as uncertain as ours.

Indeed, Derek Beaumont spent a sizeable chunk of the second half bemoaning the performance of Mr McMullen. Like a punchy ex-fighter recounting his ‘could have been a contender’ moment, he was overheard saying: “This was the guy who did us over at Barrow. If it wasn’t for him, we’d have made the top four.”

While he goes off to stare into the void that used to be Leigh’s bank account, Hornets look to suck in for a big finish to 2018. Swinton’s defeat at Barrow (instigated by three Raiders tries scored while George Tyson was sat in the sin-bin) leaves the door open for a way of avoiding the Ridiculous Relegation Shithouse Playoff™. Two wins for us and two defeats for Swinton salvage our season.

It’s a surreal world for sure - and the melting clock is ticking.