Thursday, 31 January 2019

Sunday's Coming: Dewsbury Rams

Dewsbury come to Spotland on Sunday having built a new squad around veteran half-back Paul Sykes. And, speaking in the Yorkshire Post this week, Sykes seemed to be getting his club's excuses in early

“We’ve got a lot of young kids and to get them up to speed with the Championship level will be difficult..." He said.  "... we have got potential and I think we will go all right provided we can stay fit and healthy... we’re going to be underdogs, but we like a challenge."

His sentiments are echoed by his coach Lee Greenwood - himself catapulted into the Championship spotlight after coaching stints at Siddal and the University of Gloucestershire All Golds.

Speaking after his side's 34-nil pre-season pounding at York, Greenwood said in the Dewsbury Reporter: “It showed what the coaching staff probably already knew, some lads aren’t quite ready for this level yet. Some lads have got a bit to go yet before being ever ready for this level, and that is just the harsh reality of it. “

But Greenwood remained philosophical about the importance of pre-season results, saying that everyone in his squad was given a "fair chance" over the Rams' four friendlies. He says that the games were more about: "... getting to know the players as quickly as we can and knowing where we are at. It has all been about getting ready for game one, we have got new coaching staff obviously myself as new head coach. There is a number of lads who were here last year and a number of new lads who have come in as well."

With 16 new additions to the squad, Greenwood has his work cut out galvanising them into a unit. The sixteen include Harvey Burnett, Alex Brown and Jordan Andrade from Bradford Bulls and - as seems popular at the moment - three new signings from the Keighley Cougars fire sale.

But whist the 'ins' make interesting reading, it's one major 'out' that really caught our eye - the retirement of half-back Gareth Moore, who's proved a pain in Hornets' backside on more than one occasion. Squeezed between the twin-forces of injuries and running a business, Moore gave the game away at the end of last year any the age of 29.

Half back duties have been picked up by well-travelled scrum-half Simon Brown, who's CV includes Leeds, Doncaster, Sheffield, York, Halifax, Batley, Hunslet and Sheffield (again - having been hauled out of retirement) - a proper Tour de Yorkshire.

Greenwood's expectations for the season? "... hopefully we will be tough to beat throughout the year,” he said in the Yorkshire Post.

But he concedes that the Rams are a club 'in transition'. Again in the YP he said: "We are in a transition period and probably for a season we will have to stick with being very difficult to beat and getting our fair share of wins.”

“I am learning about individuals every week and every session. It is early days and it’s going to take a bit of time to get to know people and who needs to play where.”

Which is good. Every 'bit of time' where there's doubt and confusion presents an opportunity to capitalise.

Whilst Hornets too are a work in progress, the progress v Warrington was evident. And whilst some gobshites might see a narrow defeat to a second string Wolves as somehow indicative of standards at our club, the four point margin was pretty much par for Championship sides playing Super League opposition in friendlies: Fev going down by four to Leeds, Toulouse going down by four to Catalans Dragons, Barrow nicking a late draw against Wigan and Leigh getting pumped 20-nil by London Broncos. So nothing much to see there, move along...

The challenge this week is for Carl Forster to alight on a thirteen that he likes the look of. There's still some contention around the half-back spots and the sooner that conundrum gets solved, the easier progress will be. Scott Moore, Tyler Whittaker, Elliot Jenkins, Stu Howarth and Dan Abram have all filled the berths in pre-season - but the selection that poses the greatest threat is still a hot topic for debate amongst the Hornets faithful.

As always - the advent of a new season calls for the most devout of beliefs and extreme faith in the boys to deliver. At this stage of development, Dewsbury provide the perfect test - a test of opposing transitions. Indeed, this one could simply boil-down to who wants it most on the day.

Let's want it more. See you Sunday.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Done and Dusted

Hornets 20 - Warrington 24

Well that's pre-season done - and what have we learned? Mostly that playing together over time yields improvements in understanding and teamwork. No real rocket science there - but Hornets did show a tangible improvement in the space of a week as Carl Forster and Tony Stewart continue to mould this new squad into a unit that can hold its own in the Championship.

Augmented by some South-Sea muscle and a smattering of Super League experience, Warrington's tyro Wolves provided a sharp test - as Hornets once again took their DR Partners to the wire in an entertaining contest.

Hornets were out of the blocks immediately: a shift left after just five minutes saw Stu Howarth slot skipper Lee Mitchell into a yawning gap to score: Dan Abram the extras.

It took Warrington a good 15 minutes to get up to speed, but once there they showed an incisive edge with a triple whammy of three tries in nine minutes that effectively won them the game. First-up the eye-catching Riley Dean backed up a Thewlis break to race under the black dot, then added his own extras.

Anglin then squirmed in from close range before the rangy Akauola bounced in off a post to score. Dean with another two conversions to give the visitors a 6-18 lead just past the quarter.

With the arm-wrestle tightening, Scott Moore was unlucky to receive a yellow card for what looked like a case of clumsy mistiming, but 12-man Hornets stood firm and went to the sheds trailing by 12.

Not to be outdone, Wolves' wing Collins began the second half with a yellow card of his own for talking back: the visitors then belied their numerical disadvantage to fashion a Jamie Abram try off a Dean break for 6-24.

As the hour mark ticked round, Hornets found a way back into the game. A Carl Forster pass launched Mike Weldon in centre field, the back-rower showing a handy turn of pace to blast in from 40 metres. He was followed to the whitewash seven minutes later by Shaun Ainscough who rose to gather a Stu Howarth kick and crash through his opposite number to score.

And when Hornets shipped the ball through hands to the right for the impressive Jordan Case to touch down (Abram the two) - it left Hornets with two minutes to try and carve out the win. But Warrington's defence clung-on and, in the end, the result came down to goal-kicks.

Dinky dynamo Dec Gregory picked up the sponsors' Man-of-the-Match for a non-stop display of perpetual motion at the back of the ruck; Shaun Ainscough took the supporters' vote - and you couldn't argue with either really.

In this final test before the serious business starts next weekend, whilst Hornets still look like a work in progress, there is clear progress in the work done thus far - with more to come under meaningful match conditions.

Once again, every gobshite pundit and bar-room bullshitter in the game is writing Hornets off. Indeed, we heard it first hand at the weekend from the assistant coach of a club that should know better. But that's ok by us - let them all underestimate us. It works to our advantage.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Saturday's Coming: Warrington Wolves

The Immortal Joey Johns: 'No, mate - YOU
are the biggest signing in Warrington's history
As we all know, every year is Warrington's year - and this year is no different. In a close-season that has generated a tsunami of headlines, the Wire seem to have won the hype-war in announcing their signing (for 2020) of Illawarra St George five eighth and England fulcrum Gareth Widdop.

Now we've been to both Wollongong and Warrington and we're pretty sure where we'd rather spend our days (You definitely can't hear the sound of surf from the Halliwell Jones) , but Widdop sees the Wire as a club at which he can 'win things' and says that Simon Moran, Karl Fitzpatrick and Steve Price have given him an "... opportunity to come home and live out a childhood dream..."

Warrington chief executive Karl Fitzpatrick understands the power of an understatement: "This is arguably the biggest signing in the club's history and quite possibly in the history of Super League," he said (forgetting that both Andrew Johns and Alfie Langer have preceded Widdop in the primrose and Blue). He went on: " Bringing in this world-class player is a major boost for the sport in this country.... a fantastic addition to an already formidable squad... demonstrates the ambition of Warrington Wolves..."

Meanwhile, back in 2019, the Wire come to Spotland on the back of a fairly routine 38-12 pre-season blow-out against a wobbling Widnes (who this week are beset by rumours of their impending implosion ignited by a messy take-over wrangle in which each of the three protagonists appear to have said "I don't want it").

Star of the show was former Canberra Raiders half Blake Austin, weighing in with his debut try and a handful of try-assists in a barn-storming 70 minute showcase. He was ably supported by Jake Mamo - another new acquisition - who clocked up a hat-trick playing mostly out-of position on the wing and having started on the bench!

The DR Menu: Wire name a squad packed with future talent
For Saturday, though, Warrington have named a side comprising 'future talent', most eye-catchingly Harvey Livett and Pat Moran who have both turned in excellent performances in Hornets jerseys over the last couple of years. The squad also includes former Penrith and Wests Tigers' Tongan forward Sitaleki Akauloa who played 24 games in Super League last term.  New signing from. London Matt Davis will also feature. Individual clash of the day sees Dan Abram line up opposite his brother Jamie. One way or another, tea round the Abram house should be interesting on Saturday evening.

We anticipate a stern test as Carl Forster looks to iron out the not unsubstantial wrinkles that made the Law Cup a hard game to enjoy. Indeed, in his post-match comments, Forster accused his side of 'panicking' when they got into good positions: forcing passes and committing errors that gave Oldham plenty of cheap ball.

On an afternoon of few highlights, a couple of things stood out for us: the left-edge partnership of Ben Morris and Brandon Wood looks like it has plenty of potential (and points) in it - and Scott Moore put in another sterling shift at half and hooker, an eye-catching 40/20 the pick of his contribution.

Elsewhere there was a lot of graft, but little craft - so Saturday provides the opportunity to fine-tune some key aspects of the side before the serious business begins on February 3rd.

See you Saturday.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Stats Entertainment?

Oldham 24 - Hornets 8

The 68th Law Cup underlined Hornets' complicated relationship with this venerable trophy. For local rivals locked in an ongoing two-way battle, it has a singularly one-way history; Hornets having won it just 20 times to Oldham's - now - 45.

The raw stats themselves tell a tale where Hornets are a distant second, stragglers in a two-horse race. And if the stats don't lie, they also act as a brutal metaphor for Sunday's game at the Vestacare, where Hornets looked second best in every department.

Yes, we know it's hard to make judgements on a pre-season game where a new coaching team is fundamentally distilling its permutations down to its best thirteen, but as a benchmark for comparative development, Oldham look like they'll be a proper handful in League 1 this year, whilst Hornets remain a work in progress.

It remains heartening that the Law Cup still comes with a modicum of needle and this one started with a running punch-up in back-play - Oldham's Owen throwing jabs at Stu Howarth, the referee choosing to ignore the flagging touchie.

And it was Hornets who made the early running: Ben Morris bundled into touch by the flag, then given a penalty for ripping the ball - but one unforced knock-on and a cheap penalty later, Hornets found themselves stretched as Oldham moved the ball wide where McComb found space by the flag. Hewitt added the extras to give the home side a 6-0 lead.

Hornets continued to misfire: more cheap turn-overs, a knock-on over the line. Then on 22 mins a wild cut-out pass (sender unseen - sight-lines not the best at the Vestacare) was snaffled by the home defence; Oldham drove close to the line where Bowman was the straight-runner onto a short ball to score the simplest of tries. Hewitt the two: 12-0.

The chance for redress came immediately. Jones Bishop coughed the kick-off, only for Stu Howarth to throw a shocker of an interception pass. But Hornets continued to create - and squander - chances: a pinpoint 40/20 by Scott Moore spectacularly blown by a first-tackle knock-on.

With the half ebbing away Hornets took the ball close to the Oldham line, but ran out of ideas/tackles. More scrappy play followed, Oldham piggy-backed downfield courtesy of a poorly timed high-shot from Seta Tala, where they forced a drop-out. There was just enough time remaining for former Hornet Holmes to hit a peach of a ball at pace to score from 40 metres, rounding Dan Abram on the way under the black dot. Hewitt three from three and Hornets heading for the sheds 18-nil down. Not quite how the visiting fans had envisaged it.

Hornets began the second half in familiar fashion - shipping a cheap penalty for lying on. But they did make amends three minutes later when Stu Howarth launched a teasing lob to the corner where Ben Morris took advantage of some flapping defending to plant the ball by the flag. Abram wide with the conversion attempt; 18-4.

The next 20 minutes were a pig-ugly arm-wrestle. Oldham happy to defend their 14-point cushion, Hornets happy to run from acting half at every opportunity. Just past the hour, Oldham put the game to bed: a direct approach set ending with Greenwood stepping past Dan Abram from the back of the ruck to score; Hewitt his fourth from four for 24-4 (try saying that with a mouth full of cake!)

Hornets did rally in the closing stages, Stu Howarth's kick to the corner gathered in-flight and touched down acrobatically by the impressive Brandon Wood for his second try in two games. Dan Abram wide with the kick: final score 24-8.

All-up this was a bit of a mess. Whilst we know that the whole idea of pre-season games is to try permutations and flush rust and mistakes out of the system, it's hard for fans to be rational when you've paid fourteen-quid to watch 75% of a game over some bloke's shoulder.

Hereby hangs the dichotomy at the heart of the Law Cup: the opposing tensions of supporters' emotional investment versus the pragmatic needs of a coach to experiment, evaluate and eliminate.

And, on this evidence, 2019's tricky equation remains some way from being solved.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Sunday's Coming: The Law Cup

The Birth of a Classic(o)
The Law Cup was first played for in 1921 to raise money for the Rochdale and Oldham Infirmaries  - and was originally known as the ‘Infirmaries Cup’.  As recorded in Hornets' Annual Report and Accounts from that year, a local MP – Mr A.J.Law – provided “a handsome Silver Cup for the Competition” and the winners received gold medals “the gift of Rochdale and Oldham gentlemen”.

At the first game, everyone concerned, including the players of both Clubs, gave their services for free contributing to a donation of £348 3s 7 ½ d to each of the two hospitals. Following the creation of the NHS, proceeds from the match in the 1948/9 season were distributed to local charities and the cup was referred as the ‘Charity Cup’. During the 1949/50 season it was decided that the majority of the proceeds would be used “for fostering of junior Rugby League games" - and the trophy renamed The Law Cup named after its original benefactor.

To date, the Law Cup has been contested 67 times -  including a replay after the first game at Rochdale ended in a scoreless draw. The replay a week later at Oldham was won 12-2 by the Roughyeds.

Oldham have won the cup 44 times to Hornets 20. The cup was  shared in 1954 and 1976, both games drawn.

The record attendance for a Law Cup game is 14,000 for a 34-0 Oldham home win in 1926 - just edging out the 13,900 present at the Athletic Grounds three years previously, when Hornets won 13-5.

A bit of needle
Don't come running to us when you hurt yourself.
It wouldn't be the Law Cup without a bit of spice chucked into the mix.

This week the Oldham Chronic bent the truth a little, pointing out that twelve of the previous 15 Law Cups  have been contested at Spotland, with only three played:  "... on the Oldham side of Summit Hill."

Scott Naylor was happy to get a little dig in. Speaking to the Chronic last month he said: "This is a game with our close rivals that doesn't need bigging up. Like all derbies, it's a massive game for both clubs and both sets of fans and it's nice that Rochdale are coming to us for a change."

"Their new coach, Carl Forster, is clearly more comfortable at the thought of coming to Oldham for a pre-season game than were some of his predecessors."

But Naylor has a short memory. Indeed, it's not entirely fair to blame Hornets for not wanting to play in Oldham when Oldham don't always play in Oldham.

Yes, it will be the first Law Cup to be played 'in Oldham' since 2011 (when Tony Benson's side  won 34-28)  - but we did quite happily travel to Stalybridge in 2017, winning that one 24-12.

As it stands., Oldham currently hold the venerable trophy having won 28-24 at Spotland last January - and if last weekend's pre-season results are any indicator - this year's Law Cup promises to provide a serious challenge.

A look at Oldham
Notwithstanding Hunslet Parkside's shock win over Fev, the most eye-catching result of last weekend was Oldham's 24-10 win at Big Spending Barrow. And, whilst Paul Crarey was careful enough to lay down a carpet of excuses, the Raiders side did contain Spedding, Dallimore, Charnock, Crellin, ex-Salford forward Walne, Jono Smith. And Deon Cross. Oops!

Reports suggest, though, that Barrow were out-enthused by Oldham - so no room for complacency.

Indeed, Naylor has put together a useful looking squad for 2019 - and it's one that's hotly tipped to win League 1 (even by Garry Schofield!).

Our four to watch out for are:

Ben Calland: The second rower is product of Salford's academy and (as Ray French might say) a 'former Blackbrook amateur' who cut his teeth playing for Corrimal Cougars in the Illawarra competition down-under. Sacked off a promising Judo career to play Rugby League. Did we mention that he's Matt Calland's brother?

Ritchie Hawkyard: the vastly experienced utility back is a former Scottish international with 378 pro- and semi-pro games under his belt. Having started his career at Bradford Bulls, he spent nine years at Swinton before moving to Keighley Cougars. Featured last week at Fullback.

Scott Law: Former Halifax and Hornets prop with huge experience. Keighley's 2018 player of the year played 200 games for Cougars over a nine year stint. A proper 'old-skool' prop who takes teams forward.

Zack McComb: the Huddersfield U19s product was signed last year from Siddal. Prior to that he had a stint at Batley that saw him play on dual-reg with Oxford and Gloucester All Golds. He weighed in with two tries last week playing outside former Hornets three-quarter Jack Holmes.

Hornets, are you ready?
CRATE STUFF: Bring your own terracing
Sunday sees Hornets' first trip to the newly-named Vestacare stadium since its refurbishment and the installation of a lovely 3G pitch. The newly configured ground also comes with the now infamous 'touchline wall' at the grandstand end - though we are assured that the RL touchlines are moved in to avoid any potential collisions. Spectators are still advised to bring a beer-crate to stand on though as the refurb didn't include raised standing on the touchline.

Hornets come into the game off the back of a thorough test by Mayfield. It's fair to say that it was hard to gauge a team performance given the permutations used, but what was clear is that the class of 2019 brings a sleeves-rolled-up work ethic and a willingness to do the hard yards on attack and defence.

The nature of the game did give us a chance to check out individual performances and there were a few that caught the eye. Early doors Jack Cottington and Ryan Millington got through a ton of work, Seta Tala put himself about and Dec Gregory looked sharp. In the second half Scotty Moore (Sponsored by TLCRF80mins) showed some deft touches as he engaged the footy cogs for the first time in a year, Shaun Ainscough looked solid going forward and mopping-up at the back. And Lee Mitchell looked every inch skipper material. Lots of positives.

Sunday is the next step towards galvanising individual capabilities into a team performance - and, for sure, Oldham are a very different proposition.

However it plays out, the A627M El Clasico never disappoints. Two traditional rivals going at it for 80 minutes. What's not to like? See you there.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Up and Running

Rochdale Mayfield 12 - Hornets 18

Drizzle Kicks: a bit of a damp one at Mayfield
Every day is a school day and, at late notice, Hornets class of 2019 assembled at a soggy Mayfield Sports Centre to take on Rochdale Mayfield for its first lesson of the year. With a squad including 13 new signings, there was much for Carl Forster to learn as his heavily rotated side saw off an impressive Mayfield side which played with an eye-catching combination of directness and off-the cuff spontaneity.

Indeed, a clash of styles was evident as Hornets' structured approach was countered by Mayfield's desire to take risks and go off script - and it made for an entertaining (and occasionally fractious) contest.

The new Hornets era began with Seta Tala losing the flight of the kick-off and gifting Mayfield an early attacking chance. As it was they forced the ball into touch and when Dec Gregory bought a penalty from non-square markers, Hornets eased 80 metres upfield, but were unable to build early pressure.

Mayfield too struggled to capitalise on early possession and when handbags loomed after a Hornets break off a dropped pass, the home side were stretched up the right channel where Seta Tala opened the scoring to give Hornets a 0-4 lead.

Mayfield hit back: forcing a drop-out off a Sheridan dink into the in-goal - and then looking to have scored, only for referee Mr Smail to spot a forward pass.

With the rain now persistent, the game became scrappy and it took until the 28th minute for new-boy Callum Wood to skip across the face of a retreating defence to extend Hornets' lead. Tyler Whittaker with a simple conversion and Hornets looking comfortable at 0-10.

But the home side produced a maverick, touch-finding kick-off to build some momentum and when Hartley followed a 33rd minute kick into the in-goal, the Hornets defence hesitated just long-enough for him to touch down. Hartley added the extras and - as the gloom gathered - the sides headed for the sheds at 6-10.

A much-changed Hornets emerged for the second half  - and Mayfield took advantage forcing an early drop-out driving Dan Abram backwards with virtually his first touch. Things got worse when Mr Smail snagged Hornets for offside at the drop-out. Mayfield took full advantage. Connaughton arriving at pace to crash in from close range; Sheridan popped over the extras and Hornets fans raised eyebrows as Mayfield too a 12-10 lead.

It didn't take long for Hornets to seize back the initiative: Stu Howarth lofting the ball into space, Brandon Wood winning the race to touch down (12-14).

Three minutes later Hornets went left again, this time some neat interplay unzipped the defence for skipper Lee Mitchell to score: 12-18.

With conditions now the dominant factor, quality football was at a premium and it took an old-skool kerfuffle involving Seta Tala and the entire Mayfield side to raise the tempo a little.

How They Lined-up
Hornets were first to respond: Scott Moore showing a deft touch, kicking long for Shaun Ainscough to chase, the winger harrying the cover into touch. Mayfield then produced a last hurrah of their own - held up over the line after a neat chip and chase.

In the end, Hornets had just enough in the tank to see off a Mayfield side that looks more than capable of putting in a serious challenge in the NCL Premier league this year. And in doing so, there was a lesson to be learned by both sides.

Whilst looking for structure, shape and execution, Hornets could learn from Mayfield's desire to back themselves in moments of impromptu creativity. In contrast, the surety of a disciplined structure would give Mayfield a platform to play the way they want  and reduce the risks in doing so.

All up, this was a tough hit-out for both sides, with RL in Rochdale the real winner.

And with Oldham springing a suprise victory over Barrow at Craven Park, next week's Law Cup should provide another test of Hornets' progress.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Saturday's Coming - Rochdale Mayfield

And so it begins...

2019's odyssey gets underway with a game against Mayfield. A great opportunity to showcase the fact that Rugby League is alive and kicking in Rochdale. The game will be played for the Steve Gartland Memorial Trophy in tribute to a player and coach who gave both clubs outstanding service and whose absence remains felt in RL circles in the town.

The teams last met in 2016's Challenge Cup Hornets running out 40-14 winners in what might be euphemistically described as a 'feisty' contest.

Three years on - in a new era of entente cordiale - Hornets and Mayfield recently announced a partnership with the aim of not only boosting interest, participation and support for the game in Rochdale, but also providing opportunities for ambitious local players to step-up into the semi-pro-ranks in their home-town (following in the footsteps of Andy Duffy, Steve Prime, Steve Turner, The Hilton Brothers, John O’Donovan, John Stapleton, The Corcoran brothers, Sam Butterworth, Lewis Sheridan - and, of course, Rochdale's very own Jo Taira and Seta Talatoka).

Mayfield ended last season's NCL Premier season in 8th spot with 8 wins from their 22 games - shipping precisely 500 points on the way. They'll begin this year with a trip to Kells in round 1 of the Challenge Cup on the 26th January - a cliff-hanger guaranteed (see what we did there?!). Their NCL Premier season kicks off on Saturday 2nd March with a trip to one of Rugby League's more idiosyncratic arenas - Underbank Rangers.

It's a new Era for Hornets too - new coach Chris Forster assembling a new-look side around a core of players from the last couple of seasons.

We've been keeping a note on signings and - whilst it may not be the definitive list - we have the 2019 squad as:

Dec Kay, Ben Morris, Seta Tala, Paddy Flynn, Danny Price,
Shaun Ainscough, Elliott Jenkins.

Ben Moores, Stu Howarth, Dec Gregory, Callum Wood.

Scott Moore, Dan Abram.

Lee Mitchell, Joe Ryan, Carl Forster, Mike Weldon, Ryan Millington,
Jack Cottington, Ellis Gillam, Liam Carberry, Nathan Reidy.

About The Stephen Gartland Foundation

Saturday's game will be played for the Steve Gartland Memorial Trophy - and in support of the Stephen Gartland Foundation.

The Stephen Gartland Foundation was created to support local communities in small ways that make a big difference.

The Foundation’s mission is not only to raise awareness of the importance of mental/physical wellbeing - it also raises funds for local community causes and supports the development of local rugby talent.

For a look at some of the great things that the Stephen Gartland Foundation supports, take at look at their Facebook page by clicking here