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.