Thursday, 29 August 2019

Sunday's Coming: Halifax

With only two weeks of this wretched season left, it seems a little incongruous to say that it's a good time to play Halifax. But it is.

Having shot their wad on a Challenge Cup Run, Halifax have had a pretty ordinary season by their usual standards - and it seems to be running out of steam.

In recent years, Halifax have built a reputation on over-achieving and bringing playoff football to the Shay, but this year's iteration languish 8th in the Championship - now equal on points with Swinton after the Lions handed an eleven-man Fax an old-skool flogging at Heywood Road a couple of weeks ago.

It's an issue that looms large in the mind of coach Simon Grix, who sees his side's slump - winning just one of their last 10 Championship outings - as a confidence issue. Speaking in the Halifax Courier the week he said: “At the moment, we are a team with next to zero confidence and very little resilience... as soon as anything goes against us, we’re looking for a hole to swallow us up."

“People talk about winning being a habit, but losing is too and it’s one we need to learn to break over the next three weeks. The players are all pretty deflated and embarrassed by what they’re doing but people are paying good money to watch them and they owe them - and themselves - more than they’re showing at the moment." A brutally honest analysis.

Speaking on Twitter this week, Grix admits that his side's current 40% completion rate isn't good enough to win games and that his immediate focus is '... looking after the ball'.

Grix is putting in a brave face though, again in the Courier he said: “We’re a team that shouldn’t be eighth in the Championship and we certainly shouldn’t be thinking about finishing ninth." But as we Hornets fans know, the league table doesn't lie.

It can be a bit deceptive, though. Hornets come into this game having put in a sterling shift against the juggernaut that is Toronto. For 40 minutes Hornets frustrated and challenged the Wolfpack - keeping them scoreless for 21 minutes. In that first half, Hornets got held-up over the line and eschewed a penalty bang in front. Add those to the mix and you'd have been looking at 12-8 at half time.

Yes, Toronto stepped it up a gear in the second half: and, yes, the game had six minutes shaved off it for a lightning storm - but to end the day with the same losing margin as second-placed York did is a genuine achievement that hints that there may be better things to come.

With only 160 minutes of our Championship adventure remaining, it's a good opportunity to wring every last drop out of the experience. So get yourself over to Halifax, let's get together, make some noise and see if we can't exploit Fax's confidence crisis. We'll be in the main stand - see you there.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Saturday's Coming: Toronto Wolfpack

We want to like Toronto Wolfpack, we really do. But, jeez, they make it hard. Every time we come to research a match preview we end up raking through an absolute bin-fire of bullshit rather than talking about the game ahead. We hoped this time would be different...

Think back to January. Things were very different then. There was an air of optimism ahead of a new Championship season - and Toronto Wolfpack reiterated the promise it had made since the club was formed. In a statement they said:

"Toronto Wolfpack will produce all of the team’s Betfred Championship games in both the UK and Canada in 2019 after announcing a broadcast agreement at today’s Rugby Football League (RFL) season launch..."

"After discussions ongoing since the end of last season involving the RFL and Sky Sports agreement has been reached for all matches to be available for live publication on Sky Sports platforms in the UK. Distribution in Canada and around the world are included as part of the deal and will be confirmed over the next few weeks." (our emphasis)

Even Brian 'Nobby' Noble chipped in:

“We have invested significantly in our broadcast for the last two seasons, culminating in our 2018 postseason games reaching 140 million homes in 19 countries worldwide..."

"Toronto Wolfpack’s growing army of fans in Canada, the UK and across the world will be able to enjoy every minute of action from an exciting new-look 14 team Betfred Championship in 2019. The Pack’s diverse range of sponsors and partners will also benefit from an amplified reach and opportunity to access new markets while opposing teams in the Betfred Championship will gain exposure from a minimum of two televised games against the Wolfpack." (our emphasis)

As always, the promise of 'exposure' was the sweetener for other clubs and the RFL - 'a minimum of two televised games against the Wolfpack' was THE DEAL.

That Was Then: This is Now
Fast forward to this week and the news is that Toronto Wolfpack's 2019 TV production partners Telegenic and In Touch productions have been stood down.

At short notice the Wolfpack announced that last week's game against York - and their upcoming game against Leigh next month - wouldn't be televised, as part of a cost-cutting measure

Having already announced that games against Halifax, Rochdale and Barrow wouldn’t be televised due to clashes with Sky’s coverage of Catalans -  that's more than a third of Championship clubs denied the valuable global TV exposure that Toronto trumpeted as part of their agreement with the RFL and Championship clubs.

Needless to say, the Wolfpack propaganda machine has been desperately trying to spin this as a minor consideration. In a statement this week the club said:

"The Wolfpack have invested a significant amount of money in covering all costs for the production to date in 2019. This decision has been made to reduce costs in the lead up to our much anticipated Betfred Championship playoff campaign."

"With all regular season games outside of Toronto now complete, fans in Canada have been able to watch 15 of the 17 games taking place outside Canada this season live on both Game TV and CBC Sports (online). In all 20 out of 23 games have been available live on Sky Sports in the UK, as well as being delivered into 150 million homes worldwide thanks to the Wolfpack’s valued global broadcast partnerships. This commitment signifies that the Wolfpack are the most viewed team in UK Rugby League this year."

Just not in Rochdale, Halifax, Barrow, York or Leigh.

Diminishing Returns
Toronto Wolfpack's business managers love to talk about the value of their commercial opportunities. Great, so let's talk about this in commercial, economic terms.

'Exposure' was sold to Championship clubs as having tangible value-added: the 'Return' on other clubs'/players' 'investment' in time, cost, hassle, administration and goodwill of accommodating the Toronto circus at home, and in managing the logistics of taking 23 people across the Atlantic. That was THE DEAL. Clubs pay all that in. The value of 'a minimum of two games' exposure was what clubs were promised back in return.

But now, we see an increasing list of clubs being denied a second game's worth of exposure: York, Hornets, Leigh, Halifax and Barrow's promised ROI effectively halved. But if 'exposure' was our compensation for Toronto's involvement -  and that's been removed - what takes its place?

Given the amorphous nature of 'exposure', it's a hard concept to quantify - even media companies have struggled to attribute value to the number of eyeballs on a brand at any given time: but we're going to try.

The Bottom Line
For many years, the media industries have used 'advertising equivalency value' (AEV) as a way of attaching monetary value to media coverage. It's a bit of a blunt instrument as it doesn't take into account the value of other forms of engagement, but as we're talking about TV exposure it's a reasonable enough proxy for us.

It works like this: you count the seconds in broadcast exposure, that your brand receives and multiply that figure by the medium’s advertising rate, generally charged per second. The resulting number is what it would have cost at market rates to place an advertisement of a corresponding duration.

So an 80 minute game of Rugby League, plus ten minutes of pre-game coverage, ten minutes of half-time coverage and ten minutes of post match analysis would yield 120 minutes of coverage for your brand.

According to advertising industry publication The Drum, the average estimated cost of a 30-second slot on Sky Sports during peak time can fall anywhere between £60 to £750. If you take the median of £450 and halve that to take into account the sport and broadcast channel (e.g. Sky Arena), you have a rough estimate of £450/minute's AEV for exposure on Sky. Over 120 minutes, that's a baseline £60,000 worth of TV exposure alone that five clubs won't receive that nine others did.

And if clubs had used national TV exposure to extract monetary value from the opportunity (shirt sponsorships/supporter events), there could realistically be another five or ten thousand on top of that.

Court in the Act
Finally, in a week when we've sought to put a monetary value on TV exposure, news broke that the Wolfpack's former TV broadcast partner has also seen the Wolfpack impact on its bottom line.

It has emerged via The Canadian Press news agency that the Wolfpack have been hit with a writ from TV production company iLink Media Group, who managed the broadcast of games for Toronto in 2018. Filed in their home state of Alberta, iLink's claim is that the Wolfpack "defaulted on payment for a significant portion of last year's season to the tune of just over $300,000." That's about £190,000.

Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle is quoted as saying the he is "... confident the dispute can be resolved."

Sources: 'Toronto Wolfpack Confirm 2019 Broadcast Arrangement' - 22 January 2019
The Globe and Mail: 'Toronto Wolfpack cuts broadcast of two regular-season games to reduce costs' - 8 August 2019
The Canadian Press: 'Citing costs, the Toronto Wolfpack cuts broadcast of 2 regular-season games' - 7 August 2019
The Drum: 'How much does it cost to advertise on UK TV? Here's what Channel 4, ITV and more charge for slots' - 22 February 2017

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Half Measures

Hornets 18 - Leigh 50

If games lasted 40 minutes, Hornets would be looking forward to another season in the Championship next year. But they don't. And we're not.

In a Jekyll and Hyde performance of contrasting character, Hornets delivered one of their most durable, intense and hard-working halves of the season. That it came on the back of a frighteningly bad first 40 minutes makes it even harder to swallow.

Shipping seven increasingly soft tries in a whirlwind first 30 minutes, Hornets made Leigh look like the Harlem Globetrotters as the Centurions either broke from distance up the guts of a flimsy defence, or handed their three-quarters walk-ins out on the edges.

Reynolds opened the scoring backing up Paterson after just three minutes, followed a similar period later by Higson with ample space to score out wide. A carbon-copy double from Cator and Brierley stretched the lead and, at 28-0, Leigh were running at almost two points a minute.

It got worse up Hornets' flaky right edge when Sa'u handed Marsh a walk-in, and you know things are really bad when Toby Adamson gets on the scoresheet.

With the half-hour ticking round, Thompson showed good pace for his try. Ridyard's conversion brought up the 40. It was hard to watch.

The only respite in the first 30 minutes came when Shaun Ainscough and Mickey Higham were sin-binned for a frank exchange of views that ended in a fraternal hug.

Hornets eventually managed a brief period of concerted, error-free football in Leigh's half, Dan Abram capitalising to step through a retreating Centurions defence to score. He added the extras too to send a shellshocked Hornets to the sheds at 6-40.

Hornets began the second half with noticeably more purpose. A couple of solid defensive sets became 10 minutes of stern resistance, became 20 minutes run which they frustrated Leigh and slowly crawled back into the contest.

Indeed, it was past the hour mark before Leigh found a way through - Ridyard hitting Adamson up Hornets' right centre channel for his second. The Centurions brought up the now customary half-century on 69 minutes - a peach of a delayed pass from Reynolds finding Paterson who showed a good turn of pace for a big man to romp home from 30 metres.

Unlike the first half, Hornets had a response: Aidy Gleeeson piling in for his maiden try from close range on 75 minutes. Dan Abram the extras.

Then, at the death, what is likely to be Hornets' try of the season: A Sa'u error, Shaun Ainscough stepping into space on his own 30 metre line and outpacing/out-stepping the chasing Leigh defence to score a screamer that had the Hornets' fans on their feet. Dan Abram hit the two: Hornets winning the second half 12-10. A rare positive.

In the wash-up, Leigh's lightning start did all the damage: too big, too fast, too strong and too smart. In Brierley, Ridyard and Reynolds they have three quick-thinking playmakers and, with all three firing, they effectively won the game with a half to spare.

Some shoots of optimism, though for Hornets. And with Toronto to come at the weekend (they battered second-placed York by 56 to 6 on Sunday), the fans making the trip will need every drop of positivity they can get their hands on.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Sunday's Coming: Leigh

PET PROJECT: John Duffy Welcomes Junior Sa'u to Leigh
Next up at Spotland are Leigh Centurions. Having crashed and burned last season, Leigh look to be on a proper mission to make the top five and give it a real dig in the promotion playoffs. But it's tight at the top. Chasing runaway leaders Toronto, only three points separate second from fifth, with Sheffield hovering four-points away in sixth waiting for someone to slip-up.

And that very nearly happened last week.

Leigh came back from 24-10 down at the LSV to beat Swinton by a point, secured via a 79th minute Ryan Brierley’s drop-goal that gave them a seven-point lead ahead of a Swinton try on the hooter.

Leigh coach John Duffy said his side's flaky performance was a matter of attitude:  "We didn’t turn up with the right attitude," he said after the game.

“We shouldn’t need Ryan’s drop-goal..." he said on the Centurions website earlier this week: "... you can’t turn up with that attitude and I’ve just told the players that. It’s not acceptable at this club. I don’t know why they did that at this stage of the season so there were some harsh words said at half-time and again after the game."

“They are going to have a real tough week this week. I’m going to go hard on them. We go to Rochdale next week who are desperate for points so we move on.”

Leigh rock up on Sunday sitting fourth in the Championship, needing points themselves to maintain their playoffs push. With the distant scent of Super League's promised-land in their nostrils, so desperate are they for points that Duffy has been on something of a signing spree in the last few weeks, adding:

- Former Leyther Jordan Thompson from Hull FC
- Wigan centre Liam Forsyth
- Former Leigh and ex-Newcastle Knights, North Queensland Cowboys, Wests Tigers, Hull Kingston Rovers, Salford and Toronto back rower Corey Paterson
- Ryan Brierley back on loan from Toronto Wolfpack until the end of the season
- Junior Sa’u from Salford Red Devils until the end of the 2020 (complete with hamster)
- Castleford Tigers prop forward Mitch Clark, until the end of the season
- Wing Adam Higson back from Toronto, signed until the end of 2020
- Five-eighth Ben Reynolds from Wakefield (also previously at Leigh)

Clearly someone at the LSV has struck lucky on a scratchcard - so you can see why Leigh nerves were a little shredded last weekend.

Hornets come into the game on the back of the now customary weekly 50-point flogging - this time at the hands of a Batley side that struggled to break into a jog.

Having put in a decent shift in the first 40, Hornets produced another second half batting collapse that blew out the scoreline. It's been a recurring pattern - as soon as the opposition gain a lead, everything heads south at a rate of knots.

This is the point where we usually offer some rousing motivational message, so...

The good news is that we are just 320 minutes from the end of the season. That's just 5 hours and 20 minutes more to endure. We've come this far, people - let's dig in for the rest.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Bye-Bye-ee Five-O

Hornets 26 - Batley 50

Poor James Barran. Through no fault of his own, the tyro Wigan halfback made his debut for Hornets to become the fiftieth player to have pulled on the shirt this season. And in celebration, Hornets shipped yet another half century of points to fade out of the Championship with barely a whimper.

And the pattern was eerily familiar: a strong, controlled first half followed by a soft, shambolic second half in which Batley scored 32 points.

There was hope amongst the long-suffering Hornets faithful that this game just might yield the last opportunity for a win this season, but - again - they had to stoically swallow what little faith they have remaining and make do with applauding a 'brave effort'. But at this level, it has to me more the just 'the taking part' that matters.

Having conceded the first penalty of the game, Hornets got settled and played some nicely constructed football: sets completed, kicks to corners - if you squinted a bit, it was just like the old days of three years ago.

On 6 minutes, Batley were split by a big Zac Baker break, the visitors only response, a last tackle penalty. Hornets went wide with a big cut-out pass where Batley's Pound Shop Vin Diesel™ Reittie managed to tip the ball dead.

Hornets continued to press and, on 10 minutes, shuttled wide on the right where Kyle Shelford proved too strong for Galbraith to score. Dan Abram hit the upright with the kick.

The score seemed to jab Batley into life. On a rare foray into Hornets territory, Jouffret took advantage of James Barran's enthusiasm to get off the line to step through and score from 10 metres. Jouffret the extras for 4-6.

Hornets' response was immediate: pressure built in the Batley half, Izaac Farrell the teasing kick and, this time, Daley Williams too quick and too strong for Galbraith to gather and score. Hornets edged ahead 8-6.

On the quarter mark, Batley were gifted good field position after a shoddy carry by Zac Baker and had a brief spell of pressure. But just when it looked like the Bulldogs were completely out of ideas, the Hornets defence switched off on the last tackle to let Reittie score a trade-mark pile-in try. Jouffret stroked home the kick for 8-12.

Hornets, again, hit back. This time a jinking break from Dan Abram set-up Lewis Sheridan who planted the ball under the black dot with virtually his first touch of the ball. Abram slammed home the extras to put Hornets back in front.

But the joy was short lived.

Within two minutes Batley were camped on the Hornets line, where Yates hit a fast-approaching Brearley with a flat ball for the most rudimentary of tries. Jouffret on target to edge Batley ahead.

Hornets were then snagged offside at the kick-off. Just awful. Thankfully some good scrambling defence took Hornets to the break just four points adrift.

Any optimism of a good outcome evaporated within five minutes of the restart. Hornets coughed a cheap penalty within 90 seconds, Batley scoring two tries in just two minutes: firstly Broadbent in at the flag of a cut-out pass not so much telegraphed as sent by pigeon. Then Broadben turning provider - nice break, topped off by a neat inside ball to Jouffret for his second. Hornets now chasing down a 14 point deficit with 35 minutes remaining.

Having regathered the kick-off, Hornets did get the ball over the Batley goal-line, where a pack of Bulldogs showed smart-thinking to keep Ben Kilner on his feet and simply walk him over the dead-ball line to get a 20m restart.

For a spell, Hornets looked to have steadied the ship. Good defensive shape held Batley at bay and  James Barran even unfurled a pinpoint kick behind a flat-footed Batley defence for Isaac Farrel to touch down and temporarily reignite hope.

It was extinguished immediately: the usually redoubtable Lee Mitchell with an uncharacteristic fumble from the kick-off possession; Batley working a quick shift right straight from the scrum for Broadbent to score. You had to watch it through your fingers.  Wood the extras for 20-34.

Now with the momentum, Batley produced another three-minute two-punch combination. The first came from a frankly awful decision by referee Mr Mannifield. Batley knocked on coming out of yardage, the gathering Hornets player hauled into the in-goal. Batley given the scrum. As bad a decision as we've seen this season.

Batley didn't care though, working the ball wide for Reittie's second. Wood on target with the kick.

The second came courtesy of some slack, sloppy defence: Hornets napping one step left of the ruck where 'The Hardest Working Man In Rugby League™' James Brown got on up to walk the ball over untouched. Too, too easy...

On 70 minutes, Dan Abram did grab a deserved try and adding the extras but it felt like cold consolation.

At the death, Batley brought up the big Five-O as Reittie strolled in for his hat-trick after Hornets had knocked on. Hornets' lousy season in microcosm right there, folks.

And that's that. Hornets wave a limp bye-bye to the Championship with four games to go having conceded over a thousand points.

With Leigh, Toronto, Halifax and Bradford to come, the prospect of an average points against of 50 is now a real possibility.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Sunday's Coming: Batley

And so it comes to pass. The last fumes of all the expectation burned since February are set to evaporate this weekend.

With Leigh, Toronto, Halifax and Bradford over the horizon, all the talk this week is that the uncatchable Batley Bulldogs present the last realistic opportunity of getting another win this season.

Fantasists, quantum mathematicians and the terminally delusional may cling to the twisted algebra that suggests that Widnes' 12 points his still achievable, but if the Vikings get a win at Sheffield on Friday evening, Hornets are down before a ball has been dropped on Sunday.

This week has had us looking back to the last time Hornets finished bottom of the table with a solitary win. It was the 1990/91 season in the top flight (then called 'The Championship'), when a 19-12 home win over Bradford Northern was the only highlight of a season that started with succession of narrow defeats and ended in a series of merciless thrashings (Hornets conceded 70 in consecutive weeks at home to Wigan and Castleford).

The metaphor for the season was set in the very first game at Wakefield: Hornets took an early lead through a Mark Viller try, then shipped 40 unanswered points. It was a brutal reality check.

In this season's 27 games, Hornets are on track to concede more points and rack-up a bigger points difference than the 1990/91 side - but there is STILL the opportunity to go one win better.

Batley come into Sunday's game having been dumped out of the Derek Beaumont Empty Wembley Cup™ in last week's semi-final at Sheffield. Batley were kept tryless in an 18-2 defeat. Batley's only points coming from a first half Jouffret penalty at 6-nil.

Matt Diskin blames the defeat, not on poor systems, but on the fact that his side are thick!

Speaking in the Yorkshire Post, he said:

“If it’s structures and systems, as a coach you can control that. You can have all the core skill in the world but, if the players drop the ball or throw a loose pass, I can’t control what’s going on between their ears.

“I am not a psychologist, unfortunately and, to be fair, that’s probably what this group needs. It is an individual thing, what is going on between the ears and, at the moment, we are pretty weak in that area.

“I can never fault their effort, but they aren’t the smartest group – they lack game intelligence and concentration.”

Motivating stuff.

Looking ahead Diskin said: “We have got some very important fixtures coming up, the next two weeks are massive for us. If we get two wins there I think we’ll secure our future, but if we show the lack of respect we are doing at the moment for the ball it will be a tough couple of weeks for us."

Dewsbury's win at Spotland last week has left Batley looking over their shoulder - having nudged the Bulldogs into 11th place, just four points clear of the relegation zone with five games to play. So a Hornets win on Sunday (and a Vikings win at Sheffield) would leave Diskin's side staring at the trapdoor from 12th.

Hornets come into Sunday's game after a disappointing second half collapse against a pretty ordinary Dewsbury Rams. Having looked good value for their half time lead, Hornets conceded three tries in nine minutes - enough to hand the game to Dewsbury and push Hornets to the brink of Relegation.

As songwriter Simon Aldred said, you can hear "... the unforgiving sound of cold mathematics making its move on me now".

After two years punching above our weight in the Championship, this looks like the week when the weight of the numbers becomes too much to bear.

Would a last hurrah win take the edge off? It'd be nice to find out. See you Sunday.