Monday, 13 January 2020

Down by Law

Hornets 18 - Oldham 12

The Law Cup is a not only a venerable institution, it sets a tone for the season. Last year, it went the way of the underdog as Hornets flapped, flailed and failed to fire. With roles reversed, Hornets' long-suffering loyalists hoped for something similar - and their redoubtable faith came good as their new-look side handed the noisy neighbours a lesson in hard graft and commitment.

On a rain-sodden afternoon, Hornets started brightly: a smart break from Sam Freeman ending in Oldham conceding a penalty: Andy Lea going close, only to fumble the ball.

10 minutes in Oldham forced a drop-out off a last tackle kick, but came up with a knock-on of their own.

As Oldham continued to misfire, Hornets gained confidence.

An attack on 14 minutes was halted after eyecatching half-back Adam Jackson was clattered in back-play. No action taken.

On 17 minutes, a big Shaun Ainsworth break up the guts of a stretched Oldham defence created space to the left, Lewis Sheridan outpacing the Roughyeds outside backs to open the scoring.

Oldham were visibly rattled; now full of errors, spewing penalties. On the half hour Shaun Ainscough took the narrow route to the goal-line and - with defenders descending - found a miracle offload for Sam Freeman to score out wide. Hornets good value for their 8-nil lead.

Three minutes later, Oldham found themselves again retreating to their goal-line. This time Callum Marriott found a delicious pass to slip Andy Lea in under the black dot. Sam Freeman with the extras and Hornets fans exultant as their side headed to the sheds 14-nil ahead.

The second half started with Oldham forcing a drop-out from a big charge-down ricochet. On 45 minutes a stepping 40 metre kick return from San Freeman ended in the now the traditional Law Cup Punch-Up™ - both teams dashing in, handbags swinging.

As Matt Calland began to rotate his extensive bench, Hornets' shuffled shape took time to settle. Oldham capitalised, scoring all of their points in a four minute spell: Hewitt off a big break (despite a despairing last-ditch tackle effort from Lewis Sheridan), then Dan Abram off a carbon-copy break by Langtree. Abram on target with both conversions and nerves jangling on the hour at 14-12.

Oldham applied some pressure: forcing a drop-out, then a dubious penalty for ball-stealing. It took some determined defence to deny Kay in the gloom of the far corner.

As the newly introduced personnel bedded in - and Sean Penkywicz returned to direct proceedings - Hornets regained control. On 65 minutes, Shaun Ainscough again drew defenders to him. A quick play the ball and some neat hands fed Luke Fowden into space to restore Hornets' six point advantage. Oldham's response was to fail to send the kick-off 10 metres.

Sensing the game slipping away, OIdham threw the kitchen sink at the Hornets defence in the last 10 minutes, bit couldn't crack the resolute red, white and blue wall. Even as the game entered its last minute, Oldham were gifted possession in the Hornets 20m zone, but ran out of ideas. Ultimately,  Matt Calland's blueprint for League 1 redemption proving too good for Oldham's blunt-instrument approach.

In the wash-up, Hornets looked well-organised, enthusiastic and they worked hard for every inch -  Sean Penkywicz and Shaun Ainscough the tormentors-in-chief giving Oldham the shits every time they got involved. Up front Luke Fowden had his best game in a Hornets shirt, ably supported by Callum Marriott and Andy Lea.

Matt Diskin came with what looked like his first 17 and they were found wanting in most departments. They start their Championship campaign at Widnes, but you get the feeling that Tim Sheens won't be losing much sleep. It could be a long slog to September for the Roughyeds.

For Hornets fans every victory over the old enemy is sweet, but this broke the hoodoo of the last few horrendous months. You could sense the relief. And you have to celebrate beating Oldham: that's the law.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Sunday's Coming: The Law Cup

While the Rugby League world rubs itself daft over Toronto's escalation to Super League, new opportunities in New York and has gone OTT over Ottawa, a rare thread of the game's Mitochondrial DNA will be hauled out into the floodlights this weekend as Hornets host Oldham in the Law Cup.

Rugby League was built on rivalries like this. Salford v Swinton, FC v Rovers, Featherstone v Castleford, Wigan v Saints - games that look ostensibly like any other, but which contain within their coding that twist of local pride that gives them more spice, more emotion - more importance.

And The Hornets/OIdham rivalry goes back almost as far as the history of rugby itself. Into Rugby League prehistory.

Founded in 1871, Rochdale Hornets was one of the earliest formally constituted clubs in the game - but Hornets had to wait a further five years before Oldham gave them a proper local rivalry.

Both clubs were among the 22 rebels to form the Northern Union in 1895, with the inaugural season for both seeing contrasting fortunes: Oldham finished a 42 game season in 4th place. Hornets ran stone-cold last. Ever the underdog...

Not content with league and cup derbies, the most hotly contested - and most resilient - pre-season derby in Rugby League was created in 1921: The AJ Law Cup.

First played to raise money for the Rochdale and Oldham Infirmaries, it was 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 everybody concerned, including the players of both Clubs, gave their services for free, contributing to a donation of £348 3s 7 ½d to each of the two hospitals. The first game ended in a gripping nil-nil draw.

With 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 the fostering of junior Rugby League games” and the trophy was renamed after its founder.

Thus far, there have been 68 fixtures - including one replay after the nil-nil draw (Oldham won the replay 12-8 in front of 7,000 people). Oldham have won the cup 46 times to Hornets' 20. The cup was jointly held by both clubs in 1954 and 1976 following draws.

Oldham's longest winning run is seven consecutive wins between August 1978 and August 1998. Hornets longest winning run is four games between January 2005 and January 2010. The highest attendance at a Law Cup game was 14,000 in 1926 (Oldham won 34-nil). The highest attendance in the 21st century was at Spotland in 2002: 2,141 fans watched Oldham edge it 22-28. Oldham are current holders having won 28 – 8 at the Vestacare in January last year.

As always, there's been plenty of player traffic both ways up the A627M and this year's Oldham squad features ex-Hornets Dec Kay, James Worthington, Danny Bridge, Jode Sheriffe and Dan Abram.

The Roughyeds opened their season last week, edging a Barrow side padded with seven amateur triallists 18-22. Described in the press as 'a victory for experience', Oldham were 16-nil up in the first quarter then basically racked the cue, their only other try from Bridge on 50 minutes.

At this end of Oldham Road, Matt Calland saw his 25-man squad put in a promising performance against Widnes. While it's hard to pick the bones out of a game with so many changes, there were clear indications of potential: Sam Freeman looks comfortable at fullback and a pack led by Sean Penkywicz showed some promising go-forward. And with Dale Bloomfield returning to the fold to join Shaun Ainscough, Hornets have some genuine strike options up the edges.

As always, despite its billing as a pre-season friendly, the Law Cup means much, much more. Yes, local bragging rights and the weight of real Rugby League history come as standard with this venerable fixture. And while it may not have the economic clout of Toronto or the glamour of New York, it does come with the one thing they'll never have: genuine meaning.

See you there

Monday, 6 January 2020

Positive Chemistry

Hornets 24 - Widnes 34

In contrast to the dreich conditions, Hornets hearts were warmed by a performance that hinted at better things to come for Hornets' long-suffering loyalists. Whilst it's hard to glean any sense of shape in a heavily rotated 25-man squad, there were flickers of real potential - not least in the fact that this 2020 model knows how to score points.

Hornets came up with four well-taken tries - interestingly, all from forwards - with new skipper Sean Penkywicz grabbing two proper poacher's tries from a total of three metres. Nice.

Indeed, Penky looked the part at the heart of the new-look Hornets, with a perpetual-motion performance that earned him the man-of-the-match award from the press benches. But it was far from a solo performance. He was ably supported by fellow forwards Andy Lea and Luke Fowden who took the side forward - and Sean Mulcahy who put himself about enthusiastically during his stint.

Widnes opened the scoring after just 7 minutes having forced an early drop-out: Cooper picking a line off a flat pass. But Hornets responded well.

A Sean Penkywicz break had the Widnes defence back-pedalling and Andy Lea capitalised to crash in under the black dot. Sam Freeman dinked over the extras to tie the scores after 15 minutes.

Parity lasted just two minutes: Widnes clinically punishing a rare first half error to send Buckley in by the flag.

Again Hornets' response was direct. The Lea/Penkywicz combination reversed this time: Penky ducking in from close range after Andy Lea had taken the ball to the goal-line. Sam Freeman with the two - and Hornets ahead just past the quarter mark.

The Vikings restored their lead on 25 minutes with a try from Dwyer and, as Hornets shuffled the backline to cover Ryan Bradbury's shoulder injury, they worked the ball right for Buckley to score a carbon copy try up the right edge. Edge added the two to send Widnes to the sheds 22-12 up.

As both coaches began to rotate their sizeable benches, the second half was a scrappier, more error-strewn affair. But Widnes settled the faster of the two sides: Wilde and Brookes with a quick-fire double to give the visitors an ominous 12-34 lead.

But as the game fragmented, Hornets took advantage. Just before the hour a teasing grubber bounced back off the foot of a post, where Sean Penkywicz was first to react and score (Matt Whitehead the two). In quick succession, another teasing kick was snaffled by Adam Hesketh to bring Hornets within 10 points.

Though the final quarter yielded no further points, it gave with coaches the opportunity to run the rule over more triallists - with the gathering gloom of a wet Pennine winter adding to the lack of fluidity.

In the end, a good blowout for Matt Calland's Hornets. Lots of effort on show from all involved - and some flickers of quality from what has the makings of a physical, mobile pack.

For us - result notwithstanding - as good an outcome as we could have expected (certainly, there looks to be a nascent gameplan - good last tackle options just one example) and this was reflected in the post-match positivity.

Next up is the Law Cup against an Oldham side that edged home in their pre-season opener at Barrow. We can't wait.