Monday, 6 July 2015

Plastic Fantastic!

Newcastle 28 - Hornets 32

More than an all-important top five contest, this game was also a clash of ideologies. Newcastle Thunder, the toy-de-jour of a multi-millionaire rugby *nion club owner; Hornets, fan-owned, prudently run within its modest means.

What was to unfold over a captivating 80 minutes on Kingston Park’s plastic pitch was the manifestation of the concept that money can’t buy you team spirit. Yes, Newcastle are a big, talented, hard-to-beat unit - but in the end you need more than a busload of imported reputations to pull you through. Sometimes you just need to refuse to lose.

Hornets opened like lightning - two quick-fire tries silencing the home crowd.

The first a lucid, sweeping passing  move that took Hornets fully 70 metres and left Thunder chasing shadows - Dale Bloomfield skinning his opposite number on the edge to slip an inside ball for Wayne English to score. The second came after Newcastle shipped a penalty for holding down; Danny Bridge piling through some ordinary tackling from close range. Crooky with two conversions and Hornets 12-nil up after just 10 minutes. Hornets continued to exert their dominance.

A rock-solid exit set surmounted by a great kick/chase; Thunder’s big-name signing Mark Mexico planted on his arse by Jordan Case; then another high quality approach set ended by Danny Yates’ teasing kick, gutsy chase and copy-book tackle.

The pressure on Newcastle was eased by a penalty for an innocuous ‘high’ tackle, but Thunder spent four tackles going nowhere before dropping the ball. Clearly rattled.

On 17 minutes, a rare Hornets lapse. A poor set handed the home side the ball on half-way. Newcastle’s recrimination was swift: quick hands wide for Capper to step inside and score. Beherrall the two; tannoy guy pleading for more vocal support to drown out the noisy Hornets contingent. 6-12

And when Newcastle moved the ball wide after 25 minutes for Brown to successfully exploit a hole , Beherrall was on target to pull Thunder level at 12-all. You sensed a momentum shift. Now Hornets rattled.

On the half hour attack was turned into frenetic, scrambling defence as a dropped ball was hacked to half-way, where Hornets coughed a penalty to take Thunder fully 80 metres. Then a dropped ball on the first tackle to gift Newcastle the ball. Frustrating.

With the half running on fumes, Hornets dug deep to snatch the advantage: Alex McClurg ghosting through from acting half to slip Matt Fozzard under the black dot. Danny Yates the two. Hornets with their noses ahead at the break by 12-18.

As Hornets fans queued for their half-time brew, news began to filter acros that John Cookson had been taken from the field with a broken arm. Painfully bad luck on Cooky who was looking the part on his recall to the side; a problem for Hornets, a substitute down for the remaining forty.

Hornets began the second half as they had the first: a 45th minute Alex McClurg break sending Matt Fozzard through a static defence; a teasing Yatesey kick forcing a drop-out. Within a minute, Ryan Smith produced an audacious show & go to score a great solo try. Danny Yates added the extras and Hornets, again, looking comfortable at 12-24. But this Thunder side just refuse to go away.

On 52 minutes, referee Mr Hewer missed a blatant Newcastle knock-on and, from the ensuing break Wayme English was compelled to concede a drop-out. Under pressure, the Hornets defence looked to have withstood the close range barrage when a Thunder player was held-up over the line on the fourth tackle. But a lofted kick across a stretched defence was enough for Blair to gather and score out wide. Beherrall the two: 18-24.

Hornets hit back with another sublime passing move. Having stretched the home defence to snapping point, ‘Pogo’ Paterson’s no-look pass to his wing sailed into touch. Having been handed a get out of jail card, Thunder pushed back downfield where a last tackle kick going nowhere was somehow deemed to have been played at by Wayne English, when clearly he hadn’t. In response Newcastle chucked the sink at the Hornets line, but great defence held firm.

Just past the hour, Thunder’s simons exploited a hole in centre field - jumping through from acting half to send Beharrell under the posts from 30 metres. His successful conversion locked the game up at 24-all with 18 to play. It was all down to who wanted it most.

Handed an eminently kickable penalty three minutes later for interference, Crooky elected to take the two, but pulled his kick agonisingly wide. Hornets fans tapped their pacemakers in anticipation.

On 71 minutes, a moment of pure magic. Wayne English’s electric kick-return saw him burst into open field; his pass found Lee Paterson who hit the afterburners to skin the fullback for a spectacular 70 metre try. Crooky the two: 24-30.

The last five minutes were heart-attack inducing stuff: Beherrall’s dramatic tumble after a tackle drawing a penalty from Mr Hewer; then another penalty in quick successsion: Newcastle pressing desperately.

In the last minute of the game Newcastle produced a freak rabbit from the hat try. Quick hands up ther narrow side saw Marsh blast fully 80 metres: Dale Bloomfield in pursuit, shepherding him towards the flag, but unable to prevent him getting the ball down. 28-30, Beherrall’s cool deserting him as he hauled the conversion across the posts.

There was just enough time left for Newcastle to launch one last desperate attack, but the ball was coughed as the passes became increasingly panicky. As the home side strove to push Hornets off the feed, Mr Hewer blew to repack the scrum. Beherrall spat the dummy and Mr Hewer penalised him for dissent. Crooky slotted the penalty over to seal the game as the hooter sounded. Cue much jumping around.

From start to finish this was a great advert for League 1 football - but mostly it was a great advert for guts, determination and effort as Hornets overcame a big, marauding pack to win where they had the advantage: pace where and when it mattered. Fantastic stuff indeed.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - Newcastle Thunderfalcons

Newcastle Falcons' new pitch arrives just in
time for the new season
Rugby League life’s not been easy for the long-suffering Thunder army. Launched in 1999 as Gateshead Thunder, the club had one season in the Super League before being packed off lock, stock and Newcy Brown barrel to Humberside to wear irregularly hooped shirts and convince the black and white half of Hull that they were actually Hull FC.

Gateshead Thunder were reported to have lost £700,000 during their one year in Super League. They took a £1.25 million incentive from Super League Europe to go to Hull.

A new Gateshead Thunder sprang back up in their place to play in the Northern Ford Premiership in 2001. The new board said they’d be back in Super League within five years. They finished third bottom under coach Andy Kelly, beating only Hunslet, York  and amateurs Wigan St. Judes in the Cup.

Ambitions for the 2002 season fell apart  after only two months. Having gained only one point (a 12–all draw against Fev), the club hit the buffers. Amid spiralling debts, Thunder went into administration: coach Andy Kelly and the club's 15 Yorkshire-based players, were released from their contracts. Club sponsor Mike Jeffels’ Kicks Leisure company took over the club, former Bramley coach Paul Fletcher was brought in to assemble a side from local community clubs. They lost every game to finish bottom of the table.

In 2003, Thunder went from the cor-blimey to the ridiculous. Eight Australians were added to the squad, along with Bill Ryan as a coaching adviser. After just eight games of the season, Kicks Leisure pulled the plug, chairman Steve Worsnop left the club and new coach Rob Jones refused to work with the first team following a dispute with the remaining contracted players. Thunder had debts reportedly in excess of £50,000. A supporters committee took over the running of the club and got it back on the rails - just - to complete the season.

2004 to 2007 saw some stability underwritten by Essex-based financier Neil MacPherson, who reastored the club’s limited company, status. The club rewarded coach Dean Thomas for steering the club into the playoffs two years running by replacing him with Aussie Dave Woods.

In 2008 Gateshead were promoted to National League One as champions, but almost immediately the madness began again. Dave Woods sacked under strange circumstances, Chris Hood put in charge, replaced by Steve McCormack who grabbed enough wins to avoid the drop - only for  new owner Steve Garside to wind-up the parent company Gateshead and Newcastle Rugby Ltd in October 2009. Having breached insolvency regulations Thunder were dumped back into Championship 1.

Rugby League’s least edifying soap-opera continued. A new parent company founded by  previous chairman Rod Findlay, Assistant Head Coach Chris Hood and Business Development Manager Keith Christie took the club steadily down the league, Hood quitting as coach at the end of the 2010 season, replaced by Richard Pell and - five months later - by long suffering Thunder veteran Kevin Neighbour.

After two years of struggle, Thunder again turned to Humberside for help: this time to partner club Hull KR who supplied Stanley Gene as coach along with an intake of decent junior talent. But no sooner had Stanley got his boots under is desk when the final ignominy was heaped on the shoulders of the Thunder faithful. Reward for 15 years of flying the RL flag in the North East came in the shape of being sold to Newcastle Falcons Rugby *nion club and shipped across the river to play on Kingston Park’s plastic pitch. The last straw for the Thunder Army?

Two fairly damning quotes from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s coverage of the Falcons’ takeover caught our eye. “Rebranded as ‘Newcastle Thunder’ having finally gone public on their intention to share the Falcons’ Kingston Park home, even die-hard Gateshead fans were virtually mute in their disapproval…” and: “… with Newcastle Falcons losing in excess of £3m in their last published accounts the true test comes if Thunder fail to climb the ladder, and simply become another vehicle for a rich man to lose money…”

In a chilling echo of promises past, Thunder MD Keith Christie still has big ambitions. He’s quoted as saying: “There is no doubt that Super League is the aim for us… I would love to say we would be there in three to five years, but there are 13 guys on the opposition team every week who will tell you otherwise”.

Indeed, whilst *nion club owner Semore Kurdi has chucked a bucket of cash at his new toy (Gene packing his side with NSW Cup/Intrust Cup/CRL/NRL Kumuls and journeymen antipodeans) Newcastle Thunderfalcons currently sit outside the five having scored the fewest points and conceded the most. Indeed, with only a +69 points difference, the stats suggest they tend to nick tight games (an average winning margin of 5 points). Last weekend, though, they lost a tight, low-scoring game 16-4 at Barrow - their only try coming in the last minute.

Certainly the loss of influential Kiwi half-back Jordan Meads who’s returning Australia due to a family issue - and most likely to play Intrust Cup there - will leave a big hole at the centre of things that might take some time to fill. Otherwise we think that the real trouble sits in the front row where ex-Cronulla Sharks prop Mark Mexico partners emerging Hull KR talent Sonny Esslemont with former NSW player of the season Dayne Craig slotting in at Hooker. Keep that front-row quiet and you’re in with a shot.

Elsewhere, with Swinton at Barrow and Oldham at York, it’s another weekend where a win of any shade sould have a huge impact - so let’s get up to Newcastle in numbers, make some noise and make a difference.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Hornets Sleepwalk to Victory in Slo-Mo Show

Hornets 32 - Hemel 14

There’s a scene in The Matrix where the action flicks into extreme slow-motion and we see Keanu Reeves dodge a bullet. This game was much the same - it started slowly and - as Hemel sucked every last drop of momentum out of the game - decelerated to the point where time itself seemed to stand still.

It was obvious early on that this was going to be a bit of a low-intensity contest as both sides tested the theory of stasis - engaged in a shadow-boxed opening quarter that reminded you of the ghost of a memory of a game you’ve half forgotten.

In the 14th minute, the inertia was temporarily broken as Danny Bridge spun out of a tackle to score from close range. Danny Yates unsuccessful with the extras: 4-nil. Then pretty much nothing to report until the 26th minute, when the return of John Cookson gained warm appreciative applause from the crowd. His introduction gave Hornets the go-forward they needed. Indeed, when Hemel’s Lloyd-Jones was sin-binned for attacking Cooky’s standing leg on 28 minutes, Hornets pressed hard: Jordan Case’s perfectly good try struck off for an unseen forward pass. No matter.

One minute later Danny Yates embarked on a mazy run, bamboozling static defenders to score. Yatesey wide with the conversion: 8-nil.

From the kick-off possession Hornets engineered a decent approach set: Ryan Smith’s teasing kick-through seeing Hornets regain possession as the gathering winger was shunted out of play.

Less than a minute later John Cookson arrived with real intent onto a short ball - punching in to score from close range to the biggest cheer of the afternoon. Yatesey with the two for 14-nil. Cookson a clear catalyst for a more determined, direct approach.

On 38 minutes, Hornets again pressed hard off the back of a solid approach set: Danny Yates again, showing and going all the way to the goal line for another well taken solo try. An easy two for 20-nil and Hornets looking to have shaken off the torpor.

But with the timekeeper clearing the hooter’s throat, Hemel’s most rotund lump Mbaraga was allowed to trundle through a huge hole to score a soft try. The sound of one hand clapping as the teams departed at the break at 20-4.

Hornets tried manfully to start the second half with more pace and purpose, but were gradually sucked into Hemel’s black-hole of anti-football. An early Danny Yates kick forced a drop-out; Hemel glacially slow to recommence play, then a frankly shocking pass from poor Ryan Smith let the Stags off the hook. Off the back of a mess of Hemel penalties, Hornets got Alex McClurg was ‘held-up’ over the line at the end of a headlessy aimless set. Then Warren Thompson adjudged similarly, despite being face-down on top of the ball in the in-goal. On 54 minutes Jordan Case finally got the ball down to Referee Mr Ansell’s satisfaction off a flat ball. Yatesey the two; 26-4.

Just past the hour mark - with the last dregs of energy draining from the game - Hornets were distracted enough for Brown to collect the ball wide on the right to score. 26-8. The home fans exhaled and gazed longingly at their watches.

With all motion now at a virtual standstill, the game became scrappy: two sides clearly out of ideas. The closest thing to action being Hemel’s Coleman taking a dive after a kick-through to con a penalty out of Mr Ansell. To add insult to apathy, that man Mbaraga came barelling through a retreating defence like a bin wagon negotiating a tricky corner to score a shocking slow-motion try. Young converted. Somehow it was 26-14.

Hornets did suck in for a big finish. The reintroduction of John Cookson for the last ten minutes again put Hemel on the back-foot. and, when Danny Bridge hit a flat ball at pace on 77 minutes to score (Yatesey with the extras), the result was given a thin veneer of respectability at 32-14.

We wrote in our preview of the sense in dragging part-time players the length of the country to act as cannon-fodder for the established teams. In credit to Hemel, they did a decent job on sucking the life out of every minute of this game - but it was one that they never really looked like winning. As for Hornets, it was a stodgy, disjoined performance in which Danny Yates, Wayne English and the returning John Cookson provided hints of what this side is really capable of.

Indeed, much as Hemel never looked like winning, Hornets were never in real danger of losing this one - and, once that jeopardy is removed it’s hard for either party to assume otherwise. And that, we think, was part of the issue - two teams required to play out pre-ordained roles. In our search for positives, it was a winning return to a lush Spotland after our annual hiatus - and a try-scoring return for John Cookson, which was good to see.

But, ultimately, you have to think of it like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. It may have been in slow-motion, but at least we dodged the bullet.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Saturday's Coming - Hemel Stags

People forget that Hemel have been around a while.

The original Hemel Hempstead Amateur Rugby League Football Club played their first match on 5 April 1981 and spent the next 15 years ploughing through the southern/London leagues before embarking on a stint in the Rugby League Alliance (A-team) competition in 1997. When the Alliance league was scrapped, the newly-named Hemel Stags became a stalwart of the RFL Summer Conference.

They celebrated their last season as a community club by beating Underbank Rangers 17-10 in the National Conference League Division 3 Grand Final at Featherstone in 29 September 2012.

In their two seasons in the semi-pro ranks, Hemel have finished both times in the playoffs. But the restructure of the league - and the injection of 8 good quality ‘heartland’ sides - have effectively created a two-tier competition in which Hemel have struggled to gain any real traction this year, with only three wins from eleven games, shipping an average of 42 points per game in the process. Last weekend saw them ship 70 points for he second time this year - blitzed by 70 to 10 at Pennine Way by York.

Indeed, the split in tier three has been the subject of much conjecture the last week or two as to whether it’s good for developing sides to get pasted by established clubs in this lop-sided division.

Our view is that, unless the RFL would consider North & South ‘conferences’ to ensure more even games and minimise the onerous travelling requirements (we’re still not convinced that dragging part-time players the length of the country to play in a non-contest in front of 180 people makes for a credible competition), throwing teams in at the deep end will ineveitably raise standards as the ‘new intake’ edge their way closer to their Northern counterparts.

And as that improvement continues, it’s only a matter of time before one of the top eight takes one of the ‘Southern six’ a bit too lightly and becomes Goliath in a giant-killing. And Hornets have to be sure that  - this week - it isn’t them.

Indeed, as the top eight tightens up to the point that every last drop of air twixt teams gets squeezed out, even the most perfunctory victory could catapult you up or down three or four places. And in this high-pressure, airless, compressed league-within-a-league, the points difference accrued against the bottom six has become the new bonus-point - which could prove critical at the sharp end of the season.

Having burned a huge chunk of their points advantage in the defeats against York and Keighley, Hornets have been sucked back into the scramble: York going the other way having banked a +60 last week to hike them up to fourth.

This weekend six of the top eight play each other (Crusaders play Keighley , York play Swinton and Barrow play Newcastle), so there’s plenty of opportunity for movement - as long as Hornets are ruthless enough to wring as many points as possible from their return to a lush, green Spotland.

Ultimately, the weeks of playing away always take their toll - and this shorter-than-usual hiatus has been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved. Indeed, it’ll be good to be home - and  with half a season down it’s time to suck in for the big push to September.