Monday, 21 August 2017

French Farce

Toulouse 50 - Hornets 12

The Manic Street Preachers wrote a song called  'All Surface and No Feeling' - and that's five words that perfectly describes the facade that is Toulouse Olympique. A very good footballing team, but a bunch of dead-eyed mercenaries given a shallow veneer of authenticity by the hollowed-out husk of what used to be a proper club.

And if TOXIIIC were always Rugby League's unfunniest joke, on Saturday night in Blagnac they surpassed even their own ability to plumb new depths of utter crapness.

You see, TOXIIIC like to f*ck teams about. Playing a challenger for a top four spot in the hottest month of the year? Force them to kick off at 3pm. Playing a side that's already beaten them once this year? Play them on a non-bank-holiday Monday with an 8pm kick off, which compels them to travel on game-day, arriving for their flight out at 5am.

If there's an inch of daylight in the operating laws, these buggers will prise it open if if gives them an advantage.

As it was, Hornets rocked up for an 8pm kick-off on a Saturday night and were caught cold. Two rapid fire tries from Australian Kheirallah gave the home side an early 12-nil lead and the Toulouse's 350 supporters (they claimed 1,200 on their website and 612 in the press) were frothing at the pants.

Hornets hit back on the quarter hour when a dink in the in-goal caused panic and Danny Yates was able to touch down. Palfrey hit the target to half the arrears.

Hornets began to apply some pressure, but two moments of Harlem-Globetrotters showboating from Minga and Margueritte hauled TO out to 22-6.  But Hornets stuck to the plan and, with the home-side visibly blowing, Yatesey's kick behind the defence was snaffled  by Gaz Middlehurst who touched down unopposed. Lewis Palfrey added the extras and Hornets had the momentum.

Indeed, Hornets ended the half the stronger and the small, but vociferous support thought all it needed was a few glitches fixing up at half time and an early score to put TO under pressure.

But wait...

With the clock approaching 9pm, it was announced that the floodlights had failed and that the referee wouldn't kick off the second half until they were fixed. Now - if it were us running a club that opted to play at 8pm, we'd have sent someone along in the afternoon to flick the switch and check that the lights were working. TOXIIIC hadn't done that.

In an ever deepening darkness, the crowd were first told that the deadline for the arrival of an electrician/potential abandonment was 9.15pm.

9.15 came and went, with no news. The players out on the field trying to keep warm and loose. Then an announcement that the deadline for a decision would be 9.30pm - which duly came and went. The Match commissioner made a few calls, the TO president wandered around shrugging...

9.30 came and went. The revised deadline for a decision was now 9.45, people now conjugating what happens if a game doesn't go past the break.

At 9.44 - with pretty much all of the game's momentum gone, energy/enthusiasm levels sapped and Lewis Palfrey and Josh Crowley struggling to overcome cramping muscles, the lights miraculously sprang to life.

With both sides compelled to warm-up from scratch and refocus, the game eventually stuttered to a restart at 10pm.

The first 20 minutes of the half were an arm-wrestle. Hornets laying siege to the French line, but unable to find a breakthrough. A lofted kick to Chris Riley the most likely option, but deemed knocked on my referee Mr Moore who, incidentally, had a shocker.

Toulouse played their get-out-of-jail card, releasing Minga on what looked like a certain try - only for Lewis Galbraith to track back and produce a try-saving tackle of the highest quality, forcing the TO wing into a double movement.

Then disaster. Lewis Palfrey failed to find touch with the penalty and Mika ambled onto a short-ball at close range. Kheirallah the extras for 28-12. Just gutting.

Then came the coup-de-grace courtesy of a frankly awful decision from Mr Moore. Having policed the ruck inconsistently all night, Minga (we think) broke in centre field, reeled in by Gaz Middlehurst. Clearly tackled with his ball-carrying arm hitting the floor, the TO player jumped to his feet to continue to play-on. In the process he became entangled with Middlehurst and fell to the ground. The home crowd bayed, Mr Moore reached for the Yellow card, Middlehurst dispatched - supposedly for throwing a punch. No, us neither.

Hornets reduced to 12, the home side went feral, playing off-structure to run in four tries in 10 minutes. Game dead, points gone, thanks for coming.

The game eventually slid to an end at 10.45 - just ridiculous.

Post match, Alan Kilshaw was incredulous, referring to the hour's delay as 'a farce'.  And it was. We couldn't think of any other team in the league who would be given an hour to sort out what is a basic staple of hosting evening games. We can only hope that there will be repercussions, but don't hold your breath.

In the wash-up, Toulouse remain a hard club to like. Arrogant in the extreme and repeatedly exposed as the flat-track bullies that they are. An embarrassing, plastic, soulless RFL vanity project.

But remember, having burned 1.8 million Euros to end up in the same 'eight' as Hornets, their season has been a catastrophic failure, whereas our challenge remains alive.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Samedi's Coming: Toulouse

And so, Hornets battered troops must once again gird up their aching loins and head for bloody Toulouse.

One imagines, this wasn’t a fixture TOXIIIC really thought they’d ever have to play. Having spunked their ‘get into SL’ budget up the wall in spectacular fashion, The French Ellite’s perennial chokers have once again missed the Championship boat and - instead of anticipating a season of SL glory in 2018 - face another year dragging their own particular brand of churlish football round the Championship. With a trip to Toronto chucked in for good measure. If it weren’t the fate awaiting all Championship clubs next year, you’d have to laugh at the sheer Karma of it.

But we shouldn’t be surprised; TOXIIIC have a proven track record of choking at this level. Having been denied a Super League licence in 2009, Toulouse joined the UK’s National League. Having clawed their way up to fourth at one point, they ended their first season 10th out of 11 clubs. In 2010, new SL qualification rules required any club pitching for a Super League franchise to have at least reached the grand final. Toulouse finished 8th.

In 2011, they got relegated and - rather than face the ignominy of playing in the bottom tier - they retreated to the French Elite to resume their role as a big poisson in a small bassin.

Having come into the Championship as League 1 runners-up, Toulouse peaked this season in second spot, before increasingly regular defeats saw them slip out of the top four behind part-time Halifax and Featherstone. Thus far, they have lost nine games, but sit top of the Championship Shield table.

In the spirit of making the best of a bad job, Toulouse hooker Charles Bouzinac said in the press last week (of the Championship Shield): “I think everyone is motivated and it’s still a trophy to go for. It’s always good for a club a team and its history to win titles.”  And as 2016 League 1 title winners, we should know…

Speaking to Toulouse FM back in January, Toulouse president Bernard Sarrazain revealed that their budget for the 2017 season was €1.8m which, he said, would “allow the club to prepare for the Super League”. “The goal on all levels,” he said then, “is the top four.”

Spent: Bernard Sarrazain in front of the truckload
of cash Toulouse have burned this season.
Having subsequently stormed to a fifth-place finish, Monsieur Sarrazain this week produced a small onion and - forcing a tear - opined to the Club’s website: “The consequences of not making the middle eight are first of all sporting. If we had been in the top four, we would have played the three other best Championship clubs and four Super League teams, a league that we wish to integrate into very soon…”  Very soon being at least a year away…

“We would have been able to measure up to these clubs and inevitably make significant progress by playing very high-level matches… two Super League teams would have to come to Blagnac, where we could have offered a great show to our supporters, and attracted new spectators…”  Instead of putting on crap games against the likes of us, Batley and Sheffield, eh, Bernard? C’est la vie…

“Finally,” he droned on, “the last consequence is of course financial – besides those games where we could have brought more people to Blagnac, the financial allowances allocated next season by the RFL, calculated according to the ranking this season, will obviously be less.” Clearly reserve-grade Aussies don’t come cheap.

So - having blown 2017 - did M. Sarrazain have any regrets from this challenging season? Seems so: “We regret the outcome of this first phase, but we still learn the lessons… of course we discussed this with the sports team and it was obvious to us that the still limited depth of our team was the main reason for our non-qualification. We are therefore already actively recruiting new players, of very high quality, for 2018.” Very high. The best. Ask anyone…

Just in case you haven’t had the opportunity to extrapolate the scale of how disappointed he’ll be next year when they choke again, Sarrazain was happy to set the bar: “… the main (objective) will of course be the top four at the end of the first phase. And, depending on how things are going, it could be that it turns into top two. We saw this season that the team was largely capable.”  

Of finishing fifth, yes.

As it is, Toulouse have begun their Championship Shield quest in relatively underwhelming fashion. An unconvincing round 1 win at Odsal was followed up by defeat at Dewsbury - with the Rams exploiting some frankly awful goal-line defence and a suspect looking middle to come home 36-34 winners.

We reckon TOXIIIC’s ordinary form can be attributed in part to the continuing absence of their Cook Islands international Jonathan Ford. The half-back has missed three months of the season having torn a pectoral muscle playing for his country way back in May - and he remains in doubt for Sunday’s clash.

Hornets too are feeling the injury pinch - announcing on Wednesday that they are likely to be stripped of six players for the trip to France. But occasional miracles do happen in Rugby League - and Blagnac has been known to deliver on that front so we travel, as always, with optimism.

Safe travels to the Hornets contingent making the trip - see you in Toulouse!

This weekend’s other games are:

Batley v Oldham
Sheffield v Dewsbury
Swinton v Bradford

Dewsbury need one win to guarantee their safety (With 10 points to play for, Oldham can only reach 21 and a win at Sheff-/Wake-field would give the Rams 22).  As previously, Hornets need to match or better Swinton’s results to maintain the status quo.