Saturday, 17 March 2018

Hornets Take Cold Comfort from Cup Win

Normanton Knights 8 - Hornets 20

It’s hard to win in games like these: in every sense. The underdog chucks the kitchen sink at you and will always come out of the contest with all the credit. In arctic conditions that numbed the senses, this was a game that singularly failed to spark  - and which froze to a near standstill as the weather (like the game) deteriorated into a swirling, icy mess.

It’s also a cup challenge to bear the relentless barracking of the community side’s fans - and, boy, do the Normanton crowd really love a moan and a swear. Every pass is forward, every tackle is high, every player is offside. And god forbid that you go down with an injury - you’ll just be called a ‘soft c*nt’ by the local crew of man-children who think that touch-judges are called ‘linos’ and that they can ‘flag’ for offside.

Hornets started with a bang as Rob Massam broke the defence direct from a scrum and sprinted 60 metres to score up the guts of the Knights. Lewis Palfrey knocked over the extras and Hornets’ 2018 Cup was up and running.

After just 6 minutes, though Gary Middlehurst was slow getting out of a tackle, removed from the fray with what looked like an eye injury. Fijian triallist Seta Tala was introduced for his Hornets debut.

Normanton then offered 15 minutes of stern resistance before Hornets carved a neat break up the left edge: Rob Massam eating up the metres before dropping off a tidy inside ball to send Danny Yates scampering home from 40 metres.

From the kick-off, Jo Taira’s fumble was compounded by a penalty for a Hornets hand in the ruck to give Normanton their first decent attacking platform, but a knock-on on the 2nd tackle enabled Hornets to stride downfield, where Dec Kay came chiming into the line as the extra man to score off a well executed last-tackle play. Lewis Palfrey the two and Hornets looking comfortable at 16-nil.

Around the quarter mark, the game entered a scrappy period, Hornets forcing passes, coughing up easy possession, helping Normanton build some pressure. And, when Hornets shipped a last-tackle penalty on the half hour, the home side went close: held-up on the 4th tackle. Needless to say, when Knights full-back Connor Wilson popped up in the right place at the right time to score on the half hour, the home fans were more than happy.

Hornets’ response was swift. A direct approach set took play close to the Normanton line; Dec Kay drawing defenders to the right edge. Hornets whipped the ball left, where Rob Massam raced through to score by the flag to put Hornets in control at 4-20.

But all the hard work was almost undone. Awarded a penalty as the hooter sounded for the break, Lewis Palfrey’s kick for touch went seriously awry; Hornets compelled to scramble and back-pedal to prevent what looked like a certain score. A poor end to a decent half.

In contrast, the second half was an ice-cold non-event.  Interspersed with horrendous snow flurries, in plummeting temperatures both sides struggled to make any meaningful progress, And as the game disappeared into the descending blizzard, Hornets error count began to mount. In a forgettable three minutes Lewis Palfrey produced a shocker of a last tackle kick, failed to make touch with a penalty for the second time and coughed up a penalty for obstruction.

With razor-sharp horizontal snow now slicing across Post Office Road Jo Taira gave up a soft penalty in possession, Lewis Palfrey hoofed a last tackle kick directly into touch and Normanton full-back Wilson followed a 70th minute kick into the in-goal for the only score of a wretched second half.

Being positive, this was a banana-skin avoided. Yes it was a poor game played in awful conditions, but the truth is that Normanton never looked like winning it and Hornets never looked like losing it. And as the fans headed home to defrost their extremities, Normanton took the plaudits for a game effort - but it’s Hornets in the hat for the Round Five draw.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Saturday's Coming: Normanton (via Featherstone)

As you whistle down the A655 from J31 of the M62 en-route to Belle Vue, Wakefield, you unwittingly drive past a town with a long Rugby League history. Over to your right - the other side of that field and round the double roundabout signposted for the Welbeck Landfill - is Normanton: home of Sunday’s visitors Normanton Knights.

The town of Normanton has a long Rugby history that predates the creation of the Northern Union,

The first rugby club in Normanton was established in 1879 and was based at the Midland Hotel.  In 1883, they became founder members of the Yorkshire rugby union’s intermediate competition - which was the third tier of Yorkshire football - alongside Hull KR and Keighley!

Following the split, Normanton joined the Northern Union in 1898 and played at semi-professional level until 1906, playing in the  Yorkshire Senior Competition Division 2 (East). It was during this period that Normanton produced a Challenge Cup shock - beating the mighty Leeds in Round One, before losing to Batley.

In 1905–06 the competition changed its format (la plus ca change) reverting to a single division of 31 clubs. Normanton struggled in 26th position and ended the season in such financial difficulty that the The Northern Union ‘kindly’ allowed  Normanton to forego their game at Millom to avoid the expense of travelling.

Ironically, Normanton folded at the season’s end - as did Millom, who finished one position below Normanton in 27th.

But the area was a hotbed of Northern Union football a new junior club, Hopetown Rovers, was formed in time for the new season, joining the Wakefield and Dewsbury District League, and playing on Normanton Common. The club we have today is a continuation of that - having become Normanton ARLFC and Normanton Knights in the early 1980s. They have played at their current home at Queen Elizabeth Drive Field since 1949 - and two of their highest profile professional alumni are David Topliss and Ben Westwood.

Since beating Leeds in 1900, Normanton have reached the third round of the challenge cup twice, Losing to Widnes in 2007 and Workington in 2014.

The new Challenge Cup format introduced in 2015 saw the Knights reach the fourth round of the competition for the first time in the club’s history, beating Myton Warriors, Shawcross  and Oulton Raiders: their cup progress - yet again, 115 years on - was halted by Batley.

Last year saw Normanton climb to their highest level in over a century when they defeated Milford Marlins in a nail-biting promotion final by 22-20, lifting the knights into the NCL Premier Division.

Fast Forward to this year’s Challenge Cup  and the Knights have defeated the Royal Navy (11-12 - in golden point extra time), Rochdale Mayfield (4-8)  and Batley Boys (18-nil) to reach this stage. Conceding just 15 points across three games indicates a game built on solid defence.

Speaking to this week, Knights coach Paul Seal sees Saturday’s game (which will be live-streamed on the BBC) as both a reward for his side’s cup exploits thus far and a test of their capabilities: “We wanted to play a Championship side, the top level you can play at this stage of the competition and we’ve managed to get that, so we’re really looking forward to it. We’re taking the game seriously and hoping to put up a good account of ourselves, not just turning up to make a day of it. We’re actually going there with a serious attitude to try and cause an upset.”

As the NCL Premier League has only completed one round, it’s a bit early to assess Normanton’s third-place position, gained by an 18-10 home win over the other Hornets from Wath Brow - but we did notice that one of their three tries scored came from ex-Hornet Stuart Biscomb and we know all about his hard-running, blockbusting style. The other two came from left centre/wing partnership Lee Hammond and Tom Alexander, so eyes-on up that edge.

Hornets come into the game having put 12-man Barrow back in their box. Regardless of the numerical advantage, Hornets played pretty much all of the football on offer to run in five aesthetically pleasing tries that left the visitors’ defence in tatters.

Needless to say, Barrow coach Paul Crarey has had the onion out this week, shedding a small tear for the cruel unfairness of Rugby League: “We were in total control until that point (the red card). We looked good and we looked structured. I think with all the players running in, the decision is harder for the referee. All of our lads said it wasn’t a red, but it was difficult for me to see up in the stand. But I think Jarrad just patted him on the stomach and it all erupted.”

We think the secondary contact of a player clearly in distress just compounded the severity of the incident. Made the referee’s job significantly easier, we think.

In the end, the result was the boost Hornets needed after what’s been a challenging start to the year.

In his post-Barrow summary, Alan Kilshaw noted that, whilst Hornets played some good stuff, the quality of defence was the cornerstone of a second half performance full of desire and passion; and he feels that there’s still plenty of room for further improvement.

Looking ahead to this weekend, Killer recognises that Normanton are going well and that it’s an unusual for Hornets to go anywhere and not be the underdog. And - especially after last season’s disappointment at York - you sense a determination not to be Monday morning’s front page story.

As with all games of this nature you’re damned if you win and damned if you don’t. Win by 50 and people say “Well, what do you expect?”; win by two scores and people say you’re crap; lose and you’re Goliath in a giant-killing.

In terms of progress for the club, a good cup run would do wonders for confidence - and for the bank balance. So let’s get over to Featherstone on Saturday at 2pm, get behind the lads and let's see where this year’s Challenge Cup takes us.