Monday, 24 August 2015

So close, yet...

Hornets 8 - Keighley 10

As the sky emptied a deluvian deluge onto Spotland, it was the visitors that managed to summon up that slim scintilla of advantage that enabled them to steal away with the points.

With so much at stake, this game was never likely to be a free-scoring points-fest, and so it proved: two sides locked in unrelenting struggle, with fluid football at an absolute premium and two defences on unforgiving form.

Hornets began with the momentum - regathering the kick-off, then gifted a penalty by the surrealist ‘look-at-me’ performance art of referee Mr Grant - but they were called offside at a probing Danny Yates kick to let Keighley off the hook.

The visitors took full advantage, marching straight downfield where Handforth fed Tahraoui into a hole to score. Lawton wide with the kick: 0-4.

As the game settled into its tight-knit groove, Brad Hargreaves was wrong-footed by a horrible deflected kick to give Keighley good field position. Having diffused the danger, Mr Grant brought play back under the Hornets posts to give the Cougars a mystery penalty. As the visitors sent in the big guns against a resolute Hornets defence, Mr Grant again intervened, this time giving Hornets a penalty on their own line. No - we don’t know either.

Hornets strove to play what little football was on offer, with Danny Yates the fulcrum: a lofted kick for Dale Bloomfield scuffed dead for a drop-out, his cut-out pass to Bloomers agonisingly short of its target, a grubber through for Danny Bridge to chase forcing another repeat set.

The pressure finally told on 22 minutes as swift hands right found Mike Ratu with enough space to skittle defenders and score. Crooky wide with the conversion 4-all.

The remainder of the half was a tug-of-war - both sides probing and, as the heavens opened, struggling to make any meaningful progress. Keighley did manage a fluke repeat set when a wayward pass was fly-hacked into the in-goal - then dropping the ball cold over the line after another dubious penalty.

Hornets too found another moment of lucidity, working a neat blind-side move only for Brad Hargreaves to get bundled into touch.

Half time, 4-all - the rain now pounding down.

Hornets began the second half with purpose: a repeat set off a Crooky kick, then two quick-fire Paul Crook penalties - the second from 5 metres inside his own half - edged Hornets in front 8-4. You could feel the sphincters tighten.

It was now clear that Cougars playmaker Handforth was little more than a passenger - unable to run, flinching with every pass. Everyone in the ground saw an opportunity to repeatedly run a big man at him. If only…

With the game firmly wedged in the middle third of the field, it was Keighley who broke the deadlock with the hour approaching: Gabriel somehow finding space to get the ball down as Danny Yates shunted him into the flag. 8-all: tense stuff.

Then, on the hour, the moment that broke the game: Jordan Case needlessly forcing a pass, Gabriel intercepting and breaking upfield, referee Grant deeming the cover tackle a high shot; Handforth from bang in front  8-10.

The last quarter became a desperate scramble. On 63 minutes a good high-tempo Hornets  approach set was truncated by a penalty 40 metres out. Crooky elected to take the kick - and dragged it painfully wide of the mark. From the 20m restart, a teasing Crooky kick forced a repeat set, but the ball slipped from Danny Bridge’s fingers as he reached for the line.

On 70 minutes, Keighley launched Gabriel on a blistering break; Wayne English producing an outstanding try-saving tackle. Hornets then fashioned a hurried repeat set that fell apart with a second tackle knock-on.

Then, Mr Grant’s piece de resistance of a refereeing performance that was, frankly, shambolic. The ball slipping from Keighley winger White’s hands as he brought the ball out of his own 20. No knock-on given - then Hornets  penalised the next tackle. Awful, awful, awful…

With time - and chances - ebbing away, Hornets were handed a lifeline in the 78th minute. A soft Keighley penalty 30 metres out; the magic in Crooky’s right boot deserting him as the shot faded to the right of the posts. Final score 8-10.

Yes, this was a tense affair - the nerves palpable as two teams wrestled for the inch of difference that would win this game. Indeed, this was the top seven made manifest - tight, airless: a test of fortitude. In the wash-up, Barrow’s defeat at Oldham meant that Hornets remain clinging to that fifth spot - but this result does open the door for North Wales.

This season really is going right down the the very last drop.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Sunday's Coming: Keighley Cougars

Having been tight, multi-faceted and complex, this week the mathematics of League 1’s playoffs became starkly and brutally simple. Crusaders spectacular implosion at home to Swinton and Keighley’s one-point smash & grab of a game that Barrow never looked like losing boil the season’s relentless calculus down to one simple equation. Win the remaining three games and neither Barrow nor Crusaders can make 5th place.

In terms of finishing positions, though, just two points (at the time of writing) separate 2nd from 5th - but Sunday’s visitors Keighley laid down a huge marker last week when  - despite trailing by nine points with only five minutes remaining - Andy Gabriel’s 79th minute try gave Keighley a wafer-thin one-point victory.

As if that weren’t enough, Barrow’s Brad Marwood missed a penalty with the last kick of the match that would’ve won the game. Coronaries all round!  Paul March, though was nonchalant:  “…it added to the drama … but we’ve got to be sharper at Rochdale next week.”

Forced back into half-back duties, March continues to be the cog that makes the Cougars turn and, last week, weighed in with a typical quick-tap stroll-in try while Barrow were switched off at a penalty.

While Keighley were slugging it out in front of 900 at Cougar Park, Hornets had the opposite experience - at the opposite end of the country. People suggested that the ‘crowd’ of 51 declared by Oxford at Hemel must be close to the record low for a semi-pro RL game anywhere - so we checked and we reckon that the previous lowest was Southend Invicta’s final home game against Huddersfield in 1985, where there were 85 supporters.

Yes, we know that last week both teams were effectively away from home, but Oxford’s only 50 minutes from Hemel compared with the five hour trip from Rochdale, so you might at least expect their ‘hardcore’ to show up. We counted 26 Hornets supporters on the day so, while it’s a dubious honour, we’ll take it that we outnumbered the home supporters. Indeed the Hornets hardcore deserve a special mention for making the noise and - literally - flying the flag(s) for Rochdale in the cold bosom of the South.

Ultimately, not much changes for Hornets this week: we need to win to maintain our challenge for playoff glory - and to deny the chasing pair any opportunity to gain ground. As we said - win three games and it’s all on. Let’s do it.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Spoiler Alert!

Oxford 16 - Hornets 54

League 1 poses some difficult challenges - and Saturday’s trip to play Oxford at Hemel was a compendium of miscellaneous pains in the backside that Hornets did well to overcome. Dragging people through over 100 miles of speed restricted roadworks on the M6 and M1 on the sunniest Saturday in August was challenge enough - crawling traffic, relentless queues, stretched patiences all round. Add the transport problems that had the team arrive over an hour late, a delayed kick-off and a baking hot day, and it already has the feel of an obligation to be endured.

And then there’s Oxford. We know that missionary work in the RL wasteland of the South is a difficult job, but it’s hard for players to get themselves up for a meaningful contest when the away support of 26 (we counted) outnumbers the home support. Indeed, the noisy Hornets hardcore strove to create the semblance of a game happening in what was basically a hermetically sealed RL vaccuum.

Under such awkward, unedifying circumstances, Hornets did what was expected of them - playing sufficient proactive football to see off an awkward, stubborn, spoiling Oxford side who sent the penalty count off the scale as they sought to suck every last drop of momentum out of the game.

Since we put 70-odd through them at Spotland - and since Swinton handed them their arse a month ago - Tim Rumford has had to find a way to make Oxford hard to beat - but, by christ, they’re ugly to watch.

They get in your face, in your way - hands in every tackle, lying on in numbers, borderline high shots  a regular occurence. It turns rugby league into an obstacle course.

It took Hornets ten minutes or so to work their way round it: quick hands right, Wayne English slotting the ever-improving Brad Hargreaves in at the flag: Crooky off the touchline for 0-6. Then Hornets coughed the kick-off possession.

Gifted the ball at close quarters, Oxford rumbled forward to score a defacto pig-ugly push-over try in the corner. No-one could quite believe it - least of all the Oxford contigent. We don’t have the try-scorer - pick any one from half a dozen bodies round the ball. Kitson off the touchline with the kick 6-all.

It was the signal for Hornets to extract the finger: on 20 minutes Jordan Case sent spinning in off a Danny Yates pass, Crooky the extras 6-12; five minutes later Mike Ratu crashing through tackles after a swift passing move, Crooky hitting the post, 6-16; then on the half hour a speculative Danny Yates kick carried into touch by winger Matthews, quick hands wide from the scrum for Dave Hull to score, 6-20. Then with three minutes remaining a huge break from Mike Ratu, sucking in defenders, the ball smuggled out of the back of the tackle for Danny Yates to dummy through and score from 20 metres. Crooky the two off  the touchline for 6-26 - a whirlwind second quarter a just reward for fluid football over relentless spoiling.

Hornets began the second half as they’d ended the first: just two minutes on the clock as Dale Bloomfield scored in the corner after Hornets had been awarded a mystery penalty after Oxford fullback Thomas seemed to make a perfectly good catch off a Hornets bomb. Answers on a postcard to match commissioner Bob Connolly.

And the penalties just kept coming, Oxford shipping three in quick succession - Wayne English just losing the ball as he dived in on 48  minutes. No matter. Within two minutes Alex McClurg plunged in from close range. Despite looking like he’d been held-up, the touch-judge contradicted the referee and the try was given. Crooky the two amidst the chaos for 6-36.

Oxford briefly showed what they’re capable of when they engineered a tidy break for Nathaniel to score, but normal service was resumed just two minutes later when Andrage was sin-binned for two consucutive high tackles. 12-36.

On 58 minutes Hornets had another sparkling effort struck off - Danny Yates adjudjed to have failed to ground the ball after some slick inter-passing. Then some concern when Paul Crook came reeling out of a tackle holding his shoulder - the Ginger General gritting his teeth after some treatment and battling on.

With the hour coming up, another assertive Hornets approach set saw James Dandy swatting off defenders to score from 30 metres; followed by Matt Fozzard mugging the home defence from acting half: Crooky on target with both for 12-48.

With the game ebbing away, thus came the moment worth spending 10 hours in the car for; Danny Yates a teasing, lofted kick into space behind the Oxford defence, Dale Bloomfield’s seamless chase, leap, catch and touchdown: as good a try as you’ll see anywhere. Crooky imperious from the touchline 12-54.

There was just enough time for Oxford to produce their one moment of lucid football - a dink to the corner for Gardiner to touch down at the death, but it was all a bit incidental; 16-54.

In the wash-up, this was a professional, hard-won two points. People insist that it’s good for the game if the ’Southern teams’ are competitive - and when they are, the same people moan when they don’t roll over and swallow a 90 point drubbing.

Every element of this game had the word ‘awkward’ written all over it, but for the width of a post and two struck-off tries, we’d’ve been looking at another 70 point flogging. As it was, Oxford have found a way to make themselves hard(er) to beat and Hornets fulfilled their end of the deal by only ever looking like winning this one.

Which meant -  as we trekked back up the M1 last night, getting home at 10pm - it felt just about worth the trip.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Saturday's Coming: Oxford. At... er... Hemel

Confused: Hornets' Dean Mignacca, playing for Oxford - at London Skolars.                                                     Picture courtesy of ‘Oxford Rugby League Inspires’: the official Facebook page of Oxford Rugby League.

The easily confused might do well to check their bearings before heading South to follow Hornets this weekend - as Hornets travel to take on Oxford. At Hemel. On a Saturday.

Last week Oxford came within 10 points of upsetting freeloading York, going down by just 36 points to 26 at coach Tim Rumford’s former ‘home’ at Heworth.

Having clawed themselves back from 30- 16 down, Oxford were only 4 points behind with  4 minutes to play - a late, late try from York’s Blagbrough giving the scoreline a thin veneer of respectability.

Having had a season of inconsistency (shipping 96 at home to Swinton, going to Barrow to only lose by two scores, beating the All Golds who, went on to beat Newcastle), Oxford remain enigmatic.

Currently parked 10th with five wins from 17 games and a points difference of -360. Needless to say their five wins have all come against ‘Southern’ opposition (against whom they have a ‘won 5 lost 3’ record) though their points difference remains in the red at -29.

Against the ‘heartland teams’ their record’s not great - though they’ve been nilled just once this term (by Oldham), scoring an average of 15 points per game. However, thet’ve shipped a whopping 460 points in the process - averaging a losing margin of 37 points.

But it’s not all doom and gloom at Iffley Road. Having ditched Tony Benson’s ‘Biffs on a Bus’ model from year one, Oxford’s squad looks like a development work in progress - shored up by a backbone of  experienced Northerners. Yes, there’s a thick seam of players from deepest Yorkshire from places like Methley, Milford, Heworth, Fryston  and Featherstone - but they’re augmented with players from Limerick, Antrim, Chinnor, Northampton, Southampton and Guildford (in Surrey, not Sydney). They’ve also borrowed Dean Mignacca from us. He won’t play on Saturday.

Having thumped the Blues by 76-16 earlier in the season, Hornets will be looking for much the same outcome on a weekend when North Wales host Swinton, Keighley play Barrow and Oldham travel to Newcastle (needless to say, York get a free-swing at Skolars as they continue their jaunt through the bottom six).

As if the trip on Saturday wasn’t confusing enough, we have two sets of directions for Pennine Way at Hemel - one from their website and one from AA Routefinder. Both look to work for us - leaving the M1 at Junction 9 is our favored option: gets you off the motorway sooner and cuts through some rolling farmland, rather than negotiating a tricksy route through Hemel.

We’re leaving early doors and making a day of it - so why not stick a few mates in the car and come and make a bit of noise. Flags recommended. See you down there.

Finding Pennine Way, Hemel

Postcode HP2 5UD

Directions A
Take J9 from M1 - follow A5183 and B487
- At the roundabout, take the 1st exit onto Dunstable Rd/A5183
- Continue to follow A5183
- At the roundabout, take the 2nd exit and stay on A5183
- At the roundabout, take the 2nd exit onto B487
- At the roundabout, take the 1st exit onto Redbourn Rd/A4147
- Turn right onto Pennine Way at Palmers Peugeot/Alfa Romeo

Directions B
Leave the M1 at J8
- Continue into Hemel Hempstead on the A414
- At the second roundabout take the 3rd exit onto the A4147
- At the next roundabout take the 1st exit to continue onto the A4147
- At the next roundabout take the 3rd exit onto Redbourn Road
- Take the first left (after about 300 metres) onto Pennine Way