Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Sunday's Coming - Gates… er… Newcastle

Good news: Gateshead's move over the river has taken professional rugby league to  Newcastle for the first time since 1938. Bad news: Thunder were taken over by Newcastle Rugby Limited, the holding company that owns  *nion side Newcastle Falcons.

The news came with a slight sense of deja-vu - the original Thunder sacrificing its identity in the deal that kept GatesHull FC in Super League in 1999 (Gateshead Thunder took over the Hull FC's identity in Super League and moved home games to The Boulevard. Most of the Gateshead playing squad moved to Hull FC along with their board and coach Shaun McRae).

Now effectively an adjunct to a *nion club, shipped over the river to Kingston Park (with its plastic 3G pitch) and with a squad liberally laden with Hull KR dual reg players, there's not a great deal of the old Gateshead DNA left in the Newcastle ThunderFalcons (or, as we shall call them NTF™).
The Falcon shows off his falcon. In Newcastle.

At the time of the takeover, Thunder's  Managing Director Keith Christie told BBC Sport. "It was a commonsense step. We're keen to make sure we don't forget our birthplace in Gateshead, but we have to ensure we move forward and unfortunately that means changing the name." And the shirt and the badge and the ground and the city they play in. But apart from that…

Speaking on the Newcastle Falcons website last year, Newcastle Rugby Ltd chairman Semore Kurdi said of the takeover: “I’m delighted that Gateshead Thunder has become part of Newcastle Rugby Ltd. There are a number of benefits to having both league and union Clubs within the same organisation. Resources can be shared off the field in terms of administration, marketing, medical, sports science and facilities that will be to the advantage of both clubs."

"With rugby league now re-introducing promotion and relegation between the various levels there is a clear path through to Super League. To reach Super League will be our long term goal. There is now a target date for this goal. Resources have been made available straight away to strengthen the current squad… our aim being promotion to the next tier"

Indeed, his *nion club also seemed quite keen to experience life at a different tier, currently sitting next to bottom of the Premiership with just four wins from 19 games. Ironic that they stand to be reprieved by the abolition of relegation.

And, just in case you were in any doubt about who wears the pants in this relationship, you could email Thunder's  MD on

Why-aye: Stanley Gene suspects the
new logo might not fly...
On the field, NTF™ are coached by the redoubtable Stanley Gene (who is somewhere between the ages of 36 and 70 depending on which article you read) and he's been resourced to make the ThunderFalcons a success in the Toon.

In order to give his *nion paymasters the best bet of a quick return, newly cashed-up Gene has gone back to what he knows, hooking up a triumverate of top quality Kumul talent in centre Jason Tali (PNG Hunters), utility Charlie Wabo (Hela Wigmen/PNG) and prop Mark Mexico (Cronulla Sharks via PNG Hunters)

Also, in addition to NRL U20's Toyota Cup winner Jordan Meads (NZWarriors) and Ron Massey Cup Player of the Year Dayne Craig (Western Suburbs), Stan has also brought British prop Fran Welsh back from Young Cherrypickers in the CRL.

More entertainingly, NTF™ is the he latest stopping off point for agricultural Cumbrian prop Ryan McDonald.

But for all this, NTF™ still got spanked 36-16 at home to Keighley last week. In two wins from three games, NTF™ have racked up 74 points. However, while they clearly know where the line is, the 76 points they've conceded in the process suggests defensive issues.

Stanley Gene saw defeat as a good thing. Speaking in the 'Why-Aye Geordie News' this week he said: “It’s good because some of the boys are thinking they’re already there but it’s only the third game. It brings the boys back on the ground and we’ll start re-focusing for the Rochdale game.”

Conversely, Ian Talbot is a happier bloke after Hornets' cogs clicked together in last weekend's steam-rollering of Barrow.

Speaking on the Hornets website this week he said: "“There were some real good performances across the board. Mike Ratu was unplayable on that form and he’s way off being fit yet so I can’t wait to see a fit Mike Ratu because when he wants the ball a bit more he will cause havoc. Both the halfbacks and Crooky at nine have done exactly what I’ve asked them to do and took a grasp of that game."

"We are going to have to make that progression again and be even better again next week to beat Newcastle. They have had a good couple of wins, going to Crusaders and winning. We know that Stanley Gene will have them hyped up and ready to come down here, but we will give it our best shot."

Indeed, grabbing the game early will be key - with completion and confidence again the two critical factors. It's the game of the day in League One - don't miss it!

Can League Repel the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers?

25 years ago, Liverpudlian band Icicle Works released an album called 'If you want to defeat your enemy - sing his song'. TRLCRF80mins is concerned that someone at Twickenham has adopted this as a strategy to undermine Rugby League.

Gateshead Thunder's 'code switch' to become part of the 'dual-code' Newcastle Rugby Ltd. organisation got us thinking about how the *nion game seems inexorably drawn to the thing it despises most: Rugby League.

Here at TLCRF80mins, we've always said that Rugb *nion is, at its core, a severely conflicted sport.

Encoded in its DNA is an inherent hatred of league - having spent the vast majority of the last 120 years working not only to disadvantage our sport as much as possible, but actively investing time and effort to eradicate it in some territories. On the other hand, whilst it hates league, it sees in our sport the game it so desperately wants to be - fast, open, athletic, exciting. Indeed they want to be us so much that *nion has made every effort to lay claim to many RL innovations - red/yellow cards, sin-bins, video refs, blood-bins - even the play-the-ball, reinvented by the RFU as the 'Roll-the-ball' for development versions of their game.

Increasingly, *nion has wrapped itself in League's clothing, speaking our language - walking and talking in desperate imitation. The latest attempt to adopt League's brand positioning is the most audacious yet. Is there any co-incidence that on the 120th anniversary of the foundation of the Northern Union that the International Rugby Board announced the launch of a competition in the USA called the National Rugby Football League (NRFL) with plans to begin in the summer of 2015?

Branded 'the professional RuXV™ League' with the strapline 'The next real major league sport in America'  - every element of it appropriates Rugby League's vocabulary, its lexicon, its branding - even its names, here and in Australia. It is, in our opinion, a blatant exercise in the intellectual property crime of 'Passing Off' . The law of 'Passing' Off entitles a business (in this case Rugby League) to protect itself against another business (in this case Rugby *nion) from unfairly using its goodwill to gain sales/market share.  Basically, it entails one business selling their own goods/services by making themselves indistinguishable from a competitor so that people believe that they are the goods/services of someone else -  wilfully misleading the audience.

And if the use of 'National Rugby Football League' doesn't have you shaking your head in disbelief, remember that they've already seized use of the term 'Rugby World Cup' (first used by Rugby League in France in 1954 -  the first World Cup in either rugby code).  They've also taken use of the term 'Challenge Cup', via the launch of the European Rugby Challenge Cup which began this season.

Over time, the appropriation of these terms blurs the lines between codes - particularly in development areas where *nion is keen to foster the idea that there is only one legitimate code of 'rugby' and prevent entry/development of league in those territories (the USA's RuXV™ League will certainly undermine the ground gained by the USA Tomahawks in the 2013 World Cup).

Whilst we get angry and frustrated by *nion's continued knavish tricks, the silence from RL's hierarchy is deafening. If faced with such a blatant case of passing off - a campaign of activity designed to mislead audiences and trade off the back of another brand's equity - any other business on the planet would've sent the lawyers steaming in with a Cease & Desist notice -  a legal device informing a third party of the right-holders' rights, identity, and intentions to enforce their rights to an intellectual property.

Rest assured, the desire to protect its intellectiual property rights certainly flows the other way. There was an occurrence in 2004, when the NZRU sent a Cease & Desist notice to York based amateurs New Earswick All Blacks in order to prevent any compromises of their/their licencees' exclusivity to capitalise on the All-Blacks brand. At the time, NZRU chief executive Chris Moller said: "Failure to protect trademarks undermine your rights.  A trademark is a very valuable property for all organisations.  If you are in possesion of information regarding someone infringing your rights and you choose to do nothing about it, then under law you are deemed to have accepted that situation. Even though this is another sport, and an amateur organisation, we are obliged to take steps."

Having had no push back on 'Rugby World Cup' and 'Challenge Cup', you can almost understand *nion chancing its arm on 'NRFL'. And our fear is that RL's head-in the sand passivity might, eventually, do *nion's dirty work for it. Institutionally, the RFU spent a century wishing us dead, undertaking unforgiveable acts of discrimination against players who dared to throw a ball around under a different set of laws and get openly rewarded for the privilege (don't forget that, while claiming the 'amateur' high ground, top *nion clubs secretly tucked wads of cash into players' boots after games).

And let's not forget that the *nion code in France sided with the Vichy Government to criminalise League and strip it of its assets in an attempt to wipe it from the sporting map. W. Mann's review of Mike Rylance's book "The Forbidden Game: The Untold Story of French Rugby League" summarises: "The French Rugby Union's collusion with the Nazi-backed Vichy Government to ban Rugby League is one of the most shameful episodes in the history of sport. It all but destroyed a sport that was, at the time, threatening to overtake rugby union in popularity terms, even though league was only introduced to France six years earlier. Had league continued its meteoric rise, the map of world rugby - and I mean both codes - might today be very different."

"Yet there is still a sense of denial about what happened to Rugby League in France. Even today, the game is discriminated against - try asking the Catalans Dragons about their difficulties sharing a supposedly municipal stadium with union club Perpignan."

 *nion's continued - blatant - undermining of League's development is one of the reasons we feel uncomfortable when Rugby League cosies-up to the 15-man game. Indeed, every time we see a League club get into bed with a *nion counterpart, or we see a *nion squad joining a League side for 'training' so it can 'learn' from League's superior skills, our teeth itch.

Like a crocodile, they may smile broadly in our presence, but their only real thought is how soon they might bite us in half. As we started with a song reference, it's fitting that we end with one: "Never smile at a crocodile, you can't get friendly with a crocodile. Don't be taken in by his welcome grin - he's imagining how well you'd fit within his skin…"

Or - in *nion's case - just how perfectly they would fit into ours.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Hornets Saturday Super-Score

Hornets 48 - Barrow 12

Having put 50 points through Swinton last week, there were pre-match thoughts that Barrow would provide a stern test for Hornets. But from first whistle to final hooter, this was such a one-sided display of total domination, that Barrow never looked capable of competing, never mind winning.  Throughout, Hornets played high-tempo, direct football that had the Raiders in retreat for long tracts of the game. And they were in the groove straight from the off.

When Mike Ratu stepped inside to score off a Danny Yates pass after just three minutes, there were hints that that channel might prove fruitful. And when a Danny Yates’ last-tackle dink overhead was gathered by Dale Bloomfield who coolly slotted the supporting Paul Crook in for a well made try via the same route two minutes later, you could sense that Hornets might exploit it more. Five minutes gone, Crooky sound with the boot: 12-nil.

Indeed, on the next foray into the Raiders’ half, Hornets went straight back to the left centre channel, but Wayne English overshot a cut-out pass to give Barrow’s three quarters some much needed respite. With Barrow desperately trying to slow down the pace of the game, the next ten minutes saw both sides trade penalties, Barrow briefly threatening off the back of repeat infringements before running out of ideas 5 metres short.

On 16 minutes Hornets shook off the Barrow spoiling to create a quality try. A prestidigitous reverse pass from Paul Crook to Danny Bridge had the defence in all sorts of back-pedalling trouble, the ball was worked wide, Bridgey went for the return to bring the main stand to its feet. 16-0.

With Barrow now reduced to a series of soft penalties for interference, Hornets went straight back on the offensive and on 20 minutes Paul Crook slapped the raiders with a 2 metre sucker try from acting half, before adding the two. a quite resounding 22-0. 

On 23 minutes Ryan Smith was unfortunate to have a try chalked off for offside chasing a Danny Yates chip. This seemed to shake Barrow from their torpor and, on the half hour Lupton’s clever delayed pass sent Briscoe in to open Barrow’s account. Hankinson the two: 22-6. No matter. With the hooter imminent, James Tilley hit a short ball at pace from close range to crash in and score. Gas Langley adding the two to send Hornets in 28-6 up at the break.

The second half began with a rare aberration, Ryan Smith misjudging the kick-off to concede a drop-out. For the next ten minutes Barrow chucked the kitchen sink at the Hornets defence, but they were twice forced to hand-over on the last tackle close to the Hornets line. Having ridden out Barrow’s brief flurry, it was Hornets’ turn to press the Barrow defence. Under a relentless forward barrage, Barrow clung to the ropes and when the ball was shipped wide to Dale Bloomfield on 48 minutes he took advantage of the stretched defence to dive in by the flag. 32-6. 

To compound their problems, Barrow put the Kick-off into the Sandy Lane end - but Hornets failed to find touch with the resulting penalty. This heralded another scrappy period as Barrow lay bodies in every tackle in an attempt to suck the momentum out of the game. On the hour the ever-impressive Tony Suffolk carved a huge break through the heart of the Barrow defence, carrying the ball 30 metres before switching an inside pass to Ryan Smith who finished in style under the black dot. Crooky with the extras: 38-6

On 65 minutes Barrow did fashion a consolation try when Briscoe went in off the back of a penalty, but the relief was brief. Immediately Hornets worked the ball back to the left channel - Bridge to Charnock, Charnock to Ratu-  Mike Ratu crashing through retreating bodies to score Paul Crook a dead-shot off the touchline: 44-12. Barrow - again - hoyed the kick-off into the Sandy Lane end. 

With the game coming into the last ten minutes, the penalty count began to climb; Barrow now a tripping, high tackling, late tackling, interfering mess. On 76 minutes Hornets delivered the coup de grace: Danny Bridge capping his best game in a Hornets shirt, arriving like a train off a short ball to score. Final score 48-12.

No doubts, this was a quite exceptional performance. Playing off the back of a supremely high completion rate, Hornets played with poise, pace and confidence. The return of Wayne English to Full-back gave Hornets that additional frisson of attacking threat and, in Lee Paterson and Mike Ratu, Hornets had power in the three quarters that Barrow never really looked like handling. Up front the forwards out-punched their bigger counterparts - Danny Bridge and Tony Suffolk, the pick of an excellent pack, Lewis Charnock looking more comfortable at loose forward.

And so, the benchmark has been set. Someone commented as we left that expectations have been significantly raised by this performance - and they’re right. And if this is an indication of what Hornets are capable of, it’s going to be a very interesting season indeed.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Saturday's Coming - Barrow Raiders

An unexpected Good Friday defeat, followed up by a win built on a whirlwind second-half performance. Sound familiar?

Barrow started the season with what some might see as a 'shock' 34-22 defeat at newly *nionised Newcastle ThunderFalcons, but got their season back on the rails with a hefty 50-12 panning of Swinton last Saturday.

Down 10-12 at one point and just in front by 16-12 at the break, Barrow turned in a quite stunning second half performance. Not only did they nil Swinton in the second-half, racking up 34 unanswered points in the process, they returned an eye-catching 90% completion rate.

Back in Barrow's very-hot-seat - and filling Bobbie Goulding's boots  - is local Rugby League legend Paul Crarey. With a long connection to the club, at least he knows what he's walking into.

To outsiders, the Barrow Coach's office looks like it has a revolving door. Trying to actually piece together the trail of coaches passing through Craven park has been a challenge in itself (there is no definitive list) but we reckon that - in the last six years - the role has been held by:
Which way to Barrow, Paul?

Dave Clark - six months
Steve Deakin - six weeks
Dave Clark - two months
Steve McCormack - 10 months
Dave Clark - two months
Garry Schofield - five games
Nigel Wright - four months
Dave Clark - four months
Darren Holt - two seasons
Anthony Murray - four games
Bobbie Goulding - six months

Fortunately for Barrow, few people know the club and the Cumbrian RL landscape quite as well as Paul Crarey.

Having signed from local community club Dalton in 1987, Crarey played for Barrow  until 1995, clocking up 172 games and 20 tries at hooker.  After one season at Carlisle he cut his coaching teeth at Dalton and Walney Central, before embarking on his first term at Craven Park in 2005.

Over two seasons he steadied a rocking ship by recruiting the best local players. However, after 'disagreements' with the Chief Executive at the time, he took his talents up the coast to Whitehaven. After a short spell of ill-health, he returned to coach Dalton in 2009.

From there he went on to coach Cumbria at both amateur and professional level - and was appointed BARLA GB head coach in 2012. At the time he said: “My whole life is dedicated to rugby league and this just shows that if you put your head down, work hard and dedicate yourself you can achieve your goals." As good a life philosophy as any, we think.

This time round, Crarey's wasted no time in assembling a more than useful outfit. An influx of Leigh loanees augmenting a mix of Cumbrian amateur and pro-talent , including Chris Fleming - a Cumbrian arriving via the Queensland InTrust Cup. Add Salford's  Kyle Dolan & Matt Heaton and Crarey's 2015 side looks like a tough proposition.

Last week's Swinton-squashing Barrow squad was: Chris Fleming, Kyle Dolan, Chris Hankinson, Cameron Pitman, Lee Haney, Josh Ward, Peter Lupton, Joe Bullock, Nathan Mossop, Danny Jones, Liam Harrison, Craig Briscoe, Anthony Bate. Subs: Brad Marwood, Dan Toal, Matt Heaton, Andrew Dawson.

Be careful when you Google "Barrow Raiders, Cumbria".
Like Barrow, Hornets got their season underway at the second time of asking in an error-strewn, but ultimately convincing win at University of Gloucestershire All Golds. In a coach-killing first-half, the error count from both sides was off the scale - and as Barrow demonstrated last week, good completion stats take you a very long way towards winning.

Ahead of the All Golds trip, Ian Talbot said: "We’re a bit low on confidence at the minute …  we’re still trying to find our feet with new combinations so it will be interesting to see where we are…"

And his thoughts dovetail perfectly with acouple of articles this week from the 'Sage of the NRL' Gus Gould, who wrote in his Sydney Morning Herald column about the importance of confidence and completion. "Confidence is such an amazing thing in Rugby League. When confidence is lacking nothing seems to go right. Even the simplest of actions feels as though it's beyond your capabilities. But when self belief is strong - when individuals come together as one to fight for the common cause, well, no challenge seems so great. Winning suddenly becomes a habit."

He goes on to speak of how confidence is built on what he calls 'Tradesman's Victories' - wins built on '… hard work, togetherness and resilence." He also writes about 'defensive composure' as a key component to grinding out those wins: "stoic resistance… working as a unit… frustrating the opposition."

Indeed, in his column last week he wrote about being prepared to scrap: "… to hustle, bustle and niggle opponents to the point of frustration…" In the same piece he identified completion as a key element in the Sharks surprise win over early competition favourites the Roosters.

"At the 65th-minute mark, the Sharks led 14-0 and had completed 34 sets of six from 37 opportunities with the ball. You just don't lose games with those kinds of completion rates. At the same stage the Roosters had been restricted to only 26 opportunities with the ball, yet had only completed 20 sets of six. They committed far too many unforced errors and the fifth tackle options at the end of those sets they did complete were poorly executed. They put no pressure whatsoever on their opponents with their last tackle plays."

"As a result the Roosters were afforded very little field position and limited attacking opportunities. So the Sharks outside backs were put under very little pressure defensively…"

As everyone at the Prince of Wales Stadium - and at Craven Park - saw last week, completion and confidence go hand in hand. And with Hornets and Barrow having very similar records, both sides of that equation could be the deciding factor on Saturday.