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.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Number Crunched.

Hornets 14 - Batley 34

Jeez, where to start with this one.

Fundamentally, weight of numbers were the deciding factor in this horrendous mess of a game, perpetuated by what can only be described as inconsistent knee-jerk officiating.

Having started as a tight, combative encounter, this game became carved into a series of inedible chunks as referee Mr Grant lost his tenuous grip on both the laws and the game swirling around him.

As it was, Hornets were forced to play 10 v 12 at one point and ended the game on the wrong end of a 13-6 penalty count, deemed twice as bad as a Batley side that took the phrase ‘win at all costs’ to its extreme.

Wringing every last drop from their Championship experience, Batley capitalised on Mr Grant’s visible - and risible - lack of control, sucking Hornets into a shit-fight they were only ever going to lose.

After the game, Alan Kilshaw was incandescent with rage at the treatment meted out to his side at the hands of the officials - and in conversation with a Batley director post-game, even he conceded that Mr Grant had a shocker.

Long before the rot set in, Hornets started brightly - forcing an early drop-out, then creating a hole up the right edge for Jake Eccleston to step inside and score.

At this point, Batley were looking ragged, shipping penalties and, when Gaz Middlehurst was taken out after a last tackle kick, Danny Yates took the two for 6-nil.

Then two quick-fire penalties (Middlehurst in possession for not regaining his feet, then Jo Taira for what appeared to be for ‘rough play’) took Batley to within striking distance, where Scott made the extra man to score. Walker tied up the scores with the conversion.

Then a hint of what was to come. Gaz Middlehurst snagged for not being square at the play-the-ball, a frank exchange of views and then all hell broke loose. Batley coughed the penalty possession, Hornets handed them the ball straight back, then Reittie fumbled under attention from defenders. All pretty awful.

It was the cue for Batley to activate plan B. First, Jono Smith wiped out in back-play - Batley fans booing as he received attention. All class. Then Gaz Middlehurst hit late, Gav Bennion tripped as he broke the line, Farrell putting in a shoulder charge (ignored by the officials) and Yatesey decked at the play-the-ball. Batley placed on a team warning.

Hornets’ response was clinical - ball whipped wide to the right where Kev Penny scored with an acrobatic aerial plunge into the corner. Quality.

But the lead was short-lived. A poor last-tackle kick by Lewis Foster was followed by a penalty and Batley moved the ball to Ainscough who found space to score. Walker added the two and the visitors headed to the sheds 10-12 to the good.

If the first half was combative, the second was chaos - neither side seemingly capable of completing a set.

Hornets came up with a forward pass in the first set of the half, Batley’s response was a knock-on. Lewis Galbraith then muscled himself into open field, but his pass to Chris Riley was pretty awful. Batley’s response? A knock-on. Danny Yates also forced a pass to ground. Batley knocked-on.

It took almost 10 minutes for Hornets to settle: Lewis Galbraith running a great angle to take Hornets close. Jono Smith launching himself onto a flat last tackle pass only for the ball to come loose. Having taken a 20 minute sabbatical from his whistle, Mr Grant then gave Batley back-to-back penalties.

On 50 minutes, Jono Smith failed to come out of a tackle and, as he lay out cold on the field, he incurred the ire of the travelling fans who seem to think it’s perfectly ok to berate a player with concussion. Jono was taken, staggering, from the field.

Having shuffled the pack a bit (Jordan Case stepping in), Hornets dug in for some determined defence after Dec Kay fumbled a teasing bomb. Having stood firm for two consecutive sets, a Batley penalty five metres from the Hornets line proved too much and Bretherton broke through to score. Walker off the whitewash for 10-18.

As the penalty count began to rack-up, things became fractious. And when handbags after Crooke’s try on the hour ignited into a flurry of punches, Mr Grant dismissed Crooke and Middlehurst for fighting, yellow carding Ben Moore in the process.

Hornets were reduced to 10 men four minutes later when Jordan Case was sin-binned for use of the knees.

Hornets then belied their deficit, Chris Riley blasting a huge hole up the Hornets left to send Danny Yates dashing in from 50 metres to score for 14-22.

As it was, the weight of numbers finally told. Despite some heroic defence, Batley eventually did the maths for Bretherton to score, with Scott adding his second through a stretched defence on the hooter to blow-out the scoreline.

In the end, this pig-ugly scrapyard brawl of a game was one that Hornets were never likely to win. You can overcome a one-sided penalty count if you are able to compete on equal terms. And you can overcome a numerical deficit if you are given an opportunity to play. As it was, Hornets were given neither and Batley have way too much nous to shun such an opportunity.

Wearing our analytical head, it’s hard to see in a feisty contest like this, how one side can be deemed more than twice as bad as the other in terms of penalties - and it’s little wonder that frustrations boil over when players have no consistent template to play to.

Fortunately, results at Oldham and Swinton went in our favour, so Hornets live to fight another day. Hopefully, though, not quite as literally next time.