Monday, 30 September 2013

Aint No way We're Coming Last!

Oldham 18 - Hornets 32

Go on, pinch yourself. 

After the game, Ian Talbot said to me: "Tomorrow, if someone asks when your club last won a trophy, tell them 'Yesterday' ". Indeed after a wait of 91 years, Talbot has succeeded where dozens of Hornets coaches have failed, and brought silverware back to a club that's waited an awful long time between drinks. As the realisation slowly sinks in today that next year's derby will be Halifax, Hornets' promotion to the Championship caps an arduous season -  a fantastic reward for a year of hard work on and off the field.

In the run up to the final, Oldham's half-back Palfrey spoke of how Paul Crook's semi-final performance had given him a lesson in kicking. Here he was reduced to a spectator as Crooky sprayed the ball around the field with aplomb, constantly turning Oldham around and unleashing his varied repertoire of in-play kicking. Oh - and he finished the day with a 100% six from six place kicks. Superb.  
Two cups for the price of one! (photo: Louise Lewis)

Hornets started from the gun, a teasing lofted Paul Crook kick into the in-goal behind Agoro found Martin Waring with space to leap and gather, but the video referee adjudged that he hadn't grounded the ball. No matter. Within two minutes Hornets were back on the attack, Steve Roper turning the ball inside to the impressive Dave Llewellyn who stepped through to bring the sizeable and noisy Hornets contingent to its feet.

It took Oldham 15 minutes to launch anything resembling an attack, but when they did it paid off,  Ford scoring wide on the left, Palfrey adding the two. Six-all.

With the game locked in a tight arm-wrestle, Crooky's kicks compelled Oldham to begin their sets deep in their own half -  but when Palfrey attempted to replicate this approach after 20 minutes, the result was very different. Having hoyed the ball into a waiting Hornets defence,  Alex Trumper capitalised on strong breaks from Gaz Langley and Dave Llewellyn to find Danny Davies with enough space to glide through for a well taken try. Crooky with the two. 12-6, Hornets the better side.

With the half ebbing away, Hornets launched another attack. Strong forward approach play took them close and John Cookson bludgeoned his way through several defenders to plant the ball on the line for what looked a perfectly good try. Referee Leatherbarrow referred it upstairs and the video ref somehow saw a knock-on. No Try.

Oldham played their get out of jail card well. A good set took them 60 metres, but when a last tackle kick was knocked-on by Agoro and fumbled forward through a series of hands, Hughes touched down under the Hornets' posts more in hope than expectation. Mr Leatherbarrow asked the video ref for his view and, astonishingly, he pointed to the spot. Palfrey added the two and - instead of Hornets going in 18-6 up - Oldham had been handed a lifeline to go in at 12-all.

Oldham started the second half on the front-foot, their forwards making good yards to take them within 20 metres of the Hornets line. But when Palfrey lobbed a kick to Cookson stood a good five metres offside, the danger seemed to have passed. Instead, Mr Leatherbarrow passed the decision to the video ref who stunned the Hornets contingent by giving the try. Out of nowhere, Oldham 18-12 in front. Hornets didn't panic.

Crooky continued to make Oldham fag the ball from their own line, and when he planted an inch-perfect kick into the Oldham in-goal just before the hour, Palfrey's arse fell out and he hoofed it dead. From the resulting drop out, Hornets pounded the Oldham line and when the ball was worked left to Dave Hull, he wriggled through a mass of limbs to get the ball down. Crooky with the two. 18-all and coronaries all round.

Five minutes later saw Mr Leatherbarrow award the first penalty of the game as Oldham were caught offside 30 metres out. Cool as you like, Paul Crook stroked the ball between the sticks to edge Hornets in front - and you could feel the momentum shift.

With Hornets playing error-free, controlled football, Oldham found themselves struggling to get across the half-way line - their only exit a series of aimless hoofs downfield with no chase game to speak of. As Oldham began to blow, Hornets sucked in for a big finish.

On 70 minutes a Paul Crook kick was charged down. Hornets sent the artillery steaming at the heart of the Oldham defence, Cookson, Forster, Greenwood driving them backwards. And when the ball found its way to John Cookson he launched himself through a mass of Oldham defenders to plant the ball down. Hornets fans in raptures as Crooky added the two to give Hornets a 26-18 lead with nine minutes to play. (Apologies to Cooky, we initially incorrectly identified the try-scorer as Dave Llewellyn - though our excuse is that we were 100 metres away and jumping around at the time).
This is how it feels to be Hornets!
(Picture: @bucket&sponge)

You could tell Oldham were gone. They began forcing passes, playing panic football, handing over cheap possession. On 75 minutes Hornets delivered the coup de grace. Carl Forster's pass to Gaz Langley; Langley slipping his defender to carry the ball 40 metres through open field; with Oldham defenders closing in, he slipped a peach of a ball inside for Wayne English to score a try worthy of winning any game. Hornets fans in ecstasy: Oldham fans heading for the exits in their hundreds with five minutes left to play. Crook with the two. 'ave it!

Oldham ended the game much as they'd spent the previous 80 minutes - trudging back after a Paul Crook kick to start again on their own 20 metre line. It was beautiful to watch.

Though not quite as beautiful as watching Paul Crook and Wayne English become the first Hornets skippers in 91 years hoist a trophy as Hornets fans sang "We are going up". Emotional stuff - grown men in tears. 

All that remains is to say thank you. Thank you Ian Talbot for becoming an instant Hornets legend - the first Hornets coach in living memory to deliver a trophy. Thank you to the players - every single one who's pulled on our colours this season - you've done us, your familes and yourselves proud. To the Hornets co-operative board - proof of what's possible when fans come together. To the back-room staff - you may not get to run with the ball, but you do carry us through the season. And to you, the supporters. we've waited a long time - a lifetime - for this, so enjoy the feeling.

Great work everyone. Job done.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Final Final Countdown (No.5)

Time to 'Dare Mighty Things'.

"It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short: again and again;
who knows great enthusiasms, great devotions; 
who spends himself in a worthy cause; 
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, 
and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs - even though checkered by failure - than to rank with those timid souls who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat"   

Theodore Roosevelt

There are 37 professional/semi-pro Rugby League clubs in Super League and the Championships. Come Sunday at 2pm, the 2013 season will already be over for 31 of them. 

It's strange: I never really contemplated what I'd write ahead of a Hornets appearance in a Grand Final. But here we are...

It's looking like Oldham  will be at full strength in Sunday’s promotion-deciding 'Finale di A627M ElClassico' - and Scott Naylor's taking a laid-back approach

"We won’t be killing ourselves in training this week," he said in the Oldham Chronic. "The emphasis will be on staying calm and relaxed. We don’t need to do anything differently. We’re getting ready for a game of rugby, just like we have all season." As long as it's the same preparation they put in for the semi-final, that'll work out nicely, thanks.

Indeed, Naylor's started the mind games: “Come Sunday we’ll be relaxed. But we’ll also be ready. That’s the key.”  Wow, the power of psychology!

Naylor says he won’t announce his line-up until the day before the game, but it'll probably have an eerily familiar feel, with Palfrey and Ford their go-to strike players. With typical Roughyed hubris,  Lepori said this week: “A club like Oldham, with the history it has and the support it gets, should really be in the Championship, playing at that level.” Whitebank neatly airbrushed out there. 

Actually, as we're a club 'like Oldham', perhaps he means us? We'd bring so much more to the Championship. Like showers…

Meanwhile, Oldham prop Michael Ward - a maths teacher - insists defeat to Hornets in Sunday’s Championship One play-off final 'isn’t an option'. Actually, of the three available, it is. Even you should be able to conjugate that equation, Mr Ward. Perhaps Ofsted should have a quiet word…

In the Hornets camp, Ian Talbot adopts a more contemplative approach, insisting it would be a ‘fairytale’ if his side wins on Sunday. Tol said: "We've been through a lot of adversity this season. There were times when I was questioning what I was doing, and quite a lot of this squad were playing amateur rugby last season."

"They've got better and better as the season's gone on - wouldn't it be a fairytale if Rochdale were to get promoted?" 

While it looks like Ian will have a fully fit squad to select from, he believes that our playoff odyssey this year has annealed his team for the battle ahead.

 "Our last two games have been bruising encounters where we’ve come up with last-minute plays to win. That bodes well for us, because we know if we have another tight game we can come out on top. The lads have already shown they’ve got the determination. Play-off games are renowned for being tight affairs and our boys have been through that a couple of times already."

Paul Crook too spoke this week of Hornets' singular focus for this season: “Everyone at the club has one goal in mind, that’s promotion to the Championship, and we’ll be going all out to ensure we get that this weekend.”

As each of us prepares for Sunday, it's worth remembering that we ask an awful lot of the lads who pull on the shirt on our behalf. We get up for work on a Monday morning happy or sulking depending on the previous day's result. They do it too - but battered and sore. Sunday is their reward for a season played out to the death, with every last drop wrung from it. When most others have faltered, the guys who carry our colours have found that extra yard, that extra tackle, that extra pass - that extra kick - that's pulled us through. It may not have been perfect, but they found the character and the courage to do what 30 other teams couldn't.  It's been an extraordinary effort.

So, let's all suck in one last time and give it everything we have left in the tank.  It's time to dare greatly - because who dares, wins.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Final Countdown No.4

History starts here - for both finalists

Stop Press: The Manchester Evening News has finally remembered that Hornets exist. And, thankfully, they understand the magnitude of of the weekend to come. "Rochdale Hornets are preparing for one of the biggest games in the club's history," they said - though that depends on where you start counting. 

Chair of the Hornets co-operative Mark Wynn expressed how much this weekend means to what is essentially a four-year old venture carrying the weight of 91 years of expectation. Speaking in the MEN, he said: "We are all really excited at the moment, people have worked really hard. We are not so much nervous as we know we have, so far, done the best we can do.”

Whilst Hornets' participation in this weekend's final is a fantastic validation of the community-focused, supporter-owned model, the rumblings from the Oldham camp emanate from a very different end of the spectrum.

Where Hornets directors, officials, players, fans - and even the media - are buzzing about the possibility of being the first Rochdale Hornets team since 1922 to bring home a trophy, it's interesting to see - ahead of the biggest game of the season - that the real Oldham story seems to be focused on the potential takeover by Salford Red Devils owner Marwan Koukash.

With Chris Hamilton  this week reporting 'positive' talks and Koukash bullish as ever saying: "Why can't I take charge of three clubs? I know I can and I fully intend to…" it gives Sunday's game an extra angle of interest as it becomes a battle of contrasting orthodoxies: one club seeing its future secured by big ideals, the other looking to secure its future through big money. One where the fans buy-in and the club becomes theirs - the other where the ownership of the club is taken out of the Oldham community and placed under the patronage of another club, where it becomes something else: a subsidiary, a trading name. Not really our cup of tea here at TLCRF80mins Towers, thanks.

All of which brought us to the point where we came to wrap-up this article. We considered a rousing call to arms, an emotional cris de coeur, a plea for passion and belief. But we really couldn't beat the words of Hornets' senior statesman Ray Myers, speaking in the MEN.

“It will be a bit special if we win - and more so because of who we are playing. We have got to think about winning now.” 

Amen to that Ray, amen.

The Final Countdown No.3

Finally - a Final that will Finally Cure My Finals Blues?

A former Hornets chairman once said (on national TV) "We're a very modest club - and some people say we've a lot to be modest about".

Whilst his tongue in cheek comment about Hornets' long history of under achievement was meant to be a light aside, it did - does - reflect that, as Rugby League clubs go, we do tend to go an awful long time between drinks.

Our Challenge Cup win in the 1921/22 season was reported in that year's annual report & accounts with a single line that says how well the lads played, that it was a commercially successful venture and that the board looked forward to doing it again sometime soon.

As it transpired, a couple of semi-final apprearances in the 50s were as close as we got to achieving that goal.

When I started watching Hornets in 1971, we'd already gone 50 years without a sniff of glory, but in my first season we reached the Floodlit Trophy final v Saints at Knowsley Road, losing by 8 points to 2. I didn't go, and I don't remember watching it on TV. Though I was only six.

The following year, Hornets marched to the Players No. 6 Trophy final at Wigan where we played the pre-lupine Warrington, losing 27-16 in front of a crowd of 9,347. I went with my dad. It was the biggest crowd I'd ever stood in. I wore a bobble hat and scarf and a Hornets rosette I got from Trevor Butterworth's. All I really remember is that we had to move to get a good view, that Warrington Hooker Kevin Ashcroft murdered us in the scrums - and that I didn't remember there being this many Hornets fans at the Athletic grounds when we played Bramley in the semi-final.

But losing a final in February didn't hurt for long, as at the season's end we got promoted to Division One. I'd been there two years and seen two finals and a promotion. I thought "Wow - watching Hornets is brilliant!"

As it was, we yo-yoed our way through the next few years, sinking for the last time in 1977. We were to spend a long time out of the spotlight.

By the time we got our next sniff of glory in the 1989/90 promotion season, I'd had almost 20 years to realise that the reality of watching Hornets was often a long way short of 'brilliant'. And, by then, I'd been going home and away for close on 10 years so had actually found a way to double the frustration. Character-building stuff.

Despite a disastrous year in the top flight - pretty much burning a hundred grand to get one win all season - we did, somehow, manage to sneak our way to the John Player Trophy semi final at Headingley on 22nd December. We were bored to a 13-2 defeat by a ponderous Bradford Northern in front of 3,500; our impotence broadcast live to the nation on GrandStand. Ruined my Christmas.

The following season - having been dispatched whence we came - Hornets shocked the Rugby League world by reaching the Lancashire Cup final at Wilderspool. The last four in the competition were Wigan, Saints, Hornets and Carlisle. We drew Carlisle at home. Book the coaches!

As it was, we gave a fantastic account of ourselves, leading twice through tries by Darren Abram and Ronnie Duane, only to succumb to the brutal cheating of Paul Bishop to lose by 24-12.

Fast forward to this week. 22 years is a very long-time without a big day out. As Gareth Walker reminded us, it's the longest hiatus in the UK professional game between finals of any description. Excited? You bet.  It's been an up and down season, but we're 80 minutes away from breaking my - our - finals duck. 

And I was right when I was six - watching Hornets IS brilliant. Let's bring it home - we're overdue a party.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Final Countdown No.2

Crooky Drives Oldham (Ginger) Nuts

Featherstone, Doncaster, Keighley, York. On Sunday Hornets aim to join a decidedly Yorkshire-looking band of clubs to have beaten Oldham in Grand Finals.

Having tasted defeat on four consecutive years, Oldham have taken a bit of a sabbatical from the final of late, but are determined to go one better in what will be this season's most febrile A627M El Classico.

In the Oldham Evening Chronic yesterday, Chris Hamilton was bullish: “The players are chomping at the bit to get back at Rochdale in the final. We want to do a job on them, make no mistake.” 

But we sense that they have one General concern.

We think it's interesting  that - whilst the Oldham Evening Chronic reports our recent one-point win at Whitebank as a 'blip' in what they see as Oldham's divine right to promotion - all they've done is fixate on Paul Crook.

In their immediate assessment of the Qualifying Semi-Final the Oldham paper said: "Paul Crook’s master-class in kicking a rugby ball in wind and rain inflicted a painful blow to Oldham’s promotion prospects at a cold and drenched Whitebank. Crook’s uncanny ability to plant the ball exactly where he wanted it, despite atrocious conditions, gave his side the vital edge in a 23-22 play-off triumph"

And again, in their report of Oldham's thrashing of the Skolars on Sunday they say: "A week ago (Lewis) Palfrey, on his own public admission, was given a lesson by his opposite number in the Rochdale side, Paul Crook…"

Palfrey himself admits: “I hold my hand up. Paul Crook gave me a lesson in how to handle play-off rugby…"

Looking forward to Sunday's tutorial already.

For stats fans, those Oldham Grand Final losses were:

2007 - lost 24-6 to Featherstone at Headingley.

2008 - lost 18-10 to Doncaster at the Halliwell Jones, Warrington.

2009 - lost 28-26 to Keighley at the Halliwell Jones, Warrington.

2010 - lost 25-4 to York City Knights at the Halliwell Jones, Warrington.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Final Countdown No.1

Hornets v Oldham - The Only Show in Town?

Has the elimination of Halifax and Featherstone from the Championship playoffs moved Hornets v Oldham to the top of the bill?

With the winner-takes-all element of what is one of our sport's oldest Derby matches, you might be forgiven for considering the mouthwatering Hornets V Oldham crunch clash to be the real headline act of next week's finals weekend. 

And, with the added frisson of promotion up for grabs, if the A627M El Classico is as tight, taut and heart-stopping as it has been this season it could leave Batley v Sheffield looking like a severe case of 'after the Lord Mayor's show'.

Both Hornets and Oldham have regularly had crowds on a par - and occasionally better - than both Batley and Sheffield this season. And it's certainly conceiveable that supporters from both sides of this venerable fixture could outnumber their Championship counterparts.

When you compare aggregate league meeting attendances between the finalists this season there's very little in it. The two Batley/Sheffield games yielded an aggregate of 1822; the two Hornets/Oldham games yielded 1751. The biggest gate from the four being the 1107 at the televised Hornets v Oldham fixture in September.

Over the season, the Championship Clubs have the edge - but not by much in Batley's case: averaging 784 over the season in comparison with Hornets 630 and Oldham's 689. Sheffield Averaged 942. Batley went over 1,000 twice. OIdham twice and Hornets once. Sheffield edged over the 1,000 mark ten times and maxed at 1253. Hornets top attendance was the 1,107 v Oldham, whose biggest gate was the 1,209 v Crusaders. Though God knows where you put twelve hundred people in Whitebank.

So the potential's there for The A627M El Classico to be the game of the day - on and off the pitch!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Hornets wring out victory at the death

Oldham 22 - Hornets 23

There was much discussion before the game about whether Whitebank could be the RL world's least hospitable semi-final venue. Played through a relentess downpour of diluvian proportions, it was clear that the team best able to cope with the appalling conditions would gain a significant advantage.

With little open football on show, this was a war of squelchy attrition. Indeed, we wrote last week that teams of strong character find a way to win. And, whilst every single Hornets player on show gave absolutely everything to the cause, with three from three conversions, two 40/20s, two huge penalties, a try-making grubber and a one-man exhibition of flawless tactical kicking, it was worth every single penny of our twelve quid to watch Paul Crook kick Oldham to an absolute standstill.

But Oldham were first to exploit the conditions, hoisting an awkward spiralling kick to the corner after 6 minutes. 
Gaz Langley looked to get a nudge in flight, but Mr Hewer was satisfied that no offence had been committed and Ford pounced on the loosened ball to score. No matter.

Led by Crooky's rader-guided boot, Hornets began their ascent of Whitebank's slippery slope. A series of punishing kicks had Oldham schlepping back to gather possession in their own in-goal; an enthusiastic defence perpetually willing to chase them down and pin Oldham in their own 10 metre zone. And it paid dividends after 17 minutes.

Crook smacked a massive 40/20 up the slope and good approach work saw Carl Forster crash over the line, but unable to ground the ball.

Forster then turned provider: finding the onrushing Joe Greenwood with a sweet short pass and he bustled and wrenched his way in to get the ball down. Crooky added the two, followed by a cool penalty up the hill into the wind 10 minutes later to give Hornets a slender 6-8 lead.

Just past the half hour, another monster Crook 40/20 took Hornets deep into Oldham territory, where, this tme, John Cookson went agonisingly close to scoring, felled inches short. Oldham made a spectacular mess of the resulting possession - Whitehead spewing the ball under no pressure into the arms of the Jordan Case who dived in through an agog defence to score a sitter. Crooky made no mistake to send Hornets in at the break 6-14 ahead.

Oldham began the second half as they did the first. A teasing Palfrey dink through from close range took a couple of deflections, Hughes quickest to react to haul Oldham back into the game at 12-14.

The arm-wrestle continued, both sides keeping it tight, but Crook's kicking gave Hornets the upper-hand, turning Oldham's defence around again and again. And when Oldham transgressed on 50 minutes, the Ginger General coolly stroked home the 45 metre penalty to stretch Hornets lead.

On the hour, it was Crook again who unlocked the Oldham defence. Great approach work from the Hornets pack drove Oldham back under their own posts and, as the defence rushed out on the last tackle, Crooky slipped a slide-rule kick past the left post for Wayne English to ghost in and score. Fantastic stuff. Crooky with the two: 12-22.

Now it was Oldham's turn to dig in and chase the game - and they came up with two quickfire tries for winger Agoro, who'd looked like he'd much rather be somewhere else for most of the afternoon. The first was a last tackle squeeze-in by the flag (Palfrey's conversion attempt well short into the wind); the second off a Palfrey chip that caused chaos behind the Hornets defence. Palfrey this time good for the two and - out of nowhere - the game locked up at 22-all with four minutes to play.

Hornets didn't piss about. Stern defence restricted Oldham to completing sets in their own half and after a couple of 'range-finders' first from Wayne English and then by Paul Crook, Hornets launched the crucial attack of the game. Again the forwards ground Oldham back down the hill and, with tackles to spare, the ball found Crooky with enough time and space to launch the 30 metre drop goal that sealed the victory. Quite simply, bloody stunning.

There was barely time to restart the game and the hooter signalled celebrations as Hornets take their place in the Kingstone Press Championship 1 Grand Final.

And that's well worth the soaking.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Sunday's Coming Play-Off Special: Oldham

Due to the vagaries of our modern stop-start summer season, by the time we rock-up at Whitebank on Sunday, Oldham will have gone four weeks without a competitive game. Undefeated in the last nine games of the regular season, almost a month's hiatus twixt games could easily kill any momentum.

However, having grouted the gap with a couple of friendlies, Scott Naylor is confident that his side won't go into the Sunday's A627M El Classico undercooked. Speaking in the Oldham Chronicle he said: “We’ve seen already this season how passionate Oldham-Rochdale games can be and this one will be especially so because there is so much riding on it. Our record against them is pretty decent - three wins out of four - and if we turn up and give 100-per-cent there’s no reason we can’t beat them again."  I love how Oldham count the Law Cup when they win it, but dismiss it when they don't.

Whitebank here we come!

The only possible change to the squad which pipped Hornets by five points last month involves Salford Red Devils' Dual Reg player Jon Ford who is back in training after dislocating an elbow. Clearly, using Roughyed logic, even daring to have a DR player in the squad makes Oldham Salford's reserve side.

Come 4.40pm on Sunday, the winners will go straight through to the final at Leigh Sports Village on Sunday, September 29, while the losers must gird their loins and play again - at home - on Sunday Sept. 22 to the winners of the London v Hemel game.

Here at TLCRF80mins towers, we're hoping for a week off while Oldham play Hemel.

So, stuff three mates into the car and get yourself to Whitebank early to get a half decent view of proceedings. The A627M El Classico is a coronary on a stick at the best of times, but Sunday's game should have a little extra fizz. We can't wait.

UPDATE RFL Official Preview/Press Release

Oldham coach Scott Naylor is hopeful Jon Ford could feature in Sunday’s Kingstone Press
Championship One play-off final qualifier. (You heard it here first, folks).

Naylor said: “The fact he’s well enough now to join in training again has given us a lot more hope.”

Rochdale Hornets captain Wayne English is rated as ‘less than 50/50’ by coach Ian Talbot ahead of Sunday’s showdown. Talbot said: “Wayne’s been key for us this season, but he missed training on Tuesday and we’ll assess him again on Thursday.” (This was written ahead of Thursday night's session).

Talbot added: “Last week we didn’t produce the best performance, but we got the result. I’d settle for another bad performance on Sunday if we get the result we want."

“There’s lots of local rivalry and tradition involved between Rochdale and Oldham. This is the fifth meeting of the season and they’re ahead so far, so we’re gunning for it. We’ve already been to Whitebank and got a win this season, so that gives us some confidence.”

Monday, 9 September 2013

Crook Leads Hornets Smash & Grab Raid

Hornets 26 - Skolars 24

If you're going to steal a game, you need a cool-headed crook in your side - and in this tight, uncompromising game, Hornets skipper Paul Crook proved the difference - 100% with the boot yet again to steer Hornets to within 80 minutes of a Grand Final.

Skolars set their stall out from the off: gangly prop Williams conceding a penalty for a high-shot in the first tackle of the game. With Skolars ultimately on the wrong end of an 8-1 penalty count (Hornets sole concession a mistimed Gaz Langey tackle on the hour mark), it was a reasonable indicator of what we might expect. 

Hornets took full advantage. Off the back of the penalty, determined forward approach play gave Hornets good field position - and when Skolars coughed possession Gaz Langley took Hornets very close to the visitors' line. With the Skolars defence stretched, Jordan Case found a chink to plunge in and open the scoring after just 6 minutes. Crooky added the two.

After its whirlwind opening, the game shrank into an arm-wrestle: Skolars happy to dump bodies in the ruck, crawling and sprawling as referee Hewer allowed them the leeway to slow down the play-the-ball.

Having survived a brief Skolars foray ending in a Hornets penalty after stand-in fullback Gaz Langley was tackled in the air off a Skee bomb, Chris Hough launched an inch perfect 40/20, only for the touch judge to deem it short of the mark. A poor decision. But when Skolars' veteran rake Wray fumbled a play the ball in the 20th minute, Hornets shipped ball swiftly to the right where Dave Sutton launched himself in by the flag for a well-taken try. Crooky with the extras from the touchline.

Skolars finally succumbed to the desire to play some football after Hornets conceded a 25th minute goal-line drop-out, creating two quick-fire tries, firstly from Thomas after Anthony had made the extra man; then from Raynor as Skolars counter-attacked. Skee, one kick from two.

There was still time for Mr Hewer to demonstrate his freestyle interpretation of the laws as, late in the half, Raynor clearly knocked on chasing a lofted kick, Hornets scuffed the bobbling ball dead in expectation of the scrum - only for the referee to award a drop-out. Hornets ended a close-fought half defending in numbers to hold Skolars' wing Paxton up over the line.

Half time 12-10. Tight stuff.

Skolars started the second half in an uncharacteristically flowing mood. Good hands sent Raynor in out wide to grab a 14-12 lead, Skee hoyed a flapping conversion attempt into the Sandy Lane end.

Hornets responded well, grinding the Skolars back upfield where a beautifully weighted flat Steve Roper pass found Chris Baines arriving at pace to score through a scrambing defence. 18-14.

But it was a short-lived lead. Thomas broke the Hornets line and as he stepped inside, Gaz Langley's stretching last ditch tackle was adjudged high and put on report. From the resulting penalty Skolars whipped the ball across the line for Anthony to score. Skee hoofing the conversion attempt well-wide of the mark. 18-all.

Conversely, when Hornets were awarded a penalty five metres inside their own half ten minutes later, Paul Crook pointed to the posts. Cool as you like, the Ginger General stroked the ball between the sticks to uproarious applause to edge Hornets back in front  at 20-18 with 15 minutes to play.

Skolars grabbed the lead back with ten minutes remaining when Skee was first to react to a gap by the Hornets' posts - plunging in to score and injuring himself in the process. McClean added the two and, at 20-24, a herculean effort was needed for Hornets to salvage the game.

It's at times like this where teams of character find a way to win and Hornets sucked in for the biggest 10 minutes of the season so far.

Sending in the big guns, the Hornets pack drove the Skolars back under their own posts. John Cookson piled in and looked to have got the ball down on the line, only to be pulled for a knock on. With less than two minutes remaining, Hornets packed down to defend the set that could define their season. And what a set it was. Forcing an error from Skolars, Hornets shipped the ball to the left were Steve Roper found Dave Llewellyn arrving like a train, steaming through tired tackles to plant the ball and bring the crowd to its feet. Crooky banged home the two to give Hornets the narrowest of victories. Fantastic stuff.

We suggested in our preview for this game that the team that wanted this one most would succeed. Indeed, when things are tight, teams of strong character find a way to win. Now we need to find a way to win at Whitebank next week. By hook. Or by Crook.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Sunday's Coming: Play-Off Special - London Skolars

"The only reason that you came, so what you scared for? Don't you always do the same? It's what you're there for, don't you know..."

In the Arctic Monkeys song 'Dancing Shoes' Alex Turner writes about the fear that grips us all when we're faced with the thing we want the most - and the compulsion to just wait and see what happens. He observes that if you don't seize the moment, nothing will ever happen. This Sunday's Qualifying Play-off against London Skolars provides one of those heart-in-your-mouth moments that requires you to swallow hard and show your mettle.

Despite the fact that London Skolars have shaken off their 'also-rans' label and geared-up for a serious tilt at honours this season, there seems to be a severe case of vertigo at the New River Stadium - and if Skolars aren't careful, they'll struggle to shake off the tag of chokers. Twice this year they've arrived at 'must-win' games only to find the air a bit thin for their liking.

Gifted a route to the Northern Rail Bowl final courtesy of games against SW Scorpions and two undercooked 'expansion' teams, they couldn't sustain their solid start, going down 24-42 to Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™. Fast forward to last Sunday's game at Oxford, where they clawed their way back into a game they did everything to lose, only to run out of time, shipping a shock draw at Iffley Road and conceding third place to Hornets on a (quite significant) points difference, having won a game fewer.

Head to head over three games this season, Hornets hold a narrow 88 - 72 lead over Skolars. Back in April, Hornets beat them 40-16 in a Late Trains Cup cross-group dead-rubber before slugging out a pig-ugly 32-24 home win later that month. We then succumbed to Skolars' unique brand of anti-football, going down 32 to 16 at the New River Stadium in June.

Certainly, a Skolars line-up featuring former Harlequins, Bradford and (NSW Cup) Windsor Wolves forward Mike Worrincy, former Keighley handful Jermaine Wray and the free-scoring Dylan Skee has 'awkward' written all over it. Their squad also includes former GB wing Gareth Raynor who made his debut for the Skolars at the All Golds back in June - a genuine strike threat.

Despite the seam of quality running through their team, Skolars still have the dubious honour of being the ugliest side we've seen this season. The way they spoil you to a standstill and feed off your frustration is almost admirable in the level of application it requires. Indeed, having the leakiest defence in the top six might be a reasonable indication of why they strive so hard to unsettle their opposition.

Take last week for example. Leading 12-nil after 25 minutes only to find themselves 26-18 down on the hour, it seems they resorted to type. Already on the way to the wrong-end of the penalty count, Skolars had Ollie Purslow sent off for fighting after a high tackle sparked a brawl (Oxford's Clarke was also dismissed). That unsettled Oxford sufficiently for Skolars to grab two tries and salvage the draw. Afterwards Oxford coach Tony Benson said: "We've improved a lot… but the fight didn't help us." Quite.

Joe Mbu was a bit more circumspect: "I have mixed emotions… we played a bit naively. Even when we were dominant at the start of the game our failure to complete our sets was a concern."

Ahead of the forthcoming game Mbu said: “There’s certainly been a change of intensity around training this week. There seems to be a lot more focus and there’s a good feeling about the place. Rochdale always peak towards the back end of the season... they’ll be looking forward to this game and it won’t be easy for us. A lot of things are riding their way, but we’ve got a game-plan and if we execute that then we’re confident we can get a result.” We await that with interest, though we fear that it just might be another 80 minutes of bare-arsed spoiling...

In the wash-up, Skolars have had a good season. Their loss by only six points to Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™ on Cup Final Weekend, is a good indicator of how far they've come and what they're capable of. That they lost after leading twice at 8-nil and 14-12 hints that they may still be struggling to shake off that chokers tag.

Ultimately, here at TLCRF80mins towers, we think Sunday's game will come down to who wants it most. The first of three wins required to achieve this season's goal. Nerve wracking, for sure - but big games ARE the only reason that we came. So what ARE we scared for? 

Time to believe, folks. Get on your dancing shoes..

Monday, 2 September 2013

Crash for Golds - as Hornets Cash In.

Hornets 72 - University of Gloucsestershire All Golds 12

We wrote in last week's preview of this game of the potential for 'glory in September' - and Hornets brought down the curtain on the regular season with a truly glorious 72-12 flogging of the University of Gloucestershire All Golds.

This was an accomplished, considered performance - low on errors and penalties and orchestrated by the silky skills of the Ginger General Paul Crook who not only kicked 12 from 12 and weighed in with a try to give him a personal tally of 28 points, but also repeatedly turned UGAG around with an impressive display of tactical kicking.

In fact, his very first kick of the afternoon paid dividends! Having seen Crooky's kick-off bounce dead to gift themselves an All-Golds drop-out, Hornets were on the front foot from the off.

Smart hands to the right sent Danny Davies sailing through a huge hole after just four minutes, followed on the next set by Dave Llewellyn bursting through to open his account.

And when Wayne English made the extra man to unleash Gaz Langley after 10 minutes, you sensed that this could be a long afternoon for the shellshocked visitors.

Playing smart error-free football, Hornets maintained the pressure.

Slick approach put Hornets back on the attack after 15 minutes. Having crossed the line, Wayne English kept his arms free as the All Golds defence wrestled to prevent him from grounding the ball. Good awareness saw him flip the ball back to the supporting Dave Llewellyn and - with the defence occupied with Wayne - he coolly planted the ball for his second.

By now the Hornets pack was causing all sorts of problems, making big yards through the heart of the All Golds defence. John Cookson showed great hands to send Paul Crook in for a well crafted try, and Joe Greenwood followed almost immediately with a deserved try by the posts. Hornets brought up the forty with three minutes of the half remaining Danny Davies replicating his earlier effort.

Half time 42-nil.

Whatever Brad Hepi said at half time had a temporary uplifting effect on the visitors. Playing at a higher tempo and with a clear determination, they fashioned two quick tries from Barlow and Cowburn, but the Hornets machine clicked back into gear and when birthday boy Chris Hough celebrated with a sucker-punch try from close range, normal service was resumed.

Carl Forster showed good strength to shrug off defenders to score on 68 minutes, then quick thinking from Dave Hull on a 'free play' from a fumbled All Golds possession found Martin Waring with acres of space to pick his spot and score.

It was that man Carl Forster again, wreaking havoc in the All Golds defence on 76 minutes, breaking into open field and picking a well-timed pass to send Wayne English in under the black dot.

And John Cookson was rewarded for a good afternoon's work as he slipped in stealth bomber-like from acting half to bring up the seventy.

Having done everything they had to with style and quality, there was an edgy wait for both players and fans for the result to filter through from Iffley Road. News that Skolars had choked - only managing a slutchy draw as a late-late Oxford drop-goal attempt drifted agonisingly wide - brought the biggest cheer of the day as Hornets secured a home play-off tie next week.

The real business starts now. Let's go to work.