Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Sunday's Coming: Swinton Lions

In the week where the son of Swinton legend Danny Wilson stepped into quite possibly the highest profile sporting job in the world, it was apt to consider the long, dark uncertain winter of the soul suffered by the loyal supporters of one of Rugby League's most venerable clubs.

A Sporting Legend -
 and Ryan Giggs.
Swinton's pre-season near-implosion left player-coach Ian Watson late to the championship party, hurriedly assembling a squad and compelled to continue to lean heavily on the Lions'  Dual registration relationship with Warrington that has seen a parade of senior Super League names don the blue and white jersey. To some, this seemingly over-symbiotic relatiotionship exemplified all that's wrong about Dual Reg. Indeed, without coming over all Clive Griffiths, last year's 'cameos' by Adrian Morley, Lee Briers and Paul Wood left even us at TLCRF80mins reconsidering our view.

This season - with Dr Marwan Kash-Cow hovering in the background promising a new ground in Swinton in return for the club's very soul -  the relationship seems more balanced, with Kevin Penny probably the highest profile Dual Reg. name. He was recalled to his parent club last week, scoring a hat-trick in Wire's thrashing of Doncaster - but is in line for a return on Sunday.

Swinton similarly exited the Challenge Cup last week at the hands of a fairly rudimentary Keighley Cougars - and it afforded us the opportunity to take a first-hand look at this week's opponents.

What we saw was, fundamentally, the Ian Watson show. Complete with his trademark skippety-hoppety running style, his single-handed steering of the Swinton ship is the bedrock of their game-plan. 

We didn't see a great deal of structure: most plays appeared to be ad-hoc - called play-by-play by Watson - so when he wasn't involved, there wasn't a great deal of threat. His injected himself into play mid-way through most sets to effect either a short drop-off pass or a wide cut-out pass. But as Swinton began to chase the game Watson got increasingly sucked in at acting half as their only real channel of distribution.

If the ball didn't get to Watson on the last tackle, Swinton looked short on ideas - twice caught in last tackle possession, and alternative kickers finding neither space nor a corner. And with no real second-phase ball to speak of, Keighley were rarely stretched.

But Watson's importance to the Swinton effort was underlined by two vintage moments mid-way through the second half that hauled the Lions to within one score of the Cougars. A beautifully timed pass and an inch-perfect kick peeled the visiting defence wide open for two well taken tries - fair warning that, if you give him enough time and space, he can still create good opportunities.

Without the ball, Swinton's defence looked fragile under kicks.  They didn't successfully defend a kick of any kind until the 70th minute, when wing-man Worthington shipped a grubber dead. Until then they'd reeled under a series of bombs to the corners and generally flapped at anything bouncing into the in-goal.

Locked in a centre-field arm-wrestle, Swinton looked more than capable of nullifying Keighley's blunt-instrument approach (five drives by a big lad, followed by a sixth drive from a big lad) - but as soon as Keighley opened up their game, the Lions looked in all sorts of trouble. Indeed, Swinton struggled with sudden spikes of high-tempo, expansive football.

Three times (the first after just two minutes) Keighley moved the ball swiftly - doubling-up centres, with the full-back looping outside to create the extra man - and the Lions had no real answer.

The final score of 20-33 short-changed Keighley's dominance a little. While Swinton worked hard, scrambled well and gave it a good go, Keighley did pretty much everything better on the day and deserved their 'reward' - a trip to Widnes (now, that does feel like fourth prize in the raffle).

Ultimately, our observation is elementary: stop Ian Watson and the rest will follow.


Ton-up for Wayne
Hornets club captain Wayne English is set to make his 100th appearance for the Hornets against his old club Swinton Lions on Sunday.  Having had a 10 year career at Swinton, 'The Bolt from Kirkholt' came 'home' to Hornets in 2010 and has established himself as a club legend.

TLCRF80mins sends its heartiest congratulations to the best full-back never to have played Super League - and better than many who have.

RFL Preview
In-form Rochdale Hornets prepare for Sunday’s Kingstone Press Championship clash with Swinton Lions buoyed by winning three of their last four league fixtures. Ian Talbot’s side has beaten Batley Bulldogs, Whitehaven and North Wales Crusaders in that period.

Talbot said: "We’ve a few results that have turned heads. The last game against North Wales was very satisfying for us given the rivalry that’s built up."

“We are finding our feet at this level, but it’s going to get tougher from here. Maybe a few teams have underestimated us up to now, but I can’t see that happening now."

He added: “Swinton will be looking at this as a must-win game. If we get the win it puts us four points above them, so it’s a big game for both teams.”

Gareth Langley will be assessed before Sunday’s match after what was initially thought to be a rib injury was discovered to be a bruised lung. Alex Trumper (knee) and Dave Llewellyn (ankle) will not be ready for Sunday, but John Cookson could feature.

Swinton coach Ian Watson looks set to be boosted by the return of Josh Barlow, but Mick Nanyn and Danny Halliwell are both ruled out.

The Lions are also without Zach Johsnon, who was given a one-match suspension by the RFL’s disciplinary panel after being found guilty of punching in the Lions’ recent match against Leigh Centurions, but former Hunslet centre Steve Lewis could come into contention.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Hornets Power Wrecks 'em

Crusaders 16 - Hornets 42

Hubris is the stock in trade at the Unvrsty f n Vwls Racecourse Stadium. 'We Fear Nothing" is their motto - but there will be plenty of people in Wrexham waking up sweating at the torment meted out by Hornets in this outstanding win.

Outmuscled by a superior pack, out-thought by a smarter half-back pairing, out-played by a fitter looking side and out-enthused 1-to-17, Crusaders were a distant second to a ruthless Hornets in full flow.

All the early pressure came from from Hornets, with Ryan Millard spraying the ball wide, with debutant Shaun Robinson hustled into touch twice in the opening minutes. After 10 minutes the concerted pressure finally told,  Paul Crook ghosting over from acting half, then converting his own try to give Hornets a nil-6 lead.

Crusaders tried desperately to get themselves into the game. But poor discipline and a pack looking increasingly second best as the game progressed ensured that the momentum stayed with Hornets. Ironic then that it was a Hornets transgression that piggy-backed the homeside downfield where Johnson found space to score after 15 minutes. He slapped his conversion attempt wide of the mark. 

Crusaders continued to spoil and scrap and when they coughed up a penalty for holding down after 25 minutes, Crooky coolly took the two to stretch Hornets' lead to 4-8.

With the home side's persisting in attempting to stymie every ruck, referee Cobb's patience finally snapped, and when Crusaders' Walker challenged his point of view he was dispatched to consider his role in matters for 10 minutes. Hornets' response was immediate.

With Walker still… er… walking to the bench, Sean Casey picked a peach of a pass for Chris Baines to hit at pace and score. Crooky with the extras, 4-14.

Now with the momentum, Hornets continued to press and with the half hour on the clock, Mike Ratu wrestled his arms clear of surrounding defenders to touch down. Crooky with the two; Hornets looking comfortable at 4-20.

With half-time approaching, Crusaders launched a late attack. Playing some rare football, Ashall conjured up a short ball for Offerdahl to score on the hooter. Johnson adding the two: half time, Crusaders flattered at 10-20.

The second half began with the home side clearly having ratcheted up the niggling, but Hornets began with serious intent. An early penalty gave Hornets good field position, where Paul Crook sent Adam Bowman powering under the black dot.  The two a formality: 10-26

Tempers finally frayed after 50 minutes when roly-poly Jono Smith goaded a reaction out of Adam Bowman. Both players sin-binned; Crusaders first to compose themselves, Ashall scoring of the next set. Johnson with the extras 16-26. 

Hornets had clearly had enough of the home side's pissing around and stepped up a gear to take the game out of Crusaders' reach.

On 58 minutes good hands fashioned a great break for Mike Ratu out wide. Ratu backed himself against  ex-Super League threequarter Wilde and left him for dead. With support on his right and defenders gathering, Ratu produced an outrageous dummy that left him with a clear run to score the try of the day. Crooky banged the two over from the touchline and Crusaders were blowing hard at 16-32.

Further Welsh niggling on the hour gifted Paul Crook two more from a penalty -and it was Crooky again tormenting the home defence four minutes later when he drew two defenders and slipped a gem of an inside ball to Gaz Langley who skated through to score. Crooky with the two: 16-40 and the home side a busted flush.

On the next foray into Welsh territory a good kick and chase forced a repeat set - but Crusaders fluffed the drop-out, failing to go 10 metres. Crooky said "ta" and whacked home the two: 16-42.

The home side repeated the feat from the kick-off, Jono Smith's effort failing to go the ten; Hornets straight back up field to turn the screw some more, but - now unable to summon the wherewithal to niggle - the home defence held-out.

Final score 16-42.

Make no mistake about it, this was about as one-sided a flogging as it's possible to see. There's no doubt that Crusaders have capable players in their line-up, but their desire to spoil was their downfall here - and Hornets were happy to play expansive, high-tempo football around the Welsh side's lame antics.

Certainly, there are questions to be asked about the desire in the Crusaders camp. Where Ian Talbot has galvanised his team into a tight, united, spirited unit, as soon as the game began to slip away from the home side, they sought to disrupt - and when that failed, they basically folded. The vociferous home fans didn't like it much - but the noisy, elated Hornets contingent in the 835 crowd didn't really care.

And with Hornets hoisted up the table, this was a great afternoon's work by everyone involved. 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Friday's Coming: North Wales Crusaders

What better way to spend a Good Friday than queuing all the way to Wrexham to see Hornets take on 'Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™' at the Nversty f n Vwls.

Wrexham this morning: total gridlock
And, my, how things have changed since last we visited. Having spent every opportunity last year to pontificate on the evils of Dual Registration, Clive Griffiths has had a Damascene conversion. Having leapt eagerly for Widnes' teat, Griffiths said pre-season:  "Denis (Betts) and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to loans and dual registrations. It's going to be a long, physical and demanding season and a professional partnership with Widnes will certainly prove an added advantage."

A Rugby League miracle, ladies & gentlemen. Hallelujah!

Having played the hypocrisy card, Griffiths has assembled a robust outfit that looked like it might shock a few sides this season - certainly the additions of Michael Platt, Stephen Wild and US World Cup forward Mark Offerdahl caught the eye.

Having nabbed a couple of early wins over Barrow and Swinton, Crusaders now sit two places and one point above Hornets in the table having lost the last four games straight - including a 66-nil tanking at Featherstone in the cup.

Last week, Crusaders were in the game at 10-6 at the Keepmoat until bouncing bundle of fun Jono Smith got himself sin-binned for a professional foul on the hour mark - sticking out a leg at the play the ball to try and buy a couple of seconds to get back to marker. Doncaster scored off the next set. 

Most notable contribution came from Gary Middlehurst who weighed in with two tries to secure a bonus point.

Indeed, with the bottom six packed tightly together, any points are vital -  which gives what has already become a bit of a spicy fixture a bit of an extra frisson.

Interesting footnote to this preview is that, this week, agricultural Cumbrian battering ram Ryan MacDonald has been released from his Crusaders contract early to 'pursue his career elsewhere', after he admitted to Clive Griffiths that that the Championship was a bit tougher than he envisaged.

MacDonald has been replaced with former French international Sebastien Martins.
who's been playing with Queensland Cup side Central Queensland Capras. Martins previously played in UK competitions with Catalan Dragons, Hull KR, Leigh and Whitehaven Depending on his jet-lag, he may play on Friday. 

The Crusaders side at Doncaster last week was:

1 Tommy Johnson, 22 Adam Clay, 17 Stuart Reardon, 3 Christiaan Roets, 5 Rob Massam, 7 Jamie Dallimore, 28 Craig White, 8 Jonny Walker,  9 Craig Ashall, 10 Mark Offerdahl, 12 Gary Middlehurst, 13 Jono Smith, 14 Stephen Wild. Subs: 15 David Mills, 19 Karl Ashall, 21 Simon Stephens, 26 Matt Reid.

Directions to 'Big Spending North Wales Crusaders™'

Take the M56 toward North Wales/Chester/Runcorn.
At junction 15, exit onto M53 toward Chester/Wrexham.
Continue onto the A55.
At junction 38, take the A483 to Wrexham/Chester.
At junction 5, take the A541 exit to Wrexham//Mold.
Top of the slip road go left onto the A541.
Through a coupe of roundabouts (passing Sainsbury's on your left).
The ground is, about half a mile on your left.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Hornets Fast-Forward Past Slow-Motion Whitehaven

Hornets 20 Whitehaven 16

Previously, rugby league fans might've questioned whether all the plutonium in West Cumbria's water-table constitutes an illegal dietary supplement. But on this showing, the 770 fans that saw a patched-up Hornets scrap and scramble to victory over a sluggish, half-speed Whitehaven might suggest a test for mogadon instead.

As Hornets got sucked like quicksand into Whitehaven's world of slow-motion torpor, it took a gutsy second-half performance to shake off the dead weight of the visitors and take the points that lift them off the bottom of the table.

'Haven applied all the early pressure, but - despite a 40/20 and a ten-minute encampment in Hornets' 20m zone, they showed their slow-hand early to reveal that they were bereft of ideas.

As it was, Hornets launched the first proper attack of the afternoon on 15 minutes when Lewis Sheridan was unable to capitalise on Paul Crook's teasing crossfield kick.

Off the hook, Whitehaven somehow fashioned a scrappy last tackle try that exemplified their rather tedious brand of anti-football: Mitchell reversing over the goal ine from 5 metres, with all the grace of a bin-wagon doing a three-point turn.

Southernwood converted: 6-nil - to the low-hum of gentle snoring.

Having coughed possession on the first tackle, Whitehaven beat a leaden retreat to their own line as Hornets began to build pressure. A good kick and chase from Ryan Millard forced a drop-out and swift hands across the line slotted Gaz Langley in by the flag. Crooky wide with the conversion attempt. 4-6.

Time and again, Hornets drove Haven back under their own posts, with repeated repeat sets, but with the visitors looking short on ideas, John Cookson fumbled the ball early in the tackle count and Whitehaven exhaled.

Completely against the run of play, Whitehaven awoke to summon up a 39th minute break through centre-field, but with the line at their mercy they came up with a comedy-pass that saw the ball bounce harmlessly forward.

Half-time 4-6.

For lovers of irony, it was Whitehaven that caught Hornets napping - gathering the kick-off ball and bundling Southernwood over by the posts. He converted his own try to give 'Haven a 12-4 lead.

Hornets had clearly had enough of Haven's clueless blunt-instrument tactics and hit the gas.

On 46 minutes a mercurial 70 metre break from Wayne English left a back-pedaling 'Haven defense grasping at shadows and, as they came crawling back upfield, quick-fire hands to the left threaded Lewis Sheridan in for a clinically executed try.  8-12.

Then, on 53 minutes, it was Gaz Langley soaring to snaffle an inch-perfect lofted Paul Crook chip to score. Crooky with the two; Hornets in front at 14-12 and the opining from the visitors to our right went up a notch.

On 56 minutes, Wayne English made the extra man on a sweeping passing move; his neat inside ball creating a huge hole for Ryan Millard to step through and score. Crooky hit the target and at  20-12 there was really only one team interested in winning this one.

'Haven strove desperately to suck the last drops of life from the game, but Hornets stood resolute as the visitors' impotent prodding became ever more flaccid.

Haven's three back-to-back sets on 70 minutes provided their epitaph for this game: 18 stumbling drives that came to nothing - their best shot, an attempt to shove Doran in backwards from 5 metres. Wretched.

In the 75th minute, referee Stokes awoke from his own slumbers to award Whitehaven the first offside penalty of the day. Only now did the visitors consider giving the ball to possibly the fastest winger in the league, and Calvert took his one chance well to score out wide. Southernwood slammed the conversion attempt haplessly wide and Hornets comfortably batted out the last five minutes to grab a vital 20-16 win.

Whilst this wasn't pretty, we'll gladly take a perfunctory win - especially one against a team whose pig-ugly game plan seemed to involve making time stand-still and hitting the opposition on the break as it nodded off.

And, while Hornets celebrate further progress in the Championship, quite a few West Cumbrian rugby league fans will be waking up wondering just what the hell happened to their team at Spotland.

Sleep well, everyone.