Thursday, 30 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - S.W. Scorpions

This Sunday sees stoic ex-Hornet Mike Grady haul his nascent South Wales Scorpions side the length of the country - most likely for another defeat.

Mike Grady: subtitles available for those
who don't speak Widnes...
We appreciate that building from the bottom up in the Valleys is a long-game - and that the biggest investment the game can make in development on the fringes of the UK’s League map is patience - but you have to question the sanity of any game that drags students and part-timers 350 miles to get a flogging in front of 400 people, then dumps them back home at 1am.

Indeed, whilst the rest of Rugby League seems obsessed with splitting into eights, League one has done it organically, without outside interference - the top 8 ‘Heartland’ clubs effectively a separate tier from the bottom six development outfits. Yes, we understand all the arguments for compelling them to play clubs of a higher level in order to drive up standards, but it’s now been 56 weeks since a southern side beat one from the north in League 1. Long enough to draw a conclusion?

It’s counterproductive to the game as a whole - fans pay to watch a contest, but - increasingly it seems, in Top Eight v Bottom Six games, the result is pretty much a foregone conclusion. And it does little for morale or credibility for developing clubs to be offered up as cannon-fodder to more experienced sides who, in turn, are now under pressure to rack-up cricket scores and who are lambasted when the ‘Southern’ teams dare to put up any resistance.

And when final league placings - promotion, even - can be decided by who rams the most points through the development clubs; and when a basket-case club like York gets gifted an easier ride by playing more of the bottom six and fewer of the top eight, you have to think that the format doesn’t really treat anyone fairly.

Indeed it was York’s turn to take a free swing at Scorpions last week - bangng them 60-nil at Mountain Ash. What did anyone really learn from that: other than that getting thumped every week probably doesn’t make Grady’s job any easier?

Even with the experience of Paul Emanuelli and Jonny Leather on-board, Scorpions are averaging a 36 point losing margin this season - their only win in 16 coming against London Skolars last month (26 - 20, in London).

Meanwhile it was a week of deep introspection for Hornets fans who saw their side produce a heroic 12-man performance at Swinton, only to fall just short. Plenty’s alread been said about Gaz Langley’s 9th minute brain-fart, so we’ll not rake it over - instead we’ll once again marvel at the vacuum that is the top-eight (or is that becoming a top seven, with Newcastle seemingly unable to shake off their stasis?).

We think it’s interesting that - in order to make the rest of Rugby League ‘interesting’ - the sport as a whole has felt compelled to manufacture the pressure and jeopardy that exists at the top of League 1 .

After last week, everyone got stuck looking at positions in the league - but the really interesting stuff is at the opposite side of the table, where just two points separates third from seventh. One win - it really is that tight. Over the next few weeks the margins will become increasingly fine - and every week will see that leading pack churned relentlessy. Every Minute Matters? Too bloody right. By our fag-packet calculations, points difference could separate 4th, 5th and 6th.

All we have to do is keep winning and stay in the mix. However it pans out, six clubs who will have had realistic promotion expectations back in March will find themselves back here next season for more of the same.

Unless of course, the RFL has a plan for the game at our level. And what are the odds on that?

Monday, 27 July 2015

12-Man Hornets Heroics Not Quite Enough

Swinton 20 - Hornets 16

Heroics from 12-man Hornets were not enough as a stultifyingly dull Swinton capitalised on their numerical advantage to cling-on and take the points in a contest where you’d be hard-pushed at times to spot the side a man short.

On a day that required cool heads and concentration, the afternoon started pretty badly: Hornets coughing the kick-off possession, then a soft penalty - Ex Hornets Littler and Robinson combining to give the home side a pretty soft first minute lead.

Then - just as Hornets seemed to have regained their composure - a moment of madness from Gaz Langley. Penalised for swearing at a touch-judge, he then swore at the referee who produced a yellow card. Just for good measure he swore at the referee again as he passed by - and Mr Thomason was perfectly happy to convert the yellow to a red. 9 minutes gone…

Hornets responded positively, forcing a 13th minute drop-out. Then - on 15 minutes - Wayne English looped in off a short-ball to score. 4-all. Game on.

Tempers frayed further on 20 minutes - Dale Bloomfield and Littler engaged in handbags; then Hornets pressing hard - good field position off a direct approach-set squandered by an obstruction.

On 22 minutes, Swinton applied some basic physics, running their biggest forward at Danny Yates to create space for Thorley to score. Mort the extras 10-4.

Hornets again responded well - keeping play tight and direct in centre-field, stealing metres out of every tackle. But - having forced Swinton backwards - a soft (and dubious) penalty for interference not only let them off the hook, but gifted them a platform to work the overlap and put Rothwell in at the corner. Mort the two off the touchline: 16-4.

With half-time fast aproaching, Hornets continued to play the more progressive football: a great approach-set, but an undercooked last-tackle kick; then a better set forcing a drop-out. On 38 minutes Danny Yates’ dink into the in-goal was allowed to bobble, but his touchdown was deemed incomplete and Swinton went to the sheds breathing a sigh of relief.

A second half that Hornets would dominate began in scrappy fashion - both sides trading penalties and dropped balls. On 48 minutes a rare moment of Lions lucidity launched Robinson towards a certain try in the corner, but a remarkable tackle by Dave Hull sent the winger crashing into touch.
Then another scare - a Littler interception, a 60 metre dash, the ball slipped to Robinson - this time Wayne English scything down the winger in full flight.

With Hornets holding their own in what was now a tight arm-wrestle, Paul Crook began unleashing his repertoire of kicks. Twice forcing repeat sets, Swinton now on the ropes. Indeed, cometh the hour-mark cometh the Man - Crooky hoisting a huge cross-field kick, Dale Bloomfield soaring to catch and score. Crooky the 2 off the touchline. 16-10 and only one side playing any discernible football.

Within a minute a great charge-down and regather by Jordan Case put Hornets back in an attacking position, but a hurried pass too many saw the chance go begging.

Having soaked up half an hour of pressure, Swinton finally got to apply some of their own: Beecham taking a flat pass at pace to score through a stretched Hornets defence. Mort wide with the conversion attempt. 20-10 with 10 to play.

Hornets again responded positively and had redressed the balance within two minutes: Lee Paterson’s audacious show & go to create space for him to blast 70 metres for a great solo try. Crooky the two and Hornets in serious search of something from the game. But - despite heavy pressure in the last five minutes - Swinton hung-on just long-enough. Gutting.

We write here often that good teams have to find ways to win. That Hornets came within four points with only 12-men is testimony to their guts and determination. Certainly, Hornets finished the stronger side, but in the end it was just too much to ask.

Again, this was a weekend where the top eight got a shake-up. Barrow unconvincing at Oxford, North Wales falling apart at home against Oldham, York getting a free bag of points on their easy-street run-in. A cursory glance at the table today shows just two points - one win - separating third from seventh. It’s that close. Next week Oldham play Keighley and Swinton go to Newcastle: And Hornets get a shot at racking up some points aganst Scorpions. It’s not over till it’s over folks.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - Swinton Lions

This week brings another tense local derby as 5th placed Hornets take the short trip to 6th placed Swinton. To date, one point separates the teams: Hornets having one more win, but Swinton with a game in hand; Swinton margially ahead on points difference. All a bit tight.

A closer look at the fixtures reveals that Swinton are amongst the clubs most disadvantaged by League 1’s lop-sided bias: Swinton, Newcastle and North Wales play 14 games against top 8 teams plus 8 against the bottom 6 whereas York play 10 games against top 8 plus 12 against bottom 6. Keighley, Oldham, Hornets and Barrow 13 games against top 8 plus 9 against bottom 6.
Lions like Vimto:
Swinton - the porn 'tache years

Compared with York, that’s essentially an 8 point ‘deficit’ for the Lions to make-up against teams in the top eight. Not an easy task - but one they’re clearly having a bloody good go at. Last week they chipped away at it further, completing a hat-trick of victories over Keighley this season with a 22-14 win at Cougar Park. No mean feat.

For us the strike threat comes from a familiar source, two ex-Hornets: the combative, attritional Stuart Littler and the ducking/darting winger Shaun Robinson. By our reckoning, Litller - now 35 - has played the full 80 minutes in every single game this season. Impressively durable.

Also keep an eye on points machine Ian Mort who earlier this month scored six tries and kicked 11 goals in the Lions’ 96-4 flogging of Oxford.

Elsewhere this weekend, York travel to South Wales for another gift two points, Oldham travel to North Wales, Keighley host a fast-fading Newcastle and it’s Barrow’s turn to get a free swing at Oxford - so it’s important to be a positive part of the change that occurs in the top five this weekend, not a victim of it.

Earlier in the week we tried to crunch the numbers on the remaining games, predicting wins, losses and winning margins and then extrapolating the results to the end of the season’s placings. Even predicting conservatively, it’s tighteer than we imagined: potentially points difference separating fourth, fifth and sixth. What IS key, though is that - first and foremost -  we have to engineer a win of any kind against the teams around us.

Back in May, Hornets’ 28 - 16 win at Spotland was tighter than the scoreline suggests - and there’s no doubting that Sunday’s game will require another North Wales/Newcastle scale effort to some away from Sedgely Park with something. Indeed, in his comments post the Coventry win, Ian Talbot identified the quest for consistency as a primary component of the run-in.

However youlook at Sunday’s game, it’s there for the taking. And it’s going to be a belter, so get yourself over to Whitefield and let’s do our bit.

Monday, 20 July 2015

By Hook - or by Crook.

Hornets 50 - Coventry 22

It’d be churlish to complain too much about a victory in which Hornets nailed 50 points onto a one-dimensional opposition who came with - and stuck to - a game-plan designed to prevent Hornets playing at the right end of the field. And, while Hornets did play some scintillating football in short-spells, this was a win ground-out against a Bears side who’d come to make things awkward and feed of whatever scraps they could find. Primarily - Coventry spent 80 minutes playing five drives and a big kick deep into the Hornets half, hoping for an error. A plan so ugly, even its mother would struggle to love it.

Indeed, in may ways this game mirrored the previous fixture at Butts Park - Coventry chucking everything at the game for half an hour before running out of steam; Hornets comfortably securing the game in the third quarter.

It was a scrappy, hectic start from all parties involved. A third minute Danny Yates kick hitting the corner post; Referee Mr Leatherbarrow indicating a 20m restart - and much debate as to what circumstances dictate when/if the corner post is in/out of play.

Hornets then shipped a soft penalty in the middle of the park. Gifted an easy 40 metres the Bears’ Phillips arrived off a short-pass to crash in and score. So far, so ‘meh’. Nil-4: all a bit flat.

With Coventry coughing the kick-off possession, Hornets  had a chance to run with the ball. First a nice approach set saw Wayne English’s dink into the corner force a repeat set; then a short, flat ball cannoned off Woz Thompson’s chest with the line begging.

On 12 minutes a beautifully slipped Jordan Case pass launched Danny Yates into space. As he weaved and teased his way through the gathering defenders he was somehow held-up under the  posts. Coventry undid their good work with a needless penalty, whereupon Paul Crook dived in from acting half to level the scores. Crooky improving his own try 6-4.

Hornets continued to press and, whern Danny Bridge hit a short-ball to score after 17 minutes (Crooky the extras), Hornets looked to have steadied the ship at 12-4. But when Crooky overshot a 40-20 by a metre and Wayne English was trapped in-goal off a hit and hope kick, Coventry took advantage - Hughes going up the blind side off a telegraphed pass to score. A bit too easy, really: 12-8.

Three minutes later Hornets were caught napping again, allowing the rotund Jack Morrison to barrel 50 metres downfield; from whence a flapping last-minute kick into the in-goal was left to bobble for Cooper to touch down amongst the chaos. Parker the two and - somehow - Hornets 12-14 down. Just shoddy.

On the half-hour, the introduction of Alex McClurg and the switch of Paul Crook to out-half flicked the switch. James Tilley held-up over the line, then another Jordan Case break finding Danny Bridge whose teasing kick behind defenders was just over-hit. Right in the hooter Matt Haggarty crashed through from short range to give Paul Crook an easy conversion. Half time 18-14.

Coventry began the second half in peculiar fashion. Gifted a penalty 20 metres from Hornets’ line they elected to kick into their deficit. *nion-style they took the points to trail 18-16. Most people incredulous. Hornets hit the gas.

Led by the influential Paul Crook, Hornets increased the tempo. A teasing 45th minute Crooky bomb was lost in flight by the Bears defence; Crooky followed up his own kick and - juggling the ball with his fingertips - managed to touch-down. His touchline conversion the icing on the cake: 24-16.

Then two tries in two minutes that effectively killed the game as a contest: Danny Jones skittling defenders to grab his inaugural Hornets try; then a delightfully delayed pass from Paul Crook to put Jordan Case in for a deserved try. 36-16: Coventry hoisting the kick-off straight out; Crooky sliding the ball into the in-goal to force a drop-out. Hornets response was clinical: quick hands right for Dave Hull to shrug-off defenders and score.

Two minutes later Paul Crook produced another 1-metre special to grab his hat-trick. Hornets effectively home and hosed at 46-16.

Coventry did rally briefly to grab a late consolation (Cooper off a short-pass to score), but when Danny Yates forced a 76th minute drop-out off a cheeky kick, Hornets swept the ball wide to give Dale Bloomfield a clear run to the line. Full time 50-22.

In the wash-up, this was - eventually - a fairly comfortable win for a Hornets side that played most of the football on offer. Certainly, the switch of Paul Crook to stand-off triggered a clear refocus in Hornets’ approach, his cool head and right decisions at the right time giving his side more go-forward.

But Coventry are no mugs: they came with a plan, compelled Hornets to start their sets under their own posts and capitalised on the errors when they came. We’ve said here lots of times that one of these development sides WILL upset the form book at some point ( Oldham’s unconvincing 32-4 win at Skolars also billed as an ‘ugly win’ by Scott Naylor) - so the priority for Hornets - and the teams around us - is to win first and then worry about they style in which it’s done.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - Coventry Bears

As Sol Mokdad can testify, there are an awful lot of Rugby League evangelists around the world expending time, energy - and their liberty - in endeavouring to convince people that there isn’t just one ‘code’ of Rugby (how I hate the word ‘code’: it suggests a variant of a single game) - and that League has been a discrete sport in its own right since 1895.

Which is why it makes our teeth itch when League clubs cosy-up to *nion to promote ‘Rugby’ as a single entity in the hope that that they’ll somehow be able to gain some sort of trickled-down crumbs of benefit from it. Of course - especially in the year of the kick & clap world cup - it suits *nion to have ‘Rugby’ perceived as a single sport with ‘major’ and ‘minor’ variants. Even after 120 years, the other handling based football game is happy to present itself as the ‘one true code’ with League its barely-tolerated bastard cousin.

Indeed, the blurring of the rugby lines in such circumstances undoes the great work being done around the world in establishing League’s own identity, which plays into *nion’s hands (presumably before they kick it into the stand).

That’s why the news this week that Coventry Bears coach Tom Tsang has expressed how happy he is to see the Bears joining Coventry Sport Foundation in their long-term vision of making Coventry the first ‘City of Rugby’ caught our all-seeing eye.

The campaign - which  primarily seems to be a vehicle to ingratiate Wasps into the local sporting community (having bowled in on Coventry RFC’s territory like an invading army and set about hoovering up every *nionite within 20 miles) -  was also intended as a vehicle to promote the Ricoh arena as a potential *nion WC venue. The RFU repaid Coventry by taking the midlands game to Villa Park. You just CAN’T trust ‘em…

Now, we appreciate that it’s good to get your brand in front of as many people as possible, but you have to ask: if Coventry City were promoting a “City of Football”, would the Bears align themselves with that? Rugby League being a ‘football’ code and all. Probably not.

Aligning yourself with what is essentially a *nion promotion, sold in under a single ‘Rugby’ banner perpetuates the prevalent perception in some quarters that League can only ever be viewed through the lens of *nion. And, while *nion continues to appropriate league’s clothing in its attempt to persuade the unwary that they are us, the closer we stand to *nion the more people will think that League is merely a quirky adjunct that *nion types play in summer to keep fit. A derivation. A truncation. ‘*nion Lite’.

Ultimately, it’s the perception that League has to hitch itself to *nion’s caravan in order to gain traction that rankles. The fact that Coventry MIGHT pick-up some followers by misapprehension - drawn to the campaign in the belief that there’s really only one rugby-based football code and serendipitously finding the diamond of league in the pile of *nion dogshit.

And as long as *nion pretends to be ‘our mate’ - and we allow that to happen - we’ll never really have the balls to truly step out of its shadow.

Back at the ranch, Ian Talbot - justifiably - wasn’t happy with his side’s performance at the pre-conflagrated Whitebank. His post match view was that it was the worst defeat of the season - and few would argue.

With Barrow, York and Crusaders getting expcted wins, they all managed to scramble above Hornets in this increasingly taut division. This week Hornets get a chance to redress matters as Barrow face Crusaders, Keighley play Swinton and York host Newcastle at a field somewhere near York. Oldham get to play their joker at Skolars, so we can hope for a shock there (though we can’t really see it).

Since Hornets won the away fixture by a relatively comfortable 35-10, Coventry have slipped to 11th in the table with just four wins from their 14 games - but, as always, these development teams remain a banana-skin in waiting; more than capable of catching the complacent, poorly disciplined and the switched-off unawares. Indeed, last week’s 40-10 home defeat to high-flying Keighley puts Hornets’ victory at Butts Park in perspective and shows that the Bears can make life difficult for the best in the division.

Afterwards, Tom Tsang said: "For our third game in a row, we matched our opposition toe for toe in the forwards and for large portions of the game were actually on top physically, but just couldn't make the most of the opportunities we created for ourselves, whereas Keighley were clinical and turned most of their chances and half chances into points.”

A lesson there for all of us -not only do Hornets have to ensure that we aren’t the story in Monday’s papers, a bit of a cricket score would help restore that all-important points difference.

Monday, 13 July 2015

... One Step Back...

Oldham 38 - Hornets 18

If it’s the expectation that kills you, this game dealt the noisy Hornets following a proper kick in the spuds.

Having rushed into an early lead in a nip and tuck first half in which the momentum swung like a pendulum, Hornets were undone in a second half littered with penalties, lousy refereeng decisions and some pretty ordinary defence.

It took just six minutes for Hornets to leap into a teasing lead: a big show & go by Paul Crook opened up the home defence, his drop-off to Danny Yates who went desperately close. Hornets sprayed the ball wide, but couldn’t find an opening. Switching direction, it was Paul Crook who finally found a way through, mugging Oldham fron acting half. He stroked the conversion home from the touchline and Hornets looked sound at 0-6.

And when Oldham’s stretched defence almost decapitated Ryan Smith four minutes later, Crooky stretched the lead to 0-8.

As the game became loose, rattled by a series of dropped ball and curious penalties, Oldham took full advantage. Quick hands into space out wide saw Clay score by the flag. 4-8

On 20 minutes another surreal refereeing decision: a big hit by Danny Bridge knocked the ball loose in the tackle, but Ref. Mr Sweet gave a penalty for ripping the ball. Oldham capitalised as Huddersfield DR Jake Connor scored through a stretched defence. 8-all. The home side now with the momentum.

A Jack Ashworth intercept on 23 minutes looked to have temporarily repelled the danger, but he showed his inexperience in trying to do too much on the first tackle and compounded his fumbled carry with a penalty for dissent. This was rapidly followed by another penalty for interference: this time Oldham held-up over the line. Hornets under the cosh.

Two minutes later an Oldham player (we were unsighted) fumbled the ball reaching into the in-goal. Hornets’ response was to cough the ball first tackle.

Having defended for close on 15 minutes, he inevitable came when Crowley, Tyson and Roper combined to send Palfrey under the posts from 30 metres, Palfrey with a simple two, Oldham in front 14-8.

With half time looming Hornets launched an increasingly rare attack, Lee Paterson arriving at pace off a lovely flat ball to score. Danny Yates the two and the sides heading for the sheds locked up at 14-all.

The second half began with Hornets on top. Oldham dumped the kick-off straight out, Hornets ground Oldham back up the hill and Danny Bridge battled his way through the tightest of gaps to score: 18-14.

Then it all kinda just ground to a halt. As the penalty and error count mounted (Hornets shipped 13 penalties in this game - three of them ‘doubles’ for dissent after a penalty decision) Oldham just stuck to their basic gameplan of playing quick, direct football, while Hornets watched the game slide irrevocably away.

Tries by Fairbank, Gee and Owen kept the scoreboard ticking over at steady intervals, and a late-late effort from Crowley gave the scoreline a blow-out feel.

In the end this was a disappointing effort. Having played the lion’s share of the football in the early stages, Hornets became stuck in reverse as the game unravelled around them. Needless to say, the Oldham contingent celebrated like they’d won a final (as if such a thing were possible!) and they relentlessly took the piss as the Hornets supporters left, wondering what the bloody hell had happened.

Positives? Not many to be honest. Good to see Gaz Langley back, though he had little to do on either attack or defence; Woz Thompson took Hornets forward as best he could, and Paul Crook and Wayne English tried hard to create a spark: all to little avail.

With Swinton, York and Crusaders all nailing big wins onto ’southern’ opposition - and six of the top eight playing each other next week - it’s imperative that Hornets shake of this torpor and use next weekend’s game against Coventry to get the show back on the rails.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - Oldham

Just for a week, park all those ‘expansive’ thoughts of trips to the far flung extremities of the RL map. This week’s trip to Whitebank is old-skool ‘Rugby’ - near neighbours who’ve been playing derby games for longer than the sport of League has existed.

Oldham come into the game on the back of four straight wins - and top of an increasingly tight Kingstone Press League One. Lovers of irony may indeed want them to stay there , as the the only way out of this league this year is via one of two play-off finals. Given Oldham’s record in play-off finals and all…

Whitebank earlier today: probably just needs
a roll and a cut...
Certainly, Whitebank’s idiosyncratic topography will play a major part in Oldham’s run-in. Indeed
only this week the Oldham Chronic ran a feature on how the world’s only sloping swamp gives The Roughyeds a clear advantage. Ex- Salford forward Adam Neal said: “Generally speaking we play better at home, so at the very least we’ve got to target winning all those (remaining home games)”.

Oldham dealt with the first of those games - against York last week - in some style. Playing in monsoon conditions, they were 12-6 down after 54 minutes, but went on to win by 34 to 12: 18 of those points coming in the last 10 minutes. The most impressive stat: they kept York scoreless for 65 minutes, so some big defence there.

Roughyeds chairman Chris Hamilton thought the result was never in doubt:  “With the wind and rain behind us in the second half I was confident we would have enough to win.”

Coach Scott Naylor was pragmatic in his summary: “We had talked at half-time about the need to work harder, to be more aggressive and to be more direct… York rarely got anywhere near our try line (sic) in the second half. I’m seeing a different, more mature, Oldham now and we are looking better at controlling and managing certain situations. From the moment we levelled things up at 12-12 I felt we had the ascendancy. We kept it for the rest of the game and that’s a good sign of mental maturity. We tend to forget that League One this season is unbelievably tough.”

And we agree with him. We wrote a couple of weeks ago about how every last breath of air is being squeezed out of the top eight - with just five points now separating the top eight and every team in there seemingly capable of beating any of the others regardless of venue.

But this week sees six of the top eight playing ‘southern’ opposition - with only the A627M El Clasico pairing two contenders for the top five. Assuming that no miracles will be forthcoming elsewhere, it makes a win even more important.

Having seen off North Wales and Newcastle on their own patch, we know that Hornets are capable of finding ways to win close contests that matter - an that resolute, bloody-minded approach will be needed in spades at Whitebank on Sunday. For both teams, this could be the fulcrum on which the season turns: For Hornets, to cement our position and remove Oldham from top spot; for Oldham to emphasise their table topping credentials and shove Hornets back into the chasing pack.

Just as it always has, this derby is a game that actually means something. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Other news
Hornets have signed Saints prop Matt Haggarty on loan for the remainder of the season. The 24 year old is hugely experienced, having played at Leigh Miners Rangers, Salford, Whitehaven, Barrow, Oldham and Dewsbury before being snapped up by Saints at the start of the year. He joins fellow ex-Barrovian Danny Jones in a remodelled front row after the loss of Sam Brooks, Tony Suffolk, Ant Walker, Richard Beaumont and now John Cookson.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Plastic Fantastic!

Newcastle 28 - Hornets 32

More than an all-important top five contest, this game was also a clash of ideologies. Newcastle Thunder, the toy-de-jour of a multi-millionaire rugby *nion club owner; Hornets, fan-owned, prudently run within its modest means.

What was to unfold over a captivating 80 minutes on Kingston Park’s plastic pitch was the manifestation of the concept that money can’t buy you team spirit. Yes, Newcastle are a big, talented, hard-to-beat unit - but in the end you need more than a busload of imported reputations to pull you through. Sometimes you just need to refuse to lose.

Hornets opened like lightning - two quick-fire tries silencing the home crowd.

The first a lucid, sweeping passing  move that took Hornets fully 70 metres and left Thunder chasing shadows - Dale Bloomfield skinning his opposite number on the edge to slip an inside ball for Wayne English to score. The second came after Newcastle shipped a penalty for holding down; Danny Bridge piling through some ordinary tackling from close range. Crooky with two conversions and Hornets 12-nil up after just 10 minutes. Hornets continued to exert their dominance.

A rock-solid exit set surmounted by a great kick/chase; Thunder’s big-name signing Mark Mexico planted on his arse by Jordan Case; then another high quality approach set ended by Danny Yates’ teasing kick, gutsy chase and copy-book tackle.

The pressure on Newcastle was eased by a penalty for an innocuous ‘high’ tackle, but Thunder spent four tackles going nowhere before dropping the ball. Clearly rattled.

On 17 minutes, a rare Hornets lapse. A poor set handed the home side the ball on half-way. Newcastle’s recrimination was swift: quick hands wide for Capper to step inside and score. Beherrall the two; tannoy guy pleading for more vocal support to drown out the noisy Hornets contingent. 6-12

And when Newcastle moved the ball wide after 25 minutes for Brown to successfully exploit a hole , Beherrall was on target to pull Thunder level at 12-all. You sensed a momentum shift. Now Hornets rattled.

On the half hour attack was turned into frenetic, scrambling defence as a dropped ball was hacked to half-way, where Hornets coughed a penalty to take Thunder fully 80 metres. Then a dropped ball on the first tackle to gift Newcastle the ball. Frustrating.

With the half running on fumes, Hornets dug deep to snatch the advantage: Alex McClurg ghosting through from acting half to slip Matt Fozzard under the black dot. Danny Yates the two. Hornets with their noses ahead at the break by 12-18.

As Hornets fans queued for their half-time brew, news began to filter acros that John Cookson had been taken from the field with a broken arm. Painfully bad luck on Cooky who was looking the part on his recall to the side; a problem for Hornets, a substitute down for the remaining forty.

Hornets began the second half as they had the first: a 45th minute Alex McClurg break sending Matt Fozzard through a static defence; a teasing Yatesey kick forcing a drop-out. Within a minute, Ryan Smith produced an audacious show & go to score a great solo try. Danny Yates added the extras and Hornets, again, looking comfortable at 12-24. But this Thunder side just refuse to go away.

On 52 minutes, referee Mr Hewer missed a blatant Newcastle knock-on and, from the ensuing break Wayme English was compelled to concede a drop-out. Under pressure, the Hornets defence looked to have withstood the close range barrage when a Thunder player was held-up over the line on the fourth tackle. But a lofted kick across a stretched defence was enough for Blair to gather and score out wide. Beherrall the two: 18-24.

Hornets hit back with another sublime passing move. Having stretched the home defence to snapping point, ‘Pogo’ Paterson’s no-look pass to his wing sailed into touch. Having been handed a get out of jail card, Thunder pushed back downfield where a last tackle kick going nowhere was somehow deemed to have been played at by Wayne English, when clearly he hadn’t. In response Newcastle chucked the sink at the Hornets line, but great defence held firm.

Just past the hour, Thunder’s simons exploited a hole in centre field - jumping through from acting half to send Beharrell under the posts from 30 metres. His successful conversion locked the game up at 24-all with 18 to play. It was all down to who wanted it most.

Handed an eminently kickable penalty three minutes later for interference, Crooky elected to take the two, but pulled his kick agonisingly wide. Hornets fans tapped their pacemakers in anticipation.

On 71 minutes, a moment of pure magic. Wayne English’s electric kick-return saw him burst into open field; his pass found Lee Paterson who hit the afterburners to skin the fullback for a spectacular 70 metre try. Crooky the two: 24-30.

The last five minutes were heart-attack inducing stuff: Beherrall’s dramatic tumble after a tackle drawing a penalty from Mr Hewer; then another penalty in quick successsion: Newcastle pressing desperately.

In the last minute of the game Newcastle produced a freak rabbit from the hat try. Quick hands up ther narrow side saw Marsh blast fully 80 metres: Dale Bloomfield in pursuit, shepherding him towards the flag, but unable to prevent him getting the ball down. 28-30, Beherrall’s cool deserting him as he hauled the conversion across the posts.

There was just enough time left for Newcastle to launch one last desperate attack, but the ball was coughed as the passes became increasingly panicky. As the home side strove to push Hornets off the feed, Mr Hewer blew to repack the scrum. Beherrall spat the dummy and Mr Hewer penalised him for dissent. Crooky slotted the penalty over to seal the game as the hooter sounded. Cue much jumping around.

From start to finish this was a great advert for League 1 football - but mostly it was a great advert for guts, determination and effort as Hornets overcame a big, marauding pack to win where they had the advantage: pace where and when it mattered. Fantastic stuff indeed.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Sunday's Coming - Newcastle Thunderfalcons

Newcastle Falcons' new pitch arrives just in
time for the new season
Rugby League life’s not been easy for the long-suffering Thunder army. Launched in 1999 as Gateshead Thunder, the club had one season in the Super League before being packed off lock, stock and Newcy Brown barrel to Humberside to wear irregularly hooped shirts and convince the black and white half of Hull that they were actually Hull FC.

Gateshead Thunder were reported to have lost £700,000 during their one year in Super League. They took a £1.25 million incentive from Super League Europe to go to Hull.

A new Gateshead Thunder sprang back up in their place to play in the Northern Ford Premiership in 2001. The new board said they’d be back in Super League within five years. They finished third bottom under coach Andy Kelly, beating only Hunslet, York  and amateurs Wigan St. Judes in the Cup.

Ambitions for the 2002 season fell apart  after only two months. Having gained only one point (a 12–all draw against Fev), the club hit the buffers. Amid spiralling debts, Thunder went into administration: coach Andy Kelly and the club's 15 Yorkshire-based players, were released from their contracts. Club sponsor Mike Jeffels’ Kicks Leisure company took over the club, former Bramley coach Paul Fletcher was brought in to assemble a side from local community clubs. They lost every game to finish bottom of the table.

In 2003, Thunder went from the cor-blimey to the ridiculous. Eight Australians were added to the squad, along with Bill Ryan as a coaching adviser. After just eight games of the season, Kicks Leisure pulled the plug, chairman Steve Worsnop left the club and new coach Rob Jones refused to work with the first team following a dispute with the remaining contracted players. Thunder had debts reportedly in excess of £50,000. A supporters committee took over the running of the club and got it back on the rails - just - to complete the season.

2004 to 2007 saw some stability underwritten by Essex-based financier Neil MacPherson, who reastored the club’s limited company, status. The club rewarded coach Dean Thomas for steering the club into the playoffs two years running by replacing him with Aussie Dave Woods.

In 2008 Gateshead were promoted to National League One as champions, but almost immediately the madness began again. Dave Woods sacked under strange circumstances, Chris Hood put in charge, replaced by Steve McCormack who grabbed enough wins to avoid the drop - only for  new owner Steve Garside to wind-up the parent company Gateshead and Newcastle Rugby Ltd in October 2009. Having breached insolvency regulations Thunder were dumped back into Championship 1.

Rugby League’s least edifying soap-opera continued. A new parent company founded by  previous chairman Rod Findlay, Assistant Head Coach Chris Hood and Business Development Manager Keith Christie took the club steadily down the league, Hood quitting as coach at the end of the 2010 season, replaced by Richard Pell and - five months later - by long suffering Thunder veteran Kevin Neighbour.

After two years of struggle, Thunder again turned to Humberside for help: this time to partner club Hull KR who supplied Stanley Gene as coach along with an intake of decent junior talent. But no sooner had Stanley got his boots under is desk when the final ignominy was heaped on the shoulders of the Thunder faithful. Reward for 15 years of flying the RL flag in the North East came in the shape of being sold to Newcastle Falcons Rugby *nion club and shipped across the river to play on Kingston Park’s plastic pitch. The last straw for the Thunder Army?

Two fairly damning quotes from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s coverage of the Falcons’ takeover caught our eye. “Rebranded as ‘Newcastle Thunder’ having finally gone public on their intention to share the Falcons’ Kingston Park home, even die-hard Gateshead fans were virtually mute in their disapproval…” and: “… with Newcastle Falcons losing in excess of £3m in their last published accounts the true test comes if Thunder fail to climb the ladder, and simply become another vehicle for a rich man to lose money…”

In a chilling echo of promises past, Thunder MD Keith Christie still has big ambitions. He’s quoted as saying: “There is no doubt that Super League is the aim for us… I would love to say we would be there in three to five years, but there are 13 guys on the opposition team every week who will tell you otherwise”.

Indeed, whilst *nion club owner Semore Kurdi has chucked a bucket of cash at his new toy (Gene packing his side with NSW Cup/Intrust Cup/CRL/NRL Kumuls and journeymen antipodeans) Newcastle Thunderfalcons currently sit outside the five having scored the fewest points and conceded the most. Indeed, with only a +69 points difference, the stats suggest they tend to nick tight games (an average winning margin of 5 points). Last weekend, though, they lost a tight, low-scoring game 16-4 at Barrow - their only try coming in the last minute.

Certainly the loss of influential Kiwi half-back Jordan Meads who’s returning Australia due to a family issue - and most likely to play Intrust Cup there - will leave a big hole at the centre of things that might take some time to fill. Otherwise we think that the real trouble sits in the front row where ex-Cronulla Sharks prop Mark Mexico partners emerging Hull KR talent Sonny Esslemont with former NSW player of the season Dayne Craig slotting in at Hooker. Keep that front-row quiet and you’re in with a shot.

Elsewhere, with Swinton at Barrow and Oldham at York, it’s another weekend where a win of any shade sould have a huge impact - so let’s get up to Newcastle in numbers, make some noise and make a difference.