Monday, November 12, 2007

One Lion on a shirt....

So, Saturday saw Great Britain complete their first series whitewash since 1993 with a 3-0 victory of New Zealand. Much has been made by those who seek to knock the British game about the players the Kiwis were missing (Sonny Bill Williams, Benji Marshall etc) but injuries and unavailability are a fact of life in international sport and for the majority of the 240 minutes in this series the Kiwis were second best.

Great Britain played - particularly in the 44-0 Second Test win - with a flair and urgency not seen all too often under former coach Brian Noble. The offloading, expansive style Tony Smith applied successfully both this year and in 2004 at Leeds paid off with the team looking for opportunities to attack from good field position rather than simply completing sets and relying on the opposition making mistakes.

Several players stood up during this series over whom there had been potential question marks at international level. Leon Pryce - so often used in a utility role or as a winger - grabbed the stand off jersey and made it his own with two assured performances showing a keen footballing brain to go with his elusive running. Rob Burrow was supposed to get smashed all over the park by the rough, tough forwards at this level yet took on the organising role to such good effect, mixing it with his trademark quick feet and hitherto unseen field kicking game. Jamie Peacock led the pack from the front, never more so than his tempo-setting try 70 seconds into the Second Test, bumping off defenders and refusing to be stopped from getting over the line.

This series has been about both sides bringing in new players to key positions alongside some more experienced heads - Graham, Burrow, Clarke, Fa'asavalu, Burgess for GB, Perrett, Smith, Roberts, Lauaki and the like for the visitors. Home advantage or not, it is Britain's new blood that hit the ground running in this series and it bodes to well for the future. There will no doubt be further turnover in both squads prior to the 2008 World Cup with the likes of Keith Senior contemplating international retirement, but the fact that GB has used 23 players in this series shows that depth - once the achilles heel of British teams - is less of a worry now than it has been. Long may it remain so, if the Lion is to eventually challenge the Kiwi and the Kangaroo on a regular basis.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Four more years of hype

You nay have noticed there were a couple of games of rugby on over the weekend. Unless you've been living on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears that is.

Actually, you could be forgiven for thinking there was only one game on, which involved eight burly English chaps with names like George and Lawrence hiding a ball up their jerseys for 80 minutes only occasionally letting a fragile little chap called Jonny have it to kick it away again. Obviously this tactic worked a treat, as it bored their French opposition into a stupor and saw England's brave warriors reach a second successive World Cup final.

Earlier in the day at Old Trafford, the two best teams in Super League had put on a feast of running, handling and violent collisions which saw Leeds Rhinos crowned as champions for the second time in four years in the last game for coach Tony Smith before moving on. Of course by the time the late evening news bulletins came around, any focus on that particular sporting event watched by over 70,000 people was lost among the sort of blind patriotic jingoism that we English do so well.

Despite all the odds being stacked against them (in other words, they were rubbish heading into the tournament) our gallant English boys have found a way to win and now face South Africa for the glory of being the first side to retain the World Cup. That they found this way to win by completely removing all elements of risk, flair and entertainment from the game is secondary to the fact that after being crap for four years since the last World Cup they've started winning again. As usually happens with England teams in all sports, winning equals popular so expect the coming week to be a media barrage with all sorts of celebrities who wouldn't know a drop goal from a lineout expressing their delight and admiration for brave Sir Jonny and "the boys".

In a perverse way, England's progress to the final has demonstrated just what an appalling game to watch for the uninitiated rugby union really is. It's a sport where one team can win by being completely negative and choosing to stifle the opposition rather than looking to score points through pace, imagination and skill in the way the Rhinos did so well on Saturday. It's a game where the rolling maul is king, keeping the ball away from the opposition is paramount and hoofing it 40 yards off the pitch is greeted by rapturous applause. In short, it's the complete antithesis of everything you associate with rugby league. The two sports may have started from an identical root, but there respective evolutions have been as diverse as anything you would find in nature.

For all their brave noises after the last World Cup about playing a more expansive game, bringing in league talent in playing and coaching capacities and promising a red rose revolution, when put under pressure England have reverted to the sort of dour, plodding typecast that won them so few friends through the 1990s and into the new millenium. You know what though, as long as they keep winning the media will keep fawning and the Henrys and Nigels will keep turning up at Twickers (who knows, they may actually watch part of the game inbetween singing negro worksongs and sipping Pimms) and the world will stay on its twisted axis where the more entertaining product struggles to sell while the beige MDF flies off the shelves.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Sayonara Salford

The victory for Hull KR in the Hull derby settled the first major issue of the 2007 season last weekend, ensuring Salford will finish bottom of the pile and subject to whoever wins the National League One grand final will find themselves in that division for 2008.

On the face of it, this doesn't look much different from any other relegation in recent years. The club is making the usual encouraging noises about bouncing back. With their contracts rendered void by relegation, their better players are already being snapped up by other clubs - Luke Robinson and David Hodgson to Huddersfield while Andy Coley's move to Wigan, subject of much rumour for the last couple of years, has finally come to fruition.

This year of course is slightly different, with the automatic promotion route into the top flight closed and replaced by the franchise bidding process for 2009. Whereas before, keeping a full time squad would give you a great chance of returning at the first attempt, the option of securing promotion by results alone isn't going to be open to Salford and they will be bidding for one of an as yet unspecified number of places at the top table.

Much of Salford's hopes for a franchise will be pinned on their location. Their current home The Willows is in dire need of redevelopment. It's set in an unpleasant area, and has little in the way of modern facilities. Work is under way to move the club to a brand new purpose built stadium, the completion date for which is unclear. As part of the franchise application process, stadium quality will feature and it remains to be seen what the panel's view will be of Salford's proposal based at a stadium that has yet to be completed.

The other issue to be considered is catchment area. Although the north west is a hotbed of rugby league, Salford is/was the nearest thing to a Super League presence in Manchester. That gives it an enormous potential audience right on its doorstep. The club even shares its Red Devils nickname with Manchester United, and there has been talk of incorporating Manchester into the name over the years to identify the team with the sports mad city rather than the less salubrious suburb.

On the field the club has slumped dramatically this year after a promising season in 2006, with not even the replacement of Karl Harrison with Shaun McRae mid-season being enough to save them. Given the changes in structure, 2007 was the worst possible year to be relegated, and it remains to be seen whether the changes being made off the field will be sufficient to regain top flight status or whether it really is goodbye rather than see you later for the Reds

Monday, August 27, 2007

Walcome home...

... welcome, come on in and close the door.

Don't worry, this hasn't just turned into either a nostalgia blog or even a Peters and Lee fansite (ask your grandad).

This weekend the rugby league Challenge Cup final returned to its traditional home at Wembley Stadium, following some time on the road while the new national stadium was being constructed. With all due respect to Twickenham, Murrayfield and the Millenium Stadium who each in their own way were excellent hosts in the meantime, there's something about Wembley that just makes it "right" that the final should be back there.

In days of yore, the final used to be seen as a "grand day out" for northern fans to descend on the capital and play the tourist. As transport links have improved, that's obviously not so much of a big deal any more - you can be in London within 3 hours or so from the M62 corridor. The stadium has also been changed beyond all recognition, its historic twin towers replaced by an imposing arch. But even after all that, it's still Wembley, it's still special and it still has a mystique attached to it.

It's also one of the few showpiece occasions rugby league in this country has where it can display what it has to offer to a broad national media audience. The club game doesn't attract the column inches or free-to-air television time on a week to week basis so it needs occasions like the Challenge Cup final to put itself out there on view to a swathe of potential new fans.

That being the case - and I don't want to be a grinch here - it was a bit of a shame that the spectacle on the field didn't match the build up to it. Having Catalan Dragons in the final was an absolute boon for the RFL publicity machine. New team, new faces and the opportunity to show the world that rugby league is far removed from being cloth cap and whippets and is a growing, cosmopolitan sport. Sadly whether nerves of the occasion got to both teams or not we'll never know, but the first half was littered with errors and the game was effectively over as a contest with half an hour to go.

Still, with over 84,000 tickets sold, acres of positive press in the lead-up that would have cost a fortune to buy and the boost to the game in France that this final will have given all in all it still was a "grand day out" for rugby league.

Monday, July 30, 2007


It's German, dontcha know. Roughly translated it means "shameful joy", and its primary English use is as a term to describe finding fun in the misfortune of others.

Very popular around the north of England (and south of France for that matter) at the moment, thanks to the defeat of Wigan Warriors by Catalan Dragons in the Challenge Cup semi final this Sunday.

It's fair to say Wigan weren't the public favourites going into the game, for a variety of reasons. For a large chunk of the last decade of the 20th century, they swept all before them in both League and Cup, signing all the best players and paying them wages that no other team could compete with as they went on an unprecedented winning spree. Call it jealousy if you like, but the arrogance shown by the club and its fans over that period made them less than popular.

While success has been less easy to come by during the summer era, they've still found ways to make themselves unpopular. Running up a massive debt, the club was forced to sell its traditional Central Park home and move into the JJB Stadium with the local football club. There still lingers the perception that there is one rule for Wigan and one for everyone else, whether it's when their players visit the disciplinary panel for on-field indiscretions or the club itself being hauled over the coals for a flagrant breach of the salary cap in 2006, a year in which they narrowly avoided relegation by spending significantly more than they were allowed on wages.

When you're unpopular, it helps to have someone fronting the club to the media and general public who is likeable enough to deflect some of the flak. Unfortunately for Wigan, lately that job has fallen to Dave Whelan and Maurice Lindsay. The bluff, uncompromising (until it suits his principles) owner and his chairman - who possesses all the personal charm you'd get in the camp offspring of Joyce Grenfell and Baron Greenback from Dangermouse - aren't going to do Max Clifford out of a job when it comes to generating positive PR. It should come as no surprise then that the rugby league public have taken great delight in kicking the club while it's down.

It seems that this may have been the final straw, as Lindsay has announced today that he is stepping down as chairman at the end of the season and Whelan is considering a serious offer for the club. There's no doubt Lindsay played a significant part in making Wigan the club it is now - whether you consider that to be a good or a bad thing depends on how you look at it. There will be no shortage of people prepared to slam the door after the pair of them however, and it remains to be seen how long it will take to remove the taint off the image of the club that their era will be predominantly remembered for.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Making opportunities out of problems

Unless you've been living in a cave on Mars with your fingers in your ears lately, you'll have heard the saga about Sheffield United, West Ham and the FA Premier League. Basically, West Ham bought an excellent player, but in buying him breached a number of Premier League rules about registration. The Premier League found them guilty in April this year, but refused to take any points away from them as it was too close to the end of the season and would have been unfair given West Ham were embroiled in a relegation scrap. Instead they fined them £5m, and it was Sheffield United and Wigan who ended up being relegated as that player scored a vital goal on the final day to keep West Ham up.

Needless to say much has been made of it since, and Sheffield United recently appealed the punishment on the grounds it was too lenient and that many other teams in lower leagues have previously suffered points deductions for playing unregistered or incorrectly registered players. That appeal was dismissed this week, and West Ham remain in the Premier League for next season picking up around £20m in potential income as a result. Not a bad piece of work, take a £5m hit on the basis it could generate you £20m in the following year.

Also this week, news broke that three of rugby league's top clubs - Bradford, Wigan and St Helens - will be called before the Rugby Football League to discuss potential breaches of the salary cap in 2006. The clubs have previous form for infringing cap rules, either accidentally or deliberately, and the eyes of the rugby league community will be trained on the RFL over the next week or so awaiting the results of their findings - in much the same way the eyes of the football world were on the FA when they were deciding the punishment for West Ham.

The link between the two cases grows stronger, given Wigan narrowly avoiding relegation in 2006 after a mid-season recruiting drive, including the world record fee paid for Stuart Fielden from Bradford. If they have been shown to have overspent in the pursuit of retaining their Super League place, and given the club received a points deduction in the past for overspending the cap, perhaps the RFL can expect a challenge from Castleford who were the team relegated last season. Fortunately the RFL have an operational rules framework which covers the salary cap and the punishments for breaches are already set out depending on the nature and size of the offence, so there is little room for arbitrary judgements as in the West Ham case.

What this does represent however is an opportunity for the RFL to put a marker down prior to the cap becoming "live" in 2008. Next year all teams must receive clearance from the RFL that any new playing contracts will not push them over the salary cap before that player can be registered, rather than the current system of retrospective audits. The hearings coming up give the RFL the chance to both show that those who infringe the rules don't prosper (Wigan avoiding relegation, St Helens winning the Grand Final) by setting down meaningful punishments, while also providing some good publicity for the sport by showing off the innovative cap management method for next year.

Unlike the FA, who have emerged from the West Ham affair with very little credit whatsoever, it is to be hoped the RFL grasp the nettle on both counts.

Monday, May 28, 2007

School yard form guides

You know how these things work - Team A beats Team B, who then go on to beat Team C, making any game between Team A and Team C a foregone conclusion. They're much beloved tools of those who like to predict results without actually having a clue what they're talking about, and those who prefer to reduce professional sport to some sort of "Top Trumps" style statistical battle. The last few weeks of engage Super League XII has pretty much exposed these things for what they're worth.

Recently, Hull Kingston Rovers have recorded victories over both Wigan and near neighbours Hull FC. Both Wigan and Hull have also beaten Leeds Rhinos in the last two weeks. Earlier in the season, Rovers also beat the Rhinos. Stands to reason then that when Hull KR welcomed Leeds to New Craven Park on Sunday the home side would emerge victorious, right?

Try again. Leeds won 18-10, with Rovers managing their only try of the game with just ten minutes left. On the same weekend, bottom club Salford beat a Huddersfield Giants side that had been in superb form over the last two months and the week before had recorded its first victory in a long time over the Bradford Bulls. Wigan, who by all accounts had feebly rolled over for their tummies tickling against Hull KR, turned around a half time deficit with 35 unanswered points against Hull FC having been equally submissive in the first half of that game.

While there are always going to be freak results in sport, much has been made in the northern hemisphere about the need for intensity in the competition and the big clubs having too many easy games against teams whose main raison d'etre is to avoid relegation. The Australian NRL has been held up as something the competition should aspire to, a league where any side is more than capable of beating any other on a given day and teams can go from cellar dwellers one year to champions the next.

11 rounds into the 2007 NRL season, there are 14 points separating table toppers Manly from bottom side 16th placed Sydney Roosters. After 15 rounds of Super League, St Helens and Salford are just 13 points apart at the top and bottom of the table respectively. Six points separate bottom from 4th on the ladder in Australia, while only one more is the difference between their Super League counterparts. There have been twice as many games where the margin has been 30 points or higher in Super League than in the NRL, and while some of that may be down to the fact that the competition up here is further in to the season than its Australian counterpart, it does show a tendency for some of the weaker teams to collapse under pressure from the big boys.

There's a definite levelling effect taking place in the Super League competition between the top and the bottom. While it may not translate necessarily into a different side winning the competition every year at least in the near future, it's certainly going to make the bookie's job harder (which is no bad thing on its own for us mere mortal punters), but it will also hopefully help drive up the standards and intensity creating players more able to compete on the international stage.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Follow me Terry, I'll make you look good

You know how it is - you scoot out of dummy half, draw in the "B" defender and put the runner you'd told to come with you through a huge hole with a perfectly timed pass, allowing him to stroll to the line for a try. It's not often when you're as talentless as I am that the runner turns out to be a multiple cap Great Britain international with numerous league championship and Challenge Cup winners medals to his name.

That was the case last Thursday though, in a charity touch and pass Sevens competition organised by Virgin Media. They had asked along former international rugby league players turned media pundits Barrie McDermott and Terry O'Connor as special guests, and through one of our team knowing Barrie we ended up with both on our side in the later stages of the competition. Sadly for Barrie however, it was Terry who benefitted from my slight of hand although he did look a little embarrassed touching down against opposition who were basically there (as we were) for a bit of fun.

It's certainly surreal, going out onto the field and playing alongside or against players you've marvelled at as recently as these two, who were both playing at the top level of club rugby in the UK as recently as 2005. Huge credit has to go to both lads however (and I can call them lads, as they're both still younger than me) for the spirit in which they joined in the day. They didn't try to take over or show off, they weren't interested in being the centre of attention but were approachable, polite and all the things that you're sporting heroes all too often aren't when you eventually get to meet them.

Much is written about rugby league being a family sport in the context of the behaviour of its spectators towards each other. It's a family sport in another way in my opinion, in that those who play, officiate, spectate or just generally enjoy the game all form part of the rugby league family whatever level their interest in the sport is at. Like any family we have our occasional fallings out, but in the main we look after each other and treat other family members (and the game itself) with a respect some more popular sports would do well to reflect upon.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Madness of King Ganson III

You can't beat a bit of controversy at the end of a big game, can you?

With time running out and Bradford Bulls clinging to a two point lead, Steve Ganson penalises Matt Cook for being offside when replays show the ball coming off the boot of a grounded Leeds player. Kevin Sinfield opts for a 46m kick at goal in an attempt to tie the scores, which rebounds off the post. Jordan Tansey is first to react and gathers the loose ball before touching down under the posts as the hooter sounds to snatch a dramatic win for the Rhinos. Despite pleas from the Bulls players to refer the decision to the video referee (as he had done a multitude of times earlier in the game), Steve Ganson awards the try, despite the wide angle showing Tansey some two metres in front of Sinfield when he struck the kick.

Referees - like players, coaches, administrators and fans - are only human and are going to make mistakes. Ganson had to make a snap decision on the initial incident, moving at full speed at the end of a frantic game and looking into a crowd of players. That he got the decision wrong in those circumstances is unfortunate but entirely understandable. That he chose not to refer the try to the video referee is a little less easy to comprehend, given what was riding on the decision. There's little doubt that the try would have been disallowed and a penalty awarded to Bradford, from which they could have closed out the game and claimed the win.

Course, it's not a first for Steve. A couple of years ago at Headingley, he managed to find a phantom offside decision against Keith Senior, which allowed to Hull FC to clinch a last minute draw with the penalty. Later the same season he penalised Rob Burrow for "waving his arms around" at dummy half, an incident which cost Leeds two points in a game that finished level. The latest blooper appears to be the third part of this particular Leeds-Ganson trilogy, but the first one that has gone the Rhinos way.

While it's difficult not to have some sympathy for the Bulls in all this, refereeing bloopers are unfortunately an integral part of any sport and sometimes will clearly impact on the result of a game. Sometimes they'll go for you, other times against you and it's best to accept them with good grace whichever way they go. Making comments such as "we feel cheated" and "the referee created a penalty in order to make the game a draw" - both of which have been attributed to Bulls coach Steve McNamara - tend to get you labelled as a whiny cry baby, as well as being seen as bringing the integrity of the officials into question. I'd be surprised if McNamara wasn't at least asked to explain his comments by the RFL.

Even worse is insisting that the "right" thing to do would be for the winning side to give up the two competition points they have earned over 80 minutes, as Bradford chairman Peter Hood has done. Leeds went into the game without Peacock, Diskin, Bailey and Gibson, and Ali Lauitiiti was able to contribute very little before his injury. Despite this, the sin-binning of Brent Webb and being behind for most of the game, they had stayed in touch with a very good Bradford side to be in a position to benefit from Ganson's indiscretion. Asking for the result to be overturned on the basis of one bad decision sets all sorts of ridiculous precedents. Perhaps Leeds could ask for the 2003 Challenge Cup, the final of which saw a number of controversial decisions go Bradford's way? Or the results of the two games above being annulled and the points dropped being added to their total for this season?

It would be unfortunate if ten seconds of one game was allowed to detract from what was otherwise a successful weekend for the game in general. Over 60,000 people attended across the two days, including thousands from non-traditional rugby league areas. Within that number will have been some for whom this was their initiation to the family atmosphere of live rugby league, and they'll hopefully be back. The RFL are already looking at what changes could be made to the format for next year in an attempt to improve it further, and it looks as though the event - or something similar - could become a fixture in the rugby league calendar in an attempt to spread the game to a wider audience and create high profile events.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Happy Easter Bunnies?

Not the Super League coaches, that's for sure.

Not surprisingly, they have been united in decrying the Easter fixture format, which can see sides playing four games inside fourteen days depending where the pre and post bank holiday double header fixtures fall.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you make anyone - even a seasoned professional athlete - play one of the world's most punishing collision sports on a Friday it's a big ask for him to get up and do it all again the following Monday. Fatigue is certain to take its toll both mentally and physically, and the quality of the product you're offering to customers will decline as a result. So why do we do it?

Kerching - that's why. The Easter Monday/Tuesday round of fixtures this year created a single round record attendance for the history of Super League. The Hull derby played a major part in the final figure, but there were other good crowds at St Helens and Leeds in there too. Bank holiday live sport is very popular. In the most part there's no worrying about school or work getting in the way, the telly's usually rubbish and roads to the coast or countryside tend to be jammed as far as the eye can see. Chuck in a healthy dollop of that old rugby league staple condiment "tradition" and it's no surprise that club chairmen want to milk it for all it's worth.

Well here's an idea for all those coaches who object to the double header over Easter and the impacts it has on their squads for the next two or three weeks after. Next year, field virtual Academy sides for the second round of fixtures over the bank holiday. All get together, and agree to do the same thing in the interests of protecting your players. Let's see how chairmen and broadcasters like the idea of not being able to put their prize livestock on show twice in such a short space of time. As things stand, it may take something as radical as that to force those in charge of the game to take a closer look at what they are expecting from the most important assets the game of rugby league has - the outstanding athletes that play it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Kids Are Alright

James Roby, James Graham, Ashley Gibson, Jordan Tansey, Sam Burgess, Ryan Atkins, Brett Ferres, Danny Washbrook, Tommy Lee, Scott Murrell, Eamonn O'Carroll, Chris Melling, Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook.

Core of a decent little side there, and perhaps more importantly they're all young, British and featuring regularly in Super League this season. Some, such as Roby, Graham, Gibson, Atkins and Ferres are no strangers to representative selection either at Great Britain or England level. The others won't be too far off the radar of those responsible for identifying talent for the future international programme providing they maintain form and fitness.

Add in the spine of the side that played in the Tri Nations last year who still have miles in the tank at top level such as Pryce, McGuire, Yeaman, Burrow, Fielden, Peacock, Hock, Wilkin and others and it all looks reasonably rosy. So, why aren't I confident that the 2008 World Cup will end in anything other than a mauling for England at the hands of the Aussies and Kiwis?

Truth is, we've been here before in terms of crops of oustanding youngsters who could more than hold their own against Antipodean opposition at Academy level, without them being able to translate it into results once they're in with the big boys. What we seem to be no nearer to solving is why?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Lonely at the Top?

Certainly not in the 2007 engage Super League.

A quarter of the way into the season, and only three points separate the top 8 sides. Everyone (with the exception of bottom club Huddersfield) has registered at least two wins from their opening 7 games, and despite losing all of theirs the Giants points difference is still only minus 30, which gives you an idea how close their games have been.

That top 8 includes Wakefield (10th last year and saved from relegation on the final day), Catalan Dragons (12th last year and saved from relegation only by their 3 year exemption) and Hull KR (promoted last season from National League One).

So far this season, Harlequins have beaten St Helens who were the dominant force in 2006, Hull KR and Catalan have beaten Leeds and 2006 Grand Finalists Hull FC have won only two games. Yesterday the league leading Bradford Bulls were deservedly beaten by Catalan 29-22 at Grattan Stadium (Odsal in old money).

Yes, there's a long way to go before the end of the season. Yes, you'd expect the "big" clubs with the deep squads to come into their own once injuries start to bite. Isn't it nice though after many years of watching the NRL competition where anyone could beat anyone on their day (with the obvious exception of Souths) to see the domestic game in this country moving in a similar direction.

Here's to the uncertainty of results continuing over the coming weeks, hopefully to the continuing dismay of one-club believists who consider that any defeat must come out of either their team playing badly or the referee being "bent" (are you listening out there, Wildcats fans?)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sporting cliches number 376

This week's offering - "it's a game of two halves".

It's often said that a particular period of time in a game is a "big five or ten minutes". Could be at the start, where a side looks to impose its tempo and style on the opposition, or towards the end of a half where a team is looking to protect a lead against a late onslaught. Is there a bigger five or ten minutes though than the time a coach gets to spend with his team at half-time?

The hooter goes and by the time players are back seated, rehydrated, patched up and sufficiently stabilised in terms of fatigue and adrenaline levels to listen the coach has a very limited window in which to get across what he wants them to do in the next forty minutes. It's a relatively easy job if your team is coasting to victory, as Justin Morgan and Daniel Anderson must have felt on Friday night. If you're in Brian Noble or Steve McNamara's shoes though, that five minutes must pass in an instant as you attempt to rally the troops, raise their effort levels and correct technical and tactical problems that have left you behind the 8-ball at oranges.

Whateve they said must have had some effect, as both Bradford and Wigan played with much more purpose and effect in the second half of their games although both had left themselves way too much to do to pinch the two points. Perhaps Noble and McNamara should try delivering their half time team talks before the first half next week?

Saturday's live game gave new meaning to the word "dour". Catalan Dragons, who the previous week had put Leeds to the sword with a scintillating second half display, travelled to Salford and the two sides combined to produce eighty minutes of turgid, one-dimensional rugby punctuated by a steady stream of errors and penalties that would have done nothing for the neutral viewer. While the visitors were missing the influential Stacey Jones and Aaron Gorrell, you have to wonder what Mick Potter does with them during the week as he seemed to have extracted all the flair and confidence from the Leeds performance out of his players. His opposite number Karl Harrison has been touted as a potential Great Britain coach. Based on the way his Salford side staggered direction-less from one set of six to the next those who called so loudly for Brian Noble's head may find it's much better the devil you know.

On a side note - kudos to Mick Potter for leaving out one of the outstanding teenage talents of French rugby in order to get more game time out of a mediocre Aussie journeyman in John Wilson. Visionary thinking like that is sure to make a roaring success of the Dragons franchise.

Monday, February 26, 2007

One ninth down, eight to go

So, one ninth of the weekly rounds out of the way and it already looks like this is going to be the bestest Super League season ever in the history of the whole world (in the world of Eddie and Stevo anyway).

The atmosphere around the British game got its annual early season lift in the form of another World Club Championship win on Friday when St Helens narrowly overcame the Brisbane Broncos at Bolton. Of course, Saints had "home" advantage, the benefit of a full pre-season and two competitive Super League games under their belt but it still shows how great the British game is when we can take on and beat the best club side Australia has to offer. No, really it does.

The odds are so stacked in favour of the British sides under the current structure of the WCC that it should be a huge surprise to everyone if they don't win it and certainly puts the 38-0 whupping the Roosters handed out the other year in some perspective.

Meanwhile back in the domestic game the topsy turvy results continued much as they had in the previous two weeks. Leeds travelled to Les Catalans off the back of two wins and managed to get nilled in the second half as the "French" side picked up their first win of the season. The improved standard of imports this year certainly looks like making the expansion venture more competitive judging by the first three rounds, but that's not really why it's there. Hopefully the success will encourage more young French players to stay in the game rather than taking the more lucrative career in Union and improve the player pool for the national team.

Harlequins continued their good start to the season with a win at newly promoted Hull KR, bursting the Robins unbeaten bubble in the process. The return of Paul Sykes and the core of young British players at the club such as Purdham, Worrincy, Melling, Mills and McCarthy-Scarsbrook show movement in the right direction and away from the team full of backpackers they've been labelled in the past.

With Wigan, Saints and Hull all struggling to find their best form at the start of the year, it would be nice to think that the likes of Quins and Les Cats could be pushing for a play off place come the end of the season. With 24 games to go however, it's still early days and it will be interesting to see how both clubs cope with injuries to key personnel given they don't have the deepest of squads.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Seconds out, Round One

So, after playing one-sixth of Round 3 the week before all of Round 1, the 2007 Super League season finally got into full swing this weekend. There were some surprise results, injuries and things that really shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone.

It was the two geographically furthest flung sides that came up with the performances of the round. Harlequins travelled to Knowsley Road to take on a Saints side that had already got a competitive game under its collective belts and in positively polar conditions came out on top. Quins have recruited well for 2007 with the likes of Scott Hill and Danny Orr, and if they can keep their playmakers fit could pose a threat to the playoffs.

Les Catalans have undergone more of a transformation on the playing front, and can possibly consider themselves unfortunate only to come away from last year's Grand Final losers Hull with a point having lead for the majority of the game. Travel sickness was one of the reasons the French side were rock bottom after the weekly rounds in 2006. If they can cure that, an improvement could be on the cards particularly when Kiwi playmaker Stacey Jones returns.

Injuries are part of a collision sport such as rugby league, but big players picking up potentially serious ones on the opening weekend is a coach killer. Warrington appear to be the weekend's big losers in that respect, with both Chris Bridge and Adrian Morley looking at a lengthy spell on the sidelines after their game against Wigan. Bridge did a hamstring very early in piece, which is an occupational hazard at this time of year. Morley's however was another example of the reckless nature that saw him spend as much time on Coogee Beach as he did on the field in his career in the NRL.

The Warrington "enforcer" was making his debut for the club and went to put a big hit on young Wigan prop Eamonn O'Carroll. A little deft footwork from the youngster saw Morley grasping at thin air and ended with a clash of heads which appears to have caused significant damage to the Great Britain front rower's eye socket. This was the cause of much delight to the Wigan fans who saw the incident replayed and the outcome close up courtesy of the Sky Sports big screen.

The "Surprise, Surprise" awards for the opening round however both belong to the Saturday night game at New Craven Park, which saw Hull Kingston Rovers take on Wakefield in the Robins debut in SL. The first one goes to the result itself, which was as predictable as night follows day. Even with Wakefield leading by a point with time running out, it still looked like the Robins would be celebrating a win at the final hooter and once Wakefield coughed up the ball with a couple of minutes to go the stage was set.

The second belongs to Wakefield front rower Richard Moore. The former Leeds, Keighley, Bradford and Leigh prop has never been the sharpest tool in the box, except for the decision to shave off his curly hair which made him looked like an outraged Ronald McDonald sans make up. Sadly Moore has never shared the burger clown's demeanour, and can usually be guaranteed to come up with at least one piece of rank bad discipline per game. Saturday's was an attempt to shake the limbs off Rover's full back Ben Cockayne. If there was a market for it on Betfair, you could have laid that Moore would throw a punch, it would be against a bloke significantly smaller than him, he'd get sin binned and then stare at the referee blankly while it sank in. Frankly you'd never have to work again off the proceeds.

If Wakefield are not to find themselves slipping into the National Leagues for 2009, they need to keep as many players as possible on the field for as long as possible. You do wonder what the logic was in allowing the likes of Korkidas and Griffin to move on if they were only going to be replaced by indisciplined boneheads?

Monday, January 22, 2007

The old razzle dazzle

Prince, Cirque du Soleil, Louie Vega and renowned artist Romero Britto. The coin toss conducted by one of the great players in the history of the game, and the trophy presented by one of the great coaches. These are the sideshows that will accompany the game to make Superbowl XLI in Miami one of the great spectacles in world sport.

The London Community Gospel Choir, an Army brass band, Deacon Blue, Madness and Lesley Garrett. The sideshows that have accompanied recent rugby league Grand Final and Challenge Cup Finals in the UK.

Yes, I know nobody goes to big games just to see the pre-match and half-time entertainment. Yes, I know essentially it's just something to distract you from the impending tension of the match itself.

What I also know however is that the quality of guests and entertainment a sporting event is able to attract is a fair indicator of its standing on both a national and global level, and the two lists above say a lot more about the NFL and rugby league in the UK than certainly the latter would like to acknowledge.