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.