Archive for February, 2009

Size Doesn’t Matter (that much)

February 28, 2009

wigan

It’s funny, because one of the main arguments I’ve often heard about keeping often-touted Wigan prospect Sam Tomkins out of the Super League side was that he was undersized. That he would be brutalized and exposed in the defensive line. That he wouldn’t be able to cope with the physicality of 1st team football.

I call bullshit on that.

Tomkins played against Harlequins at the Stoop today, and looked threatening thoughout. He provided a spark of flair and attacking prowess down the middle that has been sorely lacking in the Warrior’s previous games. He was joined by fellow Academy product Shaun Ainscough in being the special factor that ultimately helped Wigan overcome a very-determined and challenging Harelquins side (well, that and Chad Randall having a brain spasm of some sort). At no point did either of them appear to be overmatched in anyway. If anything, they looked right at home in the coalface of Super League rugby.

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File Under ‘Curious’: Bobby Goulding named new France Coach

February 28, 2009
At the very least, he should be well up for it (Clive Brunskill / Allsport)

At the very least, he should be well up for it (Clive Brunskill / Allsport)

It was announced yesterday that former St Helens and Great Britain scrum-half Bobby Goulding has been appointed as Coach of the French National Team in the wake of John Monie’s contract not being renewed. Goulding has signed a three-year contract and is entrusted with lifting the standard of Les Tricolores after what can only be described as an embarassing World Cup.

Well, I didn’t see this one coming at all. Goulding had done relatively well as coach of Rochdale a few seasons ago but had left the job after being frustated with the club’s attitude. That’s not exactly the coaching CV of an obviously international caliber coach. The first inclination is to consider this a bad choice, what with Goulding’s lack of experience and seeming lack of temperament for high level coaching.

Then again, who knows how well he might go? I’m not sure how much further France could sink right now and he might just give them the kick up the arse that they need. I suspect a lot of it could hinge on his choices for assistants, as he’s going to be under a lot of pressure from the off (Test against England, a Four Nations to worry about) and he’s going to need to spread some of that around. I’m inclined to give Goulding a bit of time to show us what he can do before ripping into him. I suspect this should at least be fun to watch either way.

Crystal Ball: Week 4

February 27, 2009

WebSo, will I continue to make the same mistakes of placing faith in underperfroming teams, or have I learned the error of my ways? Let’s find out:

Hull FC beat Catalan Dragons by 14

I think FC are definitely over the woes of last season, and are lodged firmly somewhere in the second tier of sides chasing down Leeds and Saints. I suspect Catalan are in that group as well and their victory at Warrington showed that they look like they’ll be able to travel this year, but Hull look much more equipped to deal with injuries this year and I expect they want to prove that they’re ready to be an elite side again.

Bradford Bulls beat Huddersfield Giants by 12

Odsal is not traditionally a happy hunting ground for the Giants, which is pretty much the deciding factor in picking against them. They looked competent in defeat against Saints, whereas Bradford have had a extra week off after their disappointing draw with Hull KR (and this is the stage of the season whee weeks off aren’t a good thing). Even so, I think Bradford will be raring to get their season on the right track.

St Helens beat Hull KR by 20

Saints have been pretty impressive so far this season, winning both their games by comfortable margins. KR have been impressive in their own way, scraping a draw at Odsal and pushing the Rhinos all the way in their last game. I expect the toll of those two games to make itself known as they go to Knowsley Rd where they haven’t done two well in their Super League spell (a 28 and 42 point defeat in the last two seasons). Also look for a kicker to finally emerge for Saints.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats beat Warrington Wolves by 6

Wakefield have already won two games this season and looked pretty good in doing so, and they weren’t terrible in defeat against Leeds either. Warrington have combined looking really good with really bad in the same game with poor results this season. Of course, those two games were against two of the top three sides last year, but they really need to improve their second half performances if they expect to beat a solid Trinity side.

Castleford Tigers beat Salford City Reds by 18

Cas have definitely moved forward this season, and a side brimming with young English talent has learned from the trials and tribulations of last year to become a danger. Salford started well against Celtic Crusaders first up, but since that first half they’ve been a bit meh and that is unlikely to cut it against the Tigers.

Wigan Warriors beat Harlequins by 8

Why, oh why, am I picking this? Wigan have fallen to defeat against sides they supposedly shouldn’t so far this season, including one (Castleford) whom Harlequins have already beaten. Quins for their part have looked an impressively tight unit in both the Castleford game and the Manly friendly and Luke Dorn has been on fire. So why pick Wigan? Quite simply because having followed Quins / Broncos for a few years now, when it all looks like it’s going well is the exact time it starts going wrong. It’ll be a close’un though.

Tim Sheens: New Kangaroos Coach

February 24, 2009

After Ricky Stuart’s acrimonious departure for the Australian coaching job, the ARL have given the job to Tim Sheens. Not a bad choice at all, in my opinion, what with the four Premierships and the general preference for an open, exciting style of play. It should add an extra frisson to the tests against the Kiwis, what with Benji Marshall being a Tiger. He’s also far less likely to shout abuse at the referee in any post-match functions, which I count as a plus.

Monday Musings: Worrying Trends Developing at Wigan and Wire

February 23, 2009

After two weeks of Super League (three for some teams) you tend to notice some patterns emerging. No respectable scientist would ever dream of trying to make sweeping judgements based on a data sample of two, but I’m not close to being a respectable scientist and some things appear to be making themselves known at this stage in the season:

  • Reports of Saints’ demise have been greatly exaggerated
  • Leeds have been winning without getting out of second gear
  • The pool of sides fighting out for playoff spots is getting very large, with both Hull sides, Castleford, Wakefield, Huddersfield and Harlequins amongst the sides seeming stronger than last season
  • Wigan and Warrington have both been losing games they really should win

This last point is worrying for both Wigan and Warrinton not just because they have lost all their games so far (only Celtic Crusaders join them at the bottom with zero points) but because of the way in which they have lost. Each case is different, yet both point to flaws which need to be addressed sooner rather than later if this season is to be a success for either of them.

For Wigan, the problem has been losing games against sides that finished below them in the table last season (none of the three sides they have played so far made the playoffs last year) by close margins (their largest margin of defeat so far is eight points). It’s hard to grasp entirely why this is: they have a successful coach and a fair number of decent players. For some reason this season they’ve let in a fair amount of soft tries which ultimately have cost them close games. They’ve also failed to inspire in attack and you have to wonder why they feel the need to bring in so many imports if they’re not going to deliver. Add to this that Wigan’s history makes this probably the most high-pressure coaching job in Super League and you have to think that Brian Noble should be concerned right now. He’s already said that this competition is won in October, not February but you have to be in the playoffs to reach October and at this rate it’s very much a possibility that won’t happen.

For Wire, the problems are even harder to fathom, because for the past two weeks they’ve let a comfortable lead not only slip away in the second half, but get positively blown out of the water. It’s hard to remember a side who have looked so good in the first half before looking so bad in the second, and the Wolves have managed it for the past two weeks running. The fact that they have done so both times in front of the Sky Sports cameras will do James Lowes no favours, who now has to solve the mystery of how his side keep imploding. Second half drop-offs are usually a sign of poor fitness, but in both cases the rot set in at the start of the second half, right after players have had a chance to get their breath back. It all indicates a lack of mental toughness, because in both the last few weeks the Wolves haven’t looked remotely like getting back into once things start going against them.

As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t a good thing. Both Leeds and Saints are far too far ahead of the competition right now, and Wigan and Warrington appeared to be amongst their challengers. If no side steps up this season, we could be left with the third Leeds-Saints Grand Final in a row, and as good as last year’s match was it would be nice to have a change. Both Warrington and Wigan have the chance this week to make amends against sides they should theoretically beat, with Wire away at Wakefield and Wigan away at Quins. Both sides have been losing to sides they should theoretically beat all season, and doing so in the two televised games this weekend could lead to a major upheaval at either club. If either club wants to prove that they’re still worthy of being deemed title contenders, they’ve got the right stage to prove it.

Crystal Ball-watch

Between them, Wigan and Wire have cost me four extra victories in my predictions (I correctly guessed Wire’s implosion against Saints) and it’s their underachievent that’s kept me under fifty percent. The other side to cost me this week were Huddersfield Giants, who fell back down to earth against a resiliant St Helens.  Also frustrating was getting close to the Leeds and Wakefield victory margins. I wish my Quins-Manly prediction was official, because that really wasn’t that far off the reality.

Results: 7/15 (46.7%)

Margins: 1/15 (6.7%)

Four Nations Fixtures Released, Reveal Shockingly Conservative Approach

February 23, 2009

Today the RFL released details fo the upcoming Four Nations dates and venues, and there’s more than a few surprises involved, none of them particularly nice:

24/25 October:

England v France Keepmoat Stadium, Doncaster

Australia v New Zealand The Stoop, London

1/2 November:

England v Australia JJB Stadium, Wigan

France v New Zealand TBC, France

8/9 November:

England v New Zealand Galpharm Stadium, Huddersfield

France v Australia TBC, France

14 November:

Final Elland Road, Leeds

That first weekend in particular is shockingly revealing of low confidence in the drawing power of the Four Nations, not to mention reeking of a money-saving mindset. I understand that there’s a credit crunch going on and that everybody wants to keep the extra pennies, but it really creats an image problem when what is supposed to be the premier event on the Rugby League international calendar opens up in stadiums with just over 27,000 capacity between them. On the plus side I would imagine that the Stoop would sell out, which in another respect is disappointing as the Kangaroos and Kiwis sold out a bigger ground in Loftus Road only a few years ago and I suspect that they could do it again. I also understand the logic of choosing the Keepmoat for the France game (the crowd for the Wales game last year was a pleasant surprise) but really they should be aiming for a higher crowd. Considering the talk in the lead up to the World Cup of going to Wembley for a game against Australia, the JJB Stadium can’t help be be a disappointment.

More than anything else, it seems to show that the RFL don’t have much confidence in England’s ability as a draw, and after the World Cup why would they? France haven’t exactly looked hot in the last year either, and there seems to be a genuine fear that this will be a damage limitation exercise. This should be a premier event for Rugby League in this country, yet people seem to be fearing that it turns into a disaster. Unfortunately, with that sort of mindset it probably will turn into a disaster. I’m really hoping now that England reach the Final at Elland Rd and put in at the very least a credible performance, because it’s hard to see the RFL being willing to expand the potential exposure they could get if England are going to just crap on the stage again.


Harlequins vs Manly Sea Eagles: The proverbial game of two halves

February 22, 2009
This is the life, my friend...

This is the life, my friend...

So I went to the Quins-Manly game at The Stoop today for the offically titled London Rugby League Challenge and had a thoroughly enjoyable day. Manly ended up running out 34-26 victors, but only after Harlequins had ran out to a 20-0 lead. Given the circumstances and the quality of the opposition, and the fact that I’ve seen them give up comparable leads in more meaningful games, I don’t think they should feel too disheartened.

Essentially the game was actually two games in one. In the first half a full-strength Quins side took on a group mostly made up of Manly reserves or usual interchange players, and certainly the backs the only real mainstays present were Michael Robertson and David Williams. Manly didn’t really offer much threat whilst Quins went through a few spells of offering loads, and wen’t 14-0 up in what seemed like a five minute period (they certainly scored off back-to-back tackles, as Manly conceded right off a kick-off when Luke Dorn went wide straight away to Will Sharp, who broke around David Williams and fed Chad Randall to go under the posts). Manly’s attack seemed devoid of any creativity and their kicking game was one-dinensional (and their ploy of putting up high bombs seemed misjudged when Jon Wells covered them all admirably). At half-time, Quins found themselves with a twenty point lead against the NRL champions.

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Leeds Toughing It Out

February 21, 2009

Torrential conditions at Craven Park yesterday meant that we got to see a pretty hard, tough game, and although Hull KR put up a decent fight they eventually had to succumb to Leeds’ pressure. The turning point came when Jake Webster was deemed to have knocked on in the process of what would’ve been a go-ahead score for Rovers with five minutes to play, as the Rhinos scored a pretty nifty try via Kallum Watkins a few minutes later.

For a lot of the game I thought KR were the better side. In the end an inability to finish opportunities proved their downfall (combined with Leeds’ ability to take their chances). However, with a close defeat here and a draw at Odsal last week the Robins at least look like they’ll be a tough nut to crack and look like definite playoff contenders. As for Leeds, they appear to be missing Brent Webb and especially Rob Burrow as they have been lacking attacking spark in the last few weeks. Even so, they’ve got three wins out of three and their defence has been rock-solid (two tries conceded in three games). With Manly coming up next week they’ll need to keep it that way and also hopefully regain their offensive mojo.

Bah! Richard Lewis Heading For Sport England

February 20, 2009
Dont let the Headmaster look fool you, hes actually pretty cool (Getty Images)

Don't let the Headmaster look fool you, he's actually pretty cool (Getty Images)

Important news coming out today that Richard Lewis, head of the RFL, has been appointed as the new Chairman of Sport England. Lewis will be stepping down from his Chair role at the RFL to avoid conflicting interests, but apparently will be carrying on at Red Hall in a part-time capacity.

This could prove to be a big shame for Rugby League in this country, as Lewis was building up a pretty nice track record. In many respects his appointment for this new job (as well as being courted by the FA for Commission reports) shows that the impact he has had on making the RFL solvent and redeveloping the international programme again has not gone unnoticed by those in other sports. Of course, there are those at other clubs who might be glad to see him gone, with his most controversial move being the introduction of franchises in place of automatic promotion and relegation, and the allocation of franchises has not been the most transparent of procedures. The state of the national team has also fluctuated wildly, and the decision not to sack Tony Smith after the World Cup debacle has raised a few eyebrows. Even so, I think he was certainly the right person for the game at the right time and his tenure has been for the most part fairly admirable His making of tough decision like the franchising was almost certainly made easier by the fact that he came from outside Rugby League (from Tennis, in fact) and I hope when the RFL look for suitable replacements they scour far and wide.

Crystal Ball: Week 3

February 20, 2009

WebHopefully my premonitions will last a whole weekend this time instead of just Friday…

Wigan Warriors beat Castleford Tigers by 8

Both sides had close defeats last weekend which they will feel they should have won. Wigan don’t have Cameron Phelps available for this game, which a lot of their fans will tell you is a good thing. It really wouldn’t surprise me if Wigan being forced to play a lot of their Academy talent results in a massive improvement in performance, just because the world seems to work like that. Still, Cas can be dangerous and should provide some stiff competition for an under-performing Warriors.

Leeds Rhinos beat Hull KR by 10

If this was the weekend after the World Club Challenge I would be tempted to tip KR here as they look to have made real strides based on their performance against Bradford. However, Leeds as always are the team to beat and they will be focused and ready for the Robins’ threat as they prepare for the challenge of Manly. The lack of spark that Rob Burrow, Brent Webb and Ali Lauitiiti provide should keep this game fairly close.

Warrington Wolves beat Catalan Dragons by 14

Although it was a crushing defeat in many ways, the Wolves were the better side for most of the Saints game and if they actually maintain that form for a whole 80 minutes they should do well. Martin Gleeson returning and Kevin Penny being dropped indicates that Matt King might be moving to the wing, which could prove to be the answer to the King enigma. Catalan didn’t look good last weekend against the Giants and I just feel that the Wolves will rebound better than the Dragons, especially since they’re at home.

Hull FC beat Celtic Crusaders by 18

At long last, Super League’s Welsh presence gets to play in Wales. Celtic haven’t actually looked that bad so far but they’ve shown a very worrying tendency to start games terribly and leave themselves with too much catching up to do. Hull FC didn’t look too shabby against Wigan last week and this is the exact game they need to win to prove that last season’s disaster was an aberration.

Huddersfield Giants beat St Helens by 8

What can I say? I’m totally jumping on this Giants bandwagon and Saints looked a little ropey until the Wolves’ implosion. The fact that they’re at home and Saints are rarely the best starters to Super League campaigns could prove to be extremely beneficial for the Giants, and look for them to show us whether they’re the real deal or not.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats beat Salford City Reds by 16

Wakefield are starting to get some players back on deck (Sam Obst returns) and they’re at home. That might just be enough against a Salford side who started off very well against the Crusaders before very nearly letting them back into it. With the Wildcats looking not bad in their two games, I think they should just have enough to remind the Reds about the trials of Super League.

BONUS UNOFFICIAL PREDICTION

Manly Sea Eagles beat Harlequins by not as much as they really should

I shall be at this game. I’m looking forward to it, but I just suspect that Manly will have to sneak it mainly due to a lack of match preparation and this news of a stomach bug in the camp doesn’t bode too well for them either. Even so, they’ve simply got too much class for Quins.