Archive for March, 2009

Monday Musings: Super League’s Super Logjam

March 30, 2009

As we now approach the quarter point of the 2009 season, everything starts to take shape. The problem is – what shape is it? Be it declining standards at certain clubs and increased standards at other clubs, the season so far appears to be producing a more even competition, and it’s making prediction games a real pain.

At the top, I think it’s very clear that Leeds and Saints still lead the pack by some distance. At the bottom, the new boys Salford and Celtic Crusaders appear to be off the pace (although both sides, Celtic in particular, have shown signs of catching up). That leaves ten sides in between those two pairings, all of whom seem pretty evenly matched against each other and all who can beat any of the other sides on their day.

Part of the reason for this is because of declining standards and slow starts at traditionally successful clubs. The four non-Saints-or-Leeds sides who made the playoffs last year (Wigan, Warrington, Bradford and Catalan Dragons) are the four non-Salford-or-Celtic sides currently not in a playoff spot. Even all these sides have had their moments, and I don’t feel particularly comfortable writing any of them off. The problem for all of them has been consistency, and it really wouldn’t surprise me if at least one of them embarked on a major winning streak to get themselves right back in the playoff mix. Just because these sides aren’t in playoff positions now, that’s no reason for them to give up on being there in September. 

Of course, the other major reason for this logjam is the improvement seen in many other clubs. For Hull FC this is essentially a return to the norm (although they’ve started slipping), and Hull KR and Wakefield are also following natural progressions of sorts. The three real big improvers have been Harlequins, Huddersfield and Castleford, who have all at points looked like genuine challengers (and at other points looked like great pretenders). What’s also really good for the competition is that these sides all seem capable of beating each other (Harlequins have beaten Hull who have beaten Huddersfield who have beaten Wigan who have beaten Harlequins) home and away, and if this continues it should in turn produce a greater intensity in the competition.

I’m not quite going to declare this “the most exciting and open Super League season ever!!!” just yet, because I’m still pretty confident that we’re going to get a Leeds-Saints Grand Final at the minute. What the competition now needs is for one of these teams in the chasing peloton to catch up and challenge the big boys. It’s all well and good having a balanced season, but if it still produces the same result then it’s not as interesting after all. It’s good for Super League if there is a high level of competitiveness, but it’s much better for the competition if that even spread of challengers is at the top and not the middle. We’ll see in the next few months which of these pretenders will be up to the challenge…

Crystal Ball-watch

I believe the phrase to describe my picks last week is BOOYAH! Goddamn Harlequins and their crazy rebounding ability was the only thing that stopped me getting a clean sweep (I even got the margin right for that game, but alas I picked the wrong team). After the previous week’s minor meltdown, this was a more-than-adequate recovery.

Results: 28 / 48 (58.3%)

Margins 1 / 48 (2.1%)

Crystal Ball: Week 8

March 27, 2009

WebIt was going so well last week, right up until Brent Sherwin master-minded a Castleford comeback. Then it all completely fell apart… hopefully some damage can be undone this week.

Leeds Rhinos beat Catalan Dragons by 32

Leeds may have been comprehenisively outplayed last week, but they weren’t out of the game until fairly late on and they’ve still been the best side in the competition so far whilst not actually reaching their best very often. Conversely the Dragons have been pretty mediocre so far, and I think they’ll be the victim of a Rhinos backlash.

Huddersfield Giants beat Wigan Warriors by 6

Mainly because the Giants seem to play better away from home (although they looked pretty good at the Galpharm last weekend) and they’re on a roll. Even so, I worry about their consistency and I don’t feel particularly confident about this pick.

St Helens beat Wakefield Trinity Wildcats by 10

I hope I’m wrong, but a) Saints are starting to look real good and b) I fear the events of the last week will just be too much for the Wakefield club to get over in such a short period of time.

Hull FC beat Harlequins by 10

Harlequins’ Rule was back in effect last weekend, and I expect some hangover from that to carry into this game. Mind you, Quins have been at their best when they’ve had little expected of them and Hull didn’t look too good last weekend. For some reason Quins don’t seem to fare too well on Sky, my main reason for picking against them here.

Hull KR beat Salford City Reds by 22

Not much to say other than Hull KR look quite good and Salford don’t.

Warrington Wolves beat Celtic Crusaders by 24

Has Tony Smith finally changed things around at the Halliwell Jones? With a game against the bottom club, look for the Warrington comeback to continue.

Castleford Tigers beat Bradford Bulls by 8

Yes, Bradford finally got a win last weekend, but Castleford have definitely been one of the surprise packages this season and I think they’ll enjoy home advantage for this one. Look for theTigers to take another big scalp.

Jail Time for Reardon and Pryce?

March 26, 2009

In a move that may please those who wish to prove that Super League can hold its own with the NRL in some areas, Leon Pryce and Stuart Reardon have pleaded guilty to assaulting Reardon’s estranged wife and her new partner. Of course, Pryce nearly didn’t go to the World Cup because of this and their guilty plea seems like it was the only realistic option, especially if the two of them hope for it to not derail their playing careers.

Given the seriousness of these allegations, I would imagine that jail time is quite likely and also probably deserved. I understand that there are emotional issues involved in these family matters but I don’t think that justifies the use of violence. Having already ranted about players drinking I think it’s worth highlighting that both of the two of them were on the lash when they decided to visit Reardon’s wife. Once again, I would like it if people would just use their common sense in situations like this. I would imagine that pleading guilty is a ploy to get a reduced sentence, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the two of them were about to become unavailable for portions of this season at least.

The Chicken Wing Hits the UK

March 25, 2009

 

Okay, its not actually this type of chicken wing.

Okay, it's not actually this type of chicken wing.

Why is it Super League is so behind the NRL? They’ve been worrying about grapple tackles and chicken-wing tackles for years now, and they’re only just becoming a deal in Super League. Matt Diskin has been cleared of any wrongdoing with regards to making a chicken-wing tackle in the Saints-Leeds game, but the very fact such a tackle has been brought up before the disciplinary panel is in itself a worrying sign. 

When people whine about the infiltration of wrestling techniques into the game, this is the exact sort of thing they are talking about. This is highly unfair on wrestling, in my opinion. As a sport in which one of the aims is to take your opponent down to the ground with only the use of the upper body, wrestling is one of the most obvious sports for Rugby League players to cross-train in. Where it becomes tricky is when grappling moves (from Judo, Jujitsu, Sambo etc) are put into the tackle area. There’s still a lot for tacklers to learn about controlling the tackle and ruck area from the grappling martial arts (things like wrist control and mounting, for example) but when it starts moving onto limb and joint manipulation that it blurs from useful application to downright cheating. Most chicken-wing ‘tackles’ are some form of shoulder-lock or arm bar, and these need to be stamped out immediately. In a sport which already has more than its fair-share of ways to get seriously hurt, this is one of the more preventable causes of injury so lets hope this stops becoming a big deal over here before it even begins.

Monday Musings: Wakefield Must Fight Through Season of Woe

March 23, 2009

wakefieldThere’s only one thing I can talk about, isn’t there?

I would much rather be discussing a meeting between the two biggest clubs in Britain, where Saints showed us that Leeds won’t have it all their own way this season. Or I would like to talk about how both Bradford and Warrington managed to get their seasons back on track over this weekend. I would also prefer to talk about the logjam of contenders this season, with there clearly being a good number of teams like Huddersfield, Hull FC, Harlequins and Castleford who have made dramatic strides from last year and all seem capable of beating each other.

But I can’t, because these details all pale into insignificance next to the events that took place in Wales yesterday.

The death of Leon Walker on the pitch in Maesteg yesterday was a shock to the whole game of Rugby League. Professional athletes are basically paid to keep themselves in prime condition, which makes it all the more gut-wrenching when they die in a manner like this. What made it all the more unbelievable was that this was the second Wakefield player in the last six months to abruptly die whilst on club duty, a horror which most clubs manage to avoid happening even once. It is yet another crushing blow to a club that has had an unfair amount of horror and grieving to deal with in recent times. 

Off the field, it’s hard to imagine any club could have had a worse six months than Wakefield have just had. There’s been the much publicised death of Adam Watene during training. They’ve also had the crushing blow of essentially losing Richard Moore as a player for the foreseeable future due to the onset of Crohn’s disease (no small matter itself). There was the matter of Jamie Rooney almost dying of heart failure during a routine knee operation. I’ve already even written a post about the tribulations Wakefield have been enduring this season, and that was before this latest shock. They have also had to deal with the passing on club legends like Dave Topliss. This isn’t even taking into account the relatively trivial matter of a devastating injury list that has left their squad even more threadbare. Any of these events on their own could be catastrophic to the morale of a club, so one has to wonder how Wakefield have managed thus far dealing with all of them, and how they will deal with this latest calamity.

It’s to the Wildcats’ credit that despite these afflictions they have had such a successful start to their Super League campaign. Trinity are currently fifth in the table with only two defeats. On top of that they’ve already won at Wigan and looked pretty spectacular in their only televised encounter to date this season against Warrington. Even their two defeats were very respectable, with battling losses at Leeds and Hull KR being more than some other teams have achieved at Headingley and Craven Park. It’s remarkable that John Kear has got the club enjoying such success in the face of such difficulties, but the events of Sunday will be testing his ability to manufacture a positive out of adversity to its upmost limits. 

Wakefield’s next game is the televised encounter at home against St Helens on Friday. John Kear has confirmed today that the game will be going ahead. I can only imagine that many of the players would rather be doing anything else instead of playing, and that would be perfectly understandable. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if many of them want to get out there, to have an escape from the grim realities that unfortunately surround the club at the minute, and to have a platform to give Walker and Watene a fitting tribute. I’m sure the people of Wakefield will galvanize behind them, and I’m sure they also have the best wishes of the Rugby League community, and to that end I’d like to commend the RFL for declaring that every game in the country this week (professional and amateur) will have a minute’s silence beforehand as a mark of respect to Walker. As much as tribal rivalries can cloud relationships between supporters, we should all be humane enough to feel pity towards the far-more-than-fair share of suffering that has gone on at Wakefield this year.

Leon Walker RIP

March 23, 2009

When I saw that the Celtic Crusaders-Wakefield game was called off, and I also saw that we had been having pretty nice weather lately so it couldn’t be a dodgy pitch, I knew something serious was up. I didn’t quite realise how serious…

Leon Walker, a member of the Wakefield reserve team, collapsed and died during the Celtic-Wakefield reserves match this afternoon. Apparently he collapsed after a tackle, was airlifted to Morrison Hospital in Swansea, and pronounced dead on arrival. Early indications are that it was some sort of heart attack, but there has been no official conformation yet. 

Obviously my thoughts go out to Leon’s family and friends, and also to those at the Wakefield club. This has already been an arduous season to say the least, with Adam Watene’s death, Jamie Rooney’s near-death and Richard Moore’s diagnosis with Crohn’s Disease. It’s a credit to the club that they’ve done so well on the field so far this season, and this is the last thing the club needed. Hopefully their luck will turn for the better soon, because no team deserves this.

Crystal Ball: Week 7

March 20, 2009

Web

There are actually quite a lot of games I have conflicting thoughts about this week, and I have this feeling that these picks will either be spectacularly good or spectacularly bad. Only one way to find out, eh?

Hull FC beat Castleford Tigers by 18

I’m liking this Hull side a lot, which is enough for me to favour them at home against a Cas side coming off  a very close game that they should have won. Home advantage should be enough for Hull here, and I also think they’ll want to put on a show for their fans.

Wigan Warriors beat Salford City Reds by 20

Although Wigan lost fairly heavily last week, it should be pointed out that it was to the reigning champions and the margin of defeat didn’t reflect the closeness of the contest. Salford haven’t really looked good this season, so I think Wigan will get back to winning ways fairly comfortably.

St Helens beat Leeds Rhinos by 6

Oh great, my two weekly go-to picks are playing each other. I’m going with Saints, mainly on the back of home advantage but also because I feel Leeds will need to lose at some point and now is as good a time as any. Admittedly, this is probably against current form (Leeds sprang into life against Wigan last week, whilst Saints have laboured a bit against Celtic and Salford) but that also means Saints are due a big game. 

Catalan Dragons beat Bradford Bulls by 10

Again home advantage is the only reason for making this pick, as both sides have underachieved so far this year. I suppose Catalan have underachieved slightly less, and I suspect a few more defeats are going to lead to critical mass for Steve McNamara. The one caveat in this is that the Bulls have a pretty good record in Perpignan, but I can’t say that’s enough for me to pick them.

Celtic Crusaders beat Wakefield Trinity Wildcats by 2

At full strength, I probably pick Wakefield in this game. However, their injury list is getting a bit silly now, and Tony Duggan is back to offer a large dose of attacking threat for the Crusaders. Add in the fact that Celtic are at home and I think I see them getting their first Super League victory (only just though).

Harlequins beat Huddersfield Giants by

I feel really bad about this pick as it probably condemns Quins to defeat, but the Giants have looked really shaky at home whilst Quins have looked really good in general. Whatever happens in this game, I think we’re going to have a better picture of the season ahead for both sides by the end of this. 

Hull KR beat Warrington Wolves by 4

I actually want to pick Wire, as I feel they’ve reached a point where they simply can’t take any more punishment. However, after witnessing them last weekend first-hand there’s simply no way I can take them and feel good about it. Also, the Robins have Shaun Briscoe back and he’s been looking dangerous this season. Win or lose, the Wolves will look better (not that they could look any worse…).

Okay, Maybe They Have a Point…

March 18, 2009

On BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday, there was a brief piece about Rugby League which is definitely a rarity. Of course, it didn’t exactly portray the game in a positive light as it was a piece about the ‘booze epidemic’ currently taking over the NRL. It seemed a little scare-mongering to me, and excessively critical. Considering how the NRL doesn’t really register on the radar of most British sports fans, it seemed like a piece going out of its way to portray the game in a negative light.

Then this morning I happened to read this (emphasis mine):

CRONULLA have stood down halfback Brett Seymour from all commitments with the NRL club pending further investigation into an alleged alcohol bender on Sunday evening.

Seymour ended a 10-hour bender in a garden bed in Cronulla Mall after being ejected from popular nightspot 2230 Lounge Bar & Restaurant about 1am Monday morning. 

Seymour has since been cleared of falling into the garden bed, and is no longer stood down. Quite frankly, to let him off because of that is to miss the point, namely that he was drunk enough to be ejected from a nightclub. You would think that in an environment where there has been a rash of incidents involving players and excessive amounts of alcohol that they might just turn it down a notch. Evidently not. Considering that Seymour has previous experience when it comes to drink-related misconduct that he would be especially wary about getting embroiled in a saga like this. Again, evidently not.

All this talk of the NRL instigating a drinking ban seems overly draconian, and I doubt it would change much (ask 1930s America how banning alcohol worked there). If players want to drink,they will drink. It seems more like a cultural problem that needs to be corrected. It was noticable in the article that the Cronulla players were joining their coach Ricky Stuart for a casual drink. I know from personal experience that it doesn’t take too much for a casual drink to end up getting a little more hardcore. I can understand Stuart doing this for the purposes of team spirit, and it’s worth pointing out that no other player at this get-together made a fool of themselves, but I think there’s probably a drinking culture that starts at the clubs and needs to be reconsidered at the minute whether any celebratory drinks, no matter how casual, are a good idea.  

Basically, there’s only one time I consider players making drunken fools of themselves to be appropriate: after winning a Final. Apart from that, they really should cut down on the drinking, especially in an environment when they are going to be hung out to dry for the slightest indiscretion (not that most of the incidents that have been documented this season could be described as ‘slight’). It’s a sad state of affairs where the governing body might have to step in to instigate some common sense in the players.

Monday Musings: To Hull and Back

March 16, 2009

With all the talk about underperforming and underachieving teams currently dominating the narratives of Super League right now, there hasn’t been all that much chatter about the teams who have improved dramatically this season. What’s even more of an oversight is that two of these sides are in the same city. Hull is very much doing its claim for Rugby League capital of England a world of good with both its two Super League sides coming back from disappointing campaigns to be riding high this year. 

Last season, both of the Hull sides finished outside of the play-offs, and indeed Hull FC endured perhaps their worst season in a decade. so far this season, it’s looking a little rosier on Humberside. As of this morning, Hull FC are second and still unbeaten. Only points difference is keeping them off the top at the minute Perhaps even more surprisingly, Hull KR are currently fifth with only the one defeat and one draw blotting their resumé. Both sides have been doing pretty well in the attendances department as well, with FC averaging just over 13,500 and KR getting in around just over 8,500 a game. 

(more…)

Quins Humiliate Warrington

March 14, 2009

Boy, I did not see that one coming. 

Harlequins today showed Tony Smith the true extent of the task ahead of him by destroying Warrington Wolves 60-8. It started off fairly competitively, with Luke Dorn and Danny Ward tries being cancelled out by Vinnie Anderson and Paul Rauhihi tries for Wire. Then it suddenly changed as Quins scored eight unanswered tries. Danny Orr rubbed salt into the Wolves’ wounds by kicking a perfect 10 from 10 conversions. All in all, it was a very impressive showing from Quins and a very worrying display if you’re a Wolves fan.

The most obvious deficiency at Warrington is their defence, and they let in some extremely soft tries (for Luke Dorn’s opening try I don’t actually think he was touched by an attempted tackle). Particularly they seemed vulnerable out wide and to a clever Quins kicking game. However, they’re also inflicting a lot of problems upon themselves with woeful ball control, and if they keep dropping the ball like that then they’re not going to win many games. WHat was worse though was that they seemed to lack a cutting edge which I found surprising as that’s basically what’s carried Wire over the last few seasons. Lee Briers, Michael Monaghan and Jon Clarke were basically bystanders for the whole game, and after their early tries they didn’t even come close to looking threatening. Stuttering attack and flawed defence does not a good team make, and Smith really needs to get his thinking cap on. 

But of course to dwell on this is to ignore the fact that Harlequins are most definitely a good team, and a side not to be taken lightly. Will Sharp has been a revelation so far this season, and I think he’ll be catching the eye of Smith for an international space. Danny Orr could also be coming into the international mix if he keeps up his form. Luke Dorn must wonder why he ever left London, as he scores tries for fun in the Capital. Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook is increasing his stature in the eyes of Quins’ supporters from ‘cult hero’ to ‘full-on deity’. Most importantly of all, they are extremely well coached and they gel into an ultra-efficient unit that’s also able to dish out the razzmatazz as well. I don’t think they’re title challengers yet, but they’re certainly in the playoff mix and if they keep this up, then who knows?

There was also probably the best sequence of play that I’ve seen in my all-too-few visits to the Quins / Broncos, as Tony Clubb (whom, I think I’ve mentioned this before, was looking fairly mediocre on loan at Skolars just over a year ago) unleashed a shoulder-charge from the depths of Hades that completely rocked a Warrington player, and as this was the final tackle the WOlves put in a pretty mediocre chip towards the in-goal… which Chris Melling proceeded to return to the opposite side of the pitch for the most entertaining try of the day. Warrington have to go back to the drawing board, because if it’s reached a stage where the Quins fans can basically take the piss, then there’s not much lower you can go.