Archive for May, 2009

Warrington Begin to Roar Again

May 30, 2009

 

Things suddenly look a lot better for Adrian Morley & co.

Things suddenly look a lot better for Adrian Morley & co.

In March, I went to see Harlequins play Warrington Wolves. Wire had recently announced that Tony Smith would be coming on board to turn around a poor start to the season which had seen them lose their opening three games. Although he failed to get them a win against his former club Leeds, he had got them to produced a commendable enough performance that it looked like he as going to get Warrington back on track, and I thought I was going to see a very competitive game at the Stoop.

Well, I was extremely wrong that day. The final score was Harlequins 60 Warrington 8, and I wondered just what had Smith let himself in for. Warrington looked disinterested, out-muscled, adn they gave up far too easily in defence. It looked like they were in for a long season. Yet today, they are up against Hull KR in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup, and are currently in the middle of a rich vein of form in Super League, where they are currently perched just outside the top eight. In the space of a few months, their season doesn’t look like such a write-off after all.

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Crystal Ball: Week 15

May 30, 2009

Crystal BallAn abbreviated edition this week, as there is only a single game on in Super League due to the Challenge Cup.

Celtic Crusaders beat Wakefield Trinity Wildcats by 4

A lot of emotional baggage involved in this game, as this is the fixture that was called off following the death of Leon Walker. Both teams are involved in a bit of a struggle right now, but Wakey appear to be in a right slump right now. I think the Crusaders will be hoping to take advantage of that…

Alistair Campbell and the Keighley Cougars

May 25, 2009

 

Maybe I shouldve added more about the Cougars after all...

"Maybe I should've added more about the Cougars after all..."

Very interesting piece in the Times over the weekend by Alistair Campbell, former king of spin doctors for Labour, about a visit he made recently to Keighley Cougars. Campbell is a Keighley native, and accepted an invite from the Cougars to revisit a club he hadn’t seen play in over forty years. He presents a story of a club who have to make do without the perks of full professionalism but manage to find a way, all because of a love of the game.

Campbell does a very good job of painting the scenario that faces many clubs in the Championships: smaller crowds, limited resources and semi-professional players who have to back up playing with full-time jobs (I imagine there’s a significant number of amateur players who find it hard enough to do this, let alone having to cope with the demands of semi-professionalism) and yet he’s far from patronizing. Indeed, he shows the passion and energy that those at this level of the game exude (read Barry Eaton’s pre-match speech). He also does a good job of showing the contribution Keighley make to the local community, and the difficulties and rewards of outreach programmes for these clubs. The people at the club realise it’s not easy, but they still love doing it anyway. 

Oh, and although it’s barely related to the article, I thought I’d bring it up anyway: Keighley Cougars will be playing London Skolars in the traditional Friday Night Lights game the evening before the Challenge Cup final. If you’re in London for the final and are looking for something to do the night before, come on down. Perhaps the Skolars should invite Campbell?

Warrington Wolves 16 – 8 Wigan Warriors

May 22, 2009

Phew. I just need to get my breath back…

That was one of the most intense, physical regular season games I have seen for quite some time. After Wigan pounded away at the Wire line to the point where Warrington didn’t touch the ball for the first tenth of the game, the Wolves regained some composure and began to get a head of steam in the middle of the park where their forwards dominated for much of the night (despite Wigan doing their very best to give as good as they got). In the end this domination down the middle led to openings for Lee Briers, and even though they kept messing up the cross-field kick from midfield (they kept trying this last week as well) they eventually clawed their way back into the game, and tries from Matt King (a cross-field kick into the in-goal), a beauty of a handling movement putting in Chris Riley, and a solo effort from Michael Monaghan proved to be more than enough against a tiring Warriors side, especially as it was backed up by an absolute beasting of a defensive effort. 

I am blown away by what Tony Smith has done at Warrington in such a short span of time. How is this the same time whom I was watching concede 60 points to Harlequins just a few months ago? A blip against Hull KR aside, their defence has changed from ultra-flaky to rock solid, and with their attacking effort still being dangerous (and seemingly less reckless) they’re back on track up the table. Adrian Morley and Gareth Carvell are clearly one of the best propping duos in the league, and they’re now firing and are also ably supported by the likes of Ben Harrison, Ben Westwood and the Anderson brothers. The platform they are laying is at last being exploited by both Lee Briers and Michael Monaghan (who seemed to play much better once he seemed to get concussed). I’m wary of saying it because we’ve been here before, but it’s looking like Warrington are getting their act together. 

Of course, it takes two to tango and Wigan played their part in making this an enthralling game. I was a bit wary of the fact that they only came out of opening the game with eight straight minutes of possession with only a six point lead, but they came close on two other occasions. What really let them down was their forward pack – Stuart Fielden and Andy Coley have been immense during Wigan’s renaissance in the last few weeks but they were simply muscled out of the game. Although I thought Sam Tomkins and Thomas Leuluai both had pretty good games (for a second I thought Tomkins had pulled off a miracle tackle to deny Monaghan, and he wasn’t far off doing it) they simply lacked the attacking spark that had driven their re-emergence as contenders. If Wigan want to crack the top eight, then they need to find it again, and fast. 

You know what the most extraordinary thing about the game was? It was two teams going at each other full-throttle for eighty minutes who aren’t even in the top eight! Admittedly it’s a surprise that these two sides aren’t in the playoffs at this stage, but this is exactly what Super League needs: two sides trying to destroy each other in pursuit of the extended season, playing at maximum intensity in front of a pumped-up crowd (kudos to those at the Halliwell Jones – you definitely played your part in an enthralling spectacle). If teams in the middle of the pack can play like this, just how good should it be when the top teams play each other? I don’t think Warrington will be outside of the playoffs for too much longer, and I’m not yet ruling out Wigan getting there either.

Crystal Ball: Week 14

May 22, 2009

Crystal BallThis league is getting crazier and crazier, and it’s making predicting games harder and harder. Once more into the breach, dear friends…

Bradford Bulls beat Salford City Reds by 4

I would argue that this is picking the underdog, as Salford are on a two game win streak, whilst Bradford became the Crusaders’ first victim this year. I don’t know why, but I can see Bradford wanting to pick up their game. I doubt Salford will make it easy and I can easily see this pick being wrong. 

St Helens beat Harlequins by 16

What’s that? A three-win streak for Harlequins? Sounds like they’re due a defeat to me, and what better place to lose than the home of the current leaders? Of course, I thought Quins would lose at Leeds as well…

Hull KR beat Castleford Tigers by 14

The Robins really seem to be coming into their own at the minute and are looking more and more like the real deal. I just think they should have too much for an increasingly inconsistent Tigers side who must have been emotionally drained by the events of their last two matches. 

Warrington Wolves beat Wigan Warriors by 16

AKA The Martin Gleeson Game. After a rather stupid first half last week (a few silly mistakes, and they’re 10-0 down), the Wolves showed that they were able to right the ship in the second half. That’s pretty much the opposite of how their games at the beginning of the season, and implies to me that Tony Smith is getting them back on track. That might just be enough to get past a Wigan side who’s nice run was ended by Hull KR last week. I expect Gleeson to score, but I just don’t think it will be enough.

Celtic Crusaders beat Catalan Dragons by 10

Because a) the Dragons are in a rut and b) these things happen in pairs/threes. 

Huddersfield Giants beat Wakefield Trinity Wildcats by 22

For some reason the Giants appear to perform much better away from home. This spells trouble for a Wakey side that is stuck in a bad spot right now (four straight defeats in all competitions). Look for the Giants to get over the disappointment of last weekend.

Leeds Rhinos beat Hull FC by 18

AKA The Midweek Game. Leeds have been winning ugly of late, but they will no doubt emphasise the ‘winning’ over the ‘ugly’. Hull lost to Warrington last week even though the Wolves were generous enough to give them a head-start, and I somehow doubt that the Rhinos will be so charitable.

Crystal Ball: Week 13

May 15, 2009

Crystal Ball

So the Magic Weekend was a pretty big success prediction-wise. Can I keep it up this week? Let’s hope so…

Wigan Warriors beat Hull KR by 4

Two teams that are both definitely in-form (they’re both on four game win-streaks in both League and Cup) which means that I’m probably going to go with home advantage here. Either way this goes, I expect it should be a tight game and probably pretty fun to watch. 

Leeds Rhinos beat Castleford Tigers by 8

Although Castleford have much improved this year, they seemed to struggle against Halifax last week. They also have a win-loss-win-loss pattern going back through their last seven games, as as they won their last game the pattern dictates a loss this game. I think Leeds are forcing their way back into a semblance of form, and they should just about come out of the Jungle with the win.

Hull FC beat Warrington Wolves by 12

Both teams have pulled out of slumps recently and look to be getting their seasons back on track. The week off that Hull have been afforded by being knocked out of the Challenge Cup might prove to be a benefit here, especially after scraping wins out of the last two games. Again, a game I think could go either way.

St Helens beat Catalan Dragons by 16

Hmm. Saints thrashed the Dragons a mere week ago, and although they now have to try and do it away from home, I think it should be possible against a side who aren’t performing at the level they want to at the minute. 

Huddersfield Giants beat Salford City Reds by 20

So Salford now appear to be back in a slump again, except that it’s now losing by narrow margins instead of blowouts. Huddersfield should be looking to win a home game comfortably after much greater success away this season, and I just wonder if all those narrow defeats for Salford are going to eventually take their toll…

Harlequins beat Wakefield Trinity Wildcats by 10

Quins have won their last two games but they were both away from the Stoop, so we get to see if they’re just as comfortable playing at home again. Wakey are in a minor slump of sorts right now (is the emotional toll of their early season finally getting to them?) and Quins have had a week off. Of course, having the odds stacked in their favour like this is the exact kind of game Quins usually lose…

Bradford Bulls beat Celtic Crusaders by 24

Bradford appear to have pulled out of their slump at last. Celtic Crusaders don’t give off that vibe yet, and I think the Bulls will be looking to continue their surge in momentum.

Hull FC 24 – 16 Castleford

May 5, 2009

So Hull kept getting back on track, and Castleford stayed in this relative mini-slump of theirs. It all could have been so different though, as this was a back-and-forth contest in which both sides pushed each other all the way, and it’s a shame that the result of the match was heavily influenced by a dodgy refereeing decision. Phil Betham penalised Mark Wainwright for a dodgy play-the-ball with the scores level in the final ten minutes, but it looked like a) Wainwright had a Hull man interfereing with him and b) he managed to play the ball correctly. In the end the penalty was enough to force Cas to chase the game and also to provide Hull FC with a comfort zone that they took through (and even increased) to the end. 

Hull will be glad to have come away with the win in their second close encounter in a row. They showed great spirit in coming back three times during the match, and they took advantage of the chances they got very well. Danny Washbrook is finally overcoming a spell of injury to really make an impact. Willie Manu was also a threat both in attack and defence, as his constant attempts at ball-stealing tended to either work or force the TIgers to take extra care around him, thus reducing their second-phase play. Even though they’ve only just managed to win their last two games, Hull have still won them and look like they’re regaining their mojo. 

Cas in turn will feel disappointed and possibly even cheated. In the end, Hull were the better side though and Cas really gifted them field position with a kicking game that bordered on shocking at times (Brent Sherwin sent the ball straight dead twice). Cas had a cutting edge but they seemed to lack a finishing ability, and they relied on a near-miracle play for one of their tries (see below). Their forwards were also up for the tough battle in the middle, but they seemed to be lacking dynamism (a Mitchell Sargent break down the middle notwithstanding). Cas strike me as a side who are treading water at the minute but they’re not that far off, and once they hit a groove again I think they’ll get back on the winning track. 

One more thing… Kirk Dixon’s move to keep the ball in play in the Hull in-goal for the Tigers’ third try (scored by Jamie Evans) was probably the most spectacular bit of play of the whole weekend. Pure instinct on show there, and it’s a shame it wasn’t in a winning effort. I’ve got a gif of the move hidden behind the link (as not to overload the frontpage). If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend having a look. 

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Monday Musings: It’s a Kind of Magic

May 4, 2009

Another year, another Magic weekend gone. One of these days, I will have both the combination of time and money to actually attend one live. Until then, I’ll just have to make a judgement based on the presentation of the event on Sky Sports. I suspect that I’m not quite getting the same experience as those who got to attend live, and I’m jealous of them as Edinburgh is a great city. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the many hours I spent in front of my TV screen watching far more Rugby League than I would normally get on screen (and if I had Setanta, I could’ve thrown in some NRL as well). 

For the most part, the event came across really well on TV. The only two games which felt a bit flat were the openers for each of the days (Quins-Salford on Saturday and Giants-Celtic on Sunday) which doesn’t surprise me because a) I expect many people were still making their way into the stadium that early on and b) those were in many respects the two least compelling match ups. However, Murrayfield seemed to come across better on TV than the Millennium Stadium did, which I suspect is a combination of being a (slightly) more compact stadium and also not having a roof whilst the sun shines. It probably also helped that all the games had a degree of excitement around them (the possible exception being the Giants-Celtic game, but even that had its moments). As a showcase for the product of Super League, you would have to say the players did their part. 

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Catalan Dragons 16 – 36 Leeds

May 4, 2009

The proverbial game of two halfs here, as Leeds managed to look a lot like both the team that won the competition last season and also the team that has clearly been struggling over the past few months. Both sides will take some positives out of the game and both teams looked good in patches, but both teams will be worried by the inconsistency that they displayed in the game. 

In the first half, Leeds were clinical and destructive. They took their chances well and looked to have regained the cutting edge that had been sorely missing in the previous month. When Brent Webb and Ryan Hall finished off long range efforts in quick succession (Hall’s was straight off the restart) it looked like the Rhinos of old were back. Hall had a very impressive first half, as did the Rhonos pack which set the tone of dominance. The Dragons simply looked shell-shocked. 

The second half was a lot more rugged, and generally captivated less interest in the spectator. Catalan Dragons managed to improve their game, and suddenly a 30 point deficit became a 20 point deficit, with tries early in the second half to Kane Bentley and Olivier Elima. Had they managed to score another not long after that the game might have become interesting again, with Leeds looking pretty flat and the Dragons suddenly playing with a sense of urgency. Unfortunately they couldn’t do it, and Scott Donald’s interception killed off a game that really had died a good while before. Although Casey McGuire was able to confirm the Dragons’ position of ascendancy in the second half with a late score, it was far too little far too late.

Personally, this struck as a game in which neither side will have come out of it feeling particularly good. The Dragons were absolutely shocking in the first half, and although they should be pleased with the signs of improvement in the second half, they should feel frustrated that their first half performance essentially rendered the good work they did later on null and void. As for Leeds, the looked like they were back to their lethal best in the first half, and yet somehow managed to lose that killer edge again in the second half.

Huddersfield 40 – 16 Celtic Crusaders

May 3, 2009

This was a game that turned out to be fairly intriguing, although in a fairly passive kind of way. The main problem was that by the time it had become an even contest Huddersfield already had an insurmountable lead. Credit to the Crusaders for not giving in an folding completely, but they should be worried by a very poor first half and a lacklustre defensive effort.

The game succinctly summarised what has been Celtic’s main flaw this season, which is that they are clearly not an 80 minute team. They can play very well for patches but they always have at least one spell of mediocrity that costs them the game. In this game they had two, and one of them lasted for the entire first half. They also conceded some really woeful scores in the second half (especially the Finnigan try from a penalty – most under 11s sides feel bad about conceding that one) 

The Giants showed much attacking threat, but as Brain Carney alluded to in the commentary, the one thing they really seem to be lacking is a ruthless streak. With the start that they had, they could have quite easily pulled out to a fifty or sixty point win. As it was, they settled for a twenty-four point victory, and although that’s none too shabby you would have to feel that they might consider their second half performance a little disappointing. Nonetheless, they have accumulated a more than adequate number of crafty midfield types (Shaun Lunt the latest to really emerge) and with a talented backline and a dynamic pack, they are looking like potential contenders. Once they develop consistency and a killer instinct, they will be right up there.