Archive for October, 2009

Super League Grand Final Super Duper Grand Preview

October 10, 2009

R4_GF_Leeds_Saints

Previous Meetings: Saints have a 2-1 edge this season, with their cup win at Headingley the only time the away side won this game this year. They’ve been fairly even over the last few years, although it’s worth pointing out that Leeds have won their last two encounters at Old Trafford. 

Backline: Saints have the experience, Leeds have the talent, although the Rhinos aren’t exactly lacking in experience here and the Saints line-up isn’t too shabby. Leeds definitely seem to have a pace advantage. The wild-card in all of this is Kyle Eastmond, who is supposed to be a halfback but has spent most of this season roving in from the threequarter line, often to explosive effect. He is also the only person in either threequarter line never to play in the Grand Final, and along with Paul Wellens the only man not to score in the big game. Will he cower under the spotlight? I sort of doubt it.

Halves: Perhaps the most crucial battle in this match. Sean Long and Rob Burrow are both probably going to cancel each other out, although Long will try his hardest in his last ever Saints game. However, at Stand-Off we have a confrontation that in the last few years has extended beyond the Leeds-Saints rivalry: Leon Pryce or Danny McGuire? Since Pryce moved to Knowsley Rd the winner of this battle has usually been on the victorious side (the possible exception being their last regualr season game). Pryce has been mailing it in the last few months, whilst McGuire got a double in his last game. Pryce needs to pull his weight for Saints to win. 

Back Row: Both sides are pretty evenly mached at the back of the scrum. Leeds skew a bit younger, but Saints have Lee Gilmour (who might also end up in the centres) who remains one of the most underrated players in Super League. Leeds also have Ali Lauitiiti back, and he’s seemed to be Saints’ nemesis the last few times they have met. Look for Kevin Sinfield to carry out his usual playmaking role and for Jon Wilkin to occasionally do the same (although his kicking game was woeful last week). 

Front Row: This should be fun. In James Graham and Jamie Peacock, this confrontation features the two best English props not named Morley, and they’re ably backed up by the likes of Kylie Leuluai (consistent go-forward) and Maurie Fa’asavalu (who seemed back in form during the Wigan game). There’s also an underrated subplot to this game going on here – both James Roby and Matt Diskin will be wanting to show they have what it takes to be rake for the England FOur Nations campaign (Roby will almost definitely be in the squad, but this might be Diskin’s last chance to prove himself worthy). 

Coach: Brian McLennan has a pretty good track record in big finals, winning the Tri-Nations with New Zealand and only losing the second time in extra time. He’s also won at Old Trafford at his first attempt last year. He also seems to know when to mix it up and when to change the gameplan, which will be a boon tonight. This is Mick Potter’s first Grand Final as a coach, but he was Coach of the Year last season. People have criticized his management of Saints this year and this is his chance to prove them wrong.

In Conclusion… everything seems to be pointing towards a Rhinos victory, except for one thing: I’ve seen Saints live in three finals before (2006 & 2008 CC Final, 2006 GF) and they’ve won all three games, convincingly as well. Personally, I don’t think either of these sides will crush the other one, and I expect a good tough battle. If it rains, that plays into Leeds’ hands, although the forecast is currently saying it will just stay cloudy. Either Leeds are going to have the class to outmanouvre Saints (they’ve scored readily down the flanks in the last two Grand Finals) or Saints are going to send off Sean Long properly, which is something I keep coming back to. Never underestimate the poer of a good story…

Season Review: Hull KR

October 9, 2009

hullkr

Points For: 650

Points Against: 516

Home Record: W9 L4

Away Record (including Magic weekend): W8 L5 D1

Longest Winning Streak: 5 (x2)

Longest Losing Streak: 3

Top Points Scorer: Michael Dobson (246)

Top Try Scorer: Peter Fox (18)

Top Tackler: Scott Murrell (875)

Hull KR’s season ended in disappointment as they lost at home to Wigan in a pulsating playoff match in which they almost pulled off a miracle comeback. It was a bitter end to what should be seen as a very good season for the Robins as they emerged as a Super League powerhouse. After an offseason of relative calm, Justin Morgan managed to manouvre this squad into a top contender. However, a lack of experience at the top-end of Super League showed in both the League and the Cup, runs in both of which ended at Craven Park. Still, it was a very solid effort for KR, who can now justifiably claim to be top dog on Humberside.

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NRL Grand Final: Melbourne Storm 23 – 16 Parramatta Eels

October 5, 2009

It looked like it was going to be a comfortable victory for the Melbourne Storm heading into the final fifteen minutes. They were leading 22-6 thanks to tries to Ryan Hoffman, Adam Blair, Greg Inglis and Billy Slater, and had even snuffed out Eric Grothe’s would-be comeback-igniter with Slater’s effort. Turns out the Eels just needed to find a second wind, which they did thanks to tries to Joel Reddy and an absolute barnstorming run from Fuifui Moimoi during which I’m pretty sure he would’ve knocked a hippo out of the way. In the end though Moimoi was adjudged to be the villain, accused by the referee of stealing the ball from Slater when all the evidence seemed to show his innocence. In the end, the penalty was enough to take the Storm deep into Parramatta territory, and Greg Inglis relieved his teammates by popping over a drop goal to take the Storm that crucial second score further from the Eels. 

If Parramatta had managed to succeed with their late surge, it would have been the ultimate example of an underserving team scraping a victory because apart from that ten-minute spell they were completely dominated by the Storm. The Eels’ run to the Grand Final had been built on dominating in the forwards and utilising the momentum in the 2nd phase. The one problem was it seemed quite obvious that they weren’t going to bully the Storm around like they had the Dragons, Titans and Bulldogs. In fact, the Storm played it almost note-perfect, swarming the Eeels and taking the big shots when they could (special kudos to Adam Blair who seemed to make it his personal mission to show  the Eels they wouldn’t have everything their own way). They also exploited their attacking opportunities perfectly, and they had a telepathic knowledge of where the support runners would be. I’m also amazed Cooper Cronk didn’t win the Churchill Medal, because he operated the Melbourne machine with pilot-like precision and was at the heart of their scoring (he set up three of four tries). Still, Billy Slater didn’t do too badly either so I won’t begrudge him his medal.

The Eels tried hard, but they just couldn’t break the Storm down apart from that magical spell. Nathan Hindmarsh made 64 tackles. 64! That’s a tackle every 75 seconds. That’s straight-up insane and a fantastic example of Hindmarsh’s extreme work ethic, but the fact he had to make so many tackles is indicative of the fact that the Eels weren’t on the front foot enough, which unfortunately for them is essential for their jazz-style of rugby to work. Fuifui Moimoi was also full of energy, but the Storm did a good job of containing him (if not stopping him). The fact that Jarryd Hayne didn’t really have all that much of a chance to show his talents was indicative of the Eels’ failings, and also indicative of a smart gameplan from the Storm who didn’t let him into the game. His face after his knock-on at the end of the game was that of a frustrated man unable to shape the game his way for the first time in a month. It also didn’t help that their final tackle options and kicking game could be generously called ‘godawful’. 

And so the Storm win their second Grand Final in four years, having been in the final game in all those seasons as well, which cements their reputation as the Rugby League dynasty over the past decade – not bad going considering the club is barely a decade old anyway. Greg Inglis hasn’t played a full season and not reached the Grand Final yet, and with their Toyota Cup side winning that competition (with an English full-back, Gareth Widdop, who might find himself getting international recognition soon) it looks like they’ll be up there for the next few years at least. As for Parramatta, it’s not a bad effort for Daniel Anderson’s first year in charge, and now they have the experience of going this far they should be the wiser for the experience. Of course, to go that one further they’ll have to go through the Storm, not to mention all the other teams in the NRL who will have looked to improve. It should be fun next year.

St Helens 14 – 10 Wigan Warriors

October 4, 2009

Forget what I said yesterday, this was the best game of the playoffs so far. Historic local rivals, tough forward play, good tries and no shortage of controversy. Top players were at the top of their game and both Sam Tomkins and Kyle Eastmond went head-to-head in what I hope is one of many playoff encounters that we’ll see in years to come. This game was fiercely contested throughout, and went right down to the final minutes. Leeds were obviously hoping that these two sides would wail on each other and they got their wish. This game came down to a few key moments that went St Helens’ way, and that was all they needed to take them past the Warriors.

I tended to agree with most of the calls that the referees had to make (Richards didn’t touch the ball, Long just got the ball on the line) but I really wasn’t sure about the call on Joel Tomkins being put in touch by Sean Long. Obviously, the touch judge believed that the tackle hadn’t been completed when Sean Long put Tomkins’ foot into touch, but I thought that Tomkins had stopped moving and thus the tackle was complete. In many respects though Tomkins got what he deserved because nce the tackle count has been restarted so close to the opposition line, you should be absolutely certain that you can make it down the flank without going into touch. It’s a shame he blotted his report with that moment of madness, because he had a good game overall and it was his peach of an offload that sent George Carmont away brought Wigan back into the game. 

Even so, you can hardly say that Wigan were robbed. They played well and were able to mix in the forwards, but they lacked composure at the crucial times by the Saints goal-line. You could see Sam Tomkins running at the line many times hoping to find support, only to find no one there backing him up. You have to wonder how much of a blow losing Michael McIlorum just before kick-off was, because Mark Riddell didn’t really do much around the ruck and they probably could have done with a change of pace. Wigan were able to match Saints in the middle, and even outmuscle them at time, but they were unable to do anything with it. 

It also didn’t help that Saints were pretty damn good for the most part. Tony Puletua has been probably the import of the season, Sean Long had a fantastic home game at Saints, Paul Wellens had his best game for a while, and what can you say about James Graham? The man is a beast, and if Saints win at Old Trafford next week I expect he will have had a central role in it. Credit is also due to Kyle Eastmond who drifted in and out of the game, but when he was in it led to things like their first try. Saints haven’t been winning pretty over the last few months, but they have at least started winning again. They will probably have be back somewhere approaching their best next week if they hope to beat Leeds, but at this stage it’s hard to rule out that happening.

Playoff Preview: St Helens vs Wigan Warriors

October 3, 2009

R3_Saints_Wigan

Previous meetings: Saints won two games to one this year, although oddly Wigan have outscored Saints in this year’s meetings due to the beatbown at Murrayfield. Saints have had by far the better of their meetings over the last few years, and haven’t won a Super League game at Knowsley Rd in six years. 

Form: Wigan are red-hot right now, with their battering at Huddersfield the only real blip. St Helens have been, erm… mixed since the Challenge Cup semi-final loss to Huddersfield, and although they did look like they were back at their best for the opening quarter of the playoff game against the Giants, they faded somewhat after that. 

Personnel Concerns: Both sides are at full strength. Saints were a little worried about Matt Gidley and Kieron Cunningham, but obviously that bye-week has been good for them. 

Thoughts: This game is what the playoffs is all about. Former champion side versus great pretenders, and local rivals to boot. I really don’t know what to make of St Helens right now. They’ve been mediocre for a few months now, yet they somehow managed to look like their old selves for a bit against Huddersfield. Then they fell back into bad habits for a bit without actually ever looking like losing. They’re clearly a side in transition. Wigan by contrast have looked good in the playoffs and their win at Craven Park last weekend was no small achievement. 

What is a very big deal about this game is that it is Sean Long’s last game in the red vee at Knowsley Rd, and I imagine he wants to give the fans a worthy send-off. In return I imagine the atmosphere should be something special, which will probably favour the home side. Wigan are also a fairly  young side, and players like Sam Tomkins won’t have played in a game of this magnitude before, although they got preparation for a hostile environment last weekend. 

I’m often a believer in karma in sport, and Saints haven’t been giving off good signals for this lately. In their last few games at the GPW Recruitment Stadium Wigan have come really close to beating Saints, and you have to wonder whether their time has finally come. Add to that the news that Sean Long is doing a book signing on the afternoon of the game, and that he’s been openly talking about rejecting a move to Wigan for next season, and I just wonder if the stars will align against Long and St Helens. This could well be the kind of game where divine intervention matters, because I don’t expect a blowout either way. 

In Conclusion… I really don’t like picking against St Helens, particularly when they’re at home, and it’s hard to argue with their Super League pedigree. With that said, if any side can beat them it’s this Wigan side. Basically, I’m sitting on the fence for this one, which is a sign that this could be the best playoff game we’ve seen in a long time.

Leeds Rhinos 27 – 20 Catalan Dragons

October 3, 2009

So the fairytale run of the Dragons came to an end last night, but they didn’t give up without a fight. When Danny McGuire dummied his way over for the first try, it looked like Leeds had calmed down after a nervy start. Then McGuire let the kick-off go out on the full and Les Cats scored straight from the ensuing scrum thanks to Vincent Duport. Leeds somehow came of a first half in which they were being matched shot-for-shot by a resilient Dragons side with an 18 point lead thanks to a purple patch to end all purple patches, which saw two tries to Ryan Hall and an absolute beauty of a team effort finished off by McGuire. When Scott Donald went over at the start of the second half, it looked like the Dragons’ run was going to end with a damp squib, but Greg Bird and Adam Mogg wouldn’t allow it. Not only did they gain some respect back, the set up a nervy end but pulling scores back. When Kevin Sinfield popped over a drop-goal with 25 minutes left, it seemed like an over-cautious shutdown operation by the Rhinos. As it turned out it was probably the most intelligent piece of play all night, because it kept the Dragons that psychologically-diffcult second score away from the Rhinos. 

This was one of those rare games where I’m not sure the better team won. In fact, I’m still not entirely sure how the Rhinos pulled away so dramatically just before half-time. Up until that point they appeared to be losing the forward battle. Next thing you know, they’re four scores ahead and the game appears to be over. It’s a tremendous credit to the Dragons that that wasn’t necessarily the case. For the most part they seemed to be bossing it in the forwards, and they certainly never seemed to be outmatched. Duport took his hat-trick nicely, which isn’t bad for a player who was originally a back-rower. Adam Mogg and Greg Bird were superb, and England should hope that Mogg isn’t able to take his place for France in the Four Nations (he might not play as his wife is due to give birth). Les Cats might rue taking off Bird just before half-time, even if he probably needed the rest for his own good. For large portions of the game and particularly the second half, it looked the Dragons were all over Leeds. It was a shame for them that they were 22 points down at that point. 

Give Credit to Leeds though. In that ten minute spell just before and after half-time they were electric. I didn’t agree with the commentators going on about how awesome Danny McGuire was playing (he wasn’t that good, and I consider myself something of a McGuire apologist) but he sure as hell took his first try nicely, and his positioning to run onto Donald’s kick for his second try (very possibly try of the season, and certainly try of the playoffs so far) was also top-notch. He was in the right place at the right time, something that applied to all the Rhinos’ players in that spell. Jamie Peacock was a workhorse for his stay on the pitch, and Luke Burgess’ arrival on the pitch coincided with the Leeds explosion as he introduced a 2nd phase play that had been missing from the Rhinos at that point. The Rhinos rode their luck a bit, but they still came out of the game as worthy victors.

So the Dragons get a winter of rest in the south of France, whilst the Rhinos’ march towards an unprecedented third Grand Final victory continues. Leeds probably picked the Dragons with their ClubCall pick assuming that St Helens and Wigan would beat the crap out of each other, but the Rhinos have just had to endure a game of extreme physical intensity and will be glad that they’ve got an extra rest day. They conceded some very soft tries from scrums and that will have to be worked on for next week, but at the very least they won’t have the excuse of a soft preparation should anything go wrong. In fact, this game was probably the exact sort of warm-up the Rhinos needed; a reminder that they can’t just walk over every team.

Playoff Preview: Leeds Rhinos vs Catalan Dragons

October 2, 2009

R3_Leeds_Cats

Previous Meetings: Leeds won two of the three previous meetings this season, both by considerable margins. The Dragons did, however, win the last meeting between the two. Les Cats have never won at Headingley.

Form: Both are red hot right now. Leeds have been crushing opposition for about two months now whilst the Dragons have somehow won three away games in a row (all fairly convincingly). 

Personnel Concerns: Both sides are considering recalling previously missing forwards in Luke Burgess and Jamal Fakir. In Fakir’s case this would be a huge gamble as he has missed most of the season.

Thoughts: The fisr ever ClubCall match sees a meeting between two of the in-form teams in the competition. Leeds ended up cruising to a League Leader’s Shield and walked over Hull KR, although it’s hard to tell how much of that was KR failing due to tiredness. The Dragons are winning away from home regularly in these playoffs and their pack has been immense. Olivier Elima (declared French captain this week) is probably the form forward in the competition right now.

The main problem for the Dragons is that they’ve won by bashing the opposition packs out of the game. I don’t see this happening to Leeds. They have been playing some exciting stuff in the last few weeks but they’ve been allowed to. The main thing in the Dragons’ favour is that Leeds might be soft from a week off. Alternatively, they might be nicely rested. 

In Conclusion… I find it hard to pick against the Dragons, particularly after their domination over the last few weeks, but I find it even harder to pick against the Rhinos who have been looking more and more like the champions-elect for the last few months, and they won’t be bullied in the same way the Dragons’ other opposition have been recently. I expect it’ll at least start off close before the Rhinos pull away later on.