Archive for the ‘Monday Musings’ Category

Monday Musings: Rhinos On The Charge

July 13, 2009

A few weeks ago I went to see Harlequins play Leeds Rhinos. Quins had already beaten Leeds at Headingley earlier in the season and were coming off of a resounding televised victory against Hull KR the week before, so I was expecting to see a good, well fought, close game. I saw that for one half of the game, but once Will Sharp threw one of the most ill-judged passes into touch that I’ve seen in a good long time (and with it any momentum) Leeds took complete charge and ended up cruising to victory by a score of 48-14. I was wondering at the time if Leeds, who seemed to have been a shadow of their former selves at stages during this season, had finally rediscovered the form that had taken them to two consecutive Super League titles. 

About a month later, I’m still not entirely sure that Leeds are there yet, but they’re certainly heading in the right direction. They now have eight wins in their last nine games (the loss being a narrow defeat in Perpignan to the Dragons) and have managed to be verging on uber-threatening at various stages during that time. They also seem to have luck on their side, although they do deserve credit for finding the will to score two tries in the final three minutes to snatch victory at Wakefield. The fact that they had to do this does suggest that the Rhinos machine isn’t completely operational yet, but it does appear to be warming up nicely as the playoffs approach. 

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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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Monday Musings: Bulldozed

April 20, 2009

bradford

The higher you climb, the bigger the fall. As Bradford won their third Grand Final in five consecutive attempts at the big one, they had gotten pretty high. They were the poster boys for the success of Super League, with the switch to summertime rugby resulting in an explosion of support for the Bulls and an emergence of a new rugby superpower in Yorkshire. THey were a side that combined a brutal forward pack with a carnage loaded backline, always a lethal combination. They had climbed up to be part of the Big Four, and they had an intimidatory factor about them.

Today, things are different. Friday’s travesty of a result against Warrington (hardly a stellar performer this season) seemed to confirm Bradford’s fall from grace this season. Currently only Celtic Crusaders are below them in the table, and they have the excuse of being in their first top-flight season. Their once vaunted attack is stumbling, with only the Crusaders and Salford scoring less points. The disappointment hasn’t just begun this season either; they’ve gone out in the first round of the playoffs to Wigan the past two seasons. What must make it worse is that their local rivals Leeds are now fighting it out for alpha dog status with Saints this season, and are the current reigning (two-time) champions. Bradford are clearly not the team (or even the club) that they once were, for a few key reasons. 

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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%)

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.

Monday Musings: The Kids Are Alright

March 9, 2009

Tony Smith must’ve looked at the pitch at his former wards and felt a slight tinge of jealousy and regret. On Sunday, as Warrington hosted the champions and put in an improved performance, it still wasn’t enough to beat a resilient Leeds side. Not only that, but they were beaten by a side with 12 out of the starting thirteen being products of the Leeds Academy system, with only Scott Donald not being from around those parts (another product of theirs, Danny Allan, was on the bench).

Elsewhere, Wigan changed the direction of their season with a crushing defeat of the Bradford Bulls. In doing so they finally gave Sam Tomkins the start many had been pushing for and he certainly did not disappoint, and neither did Shaun Ainscough, Michael McIlorum or the other products of the vaunted Wigan Academy that finally seem to be getting playing time. Hull FC (briefly) went to the top of the table this week with a victory engineered by a backline featuring five of their own products. Castleford’s talented group of young guns have clearly learned from the trials of last season because they’re currently in third place and have already won in Wigan and Perpignan. Even Harlequins, who have to make do with relatively miniscule (if admittedly growing) resources when it comes to junior development and local talent, fielded four of their juniors in their side that thrashed Salford away.

Perhaps, just perhaps, teams have begun paying attention to the fact that Leeds and St Helens, by far and away the two most successful teams of the last few years, are both brimming with youngsters that have come through their respective systems. Look at the last three Men of Steel: Paul Wellens, James Roby and James Graham, all players who have come through the system at Saints and are now established not only as amongst the top performers in Super League, but as internationals as well. For the Rhinos it’s no secret that the key to their success has been their midfield triangle of Kevin Sinfield, Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, and recently they’ve been joined by a host of talented youngsters in the pack. Although these sides are supplemented with bought-in superstars, for the most part their success is remarkably self-developed. 

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Monday Musings: What Big Four?

March 2, 2009

A few years ago people used to go on about the monotony of the Big Four. It was considered a concern that St Helens, Leeds Rhinos, Bradofrd Bulls and Wigan Warriors were basically contesting all the trophies between themselves, and the remaining sides in Super League seemed like an afterthought. From 1998 to 2004, those four sides finished in the top five every time, made the playoffs, and in four of those seasons were actuallt the top four sides in the League. From 2000 to 2004 every spot in either the Grand Final or the Challenge Cup Final was taken by one of these four sides, and in the Super League era only five spots in a final have been taken up by a side not in the Big Four. People wondered if one of the chasing pack would ever catch up and chase down the sides that continually shared out the top spots between themselves…

This last weekend, both Saints and Bradford ended up losing games to sides against which they were generally favoured. Wigan managed to scrape by against a side that they would also have been expected to beat when the season began, and that was after three straight defeats against sides who finished below them last season. On top of that there are quite a few sides who appear to have made significant strides forward this season, with Castleford, Huddersfield and Hull KR already having beaten Big Four sides this season. All of which makes one wonder: is the Big Four finally breaking down?

Of course, the Big Four has been dead for a while anyway. It’s now a Big Two, possibly even a Big One.

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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%)

Monday Musings: Good start, but who can keep it going?

February 16, 2009

So Saints and Wire putting on a very compelling televised match, as did Salford and the Crusaders a day later. Hull FC have already shown that they’re going to be more of a force this year.  We’ve already had the first draw of the season, and Quins and Castleford put on a very tight game at The Jungle. The only blowout of the weekend was a surprise to many as the Giants put the Dragons to the sword. You know what? I think we might be in for an interesting season. But what it really needs is a breakout team to challenge the Championship monopoly that St Helens and the Rhinos have developed which undermines the parity of the League.

On the face of it, Super League seems to be more competitive than ever. Well, that’s sort of true in that I think that based on the opening rounds every team has a realistic chance of making the playoffs. However, I feel there has been a drop-off in the last few years of the number of teams who can genuinely win the trophy. I’m obviously not the only one who feels this way either, as Skybet’s odds have Saints and Leeds as joint favourites for the Grand Final, with Bradford and Warrington significantly behind them in second place. Friday’s match showed the problem very well, with Saints just being far more composed under pressure than Warrington which allowed them to overturn a 14 point deficit with alarming ease. Whilst many teams seem to be worthy of a playoff place already at this stage of the season, how many of them can make an extended run through September and October or even make it all the way to the Theatre of Dreams?

In the history of Super League, thirteen different sides have made it to the playoffs. This includes Halifax who made the inaugural postseason jamboree back in 1998 and now ply their trade in the Championship. Every side currently in Super League has made the playoffs before at least once with the exception of Celtic Crusaders, who to be fair have only had two game sever in the top flight and thus haven’t had a chance. This suggests that there is an element of parity to the competition. However many sides have a better-than-average season to reach the playoffs before crashing out early on, and a look at the contestants of the Grand Final shows that only five sides have ever made it Old Trafford since 1998 (Bradford, St Helens, Leeds, Wigan and Hull FC) and one of those only ever made it the one time. On top of that, only one more side has made it to the final three, with Castleford’s run to the Final Eliminator in 1999 seeming to be an aberration (as admittedly does Hull FC’s run to the Grand Final). As a comparison, 13 different sides have made the NRL semi-finals (admittedly with one extra spot available each year) and 12 of those have made the Grand Final.

So Super League is definitely competitive, and there are hard games every week, but it still doesn’t have the intensity which comes around when a large group of teams are genuine title contenders and are actually trying to win instead of just try to keep up with the pace. Indeed the contender pool appears to have shrunk in the last few years, with Wigan and Bradford seeming to have fallen into the ever-growing pack of would-be challengers (although Catalan Dragons made a good go of it last year). We’ve seen signs that there are a good few teams who look like they could surprise packages; it would be really good for the game if one of those made the step up to become a consistent challenger because Leeds and Saints are having it far too easy at the minute.

Crystal Ball-watch

It was going so well on Friday, with me predicting all three winners and even correctly guessing the margin of the Leeds-Wakey game (I really wasn’t far off the FC-Wigan game either). Then the weekend started, and it all fell apart…

I only picked Celtic over Salford because of a gut feeling, which in retrospect might just have been something I ate. I also should’ve had more faith in Quins as well, especially since I often think they don’t get enough credit as a side. The other two picks I probably would’ve made anyway (well, not now I know the results) as they were both mild shocks. Still, if it wasn’t for stupid Michael Dobson I would at least be over 50%.

Results: 4/9 (44.4%)

Margins: 1/9 (11.1%)

Monday Musings

February 9, 2009

First of all, if you live in the UK let me recommend Super League’s video highlights package. If you sign up for free you can get extensive video highlights of every game. Sure, the games that aren’t on Sky only seem to have one camera, but it’s better than nothing and they do manage to fit quite a lot of highlights in there. Although the game isn’t served that well on TV it does seem to be well served by the internet (as well as Super League’s own service there’s the Super League Show on the BBC Iplayer and Boots N’ All Online either on the Sky website or as video podcast on iTunes).

Leeds looked very ominous in patches against the Crusaders, and Kallum Watkins’ pass to Scott Donald in particular showed the potential that has many raving over him. Leeds were a little ring-rusty and should be more clinical once they get a little more momentum (that JJB break and pass to McGuire is the kind of move I’d expect to get finished off in a few weeks). In my prediction I got it the shape of the match  wrong way around: Leeds blew out Celtic early before allowing them back in. Well, I say allow but Celtic also upped their game and looked a lot more solid defensively in the second half. Considering two scores came off either a wonder pass or a stupid mistake and you would have to say that the Crusaders have something to work with. Managing to draw the second half after a) the calamity of a preseason they’ve had and b) the first half they had was an achievement in itself, and their try was a nicely worked affair indeed. Now they just need to make sure they can keep up a defensive effort for the whole eight minutes.

Talking of defensive efforts… Dave Halley did well to take the opportunities given to him, but they were gifts from a pretty poor Wigan defensive effort. In fact Wigan were lucky that Wakefield blew a few opportunities over the line as well. It’s also typical that after having a gut feeling that they might improve and really challenge this year, they go and really suck in the first game. Fears about their cutting edge also seemed to gain momentum, and that combined with a poor defensive error effort is never ever a good combination. There’s also a lot of imports in the squad whose performances makes it really hard to justify their position in the side (is Cameron Phelps really worth a plce over Darrell Goulding? I can’t believe he’s much cheaper…) which in turn makes you wonder what’s the point of them having a winning Academy. Of course, all this is focusing too much on Wigan and not enough on Wakefield who look their chances well and looked surprisingly threatening. It looks like it’s game on for this season…

Crystal Ball-watch

Of course, Wakefield’s win (and the weather of the last week forcing Quins-Bradford to be abandoned) means that my Crystal Ball needs a good check-up. I looked on for Leeds by 40 at half-time, but credit to the Crusaders for proving me wrong. I nearly predicted that Quins-Bradford would be called off, but I’ve chosen to rule my prediction void and wait for them to do it properly (and I reserve the right to change my prediction).

Results: 1/2 (50%)

Margins: 0/2 (0%)