Archive for the ‘Super League’ Category

Super League Grand Final Super Duper Grand Preview

October 10, 2009

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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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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.

ClubCall Running Diary

September 27, 2009

1.23pm Turn on Sky Sports News. Would you believe it, there’s an interview with Wigan legend Andy Farrell, talking about his new role on the backroom staff at Saracens. In a complete reversal of the usual order, Farrell is asked in a Union piece what he thinks about Super League’s latest new innovation. He diplomatically answers “It’s got people talking” which is certainly true, because I can’t remember Sky Sports News putting this much effort into a Super League story since… hmm… the London Broncos / Harlequins changeover?

1.26pm An ad break. Oh joy. The first ad is some OTT thing for the Heineken Cup. Have there been any adverts for the SL playoffs? I can’t remember any.

1.27pm T-Mobile and their sh*tty ads can f**k off.

1.28pm “Time, care and attention. That’s what makes the M. That’s what makes McDonalds.” Actually, isn’t that the exact opposite of what you get from McDonalds? 

1.30pm And we’re back with SSN, going on about how ClubCall is a ‘world first’. Actually, that’s not quite true – the NBA Development League allows the teams with the three best records at the end of the season to choose their 1st round opponents. Sorry, Sky. 

1.31pm SSN is now live from Headingley. Eddie Hemmings is there, of course, blabbing on and showing he can name the four teams remaining in the competition. Well done, Eddie. Now he explains the process of how Leeds can pick either Catalan Dragons or Wigan. I wish they could pick St Helens as well (although I doubt they would). Oh dear, it appears they’ve let some fans into the suite for this press conference (bizarrely, they refuse to show any shots of them). 

1.33pm Eddie introduces Gary Hetherington and asks him to explain the process of selecting an opponent. Methinks I’m detecting a hint of padding. There’s no reason this process couldn’t take 30 seconds, is there? Apparently Gary and Brian McClennan have consulted with senior players and blah blah blah… JUST NAME YOUR OPPONENT ALREADY, GODAMN IT!

1.35pm “We had to wait and see the outome of this weekend’s games” says Gary. That was my understanding of how this works, too. Eddie asks Gary who Leeds will play, and after Gary ‘hilariously’ spinning it out a little longer, announces that next Friday Leeds Rhinos will play… Catalan Dragons. That took waaaay too long. 

 1.37pm Eddie now starts interview Dragons chief exec Christophe Levy. He’s got a pretty good grasp of English, at least as good as Stevo. He too starts waffling on a bit, about the challenge ahead etc. As Levy points out, the Dragons have never won at Headingley.

1.38pm Brian McClennan comes up to the podium to cheers of ‘bluey! bluey!’ from what I would have to assume are Leeds fans (although they don’t show these fans – it could be actors brought in to add some atmosphere for all we know). He’s now talking about how awesome the Dragons are, which seems odd considering he just chose to play them next weekend. Eddie keeps asking Bluey if he’s worried he’s just ‘done Kevin Walters’ job for him’. Somebody needs to stop trying to create a story where there isn’t one (hint: it’s Eddie). 

1.40pm Of course, this also means we now know the teams for the other semi-final, adn Eddie now talks to Brian Noble about going over to Knowsley Rd to take on St Helens. According to Brian, it’s going to be ‘all about performance’. *Sigh* can’t he say something slightly more interesting?

1.42pm Now Eddie is talking to Eamonn McManus, who seems to have a slightly odd shade of hair colour. It’s somewhere between blond and white. It seems like it’s glowing… anyway, McManus hopes for a sellout at the GPW Recruitment Stadium next weekend. He’s not the only one. 

Anyway, that’s the end of that and we have the two expected semi-finals: Leeds Rhinos vs Catalan Dragons and St Helens vs Wigan Warriors. Both should be interesting games and it will be curious to see whether Leeds’ momentum has been affected by the bye-week, because the Dragons have been right on form lately. And as for the big derby making up the other semi-final, it seems like a pick-em game at this point. 

1.44pm And we’re back in the SSN studio,  with an either over-excited or patronising (I can’t tell which) Sam Matterface and Charlotte Jackson. Hmmm, Charlotte. Maybe I’ll just watch SSN for a bit longer…

Hull KR 16 – 30 Wigan Warriors

September 27, 2009

That’s more like it. A large, raucous crowd; two teams engaged in a tough forward battle; exciting tries from all over the field; players continuing when injured even if they really shouldn’t.This was more like what I expected and hoped from the playoffs. It was a very bizarre game that seemed to be over at half-time as Wigan raced into an 18-0 lead. Credit to Hull KR and Justin Morgan (apparently his half-time hairdryer routine worked)  for making it interesting, because going into the final quarter it was very much anyone’s game again as Hull pulled back three tries. 

Wigan won because they were able to exploit some shoddy defending by Hull KR. You have to wonder how the game would’ve panned out had Michael Dobson not gotten seriously injured early on, because he was targeted mercilessly by Wigan. However he had little to do with the softest try of the game, Iefeta Paleaasena’s ten metre charge though four defenders which could’ve been easily avoided with one more man going low in the tackle. The Robins’ defensive effort in the first simply wasn’t good enough, the Wigan forwards did the damage up the middle, and the ‘Sam Tomkins for England’ bandwagon kept marching on at full speed.

Then early in the second half Jake Webster made a line-break, and the game nearly turned on its head. Webster didn’t have the pace to go all teh way, and no support player was close enough to finish the job straight away, but from the ensuing play-the-ball a sweeping right-to-left passing move (including a beauty of a long pass from Paul Cooke) put Chris Welham over for a try. This led to a dramatic resurgence and tries from Peter Fox and Chaz I’Anson put the Robins a mere two points behind Wigan. Unfortunately for them Martin Gleeson finished off the game with two late tries, although the first one required a visit to the Video Ref. His second try was another lapse in concentration for KR as he waltzed through a massive hole in the defensive line to take Wigan through to the next round.

Like Huddersfield the night before, Hull KR have to be disappointed that a season in which they’ve made so much progress ended this way. However they’ll come back stronger for the experience and they at least put up a very commendable effort to get back into the game. As for Wigan, they’ll be a handful for any side they now come up against, and if it’s a Saints-Wigan derby for a Grand Final place then I think we could be in for a treat.

Playoff Preview: Hull KR vs Wigan Warriors

September 26, 2009

R2_KR_Wigan

Previous Meetings: Both sides won the away game by eight points this season. Since the Robins’ return to the top flight, they’re almost equal. Interestingly, the away side seems to win more often…

Form: Hull KR have lost their last two games straight and not looked particularly energetic in doing so (although both were away games). Wigan won last week against Cas in a game they really should’ve won by more than six points, and apart from an aberration of a collapse at Huddersfield have had a really strong final third of the season. 

Personnel Concerns: Obviously, Chev Walker will be missing from last week’s side for KR. On the plus side, many of the key plays who missed last week’s game (Shaun Briscoe, Ben Galea, Scott Murrell, Jake Webster) should return. Wigan should be the same as last weekend.

Thoughts: KR have looked really flat in attack over the past few weeks, but you have to wonder how much of that was due to missing key players like Briscoe (who went off early in the defeat to Wakefield). Also, it’s hard to know what to make of last week’s loss when most of the damage was done in the final quarter of the game when the Robins were clearly tired and affected by Walker’s horrific injury. It’s possible that the squad will galvanize behind the returning players and a sense of ‘doing it for Chev’. 

They will probably need to, because Wigan aren’t going to be sympathetic. They’ve entered the playoffs in form and looked pretty good against Cas (even though they ended up making life harder for themselves than they needed to). The Wigan prop rotation has really come into its own in the last few weeks, and stopping Iafeta Paleaaesina doing too much damage from the bench will really help the Hull side. The Wigan halves have had far too much time to organize things over the last few months, and Hull will need to knock them off balance. 

In Conclusion… The key in this game is whether Hull KR can regain their attacking spark. If they play flat and lifeless for the third game in a row they will lose because Wigan are strong in the forwards and definitely have the backs to finish the job. Wigan do have all the makings of a side that could get an away win upset, but whether they can actually do this depends on which Hull KR side turn up. If it’s the one which has been outmaneuvered over the last few weeks, then Wigan will definitely fancy their chances. It’s up to KR to front up again.

Huddersfield Giants 6 – 16 Catalan Dragons

September 26, 2009

Urgh.

That’s the only word to describe that game, especially if you’re a Giants fan. The atmosphere was flatter than Paris Hilton and the game did litle to change that. Although the Dragons really didn’t help the game’s flow with an ill-disciplined opening, the majority of the game should fall with the Giants who resorted to the most tedious, one dimensional gameplan which quite frankly deserved to get beaten. A lot of the Giants’ attacking play this year has revolved around the inside ball, particularly freeing up Brett Hodgson. Last night, the inside ball kept leading players into running into a red and gold wall. The Dragons completely dominated the arm-wrestle element of the game, and the Giants didn’t look like scoring at all.

It was a game populated with stupid plays. The Giants refused to deviate from the inside ball, and it never seemed to occur to the Giants to try and find a weak spot out wide (although some credit for this must go to the Dragons, because their defensive pattern was spot-on). when they actually got close to the Dragons’ line, they often tried a powerplay instead of just kicking into the corner. Even the little bit of magic that Luke Robinson provided for their try wasn’t enough to get them going. The Dragons weren’t exactly exemplary either, what with their ill-discipline (Jean-Phillipe Baile’s grab on Brett Hodgson to deny Clint Greenshields his second try deserves particular ire) and their fiery temperaments, but at least they tried to display some flair. The League Gods obviously approved, because once the Dragons hit the lead for the second time it became clear that the Giants had no way back into the game. 

Anyway, it all led to Huddersfield’s season ending with a whimper. They started off as The Next Big Club, but now serious questions have to be asked. They only won two of their final six games and three of those defeats (the Cup final, both playoff games) were their biggest games of the season. The way their attack suddenly turned anemic in the playoffs will be a major concern as well (to only concede 31 points in two games and still lose both games is a difficult one to understand). As for the Dragons, that’s three big away wins in a row and now they’re 80 minutes from the Grand Final. Not bad for a side who seemed hopelessly underperforming a few months ago. It will be very interesting to see if Leeds do the logical thing and pick them with the Club Call, because it doesn’t necessarily seem like a good idea now, does it?