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Playoff Preview: Huddersfield Giants vs Catalan Dragons

September 25, 2009

R2_Hudds_Cats

Previous Meetings: Huddersfield won both games convincingly this year, including a 30-8 season-opener that told us all to expect different things from both these sides this season. Their records against each other in Super League are split fairly evenly, although Huddersfield have big advantage at home (Les Cats have only won once at the Galpharm Stadium). 

Form: Huddersfield have lost three of their last five, although two of those were close-fought games at St Helens. The Dragons appeared to be stumbling to the finish line, but have won fairly convincingly in their last two games to indicate that they’re a force to be reckoned with again. 

Personnel Concerns: None for the Giants, now Scott Moore and Keith Mason have served their internal bans for misconduct. The Dragons hope to have Jamal Fakir back from injury.

Thoughts: The Giants seemed to lack any attacking threat against Saints last weekend, although it did sort of seem like one of those games, and after the opening twenty minutes they stood up and did their fair share of work defensively. They won’t want a repeat of that opening though, because the Dragons are not the sort of side who give up large leads.

The Dragons look to have regained some attacking mojo in the last few weeks, and they’ll need it because the Giants are a very strong defensive team. Both Dimitri Pelo and Vincent Duport looked lively in the Wakefield game and you suspect that the Dragons might need to take it to the Giants out wide. Both these sides have monster packs who could neutralize each other, but if one side gets on top in the forwards don’t doubt for a second that they’ll try to capitialize on the space out wide. 

What will really help the Giants this week will be having Scott Moore back. They were lacking direction in attack at St Helens and it is very important that he adds playmaking support from dummy-half to take some pressure off Luke Robinson and Liam Fulton. Thomas Bosc has been looking sharp of late and the Giants will need to shut him down. 

In Conclusion... If any team looks prepared to pull off an upset, it’s Les Cats. I still think Huddersfield will win, but I suspect it will be a very close game. If the Giants can keep the Dragons under wraps then that will go a long way to winning them the game. If they let them score frequently though, it will be interesting to see if a misfiring Giants attack can keep up.

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Playoff Preview: Wakefield Trinity Wildcats vs Catalan Dragons

September 19, 2009

R1_wakey_cats

Previous Meetings: Wakefield won both games this year, including a 34-20 game in Perpignan two weeks ago. The rest of their Super League history is split fairly evenly.

Form: Wakefield have won five matches in a row and looked pretty dominant in their game against Hull KR last week. Catalans’ form of late has been patchy but they did somehow win at St Helens last week to keep their place in the top 8.

Concerns: A minor concern over Danny Brough for Wakey, who picked up a hip injury last week. 

Thoughts: Wakefield have really come into their own of late and are proving very adept at dealing with mediocrity. This Catalans side finished eighth for a reason, namely their inconsistency which has seen them lose more games than they’ve won. COnsidering that Wakefield have already beaten them twice this season, you would have to think that the Dragons are really going to have to pull out all the stops to win this one.

This game will probably be won in the forwards (as usual). Both sides have impressive half pairings, but if one side can ominate up front then it’s going to take the other side out of their game. Wakefield have been very solid defensively of late and the Dragons will probably have to hope they can find a cutting edge out wide. If Brough doesn’t play though, that might be the best chance the Dragons have…

In Conclusion… I would be very surprised if we saw the first eighth-placed team win the Grand Final, because I’d be fairly surprised if we saw them get out of the first round. Wakefield have been in far too much of a groove lately and I expect them to deal with Les Catalans. It may end up being a close game, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some fireworks from the forwards, but I can’t see Wakefield giving up at this stage of a difficult year.

Playoff Preview: Eyes On The Prize

September 17, 2009

trophy

After 189 grueling matches, we get to the real stuff. Only eight teams and nine matches remain before the end of the season. With the end of the season counting down, the importance of every game picks up exponentially, and we get to see the best teams left in the competition go all out in their quest to become Champions. Successful campaigns got these eight teams here, now it’s up to them to prove that they are worthy and that they can go all the way. Everyone will be aiming to follow Leeds Rhinos as champions, but I don’t think the Rhinos want to let their grasp go just yet. 

There’s been a fair amount of criticism of the new playoff format, and it’s not hard to understand why. In allowing a top eight format, over half the teams to make it past the end of the season including a Catalan Dragons side who have actually lost more matches than they’ve won. Many people prefer letting the league table decide the champion, and at the very least it’s hard to deny that this new system could devalue the final league table. I think the idea of a side losing more games than they win during the season potentially being League champions is a disconcerting one for many people. 

Even so, allowing so many teams into the playoffs isn’t that big of a deal in my opinion. For one thing, there are many playoff systems throughout the world which allow half the teams or over (the NRL for one, the NBA and the NHL both do it as well). Secondly, the odds are firmly stacked against the teams in the lower four positions and clearly stacked in favour of the top two sides (who get a bye week if the win their opening game). It’s worth pointing out that they’ve got their league positions for a reason, and if any side wins the playoffs from eighth spot, they deserve it because it’ll be a hell of an achievement (quick tangent, but here’s a nice article by RL historian extraordinaire Sean Fagan about the Australian models – as you can see, only one side has ever done it from fifth).

In fact, I really like the playoff system moving to eight teams, for the following reasons:

  • By making it a top eight instead of a top six, the race for the playoffs stayed interesting until the final round. 
  • The current system opens up the competition a lot more. I think we’ll see more teams reaching the Grand Final from 3rd or 4th place in the future. I really like the concept of four teams in semi-finals the week before the Grand Final, instead of having one team dawdling about having already qualified. Okay, so that could potentially mean a minor devaluation of league positions, but it also could end this monopoly Leeds and Saints have on the Grand Final).
  • It means more matches, and more importantly more meaningful games, and this in turn leads to potential for more coverage of the game. In case you hadn’t noticed, there will be four televised games on Sky over the weekend. The only other time that happens is Magic Weekend.  I’d really like to see Super League and Sky have a tailor made playoff marketing campaign.

The new part of the format that I’m not convinced about is this ‘pick your opponent’ gimmick for the semi-finals. My main problems with it are that a) it seems a bit tacky and b) it seems a bit pointless, as I very much doubt anyone will chose any opponents other than the lowest-ranking ones. I think Justin Morgan even said he thought the side getting the pick would come out and say this during their bye-week before their opponents could be determined, which would completely undermine the suspense element of this plan. I’m willing to give it a shot, but I remain skeptical. 

But anyway, it won’t detract from what should be an exciting playoffs with several intriguing plotlines: Wigan’s revival and Brian Noble’s playoff record; Castleford’s aiming to repeat former glories; Wakefield aiming to cap off a tough season with success; Catalans continuing the French interest;  Huddersfield and Hull KR attempting to prove they are true contenders; Saints trying for one last hurrah; Leeds aiming to become only the third ever side to three-peat the league title, and the first in the Supe League era. In the playoffs the hits get bigger, the runs get quicker, the pressure gets more intense, the drama becomes that much greater, because success means that much more. I can’t wait.

Season Review: Salford City Reds

September 14, 2009

Salford City Reds

Points For: 456

Points Against: 754

Home Record: W4 L9

Away Record (including Magic weekend): W3 L11

Longest Winning Streak: 2 (x2)

Longest Losing Streak: 6

Top Points Scorer: John Wilshere (158)

Top Try Scorer: Richard Myler (11)

Top Tackler: Malcolm Alker (948)

Salford will probably view this season with a sense of frustration, and yet they have much to be proud of and have laid the (metaphorical) groundworks for a fruitful stay in Super League. As soon as they lay the actual groundworks, then they’ll be much happier. 

What really undermined Salford this year was a terrible start that cost them any playoff aspirations they had. Following a narrow victory over fellow promoted side Celtic Crusaders, the Reds then went on a six match losing streak. However, the problem wasn’t so much that they were losing; rather, it was more the manner in which they were losing. All their defeats were pretty heavy, and it looked like Salford would never get up to speed.

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Stuart Reardon to Hull FC

April 14, 2009

Shirt now out of date (The Sun)

Another thing that I didn’t get around to covering last week was Warrington’s release of Stuart Reardon. As we all know, Reardon has his fair share of personal problems right now, and with an extensive injury problem added to that, I could see why the Wolves would see that as too much excess baggage to carry. Apparently, Hull FC don’t feel the same way, because they’ve signed up the newly-available Reardon.

This strikes me as an odd move on Hull’s part. I assume that Reardon has communicated to them that he’s confident of avoiding a custodial sentence in his upcoming sentencing, because otherwise the Airlie Birds have just signed a player whom they are going to lose almost straight away.On top of that, there’s the fact that Reardon has been a walking (limping?) injury for the most part of his tenure at Wire, which makes him an odd recruit for a side as ruined by injuries in the recent past as Hull. Still, if they get him patched up and ready to play he could be an interesting addition to the Black and Whites’ backline. I assume he is supposed to be a replacement for Todd Byrne, who has left the club by mutual consent after a season-ending injury.

I assume Reardon is doing this because he wants to keep his mind off of unwanted distractions. It’s also quite obvious at this point he and Warrington was a relationship that just wasn’t meant to be, and he’ll be looking to reinvigorate his career on Humberside (it’s easy to forget that he was an international quality back a few seasons ago). Whether he’s able to or if the courts put his career on hiatus for him remains to be seen…

Crystal Ball: Week 6

March 13, 2009

WebIt seems that it’s much easier to make judements about teams once you’ve actually seen them play a few times. Who would’ve thought it? Once again, I’ll try to avoid over-thinking it.

Wigan Warriors beat Leeds Rhinos by 5

Did you know that Wigan have won their last three league visits to Headingley? They’re finally hitting some form and Leeds are due a defeat right about now, meaning I’m going to ignore the league table in making this pick.

St Helens beat Salford City Reds by 42

Saints have been waiting to tear loose so far this season, and what better opportunity than a home game against a bust-up under-performing Salford side? If Harlequins can put 48 on Salford away, I dread to think what Saints are going to do to them at home…

Warrington Wolves beat Harlequins by 10

Harlequins’ Rule states that if the team are coming off a good win and playing a side that have struggled thus far, then they must lose. Add to the fact that I’ll probably be going to the game and defeat is practically guaranteed for Quins. Warrington to get off the mark at last.

Castleford Tigers beat Huddersfield Giants by 2

Watching Castleford’s performance last weekend it was hard to not be impressed by the fortitude of their attacking prowess. With a home game against a variable Huddersfield side, they’ll be looking to show just how far they’ve come from last year. The one potential blip here is that the Giants have thus far performed much better away from home, so I expect it to be close.

Hull KR beat Celtic Crusaders by 1

The Crusaders have adapted fairly well to Super League without actually looking like they will win a game, and I expect that to carry on here. Hull KR have looked pretty formidable (especially at home) and Shaun Briscoe is pushing for an international place. I expect the Robins to pull away with it towards the end after a hard-fought start.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats beat Catalan Dragons by 12

I’m making this pick because a) Wakefield have looked fairly impressive so far, even if they’ve been struck by injury problems and b) the Dragons have been losing games that before the season began they would have been expected to win. Also, Wakefield have been pretty formidable at home. 

Hull FC beat Bradford Bulls by 8

Bradford have been pretty pants so far this season, whilst Hull FC have been pretty good. I think the Bulls will be fired up after their debacle at the JJB last weekend, but I’m not sure it’ll be enough to overcome a Hull side determined to show that they belong in the upper echelons of this league.

Crystal Ball: Week 4

February 27, 2009

WebSo, will I continue to make the same mistakes of placing faith in underperfroming teams, or have I learned the error of my ways? Let’s find out:

Hull FC beat Catalan Dragons by 14

I think FC are definitely over the woes of last season, and are lodged firmly somewhere in the second tier of sides chasing down Leeds and Saints. I suspect Catalan are in that group as well and their victory at Warrington showed that they look like they’ll be able to travel this year, but Hull look much more equipped to deal with injuries this year and I expect they want to prove that they’re ready to be an elite side again.

Bradford Bulls beat Huddersfield Giants by 12

Odsal is not traditionally a happy hunting ground for the Giants, which is pretty much the deciding factor in picking against them. They looked competent in defeat against Saints, whereas Bradford have had a extra week off after their disappointing draw with Hull KR (and this is the stage of the season whee weeks off aren’t a good thing). Even so, I think Bradford will be raring to get their season on the right track.

St Helens beat Hull KR by 20

Saints have been pretty impressive so far this season, winning both their games by comfortable margins. KR have been impressive in their own way, scraping a draw at Odsal and pushing the Rhinos all the way in their last game. I expect the toll of those two games to make itself known as they go to Knowsley Rd where they haven’t done two well in their Super League spell (a 28 and 42 point defeat in the last two seasons). Also look for a kicker to finally emerge for Saints.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats beat Warrington Wolves by 6

Wakefield have already won two games this season and looked pretty good in doing so, and they weren’t terrible in defeat against Leeds either. Warrington have combined looking really good with really bad in the same game with poor results this season. Of course, those two games were against two of the top three sides last year, but they really need to improve their second half performances if they expect to beat a solid Trinity side.

Castleford Tigers beat Salford City Reds by 18

Cas have definitely moved forward this season, and a side brimming with young English talent has learned from the trials and tribulations of last year to become a danger. Salford started well against Celtic Crusaders first up, but since that first half they’ve been a bit meh and that is unlikely to cut it against the Tigers.

Wigan Warriors beat Harlequins by 8

Why, oh why, am I picking this? Wigan have fallen to defeat against sides they supposedly shouldn’t so far this season, including one (Castleford) whom Harlequins have already beaten. Quins for their part have looked an impressively tight unit in both the Castleford game and the Manly friendly and Luke Dorn has been on fire. So why pick Wigan? Quite simply because having followed Quins / Broncos for a few years now, when it all looks like it’s going well is the exact time it starts going wrong. It’ll be a close’un though.

Bah! Richard Lewis Heading For Sport England

February 20, 2009
Dont let the Headmaster look fool you, hes actually pretty cool (Getty Images)

Don't let the Headmaster look fool you, he's actually pretty cool (Getty Images)

Important news coming out today that Richard Lewis, head of the RFL, has been appointed as the new Chairman of Sport England. Lewis will be stepping down from his Chair role at the RFL to avoid conflicting interests, but apparently will be carrying on at Red Hall in a part-time capacity.

This could prove to be a big shame for Rugby League in this country, as Lewis was building up a pretty nice track record. In many respects his appointment for this new job (as well as being courted by the FA for Commission reports) shows that the impact he has had on making the RFL solvent and redeveloping the international programme again has not gone unnoticed by those in other sports. Of course, there are those at other clubs who might be glad to see him gone, with his most controversial move being the introduction of franchises in place of automatic promotion and relegation, and the allocation of franchises has not been the most transparent of procedures. The state of the national team has also fluctuated wildly, and the decision not to sack Tony Smith after the World Cup debacle has raised a few eyebrows. Even so, I think he was certainly the right person for the game at the right time and his tenure has been for the most part fairly admirable His making of tough decision like the franchising was almost certainly made easier by the fact that he came from outside Rugby League (from Tennis, in fact) and I hope when the RFL look for suitable replacements they scour far and wide.

Crystal Ball: Week 3

February 20, 2009

WebHopefully my premonitions will last a whole weekend this time instead of just Friday…

Wigan Warriors beat Castleford Tigers by 8

Both sides had close defeats last weekend which they will feel they should have won. Wigan don’t have Cameron Phelps available for this game, which a lot of their fans will tell you is a good thing. It really wouldn’t surprise me if Wigan being forced to play a lot of their Academy talent results in a massive improvement in performance, just because the world seems to work like that. Still, Cas can be dangerous and should provide some stiff competition for an under-performing Warriors.

Leeds Rhinos beat Hull KR by 10

If this was the weekend after the World Club Challenge I would be tempted to tip KR here as they look to have made real strides based on their performance against Bradford. However, Leeds as always are the team to beat and they will be focused and ready for the Robins’ threat as they prepare for the challenge of Manly. The lack of spark that Rob Burrow, Brent Webb and Ali Lauitiiti provide should keep this game fairly close.

Warrington Wolves beat Catalan Dragons by 14

Although it was a crushing defeat in many ways, the Wolves were the better side for most of the Saints game and if they actually maintain that form for a whole 80 minutes they should do well. Martin Gleeson returning and Kevin Penny being dropped indicates that Matt King might be moving to the wing, which could prove to be the answer to the King enigma. Catalan didn’t look good last weekend against the Giants and I just feel that the Wolves will rebound better than the Dragons, especially since they’re at home.

Hull FC beat Celtic Crusaders by 18

At long last, Super League’s Welsh presence gets to play in Wales. Celtic haven’t actually looked that bad so far but they’ve shown a very worrying tendency to start games terribly and leave themselves with too much catching up to do. Hull FC didn’t look too shabby against Wigan last week and this is the exact game they need to win to prove that last season’s disaster was an aberration.

Huddersfield Giants beat St Helens by 8

What can I say? I’m totally jumping on this Giants bandwagon and Saints looked a little ropey until the Wolves’ implosion. The fact that they’re at home and Saints are rarely the best starters to Super League campaigns could prove to be extremely beneficial for the Giants, and look for them to show us whether they’re the real deal or not.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats beat Salford City Reds by 16

Wakefield are starting to get some players back on deck (Sam Obst returns) and they’re at home. That might just be enough against a Salford side who started off very well against the Crusaders before very nearly letting them back into it. With the Wildcats looking not bad in their two games, I think they should just have enough to remind the Reds about the trials of Super League.

BONUS UNOFFICIAL PREDICTION

Manly Sea Eagles beat Harlequins by not as much as they really should

I shall be at this game. I’m looking forward to it, but I just suspect that Manly will have to sneak it mainly due to a lack of match preparation and this news of a stomach bug in the camp doesn’t bode too well for them either. Even so, they’ve simply got too much class for Quins.

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats: Watene’s death overshadows season of hope

February 6, 2009

wakefieldFor Wakefield a season of hope and promise this year has unfortunately been overshadowed by matters off the pitch. Adam Watene’s death during training was an unforeseen tragedy that could potentially destabilise any club. Trinity have reacted to this unfortunate turn of events admirably, and now they need to show that they can keep it together as they start the season. Wakefield have to find themselves some purpose from this disaster and use the memory of Watene to spur them on through what seems to be simultaneously a promising and difficult season.

Wakefield are an odd side in that they have a creative midfield group almost on a par with any other in the competition in Danny Brough, Brad Drew and the excellent-on-his-day Jamie Rooney. The problem is that they don’t have the weapons around them to be a fully effective side. It would really help Wakefield if one of their backline had a breakthough year and turned into a major threat. Damien Blanch had a very successful World Cup campaign and is likely to be their main source of tries, but they could also do with the Tony Martin and Ryan Atkins becoming more imposing this year.

Wakefield’s other problem is consistency. Last season they simply ran out of steam towards the end of the season and ended the year in a fairly bleak manner,and one win in the final third of the season is certainly not the way to get into the playoffs. It might even be a simple matter of self-belief. If John Kear can convince his players that they are good enough to compete with the best that this League has to offer it could lead to this side showing their full potential. Kear has an enviable record at getting underdogs up for the battle, but perhaps he needs to convince his players that they shouldn’t have to be underdogs.

Wakefield have finished in 8th place for the past two seasons running. To do the same again this year would mean that they have forced themselves into the playoffs and thus would be seen as something of a success. However, they are part of a chasing pack that has grown in the past few seasons and they will really have to be on the ball to make sure they get to carry on playing through September.For the memory of Watene, Wakefield need to show that they believe they are ready to take the next step up.

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