Archive for the ‘Rugby League’ Category

So, I managed to get to watch the Grand Final on Saturday night! The first pub we tried had a private function where the TV is, although it also had Timothy Taylor’s Landlord Ale, and the other bar contained a group of Irish union fans who’d been drinking steadily since 6am. We moved on, and actually found rugby league on the Holloway Road.

John Kear apparently thought it was the best of the Grand Finals he’d seen, and he ought to know. He also thought Danny McGuire was Leeds’s defence leader, a clearly inspired judgement.

Saints were all about width, the classic pattern of trying to extend the line faster than the sliding defence and creating the overlap. Leeds were all about depth and tempo, trying to force defenders to turn and beat them for short sprint pace. It was a classic clash of styles.

A few years ago, people used to talk about the “midfield triangle” in league, being the half-backs and the loose forward. This doesn’t quite make sense, as the hooker in league is a specialist acting halfback and one of the most important distributors in the team, and organising a league team around the scrum is beside the point. Instead you’ve got a square, or a quartet, or something with four in it. A box with four pies in it, if you will. A four-pack of beers.

Leeds re-organised theirs quite radically – in the playoffs, they’d been using Kevin Sinfield as the scrum half and saving Rob Burrow to run at tired legs. In the final, they played Burrow from the start with his regular partner McGuire and put the Sinner back in 13. But that doesn’t tell you much. Burrow didn’t do much distribution or tactical kicking and McGuire’s role in the game was almost totally defensive. Instead, Sinfield and Danny Buderus did the distribution, Burrow had a free role to dash and buzz and harass Saints, and McGuire had a parallel defensive mission to hunt the Saints first receiver, coordinate the defence, and generally get stuck in whereever the attack came from. And he did a hell of a job on this.

Saints didn’t really come up with an answer to this, once it got going. Kicking penalties flattered the score a bit. McGuire broke up their moves regularly, Burrow kept catching defenders on the turn and eventually won the Harry Sunderland trophy, and Buderus and Sinfield kept control of the pace of the game.

This may bring back the old “is a stand-off really a loose forward” thing from the 1990s. Back then, there were quite a few good players who operated in either slot – Daryl Powell, Tony Kemp, Phil Clarke, Ellery Hanley, and earlier, Wally Lewis come to mind. The 1994 Lions, coached by Hanley, used first Clarke and then Powell in this role to mark the great Laurie Daley (who was the absolute opposite). It worked at Wembley, but the plan rather broke down after both of them got injured, and it also made the team pretty negative. On the other hand, once Powell was off the pitch and Garry Schofield back on, Daley ran rings round Great Britain for the rest of the series.

But Leeds’s game plan didn’t really reduce to that. Anyway, it was a hell of a game and Rob Burrow’s first try was a bit of brilliance beyond tactics, exploiting a gap in depth rather than width – one side of the defence hadn’t come up quite as smartly as the other – and ducking under the big men to make the initial break.

Oh yes, and that makes it a Yorkshire clean sweep of the three divisions with Leeds, Featherstone Rovers, and Keighley. Keighley! They told me it was Warrington’s year, and Wigan were back…

Championes…

Keighley 32, Workington 12. Yeah.

For some reason, London rugby league fans are Leeds-influenced – they sing Marching on Together and a version of We are Leeds..Rhinos. Keighley may have fucked up against Whitehaven, but the Keighley and Airedale GMB were next to us on the demo. Photos are here.

It was a fantastic day – like Jamie Kenny said about elections, this vast civic initiative just rolled out, a whole left-wing infrastructure lighting up in its bakelite console after all these years. Throw the right switches and things happen. My favourite quote was from the TGWU Widnes Road Transport shop steward: “We’re not smiling because it’s too serious to smile!” Smiling, of course. In that way it was like a Challenge Cup final day. Lots of chosen sportswear and finely checked shirts. And I still have no idea about the Scousers with the Polish flag.

And the tribal wars, of course. I saw more than one steward wearing a hi-viz vest from Unite that had been remarked to say “My other vest is a GMB” or something to that effect.

Eh, well. When are we coming back?

A bit of Rugby League blogging. It’s been a weird start to the season. Not so long ago – but after more than a few games – London/sorry/Harlequins RL were top of the league. (Regarding the name, I’m not the only one. I saw a Fulham RL shirt at this weekend’s game.) And the top three included Huddersfield and Castleford. Meanwhile, the big four were in the bottom half of the table. It’s early season madness, of course.

Things are a bit less weird now – Wigan have started to play more like the defending champions, Warrington have imposed themselves as the best side so far. Their game with St Helens was probably the best so far. But the top three are currently the Wire, Cas, and Fartown, with Saints and Wigan behind. Leeds and Bradford are further off.

Yesterday’s match at the Stoop ended up being a surprising classic. Hull FC were good – they damn well should be, given some of the faces in the side, even if nobody’s actually related to Willie Mason. London pulled back an early advantage, and eventually hit a blast of form in the second half. At this point they looked good value for anything. Quick. Tough. Neat. It was a great afternoon in west London, a misty bath of sunshine swimming with Airbus A380s on easterly operations, and even the Hull FC people were reasonably pleasant. (I’ve been hard on them in the past and they occasionally show up in comments to whine about it, but on this occasion, they were almost as nice as Hull Kingston Rovers fans.)

London chose the moment to do another of their epic chokes. Heading for the finish, Hull began to sense a crack or two. This was the moment for (who else) Sean Long, still with his Saints-colours gumshield after all these years, to crank the pressure up. Starting at 30-16 down, they hauled the game in. At 30-26, London looked like setting up a dropgoal attempt. It didn’t happen – not much else did – and a couple of tackles later they gave away a daft penalty. Hull scored, pulled ahead, and despite the inevitable short kick-off, London couldn’t pull off a two-minute raid. It didn’t matter, in fact – they kept scoring. In the end Hull got from 30-16 down to 40-30 up in less than a point a minute. You can see why Saints want Long back. Actually it wasn’t so much him but Sam Obst, their stand-off, who really did the deed.

Meanwhile, Keighley lost to Whitehaven 24-10.

baaack…

It seems horribly fitting that, with the Tories back in, Wigan have started winning the league again. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with them. It’s just the effect of the years when they won literally everything, year in, year out. And Maurice Lindsay, of course.

If we have to have Wigan though, I think the Wigan who played last night are about as good as you could get. The real giveaway of how good they were was how good St Helens were. There is still no club like them for style – they started playing catch-up in the first half and would have outplayed most sides, but against Wigan they just didn’t quite convert the chances they created. To be honest, that’s usually a sign the other side were better… Even the fact Wigan missed so many kicks and used three goal kickers (oddly, not including Paul Deacon, who was available and playing a damn good game) didn’t stop them.

Even Keiron Cunningham’s last spell in the game didn’t change anything. I think they’re going to win and keep on winning.

Extremists. ur doin it rong

I can’t help but think this is a contribution to the ongoing debate about hero-of-the-blog Diego Gambetta’s work on engineers and terrorism. If stuff is upside down before you start the riot, fire, explosion, etc., your extremist cell could probably do with more engineers. Meanwhile, the SELF THOUGHT SPIRITUAL SCIENTIST guy next to him looks like he’s on a demo to demand that ordinary decent schizophrenics can de-compensate without the EDL lowering the tone.

Due to the 30th birthday, I didn’t cover this at the time, but there’s a really nice piece on the Bradford EDL rally and counter-demo here. “It’s the middle of Ramadan, as if we’re bothered about this lot”, indeed. And the EDL were the only people ever to decide that the Rubble Zone was a great place to hang out.

Something else I missed, except for the last 15 minutes: the Challenge Cup final. Lee Briers got the Lance Todd. Kevin Sinfield got his third runner’s up medal. He must be really desperate to escape the fate of another Loiner, Garry Schofield, who played in four finals and never won, a record.

Elsewhere: I’m sticking the boot in over at Stable & Principled again. What is it about the Blair/Gove academies that makes them so suited to influence peddling?

As this blog battles parochialism, I feel obliged to tell the world that Keighley Cougars have started their doomed bid to stay in the Northern Rail Division One by beating Whitehaven 17-16. Can we win by a cheeky dropgoal? Yes. We. Can!

Never mind, the future’s uncertain and the end is always near. Which at least explains Leeds losing to Castleford.

Wish us luck at 3.05 this afternoon. Keighley are in their first final since 1996, against Oldham, for the right to be refused promotion out of the second division (sorry, Co-Op Championship One – we’ve got title inflation, too).

Update: Ladies and gentlemen, we got him. 28-26, after 4-6 at half time Now watch us fuck it up! Best comment ever, here:

The RFL are looking at whether they can promote London Skolars instead of Keighley just to avoid the possibility of Cougars fans ever forgiving them

Other detail – supposedly, Alistair Campbell (born in Keighley, 1957) went to the match. I don’t recall him showing up either when we were good in the late 90s – he was busy, and he mostly talked up being a Burnley FC fan – or in the 10 years between going bust in 2001 and winning the division this year, but perhaps he’s been sneaking north now and then, and I’ve been to so few matches since then that I wouldn’t have noticed.

headless in Twickenham

So, what did the great blood crisis mean for London Rugby League? Well, either quite a bit or not much; I went along to the last home game of the season, against Castleford, and to be frank, either it completely wrecked their morale, or else they were so awful that no external influence could have made a blind bit of difference. Thanks to South West “Trains”, we were late, but when we got into the ground London were still only 12-0 down.

The atmosphere, however, was like a wake; even the Castleford fans seemed a little depressed. And then the sky fell in, and Cas started scoring every time they got the ball. They narrowly missed out on a half century, but for a while at the beginning of the second half, I was wondering if Keighley’s cherished all-time record for the biggest away win (104-4 against Highfield in 1995) might be under threat. All discipline, organisation, and basic skill had flopped, and a ferocious number of penalties were being given away.

Of course, that sort of match always gets weird; part way through the second half, someone dressed as a Mountie went round the stand singing “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” with friends togged out as various beasts. Cas took their foot off the pedal after the 40th unanswered point went in, and they missed three conversions, so London got away with 48-0. And someone tried to blame it all on the ref.

Something like that had been coming; a few weeks before this, I’d seen them lose to Huddersfield in a match which stood out for being one of the worst I’ve ever seen – completely uninspired and dull as ditchwater, with Huddersfield phoning it in and collecting the points for basic competence. At the time, it almost counted as a top-of-the-table four pointer, too, due to London’s good start to the season.

This leaves us, anyway, with a play-off series in which Leeds and St. Helens are the top two, but the rest includes Huddersfield and Castleford but not Bradford, and Hull K.R. but not Hull F.C, and a Catalans side who haven’t been as good as last time out, but who have just beaten Saints hollow.

What about some rugby league, then? First of all, I’m delighted that we had another Challenge Cup that’s gone to an upset; even if Warrington taking it wasn’t quite as cool as the Catalans, it’s still a hell of a long time since they won anything. It’s getting on for a while since their agonising near thing in 1993-1994, when they missed out on the championship on points difference, after losing a game 8-6 to Wigan – had they saved the point, they’d have pipped both Wigan and Bradford Northern. But it didn’t happen; Keighley nearly knocked them out of the Regal Trophy the year after, Jonathan Davies went back to union, Iestyn Harris went on to bigger things.

I was pleased to see regularly underrated Lee Briers have a spectacular match – he’s always been held back by playing for Warrington (among other things). The kick ahead on the second tackle for Chris Hicks’ try should certainly go in the file of great Wembley moments in the game; and wasn’t it good to be back, as well? I always rather suspected that the longer it took to build the damn thing, the less likely it was that Rugby League would ever be allowed back inside it…

In related news, I’m beginning to worry about the future of London RL. History suggests this is one of those things, like Pakistan, that must be more stable than it looks because it’s still here. But some people are suggesting that the union half of Harlequins might be relegated or even banned from their competition over the great fake blood scandal; and what happens to the London club then, now it’s been integrated with them?* It doesn’t look good, even if they are now just another institution I dislike that’s proved me right since about 2001.

*(Did anyone else notice that apparently, Dean Richards was in the habit of threatening players with a spell in the league squad?