Grains of sand or solid as a rock?

Sunday, 7 December 2008


The Bible says (well it is nearly Christmas!) build a house on sand and it will fall away with a great crash. Better to build it on rock.

Solid foundations are what the leading Superleague clubs have in common. Supporters have bemoaned England’s lack of half-back options, with the four leading half-backs (one retired from the international game) coming from the two dominant clubs, with little alternative elsewhere. But that is no coincidence. The record shows that to win a Superleague crown, there must be a stable half-back pairing for the team to build around.

In fact, the
only side to win a Grand Final with non-British halves is Bradford with the Paul brothers, both of whom provided long service to that club for a team to develop around them. Wigan got to a Grand Final with Matthew Johns, but doh!- he left them that year- so it was back to square one the next. Yet clubs have consistently sought a magic solution from down under when looking to fill a number six or seven shirt, and none have seen that translate into a Superleague win.

British halves will inevitably remain at their clubs longer than big name imports. They provide a solid foundation to build a team around over the course of several seasons. An import might bring impetus to a club, he might produce some exceptional individual performances, but most won’t stay long enough to gel a great side together. Above all though, the record shows that he won’t bring the silverware.

However many great performances we’ve seen from the likes of Trent Barrett and Ben Walker, or Warrington thought just one man in Andrew Johns could bring them honours, they have been like grains of sand swept into Superleague on the wind and swept away again just as quickly. So to keep this multi-cultural, let’s end with this old Chinese proverb- “do not employ handsome servants”!


Posted by League Commentator at 10:07 44 comments  

Fiver each-way on an old nag?

Monday, 1 December 2008


It is easy to feel sorry for the poor old racehorse. Years of fine service to their trainers and jockeys, countless wins, and yet one small trip or a hoof getting caught in the soft ground on a rainy day at York and a vet comes along, declares them lame, then it’s off to the great glue factory in the sky.


We tend though not to remember their demise. Instead, it is their record of wins and success which is held fondly in the hearts of all those who’ve won a bit on the back of their success. The same cannot be said of Superleague coaches.

In the past couple of seasons, three coaches who had given long service to their clubs and developed them from wannabes into possible contenders during their time in charge have been shown the door. In all three cases, Jon Sharpe at Huddersfield
, Paul Cullen at Warrington, and Karl Harrison at Salford, their time was probably up at their clubs. Yet that period of difficulty at the end of tenures which otherwise saw genuine progress is all that seems to be remembered.

Things are different in Australia
. There, if a coach struggles after a long spell and is replaced, he’ll usually find another club in pretty short time. It’s his career that is taken into account, not his last few games in charge. Its time that emphasis was placed as much on the fate of English coaches in Superleague as English players. One difference between Australia and England is that the Aussies don’t just write their guys off.

It is still far from the beginning of the season, but some fans are already placing bets on the first Superleague coach to be shown the door next season. One bookmaker, Totesport, has the six English coaches in its top seven favourites to get the chop. Under our current system, this would be disastrous for most of these (perhaps apart from Brian Noble and John Kear, who has proven he is a survivor and the exception to this otherwise grim rule about the fate of English coaches). Like an old nag, their careers in the sport would be over. What future is there for an English ex-Superleague coach? maybe a regular stint on Skysports? an advisory role at another club?- or worse, a defection to the dark-side as a defensive coach?

With the new license model, clubs shouldn’t get into the sort of panic we have seen with promotion and relegation in the past. A short run of poor form shouldn’t be the deciding factor in a coach's fate. After all, if Manchester United had taken that view a few years back, then Alex Ferguson wouldn’t own quite the number of racehorses he does today.

Posted by League Commentator at 19:11 0 comments  

Carry on…don’t lose your heads!

Friday, 28 November 2008

Ah! The French Revolution. July 14, 1789- Bastille stormed, prisoners out, monarchy overthrown, king has his ‘ed chopped orrff- job done! In reality, it all took a lot longer. King remained on the thrown for a while, lots of infighting between revolutionaries, and eventually Napoleon and all that.


Just as some might mistakenly think the original French Revolution was a quick process, so many believed that the recent Rugby League revolution in France would be too. Catalans enter Superleague, three seasons development with a top three finish at the end of it and France send a cracking team to the World Cup- job done!


As we all saw though, this wasn’t the case and some said France were the great disappointments of the World Cup. The records will show that France finished last. They will also show that, like the other six teams outside of the super-group, they finished on two points in the group stages. Given their position three years ago, this is not a bad result.


A quick glance at the squad composition reveals some telling stats. In a 24 man squad, France had 13 players permanently attached to top-grade sides (all but one with the Catalans Dragons). Add to this another 5 who have some, albeit limited, experience of top-grade Rugby. Scotland and Ireland drew on 11 top-grade players, Samoa 18 and Tonga 19, whilst PNG in the Supergroup, and Fiji, the semi-finalists, only had 9. Had the tournament have been played before Catalans Dragons entered Superleague, France would have had no top-grade players. So to come this far is an achievement in itself.


A key player in France's revolution has been the RFL; recently however, the RFL has done much to hinder France’s development. Despite bringing Catalans into Superleague, in 2008 they dealt a double blow to French players. No licence for Toulouse, and worse, not including the French federation in the ‘federation trained’ rule for English Superleague clubs. Result- a French player who might be a classy prospect but doesn’t suit the style of play at Catalans or isn’t rated by their coach has limited top grade opportunities. He can either to go into Championship with Toulouse, play in the Elite league in France- (as was the case for French international Teddy Sadaoui- pictured left- who now plays for Carcassonne after his release by Catalans) or hope that he might be preferred over an Australian or Kiwi as an overseas or 'non federation trained' player in an English Superleague team – not much liberty, equality and fraternity there Citizen Lewis!


Posted by League Commentator at 12:20 0 comments  

...no no Nathan, thank you!

Sunday, 23 November 2008




At the end of a wonderful World Cup Final, New Zealand captain Nathan Cayless thanked the British fans for all the support they offered the Kiwis on the way to victory in Brisbane. It is though the English fans and the RFL who should be thanking the Kiwis.

A dark cloud had hung over English Rugby League fans and commentators all week. We had been contemplating another long period of Australian dominance. Whenever an English team was to take the pitch against Australia, we would be psychologically beaten before the game had even started. The best we might hope for would be that we might be competitive, rather than thinking about how to beat them.

Yet the Kiwis proved that the Australians are not supermen. They are fallible like the rest of us. They can be put on the back foot and respond poorly when the tide of matches goes against them.

The Kiwis recovered from a drubbing in a test series in 2007 to win a World Cup in 2008 against a side many had suggested was the best in history. They did so with a blend of youth and experience. They did so even with key players out injured. But they did so most of all with a solid game-plan, with a coaching staff of the best and the brightest, with enthusiasm and vigour sustained over 80 minutes. Instead of reforming every aspect of Superleague, these are the lessons we must learn.

None of this of course makes up for our disappointment with the England World Cup campaign, but it might just offer us a glimmer of hope. England were competitive with the Kiwis during the two matches they played, but they let those games slip out of their grasp. They only played Australia once, took a shellacking, and failed to give themselves a chance to make up for it. Perhaps we are not as flawed as we might have believed earlier in the week? Perhaps next time around things might be different?

Albert Camus once wrote that when God doesn’t exist, anything is possible. Well, perhaps if Australians are no longer Rugby League gods… you can probably guess the rest.

Posted by League Commentator at 18:36 0 comments  

En forme?- Mais non!

Thursday, 20 November 2008


Some years ago I worked with another English friend in a French language school. We both taught on Saturday mornings and this invariably followed a long night out. Our boss, a very jovial Frenchman, would always greet us by saying "Bonjour – en forme?”- to which we would always answer-come hangover or lack of sleep- "oui oui, en forme!” before giving each other a knowing glance.

Much has been said about the reasons for England’s dismal showing in the World Cup, from too many overseas players in Superleague to a basic lack of skill. Yet few have mentioned the form these players took into the tournament.

The majority of players came from the two dominant sides of the past two seasons, yet were either side really in form at the end of the last campaign? Leeds had slumped significantly towards the end of the season, with players like Burrow and McGuire failing to penetrate defences in the way they had at the beginning of the campaign. Whilst they produced a couple of gutsy performances to win the Superleague crown, Leeds were not of the stature of the previous campaign.

Likewise, although Saints’ form had improved over the course of the campaign, key players, not least Wellens and Pryce, had failed to produce the form this season to match their previous efforts.

There were a couple of players whose form held in the tournament, especially Roby and Graham, but as with Graham when he played for Saints this year, too much was placed on the shoulders of impact players to compensate for the underperformance of others.

In the middle somewhere, between the likes of Burrow and Pryce who struggled and Roby and Graham who stood out, were players who on their day can be world class- yet none of them showed it. We all know that Martin Gleeson and Gareth Hock to name just two can tear defences apart, but again that form failed to materialise, the latter no doubt hindered further by a long period of suspension near the end of the season.

Many have said that we had an easy time of it in the tests against New Zealand last year, and no doubt they were a different proposition this time around. Yet from an England perspective, (ok, so they were GB in 2007 for what difference that makes), the 2007 series was a unique moment. We found a side in which almost every player was in form, peaking just at the right moment to produce individual and team brilliance.

This year, we found a side of players probably overburdened by their performances of the previous campaign and struggling to find that magic touch. So before we write-off England, Superleague et al., before we go searching for some great metanarrative to explain 36 years of failure, lets just consider for a moment that this just wasn’t our year; pack our bags home and move on.

Posted by League Commentator at 01:19 0 comments  

Is Stanley the Ultimate Rugby League Player?

Thursday, 13 November 2008

In the course of a long and illustrious career Stanley Gene has played in most positions and in most sorts of teams. He’s fought relegation, won a World Club Championship and represented his country with particular honour at the highest level. He’s also one of the few players to turn out for both sides of the city of Hull and still be loved by both sets of supporters. He provides journalists and fans alike with a plentiful pool of anecdotes, not least about his elusive birth certificate.

It is ultimately though his versatility and consistency which mark him out as one of the game’s greats. When Stanley goes onto the park, you know what you’re going to get week-in, week-out.

Watching the World Cup, Hull KR coach Justin Morgan must have been mightily relieved that he’d retained Stanley's services. By shifting the blame for Stan’s uncertain future earlier this year onto new rules introduced by the RFL, Morgan dodged a rather large bullet.

But let’s fire it off one more time. In an age in which we are questioning the value of overseas players in Superleague, especially the so-called superstars from Australia whose fortunes have been at best mixed in the English game- why was it Stan who was set to lose out at KR as a consequence of the new rules?

We watched last season as countless Superleague teams had their season decimated by injuries and struggled to find adaptable players who could provide cover across the park. Rovers had a man who many teams (not least their cross-city rivals) would have loved to have in their squads last year. A Rugby League every man who’ll do a job whatever is asked of him.

He should be held up as the example of precisely the sort of overseas player clubs should aim for. Someone who’ll provide a bit of everything, not an overpaid, single-position Australian ex-international who’ll spend his first year struggling to fit in, and his second year looking forward to his return flight down-under.

See Stanley’s official testimonial site here and be sure to buy his autobiography Daydream Believer.

Posted by League Commentator at 23:16 0 comments  

World Cup Challenges

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


We are at the semi-final stages of the Rugby League World Cup and despite no-one having yet won the tournament, things appear to have polarised. On the one hand, the English team has been completely written off after failing to live up to expectations and producing performances which don't even match our other recent poor efforts down-under. On the other hand, Australia have already been given the trophy by most experts and fans. This has left many asking why bother to play the tournament at all?

There are though several problems with this state of affairs as I write.

First, it adds fuel to the anti-Rugby League mob in the mainstream media. In writing-off England's chances before a tackle has been made in the semis, we are doing their job for them. Those who aren't necessarily fans of League, but might have tuned in for a World Cup semi-final will now probably not bother. This will damage the growth of our game.

Second, this is a sport and anyone who knows sport knows that great things can happen when push comes to shove- or perhaps when push comes to three man tackle forcing an opponent over the dead-ball line.

Third, this group of English players did not suddenly become bad players. They have a proven track-record of winning in a tough competition and against adversity. In the past two seasons Leeds have twice won the Superleague Grand Final as outright underdogs - the first of those victories under current England coach Tony Smith. In this of all sports, teams go through difficult periods where even stringing passes together seems like hard work. These English players can produce the goods- if only they could get themselves together as a team.

Of course by Saturday it may be too late. By then they may have poured more cold water on the hopes of English Rugby League fans for another generation and dumped a number of eggs on this observer's face; but let us at least give them until then before we decide! With a morning start on Saturday, whatever the score there will be egg near my face at some point during the game (hopefully to be accompanied by bacon and black pudding!).



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Posted by League Commentator at 20:22 0 comments