The Armchair Pundit – Rugby league’s Easter extravaganza at a crossroads

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Eorl Crabtree is among those who believes the Easter schedule needs looking at

GIVEN how the Easter period again proved a scintillating one on the field for Super League and beyond, it is a shame two of the biggest talking points from the past five days are both negatives.
Leaving aside the unsavoury scenes at the end of the Bank Holiday Monday clash between Huddersfield Giants and Salford Red Devils – more on that below – questions are again being raised about the viability of cramming two rounds of fixtures into such a short space of time.
The tradition of playing so many matches in a condensed period goes back to the very early days of the sport, with clubs wanting to make the most of a large swathe paying spectators having an extended period of time off work.
The fact even the much-maligned Thursday night fixture saw a sell-out 11,467 crowd show up to see Castleford Tigers down defending champions Leeds Rhinos 18-14 in a thriller shows the financial boost clubs can receive from the gate receipts.
Fans love this period too as not only to they get a glut of rugby league action, but Good Friday traditionally gives them the chance to exorcise a few local rivalries. Indeed, supporters of Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings, Wigan Warriors and St Helens, plus the two Hull clubs got the chance to see their sides test their mettle against their nearest and dearest.
But with such a quick turnaround needed for the Bank Holiday Monday games, there are genuine concerns about the welfare of the players, with Warrington head coach Tony Smith describing the whole format as “madness”.
Huddersfield prop Eorl Crabtree, who only featured in his side’s defeat to Salford on Monday, believes the demands of this period are getting too much for him and his team-mates in the modern game.
“I think we need to put more focus into the actual games themselves,” Crabtree told the BBC’s SLS2.
“If we’re going to play these games over the Easter period, maybe we can show a few more on TV, which would be fantastic for people to see the games.
“But it doesn’t mean we have to play more games. It’s very dangerous, you’re playing with people’s health and, for me personally, I think I was fortunate not to (play both games) because it would have been difficult to back it.”
Former Bradford player and Great Britain head coach Brian Noble concurred with Crabtree’s assessment and feels a reduction in the number of fixtures is needed.
“There’s a cumulative effect as well,” said Noble. “If you’re taking about an international player, they get very little break – maybe five weeks – and it’s just not enough.
“The only way they’re going to get time off is scrapping in or around Easter and if we’re going to keep Easter, at least everybody is on the same and knows what is happening.
“But you’ve got to reduce the amount of fixtures, for me, in a competition which is getting as intense as it is.”
Noble’s suggestion seems like the obvious answer, although the only way to create room in the calendar would be to axe the Magic Weekend, which seems highly unlikely given how it has become an established part of the calendar after a lukewarm reception in its formative years.
So why not simply spread one round of fixtures over the Easter weekend and extend the season by one week to get the other round in? Again, this comes back to the player welfare issue.
Totalrl.com’s injury database shows the extend of the injury problems being suffered by teams in Super League and with preparations for the current season starting within weeks of the 2015 international series between England and New Zealand coming to a close, it is perhaps not a surprise with the players arguably not getting enough rest.
As Noble pointed out during the discussion over this subject on SLS2, the players on the NRL sides who came over for the World Club Series were, on average, three kilograms heavier than their Super League counterparts due to having a proper pre-season programme under their belts.
With rugby league players becoming bigger and stronger as sports science progresses, and the collisions and impacts in the game becoming harder on the body as a result, then more time is needed for players’ bodies to be able to recovery properly.
Few could argue a bumper Easter programme does not make sense during an era of full-time professional rugby and is unfair on the players, along with arguably diminishing the product.
Unfortunately, there seems no obvious answer to changing it or any will from the clubs themselves to do so.

Trouble on the terraces: Rugby league needs all the good publicity can get, so the unedifying images of Salford players Justin Carney and Junior Sa’u having to wade into the away end at the John Smith’s Stadium to protect their families after trouble flared at the final hooter of their 26-24 win over Huddersfield did no-one any favours.
There are concerns that this sort of violence is a growing problem – the Yorkshire Post’s Peter Smith flagged it up in a column last year – and a cursory search of the internet will bring up a list of incidents which drew media attention and plenty of anecdotal evidence of fighting in the stands at various fixtures.
Whether this is a modern trend or just becoming more widely reported is open to interpretation, although it is worth pointing out for perspective that such events were recorded even before the split in 1895.
Leeds Parish Church, for example, had their ground closed in 1891 after supporters attacked a referee and continuing crowd violence saw the club eventually disbanded all together in 1901.
No-one is suggesting rugby league is heading down the road of football in the 1970s and 1980s, where marauding gangs of thugs spread fear and violence everywhere they went.
But at the same time, The RFL cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand and simply dish out a few token fines and bans without actually addressing the concerns of the vast majority of law-abiding supporters – none of whom want to be subject to the sort of draconian laws which football fans, the vast majority of whom are also well-behaved, now have to abide by.
Salford owner Dr Marwan Koukash has already vowed to issue life bans to anyone found guilty of inciting the violence which spilled out onto the field and The RFL have launched an investigation.
Any group of people in any walk of life will have a minority who will cause trouble whatever the situation. Rugby league must weed out this minority and ensure the sport retains its reputation as a family game – preferably sooner rather than later.

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Leigh Sports Village, home of Leigh Centurions (Picture: Dave Green)

Centurions on the march: Despite the pre-season turmoil and recent unpleasantness over the Ryan Brierley transfer, Leigh Centurions have so far proven themselves to again be among the contenders at the top of the Kingston Press Championship.
Wins over Swinton Lions and Workington Town across the Easter weekend saw Neil Jukes’ men go top of the table, although only on points difference from surprise package Batley Bulldogs.
But having seen off Dewsbury Rams 44-30 in the Heavy Woollen Derby, John Kear’s side then managed to survive a fightback from Whitehaven to win 24-23, having been 16-6 up at half time.
London Broncos still lead the chasing pack, with Bradford Bulls and Featherstone Rovers in there too with a game in hand each on the top three.
League One only had a single round of fixtures on Good Friday and with Toulouse Olympique not in action, it was an opportunity for the other top sides to press home their promotion credentials.
Rochdale Hornets lead the way after a convincing win over crisis club North Wales Crusaders, with Barrow just behind them in second after 24-24 draw at home to Newcastle Thunder.
The game of the weekend was arguably at the Prince of Wales Stadium in Cheltenham though, where a last-gasp drop goal from Joel James saw Coventry Bears edge Gloucestershire All Golds 29-28 in a thrilling contest.

Amateur score of the week: Ellenborough Rangers 18 Distington 36, Cumbria Mens League Premier Division. The defending champions have started as they mean to go on, with two wins from their first two matches.
Founded in 1969, Ellbenborough – or ‘Elbra’ as the locals pronounce it – notably reached the fifth round of the Challenge Cup in 1998, knocking out professional sides Bramley and Hunslet Hawks before losing to Hull Sharks.

Bonus amateur score of the week: Newsome Panthers 30 Underbank Rangers 12, Holliday Cup final. Pennine League Third Division side Newsome caused a stunning upset on Bank Holiday Monday as they overcame First Division Underbank to win the flagship Huddersfield & District ARL knock-out competition for the second time in three years.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email marcbazeley@googlemail.com with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

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The forgotten story of Sheffield Eagles’ Challenge Cup semi-final win over Salford Reds

The story of how Sheffield Eagles overcame Wigan Warriors in arguably the greatest-ever Challenge Cup final upset is a well-known one. But while the 1998 final itself was perhaps not the most thrilling encounter ever seen at Wembley, Sheffield’s semi-final victory over Salford Reds was one for the ages. Featuring a see-saw battle, a grandstand finish and spectators assaulting the officials, we look back on a forgotten chapter of a memorable Challenge Cup campaign…

ASK anyone to name the player most associated with Sheffield Eagles’ triumph in the 1998 Silk Cut Challenge Cup and the chances are they will pick Mark Aston.
The inspirational performance of half-back Aston – who remains with the club to this day – in their 17-8 victory over Wigan Warriors in the final earned him the Lance Todd Trophy man of the match award and led to the unfancied Eagles slaying one of rugby league’s giants on the grandest stage of all.
Another name which has long since faded into the ether though is Dale Laughton, for it was he who grabbed the try which took them to Wembley as they overcame Salford Reds 22-18 in the semi-finals.
The former prop forward would sadly later become infamous for his post-sporting issues, where problems adapting to life after retiring from playing led to him being charged with supplying cocaine at a music festival.
But on the field, 1998 was a banner year for Laughton. Not only would he be named in Super League’s Dream Team at the end of the year for his efforts in an Eagles shirt, but he would also playing a starring role in helping his side lift what, so far, remains their only major domestic honour.
But while Sheffield were massive underdogs for the final, the only predictions anyone was making for the semi-final against Salford Reds on Saturday, March 28 was that the winner was near-on unpredictable.
Indeed, the words of Ray French prior to kick-off were an indicator of what was to come, with the BBC commentator saying: “I doubt anyone will recall a match where even the bookmakers cannot decide the eventual winner.”
When the Grandstand cameras showed up at Headingley for this tie on a sunny spring afternoon though, they could have hardly expected to be beaming live to the nation what would turn out to be one of the most dramatic semi-finals in Challenge Cup history.
These still being the days when the BBC actually had a wide portfolio of sport to broadcast and Grandstand was still very much a staple of Saturday afternoon television – ask your parents, kids – the day’s Cup tie was fitted around the Boat Race, horse racing from Newbury and the draw for the first round of the Embassy World Snooker Championship.
It also gave viewers the chance to see some flashy new computer graphics, produced no doubt at great expense to the license fee payer, when introducing the team line-ups.

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Eagles coach John Kear made no secret of the fact his side had targeted the Challenge Cup – then still held in the early months of the campaign – from the moment they returned to pre-season training late in 1997.
It was an approach which paid dividends. Having seen off Leigh Centurions, amateurs Egremont Rangers – who had knocked out professional side Workington Town in round four –and Castleford Tigers, they now stood one game from a maiden Wembley appearance.
Salford, coached by Andy Gregory and semi-finalist the previous year, were barely tested on their run to the last four having outscored amateurs Ovenden, Widnes Vikings and Hull Sharks 163-16 in their three Cup ties to this point.
Given the fact this match-up paired two of the perceived to be less-glamourous teams in Super League against each other, it is perhaps not surprising a record-low semi-final crowd of 6,961 turned up at Headingley on the day.
Those who had decided not to make the trip would miss a cracker though, with Sheffield going ahead after eight minutes when Whetu Taewa survived slipping over to score following a rampaging run from Darren Turner.
However, Salford hit back four minutes later when Darren Rogers somehow managed to both out-jump Eagles winger Nick Pinkney and dot down right in the corner from Josh White’s steepling kick.
The diminutive White then put Salford ahead midway through the half, darting through the defence for a converted score. However, the teams would go in deadlocked at half time when interchange player Michael Jackson gratefully received an offload from Matt Crowther to crash over, with Aston adding the extras.

“WE’VE got the draw for the first round proper of the World Snooker Championship coming up after our rugby league from Headingley – could it be after extra-time from Headingley?” pondered Grandstand presenter Steve Rider as the teams re-emerged from the second half.
Either way, there would be no extra-time. As French pointed out to his colleague, a replay would await Sheffield and Salford were the tie to remain level at full time.
Co-commentator Jonathan Davies predicted a drop goal could make all the difference and maybe someone at Salford had heard him, with both Martin Crompton and Steve Blakeley nailing one-pointers early in the second half to edge the Reds ahead.
Then with just over 15 minutes to play, Peter Edwards somehow managed to get the ball down on the line through a mass of Sheffield defenders, with referee Stuart Cummings eventually award the try after some deliberation.
Staring down the barrel, Sheffield hit back four minutes later as Pinkey’s deft grubber kick was collected by Aston, who scampered away to score behind the posts and kick the conversion.
And they took the lead for the first time in the game with 10 minutes to go when a lightning attack from a tap penalty ended with Laughton barging his way over to score, with Aston again converting.
It then took some sterling defence from Sheffield to keep out repeated attacks from Salford – and even when the final hooter sounded they were not out of the woods.
The confusion began when the Eagles thought the match was over after making a tackle with seconds left. However, the ball was played fractionally before the hooter sounded, meaning it was play on.
A look of panic suddenly descended on the faces of the Sheffield players as Blakeley sprinted towards the try line, only for him to be dragged down and knock on just 30 metres out.
The drama was not over yet though and television viewers were treated to the unedifying sight of Sheffield players having to drag a spectator off Cummings, having run onto the field to poleaxe the official after he had blown the final whistle.
“I thought we did OK today,” said Kear, summing up the match in a typically understated way with the BBC’s Richard Duckenfield in the immediate aftermath.
“It’s rather an emotional time, it’s something you dream about from being a kid, and these people deserve it and those blokes out there were absolutely maginificent – and they deserve it.”
The other semi-final the following day would prove somewhat lopsided as Wigan ran out 38-8 victors over London Broncos in Huddersfield. But the rest, as they say, is history.

Rugby league goes back to the future with Reserve Championship

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Victoria Park, home of Warrington Wolves’ reserve team

OF ALL the off-season signings in Super League, the two which were probably overlooked the most were Tom Connick and Dave Llewellyn joining St Helens on 12-month contracts.
On the face of it, Saints’ decision to bring in a local primary school teacher whose senior playing experience amounts to spells with Coventry Bears, Oxford and London Skolars, and a 33-year-old former Rochdale Hornets centre might seems more quirky than particularly notable.
But the signings of Connick and Llewellyn are worth noting in the sense that their presence will add valuable experience to the St Helens team playing in the re-launched Reserve Championship.
After three years in abeyance, reserve grade returned to domestic rugby league back in February with the new nine-team Championship comprising St Helens and fellow Super League outfits Hull FC, Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors, plus five from Kingston Press Championship and League One – Dewsbury Rams, Featherstone Rovers, Halifax and Sheffield Eagles from the former, and Keighley Cougars from the latter.
Reserve rugby was brought back at the behest of many clubs feeling the limited dual-registration system was not the best way for those players too old and too experienced to feature in the Under-19 Academy competition.
The new Reserve Championship is almost a return to the days of the Alliance league, which at its peak featured three divisions and cup competitions, along with first-team sides of Hemel Stags and Blackpool Gladiators at various points in its history.
But while many feel this is a small step in the right direction, the actual format of this revamped second team league has drawn criticism. Indeed, Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan was quoted as branding it a “shambles” – particularly due to fearing the sides from the lower divisions would not provide a stiff enough challenge.
“We needed competitive games for our talented young players and fringe first-team players,” Lenagan told the Wigan Evening Post ahead of the new season.
“We believe that the RFL had two or three attempts to do that and I have to praise (RFL director of performance and coaching) John Roberts, he did very well trying to put together a schedule, but it proved impossible to suit everyone’s needs.”
The fixture list too has been a bone of contention, with large gaps at later points during the season for most clubs meaning the competition is not – as yet – providing regular, competitive rugby for those players starting to make their way in senior rugby or those who are not first-team regulars.
It is an issue which is affecting other professional team sport in this country though. Just this week in the round-ball game, there was talk of Premier League B teams entering the Football League’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy to provide experience at senior level those players are missing out on since the abandonment of competitive reserve team football in favour of an under-21 league.
Over in the 15-man code, the Aviva Premiership operates an A League which is contested between all 12 of its member clubs, split into Northern and Southern conferences with the top team in each meeting in a final to decide the overall winner.
This too, though, does not provide regular action, with only the occasional fixture on a Monday night. The A League is effectively closed to only Premiership teams as well, with those players under 23 who need regular senior action being able to be dual-registered with Championship and National League club, similar to rugby league.
Meanwhile, county cricket’s Second XI Championship continues to rumble on barely noticed by even aficionados of the sport. At least though, it does provide regular matches for the players, with a full fixture list of multi-day, limited overs and Twenty20 cricket.
That is not to say the new Reserve Championship will not go on to be successful, yet it must be given time to grow rather than simply being hastily written off and disregarded.
The clubs involved have their part to play in this as well and could perhaps learn from the boom times the reserve game enjoyed in football back in the mid to late-1990s.
Leicester City led the way by offering free tickets to school children in the city, along with have pre-match entertainment and proper colour programmes, with matches against Premier League teams who regularly had one or two big names featuring who were either out of the senior side or returning from injury.
Sunderland and Preston North End were among those who enjoyed boom times too, although the formation of the Premier League reserve competition and the decision to take games to smaller non-League venues rather than the usual home ground contributed to the decline.
The latter is something which could perhaps affect reserve rugby league’s appeal. St Helens and the lower division sides will all utilise their normal homes, but Warrington’s matches are at Victoria Park, Hull play at Hull Ionians RUFC and Wigan’s home games are at the snappily-named Ad Options Community Stadium.
Not that these facilities are anything other than perfectly adequate, but at the same time it does not lend a sense that there is anything worth going to see in the eyes of the casual observer or impressionable youngster.
Those clubs who ground-share with football teams – who are prissy enough about egg chasers ruining their precious pitches – may find it difficult to accommodate reserve games on their own ground, but there a few reasons others could not.
Perhaps the scheduling of games needs to be looked at too. Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday nights, for example, may be better to bring in a crowd rather than on a weekend or Thursday or Friday when there is Super League on television or a programme of other fixtures.
And if you want to give experience against battle-hardened veterans to the young players coming out of the academies, why not form a team comprising out-of-contract players, amateurs who have fallen out of the professional game or been overlooked, and non-heartland players who have not been scouted?
The team could even be based somewhere like St George’s Park – where the England rugby league team call home alongside their footballing counterparts – or elsewhere in the Midlands or South of England to open up opportunities for new players.
Maybe we are getting too far ahead of ourselves there though. For now, the aim has to be ensuring the Reserve Championship becomes as vibrant and competitive as it can be.

The Armchair Pundit – Lock Lane flying the flag for the amateur game

Challenge Cup

WHEN the draw is made for the fifth round of the 2016 Ladbrokes Challenge Cup at 6.30pm on Tuesday evening, there will be more than a few people with an eye on where ball number eight comes out.
That is because it is the one which has been allocated to Lock Lane, the last amateur team standing in this season’s competition.
A 30-16 victory over fellow amateurs Featherstone Lions in last Saturday’s fourth round encounter at Big Fellas Stadium ensured the Castleford outfit succeeded where Pilkington Recs, Kells and Siddal all fell and reached the stage of the tournament where Super League sides enter.
“We’ve played every round away from home so far so it would be great to get a home draw,” said Lock Lane head coach Martin Rowse.
“Widnes would be the dream draw. They’re playing well, they’re top of Super League and there would be no bigger test for this group of players.”
Logic dictates that whichever opponent Rowse’s side draw, this will be their last game in the 2016 Challenge Cup. Indeed, so remote are their chances that competition sponsor Ladbrokes have them as 2,500/1 outsiders to go on and lift the trophy at Wembley in August.
Nevertheless, there are few amateur teams who can match the pedigree of Lock Lane in rugby league’s most prestigious knock-out competition, having ran Huddersfield close before eventually going down 14-10 at Fartown in the early 1970s.
They also hold a unique record of being the only amateur team to reach the third round in eight consecutive seasons from 1995 to 2002.
Lock Lane’s presence at the fifth round stage goes beyond their own personal glory though – they are now representing the rest of what The RFL refers to as the community game in a year which the Challenge Cup has brought it into focus.
The amateurs-versus-professionals derby matches in Rochdale and York during round three allowed those teams a spotlight which is rarely afforded to them, and Lock Lane’s run shines a further light on what is going on outside of the professional game.
The Challenge Cup still remains one of the best shop windows for rugby league on a national level and stories such as this should be celebrated, even if it might soon be coming to an end.

Vikings on the charge: There has arguably not been a derby between Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings that is as hotly-anticipated as the upcoming Good Friday clash at the Halliwell Jones Stadium for quite some time.
Last Thursday’s Super League showdown between Wigan Warriors and the Vikings had many members of the media recalling days gone by when the two sides were regularly contenders for top honours.
The match itself did certainly not disappoint either, with Denis Betts’ side coming back from eight points down to triumph 18-12 against the side where he made his name as a player.
Last Friday then saw Warrington maintain their unbeaten start to the season with a Kurt Gidley and Chris Sandow-inspired 56-12 victory at home to Castleford Tigers, keeping them equal on points with the early leaders.
These are good times to be a rugby league fan in Cheshire – whichever side of the divide you happen to be on. Stand by for some Easter fireworks on Friday.

Thursday night attendance watch: The crowd of 11,773 for the thrilling clash between Wigan and Widnes was 1,421 down on the 13,194 who were at the DW Stadium for the corresponding fixture last year which was played on a Friday night.

All aboard the merry-go-round: Just under a month ago, Chris Chester was relieved of his position as Hull Kingston Rovers head coach. Three weeks later, he was back in work after being unveiled as Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ head coach.
In the intervening period, former Wakefield head coach James Webster was named as Chester’s interim replacement at Craven Park. Funny how things sometimes work out, isn’t it?
Rovers finally claimed their first win of the season at the seventh time of asking, surprisingly mounting a comeback from 30-6 down at half time to beat Salford Red Devils 44-30 in Webster’s first home game in charge.
Meanwhile, Chester watched from the stand as Wakefield’s struggles continued with a 22-4 defeat away to Hull FC.
Much of the focus was on the Black and Whites after their players had now-infamously kept Lee Radford and the rest of the coaching staff out of the dressing room after the previous week’s defeat, but whether this is a full resurgence or a one-off remains to be seen.
It is players too who are on the merry-go-round, with the Ryan Brierley saga finally coming to an end after joining Huddersfield Giants from Kingston Press Championship outfit Leigh Centurions.
How the Giants must have wished the prolific point-scorer were available to play against the Catalans Dragons on Sunday, having blown a 20-12 half-time lead to go down 46-26 to the French outfit.
And in case you missed it, defending champions Leeds Rhinos held off St Helens to secure a 30-18 victory. Do not doubt for one minute Brian McDermott’s men will again be among the contenders this year.

Marwan Koukash Twitter watch: Salford’s most-prolific tweeter teased the possibility of a joint-event featuring both himself and controversial Leigh owner Derek Beaumont.

Quite.

500 not out for Aston: It was close, but Sheffield Eagles ensured Mark Aston had something to celebrate on his 500th game in charge of the team with a 32-28 victory over Swinton Lions in the Challenge Cup.
Last time out in the Championship, Bradford Bulls were denied a win against Batley Bulldogs after a last-gasp penalty from Pat Walker earned the home side a draw.
This week, Bradford were denied in the Challenge Cup by Batley’s heavy woollen district rivals Dewsbury Rams thanks to a late drop goal from Paul Sykes.
Once again, the value of having a player who can slot over the one-pointer came to the fore.

Stat of the week: Toulouse Olympique have outscored their opponents 222-48 in their four Kingston Press League One and Challenge Cup games so far this season.
Strangely, the team who have run the Frenchmen closest are amateurs Wath Brown, who were beaten 32-14 in their third-round Cup tie at the end of February.

Amateur score of the week: Manchester Rangers 14 Bury Broncos 35, North West Men’s League Division Two. An impressive crowd of 358 at the Manchester Regional Arena saw Rangers’ 12-month unbeaten home record ended by the Broncos in the opening game of the season.
Amazingly, Bury were only 7-6 up at the break before storming away in the final 20 minutes to record a comfortable win.
Considering themselves the spiritual successor to the Belle Vue Rangers – who won the 1902 Northern Union Championship and two Challenge Cups under their original guise of Broughton – professional team which folded 1955, Manchester have progressed rapidly since their formation in 2012 and have the long-term aim of reaching the pro ranks.
Bury have been around since 2007 and became the first amateur team to be based in the borough since the demise of the old Prestwich side in the mid-1990s.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email marcbazeley@googlemail.com with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

Mark Aston still the man for Sheffield Eagles on reaching milestone

Mark Aston

Mark Aston has been ever-present at Sheffield Eagles as both a player and coach

THE word ‘legend’ is overused in sport – as is the cliché “the word ‘legend’ is overused in sport” – but it is difficult to think of a term more befitting of Mark Aston.
And the former Sheffield Eagles scrum-half will have his status further enhanced when he reaches a special milestone at home to Swinton Lions this afternoon.
It is perhaps appropriate that Aston’s 500th game in charge of the Eagles will come in today’s fourth round Challenge Cup tie, having starred as a player during the club’s finest hour 18 years ago.
Yet his Lance Todd Trophy-winning performance as Sheffield caused one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history by beating Wigan Warriors in the final is only a small part of what makes the 48-year-old such an icon.
Having grown up in the rugby league hotbed of Castleford and played for amateur sides Stanley Rangers, Oulton Raiders and Lock Lane, there was little doubt the sport was going to play a big part in his life.
But it was in South Yorkshire where he would make his name, having spurned an offer to sign for his hometown club, and made his bow for Sheffield as an unnamed trialist over the Easter weekend in 1985.
Aston quickly formed a strong half-back partnership with Daryl Powell, who he remains friends with to this day, and by 1991 had become “become very much the standard bearer for League in Sheffield,” along with “A prolific points scorer and fine tactician” according to his profile on his Merlin trading card.
A substitute appearance against France in the same year would be his sole taste of international rugby for Great Britain and a stint closer to where he grew up with Featherstone Rovers in the 1994-95 season ended with him returning to Sheffield.
Aston was part of the club during the early years of Super League too, playing in that memorable first game in Paris, but it was the Challenge Cup where he and his team-mates would enter history.

The 17-8 victory over Wigan Warriors at Wembley saw Aston score two conversions and a drop goal, along with collecting the man of the match award for his efforts.
However, the good times were not to last for the Eagles and a forced merger with Huddersfield in October the following year looked to have been the final nail in the coffin for the financially-stricken club.
This is where the Mark Aston story takes a twist though, with him being instrumental in helping reform the current incarnation of the Eagles from scratch and securing their place in the Northern Ford Premiership for the 2000 season following Bramley’s withdrawal.
The first game for the reformed Eagles saw them triumph 33-20 away to Lancashire Lynx, playing in borrowed kit and with Aston in the player-coach role.
“It was tough,” recalled Aston earlier this week. “My advice to anyone thinking about it would be – don’t do it! It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in rugby league.
“Although you’re an older player, you have to set the standard in every department from skill through to fitness; otherwise, it’s much harder to motivate people. If you make mistakes anywhere, you become accountable.
“I did it for three years which was far too long! I do miss playing, but it’s a young man’s game and I love what I’m doing now – it gives me a real buzz.”
Not only did Sheffield have the handicap of being formed just weeks before the season kicked off, but they were also denied their share of the money from the NFP television rights as part of the conditions of being allowed back into the competition.
Nevertheless, the Eagles managed a respectable 14th-place finish and the following season set about expanding the youth section of the club, winning the NFP’s Club of the Year award.
Aston eventually retired from playing in 2003 after 348 appearances and 2,140 points, and handed over the coaching reins to Gary Wilkinson in 2006 to take on a backroom role.
However, he was back in charge the following season after the club clinched promotion to National League One and has remained there ever since, overseeing their progress on the field and the move to finally establish their own home ground after a somewhat nomadic existence.
“I don’t look too far ahead, but the dream is to bring top flight rugby league back to Sheffield,” said Aston.
“That was the dream when the club reformed and, with us going full time and getting our own stadium soon, hopefully we have everything in place to start making that push.
“I don’t think I’ll make another 500 games as coach, but I’d love to still be involved with Sheffield in 16 years’ time,” said Aston.
“The club has been a part of my life for over 30 years and I don’t think that will change any time soon.”
Given how Aston and the Eagles seem inextricably linked, few would bet against that changing any time soon either.

Walking the Golden Mile – Blackpool’s rugby league past, present and future

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Blackpool has hosted professional rugby league in various guises

IT is now six years since a rugby league team bearing the name of Blackpool graced the ranks of the professional game and that does not look like changing any time soon.
The 2010 season concluded with a sense Blackpool Panthers were finally starting to establish themselves as genuine contenders in Championship One after struggling during their formative years in the division.
But just weeks after reaching the elimination final, losing out to eventual play-off winners York City Knights, the Panthers went into administration and eventually had their membership of the league rescinded after failing to present their plans for 2011.
It was an inglorious end for the team and although there is still a small but thriving amateur scene in the Lancashire seaside resort, the return of the pro game to Blackpool seems unlikely.
Attempts to bring the 13-man game to a town where football has always been king go as far back as 1950 when an unsuccessful application to join the Northern Rugby Football League was made.
A Blackpool team had played in the Northern Union’s Lancashire second competition in 1898-99, but it was not until the 1954-55 season that professional rugby league put down roots there in the form of Blackpool Borough.
That first season proved a tough one, with only Belle Vue Rangers – in what would prove to be their last campaign – and Dewsbury finishing below a Borough side which won seven of their 36 matches.
The following campaign would see Blackpool host the touring New Zealanders at Bloomfield Road football ground, holding them to a 24-24 draw, although until 1962 they called the St Anne’s Road Greyhound Stadium.
On the league front, Borough failed to finish above 21st in their first eight seasons and when The RFL took the decision to split the unwieldy 30-team Championship in to two divisions from 1962, it was little surprise Blackpool were in the bottom of those.

Borough Park

Borough Park, the former home of Blackpool Borough

TYPE ‘Blackpool’ and ‘wing wizard’ into any search engine and the chances are it will bring up a string of results about Sir Stanley Matthews, who is regarded as one of England’s greatest footballers and helped the Tangerines lift the FA Cup in 1953.
On the rugby league front, Borough managed to sign up two wing wizards of their own during the 1960s, with Brian Bevan and Billy Boston both turning out in the orange and black shirts.
Bevan, the all-time record try-scorer in rugby league history, spent the final two seasons of his career with the club from 1962 to 1964, grabbing 17 tries in 42 league appearances.
Boston’s stint at Borough came towards the end of the decade, joining in 1969 and scoring five tries in 11 appearances.
These signings may have signalled ambition from the club’s board and the move to their own ground, Borough Park, on the site of a former gas works and coach park brought hope as well.
The first season in the Second Division saw Blackpool place fourth, missing out on promotion by 12 points, followed by sixth in the 1963-64 season.
But in their infinite wisdom, The RFL opted to return to a single division structure from 1964 and Blackpool finished bottom of the pile with just six wins from 34 matches.
They could regularly be found at the foot of the table until two divisions were reintroduced in 1973 and unlike the last time this happened, Borough’s fortunes barely improved.
Despite their struggles in the league, the club’s finest hour arguably came with their run to the Players No.6 Trophy final in 1976-77.
Having edged out Championship outfit Barrow 16-15 in the first round, Borough saw off divisional rivals Halifax 7-3 before shocking two more Championship sides, Workington Town and Leigh, to reach the decider at The Willows.
The semi-final at home to Leigh, an early kick-off due to Blackpool FC being at home on the same day and the host club not having floodlights, saw Borough storm to a 15-5 victory the fog and set up a showdown with Castleford.
There was a party atmosphere in Salford on that late January Saturday in 1977, with Borough dishing out sticks of rock to the crowd and even presenting a giant one in club colours to Cas’ Mal Reilly.
The final, broadcast live on Grandstand on the BBC and attended by actor Windsor Davies, saw the lead change hands several times, but ultimately Borough were denied by a Castleford team who would finish third in the league that year.
The end of the decade also saw a Borough team coached by Albert Fearnley win promotion to the First Division after finishing fourth in 1979. But they were relegated after finishing bottom with just five wins, signalling the start of a decade of turmoil.

Mal Reilly rock

Mal Reilly receives his Blackpool Borough-coloured stick of rock

WHILE the 1970s had seen Blackpool Borough – albeit briefly – scale heights they had never reached before, the 1980s would be quite the opposite.
A takeover of the club in 1981 saw their colours changed to green and black, but by April 1982 the club had been placed into liquidation and a crowd of just 550 turned up to what many expected to be their final home game against Rochdale Hornets.
Borough were saved after the intervention of Savoy Sports and Leisure Ltd, but five years later were forced to leave the town when being unable to gain a £65,000 safety grant from Blackpool Borough council to upgrade the facilities at the ageing Borough Park to make it safe for spectators.
So began a nomadic period for the club, who were bought and moved to Wigan for a single season under the name Springfield Borough, due to ground-sharing with the town’s football club Wigan Athletic.
That arrangement lasted for just one season before they were on the move again, this time to Chorley, followed by a move to Altrincham and being re-named Trafford Borough in 1989.
This caused a boardroom split and led to a new Chorley team being formed, while Trafford lasted for three seasons before eventually returning to Blackpool under the Gladiators nickname in 1992.
By now, the team were playing in the Third Division and the desire of RFL chief Maurice Lindsay to reduce the number of teams in the professional ranks led to the Gladiators being relegated to the National Conference League along with forerunners Chorley Borough and Nottingham City in 1993.
The Gladiators lasted one season in the NCL and joined the Alliance reserve league before eventually closing their doors for good in 1997.

northern_9s_11

Blackpool Panthers celebrate their Northern Rail Nines triumph

IRONICALLY, it was the demise of a team from Chorley which led to the return of Blackpool to the professional ranks in 2005, with the Blackpool West Coast Panthers – later shortened to just Panthers – elected to National League Two in place of the defunct Chorley Lynx.
The Lynx squad comprised the backbone of the new Blackpool outfit, with 16 of the squad and coach Mark Lee joining the side which would play their home games at Bloomfield Road.
Lee did not even see the start of the 2005 National League campaign though, being sacked and replaced by former Great Britain international front row forward Kevin Ashcroft.
The return to the professional game for a Blackpool team proved something of a baptism of fire, with the side managing just three wins all season and finishing second-bottom.
Matters were little better off the field. Attendances hovered around the 400 mark and majority shareholder Dave Rowland proposed relocating the club to groundshare with Preston Grasshoppers RUFC.
Rowland was eventually bought out and the club stayed on the Lancashire coast, yet the struggles continued – even after moving up the coast to Fylde RUFC’s Woodlands Memorial Ground in nearby Lytham St Anne’s.
Indeed, the Panthers’ 38-36 win away to Gateshead Thunder in July would prove to be their last for some time and Ashcroft was replaced by another ex-Great Britain player, Wigan legend Andy Gregory, in June 2007 after a 25-game losing run.
Gregory was unable to lead a revival though as Blackpool became only the fourth team in the history of British professional sport to go through a whole season without recording a win, losing all 22 games and shipping 984 points.
It was the appointment of Martin Crompton as head coach at the end of 2007 which precipitated an upturn in the club’s fortunes, with the Panthers finally ending a losing run of 45 games and near-on two years with a 24-20 victory over a Workington Town team who would finish just above them in the table in 2008.
Back-to-back wins for the first time in the Panthers’ history – coming against Hunslet Hawks and Swinton Lions – even had Crompton talking of a push for the play-offs, although ultimately they would miss out by 11 points.
Crompton then guided Blackpool to their only trophy with victory in the inaugural Northern Rail Nines in 2009, which was held at their home ground on the same weekend as the Northern Rail Cup final at Bloomfield Road.
However, once again the promise went unfulfilled and the problems of 2010 which would ultimately lead to the club’s demise began when chairman Bobby Hope was forced to step down for health reasons.
Although the Panthers enjoyed a strong run in the play-offs, no new investment was forthcoming and once again professional rugby league in Blackpool came to an end.
Blackpool continues to host rugby league on an amateur level, with Blackpool Stanley the oldest of the teams in the town having been founded in 1979, and still maintains an active Blackpool Rugby League Supporters Club.
The pro game still pays an annual visit thanks to the Kingston Press Championship playing a whole round of fixtures at Bloomfield Road as part of the Summer Bash, which runs along the same lines as Super League’s Magic Weekend.
Only time will tell if this can lead to a revival of rugby league in the town on a professional level. Talk of expansion often – rightly – focusses on the areas outside of the heartlands, but maybe this town on the periphery could, with the right backing, yet host a stable team.

The Armchair Pundit – What lies behind Widnes Vikings’ flying start?

Denis Betts

Denis Betts celebrates a try during Widnes Vikings’ win over Hull FC

“IT’S not top eight, it’s top six, possibly top four – they are the things we are reaching for.”
Six weeks into the 2016 Super League season and Widnes Vikings head coach Denis Betts’ assessment of his squad’s strength prior to the big kick-off does not now sound like either misplaced optimism or typical pre-season bluster.
Not that the gruff-speaking former Wigan and Great Britain second row has ever come across as one for trash-talking or rampant hyperbole, but a few eyebrows must have been raised when Betts spoke of his side as being potential play-off contenders.
Admittedly, the season is still young and the showdowns against Betts’ old side – last season’s Grand Final runners-up, no less – and local rivals and fellow high-fliers Warrington Wolves that are looming on the horizon will perhaps provide more of a glimpse as to whether or not the Vikings are genuine contenders.
Certainly, last Thursday’s win over an abject Hull FC – more on them below – saw Widnes exhibit all of the facets which have taken them to the summit of Super League with five wins from six, racking up 212 points in the process.
Skipper Kevin Brown has won praise for the way he has pulled the strings for the side at stand-off and it was his kicking which caused Hull’s defence all sorts of problems in the 46-6 thrashing.
Indeed, Brown is tied with Salford Red Devils scrum-half Michael Dobson for the most attacking kicks so far this season with 35. The rest of the Opta stats provide plenty of insight into what makes the Vikings tick as well.
As far as the collective stats for the teams are concerned, Widnes have made 8,033 metres – nearly 900 more than Salford – with an average gain of 7.32 metres, which is the fourth-best in the competition too.
So we know Betts’ Widnes like to run with the ball in hand, particularly on the conducive artificial surface at the Select Security Stadium, but they are effective with it too thanks to a league-high 54 clean breaks.
Corey Thomas, Stefan Marsh, Joe Mellor and Rhys Hanbury feature in the top ten try scorers, while the ability of Brown, Charly Runciman and Hep Cahill to keep the ball alive is indicated in them all being in the top ten for offloads.
On the defensive side, Widnes have conceded just 94 points in six games – only Warrington and Wigan, who have both played one game less, have conceded fewer – and made the third-highest number of tackles in the league with 1,955, with Cahill having made 227 of those on his own.
It is testament to the work done in building this team by Betts since he led them back into Super League in 2011, having controversially missed out on one of the first sets of licenses during the franchise era.
But as Brian Noble observed in his column in this month’s Forty20 magazine: “The Vikings are a product of the old licensing system. Had they not been given the time and right to develop everything around the club…while there was no promotion or relegation, Denis Betts’ men might not be there now.”
How ironic would it be if a system which initially prevented their return to the top flight played a part in them now contending for the title?

To Hull and back: Friday night down the local saw the Armchair Pundit encounter a Hull FC-supporting friend, having been only a few short weeks since our last meeting when the Black and Whites were among the early pace-setters.
How times change, with the humbling defeat away to Widnes being their third loss in a row and resulting in the players shutting head coach Lee Radford and his staff out of the dressing room at full-time.
After a promising start, it now looks like Radford may become the next coaching casualty of the season. To borrow an over-used cliché from the round-ball game, it certainly seems as if he has ‘lost the dressing room’.
Meanwhile, life does not get any easier for the red and white half of Hull, with Kingston Rovers going down 38-6 away to previously winless Huddersfield Giants.
Not only that, but talismanic skipper Terry Campese was forced off after just 58 minutes, having only recently returned from major knee surgery after rupturing his ACL in 2015.

Thursday night attendance watch: The 4,735 who turned up to the Select Security Stadium for the encounter between Widnes and Hull was down on last season’s 5,573 who attended what was also a Thursday night game.

The Alex Murphy Award for Services to Swearing on TV: Named after the legendary half-back and coach who was once captured expressing his opinions in his usual forthright way when Dean Bell nearly took off Les Quirk’s head in the 1989 Challenge Cup final, this award recognises those always humours slips of the tongue.
So step forward Dom Manfredi, who exposed the dangers of interviewing players with the adrenaline still pumping moments after the conclusion of a game in Wigan Warriors’ 28-6 triumph over the team who beat them in last season’s Grand Final, Leeds Rhinos.

The other Friday night game saw St Helens heap more misery on Wakefield Trinity Wildcast with a 44-4 victory at Langtree Park. There is concern the departure of head coach Brian Smith, who stepped down in the week, might only be the tip of the iceberg for the beleaguered Wildcats though.
The younger Smith brother, Tony, saw Warrington continue their unbeaten start to the season on Saturday though as they saw off the misfiring Catalans Dragons 30-20 in Perpignan after coming from two points behind at the break.
And despite owner Marwan Koukash threatening “all-out war” with The RFL over allegations of salary cap breaches, Salford continued their recent good form by storming to a 32-16 victory over Castleford Tigers.

Bucking Broncos: If Widnes’ impressive start is the talk of Super League, then the resurgence of London Broncos really deserves all the headlines in the Kingston Press Championship as well.
The move to the artificial pitch at Ealing Trailfinders RUFC seems to have worked well for the Broncos, who saw off Dewsbury Rams 22-18 to go top of the Championship after six games.
Head coach Andrew Henderson has built a side which includes the experience of the likes of Jamie Thackray and Wes Naiqama, supplemented with some smart recruitment from other Championship sides, overseas and the Broncos’ own youth products.
Meanwhile, Batley Bulldogs ensured they kept up close pursuit of the Broncos thanks to a 24-24 draw at home to Bradford Bulls as Pat Walker kicked a last-minute penalty.
At the other end of the table, Swinton Lions already look up against it after suffering their sixth-straight defeat by going down 30-10 at home to Featherstone Rovers. However, Workington Town notched up their first win by beating Oldham 23-12.
It was a good weekend for their Cumbrian rivals Whitehaven too, who edged Sheffield Eagles 26-24, while Leigh Centurions rounded off a quiet week by their recent standards with a 26-18 victory at Halifax.

League One round-up: No wonder Toulouse Olympique are considered favourites for the title in their first season back in the English league system, with the reigning French Elite One champions storming past Hemel Stags 74-0.
The crisis-hit North Wales Crusaders gained some relief with a 24-20 victory away to Newcastle Thunder, while Rochdale Hornets, Doncaster, Barrow and London Skolars all triumphed too.

Amateur score of the week: Leigh Miners Rangers 24 Rochdale Mayfield 20, National Conference League Premier Division. The defending champions just had the edge over Mayfield, who recently had a Challenge Cup derby with professional side Rochdale Hornets.
Founded in 1966 by players from Astley & Tyldesley linking up with players from the disbanded junior section of Hope Rangers, Leigh Miners Rangers are one of only two teams to have played in the top division of the NCL every season since its inception.
That has not stopped new head coach Allan Coleman stating the priority for this season is making sure they avoid relegation though.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email marcbazeley@googlemail.com with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

What has Super League’s salary cap ever done for us?

What-have-the-Romans-ever-done-for-us

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” asked John Cleese in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. You could well ask the same of the salary cap.

AS HE raged against the machine in a 40-minute-long press conference on Thursday, Salford Red Devils owner Marwan Koukash left no-one in any doubt what his opinion on the Super League salary cap is.
The conference at the AJ Bell Stadium came in the wake of the Red Devils being charged with alleged salary cap breaches in 2014 and 2015 by The RFL just under a week prior.
Koukash, the millionaire racehorse owner, has long been a proponent of axing the salary cap altogether and has had several run-ins with the game’s governing body, and launched a stinging rebuke of how the cap is overseen by those at Red Hall.
“If The RFL believe they can police the salary cap they’re kidding themselves,” Koukash said.
“It’s fully reliant on owners and clubs to cooperate and stick to it, but one of the main reasons for the salary cap is to ensure there’s a level playing field.
“Can anyone tell me why we still have the same top four? Are they more creative or can they manage their cap better than the rest of us?
“That’s a question for The RFL to answer, not me.”
Koukash is hardly the first person to question to cap’s purpose. Maurice Lindsay, during his second spell as Wigan Warriors chairman, suggested getting rid of it not long after its introduction and more recently Kevin Sinfield – who studied the effect of the cap as part of his sports business Masters degree – has called for it to at least be increased.
Despite the dissenting voices, The RFL maintains Super League’s clubs are broadly in favour of not only keeping the cap but also retaining it at its current level. Indeed, it is worth remembering it took several attempts before the marquee player ruling was eventually approved in 2015.
“The clubs were unanimous that there are is no reason to change the salary cap,” Super League general manager Blake Solly told The Guardian last week.
“The marquee player ruling, which was introduced last year, was a good move and a step forward and something for Super League clubs to utilise rather than increase the cap.
“Everyone has worked hard to create sustainable clubs and increasing the cap goes against that.”
So if the other 11 Super League clubs are happy with the salary cap arrangements, does that mean it is working? Or is Dr Koukash right and it is simply unfit for purpose?

***

THE salary cap has four functions, as defined by The RFL’s Operational Rules. They are:
– “To protect the integrity of the Super League competition by ensuring that the determinative factor in the sporting outcome is on-field sporting merit and not off-field financial considerations.”
– “To ensure that the Super League competition remains competitive and therefore attractive to spectators and commercial partners by preventing Clubs with greater financial resources dominating the competition and by ensuring a balanced spread of Players among the participating clubs.”
– “To protect and nurture a broad competitive playing structure by preventing Clubs trading beyond their means and/or entering into damaging and unsustainable financial arrangements.”
– “To protect the welfare and interests of all Players participating in the Super League competition and of all those aspiring to participate in the Super League competition.”
It was introduced in 1999, although one of the main bones of contention is that it has barely risen since then to its current level of £1.825million, or no more than 50 per cent of Club Relevant Income.
There is, of course, the exception of the ‘marquee player’, which allows clubs to have one of their squad outside of the salary cap – a rule which Dr Koukash was instrumental in helping to drive through.
By contrast, the cap in Australia’s National Rugby League has been raised from £1.7million to around £3.6million.
Meanwhile, the cap in rugby union’s Aviva Premiership stands at £4.76million having been increased from £1.2million seven years ago, along with clubs receiving credits for England internationals and academy players, plus a ‘marquee player’ exception.
The fact the NRL and English top-flight rugby union clubs have greater spending power under their respective caps to lure players away has long been used as an argument to increase the spending power of Super League teams.
But if the clubs are happy with the current arrangements, the question has to be asked as to how many of them are actually spending up to the current limit – or indeed capable of it without placing themselves in financial peril?
Despite this, insolvency events are not uncommon as Bradford Bulls, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and Celtic Crusaders have all entered administration while in Super League since the cap’s introduction – the latter of those eventually being liquidated.
Fortunately, most of the other clubs have managed to steer clear of these problems – some, such as Halifax and Widnes Vikings, have experienced problems following their relegation from the top flight – in spite of the precarious financial nature of running a professional rugby league club.
Perhaps then, and despite what the dissenters insist, the clubs recognise they need some sort of financial regulation from the governing body – if only to save them from themselves more than anything else.

***

ONE of the arguments which is often proffered in favour of a salary cap in any sport is that it helps restore the competitive balance in a league, with America’s National Football League often held up as the shining example.
However, the myth of parity on the field in the NFL has been debunked countless times in recent years, with New York Times columnist Gregg Easterbrook among those to write about it.
On the surface, it would seem Dr Koukash is right about Super League not being competitive, with only four clubs having won the competition in its 20-year existence and Leeds Rhinos being the dominant force of the last decade after being crowned champions six times in 10 years.
A 2008 study by Manchester Business School’s Andrew Howarth and T.A. Robinson, published in the International Journal of Business and Management, sheds more light on the subject though.
Their research showed that in the 20 years leading up to the formation of Super League, there had only been ten clubs to win the old RFL Championship, with Wigan becoming the dominant force in the late 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s.
Rather than just focussing on the so-called ‘Big Four’ – considered to be Bradford, Leeds, Wigan and St Helens at the time of the study’s publication – Howarth and Robinson looked at the make-up of the top five and concluded the cap had narrowed the gap and made Super League closer, if not ensuring the hegemony of the top sides had been completely broken.
Since the study, Warrington Wolves – twice Grand Final runners-up and winners of the 2011 League Leader’s Shield – have replaced Bradford in the ‘Big Four’, while the likes of Huddersfield Giants and Castleford Tigers have emerged as potential contenders, with the former topping the regular season standings three years ago.
The previous formats of the play-offs also heavily favoured the top sides, so it should be no surprise it was regularly the same sides facing off against each other in the Grand Final. Indeed, only Hull FC in 2005 and the aforementioned Wolves have managed to get down to the deciding game aside from the perennial contenders.
Plus, as Easterbrook noted about the NFL in his column, some teams are just smarter in their recruitment of players and personnel. Few would argue Salford, with their regular changes of head coaches and vast annual turnover of players, have repeatedly failed in this regard.

***

SO, where does this leave the salary cap and what does it mean for its future? Despite the dissenting voices, it does not look like there will be any adjustments any time soon or that there is the collective will to make changes.
To suggest the cap should be done away with completely is at best reckless short-termism and at worst comes across as simply being motivated by self-interest. The fact is the majority clubs are simply not in the position to go out and spend more than they are currently, even with increases in television contracts.
That is not to say the cap should not be tweaked or even raised. Yet any changes must be done alongside ensuring that Super League, and rugby league in general, remains a viable professional product for all concerned.

The Armchair Pundit – No Varsity blues for Oxford University

Oxford Varsity Match

Oxford University celebrate their Varsity Match triumph

AMID a compelling weekend of action and controversy, both on and off the field, the annual Varsity Match between Cambridge University and Oxford University almost slipped past unnoticed to the wider world.
First played in 1981, the annual clash between the two renowned educational establishments may not have the profile of the 15-man game’s Varsity Match or The Boat Race, but there is no less love lost when the Light and Dark Blues clash.
Oxford have come to dominate the game in recent years and the 2016 encounter at the Honourable Artillery Company in the heart of the City of London – venue for the past four editions – proved no different.
Indeed, the Dark Blues extended their record winning streak to seven games with a record victory margin over Cambridge, triumphing 70-0 on the back of a 34-point haul from man of the match James Clark.
Cambridge have now been out-scored 232-4 in the previous five matches and have not won since 2009 at the Twickenham Stoop, when the game was still being broadcast on Sky Sports.
A six-game losing streak towards the end of the last Century led to a revamp of the way rugby league was approached at Oxford, with the team now playing in a higher division of the BUCS rugby league competition than Cambridge and leading to them dominating the fixture.
If Cambridge can do likewise and restore some sort of parity – they trail 19-16 in the all-time series, with one drawn game back in 1994 – then there is no doubt this fixture could play a key role in promoting rugby league outside its traditional market.
The attendance of 782 was also higher than the Capital’s Kingston Press League One team, London Skolars, tend to attract to their home games.
Who says Oxbridge types don’t care about rugby league?

All we make is entertainment: The quality-versus-entertainment debate has been raging ever since the Super League clubs were soundly beaten by their National Rugby League counterparts in the recent World Club Series.
Regardless of whatever perceived gap in standard there is, the fifth week of Super League showed what a superb product it has in terms of being engaging and engrossing to watch.
First, there was the Thursday night thriller between Salford Red Devils and Warrington Wolves, which swung one way and then the other before Chris Sandow nailed a last-gasp drop goal to snatch a 31-30 victory for the visitors.
It was a similar story at the KC Lightstream Stadium the following night, with Marc Sneyd and Matty Smith exchanging drop goals in the closing stages as Wigan Warriors edged Hull FC 26-25.
To add an element of unpredictability, Widnes Vikings maintained their impressive start to the season and continue to lead the way in Super League after a 30-16 triumph over struggling Hull Kingston Rovers.
St Helens overcame Castleford Tigers 28-22 in another thriller, while there was little to choose between Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Giants as the defending champions finally got off the market with a 20-16 victory.
It should not be forgotten either that many of these Super League players made up the bulk of the England team which beat a world number one-ranked New Zealand team composed entirely of NRL players in a three-Test series last winter.
Irrespective of which players were and were not available for the tourists that was some statement. No doubt the Northern Hemisphere still has some catching up to do, but it should not be completely written off on the basis of three club fixtures.

Thursday night attendance watch: The crowd of 4,381 at the AJ Bell Stadium was 1,778 down on the 6,159 who turned up for the corresponding fixture on a Friday night last year.
In an effort to boost attendances, clubs and Super League have now decided to offer free away travel to fans for the Thursday night televised game.
This is undoubtedly progress, but with such a difference in crowds, the question of how many home fans are giving the Thursday night games a miss must be asked as well.

Marwan Koukash Twitter watch: When news broke of Salford being charged by The RFL for alleged salary cap breaches last Friday, there was almost a sense Twitter in that particular corner of Greater Manchester was about to go into meltdown.
However, Salford’s most prolific tweeter took to the social media platform to allay any fears.

Vive la France: Toulouse Olympique could have hardly asked for a better return to the English leagues as they stormed to a 54-6 victory at home to Coventry Bears in the Kingston Press League One opener.
It is 11 years since the French outfit stunned the rugby league world with their run to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup and seven since their first crack at trying to follow the Catalans Dragons in joining the English league system.
Although their three-year spell in the Championship was generally considered a failure, especially after failing to gain a Super League license, this has not stopped them returning for another go.
Another French club leaving the Elite One competition to play in an overseas league has not been universally welcomed in France though, so every effort must be made to ensure there are benefits from this on both sides of the Channel.
Meanwhile, the longer-established Dragons picked up their first away win of the Super League season on Sunday after taking the honours in a high-scoring 42-28 victory against Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.

Championship round-up: Amid the unedifying saga of accusation and counter-accusation between the club and wantaway half-back Ryan Brierley, Leigh Centurions put their off-the-field issues to one side again with a 36-28 win over Sheffield Eagles.
But it is the resurgent London Broncos who really deserve the attention as they maintained their impressive start with a 29-22 win at home to Halifax.
Batley Bulldogs too showed no sign of their flying form abating as they kept ahead of the Broncos on points difference that to a 44-12 victory at home to Workington.
Featherstone Rovers’ Danny Craven showed it is not just the Super League boys who can do late drama as he landed a drop goal to snatch a 21-20 triumph for his side at home to Dewsbury Rams.
And there was good news for Swinton Lions as it was confirmed they seem to finally be on their way to ending their 24-years-and-counting exile from their home town after signing a lease on a site in Agecroft to build a new ground.
However, the mood was somewhat tempered as they suffered an 18-12 loss away to previously-winless Whitehaven.

Keighley Jones pint

Keighley Cougars hoist a pint in memory of the late Danny Jones (Picture: @Cougarmania)

League One round-up: The news does not get much better for the North Wales Crusaders, who were forced to make a further round of wage cuts as they bid to secure the future of the club.
An appeal for extra investment has yet to yield any significant response and their struggles continued on the field as they were beaten 37-18 at home to Barrow.
Neither was it much better for South Wales Scorpions, who were on the end of a 60-4 thrashing by Keighley Cougars.
It proved an emotional win for the Cougars, who celebrated the late Danny Jones’ birthday with a pint of Guinness – the favourite drink of the Wales international.
Elsewhere, Newcastle, Doncaster, Rochdale Hornets and York City Knights also kicked off the new League One campaign with wins.

Amateur score of the week: Dewsbury Celtic 10 Saddleworth Rangers 18, National Conference League Division Two. The new NCL season kicked off last Saturday and the only fixture in the second division saw two highly-decorated clubs go head-to-head in a Trans-Pennine clash.
Founded in 1879, Celtic lay claim to being one of the oldest Irish sports clubs in Yorkshire and possibly even Britain. They switched to playing football in the late 1890s and returned to rugby on joining the Northern Union in 1910.
Saddleworth are based in Oldham and are on course to lift the area’s Standard Cup for the sixth time since the turn of the Century after recently reaching the final again.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email marcbazeley@googlemail.com with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

The real value of a drop goal in rugby league

IF ROUND five of Super League XXI is anything to go by, drop goals are suddenly all the rage again in rugby league.
First, Chris Sandow nailed 35-yarder on the final play to clinch a 31-30 victory for Warrington Wolves away to Salford Red Devils in the Thursday night contest.
The following day, two one-pointers from Wigan Warriors’ Matty Smith saw them snatch a 26-25 triumph away to Hull FC, who also landed a drop goal of their own from Marc Sneyd.
Indeed, those four efforts alone take the tally of successful drop goals in the opening weeks of the 2016 season to seven so far. Yet it should not come as a surprise teams are starting to once more utilise what has become considered something of a lost art in the 13-man code.
It started back in the early 1970s when the value of a drop goal was reduced from two points to one as part of a raft of changes designed to increase attacking play, which included the adoption of the six-tackle rule.
But over the past three seasons there has been a surge in the number of drop goals taken in Super League, with over 30 a season between 2013 and 2015.
This is all part of an long-term upward trend though, with the statistical database on Super League’s website showing that, aside from one or two dips, successful drop goal attempts have been increasing since at least 2003 – the furthest the database goes back.

SL drop goals
The previous year had seen what remains the record for the number of drop goals by an individual player in a season set by Warrington Wolves half-back Lee Briers with 11 – five of which came in one game against Halifax Blue Sox.
Briers and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Jamie Rooney both accounted for over half of the 15 drops landed in 2003, kicking four apiece, and they would regularly be among the top goalscorers from open play in Super League during their careers.
However, Rooney failing to land any drop goals in Super League XIII and Briers struggling with injury that year may have contributed to the sudden dip in the number scored in 2008, with just 11 successful attempts compared to 21 the previous year.
Following that, the number of drop goals per season hovered in the 20s prior to the sudden explosion in successful attempts three years ago, which saw an incredible 39 kicked from open play.
The emergence of Smith and Sneyd as prolific goal-kickers has undoubtedly contributed to this increasing tally, but it seems as if teams are starting to see drop goal attempts more and more as a useful weapon in the attacking armoury.
Generally, the drop goal is utilised in the closing stages when a game is tight – as has been witnessed in these past few days – but can also prove useful in making a team who is trailing by one or two scores need two or three.
So while a goal from open play might be worth just one point, its overall value can be a lot more – something Warrington and Wigan would surely attest to.