Toronto Wolfpack take rugby league into a brave new world


AND so, after months of rumours, now we know for certain.
Having already taken in teams from England’s non-heartland areas, Wales and France, rugby league’s “most geographically diverse competition” – a phrase used so often in official communiques that it is amazing The RFL have not trademarked it – will make the bold step of expanding across the Atlantic when Toronto Wolfpack join Kingston Press League One from 2017.
The level of expansion which has been going on at the lower end of the British professional game in recent years has not been seen since clubs sprang up in places such as Mansfield, Chorley, Kent, Carlisle Cardiff and Scarborough in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Of course, as any rugby league historian will tell you, many of those teams disappeared almost as quickly as they were launched, in some cases bouncing around various venues and being unable to establish any kind of foothold.
Small wonder then the reception to what is arguably the most ambitious experiment ever undertaken in club rugby league has been caution tinged with a hint of optimism – not to mention the usual prophecies of failure from the doom-mongers.
The success of the Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique’s return to the professional ranks on these shores has undoubtedly emboldened The RFL in their quest to push the game’s boundaries at the highest level beyond the M62 corridor.
In a financial sense at least, this represents a near-on risk-free move for the governing body as the travelling expenses of all the other clubs in the division will be met by the Canadians for their home games at Toronto’s Lamport Stadium, and no money is being taken out of the sport in this country.
The biggest risk on that side will be from the club itself. Indeed, the Toronto Star last year quoted the initial outlay as in the region of $2million Canadian dollars and cited the exchange rate – $1.86 to £1 at the time of writing – as being problematic for a Canadian company doing business in the UK.
Nevertheless, Wolfpack CEO and chairman of governing body Canada Rugby League, Eric Perez, insists the team has secured the investors and sponsorship to ensure this will not just be a flash in the pan venture. It has been speculated there is even Australian money behind the project.

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Lamport Stadium will host Toronto Wolfpack’s home games

Perez has done much to revitalise rugby league in Canada after years of being in a near-dormant state. As eminent historian Tony Collins chronicled last year, the 13-man code’s history in Canada goes back exhibition internationals played there in the 1920s, while the national team appeared at the 2000 Emerging Nations Tournament.
The CRL was formed in 2010 and, with Perez at the helm, has established a small but thriving domestic competition and regularly attracted four-figure crowds to international matches.
Undoubtedly though, the biggest test will come with this venture into the British professional structure.
It is probably worth mentioning Toronto’s Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer teams all ply their trade in competitions featuring mostly teams in another country – albeit neighbours the USA.
And at a time when America’s National Football League – the richest sports league in the planet – has been agonising for some years about how to overcome the various logistical and financial issues associated with installing a potential American football franchise in London, it is amazing to think rugby league is able to go ahead with this plan, especially starting in a division consisting mostly of part-time teams.
The intention is for the Wolfpack to play home and away games in blocks of four, with the team based in Bradford when in the UK and League One teams flying in on Thursday, playing Saturday and returning Sunday for matches in Canada.
With Brian Noble on board as director of rugby and Paul Rowley joining as head coach, the back-room staff has the necessary experience and knowhow to guide a new side.
Building a side from scratch will require tempting a large number of overseas players to take a step into the unknown, along with gradually introducing and getting the homegrown Canadian players up to the required standard.
The final word though, goes to Sky Sports pundit Phil Clarke, whose latest column shows how vehemently in favour of the Wolfpack project he is.
“From time to time we get some enthusiastic people from outside traditional rugby league lands who show an interest in the sport,” wrote Clarke.
“However, we have not been great at helping the good ones and weeding out the bad.
“It strikes me that the people behind this Toronto project need backing, just as the ones in Toulouse do as well.”
Whatever the outcome, it will be fascinating to follow the progress of Toronto Wolfpack. Strap yourselves in, because it is going to be one hell of a ride.

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Entente cordiale – A history of Anglo-French rugby league relations

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The Catalans Dragons are celebration 10 years in Super League (Picture: Gerard Barrau)

THIS year marks a decade since a regular French presence was established in Super League and few would argue that, on the whole, the experiment has been a success.
Understandably, there were those with reservations about the wisdom of parachuting the Perpignan-based team straight into the top flight – particularly after the failure of the Paris Saint-Germain side during the early years of summer rugby.
But after finishing bottom of the pile in their first season – staying up thanks to a three-year exemption from relegation – the Catalans have gone from strength to strength and, at the time of writing, find themselves in the top four of Super League.
They were swiftly followed by Toulouse Olympique joining the Championship in 2009 in the hope of earning a license to play in Super League during the period of franchising.
Ultimately, they did not achieve that aim and returned to the French domestic league in 2012, but are now back in the English professional set-up in Kingston Press League One, so far outscoring their opponents 192-6 ahead of this weekend’s clash with high-flying Rochdale Hornets.
It is a move which has not been universally welcomed, even in France. Limoux president Laurent Moreno – among other gripes – hit out at the country’s governing body, the FFR XIII, over Toulouse’s switch earlier this year and was quoted as asking: “Is it the role of the president of the Federation to promote the sending of a French team to England?”
Whether the move can be harnessed to ensure some long-term benefits for the 13-man code in France, particularly with regards to strengthening the flat-lining national team, remains to be seen.
Yet what the presence of the Catalans and Toulouse playing in the Northern Hemisphere’s top domestic league structure does do is further strengthen the bonds between England and France that go right back to rugby league’s formative years across the Channel.

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Carcassone lift the Lord Derby Cup (Picture: Gerard Barrau)

THE first glimpse the French public got of rugby league came in December 1933, when 5,000 curious spectators showed up to Stade Pershing in Paris for an exhibition game between England and Australia.
Organised in collaboration with Australian administrator Harry Sunderland, The RFL and disaffected French rugby union administrators, the match proved somewhat lopsided as the Kangaroos ran out 63-13 victors.
Nevertheless, the initial response was positive – no doubt being partly helped by French rugby aficionados being starved of international competition since their country was suspended from union’s Five Nations in 1931 amid concerns over violent play and allegations of payments being made to players in breach of strict amateur rules.
The French Rugby League was founded the following year, with former union international Jean Galia captaining the national side as they toured England in the spring of 1934.
A brutal, by modern standards, schedule of six games in 15 days produced five defeats and one win, although even in those losses the team showed themselves to be competitive.
Opening with a 25-17 loss at Leeds, the French pioneers were then beaten 30-27 by Wigan, 32-16 by an RLF select XIII at Wilderspool, 19-17 by London Highfield and 35-13 by Salford before closing the tour with a 26-23 win over Hull.
The first international match between England and France followed in Paris on April 15 and although England won that encounter 32-21, a 15-15 draw in the inaugural European Championship the following year showed the progress Les Chanticleers had made.
At club level, the links between the two nations continued as well. Indeed, it was prominent British politician and RFL honorary president Edward Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby who donated the trophy which would become the prize given out for winning France’s domestic cup competition.
The Lord Derby Cup was first used for a one-off game between then-Challenge Cup holders Castleford and US Lyon-Villeurbanne in 1935, with the French side triumphing.
Since then, the competition of the same name has been contested each year – barring World War II and 1981, when the final was cancelled due to a brawl which caused the Championship final to be abandoned after six minutes the week before – and the trophy is still given out to the winners this day.

FOLLOWING the end of the Second World War, France and administrator Paul Barriere were instrumental in the formation of what is now called the RLIF and the first Rugby League World Cup, which was held in the country in 1954.
And although the prominence of the French national team has diminished since those heady days of the post-war era, there have been sporadic matches between them and the Home Nations outside of World Cups.
At club level, the first time French sides regularly got the chance to test themselves against their English counterparts came in the 1992-93 Regal Trophy, with The RFL admitting two of them each year until the competition was axed in 1996.
That paved the way for French teams to be included in the Challenge Cup as well, while the original plans for Super League included a Toulouse-based team alongside what would become Paris Saint-Germain.
Although PSG memorably won the first match of rugby league’s new era against Sheffield Eagles, their time in Super League was not particularly successful – partly due to the club’s French players being signed only on loan from teams playing in the domestic Championship and being expected to turn out for their parent clubs as well.
The first French team to make a mark in an English competition were Toulouse on their improbable run to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup in 2005, which included a 40-24 win over crisis-hit Widnes Vikings in the last eight.
Catalans Dragons went one better two years later, reaching the first final back at the rebuilt Wembley Stadium. The defining moment of their run was a see-saw semi-final against Wigan Warriors, where New Zealand legend Stacey Jones inspired them to a 37-24 victory.
Sadly, there was to be no fairy tale ending as St Helens ran out 30-8 victors on a baking hot August afternoon in north-west London. Nevertheless, the Catalans showed they were to be taken seriously.
Steady improvements have followed to the point where they have regularly featured in the play-offs, although a maiden Grand Final appearance remains out of reach for now.
Toulouse’s start, albeit against some of the weaker non-heartland teams in League One, shows they too could be serious contenders and the 10-8 win over Championship leaders Leigh Centurions underlined their credentials.
They may not have won many fans with their attitude, being perceived as seeing themselves to be slumming it with the lower division sides prior to their inevitable march into Super League.
However, if they can establish themselves somewhere in the league system as the Catalans have, it can only do more to strengthen rugby league in France – not to mention the bond these two nations share in the sport.

The Armchair Pundit – Oldham keep Challenge Cup magic alive

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Oldham’s players revel in their win over Hull Kingston Rovers (Picture: @Roughyeds)

THERE are no accurate figures on how many Oldham Roughyeds fans regularly tune into BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, but one suspects a few more than usual might be doing so come 8.30am on Thursday.
That is because the Corporation’s flagship national radio current affairs show will play host to the draw for the sixth round of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup, where regular present John Humphrys will conduct the draw along with Martin Offiah.
No doubt the curmudgeonly Humphrys will introduce the draw as “now a special treat for all you rugby league fans” in the way Grandstand used to as if aficionados of the 13-man code were a separate species.
But that will matter little to those in the Lancashire town, who will no doubt be hoping to draw another Super League side and be dreaming of another upset after sealing their place in the last 16 with a 36-22 triumph at Hull Kingston Rovers last Saturday.
Oldham head coach Scott Naylor was somewhat more pragmatic than that, fully aware his side are unlikely to progress much further than this stage. For example, competition sponsors Ladbrokes make them the rankest of rank outsiders to go all the way at 1000/1.
To put that into perspective, the bookmaker will offer you 500/1 on the next biggest outsiders, Dewsbury Rams.
Indeed, Naylor’s main concern is ensuring the Roughyeds – currently ninth in the Kingston Press Championship – make enough money from this Cup run to ensure they remain financially stable.
“The money will help us massively and that’s what we’re desperate for,” Naylor told the BBC in the wake of the win.
“That would then kick us on for next season and the season after, and then maybe we can start talking about trying to win things.
“Right now we’re a club that needs a few quid and the next round will give us that, hopefully.”
The inevitable comparison to make is with that of Leigh Centurions’ performance in the 2015 Challenge Cup, where they saw off Salford Red Devils and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats before bowing out to Warrington Wolves in the quarter-finals.
But that is pretty much where all – if any – similarities between what Leigh achieved and Oldham overcoming the odds start and finish.
For starters, Leigh are a well-funded full-time outfit and went close to earning promotion to Super League in the Qualifiers last season, with a squad containing plenty of players with experience of higher-level rugby.
Oldham, meanwhile, are a part-time side who only achieved promotion back to the second tier from League One last year and are being forced to once again play matches outside their own borough at Stalybridge Celtic FC’s Bower Fold due to their Whitebank ground not yet being up to Championship standard.
The attritional nature of rugby league along with rapid developments in sports science mean full-time sides should be able to overcome the part-timers through superior fitness and physical preparation, which perhaps makes this result even more astounding.
That is not to denigrate Oldham’s players or suggest they do not put the work in off the field or in the gym, but merely to underline how they have to manage demands of juggling work – and no doubt family – commitments with earning a bit on the side playing rugby.
This is a club where few, if any, of their supporters will be old enough to remember their last appearance in a Challenge Cup final, which came way back in 1927 – a full two years before the showpiece game moved to Wembley.
That 26-7 win over Swinton remains the last of Oldham’s three Challenge Cup triumphs and if this was the world of American sport this would no doubt have spawned a story around some mythical curse.
Who knows, maybe their lack of success in rugby league’s premier knock-out competition really is down them being damned for all eternity after Fred Ashworth said “bollocks!” very loudly in front of the Lady Mayoress at a civic reception held to celebrate the aforementioned triumph?*
But whatever the reason, Oldham have shown why everyone loves a cup competition and underlined that any team really can beat another in a one-off game.

*Dramatization – may not have happened.

History repeating: Spare a though for Hull KR coach James Webster, for this is the second season in a row a side he has been in charge of have been eliminated from the Challenge Cup by lower-league opposition.
The defeat no doubt brought back unwelcome memories for the Australian, who was in charge of Wakefield when they blew a 22-0 first-half lead to crash out 36-30 to Leigh in last year’s sixth round.
That proved Webster’s final game in charge of the crisis-stricken club and although no-one is suggesting he will be imminently relieved of his duties at Rovers, the result moved chairman Neil Hudgell to ominously state: “We have dishonest people in our club, and they will be smoked out.”
As for Webster, he described the defeat as “the biggest embarrassment of my career since before I left school.”
Ironically, Leigh became victims of a Cup upset this year as they were edged out 10-8 in a close-fought game away to in-form League One outfit Toulouse Olympique.
Again though, this was perhaps only an upset in the sense that Toulouse are in the division below. They have swept all before them in the third tier so far this season, but have form when it comes to defeating higher-level opponents.
Who can forget their memorable run to the semi-finals 11 years ago, which included defeating Widnes Vikings and paving the way for their first entry into the British league system?
Sadly, there was no fairytale ending for the last of the amateur sides in the competition though as Castleford side Lock Lane went down 80-4 away to Halifax.

Sweet relief: It is difficult to assess whether Paul Anderson or Brian McDermott was the most relieved man in Super League as both Huddersfield Giants and Leeds Rhinos had something to celebrate in what has been a mostly wretched season so far for both teams.
Anderson, in a typically understated manner, described himself as “just pleased” as the Giants managed to grind out an 11-0 win over league leaders Warrington Wolves, despite some tenacious defence from the visitors.
Meanwhile, Leeds edged out Hull FC 20-18 in a thriller at Headingley and perhaps a sign of the high standards head coach McDermott sets for the side came in the form of the criticism he had for scrum-half Jordan Lilley after the game.
“We’ve got some middle men who were running on fumes, he’s got to stop waiting for the big play and needs to get the ball in his hands, run and go at the other team,” said McDermott of Lilley, who scored a try and kicked four goals.
It brought an end to Hull’s five-game winning streak, while Warrington’s loss at Huddersfield means they have now lost three of their last four – a run which was enough to have head coach Tony Smith publicly talking of changes to their training routine and trying a few different things.
Is Smith in danger of trying to change when perhaps he does not need to though? Do not forget, this a Wolves team which won their first seven games, although have no doubt been affected by the injury to stand-out performer Chris Sandow, who had struck up a promising half-back partnership with Kurt Gidley.
That start makes Warrington’s recent run look even worse, yet it is too easy to get wrapped up in the myth of being “in” or “out” of form – something all of us are guilty of.
Perhaps, as Tobias J Moskowitz and L John Wertheim argue in their book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won and Lost, Smith should be looking at it as three losses in their last five games rather than four.
Both statements are true, but paint a somewhat different picture.
Sure, short-term runs of wins and losses occur, but they are too small of a sample size to be statistically significant in predicting results over the course of the season or even in the next game.
And in the case of Leeds and Huddersfield, it is probably fair they have been underachieving and are starting to pick up results which would be expected of sides like them.

We’re all up for sale: Former Castleford Tigers player Ryan McGoldrick adopted a novel approach to trying to find a new club when he put himself up for sale on eBay, the BBC reported.
McGoldrick had been due to play for a team in New South Wales, only for them to fold.
Describing himself somewhat tongue-in-cheek as a “1981 antique rugby league player”, having “only surface scratches and rust” and coming “with a full service history”, the 35-year-old had reached £215 before the auction site took down his listing for breaching their terms of sale.
“There have been a couple of enquiries from England too, but I have told them that postage comes at the buyer’s expense,” said McGoldrick.
“They’ll have to make sure they can afford to get me over there.”

Legends honoured: It was perhaps little surprise that Billy Boston and Gus Risman were the first two all-time great to be inducted into the newly-founded Wales Rugby League Hall of Fame.
Both are already among the 25 members of The RFL’s Hall of Fame and will now be honoured by their home nation for their contribution to the sport.
On the field though, the difficulties continue for Wales’ two professional teams in Kingston Press League One. North Wales Crusaders were beaten 31-24 away to London Skolars and South Wales Scorpions went down 30-14 to previously-winless Hemel Stags.

Amateur score of the week: Egremont Rangers 26 Hull Dockers 20, National Conference League Premier Division. The Cumbrians chalked up their first win of the season in a close-fought contest, while Dockers are still looking to get their first points on the board.
Founded in the first decade of the 20th Century, Egremont have produced a number of players who have gone on to play international rugby at both amateur and professional level.
Dockers have been around since prior to the formation of the Northern Union, with their foundation coming in 1880.

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

The Armchair Pundit – RLEF’s Greece plans in ruins

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Greece won European Championship C in 2014

AMONG the problems Greece has faced in recent years, the issues affecting rugby league in the country are somewhat comparatively trivial.
But as far as the sport itself is concerned, these are troubled times following the suspension of the Hellenic Federation of Rugby League’s suspension by the Rugby League Europe Federation last Friday.
The problems began just over a year ago when the RLEF began investigating following the HFRL’s submission of its annual membership audit.
Participants then lodged a formal complaint against the Greek governing body in July, followed by Malta doing the same in October when the Greeks forfeited their scheduled European Championship C match.
A fact-finding mission to Athens by Rugby League International Federation CEO David Collier and the RLEF’s Jovan Vujosevic this February then led to the conclusion the HFRL had been misleading the European governing body over its financial management, leading to the Greeks being hit with an indefinite suspension for “wilfully acting in a manner prejudicial to the interests of the RLEF and international rugby league.”
It is a shame it has come to this, particularly as Greece were one of those non-traditional rugby-playing nations which took up the 13-man code in the early years of the last decade.
Formed along similar lines of the Lebanese team which made its bow in the 2000 World Cup, being made up of Australian players of Greek ancestry, the national team has been playing games for near-on 12 years.
Although it took time to get a domestic competition off the ground, Greece have been ever-present on the international stage, culminating in them winning European Championship C two years ago.
The RLEF were at pains to point out this is merely a suspension rather than expulsion from the organisation, along with confirming their intent to get the HFRL back to being a fully-functioning regulatory body.
“We have concluded the first phase of the process to rehabilitate Greek rugby league,” said RLEF general manager Danny Kazandjian.
“In collaboration with every member of the Greek rugby league community with a genuine interest in the game’s health, the RLEF will implement structures and administrative practices that will ensure that Greek citizens can participate in a well organised sport run on an ethical and inclusive basis.”
There was some positive news for the RLEF this week though, with Burundi becoming the sixth African nation to join the organisation after being granted observer status.
Now to hope the situation in Greece can be rectified to allow them to return to the international arena.

Thursday night attendance watch: Hull Kingston Rovers’ home Super League game with Catalans Dragons actually saw an increase in the 6,723 who turned up to watch the Sunday afternoon game between the two in 2015 – albeit it by only 41 extra paying spectators.
Whether that was due to some more Hull natives deciding to take a trip down to the KC Lightstream Stadium – Craven Park, as your dad still calls it – or a handful extra making the trip over from Perpignan is anyone’s guess, although the latter would have definitely been glad they made the trip.
The Catalans are now up to second in the Super League standings following their 40-0 win over Rovers, which was also their fourth away win of the season.
Admittedly, three of their triumphs on the road have been against teams in the bottom four – Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, Huddersfield Giant and the red-and-white half of Hull – while the other top four sides in Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors and Hull FC have all defeated Laurent Frayssinous’ men.
Nevertheless, it is already an improvement on 2015 when the French outfit could only muster a solitary away win in the regular season, despite winning eight of their 11 home games and drawing the nominal ‘home’ game against the Giants on Magic Weekend in Newcastle.

You’ll never win anything with kids: Publicly at least, Shane Wane was not overly-concerned by Wigan shipping 62 points and failing to register a solitary score as they slumped to one of their worst-ever Super League defeats away to Wakefield on Sunday.
It would probably be easier to list the players the Warriors DID have available for this game, with injury, illness and suspensions leaving head coach Wane without 10 of his squad and fielding an inexperienced side.
So it was that Jack Higginson and Nick Gregson made only their second starts at this level in the centres and at stand-off respectively, while Joe Brotherton and Jack Wells made their bows from the interchange bench.
It is all too easy to blame Wigan’s loss on these factors, although that would be doing a huge disservice to Wakefield and their players following a fourth win in a row.
Jacob Miller’s hat-trick was allied with some excellent distribution and pulling the strings in the halves, while hooker Scott Moore was always a danger from dummy-half, and the attacking lines and support play from the Wildcats ran Wigan’s defence ragged.
Elsewhere, the misery continued for Huddersfield and Leeds – the former going down 37-20 to Hull and the latter being edged out 14-10 to Salford Red Devils.
Hull full-back Jamie Shaul grabbed two tries for them in their win and not only has the fifth-highest number of tackle busts with 42, but also ranks third in average metres gained with 10.71.

Consistently inconsistent: Having won six of their first seven games and drawn lazy comparisons with football’s surprise Premier League champions-elect Leicester City, Widnes Vikings have now lost four in a row following their see-saw clash with Castleford Tigers.
Although this is probably a case of their results simply regressing towards the mean, the manner of the 34-24 loss to Castleford in blowing an 18-point lead will have undoubtedly been concerning to head coach Denis Betts.
The game was perhaps the Tigers’ season in microcosm, with them unable to find any level of consistency from week to week.
The same, too, can be said for St Helens, who handed leaders Warrington only their second defeat by winning a thriller 25-22 in front of a near-on full house at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

London calling: The Armchair Pundit contends that the real success story of the rugby league season so far has not been Widnes’ early form, but that of the London Broncos.
Andrew Henderson’s side now have to been considered genuine contenders for a place in the Qualifiers after seeing off Batley Bulldogs – the part-timers also making an impressive start to the 2016 campaign – 32-8 at home in the last round.
Only fellow high-fliers Leigh Centurions and Bradford Bulls have managed to overcome the Broncos so far this season, with the former being by just four points and the latter being by eight. Not bad for a team which finished seventh in 2015.
But although they unveiled a special edition kit for the Summer Bash which will undoubtedly go down as one of mankind’s most awful crimes against team uniforms – The Armchair Pundit finds the shorts particularly offensive – the Centurions showed they are not to be messed with on the field as they trounced struggling Whitehaven 60-6.
Bradford may well have silenced a few of the doubters with a resounding return to form by winning 52-18 away to a Dewsbury Rams side they recently lost to in the Challenge Cup.

Knights on the charge: Quicky, without looking – which team have the best defensive record after Toulouse Olympique in Kingston Press Championship One?
If you answered York City Knights, then congratulations! You may now pass ‘Go’ and collect £200 (Disclaimer: Prize will not be honoured by The Armchair Pundit).
The City Knights may only be fifth in the standings at present, but have won all three of their league matches and conceded just 34 points in the process, with their latest match seeing them run out 60-6 winners away to Hemel Stags.
Just so as not to leave anyone in doubt as to their defensive prowess, York also tweeted a video of some of their biggest hits and tackles so far this season during the game.
The question is how will they cope with the seemingly-unstoppable Toulouse when they play them? The French outfit, who also have three wins from three games, underlined their status as promotion favourites by trouncing South Wales Scorpions 64-0.
It is Rochdale Hornets who continue to lead the way though, seeing off Gloucestershire All Golds 38-16 to make it four games in a row unbeaten in the league.

Amateur score of the week: Boothtown Terriers 48 Bradford Victoria Rangers 20, Pennine League Division One. The victory saw Boothtown go two points clear at the top of the table, although second-placed Lindley Swifts still have a game in hand.
Founded in 1986 as an Army team playing inter-company rugby and friendlies with other Halifax teams, the team eventually settled in Boothtown in 1996 and this year marks their 30th anniversary.

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

At the edge – Rugby league’s Cumbrian outposts

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Derwent Park, home of Workington Town

IT IS 20 years since Cumbria was represented in the top flight of British rugby league and even longer since a team from the county was competing for major honours.
Workington Town’s brief dalliance with Super League ended after just one season, with the founder members of the competition finishing bottom of the pile with just two wins from 22 games and drowning in debt.
They have scarcely looked like returning since and their struggles in the first year of summer rugby is always used to counter arguments of a Cumbrian representative being placed in Super League should any further expansion take place.
Given how much of a hotbed for rugby league Cumbria is at amateur level, it perhaps seems strange that a team from this outpost of the 13-man game has failed to establish itself as perennial competitors at professional level.
This can, perhaps, be put down to the underlying issues of post-industrial economic uncertainty in the towns which support these teams, difficulties of tempting players to move to these relatively isolated areas – despite the incredibly picturesque landscape of the Lake District – and poor transportation links.
Nevertheless, rugby league has thrived in these northern outposts and the Cumberland League has been part of the sport since joining the Northern Union in 1898.
Although the Cumbrian clubs spent the first three years following the great schism from the Rugby Football Union on the outside looking in, it was two players from the county whose situation contributed to the split.
Frank Foster and George Boak were lured to Huddersfield from Cummersdale Hornets on the promise of being granted employment in the area and receiving broken time payments for playing for the team.
A grievance arising from the suspension of several players at Maryport led to them, Millom, Workington, Wath Brow and Brookland Rovers all switching to the Northern Union in 1898, with Whitehaven, Whitehaven Recreation and Seaton following prior to the start of the season.
But while the amateur game went from strength to strength in the county, the professional game did not arrive until 1945 when Workington Town were accepted into the Rugby League Championship.
Of course, Barrow had been around since 1875 and joined the Northern Union in 1897. Yet the town of Barrow-in-Furness was traditionally part of Lancashire – some locals will tell you it still is, really – and it was only in 1974 that the boundaries were redrawn to include it as part of Cumbria.
Having finished 14th in their first season, Workington quickly ascended to the highest echelons of the sport under the stewardship of player-coach Gus Risman, who joined in 1946 and five years later guided them to victory over Warrington in the Championship final at Maine Road.

Challenge Cup glory followed in 1952, with Workington defeating Featherstone Rovers 18-10 at Wembley in the first televised final, and a further appearance came three years later where they were beaten 21-12 by Barrow.
But that glory proved fleeting and, as noted in the Border Television documentary from the late 1970s, Workington’s decline mirrored that of the steel and mining industry in the area.
‘Town…Town’ painted a very grim picture of the period for both the club and townspeople, with narrator Eric Robson’s words veering between condescension and outright sneering at the sport and its supporters.
“For them,” intoned Robson “the perversion of the game the rest of the country sees is a glossy heresy – a mere extension of television show business which rests not on skill or muscle, but the jokey mateyness of ‘up ‘n’ unders’ and ‘early baths’.”
Quite. Yet it remains worth watching for anyone interested in the social history of rugby league, particularly with regards to following the scouting exploits of Cup final heroes Andy Key and Ike Southward, or scrum-half Arnold ‘Boxer’ Walker in his day-job at the Windscale nuclear power plant.
That era did proved some brief highlights for Town, beating Wigan to win the 1977 Lancashire Cup and finishing runners-up on three other occasions, but there was little else to celebrate.
Walker has the unique distinction of being revered by fans of both Workington and bitter rivals Whitehaven, who joined the Championship three years after Town but struggled to match their early success.
The Marras did enjoy a spell in the top division in the 1980s, but the past 25 years have seen them survive two periods of financial uncertainty.
Fortunately, they were able to overcome the problems in 1992 and then again eight years later, when a merger with Workington was avoided after seeming like the only option for survival.
These days, both Workington and Whitehaven find themselves in the Kingston Press Championship, with Barrow Raiders being the third Cumbrian representatives in the professional ranks in League One.

Barrow Lancashire Cup

Barrow hold aloft the Lancashire Cup in 1983

Since the town came under the auspices of Cumbria, Barrow have won the 1983 Lancashire Cup and in 2009 triumphed in the Championship Grand Final with a 26-18 win over Halifax.
However, the franchise license system Super League was operating at the time meant they were not eligible for promotion to the highest level and the departure of head coach Steve McCormack was followed by a disastrous period.
Great Britain legend Garry Schofield was fired after five games in charge, with replacement Nigel Wright being sacked before the end of the season and the club then having all of their points deducted from the 2011 campaign after being found guilty of salary cap breaches.
While professional rugby league in Cumbria has traditionally been played in these costal enclaves, there have been periods when a team representing Carlisle has been involved too.
Carlisle City, based at Harraby Greyhound Stadium, lasted just 10 games of the 1928-29 season having won one, lost nine, scored just 59 points and conceded 166, with the pro game not returning to the city until 1981.
Originally founded by football team Carlisle United and playing at their Brunton Park ground, the club gained promotion in their first season with attendances averaging 2,950.
It would not last though. Attendances plummeted as Carlisle struggled in the Championship, finishing bottom with just two points and eventually moving to Gillford Park in 1988 after not being able to afford the rent at Brunton Park.
The team merged Barrow to form Barrow Border Raiders in 1997, with any reference to the former Carlisle outfit being lost when the ‘Border’ was dropped from the club’s name in 2002.
All four of the county’s clubs had originally been set to merge to form a Cumbria team based in Workington when Super League was formed, and there is an argument to say those pooled resources could have led to an established top flight presence in the area.
However, doing so would have stripped Cumbrian rugby league of much of its unique character, while the 7,000-plus crowds at the two World Cup games staged at Derwent Park in 2013 show the support there is for the sport in the area.
The Cumbria Regional Academy ensures there is still a pathway into the professional game for players from the county, although even this is managed by Super League side Widnes Vikings.
Maybe one day though, one of the current clubs will find their way back to the highest level to give a greater profile to an area with a rich heritage in the sport.

The life and times of Mick Sullivan

Mick Sullivan

Mick Sullivan (right) starred for club and country (Picture: The RFL)

IT WAS perhaps appropriate that Mick Sullivan was named as one of the players to be enshrined in rugby league’s Hall of Fame in the same year as fellow Great Britain record cap holder Garry Schofield.
Unlike, say, American football or baseball, whose Halls are huge shrines to their sports in Canton and Cooperstown respectively, rugby league’s pantheon of – at present – 25 all-time greats currently has no permanent home.
Instead, they are enshrined in a corner of the internet on The RFL’s website under the ‘History and Heritage’ section, with brief biographies accompanying each member’s entry.
Perhaps this is a metaphor for how rugby league views itself as a sport, or maybe it is more akin to the quiet dignity the folk heroes of a staunchly and proudly working class game – such as Sullivan, who died earlier this week aged 82 – carry themselves with.
Although playing in different eras, Sullivan and Schofield both racked up 46 caps for the national team – an achievement which is unlikely to be matched ever again, particularly with the Lions having been split into the constituent nations in 2008.
Sullivan actually managed to reach the milestone in nine years, compared to 11 for Schofield, although that is not the only similarity between the two.
Both proved prolific try-scorers on the international stage, but it was winger Sullivan who truly led the way in the latter by setting another Great Britain record of crossing the line 41 times in the white, blue and red shirt.
The Pudsey-born Sullivan showed his sporting talents from an early age, excelling in sprinting, swimming and water polo. But it was on the rugby field where he would make his name after signing for Huddersfield from amateur side Shaw Cross in 1952.
His bow for Great Britain came two years later against Australia in the inaugural World Cup, and he helped the side captained by Dave Valentine go on to ultimately lift the trophy.
Sullivan would play his part in helping Great Britain triumph in the 1960 tournament as well, scoring a try in a bruising 10-3 victory over Australia at Odsal in the deciding match of the competition, becoming the only player from these shores to date to win the World Cup twice.
He remained a mainstay of the Lions side until 1963 and helped them to four Ashes series triumphs, including playing and scoring in the storied second Test victory in Brisbane in 1958 where Alan Prescott played for 77 minutes with a broken arm.
And when the British players were pelted with missiles by the Australian fans in the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Sullivan is said to have faced up to it by picking up an orange which had been thrown from the crowd and eating it.
At club level, Sullivan twice commanded what, at the time, was a world record transfer fee – first when signing for Wigan from Huddersfield in 1957 for £9,500 and then again when he joined St Helens for £11,000 four years later.
His feat of scoring a total of 342 club tries in his career – which later took in spells with Dewsbury and York is even more impressive given he played in the era of unlimited tackles, where goal-kicking was much more prevalent than in the modern game.
It was a time when the game was arguably a lot more brutal too, although Sullivan was regarded as much as a tenacious defender during his career as for his attacking skill – traits which no doubt served him well in his post-playing occupation as a warder at Wakefield Prison.
Indeed, he was subject of a sine die ban from The RFL on two occasions and Tony Collins’ book Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain recounts how Sullivan’s serialised life story in the Sunday People newspaper featured “lurid descriptions of stiff-arm tackling taking centre stage.”
Nevertheless, such trivialities should not detract from a stellar career and of all the tributes paid to him, perhaps the most heartfelt came from current Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan
“I remember Mick Sullivan signing for Wigan,” recalled Lenagan. “I was at school in St Helens, I remember being at Shaw Street Station when I heard the news he had signed, and I was delighted.
“He was a terrific player – tough, uncompromising. I don’t know why Wigan ever let him go.
“It’s a great shame to hear he’s passed away.”
Perhaps the final word, though, should go to fellow Great Britain cap record holder Schofield, who posted a succinct tribute to the great man on his Twitter account.

 

The Armchair Pundit – Where has it gone wrong for Leeds Rhinos?

Brian McDermott

Brian McDermott has had little to cheer about at Leeds Rhinos in 2016

AS THEIR stalling Super League title defence was dealt another blow of Friday evening – this time in the form of a Hull Kingston Rovers-sized hammer – Leeds Rhinos’ players, management and fans must again have been left wondering where exactly it has all gone wrong in 2016?
As Gavin Willacy pointed out in his ‘No Helmets Required’ column for the Guardian last week, Leeds are currently on course for the worst title defence in the Super League era.
For a club who have emerged as the dominant force in the English game since the switch to summer thanks to seven Grand Final triumphs, finishing top of the table three times and winning two Challenge Cups, being second-bottom after nine games with just two wins is a somewhat unwelcome sight.
Aside from a tenth-place finish in the inaugural season 20 years ago, the Rhinos have never finished outside of the top six in Super League and at this early stage of the season they can still comfortably make the Super 8s.
Nevertheless, the only wins for Brian McDermott’s men have come against the equally-hapless Huddersfield Giants and an erratic St Helens side. Indeed, even crisis club Wakefield Trinity Wildcats came away from Headingley victorious.
It goes without saying that Leeds have been found wanting defensively, but only the aforementioned Hull KR have conceded more points so far this season. To make matters worse, the 230 the Rhinos have let in is nearly half their total of 477 conceded after 23 rounds of the 2015 regular season.
The question is though: Why have the defending champions been so woefully below the high standards they have consistently set over the past decade-plus?
Much of it has been put down to the retirements of Kyle Leuluai and Jamie Peacock, plus Kevin Sinfield’s decision to switch to rugby union, and there are few clubs who not miss that trio.
The Opta statistics bear out Peacock’s influence on the defensive side, with the veteran prop making more tackles than any other Leeds player in 2015 with 952 – fourth-highest in Super League. He also made 182 from marker – fifth-highest – showing his ability to stifle attacks and stop opponents gaining valuable metres.
One player who has been missed too is Stevie Ward, who is expected to be out until at least next month after undergoing knee surgery over the winter.
Ward ranked in the top 10 for both tackles and marker tackles in 2015, along with having a remarkably low error rate – and the latter of those leads onto another area where Leeds have struggled this season.
Given McDermott’s side play an attacking game focussed around keeping play alive with repeated offloads – no side offloaded more in Super League in 2015 – it is perhaps not surprising this risky strategy leads to an increased chance of errors.
No surprise then that the Rhinos were ranked fifth for errors in 2015 with 291, but their lack of execution is underlined by them leading the way in errors in 2016 with 123.
Their failure to look after the ball has meant the likes of Ryan Hall, Zak Hardaker and Kallum Watkins have not been able to replicate their destructive form of last season and blunted the attacking threats Leeds have in their backs.
To make matters worse, Hall and Watkins both rank in the top five for individual errors so far this season.
As mentioned before though, the Rhinos are still capable of making the Super 8s, so it would be too early to write them off just yet – especially with the abundance of talent still in the side and still to return from injury.
And it is worth remembering McDermott’s first season in charge of Leeds saw them finish fifth in the table before going on to win the Grand Final. That, at least, might be something for them to take inspiration from.

Land of the Giants: Perhaps the only thing more startling than Leeds’ collapse is the one suffered by Huddersfield Giants, who have gone from being just one game away from a maiden Grand Final appearance last season to propping up the table.
Under head coach Paul Anderson, the Giants have built on the progress made during the stewardship of Nathan Brown to become regularly top four finishers.
Yet 2016 has, so far, yielded just one win and Anderson conceded in the wake of last weekend’s 38-34 loss to Castleford Tigers – which saw the Giants leading until late in the game – his side are now fighting to avoid ending up in a relegation scrap.

Stat of the week: Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ 32-18 triumph over Salford Red Devils means they have taken just 10 games to record more wins – four – than they did in the 23 regular season rounds last year.
On another positive note, the Red Devils and their fans made headlines for all the right reasons this week, with a group of supporters starting a collection to fund gifts for those affected by the crowd trouble at Huddersfield the week before.
The initial target of £500 was quickly exceeded and it is hoped the gifts will be presented ahead of the home game with Leeds.

Charnley

Josh Charnley is off to rugby union

Charnley crosses the divide: The news Josh Charnley will leave Wigan Warriors to join Sale Sharks in rugby union’s Aviva Premiership produced much debate about whether the salary cap should be increased, or even abolished, to prevent British rugby league’s brightest young talents being cherry picked by richer clubs from the 15-man game.
Charnley follows in the footsteps of arguably the most successful player to switch from league to union in Jason Robinson, who left Wigan to join Sale in 2000, and is expected to operate at full-back or on the wing like the England World Cup winner.
Chris Ashton, Stephen Myler and Kyle Eastmond have all established themselves in the other code since switching too, although there are plenty who have tried to make the transition and struggled.
Sam Burgess’ recent foray into union is the obvious example – his spell coming to an end at least partly due to the disgraceful treatment he received after England’s World Cup exit last year – while Chev Walker, Lee Smith and Barrie Jon-Mather all had stints which ended abruptly.
Andy Farrell’s spell in union came at the end of his rugby league career and although he played at international level, it was little to write home about. Instead, his biggest influence has been as a coach, following the likes of Phil Larder, Joe Lydon and Shaun Edwards.
Perhaps the biggest worry though should not be that players are being tempted over to union, but that the flow of players from union to league has virtually stopped since the 15-man game legalised professionalism in 1995.
As for Wigan, they had no answer to form Super League team Warrington Wolves after going down 28-16 at home. However, the win came at a cost to the Wolves as stand-out scrum-half Chris Sandow suffered a hamstring injury which could sideline him long term.
Elsewhere, Marc Sneyd’s drop goal ability came to the fore again as a resurgent Hull FC edged out St Helens 17-16. And the Catalans Dragons climbed up to fourth with an impressive second half display which saw them blow away Widnes Vikings 21-8 in Perpignan.

Kingston Press Championship round-up: James Lowes does not come across as a man prone to introspection, but the Bradford Bulls head coach was left questioning himself after they slumped to a 46-28 loss at home to Sheffield Eagles.
“At the moment I’m not doing them justice in giving them self-belief and confidence in themselves,” Lowes Bradford Telegraph & Argus.
“I’ve got to find a way pretty quick or else in the not too distant future I’ll be a spectator rather than a coach.”
Despite that loss, Bradford remain fourth in the table on points difference from Halifax and Featherstone Rovers, with the former edging out the latter 20-19 in their weekend encounter.
Surprise package Batley Bulldogs remains second after suffering a shock 28-12 loss at Oldham, while Leigh Centurions continue to lead the way with a 40-18 trouncing of Dewsbury Rams.
At the other end of the table, Swinton Lions won the battle of the bottom two by beating Workington Town 28-22.

The road to Blackpool: Bloomfield Road could be playing host to two non-heartland teams in the final of this season’s iPro Sport Cup after London Skolars and Gloucestershire All Golds were kept apart in the draw for the semi-finals.
However, they must overcome Keighley Cougars and York City Knights respectively if they are to get through to the final at the Summer Bash on May 28.

Amateur score of the week: Valley Cougars 16 London Chargers 23, Conference League South. The Chargers, formed three years ago out of a merger between South London Storm and West London Sharks, made a winning start on their bow in the highest level of amateur rugby league in the South of England and Wales.
Valley Cougars have been in existence for 15 years and are based in Treharris. They were Conference League South champions in 2014 and finished top of the table last year as well, only to lose to Nottingham Outlaws in the Grand Final.

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