The Armchair Pundit: Keighley Cougars savour memorable iPro Sport Cup win

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Keighley Cougars claimed the 2016 iPro Sport Cup

IT IS little over two decades since one of the greatest injustices perpetrated by rugby league’s administrators robbed Keighley Cougars of their place among the game’s elite, but last Saturday they at least got to enjoy a moment back in the spotlight.
As many of the 9,521 crowd were slowly filing into Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road for the opening day of this year’s Kingston Press Championship Summer Bash, the Cougars were doing battle with York City Knights for the first silverware of the season.
The iPro Sport Cup might be the lesser-heralded of the professional game’s prizes, yet that should not diminish how much it meant to either of these sides – in particular Keighley, who 20 years ago could have been founder members of Super League had events transpired differently.
As many will no doubt recall, the club had lodged itself firmly in the consciousness of the rugby league community and beyond thanks to what would eventually become known as ‘Cougarmania’.
Not only did they set the template many others have since followed in terms of community engagement and matchday experience, but they also succeeded in raising crowds from an average of 350 in 1989 to over 4,000 regularly packing out their Lawkholme Lane ground in 1994.
The zenith of this period was in 1995 when Keighley – a club whose previous most-notable on-the-field achievement was finishing as Challenge Cup runners-up in 1937 – stormed to the Second Division title and, seemingly, had secured a place among the elite.
But the restructuring ahead of the switch to summer and the formation of Super League dashed those dreams, despite threats of legal action against The RFL and bizarrely offering to move to Burnley and rebrand as the Pennine Cougars.
Six years after that Second Division title triumph, Keighley were being liquidated and have spent much of their time since then bouncing between what are now known as the Championship and League One.
Cup success has proved elusive for them down the years too, with the aforementioned Challenge Cup final – an 18-5 defeat to Widnes – and two Yorkshire Cup runner-up finishes being the closest the Cougars have come to knock-out glory.
Saturday’s opening match of the Summer Bash gave them the opportunity to change that against York – another team long starved of silverware – and those spectators who were there in time to see it were treated to a thriller.
Keighley were ahead 10-6 at the interval, but the City Knights looked to have secured the trophy five minutes from time when James Morland went over to give them a two-point lead.
But from a short kick-off, the Cougars marched straight up the other end and Charlie Martin wrote himself into the club’s history books by grabbing the game-clinching try two minutes from time, with man of the match Paul Handforth kicking the conversion.
The only downside was Sky Sports had elected not to broadcast the game live. Ah well, at least the Cougars and their 300 travelling supporters could enjoy their moment in the sun.
Who knows, there could still be many more to come…

Summer Bash round-up: The RFL were clearly quite pleased with themselves over the success of this year’s annual gathering of Championship clubs in Blackpool, as evidenced by them trumpeting the “record attendance” at Bloomfield Road over the two days.
Given this is only the second year of the Summer Bash, it seems pretty hollow to be trumpeting anything associated with the event as a record, particularly as the aggregate crowd of 15,912 was only 531 up on 2015.
Nevertheless, those who either did go or were watching on Sky Sports were undeniably treated to an exhilarating spectacle of rugby league.
Not only did the iPro Sport Cup final, but the opening day saw Championship leaders Leigh Centurions edge out Bradford Bulls 24-20, Whitehaven edge bitter Cumbrian rivals Workington Town 28-24 and London Broncos show why they are still one of the teams to beat with a 32-14 triumph over Sheffield Eagles.
The only real blow-out of the weekend was Halifax’s 37-0 trouncing of Featherstone Rovers, but the second day’s other games saw Batley Bulldogs emerge 28-24 victors in the Heavy Woollen Derby clash with Dewbury Rams and Dominic Brambani snatch a 25-24 win for Swinton Lions over Oldham Roughyeds.

Meanwhile, back in Super League: The Armchair Pundit would have bet his Eddie Hemmings hairpiece collection on Leeds Rhinos making the Super 8s – even after their almost comically-dismal start to the season.
Alas, the not-for-much-longer defending champions now seem firmly on course for a place in the Qualifiers following their 52-18 evisceration at the hands of Warrington Wolves last Friday.
The half-time score of 18-12 to hosts Warrington might have suggested another thriller like the opening match of the campaign at Headingley back in February.
The fact Leeds were out-scored 34-6 in the second half tells its own story though and while Warrington must be given credit for the ruthless way they punished the visitors at every opportunity, some of the Rhinos’ defence was cover-your-eyes awful – particularly down the middle.
It was a week for runs coming to an end as well, with early-season darlings Widnes Vikings putting their eight-game losing streak firmly to bed after coming from 16-0 down to beat Huddersfield Giants.
As mentioned before in this column, the Giants’ collapse from Super League dark horses to hapless also-rans has been almost as stark as Leeds’ and with seemingly little explanation for why performances have dropped off a cliff this season.
Logic would suggest the two Yorkshire sides should have too much quality in their squad to be in any serious danger of relegation come the split, but there will be plenty of their supporters looking over their shoulders – along with the Championship promotion hopefuls eyeing a couple of notable scalps to press home their case.
Catalans Dragons continue to go about their business at the other end of the table and a 34-16 win over Hull Kingston Rovers keeps them well in contention, while the black-and-white half of Hull continue to lead the way after seeing off St Helens 32-24.
And it was refreshing to see Salford Red Devils making headlines for their on-the-field performance, running in seven tries to end Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ recent revival with a 38-8 triumph at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Thursday night attendance watch: The crowd of 5,558 at the Mend-A-Hose Jungle to watch Wigan Warriors see off Castleford Tigers 33-26 was 2,214 down on the same fixture last year, which was held on a Friday night.
Despite the offers of free travel for away fans, it seems many supporters are voting with their feet as regards to what they think of Thursday Night Super League.

Barlow makes a name for himself: Gloucestershire All Golds have not had much to crow about in League One so far this season, but the recent try-scoring exploits of Chris Barlow have been garnering plenty of attention.
The Sheffield-born outside back, who originally started out playing the 15-man code for Bakewell Mannerians, now has eight tries to his name after a double against Toulouse Olympique in the only match in the division last Saturday.
Despite Barlow’s efforts, the French side ran out 48-16 winners to move up to second in the standings.

Amateur score of the week: Myton Warriors 14 Thornhill Trojans 17, BARLA Xamax National Cup final. Man of the match Danny Ratcliffe landed a late drop goal to see Thornhill clinch the amateur game’s premier knock-out competition for the first time in their history.
Former in 1988, Thornhill play in National Conference League Division Two, with one of their finest hours prior to this cup win coming in 2000 when they stunned Sheffield Eagles in the Challenge Cup.

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

What’s in a name? A history of rugby league suffixes

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THE news from club chairman Michael Carter that Wakefield Trinity are likely to drop the ‘Wildcats’ nickname at the end of the season will have perhaps been met with an indifferent shrug by most people.
It is a tag the club have carried since winning promotion to Super League in 1998, with pretty much all of the top flight’s clubs having added their own suffix following the switch to summer rugby in a bid to make them more marketable.
So the theory goes anyway, which means Carter’s plan to revert to simply Wakefield Trinity goes against that modern-day thinking.
Yet while he admits he has not done any market research into this, the Wakefield supremo has good reasoning behind the plan.
“We have got a fantastic heritage within this club and I don’t think we have made the most of it,” Carter told the Yorkshire Post, harking back to the club’s glory years in the 1960s.
“So for me, it is Wakefield Trinity. I have always referred to it as Wakefield Trinity and I think the older generation of our fanbase love the fact it’s Wakefield Trinity.
“Go anywhere in the world and it’s either ‘where’s that’? Or, ‘oh yes, Wakefield Trinity’.”
The Belle Vue club’s original moniker of Trinity comes from the fact they were founded by a group of young men from the Holy Trinity Church in the town back in 1873, while their traditional nickname was the ‘Dreadnoughts’.
Perhaps Wakefield Trinity Dreadnoughts would not have sounded quite as good as the alliterative Wildcats, but then the same could be said about several others.
Widnes, for example, were often referred to as the ‘Chemics’ long before anyone had even considered adding the ‘Vikings’ tag due to the town’s main industry, although trading off some tenuous Norse connections is perhaps the better option of the two.
The same is true for Castleford and their old ‘Glassblowers’ moniker. Fortunately, their amber and black shirts – now seemingly more orange and black – allowed them to utilise the ‘Tigers’ name they have used for the past 20 years.
Many clubs simply opted for an alliterative name in the mid-90s era of rebranding rugby league, with Wigan becoming the ‘Warriors’ and Bradford becoming the ‘Bulls’ – the latter dropping the ‘Northern’ from their name which was used to identify themselves as the city’s Northern Union team and differentiate from the football clubs City and Park Avenue.
Leeds Rhinos simply adopted their name following a competition in the local press. However, the public’s original choice was to use the traditional ‘Loiners’ nickname, only for that to be dismissed by to the club due to being perceived to have little marketability (there’s that word again).
But while Leeds may have felt the term for the citizens of their home city was not the way to go, that did not prove the case for Oldham, who added ‘Roughyeds’ to their name when they reformed out of the ashes of the Oldham Bears team which had played in the first two Super League seasons.
One other club who have been through name changes down the years is Warrington, having been known as Warrington Zingari in their early days following the merger of two teams in the town, and also absorbed Warrington Wanderers and the wonderfully-named Padgate Excelsior.
The ‘Wolves’ nickname was chosen after a wolf had appeared on the club badge in the early 1990s, along with featuring on the town crest as well.
Of course, one club who kept their name were St Helens, who are often referred to as just ‘Saints’ – St Helens Saints would have sounded a bit odd, wouldn’t it?
This nicknames lark is nothing new though. Some Huddersfield fans out there are no doubt old enough to remember the short-lived ‘Barracudas’ nickname and the renaming of their old Fartown ground as Arena 84 during their nadir in the 1980s.
Sheffield have always had ‘Eagles’ as part of their name since their formation in 1984 – again, coming from a competition to name the team in the Sheffield Star newspaper – while many of the other new teams which joined the Rugby Football League in the 1980s came with various tags as well.
Mansfield Marksman – always in the singular – got their name thanks to sponsorship from the local brewery, while the Maidstone-based Kent side were known as ‘Invicta’ due to that being the county’s motto. Arguably, it kind of lost its meaning when the team relocated to Southend though.
And while ‘Rovers’ might typically be thought of as a name used by teams in the round-ball code of football, it has long been used by Featherstone and Hull Kingston Rovers – originally known as Kingston Amateurs after being founded by local boilermakers.
The other Hull team had the unpopular ‘Sharks’ nickname added in 1996, although they were eventually relaunched with the simple Hull FC name three years later following the relocation of Gateshead Thunder to the city.
One club who have carried a nickname since their early years are Rochdale Hornets, with the naming of teams after insects being popular in the Victorian era. Indeed, ‘Wasps’ – Rochdale Wasps being one of the team which merged to form the present day side – ‘Butterflies’ and ‘Grasshoppers’ were apparently considered before ‘Hornets’ was settled on.
Wakefield are not the only team to have dropped their nickname after introducing it though, with Halifax eventually ditching their ‘Blue Sox’ – inspired, no doubt, by American Major League Baseball teams Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox – name in 2002.
But while the nicknames have not always been popular, Leigh changed plans to drop their ‘Centurions’ name in 2007 after pressure from their own supporters. Maybe, then, Wakefield’s decision will prove the exception rather than the rule.

The Armchair Pundit: Geordies in wonderland

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Newcastle in action against Huddersfield in 1937

A CROWD of 3,033 were at Kingston Park last Friday evening ahead of Super League descending on Newcastle-Upon-Tyne for the annual Magic Weekend.
Not since Gateshead Thunder’s single season in the top flight of British rugby league have there been such crowds for a game on Tyneside, let alone in Kingston Press League One where the team now known as Newcastle Thunder rarely draw above three-figure attendances.
Football has long been king in this part of the country, while fans of the oval-ball game tend to be of the union variety thanks to Gosforth and latterly Newcastle Falcons being among the top 15-man code teams in England.
The North-East is not entirely devoid of rugby league history though. Wallsend were a non-league team in the formative years of the Northern Union and South Shield spent two seasons in Division Two, finishing 14th and 15th in 1902-03 and 1903-04 respectively.
South Shields were eventually voted out of the league in 1904 and it was not until Newcastle were accepted into the competition in 1936, with their first home game attracting the Pathe News cameras to Brough Park Stadium.
But a 33-12 defeat to Huddersfield proved a sign of things to come, with the team finishing 29th out of 30 teams and with just five wins and a draw to their name from 38 games, disappearing altogether at the end of the following season.
Rugby league never quite gave up on Tyneside though and the establishment of a number of amateur teams, coupled with two Charity Shield games being played at Gateshead International Arena in 1991 and 1992 ensured some presence there.

The start of a long-term professional presence came in 1999 though when Thunder were granted a place in Super League ahead of bids from Swansea and Cardiff, but despite finishing sixth the club claimed to have lost £700,000.
A forced merger with Hull Sharks followed, but efforts from the supporters ensured a new Gateshead team was formed to join the Northern Ford Premiership for the 2001 campaign.
The stated objective of winning a place back in Super League within five years did not materialise, with the highest level they have played at being a single season in the Championship in 2009.
A series of financial problems have not helped the club’s efforts to progress, but their acquisition by Aviva Premiership outfit the Falcons and relocation to Kingston Park, the city’s home of rugby union, has at least provided them with some stability.
Unfortunately for Thunder, they were unable to show Friday’s four-figure crowd what they could really do after suffering a 36-4 defeat to York City Knights.
Yet this coming Saturday, long after the Magic Weekend has been forgotten about, amateur games at senior and junior level will be played in Winlaton, Jarrow, Gateshead and Wallsend.
Rugby league may often be overlooked as far as the Tyneside sporting scene is concerned, yet it is worth remembering there is much more to it than just the big boys coming to town once a year.

Top of the drops: The Armchair Pundit loves a drop goal, especially one from 50 metres out to win the game in the dying minutes.
So here’s to you, Jacob Miller, for your stunning effort to make it eight wins in a row for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats thanks to a thrilling 25-24 win over Catalans Dragons on day two of the Magic Weekend.
Having started off the season as Super League’s crisis club, with results going against them on the field and continuing financial concerns off it, the Wildcats have put themselves on course to make the Super 8s since Chris Chester replaced Brian Smith as head coach.
What has been particularly impressive about Wakefield is not only the fact they have put together this seemingly improbable run, but the fact they have done it despite playing the top teams in the lead.
The Catalans, current leaders Hull FC, former leaders Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors – albeit with the latter somewhat under-strength – have all been put to the sword by Wakefield in the past two months.
The creativity of stand-off Miller – who has 13 try assists to his name – and half-back partner Liam Finn have been the driving force for the team recently, while Finn is ranked third-highest goal-scorer in the league with 54.
Meanwhile, early-season frontrunners Widnes Vikings find themselves on an eight-game losing streak following their 18-12 loss to Salford Red Devils in the opening match of the weekend at St James’ Park.
And Leeds Rhinos’ miserable campaign rumbles on. With eight games of the regular season remaining, the reigning Super League champions are six points off the top eight after a 40-8 trouncing at the hands of Wigan.

Relentless positivity in the face of all evidence to the contrary watch: Keiron Cunningham gets a special mention this week after maintaining his sunny disposition as his out-of-sorts St Helens side slumped to a 48-20 defeat to Huddersfield Giants.
Flippant remarks about how Huddersfield should have bought a lottery ticket that night aside – no-one takes a 28-point win just by being lucky – it is difficult what to know what to make of the Saints head coach’s attitude.
On the one hand, St Helens are still fifth in the standings and just six points off Hull – who downed Humberside rivals Hull Kingston Rovers 28-16 to ascend to Super League’s summit – so there is no reason for Cunningham to panic.
And while simply coming out and slating your players after a heavy loss to the league’s second-bottom team may not be the right way to do things, it does seem as if Cunningham is in denial about any issues which might need addressing.
This, of course, may all just be what he says when facing the media to save face in public, which is understandable.
But even the goodwill Cunningham has from the St Helens fanbase thanks to his more-than-deserved status as one of the club’s all-time great players will run out eventually if they do not think they are getting answers.

Championship round-up: Another week and another Leigh Centurions player is in the headlines, this time Sam Barlow after he pleaded guilty to assaulting a UK Anti-Doping Agency official who had visited his home.
Barlow faces a drugs panel hearing a week on Monday followed by sentencing for the assault on June 27, but his team continue to make all the running in the Kingston Press Championship after trouncing Swinton Lions 48-6.
London Broncos returned to winning ways to keep up their promotion bid with an equally-comprehensive 62-4 victory away to struggling Whitehaven.
New Bradford Bulls coach Rohan Smith had a busy weekend as well, seeing his side beat Sheffield Eagles 25-14 in his first game in charge and then heading up to Newcastle for a scouting trip at the Magic Weekend.

League One round-up: Is there any team who can halt the seemingly inexorable march to the title of Rochdale Hornets? Last weekend’s 70-6 win at home to South Wales Scorpions, which kept the Hornets top and took their points scored tally to 374 in nine games, would suggest not.
Coventry Bears and Doncaster both racked up a half-century of points against Hemel Stags and Oxford respectively, while previously free-scoring Toulouse Olympique had to settle for a mere 44-16 win at Barrow Raiders.

Amateur score of the week: Plymouth Titans 24 North Devon Raiders 16, South West Premier Division. From one geographical extreme to the other as the Titans defeated their county rivals to maintain their unbeaten home record.
Plymouth’s team can trace its history back to a side which was formed in 1985, while the Barnstaple-based Raiders have been in existence since 2009.

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

Marwan Koukash versus The RFL: Questions and answers

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Marwan Koukash is advocating Super League splitting from The RFL

A FULL-scale rugby league war might not yet have broken out, but shots were fired by Marwan Koukash as he gears up to take on The RFL in a long-running feud with the game’s rulers.
The most headline-grabbing moment of the maverick Salford Red Devils owner’s hour-long press conference at the AJ Bell Stadium on Wednesday was his call for his fellow chairman to back him in a proposal for Super League to be run completely independently of The RFL.
Frustration at flat-lining commercial revenues, inconsistencies in the disciplinary process and his personal hobby horse, the salary cap, were among the myriad of reasons which caused Dr Koukash to issue this call to arms.
“The future lies in the hands of the 12 chairmen of Super League,” said Koukash. “I have no intention of being the leader of such a move, but before the end of the week I will have contacted all my fellow chairmen and I’m going to arrange to get together within the next two weeks.
“Again I have to stress this: the future of the game rests in our hands. I need their backing.”
Dr Koukash’s proposals have drawn a mixed response from rugby league supporters, with many backing him and others worried about what long-term effects a civil war could have on the sport.
It is a hugely complex issue and while this treatise does not pretend to hold all of the answers, it is an attempt to address some of the more pertinent questions.

So, what exactly is Marwan Koukash proposing?
The Salford owner wants to see Super League completely break away from the control of The RFL; “full control of its finances, its compliance unit, refereeing and the lot,” as he put it.
The scenario has been likened to that of the Premier League breaking away from the Football League in 1992, although this analogy is not quite correct.
For starters, Football League had always been run independently of the Football Association and the Premier League was formed with the backing of the FA, even operating out of an office at their former headquarters of Lancaster Gate early on.
And in any case, the FA still operates as the game’s regulator and oversees the disciplinary process for the Premier League.
If anything, the competition in English sport most comparable to the position Super League presently finds itself in is arguably cricket’s County Championship.
It, too, is wholly administered by the sport’s governing body, The ECB, and as a result is subject to their whims – resulting in constant tinkering with the format of the three major domestic tournaments – and has no commercial independence.
The difference is the 18 first-class counties are entirely beholden to The ECB as a result of the handouts they receive from revenue generated by the England team and television rights.
Despite rugby league not exactly being flush with cash, the Super League clubs are arguably in more of a financially stable state that their county cricket counterparts, thus more able to stand on their own two feet initially, and have a product they would surely have no trouble monetising with broadcasters should they decide to go it alone.
Many questions remain unanswered about what Dr Koukash is proposing though, such as:
– What would be the timescale for setting up a totally independent Super League should the majority vote to go it alone?
– How would current broadcast contracts be affected?
– If Super League was to completely secede from RFL control, would its clubs still enter the Challenge Cup?
– Would a system of promotion and relegation between the Kingston Press Championship still remain or would Super League again become a closed shop for 12, or possibly more, franchises?
– Where would the match officials come from and what sort of training programme would be in place for them?
– How would this affect the international programme? Would there be separate national teams representing Super League and The RFL as was the case in Australia during the Super League War in the mid-1990s?
– If, as Dr Koukash has said, he does not want to run a breakaway league, then who would administer it? Would it be another club chairman or a committee of them, or would independent people be brought in?
– Who would comprise the judiciary panel?
– Would there be any salary cap or would clubs simply be allowed to spend what they like on players?

How much support does Marwan Koukash have from the other 11 chairmen?
It is difficult to ascertain at this stage how many more clubs are behind the Salford owner’s proposals, but history would suggest they are resistant to any attempts to radically change the status quo.
Dr Koukash’s attempts to change the salary cap have generally met with stern resistance and although he did eventually win a ‘marquee player’ exception, the majority have repeatedly voted against raising the cap from its current limit of £1.825million.
As many have already pointed out, Wigan Warriors chairman Ian Lenegan attempted to lead a revolt over proposed changes to the league structure in 2013, only to be defeated.
It would be fair to say both Hull Kingston Rovers’ chief Neil Hudgell and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ Michael Carter both sympathise with Dr Koukash, at least if the various correspondences between the three on social media are anything to go by.
But while both have remained tight-lipped over a split from The RFL, Carter did send a cryptic tweet to Sky Sports commentator Rod Studd earlier this week in response to the punishment handed out to Danny England after being found guilty of punching.

One chairman who Koukash is unlikely to find much favour with though is Catalans Dragons supremo Bernard Guasch.

What about the Catalans Dragons?
The French side, who have been mainstays of English rugby league’s top flight for a decade now, were another one who got it both barrels from the Salford owner during his one-hour press conference.
One of the main bones of contention for Dr Koukash is what he sees as the Dragons having failed in one of their aims, which was to grow the game of rugby league in France.
“I am all for growing the sport, not just in this country but others including France,” said Koukash. “But I know 10 years ago the French said their aim was to have 75 percent of their players playing for France.
“I look at the team we played recently – 11 of them do not qualify to play for France. That’s almost 75 percent of their players not qualifying to play for France, so we have failed to grow the sport.
“But when I look at the players closely, I notice there are nine non-European players. And I think ‘every team is only allowed seven, how are Catalans getting nine?’”
Dr Koukash is correct in that Section B1:15 of the Operational Rules states clubs are not allowed more than seven players who are not Federation Trained or Academy Juniors.
However, there are exceptions to this. For starters, The RFL have the power under Section B1:17 to grant an exemption to this rule. The Catalans, along with London Broncos and the Crusaders when they were both in Super League, have both benefitted from that in the past due to being considered “non-heartland” teams.
Secondly, while there are 11 members of the Catalans squad who are non-French players, five of those do not count under the foreign quota due to either holding European passports or coming under the Kolpak regulations.
Richie Myler and Jodie Broughton are both British, while Pat Richards holds an Irish passport having represented the country at the 2008 Rugby League World Cup.
Paul Aiton and Willie Mason hold Papua New Guinean and Samoan passports respectively too, which means they do not come under the foreign quota as those countries are part of the ACP group of nations and have a trade agreement with the EU.
Has the Catalans project failed though? Insomuch as having 75 percent of their players playing for the national team, yes.
However, the growth in the number of French players playing in Super League over the past ten years has to be seen as a sign something is being done right, while the Dragons have certainly become a force to be reckoned with since finishing bottom in their first season.
Dr Koukash also expressed consternation about how much the Catalans continue to cost the other 11 clubs in Super League, putting it at £100,000 per club per season due them having to pay the French side’s travelling expenses.
His comments about the Catalans bringing relatively few away fans with them seemed somewhat unfair though.
After all, it is not like fans of an English team being able to save up for one weekend trip to the south of France a season, it is having to go to England every other week, so no wonder so few do follow the team on the road.
For his part, Guasch seemed surprised by the criticism and released a statement in response.
“We were used to better manners from the chairmen and owners from other Super League clubs,” said the Catalans chairman.
“We are delighted of your recent arrival in our sport. As we did 10 years ago, you have brought a new impulse to the competition.
“I am available to discuss with you about how we negotiate contracts with players and their agents and our ability to fill our stadium.
“I invite you to spend few days in Perpignan to discuss this together, I’m sure a journey in the South of France will calm your anger.”
Koukash, naturally, was quick to reply via his Twitter account.

Then there were unsubstantiated claims of English teams contributing £10million to the local economy in Perpignan as well, along with repeating hearsay that Kingston Press League One French side Toulouse Olympique are being given around £200,000 a season in central funding, compared to £75,000 each Championship club gets.
Toronto Wolfpack did not escape Dr Koukash’s opprobrium either, but he was right to flag up whether or not The RFL have done due diligence on the mysterious money men behind the project – regardless of the fact the Canadians have vowed to meet all costs.

What is the latest with Salford’s appeal against being found guilty of salary cap breaches?
Oh dear, oh dear…where to even start trying to unravel this mess?
Dr Koukash went into great detail about why he feels the Red Devils have been hard-done-by in being charged, and subsequently found guilty, by a tribunal and made a very compelling case.
Many would sympathise with his view that if The RFL knew about Salford allegedly going over the cap in 2014, then why has it taken two years to take any action – particularly with Super League supposedly operating under a ‘live’ cap?
Dr Koukash conceded the club were at fault for not declaring rent payments for two players – £7,500 and £10,800 respectively – and a further £32,200 given to another player for “leadership training” and another payment.
That comes to a total of £50,500, but The RFL claim Salford were over by £94,200. Not only that, but while Dr Koukash stated the Red Devils were only over from July 9 to July 17, the governing body deemed them to be over for a staggering 109 days.
Someone, on one side or the other, has got their mathematics badly wrong.
The Salford owner was in no doubt who was to blame, saying: “When I look at why they (The RFL) have done it, I would say they either deliberately misled the judge of the tribunal or they were totally incompetent.”
He also went onto explain his version of events over the breach, saying: “I knew we had enough money in the cap to spend money. To those who follow our club, I’ll take you back to May of 2014 in which we had a player at our club called Jake Mullaney, and he used to be our full-back.
“In May 2014, we signed Kevin Locke to come to us in December for the following year, but unfortunately Jake suffered a long-term injury on May 7 and was out for the season.
“So I went to The RFL and I said ‘Mr RFL, we need an overseas spot for Jake and we need to free room under the cap, can you please de-register Jake in order to bring Kevin from Australia?’
“And the answer was ‘yes’ and we brought Kevin into the club in July. Now, you would have thought a sensible governing body would have de-registered Jake then registered Kevin, but they did it the other way around.”
Not only that, but Kevin Locke made his debut for the club against Huddersfield Giant on July 5 – four days before Dr Koukash claims they were over the cap – and Salford would only have been able to play him had approval been given.
“Mr RFL, are you telling us you allowed us to play Kevin Locke without being registered?” added Koukash, waving around a piece of paper with Salford’s live salary cap details from the period of time in question.
“Your salary log is full of elementary errors and for a governing body to be producing something like that, I would be embarrassed being part of a body that produces a log like this.”
Added to this were – at this time unsubstantiated – allegations of another unnamed club being £158,060 over during the 2014 season and simply having that swept under the carpet.
Of course, clubs have a responsibility to keep themselves under the cap rather than waiting for The RFL to catch them out before correcting it. Nevertheless, these allegations raise plenty of concern about the governing body’s ability to regulate the salary cap properly.

So, where do we go from here?
That is the million-dollar question. All we can say is: Watch this space, because this is far from over.

The Armchair Pundit: Marwan Koukash escalates war with The RFL

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Marwan Koukash is bringing his war to Red Hall

IT WOULD not be a surprise if, over the past couple of days, the scenes in the corridors of power at The RFL resembled ‘Dad’s Army’, with Nigel Wood running around like Lance Corporal Jones urging “Don’t panic, don’t panic!” to the governing body’s very own Captain Mainwaring, Brian Barwick.
All joking aside, few would be surprised if the chief executive and chairman of the organisation would be battening down the hatches in the wake of Marwan Koukash stepping up his one-man war against The RFL.
Except, it no longer seems to be a one-man war – not if what the maverick Salford Red Devils owner says is to be believed.
Koukash is attempting to bring chairmen from the other 11 Super League clubs together and convene a special meeting where he intends to bring about a vote of no confidence, which would require at least six clubs to agree to said meeting.
This represents a significant escalation in hostilities since the 57-year-old threatened “all-out war” with The RFL if Salford were found guilty of salary cap offences, almost daring them to punish his side.
Almost predictably, a guilty verdict, £5,000 fine and six-point deduction followed last month, although Koukash insisted his latest plot to overthrow the game’s current rulers is not to do with that decision and more long-running gripes about a lack of leadership.
“We invest millions into rugby league and want what is the best for the sport,” Koukash told Press Association Sport.
“I have been in the sport for four years and commercially the game has gone backwards in that time.”
Few would disagree that there are deep-rooted issues affecting the sport, particularly in The RFL’s approach to marketing rugby league which, at times, seems little more than a ‘build it and they will come’ approach.
And yet, it is difficult for Koukash to shake of the sense this is continuing what is coming across more and more as a personal vendetta against a governing body who will not let him simply do as he pleases.
Should he succeed in forcing a vote of no confidence, the other pertinent question would be: What comes next?
Would the owners simply assume control of the running of the sport or put their own people in charge? Would this be simply to gain more favourable terms for the 12 sides at the top table, and would there be the will to address wider issues affecting rugby league such as the declining participation numbers at grassroots level?
And then, there is Koukash’s other favourite hobby horse: the salary cap.
His interview with PA Sport discussed his concerns that Super League is being left behind the NRL, with the Australian salary cap set to be increased to over £5million while in this country it remains at little over £1.8million.
Although Koukash was, eventually, able to get through a marquee player exemption, the clubs are still reticent to raise the cap further and as recently as March this year voted down proposals to do just that.
Despite all of his posturing and bombastic statements though, it is clear Koukash does have a passion for a sport he is a relative newcomer too and is desperate to see it grow beyond the M62 corridor stereotype.
Whether that is for more personal than altruistic purposes may be up for debate, but the fact he has stuck around at Salford for four years despite having little success to show for it and becoming perceived as rugby league’s bête noir shows his commitment to both the club and the sport.
Given his outspoken nature, it is perhaps surprising he has not rattled a few more cages in the somewhat more austere world of horse racing, where Koukash is one of the biggest owners of thoroughbreds in the country.
Indeed, the only time he appears to have fallen foul of the British Horseracing Authority was when he was blocked from using ‘Gabrial’ – many of his horses are named after his son and daughters, Lexi and Layla – in the name of any more of his string due to it apparently becoming confusing for commentators and pundits.
Koukash has enjoyed much more success in the racing world – having saddled winners in the Chester Cup and some Group races – than rugby league though and his Salford side continue to flounder in the lower reaches of Super League after a 34-20 loss at St Helens last Friday.
Even succeeding in overthrowing the reign of terror being wrought by Barwick and Wood and leading rugby league into a brave new era may not be enough to bring glory to the AJ Bell Stadium in the immediate future.

Player welfare demands closer attention: Eorl Crabtree’s revelations about the harsh realities of being a professional rugby league player in an interview with the Daily Star last week should serve as a wake-up call to those running the game.
The injury problems afflicting Super League’s clubs and players this year have been well-documented in several quarters, which lead to demands for reducing the fixture list growing ever louder.
This season will again see each of the 12 Super League sides play 23 regular season games, plus another seven games in either the Super 8s or the qualifiers, not to mention Challenge Cup and play-off matches.
Contrast that with the 16-team NRL, which features just 24 regular season rounds and then the play-offs. Not to mention the fact many Super League players had little over a month off between the end of the 2015 season and the return to pre-season training.
One of Huddersfield Giants prop Crabtree’s concerns is that the players’ views are not listened to at the highest level, which was no doubt not helped by the collapse of their association, League13, due to a lack of support.
Given how Castleford Tigers are sponsored by general workers union GMB, it seems an opportunity to ensure some sort of proper representation for their concerns is being missed.
After all, the players are the ones who make rugby league what it is. Without them, we would not be able to enjoy everything that Super League has to offer.

Championship round-up: One of the worst-kept secrets in rugby league was finally confirmed when Leigh Centurions owner Derek Beaumont announced Rangi Chase had left the Kingston Press Championship leaders after just five appearances.
It appears as if Chase’s career is over at the age of 30, with Beaumont saying he was pursuing opportunities outside of the sport, and will leave many wondering what might have been for one of the most enigmatic players to grace the rugby field.
Not that it seemed to affect Leigh though, who remain three points clear of London Broncos following a 56-14 triumph away to Oldham over the weekend.
The Broncos suffered a surprise 42-18 loss away to Featherstone Rovers, but new Bradford Bulls coach Rohan Smith will be pleased with what he saw from his team after they ran out 54-8 victors at home to Swinton Lions.

League One round-up: Rochdale Hornets’ imperious form continued as they remained unbeaten and top of the table with a 52-24 triumph away to winless basement boys Oxford.
Keighley Cougars are now the leading point-scorers in League One as well following a 74-6 win at home to Hemel Stags.
It remains somewhat disconcerting that the domestic expansion teams continue to struggle against the heartland sides, although the longer-established North Wales Crusaders did at least manage a 16-16 draw with York City Knights.

Amateur score of the week: Thatto Heath 52 Biganos XIII 6, Women’s European Challenge. A crowd of 300 turned out at Crusaders Park to see the reigning English champions defeat their French counterparts to be crowned top side in Europe.
Tries from Jodie Cunningham, Sammi Simpson with four, Roxy Mura, Faye Gaskin, Danni Bound, Katie-May Williams, Rachel Thompson and Tara Stanley, who also kicked four conversions, helped the St Helens-based team end Biganos’ ten-game unbeaten run.

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

Rohan Smith: The jockey aiming to become a horse

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Rohan Smith is taking charge at Odsal (Picture: Betty Longbottom)

ARRIGO Sacchi had a witty retort for whenever anyone questioned what business a man with virtually no experience of playing football at professional, or even amateur, level had managing one of the top teams in Italy, AC Milan.
He would simply reply: “I never realized that in order to become a jockey you have to have been a horse first.”
Sacchi is now widely regarded as one of the greatest managers to have taken charge of I Rossoneri, guiding them to the Serie A title in 1988, back-to-back European Cup triumphs and two Intercontinental Cup victories.
Nevertheless, he remains in a minority of coaches who have been given an opportunity at the highest level in spite of an undistinguished playing career and it is a similar story in most sports.
Occassionally though, some are handed the reins and that will be the case when Rohan Smith finally takes charge of Bradford Bulls, having been appointed successor to James Lowes on a three-year contract.
The 35-year-old, who is expected to be at Odsal for the Bulls’ Kingston Press Championship home game with Swinton Lions, knew by the time he was 16 that he wanted to be a head coach one day.
Two rounds of reconstructive surgery on his shoulder brought his playing career to an end and Smith got his start scouting for the NRL’s New Zealand Warriors under Daniel Anderson at 21, having previously coached the University of Wollongong’s junior teams.
Since then, Smith’s career has taken in spells with Newcastle Knights, Penrith Panthers, Sydney Roosters, London Broncos, a spell as Tonga head coach and, most recently, assistant with Gold Coast Titans.
So at an age when many players are starting to turn their attention towards coaching once they hang up their boots, Smith has already got 14 years of experience under his belt, covering everything from talent identification to attacking, defending and kicking.
“I feel like I’ve had a long apprenticeship after various roles within the NRL,” Smith told the Bradford Telegraph & Argus’ Ross Heppenstall recently.
“I remember when I was 16 that I wanted to be a head coach one day. I didn’t know how I was going to get there, but I knew it was where I wanted to end up.”
Much has been made of the fact Smith is following in the footsteps of father Brian and uncle Tony – the former being head coach at Bradford during that first season of Super League, and the latter having achieved much success with Leeds Rhinos and now Warrington Wolves.
Cynics might say he was only able to get his foot in the door at such a young age in the first place due his family connections, but Smith has very much done things his own way and there should be no doubting he is his own man.
He cites Anderson, Trent Robinson and Matty Elliott as three of the biggest influences in his career and considers himself a student of many sports, in particular looking to the USA to glean knowledge from the techniques used in baseball, basketball and American football.
Smith recommends the works of Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson and renowned NFL coach Bill Walsh as required reading, along with legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
His Twitter account gives an insight into how Smith operates as well and among the various retweets of motivational quotes are his latest book recommendations, with one recent one being by Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore about what was behind their World Series triumph last year.
“I just want to broaden my horizons as much as I can,” explained Smith. “I’ve definitely got some philosophies about how rugby league can be played.
“To me, it’s probably about individual attention and making sure that the players feel like you are taking care of them as a person first.
“Then you can work on their game and their understanding of where they fit within the team structure
“But I also realise that I’m working to help them achieve their goals. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve taken out of a lot of the books I’ve read.”
The world of second-tier rugby league in England is far removed from the glitz and glamour of top American sports though, not to mention the relatively rarefied atmosphere of the NRL.
Smith is clearly not your stereotypical rugby league coach though and the evidence suggests there should be no fears about his ability to adapt to his new role and surroundings.
His first task will be to lead the Bulls back into Super League after a two-year absence and even now they are well-placed to secure a spot in the Qualifiers.
If he can do that, then Smith will be well on his way to establishing himself as rugby league’s very own jockey who became a horse.

The Armchair Pundit – Hull’s Wembley curse and other Challenge Cup myths

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AS THEY cruised to a 47-18 win over St Helens at a blazing hot Langtree Park on Sunday afternoon, there was plenty of talk over whether or not 2016 could finally be the year when Hull FC end their dismal record in Challenge Cup finals at Wembley.
In case you were not aware – and, quite frankly, how could you not be given as it gets trotted out ad naseam every bloody year? – the Black and Whites have never lifted the trophy at the famous London venue.
The closest they have come to doing so was in 1982 when they drew 14-14 with Widnes, eventually winning the midweek replay at Elland Road, while their 2005 triumph over Leeds Rhinos came at Cardiff Millennium Stadium when Wembley was being redeveloped.
Otherwise, it is pretty grim reading for Hull fans. The finals of 1959, 1960, 1980, 1983, 1985, 2008 and 2013 have all seen them fall short underneath the Twin Towers or, as it is now, the Arch.
Small wonder then there is always plenty of talk about some sort of ‘curse’ or ‘jinx’ preventing them from gaining any success at Wembley. Indeed, the BBC ran a whole article on the so-called curse ahead of their final against Wigan Warriors three years ago.
Frankly, this is absolute bunkum. In fact, it is not just finals at Wembley where Hull have an awful record, it is the Challenge Cup final in general.
By the time Hull first lifted the famous trophy in 1914, beating Wakefield Trinity 6-0 at Fartown, they had already been in three other finals and lost all of them.
It should perhaps come as no surprise they were beaten in 1908, 1909 and 1910, with the team being very much mired in mid-table obscurity and facing the all-conquering Hunslet, and higher-placed Wakefield and Leeds in consecutive seasons.
Hull went into the finals of 1922 and 1923 having finished third and first in the league standings, but were then victims to good old fashioned cup upsets at the hands of Rochdale Hornets and Leeds.
It was then not until 1959 until the Black and Whites reached the final, which by then had been a regular fixture at Wembley for 30 years.
And while Hull had established themselves as one of the leading sides of the era in the Rugby Football League, so had opponents Wigan and Wakefield.
The derby clash with Hull Kingston Rovers in 1980 and the defeat to a Featherstone Rovers side which narrowly avoided relegation three years later were both shocks, although that was not the case in their most recent defeats to St Helens and Wigan.
It all leaves an all-time Challenge Cup final record of played 15, won three for Hull – no matter which venue the showpiece game seems to be played at.
Not only did the win which put Lee Radford’s side through to the quarter-finals and have their fans dreaming of a first Cup triumph for 11 years, it also put an end to all talk about this year being St Helens’ year due to the year ending in the number six.
This seemed to start gaining traction on the back of another BBC website article which was published in the build-up to last weekend’s games, chronicling Saints’ victories in 1956, 1966, 1976, 1996 and 2006.
Which is great – apart from the fact it overlooks their wins in 1961, 1972, 1997, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2008. Oh, and their loss to Halifax in…that’s right, 1986.
And in an even more ironic twist, Sunday’s defeat was the first time Hull had won a Challenge Cup tie at St Helens since 1926.
It is easy to debunk these myths, although it should also be remembered they all add to the history and allure of rugby league’s most prestigious knockout competition.
So if anyone wants to dig up some statistical quirks related to why Castleford Tigers, Widnes Vikings, Warrington Wolves, Huddersfield Giants or Catalans Dragons are or are not going to win the Challenge Cup this year, then feel free to put them out there.

Video killed the rugby league star: It was a shame that a thrilling cup tie between Castleford Tigers and Salford Red Devils which, on the whole, showcased everything that makes rugby league such a wonderful sport to a national audience on BBC One ended up being overshadowed by a decision from the officials. The incident in question came early in the second half when video referee Richard Silverwood adjudicated Denny Solomona had scored a try to put hosts Castleford in control of the match, although later replays showed he had not grounded the ball. The blame for this should not be laid at the feet of Mr Silverwood, nor indeed on-field referee James Child, as they were both just following the protocol laid out in both the Laws of the Game and for adjudicating replays. Assuming Mr Child was not in a position to see whether the ball had been grounded or not and had no reason to think otherwise, he was correct to rule the on-field call as a try. Indeed, the Laws clearly state: “The Referee should not disallow a try because he was not in a position to see the grounding of the ball.” So the onus is then on the video referee to find definitive proof the ball was not grounded, which was not forthcoming on the original angles shown. However, the BBC later showed a magnified replay in which Solomona clearly lost control of the ball and proved the try should not have been awarded. All of which begs the question as to why that facility was not available to Mr Silverwood when he was called upon to make a judgement in the first place? These sort of incidents have come up in cricket as well with the controversial Decision Review System, so it is perhaps more down to the processes being flawed rather than the officials. It is probably worth pointing out Castleford have what would undoubtedly have been a perfectly good try earlier in the game when Mr Childs pulled play back for a scrum to Salford due to blowing up for a knock-on on the advice of his touch judge when it appeared there had not been one. What is it they say about decisions evening themselves out?

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International rugby league comes to the fore: Although the ANZAC test between Australia and New Zealand proved something of a scrappy encounter, with the Kangaroos winning 16-0, there was much to celebrate about the international game over the weekend. For starters, a record crowd of 15,225 were at Parramatta’s Pirtek Stadium for the Pacific Islands grudge match between Samoa and Tonga, with the Samoans triumphing 18-6 in a bruising and high-tempo showdown. Then there was the thriller between Papua New Guinea and Fiji at the same venue, with the former holding out for a 24-22 victory. Over at the Belmore Sports Ground, the Cook Islands defeated World Cup qualifiers Lebanon 30-20. Despite all the recent negative headlines, it is heartening to see such diverse competition at international level.

Championship round-up: Due to the Challenge Cup sixth round, only one match took place in the Kingston Press Championship over the weekend, with Featherstone Rovers seeing off Whitehaven 44-22.
There was plenty to discuss off the field though, with TotalRL.com reporting maverick half-back Rangi Chase had left Leigh Centurions after just five appearances.
No confirmation has, as yet, been forthcoming from the club, although they did tweet only to say he “is still a contracted player at the club”.
There will be no Championship representative in the quarter-finals of this year’s Challenge Cup after Dewsbury Rams and Oldham suffered heavy losses to Wigan and Warrington respectively. Halifax came closest to causing an upset though, having been level at 18-18 with Widnes before the Chemics edged it 28-18.

Bears break new ground: Ahead of the Four Nations double-header at the Ricoh Arena later in the year, Coventry Bears headed to the city’s largest sporting venue for their Kingston Press League One clash with Keighley Cougars.
More usually a venue for football and rugby union, particularly since Aviva Premiership side Wasps relocated to the West Midlands city last year, the Bears managed to attract 1,097 spectators to the game.
Unfortunately for the hosts, it was the Cougars who ran out 36-16 victors. Hopefully some of the locals will have liked what they saw though and return for the internationals when England face Scotland and Australia take on New Zealand in November.

Amateur score of the week: St Ives Roosters 42 St Albans Centurions 40, East Rugby League Premier Division. The first round of matches pitched two of the stronger teams in the East League against each other and did not disappoint, with St Ives snatched victory thanks to a late converted try.

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

Before Leicester City, there were Dewsbury’s miracle men of 1973

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Dewsbury’s Tetley’s Stadium (Picture: Samantha Cheverton)

Leicester City’s recent triumph in football’s Barclay’s Premier League against odds of 5000/1 has been hailed in many quarters as the greatest upset in the history of English sport. But back in 1973, Dewsbury’s rugby league team enjoyed a similarly improbable triumph when they carried off what, to date, remains their only Championship triumph. Here, we look back on that memorable campaign…

OF THE 23 clubs who have been crowned champions of the Rugby Football League Championship in its various guises since 1895, seven of them have the solitary title to their name.
Manningham and Bradford – no relation to the present day Bulls – were both crowned champions in the early years of the Northern Union before switching to football, while Broughton Rangers’ 1901 triumph came during their brief period as one of the league’s foremost clubs.
The same was true for Workington Town in 1951, while Featherstone Rovers’ 1977 First Division win was sandwiched by two Challenge Cup triumphs.
Batley’s team of 1924 may therefore lay claim to being the most surprising league champions, with their victory coming some years after their era of regularly contending for honours at the turn of the Century.
But it is their Heavy Woollen District rivals Dewsbury who, arguably, should take that mantle for their 1973 title triumph, which culminated in a victory over massive odds-on favourites Leeds in the Championship final at Odsal.
Consider, for example, that after a gruelling 34-game regular season, the side which finished just eighth in the standings and then had to navigate their way through a 16-team play-off for the title.
Coupled with that were runs to the final of the Yorkshire Cup and the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup – and all of this coming in an era where all of the players were part-time.
It was a period, too, where rugby league was finally being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era. In for the 1972-73 season came the six-tackle rule – up from four – and timekeepers, while the following year would see the unwieldy 30-team Championship split into two divisions and the abolition of the play-offs.
And although Dewsbury would be relegated just three years after their triumph, it remains one of rugby league’s great underdog stories.

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Mike Stephenson in action for Dewsbury

ASIDE from a Challenge Cup win in 1912 and two Yorkshire Cup wins in the 1920s, Dewsbury’s heyday had been during the Second World War after a former typewriter salesman by the name of Eddie Waring – exempted military service on medical grounds – had been appointed general manager.
Waring, who would later find fame as the BBC’s ‘voice of rugby league’, was able to recruit players stationed at the nearby military bases and built a team which won the Wartime Emergency League, the Challenge Cup and the County Cup during the War years.
It was another future television personality who would play a big part in Dewsbury’s 1973 Championship win as well, with Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson being one of the finest hookers of his era prior to going on to form his well-known commentary partnership with Eddie Hemmings.
“That Championship side was best the bunch of friends I’ve ever had,” Stephenson, who joined his hometown club from amateur side Shaw Cross in 1966, told Loverugbyleague.com some years later.
“I always dreamed of playing for my country and it was a dream to win the World Cup and score that try, but when it comes down to deep personal satisfaction, seeing the Dewsbury lads run around with that trophy – you can’t beat that.
“Four or five years before 1973 we were written off as not having the guts and the skills, but we knew something was coming good.”
The man pulling the strings behind the scenes at Crown Flatt was coach Tommy Smales. The former loose forward had joined the club four years earlier to coach the A team before replacing Dave Cox following his departure from the same role with the senior side.
It was Smales who devised the style of play which Dewsbury’s 1973 side became renowned for, with Stephenson calling pre-determined plays from dummy half and the opposition defences being overwhelmed by the sheer number of runners.
Watching the highlights of the 1973 Championship final win over Leeds shows just how far ahead of his time Smales was in the way his team played, although the coach always insisted there was more to it than that.
“No one gave us much of a chance, but we liked it that way,” Smales told the Yorkshire Post in 2005. “I know a lot was made about our tactics in the final, but the key to it all was the team spirit at Dewsbury.
“We got straight up in their face from the kick-off and played at our peak from start to finish. Leeds didn’t know what had hit them.”
Part of that team spirit was forged from the 36-9 hammering Leeds had dished out to Dewsbury in the Yorkshire Cup final at Odsal in October 1972, with man of the match John Holmes running in a hat-trick of tries.
A loss to Bradford Northern in the Challenge Cup semi-finals further strengthened the bond between the players, although even they did not share Smales belief going into the play-offs after only managing an eight-place finish in the league standings.
“We were red-hot favourites to go to Wembley but Bradford duffed us up,” recalled Stephenson. “I’ve got no problems with saying that was a turning point – it was.
“We were so confident before that semi-final that the club had arranged a celebration at a nightclub in Dewsbury.
“You can imagine what that was like after we lost. It was shocking. We just stared at each other and said ‘what a stupid bunch of blokes we are’. We’d blown it.”
A 29-14 win at home to Oldham set up a play-off quarter-final showdown against second-placed Featherstone Rovers at Post Office Road, but Dewsbury again eased through with a 26-7 victory.
That meant a trip to Wilderspool to take on table-toppers Warrington for a place in the final, yet once again Smales’ men defied the odds and edged to a 12-7 triumph to seal a return to Odsal for a final.
Opponents Leeds went into the match on the back of an equally-close semi-final, having seen off St Helens 7-2 after comfortable wins over Bramley and Castleford, and were rated as massive 1/10 favourites to defeat Dewsbury.
Perhaps appropriately, it was Stephenson who opened the scoring with a converted try – taking the final pass from namesake Nigel Stephenson, who added a drop goal soon after.
Leeds’ task was then made even harder when captain Alan Hardisty was dismissed by the referee for a high tackle on John Bates and a further converted try from Allan Agar saw Dewsbury lead 12-4 at half time.
Mike and Nigel Stephenson both managed further tries after the break, and although the 12 men of Leeds hit back with scores from Graham Eccles, Phil Cookson and Les Dyl, the men from the town of just over 50,000 people had done enough to clinch glory.
“Our big thing was that we had all these complicated set moves,” said Stephenson. “We had about 15 of them with blokes running all over the place.
“Come the final, we knew we couldn’t match them if we played tough – so Tommy just said ‘use the moves’.
“We stunned them with so many moves, it was incredible. At times I thought I’d disappeared up my own backside! It was quite ludicrous.”
Stephenson would depart for Australian side Penrith that summer, with Dewsbury receiving the equivalent of around £141,818 in 2015 as a transfer fee for his services.
However, Smales found himself at odds with the club’s board over what to do with the money, which contributed to him leaving Dewsbury the following season and the team being unable to recapture their former glory.
“I think we got something like £13,000 from Penrith for Stevo, which was a lot of money at the time,” said Smales. “I put it to the committee that we ought to draw up a rolling five-year plan and use the money to secure the club’s long-term success.
“They said ‘no’. They had already decided they wanted to put the money in the Halifax Building Society and use the interest to keep the team we already had going.
“It was only then that I realised they hadn’t a clue and that I was banging my head against a brick wall.”
Dewsbury have yet to hit those heights again, but their miracle men of 1973 showed that anything can happen in sport – and, just occasionally, it does.

The Armchair Pundit – In defence of rugby league’s referees

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“Shut your eyes and don’t look at Rugby League Twitter…”

THERE is a famous scene towards the climax of the first Indiana Jones film where, having finally got their hands on the Ark of the Covenant and subsequently opening it, the assembled Nazis are consumed by angels of death.
A similar feeling washed over The Armchair Pundit this past Friday night when making the mistake of perusing the rugby league Twittersphere in the wake of the evening’s three Super League matches.
Amid the collective rage from Leeds Rhinos fans at their defeat to Huddersfield Giants and Zak Hardaker apparently offering out any keyboard warriors in a since-deleted tweet, there was plenty of bile being directed at referee Joe Cobb as well.
Having already been embroiled in controversy the previous week for how he was perceived to have handled the clash between Wigan Warriors and Huddersfield, Cobb, who has been a full-time referee for nearly a year, was this time being castigated for his display in the encounter between Widnes Vikings and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats.
Widnes head coach Denis Betts was among those who were left fuming about the Newton-Le-Willows official, describing it as “the worst refereeing performance I’ve seen in 30 years” following an 18-16 defeat for his side which saw both teams have a man sent off and three Vikings players despatched to the sin bin.
Some may sympathise with Betts’ view that Chris Houston’s try from a high kick was unfairly chalked off after he was deemed to have interfered illegally with a defender attempting to make a catch.
But the Vikings chief can have no complaints about any of the cards handed out to his players. Indeed, Patrick Ah Van’s careless tackle which lifted Ashley Gibson above the horizontal was deemed so bad he has subsequently been handed a five-match ban by The RFL disciplinary panel.
Stefan Marsh has also been suspended for two games after tripping an opponent, while Lloyd White saw yellow for a professional foul and Aaron Heremaia was sent off for his part in a brawl which also saw Wakefield’s Scott Moore dismissed.
Sky Sports pundit Brian Carney was quick to hit out at Betts’ post-match comments, saying: “He savaged a referee when perhaps the blame lies closer to home.
“Has he ever used comments like that in private to one of his players about their performance? I doubt it. Has he ever had one of his coaching performances described in such terms? I doubt it.
“While it is most unlike Denis, who is normally circumspect in his analysis of a referee, it is yet another tedious example of blame for defeat being slung unfairly at the feet of officials.”
Giants head Paul Anderson has already been fined £500 – £250 of which is suspended – for his criticism of Mr Cobb the previous week, so do not be surprised to find Betts in the dock at Red Hall for his outburst as well.
More importantly though, The RFL must be seen not to stand for what appears to be a growing trend of coaches blaming referees for their own team’s failings. Yes, coaches are always going to stick up for their players and no, the referees should not have any accountability.
But hanging officials out to dry in public in this manner benefits nobody and does not reflect well on the sport. If such vocal criticism continues to go unpunished, it will quickly filter down to the amateur levels, where refereeing is hard enough as it is.
A glance at the statistics also shows it should perhaps come as no surprise Mr Cobb has been a busy man with the cards and the whistle two weeks in a row.
For you see, dear reader, Widnes, Wakefield, Wigan and Huddersfield are four of the five sides who have given away the highest number of penalties in Super League so far this season.
As much as fans might be convinced referees have nothing better to do than sit around plotting against certain teams or that officiating standards – an abstract concept at best – are getting worse, there are plenty of times when players and coaches need to take responsibility for their own actions.

Thursday night attendance watch: The attendance of 11,724 at the Halliwell Jones Stadium for Warrington Wolves’ 40-10 demolition of Wigan Warriors was actually over 600 up on the corresponding fixture last season – a game also played on a Thursday night.
The victory puts Warrington two points clear at the top of the pile, but below them are Wigan, Hull and the Catalans Dragons all on 18 points.
The Black and Whites seem to be well and truly over their hiccup from a few weeks ago after edging out the Dragons 28-26 – the highlight of which was a superb flowing move that was finished by Curtis Naughton.

Marwan Koukash Twitter watch: Amid his seemingly never-ending one-man war with The RFL, Salford’s most prolific tweeter still managed to find time to make light of hostilities.
The Good Doctor’s other sporting love is horse racing, with this week’s meeting at Chester being one which has been particularly fruitful for a man who owns a string of thoroughbreds.
So given his regular clashes with the game’s authorities, he seemed quite surprised to find RFL chief executive Nigel Wood trying to tap him up for some tips for Chester.

Koukash was no doubt cheered further by the response of Salford Red Devils following their six-point deduction for salary cap breaches, with them storming to a 44-26 victory at home to Hull Kingston Rovers on Saturday.
And in the battle of Super League’s two most inconsistent teams, St Helens pulled off a comeback win to triumph 30-20 over injury-stricken Castleford Tigers having been 10-6 down at half time.

Defence wins the Championship?: London Broncos keep on winning games and are now six points clear of third-placed Bradford Bulls following a 30-16 win over their Kingston Press Championship promotion rivals.
Head coach Andrew Henderson was quick to praise the defensive efforts of his side in the wake of that win, with the Broncos having only conceded 195 points in the league up to this point.
“We put a big emphasis in pre-season on defence,” said Henderson. “I think we’ve built our season on our good defence and we worked extremely hard in pre-season, did a lot of contact work, and a lot of defensive systems and structures.
“We work great with the ball, but it’s off the back of strong defence and that attitude defensively is what got us over some of those games earlier in the season.”
However, he will have been less than pleased with the fact his side had to come from 14-8 down at half time to get the win.
Leigh Centurions are just a point ahead of London after triumphing 37-30 against early-season surprise package Batley Bulldogs.
Meanwhile, a second-half fightback was not enough for Workington Town, who went down 36-32 at Halifax, despite outscoring the hosts 22-6 in the second half.

The road to Blackpool: Rather than just being a company which exists to sponsor a minor rugby league cup competition, The Armchair Pundit was surprised to learn this week that iPro Sport is, in fact, a type of drink which Alan Partridge would probably describe as “yellow stuff in tins” consumed by “narcissistic sports pimps.”
The finalists for said cup competition are now known, with York City Knights and Keighley Cougars booking their place in the final at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road on the same weekend as the Summer Bash.
For both teams, it represents a chance to get their hands on some rare knockout competition silverware because although both have won divisional titles, cup success has tended to elude them.
Keighley have no major cup honours to their name, while York’s last notable triumph was when their previous incarnation lifted the old Yorkshire Cup way back in the 1936-37 season.
In a reduced League One programme, Rochdale Hornets and Doncaster ensured they remained out in front with wins over Barrow and Hunslet Hawks respectively, while Toulouse Olympique returned to their free-scoring ways with a 54-8 win over Oxford.
League One received plenty of attention last week following confirmation Toronto Wolfpack will be adding a Canadian dimension to the competition from next year.
Perhaps the only concern is that the money men behind the project are somewhat reticent to reveal themselves. Indeed, Canada Rugby League CEO Eric Perez would only go as far as to say they “all made their money in mining and resources – some Canadian, a couple Australians, mostly Canadians though.”
There is no reason to be sceptical of those claims at present, although one would hope The RFL have done their due diligence on the people involved in the club – even if they do not want to reveal themselves publicly.

Amateur score of the week: Coventry Dragons 28 Leamington Royals 12, Midlands Rugby League South. The Dragons came from 12-10 down at half time to beat one of their local rivals and avenge their defeat to Leamington in the play-offs last season.

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