The final hooter sounds for Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson

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Eddie Hemmings bids farewell to Mike Stephenson (Picture: @SkySportRL)

THERE were times during Sky Sports’ coverage of this year’s Super League Grand Final where it almost seemed as if the game itself was of secondary importance to the main event of the day, that being Mike Stephenson’s retirement party.
Yes, after 26 years as one half of the channel’s first-choice rugby league commentary duo, Stevo has finally hung up his microphone, with the 69-year-old’s last game fittingly being the showpiece finale of the domestic season as Wigan Warriors edged out Warrington Wolves at Old Trafford.
Sky can perhaps be forgiven for lavishing so much attention on one of their longest-serving commentators though because, while it might be cliché to say it, the coverage of the sport on the channel will not be the same without him.
For those who will be sad to see Stevo go, there are plenty who will be glad to see the back of him, such is the love-him-or-hate-him nature of the man who has been alongside commentator Eddie Hemmings since the early days of rugby league being on what was then BSkyB.
His legacy can perhaps be compared to that of the BBC’s former ‘voice of rugby league’ Eddie Waring, who was reviled in the sport’s northern heartlands as much as he was loved in other parts of the country due to him being perceived to be portraying a certain image of the game.
Everyone has an opinion on him though and Stevo has played role as Hemmings’ larger-than-life, outspoken sidekick to shoe-throwing perfection, helping popularise rugby league among new audiences.
Much like Waring, the former Dewsbury and Great Britain hooker has done much to spread the rugby league gospel outside of his television role as well. Indeed, it was Stephenson who helped get the former Rugby League Heritage Centre in Huddersfield off the ground, donating many items from his own personal collection as exhibits.
He has allowed that continue as part of the Rugby League Cares touring exhibits and it would not be a surprise to see Stephenson have some involvement in trying to find a new permanent home for the sport’s historical artefacts.
Of course, the difference between the two is Stevo had already decided when the time would be right to call it a day, revealing in Friday’s hour-long interview special with Hemmings that he had done so five years ago.
“I don’t want to hang on another couple of years, with people saying you should pack it in,” Stephenson told The Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew last week as well. “Eddie Waring went far too long, and it was painful to listen to. I want to think I’m going out at the top.”


That pre-Grand Final interview on Sky went right back through Stevo’s playing career, looking back on the highlights of winning the World Cup with Great Britain in 1972 and then helping Dewsbury win the Rugby League Championship the following year.
There were also plenty of opportunities to recap some of Eddie and Stevo’s finest moments on air from down the years too – including the memorable moment from ‘Boots ‘n’ All’ when the latter was attacked by an ostrich while filming a segment.
It will undoubtedly seem strange without Stevo around when the Super League season kicks off next February, although Sky have plenty of potential high-quality replacements lined up in the form of Phil Clarke, Barrie McDermott and Brian Carney, while Jon Wells has elevated rugby league punditry to another level with his superb insight when picking apart key moments from games.
And yet, there will be no more tough hombres, T-R-Y time or comments which make you want to put your foot thought the TV and send Rupert Murdoch the bill emanating from the commentary box.
Then again, it would be impossible to find another commentator quite like Stevo. He is one of kind – thankfully, some might say – and while it has been said repeatedly over the past few weeks and month, it is worth reiterating that, for better or worse, it really will not be the same without him.

Remembering when the Kangaroo tourists crossed swords with The Jam


IT IS fair to say barely a trip to these shores by the Australian national team passes off without some sort of colourful off-the-field incident, although few have perhaps been more surreal than the clash between the Kangaroos and The Jam in 1978.
The story of Paul Weller and his fellow band members brawling in a bar with the rugby league tourists from Down Under in a Leeds hotel bar could almost be up there with Bob Holness playing the saxophone on Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’ as one of music’s great urban myths.
Except, of course, that it did actually happen.
This rather strange meeting of cultures occurred in the Queens Hotel in the week leading up the third and final Test of the 1978 Ashes series at Headingley, with the series level at 1-1 after an 18-14 victory for Great Britain in the second match at Odsal.
Surrey rockers The Jam, meanwhile, were on tour and had recently seen their fifth single ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ – a song about someone being attacked, ironically – peak at number 15 in the UK Top 40.
The exact details of what happened are lost in the mists of time, although the Sydney Morning Herald at the time reported the brawl between The Jam and the Australians erupted when Kanagaroos team manager Jim Caldwell was moving a table and accidentally bumped into one of the band members.
Angry words were then exchanged and the generally accepted version of events is that Weller then smashed a glass over Caldwell’s head, causing cuts to his face and narrowly missing blinding him in his right eye.
Balmain Tigers winger Larry Corowa then jumped in to defend Caldwell and was attacked himself before going to locate some of his team-mates to provide reinforcements – some of whom had to be roused from their beds.
“There were a couple of players shouting about how our manager, Jimmy Caldwell, had just been glassed in the downstairs bar by these punk rockers; The Jam,” hooker Max Krilich told Australia’s Daily Telegraph in 2013.
“So a couple of the fellas, who shall remain nameless, were gathering troops for revenge.
“I stayed in bed, but certainly someone must’ve gone down because those tough, little musicians, they had the shit belted out of them.”
Jam bassist Bruce Foxton, who ended up in hospital with rib injuries following the ruckus, remembers the incident slightly differently.
“We were standing up to get some drinks and some words were exchanged,” recalled Foxton. “The next minute Paul was in a bit of a ruck and I tried to help him out. He just finished up being like a rugby ball.
“They went berserk. They went mad. It was really frightening. They were after our blood, literally, and we had to leave about three in the morning and check into another hotel. It fucked the rest of the tour because I had badly bruised ribs.”
Unsurprisingly, the police were called to calm things down, with their official report clearing the tourists of any wrongdoing. Weller, meanwhile, had to make an appearance at Leeds Crown Court, only be discharged straight away.
Whether the incident served to fire up the Kangaroos even more ahead of the Ashes decider is up for debate, but the fact remains they went on to trounce the Lions 23-6 and head to the French leg of the tour with a 2-1 series win in the bag.
Nevertheless, this remains a fascinating and bizarre footnote in the history of the Australian team visiting the UK. Let us just hope next year’s Rugby League World Cup Down Under does not produce any stories of England’s players getting into a barroom brawl with DMAs as well…

Hemel Stags prepare for life in a northern town

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Hemel Stags have been at Pennine Way since 1981

STUDENTS of rugby league history will be familiar with the story of London Highfield.
The first professional club in the Capital played sole season at the White City Stadium in 1933/34 following the relocation of Wigan Highfield – later going on to live a transient life as Liverpool Stanley/City, Huyton, Runcorn Highfield and, finally, Prescot Panthers – only for the venture to be not deemed viable by the owners of the ground.
One of the most notable things about the team was that, along with playing all home games under floodlights on a Wednesday evening so as not to clash with football and rugby union matches, they continued to train at the Wigan club’s former home on Tunstall Lane and commuted to London for matches.
Given how all but one of Highfield’s players were based in the north of England, such an arrangement was understandable. However, it might seem odd if a southern team were to do likewise in the 21st Century.
Not so in the case of Hemel Stags though, who announced last week they were relocating their training base 170 miles north to Crown Flatt as part of a partnership with Kingstone Press Championship side Dewsbury Rams.
The words “innovative” and “groundbreaking” were both used in the press release announcing what is, effectively, a merger of the two clubs – although the Stags, who have been around in one form or another since 1981, were eager to assert the fact they will retain their identity and autonomy, and will continue to play at their Pennine Way.
Quite how they claim to retain their autonomy when the coaching and playing staff of the two clubs will be integrated is anyone’s guess, and the announcement has hardly been well-received in their home town.
A petition was swiftly set up by supporters to voice their displeasure and has already attracted nearly 900 signatures in a week. That might not seem like a lot, but bear in mind this is a club which have struggled to attract 200 fans to home games in a season which saw them finish bottom of the pile in Kingstone Press League One.
Hemel CEO Bob Brown was quick to defend the “major strategic development”, citing problems with getting their squad of players from the amateur levels in the south of England up to the standard required to be competitive in the third tier of semi-professional rugby.
“This season we launched a deliberate strategy to recruit community and student players from within our local catchment area of the southern M1/A1 axis,” said
“But despite having between 35 and 45 players regularly in pre-season training it soon became clear that the step up from Community Rugby League in the South to League 1 was premature for many of the players.
“The move to Dewsbury will give the Stags access to a much more professional environment, in which to develop their playing and coaching personnel, while placing the club close to a large pool of experienced Rugby League players.”
Sound reasoning, you might think. But as that great modern-day philosopher Homer J Simpson once said: “I agree with you, Marge, in theory. In theory, communism works – in theory.”
How many of those southern-based players will be willing, or indeed able, to make the journey to Dewsbury for training twice a week on pay which it can be reasonably assumed would barely cover their travelling expenses?
And if Hemel do want to take advantage of being in the sport’s heartland and sign up ready-made League One-standard northern-based players, then what does that mean for the much-vaunted attempts to spread the sport in the south?
It is worth mentioning the club are not turning their back on their home town and only this week, adverts were placed in the rugby league trade press advertising for a development officer to continue the good work the Stags have done down the years spreading the word about the Greatest Game in commuter belt Hertfordshire.
The likes of Wigan Warriors’ Dan Sarginson and Hull Kingston Rovers’ Kieran Dixon have both come from the school development programme in Hemel Hempstead, but they have still had to head north to fulfil their rugby league ambitions.
Those from the town who aspire to pull on a Hemel Stags jersey in the paid ranks and perhaps progress from there will have to do the same now though – and whichever way the club try to paint that in a positive light, it can hardly be considered a cause for celebration or a sign of progress.

The way we were: 50 years of Bill Fallowfield’s four-tackle rule

WHEN the 1966-67 Northern Rugby Football League season kicked off in its then-traditional late summer start, few people could have envisaged how the sport would be changed forever by the time the campaign concluded the following May.
Wakefield Trinity beating title-holders St Helens in a replayed Championship play-off final and Featherstone Rovers (pictured above) belying their small-town status to win the Challenge Cup for the first time – beating Barrow at Wembley, no less – gives modern observes some idea of how different English domestic rugby league was half a century ago.
But there were also very real concerns over declining attendances, the parlous financial state of some clubs and how to improve the sport as a spectacle. Plus ca change, as the old saying goes.
Enter RFL secretary Bill Fallowfield, who had been leading the charge to alter the rules of rugby league since being appointed to his position in 1946.
History takes a somewhat dim view of Fallowfield’s 29-year spell at the helm of the RFL. From the outset, the former Cambridge University and Northampton rugby union player seemed intent to shape the sport more along the lines of the 15-man code, including several bizarre attempts to replace the play-the-ball with a method of releasing the ball in the tackle.
But arguably his lasting legacy is one successful change to the Laws of the Game which is not only still with us today but is also one of rugby league’s most distinguishing features – and that is the limited-tackle rule.
One of the major causes of concern during this era were how teams were increasingly able to dominate possession and therefore kill games by simply not passing or kicking, with the only option being for the defending team to risk giving away a penalty at the play-the-ball in a desperate effort to win possession back.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this came in the 1951 Championship semi-final when, with his Workington Town side winning 8-5 and down to 12 men, Gus Risman simply ordered his side not to pass or kick for the final quarter-of-an-hour.
Having abandoned his attempts to have the play-the-ball changed, Fallowfield took inspiration from American football’s four-downs-followed-by-a-handover rule and, in a rare example of international co-operation on changes to the Laws, proposed the four-tackle rule at a meeting of the International Board.
The New Zealanders proposed having a scrum at the completion of each set and agreement on the matter led to the change being approved. Now all that was needed was to see how it panned out in an actual game.
Fortunately, The RFL had the perfect competition to trial this variation in – the BBC Two Floodlit Trophy. Not only was it still a relatively new competition, being in only its second season, but the fact one match each round was televised on the Beeb’s second channel on a Tuesday evening meant a wider response to the new rule could be garnered.
The four-tackle rule was enacted in the Trophy in time for the first qualifying round in October, with it becoming immediately obvious it had the desired effect of encouraging attacking play and making the game more exciting.
Flushed with this success, The RFL then rushed through an edict decreeing it could be used in Championship matches as well, but with the caveat that both teams must agree to it.
As Tony Collins points out in Rugby League In Twentieth Century Britain though, this haphazard approach was predictably chaotic. Leeds, for example, chose to play under the four-tackle rule against Doncaster one week but then refused to do so against Cup holders St Helens.
Realising their folly, The RFL simply announced that from October 31, the new rule would apply to all matches and it was adopted in Australia for the 1967 season, which saw St George’s run of 11 straight NSW Premiership triumphs come to an end.
Six years after its introduction, four tackles were extended to the six we know today in a bid to allow more structured attacking play to develop rather than the somewhat panicked approach which had become the norm and it remains that way to this day.
Fallowfield’s near-three-decade tenure as RFL secretary may not be looked kindly on, but there can be no doubt he did change the game. Even if – perhaps thankfully – it was not in the way he had first imagined.

Rugby league pursues its own American Dream


ANY talk of a Rugby League World Cup being played in the USA would normally elicit a response of a sarcastic “oh really?” followed by the rolling of eyes.
But when the New York Times, no less, features an article on that very subject, then maybe the idea is not as fanciful as it might first seem.
The Newspaper of Record carried such a piece on Tuesday, featuring an interview with Australian sports promoter Jason Moore, who has submitted a bid with the RLIF to host the 2021 World Cup on American soil.
His plan would see the six-week tournament played at eight to ten National Football League or Major League Soccer stadiums and goes up against the bid tabled by The RFL for the World Cup to come back to England recently.
Moore is not just some chancer trying his luck. After all, it was his company, Moore Sports International, which was involved in the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers playing two regular-season Major League Baseball games at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
And he spoke with great enthusiasm about the potential for crossover appeal with fans of the NFL, citing the similarities the two sports share and how the “gladiatorial” aspects of rugby league should find favour with the American sporting public.
Cracking the potentially lucrative market across the Atlantic is something many sports have long dreamed of and although football has made some inroads through MLS, the landscape is still overwhelmingly dominated by the big four of the NFL, MLB, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League.
It is worth remembering rugby league has been here before as well, from aborted attempts by Californian rugby union officials to switch codes just prior to the outbreak of World War II, Mike Dimitro’s American All-Stars and former NFL player Michael Mayer’s stalled efforts to launch a domestic competition in the late 1970s.
And who can forget the Great American Challenge exhibition match between Wigan and Warrington in Milwaukee in 1989, where both sets of players simply set about settling old scores and referee John Holdsworth seemed determined to make himself the centre of attention?

Nevertheless, the progress rugby league has made in the USA since the turn of the century should not be overlooked.
It is perhaps easy to forget how the national team defied the cynics at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, finishing top of Group D by beating more established rugby-playing nations Wales and the Cook Islands, before bowing out to eventual champions Australia in the quarter-finals.
The domestic competition continues to thrive as well, particularly now the sport in America has been re-united under one governing body, and work has been done in growing youth participation.
The challenge, of course, will be convincing the American public to come out and fill the stadiums. After all, some of those cavernous NFL stadiums – and even MLS grounds – will look awfully empty if the marketing is not right.
And then there are the financial risks, with the 2000 Rugby League World Cup serving as a constant reminder of the damage that can be done to the international game by running before learning to walk.
Moore will undoubtedly be aware of all of this though and his bid should not be dismissed as fanciful dreaming.
Besides, rugby league has always been a sport for pushing the boundaries in the face of external criticism and being downtrodden by outsiders. Hosting a World Cup in America may just be a situation where the potential rewards far outweigh any risks.

The Armchair Pundit: Tradition isn’t what it used to be

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ASIDE from a noticeable section of empty seats at the Keepmoat Stadium and Brian Noble’s appalling taste in neckwear, Friday night’s Challenge Cup semi-final between Hull FC and Wigan Warriors once again showcased everything great about rugby league to a national audience.
The BBC’s decision to screen one of the last four match-ups on a Friday evening for the second year in a row, along with the Warrington Woves-Widnes Vikings clash in the quarter-finals, has been generally well-received – except, perhaps, by those Wigan fans who were put off by the prospect of a 174-mile round trip to Doncaster at an inconvenient time.
Despite the Keepmoat effectively being annexed as a south-western suburb of the black and white half of Hull for the night, the attendance of 10,488 was fewer than 600 down on the previous year’s Friday semi-final, which necessitated Leeds Rhinos fans making a similarly long-distance trip to see their side face St Helens at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Nevertheless, there have been some rumblings of discontent from some pundits – but not for the reason you might think.

Former Warrington half-back Lee Briers and ex-Leeds prop turned Sky Sports analyst Barrie McDermott were both vocal on Twitter in their opposition to Challenge Cup semi-finals being played on a Friday, and all because it goes against tradition.

McDermott put forward a particularly bizarre argument about how it is okay for Super League to be innovative because it is still relatively new, while the Challenge Cup should stay as it is – or was – because of its history stretching back 120 years.
Fine, let us go back to playing one semi-final on a Saturday and one on a Sunday. And while we are at it, bring back replays for drawn games – a concept which was abolished many years ago, yet still remains in place if the final ends level.
McDermott’s argument simply does not stack up on closer examination. For the majority of the wider viewing public, the Challenge Cup is their window to the world of rugby league and if showing one or two games on a Friday night allows more people to view the sport then surely that can only be a good thing?
And is it not also a good thing that people can see rugby league as a forward-thinking, inovated sport rather than being wedded to the past in these occassional bouts of introspection?
As well as this, there are still those rose-tinted spectacle-wearing luddites who believe the final should be moved back to its old end-of-May slot to restore the prestige of the Challenge Cup.
However, this overlooks the fact the whole reason it was moved to the August Bank Holiday weekend was that the switch of the league season to summer while leaving the Cup as a winter competition had made it start to seem like little more than a pre-season knockabout.
Throughout its history, rugby league has always been willing to change to made it as appealing as possible for both players and spectators alike.
Tradition is important too, but just because we have always done something a certain way does not mean we should keep doing it the same way. That, after all, is one of the worst reasons for not making bold, but ultimately beneficial, decisions.

Meanwhile, on the pitch…: As for the matches themselves, they could hardly have been more contrasting.
Predictably, the BBC started their Friday coverage by bigging up the Hull-Wigan showdown as a repeat of the 1985 Challenge Cup final – regarded by many as the greatest of all-time – and this match-up proved to be every bit as thrilling.
Marc Sneyd carried off the man of the match award as Hull triumphed 16-12, although it was once again the work done up front from back three Mark Minichiello, Sika Manu and Gareth Ellis, along with the effervescent Danny Houghton, which laid the platform for their backs to shine.
The following day at Leigh Sports Village, Wakefield Trinity simply found themselves overwhelmed by a rampant Warrington outfit, who ran out 56-12 winners to book their fourth Cup final appearance in eight seasons.
Competition sponsor Ladbrokes have the Wolves as 5/6 favourites, with Hull rated as Evens to lift the trophy for the first time since 2005. If you are feeling adventurous and think the teams are equally-matched, the draw is available at 16/1.
Of course, no Challenge Cup final has finished level and gone to a replay since 1982, so maybe we are overdue one. And as Hull fans will no doubt point out, they won on that occasion as well…

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Thatto Heath women celebrate with their trophies (Picture: @TheRFL)

Amateur score of the week: Leigh Miners Rangers 6 Thatto Heath 62, Women’s Challenge Cup final. A day after the professionals had finished battling it out for a place in next month’s Wembley showpiece, the women’s competition took centre stage at Odsal.
Tara Stanley led the way for Thatto Heath with a hat-trick of tries, while Emily Rudge and Sammy Simpson added two apiece as well to help the St Helens-based side secure glory.
It proved a day of double success for the club, with the reserves beating Whitley Bay Barbarians 44-0 in the final of the Women’s Challenge Shield.

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

James Segeyaro and the lost art of hooking

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Leeds Rhinos win a scrum against the feed at Hull KR

ANYONE who tuned into Sky Sports’ coverage of Hull Kingston Rovers’ home Super League game with Leeds Rhinos last Thursday would have witnessed something unusual.
No, not the Rhinos making it three wins in a row and thereby securing four home games for the Qualifiers – although, given how this season as gone for the defending champions, that might well in itself qualify as unusual – but the sight of a team winning a scrum against the feed.
The incident in question occurred in the 52nd minute after Leeds’ James Segeyaro had thrown a forward pass little more than 20 metres from his own try-line.
Perhaps desperate to make amends for his error, along with taking advantage of some absent-mindedness from Rovers scrum-half Matty Marsh, the Papua New Guinean hooker decided to resurrect the lost art of striking for the ball at a scrum.
And it proved successful too. Not only did Segeyaro win possession back for his team, but it was quickly followed by the visitors being awarded a penalty for a dangerous tackle and setting them up to move deep into Robins territory.
How much of an impact this had on Leeds going on to take a 24-20 victory it up for debate, but it produced much incredulity from Sky co-commentators Mike Stephenson and Barrie McDermott – both of whom are undoubtedly familiar with some of the dark arts of the pack from their own playing days.

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It is unlikely that Segeyaro’s throwback to the days when hookers actually used to hook the ball will lead to a sudden upsurge in contested scrums and the abandonment of the gentlemen’s agreement which came in following the contorted mess this set piece had become.
But what it does underline is how this much-maligned aspect of rugby league still has a purpose and offers the option for teams to surprise their opponents.
Unlike the 15-man game, which is often subject to minutes of delays due to scrums being reset before a penalty is mysteriously awarded to whichever team the referee feels deserves one at that point, there is nothing in the Laws of league specifying those players on the field as props, hooker, second rows and loose-forward must pack down at a scrum.
This, therefore, opens up a number of opportunities for running plays off the back of the scrum involving forwards lining up in open play or taking up other positions in the scrum, which is what Hull KR seemed to be planning.
At this particular juncture, the Rovers front row consisted of second row Kevin Larroyer, and props Adam Walker and Dane Tilse – the former in the hooking role – while hooker John Boudebza went in at loose-forward, which is a tactic favoured by many teams these days.
Leeds lined up with the more traditional two props and a hooker, which Segeyaro took advantage of, although it was interesting to note their full-back on the night, Liam Sutcliffe, was positioned at loose-forward and was the man who first got his hands on the ball following it being hooked back.
There are, of course, those who will continue to call for the abolition of the scrum in league and insist it should be replaced with a handover.
However, occurrences like this show it is an area teams can exploit with a bit of imagination and that there is perhaps more going on at the scrum in each game than meets the eye.

Ground issues leave York City Knights’ future hanging in the balance

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York City Knights have been sharing Bootham Crescent in 2016

AS the Kingston Press League One Super 8s got underway this weekend, there was one match which ominously had ‘P-P’ next to it on the fixture list.
The game in question was York City Knights’ home encounter against Doncaster, with the postponement brought about by stadium issues which are threatening the immediate and long-term future of professional rugby league in the city.
The City Knights have been effectively homeless since leaving Huntington Stadium at the end of the 2014 season and, after splitting last year’s home games between York RUFC and Heworth ARFLC, currently find themselves sharing Bootham Crescent with York City FC.
This was set to last until the long-delayed York Community Stadium is finally built – latest estimates for completion are 2018, although construction is still yet to start – providing a home for both the rugby and football clubs on the site of the former Huntington ground.
Indeed, the first rugby match at Bootham Crescent was something of a celebration of the 13-man code in York, with a four-figure crowd showing up to see the City Knights facing amateurs York Acorn in the Challenge Cup back in February.
However, nearly six months later the City Knights are on the verge of extinction due to financial problems caused by the move and allegations of the terms of their tenancy agreement not being adhered to by City of York Council.
The final straw came when the City Knights were informed they would not be allowed to play their Super 8s match against Doncaster at the venue due to concerns about overuse of the playing surface, particularly as York City had arranged a pre-season friendly for the day before.
That led to the club’s directors issuing a statement last Thursday stating they were closing it down and laying the blame at the door of the local authority.
“It is the belief of the club that the training and playing venue contracts which are in place with City of York Council have neither been adhered to by third parties or enforced by CYC which has made even the simplest of tasks an arduous process,” read the statement.
“This has left the club in a worse position in terms of the training and playing facilities available to them than either what had been agreed in the interim period or when at Huntington Stadium.”
The City Knights have a somewhat unusual agreement with regards to playing at Bootham Crescent as their contract is with City of York Council, which in turn has a contract with ground owners York City to allow the rugby club to play there.
Part of the deal states football and rugby matches cannot be played there within 24 hours of each other. As a result of City kicking their friendly with Bolton Wanderers at 1.30pm on Saturday, the City Knights therefore proposed their game would kick off at 3.30pm.
This was subsequently knocked back by City of York Council, who insisted to local newspaper The Press prior to Thursday’s announcement they had made it clear the City Knights would not be able to use the ground for these dates as far back as May.
The club responded by stating it was only “likely” rather than certain they would not be able to play these matches at Bootham Crescent and received no response from either the council or football club until after The RFL had published the Super 8s fixtures.
Not only that, but the City Knights insist the council has reserved the use of the ground for rugby every Sunday under their contract with City.
Financial problems caused by being unable to exploit certain revenue streams after leaving Huntington Stadium have contributed to the club’s plight too, but, more worryingly, the planned move to the new Community Stadium might not be enough to secure the City Knights’ long-term future.
“The financial situation within the club shows no promise of improving with a move to the new stadium as the club faced additional overheads and a very limited scope for generating meaningful new income streams,” said the statement from the City Knights.
“This has and will leave the club financially disadvantaged from its position when at Huntington Stadium in 2014.”
Not since the old York Wasps were forced to sell their Clarence Street ground for housing in 1989 has professional rugby league in the city had a proper home – Huntington being a multi-use athletics stadium.
There is some hope the club will at least be able to finish the 2016 season and head coach James Ford hinted in an interview with BBC Radio York there were parties interested in coming forward to take over the running of the City Knights.
If they do and the club are able to continue beyond this year, the new owners will still face the conundrum of where they are going to play.
It seems it could be possible for the City Knights to extend their groundshare at Bootham Crescent for next year. But if moving to the Community Stadium is not viable, then the search will be on to find an alternative venue – either existing or new.
Given how slowly the wheels of local government have turned in regards to the current plans though, any possibility of York City Knights having a home to call their own seems even more remote than ever.

The Armchair Pundit: Huddersfield Giants ready for Rick’s age of Stone

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Rick Stone is Huddersfield Giants’ new head coach

WHEN he gave his first interview since being sacked as Newcastle Knights head coach last year, Rick Stone spoke of how he would like to try coaching in Super League if the chance arose.
“England is something that really interests me, and I’m hunting around a bit for an opportunity over there,” Stone told the Newcastle Herald’s Robert Dillon in March earlier this year.
“Obviously the right sort of job has to come up, but that’s something I’d like to have a crack at.”
One would perhaps imagine coming into a club battling to avoid relegation might not be “the right sort of job”, but that is exactly what the 49-year-old Australian has chosen to do after being unveiled as Huddersfield Giants’ new man at the top.
Certainly, no-one can accuse Stone of a man being one to shirk a challenge. After all, the Giants are now definitely destined for the Qualifiers following the 20-19 loss to Hull Kingston Rovers last Friday.
Stone will therefore have two games – St Helens at home this Saturday and Warrington Wolves away a week later – to adjust to life in Super League and prepare for the mad scrap to avoid dropping into the Kingston Press Championship that is the middle eights.
And he has definitely been making all the right noises, at least as far as the pre-prepared statement issued by the Giants in announcing Stone’s appointment is concerned.
“Top jobs such as this one don’t come around very often so, yes, I’m ready to go and really can’t get there quick enough,” Stone said.
“The UK will be new to me, but I follow the Super League and at the end of the day we all start with 17 against 17 and the same chance as each other.”
Despite their current predicament, it must be remembered Huddersfield are a club who only last year were 80 minutes away from a place in the Grand Final, with their collapse only overlooked perhaps because of the even more startling decline of reigning champions Leeds Rhinos.
Previous incumbent Paul Anderson paid the price for this season’s dismal showing and Stone is the man now charged with restoring the club to being back among the contenders next season – assuming they avoid the drop, that is.
What can Giants fans expect from Stone though? His playing career at the highest level was limited to a handful of game for South Sydney Rabbitohs in the old NSWRL Premiership in the 1980s, but he has become highly regarded as a coach in his homeland.
A successful stint as player-coach at Group Two Rugby League outfit Nambucca Heads Roosters was followed by a 13-year spell with Queensland Cup side Burleigh, which produced three Premiership triumphs.
It was from there Stone was recruited by Newcastle as an assistant coach and went on to have two spells in charge of the NRL side, along with coaching the Fiji national team to the semi-finals of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.
Since leaving the Knights, Stone has remained involved in the game by taking up a part-time role in young player development with the Sydney Roosters, as well as setting up his own company, DNA Sports Coaching, to work with youngsters.
DNA’s perhaps gives some clues as to what Stone’s approach will entail, and with Chris Thorman and Luke Robinson as his assistants, he has two people who are familiar with the inner workings at the John Smith’s Stadium.
And should he pass the first test of ensuring Huddersfield’s place in Super League next season, then it will be up to him to find out exactly why the Giants suffered such a drop-off in results in 2016.

Thursday night attendance watch: The 9,024 who turned up to the Halliwell Jones Stadium for Warrington’s 40-14 win over Salford Red Devils was 2,840 down on the corresponding fixture last year, which was played on the opening Saturday of the season.
The result compounded what had been a miserable day for Salford, who found out their appeal against a six-point deduction and fine for breaching salary cap regulations had been breached had been dismissed by independent body Sports Resolutions.
Unsurprisingly, that was followed by Red Devils owner Dr Marwan Koukash giving an interview with BBC Radio Manchester in which he hinted he was considering his future as club owner.
“You start questioning ‘is the sport with this governing body worth keeping my involvement in it and keep investing like I have been doing?” he said, although it is difficult to understand how, on this occasion at least, he can have any complaints with The RFL when an independent party agreed with their verdict.

O’Loughlin sees red and so do the fans: Of course, the tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists were out in force when it was announced Sean O’Loughlin had been handed just a one-game ban following the first dismissal of his career.
The England captain was rightly sent off for a dangerous high tackle on Chris Annakin during Wigan Warriors’ 22-18 win at home to Wakefield Trinity and subsequently charged with a Grade C offence.
This would normally entail a two or three match ban – the latter of which was handed to Featherstone Rovers’ Colton Roche for striking this week – although O’Loughlin’s previously exemplary disciplinary record and early guilty plea counted in his favour.
That is no different to other players who have found themselves up before a disciplinary hearing at Red Hall, although the most confusing part for many was that the fact it was a first-half dismissal counted as a mitigating factor as well.
Further eyebrows were raised by the length of the ban, which means O’Loughlin will be free to play in Wigan’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Hull FC.
The full details of the case will be made available on The RFL website from 11am on Wednesday, although even that may not be enough to sway the perception the governing body is massively inconsistent when it comes to handing out disciplinary sanctions.

From Castleford to Serbia: Darren Higgins is the latest coach from these shores to be spreading the gospel of rugby league to another country, having been appointed head coach of the Serbia national team.
Higgins, who has Serbian ancestry through his grandfather, will take time out from his job working in talent development with Castleford Tigers as part of his new role where he will look to help the team qualifying for next year’s World Cup.
“It’s all run by volunteers,” Higgins told Sporting Life following a recent trip out to Serbia for their matches against the touring Yorkshire Lionhearts side.
“There are six clubs in the top division and they’re making good progress with juniors.
“The standard is a mixed bag. Some of them could definitely play in League 1 and there are a couple of lads who have played in France.”
The Serbians have come a long way since conceding over 100 points against Lebandon and France 13 years ago, but face the onerous task of beating both Wales and Italy in this autumn’s European qualifiers if they are to reach the global gathering for the first time.
Nevertheless, Higgins is quietly confident and hopes to boost the squad with some heritage players.
“The federation are in contract with a lot of Australian-based players with Serbian heritage and, if we add them to the better players we’ve got, we’re going to be fairly strong but how strong we don’t really know,” he said.

Amateur score of the week: Swanage & Wareham 38 Weymouth & Portland 18, friendly. This match pitched two of Dorset’s rugby union clubs against each other in the 13-a-side code, with the match made possible by the work of St Helens-born Swanage player and league enthusiast Steve Lee.
It is the first time the code has been played in the county since South Dorset Giants folded in 2011 and the hope is a reverse fixture will be able to be arranged, followed by the re-establishment of a more permanent presence for the code in the area.

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

England Rugby League World Cup bid showcases RLIF’s ambitions


IT WAS with relatively little fanfare that, earlier this week, The RFL launched their bid for England to host what will arguably be the most ambitious Rugby League World Cup held to date in 2021.
At present, no other host candidates have come forward. South Africa – which missed out on hosting next year’s global gathering to a joint bid from Australia and New Zealand – and the USA have both been rumoured as potential bidders, while the UAE’s attempts were derailed by the unjust arrest of Sol Mokdad last year.
Barring any other countries coming forward though, it seems certain the tournament will be returning to these shores for the first time since 2013, when Australia triumphed in what was generally regarded as the most successful World Cup in the sport’s history.
It followed on from a well-regarded revival of the World Cup after an eight-year absence in Australia in 2008 and there is no reason to think next year’s event Down Under will be at least as good as the most recent edition.
These recent successes have clearly encouraged the RLIF and the 2021 tournament will feature 16 teams – up from the 14 included in the 2013 and 2017 World Cups.
It will be the largest number of teams to play at the international game’s showpiece since the ill-fated 2000 World Cup, although it seems the lessons from that bloated mess of a competition have been learnt.
For starters, there are seemingly enough countries to fill the berths, with the RLIF now claiming 64 member nations – either full, affiliate or observer members – and not having to resort to including representative teams such as the New Zealand Maoris.
Matches will also be played at just 12 stadium chosen from a shortlist of 15, rather than the overly-ambitious 26 across the whole of the British Isles and France, including a mix of rugby league and football grounds.
Predictably, the choices reported by The 18th Man have created some controversy and Cumbria in particular can perhaps consider itself unlucky to have missed out after both games held at Workington’s Zebra Claims Stadium during the 2013 World Cup both drew crowds of well over 7,000.
Nevertheless, the choices on the shortlist show the ambitions for this tournament, with Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium and the Keepmoat Stadium in Doncaster having the lowest capacities on the list at 15,000.
The sensible pricing and sadly rare examples of good marketing in rugby league ensured healthy crowds at all venues in 2013 and it goes without saying these must be built on to ensure no repeat of 2000 where cavernous venues like Reading’s Madejski Stadium had just over 3,000 rattling around inside them.
Then there is the question of the whether the quality will be diluted by adding another two teams to the field, although with five years to prepare and increasing opportunities for regular international matches, there is no reason this should be an issue.
Besides, the fears over lopsided games have proven to be unfounded at the previous three tournaments, which have produced some thrilling encounters and great stories such as the success of the USA in 2013 and Fiji reaching the semi-finals in both of the two most recent World Cups.
Perhaps the only downside is no country outside of the ‘big three’ is prepared to host the tournament. Indeed, France is the only other nation to have hosted a World Cup on its own and has not done so since 1972.
So that dream of seeing a final of Lebanon against Papua New Guinea in front of a sell-out five-figure crowd in Toronto might just have to wait for a little while yet…