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.

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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.

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.

The Armchair Pundit: Poachers turned gamekeepers

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Chris Campbell has been added to the full-time list (Picture: The RFL)

THESE are interesting times in RFL Match Official Land, particularly given how the men in the middle have found themselves in the spotlight in the past week.
Perhaps most disconcerting was the respective suspensions of referees Richard Silverwood and Sam Ansell, with no reasons given except for the governing body stating it was as the result of both being under unspecified investigations.
This is the third time Silverwood, Super League’s longest-serving referee, has been suspended, while Ansell was only added to the list of full-time match officials back in January.
There has been much speculation as to whether or not Silverwood will ever been seen again, although his former refereeing colleague and current RFL match officials director Steve Ganson has been giving plenty of opportunities to up-and-coming whistlers in recent weeks.
One of those is Chris Campbell, who was added to the panel of full-time match officials last week.
Campbell is an interesting case not only because he is the son of former top flight official and 1994 Challenge Cup final referee Dave Campbell, but also because he has played at the highest level as well.
The 35-year-old played 12 Super League games for Warrington Wolves, going on to have a long career in the part-time ranks with Whitehaven, Rochdale Hornets, Blackpool Panthers and Oldham before retiring in 2011.
After a brief dalliance with coaching, he took up the whistle with encouragement from father Dave and last month was taking charge of a Super League game for the first time as his former team Warrington took on Wakefield Trinity at the Rapid Solicitors Stadium – or Belle Vue, as your dad still calls it.
Campbell is a rarity in the modern era as someone who has made the transition from playing in the professional game to refereeing it, although Jamie Bloem is another who did likewise.
Refereeing is perhaps not considered a viable post-playing career option for the vast majority – not least because of the fact the chances of making it onto the full-time list are slim.
Yet Campbell has shown it can be achieved in relatively short space of time and hopefully more can be encouraged to follow in his footsteps.
Refereeing and playing are, of course, two entirely separate skills. However, having a background such as Campbell’s can only benefit him in his officiating, as well as allowing the other referees to glean some insights from him.
It was a pity, therefore, that the Widnes-based official found himself under the spotlight in Wigan Warriors’ 26-6 win over Castleford Tigers in Saturday’s Challenge Cup quarter-final, which was broadcast live on the BBC.
It was his call to say Dom Manfredi had grounded the ball for a second-half try even though he appeared to miss it, with video referee Robert Hicks unable to find enough evidence to overturn the on-field decision.
Fortunately, the decision had little bearing on the match as Wigan ran out comfortable victors, having led 22-0 at half time and never really looking like being caught.
Hopefully then, it will praise rather than criticism Campbell is attracting for his displays in the future. Then again, conventional wisdom does say the best referee is the one you never notice.

Thursday night attendance watch: Given that Challenge Cup ties generally attract lower crowds than Super League games these days, it is difficult to draw any direct comparisons between such matches.
However, the fact only 3,289 turned up to the John Smiths Stadium for the first of last week’s quarter-finals between Huddersfield Giants and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats must have caused some concern for both the host club and The RFL.
This can perhaps be explained by the fact the Giants have endured a season of struggle in the league, while the game was also being televised live by Sky Sports in the unpopular Thursday night slot.
Nevertheless, that does not disguise the fact it was more than 1,000 lower than the previous lowest attendance at Huddersfield this season of 4,885 in the Super League fixture against Salford Red Devils.
At least those Wakefield fans who made the trip had something to cheer about, with the visitors winning 28-16 to book a first Challenge Cup semi-final appearance for eight years and keep coach Chris Chester on course for back-to-back Wembley finals.

Bennett gets his revolution underway: He may have shunned the spotlight during his flying visit to these shores recently, but Wayne Bennett has certainly been keeping himself busy in the build-up to England’s Four Nations campaign.
The 66-year-old Australian has already floated the idea of reviving a mid-season Test match for the national team in 2017 to aid the side’s preparation for next year’s World Cup.
Quite who that would be against or where it would fit in to an already overloaded domestic calendar remains to be decided, while Bennett’s demands of having players released for a two-week training camp prior to the global gathering may not go down well with the clubs either.
One intriguing decision by England’s new head coach was opting not to use the FA’s St George’s Park as a training base in the build-up to this year’s Four Nations, with the national team having done so ahead of last year’s series win over New Zealand.
If reports are to be believed, Bennett is turning to the NRL to strengthen the team too, with Newcastle Knights half-back Trent Hodkinson and Canterbury Bulldogs twins Josh and Brett Morris being considered for call-ups.
The trio qualify through either parents or grandparents, although such incidents make a further mockery of the international games eligibility rules – particularly as Brett Morris already has 18 caps for Australia.

Friday night lights: The BBC have, at times, been criticised for how they present rugby league to a wider audience, but last Friday’s Challenge Cup quarter-final was a perfect example of how well the Corporation can do it when they get things right.
Excellently helmed by Mark Chapman, with some fantastic insights from the panel of Brian Noble, Jon Wilkin and Jamie Peacock, plus superb commentary from Dave Woods, John Kear and even Jonathan Davies, it could hardly have been a better advert for the sport.
No doubt that was helped by the thrilling spectacle served up by Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings, with the Kurt Gidley-inspired hosts snatching a 20-18 win over their Cheshire rivals to seal their place in the semi-finals.
Elsewhere, Hull FC are still in with a chance of ending their so-called ‘Wembley curse’ after trouncing the Catalans Dragons 22-8. But although they lead the way in Super League, the bookies still only make them third favourites to lift the Cup.

Championship round-up: Arguably the game of the weekend in any of the competitions was the first-versus-second showdown in the Kingston Press Championship, with London Broncos hosting Leigh Centurions.
However, leaders Leigh won a somewhat one-sided contest, having stormed into a 28-point lead at the interval and eventually running out 38-12 victors to move five points clear of the chasing pack.
Batley Bulldogs moved back into the top four thanks to an 18-16 victory over Dewsbury Rams in the Heavy Woollen Derby to keep alive their hopes of making the Qualifiers against the odds.
Their cause was advanced by Halifax beating Bradford Bulls 32-24 as well, leaving Bulls head coach Rohan Smith to rue his side’s failure to build on taking an early lead and their growing list of injuries.

League One round-up: Toulouse Olympique might keep winning, this time seeing off North Wales Crusaders 32-14 on the road, but Rochdale Hornets and York City Knights are ensuring the fight for top spot goes to the wire.
The Hornets blew away strugglers Hemel Stags 60-6, while York trounced Gloucestershire All Golds 56-12. Doncaster, too, will still fancy their chances after staying in touch with a 30-10 win at London Skolars.

Amateur score of the week: Rutland Rabbitohs 52 Sherwood Wolf Hunt A 34, Midlands Rugby League. England’s smallest county hosted rugby league for the first time, with the recently-formed Rabbitohs emerging victorious.
Wearing an old London Skolars kit and featuring ten rugby league debutants, the Oakham-based outfit overcame the second team of the Wolf Hunt, who hail from Mansfield and were only formed two years ago themselves.

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

Warrington and Widnes set to renew acquaintances in Challenge Cup


WHEN the draw for the quarter-finals of this year’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup was made just over a month-and-a-half ago, arguably the most eye-catching tie of the round was the pairing of old rivals Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings.
Come Friday night at 8pm, the latest instalment of the Cheshire Derby will be played out on the national stage thanks to the BBC broadcasting the match live on their second channel.
Both teams have a proud history in this competition, with Warrington lifting the Cup on eight occasions and Widnes seven, although it is 23 years since the latter last graced the Wembley turf and 32 since their last triumph in the competition.
This is not the first time the Wire and the Chemics have done battle in the Cup and they have even met twice in the final, with Warrington winning 19-0 in 1950 and Widnes triumphing 14-7 in 1975 to defeat the holders.
The rivalry itself stretches back to before the formation of the Northern Union though and the first recorded meeting of the side came in 1878, with newspaper reports of the time commenting on “some fierceness on both sides”.
Warrington’s first 10,000 crowd also came against Widnes eight years later in the West Lancashire and Border Towns Cup at Wilderspool, which saw play temporarily suspended following the collapse of a stand containing 200 people, although no-one was seriously injury.
The zenith of the rivalry was arguably during the 1970s and 1980s when both clubs were regularly competing for the various honours on offer in the domestic game during that era.
That was epitomised no more so than the memorable battles between the forwards – most notably fiery Widnes prop Jim Mills and Warrington front-row enforcer Mike Nicholas.
“Jim and I used to keep the disciplinary committee busy in the 1970s,” recalled Nicholas on the launch of Mills’ autobiography, ‘Big Jim’. “We used to go in with the other players on charge and they would save our hearings till last.
“They used a trolley to wheel our files in and the committee used to boo us as we came in.
“I was sent off 15 times and Jim 20. Jim didn’t do anything by halves; he ended up banned from the whole southern hemisphere at one point.
“He got sent off everywhere except New Zealand, and that’s because they wouldn’t allow him in the country to play.”

Sorensen Boyd

Kurt Sorensen (left) and Les Boyd clashed regularly in the 1980s

But if the ‘70s was about the two Welshmen going toe-to-toe, the ‘80s had a somewhat more Antipodean flavour to it in the form of Widnes’ New Zealander, Kurt Sorensen, and Warrington’s Australian, Les Boyd.
Both are still highly revered at their respective clubs, with Sorensen’s eight-year spell seeing him win Championship, Premiership and World Club Challenge honours, while Boyd’s finest hour in the primrose and blue was captaining them to glory in the 1986 Premiership.
Among those watching at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on Friday will be BBC pundit Jonathan Davies, who featured for both clubs during his league career.
Having been snapped up by Widnes from Welsh rugby union side Neath in 1989 for a then-record fee of £230,000, he crossed the divide in 1993 when financial problems forced the club to sell him to their rivals.
The derby matches went into abeyance in the mid-1990s following Widnes’ relegation from the top flight in 1995 and the threat of both clubs being merged to form a Cheshire team to play in the new Super League was successfully staved off as well.
Widnes’ Northern Ford Premiership title triumph in 2001 meant them and Warrington would renew hostilities in the top flight the following year, and a miserable season for the Wolves was compounded by them being beaten in both games as the Vikings narrowly missed out on a play-off place.
Warrington gained a measure of revenge by winning the first encounter between the two of the 2003 campaign and then drew some controversy with their poster advertising the return game at Wilderspool that August.

Three-eyed fish

“What are you looking at?”

Playing on Widnes’ history as home of the chemicals industry, it featured the town’s landscape with chimneys belching thick smoke, barrels of toxic waste and a three-eyed fish.
“I would have thought anyone who lived in Widnes would have a sense of humour,” Warrington’s head of marketing Sean Mellor told the Daily Telegraph at the time.
“All we have done is draw attention to a few eye-catching symbols that are unmistakeably Widnes.”
Unsurprisingly, both Widnes townspeople and those involved with the club were unimpressed by Warrington’s attempts to stoke the fires, with Widnes PR man Andrew Kirchin among those to criticise it.
“I do find it objectionable and also inaccurate, because Widnes hasn’t had a chemical industry for 10 years, but it could be more serious than that,” Kirchin told The Guardian.
“Widnes-Warrington games have a history of trouble between the two sets of supporters. We went seven years without a derby until Widnes got into the Super League last season, but all that time didn’t reduce the pain between the two clubs.”
Fortunately, the match passed off without any trouble and did not backfire on the hosts either, with Warrington running out 30-16 victors.
Recent seasons have seen the rivalry spill over off the pitch though, with the 2013 encounter at Warrington seeing a Widnes fan assaulted by a steward and last year’s Super League meeting at the Select Security Stadium seeing play held up after an away supporter threw a flare onto the pitch.
Hopefully Friday’s talking points will be limited to whatever happens on the pitch. Given the history of this rivalry, it can pretty much be assured there will be plenty of fireworks on there as well.

The Armchair Pundit: Wayne Bennett’s flying visit leaves questions unanswered

Bennett

Wayne Bennett takes in a Super League game (Picture: The RFL)

THERE are few people in rugby league who carry an aura of mystique around with them in the way Wayne Bennett does.
Last week’s flying visit to England was a case in point, where the England head coach availed himself of the opportunity to do some scouting in Super League and hold a national team get-together with his club side, the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos, on a bye week.
In what was described, tellingly, as a “low key visit” by an official RFL press release, Bennett took in three games, visited several facilities to be used during this year’s Four Nations and gathered 31 players together for a meeting.
And then, just like that, he was gone. No interviews, no public appearances aside from being spotted in the stands at Huddersfield, Widnes and Warrington, and no word on what insights the 66-year-old may have gleaned from his trip.
The decision not to make Bennett available for interview during the week naturally irked one or two rugby league journalists, as well as drawing criticism from former England PR man Danny Reuben on Twitter, who saw it as a missed opportunity to promote the international game.

 

Then again, can you imagine what would have happened when some poor junior lackey in The RFL’s media department was sent to ask Bennett whether he would possibly consider putting himself up in front of the media?
It is probably not too far wide of the mark to speculate the response consisted of two words – and the second word was “off”.
In his homeland, Bennett is considered somewhat hostile towards the media and while that reputation is somewhat unfair, he admits he does not enjoy speaking with them in his book, ‘Don’t Die With The Music In You’ (well worth a read if you can track down a copy).
Not that you would have known it from his charm offensive when he was appointed England head coach earlier this year, where he drew much praise for how accommodating and forthcoming he was.
“I’m not that naïve not to know that the game needs the media’s support and involvement, even if I can take or leave them,” wrote Bennett, who is naturally wary around new people.
“I also realise that media people have a job to do and most of them will give you up to do their job. Which is fine.
“But the nasty side of me comes out when I see unfairness to the game and its players, and I wonder, if you put the microscope on their own ethics and work environment, do you think we’d find any fault there? Honestly?”
Bennett did not need to give any interviews for what he would no doubt perceive as unfairness to come out regarding the 31 players he held his get-together with, mostly from some fans who felt certain players from their teams were being overlooked.
Hull FC fans were questioning why full-back Jamie Shaul was not included, while Castleford Tigers fans were wondering the same about second row Mike McMeeken. And that is not to mention those alleging bias due to the number of Wigan Warriors and St Helens players included.
But then again, the group included all of the England-based players who were involved in last year’s Test series win over New Zealand, so would it not make perfect sense that Bennett would want to meet up with those and speak to them about his intentions and expectations?
The fact injured Leeds Rhinos lock Stevie Ward, who has yet to play this season, is perhaps an indicator that Bennett is looking beyond the Four Nations and towards next year’s Rugby League Would Cup.
The same could be said for uncapped St Helens quartet Alex Walmsley, Mark Percival, Joe Greenwood and Kyle Amor – although the latter of those raised a few eyebrows.
Given he is 29, Amor can hardly be considered “one for the future”. Yet the former Ireland international prop is now eligible – thanks to the RLIF’s arcane rules – to represent the country of his birth and seemingly has an admirer in Bennett.
It is also important to remember nothing is set in stone as far as squad selection is concerned for the Four Nations. Whatever Bennett has planned, he will let everyone know when he feels it appropriate.

Thursday night attendance watch: The 6,219 who turned up to the Select Security Stadium for Widnes Vikings’ home game with Wigan Warriors was 3,067 down on the corresponding fixture from last year.
That was played on a Thursday night as well, although perhaps a mitigating factor in the drop-off was that the 2015 encounter between the two was the opening fixture of the season.
Not that those who decided to stay at home missed much, with another low-scoring game seeing Wigan edge to a 7-0 win thanks to Josh Charnley’s converted try and a drop goal from Matty Smith.
That was Smith’s seventh drop goal of the season, which is the highest number by an individual player since Lee Briers kicked the same number 10 years ago, and the Wigan man seems on course to beat that tally.

Brough puts the boot in: Also kicking a drop goal to secure a victory was Danny Brough, although in a somewhat more pulsating contest than the one at Widnes the night before.
What was interesting about half-back Brough’s score was that it put Huddersfield Giants 31-18 up against Salford Red Devils and proved more crucial than he perhaps would have realised at the time, with the hosts mounting a fightback and falling short by just that single point.
The match was played not only in the wake of the death of Huddersfield youngster Ronan Costello, but also on the back of head coach Paul Anderson being sacked after a dismal season for the club.
Salford are not quite condemned to another year in the Qualifiers yet, but of bigger concern to the club and owner Marwan Koukash must be the fact only 1,958 supporters showed up to the AJ Bell Stadium.
And while Leeds Rhinos are still propping up the table, they at least gave their fans something to cheer about after recording a back-to-back wins thanks to a 32-6 triumph over seemingly play-off bound Wakefield Trinity.
There is some sort of bizarre parallel universe where the defending champions recording such a result is not considered a shock, although the bigger picture is that Leeds now face Widnes, who occupy the final Super 8s place and are six points ahead with four games to play.

Thirty-three year of hurt: You have to go back to 1983 for the last time Hull FC were crowned league champions, yet in those days it was simply a race to finish top of the table.
Lee Radford’s team are, at least, odds-on to claim the League Leaders’ Shield after they edged out Castleford Tigers 24-22 at a packed Mend-A-Hose Jungle on Sunday afternoon, but the bookies still rate them at 3/1 behind Wigan and Warrington to win the Grand Final.
The Wolves managed to edge out fellow title hopefuls Catalans Dragons 20-18 to keep up their hopes of finishing first, while St Helens gave head coach Keiron Cunningham some respite by beating Hull Kingston Rovers 48-16.

Championship round-up: Three games in eight days did not seem to harm Bradford Bulls too much as they moved up to third in the Kingston Press Championship to boost their hopes of a return to Super League.
A 48-4 victory at relegation-threatened Oldham Roughyeds was followed by a 17-16 win at home to Batley Bulldogs, with Kurt Haggerty kicking a late drop goal to seal the win for Bradford.
Batley still remain in the hunt for the Qualifiers and are now level on points with Halifax, who downed Dewsbury Rams 24-8 to go fourth on points difference.
Convincing wins for Leigh Centurions – 54-12 over Workington Town – and London Broncos – 56-16 over Oldham – saw them continue to lead the way in first and second though.

League One round-up: Normal service was resumed for Toulouse Olympique as they put fellow promotion hopefuls Keighley Cougars to the sword 84-6 in France last Saturday.
York City Knights and Barrow Raiders both racked up a half-century of points in their wins over Oxford and Hemel Stags respectively, but the game of the round in Kingston Press League One was arguably in Newcastle.
Rochdale Hornets came off a bye-week to take a 38-30 win over Newcastle Thunder to revitalise their quest for promotion, having trailed 24-22 with 15 minutes remaining.

Amateur score of the week: Birstall Victoria 34 Sheffield Hillborough Hawks 6, Yorkshire Mens League, Division Four. Inspired by the returning Jonni Parrish, Birstall secured a comfortable win to close to within a point of second-placed Sheffield.
Celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, Birstall’s former players include Batley’s chairman, Kevin Nicholas, and groundsman, Jim Morley.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough Hawks can trace their ancestry back to the Junior Eagles team which was formed in 1989 to develop the sport below the level of Sheffield’s professional side.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email marcbazeley@googlemail.com, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.