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

Challenge Cup

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.

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

Rick Stone

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.

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The Armchair Pundit: Poachers turned gamekeepers


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.

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


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.

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The Armchair Pundit: Super League’s low-scoring weekend

UNTIL Danny Kirmond went over for what proved to be the only try of the game in Wakefield Trinity’s 10-2 win over Huddersfield Giants, it might have seemed as if the highlights were going to consist of little more than a vine of referee Michael Woodhead blowing his whistle for kick-off and full-time.
Few would have blamed the 5,077 fans who turned up to the John Smith’s Stadium on Sunday if they had started streaming out of the ground LA-style at half-time in the Super League encounter, with Liam Finn’s penalty being the only score as Wakefield led 2-0.
Indeed, up to that point the closest either team had come to a try was earlier on in the opening 40 minutes when Wakefield thought they had scored, only for the officials to instead award a goal-line drop-out.
Fortunately, Kirmond’s 68th-minute score against his former club, coming from Finn’s defence-splitting grubber, ensured this would not finish as only the second tryless game in Super League history.
Instead, that dubious honour still belongs to the Salford-Harlequins snoozefest in 2007, which saw the hosts win 5-2 thanks to two penalties from John Wilshere and a drop goal from Luke Robinson.
An interesting sub-plot to this result is that it helped Wakefield take a large step closer to sealing a place in the Super 8s, while at the same time all but condemning Huddersfield to the Qualifiers – and who would have predicted that at the start of the season?
What is even more impressive about Chris Chester’s side’s resurgence is that they have done this despite conceding the second-highest number of points in the competition (479) and scoring the second-fewest number of 369 – with 62 of those coming in the home win over Wigan Warriors alone.
Unsurprisingly, the team who have scored the fewest number of points is Leeds Rhinos en route to seemingly completing the unprecedented transition from first to worst in the space of less than a year.
Brian McDermott’s beleaguered side did at least earn some respite last Friday in the other low-scoring game of round 18, seeing off Salford Red Devils 8-0 thanks to two tries from Liam Sutcliffe.
Curiously, Salford have a history of being involved in low-scoring Super League affairs. Indeed, their first summer-era game in the top flight way back in 1997 saw them beat Castleford Tigers 4-0 as Phil Coussons got the only try.
As an aside, Coussons is now a club ambassador for Salford and after-dinner speaker, so one wonders if he tells that story in any of his speeches.
Then there was the aforementioned win over Harlequins, followed by a 7-0 loss at home to Bradford Bulls two years ago, with former Australian Test forward Steve Menzies getting the only try, Matt Orford kicking a penalty and drop-goal king Paul Sykes booting a one-pointer.
Not that the top-of-the-table clash provided much more in the way of entertainment either, with Hull FC maintaining their lead thanks to a 19-12 victory over Warrington Wolves in an error-riddled encounter.
Perhaps Hull coach Lee Radford summed it up best though, saying: “It was a horrible game, a poor advert for the top of the competition, but we’re sat at the top so I’m not going to complain.”

Thursday night attendance watch: The 4,968 who turned up to the Mend-a-Hose Jungle to watch Widnes Vikings defeat hosts Castleford 38-28 last Thursday was 2,034 down on the corresponding fixture last season, which was played on a Sunday afternoon.
One place where attendances are up is Perpignan, with the high-flying Catalans Dragons averaging 9,665 for games at the Gilbert Brutus Stadium compared to 8,635 last season.
No doubt the upturn has coincided with a season which sees the French side currently sitting second and the 33-16 win over St Helens on Saturday evening will have done much to strengthen their case as being dark horses for the Super League title.
If you are one of those compulsive types who likes to have a bet, you can still get odds of 5/1 on the Dragons to go all the way and win the Grand Final, although it is Wigan who remain heavy favourites with the bookies.
That did not stop Shane Wane’s men being pushed all the way by Hull Kingston Rovers at the KC Lightstream Stadium, with the visitors having to come back from 18-8 down with 15 minutes to play.
The defeat also means James Webster’s KR side have not won back-to-back matches in the league this season.

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Jack Smith ahead of his Super League debut (Picture: @RFLReferees)

Jack Smith makes his mark: The observant rugby league followers out there will have noticed a few new names among the men in the middle in recent months, with The RFL giving several referees from the Kingston Press Championship an opportunity at the highest level.
Generally, the whistle-blowers only make headlines for any controversial decisions they make, but Jack Smith is a little bit different.
The 27-year-old former Royal Marine took charge of his first Super League game two weeks ago, which came just under six years after being shot by the Taliban in Afghanistan and being left with ten broken ribs, and severe damage to his lungs and lower back.
Medically discharged from the Marines after two years of intensive rehabilitation and unable to resume his amateur playing career with Crosfields, Smith took up the whistle in September 2012 and has progressed rapidly.
His first Super League game in the middle was also televised live on Sky Sports and Smith received plenty of praise for his handling of the match. Hopefully he will get another opportunity soon.

Championship round-up: It was not just Super League which was restricted to low-scoring, tightly-fought matches, with Qualifiers hopefuls Halifax coming from behind to draw 12-12 away to Whitehaven.
That was enough to keep them ahead of Bradford Bulls in the race for a top four place, although the Bulls still have a game in hand after their trip to Cumbria saw them defeat Workington Town 29-22.
Despite a wobble after their flying start, part-timers Batley Bulldogs are still in with an excellent chance of being in the promotion shake-up come the split and they further strengthened those claims with a 29-10 triumph at Sheffield Eagles last Friday.
The question is can anyone stop London Broncos and Leigh Centurions? The former ran out 42-16 winners at Swinton Lions, while Leigh were pushed by Featherstone Rovers before winning 14-12.

League One round-up: Although they remained unbeaten and are still stop of the league, the aura of invincibility around Toulouse Olympique seems to be slipping.
The 32-22 win at Newcastle Thunder was the French side’s smallest margin of victory in the league this season and they found themselves behind to the hosts for much of the first half.
A further boost for the Thunder was that the attendance of 902 at Kingston Park was the second-highest crowd across all of the weekend’s Kingston Press Championship and League One matches.
Meanwhile, London Skolars kept up their bid for a place in the League One Super 8s with a 42-34 victory over fellow promotion hopefuls Barrow Raiders thanks to a second-half fightback.
The Skolars, who have been around since 1995, were knocked out on the semi-finals when they last reached the play-offs three years ago and it would be an incredible achievement if they were to do so again after only finishing 11th in 2015.

Amateur score of the week: Hindpool Tigers 18 Bamber Bridge 36, North West Men’s League Division One. The efforts of Bamber Bridge’s Swarbrick brothers, Jack and Harry, helped condemn the title hopefuls to defeat.
Formed in 1984 by a group of friends who played in a sevens competition in Wigan, Bamber Bridge have been stallwarts of the North West League, and have played matches against the Dutch development team and Malta Knights.

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The Armchair Pundit: Rugby league goes to the races

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Why the long face? (Picture: @CTRLFC)

LIQUORICE enthusiasts aside, Pontefract might well be considered one of those places along with the likes of Uttoxeter, Market Rasen and Lingfield which only registers on the consciousness of the average member of the public as a horse racing venue.
Certainly as far as rugby league is concerned, this particular corner of West Yorkshire has had little to celebrate compared to neighbouring Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield.
Indeed, a team representing Pontefract spent three unhappy seasons as members of the Northern Union from 1903 to 1906, with the nadir coming in September of the latter when they turned up to Swinton with just 12 players and were hammered 76-4 – this in the days when tries were worth just three points.
That goes a long way to explaining why, 110 years later, the stars of the summer months in the town are of the equine variety, with Europe’s longest continuous racing venue – 16.75 furlongs, since you ask – in operation from March to October.
Last Monday evening saw both racing and rugby league come together though, with Castleford Tigers, Wakefield Trinity and Featherstone Rovers, plus Huddersfield Giants, all sponsoring races at the course’s inaugural Rugby League Evening.
Season ticket holders of all four clubs were able to gain admission at discounted prices, while players from all of the teams were there to mingle with the VIPs and present prizes to the winning jockeys and owners.
Among them was one of Ponte Carlo’s own, Castleford skipper Michael Shenton, and while the town’s professional team may have had a short and inglorious history, there have been several players to make a mark in the game hail from there.
Don Robinson was part of the Great Britain team which won the first Rugby League World Cup in 1954, while Rob Burrow and Richard Owen are both among those plying their trade at the top level.
Another Pontefract player who was in the news this week was Burrow’s Leeds Rhinos team-mate Zak Hardaker due to being placed on the transfer list as he seeks a move to the NRL.
Hardaker’s own struggles this season have mirrored those of the reigning Super League champions and matters were hardly helped by title chasers Catalans Dragons winning 24-12 at Headingley last Friday.
Meanwhile, Huddersfield’s players might have welcomed the opportunity to get away from their own disappointing campaign at Pontefract on Monday – maybe not so much possibly bumping into some of the Tigers players who had beaten them 30-22 three days prior.
One man who might have felt he was missing out on the Pontefract party was Dr Marwan Koukash, who counts horse racing as one of his interests along with owning Salford Red Devils and waging a personal war against The RFL.
Racing Post columnist David Ashforth profiled Koukash’s involvement in the sport of kings in one of his columns last week and what was particularly revealing was how often he has changed the various trainers of his string from year to year.
Perhaps that explains why he is so keen on chopping and changing coaches at the AJ Bell Stadium. Director of rugby Tim Sheens and head coach Ian Watson may well want to bear that in mind.

Thursday night attendance watch: The 5,082 spectators who showed up at the Rapid Solicitors Stadium for Wakefield’s encounter with Hull Kingston Rovers was 238 lower than the crowd at last season’s corresponding fixture, which was played on a Sunday afternoon.
At least it proved a perfect return to Wakefield for KR head coach James Webster, who saw his team triumph 54-16 over the hosts who are now coached by his predecessor in East Hull, Chris Chester.
It was a good weekend for the black and white half of the city as well, with Hull FC staying top of the table ahead of their showdown with second-placed Warrington Wolves thanks to a 30-10 win over Widnes Vikings.
Warrington downed old rivals St Helens 26-4 to keep up their pursuit of the leaders and ratchet up the pressure on Saints head coach Keiron Cunningham, whose appearance on the big screen at Langtree Park was met by a chorus of boos.

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Vote for your favourite! Or not… (Picture: @WiganWarriorsRL)

Democracy in action: In what seems destined to go down as a bad idea, Wigan Warriors have offered their fans a chance to vote for their favourite design for next season’s home kit.
Given that only one of the six potential designs features anything even close to the club’s traditional cherry and white hoops, a cynic might say there is not really much choice at all and fans are being directed towards which might be their favourite.
At least the Warriors supporters had something to cheer about last Friday though, with the team edging Salford 23-20 to ensure they remain hot on the heels of the leaders.

Championship round-up: Dewsbury was briefly trending on Twitter on Sunday afternoon, thanks in no small part to the Rams again edging out Bradford Bulls In a close-fought encounter at Odsal.
Once again, former Bulls man Paul Sykes landed the killer blow late on by kicking a penalty to secure a 16-14 win and underlining the job new Bradford coach Rohan Smith has on his hands.
Bradford were replaced in the top four by Featherstone after they stormed to a 58-12 victory over Swinton Lions and London Broncos kept up their pursuit of leaders Leigh Centurions by seeing off Workington Town 50-28.
Meanwhile, Leigh’s Gareth Hock – no stranger to the disciplinary panel – was found not guilty of deliberately making contact with a match official, but instead received a three-game ban for punching in their encounter with Swinton.

League One round-up: South Wales Scorpions returned to Cardiff Arms Park to take on North Wales Crusaders in the Prinicipality’s derby clash for the second year in a row, but suffered a 30-16 loss and are bottom of the table.
Sadly, neither team looks like being involved in the promotion shake-up this season, although the Crusaders are comfortably mid-table and seem to have – for now – overcome the financial problems which threatened their existence earlier in the year.
Toulouse Olympique are now top of the table after seeing off Doncaster 46-26 at home, while York City Knight sprang a minor upset to defeat previous leaders Rochdale Hornets 40-12.

Amateur score of the week: Valley Cougars 60 Torfean Tigers 16, Conference League South. The warm-up to the main event at Cardiff Arms Park proved somewhat one-sided as the Conference South leaders brushed aside their Welsh rivals.

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

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Keighley Cougars claimed the 2016 iPro Sport Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Armchair Pundit: Geordies in wonderland

Newcastle rugby league

Newcastle in action against Huddersfield in 1937

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Armchair Pundit: Marwan Koukash escalates war with The RFL


Marwan Koukash is bringing his war to Red Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenge Cup

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

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


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

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

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

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

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