Talk about the tumbleweed connection ……Boy last week was a quiet one!!
Over the years I have been through some becalmed times particularly in the closed season, but last week was one of the least interesting that I can ever remember, well it was from an FC point of view anyway. With the players being given their first 5-day break for ages and much of the focus on the Denver international, it was hard to find much at all to discuss this week which got me thinking that perhaps it was a time to reflect on our Club, where we are and indeed where the game is at the present time.
Fridays hit up against Widnes is certainly an important one if we are to keep in touch with the top four and finally secure our top eight safety, so we can at least look forward to that. But, as for the International, well it was great to see two of our lads out there, before then, our only ever present player in a difficult season, gets an injury when vying for man of the match and whilst not even playing for us! Such is 2018 at Hull FC!!! However, let’s hope, for a change, that this week the news on Jake Connor is good.
Heavens, it’s been a long time since we last had a week off when there was no League game for Hull FC and its certainly been apparent that it’s not just me that is struggling to find something to talk about. The training ground at County Road has fell largely silent since Tuesday and the media has certainly been scratching around for something to write about. The fans I’ve met this week have been just the same and one mate who I bumped into in the Dog and Duck in Beverley and who always has something to say on the subject of the FC, certainly epitomised that situation.
(Doubting) Thomas, (as we’ll call him) who I have known for years and who is like me a member of the ‘glass half empty’ brigade of fans, commented, when we met, about Rovers still insisting in the media that they could avoid the middle eight’s, before adding that with only a potential 19 points on offer even if they win all their remaining games, that would be a big ask.
He rightly continued that 20 or 21 points is the usual maxim for avoiding the middle free-for-all, but also indicated that if the Dobbins do survive, it would mean another ‘bloody Derby’ in the Eight’s, before adding that, “Even if we don’t win another game, we still have 20 points already and so if they stay up then we will have survived the group of death too”. So at least according to Bill the scenario where we are in the middle eights mix and Rovers survive it, has been eliminated. He seemed to take much solace from that; and I thought I was pessimistic!!! But as I say, boy it’s been a quiet week!
That said twenty points should be enough for any team to survive this year particularly as the current bottom four have a mixture of potentially tough games and matches against each other, but looking over our shoulders you can certainly see, Thomas apart, what the Super League owners are on about, with the amount of uncertainty there is around the 7 or so clubs involved. I know some fans, relishing the jeopardy, will think that’s great, but they fail to consider how hard it is to plan for the future if your one of the Clubs who are still in that bottom 4 mix. It also looks to me as if the top two at least, could be decided well by the 23rd game split, with teams that finish 6th to 8th by then, struggling to have much to play for in the final 7 games.
Nonetheless, at Hull FC life goes on and it’s been a while since the lads have had some proper time off, but this week we trained on Monday and Tuesday before being given a well- deserved break to recharge the batteries a bit. That was a real luxury, however the lads were sent off with a bit of a flea in their ears and with something to think about concerning the way we had made things so much harder for the rest of the season against Wigan, and more importantly about their behaviour whilst they were away from camp.
Lee referred to the need for there to be ‘no grenades thrown in over the next few days’, meaning, I guess, he didn’t want to face any incidents that he had to sort out when they were all back. No doubt a couple of episodes from recent history involving Hakim Maloudi and Albert Kelly were at the forefront of his mind, but I guess to say that in public and give them such a warning just shows that such incidents are never far from the coach’s mind and also indicates how irresponsible some of his wards can be at times. Still rugby players have always been …well rugby players, haven’t they?
Now, there were certainly a lot of raised eye brows when Denver was first suggested for a mid-season Test Match but Saturday’s game was far more than a one-off, parachuted in, friendly. The promoter was over the moon afterwards and promised to repeat the offer of such a game next year. In addition, whatever you think about it, such full internationals are special moments for the players and a reward for those who have worked hard to reach the top of their profession. Subsiquently, it will have provided moments and memories that players like Scott and Jake can look back on in retirement with so much satisfaction. Both players will return with some great memories I’m sure.
However, the 2025 World Cup is scheduled to take place in the United States and whether you like it or not it looks more and more likely that the next expansion of the game could well be to America, with New York among the cities possibly in line for a club side. So, to that end the staging of this game was crucial. There was a quite a bit going on across Twitter and social media over there before the match and it looked as if there was an increasing hype about it, which is always a good start. It was not just the 20,000 there but the thousands of sport hungry viewers tuning in to watch across the continent. In the US we need to spark some sort of interest in people who aren’t familiar with the game and I just think it is all about getting bums on seats and eyes on the TV, because then the game will speak for itself.
Over the last few decades Rugby League has coveted the United States market and in general when you look back at our attempts to bring the game to the sports mad American public the fans there have enjoyed their limited exposure to the sport. The Leeds Rhinos played in front of a five-figure crowd when they faced South Sydney Rabbitohs in a challenge game in Northern Florida a decade ago, though I seem to remember commenting in here back then that Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe (who was there again on Saturday) was more of an attraction that afternoon, than were Jamie Peacock or Kevin Sinfield. If the 2025 World Cup is going to succeed there is a lot of hard work to be done and that journey most definitely started last Saturday.
Some of the comments I have read from ordinary American Sports fans since Saturday and indeed over the years indicate that the physical nature of rugby league and the fact the players don’t wear helmets or padding, is maybe the way to an American sports fan’s heart. Much of the marketing for last Saturday’s game was based around that and the fierce Kiwi haka. In America, if they don’t make the elite standard, there’s nowhere for gridiron players to go after school or college level, so that is something rugby league could perhaps tap into. Who knows where all this will end, if not in another false dawn, but one things for sure 2025 is not that far off; well its not if you are to stage the top Competition in any sport in a country that at present doesn’t have a single fully professional team there.
So to the International itself and for heaven’s sake RL if you are to take such a massive step into the unknown for the game, at least get the national anthems right, because if anything was to wind up the Kiwi’s it had to be that abysmal rendition (or otherwise) of their national song. Then we couldn’t kick off because we had left the kicking tee’s in the changing rooms as well, what an abysmal (yet typical Rugby League) start that was.
However, the showing by the English lads was really refreshing and in the end on reflection it was at the altitude and in that heat a great performance. Our two representatives did themselves proud with Taylor for me the best prop on the English team and Connor the difference when he came on and what a great try he got. Of course as the pessimists indicated beforehand, one of them was bound to get injured and so the only real injury on the English side went to Jake who went off with a shoulder problem. We could do for it only to be the reported ‘stinger’ but if it’s not and more serious, then it’s just another indicator of how this season is going really isn’t it?
If it’s been a quiet week and a time for reflection, then perhaps its worth having a holistic look at where we are as a team personnel wise and more to the point what strength we have in the depth of the playing ranks and the younger players coming through the squad. Back in the days before Adam Pearson we always had one or two good prospects coming through, however, in general I always felt a bit uneasy about their ability, when we called the youngsters up in times of injury. Invariably we ditched a swathe of young talent each year and brought in fresh faces many of whom were to succumb to the same fate a year later.
It was, looking back, an ad hoc system that bore fruit almost by accident, but now I think that we have a great pool of players, many of whom are still youngsters whose performances this season, (when push has come to shove), have proved for me personally that I trust them a lot more these days. Adam and Lee Radford decided on a structured approach to the selection of talent and to their subsequent player development and they have stuck to it. If you asked either of them what their biggest regret has been, then no doubt they would tell you it was abandoning the Club’s own Academy and adopting the shared set up that we now have.
However, that was a case of needs must and financially if nothing else it has been a success and allowed us to use our available funds elsewhere. I still think that the concept, (being between two such bitter rivals, with the choice of who has been put in charge and the fact it has alienated a lot of fans who used to watch the old academy set up), has deemed it a bit of a disaster, but that’s just me. Our owner and Coach probably also lament the lack of a reserve grade team, but that went the same way, for the same reasons. Both concepts as far as Hull FC are concerned, might return one day, but only when there is more money in the game and that’s something that the owners are currently aiming to address anyway.
But, we’ve battled on with an expanded squad that saw the youngster go right through a full pre-season with the senior players and I guess you would say that this season in most cases when a young player has replaced an ‘old hand’ the transition has been pretty seamless. I mean to say when was the last time you left a game blaming our performance on one such player? Quite a while I’ll wager! We’d like to say that as far as such youngsters are concerned we have never done that, but if we are honest, as devoted fans in the disappointed afterglow of a defeat most of us have. Even if it was just a “Sadly he’s not up to it yet” sort of comment. However, this year that has rarely if ever been the case, has it?
This season has been a tough one injury wise, probably as tough as it gets, but look how that depleted squad went toe to toe with Saints in the Cup, I’d hazard a guess that such an injury crisis six or seven years ago would have seen a completely different outcome. But you only have to look at the list of players that have been drafted in this season to agree that none of them have let us down at all when they have been called in to cover for an injured ‘star’ and what a tribute to the owner and the Coach and their agreed strategy that is!
Brad Fash, Jezz Litten, Jack Logan, Jansin Turgot, Jordan Lane, Jack Downs, Hakim Miloudi, Callum Scott, Liam Harris and even Jordan Abdull all stepped up and have all looked exciting prospects at times, whilst we now just accept Masi Matongo and Dean Hadley as part of the starting 17, even when everyone is fit. Its interesting too, that when we don’t have the youngsters in a certain position, we go out and get them from other clubs, like the acquisition of Jake Connor, Hakim Miloudi, and Liam Harris have proved. Add to them players like Bowden and Green who have come through the process and have now blossomed into starting 17 material and boy are we well placed at present. In fact, its only when you actually list them that you realise just how well stacked we are with good young players, who more importantly still, are all real prospects.
The down side of course is that keeping all these players in a cap situation that is, I accept, increasing every year, (but not by much), is a big task. Everyone wants rewarding for their progress and the young players have to see some return if they are to stick around, but that’s not always possible neither is bringing in the big name signings that some fans crave, because we all love a big signing don’t we? Some knowledgeable readers contact me from time to time saying that we need a ‘marquee second rower’ or ‘a big name winger’ but of course with those cap restrictions when it comes to strength in depth through outstanding youth and marquee signings you can’t have both. You either ditch a few youngsters to sign such a player or you don’t sign them.
Nonetheless, we are really well placed at present, because the player pool in this country is reducing, teams are hanging on to their assets so marquee signings are almost none existent and Aussie players are being priced out of the market by the NRL’s current wage structure. Teams like Salford, Widnes, Huddersfield and Wakefield have seen what we have done and are frantically signing up youngsters of potential to try to secure their futures, just as we have done, but we have stolen a march on all of them.
So if this mid-season hiatus is a time for reflection, then I think that as a Club we can pat Adam, Motu Tony, Lee Radford and James Clark on the back and say that we are in as good a position young player wise as we have been for years. We’ve always had them, but seldom have they all been able to step up so effectively and indeed in such numbers. Nevertheless, we should all recognise the hard work that has gone into this current crop of talent and understand as well that the continued development of these young players depends on the retention of some of the role models they have around them. These are the players who have had such and influence in their development, like Mini, Manu and Talanoa. I expect all three to be at the club next year, but don’t expect any big name signings this end of season, but then again when I consider what we already have at the Club, I’m not too bothered either.
My comments and lengthy appraisal of the situation concerning re-structuring for next season in last week’s Diary certainly met with a lot of agreement from readers, but it also seemed to engender a lot of debate and it also raised a few hackles too and rather like Brexit few devoted fans seem to be impassive. In fact everyone appearing to have an opinion if not a somewhat entrenched view of it all. I even got one or two rather rude comments back from anonymous key board warriors on ‘anti-social media’, but I’m used to that sort of stuff by now.
For anyone who missed it I think it’s worth here repeating what Paul Cooke had to say on the matter this week when he commented, “Whatever the new structures are I can’t believe that 33 per cent of the league’s teams are at threat of relegation in any one year and that a team that finishes ninth can be relegated over a side that finishes bottom. Teams in this 33 per cent are at a distinct disadvantage to those in the top-eight when it comes to planning for the following season, let alone more long term. Players are reluctant to join a team in ninth spot because of the threat of relegation. They’d take the team in eighth any day because their contract and job are guaranteed”.
He continued, “The lower league clubs will clearly lose out financially or such a fuss would have never been kicked up. The Super League clubs will gain in some way financially as well as being able to have better opportunities to grow their club on and off the field. Lower league clubs need owners like the Super League owners to have any opportunities to sit at the top table. Owners who are willing to spend full salary cap year on year firstly in the hope of promotion and secondly in the hope of growing their club in doing so”.
For me that’s I guess the point in a nut shell really, because the game needs to be in the hands of the Super League owners most of whom have wintered and summered hard times and shelled out of their own pockets to keep their clubs going to the point that it’s obvious that they aren’t in it for the money. These guys are without doubt dedicated to the game. Just look at Hudge, you know my feelings on that fella, but look at the dedication and personal sacrifice he has put into keeping Rovers afloat. Without him where would they be now? Then there are others who came into the game a bit naively thinking they would make money, but who have fallen in love with it and stuck at it, perhaps like Adam. They would have walked years ago if it was about generating personal wealth. The success of the game is dependent on the dedication and passion of the few money men we have in the sport at present. As such whilst they are in control as far as the fans are concerned the game is in good hands, because it’s their money they are risking and so the economics of it ensure we have a Club and game to watch.
Every closed season there are one or two lower Division teams in trouble, at least one changing ownership and many more wringing their hands over their financial plight. They get a good cut of the Super League money from Sky, although it is the Super League Clubs that earn it, but for every team down there who show real entrepreneurial flair with owners that put their hands in their pockets because they love the game, there are at least two clubs surviving mainly on that Sky money and living hand to mouth.
For traditionalists like me that’s pretty unpalatable to say, but in the cold light of day that’s the situation. I want it to be like the old days when Doncaster, Rochdale, Swinton, Oldham et al, can all aspire to win the top prize from wherever they are now although realistically for most, that’s never ever going to happen. To throw large amounts of money at such clubs just under the pretext of ‘fair do’s’ would be suicidal to say the least, because that sort of utopian panacea is just fantasy island stuff these days. Yes, they still need the ability to dream that is created by a means of achieving it, but that has to be a staged incremental passage and not a free for all as some lower division Clubs would like.
We will always need to make sure that there is a mechanism that ensures Super League is not a closed shop and that’s why as I said last week, I find a lot to get enthusiastic about in the Super League Club’s model for the game going forward. If the big Clubs with the money, the backers, the audiences and the skills to build those audiences further, are in control (but always with a means by which others of the same ilk in the lower divisions can join the party) then in the end there has to be hope for everyone in a game driven by those who have most to lose if it fails. Just as I said last week that’s just my point of view, but in a quiet week on the local scene it’s a point I have been mulling over a bit myself and therefore I wanted to revisit it again simply because it’s so important to the games future.
Well, that was a surprise result last Wednesday even by Leeds’s recent standards when Catalans came to town and left having pinched the two points. It was certainly a worrying evening for Leeds and the Frenchmen’s win was even more worrying I guess for Rovers, however once again the game was apparently blighted by the Dragon’s players constantly feigning injury and the incidence of abject gamesmanship which some neutral observers said, “Had to be seen to be believed”.
One spectator said, “Watching the last 15 minutes of Catalans gamesmanship has me really worried for the game as a whole. There is a lot of talk about where our game is going and what the structure should be in order to bring back the crowds. The league structure is the least of our worries. If the feigning of injury and milking of cheap penalties isn’t stopped quickly I can see many supporters walking away. It was shameful stuff and is becoming a blight on our game”. Such comments from neutrals are becoming common place after every Catalans match and they are certainly something that we don’t want in our game at all.
Now, with all the talk of the importance of addressing mental health issues in our game and following the other weeks State of Mind fixtures, I think that its important too that we remember that it’s not just the players who suffer in such cases but it can affect the officials too.
You’ll remember that back in the last World Cup the son of Aussie Ref. Matt Cechin was told there was a bounty on his dad’s head after his key call in England’s World Cup semi-final win over Tonga and now it’s come to light, that several Super League referees have had messages over social media and e-mail from supporters targeting them for abuse. 3 have actually come off social media altogether this season, which should never ever have to happen.
We are all fans, we pay’s our money and have a right to complain, but in the end that’s one thing and it has always been so, but with social media it appears some idiots are taking things a few steps further and actually abusing officials and their families over the internet. Now former ref Ian Smith says what is said does have an impact and attitudes need to change, or we could face having no refs at all.
Smith said: “They don’t deserve it and it’s getting worse. You have these keyboard warriors around. When I was at school, you used to bump into the school bullies, now they’re everywhere, these warriors who feel they can say anything they want with impunity and it doesn’t have an effect. Well, let me tell you it does have an effect. Whether a decision is right or wrong, no person should be subjected to that level of abuse”. Now, no one used to shout at referee’s more than me during a game, not loud enough for him to hear me, but I’d shout all the same. That is and always has been the lot of the officials and the visiting team’s players, look at what used to happen between them and those on the Threepenny Stand.
Yet it never came to the state it is in now. It is of course a reflection on society where threatening behavior and even stalking on line is rife, but we as a sport should be a bit ashamed of some of the stuff that goes on towards officials, however exactly what can be done about it is completely another thing. Interesting stuff from Mr. Smith though I thought!
This week in our Codgers Corner spot I want to go back to 1975 and that great year when in the midst of despair, shrinking gates and diminishing finances, we got all the way to the final of the Players No 6 Trophy, only to get narrowly beaten by Widnes. That most famous of games has been featured a time or two in the Diary as it is one of my most cherished memories, but the quarter final game, on the way there, was a heck of a performance too. David Doyle Davidson was our coach at the time, and you know the more I write these reminiscences the more I get to realise how we never really appreciated just what a great Coach he was. He came to power at a time when we were at an all-time low and despite being given little resources by the Directors, he cobbled together a really handy team, full of guts, passion and spirit and probably in the end, he was unlucky to lose his job to Arthur Bunting.
In the first round of the tournament we had scraped an unconvincing win at Doncaster, and then went on to beat a very highly fancied Leeds in the next round. Then the draw for the quarter finals was made on regional TV and we came out of the hat to face Saints at the Boulevard on Saturday 23rd November. That day I was joined by another 4500 of the Faithful, and what was estimated to be well over 2 million on BBC TV, to experience a truly great FC performance. The fact that in my rugby diary of the time, I noted that this was a good crowd just shows how low we had sunk, but then again there was that gate of 900 against Huyton the previous year, and this match was on TV, so I guess this was as good as we would get.
It was only the previous Tuesday that we had gone down to the Saints, in a televised Floodlit Trophy game, by 36-13, so few neutrals watching at home, gave us a chance. Alan Wardell once told me that this was a fact that DDD hammered on about before the game saying that ‘Everyone expects us to get a drubbing, so let’s show those folks, on TV, what we are really about here at Hull‘. It was even more of a surprise in the end when it leaked out afterwards that the Board had also refused a bonus for the game and the players were playing for the usual league winning pay. DDD somehow got a chance to watch the Floodlit game again, which was a rarity in the days before video analysis and he said that he and his coaching team had studied the Saints methods of play and changed the FC game plan completely; in just three nights of training.
From the first play of the game we had the Saints tactically beaten. Every time they tried to move the ball wide in the first few minutes our cover came up into the line and broke their play up. DDD called it afterwards an ‘umbrella defence’ and it really frustrated the opposition. After about three attempts at this Saints dropped the ball a couple of times as we just drove on at them. Then on 5 minutes Keith Boxall broke through a three man tackle and set Alf Macklin haring for the corner. Alf was caught, but pushed two much bigger tacklers off, to dive in over the line. This battling action was to a set the scene for the rest of our performance.
Despite that hard game just 4 days previously our tackling was of the highest order, but so too was that of Saints and so the game settled into a ‘slugathon’ of big hits and crunching tackles. However, after 12 minutes, when he looked to be covered by Pimblett, Kenny Foulkes dummied his way through the Saints cover straight from a scrum, and as he stepped over the 25 he found Hunter with a little inside pass. He ran for the line with three defenders chasing him and arcing towards the corner flag just got the ball down before Roy Mathias got to him. Although Kendle missed both conversions it was a dream start and a lead that we were not to relinquish.
The Saints pack that day was 5 stone heavier than ours, but our 6, brilliantly led by the great Bill Ramsey dominated the exchanges, with Cunningham, Chisnell, Nichols and Mantle rarely breaking the line and Peter (Flash) Flanagan shovelled the ball out for us, beating international hooker Liptrop 19-12 in the scrums.
The game settled down somewhat after that lightening start but just as Saints started to get a foothold in our territory, Hancock picked up a loose ball, spilled after a massive Ramsey hit, and set off towards the Saints half. He was tackled some thirty yards out but two more forward drives, one a blockbuster from Boxall, saw Chris Davidson open on the left, and he dropped a perfect goal to stretch out lead further.
We went in at half time leading 7-0 but any thoughts of an easy victory were quashed when Saints came back with a quick Mathias score in the corner, which Pimblett converted, and then we were under sustained pressure as Saints sniffed a win. Both Crane and Portz in the centres bottled their wide moves up though, and down the middle, Boxall, Wardell, Walker and loose man Chris Davidson tackled like demons. On a rare sortie up field Walker broke a tackle and panic reined in the Saints ranks, until centre Les Jones strode into the collision and punched him in the face. After missing three pots at goal Kendle at last landed one right between the uprights and despite an unconverted try by Wilson in the corner in the last minute we held on and recorded a memorable 9-8 victory.
It was a thrilling cup tie that I best remember for some titanic defending and last ditch tackling. We all loved it and ran on at the end as usual to congratulate our heroes. The fact remains for me and no doubt many other old timers, that although much maligned in some quarters David Doyle Davidson was an excellent coach, and in hindsight I guess, he did a lot of the spade work and recruitment that Arthur Bunting was to capitalise on in those fantastic golden years of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Top bloke DDD!
So there we are after a week of looking around and trying to find something RL wise to get excited about, Friday’s is a big game for us and we really do need a win after the loss to Wigan. I just hope that we will come back to training refreshed and take it to the ailing Cheshire side from the off. Thanks as always for reading the Diary and a big well done to all those who have been in touch. In addition, I’m sorry that it’s been so quiet this week, but thanks for your continued support and for sticking with it. Now, let’s all get to the KCOM on Friday and sing the boys home to a win.