The Dentist’s Diary – 595th

Oh dear, Oh dear, Oh dear!
In the Tiger in Beverley after the game, we all raised a glass for a toast, as we hailed the efforts of the young kids in those two home victories towards the end of the regular season, against Widnes and Salford. For, without those four points we would have been in the middle eight’s and, with our current issues and on our current form, likely heading for the million-pound game at best.

It’s going to be a strange few weeks isn’t it? It would have been nice to think that those making the decisions on retention and possible recruitment would be casting a close eye over the player’s in black and white throughout the meaningless challenge that is, for us, this Super 8’s competition, and that in turn the players would be playing for their future contracts.

This would then be a time for players to make their mark and bag a place in the squad for 2019. However, that incentive has gone, because we have signed up most of our current players to long term contracts already. Indeed, some that we all thought might be off have actually been retained for another year, so there is little room for manoeuvre at all, and thus, some would say, little for the team to play for either.

Surely the imperative going forward had to be that we should put on some sort of show so that everyone starts to look forward to next season with some hope. That was the challenge that faced us and Wakefield were the first part of it but it’s sad to say on Friday night, we failed miserably.

Our performance was poor but our resolve and mental strength in that second half was awful. There was a lack too of any sort of courage or inspirational play and despite all the rhetoric that preceded the game, Scott Taylor apart, we looked like a team who all had new contracts and were safe for the next campaign and who thus had nothing to play for. In the 2016 and 2017 seasons we had strength, size, resolve and an unending will to win, all qualities that if they were on show at all at the KCom on Friday, were only possessed by our opponents in the last quarter; but it appeared to me, by us.

It was Wakefield at the KCOM again but the backdrop to this one was interesting! We went into the game knowing that our coach’s loyalty towards the current squad and thus our declared lack of recruitment for 2019, was a worry for some fans. It was also apparent, I think, that if we didn’t see a marked improvement on some recent lack lustre displays, we could well end up without a win in these last 7 games; with all the confidence and indeed commercial problems moving forward that would pose.

Every other team that has progressed into the Super 8’s after 23 rounds has done so in better form than us in fact we are the only team in the eight that is in free fall. Had the regular season gone on for a couple more weeks, we would have been in real trouble. We survived, just, but in the next seven games we knew we had to get more structure and focus and some real bite near the opponent’s line, because worryingly even though players were coming back from injury we still seemed to lack any sort of improvement at all.

The long suffering fan has, after years of waiting, experienced an historic couple of years when we won the Challenge Cup, twice, and all the while we’d not gone too badly in Super League either. In those two seasons confidence was running sky high as win followed win, in some long runs of success and most importantly of all we avoided major injuries and those we did get, came to players that we could easily cover. It was all looking so good, we were beating the fancied teams by being ferocious and brave, scrapping for our lives and coming back in games that we were behind in and we always looked a good bet for the top 4.

That’s what confidence does for you and in 2016 and 2017 it was sky high as the impossible always seemed doable and just around the corner for the fans, whilst all the while the players rode on the crest of a very big wave. Amongst us lot, after those two Wembley wins and as we all congregated in Queens Gardens and Victoria Square to welcome the lads home with the Cup, the feeling was one of us almost being invincible, we’d done it, we were there and immortality beckoned. It seemed that nothing could stop us now but oh boy, how things have changed in a year!

The thing is that it’s always easy to be close knit, determined and together as one when things are going your way. However, sport has a habit of always bringing you down to earth, simply because no one is ever truly invincible and when you think that you are, fate takes a hand to ensure you’re not!! With an injury crisis like no other, both in numbers and who it hit, plus the loss of players like Ellis and Watts, without, many would say, them being replaced, we all knew as we approached the Wakey game that the players now faced a very different challenge; for the first time in three years we were performing badly, we lacked some self-belief and in addition there was absolutely nothing to play for and yet somehow we had to keep the fans interested! That expression ‘Dead Rubber; has never been used as much in our game, as it has been in the media this week and this, for us lot, was just the first of seven such encounters.

Wakefield fielded a strong team with probably the biggest pack in the British game at present on show, but we started well and took the game to them. The first half in fact was pretty ‘Even Stephens’ as we both scored a try each and as the rain poured down again at the KCom, any sort of atmosphere was none existent, as both sides made mistakes. But the Wakey pack, with a massive pull in size and big lads on the bench to come on, always looked to me as if they were just waring us down. Talking of that pack, reader Richard Wilson contacted me on Sunday to comment on the fact that we saw on Friday what a formidable pack Wakey had built and that for a team that is operating £200,000 under cap! For me, it’s almost as if such clubs have seen how we succeeded in 2016 and followed that blue-print to the letter, whilst we seem to have stood still.

Once again, when we did get down the field our inability to convert good field position into points was apparent for all to see. Again, we seem devoid of ideas in the opponents 20. At least we were carting the ball up field with some gusto as we looked to complete our sets by pinning the visitors in their own 20-meter area. All that said, the exchanging of pointless drop goals just before half time did see us go in level, but also animated perfectly the futility of the fixture as far as some on both sides were concerned. Just the same it’s safe to say that throughout the game Wakefield, who had little to play for as well, always looked more capable of a win than we did.

With Taylor leading by example and running his blood to water and both Green and Paea playing their hearts out up front we did OK to match the ‘giants’ in the Wildcats ranks in that first half, but we lacked someone who could do that certain something that would ignite the team and indeed enthuse the crowd. After half time, although we pulled ahead, the visitors were always favourites as they wore us down and finally went for the throat. Slack tackling and some poor decision making with the ball saw the FC literally fall apart in the face of some big, big forwards that ground us down and in the end ran all over us.

With around 7 minute to go I have never seen so many people leaving the KCom early and soon the seating area around us was empty. With 9 minutes to go a good pal who sits behind me, who has seen it all, goes everywhere and is a massive ‘In any Kinda Weather’ fan’ of the Club, stood up and said, “That’s it, that’s me, I’ll see you next season” which perhaps at that point in the 2018 campaign, said it all.

Yes, with Bowden, Westerman, Connor and Albo playing we would have made more of it I’m sure, but the old failings were still there. On attack, we simply cannot convert good field position and on a couple of occasions, with the opposition down to 12 men, when Sneyd had spotted the opportunity and set out the play in the line, Danny Houghton didn’t see it and went the other way from acting half. There was a lack of attacking ideas and certainly a dearth of clean breaks and it’s a sad reflection that with two of the best strike wingers in the competition in Talanoa and Faraimo, neither got one single running chance out on the wing all night.

At least we hung on to Wakey’s shirt tails until well into the final quarter, but as soon as they took the lead our heads went down and once behind we never looked capable of coming back. Then we had to sit there and witness what can only be described as some pathetic attempts to tackle Johnson, before he scored and the majority of fans left for home.

As the time keeper prepared to sound the hooter we attempted a short kick off to try and rescue possession and some pride at the death, but the kick from Sneyd totally epitomised the night, as it only travelled three yards into the oppositions half!

It was, looking back, a shocker of a final quarter to a game that we had actually been in for long periods, but in which conversely, as with the Rovers game, we never really looked like winning. If proof were needed that we were there for the taking late on, just look at Wakefield, trailing by 6 points with 20 minutes to go and they opt to go for goal to reduce the arrears to 4, when everyone thought that with a penalty under the sticks they would run it and go for the 6 points that would see them draw level. Why did they do that? Well it was all very adequately explained by the guy behind me who said, “They know they’ll score at least once more and that we certainly won’t” That said it all for me really!

Two bright spots were the performances of new boy Louis Bienek who was big, strong and certainly belied his age and Jordan Lane who for me really had a go and, while we are on the plaudits, well done to Scott Taylor for having a real go and as always showing his passion as he had a dig at Fafita when the game was all but over, however it has to be said that in attack we looked clueless. Jordan Abdull persisted and persisted with the up and under to the corner which they knew all about and defused well, but what ever happened to the occasional shorter kicking game, so we could chase a ball put just over the heads of their defence, which was always a good ploy in such wet conditions. And you know what, it’s hard to remember us even making one proper clean break in the whole game.

It was a bad night all round which saw the last few minutes played out in front of no more than 3000 people as everyone else had opted to cut their losses and head home. The whole game was played in an atmosphere as flat as the tyres on John Prescott’s bike, and that prevailed throughout because there was no crackle and no fizz in our performance to inspire anyone. No one wanted to make the big play that would get the crowd going and the biggest cheer of the night was when that fight broke out near the end. At times it was like playing in a cathedral.

It is a mark of the integrity and loyalty of the man that (despite the fact that you can’t defend the indefensible) our Coach has after both the last two defeats sought to protect his players from the flack, in fact he has taken the blame for both reversals. However, this time even he had apparently had enough as he said that certainly players don’t listen to what they are told to do and no one wanted to take the game by the scruff of the neck and try and make a difference. He sounded really despondent in his post-match interview (but not as unhappy as poor old Gwilym Lloyd who sounded as if he was about to burst into tears as the final hooter went at Rovers)

It’s tough for us as fans as well and despite everything we just have to stay strong stick with the boys, see this lot out and hope for better things next time around. In the end Wakefield seemed to want it a little more and were the better of two teams that played in a game where both had absolutely nothing to play for at all. As some wag at the back of the East Stand shouted as the rain came pouring down and Abdull dropped the ball, “Welcome to the SUPER Eights!!”

On Friday it was an imperative that we took the game to Wakefield and put down a marker for the rest of the competition, not just to regain some form and some self-belief but to also start to get some of the wavering fans back on board and to look towards season tickets for 2019 going on sale. That was a point that reader Ian made to me in an E Mail on Sunday morning, but it was not to be!

The pressure to get a win must have been on, yet in that second half you wouldn’t have believed it! We the fans, the administration and all the players knew it was going to be tough, but as I said last week, boy are we lucky to be where we are because it could have been so, so much worse. Look at Widnes and Salford, fighting for their lives down there and then there’s last year’s Grand Final winners the Rhino’s. At Widnes on Thursday we watched as a team containing some semi pro players had more energy at the end than a Super League Club who had been bashed up week in week out for 23 rounds. Whilst the ‘much fancied’ Dobbins who were nailed on to survive and in a good run of form, were apparent beaten in every department at Caravan Park on Friday, by a resolute and totally focussed, yet unfancied Salford. Running up to the end of the season we are (with the exception of Widnes) in the worst form of any team in the competition and it’s hard to see how we wouldn’t be in massive trouble had we been down now. Thank Heavens we escaped!!

I don’t think I’m being too sensational when I say that in my opinion, had we ended up in the Middle Eights in our current predicament with injuries and in that recent form that continued unabated on Friday, I wouldn’t have fancied our chances at all. That is, I think, the reality of it all, and one I had been banging on about (getting the necessary 22 points to avoid the group of death) from way back in June. That doesn’t make good reading but it does I feel describe exactly the facts of where we were, where we are and where we could have been!! Perhaps a chorus of ‘The great escape’ is needed at Huddersfield!

So to the rest of the week, and the situation and circumstances surrounding Albert Kelly’s injury are worrying to say the least. I have seen a lot of concussions over the years and although I know these days they are ultra-careful with such injuries particularly when a player sustains more than two in any one season, the fact that the Club are worried about how he is, makes one wonder what the future holds for our talismanic half back. There was obvious concerned when Lee Radford himself said last week, “He is still having dizzy spells so that’s the situation with Albert sitting out. We’re just trying to get him right for 2019 now.” I think I’d have preferred something like, “He’ll be fine to go next season but for now it’s just a matter of resting up”. My gardening friend Graham said last week, “I don’t think he’ll play for us again” and although I don’t believe its anywhere near as grave a situation as that, I hope he’s going to be OK for pre-season and next year!

I mentioned in here a few weeks ago when his new contract was announced that a couple of my contacts had indicated that Scott Taylor could have gone Down Under to ply his trade at the end of 2019. Instead as we all know he opted to play for us and to sign a deal that will probably see him play his career out at the KCOM. He then confirmed that very fact last Wednesday when in the Mail he said that he could have gone to the NRL, but in the sort of interview that every fan wants to read from their top performers, he was very forthright in his thoughts about playing on for the FC.

In the interview he said, “I’m just really happy here and when the club started talking to me around the Denver game with England it was just an easy process. I’m not one of these players who is going to go in there demanding things. My agent David Howes did right by me and the club. Once the writing and the numbers were sorted, there wasn’t much back and forth at all. It was about getting it done and putting it out there. We started talking years and we came to an agreement on five more seasons after 2018. I didn’t want any NRL clauses in it or anything like that. I’m here for the long haul.”

That’ll certainly do for me and you can’t really ask for any more than that can you? Scott Taylor is without doubt a top bloke and one that will lead our Club forward now for the next 5 years, I’m glad he is on board and I just wish we had a few more props like him! Another good bloke is Fetuli Talanoa, who has got a one-year extension to his contract and said this week in the Yorkshire Post that he is looking for another year after that and to finish his playing days at Hull FC as well. He said, “I’ve met some good friends here and possibly there’s even a chance we’d stay after I finish playing.” He’s starting to get some form back now and as for after 2020? Well, he can be my dustman any day!!

I see that the games new head honcho, Mr Rimmer, is now saying that if the Clubs can’t agree on a new format for next season then it will be ‘Status Quo’ for 2019 and that I believe will be a disaster. As we start our progress through the ‘official dead rubber league’ with us lot, the Giants, the Wildcats and the Dragons all with nothing much to play for at all, I and many other RL fans were desperately hoping for a new format that would take us back to less jeopardy in the closing stages of the competition. In addition, we need something after 23 rounds that would re-ignite the interest like some mini Cup competition or tournament, which would provide interest and excitement to fill up the remaining weeks of the season. However, the constant bitching from Hetherington, the Chairman of the Bulls and Featherstone Rovers and one or two others, is stymying any sort of progress and it could as I say be, as you are!

But we need action now! The game in its current structure is haemorrhaging fans at a quite appalling rate and although we at Hull FC are currently second in the list of best supported Clubs, the actual plight of the game attendance wise is really worrying. When you have gates such as we have at the KCOM its hard at times to appreciate what is going on all around us, but have a look at this comparison table for the first twenty-three rounds over the last three seasons if you don’t believe me. Over the previous 4 years it has been steady as you go and that is reflected in the 2016 and 2017 averages as you can see below, but this year attendances have made a real nose dive.

We have gone from third best supported into the second slot, but there is only us and Saints who have seen their gates go up this year. Otherwise it’s a worrying story with the average gate per game, across all 12 teams, going down by 500 in just a year. It must be worrying for the game when Wigan drop their average gate by almost 2200 in a year and a team like Castleford who were in last year’s Grand Final, who play entertaining rugby and who have a traditionally stoically loyal supporter base, can drop by almost 1000 per game in one season. Saints increase is probably after a spike in season sales following the signing of Ben Barba, whilst our improvement is no doubt on the back of those two great victories at Wembley and the return of the annual Derby.

Someone at the RL told me three weeks ago that there are a worrying number of Clubs in serious financial trouble and that table shows how we should not be surprised by that fact at all. It is a real concern for the game going forward and we need remedial action and quickly. No doubt as you read this you might say, “Not again Wilf, change the bloody record”, but you’d honestly be surprised to hear the people I bump into every day who want to talk about the state of the game and what we should be doing to address it. For many of them, ‘the Status Quo’ is just not good enough but then again they are mostly all old buggers like me so steeped in the game that they are really concerned about its future. As for the younger fans, well they are not so traditionally anchored in the same concerns as us lot and for many at present apathy abounds. I can see a lot of those supporters simply voting with their feet again next term if we don’t have something more inspiring to contemplate.

The RL have to make changes but Ralph Rimmer is old school, a safe appointment and another ‘blazer’ in a long line of them, who have been allowed to take charge of the game. So, that said, why should we not be surprised if he, as head of the governing body, refuses to look at radically solutions to the issues that the table above obviously indicates exist across the game. They’ll just no doubt bury their heads in the sand and continue as we are next season, as gates continue to syphon away down the drain.

The product is so good, the spectacle magnificent and the effort and dedication of the players unparalleled and yet the slap dash way it is handled by Sky and the structure within which it is played, is so flawed that the game has continued to leak supporters, media backing and credibility on the national stage; first it came with a trickle, but this season as you can see from that chart it’s become a torrent. I have to say that the way I feel at present I’m wondering whether I can be bothered to go through another season with this lot in charge and in this current game’s format. And from what I’m hearing, I’m not on my own in that either, because the way things are going, it’s hard to see how the decreasing trend in gates is to be arrested if we settle for ‘the same again’.

This week in a complete departure from what I usually do in Codgers Corner I want for the first time for a long while to feature a friendly game. However, this was a very special ‘Friendly’ because back in November 1987, although we were fading somewhat after being the top dogs of the League in the early part of the decade we were chosen as one of the clubs to play a visiting Auckland team. The New Zealand champions had come over to this country on a ‘good will’ tour and been beaten heavily after fielding a weakened side at St Helens in their first game of the trip. So it was that on the evening of 4th November 1987 the Kiwi side roared into town to field a full strength team against the black and whites. We were having a poor season really and prior to this encounter we had lost three games on the trot against Leeds, Castleford and Hunslet.

I went for a couple of pints at the Punch Hotel in Victoria Square and as I left the warmth of the public bar the rain lashed into my face as I headed for the bus and the Boulevard. In fairness the rain had stopped by I got the ground and once I had bought a hot dog and a cup of tea I went to take my place in the warmth of the Threepennies which that night was, like the rest of the ground, very thinly populated. Whether it was a protest from the fans after a shocking defeat by Hunslet the previous weekend, or just the fact that it was a ‘Friendly’ that we were expected to lose anyway, I don’t know, but that game with an attendance of just 1,921 was the most poorly attended first team game in the League, the Cup or ‘Friendlies’ for the whole of that decade. Still those who stayed away really did miss a great match.

I love ‘friendlies’ I always have done simply because they offer me a chance to watch my team playing a game of rugby without the worries and stress that League games bring, or the sudden death of cup games, and indeed they give a welcome freedom from those pre match nerves, which was always greatly appreciated by this fan.

The main quibble a lot of the fans had that year was that although on paper we had a reasonably good team coach Len Casey, who was not the most popular supremo we have ever had, was simply not getting the team to play with any pride or passion. Those were the two commodities that we as fans had come to expect from any team that pulls on the famous shirt, and there were lots of tales doing the rounds of how things were not good between our coach and his players. Still those who stayed missed a real treat because that passion was back with abundance that night and we saw a great performance by the FC.

As the teams ran out I don’t think I have seen so many bulbs out on the floodlight columns across the front of the best stand and although it had stopped raining the lights were starting to show up that mist that often shone across the ground for night matches at the old place. We started the game with three youngsters included in the starting 13, we had Nicky Elgar coming into the second row and young 21 yea-old half back Ian Ellis at number 6, whilst 17-year-old winger Garry Clarkeson made his debut on the wing. James Leuluai played in the half backs instead of the centre, whilst play maker Garry ‘Porky’ Pearce played at full back. So it is easy to see why as we lined up to kick off, most of us thought that our makeshift team were in for a bit of a kicking.

The Auckland Coach Steve Dodds had said before the game that Hull would feel a backlash after his team’s surprise defeat at Knowsley Road and in the first twenty minutes it looked like he would be right. The New Zealanders started like a house on fire with Peter Brown and Ron O’Regan mauling the Hull pack with several big tackles and drives. On one occasion O’Regan wrestled three would be tacklers off and crashed into Shaun Patrick with such ferocity that the game had to be stopped whilst the smelling salts were administered to our hooker.

Then after ten minutes during which we had made little progress at all, the visitors whipped the ball wide from a scrum and their right flank partnership of Sam Panapa and Shane Horo showed awesome speed as they ran past us and would have scored but for a brilliant ‘ball and all’ tackle from stand in full back Pearce. Then just as I thought we were holding them, a 70-yard move which again featured Horro scorching down touchline and handing off three would be tacklers, brought the winger the first of his two tries.

From the kick off Auckland retained the ball and O’Regan broke our line for Shane Cooper to canter in wide out and a great conversion by Brown made it 10-0. It looked like a rout was on the cards! Then all of a sudden the passion that had been so lacking thus far that season came rushing back as suddenly the Hull forwards led by Paul Welham and Jon Sharp started to realise that the visitors ‘6’ were not super human after all, and a fight back started to gain momentum.

In the second quarter of the game our pack was superb with Wayne Proctor and Nicky Elgar forming a fine second row partnership, in fact a pass from Elgar put David Brooks in the clear, but he dropped the ball as the tackles came in. Leuluai moved from stand off to the wing after Dane O’Hara got a bad knock in a tackle by Sullivan, and his replacement Phil Windley slotted in neatly at number seven with Ellis moving to 6. Within two minutes we were on the board. Sharp broke a tackle 50 yards out and passed onto Welham who careered down the middle before turning a great ball inside which Windley picked up off his boot laces to race in under the post from where Pearce added the goal. At 10-6 things looked a bit better but we went in at half time 16-6 down because just before the break O’Regan broke through our ranks again and sent Garry Freeman steaming to the line.

As the lads trooped off the field we all thought that if we were to get anything but that anticipated drubbing in the second half, we needed to score first. However, that year we were notorious for giving tries away straight after the break and of course that worried us but on this occasion at least, we needn’t have been concerned because from the first tackle our defence was much tighter and Pearce twice pinned the opposition in their own 25-yard area with booming kicks which we chased well. After just 6 minutes Sharp’s long pass found Steve Hick in the centre, he swerved around Horo before releasing Leuluai who dived in at the corner. A towering conversion attempt by Pearce from the touchline just skirted the wrong side of the posts but we were right back in the game at 16-10. Then as the New Zealanders started to get a bit panicky, Panapa was caught off side and Pearce edged us even closer with straight 45 yard penalty.

In the 51st minute we were level and once again it was Sharp who made the break dummying past two defenders and into the open. Then, as he looked around for support, young Andy Ellis came from nowhere to take a perfect pass, and running diagonally away from the defence he just squeezed in at the corner with the cover on his heels. Pearce missed again with the conversion but we were level at 16-16. Back came the Auckland pack and three big drives up the middle set up Brown in some space and it was then down to (‘wonder Boy’ of Kiwi rugby back then) Kevin Iro to take the pass and score. Trailing 20-16 it would usually have been the signal for a collapse, but the passion was back and on show for all to see.

As the Threepenny’s roared our lads on as if there was 10,000 in the ground, Pearce was shifted to centre from full back and immediately receiving a great pass from Patrick, he turned the ball back inside to find Ellis again. From 25 yards out the youngster scorched to the line with four would be tacklers trailing in his wake. A Pearce conversion from under the sticks gave us the lead for the first time, but straight from the kick off the visitors pace was again our undoing as Panapa made the initial break Iro took over and Horo outpaced our defence out wide again, and we were behind 24-22.

So the stage was set for a grandstand finish and we certainly got one. With just three minutes to go Auckland were penalised inside their own 25. Pearce signalled to the Hull players that he would go for goal, and they started to retreat, but he said nothing to the referee. Hooker Patrick feigned to pass the ball to ‘Porky’ but instead tapped it on his foot shot through the visitors bemused defence, and touched down near the corner flag without a hand being placed on him.

A couple of half breaks by Auckland had our hearts pounding but as the final whistle went the delight and jubilation both on and off the field was great to see. At 26-24 it might only have been a Friendly, but there was a lot of pride at stake and for once we rose to the occasion in a memorable game. The important thing was of course; could we carry this new found passion into the League campaign? The answer came the following Sunday at Salford when we lost again 20-6. Still we had seen a smashing friendly game played in a great spirit and those thousands who chose not to go, missed a great, great ‘No Pressure’ match at the Boulevard.

Well that’s it for another week but what can I say really? I want to be positive and I will of course stick with the Club in the next 6 games and on into 2019 but at present its all hard to take and as the season meanders to its close as I said earlier, thank heavens we are where we are and not down there in the ‘middle bit’!

It was great to see so many readers and friends at the game and thanks for all your comments and observations which I always try to include in this drivel when I can. As for recruitment well I still believe we need to freshen it up a bit but we can’t so we have to get on with it, I guess. Times are tough and for many the end of the season can’t come quickly enough however we move onto Huddersfield to meet a team that are really in top form for what will no doubt be another tough old evening. But, who knows what the week ahead will bring eh? Perhaps an advert for an attacking Coach? Well we can hope I guess!

Faithfully Yours

Wilf