The Great Reserve Team Fiasco!!!
As Hull FC continue their build up to the new season I guess that last week will be remembered for just one thing as far as the sport of Rugby League is concerned and that is the fact that the principle of reserve team rugby in 2019 and its promised resurgence, has been deferred and indeed fudged once again!!!!!!
As a game we have of late moved to try and get some credibility and a positive image back, with a revised divisional format, some good sensible rule changes, no more long-haul journey’s to away games on Thursday nights, the reduction of substitutions to 8 and the men with the money and the most to lose, the owners, getting more say in how the game is run. However, last week it was business as usual.
The owners had worked hard in loading the gun for next season with some great steps forward which started to see the sport moving in the right direction, before the RL administrators once again, shot themselves and the game in the foot!
It was bad enough when they announced that only 7 teams had agreed to take part in a Reserve’s competition and that only three would come from Super League. However, since then, we’ve seen Wigan wobbling and likely to drop out and Keighley under special measures and so it’s a bloody debacle once again isn’t it? After our club had received assurances with regard to the make-up, structure and numbers in this proposed league and acted on that information, the games administration didn’t have the balls to enforce it. The formula is simple really, if the game is to survive and indeed flourish, its essential that every Super League team runs a reserve team and at least shares an academy outfit, because the risk if they don’t is that the game will implode on itself.
Not only is it the Clubs moral responsibility to develop young players, but in the long run such a structured approach to developing players will benefit them all and indeed build the game in general. Once again my preamble finishes with the well-used expression in here; what a bloody mess!!
But before all that back to County Road and I hinted in the last Diary that there were several FC players suffering knocks and/or late at returning for the new season and last week Mickey Paea revealed he’d in fact suffered a calf tear. Thankfully he was returning last Thursday, having sustained the injury on 6th November, the second day of pre-season training. It was only a grade one tear, but he’s not on his own, as he’s been in the company of the rest of our injured returnee’s Sneyd, Bowden, Griffin and Green who are all still on ‘light duties’. Then there are the likes of Connor, Fash, Hadley and Faraimo, who are all still absent through international calls and thus we are a long way off having a full squad in training at present. With several other players suffering from the usual minor pulls and bumps it’s hardly the best of starts is it?
We just have to hope that everyone catches up and we start off on the right foot, but with just about every other Super League Club strengthening their starting line up’s and a really tough start to our season, I think that it’s going to be hard going.
I was really pleased to hear this week how well the new coaching arrangements are working out with Gareth Ellis now integrated into the fold and looking after all the youngsters and the first team defence and contact stuff. Richard Horne is looking after the back field training and assisting Andy Last with the attacking side of things whilst Lee can now concentrate on his overview as Head Coach and training the forwards. I have always said that it would have been nice to bring in some new blood on the Coaching front particularly in the attacking department and I wondered for a time if Leon Pryce, who was around the place a lot, might have been added. But, with Ellis looking to get back to the playing side of the business the recent re-gigging of things does at least give us a more balanced set up off the field.
Before this season it appears that Lasty and Lee did the majority of coaching across the various disciplines themselves with Horney mucking in where he could, but now there is a set structure in place, everyone knows what they are expected to do and everybody I speak to seems to think it is working well. We have invested more money in Coaching and conditioning this year with Gareth, Yeamo and a conditioner forming a mini Coaching team to address the needs of a Reserve team, that now looks unlikely to become a credible reality, but more of that later. Still with a new more balanced structure we approach the new season well organised off the field, to face whatever is thrown at us.
There was an interesting discussion in the media this weekend as to where folks though Jake Connor should play in the future. He has excelled in the England team at centre and many fans felt that is where he should be playing for us, but for me, well I wonder a bit about that. I know with Sneyd and Kelly firing, that is still at present our best half back combination on paper, but whether that will continue to be the situation, remains to be seen. For me and several other fans who have contacted me, Jake has to be involved more than he is at centre, he is getting better all the time and as a play making, off the cuff sort of player, he’s a real asset, particularly when he’s in the thick of things in the middle of the field.
How we involve him and get the ball into his hands more I don’t know, but he’s certainly ambitious and as such not likely to be happy to be Marc and Albert understudy and I feel, of the three players concerned, he is the only one that is still improving. Lee said this week that the half back situation was something he was conscious of as well and it will be interesting to see who starts in the there, come 1st February won’t it?
Now, someone called Harold stopped me in Debenhams a few months ago and said he read the Diary and thanked me for my efforts, which was really nice although he went on to observe that I never really tell you much you didn’t already know or reveal much that was not in the press. Fair comment I thought, as I pointed out that I do my best, but in the end I’m just ‘An ordinary Joe’ who’s not in the Club loop officially anymore and in any case things are pretty stable these days. Well, we’ve certainly moved on from the Agar years and the early days of Lee Radford when every week intrigue and rumour was rife. I still have what you might call my sources, but with little movement in the transfer market, there isn’t much sensational or conspiracy wise about at all.
However, as I have hinted in here, a couple of the top people at other clubs do read the Diary and keep in touch and I also have a few friends in and around the RL and the media, who keep me informed and I try my best to pass what’s interesting on to you the reader. In that vein it was interesting to see this week, several of the initiatives I have been telling you about for weeks coming to light, and being well on the way to fruition, as the game continues to re-invent itself in a way that hopefully makes it more attractive as a spectacle.
In our great game there is only one thing that happens more frequently than league structure revamps and that is rule changes. They can sometimes be steps forward like the corner flag ruling, or they can be awful, (remember that rule that allowed you put your foot out of play and take the ball dead?) In recent days the latest rule changes proposed have been leaked, and by and large they look to be what I predicted and set to transform the game for the better. I have one big reservation but more of that later.
The leak indicated that the RL had indeed followed the recommendations of the Super League Clubs and agreed to several changes in the format of the game this coming season. Of course they denied that they were to all be introduced this year, but I think that was just to give the players and the coaches a chance to comment before they were official, in fact I think the leak caught the clubs a bit, ‘with their pants down’. As I have told you for weeks now, it is expected that substitutions will be reduced to 8, we will have a shot clock on scrums, drop outs and re-starts and the golden point will be introduced to settle games that are tied after 80 minutes.
That last one is the change which will arguably create the most debate. Games which are level after 80 minutes will be settled by two five-minute periods of extra-time, with the first to score winning the match. If it is still level after 10 minutes, the draw will stand and each team will receive one competition point.
Super League chief executive Robert Elstone had previously hinted he wanted to make the changes to ensure that games are more attractive and let’s face it, surely we can all agree with their ideas on the number of substitution and the shot clock, which are both likely to make the game more exciting. Years ago tiring forwards led to much more open rugby being on show towards the end of both halves and I think that could well be the case again. I mean to say who of us isn’t frustrated with scrums taking up to a minute and a half to set after the clock has been stopped, as players feign injury to get a rest and likewise, drop outs going on forever?
I’m not that struck myself on the golden point stuff, because I think its flawed, but I can see that the excitement that sudden death rugby brings to the sport is something that the powers that be are chasing. In its defence it has its moments, just remember Castleford’s dramatic golden-point win over St Helens in the 2017 Super League semi-finals, or Johnathan Thurston’s drop-goal for North Queensland Cowboys in the 2015 NRL Grand Final, after a late try brought the two teams level? For the media, there could be some wonderfully tense finishes, but what about the knock-on effect of the added time at the end of games.
Much of the new proposals are aimed at cutting down the length of the game so it doesn’t drag on, yet here we have a proposal that makes it do just that, and would it really encourage teams to attack? Will we just see teams working their way into position for a procession of desperate drop-goal attempts? In any case do we need a winner every time? I’ve seen some pretty exciting draws over the years and if say London has battled and battled to hold Wigan at the end of a game and after 80mins it is drawn, shouldn’t they at least get something from it? I have to admit I don’t like the idea much myself although perhaps if both clubs got a point each for the draw and then got an extra point if they won in the added time that would work?
Player welfare must be considered as well, particularly as the other laws coming in next year are designed to speed the game up. Golden point is sapping on player energy as a team’s formation goes out of the window in a desperate quest to drop a goal. I see that last week Leeds Rhinos’ Aussie hooker Matt Parcell pointed out that, “Generally it develops into a mad scramble for drop goals and all semblance of structured play goes out of the window”. If there has to be a winner or loser and I’m not that sure that there has to be, then what about a golden try, (an idea suggested by Castleford Tigers coach Daryl Powell), which would perhaps see teams keeping their structure and be a fairer and even more exciting way of settling matters.
However, all that said let’s not worry too much about it eh? Even if we are to see golden point brought in, the stats from the NRL suggest it won’t be utilised too often. There were only four Golden point sessions in the whole of the Australians 2018’s competition.
In addition to these front line announcements I also expect that we are to scrap the free play and that for me is another step forward! Although now and then this comes to something, on many occasions it sees play go haring down field chasing a no hope fly kick before nothing comes of it and the players trudge back for up to 80 meters to form the scrum. The length of time it takes to get people back up field can sometimes eat up two minutes (as players sometime fall ‘injured’) and although the clock is stopped once play breaks down, it was another frustrating hold up for the watching fans.
By this Diary is published the players will have had their say on these rule changes as well. Our own Gareth Ellis represents them on a laws committee that includes club chief executives, Hull KR head coach Tim Sheens and the head of match officials, Steve Ganson, along with Sky TV and BBC representatives. Sadly, however it is the fans that haven’t been asked their views at all!
That’s hard to do I know and certainly some on the internet were grumbling about these changes. If I could suggest another myself, I’d go for adopting the video referee situation we have with BBC games, on all Sky games as well. I’d then get rid of Cummings in the commentary box and let us hear exactly how the video referee is deliberating on the ‘score’. The fact that you can hear the video official on the BBC I’m sure makes them hurry it up a bit and its great to listen to what the actual official is thinking and trying to spot, rather than what an ex-referee thinks the off field official is thinking! That for me would be another small step forward in improving the game for the converted and de-mystifying it for those who are new to the sport.
So in general the suggested improvements are good because we certainly need to do something. When someone goes to watch a Rugby League game they want to see big collisions, great feats of physical prowess and spectacular tries, not gawp at a big screen watching various angles of the same replay or a player conveniently go down with cramp before a scrum or a drop out when his side needs a rest.
In life everyone’s time is getting more and more finite, Rugby League games have got longer of late, a trend that is in stark contrast to other sports, that are trying to condense their matches into a more user friendly window of time. The most obvious example is Twenty 20 cricket, which is a concept that has revolutionised that sport in both attendance and TV figures. Other sports are trying to cut down dead time as well and Tennis, pool, snooker and golf have all started to implement shorter versions of the original game with the goal of providing more action in a shorter time-frame.
So at last in general as a sport we are having a go too, but as usual bad news followed with the announcement that the introduction of a competitive reserve league would be shelved until at least 2020. At the time of that announcement only 7 Clubs had agreed to run such teams this year with only ourselves Wakey and Wigan from Super League and the other teams taking part being Halifax, Bradford, Featherstone and Keighley. Later Wigan said that they were reviewing their participation and Keighley were put into special measures and are in danger of going under. So, the whole thing has now descended into a typical RL shambles. The situation has been widely branded as a ‘Farce’ and that for me is exactly what it is.
This is nothing to do with a lack of money, (if it were then Wakefield wouldn’t be taking part), that’s just a smoke screen, and it’s a disgrace that Clubs like Warrington, Saints and now perhaps Wigan, are pouring praise on the idea, and hypocritically spouting platitudes about how worthy it all is, whilst refusing to take part in 2019. Too many clubs have again put short termism first and placed all their resources on boosting their first teams. In fact, Salford aren’t even running an Academy this year!! One can only therefore think that clubs such as the Dobbins, Castleford, Huddersfield, Salford, Warrington and Saints are happy to sit back pour all their 2019 cap into their first teams and at the end of this season, pick off the emerging player’s other more far sighted clubs have struggled to develop.
Having received a draft reserve fixture list for 2019 with just two super league opponents in it and reflecting on our experiences of last season, Wakefield and our administration must be joining Wigan in weighing up whether some players may still benefit more from playing regularly week in week out on duel registration. I’m hearing that we might well play a few unofficial games against a Rovers reserve 17, but outside the structure of the new league. I wouldn’t be doing that, simply because as a club they are a typical point of fact, in that they have improved their quality, but reduce the numbers of their players for 2019, whilst all the while lavishing praise on the idea of Reserve Rugby, but refusing to get involved until 2020.
Even Leeds have indicated they will take part the following season, after going out and splashing £400,000 on two marquee signings this! For us suckers in West Hull and Wakefield the scenario is simple. We have been conned!!! We have signed players in good faith, got unofficial assurances about the structure and fixture lists and now have a mighty big squad, geared for a reserve league which is about to implode before our eyes! If ever there was a case that points to the need for regular reserve grade games like we had in the old ‘A team’ day’s, then it is displayed admirably by what happened to so many of our youngsters last season. They got so far but when the first team beckoned and the pressure was on, they came up wanting! They weren’t and aren’t bad players they had just not had enough quality game time against top quality players.
Salford’s lack of both a reserve grade and an academy team is a disgrace but one that is perfectly legal, for the official line from the RL is that ‘It is left up to Clubs to decide whether they develop players themselves’, which for me as we all get the same salary cap allowances, shows the weak kneed nature of the games administration and is so short sighted. If we were not to have a reserves league well why encourage Clubs like ours to go out and prepare for one?
It’s not a level playing field and the stance from the RL goes against everything that has been said about advancing young players and offering more of them a career path into first team rugby. It’s bad enough when we at Hull FC joined up with ‘that lot’ to form a joint academy, but at least we have one! It wouldn’t be too harsh I don’t think for Super League clubs to be forced to run a reserve and academy grade in future years, if only for the good of the game and its survival. However, for now the majority prefer the short termism of putting all their financial eggs in the 2019 basket, as all the while the playing pool shrinks and youngsters leave the game in their early 20’s, because opportunities are so limited.
It so obvious that there is a need for Reserve team rugby because in the British game there are simply not enough players of first team potential available and everyone is scrabbling about to scratch together their squads, cutting down their numbers and paying through the nose for second grade Aussies. What’s more scarcity always increases price and the current scenario simply ups the financial anti as far as the agents and the other clubs demanding transfer fees are concerned.
So we have seen the cost of wages and the transfer fees for players increase, with most clubs lacking any sort of vision at all with regard to developing the game through youth. Thus just when we looked to be making progress A team rugby has had again to be shunted into a siding, with hollow promises of ‘Jam Tomorrow’ after 2019. Even that is up for discussion because I’m told they want to rejig the age groups and limit the number of over age players that take part in each reserve game. What we are seeing is the self-indulgent based, stop gap, makeshift thinking for which our game has become infamous and it’s all very disappointing for me.
Sadly, of course, it’s all just typical of British Rugby League and after some really positive moves forward for the game it will again reveal the sport to those looking in from the greater sporting community, as simply short sighted and inward looking. I bet Adam, Lee and Clarky feel that they have been duped by the majority of the clubs, but as I have always said of our RL administration over the years, “Why am I not surprised!!”
Whilst we are on that tack here is probably, what we can call in the Dentist Diary, an exclusive and something I don’t think any of the press have got yet! Of course the game is never good at forward planning and in fact more the master of knee jerk reactions and I am told that next year we are (thankfully) ditching the Rhino ball and in fact going back to the more ‘wet weather friendly’ Steeden one. A change we have all longed for so often in the past. That change, believe me, is still top secret but guardedly being welcomed by coaches and players across the game, however as always the knee jerk stuff comes in when we learn that the new ball will only be available to Clubs in January and so now at present they are all still training with the old Rhino ball. Only in rugby league eh? Once again we just can’t get the joined up thinking going at all can we?? Just a rumour at present? Well let’s just wait and see!!!
Now, I met a reader a couple of weeks ago who really lamented the lack of a regular Match Day and how much he missed Sundays as a real rugby league occasion and a regular day out at the game. With the Sunday v Friday arguments about the best day for matches which has rumbled on for years amongst the fans of Hull FC, I promised him I would feature again a story that’s in the first book, about just were playing on Sundays came from. When I first started watching Hull FCin the late 50’s all games were played on Saturdays with 3-00pm starts in the early and late part of the season and due to a lack of floodlights, 2-30pm kick-offs in the deep mid-winter.
Sunday Football came to the Rugby League as its regular match day in 1974 when all clubs decided that their fixtures would be played that day to avoid clashing with Football. Prior to that Sunday games were played from time to time, but the Sunday Observance Act was still very much in action and so entrance to games was by buying a programme that was priced at the usual admission charged for a game. In those days you could buy a book on a Sunday, but not admission to professional sport! Hull FC however were always in the vanguard of new initiatives especially if it meant more money coming in through the turnstiles and so we were one of the first clubs to experiment with Sunday fixtures, many years before they became the norm.
The first game we ever played on a Sunday afternoon was in fact at home to Rhodesfield on 20th October 1968. The game was a great success and the headlines of the Daily Mail next day stated ‘Sullivan Try Highlight of First Sunday Game’. A massive crowd for us back then of 8,600, paid £2059 for the privilege and we all stood clasping our single sheet programmes’ and watched a bit of history being made at a sunny Boulevard. Bikes were stacked 10 deep against the walls of adjoining house, whilst on the car park before the game we were greeted by several people from the ‘Lords Day Preservation Society’ who stood sentinel like holding up banners that announced, ‘Keep the Lords Day Sacred’ and ‘Repent ye the Kingdom of Heaven is nigh’. Most of us just queued around them, and paid little heed to their silent protestations as we made our way to the turnstiles. I remember that it was quite tight in the Threepennies that day, and the main thing I can remember was the first try by Clive Sullivan, it was a great score and the one referred to in the Mail headlines.
A move on half way saw Gemmell, Hancock and Davidson inter pass for the ball to go out to Clive who was already well covered by three Huddersfield defenders. He swept past two of them and then hared down the touchline hugging the whitewash for about 40 yards with the remains of the Huddersfield defence trailing in his wake. He touched down in the corner to great celebrations all around the ground. Next up it was Dick Gemmell’s turn to go on a run. He picked up a loose ball about 30 yards out and ran for the line. He checked back inside a couple of times and by he got there he was met by a wall of Huddersfield defenders that had tracked back to cover. Dick, who was a classy but rugged player by then just ploughed into them and somehow got a hand out to put the ball down for our second score.
Huddersfield scored next with a try for ex London Saracens RU player, John Kersey-Brown. He followed a kick through by Gordon Wallace, to harass Arthur Keegan into a rare mistake. Our full back dropped the ball, Kersey Brown kicked ahead and touched down in the corner just before the ball had chance to trickle over the dead ball line. It was only a small set-back for the FC though, and before half time we were on the score board again for a try that was simplicity itself. Shaun O’Brien took Chris Davidson’s short ball on the charge and shot through under the posts, to reinstate our lead. O’Brien had a great game and was closely followed by Joe Brown who we had recently switched from centre to loose-forward with great effect.
The second half was played in bright sunshine as the Hull team stretched their lead, this time with a try by Howard Firth, who somehow squeezed in at the corner after a sweeping move involving Keegan, Charlesworth and Chris David son. Keresey Brown almost got him into touch, but the touch judge adjudged that Firth had got the ball down first and the score stood. Next as we started to take control, Keegan and Charlesworth put Davidson away. He passed to Sullivan who drew three men to him, before turning the ball back inside to Davidson who scored untouched by any Huddersfield player. Jim Macklin then raised the temperature on the field a notch as the prop who was then playing the best rugby of his career at Hull, took umbridge at a loose arm in the tackle, and laid their prop out cold. The referee missed this though and just played on! To the obvious delight of us Threepenny Standers; it was a simpler game back then!
Then a sweeping move involving Macklin and Edson put Gemmmell into a gap, he drew the defence and passed to Firth who again managed to beat the Rugby Union convert to the corner, but only just, and he received a clout after he had scored that saw him have to leave the field.
Finally, in the last minute Kelsey Brown got in as he caught our defence flat footed and probably already thinking about a celebratory drink. He swept down field and arcing round behind the chasing defenders he scored next to the posts. We won the game 28-14, our highest score of that season so far. The fans loved the idea of playing on a Sunday, and no doubt some of the City fans who usually watched their games down the road at Boothferry Park, came along for a look too! So all in all our first sortie into Sunday Rugby was a great success, and despite his mistake Arthur Keegan, the fans player of the year that season, got the Man of the Match award. Today no doubt there are still many out there that would have Sunday Rugby back for all Clubs in a flash if they could!
Now you all know that I’m the sort of a guy who let’s face it would consider not getting in a life boat on a sinking ship, if it was full of Rovers fans! In fact, on occasions I am a bit too hypersensitive about the likelihood of doing anything at all with the Dobbins! That said I guess you won’t be surprised at all that I was a bit peeved when I read this in the Hull Daily Mail about the new Tribal bar that is opening at Kingswood. The article stated, “Revellers can finally get excited after a highly-anticipated sports bar announced plans to open its doors for the first time next week. Tribal bar and grill in Kingswood is set to be opened on Wednesday, November 28, as a joint venture by Hull’s Super League sides Hull KR and Hull”. Am I a bit Paranoid or just getting old, set in my ways and too sensitive about it all, who knows? I’ll go and have a look to support Adam but I still hate them lot with a passion!!!
Things do make me laugh at times and sometimes you know Parnaby and that lot at the East Riding Council really do excel themselves on that front. This week in my Text reminder about bin collections it stated, “Clothing and sheets cannot be placed into the blue bin. Use old textiles to make easy and cheap Nativity costumes” Great Idea, I thought, and so if you see Mrs R. and me in Beverley this week, you might not recognise us; we’ll be the ones dressed as Mary and Joseph!!!!
So there we are, a quiet week at Hull FC, but a controversial and in some ways disappointing one for the bigger picture that is the game of Rugby League in Great Britain. I had a great chat with a reader and his wife in Beverley on Saturday morning and their views reflected what I had read as the mail and text messages had come in over the past 7 days. Hearing your thoughts, it soon became apparent that a lot of you shared my opinions, expounded at length last week, about why we all seem to have changed our outlook on Hull FC and how 2016 has changed our rationale about supporting the RL Club we all love. No one seemed to disagree and I for one feel a lot more comfortable these days about facing the 2019 season. Thanks as always for all that correspondence and for your continued support of the Diary at a time when news is a bit hard to come by. Let’s see what this week brings eh? Thanks for sticking with me, see you next week!