The Dentist’s Diary – 710th

Welcome to this week’s Diary and thanks again for joining me as another week goes by when again (for most of us at the older end of the community at least) one day looks very much like the last. It’s been a long cold January in more ways than one and I for one am glad to see the back of it!

Normally whatever the crises we have faced in our lives we have always been so lucky to have our beloved rugby team to at least offer a modicum of distraction. I have talked in here in the past about how a visit to the Boulevard or the KC has always for me, even in the darkest of times, offered a sort of oasis and a diversion for a couple of precious hours each week. There was always something happening and always something to distract you a bit. 

And boy, if ever there was a time when we need that sort of thing then surely it is now. Yet here we are with no rugby, no meet ups with our mates in the pub or at the KC, no chance to meet the players or enjoy a fans forum and no opportunities to even visit the club shop and get ‘all excited’ when we see the new seasons strips and range of merchandise. All we have is the media and because of the state of things across the country the level of news about our game and our club is now at an all-time low. Not because its being kept from us, but rather that there isn’t anything to report on. 

Still with vaccines rolling out, there is at last hope on the horizon and with just 8 weeks to go to the new season (whatever that actually means) I can’t wait to get going again, even if it is behind closed doors. But boy could we do with something to get our teeth into! Still as always, I’ve done my best and so once again here is my take on the last 7 days in Rugby League and around Hull FC. 

The players have been given, by their own admission, as torrid a three weeks as thy have experienced in pre-season for ages as it’s all been about fitness, skills and defence and very competitive. Hodgson is obviously pleased with how it’s all gone and he’s given the lads a well-earned 4 days off from last Thursday. I’m told too that some of the players really needed that! The main thing is that everyone is enjoying it and team spirit is great. Its early days I know, but at least if nothing else the team will be fit by the season begins and that’s not a bad place to start from. 

Now if you’re stuck for something to do and let’s face it these days who isn’t, have a listen, if you haven’t already done so, to Scott Taylor interviewed on the rather good ‘Set Restart’ Podcast to which I have included a link below. 

It’s a great insight into Scott’s life but also features early on, his thoughts about Brett Hodgson, Josh Reynolds and how pre-season is going. Tag says that Hodgson has been quite a revelation from the moment he started in the job and in fact he rang Scott and Danny Houghton the day he was appointed    and met with them both on the first day he was here in this country. He was adamant from the off that our Captain and vice-captain would have to lead from the front and set the example and Taylor really seems to be enjoying it. He also said that Hodgson was pushing him harder than he has been pushed for ‘A long, long time’. 

Tag also stated that defence was the top priority and described our efforts in that department last year as abysmal. I also had to smile when he said that he was so excited when Reynolds was announced as our new signing and that he was a player he hoped we would get! As for our new recruits pre-season so far, Taylor commented that Josh has been ‘getting off the line and really ‘twatting people’ in training. Scott also said that he had joked to Sneydy that it was great to at last have ‘a half back that could tackle’. 

Anyway, I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t heard it, because there’s loads of good stuff in there about Tag’s early career and love of the FC. So if to while away a bit of time you fancy a listen; here is the link: 

There was also a great insight into what Brett Hodgson makes of Jake Connor on the ‘Love Rugby League’ site this week when our coach made it clear that Jake was now being groomed for a full-back role at the Club. He said, “He is a confident kid and a very good player in his own right. He’s got skills that he can do, that other players in the competition don’t possess. We are looking at making him a more well-rounded player in terms of what he does off the ball, getting him in the right positions and working on those combinations with the spine and forwards and looking where he can push”. 

Our Coach continued, “He has only been out there (training) for this week after that minor niggle he had, but he is looking good. He has got a very high skillset. There are some players in the game that are able to execute a play when others can’t and we’ve seen on countless occasions already that Jake has got that in his repertoire”. It seems he rates Jamie Shaul and Connor Wynne as well, so competition in that position at least looks to be keen. 

Our Coach was a State of Origin full-back so he should know what he’s got in Jake and it appears that he sees him as a bit of a project. What’s more it seems that Jake Connor has impressed Josh Reynolds too, who said in the same article, “You can tell he’s got that something special about him. They’re trying to make him the complete full-back and, if he gets that, he will be a very special player.”

For me another player who really has to kick on this year is Jordan Lane. He broke through last season and grabbed quite a few games in the second-row despite the fact that both Ma’u and Savelio were playing well. Who will forget that galloping long range try he scored, for it was a highlight of a bleak old season,  but that said, his ball handling and general improved ability saw him move out of the ‘Promising Junior’ ranks and into those of a fringe first team player. 

The fact is he has tremendous ability and could be a fixture in the team by the end of this season if all goes well. It seems too that he is accepted as such by his peers, as an interview this week indicated, when Jordan said, “There’s me, Dre and Manu, we all push each other in training and have little competitions with each other. We all big each other up and take each other aside if we do something wrong and point each other in the right direction. There’s competition there but we all want the best from each other”. You know, I was quite impressed by that overall ethos from such a young player and I look forward to seeing just how Jordan goes. 

Well did you ever think that we were likely to sign Benji Marshall? No, as I said in here at the time, neither did I. However, this week in another of those ‘none stories’ the Mail headlines read, ‘Brett Hodgson explains how close Hull FC came to signing for Hull FC’. That grabbed my attention and I wondered if I had got it wrong, but I needn’t have bothered because the answer to that was ……not very close at all! Brett said that they had a couple of conversations with the players agent but that was it and implied as I suspected in here, that it was just a guise to ramp up the interest in the player across the NRL. It looks now like it worked too as it seems Marshall is on the verge of joining his former coach Wayne Bennett at South Sydney Rabbitohs, in a deal that would see him go around at least once more in the NRL. But I suspect that our  conversation with his agent ended with the exclamation from our side of “How Much????” don’t you? 

Now for the adverts and you know, there is no doubt that there are a lot of folks in the ranks of the FC army that are struggling financially after Christmas and indeed through hardship caused by this abominable pandemic. Yet, none the less, we are all I’m sure, looking at ways that we can support our beloved Club in the hope that once this is all over, it will still be there. 

Some can’t afford to assist much and should always make their first priority keeping body and soul together along with defending their family, but if they can help, I’m sure they are. With that in mind I guess it’s worth just saying that, as laying out for your pass with a lump of money is hard at this time of year, particularly when you don’t even know if we’ll be attending games, it’s worth mentioning that there’s less than two weeks remaining for existing members to switch to the club’s rolling monthly subscription service. 

The pay-monthly service enables fans to spread the cost of their tickets into manageable regular payments. Existing members who previously paid in full for their membership can sign up to the rolling subscription service until Sunday 7th February and it might just be the way that you can continue to help your Club. Following the announcement of the latest national lockdown the club decided to extend their pay monthly deadline which was originally set for earlier this month. That will now allow folks more time to switch to the service should they wish to. Have a look at the Club site for more details and please support your Hull FC in any way that you can. I know it’s hard these days but at Hull FC the next few months are going to be tough. 

Well, at present, with the game in disarray, there’s little, as I say, to write about and little for us all to talk about and so it’s hard to believe that this time a year ago, we were all excited, noting our displays in pre-season friendlies and raring to go into the new 2020 season. What’s more, it’s even harder to believe that it’s now getting on for 7 months since Super League restarted, albeit behind closed doors, yet we are still none the wiser as to when fans can return to games or indeed even when the 2021 season can realistically get underway. The Super League Clubs are still battling on with their pre-season stuff, but their efforts are the only signs of action in the whole GB competition. We are scheduled to start on March 25, which is a two-week hiatus compared with our initial delayed starting plans.

However, realistically any hopes of playing 25 rounds and the Challenge Cup in one season and hopefully in front of crowds later in the year, seem naive at best. There is very little to suggest that fans will be back at games come the start of the season, and even by late summer certainly not to the levels required to make Magic Weekend viable. I read the other day that Football clubs are already preparing to start next season in August, with limited crowds at best. Personally, I think that we can forget about the Magic Weekend don’t you? What’s more, if there was ever a better time to get rid of those boring loop fixtures as well, this is it. 

Sunday, March 15 is the witching date, for then it will be exactly one year since we as supporters last attended a game of rugby league in the UK, after which I’m afraid no one could have ever foreseen the impact the pandemic would have on our sport, let alone the world.

The problem is a big one for Super league Clubs, but a massive one for Championship outfits and those in Division 1. For having been forced to sacrifice their 2020 season, when only Super League was able to restart and stumble its way through a curtailed regular season, everyone in rugby league, had hoped that 2021 would bring back some normality.

Yet a month into pre-season camps, and that normality still feels light years away. The start of the Championship and League 1 seasons have now been pushed back further to May, to the extent that the Challenge Cup will now only involve a total of 28 clubs this year; the 12 Super League clubs, the 13 English Championship clubs plus three stoic clubs from League 1 (Barrow, Keighley and West Wales). 

All the teams in those two divisions, whatever their level, face the ongoing uncertainty surrounding playing games and of course where the necessary income to survive will come from, while they still have to honour player and staff contracts and their day-to-day welfare. The recent decision to suspend pre-season training was met with dis-satisfaction. While understandably it particularly frustrated club’s who had invested in getting their players back for three weeks pre-season prior to that fortnight, which was ultimately wasted time and money. There will also be concerns over the World Cup, for the RFL will need to be sure the games flagship tournament can go ahead with plenty of time for the home-based teams to prepare in advance.

For me I would think that there is little hope that business and retail will be completely back to normal by the current furlough scheme ends at the end of March and I guess it’s likely that it will be extended. If that is the case then I’m afraid I think I would mothball the Championship and Division One for 2021 and use all our energy as a game to look after those Clubs and cut their losses this year. If Leeds and Huddersfield have already had to suspend training because of outbreaks in camp, it’s hard to see how clubs with a lot less clout financially and poorer facilities, will be able to get to the start of the season and then honour their obligations in it. 

That is certainly tough to say and it will raise the hackles of a lot of fans of the teams in the second and third tier, but it’s so hard to see how they will survive what could well be a stop/start season played largely behind closed doors with no fans in and without any TV coverage and the subsequent money that brings in. Furthermore, if crowds are let back in, the ability to self-distance and segregate in some stadia is almost impossible. There are tough times ahead for a lot of Clubs in and outside Super League I’m afraid.

So next up what about Equity Funding and Super League. Well, after months of rumours, the clubs couldn’t agree on it and so it was chucked out as a fund-raising idea last week, or at least, so its rumoured. There has always been a need to bring outside funding into the country’s premier RL competition because of late we have become almost totally dependent on two income streams, fans attending games and Sky TV. Sponsorship is great in practise but in reality, as a game we don’t really get that much at all.  Although the Sky money is still there providing we can find a way to play games, our other major income stream is for many clubs drying up. For some Clubs like our own, fans are rallying around and continuing to subscribe blindly, in good faith and out of loyalty, through standing orders and ticket sales. However, we have to find means of alternative funding because not all clubs can rely on their fans as we can.  

So, with several Super League Clubs edging towards insolvency the thought of raising £60m from an outside organisation was attractive, but private equity investment is a lot different to a straight loan were you know exactly what you’re getting and what your commitments are with regards to repaying it. Equity funding is a completely different ball game where in effect you hand over the control of your game to the funders. Despite that fact several Clubs voted for the principle of the scheme, but it needed unanimous agreement and that was not forthcoming (with several of the top Clubs wary about signing our destiny away), and so the motion fell. However its rumoured that the Clubs were split down the middle in the vote. Having studied what we know about the proposed deal, it is a mark of how desperate some clubs are at present, that any voted for it at all!!

What I understand is that the company concerned (reported to be Novalpina) would take control the Super League and would want to get its investment back in 5 years from the broadcast income that was generated in that period. Super League Chief Executive Robert Elstone was tasked with investigating the situation and had through accepted practise, to employ merchant bankers Rothchild’s to gauge interest, but now that the scheme has fallen through, its believed that the Super League Club will have to find that organisations agreed abort fee, of £750,000. That’s a lump of around £65,000 per Club at a time when several are already on the brink, so the whole exercise looks to have been a disaster. You have to wonder how much longer Robert Elstone will survive as the Chief Executive, after a series of set-backs and revolts from the Clubs, who don’t seem to be very ‘together’ at all at present.  

There is however one bright spot in all this mess and that is that, although again a rumour, its widely reported in ‘insider groups’ that  Elstone’s ‘hard ball’ tactics with Sky are paying off with, it’s said, a revised offer for the next TV contract now on the table. It’s rumoured that after offering £20m to the Clubs per year for the next deal, Sky have upped their offer to around £30m per year and if that is the case, with things so uncertain at present, I would snap their blooming hands off!!  

I was thinking back the other day to the end of last season and some of the arguments that were going on about Toronto dropping out of Super League and then expecting to be readmitted when it suited them. With the current prospects of the season starting in any sort of normal form again bleak, I pondered on the fact of what a mess Toronto would have been in now!! It was always the right decision, but in the lead up to Christmas, it was interesting to see League Express and a couple of other publications still banging on about how wrong we were as a sport to exclude Toronto. However now, that debate has all gone strangely quiet. When the arguments were raging you will recall that those publications blessed with serving our game were almost pleading for us to continue to include the Canadian team in Super League, whilst in here I had to admit to being dead against it. 

I said in the Diary back then that my assertion was not on the basis of the appeal continental teams brought to the British game of rugby league going forward, but rather on the two counts; a) The team hadn’t yet developed one Canadian based player to play in their first team in all of three years, but instead they were just spreading a depleted pool of quality players in this country and France even further and b) The virus that has consumed our great country meant that the logistics and indeed risk of the travel concerned, made their reinstatement totally impractical. I said at the time I thought that we as a game needed to hunker down, protect our heartland Clubs and hold what we have got. Now, as the pandemic shows no sign of receding over here and it looks like we will be playing a large chunk of the forthcoming season behind closed doors, or at least with reduced attendances, it is now I believe, generally if begrudgingly agreed, that it was the right decision.  

The virus reason for excluding Toronto is pretty straight forward really and now more and more becoming just common sense,  but the playing pool one as far as expansion outside the M62 is concerned is a hot topic and a real worry. You see I think that as a game in this country we have at least to aspire to one day seeing our senior competition on a par with the NRL. If not, then we might as well give up!  

However, despite being based largely in the traditional heartland areas for amateur clubs and kids playing the game, we simply can’t produce enough players of real quality to fill twelve northern based teams; and that at clubs that have academy development arms and scouting networks already in place. So then, imagine where we would have ended up had we had Toronto, Toulousse, New York and Ottawa all building teams from the available British players and thus spreading even more thinly the already sparce quality. At a time like this Leigh are for me, (whether we like the idea of another M62 Club being included or not), a much safer bet. 

If all those teams were competing in the British leagues yet failing to produce any new talent at all, but instead relying on signing players out of an already inadequate pool here, how can that ever be seen to be expanding the game, without it diluting the quality of it as well? There are areas of Australia where the kids don’t by and large play Rugby League or at least don’t play it as much and those regions don’t have NRL Clubs. Over there the premier teams are concentrated in the areas where the infrastructure of school’s rugby, amateur team’s, feeder Clubs, academy’s and reserve grade Clubs proliferate. Yet back in November there we were as a game looking to include Clubs that had none of that support but who would instead be grabbing their players from the teams that had it. How the editors of League Express and a few other publications who wanted Toronto back almost at any cost feel about this now, who knows. But let’s face it they are hardly going to miss the thousands of copies of their publications they were selling in Canada are they?

For me, as I say, if that side of the argument rages on, the decision by the Clubs to not include Toronto has at least been vindicated by the fact that here we are with no end in sight to the pandemic and with the game struggling to survive in its current form. I think that at least qualifies the decision the Clubs made about The Wolfpack and as a game we have to hold what we have, look after our own and somehow see if we can get through this with Rugby League as a main line British sport (if indeed it is still that) intact! On this occasion I think that time and Covid 19 has proved the expansion at any cost boys wrong! 

So, to gardening corner and it’s certainly been another week without much news at all and a closed season that seems to go on and on. It’s pretty depressing at times for all of us and after a week when that horrible deaths total of 100,000 was passed, its hard to be positive about much at all really is it? We have all lost friends and know of those who have passed on and quite frankly as things are you feel pretty helpless. It was therefore great to see my pal and Diary reader Kathy Kirk, although totally sympathetic, responding by being proactive rather than just despairing in it all.  By using social media she started encouraging her friends in Beverley to plant a special memorial tub in their front gardens this summer to commemorate all those who have passed and in support of all those they left behind. We are all going to have a go at it round here and what a great idea it is! It’s not difficult, so why not have a go at doing the same thing yourself!

Well, that’s it again, another week another Diary and just 8 weeks to go to the proposed start of the season, although whether that will be put back again is anyone’s guess! There will have been mistakes and errors in the above no doubt, for its hard to concentrate really! But, I’ve had a go again at finding something to talk about as well as reflecting the thoughts I have had over the last 7 days. It’s certainly been great to hear from so many readers this week so thanks to everyone who continues to support the Diary in these strange, strange times. It’s good to know that it gives you something to read in dark times and hopefully as we come out of this latest emergency, news and interesting stuff will start to be around again. 

As for me, well I’m still waiting for the call for the jab and trying to keep busy. As for you, well please take care of yourself, stay safe and try to keep believing, I’m sure we will all be back together at the KC again one day! I’ll speak to you next week!

Faithfully Yours 

Wilf