Well, the first game is next Thursday at York and (I’m sure like you), all I’m doing is looking forward to seeing a bit of rugby, any rugby, again!!
Pre-season continues to ramble on and although the start of the 2021 campaign is getting nearer, we still seems a way off playing again. At least next week we’ll have a game to report back on, all be it just from a friendly at York. But it will give us some sort of ideas as to where we are and perhaps what the 2012 season holds for us. If nothing else it will give us a sense of reality again, in times that are still anything but normal.
Everyone who has anything at all to say about the upcoming campaign, agrees on one thing; that with the strengthening most teams have done, it’s going to be a tough one. With the exception of Leigh (who will be flying on pride and passion for at least the first half of the campaign anyway) almost everyone seems to have strengthened the level of skill in their squads. Where they perhaps haven’t (like maybe at Wakey) they have at least increased the depth of their playing pool, for a season that is going to be relentless once it gets going. As I said last week, with three big hitters leaving and one out injured for ages and just one coming in, I worry a bit about the depth of our squad. However, on that one I guess we’ll just have to trust the club and wait and see.
This week we’ve seen the final hurrah of Robert Elstone at Super League, a few veiled indications at our club as to just what was going wrong before Radford left, some news on potential new player contracts and an indication as to the fact that, although we could see a bit of rescheduling in the fixture list, as the new season unfolds, promotion and relegation are back on again this year.
715 The Dentists Diary
We heard this week that our Coach is certainly impressed with the progress that Mahe Fonua has made thus far this season and apparently I’m told he is looking more like his old self again. After working with him in Australia Brett knows what he can do, and the player seems to have got some appetite back for the task in hand and looks to be getting some passion back into his game. For me he blooming needs to as well, because I was not impressed at all with how he looked for a lot of last season. Particularly as he was heralded as a Marquee signing when he arrived back at the KCom.
As far as the club was concerned, a return was never planned, and he was brought in at the last minute, at the start of 2020, after a bit of ‘arm twisting’ from Radford’s and on a big wedge. His arrival as an admitted bug mate of Radders was duly celebrated by the FC fans and I think perhaps Mahe took the adulation on board, as we all pretty blindly welcomed home a real legend of the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. Perhaps he took all that hero worship on board a bit too much, but for me he just didn’t look in any sort of condition at all at the start of the 2020 campaign.
Billy Joel once wrote, ‘ ….and the king and the queen went back to the scene but you can never go back there again’ and life does prove that the returning of anyone to past glories often ends in tears, as the actual reality often diminishes the golden memories you have. Perhaps his return just went to our heads and even went to Mahe’s as well! However, whatever the reason for me he never looked fit and his old coach didn’t seem to have the ability or perhaps the inclination to make him get fit! He couldn’t keep possession and his defence, never his strong point, was abysmal at times. That said under Lasty he did show glimpses of his best later on in the year, he got on a roll and managed to touch down for seven tries in all competitions, just two behind top scorers Carlos Tuimavave and Ratu Naulago. However, as I say, like many in the team in general, last season he struggled for consistency.
However, with Radford and Lasty gone and everyone starting with a clean slate this year, Mahe returned to pre-season (with perhaps a flea in his ear from our new coach), in a determined mood. He’s certainly now impressing Hodgson, so much so that he’s been given the number five shirt, giving a fair reflection of his standing within the squad. When we re-signed him, last minute last year, we already had three wingers and Radford made any excuse he could for him coming in which included the possibility that he would make a great centre. Of course, that never happened did it?
Still, that’s all water under the bridge now and Brett says that he feels Mahe has really worked hard and that’s a pretty consistent theme across the rest of the squad, with everyone showing great application towards the changes our new Coach has made. “He’s done well”’ Hodgson said, when asked about the 28-year-old by the HDM. He has obviously made it clear to Mahe that he needed to perform this pre-season and buck his ideas up a bit. He continued, “He’s looking fit, fitter than he was last year in particular and he’s looking strong and vocally he’s one of the leaders in our squad at the minute so, I’ve been really impressed with his attitude.”
Well for me that’s great news and although nothing is proved in pre-season and the proof of the pudding is always out there on the pitch, there is little doubt at all that a fully fit Mahe firing on all cylinders and in the form we saw in those two glorious seasons, will be a revelation for us all. What’s more, it will strike fear into the hearts of the toughest defences in the comp as well. Of course, we’ll just have to wait and see, however there are some good signs there I feel!
The belief by many of us that all was not right with the cultural side of things in the team long before Radford left, was again borne out by Gareth Ellis this week in a great interview in the Yorkshire Post. For those of you who missed it our new Assistant Coach hinted at much needed change and said, “For the players – who probably are not happy with how they’ve been playing – this has given them an opportunity to reset, refocus and change a few things. That’s instigated from Hodgo, as the Head Coach, and just the change of voice in some respects has made a big difference to the squad. Some of the slightly new ideas have rechallenged them as well and hopefully that will start to build. There’s no excuses; it’s the cultural stuff of the club that needs to change and that doesn’t happen overnight”.
It appears that change was therefore well over due when Radford left and it seems that a new coach has allowed everyone to reset a little bit and reflect on what, if they are honest, has been a couple of disappointing years. If we get more steel, a bit of consistency, less arguing on the field and our heads not going down when the going gets tough, that’ll be a good start for me.
The next interesting move by the Club will be naming the captain and vice-captain which again will reveal a bit more about our new coach and how he is thinking.
Now everyone who reads this knows that Marc Sneyd is a hero of mine, because I just love the way that, providing he gets the support from his forwards, he controls the game and how he can win a game for us at the death when all else has usually failed. This week in the Clubs exclusive members piece he was interviewed about how things where going and he said, of training so far, “Everyone seems to have stepped it up a gear – there is definitely a higher intensity than what there has been over the last couple of years, possibly because we’ve all got to do that little bit more to catch the eye of a new coach in charge. I feel like we have probably carried on where we left off in 2020 having finished the season pretty strong with some big performances. We have squeezed the most out of every session that we have done which is a massive effort.”
Again as with Ellis, Marc also hinted on what went before and on Brett Hodgson, he added: “We’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing what we as players felt is the best for us, rather than just being told what to do. My strengths are on the opposite scale of where Josh’s (Reynolds) are, so we’ve been figuring out what is the best way to play and get the best out of both of us. So, on that side of things, Brett has been really helpful. He definitely knows what he is talking about and he is open to discussion as well which is good – if he tells us to do something which we feel might not be working, he is open to hearing other ideas.” The comment about ‘rather than being told what to do’ again speaks volumes really and it interesting to see that Hodsgon’s management style seems to be one of getting the players to say what they think they should be doing, seeing if it fits into the system and the plan and then ensuring that if it happens, they own it.
Meanwhile our new recruit Josh Reynolds certainly seems to be impressing Sneyd when Marc said of him this week, “When he is doing things on the training field, most of us stand and watch because it is pretty exciting when he has ball in hand.” That’s praise indeed from a half-back of the calibre of Sneydy and you know what, I’m starting to get a bit excited about seeing Josh playing with Marc and Jake in the Black and White this year.
Whilst I’m on FC players that I rate, you’ll remember that in here I have said several times that although I can’t put my finger on what it is, there is something about Connor Wynne that I like and something that tells me that one day he might make it big style. Often appearing to be supressed a bit under the last coaching regime, even after Connor had produced a couple of good showings in the first team, he was still very much in the shadow of ‘golden boy’ Jamie Shaul. It seems with a new coach his ability is being recognised. With Jake first choice full-back and Jamie Shaul fighting to get back into training after a bad injury, it looked as if it was ‘make or break’ for Wynne this year. He could have been downhearted but instead of taking his bat and ball home, the 20-year-old is ‘snapping at Jakes heels’ and keeping him on his toes. Of course, it’s becoming a bit of a priority for our young full-back too as his contract is up this year.
That appears to be a lot different to last year in pre-season about which Wynne said a couple of weeks ago, “To be honest last season I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there in pre-season and no one really likes it, but I’m actually enjoying it this year. I feel in such a better place head-wise mentally and I feel a lot fitter. Brett’s going to be great to learn off, though, I’ve watched some of his games, he was a small full-back but he just did everything right”. Our coach reciprocated this week when asked about the young full back and said, “He’s working hard, he’s asking questions about how to improve and he’s smiling a lot as well which is important. I’ve had conversations with Connor and he seems to be happy with what’s happening at the minute”. So again, it will be interesting to see how Wynne goes this year and whether he gets any-time on the field at full-back. He’s an interesting case though isn’t he?
When the betting on the first Coach to be sacked this year came out, top of the list was for the third year running Chris Chester at Wakey. Poor old Chris battles on and is a great bloke, who really cares about his players and his Club. Perhaps surprisingly though, next up on the list was Brett Hodgson. That might have surprised some, but fear not, that was probably not to do with the bookmaker’s thoughts on his lack of Coaching experience. It was rather, I think, down to the fact that there is so much to lose for any club, up to their eyes in Covid related debts, going down this season. It reflects I think the fact that any unproven coach in Brett’s position, losing games regularly in the middle of the season, would, in the bookmakers eyes, be ripe for change. Fact is of course, since he has been in rugby league Adam has proved to not be trigger happy in such situations, in fact quite the opposite and anyway what they overlook is that with a three year contract under his belt, it would cost the owner a lot of dosh to get rid anyway.
On Thursday Hull Daily Mail released one of their ‘we understand’ stories and I really welcome the news that we are already in contract talks with Joe Cator, with a view to him signing a long-term deal with the club. I’m a massive fan of Joe’s all-action style of play, of the way that when it’s the kick chase he’s always there or there abouts and of the tremendous work rate he produces in every game. The fact is though what I admire most is that he’s a Hull lad who grew up on the terraces and he wants to play for his team as long as he can. He described playing in the black and white last season as ‘a dream come true’.
The article also stated that we had opened talks with Jake Connor which again is a great move. That negotiation will be a lot tougher than the one we will have had with Joe Cator though, because Jake is at the point in his career where the next contract is the important one. He is one of the most talented players in the game and every Super League Club and no doubt a couple Down Under would be interested if he became available. We really do have to try and grab him for a couple more years at least, for I believe under Hodgson and with a bit of security in the full-back position he could really realise the obvious potential he has. He’s one of those rarities, a player that’s it’s almost impossible to read and he does some stuff that most professional players can only dream of doing. We don’t know if Jake has aspirations elsewhere, but if possible we really have to get Marc signed up, for it will send out a real message to the rest of the squad, the fans and of course the rest of the game, that we really do mean business.
The idea of having the Magic Weekend and the Grand Final at the end of the season both of which we all hope will be well attended and then just a couple of weeks before the start of the World Cup should really rev up the interest and get the ball rolling at the business end of the season. As the game stives to prepare everyone for the sport’s biggest competition which kicks off with England playing in Newcastle everything will be set to go.
But for patriotic old me, it’s not good news for England’s chances of winning the tournament. If you’re a player in the Grand Final and you’re an England international as well, then you won’t have long to prepare and there will certainly be no warm up match for you. After a long hard season that will have sapped energy, the England team must enter the competition under cooked anyway, because they haven’t yet played together under their new coach. There could well be an Exiles game in the middle of the season, but the chances of a game two weeks before the first round of World Cup matches will be fine for some, but not for the elite players who have been taking part at in the play-offs and at Old Trafford.
So, I believe that our preparations are scant to say the least. I want England to do well, I always do, but the Super league Clubs insistence on getting as much ‘bang for their buck’ as they can from ticket, beer sales etc., right up to two weeks before the tournament starts, means that we have hardly left themselves with much chance of seeing a cohesive, prepared and refreshed international team kick off in the big one, have we?
Now, to other things and I haven’t heard much from regular reader Jeffrey Smith for quite a while and I was starting to worry about a guy who usually keeps in touch pretty regularly. However, then up he popped this week safe and well and as usual asking an interesting question. This week’s query concerned ex FC half back of the 80’s Fred Ah Koui. Jeff said, “I recalled a play the ball he utilised, I believe only twice, from which FC scored the second time it was used in a game at The Boulevard. The team had won a penalty about 20 yards out, Ah Koui walked away with the ball towards his own players and took the tap with his back towards the opposition before he kicked the ball the over his head, the opposition were taken by surprise and the onrushing FC players caught the defence unawares and one of them touched the ball down to score”.
I can remember that trick being used by Fred myself because it was what the Americans call ‘a gadget play’ or a sort of a invented play, a bit like the Topliss/Leuluai wrap around move of the 81/82 season and the famous ‘Buzzer’ tap penalty which was devised by David Doyle Davison when he was Coach. That said, although I vaguely remember it happening I can’t remember the games when Fred tried that trick with such success or the opposition and as I have been through all my Diaries of the time but drawn a blank, I wondered if any readers could help Me and Jeff place the games? Great memories though Jeff, because Fred was a superb tactical player and pretty underestimated at times in my opinion so thanks for reminding us about him!
Look folks, whether we shout about it enough or not, on the national stage of sport our great game is perhaps the best for action and sheer athletic prowess there is, yet off the field it is spiralling year on year in a downwards trajectory. Every year it gets worse, every TV deal gets smaller, the size of sponsorship deals and the companies behind them is in decline, the playing pool gets smaller, every season more and more of our best players depart for Rugby Union or the NRL and so it goes on.
It’s a progressive downward trend which we don’t just need to stop, but more importantly its one we need to reverse. Fact is we support a great sport and if you want the evidence of that you only have to look at the success of the competition ‘Down Under’. We need a big injection of cash to turn us into a game that is moving upward and onwards, not we are consistently searching for ways of making do and mend to just keep going. Calls for the NRL to invest in Super League have gathered pace in recent seasons due to what many people feel is a lack of adequate leadership both at Super League and RFL level. This pace accelerated further in December 2020 when the NRL actually looked into buying our competition. They were told that if they wanted a controlling stake, it would cost a mere £75 million which is pretty cheap, I would say, when you see what we have to offer, but at such a steal it probably reflects the state that British Rugby League is in.
It’s common knowledge that as a game we are struggling to even maintain our £40 million per season Sky TV deal, but over in Aus. the NRL have had no such problems. Indeed, last year, Australia’s most prized competition struck a deal with Fox Sports worth an eye watering £203 million per season and got it on a seven-year deal!
I know we would never ever get anything like that, but what those comparative figures show is the varying levels by which the sport is valued in the two main competing countries, they also prove just how much money each competition is capable of raising and just how far behind we are. It might be their national sport but you only have to watch it to know that they are getting a lot of things right. For, as the NRL goes from strength to strength our game is best described as being on the bones of its arse.
With growing Tv audiences securing a bigger TV deal than the previous one, should be a given, yet for us it would be a massive step forward. However, I sort of worry that past experience proves that it ain’t gonna happen with the current Super League Board or the RFL in charge. A sport that looks as if it means business is the first thing we have to aim for, because we need a game that is on the up and exciting people again. To get that moving we need a cash injection so that clubs can look at upgrading their facilities and at attracting and retaining the fittest, strongest and fastest athletes instead of losing them to rival competitions and sports. That, in turn, would start to generate greater quality.
As the game moved on, instead of scratching around for savings a lump of cash injected into development to create an improved pool of players would create higher standards at all clubs and also give sides an edge when it comes to marketing and promotion off the field. That could then inspire larger sponsors to bite the bullet and join the sport and so we move upwards again. We need a big one-off injection of cash and then to use it wisely. If it came in exchange for the NRL having a controlling interest, they would make sure that it wouldn’t just frittered away by the clubs, but used in a constructive way to move the game onwards again.
If the NRL show interest again, a lot will call foul, and as an aging dyed in the wool fan, I still don’t know if the idea sits easy with me at all either. They were and still are the old enemy, but where is the catalyst to reverse the current trend or indeed the money to do it, coming from? The British game was debt ridden at the end of 2019 but now with all the Covid loans and lack of income from the 2020 season to pay off and make up, most Clubs must be really struggling. These days Fairy Godmothers are limited to the odd appearance in Panto’s at Christmas time so quite frankly, assistance and selling a controlling stake to the Aussies may be the games only way out of its current demise.
Well, no doubt with a settlement in his back pocket Robert Elstone has departed the Chief Executive of the Super League position as from yesterday. It was expected that he might have to hang around for months under the terms of his contract but the move that was announced on Thursday was the best thing for all concerned. His departure was announced with a heartfelt farewell message in which he said, “Rugby League will always be in my blood and, just as I have always believed for as long as I can remember, it has a bright and exciting future. I look forward to watching that unfold.”
He’s left with the good wishes of most folks and a glowing testimonial from the Wakefield Chairman, but his tenure was strewn with a good few examples of him screwing up, him being made a scapegoat and some club chairman openly stabbing him in the back. He even survived a vote of no confidence last year so as you might expect some were no doubt glad to see the back of him, but in the end there were plenty of ‘pleasantries’ on both sides when the announcement was made. The three options now as I see it are to appoint a successor to Elstone, which could not at present be cost effective, form a sort of hybrid relationship closer to the RFL or just jump back into bed with the governing body completely. I think I’d go for the middle one myself, because I still feel the Super league Clubs who are let’s face it the bread winners for the game need an element of autonomy from the rest.
The game has to concentrate on surviving now never mind prospering and the next moves around the autonomy of Super League and a possible successor to Elstone are perhaps the most critical we have seen in the game since Super League was created. Big decisions ahead me thinks!
Now, what do you do if you have tried everything but can’t get a decent gate for your home games. Well perhaps you follow Ken Davy’s example at Huddersfield because over in West Yorkshire they have revealed a sensational season ticket offer for fans. The Giants have priced their season tickets at just £99 for the season for adults over 30, with under 30s being able to snap up a season card for just £50. Man, that’s a good deal!!
That prices make the Giants’ season tickets the cheapest in the competition by a considerable distance and has been received warmly by fans of the club and rival teams alike. Those fans that purchase will have priority access to games once fans are allowed back at games as well as the ability to watch games on Our League while they remain behind closed doors. As most other clubs are watching the pennies and desperate to get income coming in good old Ken is more interested in getting a good gate into the ground and populating ‘Tumble weed Junction’ with fans again. It’s OK when your owner is a philanthropist isn’t it?
Well at least the RFL got their act together this week and finally confirmed the way that the Championship and Division 1 will work this year, in a season, when despite the issues it looks like promotion and relegation will be on again at the end of the season.
I say that because it’s hard to see how it will be fair to facilitate that, if some clubs have had outbreaks of covid and thus have had to cancel games etc and then with such a tight fixture list fit them in mid-week etc. Still only time will tell on that one, but at least we now know that promotion to Super League for 2022 will be decided by a six-team play-off.
The Betfred Championship, which kicks off over the Easter weekend at the start of next month, will adopt the same top six play-off system which was used in the Betfred Super League in 2020. If you remember how it works that means the top two in the final table will earn a bye through the first round of the play-offs before playing the winners of sudden death fixtures between teams three to six.
The winners of those two semi-finals will meet in the Million Pound Game to determine promotion to the Betfred Super League in 2022. The games will be played over a three-week period from September 25 to October 10 and will be shown live on Sky Sports. Questions remain about the involvement of Toulouse Olympique given the current rules surrounding sportsmen and women returning from France being required to quarantine, but an announcement on their early rounds will apparently we are told, be made in the coming days.
In Betfred League 1, which kicks off in May, the team finishing top of the table will earn automatic promotion. The teams finishing second to sixth will play in a five-team play-off series culminating in a Promotion Play-Off Final. That will run for four weeks, starting the weekend before the Championship play-offs (September 18-19).
In both competitions, Clubs will be required to have played 70% of their league fixtures (16 out of 22 in the Betfred Championship) to qualify for the play-offs. The bottom two teams in the Betfred Championship will be relegated – irrespective of how many fixtures they have played (which is for me a bit harsh really). As I said in here a few weeks back the clubs had already agreed that league positions will be determined by points percentage (again), as in the Betfred Super League in 2020. This is to allow for the possibility of teams being forced to withdraw from fixtures because of Covid-19. They will be allowed to do that if seven or more players are ruled out either after testing positive, or as close contacts of a positive test following test and trace analysis.
So there we are a few things to chew over this week as we now move onwards and look forward to Thursday and watching the lads take on York in our only pre-season game. If you’re a season ticket holder you should have got your Our League membership number from the Club by now, (if you haven’t ring them) and remember to sign up early so you ain’t fiddling about on Thursday tea time.
I hope that you found something of interest this week, but my, it seems ages since we last saw a game played out in anger doesn’t it? Thanks for all your feedback after the last Diary and for supporting what I try to do in here. At least, after York, I’ll have something to write about next time.
Try to Keep Believing!
I saw this sign and imagined it being nailed up on the main gates at the Jungle in Castleford!