Two weeks into pre-season training and it seems it’s all going pretty well so far, whilst off the field both shirts are now out and season tickets are not far off topping a very respectable 8000 sales.
Scott Taylor was in the gym the other day chomping at the bit to get started today (Monday) and with him being joined by another 3 returnees’ and the fixtures now confirmed, its all moving along and we now know what we are doing in 2020 and when we’re doing it.
As for those fixtures well it’s certainly a tough, tough start to the Super League campaign with the first 4 rounds against Leeds, Rovers, Wigan and Saints. What’s more time is flying and already today (Monday) it’s trombone time, with just 76 days to that first game at Headingley. That’s under 11 weeks and counting and yet it will probably be another 5 weeks before we have everyone in camp and training for the new campaign and that in turn is likely to be just 3 weeks before our first pre-season game! Although its been very quiet, times flying by isn’t it?
Where you like me wondered what had happened to Kieron Purtill, our new Assistant Coach, because there had been no mention of him at all from the Club, not a welcome, or indeed any sort of sight of him on the Clubs training photos and videos. He at last got a mention by the Mail reporter the other day, so at least we know he’s here, but as for our ‘new’ defensive Coach, well everything has gone very quiet indeed on that front!
Since the last Diary both the fixtures and the new away strip have been revealed. I am not that fussed about our shirt, but that’s just me and that said, as I commented when the home one came out, I understand the thinking behind it because, for the club, it must be hard to keep ringing the changes on an annual basis. One things for sure, it will certainly find it’s way into a lot of fans Christmas stockings.
However, the 2020 fixture list is an altogether thornier one to discuss because every Club’s supporters can, every year, find anomalies and bits they deem unfair, whilst when they comment about it, the rest of the game just say that it’s sour grapes and that they should get on with it! No doubt I’ll get some of that, but that’s always the case at this time of year, none the less I’ll still have a look at our weekly rounds and give you my two-penneth on what I make of next year’s schedule.
The fixtures emerged just after the last edition of this chronical went to print and let’s face it whatever you make of them you have to play everyone twice; at least!!! What I say next is honestly not grumbling, because after all these years I know that it is just how the cards fall, but I feel that I should at least outline why I believe we’d better get all our ducks in a row from the off in 2020. You see, for me, with a very strong Toronto coming in, it was always going to be a tough campaign, but, I personally thought that it just got that little bit tougher for the FC once the schedule was announced.
Firstly, you see, I don’t think Toronto will go down because they have over-come so many hurdles to get where they are now in the first place. That being the case, if their rather ‘minted’ owners see them struggling mid-season you can bet your bottom dollar they will flash the cash and find a way to strengthen their troops to avoid the Championship fiasco that they have just been through …twice.
For us, well our first two games were typically leaked early, as we were named as being part of the Toronto Double-header at Leeds, where we would play the home team and the Canadians would play Castleford; then out tumbled the news that the next game was Rovers at home! Not too easy I thought, until someone slipped me the full list of fixtures and the next two matches were against Saints and Wigan; from that point it became down right difficult. Then I noticed that the Derby, with all the unique pressure it brings, would be played on a Friday night five days after facing the Rhino’s in that previous Sunday’s high profile jamboree, (when we are scheduled to play at tea time), with therefore the Dobbins getting two day’s extra preparation time after following their first game at home to Wakey. OK, OK, OK, I know ….sour grapes already!!!
Maybe it will also be a freezing cold start at Headingley, on what could be a long afternoon with that 4-15 kick off. I expect the event will sell out quickly and a lot will watch it on TV! I don’t know how they will actually manage the match, but with one game following straight on after the other, the thought of 6000 Castleford and FC fans mixed together and crammed into the away end did cross my mind! As we all predicted (because of the formula adopted last year) it will be Leeds again in the Magic fixture in Newcastle as well, where we have been kept back to the last game on Saturday no doubt to keep a crowd in the Stadium so things look better on TV.
One thing that’s a perennial certainty, is that the fixtures always pan themselves out over the course of the season. However, starting well for every Club is paramount and for me if we can get four points or more from our first four games, then we’ll have started well!! Those matches look a mighty big ask on first perusing this year’s schedule, particularly in the light of last season’s shortcomings, as when big game followed big game, mentally under pressure, we often came up wanting.
Then I noticed that the first fixture after arguably the most emotional and physically draining game of the season, away at Caravan Park on Good Friday, was the long trip to Toronto!! The fact that we have to go to Canada and do it as the first British Super League team to visit, is a big ask in itself. No doubt at all that we will be ‘snagging’ the trip, flights, accommodation, fans arrangements, length of time needed to acclimatise etc. for all the other clubs whilst for us, to a certain extent, it will all be into the unknown. We would be well advised I guess to have early discussions with a few Championship clubs who have already made the trip and to see how they handled it last year.
One things definitely certain however and that is that it will be a massive occasion for the Canadian Club and there will doubtless be a party atmosphere with the home debut of Sonny Bill, who by then will have become a cult figure in the sports mad City of Toronto. I expect the FC Faithful will be out in strength as well and whatever happens to them in their first few games in this country, the home club will by then be buzzing at the prospect of playing the first ever Super League game in Canada and although we will also go into the record books on that score, it’s still a pretty unenviable task. And all that on a synthetic pitch and at a time when it could be anything between minus ten and ‘plus’ twenty degrees on game day. Again, the cards have been dealt, but it’s not that easy a prospect to plan for at all.
I’m not whining, whinging or complaining, neither am I shroud waiving or as some might be thinking, getting my excuses in early! I’m just pointing out what I think are some difficult parts of our 2020 campaign and as always, saying it as I see it!
At first glance it’s just another set of fixtures. However, when you peel it all back a bit I believe personally that here we have some of the hardest logistical issues that we have seen for years. But we have to get on with it and if we are going to do as well as we all hope in 2020, we must plan and prepare early to overcome it.
However, there are positives too and on a more upbeat note our last five or six fixtures all look winnable and against clubs who finished outside last year’s top 4. They auger well for a good run in, if we are vying for the play-offs or even if we can’t sustain some consistency throughout and the darkest of scenario’s presents itself. If we are in any sort of trouble at the bottom by then (heaven forbid) surely we should be able to get some points from Leeds, Wakefield, Rovers, Catalan and Salford. For the long suffering travelling fan as well its good to see us only travelling to the South of France once for our last away game, on what should be a ‘pretty temperate’ September evening. The fact that all the final round games are kicking off at the same time on the same day is a big improvement as well; what League set up anywhere that has relegation and promotion gives the advantage of staggered kick offs in that final crucial set of games? Again it just makes so much sense.
On another tack its interesting to note as well, (no doubt to aid the football club at a time when grounds are wet), that we have some early season home games on a Sunday with three, against Saints and Catalan (twice), scheduled for that day. As I chat to fans it’s apparent that there is still a traditionalist lobby who enjoy the old Sunday match day experience and its good to see that they have been catered for as well. In fact, four of our first five fixtures, home and away, are on a Sunday afternoon.
The Thursday Sky fixtures appear to have been set up to the loop fixtures at least, but despite the promises to all clubs two years ago, there seems to be no attempt whatsoever to zone them to help the away fans get there, with Warrington coming to us and us lot travelling to Saints, both on Thursday evenings. The team that comes out on top for TV exposure is Warrington, who have been selected on 11 occasions already by the competition’s broadcaster and therefore appear on the box in over half of the weekly rounds. We are joint second on eight.
At the other end of the spectrum, Catalans have the lowest number of broadcast games with 2 currently being shown. That could change of course because there is hope that they will come up with a broadcast deal with a French TV network. However, at present they are struggling on that front and with Sky refusing to travel over there to cover games, currently none of their Saturday fixtures in France will be televised. Of course should they not secure a deal they will lose the advantage they currently enjoy of knowing that each and every home game will be played on a Saturday tea time (to suit the French TV schedules) and therefore having a video referee at every home game as well. Of course unless things change, fans who find it difficult, or impossible to travel there, will miss out on watching their heroes in that match. I have little sympathy for the Dragons but for those fans of other clubs if no one else, I hope that the Frenchmen secure a new broadcast deal with French TV so that the practise of showing all their home games and indeed those of Toronto on Sky can continue.
As I said in starting this quick look at how the season is shaping up, you have to play everyone twice and a few three times and what is set is set and it now has to be ‘done’ and at least we now know who it has to be done against and when. However, although I have never been in favour of targeting games, the way that our fixtures fall this year (and as I said earlier), we will have to plan well in advance for the 2020 campaign.
So, training commenced a week last Monday with a day the like of which few of the ‘long termers’ at our club had seen. It was barely light when 24 of our current 2020 squad arrived at County Road at 7-00 for a 7-30 start. Several told me that they were straight into it without all the usual first morning testing and kitting out. It started with talks from Adam Pearson and Lee Radford, before it was out on the pitch or into the gym. I am reliably informed that by the end of the day everyone went home buggered (the player’s words not mine). There was a deal of ball work but it was still pretty well focussed on conditioning and building strength, but still in some ways a different approach to things from the last couple of years.
Things and thinking do of course change and the use of the ball on the first day of pre-season is a lot different from one or two of the starts I reported in here when John Kear and Peter Sharpe were Coach, when the players went two weeks without even seeing a ball!! It was all fitness training and stamina work back then, but I guess the rationale about our approach to pre-season has changed a bit as sports science has come more and more into things.
Last Monday, one week in, Josh Bowden came back into camp and you know, if I’m honest, he worries me a bit. That ACL injury is notorious for being hard to heel and can be debilitating for the rest of a player’s career. Josh dropped out of the Knights squad because I believe he was worried about it and opted instead to take a measured approach to things by coming back early for pre-season at County Road. He certainly has confidence in his injury again and feels that it won’t let him down when he’s playing, but despite the fact he returned last May after a year out, he was always struggling after games and obviously by what he said last week, that still bothers him a bit.
The good news this week is that by you read this, Mahe should be back along with Scott Taylor, who is returning late to training due to his international commitments. They will be joined by Samoa international Ligi Sao and Chris Satae, whose rushed short-term visa to play in the latter stages of the last campaign, meant he had to go home during the off-season. That’s 4 of our top assets back having missed just two weeks of pre-season, but it’s a shame that it will be mid-December before everyone is back isn’t it?
It’s all a bit strange for some though!! Adam Swift openly admitted he couldn’t sleep for being excited on the Sunday night before training commenced and he was determined to have a good start and make an impression. He has had four months to think about his move and has used the time well as he has got his family all settled in the area. He, like Johnstone, who I spoke about last time, certainly means business and he will certainly have some competition out there on the wing as well, however he is giving it a real go!
The ‘At all cost’ idea of regular short videos on the Clubs TV channel showing how the pre-season is unfolding is another great free idea to engage the fans. It should certainly break down a bit some of the mystique there is behind this usually rather clandestine part of the process as we all build towards the new season. It’s on Hull Live and certainly worth a look. However, with only one edition so far I do hope it will be continued. Well done to the club, providing that is, they keep it going!
So we have recently learned that we have taken another forces Rugby Union player to train with us in pre-season a la Ratu Naulago and that’s great to see. Lee Radford watched Ratu play in the Babcock Trophy game in front of 80,000 and noticed Eldon Myers playing in the centre against him for the Navy. With the dispensations that exist for Clubs taking on senior RU players its certainly worth a shot!
I saw Eldon the other day and boy if having a great physique made you a great Rugby player then he would be in the first team now!! He is of course a Physical Training instructor in the forces and has got released to stay with us up until the end of the pre-season and hopefully as Radford says, “after that”. He’s a centre and we certainly ain’t short of them, but the signs are that he is already impressing the other players in training and it certainly adds a bit more interest at these rather quiet times doesn’t it?
Now to other things in the game and onto a bit on which I have genuinely got mixed thoughts. You see, for me the announcement of Sonny Bill Williams on a two-year contract worth a cool £2.65m a year came as a surprise, because although it had been trailed for a while, I never really thought it would happen. I say that because I imagined it to be a bit of a publicity stunt that wouldn’t come to much, but by giving him a share in the actual club and using the Marquee signing rules, the Canadians got their man and SBW was lured to Super League.
No one else in the competition could have done it and you have to congratulate the Wolfpack whilst at the same time you have to also wonder how much value for money the Canadian outfit will get out of him. The announcement will raise several questions in certain quarters, but for me I’m already sure it won’t be value for money for the club on the field, but for the game and the profile of the Toronto set up, it’s an amazing move.
I don’t know how it will all pan out. Heaven knows we all remember the case of the ubiquitous Willie Mason don’t we? The exhaustive poster campaign announcing that ‘Big Willie is Coming’ had Rovers fans and not a few women across the City eagerly awaiting developments only for it all to fall apart PDQ. Yet here we are with SBW, arguably the most iconic player in both codes of rugby, coming into Super League. It’s massive for the Northern Hemisphere game and certainly shows that the newcomers mean business as Williams becomes the highest paid player in the history of the British game and indeed in world Rugby League.
In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what some say the publicity and profile the game will get from the move will be better than anything we could have dreamed of and Sonny Bill will certainly be the poster boy for the sport for months to come. Or at least he should be!! After being refused their Sky money and told that they would have to pay the travel for all the Clubs that visit Toronto too, for the owners of the Wolfpack to do so much for the global profile of the game out of their own pocket is certainly to be commended.
So on one level it’s a great coup for the game. But it’s not really that simple is it? Some are already asking if its right that a sport is so desperate that they agree to one club employing a player that receives more in wages in a season than most Super League Clubs pay in their total player salaries. Never mind it being way above the average club’s salary cap? It’s also ironic that it’s a team from the other side of the pond that has a millionaire owner that is doing something that is completely out of the reach of every other Northern Hemisphere team in the game. What’s more Sonny Bill is hardly in the prime of his career at 34 and with a bashed up body, it’s certainly in the first place, a big risk for the new Club.
There are, I’m told, 3 Super League Clubs at present financially on the rocks and its quite ironic that they will have battled on for years, to find themselves meeting a club that has bought success and that are paying that sort of wages.
However, Toronto can do it, they have the dosh and what’s more they have put that money where their mouth is. In the end its not about getting full value on the field, for, let’s face it, they will never ever do that. However, it is about 4 key profiling opportunities, as firstly they look to hype up their emergence as a Super League Club operating on another continent. They are then looking to this move as a means of engaging with and excite the locals in Toronto, whilst trying to position the Toronto brand and Super League in the hearts and minds of the sports fans of the World. In addition, I think they also want the rest of Super League and the games owners to realise that they are not a gimmick and really do mean business. It will certainly do no harm at all, as they court North American TV franchises to cover their home games next year and indeed Sonny Bill as a drawing card must help as Super league approaches another TV negotiation with Sky. If of course he lasts that long!!!
It’s a move based on a level of thinking that we will never ever see from most Super League Clubs. In fact, a few seem to have changed little their approach to marketing the game since super league started in the mid-nineties and they will no doubt be sitting on their hands, shaking their head and preparing their ‘I told you so’s’, as they predict that the move will fail miserably. But for some of the more forward thinking Clubs, like our own, it’s a massive opportunity, for it could just be the harbinger of a new way of looking at reigniting the interest in our sport. It could be the shock move that starts a knock on effect which although unlikely to spurn any more such inflated signings, might just get clubs thinking about ways of keeping the ball, that has been started by Toronto, rolling.
With another big name Marquee player in the pipe line as well as some other high profile signings in the process of joining up, The Wolfpack will no doubt address their on-field shortcomings next. One thing is for certain and that is they will certainly make a splash in Super League and the impact of SBW will do wonders for the profile of the sport as well, but how it all pans out in the end is the big question. Will it be seen as an opportunity or a threat? Well I guess which Club you’re looking at it from will dictate that. It could make the game, particularly if others recognise the possible kick start for the sport that it offers and run with it, but of course, if not capitalised on, it could just be another waste of money and yet another false dawn committed to the already overflowing dustbin of the games missed opportunities.
So to probably the most bizarre piece we’ve had in here for ages as Greece beat Serbia to qualify for the next RL World Cup. To say that Greece is part of the free world and what I have always appreciated to be a civilised country, the next bit is quite amazing really. You see, Greece are currently not allowed to play matches in their home country as the government and the Hellenic Modern Pentathlon Federation (HMPF), who claim governance of the sport, do not recognise the Greek Rugby League Association or the game as a whole.
Police have been called to matches, facilities were made near impossible to acquire and as such, the sport continues to operate on an ‘estranged’ and under cover basis. The waters are muddied slightly as Tasos Pantazidis, the president of the HMPF, used to be in charge of the Hellenic Rugby League Federation before its member status was withdrawn by the Rugby League European Federation over concerns about mismanagement. However it all adds a sour note to a historic qualification and sees Greece, into a major competition for the first time, unable to celebrate their achievements in their home country.
We were talking the other day about rivalries back in the day and how after Rovers it was always Leeds and Wigan that seemed to be our biggest protagonists and that raised the most excitement when they visited the Boulevard. That got me thinking about the Pies as I remembered that 1959 Cup Final drubbing and a thumping 35-0 defeat at the Boulevard early in the 60’s in front of the TV cameras of Grandstand, but my first happy memory of a game against Wigan in 1968 which is one I remember really well. I was 18 then and working as an apprentice gardener for the City Council, I lived in Sutton, having moved from Airlie Street in 1966. I did however still make the journey to watch the first and ‘A’ teams every week at the Boulevard.
The team back then was just starting to recover a bit from the doldrums of the early 60’s and the game against Wigan the ‘elite’ of the league followed a tremendous 25-6 win we had achieved the previous week at Widnes. The season in fact was to tail off badly towards the end of the campaign, but in the early stages we were going well and a visit of Wigan to the Boulevard, always got everyone talking.
On 5th October it was proper ‘Hull Fair Weather‘, all drizzle and mist but in front of a crowd of around 9000 we gave ‘The Pies’, who were back then recognised as one of the greatest exponents of flowing open rugby, a real lesson in how the game should be played. In fact, by the end they could only look on and admire what was a tremendous display from the Airlie-Birds. We had struggled for a few seasons and Coach Johnny Whiteley had attempted to beef the team up somewhat a couple of seasons earlier with the arrival of Jim Neale, and Eric Broom and those two coupled with some great youngsters, like Macklin and Edson saw us starting to boss teams around again. Meanwhile out wide we had the backs with the speed to capitalise on this and score the points.
Brian Hancock kicked off into a stiff breeze and just two plays later Chris Davidson felled Johnny Jackson with a real haymaker of a high tackle, that got our scrum half penalised and set the tone for the early exchanges. Jackson in fact spent the next ten minutes staggering around in a daze and was replaced by Keith Mills shortly afterwards.
Our backs were soon showing up as being faster than the Wigan outfit and with Howard Firth on one wing and Clive Sullivan on the other, our centre’s got the ball out wide at every opportunity. Dick Gemmell had a superb game and scored first. Interchanging passes with stand in Hooker Jim Macklin he used Firth as a foil before dummying to outpacing the Wigan cover for a superb score out wide at the Airlie Street end. The ‘Pies’ tried their best to get back into the game, but as Terry Foggerty dropped the ball on his the FC 25 yard line Arthur Keegan was on it is a second. He accelerated away from the Wigan defenders, drew the full back Tyrer before a looping wide pass released Firth to run, hugging the touch line, to score in the corner. Once again Maloney converted and we were 10-0 up.
There then followed Wigan’s only real period of pressure and they scored a try themselves when Maloney missed a tackle on Eric Ashton who then released Foggerty to score under the sticks. It was a touch-down that was converted by Colin Tyrer and so despite more pressure from our forwards, and John Edson dropping the ball over the line, we went in for half time only ahead by 10-5.
The second half was all Hull. Hancock and Davidson taunted the Wigan forwards and opened the game up at every opportunity, whilst prop Jim Macklin playing at hooker, thrilled us all with some barnstorming runs down the middle. It was one such excursion into the heart of the Wigan defence that set up the next try. Macklin drew several tacklers before releasing the ball to Jim Neale who ran straight back into the heart of the Wigan tacklers before passing onto Maloney, who turned inside to find the now released Macklin again who rolled over the line next to the posts. Macklin’s tenacity and persistence won him a standing ovation from the best stand seats as he walked back. We were not finished yet either and Joe Brown made a break from the kick off which left Wigan’s centre Ashurst grasping thin air. Joe was finally tackled by full back Tyrer but got up, played it forward to himself and ran in to score another try which he also converted.
Wigan huffed and puffed but just got more and more frustrated with our solid defence and in the end resorted to kicking the ball usually straight to Keegan, who returned it ‘with interest‘. There was some rough treatment on Howard Firth the winger we had just signed from the Hull and East Riding RU club, and on one occasion right in front of us Ashurst stood on his hair in the tackle which prompted Man of the Match Dick Gemmell to race in and drag the Wigan player away.
All this I have cobbled together from notes in my Diary and other stuff I have collected over the years, but for me the most memorable part of the game came ten minutes from the end when the ‘Big time Charlies’ decided that they had experienced enough of trying to beat us by playing rugby and Ashurst once again took out his frustration on young Firth. This time he dragged him back by his hair (which was long and blonde as was the fashion back then) and all hell broke loose. Edson, who had looked like losing it on a couple of occasions, ran straight to the melee and tried to punch Keith Mills. He missed completely but connected with Chris Davidson’s elbow and fell pole axed onto the grass.
Rather than quietening things down this just made the whole situation worse and to the cheers and chants of the Threepennies, Macklin crowned a brilliant game with a superb left hook that laid Fogerty out cold. As both he and Edson laid side by side on the pitch unconscious, several scuffles broke out and at one point referee Naughton waded in himself to try and separate several players who were exchanging punches.
As it calmed down and the two comatose players received the ‘magic sponge’ from Ivor Watts and the Wigan trainer, the referee lined both sides up facing each other and went down both lines shouting in their faces and wagging his finger at them. It was all very comical, and the fans loved it. Both teams got a warning and we got on with the last few minutes of the game.
In the end the final score was 20-9 and we all went home happy. The tries and general play from the black and whites was great and it was always something special in the town-centre the night after you had beaten Wigan, but there was no doubt what was the topic of conversation in the pubs and Clubs and Jim Macklin, who left a few years later for Bradford, was long remembered for that left hook.
Well that’s just about it for this week although I have just finished watching the last of the GB internationals and our lads slipping to a new low against Papua New Guinea. Billed on some sites as the worst ever GB performance, it’s a catalogue of circumstances that as FC fans we are I guess, used to. We saw a team packed with stars that should have won easily, showing mental frailties, to, in the end, be out thought and out enthused by a team who simply wanted it more. The whole tour and the way things have been handled is just a microcosm of the rudimental problems at the top of the British game as the RL who run the International team, have once again proved that they couldn’t run a bath.
They have allowed a laissez faire management to go on too long, as the governing body have sat on their hands and refused to take any sort of action. The Coach seems to be on a different planet, attitudes were all wrong, there was no pride in the shirt and a team assembled from both hemisphere’s looked as if they were strangers on the field. We have got greedy as a sport and that greed has led to us playing too many domestic games so that after a season where some British based players could have been playing their 39 competitive game, those who didn’t look abjectly disinterested, looked totally knackered. We went 10 points up and tried to shut up shop and that never works does it?
The PNG guys played with passion and commitment far above the level of their more cultured and talented opposite numbers and won easily. In fact, the biggest win in the history of the game in PNG, was nothing short of the final humiliation for our own competition. Yeh, we’ll get a new international manager but if the past is anything to go by little else will change. How players can look so disinterested when wearing the national shirt beggar’s belief. For me it was a real low for not only the team but also British Rugby League. Let’s see what the RFL next eh?
So there we are. Thanks once again for all your correspondence and for all the kind comments about the last 650th edition. It was great to hear from so many of you on line and to meet up with, Bill Stewart, Harry Hanson and Phil Bucknell in Beverley and Cheshire Readers and good pals Sue and Mike Jacklin last Saturday. I’ll continue to try and reflect my views as we approach Christmas and as pre-season training continues and see what’s happening and to that end the next diary will be out around 2nd December. However, once again as always thanks for sticking with this edition and for all you support at this quiet time, it is really appreciated.