The Dentist’s Diary – 716th

Well, we are underway and in a practise match that brought us a brilliant first half showing and a bit of a shambles in the second, it was pretty much business as usual for such games, with the exception of the fact that thankfully this time we got through it, injury free! 

We shone in the first 60 minutes and then fell away when the kids were on, but both sides, I’m sure, got lots from the game. The thing is as fans watching on, it’s hard to gauge what you are actually getting from friendlies. Yeh you get match practise and a hit up against opposition that isn’t made up of your mates, but otherwise they are rarely a litmus paper as to what is in store for any given Club in the season ahead. 

We did OK and looked great at times in that first half, as our general ball retention and organisation was way better than some such games in the past and it was certainly a lot better than that Richard Whiting Testimonial game back in 2013 at Featherstone when we were simply abysmal. That’s one I remember for all the wrong reasons! This time we did at least look more organised and structured than we did for most of last season. 

So now, with just two weeks to go, we move towards the 2021 season with excitement, enthusiasm and perhaps, just perhaps a bit of trepidation too! We wouldn’t be FC fans if we didn’t would we? 

Each year, we are talked up as being potential Grand Final winners and each year of late, we have fallen flat on our faces. But, speaking to those inside and outside the playing group, something just feels different about the club since Brett Hodgson took over. Our new coach seems to have instilled a much more inclusive culture and our players look raring to go in 2021. Something that I think showed in that first half against York. 

That’s got to be a good thing, because this is going to be a really tough season for reasons I have discussed in here a lot of late, but I feel that Adams comments on the release of players for an exiles game on the same weekend that we have a League fixture, bear that out as well. That for me indicates that we realise that we are sailing a tad close to the wind with the pressures of the 2021 fixture list and the continuing Covid crisis, coupled with the fact that relegation is back. In addition, we have a run of four away games at a critical point of the season and we are running with as small a squad as any of us can ever remember, the Club historian included! That was something that I think showed in that second half on Thursday, but more of that later! 

I think in our heart of hearts, we had all looked forward to the York Friendly if only because it was a chance to watch some rugby again. We heard a lot of ‘It’s only a Friendly’ in the build-up and I guess that’s all it was, if indeed there is such a thing in Rugby League!  However, I have to admit to being really disappointed that we weren’t able to attend and see the new LNER Stadium, that you’ll remember I first explored unofficially when it was half finished and Mrs R was in the nearby John Lewis store back in late 2019. Somehow, these days I find wandering round a building site, ankle deep in mud and in danger of being prosecuted for trespassing, a lot more edifying than I do to looking at soft furnishings!!

The hard work and endeavour that the York Club and their Chairman John Flatman have put in has at last come to fruition and they kick off the 2021 campaign in a great new Stadium. However, I goofed last week a bit when I said how proud we should be as a club to be the first visiting team to play there. Because, we weren’t!! 

I’m therefore really indebted to Diary reader Brian, who pointed this out when he wrote, “On 16th February it was used and  ironically, it was very quickly followed by the end of York City FC’s season! After all that waiting and stumbling on in the grand old site of Bootham Crescent, as soon as they got in the new place, the National North clubs voted to finish the season, in preference to certain financial Armageddon. As often seems to happen, the fanfare of a first game in a new ground fell flat (York City 1 – AFC Fylde 3). Of course, the crowd was officially zero but York City declared an attendance of 4,529 (watching on the stream)”. 

So last Thursday we made our bow as the first visiting RUGBY team to play at the new LNER Stadium in York. Thanks Brian as always great information but as you know, I never let the facts get in the way of a good story!!! Great stuff! 

However, once our status as visitors was clarified, my mind went back to some great times in York at first Clarence Street, with its wooden sleeper terraces and great ‘Public Bar’ at one end, then pre-season friendlies at Bootham Crescent and finally in the ‘old tin shed’ stand at the Huntingdon Stadium; for I had seen some great times in York over the 64 years I’ve watched the FC. Johnny Whitely scoring a 50 yarder there on my first trip to York, Paul Prendiville grabbing a last gasp try in the corner in the Cup in the early 80’s and of course the great story of Arthur Keegan running across the City to just make kick off, after his car broke down on Tadcaster Road. All truly great times when we visited ‘The Wasps’!  

All that aside of course, some things never change and we went into our first game of the season with 3 player’s missing through minor injuries as ‘Co-captain’ Scott Taylor, Masi Matongo and Jordan Johnstone, who have all picked up knocks throughout the course of pre-season, were out, along with Jamie Shaul, who is already a long-term absentee. 

As Thursday came around, I wished so much that I was there to share such a special occasion but as I settled down to watch from the sofa (as opposed to behind it, which will no doubt be where I am in two weeks’ time) I wonder what exactly we would glean from a game in which 24 players were to be used. I know we had those four players missing, but it struck me when I looked at our team sheet, just how thin our team is when you move above number 17. 

It had rained hard in York before the game and as expected it was blowing ‘a hurricane’ when the team arrived. I spoke to a member of our staff afterwards and apparently the conditions were pretty treacherous and the pitch very slippery. I watched as everyone else had to on the Our League app and if the starting 13 was an indication of what Hodgson is considering then the omission of Faraimo and Joe Cator, for Swift and Lane, were the only surprises. Of course, both players were on an 11-player bench and I didn’t see anything in it, but at this stage, it’s always good to speculate. So, as the wind whistled down the chimney at Rosenberg Towers, I settled down to watch the game.  

York Kicked off and at last our season was underway. The ball went deep and Connor let it squirm out of his hands and over his head and immediately we had to drop out. Not a brilliant start I thought, but the conditions were to prove difficult throughout. York pressed but a forward pass got us out of jail and we worked the ball downfield with strong runs down the middle into the heart of the York defensive line. A great kick from Reynolds saw York fumble and a brilliant blind pass through the legs from Griffin found Swift, who finished really well under pressure from three tacklers. As Sneyd prepared to take the conversion it was great to see Gareth Ellis, in his new role, out there on the field coaching the players.

In the next set Connor dropped the ball again this time in the tackle and we were under pressure again. Not a good start for Jake, but a great tackle from Man M’au turned the ball over for us. Then advancing the ball towards the line Connor put in a slide rule angled kick for Fonua to finish. Two great touchline conversions from Sneyd and two well worked tries made it 12-0. Reynolds hadn’t taken long to settle at all and he looked good breaking the line. York were visibly hanging on, but both sides were getting a really good work out and we looked pretty good varying the play as  the combination of Connor, Reynolds, Houghton and Sneyd looked great, as our forward dominance kept then on the front foot. 

Both our wingers were coming into the middle to augment the forwards as time and again we bashed our way into the heart of their line. We were pressing well with Savelio and Sao making in-roads every time they got the ball down the middle, with us making all the ground and York just holding us out to restart deep in their half. Then out of the blue a great break down field by York saw Marsh put Jones-Bishop away and they were in. 

That brief distraction from the general flow of the game towards the York line didn’t last long though and a great Griffin/Cator hit forced a loose ball, before Reynolds broke with some speed to produce a ‘no look’ pass over his shoulder to Tumavive which saw the centre crashing in at the corner. It was such a smart play as Reynolds ensuring that anyone coming across to grab him was fooled, looked inside, and looped a pass outside over his head, in brilliant fashion.  Our new recruit was looking very impressive with the ball and the try was really all our pressure deserved.

York pressed with a good set, but the ball went into touch after the final kick chase and then we saw a great 40/20 from Connor, who picked his spot with ease to leave the York cover floundering. The ball then went left and fast hand and some great play from Connor and Sneyd saw us go in, as Manu M’au finished brilliantly through a two-man tackle. Our line speed and particularly our shape for what looked a simple try, was excellent there! 

The hooter went Sneyd converted and we went in leading 22-6. 

It had been a good half played at a lively pace and I was impressed, well as impressed as I could be in a friendly against a Championship side, but we had tackled well, looked organised in defence and our attacking spine looked really sharp and all in all it was for 40 minutes at least, a lot better than many of these fixtures in the past have turned out. The need for the players to gather round to commiserate with any players that made a blob was also very apparent and the whole team ‘looked together’. With wholesale changes anything could happen in the second half, but that first 40 minutes with all out best players out there, was I felt all we could hope for.

I missed the first minute of the second half, as my computer had ‘timed out’ on the freeze frame interval advert (old people and computers eh?) but from then on in, the game ebbed and flowed with several changes for York and most of our starting 17 absent. Good old Washy, was looking good as he revelled in playing against his old mates, but the youngster being on for the FC heralded a change, as suddenly the controlled and measured building of pressure down field that we had seen from the big boys in the first half, were gone. Now the ball was being offloaded and put through hands and the play was a lot less structured. However, a highlight of the first few minutes was a great break by Connor Wynne who made 40 yards down the pitch as he evaded tackle after tackle. 

York forced a drop out after Mitieli Vulikijapani had managed to defuse a kick over our line and our defence looked good even with a lot of changes out there. We knocked on in our half, which saw York attack, but we squared up well again and our defensive pattern even without a lot of our starting 13 was looking better. Then however, a great short ball from Cator put Satae in under the posts and McNamara converted to make it 28-6. Then play went down the other end, we gave a penalty away and Ben Jones Bishop crashed in for a good York try.

We had most of our starting 13 off by now and without us touching the ball, back came York and Salter grabbed a kick over the try line as York were back in it with back-to back tries. Relentlessly the home team turned the screw, as the younger players looked a bit lost for energy after being starved of possession and York scored again, before we had touched the ball. So, from a comfortable position we were under the cosh as the youngsters just couldn’t get the ball back. My fears about our strength in depth were being confirmed here I thought!!! 

Watching now through my fingers I reminded myself that it was only a Friendly, as York almost got in with four minutes to go, when the ball cannoned off the upright, but luckily the referee blew up for off-side. We went down-field manged the last few minutes well, before the hooter went and we just got home 28-22.

In the first half we were great, but too many changes and too much disjointed play and inexperience, let York back in to the match. However, the young kids at least found some poise and played out that last 4 minutes up at the York end very well. So, having lost our way a bit we let the Championship team back into it and in the end it looked a much closer game that it was. Still, all that said it was a good hit up for both sides and they will each have got a lot out of a match that we dominated for 60 minutes. But it was an uncharacteristically good sort of preseason game and I enjoyed it, but boy, was it good to watch a bit of rugby again.

It’s always hard to gauge players in such circumstances, but we certainly have a lot of flair going forward with our first-choice spine and in defence in that first half we looked really organised too. I don’t know what you thought, but for me Reynolds took no time at all to settle and he looked very direct and just the foil we need for Sneyd, who was still the best half-back on the field on the night. Josh runs straight and hard and commits defenders, Connor had an iffy start with the greasy ball, but showed some brilliant touches, whilst I thought our pack in the first half really looked tough and uncompromising, rolling forward and making plenty of yards. That is something that we are really going to need this year, for we can’t afford to be bullied. 

On the back of their go forward, that spine shone while Swift had a good game and looked really fired up as well. Faraimo is a great player going at the opposition line too, but again like last season, he loses the ball far too often, if he was a bit more dependable he would be a world beater. Swift could well get the nod there for the Huddersfield game, me thinks. I’ll tell you what though, Brown looked really strong in that second half, he has to be on the bench for that game and Satae had a great game at prop as well. On another point, in the first half I thought that our right side with Fonua, Connor Reynolds and Tumavive looked real class. 

So in some ways it was a typical sort of friendly, when we looked well in control with the full team out, but then had to make too many changes in the second half to get any sort of continuity or cohesion. With only one pre-season game this year everyone had to get a run out and it was always going to be a bit of an experimental hit up, but well played to York who to their credit never gave up. At least it appeared that we got away pretty unscathed injury wise. 

But, its only just begun and bigger battles and tougher foes lie ahead!    

So, to the rest of the stuff and quite amazingly last week we didn’t have one and now we have three …. Captains that is, which was quite a surprise for all of us really. There are two ways of looking at this development I guess! The first, which I’ll get out of the way straight up, is the view of the cynics who said on social media that Brett Hodgson obviously thought Sneyd was the man for the job but he daren’t rock the boat amongst the players by giving the other two the boot. 

I’ll skip past that, because I think it’s not worth discussing really, for if that were the case then boy are we in trouble. So, we will move onto the second theory and that is that with Houghton no doubt going to be spelled again this season and Taylor rotated at prop, the inclusion of Sneyd at least gives us the opportunity to always have a Captain on the pitch. However, my thinking  was gazumped a bit when Hodgson explained that the way it would work was that they would take it in turns to be captain which confused me no end! Of course, Hodgson is in fact just following a common NRL practise of having more than one leader in the squad, which has probably worked well for him before. Let’s not criticise until we see how it goes eh?  

Of the three concerned, in 2020 Houghton was our Club Captain, something that was a legacy from the days of Radford when in general, seniority led to the position, but he’s a great bloke and  well respected by the squad, however, is he vocal enough? I’m not sure on that score, but there’s no denying he deserves the title. Then again, I’m really pleased for Scott Taylor because as a guy who has come up from the terraces, it is a position he has openly aspired to one day attaining. Now, for me, Danny needs to become a bit more vocal and Scott probably needs to curb his reactions to situations and his exuberance a tad, but they’ve both got all the passion and wanting for the shirt and thus their appointments make sense. 

Then we come to Marc Sneyd, a player who as you know I admire and one who is already seen to be always talking and organising on the pitch throughout the game. However, he needs to be more than talking and to introduce a bit of dynamism into his motivating of the team, plus he has to ensure he sets a good example off the field as well. But again, he is the one that dictates the plays and organised the line and although it might be a bit of a learning curve for him at first, again, he’s an ideal candidate. 

So, I don’t have a lot of problems with the new captaincy structure to be honest, its different and I’ll judge it further when I see how it works out, although if all three are on the pitch together it could be a bit confusing, I guess. Still as the RL rules state that only the nominated captain for the game can consult the referee, it will be interesting to see how that works out! The only real issue there will be who lifts the trophy at Wembley! My money will be on Tag! Let’s face it Danny’s done it already and Marc might like to do it, but he won’t be arguing with Taylor, I mean, in that situation against a beefy boyhood fan, would you???   

We continue to get glimpses of what it’s like in camp at present and how the squad is framing up and this week we heard from Ligi Sao as he gave us his views on Brett Hodgson, “Brett has been really good for the group – he’s got a lot of time for us. I’m enjoying what he’s bringing to the table. He’s put a lot of time into the detail, which is really important. He also spends a lot of time with the younger players and the academy boys who have joined us this year, and that’s something I enjoy seeing. He’s trying to build a team first mentality, so stuff like improving our behaviours at training and away from the footy field is important. Hopefully that shows in what we are doing on the field.” Good stuff that Ligi! 

Now, I have often talked in here about how we will replace the players that left us last season and said that although Josh Reynolds is a great replacement for Albert Kelly, there is no one in the squad who can replace Gareth Ellis or indeed Ratu Naulago. Ellis was probably the most professional and inspiring player the Club has seen for ages and Ratu was just a freak in that he was a massive man, who could beat most players over 100 meters and who undoubtably had a great eye for an opening. 

I have said before that in my opinion had he stayed he would have gained ‘Martin Offiah status’ in our game. He was a massive loss, but it hasn’t taken him long to settle into the Bristol RU team and last weekend he scored 3 tries for the first time at the Club. With 30 players on the field in the other code it’s not easy for wingers to find the space they need to operate but that hasn’t stopped Ratu and one of his tries, where he cut  inside in mid-field and then put on the after burners, was great to watch. Although I think he had made his mind up that Union was for him, I believe that we will rue the day that we let him go! 

Of course, losing those three and replacing them with one incoming signing leads back to the conversation I know a lot of fans are having, around the strength and depth of our squad. Bill Dalton the Club Historian and font of all FC knowledge contacted me last week for a chat and as usual the two of us rambled back down memory lane for half an hour, about everything from that` Cup quarter Final against Wigan in 1960 to weeing under the Threepennies before we got onto the size of our current squad and we talked about the players we had available in past seasons in comparison to the senior squad of around 24/25 that we have this year.  

Bill came back next day and said, 

“Our conversation got me wondering and so I compared the previous seasons back to 1984-85 as to how many players we had used in each season. In only one season (2017) have we used as little as 25 Players in total, although the squad was actually 29 in strength. Similarly, in 2011, 24 Players turned out during the season, but the squad was 30-strong. Most seasons, we have put in excess of 30 on the field. I realise that the Pandemic might well have decimated finances to the point where, it might be assumed, that if there is a hefty saving on the Salary Cap allowance, we can possibly bring further recruits in later. But, a certain other club went down that road repeatedly, keeping a third of the cap back to be in a position to bolster their numbers and buy survival through the Qualifying 8’s. That hardly brought sustained good fortune to that club did it?”

In his usual excellent way Bill has laid out the facts and looking at the size of our current squad, that is certainly food for thought. All I can say is that we’d better hope that we have a pretty injury free season!!

Bill’s appraisal considers some pretty run-of-the-mill seasons of the past, but 2021 is destined to be anything but ordinary! A relentless catalogue of fixtures telescoped in to allow the World Cup to start on time, will put pressure on the best of clubs and the Coaches at both Wigan and Saints have already spoken of rotating their players from the off. 

As I said earlier, I wasn’t surprised at all to hear Adam saying that he wouldn’t release players for the Exiles squad because it clashed with a League fixture that weekend. On the weekend of that fixture, 25/26 June, we are scheduled to play Huddersfield in our first ‘attended’ home game of the season, after a sapping run of 4 weeks of away games at Leeds, Saints, Castleford and Leigh. Those 4 games will all be probably played out in front of loud and vociferous home crowds, against teams desperate to make an impression on the own returning fans.  Who can then blame Adam for not wanting to release 3 or 4 senior players out of a small squad when not only are two points at stake (which could by that time be precious indeed) but when he also risks the faith of the FC Faithful, as we arrive back inside the KCom for the first time for 15 months, ourselves desperately wanting a good performance to set us up for the rest of the season? 

Adam’s suggestion for the Exiles game to be played as a curtain raiser for the Challenge Cup, on what is a weekend off for all but two clubs, is by far the best way forward. Of course, this disaster was all dreamed up by the RFL who once again shows how naive they are and how dismissing they can be of the Senior Club’s at the top end of the game, who in effect,  through their ability to attract TV money, actually keep the sport afloat. 

That takes me nicely on to an article I came across in Wigan Today last Tuesday, when the Wigan Chairman sort of articulated what I’ve been trying to say for weeks and did it without pulling any punches either. 

Ian Lenagan  said of Super League getting back into bed with the RFL again,  “I’m sure there are one or two people who would like that to be the case. Gary Hetherington has never hidden from the fact that he’s always wanted Leeds to be centre of the universe and the RFL, who use to be there, being the centre of his particular universe. He’s got every right to that view. I think he’s wrong and I suspect a lot of other people think he’s wrong as well. I don’t even know what the RFL want yet. If I were the RFL I’m not sure I’d want to be running a professional league when it’s been run very well for the last two and a half years, much better than it was before. There’s no doubt whatsoever that when we’ve been able to give a complete focus on Super League, whether it’s fixtures, promotion or whatever it is, it has worked better and everyone has seen it works better”.

I think myself it’s hard to argue with that! The senior showcase of the game, Super League has (as I said last week), to be up there forging forward and developing the sport not bogged down in the parochial, self-interest of the RFL which on so many occasions in the past, has seen decline in the name of trying to please everyone. Sadly, in our sport everyone isn’t equal, much as the governing body would like to think that they are, and it’s the 12 clubs who are perhaps most ‘unequal’ at the top of the pile, that are going to make the money and reputation that is needed to keep the game afloat!! 

It was also good to see in the same article Lenagan stating that with the departure of the Super league Chief Executive he and Adam Pearson had been entrusted with  conducting negotiations with Sky on Super Leagues behalf ,which is eminently sensible and I think the way forward! Lenagan doesn’t like Garry Hetherington though does he? Then again …… who does?   

Now it was great to read this week that ‘Serious about Rugby League’, fans survey on away support and see that the other fans in the game, our piers, voted Hull FC ‘s as the best travelling supporters. Great yeh, but hardly surprising and I don’t say that in a big-headed sort of way but with the biggest travelling support, the loudest away fans and the best and most famous Anthem in sport ….that’s us!! Simply the best! However, I just can’t wait for us to be out there on the terraces being the best again, can you? 

And finally, I know he won’t mind me saying this, but it’s an indication of how much time we all have on our hands these days, when Bill in Catterick commented this week that he noticed I had changed my angle on our last Coach and stopped calling him Lee preferring these days to call him Radford. I honestly hadn’t realised I had, but I probably know why I did (because of a video that recently came out featuring Lee which I felt was pretty harsh on FC fans). However, all that certainly made me realise that as with Bills comments it’s amazing what readers perceive after following this drivel over the years.  

I certainly don’t always get it right and anyway at my age I see things from the wrong end of the telescope at times, but you know, for 17 years I have written this weekly journal with just one thing in mind; the love I have for a rugby league team that has been in my life and that of my family for decades and decades. 

Through that I have now surrounded myself in a great group of readers who feel exactly the same as I do. Readers views and opinions have moulded the Diary over the years and I always try and include them whilst supporting the players and the Coach and everyone at the Club. Furthermore, I try to understand what they are doing and restrict my criticism to that which is sensible and practical and just what everyone else is thinking anyway. However, I defend my right as a fan to complain when I feel that action is well founded. And, woe betides anyone who has a go at dissing my club unjustly too!! 

The people I don’t support and openly don’t like in the sport are usually based on what damage they have done to the game and Hull FC. Like most people reading this with me, you cross Hull FC at your peril!

However, I got into a bit of trouble this week concerning comments that I made in the last Diary, about my concerns regarding the small size of our squad, but hey, I’m just an ordinary fans saying it as I see it, and it’s just freedom of opinion. If I change that I might as well pack up. 

Piers Morgan I aint, in fact I hope I’m blooming far from it, but then again I ain’t contemplating abandoning Hull FC any time soon either!!  

Thanks again for reading the Diary, Stay safe and I’ll see you all next week. 

Faithfully Yours