1. Tigers tame Wolves
Warrington’s season is effectively over after Thursday night’s one-point loss to Castleford. The Wolves were poor all evening, in what wasn’t a great night of footy, but Cas’s errors allowed them to claw back into the match in the second half. They almost snatched a draw, but a cool drop goal from Liam Finn gave the home team the deserved victory. Castleford were far from outstanding but they defended heroically and ground the win out on their own turf.
Warrington never really got going and the defeat means 2015 is just about finished for them. With five games left and now six points behind Huddersfield and the Tigers, they’ll need a near miracle to finish fourth. They have to win all of their games and hope those two above drop points as well. Considering they face Wigan this Friday, the Giants in two weeks time and then Saints at home in the last game of the Super 8s, there’s little chance that they can even win the next five straight. It’s been a strange season for the Wire, one where they’ve had some great performances but also some dire ones and they have never really seemed to click or gel to any degree.
Upset in the Challenge Cup by Hull KR and with a sixth-place finish after 23 Super League rounds, Warrington haven’t lived up to their own high expectations this year. Daryl Clark hasn’t been able to replicate his outstanding 2014 and the halves of Ritchie Myler and Gareth O’Brien have been inconsistent. They have also been robbed of the influence of Matty Russell and Joel Monaghan for large parts of the season, and the injury count has been considerable at times. But there have been positives. Youngsters Joe Philbin, Ben Currie and the King brothers have gained invaluable experience. Ashton Sims has been a great signing and taken to Super League like a duck to water. Their recruitment for next year looks very impressive – Tom Lineham, Kurt Gildey, Jack Hughes and the already arrived Chris Sandow, with space for another import. With Gidley and Sandow pulling the strings, and some fit bodies back in action, the Wire should be a threat next season. 2015 hasn’t happened for them but there’s no reason why the good times can’t make a return to the Halliwell Jones Stadium next year.
2. Super stadia
Thursday’s game was played at the delightfully named Mend-A-Hose-Jungle, a venue that’s nearly 90 years old and has some great history and tradition. The Jungle rocking with a full house and after a Cas win is a fantastic sight. I’m all for supporting and honoring rugby league history, but it’s also a relief to see that the Tigers’ plans to move into a new stadium are on track. To make Super League more attractive, to give players and fans better facilities, generate more revenue and make the game in general more professional, we need to improve the competition’s stadia. Too many grounds are dilapidated and in desperate need of refurbishment.
Belle Vue, or the Rapid Solicitors Stadium, is another ground well past its best. The fact that it is costing a substantial amount of money to use, and its corporate facilities are poor, means that Wakefield have no choice but to look elsewhere. It’s sad to see but if the Wildcats want to survive they have to make a tough decision. A ground-sharing option with Castleford should be contemplated again. It would be a controversial move but it makes the most sense in an area with such a small population base. Both clubs need local government and council on their side, and two teams sharing the one stadium has been done successfully before. Usually it’s two clubs from different sports but it happens regularly in the NRL with the likes of Telstra Stadium and Allianz Stadium in Sydney. In Melbourne four different clubs from three sports – the Melbourne Storm, Melbourne City, Melbourne Victory and the Melbourne Rebels – all share the boutique AAMI Park. Super League sides generally can’t afford to fully fund their own grounds, let alone the RFL, so getting the backing of sponsors and community organisations to enhance stadia is vital.
The lack of decent wi-fi, a side issue to many but a growing problem for media, at many Super League stadiums is another thing that needs addressing. To promote the game, to drive interest and debate, journalists need to be able to work effectively at games. Empowering the media, let alone supporters, can be a real positive. The power of social media in this day and age to share text, video, audio and images, means that Super League can broadcasted and marketed outside of just the M2 corridor and around the world. Encouraging fans to further engage digitally during and after their game-day experience, to share that exposure, is a must in 21st century professional sport.
3. Championship cracks
The Championship clubs have been found wanting so far against the four Super League sides in the Super 8s Qualifiers. So far there have been six games between teams from the two comps in the Middle 8s and Super League teams have won all them. They haven’t all been straight-forward victories of course – Leigh were unlucky to lose to Hull KR, Halifax were brave against Widnes – but the gap has been severely exposed. It won’t come as a surprise to most that the Championship clubs have struggled to deal with the greater tempo and defensive questions posed by the Super League sides. With better talent on their books and being full-time operations, not to mention having a bigger salary cap that’s almost double in size, it’s not really a fair fight.
But to ignite the Middle 8s and get this new mini-league humming along we need some upsets, some drama. We need a Sheffield to edge a Wakefield in a thriller or Leigh to somehow stun Widnes away from their Select Security Stadium stronghold. If the Super 8s qualifiers are predictable before a ball is kicked then eventually people will switch off. What this competition has shown, and yes it’s only week two of it, is that the standards in the Championship, from players, coaches and officials, have to improve. An earlier transfer deadline would also help so that the clubs like Wakefield and Salford can’t simply splash the cash as they have done to avoid the drop. The million-pound game still means that one Championship side will get the chance to go up into Super League by winning a one-off match. Anything can happen in a one-off final, as history has long proven. But we don’t want to have to wait seven weeks to finally see a surprise result that truly upsets the apple cart.
4. Hats off Hull FC
Gutsy, driven, determined, Hull FC were all those things and more as they pulled off an impressive 10-point victory over St Helens at Langtree Park. The visitors were down 18-6 but post 26 points in the second half to notch an unlikely win. It’s a worrying result for Saints, who have now last their past three in a row. But it’s brilliant for Hull FC who showed real courage and character to fight back and win.
With leaders Gareth Ellis and Leon Pryce missing, the Airlie Birds were also without Kirk Yeaman, Iafeta Paleaaesina and Steve Michaels. Few would have given them a chance in this one, especially after their poor start and recent form. But they rallied and inched their way back into it, claiming one of their most memorable results this season. Hats off to young halves pairing Marc Sneyd and Jordan Abdull who ignited Hull FC’s attack. Both are talented individuals who are the future of the club. Also a special mention goes to hat-trick hero Curtis Naughton. The former Bradford flyer, who left the Bulls to go to Australia, has moved around in recent times. He went last year to the Sydney Roosters, then headed to the Queensland Cup before switching to the Black and Whites. More at home at fullback then the wing, the 20-year old made a team-high 156 metres against St Helens to go with his three tries. Naughton is certainly finding his feet in Super League.
5. Slamming Sammy
A quick departure from Super League to see former Super League and NRL player Sam Burgess make his international debut for England against France in rugby union. Burgess had an eventful first Test game at Twickenham in the other code, making some brilliant tackles, intimidating hits and solid runs but also getting a yellow card. It’s clear that England coach Stuart Lancaster sees the ex-Souths and Bradford man has an X factor about him and wants him at the upcoming Rugby Union World Cup, though it’s strange to see them try to shoehorn him into a play-making centre position when he was a barn-storming prop or back-row enforcer in his native code.
Many people in rugby league will be watching closely and will be keen to see Burgess do well, maybe not too well. It’s sad to see one of the biggest names in rugby league – a bona-fide star in both hemispheres – leave our game for another’s benefit. But it’s become a common occurrence with figureheads such as Sonny Bill Williams, Jarryd Hayne and Israel Folau doing the same. It’s another reason why rugby league needs to improve and enhance its representative programs and calender. Burgess remains a proud rugby league man and a supporter for our code, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Given enough time, the right position and the right coaching – which he has been getting at a heavily rugby league influenced-Bath, I’ve got little doubt that the 26-year old can be a success in rugby union. But let’s hope he comes back to rugby league soon and we can enjoy watching ‘Slamming Sam’ back in action in the greatest game of all.