Saturday was an early start for me, as I was travelling from Manchester to Cleator Moor, Cumbria – the home of Wath Brow Hornets.
The Road to Wembley meant that Love Rugby League was following Elland in their Challenge Cup second round match with the Hornets.
While my journey consisted of a train to Carlisle, and then Whitehaven, Halifax-based Elland had to go up the country via coach, which is around five hours travel for a return trip.
Due to my early train, when I arrived at Whitehaven station, the morning sun was shining down on the nearby boatyard/24 hour Tesco. I found a bookies and caught the end of the World Club Challenge. Wigan were spent, and when the final whistle blew the Roosters, including hatrick scorer Michael Jennings, were celebrating their deserved win.
A local, wearing a decade-old Tricolours shirt, commented on Jennings saying “he’s won it all”. Strictly speaking that is not true, as Jennings is a New South Wales Blue, and he is yet to part of a State of Origin series winning side. However, he does consistently perform to the top of his game and is without doubt one of the best centres around. Jennings is at the opposite end of the spectrum to players from Wath Brow and Elland, but in a couple of hours time they would also have their own 80 minutes of success or failure.
The Challenge Cup always makes for a do or die attitude, and because the two National Conference sides are yet to start their league seasons, there was also a fresh sense of optimism around Brow’s ground ahead of kick-off. This was joined by a harsh change in weather, as the sun disappeared to be replaced by strong wind and rain, something that hampered the kicking game of both sides in the opening exchanges. The Hornets, of the NCL Premier, are two divisions above NCL Two side Elland, but as one of the Cumbrian substitutes aptly put it, rugby league is simply thirteen men against thirteen men.
After an early score for the home side, the game became locked in a battle for who wanted it more, and the visiting Yorkshiremen were unlucky to concede again on the stroke of half-time.
Speaking to the travelling trio (yes three) of Elland fans at the break, it was clear that they were already proud of what their players had achieved. Coach Karl Fairbank was slightly more abitious though, and said that if his team scored next they could go on and win the game. Fairbank had clearly instilled this belief in his players and within minutes they crossed for a superb score (special mention to half-back Phil Taylor for his kick in the build-up).
The committment of both sides for the rest of the match was to be admired. Some of the forwards looked like they were running the ball in quicksand at times, but despite the draining pitch, and the fact all 26 players (and subs) had work on Monday, they rattled each other with every contact.
In a less frenzied game the slick passing of the home side, especially stand-off Karl Dixon and centre Fran King, would have made more of a difference. This certainly bodes well for Brow’s season ahead in the NCL Premier, in which they will be looking to repeat their 2012 Grand Final winning campaign. The Hornets start their league season with a massive derby against Cumbrian rivals Egremont on Saturday, so the test they came through against Elland should stand them in good stead.
Fairbank’s side, which includes four of his relatives, should also do well in their upcoming NCL campaign. From the two games I have watched them play in, they have been both the favourite and the underdog. I have seen them attack patiently, and defend bravely. Their team spirit is strong, and with the likes of Junaid Malik guiding the less experienced players they should be aiming high in 2014.
We wish Elland well, and will catch up with them as part of the Club of the Week feature at some point in the season.
In the meantime we will be following Wath Brow to Keighley, after the Challenge Cup draw gave the Hornets a visit to Cougar Park on March 16th – where a win could see them face a Super League side…