20 July 2014

All Ireland Grand Final - Barnhall Butchers 25-24 Treaty City Titans (by Dar Garner)

At 3:30pm on Saturday 19th July myself and Finn (Age 3) headed out for the short trip up the road to see the All Ireland Grand Final. Seven times champs Treaty City Titans against the Barnhall Butchers, who were in their rookie year in the competition.

I have to be honest, at this point I really wasn’t expecting much. Perhaps this is from my experience back in early 2000s where having made the ‘voyage’ across the pond on a one way ticket when I was delighted to find out the real beautiful game was being played in this hard core Rugby Union island. Now, having come from Warrington where the game is the No.1 sport and well organised to where the game was in its infancy, my experience of League over in Ireland was bordering on shambolic. It always came down to 20 minutes before kick off ringing around to scratch some players together. So as Finn and I rocked up at Ashbourne Rugby Union club I was pleasantly surprised the final was being played at such a club. Perhaps it was the venue or location or the teams or the free admission or all of these factors that there was such a good turn out of spectators.

Walking around the pitch past the club house and BBQ with Finn to the seated stand I couldn't help having a huge smile on my face seeing the progression of rugby league in Ireland since my twilight playing days on these shores. And the best was yet to come!

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It took just minutes before the first break by the Butchers speedy wing but some scramble defence by the Titans did enough to halt his progress, although the damage had been done as the next play unfolded and Butchers Prop Gareth Murray rumbled over  With the conversion this made it 6-0 to the rookie year Butchers

The next 10 minutes of play saw some good crash play from both sides but too many simple errors and forced plays from Titans proved to be the undoing of them. Butchers were playing the simpler game and not forcing the plays. They managed to build some pressure and the full back Mark Kenny managed to nip through a gap in the Titans defence to score under the posts. Again the conversion kicked to make it 12-0 to the Butchers.

The next 15 minutes saw some rushed plays again by the Titans with the ball being given over cheaply but with some hard defence this didn't cause any more points being scored. With 5 minutes to go in the first half I could see the Titans composing themselves more with the plays and gaining more control and confidence.

The half time whistle sounded and the two teams grouped together for the talk. 12-0 in favour of the Barnhall Butchers. I managed to get in earshot of the Titans team and was surprised the coach didn’t lose his head with what he had witnessed. Instead he stayed calm and gave some good instructions. In hindsight I figure he knew what his team were capable of with the wealth of experience the Titans had over the Barnhall Butchers. How right he was not to doubt his team.

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The half time break for Titans had the same effect as EPO had on Lance Armstrong. The Titans let rip with some big hits and immediately got on the front foot with some great crash balls followed by some good handling. They first broke down the left edge with a try from centre Mike Kelleher, then they stormed down the right with the centre offloading to Billy Noonan to score. With both conversions being kicked this tied the game at 12-12.  This was all in the space of 7 minutes of the second half kicking off!!  More was to come. 

On the very next play after the kick off an impressive Lemeki Vaipulu opened up the Butchers again with some dancing feet and pace to give Luke Malone a run in under the sticks. Again the conversion was hit home to bring the scores to 18-12 to the Titans. With the half time team talk still fresh in the ears, the Titans didn’t stop there as Cronan Gleeson went over. 24-12. All this within 15 minutes of the second half. At this point I couldn’t see the Butchers coming back. The Titans seemed to be firmly butchering the Butchers with 24 unanswered points. 

However, the Titans seemed to take the foot off the gas a little after making some changes from the bench and with the wind behind the Butchers they found themselves in the Titans 20 zone. Offensively the next play was one of the highlights for me. Nearing the end of the set, Ben McCarthy put a delicate grubber through the defensive line and regained the ball to score what for me was a decisive turning point of this a twisting game.  This left a difficult conversion 10 metres in from the right edge. It was duly dispatched to get the Butchers back in the game.

The next few sets brought the Butchers back down the pitch but in a ‘Red Mist’ moment of frustration Butchers player Diarmuid Carr was seen to stamp. Out came a yellow and off went Carr. The Butchers then stepped up to the plate and rallied while they were down to 12 men. No advantage in points was seen during the sin bin period to the credit of the Butchers.

With 10 minutes to go Mikey Russell opened up the Titans defence and scored a great try from 30m out. The kick was another tough one but it was posted through the sticks with ease. 24-24 was the score with 8 minutes left on the clock. At this point I did wonder what the plan was for a draw? Would it be a replay as seems so common in the fast game of Gaelic games or would they go the NRL way of Golden point? However, I will never know what the plan was as Barnhall seemed to draw on their Union skills of getting in the right spot and slotting over a drop goal with 2 minutes left to play. Titans did have one last chance to pull it out of the bag on the very last play when the Butchers spilled the ball but the Titans couldn’t capitalise. The whistle blew and the cheers went up for the Barnhall Butchers in their rookie top flight year.     

Barnhall Butchers 25       Treaty City Titans 24.

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I have to admit I didn’t expect to witness such an event. It had it all, an end to end game full of biff, entertainment and a nail biting finish. Combine the game with the venue of Ashbourne Rugby Club, the spectators, the atmosphere and I have to say well done Rugby League Ireland!  You WILL see me again supporting my local and now adopted team of Barnhall Butchers (its cheaper than flying back to Warrington).  It even whetted my appetite to get the boots back on and (calm down wifie I’m not going back playing) get my refereeing certificates in place and keep my hand in the real beautiful game of Rugby League.

p.s. Hats off to the rugby league for selecting the female touch judge, we really are leagues ahead in this great game.

Dar Garner

Butchers Claim Title With Late Comeback

Barnhall Butchers: Mark Kenny, Liam Grimes, Dewi Harrison, Conor Harding, Diarmuid Carr, Ben McCarthy, Simon Gillespie, Gareth Murray, Mikey Russell, TJ Renihan, Mark Ivers, Ben Harrison, Tom McKeown Interchange: Martin Furey, Matt Crehan, Sam Hall, Dave Ferguson, Padraig Beatty, Colm Mulkerrin

Treaty City Titans: Sean Hogan, Mike Kelleher, Lemeki Vaipulu, Mike O'Neill, Brendan Guilfoyle, Eoin Ryan, Mark O'Neill, Luke Malone, Ben Rowley, Aaron McCloskey, Tevita Toia, Cronan Gleeson, Interchange: Donnacha O'Grady, Tadhg McCloskey, Joe Reid, Ger Burke, Ronan Hogan, Billy Noonan, Cian Leahy

Match Officials: Steve Hogan (Referee), Jason Craughwell, Fiona McConn (Touch Judges) Paul Baxter (4th Official)

Niall Cantrell Man of the Match Award: Tom McKeown (Barnhall Butchers)

Half Time: Barnhall Butchers 12-0 Treaty City Titans

Full Time: Barnhall Butchers 25-24 Treaty City Titans

16 July 2014

GUEST BLOG: London Broncos Super League Farewell

London's 19 year long spell at Rugby League's top table is over, for now at least. As they embark on a brief farewell tour before joining the Championship ranks in next year's revamped league, we thought we would get enduring Bronco fan Ian Gatward to share his memories on their time at the top and thoughts on what the future might hold.

So it is confirmed, London Broncos are relegated. Am I surprised? No. Am I upset? In a way, yes, but not entirely, as I will explain.

My mind goes back to when Brian McDermott left the club, he gave an interview to Boots'n'All with that favourite anti-London pundit Paul Cullen and part of that interview was a warning that unless new backers and the RFL came in the club would evaporate and the future was not good. How right he was. But in amongst all the mire that the club left itself in a ray of light and some sense of reality has hit them.

Let us go back in time to the history of Super League in London. I think it is fair to say that not everybody supported the idea of a club in the capital and all kinds of moans were made from the amount of Australians that played for us to the dear price of a hamburger and pint in the club bar. However, whilst we were there the game in my opinion had some kind of national prestige about it rather than a sport only played in Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Now before anyone says anything, I love Rugby League and we deserved to be relegated, so no wanting special rules to keep us in Super League. I am not an expert in the game or the club and never will I be. I am just a London fan hoping for the best for his club and the International side.

So many great memories of our time in Super League, especially finishing runners up and our trip to Wembley but in all honesty whilst we had great times, the past few years have been one long struggle and mercifully we have been relegated, but is this the end of the club?

To me the problems have been staring the club in the face for a very long time and to pinpoint what went wrong is in my opinion just nitpicking but fair to say the people who have been let down are the fans who have been treated shabbily. The ultimate insult, last season's cup semi final thrashing by Wigan with the sight of the owner leaving after 60 minutes, Wigan embarrassed to score and the players just walking off the pitch with not even an acknowledgement to the visiting London fans.

So forget what has gone on what about the future? Well it does have a good feel about it. The under 19s have shown great displays this year, Joe Grima has put his mark on the club and as I speak new signings are taking place and we have a proper pre-season in place.

My final point as a light hearted end is that we play Bradford Bulls on September 13th. My advice to our fans and Bradford fans is forget the rest of the clubs, bring your party gear and let us see out our final hours in Super League in party style. And on a serious note, to all those that glee with the thought of no London club in Super League just be careful for what you wish for, as this time next season your club could be facing the same anxious wait and problematic future as our club.

I shall keep an eye out on Super League and continue to watch it but next year we have a magic weekend by the seaside in Blackpool and we will visit other grounds. Are we upset? No, after all a magic weekend by the seaside or a magic weekend in Manchester, you decide.

All the very best to you all and best of luck to the clubs.

Take care 

Thanks to Ian for writing what we're sure was a piece evoking mixed emotions, and thanks to you for reading. Come back for more blogs on all Rugby League goings on and don't forget to listen to the show on Spreaker or iTunes!

9 July 2014

Relegation and player movement in Super League - Repost

Stevo spoke about it on this week's back chat so I thought I would re-post a blog I originally posted on my own blog a year ago about player movement in the relegation years of Super League. What Stevo said was that half the relegated team would end up at the promoted team, and to be fair to him, he wasn't completely wrong. Here's what I wrote:

The more time passes, the more I feel like one of a small small number who think whatever the change to structure in Super League, return of promotion and relegation between the top tier and the semi-pro tier shouldn't be one of them.

As I've gone over the ideas that are thrown around, thinking about journo Andy Wilson's preferred option of a two ten-team tier Super League is the only way I see this as a reasonable option - but there isn't enough money for a 14 team Super League, so a 20 team Super League wouldn't really advance things from what I can see. Before something like that could be considered the clubs and the RFL would have to do a lot to raise revenues and would need to think harder about sharing them too.

Here, I'm going to propose another reason why I feel promotion and relegation is of little benefit. I think there is only a limited number of players to go around. This is becoming even more the case now we're seeing an overall 'trade deficit' in playing talent between the Super League and the NRL. Even before this switch around in player trading, I feel the issue I'm going to highlight was seen. 

I reckon clubs that go down see the bulk of their important players move on to stay in Super League, and the clubs that come up sign players available from other Super League clubs. I write this introduction before I've really done my research, and I won't be ashamed if my assertion is proved wrong. Sometimes (often I'm sure!) that happens.

Largely using the brilliant Rugby League Project database as my source, with a bit of wider internet clarification when I feel its needed, I'll be going through the rosters of clubs that have either left or entered Super League in the recent past and will consider what the stories of players who played in more than 50% of their Super League games in that relegation season or that year after promotion. An exception will be the Catalan Dragons, whose entry to Super League I wont be looking at in the same detail because of the limited numbers of French representation before their entry - though if I do find some examples to support my argument I might throw them in if I need to save face! I'm also not going through the Salford and Crusaders entry when the league expanded in 2014 - as the league had more teams, there were no teams leaving to take players from.

Having looked into it a bit more, you could almost interpret things two ways depending on your starting position. There are many who want a return for promotion and relegation and don't know why. There are others who come from a bias of supporting the lower levels and so want that purpose to their clubs promotion brings. Broadcasters probably want those extra few meaningful games relegation might bring to the top league too. These people will (particularly the middle ones, exemplified by journo Gareth Walker) see that promoted clubs have often brought a number of the players that got them up with them. That is surely a good thing in favour of promotion being brought back. It also goes against the assertion I made above - some new players were getting a go in Super League and there was an avenue for players to reach the top level without needing to be signed by an incumbent club, which isn't a frequent occurrence. 

The other way is to look what happens when clubs go down. The core of that season's squad was lost in the majority of cases. Ok, that squad can't have been up to much as they got the team relegated, or the wooden spoon in Crusaders' case, but some of them must have been good enough as nearly 40% of players got a new gig in Super League and a decent number found their way on to NRL squads the following year too. This meant, in the majority of cases, the core of the side needed to be totally rebuilt - almost four times as many players that played 50% of games were no longer on the squad the year after, only 22% were.
Promoted teams (including those promoted as part of league expansion):
Clearly the teams involved in geographic or numerical league expansion had good retention and a lot less players were brought in from Super League clubs for the season - this indicates that these teams had longer to plan their promotions as these were mapped out in advance. Other clubs promoted via the league or a promotion final had much less time to plan for life in Super League. Over two fifths of players who appeared in 50% of the promoted teams games were retained from the previous seasons squad, which is a decent number and higher than I expected. A third of these players however were picked up from other Super League clubs for the new season in the top level. 

As noted above, these numbers don't overwhelmingly support my suggestion that there isn't much talent regeneration in Super League from promotion and relegation, and that the system just brings instability. They don't show the opposite either - most teams are made up as much by players who were in Super League or on NRL rosters in the previous campaign as they are by retained players from the NL1/Championship squads.

I would add that Huddersfield and Hull KR are the only teams not to have returned to a lower level at some point after promotion. 

My hypothesis is more supported when relegation is looked at n more detail: 
The Crusaders are an anomaly at one end of the scale, but their financial issues and special dispensation for clubs to sign their overseas players is an explanatory factor.

The 2002 Salford team are the other anomaly, taking a good number of players down with them, which helped them earn promotion in 2003 and bring plenty of these players back to Super League for 2004 (shown in above numbers). Every other relegated club saw as many or more players stay in Super League with other clubs, and saw as many again either return to Australia, retire or find deals at other lower level clubs. When you lose 78% of the core of your Super League squad on average for the next season, its hard to build or remain stable - Castleford and Salford became somewhat yo-yo teams, all the teams in the list other than Huddersfield have suffered or are suffering high profile financial difficulties, and its likely that only two will be featured in a 12 team top tier following restructure.
As a control to make sure Super League in general didn't see the same levels of player movement as promotion and relegation cause, I looked at Wigan and Wakefield, who has remained in Super League with varying fortunes over the period looked at. On average, these two sides retained 70% of players that appeared in 50% of one years games from season to season (Wigan 75%, Wakefield 65%).

I would note that in the closest relegation fights, Wakefield were inevitably the team that came on of this battle standing, so are a good comparison to make. Wigan have had successful and disappointing sides during the period. Both still managed to retain a much higher proportion of their squad year in year out and only saw on average three players per year leave to other Super League clubs, and six core players leave on average each year.

The averages show that teams that don't suffer relegation can maintain much greater on field stability. Wakefield have suffered some off-field instability and are a team that still need to progress in that area, but even with that issue, their playing squads haven't been seriously disrupted and that has helped them avoid relegation and earn the odd playoff spot along the way.

Outside the control sample, think of the consistency of the Bradford, Leeds and Warrington squads in their periods of success.

Yo-yo team Castleford and skin of their teeth Wakefield haven't been able to develop off the field how they might want to either because of promotion and relegation distractions. Yes, Cas have a strong youth development production line, but Wakefield are not as prominent in this area. Neither had made much progress in terms of stadium development. Salford, similarly don't have a stellar youth system and had to wait until well into licensing to finally move to a modern home. Halifax took a decade to finish the grand stand at their renovated stadium following relegation and weren't ever able to get themselves back to the big table or really achieve anything until they started planning long term.
In conclusion, I feel its clear that on field stability leads to better success on the field. Off the field, concentration on avoiding relegation or regaining promotion takes teams eye away from other matters that need addressing.

I'm not saying promotion and relegation is the big evil, but I just wanted to show the effect it has on players and a club's squad. It causes a great deal more movement and on-field instability than you get without the system, even if what replaced it hasn't necessarily proved to bring greater off field stability - I've spoken about this before and economic conditions have been a massive mitigating factor since 2008 that it would be unfair to not acknowledge, and also I feel licensing wasn't a strong enough move anyway (see Structure of Super League piece).

What I want fans of P&R to see is that it hasn't really helped anyone out. It didn't let clubs plan long term or get off-field matters sorted out. Fans of those clubs affected should realise players weren't coming in to play for the club, they were coming to play Super League, and they were gone when that was taken away. Do you want to see new players (and often coaches) trying to put together a new team year after year with no identity and continuity? Catalan Dragons, protected from relegation initially, have shown what that chance to plan long term affords a club - now they have better facilities, more French players coming through and regular playoff matches to compete in. They have a style and identity that has been allowed to develop and flourish.

Is one day at the top worth it? I'm not so sure. I followed a club that reached somewhat, and that was just for promotion between Championship 1 and the Championship, and all the good steady work was undone and the club went off the face of the RL world - now I have no local semi-pro team to go and watch because of the impossible dream of promotion.
A note on the proposed restructure for 2 x 12 > 3 x 8 set up, I don't think this will improve clubs retaining players and building long term - players will want to play in the top 8 division, so I think the player movement will increase mid-season as well as in the close season. Clubs losing out on top level revenues midway through a campaign when they are told they can no longer get decent crowds from hosting well supported clubs like Wigan, Leeds, Warrington, Saints and Hull FC will need to cut wage bills to survive. Combine this with top clubs wanting top players and top players wanting to play at successful well paying clubs and you will see mid-season deals of some sort. Stability won't be maintained. The issues I've talked about above won't be fixed. The proposal misses the point, but I've not had chance to fully map out my opinions on this yet outside the snippets I've raised on Twitter or other forums. I would say I don't like it, and will try and substantiate that some more at some point.

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Marquee Players - A Change of Heart by Tom

Last night we reposted my blog from a few weeks ago which detailed my thoughts on the idea of a marquee player exemption for Super League teams.

Having re read this blog myself I found that I have actually come around to a new way of thinking about this controversial proposal. 

I am in no way in favour of the blanket proposal made by Dr Koukash. I find it to be self serving and solely in his interests. He hides behind the shield of "I want to improve the sport" when I suspect what he actually means is "I want to improve the playing staff at Salford and see some return on my investment".

Dr Koukash, is of course, perfectly entitled to his opinions and I won't engage in the horrendous sour-grapes style Koukash-bashing that goes on over twitter every time he puts his ideas forward.

Since I've now gone some way to demonstrating my pro-Koukash proclivities, it's probably time I show my hand. But first, a little context...

Our sport is set to lose one of its three best players. England is about to lose its best player (sorry Mark, I don't mean little Sam). 

When Sam Burgess takes the field for Bath next season a body blow to English rugby league will have been fully delivered.

Five of our six best forwards, (Jammer, The Burgess', Cooper, and Mossop) ply their trade in the NRL. As does our best half back, Widdop. Our most exciting prospect in several years, Daryl Clark, is being linked with a move down under, as are the majority of Leeds outside backs at one time or another. 

Super League faces a talent drain from both the game in Australia and the other code. It seems that we cannot compete financially with our current structures in place.

The answer, to me, is to implement the Marquee Player Exemption. But only for players from THIS hemisphere. 

This would effectively kill two birds with the same stone. Firstly we would have a genuine means by which to more effectively retain the top 0.5% of talent in our game. This would help improve the overall quality of the sport as no team could hold a monopoly by virtue of their bank balance. It would also stem the flow of talent away from the English game.

It would also stop teams from investing in mediocre Aussies/Kiwis/Samoans/Tongans as marquee players and therefore reducing the options for our home grown talent.

The Northern Hemisphere Marquee Exemption would also have a beneficial effect on developmental rugby league and our junior systems. Teams would be behoved to develop their young talent because in the event they unearth a superstar, he can be exempt and therefore retained by the club that developed him during his formative years. The impetus then goes into improving structures and relationships away from the first teams so that a wider stream of young talent can come through the doors of each club. 

There will, of course be players that WANT to play in Australia, and try their hand at the NRL, it is after all, the sports premier competition. But at least we would have a carrot to dangle on our sticks. Rather than just a stick.

We can't stop players from moving away from our sport if they really want to. But we need a way to encourage them to stay. 

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