Friday, 6 April 2012

Derby days and measuring manhood

It's Good Friday at time of writing. Earlier today, Hull FC beat Hull KR and Wigan went to St Helens and beat them. Warrington beat Widnes last night, Wakefield take on Cas and Bradford play Leeds later on. Down the divisions, there are derbies up in Cumbria, the Heavy Woollen district and in Wales. This has seen an incredible amount of action on twitter as fans compare dick size and even the official Super League website claiming that a debate as to which constitutes the biggest derby in the game is raging.

It doesn't rage though. What it does is rumble on incessantly in the background ahead of the traditional Easter programme and the contrivance of the Magic Weekend. We are, in the main, a game entrenched within certain regions. The result is having a lot of clubs near to one another and, inevitably, playing one another on a regular basis. This has been going on for ages, these clubs have been playing each other for ages and whether you've played each other 200 times or 198 doesn't really matter a great deal.

These are all spectacles in their own way. They attract big crowds, the atmosphere can be genuinely breath-taking at times. It all feels like it matters. Celebrate that. Enjoy it. Why ruin it by saying "yes, this is both amazing and great, but not as both amazing and great as something else that is also both amazing and great"? What the hell is wrong with you? It's a curiously rugby league thing to do to play down the things that make the game special and other. We should be shouting about how we've got some great derby games that bring out the crowds and put on some spectacular rugby. The finish by Kirk Yeaman in the FC v KR game today was on the end of some spectacular rugby, but today it just felt like it meant more.

Frankly, the need to waggle ones manhood about and claim it's bigger than someone else's smacks of insecurity. Anyway, the answer is Dewsbury v Batley, with London v Catalans a close second.

From our London correspondent: Rob Powell must go

Chris Plume argues that, if London Broncos have any hope of off-pitch survival (not to mention securing a place in the next round of franchising) the first step is firing Head Coach Rob Powell.
‘lacking in ideas’
‘listless and unimaginative’
‘Powell is a total loser with no presence about him’
All the above are comments on the RLFANS London Broncos forum, in the aftermath of the Broncos’ “big derby” defeat to arch-rivals Catalan Dragons at The Stoop on Thursday April 5. It marked an eighth defeat in the opening ten rounds for the Capital club, in front of a recorded home attendance of 1,829.
It sums up the Broncos’ travails this campaign. In the run-up to the season, we were seduced with talk of a “new era” at the club, with the re-brand from Harlequins RL back to London Broncos (a move that divided fans but that the club insisted was vital if we were to make progress). New signings were much trumpeted – big, shiny transfers of genuine pedigree, such as two-time NRL winners Michael Robertson and Shane Rodney, and one-time Australia skipper and former Rugby Union star Craig Gower. We were told that the top eight was in our sights. There was a move of cautious optimism.
And it was all quite nice. For a while. Nearly 5,000 spectators attended the season’s opener, a 34-24 home defeat to St Helens, and there some encouraging signs in the performance to suggest we would compete. Unfortunately, it has proven to be a completely false dawn. And ultimately, the blame must rest with one man. Rob Powell.

I have given Powell time. Throughout a pretty painful 2011 season, where we won just three of our home games (and won just two matches after March 11), we consoled ourselves with the fact that Powell was dealing with the weakest London squad since the infamous “Great Escape” season of 2004 under Tony Rea. We told ourselves “well, at least we’re shot of Brian McDermott”. We gave Powell the benefit of the doubt that, the following season, with a better team at his disposal, we would see the improvement.
How wrong we were. Not only has Powell proved utterly deficient in guiding this group of players, but McDermott gave us a look at exactly what we’d let leave by winning the Grand Final with Leeds. One gets the sense Mac, for all his faults, would get a damn sight more out of this team than Powell ever will.
A third of the way through the season, the problems are many and varied. The team simply cannot defend, particularly out wide; The halfback combination isn’t working; With ball in hand, we are repetitive and predictable (we don’t seem to be capable of employing dummy runners); we suffer devastating lapses in concentration which opponents ruthlessly exploit – conceding four tries in ten minutes to the Dragons a perfect illustration; Players like Luke Dorn seem to have lost all their skill and composure, and their confidence looks shot as a result.
Our problems off the pitch are well documented, and I don’t wish to address them here. But what I will say is this: One of the main reasons our crowds are terrible is because our performances are, so often, terrible. You can have the greatest marketing guru in the world ensconced in TW2, but they would not get very far if the product is awful. Beyond a hardcore of around 1100 season ticket holders, we are unable to attract or retain supporters because the team is hopeless and as a result, the matchday experience is flat and uninspiring.
Catastrophic away defeats to Salford and Widnes have been the nadir of the 2012 season, but if Powell is allowed to continue I cannot say we will not sink further.  He has shown himself to be completely unable to extract even a modicum of consistency and competence from a group of players that, on paper, mix excitement, nous, youth and experience. More worrying is the message that the club is sending by retaining the services of this man: That this is a club that tolerates complete incompetence, that rewards failure, that accepts mediocrity.
I want to stress it is nothing personal; Powell is a nice bloke I’m sure, and has done good things for London Rugby League with South London Storm. But it is clear as day that, as a man who never played the game professionally and is younger than a significant number of our players, he is utterly out of his depth. There are better coaches available (Royce Simmons immediately springs to mind) and they must be utilised.
The club is making losses, we have no media profile, no sponsors, and we have not made the play-offs since 2005. Our future, and our licensing prospects, are hanging by a thread. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue. Powell must go, and a coach must be brought in who can inspire this talented group of players to achieve better, win more matches and make this club one that people actually want to go and watch. When gnarled old veterans of the London rugby league following are saying that they cannot remember a London club playing so poorly, that is not simple bluster. That is an indication of the beginning of the end.
David Hughes, Gus Mackay – please act now. There is no time to lose.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

St Helens, Barcelona and identity

In an interview with the local paper, interim coach at St Helens Mike Rush liken the club to football clubs Ajax of Amsterdam and FC Barcelona. Both those clubs are renowned the world over for the work they do in terms of youth development - Rush's remit at the club and the role he'll return to when Nathan Brown takes the head coaching job next year - and St Helens have an enviable record in that department. But Rush also likens his club to the footballing giants in terms of them having a style, a method of playing the game that sets them out as other and that's a comparison worth investigating to see if it holds water.

Ajax became famous for their 'Total Football', a system - for want of a better phrase - where players were encouraged to interchange. It was coach Rinus Michels's method of getting the best out of his mercurial, maverick superstar Johann Cruyff. Nominally, Cruyff was a centre-forward, but he'd pop up pretty much anywhere he fancied. If he wasn't getting joy through the middle, he'd drop deep or out wide in search of possession, Michels reckoning - not without good reason - that getting the undoubted star of his generation on the ball was A Good Thing. Not that the rest of the side was too shabby and they'd rotate to accomodate Cruyff, filling in the gaps he left elsewhere. Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan and Ruud Krol, for example, were great players in their own right and fitted Michels's plan perfectly. 1971 was the team's zenith, culminating in a European Cup win under Michels before he left the club.

Michels left to go to Barcelona. Ajax won more European glory in 1972, but for the 1972/3 season Cruyff left and linked up with his mentor in Catalonia. There, they set about instilling the Ajax philosophy. Michels left in 1974 to take over the Dutch national team, but his methods remained both with Barcelona and with Cruyff who, after his retirement in 1984 became manager of Ajax and, three years later, Barcelona. There, he oversaw a period of unprecedented (at the time) glory for the club as it began to emerge from the shadow of big rivals Real Madrid. The club had lost it's way after Cruyff the player departed, but the Dutch master imbued it with a renewed sense of identity. A lot of that was based around the home-grown midfield star Josep 'Pep' Guardiola, a man who wore his Catalan pride on his sleeve. Cruyff's tenure peaked with a European Cup win - Barcelona's first - in 1992.

The side broke up after being dismantled by a rampant AC Milan in another European Cup final a couple of years later and, again, they lost their way slightly. Another Dutchman and Ajax product, Frank Rijkaard, was brought in and he got them going on the track back to those glory days. Guardiola, meanwhile, was in charge of Barcelona B working with a crop of players now very familiar to the football public. Rijkaard's first-team was largely made up of imports - Dutchmen Patrick Kluivert, Gio van Bronkhorst and Mark van Bommel, Brazilians Ronaldinho and Edmilson, Frenchman Ludovic Giuly and Portuguese Deco - but moves were afoot to restore the Catalan identity. In 2008 Guardiola moved from B team to A team with a crop of locally produced talent - Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and many others - supplemented by signings from elsewhere that would fit his vision, the vision of Michels and Cruyff. In 2009, Guardiola's team scooped all six competitions they entered. Playing a style universally known as tiki-taka - initially an insulting term coined by Javier Clementé whose teams played anything but - they became the very embodiment of the modern football side.

Michels wasn't the innovator. In the early part of the 20th century, Ajax had a manager called Jack Reynolds. The Mancunian laid the template for Michels's 'total football'; Michels refined it to fit with his star player. Cruyff did likewise with his and Guardiola in turn has done it with his star pupil Lionel Messi. Reynolds was a pioneer who also influenced his contemporary Jimmy Hogan who took the theories to Austria. Ernst Happel, an Austrian, is widely credited with taking the philosophy to Holland and so to Michels, to Cruyff and Guardiola. This was revolutionary stuff in the 1910s and still remains the benchmark.

What's the point of telling you all that? Well it's not as easy to just claim your rugby league side is the Barcelona of the sport. First off, what is your identity? Are you associated with a particular style of play? Can you trace that heritage back to the formative years of the club?

Saints have long been styled 'the entertainers' and it's often the case that they do like to chuck the ball about, but is that so very different from their contemporaries? Leeds are a joy to watch in full, attacking flow and the Catalans are becoming very handy at grabbing thrilling, late match-winning scores of the sub-legendary 'Wide to West' try that did for Bradford as well as playing in the fabled old-timey French style of running rugby. Huddersfield are starting to put plenty of points on sides with some terrific home-grown youngsters, especially out wide, and Warrington look full of tries from all across the park. That's before we even consider Australian and New Zealand sides.

What St Helens and Barcelona do share is the presence of a rival that has outshone them throughout their history, but a recent history that's seen a certain amount of balance redressed. For Barcelona, it is Real Madrid and their nine European Cups. For St Helens, it is Wigan and eras of dominance through the late '40s/early '50s and late '80s/early '90s. If only Wigan had the patronage of the royal family and the backing of a fascist dictator for 36 years, that analogy would be complete. If St Helens were responsible for introducing a new style of play - something we've discussed before - then the comparison with Ajax would stand up, but it doesn't. Having a reputation for entertaining football isn't the same as having a clearly identifiable philosophy.

Of course, it may also be a canny excuse for some excellent SEO (search engine optimisation) on the part of the St Helens Reporter, especially as the headline appears to have a direct quote in it rather than something Rush didn't actually say. Put the term 'Barcelona' in any article title - yes, like we've done here; it's all part of the lesson we're teaching today - and hits will rocket. In which case job done and ignore the self-indulgent football history lesson above.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012


1. Someone transported from their native land, normally for political reasons be they an annoyance to the current regime or paying for crimes when previously in charge.

2. Tax ~. To remove oneself from ones home country and claim residence in a low-tax regime in order to keep more of ones income.

3. Not someone who chooses freely to work abroad for a living.