Is the honeymoon over?

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It wouldn’t be the start of a season without a crisis somewhere. Yet again, it’s Bradford Bulls. As a Hull KR fan, I know all about watching your club live on the edge of disappearing. Neil Hudgell has wrought miracles keeping the club afloat, and with a new board member John Keable putting his financial clout in to the mix, hopefully, the days of week by week worry are behind them.
Bradford just seem to lurch from one crisis to another at the moment though. After all the money the fans pumped in to save the club (twice), they are now one game away from being on zero after the six points they were docked for entering administration and looking like (two players jumping ship aside) a team with real purpose. I can’t blame those players who left. After all, they have mortgages to pay, bills will become due and good will only goes so far. All credit to Francis Cummins. He has been a rod of iron during this latest crisis.
Is it about time the RFL just allowed a club to go under? It matters not that the club is one of the oldest in the competition, it would hopefully serve as a reminder that the pot of money in our game is not as deep as we would like to either hope or believe it is. Even the “new” Sky deal only slowed down the need of a few clubs to avoid calling in the administrators if rumours are to be believed.
In an ideal world, every club would have a Mr Keable or a Dr Koukash, but life just isn’t that fair. Sometimes the herd needs to be thinned out.
If the fans got together and as was suggested by Rod Studd, either bought the club or started a new one like FC United of Manchester, who knows? If the RFL gave grass roots clubs the sort of support they need, then perhaps in the new world of promotion and relegation, we may well see either a reborn Bulls or even a Bradford Northern once again grace the top flight of the game in the UK, and challenging for honours.

Talking of Dr Koukash…
After a fantastic first forty minutes against Wakefield on day one of Super League, Salford have been brought back down to earth with a bit of a bump.
The mauling handed to them in front of their home crowd by Saint Helens prompted the charismatic owner, Dr Marwan Koukash to tell fans that the team would not play like that again. In the intervening period before last night’s Widnes game, I’ve heard people (some of whom should know better) that Brian Noble was out of top flight coaching for too long, and had become little more than a media darling with his work at Premier Sports and in the printed press.
Rubbish!
If any coach has had a close up look at modern day tactics, it’s Nobby. He attended almost as many RLWC games as were possible, and from his media eyrie, and with the access to the players and coaches he will have had, you can guarantee he was making more than a mental note of what plays were working and how they were put together.
I do believe that Salford as a team need a couple of things.
A week without a player being side-lined for a month would be nice, and any club that brings in 13 new players will take time to gel on the field of play.
I can see the owner’s frustration, and can to a great degree share it, being a season ticket holder, but I’m also a realist. You don’t become a bad coach overnight, just as you can’t build a great team overnight, especially in a sport as reliant on communication between players as ours is.
At the shirt presentation, Dr Koukash said his relationship with Brian Noble was more than the usual coach/owner one you will find in sport. I hope that Brian is given time to make this squad into the team they have the potential to become, because if not, Phil Clarke will look a right idiot backing them to win everything this season!

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The Redeviloution is well underway

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With a little over a week to go before he would see the fruits from the first wave of his “Redeviloution”, Dr Marwan Koukash opened the doors of the A.J. Bell stadium to fans old and new to personally present shirts to the squad that he firmly believes are capable of finishing in the top four of Super League XIX and to show off his vision for the Salford of the future.

It was a chance for the fans to not only get up close and personal with the players, but to have a good look around the stadium, with pretty much all areas open to them, from the new gym, put in so that the squad didn’t have to travel to Leigh sports village through to the dressing rooms. Even setting foot on the hallowed turf was not forbidden!

Marwan is a man who divides opinion, and it’s something he revels in. To be fair to him, he’s made certain that Salford have probably had the lion’s share of press during the close season, be it his ideas on the salary cap, or how to move the sport in the UK forward without the perceived interference from Red Hall. One of the first things he said ahead of the shirt presentation was how he felt about undoubtedly his biggest signing, Brian Noble. When Noble said that he needed to bring in about four of five players, Marwan laughed and said in his own unique way, bloody hell mate, we need to only KEEP four or five.

When Marwan says that his relationship is not the usual one of chairman and coach, you believe him. This is a man who has fought tooth and nail to get to where he is today, and will fight just as hard for anyone in his corner as he will argue against anyone he feels is not.

As he says, a 300% increase in season ticket sales may not be as large a number as Saints, Warrington or Leeds, but he understands that the fans have had years of wait and see promises that have gone undelivered and that many will still pay on the day, and (hopefully) many more will buy once they start to see the fruits of his actions on and off the field paying dividends. He has already approached Red Hall to ask for an exemption on the cap to bring in a marquee player who he is confident will be a game changer.

He also says that on paper, there are not many better teams than Salford. Problem is, the game is played on grass and on Sunday, against Wakefield, Marwan started to see his dream become a reality.

Just…

I asked Brian Noble just before kick off if he was feeling nervous and he said he was probably more nervous than the players, but they had a job to do and were looking forward to getting it done. With that, Brian shot off to finish his pre match preparation.

As the time for kick off drew ever closer, it became clear that something special was happening at the A.J. Bell, because the press area was rammed with journalists from all forms of media. Not all of them hung about for the final whistle, but they will all have a copy of the team sheet and a souvenir programme to be able to tell their grandkids that they were there…

With all the preseason hype surrounding the club, it was no surprise to see the touchline full of photographers, TV cameras and the entire Koukash family all soaking up the atmosphere. The Red Devil parachute display team were due to arrive at 2.15pm, but were delayed in taking off from Manchester Airport by about 15 minutes, but when they did arrive (bedecked in Salford shirts!) they were greeted with cheers by the waiting crowd, who had just been told that due to crowd congestion outside the ground, kick off would be delayed by 10 minutes to allow everyone to safely get inside.

Once 3.10 arrived, the Devils and Wildcats took to the field and it was obvious that Salford were not about to let the visitors spoil the party, with Gareth Hock going over after five minutes to score his debut try for the club, easily converted by Jake Mullaney to give the Devils a 6-0 advantage.

Wakefield’s first spell of pressure culminated in a goal line drop out after eleven minutes, but that was pretty much it for the Wildcats, who seemed to be getting most of their advantages down the left hand side, where Salford looked a little shorthanded at times. It wasn’t until the twenty fifth minute, when England international Rangi Chase went over in a challenge and hurt his knee, forcing Noble into a few tactical changes that Salford really started to pile on the pressure with Harrison Hansen scoring after twenty eight minutes, again converted by Mullaney, to extend the lead to 12 nil.

Four minutes later, Andrew Dixon also went over, making it 3 unanswered tries, all converted to allow the devils an 18 point advantage at the break.

So far, so good. Brian Noble must have felt like taking the second half off! The only fly in the ointment was the man in the middle, Mr Child, who seemed to not understand the onside at the play of the ball rule meant that the players (on BOTH sides) must retreat 10 meters. To say he looked out of his depth was an understatement. The RFL needs to seriously look at the standard of refereeing in our game. Steve Ganson is now supposed to be in charge, but over the last 5 years, on average the standard of refereeing has slipped in my honest opinion.

After the break, Wakefield looked to really take the game back to Salford and break the hearts of the home crowd, who as Dr Koukash had said have had so many broken promises, he understands that they are wary of yet another promised golden dawn not becoming sunrise.

It took just five minutes for the fears of the crowd to look like coming true as Matt Ryan scored for the Wildcats, and just another four for them to go over again in the guise of Samoan international Pita Godinet, this time converted by Paul Sykes to reduce the deficit to 18-10, the Wakefield faithful really started to make their voice heard. Not to be outdone, the Salford fans found themselves in for a very nervy finish, once Ali Lauititi went over not too long after being held up over the line, a fact coach Agar disputed in the post-match press conference. To quote Richard, ‘I’ve never seen anyone stop Ali one-on-one that close to the line’. He said: ‘Well, he didn’t’.

With Sykes only managing to convert one of his chances, Agar could well rue not coming away with at least a point from the game, if not two.

As it was, Salford got their much anticipated season off to a winning, if nervy start. Coach Noble said post-match that Chase had a muscular knock and at that point it didn’t look too bad and that Junior Sau had tweaked his groin, but that they would both be hopefully fit for Salford’s next game, away to London.

One other thing from Richard Agar was his unhappiness at a four day turnabout for both Wakefield and Bradford, with them playing this Thursday in front of the Sky cameras. Given the lack of preparation he’s had with overseas players, it’s understandable to want to get some good recovery and preparation under their belt before the next match, but it appears that it’s out of both his and the RFL’s hands with Sky making the decision to show games Thursday and Friday, at least until the end of the football season…

Salford:

Mullaney (3/3 Conv), Johnson, Walton, Sa’u, Meli, Chase, Smith (MOM), Morley, Lee, Tasi, Hansen (T), Hock (T), Puletua

Replacements: Griffin, Dixon (T), McPherson, Howarth

Wakefield:

Mathers, Fox, Collis, Keinhorst, Lyne, Sykes (1/3 Conv), Godinet (T), Anderson, McShane, Smith, Lauititi (T), Kirmond, Washbrook

Replacements: Raleigh, Ryan (T), Tautai, Walshaw

Att: 7102 (Stadium record)

A “New Deal” for the sport?

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Hardly.
The announcement this week of a new deal to broadcast Super League was met with scepticism in a lot of ways.
Firstly, why did the RFL decide to add five years to an existing deal rather than put out to tender the rights?
After all, Sky have lost the Champions league and some Premier League games to BT Sport, the NRL and State of Origin are on Premier Sport, meaning that as one of the so called jewels in the Sky Sports locker, the game could have easily attracted more money and better coverage had the rights gone out to tender.
As the RFL is a closed shop effectively, the same people running the sport and the international game and (lets be fair here) delivering one hell of a World Cup, it means that there is no transparency in its dealings and the same few people decide what will happen and where. To give clubs just 24 hours to accept the new Sky offer was a joke.
How are the clubs supposed to look over the contracts and properly take in what they will win or lose in that space of time? They just have to take Nigel Wood & co.’s word that it was the best they could get.
Don’t get me wrong. Sky have done wonders for the sport, and as a former publican, I loved having a pub full of fans on a Friday and Saturday nights, all having differing opinions on the game and a load of banter, but aside from that, the coverage is excellent, but take a look at Premier Sports coverage of RLWC 2013 and the Championship games. It was also fantastic. What BT sport are doing with their football coverage is just as revolutionary as Sky when they first started showing the Premier league.
As Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan told League express, it’s a dreadful commercial decision to agree, with three years left to run on the current deal, a new deal to run from 2017 to 2021. He believes that for the RFL to pretty much bully the clubs into this deal is a sign of the bad governance at Red Hall, and I agree.
As he says, it’s the responsibility of the Governing body and Board of Sup League to make certain the right decisions are taken in the interest of the sport as a whole, but these two entities are largely made up of the same people!
He also feels the Chief Executive is too closely involved in driving through his own personal view of the restructuring, rather than the inclusive and open minded approach a Chief exec SHOULD lead with.
Lenegan regrets that due to the nature of the RFL’s take it or leave it offer, he voted for the deal for the sake of unanimity. He also believes that fans should realise that the process followed by the governing body was seriously flawed and will hopefully result in a major review of the management structure of Super League and dual involvement of the RFL in that management.
Martyn Sadler gives a breakdown of where the cash will actually go as well in the pages of League Express, but I for one hope that the RFL is looked at and the sort of breakaway that led to the Premier League being formed outside of the FA is looked at.
We have a great product.
We also let the RFL virtually give it away.

Lets make it a real “Super” League

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It’s not long now until the next rounds of franchises are set out for Super League. All the usual suspects will be applying, Featherstone Rovers, Halifax, Leigh and a host of others (hopefully), but if we’re to REALLY broaden the game, how about a Cumbrian club?

It’s always been a hotbed of the game and as much as I’m against clubs merging for the sake of merging, why not have a sole Cumbria club that uses the local talent and the resources of the established clubs, like Barrow and Workington to apply? Surely, if we can’t get our own areas of interest involved in the game at its elite level, we’ll struggle in places like Toulouse, The Midlands and the South West of the country? At its heart, we are a grass roots sport. OK, the fan base in the area may not be as big as a metropolis such as Leeds, but surely, a healthy, successful club in Cumbria will breed further rewards for the area in terms of producing more players like Rob Purdham who will go on to international honours in the future?

Rugby League NEEDS a strong Cumbrian club, be it One of the two I’ve mentioned, or a “Super Club” using them as a feeder to keep the grass roots healthy and the sport stocked with more and more talent.

OK, fans of other clubs will moan about travelling to away games, but let’s face it; we’re now a summer game, and who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of days in the area before or after a match? After all, it’s beautiful…

I know that even the mere mention of the dreaded M word will have people all over quoting history, heritage and Hull, to name but a couple of things, but if we are a modern game, then let’s make sure we look at the problems of the game in a modern way and although we keep our heritage alive (I hope Stevo finds a home for his stuff. It was a great way to spend time in Huddersfield and I hope the RFL will help him find that special somewhere), it shouldn’t stop us from looking ever forward.

Should it?

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Looking forward to later this year, I will once again be heading to Warrington for the Tom Sephton Memorial trophy (http://www.facebook.com/sephtonmemorialtrophy). Despite last year’s deluge of almost biblical proportions; it was a great day of family entertainment, good causes and rugby league. This year’s event is on the 29th June, to coincide with Armed Forces day and all money raised this year is going to the Royal British Legion and as per usual, there will be two outstanding matches being played.

For those who don’t know, Tom was an Infantry Soldier in The Mortar Platoon, The 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) – 1 MERCIAN who tragically died in July 2010 as a result of the wounds he received in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick 12. Tom came from Penketh, Warrington and was an outstanding sportsman. For many years he played rugby league for Crosfields and was a key and influential part of the 2006 Crosfields ARLFC Under 16’s squad that swept all before them, winning the Under 16’s North-West Counties League Championship and reaching the National Cup Semi-Final.

From this squad an impressive number of Tom’s team mates have gone on to achieve great things in their young rugby careers, playing professionally with Super League clubs, Widnes Vikings, Warrington Wolves, St Helens and Salford City Reds.

First up is the Army grudge match between rival regiments 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment (CHESHIRE) – 1 MERCIAN versus 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancasters Regiment – 1 LANCS, followed by a Crossfields ARLFC XIII Versus The Royal Engineers. Last year’s day was a roaring success and I for one will be making it a regular day out in my calendar.

For more info and to place an advert in the programme, check the link above for more details. Last year over £4000 was raised for SSAFA, I hope that this year, given better weather, they can beat that total by some way.