Pitch battle at Headingley
Last week's blog on the travails of Harlequins provoked a lot of debate on the importance or otherwise of rugby league in London.
Whether it thrives, or merely survives, I witnessed another Quins defeat on Saturday, albeit a loss to high-flying Huddersfield that came with a huge amount of spirit in the face of what looked like being a walloping.
Joining me for commentary at the Stoop on a miserable early evening in west London was the Giants managing director Richard Thewlis. Hardly a neutral choice you may argue, but certainly insightful and passionate.
A year ago, Thewlis sat me and my fellow journalists down at the Galpharm Stadium for a classroom-style lecture on how his club had invested in the future, in a bid to shoot down perceived inaccurate reporting of their recruitment policy.
Fast forward a year, and Leroy Cudjoe, who joined the Giants academy aged 16 and was awarded a full-time contract at the end of the 2006 season, was running in a hat-trick of Super League tries to kill off the Quins.
"Leroy is very impressive," an absolutely shattered Eorl Crabtree told me on the touchline after the hooter signalled a 32-18 win. "He's a great lad and works very hard."
Eorl himself was breathing a huge sigh of relief after his own try - Huddersfield's fifth of the match - ensured he would not have to do the traditional naked end-of-season run reserved for first-teamers who have failed to score.
I remember Leeds prop Ryan Bailey celebrating a magnificently ordinary try last season as though he had won the Grand Final, the exuberant manner of which only made sense when he told me Leeds abide by the same "nuddy run" rules.
There is a really sleek, calm, professional feel to the Giants these days, with their coach the epitome of that. In his trademark jeans and leather jacket, Nathan Brown glides around the place like a Super League Jose Mourinho. His cucumber-cool demeanour certainly impressed the unfortunate lady friend I dragged to the game.
I'm pretty sure when she expressed an interest in sharing the Saturday with me, a muddy, rain-drenched Twickenham Stoop was the last place she thought she would end up. I'm sure the complimentary matchday programme more than made up for that, though. Who says romance is dead?
The unique thing about commentating at Quins is that you invariably end up with the head coaches sat right behind you at the top of the main stand. Thus Browny, who took his seat immediately behind myself and Thewlis, could hear every word of our commentary.
"Don't worry, mate," he told me before the game. "Slag us off as much as you want, I take the rough with the smooth!" It's testament to the job Brown has down there that I seldom needed to.
The Headingley pitch has come under fire this season
As the hooter sounded, I asked Thewlis how tight a leash Brown would keep on his players on the four-hour coach ride back up to west Yorkshire that evening. The "party" line was that it would be isotonic rather than alcoholic beverages.
"We leave the wilder London nights to our social secretary Micky Rourke," Thewlis said with a laugh.
Despite the prevailing precipitation, the Stoop pitch just about held together. That's much more than can be said for Headingley.
A colleague of mine remarked during Leeds' fourth defeat in seven games - at home to Hull KR on Friday night - that the stuttering champions' squad was as threadbare as the pitch upon which they are being asked to perform.
Under the duel-demand of Super League and Premiership, the Headingley Carnegie surface is always bad at this time of year. But this is without doubt the worst I have ever seen it. The only areas of green are behind the posts, the main playing area is a sandy orange, while the instability underfoot has become a major concern for players.
Rovers full-back Shaun Briscoe tells me it is the worst pitch he has ever played on.
The club's Aussie second rower Clint Newton is even more forthright, demanding the game's governing body take action against Leeds for what he describes as a "disgraceful" playing surface. "That ground's probably one of the biggest jokes I've ever been a part of," he said. "It's a real issue for health and safety. It's an embarrassment to see good quality players such as Leeds have to play on that pitch week in, week out. It's not good enough. I think the RFL needs to look at it. It needs to be addressed."
Leeds were without eight first-teamers last weekend. Injuries to Sinfield, Hall, Buderus and Watkins have all come away from home. But Jamie Peacock and Carl Ablett have both suffered ankle injuries at Headingley. Centre Brett Delaney, like Ablett, hobbled off in the home defeat to Castleford.
It's hardly surprising the pitch is in such a state. With Carnegie, the union side, up and running before Super League even ends and the Rhinos' campaign starting up again while the Premiership season is still going, there is no respite for the turf and the club's hardworking ground staff.
As a league fan, I also had to get used to seeing the rugby pitch covered in cars belonging to cricket fans sampling the hospitality during the Headingley Test match. I doubt that helped.
The plan is to relay the playing surface at the end of the season, although I understand there is something of an internal blame game going on between Carnegie and the Rhinos as to who is most responsible for the upkeep or lack thereof.
To make matters worse for Rhinos coach Brian McLennan, he also managed to lock himself in his office at the club's Kirstall training headquarters last week. The only way out was to shin down the drainpipe from his office window, some 20 feet above the ground!
It pains a Yorkshireman to say it but I've been purring at some of the performances on the other side of the hills this season. Wigan are vibrant under Michael Maguire, the Wolves hungry under Tony Smith and you know Saints are going to join the party at the top of the pile soon.
Having moaned on last week's blog of my struggles to convince my radio superiors of the merits of covering rugby league stories, I can happily tuck into a spot of humble pie this week after being granted the chance to showcase the game's biggest derby live on 5 live. Fans of Leeds and Bradford may disagree, but Saints-Wigan is as bitter a rivalry as it comes in rugby league.
I'll be hosting 5 live Sport from Knowsley Road on Good Friday afternoon (2 April) for every minute of blood and thunder. Live commentary will follow at 1500 BST and I shall be blogging on the derby day experience the following week.
The Easter derby extravaganza starts the night before - next Thursday - when I join presenter Stuart Pyke for Leeds versus Bradford on the Headingley quagmire.