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Pitch battle at Headingley

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George Riley George Riley | 09:40 UK time, Thursday, 25 March 2010

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.

headingley595.jpgThe 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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Are there no gaps in which the Headingley pitch can be re-laid sooner? Wigan's has been already, and they have the same issue with SUper ELague and soccer seasons overlapping.

    It seems to me that Leeds (or maybe just the press and their fans) are finding things to blame for their poor form, and although a bad pitch and more than a few injuries have no doubt been contributory factors, it's not much different for a good number of teams. They will undoubtedly improve, but I still fear for their Grand Final aspirations - this won't be an easy situation to get out of.

  • Comment number 2.

    My knowlesge of Rugby League is not extensive but George's BLOG makes it easy to learn plenty of necessary facts... I am going to a match soon... Also loving his work on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC News Channel... Keep up the good work Mr R...

  • Comment number 3.


    George

    rhinos whingeing about the pitch - change the record George , they play on it every week for heavens sake - visiting teams dont - if Leeds and their fans want sympathy or even understanding they can forget it

    but

    - nice to see you making the effort to come to Lancashire on Good friday- and well done for getting it on the proper wireless - your perserverance is laudable -Saying that one days coverage on the main network is not something that should be applauded - we deserve more

    I never thought id say this but the local radio does a great job with the sport - Wouldnt listen to them ever for anything else but for RL coverage theyre worth the licence fee alone

  • Comment number 4.

    Good blog George, nice to get a little insight into your view of the games. The pitch issue is a big one in the game, with it coming under scrutiny at key grounds like Leeds and Wigan. Ideally the teams would have their own stadia - I've heard a number of Wigan players saying that playing at the JJB/DW has worsened the impact of teams coming to them - but it's not a realistic one given the massive expense and relatively lower attendances for the sport.

    I live in London so I spend most of my matches at the Stoop, which is a good ground because of how close you feel to the pitch and the action. But it's hard to get to and has relatively poor transport links. I'd love to see what they could do with promoting in London if it was played at a venue like the O2 or Craven Cottage, which are easy to get to on the tube or train networks. I think the RFL could definitely market it better, the Friday Sport freebie magazine has maybe a column a month about RL, even at the start of the season or the Magic Weekend it didn't feature.

  • Comment number 5.

    KJWarrior - I wouldn't profess to be a horticultural expert so I don't know how long these things take to bed in - ie if its doable between games etc. It is worth remembering that Leeds were losing games and playing poorly right from the start of the season, when they had a full strength team. I wouldn't blame injuries - Saints have got bad ones at the mo, Quins have loads, so too Giants.
    Cocokin - local radio is vital for our sport, BBC Leeds, Manchester, Mersey and Humber all do terrific day to day jobs, likewise Rammo at London is battling away to fly the flag...but the more games we can get on the national network the more new fans we will attract

  • Comment number 6.

    Ryan Bailey hasn't scored a try for Leeds since July 20th 2007. He should be used to the end of season run by now.

    How he celebrates the next time he gets over the whitewash will be anyones guess.

  • Comment number 7.

    George, at Wigan after the Catalan home match on the 26th, as soon as the ball was off the pitch, the buldozers came in, ripped the grass up, and a new pitch was laid, so it had just over a week to "bed in" as you say, before the Latics played a home match on Monday 8th March v Liverpool.

    Finding a gap in the calender should not be an issue, the only issue they have is not wanting to spend the money, and hoping it sorts itself out soon as we head into spring!

  • Comment number 8.

    CONMEBalls yeah I must have been thinking of the first try of that season - he scored three in 07 if memory serves
    cherrywarrior - you may have a point - as the pitch normally does improve on its own - but as I say I have never seen it this bad

  • Comment number 9.

    Leeds just need to relay the pitch when they have a fortnight between home games. Any pitch ought to have enough time to bed in then. And they can't use the pitch as an excuse. If anything, they should be used to it by now, whereas away teams should struggle on it.

  • Comment number 10.

    Well done on getting Rugby League so prominently on to 5Live, George. I listen to the station every day and league information is few and far between. Usually everything is on Sports Extra which is no good if you're in the car. Let's hope you get great listener figures so it's the first of many this season. Good Luck!

  • Comment number 11.

    Yes the Leeds pitch is in a bad way...but it wasn't caused by the rhinos or Carnegie, or the cars that park on it over the summer cricket (however stupid an idea that sounds). It's because the pitch was covered with frost sheets from December through till February, with only around 3hrs of sunlight reaching the pitch each week when a match was on. It was a case of having a poor pitch but not cancelling any fixtures. There is 1 team of ground staff that maintain the whole of the Headingley and Kirkstall grounds, union, league and cricket - neither club is individually responsible for the upkeep of the pitch. The state of the pitch is also not a disadvantage to away teams - if it were we would be winning more matches! That said, it can't be very nice to play in a sand pit, unless you have a bucket and spade to hand!!

    Does anybody have any pictures of Bluey shimming down a drain pipe? That must have been fun to watch

  • Comment number 12.

    "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"


    pssttt George, Ryan hasn't scored a try since 2007

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi George, Nice article from a Quins and Hull FC supporter.
    I think people in Hull might dispute your statement that Saints-Wigan is the biggest derby though.
    The piece on the Headingley pitch reminds me of a cup game about 30 years ago when Hull with their huge pack beat Bradford about 8-0 at the Boulevard which was around 6 inches deep in mud from end to end. When questioned about the state of the pitch a Hull official commented that they had been watering the pitch all week to get it into perfect condition.

  • Comment number 14.

    SY_RL_FAN - the Friday show is shaping up great - we've got our top commentary team of Woods and Pyke and special guests Gareth Thomas and Iestyn Harris with us at the game - we'll have a full hour to chat to GT before kick off so you can get your questions in to him about RL too, should be excellent.

    Lawrie Lee - see comment above.

    Surreybird - definitely a fierce derby, but bigger than Saints-Wigan?

    Morag - what would you suggest re pitch? Would have loved to have see Bluey clambering out of his office!

  • Comment number 15.

    Speaking of derbies ... This from a new survey by www.engagesuperleague.co.uk.
    In a poll of 1,500 supporters,1 in 8 Saints and Wigan fans admitted they have missed a family wedding before in order to see a derby match
    1 in 5 Hull & Hull KR fans have missed their anniversary. 2 in 5 Leeds & Bradford fans have gone to the game rather than a family birthday

  • Comment number 16.

    "showcase the game's biggest derby live on 5 live"
    "Saints-Wigan is as bitter a rivalry as it comes in rugby league"

    You obviously dont know Rugby League then mate...

    Perhaps the initial quote may be right or in others opinions it may be wrong

    but the latter is definatley without doubt incorrect, as i have noticed George Riley and a few others have pointed out.

    The passion that runs through the Hull people for their rugby league is without comparison in the game.

    If you have a look on the 606 forums and messages boards the hatred between the clubs makes you cringe, perhaps you should come sample the real derby atnospher for yourself up in east yorkshire at the KC and then post comments on bitter derbies!

    15000 in attendance for a testimonial pre season friendly, how many was at diskins?

    The passion and rivalry that comes from the Hull derby can only be compared with other "True Derbies"

    Man Utd v Man City
    Everton v Liverpool
    Inter V Milan

    the Leeds Bradford and Wigan saints are big games dont get me wrong, but is comparable to (in footballing terms) games like Man Utd v Liverpool etc...big clubs going for big honours who are close by and who are immense rivals, but not from the SAME city

    you have families where half a red and half are black, and they wont speak...through there hatred of the "enemy" and the love for their own club!

    apolagies for the football references but only way i could really get me point across

  • Comment number 17.

    Are you sure that leeds-bradford is on the radio? I can't find it in the listings for sports extra, while five live has football.

  • Comment number 18.


    George

    i think you miss my point - i agree about local radio -their service to the game is excellent- but one game on 5 live in a season wont bring any new fans particularly when the game is on tv - and what chance have you got of getting more games on during the summer with the world cup, test matches, wimbledon . golf etc-

    im glad youre doing youre best and good luck to you but dont make out its the start of some kind of change of heart by your bosses - we're not fooled

    and notts warrior is right the schedules dont show RL on next thursday - they show swimming - tell me theyre wrong please

  • Comment number 19.

    Hull_Mutual.

    Hatred is not the same as rivalry. If you want real rivalry try watching a State of Origin match here in Australia. 54,000 sell-out at Brisbane and even more at the other grounds. The intensity on the pitch is ferocious, the passion in the spectators is awesome and yet it is all done without a hint of hatred. So please keep your hatred in Hull and let the rest of us enjoy our rugby league - fervently wanting our team to win and yet still able to enjoy and appreciate good play from the opposition as well as having some good old-fashioned banter with their supporters.

    And your choice of football derbies shows you know as much about football as rugby league. Liverpool vs Man Utd is far more intense than any of the matches you list.

  • Comment number 20.

    Speaking about local derbies Saints v Wigan has nothing compared when Cas And Fev used to meet, when Cas beat Fev for them to be relegated was one of the best derby matches ever. Speaking of Harlequins stadium concerns why don`t they get together with West Ham and try and get games played there following the Olympics. It might help with West Ham`s bid if they had more than one sport playing there, and if they say about the athlectics side no one complained when Fulham played at the Crystal Palace stadium.

  • Comment number 21.

    As a Rovers fan who lives in Leeds, I was at the game with my Father in Law who is a lifelong Rhino.
    Looking at the pitch, I was reminded of a quote from a mate of mine who once said the pitch at Spotlands was just like glass...
    Mainly Sand!
    It was not fit to play either code on, and the fact that the cricket club park on it as often as possible does not help.
    Anyway, back to a traditional good Friday & the only TRUE derby in Super League, the Hull one.
    COME ON ROVERS!!!

 

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