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Eventful Easter on and off the pitch

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George Riley George Riley | 17:39 UK time, Thursday, 8 April 2010

Easter Bank holiday derby weekend is usually unforgettable for a rugby league fan, whether your team wins or loses.

Mine was reasonably eventful.

After Lee Smith stole my thunder last week when I'd planned to write an insightful blog on how our broadcasts come together, I'll grab this opportunity to give you an insight in the life of a BBC Radio 5 live sports broadcaster.

Gabby Logan's show finished at 1400 BST on Thursday, more than enough time I thought to transport my vocal chords up the M1 for an 2000 BST commentary date with Leeds and Bradford on 5 live Sports Extra.

I reckoned without three sets of roadworks, two crashes and a shed-load of traffic, the combination of which left me sweating south of Leicester during rush hour.

I reached Leeds around 1930, and my local knowledge enabled me to get parked 15 minutes before we went on air.

Some of my more cynical colleagues may suggest that counts as getting to work early for me, but it was the worst preparation I have ever had for a commentary.

I was still wearing a pink checked shirt from the show at lunchtime - not the most obvious dress for a blood-and-thunder rugby league derby - and my colleagues in the commentary box were quick to comment on it, with guest summariser Wakefield coach John Kear asking me if Wham! had reformed.

Ego suitably dented, we got stuck into commentating on an absolute belter of a game as Leeds endured a terrific Bulls barrage to escape with an unlikely 20-20 draw, thanks in no small part to Smith's two tries on his rugby league return.

Just before I Interviewed man-of-the-moment Smith for the BBC's Super League Show after the final hooter, he turned on his phone to find a flood of congratulatory texts, several from Wasps players congratulating him on a successful return home.

Good Friday saw an early start for a rugby league extravaganza on 5 live Sport.

With league leaders Wigan travelling to arch-rivals St Helens for probably the teams' last ever Super League meeting at Knowsley Road, I crammed some pre-match research then drove across the Pennines from sunshine, through snow, to a cloudy St Helens.

There's nothing quite like a Saints-Wigan derby to get the rugby league fan going, but with this prime-time coverage on national radio, I wanted to take the chance to get across the magnitude of the game to the wider audience.

"There's edge and there's spice," Saints captain Keiron Cunningham told us.

"It is like Christmas and all your birthdays rolled into one, and then finding a £50 note walking down street. That's how lucky you feel to play in one of these games. It's the kind of experience you can just never explain."

Fifteen minutes after we went on air, the rain was so torrential that my lovingly-crafted notes were soaked and I had to go freestyle.

Former Saints skipper Paul Sculthorpe joined me for a chat from the tunnel, and admitted being so close to the game gave him itchy feet.

saints595getty.jpgSaints players contemplate defeat by their biggest rivals in the final Saints v Wigan league match at Knowsley Road

"This was the one game of the season I always wanted to play in," the retired Great Britain captain told me.

"The rivalry is just like intense. But all the fans will be around one table in the pub after as rugby league is just such a tight-knit community."

It would be Wigan fans buying the drinks after spoiling Saints' party with a famous win.

Sculthorpe, who played in the last ever derby at Wigan's old Central Park, and told me: "If we'd have won that game, Wigan fans would never have forgiven us for tarnishing the memory of that ground."

That gives you an idea of how Saints fans would have felt on Good Friday evening.

This leads me down another avenue. Can intense rivalries like Leeds-Bradford and Saints-Wigan be damaging for the national game? England's shortcomings at the last World Cup were allegedly harmed by divides between Saints and Leeds players.

But Sculthorpe insists talk of rifts is nonsense. "It is human nature when you are on tour and have free time in a foreign country to socialise with the guys you know," he says.

"In the GB camp, I hung out with Wello (Paul Wellens), KC (Cunningham), and Longy (Sean Long). They are my best friends, people I see every day. It's as simple as that."

On the subject of England, the Rugby Football League is still looking for someone to coach the national team. Guardian rugby league correspondent Andy Wilson reckons it is now getting embarrassing for the bosses at Red Hall.

I fully expect Bradford coach Steve McNamara to be given the job, although a couple of my pals in the print media reckon Harlequins coach Brian McDermott still has a good chance, especially given his club's current predicament.

But I'm sticking with McNamara and expect him to be confirmed as the new coach the week after next, possibly Wednesday, 21 April or thereabouts.

Don't rule out an Aussie being involved somewhere in the set-up, though, as both Macs would be raw on the international scene.

Finally, after highlighting Fuifui Moimoi's possible move to WWE in last week's blog, I wanted to end on another wrestling note.

Wakefield boss Kear is the latest coach to speak out about Wigan's tackling style under Michael Maguire. "If I want to watch four or five men in a ruck or a maul, I'd rather go to Twickenham," said Kear after Wakey were walloped 54-14 by the Warriors on Easter Monday.

Hull FC coach Richard Agar voiced similar opinions when his side were beaten by Wigan a few weeks ago.

I also recall several coaches, including Castleford's Terry Matterson, moaning about the tactics employed by Nathan Brown when he first arrived at Huddersfield last season.

There were disgruntled Saints voices after the derby defeat, too, some believing Wigan's tactics were strangling the life out of the game.

Do these clubs have a fair point or is it sour grapes? Let me have your view...


  • Comment number 1.

    If Wigan are playing within the rules, then good for them. They deserve what they achieve. Maguire has done a great job so far. Maybe instead of whinging, coaches should be looking at ways they can counteract Wigan's tactics.

    The fact Steve McNamara and Brian McDermott are the two favourites for the England job is a sad indication of where rugby league is at in this country. We have potentially the most exciting group of players for years - with the likes of Eastmond, Tomkins, Myler, Shenton, Westerman, Atkins, Burgess - and all we can muster to coach them is two extremely average Super League coaches.

    Fans of both Bradford and Harlequins will more than likely be relieved if either "Mac" leaves their club - that's how dire it is for England!

  • Comment number 2.

    Sour grapes? perhaps a little.The wrestling tactics used effectively by both wigan and to a lesser extent by huddersfield,do have a detremental effect on the game.If these tactics are seen to be succesful,then eventually all superleague sides will eventually employ them,and then you have the situation as in the NRL,that the need to have an extra referee to oversee the tackle becomes imminent.Can SL afford,both financialy and structuraly to go down this road,I think not.The RFL need to look at the current rules and adjust them accordingly.

  • Comment number 3.

    Looking through some old RL World mags I came across comments from the late 90s about the Aussies have a fast play the play. The experts often said it was spoiling the game, it was like touch and pass they said, often saying the game will suffer if the aussies carry on playing like that.
    So, 10 years later, they slow down the play the ball, we complain (esp if you are from Leeds), saying the game will lose fans and suffer.
    It makes me think, perhaps winners/top coaches are the ones who find the way to win games within the rules, plan and prepare to stop the other team?
    No, I'm not a Wigan fan, just someone who admires coaches who break the mould every now and again. Our lack of success at international level is our conservative approach so lets applaud innovation, not show sour grapes.

  • Comment number 4.

    i was watching the sunday roast and sunday footy show the other day, oh for a show like these (but that's a different argument), anyway, peter sterling was talking about parramatta persisting in 'one out' rugby against cronulla and saying it was dead easy to defend against as you know there's going to be no second phase rugby so you can commit 3/4 men to the tackle and therefore control the ruck speed. this is all wigan do.

  • Comment number 5.

    Kear is right on the money. This is a spectator sport and is becoming dull. Win at all costs RL is maybe acceptable in finals, but week in week out? I don't care if Wigan or Huddersfield dominate the sport for a decade. I will be watching Leeds, Saints or Cas. Thrilling stuff.

  • Comment number 6.

    jdgmedia - quite - wrestling defence wasnt the reason Wakey shipped 50 to Wigan was it...?
    templar1129 - great poem.
    Lee Spracklen - it's the old question of whether fans want to be entertained or to win. Obviously ideally both but you show me a fan who wouldnt take a trophy over entertaining but losing rugby.
    howmanynamesaretaken - guess you haven't watched much of Leeds this year then ?!!

  • Comment number 7.

    I can't be the only one who remembers the complaints a few years ago about the play the ball being too quick, leading to five runs from dummy half to make the easy yards. It's a difficult balancing act and it will always see some clubs using the rules one way or another to gain an advantage. Soon refs will clamp down on the wrestling, leading to clubs running more from DH, meaning players like roby look much better again.

  • Comment number 8.

    George, agree, and to reverse the the idea, would fans like to see their team lose, if they lost in an entertaining fashion? I think victory is the entertainment.
    For non aligned fans, if they could be identified in any numbers (TV viewers)then they would vote with there feet (although the feet stay indoors) and show their opinion.
    The best teams change players, coaches, and styles of play to keep, or reach the top, I think that is winning, and as long as they keep within the rules, even if close to breaking them, it is acceptable and all helps the game evolve which is what happened since 1895?
    There were some who said dropping unlimited tackles would be the end......

  • Comment number 9.

    Wigan, in attack atleast are playing some of the most expansive rugby i've seen in about 10 years, i've seen every game this season, as i do most. "the wrestle" is simply a tactic. It's part of the game. I had no complaints when Huddersfield were employing similar tactics last season. Good on teams for trying different things. If it's within the rules then so be it. It may well be right on the extreme of the rules, but until someone says otherwise, it's here to stay.

    The media talk up the NRL as one of the world premier sporting comps, these tactics don't seem to be harming them. And i can appreciate the people who will argue because of these tactics, they have had to employ a second ref, but as far as i can see, that wouldn't be such a bad idea in our game anyway. The game is simply too fast for one ref these days.

    Money is always going to be a stumbling block for this over here... but maybe if the RFL were a bit quicker to get their house in order and promote the game a bit better to generate said money... but that's another arguement for another day isn't it.

    Tactics are part of sport, simple as. Wigan are simply better this season so far, but there's a long was to go...

  • Comment number 10.

    Sour grapes?! I should say (yes I'm a Wigan supporter).
    We aren't slowing the play any more than any other team - in fact when we thumped KR in February their coaching staff were heard yelling at the players to slow US down as they couldn't cope (I'm on the 40 yeard line above the dug-out).

    Additionally, on Monday, we adjusted numbers in the tackles according to play & who the opponent was - for large periods there were only TWO taking down the Yorkshire puddin's. Until they started trying to rip heads off in the tackle & then we started getting our own back.

    Sour grapes?! Enough for several vats of vinegar if ask me.

  • Comment number 11.

    Only one true derby in Rugby League George and you were on the wrong side of the Pennines for that Hull K R & Hull F C. Just like in Football Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, & Dundee two teams in the same city a proper derby.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hi from Australia; the wrestling problem was resolved over here with the bringing in of two referees and since then the game has undergone a small revolution in Australia. It has become faster, more skilled and an even better spectacle. Even our local AFL and rugby union commentators (such as Richard Hinds and Peter Fitzsimmons) have admitted that league is the best 'product' in terms of sporting entertainment in the present Australian market (four codes, all fighting hard for the viewer and fan).
    I urge your administrators to take the plunge and introduce the second referee, the game will boom in the UK just as it has over here.

  • Comment number 13.

    seajay23 ... some might argue there's aren't enough good refs to cover 1 ref per match each week! Not me I hasten to add.... ;)

  • Comment number 14.

    I don't have a problem with the tactics employed by Mssrs Brown and McGuire. They have devised similar defensive plans around the ruck and it is paying dividends; both clubs have the smallest 'points against' total in Super League at this time.

    The issue of 2 referees certainly needs to be looked at but then the number of full time officials has to be increased. As far as I am aware we have 6 full time refs, 1 part time, and the remainder of the officiating staff, i.e. touch and in-goal judges, are part time.

    If you are bringing in an extra ref, I think it is about time we brought in full time video referees at every game too.

  • Comment number 15.

    These 2 coaches have come over from the NRL. The quality of defending & attacking is much greater in that comp. Try to learn from it. It has worked well for Wigan & Huddersfield. I would say their defence has improved, but their attacking lines are still not as steep as NRL sides. There is still a lot of flat footy catching the ball standing still...

  • Comment number 16.

    just had two weeks in australia watching almost nonstop NRL coverage and i have to say that although im no super league expert it was clear to see that it is on a differant planet to super league it was so fast,brutal,and exciting.i watched the broncos be dismantled by the warriors at the suncorp,it was awesome.the one bright spot from a british angle was that sam burgess is making a big name for himself and the aussies have taken to son who is still in brisbane is off to the brisbane leg of the state of origin series which shold be awesome

  • Comment number 17.

    I agree with WBA re NRL. But I would say Gareth Ellis is a much more consistent player for Balmain, than Sam Burgess is for Souths. Both have impressed the doubting Aussies though. There is a 2nd English lad at Balmain who seems to be learning the ropes too...

  • Comment number 18.

    Mark Flanagan, signed from Wigan. Excellent defencive player with great technique!

  • Comment number 19.

    For people to say Wigan's tactics are stifling the game is just plain ridiculous. It smacks of jealousy that Wigan are back where they belong. Can i just divert peoples attentions to some statistics:
    For 2010 Wigan have the leading number of try's (65) along with the leading points scorer in Pat Richards.
    We have conceded the fewest points (132)
    Also can i point out that in a straight comparison with the Leeds team from 2009 Wigan have scored more total points (86 more) at the same stage of the season as well as having scored more tries than Leeds.

    What Michael McGuire has done with us is amazing, I won't say its a miracle because Nobby had laid some impressive foundations and we haven't won anything yet, but as fans we know we are on the verge of something special and my God its good to be back where we belong (beating Saints and back on top)

    I thank you


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