Monday, 23 January 2017

Toronto Wolfpack Trouble Super League Opposition in Pre-Season Friendly

Hull FC 26, Toronto Wolfpack 20
By James Nalton at the KCOM Stadium

This was no ordinary pre-season friendly.

A scattering of fans in the east and west sides of Hull’s KCOM Stadium turned out for this historic occasion as a professional rugby league side from Canada played their first match in anger on English soil.

The game was televised by Premier Sports, who will be showing Toronto Wolfpack’s league games throughout the season, but to show a friendly on top of this is an indication of the media’s commitment to this venture.

The feedback from the rugby league community in general has been supportive. After yesterday’s game Hull coach Lee Radford and winger Mahe Fonua both had positive things to say about the venture.

“I reckon its real good that the game’s expanding to make it more international,” enthused Fonua. “There has been a main dominant three at last world cups so it’s good to see rugby league expanding. Hopefully in time to come we can see smaller nations build up and become stronger teams, getting out to Canada and spreading the grass roots out there is a good start.”

Radford was also impressed with the standard of his side’s opposition, and believes that they won’t be down in the lower divisions for too long.

“At first view they should walk through that division,” said Radford. “I hope that they do and rugby league in Canada can take off. The game needs it.

“With it being televised as well there’s obviously some public interest there. If we can get some young blokes picking a ball up in Canada, make it more popular in terms of numbers, sponsorship, and TV, a bit like Catalan has.”

The Match

Toronto shocked the Challenge Cup holders by scoring the first try of the game through stand-off Blake Wallace. Their good field position was bolstered by a couple of penalties and their decision not to go for goal was rewarded with Wallace’s try — the club’s first ever — and was converted by captain, and former Hull player, Craig Hall.

Hull — wearing their away jersey so the Wolfpack could don their home black shirts with white trim on their debut — responded with three tries of their own through Albert Kelly, Jamie Shaul, and Fonua, as the game appeared to be going the way many expected prior to kick-off. After all, this was a Super League side playing against a brand new team of players participating in their first game proper.

What happened next was by far the most impressive aspect of the Wolfpack’s debut. At 16-6 down they were able to re-organise their defence which had become ragged, and add another weapon to their attack in the shape of Fuifui Moimoi who came off the bench to score.

The 37-year-old Tongan born New Zealand international is a bustling presence up front, and he was able to power his way through the Hull defence to get the Wolfpack back into the game.

As impact subs go, they don’t come much better than this.

The ever-impressive Fonua was able to grab his second for the hosts to restore Hull’s lead, but by this time the game was an even, end-to-end contest.

The half-time hooter sounded just after Toronto’s Bob Beswick had been held up over the line, with the scores at a respectable 20 points to 12.

Hull made a number of changes at half time, introducing several youngsters into the fray, but their 13 was still one of quality. Despite this they only scored once more in the second half, as both sides improved on the defensive side of the game.

Winger Jonny Pownall crossed in the corner just minutes into the second half to set the tone for the Wolfpack in this impressive second period. Less than ten minutes later Liam Kay was touching down on the opposite wing to level the scores at 20-all as Hall’s conversion from the touchline sailed just wide of the far post.

Radford’s young team were able to mount som pressure towards the end of the second half but the Wolfpack looked like they would hold out.

A good tackle from centre Greg Worthington kept the scores level, but his side went on to waste possession far too often. James Laithwaite entered the fray and made several good line-breaks, but understandable rustiness prevented the required ruthlessness in attacking areas.

This late profligacy was ultimately the Wolfpack’s downfall, and a loos offload from Hall in his own half was pounced upon by Hull who scored the match winner through Nick Rawsthorne. Curtis Naughton impressively added the extras from the touchline,

Hull may have allowed their opponents to wear their home jersey in their first outing, but they weren’t for allowing them a fairy-tale result.

Coach's Corner

Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley was disappointed that his side couldn’t win the game, which speaks volumes of his ambitions for this team.

"They probably had four key individuals that could add to that side, but we played Super League opposition today,” he said. “It certainly wasn't a reserve side, and we're disappointed we didn’t win the game.

“I thought it gave us a good starting point for our review, and we can learn a lot. We had every single player on debut today, and you don’t see that too often.

“In terms of dusting cobwebs off it's a positive day for us. We'll get a lot better. We'll practice hard because we need to fix a few things up, but those who watched will say we're not a bad side, but we know we're a lot better than that too.”

The fact that it was also a test for Hull ahead of their 2017 Super League campaign was testament to Rowley’s men. “I think we challenged Hull, and they'll have learnt things about their game,” added the Toronto coach, proud of his side’s first outing.

They were supposed to have another friendly against Wigan at Manchester City’s academy stadium, but this was cancelled due to a change in the football club’s calendar.

Rowley, however, believes his side can do without it.

“We lost the Wigan game, but it suits me,” he said. “The key for us is staying healthy. I've seen enough that we can go into a competitive match, and to know that we can go against a competitive side.

“I'd say we’re ahead of where we expected to be. These new people playing together and dishing up that like they've been playing together for years — we looked very much a team, and a settled team.”

Saturday, 21 January 2017

A History of Rugby League and North American Football

From Manfred Moore to Jarryd Hayne, and surprisingly little in-between, the history of football* and rugby league are intertwined, but both sports have so far failed to take advantage of the other’s athletes.

These two codes of football grew from the same root and, perhaps with the exception of football’s quarterback position, require similar skill-sets.

Hayne’s short-lived conversion to football, and stories that South Sydney Rabbitohs forward Tom Burgess has had a trials with the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills, suggest that the NFL might finally be latching on to this previously untapped talent factory. But could it work the other way?

Rugby league thrives in its heartlands, but the problem is that these lands are few and far between. As a sport which has suffered at the hands of its Union cousin, and one which bafflingly fails to attract the media coverage of its rival code, league is still playing catchup, especially at international level, and especially since union went openly professional in 1995.

A recent article on the Financial Times website suggested that rugby could capitalise on the NFL’s short season, and offer an alternative “tackle sport” in those empty months. But, though the article run with the headline “Rugby league goes after American football fans on their home turf”, the piece was about rugby union.

While this is another example of the media’s ignorance of rugby league, the same reasons given for the potential success of rugby union in North America would also apply to rugby league.

As the code which provides more continuous action, collisions, and running, as well as highly skilled kicking and ball handling, league could stand even more of a chance of success than its more confusing, sluggish, tactical based union cousin.

North America could be an ideal launchpad for rugby league at an international level, creating a fourth and fifth team to challenge the big three of Australia, New Zealand, and England, but in order to to be successful across the pond from its birthplace, it might need a bit of help from football.

Back in 1977, Manfred Moore discarded his protective equipment and travelled to Australia for a short-lived stint with the Newtown Jets. A year after winning the Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders, he scored a try on his rugby debut in the New South Wales Rugby Football League premiership.

Playing on the wing, he beat Wests full-back John Dorahy to the ball to score. The Australian Associated Press reported:

“Newtown’s American gridiron import, Manfred Moore, proved an instant success in his side’s 17-10 win over West at Henson Park, scoring the first try of the match.

“Moore stole the show, crossing for the first try of the match following a high kick from his captain Col Casey.”

1977 - Manfred Moore pictured in action against Cronulla-Sutherland at the SCG on Easter Monday, 1977. Source -

Despite his promising start, Moore soon ended up in the reserves, and a cut to the head suffered while playing in the second row convinced him that the game wasn’t for him. Expecting more attentive treatment for his gash to the head, he was surprised that he only received stitches to the wound rather than something more substantial.

Team-mate Colin Murphy recalled in an interview with Fox Sports:

“He expected plastic surgery and everything. But over here the doctor puts down a beer and wants to stitch you. He was a great bloke but once he got cut he said that was it, he said, ‘I’m going home, this isn’t what you get paid for.’

“It was an initiative and it was something Newtown tried. It got bums on seats, yeah, but I don’t think it’s worked ever since.”

If it is to work, it might be useful for each sport to understand the history of the other, and acknowledge the similarities which remain to this day.

The game of football is omnipresent, and has been for some time. Throughout history the inhabitants of earth have found time to take part in games with balls, or spherical objects resembling a ball.

From the beaches of New England and the open lands of the American northeast, to the villages and fields of old England, there are accounts of games of football being played stretching as far back as the 16th century, and you can bet that these games were played for centuries before this too.

The codification of these games, which took place primarily in England in 19th century, has led to the several forms of football we know today, as each evolved into either the kicking game, or the handling game (sometimes known as the running game).

In North America, teams in Canada developed a penchant for the running and passing game, and teams from Montreal especially played an important part in the transfer of rugby from England to the United States.

Montreal Football Club were one of the earliest proponents of the running game. They formed in 1872 and played matches against teams from Quebec before the formation of the Quebec Rugby Football Union in 1883.

Two years after the formation of Montreal FC, a game between McGill University of Montreal, and Harvard paved the way for football as it is now known in the US.

Harvard were the renegades of early collegiate football, and continued to play under their own rules which involved carrying the ball. Their football was closer to the Boston Game which was similar to rugby, whereas most other colleges at the time played a game similar to association football, which had been abbreviated by the English to simply “soccer”.

The origins of soccer in the US can be traced to a game between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, but the origins of football stem from a combination of what is now known as Canadian football, and rugby.

McGill-Harvard Football Game on the lower campus of McGill, 1874.
McGill-Harvard Football Game on the lower campus of McGill, 1874. Harvard players are on the left and McGill players are on the right. Source
Harvard’s encounters with McGill University led them to find an opponent closer to home, Tufts University were the first, followed by rival university Yale, who stepped up in 1875 to play what is widely regarded as the first game of college football.

It’s evident that football grew out of rugby rather than soccer, and the game we see today has similarities with both codes.

The line of scrimmage is very union-esque, as is the use of a punt to gain territory, but there are even more similarities with rugby league.

The limited number of “downs” a team gets in football mirrors the limited number of “tackles” a team gets during its period of possession in league, but in the latter game the count isn’t reset based on yards made.

Walter Camp introduced the line of scrimmage, and sets of three downs to the rules of football in the 1880s, so it could be said that play-the-balls, introduced in 1906/07, and the four tackle rule introduced in 1966 were examples of rugby league borrowing from football.

McGill's champion rugby team, 1912. Source
In league, a team will often kick on the last tackle and similarly a football team will often choose to punt. The skills required from those collecting the kicks are the same in both sports.

If the teams are closer to goal by the time their final tackle or down comes around, then they’ll often try to score a drop-goal or field-goal. The phrase “field goal” is used in both sports, even though in football it takes the form of a place kick, rather than a drop-kick from open play as it is in rugby.

A touchdown in football equates to a try in league (and actually has to be touched down!), and place kicks are taken after the team crosses for a try in an attempt to add extra points — two in league and one in football. In rugby league this kick for extra points is taken in-line from where the try is scored, rather than automatically being taken in front of the goalposts as it is in football.

The parallels between the two sports are there for all to see, and rugby league could soon catch on with North American sports fans if it receives a higher profile in the media, and more investment.

The gap in the market for rugby league to eventually thrive in North America, could in turn benefit the game as a whole.

New Zealand and Australia dominate the sport internationally. At club level the game down under is far superior to its European counterpart, and at international level the game struggles due to a lack of competition for the two antipodean nations.

If the game can develop in the US and Canada, drawing on the skills of talented young athletes who will be more accustomed to this foreign game than they might initially believe, then this could add two quality international sides to compete with the aforementioned duo as well as the likes of England, France, and the Pacific Island nations.

Organisations such as Pro Rugby USA in union, and now the Toronto Wolfpack in league, have begun making strides towards producing successful professional leagues and teams on the continent.

These organisations see a chance to invest in a sport which could catch on in a country with a huge population of sports fans.

The growth of rugby league in North America could be one of the best things to happen to the sport in decades, and it may also convert a few followers of what became America’s game into fans of the sport from which it originated.

*The use of the word "football" in this article refers to the two forms of gridiron played in the USA and Canada.