Monday, August 01, 2005

And Now for Some Rugby League Blogging

We haven't had anywhere near as much sportblogging here as I thought..so it's time to remedy that. Yesterday saw a first in league's history, as a French team ran out in a Challenge Cup semi-final. Toulouse made it by beating Widnes soundly, in a match held on their home ground. However partisan you may be, I can't help thinking that a Toulouse away trip that ended in a loss would be far easier to wear than a long bus drive back from, say, Whitehaven on a winter Wednesday night after a beating. Even if you're a long way from Widnes and you've lost, you are still in southern France. That may not be victory, but it's all right. It's been an achievement, even though the French did admittedly cop a lucky draw, not having to take on full-time opponents until the quarter finals and drawing together with French opposition at least once.

But that could only go so far. For the semis, they got given Leeds. The world champs, in their Yorkshire back yard. Pure hell...no-one gave them a chance, quite rightly. Until the action began. Toulouse seized the initiative right from the first kick of the ball. Literally. They started the game with a short kickoff, a risky surprise move that perhaps should get more use, and although Leeds fielded it they regained the ball in a mobhanded chase. And, with less than two minutes gone, they scored. Leeds recouped quickly enough, but Toulouse weren't quitting, scoring twice more. A huge second rower, Sebastien Reguin, described during the Widnes match as "a mountain on wheels" and a traffic warden in civil life, was torturing the Leeds backs as a wide runner. As a team, they were producing some extremely flash rugby. They were down 18-22 at half time, having scored last and missed out narrowly on a fourth.

Needless to say, it didn't last. (This is where we get to the nub of the post, by the way.) I'd said, at the time of the first try, that Toulouse would compete for 60 minutes and then cave in. Leeds scored just after half-time, and just after the hour mark all organised resistance collapsed and the champions' backline began scoring tries at will. Leeds put over 34 points to nothing in the second half, taking the match from a real struggle (which it had been) to an unmerciful hammering. The final score was 52-18.

I should be pleased the French got so far. But I'm concerned that it was so predictable. I fear that the game, at the top level, has reached a sort of permanent physical lead over all other clubs that no-one will ever be able to compete with the British top five, the Aussies and the NZ Warriors. I would estimate that Leeds scored 24 or so points on skill, and the rest on still being on the park after Toulouse ran out of puff. In the first half, you wouldn't have picked the French as a worse side. This primacy of the gym worries me, because I find it hard to enjoy sports that are closed to amateurs. Football has the FA Cup, we have the Challenge Cup, and in theory upsets should be possible. Formula 1 racing annoys me, rallying doesn't. The question is whether the top teams have reached a new level of perfection in the sport, or whether they simply have the money to commit to fitness levels that trump quality. I don't think it's that far gone - yet.

Toulouse, in fact, reminded me very much of an early-mid 90s Leeds team, one of Doug Laughton's supremely flash-but-flaky sides. They were riddled with talent, fantastic to watch, but never up to the physical and mental standard Wigan set. Leeds would always look great in the first half, then cave as the pie-eating legions wore them out and drained their morale. And as always with league, once the buggers got advantage, you were in a world of consequences and heading for a 60 point whipping.

The good news for Toulouse is that the parallel isn't deterministic. They don't have to go the way of Laughton's Leeds, a string of pointless and expensive transfers and an abiding lack of a real team. Fortunately for them, they can't afford to, not having Leeds's advantages (namely, owning Yorkshire Cricket Club's ground). If they can keep their players and train up physically, they would be a match for any Super League side. One of the few good things about fitness domination of the game is that fitness can always be improved with time, effort, and cash. Talent doesn't scale.

On another point, Leeds's behaviour fitted depressingly well with a team who didn't try very hard in the first half, came close to getting in trouble but won heavily because they outlasted the opposition. After the last try, they fetched Barrie McDermott to take the conversion. Barrie Mac, for the uninitiated, is a giant prop forward who hasn't kicked a ball once in fifteen or so years as a pro. It was an arrogant, mocking gesture that betrayed a lack of respect for worthy opponents and poor sportsmanship (as was a succession of high tackles earlier in the game). Years ago, I remember, during a Leeds-Bradford match that turned into a heavy Leeds win, Ellery Hanley was invited to take a late penalty kick in order to punch his 100th goal on the record book. But that was the great Ellery's last season, and he did have the other 99 goals.

We now face the delightfully brutal prospect of a Leeds-Hull final, which will rock the Pennines, even though it's held in Cardiff. Leeds-Hull is a derby that out-nasties almost anything else but Wigan-St Helens, in fact probably beats it for tribal loathing. To the Hull fans, Leeds are a bunch of spoilt rich brats who always steal their best players. To the Leeds fans (and everyone else), Hull are a bunch of semi-civilised, violent fishwives who riot, alone among RL supporters. Back in 2000, a Leeds-Hull semi in Huddersfield ended with them invading the pitch, destroying the goalposts and being charged by mounted police. Everyone was shocked and surprised - everyone, that is, except for followers of my own club, Keighley, because they'd done it to us back in 1996. 'Tis very much to be hoped they behave.

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