The Armchair Pundit: Shocks and surprises in Super League

It has been a tough week on the injury front for rugby league players.

First, Castleford Tigers lost influential captain Michael Shenton for the season with an anterior crucial ligament injury suffered in the opening weekend draw with Hull Kingston Rovers.

Then came the announcement that Huddersfield Giants half-back Luke Robinson was being forced to retire from the game aged just 31 due to a long-standing hip injury.

It gets worse too, because’s injury database listed no fewer than 42 players across 11 Super League clubs being out injured in the build-up to the second round of matches – Widnes Vikings being the only ones who had all of their players available.

Along with Robinson’s retirement, Huddersfield were without the services of eight of their squad, with none of them expected to be back until next month at the earliest. Warrington Wolves were missing six players two, while Shenton became the fifth Tigers player to join the injury list.

Rugby league is a hard, physical sport where there is a risk of injury and the players are all aware of this. However, considering the season is barely two weeks old, the number of players on the sidelines must cause some consternation.

No-one who is a fan of the sport wants it to loose what makes it great to play and watch, but player welfare must always be the highest priority. It is worth pointing out though that most of the injuries are short-term.

Shenton’s injury came about as a result of a tackle from Hull Kingston Rovers’ John Boudebza, who was subsequently banned for four matches as a result.

This provoked outrage from Hull KR as the RFL disciplinary panel had gone outside of the recommended sanction for the offence – not because they did not agree Boudebza had not intended to take out Shenton in the manner he did, but because of the injury caused.

Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell branded the RFL disciplinary process “not fit for purpose” after the ban was upheld on appeal, with his main bone of contention being the findings of the panel were flawed.

The RFL are fairly transparent when it comes to disciplinary matters, with all of the cases published on their website. Maybe, in situations like this, further clarification on how decisions are reached is needed though.

On the pitch though, round two of Super League threw up several shocks and surprises.

Hands up if you saw that coming: No-one would have envied Kyle Amor on Thursday night in the wake of St Helens’ 44-10 mauling at the hands of Salford Red Devils.

Not only was the Saints prop smarting from a humiliating night for him and his team-mates, but he then had to go onto live television while Sky Sports pundit Jon Wells and Amor went through exactly what went wrong for the visitors.

From the moment Jack Owens fumbled a high kick which led to the opening score from Greg Johnson with barely four minutes on the clock, the signs were there this could be a long night for St Helens.

Not that Owens should shoulder all of the blame though. As Amor conceded post-match, St Helens’ defence in the first half was absolutely shambolic – not helped by Luke Walsh being sin-binned for interference at the play-the-ball – and Salford duly punished them by racking up a 32-6 lead at half time.

The Red Devils deserve plenty of credit too though, particularly half-back pairing Michael Dobson and Robert Liu for the way they dictated play. Indeed, two fine solo tries from the latter capped an impressive night for the former Wests Tigers and North Queensland Cowboys stand-off.

The strong running of interchange forward Alex Walmsley and an improved defensive showing after the break aside, there was little for St Helens to be positive about. However, conventional wisdom would see this considered a one-off rather than sign of things to come.

Is that true for Salford though? Despite the big spending of chairman Marwan Koukash, the Red Devils have yet to finish about 10th in Super League in his three years as owner.

Another 13 new players came into the club over the winter, but Koukash insists him and Salford are taking a more patient approach rather than just trying to buy a team of all-stars.

If they can produce performances like this on a consistent basis, then there is no reason they cannot justify the confidence of director of rugby Tim Sheens. Whether they will be able to do that is another matter entirely though.

Thursday night attendance watch: A crowd of 4,386 were at the AJ Bell Stadium to watch Salford’s thumping of St Helens, which is near-on 600 fewer than the 4,975 who attended the corresponding fixture last season. Curiously, that was in the second round of fixtures and on a Thursday night as well.

Hull of a performance: With Salford’s surprise result against St Helens, Hull’s victory 38-10 victory away to the Catalans Dragons seems to have been somewhat overlooked.

Lee Radford’s side, of course, opened the Super League season with an impressive 22-point win at home to Salford and then carried on with that form in the south of France on Saturday evening.

It is an impressive start to the campaign for the team who scored the fewest number of points in the Super League regular season in 2015, so could they be this year’s dark horses?

The first two matches suggest this is a team which plays positive rugby and has players all over the park who know where the try-line is.

Second row pair Mark Minichiello and Gareth Ellis, the latter of whom came off the interchange bench, are key for Hull, while Marc Sneyd’s clever kicking is always testing for the opposition.

It was double delight for full-back Jamie Shaul as well. Not only did he grab a try in the win, but his partner Chloe gave birth to their first child while he was away in Perpignan playing for Hull.

Marwan Koukash Twitter watch: “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue and the RFL is full of poo,” was the Saturday night outburst from Salford’s most prolific tweeter, who has more than his fair share of runs-ins with the governing body during his time as Red Devils owner.

He followed that up with: “The “RFL” in my last tweet was not in reference to the Rugby Football League. It was in reference to the Richard Fahey Loo. No fines please.”

Oh Marwan, you so crazy…

Wigan grind out another win: Although by their own admission they are not playing anywhere near the standards they have set for themselves, Wigan Warriors are proving adept at doing enough to get over the line.

Having edged out Catalans on opening weekend, Shane Wane’s men did it again on Friday night thanks to Josh Charnley’s try four minutes from time sealing an 18-13 win away to Huddersfield Giants.

Speaking on Sky Sports afterwards, centre Dan Sarginson revealed two of the crucial moments for the visitors were both acts of improvisation – the first of those being his part in Liam Farrell’s try which cancelled out the opening score from Jermaine McGillvary.

The original plan was, apparently, for Matty Smith to put in a grubber on the last tackle. Instead, Sarginson called for it out wide which saw Smith send over a high kick to him, with Sarginson winning the aerial battle to knock the ball back for Farrell to score.

The second moment was from skipper Sean O’Loughlin. “He runs like a prop and he plays like a half,” was Sarginson’s description of the England international – exactly the qualities you want in a loose forward – who provided the key off-the-cuff pass for Charnley to grab the game-clinching try.

Although the Giants lost, there was a welcome return to rugby league for Jamie Foster. The 25-year-old back had only joined the club on trial this week, but went straight into the starting 13 and grabbed a try.

Foster had been playing rugby union for Hull before being handed the chance to return to league by Huddersfield. Time is still on his side, so hopefully he can get his career back on track.

Another bloody Sunday: Corey Thompson could hardly have asked for a better home debut in a Widnes Vikings shirt, running in a hat-trick of tries as they stormed to a 56-12 triumph over the defending champions.

Not only was it Widnes’ biggest-ever win over Leeds, but it was also the first time in 16 years the Rhinos had been beaten in their first two matches of the campaign.

However, they too are being affected by injuries. Tom Briscoe, Ashton Golding and Carl Ablett were all forced to leave the field during the game, yet that should not detract from what Widnes achieved.

Tom Linehan was in fine finishing form as well, bagging a treble as Warrington Wolves saw off Hull Kingston Rovers 38-8.

Once again, winter recruit Kurt Gidley starred for the Wire. The Australian set up two tries for the hosts and kicked seven goals as they maintained their strong start to the campaign.

Despite their injury woes, Castleford Tigers breezed past Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in the derby clash, running out 40-6 winners. It is already looking like another season of struggle for Wakefield.

Championship round-up: Such was the momentous nature of Leigh Centurions’ opening day defeat to Batley Bulldogs last week that it even spawned its own ‘Downfall’ parody.

All joking aside, everyone was eager to see whether that was a one-off or whether the wheels were coming off at Leigh following the issues which dogged them in the build-up to the 2016 campaign.

If Sunday’s 48-18 thrashing of promoted Oldham is anything to go by then it seems as if any lingering problems have been put to bed. Well, for now at least.

Week two of the Kingston Press Championship kicked off of Friday night as Sheffield Eagles cemented their place as early leaders with a 26-6 win over Halifax at their new temporary home of Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park.

Bradford Bulls stayed unbeaten too with a 46-10 thrashing of early strugglers Whitehaven, while London Broncos beat Swinton Lions 38-10 to ensure they stayed among the front-runners.

Batley were involved in another close contest with one of the expected contenders, but this time were edged out by two points as they went down 14-12 away to Featherstone Rovers.

And Dewsbury Rams made it two wins from two as they won 38-16 at home to Workington Town.

Amateur score of the week: Ossett Trinity Tigers 26 Underbank Rangers 32, Pennine League Division One. This encounter proved as high-scoring as the previous league meeting between the teams in November, where Underbank ran out 36-24 victors.

Based in Huddersfield, Underbank were founded in 1884 and were the first club of ‘Prince of the Centres’ Harold Wagstaff, who joined the town’s professional team for five gold sovereigns at the age of 15 and went on to become one of rugby league’s early stars.

Questions? Comments? Complaints? Email [email protected] with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or comment below.

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