The Armchair Pundit: Geordies in wonderland
A crowd of 3,033 were at Kingston Park last Friday evening ahead of Super League descending on Newcastle-Upon-Tyne for the annual Magic Weekend.
Not since Gateshead Thunder’s single season in the top flight of British rugby league have there been such crowds for a game on Tyneside, let alone in Kingston Press League One where the team now known as Newcastle Thunder rarely draw above three-figure attendances.
Football has long been king in this part of the country, while fans of the oval-ball game tend to be of the union variety thanks to Gosforth and latterly Newcastle Falcons being among the top 15-man code teams in England.
The North-East is not entirely devoid of rugby league history though. Wallsend were a non-league team in the formative years of the Northern Union and South Shield spent two seasons in Division Two, finishing 14th and 15th in 1902-03 and 1903-04 respectively.
South Shields were eventually voted out of the league in 1904 and it was not until Newcastle were accepted into the competition in 1936, with their first home game attracting the Pathe News cameras to Brough Park Stadium.
But a 33-12 defeat to Huddersfield proved a sign of things to come, with the team finishing 29th out of 30 teams and with just five wins and a draw to their name from 38 games, disappearing altogether at the end of the following season.
Rugby league never quite gave up on Tyneside though and the establishment of a number of amateur teams, coupled with two Charity Shield games being played at Gateshead International Arena in 1991 and 1992 ensured some presence there.
The start of a long-term professional presence came in 1999 though when Thunder were granted a place in Super League ahead of bids from Swansea and Cardiff, but despite finishing sixth the club claimed to have lost £700,000.
A forced merger with Hull Sharks followed, but efforts from the supporters ensured a new Gateshead team was formed to join the Northern Ford Premiership for the 2001 campaign.
The stated objective of winning a place back in Super League within five years did not materialise, with the highest level they have played at being a single season in the Championship in 2009.
A series of financial problems have not helped the club’s efforts to progress, but their acquisition by Aviva Premiership outfit the Falcons and relocation to Kingston Park, the city’s home of rugby union, has at least provided them with some stability.
Unfortunately for Thunder, they were unable to show Friday’s four-figure crowd what they could really do after suffering a 36-4 defeat to York City Knights.
Yet this coming Saturday, long after the Magic Weekend has been forgotten about, amateur games at senior and junior level will be played in Winlaton, Jarrow, Gateshead and Wallsend.
Rugby league may often be overlooked as far as the Tyneside sporting scene is concerned, yet it is worth remembering there is much more to it than just the big boys coming to town once a year.
Top of the drops: The Armchair Pundit loves a drop goal, especially one from 50 metres out to win the game in the dying minutes.
So here’s to you, Jacob Miller, for your stunning effort to make it eight wins in a row for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats thanks to a thrilling 25-24 win over Catalans Dragons on day two of the Magic Weekend.
Having started off the season as Super League’s crisis club, with results going against them on the field and continuing financial concerns off it, the Wildcats have put themselves on course to make the Super 8s since Chris Chester replaced Brian Smith as head coach.
What has been particularly impressive about Wakefield is not only the fact they have put together this seemingly improbable run, but the fact they have done it despite playing the top teams in the lead.
The Catalans, current leaders Hull FC, former leaders Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors – albeit with the latter somewhat under-strength – have all been put to the sword by Wakefield in the past two months.
The creativity of stand-off Miller – who has 13 try assists to his name – and half-back partner Liam Finn have been the driving force for the team recently, while Finn is ranked third-highest goal-scorer in the league with 54.
Meanwhile, early-season frontrunners Widnes Vikings find themselves on an eight-game losing streak following their 18-12 loss to Salford Red Devils in the opening match of the weekend at St James’ Park.
And Leeds Rhinos’ miserable campaign rumbles on. With eight games of the regular season remaining, the reigning Super League champions are six points off the top eight after a 40-8 trouncing at the hands of Wigan.
Relentless positivity in the face of all evidence to the contrary watch: Keiron Cunningham gets a special mention this week after maintaining his sunny disposition as his out-of-sorts St Helens side slumped to a 48-20 defeat to Huddersfield Giants.
Flippant remarks about how Huddersfield should have bought a lottery ticket that night aside – no-one takes a 28-point win just by being lucky – it is difficult what to know what to make of the Saints head coach’s attitude.
On the one hand, St Helens are still fifth in the standings and just six points off Hull – who downed Humberside rivals Hull Kingston Rovers 28-16 to ascend to Super League’s summit – so there is no reason for Cunningham to panic.
And while simply coming out and slating your players after a heavy loss to the league’s second-bottom team may not be the right way to do things, it does seem as if Cunningham is in denial about any issues which might need addressing.
This, of course, may all just be what he says when facing the media to save face in public, which is understandable.
But even the goodwill Cunningham has from the St Helens fanbase thanks to his more-than-deserved status as one of the club’s all-time great players will run out eventually if they do not think they are getting answers.
Championship round-up: Another week and another Leigh Centurions player is in the headlines, this time Sam Barlow after he pleaded guilty to assaulting a UK Anti-Doping Agency official who had visited his home.
Barlow faces a drugs panel hearing a week on Monday followed by sentencing for the assault on June 27, but his team continue to make all the running in the Kingston Press Championship after trouncing Swinton Lions 48-6.
London Broncos returned to winning ways to keep up their promotion bid with an equally-comprehensive 62-4 victory away to struggling Whitehaven.
New Bradford Bulls coach Rohan Smith had a busy weekend as well, seeing his side beat Sheffield Eagles 25-14 in his first game in charge and then heading up to Newcastle for a scouting trip at the Magic Weekend.
League One round-up: Is there any team who can halt the seemingly inexorable march to the title of Rochdale Hornets? Last weekend’s 70-6 win at home to South Wales Scorpions, which kept the Hornets top and took their points scored tally to 374 in nine games, would suggest not.
Coventry Bears and Doncaster both racked up a half-century of points against Hemel Stags and Oxford respectively, while previously free-scoring Toulouse Olympique had to settle for a mere 44-16 win at Barrow Raiders.
Amateur score of the week: Plymouth Titans 24 North Devon Raiders 16, South West Premier Division. From one geographical extreme to the other as the Titans defeated their county rivals to maintain their unbeaten home record.
Plymouth’s team can trace its history back to a side which was formed in 1985, while the Barnstaple-based Raiders have been in existence since 2009.
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