The Armchair Pundit | Rugby league goes to the races

Liquorice enthusiasts aside, Pontefract might well be considered one of those places along with the likes of Uttoxeter, Market Rasen and Lingfield which only registers on the consciousness of the average member of the public as a horse racing venue.

Certainly as far as rugby league is concerned, this particular corner of West Yorkshire has had little to celebrate compared to neighbouring Castleford, Featherstone and Wakefield.

Indeed, a team representing Pontefract spent three unhappy seasons as members of the Northern Union from 1903 to 1906, with the nadir coming in September of the latter when they turned up to Swinton with just 12 players and were hammered 76-4 – this in the days when tries were worth just three points.

That goes a long way to explaining why, 110 years later, the stars of the summer months in the town are of the equine variety, with Europe’s longest continuous racing venue – 16.75 furlongs, since you ask – in operation from March to October.

Last Monday evening saw both racing and rugby league come together though, with Castleford Tigers, Wakefield Trinity and Featherstone Rovers, plus Huddersfield Giants, all sponsoring races at the course’s inaugural Rugby League Evening.

Season ticket holders of all four clubs were able to gain admission at discounted prices, while players from all of the teams were there to mingle with the VIPs and present prizes to the winning jockeys and owners.
Among them was one of Ponte Carlo’s own, Castleford skipper Michael Shenton, and while the town’s professional team may have had a short and inglorious history, there have been several players to make a mark in the game hail from there.

Don Robinson was part of the Great Britain team which won the first Rugby League World Cup in 1954, while Rob Burrow and Richard Owen are both among those plying their trade at the top level.

Another Pontefract player who was in the news this week was Burrow’s Leeds Rhinos team-mate Zak Hardaker due to being placed on the transfer list as he seeks a move to the NRL.

Hardaker’s own struggles this season have mirrored those of the reigning Super League champions and matters were hardly helped by title chasers Catalans Dragons winning 24-12 at Headingley last Friday.

Meanwhile, Huddersfield’s players might have welcomed the opportunity to get away from their own disappointing campaign at Pontefract on Monday – maybe not so much possibly bumping into some of the Tigers players who had beaten them 30-22 three days prior.

One man who might have felt he was missing out on the Pontefract party was Dr Marwan Koukash, who counts horse racing as one of his interests along with owning Salford Red Devils and waging a personal war against The RFL.

Racing Post columnist David Ashforth profiled Koukash’s involvement in the sport of kings in one of his columns last week and what was particularly revealing was how often he has changed the various trainers of his string from year to year.

Perhaps that explains why he is so keen on chopping and changing coaches at the AJ Bell Stadium. Director of rugby Tim Sheens and head coach Ian Watson may well want to bear that in mind.

Thursday night attendance watch: The 5,082 spectators who showed up at the Rapid Solicitors Stadium for Wakefield’s encounter with Hull Kingston Rovers was 238 lower than the crowd at last season’s corresponding fixture, which was played on a Sunday afternoon.

At least it proved a perfect return to Wakefield for KR head coach James Webster, who saw his team triumph 54-16 over the hosts who are now coached by his predecessor in East Hull, Chris Chester.

It was a good weekend for the black and white half of the city as well, with Hull FC staying top of the table ahead of their showdown with second-placed Warrington Wolves thanks to a 30-10 win over Widnes Vikings.

Warrington downed old rivals St Helens 26-4 to keep up their pursuit of the leaders and ratchet up the pressure on Saints head coach Keiron Cunningham, whose appearance on the big screen at Langtree Park was met by a chorus of boos.

Democracy in action: In what seems destined to go down as a bad idea, Wigan Warriors have offered their fans a chance to vote for their favourite design for next season’s home kit.

Given that only one of the six potential designs features anything even close to the club’s traditional cherry and white hoops, a cynic might say there is not really much choice at all and fans are being directed towards which might be their favourite.

At least the Warriors supporters had something to cheer about last Friday though, with the team edging Salford 23-20 to ensure they remain hot on the heels of the leaders.

Championship round-up: Dewsbury was briefly trending on Twitter on Sunday afternoon, thanks in no small part to the Rams again edging out Bradford Bulls In a close-fought encounter at Odsal.
Once again, former Bulls man Paul Sykes landed the killer blow late on by kicking a penalty to secure a 16-14 win and underlining the job new Bradford coach Rohan Smith has on his hands.
Bradford were replaced in the top four by Featherstone after they stormed to a 58-12 victory over Swinton Lions and London Broncos kept up their pursuit of leaders Leigh Centurions by seeing off Workington Town 50-28.
Meanwhile, Leigh’s Gareth Hock – no stranger to the disciplinary panel – was found not guilty of deliberately making contact with a match official, but instead received a three-game ban for punching in their encounter with Swinton.

League One: South Wales Scorpions returned to Cardiff Arms Park to take on North Wales Crusaders in the Prinicipality’s derby clash for the second year in a row, but suffered a 30-16 loss and are bottom of the table.
Sadly, neither team looks like being involved in the promotion shake-up this season, although the Crusaders are comfortably mid-table and seem to have – for now – overcome the financial problems which threatened their existence earlier in the year.
Toulouse Olympique are now top of the table after seeing off Doncaster 46-26 at home, while York City Knight sprang a minor upset to defeat previous leaders Rochdale Hornets 40-12.

Amateur score of the week: Valley Cougars 60 Torfean Tigers 16, Conference League South. The warm-up to the main event at Cardiff Arms Park proved somewhat one-sided as the Conference South leaders brushed aside their Welsh rivals.

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