The Armchair Pundit: Rugby league comes out of hibernation

Oh rugby league, how we have missed you.

In case you missed it or, for some reason, were watching rugby union’s Six Nations instead, the new rugby league season got underway over the weekend as Super League and the Kingston Press Championship kicked off.

More of that follows. Yet the big news in the build-up to the 2016 season came on the international front following the confirmation Wayne Bennett had been appointed new head coach of the England team on a two-year contract.

Despite Bennett’s glittering CV and reputation as one of the all-time great rugby league coaches, reaction has been mixed.

Keiron Cunningham and Daryl Powell are among those who believe Leeds Rhino’s Brian McDermott should have been given the job, while others felt Steve McNamara should have been given a new contract.

Bennett will remain in charge of the NRL’s Brisbane Broncos while coaching England on a part-time basis, which has attracted criticism from some quarters as well.

McNamara successfully combined his assistant coach role at Sydney Roosters with being England head coach, although it could be argued he was a lot more familiar with the Super League players in the side anyway.

Nevertheless, Bennett’s pedigree as a coach cannot be questioned. Now he has this year’s Four Nations and next year’s Rugby League World Cup to show if he is the man to turn England into a side which can regularly beat Australia and New Zealand.

“Thursday night, Sky Sports Two!”: Love them or loathe them – and for most fans, it seems to be the latter – Thursday Night Super League looks to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The attendance of 16,168 at Headingley for the clash between Leeds Rhinos and Warrington Wolves was slightly down on the corresponding fixture last season, but those who did manage to attend witnessed a thriller.

Ultimately, the Wolves triumphed 12-10 in the season-opener, with half-back Chris Sandow playing a starring role by scoring their first try and putting in the kick which led to Kevin Penny grabbing their second.

But it could have been different. As the match headed into the final four minutes, Ben Currie was penalised for obstructing Jordan Lilley as he kicked the ball, giving Leeds a penalty around 30 metres out.

Two points down, the Rhinos opted to kick at goal, but Zak Hardaker shanked his penalty attempt and Warrington were able to hold out for the win?

But should they have kicked to touch and gone for the kill? In this situation, it is easy to say they should have done the opposite, particularly as kicking for goal would be considered the safe and sensible thing to do.

Consider this though: If Leeds kick for touch it gives them possession deep in Warrington territory with six tackles and time on their side. A successful penalty would only level the score and would mean they then had to attack from deep in their own half, assuming Warrington had not gone for the short kick-off.

Going for it also has dual effect of keeping the pressure on the visitors, and challenging Leeds’ players to go and win the game. Being the defending champions, playing at home with the crowd at fever pitch played into their hands too.

Still, no-one was ever criticised for doing the “right” thing – even if it does not work out.

Different band, but the song remains the same: Another off-season and another huge turnover of players at Salford Red Devils. But if Friday night’s defeat to Hull is anything to go by, director of rugby Tim Sheens still has his work cut out for him.

Sheens’ pre-season claim this Salford squad is better than the West Tigers side he won the NRL with seems even more fanciful after the 42-20 mauling at the KC Stadium, which saw Hull 26-6 up at half time.

Elsewhere on Friday night, St Helens kicked off the season with a 30-16 triumph at home to Huddersfield Giants. No doubt the Saints will be up among the title contenders again, yet it looks as if Huddersfield might not yet be ready to break the monopoly of the so-called ‘big four’. The season is still young though.

Welcome back, Pat Richards: The Armchair Pundit has long been an admirer of Richards, so was pleased to find out the 33-year-old would be plying his trade in Super League again this season after joining Catalans Dragons.

In a curious twist of fate, Richards’ debut for the Dragons came against former club Wigan Warriors near-on exactly 10 years since he made his bow for the Cherry and Whites.

Care to have a guess which team he made his Warriors debut against? That’s right – the Catalans Dragons!

Having scored a try that day, he was on the score sheet again – this time kicking the extras after Justin Horo had gone over for the French side.

That would prove to be their only scores though as Wigan ground out a 12-6 victory, with hooker Michael McIlorum getting both of their tries in quick succession early on in the first half.

Both scores came thanks to McIlorum’s great awareness and quick reactions to the ball being loose as the Catalans – who had been training in temperatures of 20C back home in Perpignan – struggled in the ferociously wet and windy conditions.

Warriors head coach Shane Wane was left feeling his team had plenty of improvements to make though, citing the fact the completion rate dropped to 50 per cent from 86 per cent in the first 20 minutes.

As for the Catalans, they constantly seem on the verge of breaking through as a regular contender for honours, yet have not managed that. Improving on last year’s dismal away record will be key for Laurent Frayssinous’ men.

Another bloody Sunday: Sunday has long been the traditional day for rugby league – hence the name of the TV documentary ‘Another Bloody Sunday’ following the fortunes of Doncaster in 1980 – but these days Super League’s games are spread out across four days.

Just two took place on Sunday in the first week of the new season, with nothing being able to separate Hull Kingston Rovers and Castleford Tigers as they drew 16-16.

Like Huddersfield, Castleford are aiming to crack that top four and get back to the sort of form which saw them reach the 2014 Challenge Cup final. However, head coach Daryl Powell was left frustrated with his side’s display and was quick to praise Hull KR’s display.

Elsewhere, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ second-half fightback was not enough as they went down 24-16 at home to Widnes Vikings. The Wildcats are tipped to struggle again this season despite head coach Brian Smith’s insistence to the contrary.

Winning the second half of the match 12-6 might at least give them a confidence boost and head coach Brian Smith’s experience suggests they could hardly ask to have someone better in charge to help turn their fortunes around.

Kingston Press Championship round-up: The fall-out continues from Paul Rowley’s sudden decision to quit as Leigh Centurions head coach on the eve of the new season.

Rowley broke his silence on the matter this week in an interview with BBC Radio Five Live, saying it was down to wanting to keep his “integrity intact” and hinting there had been a falling-out between him and other club officials – possibly outspoken Leigh owner Derek Beaumont, according to internet speculation.

What effect would this have on the defending champions? Well, the 24-22 defeat for the Centurions’ expensively-assembled squad away to Batley Bulldogs in the opening game of the season will certainly have a few people asking questions.

All credit must go to Batley though, especially after coming back from 22-12 down, but it remains to be seen whether John Kear’s squad will be able to compete with the full-time sides in the division on a regular basis.

James Lowes, rugby league’s Last Angry Man, will at least have had something to cheer about after Bradford Bulls opened the season with a 22-12 win at home to fellow promotion hopefuls Featherstone Rovers.

However, there must have been some concern over the attendance of just 4,518 in the cavernous Odsal – a far cry from the five-figure crowds Bradford were pulling in when they were at the height of their powers in Super League.

Sheffield Eagles are one team the Armchair Pundit has always had something of a soft spot for due to that whole 1998 Challenge Cup final thing, them playing an ‘On The Road’ Super League game at nearby Sixfields and having acted as interchange official in a league match at Bramall Lane against Halifax several years ago.

Mark Aston’s side have gone full-time again in a bid to gain promotion and they enjoyed a convincing 42-12 victory away to Workington Town.

The Eagles are one of the teams who have moved grounds this season, playing at Sheffield Hallam University’s sports ground while their new home is constructed.

The other, Oldham, suffered a 22-0 defeat against London Broncos at their temporary home in Stalybridge. Meanwhile, Swinton – still exiled to Salford’s AJ Bell Stadium – were edged out 26-24 by Dewsbury.

Halifax head coach Richard Marshall has set his sights on at least equaling last year’s fourth-place finish, which qualified them for the Super 8s, and they could hardly have asked for a better start as they trounced Whitehaven 52-6.

Amateur score of the week: Mirfield Stags 9 Wath Brown Hornets 6, Xamax BARLA National Cup Second Round. Amazingly, most of the points in this cup tie came in the first half, with the only score after the break coming from a drop goal.

Coached by Super League referee Richard Silverwood, West Yorkshire outfit Mirfield made headlines at the end of last year by launching a Star Trek-themed change kit in honour of one of the town’s most famous sons, Sir Patrick Stewart.

Based in Cleator, Cumbria, one of Wath Brow’s early incarnations included a player called John ‘Slasher’ Nolan who – according to the club’s official history – was “a local pugilist of some repute.”

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

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