Book Review – As Good As It Gets – The Story of St Helens’ Grand Slam Class of 2006

This book is about the glorious, all-conquering Saints team that won every trophy 🏆 available to them in 2006.

It’s written by Mike Critchley who works as the sports editor for one of the local papers, the St Helens Star. He sets the team’s year in context, not just of rugby league, but also the team’s importance to the town.

It’s wonderfully one-sided. It’s also written in authentic Northern gibberish in parts, to the point that I feel like asking my London Correspondent if it makes any sense to someone not from my neck of the woods.

The pro-Saints angle actually quite nice, because it’s so common that Saints don’t get the credit they deserve. It does occasionally leave me wanting more information or analysis than the book gives. But that’s understandable because it is quite clearly designed to be an happy overview of that glorious season, not an in-depth rugby analysis book.

The book is also rather obviously pro-Daniel Anderson. Which makes sense. It was a season of success that was partly down to his tactical choices and player rotation. It should actually have been his second title. Saints would have won the title the year before if Sean Long hadn’t had his face broken in a match against Wigan. No part of that last sentence is an exaggeration.  But the book chooses to do this not just by bigging up Daniel Anderson, which is reasonable, but by putting down Ian Millward at any opportunity. I have no idea what Mr. Millward did to the author but it must have been something. (It’s Ian Millward and the author is a journalist so I presume Millward swore at him.)

That, and a couple of “I do not think it means what you think it means” word usage issues, are the only problems I found.

It was interesting to get an insight into how a successful team works, and how it really is all the little things and building things up step by step. The Ade Gardener section, and indeed Gardener’s own analysis of both season and how wing-play works in rugby league, was probably the most interesting part, but there were lots of interesting tidbits.

As for an actual number of stars, this is 5/5 for a Saints fan, 4/5 for rugby league fans and probably 3/5 for other sport fans.

Magic Weekend

Last weekend, as I was in Newcastle, I took the opportunity to go to Magic Weekend at St. James’s Park.

Magic Weekend is when all 12 Super League rugby teams play in one stadium over the course of 6 matches, 3 on Saturday and 3 on Sunday.  It’s £40 for all 6 matches, which is a very good deal.

Now, I’m not saying I had the best view in the house, but I pretty much did.

I missed the first ten minutes of Wakefield Wildcats vs Widnes Vikings.  On the way down to St. James’s I saw a couple in full Viking dress.

Complete with hat and horns.

Other important Widnes information includes the fact that the Viking fanclub is called the Stronghold.  Because of course it is.

The Widnes mascot was fantastic fun.  In between hitting the Wildcat mascot with his axe (don’t worry, they hugged and made up

), and lending a Widnes fan in a wheelchair the axe and running her up and down the side of the stadium so that she could hit people with it, he was fun chaos. Trust me, if you’re anything to do with Widnes, you need your fun from somewhere.

I did figure out what Widnes’s problem was.  They’ve got nothing going forward, so they have to defend constantly.  That leads to them tiring, their opposition scoring late on and Widnes losing.

Then came Saints vs Hull FC.

Now, I am a Saints fan.  I had no hopes going in.  I mean it, if they’d only lost by 10 points, I would have been happy.  They had been that bad.  It was also the new manager’s first game.  Low expectations were the order of the day.

They won.

45 – 0.

No, I can’t explain it either.

(The ever wonderful Saints team lining up)

I have no idea how Justin Holbrook did it.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if he’d just told them that he didn’t mind them playing badly he just demanded that they play like professionals, or if it was Saints being their usual inconsistent selves and being awful one week (vs Castleford, I have legitimately never seen them play worse) and good the next.  Since then, it seems to be that it’s Holbrook being a damn fine coach because Saints won the derby this week.  (The Saints vs Wigan derby is often held up to be the origin of the phrase “derby match”.  It’s a big thing locally, and the first official one was 122 years ago.)

The last match on the Saturday was Wigan (them, the great sporting evil) vs Warrington (who are so perpetually the bridesmaids that even they make jokes about “this being their year”).

It was a 14-14 draw.

Warrington had the lead, but they blew it.  Because they are Warrington.

(Stefan Ratchford who is my favourite Warrington player)

I think Warrington’s problem is that their line is too high up the pitch when they
attack so it just needs one good kick or one line break to completely destroy their defence.

The first match of Sunday was Catalan Dragons vs Huddersfield Giants.

It was always going to be the least well-attended match of the weekend because Catalan are, obviously, a foreign team so, understandably, they have fewer travelling fans.  I still say that there were more Catalan fans than Hull fans though.

Half time and between the matches entertainment included mini rugby, touch rugby and various sets of dancers.

And the St. James’s house band.  I discovered that “Take Me Home, Country Road”, “Wonderwall”, “Seven Nation Army” and “Chelsea Dagger” are universal rugby league songs.

There was also a Mushy Pea mascot because one of the Super League’s sponsors is a brand of mushy peas.

The Huddersfield Giant mascot was very good and shook the hands of the mini rugby players as they left the pitch.

The next match was Leigh Centurions vs Salford Red Devils.  I’m not sure why the Leigh mascot is a pig, but here he is doing one armed push-ups.

I am impressed.

Last match of the weekend was Castleford Tigers, league leaders, vs Leeds Rhinos, their local rivals.

Rob Burrow, who is my favourite player, despite the fact that he plays for Leeds, was playing. Now, for reasons, some of the teams were wearing superhero-branded
kit.  Wakefield were wearing a Spiderman inspired kit, Hull an Incredible Hulk one, Warrington a Thor one (which makes sense because of all the Ashton Sims is Thor jokes), Catalan Dragons wore an Iron Man themed one and Leeds got Captain America.  This is a problem because Rob Burrow looks like Steve Rogers pre-serum, in comparison to the other players.

Tiny Rob Burrow’s vital stats are he is 5 foot 5 (165 cm) and 10 stone 6 (66 kg).  And he’s a pro rugby player.  His lack of size may have some bearing on my love for him.  That he is also awesome also does.  Despite the final where he came on at half time and stole the championship from my team by hustle and moxie.

Castleford won.  I think the Castleford fans won for loudest fans of the weekend.


It was great fun.  I recommend going to Magic Weekend if you get the chance.

It’s an amazing experience getting to be around so many people who love rugby. For example, there was a try-saving tackle by a Widnes Vikings player that got cheers from all the crowd (except the Wakefield fans, justifiably) because it was an excellent piece of play.

Seeing all the teams play, particularly from the vantage point I was at, meant you could get a much better feel of how they played than you can from the TV.  On TV, you often don’t get to see off-the-ball play as much. I got to see some marvellous rugby, both attacking, such as Tommy Makinson’s try, and a lot of the tackling.

The atmosphere was great too.  I’m 5 foot 3 and a woman and I went on my own but I knew there wouldn’t be any trouble despite all the fans sitting together, not being separated by team affiliation.

There was a fair bit of banter, such as the Wigan Warriors fans walking round the pitch with a banner saying “We came, we conquered, we ate all the pies”, which got the expected response (and the Widnes mascot giving them the thumbs down).  Or the Warrington banner saying “it’s always our year”.  Then there was the back and forth “stand up for St Helens,” “stand up for the champions” and “stand up if you hate Wigan” chants.  Or the Wigan and Saints fans joining together to taunt Warrington.  Or the Wigan and Saints fans having a throw football match. The stewards were most disapproving, because they are used to football fans but the supervisor steward knew rugby fans are mostly harmless and threw the ball back.

On Sunday, there was an adorable child Leeds fan who ran round a group of Castleford fans when Leeds scored and just got chuckled at.

I love how much colour and sound there was.  Fans of every team took the idea of striking the colours seriously, repping their team.  This included fans of teams that weren’t at Magic Weekend, like the Crusaders fans in front of me or the Toronto
Wolfpack fans to my left.

St. James’s facilities were excellent, except they could do with a better PA system because it was full of fuzzy reverb.

I had a fantastic time, would recommend going, and plan to go again as soon as I have the time and money again.

Why UK NFL fans should be cheering for Toronto Wolfpack

Dear UK NFL fans (who don’t already have a rugby league team to support),

Support Toronto Wolfpack.


Because Toronto are trying to do what any NFL franchise based in the UK would have to do.

Now admittedly there are differences between the two: size of squad, overheads and relegation into and out of various leagues for a start…but you can bet your bottom dollar the NFL are keeping an eye on what happens to the Wolfpack, and they will include it in their calculations about whether a UK-based franchise would succeed.

The hurdles Toronto are having to overcome would also be a problem for a UK franchise:

  • The distance (although, as several commentators have pointed out, the flight time between several US NFL teams is just as long as the US/UK flight time)


  • Getting homegrown players into the team.  Toronto have done something sensible and clever, they’ve run trials in Canadian and US cities to find people who haven’t quite made the grade in the NFL or CFL (Canadian Football League) but who could transfer their skills to rugby league.  The homegrown player thing is obviously less of a thing in the NFL because of the whole draft thing (and the franchise thing), but I think it would help embed the putative UK team better in the UK.


  • Transport, although that’s not a problem for an NFL team as the NFL pay transport costs.  But because the RFL don’t, Toronto have done another clever thing.  They have signed a sponsorship deal with an airline, Air Transat.  The airline are covering the cost of Toronto’s flights and, and here’s the clever bit, the flight costs of the UK teams that are playing Toronto.  Toronto are also being nice and covering some of the travel costs for the UK fans coming over.  Presumably to keep costs low, the matches are being played in sets of 5, so Toronto have 5 games over here, and then five home games back in Toronto.  The putative NFL team won’t need to do that.


  • Competition from other sports teams.  Toronto is a good proxy for London (and the UK in general) because it already has a lot of sports teams.  The Maple Leafs, the Blue Jays, the Raptors, the Argonauts and Toronto FC are just some of the teams that the Wolfpack will need to compete against to gain fans and an audience share.

If Toronto show that a transatlantic franchise could succeed, they might well be a stepping stone to getting the London Jaguars.  

So get cheering for them, UK NFL fans.

About the Ambassadorial Contract Nonsense

This is a late response to the RFL’s ambassadorial contracts.  The new salary cap and marquee player rules might have put an end to this nonsense.  However, the RFL still win some sort of prize for really bad ideas with the ambassadorial contracts.

It’s not just the not informing all the teams.  Although that is the level of communication I expect from the RFL.  It’s that it’s a bad idea no matter which way you look at it.

First of all, I look at it as a fan.  Okay, there is an advantage to my team.  It should mean that my team can keep hold of players that would otherwise go to the NRL (or another Super League team).  But that relies on my team being one of the ones whose players are chosen to play for England.  I’m lucky, the occasional Saints player does get picked.  Other teams aren’t so lucky, see any number of Wakefield and Castleford players who have deserved a call-up and didn’t get one because they played for unfashionable clubs.  Or there are players who are the victim of an oversight by a particular coach e.g. Steve McNamara’s refusal to pick Danny Brough.

There’s no way that this idea is fair on Catalan Dragons.  They are, understandably, unlikely to produce any English players through their academy.

It gives an advantage to the teams that are already big.  It also puts any team coming up from the Championship at an even bigger disadvantage than they would have been.

Also as a fan, and using a personal example, I’d rather James Graham have moved to the NRL than to another English team.  One of those is annoying, the other one would have broken my heart.

I think that would also be true if I was an owner or manager.  I’d rather a player leave for Australia rather than play for one of our competitors.

As an England fan, I want the players playing in the best league possible so that we might, eventually, beat the Aussies.  That means the NRL.  One year of results in the World Club Championships does not change that.  I understand that the reason why they brought this in (or tried to) was to reduce the gap.  The RFL think that the NRL are stealing all of the Super League’s best players.  They also think that stopping that will make the gap between England and Australia smaller.

This seems to ignore that the players that go over and succeed are mostly props, not creative players.  Now, I love me my props, see also James Graham, but GB/England have always been able to equal Australia in the forwards.  It’s in the backs where Australia are so much better.  Stopping the backs from getting experience against Australian teams is not going to solve that problem.

What might solve the problem is stopping the English teams bringing in over-the-hill Australians to play in the backs.  Instead English teams should be encouraged to promote players from their own youth systems.

No Super League team is going to agree to that though, because why should they cut their own throats for the national team.  I think there will need to be a carrot and stick approach.  Somehow said carrot (or stick) also needs to be applicable to the Catalan Dragons.  That is where it gets difficult.  There’s no reason for the RFL to help the Dragons, but just as much, there’s no reason for the Super League teams to help the RFL without some sort of reward.

Champions League Finals, and other sporting finals

I’m a Juventus fan, so my team got beaten by the better team in the Champions League final.  Which is an odd feeling for a fan.  Because it’s not the worst way to lose, it’s not hated rivals, flukey 90th minute goal or anything like that.  But still, it’s aggravating to have to sit their going ‘fair enough, the better team won’.

Because you think back to all those moments, particularly that moment after Morata had equalised and Pogba made that run and got chopped down by a Barcelona player in the box, and that should have been a penalty.  And if the penalty had gone in …

But that’s the nature of being a sports fan, you hang on what could have beens.

However, this line of thinking lead to another thought:-

I may be a Juventus fan, but I am also a football fan, and I think it was probably a fairly good match to watch.  It had flow and stuff.  But a neutral would probably have said that Barcelona were the better team and that they were the more deserved winners.  Now I, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t minded a sneaky Juventus victory.  They’d beaten better teams on the way to the final.

I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with @JTBourne on Twitter (if you like sport, follow him, he writes for theScore and is very funny about a wide range of sports).

It was about one of the semi-finals of the hockey playoffs (if they’re even called that).  There was good team vs less good team and people were saying that less good team were just not working hard enough and their only chance to win was to out-work the better team.  And the point being made that there were limits to what hard work can get you – which is not a popular position, because it obviously should, and we’ve had it drummed into our heads for years that it will – and that sometimes, you just come up against a better team.

And, and this is what set me to thinking, that less good team had even less of a chance, because it was best of seven, and you can out work a team for one match and get lucky at the other end to score, but it’s very hard to do that for seven matches in a row.

So I got to wondering.  Why do some sports have best of seven deciders, and some have winner takes one, takes all deciders?

With some sports, you can see why, because of the physical effort and danger involved in playing the sport.  I’d say both rugbys and American football come under this heading.

Then you have the rest.

There are certain advantages to having best of x series.  You’re more or less guaranteed that the more skilled “better” team will win.  Freak overall results are unlikely.  Tension is maintained over a longer time (i.e. advertising $).

At the same time, there are advantages to one and done series – tension is focus on one night.  Advertisers only have one game to go for (again advertising $).  Each goal counts for more.

So I was discussing this friends, and one of them who is a baseball fan mentioned that in baseball, you need the extra games so you can play your full rotation.  Which was something I hadn’t even thought of, because, with the exception of the Tinker Man, most soccer football managers know who their first 11 + 5 are going to be, so there isn’t the same variety in the teams sent out to play.

I don’t think that football will ever change, nor do I want it to, but if it had been a North American sport, I don’t have a second’s doubt that it would have a best of 7 series final for the Champions League.

Rugby League 101

This was originally written to introduce some American friends to rugby league, as their rugby league team qualified for the Rugby League World Cup quarter-finals, hence the slightly American slant to this.

As the mighty US Rugby League team has managed to qualify for the quarter-finals of the rugby league world cup, I felt it might be an idea to briefly cover the basics of the game for any new fans watching. The information is taken from here and here.

Somewhat worryingly, both of the rules pages start with the information that you’re trying to score more points than the other team, but I’m going to assume that you can guess that.

The very basic rules of the game are that each team is given six chances to score. Each chance ends with a tackle (a tackle is a completed tackle when the referee calls “held”). If, after six tackles, they have not scored, the ball is handed over to the other team who then get the chance to score with their six tackles.

There are 4 ways of scoring:

1 – A Try – A try is worth 4 points. Similar to a touchdown in American football, except you actually have to touch the ball down with control and downward pressure. I’ve highlighted those last words because if you don’t do them, the try will not be given, or awarded as the jargon has it, to your team.

2 – A Conversion – A conversion is worth 2 points. They can be scored only after the team has scored a try. The kick is taken from a position perpendicular to the goal line where the try was scored. The ball must pass between the goalposts and over the crossbar. If the team scores a conversion after a try, it is referred to as a converted try.

3 – A Penalty Kick – Also worth 2 points. Often just referred to as a penalty, this is one of the two options a team captain can take when the referee awards his team a penalty. The other option is to get another set of 6 tackles with which to try to score.

4 – A Drop Goal – worth 1 point. This is scored when the ball is kicked between the goalposts and over the cross bar in open play.

A match lasts 80 minutes, split up into 2 halves of 40 minutes. The time is kept by a separate time keeper who sounds a hooter to signal the end of each half. If you’re really unlucky and playing at one of the French stadiums, it sounds like an air-raid siren.

Both teams will have 13 players on the pitch at any one time. This will be the team you are cheering for. This team will be the opponents. As in ice hockey, there are rolling substitutions with no need for a stoppage in play. There is a limit on the number of these interchanges, with a maximum of 12 per team per game.

When passing the ball, it must go level or backwards. If the ball goes forwards, this is called a forward pass and the referee will award the other team a scrum and give them the ball. The rugby league scrum is formed of 6 players from each team. The scrum half puts the ball into the scrum, and the hooker from his team hooks the ball backwards to gain possession of the ball for his team.

Scrums are also awarded for knock-ons. A knock-on is when the ball is dropped forwards by a player and hits the ground or another player.

Don’t worry if you’re not sure whether that’s happened, because the referees wear microphones and have a set of hand-signals that they use to indicate what is going on.  This has been handily summarised here:

 photo rugbyleaguerefhandsignals_zpsdd7881a8.jpg

The offside rule does nothing but cause everyone headaches but basically, the defending team have to be 10 meters away from the attacking team when they play the ball after the tackle, and the person on the attacking team receiving the ball from the play the ball must be directly behind their team-mate.

Obstruction is when one of the attacking team runs across the line of a defender trying to tackle their team-mate.

Tackles are not allowed to be above shoulder height. Above that is a high tackle.

For something like that or other foul play that is deserving of more than a penalty to the opposition, a referee can give one of 3 punishments:

1 – A yellow card – the offender has to spend 10 minutes in the sin bin. Their team has to play the 10 minutes with 12 players.

2 – A red card – the offender is sent off and cannot play for the rest of the match. Their team has to play the rest of the match with 12 players.

3 – The player is put on report – while better for the team in the short run, the player gets to stay on the pitch and carry on playing, it means the disciplinary panel will look at the offence and decide what punishment is appropriate. This can be anything from nothing to a 4 match ban.

I think that covers the important things.

For your interest and delectation may I also recommend this article which explains why everyone that loves an underdog will be rooting for the US.