Monday, April 27, 2009

Awful Rhinos slump to new lows

An evening of celebration turned into an evening of frustration as Harlequins inflicted another defeat on the Rhinos. Prior to the match, the 1999 Challenge Cup winning team were paraded on the field, for the 10-year anniversary of the occasion. Captain on that day, Iestyn Harris, was booed by the crowd on his introduction, and this set the trend for the game.

The boo-boys were out in force at Headingley as the champions suffered a successive home defeat, this time at the hands of Harlequins.

Coach Brian McClennan, though, maintains that he heard nothing at the final whistle.

“I’d heard nothing. I’d come back in to see the players to keep things in perspective and concentrate on what we can do and not look at peripheral things,” he said.

But he did admit that the fans have a right to vent their frustration in whatever way they feel.

“They pay their hard-earned money to come here and whether they want to boo or cheer is up to the spectators,” said Bluey.

Rob Burrow’s try a minute from time saved Leeds from being nilled at home for the first time since 1992.

This after two tries from Harlequins centre David Howell, another from Randall and nine-points from the boot of captain Rob Purdham, who led the Londoners to a deserved victory.

The Rhinos, on the other hand, were simple dreadful.

No cohesion in attack and poor kicking meant they were unable to sustain any sort of threat to the Quins’ defence, something which was evident against Salford as well.

Danny McGuire, who made his 200th appearance for the club in the game, summed up his emotions.

“I’m delighted to have notched up this many games for the club, but it could have gone a lot better.

“Quins were dominant in the ruck and we were unable to find a way around their defence but full credit to them for their performance,” said the number six.

With the next game coming in the Magic Weekend in Scotland, McGuire feels it is an ideal opportunity to get back on track.

“The game in Edinburgh gives us a chance to get away for a day or two but also be able to stick together in these difficult times by not pointing fingers at one another,” he said.

Three defeats in four games has led to questions being asked as to why Leeds are going through such a lean spell.

Maybe the exertions of the past two seasons is beginning to take its toll on the players?

Maybe the dressing room has becoming divided for some reason and there is disharmony within it?

But the stand-off dismissed this notion by saying: “Everyone is disappointed but there is no finger pointing. You have to look at yourself before complaining about others.”

The trip up to Murrayfield for the match against the Catalans Dragons is a must win for Leeds, if they are to stay within touching distance of leaders St Helens.

One thing is for sure; everyone is feeling the heat to not give a repeat performance, which was described by Bluey as “the lowest point in the season so far.”

Roll on Scotland!

Shamoon Hafez

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Backlash, What Backlash?

The supporters will have been disappointed by defeats to rivals St Helens in the cup, then Bradford in the league on Friday, but the loss to Salford sent shockwaves throughout the game.
It is the first time the Reds have beaten Leeds in the Super League era and only their third victory over them in 50 years. No wonder 'boos' rang around Headingley at the final whistle.

The Rhinos slumped to a third consecutive defeat as Salford City Reds came into town and shocked the champions.

The 20-30 loss means they have some catching up to do on leaders St Helens, who are now four-points ahead of Leeds.

But the worrying thing for coach Brian McClennan will be the performance of the team.

Poor passing, missed tackles, dropped balls, being outmuscled in the pack and an inability to deal with kicks all contributed to the Rhinos’ downfall.

Yet Bluey maintains it isn’t the poorest performance by the team since he took charge.

“It wasn't our worst performance in my time here and, as hard as it is to take, if we handle this right it can be a good thing because you find out a lot about people in adversity,” he said.

Difficult to think back to a game in which they played badly as that, in my opinion.

However, the boss did admit that there is a crisis of confidence in the players at the moment which has led to three defeats on the bounce.

"As a club we have had a lot of success, winning back-to-back championships, but right now our confidence is down and there is a bit of indecision,” acknowledged McLennan.

He went on to say: "Everyone gets very upset, almost to the point of depression when we don't do well because expectations are so high among the players - almost too much at times.”

Take nothing away from the Salford side though. They were magnificent, getting in the faces of their opposition all game and deserving their first victory over Leeds since 1977.

Winger Ryan Hall, who has made an impressive start to the season, described his emotions after the game.

“You have to take is all in and then pick yourselves up for the next game, but more importantly make yourselves feel bad and say to yourself, ‘I don’t want to feel like that again,” revealed the 21-year-old.

And he signalled his intentions for the remainder of the season by saying: “One of my priorities this year is to become the top try scorer in the league and with hard work on the training pitch, I hope I can achieve that.”

Next up is a trip to the Galpharm Stadium against Huddersfield, who themselves have made a fantastic start to the season, finding themselves above the Rhinos in the table.

Leeds will have to put in a first-class performance if they are to stop the rot and chase down the leaders.

That’s what champions do though don’t they?

Shamoon Hafez

Monday, April 13, 2009

Jimmy White Interview

‘The greatest player never to have won the World Snooker Championship’ is probably the best way to describe Jimmy White.

Having lost in the final of the event a remarkable six-times, it seems White’s time has passed to get his name on the trophy.

But now he is doing his bit to repay the fans that have followed him throughout his career.

After officially opening a new snooker club in West Yorkshire, White paid tribute to the supporters that class him as their hero.

“I have a lot of time for people that admire me. I have never been rude to anyone and people appreciate that about me,” he said.

He continued by saying: “I am lucky to have played snooker for a living and done something that I enjoy doing.”

It all began after winning the English Amateur Championship in 1979, the World Amateur Championship in Tasmania a year later, before turning professional in the same year.

With the likes of Mark Williams, Ken Doherty and Matthew Stevens finding themselves out of the top 16, the standard of the game seems to be getting better all the time.

“The quality nowadays is amazing and that is because they are athletes like footballers are,” explained James Warren, which is his full name.

He went on to say: “When I made a 100 break at 13, it was in the national newspapers but they are making 147s at 13 now.”

And White had a word of advice for kids that may be looking to take up the sport.

“Education comes first, before anything else. I was one of the lucky ones but if I had an education then I would have been able to manage my affairs better,” he suggested.

As the amount of games he plays decreases due to not qualifying for tournaments, ‘The People’s Champion’ has a made a foray into other sports.

In 2003, he won the Poker Million tournament on Sky Sports, beating Steve Davis, the man who defeated him the 1984 final.

“The money was good, but the buzz came nowhere close to winning a snooker event,” White said contentedly.

Despite suffering personal problems and family tragedies throughout his life, he has battled on in his profession and has put that down to one thing: “A love for the sport.”
The 47-year-old describes how he felt when Batley boy Paul Hunter passed away in 2006.

“Paul’s death affected me a lot because I cared for him very much. He was a very good friend of mine, not just a pal on the circuit, we were very close. It makes me feel ill now talking about it,” he said solemnly.

Known as the ‘Whirlwind’ for his speed and swift movement around the table, White’s style has been popular with his admirers.

Ronnie O’Sullivan, or ‘The Rocket’, is famous for his pace and elegance on the green baize and is someone Jimmy relates to.

“I was always fast, not so much now because I am old but when I was younger I was as fast as Ronnie is now. You slow down eventually and start to think a bit,” revealed White.

He also gave the highest praise to the current world champion by saying: “O’ Sullivan is absolutely magic. He is the best player I have played against.”

But White disagrees with O’ Sullivan’s recent remarks that snooker is becoming boring and it needs jazzing up.

“Take no notice of a lot of his comments. Snooker is snooker, you can’t jazz it up in any way. It is one of them sports that should be left alone.

“When you have a genius like him playing the sport, snooker will always grow,” said White.

Even though he has slipped down to 65th in the rankings, White had a message for his fans.

“As long as I can walk around that table and still enjoy playing, I shall continue to do so,” he said enthusiastically.

It seems that any talk of retirement is out of the question which means we will be seeing Jimmy White gracing a snooker table for the foreseeable future.

And who knows, if the balls roll his way, maybe even another title before he performs his swan song.

Shamoon Hafez

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Rugby League Investigation; Part 3

Gary Thornton

Loyalty and dedication are two words that could be used to describe Batley Bulldogs boss Gary Thornton.

After nine playing years and now into his sixth year as coach, Thornton is very much part of the furniture at the West Yorkshire outfit.

And despite a spell at Wakefield Trinity early on, he has a soft spot in his heart for the side he now coaches.

“My love has always been at Batley because it is the club I have represented the longest during my rugby league career,” he said affectionately.

The ground is situated in the heart of Batley’s Asian community at Mount Pleasant, close to two mosques. Batley Cricket Club’s pitch is located next to the rugby ground.

As we trotted along the pitch, which had a ‘Do not walk on’ sign, Thornton raised his concern as to why he sees no Asian supporters in the crowd, even though the club averages just over a thousand fans per game.

“I have been here for many years and a few came in the past but whatever we are doing isn’t successful. They are just not coming to our games,” he said frankly.

We sat down in the stand and he continued by saying: “The club is trying to make some links out in the community. They know where we are, what we are about but the interest doesn’t seem to be there. I know they are keen on their cricket and rugby league is a contact sport.”

This could be a possibility as to why Asian children are eager to play sports which are not dangerous and unlikely to get injured in. Cricket provides an environment where the ball is likely to do someone harm, rather than the man.

However, Thornton feels that the influential people in the community can assist by being a voice piece for rugby league and spread the word of the game.

Local media outlets such as Awaaz News, an Asian newspaper that covers rugby league, can support Batley’s need for Asian followers.

“Everyone can do their bit to attract more fans. There is a well established Asian community here and we should get people through the gates to watch,” said Thornton.

Batley has a notable history having been winners of the first Challenge Cup in 1896 and going on to defend the trophy a year later.

Individuals such as general manager Paul Harrison and club captain Paul Mennell are getting involved in helping the community and building for the future.

A study centre has been built at the ground where school children can attend to use the computers or get help on their homework.

The kids can then take part in playing tag rugby on the pitch which enables them to participate in sporting activity and lead a healthy lifestyle.

And Thornton praised the work of the people behind the scenes by saying: “My job is to get a team together to achieve success on the field, but there are others at the club who are looking to form links with the community, especially the Asian one.”

It seems the club are on a mission to try and tap into a market which, for so long, may have been ignored.

Saquib Murtza was signed from Salford City Reds at the start of the 2008 season, but spent the season in the reserve team.

“Saquib was confident lad and had faith in his own ability. He trained hard, enjoyed the physical side of the game and got stuck in,” Thornton said of Murtza.

He continued his admiration of the South Asian gentleman by saying: “He had a brilliant attitude and I never had a problem with him. Unfortunately, he decided to move on in search of first-team rugby.”

But the biggest regret Thornton has on Murtza’s departure is the missed opportunity to cooperate with the Asian community in working together and forming some sort of partnership with them.

“I thought Saquib may have been a breakthrough for us by using him as a figurehead for the Asian people but it didn’t happen. I’m sure they could have made a massive difference to the club,” Thornton said disappointedly.

With the Bulldogs being a small club, operating on a low budget, they are tipped to be relegated to National League Two at the start of each season.

Yet, remarkably, they have managed to stay in their division under the guidance of Thornton and achieving this feat could be classed as a successful season.

The 47-year-old thinks otherwise as he fondly looked back on 2006 when they reached the play-offs. The exploits of his side led him to the National League One coach of the year award that season.

“We went away to Leigh, no-one gave us a chance, but we came back victorious. We got into the semi-final but the dream ended there.

“That is the standard we are trying to set and we would like to emulate that again one day,” he said optimistically.

Thornton is in the job on a part-time basis as he works full-time at British Telecom, to whom he has given 26 years of service.

Both positions require good man-management and he is able to transfer his skills from one job to another. It is his calm approach which, he believes, has given him satisfaction in both jobs.

“Treat people how you would expect to be treated by them. You have to be firm when needed and you need to point out mistakes when they are made,” he said.

After taking charge of his 150th game recently, Thornton described how winning and losing should be approached and the importance of wearing the Batley shirt.

“If you celebrate victories and give people a pat on the back, you will get more out of them next time but the crucial thing is to take pride in playing for themselves and for the club,” he explained.

Hopefully, the club can continue their push to try and appeal to the Asian community and unearth someone that will be good enough to be a regular in the first-team.

Unfortunately, Gary Thornton quit from his post as Batley head-coach on 14th April 2009 after heavy defeats to Halifax and Toulouse over the Easter period.

Shamoon Hafez

Rugby League Investigation; Part 2

Ikram Butt

Thinking about sporting heroes for Asians in Britain, names such as Imran Khan and Sachin Tendulkar will constantly be mentioned, but one man who continues to be overlooked is Ikram Butt.

For someone who has left a lasting legacy on the sport of rugby league in this country, being the only British Asian to play for Great Britain at international level, he deserves more recognition than he receives from his community.

Young children growing up who are searching for someone to idolise in sport, need not look further than Butt.

“South Asians are just as passionate about sport as anyone else,” the 40-year-old explained when asked about his lack of appreciation.

However, he went on to say: “There are many barriers which need to be broken down and bridges to be built so that the sport is more inclusive to the wider community.”

It all began at the age of nine, when he participated in rugby league at school. With his older brother Khurshid also playing the sport, he felt it was a natural progression for him.

The support given by his father meant he could pursue his goal of becoming a professional, and at the age of nineteen he followed in the footsteps of hero John Holmes, by making his first team debut for Leeds.

But it was a successful five year period at Featherstone Rovers where the centre or right winger made his mark on the game, leading him to gain international honours in 1995.

“Representing Great Britain was the proudest moment in my career,” he reminisced gleefully.

In spite of this, there have been incidents in his career which he would rather forget.

“Unfortunately, there were instances when I was a victim of racism from spectators and even opposing players,” he said glumly.

Butt continued by describing a particular experience. “An occasion I remember vividly is when a player racially abused me. I made the match official aware of this who wrote it down in his report.

“The disciplinary panel found him guilty and, subsequently, banned him for the maximum eight games.”

A fair punishment you may feel for the treatment that Butt got, yet he wasn’t ready for the blow he was about to receive.

The aggressor appealed against the decision and, amazingly, the original verdict was overturned and the player was let off.

And actions like could be why Asians would not want to get involved in a sport that is predominantly followed by the white, working-class.

An outsider looking in would like to be welcomed and made to feel wanted in territory they haven’t entered before.

Butt feels the problem stems from the top.

“I wonder if certain individuals in key positions within rugby league really do want to make the sport more inclusive to the South Asian communities.”

“There are many people involved in the game, in senior roles, who lack the awareness and understanding of engaging with their community,” he suggested.

This could be seen as a serious problem if the authorities are lacking the fundamental knowledge of the way to communicate and interact with the minorities.

Due care and attention is required to make sure that people aren’t being left out or neglected because of their background or culture.

But to combat this, the RFL have appointed an Equity and Diversity Manager, who will be working to get more people involved in the sport.

By doing this, it shows they are looking to make a positive impact on the wider regions that may have been left untouched in the past.

And Butt is optimistic that this can finally be a breakthrough to find a future Super League star.

“I am in no doubt that rugby league would be fully embraced by British kids of South Asian origin. They can play a significant part in developing the game at all levels,” he believes.

The British Asian Rugby Association (BARA) was founded by Ikram Butt himself, to encourage South Asians to participate in rugby league.

The launch of BARA was aimed at sending out a strong message showing that they do enjoy playing rugby league.

It also provided a way to give some acknowledgement to individuals who have played the game at a very high level.

Following the launch, BARA competed in a number of games against various teams including Batley Bulldogs to initially promote its objectives, as well as, offering Asian role models through sport.

In addition, BARA organises coaching education courses so that there are more people from South Asian backgrounds who are qualified to assist others.

In turn, they are able to connect with children and young people to raise their aspirations.

“BARA will continually strive to make rugby league more inclusive to the wider South Asian communities. This is why we are currently lobbying parliamentarians to force the issue upon the rugby league governing bodies,” said Butt.

It seems he is on a quest to single-handedly spread the game around Britain. Being the first British Asian to represent England, around 16 years ago, it is worrying that no-one has followed in his path.

Saquib Murtza has the accolade of being the first Asian player to sign for the Sheffield Eagles. Plying his trade in the second-row, he is someone that is unique in National League One.

However, Bradford Bulls have a player in their junior academy who is ranked highly by the club.

Abdul Khan, who signed for the Bulls from amateur side Shaw Cross, is seen as the one with the potential to, one day, emulate Ikram Butt.

And head-coach Steve McNamara feels that Khan has the capability to do well in the sport and described him as “a big, strong lad who is adapting himself well.”

He continued by saying: “Coming from a cultural background that is not renowned for producing rugby league players, he can attract people to the club and bring supporters to the ground.”

But the question remains whether individuals like Murtza and Khan, and organisations such as BARA can be the reason why there may be more Asian participation in the sport.

Shamoon Hafez