Archive | March 2014

St Helens: Early Frontrunners are the Team to Beat

‘We’re going to win the treble this year’, was the response I got off a very confident St Helens fan I spoke to in pre-season when I asked what he thought of his club’s chances this year. My response was to laugh, after all St Helens haven’t won a major trophy since their Challenge Cup success in 2008, and in recent seasons have been a team who have underperformed in recent seasons. However, after 6 wins from their opening 6 games, perhaps this could be the year of the Saints.

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Despite trailing 16-4 at one point, St Helens fought their way back into the game against Wakefield on Sunday, to secure a 24-16 win and maintain their 100% start to the season. What will have impressed coach Nathan Brown the most was the way in which his team fought back and dominated when going behind, whilst missing a lot of key players and having to play some of his stars out of their usual position.

With the absence of new signing Luke Walsh, as well as Lance Hohaia also missing at stand-off, Paul Wellens and Jon Wilkin put in an incredible performance and a surprisingly effective kicking game in the halves to oversee the Wildcats. It is this strength in depth and ability to utilise the squad to cover for absentees which is a key attribute to winning the league, and is a big advantage to have once the back end of the season comes around, with fatigue and more injuries inevitably setting in.

Luke Walsh will be one player in particular Saints hope can make a speedy recovery from his calf injury, as his early season form has demonstrated just how instrumental he could be to a successful St Helens side. Whilst some oversees players often take some time to adjust to Super League, Walsh has made an immediate impact, adding pace and creativity to St Helens’ play, and pulling the strings in the middle of their line. His kicking success rate is also beneficial to the team, having already slotted over 28 goals. His signing has brought a lot of excitement amongst the Saints supporters, and having him fit and in form will no doubt be pivotal to any success this year.

Other new signings, Kyle Amor and Mose Masoe, have also added a lot of strength and muscle to the St Helens forward pack. Along with Louis McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Sia Soliola and Willie Manu, St Helens boast the biggest and most threatening forward pack in the competition, vital to making ground up the field with the ball but also to tire and wear down the opposition. This was highlighted in the wins over Warrington and Salford, as the Saints forwards completely overpowered those teams allowing the backs good field position allowing more scoring opportunities, as well as keeping the opposition’s attacking flair to a minimum. This was one area which Nathan Brown looks to have sought to improve on in pre-season, and the early season form suggests it’s working out very effectively for the team.

The impact that young players coming into the team are having also shouldn’t be undermined. A lot of new introductions so far are showing great promise, but what’s more satisfying for the Saints fans is to see players such as Tommy Makinson, Adam Swift and most notably Jonny Lomax all fulfilling the potential they showed when they first came onto the scene. Whilst Saints as a club have always been renowned for having an impressive youth system, players such as Jamie Foster and Lee Gaskell have come through and initially excited fans and coaches but didn’t go on to make the grade in the first team. Lomax has impressed from his introduction to the side in 2009, and has now cemented his place at full back replacing Paul Wellens, just as James Roby had the ability to calm fears of Kieron Cunningham’s retirement in 2010, by having shown he could make the cut and be a big asset to a successful St Helens side. Keeping this cycle of blooding youngsters into the first team is key, particularly when needing strength in depth and having a squad big enough and talented enough to compete for honours.

St Helens face their toughest game thus far on Friday night when they meet fellow unbeaten side Leeds Rhinos at Langtree Park. Having just dropped 1 point themselves this campaign, the in form Rhinos are also one of the early frontrunners for Super League success this year. With Kyle Amor and Jon Wilkin suspended, this has to be Saints’ biggest test so far. But overcome the test, and no-one could write them off as potential champions.

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Could Castleford and Widnes be this year’s surprise packages?

With the 2014 Super League season now well underway, 4 teams have made a better start than most and still remain unbeaten. Whilst St Helens’ and Leeds’ impressive starts may be expected, few would have predicted that Castleford Tigers and Widnes Vikings would still have their 100% records intact. With the return of relegation to Super League this season, both teams were favourites to be fighting for survival, but perhaps their surprisingly successful start is a sign that they will both be the league’s surprise packages this year.

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Castleford’s nail-biting 36-31 victory against last year’s champions, Wigan, was the Tiger’s 4th win in 4 games, but is the one that will have pleased Head Coach, Daryl Powell, the most. A late Matty Smith drop goal looked to have given Wigan the points, but a last gasp try from new signing, Luke Dorn, saw the victory swing Castleford’s way.

After an opening day 36-18 victory against Bradford away at Odsal, a 32-6 home victory over struggling Catalan Dragons and last week’s 30-10 away win at Hull KR, the Tigers now lie second in the table behind St Helens, who have a superior points difference. It’s certainly an improvement on last year’s campaign, which took them 16 games to register 4 victories. The Tigers eventually finished 12th on 20 points, and is something which they’re well on their way to bettering this season. The loss of their key playmaker Rangi Chase to Salford raised questions about the team before the season got underway, but new signing Luke Dorn has helped provide the experience and organisation to a new Tigers outfit.

Similarly, Widnes Vikings have raised eyebrows thus far with 3 wins from their opening 3 games, and the Vikings have now won their last 6 games stretching back to the end of last season. Last Thursday’s 32-18 win over the Salford Red Devils was an example of just how far the team have come since their reintroduction to the Super League in 2012. Their fitness and energy levels were incredible, constantly wearing Salford down and making big yards up the pitch when in possession. The Viking’s creativity with the ball has also vastly improved, and they dominated the Red Devils and always looked dangerous with the ball in hand.

As well as an emphatic 64-10 opening day win over the London Broncos, last week’s epic 22-20 victory over Huddersfield received many plaudits from the rugby league community, with Head Coach Denis Betts in particular receiving praise for the work he’s done in building the team. A first ever play-off spot in the Super League era is now a priority for Widnes. All 3 of Widnes’ games so far have come at home, however, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can continue their impressive form away from home, beginning on Friday night away to Leeds: another unbeaten team so far.

As for Castleford, can they repeat the heroics of Sunday’s win over Wigan, as they take on Hull FC at the jungle on Sunday? There will be slip ups for both teams throughout the campaign, but after a surprisingly convincing start, a top 8 finish is on the cards for both.

Film Review: Her

We all know how romantic films unfold. Boy is at the end of his rope, dealing with a difficult break up. Boy meets girl. Suddenly they fall head over heels in love, and the girl is 10 times better than the ex. They have ups, they have downs, but ultimately true love prevails. Spike Jonze’s Her is no different in terms of narrative, apart from the unique twist that the girl that our leading man falls in love with is an operating system.

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Set in the not too distant future, the world’s first intelligent operating system becomes available on the market, which recently heartbroken Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), installs to help organise his life and offer a bit of much needed company after his break up with his long term partner, Catherine (Rooney Mara). The operating system, which chooses its own name as Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), is essentially a friendlier, funnier and more seductive version of Siri, and it’s not long before Theodore finds himself starting a relationship with his new best friend.

What Her does brilliantly, which any other writer or director could have gotten so wrong, is it keeps the love story at the core of its story. A romantic tale of two people falling in love is the main focus throughout, with the only difference between this film and other love stories being the fact that one of them is an OS. Shots of people displaying their outrage at our relationship with technology, news anchors hosting debates, or a sub plot of someone on a mission to take down the OS’s would have made this film something different, and something with Jonze is clever enough to keep the focus of the film away from.

That’s not to say you’re not challenged to think about our relationship with technology however, and to where we’re heading in the future. If Her had been released 5-10 years ago we certainly may be more alarmed at the future depicted on screen, instead we get shots of city centres where everyone is glued to their phones and leading their lives through technology: something which is not too different from reality. The notion that people will begin to fall in love with technology is something which is quite easily predictable also. There’s the example of Theodore telling his work colleague he’s dating an OS and he doesn’t batter an eyelid, and when he tells his best friend Amy (Amy Adams), she’s intrigued to know more than disgusted, and is even developing a strong friendship with her own OS.

Beautifully shot, with a gripping story and an interesting message, Her deserves all the plaudits it’s receiving.

Rating: 4/5