WELL, what a week that was - not least for Jack Lee. This column was all geared up to eulogise over his record-breaking try-scoring run, but that's kind of been pushed to one side.
Let’s just sum up the situation.
York City Knights, flying high on the back of a seven-game winning streak, face arch-rivals Hunslet Hawks in their penultimate game of the Championship One regular season a week tomorrow. More importantly, both will vie for the sole promotion spot in the play-offs that follow.
However, star number nine Lee - the Knights’ skipper, top scorer and The Press Player of the Year leader - has now nailed his future colours to the Hunslet mast, having agreed a two-year deal to move to the John Charles Stadium at the end of the season.
It’s not difficult to see that these circumstances, if not unique, are pretty bizarre and add a new complexion to the play-off picture - while leaving the player open to all sorts of accusations about split loyalties.
The player himself, as in his exclusive interview with The Press, stresses that, as a Yorkie until the end of the season, he will do his utmost to get the Knights promoted “even if it means Hunslet stay in Championship One”. The fact he only agreed to the Hawks’ offer on the basis it was the same pay regardless of what division they are in does back this up.
Boss Gary Thornton has outlined his position, too. Having been aware of the impending switch, he’s been checking Lee’s form and desire but has seen no downturn in either - and has put his trust in the player to give his all for the rest of term, if not step it up in the play-offs to achieve the team’s promotion goal.
Nonetheless, it is hardly ideal and, if nothing else, it - both the signing and this week's announcement - plays perfectly into Hunslet’s hands, or even Oldham’s, who are also very much in the promotion mix.
Will Lee’s eyes be off the ball? Will his form dip? Will a part of him want Hunslet to go up? Will he try too hard to show he doesn’t? Is it a big distraction for Thornton? Does it blur the team’s focus? How will the fans react, initially at tomorrow’s home game against Gateshead, then at Hunslet and later, in the play-offs? Especially if he makes a mistake.
Will it all disturb this superb run the Knights are on, just when it matters most?
We put this to Thornton. “It’s not a great scenario,” he conceded. “In an ideal world we wouldn't have to be dealing with this. It’s put a different set of circumstances on things.
“But that’s the situation and we will carry on with achieving the team’s aim. What else can we do? All of us at the Knights have had this target all season, Jack included.”
SO, what of the wider picture? It brings into question the ruling that allows clubs to approach players still under contract, albeit after a certain deadline, specifically June 1. Then there's the ruling that allows players to pen deals with rivals clubs before the season is out, meaning this tricky situation can arise.
The simple response is such rules must be fair on players, to allow them to sort out their futures. Preventing them from discussing, agreeing or signing contracts until actually out of contract leaves not only the players open to abuse but also the ruling, which would be impossible to police anyway.
As Thornton pointed out, “people have a right (to talk to other clubs) – it’s an employment law rather than anything else".
“It happens in sport," he reasoned. "People have the right to move after a certain time, although I think June 1 is a bit early personally.
“It’s not new. This is possibly unique, though, because of what's at stake with only one promotion place available this year and it all coming down to a Grand Final. It’s more pertinent because everything is on that one game – and that game could be York v Hunslet. That means this move has raised more eyebrows.”
ONE talking point Jack Lee’s switch brings into focus is the Knights’ apparent policy of not signing anyone for 2015 until after the play-offs. Talks have taken place with players to explain the situation but no definitive offers yet made.
Chairman John Guildford will say the club are in an impossible position as they won’t know until their fate is known what his budget will be and so won't know what terms they can or should offer.
It's a fair point, especially this year given there’ll be a huge jump in central funding from about £75,000 to £150,000 if York go up, and that’s before increased sponsorship and gate receipts in the Championship are factored in. The format for the expanded Championship One is yet to be confirmed too.
However, should the club already be tying down their better players? Hunslet are in the very same position so it does beg the question how they can afford to offer Lee such money and York can’t. And how many more players will move on before the Knights offer them a deal?
But, then again, who are the “better” players and does pinpointing them upset their team-mates and the apple cart ahead of the play-offs?
It isn’t easy either way, and the good thing is there are several clubs in the same boat, not only those with hopes of going up but also those in danger of coming down. Lee is one of few players to have already signed a deal.
So how about finishing on a cheery note, one proferred by Thornton.
“All we can do is make York a good place to be – and that’s what it is,” he said. “We’re at risk of losing players until we commit offers, that’s just the way it is. But hopefully the lads trust in us as we trust in them to get promoted.
“The good thing is it’s a real happy camp and we have a lot of good players who get on really well with each other, and that puts my mind at ease.”
Roche adds new name to Press roll of honour
THERE is a new name on The Press Player of the Month winners’ list – Colton Roche.
Several players including Jack Lee and James Haynes – and even sidelined winger George Elliott, albeit only courtesy of his splendid effort in Super League TV’s drop goal competition - polled votes, but it is 20-year-old Roche who gets the gong.
The forward, who has played in every position in the pack bar hooker since signing from Featherstone in May, topped his super July with a man-of-the-match performance against Gloucestershire in the first game of August last week.
Head coach Gary Thornton said: “He’s been consistently good. I’ve seen a real resurgence in his form. He came to the club having missed a large part of the season but now he’s getting his fitness he’s showing the ability he’s got.
“When we were without (suspended prop) Brad Brennan for two games, we needed somebody to step up and Colton and Jack Aldous have been fantastic in there.”
Roche gets three points for his Press Player of the Year tally as Player of the Month and three as last week’s star man.
Others to add to their tally after the win at Gloucestershire were that man Aldous (2pts) – to close in on leader Lee - and hard-working winger James Saltonstall (1pt).
The Press Player of the Year standings: Lee 18pts, Aldous 16, Reynolds 14, P Smith 11, Haynes 11, Saltonstall 8, E Smith 7, Roche 7, B Dent 6, Paterson 5, Brennan 4, Presley 4, Morrison 4, Day 4, Pickets 3, Bell 3, B Hardcastle 2, Minikin 1, Mallinder 1.