Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Order of Merit

Picture the scene. There you are, a rugby player turning out regularly for Newton Abbott RFC's 2nd XV in the Devon Merit table and, as usual, you turn up at the club on Saturday, having had one too many pints on Friday night, for a match against Barnstaple 2nds. Nothing unusual so far, you might think, but then out of the opposition's changing room and kitted out in Barnstaple colours steps none other than All Black flanker Jerry Collins!

Yes, last weekend the All Blacks and Hurricanes backrower and former Gremlin fancied a bit of a run around and somehow found himself playing for Barnstaple 2nds in their 21-7 victory over Newton Abbott.

The match report on the Barnstaple club's website describes the slightly surreal nature of the occasion, the reaction of the Barnstaple players when Collins turned up to get on the team bus being a mixture of disbelief and delight, apart from a certain Dan Ewing who walked right passed Collins without giving him a second glance before asking his team mates "Who's the new guy?"

Collins scored one of Barnstaple's three tries but nevertheless Newton Abbott coach Phil Burford was delighted to see him play.

"I think the second team lads were pinching themselves," he said. "I don't think he was quite firing on all cylinders but he made three try-saving tackles."

Final word goes to the Barnstaple match report - "a massive thank you to Jerry Collins for making the effort to play and by doing so making 30+ players as happy as a fat kid in a sweetshop."

Whither England?

So, the England rugby team continues to take us on its roller coaster ride - from the depths of the Rugby World Cup pool stages to the highs of the team's march to the Final and back down again to the public lambasting of the head coach by experienced players who should know better.

Life is rarely dull as an England rugby fan (although there are many from other countries who insist that merely watching the England team is dull enough) but it would be a refreshing change if, now that the World Cup campaign is behind us, we could look forward to the 2008 Six Nations campaign and beyond with a degree of confidence and stability.

Alas, the latter quality, stability, is likely to be in short supply as Rob Andrew sifts through the carnage that is the official RFU review into England's experiences at the World Cup. It's possible that, given the backlash against the recent player revelations in the press, the powers that be will now rally around Brian Ashton although it is rumoured that his role is likely to change, with Andrew himself possibly taking on a "manager" role. This might work, as long as Ashton retains overall control, but to diminish his role would be a huge mistake and I suspect that what the RFU will come up with will be the usual fudge.

No, the key to achieving stability over the next few years is to be clear and decisive now. Appoint someone (Brian Ashton, Jake White, whoever) as Head Coach and give him full responsibility and more importantly full support, including the power to choose who his coaching staff should be and who his backroom support staff should be - and if this includes a visual awareness expert or a full time pastry chef then so be it. The debilitating club v country row appears to have now run its course and the parties are on the verge of agreement - get this signed, sealed and delivered and let the man in charge get on with it.

If the RFU get this right (and admittedly it's a big 'IF') then there's no reason why England fans cannot look forward with a degree of confidence. What the last two months have shown is that, however they did it, England have rediscovered their "mojo" (as Didier Drogba might say) and now also have a group of younger players coming through who, if handled correctly, could establish themselves as serious international players.

Whoever is in charge will need to approach the 2008 Six Nations with one eye on continuing the progress and building on the momentum achieved in France, and the other on freshening up the squad with 2011 in mind.

In the front row the main dilemma will be whether to retain the services of Phil Vickery. Vickery is 31 - certainly young enough to play international rugby today but I'd be surprised if he made the 2011 squad, especially given his injury record. My instinct would be to keep him on (but not as captain) in the short term to help bring Matt Stevens' game on and to help develop a younger tight head to step up to the squad in a couple of years. At hooker Ronnie Regan's time is probably now up - a great character but it's time for a younger model. George Chuter, too, is unlikely to make the next World Cup and there's a case for bringing the likes of Dylan Hartley, Matt Cairns or David Paice (or even Steve Thompson if he gets his form and fitness back with Brive) into the squad.

At lock our first choice pairing in France were aged 33 and 34, so it's fair to suggest that neither Ben Kay nor Simon Shaw will be in New Zealand in 4 years' time. For the Six Nations I'd suggest pairing Shaw with Steve Borthwick who could well be the senior lock (and possible captain) in 2011. Shaw probably only has a season or so left in him at the top level but he's the best around and the likes of Deacon and Palmer, both already with international experience, plus youngsters like Blaze and Ryder, have something to aspire to.

The World Cup back row of Corry, Easter and Moody played well enough although even they will recognise that they are hardly the most dynamic trio in world rugby. Corry's time, sadly, has run its course - Moody or Worsley (both of whom will just about be young enough in 2011) could fill the blindside role next year although they will be under pressure from the younger and more dynamic Tom Croft or James Haskell. Nick Easter should hang on to the number 8 shirt for the time being (with Haskell, Dan Ward-Smith and Jordan Crane all challenging) while Tom Rees (I hope) will be front runner for the openside berth ahead of Magnus Lund and, perhaps, Dave Seymour. One person who I sincerely trust will not be featuring in an England backrow again is a certain Mr. Dallaglio, for obvious reasons.

At scrum half Harry Ellis will come back into the reckoning, probably at the expense of Shaun Perry, and you'd hope that Quins' Danny Care and Sale's Ben Foden will progress between now and 2011. At fly half I can't really see beyond Jonny Wilkinson if his body will allow him four more years - although the likes of Olly Barkley, Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty and Ryan Lamb could all step up if required. Barkley, Flood and Geraghty are also contenders for the 12 shirt now that Mike Catt has retired and now that the Andy Farrell experiment will surely be abandoned.

At outside centre the World Cup cameo performances by Dan Hipkiss suggest that he could make the 13 shirt his own for years to come, assuming of course that Matt Tait moves to fullback as has been suggested. I've a feeling that Tait could also grow into an inside centre role so, unlike in the last few years, there's unlikely to be a shortage of midfield options especially when you consider the rapidly maturing talents of young guns such as Anthony Allen, Danny Cipriani, Dominic Waldouck and Jordan Turner-Hall.

With Jason Robinson now retired and Josh Lewsey unlikely to be around in 2011, changes to the back three are inevitable. Tait is being considered as a fullback, and he looks a natural I must say, while Nick Abendanon, Delon Armitage and Danny Cipriani will also challenge for the 15 shirt. On the wings a fit David Strettle must come back into contention alongside Paul Sackey and Mark Cueto, whilst the merits of Tom Varndell, Topsy Ojo and even Lesley Vainakolo (!) cannot be ignored.

All in all, provided that the players are properly managed both at club and international level, the next England Head Coach will have a rich seam of experience and talent at his disposal as the 2008 Six Nations approaches. Assuming that all are fit and in form, here's an England 22 I wouldn't mind see face Wales in the opening match in February:

1. Andrew Sheridan
2. Lee Mears
3. Phil Vickery
4. Simon Shaw
5. Steve Borthwick - captain
6. Lewis Moody
7. Tom Rees
8. Nick Easter
9. Harry Ellis
10. Jonny Wilkinson
11. David Strettle
12. Toby Flood
13. Dan Hipkiss
14. Paul Sackey
15. Matt Tait

16. Matt Stevens
17. Dylan Hartley
18. Tom Palmer
19. James Haskell
20. Andy Gommarsall
21. Shane Geraghty
22. Nick Abendanon

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Touting for business

In a shock move earlier today it emerged that South Africa's World Cup winning coach Jake White has not approached the Scottish Rugby Union with a view to becoming the Scotland team's Head Coach next year.

White, whose CV has landed on the desk of more or less every other national union in recent days, denied that he was intentionally snubbing the Scots, claiming that he was unaware that the Scotland head coach position was up for grabs.

"That's not the point," said a spokesperson for the SRU. "He's said that he'd like to coach England despite the fact that Brian Ashton still has that job, at least for now. We're really hurt and upset that he doesn't appear interested in us.

"We're also extremely disappointed that none of the Scottish players have chosen to go public with criticisms of current coach Frank Hadden. We'd have thought that at least 1 or 2 of them would turn out to be self-serving egomaniacs and it looks like we're falling behind the English in yet another area," he added.

Meanwhile, bookmakers have installed White as a red hot favourite to take over as head coach of England, Wales and Australia in 2008.

"After coping with the politics in South African rugby over the past 4 years, Jake feels that taking on all three roles simultaneously would be a walk in the park," White's agent is reported to have said.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to playing: Number Eight

Now that I find that I am entirely on the same wavelength as former Leicester and England legend Dean Richards, I thought it entirely appropriate to add the position of Number Eight to my collection of insightful rugby positional guides.

Having spent a fair bit of my rugby career in this position (including, indeed, my most recent attempt), I feel reasonably well qualified to dish out with impunity a multitude of advice on how to play Number Eight but, in order to perhaps gain a little perspective, I feel I should first check out what Wikipedia has to say on the matter...

The modern number eight has the physical strength of a tight forward along with the mobility of other loose forwards. The number eight packs down at the rear of the scrum, controlling the movement of the ball to the scrum-half with his feet. The number 8 is the position where the ball enters the backline from the scrum and, hence, both fly half and inside centre take their role from the number 8 who as the hindmost player in the scrum can elect to pick and run with the ball like a back...They are normally tall and athletic and used as an option to win the ball from the back of the lineout... [and] need to be quick to cover opposition half-backs. A number eight should be a key ball winner in broken play, and occasionally a 'battering ram' at the front of rucks.
Hmmm...perhaps I don't know quite as much about this position as I thought I did. Let's take some of these assertions one by one:

The modern number eight has the physical strength of a tight forward along with the mobility of other loose forwards. Errr...no. In my experience it's usually one or the other. Either you're a great lump of a bloke who would happily play at lock if it wasn't for the fact that you are way too heavy to lift, or you're a flanker who fancies getting his hands on the ball a bit more often but is likely to be out-mauled by an asthmatic kitten.

The number eight packs down at the rear of the scrum, controlling the movement of the ball to the scrum-half with his feet. Well, yes, this is a possibility, but it does assume that the scrum in front of you is rock solid and that your hooker has heeled the ball down the correct channel. In reality the situation usually involves the Number Eight screaming "Ball, ball, ball!" as the scrum shifts into reverse gear and the ball gets stuck under the second rows' feet. When the ball eventually does reach the back the only option is to pick the damned thing up to prevent further carnage, much to the delight of the opposition back row who then pummel you into the ground just after your own second rows have stamped on your feet.

...as the hindmost player in the scrum [the Number Eight] can elect to pick and run with the ball like a back. Now, I'm not sure who actually penned this entry in Wikipedia, but I'd be amazed if they ever actually played rugby. To most forwards running "like a back" is the equivalent of "running like a girly" and, to be fair, if you can actually run like a back then that's usually where you are selected.

They are normally tall and athletic and used as an option to win the ball from the back of the lineout. All fine and dandy but how many hookers can throw to the back of the lineout with even a smidgen of accuracy?

A number eight should be a key ball winner in broken play, and occasionally a 'battering ram' at the front of rucks. Oh is that all? While I'm at it why don't I also score all the team's points and then lick the changing rooms clean?

The crux of the matter is this - if your pack is going forward then Number Eight is just about the most enjoyable position on the field - you're able to control the flow of possession to your backs, get your hands on the ball, run off the back of scrums, stand off rucks and mauls, take short pop passes from your scrum half or generally gallop freely around the paddock acting like a right smartarse prima donna. However, in my experience these occasions are few and far between and, invariably, when your pack is under real pressure, then the opportunity to get your hands on the ball swiftly becomes a curse as all it involves is being mullered by the opposition back row at the back of retreating scrums, being mullered by the opposition back row while attempting to tidy up wildly tapped lineout possession and being mullered by the opposition back row while trying to secure ruck ball yards behind your gain line.

Admittedly there's rarely a dull moment, but my advice is this: Never volunteer to play Number Eight if you want to blend into the background and go unnoticed. That's the blindside's role.
Hope that helps...

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Deano backs me up!

As well as a debilitating lack of pace it seems that I have more in common with legendary English number 8 Dean Richards (pictured in a pose that I found myself adopting on a regular basis throughout my comeback match three weeks ago).

You see, Deano agrees with my disgust at the decisions of Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt to go public with their criticisms of Brian Ashton. Dallaglio's autobiography is being serialised in the Sunday Times, whilst extracts from Catt's book were published in this weekend's Mail on Sunday.

"I find it very disturbing that players are coming out and slating Brian" Deano has said.

"I think it's absolutely disgraceful. These guys should never play for England again. Everybody has reasons on occasion to criticise coaches but the unwritten rule in rugby is that you don't criticise each other in the press. It's an absolute disgrace."

The problem is, Deano, that "these guys" have no intention of playing for England again and clearly don't care what effect their public criticisms might have on morale. Catt has announced his international retirement while even someone as self-deluded as Dallaglio must realise that he hasn't a hope of playing for England again based on his performances at the World Cup.

I accept that these guys have books to sell, but I am dismayed by their lack of loyalty to a man who resurrected their international careers by including them both in a squad ahead of arguably more deserving players.

The proper forum for any criticisms of the World Cup campaign, at this stage, is the review being carried out by the RFU, not in the Sunday papers.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Telling tales


In today's Daily Telegraph Alison Kervin reports that four senior England players have claimed that England's World Cup campaign was saved by three crucial player-led meetings "involving players swearing, shouting and threatening the coaches and the managers, and telling them to 'do some f***ing work'."

Quotes such as:
"We desperately needed Brian Ashton to step in and sort it out but it was like he was frozen – a rabbit in the headlights – watching all this chaos take place..."
and

"The training sessions were shambolic – they were like run-arounds, not properly targeted World Cup training sessions, there was no feedback from the coaches, none of us knew what we were supposed to be doing and Brian seemed happy to think that Jonny Wilkinson would sort it all out on the pitch..."

and

"The players told Ashton: 'Grab this f***ing tournament by the scruff of the
neck or we're all going home'..."

are all attributed to these "four senior players" who all, conveniently, remain anonymous.

Not only, in my view, is this a cowardly attack on Ashton (who has far too much class to respond in kind), but I'd like to know what happened to the "whatever goes on tour stays on tour" code that rugby players of all creeds, colours and abilities know is sacrosanct? And, if these senior figures had such an important impact on the English World Cup campaign, it begs the question as to what on earth were they doing throughout the summer during the build up to the tournament and during the first two pools matches?

Whatever the structure of the England team management going forward and whether or not Brian Ashton remains involved, whoever is in charge should ensure that these so-called senior players do not play for England again until they have the guts to come forward, eat some humble pie and apologise. To do otherwise, to condone the actions of this gutless cabal going behind the backs of management to tell tales to the press, would be catastrophic on squad morale. Crikey, we're nearly getting as bad as the Welsh.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Late Tackle


Back to club training last night having missed last Tuesday's session to nurse various bumps and bruises incurred playing the previous Saturday. It still seems surreal that I've actually played a full game of rugby again after all this time but at least it meant that I didn't feel quite so much of a fraud turning up at training.

Last night's session got off to a somewhat delayed start after a problem with the electrics meant that it took a while to get the temporary floodlights to work. They don't light up very much of the pitch at the best of times, but training in pitch darkness wasn't an option (although a few optimists were launching high kicks towards each other in the gloom while we waited for the lights to work).

Numbers were also down last night. Apparently quite a few of the club have been struck down by a virus, which goes some way to explaining some of the absences. It was also bitterly cold, which probably accounts for the rest.

Once we got ourselves going though it was a good session with plenty of work and precious little standing about. The main bulk of the session was spent in groups hitting tackle bags and then having to defend three-on-two situations - and not only was it really hard work, it also highlighted to me just how poor my tackling is these days.

I wouldn't say that, even at my peak, I was ever a really big tackler, but I generally made my tackles count and brought my man down. The intervening years, however, appear to have led to crisis in confidence and I was disappointed to miss a couple I really should have made last night. I don't remember missing any in the match I played last week, but equally I don't recall making any "good" tackles - by which I mean executing solid technique and going low. It's certainly something I'm going to have to work on, both in terms of technique and also in terms of mindset...

Reflections...

Less than 4 days since the conclusion of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and already it seems a lifetime ago. A few reflections:

  1. The Final: Apologies to Stuart Dickinson - it appears that there is a single frame of the video which appears to show Mark Cueto's left little toenail possibly brushing the line for a nano-second. Technically therefore you are vindicated retrospectively - although you didn't have the benefit of freeze-framing and still couldn't possibly have made that call accurately with the evidence you had available to you. Oh well, I dare say that South Africa would have won anyway - certainly there's no way Victor Matfield could possibly deserve to end up on a losing side after a performance like that. The photo doesn't say much for Cueto's finishing technique either.

  2. The Final#2: Did anybody else think it entirely inappropriate that Gordon Brown and Thabo Mbeki were involved in the presentations ceremony? In Mbeki's case anyone would think he'd been an integral part of the Bok team the way he cynically celebrated with the squad.

  3. Argentina: How good were they in the 3rd/4th play off? Shame in many ways that they choked in the semi-final because I thought they were quite brilliant at times this tournament. No doubt they'll now be ignored again by the IRB until 2011. Ditto the Pacific Island teams. Samoa were disappointing, but Tonga and Fiji were inspired at times and certainly deserve greater recognition in the international calendar.

  4. Try of the tournament:- Some great tries but the Japan length of the field try against Wales was pretty special.

  5. Game of the tournament: Georgia nearly beating Ireland was superb to watch, as was Tonga's fightback against South Africa. However for me the only winner can be the England v Australia quarter final, simply because the England performance that day came not so much from out of the blue as from out of the indigo and the violet, taking everybody by surprise (including, I suspect, the England players and management - although there's no way they'll admit it).

  6. The Lazarus Award: England again, for somehow restoring credibility from a seemingly impossible position. So, well done to the players and the management but let's not forget just how bad it nearly was. In fact, in analysing where England go from here the motivating factor really should be the memories of the inept performances against the USA and South Africa in the first two pool matches (easily the worst displays from an English team in a World Cup since 1987) and it's good to see that the RFU aren't rushing into prematurely awarding new contracts to management.

  7. Player of the tournament: Sorry Mr Habana, but I thought Gus Pichot was the standout performer this RWC, a superb player and inspirational leader.

  8. Hair of the tournament: Finau Maka for a quite superb barnet - shame the killjoys at the IRB wouldn't let him dye it green. Sea Bass Chabal was obviously a contender but has to make do with Beard of the tournament, narrowly edging out George Chuter (Carl Hayman's lack of beard was undoubtedly a contributing factor to the All Blacks' demise).

  9. The Good Sportsmanship award - Now this is going to cause a few surprises, not least to myself as I've always thought him to be a bit of a sanctimonious git, but I read yesterday that Graham Henry went into the French dressing room after New Zealand's crushing quarter final defeat to congratulate the French and wish them well in the semi finals. Good on you Mr. Henry, you've conducted yourself with a dignity absent in a number of your country's journalists and supporters and have leapt up in my estimation (which no doubt you'd been losing sleep over!)

  10. And finally, the Total Flanker Dunderhead of the Tournament Award: Several candidates here, including several of the ITV commentary team, a few of the national coaches, one or two players and more than one match official (and, if I was a Kiwi, the award would be a done deal) but the award can only really go to the IRB for turning a blind eye the corrupt horse-trading which resulted in several matches, including a quarter-final, taking place on Welsh and Scottish soil. The self-interest of member unions must never again be allowed to prevail when deciding these matters - although given the proposal to reduce the 2011 RWC to 16 teams that is now under consideration, I won't be holding my breath on this one.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Initial observations on the Rugby World Cup Final


Firstly, congratulations to South Africa - you were the strongest and most consistent team throughout the tournament and, although you didn't exactly set the final alight, you were mostly in control and deserved your win.

Secondly, Stuart Dickinson - as the TMO you got at least half a dozen opportunities to look at Cueto's try. To the naked eye it was 50/50 but, to my eye, the replays showed it was a try and how you didn't give it is just astonishing. I'm not saying England would have gone on to win, but it would have been interesting to see how South Africa coped with the pressure that the correct decision would have brought.

Thirdly, well done Matthew Tait - tonight you really came of age as an international player. Given the last four years it would be rash to make predictions, but with the likes of Tait, Flood and Hipkiss around for the next few years, English backplay looks in rude health.

Fourthly, thank you France for hosting a superb tournament. Shame about the pathetic Cardiff and Edinburgh sideshows, but the rest of the competition on French soil was totally compelling from beginning to end.

Finally, on to 2011 and New Zealand - you've an incredibly tough act to follow but don't you dare try to reduce the format to 16 teams.

Friday, 19 October 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to: the Rugby World Cup Final


So, here we are, less than 24 hours before the 2007 Rugby World Cup final and totally gobsmacked that England are there to contest it with South Africa.

Four weeks ago there was clearly some kind of rift which opened in the space-time continuum somewhere over France, casting the Rugby World Cup into some kind of parallel universe in which players, who could barely put a phase of play together without knocking on or conceding a penalty, are now lauded as "Gods" by the English tabloids.

In this spookily surreal environment I guess I could launch into an in depth analysis of the relative merits of each team contesting the Final, the strengths and weaknesses of each player, the tactics that each coach is likely to employ etc but what would be the point? Other than in the front row, logic dictates that the Boks hold all the aces (although do they know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em etc?). Logic, however, has been defied on more than one occasion during this tournament, so I'll pass on that one.

Equally I could mount a detailed and passionate defence against the ridiculous tirade of abuse heading England's way about their "style" of play, pointing out that they can only play as the opposition allows and that, at a World Cup, the only style that counts is a winning style (believe me, Jake White and the whole of South Africa would be delighted with a 3-0 victory). But, on the basis that such criticisms are either borne out of bitterness and envy or are the product of unbelievably unrealistic naivety, and given that events are now way beyond reasoning, I'll also rein myself in on that one.

No, my Rugby World Cup Final preview will, instead be short, sweet and pithy:
Based on the two semi-finals and tonight's 3rd/4th place play off, whoever dominates possession is doomed.
Not impressed by my earth-shattering insight? Try this for size - only in this weird never-never land can someone like Nelson Mandela record a video message of support for the South African team and then find himself up against county & western legend Kenny Rogers who once again has sent a video message to the England squad (see below).

Mandela vs Rogers? No contest you'd have thought, but Rogers' career, after years in the doldrums, appears to be going through some kind of improbable renaissance, much like a certain nation's rugby team who are contesting tomorrow's final.

Am I reading too much into it? Almost certainly. Is it any weirder than what's already happened at this World Cup? Hell no, and the fact that I heard a report on the radio earlier today stating that the UK's chart-topping girl band, the Sugarbabes, has given its support to the national rugby team, merely serves to underpin the feeling that maybe, just maybe, England's name is already on the Webb Ellis Trophy this year.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

4000 up, Mad Bernie and a Virtual Pint

I'm delighted to report that my humble little rugby blog has now received a tad over 4000 visits since I began pouring forth my views on the game back in May.

That 2000 of those visits have occurred during the last month and 1000 during the last 12 days might, just might, have something to do with a little tournament currently heading towards its conclusion across the Channel, but I have very few doubts that the blog's overwhelming popularity (?!) is mainly down to my innovative, insightful and modest writing ;). Whatever the reason, I'm happy to buy you all a virtual pint in celebration.

In my excitement earlier this week I entirely forgot to award last weekend's Dunderhead of the Week. Very remiss of me I realise but, in true award ceremony style, I can announce that the the nominees are:

  • The 12 year old who reffed our Vets' match at the weekend. I say 12 because, like policemen and teachers these days, he looked very, very young (although I'll concede he may have been as old as 19 or so). Actually he didn't do too badly considering pretty much every player was old enough to be his father - he was a bit clueless at the breakdown (probably to my advantage), was way too conscientious when it came to time-keeping and did butcher one decision that cost us a try, calling a forward pass that no one else, not even a single member of our opposition, had spotted. However, despite feeling very uncomfortable in calling a child "sir" all afternoon I admit that really we should be encouraging youngsters to take up the whistle and for that reason cannot give the award to him;

  • Will Greenwoood for his somewhat jingoistic commentary during the weekend's Rugby World Cup semi-finals. Various message boards are very critical of Shaggy's efforts and I must admit that he was guilty of unnecessarily banging on about England's win during the South Africa v Argentina match. However, what I would say in his defence is that, not only does he usually provide entertaining and informative insights into international rugby, he's still very much one of the boys and many of his comments need to be taken as "banter" rather than be taken too seriously. Not to traditionalists' taste perhaps, but I did think his "Francois Mitterend, Michel Platini...your boys took one hell of a beating" parody was hilarious. So, no award for Mr. Greenwood;

  • That leaves Professeur "Mad Bernie" Laporte as this week's winner, for crimes against French rugby. Not only has Laporte slowly sucked all the traditional "joie de vivre" from the way in which the French now play the game, he sent potential game-breaker Freddie Michalak into the action in the second half against England, apparently with instructions to play in the same joyless way that is now the French hallmark. If the gameplan is to kick, then stick with a kicking fly half, don't send on a mercurial runner and tell him play against his natural instincts. Never has there been a clearer case of a square peg for a round hole. From an English perspective I'm delighted that he did so, but if I was French I would be busy dusting off my revolutionary fancy-dress and sharpening the guillotine. Congratulations Bernie, you are undoubtedly Dunderhead of the Week.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Downside

Welcome to the 150th post on Total Flanker. I'd like to declare this a happy occasion but, delighted and amazed as I am by England's unlikely, nay impossible, march to the final of the Rugby World Cup, there is, I'm afraid to say, one major downside to this whole experience...

Reports suggest that England World Cup replica shirts (you know, the ones with the giant obscenity of a Nike ketchup swoosh across the middle) have now sold out, that it is now impossible for fans to get hold of a shirt, either from the RFU shop or from high street retailers, and that Nike will not be able to produce any more before Saturday's final.

Now, I've touched on this subject before and yet, despite my advice, people are still buying this abomination of a "rugby" shirt in their tens of thousands. I can only surmise that the English public have been infected with a combination of foot & mouth, blue tongue disease and collective hysteria, all of which have combined to cause critical taste blindness. Either that or the shirts have been snapped up by recent converts from football to whom these over-priced rags are the height of sartorial elegance.

I hate to think about what will happen if England actually win on Saturday...hundreds of thousands of 2007 "special edition" Champions shirts hitting the marketplace and middle-aged men up and down the land displaying their cultivated beer bellies beneath the skin-tight ketchup swoosh.

Please, people, think about what you're doing. Not only are you putting vast sums of money into the undeserving coffers of the RFU, you are also effectively endorsing their policy of bringing out a new shirt every five minutes and encouraging the idiots in the Nike design department to come up with ever more imbecilic design ideas.

Here endeth the lesson :)

PS - I see that All Blacks 2007 Rugby World Cup replica shirts are now more or less half price (ooops...I know, I know, I promised to stop gloating!)

Monday, 15 October 2007

Almost in heaven...


I've just received the following text message:

"I've been offered corporate hospitality to travel to Paris on Sat 20th Oct to watch the Rugby WC final all expenses paid. I can take 2 mates and was wondering if you're not doing anything could you put my bin out on the Monday?"

Smartarse :)

Trust in Johnno

So, against all the odds, it's England against South Africa in the final of the Rugby World Cup next Saturday.

That South Africa are there is no great surprise - their demolition of England in the group stages, combined with other results that ensured that France, Australia and New Zealand were all sent off into the other half of the quarter-final draw alongside the hapless English, meant that the Boks' route to the final was more or less assured (notwithstanding that they still had to see off a flamboyant challenge from Fiji and survive a physical examination from Argentina).

That England are in the final, however, is just bizarre given where we were only four weeks ago. After that first encounter with South Africa, where England looked utterly clueless, I (and just about everybody else I'm sure) couldn't possibly see how we could even think about getting beyond the quarter-finals and, to be frank, the prospect of not making it out of our group looked a distinct possibility.

But now here we are in the final and I have to say that, as the semi-final unfolded and began to get towards the business end of the match I was, in a surreal kind of way, the most relaxed I think I've ever been watching England play rugby. There were two reasons for this:

  1. Having played my first game of rugby in almost 14 years on Saturday afternoon I was completely exhausted. Way too tired to hang on drinking at the rugby club, I decided to drive home while I still could and watched the match from the comfort of my sofa, too knackered to get too worked up and in too much pain to be on the edge of my seat; and

  2. Martin Johnson.

Before the game Johnno had emphasised the importance of England staying in the game, that if the scores were close after an hour then all the pressure would be on France and he was absolutely spot on. You see, he knows what he's talking about does Johnno and I trust in his opinion as implicitly as I trusted in his leadership when he was at the helm of the 2003 Sweet Chariot. So, as the game approached the hour mark with only a point in it and Mad Bernie sent on Michalak with France camped in the English twenty-two, I pretty much decided there and then that England would win it.

Why? Well, the fact is that France's much maligned ultra-conservative approach had, up to that point, been a success - they were winning the battle for possession, were winning the battle for territory, they were ahead on the scoreboard and had the white shirts pinned back in the English twenty-two. Another score for France and it was probably game over and in Lionel Beauxis they had the man to strangle the life out of the English challenge, so when Freddie Michalak emerged and almost immediately butchered a relatively straightforward drop goal chance that Beauxis would have nailed, England were off the hook and back in the game. The rest, as they say, is history.

England's style (or lack of style) has attracted so much flak from pundits and so-called experts south of the equator but such criticisms miss the point somewhat. It was France who dictated the tempo of Saturday's semi-final - it was they who had the majority of the ball and it was up to them to break down the English defence. That France chose to kick deep more often than not was a tactical decision for them - England didn't make that decision for them. Did the so-called experts expect England to just grant the opposition time and space to play? Whilst I'd agree that England's use of the ball wasn't the most imaginative, again much of that was down to the stifling nature of the French defence. What were England to do - throw long cut-out passes into a crowded midfield a la Contempomi?

England's first half against Australia showed that, when the time is right England can play with the ball in hand but the lesson to be learned from the quarter-finals and semi-finals of this Rugby World Cup is that, rather than go out and play to some pre-conceived idea about how the game must be played, teams must play what's in front of them and, truly amazingly, England appear to have stumbled across the formula for doing just that. Will it be enough against South Africa? I've no idea...I'll just have to wait and see what Johnno says :)

Back in the saddle...

Thoughts on the Rugby World Cup semi-finals later, but first let's turn our attention to the most significant rugby event of the weekend - my return to the rugby field.

Yes folks, despite all the angst, despite all the doubt, despite all the fear, I made my long-awaited comeback to "competitive" (a very loose description) rugby at the weekend. To say that I hurt as I type this (and, to be brutally honest, it's even difficult to find a spare finger that isn't aching) is a huge understatement, although compared to how I felt when I eventually dragged myself to bed on Saturday night, I feel better than I have a right to.

Things looked ominous when I arrived on Saturday as instructed (and absolutely bricking myself, if the truth be known) an hour before kick off to find three of our team mooching around outside the clubhouse as all nineteen (what the *@~#?) of our opposition from High Wycombe made their way into the changing rooms. Minutes later the opposition all emerged and headed out to the pitch for their warm up as our number swelled to six. Half an hour or so later, about ten of us were changed and sauntering out towards the pitch as our opposition were running through yet another lineout variation and unopposed backs' move. More importantly, their pack looked absolutely enormous and reminded me very much of my under-15 days when the size and bulk of the opposition dominated all pre-match conversations. Eventually, with kick off imminent (if not overdue), we managed to front up with fifteen and, as we kicked off, it was obvious that we were in for a hammering.

For some reason, however, the anticipated stuffing didn't happen. Our scrum, after the first couple, went into retreat (which meant, as the default number 8, I spent pretty much all afternoon picking up and being clobbered at the base of the scrum) and the opposition also cleaned up at the lineout, but we tackled hard, rucked like our lives depended on it (as, at our age, they indeed might have done) and, somehow, stayed in the game. With half time approaching (or so I thought) and with us being 0-7 down, I turned to the 12 year old referee (OK, I may be exaggerating, he may have been 14) and asked how long there was to go before half time. "Twenty-two minutes," was his reply. Not collapsing in sheer panic was my major achievement of the afternoon.

Two well worked tries in the second half saw us manage to hold High Wycombe to a 14-28 defeat which, in the circumstances, was a monumental effort from our boys. Not only were the opposition big, they were also very organised, had plenty of reinforcements to bring on in the second half and, more importantly, a number of them were suspiciously young. Yes, they had their fair share of 40+ guys in their team but there were also quite a few very close the the 35 year age limit and 3 or 4 who looked like they'd struggle to pass for 30. Our mob, on the other hand were almost exclusively over 40 (and at times it showed!). Some say that Vets' rugby is state of mind. Is isn't. It's a state of body...and being younger and fitter just isn't playing the game.

From a personal point of view the game went reasonably well, the major plus being that I didn't suffer an injury and was able to play the whole game. The bonus for me was that I was able to get stuck in and contribute, in particular in clearing up a huge amount of messy ball at the back of a retreating scrum and in making a nuisance of myself at the breakdown. The major downside was that I discovered that my fitness wasn't all that I'd believed it to be, and it was the physicality at the breakdown that really sapped my energy and and meant that my contribution in the wider channels was pretty much negligible as I rarely got there.

Still, as my first game for the best part of 14 years, I really shouldn't quibble. The guys in the team were very supportive and complimentary afterwards and chatting over a couple of beers in the clubhouse made me realise exactly what I'd missed during the last fourteen years.

The fact that I was later able to kick back on Saturday evening (albeit in some considerable pain and in more or less a horizontal position) and watch England achieve another minor miracle made the whole day pretty memorable.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Stranger than fiction

A video message to the England rugby team from country & western legend Kenny Rogers:




Bizarre!

Dye hard

Tongan rugby officials expressed dismay today at the news that the IRB had allowed French hard man Sebastian Chabal to dye his hair red, white and blue for tomorrow's le crunch semi-final against England. The IRB had previously banned the Tongan team from dyeing their hair green before their crucial group game with England last month.

"It's a classic case double standards," said a Tongan spokesman. "As usual it's one rule for the big boys and another for the minnows."

The IRB issued a statement late last night to confirm their decision. "Although at first we felt that it was inappropriate for Monsieur Chabal to dye his hair in this manner, after a personal hearing in which the player threatened to rip out our intestines and feed them to his hamster, we believe it is now in the interests of the game that he be allowed to do whatever he wants," the statement read.

When contacted about this matter, Chabal is reported to have said: "Grrrr nngghh ungg grrr."

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Wine of the month...

...and I promise this will be the very last bit of gloating:


Sorry!



...perhaps he should have added that if Graham Henry hadn't inexplicably left him out of the New Zealand team for the quarter-final then none of this would have happened...?

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Four more years...

With apologies to any Kiwis visiting this blog. You must be pig sick of all the vitriol aimed in the All Blacks' direction since the weekend. I confess that I have had my issues with the sermons from the Right Reverend Graham Henry and the perceived deification of the All Black brand, but some of the nasty rubbish that has been written by British journalists - and particular a certain Welshman writing for the Sunday Times - is way over the top and is, frankly, an embarrassment.


Nevertheless, I did find this quite funny (thanks to Matt at greenandgoldrugby):




No Backing Down?

Not much more than 72 hours before my long awaited return to the rugby pitch after the best part of 14 years and as it looms larger on the horizon I'm seriously beginning to question my sanity.

I survived training again last night without incident or accident, although I have been struggling over the last few days with a recurrence of some lower back pain (which is originally what caused me to stop playing in 1993) brought on, I think, my my recent bout of marathon decorating.

Unless the pain is entirely psychosomatic, caused purely by certain of my brain cells screaming at me "DON'T BE SO BLOODY STUPID," then it's something I'm going to have to keep an eye on and manage. Having built up this whole comeback malarkey, the last thing I want to do is to pull out at this stage, but equally it would be pretty stupid to play if my back's playing up. The good news is that it's no worse after training last night, so fingers crossed everything will be ok.

Le Fraka vs Wilkinson

With thanks to Pascal...

Monday, 8 October 2007

Growing pains

It looks very much like the New Zealand public have decided that the All Blacks' defeat to France on Saturday had little to do with the below-par performance of their team or the grit and determination of the French, but is, instead, all the fault of English referee Wayne Barnes, so much so that a number of deranged All Blacks' fans have allegedly put a NZ$ 1000 bounty on his head.

When watching the match I didn't for one moment think that the nonsense spouting forth from the lips of Murray Mexted was anything other than just the one-eyed rantings of one man. Little did I realise that All Blacks' supporters in general were all suffering from the same ailment.

The principal complaints are, it appears:

  1. That Barnes gave Luke McAlister a yellow card for deliberately blocking the run of Jauzion when the latter was attemptng to reach a chip ahead and, perhaps, score a try. Last time I looked it was illegal to block, especially so blatently, athough admittedly the likes of Jerry Collins has been doing it for years without sanction so perhaps the All Blacks thought it was now allowed;

  2. That Barnes missed a forward pass from Traille to Michalak in the build up to France's second try. I admit the pass looked forward but then again so did the pass from Carter to McAlister for New Zealand's first try and, in any event, I was under the impression that forward passes in the Super 14 and Tri-Nations were pretty much endemnic and that Southern Hemispere referees no longer concerned themselves with such trifles; and

  3. That Barnes had the temerity to penalise Richie McCaw on more than one occasion for playing the ball while off his feet at the breakdown. Hmmm, let's face it, it's probably about time. Don't get me wrong, McCaw is a fantastic player who usually gets away with murder at the breakdown, something for which I admire him greatly. On this occasion however he was spotted and pinged - them's the breaks!

Even if Barnes did get these decisions wrong (and, from where I was sitting, only the forward pass argument is valid), that's what happens in knockout rugby and it's up to the players to deal with it. I'm with IRB referee supremo Paddy O'Brien who says his fellow New Zealanders should stop blaming the referee and should "grow up".

Good to see then that certain Kiwis have, amidst the mourning and recriminations, managed to retain a sense of humour, the following appearing on New Zealand auction site Trade Me:










Last lap?

Where oh where did England's performance on Saturday come from? There had been absolutely no hint that they had a performance like that inside them. After the game Nick Easter commented that all the unfair media criticisms of the team had served as added motivation, but in reality none of the criticism had been gratuitous or unfair - we all know that England had played very, very poorly, especially against the USA and South Africa.

So, hearty congratulations to Brian Ashton, Phil Vickery and the England squad for finally delivering an inspirational performance that showed guts, nous and intelligence, a performance worthy of being the defending world champions.

One note of caution however - the reaction of the players and management to Saturday's win was, perhaps understandably, one of euphoria. Jonny Wilkinson even described it as being "one of the best days of my life." The players, it seems, feel vindicated and I wonder whether there's enough coal in the grate for the team's performance to burn quite so brightly again.

For me (and I appreciate that this is very much a "glass half empty" viewpoint), it was concerning to see the England players and management doing a lap of honour at the end of the game. Contrast this with England's reaction to disposing of France in Sydney 4 years ago, where it was very much a case of "job done - move on" and you have to wonder whether England might now just be satisfied with what they have achieved. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Finally, Dunderhead of the Week this week goes to Mr. M. Mexted of New Zealand for a quite breathtakingly one-eyed commentary to accompany the France v New Zealand game on Saturday night...

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Hallelujah!

All hail...



...the supremacy of Northern Hemisphere rugby!

Tee hee!

WooHoo!


Time for another entirely self indulgent pat on the back as Total Flanker passes the 3000 visits mark. Not earth-shattering news I realise but I've always believed in celebrating life's little successes, no matter how insignificant.

Now I'm logged in, here's a quick precis of the week's Rugby World Cup news:

Farrell's in and then out, the Aussies hate England, the Kiwis don't want to play in grey, France don't want to play in Cardiff, the Scots are playing up their chances against Argentina and nobody gives Fiji a snowball's chance in hell against the Saffies.
There, that's the week's Rugby World Cup quarter final build up summarised in under 50 words. I don't know about you, but for me the week's break in between games now has meant that these last few days have really dragged, with precious little happening to report and complete silence on the tournament from ITV (can you imagine the football World Cup receiving the same treatment?).

I realise of course that there'll be plenty to blog about this weekend with the four games coming thick and fast, but there's only so much dissecting of English failure a chap can do and I really don't think I can bring myself to fall to my knees and begin worshipping the supremacy of Southern Hemisphere rugby (they're perfectly adept at doing that themselves).

So, what's a blogger to do? Well, in this case it's time for even more self-indulgence as I turn to examining how the various clubs I've played for have opened their respective domestic campaigns this season...

Peterborough RUFC, where I played Colts rugby and a handful of senior games from 1980-83, currently play in Midlands 1 and are 8th in the division after four games. They started the season strongly, winning 27-0 at home to Newport before slipping to defeats against Scunthorpe (23-34), Dunstablians (19-20) and Bedford Athletic (12-41). Today they take on Shaun Perry's old club Dudley Kingswinford at home.

Back in my day Guildford RFC was known as Guildford & Goldalming, and I played there in the 1986-87 season, mainly in the lower teams before making the 1st XV in the second half of the season (although I did manage to break my collar bone on my 1st team debut, which wasn't very clever). This season Guildford are in London 2 South (having been relegated from London 1 last season), and lie 3rd after 4 games, with wins against Sidcup (32-17), Dorking (22-13) and Old Colfeians (27-26) and one defeat against Tunbridge Wells (14-21). Today they face a home match against Wimbledon.

I joined Ealing in 1988, having moved to West London, and played a couple of seasons there, mainly for the 2nds with a few games for the 1sts. Back then Ealing had just made National League 4 South (as it was then) and faced away trips to the likes of Camborne and Redruth. This season the club are celebrating a return to the National Leagues, having been promoted from London 1 last season, and have started solidly in National 3 South with a draw against Barking (13-13), wins over Bridgewater & Albion (34-10) and Dings Crusaders (37-7) and two defeats against Havant (21-19) and Cinderford (31-52), all of which leaves them 6th in the table. Today's match is away to Rosslyn Park.

Barnes RFC is where I probably had my most enjoyable period, playing from 1990-94 in Surrey Divisons 1 & 2. Since I stopped playing the club has enjoyed a rapid rise through the league structure (they've clearly missed me) and are now in their 3rd season I believe in the heady heights of London 1. This season has seen a steady start, being 6th in the table after two wins over Portsmouth (13-3) and Worthing (19-18) and two defeats to Basingstoke (16-23) and Sutton & Epsom (24-38). Barnes take on Shelford today at Barn Elms.

So now finally to Chesham, who I've yet to play for but whose Vets' team is scheduled to provide me with my long-awaited comeback game next weekend. Chesham currently play in the pithily-named Berks/Bucks & Oxon 1 North and lie 7th after 3 games, beating Gosford All Blacks 53-0, before losing to Buckingham 3rds (24-29) and Amersham & Chiltern 2nds (10-27). Good luck to Chesham today as they face Beaconsfield 2nds away.

Oh, and while I'm at it and for what it's worth, good luck to England today against the Aussies - they sorely need it.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Education...education...education

Thanks to Ferdy at ruggerblogger for unearthing this one:



www.currychips.com

Youth culture

So, while we all pause for breath ahead of the World Cup quarter finals, contemplating the logic of yet another shuffling of the England deck by Brian "Yoda" Ashton, it's probably worth a mention that the English domestic season has been underway for a few weeks now and has almost gone unnoticed, certainly slipping beneath the radar of many a rugby pundit.

The debate about whether the English domestic season and, in particular, the Guinness Premiership should run concurrently with the World Cup isn't something I want to get into, at least not right now. What does interest me, however, is the number of quality youngsters - all qualified for England - who are being given their chance in the Premiership in the absence of the so-called "star" players who are or have been representing their nation(s) at the World Cup.

The charge is often levelled at the Premiership clubs that they recruit too many foreign players and do not develop enough English talent, but cast your eye around the clubs right now and you'll see that the scene isn't quite so bleak. For instance, here's a possible team made up from English-qualified players in the Premiership who are not currently on World Cup duty, all of whom will still be around in 2011:

15. Danny Cipriani - Wasps
14. Topsy Ojo - London Irish
13. Jordan Turner-Hall - Quins
12. Anthony Allen - Gloucester
11. Lesley Vainakolo - Gloucester (sorry, couldn't resist that one!)
10. Shane Geraghty - London Irish
9. Danny Care - Quins
1. Tom French - Wasps
2. David Paice - London Irish
3. Nick Woods - Gloucester
4. Richard Blaze - Leicester
5. Tom Palmer - Wasps
6. James Haskell - Wasps
7. Magnus Lund - Sale
8. Phil Dowson - Newcastle

Not too shoddy a team eh? Here's another one, equally as talented:

15. Nick Abendanon - Bath
14. David Doherty - Quins
13. Jack Adams - Gloucester
12. Dominic Waldouck - Wasps
11. Tom Varndell - Leicester
10. Ryan Lamb - Gloucester
9. Ben Foden - Sale
1. David Wilson (Newcastle)
2. Dylan Hartley - Northampton (OK, not strictly the Premiership but England qualified nevertheless)
3. Michael Holford - Wasps
4. Louis Deacon - Leicester
5. Tom Ryder - Saracens
6. Tom Croft - Leicester
7. David Seymour - Saracens
8. Jordan Crane - Leicester

When you add the likes of Andrew Sheridan, Matt Stevens, Lee Mears, Steve Borthwick, Lewis Moody, Tom Rees, Dan Ward-Smith, Nick Easter, David Strettle, Toby Flood, Olly Barkley, Paul Sackey, Olly Morgan, Danny Hipkiss and Matthew Tait to the mix, none of whom should be too old in 2011, it's appears that England do have a core of young players to work with over the next four years, many of whom already have international experience. Heck, even Jonny Wilkinson might still be available, if he hasn't had a complete body reconstruction by then.

All that's required to give a group of players of this quality a fighting chance at international level and at the next World Cup is a domestic system that doesn't knacker the players and pull their loyalty from pillar to post and a national coaching regime where the players are properly looked after and valued and which is a big step-up in quality from what they are already used to at their clubs.

Now, that's not much to ask is it?

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Counting down

Another training session safely negotiated yesterday evening - and I turned up (with my new Asics boots - a birthday present to myself) despite the somewhat inclement weather (persistent drizzle) which means that I'm either becoming incredibly keen or increasingly desperate ahead of my impending debut for Chesham Vets in 10 days time (for an exact countdown please see the gizmo in the left-hand column - not that I'm obsessing or anything.)

The session was pretty good last night, consisting of lots of ball work interspersed with plenty of press-ups, sit-ups and squats. Thankfully my regular trips to the gym meant that these exercises weren't as humiliating as they might otherwise have been for me. It's an odd mix at Tuesday training at the moment - a handful of 1st team regulars, a bunch of 17 year-olds who are either playing for or aspire to the 2nds, a few old geezers like myself and one or two novices who haven't played before. It must be difficult to put together a session that caters for that mix of abilities and experience but it does seem to work.

So, the countdown has now well and truly started - and a home match against High Wycombe Bodgers on 13th October awaits...

Monday, 1 October 2007

Quote of the week...

My favourite quote from this weekend's Rugby World Cup action: Martin Corry talking about Lewis Moody requiring treatment on the pitch early in the England v Tonga game after a typically kamikaze charge-down attempt...

"I didn't envy the doctor who went to tend to him - even when Lewis is at his sharpest it's difficult to tell if he's concussed or not."

Honest John?


I see that John O'Neill has offered a full and frank apology for his "we all hate England" comments last week...NOT.

His latest comments are: "No one likes England. If they want further proof, how do they think France won the right to host this World Cup? It’s simple. No one would vote for England and they were the only other country in the running. The only votes England could be assured of back then were their own. Sadly, this is all a by-product of their born-to-rule mentality. It’s been there for a long time now and nothing has changed."

So, rather than consider a bid to host the World Cup on its merits, O'Neill is saying that he and the other IRB delegates voted against the English bid on the basis of anti-English prejudice. I'm not for one minute suggesting that this World Cup should have been awarded to England - France deserved to host the tournament and (the farming out of games to the Celts aside) has done a fantastic job. However, if what O'Neill has said is even remotely true then not only does it reflect very poorly on O'Neill and his fitness to do the job he's very well paid for, it also exposes the IRB committee for the amateurish bunch of freeloaders we already know they are and calls into question yet again the process for selecting World Cup venues.

No doubt O'Neill's comments will be fully investigated and the appropriate action taken although I, for one, won't be holding my breath.

All Aboard the Bandwagon #2

Many thanks to Pascal for pointing this one out.

Sebastian Chabal fait son Fraka...