Friday, 30 November 2007

Crime and punishment

Given Mark Regan's totally unprofessional decision to play in a meaningless fixture for the Barbarians this weekend, in defiance of Bristol and Premier Rugby and in breach of his playing contract with his club, I believe it's important that Bristol and Premier Rugby come up with a punishment that is both appropriate and proportionate.

Fining the player is the obvious solution but will have no real impact as you can bet that the Barbarians have set aside funds to cover this eventuality, whilst fining the club is, obviously, entirely inappropriate. Suspending the player also does no favours to Bristol who face tough European fixtures in the next few weeks.

No, it appears that the only sensible solution is for us all to give Regan a good kicking.

I am pleased, therefore, to present "Instant Justice" - a game in which we can all help Bristol and Premier Rugby dish out an appropriate and proportionate punishment to this miscreant:


Thursday, 29 November 2007

Bare faced cheek

I admit to being a bit slow off the mark on this one, but earlier this week it appears that an English referee was suspended for 18 weeks for dropping his shorts and baring his arse whilst officiating at a women's rugby match.

A Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) disciplinary hearing, chaired by former Harlequins scrum half and appropriately named Richard Moon (I kid you not), heard that Peterborough Ladies and their opponents Thetford were preparing to restart following a converted try, when East Midlands Society official Robert Tustin walked off the pitch and removed his footwear. He then returned to the field, turned his back on the stand where Peterborough's supporters were gathered, and dropped his shorts.

"It was completely out of the blue, and I have no idea why he did it. It wasn't comical. It was absurd behaviour," said Thetford captain Amanda Walker.

"He's not the youngest of referees, so it was not the nicest of sights, and the only consolation was that his front bits weren't showing."

Nevertheless, in true British stiff-upper-lip fashion, the two teams played out the remaining 10 minutes.

"He asked people not to stamp on his feet, as he didn't have his boots on," added Ms Walker, which is fair enough really!

Peterborough, I'm delighted to say (it being my first rugby club) won the encounter 44-5.

Cohen chasing Pink Pound

Ben Cohen, clubless since quitting Northampton Saints after a hissy fit about not being made captain, has (not for the first time) turned his attention to to the pink pound, promoting his “racy” calendar recently at “Prowler” in Soho, the biggest gay store in the country.

The “Real Ben Cohen,” calendar, which commemorates his testimonial year, apparently contains 'striking images of Ben just the way you want to see him – real', according to his press release.

"I think it's fantastic. For a sportsman to do this for gay fans, I think is brilliant and many more should follow," a rugby fan called Paul from Brighton (who’d have thought?) is reported to have said.

The thing is, Paul, this is nothing particularly original. Stade Francais have for the last few years released their “Dieux du Stade” calendars which leave very little to the imagination and are clearly targeted at the gay market. And it’s not a question of altruistic sportsmen doing something for gay fans – this may come as something of a shock but the reality is that they are just after your money. Some of the profits of the Cohen and Stade calendars may go to charity, but the truth is that the pink pound is a new and exploitable target for rugby marketeers.

The pink pound also looks like it may be tinged by a touch of green next year as the latest wheeze from Paddy Power, fresh from its sponsorship of the Tongan team during the Rugby World Cup, is to sponsor next June's Bingham Cup (aka the Gay Rugby World Cup), to be played in Dublin.

The Irish bookmaker appears to have an uncanny knack in coming up with off-the-wall marketing initiatives and, in the Bingham Cup, they've bagged one of the largest amateur rugby tournaments in the world, last year’s competition held in New York featuring 30 teams from gay rugby clubs around the world.

The competition is organised by the the International Gay Rugby Association & Board (which rather conveniently shortens to IGRAB) which, I was surprised to learn, has approximately 40 clubs on is books. I had previously heard of London’s King Cross Steelers and, perhaps naively and somewhat stereotypically, assumed that the likes of Sydney and San Francisco might also have gay rugby clubs, but I’d no idea that so many clubs existed. I do wonder what this says about the rugby community at large – is it a sign of rugby’s inclusive culture or is it rugby's intolerance that has caused gay players to form their own clubs?

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Genius!

A quote, apparently, by an "Unknown English rugby player":

Of course it worries me if the All Blacks are invincible. I mean, it stands to reason, if we can't see them, how can we beat them?

Brilliant! I'd love to know who said this.

The quote is taken from from the book "Rugby Wit: Quips and Quotes for the Rugby Obsessed" by Richard Benson and, if this is the standard, then it's definitely on my Christmas list.






Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The English Foreign Legion?

In a couple of posts on this blog I have, with my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek it must be said, suggested that the talents of Lesley "the Volcano" Vainikolo be utilised by England when he qualifies to play for England on residency grounds in January.

Vainikolo, who is currently the top try scorer in the English Premiership (albeit with all 5 of his tries coming in his first match), has expressed an interest in joining the English cause despite having been born in New Zealand to Tongan parents, and he is not the only foreign player plying his trade in England who has been touted as a possible addition to the national side.

As well as Vainikolo, the likes of Wasps' Riki Flutey and Saracens' Glen Jackson could, in the next few months, have the opportunity to pledge their allegiance to the English cause on residency grounds and they all have their supporters in the press.

I guess there are three questions we need to ask when considering whether this "foreign legion" should be selected for England:

  1. Are they good enough?

  2. Do they want to play for England?

  3. Is it right and proper for players with no English connection at all to represent England?

In the case of Vainikolo, the first question is relatively easy to answer. He is still learning the ropes as far as Rugby Union is concerned but the potential of this powerful giant is just awesome. England have some decent wings in their ranks at the moment but none who could make the sort of impact that Vainikolo could. The second question is, in this case, perhaps more pertinent. While expressing an interest in England, Vainikolo has also declared that he'd be interested in representing Tonga. He needs to make a commitment and declare one way or the other.

As regards Riki Flutey, his current form for Wasps, where he has been cutting opposition defences to ribbons from inside centre, suggests an affirmative answer to the first question, although the fact that London Irish didn't fight tooth and nail to retain his services at the end of last season suggests that perhaps we need to see this form sustained over a period of time before making a definitive judgement. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Flutey's fellow-Wasp and Kiwi, Mark Van Gisbergen, was being touted as the answer to the problematical England no. 15 shirt, until a loss of form and confidence put paid to that idea. The second question is more problematical - as a Maori from New Zealand, Flutey has declared that he has no interest in an England shirt, quite rightly having ambitions one day to be an All Black. If this is what he wants it seems non-sensical to me to try to persuade him otherwise, no matter how good he is.

As for Glen Jackson, he's been one of the Premeirship's most consistent performers at fly half over the past couple of seasons and possibly possesses a more all-round complete game than any of the current England pretenders, including Saint Jonny. Whether including him in the England set-up would possibly stunt the development of young England wannabes like Ryan Lamb, Danny Cipriani or Shane Geraghty is a question for a different debate, but it's clear to me that Jackson is good enough to be given an opportunity, especially as he has unequivocally declared that he wants to play for England.

All of which brings me to the third question - is it right and proper for players with no English connection at all to represent England? I admit that this is a question that troubles me as I often fail to grasp how a player can have sufficient pride in a country's shirt if he doesn't "belong" to that country. In other words, wanting to play for a country isn't enough - my instinct is that a player has to "feel" English to play for England. It's more than possible that I'm being terribly naive here, and it's not as if England hasn't included obviously "foreign" players in the past - Mike Catt, Matt Stevens and Perry Freshwater being of the most recent vintage (although all, it must said, with an English parental/grandparental connection).

We (or at least certain Northern Hemisphere journalists) also have great fun in taking the moral high-ground in berating New Zealand for "plundering" the Pacific Islands, although it's beyond me how anyone can honestly object to someone playing for the All Blacks who was born in New Zealand to e.g. Samoan parents or taken to New Zealand as a child by parents looking for a better life. Certainly any objections we do have to Pacific Islanders wearing the black shirt will fly out of the window if England line up in the near future with Messrs Jackson, Vainikolo and Flutey wearing the white 10, 11 and 12 shirts respectively.

I guess the reality of the situation is that "rules is rules" so that, if a player is qualified for England then, as long as questions 1 and 2 above are satisfied, there's no reason why he shouldn't be picked. Other countries seem to have no qualms in this respect and, with more and more foreign players plying their trade in the English league and qualifying for England on residency grounds, it's certainly an issue that isn't likely to go away.

Monday, 26 November 2007

National Geordie Beard Day Update

In continuation of this blog's current obsession with all things hairy, here's a brief update on the progress towards National Geordie Beard Day, being promoted by Newcastle Falcons to celebrate the arrival of Carl Hayman at the club and to benefit rugby charity Wooden Spoon.

With three weeks to go until the event (taking place on Sunday 16th December when the Falcons face Connacht in the European Challenge Cup), it appears that Director of Rugby John Fletcher is leading the way with an already mature growth.

“I’ve had three weeks growth so far and I’ve been told I am now irresistible to the opposite sex, even the same sex, so with another three weeks to go I’ll be twice as attractive by December 16," he says on the Falcons' website.

“I’ve also timed it quite well because after the National Geordie Beard Day I can look for some seasonal work in the big department stores around Newcastle in the run-up to Christmas."

The Falcons certainly don't believe in doing things by halves, as they've enlisted the services of bearded celebrity rummager David Bellamy and The Handlebar Club (who had winners in the frankly ludicrous World Beard and Moustache Championships, apparently held in Brighton this year) to judge the beard competition.

Of course the big question is will the clean cut visages of Messrs Wilkinson and Flood be sprouting facial fluff?

Sunday, 25 November 2007

We are the World

The IRB are apparently getting together later this week for a chinwag (or "historic global forum" as they rather self-importantly describe it) which will include a rather radical proposal from the RFU (surely some mistake) to introduce a "World Series" featuring the countries of the Six Nations, the Tri-Nations and Argentina.

The plan, rather laughably described as being "top secret" (so either Total Flanker has an exclusive mole in the upper echelons of the IRB or the the details of the proposal can be accessed by picking up any of the more serious Sunday papers), is designed to ensure that, unlike the Rugby World Cup, every top team will play the other nine over a two-year period, with aggregate results from the Six Nations and Tri-Nations and end-of-season tour matches determining the final rankings (which will also affect Rugby World Cup seedings). The top team from each side of the equator will then meet in a one-off Grand Final at Twickenham, the Stade de France or the Millennium Stadium.

What's clever about the plan is that it only involves one extra fixture - the Grand Final - so shouldn't noticeably add to the burden on players, and it also has the potential to end the annual charade of the Northern Hemisphere nations sending second-string XVs each Spring to be slaughtered down under.

What's less clear is how much credence will be given to this so-called "World Series" by the Unions, the English and French clubs, the players and, most importantly, the fans. After all, the last thing anyone (well, anyone who isn't from New Zealand) wants is for the importance and aura of the Rugby World Cup to be diluted in any way.

Although it clearly does have its merits, the plan will clearly never work. After all, whoever heard of a "World Series" involving teams from outside the United States?

Friday, 23 November 2007

Poisoned chalice?

Jake White has revealed he was put off going after the job of Wales Head Coach because of the high casualty rate amongst previous Welsh coaches.

"I saw a stat which said that Wales had 16 coaches in 21 years and that is not something that you want to be putting your hand up for," he is reported to have said.

Given the WRU's track record of knifing their coaches firmly between the shoulder blades I must admit that I was surprised at Warren Gatland's decision to sign on the dotted line (it must be a VERY lucrative deal) but, for the record, I must say that White's comments are a gross exaggeration as I can only find 14 Welsh coaches dating back to 1986 who have supped from the poisoned chalice. These are (including caretaker roles):

Tony Gray
John Ryan
Ron Waldron
Alan Davies
Alex Evans
Kevin Bowring
Dennis John
Graham Henry
Lynn Howells
Steve Hanson
Mike Ruddock
Scott Johnson
Gareth Jenkins
Nigel Davies.

What is clear, however, is that the WRU have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of making the job of England football manager look secure.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

A day in the life of Paul O'Connell

More from Today FM Ireland's Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show...



I loved the line: "What did Superman get for Christmas? Paul O'Connell pyjamas!"

Leeds on earthquake alert

The Environement Agency today put the residents of Headingly in Leeds on high alert as an earthquake, forecast to be "off the Richter scale," is expected to hit the area when the Tuilagi brothers, Andy and Alesana, collide on Saturday afternoon as Leeds Carnegie take on Leicester Tigers.

Centre Andy Tuilagi joined Leeds last season from Leicester having become the fourth member of the family to play for the Tigers following in the footsteps of Freddie, Henry and Alesana.

Here's what he might expect from his brother:



Scarily, a fifth brother, Vavae, is a member of the Leicester academy and a sixth, Manu, is at school in Leicestershire and set to follow the family tradition.

Utterly pointless

Wales take on the World Champion Springboks this weekend and arguably will never have a better chance to beat them.

Of course, I say "World Champion" but the side Wales will face will be anything but that. Much is being made of the the fact that nine of the Boks' World Cup Final starting XV will play against Wales, but the fact is that, of the six missing, five were absolutely key to the way South Africa played in the Rugby World Cup and the other, Danie Roussow, pulled off the match-winning tackle on Mark Cueto in the Final.

Without Percy Montgomery's metronomic kicking, the game management skills of Butch James and Fourie Du Preez, the lineout prowess of Victor Matfield and the scrummaging strength of Os Du Randt, I sense that South Africa might be there for the taking, especially given that none of their players have been in action since 22nd October.

My question, however, is this. What on earth is the point of this game? What exactly will it prove? (OK, two questions). To stage an international match 33 days after the Final of the Rugby World Cup is just ridiculous and is a purely a greedy, money-grabbing exercise by the WRU. The match serves no other purpose and takes no account at all of player welfare.

Of course, it's not just the WRU who are indulging in such mercenary activities. The RFU are also in on the act, staging an even more meaningless encounter between the Boks and the Barbarians the following weekend. For that encounter the South Africans will also be shorn of their captain, John Smit, as his club, Clermont Auvergne, quite rightly insist that he turns out for them, whilst the Barbarians will feature the usual motley crew of retired internationals and holidaying antipodeans (Jerry Collins' Barnstaple socks notwithstanding), the English Premiership sides having (again quite rightly) refused to release their players for the meaningless encounter.

It's a far cry from the halcyon days of the seventies and in particular "that match", you know the one, 1973, the All Blacks, a match laced with meaning, a Barbarians team packed with Lions and, of course, "that try".

The professional era has, inevitably, seen a dramatic dilution of the lure of the BaaBaas - after all, no one can expect employers to release their assets for these one-off showcase matches and, in reality, no one can expect a scratch side coming together a matter of days before a game to put up a meaningful display against a well-drilled professional international outfit. This decline in the profile of the Barbarians has led to to calls that the grand old club should be laid to rest as an icon of rugby's amateur past rather than an anachronistic embarrassment of rugby's professional present but, I must say, I wouldn't go that far.

Yes, Barbarians' showcase matches against the Southern Hemisphere touring sides have become an utterly pointless exercise but, given the right support, the club can still find its niche in the game and make a real contribution. Last season, for instance, the BaaBaas played the Combined Services, the East Midlands, and the Army (in the Army Rugby's centenary celebration match), before undertaking summer fixtures on tour against Spain and Tunisia with a squad featuring various 2nd team players from Premiership and Celtic League clubs, National Division 1 players and a few guests from overseas.

Helping develop rugby in 2nd and 3rd tier nations, and supporting grassroots rugby and charitable causes are still areas in which the Barbarian club can bring its tradition and its magnificent brand to the table and really add something to the rugby calendar. Funding may be an issue (and probably explains why we've had to endure these meaningless showcase events over the years) but it should not be beyond the wit of professional rugby in the UK to find a way of supporting this worthy cause and help put something back into the game.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Time for a quick break...

Here's something else I found on YouTube - the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show from Today FM Ireland. It's a little out of date given that it was first broadcast prior to the World Cup, but in some ways it's funnier as a result - certainly worth a giggle...

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Go Play Rugby (again)

Stumbled across another advert for the RFU's "Go Play Rugby" campaign - effective, if a little on the corny side.





Given my own experience in coming back to the game after a fourteen year absence, I thought I'd re-script the advert (see below). In reading it please refer to the above video - only instead of some ultra-keen, fit, twenty-something tyro please picture, if you will, a tired, grumpy, forty-something has-been...


It's been 14 years since I left the game...
...since I last received abuse as I walked into a rugby club,
...since I last dreaded running out to face the pain in driving rain,
...since I felt like this...
...this terror,
...this slow,
...this fat,
...this clumsy,
...this humiliation,
...this pain.
And now I'm back...
...back on the pitch,
...back in A&E...
...my back,
...my knee,
...my shoulder
...my groin.
Buggered.
Must be mad...

Monday, 19 November 2007

Boks face Barum socks

Following the heart-warming revelation that All Black Jerry Collins recently made over 30 rugby players as happy as a fat kid in a sweetshop by turning out for Barnstaple 2nds against their Newton Abbott counterparts in Devon, it now looks as if the Barnstaple club socks will be worn by Collins at Twickenham when he turns out for the Barbarians against South Africa next month.

“I have asked the Barnstaple guys if it would be okay for me to wear their socks when I play for the Barbarians against South Africa at Twickenham. I have played for the club and it’s something I would like to do,” Collins told the Sunday Times.

It seems that, for Collins, it was the Barnstaple club that did him a favour by letting him play, rather than the other way round.

Good on you Jerry Collins - a true gent.

Facial hair update

It seems that rugby's return to the halcyon days of the hirsute seventies, when the moustaches of Mervyn Davies and Sid Going and the beards of Ray Gravell and Derek Quinnell (amongst many, many others) graced our pitches, has really caught the rugby public's imagination with Andy Goode's magnificent moustache being the talk of many a rugby forum.

Time for a facial hair update then, and it is Goode's Leicester Tigers who continue to set the pace with their "Grow a Mo for Hambo" campaign, in aid of the Matt Hampson Trust. Goode's effort wins hands down so far in terms of creativity (if only he showed the same imagination on the pitch), but the efforts of Geordan Murphy and Luke Abraham deserve an honourable mention, while George Chuter's beginning to look like some crazed survivor of a shipwreck washed up on a desert island. The most sinister of all though is the new look sported by Harry Ellis - he may be out for the whole of the season while he recovers from a serious knee injury, but that's no excuse for looking like something you wouldn't want your children to see before they went to bed.

With the results of the Newcastle Falcons' "National Geordie Beard Day" eagerly waited next month, it appears that the Welsh have now jumped aboard the hairy bandwagon as the Ospreys are in on the act, signing up for the Movember campaign to cultivate the most stylish facial hair they can throughout November in aid of the Prostate Cancer Charity.

According to an Ospreys spokesman, "Gavin Henson is thought to be planning a goatee, Shane Williams a full set and Justin Marshall is trying for the Graham Mourie with a big moustache.”

I've been unable so far to locate photos of the team's efforts, so will have to content myself with the below "artist's impressions" with Henson in particular doing a more than passable impression of the Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon...


Sunday, 18 November 2007

Feeling the pain

Only one word can describe how I feel today...

...PAIN.

I suspected that Saturday's match against Ruislip Vets would be a tough one and I wasn't wrong. Whilst there's an argument that to expect to face a bit of a battering can turn out to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, I really don't think that this was the case here as the bottom line was that they had half a dozen or so seriously decent players in their line up and played some seriously good rugby.

The final score was 33-5 (to them of course) but that doesn't really tell the whole story. That the opposition knew what they were doing was evident very early on as they took every opportunity to move the ball away from contact and ran hard at our midfield, one of whom was a backrower playing out of position and neither of whom had played together before. The tactic yielded an early try and it was obvious that we'd have to work very, very hard to keep them out.

Whereas they looked extremely well drilled from the off, we looked exactly what we were - pretty much a scratch side. We showed nine changes from the starting line up in our last game and it took us pretty much the whole of the first half to come to terms with what we were trying to do ourselves, let alone what the opposition were trying to do. By that stage, sadly, we were 3 tries down and trailed 19-0 at the half.

I certainly felt some responsibility for the second try in that I missed their inside centre with a despairing dive after he'd broken through the middle. Had I been fully switched on to what they were doing I'd have anticipated the break and, I'd like to think, would have made the tackle but, like the rest of the team, I wasn't really at the races during that first half.

One area that was going well for us, though, was the scrummage where we were much stronger than in our last outing and were able to shunt the opposition pack backwards both on their ball and on ours. Sadly our advantage here was swiftly negated early in the second half as an injury to one of our props meant that we had to switch to uncontested scrummages - another first for yours truly.

Nevertheless, we started the second half quite brightly and began to control territory and possession pretty well, eventually culminating in a try. I've no idea who scored it, mind you, as I was still at the bottom of a pile of bodies, desperately trying to breathe. Being trapped at the bottom of a pile up with the air being squeezed out of my lungs has never been a favourite location of mine, but believe me it's even worse when it's Vets rugby as, in general, players tend to (how can I put this politely?) be a few pounds heavier than in their prime.

To make matters worse, when I was eventually peeled from the floor I was informed by the referee that I had blood all over my face and needed to go off to get cleaned up. It turned out just to be a knick on my forehead which fortunately stopped bleeding pretty quickly and allowed me to be back on the field by the time the opposition kicked off again (which in many ways was a shame as I fancied a bit of a rest at that point).

The remainder of the game was spent largely chasing after Ruislip players who had obviously decided to spin every piece of possession they had and keep the ball alive at all costs. Not only was this exhausting for us it was also very bad form by the opposition to rely on superior fitness and skill to try to beat us - that's just not playing the game by my book.

We did have another opportunity to score later in the half, only for Colin (who runs the team) to spill the ball in the tackle as he prematurely attempted to celebrate the try, before having to leave the field with a combination of a knee injury and a severe case of mortal embarrassment.

Two further late tries were conceded as the opposition's dastardly fitness kicked in, before the referee (who had suffered from myopia for much of the game) blew the final whistle signal the end of the torture. A hot shower and a couple of beers later it was back home to nurse my many aches, strains and bruises, all of which have returned with a vengeance today as the anesthetic effect of last night's alcohol has worn off.

Naively, I had thought that this rugby lark would get easier but I've come to realise that, at my age, the pain really is part of the territory. It's three weeks before our next match - against local rivals Amersham & Chiltern - and no doubt by then the pain will be a distant memory and I'll have convinced myself that I'm fitter and that this time it will be different...

Friday, 16 November 2007

Peace in our time

So peace has finally broken out in England with the club vs country war finally being resolved, we're told, by a new eight-year agreement between the RFU and the Guinness Premiership clubs.

A “golden era for English rugby” was the expression used yesterday by Premier Rugby CEO Mark McCafferty and, who knows, it may turn out to be just that but a couple of things should be noted:

  1. The agreement doesn't come into force until 1st July 2008. So, unless there's an outbreak of voluntary goodwill in January, England's 2008 Six Nations campaign will probably still resemble the shambles of the last few years with Brian Ashton (or whoever is holding the reins) allowed only a couple of days training before each international; and

  2. When this deal finally does kick in there'll be no more excuses. If we're crap it'll be because we're crap - full stop.

Meanwhile, across the Severn, Warren Gatland has been unveiled as the Wales head coach with indecent haste. Don't get me wrong - he's a very good coach and I suppose it can be argued that the WRU have acted decisively in getting their man but, to me, it smacks of desperation and doesn't seem particularly well thought through. As for Gatland's decision to leave Waikato, I'm sure some of it is down to a desire to work at international level again but the WRU waiving its chequebook around may have helped. I also wonder if he has any idea what he's letting himself in for, given how Wales have treated their last two head coaches.

It may be Heineken Cup action again this weekend but the real action takes place at Chesham where we'll be taking on Ruislip Vets tomorrow afternoon. I took a look at the Ruislip RFC website this morning. Big mistake! No news relating to their Vets team this season, but last season they won all 6 of their fixtures and with scores like 72-0, 50-5 and 52-19 it looks like we'll have our work cut out. Their 3rd XV beat our 2nds 77-0 last weekend too, which doesn't bode that well. I may just have a bit of tackling to do tomorrow...

Finally, thanks to the thousands of you who attempted the Guess Who? competition posted on Wednesday. Well, I say thousands - what I really mean is thank you for the single entry! I can therefore announce that the winner is Chay who correctly guessed that the handsome young chap in the picture was none other than South Manchester's finest, Sebastian Chabal.

Chay wins a month's supply of virtual lager - enjoy and remember to drink responsibly! :)

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Guess who?

OK chaps it's competition time.

First prize is a month's supply of virtual lager.

All you have to do is name this handsome young fella on the left.

Please put your answers as comments to this post.

Closing time and date will be when I can be bothered to post the answer... :)

Cheers...

Eating my words...

Who was it who mentioned recently that training at the rugby club didn't always involve much fitness work and often featured "standing around on a cold, damp field?"

Ah, yes - that would've been me then. Well, all I can say is that, last night, it was cold and it was damp but it was also very, very physical and I have to admit that today I am paying for my comments in a big way with various parts of my body reminding me that I'm 43.

After a reasonably gentle game of touch and 10 minutes' worth of warm-up exercises we split off into two groups of eight, with each group tasked to attack against a specified number of defenders from the other group in defined channels of the pitch, two narrow channels and one wider channel. Being full contact, it was hard enough work in defence, but there was usually some respite after each attack as other defenders could then step in for the next one. There was no such respite in attack - as soon as our group had finished one attack in one channel it was straight into the next one - easy enough when it was, say, eight against three in the wider channel but incredibly draining when it was, for example, eight against six in a narrow channel.

I must confess that after about 10 minutes I was totally knackered, all energy seemingly well and truly sapped, but somehow I managed to keep going until we'd completed the full 45 minute exercise. We then finished off with 15 minutes-worth of eight against eight in a slightly wider area, just to re-emphasise to my body that, no matter how fit I think I might be, no amount of gym work can really compensate for being bashed about in full contact rugby.

On the plus side, I was reasonably happy with my own contribution and in particular my physicality which I'd previously been concerned about. It was certainly an extremely useful workout ahead of playing my 2nd game of the season on Saturday - against Ruislip Vets who, the grapevine has it, are quite handy.

Another first for me last night - it was the first time I'd ever worn a scrum cap. The soreness of my ears after the last match persuaded me to invest in some protection and, although it felt a bit weird at first, I soon got used to it and who knows, psychologically it may even have helped.

Roll on Saturday - just as soon as I stop hurting!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Eden parked

The Chief Executive of one of New Zealand's largest building firms has said that unless a decision is made soon over which construction company will win the contract to upgrade Eden Park (artist's impression pictured), no company will be able to deliver a completed stadium in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

New Zealand was awarded the hosting rights for the event in 2005, conditional upon a commitment to upgrade Eden Park to an International Rugby Board-mandated minimum capacity of 60,000.

The delay appears to be the result of arguments over who will pay the NZ$190 million costs, with Auckland city mayor John Banks fighting against Auckland ratepayers having to foot the bill.

So here's a question: Does New Zealand want this World Cup or not? Because the way things are going (and remember they've already had 2 years to start preparing) we're going to be faced with watching a tournament stripped of its minnows (if the 16 team rumour turns out to be true) in inadequate or incomplete stadia, and with no means of getting to the stadia (assuming of course that we've found somewhere to stay).

Here's another question: Does anyone have the phone number for the President of the Japanese RFU?

Rucking stamped out?

A rugby player who deliberately stamped on the head of an opponent during a match was jailed for 15 months by Swansea Crown court yesterday.

Rhys Garfield, 22, of Pontycymmer, South Wales, was playing for his village team when he deliberately stamped on the head of Gareth Howells, 21, who was playing for the home side Glynneath, causing a four-inch gash which needed 30 stitches.

A 15 month jail sentence may seem a little harsh for what was probably no more than a case of the red mist descending, but it's clear that we can't have players being kicked in the head and the sentence certainly sends out the right message.

However, whilst nearly all players would agree that a boot to the head is wholly unacceptable, I'm willing to bet that most would have no objection to use of the boot to the body in the act of rucking someone out of the way of the ball on the ground. I spent a large part of my playing days at the bottom of rucks and certainly accepted the fact that if I was on the wrong side I'd get a bit of a "shoeing".

Slow ball is currently the bane of the modern game and most rucks, these days, are static affairs, with players on the ground wrestling for the ball until the referee shouts "ruck, no hands", by which stage the chance of quick ball has gone. Packs no longer drive over the ball in numbers, rucking back anything in their wake, as referees are now instructed to punish any contact of boot to body.

There are a number of proposed new laws contained in the ELVs that are being trialled down under this season that are designed to (but will fail to do so in my view) make the game more attractive and yet I see nothing in these proposed new laws that will improve the problem of slow ball at the breakdown, the one problem that, if solved, would instantly make the game more open. Indeed, the proposal to allow players on their feet to handle the ball in the ruck will slow the ball down even further and turn every breakdown into a prolonged arm wrestle followed by an untidy heap as players will, under the proposed new laws, be allowed legally to collapse any resultant maul.

No, the answer, in my view is to allow players to ruck properly again. Stamping, whether to head or to body, is unacceptable and those that do stamp must face the consequences, whether that be via rugby's disciplinary system or, in the more serious cases, via the courts. But rucking, proper good old-fashioned rucking, is a skill that has been lost to the game over the years and the game is, in my view, definitely poorer as a result.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Good news, bad news



The good news is that at some point today this blog received its 5,000th visitor.

Congratulations to whoever it was - you win a virtual bottle of champagne and a hearty slap on the back from yours truly.

The bad news is that there's no prospect of me packing it all in just yet so you'll have to put up with this drivel for a while longer...

Chelsy boots

Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George.

More heartening news at the weekend as it appears that England Rugby's No.1 cheerleader Prince Harry has been dumped by his girlfriend, Chelsy Davy.

Don't get me wrong, I take no pleasure at all in this young man's misfortune. Nor am I afflicted by the Daily Mail "How can someone 3rd in line for the throne possibly marry someone called Chelsy?" mentality.

No, what amuses me is that the reason for the break-up appears to be that Harry missed his girlfriend's 22nd birthday because he chose to attend the Rugby World Cup Final in Paris instead.

Perhaps there is hope for the increasingly irrelevant monarchy after all.

Where's Wally...?


So, an overweight ex-forward who is some way past his best has made a recent return to the rugby field.

But enough about me, the heartening news to emerge from the weekend's European ties was the return to action of former Northampton and England hooker Steve "Wally" Thompson, who came on as a first half replacement for French club Brive against Connacht.

Thompson, who announced his retirement earlier this year due to a neck injury and then joined Brive in a coaching capacity, was last month given the go-ahead by doctors to resume his playing career.

Despite being described by the Northampton Chronicle as "visibly out of shape" (although when was he ever really in shape?), it's great to hear that Thompson is back playing again and, given that he seems to have been around for ever, I was shocked to hear that he's still only 29. That means he'll only be 33 by the time of the next Rugby World Cup, a mere infant in England forward terms.

If he can stay injury-free and if (and it's a big if I admit) he can get himself back to the sort of form he displayed in 2002-2003, when he was undoubtedly one of the world's most effective hookers, then this can only be good news for England. Only one word could describe a front-row of Sheridan, Thompson and Stevens...

...monstrous!

Friday, 9 November 2007

Barking...

It appears that former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward and former England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher have more in common than we first thought.

Not only did they each preside over iconic moments in English sporting history (the 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph and the 2005 Ashes series respectively), then enjoy the subsequent over-the-top accolades of the masses in Trafalgar Square and the patronage of Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, and then preside over quite the most spectacular slumps in form by their respective teams - they also, it seems, both believe that their self-declared coaching genius can be applied to other sports.

It was Clive, you'll recall, who left his England coaching position in a blaze of publicity with the intention of ultimately becoming a football manager, the round ball game having been his first love. Southampton FC were eventually silly enough to indulge his ego for a few ill-fated months until tiring of his madcap ideas (including, I seem to remember, installing a fish tank in the players' lounge to induce tranquility) before Woodward eventually resigned, turning up later at the British Olympic Association, where he's busy handing out key coaching roles to his former staff at the RFU - Sheryll Calder, Dave Reddin and Dave Alred all joining the Olympic gravy train.

Not to be outdone, Fletcher, who has non-too-subtly levered his name back into the public eye recently with his character assassination of Freddie Flintoff in his autobiography, has now revealed he would relish the chance to work in rugby union. Given that there appear to be precious few offers from cricket on the table, Fletcher has apparently declared his expertise in all matters rugby.

"I'd like to be a rugby consultant," he has told the Independent. "I have some ideas.

"The big thing in rugby is changing direction. That's the key. If you can change direction, you've got a one-metre advantage over the opposition and by the time they have woken up to it, you've stolen that metre. I find that fascinating."

Well that's all fine and dandy then. On that basis I could also be a rugby consultant as I'm sure I could come up with plenty of half-baked ideas of my own. Come to think of it, so could my Mum. Not having played top-class rugby would not, according to Fletcher, be a disadvantage.

"What's much more important is an investigative mind and an understanding of how the body works," he is reported to have said.

Delusions of grandeur? Possibly. Mad as a box of snakes? Definitely.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Hooray for Hollywood

With the movie “Forever Strong” now apparently in post-production, it seems that rugby and Hollywood are to continue to be unlikely bedfellows as plans are evolving to produce a movie about South Africa’s hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the birth of the “rainbow nation.”

Apparently, Warner Bros is in talks to co-finance "The Human Factor," based on John Carlin's book "The Human Factor: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed the World."

With Clint Eastwood attached as director and Morgan Freeman seemingly committed to play Nelson Mandela, it looks as if rugby is now getting some heavyweight treatment from the Hollywood establishment. Even the entirely inappropriate plan to cast Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar (seriously!) shows some intent (if not judgement) from the producers.

Now I realise that Mandela is a truly iconic figure and that the 1995 Rugby World Cup played a pivotal role in bringing the rainbow nation together, but I can’t help feeling Hollywood is missing a trick by not focusing instead on the intriguing possibilities offered up by the story of the dramatic turnaround of the England rugby team at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. They could bring the Yoda puppet out of mothballs to play Brian Ashton (with a voiceover by Coronation Street’s Bill Tarmey) and Eastwood himself would probably the right age to take on the role of disgruntled veteran Lawrence Dallaglio. Just think of the dialogue opportunities:
Dallaglio: “Go on punk, make my day”

Ashton: “Sit on the bench you will”

Another story that’s been doing the rounds for some time now is that pensioner-loving Catherine Zeta-Jones is planning to make a rugby-based movie set in South Wales. The movie, entitled “Coming Out” is said to feature (and I know that this will come as a huge surprise to you all) a guest appearance from none other than our favourite tango man Gavin Henson, who will appear as himself. Zeta-Jones has apparently said of the film:

"I grew up among rugby fanatics - the film is very close to my heart. It's about a gay teenager from a little town in Wales who goes to London to pursue musical theatre. His father dies and leaves him the local rugby club in his will. He's doing West Side Story and has to go back home to get these fat, drinking, smoking Welsh guys into shape to win the rugby tournament."

Sounds plausible then! For the sake of authenticity I can only hope and pray that Matt “only gay in the village” Lucas is to be offered the lead role.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Ouch!

I've just noticed that in the announcement of the Newcastle Falcons team to play Spain's Cetransa El Salvador this weekend there's a sentence that makes me wince just little:
[Jamie] Noon returns to action after suffering medial knee ligament damage in England’s World Cup group encounter with South Africa, with Steve Jones shifting one place to fly half as Toby Flood recovers from an operation to fix a minor tear to his scrotum suffered last weekend against the Dragons.
That's gotta hurt!

Man-flu

If you've been paying attention you'll have noticed a distinct lack of references to rugby training on this blog in recent times and that's for the very good reason that I haven't been dragging myself along to club training lately.

My (admittedly lame) excuse last week was that I felt very much in need of some fitness work (which doesn't always materialise at club training) and so decided to take myself off to the gym on Tuesday for an extra session. I've been doing a fair bit at the gym recently which should, in theory, stand me in good stead but so far this week I've been laid low with a heavy cold (or, to give it it's proper medical term, "man-flu" which, as any male member of the species will tell you, is far more debilitating that the common cold that typically affects females).

Standing around on a cold, damp field clearly wasn't going to be conducive to a speedy recovery so I therefore also decided to give last night's club training a miss, although I do fully intend to make next Tuesday's session, not least because by then the countdown will be well and truly underway for my 2nd game of the season.

It's funny that, after finally playing rugby again after all this time, my goals and targets for the next game have shifted somewhat. Before my 1st game I was full of nerves, being hugely apprehensive about whether I would last the match, whether I would be injured, whether I was still capable of playing at any sort of level. Having come through relatively unscathed (and relatively unhumiliated, more to the point) my motivations for the next match are very much centred around whether I can make more of an impact or have more of influence on the game - in other words whether I can get back to somewhere near the form that I think I should be capable of. Perhaps it's case of me wanting to run before I can walk, but in my head I play magnificently, driving off the back of scrums, breaking tackles, offloading, tackling like a demon etc etc. What's needed is for (a) those messages from my brain to work their way down to my limbs and (b) for my limbs to respond accordingly - neither of which are particularly likely given the reality of my age and lack of rugby over the past decade or so, but I can dream...

So, all I need now is for the effects of man-flu to wear off sufficiently for me to get down to the gym again this afternoon. If anyone knows how to get rid of the feeling of a stampeding herd of elephants from between my eyes, please let me know.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Real Men Wear Beards

First there was Hayman's Beard, then the Caveman cometh, and now we are presented with the awesomely handle-bar moustachioed Andy Goode - yes folks, facial hair is back in rugby in a big way for the first time since the halcyon days of the 1970s and it's the English Premiership that is leading the way.

Long gone are the token spivvy moustaches of the 80s or the squeaky clean-shaven days of the 90s (when the best you could expect was for a few of the forwards not to shave on the morning of the match).

Now we must simply "Fear the Beard" - the war-cry from the Hayman's Beard blog. The big man from Otago's facial growth has not been the result of a whim or of following fashion but has been very much part of his psyche for the last few years (and his clean-shaven look in the Rugby World Cup quarter final was noticeably unsuccessful). Sebastian Chabal, too, has bucked the trend over the last few seasons with his barnet and beard very much modelled on the neanderthal era, whilst England's George Chuter's formerly trimmed stubble morphed magnificently into a splendidly bushy Victorian woolly mass during the Rugby World Cup.

And now, not only has the Premiership started to attract the world's top players to its ranks, it is also setting the standards for facial fashion. Chuter's colleagues at Leicester Tigers have started a "Grow a Mo for Hambo" campaign to raise money to help sufferers from spinal injuries via the Matt Hampson Trust Fund - encouraging Premiership players to donate £5 and grow a moustache. Andy Goode's spectacular effort is the pick of the bunch so far, with an honourable mention to Geordan "Wyatt Earp" Murphy, but we can expect further efforts throughout England in the coming weeks. Furthermore, in honour of Carl Hayman's imminent arrival at Newcastle Falcons, the club has decreed that December 16th will be "National Geordie Beard Day," with players being encouraged to grow beards in support of the Wooden Spoon charity. As the Falcons' commercial director Mick Hogan puts it:

"Rigorous scientific tests have proved that Carl derives his immense power and scrummaging ability from his trademark beard, and we have received the full support of the National Beard and Moustache Association!"
So, a message to the likes of Gavin Henson, James Hook and Toby Flood:- the days of heavily gelled spiky hair, shaved legs and fake orange tan are gone. Get with the programme - REAL MEN WEAR BEARDS!

Monday, 5 November 2007

Stop Press: RFU announce RWC review results

After an extensive review by Director of Elite Rugby Rob Andrew of England's performance at the 2007 Rugby World Cup, which has included taking the views of the entire playing squad as well as exhaustive interviews with the coaching and management team, the RFU are pleased to announce that the only action deemed necessary is a proposal to the IRB to alter the playing dimensions of a standard rugby pitch to make the video referee's job easier when adjudicating on future try attempts by Mark Cueto (see left).

Work on the Twickenham pitch will begin immediately to ensure that it is ready for the opening 2008 Six Nations clash against Wales.



(Diagram unashamedly nicked from Allez Les Noirs).

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Dunderhead of the Week


Full marks this week go to former Scotland coach Matt Williams who has claimed that he was hounded out of his job by racial prejudice.

Williams, you may remember, took over from Ian McGeechan after the 2003 Rugby World Cup and led the Scotland team to new levels of ineptitude.

Last time I looked Williams wasn't black, or asian, or anything other than caucasian and, much as I hate to break it to him, I'm afraid that fair dinkum Australian doesn't constitute a "race".

Williams' argument appears to rest on the fact that the antipathy of the Scottish nation towards the then Scotland football coach, Berti Vogts (also racially motivated according to Williams, despite that fact that there is also no such race as "German" and that the Scotland football team under Vogts were utter rubbish) was transferred to Williams when Vogts resigned.

"It didn't really matter if I was any good or not – I wasn't a Scot. So the whole racial thing was pretty hard to accept," says Williams.

Setting aside the fact that Williams obviously is somewhat confused as to what constitutes racism, he is obviously also entirely deluded if he thinks that his lack of popularity had anything to do with his nationality. The fact is that, under Williams, Scotland were worse than under the previous regime and improved immediately and dramatically as soon as he left the job.

So, Matt Williams, it did matter if you were "any good or not" - I'm sorry to say that you weren't any good and your popularity reflected that. Your only consolation is that you are now the proud owner of a coveted Total Flanker Dunderhead of the Week award.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Fame game

Cancel the red carpet, call off the paparazzi, it looks like my new-found international fame is going to be somewhat short-lived.

As previously reported, this humble little blog has been referred to in the online section of The Times, specifically in Hamish Henry's "Best of the Web" section which, in turn, is a sub-section of the "Upfront Rugby" feature - so you can see just how major-league I've now become ;) .

However, the introduction to this week's column (and thanks again for the mention, Hamish) reads: "Our resident surfer takes one final look at rugby's internet persona," which does suggest that my career as a media darling is about to be holed below the waterline.

If true, not only is this a potentially catastrophic blow to my growing ego, it's also a shame that we shall in future be denied this very useful route to some of the more unusual and amusing rugby content out there in the ether, presumably because the editorial team at The Times believes that the end of the 2007 Rugby World Cup will mean the end of all such content?

So, if you're reading this Hamish (although why would you if you're no longer being paid to do so?!), it would be great if you could post a comment on here to clarify if indeed the "Best of the Web" is being mothballed and, if so, the rationale behind it.

I, meanwhile, will await the call from the producers of Celebrity Big Brother.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Ray Gravell RIP

Very sad to hear the news today of the passing of Welsh legend Ray Gravell, who died of a suspected heart attack aged 56 while on a family holiday in Mallorca.

My memories of Ray Gravell are, I'm sorry to say, not happy ones as, with Phil Bennett and Steve Fenwick, he was part of the formidable Welsh midfield in the 1970s which, together with an electrifying back three of Gerald Davies, JJ Williams and JPR Williams, regularly made the lives of England rugby fans a misery. Although I wasn't really into rugby much back in the 70s, I did watch the big games on television and my recollections are very much of that lot running riot against a shambolic England every year.

It's astonishing, given that he was an integral part of the Welsh team from 1975 to 1982, that somehow he "only" amassed 23 caps - a sure indication that far fewer international rugby matches were played back then. However, with 2 Grand Slams to his name during that period he is already acknowledged as one of Wales' all time greats and he also earned 4 Lions caps, playing in every international on the 1980 tour to South Africa.

Great player, great character and from the tributes I've read it's clear that Ray will be sorely missed. My thoughts and sympathies go out to his family and his many friends...