Thursday, 31 January 2008

Six Nations Fantasy League

I've just entered my fantasy team in the Scrum.com Six Nations Fantasy League.

For the record I've gone for:

A Sheridan
M Horan
W Servat
L Nallet
S Dellape
J Barclay
J Haskell
R Jones
E Reddan
R O'Gara
B O'Driscoll
N De Luca
D Strettle
V Clerc
S Williams

Beat that!

Blackheath Bengal

Blackheath Rugby Club are set to launch a not-so-secret weapon on Launceston in the 5th round of the EDF National Trophy this weekend.

NFL linebacker and wannabe televsion personality Dhani Jones is in England making a US travel series and asked Blackheath if he could film a typical English rugby club in action on and off the field, with the somewhat inevitable consequence that, three training sessions later, he finds himself on the bench for Saturday's game.

According to coach Harvey Biljon, Jones will probably get five or ten minutes off the bench in Cornwall.

“Because Dhani is a defensive lineman, his catching and passing are the things we need to work on," Bijon said. “All being well, he will come on the field as a flanker. I don’t think it will make much difference whether it’s blindside or openside. We just have to make sure that when he hits someone it is an opponent who has got the ball and that he’s notrunning an illegal blocking move.”

At 6ft 1in and just over 17 stone, Cincinatti Bengal Jones is ideally built for blindside where (far be it for me to suggest) his inability to catch the ball might be better hidden. Jones will also hope to have picked up a few tips on the game from Martin Johnson, with whom he attended Leicester's match against Newcastle last weekend, although sitting on his other side was Austin Healy - so really anything could happen.

Healy will no doubt have been impressed with the story that Jones was once arrested by Miami police for dancing in the street outside a South Beach nightclub, all of which bodes well for a great night out in Launceston at the weekend.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The A-Team looking the part

Take a look at the backs lining up for England A (I'm sorry, but I can't bring myself to use the ridiculous "Saxons" label) to play Ireland A on Friday:

15. Nick Abendanon (Bath), 14. Tom Varndell (Leicester Tigers), 13. Ollie Smith (Leicester Tigers), 12. Shane Geraghty (London Irish), 11. Delon Armitage (London Irish), 10. Ryan Lamb (Gloucester).

Now imagine those players lined up behind a dominant English pack at Twickenham on Saturday...

More coaches show their hand...

The shocks just keep registering on the richter scale as three more starting line-ups are unveiled for the opening Six Nations weekend.

It's often said that you don't know which French team will turn up for any particular match and this time that's quite literally the case. Marc Lievremont's first selection as head coach is bold, brave and gloriously bonkers in equal measures, featuring four players making their debuts including both props and the fly half, while 2 other members of the pack will win their 2nd and 3rd caps respectively.

FRANCE: C Heymans (Toulouse); J Malzieu (Clermont-Auvergne), F Fritz (Toulouse), D Traille (Biarritz), V Clerc (Toulouse); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), J-B Elissalde(Toulouse); L Faure (Sale), W Servat (Toulouse), J Brugnaut (Dax), L Nallet (Castres, capt), L Jacquet (Clermont-Auvergne), F Ouedraogo (Montpellier), TDusautoir (Toulouse), E Vermeulen (Clermont-Auvergne).
Replacements: N Mas (Perpignan), D Szarzewski (Stade Francais), A Mela (Albi), J Bonnaire (Clermont-Auvergne), M Parra (Bourgoin), D Skrela (Stade Francais), A Rougerie (Clermont-Auvergne).
The French selection may be eccentric in the extreme but I wouldn't necessarily bet against them beating Scotland, especially now that Frank Hadden appears to have had a sudden rush of blood to the head and has left out Chris Paterson from the Scotland starting line up. Yes, Scotland have decided to do without the best goalkicker in last year's Six Nations and the man who had a 100% success rate at the World Cup. This suggests that Scotland will seek to play a wider game against France which, frankly, could prove to be suicidal.

SCOTLAND: R Lamont (Sale Sharks); N Walker (Ospreys), N De Luca (Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow Warriors), S Webster (Edinburgh); D Parks (Glasgow Warriors), M Blair (Edinburgh); A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton Saints), N Hines (Perpignan), J Hamilton (Leicester Tigers), J White (Sale Sharks, captain), J Barclay (Glasgow Warriors), D Callam (Edinburgh).
Replacements: F Thomson (Glasgow Warriors), G Kerr (Edinburgh), S MacLeod (Llanelli Scarlets), K Brown (Glasgow Warriors), C Cusiter (Perpignan), C Paterson (Gloucester), H Southwell (Edinburgh).
Meanwhile, no major shocks from Nick Mallet's Italy, as they continue to juggle their resources to come up with a long term successor to Diego Dominguez at fly half. Andrea Masi, a hugely talented footballer, gets his chance this time around which could signal a more rounded tactical approach, although the Italian pack still looks mightily fearsome and could just give Conservative Eddie more than a bit of a fright.

ITALY: D Bortolussi (Montpellier); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont-Auvergne), M Bergamasco (Stade Francais), P Canavosio (Castres); A Masi (Biarritz), P Travagli (Overmach Parma); A Lo Cicero (Racing-Metro), L Ghiraldini (Calvisano), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), S Dellape (Biarritz), CA Del Fava (Ulster), J Sole (Viadana), M Bergamasco (Stade Francais), S Parisse (Stade Francais, capt).
Replacements: C Festuccia (Racing-Metro), S Perugini (Stade Toulousain), C Nieto (Gloucester), T Reato (Rovigo), A Zanni (Calvisano), A Marcato (Treviso), E Galon (Overmach Parma).

Battle of the sexes?

Over on Women's Rugby Review , following the receipt of the following email from someone interested in organising mixed contact rugby, we're running a poll asking whether rugby folk think that such a venture would work:

I had a little-toe-wave (this is like a brain wave but somewhat lower down the scale) the other day but it takes some research. And I don't know enough people. Maybe, even if you don't know enough, you can reach enough.I am trying to find out the appetite for women to play mixed contact rugby. I figured the male part of the mixed would be vets (and, as I gather you realise, the maturer player is more likely to play to the spirit of the game :-)). I am looking to form an occasionals, wondering side of five vets, five women and five novices. Since no one else does this (as far as I can ascertain) I would have to double those numbers so we could have a game).The few girls who play that I know would be up for it (given the obvious and serious boundary conditions like insurance), but I need a wider sample.

Mixed touch rugby is obviously very common but what do you think - would men and women playing mixed contact rugby work?

Personally I have my doubts - my experience of Vets' rugby being that it's just as physical as "normal" (for want of a better word) rugby, just that much slower! And as for playing in the "spirit of the game," that entirely depends on the individual concerned - age plays very little part.

Please feel free to comment here and/or take part in the poll located top right of Women's Rugby Review.


ADDENDUM: I should almost certainly have checked this before I originally posted but clause 1.3 of the RFUW Rules & Regulations states:
1.3 Mixed Rugby
The playing of rugby football between male and female teams or by teams containing male and female players is prohibited if one or more of the players are over the age of 12 years at midnight 31st August/1 st
September of the season concerned as per RFU Continuum.
Exception: Excluding all forms of noncontact or tag /touch rugby.

Oh well, thoughts and views would still be welcome...

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Hearing aid

The RFU report that England coach Brian Ashton has sent the England Deaf rugby team a good luck message ahead of their international against Wales on Sunday.

"I'm told that all involved with the England Deaf team, and the team themselves have put a great deal of effort into preparing for these games and I just hope that you will reap what you have sown," Ashton said. "Enjoy and make your country proud!"

Unfortunately, however, the England Deaf team's pleas for Ashton not to pick Ian Balshaw for England's match against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday fell on deaf ears.

Coaches show their hands

Three starting XVs for the weekend's Six Nations have been named so far today - those of England, Wales and Ireland - and all contain shocks in one way or another.

The big surprise in the England selection is the decision to call Gloucester number 8 Luke Narraway into the starting XV. Narraway's been in good form for Gloucester, but he was so far off most pundits' radar that it's taken everyone by surprise. It could turn out to be a masterstroke, but the omission of Tom Croft from the 22 is a big disappointment.

Of almost equal surprise is the selection of Ian Ballsup at fullback, despite the fact that he's long been a teacher's pet as far as Brian Ashton is concerned. I'm not sure what Ballsup's done to to merit inclusion, nor do I know what Mathew Tait has done (aside from one poor game for Newcastle at the weekend) to warrant further shoddy treatment in being excluded from the 22.

All in all it's a selection that fails to inspire, although the potential impact from the bench looks promising:

ENGLAND: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), M Tindall (Gloucester), T Flood (Newcastle), D Strettle (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), J Haskell (Wasps), L Moody (Leicester), L Narraway (Gloucester).
Replacements: L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), T Rees (Wasps), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), D Cipriani (Wasps), L Vainikolo (Gloucester).
Meanwhile, Warren Gatland has surprised many by going for a starting XV containing 13 Ospreys, which really shouldn't be a shock given that they are the only Welsh region playing decent rugby this season. Unfortunately, however, he has been unable to select the 3 Ospreys who have led the team's asault on Europe this season - New Zealanders Marty Holah, Justin Marshall and Filo Tiatia - for the rather inconvenient reason that they are all Kiwis.

All in all it's a decent enough looking team - but the front row could be eaten alive by the English and the omission of Shanklin may come back to haunt Gatland:

WALES: L Byrne (Ospreys); S Williams (Ospreys), S Parker (Ospreys), G Henson (Ospreys), M Jones (Llanelli Scarlets); J Hook (Ospreys), M Phillips (Ospreys); D Jones (Ospreys), H Bennett (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), AW Jones (Ospreys), J Thomas (Ospreys), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt).
Replacements: M Rees (Llanelli Scarlets), G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), I Evans (Ospreys), A Popham (Llanelli Scarlets), G Cooper (Gloucester), S Jones (Llanelli Scarlets), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues).
Finally, Eddie O'Sullivan has caused major shockwaves only insofar as he has somehow managed to entirely redefine the word "conservative" by sticking more or less with the players humbled by France and Argentina at the World Cup. Those hoping for a new dawn and starts for the likes of Jamie Heaslip or Leo Cullen or Rob Kearney will be sadly disappointed.

I can't help feeling that, at home against Italy, Eddie's missed the boat on this one:
IRELAND: G Dempsey (Leinster); A Trimble (Ulster), O'Driscoll (Leinster, captain), G D'Arcy (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester); R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps); M Horan (Munster), R Best (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), S Easterby (Llanelli), D Wallace (Munster), D Leamy (Munster).
Replacements: B Jackman (Leinster), T Buckley (Munster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster), P Stringer (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster), R Kearney (Leinster).

Old Spice

I received an email today via the World Masters Rugby Group which reads as follows:
... My crazy father (68 years old) is feeling a little too domestic and wants to start playing [rugby]. I think he's nuts but I won't discourage him. He comes watches my games in San Antonio and is interested in learning so he can travel and play. I was telling him about all these ppportunities to travel and play in some pretty interesting locations and he likes the fact that he wont be getting his head taken off in competitive play...

I've mentioned previously how impressed I was to read about guys taking up rugby for the first time in their forties (all of them also being American as it happens), but for someone to be contemplating taking up the sport aged 68 is quite something, although I must admit I can't decide whether I think that this is a great idea or whether it's seriously mental!

Monday, 28 January 2008

Why eye?

It has come to light that players from Bicester Rugby Club's 1st XV wore eye patches after their 55-8 victory against Broadmoor Staff earlier this month.

This was nothing to do with the bizarre visual awareness training technique adopted by the All Blacks during the World Cup (much good that it did them) - but instead was an ironic tribute to Bicester player Martin Linstrom who had apparently had his eye gouged by a Broadmoor player earlier in the season.

Clearly the Bicester and Broadmoor players don't see eye to eye on this issue.

(Sorry).


NZ police suffer sense of humour failure

Wellington police appear to have suffered a massive sense of humour failure and have outlawed the wearing of Borat style swimming costumes at the IRB Sevens event taking place in the city this weekend.

"It's a family event and there will be children there," an officer said on New Zealand television today, appealing to fans to have "a sense of decency".

So, with fun strictly off the agenda, it looks like the spectators might have to just watch the rugby, which really defeats the object of attending a sevens event...

A little hors d'oeuvre...

It's time to set aside all rational thinking as it's THAT time of year again when all English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, French and Italian rugby fans lose all sense of reality as the expectation builds towards the start of another Six Nations campaign.

And just to whet the appetite further, here's a little hors d'oeuvre put together by our friends at the Rugby Blog.



Bring it on...!

Friday, 25 January 2008

Over and out for Rosenthal

Shocking news as, according to the Daily Mail, ITV have decided to part company with Jim Rosenthal whom the esteemed newspaper considers to be "widely regarded as the best all-round sports broadcaster in the business."

Huh? Did I miss something here? Is this the same Jim Rosenthal who, during the Rugby World Cup, showed the most blatant ignorance as to even the basics of the game and whose fawning over a frankly average performance by Jonny Wilkinson against Samoa not only provoked the displeasure of the mono-browed former England skipper Martin Johnson, it also earned him the Total Flanker Dunderhead of the Week Award.

I can only think that Rosenthal knows some dark secret about the life of the Daliy Mail's Editor, because the quality publication goes on to describe Rosenthal's performance as an "immaculate hosting of the Rugby World Cup," which proves that there's no accounting for taste and probably actually says more about the Daily Mail than anything else.

Let's face it, Rosenthal is a half-decent presenter of football and Formula 1, but has no clue about (and, I suspect, even less interest in) rugby, and the fact that he was able to anchor three Rugby World Cups on behalf of ITV is a sad indictment of the broadcaster's coverage of the tournament over the years and of rugby in general.

Pace in our time

The Times reports today that England could be struggling to select a fit back row for the clash with Wales at Twickenham on 2nd February.

With Quins' number 8 Nick Easter not having played this month with a knee problem, Lewis Moody having missed the last 5 weeks with a groin injury, Joe Worsley only having played once since the World Cup final and Martin Corry having retired, it looks as if England might not have available all four of the backrowers who featured in the latter stages of the Rugby World Cup. In view of the circumstances does Brian Ashton, perhaps, wish that he could still call on the services of Richard Hill, in my view pound for pound the best backrow forward England have ever produced, and who announced his retirement from all rugby at the end of the season?

Well, funnily enough, I doubt it. If anything Ashton should be very, very excited by the possibilities. After all, just look at the back row that he could still select next week. Assuming that none of them gets crocked this weekend he could pick Tom Croft at 6, James Haskell at 8 and Tom Rees at 7 - a seriously quick and dynamic combination. Yes, they lack experience, and perhaps a little grunt, but the potential there is enormous and with a prevailing wind and a little luck they could well form the England back row for the next decade.

Pick a gnarly, experienced tight five (Sheridan, Regan, Vickery, Borthwick, Kay), bolt on Croft, Haskell and Rees and watch 'em go. It'd also be a fantastic motivation for picking some real fliers in the back division to make the most of the young trio's talents.

Come on, Brian - you know it makes sense.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Pain in the neck

So England's Paul Sackey's suffering from mumps? Not something you tend to hear much about these days as kids tend to be vaccinated against it, but I certainly remember having mumps as a kid. I must have been about 7 or 8 and I woke up one morning with a stiff jaw, unable to chew my breakfast. My mum, bless her, was having no malingering on her watch and sent me to school as usual, although I think she felt suitably guilty later that day when I was sent home with suspected mumps, one side of my face having ballooned out. She also got her comeuppance when she caught it from me.

I remember it being extremely painful and unpleasant for a few days and basically I had to drink soup through a straw until the symptoms subsided, so I can imagine what Sackey's going through all too easily.

The other factor is, of course, that mumps is incredibly infectious and Brian Ashton is, quite rightly, insisting that his squad is blood-tested and, where appropriate, immunised. The last thing he needs is for England's Six Nations campaign to be derailed by illness - he must be wondering if it's déjà vu all over again* after England's ill-fated trip to South Africa last summer when an already severely depleted squad were decimated by a stomach virus which left David Strettle hooked up to a drip in hospital.

The trick to being a successful coach is often just a question of being a lucky coach and I'm beginning to wonder whether Ashton used up all his luck in France in October?

* courtesy of the late, great Yogi Bera

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

(Not such) great expectations

For those expecting England to cut loose against the Welsh at Twickenham on 2nd February - think again.
As the Scots, Welsh and Irish all put their feet up and turn their thoughts to the start of the Six Nations, please spare a thought for the English players (and indeed the French players) who will still be knocking seven shades of the brown stuff out of each other as the insane domestic schedule grinds on this weekend.

Yes, the clubs and the RFU have agreed a programme that will allow the England coach increased access to the England players and blocks out training periods ahead of international games, but sadly this won't kick in until July, leaving Brian Ashton with little preparation time ahead of this year's tournament.

The England players are, I expect, planning to meet up on Sunday - giving them a total of six days to prepare to face Wales. However, with only Sale, Quins, Gloucester and Wasps playing on Friday, only 16 of the squad might be able to train on Sunday, assuming the players will need one day to recuperate. A further 10 players, due to play on Saturday, might make training on Monday while the Bath contingent who play on Sunday (Steve Borthwick, Lee Mears and Matt Stevens) could possibly be ready to train Tuesday. With the day before a match generally regarded as a rest day, this only leaves Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for the squad to prepare together.

All of this does assume, of course, that no injuries occur this weekend - which would be a bold assumption to make given the injuries last weekend to Simon Shaw and Peter Richards and the virus that appears to have stricken Paul Sackey. It also assumes that the England squad members will all play for their clubs and, while it is well within the various clubs' rights to select their best players given the importance of league points, one can only hope that there is an unexpected and unprecedented outbreak of goodwill which will allow many of the players a weekend off.

Whatever, it's little wonder that Brian Ashton's squad selection was what many observers thought to be conservative. In reality he'll only have time to re-introduce the players to the basic patterns of play that developed during the latter stages of the World Cup. Anything else will be a bonus indeed.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Caveman extinct?

News from France where brand spanking new coach Marc Lièvremont has decided to make his mark by leaving national icon Sebastian Chabal out of the France squad to play Scotland on 3rd February.

I can see that there's perhaps an argument for building towards 2011, but it does seem harsh that a player who made such an impact with the national team such a short time ago should now be deemed surplus to requirements. The fact that a bloke called Elvis is now firmly rated ahead of him must also be a source of irritation to the large bearded one.

Lièvremont is obviously going for a high risk strategy as he's also left out France's best lock, Jerome Thion and their most gifted fullback, Clement Poitrenaud, as well as the likes of Pierre Mignoni and David Marty.

That said, if I was a betting man my cash would still be firmly on France to win the Six Nations.

The Total Flanker Guide to playing: Fly Half

The position of fly half (or outside half, out half, stand-off, five-eighth, first five-eighth, first five, fly, pivot - take your pick) is one I have no direct experience of at all - unless you count the fact that I've knocked quite a few of them over in my time (most of them being somewhat smaller than me of course).

Nevertheless, I plan to give you chapter and verse on what it takes to be a successful fly-half, based purely on observation and unadulterated envy.

Why envy? Well, simply because I would love to be a good enough footballer to be able to stamp my authority on a game in the way that a good number 10 can do - to be able to make key tactical decisions during a game, to be able to execute kicks off either foot to gain a tactical advantage for my team, to set my backline moving and to create and score try after try.

This is what a good fly half can do. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if the rest of us mere mortals are to retain our sanity), you don't come across too many fly halves with these qualities - but the important thing to note is that in order to play this position you do need to BELIEVE that you can do all of the above, regardless of your actual ability.

It's called arrogance - and all fly halves have it by the bucketload. It is pure arrogance that allows young England hopeful Danny Cipriani to boss the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio about, and it is the same arrogance that allows a short, balding middle-aged man with no pace to speak of to convince the rest of his team that he knows what he's doing and that he can lead them to victory against palpably superior opponents.

I'm not sure how or why it works, but if you truly believe that you can kick goals from 60 metres, can rake huge kicks down the touchline, can side-step off either foot through the massed ranks of the opposition defence, or can thread a pass through the eye of a needle to send your centres racing away to the tryline, then the rest of your team will believe it too, despite the evidence of their own eyes.

The fact that you need to be directly in front of the posts and no more than 15 metres out for a successful kick at goal, that your clearance kicks hardly ever reach touch and when they do they go out on the full, that any attempt to side-step risks serious ligament damage or that your passes generally come with an ambulance following closely behind, is entirely irrelevant. And the fact that tackling is an utter anathema to you is also conveniently lost on your team mates as they remain mesmerised by a fug of collective hysteria.

I've often sat in the bar after a game and thought "Why on earth did we try and run it from our own line - what was he thinking?" or "What on earth was he doing trying a drop goal with a 13-man overlap?" But come the next game it's all forgotten as the madness descends again and we are all hypnotised by the fly half's utterly misplaced air of authority.


There - hope that helps :)

Monday, 21 January 2008

Take my mother-in-law...

I'm not saying the mother-in-law's ugly, but last Christmas she stood under the mistletoe waiting for someone to kiss and she was still there at Lent.

I can always tell when the mother-in-law's coming to stay; the mice throw themselves on the traps.

The wife's mother said, "When you're dead, I'll dance in your grave." I said: "Good, I'm being buried at sea."

I took my mother-in-law to Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, and one of the attendants said, 'Keep her moving sir, we're stock-taking.'

Les Dawson - (1934-1993)

Boom, boom! Yes, there have been plenty of mother-in-law jokes doing the rounds at northern working men's clubs over the years, but how many international rugby players can claim that their wife's mother is truly a few french fries short of a happy meal?

Well, Ben Cohen for one.

According to the Daily Mail (whose insightful investigative reporting has struck gold once more) Cohen's mother-in-law, Felicity Blayney, has been "driven to despair" by the behaviour of Cohen and her daughter Abby which has, she claims, resulted in her being barred from seeing her twin granddaughters.

Twice-divorced (I wonder why?) Mrs Blayney claims that when she stayed with the couple in Northants shortly after the birth of the twins she was banned from using both the landline and her mobile after 10.30pm, and says she was not allowed to watch television or wear high heels in the house and was expected to do all the cooking, cleaning and ironing.

"One Sunday Ben didn't let me leave the house until I'd tided up my paperwork, tidied my bedroom and cleaned the floors. I felt like Cinderella," she told the Mail's ace reporter, adding (somewhat bizarrely):

"Ben is gorgeous and deep down there is a lovely person there."

Apparently, although not altogether unsurprisingly, the couple, who now live in France where Cohen now plays for Brive, are refusing to return her phone calls.

A rather bemused Cohen is reported to have said: "This has come totally out of the blue. Felicity is welcome to see the children any time she likes. I think Ryanair flights cost about £1, but if money is an issue I am happy to pay costs. I don't know what else to say."

Other than "my mother-in-law is clearly as mad as a box of snakes," perhaps?

Refreshing the parts...

Well, that's the quarter final line-up for the Heineken Cup (or the H-Cup, as it's known in France) now sorted and I must say that my prediction (which admittedly I only made last week) that London Irish, Gloucester, Stade, Saracens, Munster, Toulouse, Perpignan, and Ospreys would go through, was quite close to the mark. Only Cardiff, with their win in Bristol, upset the applecart.

Are there any conclusions to be drawn? Well, despite reports to the contrary I don't think that the fact the Welsh have two teams in the quarter finals for the first time is particularly significant. Neither the Ospreys or Cardiff really came through difficult groups - the former going through as a best runner-up while the latter were aided and abetted by Stade failing to turn up at Bristol. Had the seeding of the competition been remotely fair then we'd have surely seen the likes of Wasps and Leicester progress, probably at the expense of one of the Welsh teams and, possibly, London Irish.

Three English clubs have quarter final ties at home but all three had a relatively easy passage and they'll still all be up against it - of the three I'd say Saracens have the best chance of progressing further, being at home to the Ospreys, while London Irish have a difficult repeat fixture against Perpignan and the Glouceter v Munster clash is just impossible to call. In the other quarter final you have to fancy Toulouse to win at home against Cardiff.

So how will this affect the rapidly approaching 6 Nations? The obvious conclusion is that England look well placed based on their club form but, with not too many players from Gloucester, Irish or Sarries in the England squad, it's hardly any sort of barometer really. One major effect on England might well be the injury to Simon Shaw - they'll certainly miss his bulk and athleticism - although at 34 he's probably only got a year or so left at the highest level and there's a case for looking a bit further ahead. Wales will be in good spirits but will obviously be without the Kiwi contingent that is so important to both the Ospreys and Cardiff, the form of Ronan O'Gara bodes well for Ireland (the form of the Leinster backs less so) and both Scotland and Italy, with no quarter-finalists, will reflect that it was ever thus and will rely on their national set-ups to revive their respective fortunes. As for France, well who knows what to expect? New coach, new players, new tactics? One thing's for sure, it certainly won't be boring.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Alive!

Found this on scrum.com - a ESPN account of the amazing story of the members of the Old Christians rugby club who survived a 72 day ordeal in the Andes after their plane crashed in the mountains in 1972.






The programme was made to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their rescue (and so, my keen mathematical mind informs me, must have been first broadcast last year).

The book and the movie Alive also recount this story - I've neither read the book nor seen the movie but certainly plan to do so in the not too distant future...

Harry Potter to the rescue

Wizard Harry Potter has ridden to the rescue of Portobello Rugby Club.

Sadly the Edinburgh club has not appointed the multi-talented Potter to a role on the coaching staff and will not be employing a variety of set moves from the the Quidditch play book. Instead author JK Rowling has donated a set of seven signed Harry Potter books which have been auctioned to raise funds for the club, whose clubhouse was burned down by vandals last year.

Experts had predicted that the books would sell for around £3,000 when they went under the hammer at the Lyon and Turnbill rare books and manuscripts sale this week , but in fact the club were delighted to raise a whopping £5,800. Not quite the £1.95m Rowling raised for a children's charity last year with the Sothebys sale of a handwritten volume of five stories, but I'm sure it was nevertheless very welcome.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Match of the Day?

Thanks to our friends at The Rugby Blog for unearthing this one - a campaign to persuade the BBC to schedule a regular terrestrial TV slot dedicated to showing highlights from the weekend's rugby action across the UK.

We did, of course, once upon a time have Rugby Special - a programme which had been running since 1966 and which I grew up with in the eighties, despite the fact that it was shunted around the schedules, appearing generally on BBC2 at various times on a Sunday afternoon and, for a period, very late on a Saturday night when , after rolling in from the pub, the only way it could be watched was to cover one eye to prevent seeing two of everything. Rugby Special wasn't a great programme but it was better than nothing and, having been scrapped and then revived by the BBC it did manage to find a semi-regular slot on Sunday Grandstand for a while (albeit the time it was shown was entirely dependent on the producers scheduling it around other sports events) until 2005 when it appears to have dropped off the radar, with rugby highlights being aired on an ad hoc basis ever since.

So the I Want a Match of the Day for Rugby campaign is certainly worthy of support in my view and you can sign an online petition in support of the campaign here. It's not as if the BBC don't have any rights to rugby. As well as somehow managing to hang on to the rights for the Six Nations the BBC also:
  • holds rights to show highlights of the English Premiership;
  • holds exclusive rights to show the Anglo-Welsh Cup;
  • holds joint rights to show the Celtic League; and
  • plans, I believe, to cover some of the IRB Sevens events this year.

I would have thought that a reasonable weekly round up show could be cobbled together from that lot. Now all we need is for someone to bang the heads of the BBC and the ERC together to negotiate rights to show delayed highlights of European games and we'd really be in business - but perhaps that's a campaign for another day...?

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

No sharks in Kalamata Bay

Funny bloke Andy Ripley - one of life's eccentrics and something just so quintessentially English about him.

I've recently finished reading one of my Christmas presents - "Ripley's World" - for once not just another dull autobiography by a former international rugby player but, in fact, a remarkably honest account of Ripley's fight against prostate cancer.

The book is written in diary form, beginning in June 2005 when Ripley chronicles the events which led to his diagnosis. Taken to hospital with severe chest pain which turned out to be a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot that blocks an artery in the lungs), a routine PSA (prostate specific antigen) blood test revealed an off-the-scale score of 133 nanograms per millilitre (when anything over 3.5 for a man of his age would have been an indication of cancer).

In many ways it's typical of the man that his PSA score should have been so impressive - a superb athlete in his pomp in the 70s, he was one of England's standout players during an era of mediocrity but nevertheless finished on the winning team in away tests against South Africa and New Zealand in 1972 and 1973 and toured with the unbeaten British Lions in South Africa in 1974. He then went on to star in BBC's "Superstars", finishing second in the World Superstars event, before taking up rowing and holding his age group world indoor rowing records and competing for a place in the Cambridge University boat race crew when aged 50... all this whilst forging a successful financial career in the city.

All that should be enough to make you want to throw up with envy but to cap it all Ripley is a hugely engaging character and his book is a fascinating read. Yes, he reminisces about his past, sporting and otherwise, but it's far from dull and is set amongst an extremely candid account of the effect of his cancer upon himself and his family, the effect of his hormone therapy upon (amongst other things) his hair, his waistline, his athletic performance, his genitals, his libido and his state of mind (Ripley claiming to have found his feminine side).

That he decided to embrace his cancer, to own the disease and to fight it makes this an inspirational story and the fact that, with a PSA score of 0.1 ng/ml in April 2007 he appears to have the disease licked, makes it even more so.

My only issue is with the title of the book. Ripley wanted to call the book No Sharks in Kalamata Bay - a reference to an assurance he made to his daughter on a family holiday in Greece which sums up his optimistic approach to life and his cancer. But no, the publishers decided to call it Ripley's World: The Rugby Icon's Ultimate Victory Over Cancer because, according to Ripley, "there are probably still a few old blokes out there who vaguely remember" him.

Shame about the title, but I for one certainly do remember him and can only hope that if, God forbid, I'm ever faced with anything resembling what Ripley has been through this past couple of years, I can face it with the same bravery, stoicism and humour demonstrated in this excellent book.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Shattered and stuffed

Ouch.

It's fair to say that we took a bit of a pounding yesterday. I'm sore in places I didn't know I had and, even after several glasses of medicinal red wine this evening, can still feel every tackle from yesterday's game.

The good news was that it was a gloriously sunny winter's afternoon, the rain having deigned to cease for twelve hours or so. The bad news, or at least the beginning of the bad news , was that it was obvious when we turned up at the High Wycombe clubhouse that it probably wasn't exactly the strongest team that Chesham Vets had ever put out. After all, with me at 43 being the youngest member of the back five and with both of our flankers being the wrong side of 50, it was always going to be a huge ask to be competitive against a strong High Wycombe team.

That's not to criticise the effort of anyone on the team - in fact in terms of effort and endeavour the team was pretty much faultless and, although we saw little to no ball for the majority of the first half, we held our much stronger (and, it must be said, much younger and fitter) opposition for about 20 minutes, before fatigue allowed 3 tries in before half time.

The start of the second half saw a transformation in the opposition as several changes were made. Unfortunately the players coming on were even better, quicker and without doubt younger than the guys they replaced. In fact I'd swear that the two guys that came on in their back row were under 30, let alone under 35. At least that's my excuse for failing to get anywhere near them for the entire half. As the pace was upped, so our resistance fell away, four second half tries sealing our fate.

That said, we did have our moments in the second half and were able to exert some pressure on the opposition for a period, but unfortunately our inability to secure lineout possession deep in their 22 (I even tried to ressurect my no. 2 lineout jumping days with no effect whatsover) meant that we emerged from the game with nothing, zilch, nada, nul points, which was a little demoralising given the amount of effort that we put in.

From a personal point of view, although I hardly covered myself in glory I felt that, partly through necessity, I was involved far more than in previous games, especially in a defensive capacity where I got through plenty of work and put in more than my fair share of tackles. Certainly that's what my body's still telling me more than 24 hours later.

Final score? 0-37 I'm afraid - and we were saved from a further drubbing by High Wycombe's decision to try converting their tries with drop kicks, with only one finding the target. We learned after the game that the opposition's ranks had, in fact, been boosted by the cancellation of their 2nd and 3rd XVs' respective fixtures, resulting in several young and eager tyros chomping at the bit to be let loose on Chesham's older generation.

Moral victory to us then...:)

Friday, 11 January 2008

Sense of anticipation

Well, the rain has pretty much lashed down all this week which means that tomorrow's return match against High Wycombe Vets looks destined to be something of a mudbath. Yes folks, the time is rapidly approaching for me to don my scrumcap, insert my gumshield and romp about on the muddy playing fields of England once again.

For those of you paying attention you'll recall that monsoon conditions led to the cancellation of my last scheduled game in early December, meaning that the middle of November is the last time I played - a two month gap in which I've been nursing a troublesome groin strain whilst somehow attempting to eat and drink myself fit. Christmas and New Year have also made a valuable contribution to my waistline and to the feeling that I'm nowhere near the level of fitness I was when we played High Wycombe the first time around, back in October. When I think back to how utterly knackered I was after 15 minutes or so of that match I can only imagine what I'm going to feel like tomorrow. I can only hope and pray that everyone else will be in the same boat.

A combination of the time of year, the weather, injury and general slothfulness has also meant that it's some considerable time since I last attended a club training session (which after all, as a Vet, is my prerogative) but here's a word or two of advice: If you are going to miss training make sure that you switch off your mobile phone...



Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Volcano set to erupt?

So, Brian Ashton has managed to surprise us all with the inclusion of Leslie "the Volcano" Vainikolo in England's 6 Nations training squad and with impeccable timing Robert Kitson of the Grauniad has managed to come up with a great story about the big Tongan.

Apparently, following Vainikolo's spectacular first outing for Gloucester this season in which he plundered 5 tries against Leeds, a local Gloucester paper could not resist running with the inevitable "Volcano Erupts" headline (so I'm nothing if not original), with the somewhat absurd consequence that its newsdesk then apparently received various calls from old ladies concerned that a volcano had erupted in Gloucestershire and worrying whether they were about to be engulfed by molten lava. As Kitson says, you really couldn't make it up!

ELVs - Explained

Pay attention! Here are 3 videos in which IRB referee supremo Paddy O'Brien explains the rationale behind the ELVs that have so far been trialled in South Africa, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand:

Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


I must say that Paddy makes a reasonably persuasive case for many of these proposed changes - certainly they are explained with far more clarity than I've seen in the written press. Discouraging a team from passing the ball back into its 22 and removing the corner flag from the "did he or didn't he score" equation are both eminently sensible, whilst creating an offside line at the tackle and moving the offside line back 5 metres at the scrum both look as if they might work.

However, I still think that allowing hands in the ruck and allowing mauls to be collapsed (neither of which, thank heavens, are to be adopted in the upcoming Super 14) are seriously stupid ideas, whilst I still have some reservations about allowing a team to put any number of players into a lineout (more forwards clogging up the midfield is not what anyone wants) and believe it's a cop out to allow a team who can't scrummage (ahem, Australia) to opt for free kicks instead.

I guess it's going to be a question of watch this space...

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Retirement Plan II

By way of contrast to the chorus of sychophancy that greeted the public announcement of Lawrence Dallaglio's decision to retire from rugby last week, Martin Corry's understated announcement yesterday that he was to end his international rugby career appears only to merit a 9-line postscript in today's Times.

Therein lies the difference between the two men. Whilst not possessing the same talent or reaching the same heights as his Wasps' rival, Corry's loyalty, honesty and dignity do set him apart.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Retirement plan

There has been plenty written about the announcement last week by Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio that he is to retire from all rugby at the end of season, most of it glowing in its praise for Dallaglio as a player and as a leader of men.

What most writers appear happy to skate over or even totally ignore, however, is Dallaglio's propensity to shoot his mouth off to the media - whether it be his recent disloyal post-World Cup slagging-off of England head coach Brian Ashton or the seemingly forgotten News of the World "sting" in 1999 when the then England captain bragged to undercover reporters that he had smoked cannabis and taken ecstasy during celebrations after the 1997 British Lions victory over South Africa and had made "big, big" money from dealing in drugs while a student. Indeed, even his retirement announcement lacked any sort of humility, the somewhat deluded Dallaglio stating that there was still no better number 8 playing in the Premiership.

Don't get me wrong - as a player Dallaglio was a major force in his prime and was part of a superb England backrow unit for many years with Neil Back and Richard Hill, but after returning from his first international retirement in 2004 his form simply hasn't warranted him being picked by England and his selection for the World Cup squad, on the back of one his typically self-promoting PR campaigns, was a major error.

I do wish him all the best of luck in his retirement, but given his obvious appetite for being in the public eye I doubt very much that pipe and slippers are on the agenda or that we've seen the last of his trademark pantomime villain grimaces from the touchline...

Decision time for Yoda

In a couple of days time Brian Ashton will name his 32-man England training squad for the Six Nations and, after the criticism that he took from certain quarters post-World Cup, this might be an opportunity, perhaps, for him to stamp his authority on the selection and pick a squad not only to be competitive in the Six Nations but also to start playing the style of rugby that will take England forward during the next four year cycle towards the 2011 World Cup.

The big question is whether it is an opportunity that Ashton will take or will he, instead, take the Woodward/Robinson post-2003 approach of conservatively insisting that only the next game is important? Not that I have any objection to a coach planning to win his team's next game - it's what he's paid to do after all - but what does trouble me is the inevitable short-termism that creeps in to selection when a coach becomes a slave to this philosophy. "Stick to the tried and tested" becomes the mantra, even when the so-called tried and tested are perhaps past their best and out of form - for plenty of examples please refer to any England team between January 2004 and September 2007.

No, what I hope Ashton will do is select a squad of in-form players, no matter what experience they have, whilst also having one eye on developing talent for the next 2 or 3 seasons. What we can't have in 2011 is the situation Ashton faced before last year's World Cup i.e. having several positions where the only choice was between players well past their sell by date or with little to no international experience.

Readers of the Sunday Times will know that Welsh journo Stephen Jones (who for some bizarre reason seems obsessed with the England rugby team) continually espouses that the England team should largely be selected on the basis of size and age and, despite all evidence to the contrary, appears convinced that the side should be based around the dubious talents of Mike Tindall at inside centre.

Here's the team Jones would select to face Wales:

15 Josh Lewsey (London Wasps) 14 Paul Sackey (London Wasps) 13 Danny Hipkiss (Leicester) 12 Mike Tindall (Gloucester, capt) 11 Tom Varndell (Leicester) 10 Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle) 9 Andy Gomarsall (Harlequins) 1 Andrew Sheridan (Sale Sharks) 2 Dylan Hartley (Northampton) 3 Matt Stevens (Bath) 4 Simon Shaw (London Wasps) 5 Ben Kay (Leicester) 6 James Haskell (London Wasps) 7 Magnus Lund (Sale Sharks) 8 Martin Corry (Leicester).

So, not only does Jones pick a hooker from National One who is currently struggling to hold down a place in the Northampton Saints' front row, he also sticks with an ageing pair of locks both of whom will be doing well to last another two seasons, an openside who has struggled for form for the best part of 12 months and a number 8 who currently isn't even the best 8 (or 6 for that matter) at his club. Perversely, Jones does bravely go for Paul Sackey and Tom Varndell on the wings, but fails to explain how, with a midfield consisting of Wilkinson, Tindall and Hipkiss, the ball would ever reach these two potent finishers.

In fact all four of the Sunday Times pundits (the other three being Stuart Barnes, Jeremy Guscott and Nick Cain) picked Tindall for their team so obviously I'm missing something here (although all but Jones had him wearing the 13 shirt which is something I could live with I guess if he were partnered with someone creative at inside centre). Guscott even had Tindall as captain - so my New Year predictions are bearing fruit a little sooner than I expected.

Back in September this was the team I selected ahead of time to play Wales:

1. Andrew Sheridan 2. Lee Mears 3. Phil Vickery 4. Simon Shaw 5. Steve Borthwick 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
Replacements: 16. Matt Stevens 17. Dylan Hartley 18. Tom Palmer 19. James Haskell 20. Andy Gommarsall 21. Shane Geraghty 22. Nick Abendanon

Current form suggests that Matt Stevens should replace Vickery in the front row, while both James Haskell and Leicester's Tom Croft are pushing for a starting berth at 6. Ellis is injured as is Shaun Perry, so Gommarsall is now the only realistic option at 9 whilst the form of Danny Cipriani suggests that Ashton needs to think the unthinkable and drop Saint Jonny.

All in all a credible 32 would be as follows:

Prop: Sheridan, Stevens, Vickery, Wood
Hooker: Mears, Chuter, Paice
Lock: Borthwick, Shaw, Palmer, Kennedy
Back row: Moody, Haskell, Croft, Rees, Easter, Crane
Scrum Half: Gommarsall, Richards, Wigglesworth
Fly half: Wilkinson, Cipriani
Centres: Flood, Geraghty, Hipkiss, Tindall
Wing: Sackey, Strettle, Varndell, Lewsey
Fullback: Tait, Abendanon.

Now that Ashton has the opportunity let's hope he makes the most of it.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Total Flanker Guide to 2008

A slightly belated Happy New Year to you all...

A few quick predictions for 2008:
  1. Six Nations - Marc Lièvremont to liberate France from their Laportesque shackles and, with England and Ireland both travelling to Paris, France take the Grand Slam. England to win their two home games and a tight fixture in Edinburgh, but to lose to a fired-up Italy in Rome.

  2. Super 14 - Robbie Deans to sign off with another Crusaders win before heading across the Tasman to take charge of the Wallabies.

  3. Tri Nations - Deans to enjoy immediate honeymoon period as Australia take the Tri-Nations title, much to be embarrassment of the NZRU. Graham Henry to accuse Deans of being a mercenary and a traitor.

  4. Premiership - despite Gloucester leading the way all season, the end of season fixture congestion to catch up with them and allow Leicester to retain their title by winning the Premiership Final, prompting much gnashing of teeth from the West Country (again) about the unfairness of the play-off system.

  5. Heineken Cup - Gloucester redeemed as they storm to European glory, leading Stephen Jones to declare that Mike Tindall is still the world's best centre and to Tindall's restoration, as captain, to the England squad who are promptly thumped by New Zealand in both tests down under.

  6. IRB - more noise about accommodating Argentina in a meaningful tournament with no end result as IRB are too busy pushing through the ELVs. Despite an initial lack of support from the Northern Hemisphere, the Celtic nations' resistance crumbles as they sign up for a lucrative series of matches at home to Australia and New Zealand under the new laws.

And finally, not so much of a prediction as an aspiration - that I score my first competitive try since the 1992-93 season. Either that or my first ever dropped goal. Not much to ask is it?