Thursday, 28 February 2008

Marc le Fou

It looks very much like Marc "Mad as a Box of Snakes" Lièvremont has gone from a selection policy that I've previously described as "gloriously bonkers" to one which is seriously mental.

At first I believed that the introduction of fresh talent to the French squad post-Rugby World Cup was a good move. In many ways I still do and, in Morgan Parra and the number eight Picamole for instance, it looks as if France have unearthed a couple of decent players for the future. However, in making a further 8 changes to his squad following defeat to England, including bringing in another 5 brand new faces and dropping some of his better performers, I fear that the French coach has now lost the plot.

Lièvremont justifies all this by saying that he wants to "open up the squad, to see new players," and many might claim that all he is doing is building squad depth, but just chucking potential players en masse into international rugby for a game or two does no such thing. The players that he's left out include Morgan Parra (arguably France's most effective player against England) Thierry Dusutoir (top tackler at the weekend for France), Julian Bonnaire (who dominated the lineout) and Cedric Heymans (France's best strike runner). The return of Yannick Jauzion is a plus point for France, that of Harry Ordinary less so, but how, by removing the better players from the squad, is this going to help the new players coming in?

It's possible that Lièvremont's attitude is coloured by the fact that it's "only Italy" up next - but by throwing in rookie forwards against the Italian pack France just might get seriously found out.

We all thought Bernie Laporte was mad, but this Lièvremont fella is now beginning to look like a proper mentalist!

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Bash Balshaw!

Go on, you know you want to!

Shakin' all over

Rather amusingly I've noticed that this blog is receiving a huge number of visits today from people searching for information about an earthquake in Leeds.

For those who haven't heard, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the richter scale hit England in the early hours of this morning, its epicentre being at Market Rasen in Lincolnshire with people all over the country apparently feeling its tremors (although I must confess that I didn't) including, it seems, in Leeds.

We don't really do environmental extremes here in Blighty so when we do we like to make a big deal out of it, with the result that this event has set off a frenzy of Google searches for information about the quake and, consequently, I'm seeing a huge increase of visitors to this blog.

Why? Well it just so happens that in November last year I penned a short post about the upcoming Leeds Carnegie v Leicester Tigers match which was to feature a titanic clash bewteen the Tuilagi brothers, Andy and Alesana, which was entiled "Leeds on earthquake alert".

So, watch out for future posts such as "Erupting Volcano engulfs Bristol" or "Irish slaughtered by killer Wasps" as I cynically attempt to boost traffic. :)

(With apologies to anyone genuinely seeking information about the quake).

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Acting up

Marc Lièvremont may have become frustrated with Mark Regan's antics on Saturday night, but I'm afraid Regan's performance wasn't enough to earn the Bristol hooker an Oscar at Hollywood's Academy Awards on Sunday.

Instead the Oscar went to another rugby player as Javier Bardem received the Academy Award for his performance as Best Supporting Actor in No Country for Old Men.

So, my congratulations to Bardem, who is often described in publicity as "a former rugby player for the Spanish national team" which, like most publicity, stretches the truth somewhat as I can find no record of him having played for Spain at senior level.

What is not in dispute, however, is that he did play the game in his youth, the FIRA website confirming that he started out as a prop before moving to a proper position - flanker - for his Madrid club, Liceo Francés for whom he played for 14 years along with his brother Carlos. He also did represent his country at Under 17 level, playing against Portugal in 1986.

Bardem joins an elite squad of famous actors who have graced a rugby pitch at one time or another, including (apparently) the likes of Boris Karloff, Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Daniel Craig and (admittedly less famously) Ross Kemp (!)

And this rugby-player-turned-actor phenomenon isn't limited to Hollywood (or, in Kemp's case, Brentwood). No indeed, over in India they have their very own rugby player in Rahul Bose who is not only a hugely famous Bollywood star but also played 14 times for the Indian national rugby team from its recognition as an official rugby-playing nation by the IRB in 1998 until the Rugby World Cup qualifiers in 2005.

Impressed?

Don't say you never learn anything on this site!

Monday, 25 February 2008

More rugby shorts

1. News has emerged today that Scotland forward Scott MacLeod has been cleared of failing a doping test after taking asthma medicine without permission. MacLeod had tested positive for Terbutaline but a statement released by Scottish Rugby today said: "The judicial committee accepted that MacLeod's use of the drug was not intended to enhance performance." What they probably meant to say was that, having watched Scotland play, they could detect no evidence of performance being enhanced :).

2. A number of pundits are suggesting that Marc Lievremont's condemnation of Ronnie Regan as a "grosteque clown" was some kind of vindication of the hooker's role in successfully winding up the French in a Mooresque fashion, but this ignores just how poorly Regan played, includng him giving away 3 points after throwing punches right in front of the referee. Time for Brian Ashton to pension off the stroppy Bristolian.

3. Another ELV rant: under the laws being trialled down under the deliberate infringments at scrum time by the French props against England would have yielded no more than free kicks - hardly a discouragement for a prop intent on illegally disrupting the scrummage. Non?

4. Before turning in last night I flicked through the channels to discover something called "Premiership Rugby Highlights" on BBC2, rather helpfully starting at midnight. Fifteen minutes later I'd given up. Saracens v Harlequins looked an interesting enough game but the BBC's coverage was all over the place - the most bizarre bit being twice shown a slow motion replay of the Quins number 8 spilling the ball in a tackle on halfway. Were there really so few highlights?

Thrashed but happy

So, I woke up on Saturday morning to a phone message that our game against Beaconsfield was off (they were obviously running scared) and that, instead, we were playing away at Fullerians.

Two thoughts ran through my head:

- oh good, Fullerians being based in Watford means a much easier journey for me; and
- oh bugger, Fullerians are quite good aren't they?

Unfortunately, the first thought turned out to be utterly misplaced as roadworks meant that traffic on the way into Watford was horrendous. I arrived 20 minutes later than planned but my team mates were even later, most of them arriving just before kick off.

Equally unfortunately, the second thought turned out to be quite accurate. While our team was trying to get used to not being stuck in traffic and work out who was meant to be doing what, the well warmed-up opposition began the serious business of playing rugby and scoring tries, aided and abetted by a stiff breeze and what I can only describe as a "boy" playing in the centre who ran in four of their five first half tries. Not only was he young (I'd be amazed if he was over 25, let alone over 35), he was also very quick and very strong and direct. Not only that, but at least 2 of his tries came from passes that were palpably forward - a fact sadly lost on the young, inexperienced and obviously Australian referee (who was clearly applying his very own Experimental Law Variation).

OK, excuses over, we went into half time with a 0-29 deficit and decided it was about time we played a bit of rugby. The scrummage had gone reasonably well in the first half (the lineout being its usual shambles), so it was determined that we'd use it more as an attacking platform and try to keep the ball in hand a bit more.

Lo and behold, the change of emphasis (and attitude, it must be said) seemed to work and we started to see a bit more ball, make a few breaks and inch our way back into the game. Moreover the opposition had removed their young starlet from the fray (as he probably needed to get home for his tea) so things were indeed looking up from our point of view.

And then it happened. From inside our half our backs made a break and the back row (Clive and Steve, the flankers, both had great games incidentally) carried the ball to the edge of the opposition 22. The ball was then moved back to the middle where the pack rucked and won possession in front of the posts before Geoff, our fly half, switched play back to the right with a long arcing run and a short pass to yours truly who was loitering with intent on the wing, where all decent glory-hunting number 8s should be.

My first try since 1993 was followed minutes later by a great scrummage on half way, my pick up and pop pass to Pete, playing scrum half, freeing him up to set up Geoff for a canter to the line unopposed. Another conversion and it was 14-29 and game on.

Sadly, however, that's as good as it got. Our limited success clearly going to our heads, we suddenly believed that we were the Barbarians and started trying to play from anywhere when a solid hoof down the field with the wind behind us might have been more appropriate. A couple of errors led to a couple soft tries and, as the half wore on, the opposition's superior fitness and organisation was able to reassert itself as they cruised to a 53-14 victory.

The scoreline looks a little harsh - I'm not sure that we were that much worse than them - but probably reflects Fullerians' dominance in the first and last quarters of the game. Nevertheless, a good game of rugby made all the more enjoyable by the fact that, in the second half at least, we gave it a good go and made a game of it.

An added bonus is that, apart from the usual aches and pains (which I'm beginning to be able to accept as just part of the process) I'm still in one piece - although it must be said that my level of fitness isn't all that it might be. Four weeks to try to sort that out before our next game - although how exactly I address my chronic lack of acceleration (other than somehow reversing the ageing process) remains a bit of a mystery.

Rugby Shorts

A few snippets from the weekend:

1. My Six Nations Fantasy Rugby team went well this weekend with Messrs Nallet, Horan and Shanklin each scoring once and Ickle Shane Williams bagging a brace.

2. Congratulations to the England Women's team for a thumping victory over their French counterparts which leaves them three fifths of the way to an unprecedented third consecutive Grand Slam.

3. Eccentric preformance of the week must go to Mr. Ian Ballsup of England. Never was a man so aptly named. On the two occasions he was called to field high kicks he disappeared without a trace and after the second occasion appeared to be screaming obscenities at his team mates. Surely it must be time now for Brian Ashton to disinherit his lovechild?

3. Total Flanker scored his first try since 1993 - more of that to follow...

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Next game looms large

Enough already of Six Nations tittle-tattle, of tearing my hair out at England's inadequacies, of my sense of foreboding about the ELVs...

What's occupying my thoughts right now is the anticipation of another appearance by yours truly on a rugby field in Buckinghamshire this weekend, as the fourth fixture of our packed season looms large on the horizon.

Yes, on Saturday I'm off to Beaconsfield to pit my wits, my fitness and my ageing body, alongside those of my colleagues from Chesham, against the might of the local Veterans' team.

From a fitness perspective I don't really have a clear idea of where I stand - I've been a semi-regular at the gym since my last outing against High Wycombe and have also managed a few road runs but, until I have to peel myself from the mud following a pounding at the hands of the opposition pack, I won't really know what sort of shape I'm in. In the early part of the season I could assess my fitness at club training, but the inclement weather plus a need to nurse various aches and strains through the season (still struggling with a groin problem and have had a few issues with my right shoulder of late - must be an age thing) has meant that my last attendance at training was back in November. Just as well really as training for a Vet is widely regarded as tantamount to cheating.

One thing I have noticed is how much more nervous I am before playing these days. I'm sure I used to be much more relaxed before a game, unless it was an important league fixture in which case I'd have a few nerves but that was more of a case of wanting to play well and not let anyone down - whereas now it's a case of being nervous about how much it's going to hurt!

As it's my first season this century I've no idea what Beaconsfield are like as a team -I'd be surprised if they were as good as High Wycombe or Ruislip - the two teams we've faced so far - but you just never know. Hopefully we'll get that elusive first win of the season and it would be nice to feature on the scoresheet for the first time since 1993!

Who am I trying to kid? Getting through it one piece is, still, the priority.

One thing I won't be doing is charging down kicks...at least not like this bloke:


Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Wanted


The Story So Far...

Two-fifths of the way through the Six Nations and with the third round looming on Saturday seems as good a point as any to stop and take stock of what the various nations have achieved so far in the competition and where each one looks to be heading during the remainder of the championship.

I guess the first thing to note is that, as yet, I'd say no team has really made a compelling case to be installed as favourites to win the 2008 championship. This may all change this weekend, of course, where an emphatic French victory in Paris would make it difficult to bet against them but, as many pundits forecasted before the tournament started, for the moment the title race really does appear to be wide open this year, with only Italy and Scotland looking to be completely out of contention.

Looking at the progress of each team so far:

FRANCE: - "Gloriously bonkers" is how I've previously described new France coach Marc Lièvremont's approach to this tournament, but somehow it's worked and, with a game strategy based around making the most of the potent talents of Cedric Heymans and Vincent Clerc, he has almost instantly re-invented the joie de vivre for which French rugby is best remembered. It looks like weaknesses in the front row could end up being France's undoing, but Lièvremont's willingness to blood new players must be a huge encouragement for French rugby fans. If the French pack can overcome the English forwards in Paris this weekend they'll start to believe that a Grand Slam is on the cards.

WALES: I have to say that the Welsh performances to date have been incredibly difficult to assess. Credit is due for the way they clung on for dear life in the first 40 minutes at Twickenham and then pulled themselves together sufficiently to apply pressure on England in the second half. That England then completely folded under the pressure is something the Welsh couldn't possibly have planned for but will have surprised and delighted Messrs Gatland and Edwards nonetheless. The routine win against Scotland also told us very little, other than the Hook-Henson-Shanklin midfield axis is in good working order and that Martyn Williams is a class apart. Gatland's main challenge now will be to get the tight five and lineout working to a level that can cope with what Ireland, France and, indeed, Italy have to offer.

ITALY: The performances of the Italian pack have been of no surprise whatsoever in this Six Nations. A dodgy lineout aside, the forwards have been their usual beligerant, magnificent selves with Sergio Parisse, in particular, a standout performer. What's been more surprising is that the Italian midfield have also looked more than reasonable, despite the lack of any sort of kicking game. The next phase for Nick Mallet is to find a fly half who can run a game - Andrea Masi is a trier but he's no number 10 - and a half decent back three. On present form they will give the Welsh and French forwards a tough time in Cardiff and Paris respectively and stand a great chance of defeating Scotland (again) in Rome.

SCOTLAND: Oh dear. Frank Hadden must have hoped that Scotland would kick on from a respectable Rugby World Cup campaign but so far his team has looked clueless. Yes they do all look a lot bigger but are finding that merely being muscle-bound is not enough. There are some decent enough players in the Scottish pack - Hines, Barclay, White etc - but the pack as a whole lacks traditional Scottish mongrel, while any backline featuring Dan Parks and Andy Henderson is never going to create enough chances at this level. Tough times ahead for the Scots - and it's looking like a win over the Sassenachs in pouring rain at Murrayfield is the best they can hope for (again).

IRELAND: The Irish will be encouraged by their second half fightback in Paris but I'm still not convinced that there aren't serious problems in the Irish camp. Something just isn't clicking and they look like a team desperately searching for an identity. Conservative Eddie has made changes to his team, but it's obvious that these changes go against his instincts and he simply doesn't look comfortable with his decisions. Nevertheless, the changes (for example the introduction of Heaslip and Jackman into the forwards and playing Trimble in the centre) might just have refreshed the Irish campaign sufficiently to bring respectibility to this campaign. The home match against the Welsh will be key, leaving a trip to Twickenham (which holds no fears for the Irish) as a possible championship decider.

ENGLAND: And finally to England. I've commented at length already on the English campaign so far, a campaign marred by insufficient preparation time and a ridiculously long list of injuries but also compounded by poor selection and a distinct lack of cojones on the part of Brian Ashton. In this week's Sunday Times Stephen Jones urges Ashton to pick a big, mean ugly team to grind out a victory, any victory, in Paris this weekend, claiming that the idea of development should play no part in English thinking. All very well, but what if (like the 2005, 2006 and 2007 Six Nations campaigns) we adopt this policy and still lose? What will we have gained? Perceived wisdom has it that, to be successful at a World Cup, it's important to have a core of experience runing through the squad, but how on earth will England be able do that if the young inexperienced players who are widely acknowledged to be England's future are not given game time now? When will they be blooded - in New Zealand in June? God help 'em. A stuffing in Paris might be the best thing that could happen to English rugby at the moment, forcing a strategic re-think and an "out with the old - in with the new" approach.

Monday, 18 February 2008

My new favourite player

FINALLY - some common sense has emerged from the Southern Hemisphere where Springbok winger Bryan Habana has come out and said what many must have been thinking, criticising the Experimental Law Variations currently being trialled in the Super 14.

"It's got a lot more of a rugby league feel on it," Habana said at the Laureus World Sports Awards.

"If guys wanted to play rugby league, they'd go out and play rugby league," Habana said. "The essence of what rugby is about is something that I don't think any player or any supporter wants to see lost.

"There's something special about rugby ... your forwards pride themselves on the scrum and the line-out and your backs pride themselves on that contest against the opposition...

"As players, we just want to go out there and play this wonderful game we call rugby and hopefully they won't change what the essence of rugby is all about."

Well said, Bryan!

Playing away

News from New Zealand where it appears that All Black legend Jonah Lomu has, in the words of Eric Idle, "been a very naughty boy."

Lomu, who was said to be "working through issues" with his wife and business manager Fiona back in December, is (allegedly) now shacked up with married property manager Nadene Quirk - the source of this information being none other than Ms Quirk's understandably upset husband, Auckland Blues winger Jarek Goebel.

Goebel is said to be "angry, upset and shocked" by events, which is fair enough really.

"I am pretty private and I don't really want to bare my soul about how I really feel," Goebel is reported to have said. "It's been a hard time. I could make Jonah look a dick, but I'm not going to."

Er, you just did Jarek.




NB - for legal reasons I should point out that Nadine Quirk should not be confused with former Birds of a Feather actress Pauline Quirke (pictured right) ;)

Friday, 15 February 2008

The Meaning of Life

Not hugely original I realise and you've probably seen this before, but this clip does remind me of the annual staff vs pupils match we used to have at my old school.

I remember that the annual match was portrayed very much as an opportunity for pupils to wreak vengeance on their least favourite teacher but, in fact, was quite the opposite - bitter teaching staff seeing it very much as a chance to crush boys who had made their professional lives hell...

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Guinea Pigs ready to go...

The observant among you will have noticed that the southern hemisphere rugby jamboree otherwise known as the Super 14 is back with us this weekend and once again there's a twist.

Last year, of course, the competition was pretty much ruined by Graham Henry's decision to hold back his beloved All Blacks from the fray for first half of the tournament, insisting instead that they undertake a physical conditioning programme specifically tailored to ensure that winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup would be a mere formality. Hmmmm.

This year the fly in the ointment is that Super 14 players are being used as guinea pigs to trial the pithily named Experimental Variation Laws (ELVs) that have been doing the rounds in various junior rugby leagues for some time now. To add a touch more confusion, some of the ELvs are not being trialled, including the frankly insane proposals that teams may collapse mauls and handle in rucks.

Commentators, mainly from Australia it must be said, insist that the ELVs will make the game more open and exciting (I've had my say on this previously so won't bore you with further rants) and will help revive the sport of Rugby Union. Of course we've been hearing for years anyway that the rugby played in the southern hemisphere is of a far higher quality and excitement than up here in the north, which begs the question: Why exactly does the sport needs reviving? Judging by the attendance figures that both the club and international games attract in Europe I'd say that rugby is in a positively rude state of health here. Dare I suggest that, rather than a lack of excitement, it's a lack of success that accounts for the game's travails down under? No wonder they want to change the rules.

Anyway, setting aside the issue of the ELVs (which, incidentally, turn any predictions as to the competition's outcome into a lottery) here's a a rather unique view of the forthcoming Super 14 from from Jed Thian of the Alternative Rugby Commentary:

Taff Wars

Not that the Welsh get carried away with beating England or anything...

(WARNING: Not for anyone who is offended by swearing or who has had a sense of humour bypass).

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Answers?

Although I'm obviously not privy to what actually goes on in the England changing room at half time, here are a few possible answers to the questions posed in my post below.

I've touched before on the issue of preparation and in particular the fact that there was a full Premiership fixture programme the weekend before the match against Wales, resulting in the squad being unable to train properly together until the Tuesday before the match. Not a problem, perhaps, for a squad entirely familiar with one another's game, but with the retirements of the likes of Corry, Dallaglio, Robinson and Catt, plus injuries to Easter and Worsley and with Lewsey dropped from the squad, there were always going to be problems.

Ashton's solution to such problems was to stick as far as possible to the familiar, but his team selection for the Wales game was no more than an attempt merely to plug the gaps, resulting in England going into the Welsh game with out-of-form players at hooker, tight-head prop, scrum half and, to a degree, fly half (and simply the wrong player at fullback).

A surprisingly bright start against the Welsh then fell away as, under pressure, players began to play to form, not helped of course by further crucial injuries to Strettle, Moody, Rees and Tindall. The sight of Ben Kay playing in the back row was not pretty and is something I'd hope never to see again.

For the Italy game selection was, once again, dictated by circumstances - the injuries in the Welsh match meaning that wholesale changes became a necessity rather than a choice and that several out-of-form players retained their places. Furthermore, bizarre injuries to both Sheridan and Vickery proved that, perhaps, England are indeed the subject of some bad voodoo.

The net result was that England went up against arguably the strongest pack in the competition with untried front row and back row combinations, as well as a hooker who was way short of form, a tighthead more used to 20-minute cameo appearances at this level, a relative rookie at openside, a half-fit number 8, a scrum half with no form at all, a fly half under pressure (which, in fairness, he responded to pretty well), an ordinary outside centre, a rookie winger and a useless fullback.

In the circumstances it's a wonder that England managed to scrape any sort of victory.

Furthermore, Ashton's selection of, and then use of, the bench leaves much to be desired. The tight five were under the cosh in the second half in Rome, and yet only Lee Mears arrived from the English bench, Ben Kay and Jason Hobson twiddling their thumbs while waiting in vain for the opportunity to help shore things up as England failed to respond to Italy's introduction of a brand new and equally tenacious front row. Likewise, with the wheels coming off Gomarsall's game again, it took an age before Wigglesworth was introduced while Mathew Tait's talents were seen only when he was briefly used as a blood replacement. And to throw Danny Cipriani on at fly half for the last 13 minutes when Italy were putting England under all sorts of pressure was just plain dumb.

Which brings me neatly to the big number 10 debate. After the Wales match I was certainly one of those advocating that Cipriani should start at fly half against Italy. Since then, Jonny's first half performance in Rome and Cipriani's error which gifted the Italians their try has led many to claim that Wilkinson is wholly vindicated and Cipriani is simply not ready.
It's just not that simple.
I am a huge admirer of Jonny Wilkinson and have to say that he had fine first half against Italy - his creation of the first try, in particular, was top draw.
However, if we are dealing with facts you have to admit that Wilkinson's form for Newcastle this season has been indifferent, compared to Cipriani who has, for the most part, been sensational for Wasps. Equally you have to admit that Wilkinson was in general very poor against Wales and made some poor decisions in the second half against Italy, aimlessly kicking away what little possession England won.
The problem is that criticism of Wilkinson appears to be regarded by many as some kind of heresy - an attitude which is incredibly unhealthy if England are to move on.
In the end I think Wilkinson probably did enough against Italy to justify his place in the team but who is to say how Cipriani would have fared in that first half? On the front foot, with his array of attacking skills, he may well have torn Italy apart. You certainly can't make a judgement based on the last 13 minutes.
It has to be good news that Wilkinson's position is now under pressure and the fact that there is a debate as to who should play 10 for England has to be healthy. Either Jonny will rise to the challenge and see off the pretender or we'll see an exciting new talent directing the English game. And don't forget Messrs Geraghty, Lamb and even Hodgson are also busy forming an orderly queue to stake their respective claims for the position.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Questions

What on earth, I ask, goes on in the England changing room at half time?

What is it that takes a reasonably dynamic first half performance from an English pack of forwards and turns it into a disorganised shambles for the second 40 minutes?

What causes a previously assured pair of half-backs to decide to either kick what little ball they get back to the opposition or try some ridiculous high risk move when it's obviously not on?

Why is it that England do not appear to be able to score more than 3 points in the second half?

And why, in a team already shorn of experience, does Brian Ashton think it's a good idea to start removing his team's leaders from the fray just as the brown stuff is beginning to hit the fan?

Answers on the back of a postcard please...

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Curses

Following on from the news that England captain Phil Vickery is now a serious injury doubt for Sunday's encounter with Italy in Rome, comes the shocking admission by 92 year old head coach Brian Ashton that he is solely responsible for the misfortune which has recently befallen his team.

"It's true...it's all my fault," confessed the ageing coach. "After the 36-o disaster against South Africa in Paris in September I'm ashamed to admit that I entered into a diabolical agreement with a character calling herself The Wicked Witch of the East Stand. The deal was that we would get five matches-worth of fantastic luck, but then would suffer an eternity of misfortune. The spate of injuries we are now suffering is obviously a manifestation of the old hag's curse."

When asked why the good luck had not extended to the decision of TMO Stuart Dickinson not to award the now infamous Cueto Try in the World Cup final, Ashton was non-plussed.

"Good point," he said. "But if he had given the try we'd have won the World Cup which, when you think about it, would have been ridiculous - not even evil magic is that strong."

Despite the recent setbacks Ashton is confident that he can defeat the curse this weekend.

"We've taken decisive action and have cancelled all training between now and kick off on Sunday," he said. "Furthermore we will quite literally be wrapping each member of the squad in cotton wool."

In a separate announcement the RFU today confirmed a major new 4-year sponsorship deal with Acme Cotton Wool Ltd.

Deeply Dippy

Today's Daily Telegraph reports on the case of Don 'Dippy' Jones, a member of Stourbridge Rugby Club and the North Midlands referees society, who still takes charge of 2 matches a week at the very youthful age of 80. Unsurprisingly, Don is believed to be the oldest regular active referee in the UK (possibly the world) and he has no plans to retire.

"When I was 70 my daughter bought me a pair of rugby boots. She got me a pair of golf shoes for my 80th so perhaps she's trying to tell me something," Don says. "My rugby shirts are getting a bit tatty so I've got to decide whether to buy some new ones" (which, incidentally, reminds me of a story about the grandfather of a friend of mine who, aged 95, couldn't decide whether to buy a new pair of shoes because he didn't know whether he'd get the wear out of them!).

Don will be forced to put his whistle to one side this weekend as he'll be guest of honour at a vice-presidents' lunch before Stourbridge's National League Two game against Wharfedale, despite his comment that:

"I'd rather referee a fourth-team game than watch Stourbridge's first team play."

...which I assume is more a statement of his enthusiasm and commitment to the refereeing cause than a comment about the entertainment value of watching Stourbridge play!

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Gloriously bonkers II

It's good to see that we English are not the only ones being driven mad by the performance of our national rugby team - Irish rugby supporters also seem to be heading down the same road.

One Irishman, in particular, seems madder than most. Described by the Belfast Telegraph as being "an even angrier version of Father Jack Hackett" (which the photos do appear to confirm), legendary Irish rugby pundit George Hook apparently spent much of Saturday's game raving about O'Sullivan's inadequacies.

"That's absolutely horse manure," he said on RTE's coverage of the Ireland v Italy match, responding to the somewhat mischevious suggestion that Conservative Eddie was Ireland's best ever coach. "I don't care if we beat Georgia, Namibia or Besotaland, I want us to do well in World Cups and Six Nations."

Hook then went on to make the obvious connection bewteen the Ireland coach and erstwhile German dictator Adolf Hitler...

"He has retreated into the Fuhrer bunker. If Eddie was in Berlin in 1945, they'd still be fighting.

"He just retreats and won't give in, he's playing with imaginary Panzer division."

Hmmm...bonkers anyone?

Gloriously bonkers

Good old Marc Lièvremont.

The staid pragmatism of the Bernard Laporte era has well and truly been exiled to the barren wastelands of conservatism as, both in terms of selection and tactics, Lièvremont has returned France to the good old, mad old days.

Not only did his first international team selection to play Scotland at Murrayfield contain four players making their debuts (including both props and the fly half); not only did his team then try to run the ball from some clearly insane field positions against the home team; and not only did they get way with it spectactularly with a 27-6 victory - Lièvremont has now taken it upon himself to make 6 changes to that winning team, including replacing Vincent Clerc on the wing, despite the Toulouse man bagging a brace of tries and the Man of the Match award at the weekend.

My only gripe is that Clerc, along with hooker William Servat (also dropped to the bench) currently features in my Fantasy Six Nations XV which will now require urgent surgery before hostilities recommence this weekend.

That aside, Lièvremont's approach to his job is just so gloriously bonkers that it just might work, and what it does demonstrate is a boldness and a bravery to try things, to take risks, to look beyond the short term.

Brian Ashton, please take note.

Baby goes...bathwater stays

England face the very real prospect of being turned over by Italy for the first time ever this weekend.

I've just seen the team announcement and, must confess, am absolutely staggered.

Admittedly Brian Ashton has had to deal with having several players ruled out with injury - Andrew Sheridan being the latest apparently - but that's no excuse for the utter horlicks he's made in selecting this team.

Iain Ballsup, unfortunately, isn't injured and so is given yet another chance to prove his competence as an international fullback, despite all evidence to the contrary. Likewise Jamie Noon is restored to the outside centre position ahead of the infinitely more talented and effective Mathew Tait. What must Tait be thinking? How can he have gone from being England's most potent runner (as well as their most effective defender) in the final of the Rugby World Cup to now being third choice outside centre (at best) behind such limited players as Tindall and Noon?

Meanwhile, Saint Jonny somewhat predictably keeps his place despite currently probably being, on form alone, no better than the 5th best English outside half. They say that form is temporary and class is permanent but I'm not sure that applies any longer to Wilkinson who really isn't performing anywhere near the same level as Cipriani and company at present.

Upfront I accept that Ashton was more or less faced with Hobson's choice, but Tim Payne's selection does nothing for the ball-carrying ability of the pack and the inclusion of Nick Easter, who is yet to play any rugby in 2008, smacks of desperation. The omission of Tom Croft (assuming that he's fit, which he might not be) also continues to be a puzzle.

As for the composition of the bench, will Ashton never learn? Apart from cover for the specialist positions of prop, hooker and scrumhalf, what's needed on an international bench are players who can (a) cover more than one position and (b) make an impact. In Cipriani and Tait (despite the fact that both should be starting), Ashton has it right. In Ben Kay he most definitely does not. Not only is Ben Kay only a lock forward, he is only a middle-jumping lock forward. If Saturday taught Ashton anything it was that he needed a Martin Corry-type on the bench, someone who could play lock or in the back row - someone like Tom Croft or Jordan Crane. The fact that lessons are not being learned is, perhaps, the most worrying aspect of this team selection.

Many commentators have said that a knee-jerk reaction to England's defeat by Wales at the weekend would have been a mistake but I beg to differ. A knee-jerk reaction is exactly what was required to shake English players and coaches alike out of this complacent mentality that, a couple of errors aside, we more or less won Saturday's match. We didn't. We executed poorly and then we fell apart. Ashton needed to be brave with this team selection and has patently failed to be so.

ENGLAND: I Balshaw (Gloucester); P Sackey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), T Flood (Newcastle), L Vainikolo (Gloucester); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), J Haskell (Wasps), M Lipman (Bath), N Easter(Harlequins).
Replacements: L Mears (Bath), M Stevens (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), L Narraway (Gloucester), R Wigglesworth (Sale Sharks), D Cipriani (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle).

Ice Ice Baby

Here's something you don't see every day - a Haka performed on the ice in Antarctica before a rugby match in January between New Zealand's Scott Base and it's bigger American rival, McMurdo Station.



For the record, Scott Base won the match 12-0, maintaining it's unbeaten record against McMurdo. The game was dedicated to Sir Edmund Hillary, who established Scott Base in 1957 and who died last month, and several players wore black arm bands (although how you could see a black armband on a black shirt is anyone's guess).

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Blackheath Bengalled...

The rugby pitches of South-West England have seen some unusual sights this winter. First there was the story of All Black flanker Jerry Collins turning out for Barnstaple RFC's 2nd XV, and now news from the Blackheath Rugby Club website which confirms that Cincinatti Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones did, as anticipated, make his rugby union debut at the weekend against Launceston in Cornwall in the EDF Trophy.

As agreed before the game with the Blackheath coach, Jones made a 10 minute cameo appearance late in the game from the bench - time enough, apparently, for him to make one "outstanding" tackle in midfield. Sadly, however, Jones was unable to prevent Launceston completing a 61-15 victory over Blackheath.

It would be extremely interesting to know what he made of the whole experience but, seeing as it was all for the benefit of a US TV documentary depicting life in Blighty, I guess we'll just have to wait for the programme to come out.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Throw the toys out Brian

"You don't throw all your toys out of the pram because you've lost a game."

The wise words of Brian Ashton MBE.

Wise, but in this instance, utterly wrong.

If ever there was a time to over-react to a defeat, to demonstrate that England's second half "Don't Panic Mr. Mainwaring" performance on Saturday was simply unacceptable, then this is it. The baby should most definitely be chucked out with the bathwater.

Marc Lièvremont has shown the way for France. A new era = a clean slate. Reputation counts for nothing. It's all about form.

Of course Brian Ashton won't go down this route, but here's who I'd select for the weekend's encounter in Rome:

Tight five: Leave untouched, unless Regan's neck injury rules him out, in which case I'd promote David Paice from the A team with Dylan Hartley on the bench. Lee Mears, to me, just doesn't have the physicality. Vickery had a good game at tight head and as skipper and removing his leadership skills from the fray in the midst of the England implosion on Saturday was just crass by Ashton.

Back row: With Rees and Moody both crocked I'd shift Haskell across to openside (where he's played for Wasps) and, unless Nick Easter's knee injury has healed 100%, hand debuts to the physically imposing Jordan Crane and, if fit, Tom Croft. Luke Narraway worked hard but failed to impose himself and seize the initiative when the game began to slip away from England in the second half.

Scrum Half: According to many match reports Andy Gomarsall had a decent game but I beg to differ. I lost count of the number of times I screamed "NO!" at the TV as he kicked away hard won possession. He's not been in form for Quins and his decision making was just abysmal. Wigglesworth to start.

Fly Half: Is it possible? Can it be? Could it happen? Will Saint Jonny be dropped? I seriously doubt it, but I feel it really is time now for Ashton to think the unthinkable. The citing officer may make the decision for him, of course, but in any event Danny Cipriani should be given his first start.

Centres: With Tindall out with a bruised liver (that's gotta hurt) and Hipkiss for some reason out of favour it's time to bring the prodigal Mathew Tait back into the outside centre position. Toby Flood probably did just enough to keep his place at inside centre (and plays regularly with Tait) but is under pressure from Shane Geraghty who was excellent for the A team on Friday.

Wings: It's a risk but, with Strettle out, big Lesley Vainikolo to start on the left. On the right wing Paul Sackey played half-reasonably on Saturday but Tom Varndell is currently in better form so, on the basis of "in for a penny, in for a pound," I'd pick Varndell.

Fullback: Again, many newspapers report that Ballsup had a good game overall on Saturday but, despite a few runs which ultimately came to nothing, I thought he was poor and his defensive game in particular was riddled with doubt and uncertainty. For the sake of solidity I'd bring back the even more prodigal Josh Lewsey.

Bench: Matt Stevens, David Paice/Dylan Hartley, Luke Narraway (Crane to cover lock injury), Michael Lipman, Paul Hodgson, Shane Geraghty, James Simpson-Daniel (if fit - if not, Nick Abendanon).

Go on, Brian - you know it makes sense.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Shellshocked

Bloody hell.

Six hours or so after the final whistle and I still can't believe what I witnessed earlier this evening. I'd like to be able to say "well done" to Wales but, frankly, I can't - because, equally frankly, Wales didn't play very well at all. In the end they didn't have to.

From a seemingly impregnable position, with the forwards absolutely dominant and the backs creating (although not converting) chance after chance, England pressed the self-destruct button midway through the second half and the Welsh were pretty much handed their victory.

Injuries may have played a part but nothing really can explain the size of the capitulation.

Perhaps tomorrow may bring some perspective but, right now, I'm utterly shellshocked.

Friday, 1 February 2008

It's getting closer...



Can't wait...

Is that all we've got?

Hopefully this is not a sign to things to come this weekend, but today England lost all three of their pool games at the Wellington Sevens including, unbelievably, a 21-17 defeat to the Cook Islands.

That's the mighty Cook Islands (yes, you read it right the first time) who, despite having a combined population of just 21,000, were obviously too good for our professionals from the Premiership.

The humiliating defeat, combined with losses to Wales (15-7) and Fiji (17-7), means that England now "progress" to the consolation bowl quarter-finals where they face Canada.

England Sevens coach Ben Ryan labelled the team's performances as "disappointing."

No sh*t Ben.

Is that all you've got?

I'm not entirely sure what Warren Gatland thinks he's up to with his public sniping at England.

First he suggested that Brian Ashton, by virtue of his rolling contract, didn't enjoy the confidence of his employers at the RFU.

Then he stated that Wales would be prepared to turn the match at Twickenham this weekend into a "bloodbath".

Next in the firing line was Ian Balshaw, with whom Gatland was "not impressed" - and then came the revelation that Lewis Moody gave away the occasional penalty.

As far as "mind games" go, it's all rather pathetic. We all know that only England's performances over the next 12 months will determine how safe Ashton's position is - whatever the length of his contract - and I'm pretty confident that the world and his wife would conclude that if Wales do try to turn Saturday's game into a "bloodbath" then there's only likely to be one winner - and they won't be wearing red shirts. And if you were to ask your average English rugby fan (who, strangely enough, is very rarely a gin-swilling, Barbour-wearing toff - contrary to the tired and dated image still portrayed by lazy Western Mail journos) and he'd be more than happy to point out his misgivings over the selection of Mr. Ballsup and acknowledge the occasional headless chicken antics of Mad-eye Moody.

In the words of a quality Australian news publication: "Is that all you've got?"

Say what you like about Brian Ashton - and I'd be the first to say that the jury's still out on his capabilities as head coach despite the relative success of the World Cup campaign - but, so far at least, he hasn't indulged in any of this pre-match nonsense when talking about the opposition.

Back when it was Clive Woodward v Eddie Jones the pre-match banter was considered to be all part of the entertainment but it's been carried to new levels over the intervening years by the likes of Bernard Laporte, Graham Henry, Jake White and now Warren Gatland and, frankly, it's getting very, very boring.

I'm sure that Warren Gatland will turn out to be a very good coach for Wales but I respectively suggest that he shuts up for a minute and let his team's rugby do the talking.

Cohen in Carr crush

According to the Northampton Chronicle, gay comedian man Alan Carr has confessed to fancying "rugby hunk" Ben Cohen.

The host of the 'Friday Night Project' host, who originally comes from Northampton (where his father, Graham, once managed Northampton Town Football Club) said:

"I like rugby players like Ben Cohen. It doesn't matter about the personality. I've got enough for two people."

To put this all in perspective, though, Carr also admits to having a crush on 'Property Ladder' host Sarah Beeny:

"If I had to choose between shagging a woman and getting shot, I'd shag Sarah Beeney... I can ask her to see my extension."