Monday, 31 March 2008

Success for Nursedude

When he's not busy "tagging" me, it seems that our friend Nursedude has been occupying himself on the rugby field recently, turning out for the first time since last May for the Metropolis B team in Minneapolis against Madison RFC at the weekend.

Nursedude played loosehead prop for the second half - and not only did he emerge with only a little knee stiffness and neck soreness, he also managed to finish on the winning team, something I've not experienced since the autumn of 1993. Seriously.

For Nursedude's full account of the weekend's action please click here.

Thin edge of the wedge

If there was any doubt that the Australians have an agenda with regards to the future of rugby, then the following story should send out a loud and clear warning.

According to "the Australian" newspaper last week (so it's not an April 1st story), former Wallabies assistant coach Alex Evans and Brisbane Broncos mentor Wayne Bennett are pushing a proposal to create a hybrid game to introduce schoolchildren to the common basics of Rugby Union and Rugby League and officials of both rugby codes have given "tentative backing" to the proposal.

In particular, Queensland Rugby Union chairman Peter Lewis is backing the Evans-Bennett plan: "I've always said the smartest thing rugby could do is merge with rugby league," he is reported to have said.

And we wonder why the Aussies are so keen on the ELVs...?

Tagged!

I've been "tagged" by Nursedude in some kind of bizarre blog-led game of tag. Not sure if it's really my cup of tea but, in the spirit of not wanting to be the party-pooper, here's how it works...

The rules are:

  • The rules of the game get posted at the beginning.

  • Each player answers the questions about themselves.

  • At the end of the post, the player then tags 5 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they've been tagged and asking them to read your blog.
So, here goes...

What I was doing 10 years ago:

In March 1998 I'd handed in my notice as an in-house lawyer for a TV distribution company and was about to embark on a non-legal career in the world of new media. Ironically, 10 years later I'm back trying to resurrect my legal career. Although married, there were no kids on the scene back then so life was...how can I put this...quieter. It was also over four years since I'd last played rugby and there was no prospect of me playing again. Ahem.

Five things on my To Do List today:

Finish answering these questions;
Work on my business plan;
Call the 2nd XV captain about getting a run out before the end of the season;
Drag myself along to the gym;
Spend some time with the kids who are off school on their Easter holidays.

Snacks I enjoy:

Olives;
Cashew nuts;
Pistachios;
Pretty much anything savoury.

Things I would do if I were a billionaire:

Faint.
Double check that there hadn't been an error on my bank statement.
Retire.

Three of my bad habits:

Nose picking (a private obsession);
Drinking too much - I no longer get bladdered in the same way that I did in my twenties but have fallen into the routine of a quiet couple of drinks each night to wind down - must kick the habit;
Prevarication - never do today what you can put off until tomorrow, or preferably next week!

Five places I have lived:

Durham;
Peterborugh;
Cambidge;
London;
Now settled in awfully nice home counties Hertfordshire.

Five jobs I've had:

Company Director;
New media commercial monkey;
In-house legal monkey;
Solicitor;
Various summer jobs while a student, including packing toys in a toy factory.

Current position:

Sitting down.

Five people I want to know more about (in other words the five people who I'll be bothering later today...!):

David the Rugby Referee;
Matt the Aussie;
Ferdy the Kiwi;
Rory the Jock;
Wendy the Scrum Half.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Dr. Feelgood

Feelgood story of the week - picked up from Stephen Jones' "Rolling Maul" column in The Times...

Flashback to the final round of matches in the Six Nations...Italy v Scotland...and rookie Scots flanker Alasdair Strokosch is awarded the "man of the match" award with Scotland holding a narrow lead going into the closing stages...seconds later Italy pop over a drop goal to win the match...following the final whistle Strokosch goes into the Italian dressing room and hands the bottle of champagne to Sergio Parisse - the man he felt really deserved it.

Pure class.

Dwainage problems

The story of the weekend is, for me, the fact that disgraced 30 year old British sprinter, Dwain Chambers, is set to make a somewhat bizarre career switch by taking up rugby league with the Castleford Tigers who currently lie bottom of the Super League.

Just to remind you - Chambers, this year's World Indoor silver medallist over 60 metres, served a two-year ban from 2003 to 2005 after testing positive for the designer steroid Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), and is banned for life by the British Olympic Association from competing in the Olympics. There's been talk of him challenging the ban in the courts but, being somewhat strapped for cash, it looks like he’s looking to Castleford to provide a financial lifeline, having been shunned by athletics promoters across Europe and having been required to repay a shedload of prize money won during the period when, by his own admission, he was a drugs cheat.

From Castleford’s point of view this can be nothing more than a publicity stunt - perhaps designed to achieve maximum exposure at the time when they are seeking to renew their Super League licence (or am I being a tad too cynical?). They can't actually believe he'd be any good, can they? Chambers is undoubtedly like shit off a shovel in terms of speed but is starting from scratch in terms of positioning, tackling and handling. He does have some experience with an oval ball of sorts, having last year signed a deal with the NFL Europe franchise the Hamburg Sea Devils, but he didn’t play a single game for the club - a scenario which, I suspect, is likely to repeat itself with Castleford.

Various deluded rugby league followers have commented on various message boards that that Chambers has all the attributes which are vital in Rugby League – pace, power and strength for example – but, seriously, if that’s all it takes then it really doesn’t say very much for their sport.

Call me a cynic, but I’m convinced that Castleford are merely using Chambers as a pawn in their efforts to remain in the Super League, whilst Chambers is either just desperate for a pay packet or realises that it’s only a matter of time before the athletics drugs testing regime catches up with him once more.

Friday, 28 March 2008

School of Hard Knocks

One of the more left-field suggestions as to who might be part of a new Martin Johnson-led England coaching team is former Leicester maverick Austin Healy.

While I've no idea as to Healy's suitability to such a role (although there can be little doubt he'd bring an element of originality to the table) what I have been impressed with is his latest media venture as a presenter of Sky Rugby Club's recently concluded "School of Hard Knocks" series.

The six-part series involved a ground-breaking rugby training initiative which took a bunch of unemployed lads from Liverpool, who society had pretty much written off as no-hopers, and helped them change their lives by increasing their employability through rugby. A measure of the task at hand was the fact that one of the team missed a couple of weeks of training because he was on remand in Strangeways Prison, charged with blackmail and threatening to kill!

Coached by Sale Sharks coach Chris Chudleigh, the players (who were all bar one total novices to the game) embarked on the intensive 16-week training with the emphasis being on self-discipline and teamwork as well as fitness and rugby technique - all of which culminated in a match against the Army's 2nd Lancastrian regiment, featuring several experienced Fijians.

That the match was lost 3-35 was irrelevant as the scousers threw themselves into the challenge and won a huge amount of respect. The fact that, at the end of the scheme, two thirds of those involved were employed, including five who joined the armed forces, is testament to all involved.

As Austin Healy says: "I really believe that by integrating sport into your lifestyle, a person can learn life-skills that help in whatever you take on. Watching the guys grow, not only as players but off the field as well, has been a fantastic experience to be part of."

Just think then what Austin might achieve with the England rugby team!

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Dead man walking?

The RFU issued a statement yesterday endorsing Rob Andrew "to strengthen the England team structure through the recruitment of a team manager and an additional specialist coach".

In other words: "OK Rob, go get Johnno."

So, after meeting a week ago, Andrew and Johnson can resume discussions about a role with England for the iconic former skipper. Good news if, like me, you think that Johnson can come in and make a difference if given the power to do so but also a week wasted as we all waited for Andrew to report to the RFU management board yesterday - a week in which significant progress might have been made if someone, anyone, within the RFU had been empowered to make decisions.

As things stand, further discussions can now take place and recommendations will then be made to a Club England meeting in early April, who will then in turn make the final recommendations to the RFU management board (whose next scheduled meeting is on April 30). Swift and decisive it is not.

Not only is this ridiculously protracted process detrimental to the England rugby team it is also palpably unfair to current head coach Brian Ashton. It's safe to say that Ashton hasn't impressed me hugely as head coach, but I've also said that he needs to be given carte blanche to do the job his way, with his own coaching appointments, before a fair judgement can be made. That said, if the RFU think he's not the man for the job they should say so now and put the poor chap out of his misery rather than leave him in limbo while they seek to recruit someone effectively to replace him.

It's a disgraceful way to treat a (by all accounts) thoroughly decent man and it can only be the prospect of a reasonable severance package that prevents Ashton from saying "Sod it, I'm off."

Friday, 21 March 2008

Gutted

Earlier today I received the news that tomorrow's fixture against Amersham & Chiltern Vets has been cancelled because the opposition apparently can't raise a team and, because it's Easter, we can't get another game via the fixture exchange.

I have to admit that, in football parlance, the news has left me as sick as a parrot. I'm sure it wouldn't be a problem if I played every week - in fact it would probably be a blessed relief to have a break. But, with only one scheduled fixture per month, any cancellation leaves one hell of a gap between matches and, given that I know I'm not available for our fixture in April, that pretty much leaves my season done and dusted after only four games.

The fact that it's the same club that has now cancelled on us twice (December and March) is also somewhat galling and doesn't say much for the club in question. I appreciate that it's not always easy to raise a team but we always seem to manage to do so, even if we know that the chances are that we'll suffer a drubbing.

What all this does mean is that I'm going to have to give the 2nd XV captain a call and beg for a chance to run out before the end of the season. With the Easter break involving various family commitments there are going to be precious few opportunities before the season wraps up but right now (admittedly after a few drinks) I do feel that I owe Chesham a performance that I certainly haven't delivered yet and I really don't want my season to finish on this note.

Can it be true?

There's all sorts of speculation in the press at the moment that, following a meeting yesterday apparently between former skipper and legend Martin Johnson and England's Director of Elite Rugby Rob Andrew, Johnno is to be appointed as England Team Manager to work alongside head coach Brian Ashton.

I'm not so sure. Don't get me wrong, I'd love it, just love it (to quote Kevin Keegan) if Johnno was to come on board - but if he were to accept a role he would have to be in overall charge of the England coaching and management set-up. There's just no point in him just being there as some sort of front-of-house figurehead.

So, if Johnno is appointed, where does that leave the ageing head coach? Ashton has already gone on record as saying he doesn't want a manager who will want to be involved in rugby decisions and has apparently sounded out another former England skipper (albeit a useless one), Phil De Glanville, for the role. Ashton, it seems, wants someone to handle organisational matters plus relations with the RFU and the media - a role Johnson, one would imagine (and hope), simply wouldn't contemplate.

My theory is this...having recommended that each of the current England coaching team retain their respective positions following the extensive post-World Cup review, Rob Andrew can't very well turn round and now admit that he got this decision badly wrong as his own position would then almost be untenable. However, by giving Johnson the England Team Manager job (a role that Ashton had requested be filled), the responsibility for retaining or firing the coaching team can be passed to the former skipper, thus severely undermining Ashton's position to an extent that the beleaguered head coach may find he has no option but to resign - therefore satisfying the hawks within the RFU who see Ashton as a lame duck whilst at the same time allowing Andrew to save his own bacon.

Of course, this being the RFU, there's always a chance that there's absolutely nothing in this, that the status quo will prevail and that it will be business as usual until the next humiliating defeat (almost inevitably a record defeat to New Zealand in June).

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Season's swansong?

I've just returned from a session in the gym where I gave myself a bit of a beasting (ooeerr missus) in an attempt to make up for not having done any training since last Friday. Yes, I do realise that fitness doesn't work that way but, the way I look at it, it's better than doing nothing at all this week and it does help me delude myself into thinking that I'm in good enough shape to take part in Saturday's match against our local rivals aka the Vets team of Amersham & Chiltern Rugby Club.

I'm hoping to go well on Saturday, partly because of the keen rivalry between the two clubs but also because this could be my last outing of the season, our April fixture falling on a date when I know I'll be unavailable. I guess I could try to get a game for our 2nd XV on one of the other Saturday's in April but, failing that, this Saturday will be my season's swansong so it would be nice to go out with a decent performance and, dare I hope for it, a win.

This whole comeback business has been something of a strange experience - getting through the first game back in October was a huge relief, and to do so without getting hurt or making a complete prat of myself was an added bonus. Playing one fixture a month since then (although the December fixture was cancelled) has worked out well for me in many ways - it's given the body a decent chance to get over the battering it receives each game and it also means that the time I have to commit to playing is manageable from a family perspective. The downside is very much that it's virtually impossible to get "battle-hardened" or into any sort of playing rhythm - I feel like I'm starting from scratch each game - and from a team perspective it's really difficult to gel, which is why we're often bloody useless until half an hour into any game (or at least that's my excuse).

Still, I've really enjoyed getting back into the game - I honestly don't think you can beat the feeling of being part of a team. Here's hoping for decent game on Saturday. The weather forecast suggests that conditions will be dreadful - cold, wet and windy. Lovely - and you never know, it might just bring the opposition down to our level. Remember Murrayfield!

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Six Nations Chumps

Having selected a best team of the tournament, here's my selection of players who might be described as having had a "disappointing" Six Nations:

15. Hmmm...now let's see, who could I possibly choose to fill the fullback position? I’m afraid that there’s only one candidate as far as I’m concerned. Step forward Mr. Iain Ballsup – no explanations necessary.

14. There was no obvious choice for the right wing spot, so I’ve moved someone from the centre positions (where there are an abundance of candidates). Italy’s Gonzalo Canale had hands of teflon throughout the tournament and butchered at least 2 potential Italian tries and so is handed the number 14 shirt.

13. Plenty of choices for this one – Andrew Trimble’s inability to pass the ball, the French midfield’s impotence against Wales, England’s general lack of midfield penetration (until Cipriani’s intervention) for instance. But the winner, in my view, was Sonny Parker, whose doomed attempts to field re-starts against England bordered on the comical.

12. Easy shoe-in for this position as Andrew Henderson’s inability to execute a basic pass to a colleague shone through like a beacon.

11. This may be a little harsh as it’s not his fault that he’s been thrust into international rugby without being anywhere near ready, but Leslie Vainikolo’s failure to do anything other than run straight into the nearest defender, no matter where he was on the pitch, made him a defensive liability for England.

10. Who to choose? Jonny Wilkinson’s effort against Scotland was just painful to watch, Dan Parks offered up his usual rubbish and Andrea Masi patently isn’t a fly half. However, David Skrela’s performance against Wales was just truly appalling (I’ve never seen a re-start kick go backwards other than when kicked into a gale – and the roof in Cardiff was closed!)

9. Neither Italian scum half looked the part and Richard Wigglesworth had his difficulties for England but the shirt goes to Andy Gomarsall who was very poor against both Wales and Italy and then turned into a champion whinger when dropped, despite also being unable to get into the Harlequins 1st XV.

1. Take your pick from the French props. The latest triallist, Fabien Barcella, somehow managed to be out-scrummaged by Wales.

2. There were various lineout malfunctions throughout the tournament, involving various hookers, but one thing this Six Nations showed was that it was a championship too far for Mark Regan.

3. Time for another French prop – this time it’s Julien Brugnaut for managing to be out-scrummaged by both Scotland and Ireland.

4. Now here’s a guy I feel a bit sorry for. It’s not his fault that he was brought back into the team after injury way too early, but Paul O’Connell was a shadow of his former self. The man to blame is clearly Eddie O’Sullivan, who could have brought in Bob Casey or Leo Cullen but chose not to.

5. The other lock position goes to Scott MacLeod who escaped with a slapped wrist for failing to disclose his asthma medication (and so tested positive for a banned substance), largely I suspect because no one could find any evidence of his performance being enhanced!

6. This might sound a bit harsh on a man who has just announced his international retirement, but I’d suggest that the reason Simon Easterby has done so is because he was so ineffective in the first match against Italy until replaced, and then again looked well off the pace against England.

7. For a man who otherwise had a typically robust tournament, Marco Bergamasco gets the shirt for his ridiculously obvious eye-gouging on Lee Byrne after the final whistle at Cardiff.

8. A difficult call as all candidates had reasonable tournaments, but I’m afraid that Nick Easter was, in general, disappointing. Admittedly he had a good game in the defensive scrap against France, but in general he lacked the dynamism England need from a number 8, perhaps in part down to the fact that he was carrying a knee injury through the tournament.

That’s it – my Six Nations Chumps - 5 Englishmen, 3 Frenchmen, 2 Italians, 2 Irishmen, 2 Scots and 1 Welshman (actually technically I guess there are 4 Englishmen, 2 Kiwis and no Welshman!).

Pease feel free to comment if any others spring to mind...

Legend takes offence

Apparently one of the "number of complaints" lodged with the BBC about Danny Cipriani's use of the "f-word" (as the media like to call it) on Saturday was by none other than former Tottenham, Arsenal and Northern Ireland goalkeeper, Pat Jennings.

Just to recap, Cipriani was interviewed immediately after the final whistle and, clearly still buzzing with excitement, was full of praise for the English forwards, blurting out "It's the fucking [or ****ing, according to the newspapers!] one to eight who deserve the man of the match," before adding "I can't believe I've just sworn on live TV."

This seriously heinous behaviour was evidently more than the former Northern Ireland goalkeeper could bear, Jennings being reported to have said:

"I am furious about the language used in the middle of the day.

"I was watching that game at home and was totally and utterly shocked.

"The game of rugby used to be a gentleman's game, but it doesn't seem like it is any more."

Jennings, of course, used to play football in the 1970s and 1980s when language on the terraces at Highbury and White Hart Lane was obviously far more genteel than that used by modern day rugby yobs like Cipriani. Who can forget those witty little numbers "You're going to get your flipping head kicked in" or "You're going home in a flipping ambulance," that the ever-so-well-behaved sets of supporters used to sing to one another as a token of their mutual respect? And with his fellow players obviously so terribly well spoken and polite, no wonder the holier-than-thou former shot-stopper was so upset by Cipriani's outburst.

Perhaps if the BBC didn't shove a microphone in front of players almost as soon as the final whistle blows we might in future avoid upsetting other former paragons of gentlemanly behaviour who have such sensitive dispositions that they find the occasional uttered oath so offensive.

You really couldn't make this up!

Monday, 17 March 2008

Six Nations 2008 Review

Another Six Nations tournament bites the dust and congratulations must go to Wales, not only for achieving the coveted Grand Slam but also for the relative ease with which they handled a surprisingly flat and one-dimensional French challenge in Cardiff at the weekend. Apparently French scrum half Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde had labelled France’s opposition as “only Wales” before kick off but it was obvious that “only Wales” were streets ahead of “only France” in just about every department on Saturday.

So, congratulations Wales – a thoroughly deserved Slam - although (and far be it for me to be the one to urinate on your fireworks amidst all that euphoria on the other side of the Severn) here are a few things Welshmen might want to consider:

- if England hadn’t committed tactical hari-kari in the 2nd half at Twickenham the Welsh Grand Slam would have been stillborn. I know that many consider that the Twickenham result was the consequence of a great Welsh fightback but I beg to differ – all the Welsh achieved that afternoon was competence – English incompetence did the rest;

- even the most one-eyed Welshman must admit that the Welsh team was extremely lucky with injuries during the tournament, allowing Gatland to select from full strength more often than not and make changes that he wanted to make rather than having them forced upon him;

- while admittedly Wales do have strength in depth in certain positions, notably at half back, there are several areas – tight five, openside flanker and centres in particular – where injuries to frontline players would have seriously affected Welsh chances; and

- apart from England for 40 minutes, no other team showed anything in attack against Wales. While only 2 tries conceded is a testament to the Welsh defensive effort and goes a long way to deifying Shaun Edwards, the tactical approach from both France and Ireland in particular was shocking, whilst the Scottish and Italian attacking efforts were just inept.

As for the rest, a 2nd place for England in the championship might be their best result since 2003 but shouldn’t detract from a shoddily inconsistent overall effort as Ashton’s selectorial conservativism and obstinacy could just as easily have led the team to a wooden spoon. France might argue that they’ve found one or two players of promise for the future but the team lacked intelligence against both England in Paris and Wales in Cardiff and they have serious problems in the front row. Ireland suffered injuries to key players but Eddie O’Sullivan can only have himself to blame that there were no suitable replacements in the pipeline and it looks very much like his days are numbered. And, aside from 80 minutes in the rain at Murrayfield, Scotland were truly awful throughout the championship while Italy look as if they are only a proper fly-half away from being a half-decent team.

So, it now falls on me to select my best XV taken from those who have put their bodies on the line during the past six weeks as I name the TOTAL FLANKER TEAM OF THE TOURNAMENT:

15. You’ll be pleased to know that, not being Brian Ashton, I feel no compulsion to hand the fullback shirt to Iain Ballsup. It looked at the beginning of the tournament as if France’s Cedric Heymans would sew this position up (until he ran into Jamie Noon in Paris) but the overall solidity of LEE BYRNE wins this one (a surprise as he’d never threatened to impress me previously).

14. Paul Sackey had his moments, and Rob Kearney and Tommy Bowe both showed glimpses, but France’s VINCENT CLERC wins this shirt comfortably. As well as his tries he also looked like the only back with a half a clue against Wales.

13. One of the easiest decisions – TOM SHANKLIN was streets ahead of anyone, including the likes of Brian O’Driscoll. The reason for Warren Gatland going with the embarrassingly bad Sonny Parker to start the England game is anyone’s guess and perhaps punctures Gatland’s aura of perfection.

12. Until the Scotland game I’d been impressed with the contribution of Toby Flood to the England cause and Damian Traille had a decent tournament until Cardiff. It pains me to say it, but I’m afraid that the perma-tanned GAVIN HENSON gets my vote here – his dominance of Yannick Jauzion in Cardiff being the pick of his performances for me.

11. Ickle SHANE WILLIAMS. No contest. Player of the Championship.

10. Now then…logically this should be a toss up between Stephen Jones and James Hook, Jones being the far better tactical game-controller with Hook having the better eye for a break and creative output. However, on Saturday I witnessed the whole package and, although it surprises me to say this, on the strength of just one game I’m going to select tranny-dating nightclubber DANNY CIPRIANI – if only for the fact that he managed to say “fuck” live on the BBC.

9. Scotland’s Mike Blair, it has to be said, had a great game against England but he suffers by association with the dreadful overall contribution of the Scotland team. Eoin Reddan also had a good tournament but Wales scrum half MIKE PHILLIPS was the standout performer, appearing to be the biggest beneficiary of the Gatland/Edwards effect.

1. I know every Welshman would pick Gethin Jenkins, but I can’t ignore the scrummaging power of ANDREW SHERIDAN. He didn’t have his finest 80 minutes overall against the Scots by any means, but his scrummaging and ball carrying power has been central to most of the good things achieved by England.

2. No truly outstanding candidates for the hooker’s shirt. Lee Mears looks to have come of age for England while pretty-boy Dimitri Szarzewski adds dynamism to the French pack. My choice, however, is HUW BENNETT, if only for his tackle on Paul Sackey at Twickenham, saving a try that would surely have taken the English out of sight.

3. Italy’s pack was as fearsome as ever and MARTIN CASTROGIOVANNI was its tighthead cornerstone. Honourable mention also to Adam Jones, who not only proved that nowadays he can last the full 80 minutes if required, he can also do it while sporting a ridiculous Alice in Wonderland plaited hairdo.

4. A number of contenders for the front-jumping spot – Simon Shaw and Nathan Hines both having decent tournaments for instance, but it looked to me as if IAN GOUGH somehow managed to do the work of ten men each game - a huge effort worthy of recognition.

5. As for the middle jumping spot, Alun Wyn-Jones proved an athletic option for Wales while Jerome Thion looked the part for France and Donnacha O’Callaghan had a decent tournament, but I thought STEVE BORTHWICK really showed up well for England this championship and provided much needed leadership at times.

6. The one player who really impressed for Scotland was Alistair Strokosch, who kept Jason White out of the starting XV, while both James Haskell and Tom Croft looked promising for England. Josh Sole worked hard for Italy and Jonathan Thomas showed up well for Wales - but it’s Thomas’s skipper RYAN JONES who gets the nod – picked out of position to accommodate an even more impressive number 8.

7. There's only one realistic contender for the openside birth. Michael Lipman and Marco Bergamasco do get mentioned in dispatches but ex-retiree MARTIN WILLIAMS stole the show as the outstanding backrow forward of the tournament.

8. Finally to number 8 where France discovered a good young prospect in Louis Picamole and Jamie Heaslip will undoubtedly enjoy many seasons to come at the back of the Irish scrum. However Italy’s captain SERGIO PARISSE was head and shoulders above all the other contenders, Ryan Jones perhaps excepted.

There that’s it. No doubt there’ll be those thinking I’ve lost my marbles (if I ever had them) with some of those selections but hey, rugby’s all about opinions. Overall it wasn’t a tournament of huge quality, but there was plenty of drama, excitement and controversy and moments where the only option was to scream at the TV - and you can't ask for much more than that (other than an an England Grand Slam, of course, which never realistically looked on the cards).

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Curious Affair of Warren Gatland and the RFU

Through admittedly gritted teeth I must say "good luck" to the Welsh in their bid for a Grand Slam this afternoon. Wales are by no means an outstanding team (at least not yet), but are certainly the most competitive of the teams in the 2008 Six Nations and, assuming they don't implode against France, will be worthy champions.

Wales also have, without doubt, the best coaching team in the tournament and what makes this all the more galling is that it appears that this same coaching double act of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards could easily have been coaching England during this Six Nations. According to The Sun newspaper yesterday (yes, I read all the highbrow publications, don't you know) the "RFU elite" are said to be furious after discovering new Wales head coach Warren Gatland made 3 bids to land the job of England head coach, all of which were rebuffed by the RFU Director of Elite Rugby, Rob Andrew.

First reactions? Well, the story did, after all, appear in the The Sun - which hardly has a reputation for uncovering the truth - so I pretty much dismissed the story as the usual sensationalist nonsense. However, a trawl through a well known London Wasps message board uncovered the following comment on the story penned by a character known as "Millwall Wasp":

"Gats did NOT make three bids, HE was approached by the RFU when it was clear that Andy Robinson's role had become untenable, they(the RFU) flew to Australia to meet with him. Discussions took place about Gats taking the role Squeaky [Rob Andrew] occupied but Gats wanted to be a 'hands on' coach. They (the RFU) approached him again early into Squeak’s tenure and enquired about his receptiveness to coach England. He was more than receptive but as a caveat, he wanted his own backroom staff and would want total control of team affairs, without interference from a non 'hands on' person. The RFU declined that proposal on two grounds 1. that the appointment of the backroom staff under Andy Robinson had two more years of contract to run, and to terminate such would cost a fortune. 2. That the role that Squeaky held was not negotiable. Needless to say the deal was dead in the water. After the World Cup 2007, Gats made it clear that he was looking for a more 'high profile' position, and in doing so had discussions with friends within the players structure of England that he would be available for discussions if England were inclined to open dialogue with him. This message was passed on to Squeaky by a number of players including two that I know of from other prem clubs. Squeaky decided that he would totally ignore this information and let Gats go to Wales. The rest is history. I can assure you that the above are the facts."


Hmmm. I have to admit that I've no idea who this Millwall Wasp character is or how credible a source he might be, but he does seem pretty certain of his facts which, if they are indeed true, point to an own goal of disastrous proportions by the RFU.

History Lesson

I’ve just finished reading “A Game for Hooligans: The History of Rugby Union” by Huw Richards, rugby writer for the Financial Times.

It’s publicity bills the book as “an authoritative English-language general history of the game” and you really can’t argue with that statement as the book is packed with facts and information covering not only Britain and France but also the great rugby powers of the southern hemisphere and other successful rugby nations. The book looks at the origins of rugby, takes the reader through the traumatic events surrounding the breakaway of the Northern Union in 1895 and plots a journey through the decades, its final destination being the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

It is certainly impressive, and if you enjoy soaking up rugby facts then this is the book for you. I have to admit, however, that I did find the book hard work – possibly because it does bombard the reader with information and, at under 300 pages in length, rattles through the years so quickly at times that it’s difficult to absorb the data being presented. At times I just wanted the book to slow down and explore some of the events in a little more detail and, although the blurb claims that the book does contain a “wealth of anecdotes”, many of these are lost amidst the headlong dash through history.

I certainly can’t fault Richards’ effort here – the research involved must have been a huge endeavour - I only wish I’d enjoyed reading the book a little more.

By way of contrast, a book I read earlier this year, “Thirty Bullies: A History of the Rugby World Cup” by former Times and Rugby World editor Alison Kervin is, in many ways, a far more enjoyable read. Admittedly Kervin only had to cover a 20 year period compared to the 150 years or so chronicled in Richards’ book, but nevertheless “Thirty Bullies” focuses largely on the various World Cup tournaments from the players’ perspective – from those (mostly English it seems) players who drank their way through the 1987 tournament to the highly trained athletes at the 2003 event (the book having been published to coincide with the 2007 World Cup).

My only problem with the book is the author’s tendency to try to over-analyse the reasons for the winning team’s success at each World Cup (she comes up with the stunningly original conclusion that each Rugby World Cup has been won by the best-prepared team) but, despite this, the book remains a hugely entertaining read.

If it’s facts you want – “A Game for Hooligans” is the book for you, but for pure entertainment value “Thirty Bullies” wins hands down.

Who'd have thunk it?

I was very surprised to read in the Telegraph today that Capital Radio Breakfast Show host Johnny Vaughan is a big rugby fan.

Perhaps it's my own prejudices forcing their way through to the surface here, but Vaughan's slightly dodgy, barrow-boy, likely-lad image does not, at first glance, lend itself to the oval ball game, probably not helped by the fact that 20 years ago he was jailed for 4 years for attempting to sell cocaine to an undercover policeman (not the brightest thing to do).

The image, however, appears to be just that - an image. All rugby league, soccer and Welsh rugby fans will be delighted to know that Johnny's background does indeed conform with their stereotypical perception of an English rugby union follower - yes, Johnny was indeed once a chinless, toffee-nosed, public schoolboy, attending Uppingham School in Rutland (whose other famous old boys include the likes of actor Boris Karloff, Carphone Warehouse magnate Charles Dunstone and fellow petty criminal Stephen Fry - amongst many others).

So, having played rugby at his prep school and at Uppingham (and, it transpires, having played scrum half for the Lincoln Prison team) it is perhaps less surprising that rugby is Vaughan's preference.

"I like the way the crowds are connected with the game more than in football," reveals Vaughan to the Telegraph. "You feel every rugby spectator plays or coaches for a fifth XV at his club.

"In rugby that connection with the game remains. These days we think business improves sport, but sport used to be above business. We lost the way with football, but you still feel that there's more purity in rugby.

"It's the greatest team game - not the most beautiful, nor the most skillful, but there's a place for everyone and everyone has their place...Rugby is so complex because of the broad range of skills and physical types that have to come together to make a great team."

Couldn't have put it better myself Johnny (try telling that to the powers that be at the IRB).

For the entire interview click here.

Last Orders...

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Oh Dear

Danny Cipriani's love affair with the UK's tabloid newspapers continued today when the Daily Mail (who broke the news about the nightclub visit last week) revealed that Danny once unsuccessfully auditioned to be a "topless model" at a 16 year old girl's birthday party.

"How on earth could they know that?" I hear you ask - well, unfortunately there is video evidence to support the esteemed rag's claims as the birthday party in question was featured on MTV's "My Super Sweet 16" series and, as you can see from the photo, it's definitely Cipriani standing in line waiting for his opportunity to strut his stuff.

I'm not sure which is more embarrassing - the revelation itself or the fact that he was rejected for the role by a horribly spoilt brat of a girl.

If you can bear to watch then the video is available here, but it does appear that, if Cipriani's rugby career continues to blossom, we're going to have to get used to a very different character in the England number 10 shirt.
Crikey, the bloke's even beginning to make Gavin Henson look drearily square.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Closing out

Various pundits, including John Inverdale in the Telegraph, are getting their knickers in a twist about the increasingly popular tactic of teams winding the clock down by constructing a succession of drives, rucks and mauls round the fringes that are impossible to defend unless an infringement is committed. Wales shut England out at Twickenham using this method and did so again in the closing minutes against Ireland at Dublin. England did exactly the same to France in Paris (and even managed to cross for a late try in the process) and Scotland closed out the dire game at Murrayfield in the same fashion.

Inverdale argues that, logically, it would technically be possible for a team to take the lead in the first minute of the match and then play this possession game for the remaining 79 minutes. Technically possible, maybe, but hardly physically possible - it looks like bloody hard work for a start - and in all honestly I can't see what all the fuss is about. Teams often used to protect a lead by wellying the ball as far as possible down the field and make the opposition attack from deep late in the game, trusting in their defence to close the game out - the fact that teams now instead trust in their own ability to retain possession isn't such a bad thing.

It's no different from a soccer team playing 'keep-ball' late in the game to protect a lead - there's absolutely no obligation on a team to offer up opportunities to win the game to the opposition.

If we're not careful, whinges like these will lead to referees deciding to spot invisible offences to give the defending side one last chance or, heaven forbid, the IRB deciding to introduce another pointless law to "improve" the game (what price the "six tackle" rule?).

Come on Invers, get a grip!

Happy Anniversary Wooden Spoon

It all began in Dublin in 1983 when England’s Five Nations season ended in disaster (plus ça change) with a 25-15 defeat by Ireland leaving them languishing at the bottom of the table.

That evening a group of victorious Irish fans presented a group of deflated English fans with a wooden spoon, a spoon that was then signed by the players of that 1983 Five Nations game. It became the prize in a golf day that raised funds for a new minibus for a special needs school. At the time, no one had any idea that a group of fans going to Ireland to watch some rugby would grow into a charity that, over the last 25 years, has distributed over £13.5million across 276 capital projects to help improve the lives of mentally, physically and socially disadvantaged children and young people in the UK and Ireland; not such a bad result after all.

So, Happy 25th Anniversary to Wooden Spoon, a charity I'm happy and proud to support. Spoon plans to celebrate its quarter century milestone over a period of two years and the celebrations kick off this Saturday at 10.30am when the Wooden Spoon England Legends will take on an Irish Legends team at Richmond Rugby Club - a game which (given the form displayed by both England and Ireland last weekend)may well turn out to be somewhat more entertaining than the "other" match down the road at Twickenham later that afternoon.

For more details on the game and for more information about Wooden Spoon please click here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Jonny scapegoated for second coming...

So, Jonny's been dropped from England's starting XV and Danny Cipriani will start at 10 against Ireland (and no, despite what the media are claiming, this is not the first time he's been left out - the 1999 Rugby World Cup quarter-final springs to mind for instance).

Wilkinson's axeing is a fair enough call - he was very poor against the Sweaties and Cipriani has been the better player on form all season - but a look at the rest of the team selected tells us all we need to know about Brian Ashton (or whoever it is that selects the England team these days). Not one other change is made to the team that capitulated against Scotland at the weekend. Effectively what Ashton is saying is that the defeat was Jonny's fault and his alone, that no other players were culpable, that everyone else has performed up to expectations during the championship.

So, Iain Ballsup must have had a fine all round tournament, Lesley Vainikolo must have made a telling impact, Jamie Noon must have been a real attacking threat, Nick Easter must have dominated the breakdowns and Phil Vickery must have proved himself to be an astute and inspirational leader?

No? Well how else do you explain it?

The Ireland game was a real opportunity to draw a line under what's gone before and start again with a view to blooding the core of a team to play the All Blacks on their own patch in June. Instead, underperformance is once again rewarded and risks are kept to a bare minimum. The following team, even with only a few days' practice, would have been a start:

Lewsey, Sackey, Tait, Barkley, Simpson-Daniel, Cipriani, Care, Sheridan, Paice, Stevens, Borthwick (capt), Kennedy, Croft, Haskell, Lipman.

Who knows, Ireland are in such poor shape themselves that England might even win on Saturday but, whatever happens, I believe that this selection, plus Ashton's handling of Ciprianigate last week, has shown that the RFU should be seriously thinking about eating a huge slice of humble pie very soon and that Shaun Edwards should make sure he leaves his phone switched on come Saturday evening.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Have we all gone Trophytastic?

Is it just me, or are there now a ridiculous number of trophy presentations during the Six Nations?

Once upon a time (which I hesitate to refer to as the "good old days" for fear of sounding like a bitter old fart) you didn't even get anything for winning the whole championship, not even if you had secured the coveted Grand Slam - just a "well done," a slap on the back and a place in history. And the one trophy that was presented every year since 1880, the Calcutta Cup, ended up bruised and battered after doubling up as a rugby ball during an impromptu skirmish between Dean Richards and John Jeffery on Edinburgh's Princes Street back in 1988.

Nowadays you can't move for trophy presentations - not only is there now a trophy for winning the championship (which, I guess, is fair enough), but there's also a trophy for winning the previously ethereal Triple Crown, there's the Millennium Trophy awarded to the winners of the annual Ireland v England clash and, since 2007, there's now the Giuseppe Garibaldi Trophy awarded to the winner of the annual match between France and Italy. It seems that there's barely a game goes by in the championship these days without the winners being presented with some meaningless prize to parade about.

Of course, this trophy obsession isn't just limited to the Six Nations. We all know about the Bledisloe Cup, competed for by New Zealand and Australia for over 70 years, but we now also have the Lansdowne Cup (Australia v Ireland), the Mandela Plate (South Africa v Australia), the Dave Gallaher Trophy (France v New Zealand), the Tom Richards Trophy (Australia v the Lions), the Freedom Cup (New Zealand v South Africa), the Puma Trophy (Argentina v Australia), the Cook Cup (England v Australia) and the Bicentenary Trophy (France v Australia), to name but several. It's as if no game can have any meaning unless the winning team get to pose for a picture and show off whichever pot, shield or cup has been deemed the appropriate prize for that particular game.

Sadly, no physical Wooden Spoon yet exists for the team finishing in last place in the Six Nations championship, although surely it's only a matter of time...

Sunday, 9 March 2008

(Almost) lost for words...

Having taken over 24 hours or so to digest Saturday's Scotland v England game, I sat down last night and penned a long diatribe about the failings of the English performance. The words 'clueless', 'inadequate', 'dire', 'dross' and 'brainless' were liberally sprinkled throughout. I then read the piece through - and then deleted it.

I mean, what's the point in trying to explain what has been obvious for some time now - that England are essentially a team devoid of ideas, inspiration and leadership.

What I will say is this:

  • that had to be just about the worst quality game of rugby I've witnessed in a long, long time;

  • I honestly believe that it was the worst performance by England for well over 20 years (and that's saying something considering some of the dross we've been served up in recent years);

  • If Brian Ashton sticks with largely the same group of players for the Ireland match next Saturday then, whatever the result, he deserves to go, along with his coaching team.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

In Pod we trust?

You may have noticed that I do tend to get a bit obsessive when it comes to the Six Nations and, in particular, the England rugby team's involvement. It's always been the case. The 1980 England Grand Slam season successfully whetted my appetite to such an extent that my expectations before each Five/Six Nations tournament have, ever since, always been huge, no matter how good, bad or indifferent the form of the English national team has been.

Inevitably, apart from a few isolated years, it all ends in disappointment and recrimination, but no matter how badly England play and no matter how humiliating the scorelines, my hunger for knowledge, opinion and banter about the team and the tournament knows no bounds. And with vast amounts of information available on the worldwide web, the last 10 years or so has meant that this hunger has been satisfied by feasting on what effectively is an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Furthermore, the increasing availability of broadband over the last 5 years has seen an increase in the video and audio content available - with the result that this Six Nations I expected great things from those producing such content and therefore set out in a quest to gorge myself on Six Nations podcasts.

First port of call was the official RBS Six Nations podcast. The podcast being official, I guess my expectations should not have been too high and, in that sense, it didn't disappoint. Very safe, very formulaic, very dull. The latest show features interviews with former Scotland skipper David Sole and former Italian skipper Alessandro Moscardi - who between them manage to contribute hardly anything of interest. The podcast is located in the "Fanzone" of the RBS official site which begs the question as to whether it might be a little more interesting to hear the views of the said fans? With a duration of about 20 minutes I'd say that, given the content, it was around 15 minutes too long!

So, with the official podcast out of the way, where else to turn? Well, one of my favourite websites, Scrum.com, has now launched a podcast service but boy, is it dull. Hosted by ex-Wales and Lions flanker, John "the Voice of ITV" Taylor, it's very safe, very grown-up and very, very boring. I don't know about you, but when I listen to the radio I expect to be challenged, to be engaged, to be entertained. I'm looking for robust opinion, for controversy, for laughs and for interactivity - what I'm not looking for is a bunch of more or less unknown journalists offering viewpoints which can best be described as banal at a pace which can only be described as funereal. If this is what the new ownership by ESPN has brought to the site then the future doesn't look great. And at about 45 minutes in duration it's ridiculously long - after 10 minutes I'd pretty much lost the will to live and simply gave up listening.

Moving on to something a little more positive, The Times Six Nations podcast actually borders on being entertaining. It's a little on the long side, and occasionally meanders a little and loses its way, but Mark Souster is a very good host and pulls together the team of Dean Richards, Jerry Guscott and the ever-forthright Stephen Jones with no lack of skill. The guests are all knowledgeable and opinionated and aren't shy in coming forward with their views and there's plenty of banter to provide moments of humour and entertainment. What it lacks is any interactivity with its listeners and it could do with being edited down a bit but is nevertheless worth a listen.

Another step in the right direction is the podcast provided by the Guardian (or the Grauniad, as Private Eye likes to call it). This half hour show is hosted by the Guardian's Ian Payne and this week features journalists Ian Prior and Claire Tolley with former Ireland captain Philip Matthews and former England hooker Steve Thompson also making a contribution. The show moves along at a nice pace, is fairly light-hearted and involves plenty of banter. It also has the sense to bring in some listener-participation with the panel giving their views on opinions expressed by contributors to the Guardian rugby blog. All in all it's a pretty decent effort.

Which brings me finally to the other broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, which doesn't appear to have a general Six Nations podcast as such (or if it does, I'm buggered if I can find it). What it does appear to have is a regular audio interview with former Scottish captain David Sole (who seems to get everywhere). Not very exciting but at least they keep it short and sweet at 3 minutes.

What the Telegraph also has, of course, is Carling's Round - a video podcast featuring Will Carling, Ieuen Evans and Brian Moore (sitting in for Zinzan Brooke) with a comedic turn from the Alternative Rugby Commentary's Jed Thian. Last year Messrs Carling, Evans and Brooke all featured in an audio podcast, but this year we actually get to see them in all their glory over a pint at The Stage Door pub in London. Regular readers of this blog might recall that I have been known to feature Carling's Round from time to time and I must confess that yes, I am indeed a fan of the show. Some might find it a little too flippant and perhaps a degree of substance is sacrificed amongst the almost constant banter, but for me it does what it sets out to do - it entertains - and at around 13 minutes long there's very little waste.

All in all I was surprised at how little decent rugby audio content is out there in the ether. There's certainly a gap in the market for a well-produced, tightly-run show featuring hard-hitting opinion combined with banter, humour and audience participation and with a duration of under 20 minutes. It may be out there somewhere already, or perhaps I'm just going to have to invent it! :)

He's back!



Altogether now... AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!

Silly boy

According to the esteemed Daily Mail, England new boy Danny Cipriani could be in a bit of hot water with the England hierachy after he was pictured leaving a London nightclub in the early hours of this morning.

The England squad were allowed home from their training-camp in Bath yesterday before flying up to Scotland, the idea no doubt being that the players spend some time at home. Cipriani, however, was spotted emerging from a club on Dover Street in Mayfair at 12.30 am this morning - probably not what the England management had in mind when allowing the players a bit of R & R.

On the plus side Cipriani doesn't appear to be drunk, isn't holding a kebab and has neither a Cheeky Girl nor a publicity-seeking transsexual on his arm. On the downside it's another example of young professional rugby players acting any way other than professionally off the pitch.

Silly boy.

UPDATE - The RFU have released the following statement:

"Further to inappropriate behaviour last night by England and London Wasps back Danny Cipriani, England Head Coach Brian Ashton has decided to replace him in the starting XV for Saturday’s RBS 6 Nations fixture against Scotland with Gloucester Rugby's Iain Balshaw. Charlie Hodgson of Sale Sharks has been added to the bench. Danny Cipriani will not travel with England to Scotland. No further disciplinary action will be taken against Danny but he has been warned and advised about his future conduct."

VERY silly boy.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Grassroots rugby and the ELVs

(photo courtesy of Big Dai)

For those already thoroughly bored with me banging on about the ELVs I suggest you stop reading this blog right now and do something more productive with your time, because I’m afraid that I feel another rant coming on…

The ELVs are very much in the news at the moment as the Super 14 tries to make sense of a number of them, with opinion split – mostly on hemispherical lines it must be said – as to whether the new laws improve the game as a spectacle or not.

As you may have gathered, I am very much of the opinion that, apart from one or two of the new laws, the ELVs do nothing to improve the game for the spectator unless that spectator happens to be a soap-opera-watching couch potato with no knowledge of rugby whatsoever. However, even if I were to accept that the game is better to watch under the ELVs (which I don’t), what would still worry me is the potentially disastrous effect that these proposed new laws will have on grassroots rugby.

It’s all very well for the various experts to claim that the ball being in play for longer will lead to a more attractive proposition for spectators (although of course it doesn’t necessarily follow that more = better or that quantity = quality). But consider the impact that the ball being in play more will have on the poor grassroots player.

Personally I find that I do quite enough running around in a game of rugby thank you very much and the last thing I need is an extra 5 minutes worth of action – the sight of the ball being hoofed off the park is one of the most welcome sights in the game as far as I’m concerned. Seriously though, the game of rugby already involves a huge amount of physical exertion without having to add to the burden. Fewer breaks in the game will lead to more exhaustion and, inevitably, more injuries. And more injuries will require teams at all levels to have bigger matchday squads which, in many cases, is simply not feasible, leading to clubs being able to field fewer teams and with players becoming disenchanted with having to sit on the bench for the 2nds rather than run out for the 3rds.

Likewise the preponderance of free kicks that will be awarded will radically alter the nature of the game at grassroots level. The reduction in penalties being kicked to touch (with the breather that such a kick offers to knackered forwards) will not only add to player exhaustion but will also render the need for tall lineout specialist redundant as (when added to the disincentive to kick to touch from the 22) the number of lineouts in a game is drastically reduced. While this might not be a bad thing for my Vets team whose lineout is an acknowledged shambles, this fundamental change in the nature of the game goes against the creed that rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes.

So, with all the tall skinny blokes gone, what will happen to the short squat blokes in the front row? It’s claimed that, with the new 5 metre offside line, the scrummage will be more important than ever. This might be true in theory but consider this – if, as France did against England last Saturday, a weaker front row is savvy enough not to engage properly, not to bind properly, not to scrum straight etc etc, and if the only sanction is a free kick, then it won’t be too long before the scrum starts to lose its appeal and the ‘tap and go’ will become the norm. Props will start to become redundant. No wonder the Aussies are so enthusiastic about these laws.

What we’ll end up with, I fear, is some kind of homogenised, generic form of rugby where all the players are required to be more or less the same size and shape, where the set-piece is largely redundant and players are strung out across the field in 2 lines, where incredible fitness and stamina is required, where injuries are far more frequent , (even more so if the law allowing the maul to be collapsed is eventually brought in), where huge matchday squads are required, where exhaustion will lead to more mistakes, more offences, more free kicks, more tap and go…

Ultimately I suspect we’re looking at a hybrid of sevens and rugby league – a game that not only would I not enjoy watching but also a game that neither I nor the vast majority of players who turn out at their local rugby clubs week-in, week out, would enjoy playing. And, when that happens, when the grassroots begins to fall out of love with the game, rugby will be in dire straits indeed.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

He's out!

Well...almost...but a demotion to the bench is probably the best we could have expected given his lovechild status...

For those wondering what I'm wittering on about, England have (at least at the start of the match) decided to do without the questionable talents of a certain Mr. Iain Ballsup when they take on the Sweaties in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Instead they've plumped for the exciting potential of Danny Cipriani in the fullback position - let's just hope he's not confused by the sight of all those men in kilts.

Other changes see Tom Croft replace the injured James Haskell on the blindside flank whilst Lee Mears replaces the Grotesque Clown at hooker (who drops out of the squad altogether).

Ballsup does manage to cling on to a place on the bench which does beg the question as to why in heaven's name James Simpson-Daniel was added to the squad on Sunday?

Then again, why on earth should I expect it all to make sense?

Monday, 3 March 2008

Common sense breaks out

The world turned on its axis this weekend when Clive Woodward's former sparring partner, ex-Wallaby coach Eddie Jones, finally came out and said something sensible.

Eddie, good on him, has warned that the Experimental Law Variations (ELVs) are turning our game into a Rugby League hybrid, making rugby "too generic."

By simplifying the laws of Rugby, he writes, we run the risk of making the game predictable.

"Take the World Cup," says Eddie. "England beat Australia by taking the game at the scrum and breakdown. Argentina beat France through kick-chase expertise. France upset New Zealand by dominating the ruck and the 'Boks beat England in the Final by controlling the line-outs.

"At first view, the ELVs have elevated the importance of unstructured attack and some games seem an endless stream of free kicks. This favours sides with powerful, instinctive athletes which is why the Blues and Crusaders are looking unbeatable in Super 14 right now.

"Furthermore, the ELVs encourage sides to cheat. The Waratahs look happy to give away a free kick on engagement on the opposition's scrum ball to negate the potential gains for the attacking team exploiting a defence standing five metres back from the scrum."


Couldn't have put it better myself Eddie.

Furthermore, in another triumph for common sense, it looks as if the ELVs might not, after all, be implemented as planned in the Tri-Nations. Australian Rugby Union chief executive John "We all hate England" O'Neill has said he was "taken aback" at some responses yesterday after the IRB presentation on the ELV's in Hong Kong.

"A couple of the northern hemisphere unions indicated very strong reservations and a very strong level of scepticism about the new laws," said O'Neill, whose plans to invent an entirely new sport are now under threat.

Quite right too. Although the unions involved were not named I'd hazard a guess at the RFU and IRFU being the favourites, in which case a hearty slap on the back to those involved. Apparently the Six Nations unions are due to hold a meeting on the ELVs on 28th March when I'd hope that this outbreak of common sense might well start to reach epidemic proportions.

It's Carling's Round (again)

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Is Andy Gomarsall an idiot or what?

Erstwhile England scrum half Andy Gomarsall has, it seems, gone public with his frustrations at being dropped from the England set-up.

''I feel hard done by and that it is slightly unjustified that I got the bullet,'' Gomarsall told PA Sport.

''I looked at my performance against Italy and I thought I played well...and then I get pushed aside."

Gomarsall, it transpires, is not to blame. According to the Quins' number 9 the fault lies with the referee, who should have penalised Italy more at the breakdown and the England forwards, who should have produced more quick ball. It is also, it appears, the coaches' fault.

"If a coach can't put his finger on why the performance isn't good then you get the bullet. As a nine, it is just a fact of life.

''I think it is a bit of a cop-out to blame somebody for an area. We all want responsibility but they (the coaches) need to take some responsibility as well.

''What are they doing in training to make the team function better? As players, you can only do so much because you have to focus on your job. You can't do their job as well.''

It clearly has nothing to do with the fact that Gomarsall has played like a drain since returning from the World Cup and currently can't even make the Harlequins starting XV.

And, setting aside that he may indeed have a point when it comes to the England forwards and coaches, does he honestly believe that, by bleating to the press about how unjustly he feels he's been treated and by criticising the coaches, he is doing his chances of a recall any good? He can't be that stupid can he?

Save it for the autobiography.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Dear Brian...

''It is fair to say, and there is no point in hiding this because it's been said to the players, this is a big, big game for some players at the weekend.

''I am sure you know who they are, as well as I do.''

These were your wise words, Brian Ashton MBE, three days before England took on France in Paris last weekend. And yes, Brian, we all knew who you were referring to - Phil Vickery, Mark Regan, Nick Easter, Jonny Wilkinson and Ian Balshaw to name but 5.

Vickery, Easter and Wilkinson gave you the desired response against France, Brian, and Regan gave you his usual pantomime villain cameo. But Balshaw?

I know Balshaw gets plenty of stick from England fans (including yours truly) and I don't want this to be seen as some sort of bandwagon-jumping personal crusade (not that you are likely to pay attention to what I've got to say), but the fact is that Balshaw has increasingly become too much of an easy target. Why, Brian old chap, do you think that is? The answer is pretty simple really - it's because he's barely put together a half-decent performance since 2001 and, after a typically erratic (and frankly eccentric) performance against France which at times bordered on the embarassing, I and many others find it almost inexplicable that, once again, he has been retained in the England training squad at the expense of far superior players.

The only possible explanation I can come up with is that you are just too obstinate to admit that you've made one almighty howler in bringing Balshaw back into the squad this season - an obstinacy not helped, of course, by the clamour from the press (and from one of your favourite sons, Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio) for wonderboy Danny Cipriani to be picked at fullback. It's that same stubborn streak, Brian, that prevents you from restoring Josh Lewey to the squad - I can quite understand how, following Lewsey's underhand criticism of you post-World Cup, that you felt the need to show him who was boss by excluding him from your initial squad. But your point has now well and truly been made and Lewsey is back in sparkling form, so to continue to exclude him now just appears to be perverse and petty.

Given that Balsahw is still in the squad despite an almost universal outcry among fans and pundits for his exclusion, I can't imagine now that you would have the balls not to pick him again to start against Scotland. Loyalty is an admirable quality, Brian, but your faith in Mr. Ballsup takes this quality to a new and totally unjustifiable level.

Like a horse with a broken fetlock, Balshaw needs to be put out of his misery. Rather than an act of loyalty, his continued selection is nothing more and nothing less than an act of cruelty.

Or, like Andy Farrell in last year's Six Nations, are we going to have to rely on injury to force your hand?