Monday, 30 June 2008

Keeping up with the Jones

I sometimes wonder whether the Sunday Times' journo Stephen Jones actually believes what he writes or whether he's simply having a good old chortle at his readers' expense.

When he's not upsetting New Zealanders or Irishmen or Scots or Australians, or declaring how fantastically well he expects his native Wales will do at the World Cup, or talking up English rugby in general, or laying into each and every one of the ELVs (when even I can see the benefits of one or two of them), he's usually to be found imploring Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton, Rob Andrew or Martin Johnson (or whoever happens to be selecting the England rugby squad at any given time) not to pick anyone who isn't either gargantuan in build or pushing 30 years old or both (unless, of course, the player in question happens to be a Jones favourite).

We've been down this road before of course. A year ago Jones was advocating that England pick the likes of Andy Farrell for the World Cup squad simply because he was big, that being unable to pass the ball shouldn't count against the selection of another big centre in Ayoola Erinle, and that experienced players such as Mike Tindall, Ben Cohen, Ben Kay and Danny Grewcock should be selected despite the fact that they'd spent the previous four years serving up the same old dross whenever they'd pulled on an England shirt.

Now, with Martin Johnson set to announce tomorrow his 32 man elite England squad for next season, Jones is at it again. In his Sunday Times article at the weekend, for example, he bemoans the fact that "the single most ruinous aspect of the previous three coaching regimes in England ... is that they discarded people above their mid-20s in favour of tyros, therefore abandoning the lifeblood of experience and, frankly, achieving a set of results that has been on the humiliating side of deplorable."

Wrong. If anything the most ruinous aspect of recent regimes has been the opposite i.e. the continued selection of experienced players who have (a couple of matches at the 2007 Rugby World Cup aside) failed, by a country mile, to live up to the standards set by the the 2003 vintage and in this category I would include the likes of Mark Regan, Phil Vickery, Danny Grewcock, Ben Kay, Joe Worsley, Pat Sanderson, Martin Corry, Lewis Moody, Andy Gomarsall, Charlie Hodgson, Mike Tindall, Jamie Noon, Ben Cohen, Josh Lewsey and Mark Cueto amongst others. For good measure I'd also throw in Jonny Wilkinson.

If anything, England selection over the past few years (apart from on end of season tours when, obviously, needs must) has, I'd say, been categorised by a lack of faith in young talent. Anthony Allen being ditched after 2 matches is an example, as is the way an 18 year old Mathew Tait was thrown in for an impossible debut in Cardiff and then summarily dumped by Andy Robinson. Where youth has been trusted, returns have been impressive. Both Toby Flood and Shane Geraghty have shown huge promise in an England shirt, Rees and Haskell are beginning to look the real deal in the back row and, of course, Danny Cipriani is even acknowledged by Jones to be a bit special.

Which brings me back to Mathew Tait. For some reason I can't fathom, Jones simply doesn't rate Tait. Yet, for me, Tait has only had one poor game for England - his first - and even then he wasn't exactly helped by inept performances from the England pack and from Charlie Hodgson and Jamie Noon on his inside. Since then he's shown not only the strength of character to bounce back but also no little skill and bags of pace. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, England's best back at the World Cup (not difficult, perhaps, but nevertheless...) and has always delivered on the occasions he's been selected despite being mucked around generally by selectors who appear to prefer plodders like Tindall and Noon in the midfield and perennial underachievers like Balshaw at fullback. It's no great surprise then to see Tait excluded from the 32 players that Stephen Jones would urge Martin Johnson to select tomorrow. The Stephen Jones-anointed 32 are:

Full backs/wings: Josh Lewsey, Paul Sackey, Ugo Monye (on the strength of what exactly?) Mike Brown (despite all the evidence of the Auckland Test) and Tom Varndell.

Centres: Mike Tindall (pace and creativity not being required, obviously), Olly Barkley, Rickey Flutey (indecently hastily) and Dan Hipkiss .

Fly-halves: Jonny Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson (seriously... please tell me he's taking the piss...)

Scrum-halves: Harry Ellis, Richard Wigglesworth (again, despite all available evidence) and, of all people, Shaun Perry (!!!).

Props: Andrew Sheridan, Tim Payne, Phil Vickery and Matt Stevens (no arguments, although Gloucester's Nick Wood must be close).

Hookers: Dylan Hartley (young, inexperienced, untried but big and deemed worthy by Jones), David Paice and Lee Mears.

Locks: Simon Shaw, Tom Palmer, Richard Blaze (see Dylan Hartley) and pensioner Danny Grewcock.

Flankers: James Haskell, Tom Rees, Tom Croft, Lewis Moody and Michael Lipman.

No 8s: Jordan Crane and Luke Narraway.

Of course, one thing I do agree with is when Jones says that, in reality, it matters not who is selected in the elite 32 if the coaching and management remain as shambolic as in recent times. It's heavily rumoured that, as with the World Cup campaign, in New Zealand the players ended up running the show. Martin Johnson's biggest task, therefore, is to put together a team of experts worthy of coaching the top players in England and a few judicial kicks aimed at the arses of the current coaches wouldn't be a bad start.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Citius, Altius, Fortius?

Thanks to the World Masters Rugby Group for drawing my attention to the IRB's continuing campaign to persuade the International Olympic Committee to re-introduce rugby into the Olympic Games.

Whilst I can see the benefits of rugby being an Olympic sport, namely that rugby would reach a new audience, both in terms of age and geography, and its inclusion would aid the sport's development in some of the smaller rugby nations (and indeed might force the Americans to start taking it seriously), I must admit that I also retain a certain amount of indifference to this potential development.

Why? Well, primarily because what is being proposed is that sevens be adopted as the form of rugby to be played at the Olympics rather than the full form of the game. From a practical point of view this obviously makes sense - you simply couldn't shoe-horn a 15 a-side tournament into an Olympic schedule - but I can honestly say that the shortened form of the game leaves me cold. I hated playing it and, although I enjoy attending sevens tournaments for the beer and the banter, can't get excited by watching it. It simply does nothing for me.

Another reservation I have is about one of the IRB's arguments for rugby's inclusion, namely that rugby reinforces the ideals of Olympism, thanks to rugby’s long-standing ethos of fair play and friendship. Hmm, personally I would have thought that "rugby's long-standing ethos of fair play and friendship" would be distinctly under threat from the Olympics whose ideals would appear these days to encompass cheating, corruption, commercial greed and the endorsement of abhorrent political regimes.

I'd also be surprised if the USA really wanted rugby to be included in the Olympics again. I would have thought they would want to retain their title as reigning Olympic champions, having won the gold medal in 1924, defeating Romania and then France in the Final (only 3 teams entered). Furthermore, the fact that the Final finished in uproar, with one of the American reserves being laid out by a walking stick and the American anthem being jeered by the French crowd, should possibly serve as a warning to those proponents of reintroducing rugby into the Olympics.

Ultimately, however, the benefits to the sport may well outweigh my negativity and, for those determined to make rugby's case for inclusion there is the opportunity to respond to the IOC's Virtual Olympic Congress. How can you do this? By clicking on this link - http://www.2009congress.olympic.org/ - have fun!

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Rugby and beer (not necessarily in that order)

I've been asked to mention the Ashford RFC rugby and beer festival, taking place on 6th and 7th September - and am more than happy to do so.

A team from Uzes near Narbonne in southern France is among 10 sides already confirmed for the Vets’ tournament at the Ashford club in Kent on Saturday 6th September, while six women’s teams have signed up for their tournament on Sunday 7th.

Ashford Veterans, who witnessed the Uzes team (allegedly containing a number of ex-French internationals) play in Narbonne in May, apparently considered retiring en masse on the spot but have all pledged to be at the festival, alongside 2007 champions Maidstone and perennial attendees Old Shootershillians - with all money raised going to The Wyvern Special Needs School.

All participants can camp for free and receive free entry to the beer festival, which offers more than 40 real ales and ciders, pig roasts and live music all weekend. Each team is asked for a minimum £15 entry fee as a charitable donation. Bargain!

Any team interested in participating should check out the festival website or contact organiser Chris Akers.

Finishing Touch

Last league game of the Touch season last night and I very nearly didn't make it (and in some ways I wish I hadn't).

I had spent most of the day suffering from nausea and stomach cramps courtesy of a bug, I suspect, kindly left at our house by my sister-in-law's 15 month old baby at the weekend. Come 7pm yesterday I was still feeling pretty grotty and was seriously doubting whether I'd be fit to play. Eventually I decided 'sod it - as it's the last game I should at least show up, even if I don't do much.'

As it turns out I was feeling reasonably ok come kick off and was able to play a full part (well, almost) in our 4-3 victory over the Tag Nuts. As a team we had a good first half, leading 3-1 at the break, the opposition's try having been very much against the run of play. In the second half, however, we didn't play very well at all, being way too static when receiving the ball and throwing needless passes which more often than not went to ground. In the end I'd say we were lucky to get away with a win.

My own personal moment of glory very nearly came in the second half when we created an overlap on half way and away I went, building up a head of steam down the left wing towards the line. Inexplicably one of the opposition (Colin, the Vets captain, as it turns out) set off in pursuit but there was no chance of him catching me and spoiling my moment. Sadly, no one told him that as, with the line beckoning, the mad bugger launched himself full length to pull off the classic 'tap tackle' - sending me crashing to the ground like a very large sack of potatoes. And I thought that Touch was supposed to involve minimal contact!

Unfortunately worse was to follow. Minutes later I was routinely acting as 'dummy half' and was bending over to flick out a pass when BANG! - a sniper hiding in the nearby woods shot me in the right buttock. Or at least that's exactly how painful I imagine being shot in the arse to be. I collapsed with a scream as my faithful old sciatic nerve managed to shift into an agonising position to leave me prostrate on the ground.

That was, naturally, the end of my participation. A sad way to finish what has been a really enjoyable season of Touch. The club physio managed to help relieve some of the pressure and get me mobile but the 20 minute drive home was sheer agony and I'm not feeling too clever this morning. Sitting at the computer isn't exactly the most comfortable of positions so I think I'll go and lie down on the floor somewhere...

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Introducing the PERVs...

Following a couple of below-par spectacles at the current European Football Championships, world football's governing body, FIFA, today issued the following statement:

"We are becoming increasingly concerned that the latter stages of major international football tournaments are becoming increasingly dominated by negative tactics. Italy won the 2006 World Cup after a penalty shoot-out and the recent quarter finals in the European Championships featuring Turkey v Croatia and Spain v Italy were just tedious.

"Therefore, having consulted absolutely no one about this, and ignoring the fact that the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and UEFA Champions League all continue to prosper year on year, we have decided to introduce a worldwide trial of some new rules designed to fundamentally alter the game and make it more attractive to Australians with a four second attention span.

"We have decided to call these new rules the Pointless Experimental Rule Variations (PERVs) which will come into effect worldwide (with some exceptions) on 1st August 2008. Although there a number of technical changes including a maximum length for players' shorts, the following are the key changes:


  1. The crossbar will be raised two feet;

  2. No one above the height of 5ft 4in will be permitted to be a goalkeeper;

  3. Four points will be awarded for a goal;

  4. An extra "point" will be awarded if the ball is kicked over the bar;

  5. Free kicks, which tend to interrupt the flow of the game, will be abolished. Instead after six fouls possession will be handed to the opposition;

  6. Players will be permitted to use their hands to control and pass the football - with the exception of goalkeepers who must only use their feet;

  7. Throw-ins will be permitted from anywhere on the sideline and may be taken by the first player to grab hold of the ball;

  8. An extra ball will be introduced at half-time, just for the hell of it.

  9. The entire range of PERVs will be introduced in Australia from 1st August. The rest of the world shall be allowed to determine which of the PERVs it adopts, provided that each country must choose a minimum of five of the above PERVs.

  10. In the event that an international match takes place after the introduction of the PERVs and the two countries involved find that they are each playing under different rules, a meeting shall take place 5 minutes before the match to agree which rules will apply to the match. If an agreement cannot be reached each team will play under its own rules and in the event of a total impasse the match will be decided on the toss of a coin."
It is expected that the PERVs will prove hugely popular amongst armchair fans who have become disillusioned with the entire sport on the strength of one or two games recently.

"This is a huge step forward for the evolution of soccer," said Football Australia's CEO, Ben Buckley. "The PERVs will enable us to compete more effectively with Aussie Rules and Rugby League in a crowded marketplace. I've already had a call from the ARU Chief John O'Neill suggesting that our two sports should consider merging."

Duped...

The reputation of the England rugby squad suffered yet another blow today when it was revealed that one of the classy young kiwi ladies at the centre of the "high jinks" that took place in the Auckland Hilton on the night following the 1st Test was in fact duped into bed.

We can exclusively reveal that Sophie Lewis - aka "Angel Barbie" - the blonde who revealed at the weekend that she had romped with England winger David Strettle during "rugby's night of shame," has now sensationally claimed that she had believed that she was in fact bedding London Mayor Boris Johnson.

"I do get turned on by politicians," she revealed to our undercover reporter. "Power is a real aphrodisiac.

"When he approached me at the Pony Club and told me that he was the London Mayor I was so excited," she continued. "I couldn't believe that Boris Johnson would be interested in little old me."

"I was surprised that his body was pretty much a perfect 10. He was such an accomplished lover and we did it in every position imaginable - but I figured that was par for the course for such a powerful man."

"Imagine my distress when I found out later that I'd slept with an England rugby player. I just felt so ashamed."

Monday, 23 June 2008

Juan Cruz Migliore R.I.P.

On Friday I posted a lighthearted look at the ELVs and in particular the proposed new law which allows the collapsing of mauls.

All such frivolity flew right out of the window this morning, however, when I received an email from Nursedude drawing my attention to the tragic death of 20 year old Argentinian rugby player Juan Cruz Migliore who died in a Buenos Aires Rugby Union Premier Division game on Saturday after having suffered a broken neck when a maul collapsed on him.

Ever since the law allowing mauls to be collapsed was first proposed I have had huge concerns as to player safety, convinced that an increase in injuries would be the inevitable consequence. I must admit, however, that I did not for one minute envisage that a player might die from such injuries.

The IRB might argue that, technically, the death of Juan Cruz Migliore was not the fault of this particular ELV as it is not due to come into force until 1st August. To do so, however, would be to stick its head in the sand once too often. This tragedy sends out a clear warning signal as to what might happen when the collapsing of mauls is legalised. It's time for the IRB to show a bit of backbone and repeal this law now.

Friday, 20 June 2008

A funny thing happened when I pulled that maul down...

A lighter view of the ELVs by Roy Harvey, NAWIRA’s Director of Officials...as posted on WorldMastersRugby...

There I was, being driven backwards, step-by-step, towards the ever-nearing goal line when I did it. I did it, and I’m proud of it – I took hold of another player’s jersey and dragged it towards me and sat down!

I well remember thinking... "Never mind, Law 14 Definitions states, ‘A player must not make the ball unplayable by falling down’, because I was not actually making the ball unplayable; rather, I was falling down to make the ball unplayable by whomever had possession of it by forcing that player to fall down – a moot point that could be debated in the highest courts of the land".

Well, it came as quite a surprise to the many others concerned and they, too, piled to the ground, not being able to maintain their footing because they had nothing to support their momentum. And there we were, most of us sitting or lying on the ground, one of us in possession of the ball. A small group of players managed to stay on their feet, looking confused as to what to do next – as did the rest of us.

The player with the ball wasn’t sure about what options were available, but knew enough to know what wasn’t, so the ball was released like a hot potato. The other players on the ground were equally unsure of what to do, but nobody risked taking possession of the ball that lay there like an unwanted parcel at a Pass-the–Parcel game amongst the confusion of bodies and confused minds. The ‘no-longer-the-ball-carrier’ was near a state of panic because of the numbers around and on top prevented any movement of any kind away from the ball that lay there amongst the bodies on the ground.

I remembered reading somewhere – Law 14 Definitions came to mind – that the Game was to be played by players who are on their feet, so I tried to get up – no easy task with a few others either with the same notion in mind, or trying to move away. They had obviously read somewhere – probably Law 14.2(a) – that getting away from the ball was an acceptable
option. To players not involved it must have looked as though the ball was a live grenade as we scrambled over one-another to get up or away.

And then there were those involved in the maul who had avoided tumbling to the ground who stood, transfixed, trying to assess what phase of the game they were involved in; the maul had, in part, collapsed in front of their eyes. Yet there they stood, bound together like cancan dancers, peering down at scrambling bodies and a ball that seemed to plead to be taken care of.

One of them shouted "Someone tackled the maul, so Law 15 has come into effect!"

"Not so," yelled another, "Our maul wasn’t tackled, it was pulled down – oh, I suppose that is a tackle..."

"Rubbish", claimed a third, "I remember reading that, according to Law 15 Definitions, a tackle occurs when the ball carrier is brought to ground – and I noticed that the player who was pulled down did not have the ball – so forget about Law 15".

The ball remained untouched as players on the ground scrambled away, and the heated discussion continued among those on their feet.

"We should adhere to Law 17.4(e)", claimed a player with a cauliflower ear, "We should retire behind the offside line since we left the maul".

Another replied," We didn’t leave that maul, it left us!"

"Wait, wait!" cried another." I seem to recollect something in a recent Ruling on a similar situation of Law 16.6, October 1, 2007, where, although one team left a ruck, the Laws of the ruck were still in effect. So this may well be the case with us: We were in a maul, some of us are still bound in that maul, yet others of us are on the ground and no longer in the maul. I’m staying right here until someone does something else".

"That recent ELV of Law 17.5 states that this maul has successfully ended, you silly barristers", mumbled a shy, retiring prop, "I believe we can continue according to the laws of open play".

Barristers? Well, that’s what I thought was said.

It was then that Law 17.2(d) flashed to mind and I hoped that the others would not quote it by pointing at me accusingly, shouting "Players in a maul must endeavour to stay on their feet, and only the ball carrier may voluntarily go to ground and then make the ball available!"

What was exclaimed next was even worse: "Hey, you obviously ignored Law 17.2(e) when you intentionally collapsed that maul. That was bloody dangerous play!"

Just as their inside centre yelled to team mates, "ELVs – and not the Christmas types! That maul has ended successfully. Come on, let’s get that ball!" and hurdled over the pile of players on the ground from what could have been judged as an offside position, the referee blew the whistle with the calmness of an old crusader.

"That ball was not playable, so I’m awarding a scrum", was confidently announced. But I thought I saw a look that reflected a nagging thought:

" That ball was very playable, but with all these laws being thrown about, I’m not taking any chances ... Now, did the ball carrier catch the ball from a kick, or was it a pass ....."

As we resumed play I vowed to research the whole affair of pulling down a maul to determine how many times the ELV Law 17.5 contradicted other aspects of the laws. I also decided to avoid further pulling down of mauls in that match until I needed another jolly good discussion, a chuckle, and a breather ......

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Oh dear

The news that four England rugby players are being investigated by Auckland Police for an incident in their team hotel that may or may not have involved a sexual assault is, to put it mildly, not good.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation and whether the four players involved are guilty of any crime or not, the simple fact that they put themselves in a position where they might be subject to such allegations shows at best a serious lack of judgement on their part and, at worst, demonstrates a level of unprofessionalism and irresponsibility that is totally unacceptable.

Rob Andrew says publicly that those players involved retain the support of the squad and the management. Privately I hope he has more than a few choice words for them.

I can only think that Martin Johnson will be sat at home seething at this news. Whether or not the names of the players are ever made public I suggest we keep an eye on omissions from the 32-man elite player squad, to be announced on 1st July, for clues as to their identities.

Into Touch

Another game of touch rugby last night and I must say it was the quickest game I've played in all summer. Both teams just went for it from the off - charging up the middle with quick play-the-balls then spreading possession wide. When the ball was turned over the restart was instant, with no time to pause for breath, meaning that the first 5 or 6 minutes flew by with zero respite and with no opportunity to sub myself off - bloody hard work but I managed to cope ok and finally managed to drag myself off the pitch for a breather.

We were up against a side optimistically called the Barbarians - like us a mix of youngsters and slightly more mature players - and the 2 teams were pretty well matched and boasted similar records. Where we had the advantage was that our young'uns were quicker than their young'uns - one of our guys in particular, Carl, is lightening quick and has a mightily effective, if slightly unorthodox, sidestep which appears to allow him to change direction whilst in mid-air. Given the ball in a bit of space against a retreating defence and he's pretty much unstoppable. Teach him to pass and tackle and he could be a pretty decent rugby player.

Anyway, Carl ran in 4 of our 8 tries as we won 8-4 - so was probably the difference between the 2 sides. My own contribution included a lot of hard work in defence, making a fair few "hard yards" up the middle and providing 3 scoring passes but, sadly yet again, no try. Still, I'd say that's probably the best the team has played and was the most enjoyable game of the summer so far. As for scoring a try, there's always next week - the last game of the "season" (unbelievably) - when we play the "Tag Nuts" (who look a pretty decent outfit).

I also had a chat with the club's fixtures secretary in the bar afterwards who informed me that there are already 6 Vets fixtures on the schedule for next season with possibly 3 or 4 more to be added. That also brought up the rather frightening prospect of pre-season training starting in a few weeks. Gulp!

Onwards and upwards...

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Guinness is good for you?

Both regular readers of this blog will recall that last month I gave some free publicity to the Guinness Club Together project on the basis that I thought that it was a half decent idea.

In doing so I suggested, with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek of course, that Guinness supply me with some of their fine beverage in exchange for my ringing endorsement.

Imagine my initial delight, then, when a courier turned up at my front door today with a few complimentary cans of the black stuff.

Which just goes to prove that if you don't ask you don't get.

Lord knows, however, what the the courier had been doing with the package en route as my initial delight turned to horror when one of the said cans quite literally exploded all over my kitchen. It's not as if I tried to open it - I merely unpacked the cans from their packaging, set them down on the kitchen table and then BANG! - one of them decided to detonate, spectacularly spraying black sticky liquid over the walls, floor and windows.

I've literally just spent the last hour or so mopping and scrubbing to try and get the kitchen clean but it still stinks like a brewery (my wife will be absolutely delighted) and I suspect I might actually have to re-decorate to restore the walls back to normal - honestly, it was that bad.

All of which probably goes to prove that I'm too much of a smart arse and deserve what I get.

Now, did I mention how much I admire the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, especially the non-exploding type?

Don't panic Mr Mainwaring

...as Corporal Jones might say.

I'm afraid that the naming of England team to face New Zealand in the 2nd Test in Christchurch smacks purely of damage limitation.

Yes, although Rob Andrew and Martin Johnson obviously consulted this blog before including Tait, Varndell, Flood and Care in the starting XV, the selection of Jamie Noon at inside centre at the expense of Olly Barkley tells us all we need to know about England's intentions on Saturday - keep the score down and keep it respectable.

An understandable tactic in the circumstances but one that is destined to backfire, I suspect.

One thing I don't get - if there was never any intention of using the likes of Dylan Hartley, Nick Kennedy and Tom Croft in the Test series, what was the point of taking them to New Zealand? Wouldn't their development have been better served by getting game time at the Churchill Cup? Just a thought.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Blah, blah, blah...

Pom-hating ELV-apologist and Aussie RU boss John O'Neill has been at it again, telling the ABC programme Offsiders that either rugby union or rugby league in his country faces possible extinction.

"I think there is a risk that one of the football codes may not survive in the form that it currently enjoys," he said.

"Competition is about survival. Rugby league and rugby union actually are the two games that are very similar. I'm not talking about reunification of the two games, but in this battle for hearts and minds, there is a risk that one of us may slip off the list."

Not talking about reunification? Who's he trying to kid?

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Ahem...

I hate to say I told you so but...

"I told you so."

In the end losing to New Zealand by only 17 points turned out to be something of a result for England. The press appear to be surprised at how uncompetitive England were. I wasn't, for reasons previously explained.

There also appears to be some surprise that Charlie Hodgson let Ma’a Nonu run straight through him for Muliaina's try. Get real - he's never been able to tackle and the All Blacks know that.

Mind you, Nonu’s pass to Muliaina was clearly forward.

I therefore blame the ref for this defeat and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future..

Friday, 13 June 2008

The Pienaar Identity

There's been plenty of press recently about the fact that Matt Damon has signed up to play the role of Francois Pienaar in "The Human Factor," a film based around the Springboks' 1995 World Cup victory in South Africa - a movie which will also star Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and will be directed by Clint Eastwood.

Now, if I was some vain and conceited egomaniac I would point out that that I was 6 months or so ahead of the rest of the international media on this one and scooped this story back in November 2007. But I'm not, so I won't.

What I will say is that, although I can see an actor like Morgan Freeman having the gravitas to play Mandela, the idea of Matt Damon playing Pienaar is a little more difficult to swallow. They are either going to have to stand him on a box and use all manner of camera trickery to pull this one off or they'll need to employ a cast of midgets - Tom Cruise as Jonah Lomu? Danny DeVito as Os Du Randt? Gary "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout Willis" Coleman as Chester Williams? Mickey Rooney as Kitch Christie?

Given the iconic nature of Mandela and with Eastwood, Freeman and Damon on board this can't fail to be anything other than a huge hit at the box office. With this being Hollywood, however, to hope for an accurate depiction of events might be expecting too much. Any bets that it'll turn out that the USA won the '95 World Cup?

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Turf war

What is it with rugby's governing bodies?

Having decided to remove the Millennium Stadium pitch ahead of a "Monster Jam truck show" at the weekend, some bright spark at the Welsh Rugby Union came up with the fabulous wheeze of giving Welsh fans the chance to buy pieces of the stadium turf "to provide them with a constant reminder of the glorious 10th Grand Slam in Welsh rugby history" or, as I see it, to con the Welsh public into spending £19.99 of their hard-earned cash each to own a scraggy piece of turf that they can watch wither and die in their own back garden.

This blatant piece of commercial opportunism does, however, appear to have backfired. According to the BBC, "desperate" fans are apparently struggling to get their hands on their own individual pieces of history.

Stewart Morgan from Aberystwyth, for instance, has (obviously with nothing better to do with his time) spent some 2½ hours on the website and on the phone unsuccessfully trying to buy his very own piece of dying vegetation since last Friday, while another supporter from Maesycwmmer in Caerphilly said she had unsuccessfully tried to buy the turf as a wedding anniversary present, much to the relief of her husband who was hoping for a four-pack of Carlsberg Special Brew and twenty Benson & Hedges.

So that's 2 unsatisfied customers, then.

The upshot is that the WRU have stated that they will be offering the pieces of turf, now probably a little brown around the edges, at the significantly reduced price of £9.99 to anyone who has had problems ordering their little piece of grass and soil and who is still stupid enough to want it.

The WRU had planned to sell 5,000 pieces of the pitch. So far, apparently, "hundreds" of pieces of turf have been sold - each packaged in a special presentation box with a certificate signed by Warren Gatland in blood, no less.

One can only hope (almost certainly in vain) that any subsequent financial loss is docked from the wages of the WRU bright spark who came up with the scheme.

Code switch for Jerry

(Thanks to Graeme at Sportsfreak for drawing my attention to this one.)

It appears that Jerry Collins is determined to fulfill his destiny as the last of the great rugby mavericks.

Not only has he featured for the Hurricanes and the All Blacks in the last few years, he's also turned out in the colours of Norths Rugby Union Club (surreptitiously), the 2nd XV of Barnstaple Rugby Club in Devon and twice for the Barbarians at Twickenham (wearing the socks of the Barnstaple club and then the Devon county team).

Now that he is a free agent, however, and in a gesture which on the face of it displays nothing but contempt for the recent ungracious comments of All Black coach Graham Henry, Collins has decided to switch codes to Rugby League!

Well, when I say "switch codes" what I mean is that last weekend Collins turned out with some of his mates for the North City RL team in the Wellington Rugby League against Wainuiomata, putting in what has been described as a "low-key" performance in a 34-30 defeat.

Furthermore, not only did he not get paid for playing, it's also reported that he bought beers for both teams after the game - the sign of a true gent.

So, how did the Wellington Rugby League react to this PR coup falling into their collective laps? Presumably they rushed out a press release welcoming Jerry Collins to their sport and claiming how he loved Rugby League so much that he was prepared to forsake his All Black career and play League for nothing?

Errr, no. The Wellington Rugby League instead decided to fine the Norths club $250 for fielding an unregistered player, despite both teams having agreed that he could play. You really couldn't make it up.

Touching Up

Chairman's Stags were back in business last night with a 9-3 victory over the somewhat ironically named 'Team Awesome'.

On a gloriously sunny evening the conditions were pretty much ideal, save for the fact that as we kicked off we were playing into the sun which actually made conditions quite tricky as visibility was poor, especially when defending in the first half. Nevertheless we scored with our first piece of possession and, a couple of soft defensive lapses aside, never looked back.

One of our defensive lapses included two of our team deciding to sub themselves off when the opposition had possession with our defensive line subsequently parting like the Red Sea to allow the opposition to pour through to score. It looked quite comical although, with the score only 2-0 at that point, it might not have been so funny if we'd continued in that vein.

We led 4-2 at half-time but had played fairly complacently, having not done the simple things particularly well as we tried to force the scoring pass too early. In the second half we upped the pace, held onto possession for longer and, lo and behold, the gaps began to open. I was fairly happy with my own contribution - I could have done with a bit more game time but when I was out there I worked pretty hard in attack and defence. I'm certainly feeling it this morning, my right hip and lower back having seized up again - clearly there's a price to pay for all this gadding about with a rugby ball.

Unbelievably there are only two more games to go - the "season" has just flown by and I feel I'm really just beginning to get into my stride.

Oh well, onwards and upwards...

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

He's at it again...

Apparently a lovely bloke with a great sense of humour, but Epi Taione (aka Paddy Power) is just a little bit prone to the red mist descending...




He's been handed a 2 week suspension for this one (committed during the weekend's Tonga v NZ Maori Pacific Nations Cup encounter), to add to the six week suspension for head butting while playing for the Sharks in the Super 14 earlier this year and the six month ban he received for biting Munster's Dennis Leamy in 2006 while playing for English club, Sale.

Fans of Harlequins, for whom Taione will play next season, must be looking forward to not seeing him play very often in the Premiership next season.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Lucky dip

I've received an email asking me which 22 players I'd name in the England squad to take on the All Blacks at the weekend. My honest answer is that, really, I haven't a clue!

Although there's plenty of opinion flying about in the press that England have a half decent chance of sharing this test series and there is plenty of doom and gloom in New Zealand attaching itself to Graham Henry and his team, my gut feeling, deep down, is that we're going to take a bit of a pasting again down under.

I know Ireland ran the All Blacks relatively close in Wellington on Saturday but the conditions were just atrocious and I got the impression that, for New Zealand, it was a great exercise in blowing away a few cobwebs.

The problem that England face (other than their very strong opponents) is that, once again, they have had to embark on an arduous trip down under at the end of a very long, hard domestic season which for many players started with preparation for the World Cup nearly 12 months ago. Not only that, but once again they'll need to play the Kiwis (who are fired up with the desire to achieve redemption following their World Cup disaster) with a team decimated by injury and unavailability.

Excuses? Maybe, but it' s all very well for Southern Hemisphere commentators to demand that we send over our best team when, firstly, we haven't a clue what that best team is and, secondly, when half the players we think might be in that best team are either crocked, knackered or require surgery.

By and large, therefore, until the combined genius of the fixture planners at the IRB comes up with a properly structured international season (I'm not holding my breath) then these end of season tours will continue to be nothing more than a waste of time and effort - although this year, unfortunately, the consequence of defeat will almost certainly affect our seeding for the 2011 World Cup.

The last time we sent a team down to New Zealand was in 2004 when, again after a long and hard World Cup season, we were stuffed in both Tests and there's nothing to suggest why this won't happen again this time around.

However, if pushed, I'd probably go for the following 22 for the First Test:

15. Mathew Tait - Sunday Times journo Stephen Jones doesn't rate him - that's good enough for me.
14. David Strettle - ditto.
13. Mike Tindall - against my better judgement perhaps - but it could be backs-to-the-wall stuff out there which Tindall tends to enjoy.
12. Olly Barkely - best 12 in England all season.
11. Tom Varndell - has the gas to worry the Kiwis if he can find the confidence to use it.
10. Toby Flood - sorry, I just can't bring myself to pick Charlie Hodgson, partly for reasons of his own safety.
9. Danny Care - go on, why not?
1. Andrew Sheridan - might enjoy himself in the absence of Hayman.
2. Lee Mears - I have my reservations but he's been in great form for Bath
3. Matt Stevens - a chance to lay down a marker for next season
4. Steve Borthwick (c) - another not rated by Stephen Jones who obviously knows more about second row play than Martin Johnson.
5. Tom Palmer - another player in great form.
6. Michael Lipman - I'd give him a go at 6 in tandem with Rees at 7 to double-team McCaw.
7. Tom Rees - see above - a chance to really come of age.
8. James Haskell - with Nick Easter out injured Haskell can anchor a truly dynamic back row and a pack dominated by Bath and Wasps.

Replacements:
16. Tim Payne - to play last 15-20.
17. Dylan Hartley - ditto.
18. Tom Croft - to cover 2nd row and back row.
19. Joe Worsley - experienced cover late in game à la World Cup.
20. Peter Richards - covers scrum half and the centres if necessary.
21. Mike Brown - in case Tait turns out to be a rubbish fullback.
22. Dominic Waldouck - could add craft to midfield.

...and with the squad being named tomorrow morning I guess we'll find out soon enough whether Rob Andrew reads this blog!

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Lessons

So what did we learn from this weekend's international action?

  1. The All Blacks can play rugby in the wet - a consequence of the little appreciated fact that it does, occasionally, rain in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

  2. Ireland's pack isn't all that it's cracked up to be (unless they wear the red of Munster). For examples please refer to pretty much every international performance since the 2007 Six Nations.

  3. Wales aren't anywhere near as good as they like to think they are. Or, at least, beyond their first choice 22 there's very little depth.

  4. Scotland can't buy a win at the moment, not even against an Argentinian 3rd XV. Perhaps they should arrange to play England again.

  5. England's best backline appears to be playing for the Saxons in the Churchill Cup. Their playing kit is also much nicer than the abomination the senior team continue to wear.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Murder(ball) she wrote

Former England scrum-half Kyran Bracken, last seen pirhouetting in lycra around an ice rink on the telly, will swap his skates for a wheelchair this weekend.

On Saturday Bracken lines up as part of a Professional Rugby Players' Association team taking part in the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby (GBWR) corporate demolition day at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in Buckinghamshire.

The event is aimed at raising awareness of Wheelchair Rugby and helping to raise funds for the work of GBWR in grass roots development. Alongside Bracken will be the "Funbus" Jason Leonard and former Sarries' colleagues Kevin Sorrell and Glen Jackson.

For the uninitiated, Wheelchair Rugby is a team sport for male and female tetraplegics. It is a unique sport created by athletes with a disability that combines some elements of Basketball, Rugby and Ice Hockey. The object of the game is to carry the ball across the opposing team's goal line. The sport is often referred to as "Murderball" which sums it up quite nicely - it's certainly not for the faint-hearted and and I doubt very much that Bracken will be accompanied on the court by a refrain from Bolero.

Here's a taster of what Kyran can expect:



Ouch!

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Hip Hip Hurray for the IRB! (yes, seriously)

I know, I know, I'm not sure what's happening either. No sooner do I choke on my rich tea biscuit while heaping praise on the RFU than I feel I also have to give further credit where credit is due and, this time, it's the IRB that have done something that makes perfect sense. Ye Gods, if this carries on I'll soon believe that black is white and that Charlie Hodgson is an international fly half!

The reason for my euphoric yet confused state of mind is that the IRB yesterday effectively instructed referees that, for all international matches from 1st June, they should penalise players who go to ground and effectively "seal off" the ball to prevent the opposition from contesting possession. They are also being asked to make sure that the law requiring players not to handle the ball in the ruck is applied to both the attacking and defending teams.

Hallelujah! This is something I've been saying for some time - that if referees applied the current laws correctly then the "pick and go" tactic so roundly condemned in some quarters becomes far more difficult for a team to execute as players will be prevented from routinely going to ground to protect possession. Calls for a change in the laws to effectively outlaw the tactic have always been naive and misplaced and hopefully correct and strict application of the laws will make all the difference. I should point out that it is not the referees' fault that the laws have not been correctly applied as they are constantly put under pressure to let the game flow in order to produce a better "spectacle" - perhaps people will now realise that what's required is stricter application of the laws in order to enable a proper contest and, as a result, a better game to watch.

That the IRB has also instructed referees to ensure that scrum halves feed the ball into the centre of the scrum is proof that the world is, in fact, flat. I'm not sure how long this law has been ignored but I can honestly say I don't recall a crooked feed being penalised in the last 10 years or so. Proper application of this law will ensure that the scrum remains a genuine contest. A certain Brian Moore will be grinning a toothless grin from ear to ear at this news no doubt, although I do wonder what he'll find to moan about now (I'm sure he'll find something).

In many ways it's unbelievable that on the one hand the IRB can come up with such common sense solutions to perceived failings in the game by insisting that current laws are applied correctly, while on the other hand they can endorse a collection of crass ideas like the ELVs. If there has been a genuine outbreak of common sense in the corridors of powers then why not agree that the 5 metre offside line at the scrum is a good idea and the law discouraging passing back into the 22 is worth a go but that the rest (with the exception of the minor technical adjustments) might as well just be ditched?

What is also a little concerning is the fact that these new IRB protocols only appear to apply to international rugby and will not necessarily filter down to referees at domestic and grassroots level. Mind you, come August the poor referees will all be far too busy trying to work out how on earth to make sense of the ELVs they are being obliged to apply against their better judgement - so to ask them also to apply existing laws rigorously might just be a request too far.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Three cheers for the RFU! (again, unbelievably)

I can't quite believe this but I feel the need, for the second time in less than three months, to heap praise on the blazerati at the RFU.

Why? Because common sense appears to have prevailed and the RFU have belatedly decided to stand up to the IRB, ruling that the ELV which allows the maul to be pulled down will not be applied at under-19 level and below.

Youth coaches up and down the land have been up in arms about this particular ELV, quite rightly concerned that serious injury might result if kids were allowed to pull down the maul.

While players at the top end of the game may well adapt to this law (although I wouldn't rule out serious injury even at this level), the rationale behind the decision is that young kids will not and that injury will be an inevitable consequence. Personally I'd go further and say that amateur rugby at grassroots level should also be exempt - I for one don't fancy the prospect of the combined weight of two packs of semi-obese forwards collapsing on top of me next season, for instance.

No, sod it, it's just a stupid and dangerous law full stop and should be consigned to the bin where it can spend its days reminiscing about the good old days with the the equally insane law allowing hands in the ruck.

A touch wet

Only one word to describe Touch last night - soggy. A day of rain had left the ground bordering on being waterlogged and it made for an interesting evening's rugby for those not wearing boots with studs. Watching players aquaplaning across the surface was more than a little entertaining.

The big question was would our team be able to achieve the almost unprecedented feat of winning three matches on the bounce. The answer, sadly, was a resounding "No" as we crashed (and splashed) to an 11-4 defeat.

The result, however, doesn't tell the whole story. We were playing the team that won the competition last summer and I'd say they were definitely the best team we've played yet. What's more we really made them work for their win - at one stage I think the score was 6-4 and they certainly had to up their game to pull clear in the last few minutes. We attacked sensibly and, for the most part, defended pretty well, but the opposition were a different class in attack, cleverly working their overlaps and stretching our defence to breaking point on a regular basis. It would have been easy to just throw in the towel but we stuck in there and I'd say that it was possibly our best performance overall so far.

From a personal point of view I really enjoyed it, getting through a fair amount of work - with one long ambitious pass on our last possession, which just failed to be reach its target with the tryline beckoning, almost (but sadly not) being my crowning glory.

Fitness-wise I'm not too bad but I am having to be careful with sciatic pain in my right hip and lower back which is restricting my training somewhat and which means that that my fitness isn't quite all that it could be. A quote I read recently ..."I am in shape - round is a shape"... might soon apply to me!

Still, our record is now played 4, won 2, lost 2 - and, having already played the two best teams in the competition, we can perhaps have realistic ambitions to win our remaining fixtures and finish 3rd. Onwards and upwards...

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Collins adopted

Jerry Collins, the Wellington, All Blacks and Barnstaple legend has, it appears, been officially adopted by Devon.

Collins showed up for the BaaBaas match against England on Sunday without any socks and asked Graham Dawe, former England hooker and Devon's coach (whose team lost out to Yorkshire in the County Championship Final on Sunday), if he could borrow some.

Seeing as Collins had last autumn represented Devon club Barnstaple's 2nd XV, had worn Barnstaple socks when he played for the BaaBaas against South Africa in November and allegedly has a "Pommie love child" living in the county, Devon officials were more than happy to oblige.

"Jerry Collins turned up without any socks and we were delighted to let him have a pair of ours," said Devon's kit and sponsorship manager Gary Aldridge."We let him keep them as well...he's a bit of an adopted Devonian."

Silly season down under

Thanks to Sportsfreak for pointing out a somewhat bizarre situation in New Zealand where many rugby fans, mainly from Canterbury it must be said, have taken the decision not to continue supporting their national team because their beloved Robbie Deans was overlooked for the All Blacks coaching job.

Not only that, with their hero having now taken up his role across the Tasman Sea in charge of Australia, several "fans" have called the popular New Zealand Talkback radio show to declare that they are now switching their allegiance to the Wallabies.

Those turning their backs on the All Blacks include opinionated NZ Herald Journo Chris Rattue. According to Rattue, "it's an outrage, what happened, and it will never go away while Graham Henry remains in charge. Because Robbie Deans was denied his rightful place as the All Black coach."

Graham Henry's re-appointment "was done for personal agendas and that's my problem with the All Blacks now. They no longer really represent rugby in this country they're representing personal agendas and that's how Graham Henry ended back in control. Not on merit."

As a result Rattue will "never cheer for a team coached by Henry. No team in black will ever represent my sporting fervour while he is in charge."

For Sportsfreak it is "incomprehensible" that there are some people willing to turn their back on their national team simply because they didn’t get their choice of coach. Regrettable, yes - but incomprehensible? Rugby does, after all, provoke all sorts of emotions and such extremes of feeling are not restricted to New Zealand. I certainly recall reading various message board posts by England supporters during the respective reigns of Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton suggesting that they would rather England lose if it hastened the departure of the regimes in question.

I don't think I would ever go that far, but passion does drive people to extremes and reactions like this are, to an extent, understandable.

What is completely incomprehensible, however, is for New Zealanders to start supporting the Wallabies.

Under any circumstances that's just plain silly.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Thumbs down

I know I've banged on about the irrelevance of Barbarians showcase matches previously and I apologise in advance if this is going to upset anyone but Sunday's England v Barbarians match really did bring home the utter pointlessness of these occasions.

Yes, at Twickenham yesterday paying punters spent more than a few bob on tickets to witness two more or less scratch sides slug it out on the hallowed turf with the Barbarians lacking the will to throw the ball around and risk heavy defeat while England lacked the nous and technical ability to do so.

For the crowd to actually start a countdown to half time says it all.

Look, if these fixtures do have to be played (and I can understand why the bean counters at the RFU are in favour) then there has to be some sort of agreement that the teams will at least try to play exhibition rugby to satisfy the expectations of the paying public and a tacit understanding that the result doesn't matter (although in which case I'd ask why bother?).

However, I'm firmly of the view that this fixture is one match too far in an already crowded season and that, in the professional era, such showcase matches effectively rip off the public and do nothing for players' welfare.

The role of the BaaBaas needs redefining and, as I've previously suggested, helping to develop rugby in 2nd and 3rd tier nations and supporting grassroots rugby and charitable causes are still areas in which the Barbarian club can bring its tradition and its magnificent brand to the table.

I doubt there'll be any change in tack, however, whilst the public continues to fork out for the pleasure of being "entertained" in this way, but Sunday's spectacle will undoubtedly mean that the marketing men will have to work that bit harder next time.

Thumbs up

A hearty slap on the back goes to Robbie Deans and his Crusaders for yet another Super 14 victory this weekend (at least one of my predictions at the beginning of the year bearing fruit). The Crusaders were the outstanding team of the tournament and Deans the outstanding coach and both would have been so whether or not the ELVs were in force.

What I do hope, however, is that the weekend's somewhat attritional final will silence those so-called critics who labelled the Heineken Cup Final as "boring" and who see the ELVs as the saviour of rugby union. Finals, under any laws, are finals - tense and hard fought but rarely electrifying with the team who defend well, make the fewest errors and take their chances usually coming out on top. In the Super 14 final that team was the Crusaders - hats off to them.

That said, Saturday's Premiership final was an absolute firecracker of a game with Wasps producing yet another remarkable end-of-season performance. Leicester played their part with a spirited 2nd half comeback but, the script having been penned by a certain Mr Dallaglio, there was only ever going to be one winner.

From a personal point of view I confess that Dallaglio's appetite for self-publicity has never really been to my taste (I prefer quiet dignity of someone like Richard Hill) and his presence around the England squad in recent seasons was, despite his denials, undoubtedly divisive - but no one can deny what a remarkable player Dallaglio was over the years for England and Wasps. A one-club player, I'd say he is probably the greatest club captain of his generation and will be sorely missed both as a player and a character (although I doubt we'll get away without a bomardment of Dallaglio soundbites on the sports pages in the coming seasons).