Tuesday, 30 December 2008

England's New Backline Moves

As demonstrated by Austin Healy...





...or, as Len Goodman described him, "a Spanish waiter serving hors d'oeuvres."

Monday, 29 December 2008

Season's (hic) Greetings...

A belated Merry Christmas to my dedicated duo of regular readers and to anyone else who happens to stumble across this blog in error. I must say that I felt entirely unprepared this Christmas - the festive season appearing to have snuck up on me somewhat like an unexpected virus. Nevertheless Christmas Day passed without incident - the kids were satisfied with their annual haul from Santa Claus, the turkey put in a star performance and we were all left with full bellies and imbued with the festive spirit.

Perhaps it's because it's been the festive season, perhaps it's because my office-based job has led to an even more sedentary lifestyle, but the fact is that the past month or so as seen me become a stranger to the gym and a friend to large lunches and copious amounts of red wine. In short I'm feeling fat and unfit and if I had a set of bathroom scales I'm sure they'd be delivering extremely unwelcome news about my weight.

I turned down the chance to play in an Oldies v Youngsters game at Chesham at the weekend - partly because that really would have gone down like a lead balloon at home but also because, right now, I really am in no fit state to run out onto a rugby field. Not only would it have been distinctly embarrassing, it would also have been a tad dangerous - an injury waiting to happen. No, my target now has to be obtaining a degree of fitness before out next Vets match in just under 3 weeks time when we're due to take on Beaconsfield Vets at home. Clearly that will require a significant reduction in alcohol intake and a significant increase in physical activity between now and then - so it's fairly obvious what my New Year's resolutions have to be...

Of course, I won't be the only one making resolutions for 2009. England boss Martin Johnson, for instance, will be resolving to make the most of the time and patience granted to him by the English rugby public at large (who for the most part do realise what a shambolic set-up he has inherited). Hopefully he will have learnt the appropriate lessons from the autumn internationals and will have his forwards' coach John Wells working flat out at producing quick ball for what looks like, potentially, a reasonably exciting back division. He must also, of course, resolve not to pay any heed to the collection of bitter broadsheet hacks who seek to judge his regime after just 4 games in charge.

Across the Irish Sea, Declan Kidney will be resolving to imbue his Ireland team with whatever it is that makes Munster tick while in Scotland Frank Hadden will again plotting the downfall of the Italians - Scotland's only realistic chance, once again, of a victory in the 2009 Six Nations. Meanwhile, across the Severn, Messrs Gatland and Edwards will be resolving not to misplace the magic dust they were given last year. Edwards, in particular, must be praying that no one figures out that there are acres of space being left behind the Welsh blitz defence and that, no matter how brilliant he's been of late, Lee Byrne can't possibly defend it all by himself.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the Right Reverend Graham Henry will be resolving to keep pulling the wool over the eyes of the New Zealand public and press by continuing to produce yet another team that is almost unbeatable between World Cups. Peter de Villiers, meanwhile, will he hoping that the trashing of England at Twickenham will have bought him a little time and Robbie Deans will be resolving to keep making a decent fist of the Wallabies job as preparation for the inevitable day when he is appointed head coach of the All Blacks.

However, the man with perhaps the most significant resolution will be ARU chief John O'Gobshite O'Neill, who will be as determined as ever to force the rugby world to keep playing to the ELVs no matter how unpopular or discredited they become and, if he doesn't get his way, will no doubt threaten to take his ball home and merge Australian rugby with Strictly Come Dancing on Ice to create a more TV friendly product - Australia's favourite son, Austin Healy, being lined up as the first head coach of the national hybrid team.

Whatever your resolutions, have a very happy and prosperous 2009...

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Total Flanker Awards 2008

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the 2nd annual Total Flanker Awards ceremony where we honour (in the loosest sense of he word) and reward (ditto) those who have contributed to our enjoyment of the game in 2008. It's hard, I know, to believe that 12 months has passed since we gave out our last set of gongs, 12 months in which (and it pains me to say it) the Welsh have become the standard bearers for northern hemisphere rugby and we've all had to endure being guinea pigs in some fiendish IRB experiment.

I need to confess before we start handing out the prizes that the selection committee have once again chosen to discount the Super 14 and Tri Nations from its deliberations - this year on the basis that the two tournaments were played under a set of laws that, quite frankly, the committee fails to recognise. And we're not even sorry.

Moving on...our first award this evening is the Could You Have Cocked Things Up Any More If You'd Tried Award. More than a few contenders for this one, including the RFU for their shambolic treatment of Brian Ashton post 2007 Rugby World Cup and 2008 Six Nations. However (and I promise this the last time I'll mention it this evening), the clear winner is the IRB for the quite shocking way they have attempted to railroad the world of ruby into accepting the ELVs, with the chaotic consequence that rugby is now being played under differing sets of laws in different competitions in different parts of the world. Astonishing incompetence, even for an organisation for which incompetence is the watchword.

Our second award this evening is the Can Anyone Recommend a Good Book to Read During the Second Half Award, given to the team that has managed to bore the pants off every neutral spectator during the second half of a game this year. The popular view might be to give this award to England for years of perceived conservatism but I would argue somewhat vociferously that England this year have been mainly crap rather than boring. No the choice comes down to a choice between Wales for their interminable series of rucks in the last 15 minutes of the Grand Slam decider against France (admittedly effective but seriously tedious) and Munster, who started running down the clock almost immediately the whistle blew for the start of the second half of the Heineken Cup Final. I'd love to hand this one to Wales but it was quite possible, during that desperate second half aganst Toulouse, to go out for 10 minutes to make a cup of tea and then return to find the Munstermen still going through the phases about 15 metres away from where the move had originated. Munster therefore take this award with something to spare.

Next up is the Can it Possibly Get Any Worse Award, given to the team that have plumbed the depths of true appallingness in a performance this year. England are almost certainly shoe-ins for this one but not, as some of the broadsheet hacks would have us believe, for their performances during the November internationals. Despite the scorelines against the southern hemisphere big 3, there was the occasional glimmer of hope or the odd spark of individual talent shining through occasionally. No, the performance that really showed up England as being bereft of anything remotely approaching competence was the inept display against Scotland at Murrayfield in the Six Nations. Scotland played poorly in that match, remember, and still won at a canter. Brian Ashton may subsequently have been treated badly by his employers but anyone overseeing that level of performance cannot honestly have expected to keep his job.

We now move on to the Perhaps He's Not All He's Cracked Up to Be Award. For years I would have given this one to Ickle Shane Williams as, for all his side-stepping wizardry, I felt he was better defined by his non-existent defensive skills and a tendency to panic under pressure and cough up possession. Warren Gatland and Sean Edwards, however, appear to have entirely eradicated these flaws from his game - ok, he still isn't a great tackler but the rest of his game has been pure genius (a pity that we can't reward that here) this year. Who then will this prestigious title go to? Danny Cipriani perhaps? Hardly fair - the fact that he returned so quickly to the game after such an horrific injury being worthy of praise rather than vilification. That leaves, in the humble opinion of the committee, only one man. Step forward Andrew Sheridan. Not long ago the (mainly English) press were labelling him as the best loose head in world rugby and yet now he appears to be the lynchpin of an England pack that couldn't scrummage the skin off a rice pudding.

Our penultimate award tonight is the Pinch Me, I Must be Dreaming Award, given for the most improbable action by any rugby club or organisation this year. I can't believe I'm doing this but I must say that the RFU, in its reaction to the global imposition of the ELVs (I know I said I wouldn't mention them again, but given their domination of the headlines this year, it's a little difficult to avoid them). In its wisdom the RFU, rather than just pontificating on the merits or otherwise of the new laws, did something quite radical instead - it asked me what I thought. Not just me , of course (they can't possibly be expected to get everything right first time) but everyone involved in grassroots rugby - players, coaches, referees, volunteers and supporters - across the land. They may well ignore what we have to say ultimately but at least they have made the pretence of listening to us, unlike the self-serving buffoons at the IRB.

Finally we move on to the last award of the night - the Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land Award - a special award given to a particular rugby scribe whose refusal to move on from 2003 continues to infuriate and amuse in equal measure. Yes, step forward Mr Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times, a Welshman obsessed with the England rugby team whose brilliant solution to the woes currently being endured by Martin Johnson's men is that they find bigger, older and better players. Well, duh! And the names of those players who would turn England back into a force in the game? Well here are a few he's mentioned who weren't playing in the recent New Zealand game: Josh Lewsey (who has played like a drain for Wasps this season); Dan Hipkiss (who was on the bench for the NZ game); Ollie Barkley (working his way back from injury); Mike Tindall (barely a decent performance in an England shirt since 2003); Danny Cipriani (rested against NZ but obviously mightily effective against the Aussies and the Boks); Harry Ellis (bench), Andrew Sheridan (injured, but alarmingly ineffective anyway against the Aussies); Dylan Hartley (bench, and a citing waiting to happen); Julian White (a proven underachiever at international level and about 56 years old isn't he?); Simon Shaw (bench, and even older than White); and Lewis Moody (just back from long-term injury and mad as a box of frogs). Mr Jones even suggested bringing back Danny Grewcock for the All Blacks game. Nuff said.

And so, a brief summary of the 2008 Total Flanker Awards:

Total Flanker Could You Have Cocked Things Up Any More If You'd Tried Award: - IRB
Total Flanker Can Anyone Recommend a Good Book to Read During the Second Half Award: - Munster
Total Flanker Can it Possibly Get Any Worse Award: - England
Total Flanker Perhaps He's Not All He's Cracked Up to Be Award: - Andrew Sheridan
Total Flanker Pinch Me, I Must be Dreaming Award: - RFU
Total Flanker Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land Award: - Stephen Jones

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Welsh to kill Pope

For the gamblers amongst you here's a tip: get yourself down to the bookies and put a few quid on the Pope popping his clogs before the year's end.

According to a report in the Telegraph this week, researchers are claiming that Pope Benedict XVI has an approximately 45 per cent chance of kicking the bucket by the end of 2008 thanks to Wales winning a Six Nations Grand Slam earlier this year.

Apparently five of the eight Pontiffs who have died since 1883 have done so in Grand Slam years. Three deaths have occurred when Wales won the Grand Slam and two others when Wales won the tournament but not the Grand Slam.

Faced with this overwhelming evidence, Dr Gareth Payne of University Hospital Wales, Cardiff (whose findings have been published online by the British Medical Journal, no less) asserts that the Vatican "cannot fully relax until the new year arrives."

Unless, of course, Wales win it again in 2009, heaven forbid...

Sunday, 14 December 2008

That was the week that was...

A quick(ish) trawl through a few rugby bits and bites that caught my eye this week...
  • It was only a matter of time before prima donna ref Steve Walsh hit the headlines again. The exhibitionist whistle-blower has, allegedly, been accused of being drunk at a morning session of the SANZAR conference for coaches and refs early this month in Sydney. Apparently the matter is now an employment issue between Walsh and the NZRFU. It's hardly the first time that Walsh has been in hot water - at the 2003 World Cup he was suspended after squirting a water bottle at English fitness trainer Dave Reddin during an argument during the England v Samoa pool game, while in 2005 he was suspended by the IRB after verbally abusing British Lions winger Shane Horgan during the Taranaki tour match. A case of three strikes?

  • Some very sad news from New Zealand with the sudden death of former All Blacks John Drake at the age of 49. Drake was member of the New Zealand team who won the 1987 World Cup and reports suggest that he collapsed and died of a heart attack while cleaning his swimming pool. 49 is way too young an age to go and is a stark reminder of our mortality. My thoughts are very much with his family.

  • On a lighter and somewhat bizarre note, new Glasgow rugby "sensation" Ruaridh Jackson has revealed how his "fury" at a verdict on the TV talent show the X Factor prompted him to produce the best performance of his life last week in the Heineken Cup group match against Bath. The 20 year old rookie has admitted it was the decision to evict his X Factor favourite Diana Vickers (who, as it happens, was also my favourite) on last week's show that fired him up to produce his best rugby. For the return fixture today Bath are praying that Jackson is not suitably outraged by the decision of the BBC to allow all three couples through to the final of Strictly Come Dancing.

  • Could Dean Richards be the first head coach to win the Heineken Cup with 2 different clubs? After his successes with Leicester, it looks very much like he's putting together a more than half decent outfit at Harlequins. After their battling back-to-back wins over Stade Francais, which leave Quins unbeaten in four Heineken Cup games this season and only one win away from the quarter-finals, I'd certainly give them a fighting chance of going all the way to the Final this season.

  • And finally... your roving reporter found himself at a booze-filled Twickenham this week for the Varsity Match. With the wine flowing shortly after 11.00 am before a hearty lunch, there then followed a surprisingly entertaining match - made exciting largely by the decision by the Cambridge right winger to make tackling optional, especially when faced with his opposite number who helped himself to 3 first half tries. The problem was solved in the second half by the Cambridge pack who evidently decided that the best method of defence was to keep the ball. The tactic worked as the beer flowed and the Light Blues hauled themselves back into contention before just coming up short, going down 29-33. For many this game remains an anachronism but to the players (unless you happen to be an All Black hooker) it is THE most important game of their lives and for me it's a chance to catch up with some old (and getting older) faces and drink myself silly.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

The old ones are always the best #2437

A team of mammals is playing rugby against a team of bugs.

Mammals are leading 10-0 at half time.

The bugs bring on a centipede as a half time replacement.

Immediately a lion runs up the middle and is stopped dead by a crunching tackle from the centipede.

Minutes later a greyhound is hurtling for the try line when the centipede pole-axes him with a spectacular cover tackle.

A hat-trick of tries follows from the centipede and the bugs are victorious.

"Flippin' heck" says the lion says after the final whistle, "why weren't you playing in the first half ?"

"I was getting my boots on," replies the centipede.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

JOHNNO EXCLUSIVE!

Yes, I managed to catch up with Martin Johnson over a couple of beers following the conclusion of this year’s Autumn internationals. No, of course it wasn’t THE Martin Johnson – don’t be ridiculous – but it was nevertheless a Martin Johnson, a passionate England rugby fan and regular at my local with quite a few things to contribute about the state of English rugby.

The conversation took the following course:

TF: So, Martin, what did you think of England's efforts during the autumn series?

MJ: Not good enough - we're not big enough, fit enough, powerful enough, nasty enough, clever enough or skillful enough. Unlike most of the national press, however, I'm really not that surprised. We've been pants for some time now, two matches in the World Cup notwithstanding.

TF: Didn't any England players impress?

MJ: Yes, Delon Armitage played well throughout the series - he could finally be the long-awaited solution at fullback. Tom Rees battled well and I suppose Nick Easter was half-decent at times but (and it pains me to say this) I wouldn't have a single Englishman in a Lions 22 based on current form. How sad is that?

TF: So you were impressed by the Welsh then?

MJ: Not hugely, but they're currently miles better than England.

TF: So, is your namesake the right man for the job?

MJ: I bloody well hope so as the last thing we need right now is another change at the top. Let's face it though, things were never going to be easy. If he was under any illusions beforehand, he now knows what a nightmare job he's taken on. I hope he has the bottle to make the really tough decisions and that the RFU have the gumption to support him by getting in whoever he needs to improve things. A new forward's coach and defence coach would be a decent start but Johnno seems to be saying that no changes are necessary which doesn't bode too well.

TF: Why do you think things have deteriorated so badly?

MJ: I'd say we're paying for an utter failure for anyone to plan beyond 2003. We lost some key players to retirement and the back up players, although fairly experienced - and I'm talking about men like Worsley, Corry, Regan, Gomarsall, Hodgson etc - simply weren't up to it. We may have managed to produce a couple of decent performances in the World Cup last year but really since 2003 the coaches have been firefighting, papering over the cracks, shuffling deckchairs - whatever you want to call it - rather than building a team. Johnno's having to start from scratch really. Clive Woodward came back from Australia claiming that 2003 was the beginning of a golden age for English rugby. Golden age my arse.

TF: Thank you Martin.

MJ: You're welcome. Mine's a pint of IPA, cheers.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Long arm of the law

Following the scandal surrounding the arrest of Conservative MP Damian Green for receiving leaked government documents, I can exclusively reveal that this weekend I was also arrested and questioned for 24 hours straight with no food, water or toilet breaks. My alleged offence was the receipt of top secret documents revealing the Wikio Top 20 UK Sports Blogs. You will be delighted to learn, however, that I held firm under severe psycholgical torture and can now exclusively reveal December's Wikio rankings...

After all that I'm highly unimpressed with dropping 2 places down the chart - next time I'm hauled in for interrogation I promise I'll squeal like a pig!