Saturday, 31 January 2009

Memory Lane

A few words on what was a pretty harrowing afternoon yesterday. Paul Beard’s memorial service was very, very special indeed, with around 650 people packed into St. Peter’s Church in Berkhamsted (not bad for a confirmed atheist) to hear some poignant and moving tributes and to belt out a few classic hymns – including a stirring rendition of Jerusalem, naturally.

There was barely a dry eye in the house, especially when each of Beardy’s three children (10, 12 and 14) stood up to say their piece. The fact that they held themselves together so well was truly inspirational and they were an absolute credit to Paul and his wife Carolyn.

Afterwards The Boat pub did a roaring trade as several pints were quaffed, old acquaintances renewed and stories swapped. An astounding number of people had made the effort to be there, some flying in from as far away as Australia, Singapore, China and the States. A fantastic effort and a mark of the high regard in which Paul was held by all.

A special mention must go to Chris Moore, erstwhile St. John’s fly half and Beardy’s best man and best mate. His speech at the service was just top drawer – humorous, witty, anecdotal and yet full of poignancy – and was eloquently delivered whilst holding in what must have been huge torrents of emotion. Well done, mate – I’ve no idea how you managed it.

All in all, then, an emotional and raw experience but one that was totally worthwhile.

Cheers Beardy – this hangover’s on you…

Monday, 26 January 2009

Paul Beard RIP

The observant among you will have noticed a certain amount of radio silence on my part of late. It’s not as if there’s been nothing happening in the world of rugby that perhaps I should have been blogging about - Matt Stevens' impending drugs ban for instance, or the latest injury setback for Lewis Moody or the Heineken Cup quarter final line up being decided all spring to mind.

All such things have, however, been well and truly put into perspective by the incredibly sad news I received last week that my old mate from St. Johns College, Paul Beard, had collapsed and died on 15th January.

I heard the news just over a week ago and, quite honestly, it has taken me this long to even begin to come to terms with it all. I hadn’t seen him nearly enough over the last few years but caught up with him at the Varsity Match in December where he was in fine form. Great sportsman, top bloke and good mate – I’m simply stunned by the news that he’s gone.

Beardy was an an extremely talented sportsman, winning a Blue at fullback for Cambridge in 1987 and, perhaps more impressively, becoming a stalwart for the Bandits during the early nineties. I first met him in 1984 at the freshers’ trial for the St.John’s College rugby team which, as captain, I was charged with selecting. Early on in the trial match Beardy appeared to stumble before diving full length to field a high ball, recover his footing and kick to touch. I was mightily impressed by this piece of spontaneous improvisation and he walked straight into the College 1st XV. It was only years later that he revealed that it was a pre-rehearsed move designed to catch the eye.

His talents also lay beyond the sports field. At my 21st birthday, for instance, Beardy was the only person there who was able to light the pipe given to me as a present, prompting accusations that pipe-smoking was one of his many Hertfordshire Schools representative honours (which included, it was rumoured, tiddlywinks).

In more recent years Paul has, it seems, gained many friends and admirers in his capacity as Chairman of the Berkhamsted Raiders Youth Football Club and as a mainstay of the Berkhamsted Cricket Club.

A memorial service is taking place on Friday afternoon and, if the circulating emails are to be believed, the wake could turn into the mother of all piss-ups. It is almost certainly, as many claim ,“what Beardy would have wanted” but, whilst that may the case and the prospect of some serious memorial beers with some old mates has its attractions, my thoughts are first and foremost with his wife and three children as well as his Mum and Dad and brother and sister – heaven only knows how they are all coping with their loss.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Wet Wet Wet

For those of you arriving via Google expecting this post to have something to do with Mr. Marty Pellow and colleagues, my apologies for wasting your time.

Yesterday saw the fourth fixture of the season for Chesham Vets, this time at home against our Beaconsfield equivalents. The same team had cried off against us twice last season, so well done boys for showing up this time around.

Although not actually raining yesterday, conditions underfoot can only be described as wet, wet, wet. Not the wettest I've ever played in - that honour undoubtedly goes to a 1990 tour match against Nondescripts RFC in Nairobi played in an ankle-deep swamp - but, after a rapid thaw in last week's frozen conditions and torrential overnight rain, yesterday's pitch was fairly sodden and it didn't take long for the forwards to take on the appearance of a forlorn bunch of drowned rats.

Any thoughts that last season Beaconsfield might have been running scared were soon laid to rest as they came tearing out of the blocks and made light of the conditions (and made good use of the chilly breeze in their favour) with some deft running and handling that had us scrambling in defence. I can honestly say that, for the first 30 minutes we were stuck in our own half, most of it in the bottom right corner of our own 22. This was partly down to the opposition's excellent play and partly down to our own wayward kicking, but the net result was that I spent the whole of that first half hour either making tackles or falling on loose ball in the swamp. I must have made a dozen or so tackles in that period, probably more than in the rest of the season so far and somehow, through a combination of desperate defence, a slippery ball and a huge slice of good fortune, our line remained intact.

Eventually we managed to lift the siege and mount one or two attacks of our own but, ironically, this led to our downfall as Beaconsfield counter-attacked and eventually drove over from a free kick close to our line.

So, 7-0 down at half time but with the elements in our favour and everything to play for but early in the second half we were guilty of going to sleep en masse, allowing Beaconsfield a soft second try. Firstly we stood waiting for the referee to blow up for a Beaconsfield forward blatantly holding onto the ball after a tackle and then, when the ball was moved out to their fly half, our backs collectively fell hook, line and sinker for the simplest of dummies as the no.10 strolled over the line.

From that point on the game opened up, largely as a result of skipper Colin entering the fray from the bench where he had been nursing the mother of all hangovers. We were certainly giving as good as we got and, although struggling in the lineout, we were dominating the scrums and it was from this phase that we clawed our way back into the game. Pressure on the opposition put-in on our 22 metre line led to a mix up between two Beaconsfield players with the net result that I managed to intercept a wild pass and started haring (albeit at a slightly more sedate pace than a hare) towards the Beaconsfield line. In the words of the great Yogi Berra, it was "like déjà vu all over again," although never let it be said that I don't learn from my mistakes. With a good 60 metres left to go and with my abortive attempt against High Wycombe in September flashing through my mind, I realised that there was very little chance of me making it the whole way and, on hearing a shout of "Look right," I decided that the only course of action was to hoof the ball as far as I could downfield. Fortunately the shout had come from Eric, our centre, probably the quickest player in the team, and he raced after the ball, hacked it on and dived over for his second try in as many games.

So, 14-5 down and game on - and we had a number of opportunities to reduce the deficit further before Beaconsfield sealed the game with a late try, their fly half cleverly chipping the ball over our blind side defence and behind our non-existent cover for one of their forwards to collect and lumber over.

Final score was a 21-5 defeat but I must say it was a hugely enjoyable experience despite the scoreline and the conditions. I had possibly my most productive game since my return to rugby (a testament to my one-week fitness campaign!) and the fact that I didn't realise how cold I was until after the final whistle shows the extent of my involvement. Playing eighty minutes (and yes, the ref made us play every damned one of them) in soaking wet kit in a chilly breeze left me and several others shivering almost uncontrollably in the changing rooms afterwards and it wasn't until after a hearty meal much later last night that I finally began to warm up on the inside.

Of course today the chill has gone to be replaced by aches and pains virtually everywhere on my body...as if that was at all unexpected!

As a team I reckon we played well enough in patches to suggest that a victory might not be too far way - scoring more than one try per game might be a good start though. Tring 4ths again at home on 7th February is our next fixture - I know I'll regret this later but BRING IT ON!

Monday, 12 January 2009

Same old...same old...

There's been plenty of speculation about who might feature in Martin Johnson's England squad for the Six Nations, yet while many pundits have been making a case for the inclusion of exciting young talents like Ben Foden and Steffan Armitage, the ever predictable Stephen Jones has, like a broken record, once again been advocating the inclusion of older, more experienced heads.

And so, to add to previous Jones picks to save England rugby such as Julian White and Danny Grewcock, the winner of the prestigious 2008 Total Flanker Living in Cloud Cuckoo Land Award is now calling for the inclusion of the likes of David Barnes, Duncan Bell, Andy Goode, Ben Cohen and Ben Kay, not to mention Dean Richards, Bill Beaumont, Bob Hiller, David Duckham, Wavell Wakefield and Price Alexander Obolensky.

Not even Jones, however, is barking enough to recommend the recall of Ian Balshaw.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

(Not so) Iron Mike

Mike Tindall's been in the news a bit this week.

Whereas the broadsheets have largely been homing in on a possible return to the England set up (heaven help us) when Martin Johnson unveils his squad next week, the red tops have been far more interested in Iron Mike's conviction for drink-driving this week.

The "rugby star boyfriend of Zara Phillips" (according to the Daily Mail) was banned from driving for three years having been pulled over by police the morning after a "drink binge" at Cheltenham races.

The Daily Mail seems particularly outraged in how much Tindall had consumed - (allegedly) four beers, seven glasses of champagne and a vodka with Red Bull in an eight-hour session.

LIGHTWEIGHT! No wonder English rugby is at such a low ebb.

The old ones are always the best #3652

With his team 36-0 down at half-time the coach stormed into the changing room as the second half of the game was about to begin.

"Right!" he roared. "All of you lazy, good-for-nothing, thickheaded bastards - get out on that field - now!"

All the players jumped to their feet and rushed out onto the field - all except for the little scrum-half sitting in the corner.

"Well?" roared the coach.

"Well," said the little scrum-half. "There certainly were a lot of them, weren't there!"

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Social insecurity

I'm devastated to note that that no British teams have signed up yet for the Social Rugby World Championship in 2009. Well, I say devastated, what I mean is disappointed. Well, I say disappointed, what I mean is a tad miffed. Well, I say miffed, what I mean is mildly surprised.

OK, so I'm mildly surprised that no British teams have signed up yet for the Social Rugby World Championship in 2009.

For the uninitiated, the inaugural Social Rugby World Championships will kick off in Cape Town on 13th June 2009 and will coincide with the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa next summer. The plan is for 16 teams from around the world who don't take themselves too seriously to indulge in 2 weeks of socialising and rugby in a round-robin format tournament. Not only that, but they'll be given the opportunity to take part in coaching rugby in disadvantaged communities and, of course, the chance to follow the Lions tour live in South Africa.

So far teams have signed up from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Austria, Spain, the USA and Australia. British teams are, evidently, conspicuous by their absence. The effects of the credit crunch perhaps? Well, no, not if you consider that over 50,000 Lions fans are expected to descend upon South Africa for the tour in June. I would have thought that, at the very least, a team could be cobbled together from that lot.

The reason that all this is of mild interest to me is that many moons ago I was the "organiser" (in the loosest sense of the word) of a rabble fine bunch of men who played semi-regular social rugby on Sundays around London and the South East, going by the name of "The Bandits".

Ever since starting this blog I've been meaning to pen a short history of the Bandits and this appears to be as appropriate a time as any to get seriously self-indulgent. Please, therefore, feel free to log off at this point as I begin to reminisce...

As far as I can recall Baker's Bandits came into being in December 1986 - the brainchild of a University colleague of mine who put a team of fellow students together to play a one-off match against a team from his former club, Old Guildfordians. For reasons I can't remember, I was unable to play in that first encounter but did make an appearance in the repeat one-off fixtures over the following 2 Christmas periods. As far as I can remember the team lost all 3 fixtures, plenty of beer was quaffed, a good time was had by all and that, it seemed, was that

Except that, of course, it wasn't. With everyone, for the most part, having left university and working in or around London, someone (possibly me, it must be admitted) had the bright idea of putting the band back together to play social rugby on a Sunday. Whoever had the idea, it was somehow left to me to put a team together and so, on a Sunday afternoon in March 1989 and in a foretaste of what was to become commonplace, I assembled - ahem - approximately 11 players in South West London in non-matching kit to represent the now Bakerless Bandits against a team from Arthur Anderson accountants. Our fullback had somehow mislaid his boots en route, we borrowed at least one player and I did my one and only stint ever at tight head prop. And, somewhat improbably, we scraped a victory.

That resounding success was followed by 2 seasons in which we played around a total of 15 or so fixtures, 2 seasons in which we managed to remain unbeaten despite often failing to raise a full quorum.

The team in 1989-90 was a mix of ex-university mates, drinking buddies from Ealing Rugby Club, friends, friends of friends, my little brother and anyone else we could rope in. Coming along to watch a Bandits game was always a risk as there was every chance that you would be forcibly press-ganged into playing, boots or no boots. Some of us were playing regular club rugby every Saturday, some were hardly playing at all, several were regular cry-offs on a Sunday morning (in the days before ubiquitous mobile phones, I hasten to add) and others simply failed to show up. Somehow, though, we always managed to raise some kind of team and, often playing in damp and dirty Ealing 2nd XV shirts from the day before, were stubborn and pig-headed enough to manage to stay unbeaten. It often wasn't pretty - I recall being booed by spectators at one game despite a fine display of classic 9-man rugby and one match even finished in a rather memorable 0-0 draw (I'm not kidding) - possibly the most dire game of rugby I've ever had the misfortune to play in.

In the 1990-91 season we managed to obtain our own shirts - the somewhat distasteful rhubarb and custard combo (pictured) - a development naively funded by yours truly and yes, there are several miscreants out there that still owe me £30 each for their shirts. Wearing shirts like that, we figured, meant that we really couldn't afford to lose and we duly delivered another unbeaten season, although I'm not sure my bank balance has ever truly recovered.

By 1991-92, however, it was becoming increasingly difficult to raise a team and my enthusiasm for dealing with Sunday morning phone calls was beginning to wane. We had one fixture that year, were soundly beaten and I was knocked unconscious in a tackle. Sadly no one was willing or able to take over the mantle of chief organiser/dogsbody and so, as the majority of players headed towards their thirties, the Bandits concept drifted off into obscurity.

Now it is no more than the stuff of legend. At the Varsity match recently it was suggested after several beverages that the band get back together for one last gig but I really don't know whether that would be such a good idea. Or, rather, I do know.

What I also know, however, is that, if Bandit rugby was still a going concern today, we'd have been champing at the bit to take part in a Social Rugby World Championship and would have moved heaven and earth to be there, credit crunch or no credit crunch. OK, so we'd probably have had a couple of people drop out on the day of the flight and have lost one or two more to injury before a rugby ball was kicked in anger but I'd like to think our resourcefulness in cobbling together a team of high quality stubborn bastards would have remained intact.

And I'd have certainly fancied our chances.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

A Fine Romance

In possibly its most bizarre commercial alliance yet, it appears that the RFU is hopping into bed with the world's biggest romance publisher Mills & Boon in order to publish a series of books featuring "handsome rugby heroes".

Apparently the idea is to do for rugby what Jilly Cooper did for polo i.e. give it an air of sexiness, glitz and glamour whilst also providing information on the "rules" (sic) of rugby for non-rugby fans and tips on what to wear at matches (ye gods).

Sadly there's little to no chance of any of the infamous White Orcs on Steroids featuring in any of the storylines which, it is claimed, will be purely "imaginary"- stories such as a former England captain's fling with royalty or an up and coming young flyhalf's steamy encounter with a transvestite, for instance?

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The Total Flanker Guide to 2009

Happy New Year!
Welcome to 2009 and to the 500th post on his blog - quite an achievement really as when I started I had no idea whether this whole blogging lark would last more than a week. What's more, at some point yesterday the blog received its 40,000th visitor - a fact that leaves me somewhat gobsmacked.
It's traditional (i.e. I've done it once before) at this time of year for me to make several rash predictions so here goes:
Six Nations - I hate to say that I can't really see beyond Wales winning the 6 Nations although a Grand Slam might be beyond them this year as I think France will prevail in Paris. Actually, no - I really can't bring myself to tip the Welsh so I'm going to go with an utterly left-field prediction and say that England will take the tournament by storm, winning all their home games and also tasting victory in Dublin. And yes, I realise how daft that sounds. France to finish 2nd, Wales 3rd, Ireland 4th, Scotland 5th and Italy taking the wooden spoon.

Super 14 - With Robbie Deans not participating in version 1 of this year's Tap 'n' Go Fest, and with Dan Carter busy counting his Euros at Perpignan, it's difficult to see how the Crusaders can possibly retain their title this year. Nevertheless, in the absence of any deep knowledge (or, it must be admitted, interest) in other potential contenders I'm going with another title for the Crusaders.

Tri Nations - or version 2 of Tap 'n' Go - I overestimated the effect Deans might have on the Wallabies last season. Definite signs of improvement, but not quite enough to oust the All Blacks. This year could be even closer but I reckon the All Blacks will still have a bit too much for the Wallabies. On that basis therefore I'm going to predict Tri Nations glory for the Springboks.

Premiership - it's going to take a minor miracle for Wasps to come from so far back again this season to retain their title, but with the play off format you just never know. London Irish remain favourites to end up top of the pile at the end of the regular season but their relative lack of big match experience may count against them at the business end. With Leicester struggling for rhythm this season I'm therefore going to tip Bath to take the title. Newcastle Falcons, meanwhile, to be relegated with Jonny Wilkinson staying loyal to the cause and declaring that he has rediscovered the joys of rugby (whilst also embracing Scientology) in National One in September.

Heineken Cup - Despite their hiccup in the group stages I can still see Munster going most of the way in this tournament again and, of course, perennial favourites Toulouse should not be written off. I've a sneaking suspicion, however, that Harlequins - after their heroics home and away against Stade Francais - have their name on the trophy this season, Deano Richards becoming the first man to coach two clubs to Euro glory.

Lions - despite the English 6 Nations victory, a Welsh-dominated Lions squad heads out to South Africa in June. Undefeated going into the first test, the Lions are denied victory when an injury time try from a driving maul is ruled out by an "unsighted" Kiwi TMO. They lose the test by one point and go on to be thrashed in the rest of the series.

RFU - last year the governing body appeared to lurch from the sublime (opposition to ELVs, new deal with the clubs etc) to the ridiculous (review of World Cup, treatment of Brian Ashton etc). However, with the news that Big Wade Dooley is now on the RFU payroll as a citing officer (the most obvious case of poacher turned gamekeeper I've ever witnessed), I must admit have absolutely no predictions to make about how the RFU will conduct itself this year. My favourite favourite story about former Police Constable Dooley concerns his England second row partner, Police Inspector Paul Ackford. When Ackford was knocked out by a punch from the Pumas' prop Federico Mendez at Twickenham, Dooley is reported to have bent over his stricken colleague and muttered: "You can tell which bloody copper works behind a desk can't you." Classic.

IRB - despite widespread opposition the IRB will continue to try to push through the ELVs in order to save face and the jobs of several pen-pushers in Dublin. Ultimately I can see a wholly unsatisfactory compromise being reached and the players shrugging their shoulders and getting on with producing some seriously fine rugby for our entertainment.

Chesham Vets - a victory, any victory will do. I can feel it in my water boys, it's definitely maybe going to happen this year.