Friday, 27 February 2009

When the seagulls follow the trawler...

So, a two-year ban for Matt Stevens. A tad harsh I feel, given that cocaine clearly isn't a performance enhancing drug and you only have to look at his performances for England in the autumn for evidence of that (although it's anyone's guess what the rest of the team's excuse was).

However, with previous miscreants Jason Keyter and Wendell Sailor both ending up with 2 year bans there was clearly a precedent for such a decision. Two years away from the sport could well be career-ending - and it hardly helps his rehabilitation that he won't even be allowed to coach youngsters, if I understand the ban correctly.

Mind you, someone ought to be testing whatever Brian O'Driscoll has been drinking of late.

"Knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit, while wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad," he said, when questioned about Martin Johnson.

Eh?

Eric Cantona would have been proud.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

A date for the diary...

OK, for those of you in the London area, get your diaries out and note down the following date - Saturday 18th April, 1.00pm at Barn Elms - where my old club Barnes RFC will be hosting a match between Barnes Vets and a Legends XV to benefit former player and coach Neil Murphy.

Neil played and coached at Barnes in the late 80s and early 90s (slightly before my time at the club) having previously played first class rugby for Quins and London Irish. Sadly Neil suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2007 and now needs 24 hour care - hence the benefit match to raise much needed funds.

The Legends XV will include the likes of Jason Leonard, Neil Edwards, Peter Winterbottom, Mike Gibson, Rupert Moon, Huw Davies, Rob Lozowski, Simon Smith, David Trick, Simon Halliday and Hugo MacNeil. And apparently Brian Moore is scheduled to referee - so there'll be no crooked feeds at scrum time!!!

If that isn't enough to tempt you, the match will also be the swansong of legendary Barnes prop Michael “Rhino” Whitfield and there's a vicious rumour that yours truly might be making a cameo appearance.

Also planned are a marquee, bar, hog roast and "all sorts of bouncy castles and games for the kids" - entrance will be by programme only and will cost £20 per person (to include a pint and burger) with all kids under 16 getting in free. There are also various sponsorship and advertising opportunities available.

Check out the Barnes RFC website for further details, or contact Colette Murphy at: c-scott@btconnect.com.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Watford Boks?

What the hell is going on at Saracens?

Just when it seemed as if my local professional club in Watford had achieved some degree of stability after years of flux, it appears that they are now back in a state of chronic instability with the news that next season's head coach, former Springbok Brendan Ventner, turned up at the club this week to deliver the bombshell to some 18 members of the current playing squad that their services will not be required next season.

The idea appears to be that the jettisoned players will be replaced by (arguably cheaper) imports from South Africa and those surplus to requirements are said to include All Black lock Chris Jack, last season's Premiership player of the season Glen Jackson and, more worryingly for Sarries fans, long-serving loyal servants of the club such as Nick Lloyd, Kevin Sorrell and Ben Skirving.

The club has attempted to spin this week's events as being nothing more than good management - telling the players the position now, they say, gives the players more time to arrange contracts for next season. Although that may be the case, I'm pretty sure that the majority of loyal Fez-heads will be appalled by these developments.

Not only have they lost yet another director of rugby in Eddie Jones (who leaves at the end of the season), they also now have to face the probability of their beloved Sarries being turned into some kind of South African satellite club.

It's pretty obvious now that Eddie's reasons for leaving were less to do with the family reasons quoted and more to do with the direction in which the club was heading, that direction firmly being a club based on a South African playing staff to go alongside the South African coach, South African Chief Executive and South African owners.

Rumours of a move from Watford to Fulham, a home from home for Sarfie expats, are rife and it may be that, having alienated the loyal support that the club has worked so hard to build through its community links with local schools and rugby clubs in Watford and the surrounding area, the new regime will have little option but to head elsewhere to find itself a new audience - a risky strategy, despite the substantial South African population in SW London.

So, can anything be done? Calls for a quota of overseas players per club are a non-starter, the Kolpak ruling meaning that South Africans are treated as EU residents for the purposes of European Law and therefore cannot be restricted from working in EU countries.

What I would like to see, as a start, is for Premier Rugby to abandon its umbrella funding policy whereby it distributes the cash received from the RFU under the EPS agreement equally among its member clubs. Those clubs that produce England players should be rewarded - those that decide to rely on foreign talent should simply be left to fend for themselves. Yes, there's a danger that certain clubs will prosper more than others and such a move will be of little comfort to Sarries fans in the short term, but it's about time Premier Rugby grew a pair and showed some leadership on this issue.

Meanwhile Eddie Jones faces the near impossible job of trying to coach a bunch of entirely demotivated players through to the end of the season.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Ironic

Rumour has it that the Springboks' plan to play a warm up match for the Lions tour against the New Zealand Maori is under threat ... on racial grounds.

According to reports, South African law now prevents the country's rugby team from playing against any side selected on racial lines - somewhat ironic given that, during the apartheid era, Maori players were not allowed to tour South Africa with the All Blacks.

Not like rain on your wedding day perhaps, but ironic nevertheless.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Lament of an ageing forward

Thanks to Dan at World Masters Rugby Group...


I woke up with a headache that’d hung around for days
And half a pack of aspirin wouldn’t make it go away
I knew the thing that caused it, and it made me feel depressed
It wasn’t too much alcohol, but simply too much stress

I rang my local doctor in my quest to get it fixed
A chat and some prescription drugs would surely do the trick
I drove to my appointment and arrived in ample time
Then waited, watched and read until the next name called was mine

I walked into the doctor’s room, he checked me up and down
Then peered over his glasses as he asked me with a frown;
"Are you worried your blood pressure might be up again?
Or is your gout and hernia a cause of constant pain?

Are you being bothered by your bulging lumbar disc?
Your slowly failing eyesight or your subcutaneous cyst?
Your rheumatoid arthritis or those ulcers on your tongue?
Your kidney stones, your fungus, or those dark spots on your lung?

Your low sperm count, your dodgy knee, that cancer on your hand?
That rash around your privates, your grotesquely swollen gland?
Well surely, then, you’re worried ‘bout your pending heart attack?"
"No", I said, "I’m worried that my son’s become a back"

"He’s only short in stature and his thighs and arms are small
He cries when he gets injured and he cannot catch the ball
He’d rather kick than tackle and his nose is deadly straight
He’d rather hang out with his mum than drink beer with his mates"

"His ears aren’t cauliflowered and he will not tape his head
And every night, by 8 o’clock, he’s tucked up in his bed
He’s fast and he’s elusive and the girls all think he’s cute
And as for scrums and lineouts, well, he hasn’t got a clue"

"His body isn’t hairy and he very rarely sweats
He’d rather read a book than play in winter when it’s wet
He’s never sculled a schooner and he’s quick to bite and scratch
He whinges, whines and finds my Garryowens hard to catch"

"He’s never punched a punching bag, or bench pressed his own weight
Or stacked the bar and squatted – doing sets of six to eight
His head is bigger than his neck, he can’t secure the ball
He’s never seen a prop up close or driven a rolling maul"

As I described the symptoms my good doctor simply smiled
I said: "You don’t understand – this is my only child.
I tell you doc, I’m worried, is there something I can do?"
"Give it time," the doctor said. "Your son is only two!"

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Women get the boot

The world of women's rugby was shocked to its core at the weekend as England suffered a 16-15 defeat at the hands of Wales at Taffs Well RFC on Saturday.

The defeat was England’s first reverse since losing the 2006 World Cup final to New Zealand, was their first ever defeat to Wales in the 22 year history of the fixture and ends England’s ambitions of achieving an unprecedented fourth consecutive Grand Slam.

Fielding a young and inexperienced team (many of the more experienced players being away on international sevens duty), England lost the game in the 78th minute when Welsh full-back Non Evans slotted a late penalty.

I guess England's impressive run of victories had to come to an end at some point and no doubt the youngsters in the team will learn from the experience - who knows, it may even be a good thing looking ahead to 2010.

Personally I blame the fact that they now have to wear the same godawful kit as the men.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

At it again...

Not for the first time, Wales' favourite orange rugby player has made the newspapers for all the wrong reasons.

Yes, tango-boy Gavin Henson is again in a spot of bother having reportedly been spoken to by police on Saturday night after having been removed from two Cardiff bars while celebrating the win over England with Welsh team mates, Lee Byrne, Mike Phillips and Andy Powell.

Branded a "disgrace" by witnesses, Henson is apparently now the subject of an investigation by the WRU.

Setting aside the fact that, being injured, Henson made no contribution to the victory whatsoever, one has to again question his professionalism if he thinks that the best way of getting himself fit and back in the team is to go out on the lash with the boys.

Henson is becoming something of a serial offender, not helped by the fact that previous misdemeanours have been overlooked or indulged by his employers.

Not that England fans would particularly shed a tear, but it's probably not too strong an assertion to make that, unless Messrs Gatland and Edwards get a grip of this guy quickly, we might well witness the utter waste of one of the game's most gifted talents.

French connection

Much fuss is being made about the 'defection' to France next season of three Wasps' players and the possibility of Saint Jonny also being a target of a euro-rich French club.

The consensus appears to be that this it not a good thing for English rugby, that taking top players away from the Premiership will dilute its appeal and that the national team will suffer from not having access to such players apart from in agreed IRB windows (thus rendering impotent the hard-won agreement with the English clubs regarding player-release).

I beg to differ.

Let's look at the effect such moves will actually have on the parties involved:
  • the Players: despite James Haskell's insistence that he is not going to France for the money (yeah, right) there's no doubt that he and Tom Palmer at Stade and Riki Flutey at Brive will end up considerably richer as a result of their moves. And, as Barry Norman might say, why not? Careers are short and if someone is willing to play top dollar (or euro for that matter) then fill yer boots. Equally there is every likelihood that they'll end up better players, perhaps even better, more rounded, people. This doesn't necessarily apply to Flutey who is already something of a globetrotter, but Haskell and Palmer have known nothing of life other than professional rugby and the English Premiership. As a life experience a few years in Paris can only be beneficial.

  • the French clubs: they clearly have more money than sense, but by landing another big name like Haskell (although one has to ask how many backrowers they actually need) Stade is adding to its reputation as a major power. Likewise, if Racing manage to land Wilkinson, it will give them instant credibility as they return to the Top 14. Palmer and Flutey are less box office, but I'm sure will be very effective players for Stade and Brive respectively.

  • the English clubs: although this is undoubtedly a blow for Wasps, in these tight economic times it makes certain sense for them to lose some of their higher-earning players. Certainly keeping these players on the money they were demanding would have been hugely risky financially. Wasps will do what Wasps always do - bring a couple of players through the ranks (more opportunities for the likes of the hugely promising Hugo Ellis for example) and bring in a cheaper misfit from another club to revive his career. For Newcastle Falcons losing Jonny would be a blow to their egos and to their pulling power, but again financially it might just enable them to bring in 2 or 3 players who could make a difference to their fortunes.

  • the England National team: much has been made of the fact that Johnno will no longer have the same access to these players. I take the point, but equally you could take the view that increased time together has a squad has hardly produced significant results yet - unless you include record defeats at Twickenham. On a positive note, what this will allow is for Johnson to name a 32 man elite squad from players in the English Premiership and then add to it when required from players based in France. If anything it increases Johnson's options and it wouldn't surprise me too much if the big man hadn't quietly given these moves his blessing behind the scenes. Let's not forget also that these players are likely to improve their skillsets and experience by playing in a new competitive environment.

  • the French national team: oh dear, if I were Marc Lievremont I'd be mightily concerned. If this becomes a trend he's going to be scrabbling around for players in the lower reaches of the Top 14 or the second XVs of the larger clubs. He already has to contend with a plethora of Sarfies, Kiwis, Aussies, Pacific Islanders and even Scots taking up places in the top French teams, and now the English are coming!

  • the English Premiership: whilst there is a concern that the competition, which bills itself as the best league in world rugby, will be the poorer if the top players move to France, it is undoubtedly also an opportunity for new stars to emerge. Hopefully the economic climate will mean that clubs will not just rush out to replace these players with hackneyed imports from the southern hemisphere but will instead look to trust their younger players, thus helping to develop the next generation of potential stars.

With the exception of the French national team, then, I'd say that there are plenty of positives to be drawn from this development.

Always look on the bright side...

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Hey Joe

Dear Mr Worsley,

I hereby irrevocably take back everything I said in my post below and humbly apologise for any suggestion that you are not cut out for international rugby.

Your performance yesterday, particularly in defence, was nothing short of magnificent.

Who knows...had Mr. Kaplan achieved anything remotely close to even-handedness we might even have snuck an improbable victory.

Yours sincerely,

TF

Thursday, 12 February 2009

St. Valentine's Day Massacre?

OK, so hands up everyone who honestly thought that, when Martin Johnson took over as England supremo, within six months we would end up with a line up that included Joe Worsley, Andy Goode and Mike Tindall?

Come on, hands up...

What?…No one?

Back in what now appear to have been wonderfully naive times we were full of talk of Cipriani, Geraghty, Tait and Foden, full of hope for a lightening-quick back line and full of anticipation of a golden age of attacking rugby … and the subsequent appointment as attack coach of Brian Smith, who had transformed the stodgy London Irish into an attacking tour de force, merely served to whet further our insatiable appetite for change and innovation.

The Johnson era, we believed, would be so very different from the muddled confusion and mixed messages served up under the Robinson and Ashton regimes. Clarity of selection, tactics and communication would return once again to the England set-up. No more safety first selections, no more ill-thought out short termism and no more ditching of exciting young talent in favour of hackneyed journeymen.

Oh how adolescent our aspirations now seem - now that the likes of Geraghty, Foden and the extremely hard-done-by Steffon Armitage have been ejected from the squad, their attacking instincts jettisoned for the more prosaic talents of far less talented players.

I honestly never thought I'd see the day when England would travel to Cardiff with the sole intention of keeping the score down, but what else can the selection of this particular England team possibly signal? It appears to be a selection borne out of desperation, a selection made only for its supposed solidity in defence, a selection reliant on the boot of Andy Goode and the heavy tackling of Joe Worsley and Mike Tindall, a selection bereft of a single spark of attacking ingenuity.

England beating Wales in Cardiff this year was always going to be a long shot, but to give themselves any chance they needed to follow the example set by Scotland in the final quarter of last weekend’s game at Murrayfield and work on releasing quick ball to attack the space in the wider channels. Sadly, the bottom line is that England have no chance, not with these players, not with this ridiculously limited team, not with tactics that are rooted in damage limitation.

A St. Valentine’s Day massacre? I fear a cricket score and shall be watching from behind the sofa. Croke Park in 2007 was bad – this could be much, much worse.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Swinging lower

So, despite the snow still being reasonably thick on the ground on Saturday morning I was still as keen as mustard to run out against Tring 4ths in the afternoon but, just to make sure, I sent a text to our skipper Colin which went along the lines of "Please tell me the game is off."

Call it a lack of moral fibre on my part if you like but, despite the fact that this was probably our best chance of a win this season, at my age I play rugby purely for fun and, frankly, the idea of scrabbling around on the frozen tundra of Chesham had very little appeal.

Fortunately Colin agreed and the match was duly cancelled, with the consequence that I could plan my afternoon in the warmth of my living room in front of the Six Nations on TV.

Half an hour into the opening game, however, I was beginning to wonder whether I would rather have been outdoors freezing my nuts off in the snow, such was the poor quality being served up by both England and Italy.

It was difficult to know what to make of it all. There was the painfully embarrassing spectacle of watching a great flank forward unravel in the alien position of scrum half for Italy, and then the disintegration of the gameplan of the men in white as what little clean possession they won was kicked aimlessly back to the Italians.

The press have been pretty savage in their condemnation of this England performance and, to be fair, it had little to commend it. It wasn't so much a terrible performance, in my view, but more of a non-performance. England capitalised on three moments of gross incompetence in the first half by Italy and ran in a couple of nice tries in the second half. Aside from those fleeting moments, however, they simply didn't play.

What was clear was that viewing the Ireland v France clash afterwards was almost like watching an entirely different sport, such was the pace and invention on view and in yesterday's clash at Murrayfield even the Scots played with more wit and invention than England had managed, never mind the Welsh. And if Brian Smith honestly believes the team was "spooked" by the noise of the Twickenham crowd he has a big shock coming his way in Cardiff on Saturday.

What perplexes me is that in the autumn Johnno's England appeared to start off with an idea of the game they wanted to play and the type of players they wanted to play it. OK, so the wheels came off to an extent against the big guns of South Africa and New Zealand but the idea of trying to play a wide attacking game with players possessing genuine flair was still the right one. However, in the wake of a couple of heavy defeats England now seem to have lost (or at least mislaid) the courage of their convictions and have opted for a safety-first approach. How else can you explain the parachuting in of Messrs Goode and Noon in particular into the starting XV against the Azzuri?

What is plain is that if they continue down this "try not to lose" path then they are doomed to failure. Martin Johnson has never struck me as a bottler in the past. I therefore pray that he has the balls to pick an attacking line up against Wales - in the immortal words of Derek Trotter, "he who dares wins, my son."

Danny Cipriani and Matt Tait would be a start.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

I just don't get it...

So, England first choice fly half Toby Flood has a calf strain and so England call up a player from outside the elite squad rather than go with next in line, Shane Geraghty.

Then Danny Care slips on an icy step and damages his ankle and England turn to a player outside the match 22 at the expense of scrum half cover Ben Foden.

And finally, Mike Tindall injures his back in the gym (what on earth was he doing in the gym 2 days before a match, incidentally) and England decide to bring in an honest plodder, again from outside the 22, instead of promoting Matt Tait from the bench.

I'm all for having players who can make an impact from the bench - but if they're good enough for the bench then surely they're good enough to start...or am I missing something here?

Friday, 6 February 2009

The Best Six (or Five) Nations Rugby Players...Ever (apparently)

David Hands of The Times has come up with his list (actually lists) of favourite rugby players from the history of what is now the Six Nations.

Can't say that I agree with him on all of his choices but how cool must it be to be paid for just sitting there coming up with this lot?

However...Deano at only 13 in the "Most Powerful" list and no mention of Winterbottom or Teague?

Hands, you're having a giraffe!

READ
DAVID HANDS' LIST

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Grand Slam for England?

Forget the angst, dismiss the pressure and say "pah" to the stress...this year's 6 Nations title and Grand Slam are in the bag for England.

I am, of course, referring to the women's 6 Nations, where No. 8 Catherine Spencer will lead the England team as it bids for an utterly unprecedented fourth consecutive Grand Slam.

The English women should get off to a good start against Italy (against whom they won 76-6 last year) at London Welsh on Saturday but, despite my bravado, this year might prove to be a bit tougher for England. Not only have the likes of Wales emerged as credible contenders, England are also spreading themselves a little thinner this tournament, fielding several youngsters as more established players prepare for the Rugby World Cup 7s in Dubai next month.

Furthermore, I see that they now have to wear the same abomination of a kit that the men's team wear. Now that is a worrying sign.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Goode Grief

So it's come to this...

England's new dawn, the brave new world into which Johnno will lead us, the journey back to the pinnacle of world rugby is, it seems, now reliant on the performance of a slow, non-tackling fly half in the not inconsiderable shape of Andy Goode.

Being very experienced and somewhat big-boned, no doubt he ticks all the boxes of a certain well known Welsh journalist but, come on...is this really the best we can do?

Setting aside his (lack of) talents, does Johnno really think that he is any better than say, Charlie Hodgson, or for that matter any of the three fly halves that only a few weeks ago were selected in the elite England 32?

Granted, Goode has been racking up the points in the Top 14 in France but, I mean, why select Flood, Cipriani and Geraghty in the elite squad if two of the three were going to be passed over at the first sign of injury for someone who is never, ever, going to be anywhere near world class.

No doubt Goode will now have a stormer against Italy and be a permanent fixture for the rest of the 6 Nations - leaving England's development plans where exactly?

Good Grief

So it's come to this...

For all his insistence that his celebrity lifestyle doesn't affect his rugby, it has emerged that perma-tanned Welsh centre Gavin Henson was recently forced to cancel an interview with Owen Slot of The Times (or, more accurately the Ospreys press office was forced to cancel it) because his showbiz missus Charlotte had promised (i.e. sold) exclusive access to the Henson family - including new arrival Dexter Lloyd - to OK! magazine.

So, thanks to a few exclusive pics in a celebrity rag (who no doubt paid through the nose for the privilege) our favourite orange rugby player was prevented from talking to The Times about rugby.

Hmmm...priorities anyone?

Monday, 2 February 2009

Coarse Rugby Alive and Kicking

Great to see that the art of coarse rugby is still alive and well with the news that 8-man (yes, 8) Coventry Saracens suffered the worst-ever defeat in English league rugby a couple of weekends ago when they lost by a whopping 194-3 to Alcester in Midlands West Division Six (South East).

The previous record in England was a 177-3 victory by Norwich over Eccles & Attleborough 13 years ago but, sadly for Alcester, the result still falls well short of the the world record score of 350-0 set by French third division side Lavardac against Vergt in 1984 (although, to be fair to the Vergt players, legend has it that they refused to tackle in order to register their protest at the suspension of several of their players.)

Three of the eight Saracens players were front row forwards and another was capable of playing in the front row so, remarkably, there were no uncontested scrums. The killjoys at the Midlands League Organising Committee have, however, struck the result from the records because a minimum of five forwards is required in scrums at all times, declaring the score null and void and awarding the two points to Alcester.

This is, according to the blazers, the "fairest solution for all clubs in this league."

Sunday, 1 February 2009

An invitation...

I've been contacted by a marketing agency who obviously are under the misapprehension that I'm some kind of full-time rugby journo (if only) and have invited me along to interview Keith Wood, ex-Ireland and Lions player and Uncle Fester lookalike, on Wednesday 4th February.

Obviously, having to work for a living, I can't go to the event hosted by Bushmills Irish Whiskey at The Porterhouse in Covent Garden - where Woody will be on hand, apparently, to tell us about how to enjoy ‘Rugby the Bushmills Way.’

I don't know about you, but the thought of playing rugby after a bellyful of Bushmills is not one I relish.

The agency are, it seems, keen to invite along as many of the Rugby blogging community as possible for a Q&A with Woody at lunchtime on Wednesday (and make the rest of your afternoon interesting after a Bushmills or two).

Please therefore consider yourselves invited!

Naked Ambition

Back to more frivolous matters...

Call me a prude, but I do find the new Powerade posters featuring the naked bodies of Messrs Borthwick, Sackey and Williams (that well known firm of chartered accountants) somewhat disconcerting.

Don't get me wrong...I'm sure that artistically they have great merit and no doubt some spotty creative director at some very trendy West End advertising agency will be earning a ludicrously large bonus for his far-sighted vision but, let's be honest, the only naked rugby player one witnessed in my day was late at night in the clubhouse after 15 pints and 10 verses of Singing in the Rain.

Those were the days, my friends.