Sunday, 29 March 2009

VICTORY!

Ring the bells, sound the trumpets, crack open the champagne and hang out the bunting to celebrate not only the first victory of the season for Chesham Vets, but the first victory I've been part of since my return to this wonderful game of ours in October 2007.

Yes, believe it or not, we actually won a match yesterday afternoon. I guess it had to happen sooner or later but, after a couple of close calls (and one or two not so close) this season, I was beginning to believe we were destined to be perpetual gallant losers.

That particular monkey is now off our backs and it's a strangely exhilarating feeling, although immediately post-match it was difficult to know how to react. Remember - I hadn't been part of a winning team since 1993!

Things began to look promising when I turned up at the club an hour before kick off to the news that we were no longer playing High Wycombe Vets (always a difficult fixture) but were instead matched against the unknown qualities of Datchworth 4th XV. The news that we also had an unprecedented 20 players available, including a spare prop, was also a good sign.

We kicked off in extremely blustery conditions and got off to the usual Chesham start, not really getting into the game at all to begin with. Datchworth had one or two strong runners that we failed to put down first time, and we allowed them to build up momentum by failing to commit to the breakdown in sufficient numbers. When we did win the ball we tried to chuck it around sevens-style which, in the conditions and given that we hadn't really established any kind of platform, meant that invariably we were chasing back behind the gain line to retrieve spilled passes - and one Keystone Cops episode saw us win ball near halfway but end up, via a series of horrible passes, scrabbling around on our own try line trying to prevent the opposition scoring.

Eventually our inertia was duly rewarded when a Datchworth prop showed an alarming turn of speed to burst through a couple of tackles to score in the corner for the visitors.

The try was, however, the collective kick up the arse we obviously needed as we began to take control by sending runners up the middle and then actually hitting rucks hard and driving rather than standing off admiringly. This soon resulted in being awarded a penalty on the opposition 22 which we quickly ran wide where our centre Adrian ignored a 4-man overlap and cut inside, and he was a very relieved man when he crashed over to make it 5-5.

So, all square at half-time and things definitely began to look up when the lanky Datchworth fly half (who had a bit of a nightmare afternoon, it must be said) kicked the re-start out on the full, handing us a scrum on half way. The scrum was an area in which we'd had the upper hand all afternoon and it gave us a great platform to launch ourselves down into the opposition 22 where we set up camp and pressurised the Datchworth lineout, with yours truly ending up the beneficiary of their fly half taking an eternity to wind up his clearance kick. The resulting charge down bounced kindly and I collected the ball to stroll over for a try to take us into the lead.

We were definitely on top and the opposition were rattled - so much so that they began to moan and whinge incessantly at the referee for supposed infringements at the breakdown. Admittedly we were no angels but equally there were opposition bodies all over the ball at ruck time and the referee was consistent in his somewhat laissez-faire attitude so I'm not really sure what they were complaining about. Their mood was hardly improved either when, with about 15 minutes to go, I exchanged passes with Ian, our flanker, and took a return pass to dive over unmolested to take the score to 15-5.

The cat was most definitely amongst the pigeons now, as our first victory loomed. A length of the field move almost produced another try before a freak hail storm made life extremely uncomfortable for all concerned - bloody painful I can tell you! Once the weather had abated normal service resumed and we once again worked our way down into the opposition 22. Yet again the Datchworth fly half decided to kick in slow motion and once again he was charged down, this time on his try line by our hooker, Mark, with the ball bouncing kindly for...yes you guessed it...yours truly who duly flopped on the ball in a fit of giggles to complete a somewhat fortunate hat-trick.

The conversion made it 22-5 and not long afterwards the referee blew the final whistle. It was hardly the best quality performance we'd given, but it was enough and a win is, after all, a win.

A strange one to gauge from a personal point of view. My defence was pretty solid but generally I felt I struggled to impose myself and yet bizarrely ended up with 3 tries - the first time that's happened since I was a barnstorming 17 year old openside flanker playing for Peterborough Colts back in the early 80s. My efforts yesterday obviously cost me a jug of bitter and I'm also sporting a decent shiner on my right eye but, believe me, it was all worth it!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

London Wasps: a Crib Sheet for Beginners

On Sunday 5th April my firm is taking a few clients to Adams Park for a bit of corporate hospitality whilst taking in the Wasps v Newcastle Falcons Premiership clash. A female colleague of mine with a limited knowledge of rugby asked if I'd be kind enough to brief her on Wasps, and so this is what I came up with...

The Club:

The club is called London Wasps, despite playing their home matches in High Wycombe. Go figure.

London Wasps are the current Guinness Premiership champions (although are unlikely to be so for much longer).

London Wasps also won the Heineken Cup (the top competition in Europe – the equivalent of football’s Champions League) in 2004 and 2007.

London Wasps’ primary sponsor is currently Magners.

(You may have noticed a pattern emerging. For some reason booze brands like to be associated with rugby although I can’t for the life of me understand why).

Currently London Wasps are having a season that can only be described as rubbish, having been knocked out of the Heineken Cup at the group stage and lying 9th in the Guinness Premiership. Wasps need to finish in the top 6 to qualify for the Heineken Cup next season.

Coaches:

Head Coach: Ian McGeechan
The hugely experienced "Geech" is also the current Head Coach for the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa this summer.

Assistant Coach: Shaun Edwards OBE
A former Wigan and great Britain Rugby League legend, Edwards is also the Wales Defensive Guru and will be Defence Coach for the Lions tour of South Africa.

Far be it for me to suggest that perhaps the coaches ought to have been concentrating a little more on their jobs at Wasps this season.

Notable Players:

Danny Cipriani
12 months ago he was being lauded as the next big thing in English rugby after single-handedly beating the Irish at Twickenham. Then a horrendous ankle injury ruled him out of the game for 4 months and he’s struggled for form ever since. Perhaps more famous now for his celebrity girlfriend Kelly Brooke and for having allegedly slept with a girl called Larissa who turned out to be a bloke called Darren.

Josh Lewsey MBE
Former England World Cup Winner who retired from international rugby after England stopped picking him. A former officer with the Royal Artillery, he achieved tabloid fame for knocking out Danny Cipriani with a left hook in a training ground bust-up earlier this season. The rumour that the rest of the squad were lining up behind him to take their turn remains unsubstantiated.

James Haskell
Big backrow forward who is also part of the current England squad and clearly loves himself. Wears white boots and is therefore not to be trusted. He is leaving Wasps at the end of the season to join Stade Français in Paris where they are far more tolerant of coloured footwear and where he will earn shedloads of euros.

Riki Flutey
A New Zealand Maori who is arguably (and somewhat confusingly) currently England’s best player. Flutey qualified to play for England by living here for 3 years, having left New Zealand originally to join London Irish, and is so committed to the English way of life that he is heading down to the south of France next season to take up a lucrative contract
with Brive.

Phil Vickery MBE
Another veteran of the England 2003 World Cup team, Cornishman Vickery is still playing for Wasps and England despite having had three major spinal operations that make him a miracle of modern science. Nicknamed the “Raging Bull”, Vickery is also a fully qualified cattle inseminator.

Other international players in the Wasps squad:

Paul Sackey (England) – recently dropped by England
Tom Rees (England) – probable FEC (Future England Captain)
Tom Palmer (England) – another one leaving for France
Simon Shaw – (England) - aged 76 and still going strong
Joe Worsley (England)
Tim Payne (England)
Tom Voyce (England)
Dave Walder (England)
Eoin Reddan (Ireland)
Jeremy Staunton (Ireland)
Raphael Ibanez – (France) – recently
retired after too many bangs on the head
Serge Betsen – (France)
Mark Robinson (New Zealand)
Dan Leo (Samoa)

All of which begs the question: What has gone wrong this season?

Notable Former Player:

Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio OBE
“Beautiful British name” as the Pub Landlord might say.
Wasps’ most famous player, Dallaglio is also an England legend having been a key part of the England 2003 World Cup triumph. He retired last year after having captained Wasps to Premiership success in 1997, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2008 and to Heineken Cup success in 2004 and 2007. LNBD was appointed captain of England as long ago as 1997 but had to relinquish the position in 1999 after he allegedly bragged to an undercover News of the World reporter that he had taken and dealt in cocaine and ecstasy while a teenager. Silly boy. He is now an Executive Board member at London Wasps.

Other Notable Facts:

Wasps FC was formed in 1867 and was invited to join the newly established Rugby Football Union on 26th January 1871. Unfortunately, however, the team turned up at the wrong pub on the wrong day at the wrong time and so forfeited their right to be called Founder Members of the Union.

London Wasps’ training and administrative centre is based at the less than glamorous former British Gas sportsground in Acton, West London.

Assistant Coach Sean Edwards has a son with former M People singer Heather Small.

Wasps are 100% owned by founder of Loans.co.uk and Managing Director of Wycombe Wanderers, Steve Hayes, who recently bought out the former investors including Chris Wright, former founder of Chrysalis Records. Steve Hayes lives about 5 minutes walk from my house and drives a rather swanky Bugatti Veyron. He is neither envious of my house nor of my R-reg VW Polo.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Six Nations Chumps 2009

Very briefly, then, a summary of the numpties of this season's Six Nations:

15. Andrea Masi - for the unique achievement of being sin-binned in the first minute against Ireland for a ridiculously dangerous high tackle, easily worthy of a straight red.

14. Paul Sackey - did he actually wake up?

13. Yannick Jauzion - so far off his best against England in particular it was bordering on the embarrassing.

12. Shane Geraghty - for taking out an Italian in the air and being sin-binned within 2 minutes of coming on as a replacement.

11. Simon Webster - for knocking himself out and then vomiting on the pitch against Wales.

10. Andy Goode - for being fat, slow and for not tackling. And for not being able to kick - a fatal flaw for a kicking fly half.

9. Mauro Bergamasco - not his fault, but we all know why he's in this list. Danny Care was a close second.

1. Geoff Cross - for taking Lee Byrne out in the air and then receiving a yellow card whilst being stretchered off unconscious.

2. Matthew Rees - for failing to hit a barn door with a banjo against Ireland.

3. Phil Vickery - exactly how many times does a referee have to say "let go of the ball number 3"?

4. Jason White - for not being anywhere near the standard required for an international lock.

5. Luke Charteris - for having all the physical presence of an overgrown runner bean.

6. James Haskell - for an idiotic trip against Italy and for wearing white boots.

7. Sebastian Chabal - playing him at openside was almost as mad as playing Bergamasco at scrum half.

8. Andy Powell - post-Scotland was revealed as a one trick pony - and even that trick wasn't very impressive.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Six Nations Review 2009

And so, unbelievably, another Six Nations has come and gone. It's all over for another year and once again we have a Grand Slam winning team, this time the honour passing to the Irish.

It does seem strange that, for a tournament that is supposed to be so tight, we quite often get a Grand Slam winner. I guess we can put that down, in part, to the momentum gathered by a winning team - but it would appear that any team who can achieve any degree of consistency throughout he competition stands a decent chance of the ultimate prize.

Ireland's Slam wasn't pretty. Deserved, no doubt, but Ireland weren't exactly the most stylish of teams by any means. For hard work, endeavour and intensity, however, they were clearly ahead of the rest. Their best performance for me was their first - against France at Croker - and for sheer drama the finale against Wales takes some beating. And, given that this was their first Slam since 1948, I can't really begrudge the Irish their success.

So, it falls on me once again to select my best XV taken from those who strutted their stuff for the past six weeks as I name the TOTAL FLANKER TEAM OF THE 2009 SIX NATIONS:

15. Lee Byrne came into the Six Nations so far ahead of the competition that there really should be no contest for the 15 shirt - Jeremy Guscott even labelled him the best player in the world (although to be fair, it's a well known fact that gardeners regularly follow Guscott around with a shovel). Byrne didn't have a bad tournament but equally he really didn't live up to the hype and, despite the claims of the equally heralded Rob Kearney, I'm going for DELON ARMITAGE - three tries, plenty of attacking intent and safe as houses under the high ball doing it for me.

14. It's fair to say that this wasn't exactly a winger's Six Nations unless you're turned on by the sight of them fielding seemingly never-ending punts upfield. On the right wing Leigh Halfpenny looked promising, Simon Danielli had his moments and Mark Cueto completed something of a regeneration but TOMMY BOWE was the pick of the bunch - his try against Wales proving the most crucial.

13. Some excellent contenders for the outside centre birth - Max Evans was a find for Scotland, Tom Shanklin was his usual excellent self for Wales, even Mike Tindall was half-decent at times and I thought Mathieu Bastareaud had a sensational debut for France, but BRIAN O'DRISCOLL hauled Ireland through a couple of matches almost single-handedly and must start favourite to retain the Lions captaincy this summer.

12. Only one real contender here - with Gavin Henson nowhere near his 2008 form, Yannick Jauzion a shadow of his former self and with Jamie Roberts revealed to be somewhat one dimensional by Joe Worsley, RIKI FLUTEY was the outstanding inside centre and looks established now as England's number 12.

11. Another case of the pre-tournament favourite struggling to justify the hype. Ickle Shane Williams started well against Scotland but didn't ever convince after his ankle injury. Thom Evans was probably the pick of the bunch from the British Isles left wingers but, for me, France's MAXINE MEDARD was the most impressive (his stint at fullback against England aside) - not least for sporting the tournament's best sideburns.

10. In theory this should be a toss up between Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara, but O'Gara wobbled alarmingly against England and was only marginally better against Wales. Jones was far steadier and saw off the challenge of James Hook, but the Welsh backline rarely fired after the Scotland game and Jones must take some responsibility for that. And so, perhaps somewhat controversially and in the absence of a truly outstanding candidate I'm going for TOBY FLOOD who managed, at long last, to get the England backline running again. And I'm sure absolutely no one other than his Mum will agree with me on that choice.

9. Of the scrum halves, Harry Ellis is getting back to where he was a couple of years ago and I thought Mike Phillips, recovering from injury, got better as the tournament wore on. Scotland’s Mike Blair, however, was a huge disappointment, whilst neither of Ireland's scrum halves were that impressive and Italy's Paul Griffen was just pure comic genius at times. That leaves France's MORGAN PARRA who gets my vote.

1. It was good to see Andrew Sheridan get back to somewhere close to his best and we all know how well Salvatore Perugini scrummaged for Italy but GETHIN JENKINS had, I thought, an immense tournament both in the tight and in the loose where his tackling was phenomenal.

2. At hooker I thought Lee Mears had a strong tournament and Jerry Flannery did little wrong for Ireland, whereas Scotland's Ross Ford and Matthew Rees of Wales probably underachieved. However, despite being way too good-looking, I thought the play of French pretty-boy DIMITRI SZARZEWSKI was exceptional, even in the debacle against England.

3. Italy’s Martin Castrogiovanni (despite his punch up with Chabal in a Rome nightclub) and Carlos Nieto were once again fearsome scrummagers, while the old warhorse Phil Vickery finally managed to stop giving penalties away and start playing a bit for England. Big John Hayes was his usual muscular self in the lineout (although he still can't scrummage imho) and Sylvain Marconnet's return to French colours certainly shored up their scrummage this season. Euan Murray also made a welcome return to action but it's the hair-bear bunch's ADAM JONES who takes the honours with an exceptional series of performances.

4. The return of 76 year old Simon Shaw was a welcome sight if not exactly boding that well for the future for England second row development and Ian Gough's impressive workrate and brutal tackling also stood out. However, PAUL O'CONNELL was back in form and was probably the outstanding lock of the tournament, his efforts against England and Wales in particular earning deserved plaudits.

5. As for the middle jumping spot, Steve Borthwick's return to form coincided with his return to the middle of the lineout where he replaced the impressively spring-heeled Nick Kennedy. Lionel Nallet had a decent all round tournament as did Donnacha O’Callaghan until the red mist descended against Wales. Pick of the bunch though was ALUN-WYN JONES who is dead cert for a Lions starting spot.

6. Moving on to the back row, there were a number of blindside contenders, Steve Ferris - who I knew next to nothing about prior to the tournament - making a real impression. Thierry Dusutoir was also generally excellent and Alistair Strokosch showed well for the Scots. However, TOM CROFT really came of age as an international flanker and therefore gets the nod.

7. Martin Williams was another who didn't really have the impact I expected, given that I rate him incredibly highly - perhaps Wales' obsession with the kicking game just didn't suit his natural fetcher instincts. France's Fulgence Ouedraogo had a fantastic start to the tournament until inexplicably dropped by Mad Marc Lievremont and Joe Worlsey was a total revelation at openside for England. However, DAVID WALLACE stole the show with hugely consistent performances for the Irish.

8. And finally we turn to the only one-man team in the tournament. Despite the very strong claims of Imanol Harinordoquy and Jamie Heaslip, one man who simply stood head and shoulders above the rest was Italy’s captain SERGIO PARISSE - a superb athlete, great leader and all round brilliant rugby player. Player of the tournament, easily - and if Ian McGeechan isn't doing so already he should go over Parisse's family tree with a fine toothcombe in search of just a hint of British or Irish ancestry.

Friday, 20 March 2009

?????

1. What does Gavin Henson need to do to be disciplined by the Welsh management? Getting wasted on a night out in Cardiff and then receiving a police warning, all while supposedly recovering from a calf injury, plainly isn't enough. Neither is refusing to take a penalty when asked to do so by his captain in the dying moments of an international before storming off down the tunnel, refusing to acknowledge the travelling supporters and then openly criticising his team's tactics in the press. Go figure.

2. Which England are we likely to see this weekend? The quick-ball producing forwards coupled with the rapier sharp backs, or the crashing into contact before holding a 5-minute committee meeting at the back of the ruck to decide what to do with the ball before electing to do exactly the same again? Or a bit of both?

3. Who is Steve Borthwick trying to kid? Is he really seething at the Scots' reaction to last year's Calcutta Cup win? We English really don't do the hate thing at all well - best leave that sort of stuff to the Celts and frustrate the hell out of them by leaving their hate unrequited.

4. Can England win the Six Nations? England Women that is. This year's campaign hasn't exactly gone to plan, a defeat by Wales scuppering thoughts of a fourth consecutive Grand Slam, but England have fielded several youngsters this season to allow many more established players to prepare to win the World Cup Sevens in Dubai. A cunning plan if it wasn't for the fact that Australia took the Sevens crown.

5. Who on earth has been advising the management at Saracens? Apparently the 15 or so players who were being made redundant are now being "unsacked" on the basis that the £500,000 overall severance package would, it seems, have to form part of the salary cap for next year. It's cheaper, apparently, to keep them on, even if they're not wanted. Did no one bother to read the small print?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Ahem...

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury...

Desipte the so-called expert evidence introduced by the prosecution, may I refer you to Exhibit A and Exhibit B in the bundle of evidence for the defence.

I told you so.

The defence rests.

(Sits down, looking extremely smug.)

Saturday, 14 March 2009

All aboard the bandwagon

And another thing...

This whole "let's jump on the bandwagon and give Steve Borthwick bit of a kicking" thing is getting somewhat tiresome.

Not only is he apparently single-handedly responsible for England's results, England's performances and the lack of discipline shown by pretty much every England player (with the honorable exception of himself) , it seems that the whole world and his dog now agrees that Borthwick, rather than Nick Kennedy, should have been dropped from the team to face France tomorrow to accommodate the returning behemoth Simon Shaw. As far as the press is concerned, Borthwick is very much Captain Scapegoat.

I beg to differ.

If you ignore Borthwick's performance against Italy, which was poor (although he was far from alone in having a ropey game against what is still the most combative pack in the championship), Borthwick's form - strictly as a player - bears up pretty well under scrutiny.

Against Wales in Cardiff he tackled, tackled and tackled some more and simply worked his socks off - in my estimation he wasn't that far behind Joe Worsley in the heroic stakes. It's been pointed out (by a certain Sunday Times journalist with an obvious agenda) that Borthwick won no lineout possession in the game but this conveniently ignores the fact that, owing to the Welsh tactic of kicking in-field rather than into touch, England had 4 throw-ins in the entire match.

Against Ireland Borthwick again put in a decent shift - no, he's not as dynamic as Paul O'Connell for instance but, let's face it, not many are. It was still a thoroughly combative and hard-working performance and, both in the lineout and at close quarters, honours were pretty much even in my book.

It has been pointed out that Nick Kennedy has been a more productive lineout presence so far this championship but consider this - Borthwick has not only sacrificed his usual middle jumper position to accommodate the spring-heeled Kennedy, he has also called the majority of the throws to go to Kennedy to make full use of the London Irish lock's talents.

This selflessness has not only gone unrecognised by all except Martin Johnson, it has also been turned against Borthwick, the majority view being that he's not contributing enough to the team. That's utter nonsense of course, as not only has Borthwick been grafting ceaselessly at the coalface, he has also been trying to bring out the best in his second row partner.

Johnson recognises this, which is why Kennedy is the one to make way for Shaw this weekend. The Borthwick-Shaw combination is a proven one - the two having packed down together throughout the 2008 Six Nations for instance - and the balance of the pack is now significantly improved.

As for Borthwick's role as a captain, his only real fault is that he's not Martin Johnson - but then again, neither is anyone else. Given the relative inexperience in the squad Johnson needed a leader to help hold it all together and, despite all the unjustified flak, Borthwick had done just that, quietly and with dignity and, in my humble opinion, he just doesn't get the credit he deserves.

Anyway, Johnno knows a thing or two about captaincy - and the one thing he won't do, I trust, is to bow to pressure from a media-led lynch mob.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Whatever happened to: the communal bath?

Another in an extremely sporadic series of observations about how certain aspects of rugby have changed since I first started playing the game back in the middle ages...

Whatever happened, I wonder, to the communal bath?

At what point did it disappear?

Anyone who played rugby during the eighties, or earlier, will remember the large tiled structure adjacent to the changing area in most rugby clubs - that enormous container of deep steaming hot water in which players could soak their weary limbs after a game, chew the fat, sing a few songs and emerge refreshed and ready for an evening's carousing.

Except, of course, that it was nothing like that.

My first experience of the big bath was as an under-19 'Colt' at Peterborough Rugby Club. As the youngest team on a Saturday we had the dubious honour of playing on a pitch that was at least 5 minutes walk away from the clubhouse, meaning that we always kicked off later than all of the other games at the club and, consequently, always finished our game last.

From a bathing point of view what this meant was that when we arrived back at the clubhouse the bath was already in use by the 4 other teams playing that day and, by the time we had stripped off and were ready for a soak, the bath consisted of shallow and murky lukewarm (bordering on cold) water with a 2-inch thick layer of muck and grime on top. If you could chip through the outer crust it was possible to get your body wet, but there was absolutely never any prospect of getting clean, let alone warm.

At the posher clubs the bath was sometimes surrounded by a system of showers that provided no more than a trickle of icy water to enable players to at least attempt to wash away some of the ubiquitous mud before getting into the bath to get filthy dirty again. I'm guessing that, as hygiene became higher on the agenda, those showers began to take over from the big bath - and certainly by the 90s I recall that a post-match shower was far more common and that the big baths were few and far between.

Despite my memories, in many ways it is a shame that the communal bath has fallen by the wayside. If you were lucky enough to be the first match to finish on a Saturday it was always an absolute joy, privilege and luxury to be able relax in piping hot water whilst chatting with your teammates and the opposition about the intricacies of the game you had just played in. And, even at its worst, the big bath experience can be said to have been, at the very least, character building.

Where's the soap? It does, doesn't it?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Good Luck Felix

Just a note to say good luck to 47 year old Felix Frixou from Derby RFC who has informed me that he is joining up with the Cyprus squad again to face Slovakia in Limassol on 14th March in a World Cup qualifier.

I last wrote about about Felix in 2007, being somewhat in awe of him making his international debut at the age of 45.

The post had quite an effect - according to Felix even his 13 year old son (who, like most 13 year olds, had been singulalry unimpressed by his Dad's tales of his rugby exploits) began looking at him with renewed respect after reading about his father's achievments on this blog.

Keep us posted as to how you get on Felix...

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Pain and (a little) glory

Blimey... I'm absolutely and utterly cream crackered!

Another outing for Chesham Vets yesterday and, well over 24 hours later, I'm still experiencing plenty of pain and suffering. My last game was back in January and I don't recall it hurting this much afterwards - or perhaps my memory is just blocking it out.

Or a simpler explanation may be that my fitness has tailed off to such an alarming extent that, despite my attempts to con my body into thinking it was fit by attending a circuit training session on Tuesday, it was always going to be an uphill struggle - and so it proved.

The mission, if I'd chosen to accept it, was an away fixture against Fullerians Vets who had, on my previous encounters, administered a severe beating on both occasions, so the portents were not good. Neverthless, as the match approached it looked dangerously like we might be able to turn out a full team and, as things turned out, we actually managed to turn up with 16 players (well, actually 15 players with one still on the way). A slight complication was that we only had one prop - so a hasty conference was organised with the referee and the opposition skipper the result of which was a decision to play the match with uncontested scrums throughout.

And so the game kicked off and I fully expected the usual notoriously slow Chesham start. For some reason, however, the boys seemed really up for it right from the whistle and we'd soon won a series of rucks and made good progress towards the Fullerians line. After a few minutes we were awarded a penalty on the opposition 22 and, instead of going for goal, stand-in skipper and scrum half Pete took a quick tap and passed to our hooker Mike who, with the cover coming across shipped the ball on to yours truly who had adopted the usual position, lurking on the touchline. As the defence came across I stepped in off my left foot (I only ever step one way) into the gap and dived over for a try - my second since my return to the rugby pitch some 18 months ago.

So, not only had we started brightly and not only had I scored, it was also the first time this season that we had actually taken a lead in a game. Having achieved such heights, however, there was only one way the game could go now - and so it transpired. Almost immediately Pete, who was feeling unwell, was replaced by the late-arriving Steve who proved to be the ultimate impact replacement. Sadly, however, he didn't quite have the desired impact as Fullerians came storming back into the game, running the ball from everywhere and utilising their quick and strong back division. I've no idea what their scrum would have been like, but uncontested scrums certainly suited their game, giving them a steady platform from which to launch their backs. Of course it didn't help that our kicking game was straight from the England Rugby playbook as we insisted on kicking the ball straight to their fullback who was probably the quickest and most skillful player on the pitch.

Anyway, the upshot was that Fullerians quickly got themselves back into the match, scoring a couple of tries to lead 14-7 at the break and, despite our intention to keep hold of the ball and deny them possession, they came out firing again in the second half and quickly added another couple of scores for a comfortable lead.

Physically the game was pretty demanding, much of the time being spent chasing and tackling and it was clear that Fullerians were much the fitter side as we tired. If I wasn't chasing quick backs I was having to stop charges from their former Aussie international backrower Bill Calcraft - and although I'd like to think that honours were even in that particular contest I very much doubt he's in as much pain as I am today.

Strangely, however, with the threat of a rather enormous and humiliating defeat a real prospect, Chesham rallied midway through the second half and started to make a game of it again. We blew a couple of try scoring opportunities before Pete, back on at fly half, chipped over the defence and regathered to launch an attack. A couple of passes later I found myself with the ball, bearing down on their fullback who was lining me up. I could have passed but for some bizarre reason chose to chip the ball over his head for our flanker Clive to gather and sprint over to score. It might have gone horribly wrong but thankfully it didn't and, for a moment, we were more or less back in the game. Sadly, however, that was the last hurrah for Chesham as 2 late tries saw Fullerians home comfortably by 38-12.

Another game, another defeat, but the effort was fantastic yesterday and there was certainly no shame in losing to an excellent Fullerians outfit. There were several plus points, including the fact that we took the lead for the first time this season, we scored 2 tries for the first time this season and there were glimpses that, in patches, we can play a bit.

I just wish it wasn't so damned painful...

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Every Cloud...?

There's been a new sport sweeping the British Isles this week, a sport which is believed to have originated in Australia many years ago but which is now being taken up in huge numbers, mainly by delighted Celts but also increasingly by Englishmen, especially those who "earn" their living as rugby journalists for the nation's red top and broadsheet newspapers.

I am, of course, referring to the sport of England Bashing.

Now, although I have to admit to having indulged a little in this activity myself from time to time, I have to say that the opprobrium that has been heaped on Martin Johnson and the England rugby team since their one point defeat to Ireland last weekend has been nothing short of ridiculous.

Did England play well last weekend? No, not really.
Did the players panic under pressure and give away too many penalties? Undoubtedly.
Does Danny Care deserve a slap? Without question.
Was it the worst England performance in recent times? Not by a long chalk.

According to most commentators, England were abject, lacking ideas, and intent on killing the game. "Incompetent cheats" was how one journo described them and England manager Martin Johnson was widely acknowledged to be out of his depth.

What short memories these people must have. Whilst it was by no means a "good" performance by England, one only has to think back to Argentina at Twickenham in 2006, or Ireland at Croke Park in 2007, or South Africa in the World Cup pool match in France, or Scotland at Murrayfield last year to find games in which England plumbed far deeper depths of ineptitude. Saturday's defeat by Ireland wasn't even on the same page.

Yes, the England players need to stop bleating and start to use an ounce or two of sense at the breakdown to ensure that they are not pinged by referees - it's a problem but not one that is unsolvable. If they do that, if they trust in a defence which has been fairly miserly so far this 6 Nations, then they will at least give themselves a chance in tight games.

The rest of their game isn't in bad order. OK, the performance against Italy at Twickenham last month was nothing to write home about but they still scored 5 tries, then Wales were given the hurry-up in Cardiff with some magnificent defending and a try count of 2-1 in England's favour and I thought that in Dublin there was really only one team looking to put the ball through the hands for most of the game and that team wasn't Ireland.

England are currently a hard team to break down - not a hard team to beat as they give away too many penalties for that - but certainly they are proving hard to score tries against. That's not a bad platform to start from, especially given that they are also creating (although not as yet taking) try scoring opportunities.

I'd even venture that they're not too far away from being a decent team. Not a great team, not by any means, but a decent team who will win more than they lose. Reduce the penalty count by half, keep 15 on the pitch, sort out who is the no. 1 fly half and begin taking those try scoring opportunities and the picture will begin to look very different.

And as for Martin Johnson being out of his depth - jeez- give the man a break. He's been in charge for all of 7 games and while the team haven't set the world alight it was always going to take time and patience for him to make his mark. Remember that he inherited a right old mess - don't be fooled by the World Cup Finalists, Six Nations Runners-up hyperbole - if we're honest we all really know that England have been more or less hopeless since 2003 and turning things round was (is) always going to be a monumental job.

Expectations have been way too high. As Johnson himself has said, "If they are going to call you this superhuman and you believe it then you should also believe it when they call you a tosser."

He's had his problems, inevitably, but I for one am confident that Johnno isn't a million miles away from getting it right.

Austin Healy's Big Tackle

video

Sunday, 1 March 2009

That was the weekend that was...

I know that this won't wash with rugby traditionalists and I'm darned sure that no Welsh fan, stranded in Paris on Friday night with all the bars and restaurants closed, will agree with me but I thoroughly enjoyed sitting down in front of the telly, beer in hand, on Friday evening to watch France v Wales.

Frankly, if that is what's going to be on offer every time there's a Friday night match then bring it on! A wonderful match played at breathtaking pace throughout, with France emerging deserved winners. And what a talent they've stumbled across in young Monsieur Bastareaud - or Bastardo as he was referred to by Austin Healy - that was some performance.

The less said about Scotland v Italy the better - it was about exciting as watching milk curdle (and that does a disservice to milk). As for England's efforts, Johnno has every reason to be furious. Whereas the Welsh game two weeks ago was a match England could have won, yesterday's was really a match they should have won. I'm not saying that they were the better team, only that Ireland were only marginally less poor than England and if ever they were ripe for the picking it was yesterday. It's becoming an all too familiar tale of ill-discipline and missed opportunities for this England team and they will need a huge turnaround in form and attitude to subdue a revived France at Twickenham in a fortnight.

As for Ireland - still on course for the Slam but on that performance they'll struggle to make it passed the Scots, let alone the Welsh.