Monday, 30 November 2009

All in the mind

There's plenty of tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth going on, it seems, about the state of the game of rugby today.

It seems that far too much kicking, not enough tries, no entertainment and no excitement are just a few of the game's current ills, together with an "unsustainable" casualty rate.

Much attention has been focussed on the breakdown, with the latest refereeing 'interpretation' - which allows the tackler to play the ball with his hands from whatever position as long as he is back on his feet - favouring, it is claimed, defence at the expense of attack.

This, according to the perceived wisdom, causes more ball to be kicked, as teams are fearful of being caught in possession and either turning ball over or conceding kickable penalties.

I do have some sympathy with this viewpoint, but it strikes me that the solution that many in the game are calling for, namely yet more interferenece in the laws, should really be a last resort.

No, as far as I can see the responsibility for change must lie with the players and the coaches. Call me naive, but I would have thought that, by spending more time as a team on attacking space rather than seeking contact, on offloading to supporting players rather than dying in possession and on making the ball available in the tackle rather than holding on, the chances of conceding possession or a penalty would be vastly reduced. The consequence should be that teams confident in their contact skills would be more inclined to attack. Furthermore, by coaching players not to seek contact as a first resort the number of breakdowns will be reduced and, by logical extension, so will the number of injuries.

It's a simplistic view, granted, but if teams put less emphasis on time spent in the gym and on defensive drills and more emphasis on time spent on attacking and contact skills, not only would it produce more imaginative and exciting rugby, it also has to be more effective than the aimless hoof downfield which hands the ball back to the opposition.

Fanciful? It doesn't have to be. You only have to look at the Lions in South Africa this summer and both New Zealand and Australia this past weekend for evidence that a more enlightened approach can work.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Total Flanker Guide to: Refereeing

Ahah, this old chestnut - cynical, gnarled old forward pontificates on the appalling standard of refereeing these days and tells referees where they are going wrong and how to do their jobs...

Far from it.

Although I have done a little bit of refereeing in my time (student matches in the 80s being my limit) the prospect of taking up a whistle again has absolutely zero appeal.

No, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is that I have huge admiration for anyone mad and/or masochistic enough to want to be a rugby referee in this day and age, largely for the following reasons:

  • Shifting goalposts: is it just me or do the IRB appear to be making up the laws as they go along? It seems that every time there's a poor game of rugby we're confronted with calls for law changes, resulting in experimental laws, new directives and varying edicts on the scrum, the lineout, the breakdown, the colour of players' bootlaces etc. And if international refs are struggling to cope what chance has the poor sod refereeing the 5th XV at Old Gitonians?

  • R.E.S.P.E.C.T: what the hell happened to the day of calling the referee "sir" and accepting decisions with good grace (albeit through gritted teeth)? The level of backchat, dissent and overall whingeing these days, even at grassroots level, has reached epidemic proportions. I've no idea how or why referees put up with it.

  • The Awkward Pint: 'twas ever thus, but I've never been able to work out why referees hang about rugby clubhouses after the game on Saturday in the forlorn hope that someone will not only buy them a pint but will want to stick around for more than 30 seconds to discuss the finer points of some of the afternoon's decisions. The home captain feels obliged to make an effort, but it can't be enjoyable for the ref knowing that his companion in conversation would rather be anywhere else, can it?

So, a bunch of reasons why I could not be a referee - but since when has a distinct lack of direct and relevant experience ever prevented me from proffering advice?

Here, therefore, are my top tips for rugby refereeing survival in grassroots rugby:

  1. Consistency - realistically it barely matters what laws you apply, as long as the laws you do apply are applied fairly and consistently. Rugby players have simple needs - as long as they don't feel cheated they're fine;

  2. Confidence - Be assertive. If in doubt, guess - but make sure you guess with conviction;

  3. Take no crap - you've given up your afternoon to supervise 30 fat blokes rolling about in the mud fighting. You don't need to take any aggro. Keep marching the gobshites back 10 metres, all the way to the tryline if necessary;

  4. Empathy - the vast majority of the players are trying their best. Laws are often broken not through cheating, but because the players are too knackered, old, fat or just not very good. If you can understand what they're trying to achieve and referee accordingly there's a chance that both you and the players might actually enjoy the game.

And who knows, someone might actually want to buy you a pint in the clubhouse.

Hope that helps :)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Flatman for England!

It's official - this blog likes David Flatman.

Not only is he, in this blog's humble opinion, the best loosehead prop currently available to England, he is also the complete anecdote to the usual anodyne, cliché-ridden, ghost-written player columns regularly to be found in the national newspapers.

No platitudes, no banalities and no spin, Flatman's articles in The Independent are witty, insightful and bordering on Clarkson-esque.

Here are a couple of recent examples:

Having a baby beats facing the All Blacks

Scrumthings not right

Flatman for England!

Monday, 23 November 2009

November: the Verdict

I'm not sure what to make of England's November.

In an ideal world Martin Johnson would have wanted to build on the undoubted momentum created during the 6 Nations. With so many frontline players crocked, however, it was somewhat inevitable that any such momentum would stall. I know other countries have had injuries but if you consider that, from last season's England squad Andrew Sheridan, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Simon Shaw (until the NZ match), Joe Worsley (ditto), Nick Easter, Tom Rees, Harry Ellis, Toby Flood, Riki Flutey, Mike Tindall and Delon Armitage might all have expected to feature in the match day 22, it was always unlikey that England would make huge progress this Autumn.

That said, this campaign has been disappointing for a number of reasons:
  1. SELECTION - the fact that so many so-called established players were missing should have been a ready-made excuse for England to focus one eye on the World Cup and check out some up and coming talent. All Courtney Lawes did, however, was to get splinters in his arse whilst the "livid" Ben Foden and the perennially ignored Matthew Tait also saw little or no action. And where Johnson did choose to experiment, he got it badly wrong. It was obvious against Australia that Ugo Monye was no fullback (and personally I'm not that convinced about him as a winger) and that Matt Bahahan simply didn't have the skillset to play international rugby, for instance.

  2. COACHING - much has been said about the coaching set up, especially in relation to forwards coach John Wells. To be fair, England's set piece work has been up to scratch but our lack of nous at the breakdown is glaringly obvious and our inability to drive a maul - once our signature move - is just scary.

  3. TACTICS - it hasn't been at all obvious what the team has been trying to achieve. Playing a 2nd ⅝ in Shane Geraghty should have released England's strike runners but all we appeared to do was line up way behind the gain line and move the ball laterally. And then, against New Zealand, we pick an inside centre who can't pass? Clearly something is amiss. If Martin Johnson is team manager, who has the lead responsibility for coaching the team as a whole and setting the tactics? Wells? Brian Smith?

  4. CAPTAINCY - throughout the last 12 months I've staunchly defended Steve Borthwick and have thought that the criticism he has received from lazy journos has been excessive and largely unfair. Too often, I feel, he's carried the burden of the donkey work while played alongside more lightweight contributors such as Nick Kennedy and Louis Deacon. Packing down next to Simon Shaw, however, appears to have the effect of releasing him to be the influential player we often see in the Premiership - witness his performances against France, Scotland and New Zealand this year. That said, I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that, despite him being an all round honest, loyal and decent bloke (and a bloody good lock), the captaincy is beginning to weigh around his neck like a millstone and his reign is becoming too associated with failure. If I'm honest there isn't an obvious alternative candidate for the captaincy but perhaps now is nevertheless the time for a fresh approach and to let Borthwick just prove himself as a player.

All in all, although hampered by a ridiculous injury list, England's tendency to seek a short term fix is what has let the Johnson regime down this autumn. Had the short term solutions resulted in 2 or 3 victories, then they might have been justified, but where the quick fix has been an obvious failure then we have every right to wonder why the opportunity wasn't taken to assess the calibre of some of the talent coming through. Although it was nice to see Jonny back, the fact is that he created very little and the fly-half in form, Shane Geraghty, was marginalised at 12. Surely it would have worth a try (no pun intended) giving him a run at 10 and picking players like Tait and Foden and Wasps' Joe Simpson to have a go. And when you unearth a tyro like Courtney Lawes, what better way to find out if he's got what it takes than to let him loose on the Aussies and the Kiwis?

There are only 2 years until the World Cup. Next November will be too late to find out if these guys have what it takes. A chance has, I feel, been missed.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Well done England

England Women, that is.

Catherine Spencer's England team beat New Zealand 10-3 at Twickenham on Saturday, thus drawing the two-match series.

England's first win over the Black Ferns since 2001 sets things up very nicely for the 2010 women’s World Cup to be held in England.

Something, finally, to smile about.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Growing Pains

As a young man I was often to be seen sporting a lurid Hawaiian shirt. I liked to be different, I thought that somehow it gave me my own identity and separated me from the crowd.

The fact of the matter was, however, that I looked an utter tit.

Ultimately I grew up. Rugby, however, has yet to grow up. There are various clubs who somehow believe that they're being oh so clever, amusing and original by sporting truly appalling kit. Stade and Ospreys spring readily to mind. And now Edinburgh are at it.

Grow up, please.

Crossbar challenge

Saracens are £250,000 poorer after a 24 year old 5th XV hooker from Welwyn RFC won the "crossbar challenge" competition held by the club at Wembley this week.

Stuart Tinner hit the bar with a punt from 30 metres - wearing only his socks - as part of a competition held at half-time during Sarries' victory over South Africa this week. He was the first of three three supporters picked at random from the 46,000 crowd.

The pick of his comments afterwards was:

"This is the second best day of my life - the best was when I lost my virginity."

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

D.I.S.R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

It's heartwarming to see that it's not just the Kiwis that get hot under the collar about their traditions being "disrespected" - now the Saffas are at it.

The SARU are up in arms about the fact that South Africa's national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, was murdered by Durban-born reggae singer Ras Dumisani prior to Friday's defeat to France in Toulouse.

"I must convey that we are annoyed by the fact that the French disrespected our anthem," blathered Bok coach Peter de Villiers after the game, conveniently ignoring the fact that Mr Dumisani is South African and neatly sidestepping the fact that his forwards had just been beasted by the French pack.

Since then the words "shocked and horrified" have been used by the SARU to describe Mr Dumisani's efforts and a letter of complaint has been written to the FFR (although why it would be their responsibility is beyond me). Even the Young Communist League of South Africa (in a most blatent example of bandwgon jumping) labelled Dumisani as a "disgrace to our country".

"Hilarious" might be a more appropriate word ...

Monday, 16 November 2009

Lessons II

Lessons from England's desperate victory against Argentina: Please refer to Lessons from defeat to Australia.

Lessons obviously learned - not.

Here's the XV that Johnno should (but won't) pick to try to salvage something against the All Blacks:

1. Flatman 2. Hartley 3. Bell 4. Shaw 5. Croft 6. Haskell 7. Moody 8. Ward-Smith 9. Simpson 10. Wilkinson 11. Cueto 12. Hipkiss 13. Tait 14. Sackey 15. Foden

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Purple Haze

Well, all I can say is thank heavens I missed most of the England effort at Twickenham yesterday. Fortunately I spent the majority of the afternoon soaked to the skin in the face of a gale watching Chesham Vets take on High Wycombe 4ths and therefore only had to endure the last 20 minutes at Twickenham back in the clubhouse.

My ongoing battle with sciatica was the reason I was on the touchline rather than on the pitch. Given the appalling conditions, in theory the warm clubhouse with a pint is where I should have been but I decided to stay loyal to my team and braved the lashing rain and gusty wind and, as things turned out, was far better entertained than I would have been had I chosen the soft option.

Playing into the gale, Chesham were on the defensive for most of the first half but were noticebaly quicker to, and more aggressive at, the breakdown. So, despite spending large periods stuck in their own half they were able to retain possession and, by keeping the ball in hand, nullified the advantage that the conditions had afforded our opponents.

Half time was therfore a somewhat surreal 0-0 and, with the wind and rain at our backs, we were able to take full advantage in the 2nd half. A catch and drive from a lineout (remember them?) led to the first try and two further tries followed as Chesham ran out 17-0 winners.

They obviously missed me.

So then it was back to the clubhouse to discover that England were level at 9-9 with Argentina and, by all accounts, had been bloody awful. In the last 20 minutes all I saw was England shuffling from side to side with no decoys, no disguise, no subtlety and no one, absolutely no one, coming fast and from deep to give them any momentum. Their try showed good continuity but really should have been snuffed out by the Argentinian defence. Lord knows what might have happened if Lewis Moody wasn't playing - England's best player by a mile for the second week running. The All Blacks must be licking their lips.

And the purple kit looked bloody ridiculous. Shame on you RFU.

Invictus?

I clearly haven't been paying attention. Last I heard this movie was called The Human Factor. It's now called Invictus and, given the subject matter and the fact that Morgan Freeman is in it, has Oscar nomination written all over it. This despite the wholly unconvincing prospect of Matt Damon playing Francois Pienaar with a decidedly dodgy Saffa accent.

Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Paul Doran-Who?

I like to think that I have my finger on the pulse when it comes to what's happening in English rugby. Imagine my surprise therefore to learn that England had called up Paul Doran-Jones into their squad because, hand on heart, I can honestly say that I'd never heard of him.

A swift search on Google, however, reveals that Mr Doran - Jones' claim to fame is that, together with James Haskell, he was suspended from Wellington College a few years ago after the pair had set up a hidden video camera to film PDJ engaging in a "sex romp" with his girlfriend before showing the resulting video to their class mates.
Which at least goes to show that England's 10th choice (at best) prop is a big believer in teamwork.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Lessons

1. Ugo Monye is in no way, shape or form an international fullback. Time for Johnno to trust Ben Foden in the 15 shirt.

2. Matt Banahan is not the answer. What was the question?

3. One day we may learn that kicking the ball to the opposition ad infinitum isn't necessarily the cleverest of tactics.

4. Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball, Quick ball............

Saturday, 7 November 2009

At it again

Yes, it's time once again for the good folks of Wales to be told how they must react to that traditional piece of rugby pantomime, the Haka.

All-Black centre Ma'a Nonu is this year's nominated holier-than-thou lecturer:

"Last year a lot of people back home thought Wales were disrespectful.

"But it really wound up our boys and made us even more determined to win. If I was facing the Haka I'd respect it...

"If if Wales do it again, they'll get the same response."

So here we go again. Respect. And this from a bloke who wears mascara ...

Those were the days


Thursday, 5 November 2009

Chip off the old block


Martin Johnson on Courtney Lawes:



"Someone sent me a text saying he's a bit like I used to be, except more athletic, funnier and better looking..."