Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Total Flanker Awards 2009

It's that time of year again, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, when we put on our glad rags, dust off our bling and crack open the Asti Spumante to honour and reward (well, sort of) those who have contributed to our enjoyment of the game in 2009.

Forget the farce that was BBC Sports Personality of the Year (Ryan Giggs? My arse!) and welcome instead to the 3rd annual Total Flanker Awards ceremony.

Yes, another year has passed since we handed out our last set of prestigious trinkets, a year in which has been very good for the likes of South Africa and Ireland but which has seen the game as a whole tainted by drugs scandals, fake blood, eye-gouging and an inordinate amount of aimless kicking.

First up in 2009 is the Total Flanker How Not to Run Your Sport Award. Only one candidate for this particular gong of course - yes, our perennial favourite the International Rugby Board. In the last 12 months the IRB has attempted and failed to railroad the world of rugby into accepting a new set of fiendish experimental laws which the majority obviously didn't want and, when faced with defeat, rather than withdraw gracefully chose to push through various of the so-called less controversial changes to create a compromised mish-mash and then compounded their incompetence by introducing a new interpretation at the breakdown (with no consultation that I am aware of) which massively favoured the defence and stifled attacking rugby. And don't get me started on the IRB's failure to tackle eye-gouging...

Moving swiftly along, it's time for the Total Flanker Tarnished Halo Award. This award is for the team or individual whose previously impeccable reputation has taken something of a kicking over the last 12 months. There are a few candidates - our favourite son of orange, Mr Gavin Church, for instance, has seen his star wane to the extent that it is now unclear whether he has a future in the game at all. And, despite a French renaissance of sorts, perhaps it is finally dawning on the world of rugby at large that SuperJonny's powers to influence the outcome of an international rugby match are not nearly as persuasive as they once were. Matt Stevens' reputation also went down the pan in 2009 alongside several Bath colleagues and Dean Richards managed to achieve pariah-status over Bloodgate. However, and it pains me to say this, this award must go to England manager Martin Johnson. An iconic player and captain, Johnno's tenure as manager has so far been riddled with conservatism, indecision and an uncharacteristic reluctance to be ruthless. I desperately hope that he proves his critics wrong and this award proves to be entirely unjustified but, until then, I'm afraid he's stuck with it.

Next up is the Total Flanker How to Make a Bad Situation Worse Award. The aforementioned Dean Richards (not to mention various other parties at Quins who somehow got away with it) comes very close to securing this one for his role in Bloodgate but he is pipped at the post by none other than "the Plank" aka Justin Harrison. Faced with a situation in which a club team mate, Matt Stevens, had tested positive for and received a 2 year ban for taking cocaine and with his club under fierce scrutiny, the Plank decided that it would be a fabulous idea to go on a bender at the end of season party, declaring that "Class A is OK" before being observed partaking of the said narcotic before getting in a fight with a Quins player outside a Fulham pub. The subsequent fallout involving the resignation and banning of 3 other Bath senior players is something that the club is still struggling to recover from. Well done Mr Harrison.

At this point it is obvious that, having just missed out in the last two categories, if there's any justice in this world then Dean Richards simply must win a coveted TF Award in 2009. By popular demand, therefore, I am delighted to announce that Deano is to receive the Total Flanker Scapegoat of the Year Award. It takes some doing to conclude that a conspiracy involving at least one player, the coaching staff, the medical staff and the executive committee of a rugby club was all the fault of one man and one man only - but that is exactly the conclusion that ERC reached, conveniently brushing its own manifest failings under the committee room carpet.

Turning now to the penultimate award tonight, the Total Flanker Coco the Clown Comedy Award. Harlequins' Tom Williams was for a while the front runner for this one after his ludicrously obvious attempt to convince match officials that he'd cut his mouth by spewing litres of ketchup whilst staggering around as if he'd been darted by a tranquiliser gun. Comedy genius. However, the performances of Peter de Villiers during the Lions tour this year were on another level. His defence of Schalk Burger's attempts to remove Luke Fitzgerald's eyeball were particularly worthy of nomination and the line "we might as well go to a ballet shop and all get tutus and get a great dancing show on for all to see that has no eye-gouging, no tackling, no nothing and we can all in enjoy it" is almost Pythonesque in its comic brilliance.

And finally - and on an upbeat note - we reach the Total Flanker Punch & Judy That's the Way to Do It Award. In this age of risk-averse conservatism and of endless squad sessions and over-coaching, one man was able to bring together 35 players from Britain and Ireland and, in next to no time, knit them into a cohesive unit playing effective and attractive rugby. That man is, of course, Ian McGeechan. Yes, the series was lost but only just and, in restoring credibility to the Lions concept, a concept that many were beginning to question, Geech has done the game a big favour. Shame it cost him his job at Wasps ultimately but I doubt he'll be short of offers.

And so, in summary:

Total Flanker How Not to Run Your Sport Award - IRB
Total Flanker Tarnished Halo Award - Martin Johnson
Total Flanker How to Make a Bad Situation Worse Award - Justin "Plank" Harrison
Total Flanker Scapegoat of the Year Award - Dean Richards
Total Flanker Coco the Clown Comedy Award - Peter de Villiers
Total Flanker Punch & Judy That's the Way to Do It Award - Ian McGeechan.

Merry Christmas...

Monday, 21 December 2009

What's it all about, Alfie?

The admission by Gareth Thomas at the weekend that he was a fan of musical theatre has barely caused a ripple outside the readership of the Daily Mail. Not, I suspect, because rugby is so very grown up and tolerant nowadays but more because Alfie's tastes have for a while been an "open secret" within the game.

Frankly this blog couldn't care less which way the chap leans - what is of more concern is the role Thomas played in the sacking of Mike Ruddock from the post of Wales head coach in 2006 - something that still hasn't been adequately explained.

Most commentators have declared that Alfie's admissions are "brave" - but you do have to wonder what prompted his decision to go public given that he'd long since come out to friends and family and that most of the rugby fraternity already knew his "secret." Nothing to do with the cash on offer from the Daily Mail?

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Varsity Match refreshes the parts...

To many it is an irrelevant anachronism, but the Varsity Match on Thursday provided plenty of entertaining rugby, not to mention the right result.

Cambridge's victory over Oxford may not mean much to the neutral but nobody could fail to be impressed with the passion and commitment of both sides as well as, particularly in the case of the Light Blues, an admirable intent to attack space at every opportunity.

The fact that I was also involved in an excellent pre-match lunch courtesy of my old college, St. John's, and bore witness to the launch of the Paul Beard Sports Fund in memory of my old college mate who sadly passed away earlier this year aged just 43, made it a very special day.

That said, it did take me the best part of 2½ hours to find my way home and my liver still isn't speaking to me.

GDBO.

Friday, 11 December 2009

A Woman's Touch

A little while ago I highlighted the plight of Manchester RUFC this season, who were taking a fearful hammering every week in National Division 1, conceding well in excess of 100 points on three occasions in September.

What is unusual is that the cash-strapped club took the somewhat unique decision in mid-October to appoint a woman, former conditioning coach Elaine Vassie, as head coach.

I'd like to say that results have improved and, to the extent that there have been no further 100 point thrashings administered (although Otley, Cinderford, London Scottish, Stourbridge and Tynedale have all come within 1 try of doing so) they have. No victories as yet (or even close) but the scorelines are coming down with "only" an average of 85 points conceded in their last 7 games (it may not sound like much of an improvement but the average for the previous 7 games was 105 points, so an improvement of 20 points per game is a fairly dramatic result).

The circumstances in which Vassie is expected to work are a little challenging to say the least, only 4 of last season's squad having been retained in the wake of severe budget cuts following last season's relegation. So, almost certainly dead certs for another relegation but the players appear to be behind her and you have to admire her guts in even taking on the role.

Well done Elaine - and good luck for the rest of the season.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Spirit of '73

The Barbarians first victory over the All Blacks since 1973 yesterday is being hailed in the press as an example of how rugby can still be played with verve and excitement and a return to those halcyon days of Edwards, Bennett, Williams and Duckham.

On the former point I'd have to agree - the BaaBaas (and the All Blacks to be fair) showed that the current laws do not in fact require that the leather be booted off the ball at very opportunity.

On the latter point, however, I have to say that a bunch of Aussies and Saffas (with the occasional European guest) beating a second-string New Zealand XV has (at least for me) very little significance at all.

I've expressed a view on the Barbarians' place in the modern game previously and, although yesterday's match was fun to watch, I can't say I was hugely bothered about who would win given the lack of northern hemisphere involvement.

If these end of tour matches are to mean anything then agreement has to be reached to include the top players from the home nations. A victory for a British & Irish based BaaBaas team over the All Blacks would mean something to me that yesterday's win just didn't.

Just for the hell of it, and based on who is fit to play at the moment, here's a BaaBaas line up I'd relish watching:

15. Rob Kearney 14. Tommy Bowe 13. Brian O'Driscoll 12. Jamie Roberts 11. Maxime Medard 10. Danny Cipriani 9. Chris Cusiter 1. Gethin Jenkins 2. Dylan Hartley 3. Martin Castrogiovanni 4. Nathan Hines 5. Courtney Lawes 6. Stephen Ferris 7. Martyn Williams 8. Imanol Harinordoquy

Of course, it would never happen...

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Coventry cling on

What a 1st season for the newly formed Championship - first London Welsh, then Birmingham Solihull and now 135 year old Coventry RFC going into administration.

And it could have been much worse for Coventry, the Inland Revenue having served a winding up order on the club through the High Court over a whopping outstanding debt of nearly £500k. Owner Andrew Green had ordered the club to close and cease trading but defiant club officials successfully challenged the decision on a legal technicality with the result that the club is now in administration and has a matter of weeks to attract new investment to save its bacon.

Not what the RFU and Premier Rugby envisaged, I'm sure, when the Championship was launched with great fanfare in August but possibly an apt demonstration of the folly of trying to launch a fully professional second tier league, especially in the depths of a recession.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

NOOOOooooooo!!!!!!!!

England Rugby Supporters - what on earth are you playing at????

You went out in your thousands in 2007 and bought the horrendous ketchup swish kit and now, according to the RFU, sales of England's new purple kit have outstripped all previous records.

41% of replica shirts sold during the autumn internationals were purple and, on the day of the abysmal showing against Argentina, nearly 70% of all shirt sales at Twickenham involved the purple kit.

"It's an all-time record," burbles CEO Francis Baron, and why shouldn't he - the gullible masses have once again fallen for the most blatently obvious marketing bollocks.

PLEASE STOP BUYING THIS KIT - all it does is encourage greed and avarice and yet more horrendous abominations masquerading as England rugby kit. Even if the team is hopeless, the national team's shirt must mean something, surely?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

And another thing...

Not only did New Zealand's pure white change kit put the English Purple and Welsh Yellow monstrosities to shame, I'm also mightily impressed that the All Blacks are still refusing to countenance splashing a sponsor's logo all over the front of their shirt.

Nice to see that some things are not for sale.