Thursday, 25 November 2010

Exclusive extracts from the diary of Warren Gatland, aged nearly 47¼:

18th October 2010 - Stoked about signing new contract with WRU until 2015. The bastards 'll have to pay a fortune to get shot of me now. Confident ahead of next month's internationals. Lions boys upfront and heaps of talent behind. Watched Gav on 'Strictly' Saturday evening. Rumba. Voted for him 158 times and he survived. Take your time mate and we'll see you right for the 6 Nations.



3rd November 2010 - Aussies coming to Cardiff on Saturday. This is the big one. Not sure who to pick on the other wing to Little Shane. Might go for another shortarse. Doesn't really matter as we'll be keeping it in the scrum anyway with the Lions boys. You know I always say we should close the stadium roof? No chance. Hope it rains and we spend all afternoon scrumming those Aussie bastards into the turf. What could possibly go wrong? Watched Gav on 'Strictly'. Paso Doble. Voted for him 373 times. Survived again - well done mate.


10th November 2010 - Shocking. Aussies didn't read the script. Apparently you don't need a scrum. Shortarse Mark II didn't really work out on Saturday so going for big Pommy fella on the wing instead this week. Watched Gav on 'Strictly'. Cha Cha Cha. Voted for Felicity Kendall 562 times. Gav survived. Saffers pretty good upfront so reckon we'll open the roof on Saturday. Gameplan is to start quick and then hold on. What could possibly go wrong? This is the big one.


20th November 2010 - South Africa didn't read the script. Watched Gav on 'Strictly' Saturday evening. Quickstep. Voted for Patsy Kensit 783 times but Gav survived again. Shocking. Tonight we won't stuff up. This is the big one. Baby out with the bathwater time. Brought back Ryan, my inspirational Grand Slam skipper. Shortarse Mark I injured so giving that Brew fella a run. Plan is to tire Fiji out by running from side to side all night. Blue kit will confuse the hell out of 'em too. Might ask for roof to be half-open. What could possibly go wrong?


24th November 2010 - Fiji didn't read the script, the ungrateful bastards. Shocking. Told Ryan after the game that he'd played like a c*nt then publicly stripped him of the captaincy. Picked him anyway for this Saturday. I know how to man-manage. Watched Gav on 'Strictly'. Amercian Smooth. Voted for Anne Widdicombe 917 times but Gav still survived. Mate, it has to be a conspiracy. All Blacks this Saturday. Bringing back that big stroppy bastard Tom James on the wing as apparently he's learned how to catch. Plan is to front up big time. For the Haka at least. Not sure what to do with the roof. This is the big one.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Play On

Blimey - after Forever Strong and Invictus comes yet another rugby movie.

Play On is due to be released next month and tells the story of "wayward Scottish rugby star" Keir Kilgour who flees his rugby background in a delusional pursuit of greater stardom in the high-profile world of professional American football. When is quest inevitably fails he stumbles upon the Kansas City Wanderers, a failing second division rugby club...

Now, given that my last 3 trips to the cinema involved sitting through Shrek 4, Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me, I'm hardly Barry Norman when it comes to film reviews but clearly the use of the words "Scottish", "rugby" and "star" in the same sentence mean that Play On requires a willing suspension of disbelief. I also suppose a movie wouldn't be a movie (especially one made in the US) without there being some kind of  moral dilemma for the 'hero' to resolve somewhere along the way and from the trailer it does look as if the usual rugby stereotypes put in an appearance.

Still, the fact that the movie has been made at all has to be encouraging for the sport and any movie with Gavin Hastings making a cameo appearance has to be worth a giggle.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Scrummage: a theory

Hot (well, relatively warm) on the heels of my recent musings about the demise of scrummaging as an art form at the elite level comes my latest offering as to why this particular part of the game is now such an unholy mess.

Long time readers of this blog (both of you) might recall my general objection to the introduction of the Evil Law Variations a couple of seasons ago. It’s fair to say that an aversion to unnecessary change was behind much of my opposition with me very much belonging to the “if it ain’t broke…” school of thought. The one ELV that did appear to be reasonably sensible, however, was the moving back of the offside line at scrum-time to 5 metres behind the back foot. This would, so the theory went, create more space for the team in possession to attack and there was no arguing with such impeccable logic.

Sadly, however, things haven’t quite worked out as expected and here’s my theory as to why. A 5 metre offside line should give the attacking team a huge advantage, all the more so if the attacking team manages to wheel the scrum slightly anti-clockwise as this, with the opposition back row forced to stay bound, opens up acres of space to attack. It has therefore become absolutely imperative for the defending team to prevent this from happening and for them to cut down the space by disrupting the scrum by hook or by crook, ideally by wheeling the scrum clockwise. The result? Chaos and a plethora of collapses, re-sets, penalties and free-kicks.

The scrum ELV has meant that the scrummage has perhaps now become too important, especially for the defending team. It may therefore be that the only way to safeguard the future of the scrummage is to reduce its significance by reinstating the back foot as the offside line, thus making defending easier and reducing the need to disrupt the set-piece.

As Alanis Morissette might say: “Isn’t it ironic?”

Just a theory…

Monday, 22 November 2010

Shorts

A round-up of the weekend's international action in 4 headlines:

1. Mighty Fiji held to draw by Wales (more here);

2. Another new dawn as Scotland win in the rain;

3. England discover Samoa can tackle (who'd have thought?)

4. Ireland force All Blacks to engage 2nd gear (occasionally).

Friday, 19 November 2010

Whatever happened to: the Scrummage?

scrums - remember these?
Another in an increasingly sporadic series of ramblings about elements of the game that have changed beyond recognition since I first played the game way back in the mists of time...

Whatever happened to the scrummage?

You remember the scrummage don't you? You know, that bit in the game when your eight forwards pack down against their eight forwards and compete for the ball fed in between them?

Perhaps it's just me, but I distinctly remember that used to happen - quite regularly in fact - and, if I'm honest, I acknowledge that in the grassroots game the lost art of scrummaging does break out from time to time.

At the elite level, however, it's a different story and at international level the genuine scrummage has become a seriously endangered species. Whilst in the professional game destructive scrummaging props, and tightheads in particular, still appear to be highly valued, their natural habitat - the scrummage - is fast disappearing.

How often, for instance, do you see two sets of forwards pack down, the ball fed into the middle, a clean strike by the hooker and the ball appearing as if by magic at the number 8's feet? Once in a blue moon, that's how often. It is far more likely that you'll see the scrum collapse, re-set, collapse, re-set and collapse again to the sound of the referee's whistle and the award of a free kick or penalty to one team or the other, seemingly at random. And it seems that many refs, understandably perhaps, now can't even be bothered to go through the charade and just award the free kick or penalty at first contact (whereupon particularly sadistic captains elect to subject the paying public to the farce of another scrum).

In last weekend's England v Australia match there were only 8 scrummages, 6 of which resulted in a free kick or penalty and only one of which ended up with the ball emerging at the back. That's ONE scrum in the whole match in which clean possession was secured.

I've no idea what the solution is - the IRB's Crouch, Touch, Pause & Engage directive doesn't appear to be doing the trick, despite their assertions to the contrary. I'm pretty sure that props wearing tight lycra shirts, as well as it not being particularly aesthetically pleasing, is hardly helpful to successful scrum binding so perhaps a few sensible regulations in that direction might help but, as always, I suspect that non-interference is probably the best policy.

Ditch the directions, make the referees take a back seat and let the players sort it out.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Cooking with Ben Kay

And now for something completely different...

Following on from former England lock Ben Kay's testimonial year in 2009/10 comes "Cooking with Balls" - the Ben Kay cookbook, featuring collaborations from various of Kay's old rugby muckas such as Matt Dawson, Martin Johnson and Martin Corry with famous chefs such as Alain Roux, Pierre Koffmann and Marcus Wareing.

According to the official blurb, the result is a uniquely diverse collection of 95 recipes in which players’ favourite dishes sit alongside chefs’ signature choices. For rugby fans and foodies it looks like a must for this year's Christmas list and, being a bit of an amateur dabbler in the kitchen department myself, some heavy hints may have to be fired in the direction of Mrs F.


That said, I am a little concerned as to what to expect in bookshops next:

Hoovering with Gavin Henson?

Ironing with Austin Healy?

Dusting with Matt Stevens?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Can someone please help?

I need help.

I can't decide whether the selection of Bath beanpole Matt Banahan at outside centre for England's encounter with Samoa on Saturday is:

(a) an inventive and innovative act of genius; or

(b) one of the stupidest selectorial decisions ever made.

Answers on the back of a postcard to the usual address...

Monday, 15 November 2010

The big question

I was once again confined to quarters for Saturday's internationals, having fallen victim to a vomiting bug that visited the entire Flanker family at the weekend. Furthermore, not being a Sky subscriber I had to make do, somewhat unsatisfactorily, with the BBC's highlights of Saturday's epic England performance at Twickenham (having first watched Wales blow a healthy lead against South Africa and endured Scotland's capitulation to Sonny Bill Williams).

The whims of the television producer often mean that it's difficult to know whether a highlights package accurately reflects the actual game but, from what I witnessed, England were very, very good. Scarily so in fact.

Much has been written elsewhere about England's display and there's been much talk of the team "coming of age". There's not much I can add but it does look as if there might, just might, now be a core of young English players who could be around for years to come.

The big question now is whether the performance was a one-off, or whether it will become the benchmark for this team?

Only the players can provide the answer.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Element of Surprise

I really like Will Greenwood's suggestion about how England should approach today's game against the Aussies.

He proposes that, as soon as England have a restart, the forwards should form a scrum on the halfway line behind Toby Flood who should then kick the ball straight into touch. Then, as it dawns on the Australian pack what is about to happen, one of the England players might say: "Hello chaps, I know you are keen to run around today but first of all you will have to scrum and then remove your head from your backsides."

In fairness it might be England's best chance today. And it could all go horribly wrong if the Australian scrum holds up.

More here.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Grey Day

As the Grey Day for England rugby approaches, RFU commercial man Paul Vaughan has been attempting to defend the decision to send England out to face Australia on Saturday in a grey (sorry, anthracite) kit.

Vaughan insists that all the RFU is doing is responding to public demand, that they have to meet what the public want, that the fan-base is changing and that England must adapt to meet that fan-base.

My arse.

What Vaughan suggests is that the England "brand" is no more than the red rose, which means effectively that you could stick the red rose on pretty much any garment and the brand would remain unaffected. Bollocks. If a "new" audience is what the RFU are after why not brand up a range of hoodies, Burberry baseball caps and low-slung jeans and be done with it.

What Vaughan and the rest of those charged with marketing England rugby don't appear to get is that all the England rugby public want is a team to be proud of, a well-selected and well-coached team playing to its maximum potential. Part of the equation is that it also needs to look like an England rugby team. The value of an instantly recognisable brand image cannot be underestimated. For evidence one need only look at the All Blacks - the most instantly recognisable brand in rugby. I'm also convinced that a simple clean white shirt with a red rose would sell in its millions.

"I accept there is some feeling out there that marketing is overtaking the game but actually I don't think it is true at all," says Vaughan.

Rumours that the RFU are also planning to introduce yet another new England kit for next year's Rugby World Cup suggest otherwise.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Artificial

I admit I'm disappointed by the news that Saracens have confirmed they plan to leave Watford's Vicarage Road and move into the Barnet Copthall Stadium by the beginning of next season.

It is, I confess, a somewhat selfish reaction on my part and I've no genuine right to be disappointed, having only been to watch Sarries a handful of times since they began playing at Vicarage Road in the 1997-1998 season.

Nevertheless, the decision seems to indicate a shift in emphasis. One thing Sarries have been brilliant at is building community links with schools and rugby clubs in the Herts/Bucks area. My own club, for instance is a "Tier 1" partner club which provides various benefits including visits from Saracens players, training for our kids by Saracens academy and community coaches, the involvement of our mini rugby players on match days at Vicarage Road and discounted tickets for Saracens home games with the club able to make money on tickets sold through the club. Although this type of relationship is common now among professional rugby clubs it was Saracens who were the pioneers soon after professionalism took hold in the 90s and it strikes me that a move away from the area puts much of this work in jeopardy.

Saracens say that they plan to spend up to £10m on the Barnet Copthall Stadium and, and if plans are approved, plan to install a state-of-the-art artificial pitch.

The merits of such a pitch will no doubt be debated elsewhere. My only comment is that the pitch will no doubt suit their equally artificial new fly half.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Mr Clean

Mealamu: Butter wouldn't melt...
Despite being cited for his devious headbutt on Lewis Moody on Saturday, Kevin Mealamu is not a dirty player, oh no.

"I'm not like that," says he.

"He's probably the cleanest player in the world, isn't he?" says the Right Reverend Graham Henry.

I wonder what Brian O'Driscoll thinks?

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Dizzy

Having been confined to quarters for a few days with an inner ear infection and extreme vertigo (possibly one of the most unpleasant conditions I've ever had to endure), I found myself prostrate on my sofa yesterday taking in the first round of this autumn's internationals. Brief conclusions:
  1. The Welsh had nothing to offer but their scrummage. The Australians had everything to offer but their scrummage. What on earth happened to the Australian scrummaging renaissance?
  2. Ireland simply weren't in the game until Peter de Villiers made yet another round of prematurely rash substitutions. Will that clown ever learn?
  3. If England are unable to execute simple overlaps they will never beat anyone of note.
I told you I'd be brief. Time for another lie down...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

This is just madness

A word of warning: I'm about to bang on about there being yet another new England rugby kit. Those uninterested in my fumings should look away now...

As excitement builds towards the next few weeks of international rugby (and I do have genuine - although probably misplaced - excitement and expectation about England's chances this autumn) comes a rather disappointing announcement.

Earlier today the RFU announced the launch of a new England team kit - a full 14 months after the launch of the last one.

FOURTEEN MONTHS! Jeez, talk about ripping off the long-suffering England rugby supporter. No sooner has he splashed out on a pristine white new England shirt (and its monstrous purple counterpart) in 2009 and a cream coloured limited edition commemorative jersey for the 2010 Six Nations, than he's being asked to fork out another fifty-odd quid on yet another new replica. How long will this one last? Until next year's World Cup perhaps? Sooner?

The new CEO at the RFU, John Steele, had previously said that he wanted to put rugby - and not commerce - back to the top of the RFU agenda. Well, way to go John.

As to the kit itself, despite the grey trimmings I don't have any major issue with it (it is certainly not in the same league as the 2007 horrendous ketchup swoosh effort) but, whatever my thoughts on the kit's sartorial qualities, the point is that it is totally and utterly unnecessary.

Furthermore, and somewhat unbelievably, the England team will also be sporting a new 'anthracite' (that's dark grey to you and me) kit when they play Australia at Twickers on 13th November (as obviously we've been missing the fact that there's a colour clash between the English and Australian colours). Despite the advantage that a nearly black kit might piss off a few kiwis (never a bad thing),  the decision shows nothing but contempt for the English rugby paying public and no regard whatsoever for English rugby history (the colour is apparently "inspired by the thorns of the English rose" - seriously), no matter what Latin nonsense is embroidered on the collar.

I read something somewhere recently that suggested that part of the aura of the All Blacks was their all black kit (the clue is in the name). As far as I can remember (and that's quite far, I assure you) there has only been one obvious change to the All Black's shirt design - the removal of the white collar some time in the 90s - in all the time I have watched the team play. Yes, materials change and new technologies are used but the basic design - an all black kit - has remained and over the years the shirt has come to symbolise something special, and the fact that they don't emblazon the shirt with a sponsor's logo only adds to the mystique. If only other countries, and England in particular, would follow suit.

No doubt the new England shirts will sell in their tens of thousands to fans with more money than sense and who really should know better. I'd love to think otherwise, that the whole thing could backfire on the RFU and teach them a commercial lesson but, given the numbers who bought the 2007 red swoosh abomination and the 2009 purple monstrosity, I won't hold my breath.

In my book the only upsides of the new kit launch are that the purple kit appears to have been consigned to history and that the new change kit hasn't followed the example of the Sevens squad (pictured). Small mercies and all that.