Thursday, 30 December 2010

Total Flanker Awards 2010

Adverse weather conditions and an increasingly chaotic schedule mean that this year's Total Flanker Awards are taking place a little later, and in a slightly less organised fashion, than normal. Our usual sumptuous venue is unavailable owing to a double-booking, our guest speaker has disappeared on a skiing holiday and the caterers have run off with the deposit so it's down to the local pub where the carpet is almost red, the beer is half decent and the Pomagne is most definitely on ice as we say: "My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, it gives us great pleasure to welcome you all to the 4th Annual Total Flanker Awards ceremony."

Yes, it's time once again to pay homage to those who have contributed so much to our enjoyment of the game of rugby during the last 12 months.

Without further ado, our first award of 2010 is the Total Flanker Utter Muppet of the Year Award. Now, in most years there would only be one candidate for this honour as Saffa coach Peter de Villiers would usually have this one wrapped up and, to be fair to him, he did put up a decent show again this year, especially with his insinuations that the Tri Nations was fixed in favour of New Zealand. However even PdV must stand aside this year and doff his cap to the one and only Andy Powell, whose early morning jaunt down the M4 in a golf buggy in February not only secures this award but also assures him of legendary status.

Moving on, and now the much coveted Total Flanker You Don't Know What You're Doing Award. As England's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Murrayfield last March reached its conclusion there was a fair to middling chance that Martin Johnson would be putting his hand up for this one, but a subsequent significant improvement in England's prospects means that Johnson misses out. The aforementioned PdV might also have had a shot at this one but his team let him down badly with their powerful display at Twickenham in November. The winner, therefore, is none other than the IRB who, having somewhat astonishingly got something right with the new interpretations at the breakdown, have managed to secure the award with their instructions to referees to enforce the "Crouch, Touch, Pause, Pause, Put the kettle on, Have a cigarette, Pause and Collapse" edict at scrummage time.

Next up is the Total Flanker All Publicity is Good Publicity Award. Sad to say, but there are multitude of candidates for this one. Gareth "Have I mentioned that I'm Gay" Thomas has barely been out of the newspapers this year, while James "the Brand" Haskell continues to let his talking (as opposed to his rugby) do the, erm, talking. Danny Cipriani's on-off relationship with Kelly Brook continues to fill its fair share of column inches while his flirtations with various association football clubs has filled the rest, while Ben Foden has taken his first tentative steps into tabloid recognition (but only on a Saturday). However the king of the publicity hounds this year has to be the artist formerly known as Gavin Church. Celebrity relationship breakup, nude photo shoots, reality TV shows, ballroom dancing - you name it Gavin's been there, done it and bought the Tshirt and, furthermore, might just have talked himself into the Welsh squad on the basis of being able to walk on snow, cha cha cha and play less than 30 minutes of rugby. Well done, sir, the award is yours.

We're over half way through ladies and gentlemen and on the home straight. Time now for the Total Flanker Every Time I Speak I Get Into Trouble Award. Only one realistic candidate for this one - step forward Sarries coach Brendan Venter. Whether it was criticising referees, getting into scrapes with Leicester fans, upsetting RFU disciplinary panels by eating biscuits or providing Sky Sports with baffling comedy interviews, Venter spent most of 2010 pissing off those in authority and is truly deserving of this honour.

Our penultimate award tonight is the Total Flanker Lucky To Still Be In A Job Award. There are a number of candidates for this one. PdV is an obvious choice and many might argue that Australia's inability to find a scrummage once again this year puts Robbie Deans in the frame. In England you'd have to consider defence coach Mike Ford, while in France Marc Lièvremont's Grand Slam just about makes up for the rubbish his team have been serving up ever since. But, after careful consideration, the award must go across the Severn Bridge to Mr Warren Gatland. Another distinctly underwhelming 6 Nations from Wales was followed by a disastrous Autumn series - 4 wins in the last 16 matches speaks for itself - and it does look as if Gatland and his coaching team have run out of ideas (if the best they can come up with is the restoration of Britain's second worst ballroom dancer to the Welsh midfield).

And finally - and on a distinctly sentimental note - we reach the Total Flanker Farewell To A Legend Award. The word  "legend" is often bandied about but never was a man so deserving ... 24 caps for England between 1972 and 1976, British Lion in 1974, played first-class rugby until the age of 41, BBC Superstars champion, indoor rowing world record holder for his age group, competed for a place in the Cambridge Boat Race crew aged 50 and author of an award-winning book in which he chronicled his struggle with prostate cancer - Andrew George Ripley was a truly inspirational figure. In his own words: "Dare we hope? We dare. Can we hope? We can. Should we hope? We must. We must because to do otherwise is to waste the most precious of gifts, given freely by God to all of us. So, when we do die, it will be with hope and it will be easy and our hearts will not be broken . . ."

And so we reach the end of our annual ordeal and set out below, for the short of memory, a list of our Awards this evening:

Total Flanker Utter Muppet of the Year Award- Andy Powell
Total Flanker You Don't Know What You're Doing Award - the IRB
Total Flanker All Publicity is Good Publicity Award - Gavin Henson
Total Flanker Every Time I Speak I Get Into Trouble Award - Brendan Venter
Total Flanker Lucky To Still Be In A Job Award - Warren Gatland
Total Flanker Farewell to a Legend Award - Andy Ripley.

That's all folks. Happy New Year!!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Quickie

Just thought I'd take the opportunity to congratulate Prince Michael of Tindall on continuing to bat above his average with the announcment this week of his engagement to the Queen's grandaughter Zara Phillips.

Nice try too at sneaking under the radar in the light of a recent slightly more high profile announcement of a royal engagement.

Oh, and a Merry Christmas to one and all...

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Catching up

The observant among you may have noticed a degree of radio silence on my part recently. Apologies - I've been extremely busy with (in no particular order, as Dermot O'Leary might say):
  1. Work - the timing of which couldn't be better - not;
  2. Illness - labarynthitis, heavy cold, vomiting bug, back spasms...you name it...;
  3. Being smug about how the Ashes series is progressing down under - until this weekend - will I ever learn?
  4. Various Christmas commitments, mostly involving the kids' school;
  5. Mrs F's birthday;
  6. The Varsity Match - decent piss-up, dreadful game, bad result;
  7. Fuming about Newcastle United's treatment of Chris Hughton;
  8. Being entirely unsurprised at FIFA's decision not to award the 2018 World Cup to England (thank heavens for the utterly transparent and non-corrupt IRB eh?)
  9. Being obsessed with the snow - the weather being a very British obsession;
  10. Giggling at Brendan Venter's "Mike Bassett - England Manager" interview (below):

Monday, 6 December 2010

Pointless

In an utterly pointless exercise on Saturday a Springbok 4th XV lost to an Anzac 2nd XV at Twickenham. My thoughts on such meaningless encounters have previously been made known so there's no point me banging on again...

And, in another announcement totally without point, the RFU's CEO John Steele last week wrote to England players to inform them that that, after RWC 2011, they will only be selected for the national team if they are playing for English clubs. Except, apparently, in exceptional circumstances. Which means, of course, that if the best players bugger off to France they'll still end up playing for England.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Strictly Bonkers

I'm not sure what is more idiotic:

- the suggestion by Wasps and Wales coach Shaun Edwards that half a dozen games should be enough for the artist formerly known as Gavin Church to waltz his way back into the Wales team (did you see what I did there?) after what will be an absence from the game of the best part of 2 years; or

- the suggestion by former Wales skipper Michael Owen that Wales should consider selecting the UK's 2nd worst ballroom dancer at number 8.

Rough, tough number 8?
If the first idea is silly (as well as being a slap in the chops for the current members of the Welsh backline), the second is strictly bonkers. Or is it?

Owen's suggestion is based, it seems, on the changing nature of the role of the number 8 which these days requires pace and footballing abilities as well as the more prosaic attributes of forward play.

Owen points to the likes of Pierre Spies and Sergio Parisse as examples of modern number 8s who display these qualities and predicts that that the Number 8 role will become very similar to the loose-forward role in Rugby League where the number 13 often acts as an extra play-maker.

So far the logic is impeccable...I've written before about the role of the number 8 and how about how it has evolved in recent years and it's true that modern number 8s are fast and dynamic - Spies and Parisse are good examples as are Kieran Read and Imanol Harinordiquy.

And then then the argument falls apart...

“If you are asking your No.8 to do so many things that a back normally does, then why not play a back there?" asks Owen.

Because, dear Michael, those footballing skills you so rightly admire in Messrs Spies and Parisse are in addition to, and are no substitute for, the hard-nosed graft required of a number 8 at close quarters. How many backs do you know who would be prepared to put in the type of  brutal shift that Spies did, for instance, last week at Twickenham? Jamie Roberts? Possibly. Henson? Not a chance.

What next? Tell Martin Johnson to pick players with no handling skills in the centres to act as extra forwards?

Oh.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Not good enough

Earlier this year I highlighted the case of Clarence Harding, the Gravesend number 8 who has lost the sight in his right eye having been gouged during a match against rivals Maidstone in January this year.

A Maidstone player was subsequently charged by the RFU with making contact with the eye but, disappointingly for Harding, was cleared recently by an RFU disciplinary panel on the basis that the identity of the perpetrator could not be proven.

According to RFU disciplinary officer Jeff Blackett, "The injury to Harding was caused by a finger or fingers inserted into the eye causing a laceration. The injury was caused by a deliberate act of a Maidstone player...we are unable to determine who that was."

Maidstone Rugby Club could therefore now face charges relating to the misconduct of its players. Quite right too. The club's statement that its "sympathies remain with Clarence Harding who will bear the scars of this accident for the remainder of his life," tells us all we need to know.

As I said previously, Clarence knows who did it. Gravesend Rugby Club know who did it. Maidstone Rugby Club know who did it. But will anyone have the balls to do something about it?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Whither England?

End of Term Report: December 2010

Selection: B+
A largely clean bill of health led to consistency of selection with obvious results. Not everyone will have agreed with every selection but Johnson & Co got selection mostly spot-on and no doubt that this group will form the bulk of the 2011 RWC squad.

Attacking Performance: A-
Performance against the Aussies was A+ and there were enough glimpses in the other 3 matches to suggest that England are at least headed in the right direction. A huge improvement since February.

Defensive Performance: B-
No lack of effort, but way too narrow early doors against the All Blacks and simply ran out of steam against the Springboks. 2 tries conceded in each game suggest there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Forwards: B
Much improved clearout rate at the breakdown and offloading game a revelation. However, set piece issues were evident with an inconsistent lineout and scrummage prone to conceding soft penalties and the pack was simply beasted by the Springboks in the final game.

Halfbacks: B+
Youngs and Flood largely ran the show for England until deprived of front foot ball by the Springboks.

Threequarters: B
Midfield doubts persist but back three were consistently good.

Overall: B+
For the first time in a while it was clear to see what England were trying to achieve and their execution was (mostly) very good. 2/3 of the team are not only now bedded in but can be regarded potentially as serious players on the world stage, if not yet quite world class. Doubts persist, however, over hooker, one lock position, openside and the centre combination, areas the England management will need to address during the 6 Nations, a tournament which will take on huge significance if England are to take any self-belief to New Zealand later in the year.