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October 23, 2012 Leave a comment

After the first course of rugby in this season`s RFU Championship we were allowed to leave the table for a double round of British & Irish Cup action. While we did this the bulk of the rugby media circus concentrated on the tournament sponsored by a Dutch lager brewery and its illegitimate offspring of a brother named Amlin.

Now the dinner gong has been sounded again and those of us involved in the game outside of the Premiership will this weekend assemble again as the Championship kicks on again for another five rounds of action taking us up to the half-way point in the banquet.

In our absence we have learnt that rugby has sold out lock stock and barrel to the promise of riches at the World Cup by long-listing venues lacking in traditional rugby grounds. No Welford Road? Crassly stupid. No venue in the south-west below Bristol`s Ashton Gate? Mental. The inclusion of soccer stadiums in such rugby hotbeds as Brighton and Sunderland? Bizarre.

Welford Road has been omitted apparently because it is too small and doesn`t have appropriate facilities. Well if there is one crumb of solace for clubs below England`s top tier on the basis of this decision, it is that the Premiership entry ground clearly isn`t worth the paper it is written on. Cynical? Undoubtedly. Correct? I think so.

True rugby fans will sift through the wreckage of another stupendous corporate carve up and eventually find match tickets at prices they can afford for games at soulless concrete venues they can muster enough hard earned cash to travel to. The best seats in the house will, as always, go to people who wouldn`t know a club match if it happened on the front lawn of their Surrey mansion and regardless of what happens we will all be told post-2015 what a great success the whole shebang was.

England will be made favourites, New Zealand will win amidst yet another torrent of Richie McCaw smear stories and once again nobody will really know what to do with the continued improvement of the emerging nations.

Meanwhile back in the real world, it is RFU Championship Round 7 prediction time……

Doncaster v Moseley – The Knights have to win this one. There really is no other option for them if they are ever to break the shackles of the relegation battle. They will be bouyed by their win at Nottingham in the cup but are running into a Moseley team who scored a hatful at London Scottish in the same competition. It won`t be pretty. In fact it will be hellishly ugly. Moseley by 3.

Newcastle v Rotherham – When they meet at Clifton Lane we could witness an upset. At Kingston Park we will not. The Falcons are too strong for the Titans who still don`t travel too well and on that basis alone could miss out on the play-offs. Newcastle by 20.

Jersey v London Scottish – The Scots finished their first phase of league action on a high by beating the Pirates but have since lost both cup outings which will have hurt regardless of anything Simon Amor may say to the contrary. Jersey had to find something from somewhere and winning at Leeds last time out will have been a massive boost. They will break their Championship duck at St.Peter`s on Saturday. Jersey by 7

Plymouth Albion v Nottingham – Both teams had a mixed bag in the cup with Albion`s thumping at Rotherham suggesting that they lack strength in depth. Nottingham were left bemused by their home reverse to Doncaster but if both teams kick on again here this will be almosr too close to call. Albion by 3

Bristol v Bedford – Unquestionably the tie of the round. Liam Middleton`s mis-firing Bristol versus Mike Rayer`s all-conquering Blues. The West Country side have at last found some form in the cup but Bedford are looking irresistible right now. I still think they will have a wobble when the pitches deteriorate and the weaknesses in their pack are exposed but unless the Blues have an off-day here Bristol will come second again. Bedford by 8

Cornish Pirates v Leeds – Leeds will fancy this as they look to avenge last season`s 52-10 walloping in the same fixture, and two weeks ago would have won comfortably here, but something finally clicked with the Pirates last weekend at Dundee. A strong 80-minute performance at last, superb defence, well-worked tries and probably the best scrum in the league made the long trip well worth while. If they can replicate that effort Leeds, who have yet to win on their travels, will lose again. Pirates by 10.

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Time for a breather

So after a quarter of the RFU Championship season already we now take a break for two weeks so that the British & Irish Cup can get underway with a yet again tweaked and re-vamped format. More on that in a minute.

The Championship has been interesting to date with Newcastle Falcons easily moving into pole position whilst most of the other contenders concentrate on beating each other. At the bottom of the table Jersey and Doncaster, both winless so far, are in danger of being cut adrift whilst Plymouth Albion, strugglers for the last couple of seasons, are riding high in fourth.

Bedford Blues are good value for their second place although I thought they might be vulnerable to Albion last Saturday at Goldington Road after a jittery display in Jersey. They weren`t and thumped Nat Saumi`s boys 55-17 running in eight tries into the bargain maintaining their unbeaten start to the campaign.

However Bedford normally have a wobble once the pitches start to soften up and deteriorate so expect the likes of Leeds, Rotherham and Nottingham to try and rein them in as they each look to maintain their decent starts.

Mid-table and beyond has a slightly unfamiliar look at the moment as London Scottish sit 7th after their last gasp win over the Cornish Pirates on Saturday.

The Pirates follow the Exiles in the pecking order having now gone four without a win whilst the once mighty Bristol, currently on a three game losing streak, trail in 9th.

I expect the Pirates to pick up once they get all their key players fit and remember that a game lasts for 80 minutes and not isolated and unrelated periods of time running up to 60. Frustrations are running high inside and outside of the camp at the moment but in the first half at the Scottish on Saturday, when they were actually on the plot as it were, the Pirates made their hosts look positively pedestrian. Once they put their game together for the duration of a match they will be fine.

Bristol too have far too much weaponry in their arsenal to be floundering but also have yet to fire this season. Expectations are that much higher at the Memorial Ground so Head Coach Liam Middleton might be glad of a 2-week break to turn his team around against the likes of Cardiff, Bridgend and Ulster in the cup. Hang on, did I just say Ulster?

Then we have Moseley who are doing what they do so well – hanging around just off the bottom looking to pick off stragglers. They are survivors at Billesley Common and nobody will fancy going to that corner of the West Midlands in the depths of winter.

So to the B&I Cup. It is a much unloved tournament with as much panache and chic as soccer`s old Anglo-Italian, Simod or Texaco Cups. Few seem to want it and nobody knows quite what to do with it.

Rugby is blighted with these affairs and I include the LV= Cup and Amlin Challenge creation in the mix too. The Heineken Cup has plenty of credibility even if its days are numbered but outside of that teams seem to be just filling gaps in the fixture list.

In soccer the moneymen gave us the Champions League where the same teams play each other in the same plastic stadiums every season with pretty much the same results. Cup upsets are not tolerated when big bucks are concerned.

The also-rans were fed to what is now the Europa League and here upsets do happen across the wonderfully crappier grounds of the Continent where fans make serious noise and use prawn sandwiches as missiles.

Uefa have not really promoted this competition just as the home rugby unions almost refuse to acknowledge that the B&I Cup exists. It is shunned like an illegitimate offspring which is no more than a blight on the family name, but I have a cunning plan which even Baldrick may not have considered.

Scrap the B&I, LV= and the Amlin for next season. Scoop all the contenders up and drop them into a Europa League for rugby. Qualifying for the perceived weaker teams can take the place of meaningless pre-season friendlies before a pool system of home and away games selects the last 8. From there you have ties over two-legs up to the final which should be a one-off shoot-out at a neutral venue.

If you are competitive and stay in the cup you will earn money. If you get knocked out, tough. And for clubs who moan about any loss of revenue caused by a different cup format I would say tough again. Get yourselves organised, get a proper business plan with sponsors and learn to live within your own means just like the rest of us have to. If it means harder work to achieve that then so be it.

The game is floundering outside of the top flight and by trying to appease everyone the home unions are collectively acheiveing little. It is time for some tough love and effective change.

 

 

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Young Guns!

One of the stories forcing rugby journalists to ruminate and cogitate at length in the last week has been the issue of Academy players and just quite what the Premiership clubs should do with them.

It isn`t rocket science that the effective succession planning of a succesful team requires a steady production line of talent in all aspects of the operation, and the RFU set up regional academies in England about ten years ago after realising that they were one aspect of the continuing world dominance of the New Zealand All Blacks. 

By harnessing the best 13-14 year-olds and exposing them to the best coaching, conditioning, physiotherapy, and so on the drop-out rate of teenage players is reduced. The costs of running regional academies are part-funded by the RFU but still cost the franchise-holders at least £250k per annum, which is a significant figure but not when the talent produced makes it at the top level.

Top level English rugby has moved through its phase of foreign import domination learning that if affects the performance of the national team and costs unsustainable amounts of cash in wages. Soccer still has to learn this lesson, as England boss Roy Hodgson recently highlighted, but they will when high profile clubs south of the Scottish border end up going to the wall.

The problem now in England is what to do with all the talent. The Rugby Paper last week highlighted the high profile problem at Leicester Tigers where George Ford, recruited as a 15 year-old, is finding his way to the first team blocked by England fly-half Toby Flood.

Former Tigers favourite Austin Healey suggests that the now 19 year-old Ford will need to leave to develop and this scenario is being played out in countless clubs because of selection dilemmas facing coaches under pressure to deliver success. Do you stick with tried and trusted players or give prodigiously talented young guns a chance to shine? It`s a heck of a problem to have.

Rugby fans have taken some time to get their heads around the idea of player loans and dual-registrations but if it helps develop younger talent at minimal cost to clubs outside of the Premiership, or allows seasoned players to regain their fitness in less demanding environments, utilising it becomes a no-brainer.

At the moment the emphasis seems to be on Premiership clubs holding their emerging players back to particpate in A League games and certain elements of the media appear to be indirectly suggesting that this reserve team league is something superior to the Championship and National Division One. Maybe technically it is but if you want to develop as a hard-nosed competitive player in a short space of time a loan spell at a  club in a real league has to be a must.

Manchester United have done it for years with their emerging reserve team players packing their bags and going out into the real world for a season or two, and Fergie seems quite happy to stick with this particular policy of the Old Trafford boot room.

Formal player-sharing links exist between an ever-increasing number of Premiership and non-top flight clubs every season but only when the practice is formalised across the board and the suspicions of some are eroded will the scheme ever work to its true potential.

Every top player was young once. I just never understand why some coaches are afraid of giving them a chance.

Meanwhile back at the Ranch………..

RFU Championship Predictions – Round 6

Leeds v Doncaster – Leeds are a bit of a mixed bag at the moment whilst the Knights only ended their losing streak a week ago because the Pirates were poor. Leeds tonked Bristol last time at home and that will do for me even if this is a South Yorkshire derby. Leeds by 14.

Bedford Blues v Plymouth Albion – For the first time in several seasons Albion travel to Goldington Road with real hope. Bedford switched off in Jersey a week ago and only just held on in the end, but here they go against a mighty pack playing with real confidence. I fancy Albion to cause an upset and predict Plymouth by 5.

Moseley v Newcastle Falcons – Moseley deserve all the plaudits going for winning at Bristol last week but it won`t be enough here because the Falcons have simply got too much gas in their tank in every position. Falcons by 25.

Rotherham Titans  v Bristol – If I wasn`t already booked this weekend I would pick this one as my game of choice. The injury-hit Titans against the under-pressure Bristol on the narrow Clifton Lane pitch in front of a crowd baying for blood. It won`t be pretty but it will be a cracker. Titans by 8.

London Scottish v Cornish Pirates – The worst defence in the league meets the worst attack in terms of pure statistics. It should then be a nil-nil draw. The Scots have not yet managed to concede less than 20 points in a game and that is the most the Pirates have managed in 80 minutes. I could go on, but I think the Pirates will finally click as an offensive unit here. Pirates by 2.

Nottingham v Jersey – Jersey played some good rugby a week ago against Bedford but only once they were beaten. Nottingham simply demolished the Scots and are starting to gather some momentum. I really want Jersey to break their duck but it won`t happen here. Nottingham by 12.

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