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Halfway House

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

In a week when it hasn`t stopped raining in much of the UK, floods have engulfed homes and businesses, lives have been lost, and the Government`s response is to consider putting up the minimum price of booze, we reach the half-way mark in this season`s RFU Championship.

Going in to the weekend a glance at the table reveals no real surprises with the Falcons 13 points clear at the top and the play-off places up for grabs right down to 9th where London Scottish still remain a decent outside bet for the final four.

Bedford Blues are deservedly 3rd level on points with Nottingham who, under Martin Haag, have finally got their act together and proven me right in annually tipping them for better days ahead.

Leeds and Plymouth are possibly punching slightly above their weight whilst the recent panic at Bristol in the wake of their Meadow Lane destruction has propelled them to 5th, where they rest just four points ahead of the Scots.

For the Cornish Pirates and Rotherham the season is one of under-performance so far for very different reasons but both clubs have the nous and wherewithall to turn their campaigns around and move up the table. For example, the Pirates still have (including Sunday`s game) seven fixtures at the Mennaye Field to come.

Down at the bottom Moseley, Jersey and Doncaster Knights are pretty much where you would expect to find them. It`s going to be a real dogfight to avoid the drop for those three and tomorrow night`s match at Castle Park between the Knights and Jersey could have a real influence. For the record they meet again at St.Peter`s in the penultimate game of the season on April 13th. Ouch!

So on to this weekend and what I reckon will happen….

Bristol v London Scottish – I`m still not convinced that the West Country side have ridden out their recent storm and believe that there are issues behind the scenes which could again come back to disturb them. It shouldn`t be that way because they have some quality players and despite the much-heralded Serge Betsen effect at the Scottish I think they will take the spoils here. The Scots have disappointed up to now and have it all to do. Bristol by 10

Doncaster Knights v Jersey – A real ten-pointer if ever there was one, to paraphrase soccer parlance. If the Knights bounce back from their humping at Nottingham last weekend and come out of the blocks like an army of crazed berserkers they could rout Jersey. If the Islanders build on a solid display in defeat against Newcastle and get their pack on top early on then they could stifle the home side. It`s all ifs and buts but I think the Knights will edge it……just. Knights by 2

Newcastle Falcons v Plymouth Albion – Newcastle are virtually at full strength and Albion are not. It kind of says it all really. Albion`s best chance of keeping the  score down is to try and keep it tight up front. The whole league would love a shock but I just don`t see it happening here. Falcons by 30

Moseley v Rotherham Titans – The Titans have lost their way since the departure of Andre Bester whilst Moseley remain obstinate and difficult to beat at home. In Saturday`s early kick-off running rugby is likely to be at a premium but unless Alex Codling has worked his magic on the Titans squad in the last week, Moseley will win. Moseley by 6

Cornish Pirates v Nottingham – Nottingham have a lousy record in Cornwall winning once in their last 9 visits to the Pirates, and that came over four years ago. But things have changed under Martin Haag and the Green & Whites are in with a real shout of changing their fortunes down west on Sunday. The Pirates were awful at Bedford a week ago but despite some indifferent form have only lost on their own patch to Newcastle up to now. The form book makes Nottingham favourites but I think there will be a big response from the Cornish side. Pirates by 5

Leeds v Bedford Blues – Leeds are ticking along nicely at the moment and Bedford didn`t have to do a lot to put 30-odd points on the Pirates last weekend. This will be a real contest and the battle of the back-rows will be worth the entrance money on its own. The wide open expanses of Headingley would have favoured the Blues but with the game taking place at Otley RFC, I expect it to be more of a game won and lost up front. It`s almost too close to call. Leeds by 7

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Black and Blue

November 27, 2012 3 comments

Love them or hate them the New Zealand All Blacks are the best team in the world for a reason. Put simply, they know what it takes to win.

On Saturday in Cardiff they didn`t need to be at their best to swat aside the challenge of a Wales team who have proven this autumn how their lack of strength in depth is a real killer. The New Zealanders absorbed the early threat from the men in red and then clinically punished them killing the game as a contest before half-time.

It didn`t help the Welsh cause that they lost a tight-head prop and a lock inside an opening 90 seconds of mayhem, violence and brutal collisions, and Kiwi hooker Andrew Hore can expect more than 200 lines and a week of detention when he is punished for the punch which hospitalised Bradley Davies.

Hore has taken a battering from journalists and media pundits alike since he snuck up behind the Welsh second row and laid him out with the type of punch now sadly missing from Ricky Hatton`s repertoire. Wales coach Rob Howley called him an “absolute disgrace”, whilst Mick Cleary in his Daily Telegraph column suggested that Hore would have ended up “behind bars” if he had done such a thing “late at night down a Cardiff alleyway”. Both are correct.

On the flip side NZ coach Steve Hansen, formerly the Wales boss, defended his team claiming that they are “not thugs”, although in a manner of which Arsene Wenger would have been proud he claimed not to have seen the assault on Davies.

Patrick McKendry, writing in the New Zealand Herald, argued that Hore may well get a 3-game discount on any suspension due to a flaw in the IRB laws and also that Davies had provoked the incident by obstructing the All Black.

The curious thing is that back in days of old when real men played an amateur game (or so we are told), red-mist inspired free for alls and cheap shots which floored opponents now provoke some kind of dewy-eyed nostalgia amongst those who were there.

The infamous British Lions tour to South Africa in 1974 and that “99 call”, the Battle of Cardiff in 1987 when England and Wales stood toe to toe for eighty minutes, Paul Ackford`s haymaker from Argentine prop Federico Mendez in the same year, and the notorious brutality of the French forwards described graphically by Wales hardman Bobby Windsor in his excellent autobiography. All now part of rugby`s folklore and none of them worse than Andrew Hore`s attack on Bradley Davies.

The problem is of course easily solved at televised games by giving the TV Official power to alert and advise the referee, but as in soccer where goal-line technology is a must, a lifetime of Committee meetings will be needed before even the very notion of making a decision can be considered. However, if you want to wear a stupid purple shirt for a major international to keep a major corporate sponsor happy………don`t get me started.

So in summary, the All Blacks are not a dirty side and Andrew Hore was stupid. The New Zealanders can play all ways and can mix it if they have to. I`m not condoning violence but it happens on a rugby park and when it is our own team in the ascendency it is all the more easier to be forgiving.

On Saturday they take on England at Twickenham and we can expect more column inches about how Richie McCaw is a cheat. He is not. The All Blacks skipper is, like his team, just very, very good at what he does.

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Back to Work

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment

After a weekend free of Championship distractions it is straight back to work for the Level 2 clubs as we reach Round 10 of Stage One. So without further ado I`ll reach for the Cornish crystal ball and make my bold predictions…..

Bedford Blues v Cornish Pirates – This fixture rarely disappoints as two teams used to being at the top of the Championship pile go head to head. Second-placed Bedford have lost 2 of their last 3 whilst the Pirates, currently in mid-table, are on a five game unbeaten run and travel with a strong squad. Is the Bedford line-up a red-herring or is this really a good time for the Cornish side to visit GR. A month ago I would have gone for an easy Blues win. This time Bedford by 5.

London Scottish v Moseley – Ninth versus tenth at the Athletic Ground between two teams in no real form. Curiously it is the kind of game which has the potential to be a real high scoring affair as it was in the Cup when the Midlanders won. I fancy the same again. Moseley by 6.

Rotherham Titans v Leeds – Saturday`s early kick-off at Clifton Lane and a chance to see if the Codling Effect ahs shaken the Titans out of their slumber from two weeks ago. The new boss will want a reaction after their hammering in Cornwall but Leeds have all the tools at their disposal to inflict more misery on their South Yorkshire rivals. Leeds by 8

Jersey v Newcastle – What a story this would be if Jersey could humble the Falcons. The Geordies just keep on trucking whilst Jersey were brought down to earth with a bump last time out at Bristol. The islanders need to keep picking up points to survive but they won`t get anything here against Dean Richards` Mean Machine. Falcons by 22

Plymouth Albion v Bristol – Albion ended a worrying run of three straight defeats in turning over the Scots two weeks ago. Bristol still seemingly can`t decide if they are Arthur or Martha yet this season and on a heavy Brickfields pitch in front of a baying Devonian crowd this should be quite a spectacle. Liam Middleton has had public reassurances from the Bristol boardroom but one more humbling a la Nottingham could spell the end of his reign. Bristol by 7

Nottingham v Doncaster – The appointment this week of Clive Griffiths over Brett Davey at Castle Park with either have galvanised the Castle Park or spread dressing room discord. The Knights cannot afford to court relegation and have got 12 games to save themselves. Nottingham though are on a bit of a roll (if you discount losing to Newcastle last time) and are tough cookies at Meadow Lane. It`s the Green & Whites here for me. Nottingham by 12

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Can we do this again?

November 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Tomorrow sees the RFU Championship XV take on the might of the touring NZ Maoris at Castle Park, Doncaster in a real showpiece event for Level 2 of English club rugby.

Instead of giving the RFU a battering for a change I would like to congratulate them on organising this fixture, even though I like many others won`t be there, and ask simply “can we do this again?”

The location for the game fits in with the idea of regenerating the union code in the north of England and the midday kick-off means that nobody will be distracted from watching the senior internationals during the afternoon. I get all that and agree that Castle Park is a fine ground to host this event. I hope it is a big success.

During the course of this week we have had Canada, Russia, USA, Samoa, Fiji and Tonga all playing in the UK alongside the All Blacks, South Africa, Argentina and now Australia, so the Maoris have been in good company. So if we can get that lot in the UK for one week in November this year surely we can have an exhibition match for the Championship XV every season?

What has concerned me though is the lack of mainstream media coverage for the midweek matches and whilst I accept that Murdoch`s crew were there (as always) they still play out to a minority audience.

I touted my services to several major media organisations regarding the Championship match and was told by all that there wasn`t enough interest in the game to justify sending anyone along. Really? I question that but it is a view borne out by several journalist colleagues who each favour the lure of so-called elite internationals over odd curiosities such as the Championship versus the Maoris.

Maybe I`m wrong and maybe I just see things differently but international weekends normally get taken over by yet more features on Danny Cipriani, how long until Stuart Lancaster gets the sack from the England job stories, Welsh rugby is in melt-down dramas, and the All Blacks are a bunch of cheats claims. It is all so predictable and boring.

Is it editors playing safe or journos re-hashing the same old stories because they are easy? I don`t know but I`m tired of the argument that “it is what the public wants”. It doesn`t.

The yearly circus of autumn internationals has become over-priced and dull for many punters. It is no longer something really special to see the All Blacks in full flow or the might of the Springboks pack because we see them all the time. These games have lost their aura and the whole thing needs pepping-up urgently.

I accept that we will never go back to the good old days of “proper” tours because they are not financially viable but maybe there is room during a window in the league fixtures to arrange a real tour of the UK for one of the so-called emerging nations.

What would be so wrong with next year inviting Canada (for example) to play a Championship XV, Welsh Premiership side, a Scottish Premiership team and maybe the Irish Wolfhounds? Book it early, market it well, stage the games at real rugby grounds and at sensible times and invite the BBC to cover it so that a mass-market audience can enjoy the rugby. How tough can that be? Especially as the BBC have the red button option.

My point, before seasoned rugby writers accuse me of some sort of lunacy here, is that I fear the media are (in certain cases) telling sports fans what they want because it is easier that way. That attitude needs to be challenged because until that happens nothing will change.

And if anyone from the RFU does happen to chance upon this Blog my idea for an autumn tour is a genuine one. Please think about it.

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Right, Who`s Next?

November 8, 2012 Leave a comment

As our beloved sport continues to slide inexorably into the cosy clutches of some of the worst values and practices currently blighting the world of soccer, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that some sort of managerial merry-go-round is being constructed on the shores of the RFU Championship.

Losing Glenn Delaney from Nottingham in the summer was a bit of a surprise and the recent departure of Andre Bester from Rotherham definitely didn`t show up too brightly on the radar ahead of the incident. Now Bristol`s Liam Middleton has had what can only be equated to the dreaded boardroom vote of confidence from his boss Chris Booy after their capitulation at Nottingham a week ago.

Booy cited the fact that he was under pressure following the 63-7 collapse at Meadow Lane and therefore that extended to the hapless Middleton who, for his sins, doesn`t seem to be a firm favourite with some sections of the Memorial Ground faithful.

May be the word pressure should be substituted for embarrasment because whilst Nottingham are a good team, they are surely not nearly sixty points better than  Bristol? A team still intent on reclaiming their place in the Premiership before the ring fencers acquire enough ringed-fence and border guards to stop them and a host of others.

Middleton may not, along with perhaps some other coaches in the Championship, necessarily be the right man for the job but can I just in the interests of fairness ask club chairmen and CEO`s throughout this league to stop and think before jumping on the football bandwagon.

Unless you have got a rock solid replacement lined up please don`t consign coaches to the dung-heap on a whim. And if you do have to make a change take a while to consider your timings. You see, with Newcastle hell bent on promotion nothing else really matters until the new year when plans should be laid out for the 2013-14 campaign. When we know who will be relegated, in this stupidly unfairly funded system, everyone can then make a decision on whether or not to invest in a promotion challenge.

Until then we are all going to have to put up with odd results, crazy performances, and the only real chance of silverware lying in the cup unless Dean Richards and his crew decide they fancy that too.

But there is one question that I have to ask. What might happen to Deano if the Falcons foul-up in the play-offs and have to spend another year lodging in the basement?……Stop smirking at the back, Championship fans.

Week 9 Predictions:-

Doncaster Knights v Bedford Blues – Two defeats on the trot has coincided with the pre-Christmas wobble for the Blues as predicted by me in this blog, but I can`t see them coming home from Castle Park empty handed. Doncaster will make life difficult for them as they did Rotherham last week but that is not enough. Blues by 9

Plymouth Albion v London Scottish – With both teams missing key players away on international duty and dual-registered personnel recalled for LV= Cup nonsense this one has got score draw written all over it. Both teams desperately need to start winning again but after seeing the teams I think the Scots are stronger, just. Scottish by 2

Newcastle Falcons v Nottingham – The Green & Whites will be on a roll after destroying Bristol and Newcastle will have to be on their guard, but whilst I think Nottingham will test them I still believe that they will be too lightweight in defence to resist the Deano Machine. Falcons by 15

Cornish Pirates v Rotherham Titans – It won`t be pretty and with heavy rain forecast in Penzance this weekend an already muddy Mennaye Field could suit the Titans. I think that the Pirates defence will nullify the Titans attack though and in a low scoring affair the home side will win. Pirates by 3

Bristol v Jersey – Jittery Bristol v buoyant Jersey. The pressure is on at the Mem and if the home side start badly it could get extremely fraught. Jersey are off the bottom and can go into the game with no fear. Moseley won there, so why can`t the Islanders? I`ll take a punt on Jersey by 2

Leeds v Moseley – Leeds dispatched the Scots comfortably last week and should be able to do to Moseley what the Pirates struggled with, namely scoring tries. The Midlanders have pace but also a lot of dual-reggers whom they may have to do without. They also have Ollie Thomas. Leeds by 10

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The First Casualty

November 2, 2012 Leave a comment

Just about a year ago Plymouth Albion dispensed with the services of Graham Dawe and I pondered in a blog whether we would see the Brickfields icon in the domestic game again.

Now the focus has shifted north to Clifton Lane where Andrew Bester has resigned from his coaching duties before an internal disciplinary hearing could apparently announce its findings.

The exact nature of the alleged wrong-doings by the former head coach are unclear but appear to stem from a dispute with former forwards coach Ben Wade earlier this season. The problem for the Titans though is where do they go from here after a good start.

It has to be said that Bester has left Rotherham under a cloud before only to return but this time the language from the boardroom suggests that there can be no return. Senior players and the remaining coaches will take charge until a successor is found, and with Bester having built a team capable of pushing with real intent for a play-off spot, there should be no shortage of applicants.

So what will Andre Bester do now? He may not be everyone`s cup of tea (although I always found him very easy to chat to on the odd occassion I needed a post-match quote or two), but he is far too good a coach to stay out of the game for long. His track record of producing Premiership quality players from relative obscurity speaks for itself, and his ability to foster total loyalty out an extreme kind of siege mentality at Clifton Lane has always made his teams difficult to beat.

He`s just the kind of coach for an aspirational National League side but I think he will stay around Level 2. Speculation linking him with a move to Doncaster has already begun, which will no doubt really please Brett Davey, whilst Jersey might ask themselves if Ben Harvey is the man for their long term future at Championship level.

If Bester was given an island to accompany his siege tactics he might just think that all his Christmases had come early.

Predictions – Week 8

Rotherham v Doncaster – Will the Titans falter post-Bester or will they throw caution to the wind? Have Doncaster found their elusive form after beating Moseley last week? Does the formbook this time mean nothing in the South Yorkshire derby? All these questions and more could be answered here at Clifton Lane. Titans by 14

Bedford Blues v Newcastle Falcons – The Blues will be smarting from their defeat at Bristol whilst the Falcons trundle on relentlessly. If Newcastle are to lose a game pre-Christmas it will be here but I still think their pack will out-gun the Blues comfortably. Falcons by 15

Jersey v Plymouth Albion – Before the break for cup action I could not have seen past Albion winning this comfortably, but Jersey have now gone three without defeat and finally recorded a “W” in the Championship last weekend in beating the Scots. Albion have named a strong squad for the trip but I`m going with the Islanders. Jersey by 2

London Scottish v Leeds – The Scots have done nothing since beating the Pirates and Leeds cannot win away from home despite being given every possible chance by the Cornish side last Sunday. Without Mark Bright in their pack I can only see the Scots coming second up front whilst the Leeds back row has some serious weaponry. Leeds by 12

Moseley v Cornish Pirates – The Midlanders are favouring a mobile back row and some fast backs as they look to leave the Pirates winless in three visits to Billesley Common. The Cornish side have the 2nd best defence in the league and are starting to fire in attack too with top try scorer Matt Evans already on 7 this season. I think this could be a good game. Pirates by 5

Nottingham v Bristol – The Green and Whites won at Plymouth because Albion apparemntly dozed off in the second half with the back door left wide open. Surely only a fool understimates Martin Haag`s side? Bristol have now won 3 on the trot and will fancy this one. Home advantage does it for me though. Nottingham by 4

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