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Buster Gonad?

July 9, 2013 3 comments

The man with the biggest balls in British sport was not on Centre Court at Wimbledon on Sunday. He was on the other side of the planet no doubt enjoying a glass of red and a cigar after an epic success in Sydney. His name is Warren Gatland.

Back here in the United Kingdom the main media attention was always going to switch to Andy Murray`s quest to finally win the trophy for Britain (or was it Scotland?), and with no tyre blow-outs of note at the Nurburgring over the weekend the F1 Grand Prix quickly became a sideshow. But back in Sydney a squad of tired players, their coaches and all the support staff partied hard and deservedly so.

Gatland had taken some real stick in the build-up to Saturday`s deciding Test Match after a narrow defeat seven days before had allowed the Australians to level the series. Some of the more vociferous pro-English critics had never taken to his supposed Welsh selection bias, and when he then had the temerity to drop Ireland centre Brian O`Driscoll for the Sydney showdown the gloves were well and truly taken off.

Keith Wood, a former team mate of O`Driscoll`s turned media pundit, labelled the decision a “terrible mistake” warning that the team selected possessed “very little guile”. Wales legend Phil Bennett aimed a broadside of his own at the 49 year-old Kiwi claiming that “everything had gone to pieces” with the squad selected for the final game of the tour.

Another Lions great, former skipper Willie John McBride, blasted that he was “absolutely gutted” whilst Daily Telegraph columnist Oliver Brown weighed in with arguably the most ill-advised pile of anti-Welsh drivel many, including a lot of seasoned rugby journos, have possibly ever read.

In fairness to the Telegraph, they worked hard to balance the argument subsequently but Brown`s piece should never have seen the light of day.

Gatland, according to The Sun, came close to quitting the Lions altogether in the face of what German Chancellor Andrea Merkel would call a “shitstorm”. But he stuck to his guns, stayed in office and by lunchtime on Saturday (UK time) had been completely and utterly vindicated as any divisions in the Lions camp were put to one side.

The Wallabies were never good enough to win this series and their weaknesses were laid bare on Saturday as Gatland`s men took them apart piece by painful piece.

The hosts apparently wanted to take the Lions out of their comfort zone but by playing Super 15 rugby in a full-on Test Match showed themselves to be utterly naive. If you cannot compete at all at the scrum, contest effectively your opponents lineout, or cause problems at the breakdown – where it was a blessed relief to have a Northern Hemisphere Referee – you are finished.

Kicking easy three pointers to the corner confident in your ability to turn them into seven is all well and good until the plan starts to unravel. Australia did not have a Plan B.

Gatland`s warriors did though and after surviving a rocky spell either side of half-time cleared their heads and kicked on.

Three second half tries and a masterclass in game management from full-back Leigh Halfpenny left the Australians in tatters after 50 minutes of softening-up from the Lions pack.

O`Driscoll was not needed, he never was, and I would have got the controversy out of the way nice and early by not selecting him for the tour in the first place. A great player undoubtedly but Warren Gatland knew who he could rely on to do the job his way in Sydney and he got what he asked for.

It was a timely reminder to us all that Coaches pick teams and live or die by their selection. Sport has winners and losers, nothing inbetween, and here Warren Gatland was a winner. His opposite number Robbie Deans has quietly fallen on his sword.

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That`s All Folks!

May 30, 2013 1 comment

A little before ten o`clock last night the RFU Championship season finally reached the buffers after nine long hard months as Newcastle Falcons secured the promotion we all knew they would win before a single player took the field back in September.

They were pushed hard by a Bedford Blues side who remain amongst the bridesmaids of Level 2 club rugby in England over the two-leg final, but ultimately had a bit more quality and a lot more money to ensure that Dean Richards` troops got what they came for.

A year ago I drove back from Reading after the Cornish Pirates had lost in the final against London Welsh never having felt so tired in all my life after a long season on the road covering the fortunes of the club. This time they very thoughtfully concluded their affairs in late April to give everyone a proper break but with the start of pre-season for most Championship clubs coming around on June 10th, don`t be surprised if Bedford are a little off the pace come the start of the new season.

From a Cornish perspective the Championship Final was however largely forgotten amidst an outpouring of fervour for the Black & Gold as the rugby public fell in love with the County Championship again.

The tournament, or Bill Beaumont Cup as it is properly known, has been parked in a remote siding for several years now with the RFU apparently unsure what to do with it whilst most County Unions in England have paid it little attention doing little more than fulfilling their end of season fixtures. Last Sunday at Twickenham might have just changed all that though.

As in English football the main focus of English rugby is on little other than the national team and the Premier League. The RFU and elements of the national media should be repeatedly kicked in the shins until this tunnel vision abates because there is a whole world of quality rugby out there rather unflatteringly called “grass roots”.

Just four days ago in the sunshine at HQ some 20,000 (yes, twenty thousand) people watched a belter of a County Final at HQ as the Red Rose of Lancashire proved just a bit too good for the gutsy Cornishmen. Much of that crowd was there to support Cornwall but many had stayed on after a largely dull England win over a truly awful Barbarians side. If any neutrals were contemplating penning letters of complaint to the RFU demanding refunds following that game they probably forgot all about them during what happened next.

There are few teams whose supporters can generate the kind of atmosphere the Cornish did inside Twickenham and as their side fought back to within two points of Lancashire in a frenetic final quarter the electricity generated by the crowd swept even the most steadfast neutral with it and could be clearly felt high up in my commentary position. That the northerners ultimately won was a disappointment to Cornwall but there were no complaints.

What those 80 minutes of wonderful rugby have done is to give the RFU a huge opportunity to redeem themselves next season after years of ignoring this competition. Some really focused PR in the build-up to next May will do wonders but the final again has to be a mid-afternoon affair at Twickenham on the back of a big showpiece game.

I would also suggest that no players from clubs above of the national leagues be allowed to participate in the competition to help ensure a more level playing field. As there is still no national domestic cup competition for these tiers of the game that should be a pre-requisite. It might upset the likes of Hertfordshire who rely heavily on Saracens youngsters to bulk up their squad but there are winners and losers in everything. I would also close the loop hole of dual-registration as a ploy to out-manoeuvre my proposal.

From Cornwall`s point of view they now need to seize the moment and work together to to ensure that they reach the final in 2014. Their pack is top drawer but backs with more pace, guile, and trickery need to be sourced because Lancashire showed only too well how much damage those weapons can do.

There must be no more stupidly damaging parochialism in Cornish rugby. Rivalry, yes, but bickering and needless spats largely brought about by a refusal to change and modernise need to be eliminated.

Cornwall and Cornish rugby wants a club in the Premiership. It wants and desperately needs a new Stadium and in an ideal world would have Redruth and Launceston back in National One, with the likes of Camborne, Wadebridge and St.Austell all knocking on the door of the senior league set-up. Cornwall can be the County Champions again but the only way we will find out if all this can be done is to pull together.

On Sunday at Twickenham Cornwall and the Cornish people came together and did just that. By crikey didn`t it feel great!

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Fifty Shades of Beige – A 6 Nations Reprise Part 2

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A week on from the Battle of Cardiff and the 6 Nations decider and the dust still has not quite settled. Many commentators and critics have though adjusted their guns and lined them up on England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster rather than match referee Steve Walsh.

I suppose it was inevitable that Lancaster would have to take the flak eventually after a record defeat to the Welsh, and the ill-advised comments from his Coach Graham Rowntree regarding his “forensic analysis” of the scrum. His team selection has been pored over ad nauseam by the national rugby media and whilst Lancaster does need to keep his systems and selections flexible only a fool would conclude that Engalnd have become a lesser team in this Championship.

The autumn win against a knackered All Blacks side raised the bar of expectation a little too high in the evolution of Lancaster`s squad. Wales came along and adjusted it and now we all know where we stand.

He will have to make changes and he will have to discard some of the current crop of talent he has before the RWC of 2015 gets near. Like all athletes rugby professionals at the very top level of the game only, by and large, have a relatively short peak to their careers before the physical demands of the sport dull some of their edges. That is why succession planning is key and why somebody with the resources Stuart Lancaster clearly possesses must use this summer`s tour to Argentina to the full.

English rugby has a well trodden path to the senior international squad though the age-grades and Saxons set ups, but that must never become an exclusive members club whereby anyone who suddenly bursts into the kind of form worthy of a senior white jersey later in their careers is ignored.

The game in Cardiff highlighted some key areas where Lancaster and his team need to re-assess the weaponry at their disposal – front row, flanker, wing and full-back. I would then add to that centre.

The flanker issue is a problem for England but it should not be. Welsh rugby is in disarray if you believe everything you read in the papers but in Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton they have two of the best flankers currently in world rugby. And then they have Dan Lydiate. Very nearly the best. Get your scouting hat on Stuart, the answer to your problems is out there.

At centre Manu Tuilagi is still the darling of the English press because he is big, smashes holes and plays for Leicester Tigers. But Wales have wrapped him up pretty well in recent meetings as I suspect the Aussies will do when he turns up in a Lions shirt this summer. In Cardiff his limitations were laid bare and his lack of creativity and guile were a concern. If only you could transplant the rugby brain of Gloucester`s Drew Locke into the body of Tuilagi.

And speaking of Gloucester therein lies the answer to the full-back problem. England need a 15 who can kick, is confident under the high ball, can run superb lines of counter-attack and will run and tackle all day. Rob Cook is the man. Capped only at England Counties level up to now and currently in his first season in the Premiership, Cook was not expected to become the first choice full-back at Kingsholm so soon. The fact that he has is the mark of the man, so get him on your roster Stuart and take him to Buenos Aires.

On the wing it is time to blood a man who would run rings around Chris Ashton all day on current form – Exeter Chiefs` Jack Nowell. He has already been tagged for senior international honours, just won the LV= Breakthough Player of the Year Award, and lifted the 6 Nations crown with the England Under-20 squad. It is rumoured that he will be in the Saxons set up next season but why wait? why delay? why ignore the fact that the lad is ready? Dont waste time picking Charlie Sharples again – he has had his chance – let Nowell in the door this summer and nobody will be disappointed.

Up front I would stick with Vunipola but one prop I would mention as a wildcard is Carl Rimmer, also of the Chiefs. The former Coventry and Cornish Pirates man has really flourished in the last two seasons and easily taken to the Premiership. A strong scrummager who carries well he would go well against the Argentineans.

So in summary I just want Stuart Lancaster to think outside the box a little more. Once you start change you cannot suddenly stop it and if the England coaching team stick to rigid thinking and inflexible systems they will end up no better than the Martin Johnson regime.

Out of adversity comes opportunity and this summer`s tour should be seen as a massive chance for everyone.

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Fifty Shades of Beige – A 6 Nations Reprise Part 1

March 20, 2013 2 comments

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Prior to the earth-shattering drama in Cardiff on Saturday evening there had been no real media hysteria about a 6 Nations tournament which had produced little out of the ordinary. That was until England turned up at the Millenium Stadium with the tournament virtually in the bag and the whole of the Welsh nation stood and laughed in their faces.

For Wales, who began the defence of their title so awfully with 40 minutes of clueless rugby against the Irish, this was not only their biggest win against the English but a performance of World Class stature. It is such a pity that when the big three from the Southern Hemisphere face up to them, Wales go back into their shells and bottle it.

England may have lost 30-3 and are still clearly hurting badly after seeing first a Grand Slam and then a 6 Nations Crown snatched from their grasp in a breathtaking game in the Welsh capital. The sheer intensity of the game coupled with an almost manic fervour  spilling over from the crowd in the packed arena made this Test Match Rugby at its best. Stuart Lancaster`s England will learn and they will come again.

I don`t buy the notion in certain media reports that Referee Steve Walsh had a big part to play in the demolition of England`s front row because he is somehow “anti-English”. The scrum is a mess period, the IRB really must act to let everyone involved where they stand again at the set piece, and the Welsh front row tore England to pieces. It doesn`t matter that Graham Rowntree has argued that his forwards had the better technique because the Welsh front five tuned in very quickly to what Walsh wanted and what they could get away with. New Zealand are brilliant at that. England need to watch them.

And was anything Walsh decided upon at scrum time any worse than what we see week-in week-out in club games up and down the country? If anyone truly thinks Steve Walsh was so badly wrong in his handling of the game then get out and watch more of it. I`m no fan of this particular whistler but it is the system which needs fixing by the IRB, not one man.

Wales will now move on having blooded some new faces during this 6 Nations and re-affirmed their claim for a big share of the British Lions touring party. England will reflect and those not going to Australia with the Lions can look forward to a gruelling tour to Argentina. Stuart Lancaster is building a squad to win the 2015 World Cup. It was simply just not their time for glory when they went down the M4 to Cardiff on March 16th 2013.

 

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Battle at the Bottom – The Real Drama

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This weekend I will be heading north to the delightful old ground at Cross Green, Otley and the potential RFU Championship play-off decider between Leeds and the Cornish Pirates.

In another madcap adventure combining juggling jobs and hours of motorway driving I will rock up on Sunday morning as probably the only travelling journo from the far south west. Quite who will be there from the local press remains to be seen with BBC Leeds deciding not to cover the game so if it is a match commentary you want then you will be stuck with me, Steve Tomlin, and BBC Cornwall.

This game is important in its own right as clubs battle to be involved in the second stage of the Championship contest and earn a bit of extra cash from one additional home fixture at least. But with Newcastle Falcons in absolutely irresistible form last weekend against the Pirates it is virtually (but not totally) impossible to see any shocks at the top end of the table now.

Down at the other end things are a little bit different. It looks like a three-way scrap to avoid relegation between Doncaster Knights, Jersey and Moseley. With 6 games to play Plymouth Albion are probably safe whilst just three points separate bottom club Doncaster (18) and Moseley (21). They along with Jersey (19) both have games in hand at home against Bristol and Nottingham respectively and with those clubs in turn scrapping to be in the top four the plot thickens again.

For Moseley five of their remaining games, starting with the massive clash against the Knights at Billesley Common tomorrow, are at home. If they can`t make that count then they don`t deserve to stay up.

Jersey have a tricky run-in facing four games on the road away from the Island. They have brought in a couple of signings this week in Mark Foster (Exeter Chiefs) and Mark McCrea (Connacht), along with talented but sadly injury prone Charlie Walker-Blair to bolster their back row. Fresh legs and fresh faces at such a key time could make a massive difference.

Doncaster simply have to get something at Moseley tomorrow. If they do and they can battle their way to a win over Rotherham at Castle Park next week then their survival bid is on.

Unless Bedford have an off day they can forget sharing the spoils at Goldington Road but Nottingham at home is an interesting proposition. I tip the Green & Whites to blow up before the end of the season just as Bristol did last year, for this play-off scenario is new territory for Martin Haag`s men.

That then leaves the Knights with Jersey at St.Peter`s and Plymouth Albion at home. Whatever happens at the bottom it will go right to the wire.

Moving in the opposite direction at the end of April looks likely to be Ealing Trailfinders as they complete their escape from the bear-pit of fierce competition that is National League One.

Barring any unexpected implosion in their form they should seal top spot if they can beat second-place Blaydon at home on March 23rd.

Championship Predictions:-

London Scottish v Jersey – Scots by 7

Bedford Blues v Bristol – Blues by 9

Leeds Carnegie v Cornish Pirates – Leeds by 3

Moseley v Doncaster – Moseley by 5

Rotherham Titans v Newcastle Falcons – Falcons by 22

Nottingham v Plymouth Albion – Nottingham by 12

 

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Dollars Will Do It

February 13, 2013 Leave a comment

Dollars Will Do It.

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Dollars Will Do It

February 13, 2013 1 comment

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I read an interesting article this week written by Canadian journalist Jeff Hull in the Bleacher Report where he considered the possible future involvement of European pro rugby on the North American scene.

Rugby Union in Canada and the States is desperate to grow and looking at all the possibilities right now ahead of the next major Rugby World Cup showcase. In his article Hull suggested the possibilities of a link with the RaboDirect Pro 12 League, otherwise known as the Celtic League, which has already extended beyond its traditional boundaries to include the Italians.

Tournament director David Jordan thinks this is unlikely at present for logistical reasons within the constraints of the current domestic season but I would argue that the Rabo isn`t a league of sufficient quality from which to showcase the best of the game in Europe.

With no promotion or relegation and the Irish provinces of Ulster, Munster and Leinster by and large dominant every season it is going nowehere fast as a product. The Welsh regions exist in a continual state of loggerheads with the WRU whilst in Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow have huge potential but like their national squad never manage any effective levels of consistency. The Italians need time and money before they can be a real force in the game.

How you would weave American and Canadian teams into this already confused set-up I don`t know, although I have argued many times before that the league and cup competitions in Europe need re-vamping and streamlining. One possible avenue for experimentation might be with a restructuring of Europe`s second tier cup competition – the Amlin Cup – to allow the cream of North America to compete from European bases.

I spoke to Jeff Hull earlier in the season when I met him at London Scottish and he sold me completely on the passion of the Americans and Canadians for the game. Their domestic set-up has improved greatly over the years but the club scene is still largely amateur with the best players having to move to Europe or Japan to earn a living. That is not going to change overnight but the market for untapped potential appears massive. It just needs somebody brave enough to take the plunge on this side of the pond.

Saracens have already courted South Africa as a venue for one-off Heineken Cup games whilst London Wasps and Harlequins hooked up in Abu Dhabi for an LV= Cup tie. If that wasn`t about promoting their respective brands then what were they doing there?

The NFL have succesfully brought Gridiron to London for several years now and are now openly talking about starting a new European League on the basis of the resurgent interest in the game especially in the UK. Whilst in the world of soccer many of our Premiership teams in England play pre-season warm-ups in the USA to sell-out crowds. Big oak trees grow from small acorns so why not try it with rugby union.

Whilst Europe continually dithers over the subject of developing the so-called emerging nations the North Americans have a mighty weapon in their armoury which given time could well force the issue. It is called money. Financially viable leagues with lucrative TV coverage would soon turn the heads of the game`s top movers and shakers on the eastern shores of the Atlantic.

It hasn`t happened yet but if it does who will win the race to link-up and cash in on the dollars on offer – Europe or the Southern Hemisphere gang of four? It could be quite a bitter tussle with rugby itself no doubt coming second again.

*Jeff Hull`s feature – “Could European Pro Rugby Come to North America?” can be read here http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1520013-exclusive-could-european-pro-rugby-come-to-north-america

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