A Little Bit of Spice…..

January 30, 2013 1 comment

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Jim Telfer certainly whipped up a storm with his pre-6 Nations swipe at the English and the Welsh in branding the former “arrogant” and the latter “lazy”.

The former Scotland international and British Lion has always had a reputation as an uncompromising individual and having coached his country to a Grand Slam in 1984 and then repeated it as Ian McGeechan`s assistant in 1990, is qualified to make such observations.

The 72 year-old has been criticised out of hand by many for his remarks whilst England coach Andy Farrell has dismissed the thinking of the Scot. Wales wing Alex Cuthbert has rounded on the assertion that his team mates don`t work hard enough and attack coach Mark Jones has openly backed up his player. So who says that the 6 Nations doesn`t matter any more?

I read Telfer`s newspaper comments with interest and to a degree agree with him but what he has done is fire the first salvo from a Scottish camp with nothing to lose in this year`s tournament. And what a salvo it has been. England have missed a trick by not returning it with interest. I mean, Scotland have offered little on the international scene for some time now and were dreadful in the autumn internationals.

Having a big pack is one thing but they lacked direction well before Tonga humbled them at Pittodrie. Fast backs are always an asset but so often Scotland`s threequarters play like they only met for the first time on the bus to the game. They have a new interim coach now in Scott Johnson but on the surface at least not much else has changed. The men in blue are there for the taking, aren`t they?

England are building nicely under Stuart Lancaster and I suspect are timing their run at the 2015 World Cup. Lancaster has created a culture whereby your name alone does not guarantee you a jersey and through the structure of the Under-20`s and Saxons, talented youngsters have real hope of gaining full international honours. Telfer acknowledges that instead directing his fire on the perception that England are more than just a “good” team.

He is right. The fact that England thrashed an out of sorts All Blacks before Christmas is a notable feat but hardly one to get carried away by. Would they beat the All Blacks if they met again on Saturday? Probably not. Telfer is targetting what he perceives as mental weakness in some of England`s more fragile stars here and also taking a broad swipe at the press. It`s all good theatre.

Structure and wins against the All Blacks are not things which are synonymous with Welsh rugby and their much publicised chronic injury list ruling out a multitude of first choice players has meant that they got their 6 Nations excuses in really early. I don`t think the Welsh are “lazy” per se but the structure of club rugby in Wales still isn`t right and the Celtic League is a poor affair. Wales do not have sufficient strength in depth and outside of the international arena few of their players are tested hard enough for long enough.

They won`t win the title this year but they have a perfect opportunity to throw the next generation in at the deep end. If they are lazy in a Test Match they will soon be found out.

Ireland, France and Italy all escape the ire of Telfer and the Azzuri will no doubt again find themselves battling at the wrong end of the table although more then capable of springing a surprise on home soil. Ireland are in transition with talented youngsters progressing through the ranks whilst meandering towards the end of Declan Kidney`s tenure as head coach.

France however remain my bet for the title, a feat they haven`t achieved since 2010. Their club rugby is in a good place right now and they can mix physicality and magic with anyone anytime. They just need their heads in the right place individually and collectively.

So that is the 6 Nations fire stoked and those who feel that the tournament is out-dated in its concept or played at the wrong time of the season have been silenced thanks to Jim Telfer. What does need changing are the autumn internationals because they never generate the same passion and fervour which we will witness between now and March 16th in rugby stadiums across Europe. But that is another story for another day.

Until then keep an eye on those crazy Scots. Telfer might just know something we don`t.

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Snow Joke!

January 23, 2013 2 comments

For the second week running I have my bags packed, travel plans made, and am hoping that I will be able to head out of Cornwall to cover a rugby match.

Last weekend the Red Zone (Met Office speak for snow in January) which descended on South Wales scuppered my plans at the 11th hour to trek to Carmarthen Quins and a British & Irish Cup tie with the Cornish Pirates. Knowing what I do now about that game I`m actually glad I stayed at home but providing different copy to a variety of newspapers on an event you haven`t actually witnessed first hand does require a certain amount of skill, ingenuity and reliable contacts!

This weekend I am going for broke and aiming to make it from West Cornwall to Kingston Park, the home of Newcastle Falcons, for a Friday night tussle with the Cornish Pirates in the RFU Championship. The pitch is currently being cleared of snow with an inspection scheduled for later today so by the time you read this I may either be on the road or twiddling my thumbs again.

In fairness to the RFU, and I don`t say that too often, they did have the foresight to schedule several blank weekends this season to make re-scheduling postponed games more easy. If the Pirates are forced to sit this weekend out then we will presumably try again at the end of next month and my hoped for day out at Twickenham watching England play France will go for a burton.

Since the advent of climate change and our increasingly unpredictable seasons in the UK we have fundamentally forgotten that January and February are cold months typified by snow and ice. Right now in Norway, where rugby isn`t too prominent in the sporting calendar, they are more concerned about a lorry carrying 27 tons of cheese having caught fire in a tunnel than any sub-zero temperatures or blizzards. It`s a case of priorities and what you are used to I suppose.

Cheese burning on Britain`s roads isn`t common either along with playing rugby on frozen pitches but it can be done.

Several seasons ago, again on a Friday night, I commentated on a game at Coventry RFC for the BBC where with windchill factored in the local journos reckoned it was -15 degrees Celsius. The pitch was bone hard 4 hours before kick-off but Coventry were skint and couldn`t afford a postponement. Their opponents,the Cornish Pirates once again, didn`t fancy re-arranging the game so both teams got on with it. The worst injury all night was a twisted ankle on the frozen surface and the referee ended it all after 70 minutes. Nobody complained and the result stood.

Those were exceptional (financial) circumstances that night driving the event on and common sense always has to take precedence even over pernickety health and safety rules and regulations. But matches should never be called off because somebody might fall over in a road outside (primarily a soccer thing I grant you). That is just plain stupid. Supporters are all blessed with varying degrees of intelligence to clubs must allow them to make their own calls regarding personal safety going to and from the event.

So we will hope for a full round of games in Round 14 of a Championship which is starting to move up through the gears of excitement and this is what I reckon will happen (if the games get played)…..

Falcons v Pirates – Formbook says Falcons comfortably but the Pirates have history in games like this. Somebody will beat Deano`s side this season and the Pirates need to react after their poor showing last weekend. I`m going to take a punt. Pirates by 3.

Doncaster v London Scottish – A big game for both teams and the Yokshire side need to find some form fast. The Scots scared Newcastle and downed Bedford but this will be a different type of game. Knights by 2.

Bristol v Leeds – Two play-off hopefuls going head to head with Bristol desperate to avaenge their 50-31 defeat at Headingley and home advantage key against a Leeds side who struggle for consistency on the road. This could be the game of the weekend if the weather allows it. Bristol by 9

Jersey v Rotherham – The Islanders have to maximise their home games in the run-in to the end of the season and need to keep winning them to put pressure on those teams around them in the table. The Titans have been a disappointment this year but if they are allowed to play Route One rugby will win. Jersey by 5

Plymouth v Moseley – Another high pressure game for both teams and Albion`s good start to the season now seems a distant memory. Moseley took an unexpected duffing up at Llanelli last week but I think they could sneak this one on a heavy Brickfields pitch. Moseley by 6

Nottingham v Bedford – 2nd versus 3rd with everything to play for. There really is very little to choose between these two and they both had an extra week off after losing their cup games 7 days ago. Meadow Lane on Sunday should be good for a game given the forecast and I`m going Green. Nottingham by 7

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Nearly 2013 And Still It Bloody Rains!

December 31, 2012 Leave a comment

The last time I covered a rugby match without rain and mud featuring prominently seems so much longer ago than early November, but as we edge towards the start of 2013 the skies above Cornwall are still slate grey as it hoses down relentlessly.

Hopefully the big game between the Cornish Pirates and Bristol tomorrow will get the go-ahead and we can start to focus on the business end of the RFU Championship season and the thing which strikes fear into the hearts of the vulnerable – the Play-Offs.

We still don`t know if we have a straight promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Level 2 at the end of the season because of the woeful and laughable fudging of the issue which both the RFU and Premier Rugby Ltd continue to indulge in. I`m bored of the whole thing now so I hope Newcastle Falcons don`t win the league and the whole mess is again ruthlessly exposed by top legal brains in the field of sport.

Falcons supremo Dean Richards seems happy now to chunter to any willing journo about how unfair and unjust he perceives the system to be, which is simply him getting his excuses in early, and clearly has little time for the league or the teams in it. To be honest I expected a bit more dignity from Deano.

If Newcastle fail to get promoted the blame lies within the Falcons camp and not the Championship promotion and relegation system. Likewise the same assertion can be levelled at Sale Sharks who look like another car crash in progress as they prop up the Premiership.

So as I peer out of my window watching the lines of water trickle down the pane in these closing hours of 2013 I hope for a few simple things in the coming year.

I would like Bedford Blues to win the Championship and stick a big fat middle digit up at everyone who derides club rugby outside of the top flight. I hope that Redruth and Launceston finally find a solution to their financial woes and become truly competitive in the National Leagues, and would love to see Cornwall get to Twickenham and be crowned County Champions.

Perhaps we can also have a wide open 6 Nations for once and it is also high time that the Lions returned triumphant from a summer tour.

I really want to see Aaron Penberthy, Chris Morgan and Jonny Bentley at the Pirates get over their bad injuries and get back to their best but most of all I wish for a year in which all of you, whether you be players, fans, or journos, achieve your dreams and continue to enjoy this great sport of ours.

And in the meantime I forsee wins in Round 13 of the RFU Championship for the Cornish Pirates, Newcastle Falcons, Rotherham Titans, Bedford Blues, Moseley and Leeds.

Happy New Year!

 

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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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