Saturday, 29 December 2007

All I wanted for Christmas...

Apologies for the radio silence over the last week or so - I've been caught up in a whirlwind of family Christmas celebrations, mainly consisting of over-eating, over-drinking and attempting to fix various malfunctioning electronic toys while trying to keep a lid on my kids' frustrations. It's such a joyful time of year isn't it?

Being immersed in children's Christmas presents for the last few days did get me thinking as to what some the various national team coaches might have wanted or indeed received from the fat bearded fella in the red outfit (and no, I don't mean Adam Jones).

Brian Ashton, for instance, largely got what he wanted in that his reward for taking England to the World Cup final was to be allowed to keep his job. Furthermore he's now been awarded an MBE for his efforts. However, I'll tell you what he wants (what he really really wants) and that's to have a bit more control over his own destiny. After all, he's still lumbered with the same coaching staff he has so far failed to bond with, will get no more time with his squad until the new deal with Premier Rugby kicks in in July and still doesn't have the "manager" he's asked for. Apparently he's been told he can "name his man" but the Guardian's interview with Simon Halliday suggests it's not quite that simple.

Across the Severn, Warren Gatland must be celebrating getting the WRU to part with vast sums of cash to tempt him away from Waikato and persuading Rob Howley to join his coaching staff. It's clear, however, that Shaun Edwards is number one on Gatland's wish list and his hopes of being the next Great Redeemer could hinge on whether Edwards chooses to join his old mate instead of taking up an offer from the RFU to coach the appallingly named England Saxons.

Meanwhile, over in Ireland I can only think that Eddie O'Sullivan is thanking his lucky stars that his employers at the IRFU saw fit to give him a new contract before the World Cup debacle. On the cards for 2008 simply must be a return to form, although it has to be said that it's only a matter of time before Ireland's lack of a credible front row is exposed à l'Australie.

Speaking of our convict friends down under, new Wallabies' coach Robbie Deans has, no doubt, been marvelling at the generosity of the ARU whilst at the same time wondering where on earth he's going to find a couple of props who are at least half-reasonable. In the past Australia always seemed import their props from Argentina but, with the ARU budget tied up in Deans' salary, that avenue may well be closed, especially as many Argentinian props these days generally turn out also to be Italian.

And finally, your friend and mine the Right Reverend Graham Henry must be happy that Santa delivered, against the odds, a renewal of his contract to coach the All Blacks, but equally he must be wondering why the big bearded bloke (and no, not Carl Hayman in this instance) couldn't also have provided ready made replacements for Hayman, Chris Jack, Keith Robinson, Byron Kellaher, Aaron Mauger and Luke McAlister.

Meanwhile I'm more than happy with my Andy Ripley autobiography and my banjo - more on that later undoubtedly...

Friday, 21 December 2007

The Total Flanker Awards 2007

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the inaugural annual Total Flanker Awards ceremony where we reward those who have contributed to a feast of rugby in 2007.

I should mention before we start that the selection committee have chosen to discount the Super 14 and Tri Nations from its deliberations on the basis that the two tournaments were rendered meaningless, in the former’s case by Graham Henry’s decision to “rest” New Zealand’s top players from the first half of the competition, and in the latter’s case by Jake White choosing to send a second string squad to play Australia and New Zealand. Northern hemisphere teams are quite rightly derided for sending weakened squads down south on their spring tours, but would never dream of devaluing the Six Nations in the same way.

I should also mention that, being the world’s rugby showpiece, the Rugby World Cup does tend to dominate these proceedings. The committee acknowledges that there’s been plenty of quality rugby elsewhere but, in the majority of awards, I’m afraid all roads lead to France.

First up is the Total Flanker Achievement Against the Odds Award. The committee thought long and hard about this one before ignoring the claims of yours truly for making a comeback to the rugby pitches of Buckinghamshire after a 14 year absence from the game (I may have mentioned this before somewhere on this blog ;) ). Quite rightly Argentina were contenders for this award for reaching the World Cup semi finals (despite many – including myself – predicting they would lose out to France and Ireland in the pool stage) as were England for reaching the World Cup Final from pretty much an impossible position. However the clear winner was Graham Henry for managing to get re-appointed as the All Blacks’ coach despite the worst Rugby World Cup effort in New Zealand rugby history.

Next up is the Total Flanker Biggest Disappointment Award. The committee acknowledges that this award is particularly subjective and depends entirely on ones perspective. New Zealanders, in particular, will be convinced that the All Blacks' failure to progress beyond the World Cup quarter finals should make the recipient of this award a no-brainer and the Welsh will insist that failure to beat Fiji to progress beyond the group stages should place them amongst the leading contenders. However, being as objective as possible, the committee considered that the biggest disappointment was that of Ireland. Given the expectations before the World Cup and given the claims that this was the most experienced and best prepared squad ever to leave the shores of Ireland, their underperformance at the tournament must have just been bewildering for Irish fans. Even accepting that progress from the “pool of death” was far from assured given the strength of France and Argentina, nothing can quite explain Ireland’s lacklustre effort against Namibia or the near disaster against Georgia.

So, now to the Total Flanker Best Decision of the Year Award. Only two nominations for this one and both of them are Jake White! His decision to bring Aussie Eddie Jones onto the South African coaching staff was inspired, creating the illusion that the Springboks had switched emphasis to a more open running style. This was, of course, nonsense as in all of South Africa’s big games in the World Cup it was the traditional virtues of an immense lineout effort and awesome defence that won through. No, the award goes to White for having the common sense not to re-apply for the post of Springbok coach ensuring that, unlike Woodward post-2003, White’s reputation and legacy as a World Cup winning coach remain intact.

Moving on to the Total Flanker Worst Decision of the Year Award. “Wayne Barnes!” I hear the Kiwis shout, but which referee hasn’t missed a forward pass in his career? No, amidst several poor decisions, including Brian Ashton choosing Lawrence Dallaglio for his World Cup squad and the decision by the TMO to award Jonny Wilkinson a try in this year’s Calcutta Cup encounter, one still stands out above all – the IRFU’s decision to hand Eddie O’Sullivan a four year contract extension BEFORE the Rugby World Cup. Pure genius!

Nearing the end now, and it’s the Total Flanker Pull the Other One Award. The Ospreys recent claim that Gavin Henson broke his hand during the recent Anglo-Welsh clash with Harlequins (and not during the subsequent drunken punching game on the train home), is a credible late entry for the honour of this award, but it’s not enough to unseat Lawrence Dallaglio, whose attempt to persuade us that he was still an international rugby player during the England v USA pool match sees him win this one hands down.

And finally… the Total Flanker Should We Be Worried? Award. Only one contender for this one, I’m afraid, and that’s the IRB who seem to be intent on pushing through the ELVs which, it appears, are now to be trialled in the 2008 Super 14. I’ve expressed my disquiet about these previously, and nothing I’ve seen or read since convinces me that they are either necessary or helpful. The fact that there weren’t too many tries come the latter stages of the World Cup lends credibility to those clamouring for change, but this ignores the fact that there were plenty of fantastic games of rugby at the World Cup, and the quality of some of the games being played in the Heineken Cup in the last few weeks has just been superb. Seriously, the game ain’t broke…

Summary:

Total Flanker Achievement Against the Odds Award – Graham Henry
Total Flanker Biggest Disappointment Award – Ireland
Total Flanker Best Decision of the Year Award – Jake White
Total Flanker Worst Decision of the Year Award – IRFU
Total Flanker Pull the Other One Award – Lawrence Dallaglio
Total Flanker Should We Be Worried? Award – IRB.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

IRFU Statement

I have today received the full text of the Irish Rugby Football Union statement of Monday 17th December 2007:

The Committee of the IRFU today received a presentation from dinosaur soft rock group Genesis on their key findings from their review of the Irish Rugby Team's performance at RWC 2007.

The objective of the process was to consider all aspects of the Rugby World Cup campaign so that steps can be taken to make sure we don’t do it all arseways again next time.

The findings confirm that Management, Players and the IRFU alike accept that individually and collectively we fecked the World Cup up.

This presentation identified that there was a complex mix of factors involved in why Ireland's Rugby World Cup 2007 campaign was totally banjanxed.

Firstly, it was found that the squad did not participate in a sufficient number of high intensity warm-up matches and thus lacked the level of match hardness required to take on the might of Namibia and Georgia.

Secondly, the report clearly found that personal issues or rifts did not exist or play any role in how shite the team played. Specifically:

  • It is not true that several members of the squad had to be removed at gunpoint from a taxi heading to the airport before the Georgia game nor that they claimed that they had to fly home to attend the funeral of Jerry Flannery's pet hamster and anyone who says otherwise is a feckin eejit;
  • Neither is it true that Peter Stringer was dropped from the team to face France after refusing to wear the leprechaun suit that Eddie O’Sullivan had bought him. The real reason he was dropped was that Eddie needed a scapegoat and Stringer was the smallest member of the squad;
  • Andrew Trimble was not a token Ulster selection and none of the other lads thought that. No way. Certainly not. Jaysus, no;
  • Isaac Boss was not left out of the starting line up for looking like an extra from a Mad Max movie;
  • Ronan O'Gara was not distracted nor upset by allegations of gambling debts or marital problems in the French press. Honestly, he wasn’t in tears – he just suffers from hay fever, so he does;
  • Nor were there any issues with Brian O'Driscoll's captaincy. To say that the Munster players were hostile to him simply isn't true. How could they be hostile to him when they didn't actually speak to any of the Leinster boys?

In response to the presentation the IRFU has agreed a number of key actions which include:

  • The appointment of someone with the first clue about rugby to the position of team manager. This in no way undermines the position of Eddie O’Sullivan who we all agree is a grand fella and who fully deserves the lucrative four year contract we gave him before the World Cup;
  • The appointment of a dedicated backs coach to teach the players how to pass the ball. Again this is no reflection on Eddie, fair play to him;
  • The retention of a professional to provide ongoing psychological support for the team and management. Bejaysus they need it; and
  • The development of more effective lines of communication between all those involved in the squad, the first step being a polite request to the Munster contingent that they talk to the Leinster players without the use of the words “feck” or “gobshite”.

We acknowledge that it will not be practicable to implement a number of these recommendations prior to the upcoming Six Nations Championship, and so fully expect Eddie and his team to nearly but not quite win it again.

Cheers!

I'm very pleased to announce that this morning this blog received its 10,000th visitor.

Thanks to all of you for your continued support and forbearance. The virtual drinks are on me!


Cheers...:)

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Eggs in one basket?

Hot on the tail of the appointment of kiwi Robbie Deans as the new Australian coach comes the news that the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) has decided to scrap its national domestic competition after just one year because it racked up millions of dollars in losses.

According to the ARU continuing the competition "would be fiscally irresponsible."

When launched only last year the eight-team competition was touted as a way to revitalise rugby union in Australia, being seen as a bridge between club rugby and the Super 14.

The ARU has said that the championship ran two million dollars over budget in its first year and financial predictions showed it was set to lose 3.3 million dollars in its second season, which would of course mean that the ARU would be unable to pay Robbie Deans his rumoured salary of 1 million dollars per year.

One thing you have to ask is how the competition lost so much money - presumably someone at the ARU had responsibility for the budget?

It also begs the question - is the ARU putting all its eggs in one basket by employing Robbie Deans to coach the national team at the expense of developing a broader playing base?

Monday, 17 December 2007

Foreign Affairs

Forget the English Football Association appointing Fabio Capello as the new England football manager - we've been down that particular road before (i.e. of having a foreign coach) and are pretty much resigned to the fact that there are no suitable home-grown candidates.

No, the more controversial appointment made last week was that of kiwi Robbie Deans to the post of head coach of the Australian rugby team.

Not that you'd know it from looking at the Australian press. In fact the Sydney Morning Herald was particularly effusive in its praise for Deans, who it claims is "the No. 1 available coach" and who "doesn't come with any baggage. He doesn't owe anyone favours and is not aligned to any of the factions which have so often disrupted Australian rugby."

Well, that may be the case, but consider this - a few weeks ago Deans didn't want to coach Australia. Being a proud kiwi he, quite rightly, wanted to coach the All Blacks and, also quite rightly, was considered by many to be favourite to get that job. For reasons only known to the duffers in the NZRU Deans was overlooked and, with indecent haste, was then installed as the Aussie coach by the ARU.

In doing so the ARU effectively tore up its own selection process, having previously interviewed David Nucifora, Alan Jones, Ewen McKenzie, Laurie Fisher and John Muggleton, all of whom (unlike Deans) had applied for the position and all of whom are entitled to feel a tad miffed at the way they've been treated by the ARU.

So not only do Australia, a nation with a huge history of sporting success and who have lifted the Webb Ellis Cup on two occasions, end up with a kiwi who didn't really want the job as their head coach, they've done so having decided that none of their own coaches are good enough for the role (and I'd have thought that at least three of the applicants would have been suitable appointments).

That there has been barely a whimper of protest from the Australian press or public about the appointment or about the way in which the selection process was abused is also a concern - effectively what this suggests is that Australians are now buying into the theory that New Zealand rugby is superior, something that would previously have been an anathema to to all Aussie rugby players, coaches, administrators and fans. It is also entirely misplaced - Australia have for a few years now been two good props away from being a very strong international outfit. Heck, they even made the 2003 Rugby World Cup final with two of the worst props the international game has seen and would arguably have been at least semi-finalists this time around had Stepehen Larkham been fit.

Who knows...Deans might turn out to be a hugely successful appointment and no doubt his appointment will add even more spice to the Bledisloe Cup encounters in 2008 but, whatever the outcome, for me a kiwi being in charge of an Australian sports team simply doesn't look right.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

If it ain't broke...

In banging on about the Gavin Henson drunk-on-a-train incident I somehow missed the announcement by the Ospreys that Henson has been ruled out of action for up to six weeks after breaking a bone in his hand, an injury which occurred (according to the Ospreys) in the EDF Energy Cup tie against Harlequins - the very game from which Henson was returning by train when he and his mates got into trouble.

Not only is the injury alleged to have occurred during the Quins game, but the Opsreys have gone to extraordinary lengths to explain exactly how and when it happened.

“Gavin suffered the injury at around the 63rd-64th minute of Sunday’s game after driving into a ruck,” said Ospreys’ doctor Rhydian Lewis.

“From reviewing the match video, it appears an opposition boot accidentally came into contact with his hand and Gavin can clearly be seen holding his left hand as he gets back to his feet.”

Henson was nevertheless able to complete the game, score the match winning try with no obvious signs of discomfort and, despite apparently being diagnosed with a suspected fracture of the fourth metacarpal in his left hand by the Ospreys medical team, was allowed to make his own way back to Wales with an appointment set for him to undergo an x-ray the following day.

Hmmm...so your star player is apparently hurt in the latter stages of a game, possibly with a semi-serious injury, and yet not only is he allowed to play on, when the game's over it's decided that an x-ray can wait until the following morning?

The Ospreys story is, frankly, implausible and is not helped by the fact that BBC footage of the incident in which Henson's injury is supposed to have happened has been described as "inconclusive" or that Henson was witnessed later that evening playing drinking games on a train which involved him punching his mates rather hard.

I know this all sounds as if I've got it in for Gavin Henson. I haven't. I admit I'm not a big fan of his pseudo-celebrity lifestyle but I do think he's an immensely talented rugby player.

The Ospreys may think that the statements they have made on the matter serve to support their player. I happen to think that if, in fact, this all turns out to be a smokescreen for what really happened, then they are ultimately letting Henson down by not confronting the issue properly.

Hope for us all?

And there I was, feeling so smug and impressed with myself for having started playing rugby again at the age of 43, when along comes a story about someone making his international debut at the ripe old age of 45.

The person urinating on my fireworks is none other than Derby RFC Veterans' Felix Frixou. Not only did he make his debut in March this year in the first ever Cyprus rugby international - a 39-3 victory over Greece - he has recently returned from the FIRA AER Division 3D Tournament held in Cyprus, where the host nation recorded wins over Slovakia (38-8), Monaco (19-10) and Azerbaijan (29-0).

What's more, not content with merely representing his country, Felix was awarded the "Flying Ninja" trophy by his Cyprus Moufflons team mates following a try saving tackle in the Monaco game after defending a 2 on 1 situation just yards from his own line by tackling both players!

Well done Felix...now, what's Brian Ashton's phone number?

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

17th Golden Oldies World Rugby Festival

A promo for next year's Golden Oldies rugby festival in Edinburgh...




All very plausible until Andy Irvine says "...the weather's guaranteed to be pleasant and warm..." ;)

Code of Conduct - part 2

So, our favourite bearded orange one will appear in court next month, charged with behaving in a disorderly manner following reports of unruly behaviour on a train last week.

Despite this, it appears that the Ospreys are sticking by their man and have decided that Gavin Henson will not be facing disciplinary action from the club.

Eh? How does that work? The police obviously feel there's enough evidence to charge Henson with a criminal offence and yet the Ospreys have already made a decision not to take any action. Surely it would have made more sense to wait until after the magistrates' hearing next month before deciding?

Meanwhile, further evidence of the deteriorating off-field behaviour of professional rugby players emerged over the weekend when Wales prop Rhys Thomas and his Newport Gwent Dragons team-mate Rhodri Gomer Davies were reprimanded and cautioned by Italian police after they were involved in a fracas outside a nightclub in Treviso, having been detained for two nights by the police following the incident.

To many in Wales these incidents add fuel to the fire of the notion that the drinking culture in Welsh professional rugby is spiralling out of control. I'll admit that I don't know enough about that to comment, but to me it is certainly further evidence that many young professional rugby players don't appear to realise where the boundaries of acceptable behaviour lie and that we're heading down the path well trodden by young professional footballers.

It will be informative to witness what disciplinary action is taken by the Dragons over the Italian incident as it is time that a clear message was delivered to the players as to what the consequences are if they fall beneath the threshold of acceptable professional behaviour. If the players can't sort it out themselves and the clubs choose to bury their collective heads in the sand it will be left to the courts to decide, and all eyes will no doubt be on the magistrates' court in Cardiff on 14th January 2008.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Team of the Year?

The winning of the BBC Sport Team of the Year award by the England rugby team at last night's event just goes to show what a poor year in general it has been for British sport, and in particular for the team sports.

Don't get me wrong, England's progress to the Rugby World Cup final was, when set in the context of what went before, somewhat miraculous - but to to give them an award for Team of the Year for, effectively, two performances (against Australia in the quarter final and against France in the semi final) is just plain wrong and Martin Corry and the rest of the players looked suitably embarrassed when receiving the trophy.

No arguments from me, though, about boxer Joe Calzaghe taking the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

Luckiest man alive - part 2

It appears that someone does, after all, share my incredulity at the reappointment of Graham Henry as the All Blacks coach. What's more, that someone is a Kiwi with both eyes wide open...

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Damp squib

Here's what I should have looked like yesterday.

Instead I remained warm and dry indoors after picking up a voicemail at 1.15 pm, just as I was about to leave the house, informing me that Chiltern had called the match off owing to a "very wet pitch". Now, call me old fashioned, but since when have rugby matches been called off because it's wet and muddy?

I appreciate that it was a Vets game and us oldies don't really need to be slithering around in the mud when there are better things (well, better according to our other halves, at least) we could be doing, but intrinsically it seems a bit lame to cancel a game just because it's wet. Yes, there was a part of me that was relieved not to be out there in the rain but by the time I received the message I'd psyched myself up sufficiently to be disappointed to be told that I wouldn't be able to spend the afternoon freezing my nuts off.

After all, surely it could not have been as bad as this...


Friday, 7 December 2007

Luckiest man alive

Congratulations to Graham Henry for achieving his greatest ever victory - his reappointment as All Blacks head coach.

Quite how the NZRU arrived at this decision is a tad baffling. With the likes of Robbie Deans chomping at the bit to have a go it's not like there was a shortage of quality candidates. But no, it seems that producing the worst All Blacks Rugby World Cup campaign in history (after having been given carte blanche to do things his way) was deemed sufficiently impressive to give Henry another crack at the job.

A few things to note:

  • with New Zealand hosting the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the pressure on Henry will now be relentless;

  • I suspect that the New Zealand Media will not give Henry an easy ride over the next few months, let alone the next few years; and

  • I can't imagine that the NZRU will allow Henry quite the freedom he has enjoyed in the past

It's also worth mentioning that, after presiding over an unsuccessful Lions tour to Australia in 2001 Henry buckled under the pressure of the Wales job - it will be interesting to see how he'll cope with the additional scrutiny that his failings this year will bring. One thing I do hope is that his 2007 experiences will mean that Henry won't be quite so sanctimonious in his preachings to the rugby world at large.

Varsity blooze

Attended the Varsity Match yesterday for the first time in a few years - excellent day out, entertaining game and the right result (22-16 win for Cambridge). The new 4pm kick-off also meant that there was plenty of time beforehand for a long boozy lunch at Twickenham hosted by my old college so, with a couple of additional beers during the game and a couple more afterwards, I admit that I wasn't feeling too clever this morning.

As preparation for another Vets game tomorrow I'm not sure it was ideal and I may need to go out for a jog later or do a gym session just to try and sweat out some of the alcohol. I've had to be careful during the last few weeks not to aggravate a groin strain I've been carrying since the last match 3 weeks ago, which is why I haven't been to club training recently and have just tried to ease myself through training at the gym. It's weird in that I wake up some mornings and it feels fine and yet other mornings it's bloody agony. At the gym it can be painful, for instance, when I start jogging on the treadmill but then is ok after a few minutes when warmed up. I'm certainly planning to start the game tomorrow - against local rivals Amersham & Chiltern - after a decent warm up and some stretching, but I'm not convinced I'll last the whole match.

Or perhaps a couple of drinks beforehand will help numb the pain?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Code of conduct

Welcome to the 200th post on Total Flanker. Time for a rant...

Further to the news that the unfortunate Danny Cipriani has been making headlines as much for his antics off the pitch as for his excellent performances for Wasps, it seems that the weekend also provided us with a couple more unsavoury off-field incidents involving high profile rugby players...

On Sunday a very drunk Gavin Henson and three friends are reported to have subjected a train carriage to two hours of abuse and anti-social behaviour. Henson and his pals were allegedly vomiting, spitting, swearing, intimidating others and punching each other on a train home from London to Cardiff following the Ospreys victory over Harlequins.

Henson was described by a 44-year-old primary school teacher as "an animal". Henson and his three friends, "smelt of vomit and alcohol. They were getting more and more abusive and there were children on the carriage." British Transport Police were alerted and met the train at Cardiff and now Henson at the very least faces an Ospreys disciplinary hearing.

No doubt apologists for Henson will say that the incident has been blown out of all proportion owing to his high profile. But I seriously doubt it. Henson has a history of loutish conduct when drunk and if there's an ounce of truth in the story the Ospreys should throw the book at him.

Meanwhile, Gloucester fly half Ryan Lamb spent around 12 hours in police cells after a city centre disturbance in the early hours of Saturday morning and he was later charged with using words or behaviour that could cause fear of unlawful violence.

You have to ask what a professional rugby player is doing out on the streets of Gloucester at 2 am on a Saturday morning. That he wasn't playing for his club at the weekend is irrelevant, and I simply don't buy into the argument that he was simply letting his hair down like all 21 year-olds do. He has to accept that he is a professional rugby player and has a duty to his club and to himself to behave accordingly and, in any event, common sense should tell him that, as a high profile figure in Gloucester, he is likely to be the target of unwanted attention when out on the town locally. The same goes for Cipriani - his choice of "women" has been a tad unfortunate, but it's his lifestyle that exposes him to these situations and makes him easy prey for unscrupulous journos.

And these are not just isolated occurrences. Last year England's Olly Barkley was arrested in Newquay by police using CS spray after a fight in which a man suffered a broken jaw, Doug Howlett's drunken rampage recently caused thousands of pounds worth of damage to vehicles outside a Heathrow hotel and Australian rugby has suffered several incidents of drunken behaviour in the last 12 months, the most recent involving Scott Fava and a small marsupial.

Of course, drunken conduct by rugby players is hardly a new phenomenon - drinking has always been (and will always be, thank heavens) part of the amateur rugby culture, and while the game remained amateur the sight of intoxicated international rugby players wasn't at all uncommon if you knew where to look. The difference was that it was largely kept out of the public domain. Professionalism has changed all that. Expected standards of behaviour are, quite rightly, higher. Not only that, but a player's public profile is also that much higher, bringing with it increased responsibility.

Furthermore, we're coming very near to the point where no top player will have played in both the amateur and professional eras, so kids now leave school and, instead of heading off to university to drink themselves silly for three years, join a club's academy where they train, train and train some more before being left to their own devices. It's incumbent on the clubs, and on the senior players at those clubs, I think, to mentor young players both on and off the pitch to make sure that their approach to life is more balanced and more responsible. Otherwise one only has to look at football to see where all this might end.

Cipriani and Lamb are arguably two of the finest fly half prospects England have produced for years and it would be a travesty if they were allowed to waste their obvious talents. As for Henson, I wonder whether it's already too late?

Here endeth the lesson :)

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Cipriani misses conversion

It's not often that rugby makes the scandal pages of the News of the World, but young Wasp Danny Cipriani managed it this weekend with revelations that, not only did he cheat on his Cheeky Girl girlfriend, Monica Irimia, but that the "curvy model" in question was, in fact, born a bloke.

I'll resist the temptation to reel off various puns on the word "tackle," but, according to the esteemed Sunday paper, it appears that model Larissa Summers was once a boy called Darren Pratt.

I'm confident that Cipriani's Wasps' colleagues and opposition players and supporters won't be reminding him of this folly at all over the coming weeks but I'm not sure what's worse - the fact that he's unwittingly bedded a bloke or the fact that he was dating a Cheeky Girl.

Home is where the Heartland is

It appears that the NZRU have come up with a unique way of ensuring that at least one of its representative teams remains unbeaten - by selecting a team and then not organising anyone to play against.

Yesterday the NZRU unveiled 22 players selected for the national Heartland squad (consisting of players competing in the amateur Heartland Championship) but then admitted that there was no opposition for the grassroots elite to pit their wits against.

Last year the Heartland side was flown to Argentina for three games and also played a warm-up against the All Blacks. This year those who have made the squad will be flown to Wellington to shake each other's hands, receive their jerseys and then have lunch.

According to NZRU deputy chief executive Steve Tew, selecting the team "provides an extra motivation for the Heartland players to perform in the Heartland Championship."

Of course it does. It's not often they'll be given a free lunch after all.

For the record, the 22 who will be chomping down on the free tucker are:

1 Mike Thompson (Wanganui), 2 Joe Harwood (Wairarapa Bush), 3 Colin Hovell (Poverty Bay), 4 Taua Tahaafe (North Otago), 5 James Cullimore (South Canterbury), 6 Aarin Dunster (King Country), 7 Peter Rowe (Wanganui), 8 Jon Dampney (Mid Canterbury); 9 Kilifi Fangupo (North Otago), 10 Scott Leighton (Poverty Bay), 11 Scott Mayhew (North Otago), 12 Steelie Koro (Wanganui), 13 Fa'aitu Tuamoheloa (North Otago), 14 Brenton Connell (Mid Canterbury), 15 Kahu Tamatea (Poverty Bay). Reserves: 16 Tobias Sekona (North Otago), 17 Malasia Lokeni (Horowhenua Kapiti), 18 Jason Gill (Mid Canterbury), 19 Ross Hay (North Otago), 20 Hamish McKenzie (Wairarapa Bush), 21 Mark Tutton (South Canterbury), 22 Jared McClutchie (Poverty Bay).

Congratulations to all, and remember not to overdo it on the bread rolls.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Strictly X-Factor for Wales

So a scratch Barbarians team won comfortably against the World Champions Springboks at the weekend, which suggests a couple of things to me:

  1. Just how much did this game matter to South Africa? I don't want to bang on about it too much (I know, I already have), but the decision to schedule these games so soon after the World Cup is looking more and more ludicrous. Only five of the World Cup Final starting XV played at the weekend and it was clearly at least one game too far.
  2. Given the nature of the South African performance, how must Wales feel? That they were uncompetitive a week ago against a team who were clearly there for the taking must be of some concern to incoming head coach Warren Gatland.

All is not lost for Mr. Gatland, however, as a root and branch review of Welsh rugby talent will reveal that there are two hugely talented individuals who have, to date, been lost to the Welsh game but who are currently pulling in telephone votes from UK television audiences.

I'm talking, of course, about the X-Factor's Rhyddian Roberts and Strictly Come Dancing's Gethin Jones.

Roberts, looking like a cross between Liberace and a peroxide poodle, is down to the final four contestants in the X-Factor but was, once upon a time, in the "elite rugby squad” at that fine Welsh rugby nursery Llandovery College, where, despite the fact that he now looks as as camp as a row of tents, he was described as a “big powerful centre” and a "tough cookie at rugby, huge and physical." According to his father he once had ambitions to play for Wales and, despite the fact that his aim is now merely to sing the National Anthem at the Millennium Stadium, Gatland could conceivably pair him in the centres with Gavin Henson to form a partnership as comfortable on the red carpet as they would be on the field.

Meanwhile, Blue Peter presenter Gethin Jones, through to the Strictly Come Dancing semi-finals, was part of a talented generation of schoolboy players at Cardiff’s Ysgol Gyfun Glantaf where Welsh centre Jamie Robinson was among his contemporaries. As a scrum-half, he not only captained Manchester Metropolitan University to the semi-finals of the British University Sport Association Championships, he also represented Lancashire at Under 21 level and had trials with Sale. Gatland need only watch the tapes of the snake-hipped Jones' Samba performance on Saturday to convince himself that Gethin will be the man to dance rings around the English at Twickenham in February.

Comedy hour

While discussing the various coaching vacancies that he's being linked with after his final game in charge of the Springboks, Jake White has demonstrated that a career in stand-up comedy may be on the cards .

"There was one from Wales," he said. "It was a fourth division club called Llantwit Major - a mate of mine is there and he thinks he can get me the job.

"He's a bit worried, though, that Graham Henry has also applied."

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Dastardly Deeds Down Under

News in from Australia, where a Western Force disciplinary committee heard last week that players Scott Fava and Richard Brown were seen drunk in public and were witnessed inappropriately man-handling quokkas.

What on earth, you may ask, is a quokka? That was certainly my initial reaction but, as ever, Wikipedia came to my rescue.

The Quokka (Setonix brachyurus), it says, is a small macropod, about the size of a large domestic cat. Like other marsupials in the macropod family (such as the kangaroos and wallabies), the Quokka is herbivorous and mainly nocturnal.
So, with that established the next question has to be how exactly were these two miscreants "inappropriately man-handling" these small furry creatures?

Well, according to eye-witnesses on Rottnest Island, 12 miles off the coast of Perth, one player was seen slam-dunking milk crates to trap the protected species, while the other player was observed swinging one quokka by the tail and releasing it like a hammer-throw.

Comical as this mental picture may first appear, the players were quite rightly punished, Fava being fined 11,000 AUD and Brown 5,000 AUD, both payable to the Rottnest Island Conservation Foundation, and both were ordered to undertake seven days of community service.

Manhandling of a wholly different nature, meanwhile, has been alleged in South Africa against SA Rugby CEO, Johan Prinsloo, who is being accused of fondling a former male employee’s buttocks.

IT consultant Lindsey Williams, 29, has apparently filed the claim at the Cape High Court after Prinsloo was cleared of the charges at an internal disciplinary hearing. Prinsloo and SA Rugby are being sued for 400,000 Rand.

And we thought a referee dropping his shorts was a problem!

Friday, 30 November 2007

Crime and punishment

Given Mark Regan's totally unprofessional decision to play in a meaningless fixture for the Barbarians this weekend, in defiance of Bristol and Premier Rugby and in breach of his playing contract with his club, I believe it's important that Bristol and Premier Rugby come up with a punishment that is both appropriate and proportionate.

Fining the player is the obvious solution but will have no real impact as you can bet that the Barbarians have set aside funds to cover this eventuality, whilst fining the club is, obviously, entirely inappropriate. Suspending the player also does no favours to Bristol who face tough European fixtures in the next few weeks.

No, it appears that the only sensible solution is for us all to give Regan a good kicking.

I am pleased, therefore, to present "Instant Justice" - a game in which we can all help Bristol and Premier Rugby dish out an appropriate and proportionate punishment to this miscreant:


Thursday, 29 November 2007

Bare faced cheek

I admit to being a bit slow off the mark on this one, but earlier this week it appears that an English referee was suspended for 18 weeks for dropping his shorts and baring his arse whilst officiating at a women's rugby match.

A Rugby Football Union for Women (RFUW) disciplinary hearing, chaired by former Harlequins scrum half and appropriately named Richard Moon (I kid you not), heard that Peterborough Ladies and their opponents Thetford were preparing to restart following a converted try, when East Midlands Society official Robert Tustin walked off the pitch and removed his footwear. He then returned to the field, turned his back on the stand where Peterborough's supporters were gathered, and dropped his shorts.

"It was completely out of the blue, and I have no idea why he did it. It wasn't comical. It was absurd behaviour," said Thetford captain Amanda Walker.

"He's not the youngest of referees, so it was not the nicest of sights, and the only consolation was that his front bits weren't showing."

Nevertheless, in true British stiff-upper-lip fashion, the two teams played out the remaining 10 minutes.

"He asked people not to stamp on his feet, as he didn't have his boots on," added Ms Walker, which is fair enough really!

Peterborough, I'm delighted to say (it being my first rugby club) won the encounter 44-5.

Cohen chasing Pink Pound

Ben Cohen, clubless since quitting Northampton Saints after a hissy fit about not being made captain, has (not for the first time) turned his attention to to the pink pound, promoting his “racy” calendar recently at “Prowler” in Soho, the biggest gay store in the country.

The “Real Ben Cohen,” calendar, which commemorates his testimonial year, apparently contains 'striking images of Ben just the way you want to see him – real', according to his press release.

"I think it's fantastic. For a sportsman to do this for gay fans, I think is brilliant and many more should follow," a rugby fan called Paul from Brighton (who’d have thought?) is reported to have said.

The thing is, Paul, this is nothing particularly original. Stade Francais have for the last few years released their “Dieux du Stade” calendars which leave very little to the imagination and are clearly targeted at the gay market. And it’s not a question of altruistic sportsmen doing something for gay fans – this may come as something of a shock but the reality is that they are just after your money. Some of the profits of the Cohen and Stade calendars may go to charity, but the truth is that the pink pound is a new and exploitable target for rugby marketeers.

The pink pound also looks like it may be tinged by a touch of green next year as the latest wheeze from Paddy Power, fresh from its sponsorship of the Tongan team during the Rugby World Cup, is to sponsor next June's Bingham Cup (aka the Gay Rugby World Cup), to be played in Dublin.

The Irish bookmaker appears to have an uncanny knack in coming up with off-the-wall marketing initiatives and, in the Bingham Cup, they've bagged one of the largest amateur rugby tournaments in the world, last year’s competition held in New York featuring 30 teams from gay rugby clubs around the world.

The competition is organised by the the International Gay Rugby Association & Board (which rather conveniently shortens to IGRAB) which, I was surprised to learn, has approximately 40 clubs on is books. I had previously heard of London’s King Cross Steelers and, perhaps naively and somewhat stereotypically, assumed that the likes of Sydney and San Francisco might also have gay rugby clubs, but I’d no idea that so many clubs existed. I do wonder what this says about the rugby community at large – is it a sign of rugby’s inclusive culture or is it rugby's intolerance that has caused gay players to form their own clubs?

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Genius!

A quote, apparently, by an "Unknown English rugby player":

Of course it worries me if the All Blacks are invincible. I mean, it stands to reason, if we can't see them, how can we beat them?

Brilliant! I'd love to know who said this.

The quote is taken from from the book "Rugby Wit: Quips and Quotes for the Rugby Obsessed" by Richard Benson and, if this is the standard, then it's definitely on my Christmas list.






Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The English Foreign Legion?

In a couple of posts on this blog I have, with my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek it must be said, suggested that the talents of Lesley "the Volcano" Vainikolo be utilised by England when he qualifies to play for England on residency grounds in January.

Vainikolo, who is currently the top try scorer in the English Premiership (albeit with all 5 of his tries coming in his first match), has expressed an interest in joining the English cause despite having been born in New Zealand to Tongan parents, and he is not the only foreign player plying his trade in England who has been touted as a possible addition to the national side.

As well as Vainikolo, the likes of Wasps' Riki Flutey and Saracens' Glen Jackson could, in the next few months, have the opportunity to pledge their allegiance to the English cause on residency grounds and they all have their supporters in the press.

I guess there are three questions we need to ask when considering whether this "foreign legion" should be selected for England:

  1. Are they good enough?

  2. Do they want to play for England?

  3. Is it right and proper for players with no English connection at all to represent England?

In the case of Vainikolo, the first question is relatively easy to answer. He is still learning the ropes as far as Rugby Union is concerned but the potential of this powerful giant is just awesome. England have some decent wings in their ranks at the moment but none who could make the sort of impact that Vainikolo could. The second question is, in this case, perhaps more pertinent. While expressing an interest in England, Vainikolo has also declared that he'd be interested in representing Tonga. He needs to make a commitment and declare one way or the other.

As regards Riki Flutey, his current form for Wasps, where he has been cutting opposition defences to ribbons from inside centre, suggests an affirmative answer to the first question, although the fact that London Irish didn't fight tooth and nail to retain his services at the end of last season suggests that perhaps we need to see this form sustained over a period of time before making a definitive judgement. After all, it wasn't that long ago that Flutey's fellow-Wasp and Kiwi, Mark Van Gisbergen, was being touted as the answer to the problematical England no. 15 shirt, until a loss of form and confidence put paid to that idea. The second question is more problematical - as a Maori from New Zealand, Flutey has declared that he has no interest in an England shirt, quite rightly having ambitions one day to be an All Black. If this is what he wants it seems non-sensical to me to try to persuade him otherwise, no matter how good he is.

As for Glen Jackson, he's been one of the Premeirship's most consistent performers at fly half over the past couple of seasons and possibly possesses a more all-round complete game than any of the current England pretenders, including Saint Jonny. Whether including him in the England set-up would possibly stunt the development of young England wannabes like Ryan Lamb, Danny Cipriani or Shane Geraghty is a question for a different debate, but it's clear to me that Jackson is good enough to be given an opportunity, especially as he has unequivocally declared that he wants to play for England.

All of which brings me to the third question - is it right and proper for players with no English connection at all to represent England? I admit that this is a question that troubles me as I often fail to grasp how a player can have sufficient pride in a country's shirt if he doesn't "belong" to that country. In other words, wanting to play for a country isn't enough - my instinct is that a player has to "feel" English to play for England. It's more than possible that I'm being terribly naive here, and it's not as if England hasn't included obviously "foreign" players in the past - Mike Catt, Matt Stevens and Perry Freshwater being of the most recent vintage (although all, it must said, with an English parental/grandparental connection).

We (or at least certain Northern Hemisphere journalists) also have great fun in taking the moral high-ground in berating New Zealand for "plundering" the Pacific Islands, although it's beyond me how anyone can honestly object to someone playing for the All Blacks who was born in New Zealand to e.g. Samoan parents or taken to New Zealand as a child by parents looking for a better life. Certainly any objections we do have to Pacific Islanders wearing the black shirt will fly out of the window if England line up in the near future with Messrs Jackson, Vainikolo and Flutey wearing the white 10, 11 and 12 shirts respectively.

I guess the reality of the situation is that "rules is rules" so that, if a player is qualified for England then, as long as questions 1 and 2 above are satisfied, there's no reason why he shouldn't be picked. Other countries seem to have no qualms in this respect and, with more and more foreign players plying their trade in the English league and qualifying for England on residency grounds, it's certainly an issue that isn't likely to go away.

Monday, 26 November 2007

National Geordie Beard Day Update

In continuation of this blog's current obsession with all things hairy, here's a brief update on the progress towards National Geordie Beard Day, being promoted by Newcastle Falcons to celebrate the arrival of Carl Hayman at the club and to benefit rugby charity Wooden Spoon.

With three weeks to go until the event (taking place on Sunday 16th December when the Falcons face Connacht in the European Challenge Cup), it appears that Director of Rugby John Fletcher is leading the way with an already mature growth.

“I’ve had three weeks growth so far and I’ve been told I am now irresistible to the opposite sex, even the same sex, so with another three weeks to go I’ll be twice as attractive by December 16," he says on the Falcons' website.

“I’ve also timed it quite well because after the National Geordie Beard Day I can look for some seasonal work in the big department stores around Newcastle in the run-up to Christmas."

The Falcons certainly don't believe in doing things by halves, as they've enlisted the services of bearded celebrity rummager David Bellamy and The Handlebar Club (who had winners in the frankly ludicrous World Beard and Moustache Championships, apparently held in Brighton this year) to judge the beard competition.

Of course the big question is will the clean cut visages of Messrs Wilkinson and Flood be sprouting facial fluff?

Sunday, 25 November 2007

We are the World

The IRB are apparently getting together later this week for a chinwag (or "historic global forum" as they rather self-importantly describe it) which will include a rather radical proposal from the RFU (surely some mistake) to introduce a "World Series" featuring the countries of the Six Nations, the Tri-Nations and Argentina.

The plan, rather laughably described as being "top secret" (so either Total Flanker has an exclusive mole in the upper echelons of the IRB or the the details of the proposal can be accessed by picking up any of the more serious Sunday papers), is designed to ensure that, unlike the Rugby World Cup, every top team will play the other nine over a two-year period, with aggregate results from the Six Nations and Tri-Nations and end-of-season tour matches determining the final rankings (which will also affect Rugby World Cup seedings). The top team from each side of the equator will then meet in a one-off Grand Final at Twickenham, the Stade de France or the Millennium Stadium.

What's clever about the plan is that it only involves one extra fixture - the Grand Final - so shouldn't noticeably add to the burden on players, and it also has the potential to end the annual charade of the Northern Hemisphere nations sending second-string XVs each Spring to be slaughtered down under.

What's less clear is how much credence will be given to this so-called "World Series" by the Unions, the English and French clubs, the players and, most importantly, the fans. After all, the last thing anyone (well, anyone who isn't from New Zealand) wants is for the importance and aura of the Rugby World Cup to be diluted in any way.

Although it clearly does have its merits, the plan will clearly never work. After all, whoever heard of a "World Series" involving teams from outside the United States?

Friday, 23 November 2007

Poisoned chalice?

Jake White has revealed he was put off going after the job of Wales Head Coach because of the high casualty rate amongst previous Welsh coaches.

"I saw a stat which said that Wales had 16 coaches in 21 years and that is not something that you want to be putting your hand up for," he is reported to have said.

Given the WRU's track record of knifing their coaches firmly between the shoulder blades I must admit that I was surprised at Warren Gatland's decision to sign on the dotted line (it must be a VERY lucrative deal) but, for the record, I must say that White's comments are a gross exaggeration as I can only find 14 Welsh coaches dating back to 1986 who have supped from the poisoned chalice. These are (including caretaker roles):

Tony Gray
John Ryan
Ron Waldron
Alan Davies
Alex Evans
Kevin Bowring
Dennis John
Graham Henry
Lynn Howells
Steve Hanson
Mike Ruddock
Scott Johnson
Gareth Jenkins
Nigel Davies.

What is clear, however, is that the WRU have achieved the not inconsiderable feat of making the job of England football manager look secure.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

A day in the life of Paul O'Connell

More from Today FM Ireland's Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show...



I loved the line: "What did Superman get for Christmas? Paul O'Connell pyjamas!"

Leeds on earthquake alert

The Environement Agency today put the residents of Headingly in Leeds on high alert as an earthquake, forecast to be "off the Richter scale," is expected to hit the area when the Tuilagi brothers, Andy and Alesana, collide on Saturday afternoon as Leeds Carnegie take on Leicester Tigers.

Centre Andy Tuilagi joined Leeds last season from Leicester having become the fourth member of the family to play for the Tigers following in the footsteps of Freddie, Henry and Alesana.

Here's what he might expect from his brother:



Scarily, a fifth brother, Vavae, is a member of the Leicester academy and a sixth, Manu, is at school in Leicestershire and set to follow the family tradition.

Utterly pointless

Wales take on the World Champion Springboks this weekend and arguably will never have a better chance to beat them.

Of course, I say "World Champion" but the side Wales will face will be anything but that. Much is being made of the the fact that nine of the Boks' World Cup Final starting XV will play against Wales, but the fact is that, of the six missing, five were absolutely key to the way South Africa played in the Rugby World Cup and the other, Danie Roussow, pulled off the match-winning tackle on Mark Cueto in the Final.

Without Percy Montgomery's metronomic kicking, the game management skills of Butch James and Fourie Du Preez, the lineout prowess of Victor Matfield and the scrummaging strength of Os Du Randt, I sense that South Africa might be there for the taking, especially given that none of their players have been in action since 22nd October.

My question, however, is this. What on earth is the point of this game? What exactly will it prove? (OK, two questions). To stage an international match 33 days after the Final of the Rugby World Cup is just ridiculous and is a purely a greedy, money-grabbing exercise by the WRU. The match serves no other purpose and takes no account at all of player welfare.

Of course, it's not just the WRU who are indulging in such mercenary activities. The RFU are also in on the act, staging an even more meaningless encounter between the Boks and the Barbarians the following weekend. For that encounter the South Africans will also be shorn of their captain, John Smit, as his club, Clermont Auvergne, quite rightly insist that he turns out for them, whilst the Barbarians will feature the usual motley crew of retired internationals and holidaying antipodeans (Jerry Collins' Barnstaple socks notwithstanding), the English Premiership sides having (again quite rightly) refused to release their players for the meaningless encounter.

It's a far cry from the halcyon days of the seventies and in particular "that match", you know the one, 1973, the All Blacks, a match laced with meaning, a Barbarians team packed with Lions and, of course, "that try".

The professional era has, inevitably, seen a dramatic dilution of the lure of the BaaBaas - after all, no one can expect employers to release their assets for these one-off showcase matches and, in reality, no one can expect a scratch side coming together a matter of days before a game to put up a meaningful display against a well-drilled professional international outfit. This decline in the profile of the Barbarians has led to to calls that the grand old club should be laid to rest as an icon of rugby's amateur past rather than an anachronistic embarrassment of rugby's professional present but, I must say, I wouldn't go that far.

Yes, Barbarians' showcase matches against the Southern Hemisphere touring sides have become an utterly pointless exercise but, given the right support, the club can still find its niche in the game and make a real contribution. Last season, for instance, the BaaBaas played the Combined Services, the East Midlands, and the Army (in the Army Rugby's centenary celebration match), before undertaking summer fixtures on tour against Spain and Tunisia with a squad featuring various 2nd team players from Premiership and Celtic League clubs, National Division 1 players and a few guests from overseas.

Helping develop rugby in 2nd and 3rd tier nations, and supporting grassroots rugby and charitable causes are still areas in which the Barbarian club can bring its tradition and its magnificent brand to the table and really add something to the rugby calendar. Funding may be an issue (and probably explains why we've had to endure these meaningless showcase events over the years) but it should not be beyond the wit of professional rugby in the UK to find a way of supporting this worthy cause and help put something back into the game.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Time for a quick break...

Here's something else I found on YouTube - the Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show from Today FM Ireland. It's a little out of date given that it was first broadcast prior to the World Cup, but in some ways it's funnier as a result - certainly worth a giggle...

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Go Play Rugby (again)

Stumbled across another advert for the RFU's "Go Play Rugby" campaign - effective, if a little on the corny side.





Given my own experience in coming back to the game after a fourteen year absence, I thought I'd re-script the advert (see below). In reading it please refer to the above video - only instead of some ultra-keen, fit, twenty-something tyro please picture, if you will, a tired, grumpy, forty-something has-been...


It's been 14 years since I left the game...
...since I last received abuse as I walked into a rugby club,
...since I last dreaded running out to face the pain in driving rain,
...since I felt like this...
...this terror,
...this slow,
...this fat,
...this clumsy,
...this humiliation,
...this pain.
And now I'm back...
...back on the pitch,
...back in A&E...
...my back,
...my knee,
...my shoulder
...my groin.
Buggered.
Must be mad...

Monday, 19 November 2007

Boks face Barum socks

Following the heart-warming revelation that All Black Jerry Collins recently made over 30 rugby players as happy as a fat kid in a sweetshop by turning out for Barnstaple 2nds against their Newton Abbott counterparts in Devon, it now looks as if the Barnstaple club socks will be worn by Collins at Twickenham when he turns out for the Barbarians against South Africa next month.

“I have asked the Barnstaple guys if it would be okay for me to wear their socks when I play for the Barbarians against South Africa at Twickenham. I have played for the club and it’s something I would like to do,” Collins told the Sunday Times.

It seems that, for Collins, it was the Barnstaple club that did him a favour by letting him play, rather than the other way round.

Good on you Jerry Collins - a true gent.

Facial hair update

It seems that rugby's return to the halcyon days of the hirsute seventies, when the moustaches of Mervyn Davies and Sid Going and the beards of Ray Gravell and Derek Quinnell (amongst many, many others) graced our pitches, has really caught the rugby public's imagination with Andy Goode's magnificent moustache being the talk of many a rugby forum.

Time for a facial hair update then, and it is Goode's Leicester Tigers who continue to set the pace with their "Grow a Mo for Hambo" campaign, in aid of the Matt Hampson Trust. Goode's effort wins hands down so far in terms of creativity (if only he showed the same imagination on the pitch), but the efforts of Geordan Murphy and Luke Abraham deserve an honourable mention, while George Chuter's beginning to look like some crazed survivor of a shipwreck washed up on a desert island. The most sinister of all though is the new look sported by Harry Ellis - he may be out for the whole of the season while he recovers from a serious knee injury, but that's no excuse for looking like something you wouldn't want your children to see before they went to bed.

With the results of the Newcastle Falcons' "National Geordie Beard Day" eagerly waited next month, it appears that the Welsh have now jumped aboard the hairy bandwagon as the Ospreys are in on the act, signing up for the Movember campaign to cultivate the most stylish facial hair they can throughout November in aid of the Prostate Cancer Charity.

According to an Ospreys spokesman, "Gavin Henson is thought to be planning a goatee, Shane Williams a full set and Justin Marshall is trying for the Graham Mourie with a big moustache.”

I've been unable so far to locate photos of the team's efforts, so will have to content myself with the below "artist's impressions" with Henson in particular doing a more than passable impression of the Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon...


Sunday, 18 November 2007

Feeling the pain

Only one word can describe how I feel today...

...PAIN.

I suspected that Saturday's match against Ruislip Vets would be a tough one and I wasn't wrong. Whilst there's an argument that to expect to face a bit of a battering can turn out to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, I really don't think that this was the case here as the bottom line was that they had half a dozen or so seriously decent players in their line up and played some seriously good rugby.

The final score was 33-5 (to them of course) but that doesn't really tell the whole story. That the opposition knew what they were doing was evident very early on as they took every opportunity to move the ball away from contact and ran hard at our midfield, one of whom was a backrower playing out of position and neither of whom had played together before. The tactic yielded an early try and it was obvious that we'd have to work very, very hard to keep them out.

Whereas they looked extremely well drilled from the off, we looked exactly what we were - pretty much a scratch side. We showed nine changes from the starting line up in our last game and it took us pretty much the whole of the first half to come to terms with what we were trying to do ourselves, let alone what the opposition were trying to do. By that stage, sadly, we were 3 tries down and trailed 19-0 at the half.

I certainly felt some responsibility for the second try in that I missed their inside centre with a despairing dive after he'd broken through the middle. Had I been fully switched on to what they were doing I'd have anticipated the break and, I'd like to think, would have made the tackle but, like the rest of the team, I wasn't really at the races during that first half.

One area that was going well for us, though, was the scrummage where we were much stronger than in our last outing and were able to shunt the opposition pack backwards both on their ball and on ours. Sadly our advantage here was swiftly negated early in the second half as an injury to one of our props meant that we had to switch to uncontested scrummages - another first for yours truly.

Nevertheless, we started the second half quite brightly and began to control territory and possession pretty well, eventually culminating in a try. I've no idea who scored it, mind you, as I was still at the bottom of a pile of bodies, desperately trying to breathe. Being trapped at the bottom of a pile up with the air being squeezed out of my lungs has never been a favourite location of mine, but believe me it's even worse when it's Vets rugby as, in general, players tend to (how can I put this politely?) be a few pounds heavier than in their prime.

To make matters worse, when I was eventually peeled from the floor I was informed by the referee that I had blood all over my face and needed to go off to get cleaned up. It turned out just to be a knick on my forehead which fortunately stopped bleeding pretty quickly and allowed me to be back on the field by the time the opposition kicked off again (which in many ways was a shame as I fancied a bit of a rest at that point).

The remainder of the game was spent largely chasing after Ruislip players who had obviously decided to spin every piece of possession they had and keep the ball alive at all costs. Not only was this exhausting for us it was also very bad form by the opposition to rely on superior fitness and skill to try to beat us - that's just not playing the game by my book.

We did have another opportunity to score later in the half, only for Colin (who runs the team) to spill the ball in the tackle as he prematurely attempted to celebrate the try, before having to leave the field with a combination of a knee injury and a severe case of mortal embarrassment.

Two further late tries were conceded as the opposition's dastardly fitness kicked in, before the referee (who had suffered from myopia for much of the game) blew the final whistle signal the end of the torture. A hot shower and a couple of beers later it was back home to nurse my many aches, strains and bruises, all of which have returned with a vengeance today as the anesthetic effect of last night's alcohol has worn off.

Naively, I had thought that this rugby lark would get easier but I've come to realise that, at my age, the pain really is part of the territory. It's three weeks before our next match - against local rivals Amersham & Chiltern - and no doubt by then the pain will be a distant memory and I'll have convinced myself that I'm fitter and that this time it will be different...

Friday, 16 November 2007

Peace in our time

So peace has finally broken out in England with the club vs country war finally being resolved, we're told, by a new eight-year agreement between the RFU and the Guinness Premiership clubs.

A “golden era for English rugby” was the expression used yesterday by Premier Rugby CEO Mark McCafferty and, who knows, it may turn out to be just that but a couple of things should be noted:

  1. The agreement doesn't come into force until 1st July 2008. So, unless there's an outbreak of voluntary goodwill in January, England's 2008 Six Nations campaign will probably still resemble the shambles of the last few years with Brian Ashton (or whoever is holding the reins) allowed only a couple of days training before each international; and

  2. When this deal finally does kick in there'll be no more excuses. If we're crap it'll be because we're crap - full stop.

Meanwhile, across the Severn, Warren Gatland has been unveiled as the Wales head coach with indecent haste. Don't get me wrong - he's a very good coach and I suppose it can be argued that the WRU have acted decisively in getting their man but, to me, it smacks of desperation and doesn't seem particularly well thought through. As for Gatland's decision to leave Waikato, I'm sure some of it is down to a desire to work at international level again but the WRU waiving its chequebook around may have helped. I also wonder if he has any idea what he's letting himself in for, given how Wales have treated their last two head coaches.

It may be Heineken Cup action again this weekend but the real action takes place at Chesham where we'll be taking on Ruislip Vets tomorrow afternoon. I took a look at the Ruislip RFC website this morning. Big mistake! No news relating to their Vets team this season, but last season they won all 6 of their fixtures and with scores like 72-0, 50-5 and 52-19 it looks like we'll have our work cut out. Their 3rd XV beat our 2nds 77-0 last weekend too, which doesn't bode that well. I may just have a bit of tackling to do tomorrow...

Finally, thanks to the thousands of you who attempted the Guess Who? competition posted on Wednesday. Well, I say thousands - what I really mean is thank you for the single entry! I can therefore announce that the winner is Chay who correctly guessed that the handsome young chap in the picture was none other than South Manchester's finest, Sebastian Chabal.

Chay wins a month's supply of virtual lager - enjoy and remember to drink responsibly! :)

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Guess who?

OK chaps it's competition time.

First prize is a month's supply of virtual lager.

All you have to do is name this handsome young fella on the left.

Please put your answers as comments to this post.

Closing time and date will be when I can be bothered to post the answer... :)

Cheers...

Eating my words...

Who was it who mentioned recently that training at the rugby club didn't always involve much fitness work and often featured "standing around on a cold, damp field?"

Ah, yes - that would've been me then. Well, all I can say is that, last night, it was cold and it was damp but it was also very, very physical and I have to admit that today I am paying for my comments in a big way with various parts of my body reminding me that I'm 43.

After a reasonably gentle game of touch and 10 minutes' worth of warm-up exercises we split off into two groups of eight, with each group tasked to attack against a specified number of defenders from the other group in defined channels of the pitch, two narrow channels and one wider channel. Being full contact, it was hard enough work in defence, but there was usually some respite after each attack as other defenders could then step in for the next one. There was no such respite in attack - as soon as our group had finished one attack in one channel it was straight into the next one - easy enough when it was, say, eight against three in the wider channel but incredibly draining when it was, for example, eight against six in a narrow channel.

I must confess that after about 10 minutes I was totally knackered, all energy seemingly well and truly sapped, but somehow I managed to keep going until we'd completed the full 45 minute exercise. We then finished off with 15 minutes-worth of eight against eight in a slightly wider area, just to re-emphasise to my body that, no matter how fit I think I might be, no amount of gym work can really compensate for being bashed about in full contact rugby.

On the plus side, I was reasonably happy with my own contribution and in particular my physicality which I'd previously been concerned about. It was certainly an extremely useful workout ahead of playing my 2nd game of the season on Saturday - against Ruislip Vets who, the grapevine has it, are quite handy.

Another first for me last night - it was the first time I'd ever worn a scrum cap. The soreness of my ears after the last match persuaded me to invest in some protection and, although it felt a bit weird at first, I soon got used to it and who knows, psychologically it may even have helped.

Roll on Saturday - just as soon as I stop hurting!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Eden parked

The Chief Executive of one of New Zealand's largest building firms has said that unless a decision is made soon over which construction company will win the contract to upgrade Eden Park (artist's impression pictured), no company will be able to deliver a completed stadium in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

New Zealand was awarded the hosting rights for the event in 2005, conditional upon a commitment to upgrade Eden Park to an International Rugby Board-mandated minimum capacity of 60,000.

The delay appears to be the result of arguments over who will pay the NZ$190 million costs, with Auckland city mayor John Banks fighting against Auckland ratepayers having to foot the bill.

So here's a question: Does New Zealand want this World Cup or not? Because the way things are going (and remember they've already had 2 years to start preparing) we're going to be faced with watching a tournament stripped of its minnows (if the 16 team rumour turns out to be true) in inadequate or incomplete stadia, and with no means of getting to the stadia (assuming of course that we've found somewhere to stay).

Here's another question: Does anyone have the phone number for the President of the Japanese RFU?