Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Don't touch me there

Another Tuesday evening, another game of Touch although this one passed me by somewhat. One of those games where for whatever reason I struggled to get involved and at the end of it didn’t really feel like I’d had a proper workout. Partly it was down to the opposition being too damned quick – certainly the quickest team in the competition. It meant that once they’d created a gap that was it - they were off and there was no chance of catching them (so no point in trying). And there were plenty of gaps in our defence as usual. A bit of showboating on their part didn’t help my mood either – arrogant gits.

As you might have gathered we lost (not entirely sure what the final score was – we scored 3 and conceded 8 or 9 at a guess) and I’m not the greatest of losers. Actually it’s not losing that I mind so much – it’s losing and not feeling able to do much about it that I hate. I came away last night feeling like I’d done nothing to influence events at all – my own fault for not trying to impose myself more I guess but for the first time since I started playing Touch last year I really didn’t enjoy it.

Moan, moan, moan…I suppose it could have been worse. Just think of poor old England in South Africa…

Friday, 25 May 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to playing: PROP

I must admit that me trying to give anyone advice on how to play prop is a bit like King Herod handing out advice on childcare, so what follows is less about the technicalities of playing prop and more about the qualities it takes to BE a prop forward.

First of all, prop forwards consider themselves to be the cornerstone of any rugby team. As far as they are concerned the old adage “Forwards win matches, backs decide by how much” is only half true, and even then they’ll only grudgingly concede that the term “forwards” might sometimes include other members of the tight five.

It’s true that, at the top end of the game, good props (and especially tightheads) are in huge demand and can almost name their price. And these days at junior club level the requirement for 1st XVs to have front row cover on the bench means that, lower down the club, genuine props are a rare commodity to be fought over by 3rd, 4th and Vets’ team captains.

So what does it take to be a prop? Here are a few essentials:
  • be born the right shape. Players who graduate to prop from other positions are few and far between. The vast majority were put there on their first appearance on a rugby pitch purely by virtue of their build and have remained there ever since;
  • be born with the right mentality. “Musn’t grumble” just isn’t part of a prop’s make-up. Appropriate topics for a prop's evil mutterings include (without limitation): the opposition’s scrummaging technique; referees’ decisions and/or parentage; second rows’ binding; flankers’ (non) pushing; backs being tackled behind the gainline; and, in particular, fly halves kicking out on the full;
  • get a nickname – something along the lines of “Tank”, or “Nutter” or “Rhino”. Very few props are successful without one;
  • follow orders to the letter. Hanging on at a scrum with your head half way up your arse requires blind devotion to duty. A military background can help;
  • never, ever, be tempted to kick the ball. You’ll just look stupid.

Of course there are other typical qualities, usually involving copious amounts of beer and a penchant for depraved post-match antics, but without the above essentials you’ll be nothing more than a prop wannabe.

Hope that helps…

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Can't Touch this...

There's nothing to beat running about on a summer's evening, chucking a rugby ball around with the sun on your back. Yes, the sun shone on the second round of games in the Chesham Touch league yesterday evening and what a difference from the drab and damp conditions of last week.

We were up against a bunch of teenagers which, with a collection of young'uns on our own team, meant that at times matters descended into a game of adolescent tit-for-tat, especially in the second half. Fortunately, being one of the more mature members of the team (at least in years), I was able to bring a sense of decorum and dignity to bear on proceedings, that is until the game started and I caught my studs in the turf while trying to retreat five metres and ended up arse over tit, much to the amusement of all around me.

All I could do was grin sheepishly, pick myself up and drag my tired old limbs around the pitch and, once I'd adjusted to the insane pace of the game, I was able to contribute an early try to settle us down. With one or two older heads out there this week we managed to establish a degree of control and generally were able to stay 2 or 3 scores ahead, until a mad last quarter when, once again, our defensive discipline simply evaporated and we ended up clinging on to a 7-6 win. I even managed to surprise myself by (possibly foolishly) setting off in pursuit of, and then catching, some teenage kid who had broken through and was sprinting for the line - the only one more surprised than me was probably the kid in question who looked shellshocked at having been hunted down by an old, sweaty, beetroot-faced hippo. I hope he's getting a suitable amount of stick from his mates.

I was asked whether I'd be playing fifteens next season and, having crocked myself in pre-season training last summer, was suitably non-committal. The good news is that I feel much fitter this year and am definitely playing with more confidence but there's an awfully long way to go before I'll be ready for full contact again (if ever) - I still feel like I've been run over by a juggernaut the morning after Touch, so heaven knows how my body would react to proper contact.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Hobbits on Babysham?

The perceived wisdom of the English press is that England are likely to get something of a stuffing from the Springboks over the next two weekends because Brian Ashton has been unable or unwilling to name a contingent of players, mostly forwards, who played for Leicester and Wasps in last weekend’s Heineken Cup Final.

The implication is, of course, that had these players been available and selected then all would have been well, that the form of some of the Leicester forwards over the last few weeks and the heroics of the Wasps pack on Saturday would somehow have enabled England to steamroller the Springboks into submission.

This theory, however, ignores some fairly basic facts:
  • that two different England packs were taken to the cleaners in this season’s Six Nations by Italy (at Twickenham, no less), Ireland and (heaven help us) Wales;
  • that the Wasps and Leicester players mentioned in dispatches by the press are all likely to be running on empty after another ridiculously long and arduous domestic season; and
  • that when you look at the vast majority of those players, their form in an England shirt over the last 12 to 18 months or so hardly inspires confidence.

I’m not saying we won’t take a beating from the South Africans. It just that, if we do, it will have less to do with the personnel involved and more to do with the current state of English rugby and our inability to put together a decent pack of forwards.

From White Orcs on Steroids to Hobbits on Babysham in four short years...

Friday, 18 May 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to playing: FLANKER

OK, so if I'm going to start handing out advice* about how to play certain positions on the rugby field I may as well start with a position I think know something about.

The position of flanker (or wing-forward, or breakaway, or loose-forward) is one I enjoyed for many a season and these days is usually split into the categories of openside and blindside flanker. Over the years the gap between openside and blindside has widened to the extent that they are now not only two different positions but are also two very distinct philosophies. The following advice is therefore based on the following truisms:

1. The openside flanker's raison d'ĂȘtre is to be noticed. The blindside prefers anonymity;

2. The openside honestly believes he's the team's most valuable player and, if he chose to, he could play anywhere in the backline and still be the team's star performer; and

3. The blindside is essentially a lock forward who is not quite big enough for the tight-five.

So, to play blindside with any degree of success you need to:

- shave your head;
- tackle anything that moves;
- drink Guinness with the tight five forwards after the game;
- tackle anything that moves;
- spend an inordinate amount of time trapped at the bottom of rucks;
- tackle anything that moves;-
- touch the ball a maximum of three times during the course of 80 minutes; and, finally
- tackle anything that moves.

Whereas to play openside you'll need to develop an entirely different skillset, namely:

- grow your hair or dye it blonde, or both;
- tape up both wrists (for effect, not support);
- wear white boots;
- hang off rucks and point a lot;
- tackle the opposition fly half (preferably late), especially if he's small;
- engage the referee in constant dialogue;
- drink spritzers with the girls after the game;
- take a year's supply of shower gel, hair gel and moisturizer to every game;
- get on the end of others' hard work to grab the glory by scoring an average of 2 tries per game from an average of 5 yards out.

There, I think that covers it. Hope that helps...

(*all advice tempered by the disclaimer that I haven't played a game of competitive rugby since lifting was allowed in the lineout and therefore almost certainly haven't a clue what I'm talking about).

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Touch too much

It turns out our Touch season didn't start last week as I'd thought, so our 9-7 defeat didn't count in the overall competition. What's more, last night we were up against the same oppo as last week, knowing they'd be mightily pissed off if we managed to sneak a win against them this time.

Sadly it wasn't to be as we succumbed 7-2. Ultimately they had improved more than we had. We did ok in the first half, defended pretty well and went in 3-1 down thanks only to a couple of very dodgy refereeing decisions it must be said. However the second half was largely one-way traffic and we were very ragged.

One of the problems we've got this year is having too many young 'uns in the side - by "young 'uns" I mean guys of 17, 18 etc who, whilst much fitter than the rest of us, are so keen that they want to be on the field for the full 40 minutes.

Touch, for the uninitiated, is 20 minutes each way and it's pretty much non-stop. With only six-a-side (including two women at all times) and played on half a pitch it is extremely hard work especially when up against pacey opposition. The one saving grace is that we're allowed to use rolling substitutions and the sensible among us (i.e. the older geezers) know when to take a breather and sub ourselves off. The younger lads (and lasses) seem to think there's something dishonourable with admitting that they're tired with the result that after a while they're all over the place in terms of positioning, especially defensively. We certainly need a couple more of the older heads back to steady the ship.

One consolation is that I crossed for the final try, getting on the end of a move where for once we actually held on to the ball and passed to hand. The fact is I actually let the ball slip from my grasp when trying to ground it (it was a wet evening, honestly!) but I reckon the referee decided to even out some of his earlier gaffes...

Plenty to work on next week...

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Bring on the Clowns

Has anyone seen the new England “rugby” kit? I put the word “rugby” in inverted commas because it doesn’t even come close to resembling what I, or anybody with any sort of tradition in the game, would consider rugby apparel.

In short, it’s an abomination. The shirt is bad enough – it makes the skin-tight RWC 2003 turtle-necked version look positively conservative. This new 2007 design is once again no more than a figure-hugging t-shirt in some horrendous acrylic polyester – but what’s unforgivable is that there’s now a big red swoosh (I can only surmise that this might have something to do with kit manufacturer) which now runs from the top right shoulder and across the stomach area. For pity’s sake, this is the national rugby shirt we’re talking about here, not some cheap knock-off garment from the high street to wear on holiday in Benidorm.

What makes matters even worse is that the big red swoosh appears to extend across onto the player’s shorts, giving the shorts a ludicrous red & white two-tone effect and, if the photo from the cover of the England Rugby 2007 Summer Catalogue is to be believed, the red & white effect appears to be repeated on the players’ socks.

Call me old fashioned, but the overall look is one of a badly designed football kit from the nineteen eighties (and there were plenty of those) or, even worse perhaps, some of the more garish designs on display in Rugby League a few years back. The new England rugby kit is a success only insofar as it manages to achieve the virtually impossible task of making the England football team look sophisticated.

Putting aside the commercial greed that is obviously behind the decision to change the kit design yet again, what on earth were the RFU thinking of in approving this kit? Is there no room for tradition in modern kit design? Looking at the new kit the answer is obviously a resounding “no”. I can excuse, to some extent, the designers themselves – after all the manufacturer of the England kit does not have the tradition in rugby that some of the other well known rugby kit brands possess, but whoever sanctioned this particular design at the RFU needs to be taken to the far end of the West car park at Twickenham and summarily executed.

What, I ask, is wrong with a kit that consists primarily of an all-white shirt with the red rose motif, white shorts and navy blue socks with white tops? OK, I reluctantly accept that advances in modern science demand that the shirts be designed tighter and made from horrible materials, but at least show a bit of class and pay lip service to the traditions of English rugby.

No wonder the players all look so glum on the adverts. Not only is it likely that England will be humiliated on the South African veldt this summer and in the Rugby World Cup this autumn, but they’ll have to suffer such humiliation whilst looking completely ridiculous.

I urge anyone thinking of buying replica kit to support England in the next few months – don’t do it! If you feel the need to wear the colours then search eBay for old designs, buy something unofficial or get knitting – anything to show the RFU that enough is enough.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Essential reading...

...for anyone who has played, or is considering playing, rugby…

There are a couple of books I’ve re-read recently that, for me, hit the nail on the head in terms of why rugby can become such a way of life and why, even during the period when I barely set foot inside a rugby club, I always considered myself a rugby man and will always do so.

The first of these was first published in 1960 but remains one of the funniest and most accurate depictions of rugby at the grassroots level – The Art of Coarse Rugby by Michael Green.

Green draws a distinction in his book between “Rugger”, played by club First XVs consisting of fifteen devoted enthusiasts, athletes and fitness fanatics and “Coarse Rugby”, a game hardly ever played by fifteen-a-side and featuring clubs’ third, fourth, fifth and sixth teams (the world of the “Extra Bs” and “Extra Cs”) which are “composed mainly of seedy commercial travellers…round-shouldered clerks and yelping skeletons of teenagers who have outgrown their strength”.

Green then goes on to provide an invaluable guide to surviving the world of Coarse Rugby, including various Coarse Rugby tactics, methods of how to win with the least possible exertion and how to avoid having a referee who insists on applying the laws.

Although set very much in the amateur era, before leagues were introduced into English rugby and certainly way before professionalism (and therefore in many ways out of date), the book is still a gem for anyone who played rugby during that era or who indeed still turns out on the lower rungs of club rugby. Having made my own club debut in the early eighties on the wing for Peterborough 4th XV at Luton as a 16 year old (despite being a Cambridgeshire Schools lock at the time) I can completely empathise with the trials and tribulations of Green’s “Old Rottinghamians Extra Cs” and so many of the stories and anecdotes ring true.

The other book I re-visited recently is one that, in some ways, brings the world of Coarse Rugby up to date. Muddied Oafs – The Last Days of Rugger by novelist Richard Beard charts the author’s attempts to retrace, at the age of 35, his rugby career by visiting and playing for the various clubs he had represented. A far more serious book than Michael Green’s, but Muddied Oafs is packed with self-depreciating humour and certainly isn’t short of funny anecdotes. What the book does do very well is highlight the changes to the game at grassroots level following the introduction of leagues in England in 1987 and more significantly professionalism post-1995. The plight of Norwich RFC is particularly poignant, once a rich amateur club regularly fielding a 5th and a 6th XV, now (or at least in 2003 when the book was written) deeply in debt having attempted and failed to buy its way up the league structure whilst at the same time alienating and then losing players from its lower teams. It appears that in the space of 5 years Norwich managed to go from fielding six teams to just two, losing the bulk of its playing members, those that provide income for the club via membership and match fees and cash spent behind the bar – in other words the “soul of the club”.

Like Michael Green, Beard also draws a distinction between two types of game: Rugby Union - the fast, compelling, TV-friendly combat sport in which sponsored gladiators are sold on their ability to crash into each other at top speed, and “Rugger”, once the serious version of rugby but now more akin to Green’s Coarse Rugby and, as the title of his book suggests, a version of the game which the author fears is quickly becoming an endangered species. I’m not so sure about that – yes, many clubs have made mistakes since the game turned pro and the advent of leagues and merit tables has adversely affected the lower reaches of club rugby but I like to think that the spirit of Coarse Rugby is still alive up and down the country (and indeed around the world) and has a few breaths left to draw yet.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

So am I retired or what?

This really should be an easy question to answer. After all, I haven’t played a game of competitive (or even non-competitive) rugby since the game turned professional, since lifting was allowed in the lineout, since New Labour came to power.

As far as I can remember, March 1994 was my last game, and that was after a long lay off with lower back trouble. That day I turned out at number 8 for the Sinners, a social side connected to Barnes RFC for whom I’d been playing for the previous three seasons. The match was against a similar side linked to Bishop Stortford RFC, we lost and I spent most of the match trying to look busy whilst avoiding too much contact as I was pretty sure my back wasn’t up to it.

So, that was that – the season finished without me playing again, I got married in the summer of ’94, missed pre-season training for the first time in fifteen years, turned 30 and lacked any sort of motivation to start playing again.

The following summer my wife and I moved out of London to Hertfordshire, and the thought of proving myself at a new club didn’t interest me one bit. Furthermore, I had no desire to test whether my body was still up to it. I’d played every season from 1979/80 through to 1993/94 - for school, county, college, university and a variety of clubs - and had picked up a collection of breaks, dislocations and ruptures, culminating in the lower back injury that had cut short my last season. I really felt that 30 was as good an age as any to call it a day.

So why the question? Why should there be any doubt as to whether or not I am an ex-rugby player?

The answer is Touch Rugby. Or perhaps the answer is a mid-life crisis, but last summer, at the age of 41, I decided to get myself down to Chesham RFC and get involved with a Touch Rugby league they run there. Why I did it I’m not entirely sure, partly because I needed to do more exercise and I’ve never been a huge fan of going to the gym just for the sake of it, but it was mostly down to the fact that over time I had missed the involvement, the being part of a team, the opportunity to contribute to a common cause, the beer.

Being an unattached floater I was nabbed by the club chairman for his team and for the next ten weeks turned out every Tuesday evening. At first it was excruciatingly tough – lungs fit to burst, legs like jelly, face like a beetroot – but gradually my body learned to cope, I found that I could walk the following morning, and I found I was able to contribute more and more to the team.

What’s more, purely by chance it turned out we had a pretty good team and lost only once during the “season”, finishing second overall. By July I was feeling in pretty good shape so when faced with the question, “So how do you fancy turning out for the Vets this season?”, I didn’t immediately rule it out. I decided, foolishly as it turns out, to give pre-season a go and then decide. The problem was that pre-season for me lasted precisely 20 minutes – that’s when my left achilles seized up resulting in nearly 2 months of physiotherapy and a loss of momentum which ruled out any glorious comeback last season.

So, fastforward 12 months and the Touch season has kicked off again and I’m back playing in the same team – we lost our first game 9 tries to 7 on Tuesday with a much depleted turn out but played pretty well nonetheless. I’m fitter than last year and have really enjoyed it so far despite the accompanying aches and pains. So if the question gets asked again I can’t say what my response will be.

Am I retired or what? Watch this space…

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

In the beginning...

In 1979 my family moved house from the North-East down to the East Midlands and, aged 14, I had to change schools. By chance my new form teacher ran the fourth form rugby team and, being a lanky six-footer, I was immediately asked whether I played the game. "No," I replied (which was the truth, as I'd spent pretty much all of my childhood up to that point playing football and dreaming of inheriting the Newcastle United number 9 shirt). "Well, you do now," I was told and a couple of weeks later found myself turning out on a warm Saturday morning for the rugby team in the second row.

Bear in mind I had never played a game of rugby before and, as far as I can recall, the team hadn't had a single training session. So what came next really shouldn't have come as a surprise.

At the first lineout the forwards gathered in a fairly haphazard fashion, the order of lineout seemingly determined by who arrived first. Our hooker, a skinny kid with frizzy hair who looked like he should play anywhere except the front row, held the ball on the touchline and then, underarm, lobbed the ball high into the air in the general direction of the two sets of forwards.

A combination of (a) my height, (b) pure chance and (c) the fact that the opposition must have been completely flummoxed by this unusual and innovative lineout move, meant that I caught the ball and, as I'd seen on the telly, turned with my back to the opposition expecting my fellow forwards to bind on to me and secure possession. What happened, in fact, was that there was a split second in which I noticed that my fellow forwards were looking at me, clearly wondering why I hadn't just flung the ball in the direction of our scrum half, before I was engulfed by the opposition pack who had belatedly woken up to the fact that we hadn't a clue what we were doing.

That set the scene for the rest of the game in which tackles were regularly missed or avoided, passes rarely went to hand and scrums marched backwards at a rate of knots. It was hot, the ground was bone hard and I spent the vast majority of the game trapped at the bottom of rucks (or "pile-ups", to describe them more accurately).

I finished the game knackered, bruised and grazed. We'd lost 56-0. And I'd never had so much fun in my life...