Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Train wreck

After missing last week's training with a stomach bug I was back at the club tonight for more pre-season pain.

Somehow, and I'm not entirely sure how this happened, when speaking to the bloke who is running the Vets team this year I found myself uttering three words that I'll probably live to regret:

"Count me in."

As I say, I don't know how that happened. Perhaps I was under the influence of the massive 71% of readers of this blog who have voted that I should play Vets rugby this season in the poll in the left-hand column. OK, so that's only 5 of you and it's not like I've made an irrevocable commitment, but nevertheless the people have spoken.

Actually I reckon it was more to do with the fact that I was coping reasonably well with this evening's session. Hell, it even bordered on the enjoyable. After the inaugural session two weeks ago, which I felt was way too much too soon, I was really dreading turning up this evening. Don't get me wrong, it was still bloody hard and there was still plenty of contact work with tackle bags and pads, but I worked hard at it and my new gumshield and I survived relatively intact. We even finished with 20 minutes or so of semi-contact rugby league and, although I was definitely in the weaker of the two teams, I felt I acquitted myself reasonably well, certainly better than I'd expected.

I'm still going to suffer in the morning though - I can already feel parts of me seizing up even as I write this - but I'm far more encouraged than I thought I could possibly be.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Escape to Hollywood

It appears that, despite Los Angeles currently being in the grip of Beckham-mania, Hollywood has turned to rugby for the autumn's blockbuster movie.

Forever Strong is a film starring Gary Cole, Sean Faris, Neil McDonough, Sean Astin and Arielle Kebbel and tells the story of a talented-but-troubled rugby player who loses his position as the star of an Arizona rugby union team after he was sentenced to a boy's home in Salt Lake City and then finds himself playing again in the national championships against his old team who are coached by his father.

Now it's not for me to pre-judge anything before seeing it, and the movie is supposed to be based on a true story, but at first glance the plot looks desperately thin and decidedly unoriginal. On the plus side, if successful this film may mean that rugby gains more recognition in North America, whilst on the minus side movies about sport are notoriously difficult to make and action scenes featuring actors nearly always look ridiculously contrived (for some reason Stallone's goalkeeping in Escape to Victory springs to mind).

To combat the "Stallone-factor" it seems that the movie has drafted in various players from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University rugby teams to add authenticity. Assuming, however, that the end result will still be mostly unsatisfactory for the rugby purist, what this film really needs is cult status and to achieve that it should take a lead from the Escape to Victory manual and draft in an assortment of world rugby stars to play the supporting roles.

In the same way that Pele, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles played Allied prisoners of war, so Jonah Lomu (who, let's face it, has time on this hands at at the moment) might, with a clean shave and a little imagination, just pass as a very mature high school student. Jonny Wilkinson will probably be available sooner rather than later owing to an early World Cup exit for England or due to an injury to yet another part of his anatomy, and I'm sure Gavin Henson's perma-tan would be an asset to any movie. Throw in Will Carling as a whisky-soaked local reporter, Matt Dawson as a cordon-bleu cooking, ballroom-dancing coach, Sir Clive Woodward as his innovative mad professor-style guru and Eddie Jones as Woodward's evil nemesis and this has all the makings of a classic.

And if all else fails, Stallone as a rookie tight head prop would be worth the ticket price alone.

Phoney war

With not much more than a month to go before the start of Rugby World Cup 2007 the phoney war is now upon us. With hosts France and the big three south of the equator having named their squads (after a largely pointless and surprisingly mediocre Tri Nations it must be said) there's not much for them to do now but sit and wait and argue the toss over whether Richie McCaw is the greatest player living or the biggest cheat in the game.

Yes, while England scratch their heads and attempt to cobble together a squad of old timers, fresh faced kids and the walking wounded, while Wales debate whether Gavin Henson has the appropriate haircut to merit selection for the Welsh squad and while Scottish rugby continues to implode, the Southern Hemisphere have decided that bickering is the best way to warm up for France.

Whether it's Jake White's decision to take a shadow squad to Australia and New Zealand, Lote Tuqiri's suspension, Graham Henry's axeing of Piri Weepu and Troy Flavell, Bob Skinstad's inclusion in the Springbok squad or Eddie Jones' "defection" to the South African ranks, there's been plenty of controversy in the last few weeks and plenty for the three countries to argue about, either with each other or amongst themselves.

The loudest protests, however, appear to be about how much the All Black skipper gets away with at the breakdown. Eddie Jones (spokesperson, it now appears, for both Australian and South African interests) claimed that respect for McCaw's captaincy was being eroded by his actions, both Jake White and John Connolly have chipped in to voice their disquiet and Springbok stand-in skipper Johann Muller added his considerable intellect to the debate by proclaiming loudly "IT'S NOT FAIR!"

My take on this is simple. Richie McCaw is currently the world's best openside and possibly the world's best player. He is also the best at cheating. By cheating I of course mean that at the breakdown he knows exactly what he can do and what he can get away with, how marginally offside he can be without it being obvious, when to use his hands etc etc. If he wasn't very good at it he wouldn't be the best flanker alive - he'd be second best to George Smith or to Schalk Burger or to whoever had learned to get way with more. It's what flankers do.


Two 90 year old men, Mike and Joe, have been friends all of their lives. When it's clear that Joe is dying, Mike visits him every day. One day, Mike says, "Joe, we both loved rugby all our lives, and we played rugby on Saturdays together for so many years. Please do me one favour, when you get to Heaven, somehow you must let me know if there's rugby there."

Joe looks up at Mike from his death bed,"Mike, you've been my best friend for many years. If it's at all possible, I'll do this favour for you”.

Shortly after that, Joe passes on. At midnight a couple of nights later, Mike is awakened from a sound sleep by a blinding flash of white light and a voice calling out to him:

"Mike--it's me, Joe."

"Joe! Where are you?"

"In heaven", replies Joe. "I have some really good news and a little bad news."

"Tell me the good news first," says Mike.

”The good news," Joe says," is that there's rugby in heaven. Better yet, all of our old friends who died before us are here, too. Better than that, we're all young again. Better still, it's always spring time and it never rains or snows. And best of all, we can play rugby all we want, and we never get tired."

“That's fantastic," says Mike. "It's beyond my wildest dreams! So what's the bad news?”

"You're in the team for Saturday."

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Would you like chips with that?

There was an article in Sportingo last week, obviously penned by an aficionado of Rugby League, suggesting that League was poised to become the UK’s second most popular sport based on the fact that the England Rugby Union national team had underperformed since winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

This does, of course, ignore the fact that professional club rugby in England has gone from strength to strength over the past few years and the fact that Rugby League barely has an international scene but, setting the details aside, what is it with these League fans that they constantly have to perpetuate some sort of war with Rugby Union?

Whether it’s disputing attendance figures at games, or ridiculing TV viewing figures, or pouring scorn on the numbers of fans reported to have celebrated the 2003 Rugby World Cup win, or delighting in the defeat of their own national team, or even blaming an entire sport for the actions of the Vichy government during World War II, fans of Rugby League do, it appears, have a real bee in their bonnet about Rugby Union.

I realise that generalisations are dangerous, and I’m sure that there must be plenty of League followers out there who adopt a “live and let live” approach and, frankly, couldn’t care less about the Union code (which, by and large, is my attitude to League). But go to any Rugby League web forum and you will find that there as many posts which are attacking Union as there are those that are pro-League.

Now, historically, I can appreciate that Rugby Union did itself no favours. In the early 1890s there was certainly an economic North-South divide with rugby in Yorkshire and Lancashire being a working man’s game, whilst clubs in the South of England were largely middle class. With the England team of the era being dominated by players from the north who were finding it increasingly difficult to take time off from work to play the game, it all came to a head when the RFU refused to allow “broken time” payments, leading to 22 clubs breaking away from the RFU to form the “Northern Rugby Football Union” (later to become the Rugby Football League) in 1895.

That, during the next 100 years, the RFU behaved appallingly, banning anyone connected with Rugby League from playing or being associated with Union (even by the 1990s, having a trial with a Rugby League club was strictly forbidden), is not in doubt. Nor is it disputed that the Vichy government in war-time France banned Rugby League and seized its assets.

However, for historical events like these to form the basis for a hatred of an entire sport is not only irrational but is also seriously unhealthy if these people want to see their own sport grow and develop. To categorise Rugby Union as a sport only played by public school toffs is as wide of the mark as saying that League is only for the flat cap and whippet brigade and the fact that many English Rugby League fans actually want the England Rugby Union team to fail is just incredibly sad.

Since Union turned professional in 1995, Rugby League supporters have, if anything, become even more defensive. Any League player crossing codes is either “past his best” or “wouldn’t have made the grade in League” and then, on the rare occasion that he is successful in Union (and, of the English players, I can only mean Jason Robinson), it only goes to prove how inferior Union is as a challenge. And when, last November in Sportingo, Donna Gee suggested that the two sports should seek compromise and find a way in which to merge, the reaction from League fans was nothing short of apoplectic.

Like those League fans, I have no desire at all to see a merger. I believe that Rugby Union has gone far enough in trying to dumb itself down and make itself TV friendly and is in danger of stripping out the ingredients that provide its unique character. But my objections have nothing to do with the hatred, insecurity and paranoia that appear to grip these people.

Both Rugby Union and Rugby League can survive, thrive and even co-exist. For League, however, it’s unlikely to happen unless and until its supporters can learn to ignore Union and get on with growing and developing their own sport.

Here endeth the lesson… :)

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Wales in a spin

This is not a wind up. Apparently the Welsh preparations for the Rugby World Cup have been disrupted by their veteran forward, Colin Charvis, being unable to attend their summer training camp in Brittany because he is suffering from vertigo.

The big-haired flanker, it seems, wasn’t well enough to fly out to Brittany with the Welsh squad.

Fly out? To Brittany? A short hop on the ferry or via Euro tunnel could have done the trick surely? No, my theory is that the Welsh props have been pumping far too much iron in the close season with the result that they’re lifting their lineout jumpers far too high, and poor old Colin can’t cope. Either that or he’s struggling to come to terms with his meteoric rise back into the Wales squad from the Newcastle Falcons scrap heap.

Sticking with bizarre goings-on in Wales, the Western Mail this week ran an article linking the Welsh chances at the Rugby World Cup with the style of hairdo sported by iconic tango man Gavin Henson. Apparently Henson’s new hairstyle is surprisingly normal, giving rise to speculation that he is low on confidence.

Henson, the article speculates, plays more aggressively the spikier his hair is, and the new hairdo has hairdressing experts “foxed”.

Accepting that the article was very tongue-in-cheek and quite apart from the fact that the orange one has been rubbish for the best part of two years, something tells me this might have been a slow news day?

All Blacks suffer setback

Following their successful Tri Nations campaign, the All Blacks suffered a serious setback to their Rugby World Cup hopes yesterday when they were defeated 11-3 by a Derby Town Council XV in their latest warm up game...

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Jarrod Cunningham RIP

I was very sad to hear of the death on Sunday of former London Irish player , Jarrod Cunningham, who had been courageously battling Motor Neurone Disease for the past five years.

Jarrod, aged 38, played for London Irish between 1998 and 2002 after a successful career in his native New Zealand. He was an All Black trialist between 1993 and 1995, represented the New Zealand Maoris between 1996 and 1998 and played at Super 12 for Auckland Blues in 1996 and Wellington Hurricanes in 1997/98.

In June 2002 Jarrod was advised that he was suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a form of Motor Neurone Disease (MND) a fatal for which there is no known cure. However, Jarrod confronted his illness and, sisappointed by the lack of awareness of MND and how to combat it, he founded the Jarrod Cunningham SALSA Foundation in March 2003 with the aim of providing hope, education and inspiration for fellow sufferers of ALS. With the help of friends and family in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the Foundation organised a series of successful fund-raising events whose proceeds Jarrod used to raise awareness and explore new therapies to fight his illness. In November 2004 he was awarded the IRB Spirit of Rugby award in recognition of his work in raising awareness of the disease through his profile as a sportsman, as well as his own remarkable efforts to combat its effects.

He returned to New Zealand in December 2004 and, over the past 36 months, all the courage and determination that Jarrod displayed on the rugby pitch has been in evidence off it as he maintained a positive outlook in the face of the unrelenting slow but steady progress of his illness.

Damian Hopley, chief executive of the Professional Rugby Players' Association, said: "Jarrod was an inspiration to all those who were fortunate enough to meet him, and the entire rugby community has lost a great player and great friend.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family, team-mates and friends."

Referee comes out

Gay referee Nigel Owens, who took charge of the weekend's Bledisloe Cup encounter between the Wallabies and the All Blacks, shocked the world of rugby yesterday by openly admitting that he was Welsh.

A professional referee for 5 years, Owens, who will be the only openly Welsh referee at the forthcoming Rugby World Cup, confessed that he had struggled to come out in a sport dominated by Southern Hemisphere nationalities.

"It's such a taboo being Welsh in my line of work. Not only am I not an Aussie or a Kiwi, I'm not even English. I had to think long and hard about coming out as Welsh because I didn't want to jeopardise my career, " he said.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Gingerbread haka in hot water

A team of Gingerbread men, who were filmed performing their version of the haka, have been widely condemned across New Zealand.

A Maori spokesman and expert in kapa haka confirmed that he thought the Gingerbread men's haka was, on the face of it, an affront to Maori culture.

"The Gingerbread men have sacred kitchen rituals but we Maori wouldn't go out and intentionally denigrate their culture - this tramples ours."

A furious right Reverend Graham Henry, speaking to anyone who would listen, said:

"Speaking on behalf of the whole of New Zealand, the Maori culture, and the world of rugby, I am shocked and appalled at the Gingerbread men's blatant lack of respect."

Gerald Gingerbread, media liaison officer for the Gingerbread men's team, said that he was surprised that his team's haka had provoked such an adverse reaction, especially after having removed the provocative 'slit-throat' gesture from the haka's finale.

"We tried to make our haka as authentic as possible and certainly don't mean to cause offence" he said.

Moreover it transpires that the Gingerbread players themselves were upset by the insistence of the Toast Soldiers team that the Toast Anthem would be played after the Gingerbread men's haka at last Saturday's test match, so much so that the Gingerbread men elected to perform the haka indoors.

In a prepared statement, Gingerbread captain Richie McGingerbread said: "The tradition needs to be honoured properly if we're going to do it. If the other team wants to mess around, we'll just do the haka in the kitchen.

"At the end of the day, the Gingerbread haka is about culinary preparation and we do it for ourselves. Traditionally fans can taste the experience too and it's sad that they couldn't do it on Saturday."

Sunday, 22 July 2007

French kiss-off

The latest advertisement by the Regional Tourism Committee of Paris, aimed at attracting us Brits to its fair city, features an image of rugby players kissing in a scrum and seems to be causing a bit of a stir.

I guess the message is that, as well as being the focal point of the Rugby World Cup this autumn, Paris is also still the capital city of romance, but perhaps you need to be French to really "get" the message or the humour.

Don't get me wrong - I don't find the picture at all offensive (as I'm sure some people do) and, to a degree, I can appreciate its humour, but as an advertising campaign my considered opinion is that it's pretty crap. Who, for instance, are they attempting to appeal to? The gay community? The rugby crowd? Brits in general? And would an image of kissing rugby players convince you that Paris was the place to visit?

Personally I doubt this works for anyone but the fact that we're talking about the campaign means that it's well on the way to succeeding, whatever its motives or merits.

Having said that, how utterly French is all this?

Saturday, 21 July 2007


The great thing about something like YouTube is that there are often graphic examples of something it would be difficult to describe in words. Just imagine that you were witness to the following "try". Just how could you describe it with any sort of accuracy?

Here's another example of a butchered try, only this time its is arguably far more important (being a match between London Irish and Wasps at the business end of last season's Guinness Premiership):

I can't say I've ever felt the need to swallow-dive across the line and it obviously has its hazards. The only incident I can remember that comes close was when, as a conscientious 17 year old backrow forward, I tracked a move across the pitch and received a scoring pass to go over in the corner. For some reason I lost my bearings at that point and was convinced that I'd crossed the dead ball line, and so threw the ball away in disgust, only to find that the line I'd crossed was the try line and I'd blown a perfectly good try!

Friday, 20 July 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to playing: Second Row

Playing lock forward is something I can at least pretend I know a smidgen about. When I was first asked (well, when I say “asked” I really mean “told”) to play rugby, I envisaged turning out as a swashbuckling, socks-rolled-down, attacking fullback in the JPR Williams mould. Being a gangly 6 foot plus 14 year old, however, I was immediately consigned to the second row. After a short apprenticeship I did manage to graduate to the back row, but the irony is that my rapidly declining pace will probably mean that, if I do play again, there’ll be pressure on me to move back into what is affectionately known as the boiler room.

Back when I last played rugby, a lock forward had two primary functions:

  • push in the scrums (which I was lousy at); and

  • jump in the lineout (which I wasn’t bad at).

These days, locks are still required to do a bit of pushing at scrum time but the latter skill has been rendered entirely redundant by the fact that lineout jumpers are now lovingly hoisted into position by their props and back row.

So, is being a big bloke who can shove a bit in a scrum all that’s now required to play second row?

Well, yes it is, but for anyone thinking “that sounds easy enough”, there are a few additional things you might want to consider:

  • you must have no moral or ethical objection to spending large parts of your season with your head stuck between the thighs of your prop and your hooker. It always helps if they have generously upholstered rear ends but the chances are that at least one of them will have an unfeasibly bony hip resulting in you having severe facial chaffing and at least one mangled ear. Set up a standing order with Boots the Chemist so that you’re kept well stocked with gallons of vaseline and yards of sticky tape (or invest in one of those new fangled expensive scrum caps);

  • height still appears to be an advantage (or at least long arms) to reach lineout ball, but I’m afraid all that bulk you’ve acquired to anchor the scrum isn’t going to be any help in the lineout. Your props, who never need much of an excuse to grumble, aren’t going to be happy lifting you if you’re too heavy, poor lambs;

  • when you’re not shoving in a scrum or being given an armchair ride in the lineout, you must be prepared to spend the afternoon seeking out rucks and mauls and charging into them blindly. Don’t expect to see the ball. The only exception to this, of course, is if you play for England in which case you’re expected to loiter about in the centres and clog up the backline.

  • you must accept that, you being a hulking great nuisance charging around and crashing into people, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb and it’s more than likely that a referee will decide for no reason whatsoever to send you to the sin bin at least once every other game. The upside, of course, is that it’s 10 minutes respite from hitting those rucks.

  • if the plan goes hideously wrong and you find yourself in open space with the ball in hand, you'll need to remember to treat it like a proverbial hot potato and get rid of it quickly. It doesn’t matter how or to whom. Alternatively, seek out the nearest player (it doesn’t matter whose team he’s on) and run into him.

That’s about it I think – hope that helps.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Shock Doctor

Right then. Despite still being incredibly stiff two days on from the first pre-season training session I've done something really silly and ordered a gumshield...or a mouthguard as it now appears to be called (how many other things have changed since I last played, I wonder). I've ordered the "Shock Doctor" and I've no idea whether it's any good. However, by ordering it I am making a statement of intent that I'm going to try to get down to training at least once a week for the next few weeks, so hopefully the Shock Doctor will serve its purpose.

That a gumshield/mouthguard is necessary was highlighted this week by the story of a Rugby League player in Australia who played for 15 weeks without knowing an opponent's tooth was buried in his forehead after a clash of heads. He'd had the wound stitched up but afterward suffered an eye infection and complained of shooting pains in his head and of feeling lethargic, and a visit to his doctor revealed the tooth still imbedded in his head.

My question is this: Didn't the opponent miss his tooth?

So, unless I'm prepared to have my teeth embedded in someone's scalp, the Shock Doctor is necessary to get me through pre-season. If I do manage to survive, I'll then make a decision as to whether my body's up to actually playing, but if you wish to influence my decision by telling me to stop being so pathetic or to warn me of my inevitable doom then please vote in the poll I've set up in the left-hand column.

Where's the soap?

It does, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Silly season

There’s a joke that does the rounds in the build up to each and every Rugby World Cup – you know, the one about the various national responses to New Zealand’s Haka…the one where the English chat about the weather before doing a Morris Dance, the one where the Americans don’t turn up until almost full time and in future years amend the records to show that they were in fact the most important team in the tournament, the one where the Irish split into two, with the Southern half performing a Riverdance, while the Northerners march the traditional route from their dressing room to the pitch via their opponents dressing room etc etc etc

According to the joke, two members of the South African team claim to be more important than the other 13 whom they imprison between the posts whilst they claim the rest of the pitch for themselves. However, in reality, Springbok coach Jake White has apparently proposed something equally as silly.

Yes, silly season is upon us. White, it seems, has asked the rugby authorities about reviving a dance that was last used more than 80 years ago in order to psyche up his players.

"The history books show that the 1926 Springboks performed a Zulu war dance in major matches on their tour," White suposedly told The Star newspaper in Auckland.

"New Zealand have come up with a new haka recently and, quite honestly, I would like to use ours as a challenge to them.

"We have done this challenge before in our team room …but it hasn't really taken off as an idea to do it public. Not yet, anyway," said White.

Oh come on, Jake, get a grip! I can only hope and pray that this is a wind up. That a dance was performed over 80 years ago does not, in anyone’s book, make it a tradition. Are you saying that your players aren't psyched up enough before a international match? What does that say about your motivational powers? What’s more, how pathetic will a squad dominated by white guys look while trying to perform a Zulu dance? Exactly how many Zulus are there in the Springbok squad?

If this ever comes to pass the RFU should absolutely insist on the England team performing a medley of Andrew Lloyd Webber songs before each game. Either that or get Matt Dawson back for a ballroom dancing demonstration.


I’m well and truly knackered. Yesterday evening I went along to what I thought would be my final game of touch rugby of the summer only to find that the only thing happening at the club was the first training session of pre-season. Oh, how I laughed.

The good news (debatably) was that I trained for 90 minutes (although why anyone would want to do that when a game only lasts for 80 minutes is a mystery). I admit that I didn’t quite make it to the end as my ancient lower back began to seize up at that point and I felt it was probably wise to quit whilst I was marginally ahead. However, the combination of softer ground, better boots and a more sensible approach meant that I easily eclipsed the 20 minutes that I managed at the equivalent time last year.

The bad news is that this morning I ache in places I’d long forgotten I had, and what’s more I’m sure I ache on top of those aches. Every single one of my toes hurts for instance - how weird is that?

The session started predictably enough – touch followed by reasonably gentle shuttles, followed by stretching, followed by more strenuous shuttles. Then a lung bursting lap of the entire playing fields (during which I sensibly settled in at the rear of the group) followed by a bit more stretching and then, unbelievably, another lap. Once that was over we appeared to switch the focus to ball work – working in grids. This was more like it, the hard slog over and the opportunity to work hard while having fun, but alas, no. Just as I thought I might begin to enjoy myself out came the tackle bags and we were each required to make a minimum of twenty tackles in one minute (“But I haven’t made one tackle in nearly 14 years!” I wanted to scream) before having to drive an opponent with a tackle pad back about 50 yards in a series of strength-sapping lunges. And then do it again. And again…

It was all far more physical than I thought it would be. My expectation was that the early sessions would be about working with the ball in hand (well, actually I'd expected to be playing touch). Certainly that’s the way I’d have done it – let players get to a certain level of fitness before introducing contact-based work. My lower back problem flaring up wasn’t exactly unpredictable given that I’m such an old crock, but there were others who limped out before me this evening which suggests they were pushed too hard too soon.

With contact work obviously on the agenda I’ll have to sort myself out with a gum shield at the very least if I’m going to continue (and the way I’m feeling today the jury’s most definitely out on that one).

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Quote of the month

More from New Zealand where it appears they are discovering a sense of humour.

The NZ Herald reports that the captain of Thames Valley, Steven Hill, offerered the following explanation for his side's first half collapse against North Harbour in the Ranfurly Shield challenge match earlier this month, a half in which they shipped eight tries and fifty points.

Apparently is was the 5.35pm Saturday kick-off, Hill suggested, that hadn't really suited his side.

"We're normally pissed by then," he admitted!

Alternative Rugby Commentary

Just stumbled across the following summary of the Tri-Nations so far, from an unashamedly kiwi angle (WARNING: not for the politically correct!):

And if you thought that was bad, take a look at their unique view of the French:

And let's not forget the Canadians:

In many ways it's a shame all rugby commentators can't be as honest!

Something for the Ladies (oops)...

This is a post about Women’s Rugby. So before I start thought I’d better clarify a few things:

  1. I’m not a woman. I’m a bloke. Anything that follows therefore comes from a male perspective;

  2. The pictures accompanying this post are not reflective of my attitude towards the women’s game. I just find them amusing in a very post-ironic sort of way - they are of their time and are not to be taken very seriously; and

  3. I may slip up from time to time and commit the crime of using the terms “girls” and “ladies” to describe women. I know that this sort of thing gets up some people’s noses but if I do indeed commit such a heinous act please rest assured that I'm not seeking to offend or patronise – and I hope the fact that many women’s rugby teams refer to themselves as “Ladies” will get me out of hot water on this one.

Two other things worth mentioning:

  • I’ve never actually watched a game of women’s rugby; and yet

  • when I’m not blogging here or attempting to scratch out a living, I manage the Women’s Rugby Review, a blog designed to pull together women’s rugby news stories from around the world.

Why, I hear you ask, would a bloke with no prior knowledge or interest in women’s rugby be putting time and effort into producing a blog dealing with women’s rugby news?

The answer’s fairly simple. Back in February I was looking for information about the Women’s Six Nations and there was precious little being reported and what was being reported was scattered around the official sites of the applicable governing bodies. It seemed to me that there was nowhere where I could go and keep up to date with what was happening with the game as a whole – hence the need for the Women’s Rugby Review.

Once I’d started pulling together stories from around the world I discovered some excellent blogs dedicated to the women’s game. Saturday’s A Rugby Day appears to be the gospel as far as the US game is concerned and, together with Your Scrumhalf Connection, provides an interesting insight into the life of female rugby players in the States. Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, John Birch’s excellent Herts Women’s and Girl’s Rugby site and his award-winning Letchworth Girls’ blog appear to set the standard.

As to the level of play in the women’s game, I’m hardly in a position to judge. From the little I have seen however, and in particular regarding the international game, the levels of athleticism, fitness and technical skills are impressive. That the game is underpowered when compared to the men’s game is obvious and inevitable, but does not necessarily detract from the spectacle.

However, what has really struck me about women’s rugby is the passion and enthusiasm that it engenders. I’ve touched on this in another posting, but I’m certainly of the opinion that the fact that women are (or to date have been) relatively late starters when it comes to taking up the game means that they absolutely pour their hearts and souls into it – a feeling (in my first draft of this I used the word “vibe” but couldn’t bring myself to go with it) I’ve picked up, both from what I’ve seen and read on the web and from the women I see who turn up each week to play touch rugby.

All in all I’d say women’s rugby has a very healthy future and my goal next season is to get along to watch and see for myself. I’d certainly have no hesitation is taking my 6 year old daughter along if that’s what she wants.

There, and barely a mention of “ladies” or “girls” throughout...

Monday, 16 July 2007

Ruggers buggered

Rugby has an image problem.

Once you look past the professional elite game and down towards the grassroots of the sport you are faced with the image of a large, beer- swilling, foul-mouthed, well-educated, former public schoolboy performing some lewd act or another while thinking he’s the funniest man on the planet.

Sorry, but it’s true. Obviously the stereotype is not universal – there are plenty of more than reasonably behaved rugby players in the world – but it is often this image that the public associate with the sport and lends fuel to the myth perpetuated by chippy Rugby League followers who convince themselves that Union is the reserve of middle-class “rah-rahs”.

In Richard Beard’s excellent book “Muddied Oafs – the last days of Rugger” he describes his horror at the reputation of your typical "Rugger Bugger". According to Beard the "dark side of rugger the man-maker was the recidivist, the dreaded English rugger-bugger" and he goes on to describe typical rugger buggers as being… "…marauding Old Boys in the south-east of England, a beer swilling, guffawing circle of hell well-stuffed with solicitors, surveyors and desperately small businessmen…unreflectively masculine and unthinkingly prejudiced…pissed young conservatives with muscles…”

One problem I have with Richard Beard is that he is right. The other problem I have is that, in the past, I have been as guilty as the next man of fulfilling this grotesque stereotype.

It’s difficult to avoid. One minute you’re an impressionable sixteen year old turning out for the club’s Under 19s and the next thing you know you’re drinking a yard of ale, getting your kit off to “Singing In the Rain” and bawling out a bunch of songs that, under any other circumstances, would get you arrested (or, at the very least, a good slapping) for all sorts of derogatory and prejudicial lyrics. What’s more, it’s not only considered normal behaviour within rugby circles (and in particular amongst the supposedly more enlightened university rugby scene) but it’s more or less compulsory.

That’s not to say I was forced into anything. On the contrary, as a student I embraced rugger buggerism with the naivety and ignorance of youth, although the one thing I would say in my defence is that the real excesses, often involving rather obscene bodily functions which appeared to be a natural bi-product of an English public school education, were something I managed to avoid.

I guess the test, however, is how quickly this "rugger bugger" skin is shed. For many, leaving college and entering the real world involves taking life seriously, giving up rugby and leaving behind such youthful folly. I have to admit that I was never afflicted by such an immediate transformation but as I continued to play rugby into adulthood it became far more about the game and the camaraderie and far less about living up to the stereotype.

Perhaps it was a rite of passage that I needed to go through, but looking back I can see how it must have appeared to onlookers, those in the college bar for instance who just wanted a quiet drink and didn’t need to see a bunch of half naked, beer soaked, vomiting idiots yelling out songs about bestiality. Sadly this is the image many people now have of rugby and its participants and that won’t change unless and until the culture changes. Even the top end of the game has not been immune – for instance Matt Dawson recounts in his autobiography his horror at being whipped with a spiky cactus leaf in a Barbarians tour court session back in 1994, something which convinced him never to play for the Baa-baas again.

I now can’t help feeling that rugby could do itself an enormous favour by clamping down on the antics of the rugger bugger. A few beers with your mates after the game is one thing. Anti-social behaviour being passed off as high jinks is quite another.

Here endeth the lesson :)

Friday, 13 July 2007

So what’s all the fuss about…?

My prevaricating over the decision about whether or not to make a rugby playing comeback at the age of 42 (or 43, as I’ll be soon after the season starts in September) is starting to look a little pathetic. Not only have there been players daft enough to continue playing into their nineties, but I’m now consistently finding evidence of players who in fact didn’t take up the game at all until they were in their forties.

One such lunatic is Wes Clark, who not only didn’t begin playing until he was 42, but also embraced the game with such passion that he is the author of the excellent eclectic website The Rugby Reader’s Review and well as being the webmaster for his club’s (Western Suburbs RFC) website.

Inspired by a Five Nations match between Wales and Ireland in March 1998 (really?!) having stumbled across it when TV channel surfing, by July that year he was attending players’ meetings at Western Suburbs and in August found himself at pre-season training:

“We ran around. We ran some more. We sprinted. We sprinted and touched the ground. We passed the ball around in that stylish underhanded lofting throw so characteristic of the game and ran while we did it. Then we ran some more. I haven't done any running in the last five years and the lack of it was apparent to me. Not only was I thoroughly knackered, but that big dinner I ate kept trying to make its way up my throat to exit. Sore? I should say. A whole new world of sore. Great expanding vistas of sore. My upper legs felt like lead after about an hour of this fare. Not a high grade of lead, either, but a wobbly sort of organic lead.”

You’d think that after that Wes might have been put off but no, in September he was still there, making his debut for the Western Suburbs Old Boys (or Veterans as we call them this side of the pond) in the second row. And that’s where he’s remained, turning out regularly for the SOBs and the B-side and becoming an indispensable club stalwart while contributing a huge amount of rugby content on the web. Even more remarkable is that Wes didn’t like, and so didn’t play, sport as a kid.

Another example, possibly even more inspirational, was highlighted by Blondie over at Saturday’s A Rugby Day yesterday. A 44 year old nurse from Minnesota with a heart condition and sleep apnoea, who was discharged from the Army Reserves on medical grounds, tells of how he decided to take up rugby in middle age:

“One night in February of 2006, I came across the Metropolis Rugby Football Club web site. It said that they had a group called "The Old Boys" and that players of all skill levels-even new people-were welcome. When I talked with my son Ian about this, he said ‘Dad, why don't you try it? You still work out and you have ALWAYS wanted to play. You really should try it.’... My wife told me ‘If you don't stop whining and just go and try playing, I'll beat you up myself!’ ”

His conclusion that “rugby took a middle aged guy who was on the fast track to depression, and it gave me my smile back” is pretty poignant and a reminder about what a great sport we have.

There are other examples – for instance the Boston Globe tells the story of how Dr. Thomas Durant was introduced to rugby at the age of 47 by his son, Steven, and how he then continued to play for the Boston Irish Wolfhounds club until he was 70, eventually playing in the same team as his son and his 15 year old grandson.

And as for comebacks, Rugby Readers Review features the account of Dan Holden who decided to make a comeback aged 45 after a 23 year absence from the game, despite the reaction from his 13 year old daughter. “You’ll get killed,” she said.

Dan describes his debut for ORSU Jesters against Oregon State University:

“I had been promised at least 20 minutes of playing time, but ended up playing the entire game. Eighty...very...long...minutes. Part way into the second half, I had asked the Jesters coach if there were any subs available. He smiled broadly, looked at the sidelines, and said with a laugh, ‘You don’t see anyone waiting to come in do you?!’ So I gutted out the rest of the game...and had a ball.”

In a follow up piece he also describes how much tougher things became:

"The Irish believe that to see a Banshee is to be forewarned of certain doom and destruction. In rugby, seeing a team that’s chalked full of large South Pacific Islanders will create the same feeling of dread. You know pain and death are coming, and there’s nothing you can do. And that’s exactly what happened. They proceeded to beat the stuffing out of us… On more than one occasion that afternoon I thought to myself, ‘Oh my, this was a very bad idea’.”

Dan describes however that the post match camaraderie between “two teams who loved the game and who just wanted to sit around and have a few beers” was what it was all about, and concludes “on those Sunday mornings when I can barely get out of bed – and I think I can’t possibly do this any longer, I remember my friends, the Jesters and the Tongans, and perhaps, just maybe, I can make it to one more game.”

He’s right. That’s what’s pulling me towards a decision to play again. It’s a heart over head thing I guess (obviously the rational thing to do would be to remain welded to the sidelines with beer in hand). Strangely, all of the above examples feature Americans and I must admit I haven’t heard of a Brit taking the game up in middle age. Perhaps we do our mid-life crises a bit differently over here, but I suspect that the reason is that by and large rugby isn’t (or hasn’t been) something that American kids play and so is taken up mostly when people get to college or later in life. Americans therefore choose to play rugby rather than get pushed into it as kids and are therefore that much more enthusiastic and passionate about the game (much like women who take up rugby over here).

And it’s my level of passion for the game that will eventually swing me one way or the other when I finally get off the fence and make a decision…

White out

England's training camp was apparently "rocked" yesterday by the news that tight-head prop Julian White has decided to pull out of World Cup contention to spend more time with his family and focus on running his 120-strong livestock farm .

"I have a young family and a farm to manage and felt that I could not commit to the length of time the squad will be away from home," said White.

Commentators seem convinced that this spells disaster for England's chances but I'm not so sure. They base their view on White's reputation as a fearsome scrummager and, although this bears up at club level (his demolition of Marcus Horan in the Heineken Cup game against Munster last season being the most recent example), he hasn't exactly set the international scene alight and offers precious little else. Of the props in contention I'd have him at about 5th in the pecking order behind Vickery, Stevens, Sheridan and Yates.

That said, I've a huge amount of respect for his decision - one few players would have had the courage to make.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Happy Anniversary!

Just thought it worth celebrating the 50th blog on Total Flanker. Thanks to anyone who has bothered to read the general guff I write - the bad news is that there's plenty more to come...

Ah well, another glass of virtual shampoo ...

The old ones are always the best #2

A seven year old boy was at the centre of a courtroom drama this morning when he challenged a court ruling over who should have custody of the boy.

The boy has a history of being beaten by his parents and the judge awarded custody to his aunt. The boy confirmed that his aunt beat him more than his parents and refused to live there.

When the judge suggested that he live with his grandparents the boy cried out that they beat him more than anyone.

The judge dramatically allowed the boy to choose who should have custody of him. Custody was granted to the England rugby team this morning as the boy firmly believes that they are not capable of beating anyone.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Do you wanna touch?

Another case of mix and match at touch rugby this evening and this week I found myself helping to make up the numbers in the team that I played against last week.

The advantage of that was that they had a couple of kiwis in their line up who clearly knew what they were doing – great going forward and excellent communication – with the result that I really enjoyed myself out there. For once the conditions were absolutely perfect – sunny, warm and firm underfoot, with the result that the quality of play was much improved.

I grabbed a few tries by getting on the end of others' hard work and even supplied a couple of comedy moments. Put away on halfway, my fifteen metre burst of pace predictably failed to shake off the pursuit of a very quick (honestly, he was greased lightning) teen who then completely failed to fall for my slow down and speed up routine and caught me easily as I collapsed in a heap. Then, minutes later, I intercepted the ball more or less on our line and set off on what should have been a stroll to the try line except that the self same stupidly determined kid once more set off in pursuit and soon narrowed the gap. My only recourse was to employ evasion tactics with the result that I ran round in a complete circle before my team mates belatedly realised that I could do with some support and I was able to offload to someone quicker to score the try.

Great fun and a really good workout too as dwindling numbers meant fewer opportunities to rest. It seems that there’ll be another touch session next week before I have to decide whether to get involved in pre-season, and anything that delays that decision has to be good news.

Fighting talk

Rugby is no stranger to violence. Although professional players are monitored by television cameras from nearly every conceivable camera angle these days, incidents of thuggery still regularly abound, whether it’s another punch by Danny Grewcock or a spear tackle by Tana Umaga...

While even the elite game struggles to entirely rid itself of its violent image, anyone who plays regularly at lower levels knows that part of the skillset of being a rugby player is knowing how to “look after yourself” – whether that’s knowing how to avoid trouble or knowing how to deal with it.

What we can take some comfort from is that, as yet, violence hasn’t spilled over into the ever-increasing crowds that attend rugby matches. Each season the Guinness Premiership announces that crowds are on the up, and yet opposing spectators remain unsegregated, drinking together and exchanging what is, for the most part, good natured banter.

So, can we sit back and give ourselves a hearty pat on the back for the fact that the malignant tribal hatred that permeates through supporters of professional football clubs has not crossed over into rugby? Well, frankly, no we can’t. We really can’t afford to be complacent, and one look at what’s been happening in Rugby League recently shows why.

The pitch invasion and subsequent fighting between fans of Hull FC and Hull KR at the weekend following the local derby should serve as warning to us all. With Hull FC’s Kirk Yeaman allegedly head-butted and Lee Radford spat upon in flashpoints with Hull KR supporters it’s a worrying sign, and neither is this incident the one-off picture that officials are trying to paint.

Despite officialdom's attempts to depict Rugby League as a family friendly sport, earlier this year police made several arrests when violence broke out amongst rival fans at Northern Rail Cup Rugby League match between Workington Town and Whitehaven and, back in 2000, Hull fans were again involved when they invaded the pitch and uprooted goalposts following a Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to Leeds. The Rugby Football League pledged to take tough action at the time but, seven years on, there’s clearly still a problem.

In the Australian NRL the problem is even worse with a string of violent incidents over the last few seasons involving people attending NRL matches leading to much unwanted bad press, causing the NRL and any clubs involved any number of headaches and with fans of the Canterbury Bulldogs in particular being singled out.

For us Rugby Union types it would be very easy to dismiss such incidents and claim that the traditional rugby supporter would never indulge in such behaviour, but any such complacency would be misplaced. We are not immune from unsavoury incidents, as the Trevor Brennan episode in Toulouse recently clearly shows, and some of the verbal abuse of players and officials at Guinness Premiership games is borderline enough to suggest that we’re not a million miles away from this escalating into something serious. You see, whilst growing the game and expanding the audience is good for the coffers of both club and country, the problem is that many who will now come to rugby matches will not be “traditional” supporters but will have been schooled in how to behave by going to football matches.

So my message here is simple. Set an example, be vigilant and make sure that the idiots do not take over. The atmosphere at a rugby match is unique and is too important to lose - one need only look to the superb example set by the Irish at Croke Park in March for evidence of that.

Here endeth the lesson :)

Monday, 9 July 2007

I fought the law...

As I've previously mentioned, I last played full-contact rugby back in 1994, and there's no doubt that in many ways I miss playing, which is why from time to time I contemplate making a foolhardy comeback. However, as much as I miss being part of a team and the camaraderie and banter that entails, my bouts of nostalgic melancholia pale into insignificance when set alongside the case of former Llanelli player Dale Burn's reaction to retirement.

Last week a court heard how Burn, who had been forced to retire following a road accident, had missed the excitement of big games to such an extent that he decided to try his hand at burglary, and got away with cigarettes worth over £4,000 after breaking into a Spar supermarket in Blaenavon and, 3 months later, an off-licence in Worcester.

Sadly for Dale, his new career crashed and burned after he managed to cut his hand at both crime scenes , leaving traces of his DNA (I've seen CSI, I know how it works!).

Apparently he didn't turn to a life of crime for financial gain, having been paid over £100,000 in compensation for his injuries, but instead did it for the "buzz". Burn is now awaiting sentencing by a judge at Newport Crown Court.

So, a word of warning to anyone out there who is thinking of retiring - you might find that you miss the adrenaline more than you think. You should therefore consider taking up bungee-jumping, or para-gliding or, if you really want to live dangerously, become a referee.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Put your left leg in...

Here's something from YouTube that I found quite amusing. It's an Irish tag rugby team from Galway (known as the "Hopeless Losers") doing a unique version of the Haka ...

To all those who are offended by this clip, I most humbly apologise. I realise how sensitive you must be to any disrespect shown to such an iconic cultural symbol. The last thing I want to do is upset you in the same way that those naughty women from Canterbury Rugby Club did when they performed a haka topless for their 2007 calendar. How dare they do something genuinely amusing while attempting to raise money for breast cancer charity.

Likewise I would rather not incur the wrath of those who objected to the Australian TV advert that depicted the All Blacks performing the haka whilst sporting some rather fetching handbags. Heaven forbid that I should be accused of being insensitive to Maori culture or disrespectful of All Black history.

Next thing you know, someone will be accusing me of not having a sense of humour...

Friday, 6 July 2007

Guide Me O Thy Great Redeemer...

The bizarre relationship between Welsh rugby supporters and the national team was highlighted again when it emerged recently at an inquest that a Welsh rugby fan was killed when he walked out half way through the Wales v New Zealand game last November and then decided to walk the 106 miles home to Cardigan from Cardiff - along the M4 motorway - at night - in the dark.

With Wales losing 23-3 at half time the fan in question decided to leave in disgust and then failed to meet up with friends later in Cardiff, from where he was due to travel home by minibus. Evidently he then decided it was a good idea to walk the 106 miles home.

Despite apparently being on "top form" on the day of the match he was also described as "mercurial" and a "big man with a high capacity for drink." Or perhaps not.

The coroner said that the fan "had put himself in a dangerous place on the motorway in the dark where cars were travelling at 70mph. Death was almost inevitable." You don't say, Sherlock.

So, perhaps now Welsh rugby supporters have a second candidate for a Darwin Award, following the even more bizarre story of Geoffrey Huish a couple of years ago. In case you'd forgotten, Mr. Huish decided to hack off his own testicles when Wales beat England in the 2005 Six Nations at Cardiff.

Described by the Sun newspaper as "single" and "jobless" (I can't for the life of me think why) Mr Huish had told a friend that he'd cut off his testicles if Wales won, which they duly did 11-9.

“I listened to the game on the radio at home by myself" he said. "After the match I got up for a pee and saw the cutters in the bathroom. So I started hacking away at my tackle. It took about ten minutes and there was quite a lot of pain — but I just kept going. The cutters were blunt so I had to keep snipping. I cut my penis as well. There was a lot of blood but not as much as you would expect.”

Having succeeded in castrating himself over the toilet, he then took his testicles in a plastic bag to his village's Social Club.

"It was packed with rugby fans. I went in and shouted out, ‘I’ve done it’. I took my balls out and passed them in the bag to a friend. Some people then laid me on the floor.”

What is it about Welsh rugby that inspires this level of lunacy? I know that often rugby is described as a "religion" in Wales and, indeed, Graham Henry was described as "The Great Redeemer" of Welsh rugby when he arrived as coach in 1998. However it now appears that Welsh rugby has its very own brand of religious fundamentalism, where walking home 106 miles along a motorway in pitch darkness and cutting off one's own gonads are considered appropriate responses to how the national team is performing. The extent of such delusion is amply demonstrated by the final comments made by Mr Huish (who's clearly several sandwiches short of a picnic) to the press two years ago:

"I can’t have kids now, but still want a family. Maybe I’ll adopt.”

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Take me to your leader

In recent days Brian Ashton has been praising to the high heavens the lessons he’s learned in terms of which players have emerged with real leadership potential from the England squad’s few days in the hospitality of the Royal Marines last week.

Rugby, it seems, is a sport which encourages and develops leadership, or at the very least attracts people with leadership qualities to its ranks. It came as some surprise to me to learn that Britain’s new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was a keen schoolboy rugby player until an eye injury forced him to quit the game and subsequently take up a political career. So was he a natural leader, who then channelled his ambition into another sector, or did rugby give him the leadership qualities he was then able to use in later life? I’d very much like to think the latter, but I guess we’ll have to wait for the autobiography to find out (and what a riveting read that’s likely to be).

Brown, however, is not the only renowned political leader to have a rugby past. Across the pond in the United States it appears that several of their political luminaries enjoyed a rugby career of sorts. For instance, Bill Clinton apparently played while a student at Oxford between 1968-1970. According to Clinton himself, "Being an American, I didn't know any of the rules but I was the biggest guy on the team, so the coach just said to me: 'Clinton, go out there and get in someone's way.' So that's what I did, just got in people's way." I’d guess it’s probably also where he learned how to smoke a cigar.

Clinton’s successor as US President, George Dubya Bush, was also, it appears, a rugby player (sorry, I really can’t bring myself to use the Americanism “rugger”) turning out for Yale University between 1964 and 1968. A fullback and winger (undoubtedly on the right), from the infamous picture shown here it’s obvious that his tackling technique was perhaps a little raw.

Further back in time and playing in the centres (I imagine) were the Kennedys – JFK is rumoured to have played rugby at Harvard and his younger brother Ted apparently managed to get himself sent off for fighting in one Harvard rugby match in 1954.

Outside American shores, various other world leaders have been connected to rugby. It was believed for some time that Karol Józef Wojtyła (aka Pope John Paul II) used to play rugby for Poland although this has been since been dismissed as an urban myth (although I still prefer to believe it).

What is not in doubt, however, is the rugby career of former Ugandan despot Idi Amin. Amin, who brutally ruled Uganda from 1971-79, was (in a classic case of poor character judgement) described as a "splendid type and good rugby player," by a 1964 British Dominions Office report and, in one of Amin’s speeches he said: “As you know I am a rugby player. I am second row, so I know how to push. I am very big. You don't want to push against me. And I also play wing three-quarter and I am very fast. I can run one hundred meters in nine point five seconds. If you tackle me, you will try, and you will hurt only yourself. So to everyone who is a boxer, I say this, do what you have to do to knock out your opponent." Make sense of that if you can.

Also not in doubt is the fact that Marxist guerrilla icon Ernesto "Che'' Guevara (pictured below, apparently, although you don't see this image on too many t-shirts) played rugby in Argentina, playing for Estudiantes in Cordoba and when at medical school in Buenos Aires. Despite suffering from asthma he apparently earned the nickname "Fuser", a contraction of "El Furibundo Serna" - "The Furious Serna" - (his real name was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna) for his aggressive style of play.

So, did the game of rugby attract and appeal to the natural leadership qualities of these men from across the political and ethical spectrum or, in fact, did rugby somehow help to shape their characters and turn them into the men they were to become? In one or two cases the thought of the latter case applying is certainly a scary one.

Answers on the back of a postcard please…

Gone fishing...

The Pope was cruising along the beach in the Pope-mobile when there was a frantic commotion just off-shore. A helpless man, wearing an English rugby jersey, was struggling frantically to free himself from the jaws of a 25 foot shark.

As the Pope watched in horror, a speedboat pulled up with three men wearing Welsh, Irish and Scottish rugby jerseys. One quickly fired a harpoon into the shark's side while the other two reached out and pulled the hapless English fan from the water. Then, using long clubs, the three beat the shark to death and hauled it into the boat.

Immediately the Pope shouted and summoned them to him. "I give you my blessing for your brave actions. I heard that there were some bitter hatred between the Celts and England rugby fans, but now I have seen with my own eyes that this is not true."

As the Pope drove off, the harpooner asked his buddies: "Who was that?"

"It was the Pope," one replied. "He is in direct contact with God and has access to all of God's wisdom."

"Well" the harpooner said, "he may have access to God and his wisdom, but he doesn't know anything about shark fishing. Is the bait holding up OK or do we need to get another one?"

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to playing: SCRUM HALF

In all probability scrum half is the most difficult position to play on the pitch. I’ve played it once, many moons ago in an old boys match when we had a surfeit of forwards and no scrum half. Needless to say we played with nine forwards that day and any ball that the backs received from me was accompanied by an ambulance.

At scrum half not only do you have to be incredibly fit, you also have to possess a long and fast pass, be able to break both from set pieces and loose play, be able to kick for position, be able and willing to tackle players twice your weight and, on top of all that, maintain a clear head and make key tactical decisions on behalf of the team. Being able to ballroom dance and cook cordon bleu food also helps.

Little wonder then that in reality, beneath the very top levels of the game, a scrum half (or half back for the benefit of any antipodean readers) rarely possesses any or all of the qualities listed above, but instead displays the following attributes:

  • a shortness of stature. “Napoleonic” is a word often used to describe scrum halves, both in terms of their height and character. I have played with and against tall scrum halves, of course, but they just don’t look right;
  • a masters’ degree in stroppiness, a nasty streak and an ability to wind up opposition forwards until a fight breaks out, which his own forwards invariably have to deal with;
  • the ability to talk and offer non-stop advice for 80 plus minutes, even when running at full speed and often when buried at the bottom of a ruck;
  • a belief that he has x-ray vision, enabling him to see through the forest of forwards surrounding him and make sound tactical decisions without listening to advice from anyone else, which he can’t hear anyway as he’s deaf;
  • absolute certainty that whatever tactical decision he makes is the correct one, even when it obviously isn’t;
  • an incredibly thick skin to deal with the abuse he gets from the majority of the team who think he should have done something different;
  • a Welsh accent. I don’t know why, but the majority of scrum halves I’ve played with have been Welsh, although given the attributes I’ve described above perhaps that’s not so surprising.

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

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Slippery when wet

What is it with the weather this summer? For those of you who are fortunate enough not to live in the British Isles, we are in the midst of one of our wettest summers on record. This time last year it was all hosepipe bans and rock hard ground - this year it's all rain, rain and more rain.

Late this afternoon the skies turned incredibly dark as the thunder rumbled over and the clouds deposited 30 minutes worth of torrential rain and, unbelievably, hailstones. HAILSTONES - in July, for pity's sake!

All of which made for swamp-like conditions for touch rugby this evening. For most of us the league ended to all intents and purposes last week, although the top two teams, who were on equal points, did play off for the winners trophy this evening. For the rest of us it was mostly just a question of turning up and mixing and matching, so I made up the numbers to take on the team who, funnily enough, I'd played against in monsoon conditions a couple of weeks ago. This time the rain held off, but squelching through the swamp and slipping and sliding around meant that we all ended up pretty wet by the end. The last time I played in conditions quite so waterlogged was on tour in Nairobi about 17 or so years ago, when I managed to slide through a patch of lime chalk used to mark the pitch and burnt a hole in the top of my thigh!

Nothing quite so dramatic this evening, and it was interesting playing with a different bunch of players with the atmosphere being very different from the more competitive stuff we'd been playing for the past few weeks. So different, in fact, that we were able to get by without a referee with no major problems. I even managed to get on the end of a few moves to score three tries - one of which required (ok, maybe not required, but certainly the occasion and conditions demanded) a sliding dive into the corner which left me drenched.

As, for most of the game, we only had one rolling sub (that's substitute as opposed to submarine), I also got to play the majority of the 45 minutes or so without struggling too badly, so fitness levels are definitely improving (although I'm sure my decrepit old limbs will tell me about it in the morning).

More of the same next week I hope...

Monday, 2 July 2007

An uplifting experience

As I may have mentioned before, the last time I played a proper game of rugby was before lifting was allowed in the lineout - yes, it was that long ago.

So I'm particularly ignorant as to training techniques to perfect this particular skill and assume that the below video demonstrates a standard training drill?

Sunday, 1 July 2007

All White on the night?

With the All Blacks receiving a timely wake up call at the hands of the Aussies in this weekend's Tri- Nations action, what will the impact be of Jake White's decision to rest several of his senior players for the away section of South Africa's Tri Nations campaign?

It strikes me that perhaps White appears to be satisfied that his South Africa team are no longer work in progress but are now the finished article. In the last few months he's made many comparisions bewteen this Springbok squad and Clive Woodward's England squad pre-2003 Rugby World Cup, especially in terms of experience and the ability to win tight games.

However, what Woodward's England team had was far more than that. By the time the 2003 Rugby World Cup came around it had the knowledge (far, far more powerful than mere belief) that it could beat any team in the world anywhere in the world. This is something the Springboks simply don't have. Yes, they've performed well at home this summer (and yet still lost to the All Blacks) but have a poor track record outside of South Africa (assuming they don't take too much solace from the win over an England in crisis last November).

Who knows? This may be a master stroke by Jake White. His frontline players might get the rest they need while his second string perform heroics down under, adding valuable strength in depth to his squad. However, I can't help feeling that White's nerve has failed, that the chance was there to build the sort of mometum that England achieved going into the 2003 event, a chance that (despite his bravado) White hasn't had the bottle to take.