Friday, 31 March 2017

Johnno return to rugby unlikely

Martin Johnson said this week that he is happy living a normal life and has no burning desire to get back into rugby at any level.

I'd say that's a huge shame.

I know the popular media narrative is that his brief time in charge of the England team was something of a disaster,  but I'm afraid it's a narrative I don't particularly buy into.

Yes, the England 2011 World Cup campaign was marred by some indifferent displays on the field and poor discipline off it (where Johnno was, in my humble opinion, let down badly by certain players and was disgracefully hung out to dry by the English press).

Let's face it, however, going out to France in the 2011 quarter finals turned out to be a major triumph when compared to the utter horlicks that followed 4 years later and the above narrative also conveniently ignores Johnno's overall record in charge which included winning the Six Nations title in 2011, drawing a series in Australia in 2010 and giving international debuts to the likes of Ben Youngs, Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw and Dylan Hartley - all regulars under Eddie Jones when fit and available.

Given the flak that Johnson had to take on the chin post-2011, it really should come as no surprise that he has decided that he now prefers life out of the limelight. It remains a massive shame, however, that his vast experience  - and that of many more of England's 2003 generation (the likes of Dallaglio, Vickery, Dawson, Thompson, Bracken, Robinson etc etc) - appears now to be lost to the professional game. 

It's almost as if the RFU had no plan (who'd have thought?)

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

This is what rugby is all about...

With an estimated 20,000 plus Lions fans expected to travel to New Zealand in the summer and with hotel accommodation either sold out or unaffordable, it is great to see that many Kiwi fans have offered to open up their homes to accommodate British and Irish visitors.
A Facebook page, Adopt a Lions Fan 2017, has been set up encouraging  locals to open their homes for free and "adopt a Lions fan (or two), and really show them the true hospitality Kiwis are world famous for".
It's a fantastic idea and heartwarming to see that there are so many New Zealanders keen to play host and provide hospitality to travelling fans.
What a wonderful thing this game of ours is...

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Blue is the colour...

It's interesting to note that both Australia and New Zealand are trialling a system whereby a referee can show a blue card to a player to remove him from the game if that player is showing signs of concussion.

The idea is to target lower levels of the game where medical support and facilities are not always available.

Firstly, any move to help protect player health and welfare is to be applauded.

I can see, however, this move putting unnecessary pressure on referees who will now be asked to make medical diagnoses on players, in addition to everything else they have to deal with. What happens, for instance, if they fail to recognise a concussion? To what extent will they be liable?

I can envisage referees becoming understandably over-cautious with potentially farcical consequences for the game at large.

And why the need to brandish a card? Which pocket will it be kept in? We need to know.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Six Nations 2017 - the Last Word

Time to move on from this year's Six Nations but here's a final thought. I wonder what the stats are for a team failing to win a Grand Slam at the final hurdle?

I can think of 5 occasions since the first Six Nations in 2000 that England have lost a grand slam decider - 2000, 2001, 2011, 2013, 2017 - and only 2 occasions were they have claimed the ultimate prize (2003 and 2016). And there were also a few occasions in recent memory in the old Five Nations where that final barrier proved a little too high for the England.

What this says about the English psyche is anyone's guess.

No such worries for England Under 20s and England Women last weekend who both wrapped up successful campaigns with victories over their Irish counterparts to each secure their own Grand Slam. Many (belated) congrats to both...

Thursday, 23 March 2017

England "greatness" remains on hold...

And so the RFU has admitted defeat in its attempts to host an England vs New Zealand match at Twickenham this November. Apparently the NZRU would rather play the Barbarians.

This, despite the RFU publicly (and rather unhelpfully) announcing its desire for such a fixture last week, a matter of days before England’s biggest game for years (which they subsequently lost, of course) against Ireland.

Not that Ireland needed any additional motivation, but to be almost dismissed as serious opposition to England’s impending “greatness” - as the English seemingly looked ahead to facing supposedly bigger and better opposition – must, I imagine, have made victory even sweeter for the Irish players.

For the fixture against the All Blacks then not to happen is a cock-up of fairly gargantuan proportions but, given the record of the muppets at HQ, hardly a major surprise.

And we wonder why we are labelled arrogant...

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Six Nations 2017 - Champs & Chumps

So here it is, the moment you've all been waiting for, my CHAMPS & CHUMPS of the Six Nations 2017.


15. Stuart Hogg - defence still iffy,  but his attacking repertoire is quite extraordinary.
14. Tommy Seymour - Lions 14 shirt starting to look a great fit.
13. Garry Ringrose - whisper it quietly, the heir apparent to BOD?
12. Owen Farrell - another certain Lions starter.
11. Elliott Daly - has everything and a move to fullback must be on the cards.
10. Finn Russell - indifferent at Twickenham but otherwise excellence personified.
9. Rhys Webb - a bit of a gobshite but was Wales' best player throughout.
1. Cyril Baille - key element to a hugely effective French front row.
2. Ken Owens - nuggety and consistent.
3. Tadhg Furlong - gargantuan - where did the Irish find this guy? 
4. Joe Launchbury - the relentless excellence throughout that we've come to expect.
5. Courtney Lawes - a player re-born, grafted hard and is no longer just seeking the big glory hit.
6. CJ Stander - strength of a bull, heart of a Lion.
7. Kevin Gourdon - proper ball-playing openside in the tradition of Jean-Pierre Rives.
8. Louis Picamoles - simply unstoppable.

And so to the CHUMPS. In fairness, a true reflection of this year’s championship would probably be just to select 15 Italians, with the 2017 Azzurri so far off the pace and even the great Sergio Parisse seemingly incapable of staying competitive beyond 60 minutes. However, in order to spread the love I've tried to as even-handed as possible...😀

15. Mike Brown - can't pass, won't pass and opposition defences are finding him increasingly easy to read. Time for a change at 15 Eddie.
14. Alex Cuthbert - Rob Howley picking him against England was arguably more cruel than me listing him here.
13. Jonathan Davies - and not just for his howler against England, he was part of a Welsh three-quarter line that would struggle to pass the parcel.
12. Luke MacLean - no idea what he or the Italian backline were attempting to achieve.
11. Giovanbattista Venditti - to call him a donkey would be unfair on donkeys.
10. George Ford - much to admire about Ford but he again wilted under pressure and defensively his channel remains extremely vulnerable.
9. Ben Youngs - very, very quiet championship, way too quiet for such an experienced number 9.
1. Alan Dell - key component of a struggling Scottish front row.
2. Fraser Brown - ditto, and in addition let down his team badly at Twickenham when yellow-carded early doors.
3. Uini Atonio - "Are you injured?" "I'm back's a bit head?"
4. Jake Ball - huge amount of effort. No end product.
5. Devin Toner - noticeable how much more dynamic the Irish pack were in his absence.
6. John Barclay - lost the plot at Twickenham badly.
7. Tom Wood - little impact whether a starter or a finisher.
8. Sergio Parisse - at times looked like he'd simply had enough, and who can blame him?

Monday, 20 March 2017

I hate to say I told you so but...

...I told you so!

Well done to Ireland for a fully deserved victory against England in Dublin on Saturday. It's not as if England could have been surprised by how well the Irish played but they had no answers and Ireland could and perhaps should have won by more.

All good things come to an end and, while it's a shame that the double Grand Slam wasn't achieved, it may prove beneficial in the long run that England's winning streak is now at end. Back-to-back 6 Nations champions is still something to be proud of but perhaps now all the nonsense about "greatness" can be mothballed indefinitely.

Of course the Dublin encounter followed a France v Wales match in Paris which will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons. TWENTY minutes of added time at the end in which the Welsh kept giving away penalties knowing that the French would opt for yet another scrummage, a piece of blatant cheating by the French faking an HIA to enable a better scrummager to re-enter the fray, attempts by Wales not to replace a yellow-carded prop to try to engineer uncontested scrums, bite marks on George North's arm that the French coach suggested were self-inflicted (!) and a seemingly bewildered Wayne Barnes - all contributed to an utterly farcical conclusion to the match.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my team of the week:

15. Stuart Hogg 14. Tommy Seymour 13. Garry Ringrose 12. Gael Fickou 11. Liam Williams 10. Johnny Sexton 9. Keiran Marmion 1. Rob Evans 2. Ken Owens 3. Tadhg Furlong 4. Iain Henderson 5. Donnacha Ryan 6. Peter O'Mahony 7. Justin Tipuric 8. Louis Picamoles.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Beware the Ides of March

I have a horrible feeling that the phrase “pride comes before a fall” may prove apt this weekend.

England preparation for Saturday’s Grand Slam decider against Ireland doesn’t feel at all right.

There’s been way too much emphasis on the England players achieving “greatness” by breaking New Zealand’s 18 match winning streak, and Eddie Jones is quite rightly wary of Steve Hansen’s attempts to blow smoke up his arse.

And then there’s the announcement by his bosses at the RFU of a possible match against the All Blacks in November this year.

Not only is such a fixture potentially not in the interest of the England team (Eddie having previously suggested that leading England players may need resting in November after an arduous Lions tour), the timing of the news, ahead of England’s biggest game for years, is a hugely unhelpful distraction.

The ONLY focus this week should be on how England might overcome an excellent and highly motivated Ireland team who will be salivating at the prospect of derailing the chariot.

I fear the worst.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017


As an aside...

...the announcement this week of plans for a second Scottish independence referendum by Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appears to me to be a somewhat extreme reaction to her team's shell-shacking at the hands of the English at Twickenham on Saturday...

Everybody out - Stade players on strike

The players of Stade Francais are apparently on strike over the club’s plans to merge with Racing 92 to form a Parisian super-club next season.

According to the two iconic French clubs, who have between them won 20 domestic titles, the plan is to pool resources next season to 'give birth to a new club'.

Obviously if the merger goes ahead a number of players and staff will lose their jobs. Does the fact that it is the Stade players who are now on “open-ended strike” suggest that is they, rather than their Racing 92 counterparts, who have not received any assurances about their future?

I suggest this is very much going to be a case of “watch this space.”

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Magnificent Seven

Slightly belated congrats to England Women's winger Kay Wilson after she scored SEVEN of England's twelve tries in their 64-0 win over Scotland at the Stoop on Saturday.
A fantastic achievement, but what on earth happened to the conversions?

Monday, 13 March 2017

Six Nations - Round 4

Wow. What a weekend of rugby.

First of all we had a Friday night game in Cardiff under a closed roof – a fantastic advert for Six Nations rugby, sizzling atmosphere, hugely physical game and unbelievably tense until Wales scored late to seal the game. Strange really as Wales barely strung a passing move together (with one exception) all night and still won 22-9 against an Irish team that looked far more dangerous ball in hand but were unable to provide the cutting edge to cross the whitewash. 

Italy v France was a somewhat subdued filler in this weekend’s Six Nations sandwich and merely served to confirm that right now the Italians can be competitive for parts of a match but still make way too many errors to stay in the game for 80 minutes, while France clearly have the talent but not, as yet, the consistency to step up to the next level.

And so to Twickenham and, let’s be honest, who really saw that coming? Yes, the Scots didn’t exactly help themselves, but England played with a relentless ferocity unmatched by anyone in the tournament so far and were well worth their 61-21 victory. There’s not much more to be said really – England were excellent and the Scots were sent hameward tae think again.

Team of the week:

15. Brice Dulin 14. George North 13. Jonathan Joseph 12. Owen Farrell 11. Anthony Watson 10. George Ford 9. Rhys Webb  1. Joe Marler 2. Ken Owens 3. Dan Cole 4. Joe Launchbury 5. Courtney Lawes 6. Maro Itoje 7. Kevin Gordon 8. Nathan Hughes.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Swinging Low?

Criticism from African-American scholars, as featured in the New York Times this week, that England rugby supporters are singing a slave song without fully understanding its historical context is, I'd venture, a tad over-precious. 

I'm referring of course to Sweet Low, Sweet Chariot,  the spiritual song thought to have been written by an African-American slave in the mid-1800s which calls for release from the suffering of slavery. 

It is, on the face of it, perhaps a strange song for England rugby fans to sing. 

Swing Low has, however, been been a regular feature of rugby's clubhouse choral repertoire for as long as I can remember - although admittedly when I first belted it out, along with accompanying hand gestures, I'm sure that neither I nor anyone else had any idea as to its origins. 

As for its associations with England, I first recall Swing Low being sung en masse at Twickenham in 1988 as England's Chris Oti scored a second-half hat trick of tries against the Irish. The fact that Oti was a black player has led some (including the New York Times) to suggest that there might have been some (albeit benign) racist motivation amongst those singing, but my recollection is that it was very much a spontaneous expression of joy and amazement at England scoring an almost unprecedented 6 tries at Twickenham.

I also don't remember subsequently hearing Swing Low sung much at Twickenham until the song was officially adopted and commercialised as an official anthem by the RFU for the 1991 World Cup, since when of course it has been sung regularly, perhaps too regularly, by England rugby fans worldwide.

So whilst it is important to understand the origins of the song, it is also important to understand the context in which the song is sung and its connection with the sport as an expression of celebration and support.

What I would say, however, is that:

- the song is sung way too often and has (in my humble opinion) really become a bit of a dirge;

- those fans that sing Swing Low the most often appear only to know one verse; and

- for the RFU to have turned a profit from the commercial exploitation of a song about the suffering of African-American slaves is, at best, somewhat distasteful.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Stuck in the past

Today, 8th March 2017, is International Women’s Day.

Great to see, therefore, that the RFU is embracing the occasion by refusing to commit to a deadline to make 30 per cent of its board female.

The Government’s Code for Sports Governance requires national sports governing bodies to “adopt a target, and take all appropriate actions to encourage, a minimum of 30 per cent of each gender on its board.”

By refusing to commit to a deadline for reform the RFU risks being stripped of millions of pounds of government funding.

It appears that the 57 old farts are alive and well.

Friday, 3 March 2017

He's back!

Look who Saracens have named at number 8 to face Newcastle Falcons this weekend:

What price on Billy joining brother Mako and the other England "finishers" next week?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Regarding Henry

While it is difficult to criticize a head coach who has just overseen 16 straight wins, I am more than a little bemused by the decision of Eddie Jones to leave Henry Slade out of the England squad preparing to face Scotland on Saturday week.

The Exeter player only had a few minutes off the bench against Italy last week but in that time looked a class act, as he has done on the very few occasions he has been allowed to pull on an England shirt.

I have no problem with Jonathan Joseph’s return to the squad, but surely Slade’s all-round excellence is deserving of further reward and I can’t help but think that Eddie Jones will have failed if players of the quality of Slade are not fully-fledged internationals by 2019.