Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Reflections...

Last week was a tough week.

Events in Manchester affected me far more than I’d ever have anticipated, probably because I have 2 kids who are a similar age to many of those killed or injured by the bombing. 

My usual cynical exterior was well and truly pierced last week and I was particularly moved by the reaction of the people of Manchester who pulled together quite magnificently in truly appalling circumstances.

Rugby, frankly, became irrelevant.

And yet life, as the people of Manchester so ably demonstrated, goes on and on Saturday we were treated to a quite magnificent game of rugby between Exeter and Wasps, with Exeter emerging as deserving winners, their sheer collective will dragging them over the line after 100 intense and dramatic minutes.

Twickenham then saw a young England team overcome a wily, experienced Barbarians outfit on Sunday - with the performances of the likes of Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Nick Isiekwe, Charlie Ewels and Nathan Earle catching the eye and showing that the England talent cupboard is looking well stocked for the future.

And so, to a degree, life returns to normal for many of us. Let's not forget, however, that for many involved in events in Manchester this is not the case and my thoughts remain very much with the families and friends of the victims and others directly affected by last Monday's events.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Oi, Gatland - NO!

On the issue of player welfare, Warren Gatland’s comments about Billy Vunipola pulling out of the Lions Tour are pretty despicable:

“I spoke to Billy and he just felt he couldn’t give us 100 per cent.

“It [Vunipola’s shoulder] was popping out during games and being strapped.

“I did try to persuade him to come over and be assessed and look at managing him but he was adamant that he was not right. If someone is not 100 per cent right in terms of their commitment, I fully understand and respect that decision.”

So what Gatland is saying is that a player should put his long term health and fitness at risk if he is asked to do so, and the fact that Billy wasn’t prepared to do that is a sign of lack of commitment?

Wazzock.

Back to the well...

Unsurprisingly the Rugby Players' Association has unanimously rejected a proposal for an extended 10 month domestic season.

In March Premiership Rugby had confirmed that the 2019/20 season would start at the beginning of September and finish at the end of June.

Watching the Premiership semi-finals this weekend it was evident just how physically brutal our sport has become. It's brilliantly entertaining and gladiatorial but, scarily, after a long and hard season our top players are still expected to put themselves through the physical and mental challenge of a tough summer tour. He probably won't agree, but the shoulder injury to Billy Vunipola, for instance, is probably a blessing in disguise in the longer term.

We need to ask ourselves just how often we can expect these players to go back to the well...

Monday, 22 May 2017

Cool Hand Henry

Two fantastic Premiership semi finals at the weekend, the highlight of which for me was not in fact Exeter’s dramatic last gasp winning try against Saracens, nor that of Wasps against the Tigers in Coventry.

Instead the moment of the weekend was the 60 metre plus kick to touch by Henry Slade to set up the winning position for the Chiefs at the death. I’ve long been a fan of Slade’s impressive skillset, but that kick also demonstrated that the boy has ice in his veins and I hope he now gets the chance to lay down a marker with England in Argentina.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Contract, what contract?

Louis Picamoles – undoubtedly one of the best signings of last season – is now one year into a 3 year deal with Northampton and yet has this week reportedly signed a “pre-contract” to join Montpellier next season.
No doubt Saints will end up receiving a substantial transfer fee, but that’s not really the point.
Picamole’s move to Montpellier is effectively being presented as a fait accompli with Northampton the unwilling victim and, if successful, sets a precedent in which the principle of Sanctity of Contract can be ignored by those with the deepest pockets.
If we're not careful I'm sure we can all see where this is headed...

Friday, 19 May 2017

Fit for rugby

I’m intrigued by RFU plans to roll out a new specific 20-minute exercise programme across all levels of the community game in England in time for next season.

As a youth team coach (well, I do put out the cones and hold the tackle bags) I will be directly affected by the plans, so I should probably pay attention.

The programme – which apparently focuses on balance, strength and agility to prepare players for the physical challenges of rugby – is designed to reduce overall injuries and is based on recent research which found that injuries fell by 72% when players completed the programme three times a week  before a match or training.

Looks like I’ll have some homework to do over the coming weeks…

Thursday, 18 May 2017

A farewell to Mr Ritchie

Ian Ritchie’s decision to retire as RFU Chief Executive this summer came as a bit of a surprise.

Although his reign hasn’t been an unqualified success – his managing of Stuart Lancaster’s time in charge of the national team springs to mind and he can hardly be described as any kind of visionary – there’s little doubt that the plusses of his time in office do far outweigh the minuses.  

The RFU is a far more stable environment than when Ritchie took over in 2011, he helped deliver a hugely successful World Cup (from a financial standpoint) and the England set up is now incredibly strong with the England men, women and age group teams all flying relatively high.

He has also enjoyed diplomatic success – brokering the deal that ensured English participation in the Champions Cup, overseeing the 8 year Professional Game Agreement with Premiership Rugby and, of course, he was instrumental in bringing Eddie Jones aboad as England’s Head Coach.

Apparently the RFU plans to announce Ritchie’s successor later this summer. Whoever he or she may be, they will inherit an organisation in rude health, although with a very tough act to follow…

Monday, 15 May 2017

From strength to strength

Huge congrats to Saracens for their Champions Cup victory over Clermont this weekend.

Winning the competition for the second year running is nothing to be sniffed at - and to be unbeaten in Europe in 18 games is quite remarkable.

I have to declare that Sarries are, to all extents and purposes, the club I tend to follow (insofar as I follow anyone), being the most local to me and being heavily involved in rugby development in the local area (young Master TF having attended a number of their county developing player training sessions).

I have previously described Saracens as a "difficult team to love" - partly I think owing to their history of importing foreign (mainly South African) players en bloc, partly due to a suspicion that only lip service was ever being paid to the salary cap and partly thanks to what was, which even the most committed fez-head would admit, a somewhat perfunctory playing style.

It can safely be said, however, that the modern Saracens set up is very different. I can't really comment on the salary cap, other than to say that the club does not tend to sign big-money marquee superstars. Instead they tend to develop from within and recruit where necessary based on character as much as ability. What is telling is that Saracens started Saturday's Champions Cup Final with 11 English-qualified players in their starting XV - with none of the four non-English players exactly being household names outside of Barnet.

They also played vibrant and attacking rugby from the outset, showing just how far their game as developed over the years.



There's clearly a huge collective bond between the players at Saracens these days for which Mark McCall (to whom the RFU should already be talking with a view to 2020) and the rest of the staff at the club can take huge credit.

They now move on to Sandy Park for the Premiership Semi-Final, but whether or not they succeed in defending their domestic title this season (and I wouldn't bet against them), it is clear that as a club they are now setting the standards not only for other clubs but also for England...

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Auntie in Argentina

I was very pleased to hear that the Beeb will be broadcasting England's two tests in Argentina next month.
Being somewhat reluctant to line the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, I am always happy to see rugby appearing on terrestrial TV and, having no social life to speak of, I can confirm that I will be tuning in to BBC2 on the evenings of 10th and 17th June...


Thursday, 11 May 2017

Five years and a Pool of Death...

World Rugby’s decision at its meeting this week in Kyoto to scrap the 3 year residency qualification period, replacing it with a more stringent 5 year period, has to be seen as a good thing.

Hopefully it will end (or at least reduce) the practice  of "Project Players" being brought in by certain countries and will help protect lower tier nations who habitually lose players to other national teams purely for economic reasons.


Having said that, I understand that the new rule is not due to come into force until 31st December 2020 which, by my calculations (and call me an old cynic), gives countries until the end of this year to ship in as many Project Players as they can. 


Of course Kyoto also hosted the draw for the 2019 World Cup this week and there was a certain inevitability that Eddie Jones and England would be being drawn in another Pool of Death, having to face both France and Argentina in Pool C to progress to the quarter finals. Scant reward, it seems, for the team's recent 18 match unbeaten run...

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Re-Touched and an Anniversary...

It’s that time of year again as yesterday evening yours truly, despite legs that barely move and a heart and lungs in serious need of counselling, embarked on a 12th summer season of Touch rugby.

As it turned out a couple of weeks of light practice had done very little to prepare this knackered old carcass for the pace and intensity of our first fixture of the season against a very fit and young (pretty much exclusively young men in their 20s) Chiltern Barbarians.

A mixed (gender and age) and slightly understrength Dave’s Dad’s Dog’s Dead team were unfortunately no match for our fast and skilful opponents, although we did hang in there as best we could to limit our defeat to 11-14 – not too shabby all things considered.

My personal contribution involved much scrambling in defence, a few carries in attack, a fair bit of ineffectual hanging about on the wing and an awful lot of gasping for breath and wondering if anyone had remembered to bring the defibrillator.

By pure coincidence yesterday was also the 10th anniversary of the very first post on this blog. Yes, a few of you (and you know who you are) have been putting up with this drivel for 10 long, long years.  

Ten years ago I was beginning my 2nd season of Touch and was nursing various aches and pains after a narrow defeat in the first game of the season.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Family ties

Awful news this week that Tom Youngs’ wife is suffering from terminal cancer – news which prompted the withdrawal of brother Ben from the Lions touring squad to New Zealand.
Ben’s decision to support his brother and sister-in-law,  foregoing an opportunity which may not come around again, is as admirable as it is understandable. 
Family is, and always should be, paramount and my best wishes go out to the Youngs family at what must be a hugely difficult and emotional time.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Rugby on Five

I’m delighted by the news that Premiership Rugby has signed a deal with Channel 5 for next season which will see Premiership matches broadcast live on UK terrestrial TV for the first time.

OK, so it’s only for 5 matches, but at least it’s a start and the package will also include a weekly highlights programme to be broadcast at 8pm on a Sunday.

It’s about time that rugby looked beyond the Pay TV model which, while bringing revenues into the game, fails to expose the sport to a wider audience and which (at least in my humble opinion) does the development of rugby at grassroots level no good at all. I hope the RFU take note and begin to re-think their TV strategy on England home internationals.

And yes, it will also fit in with my personal viewing habits perfectly.

I trust that the new arrangement, with the new Channel 5 highlights show replacing the current show on ITV, continues to recognise the genius of ex-prop-turned-pundit David Flatman.