Thursday, 21 November 2019

Good luck Tom Smith

This blog's very best wishes go out to Tom Smith and his family, as the 48 year old former Scotland and Lions prop battles against stage four colorectal cancer which has spread to his liver and brain.

One of my favourite rugby memories was watching - on a small screen in a local pub - the relatively diminutive Smith, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace take on the mighty South African front row of Du Randt, Drotske and Garvey on the 1997 Lions tour and emerge victorious.

Smith's performances on that tour were typically brave and he will need all the bravery that he can muster this time around.

I am sure the entire world of rugby will rally round in support of Tom Smith and his family.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Saracens accept sanctions

I'd like to think that that the statement by Saracens that the club will not contest the recent ruling of the independent panel in relation to salary cap breaches will draw a line under the whole sorry saga.

I'd like to think so, but I doubt it will happen.

If it is true that the independent panel accepted that the club have “not deliberately sought to circumvent the regulations” - then the £5m+ fine and 35 point deduction remains, for me, utterly draconian and vindictive.

It seems that the club has, however, decided to accept the punishment in the hope that both they and the English domestic game can move on.

There will still be those who will continue to bang on about "systematic cheating" and demand that Sarries be stripped of their titles won. Perhaps, however, those people should start looking closer to home before making such demands.

And, Saracens being such a close-knit bunch, it wouldn't surprise me at all if their England contingent decided to put club before country this coming Six Nations to try to help ensure Premiership survival.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Folau plumbs new depths of bigotry

I can't express just how disgusted I am at Israel Folau's latest comments linking Australia's bush fires to the country's same-sex marriage laws.
Folau has described the fires - which have claimed several lives - as a "little taste of God's judgement".
Let's be clear. This appalling man is not a Christian. He is merely a bigot.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Shaun Edwards - il est Bleu!

So, with the announcement this week that Shaun Edwards has joined the French national set up as defence coach, it looks like England will miss out on his services for at least another 4 years.

I've previously touted Edwards as a possible successor to Eddie Jones. After all, how may other coaches out there (a) are English; (b) have extensive international coaching experience (with Wales and the Lions); and (c) as Head Coach have a CV which includes winning the Heineken Cup, European Challenge Cup and 3 Premiership titles?

Who knows? Perhaps it will all go a bit pear-shaped in France (the arrival of Edwards will certainly be something of a culture shock for the French players) and it's anyone's guess right now how long Eddie jones will remain in situ. 

As things stand, however, it looks as if the RFU have, once again, missed the boat.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

In support of the Blazers...

Interesting article over on the In The Loose blog, highlighting an apparent stagnation within grassroots rugby and the need for those in charge of grassroots and community clubs to either evolve or face extinction.

The piece contains some valid points, but my main 'beef' (to use a phrase my son might use) with it is the overriding implication that the current situation is somehow the fault of the "aged and backward" volunteer committee men and that unless younger people are involved in the decision-making process at club level then grassroots rugby is somehow doomed.

What the author (who happens to be 20) fails to acknowledge, it seems, is that without the selfless dedication of the "Blazers" and the many others who volunteer their time to perform all sorts of unglamorous tasks behind the scenes, grassroots and community rugby clubs simply would not exist.

It is the same for all amateur sports - past players staying involved and 'giving back' to the sport by volunteering their time to ensure that the club thrives for future generations.

This evening, for example, I am attending a meeting for the youth section of my rugby club. All of those attending will, I'm sure, be middle-aged (men and women), mainly because the youth section is, for the most part, run by volunteer parents. The committee for the senior section of the club does feature a slightly younger cast but, in the main, again it is dominated by people who have the necessary time, interest and willingness to offer their time and services free of charge.

Yes, ideally it would be nice if there was a "changing of the guard" but I guess my point is that there exists no lengthy waiting list of 20-somethings desperate to volunteer their services. It's hardly that surprising - they almost certainly have far more interesting things occupying their lives - but, believe me, if such a list existed they would all undoubtedly be welcomed with open arms.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Basta - Back and Forward?

According to the headlines, coach Eddie Jones has devised a new playing position - "back and forward" for Mathieu Bastareaud ahead of the Barbarians encounter with Fiji at Twickenham this Saturday.
Which is all a bit self-evident really as the former French international centre has been (successfully, it seems) turning out in the back row while on loan Lyon (prior to his move to Rugby United New York next year).
And, anyway, we all know that at heart he's a frustrated tighthead prop. 😂

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Jungle James

Time to get serious now.



It has been announced that one of this blog's favourite characters - James Haskell - will feature in this year's "I'm a Celebrity - Get me Out of Here".

Ahead of his proposed MMA debut in 2020, Haskell will enter the Australian jungle next Sunday alongside the likes of Ian Wright and Caitlyn Jenner, amongst others.

Given the likelihood of significant weight loss whilst having to survive on rice, beans and kangaroo's gonads, perhaps Haskell is contemplating life as a middleweight?

Let the entertainment begin...


Monday, 11 November 2019

Unpleasant

Yesterday morning I, as usual, ran touch for my son's rugby team - away at a club that shall remain nameless.

Now, normally when I'm flag-waving I share a level of friendly and light-hearted banter with those on the sidelines - opposition coaches, parents, spectators etc - and, at least in the early part of yesterday's match, it was business as usual.

As the match progressed, however, and as it became increasingly obvious that the home team were likely to lose a closely-fought contest, a combination of opposition parents plus boys who were supposedly on the bench ( I say "boys" but at Under 18 level that's not really the case), grew increasingly loud and aggressive, patrolling up and down the touchline, criticising refereeing decisions, abusing our team and and winding up their own boys playing on the pitch.

Not far short of a baying mob, to be honest, and the final act - me raising my flag to indicate a player being pushed into touch - was met also met by a torrent of abuse.

Our boys, to be fair, kept their composure and saw out the win, but it was a thoroughly unpleasant and depressing experience, at least for me.

The worst part, I think, was that the coaches on the sidelines, whilst not actively involved, did nothing to discourage behaviour which does nothing for their club's reputation. I know for certain that similar behaviour from our boys (or their parents) simply would not be tolerated.

So much for the spirit of rugby...

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Whither England (post-RWC 2019)?

A week on from the disappointment of last Saturday, where do England go from here?

As previously mentioned, England can look back upon the 2019 World Cup with a certain degree of satisfaction, despite the gut-wrenching disappointment of failing to perform on the biggest stage of all against the Springboks in the Final.

The high point for the England squad was without doubt their semi-final performance against the All Blacks, when all the stars aligned as Eddie Jones’ men played very close to the perfect game. That they couldn’t replicate that performance in the Final will, however, be of immense frustration to the players and the management.

Nevertheless, from a playing personnel perspective England undoubtedly remain in a good place – with very few players being north of 30. Most of the squad (fitness and form permitting) will probably be available in 4 years time and so on the face of it there is little need for a post-RWC cull.

The question is, though, how soon does Eddie Jones move on from those players unlikely to be around in France in 2023? Post World Cup he has already said that this England team is “finished” and that he will “make a new team for the Six Nations” but what does he mean?

It is clear that scrum half is a position that needs addressing given that Ben Youngs is currently 30, and his RWC deputy, Willi Heinz is 32. It’s a position in which Jones failed to build depth over the last 4 year cycle – with only the discarded Danny Care (another 30-something) getting any significant game time other than Youngs. Jones – assuming he stays – will not want to make the same mistake again.

Other players the wrong side of 30 are Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Mark Wilson. While I can’t see Cole featuring again, the latter two still have plenty to offer, at least in the short term, so I would be surprised if they were jettisoned early doors.

Eddie Jones being Eddie Jones, I am sure we will get a few curve balls when the squad for the 2020 Six Nations is announced. Following that performance against the All Blacks, however, England could come bottom of the Six Nations and, quite frankly, all would be forgiven.

Aside from whether players will be around in 4 years time, the issues facing Jones are pretty much the same as he has faced for the last few seasons, namely:

- Lack of depth at scrum half (see above)

- Over-reliance on Billy Vunipola at 8 – Billy didn’t have a bad World Cup, but did appear to coast at times and could do with some genuine competition

- Deciding on his optimum midfield – will the Ford/Farell axis continue and what is his best 12/13 combination?

- Fullback – as things stand it can’t possibly remain Elliot Daly, can it?

- Leadership and how certain players react under pressure.

There is also the question of what effect Premiership Rugby's 35 point sanction on Saracens might have. I can quite see for instance, should the sanction stand, Saracens players choosing to prioritise their club this season, which could decimate the England squad.

Finally there remains the question of how long Eddie Jones will stick around. He is contracted for another 2 years but, with the Aussies sniffing around, could he be tempted home? Even if he stays, should the RFU push for him to sign up for the full 4 year cycle? And if Eddie does go, what next?

Friday, 8 November 2019

Dylan Hartley retires

Good luck to Dylan Hartley following the announcement that he has retired from professional rugby after failing to recover from a long-standing knee injury.

Not everyone's cup of tea, Hartley's playing career was beset by a litany of on-field disciplinary issues, but off the field by all accounts he was a gent, and England owe him a great debt of gratitude for his leadership post 2015 World Cup.

I suspect we'll see him coaching before too long...

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019: the Legacy?

One of the lasting legacies of RWC 2019 in Japan is, one would hope, the recognition that so-called tier 2 nations need to be exposed to a higher standard of rugby on a more regular basis.

This follows the series of remarkable performances by host nation Japan who defeated both Ireland and Scotland in the pool stages before finally succumbing to eventual champions South Africa in the quarter finals.

Quite rightly there have been noises from both the Six Nations and the Rugby Championship about inviting Japan to join their competition.

But it seems that the thinking has progressed beyond merely rewarding Japan.

Earlier this year World Rugby proposed launching a global “Nations Championship” consisting of a league of 12 teams playing each other once each year with semi-finals and a final to be held in the northern hemisphere in December and with promotion and relegation to and from the league.

Rather short-sightedly I labelled the proposal a “crap idea” owing to the extra burden it would put on already overworked players and, lo and behold, the proposal was duly abandoned – not, I hasten to add, owing to player welfare concerns, but because certain northern hemisphere unions refused to countenance the risk of relegation. 

Now, however, talk of a world championship series is back on the table, with a seemingly less demanding playing schedule, involving the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams plus Japan and Fiji.

All good, one might think, if it creates more opportunities for the leading nations to play one another and establishes a more coherent international calendar. 

The crucial difference to the previous proposal, however, is that the competition would be ring-fenced, excluding the likes of Georgia, USA, Samoa and Tonga – which is hardly going to improve the lot of tier 2 nations in general.

So in other words, plenty of extra revenue for the top table, while the rest continue feed off the crumbs…

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Saracens in deep water

As if defeat in the World Cup Final wasn't bad enough, the likes of Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jamie George, Jack Singleton, Eliot Daly and Ben Spencer have returned to the UK to learn that their club - Saracens - has been handed a 35-point deduction and fined £5m+ after having been found to have breached Premiership Rugby salary cap regulations.

Whilst still subject to appeal, the seemingly draconian punishment not only ends Saracens' chances of making the Premiership play offs this season (effectively they will play Gloucester this weekend on -26 points), relegation is now a real possibility and the £5m+ fine must surely threaten the club's financial viability and thus its very existence. Not to mention the potential effect on the England squad going forward. 

Whilst other clubs may be rubbing their hands in glee, such a punishment sets such a potentially dangerous precedent that I doubt any of the clubs can be 100% sure that their own financial arrangements are watertight. 

If the sanction stands it will be biggest scandal ever to hit English rugby.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019: the Verdict is in

Some brief reflections on Rugby World Cup 2019:

The Hosts – Huge congratulations to the Japanese hosts - you put on a fantastic tournament which was embraced the length and breadth of your country. Even the terrible tragedy wrought by Super Typhoon Hagibis could not dim your enthusiasm nor dampen your spirits. Thank you, it was remarkable, and you should be hugely proud of your efforts.

Japan - I had a sneaking suspicion that the Brave Blossoms would set this competition alight and was delighted to be proved right. Japan now deserves its place at the top table and it is incumbent on World Rugby and on all of the tier one nations not only to accommodate Japan into a tier one competition, but to also provide a pathway for the likes of Fiji, the USA etc who are also not a million miles away (more of this in another post).

The Final - not the greatest game (unless you you happen to be South African), spoilt by a combination of certain England players crumbling under pressure as well as maddening inconsistency from Monsieur Garces. That's not an excuse, by the way, England were clearly second best in nearly every facet of the game on the day and South Africa, fuelled by potent cultural forces, were simply superior and never looked like losing. Congratulations to them - richly deserved.

Whither England? - to be dealt with in a different post but - despite the disappointment of defeat in the Final - in the cold light of day Eddie Jones' men can look back on the World Cup with a degree of satisfaction. Yes, the Springboks were a step too far but, in making their 4th Rugby World Cup Final, England remain one of only five nations ever to have graced that stage. And, with one of the youngest squads out in Japan, the future should be bright so long as the World Cup hangover does not linger too long.

The Future - talk of increasing the number of participating teams to 24 is premature. What this tournament showed is that the gap between the tiers is narrowing (no thrashings even approaching 100 points this time around) and continuing this trend should be the priority. What this World Cup also showed was that hosting the competition outside the traditional rugby superpowers was an inspired choice and should be explored again for 2027. Personally I'd like to see it in Argentina.

TF Team of the Tournament15. Beauden Barrett 14. Cheslin Kolbe 13. Virimi Vakatawa 12. Damian De Allende 11. Josh Adams 10. Handre Pollard 9. Faf de Klerk 1. Tendai Mtawarira 2. Shota Horie 3. Frans Malberbe 4. Maro Itoje 5. Lood De Jager 6. Ben Curry 7. Sam Underhill 8. Duane Vermeulen.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Small mercies

At least yesterday's result means that we won't have to endure any more of this BOLLOCKS...


Friday, 1 November 2019

Rugby World Cup Final Preview

So, with the slight irrelevance of who came third out of the way, here it comes - the Final of the Rugby World Cup 2019.

As I type this I'm beginning to feel slightly sick - a case of peaking way too early. I can only hope the England boys handle nerves better than I do.

Back in early August I opined that South Africa would win the World Cup. And now here they are in the Final, which would be a totally scary prospect had I not got so many predictions wrong during this tournament.

Based purely on the semi-final against the All Blacks, it has to be England (doesn't it?) except that history shows that knocking the All Blacks out of the World Cup does not necessarily lead to being champions - see France in '99, Australia in '03, France in '07 as examples.

Could it be that Warren Gatland is correct - that England may have already played their final? I hope not - and a re-watch of the semi-final against New Zealand does show a number of missed first-half opportunities by England in the All Black 22, so there is definitely still room for improvement and for this team to get better. Let's hope that they do that on Saturday.

As for South Africa, we all think we know what they will be bring and I seriously doubt that, unlike England in the '91final, they will be duped into attempting to play a significantly more expansive game than we've seen so far. Their threats are obvious - a monster pack, a solid midfield, Faf de Klerk and Cheslin Kolbe.

It is likely to be tense. It is likely to be close.

The heart says England.

The head says England.

But in reality it's a 50/50 game.

I'm firmly on the fence and, frankly, I'm bricking it.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Haka fine makes World Rugby look silly

Much has been made this week of England being fined a "four figure sum" for their V-shaped response to New Zealand's haka last Saturday.

I'm sure the RFU can afford it but I honestly haven't seen a single comment, whether from New Zealanders or otherwise, where anyone had a problem with the England team's actions.

Other than World Rugby, of course, who continue impose ludicrous, artificial protocols on how the Maori challenge ought to be received.

Contrary to popular belief I have no issue whatsoever with the All Blacks performing their haka - it is often great theatre (last Saturday being a case in point).

But for World Rugby to continue to legislate on how the opposition should behave during this choreographed showpiece is just silly.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The Game Nobody Wants to Play

The "make sure he enjoys the third and fourth place play-off" jibe aimed by Eddie Jones at Warren Gatland, after Gatland had suggested that England had already played their World Cup Final in beating New Zealand last week, was right on the money.
Because, after seven long weeks,  no one - not the players, not the coaches and not even the fans - are interested in a fixture to decide who comes third. I mean, who really cares?
After a semi-final defeat I'm sure the vast majority of players simply want to slope off home. I know I would.
The third-fourth play off is the game nobody wants to play.
World Rugby should seriously consider canning it for future tournaments.

Monday, 28 October 2019

Wales depart wondering...

If I was a Welsh rugby fan - which I'm not - I'd be a little bit angry this morning.

Not because Wales lost to South Africa yesterday, per se, but because they ultimately departed the World Cup barely firing a shot.

I simply don't buy the "we gave it our all and played our hearts out for 80 minutes" argument - that's the bare minimum I'd expect. No, what would annoy me intensely would be the fact that Wales failed to do much more than phase, phase, kick throughout the game.

The one occasion they risked their hand - from a scrum in the Springbok 22 - they scored a well-worked try. Surely that should have been the blueprint for the game rather than the kicking fest it turned out to be?

I appreciate it was difficult but the Welsh do have players who can play expansive rugby and yet stuck to a kick and chase strategy (one wag on Twitter noting that the ball probably gained enough airmiles for the flight home) which was palpably failing.

Yes, they came close and, who knows, playing a more expansive game may also have failed, but the galling thing is that they'll never know.

There must be an overwhelming and lingering sense of a massive missed opportunity and I know that I would be seriously disappointed had England gone out in a similar fashion.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Dear Eddie Jones...

Dear Eddie

There have been times, especially during the dark days of 2018, when I have questioned the direction in which you were taking your England team and when talk of being the no.1 team in the world and of winning the World Cup seemed utterly fanciful at best and seriously delusional at worst.

I have questioned selections, I have questioned tactics and I have questioned training methods.

I take it all back.

Yesterday's utterly dominant performance against the All Blacks was, quite simply, one for the ages. New Zealand are a seriously great rugby team and yet were made to look ordinary. At no stage did they ever really look like scoring and, but for one mis-thrown lineout, would almost certainly have scored no points at all. That's how much of a stranglehold your team had on the game. It was simply brilliant.

No matter what happens now, whoever England face in the final and whatever the outcome, that one performance against New Zealand will forever define your era as England Head Coach.

Well done Eddie.

Yours sincerely

Total Flanker

PS - whoever it was that whispered in your ear that it might be worth combining Sam Underhill and Tom Curry on the flanks for England must be in line for a seriously humongous bonus.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Rugby World Cop 2019: Semi-Finals Preview



And then there were four - although admittedly not the four that I forecasted last week.

My fears last weekend that an undercooked England would succumb to a fired-up Australia proved to be unfounded, largely thanks to a magnificent defensive shift put in by the English and the "just chuck it about and see what happens" strategy adopted by Michael Cheika's men. England ran out deserved winners but will need to crank it up another level or two this weekend if they are to match the All Blacks who were at their clinical and ruthless best against a lacklustre Ireland last time out.

England vs the All Blacks should be one heck of a test match but, although my heart says England, I'm afraid my head is saying New Zealand by 9. Here's hoping that I'm as accurate as I was for England's quarter-final.

As for the other semi-final, Wales are going to have to show a massive improvement from their frankly awful performance against France if they are to make their first ever World Cup final. I'm afraid I just don't buy the "they've forgotten how to lose" and "somehow they found a way to win" rhetoric. The only reason Wales are in the semi-final is that the quarter-final was handed to them by Sebastian Vahaamahina's idiocy. And even then they needed a decidedly dodgy decision from Jaco Peyper to seal it.

As for South Africa - they played the role of party-pooper against Japan with a ruthless intensity and I'd expect more of the same vs Wales. The Springboks will undoubtedly, however, miss the electrifying talent of the injured Cheslin Kolbe but Wales will need a fully fit and firing Jonathan Davies back in the team if they are to stand a chance of progressing further. 

That said, before the tournament started I thought the most likely outcome would be a New Zealand vs South Africa final and, sad to say, I've seen nothing to convince me otherwise. South Africa to therefore beat Wales by 7+.



Wednesday, 23 October 2019

South Leicester RFC - a cautionary tale

Away from the build up to the Rugby World Cup semi-finals, I am sorry to learn about the plight of South Leicester RFC who have endured an awful start to life in the Midlands Premier league having last season been relegated from the national leagues.

Having already conceded over 100 points on 5 occasions this season, South Leicester's season reached rock bottom last weekend as they went down 240-0 to Bromsgrove, conceding 36 tries (at a rate of nearly 2 tries per minute) in the process.

Relegation last season led to a loss of sponsors, meaning the club could no longer pay players, with over 30 players subsequently departing a club who now struggle to put together a team.

Remarkably South Leicester are not, at the time of writing, bottom of Midlands Premier - that honour goes to Peterborough Lions (also relegated from the national leagues last season) by virtue of the fact that they have been docked points for failing to fulfil a fixture. A third relegated team, Birmingham and Solihull, has been forced to drop out of the league entirely and now play in the Birmingham Merit Leagues.

All of which highlights the ultimate folly - as I have previously mentioned - of clubs below the elite level paying their players, something which more or less inevitably leads to an over-reliance on sponsors.

South Leicester, to their credit, are attempting to re-build the club on a sustainable model and you have to admire those players who continue to turn up week after week despite taking hammering after hammering. At some point in the not too distant future hopefully the club can find its proper level, rediscover the joys of amateurism, and thrive as a self-funding, community-based organisation.

I wish them all the luck in the world...

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Sayonara Vahaamahina

Interesting to see that French lock, Sebastien Vahaamahina - following the most idiotic red card in Rugby World Cup history - has decided to retire from international rugby.

Vahaamahina, who thought it might a splendid idea to swing an elbow viciously into the face of Welshman Aaron Wainwright - with France ahead and in control in the second half against Wales in Sunday's quarter final and with a driving maul edging forward in the opposition's 22 -  has obviously taken the decision to jump before being pushed.

I said at the time of the incident that Vahaamahina should never play for France again and it looks as if that may well happen.

That said, I must congratulate Vahaamahina in being the first from this year's Rugby World Cup to make it into the Total Flanker Hall of Wazzocks.

Vahaamahina was almost joined, however, by match referee Jaco Peyper who, having sent the Frenchman off and then awarded a decidedly dodgy try to decide the game in Wales' favour, posed for this picture - mocking Vahaamahina's actions - with Welsh fans afterwards.



One of those that may have seemed funny at the time but on reflection...

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Eddie blinks first

It is just possible that, by dropping George Ford and breaking up the Ford-Farrell midfield axis, Eddie Jones has made his first mistake of this World Cup.

I hope I'm wrong, but it smacks of uncertainty and is reminiscent of Stuart Lancaster's decision to omit Ford from the 2015 Pool game against Wales, throwing Sam Burgess into the fray at inside centre (and the rest is history).

It also leaves Manu Tuilagi to fill the 12 shirt this time around and, while a huge fan of Henry Slade at 13, I'm not convinced that Tuilagi is entirely comfortable in the inside centre channel, particularly in defence.

Jones may have been saved, however, by Michael Cheika's decision to hand 19 year old Jordan Petaia the 13 shirt for Australia. Petaia is a huge talent, no doubt, but to expect him to play outside centre internationally for the first time in a World Cup quarter final is a huge ask.

I guess we'll wait and see...

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019 - Quarter Final predictions

So my Pool predictions didn't quite work out to plan, although at least my call on Japan making the final eight was bang on the money.

Now it is time to look ahead to the weekend's quarter finals:

England v Australia
Hmmm. This one concerns me. There's nothing I've seen from Australia so far that should worry England on Saturday but, equally, the English have been somewhat flat in their serene progress so far. If England can go up through the gears they certainly have enough to beat this Australian team. I have a horrible feeling however that this could be the Aussies' day. I really hope I'm wrong, but Australia by 9.

New Zealand v Ireland
There's little doubt that the Irish, bit by bit, are closing in on the form that saw them beat the All Blacks in 2016 and 2018 and New Zealand will be wary of a repeat. Since then, however, both England and Wales have demonstrated that if you deny the Irish go-forward ball there appears to be no Plan B and the lesson will not have been lost on Steve Hansen. Improved as Ireland may be I can only see an AllBlack win here - by 12 to 16 points.

Wales v France
The simplest of predictions. If Wales have any ambitions to be World Champions they must see off the French team comfortably. While France do have some talented individuals, as a team they remain shambolic. Wales, on the other hand, lack individual spark but are organised, ruthless and tactically very smart. Wales should have this one wrapped up by half time and eventually win by 20+.

Japan v South Africa
For anyone who isn't Scottish, it is truly fantastic to see the Japanese in the last eight - richly deserved after a series of high-octane, eye-catching performances, culminating in a wonderful final Pool victory over the Scots. And now for South Africa - perceived wisdom is that this will be one game too far for the Brave Blossoms, with the Springboks just too big, too powerful and too experienced. Hmm, I'm not so sure. There is a certain momentum behind the Japanese now - with the entire nation behind them - and I'm not sure that even the mighty Boks will be able to derail that. Against the odds I'm going for a narrow Japan victory by 4 points.


Monday, 14 October 2019

Rugby World Cup: That was the weekend that was

Firstly, sincere sympathies and condolences to all those in Japan who have suffered loss during the devastation caused by Super Typhoon Hagibis. 

The fact that any rugby was played at all was a remarkable achievement by all concerned. And what fantastic rugby we all witnessed as the weekend came to a climax with a quite astounding clash between Scotland and Japan. 

Any suggestion beforehand that the Japanese would have been happy to have the game cancelled in order to progress serenely to the quarter-finals was laid to rest as Japan tore into Scotland with a simply magnificent first half performance. That Scotland stayed in the game and made a fight of it was a credit to them, but Japan were just superb and proved once and for all to the world of rugby that they deserve a place at the top table. Brilliant.

Earlier in the day Irish legend Brian O'Driscoll had suggested, following Bundee Aki's red card against Samoa, that "the big hit is gone" from the game as a consequence of World Rugby's continued crackdown on high tackles.

I don't think that's strictly true - witness Semi Radrada's perfectly timed hit on Liam Williams in the Wales v Fiji clash - but what is correct is that players do now have to re-model their technique and not risk any tackle which might be reckless or dangerous which, in my humble opinion, can only be a good thing and has been a long time coming.

Back to Hagibis, and chapeau to the Canadian rugby squad who, having had their match against Namibia cancelled owing to the devastation caused by the storm, decided to roll up their sleeves and assist with recovery efforts in Kamaishi.

Good to see that the spirit of rugby remains alive and kicking.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Scotland lack perspective

There was something more than a little distasteful about the fuss made by Scotland when faced with the prospect of having their pool match with Japan cancelled owing to the effects Super Typhoon Hagibis.

As things turn out, the game is going ahead, but for the Scots to be threatening legal action had the game been cancelled showed an alarming lack of perspective.

Hagibis has killed at least 18 with many more injured and lives ruined.

Yes, going out of the World Cup owing to the weather would have been unfair. Sometimes, however, that's just the way life works out.

At the end of the day it is just rugby.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Super Typhoon Hagibis impacts Rugby World Cup


If Super Typhoon Hagibis hits Tokyo on Saturday - as it is scheduled to do - then the decision to cancel the the England v France and New Zealand v Italy matches on safety grounds is, surely, the right call.

Clearly you can't play rugby in a super typhoon, although whether the organisers ought to have had contingency plans to play the fixtures elsewhere is another matter.

As things stand, the cancelled fixtures do not have a significant bearing on the tournament with qualification from pools B and C already settled (more or less).

Pool A, however, is a different story.

If Japan v Scotland on Sunday is cancelled then Japan go through as pool winners and Scotland go home.

Scotland would, effectively, be knocked out of the World Cup by the weather.

Which would be as unfair as it would be extraordinary.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

England: Focus on France

The school of thought that suggests that it might be a good idea for England to lose to France this Saturday, thus coming 2nd in their Pool and avoiding a possible semi-final against New Zealand, is a school that deserves to fail any OFSTED inspection miserably.

If England have any realistic ambitions to be World Champions they simply have to aim to win all of their matches, no matter the opposition. 

Plotting a more strategic route to the final, while all very clever in theory, would still mean getting past (probably) Wales and South Africa. Hardly easy, especially once that elusive winning momentum has been sacrificed.

No, England's sole focus for now has to be on beating France any which way they can. Then, and only then, should they turn their attention to their next opponents, whoever they may be. 

Eddie - pick the strongest team available to you to play the French - you know it makes sense.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Lavanini red card 100% correct

I was surprised to read various below-the-fold comments over the weekend suggesting that Tomas Lavanini's head shot on Owen Farrell on Saturday was deserving of anything other than the red card he received.

The comments appeared to suggest that Farrell was somehow complicit in nearly having his head removed from his shoulders and that Lavanini's actions were somehow accidental.

Nonsense. When we coach players how to tackle one of the things we tell them is to look at the target. Watching the footage of Lavanini's tackle it is clear that he looked Farrell straight in the eye before launching his shoulder at Farrell's head. There was nothing accidental about it whatsoever.

Yes, the incident spoiled the game as a spectacle and pretty much ended Argentina's chances of victory there and then.

But World Rugby's stance on such dangerous, reckless and illegal tackles is absolutely 100% correct.

Players simply have to change their behaviours and coaches have to stop making irresponsible comments defending players who transgress (yes, I'm talking to you, Mr Cheika).

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Total Flanker: the Rugby Clairvoyant strikes again

All Black flanker Ardie Savea will become the first player to wear goggles in a Rugby World Cup game when he runs out against Canada on Wednesday.

Savea apparently has poor vision in his left eye and says that a fear of sustaining damage to his other eye, and risking blindness, is the reason he will now wear the specially designed goggles.

Which is fair enough, but what is not generally known is that I, in my own facetious way, saw this coming years ago…

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Uruguay make history

WOW.

Just WOW.

Fiji 27 Uruguay 30.

Safe to say that no one, but no one, saw that coming. One of the most incredible results in World Cup history.

I'm certainly now regretting my decision not to get up at the crack of dawn (I only caught the last 20 mins or so) for this one.

Watch out Wales and Australia!


Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Rugby World Cup - referees' tolerance of dangerous tackles cannot continue

What on earth does it take to get sent off at this Rugby World Cup?

Today two blatant and brutal first-half head shots in two minutes on Russian skipper Vasily Artemyev, by Samoa's Rey Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u respectively, were somehow only deemed yellow card offences by referee Romain Poite who bizarrely decided that there were "mitigating circumstances".

The only mitigating circumstance in each case as far as I could see was that Artemyev's head somehow remained on his shoulders.

Lee-Lo then returned to the field later to rub salt into Russian wounds by scoring one of Samoa's six tries.

There's little doubt that, had the correct decisions been made and red cards issued, Russia - leading 6-5 at the time - would have had a great chance of a famous World Cup upset.

More important, however, is the precedent that this sets. 

Whilst supportive of referees' desire not to unduly influence games by issuing unnecessary red cards, players simply have to be protected from such dangerous, reckless and illegal tackles before something catastrophic happens.

World Rugby has to get much tougher on this issue. And lengthy suspensions for Lee-Lo and Motu Matu’u, and for Australia's Reece Hodge, would be a start.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Rugby World Cup - opening salvo

A few brief thoughts from the opening weekend of Rugby World Cup games:

🏉Japan - overly anxious and frenetic opener against Russia but I still fancy them to turn over one of Scotland or Ireland.

🏉Rees Hodge - given the (justifiable) fuss made by World Rugby in relation to high tackles prior to the tournament, how wasn't that a red card? Yes he's been cited, but how does that help Fiji?

🏉France remain impossibly schizophrenic.

🏉Ireland were, well, Ireland. Scotland were Scotland. Result inevitable.

🏉England - on the strength of that performance no other contender will be having sleepless nights.

🏉New Zealand v South Africa - odds on that we've seen the dress rehearsal for the final.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019 - Pool Predictions

With the Rugby World Cup 2019 very nearly upon us, here is my attempt at predicting what might unfold in the coming weeks during the pool stages in Japan.

Believe me, I do appreciate that a few of the predictions below are somewhat left-field in their nature and that some of you may think I’ve lost the plot entirely.

It would have been easy, however, for me just to have gone down the predictable route, but this would have ignored the fact that this World Cup is somewhat unprecedented, both in terms of its location in a second-tier rugby nation and the conditions, both meteorological and cultural, that the teams will face. Rightly or wrongly I am therefore convinced there will be more than one upset along the way. 

And so…

Pool A - Ireland/ Scotland/ Japan/ Samoa/ Russia 

A year ago this would have been dead easy to call with Ireland the world’s in-form team. This year nothing is certain. I have a gut feeling that hosts Japan will shock the world and make the quarters, so one of Ireland or Scotland will miss out. From what I’ve seen over the last month or so, shockingly I think it might just be Ireland. Samoa to finish 4th and Russia a very distant 5th.

Pool B - New Zealand/ South Africa/ Italy/ Canada/ Namibia 

The easiest to call in terms of the top two – New Zealand and South Africa – and there’s a very good chance these two will meet again in the final. It will be tight but I fancy the Springboks to shade the pool game vs the All Blacks and top the pool. And I can't see past Italy for 3rd, Canada 4th, Namibia 5th.

Pool C – England/ France/ Argentina/ USA/ Tonga 

England really should top Pool C but could feasibly slip up against France and/or Argentina. Tonga will have one big surprise in them whilst the USA are ever-improving and could also cause an upset against one of the big boys. And so, with not much confidence at all, England and Argentina to go through, France 3rd, USA 4th, Tonga 5th.

Pool D – Wales/ Australia/ Fiji/ Georgia/ Uruguay 

Again, from the evidence of the last few weeks I can see Australia beating Wales in their pool game, leaving the Welsh to try to avoid a banana-skin in the shape of Fiji to ensure they go through to the quarter finals. It couldn’t happen, could it? What the heck – in for a penny - I’m going for Australia and Fiji to go through, with Wales 3rd, Georgia 4th and Uruguay 5th.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Howley Heads Home

Welsh World Cup preparations have been thrown into turmoil with news breaking today that assistant coach Rob Howley has been sent home for allegedly breaching World Rugby betting rules.

We don't yet know the details - and 'innocent until proven guilty' obviously applies - but clearly the alleged offence is sufficiently serious for Howley to have been sent home.

Although hardly likely to affect Welsh chances against Georgia in six days time, I'm sure that this is a more than  unwelcome distraction for the squad and something Warren Gatland needed like a hole in the head.

Howley's application for the Hall of Wazzocks will be considered in due course.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Gareth Thomas - Total Respect

Revelations by former Wales and Lions winger Gareth Thomas, that he has been living with HIV for a number of years, are as brave as they are shocking.

When Thomas came out as gay nearly ten long years ago I have to admit I was a tad cynical about his motivations for doing so.

I absolutely realise now that I was wrong.

For a professional sportsman to have had the courage to come out as gay so publicly was really quite remarkable and Thomas has since gone on to be a passionate and eloquent advocate for LGBT rights and campaigner against homophobia.

To admit to having HIV, however, and to challenge the stigma and taboos around the illness, takes his bravery to a new level.

Well done, sir.

Respect.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Ireland Rugby: World No.1

So, after Ireland's victory over Wales on Saturday, it's the men in green who head to Japan as World Rugby's number 1 ranked team.

Arguments about whether they deserve to be ranked number 1 are fatuous. Yes, the World Rugby ranking system - whereby a team can be comfortably beaten three times in a calendar year and still be elevated to number one status three weeks after suffering a 15-57 thrashing - does appear to be a tad dysfunctional.

But the system is the system - and it's the same one that has seen New Zealand at the top of the rankings for the last several years.

Ireland are, for now, world number 1.

We should all just get over it.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Chester Williams RIP


Sad to hear of the passing of Chester Williams.

An iconic figure in the 1995 World Cup winning Springbok team.

And by all accounts a thoroughly decent human being.

49 is no age at all.

RIP.


Friday, 6 September 2019

Rugby World Cup 2019: Are 31 players enough?

With injury concerns hanging over a number of his England squad, Eddie Jones has been forced to include 3 players (Joe Marchant, Matt Kvesic, Charlie Ewels) in his 23 for tonight's warm-up against Italy who are not amongst the 31 names selected to play in the World Cup in Japan.

Which begs the question: is 31 the right number of players for a World Cup squad?

Given the length of the tournament, the number of games and the attritional nature of the modern game, I think the answer is probably a resounding NO.

None of the major playing nations would embark on an overseas tour - featuring a maximum of 3 or 4 games - with only a 31-man squad. Any yet they are expected to go to a World Cup limited in this way.

England, like other teams, have decided to go to Japan with only 2 scrum halves and 2 specialist tight head props. Both decisions carry obvious risks - and yet we must acknowledge that, given the 31-player limit, sacrifices have to be made and risks have to be taken somewhere within the squad.

This hardly chimes with World Rugby's efforts to make the game safer for players as inevitably teams will be forced on occasion to send out players to play who are not fully fit, thus putting their health and welfare at risk. I have no doubt that players will suffer injuries as a consequence.

It's too late for Japan, but if World Rugby are serious about player welfare they will consider allowing teams to increase the squad size to, say, 35 players for future tournaments.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

(Some) Women to go pro

Another leap forward for Women's Rugby in England with news breaking this week that some Premier 15s clubs will be paying their players during the coming season.

Both Saracens and Worcester will be paying players from this season, the Saracens' package apparently consisting of a combination of retainers and match fees, whilst Worcester, who have finished bottom of the Premier 15s for the last two seasons, will pay just match fees.

Payments will be on top of the money earned by England players under their RFU contracts - thus allowing certain players to be, effectively, fully professional.

The clubs involved are to be applauded for their enlightened approach to taking the women's game to the next level.

A note of caution, however - just as there is a danger of an unlevel playing field at international level, with England the only professional team in the Six Nations, so the club game needs to guard against the gap widening between perceived haves and have nots.

Saracens are already double Premier15s champions and the decision to pay players will hardly reduce their status as odds-on favourites to repeat the trick this coming season. If the ultimate goal is to create a vibrant, competitive and successful domestic women's league in this country then serious thought does need to be given as to how such ambition can be funded across the board.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Jack Nowell does it the hard way

Meanwhile, if England's Jack Nowell actually makes it to the World Cup in Japan, it's safe to say that he will have done it the hard way.

Not only has he been fighting all summer to recover from an ankle injury sustained at the PremiershipFinal on 1st June, he has now had to have his appendix removed at a hospital near England’s training camp in Treviso.

Clearly Nowell will not be involved in any of England's World Cup warm-up games, so fingers crossed that his rehabilitation goes well enough for him too make the plane to Japan as his absence would definitely leave England weaker.

Ireland ditch Devin Toner - surely some mistake?

You have to feel for Devin Toner. For the 67-capped Leinster lock to miss out on World Cup selection to a freshly qualified South African must sting more than a little.

It’s not Jean Kleyn's fault - he didn't make the eligibility rules. But the rules remain an ass and I have to say that, in ditching such a stalwart player and key figure in Ireland's lineout in favour of someone utterly unproven at international level, I think Joe Schmidt has lost the plot.

I suspect this decision will do little for squad unity and will ultimately come back to bite Ireland on the arse.


Monday, 2 September 2019

Look who it is!

I often find myself asking the question: Whatever happened to Gavin Henson? 

Well, now I know.

Having been released by the Dragons at the end of last season, our Gavin has, it seems, bought himself a pub, the Fox and Hounds in St Brides Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, and has even started a Sunday League football team.

Super Fox United – in a nod to the pub - has been set up with a collection of Henson's mates from the area although it’s safe to say the inaugral season hasn’t started too well with the results so far (0-6, 1-6) looking more like a very one-sided tennis match!

Still, as long as he’s having fun...

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Rugby World Cup: Russian Roulette

Russia's 35-22 defeat to English Championship team Jersey, in a World Cup warm up game in Moscow this week, doesn't do very much  for the credibility of the Rugby World Cup.

Russia, you may recall, only qualified for the World Cup after Romania and Spain were thrown out of the competition for fielding ineligible players in the 2018 Six Nations B championship.

And it would appear that, going by this week's defeat by Jersey and the recent 85-15 thumping at the hands of Italy, the Russians are more than likely to be seriously out of their depth when they get to Japan.

Pooled with Ireland, Scotland, Japan and Samoa, it could all get very messy indeed.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

England Rugby: A Farewell to Smelly Ben

I find myself agreeing with Ugo Monye - insofar as there is a distinct whiff surrounding Ben Te'o's decision, announced last week, to bugger off and join Toulon.

The move exposes Te'o for what he is - a rugby mercenary.

Nothing wrong with that, one might say, the bloke's a professional rugby player and has the right to provide for his family and ply his trade wherever he chooses.

The fact that he decided to head off to the southern France pretty much as soon as he was dropped from the England RWC squad by Eddie Jones, though, suggests that this move had been in the offing for a while.

More fool the RFU, perhaps, for selecting him in the first place - even without the gift of hindsight it was pretty obvious that his decision to leave Leinster in 2016 to pursue an England career was, in no small part, primarily motivated by cold, hard cash - so the powers-that-be really shouldn't be too surprised that the time and money spent developing Te'o as an international player has now been rewarded in such a fashion.

"You can't come and swear allegiance to the country and then the moment things get a bit bumpy, catch the next flight to the south of France" says Ugo Monye.

 "Just watch me" - is obviously Te'o's response.

One might think that the "once bitten, twice shy" principle might be adopted by the RFU in the future, although recent history (Nathan Hughes, Brad Shields, Willi Heinz) suggests otherwise...