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 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 stands 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.