Friday, 29 June 2007

As old as you feel...

The past couple of months have seen me running around like a mad fool playing Touch Rugby with and against players who are, in some cases, more than half my age. If that's not the sign of a mid-life crisis, I don't know what is.

However, someone well past any semblance of middle age is Japanese rugby player Sadayoshi Morita who was (when this was first reported in 2005) a sprightly 90 years old.

Recognised at the time by the Senior World Rugby Championship as "the world's oldest practising rugby player," Morita had been in training for rugby matches at least three times a week for the past 70 years and had been playing rugby for most of his life, barring the three years he was conscripted by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War Two.

I've no idea whether he's still playing, or even if he's still alive at 92, but two years ago he said that we wanted to keep playing until he was 95 when he would retire and concentrate on his golf - because that would not require him to run at full speed all the time. Priceless!

For a video clip of Mr Morita in action click here.

There is, however, another possible claimant to Mr Morita's title. Last summer Englishman Desmond Pastore was awarded an MBE for services to rugby, having played his last game on his 91st birthday.

His 75-year career included a stint as captain of the England services side after the Second World War. He then returned to the North West to join Sale where he set a try-scoring record. Mr Pastore played his final game for Manchester club Egor in September 2005.

"They let me on for half an hour and I scored a try," he said.

Mr Pastore is credited with devising the system where the colour of the players' shorts indicated their age. He said it helped veteran rugby players, as he himself wore purple shorts, indicating to the other players not to commit full contact tackles.

"It never occurred to me not to play," he said. "I was fit, and I was wanted, so there seemed to me no point in not playing."

Again, I don't know if this guy is still around but it never occurred to him not to play? That certainly puts my agonising over whether to play again into perspective...

Send me to Coventry

It looks like Coventry Rugby Club could do with a little help with their public relations. Andrew Green, who bought the club last summer, has presided over a number of PR gaffes in the subsequent months including:

- a positive drugs test against their Samoan fullback Apoua Stewart;

- the suspension and then sacking of fitness coach Darren Grewcock for allegedly verbally abusing a supporter, an allegation he strenuously denied, claiming that he had been "stitched up" and describing the club's disciplinary and dismissal hearings as "kangaroo courts"; and

- the suspension and subsequent resignation of club head coach Mike Umaga, allegedly for such heinous acts as allowing his wife to drive his club car.

However, the latest incident just beggars belief. Apparently the club has banned a lifelong fan from their ground after she was summoned to court to give evidence against them.

Claire Harrison, aged 19, who has been attending matches at the club since she was a baby, was summoned to give evidence against the club at a civil court hearing between the club and their kit provider over disputed invoice claims. The club lost the case and was ordered to pay the kit provider £4,354 plus interest over the debt and £220 costs.

Claire then received a letter from Andrew Green which reads:

"I would like to state for the record that your actions have caused us surprise and confusion...

"I feel unfortunately I only have one course of action and that is, from this date forward, to request that until further notice you have no formal relationship with this club.

"I would ask that you refrain from attending our premises under any circumstances, which includes any functions, games or meetings."

Petty and vindictive are just two of the words doing the rounds on the messageboards about this one and quite rightly so, and an online petition to get Coventry to reverse the decision is under way.

So, some free PR advice to Mr Green – apologise, reverse your decision and stop being a plonker.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

To Touch or not to Touch?

There’s a discussion taking place on Saturday’s a Rugby Day as to the merits or otherwise of playing touch rugby. There are those that love playing it (as I do) but there are also dissenters who appear to have a number of gripes, namely:

Their enjoyment is spoilt by arguments over the rules, whether a touch was made etc etc. Certainly when playing informally this can be a problem – there will always be those in any sport or any walk of life who try to bend the rules and touch rugby is no different. The way to deal with this issue is to formalise it – turn the game into Touch with a capital “T”, agree a set of rules beforehand (better still, play to official Federation of International Touch (FIT) rules) and get someone to referee the game to those rules.

Their enjoyment is spoilt by people who are over-vigorous when touching, or by the fact that they themselves are accused of being too aggressive when they touch. Again, being overly aggressive is outlawed under FIT rules, punishable by a penalty– put the decision in the hands of the ref and get on with it. There was even one bloke sent off in a match this summer for raising an elbow going into contact – perhaps a little draconian from the ref but, like 15s, you play to a set of laws and accept the ref’s decision.

They are frustrated by the fact that they are neither quick enough nor skillful enough to get the most out of touch. This is a more difficult one – certainly not solvable by the appointment of a referee! I’d definitely say that playing Touch can improve skill levels and help develop handling and spatial awareness in attack, as well as communication and awareness in defence. The difference in some of our younger players towards the end of this summer’s Touch league was considerable. In the last couple of games the defensive communication and organisation in particular was streets ahead of where it had been for most of the competition and these guys really learnt something. As for pace, well if you haven’t got it, you haven’t got it. I should know. Once upon a time I was fairly quick and can still summon up a head of steam occasionally but, at 42, what I lack (and what our team lacked this summer) is real gas. I found on a number of occasions this summer that I had the ability to see a gap or even create the gap and sometimes even had the pace to go through the gap, but what I was missing what the acceleration to then run away from the opposition. The trick is to balance your team with a couple of flyers who can follow you through the gap and score the tries. We had a couple of such quickies last summer and it made a huge difference – it also enables those blessed with less pace to contribute to the team effort and get far more out of the experience.

The discussion on Saturday’s a Rugby Day then moves onto a more general point about positional attributes, with the blog’s author, Blondie, advocating the case for the number on your back being irrelevant - that, outside of set pieces, all 15 players on the field should all be able to run the ball, pass the ball, kick the ball, tackle, catch a kick etc. Certainly that’s true at the top end of the game and this was always Clive Woodward’s mantra, famously once sending the London Irish team he was coaching out onto the pitch numbered 1 to 15 based on the alphabetical order of their surnames.

Whilst it's obviously important that anyone with any ambition in the game has to master the basics, the danger of the "numbers on your back being irrelevant" approach is that forwards stop doing the things they are designed to do (hitting rucks and driving mauls) and spend an inordinate amount of time clogging up the backline, while backs end up embroiled too often at the breakdown and are out of position when possession is secured, a disease that has afflicted the England national team post RWC 2003 and from which they are only just beginning to recover.

I would also refer the more casual player to my increasingly comprehensive library of Playing Guides to discover the skillsets and, more importantly, mindsets required to play certain positions on the field – where the number on the back of the shirt is also irrelevant but only because the shirt is so old it’s disintegrating and the number has been ripped off long ago.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Campaign for nonchalant try celebrations

One of my favourite websites, The East Terrace, has introduced a new award to celebrate nonchalant try celebrations.

The East Terrace is, quite rightly in my view, fed up with the increasingly common site of players doing ridiculous swan dives when they score a try (and all of the accompanying soccer-style celebrations), and yearns for the era in which Gareth Edwards merely trotted back to half-way after scoring arguably the greatest try of all time for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973.

For an example of a swan dive gone badly wrong see below:

And compare that to the understated response to the Edwards 1973 effort:

The East Terrace has therefore created The Mike Pyke Nonchalant Try Scoring Award, named after Canadian fullback Mike Pyke whose 90 metre try and celebration recently against the All Blacks was the epitome of understatement. My congratulations to Mike for being the first recipient of the award and my support to the East Terrace for bringing this vital issue to our attention.

Check out the Mike Pyke try below and click here to read the full East Terrace article.

An example to us all

I stumbled across this story on the internet today - it's from last week's Daily Mail and no, it's not about asylum seekers or rogue muslim clerics, but is the story of a young lad who's been made captain of his local rugby team despite being virtually blind.

The boy's name is Sam Wishart, he's 11 years old and suffers from cone dystrophy which has resulted in photophobia and nystagmus, which means his eyes shake, he can see no colour and looking towards a light source reduces his vision further, hence the need for permanent dark glasses. Despite this he plays outside centre for Frome RFC under 11s and also captains the team.

"Most of my friends play rugby and I like the contact and getting stuck in," says Sam.

"I sometimes drop the ball and it can be hard seeing my team-mates if the kits are similar, so sometimes we wear bibs. A lot of the time we play in the morning when the sunshine is really low so it's hard for me to catch the ball but I've scored quite a lot of tries and it was great when my team-mates voted for me to be captain because I'd only just joined."

His time as captain has already been a success with the Under-11s, who were runners-up at the Hayle Mini Rugby tournament in Cornwall at Easter and, under his leadership, the team won the Melksham Cats rugby tournament in April.

Sam's coach Trish Withey says: "The sheer determination he shows on the rugby pitch goes to show that nothing gets in his way. He gives his all and has improved massively."

This is a fantastic, heart-warming story on two levels. Not only does it show how brave and determined this kid must be but also demonstrates how inclusive rugby is as a sport. It's a story that everyone associated with rugby should be proud of.

Do as I say...

Yet more preaching from the right Reverend Graham Henry as he condemned Springbok tactics last weekend:

"There's nothing worse than getting clobbered off the ball when you're not expecting it. That's the worst thing that can happen in rugby. They're called cheap shots...

"I hope officials are well aware of it going into the future of the game as we go on through the World Cup."

Contrast the above with Henry's failure to censure his own players during his tenure. I'm sure the irony is not lost on a certain Brian O'Driscoll...

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Touchy Feely

This evening was the final match in our Touch league and tonight’s clash of the titans pitted the team at the bottom of the league against the second bottom team (us) in a match with everything riding on it. OK, not everything perhaps, no relegation at stake, no loss of TV millions, nobody’s livelihood on the line, but still there was a strong incentive to try to avoid the not-very-coveted wooden spoon.

That we had been the worst two teams this summer wasn’t in doubt – the hackneyed old clichĂ© “the table never lies” was spot on in this case – you only had to look at the number of tries conceded by each of us prior to this evening for the truth to emerge. We’d conceded 59 in 6 games and our opponents 69. So on that basis were we on for a 15-14 thriller?

Well, no, not really – what that assumption ignores is the paucity of both teams’ try-scoring capabilities. We’d managed 23 tries in our 6 games and our opponents 3 fewer, and once the game started it was obvious that the reason behind these unimpressive stats was that both sides were lacking real pace.

As fewer of our number turned out this evening, the opportunities to sub on and off were limited – I took a couple of breathers in a fairly frenetic first half where both teams lacked discipline and organisation and then, having turned round 5-4 up at half time, played the whole of the second half without struggling. I’d love to put this down to my massively improved fitness, but the truth is that the game wasn’t played at a particularly taxing pace and, although we spent much of the second half defending, it was relatively easy to do so as there was no pace to defend against.

We ended up tasting victory (8-5) for only the second time in this campaign and so avoided the wooden spoon. The past seven weeks have just flown by and, although some of our play and especially our defending (and by “our” I definitely include myself) has been frustrating, it’s still been hugely enjoyable and I’d say I’ve certainly played more of an active part than I did last year (which possibly explains our problems!).

Touch isn’t entirely finished – I think there are a couple of weeks of turning up and playing informally before pre-season kicks in for the club. I’ve yet to decide whether I’ll try to get involved further. Part of me really wants to give it a go and commit to playing a game a month next season at veterans level, but another part of me thinks the first part of me is barking mad.

Anyone for tennis?

It's very rare that I'll blog about anything that isn't rugby related, but I'll make an exception in this case because yesterday I spent the day at Wimbledon watching the opening day of the tennis. I say "watching", but at one point it looked very much like the day would have to be spent sitting in the County Enclosure, sipping wine and eating extortionately priced strawberries.

We arrived late morning and not only was it damp and drizzly but also bloody chilly. As the rain got heavier I dived into the official shop and fought my way through hoards of Americans buying every manner of official merchandise you can imagine, until I found the over-priced umbrella I needed. A bit naff in green and purple but it did the job. Then off to the County Enclosure where we ate a cramped lunch whilst listening to the announcements of doom - "no play expected before play expected before play expected before 2.30".

And then, somewhat unexpectedly, "Ladies and gentlemen, play will commence at 2.30". So off we went to take up our seats on Centre Court and what fantastic seats they were - a few rows up from the royal box directly behind the tennis. We had an excellent view as Roger Federer proceeded to demolish some Russian bloke in straight sets beneath dark and threatening skies.

Getting to see a whole match (albeit a very one-sided affair) was a major bonus and we were also able to indulge in some minor celeb spotting as off to our right were the likes of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Angus Deayton, Theo Paphitis and the legend that is Bruce Forsyth (I managed to control the urge to yell "good game, good game" you'll be pleased to know).

Next up was a ticket swap with the in-laws and the chance to see Justine Henin on Court One, but sadly we only managed a couple of games before a series of further rain delays sapped our enthusiasm and we decided to give up and head home.

That we missed the traditional Tiger Tim Henman five-set extravaganza in the early evening was a bit of a shame but I was nevertheless pretty impressed with my first visit to the tennis at Wimbledon. It feels a lot more compact than it looks on TV (never was "Henman Hill" more inappropriately named - it's really no more than a divot), the atmosphere is relaxed and the supporters stoic in the face of adversity. It really was quite unbelievable how cheery everyone was when faced with the very real prospect of no play at all as the heavens opened at lunchtime and all the weather reports pointed towards a washout.

How very, very British.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Strange but true

In November 1886 in a match between Portsmouth Victoria and Southampton Trojans the ball was kicked into the Trojans' in-goal area where it rebounded off a stray dog.

One of the Victoria players gathered the ball and touched down for a try. Quite understandably, the Trojans' players protested, insisting that the ref should have ruled "dead ball", the ball having struck a "spectator".

The objection was referred to the RFU who (surprise, surprise) backed the referee and ruled that the try should stand because, technically, the dog was not a spectator.

Trivial? Oh, yes.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Double Standards Down Under

Let’s get one thing straight. What follows is not by any means an attack on the New Zealand rugby team. They are after all a magnificent side with no weaknesses and fantastic strength in depth who are virtually unbeatable and there’s really no point in any other teams showing up for the Rugby World Cup in France in September.

What does irk me somewhat, however, is the way in which certain New Zealanders appear to believe that being the world’s number one rugby team gives them the right to adopt a holier than thou attitude to the rugby issues of the day and/or to belittle other teams who might not be up to the All Blacks’ lofty standards.

Setting aside the furore that seems to attach itself to every performance of Haka these days, I for one get more than a little irritated by the self-righteous preaching coming out of the All Black camp from time to time.

The latest sermon by the right Reverend Graham Henry concerns what he describes as the "poaching" of New Zealand players by European clubs. Not only does he appear to lay the blame at the clubs’ door (failing to mention that perhaps it is the players and their agents who might, in fact, be initiating the process), he then has the temerity to criticise the players’ choice in succumbing to the temptation of the filthy lucre being thrown at them by the evil clubs.

Notwithstanding the delicious irony of a situation in which New Zealand is now painting itself as the “victim” of player poaching, this is the same Graham Henry, remember, who was paid a small fortune by the Welsh Rugby Union to be their “Great Redeemer” in the late nineties and whose coaching staff also grew rich in the Northern Hemisphere.

Henry also had the gall to lash out at the French recently, firstly for sending a severely weakened squad down under as their top clubs were still involved in the French Championship, and then criticising the French players’ “negativity” in not allowing the All Blacks to rack up a cricket score in the 1st Test. Firstly you have to ask why an international fixture was arranged to take place before the French Championship was completed, and then wonder what the patchwork cobbled-together French 3rd XV were supposed to do? Just roll over and accept a hiding?

This lack of respect for opposition that the All Blacks believe is beneath them also rears its head in the local press. Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Chris Rattue delights in pointing out that many of the current England training squad are a bit long in the tooth and that we have no chance of mounting a successful defence of the World Cup.

Jeez, tell us something we didn’t already know Einstein. We know we’re crap. We know we’re desperate. We know that a quarter final exit is the most likely outcome. It doesn’t take a genius to work that out and (apart from the odd bit of sabre rattling from a certain Welshman in the Sunday Times) no one in England is saying otherwise.

Such is the tone of Rattue’s article, so scathing is he of English chances, that I begin to wonder whether New Zealanders are getting a tad jumpy ahead of the tournament. Perhaps the memories are beginning to surface of how, despite the ridicule of the Southern Hemisphere press, Dad’s Army still won the 2003 event even though they were awash with thirty-somethings. Or perhaps New Zealand’s habit of being the best team in the world in between (but never at) World Cups is beginning to catch up with them?

Thursday, 21 June 2007

The other is in the Albert Hall...

A biography of Jonny Wilkinson in Wikipedia reveals a fairly startling "fact" about the man. In amongst the list of trivia about him such as:

  • He has the American basketball player Michael Jordan's autograph, addressed to Jonny with a 'h'; and

  • His favourite film is The Matrix; and

  • Jonny has stated that if he were to have a superpower, he would want X-ray vision;
is the statement that

  • Due to a fishing accident in Jonny's youth, he now only has one testicle.
What? Can this be true? If it is then you have to ask how unlucky can this guy be? I guess, if he had to deal with that as a boy, it could put into perspective how mentally tough he's proved to be in battling back from the litany of injuries he's suffered since 2003. And how big a hook must he have been using for it to cause that kind of damage? Just thinking about it brings on a mental wince and an involuntary crossing of legs.

I suspect, however, that this revelation is no more than mischief making by a Wikipedia member who has added this "fact" to the biography. That it is in the middle of an article that otherwise appears to be factually accurate does lend it some credence, but the statement is not sourced at all and indeed Wikipedia itself concludes that the biography, as a whole, fails because it is not well referenced.

Shame really. Not because I'd wish that on anyone but because it could only add to the myth and the legend of Superjonny.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Damp to the Touch

I’ve never particularly subscribed to the myth that time passes more quickly the older you get, but the speed at which Tuesday evenings seem to come and go is getting quite alarming. No sooner do I finish moaning about one inept performance on the Touch Rugby field than another fixture appears around the corner.

I always say that there’s nothing like playing Touch with the sun on your back – and last night was nothing like playing Touch with the sun on your back. After a gloriously warm sunny day the clouds were gathering ominously as we arrived for our match and kick off was greeted by a few large spots of rain and a distant rumble of thunder. By half time it was chucking it down and the second half was played out in near-monsoon conditions accompanied by jagged flashes of lightning. Bizarrely enough, as soon as the game ended the rain came to an abrupt halt as if someone had just turned off the tap.

Spectacular, yes, but dry it wasn’t. My t-shirt ended up plastered to my body in a grotesque parody of a modern-day tight-fitting international shirt, my boots squelched on the insides and when it came to driving home afterwards it was a question of deciding what I could safely strip off without getting myself arrested for indecent exposure.

As to the game itself, surprisingly it went much better than in previous weeks. Admittedly the opposition weren’t that great aside from a couple of kiwis who were savvy enough to work out where our weaknesses were and good enough to exploit them, but we communicated well in defence and showed a bit more attacking nous than usual. Final score was an 8-6 defeat and if we hadn’t switched off a couple of times and conceded tries immediately after scoring ourselves we might just have sneaked a win.

The fact that both sides managed to cope with near impossible conditions and that the game was played in a great spirit made it an enjoyable, albeit very soggy, experience.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Pump me up...

Just got in from another session in the gym. I'm managing to do 2 or 3 sessions a week at the moment, usually mostly aerobic stuff - running, bike, cross trainer and the dreaded ergometer rowing machine - and mixing in a few weights just to keep the boredom at bay. Today I felt in need of a change and mostly did weights but must admit that I find working out at the gym very, very dull.

I'm afraid I've just never been a gym monkey - I see some guys there strutting and preening and pumping iron - they're there when I arrive and they're there when I leave - I can only guess that they train for hour upon hour, checking out their form in the mirror and absolutely loving themselves.

I've never really seen the point - the reason I go to the gym now is to keep in decent enough shape so that I'm not a total embarrassment when I play Touch Rugby (although I'm beginning to wonder why I bother, given our recent performances). I do find I need something to train for as I find that motivating myself to go to the gym, just for the sake of getting or keeping in shape, a real struggle. In my playing days I did the bare minimum at the gym which may or may not have affected my rugby career to a degree as I was often told I wasn't quite heavy enough (although it's possible they were being diplomatic - it's better than being told you haven't been picked because you're crap). It's true, however, that I struggled to make it up to 14 st when I played which was considered the minimum an open side flanker at a half-decent level should be at the time.

Another reason I frequent the gym is, I do admit, to try to keep my waistline in check . I have never dieted and am pretty determined never to do so as I believe dieting encourages weight-obsession and I really don't want to go down that road. I don't own a set of scales so in fact don't know exactly what I weigh but, at a guess, I'd say about 16 st (that's about 220 lbs in American money), maybe a little more.

So really I'm pretty much at an ideal weight to feature in the England back row for the World Cup this September and at 42 it now looks like I'm also the ideal age. Brian Ashton knows where to find me...

Friday, 15 June 2007

England turn to experience

Hot on the heels of the news that 34 year old warhorse Lorenzo Bruno Nero Dallaglio has been recalled to England’s 47-strong Rugby World Cup training squad, it has emerged that wily old England head coach Brian Ashton is hatching a cunning contingency plan behind the scenes.

At a secret location just outside Hereford lies a military training camp housing a number of veteran rugby players who are being put through their paces by special forces fitness instructors in order to get them ready for selection for the final World Cup squad in mid August.

While Ashton remains tight lipped about any such plan, a source close to the landlord at the Spread Eagle Inn in Hereford revealed:

“What Brian Ashton has recognised is that his squad lacks experience and leadership which is why Dallaglio was brought back. However, privately Brian doesn’t think this will be enough and so, although I can’t reveal the identities of the players he has in camp here, I can tell you that he is planning to bring in some big names from the past”.

Several pints of Hook Norton later it was revealed that the players involved include nineties heroes Brian Moore (45 ) and Mickey Skinner ( 49 ), former England captains Bill Beaumont (55) and Budge Rogers (74), as well as legendary winger David Duckham (61) and former BBC commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith ( 63 ).

When told of this development Sunday Times columnist Stephen Jones said:

“This is wonderful news. As I’ve always said, England will never win anything with callow youths in the team. These older players will bring vital leadership and years of experience into the England set-up and what’s more they’ve all put on so much weight since their playing days they’ll now be more than a match for the Springboks physically.”

Reports that the names of Prince Alexander Obolensky and Wavell Wakefield have already been pencilled into Ashton’s final squad can probably be dismissed on account of both players being long since dead, although a lack of vital signs does not appear to have hampered the careers of Ben Cohen and Ian Balshaw.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to: Warming the bench

Before continuing to provide yet more invaluable advice in this blog about how to play a variety of positions I know little or nothing about, I thought it worth a few words about the etiquette involved and the behaviour expected when you are named as replacement.

In this modern age of impact substitutions and having to have front row cover on the bench, there probably isn’t the same status (or lack of it) attached to being a replacement as there was in my day (blimey, how much of an old fart does that make me sound?).

Being on the bench usually meant that not only that you weren’t considered quite good enough to be in the 1st XV, but also that the 2nd XV had also decided that they could manage without your services that particular week. It was also usual to name 1 forward (always a backrower as there were always plenty of us to go round) and 1 back (usually a centre for the same reasons). Consequently, in my younger days, I occasionally had to do my duty and serve time on the bench.

So, the ego having been well and truly mangled when the team sheet arrived in the post on a Thursday morning (yes, there was a time before emails and text messaging), it was essential to devise a strategy to make sure that, when the selection committee met the following week, you were not cast off into the barren wastelands otherwise known as the 3rd XV.

What follows therefore is a survival guide to being a replacement which, with a little tweak here and there, can be equally applicable today:
  • Before the match, go through the motions of warming up and do it alone. You can still look keen without getting in the way and there’s no point in tiring yourself out or getting all psyched up when the best you can hope for is a stint running touch.

  • Knowing the line-out calls (or the backs moves as applicable) is also irrelevant at this stage – you can always ask if and when you do get on. Obviously this might not apply these days if you’re a planned tactical substitution, but it may still do so if your hooker can’t hit a barn door with a banjo anyway.

  • Don’t, under any circumstances, volunteer to run touch. Let the other replacement do it. If it’s bitterly cold then there might be a case for doing the job just to prevent hypothermia setting in but not otherwise. If it’s raining get under an umbrella and make the other guy do it.

  • Grab the oranges at half time and run on with them, looking really enthusiastic. At this stage it’s all about appearances, so plenty of vocal encouragement – make them believe you’re a team player.

  • Try and avoid having to go on until there are, at most, 20 minutes to go. Any longer and you’ll have some serious work to do. If someone goes down injured before this deadline, make all the right noises about how well he's playing and how he’d be letting the team down if he came off.

  • With about 20 minutes to go start dropping hints to the coach about how the team might use some fresh legs. If you’ve managed to persuade some poor sod to stay on the field for the last hour or so, despite him being crocked early on, you can now start muttering about how he’s struggling to keep up and is letting the team down.

  • If and when you do get on it’s important to make an immediate impact, causing the watching selectors to wonder why you weren’t picked as first choice. So, lots of vocal encouragement and a couple of big tackles will help, but easily the best way is to poach a try with your first touch. Luckily this happened to me the first time I was replacement for Peterborough 1st XV as an 18 year old. I came on with, you guessed it, just under 20 minutes to go and managed to lurk around the edge of a maul for a minute or so before our veteran number 8 broke to the blindside and popped a pass to me. I had about fifteen metres to run but the fullback was out of position and I made it over the line just as he tackled me. It was my debut and it cost me a jug but it was well worth it.

  • After the game be very modest about how brilliantly you played for those last 20 minutes, about how the groundwork had already been laid by the rest of the team, about how well the player you replaced had played until you went on. Modestly repeat this several times during the evening, especially within earshot of anyone on the selection committee.
There, that about covers it. Hope that helps…

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

The old ones are always the best...

A man went to the doctor one day and said:"I've just been playing rugby and when I got back I found that when I touched my legs, my arms, my head, my tummy and everywhere else, it really hurt."

So the doctor said: "You've broken your finger."

Dumb and dumber

The game of rugby union is under threat. This is not a joke. This is not a drill. It could happen.

For the past year the IRB, in its infinite wisdom, has been experimenting with various proposed changes to the laws of the game in South Africa, in Scotland, in Australia and now in New Zealand. These “experimental law variations” (or “ELVs” as they’ve been pithily labelled) are designed, we’re told, to simplify the 150-page law book and provide more open rugby.

By “simplify” I think they mean “make the game more TV-friendly”. By “provide more open rugby” I think they mean “turn the game into glorified sevens and make it more attractive to a TV audience (and therefore the TV dollar)” although I don’t know about you, but personally I think that watching sevens on TV, without the atmosphere and the beer, is one big snorefest.

One of the solutions the ELVs provide to the so-called ills of our game is to award free kicks for a whole raft of offences that otherwise would incur a penalty. Bravo, now everyone is free to offend without the risk of conceding three points. That’ll really open things up.

Another is to allow mauls to be collapsed. Yes, you did read that correctly. The driving maul, the one tactic which forces the opposition to commit players to the breakdown, will be rendered obsolete as a couple of opposition forwards will be licensed to drag it down while their mates all hang around clogging up the midfield.

Another proposed change is to require backlines to be five metres from the hindmost foot instead of in line with the hindmost foot, as is current law. These offside lines will be policed (although heaven knows how) by "flag judges" and, whilst admittedly this does create space, it is likely to mean flatter backline alignment, less creativity and more and more heavy collisions at pace. I hate to say it, but this is beginning to sound more and more like Rugby League.

It should come as no great surprise that the brains behind many of the ELVs is former Australia coach Rod MacQueen. This makes sense – the Wallabies have the worst scrummage in international rugby (but will now be able to concede free kicks at will), have never been able to defend a driving maul and yet have big pacey backs who will relish the extra space granted to them.

There are many other ELVs, some of them (including a new law preventing players from passing the ball to a team-mate behind the 22 and kicking directly to touch) which even make sense. Others, including the clearly insane proposal to allow handling in the ruck, have reportedly been abandoned. The bottom line, however, is that our game isn’t broke so why try and fix it? The law changes mentioned here will do very little to open the game up and may well have the opposite effect once players (who are no fools) work out how to exploit them. Anecdotal evidence claims the ball is in play for an extra 15 minutes per game under the ELVs but so what? More isn’t necessarily better.

The conclusions drawn from the ELVs are due to be discussed by the IRB during the Rugby World Cup and I’m afraid it’s inevitable that some of these laws, creating a very much dumbed down version of rugby, will be adopted. How long, then, before some bright spark at the IRB, almost certainly an Australian, comes up with an innovative solution to counter the overcrowding in midfield by reducing the teams to 13 a-side?

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Touch of madness

Tuesday night, and I'm writing this somewhat knackered. I did an hour's slog in the gym this morning followed by a hard game of touch rugby this evening - who am I trying to kid? Clearly I'm delusional if I think my creaking joints can manage this level of abuse, especially as I did have to work extremely hard in tonight's game scrambling to plug the gaps in our increasingly leaky defence.

For the record we took another caning - this week it was 13-4. That wouldn't be too bad a score if the opposition were something special but they really weren't. They had one or two good players but we really should have been able to match them. Our problems stem from our defending which is both lazy and lacking in any common sense. We're happy enough charging forward with ball in hand but when it comes to defending we leave too many mismatches, allowing opposition quickies a run at our slower players and we're way too static and way too quiet (I did try to organise and be vocal but, to be honest, breathing was the main priority).

Surprisingly tonight's game was also a bit niggly. I don't know the ins and outs, but one of the opposition apparently had a history with one or two of our lads and there were a few touches that were a little bit more forceful that perhaps they should have been. It all culminated in a fairly unseemly scuffle at the end of the game when the said opposition player swung an arm at one of our guys who responded pretty physically. Handbags really, but it added a bit of spice to the evening's proceedings.

So, pulling out some positives to make my glass half-full:
  • the punch-up was fairly entertaining;
  • the weather was great;
  • I enjoyed my post-match beer; and
  • tonight's result left us with 1 win from 5 and with 2 matches remaining it looks very much like we'll be competing for the wooden spoon this year - so at least there'll be something to play for!

Fantasy Threesome

Now I've got your attention I thought it worth mentioning that are running a fantasy rugby game for the Tri-Nations which kicks off this weekend.

No doubt a pre-cursor to a Rugby World Cup game in September, it's worth a look - I've played the Six Nations version for the last couple of years and really enjoyed it. There's some signed All Black memorabilia for the winners, although for me the fun is in setting up a private league for bragging rights with friends and colleagues.

Have fun!

Monday, 11 June 2007

Big is beautiful?

Stephen Jones wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Times that when Brian Ashton comes to choose his forty-strong World Cup training squad later this week, he should focus on picking players of large stature and those that have been tried and tested.

Jones has been down this route before, so I won’t accuse him of a knee-jerk reaction to England being out-muscled on the recent tour of South Africa. However, the idea of picking a squad on size and physicality alone smacks purely of damage limitation and, as Ashton said before the recent tour, “Brian Ashton doesn’t do damage limitation.”

Jones’s point is that England need to dominate the collisions which is fair comment as far as it goes but isn’t nearly enough. What happens when we win the ball and find that all we have is big lumps to crash it back in and try to win it again, or even if we’re able to spot an overlap we’re entirely unable to exploit it?

His obsession with size leads him to some bizarre conclusions – he goes for Andy Farrell purely for his size for instance. Farrell has been treated pretty shoddily by the media after a difficult first Six Nations, but if you’re going to pick him you do so for his excellent distribution skills, not just because he’s a big lad. Jones also goes for the Saints’ Jon Clarke because he’s “big and potentially good” which, 3 months or so before a World Cup, is bizarre reasoning to say the least. He also advocates the case for including Ayoola Erinle and, while I too would have liked to have seen Erinle tested at international level over the past season or so, for Jones to say that not being able to pass doesn't matter for a potential international centre just beggars belief.

The other strand of Jones’s argument is that England should go for the tried and tested but, as far as I’m concerned, for "tried and tested" please read "tried, tested and failed.”

Jones appears oblivious to the fact that many of the players he names have simply underperformed for a number of years...Josh Lewsey has had a torrid couple of years in an England shirt whilst Mike Tindall hasn't been a force since the last World Cup and appears to have no concept of how to put a man in space (his comical attempt to pass to Lewsey in the France match this season, when Lewsey was all of 2 feet away, neatly summed up his limitations). Ben Cohen? Last good game for England was probably in June 2003. Ditto Ben Kay. Danny Grewcock? Not been at his best since the 2001 Lions tour. The list goes on…and to name only Martin Corry and Lawrence Dallaglio as number 8s in the squad suggests that England will struggle to carry the ball over the gain line in France and therefore will have no chance of winning the collisions upon which Jones puts so much importance.

I could go on, so can only hope that Ashton sticks to his principles when he picks his squad this week. There were signs in the Six Nations, at home to France and even in defeat in Cardiff, that England were developing a cutting edge. By all means shore up the pack in certain areas but to abandon the progress made all for the sake of a likely World Cup quarter final exit (which is what will probably happen no matter what side he picks) would just be madness.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Golden Years

Here's a must for every self-respecting coffee table - RUGBY: THE GOLDEN AGE by John Tennant. It's a superb book containing over 300 black & white images taken between 1900 and 1980, showcasing a variety of aspects of both Union and League teams, players, stadia and fans.

The book's qualities are probably best summed up by the official blurb:

"Rugby: The Golden Age is a unique collection of over 300 images from the last century, looking behind the drop goals and the mud-caked scrums to the core of a sport that is bloodthirsty, punishing, strategic and exhilarating all at the same time. The players who make the action are seen at repose, the helpers who are largely unnoticed at a game are framed in detail at their busiest and most intense, the stadiums that we usually think of as packed with supporters are seen empty, giving a flavour of the atmosphere and the passion behind the game that ordinary sporting photographs do not consider. Focusing on both the sport and the photography of the era it covers, Rugby: The Golden Age is a fresh take on the game, showing not just how the sport has developed, but why it continues to be loved and followed by so many people worldwide."

I guess the idea is to dip into the book from time to time but I'd recommend that you DON'T buy it unless you're prepared to ignore friends and family, forego all sustenance, deny yourself sleep and immerse yourself in all 379 pages at the first sitting. It really is that fascinating (well, at least it is for a rugby geek like me).

Thursday, 7 June 2007

The Total Flanker Guide to playing: Wing

Certain rugby commentators still insist to this day that there’s a difference between playing right wing and left wing. Something to do with ball-fielding capabilities against a right-footed kicking fly half or defensive alignment when facing a passing movement from right to left or something…

The fact is, while there may be some scientific justification for this twaddle at the very highest level of the game, for the vast majority of rugby clubs a winger is a winger for one or more of the following reasons:

  • he has absolutely no talent, and putting him out on the flank keeps him out of harm’s way. It does mean of course that your game plan becomes a little narrower but it’s a price worth paying. This winger has a love of wide open spaces, a unique tolerance to hypothermia and the expression of a startled squirrel when the action heads in his direction. If he ever does get the ball that expression turns to blind panic as he scampers about haphazardly before throwing the ball over his shoulder and running away to hide. Usually he's also painfully thin, never gets his kit dirty and therefore never needs a post-match shower; or

  • he's very quick and has just about learned how to catch the ball but couldn't throw a decent pass if his life depended on it. If he could pass he’d be picked in the centre. As it is, he's likely to score bucketloads of tries and win Player of the Year at the end of season awards; or

  • he believes he's the next Jonah Lomu. What this usually means is that he is just big and for some reason believes that will be enough, despite having no pace and minimal skill. Sadly, against some opposition wingers, he's right - it is enough; or

  • deep down he's really just a rugby fan who likes to tell his mates that he plays. He's incredibly keen and therefore spends most of the game shouting and clapping, encouraging his colleagues to send play his way until that crucial moment when he's called into action and off he goes to collect the oranges at half time, or retrieve the ball from the stream.

If you fit into any of the above categories then you can play on the wing. If not, you should play in a proper position.

Hope that helps…

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Arise Sir Johnno?

In a recent petition on the UK government’s E-Petition website 291 people, including yours truly, signed up in support of the following motion:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to award Martin Johnson a Knighthood”.

While 291 people out of a population of more than 60 million might not sound much it was more, for instance, than achieved by the following motions:
  • “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to support our dairy farmers in their fight for cost effective milk prices" or

  • “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to change building regulations to force new buildings to be at least partially self sufficient in energy" or

  • “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to clarify the government's position as regards to disabled workers”
…none of which seem particularly outrageous or fanciful.

So, does Martin Johnson deserve a knighthood? Well, given that we appear to be stuck with an increasingly irrelevant royal family and that we insist on giving out gongs each year to all and sundry merely because they do their jobs properly, I don’t see why not. In any event it appears that a few quid bunged into the Labour party coffers can buy you a peerage these days so yeah, have a knighthood Martin and good luck to you.

After all, taking a meritocratic stance, Johnno was the finest forward of his generation (and we are, naturally, all willing to turn a blind eye to the odd disciplinary transgression), he was the captain and driving force behind the England World Cup triumph in 2003 and even now is a fine ambassador for the game (or at least for the brands he represents). If Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Geoff Hurst were deserving cases then why not the captain of an English World Cup winning rugby team?

Johnno surely had more influence over England’s success than Sir Clive Woodward ever did, something with which former Wales coach and current New Zealand assistant coach Steve Hansen appeared to agree when, in a tit-for-tat war of words with the then Lions coach Woodward in 2005, he said:

"I would also suggest that perhaps Clive has got Martin Johnson's knighthood. In my eyes that guy is the most influential player the game has seen for a long time and if anyone deserved to get a knighthood it was Johnno, not the coach."

Mind you, the Irish President Mary McAleese might have something to say about it having been made to walk on the grass (horror of horrors) when Johnno refused to move his team before the anthems for the Grand Slam decider at Lansdowne Road in 2003. However, putting that minor diplomatic incident to one side, what swings it for me is the current rumour circulating that a certain David Beckham’s name is seriously being considered for a knighthood, in which case we all might as well give up and go home. Let's face it, if English sporting failures are going to get knighted there’s going to be one hell of a queue.

So that’s settled then – a knighthood for Johnno. Time to turn to the next item on the agenda:
“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister” (7,385 signatures so far!!)

Sometimes when we Touch...

Another Tuesday evening, another game of Touch and another stuffing. I hate to say it but as the weeks progress we appear to be getting worse. The good news is that this week we only conceded 11 tries. The bad news is that we only scored 1.

Once again we were pretty shambolic in both attack and defence, although personally I felt I contributed more than I did last week, at least managing a break and pass to set up our one try after about 5 minutes. That reduced the score to 2-1 at that point, although obviously that’s where we peaked. There were also a couple of other neat moments but what we really lack in attack is sheer pace (something the other teams seem to have in abundance). There was one kid on the other team tonight (and when I say kid I mean he was probably about 9 or 10) who had a fantastic burst of speed which saw him carve through our ranks on more than one occasion. Not that carving through our ranks was that difficult given our inability to move up as a line – your average mutt would have been very proud of our dog-legged strategy.

Still, for some reason it was nowhere near as demoralising as last week’s efforts – at least I felt I tried to contribute albeit with a limited amount of success. I guess it’s just a question of me lowering my expectations, enjoying the game for what it is and having a beer afterwards.

And there’s always next week…

Sunday, 3 June 2007

I vow to thee...

The England rugby team meant very little to me until February 1980. Prior to the 1979-80 season I'd known nothing but football, both from a playing and spectating perspective, and the trials and tribulations at Newcastle United (no change there, then) had been uppermost in my childhood sporting consciousness.

And then came the 1980 Five Nations, following swiftly on from my debut on a rugby pitch, and an interest fired by a desire to see how the game should be played (as opposed to the somewhat comical efforts of my school's under 15s) as well as being driven by questions as to why, whenever I'd seen England play on the TV during the seventies, we'd always been on the wrong end of a hiding from the Irish, the French, the Scottish and, in particular, the Welsh.

From the moment Bill Beaumont led his team out onto the Twickenham turf to face Ireland in the opening game I was hooked. Looking back it was a motley collection that took the field for England that day. Dusty Hare waddled around at fullback without ever suggesting he could break into a canter, let alone a sprint; Mike Slemen on the wing looked as if he might snap if tackled; and John Horton at fly half looked like a science teacher lost in in some bizarre experiment. The forwards were largely droopy moustached and distinctly unathletic-looking and all in all, when compared to the gym-enhanced monsters that grace the game at the top level these days, looked like a bunch of blokes that had been assembled in the pub half an hour before kick off.
Fortunately appearances did turn out to be deceiving as the English pack tore into the Irish that day with the likes of Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley and Tony Neary to the fore and the 24-9 victory was the start of a push towards England's first Grand Slam in decades. A 17-13 win followed in Paris with Clive Woodward making his debut, followed by a tight 9-7 victory over Wales at Twickenham, a match in which Hare kicked 3 penalties and Paul Ringer was sent off. Finally John Carleton's hat-trick and a virtuoso Woodward performance saw England seal the Slam at Murrayfield.
It was the first time I'd followed the Five Nations from beginning to end, I was a confirmed convert to rugby, England had won the Grand Slam and a new era of English dominance was about to begin.
Err, well, not quite - the following season, with Messrs Uttley and Neary having retired, England quite comfortably slipped back into a complacent mediocrity which they managed to maintain for the remainder of the decade. It made no difference though - my appetite was whetted and my expectations set...

Don't touch me there - Addendum

Just logged onto the in2Touch website and discovered that we didn't lose 8 or 9 tries to 3 at Touch Rugby last week as I first thought. We lost 14-3. FOURTEEN!

No wonder I was so hacked off afterwards - I thought at first that perhaps I had over-reacted and perhaps I should lose a little more gracefully, but FOURTEEN - THREE...