Thursday, 29 April 2010

A touch sore

So, it's late April once more, time to head out onto the playing fields of Buckinghamshire on warm summer evenings to be ritually humiliated as preparations for the summer's Touch Rugby 'season' get underway.

There was a bumper turnout at the rugby club on Tuesday evening, hardly surprising really as it was a beautifully warm, sunny evening - ideal for chucking a rugby ball about and pretending to be 20 years younger. Well, it was ideal for all of about 5 minutes, until I slipped on the hard, sandy ground resulting in a pretty horrific looking deep graze which covers the entire length of my left shin.

Not the best of starts then but, bloodied but not bowed, I soldiered on for the next hour or so, finding myself largely running around after 16 year old girls. It's a tough job but someone has to do it. Actually, as well as playing, I ended up rotating the refereeing with another of the Vets which meant that there were several opportunities to take a well earned breather. Just as well, really, given my appalling levels of fitness.

All in all, then, it was an excellent workout and a good start to what I hope to be a summer of getting back into shape. Other than the occasional sporadic road run my exercise regime has been more or less non-existent since my sciatica episode last October which, when I think about it, is a pretty shameful state of affairs. The trick is, clearly, not to think about it.

A major downer was the graze. Before going to bed and to avoid my leg sticking to the bedsheets I applied Germolene ointment which forms a protective layer over the abrasion. It also stings like you wouldn't believe and, given the sheer size of the graze, was utter torture to apply. Note to the CIA: forget water-boarding, Germolene on an open wound would break the will of any would-be terrorist.

Monday, 26 April 2010

The future's brighter...?

The long-running Welsh soap opera, otherwise known as the rugby career of Mr Gavin Church, looks like taking another twist after news emerged last week that the orange one is planning a return to rugby with the Ospreys in September.

The perma-tanned Welsh centre last played 13 months ago and has played only 14 times for his country in the last 5 years, having endured a succession of injuries, the last of which put him out of contention for last summer's Lions Tour.

At the time it was rumoured that he was seriously considering packing it all in, but it looks as if the pleadings of an increasingly desperate Warren Gatland may have persuaded him to return to the game in time to boost the Welsh World Cup efforts.

It doesn't take Nostradamus, however, to predict that this will probably all end in tears.

"My kid's better than your kid"

I must admit that I had to stifle a snigger at the news that the fathers of two Worcester Warriors players were allegedly involved in a post-match punch up following Saturday's defeat at Leeds which condemned Worcester to relegation from the Premiership.

Apparently the father of Worcester flanker Chris Cracknell took exception to derogatory comments about his son's performance by the father of fellow flanker James Collins, who had replaced Cracknell late in the match.

According to a witness the pair traded blows before Cracknell waded in on his father's behalf, dragging Collins Senior over the barriers and onto the pitch.

Appalling behaviour all round which I feel obliged to condemn wholeheartedly.

Funny though! :)

Saturday, 24 April 2010

100,000 up

At some point over the last day or so this blog appears to have received its 100,000th visitor.

All I can say is that I'm utterly blown away by the realisation that my humble little blog continues to be read by people other than close family.

Thank you all for your continued patience and forbearance. I raise a virtual glass to you all.

Pathway to Problems?

Something that appears to have snuck under the radar in recent weeks...

Apparently the British government in its infinite wisdom (and assuming that nothing changes after the Election next month) is planning to clamp down on "booze-fuelled" student rugby clubs.

This is in response to a report, entitled 'Pathways to Problems' from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in which it attacks a "culture of excessive drinking" in universities and colleges.

The report follows a couple of incidents publicised earlier this year involving student rugby clubs.

De Montfort University Rugby Club were recently fined and suspended for 30 weeks by the RFU after they admitted charges related to a series of fairly unpleasant initiation rites, while apparently the men's rugby team at St Catharine's College, Cambridge was disbanded after complaints about their behaviour at a rowdy party at a local pub.

Both incidents were "off campus" and, I believe, therein lies the lesson. Nearly three years ago I blogged about the negative impact of the stereotypical rugger bugger. What can I say? I was clearly going through a Victor Mature moment at the time. Nevertheless, the principle must still be that, if you're going to disgrace yourselves collectively, then keep it close to home. Don't do it in public, or the result will be some ridiculously over-the-top anti-fun legislation

With stunning unoriginality, alcohol awareness charity Drinkaware has managed to leap aboard the bandwagon with the comment: "Taking part in drinking games is never a good idea."

The thing is, in my experience, taking part in drinking games is nearly always a splendid idea.

Friday, 23 April 2010

For England, Harry and St.George

Happy St. George's Day.

A couple of years ago I wrote about how little the English celebrate their patron saint's day and it appears little has changed since.

According to a survey earlier this week, only a third of people were aware that the celebration of St George was today.

One person determined that the occasion should be celebrated in style is Lawrence Dallaglio. Entirely coincidentally his club, London Wasps, play Bath tomorrow at Twickenham in the inaugural St George’s Day match (albeit a day late).

“I have never had a problem celebrating my Englishness," says Dallaglio.

Nice words Lorenzo.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Blood, Sweat and Beers

Now that I am established as a rugby writer of international repute (yeah, right) it is no longer a surprise when I am invited to attend press briefings for rugby events or to advertise or endorse various products to my vast readership.

The stance I take generally is that this blog is merely a personal folly rather than something I do for commercial gain, largely because (a) it's true and (b) having worked in 'proper' new media in the past I am fully aware just how difficult it is to make more than a few pennies from online advertising.

Despite my highly principled stand, however, I have to confess that I would never discourage anyone from offering me freebies in exchange for a word or two. I am nothing if not hypocritical when it comes to taking a moral position.

Thus I was happy to accept recently a free review copy of Lawrence Dallaglio's Rugby Tales. I say 'recently' - it was actually at the beginning of March. What can I say? I'm a slow reader.

For the uninitiated, Rugby Tales does exactly what it says on the tin - it's a collection of musings from well and lesser known rugby writers and personalities focusing on the amusing and bizarre side of the game both on and off the pitch.

Now, I'm not sure whether it's because several of the stories are already quite well known or because quite a few extracts from the book have already been published elsewhere, or perhaps whether it's because I am indeed a certified (or certifiable?) rugby geek with an insatiable appetite for trivia, but there was undoubtedly a whiff of familiarity about many of the stories.

That said, there are certainly a few gems dotted around in the book too, including David Trick's account of how he managed to indulge in a beer and a cigarette on the pitch at Twickenham while playing for England Under 19s against Australia, as well as the late Richard Langhorn's comment during a Quins v Wasps match when his team mate and England captain Will Carling emerged from the bottom of a ruck demanding that the referee punish the player who had stamped on him.

"Could have been any one of twenty-nine of us ref," said Langhorn.

"Make that thirty," responded the referee.

One thing this book certainly did, though, was to get me thinking about the various shenanigans I've encountered or been involved with during my many years in the game. I'm sure we all have a story or two to tell, so be warned - I have a blog and I know how to use it...

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Stand Up

On a glorious sunny (perhaps too sunny, if the colour of my face is anything to go by) afternoon yesterday I, and the rest of the Flanker family, headed down to Wembley Stadium to take in the Saracens v Harlequins match.
Despite Sarries being my local professional club I've by no means been a regular at Vicarage Road over the years, due largely to apathy, pressure on family time and, latterly, reservations about the club turning into some sort of Saffa expat haven. With the kids now old enough, however, the opportunity to check out the new Wembley was difficult to resist.

The Stadium was mightily impressive - very accessible from the tube station and despite our seats being halfway up at one end of the ground there was always the feeling of being close to the action (something sorely lacking at Twickenham, for example) - amazing really in such a large stadium. Inevitably the only downside was the cost of food and drink - I expected to pay 4 quid for a pint, but over £15 for 2 cheeseburgers + chips is taking the piss.

As a marketing ploy, however, the occasion must be deemed a great success for Saracens, with over 47,000 turning up to watch a thoroughly entertaining game as well as pre-match entertainment from a variety of acrobats, circus performers, cheerleaders and not forgetting the mostly forgotten Right Said Fred.

As well as my first time at the new Wembley it was also the first time I'd heard the new Saracens anthem - "Stand Up for the Saracens" - performed by the aforementioned bald pairing. I'm sad to report that it is ridiculously catchy, so much so that I woke in the night with it still bouncing around my head and am still humming it as I type. Check it out below if you seriously want to ruin your day:

As for the match itself, it was something of a revelation with both sides seeking to run the ball at every opportunity. Long gone, it appears, are the kick and chase days of the Autumn. After an opening 10 minutes during which Quins looked the more cohesive side, Sarries scored 2 quick tries against the run of play via their very impressive (and English) openside Andy Saul, then dominated proceedings for the next hour, running in 5 tries in total before Quins responded with 2 late consolation tries.

Final score 37-18: Stand Up for the Saracens!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Master Eight?

Speaking of number 8s...

What do Imanol Harinordiquy, Sergio Parisse, Wycliff Palu, Kieran Read, Jamie Heaslip, Pierre Spies and Johnnie Beattie have in common?

Answer: they are all great examples of the modern day international number 8 forward. Big, quick, athletic, creative, with good hands and able to dominate the breakdown and get their respective teams on the front foot.

Notable by their absence from this list are any Welsh and English players. Arguably Wales had a version of the above player-type in 2005 in Ryan Jones but it really is a long time since he displayed any of the above attributes on an international rugby pitch, while potentially Andy Powell could still offer some hope if he could stay off the M4 in the early hours and perhaps grow a brain cell or two.

Meanwhile England, like Houston, have a problem. Since the (first) retirement of Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio, England have struggled to find an adequate replacement. The current incumbent is Nick Easter. Now, I like Nick Easter - he's an honest grafter with a clever rugby brain, good hands and the ability to get across the gain line but, let's face it, he's not the quickest and he's not going to get any quicker anytime soon. This need not necessarily be a problem at club level (or even against Wales) where good rugby nous can pay dividends but up against the very best a lack of pace can prove a serious liability.

The trouble is that Nick Easter fully deserves to be England's number eight as, quite frankly, who else is there? Waiting in the wings is Jordan Crane - aka Easter-lite - OK at kicking penalties in a shoot-out but offering nothing more around the pitch than the present incumbent and is perhaps marginally slower. After Crane there are the likes of the perpetually injured Dan Ward-Smith, the so far unfulfilled Luke Narraway and the so far untried Phil Dowson, none of whom are really screaming "PICK ME!"

A few years back a certain James Forrester looked as if he was the coming man at 8 but injuries soon put paid to that theory whilst players who looked as if they might have the attributes to make decent number 8s - the likes of Chris Jones and Magnus Lund for instance - were never really tried in the position. A year or so ago there was much talk of Wasps' young Hugo Ellis but I've heard very little about him in recent months and it does look as if this shortage of options is something of an indictment of the English development programme - Easter, for instance, being developed by Orrell in National One rather than by any academy.

With the lack of players coming through the system the Australian tour in June might therefore be an ideal opportunity to experiment, to try a player who looks as if he might have all the attributes but perhaps only lacks experience in the position. Maybe Courtney Lawes or, better still, Tom Croft?

Answers on the back of a postcard...

Monday, 12 April 2010

Come in Number 8, your time is up

Many, many thanks to FenĂȘtre Ovale for unearthing the picture below...

The picture is taken from a recent international rugby match between Cyprus and Azerbaijan and shows a Cyprus player taking on the Azerbaijan defence. Well, when I say "defence" I obviously don't include the green number 8 on the far right of the picture who is obviously "marking space" with his hands on his hips (well, at least his left hand - for all I know he may have a beer or a cigarette in his other hand).
This is clearly not the finest exponent of the blitz defensive strategy in action, nor is it a demonstration of an immaculate drift defence. No, this is is more a classic example of the Total Flanker-patented "lurking defence."
You see, I would like to be more critical of the Azerbaijan 8 but am ashamed to admit that it is a defensive ploy invented, developed and oft-used by yours truly. The idea is that one's sheer static presence is enough to dissuade the opposition from attacking down one's channel and, somewhat amazingly, in the picture it does appear to have worked. The finishing touch to the defensive manoeuvre is, of course, to throw one's hands up in horror at the missed tackle inside - and no doubt the next frame of the film (were it available) would show just that.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

The Best Rugby Player You Never Saw?

Many moons ago I read a book. It was blue.

The title of this blue book was "The Greatest Footballer You Never Saw" and tells the story of Robin Friday, an exceptional footballer (of the round ball variety) who really should have played for England in the 1970s but never did. Why? Because Friday refused to take life seriously, lived every moment as if it were his last and ultimately destroyed himself, tragically dying at the the age of 38 without ever having fulfilled his potential after years of alcohol and drug abuse. Instead of gracing the pitches of Old Trafford and Anfield, Friday played for the likes of non-league Hayes Town and Reading and Cardiff of the old fourth and second divisions respectively.

I recall it being an excellent read and, spotting the book again on the bookshelf this weekend, it got me thinking as to whether there might be a rugby equivalent, a player of huge talent whose maverick or self-destructive nature meant that his potential was never fulfilled?

It's difficult to draw an exact analogy, but I suppose that in the professional era the likes of Messrs Church & Brook (aka Gavin Henson and Danny Cipriani) spring to mind. Whilst it can be said that neither have truly yet fulfilled their potential, it's difficult to draw justifiable parallels with the career of Robin Friday. Both have, after all, played for their country while Henson does have a couple of Grand Slams and a Lions tour to his name and the Cipriani story is, you feel, far from finished. Their off-field activities are hardly in the same league either.

No, to compare effectively you'd need to come up with someone who clearly had the talent to go far but whose off field behaviour destroyed his rugby career. Although I can perhaps think of one or two players I've played the game with whose fondness for sherbet meant that they didn't perhaps achieve what they might have done, there's certainly nothing on the same scale as the Friday story.

Certainly in the professional era we are unlikely to unearth any likely candidates given the physical demands placed on players today, but delving back into into my cluttered memories of the amateur era there must have been a few who might qualify. There were, for instance, a number of players during the 70s and 80s who made only very fleeting appearances for England, although admittedly this was probably more down to playing and selectorial incompetence than to standards of behaviour. Being a backrow aficionado, one player who did catch my eye in the mid-eighties was Quins number 8 Chris Butcher who won 3 caps for England in 1984 and looked the real deal before seemingly disappearing off the face of the planet. I can find very little information about him on t'interweb but I'm sure I read somewhere that he liked a bevvy or several and that there may have been an incident involving a wet fish and an England selector's wife, but my memory might well be playing tricks on me and if so I must humbly apologise if I've maligned the poor chap.

Right now that's about the best I can do. If anyone can do better and has any names to toss into the debate please feel free...

Friday, 2 April 2010

Bloody marvellous!

I'm loving the fact that Big Bad Dean Richards has been short-listed for an ERC 15 coaching award to honour the top coaches in the competition since the Heineken Cup started in 1995.

Richards, currently serving a ludicrously long suspension for his role in the Bloodgate affair during Quins' Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Leinster a year ago, has quite rightly been recognised for his back-to-back titles with Leicester and his generally outstanding record in the competition.

Wouldn't it be rather amusing if he won?

Where do I vote?

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Woodward set for new role?

It has emerged overnight that Prime Minister Gordon Brown has asked former England rugby supremo Sir Clive Woodward to spearhead the Labour Party's forthcoming campaign for the General Election.

Sources inside the Labour Party indicate that the Party's hierarchy have concluded that Brown is more or less unelectable without outside help, hence the return of Tony Blair to endorse Brown's credentials earlier this week and the recruitment of the man who delivered Rugby World Cup glory to England in 2003.

It is understood that the power-brokers behind the deal are Blairites Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell, Blair's former spin doctor who formed a close bond with Woodward during the 2005 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

Various rumours have been circulating in recent days regarding a planned return by Woodward to Twickenham as a probable replacement for RFU Director of Elite Rugby Rob Andrew. It appears, however, that such rumours were an elaborate smokescreen and that Woodward's ambitions are far loftier.

If Labour succeed in being elected for a record consecutive fourth term it is not known whether Woodward - currently the Director of Elite Performance at the British Olympic Association - will be offered a Cabinet role. Much will depend on whether he decides to accept a proposed peerage to sit in the House of Lords or whether, as is rumoured, he would prefer a seat in the House of Commons. To this end it is believed that Labour are investigating the possibility of parachuting Sir Clive into a safe seat for the Election.