Sunday, 30 December 2018

The Total Flanker Awards 2018

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, a warm welcome to you all as we once again recognise and celebrate the successes, failures, accomplishments, misfortunes, achievements and fiascos of the 2018 rugby calendar year.

Yes, welcome, willkommen and bienvenue to the 12th Annual Total Flanker Awards ceremony...

Straight into the awards, our first gong tonight is the TOTAL FLANKER WHERE HAS ALL THE CASH GONE? AWARD. This goes to joint recipients this year - Mr Steve Brown and the RFU - who appear to have frittered away gazillions of pounds earned from the 2015 World Cup, resulting in cuts to funding for the grassroots game and a shedload of redundancies at HQ. Well done.

Next up we have the TOTAL FLANKER JUST CALL ME SICKNOTE AWARD.  In previous years this would have undoubtedly been a shoe-in for a certain Manu Tuilagi, but this year only one man can be considered. Step forward Billy Vunipola - shoulder and knee injuries, a broken left arm (twice) and a broken right arm have meant that Billy has been in almost permanent state of rehab over the last 12-18 months. The lad is certainly due some better luck and maybe this award may be the start of it?

Moving on, the next award is the TOTAL FLANKER WHISPER IT QUIETLY, BUT WE MIGHT JUST BE WORLD CUP FAVOURITES AWARD. I  refer, of course, to the Ireland rugby team who have had a magnificent 12 months, losing only once (to Australia, of all teams). I have no doubt whatsoever that if the World Cup were being played now Ireland would win it. Whether that will still be the case next October we shall have to wait and see...

And so to the TOTAL FLANKER THAT'S THE WAY TO SHOWCASE OUR SPORT AWARD, which is awarded jointly to Saracens Women and Harlequins Ladies for playing out a magnificent final of the inaugural Premier 15s back in April, with the Sarries Women triumphing 24-20. It was a fabulous game of rugby and it's high time the mainstream media got behind women's rugby to give it the publicity and financial backing it deserves.

Nearly there, our penultimate award this evening is the TOTAL FLANKER COULD WE HAVE MADE ANY MORE OF AN UTTER HORLICKS OF IT AWARD. This award goes to World Rugby for the unlikely circumstances that saw Russia qualify for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, which involved a Romanian referee overseeing a dodgy Belgian victory over Spain - thus ensuring Romanian qualification - and then the subsequent disqualification of Romania, Spain and Belgium, all for fielding ineligible players during qualifying. You simply couldn't make it up.

And finally we have a very special award - the TOTAL FLANKER COMPLETE AND UTTER HERO AWARD. This goes to man who, despite being diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2017, continues to display the bravery he was known for on the pitch, and the humour and good grace he was known for off it, as he raises awareness of the condition and funds for research into a cure. I refer of course to Doddie Weir and his My Name'5 Doddie Foundation. Well done and good luck to you sir.

And so, that's it for another year. Thank you again for your forbearance and indulgence as I continue to trot out the usual drivel. I wish you all a Happy New Year - see you on the other side...

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Arise Sir Bill Beaumont

Huge congratulations to Bill Beaumont, awarded a knighthood in the New Year's honours list for services to rugby.

Antiquated as the UK honours system might be, the knighting of Beaumont does give me a certain satisfaction as it was his England team's 1980 Grand Slam that first fuelled my obsession with this wonderful game of ours.

Amongst Beaumont's many achievements in rugby, being the inspiration behind Total Flanker must rank right up there πŸ˜‰.

Arise Sir Bill!

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

England Rugby's next Head Coach?

As part of England's search for a successor to Eddie Jones next year, Nigel Melville, acting CEO at the RFU, apparently wants to speak to (among others) Warren Gatland, who leaves his role with Wales after the World Cup.

While Gatland has an undeniably proven track record I can't help feel that the RFU may be missing a trick here.

I am referring, of course, to one of Gatland's lieutenants, Shaun Edwards, whose CV also makes mightily impressive reading:

- English πŸ‘

 - International coaching experience  πŸ‘ - over 10 years as Wales defence coach and part of the 2009 Lions coaching team

- Head coach experience πŸ‘ - won the Heineken Cup, European Challenge Cup and 3 Premiership titles with Wasps.

I would have thought that Edwards was at least worth interviewing?

Friday, 14 December 2018

Is Rugby failing in its duty of care to its players?

The tragic death of 19 year old Stade Francias academy player Nicolas Chauvin, who died of "cervical trauma that resulted in cardiac arrest and cerebral anoxia" following a heavy tackle in the fifth minute of a game against Bordeaux-Begles at the weekend, should serve as a wake up call to us all. 

The incident comes four months after the death of another young French player, Louis Fajfrowski, who suffered a heart attack in the changing room after receiving a heavy tackle playing for Aurillac. 

The common denominator here? The words "heavy tackle". 

We all know and accept that, in a contact sport such as rugby, the risk of injury is very real. But a risk to life? 

There have been (thankfully very rare) tragedies in the past, of course, but the deaths of two young players in the same season, both seemingly caused by heavy tackles, really should be setting alarm bells ringing amongst rugby authorities. 

The game has a duty of care to protect its players. Right now it looks as if it is failing in that duty.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

HMRC to probe English Rugby

The only surprise at the news that HM Revenue and Customs is launching an investigation into the tax affairs of the grassroots game in England is that it has taken this long.

HMRC has apparently identified clubs who “may not be applying the PAYE regulations correctly” – in other words those regularly who pay ‘cash in hand’ off the books.

Apparently initially the investigation will involve National League One and Two clubs but may be expanded in future to lower echelons of the English club game.

Certainly the news will be causing a few palpitations amongst club treasurers up and down the country, discreet cash payments to players to cover “expenses” certainly having been a staple part of the grassroots game even before the advent of professionalism in 1995...

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Time for Premiership Rugby to get radical?

I’m beginning to like Nigel Melville as acting CEO at the RFU.

Ok, so potentially he has a £4.7 million lawsuit hanging over him in the US following his stint as Chief Executive of USA Rugby but, hey, nobody’s perfect.

What I like about Melville as a Chief Executive is (a) that he knows his rugby, (b) that he is willing to think outside the box and (c) that he appears to agree with me. πŸ˜†

For some time I’ve been banging on about how 2 fully professional leagues of 12 teams in England is simply unsustainable financially.

I’ve even suggested that 16 clubs is probably the maximum number of sustainable professional rugby clubs in England. 

Lo and behold, when commenting on the possible ring-fencing of the Premiership, Melville has mooted the idea of expanding the Premiership to 16 clubs split into a two-league conference system with play offs to decide the champions.

The devil, obviously, will be in the detail, and the clubs may need to make some short term sacrifices (in terms of revenues being split 16 ways) for longer term gains, but I do like the fact that Melville is prepared to think radically to try to solve this thorniest of issues.

Of course how such radicalism will go down in the corridors of power in TW1 remains to be seen...

Friday, 7 December 2018

Mental health ticking time bomb for rugby

There’s a report in today’s Telegraph that new figures, compiled by the Rugby Players’ Association, show that 62% of retired professional rugby players have suffered mental health problems - ranging from panic attacks to suicidal thoughts - since retiring from the game.

The PRA research is based on approximately 200 retired professional players and reveals that former rugby players are approximately three times more likely than a member of the general public to suffer illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

It’s a truly shocking stat and I can only hope that it serves as a wake up call to the clubs and the powers that be to ensure that player welfare – both physical and mental – is given the attention it deserves…

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Premiership Rugby relegation question a red herring?

With only 4 points currently separating the bottom seven teams in the Premiership and a realistic prospect of one of the league's traditional big hitters being relegated at the end of the season, talk of ending relegation has once more raised its head.

I admit I can see both sides to the argument.

On the one hand, ending relegation and ring-fencing the Premiership would allow clubs to take more risks, promote younger English players rather than import from abroad, ease the workload on senior players, and plan commercially for the mid to long term.

On the other hand, preventing promotion from the Championship could serve only to stifle ambition and lead to the stagnation of rugby in the second tier - after all, without the principle of promotion and relegation, Exeter's remarkable journey to the upper echelons of English rugby would not have been possible.

I do not know what the answer is, but what I do know - and I've banged on about it before - is that there simply isn't enough money in club rugby in England to sustain 2 fully professional leagues of 12 teams.

The starting point of any discussion should therefore be the question of how many professional clubs can the game in England realistically sustain...?

Monday, 3 December 2018

Barbarians at the (exit) gate?

I must admit to remaining ambivalent about the Barbarians' place in today's rugby calendar.

Don't get me wrong, I love the concept of top players from different countries coming together to socialise, share experiences and play off-the-cuff rugby - it's very much in the true corinthian spirit of the game, harking back to the old amateur ethos with which I grew up.

However, watching a team of mostly South Africans, with a few others from the Southern Hemisphere thrown in to make up the numbers, take on what was almost an Argentinian development team, meant that there was very little to get really excited about in what was an error-ridden game, despite the dramatic conclusion.

The fact that the Twickenham crowd only numbered something in the region of 31,000 also suggests that this was a fixture that failed to capture the public's imagination.

I do hope that the BaaBaas concept can survive in an increasingly congested international professional rugby calendar, but fixtures like this really do it no favours at all.