Friday, 27 March 2020

Rugby Players' Militancy Misplaced

If, as is being reported, Premiership rugby players do decide to challenge the 25% pay cuts imposed by the clubs during the period in which rugby is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, they are seriously misjudging the mood of the nation.

Nearly everyone, including your truly, is taking a financial hit during this crisis – so why should professional rugby players be any different?

Apparently players have received legal advice via the RPA telling them how to reserve their rights to claim their full entitlement – which is fair enough given that the RPA has a duty to protect the players’ interests – but I’d be disappointed if players chose to act on that advice given the current climate.

And, let’s face it, wage bills are already too high – as demonstrated by the fact that, at the last time of counting, only one Premiership club was in profit and then only barely so – and it would surprise no one if one or more clubs failed to survive the current crisis.

I’m not saying the players don’t deserve the money they earn – careers are short and, other than the superstars of the game, most rugby players earn relatively modest amounts – but as things stand there simply isn’t enough money in the game to sustain current wage levels in normal times, let alone during this shutdown. 

Let’s hope that common sense prevails.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

The Big Issue: Professional Rugby

All this time at home, with no rugby to occupy me, has led me to ponder some of the bigger issues in the game.

So, here is my first attempt (in this series) at trying to set the rugby world to rights as I tackle the not inconsiderable subject of professional rugby in England and its increasingly difficult relationship with the community game.

It is a topic about which I have pontificated on a number of occasions – but in this post I am going to attempt, almost certainly unsuccessfully, to make sense of it all.

To my mind there is little doubt that the current national crisis we are enduring due to the Covid-19 pandemic must inevitably lead to some fundamental changes in the game in England.

At the elite level most if not all Premiership clubs have either agreed or imposed wage reductions on their players, while the RFU has announced an expected reduction in revenue of around £50m in the coming year, leading to salary cuts for senior figures including, it appears, Eddie Jones.

Whilst the RFU have announced measures to support grassroots clubs whose seasons have been cancelled, it is not that difficult to see ultimately who will bear the brunt of the RFU’s loss of revenue. 

Unless things change.

The thorny issue of whether the Premiership should be ringfenced is bound to rear its head once again. As I have stated before, I do not believe that there is enough money in rugby in England to support two professional leagues – so the question for me is not whether the Premiership should be ringfenced but rather when will the inevitable split between the elite professional game and the grassroots community game happen?

I say "inevitable" but there will, of course, be significant resistance as there is a perception that any kind of ringfencing will lead to the withdrawal of wealthy financial backers from lower league clubs. To which I would say, why do you need wealthy financial backers if you are not paying your players?

And there’s the rub – currently there are undoubtedly numerous clubs playing several layers beneath the elite level who, with financial backing from individuals or sponsors, pay their First XV players in one form or another, all with the ambition of progressing through the RFU pyramid league structure, almost for the sake of it. The chances of any of these clubs making to the elite level are 
infinitesimally tiny, and yet it continues.

Which raises the bigger questions of what the point of the game beneath the elite level is and what purpose it actually serves? Because if things continue the way they are, the grassroots game – at least for adult men (mini/junior rugby and the women’s game being seemingly in rude health for the most part) – appears doomed.  
There are, I'm convinced, plenty of blokes who want to play socially or at a half-decent level, who are willing to pay their membership subs and spend their money at the club bar and volunteer to help out around the club whenever needed. But these are the same blokes who see their club shipping in and paying players from outside, who are then dropped to the 2nd or the 3rd XVs, who are told that they must train twice a week to even get a game and who, if things don't change, will continue to leave the game in their droves. 

Far better in my view is for the professional game to go its merry way, properly funded by the corporate world and supported by the paying fans, leaving the RFU to focus what resources it has at community level, allowing grassroots clubs to get back to an amateur membership-based model based on community, friendship, camaraderie and, dare I say it, fun. Of course there can still be a structure of competitive rugby, serious rugby even for those that want to take it seriously, but without the twilight zone of semi-professionalsm that, as far as I can see, serves very little purpose.

Yes there will be casualties – there will be clubs who can’t or won’t adapt and will go to the wall and there will be players who fail to make the grade at the elite level and who will no longer be able to eke out an existence being paid to play rugby in the lower leagues. But surely that is how it should be - they will either play for enjoyment or disappear from the game - and to expect anything else just doesn’t make sense.

And inevitably there will be a risk that professional rugby will increasingly disappear behind a pay-TV wall, but I'd argue that this is an inherent risk anyway and I would hope that professional rugby would take heed of what has happened to cricket, for example, and think twice.

What is clear, however, is that things can’t continue as they are. 

The times they are a changin’.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Rugby rest good for Billy

There was a worrying admission by Billy Vunipola this week.

According to the Sarries and England no. 8, the current coronavirus lockdown has its advantages as it will give him time to let his broken right arm heal properly rather than see him rush back for a big game.

Vunipola broke his right arm for the third time since 2017 in Saracens' victory over Racing 92 in January but, having had further surgery on a bone which already had a titanium place inserted, he was still planning to be back in action against Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter final on 4th April. Now, he says, he can let the bone heal on its own so that it is 100%.

The obvious implication here is that, having already admitted that he came back too early following breaking the same bone in both 2017 and 2018, he was prepared to play again before his arm was 100% healed.

Which - I'd say - is a pretty poor state of affairs and a sad indictment of professional rugby's duty of care to its participants which sees the opportunity for short term success prevail over the long term health of the players.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Some brighter news...

In these difficult times any piece of good news is always welcome.

 I was therefore delighted to learn that Worcester lock, Michael Faitiafola - who suffered a serious spinal cord injury.against Saracens in January which that left him paralysed and required surgery – has now started to walk unaided.

Brilliant news - well done Michael and best of luck with your recovery.

And another uplifting tale comes from Parma where Zebre and Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda – his season having been ended by Covid-19 - has been occupied on the front line of his country’s fight against the virus by working 13 hour shifts as a volunteer ambulance driver.

Bravo Signor Mbanda.

All of which kind of puts everything else into context…

Monday, 23 March 2020

All eyes on the RFU

The decision by the RFU last Friday to cancel the English rugby season (below the Premiership) was inevitable given where we now are with the coronavirus pandemic.

Although on the face of it decisive, less helpful is the fact that the RFU appear unable to decide on what will happen next until the middle of April.

Such a delay means not only is there now confusion surrounding which teams will get promoted/relegated from their respective leagues, there is also huge uncertainly as to how grassroots and community clubs are meant to survive in the absence of any income.

While both the Welsh and Scottish Unions have pledged financial support for their clubs, the RFU have yet to commit, leaving their constituent clubs somewhat in limbo.

Furthermore, I’d say it is more or less inevitable that the Premiership season will eventually be cancelled, with millions being lost in matchday and broadcasting revenues, undoubtedly leaving some clubs on the brink.

Unless the RFU act decisively, the crisis could easily lead to the likes of CVC filling the vacuum by way of an emergency bail-out in return for a majority stake in the Premiership.

And then things really will start to get interesting…

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Does Rugby really matter?

With the advice on how we should be trying to cope with Covid-19 seemingly changing daily, with hundreds queueing to get into supermarkets whose shelves are already bare (PLEASE stop panic buying!!), with the over 70s faced with the ludicrous suggestion that they may have to self-isolate for up to four months (!!) and with huge uncertainty about how our lives will be affected over the coming days, weeks and months, I find myself facing an existential crisis of my own - i.e.: Does Rugby Matter?

I say this after today's announcement by the RFU that all rugby activity in England is suspended, which follows the curtailment of the Six Nations and the suspension of the Premiership, Pro-14, Top 14 and Super Rugby.

As things currently stand, therefore, it looks as if my son's Colts season is over. I guess it was always only a matter of time -  indeed, our Under 18s fixture last Sunday was duly called off after two of the opposition reported having high temperatures.

Of course the postponement or cancellation of sports fixtures - whether at the elite or at the local level - is small beer when set against the wider coronavirus crisis in which many may lose their lives and many more will lose their livelihoods.

In that sense rugby doesn't matter.

And yet it does.

For many, including yours truly, there is very much a rhythm to life that involves sport - in my case mainly rugby - at its very heart. Whether it's watching games on TV at the weekend, running the line at a youth game on a Sunday, catching up with the weekend's action on a Monday, coaching on a Tuesday evening or preparing for the weekend ahead, there is a familiar routine that helps structure my days and weeks and which underpins my well-being.

And when the season ends there is still Touch Rugby to play, international tours to follow and then back into pre-season for the campaign ahead.

Take all that away - and remove the opportunities to mix and to socialise and to gather and to chat - and life begins to look somewhat bleak, somewhat empty. They say you don't know what you've got until it's gone but I'm very aware of what I will be missing and I don't look forward to it one little bit.

Rugby doesn't matter but it does.

Strange days indeed.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Premiership Rugby blocks Itoje's Paris move

I read yesterday that a plan for Maro Itoje to spend next season on loan at Racing 92 and still be available to play for England has hit the buffers owing to objections from Premiership clubs.

For some time now the rule has been that you can only be picked for England if you play in England except under "exceptional circumstances" which, it appears, would now have to involve pretty much everyone else in England who plays in your position getting crocked at the same time.

I would have thought that the alternative - having one or the world's best rugby players kicking his heels in the Championship - would constitute a circumstance that was fairly exceptional  but no, apparently not according to the club owners who seem determined to continue to kick Saracens when they're down - an inevitable consequence of having club owners with obviously vested interests running the domestic professional game in England.

But my question is this - since when have the Premiership clubs been able to dictate to the RFU who can and who can't be selected to play for England?

The RFU need to grow a pair and show some leadership on this matter.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Six Nations 2020 - they think it's all over, it is now

So, the only surviving match in Round 5 of this year's Six Nations - Wales vs Scotland in Cardiff - having fallen victim to Covid-19, this weekend becomes a rugby free zone (not counting my son's Under 18s match on Sunday which, at the time of writing, still goes ahead).

The match in Cardiff was supposed to be an auspicious occasion for Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones as he would have equalled the world caps record of 148 currently held by Richie McCaw.

That would have been quite a feat and worthy of congratulation although, for me, the Welsh skipper's reputation remains seriously tarnished in no small manner by his pathetic response to the Joe Marler incident last weekend.

Jones could have stuck up for Marler but chose not to do so. Instead, what he and the Welsh camp has done - in my opinion - is hang a player out to dry to deflect from their own inadequacies. Let's face it, despite the final score they were battered at Twickenham and they know it.

Still, the Six Nations is on indefinite leave now until lord knows when, which may well keep us healthier, but certainly buggers up my weekend's television viewing.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Father of England Rugby Star in Immigration Hell

They may have a few other matters in their collective in-tray at the moment, but it’s safe to say that I’m not exactly impressed with the UK Government right now.

What’s provoked my ire (this time) is the news that Joe Cokanasiga’s father, Ilaitia, is apparently stuck in Fiji, prevented by immigration rules from returning to the UK to help look after his wife who awaits an operation for a brain tumour here.

This man is a retired sergeant in the British Army, who served this country for almost 14 years, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan and yet is not allowed to reside in the UK as his permission to stay, granted while he was serving in the Armed Forces, is no longer valid.

Mr Cokansiga (who missed his son’s appearance at the World Cup as a result of the immigration rules) is currently not allowed back in to the UK after having attended his daughter’s wedding in Fiji in December.

It’s an issue that has also affected hundreds of other Commonwealth veterans who have been discharged from the Army with inadequate guidance from the MoD as to how to apply for indefinite leave to remain, who can’t afford the immigration application fees and who have since lost their jobs in the UK as they have been unable to prove that they have the right to remain.

It’s an utterly disgraceful way to treat those who have served this country with such distinction and I fully support the legal action brought by a group of such former soldiers against the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence which demands that the government acknowledge their failings and grant the veterans indefinite leave to remain for free.

And while you're sorting all that out, allow Ilaitia Cokanasiga back into the UK to help care for his sick wife.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Rugby Books: 'In the Sin Bin' by Link Wilfley

As an aside from wall-to-wall Six Nations commentary, I was recently contacted by former Rotherham player and US Eagle, Link Wilfley, asking me if I would be so kind as to mention his new book - In the Sin Bin - on this blog.

Sure, I said, send me a copy and I'll happily read and review it and, lo and behold, a few days later the book arrived in my letter box.

Actually to describe Link as "former Rotherham player and US Eagle" is to do the bloke a massive disservice as his rugby career - as it turns out - was really quite extraordinary, taking in club rugby in the USA, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, England and South Africa as well as international rugby with the US Eagles and spanning both the amateur and professional eras.

But if you think Wilfley's book is merely the usual series of harmless, anodyne anecdotes common to most rugby autobiographies, then think again, because this book really is quite remarkable.

Dealing with issues such as molestation, separation, mental health, drink and drug abuse, jail, rape and suicidal tendencies, as well as a large slice of rugby wisdom - the book really is something of a tour de force.

Part autobiography, part philosophy, part confessional, part anecdotal, part reminiscence, part self-help, part stream of consciousness, part truth-seeking, part psychology, part coaching manual, part therapy, part redemption - this is by no means an easy read. In fact at times the book really is quite disturbing, challenging and, frankly, exhausting.

I think it's safe to admit that it's unlike any other rugby book - or indeed any other book - I've ever read.

And yet Link Wilfley's eloquence, passion and brutal honesty - coupled with an exceptional use of language, way superior to anything you're ever likely to read on this blog - combine to make this book what can only be described as one hell of a read.

Don't take my word for it - ORDER IT HERE 

(Please note that, other than having received a free copy of the book directly from the author, I have no self-interest whatsoever in promoting it. I get nada from Amazon and I'm sure it is also probably available in other book shops should you care to look).

Monday, 9 March 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 4 Verdict

Again, it's somewhat unusual to be passing judgement on a weekend of Six Nations action that, with the postponement of the Ireland v Italy game, justifiably feels incomplete.

Still, there were two "interesting" games to comment on:

England v Wales

Hmmm. Difficult to know what to make of this one. England won, but there is no way this was a 3 point game. England were the better team, without a doubt. Itoje and the English forwards bossed the match and England's kicking game was superb, especially after Henry Slade came on at fullback. One Welsh breakout aside, this was pretty one-sided until a mad final few minutes where the combination of referee Ben O'Keefe and TMO Marius Jonker brought Wales back into the game.

In O'Keefe's case I don't think it was a conscious thing, but it definitely felt like his decisions were favouring the Welsh the more the match wore on, whilst with Jonker I'm not so sure. And I'm not even querying the Tuilagi red card - given the height of the challenge he was a tad unfortunate but it was reckless and on balance the decision was probably correct - but Jonker's lack of consistency (Welsh headshots on Youngs and Tuilagi and some incredibly dubious clearing out by Jones being studiously ignored) is what got my goat.

Scotland v France

With all the uncertainty in the world it is nice to know that the French rugby team's capacity for self-implosion will still surface from time to time. They had been uber-disciplined so far this Six Nations, but they were clearly rattled early on by Scotland and the decision by Mohamed Haouas to punch Jamie Ritchie in the face during a first half flare up effectively ended French Grand Slam ambitions there and then. Scotland played well enough but, facing 14 men for around 55 minutes, were handed this one on a plate.

What the result would have done in normal circumstances is set up a cracking final weekend of rugby with three teams still in the hunt for the title. Sadly Covid-19 has put paid to that, with there being no indication as yet as to when the championship will conclude...

TF team of the week:

15. Henry Slade 14. Anthony Watson 13. Nick Tompkins 12. Sam Johnson 11. Sean Maitland 10. Dan Biggar 9. Antoine Dupont 1. Joe Marler 2. Jamie George 3. Zander Fagerson 4. Maro Itoje 5. George Kruis 6. Jamie Ritchie 7. Charles Olivon 8. Josh Navidi


The suggestion that Joe Marler should somehow be sanctioned for "grabbing" the genitals of Alun Wyn Jones during the first half of England's encounter with Wales on Saturday is just idiotic.

If World Rugby were to act, Marler could face a lengthy ban, the low-end entry point for "grabbing, twisting or squeezing the genitals" being 12 weeks - which would be ridiculous under the circumstances.

Clearly such a law exists to prevent aggressive acts of foul play, not something that was (a) non-violent and without force and (b) clearly intended to be a light-hearted gesture which, if anything, helped diffuse the melee that had preceded it.

At what point, precisely, did the British media lose its sense of humour?

Friday, 6 March 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 4 Predictions

And so to round 4 of the 2020 Six Nations and a somewhat unusual set of predictions given that Ireland v Italy has fallen prey to Covid-19, leaving us with only two games to watch this weekend.

And, who knows, the way things are going these could very well be the final two games played in this year's competition given the possible postponement of the entire final round of fixtures on 14th March together with foreseeable difficulties in rearranging matches for later in the year.

Nevertheless, here goes:

England v Wales
Before predicting the result let me say one thing: I don't care how "globally renowned" the concussion expert consulted by Wales is, George North was knocked unconscious two weeks ago and should not be playing. Not that it will make any difference to the result - England by 12+

Scotland v France
They keep winning, but I'm still not 100% convinced by this French team. That said, Scotland have shown very little so far this championship. Too close to call, really, especially at Murrayfield but I'm guessing that defence will prevail in this one and therefore predict a narrow French win by 3-6.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Parisse's plans scuppered by Covid-19

Sergio Parisse must be wondering what he has done to offend the Rugby Gods following news that Italy's Six Nations game against England on 14 March in Rome has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Faced with option of playing the game behind closed doors at the Stadio Olimpico or postponing, with commercial considerations to the fore it looks as if the Italian Rugby Federation has chosen the latter option.

Parisse, you may recall, had planned to retire following the World Cup in Japan, but was denied a swansong appearance when Italy's final pool match against New Zealand was cancelled in wake of Typhoon Hagibis.

And so plans changed, with the legendary number 8 instead being granted the opportunity to bow out at the end of the 2020 Six Nations with a cameo performance against England in Rome.

But now, with Italy's final two games of the Six Nations postponed and with organisers having no idea when these fixtures might be played, Parisse's chance appears to have come and gone owing to another Force Majeure.

Which only goes to prove: the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry...

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Mako not going viral

There is a slight disconnect between England and Saracens regarding prop Mako Vunipola.

Concerns over the spread of Covid-19 prompted England to withdraw Vunipola - recently returned with brother Billy from Tonga via Hong Kong - from the squad to face Wales so that he could self-isolate as a precaution, despite him displaying no symptoms whatsoever.

Lo and behold, rather than self-isolating, it's emerged that Mako returned to Saracens to train on Tuesday, with view to playing for the club at the weekend.

Which is all rather embarrassing really...

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Oi!...Six Nations...NO!

Reported plans to place the Six Nations behind a paywall when the current TV deal expires in 2021 are just mind-numbingly idiotic.

The powers-that-be may say that nothing has yet been decided but the fact that they are not ruling it out tells us all that we need to know.

And, by outlawing joint bids (a combined bid by the BBC and ITV won last time), it means that the bid process is now heavily rigged against the free-to-air terrestrial channels and in favour of pay TV.

Not only would such a move be disastrous for the Six Nations as a tournament - TV viewing figures would inevitably plummet (see F1 for proof) as casual rugby watchers simply would't pay for the privilege - it would also fatally wound the already struggling grassroots game as participation numbers fall away. Just look at what has happened to cricket.

Those making the decision must understand this. They can't be that stupid. Which leads me to the inevitable conclusion that, in the dash for pay TV cash, they simply don't care.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Ashton available...

Where next for Chris Ashton, after it was announced today that the former England winger has left Sale Sharks by mutual consent?

It’s a surprising development given that Ashton has scored four tries in seven Premiership games this season – his Premiership tally now being 86 – just six tries shy of the all-time record.

Ashton is therefore available for an immediate mid-season move – but where to?

Former club Saracens won’t be in the running for obvious reasons and, while I have heard murmurs linking him to Harlequins, I’d imagine Ashton doesn’t come cheap (ahem! – salary cap – ahem!)

Friday, 28 February 2020

Wasps Academy prospect opens up on Mental Health struggles

Well done to Will Wilson, the Wasps Academy forward who has opened up about the struggles that he  has had with mental health issues which a year ago left him on the verge of suicide.

Wilson, who has an Oxford rugby blue and England 7s caps, is currently on loan at Championship club Cornish Pirates. 

The article, written in his own words, is a powerful, eloquent and enlightening account of how mental health issues can affect anyone and is well worth a read.

Wilson hopes that, by opening up in this way, he will help others as well as himself. I'm sure he's right.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Six Nations going viral?

I'm quite surprised at the news that Ireland’s Six Nations match against Italy in Dublin on 7th March has been postponed due to the outbreak of coronavirus in the north of Italy.

Obviously public health is more important than a mere rugby match – but is postponing the match really the right answer? 

Finding an alternative date is likely to prove problematic given the packed rugby calendar, so there is a very real chance that the fixture will never be played.

Surely - if the concern is that the Irish public will be at risk of contracting coronavirus owing to thousands of Italians travelling to Dublin - one answer would have been to play the fixture behind closed doors?

Not ideal, I grant you, but at least the match would be played. Or do economic considerations take precedence?

And what implications might there be for Italy's final fixture against England in Rome on 14th March?

Monday, 24 February 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 3 Verdict

And so Round 3 of the 2020 Six Nations is done and dusted and what did we learn?

We started in Rome where it appeared to be very much a case of two bald fellas fighting over a comb. Italy found multiple ways in which not to score and Scotland did just enough to come out on top. A rare game without a Stuart Hogg howler.

Later in Cardiff the French discovered that they could, indeed, play rugby away from home and, despite the bleating of Messrs Jones and Biggar, were deserved winners. They still have to go to Murrayfield and beat Ireland in Paris but a Grand Slam beckons.

And finally to Twickenham where England re-discovered their mojo to an extent, aided and abetted by an abject performance from the Irish half backs. The late flurry of substitutions, however, did nothing for continuity and possibly cost England a valuable try bonus point.

TF Team of the Week:

15. Stuart Hogg 14. Gael Fickou 13. Manu Tuilagi 12. Hadley Parkes 11. Jonathan Joseph 10. Romain Ntamack 9. John Cooney 1. Rory Sutherland 2. Camile Chat 2. Kyle Sinckler 4. Maro Itoje 5. Will Rowlands 6. Courtney Lawes 7. Hamish Watson 8. Gregory Alldritt

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Bravo Danny Cipriani

As per my post earlier this week, Danny Cipriani has received plenty of stick from this blog over the years - some of it, possibly, deserved - some of it certainly less so.

But my cap is duly doffed to him for having the bravery to post a video on his instagram account in which he opens up about his own mental health issues as well as his feelings about the death of former girlfriend, Caroline Flack.

It's raw, it's emotional and it's brave, and the underlying message - the need to tell people when you are vulnerable and the need to  #bekind - is one from which we can all learn.

Chapeau Mr Cipriani, Chapeau.

Friday, 21 February 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 3 Predictions

Prediction time again.

I've fed all the relevant data into my computer-like brain and the printout reads as follows:

Italy v Scotland

I've heard it said that this is could be the most important game in Italian rugby history as they have to win to retain any credible claim to remain in the Six Nations. I'm not sure that's quite the case but for all sorts of reasons I'd like them to succeed. Sadly I'm afraid just can't see it happening. Italy will be better at home but still not good enough. Scotland by 12.

Wales v France

The wheels almost came off for France last time out against Italy when they started to believe they were better than they actually were. They'll be very competitive in Cardiff, no doubt, but I'm not convinced that they have the maturity yet to win a big game on the road. Wales to win by 9.

England v Ireland

Despite the fact that Ireland are showing some very decent form, I had England down to win narrowly on the the basis that the return to Twickenham would galvanise this England team and they should come flying out of the blocks. And then I saw the team selected by Eddie Jones, who appears to be taking a perverse pleasure in picking players out of position to make a point that no one quite gets. Sad to admit it, but Ireland by 9.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Mental Health: Time to take responsibility

The social media abuse suffered by Danny Cipriani following the recent suicide of his former girlfriend Caroline Flack is totally and utterly unacceptable.

Do people not stop to think what effect such abuse might have on someone who is feeling vulnerable? Do they not see the correlation between their actions and how they might impact their "victim's" mental health? Can they not grasp the fact that their behaviour could (and in Ms Flack's probably did) contribute to someone taking their own life?

Now, I realise that I need to be careful here - after all, I have given Danny Cipriani, amongst others, plenty of stick on this blog over the years. I would argue that such content was meant to be funny and irreverent rather than malicious - but I can see more and more how fine a line that distinction might be.

While I'm not egotistical enough to suppose that any rugby player of any note reads any of the drivel that I post, that's not really the point is it?

And so, time for a new leaf - whilst still prepared to call out iffy behaviour on and off the rugby pitch and, where appropriate, take the piss (because where would we be without it?), I will take care to ensure there will be no more personal stuff. 

And the first thing to go is the Total Flanker Hall of Wazzocks, which is gratuitous and unnecessary and is hereby deleted, along with any accompanying posts.

Just a start, but hopefully a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile kudos to Gloucester for looking after Cipriani and for making their next home game against Sale an event in support of mental health issues.

Monday, 17 February 2020

6N 2020 - England Half-Term Report

So here it is, nearly half way through this year's Six Nations and time for England's half term report.

Except that it is really quite difficult to begin passing judgement. Abject in Paris, there is no evidence whatsoever to draw on from the victory at Murrayfield given the appalling conditions, other than England won a game they really couldn't have afforded to lose and that, with backs to the wall, the players were gutsy, defiant and belligerent, with the back row all over the breakdown like a rash. So perhaps after all there is an inner steel to the team that was not particularly visible a week earlier in Paris.

Questions remain, however.

The jury is firmly out on England's attack. Hugely disjointed in Paris and (through necessity) non-existent in Edinburgh, one would hope that the extra week's training before the Ireland match at Twickenham will afford new attack coach Simon Amor the time to bed in his attacking philosophy. So I guess we'll have to wait and see whether England can again produce the type of attacking fluency shown against New Zealand in Japan.

And selection also remains something of an enigma, not least the well trodden arguments about not selecting a recognised No.8 and the lack of depth at scrum half which need no further airing here.

Which brings me to Eddie Jones.

It's been a strange and erratic performance from the England Head Coach so far this year. For me his actions do not suggest a man who is necessarily committed for the next four year cycle. If, as he said after the World Cup in Japan, he really wanted to build new team, he's going about it a very odd way. 

Having recently read Jones' autobiography, it is clear that he seriously regretted staying on as Australia's head coach following defeat in the 2003 World Cup Final. Which makes me wonder as to his current state of mind and whether he has any desire to stay beyond 2021.

Or, perhaps, this is all just a symptom of an inevitable post-RWC hangover?

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

RFU dish out dose of reality

I do understand why Championship clubs are upset at the decision by the RFU to slash its funding to the Championship by some 50%. It must have come as a shock for many.

It is being suggested by some that the RFU are showing contempt for the Championship, that as a result of the funding cuts the league could be reduced to amateur status in two or three years and that effectively what this does is hand the Premiership ring-fencing by default.

I don’t disagree with any of that – but in reality something like this had to happen.

The Championship has for some years been something of a basket-case, with players being underpaid and inadequately insured by clubs on the brink of financial collapse.

Simply, and as I have said often enough, there has never been enough money in English rugby to sustain 2 fully professional leagues of 12 teams.

This day was therefore always going to come and all it really amounts to is a huge slice of reality – both for clubs who have been struggling to make ends meet and for players who were never really being paid enough to make a proper living anyway. There is no shame in having to revert to amateur status.

And for those few clubs who are, in fact, adequately and properly funded – I would hope that a place at the top table remains a possibility – and it is incumbent on the RFU and Premiership Rugby to make it so.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 2 Verdict

A mixed bag from round 2 of this year's Six Nations where the star of the show was undoubtedly Storm Ciara and where the TF predictions went slightly awry to say the least.

We started the weekend in Dublin where Wales - and Nick Tompkins in particular - gained a much better understanding of how they rank in international rugby terms than afforded to them by Italy last week. Ireland were much improved from their efforts against Scotland and now must test their mettle away from Landsdowne Road with an intriguing trip to Twickenham up next.

Storm Ciara was in full swing by the time we reached Murrayfield, with conditions virtually unplayable. Ultimately England won simply by making fewer mistakes than the Scots, although in the second half, when 4 kicks in succession sailed straight out, I did begin to wonder whether Eddie had a tenner on a Scotland victory. Nevertheless, a win is a win, but why so angry afterwards?

Finally to Paris on Sunday and much better conditions. France were sensational for the first quarter, then less than ordinary for most of the remainder of the game. Italy showed so much more than last week against Wales but still couldn't nail the important moments and the result was never really in doubt. France travel to Cardiff next and will need to improve dramatically.

TF Team of the week:

15. Jordan Larmour 14. Andrew Conway 13. Robbie Henshaw 12. Hadleigh Parkes 11. Matteo Minnozzi 10. Jonathan Sexton 9. Antoine Dupont 1. Ellis Genge 2. Julien Marchand 3. Tadgh Furlong 4. Dean Budd 5. George Kruis 6. CJ Stander 7. Sam Underhill 8. Gregory Alldritt

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 2 Predictions

The big question this week is whether Total Flanker can continue his hot prediction streak after a storming performance in Round 1.

Seriously, I doubt it.


Ireland v Wales
Really tough one to call -  Ireland had to hang on a bit against the Scots whilst Wales barely broke stride against Italy. Conditions are likely to be awful and I'm tempted to go for a draw but I think Wales might just have the nous to nick this by 3-6 points.

Scotland v England
Again, weather conditions are likely to be terrible but it's hard to know who this favours. Perceived wisdom is that this is the Scottish backs against the English pack but I wouldn't be so sure. I'm going for a narrow English win, but I say that with no confidence whatsoever.

France v Italy
I fear for Italy. France will have bags of confidence after last week's win and this could turn out to be a massacre. France by 30+

Friday, 7 February 2020

Nice touch from Joe Marler

I've decided, for the most part, to reserve judgement on England's start to this year's Six Nations until after Saturday's encounter at Murrayfield. Suffice to say that the team selected by Eddie Jones to play the Scots, whilst an improvement on the side he fielded in Paris, still doesn't fill me with huge confidence.

One man unlucky to lose his place in the team (being one of England's better performers against the French) is Joe Marler who, it is reported, sought out his opposition prop - debutante Mohamed Haouas - after the game to give him his England shirt, refusing to accept the offer of a swap from Haouas, telling him: “It’s the jersey from your first cap, you shouldn’t swap it or give it to anyone.”

Nice touch, Joe - very classy.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 1 Verdict

So, let's get one thing out of the way - other than me overestimating the capabilities of the Italians, my predictions for the first weekend of the Six Nations 2020 were pretty much spot on. Bully for me!

Not that I'm happy - particularly following England's abject performance in Paris. Best rugby team of all time? My arse.

The French were pretty good - Antoine Dupont in particular - and they defended in the way you'd expect a Shaun Edwards-coached team to defend, but they didn't really have to be all that good given England's extraordinarily high error count. England were, well, brutal.

And whatever justification Eddie Jones comes out with for his selections, it's bullshit. He got it badly wrong, will never admit it and is likely to rinse and repeat at Murrayfield on Saturday.

Turning to Dublin, it is clear that Andy Farrell is encouraging the Irish team to play in a less restricted manner, but they were quite fortunate to escape with a narrow win against a Scotland side that ,for the most part, were very good but lacked the composure and, crucially, the pace to take their opportunities. Plus ca change.

And finally to Cardiff, where Wales just efficiently got on with the Gatland to Pivac transition with little fuss and with no noticeable opposition from Italy, who looked solid in the scrum, had a few nice moments, but were unable to go more than a few phases without committing a howler and/or giving away possession. And in Josh Adams and Nick Tompkins the Welsh now have two seriously good finishers.

TF Team of the Week:
15. Anthony Bouthier 14. Jonny May 13. Nick Tompkins 12. Gael Fickou 11. Josh Adams 10. Dan Biggar 9. Antoine Dupont 1. Rory Sutherland 2. Ken Owens 3. Giosue Zilocchi 4. Iain Henderson 5.  Johnny Gray 6. CJ Stander 7. Charles Ollivon 8. Gregory Alldritt

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Six Nations 2020 - Round 1 Predictions

It's that time of year again as I gaze into my Six Nations crystal ball ahead of the weekend's action and make a complete and utter horlicks of predicting the results:

Wales v Italy

If I was Franco Smith I would be targeting this one as a possible upset. I can see the Italians giving it a right go but coming up just short. Wales by 6.

Ireland v Scotland

Ireland start favourites, no doubt, but Scotland surely can't be as bad as they were in the equivalent fixture in the World Cup pool stage. Ireland to edge this one but not by many.

France v England

Unconvinced by England's preparations and selections for this one and fear they'll be a million miles from the form showed against New Zealand in Japan. A young French side to win this by 5-10 points.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Erm...George Who?

Congrats to Northampton's George Furbank who will win his first cap at fullback for England vs France on Sunday.
For many, however, it is a case of "George who?" - Furbank having not featured previously for England at age-group level, having only made 29 first team appearances for the Saints and having only really risen to prominence this season.
It's a very unEddie-like selection - Jones being, despite his unothodox maverick image, actually quite conservative when picking an England team is concerned. 
Having said that, the selection of Charlie Ewels ahead of George Kruis, selecting Tom Curry at number 8 and leaving Mako Vunipola out of the match day squad altogether does suggest that Jones is prepared to gamble...

Thursday, 30 January 2020

A look ahead to the Six Nations 2020...

What with the Rugby World Cup having only just concluded (or that's how it seems to me) and with one or two other matters dominating the rugby headlines of late, the 2020 Six Nations appears to have caught me slightly unawares, having snuck up on me somewhat, like a sneaky ninja blindside flanker ready to charge down my ridiculously telegraphed box kick.

And yet here we are, about to embark on another seven weeks of Northern Hemisphere international action and, with four of the six participating teams featuring brand new coaching teams, who knows what lies ahead?

Still, it remains incumbent upon me to at least try to make sense of what is ahead, so what follows is my utterly objective and fair analysis (of course) of what we might expect to see over the coming weeks.

In no particular order:

With Warren Gatland now gone, I am intrigued to see how Wayne Pivac's new Wales team will perform. Will Warrenball - taken to extremes by Wales in the World Cup Semi Final - be consigned to history to be replaced by the free flowing style favoured by Pivac at the Scarlets? Or will the Welsh players revert to type? Tough away trips to Dublin and Twickenham mean that it is highly unlikely that Wales will manage to repeat last year's Grand Slam, so the three home fixtures vs Italy, France and Scotland will be critical. If I was a Welsh rugby fan - which i'm not - talk of George North being re-assigned to the number 13 shirt would worry me, but it will be great to see Toby Faletau back playing at international level.

One of only two teams to have retained their head coach post-World Cup, although I would imagine that Gregor Townsend must be skating on slightly thin ice after his team failed to make it out of the group stages in Japan. His fall out with fly half Finn Russell will almost certainly hang over Townsend and this Scotland campaign but a win in the opening fixture vs Ireland will go some way to vindicating the head coach and cementing his authority. Lose and play badly, however, and the knives will begin to be sharpened. Realistically Scotland can beat any of the other teams on their day, but are maddeningly inconsistent, veering from awful to sublime (and on occasion in the same match as witnessed at Twickenham last March). Still, I'm confident that they will fancy their chances of another Calcutta Cup win at Murrayfield this year.

A new coach (Franco Smith) and new captain (Luca Bigi) for Italy but prospects remain the same as ever as it is expected that the Italians will once again claim the unwanted prize of the Wooden Spoon. It will an unusual championship for Italy, with legend Sergio Parisse not involved for most of this Six Nations but set to return to the team for a farewell performance in the final game against England. That in itself is a strange call and possibly a huge distraction, but Italy do have to move on from the great man at some stage and, whilst unorthodox, this is one way of doing it. Italy start against Wales in Cardiff as massive underdogs and deservedly so. Best hope for a victory is probably at home to Scotland.

Nineteen new caps in the French training squad means that the phrase "You never know which France will turn up" is as true as it ever was. With new head coach Fabien Galthie in charge it impossible to know what to expect, other than it looks as if he will give youth a chance and - with France having won the last two World U20 Championships - it is clear that there is talent available in abundance. I would be surprised if youth and talent alone will be enough triumph over age and treachery to win this year's Six Nations but, as part of long-term planning for the World Cup in 2023, I have to say Galthie's selection policy makes a certain sense. And you never know - victory in the opening fixture at home to England could just generate the confidence and momentum that sees the French spring a major surprise.

Another team with a new man in charge - step forward Andy Farrell. There is no doubt that 2019 was massively disappointing for Ireland - 12 months ago many had the Irish down as potential World Cup winners. What followed was a poor Six Nations followed by an even worse World Cup, defeat to Japan in the group stages being the pre-cursor to a thumping at the hands of the All Blacks.  Farrell's challenge with this Irish team is now to attempt to remove the tactical straightjacket that appeared to restrict them under Joe Schmidt and allow some of their undoubted talent to flourish. If Ireland can reproduce some of the form shown by Leinster in Europe this season then they won't go far wrong but my instinct is that this might be a difficult tournament for the men in green.

If England fail to impress during this year's tournament Eddie Jones can justifiably turn to a number of excuses, including an almost inevitable hangover from losing to South Africa in the World Cup Final as well as the after-effects of the recent salarygate scandal on England's numerous Saracens players. The reality, however, is that there is no reason why England shouldn't be ale to reproduce the form that saw them see off Australia and New Zealand in successive weeks in Japan. If they can do that, then results will look after themselves. If their standards dip, however, as occurred under the intense pressure applied by the Springboks in the Final, then who knows? What seems clear is that Eddie Jones is willing to risk not refreshing the scrum half stock and not picking a recognised number 8 in the squad, thus challenging (intentionally or not) the England squad to win it the hard way.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Saracens - the last word (for now)

So, the Premiership rugby report into Saracens' salary cap breaches was finally released this week and leaves little doubt that Saracens did, at the very best, bend the rules as far as they could possibly go.

One can argue whether, technically, Nigel Wray's co-investments with certain players was a breach of the cap but, by not disclosing all such investments, it does very much look like as if the club were trying to pull the wool over PRL's eyes.

And there can be little doubt that paying over the odds for a slice of a leading player's image rights, or paying him via a related company for hospitality appearances, whilst at the same time paying him a salary below the going rate for a player of his stature, is a slam dunk case of trying to manipulate the salary cap rules.

The big question remaining for me, however, is why and how Saracens were able ultimately to opt for relegation as a punishment rather than being made to open their books for a full audit, an action which suggests that there is more to hide.

As far as I can see, the only way to draw a satisfactory line under the whole sorry saga is for a full, independent audit to occur. And not just for Saracens. For there to be true transparency this should apply to ALL Premiership clubs.

Without such an audit of the finances of all of the clubs there remains the suspicion that Saracens' main crime here was to be caught and that there remain plenty of financial skeletons lurking in various clubs' filing cabinets.

Such a comprehensive Premiership-wide audit will, of course, never happen as it would destroy the narrative that Saracens' success over the years has purely been as a consequence of financial doping and would also require turkeys voting for Christmas on an unprecedented scale.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Finn Russell drinks himself out of Six Nations?

It takes quite something to keep Saracens out of the headlines these days (more on that later) but Scotland's outside half Finn Russell has somehow managed it.

Russell appears to have fallen out spectacularly with Scotland coach Gregor Townsend after having, it's being reported, turned up at the Scottish training camp last Sunday evening and headed straight to the hotel bar to get on the lash!

Consequently Russell finds himself out of the Scotland squad for the opening fixture against Ireland next Saturday and, unless his relationship with Townsend can be repaired, possibly out of the entire Six Nations.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Saracens - time to bare all?

Woke up this morning to reports that, in another dramatic twist to the salary-gate scandal, Saracens now face automatic relegation from the Premiership in June unless they prove within a week that they will comply with the £7million salary cap this season.

Apparently Saracens were told at a Premiership Rugby meeting on Tuesday that unless they could prove compliance then they either had to hand back their titles won in the last three years or be relegated to the Championship at the end of the season, with the latter seeming the most likely outcome.

And all this without a single detail of the club's alleged breaches of the salary cap being made public.

It may well be that Sarries are completely bang to rights, but all this "behind closed-doors" stuff does neither the club or Premiership Rugby any favours.

If the reports are accurate and Saracens are to be relegated (which would potentially have cataclysmic consequences for the club, players, the Premiership and England Rugby) then surely it is imperative that a full disclosure of all of the facts surrounding the matter now occurs?

Thursday, 16 January 2020

International rugby eligibility rules are an ass

The selection of Nick Tompkins for the Wales Six Nations squad sits somewhat uncomfortably with me.

Whilst delighted for the player - the Sarries centre has been exceptional for the past couple of seasons and deserves his chance at international level - his selection for Wales just doesn’t feel quite right.

I say this both as an England rugby fan who is disappointed to lose a player of the ability of Tompkins to another country, and also as someone who thinks that the current eligibility rules are just plain daft.

Look, Tompkins is English, he’s come through the English system and played all his rugby in England and has represented England at both U20 and Saxons level - and yet by virtue of the fact that he has one Welsh grandparent he is somehow eligible to play for Wales? That's just nuts.

I know the argument - under the current eligibility rules he can be selected by Wales. Well, sorry, but the single grandparent rule is an ass.

And yes, I know that England have pulled a similar stunt in recent times with the selection of Brad Shields (although at least he had committed to join an English club), but that doesn’t make it any less farcical.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

If you can't beat 'em...

I'm loving the fact that England, having had their forwards routed by South Africa in the World Cup final, have just appointed Matt Proudfoot - who has coached the Springbok pack for the last 4 years - as the new England forwards coach.

A matter of "if you can't beat 'em, employ 'em!"

Big things are therefore expected of the England pack this Six Nations, not least at the lineout where Steve Borthwick - lineout geek extraordinaire - can now focus 100% in his new guise as skills coach.

I'm also encouraged by the appointment of national 7s coach Simon Amor as England's new attack coach. Having previously suggested Ben Ryan - who led Fiji to Olympic 7s glory - for the role, I'd say that Amor - who coached GB to a silver medal in Rio - is probably the next best choice.

Now, all we need is for Eddie to announce the England squad to get really excited...!

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Salarygate: the story that refuses to die

With Nigel Wray having stepped down, new Sarries CEO Edward has admitted that the club face a period of instability as they try to demonstrate beyond doubt that they are currently operating within the Premiership salary cap rules.

What seems obvious to most (but not, it seems to Premiership Rugby) is that it is becoming increasingly essential that full details of the salary cap breach judgment against Saracens are released. as, without such full disclosure and transparency, the matter is bound to rumble on, with advocates on both side of the argument left unsatisfied.

Likewise it would be useful to understand what audit procedures Premiership Rugby has in place to police the salary cap across the league if we are to rid ourselves of the suspicion that one club is being scapegoated here. Let's not forget that it was a Daily Mail investigation that ultimately led to Saracens being punished, and I'm not convinced that the integrity of our game should be reliant on the whim of a national newspaper editor.

Again, a little transparency wouldn't go amiss.