Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Promotion / Relegation

Yeah I know - not the most impressive of titles but this post is in response the news that London Welsh will be denied entry to the Premier League should they win their playoff final against Cornish Pirates.  As Cornish Pirates also don't meet the Premier League standards then it means Newcastle, who finished bottom of the league, are given a reprieve and are allowed to stay.

As good a team as they are they're not going up

Difficult to know where to start on this one - firstly, it's pretty harsh on London Welsh (and Cornish Pirates), secondly it begs the age old question of whether we should abandon the promotion / relegation system currently employed in the English league.

The case for is simple - look at Ireland and Wales, even Scotland these days.  Their club sides are all starting to excel on the European stage and their national teams (Ireland and Wales in particular) are tougher than ever to beat.  With no threat of relegation the teams in these countries can rest their star players in league games and roll them out for the big games.  It also means that the star performers are not playing as many games, reducing the risk of injury and meaning that they're even fresher for international matches.  I don't think it's any coincidence that Irish sides have won five Heineken Cups since 2006 and that both Wales and Ireland are consistently threats during the Six Nations and over the summer and autumn tests versus southern hemisphere opponents.

Leinster celebrating their 3rd Heineken Cup in four years

What the resting of stars also does is give new talent the chance to come in, play and shine and so they keep a production line of good young players coming through who are given the chance to gain experience at a high level.

As for the case against, well it limits the competition throughout the country.  There are many clubs in the Championship that are very good and given the chance could compete with some of the bigger clubs - just look at what Exeter have achieved over the last couple of years.  Losing the chance to be promoted would mean there's no real incentive for them to achieve.  Saying that, if when you do get promoted you're turned down because your stadium isn't good enough then what's the point anyway ??

This argument of course won't go down well with the die hard rugby fans out there - nor will it go down particularly well with the fans of the actual clubs involved.  However the bigger picture is that the bigger sides in Europe and the European competition itself is driving more interest and a successful international team gets more people interested in and playing the game which will benefit the game as a whole

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Here they go gathering cups in May!

Hot off the heels of attending the Heineken Cup here’s my view on the events that passed.  Ok, so not quite hot on the heels and yes it has taken me a couple of days to get into a place where I can a) recall most of what went on and b) be able to type about that (more on that later).

So the day kicked off as you’d expect it to – on the train and then piling into a pub in Twickenham, along with the rest of Dublin and Belfast it felt!

The Irish taking over Twickenham High St

Once we made it to the stadium and up high in the gods to our seats we settled in to watch a decent game of rugby.  I was pleased to see both O’Driscoll and RobKearney making it back into the team from injury – it was to be said that BoD’s ability to come back from the hospital bed will be stuff of legends come the future.  If you haven’t guessed by now I was behind Leinster for two reasons – 1) I used to live in Dublin so they would be my home team and 2) the mad Irishman I was with (Ste) is a passionate Leinster fan and should Leinster win then I wouldn’t be able to take the jokes and barbs that would come my way following the win and if they didn’t win I’m not sure I could take his miserable face for the rest of the day.

Our view for the final - not bad!

So the game itself – a lively affair.  Was pleased to see that Ulster were keen to fling the ball around a fair bit.  They started very well and my friend to my right was getting a little nervy when they took an early 3-0 lead.  Ruan Pienaar not “Ruan-ing” that particular kick – a running poor joke that lasted the full 80 minutes and yet still reduced us to fits of giggles! 

Leinster soon hit back though with a try Sean O’Brien that showed the power that Leinster can now play with to go along with their finesse.  A back handed pass come offload from O’Driscoll (that epitomised the wonderful skill set he’s developed over his career and then) to O’Brien who then charged through the Ulster defence towards the try line started off the second try.   Cian ‘baby rhino’ Healy then trundled over the line to give Leinster a 14-3 lead, soon reduced to 14-6 just before half time with a monster penalty from Pienaar that made me wonder if Twickenham had suddenly been transported to the high veldt and they were actually playing at altitude!

Cian Healy's alter-ego

By this time the queue at the bar was long but we were thirsty however once at the head of the queue we were met with a “we don’t have Heineken on tap” anymore, they only had bottles where the money to beer ratio wasn’t as good.  So off we trundled to the next bar only to be met with “we don’t have any Heineken.  At all”.  Panic set in.  By now the second half was just about to start so we made the decision to forego beer and head back to the match.

Leinster scored a penalty try early in the second half when Ulster bought down an impressive rolling maul.  Leinster were really starting to bully Ulster out of the match.  Their scramble defence was epic, though there were times when the decision to run rather than pass by Ulster made the job a little easier.  They did get back in the match with a try Dan Tuohy which was when I made the fateful decision to find beer.  It was needed.

I had to go all the way back down to ground level and buy the last six bottles of Heineken from a vendor with a cool box on his back.  And then semi-sprinted up a seemingly endless spiral of stairs to get back to our seats with numerous people congratulating me on the way for going all out for the beer.  I was met at our seats with a greatful hug from Ste and many a pat on the back from numerous beer/rugby fans around me.  There may have been heroes down on the pitch but up in block U15, I was the man!

·         After the Ulster try, Leinster went on to nail their name back on the trophy with a try each from Van der Merwe and Cronin after good build up work for both.  Ulster’s defence was simply nowhere near the level of Leinster’s and it was great pomp and ceremony that Leinster were once again crowned champions of Europe.  And they deserve it.  The talk afterwards was of dynasties and wanting more trophies and even when O’Driscoll’s body does finally say enough is enough you can still see throughout the side, enough young talent to see them to more glory days.  Compare that to their kin down in Munster and you have to worry for the boys from Limerick.

Leinster parading the trophy around HQ

·          We stayed in Twickenham soaking up the atmosphere but not the Heineken as once again the stocks were depleted.  Note to the ERC and Heineken – when hosting the Heineken Cup final, be sure to bring enough Heineken, or if you don’t have enough ensure there’s a backup lager!

Later on we watched Chelsea’s amateur dramatic team pick up some other European trophy before heading for home, a sing along on the train, a rugby tackle gone wrong (my shoulder is still buggered but at least I can now type), a kebab and one or two more beers!

A good time had by all.  Next year it’s back to Dublinand the Aviva and it would only be right for Leinster to win it on home soil.  On this type of form and this level of confidence flowing through them who wouldn’t back them?

Tuesday, 15 May 2012


I'm back!  Been a while hasn't it!  This post is based upon something I saw on Sunday whilst watching the climax to the Premier League (football that is!).  It was pretty exciting, probably one of the best endings to a season I've seen in a long time.  Whilst flicking between the two key matches and keeping an eye on the buzz on Twitter I saw this:

For those of you that don't know, Sonja is a sports journalist for BBC Radio 5 and will also be on Channel 4 for their coverage of the Paralympics.  She's well respected and I follow her because usually her view on things is normally pretty good.

Now granted - there's no clear definition as to what she's actually comparing the football to, and I'll caveat this whole article based on me maybe jumping the gun the little.  So I've presumed that she's comparing the end of the football league to that of the rugby Premier League and maybe having a pop at the playoffs and how it's maybe anti-climactic.  If I have made one presumption too many then Sonja, I apologise!

So whilst Sunday's action was devilishly exciting and had me off my seat screaming "OH MY GOD!", and in general it has been a very entertaining season.  It was but one season in many that has been that exciting.  Recent history shows that the football league has been decided BEFORE the last game of the season.  So this would be a bit of a one off.

Utd players looking a little upset about their swing in fortunes!

Now, on Saturday I had the pleasure of watching (mainly from behind a cushion) a thrilling, intense, exciting game of rugby which was the Quins v Northampton semi-final playoff.  From what I hear the Leicester v Sarries match was equally enthralling with Leicester keen to exert a measure of revenge.  Next up Leicester v Quins in the final, at Twickenham in front of a bumper crowd sounds like a pretty exciting affair - especially given the last meeting between the two sides.

Quins players at the final whistle versus Northampton - was that game not exciting enough ?

What I struggle to see is how Sonja could not find this exciting?  And we get this more or less every year - not once every so often where a team who have shelled out hundreds of millions in transfer fee's and salaries have failed to take advantage of their financial muscle (another slight at the footballing world!).

Lastly, it would be a little unfair to simply just have a league system as it punishes those teams that supply a lot of international players during the autumn tests and six nations competitions.  Take Leicester for example who earlier in the season were closer to the bottom then they were the top of the league, no easy ride for them to finish in the top four.  With four "winning" places up for grabs rather than one it also ensures that more teams stand a chance of gaining a place and thus making the last few games of the league equally exciting.

There - rant over.  I'm back!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Cheerio Jonny

I don't think it would be right not to comment on the passing of an icon from the international stage.  Jonny Wilkinson announced his retirement yesterday and the rugby community (the English one mostly) mourned his passing from test rugby.  It’s probably the perfect time to make an exit as it’s highly unlikely he’ll make it to another world cup and the England team needs to rebuild their team around a core of players who will be there at 2015.  For Jonny, who had to be convinced to go to New Zealand anyway it’ll probably be a relief and allow him to focus on playing for Toulon.

I finished reading his book a couple of weeks ago, and whilst I knew about his personal demons so to speak I was shocked by the levels that he plunged to - though not entirely surprised.  As a nation through the early part of the century we came to rely on Jonny as a points machine that kept the English rugby machine ticking over and winning countless of matches.  No doubt the pressure of expectation was enormous but no more so than his own drive for perfection in everything he did on the rugby field; to be the best kicker, the best passer, the best tackler and so on.

We will all have fond memories of that ugly drop goal that he put over against Australia in November 2003.  It was the climax to a lifetime of practice, endless hours of training and countless hours spent preparing himself mentally - sometimes to the detriment of his own psychological state.

Of course first and foremost everyone remembers his kicking.  The general rule for playing England between 2000 and 2003 was if you gave away a penalty in your own half then you were likely to be punished with three points.  Such was he confidence we all had in his ability that during one of his many international comebacks I noted to a friend that having Jonny on the pitch was like have a warm safety blanket and that every time a penalty was awarded you just had to watch and wait for the flags to go up in the comfort of that blanket that was Jonny!  It was perhaps why there was such shock that his kicking was a bit "off" during the last world cup!
The English safety blanket!

His tackling earlier in his career was something else.  Lewis Moody describes his first encounter with Jonny at Under-21 level as wanting to take on the young guy and teaching him a thing or two about rugby, only to be knocked backwards on first impact by Wilkinson's 100% committed impactful tackle!  In terms of tackling, Jonny revolutionized the fly half position and made it a position that oppositions couldn't target to run over when taking on England.  It was also undoubtedly Jonny's undoing in terms of the countless injuries that he suffered, coupled with the inability to rest and always wanting to better himself!

Off the pitch he epitomized everything you'd want from a professional sports personality.  He was committed to training and would do more than most once you take into account his kicking practice.  He rarely drank during his international career – of course there was the odd celebratory drink but it was by no means regular.  He was never caught in any dodgy compromising positions – certainly no dwarf tossing competitions!  All this would lead you to believe he was boring – I don’t really care, like Paul Scholes, he was an amazingly talented professional who just enjoyed his job and was grateful for the opportunity his talent gave him.

This has all been pretty one sided so far – so what of the things he wasn’t so good at??  Well he was never a great runner of the ball.  In his book he talks of when he first trained with Jason Robinson and how he went back to training wanting to improve his step and his speed.  He never really got to Jason’s ability (but then who could?) but he was determined to do everything he could to try!  Game management was also never as strong as some of his other fly half counterparts.  Looking at the course of his career – Jonny always played best when he had another organizer beside him – Will Greenwood or Mike Catt for example.


So, was he the best fly half ever to grace the rugby pitch?  Tough question and probably one worthy of a whole other blog entry!  I can’t think of anyone else I’d want at 10, but then I’m thoroughly biased!  No doubt friends in Ireland would call for O’Gara, in New Zealand the calls would be for Carter or Grant Fox and the Welsh might call for Barry John or Phil Bennett.  All I know was that it was it was great to see him play and he’ll always be remembered fondly (mainly by the English!).

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The hard man of French rugby!

It's probably done the rounds by now - but has everyone caught the video clip of French back row forward, Imanol Harinordoquy's Dad running onto the pitch during a match to defend his son who had got himself into a brawl ??

Obviously I don't condone family members or fans invading the pitch and starting a fight but this did make me chuckle.

For anyone not familiar with the incident it occured in the 6th minute of the match between Biarritz and Bayonne - normally a hotly contested match at any time made more so by the punch up.  The 'ever innocent' Harinordoquy had gotten himself into a little scuffle and a few punchs were flying.  All of a sudden out of nowhere, Papa comes running on to defend his son's honour.  In no time at all Papa is knocked to the floor by an apposing Bayonne player before someone else drags him off the pitch.

My thinking is that Mr H may have consumed one or two too many glasses of rouge before the game and was a little too eager to join in with the fun!  Or maybe, like most parents in the world he still see's his 6 foot 3 baby boy as someone that still needs his protectiom - "never fear son, Daddy's here!!"

For those of you that haven't seen it there's a short video below:

I can only imagine the level of banter in the dressing room and the bar at the end of the match!!

Thursday, 24 November 2011

What's next ?

Well it’s only right that I should comment on the whole England manager fiasco, so here goes:

Did Johnson make the right decision in quitting?

Yes I think he did.  I agree with Sir Clive though when he said Johnson wasn’t supported enough from above.  Johnson knew that the RWC campaign hadn’t gone well (to say the least) and being the man that he is has accepted responsibility for it and fallen on his sword.  If only more would do that!  He’ll obviously maintain his position in the game as one of the best players and captains but his coaching reputation probably has some work to do and he might be best served to get some more experience further down the food chain.

Cheerio Johno!

Should others follow?

Undoubtedly yes!  Rob Andrew first and foremost –he’s had his role across the tenure of three head coaches and none of them have come out with anything to really smile about.  He’s the one ultimately that picked the last two coaches and as such with little to show for it should too depart and give someone else a go at the role!  For some reason last week during the press conference he seemed to shrug off any responsibility on his part for the world cup failure and that of elite rugby in England during his tenure.  If he’s not responsible for that then what is he responsible for?
He's got his coat already......

 John Wells and Mike Ford have been in their positions for what seems like an age.  England’s defense on the whole during the RWC was at times pretty good but I don’t think I’ve sat through a game without thinking that any moment the opposition could score!  The forwards have just never looked anything like their rivals in the breakdown and commit too many penalties.  You sit and wait for it just knowing it’s going to happen and only when the ref doesn’t blow is it a pleasant surprise.

The other two main coaches I feel deserve another crack of the whip.  The scrum has looked very good and has for a while and credit for that should go to Graham Rowntree.  As for attack coach Brian Smith, he’s undoubtedly talented and has the right idea – look at the six nations when England were scoring try’s – but I think he’s been hampered by the style that England choose to play.  Whoever the new head coach is they need to sit down with Brian Smith, figure out if their rugby philosophy is compatible and then make a decision from there.

So – who next?

Firstly, lets ensure that Rob Andrew doesn’t have a say in it as his track record hasn’t been too good!  Secondly, let’s make sure that everything at HQ is in order before a new appointment is made.  That means a new CEO in place and an idea of what direction England rugby should be moving in.  Once that’s all done then we’ll move on to who for the role.   So, who is that person?  Well so far everyone who’s anyone seems to be ruling themselves out!!

Before MJ was appointed Jake White was rumored to be interested in the role and the RFU probably missed a trick letting him slip through.  A man with a proven pedigree at winning competitions and building a strong team that can compete with the worlds best.  Jake has ruled himself out of the running.

Nick Mallet has now left Italy after a good record (for Italy) and was highly favoured for the role and was apparently approached soon after MJ signed himself off.  However he too has come out and said no it wouldn’t be him
How could we not love a face and features like those

 Graham Henry has followed suit in saying no thankyou.  Quite frankly I’m pretty pleased about that.  Yes he won the world cup with New Zealand but with their caliber of players then anyone half way decent should do that really!!  And yes he won the grand slam with Wales – this is probably a bigger achievement than the world cup.  However I can’t ever forget his man management skills (or lack of them) from the 2001 Lions tour to Australia – it doesn’t bode well and I think a lot of players would be nervous about reporting in to him.

Mr Miserable himself

 Jim Mallinder is another favourite to be appointed following his success at Northampton and I wouldn’t argue with this, but only on one condition.  That condition is that there is an “old hand” on board to help out.  Now naturally this would be a sort of Director role and at the moment that’s Rob Andrew who won’t do.  Mallinder will need a guiding hand from someone who has experience at an international level.  Ideally that person would be someone like Ian McGeechan – will the RFU employ a Scot?  Well a new one could, the current bunch of farts probably wouldn’t!

Jim pointing the way to the future ?!?
Following a 12 match unbeaten run Conor O’Shea also ruled himself out.  Probably for the best as lets face it – that run has come whilst some of the top teams had a lot of players away at the RWC.  Still, Quins have done the job in getting the wins and are playing a good quality of rugby with creativity in attack and a stern defence.
Could an Irishman lead England?
Eddie Jones is one of the few personalities to actually rule themselves IN for the running.  In terms of experience he certainly fits the bill having led Australia to the world cup final in 2003 and worked alongside Jake White in the South Africa team during their 2007 triumph.  His time at Saracens a while back wasn’t a massive success though and he never really did see eye to eye with the English press during his time at the helm of Australia – though at the time he was “the enemy”.  I don’t think he will get the job and I don’t think I’d be massively enamored if he did – but then England could do a lot worse.

Hmmmmm, not sure on this

Alas Sir Clive has also ruled himself out and I can’t really blame him!  He’s got the inside track on exactly what’s going on at RFU and I don’t think would go near the place with a barge pole if the current structure remains in place.

Which players can benefit from a change?

Obviously it depends on who comes in but there are some players in particular who can suddenly see the door reopened to them – the main one being Danny Cipriani.  Now yes, as a person he hasn’t been coming across that well over the last few years and there’s probably little argument about him not being in the squad.  However, one of the main criticisms of the world cup is that the team lacked attacking prowess and that the backline was never really let loose.  Cipriani has a talent to do something a little bit out of the ordinary that could pick the lock of the worlds defensive lines.  I liken him to Quade-Cooper in that way – he’s not your typical ball kicking fly half. 

Is Danny a comeback kid ?
With the end of the world cup ‘cycle’ there will be a natural churn in the England squad, as there is in all other international squads with certain players leaving the international scene.  Some of them we’ll probably be pleased to see go (Mike Tindall for instance) and some we’ll be sadder to see the back of (Nick Easter, Jonny Wilkinson maybe ?).  Naturally this opens the door to younger players but with a no coach on board some of the previous thoughts about those players may not be set in stone.  It gives the chance of players like Farrell at Saracens and Turner-Hall at Quins to really battle for a centre place for instance

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Why New Zealand might not win the world cup

So, we've reached the final.  As expected New Zealand are there and just like 1987 they're playing the French.  The French have been far from convincing in this world cup - the fact that they're in the final is a surprise to match that of England reaching the final in 2007!

David Kirk kisses the trophy in 1987

Made to look pedestrian against New Zealand in the group stage, they went on to a shock loss against Tonga amid stories of discontentment amongst the camp.  In the quarter finals they got past a sluggish, poor English side who still nearly came back to take the win.  Then in the semi final they managed to beat a team, cruelly reduced to 14 men for a vast majority of the match by a mere point.  Lets face it, with better execution Wales probably should have won, irregardless of being a man down for an hour.

The challenge that pretty much gave France a passage into the Final

New Zealand meanwhile breezed through their group, eased past a dogged Argentina side and then strangled the life out of Australia in a semi-final they never looked like losing.

So, New Zealand all the way then - job done.  Even some bookmakers have already started paying out on New Zealand lifting the Webb-Ellis cup

Now before I start off this segment let it be known that I too can't really see anything but an All Black win.  But I wanted to be a little different so am going to look at why it could be the French lifting the cup come Sunday.

Let's start with the age old fact that New Zealand have choked in every tournament since 1987.  That's a lot of strangulation!  This is the biggest match since they've played since 1987, the weight of expectation is huge and with them being so overwhelming favourites it probably makes the weight even heavier.  So they could be prime to choke!

How apt!
The injuries have been mounting up - noticably to Dan Carter.  When he went down with a groin injury the whole of New Zealand started to play with those worry beads a little more, whilst the whole of the rest of the world were given a little more hope!  The lack of experience behind Dan Carter was suddenly exposed and all that pressure was heaped onto Colin Slade.  Slade did ok but at times looked a little like a rabbit in the headlights.  And then he too went down with a similar injury and suddenly they were down to their third string fly half!  Aaron Cruden will wear that famous number 10 jersey come the final.  Against Australia he looked alright and showed some flashes of brilliance - but this is a world cup final, a whole new ball game so to speak.

Apparently the great Ritchie McCaw is also injured.  Well he was superb against the Australians and if thats him injured then I'll take him in the England side any day of the week and twice on Sunday!

McCaw back to his best

Turning now to the French.  As I've said, they've been far from convincing, no one is backing them and everyone is saying they might as well not turn up.  Wouldn't it be typical of the French to turn up on Sunday and shock the world?  Within the squad they've got the skill set and the brute force to put up a challenge and had they not been so ordinary for the last few weeks then people would probably be saying that they'd stand a half decent chance.

Could they ?
As I said I don't see New Zealand losing this time, but there are reasons why they might.  If this was being played in any other country other than New Zealand then the doubts would probably be even bigger.  But if you're French - there is some hope!