Same old (Heineken) story, and Pragmatism>Beauty

For the third season in a row, Toulon, Clermont and Saracens are into the semi-finals if the European Cup. Leinster join them this year where Munster had joined them the two years previously, a total of five teams over three years.

During the three years previous to that, however, Ulster, Edinburgh, Clermont, Leinster, Saints, Perpignan, Toulouse, Biarritz and Munster had all appeared in the final four of the now defunct Heineken Cup.

So while the competition may have been streamlined and given a new name this season, it seems little has changed in terms of where the power lies on the pitch.

And looking back at the quarter-finals, one thing we learnt above all else – from three of the four results at least-is that when it comes to knockout rugby, it pays better to be powerful and clinical than daring and inaccurate. Leinster, Saracens and Toulon all came out on the right side of the result despite playing much less attacking rugby than their opponents. They won their games through the power and precision of their packs, and the boots of messrs Madigan, Bosch and Michalak respectively.

And this provides the answer to the main question that emerged from the helter-skelter final day of the Six Nations-namely, “why don’t teams play like this more often?”In the cold, hard world of knockout rugby, when winning is all that matters, it is more often than not the side that has the greater power-and therefore doesn’t need to chance its arm by flinging the ball around and making more errors-that will come out on top.

If teams don’t need to throw caution to the wind because they know they can win by battering the opposition and kicking the resulting penalties, they will do so.

Mike Miles

Jevans’ Departure – Does RFU no favours in PR stakes?

It’s not surprising that Debbie Jevans has decided to keep quiet her “personal reasons” for resigning as chief executive of the England World Cup 2015 organising committee because it has since been revealed that she is expecting a £150,000 pay-off. Her annual salary was said to be in the region of £250,000.

However, the Twickenham rumour mill has been working overtime with reasons for the Jevans walk-out, just six months before the tournament starts.

One reason touted is that the former director of sport for the London Olympics had a series of fall-outs with RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie. She already knew him as CEO of the All England Club, where Jevans is a committee member.

There are strong suggestions that Ritchie, in turn, was being pressured by the RFU management board, and the RFU committee (Will Carling’s 57 “old farts”) to make sure that the RFU bucket and spade brigade were being properly looked after by England World Cup 2015 in terms of hospitality and tickets.

So with Jevans refusing to ladle out the gravy to the RFU blazers, preferring instead to make sure World Rugby and her former Olympics operatives were catered for-especially in terms of recruiting a 200-strong RWC2015 staff contingent – the knives were out.

Word was leaked that the World Cup trophy tour was not up to scratch and that grass-roots clubs were not being involved sufficiently. Then it emerged that Ritchie was shocked by staffing levels at RWC2015, which he considered to be excessive.

Whatever the reasons, it does not reflect well on the RFU to get into a position where an administrator with Jevans’ successful track record in sports administration walks away from such an important position because of “intractable differences”.

Mike Miles

Do TV bosses need to be kept in line?

Warren Gatland has remarked that France and Ireland have opened the Six Nations against the two weakest teams, Italy and Scotland, with alarming frequency.

For the record: France 11 times in 15 seasons, and Ireland nine, compared to England (six) and Wales (just four).

The Wales coach noted that getting a good start is crucial, and questioned whether TV broadcasters were influencing the schedule. He added:” I don’t know if there should be a rota…some teams have obviously had easier starts on a regular basis than others.”

We all know that TV money makes the world go round, but isn’t it time for the rugby suits to stand up and be counted when it comes to representing the best interests of the sport.

There is a balance to be truck between a good commercial deal with broadcasters that helps to cement the foundations of the professional game, and kowtowing to their every demand for fear that they will take their money elsewhere. At the moment that balance is out of kilter, mainly because rugby’s committee men cannot bring themselves to say no to the television brokers.

For instance, the BBC should have been told that the last round of the Six Nations has to be played simultaneously because with a staggered schedule. The integrity of the tournament is devalued if the teams that play last know exactly what they have to do to win

England had that advantage this year, just as Ireland did in Paris last year, but however good the outcome for supporters and TV ratings, it is wrong.

Mike Miles

The World Cup countdown starts here..

World Cup Round Up

With the dust beginning to settle on the Six Nations, and every rugby fan and his dog having an opinion as to the make-up of their national side, it’s probably an appropriate time to take a stock-check as to  what has been happening off the pitch World Cup-wise.

Tickets: There was never likely to be a problem selling the vast majority of tickets for Britain’s biggest sporting event since the 2012 Olympics. In September’s ballot there were more than five million applications for the 950,000 which were ultimately snapped up, easily a Rugby World Cup record.

There were 650,000 applications for England’s Pool A clash with Australia, and 500,000 for the Twickenham final. However, other matches and venues have proved a much harder sell, particularly those in Leicester, a stronghold of English rugby, which has not responded well to Welford Road being snubbed as a venue or the quality of the three matches it has been offered. Tickets for all three matches at the King Power Stadium are still available, including some for £35 for Canada against Romania.

Doubt has also been cast on the wisdom of allowing Wales to virtually co-host the tournament, with half of the eight games at the Millennium Stadium still unsold, including Wales v Uruguay. France v Italy at Twickenham, Ireland v Romania at Wembley, and Samoa v Scotland at St. James’ Park also still boast availability.

Tens if not hundreds of thousands of tickets for other matches will also come online from the end of March through hand-backs from sponsors, and via the official face-value resale platform.

There is also the secondary market, although exploiting that avenue breaches ticketing terms and conditions and stadiums reserve the right to turn away anyone in possession of such a ticket. One for the final was recently available on a secondary site for £59,000 – more than 80 times face value.

Transport and Security: Ensuring the safety of those attending matches is the top priority of any tournament organiser. The Olympics proved Britain could manage that in an era of international terrorism, although World Cup chiefs will be determined to avoid a repeat of the security debacle which led to the armed forces being called in as cover pre-Games.

Security of organisers’ transport plans has focussed largely on Twickenham, where most of the group games will kick off at 8pm-an unusual time for a Test match there. Getting people to and from the stadium quickly has not been helped by legal challenges to plans to revamp Twickenham station, which will not be complete before the tournament.

However, getting home via rail has been made far easier during the past year; while there will be increased capacity to and from the station on World Cup match days. There will also be a post-match bus service into Waterloo direct from the stadium.

One of the biggest fusses was caused by the commandeering of car parks around the ground for hospitality tents, spelling the end of car-boot picnics next to the West Stand. There will instead be park-and-ride services from Whitton and Kempton Park. The A316 near the stadium will be partially closed on match days to allow for improved access.

National Engagement: World Rugby’s demand of an £80million fee for the right to stage the tournament meant organisers had no choice but to snub several traditional rugby grounds in favour of large-capacity football stadiums to generate the necessary revenue. It has also made for a southern-centric and London-centric event, with Twickenham, the Millennium Stadium, Wembley and the Olympic Stadium hosting more than half of the 48 matches between them.

Old Trafford pulling out of staging games hardly helped organisers fulfil their commitment to take the World Cup beyond its traditional heartlands. Only one match will be played in the north-West (England v Uruguay at the Etihad Stadium) with just five more at St James’ Park and Elland Road.

Fan zones will therefore be crucial in making people feel they are a key part of a nationwide festival of rugby. Visiting teams can also help enthuse communities in which they are based. Organisers are no doubt hoping the Trophy Tour, the UK leg of which begins on June 10, has the same galvanising effect on the country as the 2012 Torch Relay. The Webb Ellis Cup will travel the length and breadth of Great Britain ahead of the September 18 kick-off.

However, unlike the Olympics, the Rugby World Cup will have to compete with Premier League and Champions League football for attention.

Legacy: The Olympics proved that simply putting on a major event was no guarantee of a sporting legacy and the Rugby Football Union has even less excuse for failing to capitalise on the tournament to get more people playing, coaching and officiating. Concrete plans have long been in place and pre-tournament targets appear to be being met.

But getting those spectators who are experiencing the sport for the first time to stick with it will be another major challenge, particularly as many of those who have bought tickets would be classed as novices.

Rugby’s rules can be impenetrable even for the initiated but understanding the difference between “offside” and “going in from the side”, and even why these are offences is certain to bamboozle those trying to make sense of a game with a plethora of arcane rules and practices. Yet care must be taken not to insult the intelligence of those steeped in the game by going overboard in explaining the sport’s every nuance.

Mike Miles

Is English Rugby too London-centric?

The final weeks of the Six Nations Championship should be a celebration of all that is great about rugby union in the northern hemisphere. Instead, regardless of who wins the title the argument about precisely where the sport is heading, on and off the field, is intensifying. As we approach the 20th “anniversary” of professionalism, fresh battle lines are being drawn.

The Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, hit the nail squarely on the head when he raised the most important question of all: what kind of game do people want? “ If it is a sin to want to play rugby, and not just kick-chase and put pressure on the defence, then I think the game has a massive question to ask itself,” said O’Shea, echoing the view of the New Zealand coach, Steve Hansen, that modern rugby was in danger of becoming boring to watch.

With a World Cup looming this is not an ideal moment PR-wise, for the coach of the world’s best team to suggest spectators might prefer to bring along their knitting to the tournament this autumn. Ultimately, though, it is all part of a fundamental debate that has to happen. Now is the time to look beyond rugby’s vested interests and decide how the game can be improved for all in future, particularly those struggling on the sport’s geographical peripheries.

In domestic terms, Newcastle Falcons are a perfect case study. Their managing director, Mick Hogan, believes the capacity crowds filling Twickenham mask a range of uncomfortable issues. The World Cup will be washing up on the Geordie shore this autumn, but Hogan still reckons the rugby authorities in England are far too Twickenham-centric. “Every single England game, every major final, every sponsor launch and every meeting takes place in London. The sport is wider than just that. Imagine if you committed to taking one of the England games or major finals away from Twickenham. Imagine the impact that would have!”

Hogan even argues that the Rugby Football Union should hand over the development of the community game to people such as him, with years of experience of selling in a tough environment.

The RFU, as one might expect, sees things differently. It points out that it invests £30m annually in the grassroots game in England and argues that an increasingly difficult marketplace makes growing player numbers a big ask. Clubs of all sizes though will tell you times are getting tougher, full stop. Few would disagree with Hogan in at least one respect: “We’re now at a pivotal time for the sport, with the World Cup coming up and the game being professional for 20 years. How can we manage the ambitions of everyone?”

Which brings us back to Hansen and O’Shea. When the marketers and the game’s leading coaches are both singing from the same hymn sheet, it is short-sighted to ignore them. If the sport wishes to broaden its appeal significantly, simply doing things the way they have always been done is not the answer.

Mike Miles

Are You being turned on to Rugby by the Six Nations?

Virtually every day my email reminds me how few days remain until the World Cup, and proudly promises me the best World Cup ever. But on the evidence of the Six Nations so far it will take one hell of a leap of the imagination to believe that promise.

The Six Nations Championship is meant to be the shop window of European rugby union, the time for the casual rugby fan to pause and see if the product is one to catch the eye. And in a home World Cup year this is even more the case.

In my opinion the tournament is damaged goods. Those buying into rugby expect pace, excitement, some up-tempo sport – and tries… Instead the sport is relying on advertising and marketing to fool as many of the people for as much of the time as possible.

Perhaps the World Cup will be the biggest party, the best organised, and perhaps it will make the financial profits promised as the ad men flog the sport for all it is worth.

But the grim truth on the field is that the Six Nations is delivering some of the most static sport imaginable. Purists may have looked appreciatively at Ireland’s tactical mastery against England, but to this fan, putting my English rose to one side, there was nothing to entice me further into rugby’s tent to see what the sport has to offer.

Steve Hansen, the New Zealand Word Cup-winning coach, was in Europe a few weeks ago. He watched Wales’s 20-13 victory over France, and England’s 19-9 defeat by Ireland in Dublin. As a reward for the price of his air fare and match tickets Hansen saw three tries. He may have stopped short of asking for his money back, but in an interview with the Western Mail, the former Wales coach expressed his fears that spectators will be less likely to part with their money unless the game’s attacking talents are seen more often “I’ve actually got big concerns about the game at the moment, because there are not enough tries being scored, which is turning the fans away,” Hansen said.

There is seldom a time when rugby is not ruminating about some aspect or other of its arcane laws, but for a sport with ambitions of pushing back its participatory and geographical boundaries, Hansen’s words should strike a particularly harsh chord, with the World Cup only six months away.

“We are about to go into a showpiece for the game,” he said. “There are millions of people watching it and all you are going to see is people kick goals.”

Mike Miles

Wasps leave Adams Park in rude health

Michael Miles from reports on the final day of Premiership rugby at Adams Park.

It has never been easy to love Adams Park. It sits at the end of an industrial estate, a cul-de-sac of deserted office and factory space on a Sunday, a bunged-up traffic black-spot, forlorn, uninspiring, a far remove from a raucous bear-bit. And it’s not even in London!

Wasps have not been a London club for a decade, but nomads for some while now, and have made a virtue of it, the waifs and strays that banded together and took on the world to such good effect.

You do wonder if the move to Coventry will work. You imagine how desolate the 32,000 capacity Rioch might be on match day with the diehards rattling around inside. It will be a case of starting over. When Wasps moved to Loftus Road they struggled to attract gates of more than 5,000. They have never managed to attract more than a decent smattering of supporters at Adams Park, a ballpark figure of 6,000.(Today’s attendance was 5842). Leicester even managed to pull in 22,639 for the visit of Newcastle. They now not only need their current fans to remain loyal, which will be difficult enough with travelling costs rising and more time needed to get home matches, but to attract thousands of new ones . It will take time.

Meanwhile, there was a game to be played.

Today’s match against hitherto winless London Welsh was the club’s final Premiership fixture at Adams Park. The last game of all is a European rugby Champions Cup match-up against Castres in four weeks. For the record, today’s was Wasps’ 131st Premiership game at Adams Park, but only the second against London Welsh. (The first game there was in September 2002, a 38-35 win over Bristol)

The Exiles are rock bottom of the Premiership, having gleaned one point, conceded 36 tries and 272 points in their opening six games. Now make that 47 tries and 343 points. Nathan Hughes got the ball rolling with a try with just a minute gone before Johnson,Sailosi Tagicakibau and Hughes again made it 26-0 at half-time. Things got completely out of hand for Welsh in the second period as Wade and Johnson completed their hat tricks while Tom Varndell and Joe Simpson also touched down to make it 11 tries in total for the hosts. At least Wasps ended their Aviva Premiership Rugby tenure at Adams Park in style.

Ulster men slay the Dragons

It had been 15 years since I was in Belfast, and 15 years since Id visited Ravenhill. Back then the great London Wasps side, at the time the only professional rugby side playing in the capital, came to Northern Ireland to take on European Champions in their almost impregnable fortress.

Wasps came, saw and conquered, running out 19-6 winners. This was a team of champions in waiting, with players such as Lewsey, Shaw, Worsley and of course Dallagio who would all go on to win every honour in the game for club and country.

That was then but this is now. Ravenhill is now The Kingspan Stadium, an impressive modern 18,000 capacity stadium that is the envy not only of the traditional football clubs in the city but also the Irish Football Association who are still trying to fund the redevelopment of the out-dated Windsor Park just a few miles to the west.

Rugby has followed the route of football though in the marketing, commercialisation and the reliance on TV money. No longer do the players rush from work to training, or the clubs have to rely on handouts to make ends meet. One look around the Kingspan stadium tells the story. Corporate boxes, state of the art media facilities and security guards ensuring that none of the fans got too close to the precious players.

Since the European Cup win in May 1999, life has been tough going for Ulster. That win over Colomiers, in a season when the teams from England boycotted the tournament, spurred the provinces of Leinster and Munster into action, who have both redeveloped magnificent playing arenas and gone onto European success themselves, winning five out of the last nine tournaments.

The creation of the Pro12 tournament, with the best provincial teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy has allowed the clubs to spar with each other, with the objective of being better prepared for the main European competitions. Unfortunately money is still the deciding factor in European glory as underlined last week by Ulster’s defeat to Toulon, one of the “richest” clubs in the game today.

Tonight, with the rain and the wind slapping everyone in the face, Newport and Gwent Dragons were the visitors to Belfast. The cathedral of Northern Irish rugby was bouncing, the Ulster Men in fine voice.

After a brief delay due to a “technical problem with the broadcast partner’s feed” kick off was delayed by 5 minutes (who said the game is run by TV companies now eh?), Ulster came out of the blocks strongly, putting the Welsh team on the back foot.

In football if a team is under pressure they will try to retain possession as much as they can. In rugby you kick the ball as far as you can to buy yourself some time. On a wet and windy night trying to pass the ball was suicidal but that’s what the Dragons tried to do. The surprise wasn’t that they failed with that strategy but rather it took over 30 minutes for Ulster to take advantage of the errors. But then 11 points in ten minutes including the opening try from the overlapping Full Back Simon Olding gave the score line at half time a fair reflection of the dominance of the Ulster Men.

The only real difference in the second period was that the rain abated. Ulster continued to press and were rewarded with further tries by Olding again and Fitzpatrick in the dying seconds of the game to make the final score 23-6 and move them to third in the Pro12 League Table and more importantly prepared for the back-to-back games against The Scarlets in a few weeks in the European Cup.

Sharks lose their bite to Saints

Northampton Saints 43 Sale Sharks 10 – Franklin Gardens – Saturday 11th October 2014
You can buy success but you cannot buy heart and soul. Franklin’s Gardens has always been a wonderful place to watch rugby. The trappings of professionalism, the big money, the importing of foreign talent. Be it George North from across the Welsh border, or the Pisi Brothers, Samoans via New Zealand, they have not frayed the umbilical cord that attaches the Saints players to the community. The bottom line matters but so too does the shirt.

Northampton Saints are probably unique among professional sports clubs in that they have made a profit every year since 2000.The ground has a capacity of 13,591 and is widely considered one of the best club stadiums in British rugby. Quite rightly in my opinion, even if a pint of Tetleys is a London-beating £5.00.

At the end of a week when Wasps announced a move a 100 miles away to Coventry, it is fitting to salute the Saints’ firm foundations. The Gardens, originally known as Melbourne Gardens, were created by John Collier, and after his death in 1886 they were bought by John Franklin, a local hotelier, who renamed them Franklin’s Gardens the following year. The Saints moved there in the late 1880’s.

During the 1990’s a raft of temporary stands increased the capacity to 10,000. Then the stadium underwent a complete re-build in the early 2000’s. The Tetley’s and South stands were opened formally by Ian McGeechan with the horseshoe stadium completed in the summer of 2002 with the building of the Church’s Stand.

The final part of the jigsaw is for a new North Stand, to replace the current Sturidge Pavilion. This would take the capacity up to 17,000.

Northampton have also shown how to get things right on the field. The defending champions sealed their place at the top of the Aviva Premiership with what proved to be a comfortable win over toothless Sale Sharks, who have not won at Franklin’s Gardens since May 2006, and showed no signs of doing so here. With Stephen Myler and Danny Cipriani competing to pull on the England No 10 shirt next month a battle of the fly-halves loomed, but it was Northampton’s American no 8, Samu Manoa, who grabbed the headlines with three of the Saints’ six tries. Sale did batter the home line a few times but they lacked the composure to keep the ball safe for long enough to seriously trouble the meanest defence in the league for the first hour. Ironically their solitary try was probably the best scored in the match.

Apparently, Sale’s Director of Rugby, Steve Diamond, left the ground early, and was “too angry” to attend the post-match inquest. You couldn’t blame him…

Mike Miles

Saracens deliver ultimate insult to Quins

Harlequins 0 Saracens 39 – The Stoop – Friday 12th September 2014 by Mike Miles from

In their preview of the 2014/15 Premiership season, the magazine “Rugby World” wrote of Harlequins:”Their positive play will never see them truly smashed”. The writer may now be having second thoughts.

But to draw conclusions only two league games into the season might seem preposterous, either to nominate Saracens to run away with the league, or to fear that Quins might struggle to rise above mid-table. But any more games like I witnessed at the Stoop on Friday night and we might have to re-consider those thoughts. It is almost unknown for two serious aspirants to the Premiership title to finish as far apart as did Harlequins and Saracens on Friday.

It was savage. Harlequins were obliterated. Conor O’Shea’s team failed to score a point in an Aviva Premiership match for the first time since 2009.Saracens won by the unbelievable score of 39-0 and were awesome, up front and in defence. Even when the match was still nominally in the balance Sarries held out with ease against six frantic attempts from Quins to drive over from short range. One of the late Saracens tries came about because a sustained Harlequins move died a lingering death under the pressure of their wolf pack defence. Even when Saracens had men yellow-carded on two occasions they still managed to score.

Saracens will be sanguine. If one game does not in the end set the pattern for their season, then it was a heck of a one-off. Harlequins on the other hand will be anxious. Professional teams traditionally use a poor performance as a basis for a bounce-back. But Quins had already given a poor performance in the previous match against London Irish. Friday was presumably meant to be the bounce back.

There were omens. Harlequins’ only victory over Saracens in their last eleven fixtures since 2009 was 24-19 at Wembley back in March 2012. Saracens have won on six of their last seven visits to The Stoop. Now make that seven.

Mike Brown, the Harlequins full back, had stoked the fires before kick-off, describing this as their biggest “grudge match”. Bu the feisty full back was made to eat his words and they will have tasted bitter. Though to be fair to Brown, he was the only Harlequin to deliver a performance that remotely matched the passion and intensity he would have expected of his team mates. Had it not been for his two last-ditch tackles the scoreline would have hit 50.