Exiled

The bottom two places of the Pro12 are currently occupied by the Italian teams Zebre and Benetton Treviso. Treviso hasn’t won a single game in their last 26 attempts. The chances are Zebre will finish 11th this season in the Pro12, and yet that will still entitle them to a place in next year’s Champions Cup as the top-placed Italian team.

But this is not a discussion about the Champions Cup supposedly being for the top European sides. No, that can wait for another day. Except to say that until the Italian sides earn the right for a place in the Champions Cup through their Pro12 listing, they might gain more from playing in the Challenge Cup.

There have been stories circulating in the rugby press that London Scottish and London Welsh could join the Pro12. Both teams currently play in the Championship, though it must be said, neither looks like threatening to make it to this season’s play-offs.

Nevertheless, the supporter catchment area for these clubs is huge, based, as they both are, in south-west London, with the attendant commercial power there to be utilised. There are no Pro12 teams in the quarter-finals of this year’s Champions Cup, so if that competition is serious about making it back to Europe’s top table they need to be playing competitive rugby week in, week out, and not travelling halfway across Europe for what is essentially a training match.

Greater London is an enormous potential market, and with good transport links. For the Welsh regions it’s a couple of hours up the M4, and for the Irish and Scots a 60-minute hop by plane.

Attendances in Wales and Scotland, local derbies apart, continue to be disappointing. The Welsh have never really loved their regions, and the Scottish cities are football-dominated. Edinburgh v London Scottish would be a huge draw, as would Cardiff Blues v London Welsh. Such fixtures would be welcomed by fans, sponsors and broadcasters.
So by adding two London-based teams with a rich Celtic heritage the league will add to its audience significantly, while ushering in the possibility of some of the exiles currently playing in the Aviva Premiership.

Currently the Pro12 is a Celtic league, with a couple of Italian passengers hanging on by the fingertips. The Celtic league needs a boost from somewhere – a bit more Celticness might just provide that.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Bath see European dreams ended by Toulon

Take two of the more nakedly ambitious clubs, two of the more controversial owners/financiers, a liberal sprinkling of some of the most talked about players in European rugby…….If additional spice were needed, throw in Steve Meehan, a former head coach at the Rec but who now runs the Toulon attack. ….
And there’s never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal. His latest wheeze is that his club should leave the Top14 and move to the Aviva Premiership. English club owners were not slow in throwing cold water over that idea.

This game certainly had its attractions. A year ago Bath were on a high, about to qualify for the last eight of the European Champions Cup despite losing their first two group matches. But today they were playing only for third place in their pool, the so-called “group of death” in this year’s competition. Fellow premiership members Wasps were the team expected to struggle but after big wins against Leinster, Toulon and Bath they were the ones most likely to qualify. Toulon had to win today’s game to reach the quarter-finals.
Bath have not suddenly become a bad team but the confidence that bubbled last season has evaporated. That was clear last weekend when they timidly succumbed to a Leinster side that included only a sprinkling of regulars and a number of academy players. Bath supporters have been quick to give their opinions on why they think their side is not clicking. They range from Mike Ford isn’t a head coach, he’s an assistant; Farleigh Castle (Bath’s HQ and training facility) is too nice; George Ford can’t tackle; bringing in Sam Burgess was disruptive (even though he had returned to rugby league by the time this season kicked off); and that old chestnut, the players are paid too much money.
After Bath had lost away to Newcastle (who hadn’t won a league match), Mike Ford said he thought the players needed to look at themselves, obviously hoping to get a reaction. It worked (up to a point – they still lost) for the game in Toulon, but in the following match at Leinster Bath looked flat and lacking energy.

So Toulon knew exactly what they wanted from their final pool match, and with Bath playing for pride, a comfortable win by the current European champions seemed likely. In fact they had to dig hard and deep to subdue a brave and resourceful second-half performance from Bath that almost brought them a famous victory. But in the end, a rather lame start and a clear edge in power, especially up front, proved too much. That edge was epitomised by Steffon Armitage, the man England refuse to select, who once again gave a bull-like performance.
It was somehow typical of Bath’s season that the match was decided by one big mistake. A cross-field kick from right to left by Toulon’s Quade Cooper ran loose; David Denton grabbed it but then attempted a high, looped pass which fell into the grateful arms of Bryan Habana who was over the line in a flash.
In the end Toulon just about deserved the win and a quarter-final place, but at least it was close, and Bath deprived them of the bonus point win that would have seen them top the group. And then came news that Wasps had thrashed Leinster at the Ricoh Arena to put themselves top of the pile.

Despite their side having no chance of progressing Bath fans turned up in their numbers, which probably says a lot about the attraction of a team like Toulon. But there is more than a hint about the French side of a team, if not in decline, at least in the doldrums. They progressed to the quarter finals in much the same way as they have progressed throughout this year’s pool stages – incoherently but with enough muscle and know-how to get by. Perhaps it is little wonder that their owner is wanting to move to the Aviva Premiership….

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Why neuter the lions?

The rugby sports pages are currently dominated by new England coach Eddie Jones’s s potential choices for his first Six Nations squad. Fast forward 12 months and the journalistic chatter will centre around possible picks for the Lions squad to tour New Zealand in the summer of 2017.

World Cup winning New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has already stated his desire to stay on for the Lions tour. A number of his players have said they will back in New Zealand to meet the Lions after contracts overseas.

So what are the British rugby bodies doing to prepare for what everybody and his dog agrees will be a very tough tour. Perhaps it should be no surprise to learn that the chance of Lions success will be crucified because the players will only be released at the end of the European season when they will all have been battered to a pulp after a full domestic and international season. It seems no-one is prepared to move any part of the British or Irish season forward in order to give the Lions proper preparation.
As things currently stand, half the squad could easily be involved in domestic finals the weekend prior to the opening tour game If the Lions arrive in Auckland knackered even before they handle a ball it threatens to sour the whole glorious adventure.

I know rugby turns its nose up at any suggestion it might learn something from the running of the round ball game, but it is a fact that the European leagues have to finish a specified time before a major tournament such as a World Cup or European Championship. England still turn up knackered but that is the fault of their own league arrangements. Surely those who run world rugby could instigate a similar mandatory gap pre Lions tours.

And while we are having a go at the game’s administrators, it does not seem to have dawned on them that 2016 could be a key year for rugby union with the sport’s return to the Olympic fold in Rio. The seven-a side version may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it represents a massive opportunity to expand the sport’s worldwide appeal.
Yet the Great Britain squad appears to be entangled in the same red tape as the Lions. The leading Premiership and Pro12 players will be otherwise engaged until May and all the home unions have overseas tours in June. This sad affair focuses further attention on the club versus country tug-of-war which is still swirling around the sport, especially in England.
Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

Beckham professes love of the oval ball

In an interview in the Christmas issue of Radio Times David Beckham no less boasted that he is a rugby man!
He was quoted thus:” I love rugby – I love watching it and I love the whole thing.” Why? Well, it’s all about the fans. “People sitting together with no nastiness”.

Then the clincher: “I have enjoyed going to Twickenham more than I have enjoyed watching football.”

Ah David…we were doing so well. I like going to Twickenham as well, but alas have never managed an invite to the executive box which seems to be Mr. Beckham’s natural Twickenham habitat judging from when he appears on T.V. waving to the less fortunate.

And I bet he has never stood in the pouring rain watching Ealing Trailfinders play a Greene King Championship match against Yorkshire Carnegie along with 620 other damp souls.

In recent seasons Trailfinders have been the ultimate yo-yo club. They were playing in National Division 3 South as recently as 2009, but by the end of the 2012-13 season they had finished at the summit of National League 1 and were promoted to the Championship. They finished 12th and were relegated but bounced back after just one season (with an impressive haul of 136 points), where they now face another struggle to stay in the division.

Saturday’s opponents, Yorkshire Carnegie ( or Leeds Carnegie as they were then) were a Premiership club as recently as 2011,but while being generally regarded as one of the “big beasts” of the Championship have yet to seriously demonstrate their ability to reclaim their Premiership status. After Saturday’s 45 – 29 victory they lie in third place and are handily placed for the post-season play-off lottery.

They also have a player with 27 England caps in their ranks, albeit for the English rugby league side. At the age of 35 Kevin Sinfield decided he wanted to give rugby union a go after a silverware-stuffed career with Leeds Rhinos (who share a stadium with Carnegie so at least getting used to his surroundings wouldn’t have been a problem). After Sam Burgess’s much trumpeted and controversial switch to the union code Sinfield’s move was a much more low-key affair.

But he is obviously a quick learner and operated at fly-half in a very convincing display. He also operated as his team’s kicker, and I couldn’t help wondering what effect he might have had on English rugby union if he had made the switch 10 years earlier.
Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

If Football is so bad,why is Rugby copying it : PART 2?

A few weeks ago I asked why, if football is the evil spirit, rugby is aping it. I made a specific example of England’s cheque book in hand pursuit of Eddie Jones as the new England rugby coach.Now Rugby Players Association boss Damian Hopley has claimed the topping-up of rugby’s Premiership stars is rife, and he even describes the current six-month rule relating to approaches as nonsense.”

Officially at least, Aviva Premiership clubs are unable to approach players from rival clubs until January 1, but the speculation surrounding transfer moves for Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi suggests the rule is routinely ignored. No doubt football is being blamed for that….

Now another row is brewing over the issue of whether foreign stars will make the England rugby team better or not. And of course the parallels with football are unmistakeable. The Three Lions flop at the World Cup, and the clubs are blamed for putting their own interests before the national team. But within weeks fans are flocking in through the gates to watch the latest Premier League soap opera. The English rugby team sets a record for their exit from their own World Cup but the fans still flock to watch their club sides. And with two European rounds gone and only one English defeat, who needs the world cup anyway? The widespread popularity of both sports is sustained by the success of club competitions.

The Aviva Premiership is due to increase its salary cap from next season, and it won’t take a genius to work out that much of this increased money will go into players’ pockets, and more than likely foreign players. A perfect example is Wasps’ Nathan Hughes, born in Lautoka , Fiji, who learned his rugby in Auckland before coming to England. He chose not to represent his home country at the World Cup and is now qualified to play for England.

Hughes isn’t the first player to do this and he certainly won’t be the last and there is a distinct possibility that increases in the wage cap will encourage many more young players to make the journey to England.

And if they do young English players will not be playing for Premiership clubs. And ultimately Eddie Jones and his successors will have less quality Englishmen to choose from. Sounds familiar? It must be football’s fault…. 

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

The Latest Saviour of English Rugby

So Eddie Jones is now officially the latest savour of English rugby.

Shortly before his appointment (and when he must have known he was one of, if not THE favourite for the post) he gave an illuminating interview to ESPN about how he thought England needed to change in order to be successful. Top of his list, the central contracting of players. Without that he argued, not for the first time, England do not have enough control over their players.

“How can you manage your players when they are controlled by other organizations? Jones asked. “In my opinion, that is the single greatest task ahead of whoever is going to be appointed as the next England coach.”

Jones neatly evaded the issue at his Twickenham unveiling, but it is one that will not go away. New Zealand are the best example of how central contracting can be beneficial. If Steve Hansen wants Beauden Barrett to play at full-back because he thinks he would like to use him there, the Hurricanes will play him at full-back. The indecision over Sam Burgess’s position summed up the problem that exists here in England. Bath saw him as a flanker, England wanted him to play centre; the result-both sides and the player suffered.

Ultimately it is a question of priority. England is somewhat unique in that it has a genuinely thriving, partisan club game. France is the only other country that has a club game with a similar level of support and influence and it is surely not a coincidence that these are the two nations that wildly underachieved at the World Cup.

Many would argue that central contracts is a price worth paying, and the international game should take precedent. But there are plenty of club supporters who pay good money to watch their club play and would argue the opposite.

So herein lies the unanswerable question: how does England balance the need to encourage a thriving club game, with an international side that needs greater control over its players if it is to keep up with the likes of New Zealand, Australia and even Argentina – all of whom have it?

Within the round-ball community the steady erosion of the F.A.’s control over the game could be dated from their decision to be complicit in the formation of the Premier League in 1992. With it came the removal of an international cap as the pinnacle of a player’s ambitions.

The more astute minds at Twickenham must have watched this sorry saga unfold, and determined it would not be allowed to happen with the egg-shaped ball game.

Eddie Jones may or may not carry on with the same opinion. But there must be a few club owners twitching uncomfortably in their seats.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

If Football is so bad,why is Rugby aping it?

Much was made of referee Nigel Owens’ put-down of Scotland’s Stuart Hogg, who had attempted to win a penalty by diving during his side’s Pool B defeat to South Africa at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park. Owens reportedly said “If you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play.” My, how we laughed….

And on the eve of the rugby World Cup John Jeffrey, the chairman of the World Rugby match officials selection committee, reportedly told referees to crack down on what he called “football culture, of simulation, players appealing to the referee,” and horror of horrors, “diving.”

The phrase bandied about by the egg-shaped ball fraternity is usually “we mustn’t become like football.”  But if people are throwing themselves over and disrespecting referees in rugby union the blame can hardly be laid at football’s door. To think a player at Saracens or Wasps watches Manchester United’s Ashley Young impersonate a sniper victim and then copies the crime in the Premiership is just plain daft.

To quote Christian Day, chairman of the Rugby Players’ Association “The game is becoming more and more professional, and more and more competitive and professional people will always look for the edge.” Rugby is not copying football. It is reading from the script that says: the bigger the rewards, the lower people will stoop to grab them.

After their humiliation at the World Cup (something rugby and football have in common lest we forget) the RFU have finally got round to sacking their coach, and are apparently prepared to spend whatever it takes on the best man. This is what humiliating defeat does to governing bodies blowing in the gale –force of media and public opinion. And here rugby is aping their football counterparts at the F.A.

They have had a zig-zag approach to coach recruitment for years, careering this way and that, not just changing managers but disowning any philosophy in the bruising aftermath of tournament failure.When home-grown did not work millions were thrown at Fabio Capello.

English football has tried to buy itself out of a pickle and now it appears the RFU will send out their head hunters abroad for the first time, armed with a big cheque book. For the RFU, as it has been with the F.A. for years, it is an admission of defeat. Though as rugby looks at a foreign coach perhaps there is a bigger question, again for both sports. Why do other countries so rarely want our coaches, at club or international level? Anyone for the Stuart Lancaster/David Moyes dream team?

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

United in mediocrity

I suppose it could be seen as a case of “After the feast of the Lord Mayor’s banquet…”, but that would be unfair. After the six-week rugby world cup jamboree has come to an end, and given way to the infinitely more modest fair of the Aviva Premiership, it was the turn of the rugby league boys to show us what they can do on the international stage.

Today’s game was the second of the three-match ding- dong between England and New Zealand, who unlike their union compatriots may not be the current world champions (they lost to Australia in the 2013 Final) but nevertheless are also ranked first in the world. England had won the first game a week ago, but the second confrontation had been moved out of its northern heartlands to the Olympic Stadium.

On a wet and miserable London afternoon 43,393 souls turned up. Judging by the accents and the parade of club shirts many had travelled south for the game.

Two years ago, almost to the day, I was among a crowd of 67,545 at Wembley who witnessed England, 20 seconds from the World Cup final, crumble to the floor after  the cruellest of defeats, snatched from the jaws of victory. Leading 18-14 with the match entering its final minute, England conceded a late penalty. As the black wave neared the England line, Shawn Johnson shimmied and breached the barricades with 20 seconds remaining. He converted his own try to send New Zealand to Manchester’s final and England to ponder what might have been.

There may have been much less at stake today, but still New Zealand defeated an under-par England  9-2, as they managed to edge what was for large periods an attritional, defence-dominated game. It was tied 2-2 at the break, after a penalty apiece which accurately summed up the fare on offer. Apparently one TV pundit described it as “gorilla v gorilla”

Shortly after the restart Shaun Kenny-Dowall touched down in the corner for the visitors, and after the video referee had ruled out a try for both teams, Jordan Kahu slotted a decisive late drop-goal to seal victory for his team.

It was the first rugby league match at the Olympic Stadium, and there was a strange atmosphere inside it, almost as though many here were new to the game and waiting for something to happen. It was a chance to win over some Southern converts, but it was hardly the sort of England performance to inspire a new generation.

Perhaps one of the problems is the infrequency of international rugby league. It is after all two years since the world cup ,and that is a long time to wait for an international to come along if the RFL is wanting to build on whatever legacy remains from back then.

And in a week when the rugby section of the sports pages have been dominated by Sam Burgess’s return to rugby league, two of his brothers were on the field today. though they could not raise this England side above the general level of mediocrity.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Is there still a World Cup on?

As someone who has probably watched more of the Rugby World Cup than is good for me I suppose I have rather taken it for granted that the majority of the British public, if not actually glued to their TV sets, are at least aware that the competition is taking place. After all, did not more than 11 million people watch England’s dramatic defeat by Wales on television?

So in order to see how much the UK population actually knew about the sport and competition a research agency decided to commission a UK wide survey to find out. Admittedly this was carried out a week prior to the competition kicking off, and surely some of those professing ignorance cannot have failed to pick up that maybe something was going on.
Nevertheless, though much has been written about the legacy from this World Cup, the results from the survey give an indicator as to just how far rugby has to go before it can evenly begin to rival the round-ball game in popularity.

To begin with, 32% of respondents had no idea that the competition was about to start, and 42.7% of the UK had no idea that the World Cup was actually been hosted in England.
More than half surveyed were unable to guess the correct number of points for a try, and 44% didn’t know that a game lasts 80 minutes.
Apparently a third of Londoners thought that Billy Twelvetrees had to be a fake name and not a current rugby player.
My favourite is that half the UK were unable to pick out Chris Robshaw as the England captain. 22% believed it was still Jonny Wilkinson, and 13.2% guessed that it was the television chef James Martin!
After the debacle against Wales Chris Robshaw probably wishes they were right……..
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

The World Cup Legacy?

Across the land’s rugby clubs, pubs, bars and front rooms, more than 11 million people watched England’s dramatic defeat by Wales on television. Virtually the same number tuned in for the decisive loss to Australia a week later.

A large percentage of these millions will have been uninitiated in rugby union, but in search of a new sport to enjoy and fresh heroes to follow. But how many will come back? How many will find themselves hooked on the domestic game? The Aviva Premiership kicked off last weekend but unless you were already a rugby aficionado you could be excused for not noticing, such was the volume of media coverage still being given to the England-less World Cup.

Much has been written about the legacy from this World Cup, but “legacy” is a slippery word. And how do you deliver a “legacy” from the worst ever tournament by a host country? “What’s a legacy?” asked Leicester Tigers director of rugby, Richard Cockerill. “The game’s growing all the time and the Premiership’s a great competition. I don’t think it’s going to damage the game. Will it have grown a bit bigger if we’d got to a semi-final or a final and left as heroes instead of having those disappointing performances? Of course.”

Even so, it would take a brave person to argue that the 2015 World Cup will be a success for English rugby, but Steve Grainger, the RFU rugby development officer, is that man. He could point up to the 2,000 people signed up in fan zones to become referees or coaches, a quarter of those at the Manchester fan zone during the England-Uruguay dead rubber. This level of enthusiasm could also point to the untapped enthusiasm for rugby union outside the game’s southern heartlands, and the need to take England “on the road” away from Twickenham.

And since October 2012 the RFU has trained 2,915 new level-two coaches through the QBE Coaching Club, recruited 1,200 young rugby ambassadors and introduced rugby to 400 state secondary schools. But the test must be whether those who have picked up a rugby ball or entered a clubhouse for the first time because of this World Cup are still involved in the game by the time Japan 2019 rolls round.

Putting England’s failure to one side, any kid watching New Zealand or Australia or Japan could not wish for a better illustration of how rugby union, at its best, should be played. But across the mini-rugby pitches of the British Isles will seven year-olds be practising their Nehe Milner-Skudder sidesteps  and asking for posters of Juan Imhoff for their bedroom walls? Probably not. But what they do need is more encouragement to run and pass, rather than thud and smash and blunder.

Australia booked their place in the semi-finals in the most dramatic fashion but a thrilling contest was overshadowed  by a controversial finale and a debate that highlighted one of the sport’s problems, and the immense barrier preventing rugby union from becoming a truly global sport. The Laws are just too damm complicated! The Laws surely need to be simplified to avoid such confusion and allow the casual “legacy” supporter to engage fully with the sport rather than alienate them.

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.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk