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

The Rugby World Cup – 10 Days on

Sitting in our seats in Wembley Stadium with a beer in hand is a somewhat unusual experience for me.  Ninety five percent of my previous visits here have been for football, where fans are considered far too irresponsible to handle a beer AND watch a game at the same time.  The fact that the stadium hadn’t seen a crowd of this size, ever didn’t cause an issue.  Have you actually seen England play recently? You need some sustenance to numb some of the dullness.  But swap your Engerland chant for a  verse of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and you gain a level of social acceptability and responsibility.  Four beers sir? Do you need a hand carrying them to your seats?

21574136478_0ac713e43f_kThis was game three for me in the Rugby World Cup.  Ireland taking on “plucky” Romania as they had been rechristened by ITV Sport after their opening game defeat to France in the White Elephant in Stratford.  I’d seen that game as well as France’s first game at Twickenham against Italy.  The atmosphere here at Wembley was different, far more partisan.  Twickenham and the Olympic Stadium had been mainly full of fans of the game, some of whom felt the need to show their neutrality by having face paint of each country on their cheeks to go along with their half ‘n’ half scarves. Here though the stadium was awash of green.  There would little in the way of cheer for a similar quarter performance as Romania gave on Wednesday against France.

21050901204_2e91adcfc3_kThe tournament was only 9 days old but had already thrown up a few surprises and talking points on and off the field.  Japan’s defeat of South Africa was a major shock – although if the Springboks would have lost to say Argentina, who in turn would have lost to Japan it may have raised a Roger Moore eyebrow. Shocks in international rugby are few and far between.  The stronger teams are just that – stronger. Power and pace go along way in rugby.  Japan’s players played the game on their lives, matching South Africa in every push, scrum, maul and ruck.  The longer the game went on, the more belief the Japanese had and the more doubt crept into the Springboks.  They could play that game 50 more times and I doubt the Japanese would find the same resolve and spirit.

The result that the organisers probably didn’t want came last night when Wales beat England by 3 points, meaning the hosts have to beat Australia next Saturday to have any chance of progressing to the knock out phases.  Defeat in that game and the final match against Uruguay could be for the wooden spoon in group A.  With tickets still on sale for that match at The City of Manchester Stadium at a bargain £250, it will be interesting to see how many fans put their seats up for resale rather than go through the misery of trying to get to the game by a hopelessly I’ll-prepared train network.

The pain and problems they have caused at virtually every game so far it’s something that the organisers want as a legacy but so far fans who have tried to travel by train have been met with delays, cancellations and ill-preparation.  On the opening weekend of the tournament as fans tried to travel to Cardiff for the Wales and Ireland games will have been dismayed to read First Great Western admit they had underestimated demand for services.  They’ve only had four years to plan for this.  Over at Twickenham last Saturday tens of thousand of fans on their way back to London after the game were forced to ‘tap in’ with their Oyster cards via 2 machines.  Last night’s game at Twickenham finished after the last train had departed Paddington for Wales – either poor planning from the organisers or FWG again for not thinking of putting on extra services.

21560445961_617be24bf4_kIt’s never a good thing for a host nation to be eliminated early from a major tournament, but with such high expectations on England it could be a major blow for ITV as well as the commercial partners.  The curious rugby fans sitting on their sofa may now channel surf instead of tuning in for England’s games.  That’s not taking anything away from Wales – they’ve shown in recent years they are a major force in World rugby and few English fans will admit they didn’t want them to win four years ago in the Rugby World Cup semi-final in New Zealand against France.

Talking on ITV, they have got the coverage so far spot on – a huge improvement on their football coverage.  Co-commentators who deliver insight rather than simply saying what we see. Studio guests who can be considered to be legends of the game, with presenters who realise their role is to not try to be the star of the show.  Andy Townsend or Jonny Wilkinson? Glenn Hoddle or Sir Clive Woodward? Lee Dixon or Lawrence Dallaglio? Need I go on?

On the field we’ve seen the advantages and disadvantages of the use of video evidence.  In the England v Fiji and France v Italy games tries were disallowed after the referee had awarded them and the conversation was about to take place thanks to use of the Television Match Official (TMO) who found a new angle to review the incident.  They break up the flow of the game, although English referee Wayne Barnes showed how to use it to great effect by asking for reviews of events he didn’t see whilst play continued in the New Zealand v Argentina game, then punishing the guilty parties.  There can be no argument that the way technology is used in rugby is far better than football. Referees with microphones so the crowd can hear conversations, video replays and even having equally-qualified as the referee touch judges who advise on decisions rather than stand powerless on the touchline.

21573993340_17915cb76b_kUnlike football, rugby is a game that all of the Fuller family enjoy.  Littlest Fuller (in age not height anymore!) can’t stand football but things nothing of watching grown men falling on top of each other.  So we parked at Stanmore and headed down to Wembley early doors to savour the atmosphere.  Despite arriving two hours before kick off, the fan zone was full.  Only open to ticket holders you’d think that they may have thought people might want to go in there.  Surely the organisers spoke to organisers of other events?  At the Olympics, the fan zones were open to everyone, ditto any major football tournament.  In both cases they certainly didn’t kick people out thirty minutes before kick off.  So much for an all-inclusive tournament.  Once again, little thought had gone into the demand for these aspects.

Once inside the stadium everything worked.  Wembley handles crowds very well and we were in our seats twenty minutes before the teams emerged.  We’d been promised a brilliant atmosphere – it was certainly loud but there was only a few chorus’s of Fields of Athenry as pockets of the Irish faithful were spread across the whole stadium rather than one concentrated area of dedicated support that you would see in the respective football tournament(s).  The biggest cheers were saved for the Mexican Wave, which at least didn’t appear until the hour mark.

Ireland showed no mercy from the first second.  The first passage of play lasted 3 minutes and seemed destined to end in a try but for a handling error.  Two TMO decisions proved the majority of the crowd wrong with Simon Zebo’s skip down the touchline showing in super-slow motion that his twinkle-toes had just touched the white line on his way to scoring a great solo effort, whilst Tommy Bowe’s collision with the touch flag proving to be after he’d touched the ball down rather than before for the first of his two tries.  Further tries from Earls (2), Kearney and Henry saw the Irish quickly rack up their bonus point on their way to 44 points, although Ovidiu Toniti’s late consolation try for Romania bringing a decent response from the majority of the crowd still in the stadium.

Despite the issues at other venues, the benefit of experience in handling big crowds was in evident as the tens of thousands of fans headed to Wembley Park tube station, being back in the car at Stanmore less than 30 minutes of the final whistle.

The tournament so far has thrown up a few surprises that may lead to one or two of the expected sides not reaching the knockout stages.  But that’s exactly what we want from a major tournament, even if it is the hosts who are the casualties.

 

Coming to America

It appears the Aviva Premiership is set to break new ground with the staging of a game overseas next season. It is rumoured London Irish are poised to take their traditional St. Patrick’s Day game to New York  as part of a three-year deal between Premiership Rugby and USA Rugby designed to boost the profile of the sport on both sides of the Atlantic.

Super Rugby has of course already ventured down this route, although in different circumstances, with the Crusaders tackling the Sharks at Twickenham back in 2011 in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake. A crowd of 35,000 were lured to HQ that day and Irish will no doubt hope to tap into the Irish-American community for the New York fixture, but talk of an 80,000 sell-out at a venue like MetLife Stadium appears a bit fanciful.

It is all very exciting but what about the Exiles’ fans? Crowds were once again disappointing at Irish’s 24,000-seater Madejski Stadium home last season, with the attendance exceeding 8,000 just four times in the league – including the highly popular St Patrick’s Day game.

The All Blacks piqued interest within the sporting US public, as illustrated by the huge crowd at Chicago’s Soldier Field for last November’s game against the Eagles, but London Irish and whoever their scheduled opposition will not be such as easy sell.

Would the money and effort not be better spent in attracting new fans on Premiership Rugby’s doorstep, and who might continue to support the team long after the proposed game in New York? The Premiership final may continue to attract the masses to Twickenham but that is not reflected week in, week out at many Premiership grounds where the sport does not appear to matter enough to enough people.

Those fans that regularly rattle around the Madejski and are treated to an under-performing side are “rewarded” with the chance to fork out for what will not be a cheap jaunt across the Pond.

But with Saracens and Leicester also heading Stateside in the off-season, and probably more regular season games poised to be switched, it is something fans should get used to –or at least start saving for.

Mike Miles

www.scrumdown.org.uk

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.

Wasps lose their sting to the luck of the Irish

London Irish 30 London Wasps 19 – The Madejski Stadium – Sunday 24th February 2013
Apparently the Madejski Stadium was named the best stadium to watch rugby in England in a supporter’s survey conducted by Rugby World magazine during 2009/10. The home of London Irish claimed the top accolade in a survey of more than 1,500 rugby supporters, securing nearly a quarter of overall votes regarding which ground offered spectators the most comfortable match day experience. The survey praised the stadium’s shop and transport links, and nearly every fan who cited it as the best ground in terms of facilities mentioned the proximity to the M4 and large on-site parking area.

I have driven past the stadium on the M4 countless times so thought it was about time I actually paid a visit.

Ironically, the largest crowd for a London Irish match was for a game against today’s opponents London Wasps on March 15, 2008, when a crowd of 23,790 turned up. Today’s attendance by contrast, was a much more modest 7,184

As I drove slowly out of one of the Madejski’s car parks after the game I listened to the Scotland/Ireland 6 nations match on the car radio. Unlike in the past London Irish have contributed nobody to the current Irish team.

London Irish RFC was founded in 1898 for the young Irishmen of London, modelling itself on the already established London Welsh and London Irish teams.

It is a testament to the international state of the Premiership that the Exile’s current 36-man squad numbers only 4 Irishmen. Englishmen make up the biggest contribution with 17, and there are the almost obligatory 3 Tongans and 3 Samoans.

The clubs own website warned that “roads in the area are very busy, and queuing can be expected exiting the M4 and then all the way to the stadium” Forewarned I left home in plenty of time for the 12.05 kick-off and found myself enjoying a cup of coffee in the stadium concourse an hour before kick-off. Everybody, from car park attendants to programme sellers were very friendly and helpful, though it did sound slightly odd to be greeted with a “good morning” at a sports fixture. Such are the demands of television.

Both teams went into this match with different priorities. Wasps were fourth in the Aviva Premiership with their sights on at least a Heineken Cup spot for next season, and even a play-off place in this. The Exiles on the other hand were next to bottom, with only a single point between them and bottom club Sale. But after an impressive 30-19 win over the High Wycombe outfit they had climbed to 10th, five points ahead of Sale who they face along with fellow strugglers London Welsh and Worcester in their three remaining home fixtures.

Shane Geraghty and Marland Yarde both crossed the try-line, while full back Tom Homer added a total of 20 points from the kicking tee. Wasps even led 16-14 at half-time after a fine finish from Christian Wade, but the hosts stepped up a gear in the second half and were comfortable winners in the end. Wasps Director of Rugby Dai Young admitted that his team were never in control of the game.

The clubs website has a wonderful quote from that doyen of sports writers, the late Bryon Butler: “The only corner of heaven on earth can now be formally identified; it is an old rubbish tip beside the drumming infinity of the M4 in the Royal County of Berkshire. Rival claims will not be entertained for the time being.”

Perhaps the hyperbole may not be entirely justified, but nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable first visit to the Madejski Stadium.

 

Ireland show their real value to the Euro(pean Cup)

Leinster 42 Ulster 18 – Twickenham – Saturday 19th May 2012

Michael Miles hops over the road from the Stoop to take in his second European final in 24 hours.

What a day of sport….West Ham (my team) were playing in the afternoon at Wembley in the Championship Final, and that evening Chelsea were in Europe for the Champions League Final. Sandwiched in between was rugby’s Heineken Cup Final between Leinster and Ulster. That was the one for which I had tickets, and so it was to Twickenham I went.

Leinster in the 1990s attracted crowds of between 500 and 2,000. By 2006, a year when they were routed in the Heineken Cup semi-final by Munster, they had nearly 4,000 season-ticket holders. That number has swelled to 12,500 and, like Munster and Ulster, their supporters travel all over Europe in their numbers. Travelling to Twickenham on Saturday the pavements were a sea of blue. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least half of the 81,774 sell-out crowd were not Leinster fans.

You knew it was an Irish occasion at Twickenham by the vast swathes of empty seats 10 minutes before kick-off. The stadium bars were still open; there was time for one more pint. Miraculously, the stadium was full when Ruan Pienaar kicked off for Ulster. Supporters mixed with good humour, sang their songs and belted out their chants. Of course it couldn’t be Irish without touches of confusion. One woman wore a top proclaiming her allegiance: Leinster for Today, Munster Forever.

Leinster have become so good at winning they hardly seem Irish at all and while the team expresses itself in smart and brilliant rugby, their fans express shades of arrogance, which reminded me of Chelsea fans in the title-winning Mourino days.

I guess this comes with the territory but for much of the match Ulster gave as good as they got and they never played like no-hopers. They started the game with more energy and greater fervour than the favourites and they owned the ball for seven minutes. But when it came to finishing Ulster didn’t have it. They butchered opportunities while Leinster seized them. They know how to win, what to do when the pressure is on and stay focused. This five tries to one victory over an Ulster side that they first frustrated, then outplayed, and finally put to the sword must have been as comprehensive as in any of the 17 Heineken Cup finals.

The euro may be wobbling but Leinster’s European stock continues to soar. To win three Heineken Cups in four years is a massive achievement. Next year’s final is set for Dublin and Leinster’s noisy fans can already consider booking ahead with some confidence.

 

Kidney able to name strong side to face Italy

Sean Farrell from Inthelastminute talks us through Ireland’s team for the start of the 6 Nations.

Declan Kidney has managed to name a strong starting 15 to open the Six Nations campaign in Italy despite a severely depleted list of options in certain positions.

A spate of injuries that could have proved crippling in previous years, now look like serving as an important stage in the development of Kidney’s side just seven months before the World Cup.  Last year’s Six Nations brought little other than disappointment. Concerns grew amongst the masses that the grand slam winning coach was falling into the same trap as his predecessor. Those fears grew in the autumn as the former Munster supremo stubbornly refused to throw form players into the starting XV, favouring the tried, the tested and the tired. Read more here.