Thursday, 29 April 2010

Strewth! It's time to liberalise the rules on where international rugby stars can play

If I was a cynical member of the RFU, I might smell a rat at Julian Salvi's one-year sojourn at Bath Rugby.

Is he an Australian Rugby Union spy, uncovering the secrets of Northern Hemisphere rugby before returning south to report back to his spy-masters? And all this just a year before the World Cup. Hmmm, suspicious....

I jest, of course. But I actually believe the flanker's spell in Bath can carry some salutary lessons for rugby bosses across the globe.

Currently the men who run the national set-ups in Australia, South Africa and a whole host of other top-tier rugby union countries insist that players must ply their club trade in their homeland if they are to stand any chance of being picked for their national team.

This, to my mind, illustrates how parochialism, narrow-mindedness and an element of micro-management has crept into the way the game is run.

We live in a globalised world where – in many parts of the West – people, capital and goods can flow over national boundaries with little restriction. Yet a form of hidebound 'protectionism' exists in the way rugby is governed.

An England star might just get away with having the audacity to play club rugby in France but team manager Martin Johnson has made it plain that such a player will be all but discounted if he heads south of the equator.

Yet who are England's greatest rivals on the world stage? They are New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. And to beat your rivals, you need to understand how they operate.

So why aren't England's Elite Player Squad members free to take contracts with Southern Hemisphere clubs, given that such experiences would expose them to how key figures in rival national set-ups operate? It's insular; it's barmy.

Apologists of the current arrangements will point out that national coaches need to have their players close by for training camps but that can be circumvented by ensuring players have the appropriate clauses in their contracts to enable them to return for those sessions. It's not rocket science and the different perspective that those Antipodean-based players would bring to such sessions would surely be worth the air fare.

In my view, Salvi did something very canny in leaving Canberra for a year or so's spell with Bath. A rising star in the Australian rugby firmament, he can now return to his homeland with a firm grasp of what makes the Northern Hemisphere rugby world tick. He's played in Paris, Edinburgh, Belfast and Twickenham, not to mention all the main club stadia in England.

With a World Cup imminent, I would have thought such insights would be invaluable to the Australian Rugby Union. Couple that with his skills in the loose and he'd be in my Wallabies' squad in a flash.

I'm not advocating the wholesale migration of England's best players, nor do I want to see the Guinness Premiership turned into a procession of well-paid Southern Hemisphere show ponies, but the scales need to tip a little more in the direction of a laissez-faire arrangement.

Nurturing home-grown talent through Premiership clubs' academies is crucial for the future of English rugby but the RFU has to acknowledge that a player immersing themselves in a world-beating rugby culture a few thousand miles away isn't necessarily a bad thing for the Red Rose.

And that's why hanging such players as Melbourne-bound Danny Cipriani out to dry would be an act of short-sighted folly by the RFU.

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Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Make sure you Bark up the right tree, Martin - go for Olly Barkley

I'll have interviews with Julian Salvi and Michael Claassens in Thursday's Bath Chronicle following Bath Rugby's tremendous win at Twickenham, but until then, here's my take on the game against Wasps

Wasps 19, Bath Rugby 35

In all but name, this was a Guinness Premiership quarter-final. And Wasps were left hung, drawn and quartered by a swashbuckling executioner.
It may have been a smouldering Danny Cipriani - clutching an enormous sword - who graced the cover of the programme for this St George’s Day match. But Wasps’ poster boy was cut down to size by Olly Barkley, whose return to Twickenham served as one huge slap round the face for the England selectors.
Barkley, who last played for his country in the summer of 2008, did everything other than walk on water. Inspirational in defence, inspired in attack and ice cool from the kicking-tee, the Bath inside centre was an irrepressible and irresistible bundle of energy that Wasps could not contain.
He only returned to action in February after a broken leg. And his remarks after the final whistle will be as welcome to opposition defenders as a Taser shot from a rogue cop.
“I don’t feel nearly as fit or as fast as I can be,” said Barkley.
Well, Barkley was fit enough to direct Bath’s backline magnificently for the full 80 minutes, despite the warm April sunshine. And he was fast enough to track back and put in a try-saving tackle on Wasps and England wing Paul Sackey.
The inside centre was on the money with six out of seven shots on goal, set up two tries and scored one of his own. It was a performance of guile, guts and consistency.
Wasps did a superb job of ensuring this Saint’s Day clash was an occasion of tremendous theatre. British troops abseiled into the ground bearing super-sized flags of St George, and Land of Hope and Glory was belted out before the first whistle. But although the land at Twickenham may be about to become an annual home from home for Wasps, all the hope and glory was Bath’s on Saturday.
With Barkley scoring 20 points and Joe Maddock scoring a hat-trick of tries, the scoresheet may - in years to come - suggest that this was a game distinguished by great solo performances. But this match was about the collective.
It was about a squad of players who, for all their aching muscles and ebbing sugar levels, won their third game in eight days, thereby leapfrogging Wasps and London Irish into the top four.
Hooker Lee Mears’ contribution in the loose was exceptional, locks Danny Grewcock and Stuart Hooper were omnipresent, and the loose forwards slogged their guts out, comfortably outshining the more than handy Wasps backrow of Rees, Worsley and Ward-Smith.
Not to be outdone, the backs played with unremitting composure, energy and pace. Fly-half Butch James’s distribution was exquisite, full-back Nick Abendanon enhanced his reputation as the best broken-play runner in the Premiership, and skipper Michael Claassens kept his side on the front foot, despite having a nasty vomiting and diarrhoea bug.
Before Saturday, referee Wayne Barnes had officiated at 16 Bath matches - and Bath had won just five of them. And during the early exchanges that trend looked set to continue, with Cipriani landing two goals after Bath were penalised for straying offside and tackling high.
But then Barkley stepped forward and, kerpow, Bath put 18 points past their hosts in just 11 minutes.
After slotting over a 45m penalty goal with quarter-of-an-hour gone, Barkley was instrumental in Maddock’s first two tries. He drew the defence perfectly for the first, before setting up the second with a show-and-go dash through the Londoners’ midfield.
Bath lost Abendanon to the sin-bin in the 29th minute after he body-checked Tom Varndell. But Bath’s defence held firm during the full-back’s absence, despite Wasps sending wave after wave of runners into the under-manned Bath backline.
Cipriani fired over two more penalties and with Wasps dominating ball and territory in the opening minutes of the second half, the match was finely poised at 12-18.
But Maddock eased Bath nerves in the 57th minute by latching on to a Cipriani miss-pass and touching down between the posts. It was a game-breaking score, and Wasps’ resolve was broken.
Barkley slotted the conversion and then put the game well beyond the London side’s reach by landing a penalty and converting his own try.
“I think Olly’s going to travel to Australia for the England tour after that performance,” said Bath head coach Steve Meehan. “If it was up to me, I’d have him on the plane.”
Barkley, who admitted he received a phone call from England attack coach Brian Smith recently, was circumspect about whether he’d be adding to his 26 caps this summer.
“First things first, I want to get Bath into a Guinness Premiership final,” he remarked.
Wasps grabbed a consolation try in the 79th minute, just after Bath lost flanker Julian Salvi to the sin-bin for killing the ball. But Ben Jacobs’ effort was too little too late for a side which, after years of shattering other clubs’ play-off hopes, had received a taste of its own medicine.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Bath's Brucie Bonus promises much

A fellow journalist recently observed, rather waggishly, that Bath had been the most professional team in English rugby during the amateur era, and had attempted to look the most amateur since the dawn of professionalism.

It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but the absence of a major piece of silverware since 1998 has rankled – and is in sharp contrast to Bath's glory days in the late 80s and early 90s.

The aura of an enduring amateurism at the club has been perpetuated by facilities that have been freely acknowledged to be sub-standard for a team with such a history and top-flight ambitions.

But now any suggestion that Bath lack the focus, planning and drive to truly make it in the professional era have been blown out of the water.

Andrew Brownsword – to whom Bath supporters owe a huge debt of gratitude, given the financially precarious position the club found itself in during the infancy of the professional era – has decided that the stewardship of the club needs to be handed on to a younger pair of hands.

Brownsword had a strict list of criteria he wanted the next owner to meet – and Bruce Craig (pictured right), it seems, met them with flying colours.

"Hurdles will be jumped by Bruce's passion and involvement," Brownsword told me yesterday. "He is absolutely the right person."

Instrumental in bringing Craig to Bath has been the club's new chief executive, Nick Blofeld, who was at university with the new chairman.

I'll let Craig tell the story of how Blofeld's involvement brought his uni pal to the club:

"Nick said to me a couple of years ago, 'What would you like to do now that you have made a lot of money'. I said I would love to buy a rugby club.

"Three months later it transpired that Nick spoke to someone at Bath Rugby at a conference, and they asked 'Do you know anyone who wants to buy a rugby club?' And Nick said 'As it happens, I do'."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Craig, given his background as a former rugby player, is, I imagine, likely to be a far more hands-on chairman than his predecessor. And given his announcement yesterday about plans for a new Bath Rugby HQ, it's clear he's hitting the ground running and already has his sleeves rolled up.

In the shadow of Farleigh Hungerford Castle, Bath's new headquarters will surely be a sight to behold. Play their cards right, and Bath could soon be elevated from being the perennial professional pretenders to being kings of the castle.