Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Attwood aims to keep Borthwick on the sidelines

I interviewed rising Gloucester and England lock Dave Attwood recently as part of research I was doing for Premiership Rugby's forthcoming season handbook/magazine. The man is a mountain; his hands, truly, are shovels. He must also be one of the few tight five forwards around with a degree in philosophy and physics (although, on the topic of unlikely subjects of intellectual study for rugby forwards, I've got a feeling Saracens' Hugh Vyvyan studied theology...). Anyway, I liked Dave. A very level-headed guy with an appetite for hard graft. I expect big things.
The Premiership magazine, by the way, should be out sometime towards the end of September. I'll update when I've got a firm date.

The man who’s pinched Steve Borthwick’s spot in the England Elite Player Squad admits he’s got an eye on next year’s World Cup – but says his first job is rolling up his sleeves at his club.
Dave Attwood shot to prominence during England’s summer tour of Australasia, impressing Martin Johnson with his non-Test performances against the Australian Barbarians.
But now it’s back to the day job at Gloucester. And the 23-year-old is relishing the task, although he admits a starting berth is not guaranteed at his club.
“You can never lose sight of how you get to where you want to go,” he said. “I’ve got big international ambitions, but if I don’t play well for my club I’m not going to get a chance or even a look-in at international level. So it's really important for me to play well for Gloucester.
"But when you get back in to the club environment it’s easy to see why you want to play here.
"I don’t think at all about international rugby when I’m playing for the club, I think about playing for the club and how we can get results here."
Gloucester bade farewell to six players at the end of last season and signed just three. And Attwood believes that such limited change has provided the side with the platform they need to kick on after a disappointing seventh place in last season’s Premiership.
"We've had very few ins and outs over the summer and that's key if you're trying to build form,” he explained.
“Last year there was an enormous overhaul of players, coaches and backroom staff so everything was bound to be a bit more unsettled.
“It's nice this year that there's a lot more consistency. Everyone knows where they stand and we can push hard together.
“Hopefully this year we are a bit more bonded and have got used to playing with each other a bit more, and that ball will bounce a bit more in our favour and we'll get a few more of those results.”
Attwood admits competition for places among Gloucester’s locks is fierce, with Alex Brown, Will James and new signing Jim Hamilton all vying for the 4 and 5 shirts. And he’s modest about his prospects.
"I'm certainly not the finished article and while I'm going to be pushing hard for that starting shirt, I know they offer many of things that I do and in many cases a lot more,” he said.
“There is a lot of competition for shirts. It's by no means a given that I will be starting for Gloucester this year so I've got to focus on getting that shirt at the weekend."

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Lewis Moody soaks up the vibe at The Rec

A niggle may have prevented Lewis Moody from taking to The Rec against Edinburgh on Saturday for Bath Rugby's final friendly of the pre-season, but here he is in Bath colours (and purple!) for a video I did with him earlier this month.

A technical glitch meant I was unable to upload this to my blog as soon as I would have liked. But better late than never, eh?

Afternoon tea with Shontayne Hape at the Royal Crescent

Amiable England centre Shontayne Hape spoke to me as Bath officially launched their season. Take a look at the video.

Keep a look-out for my in-depth feature on Hape's off-field alter ago - DJ Shape - in the forthcoming official Premiership Rugby magazine. It should be out in mid-September.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Personalities and prima donnas - the art of leadership

What kind of personality makes for a good leader on the professional rugby field?

There are no fixed rules but a painfully introverted navel-gazer is unlikely to spark the kind of fire that's needed for a team to set the league alight.

In most cases, what's needed is a vocal extrovert but that can be a tricky issue for a head coach, because vocal, extroverted sportsmen can become vocal, extroverted prima donnas – as Bath Rugby have discovered down the years.

When I interviewed Bob Calleja last week, the departing Bath Rugby stalwart made it clear he'd had to put up with a few egos in the changing room during his decade or so at the club.

Calleja was too diplomatic to say who the prima donnas were, of course, but I'm sure you can think of a couple.

The personality of the skipper is of the utmost importance because it can trickle down to the rest of the squad.

The virtues that a captain needs are varied. He needs to command respect without being intimidating, he needs to encourage while being tough on mistakes and he needs to lead while ensuring others don't become reliant on that leadership.

It has been a stated objective of Bath Rugby over the past half-year or so to cultivate leaders all over the park. That philosophy was encapsulated by skipper Luke Watson's remark after the win in Belfast on Friday night.

"There are so many leaders I can't say I have the leadership role," said the South African, pictured.

And that's not a glib statement. Look through the Bath squad – and the pack in particular – and you'll see there are ex-captains and experienced internationals all over the parish.

These are men whose impact will not be restricted to matchday, either. Their influence will be felt in training, in video analysis and even during 'down time'.

Lewis Moody is a case in point. Of course, there are his skills as a player, but his influence at Bath will stretch much further than what he does at flanker. He is also a motivator, a winner and a colossus in training.

This week his England team-mate Mark Cueto handed Moody a compliment that made me smile, describing him as "far more intelligent on a rugby field then he looks".

It is Moody's fusion of rugby nous and bloody-mindedness that should inject a firm spine into Bath. And judging by the number of players that Bath released over the summer to sign Moody, that kind of spine has cost them a fair amount of wedge.

Now back to Watson. When Bath were going through the dark days of last autumn – when a win was harder to come by than a magnanimous Gloucester fan – head coach Steve Meehan cautioned against fans regarding Watson as the club's 'messiah'.

The South African had yet to arrive but expectations were high given the performances he had been putting in for Western Province while captain.

Deification of Watson to the pantheon of Bath greats may be premature but his impact was immediate. His elevation to the captaincy was, as far as I was concerned, a no-brainer within weeks of his arrival.

And while he is certainly extroverted, there is a selflessness that stems from his Christian faith.

How he performs at The Rec on Saturday in his first home match as Bath skipper will be intriguing – but expect an almighty roar of approval when his name is read out before kick-off.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Vicars, drugs tests and gambling

The following is taken from my exclusive interview with departing Bath Rugby boss Bob Calleja. For a longer interview see my piece on the Chronicle's website. For the full warts and all piece, see today's Bath Chronicle

Bath Rugby are turning to the Church in an effort to provide greater pastoral support for players.

The club are in the process of securing the services of a local vicar who would offer a confidential counselling service.

The club have been in discussions with the Rev Martin Lloyd-Williams, rector of St Michael's Church in Broad Street.

Chief operating officer Bob Calleja, who leaves Bath at the end of the month after 11 years at the Rec, believes all clubs in the Aviva Premiership need to improve their provision when it comes to player welfare.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview in today's Chronicle, Calleja, speaks frankly about the highs and lows of his time at The Rec.

He describes last summer's drugs scandal at the club as "the darkest moment – diabolical", and speaks passionately about the need for greater off-field support for players.

"Some clubs have adopted the local vicar to offer a confidential, counselling service," said Calleja. "We are starting on it.

"Martin at St Michael's has often offered his services to help. Nick Blofeld [chief executive] is looking at it to see if we can set that up on a permanent basis.

"Players have to have someone who they respect that they can talk to in confidence.

"In the past some players have come to me, some have been to the head coach.

"There are problems. These are young men who sometimes have all sorts of problems and you try to help them."

Calleja, who is in negotiations with Premiership Rugby about taking up a role which would encompass conduct and player welfare, warns that gambling could be the next vice to undermine the game unless it is tackled swiftly.

"Gambling is the next issue that really has to be addressed," he said. "There's not a gambling problem at Bath but there is one generally in professional sport.

"Players have a lot of spare time and are reasonably well off. There has to be a lot more work done on helping players avoid gambling addiction. It's next on the agenda." While stressing that he is not aware of any problems at Bath, Calleja added: "Some of them play cards, and the only advice I ever gave to one of the young lads when they were playing poker was 'don't play with anyone who earns more than you do'."

Monday, 9 August 2010

Bath offer French flyer an extended trial

France's human equivalent of the TGV, Jacques Boussuge, has been offered a fortnight's trial at The Rec, I learnt today.
Story here on Bath Chronicle website.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Butch is looking pretty... butch

The Bath Rugby squad have been put through their paces at a series of pre-season beastings, but their fly-half Butch James - who is on international duty with the Springboks - isn't exactly taking it easy, judging by these pictures taken by the excellent South African sports photographer Steve Haag.
James, who will find out tomorrow if he is in South Africa's squad for the forthcoming home matches in the Tri-Nations, was doing a spot of training with captain John Smit and prop BJ Botha in Durban.
Nice work, Steve.

All hail Michael Claassens, the man who detoxified Bath Rugby

The following is taken from my column in the Thursday, August 5 Bath Chronicle

As they lounged on the beaches of the south coast of France on Wednesday during a day off from their pre-season camp, life must have felt pretty good for the Bath Rugby squad.

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago Bath were under a cloud following an interminable summer drugs debacle; a coach had been quietly shown the door for reasons the club refused to elaborate on; players were still splitting their time between three different sites in the city for training; and, to cap it all, Olly Barkley had broken his leg.

Now, after a summer in which the biggest scandal involving a Bath player was Barkley's omission from the England EPS and Saxon squads, the vibes emanating from the Bath camp are of an altogether different sort – harmony, focus and confidence.

Bath have a stable coaching team, complemented by the arrival of Sir Ian McGeechan; they have a new owner who is in the process of moving the club's entire training and administrative operation to an inspirational countryside base of unparalleled beauty; and they have a captain who has been a revelation since arriving in Bath last November.

For a taste of this optimistic spirit, just read Stuart Hooper's column in this week's paper, a column that throbs with a sense of calm confidence ahead of the forthcoming campaign.

While Steve Meehan denies that he brought Luke Watson to The Rec last year with a plan to make him captain for the 2010-11 season, Watson's leadership credentials were obvious from the start.

I remember the time he arrived for his first press conference at The Rec. The aura was immediate, the self-assurance clear.

Watson likes a good struggle. A constant theme of his is that the greatest triumphs come out of situations of the greatest adversity. Bath had plenty of adversity last season and if anyone is to steer them to triumph this coming season, then Watson is the man.

The South African is aware he comes with a certain amount of baggage, given the difficult relationship he had with the rugby establishment in his native country.

He's still regarded by some in his homeland as an outspoken member of the awkward squad. And while he's certainly not been backwards in coming forwards since he's been in Bath, there hasn't been a gram of awkwardness.

On the contrary, his presence has been uplifting – Bath's results since he arrived mid-way through last season say a lot about the man.

But amid all the pats on the back for Watson, let's not forget the work done by last year's skipper, Michael Claassens, pictured.

The scrum-half took on the captaincy at a time when the role was self-evidently a poisoned chalice. Claassens' achievement was to detoxify Bath following the drugs scandal and, by the end of the season, have his side playing the kind of rugby that caused no end of natural highs.

And all this was done with an unstinting politeness and calm.

So let's not forget the labours of Michael Claassens – a sturdy bridge over some very troubled waters for Bath.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Will it be frere Jacques?

News from Bath Rugby's week in Provence...
Bath will give France 7s specialist Jacques Boussuge a chance to pull on the blue, black and white jersey on Friday, Bath chief executive Nick Blofeld tells me. The Montpellier winger may then be offered a fortnight's trial at The Rec should he impress in the friendly against Pays d'Aix.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Luke Watson and how he got the Bath captaincy

Read Luke Watson's first interview as Bath Rugby captain, which he gave to me just before the club flew out for their pre-season camp in Provence.