Thursday, 25 November 2010

Butch, KP and the Ashes

When Bath Rugby fly-half Butch James, pictured, tunes in to watch the Ashes, there's one batsman in particular he'll be keeping an eye on.

As a schoolboy, James played in the same side as England's Kevin Pietersen – and even recalls appearing above the former skipper in the batting order.

The two were pupils at Maritzburg College in South Africa, although James was a couple of years above Pietersen.

"He was a good player but there was nothing back then to suggest he would go on to achieve what he has," said James, who kept wicket for his school before going on to represent his country at rugby.
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"I tried my hand at everything at school and it was only when I had finished high school at 18 that I decided that I really wanted to give rugby a go," he said. "It was between cricket and rugby."

Boks get a serious schooling in preparation

Okay, so here's your starter for ten.

Which rugby team has a high performance centre, a biokineticist who ensures players are in peak condition, the latest video analysis at its disposal, a physiotherapist who is available daily and international coaches who are used on a consultancy basis?

It could be a Premiership club. But it's not even a senior club – it's a school.

To be precise, it's Maritzburg College in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It's the school at which current Bath Rugby players Butch James and Pieter Dixon learnt the game. And it sounds like a young rugby player's dream.
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As the limping, tarnished Springboks prepare to hobble into Twickenham this weekend following their ignominious loss to Scotland and two failed drug tests, Maritzburg College is a reminder of just how seriously South Africa takes its rugby.

You know the college takes a professional approach to the game when its website states that the school is sponsored by the local Renault dealership.

Moreover, Maritzburg appointed a full-time rugby administrator in 2009. "His role," says the website "is to scout talent and to keep the school at the cutting edge of technology through video analysis and up-to-date coaching courses."

Reading that, you wouldn't fancy sending your 15-year-old son on his school rugby trip to KwaZulu-Natal, would you? Sounds like you'd be sending a lamb to the slaughter.

It makes a bit of a change to school rugby in my day. Our rugby master had once enjoyed some representative honours but his view of analysis was to scream at us whenever there was a knock-on. Similarly, I doubt he went on any sophisticated coaching courses, despite the school having a proud rugby tradition.

The tale of Maritzburg College's rugby department says much about how the game has developed in the past 20 years. I remember reading in Lawrence Dallaglio's autobiography how he was once forced to lug all his boarding school kit from one side of school to the other after being dropped off at the wrong end.

"That," he wrote, "was the only weights I did until the game went professional". Those aren't his exact words, but they capture the gist.

The 'strength and conditioning' culture of professionalism has now clearly filtered down to schools and Maritzburg College is evidently proud of the environment it fosters.

Its website continues: "Outside specialists are brought in regularly to address coaches on specific issues, whether from a rugby, fitness, conditioning, nutritional or refereeing perspective.

"Our High Performance Centre is run by a biokineticist, who ensures that systems are in place whereby boys are regularly monitored with regards to fitness and strength conditioning."

Almost as a cocky afterthought, it adds: "Mark Steele (Springbok conditioning coach and an Old Boy) has been used on a consultancy basis."

If those are the resources that go into a school rugby team, then imagine the resources the Springboks have at their disposal. The story of Maritzburg College is one that all England fans should bear in mind as South Africa arrive at HQ. These Springboks are serious about their rugger.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Come along to a Q&A with Luke Watson

I'll be appearing alongside Bath Rugby captain Luke Watson, England World Cup winner Ben Kay and ESPN commentator Nick Mullins on the panel at a fans' Q&A on Friday, November 26.
The event, which is being organised by broadcaster ESPN, takes place at The Curfew Inn in Cleveland Place West, Bath, from 8pm.
Come along, have a pint, say hello and hear what Luke's got to say - he's always worth hearing!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Gobbledygook or genius?

'Freedom within structure'. It sounds like middle-management gobbledygook, doesn't it? Or, even worse, like one of those slogans Big Brother's totalitarian regime issues in 1984.

But freedom within structure is now Martin Johnson's stated philosophy for the England rugby team. Speaking to centre Shontayne Hape, pictured, after England's spine-tingling triumph against the Aussies, he said: "The coaches have been talking about freedom within structure and know that if it's on, it's on. That's probably what caught Australia out at times."

All very nice. But what the Dickens does "freedom within structure" mean?

It's tempting to dismiss it as so much hot air, a bit like all those political slogans that go on about "liberty and equality". If you grant people freedom then they ain't going to remain equal for long. And by the same train of thought, if you grant a team a licence to be free, then they aren't going to keep their structure for any great length of time.

But that response is a bit facetious and is refuted by the way England played on Saturday.

Team manager Martin Johnson has not cultivated a reputation as the profoundest of thinkers during his career on and off the pitch; he's the beetle-browed hard-man, not the beetle-browed thinker. But it may be that he's out-foxing plenty of people at the moment.

If you want a definition of Johnson's freedom within structure, then look at the first try England scored against the Wallabies.

The structure came from a succession of crash balls and the way the forwards piled in to secure a rapid recycling of possession. The freedom came in the way the forwards and backs off-loaded to one another once they sniffed a hole in the Wallaby defence.

Never mind about providing verbal definitions of freedom within structure. All you need to know about it was contained in that expertly executed try.

Could it soon be Bath time for Wallaby lock Chisholm?

Here's an exclusive of mine published in today's Bath Chronicle

Experienced Australia international Mark Chisholm is being lined up by Bath Rugby as a muscular addition to the club's second row.

The Chronicle understands that negotiations with the 56-cap Wallaby are advanced, with the 29-year-old having visited Bath's Farleigh Hungerford headquarters for talks.

Sources say the 6ft 6in lock forward, who started for Australia in the 35-18 loss at Twickenham on Saturday, visited Farleigh House shortly after the Wallaby squad touched down in England ahead of the Investec Autumn International series.
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The Chronicle also understands that Bath have expressed an interest in signing Dave Attwood, Gloucester's Bristol-born lock. The 23-year-old made his England debut against New Zealand a fortnight ago.

"Signing Chisholm and Attwood would mean it was 'problem solved' for Bath in the second row," said a source close to the club. "But that's a lot of money."

With veteran lock Danny Grewcock retiring at the end of the season and promising 22-year-old Scott Hobson suffering with a long-term arm injury, the second row has been identified by the Bath management as a potential weak spot.

Cover has been provided this season in the form of seasoned Argentinian lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and US Eagles skipper John van der Giessen, who are both on short-term contracts. But Bath are keen to secure top-drawer replacements on longer term deals sooner rather than later.

Chisholm and Attwood would fit the bill nicely. The former, who hails from Queensland like Bath head coach Steve Meehan, has a prolific try-scoring record for a lock, while the abrasive Attwood has been identified as a potential England 'enforcer' of the future.

Chisholm – reputed to have the biggest biceps in the Wallabies set up – started his career with Queensland Reds before joining the Canberra-based Brumbies in 2003, where he has remained ever since.

The virtues of life at The Rec may well have been extolled to him by club-mate Julian Salvi. Salvi returned to Canberra in the summer having enjoyed an eye-catching season at Bath, where he excelled at openside flanker and was named the club's Forward of the Season.

In his final interview before returning to his homeland, Salvi told the Chronicle of his fondness for Bath Rugby and his determination to return after a stint back in Australia. That enthusiasm for Bath will doubtless have been transmitted to rugby circles back in Canberra.

Chisholm, who has played Test rugby at blindside flanker as well as at lock, made his international debut against Scotland in 2004.

He made three appearances for Australia in the 2007 World Cup and any move to Bath is likely to occur in November after the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Finnish rugby? Yes, it made me laugh too

Here's my column from today's Bath Chronicle. Similar stuff can be read here.

Have you heard the one about the female American powerlifter, the useless Scandinavian rugby side and the England star who got locked in a chapel? Believe it or not, they all have Bath Rugby connections.

It's been something of a surreal week here at Bradshaw Towers, I can tell you. The usual pattern of matches, press conferences and interviews has been broken by a few welcome curveballs.

First, there was the peculiar vision that greeted me when I walked into GG's steakhouse next to The Rec following Bath Rugby's win over Cardiff Blues.

Full-back Jack Cuthbert could be seen posing for photographs next to a woman with the shoulders and biceps of David Flatman (see above right). It was like something from Greek mythology, akin to stumbling across some hybrid beast. The smiling ripped blonde, it turned out, was Liz Freel, a top powerlifter from the States who was in this neck of the woods for a competition at the University of Bath.

My requests to discover whether she's being lined up as front-row cover for David Wilson have so far been stonewalled, although I hear she's handy in the lineout.

Then came the call from the Bath Film Festival.

No, they don't want me to star in another film. But they did tell me about a quirky movie night involving the unlikely combination of a hapless Finnish rugby side and Phil de Glanville.

On Tuesday, the Little Theatre will screen a documentary called Freetime Machos. After the film, ex-Bath and England centre de Glanville will hold a question-and-answer session with the movie's director, Mika Ronkainen.

The film's premise – to follow the fortunes of the world's most northern rugby side – may not be the most instantly appealing but for anyone who's played in a league of whatever standard, there's bound to be something that resonates.

The documentary is billed as a comedy – inevitable, I suppose, when you mention the words 'Finland' and 'rugby' in the same sentence.

But if you fancy watching a quirky account of rugby and male friendship, then get down to the Little Theatre for 6.30pm on Tuesday evening.

Next up in my week of oddities was a briefly alarming telephone interview with Bath and England centre Shontayne Hape.

Speaking from England's training base at Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey, everything was fine and dandy until, with a hint of rising panic in his voice, Shontayne informed me he'd locked himself in a chapel. Not long after the line went dead.

I'm pleased to be able to report that communications were soon restored and the silly billy soon realised he wasn't stuck after all. Just don't come similarly unstuck against the Wallabies, Shontayne!

Tickets for Freetime Machos (certificate 15) are £8/£6 (concessions) or £11/£9 for the balcony and available in advance from the box office on 01225 463362 or 0871 902 5735.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The mysterious case of Butch James and the injury-prone gelding

Over my mid-morning toast and Marmite, the following had me spluttering with the ferocity of Blackadder's General Melchett.

"Butch James yesterday confirmed he would be a force to be reckoned with at Riccarton."

Crikey, I thought, Butch is back from injury earlier than expected. I've missed a trick here.

The New Zealand Press Association story continued: "It will be a much fitter Butch James who treks south for a second bid on the New Zealand Cup in Christchurch next month."

The New Zealand Cup? Never heard of it.

Then the truth dawned. It turns out there's a horse called Butch James. An eight-year-old gelding, to be precise.

But then the story got even better. Apparently, old Butch was up against a horse that could easily be owned by Bath Rugby's chairman.

"Butch James loomed up outside Bruce Almighty," wrote the report ominously, before offering a more sober description of Butch's eventual victory.

There's obviously a metaphor in there somewhere but I'm not going to start making over-contrived analogies between racehorses and fly-halves (besides, I did that last season).

But given the injury travails our very own Butch has endured over the past two years, I couldn't help smiling at the remarks made by Adrian Bull, trainer of the equine Butch.

"We probably weren't fit enough last year," said Mr Bull. "This year he is."

I'm sure both Butch Jameses wish they could agree with that sentiment.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Should Moody be moved away from openside?

This was written before Luke Watson sadly picked up his injury against Quins yesterday - but I thought I'd still post it, as I believe the point still holds.

When you get praise from Leicester boss Richard Cockerill for your play in the forwards, you know you're doing something right.

Bath Rugby skipper Luke Watson was the recipient of such praise after Saturday's loss to the Tigers at Welford Road – and his eye-catching performance in the number seven shirt poses a conundrum for Bath head coach Steve Meehan.

When fit, England openside flanker Lewis Moody, pictured above, has been Meehan's choice at seven ever since he arrived at The Rec from Leicester over the summer.

But after Watson's performance at openside against Leicester, is it time to think the unthinkable – at least if you're an England fan – and consider playing Moody at blindside?
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Watson was heroic at the breakdown against the Tigers. The first turnover he won came in the tenth minute. Up until that point the match had been one-way traffic with Leicester already six points to the good.

But when Watson smashed into Geordan Murphy and forced the Leicester skipper to hold on to the ball, the immediate effect was to galvanise Bath.

It was Watson who punched the air and yelped with delight just as soon as referee Andrew Small blew up to signal the turnover but you can bet every member of the Bath side experienced a morale boost the moment the penalty was given.

It is upon such plays that games can turn. And, playing at seven, Watson seemed to be in his element. His marauding at the breakdown was superb. Certainly, he made a greater impact around the tackle area than Moody has managed in a Bath shirt so far this season.

Since he arrived at Bath last November, Watson has played the vast majority of his matches at number eight but openside is arguably his natural position. He played much of his rugby there in South Africa, with no less a coach than Nick Mallett describing Watson as the best openside in the country during his spell as Western Province director of rugby.

And Watson himself made no secret of how much he had enjoyed playing at seven when I spoke to him after Saturday's game.

"I enjoyed getting over the ball," he said. "I was pretty successful today and got three or four turnovers and put them under pressure.

"When Moodos comes back it'll be great to have him but I enjoyed getting over the ball and causing a bit of havoc."

So, what should happen selection-wise when Moody next plays for Bath?

With Simon Taylor slipping into the rhythm of things at Bath and putting in fierce performances at number eight, I would be reluctant to move him. Nor would I want to shift Watson from seven following his performance against Leicester.

I'd therefore bring Moody in at blindside in place of Andy Beattie. It would be a rapid back-row – surely one of the fastest in the Premiership – and one difficult to contain at the breakdown.

It's a bit of brain-twister for Meehan but it's not a bad position to be in.