Thursday, 30 June 2011

Blood, sweat and beers - and yoga

Yoga in the grounds of an immaculately maintained 120-acre estate. Welcome to pre-season training, Bath Rugby style.

The bulk of the Bath squad are now nearing the end of their second week of summer training – and there are still nine weeks to go before the first game of the campaign.

With such a long pre-season stretching ahead of them, the key for the strength and conditioning experts who lead such training is to ensure that a sense of tedium doesn’t creep in.

Flipping tyres, pushing sledges and hitting scrum machines are necessary elements in any pre-season programme – there’s no escaping the hard graft – but they cannot be the only ingredients.

To avert a sense of groundhog day, a few novelties have to be thrown in. On Tuesday afternoon, it was yoga time for some of the squad. Lycra, I believe, was optional.

Not that it’s all been about adopting the lotus and the downward-facing dog at Farleigh House.

Lock Stuart Hooper admitted the squad was, at times, being subjected to a whip- cracking regime of blood, sweat and tears.

“There hasn’t been much blood so far, there’s been a fair amount of sweat and no doubt there’s been a few tears in the evening when people have got home!” he said.

“It’s been hard but then it wouldn’t be a good pre-season if it wasn’t hard.”

The art of combining the nitty gritty with the refreshingly unusual is something Premiership champions Saracens have excelled at of late.

Whether it’s trips to German beer festivals or a couple of days with the Miami Dolphins, the management at Sarries know that a few non-traditional stimuli are needed to keep a squad on its toes, cohesive and hungry.

Bath appreciate this, too. Last season, there were sessions with firefighters at Bristol Airport, pictured, and an afternoon of swinging from trees.

More of this may prove a wise investment. As Sarries have shown, blood, sweat and beers really can work.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Socialist Republic of the Premiership

My musings on Gloucester shareholder Tom Walkinshaw's declaration that Premiership Rugby has its roots "somewhere in socialism"

Those volatile elements, sport and politics, need to be handled carefully whenever there's the slightest whiff that they might be about to combine. Otherwise there can be an unholy combustion.

Inevitably, the debate over the impending increase of the Premiership salary cap has generated a political debate with a small 'p'. Some clubs want it, others aren't so keen. One club has x agenda, another has y agenda.

Such internal politics are bound to occur within Premiership Rugby, the organisation which comprises the top dozen English sides.

What isn't inevitable is the manner in which certain clubs chose to publicly vent their views on the matter.

Ryan Walkinshaw, a major shareholder at Gloucester and the son of former owner Tom, this week gave a revealing interview which was as frank as it was engaging.

Walkinshaw clearly has a passion for the game that rivals his father's and the 23-year-old's views on its future are both well articulated and, in many cases, plausible.

But one of his remarks will no doubt prompt a few raised eyebrows.

"The whole idea of Premiership Rugby as a body has a base somewhere in socialism, in that we are all in it together, for the good of the sport."

During my time as an amateur player, and during my time as a rugby writer, I have to say I haven't had that many discussions about socialism. So it was intriguing to discover that one of the biggest players in the domestic game believes aspects of English professional rugby have their roots in Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto.

I can understand Walkinshaw's sentiments – English clubs do, to a degree, need to co-operate for the good of the game – but the problem is that the game is not played in an English bubble. There is Europe to worry about, too.

Holding back other English clubs because you don't have the money that they have (as Gloucester seem to want to do) might serve your self-interest but it will have the wider effect of harming English clubs' prospects on the European stage.

In that regard, Walkinshaw's proposals are inward-looking and redolent of a 'closed shop' mentality. That attitude won't help an English club lift the Heineken Cup. And would that be "for the good of the sport"?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

All Black Donald fits the bill for Bath Rugby chairman Craig

Bath Rugby have the signature of their new fly half and sources suggest it's All Black Stephen Donald, although there is no confirmation from the club. This column, taken from today's Bath Chronicle, explains why Donald and not Danny Cipriani fits chairman Bruce Craig's vision for the club.

A lot was made of what a physically intimidating specimen Butch James was when he played in the Premiership.

But it seems that the man who is poised to replace the sturdy South African in the number ten shirt at The Rec could be even more, well, butch.

While there is no official word from Bath Rugby, it seems that All Black Stephen Donald, pictured, is likely to be the man who, barring any last-minute hitches, will be pulling the strings at fly-half next season.

As mentioned in last week’s Chronicle, sources indicate that Donald is the man likely to become Bath’s stand-off for the 2011-12 campaign and beyond.

Donald would be a good fit at Bath, not only because of his 6ft 3in frame but because of his reputation as a selfless, hard-working team player.

In an interview with the Chronicle in April, Bath chairman Bruce Craig articulated a vision for the sort of culture he wanted to foster.

In it, he emphasised how important he regarded the chemistry that pervaded a rugby club.

“If you look at the likes of Toulouse, Munster, Leinster and Perpignan, there is a passion, fervour and a willingness on the pitch to almost die for the shirt,” he said.

“You can’t bring in journeymen to do that. That’s one of the things we’re working on. The chemistry is very important.”

Across the Super 15 and in the All Blacks camp, Donald commands respect as a committed, grafting figure – an axis around which the rest of a side can revolve.

He may not bring the heart-in-mouth antics of a Quade Cooper and may have been forced to play understudy to Dan Carter for the All Blacks.

However, as a wise distributor and a reliable place-kicker he would be a wise investment, particularly if he arrives at Bath on a long-term contract.

Sources suggest that Donald would remain at The Rec on a deal until 2014. That would certainly remove him from the ‘journeyman’ category and, at 27 years of age, Bath could quite reasonably expect to get some of the best years of his career out of him.

A fortnight ago, I revealed Danny Cipriani’s representatives had approached Bath.

But under Craig’s vision, Donald is a far better fit.

Photo by Steve Haag/Back Page Sport

Friday, 3 June 2011

Excuse me while I get my trumpet out for a second

Yesterday, I was chuffed to be named Sports Journalist of the Year at the EDF Energy South West Media Awards for the second year on the spin. I'm still chuffed today, actually, although my parade was marginally rained on when my four-year-old told me at bed time last night that she "didn't want to be a journalist" when she grew up and that she "wasn't proud" of daddy. In such circumstances, you'll hopefully forgive me the vainglory of posting a link about my modest triumph...
Self-congratulatory link one and self-congratulatory link two

Changes to the Premiership salary cap could create a two-tier league - but change was the only option

Have the turkeys voted for Christmas? The unanimous support for the changes to the Premiership's salary cap took me by surprise, as I can only see the league's less wealthy clubs suffering as a result. But perhaps they have been motivated by a commendable spirit of altruism... Here's my weekly column for The Bath Chronicle on the issue

There is now no question that Bath Rugby have become a major force when it comes to running the domestic game.

The announcement by Premiership Rugby last week that the salary cap is to be modified is a victory for the club's negotiating powers behind the scenes.

Less than a year ago, Bath chief executive Nick Blofeld and others began the task of reviewing the cap as part of a Premiership Rugby initiative.

Now, following the unanimous support for the review's findings, Bath have got pretty much what they want – albeit the changes will not take full effect until the 2012-13 season.

In essence, the cap will be lifted to £4.5 million, with clubs also free to pay whatever they want for one player whose wages will fall outside the cap.

As events in Zurich have shown in recent days, the internal politics of sporting organisations can be unsavoury, bitchy and shady.

But Premiership Rugby's negotiations over the cap changes appear to have been a polite Georgian tea party compared with FIFA's bun fight.

Ever since chairman Bruce Craig bought the club last April, Bath have made cogent arguments about why the English club game would suffer in Europe unless the cap was raised or modified.

It is a sign of Bath's clout and astuteness that they have negotiated their way to a settlement which gives them the power to deepen their squad with top drawer stars. That will apply to other clubs with deep pockets too, though, such as Northampton.

But will the changes herald the beginning of a two-tier Premiership, with the wealthy clubs leaving their poorer cousins behind?

As a number of Bath supporters have said to me, the likes of Newcastle and Sale voting for the cap changes is akin to turkeys voting for Christmas.

It is inconceivable that they will be able to afford the cap-exempt players which Bath, Saracens et al are likely to fly in.

But the English Premiership does not operate in a vacuum, and it would seem that the less wealthy clubs have recognised that. If the English game is to maintain its profile, its reputation and its ability to compete in Europe, then these changes are necessary, even if there is the danger of a financial elite emerging.

Read my interview with Bath CEO Nick Blofeld on the impact of the changes to the cap.