Monday, 17 December 2012

Italians are free-loading in European club rugby - and it's helping no-one

I hope I don't wake up with a horse's head next to me for saying this, but it's a joke that Italian rugby continues to receive guaranteed places at European club rugby's top table - almost as big a joke as Silvio Berlusconi  Just look at the results from this year's Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup. I go into chapter and verse on this here.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

I've teamed up with leading South Africa-based sports website

Over the past three years, I've done a fair amount of work for titles in South Africa and I'm pleased to announce I've started a collaboration with leading rugby website

The merits or otherwise of national teams selecting players based in other countries - or, indeed, other hemispheres - is a hot topic, and former Springboks assistant coach Gary Gold adds to that debate in my first contribution to the website.

 Belfast-based Bok Ruan Pienaar

I hope to do more with Quintin, Jan and the other guys at rugby365 soon, so keep an eye out.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Rugby and race

As football continues to destroy - or at least degrade - itself through racism rows, here are a few thoughts of mine on the issue of racism (or its absence) in rugby. It follows a story about an unsavoury incident in Redruth that I broke on BBC Sport Online a few weeks ago.
I'm not reopening old wounds here or seeking to sensationalse, I just want to ensure this abhorrent behaviour doesn't gain any sort of foothold in a game that is generally - and rightly - known for its warm, inclusive spirit.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Freddie Burns - who better to ask about the West Country derby?

He still regards Bath Rugby as his home team and openly admits to an enduring affection for the club. But on Saturday afternoon Freddie Burns will be seeking to bamboozle and out-gun anyone in blue, black and white as though his life depended on it.

As a teenager, Burns jumped ship from the Bath Academy and headed to the cherry and white of Gloucester. It was a colossal call for a 17-year-old to make, and the fly-half admits to having had a few moments along the way where he’s questioned the wisdom of the decision. But, 80 games for Gloucester and an England Saxons call-up later, there are zero regrets.

Greetings from the West Country

“Bath is definitely my home-town club – I spent many years growing up and sneaking into games at The Rec,” said the 22-year-old ahead of Saturday’s derby at Kingsholm. “But when I left Bath, it was a case of me wanting to get out there and test myself.

“Gloucester were known for playing a lot of youngsters, and at the time Butch James was the fly-half for Bath – he’s world-class. I thought about where I was going to have the best opportunity to become the best player, and I was impressed by how Gloucester structured their academy.

“They set out a plan for how they’d blood me. Dean Ryan (the then Gloucester director of rugby) said ‘You’ll be at Cinderford this year, Moseley next year if Gloucester don’t need you’. As a youngster, all you want to see is a bit of a pathway through and I felt Gloucester had that in place.

“It was a big call. It wasn’t easy. I had a lot of conversations with my parents and Bath players past and present – people I hugely respect. It took a long time to make the decision and I had my doubts over the years. But, especially over the past 18 months or two years, it’s definitely been worth the move in terms of how much I’ve played for Gloucester.”

Burns still enjoys bantering on Twitter with his mates from Oldfield Old Boys and regularly returns to the city; there is clearly still a part of him that’s rooted in Bath. And how couldn’t there be? He went to Beechen Cliff School and City of Bath College, started playing rugby aged five at Avon, and played for a host of sides in the city.

The build-up to a Bath-Gloucester derby has added a bit of frisson to this week, but Burns says he isn’t one to get carried away.

“It’s a West Country derby and that means a bit more excitement, however I’m not really the type to get too nervous or get caught up in it,” he said. “I’ll go through my week like it’s a normal week with the added bonus that it’s my home-town club I’ll be facing at the end of it. I do get a bit more stick from my mates in texts and on Twitter, though!

“My family and I still keep an eye out for Bath. It’s always going to be a club that’s special in my heart – it’s just a case of putting that to one side for an afternoon and getting the win.”

Freddie isn’t the only Burns on Gloucester’s books. His younger brother, Bill – four years his junior – also moved to the Cherry and Whites from Bath. The move took place after Bill, who turned 18 in June, was rejected by the Bath Academy.

Lightning appears to have struck twice, with Bill quickly following in his brother’s footsteps and rapidly rising through Gloucester's ranks. He played at fly-half against Newcastle in the A League on Monday, came off the bench for Gloucester’s first-team in a LV= Cup match last season, and has already played for England U18s.

“I’m lucky,” says Freddie. “The whole family comes with me to Gloucester and with what happened to Bill – with the Bath Academy not wanting him and the Gloucester Academy saying they'd have him – it’s strengthened the family connection with the club.”

The strength of that connection will be shown on Saturday when Burns will make every attempt to whip up the notoriously partisan Gloucester crowd to what he hopes will be Bath’s detriment.

“I’ve always been a bit of a showman and like to feed off the crowd and have a bit of banter with them,” he said. “I think you have to feed off The Shed on derby day.”

Showman is the right word. With flair, vision and a desire to take the ball on the gainline, Burns has established himself as the Cherry and Whites’ master of ceremonies. And there can be little doubt that many visiting fans on Saturday will wish that this showman still wore blue, black and white.

This article first appeared in The Bath Chronicle, which this week contains interviews with Bath coach Mike Ford and players David Wilson and Dan Hipkiss in the build-up to the derby.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Bristol's Chris Booy - a sure-footed chairman in the itchy-footed world of pro sport

Things have been a tad quiet on here of late, for which I apologise. In mitigation, I can only plead time-poverty. Making the transition to freelancer has been demanding, especially when set against the domestic backdrop of the imminent arrival of child number three. Still, at least I'll soon have a complete frontrow at my disposal.
I spoke to Bristol chairman Chris Booy just before the new season kicked off to do a piece for The Rugby Paper. In it, Booy spoke about how promotion from the Championship wasn't "the be all and end all" for his club this season. With multi-millionaire financial services big-hitter Steve Lansdown now on board, Booy said the emphasis at the Memorial Ground was on building a squad that would be capable of staying in the Premiership once it got up there, rather than going up and down between divisions like the proverbial courtesan's negligee.
Well, with the start Bristol have had, it's a good job promotion isn't the be all and end all.
It's been pretty grim so far, with three defeats in their opening five Championship matches. Two of those losses have been at home, the latest a 22-21 reversal against Moseley.
But don't strike a line through Bristol's promotion propects just yet. They have a phalanx of players due back from injury, and I liked the cut of  Booy's jib when I spoke to him back in late August. Measured, grounded and pragmatic, I think Booy's chairmanship, buttressed by Lansdown's deep pockets, will make Bristol a force to be reckoned with over the medium term.
“Getting promoted is not the be all and end all,” he told me. “We can go again. When we win the Championship, we want to make sure we stay in the Premiership. We don’t want the yo-yoing that we’ve had previously. That was down to financial instability and we don’t have that now. The plan is to build so that when we do get our prize we stay in the Premiership. We are in for the long-term. We are in the best place that the club has been in for a long time."
Refreshingly, the level-headed Booy is the perfect antidote to the worryingly expanding breed of impatient, trigger-happy CEOs and chairmen who bin coaches at the first sign of trouble. (Sale's Steve Diamond springs to mind.) Instead of waving the metaphorical axe in head coach Liam Middleton's direction, Booy offers a sympathetic ear.
“The head coach position in all sport is a dreadful position," he said. "You have the pressure of the directors’ ambitions on you, and then underneath you have the whole club reliant on the direction you choose. It’s a lonely place to be.
“So we have set up a series of mentors and friends of the club so that Liam has that network to help him. We have a young coach and we’ve had conversations with him so he has the best support. You need to get it right.”

How enlightened an approach in this increasingly itchy-footed, cut-throat world of professional sport. But whether Booy will be so sympathetic if things don't pick up for Bristol over the next couple of months is, I suspect, quite another matter.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Premiership Rugby needs consistency on TMOs

I wrote this article for The Rugby Paper at the start of August. A month on, and with the Premiership season starting tomorrow, it would be nice to see some progress here. For the sake of fairness, there surely needs to be equality of technological assistance for the referee across all matches.

Plans to introduce Television Match Officials at all Aviva Premiership matches for the forthcoming season have stalled as clubs ponder whether to stump up the £350,000 needed.

Talks over the use of TMOs at non-broadcast matches have gone quiet since a four-match trial at the end of last season.

Among those leading the push for the blanket use of TMOs are Exeter, but the Chiefs chairman and chief executive, Tony Rowe, says discussions among the Premiership Rugby board have been limited since the trial ended on April 21.

Rowe says Premiership clubs between them already pay over £1 million per season towards elite refereeing, making further costs for TV adjudication difficult for some clubs to bear. He believes the RFU should step in and shoulder some of the financial burden.

Exeter benefited during last season's TMO trial, with a match-winning try at Gloucester awarded to them after it was referred to the TV official.

"We would like to see TMOs at every match," said Rowe. "We would vote for it. TMOs are very important to the game. We have got to have enough strategically-placed cameras.

"After the game at Kingsholm we think it's a must going forward. I think there is widespread support but the issue fora lot of clubs is a financial one - having to pay for all the cameras.

"I don't know how long it would take to introduce. I've not been involved in any discussions since the trial last season."

Explaining why he believes the RFU should chip in, Rowe said: "Well over £1 million a year is paid by Premiership Rugby to the RFU for elite refereeing. At the moment, the money involved has got to come from Premiership Rugby rather than the RFU.

"The RFU wants elite rugby and makes most of its money from elite rugby with events at Twickenham so I think they should [contribute financially]."

Currently, only live Premiership matches broadcast by either Sky or ESPN benefit from TMOs. When Premiership Rugby announced the four-game trial at non broadcast matches last season, it said it was being carried out to help ensure the integrity of the competition.

A Premiership Rugby spokesman said this week: "It is an important innovation and it's something that could be reignited over the next couple of weeks.

"It will be on the agenda at the next Premiership Rugby board meeting in September. It's something that needs to be agreed by all clubs."

The broader use of TMOs is under consideration by the IRB, which in May announced it was considering widening TMOs' jurisdiction so they can rule on incidents of foul play, as well as play leading up to a try.

But Rowe is doubtful whether the Premiership will see the uniform use of TMOs at any point this season.

"If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd bet they won't be introduced this season - and that's because there's money involved," he said.

West Country rugby seeks inoculation against 'Welsh flu'

Former England coach Jack Rowell once complained that the Bath side he had just taken charge of suffered "Welsh flu" whenever they crossed the Severn Bridge for a match. Now the West Country side are hoping to leave a few other clubs feeling queasy after signing their own Welsh bruisers.

Wales utility prop Paul James and former Wales U21 lock Dominic Day have both been recruited to give Bath more grunt in the front five. James, who has 38 caps, moved after nine years at Ospreys while Day has moved to The Rec from Scarlets.

And with Ben Morgan 's move from Parc y Scarlets to Gloucester, they represent something of a eastwards migration over the Bridge.

"A lot of the time people here don't understand what Paul and I are saying to each other," laughs Day. "Paul's a Valleys boy and we both have thick accents.

"But Paul is a clever guy and a quality player and it's great to have someone of his experience also joining Bath. I've played against him and I know he doesn't take a backwards step."

Day and James are the latest Welsh players to head to either England or France following the introduction of a £3.5 million salary cap on the Welsh regions' player budgets.

But Day doesn't believe the move will harm his and James's international prospects. He believes the move to the Premiership will give his play a harder edge.

"As long as I'm playing well and if I am in contact with the Welsh Rugby Union, then we'll see," he said. "Stephen Jones, James Hook and others - a lot of these (international) players are leaving the country. I'm sure Paul still has ambitions to carry on playing for Wales.

"A lot of players are leaving Wales at the moment for one reason or another, and for me personally it was because I felt I needed a change. Things were getting a little stale at Scarlets.

"Part of the reason for coming here is that I want to improve my forwards play. The Premiership's got a reputation as a hard league with big forwards and there are quality sides to play week in week out."

Day admits to having been taken aback by the ferocity of Bath's pre-season programme.

"It's the work rate and the workload; it's been a lot higher this pre-season," he said. "Whether it's weights or contact sessions, it's been tough. I've had to learn a lot."

It might be a steep learning curve, but there is little chance that Day or James have been homesick, at least over the past month, thanks to the distinctly Welsh flavour to Bath's warm-up matches: London Welsh, Ospreys and Cardiff Blues.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The art of the sporting cliche

Cliches abound in sport. If anyone disagrees with that statement, then they clearly aren't snatching defeat from the jaws of victory enough during the business end of the season. Or being forced to dig deep enough during the relegation dogfight.

A classic sporting cliche is all too often trotted out when a squad is unveiled for a match or tour. "There is a nice blend of youth and experience," bleat the pundits. Zzzzzz.

But here's a blend that I think is working at the moment, at least in Bath Rugby's case: traditional one-for- all-and-all-for-one bonding methods and bang-up-to-date training techniques.

I rattled on last week about how Gary Gold and his team are using scientific methods to monitor each player's performance at training. In today's pages, Matt Banahan gives that regime his seal of approval, even though it involves a camcorder being pointed at him should he so much as breathe in the gym.

"We need to make sure we know the difference between fiction and reality," Toby Booth said to me earlier this week when I asked him about the painstaking measurements that are taking place. "Everybody knows where they are, rather than it being reputation and myth."

That's the science. But what about the old school bonding tricks?

On Sunday, the Bath squad were driven to an Army camp in Wales. Since then, the players' mobile phone use has been severely restricted and they've been involved in traditional team-building exercises as well as some frank discussions.

Yesterday they were constructing rafts, lugging cannons around and abseiling off cliffs. Best of all, they were made to attempt some archery while on the cusp of exhaustion.

In the weeks leading up to his departure from Bath, Sir Ian McGeechan kept insisting that the culture at Bath was good and that the foundations were laid for a strong future.

But it seems to me that Gold and his team have set about achieving a wholesale overhaul of the club's ethos. And on the basis of last season's performance, you could argue that that's no bad thing.

A recurring theme from the new coaches is that it's a clean slate and that a line's been drawn in the sand.
Perhaps those cliches have something going for them after all.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Flat out with the repartee - sad day for one-liners as David Flatman retires

Here's David Flatman's valedictory interview with me as he hangs up his boots because of a hand injury. The high-esteem in which the former England, Saracens and Bath prop is held across the game - and by journalists - was captured brilliantly by my fellow south west sports writer Steve Cotton in a fine comment piece in the Western Daily Press. Well worth a read.

Flatman speaks at a press conference in 2009

With a rapier-sharp wit and and a penetrating grasp of the game, Flats was always a joy at mid-week media sessions.
But us journos will still be bumping into him - he's taking up a post within Bath Rugby's communications department, where no doubt we'll all be subjected to his repartee in press conferences. To which I say: fantastic.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Fearns ready to Wade into the fray for England against the Baa-Baas

I'm delighted to see Carl Fearns picked at openside for England's tussle with the Baa-Baas at Twickers on Sunday. Here's an interview I did with him recently and an opinion piece.

You've got to look forward to the prospect of another Bright Young Thing of Engish rugby, Christian Wade, getting his first England start too. No doubt you've seen these tries by the Wasps flyer before, but I don't tire of watching his effortless glide over the turf, particularly when it makes Leicester look like a collection of poorly engineered tug boats:

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Bath Rugby go for Gold - Gary Gold

Gary Gold, Bath Rugby's incoming head coach, was hugely impressive when I spoke to him following his appointment earlier this week. He blends candour, experience and a steely edge, all leavened by a dollop or two of humour.
Some hard-nosed Springbok muscle is just the tonic for a Bath side which, too often, just wasn't able to physically assert itself on matches last season.
Club chairman Bruce Craig has also given me his explanation on why Gold was the man for him.
A tonne of reaction, analysis and comment surrounding Gold's appointment is in this week's Bath Chronicle. Sample some of it here.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Duncan Bell: I wish I'd spoken out about depression years ago

The Bath and England prop talks candidly about his struggle with mental illness as he prepares for his final match at The Rec

“My battery’s running down,” says Duncan Bell, glancing down at his phone. “There are 300 messages. I can’t believe the response.”

It’s about five hours since the Bath Rugby prop announced that he'd been silently battling depression for half of his 18-year career. Since that announcement, fellow players, fans and strangers have all been in touch, leaving Bell taken aback.

Mental health experts say that it is young men who are most likely to keep quiet about their depression and let the illness fester. Few speak up. But imagine how hard it must have been to open up for a 19st tighthead prop, whose job requires him to try and push eight blokes backwards for a living.

The news that Belly – the jovial fans’ favourite who always seems up for a jape – has been struggling with mental illness initially wrong-footed many.

Duncan Bell talks about his illness

To that extent, his announcement has done the worthy task of blowing out of the water the myth that to be depressed you have to appear glum, quiet and introspective.

“No-one really wants to talk about it in society generally, and especially in a bruising, man’s environment like rugby where we beat each other up on the pitch,” explains Bell. “You don’t talk about your feelings or what’s going on inside you.
“But the head is such an important part of the body. Without it you can’t play.

“It’s no different to pulling a hamstring. If you can’t get up in the morning and you can’t train because of your head, what’s the difference? Your head’s just as important as everything else and you need to look after it.”

Bell, 37, announced his retirement to his team-mates on Tuesday morning at the same time as revealing his struggle with depression.

Bath coach Brad Davis said: “I didn’t know about it at all. It came as a surprise to all of us at the club.

“Duncan’s suffered silently and credit to the man for coping so well and credit to the man for having the courage to share it with our squad and the greater rugby community. Him admitting it can only help other players in a similar position to speak out sooner.”

Bell, capped five times by England, is clearly relieved at having unburdened himself.

“I wish I’d done it years ago,” he says. “Why not tell fellow sportsmen there is this issue?

“If I can help anyone by doing this – by helping them to recognise if something is going on in their heads – then I will consider that an achievement.

“I’d have felt guilty if I’d got to the end of my career and not spoken about it and tried to help other players.”

Characteristically, despite the heavy topic, Bell lets a few wisecracks and anecdotes fly.

When we touch on Somerset cricketer Marcus Trescothick’s own revelations about his mental illness, Bell pipes up: “He’ll never remember this, but I played with Marcus at Avon under-19s. I batted at number three, but I never got to bat with him – he was always out!”

Bell touches down against Worcester Warriors

But away from the team environment, Bell is all too aware of how vulnerable he could be when he leaves Bath Rugby for good in May, going it alone as a mortgage adviser.

“Taking myself away from the group ethos and working for myself is going to be tough and very insular,” he says.

“When you come to a club environment where there are lots of players, you are not on your own and inside your own head. You’re stimulated by your mates and go to war with them every Saturday.

“When I’m involved with the club, I’m fine. It’s when I get away that the beast rears its ugly head occasionally.

“It’s not that I’m always unhappy in my own head, but sometimes it takes me to places I don’t want to go to.

“I’m concerned about how I’ll respond [after rugby]. I’m not on medication at the moment, but I’m aware of the warning signs.”

Bell leaves Bath with a European Challenge Cup winner’s medal and a nagging sense that the club has not quite hit the heights it should have done.

“It’s not the way I wanted to go out – I wanted to go out with silverware,” he admits.

“That is my biggest regret in the nine years I’ve been here. We’ve been so close so many times but the club’s never quite reached its potential.

“But anyone who starts playing top-flight rugby at 19 and retires at 37 with the amount of injuries I didn’t have can be pleased.”

As for his swansong on Saturday, Bell is unlikely to start put could have a seat on the bench – and he still has a touch of mischief about him.

“I don’t wish injury on anyone, but maybe someone could have an injury in the warm-up so I can get 80 minutes!”

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Olly Barkley sends cross-dressing pitch invader packing

Former England centre Olly Barkley has joined Australia cricketer Andrew Symonds in the ranks of those sportsmen who have inflicted superb hits on unwanted pitch invaders.
After protesting with stewards at Edgeley Park on Friday that they were doing next to nothing to remove a transvestite intruder from the pitch, Barkley took stewarding responsibilities into his own hands - to great applause from the fans.
Despite his textbook tackle, Barkley's Bath Rugby still lost 16-9 to Sale Sharks in the Aviva Premiership match.
But who delivered the better hit, Barkley or Symonds? Take a look below and make your own mind up.

Don't try that again, Goldilocks

Should he have left that ball alone?

Monday, 2 April 2012

From the most exciting side in the Aviva Premiership to a wet rag of a side

Remember those halcyon days of spring-time electrification at The Rec? Those moments when, with the ground firming up, the daffodils sprouting and the days lengthening, Bath Rugby sent a shiver down the spine with displays of attacking audacity and top-drawer skills?
Days like this:

Where there was once 2,000 volts of electricity, there is now barely a current. And there is certainly no spark.
Bath's display against Northampton Saints on Saturday was awful and embarrassing. So much so that the club's own coaches described it as such, even issuing an apology to the 12,200 fans who had parted with their cash in order to witness such a car crash of a performance.
In both 2010 and 2011, Bath experienced truly grim starts to the season, but salvaged respect and league position with end-of-term displays that blended a heady cocktail of panache and skill.
Lamentably, it's been a different tale this campaign. No fightback, no resilience and all the flair of a wet rag.
What has been the main variable that has changed since 2010, when Bath last secured a play-off spot? The removal of their head coach, Steve Meehan. Following the arrival of Sir Ian McGeechan, Meehan was steadily marginalised during the course of the 2010-11 season, before heading back to Brisbane in June 2011 with a year still to run on his contract.
By his own admission since that parting, Meehan was not always the easiest of coaches to work with and his man-management skills were not up to scratch during his tenure at the club. But a coaching set up is primarily judged on its results, and on that criterion Meehan has the better of McGeechan hands down.
Bruce Craig's huge investment in Bath Rugby since he bought the club two years ago has yielded the square root of zilch. Bath are a flimsy proposition when they play at The Rec, and are currently an Amlin Cup-quality team. At best.
Big things were said at the start of the season about how The Rec would once more become a terrifying place for visiting teams. Yet Saracens, Harlequins, Sale, Gloucester and Northampton have all won there so far this campaign. That is not the record of a team on the right track, particularly given that the worst of those losses – against Northampton – was the most recent.
After Saturday's non-event, all bets will be off over what happens over the next few days at Farleigh House. That sumptuous rural manor was intended by Craig to be an inspirational club HQ from which plots of European domination could be devised. The Northampton debacle will have left Craig apoplectic. I think it unlikely that he will wait until the end of the season before acting.
Although unconfirmed, I understand that there are discussions taking place about the possibility of an immediate change to the Bath set up.
That would be the right thing for the board to do. The natives in the East Stand are justly pulling their hair out, while the players – on Saturday's performance – look bewildered.
Yet, thanks to other mid-table sides also losing, there is still a chance for Bath to sneak into next season's Heineken Cup. There is still more than pride to play for, although pride will surely be the principal motivation when Bath take to the field against Sale Sharks in south Manchester a week on Friday.
It has been a season in which Bath's ability to frustrate has been exceeded only by their capacity to botch up the basics. Bruce Craig, the city and the supporters deserve better.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

One rule for the pros, another for the amateurs - why rugby has a fight on its hands

You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to conclude that there appears to be one law for professional rugby and another for the amateur game when it comes to the punishments handed down for on-pitch violence.
The jailing of Keynsham number eight Jack Weston for six months is a case that brings into sharp relief what, to my mind, is a disgusting disparity between the professional and amateur games in this country.
Weston was put behind bars for throwing two punches at an opponent during a ‘hotly contested’ derby with Oldfield Old Boys.

The moment that cost Jack Weston, left, his freedom 

Back in May, a rather better known player by the name of Manu Tuilagi threw three punches at an opponent in another hotly contested derby, this time in the East Midlands, between Leicester and Northampton.
Weston is now sitting in a prison cell. Tuilagi? Well, less than a month after letting rip with his barrage of punches in front of the TV cameras, he was named the Premiership’s Young Player of the Season. He then went on to play for England in the World Cup.
The only slap on the wrist for Tuilagi was a nominal five-week ban – I say nominal because the regular league season was over.
He was also ordered to pay £500 in costs – pretty small change for an international star.
In evidence given against Weston – who pleaded guilty to GBH – his victim, Oldfield’s Ben Staunton, said the impact of the second punch he had received had been “ten out of ten”.
Those who have seen footage of Tuilagi’s final effort on Chris Ashton could quite reasonably give it the same rating.

Ashton needed treatment to his cut and bruised face; Staunton’s jaw was broken.
The RFU’s disciplinary officer, Judge Jeff Blackett, so often a voice of reason, made the following observation after the hearing into Tuilagi’s behaviour. It was an observation that raised eyebrows at the time but, in the context of Weston’s case, it raises as many questions as it does eyebrows.
“This sort of incident is very damaging to the image of the game and there is no place for this type of offending on the rugby pitch,” wrote Blackett.
“Had it occurred in the high street an offender would have been prosecuted in the criminal courts. Nevertheless we are confident that Manu Tuilagi will learn a valuable lesson from this.”
Had it occurred in the high street.... Is the inference from this that professional players enjoy immunity from prosecution for their on-field violence? Because if that is the case, then it is certainly not the case for the amateur game, as Weston’s case has shown.
Jack Weston’s unacceptable behaviour did not occur on the high street, it occurred on the rugby pitch – and he had the book thrown at him.
Manu Tuilagi’s unacceptable behaviour also occurred on the rugby pitch – in front of a massive TV audience – and the CPS sat on its hands.
Almost laughably in the context of Blackett’s remarks, the judge in Weston’s case, Judge Carol Hagen, jailed him because of the bad example he had set.
“It is important everyone realises the consequences of the behaviour you engaged in on that November afternoon,” she told him before sending him down.
If lessons about consequences are to be learned, then Judge Hagen’s logic would lead us to the conclusion that Tuilagi should have been jailed too. After all, he was playing in a match watched by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people on television. He is the one idolised by kids.
I don’t condone Jack Weston’s actions, not one bit – thuggery in all its guises does not belong in the game – but the inconsistency across the different levels of the game stinks.
Once he is out of prison, Weston will face a Somerset RFU disciplinary hearing. That, surely, will be an ideal occasion for everyone in rugby to think long and hard about this frankly appalling disparity.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Mad Dog keeps smiling - Lewis Moody on retirement and his "ridiculous" career

Lewis Moody talks to me about his career, retirement and that creaking trophy cabinet

In his autobiography published after last year’s World Cup, Lewis Moody paid tribute to the cast of medics who had patched him up during his 16-year career.
And one day, the tale of his injuries, operations and comebacks will doubtless form a textbook for first-year medical students.
Ultimately, though, the years of attrition took their toll, resulting in his enforced retirement this week.

But, typically, Moody (pictured) was still smiling and looking to the future when I caught up with him on Tuesday. It was such a demeanour that saw him through many long injury lay-offs, injuries caused more often that not by the way he put himself about on the pitch.

Full-on, devil-may-care, kamikaze, scant regard for his own safety, body on the line... There are many ways in which Lewis Moody’s style of play have been described. Suffice it to say that the first person who nicknamed him Mad Dog wasn’t barking up the wrong tree.

Like a veteran of many a campaign in far-flung war zones, it takes more than one breath to get through Moody’s roll of honours.

The most capped England flanker, 71 caps for his country, seven Premiership titles, three for the British and Irish Lions, two Heineken Cup winner’s medals, one Anglo-Welsh Cup winner’s medal, two Six Nations Championship winner’s medals and one World Cup winners medal. It is some haul, and one that enables Moody to be at peace with his decision to hang up his boots.

“There’s no self-pity at all,” he says of the shoulder injury that has caused his retirement. “That’s not my style.

“I’ve had a phenomenal career - far greater than anyone could have imagined, certainly me. Some players don’t win a single trophy in their career, I think I’ve won 14 or something ridiculous.”

Many of Moody’s achievements were accomplished despite him being diagnosed with colitis in 2004-05. Over-exposure to anti-inflammatories, antibiotics and painkillers contributed to the onset of the condition, and a few seasons ago Moody even stopped taking protein shakes - ubiquitous in every professional club - to help his intestinal problems.

Moody made his international debut in 2001 and went on to feature in all seven of England’s games in their triumphant 2003 World Cup campaign.

He represented the Lions in 2005, helped England reach the 2007 World Cup and then captained his country into last year’s tournament.

Ultimately it proved a disappointing experience as England bowed out in the quarter-finals after a campaign dogged by controversy. Moody blamed himself for some of it.

He announced his retirement from the international game after the World Cup and was looking forward to channelling all his energies into Bath Rugby. Then, in his first Premiership game after returning from New Zealand, Moody took to the field at Sixways in what was to be his last game. A shoulder injury ended his game early, and it was to prove to be the final curtain on his career.

“It was gutting because when I retired from international rugby, all I wanted to do was focus my time on playing for Bath and playing out the two years left on my contract and then maybe having another year with the club,” explains Moody.

“I came back to training and was getting through everything great and then I suddenly couldn’t get through anything.

“You realise in your own head that something’s fundamentally not right and I realised that the injury I’d picked up against Worcester wasn’t something I was going to be able to come back from.

“It was an easy decision in that the body just wouldn’t recover.

“Of course I took professional advice. I wasn’t prepared to give up on my career until I’d explored every avenue.”

On Sunday, Moody decided he had played his final game.

“Over the weekend I had to bite the bullet and be realistic. I had to admit that I’d tried to come back but that unfortunately it wasn’t going to happen.”

And what of the future?

“There are many avenues for me to look at. Coaching is one of them, media stuff, team-building, after-dinner speaking and getting involved with the charities and sponsors that you can never give enough time to when you are playing due to training and games.

“There are so many options open to you it’s almost daunting thinking that you’ve got to go down one of them.

“Would I be a good coach? Who knows, I’d need to do some to find out. Would I be a good presenter? Who knows, I’d need to do some first. There are some interesting months ahead.”

Monday, 13 February 2012

And to cap it all...

Depending on your perspective (which in turn depends on how deep your pockets are), the Premiership’s salary cap is either a market-distorting piece of red tape that prevents English sides from competing on a level playing field in Europe, or a precious regulation that prevents the Chelseafication of rugby.

Whatever your thoughts on the cap’s existence, if it is there then it has to be enforced. Toothless regulations only muddy the waters.

For too long – to my mind, at least – the cap has been unsatisfactorily policed. It took too long to appoint a cap manager, and when he was appointed it was all a bit too low key.

Which is why it is good news that Premiership Rugby has now appointed big-hitting law firm Charles Russell to beef up its monitoring process.

The rumours of some clubs having previously embarked on sharp practices in order to skirt the cap are legion and it would be disingenuous of the authorities to pretend otherwise.

No doubt a great number of the ‘cap dodge’ tales are apocryphal – a birthday card stuffed full of cash was a wheeze that one player once jokingly mentioned to me – but for the sake of fairness, every side in the Premiership needs to know that all the others are complying with the wage ceiling.

Looking at their CV, few would doubt that Charles Russell are the ideal practice with which to ensure clubs remain whiter than white when it comes to the cap. Its clients include the Football Association, the British Horseracing Authority, the Scottish Football Association, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.

Contract scrutiny, spot checks and annual assessments should all be part and parcel of cap regulation. And rather like the judicial system at large, I suspect the rugby- supporting public would like cap assessment to not only be done, but be seen to be done.

Which is why an annually published cap report – with the necessary figures and sensitive information redacted – would be a welcome move.

With the addition next season of a regulation that will allow clubs to place one player outside of the cap, plus a modest increase in the basic cap, efficient monitoring will become more crucial. Charles Russell, get cracking.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Are you happy now, Sir?

When a Premiership coach mutters the words “referee” and “criticism” in the same sentence, he is dipping his toes in very dangerous waters indeed.

As Saracens’ Brendan Venter and Sale’s Steve Diamond have learned over the past year, expressing one’s contempt for an official’s performance in a less than subtle way can lead to stiff punishment.

And quite right too. Once respect for the ref goes, respect for the opposition – and the broader game – can go up in a puff of smoke as well.

But things cannot be allowed to swing so far that a referee’s performance is beyond criticism and that is why Brad Davis’s remarks, in today’s Chronicle, are welcome.

Read the Bath first-team coach’s comments and you can feel the frustration – but there is sympathy for the referees’ situation, too. Goodness knows that refereeing a rugby match is a tall order. As an enterprise with more regulations than an EU bureaucrats’ banquet, one man cannot make the right call at every single point in an 80-minute game. The poor bloke only has one pair of eyes.

But that does not mean referees exist in an inner sanctum and are untouchable. If coaches believe a referee has mishandled a particular part of a game, and can deliver measured and cogent explanations as to why that is, then they should be free to voice those views at a post-match press conference. And while Davis’ suggestion that referees should make public mea culpas every time they have made a howler might sit uneasily with some, including me, I can sympathise with the general direction – if not the conclusion – of the argument.

A regime that required referees to hold their hands up could, over time, erode trust in those very officials it was designed to support. Rather than earning supporters’ respect, fans could well end up rolling their eyes and saying “He’s got it wrong again”.

There will be those who lament the fact that not all referees now receive the rather Victorian address of ‘sir’, although a number of professionals still use this.

But if there is to be greater trust in the way games are officiated, then I can suggest three measures to at least get the process going.

Firstly, there needs to be uniform coverage of matches by television match officials. You cannot have a situation where one match is covered by a TMO and another – which is of potentially equal significance to the league’s final shape – which does not give the ref the option of ‘going upstairs’.

Secondly, ensure the assistant referees – aka linesmen – do indeed assist the ref. Well- run games are invariably the product of a trio of officials working in harness, with the man in the middle constantly using the extra eyes and ears that are at his disposal.

Finally, the RFU should make public (perhaps on its website) an abbreviated version of the feedback that it gives to clubs about a referee’s performance. This would at least satisfy supporters that gripes are being addressed. It would also keep the game’s regulators and referees on their toes.

That should help keep the supporters onside, shouldn’t it, sir?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Matt Banahan column coming your way

He might have accused me of being a car thief when I turned up at a press conference the other day in the editor's Merc, but Matt Banahan is still on track to write an exclusive column for The Bath Chronicle during the 6 Nations.
The England back was controversially dropped to the second-string Saxons by Stuart Lancaster earlier this month, but Banners is itching to get back into the senior squad and will be offering his own take on Europe's top rugby competition.
We're just dotting the i's etc but I should have more details soon.

English clubs go (salary) cap in hand as Euro campaigns falter

Bath Rugby have one last chance this weekend to ensure their European campaign ends with a bang rather than a kitten-like whimper. But whether or not they manage to beat Glasgow on Saturday, this season's campaign has seen Bath's value among the continent's big boys fall faster than the Euro.

If Bath were a European economy, they would have endured a triple dip recession in recent years. A new Heineken Cup campaign always heralds fresh positivity, but Bath have nosedived in each of the last three seasons.

Bath have won four Heineken Cup matches during those three campaigns, an embarrassing stat for former champs however you dress it up.

Two of those wins were against Italian whipping boys, with the other two coming at home against Edinburgh in 2009-10 and Montpellier this season. Neither of those last two victories was convincing.

Put another way, very few scalps have been claimed by a side with the self-professed goal of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Toulouse, Munster and Leinster.

But Bath are not the only side whose stock has plummeted on the European bourse. Investors in that traditionally defensive stock, Leicester Tigers, also have cause to feel jittery.

Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill partly blamed the salary cap for his side's woes after they were on the end of a beating in Ulster last Friday.

In Cockers' book, the cap prevents English sides from having sufficient depth to compete with those French and Irish sides which have greater wherewithal.

There is certainly something that separates Irish clubs and English clubs at the moment. For proof of that, just cast your eye over the tables.

Three Irish provinces sit at the top of their pools. And the only province that isn't, Connacht, came within a gnat's crotchet of beating Gloucester at Kingsholm, a location not exactly known for its warm welcome.

The cap will lose some of its potency as an excuse next season when it rises. A more compelling explanation for the Anglo-Irish divide, I think, is that the provinces don't have to worry about demotion from the relegation-free Pro12.

If English sides want a level playing field, the Premiership needs a fixed composition. Until then, the dice are unfairly loaded against them.