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.