Saturday, 21 December 2013

Why (Dean) Mumm's the word for Exeter Chiefs

With a minimum of fuss but with a barrel-load of guts, Exeter Chiefs continue to develop as a potent Premiership force. This past week sums that up.

The Chiefs have announced that their Wallaby skipper, Dean Mumm, has signed a contract extension, while the club also picked up a hatful of awards at the BBC South West Sport Awards.

Hat trick of awards. Picture: Exeter Chiefs/Pinnacle Photo Agency

Exeter might not have recruited sweepingly since they were promoted from the Championship four seasons ago, but they have recruited shrewdly. There have been incremental additions that have added to a rock-solid core of long-serving players. The acquisition of lock forward Mumm ahead of the 2012-13 season encapsulated the Chiefs' shrewdness on the recruitment front.

That the Australian has been persuaded to extend his stay speaks volumes too about the direction the club is heading in.

Hard-grafting, spirited and with a thirst to get the ball in hand, Mumm sums up Exeter's philosophy.

On top of that, Chiefs winger Jack Nowell has been named BBC South West Sportsman of the Year, and Exeter named Team of the Year. To complete the hat-trick, head coach Rob Baxter - whose stock continues to rise steadily - picked up the coaching award.

Another good week for a side that is surely an example to all clubs when it comes to implementing a steady, admirable evolution.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Bath complete paperwork to ensure England centre Kyle Eastmond is available for Europe

He's had a difficult month after the disciplinary action that was taken against him following his walk-out at Sale, but Bath Rugby and England centre Kyle Eastmond is set to feature for his club during the forthcoming fortnight of European rugby.

Despite not having initially been registered by Bath for the pool stages of the Amlin Cup, Bath are now completing the necessary paperwork to ensure Eastmond is eligible for Saturday's match in Mogliano. Read my exclusive story here.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Watch out One Direction! There could be a scrum for the Christmas number one

If One Direction started going to the gym, played with oval balls and grew 'taches, the result might be something like this:
(l to r) Chris Bell, Ben Ransom, Elliot Daly, Will Fraser, James Haskell and Dylan Hartley show off their taches after a trip to a barbers in Covent Garden for Movember. Picture: Garry Bowden/Pinnacle

















And Saracens' Ben Ransom would surely have to be the frontman. Just look at those cherubic features. Watch out Harry Styles!

Picture: Garry Bowden/Pinnacle
Wasps' Elliot Daly, meanwhile, looks like he missed his vocation as a RAF pilot. Chocks away, Wing Commander Daly!

Picture: Garry Bowden/Pinnacle




To donate to Movember and raise money to support the fight against testicular and prostate cancer, go to http://uk.movember.com/donate

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Bath v Gloucester - Full-time match report in The Guardian

Here's a link to my on-the-whistle report for The Guardian from last night's West Country derby.

Freddie Burns kept Gloucester in the game with an intelligent display at 10, but you'd be hard pressed to find any other positives for the Cherry and Whites, whose discipline was atrocious. Conceding 19 penalties away from home is never likely to end in a victory.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Drugs in rugby - a story of saints and sinners

Five Aviva Premiership players tested positive for recreational drug use last season. They were fined £5,000 each. That’s one heck of an expensive joint or line of cocaine. A strong deterrent, you would think, to those tempted to commit future abuses.

Five is a low figure – it amounts to about one per cent of Premiership players. If you contrast that to society at large, then rugby players are saints. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, about nine per cent of the adult population takes an illicit drug during a calendar year.

Moreover, the 2012-13 season was the first time that the RFU’s anti-doping scheme had recorded a positive test for a recreational drug since the scheme was introduced in 2009-10. And not a single positive test has been recorded for a performance-enhancing drug. Compared with the general population, rugby players’ halos really are burning bright.

But there is a ‘but’. The RFU’s anti-doping policy, administered in partnership with Premiership Rugby, was drawn up following Bath Rugby’s dark period in 2009, when five players – or, put another way, a third of the first team – received bans for either taking recreational drugs or refusing to take tests. In the wake of that, the RFU not only drew up its new policy but also – in conjunction with the players’ union, the Rugby Players Association – introduced an education programme to highlight both the dangers of drugs and the new testing regime.

In the wake of such an awareness campaign, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that five players have still been stupid enough to dabble in either cocaine, cannabis, ecstasy or amphetamines.

Following the publication of the RFU report on Tuesday, former Bath Rugby prop David Barnes, who is now director of the RPA, made a comment that blended reassurance with vigilance.

“A small number of adverse findings via the illicit drugs programme is a reminder that we can never assume the anti-doping job has been ‘done’,” said Barnes.

“It is reassuring to see another season concluded with no systemic doping amongst the senior elite players in England. They continue to be role models for the wider game.”

While a jump from zero positive tests to five is significant, it should be remembered that many professional players inhabit an environment that is virtually alien to the man on the street; an environment in which they are often lauded as giants among mortals. As Justin Harrison, one of the ex-Bath players banned four years ago, told me: “It [drugs] is an easy trap. Players have pretty high amounts of disposable income and most of the guys are being repeatedly told how invincible they are, so you push yourself to the limit, both physically and socially.”

And that’s why, as Barnes puts it, the anti-doping job is never ‘done’.

This column first appeared in The Bath Chronicle.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The oddities and contradictions of Premiership Rugby's salary cap enforcement

Have Premiership turkeys just voted for Christmas? My thoughts on Premiership Rugby's tough-talking over the policing of the salary cap.

A flimsy regulation that is easily circumvented by canny financial directors or a useful way of ensuring that Premiership teams compete on a level playing field?

Whatever your view, the salary cap remains as hotly-debated now as it was in 1999 when it was first introduced by the top-flight English clubs.

Whispers, nudges and chin-stroking surround the cap on the players’ wage bill. Sit in a rugby press box or a rugby-loving pub and the subject of which club is flouting the cap and by what means will, in the normal course of things, pop up before you can say ‘Pay-him-extra-by-slipping-a brown-envelope-in-his-training-bag-on-his-birthday-and-by-paying-his-missus-to- do-phantom-shifts-in-the-club-shop’.

Coaches aren’t immune from making nudges, either. Every so often, a director of rugby or a head coach will lob an innuendo about a breach of the cap in another club’s direction, usually in the run up to them playing that coming Saturday.

Now we all have a chance to snitch. Premiership Rugby announced this week that it has set up a salary cap hotline phone number. It’s like Crimestoppers, only for rugby. Capstoppers, you might say. Anyone with intel about a club being in breach of the £4.26million cap is urged to email salarycap@ premiershiprugby.com or call 07583 826343.

Hot air and posturing? Not if Premiership Rugby is to be believed. The umbrella group representing top sides has said there will be “increased monitoring, investigation and transparency” of the cap. Moreover, the organisation has said it will “now undertake an Investigatory Audit in addition to the current annual Salary Cap audit which can involve using independent experts, to access relevant records held by a club who are suspected of breaching the regulations”.

To my ears, that is the toughest Premiership Rugby has ever sounded on enforcing the cap. Great news, you might say.

The problem, however, is this. The salary cap is voted for by the clubs. So if one or more clubs has voted for the beefed-up enforcement of the salary cap despite being in contravention of the wage limit, then at least one turkey has voted for Christmas. But turkeys of this sort don’t vote for Christmas – not unless they have a cheeky escape route from the turkey pen already in mind.

Also, is it right that those clubs suspected of breaching the cap will have a confidential disciplinary hearing, as the current terms state?

Would the integrity of the game not be better served if the names of such clubs were made public before such hearings took place, thereby enabling those with potentially corroborating information to come forward?

But however flawed the policing of the cap might be, this muscle-flexing is welcome.

You never know, with enough calls to the hotline before Advent, one of the turkeys could be roasted by Christmas.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Playing in Heineken Cup gives us extra chop in the Premiership, says Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter

I spoke to Rob Baxter at the Aviva Premiership launch back in late August about his thoughts ahead of the Heineken Cup. With the Chiefs starting their European campaign on Sunday, here are the Exeter coach's views.

Drawing the Heineken Cup’s reigning champions two years on the bounce might dishearten some coaches. But Rob Baxter is warning Exeter’s Premiership rivals that playing against the very best that Europe has to offer will once again make his side a formidable proposition come the return of domestic league action.

The Chiefs won six of their final seven matches in the Premiership last season, an impressive finale that Baxter attributes to the hard lessons that Exeter learnt during their maiden Heineken campaign.



Last season, Exeter were twice beaten by 2012 Heineken champions Leinster and given a double thrashing by Clermont Auvergne. This season, 2013 winners Toulon await the Chiefs, along with Pro12 high-fliers Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff Blues.

“I think a few people think that last season’s Heineken Cup hurt us in some way, but the reality is that last year was fantastic for us,” Baxter told me.

“We had a tough group and we played every game to try and win and we learnt a heck of a lot, and I think that was reflected in the run of games we had at the end of the season.

“We were one of the form teams of the Premiership at the end of the season. We won six out of seven games and one of those games was a three-point loss to Leicester.

“That’s not a bad run of form and I believe a lot of that was down to the lessons we learnt from playing in the Heineken Cup – physically and mentally – and getting used to that kind of intensity.

“That’s why I want to be in the Heineken Cup again. Not because I’m sitting here saying I want us to win it, but because I want us as a team to keep getting better, and you keep getting better as a team by being in the best competitions.”

Baxter admits qualification to the Heineken Cup’s knock-out stages is a tall order, but believes the battle-hardening experience is invaluable.

“People have spoken about progression from the Heineken Cup, but the reality is we’ve still got Toulon – the current champions – just as we had Leinster last year,” said the Exeter head coach, whose side kick off their Heineken Pool 2 campaign on Sunday by hosting the Blues.

“Cardiff seem very buoyant on their new pitch and Glasgow were one of the form teams in the Pro12 last season.

“It’s not necessarily about where we finish but about how we perform and the attitude we show.

“I’m not too worried about the Heineken Cup as regards what it brings us in rewards as an individual competition. What’s important is that we go after every game flat out like we did last year.”

Thursday, 26 September 2013

European club rugby - what's the future?

The Heineken Cup-Rugby Champions Cup saga rumbles on. Read my exclusive interview with Premiership Rugby's Bruce Craig, in which he warns of "financial oblivion" for Pro12 clubs if administrators try to frustrate plans for the Rugby Champions Cup. There's also audio of the interview that I did for the BBC.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Warriors and Exiles

It's a trip to Sixways for me tomorrow where I'll be broadcasting for the BBC at Worcester Warriors Vs London Irish and reporting for The Rugby Paper. I'll be expert summariser on BBC Hereford & Worcester; a link to the commentary and all other BBC rugby commentaries this weekend can be found here.

Friday thoughts on Freddie Burns, Dean Richards & Richard Cockerill

Gloucester’s Freddie Burns will make his 100th appearance for the Cherry and Whites this weekend when they travel to Sarries. One hundredth appearance? Incredible, really, given that it seems just a jiffy ago that I was asking Burns' lanky, teenage frame what it was like playing his first pre-season friendly against his home-town club, Bath.
So the hundred’s up for Freddie, aged just 23. And for all his Bath roots, he is perfectly happy to now describe himself as a Gloucester boy. I wouldn’t bet against him chalking up 300 appearances for Gloucester during his career.
Burns was, and remains, the one who got away for Bath.

**************

Last season, Bath collectively psyched themselves up for their home encounter with Leicester by watching the video of the 2008 game in which Butch James scored one of the most implausible match-winning tries ever. That last-gasp score was inspiring enough, but even more inspiring was the physical tenacity that Bath brought to their play that November day.


Butch James's modest celebration at The Rec, 2008
 
As a preparation tactic for last season’s game, it worked a treat. Bath won another pulsating game with another late try by another swan-diving South African – this time it was Francois Louw.
So, how have Bath prepared for Saturday’s 100th anniversary match with Leicester? By watching DVDs of those two fixtures, you'd expect. And with Louw away on Rugby Championship duty, it might be handy for the West Country side to bus in an additional South African or two for the occasion.

************

Nilling a team when you are away from home is never a bad way to start a season. Bath’s performance against Newcastle last Friday was controlled, controlling and perfectly adapted to the conditions.
From beginning to end, it was a consummately professional showing. And I haven’t been able to write that too many times in recent seasons.
Newcastle were thoroughly beaten up. All of which made the post-match remark by Falcons boss Dean Richards that “Against bigger sides, Bath will become unstuck” distinctly perplexing.
Well, Dean, if Bath will become unstuck, then the outlook doesn’t look great for your nilled Falcons, does it?

************

Talking of motormouthed coaches, it just won’t be the same on Saturday without Leicester boss Richard Cockerill in the stands. No more shouts of “That’s embarrassing, referee!” and the like.
Cockers is currently banned from being involved with Leicester on match-days following his outburst during the Premiership final, the transcript of which would no doubt be deserving of a Tarantino script. Still, it will be quieter in the West Stand on Saturday. And referee Greg Garner will be able to leave his earplugs at home.
For all his hollering and desk-thumping, I’d still rather have Cockerill there for a ding-dong Bath-Leicester scrap. He brings passion and unpredictability – two ingredients for any compelling spectacle. But then it’s not me who gets bawled at by him. Not yet, anyway.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Relegation dog fight? No chance, says Andy Saull - Falcons will be pushing for top six

I remember the first time I saw Andy Saull play rugby; he was a whirling dervish with tape strapped round his head. He charged about The Recreation Ground for Saracens as though his life depended on it, blending the athletic with the obstreperous. Sarries might have lost to Bath that afternoon in 2009, but Saull kept the home side on their toes throughout the encounter.

Four years on, Saull is still only 24, but has yet to pick up the England cap that many were predicting back in 2009 and 2010. After struggling to pin down the openside flanker berth at Sarries last season, he's now headed to Newcastle in search of more game time.

But he acknowledges he has his work cut out if he is to make the number 7 shirt his own at the Falcons - not least because his rival for the openside slot is the club's captain, Will Welch.

“For me, this season is about playing rugby regularly,” Saull tells me.

“Will Welch was captain here last season and he has been incredible in training so far.

“It’s about seeing whether I can share the 7 shirt with him – or get hold of it myself and do it justice.”

And the Falcons new boy says he has been impressed by a culture of ambition and confidence at Kingston Park, and is backing the Falcons to finish in the top half of the table in their first season back in the top flight.

“As a club I don’t see why we can’t be pushing for Heineken Cup rugby next season. Looking at the guys we’ve signed and the talent we have, I think that’s achievable,” he says.

“There is no lack of ambition, hunger and motivation at Newcastle Falcons. If we can get the squad atmosphere right and build those player connections quickly, then I’d be disappointed if we weren’t mid-table by Christmas.”

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Thursday, 18 July 2013

How Gavin Henson's jaw raised the ghost of 2009

We've all had a good gawp at this video - and in the process been reminded of how smartphones and social media have propelled famous sports people into a state of near-permanent visibility. But what does Carl Fearns' punch on Gavin Henson really mean for their club and the sport?



Forget Henson for a moment. Forget Fearns, too. Despite the spin that Gav-watchers might try and put on this incident in the Pig and Fiddle pub in Bath city centre last week, the significance of what happened is more about the consequences for the club as a collective than the consequences for a couple of its players.

Haunting the post-mortem into the bust-up has been the ghost of deeds past.

Four summers ago, the curtain came whizzing down on what – for want of a better phrase – was a ‘party culture’ at Bath Rugby.  The club was in a state of tumult following an RFU hearing that saw former team-mates effectively testify against former team-mates over allegations of who took what on a night out. Within a space of four months, five players – including the club’s co-captains – had left the club having either admitted taking Class A recreational drugs or having been accused of taking Class A drugs.

In the wake of that crisis, Bath laudably instigated a player-led process of developing a list of values that formed the essence of the club. The bond of camaraderie that underpins a successful rugby club may have been dealt a major blow, but the club was quick to start the healing process.

When Fearns’ right fist connected with Henson’s jaw last Wednesday, the ghost of 2009 was temporarily resurrected.

The club knows it cannot afford to once again be the object of speculation and innuendo about what its players are up to off the field. Such distractions do not foster the single-mindedness required to make a mid-table side into a table-topping side.

This time last year – with the arrival of a new coaching team – the club’s marketing people dubbed the 2012-13 campaign ‘A New Beginning’. That catchline, with all its connotations of a clean slate, cannot be allowed to be contaminated by questionable off-field behaviour.

And that’s why the club has acted swiftly and decisively, fining Henson and Fearns and issuing them with written warnings.

Interestingly, however, not a single former Bath player I’ve spoken to since the incident believes what happened is necessarily a bad thing for the club, at least as far as squad development is concerned.

It may sound a tad oafish, but in rugby the use of fists against one’s own is usually construed as a sign of passion and commitment. Players only fight in training because they are pumped up and care about what they are doing.

Leicester’s training ground fights are the stuff of legend – and look at their track record.

The problem last week was that the niggle spilled out in a very public way.

It was unedifying and unacceptable in a public place, yes. But, given the oddities of masculine initiation, Gavin Henson will probably feel a more integrated member of the Bath Rugby squad today than he did a fortnight ago.

As one ex-player put it to me, "It's old school rugby values. Is it right? Probably not."

This post is based on a column for The Bath Chronicle.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Ok, so you were right, Warren!

When Brian O'Driscoll was dropped ahead of the Lions' series decider, I tweeted that removing BOD from a Lions lineup on the eve of a tour finale was akin to removing turkey from the menu on December 24.
I then wrote a column saying Warren Gatland had not only succeeded in wrong-footing the opposition by dropping O'Driscoll - he'd wrong-footed his own team, too.
Gatland got stick from many quarters - but what a vindication he received on Saturday.
The record-breaking 41-16 demolition of the Wallabies was so comprehensive that there have already been calls for Gatland to be knighted.
While Gatland contemplates his potential elevation, I - and many other pundits - are left to contemplate our own inadequacies when it comes to crystal ball-gazing.
Journalists aren't always the most humble bunch, but mea culpa, Warren!

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Pumas as well as Lions

The Lions tour may be in full swing, but don't forget the goings-on elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. I've been on Argentina watch with the BBC this week: Billy Twelvetrees talks about how the relationship he has built up with Gloucester team-mate Freddie Burns has been transferred from club to country, while fit-again hooker Rob Webber - who impressed in Salta with a polished display both in the tight and loose - has his eye on England's first 2-0 series win in Argentina.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Summer musings: Part I

The domestic season may be over and I may have fled to that famed rugby hot-spot Mallorca in search of some post-season inspiration, but the tireless hack still has to knock out a column or two. So here are a couple of recent efforts: my thoughts on what the Delon Armitage and Brian Moore tete a tete on social media says about the way rugby is reported in these days of the 24/7 Twitter melee, and why Wasps versus Bath will be a particularly spicy morsel on next season's Aviva Premiership menu.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

If Tom Croft raced Bryan Habana...

Few flankers know their art more thoroughly than Leicester Tigers' Julian Salvi.  And the Aussie is backing his rangy, rapid backrow colleague Tom Croft to cause mayhem among the Wallabies when the British & Irish Lions head Down Under.
“Tom Croft is a supreme athlete," Salvi told me. "He is a freak of nature who is tough in all areas.
“He will hold the edges really well and if you give him space he can act as another back.
“That style of rugby is great in the Southern Hemisphere because it’s about chucking the ball around.
“With Tom Croft in the team you have a guy who can expose the Australians. The hard tracks are going to be really great for him."
The following clip suggests there is more than a semblance of wisdom in Salvi's words. In fact, geek that I am, I used a stopwatch to time how long it takes Croft to get from the halfway line to dot the ball down against Quins: 5.30 seconds. Welford Road is not the longest pitch in the world, but that is very, very rapid. And Croft doesn't run straight because of the covering defence, and the ground is pretty sludgy too. Which makes his run all the more staggering. On an athletics track on a dry day, he'd surely get close to 10.5 seconds over 100m. Brisk or what?:


It's enough to remind you of that ludicrous moment in rugby PR when Springbok winger Bryan Habana raced a cheetah:


Anyway, enough of cheetahs, what of the Lions?
Salvi, who previously played for the Brumbies in Canberra as well as Australia 'A', says of the Home Nations' prospects: “The Lions have a great opportunity to win the breakdown. The likes of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric are all capable of disrupting ball. As long as the Lions get the selection right, they will be able to put the pressure on the Aussies."
It's just a shame that Salvi won't be there to compete against the Lions. The Wallabies are missing a trick by not having him in their national set up. Both at Bath and Leicester he's proved himself a superb fetcher and a fine link player; a consistent stand-out player in the Premiership. And wouldn't his inside knowledge of northern hemisphere rugby help the Aussies once Croft and the rest of the Lions roll into town?


Saturday, 27 April 2013

Would you take a punt on Gavin Henson?

Rather like Mrs Thatcher, Gavin Henson spectacularly divides opinion. He may never have broken any miners’ strikes, but when on song he has never had a problem in breaking down opposition backlines.

And while the Iron Lady was famously not for turning, the question for every Gav-watcher is whether the former Wales international has managed to perform a sharp U-turn in his off-field behaviour.

On too many occasions over the past decade, Henson has chased the headlines – or perhaps the headline writers have chased him. By throwing himself into reality TV shows, the Welshman has courted tabloid attention and allowed his focus on fulfilling his prodigious rugby talent to waver. And his behaviour at a number of previous clubs has proved that he can be the loosest of cannons.



Speaking after an incident in a nightclub two years ago that necessitated both a suspension and a club inquiry, Mourad Boudjellal, the president of Toulon, probably spoke for a number of rugby bosses when he said: “Henson has had an attitude which has been difficult to manage.”

So confirmation from Bath Rugby this week that they are holding talks with the pin-up boy of Welsh rugby was always going to raise eyebrows – elegantly trimmed or otherwise.

The response was immediate. Former Bath and England prop Gareth Chilcott popped up on the radio talking about Bath needing to impose a ‘zero tolerance’ policy should Henson sign. Under this approach, a clause would be worked into any contract that would allow Bath to ship him out at the first sign of indiscretion.

But before the moral panic sets in, let’s set a few things straight. Beneath all the reality TV performances and the hair products, few would question that Henson possesses a precious rugby gift. Indeed, The Rec has witnessed this in recent times. During Bath’s pre-season match with London Welsh in August, Henson played for a spell at fly-half, delivering a composed performance of elegant distribution.

And during his year at Welsh, there hasn’t been the slightest whiff of him causing trouble or controversy.

Moreover, when he was sacked by the Blues a year ago for an alcohol-related incident on a morning flight home from a game in Glasgow, even some team-mates were prepared to publicly criticise the decision, branding it heavy-handed.

Also, corners can be turned. Look at Harlequins and England scrum-half Danny Care. Eighteen months ago, Care seemed to get in trouble whenever he stepped out of his front door. Now he is keeping his nose clean and in the form of his life.

True, Gavin Henson has led a nomadic existence, and it might be a case of hope triumphing over experience to think that Bath can tame him. But Gary Gold and crew offer a no-nonsense set-up at Bath and are unlikely to brook any ego-propelled silliness. Signing Henson could turn out to be the daftest thing since flanker Mauro Bergamasco played scrum-half for Italy, but it could also turn out to be a masterstroke. Over to you, Gary.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Southern Hemipshere watch: Julian Savea

Ouch... Jonah Lomu Mk II appears to have arrived.

Check out the ferocity of All Black Julian Savea - or, more specifically, the power of his dropped shoulder. All this occurred earlier this month when the Hurricanes edged out the Crusaders in the Super 15. It's enough to make the Lions thankful they'll be heading to Australia this summer, not New Zealand.

Israel Dagg's face at 2.00 is quite a picture.




Thursday, 21 February 2013

Lee Mears - The Lion with a smile

A tribute to Lee Mears, originally published on www.thisisbath.co.uk/bathrugby.

Writing farewell pieces on Bath Rugby forwards who have been forced into premature retirement by health issues has, sadly, become an all too familiar activity in recent months.

Over the past year-and-a-half, Lewis Moody, Andy Beattie, David Barnes and David Flatman have all been forced to hang their boots up earlier than they would have wished due to injury. This week Lee Mears can be added to that unfortunate list.

The honours that Mears, pictured, chalked are up are worthy of any great of the game– two World Cups, a British and Irish Lions tour, more than 200 caps for Bath Rugby, a club with whom he had just extended his contract.


 
But as well as receiving honours, Mears was always a man of honour in everything he did on the pitch.

In the wake of last Monday’s announcement that a cardiac abnormality had forced him to retire from professional rugby, the tributes that rolled in for Mears from the great and good of the game – as well as fellow players and supporters – spoke volumes.

Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premiership Rugby Ltd, even issued a statement in which he said that Mears embodied everything that was good about the modern-day pro.

And who would disagree?

Mears always made much of the fact that he liked to play “with a smile on my face”. Coming from most people, that would have been regarded as a tedious cliché. From Mears, it was the absolute truth. It captured his approach to rugby and to life more generally, and it went a long way to explaining his popularity.

Mears was proof that you can be deadly serious about your sport and perform with utter competitiveness, yet still enjoy it and go about your business with a gigantic grin.

His absolute commitment to always looking on the bright side even extended to his injuries.

One wet and miserable night in Ulster – I think it was in October 2009 – Mears was replaced at half time. A couple of hours later I saw him coming out of the clubhouse, hobbling around on crutches but with that big grin still on his face.

“You ok, Lee?” I asked. “Medial knee ligaments,” he smiled.

History repeated itself earlier this season when he emerged from the front door of Farleigh House, again on crutches, having taken a nasty tumble in training that morning. He was using Dave Attwood as a chauffeur and, despite the early-season setback, was still smiling.

As a professional player, Mears was aware that you have to take the rough with the smooth. The dignity of his retirement mirrors the dignity of a great career.

Bath Rugby, and rugby generally, will be a poorer place without Lee Mears and his winning smile.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Freddie Flintoff becomes a Saracens centre and other predictions for 2013

In between figgy pudding and Special Brew, I've been taking counsel from a series of rugby sources over the festive season. Here are my insights and predictions for 2013:

Talks over the future shape of European club rugby drag on. And on. Inspired by the example of the Fiscal Cliff in the United States, rugby administrators draw up an ultimatum in an effort to focus minds. If a new arrangement cannot be agreed by April 1, then the location of the 2014-15 final will be decided by a game of Ludo, and Brian O'Driscoll will be banned from playing Heineken Cup rugby in any position other than second row. "Never mind the Fiscal Cliff," says one man at the negotiating table. "This is the O'Driscoll Cliff."

After mediocre viewing figures of his reality TV boxing show, Ashes to Ashes, Freddie Flintoff announces he's turning his back on a fledgling career in the ring to pursue his dream of becoming an inside centre. Saracens announce the big Lancastrian will be training with them on a three-month trial. Channel 5 will be filming Freddie's every move, from a lineout masterclass with Steve Borthwick to a three-legged pub crawl around the bierkellers of Bavaria.
"It's been a life-long ambition of mine to take a crash ball and run straight at Allan Donald – I mean Stephen Donald," says Freddie. "The skinful in Germany should be a right laugh too."
A Saracens spokesman, speaking from the club's newly laid synthetic surface at Allianz Park, adds: "Freddie's used to swatting away burly South Africans on a sticky wicket, so he should do well on the astro here." Channel 5 reveals that the series will be called Ashes to Splashes, with Freddie honing his try- scoring swan-dive with weekly tips from Chris Ashton.

After one post-match outburst too many, the Leicester management order Richard Cockerill to take the vows of a Trappist monk. Henceforth, Cockers communicates at press conferences through a blend of elaborate scowls, aeronautical semaphore and intriguing hand gestures.

Former Bath skipper Luke Watson announces he is returning to The Rec from his native South Africa. "I've taken counsel from the man upstairs and I'm coming back to the UK," says the famously devout number eight/fly-half. "Gary Gold can be pretty persuasive."

Bath are linked to every starting international scrum- half in Tier One rugby. So intense is the speculation that Nick Farr-Jones rules himself out.

The O'Driscoll Cliff deadline of April 1 comes and goes. There is no agreement over qualification and TV rights for the future of European club rugby. Leinster issue a statement: "We're disappointed that there's still no agreement, but Brian looked good in the number four shirt in last week's RaboDirect Pro12 match against Zebre."

This column was first published here.