Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Gloucester, Wasps and monkeys off backs

No festive slacking for me - Gloucester v Wasps on Sunday for the Daily Express and The Rugby Paper. You can read my thoughts in the Express here.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

In the Boks seat

Over the past week or so, it's been good to get back involved with South Africa-based With the Springboks over in Europe for the end-of-year internationals, I've chipped in with a few exclusives on IRB World Player of the Year nominee Duane Vermeulen and his fellow loose forward Francois Louw. If you admire the Boks and want to know whether more are on their way to England, then these pieces should hopefully be of interest.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Believe the hype - Semesa Rokoduguni could tank the opposition in the Autumn Internationals

For some, he is the “wildcard” in Stuart Lancaster’s squad for the Autumn Internationals.

For others, he “may just be the most destructive wide runner to emerge in English union in years”.

The subject of this speculation? Of course you know already: Semesa Rokoduguni.

The Bath winger seems to be everywhere at the moment – and not just in the sense of him covering every blade of grass whenever he takes to the pitch and gets those fearsome thighs pumping.

The Fijian-born British Army tank driver is rivaling Jose Mourinho for column inches at the moment (well, almost), and the wider media are close to manoeuvering him into position as this Autumn’s poster boy of English rugby.

Which is all fine, except for the fact that Rojkoduguni hasn’t yet played a single minute of rugby for England.

As I write this, there are three different photos of Rokoduguni on the BBC’s Rugby Union homepage. On top of that, pretty much every sports website and newspaper in the land has carried a profile on the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards lance corporal, and Jeremy Guscott has been calling for him to start against the All Blacks a week on Saturday.

So, there is plenty of anticipation about Roko – and no little expectation.

Will he be able to handle it? As I see it, the pressure of playing for England and the media circus that goes with it won’t be an issue. Rokoduguni has taken every aspect of his rapid elevation from Army 7s player to England squad member in his stride.

The question for me is whether Rokoduguni is able to adapt to England’s defensive structure in time. Given the way the England backline was dismantled by New Zealand in the final Test last summer, will Lancaster be brave enough to pitch an EPS squad novice straight in against the All Blacks?

In such circumstances, it might be something of a gamble to start Rokoduguni a week on Saturday. But it might be a greater gamble not to start him.

Rokoduguni got the nod in Lancaster’s squad ahead of Chris Ashton and Christian Wade because of the brutal - but legal - nature of his defensive work. Ashton’s recent try-scoring record is superb and Wade has just as much x-factor in attack as Rokoduguni, but neither can rival the Bath man’s defensive work.

And with Manu Tuilagi missing due to a groin problem, England’s backline could be lacking a certain physical presence without Rokoduguni.

The stage is set for his debut. And while it would be a baptism of All Black fire, Rokoduguni has the composure – and muscle – to handle it.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

"Possibility of injury is a constant shadow" says England hooker Rob Webber

England hooker Rob Webber has expressed his sympathy for injured rival Tom Youngs and declared: “The threat of injury is a shadow we all walk in.”

Youngs will miss the Autumn Internationals at Twickenham due to surgery on a shoulder injury picked up against Bath last month, and Webber knows better than most the frustrations that Youngs is going through.

Webber’s own international career has been blighted by injury, first by a serious shoulder problem and then by an ankle problem.

The Bath hooker is competing with Northampton’s Dylan Hartley for the starting berth during the Autumn Tests, with England head coach Stuart Lancaster opting to have just two hookers in the enlarged 41-strong squad confirmed this evening.

Webber, who has been capped eight times since making his debut in 2012, told me: “I feel for Tom. I’ve had my injuries and I’ve been there myself.

“The possibility of injury is a constant shadow that follows a player around.

“Staying fit is a critical part of professional rugby. Hopefully I’ve not jinxed it by saying that and hopefully I can have a good run."

Monday, 29 September 2014

Chris Pennell has smashed through England's Championship 'glass ceiling', says Sam Smith

Sam Smith says Worcester team-mate Chris Pennell has shattered the ‘glass ceiling’ that blocked Championship players from being selected for England.

And now the winger believes his England ambitions will be helped rather than hindered by playing in the Championship for Worcester.

Smith, 24, left Harlequins for Sixways in order to get more starts, and says Pennell’s debut for England in the summer proves that Championship players can dream big.

Sam Smith takes the fight to Worcester last season.

“Chris has pushed through that ceiling and I think that’s good for the game,” he tells me. “It means there’s going to be a lot more competition in this league.

“There are a lot of young talented English players in the Championship and Chris’s success is only going to be a good thing for the game.”

Smith believes Sixways is the place that will enable him to hone his skills and follow in the footsteps of dad Simon, who won nine caps for England in the 1980s.

“Every English player wants to play for England one day. I played with lots of internationals at Quins and have seen how good they are and I’ve got a way to go to improve, but that’s something I can achieve playing for Worcester.”

* A version of this article originally appeared in The Rugby Paper

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Stuart Hooper looks to his legacy at Bath Rugby

Bath skipper Stuart Hooper tells me that lifting silverware this season will mean little if he doesn’t eventually leave an enduring legacy of leadership at the club.

The lock forward, who is captaining Bath for a fourth successive season, turns 33 in November and admits to thinking about the kind of place he wants The Rec to be once he decides to hang up his boots.

“If I’ve left nothing behind it’s pointless,” says Hooper, who signed a one-year contract extension last season. “When I’ve gone, what’s left afterwards will be the true measure as to what I’ve done as captain.

“I want to leave players who are the next leaders.

“Four consecutive years is a huge honour and I’m hugely chuffed, but for me it’s about how good we can get this squad.

“A massive role for me is developing the leaders for now and for the future."

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Why Rugby Sevens at the Rio Olympics won't need George North and Co. in order to be special

So, International Rugby Board boss Brett Gosper is turning up the heat to make sure Unions release their big-name players for the Sevens at the Rio Olympic Games.

He has a point - but only up to a point. While it would, arguably, make box office and PR sense to have rugby's biggest names representing their countries at Sevens at the Olympics, let's remember these guys are specialists of the 15-a-side game - a very different kettle of fish to the seven-minute halves of Sevens.

There are centrally-contracted players who tour the globe playing Sevens for their countries for a living. They have a specific skill-set and a specific training regime.

To parachute in big names at their expense would be an insult - to Sevens players, to spectators, and to the game itself.

And given the compelling drama and top-notch skills on display at the Commonwealth Games Sevens at the weekend, do we really need to have the big-name 'star dust' sprinkled on the Olympics?

No, we don't. Sevens is an attractive enough proposition without the need for Chris Ashton, Sonny Bill Williams or George North to temporarily take up the game.

Let's make sure the stars of Sevens shine for themselves - and aren't artificially eclipsed by their better-known 15-a-side peers.

Can the boardroom and the boot-room mix?

Is a rugby club in danger of becoming an autocratic place when the chairman decides to put the word 'executive' in front of his title? Following the management changes at Bath Rugby, here are a few thoughts from my column in the Bath Chronicle.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Bath Rugby deal with Dyson is far from hot air

Unlike overseas sides, it's rare for top-flight English rugby clubs to have a recognised global brand as a sponsor. For example, while Toulon have Volkswagen, Gloucester have ADEY MagnaClean.

So Bath Rugby's deal with Dyson is notable. I explain here why this partnership is not your ordinary, common-or-garden commercial deal, and why it could change the face of rugby in the West Country.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Stuart Lancaster's class as coach shown through Freddie Burns' performance

If a coach’s report card is determined by how well he gets the best out of previously misfiring players, then Stuart Lancaster is currently edging towards an A+.

Eyebrows were raised when the England head coach announced he would start Freddie Burns ahead of the in-form Danny Cipriani at fly-half for the first Test against the All Blacks in Auckland.

To say that Burns had an out of sorts season at Gloucester would be an understatement. Low on confidence and high on mistakes, Burns’ dip in form personified the Cherry and Whites’ more general malaise.

There were predictions from some quarters that the All Blacks would be licking their lips at the prospect of targeting England’s midfield, not least because Burns would be partnered by Bath Rugby’s Kyle Eastmond, another player who struggled to win selection for his club towards the end of the season.

What piffle that turned out to be.

Burns and Eastmond were superb, playing with assurance and guile in equal measure. Rather than being the weak link in a weakened England team, they were a potent attacking fulcrum and also solidly controlled the defensive line.

In had been forgotten by many that, only a year ago, Burns and Eastmond wreaked mayhem on England’s tour of Argentina, tearing the Pumas’ backline to pieces. (For proof of Eastmond's potency on that tour, see the video below.) Neither had won a further England cap since that 2013 trip to South America, but when they took to the field at Eden Park on Saturday they carried on from where they had left off in Buenos Aires.

Kyle Eastmond in action in Argentina

Lancaster’s capacity to get the very best out of Burns and Eastmond speaks volumes not only about his on-field training methods but also his psychological preparation of players.

In sport, you are only ever one heavy defeat away from having your bubble burst. But at the moment, England are gaining altitude ahead of the World Cup at a decent rate.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Give Gavin Henson another shot with Wales, says club-mate Paul James

Gavin Henson may not be playing in tomorrow's Probables versus Possibles trial match for Wales due to player release issues emanating from the English club game's governing body, Premiership Rugby.

But Wales and Bath prop Paul James says his club-mate still deserves another shot at playing for his country.

Along with Henson, James has been told by Bath that he won’t be released for the trial match because it falls outside the IRB Test window that starts two days later.

But irrespective of that restriction, 53-cap prop James believes Henson should figure in Warren Gatland’s plans for the summer tour of South Africa.

“I don’t see why Gavin doesn’t deserve a chance,” says James. “He’s getting back to the player of old who can win games for you.

“His leadership this season and his performances when he’s come on have been great for Bath.”

What a shame, then, that the rules relating to player release can't be relaxed in this instance - especially given that Bath don't have another game until September, and given that the club has made great play of its desire to see its players representing their countries.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Nick Abendanon: the Top 14's gain, the Premiership's loss

Barring some implausible results over the final couple of Premiership weekends, Nick Abendanon will play his final match at The Recreation Ground tonight.

The full-back will bring down the curtain on eight seasons at Bath. Over the summer, he will head to French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne, where the Top 14 will no doubt be hoping for moments such as this:

So the time is ripe for evaluation.

The received wisdom doing the rounds at the moment is that Abendanon is in the form of his life, and that Bath will miss him deeply next season.

Perhaps paradoxically, I agree with the second half of that statement but not the first. Yes, Abendanon will be sorely missed next campaign - Bath currently look thin on the ground at full-back next season (one of their few squad weaknesses for 2014-15) - but I dispute the notion that The Rec has never previously seen Abedanon in such form.

He was named Bath's Players' Player of the Season for three years on the spin during the Steve Meehan and Ian McGeechan eras at The Rec. Within the club, he was venerated. Outside the club (particularly where it mattered: around the table of the England selectors), he was regarded with some wariness - a player who could conjure something out of thin air, but who could then negate the act of genius with an act of daftness.

By his own admission, Abendanon did mar his game with the odd howler during the early years of his career. But for too long, Abendanon has been penalised in the present for the sins of the past. The stigma has hung around, which accounts for why he has never built on the two England caps he received at the start of his career.

Having watched Abendanon most weekends for the past six years, it makes me laugh - or despair - when his defensive qualities or 'physicality' are questioned. For a man of a naturally modest frame, Abendanon has made it something of a trademark to break the first tackle of burly forwards. And his character is encapsulated by the way he soldiered on through this often illegal onslaught by the Tuilagi brothers during one compelling encounter with Leicester:

That's not to say that Abendanon isn't in some respects a more polished player now. Nowadays, he's more pragmatic than pyrotechnic, although he's still capable of setting off more than a few rockets.

His lines of running show increasing maturity as he reads the game better and better with age. His work popping up at first and second-receiver has also been hugely assured this season.

So, sure, Nick Abendanon has been in cracking form during his Bath swansong. But the truth is he's been in cracking form for years and years.

The Top 14's gain, the Premiership - and England's - loss.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Gavin Henson faces wait over future at Bath Rugby

Bath boss Mike Ford admits he has “contingency plans all over the place” as he weighs up further signings for next season.

Head coach Ford has told a number of out-of-contract players, including Gavin Henson, that they will need to be patient before learning whether they have a deal for the 2014-15 campaign.

Bath have already made two major signings by securing League star Sam Burgess and England tighthead Henry Thomas from Sale, and are understood to be searching for a full-back to replace Clermont Auvergne-bound Nick Abendanon. The club is also mulling over options at scrum-half.

With Ford being in no hurry to pin down his final squad, the futures of utility back Henson and 36-year-old No. 9 Peter Stringer remain undecided.

Henson, who was signed for Bath by Ford’s predecessor Gary Gold, has been linked with a move to Newport Gwent Dragons. But the former Wales international is understood to be happy at the Recreation Ground and could yet remain at Bath if he impresses during the final months of the current campaign.

Referring to his negotiations with out-of-contract players, Ford tells me: “We’re still talking. There’s no rush.

“The players understand that we might take a bit longer on this particular occasion to give them more time and more opportunities.

“It also gives me more thinking time regarding the make-up of the squad.

“The recruitment is pretty fluid. Sometimes someone’s in, then they’re not, so you have to think again.

“We’ve contingency plans all over the place. It’s still ongoing.”

Thursday, 6 March 2014

BOO, HISS. What's acceptable behaviour from rugby supporters?

The sporting arena has long been regarded as a furnace in which moral virtue can be knocked into shape. The ancient Greeks feted their Olympic heroes as ideals of human fortitude, while the 20th century French philosopher Albert Camus put it in a somewhat different way. “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football,” he said, in between deep inhalations on filthily strong Gallic cigarettes.

Rugby is a sport that prides itself on values – traditional values of respect for the opposition, fair play and respect for the ref. Amid the value-free atmosphere that seems to pervade much of football, rugby is often celebrated as a healthy tonic.
Admirably, many professional clubs run their own community departments which seek to spread the word about the inclusive, friendly nature of rugby. But such acts of rugby evangelism have been undermined by recent events – some of them perpetrated by fans rather than players.
Rugby has long lost the moral high ground. We might not have had a top-flight manager head-butting an opposition player who was trying to retrieve the ball, but we’ve recently had gouging and spitting incidents aplenty, not to mention Manu Tuilagi’s series of full-blooded punches on Chris Ashton.
In recent weeks, we’ve had France number eight Louis Picamoles’ derisory gestures to referee Alain Rolland following his yellow-carding against Wales. (What would Camus have said?). Picamoles gave Rolland a sarcastic round of applause and thumbs-up when he was sin-binned.

Quite right too, but when I suggested such a thing on Twitter before Saint-Andre handed down his ban, you would have thought I’d called for Picamoles’ beheading. It was alleged that I was over-reacting.
I was surprised at the reaction. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.
Okay, Saracens were defensively abrasive and had played the entire match – particularly the second half – on the very edge of what the laws allow. and gone beyond them on occasion. But this response from a chunk of the home crowd was pathetic, boorish and eye-rollingly one-eyed.
Having established a first-half lead, Sarries killed the game off by smothering Bath with the equivalent of one long chokehold. It wasn’t what the home side wanted to see and it wasn’t superficially attractive, but it was extremely effective.
Saracens were aggressive and streetwise, and the way they clinically extracted the away win had its own beauty about it.
To boo them was embarrassing. Almost as embarrassing as publicly undermining your own fly-half, which was what happened to Stephen Donald last season, who was subjected to various ironic cheers and jeers.
If Camus had seen Friday night’s activities, I’m sure he would have taken another thoughtful drag on his ciggie.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Is Charles Cameron the sacrificial lamb who buys Dean Ryan more time at Worcester Warriors?

Despite being winless in the Premiership this season, Worcester director of rugby Dean Ryan remains in situ. But chief executive Charles Cameron has been drop-kicked out of Sixways after just nine months.

When Cameron was appointed in April, Worcester director Anthony Glossop said the club faced the challenge of establishing a sustainable business model and securing a better league position.

The second part of that challenge has patently not been met - the winless Warriors remain stubbornly rooted to the bottom of the table - and, judging by the poor crowds at Sixways, neither has the first part.

But who should carry the can for that, the CEO or the DoR? Arguably the latter. The Warriors have suffered painfully low gates (and therefore lower revenues) because they've been failing to deliver on the pitch. In sport, the business model suffers when the team isn't performing. Commercial performance and on-pitch performance are inextricably linked.

Of course, all manner of internal events at Sixways may have made Cameron's position untenable - events we'd never be privy to. But from the outside, Cameron looks like the sacrifical lamb who buys Ryan more time. The restless Warriors supporters - who have been staying at home in growing numbers - needed to be thrown some meat. Cameron is it.

I'll be talking more about recent events at Sixways on BBC Hereford and Worcester's breakfast show tomorrow at 7.45am.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Jamie Gibson on his mentors at Leicester Tigers

Poached mid-degree from Oxford University by Leicester, flanker Jamie Gibson tells me about what makes the Tigers such a distinctive place for a youngster to learn his trade.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Nevermind the GDP figures, what about the increase in the Premiership Rugby salary cap?

On the day that the International Monetary Fund announced it was upping its growth forecast for the UK’s economy to a dizzying 2.4 per cent, the players and agents of English rugby were mulling over a rather more significant increase in the funds available for their payment – 11.7 per cent.

That's the increase in the salary cap announced by Premiership Rugby Ltd, taking the wage ceiling per club up to £5 million for the 2014-15 season.

The topic of the salary cap  is an old favourite of mine. Will the latest increase mean bigger squads for Premiership sides, or will it just result in the same number of players receiving more dosh (along with their agents, of course)? My thoughts are here.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

England expect Tom Wood to be fit for 6 Nations opener with France despite injury scare

England say flanker Tom Wood will still be in contention for their 6 Nations opener with France, despite being sent for scans following a training ground clash of heads.

Wood has not trained with the Red Rose squad since the injury scare on Tuesday, which was caused by a clash with backrow colleague Tom Johnson. However, England yesterday said that, prior to the accident, Wood had been scheduled to take Thursday and Friday off in any event.

The initial concerns were that Wood could have broken a cheekbone, but tests revealed the Northampton Saints star, who skippered England on last summer’s tour of South America, had suffered no broken bones and was not concussed.

England will monitor Wood as he returns to camp this evening but confirmed yesterday that they expect him to be in contention for selection for ‘Le Crunch’ at the Stade de France on Saturday.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Back in the saddle after crossbar accident

With the exception of a riveting trip to Welford Road on Sunday, it's been a relatively quiet spell for me since I popped to Kingsholm for The Independent to cover what was one of the most abysmal Premiership matches of the season - a game redeemed only by the collapse of a crossbar by a giant inflatable ball during some pre-match horseplay by club sponsors dressed up as reindeers:

Anyway, after an extended exercise in festive indolence, I'm properly back in the saddle this weekend. It's Newport-Gwent Dragons V Bath for The Rugby Paper and BBC Radio Bristol tomorrow, followed by commentary at Bristol v Aberavon in the British & Irish Cup on Sunday. Scotland and Bristol prop Kyle Traynor will be summarising alongside me. As ever, tweet me your views mid-match.