Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Times: Barbarians v Gloucester

Read my thoughts for The Times on the Barbarians' performance against Gloucester at Kingsholm, where Australia boss Michael Cheika was in charge of rugby's most famous invitational side.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Ten reasons why Stuart Lancaster and England flopped at the Rugby World Cup

In the wake of Stuart Lancaster's departure, here's my post-mortem piece into what went wrong for the England head coach and his side at the Rugby World Cup.

And while Sam Burgess certainly gets a mention or two, he was - I argue - just one factor among many.

Xtra Time.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Greig Laidlaw and Vern Cotter react to Scotland's Rugby World Cup exit - while referee Craig Joubert gets a panning on Twitter

The disappointment in Greig Laidlaw's voice following Scotland's 35-34 loss to Australia is almost tangible. But what an effort by Scotland.

Meanwhile, Craig Joubert gets a pasting on Twitter after hot-footing it off the field following his controversial late decision against the Scots at Twickenham. Well, it wouldn't be a World Cup without at least one ref getting a total panning, would it? That said, I agree his post-match actions smack of cowardice and disrespect.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Cheika Mate: Michael Cheika out-foxes England

"It wasn't a perfect performance," said Australia coach Michael Cheika. But it wasn't far off it, especially as far as the hapless Poms on the receiving end were concerned.

Here's Cheika post-match take on his side's record 33-13 win at Twickenham, which condemned England to the ignominy of a pool-stage exit from their own World Cup.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Stuart Lancaster's bold England Rugby World Cup selections: Sam Burgess, Henry Slade and Ben Morgan

Luther Burrell and Kyle Eastmond must be feeling pretty miffed. Both centres have been passed over for inclusion in England's RWC squad - yet nothing the England coaches have said fully explains their omission in favour of international tyros Sam Burgess and Henry Slade.

Eastmond? He was jettisoned from the England camp at the first cut, despite his play-making abilities offering something different to the big-hitters of Burgess' ilk. When the England coaches talk of Slade offering "balance" to England's centre options, aren't Eastmond's twinkle-toed and fast-handed credentials (and significantly superior experience) being overlooked?

As for Burrell, one would have fought that the medals he's picked up at Northampton Saints in recent times would qualify him as a 'winner'. Yet he's been dropped for Burgess - because of the latter's "winning mentality".

Instead of Burrell and Eastmond, who over the past three years have built up a decent reserve of international experience, England will have two players who only tasted international Union for the first time earlier this month.

Burgess has his advocates, of course, not least this fella, who owns a League team as well as having made a few flicks:

But few would contest that 'Slammin' Sam' remains exceedingly raw in Union, with his positioning highly suspect at times. History suggests that experience wins you World Cups, and Burgess has precious little in the 15-man code.

Ben Morgan's inclusion is also fraught with risk. The Gloucester No. 8 has played just one half of rugby since breaking his leg mid-season. Conclusion? He must have been delivering some absolutely thumping performances in training.

To make your own mind up on the coaches' reasoning, listen to today's Talking Rugby podcast:

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Stuart Lancaster: Sam Burgess and Henry Slade performances have created World Cup selection headache

England boss Stuart Lancaster reflects on his midfield selection conundrum following England's World Cup warm up win over France.

Friday, 14 August 2015

How new media are changing the way live sport is reported

Cricket rather than rugby, this. But a good example of how new digital reporting techniques are changing the way sport is covered.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Preparing for the Rugby World Cup, Uruguay-style

How does an amateur side gear up for the World Cup? I took a look behind the scenes at Uruguay’s preparations and discovered how England’s group-stage competitors are squeezing in training between day jobs.

The amateur era? It’s alive and well. Just ask England’s Pool A rivals Uruguay.

While England are splitting their training between a luxury country house hotel in Surrey and a purpose-built rugby town in Colorado, conditions are rather more basic for the South Americans, who are widely expected to be the whipping boys of the ‘Group of Death’.

As an amateur team, the Uruguayans meet up daily for a couple of hours of early-morning training in their capital, Montevideo, before heading off to put in a full day’s work or study.

The typical day of captain Santiago Vilaseca, a banker, provides an instructive contrast to that of Chris Robshaw. While his England counterpart was put through a tailored training regime at Pennyhill Park before heading out to Denver for a high-altitude camp, Vilaseca has been fitting in training around trading.

“Thankfully, I have a boss who understands what rugby means to me,” says Vilaseca, a back-five forward with an easy-going manner and perfect English.

“Sometimes I can be allowed to arrive a little late to work because of practice. Without an understanding boss, it would be impossible.

“It’s a very tough thing to do, to have to work and train.”

It may well be a taxing way to prepare for a group that includes Australia, Wales and Fiji as well as England, but the 30-year-old claims he wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Being amateur is something we have to be proud of. It’s complicated sometimes, but it’s what we like.

“When we play against professional teams it’s going to be a big motivation.”

Third time lucky?


Uruguay earned the last available spot in the World Cup when they overturned a first-leg deficit to beat Russia 57-49 in front of 14,000 fans in October at the Estadio Charrua. It will be their third appearance at rugby’s global jamboree, with their campaigns of 1999 and 2003 yielding one victory apiece – over Spain in 1999 and Georgia in 2003.

Unfortunately, the 2003 tournament also featured one of the great tonkings of Rugby World Cup history, as England put Los Teros to the sword in gruesome fashion. So gruesome, in fact, that there’s some dispute in the history books about whether it was a 111-13 thrashing or a 113-13 thrashing.

But Vilaseca, who plays for club side Old Boys in Montevideo, is looking forwards rather than backwards – to September 20 at the Millennium Stadium, to be precise.

“For our team, this is a dream,” he says. “We’re just waiting for that moment.

“This is probably the only chance we’ll get to play against Wales, England and Australia. But it’s not just the teams we’re playing, it’s the stadiums as well.

“There’s a bit of excitement and there’s a bit of fear. The excitement is getting bigger and bigger. It started from the moment we knew we’d qualified and has just grown.

“We are very anxious to prepare well for our first game against Wales and we’re going to try and win our game against Fiji, but we know that it’s going to be very difficult.”

The majority of the national squad play for a variety of local sides around Montevideo, each of which represents a different neighbourhood.

Key personnel


The Uruguayans’ task has been made that bit harder by the withdrawal of their highest-profile and most experienced player, Castres lock Rodrigo Ortega Capo, for family reasons.

But the South Americans still have some high-calibre performers, such as big-kicking fly-half Felipe Berchesi, who moved to French Pro D2 side Carcassonne earlier this year.

Last month’s Tbilisi Cup showed that Uruguay still have considerable yardage to make up on their international rivals, with a winless campaign featuring losses to hosts Georgia, an Emerging Ireland side and Emerging Italy.

But Vilaseca is undeterred.

“We’re losing every team we are playing but we’re showing improvements. During the Tbilisi Cup we didn’t dominate teams but there were moments when we made things difficult for them. We have to try and compete for the whole 80.

“We will succeed at the World Cup if we can win a game and show to the world the improvements we’ve made. We want to show people we aren’t there just to have fun – we are there to play rugby and compete.”

Long-term goals 


Uruguay may be an amateur side, but – long-term – the Uruguayan Rugby Union has big ambitions, not least a first win over South American rivals Argentina. Head coach Pablo Lemoine has a full-time contract and exudes a business-like approach, but remains attuned to the current side’s amateur roots.

"The players have to work many hours and make many sacrifices,” says Lemoine, a former prop. “Everything they do is so that they can play for Uruguay. I'm full of pride.

"When I was a player I was very proud to play for Uruguay and now I'm proud for the players who play for Uruguay.

“When we come to England, we want people to have been happy to have paid for the ticket.

"Our attitude is that we know our group will be difficult but we will do our best. It's the only way a coach can prepare a team.”

Kooga are the official kit partner to Uruguay for the 2015 World Cup

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

Rugby World Cup book to be published by The History Press

In a new venture, I've signed a deal to write a commemorative history of the upcoming Rugby World Cup for The History Press.

God (and printers) willing, it will be on shelves a fortnight after the final.

I could make a pitch about it being the ideal stocking filler for a nation beside itself with rugby fever following a 6-week festival of oval-balled skill, power and precision. But I'll leave that it to the marketing department.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Uruguay coach mystified by Rodrigo Capo Ortega absence ahead of Rugby World Cup

Uruguay coach Pablo Lemoine tells me he has had "no explanation" from star player Rodrigo Capo Ortega about his sudden withdrawal from the national side's squad.

Ortega, 34, pictured below in action for French top-tier side Castres, is Uruguay's longest-serving international and one of its few professionals.

Three weeks ago it emerged that the veteran lock had abruptly retired from international rugby, prompting speculation that his Top 14 employers might have requested him to miss the World Cup in order to avoid the risk of picking up an injury.

With his experience in top-flight professional rugby, Ortega had been viewed as a key figure in Uruguay’s campaign in the ‘Group of Death’ against England, Wales, Australia and Fiji.

But now it looks certain that Pool A’s amateur side will be without him – and head coach Lemoine, speaking to me earlier this month, said he was unclear about  the reasons for the withdrawal.

Lemoine, who became national coach in 2012 having previously won 49 caps, said of his former team-mate’s absence: "There's no explanation. Probably he has some reason, but I don't know.

"I haven't spoken to the player because he made the decision by himself.

"Really, I'm just focused on the players who want to play for our country.”

Castres have been quoted as saying that Ortega won't play for Uruguay due to "personal reasons".

Asked whether Castres might have applied some pressure to their long-serving second-rower, Lemoine said: "I'm not sure about that. I can say nothing.”

The Uruguayan Rugby Union said in a statement on July 1 that Ortega will not play for "family reasons" and in France the insinuations that his employers have leant on him have been rejected on social media.

Uruguay will play two warm-up matches in Japan before opening their World Cup campaign against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.

Kooga are the official kit partner to Uruguay for the 2015 Rugby World Cup

A version of this article first appeared in The Rugby Paper

Friday, 5 June 2015

Jerry Collins: a tribute from fellow All Black legend Sean Fitzpatrick

Jerry Collins' untimely death along with his wife in a car accident in France has left the world of rugby - and beyond - shocked.

There's nothing like a sporting superstar who keeps his boots on the ground - and All Black great Collins did just that, as this wonderful tale of his involvement with Barnstaple 2nd XV conveys.

In the interview below another New Zealand great, Sean Fitzpatrick, reflects on Collins' life:

Monday, 1 June 2015

Rugby season ends on a downer in the West Country - Bristol, Bath and Gloucester all lose

Rather like the Liberal Democrats' recent tonking in the West Country, rugby in these parts has just taken a pasting.

First Bristol failed - again - to negotiate the Championship play-offs, then Bath were out-muscled at Twickers by a Sarries side that delivered a masterclass in negating Bath's much-vaunted handling game.

Then Gloucester were pipped by a point by Bordeaux-Begles in the final play-off for next season's European Champions Cup.

Actually, I think the result was a blessing in disguise for the Cherry and Whites, although it won't feel like that at the moment. Next season, Gloucester just need to focus on delivering in the Premiership, and the club doesn't have the depth at present to compete on two major fronts.

Any blessings in disguise for Bath or Bristol?


Bristol face another 12 months trekking to such rugby outposts as Doncaster and Ealing, while Bath have been given something to ponder by a side that only finished fourth in the regular season.

Friday, 10 April 2015

First Steffon Armitage, now Nick Abendanon... England boss Stuart Lancaster's exceptionally tricky World Cup problem

If an overseas-based player consistently delivers 'exceptional' performances, does that mean that England head coach Stuart Lancaster should pick him?

Since 2011, the RFU's stated policy on Englishmen plying their trade abroad is that they should only be selected for the national side in "exceptional circumstances".

And so far under Lancaster's reign, circumstances haven't been deemed sufficiently exceptional in order for the clause to the invoked. Although there have been plenty of raised eyebrows along the way.

But what exactly does "exceptional circumstances" mean?

An exceptional run of injuries at home? An exceptional loss of form by home-based players? Or exceptional form by overseas players?

The term is vague - and probably deliberately so, meaning that the RFU has some wiggle room.

The rampaging form of Toulon loose forward Delon Armitage has been testing the meaning of the term for some time. And now we have Nick Abendanon, who has been playing out of his skin for Clermont Auvergne since leaving Bath over the summer.

This blog is a long-standing champion of Abendanon's. And for all those who are suddenly making a big song and dance about him this week in the wake of a stunning performance against Northampton in the Champions Cup on Saturday, I humbly point you in the direction of this post and interview I did with him in February.

Tellingly, Abendanon has picked up three man-of-the-match awards against English teams on the biggest stage in European club rugby this season. He is performing on the big stage. And he is stating a pretty irresistible - sorry, exceptional - case to be called up for the biggest stage of them all: the Rugby World Cup.

For me, it's simple. In a World Cup year of all years, you absolutely have to have your in-form players playing for your country, whether they are playing their club rugby in England, France, Georgia or Venus. To fail to do that - particularly for a Cup on home soil - is daft at best, and a national betrayal at worst.

If Lancaster's still in any doubt, then here's a little clip that hopefully clinches the deal:

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Mike Catt: England backs still have a lot to learn

England backs coach Mike Catt looks ahead to this weekend's 6 Nations showdown at Twickenham between England and France. Catt's in conversation with Russ Hargreaves of Talking Rugby.

6 Nations 2015 poll - who'll take the championship?

Four teams are still in with a shout of winning this year's 6 Nations. Ireland, Wales and England are all tied on six points going into Saturday's final round of matches, while France could sneak it if they beat England convincingly and both Wales and Ireland lose.

Register your view in the poll below, powered by Apester.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Nick Abendanon: How England boss Stuart Lancaster tried to prevent my move from Bath Rugby to Clermont Auvergne

Former England full-back Nick Abendanon talks to me exclusively about how England head coach Stuart Lancaster and former club Bath staged a last-minute attempt to dissuade him from making his summer move to French Top 14 giants Clermont Auvergne.

Abendanon was last month nominated for European Player of the Year, and few would take issue with the assertion that he's the continent's in-form full-back. Yet, absurdly, he's off the radar during the 6 Nations.

Read my article in The Rugby Paper.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Danny Cipriani: England boss Stuart Lancaster explains fly-half decision ahead of Six Nations

Few can begrudge Danny Cipriani his recall to the England squad for the 6 Nations. Here, England head coach Stuart Lancaster explains his reasons for picking the Sale fly-half:

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Censorship, Charlie Hebdo and the Uses and Abuses of Social Media

Ok, this is hugely off-topic, but I thought I'd briefly use this blog to wear my other hat and publicise my thinking on the Charlie Hebdo killings and freedom of expression. Important stuff, after all.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Sam Burgess wordcloud - is the League convert referred to excessively in match reports?

Is Rugby League convert Sam Burgess over-hyped in match reports following his switch to Union? Here's a wordcloud I've done following his full Premiership debut against Leicester Tigers on Sunday. It is based on online reports by the Daily Mail, Daily Express, Independent, Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Leicester Mercury, Bath Chronicle, BBC. Click on the cloud below, draw your own conclusions and let me know your thoughts.

Wordle: Leicester vs Bath match reports 4.1.15

Seven rugby predictions for 2015

  1. Sam Burgess makes his debut for England against Italy in the Six Nations – at scrum-half. England boss Stuart Lancaster explains: “Bath and England couldn’t decide whether we wanted to play him at 6 or 12 so we met each other half way.”
  2. Gloucester win at home.
  3. After seeing attendances rise three-fold since moving from High Wycombe to Coventry, Wasps decide to relocate again – to Darlington. “As we head further north we seem to be attracting bigger and bigger crowds,” says chief executive Nick Eastwood. “If things go well in Darlington we’re thinking to heading to Reykjavik."
  4. Leicester boss Richard Cockerill announces he has had enough of rugby and is taking monastic vows; he will head to Italy to join an order of Trappist monks high up in the Appenines. He will brew ale and tend to the bees. He invites former Leicester prop, Toulon potty-mouth and hairstyle icon Martin Castrogiovanni to join him. “Castro and I can have it out over that beer that I mentioned,” he says in a final interview with the Leicester Mercury. “But we won’t be able to say anything to one another because of the vows – which is probably a good job.
  5. Castrogiovanni is furious. “Cockers cannot leave it alone,” he tells the press in a fruity post-match monologue. “Look at these locks. They are things of beauty. Do you think I’d have them cut off just so I could join him in holy orders? He is what you call in English an **** ******* ***."
  6. Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett all go down with mysterious stomach gripes on the eve of the final of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. A call goes out to Stephen Donald, who is out fishing for rare shrimp in the Japanese Sea, nailing a few bevvies. Donald gets on the next flight to Heathrow and slots the decisive drop goal against England – overhead.
  7. Dylan Hartley announces his conversion to Buddhism and a lifetime’s commitment to passive resistance.