Sunday, 13 October 2019

Ireland v Samoa: Talking points and reaction as the Irish qualify from Pool A at Rugby World Cup

A busy time down in Fukuoka last night, covering Ireland's emphatic win over Samoa. On-the-whistle pieces for The Independent and The Guardian, and more reflective pieces for The Observer and The Rugby Paper.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Scotland captain John Barclay: "I need to prove I deserve to be involved against Japan”

John Barclay insists he is not looking beyond Thursday's encounter with Russia, despite Scotland's looming - and intriguing - Pool A denouement against Japan.

Barclay started in Scotland's dismal opening loss to Ireland and was dropped from the match-day squad for the much-improved win over Samoa.

But he will captain Scotland against Russia in Shizuoka tomorrow as head coach Gregor Townsend makes 14-changes. Townsend is seeking to rest key players ahead of the showdown with Japan just four days later.

The flanker (pictured) says he "needs to prove" he deserves to be involved against Japan in Yokohama, but is first and foremost focused on getting a job done against Russia.

Barclay said: "I have been frustrated since the Ireland game.

"The whole game was frustrating, but it’s part of being a rugby player.

“Samoa was the first time I have been left out of the squad since I returned to the fold. It’s been tough.

“The big game for me is Russia - all my focus is on Russia. I have no idea what the team will be for Japan.

“I guess the reality is that the guys who are playing against Russia will be on the outskirts for the next game.

“It doesn’t take much to work out. But, equally, for the guys who are playing against Russia there is huge motivation to get involved for that Japan match.

“The reality is there will need to be a big performance and I need to prove I deserve to be involved against Japan.”

Russia frustrated Ireland for long stretches of their clash in Kobe, making the Irish sweat over a bonus-point. Scotland need a bonus-point against the Bears too; get that under their belts and they will trail Japan by four points going into their match in Yokohama.

But Barclay impressed upon his team the importance of not chasing the four tries too hard during Wednesday's captain's run at the Stadium Ecopa in Shizuoka.

"I’ve played enough of these games where if you try to score four tries before you score one you can get in a bit of trouble," he said.

"We’re not thinking about that early on. If it gets to 70 minutes and we’ve scored one that might become the case but we have to back ourselves and not try to score the fourth before we’ve scored the third.

"We need to back our skills, grind them down; we believe our fitness will be superior to theirs. We’ll back ourselves and we’re confident, but we’ve seen the trouble Russia have given every team they’ve played.

"They’re physical, hard at the breakdown, they make things niggly and awkward. When they have the ball they’re abrasive and direct, and they’re hard. We’re under no illusions about it."

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Bundee Aki ignores "project players" controversy and is ready to do Ireland proud against Samoa

Bundee Aki says he will “do Ireland proud” if he get the chance to secure the nation’s place in the knock-out stages against the country of his ancestry.

Samoa are Ireland’s final Pool A opposition in Fukuoka on Saturday, and Aki, who is of Samoan descent, is ignoring the comments of those who question his right to play for the Emerald Isle.

Born in New Zealand, Aki qualified to play for Ireland in 2017 through residency after leaving Auckland with his family three years earlier.

Since then, the centre has excelled for Connacht and become a hard-tackling and hard-running facet of Joe Schmidt’s midfield.

All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said of Aki in November: “They’ve turned him into an Irishman – he looks like an Irishman now, doesn’t he?” Aki subsequently excelled in Ireland’s first win over New Zealand in Dublin.

Ahead of the World Cup, Aki remarked that “some people won’t be happy with me pulling on an Irish jersey,” but now says he is focused on winning his place in the starting line-up against Samoa.

Aki said: “If I do get the nod then it will be just the same as when I played against New Zealand.

“Everybody has their view on the residency and they have their right to an opinion.”

The question of overseas-born players representing Ireland - or "project players" - has also arisen in connection with South African forwards Jean Kleyn and CJ Stander. World Rugby will increase the residency qualifying period from three to five years after the World Cup.

“For me, I’m just going to try and do the best I can for this jersey, make sure I play well whenever I get the chance on the field and do Ireland proud, as I always try and do,” said Aki.

“That’s all I can do as a player, regardless of what people think.

“I’m going to focus on what I can do: get in the team first, and put in a good performance.”

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Andy Farrell: Ireland must benefit from Japan set-back like England handled turmoil in 2007 World Cup

Ireland coach Andy Farrell believes his experience of England’s World Cup “turmoil” in 2007 can be used to Ireland’s advantage as they seek to bounce back from their shock defeat to Japan.

Defence coach Farrell, who will take over the head coach role from Joe Schmidt after the World Cup, says Ireland’s performance in their 19-12 defeat to Japan in Shizuoka “wasn’t good enough”, but says the tournament has a history of sides who have profitably adapted to early disappointments.

“You can use a set-back in the right manner,” said Farrell, who in 2007 was part of Brian Ashton’s squad during England’s bumpy campaign in France. The team suffered a 36-0 thrashing in the group stage by eventual winners South Africa.

“In 2007 I was part of the England squad that got a thrashing off South Africa and there was a bit of turmoil in that camp, and we managed to get to the final. And there was a debatable (Mark Cueto) try in the final that was disallowed.

“In 2011, France seemed to be in disarray throughout that competition and there’s a debate over whether they should have won that final.

“So, you can use these set-backs to your advantage. They’re not ideal but you can use them to your advantage.”

Farrell said the inquest since the loss to Japan on Saturday had been extensive. Ireland play Russia in Pool A on Thursday.

“The performance against Japan wasn’t good enough,” he said. “There was a lot of disappointment within the camp. We’ve had a good few meetings since then.

“After a couple of days of understanding why we lost, we’re in good spirits, back on track and ready to make a point.

“The feeling in the camp is one of excitement and wanting to put things right on Thursday night. It can’t come quick enough.

“It wouldn’t matter who we were playing this week – Russia or New Zealand. We need to get back on the horse.”

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Manu Tuilagi is England's key asset for Japan World Cup, says Jason Robinson

Jason Robinson believes Manu Tuilagi will channel years of injury frustration to become England’s game-changing star during the World Cup.

Tuilagi scored twice in the 35-3 win over Tonga, making 93m for England in 11 ball carries.

Robinson, who scored England’s try in their victory over Australia in the 2003 final, worked with the England squad before they flew out to Japan and says Tuilagi was the stand-out performer.

“I’m so excited about Manu,” says Robinson, who is now an ambassador for Rugby World Cup sponsor Mastercard. “He’s had his injuries, he’s been off for a long, long time, but having watched him in training, he’s just so strong."

Leicester centre Tuilagi has had a string of lower-body injury issues stretching back to 2014, A groin problem sidelined him in 2017, and it wasn't until February that he made his first England start since 2014.

Following Sunday’s four-try win over Tonga, England head coach Eddie Jones declared that Tuilagi was “increasingly getting close to his best”, and Robinson believes the 28-year-old is using the misery of years of on-off injury as a source of motivation.

“Physically, pound for pound, Manu’s one of the strongest out there at the World Cup. And he’s got a spring in his step.”

BOOK LAUNCH: 'Sports Journalism: The State of Play'

My latest book, Sports Journalism: The State of Play, has just been published by Routledge, with a positive reaction from the industry.

The book contains insights and predictions into the changing world of sports journalism, and is aimed at both practising sports journalists, aspiring sports journalists, and sports media academics.

Interviewees include a range of leading sports journalists, including Anna Kessel, Stuart James, Sam Peters, Steve Marshall, David Emery and James Pearce.

The Sports Journalists' Association have done a piece on the book with my co-author Daragh Minogue.

Paddy Barclay, former chairman of the SJA, says: "What this book doesn’t tell you about sports journalism in the digital age isn’t worth knowing. Tom Bradshaw and Daragh Minogue provide a comprehensive guide to the media, tracing the history of an era of often startling change and pointing to the future in a way that will educate and entertain both current and aspiring journalists. It is the most readable work - students and historians alike will enjoy learning from it, as I certainly did."

Will Cope, Sports Journalism course leader at Southampton Solent University, has also given the book his seal of approval: "Tom Bradshaw and Daragh Minogue have crafted a brilliantly well-researched, uber-contemporary, rip-roaring read that is crammed full of excellent case studies and thought-provoking content."

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

UK Anti-Doping's James Hudson highlights the danger of drug misuse in rugby

UK Anti-Doping's James Hudson spoke exclusively to me about the perils around doping in rugby union. The experienced Premiership lock - now a researcher and sports nutrition expert - spoke to me ahead of the publication of the RFU's eighth annual report into anti-doping. A version of this piece ran in The Rugby Paper before the report was published, and my interview with Hudson was also used within The Independent's coverage of the report.

Rugby runs the risk of players taking performance-enhancing drugs as a “last roll of the dice” unless education around doping is stepped up, UK Anti-Doping’s James Hudson is warning.

Former Newcastle Falcons captain Hudson, who also played for Bath, London Irish and Gloucester, believes the game needs to do more to support young players who are left “vulnerable” after missing out on senior contracts or contract renewals.

Hudson, a member of UK Anti-Doping’s Athlete Commission, does not believe there is a doping problem at the elite level of rugby, but is calling on administrators and coaches to be pro-active in minimising the temptations to cheat.

The RFU’s eighth annual report on its anti-doping programme in England was published on April 23, while World Rugby is due to reveal the outcome of its 2018 testing programme in a matter of weeks.

Hudson says rugby union is the “most culpable” of any UK sport in terms of doping breaches, and says coaches need to be careful about their use of language when talking to players.

According to data collated from UKAD by online medical firm euroClinix, Rugby Union has registered 66 anti-doping rule violations in the UK since 2008 – more than the second and third sports on the list combined (Rugby League and professional boxing). Between September 2008 and April 2018, 34 of the sanctions in Union were for the use of anabolic agents.

“Rugby is unfortunately the most culpable of all sports in terms of anti-doping rule violations in the UK, which isn’t good,” Hudson said. “These figures are representative of the evidence over the last decade.

“The vast majority are in the sub-elite population, where athletes have dropped out of an academy system and dropped down to Championship-level or first division and they have made a poor decision.

“They feel to make it back to the top level it’s the last roll of the dice. That’s where most of these poor decisions come from.

“Younger athletes – 18 to 20 – they don’t quite get that first-team contract they have so desired for years. This can be coupled with the language from coaches – players feel more and more pressured into meeting the physical needs of the game. There is pressure on players to get bigger.

“There is potential vulnerability. They hear: ‘You are not quite big enough or strong enough’. There might be a range of reasons why they have not got a contract, but if players leave academies and think that’s the only reason they haven’t been included that’s when they are reaching for something. That’s a time we need to be really careful about the language we use.

“Players are maybe looking for a quick fix as they don’t have the support they once had. They are vulnerable athletes.”

Hudson believes the Ashley Johnson case is the only example of a doping violation at Premiership level over the past decade. Wasps forward Johnson received a six-month suspension in July after a urine sample contained banned hydrochlorothiazide, which Johnson said was the result of him mistakenly taking his wife’s fat burner dietary supplement.

Hudson, a sports performance nutritionist working at Gloucester and a PhD researcher at Liverpool John Moores University, believes the high wages paid to Premiership players now actually serve as a deterrent to elite players resorting to performance-enhancing drugs.

“At the elite level there is now just too much to lose,” he said. “I just don’t see the logic in risking what is now such a high-rewarding sport financially. The elite players have a lot to lose. I don’t see the incentive there.

“The flip side is that those who have just missed out or dropped a tier or two – the carrot is big and that probably doesn’t help.

“I don’t think there is an issue at the top level where there is testing in abundance, but there is at the sub-elite.”

World Rugby and the RFU are ramping up their education efforts to minimise instances of doping. Later this year, the RFU will launch a Good Nutrition for Performance education programme, while World Rugby this week announced new anti-doping education initiatives, with a focus on nutritional advice, the safe use of supplements, and more engaging online-learning initiatives for players and support staff.

Dr Simon Kemp, the RFU’s director of medical services and chairman of its Anti-Doping Advisory Group, said: “Prevention through education is at the core of the RFU’s anti-doping strategy. Working closely with Premiership Rugby, the Rugby Players’ Association and UK Anti-Doping, we work to reach thousands of players, athletes, coaches, trainers, medical staff and other support personnel each season.

“The community game anti-doping strategy is focused on improving awareness, enhancing education and increasing testing. A key message is that players looking to improve their performance should optimise their hydration, diet, sleep, training and recovery practices and adopt a healthy lifestyle.”

World Rugby's Anti-Doping Advisory Committee chairman John O’Driscoll said: "As a sport, we must always be alive to the threat of doping and we remain committed to protecting clean athletes and maintaining a level playing field through intelligent testing and innovative values-based education."

Hudson said there was a greater willingness from World Rugby to involve players in decisions around anti-doping policy.

“They are really actively trying to listen to the view of players, which is a big step forward,” he said. “The athletes’ voice is vital.”

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

New book out in autumn: Sports Journalism

I have a new book, Sports Journalism: The State of Play, out in the autumn of 2019. After a few dramatic moments in extra time, the manuscript is now with the publisher, Routledge, and it's due to be on shelves in September.

The book is an analysis of contemporary sports journalism with a focus on how the digital revolution has affected the sports media landscape. There is a bit of history, a bit of ethics, a bit of sociology, a bit of crystal ball-gazing... a bit of everything that's intended to get both current and trainee sports journalists thinking about what it means to be a sports journalist today, and where we should be focusing our time and energy. While there are plenty of reflections, it is anchored in practical situations and experiences.

The book, co-authored with Daragh Minogue from St Mary's University, is part of Routledge's Media Skills series, which is edited by Prof. Richard Keeble.

A wide range of journalists agreed to be interviewed by me for the book, including Anna Kessel, Sam Peters, David Emery, James Pearce, John Simpson, Laura Winter, Michelle Owen and Steve Marshall. Many thanks to them and everyone else who contributed. I will update when the precise publication date is confirmed.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Redefining the role of the rugby kit man

I remember the days when, if you wanted your clothes to show off your rugby-loving credentials, you had to turn up the collar on your old-school rugby shirt when you walked into the uni bar.

Now things are a bit different thanks to the growing availability of what might be termed 'rugby leisurewear'. Outfitters such as In the Scrum are producing versatile lines, although whether I succeed in carrying them off is another matter.

In the Scrum's range incorporates clothing for those of a French persuasion as well as supporters of the home nations, so it's worth checking out if you want to sport something a touch different this Six Nations.