June 24, 2011
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 06/24/2011
England's foreign legion
While the promotion of the likes of Kiwi-born Thomas Waldrom and Samoan Manu Tuilagi to England's Rugby World Cup training squad caused a stir in some quarters, those more familiar with the history of the game knew better.
There is nothing ground-breaking or revelatory about England selecting players who were not born in the country and to prove this point we went to a man who knows more than most - our very own John Griffiths. In his fortnightly column, Ask John, he amazes his readers with his knowledge of the history of the game and we knew he could help us out.
His unrivalled archive was soon generating name after name and before long he had 100 foreign-born England internationals. At this point we stood him down, the point had been made.
So here is the results of his efforts - a by no means definitive list of 100 or so players who were not born in England (and for the purposes of this investigation we have not included those born in Wales/Scotland/Ireland/Isle of Man/Channel Islands - that would be ridiculous) but were deemed good enough to play Test rugby for their adopted nation.
Born in Africa: (mostly in SA)
Born in Tonga:
May 27, 2011
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/27/2011
ESPN can take a bow
Awards season is in full swing with the likes of Northampton's Tom Wood and Leicester's Thomas Waldrom already honoured while we have also dished out our own accolades in a recent Scrum Seven. And in fear of being labelled a sycophant, I'd like to add ESPN's Premiership coverage to those worthy of praise.
Moving in on Sky Sports' turf was never going to be easy for the broadcaster such has been there rivals' success at developing the sport's audience in the past 10 years. But the familiar ex-Sky Sports front man Mark Durden-Smith, former Leicester and England 'experts' Austin Healey and Ben Kay, long-time BBC commentator Nick Mullins and one-time S4C pitchside reporter Sarra Elgan came together to offer a fresh and engaging look at English rugby's top flight.
ESPN's arrival on the TV market, and specifically the English rugby scene, also demanded that Sky Sports review their own approach to their coverage with fans and Premiership Rugby the benefactors. The end result was a 15% increase in audience figures (for ESPN, Sky Sports and domestic partner ITV) according to a Premiership Rugby press release from earlier this week.
One of ESPN's strengths is that it did not take itself too seriously be it Durden-Smith's experiment with spray glue or the school-boy banter between Healey and Kay (see highlights reel above and how did Austin's encounter with Gloucester fans in The Shed warrant more coverage?). But at the same time they are well aware of the responsibility they have to nurture the the sport's audience which is where the coaching clinics, both on-air and in the community, have helped ESPN make their mark.
And the season is not over yet of course. If you are not lucky enough to be going to the Premiership Final between Leicester and Saracens on Saturday, then ESPN is the only place you will be able to watch it - live and exclusive.
May 15, 2011
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/15/2011
Another World Cup winner bows out
With the confirmation of Ben Cohen's retirement from game, another of England famous class of 2003 bows out of the game.
But what about the rest of the side that edged out Australia 20-17 on that famous night in Sydney?
15. Josh Lewsey - Continued as an important part of the Wasps and England set-up until announcing his retirement from international rugby in December 2008. Scored the try that saw England past France and into the 2007 World Cup final, but injury ruled him out of his second finale and he was subsequently left out of Brian Ashton's squad for the 2008 Six Nations. Following his retirement from the game 2009, Lewsey attempted to climb Mount Everest but was forced to abandon the venture after his his breathing apparatus failed. He came out of retirement with Wasps this season.
14. Jason Robinson - Hung up his international boots in 2005 after touring with the Lions, but was coaxed out of retirement by Brian Ashton before starring in England's run to the 2007 World Cup Final. Made his final international appearance for the Barbarians against South Africa before giving up the game for good at the end of the 2007-08 season. Was coaxed back onto a rugby field as coach of his former club, Sale, but left at the end of the 2009-10 season. Now occasionally straps his boots on for Fylde.
13. Will Greenwood - Toured with the Lions in 2005 before retiring from the game after helping long-time club Harlequins to promotion back into the Premiership from National Division One. Has since forged a successful career as a television pundit with Sky and ITV and contributes regularly to the Daily Telegraph.
12. Mike Tindall - Made the switch from Bath to Gloucester and became an important leader for England before a broken leg ruled him out of the 2007 World Cup. Tindall suffered a torn liver and punctured lung in a freak collision with Wales fullback Lee Byrne in their Six Nations match at Twickenham in February 2008. Upon his return to fitness Tindall signed a new deal with Gloucester, and after a struggle regained his place as England's first-choice outside-centre in 2010. Remains a key figure for England and is set to marry Princess Anne's daughter, Zara Phillips, later this year.
11. Ben Cohen - Cohen experienced a dip in form after the World Cup, admitting that his appetite for the game had slipped. Toured with England in 2007 with a view to the World Cup, but then ruled himself out of the tournament to spend time with his pregnant wife. Sought release from his Northampton contract upon the club's relegation in 2007, moving to play for Brive in the Top 14. After two seasons in France he hopped back across the channel to join Sale before calling time on his career at the end of the 2010-11 season.
10. Jonny Wilkinson - Endured years of injury misery after his drop-goal won the World Cup. Three separate shoulder injuries, a lacerated kidney, neck problems, adductor muscle and appendix issues and a dislocated kneecap all halted his progress at Newcastle before he set sail for sunnier climes in 2009 by signing for Top 14 side Toulon, where he has been a major success. Set to figure strongly again for England at this year's World Cup.
9. Matt Dawson - Moved to Wasps from Northampton before retiring from the game in 2006 to pursue his media interests. Came second in the BBC's reality dancing show Strictly Come Dancing behind cricketer Mark Ramprakash before winning Celebrity Masterchef. A regular on Radio 5 Live and is a team captain on TV quiz A Question of Sport.
1. Trevor Woodman - Forced to retire due to a back injury sustained in training in 2005, having moved from Gloucester to Sale in 2004. Took up a role as scrummaging coach with Sydney University before being snapped up by Premiership side Wasps in the same role.
2. Steve Thompson - Forced to retire on medical advice after damaging his spinal cord in 2007, but was subsequently passed fit to return to action. Thompson took up a contract with French Top 14 side Brive, alongside former Northampton colleague Cohen, eventually winning an England recall before returning to the Premiership with Leeds. Remains part of the England set-up and has agreed a switch to London Wasps next season.
3. Phil Vickery - Captained England under Brian Ashton and won a Heineken Cup with Wasps after making the switch from Gloucester in 2006. A series of back injuries disrupted Vickery's international career post-2003, but he remained an integral part of the England and British & Irish Lions set-up before a further series of neck problems forced his retirement in October 2010.
4. Martin Johnson - England's talismanic skipper is now the man in charge at HQ after taking the reins as England manager in April 2008. While still a popular figure in English rugby his tenure as manager has been a bumpy ride. A chink of sunlight appeared in the summer of 2010 however, with a confidence-boosting win over Australia in Sydney and his side look well-placed for this year's World Cup.
5. Ben Kay - Continued to pack down for Leicester Tigers and was an ever present during England's run to the 2007 World Cup Final. He called time on a glittering career in 2010 following the Tigers' Premiership win, taking up the microphone for ESPN's coverage of the competition.
6. Richard Hill - Battled on for Saracens until May 2008 when a knee injury ended his career. Put in an outstanding, grafting display to help Sarries defeat the Ospreys in the 2008 Heineken Cup quarter-finals. Now mentors young Saracens players part time while working as a business development manager.
7. Neil Back - Toured with the Lions in 2005 aged 36 before joining the coaching staff at Leicester. Moved on to become head coach at Leeds, taking the side into the Premiership and helping them fight off relegation in the 2009-10 season but parted company with the Yorkshire-based club this season after they finished bottom of the table.
8. Lawrence Dallaglio - Captained England following Martin Johnson's retirement before calling time on his international career in 2004. Selection for the 2005 Lions brought Dallaglio back into the England fold, and he helped them to the 2007 World Cup final before announcing his retirement after the tournament. He finally retired from all rugby after leading Wasps to a Premiership title in front of a packed house at Twickenham in May 2008. In November 2008 Dallaglio was announced as a Director at Wasps and continues to combine that role with his media and commercial interests.
16. Dorian West - West was unfortunate not to make the field during the final and after his retirement he became Northampton Saints' forwards coach alongside Jim Mallinder.
17. Jason Leonard - England's most-capped player finally hung up his boots after winning his 114th cap against Italy in the 2004 Six Nations. Now works in the construction industry alongside his duties as a member of the Professional Game Board.
18. Martin Corry - Skippered England through a rough patch in the 2005 and 2006 Six Nations before retiring from international rugby following the 2007 World Cup. Retired from all rugby in 2009 after a spell as captain of the Barbarians, including a win over England at Twickenham.
19. Lewis Moody - Remained an important part of the England set-up and was rewarded with the captaincy for their summer tour to Australia in 2010. Agreed a move away from long-time club Leicester to fierce rivals Bath at the start of the 2009-10 season and will lead England into this year's World Cup.
20. Kyran Bracken - Retired from rugby in 2004 after a long-term back injury. Won ITV's reality show Dancing on Ice before contributing to the development of Leicester and England scrum-half Ben Youngs as a consultant.
21. Mike Catt - Catt soldiered on through England's run to the 2007 World Cup Final before his controversial autobiography brought further scrutiny on Brian Ashton's tenure as England coach. Currently employed as London Irish's assitant coach after a successful time with the club as a player - which ended in 2010.
22. Iain Balshaw - After falling out of favour with England in 2008 Balshaw joined the growing exodus to France, signing for Top 14 heavyweights Biarritz where he still plays.
February 28, 2011
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 02/28/2011
Mark your card
What with the compelling nature of this year's Six Nations battle and England's charge for the Grand Slam you could be forgiven for missing the next generation taking their latest steps towards the big stage.
The likes of Dominic Barrow, Tom Jubb, Mark Jennings and Henry Slade - amongst those that powered the hosts to victory - may not be household names but using history as your guide you should perhaps mark your card as many of them will no doubt be stars of the future with the 2015 Rugby World Cup looming large for all involved.
Fans of Ask John will need little reminding of the bountiful nature of the England age-grade set-up. In his latest Q&A for our site resident historian John Griffiths highlights the outstanding class of 1997.
That year the U18 group swept to a Grand Slam of their own - their third in four years - boasting future England internationals such as Jonny Wilkinson, Iain Balshaw, Mike Tindall, Tom May, David Flatman, Lee Mears, Andrew Sheridan, Steve Borthwick and Alex Sanderson. Add in familiar names such as Tony Roques, Simon Amor and James Grindal and you have a talented bunch that have helped shape English rugby in the decade or so since.
But as star-studded that group turned out to be, it was not the only fertile year in terms of development. Many came before and others have followed since with current stand out Courtney Lawes and rising star George Ford two of the more recent names to have graced the U18 group - the latter when he was aged just 15.
The injection of youth has propelled the current England senior squad to the brink of great things - with Ben Youngs, Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Dan Cole leading the way - and it looks as though they will not be the last to roll off a well-worn production line.
October 24, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/24/2010
Premiership Team of the Week - Round 6
With their European aspirations now shelved until December, the Premiership's finest returned to domestic duties this weekend with varying results. While some may have suffered a Heineken Cup hangover, others had something to prove - just a shame none of them were at Headingley on Friday night.
So who did make the grade for our latest Premiership Team of the Week?
15. Geordan Murphy (Leicester)
The Tigers' fullback saw more than his fair share of the ball due to the wind, rain and hail served up at Welford Road and quite literally rose to the challenge.
14. Topsy Ojo (London Irish)
A lively showing from the Exiles winger who notched up an impressive 88m with the ball in hand during a closely-fought clash with Exeter where space came at a premium.
13. Kameli Ratuvou (Saracens)
The Fijian centre celebrated his 100th appearance in Sarries' colours with a trademark power-packed performance that hammered the Newcastle defence.
12. James Downey (Northampton)
A key attacking weapon for the Saints who combined pace, strength and smart angles to great effect against Wasps.
11. Noah Cato (Saracens)
The fleet-footed Sarries winger lit up his side's narrow victory over Newcastle with a couple of blistering breaks.
10. Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers)
The Tigers' fly-half has not long been off the treatment table but you would not have known it had you witnessed his display against Bath at Welford Road. His performance was not perfect but his efforts in defence and attack will have been welcomed by England manager Martin Johnson.
9. Danny Care (Harlequins)
The Quins scrum-half obviously refuses to acknowledge that Leicester No.9 Ben Youngs is a dead cert to retain the England No.9 shirt. His lively showing against Gloucester included a 60m try after pouncing on a loose ball.
1. Soane Tonga'uiha (Northampton)
The prolific Tongan was amongst the tries again whilst making his presence felt against Wasps at Adams Park. He already has five tries to his name this season!
2. Dylan Hartley (Northampton)
The Saints skipper steered his side to one of the most impressive victories of the season so far against Wasps at Adams Park and marhsalled a rampant pack in the process.
3. Chris Budgen (Exeter Chiefs)
The veteran tight-head rolled back the years against London Irish to the delight of the Sandy Park faithful.
4. Courtney Lawes (Northampton)
Another appearance in our selection for the Saints lock who gleefully rampaged at Adams Park but was equally forceful in defence.
5. Christian Day (Northampton)
A pivotal player within a Saints pack that dominated Wasps at Adams Park - notably riding roughshod over Joe Simpson and taking a couple of other defenders with him for the ride.
6. Phil Dowson (Northampton)
The Saints flanker did his England chances no harm at all with an eye-catching display during his side's demolition of Wasps.
7. James Scaysbrook (Exeter)
The Chiefs' openside produced an industrious display that helped set the tone for a physical team showing that rattled league leaders London Irish.
8. Thomas Waldrom (Leicester)
Back-to-back Man of the Match awards for the strong running Kiwi ensure he cements his place in our line-up. He clocked up the metres with ball in hand - a vital component for the resurgent Tigers.
October 13, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/13/2010
Cipriani's costly first impression?
'Coming Soon' promises Danny Cipriani's website - an apparent work-in-progress that goes a long way to summing up the elusive 22-year-old's current status in the game.
The England outcast took a major gamble earlier this year by opting for a move to Australia as the first and arguably most high-profile signing by expansion side the Melbourne Rebels. The trouble is he has yet to clock in with his new employers while his team-mates have already knuckled down to the rigours of pre-season and the equally important task of fostering new links with the community and sponsors in a region previously untouched by Super Rugby.
The trouble with Cipriani is exactly that - trouble appears to be plaguing his bid to return to the top of the game. His undoubted talent laid the foundation for his rapid rise to prominence but his reported attitude has seen him make as many enemies as fans in that time - most notably within the England management.
If he intends to use his stint in Australia as the springboard back into the international set-up then it would make sense to have the Rebels on-side but Cipriani is seemingly intent on burning bridges before they have been built with coach Rod Macqueen and his new team-mates.
Cipriani's continued dalliance with football had his coach fielding calls on the player's commitment to the Rebels earlier this summer and heightened speculation that he wanted out of his reported £175,000 (A$300,000) a season contract. But having explained that one away - at least twice - his pre-season no-show will have had Macqueen reaching for the Nurofen again. And let us not forget the rest of the Rebels - forced to watch this circus while sweating out the excesses of the off-season and glad-handing for the corporate dollar.
Cipriani strikes you as an intelligent man and his public school education would suggest that so it makes you wonder why he failed to complete his visa application in the six months between the announcement of his move in February and the start of pre-season in October. But let's him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has been a little busy and the break-up of a long-term relationship can spark some erratic behaviour. The focus then falls on his management - the Sports PR Company - but perhaps they are finding the player equally elusive? Either way someone has dropped the ball and it has landed in the brown stuff.
Cipriani may have been out of action since injury curtailed his final season with Premiership side Wasps earlier this year but he has hardly been out of the public eye since be it London Fashion Week or on the arm of his now ex-girlfriend Kelly Brook. A quick search through the archives of our photo supplier Getty Images emphasises this fact with the 50+ pictures from the Cipriani social calendar that appear before we see him in rugby kit leaving you wondering what it is he is famous for.
But the wait is over. He is due to arrive in Australia today but if he thought playing his trade on the other side of the world would save him from the media spotlight think again. The media pack may not be present at the impressive AAMI Stadium for his debut next year with their focus on an all-important Six Nations but rest assured they will ensure that their Sky Sports subscriptions are up-to-date.
Before then we can expect Cipriani to still hit the headlines thanks to stories like this recent broadside aimed at the Rugby Football Union and the faith of others - like Jonny Wilkinson.
Even if Cipriani tears up the Super Rugby stage it is highly unlikely that he will force his way back into the international reckoning unless England manager Martin Johnson has a major change of heart - such is the frosty nature of their relationship. And if Cipriani is serious about making amends he needs the support of those around him at his new home which makes his behaviour all the more baffling. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot.
"We have stressed that this new team is not about individuals and opportunities for individuals," stressed Macqueen this week following a team-bonding session. "It is about a cohesive squad performing together. When the team is successful they will be successful. The players grasped the concept and the team ethos we wanted to create and have now taken ownership of it."
Sadly, Cipriani was not present. Let's hope he got the memo.
Maybe he likes it this way and thrives on the chance to prove himself when others are all too keen to write him off? But he should remember that this is a team game and reaching that goal will be a lot easier with a little help. Let's hope his work ethic and commitment to the Rebels' cause leaves them in no doubt from this moment on as no-one likes to see a talent such as his sit idle.
July 17, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 07/17/2010
The season starts here
The mere prospect of embarking on a new season may be enough to bring some of you out in a sweat but for the big boys that day arrived last Friday. Pre-season may only be a couple of weeks old but the competitive juices were flowing at the first event in the snappily-named JP Morgan Asset Management Premiership Rugby Sevens Series staged at the Twickenham Stoop.
Harlequins, Saracens, Wasps and London Irish went head-to-head in the first event of its kind and produced some eye-catching rugby in its shortened form which was appreciated by a sizeable crowd estimated at around 5,000. The demands of an already busy playing calendar ensured that the event was shorn of some big names but there was a healthy mix of veterans (including Andy Gomarsall back in Wasps' colours for the first time in 11 years and Harlequins player coach Howard Graham), Sevens specialists (like Saracens' Kevin Barrett) and exciting young talent (such as Quins' Miles Mantella and Saracens' Jackson Wray).
The result was an entertaining evening of Sevens action with Saracens and Harlequins booking their passage through to the Series Final at The Rec on August 6. Before then, the Premiership's other sides will contest the remaining two groups at Welford Road and Franklin's Gardens to decide the other finalists.
The event may have struggled to cause more than a ripple with rugby writers enjoying their summer holidays, and the wider sporting media still recovering from the exertions of the World Cup and focused on the Open Championship at St Andrews. But with Sevens destined for a higher profile with Olympics inclusion from 2016 (the Commonwealth Games comes first, later this year, while the IRB Sevens World Series goes from strength to strength) it makes sense to try and bridge the gap and give the country's leading players a stage on which to perform - especially with first team opportunities limited. However, the scheduling and demands on players means this tournament is unlikely to ever be more than a development tool for the clubs.
The event took on greater significance for ESPN - the broadcast partner and the owners of ESPNscrum.com - who debuted certain elements of their live rugby production that will also steer you through the forthcoming Aviva Premiership Rugby season.
Sarra Elgan, who many may know through her rugby work for S4C, presented the coverage from the touchline and was a huge plus and easy on the eye while the analysis of Ben Kay (who will take on a similar role for the Premiership) and Peter Richards was also informative and refreshing. Martin Gillingham was behind the microphone, as he is for ESPN's Top 14 coverage, and he was joined by Kay who showed the value of utilising a player fresh from hanging up his boots with some interesting insight. There was no mention of player welfare or burnout with the focus firmly on the opportunities provided by the competition and with recent hint from the RFU that this version of the game may provide a pathway to full Test honours it was no surprise to see some grab that chance with both hands.
The decision of the director to send cameras and microphones into player huddles pre and post game to bring the viewer closer to the action brought the expletive-laden outbursts you would expect. The swearing was perhaps more Danny Cipriani than Van Humphries but amusing all the same. The comments helped to convey the fact that the clubs were taking the competition seriously and this was hammered home with some bone-crunching tackles and inevitable injuries.
We can expect ESPN's coverage of the Premiership to include a few more bells and whistles - not to mention the considerable talents of Austin Healey and Nick Mullins - but it was still an impressive debut and like the Sevens Series itself will no doubt kick on from here.
June 18, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 06/18/2010
A real life superstar
It was with great sadness that we reported the death of Andy Ripley on Thursday after the former England international back row forward finally lost his battle with cancer. A giant of a gent on and off the field, it was no surprise that his passing triggered a huge outpouring of sympathy from those who knew him and others that respected and admired the man.
Among them were some grizzled members of the rugby media who felt compelled to share their memories of Ripley. "Above and beyond all, he will be remembered as an outstanding member of the human race," wrote Peter Jackson in the Daily Mail. Similar heart-felt words were penned by Steve Downes of the Sports Journalists Association and the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary while Brendan Gallagher offered his own personal recollection in the same newspaper. Equally moving was Paul Kimmage's interview with Ripley in the Sunday Times last month when it was painfully obvious that his time was running short.
A powerful ball runner ahead of his time, Ripley was capped 24 times by England and was also a tourist with the British Lions in 1974 but found his path to the Test side blocked by Welshman Mervyn Davies. He later found further fame on the BBC TV show Superstars which proved to be the perfect showcase for his all round skills and he went on to claim that title in 1980. A brilliant athlete, he competed in the 400m at the UK athletics Championship, was world veteran indoor rowing champion (edging out his former England rival Roger Uttley) and was also a notable swimmer and sailor. Age was also no barrier to him with a 50-year-old Ripley narrowly missing out on a place in the Boat Race whilst completing a masters at Cambridge University.
His talents did not end their with his linguistic skills ensuring a stint as a commentator for French television while his after-dinner speaking was as powerful as it was moving according to those lucky enough to have borne witness to it. Add to this the title of prize-winning author - his 2007 account of his battle with cancer - The Rugby Icon’s Ultimate Victory Over Cancer - won him even more fans.
In the foreword to his book he wrote, “Dare we hope? We dare. Can we hope? We can. Should we hope? We must, because to do otherwise is to waste the most precious of gifts, given so freely by God to all of us. So when we do die, it will be with hope and it will be easy and our hearts will not be broken.”
Ripley's life story is Boy's Own Annual material, a maverick and a corinthian whose exploits will rank alongside those of the legendary C B Fry and others who have lit up the sporting world in more than one discipline. Sadly the demands of the professional sporting world mean we will never see his like again - or will we?
Karmichael Hunt is one multi-talented sportsman bucking the trend. The Kiwi-born 23-year-old made his name in rugby league before deciding his future would be in Aussie Rules - but before he switched codes he ventured into union and helped steer Biarritz to this season's Heineken Cup Final. Impressive stuff. He may have a long way to go before he warrants a place alongside Ripley but we can only applaud the attempts of those who hope to follow in his footsteps.
Another is Sonny Bill Williams who, like Hunt, launched himself onto the sporting stage rugby league before making a high-profile switch to rugby union with Toulon in France. The Kiwi-born centre spent two years in French rugby's top flight but he is now heading back to New Zealand in his latest quest for international honours having already represented his country in the 13-man code. There is little doubt that his future lies with the All Blacks - with his last appearance for Toulon in the European Challenge Cup Final a perfect advert for superb all-round game that mixes power, pace and flair - and he is set to force his way into Graham Henry's plans for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. However, he also has one professional boxing bout under his belt and another looming - but he may have to put that career on the backburner in the next few months.
By the way, if you want a little reminder of the kind of devastation Ripley could cause as a player - have a look at this:
May 2, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/02/2010
Premiership trap door is a must
As ever with this time of year, the issue of relegation has resurfaced with renewed calls to bolt the Premiership trap door for good - but Premier Rugby have introduced a new element to the debate with the suggestion that it may be time to expand English rugby's top flight to 14 teams.
First things first - promotion and relegation must always remain. Full stop. No debate. Just look at the agony and ecstasy on display at Headingley last weekend as Leeds and Worcester battled for survival. Enthralling drama that would otherwise be a meaningless end of season clash. And if you need further reason, cast your eye to the admittedly rather convoluted Championship play-offs where the Premiership class of the likes of Bristol and Exeter are pushing for promotion and who deserve their chance to tackle the elite.
Premier Rugby will always point to the financial instability that the prospect of relegation generates and tell us that clubs are unable to create viable, long-term business plans with the fear of possible relegation hanging over them - but let us not forget this is sport, not business. But that same threat should keep the club owners on their toes and ensure they are constantly working to find a winning mix on the field and an equally attractive proposition off the field for fans, sponsors and broadcasters.
A Premiership closed shop may have been a viable option in the early days of professionalism with a franchise-based system similar to the Super 14 but 15 years down the line that is no longer a possibility with so much invested by so many into the leading clubs across the country. No one is going to walk away at this stage and an increasing number of clubs want their piece of the pie.
As a result Premier Rugby are keen to scrap relegation and expand the Premiership cast from 12 to 14 teams and fund that step via the next broadcasting deal which is up for renewal in 2012. A pipe dream. The Rugby Football Union moved quickly to quash any fanciful ideas by insisting that Premier Rugby are legally bound by the long-sought agreement finally signed a couple of years ago and ensures status quo until at least 2016.
It's not often you find high praise for the RFU on these pages but English rugby's governing body demand such for their directness on this issue. "If you have 12 shops and no one's making much money, you don't rush out and open another two shops," said RFU chairman Martyn Thomas earlier this week before adding, "You might close two." And how right he is. With maybe just a couple of clubs making significant profits in the current climate, attendances not exploding across the board no matter what Premier Rugby would have us believe and the actual rugby only recently reaching a standard worth shouting about, it does not make financial sense to introduce some new clubs to the mix and in effect water down the product.
January 8, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/08/2010
Farrell flying up the coaching ladder
"Andy Farrell will coach at a very, very high level."
Saracens boss Brendan Venter predicted a bright coaching future for his assistant Andy Farrell on these very page a few short months ago and so emphatic were his words that you were left in no doubt of his sincerity.
And it appears Farrell's speedy ascent up the coaching ranks is well underway. The dual code international has joined England Saxons coach Stuart Lancaster's backroom team for their forthcoming clashes with Ireland 'A' and Italy 'A'.
"His knowledge, not just of the game, but about people and how to get the best out of them is second to none."
Farrell, who won 34 caps for Great Britain rugby league side and eight caps for England in the 15-man code, had a formidable reputation as a rugged and skillful player and went an incredible eight years without missing a game at one stage. And you don't play to the standard he did, in both codes, without amassing a wealth of knowledge about the game and the people who play it. It is that wisdom that Venter, and now the Saxons, are keen to draw on but crucially it is his ability to impart that knowledge that is arguably more important.
Next stop the England coaching team before Rugby World Cup 2011 - watch this space.
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/08/2010
Venter takes one for the team?
Saracens boss Brendan Venter landed himself in hot water this week with a headline-grabbing attack on referee David Rose following his side’s loss to Premiership rivals Leicester but instead of lambasting him should we be praising his bravery?
The former no-nonsense Springboks centre was incensed by what he saw as a transformation in Rose’s handling of the game in the second half of the Tigers’ 22-15. In particular he was left fuming by a penalty count that went 9-3 to Sarries in the first half and went 10-4 in Leicester’s favour after the break.
Instead of raising his concerns behind closed doors, he opted to go public with his views in the post-match press conference but it is his specific claim in a BBC interview that the referee “was influenced at half-time” that has seen the Rugby Football Union strike back – and quickly.
Venter chose to go on the offensive, no doubt spurred on by his successful complaint in the wake of his side’s recent loss to London Irish that resulted in an apology from the RFU for the mistakes made by their officials. But his decision to question the integrity of the referee will cost him dear with a likely ban that may hinder Saracens push for domestic honours. He only needed to look to the opposition’s changing room at Vicarage Road for a reason to temper his words – the Tigers’ Richard Cockerill served four weeks on the sidelines last year after criticising the officials following his side’s Anglo-Welsh Cup clash with the Dragons.
You can understand Venter’s frustrations at what he sees as crucial inconsistencies, despite the fact his side sit atop of the Premiership, but emotion appears to have got the better of him here as his words were better reserved for the official lines of communication. I do not envy Rose, or any of his colleagues, because life as a rugby referee is no picnic despite the International Rugby Board’s best efforts to clean up the more confusing areas of the game. They will get things wrong occasionally but you cannot shoot from the lip – serious claims cannot be dealt with in such a manner but that is not to say they should escape investigation altogether.
It was no surprise to see the RFU act swiftly as they continue to rebuild the sport’s reputation in the wake of all the fake-blood and drugs-related drama of last year - the image of the game is high on their priorities hence their apparent decision to let Venter's other comments ride. ”Respect is one of rugby's core values which underpin our sport and that must include respect for the match officials at all times,” commented RFU director of elite rugby Rob Andrew in a loud and clear signal that such behaviour will not be tolerated.
Venter does have cause for complaint because inconsistencies appear to be a plague on the game at the moment such are the grey areas of the tackle and the breakdown and he may even find some sympathy at Rugby House. Interpretation is the key and it is an issue that will have troubled every Premiership club and thousands of players - and fans if our feedback is anything to go by.
“Instead of simplifying the game the IRB have created a farce and it will not be long before the paying public stop attending matches because there is now no uniformity in decision making,” wrote one of our readers recently. And he is right.
Despite recent record attendances over the festive period, the sport must be careful not to shoot itself in the foot and Venter is arguably doing his bit by sounding a wake up call, taking one for the team, in a bid to save the game from a worrying fate.
The game has long been professional but it appears the officials may have one foot in the amateur era. Speaking in his newspaper column, Wales and Wasps coach Shaun Edwards urged referees to be thorough in their own preparation for games which suggest, perhaps alarmingly, that they do not already.
“I would encourage all referees, rather than just the conscientious ones, to prepare for games as coaches and players do, by reviewing tapes of at least one – and hopefully more – games in which each of the sides has recently played,” he wrote.
Referees need to up their game to not only ensure the highest possible standard of officiating but also help preserve the popularity of the sport. So why not make reviewing of previous games a compulsory part of their preparation? Surely this is the case at the elite international level - where some of these guys also work - so why not in the sport’s premier domestic leagues?. Referee exchanges have seen the top referees travel the globe and I doubt they would embark on such ventures without similar adequate preparation.
For those interested, Edwards also reveals the agreed process for the airing of grievances. Referees boss Ed Morrison or one of his senior assessors, such at Tony Spreadbury, will sit down and review a match with the coach who has raised concerns. “My experience is that they then offer an honest assessment, one relayed to the referee concerned,” wrote Edwards. “On occasions Morrison or Spreadbury, two former international referees of high reputation, have subsequently arranged telephone calls to the referee involved. Possibly half a dozen times, that official has been big enough to admit his mistake and I have then put the phone down thinking we had both benefited from the conversation and that most of the time the system works.”
Venter's hearing is slated for January 19 and despite Saracens' protestations he is set to be punished severely.
September 24, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 09/24/2009
RFU enters the 21st Century
Fans in England have suffered for years thanks to the woeful web-based efforts of their Union. The website that until this week looked like this was a mess. In playing terms it was more suited to England's infamous 'Tour from Hell' in 1998 rather than their glorious Rugby World Cup triumph in 2003.
The game maybe thriving with more players than ever before but I fear for those lost to the game forever. How many would-be fans and players were immediately turned off the game as a result of visiting the old website? Even the efforts of minor unions like Fiji and Canada were making the money-men and tech-bods at the RFU look foolish.
It has taken years but finally the RFU have decided to take the internet seriously. Sadly they will have to relinquish the 'Worst Sports Governing Body Website Award' that they have monopolised for the best part of a decade but rumours abound that it will be forever re-named 'The Red Rose' in their honour.
The result is a new-look website that looks a whole lot better and is what fans of the England team and supporters of the game in general deserve. Time will tell if it stands up to the rigours of the season.
But of course, if you want a one-stop shop for all your rugby desires then you need look no further than ESPN Scrum.com!
September 13, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 09/13/2009
Stand up for the Saracens
The Guinness Premiership broke new ground on Saturday with the first ever game staged at Wembley Stadium in North London.
Saracens' narrow victory over Northampton may not have been the greatest advert for the game but as a spectacle it went some way to fulfilling the hype surrounding the occasion. A bruising contest, it sparked into life in the second half and delivered a rousing finale that included a hint of controversy with the majority of the 44,832 fans present going home happy.
As a marketing experiment the game was a huge success and Sarries must be praised for their bravery in switching the fixture from their usual Vicarage Road home and for taking on the risk - to the tune of the reported £300,000 fee demanded by the landlords.
The attendance for Saturday's game was more than twice the previous biggest crowd for a Saracens match in the Premiership - they attracted 19,000 for their league title decider against Newcastle in 1998 - and significantly more than the 9,000 they average at their usual home. The Wembley attendance also came close to matching the 50,000 that Harlequins attracted to Twickenham for their 'Big Match' with Leicester last season.
The utilisation of larger stadiums for high-profile knock-out games is now a common occurrence in the sport but their use for regular season games is a relatively recent phenomenon with the now traditional London Double Header another perfect marriage of marketing and muscle.
Both Saracens and Harlequins, who will also return to England's HQ later this year for the 'Big Match 2', have benefited from the exposure of the Double Header with this season's matches attracting 67,684 fans to Twickenham last weekend.
But in striking out on their own both Saracens and Quins are following the lead of Top 14 side Stade Francais who, under the guidance of president Max Guazzini, have led the way when it comes to selling an event - not just a game.
Cheap tickets have helped lure capacity crowds to the 80,000 all-seater Stade de France for many of the Parisiens' league matches and it is a successful venture they will look to continue this season.
Following the lead of their rivals across the Channel, Saracens priced the tickets attractively for Saturday's fixture - £10 for adults and £5 for U16s - with thousands of families and importantly new fans taking advantage to create a colourful and memorable atmosphere.
Those fans that flocked to Wembley may not have got the camel racing that they had been promised due to health and safety red tape but they did get the Royal Marines, a tug-of-war and dance act Diversity - winners of Britain's Got Talent - and going by the reaction to the latter's high-tempo display they were a big hit.
Sadly the same fate is unlikely to befall Sarries much-hyped song - 'Stand up for the Saracens'. Recorded with the help of follically-challenged pop duo Right Said Fred, the frustratingly catchy song reverberated around the stadium every few minutes as a rallying cry for the team and fans alike.
Saracens long-time chairman Nigel Wray has boldly predicted that they will attract a 90,000 crowd to Wembley within three years. His claim is not born out of greed but commercial necessity.
Writing in the match programme, he said, "For our game, for Saracens to be truly economic, Vicarage Road on its own cannot suffice. We need to have these great events if we are to stay, as we aim to, right in the top flight of European rugby."
Following the latest example of the strength of the Premiership brand, Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty was equally confident. "With the continual growth in club attendances and the vision and imagination of clubs like Saracens, I can see a day in the not too distant future when we have a sell-out club match at Wembley"
The long term key for Sarries is converting these new fans into regular visitors to Vicarage Road. The figures from the Wembley game might not immediately add up, and may even return a loss, but that will not cause too much concern at Saracens with everyone at the club focused on the bigger picture.
Club rugby's biggest attendances:
September 9, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 09/09/2009
You couldn't make it up
And it appears Quins are also starting to see the funny side of it all.
My travels took me past their Twickenham Stoop home today where a well-placed sign was calling for blood donors - I kid you not. Has the now-famous joke shop in Clapham run dry of the fake stuff? Sadly, this was not some moment of comic genius from a fan on his way home from the Twickenham festivities last Saturday but a genuine plea from the National Blood Service.
For those willing to help they will be holding a donor session in the Jesters Suite on September 15 - Click here for more details.
But the jokes do not end there! Of course, it was alleged during the investigation into the scandal that winger Tom Williams' mouth was deliberately sliced open by club doctor Wendy Chapman on the request of the player as part of an elaborate cover-up. (The General Medical Council have confirmed that they are investigating the role played by Chapman, in the aftermath of the fateful Heineken Cup loss to Leinster.)
"As part of the new agreement, King Of Shaves are currently developing a bespoke Harlequins Azor Razor in Quins colours and incorporating the Harlequin that the players and management will be given as well as being available in the Harlequins Merchandise Store for our supporters," states the hilarious release.
Chief executive Mark Evans, who may also find himself under investigation by the Rugby Football Union, adds, "Like all good sponsorships, this will be a mutually beneficial relationship and we look forward to working with the over the 2009/10 season."
September 6, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 09/06/2009
Welcome to the Bates Motel?
The film's central character famously claims that he would not even hurt a fly but the same cannot be said for Rees who is set to tear into opponents when he returns from injury later this month. Stay tuned to Scrum.com for more from the England international over the coming months including his A-Z guide to taxidermy - OK, just kidding about the last bit.
August 23, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 08/23/2009
Silly season offers reason to smile
However, there are always the player headshots to fall back on and this year's batch will no doubt raise a smile or two. The pre-season ritual is embraced by most - well aware that the picture will be staring straight back at them from the match day programme each week. For others it the goal appears to be a statement of intent - although the end result is often more comedic rather than barbaric.
Some don't bother to sort their hair out while others obviously spend far too long in search of coiffure perfection. Our sample selection features (from top to bottom) Gloucester's Carlos Spencer, Northampton's Neil Best, Wasps' Dan Leo and Worcester's James Rodwell.
In Rodwell's case their was at least a reason for his quest for a two-tone appearance. His club the Warriors admirably abstained from the razor in aid of the local 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment. As for the others we're not so sure.
August 19, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 08/19/2009
Rugby struggling under the microscope
Dean Richards carved out a formidable reputation as a player for Leicester, England and the Lions and is widely as one of the greatest players of his generation. As a coach he was equally impressive - steering the Tigers to back-to-back Heineken Cup titles and overseeing the re-birth of Harlequins as a major force in English rugby. But all that now lies in tatters after he was handed a three-year ban for masterminding the fake blood substitution that has cost him, winger Tom Williams, the world-famous Quins and the sport so dear.
Many questioned the original findings of the 'Bloodgate' investigation and there was little surprise when European Rugby Cup chiefs signalled their displeasure too and opted for the appeal.
While it originally appeared that Williams had taken one for the team, it now seems that Richards is the fall guy for rugby as a whole. With the full force of the International Rugby Board, the Rugby Football Union and European Rugby Cup - not to mention the considerable weight of the wider mass media who have pounced on the issue - he has now been cast into the wilderness as the sport desperately tries to restore some credibility.
With the appeal ruling the disciplinary chiefs had to make a very strong statement and thankfully they got it right having fudged the issue on their first attempt. With no precedent an example had to be made of Richards and with a three-year ban they have definitely sent a message that such behaviour will not be tolerated.
Richards can consider himself a little unlucky to be the one to get caught if the tactic is as common as some would have us believe. But he was a fool for trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the officials in such a high-profile game with the eyes of the rugby world centred on his side. The ban is extremely severe but Richards' role in the incident is only part of the story - he is also paying the price for failing to admit his guilt in the original investigation, for orchestrating the subsequent cover-up and, to a certain degree, the shortcomings of the sport.
And what happened to the team ethos that rugby holds so proud? This scandal had the leading protagonists diving for cover to protect themselves leaving one of their number to take the flack. Had the club not been so cowardly in the first place then the fallout may have been contained.
It is a shame that a season that promised so much for Quins - with two thrilling victories over Stade Francais in the same Heineken Cup competition that would be the stage for their downfall - ended in such a manner.
Will the punishment dished out to Richards prevent a repeat? Unlikely. The high-profile nature of this case will ensure the sale of blood capsules fall through the floor but the demands of professionalism will ensure clubs continue to dice with death.
As my colleague John Taylor has suggested a return to independent medical officers on the sidelines or rolling substitutions are perhaps the best options available to the game. Which would get your vote? Medical officers may be able to spot fake blood but if real cuts are being made or old wounds being opened up then they have little chance of spotting foul play. And what of 'injuries' where there is no blood? In my own experience I can vouch that the M in MRI scan does not stand for Mobile.
Maybe rolling subs are the way to go? On the surface this seems like a viable option but there are those who believe that replacements strip matches of momentum and they would see an extension of that as another nail in the coffin of the sport.
Those that don't follow the sport closely may question why this issue has taken to long to come to the boil with Quins having been found guilty of fabricating the injury a month ago. The reason may well be because the tactic employed by Quins is not that shocking to those involved in the game. In fact, if reports are to be believed it is an all too common occurrence.
Coaches and players such as former England coach Dick Best and Rugby World Cup winner Matt Dawson have recently revealed their exposure to such dishonest tactics but they are now safely ensconced outside the inner workings of the game.
In contrast, England manager Martin Johnson and his skipper Steve Borthwick opted for a straight bat last week insisting they had never been witness to such controversy. But you would not expect them to matter-of-factly confirm its presence in the game. Whatever they say - it happens - we've seen it with our own eyes thanks to the Sky Sports cameras but whether it is common practice on the international stage is another thing altogether.
That form of the game has flirted with its own replacement controversy with the return of Springboks skipper John Smit to the first Test clash with the Lions raising eyebrows - but Lions refused to stir the controversy at the time or since.
And before our rugby cousins start pointing the finger to the ills of the commercially-rich northern hemisphere I think it is a safe bet that this problem is not limited to England, the UK or even Europe. But whether it is as widespread as some reports would have us believe is of course open to debate.
The ill-advised Williams was originally singled out by the investigation and hit with a 12-month ban - a completely over-the-top decision against a player who was allegedly set up as a scapegoat.
Thankfully some sense prevailed with the reduction of his ban - thanks largely to the actions of the player himself - but he can still feel a little hard done by. A cheat he may well be but does his punishment fit the crime? I still don't think so. As previously mentioned here his ban looks ludicrous compared to the comparative slap on the wrist for the likes of South Africa's Schalk Burger who picked up an eight-week ban for his assault on the Lions Luke Fitzgerald earlier this year.
You may or may not agree that jeopardising the integrity of the sport by cheating warrants a stronger sanction than an attempted gouging but what is not in doubt is the fact that by treating the latter so lightly the sport is doing as much damage to the game as any misguided use of fake blood.
Harlequins can count themselves very lucky to have escaped with just a fine - albeit a hefty one. It is amazing to me that a side that treated a tournament with such contempt last season by cheating can be welcomed back into its embrace this season.
By allowing Quins to compete for the European crown this year, ERC are in danger of undoing some of the great work they have put in during the last 10 years to craft the best club competition in the world. I don't buy reports that the monetary sanction was in danger of crippling the Premiership club - such is the strength of their brand and the large following they have benefitted from for many years - even in their brief spell back in National 1.
Rugby now has some work to do to restore its reputation and time will tell if the sport's recent woes will take their toll at the turnstiles or in terms of playing numbers. The sport has long laid claim to the moral high ground but those foundations, built on more than a century of amateur status, now appear very shaky. Sadly, it has only taken 14 years of professionalism to bring us to this day.
And with the Rugby Football Union now investigating more fake injuries unearthed by the Harlequins investigation it appears the sport is a long way from being in the clear.
August 8, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 08/08/2009
Richards had to fall on his sword
The debateable decision to only ban Quins' Tom Williams for a year for his part in the incident and to hit the club with a fine - and with it suggest the player was working alone - was never going to sit easy with anyone in the rugby community. And it appears the club's own investigation has uncovered some harsh truths.
The latest twist to this long-running saga is unlikely to be the last with European Rugby Cup officials making the bold step to appeal the ruling of the independent disciplinary panel that dismissed charges of misconduct laid against Richards, club doctor Wendy Chapman and physiotherapist Steph Brennan. Unsurprisingly it appears ERC chiefs are not happy with that decision - nor the £215,000 fine handed down to the club as a whole - 50% of which is suspended for two years. As things stand Harlequins will take their place in next season's Heineken Cup but their place amongst Europe's elite is now very much in jeopardy.
ERC, along with the rest of the rugby world, obviously feel justice has not been done in this case. They realise that the findings of the disciplinary panel reflect badly on the tournament as a whole and as guardians of the arguably the sport's most entertaining and intense competition they are determined not to see 10 years of hard work in terms of brand building ruined.
There was no way that Williams acted alone and Quins' own findings will have surely underlined this fact. Richards' resignation does not necessarily cement his guilt - although many will assume as much - but as boss of the playing side of the club he had to fall on his sword. This total disregard for the Laws of the Game happened on his watch and so he must accept responsibility.
My Scrum colleague, John Taylor, hinted that the independent investigators were confronted by a wall of silence at the club hence their failure to finger anyone else for the crime except Williams whose wink to the camera with fake blood gushing from his mouth sealed his own fate. And there was little wonder that Quins readily accepted the findings of the panel (except for the length of Williams' ban) - they had conjured an escape worthy of a World War II prison camp movie. The club has sensibly accepted the sanction handed down to them but they will be rightly concerned by ERC's decision to demand yet another review of the evidence and the findings.
With the indignation of the rugby community ringing in their ears and maybe some sort of informal input from the International Rugby Board, Harlequins were perhaps all too aware that their own investigation, which is on-going, could not reach such an unsatisfactory conclusion. It was during this process that Richards tendered his resignation which was accepted by his board. Maybe the most face-saving exit available to Richards? Either way it is a sad end for someone who has overseen an exciting period of development for the club. Richards himself has yet to comment directly on the incident and don't hold your breath in anticipation of him doing so in fear of burning any bridges that will allow him to return to the game.
Harlequins are well aware of the damage that this saga has done to not only their reputation but that of the sport and as a result have pledged to establish, "an appropriate ethics code for all staff" with the aim of preventing a repeat. It is a shame that such formalities are required.
It has taken four months for us to reach this point and we are still not at the end of the story. Stay tuned for the next excruciating chapter and let's hope it does not drag on into the new season. Quins are scheduled to play their first Heineken Cup game on October 10 - surely it will not take that long?
May 18, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/18/2009
Au revoir Jonny
And so the worst kept secret in European rugby has finally been confirmed - Jonny Wilkinson will be plying his trade in France next season with big-spending Top 14 club Toulon.
Who can begrudge him his lucrative move to the south of France? Certainly not Newcastle to whom he has dedicated the last 12 years of his life. Nor any England fan who will be eternally grateful for that magical night in Sydney. And not any journalist who has crafted endless column inches on the back of his playing exploits and injury woes.
The guy has had the most horrendous run of luck since providing England with arguably its greatest sporting moment ever in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final. His body has failed him time and time again but not his mind. Retirement has never been considered.
The once fresh-faced star turns 30 next week and time was running out for him to broaden his rugby horizons. Two years under the sun in the Mediterranean could breathe some life into his battered body although a gruelling Top 14 campaign will offer no respite.
Will he rediscover the kind of form that has brought him 70 England caps? Let us not forget he has 1,099 Test points to his name making him the most prolific scorer in the history of the international game - however, the last of those came 14 months ago.
Time will tell if Wilkinson can prove his fitness and then his class by reclaiming the England No.10 shirt.
August 15/16 - put it in the diary - the start of the new Top 14 season where Wilkinson will be the main attraction - fancy a weekend away in the south of France?
May 16, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/16/2009
Should we stick with the play-off format?
With the climax of each Premiership season comes the re-opening of the debate surrounding the use of the play-off format to decide the champions.
On this occasion there were few arguments - Leicester topped the table at the end of the regular season and underlined their supremacy with victory in their Twickenham showdown with London Irish.
Sadly the match itself did not quite live up to the occasion but there can be little doubt the best side in England lifted the silverware. The Tigers timed their run to the end of the season superbly - not so long ago they were languishing mid-table before losing just last one of their last 11 games in the Premiership - all this while surging into the latter stages of the Heineken Cup too.
Such is the structure of the season that the clubs are stripped of their leading players in the autumn and during the Six Nations - so the play-offs offer a little breathing room. A team can finish fourth in the regular season and still go on to claim the crown - although no one has - yet.
Gloucester have suffered the greatest under this set-up. Three times - in 07-08, 06-07 and 02-03 - they topped the table at the end of the season but failed to go on and claim a play-off victory. Leicester (04-05) and Bath (03-04) have suffered similar fate.
In contrast, Wasps have shown how to peak at the right time. On the four occasions they triumphed in the Premiership Final they did so having finished no better than second in the regular season.
For the record, I'm a fan of the play-offs. The end-of-season showpiece offers a fitting finale to the season for fans and players. All the teams are aware of the format before a ball is passed at the start of the season so there can be no excuses. It just helps if the final is a little more memorable than the offering served up by the Tigers and Exiles.
April 25, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/25/2009
Super Saturday - As it happened...
Welcome to Super Saturday that will decide this season's Guinness Premiership semi-finals.
Only leaders Leicester are assured of a place in the final four but will have their eyes set on a home semi-final. Five other clubs are chasing the remaining three spots while another four have a possible Heineken Cup qualification spot within their grasp.
Get ready for a dramatic and tension-filled couple of hours as we track the fortunes of all the sides across the country.
As a reminder - this is how they line up on the final day of the regular season:
Bath 33-18 Saracens - FT
And here's how the table finished:
1. Leicester 71 pts
April 20, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/20/2009
Crunch time in the Premiership
The most dramatic day of the Guinness Premiership season awaits on Saturday with the final round of the regular season.
Leicester, Harlequins, Bath, London Irish, Sale and Gloucester are all in the mix for the play-offs but only four can progress to the post-season with the top two sides come 5 o'clock on Saturday afternoon set to be rewarded with a home semi-final.
These six sides will go head-to head with the bottom six in the Premiership, with all the games kicking off simultaneously at 3pm, ensuring a tough day for the Sky Sports cameras that will try to convey all the drama into your living room.
But before all that Gloucester tackle Worcester on Tuesday night in a re-arranged fixture and a bonus point win would lift the Cherry and Whites to third place based on games won and nearer a much-prized semi-final.
There was another dramatic twist today when Sale were deducted one point for fielding an unregistered player last month. Sale, currently fifth in the table and now five points behind London Irish, need a bonus point victory at home to Northampton next weekend to stand any chance of qualifying for the play-offs.
Outside of the race for the semi-finals, there is also the small matter of Heineken Cup qualification up for grabs. Thanks to the exploits of the Tigers in this season's competition even a 7th place finish in the Premiership table (depending on the destiny of the European Challenge Cup) could offer a seat at the elite table next season.
Leaders Leicester are in the box seat need a point from their final game at home to already-relegated Bristol to guarantee top spot and a home semi-final.
A five-point maximum for Bath at the Recreation Ground could be enough to secure them a home semi-final next month, although Saracens are still chasing seventh place and possible Heineken Cup qualification.
Here are the last round of fixtures:
Bath v Saracens
Stay tuned to Scrum.com for full coverage this weekend.
March 8, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 03/08/2009
No brown paint?
You have to feel sorry for those groundsmen working tirelessly up and down the country to preserve the playing surface for their sides - especially those who have to combat the use of their pitches for both rugby and football.
This thought struck me as I watched Sale Sharks go at it with Newcastle Falcons at Edgeley Park today. The groundsman had diligently painted over the white lines used by co-habitants Stockport Country in their latest Coca-Cola League One clash - the colour paint chosen for this task was green which is normally OK but sadly grass is hard to come by at Edgeley Park at the moment.
As a result, instead of disguising the lines the green paint emphasised them against the brown mud - but the thought was there I guess.
POSTSCRIPT: Grass or no grass - what a great game these two sides served up. Seemingly free of the threat of relegation the Falcons are flying with their latest success built on the back of rock-like scrum. Epic.
February 27, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 02/27/2009
Rough treatment for Stevens
Matt Stevens' career lies in tatters today after being hit with a two-year ban for failing a drugs test but I can't help but feel sorry for the guy.
He has been harshly treated by European Rugby chiefs, and the International Rugby Board for it is they who lay down the law, for what we assume is a cocaine problem after metabolites - whatever they are - were found in his sample. Yes - he is guilty of breaking the rules, not to mention the law, by dallying with the drug to the extent he has a serious problem. Yes - he is stupid for playing with fire and deserves a ban - but two years? Come on!
He wasn't injecting HGH in order to bulk up and claim a physical advantage, or cheat, as we have seen in other sports. And to my knowledge he wasn't indulging in his dangeorus habit before running out at The Rec. A professional sportsman with money and time to burn - he succumbed to a social drug that is prevalent in today's society. He lacked a guiding light just when he needed it most.
And as for barring him from the sport completely to the degree he cannot associate with the game he loves in any capacity - how does that ring true with the promises of support from the RFU down? As many of our readers have pointed out, banning him does not help him or the sport. He should get treatment for his problem and then be put to work in an educational role - touring clubs and schools talking about how he went wrong and the dangers that others can be wary of.
The IRB's decision to jump into bed with anti-doping body WADA was seen as a good move but they left themselves no leeway in such issues as this. Surely time for a re-think? I'm not talking a de-classificiation, just a little common sense when it comes to handing down suspensions.
And are the sport guilty of some crazy double standards? Numerous alcohol-related misdemeanors, including some violent acts, appear to be punished with meagre fines and a slap on the wrist - who has Stevens damaged except himself?
Stevens is probably not the only player dicing with career suicide, being tempted by such vices, including alcohol, and the powers that be need to realise that. And this is not just an elite problem - they cannot turn their backs on such players or the threat of social drugs on their sport.
Best wishes Matt, and you're welcome at our 'club' anytime.
February 15, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 02/15/2009
Sir Clive looking for work?
Armchair fans around the UK will not have failed to spot Sir Clive Woodward as England's Six Nations clash with Wales in Cardiff. The more eagle-eyed amongt them would have also seen him pop up at Wasps' Premiership clash with Leicester the following night.
Could England's World Cup-winning coach and now director of elite performance for the British Olympic Association be looking for a little extra work? Maybe England manager Martin Johnson is using his former coach as a sounding board? Perhaps he is providing a little unofficial consultancy advice?
Either that or his wife Lady Jayne kicked him out the house for forgetting Valentines Day...
February 11, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 02/11/2009
Dallaglio plants his boot up England's backside
Former England skipper Lawrence Dallaglio launched a timely attack on the current international set-up this week pinpointing that detrimental attitude of some players while questionning the fitness of others.
Dallaglio's comments, made during a press junket for a brewery he endorses, were clearly designed to cause a ripple or two in the wake of England's far from impressive Six Nations bow against Italy. But given his proximity to the England set-up, having relatively recently hung up his boots, and his relationship with those Wasps players within the elite squad there is obviously some fire to go with that smoke.
"We have this attitude at the moment where our players walk around thinking they are the bees knees," he commented. Who is he pointing the finger at? We could speculate for hours as to who it is had angered him but am not sure what good that would do either us or England. The fact that someone like Dallaglio has chosen to speak out should matter and in this case I think there may be more to it than just a soundbite.
England flanker, and Wasps star, James Haskell did his best deflect the attack and his comments confirmed to us - if we didn't know already - that Dallaglio was not firing verbals at any of the Wasps players so we can assume that some players within the camp have annoyed the Wasps contingent.
As for England being unfit, or at least not as fit as their northern hemisphere rivals? I doubt it. The demands of the Premiership and Heineken Cup are such that I suspect the those players battling week in and week out in English rugby's top flight are the fittest in Europe. The issue here maybe fatigue or player burnout - such is the workload for England's leading players.
Maybe Dallaglio's real issue is with the lack of strong characters within the squad. Who has filled the void left by the likes of Dallaglio and Johnson? There does not appear to be one defining voice driving this latest generation.
But perhaps one will emerge in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium this weekend?
February 3, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 02/03/2009
Beaumont falls on hard times?
Many would have been sad to read that Barry John has opted to put some personal memorabilia up for sale. We are assured the King John is not hard-up and that he merely has no time for nostalgia and who are we to question although I dare say the Welsh Rugby Union may be in contact to check.
Elsewhere, another former great was hawking his wares this week - and on national TV to boot. You could have got your hands on a set of commemorative mugs once owned by Bill Beaumont or a couple of ornate candle holders that have graced the great man's home or some fine pewter jugs. But do not fear, this is not another money-making scheme for a player who recently announced plans for a playing comeback - he was doing a good deed on behalf of the Wooden Spoon charity on that daytime TV staple Cash in the Attic. To see the big man in action with his gavel just click here.