December 11, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/11/2010
Venter talking gibberish
Saracens boss Brendan Venter ended his self-imposed media ban following his side's Heineken Cup defeat at the hands of Racing Metro on Saturday with a bizarre and comical outburst that was clearly aimed at European Rugby Cup officials who handed him a £23,000 fine earlier this season for offering an opinion - a strong one at that - on the standard of refereeing in the competition.
You have to feel for the interviewer Martin Gillingham but maybe he and Sky Sports were in on the joke? I think you'll agree that he was trying to make a point about his earlier treatment by being as banal and non-committal as possible. But was he right to make such a statement - or non-statement? Saracens' chief executive Edward Griffiths commented, "That's what you call an ERC-style interview."
It is a shame that players, coaches or even referees are unable to speak their mind or cannot do so for fear of sanction. The game as a whole is surely more appealing when it is laced with that kind of honesty? That's the sort of opinion fans want to hear and broadcasters would lap it up. Or do we want to encourage the kind of colourless landscape that does football a disservice?
Venter is a real character and it is a shame that he will not grace the English rugby stage with such regularity come the New Year following his decision to step back from his current role and return to South Africa. He insisted family reasons were behind the headline-grabbing move although his treatment from the sport's regulators may well have played a role.
Love him or loathe him, he is always good value and the game in England will be poorer having lost such a passionate figure.
October 17, 2010
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/17/2010
Heineken Cup - Team of the Round
The second round of this season's Heineken Cup came up trumps once again with a host of enthralling clashes and plenty of headline-grabbing individual performances. But who did enough to earn selection in our Team of the Round? Find out below...
15. Nick Abendanon (Bath)
14. Doug Howlett (Munster)
13. Matt Smith (Leicester)
12. James Hook (Ospreys)
10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
9. Ben Youngs (Leicester)
1. Wian du Preez (Munster)
2. Rob Webber (Wasps)
3. Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester)
4. Ryan Jones (Ospreys)
5. Fraser McKenzie (Edinburgh)
6. Tom Croft (Leicester)
7. Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse)
8. Thomas Waldrom (Leicester)
October 10, 2010
Posted by Huw Baines on 10/10/2010
Heineken Cup - Team of the Round
The first round of the Heineken Cup produced the usual level of thrills and spills, with a couple of performances to savour, but who has made the cut for our first Team of the Round?
15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)
1.Nathan Catt (Bath)
2. William Servat (Toulouse)
3. Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester)
4. Bob Casey (London Irish)
5. Joe Tekori (Castres)
6. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Toulon)
7. George Smith (Toulon)
8. David Lyons (Scarlets)
October 11, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/11/2009
Feast for the eyes or eyesore?
We're all familiar with Stade Francais' fashion crimes but it appears other sides are keen to grab a share of the limelight. Cardiff Blues led (?) the way with their specially-produced kit for the Heineken Cup (top right) which should stand them in good stead should they be called on by the United Nations for some peace-keeping duties.
But there's no such excuse for Ospreys (centre) and Biarritz (bottom) who set their sartorial standards at the beginning of the season - but none of them tasted defeat in the opening round so I dare say they won't be bothered to the extreme like Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson was by his side's infamous grey strip.
A quick look at the opening round attendances illustrates the fact that the stench of 'Bloodgate' that soiled last year's competition has done little to quell the public's thirst for the competition. The packed houses at the RDS, Franklin's Gardens and Welford Road underlined the appeal of the tournament while only Super 10 side Treviso (2,800), Welsh region Scarlets (8,062) and Glasgow (3,111) failed to attract a crowd in excess of 10,000. The Italian side's upset of Perpignan is sure to bolster the attendance at their next game at Stadio Comunale di Monigo so should the Scarlets' hard-fought victory over Brive. While Glasgow's crowd was at least above average for the Magners League side.
The Round 1 total was an impressive 152,000 spectators - the third highest in the history of the tournament. At this rate the tournament should welcome its 10,000,000th fan sooner rather than later in the pool stages.
And whilst we're on the subject - congratulations to Toulouse speedster Vincent Clerc on claiming the all-time Heineken Cup try-scoring record. His brace against Sale took him past the well-travelled Dafydd James but he cannot rest on his laurels with Leinster's Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan poised just behind him in the list.
Bring on Round 2!
October 7, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/07/2009
Get rid of Mark Robson?
Sky Sports' award-winning coverage is for the most part an attractive mix of in-depth analysis and bar-room banter that only rarely drifts into smugness. And with a feast of top-class rugby to convey the broadcasters must expand their commentary team from the usual faces/voices of Miles Harrison and Stuart Barnes.
As much as I respect the professional standards of Harrison & Barnes it is with delight I hail the return of Mark Robson (pictured) to my television. I presume the Northern Irishman is slated to be on the microphone at some point this weekend be it at a most-likely cold and wet Ravenhill on Friday night, an equally bracing Firhill on Saturday or perhaps Welford Road on Sunday - that is unless he has fallen victim to a hate campaign I stumbled across.
It appears the not-so-dulcet tones and funny turn-of-phrase of Robson, who was a class mate of the equally loquacious golf analyst David Feherty, is to everyone's liking.
NOTE - He produced these two laugh-out-loud soundbites during his coverage of last season's competition and he features regularly in our Quote Unquote archive:
"Justin Harrison is not a patient man. I think he struggles to untangle the Christmas lights without losing it."
"That's the sort of pass you give to someone who's just eaten your last Rolo."
An online petition calling for his head can be found on the web without too much trouble - thankfully it is a couple of years out of date but the 50 or so signatures should be ashamed of themselves! OK, he may be liable to the odd mistake or misplaced comment but this cannot detract from the colour he brings to some of the, shall we say, lesser battles in the quest for the Heineken Cup crown.
Robson, who can also boast that former Tennis-babe Ana Kournikova once wallked out on him in the middle of an interview, will be no stranger to most who will have no doubt witnessed his work on the BBC, Eurosport or Sky and it is a safe bet that he has many more fans than detractors. Long may he add colour to the Heineken Cup.
July 21, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 07/21/2009
Williams singled out by 'fake injury' probe
The findings of the investigation into Harlequins’ controversial blood substitution during their Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Leinster are set to spark yet more debate after seemingly singling out Tom Williams as the guilty party.
The Quins fullback/wing has been hit with a 12 month ban for his part in the unsavoury incident that played out at The Stoop having been found guilty of, “fabricating a wound or blood injury” that allowed specialist kicker Nick Evans back onto the field. A late drop goal effort from Evans that could have won the game for the hosts sailed wide but the damage was already done as he should not have been on the field.
Williams’ guilt is not in question – his wink to the bench that was caught by TV cameras will have sealed his fate - but what does not ring true is the fact that he appears to have been made the scapegoat with team management, coaches and medical staff cleared of wrongdoing.
The club may have been hit with a hefty £215,000 fine – with half of it suspended for two years – but the implication that Williams was acting alone is laughable.
Do players carry blood capsules (or whatever else was used on this occasion to mimic blood) as part of their kit these days? No. Is Williams blessed with amazing foresight to the point that he would have tucked such a device down his sock that day? No. But the findings of this investigation expect us to believe otherwise.
It has taken over three months for the independent inquiry to reach this unsatisfactory conclusion which is the latest example – following recent cases such as the Schalk Burger eye-gouging row and Justin Harrison’s drug-related suspension – of the disciplinary system letting the game down.
On that theme, how does Williams' crime compare to that of Burger and Harrison? And how does his 12-month ban rack up against the eight-week and eight-month suspensions handed down to his South African and Australian rivals respectively? None of these offences made for happy viewing or reading but the apparent premeditated nature of the Williams/Quins offence does cause great concern. However, it seems more than a little harsh on Williams to shoulder the responsibility to such a degree in light of the punishments handed out elsewhere.
If Williams was acting alone then why has the club been fined at all? If others were involved why have they not been punished? Even if it was just the club doctor or physiotherapist, why has no other individual been called to account?
The independent disciplinary committee rightly described this incident as, “a very serious offence and one that damaged the reputation of the tournament and of Rugby Union” but Harlequins will take their place in this season’ Heineken Cup all the same.
If they were guilty of tarnishing the reputation of the game and in particular the most-prized, respected and entertaining tournament in club rugby surely a more significant statement needed to be made? Have they not been found guilty of cheating? They should not be playing in next season's competition.
Harlequins and Williams have the right to appeal this case but the player may end up taking this one for the team. For a promising player such as the 25-year-old, a year on the sidelines will no doubt prove costly in terms of his international aspirations. And despite being cleared by the investigation, Quins boss Dean Richards is unlikely to escape unscathed from the long-running saga.
In light of recent high-profile cases, the International Rugby Board instigated a review into whether the scope of appeals should in the future extend to other appropriate parties, including the IRB itself, as a safeguard against dubious results from independent inquiries.
The IRB “works tirelessly with all 116 Member Unions and key stakeholders to ensure that the safety of players and the reputation of the Game is protected” and there is no doubt the this latest black mark, with Harlequins apparently flouting the laws of the game for their own personal gain, will not have been lost on the sport’s governing body.
May 4, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/04/2009
History in the making
Delight for the Tigers but despair for the Blues as rugby history was made at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
The first penalty shoot-out in the tournament's 14-year history was an incredibly cruel way for the Blues' European campaign to come to an end and hopefully it will be the last time we see such drama.
It was only the second ever semi-final to go to extra time after Brive and Toulouse went the distance in the 1998 - on that occasion Brive went through on the greater number of tries. The tournament's first ever final - between Toulouse and Cardiff in 1996 - also went beyond 80 minutes with the French side squeezing home. But the shoot-out had only once before reared its ugly head in a top class European tie with Beziers getting the better of Agen in the 1984 French Cup Final.
The Tigers were almost embarrassed to win what was a thrilling cup tie in such a way - no mass team celebration following Jordan Crane's winning kick. And unsurprisingly the Blues were not the greatest fans of the format following the game.
The world's best club tournament has never wanted for exciting scenarios - the stakes have always brought out the best of European rugby. As a result it does not need to resort to such staged drama.
Surely a much more favourable solution - for players and fans - would be sudden-death extra time. OK, 100 minutes of gruelling rugby could not separate the sides but are you telling me that with increasing fatigue a result would not come in another 20 minutes that would see the first score clinch victory?
Tired limbs and tired minds would lead to defensive lapses or infringements with one sure to produce a match-winning score. No player would complain with such an outcome while the queue for gripes about the penalty shoot-out is already stretching around the block.
How can such a high-profile match be decided by the kicking prowess of players who do not specialise in that facet of the game? It reflects badly on the tournament and the sport. The tournament should be ashamed of the way it treated the Blues' Martyn Williams in particular. One of the world's best players is left in tears because he could not land his place kick - when would he have ever taken a kick before?
On reflection it would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Thankfully we didn't get down to the props in sudden-death as I fear that would have been even more painful to watch. Although I dare say the ever-impressive Gethin Jenkins would have had no trouble.
European Rugby Cup chiefs should initiate a review immediately to prevent a repeat and to preserve the status of their flagship competition.
I've never seen anything like it before and hope not to see such like again.
May 3, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/03/2009
Trouble in store for Quinlan
Ian McGeechan will surely be looking for his second replacement in a fortnight after Munster flanker chose to go digging for Leinster skipper Leo Cullen's contact lenses during yesterday's pulsating Heineken Cup semi-final clash at Croke Park.
The talk before the game had centred on possible tour-ending injuries to any of the 10 Lions in action in the all-Irish clash but instead it could be the indiscipline of one of his selections that has McGeechan returning to his stand-by list.
McGeechan and his fellow coaches will be in Cardiff today for the Cardiff Blues v Leicester Tigers semi-final clash where they were expected to finalise a decision on who would replace scrum-half Tomas O'Leary in the squad after the Munster No.9 broke his ankle on domestic duty.
Now, they will also have an eye on potential replacement backrow forwards with a possible citing hanging over Quinlan.
The independent disciplinary officer, John Byett from England, has until 7.30pm on Tuesday to study the tape and decide whether the incident was worthy of a citing - what do you think?
Recent history, including cases involving Northampton's Dylan Hartley (26 weeks) and his Saints team mate Neil Best (18 weeks), suggests that if Quinlan is cited and subsequently found guilty he could face a suspension that stretches into months and subsequently end his Lions tour before it has begun.
England's Tom Croft, a surprising omission from McGeechan's original 37-man selection, is surely the front runner to step up - but he will be one of those on show in Cardiff today so let's wait and see where the next dramatic twist will play out.
April 13, 2009
Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/13/2009
Magners League leads the way
After another dramatic weekend of Heineken Cup rugby, three out of the four semi-final places have been filled by sides from the Magners League - which features the best sides/regions/provinces from Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
The PR department at Celtic Rugby were quick to capitalise on this fact - and why not. This is the first time the League has had such representation at this stage of the northern hemisphere's most prestigious competition - something well worth singing and dancing about.
It is also the first time teams from the Celtic Unions have taken up the majority of the semi-final berths since the inaugural season of the Heineken Cup when neither England nor Scotland entered sides.
For current European champions, Munster, it will be their eighth semi-final appearance in ten years, whilst their opponents in the mouth watering all-Ireland tie, Leinster, make it to this stage for the fourth time, although they have never lifted the trophy.
Cardiff Blues reached the semi-finals for the first time since the region was formed with a 9-6 victory over French aces Touluse, however their forerunners, Cardiff, played in the very first Heineken Cup final at the Arms Park.
With and Ireland Grand Slam already in the bag - what odds a clean sweep of the Anglo-Welsh Cup and the Heineken Cup? (Two trophies they already 'own').