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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


Leinster's Jonathan Sexton fills the No.10 shirt in our Team of the Round © Getty Images

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)
The Bath fullback delivered a man of the match performance in his side's victory over Aironi with an all-action display in defence and attack. A game-breaking 91m with the ball in hand included the Premiership side's first try.

14. Doug Howlett (Munster)
The veteran Kiwi winger tormented the Toulon defence and racked up the metres with ball in hand but it was the class he showed in collecting Ronan O'Gara's cross kick and touching down for one of his two tries that nailed his selection.

13. Matt Smith (Leicester)
The often over-looked centre played his part in the Tiger's demolition of the Scarlets grabbing the last of their six tries. The stats reveal a priceless ability to break the gainline while shouldering his fair share of the defensive workload.

12. James Hook (Ospreys)
The ever-influential Hook did little to harm his market value - far from it. Not long back from injury, he was at creative best in conjuring a try for team-mate Tommy Bowe and although he failed to prevent London Irish's Sailosi Tagicakibau from powering over you have got to respect his effort and those attempts to tap-tackle the winger.

11. Shane Williams (Ospreys)
The 'Human Scalpel', as coined by Sky Sports commentator Mark Robson, conjured another outstanding individual score - this time against London Irish. The Welsh wing wizard chipped ahead before collecting his own kick and speeding away leaving the Exiles' defence in his wake. Yet another score for the show reel.

10. Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
The resurgent Sexton saw off some stiff competition to claim the No.10 shirt in our latest selection thanks to a superb all-round display that included a try, six penalties and a conversion. A threat with the boot and with ball in hand, he steered his side to a priceless away victory at Wembley Stadium - red posts and all. One for the scrapbook.

9. Ben Youngs (Leicester)
The increasingly-assured No.9 set the tempo in a blistering 10-minute second-half spell that saw the Tigers blow the Scarlets away at Welford Road. A lively presence throughout, he is growing in confidence and his partnership with fly-half Toby Flood will have England boss Martin Johnson sleeping easy.

1. Wian du Preez (Munster)
The South African loose-head stood up to the challenge of Toulon's very own master craftsman - Carl Hayman - to help Munster lay down a very impressive marker in Limerick.

2. Rob Webber (Wasps)
Webber was at the heart of a largely-dominant Wasps pack against Glasgow at Adams Park. Clocked up an impressive 26m in the loose and conjured a couple of turnovers but a couple of penalties will mean a trip to Trevor Woodman's office this week.

3. Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester)
The Tigers' tight-head was his usual industrious self and sparked the home side's rally against the Scarlets - driving over for a try as he did last week. And as last week, he gets the nod in our team.

4. Ryan Jones (Ospreys)
A switch to the Ospreys' second row may not have been to his liking but you would not have known going by his action-packed performance. A formidable pairing with the equally impressive Alun-Wyn Jones helped the Ospreys dominate London Irish and get the region's euro hopes back on track.

5. Fraser McKenzie (Edinburgh)
The Edinburgh lock may have been on the losing side against Northampton but an eye-catching display earns him a place in our team. Some powerful running and link work kept the Saints defence busy and he also racked up 11 tackles and four lineout claims.

6. Tom Croft (Leicester)
Two tries brought the Welford Road crowd to their feet and underlined the versatile flanker's enviable work-rate. A significant threat in the loose he took the game to the Scarlets but was also a key player as part of a dominant Tigers pack and lineout.

7. Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse)
The Toulouse skipper livened up a kick-fest at Rodney Parade with the opening try of the game that heaped woe on the hapless Dragons and kept the defending champions on course for back-to-back victories that leave them on top of Pool 6.

8. Thomas Waldrom (Leicester)
Waldrom delivered his latest man of the match performance in the Tigers' romp against the Scarlets. He racked up an impressive 84m with the ball in hand, a clean break, a couple of off-loads and two turnovers but just four tackles - something to improve on then Thomas?

October 10, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/10/2010

Heineken Cup - Team of the Round


Stephen Jones starts at fly-half in our Team of the Round © Getty Images

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)
The Leinster fullback rounded off a brilliant try in his side’s 38-22 win over Racing Metro and commanded the air at the RDS – showing flashes of his aggressive best in disrupting Racing at the restart and keeping the pace up with a series of raids from deep.

14. Topsy Ojo (London Irish)
The former England winger scored the decisive try against Munster at the Madejski – racing in from halfway off a predatory interception. He’s scoring for fun at the moment.

13. Casey Laulala (Cardiff Blues)
The Blues have bags of quality in the backs but you wouldn’t have known it as they spluttered past Edinburgh on Saturday. Laulala was a rare shining light, creating space whenever he was granted possession by the conservative Dan Parks and scoring what was to be their winning try.

12. Seilala Mapusua (London Irish)
The Samoan centre picked up the Man of the Match award in Reading following a towering defensive display. We all know what he can do with ball in hand but it was his industrious work in shutting down Munster that garnered plaudits on this occasion.

11. Shane Williams (Ospreys)
The Ospreys’ pocket dynamo went close to securing the spoils against Toulon at the Stade Mayol, but his moment of individual skill for their only try of the game proved to be mere consolation as the home side bit back late on.

10. Stephen Jones (Scarlets)
The Wales fly-half finished his side’s thrilling win over Perpignan with 28 points including their bonus-point try. Always a cool head, he offered plenty of playmaking nous as the West Wales team carved their French rivals apart. Honourable mentions go to London Irish’s Ryan Lamb, Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson and Wasps' Dave Walder.

9. Dimitri Yachvili (Biarritz)
He may not be the most exciting scrum-half in the game but without Yachvili Biarritz would not have beaten Bath. He kicked his goals and showed plenty of patience and nerve - something that eluded his opponents.

1.Nathan Catt (Bath)
Bath may have shown a distinct lack of maturity in failing to find a way past Biarritz, but the young loose-head prop was among the few players to make a positive impact. He was a handful in the loose and more than held his own in the scrum against Campbell Johnstone.

2. William Servat (Toulouse)
The France hooker was at his burrowing best against London Wasps as he consistently made hard yards around the fringes in the driving rain at the Stade Municipal. While Wasps’ lineout disintegrated in the conditions Servat’s throwing was reliable enough.

3. Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester)
Leicester’s Italian tight-head prop produced a Man-of-the-Match performance, which included a try, as the Tigers snatched victory in Treviso. Castrogiovanni was a force around the field and he crashed over the line early in the second half.

4. Bob Casey (London Irish)
Alongside fellow lock Nick Kennedy, Casey laid a platform for London Irish’s victory over Munster. The Dublin-born second-row was solid on Irish’s own throw and stole a couple of crucial lineouts against his countrymen.

5. Joe Tekori (Castres)
The Samoan second-row ignited hopes of a Castres victory against Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night with a wonderful pick up at the side of a ruck for a try - a great moment of skill from the big man.

6. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Toulon)
Toulon successfully shut down the Ospreys' attack and their attempts to put pace on the ball, thanks in no small measure to the influence of the French side’s ubiquitous back-row. The 28-year-old was everywhere; tackling around the fringes, turning ball over and consistently taking the ball forward.

7. George Smith (Toulon)
Like Fernandez Lobbe, the former Australia captain was integral to stifling the Ospreys’ attacking intention. But he also had a significant impact with ball in hand; showing some soft touches throughout and playing a central role in Paul Sackey’s late try.

8. David Lyons (Scarlets)
The 30-year-old Australian gave the Scarlets the all-important momentum with a number of barracking runs and some adept offloading. He consistently made big yards, which allowed the backs to reap the rewards of front-foot possession against Perpignan.

October 11, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/11/2009

Feast for the eyes or eyesore?








There can be little question that the Heineken Cup delivers a feast for the eye in terms of top-class action but the kits on show are surely more of an 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?








The return of the Heineken Cup this weekend brings with it many joys including trips to foreign shores, mouth-watering clashes and wall-to-wall TV coverage that together are a delight for fans who can't get enough of the world's best club competition.

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.

Click here to re-live the shoot-out on YouTube

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').

About
Graham Jenkins joined Scrum in 1999 and took over the reins for a second time in 2006. His journalistic career has also seen him work for BBC Sport and IMG and he currently lives with his family in Farnham. Graham Jenkins
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