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« March 2011 | | May 2011 »

April 30, 2011

Henson and Beefy

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/30/2011

Gavin Henson during his false-start at Saracens © Getty Images

James Lawton compares the ailing career of Gavin Henson to one of the great hellraisers, and achievers, Ian Botham, in The Independent.

"It is way too late for Gazza, probably for Gavin Henson and possibly even Danny Cipriani, who is a mere 23 years old.

"However, for most anyone else involved in the celebrity-style risking of exceptional talent there is something they might do which could prove extremely helpful.

"They could get hold of a new book that quite harrowingly at times explores the extraordinary achievements of arguably one of the three or four most charismatic figures ever to explode across the face of British sport."

You've got to want it

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/30/2011

Tony Ward previews Leinster's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse, and believes that their run to the cup is far more difficult than in 2009 in The Irish Independent.

"If the route to Edinburgh and outright success in 2009 was tough for Leinster, well two years on, it's all of that and quite a bit again. It's a measure of the increasing level of intensity of the Heineken Cup that the '09 champions' path to today's semi-final showdown at the Aviva Stadium has been rugged in the extreme.

"Home and away against Racing Metro, Clermont Auvergne and Saracens, followed by do-or-die matches against Leicester and Toulouse in the knock-outs, there could not be a more difficult path to the final for Leo Cullen & Co should they make it -- with due respect to Northampton and Perpignan, who meet in the second semi-final tomorrow.

"For the record, two years ago it was Wasps, Edinburgh and Castres, followed by Harlequins (Bloodgate and the day Leinster Rugby came of age), Munster and Leicester in that order. Winning (6-5) in a slug fest at the Stoop, followed by the annihilation of Munster at Croke Park and the systematic dismantling of Leicester in the Murrayfield final, saw Leinster cross the Rubicon and join European rugby's elite."

A team for all seasons

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/30/2011

Mick Cleary analyses the weapons available to Toulouse prior to their Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster in The Daily Telegraph.

"Toulouse are a team for all-seasons, as capable of winning through hard-core scrummaging as they are of free-wheeling attack. They can slog it out or sling it wide, at ease in all elements and all situations.

"That they have class is without question, from the Michelin-starred bistro on site at their training ground and upmarket merchandising boutiques that adorn La Ville Rose to their star-studded roster of blue-chip players such as Maxime Medard, Florian Fritz, Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans.

"But this is a team also of muscle and bone, their force on the field stemming from the narrow-eyed commitment of the likes of hooker, William Servat, understated flanker, Jean Boulihou, the heart-beat of the team, and the selfless Argentina workhorse, lock Patricio Albacete."

Choose your battles

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/30/2011

Robert Kitson talks to Northampton and England lock Courtney Lawes about choosing your battles wisely in The Guardian.

"If you want to find out what makes a man tick, take a look at his watch. Courtney Lawes has one the size of a small satellite dish, studded with diamond and pearl and showing the time in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Paris. Even if you did not know him, you would guess the owner has global ambition and a desire to be noticed beyond Northampton. Lawes is also awaiting delivery of a new Range Rover and moves out of his parents' house to a bachelor pad next week. Life gets sweeter every day.

"And why not? It is all too easy to hype young sportsmen beyond their worth. A couple of good games for England does not guarantee a world-beater. But once or twice in a generation there are exceptions. Never has a young English lock been blessed with the athleticism, power, dexterity and narrow-eyed intent that Lawes could offer for the next decade. "I'm different from a lot of second-rows, aren't I?" murmurs the 22-year-old, not content to loiter in the traditional shadow of Martin Johnson or Bill Beaumont. "I'd like to be the first of my kind."

April 29, 2011

Greed shining through

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2011

Eden Park will host the Rugby World Cup final © Getty Images

Brian Rudman analyses the financial implications of New Zealand hosting this year's RugbyWorld Cup in The New Zealand Herald.

"A year ago, organisers of the 2011 Rugby World Cup were admitting they faced losses of $39.3 million on the tournament. The political cheer leaders chose to duck this cold dose of reality, preferring to deal in the hard-to-define currency of "wider economic benefit". At the time, $500 million.

"This week, a Herald investigation has calculated the real costs to New Zealand of hosting this sporting extravaganza.

"For expenditure of $1.2 billion, much it from the public purse, World Cup Minister Murray McCully is claiming New Zealand will gain direct economic returns of $700 million."

Jelly Roll

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2011

David Kelly salutes one of rugby's great entertainers, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, prior to Toulouse's meeting with Leinster in the Heineken Cup semi-finals in The Irish Independent.

"The great entertainer, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, is back -- and it's been worth the 'weight'. He was at it again last weekend. In the midst of a Toulouse cruise against Bourgoin, Caucaunibuca combined neatly with Cedric Heymans as the aristocrats made another trademark burst.

"After completing the one-two with the French full-back, the Fijian, known to all and sundry as Caucau, inevitably could not resist infusing the imminent dotting down with a decorative twist.

"You can view the results yourself on YouTube; suffice to say that Caucau's grand vision was not translated into reality as his spectacular somersault begat a terrific tumble. It was not so much belly-flop as jelly roll."

A sinning Saint

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2011

Mick Cleary talks to Northampton's sinning Saint, Ben Foden, in The Daily Telegraph.

"Foden, who was formally upbraided by the Rugby Football Union as well, also revealed that England manager Martin Johnson had given him a stern warning about the need for improved behaviour.

"If any more reminders were needed that one of England’s most high-profile players, who has a showbiz girlfriend (Una Healy of pop group The Saturdays), would forever be under scrutiny, it came last week when Gloucester fans taunted him with cries of “taxi” every time the ball came near him at Kingsholm. Foden has been in penitent mood since.

“Yes, it was embarrassing and something that I deeply regret,” said Foden as he finished a team training run at stadium: mk where Northampton will take on Perpignan in the Heineken Cup semi-final on Sunday. “I got caught up in something that I ought not to have allowed to happen. There were other Northampton lads there but they weren’t involved. It’s on my head. I’ve been punished, I’ve learnt from it and it’s something I won’t be repeating.”

An end to French dominance?

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2011

Shaun Edwards believes that we could see an Anglo-Irish Heineken Cup final in The Guardian.

"Many have had their fingers burned predicting the demise of Toulouse, but how about this for risking a whole hand: put your money on there being no French team in this season's Heineken Cup final.

"Of course it's happened before – as recently as 2009 – but with so much worry about the power of the euro and the wealth of the French clubs, an Anglo-Irish set-to at the Millennium Stadium in three weeks would come like a breath of fresh air.

"Last season's all-French affair at the Stade de France, when Toulouse arm‑wrestled their way to a fourth title against Biarritz, brought a general sense of foreboding and suggestions that our much more restrictive salary cap would strangle the game this side of the Channel while adding a bit more pep to the exodus of players."

April 28, 2011

Healy targets Toulouse

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/28/2011

Cian Healy will be key to Leinster's chances against Toulouse © Getty Images

Leinster prop Cian Healy will be desperate to exorcise some demons against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final on Saturday, according to the Irish Independent’s Hugh Farrelly.

"As Cian Healy's career unfolds, May 1, 2010 could well be flagged as a turning point.

On that clammy evening in the Stade Municipal in Toulouse, the young Leinster loose-head was presented with a test of such physical and psychological enormity that it automatically arrived with the "making or breaking" moniker attached.

The then 22-year-old was turned inside out by Toulouse tight-head Benoit Lecouls, and with Daan Human performing similar acts of savagery on Stan Wright on the far side, Leinster's primary set-piece platform was in disarray from the off, handing the impetus to the home team and preventing Michael Cheika's men from establishing any sort of a foothold….

Toulouse have an array of formidable front-row options to choose from again this weekend, but they are coming up against a different animal this time around."

Cheika backs Leinster

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/28/2011

The Irish Times’ Mark Rodden talks with Leinster’s former head coach Michael Cheika ahead of the Irish province’s match against Toulouse

"Cheika, now the head coach of Stade Français, believes his former club have a much better chance of reaching the final this season.

“It’s obviously a big advantage playing in Dublin as opposed to playing in Toulouse,” he says. “But I also think that Leinster are a better team this year and Toulouse are probably not as strong as they were last year. So the combination of those factors all together point pretty clearly for me to Leinster winning.”

Welsh duo to blame

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/28/2011

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Brian Moore says that Gavin Henson and Andy Powell must shoulder much of the blame for their recent off-field incidents.

"I was also aware that a few years earlier I had got into serious trouble in a Nottingham pub when, after the third time a drunk had had a go at me, I, wrongly, punched him and ended up with a conviction for assault. I know how trouble, that you do not start, can happen; I also know the starkly different outcomes that flow from how it is handled.

It may sound hypocritical in the light of this and against the old-school background of rugby drinking to address any words to Messrs Henson and Powell, now called by the Welsh Rugby Union to account for their latest misdemeanours. It is not, because there are important distinctions.

Standards are different today, but then so are the rewards. When you are paid approximately half the national average annual wage for one international, we can demand different standards and if players don’t like it, they don’t have to play."

White hot on discipline

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/28/2011

In the Sydney Morning Herald Greg Growden reflects on the appointment of Jake White as the latest coach to attempt to revive the fortunes of the Brumbies.

"David Nucifora tried, and was shown the door. Andy Friend was more malleable, and was also shown the door. Now Jake White will attempt to transform the Brumbies from a province that once succeeded due to the influence of player power but is now struggling, into a more traditional football organisation where the coach is boss and the players follow.

The former Springboks coach will make a difference in Canberra because he won't have anything to do with players setting the agenda. And he won't feel obliged to mollycoddle past Brumbies stars who are looking for a cosy off-field position. White will only associate himself with those who understand that he is No.1 in Brumbyland for the next four seasons."

Warning signs

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/28/2011

Jake White’s move to Australia is one to lament for South African rugby, as well as warning sign, according to JJ Harmse in Sport24

"To me the "export" of White is sad in a different way.

Yes, we could have done with his expertise over here, but unfortunately he burned too many bridges on his way to the top and there were precious few who were prepared to work with him again after his 2007 glory, but the sad thing is that White is only one of a few South African coaches in demand abroad.

If you look at the number of New Zealand coaches earning their crust outside of their country, and compare that with the South Africans, it is a disgrace."

April 27, 2011

Vintage Toulouse

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/27/2011

Thierry Dusautoir@ a leading light for Toulouse © Getty Images

The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly warns that Toulouse cannot be underestimated ahead of Leinster's Heineken Cup semi-final clash with the reigning European Champions as he picks a number of the current squad in an all-time Toulouse XV.

"There are various pundits who reckon Leinster are not facing a vintage Toulouse side when they run out for the Heineken Cup semi-final at Lansdowne Road on Saturday.

There have been accusations of Guy Noves overseeing the gradual demise of an ageing team who are moving away from the breathtaking attacking rugby that fostered their reputation as one of the game's most watchable outfits.

Considering that Toulouse arrive as European champions, are four points clear at the head of the Top 14 championship and had the highest pool points differential of the sides that did not have an Italian side in their group, writing this side off seems particularly imprudent."

All Black hole

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/27/2011

Chris Rattue, writing in the New Zealand Herald, looks at reports that New Zealand are facing a NZ$500 million shortfall in hosting this year's World Cup

"A simple and sincere "thanks" would help. Because that's what the rugby chiefs owe the rate and taxpayers of New Zealand. Big time.

A New Zealand Herald story estimates that New Zealand will spend $1.2 billion on investments for this year's World Cup, and reap $700m in return.

The validity of these numbers is open to question of course, especially the one involving the returns. There are many ways to evaluate the returns, ways that would produce many different returns. An argument could be mounted that the long-term gains will be higher, or not. An economics professor puts the gain at a paltry $150 million. One thing is certain - we were sold a pup so massive that it is a dog."

Cips set for axe?

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/27/2011

Danny Cipriani's defensive frailties have placed his position in the Rebels starting XV in jeopardy, says Jamie Pandaram in the Sydney Morning Herald

"A major problem for the Rebels defence has been the lone rush-up style by five-eighth Danny Cipriani, which has created holes either side that have been exploited heavily this season. But Waratahs coach Chris Hickey refused to identify Cipriani as a weak link.

''He brings a lot to the Rebels in terms of his ability to control field position from his kicking game, and the number of points he's scored off the boot have been really significant for them in the games they've won,'' Hickey said.

The Rebels will finalise their team today, with speculation that Cipriani would be dropped to the bench following his poor defensive efforts in the past few weeks."

Hore hungry for new role

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/27/2011

Andrew Hore talks about his new role as chief operating office at the Ospreys with to the Western Mail's Andy Howell.

"Kiwi Hore – who joined the Ospreys in February 2008 from the New Zealand RFU, where he had been high performance manager – said: “It’s an exciting opportunity for me that I can’t wait to get started.

“When the board approached me with a view to taking on responsibility for day-to-day operations at the Ospreys, I certainly didn’t need to think twice about it.

“There’s still a lot of work to do on the rugby side, but it is pleasing to see how some of the development structures we’ve been able to implement are really beginning to have a positive effect.”

April 26, 2011

Sky's the limit for carefree Leinster

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/26/2011

The recent return to full fitness of Shane Jennings is a massive boost for Heineken Cup hopefuls Leinster © Getty Images

Leinster back-row Shane Jennings talks to the Irish Independent ahead of Saturday's eagerly-awaited Heineken Cup semi-final clash with Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium.

"A buttermilk sky may have enveloped Leinster's training session in UCD yesterday, but it didn't seem like there were any clouds in their world. All its hungry constituents are fighting fit for Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final with multiple champions, Toulouse.

"A game of bulldog indicates the carefree nature of the squad's preparations; yet the innocent childish larks have a serious side. As any coach knows, the playground favourite of old instils strength and unity into its teams. To every thing a purpose, even amid the giggles and high-pierced squeals.

"Not even the gentlest rib-tickling revealed even a remote concern within Leinster ranks at the appointment of Declan Kidney's bete noire, Dave Pearson, as the chief whistler for the eagerly awaited, sold-out Lansdowne Road contest."

Why the RFU must appoint Sir Clive Woodward to the England set-up

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/26/2011

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mick Cleary argues in favour of drafting Sir Clive Woodward back into the England set-up.

"Fear not, Johnno, Sir Clive is not about to come trampling on your turf. Not that Martin Johnson ever shied away from telling Woodward when it was time to back off.

"Woodward himself recognised those boundaries (well, usually), famously heading back to the Sydney stands when he realised that the huddle before extra-time in the 2003 World Cup final was a place for players, not coaches.

"That fine delineation of space will be at the heart of discussions when Woodward pitches up for interview for the post of Rugby Football Union performance director in mid-May. He has not formally applied for the job (and nor will he) but he will be called.

"There is no recognised shortlist of heavy-hitters, no Eddie Jones, no Jake White. There will be other names but Woodward is by far the most suited, the best qualified. But as what?"

'Winning the Heineken Cup makes you hungry'

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/26/2011

Donald McRae of The Guardian talks to Leinster's talismanic centre Brian O'Driscoll about his still insatiable appetite for success.

"On an ordinary Tuesday night in Dublin, after a relaxed meal at home with his wife, Brian O'Driscoll settles down in his chair. Yet it soon becomes obvious why O'Driscoll has been the northern hemisphere's most extraordinary rugby player for more than a decade. He might be rich and feted but the enduringly brilliant outside-centre is ravenous and driven.

"O'Driscoll does not linger over the fact that in the Six Nations last month, when Ireland hammered England, he broke a 78-year-old record for scoring the most career tries in the tournament. Nor does he waste time drooling over the dream of one last celebratory trophy before retirement.

"Instead, having committed himself to at least two more years of international rugby, O'Driscoll concentrates on the contrasting themes of ambition and doubt which he has controlled throughout his glittering career."

Time to scrap this madness

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/26/2011

In his weekly column in the Irish Independent, Tony Ward questions the thinking behind the International Rugby Board's (IRB) depowering of the scrum.

"The most sensible comment I have heard from any analyst in recent times came from former All Blacks hooking legend Sean Fitzpatrick when he was asked for his opinion on the unmitigated disaster area that is now the scrum.

"What once was an art form -- and for those central to it an endgame in itself -- has become a bugbear and a festering sore on the modern game.

"Even the most blinkered of props of my acquaintance are bored to tears by what passes as the re-invented scrum. For Fitzpatrick, the solution was simple and contained in his rhetorical question: "What was wrong with the scrum of old?"

April 25, 2011

Woodward return worth the risk

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/25/2011

The RFU have played down speculation linking Clive Woodward with a return to English rugby's governing body © Getty Images

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore believes the return of Sir Clive Woodward is a gamble worth taking for the RFU.

"The schism between former chief executive Francis Baron and Woodward was toxic, which is often the case when intimates fall out of love. Not until Baron departed and John Steele took over was there any chance of Woodward returning, and there are still a number of people who do not want him. With some of Woodward’s detractors it is simple: they don’t like him and don’t think he could accept not being in total charge of the national team.

"Whatever you think of Woodward, you cannot deny that his mind springs numerous ideas: inspired, bold, odd and downright daft. The key to dealing with his challenging demeanour is sorting out which is which and understanding that behind the theory and science are fervour, emotion and a well disguised temper that occasionally bursts forth in fits of pique.

"If you can put aside these infrequent flounces you will see that from this cornucopia of complementary, sometimes conflicting, characteristics, comes the extra two per cent of brilliance that is not found in the average person. This has been supplemented by more than a decade of experience of working around elite performance and Woodward’s overview of the elite plans of numerous sports makes him the outstanding candidate by some margin."

Ireland youngsters claim U18 crown

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/25/2011

Ireland Schoolboys claimed a first FIRA-AER Under-18 European Championship with a 17-8 win over England in Tarbes, France. The Irish Times' John O'Sullivan reports.

"It exacted revenge for a 29-12 defeat to Saturday’s opponents in the qualification process at Donnybrook last Christmas and followed up an impressive semi-final win over France. The Terry McMaster-coached team led 11-3 at the break with two penalties from outstanding scrumhalf and captain Luke McGrath with winger Conor McEllin crossing for a 26th-minute try.

"England’s heavier pack had an advantage in the scrum but Ireland’s decision-making, composure in possession and ability to take the right options helped them maintain their lead in muggy conditions at Stade Maurice Trelut.

"McGrath kicked another brace of penalties to stretch the margin to 14 points and although English prop Alec Hepburn got over for a late unconverted try, it failed to take the gloss off what was an accomplished display. It was Ireland’s fourth time to reach the final (they lost to France in 2007, ’08 and last year), but this was the first year the schools team competed as opposed to an Ireland team comprised of club players."

Bulls at a tipping point

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/25/2011

The defiance in their eyes may still save them, but even the Bulls management must realise by now they are at a tipping point this season, so writes Supersport's Brendan Nel.

"The three-time champions returned home on Monday from a rough tour – where they suffered a whitewash against the Crusaders, were bamboozled by the Reds and pressed the self-destruct button against the Force to return home with their tails between their legs.

"The opening victory over the Hurricanes was the only reward the defending champions could take for their troubles, and now face the possibility of missing out on the enlarged playoffs altogether.

"Whichever way the Bulls look at it, things don’t look good for them. They languish in eighth position on the overall log, six points behind the Waratahs and a massive 12 points behind the Sharks in third place in the South African conference."

RFU step up efforts to snare Woodward

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/25/2011

The Rugby Football Union will this week accelerate its move to reinstall Sir Clive Woodward, coach of the 2003 World Cup-winning team, at the top of the English game, despite considerable resistance from members of the governing body's ruling council. The Independent's Chris Hewett reports.

"Many Twickenham backwoodsmen resent Woodward for the outspoken manner of his departure from the union in 2004, regard him as "uncontrollable", and fail to see how he can work alongside Rob Andrew, who beat him to a high-profile RFU position a little under five years ago and recently accepted the newly-created job of director of rugby operations. There is little love lost between the two men.

"However, a small number of extremely powerful RFU figures are determined to return Woodward to a position of maximum influence – the freshly constituted performance directorship – in an effort to maximise England's chances of securing another world title on home soil in 2015. Martyn Thomas, the long-serving RFU chairman has played a long game in bringing his man back to Twickenham. That game appears to be nearing its conclusion."

O'Driscoll skips Royal wedding for training

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/25/2011

Leinster talisman Brian O'Driscoll will skip Friday's Royal Wedding in favour of Leinster training ahead of their Heineken Cup showdown with Toulouse on Saturday. The Guardian's Donald McRae writes.

"Brian O'Driscoll has sidestepped his invitation to the royal wedding on Friday in favour of a Leinster training session and admitted that he would never have lived down the backchat from his team‑mates if he had put William and Kate ahead of a huge European match in Dublin.

"Mike Tindall, as Zara Phillips's fiance, presumably has no option but to grit his teeth and turn up but O'Driscoll has found the perfect excuse to evade royal wedding duties. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the Leinster and Ireland centre admitted he could not miss the captain's run on Friday afternoon as his club prepares for this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse.

"As big an honour as it was to be invited I can't ask for team runs to be at half-six in the evening so I can go to the royal wedding at Westminster Abbey," O'Driscoll said. "One thing I learnt early on my career is that personal gratification takes second place. The team ethos comes first even after 12 years. My wife [the Irish actor Amy Huberman] is going on our behalf as we also felt there was an element of our representing Ireland as well. It's going to be an incredible thing, with two billion watching, but I'll be at home, preparing for Toulouse."

April 24, 2011

Barnes showing the way

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/24/2011

Berrick Barnes has been out of action due to repeated concussions © Getty Images

Jamie Pandaram salutes the bravery of Berrick Barnes after the Waratahs playmaker publicised his recent head injuries in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"Berrick Barnes has been sitting on the sidelines, but that is why he should be considered the bravest Super Rugby player of the past month. By publicising his health fears after two separate head knocks, Barnes is helping to change a dangerous culture in contact sports and is providing an important example for youngsters.

"There is nothing macho about brain injuries, so why do we see athletes forcing themselves back into the fray after suffering concussion?

"In the first instance, it is a cultural reaction, a cry from within that decrees they are weak for staying down too long after a heavy blow. They will themselves to their feet, disregarding the spinning sky and grass, because of a pre-determined mindset that charges them up for physical confrontation."

Jack the lad

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/24/2011

Gregor Paul analyses the recent form of Crusaders lock Chris Jack, who is pushing hard for an All Blacks recall, in The New Zealand Herald.

"Chris Jack is making a spirited bid to regain his All Black jersey and a place in the World Cup squad.

"This time last year it felt like the Crusaders had made a mistake in bringing Chris Jack back to Christchurch. Now, it looks a smart piece of business with the 32-year-old having re-invented himself as a set piece man; a gruntman.

"He has a new found desire to put himself about, play in the darker, more crowded parts of the field where glamour is in short supply. The man who appeared to be a spent force last year now looks anything but. An All Black recall, while still a long shot, is by no means out of the question."

Intelligence, not courage

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/24/2011

Neil Francis puts forward his view on what Leinster have to do to beat Toulouse in their massive Heineken Cup semi-final in The Irish Independent.

"The cracker croakers are coming to town. Courage in the face of adversity is always welcome but in this case probably not so necessary. If you want to win the Heineken Cup, more than likely you'll have to beat Toulouse at some stage in the competition. Best to meet them in a home quarter or semi. Courage is a fundamental, particularly in a battle of wills, but intelligence is the prime ingredient.

"I say this because I look back and observe what happened this time last year in Toulouse. Whatever you think about Leinster's dubious heritage before they won the competition in 2009, their pedigree has been honed in the blast furnace of competing in knock-out competition and a benchmark was set for bravery in that semi-final.

"The exchanges at the point of contact in that match were feral. Savagery, where the participants forget themselves and any sense of self-preservation, came five minutes after the final whistle. It is obvious to point to the grizzlies in the Toulouse pack -- Albacete, Dusatoir, Millo-Chluski and Servat are people I would not like to meet in an alley with lots of bright lighting, secure cordons and police protection. They breathe physical malice."

A whole new brawl game

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/24/2011

Eddie Butler offers his view on rugby's recent issues and the respective plights of Gavin Henson, Andy Powell and Ben Foden in The Guardian.

"Rugby is, it seems, bingeing its way into the headlines, and not just through the well-oiled conduit of booze. We have had a politico-poetic bust-up between Wales's defence coach, Shaun Edwards, and their sports scientist, Fergus Connolly, over an Irish folk song sung in Paris. We have had Delon Armitage rough-handling a doping officer after a London Irish game. Music and drugs; rugby is rock and roll.

"The demon drink though is the regular purveyor of scandal: Ben Foden, England's baby-faced full back, in an altercation in a London cab; Bradley Davies, second-row for the Cardiff Blues and Wales, arrested after a much bigger ruck at the Deck pub in Saundersfoot. Others are not so new to the paparazzi. Danny Cipriani, who left England to start afresh with the Melbourne Rebels in the Super 15, was "reminded of his responsibilities" after being banned from the Boutique nightclub in the Prahran area of the city."

More sweat, more girls

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/24/2011

Bath prop David Flatman weighs in on the summer rugby debate in The Independent.

"There are pros and cons for the larger gentleman when the British summer decides to kick in. Whether it is in the front row of a scrummage an hour into a rugby match or in a rattan chair outside a country pub, any significant jump in ambient temperature can have severe consequences. Increased likelihood of anti-social perspiration makes one's dress code more important than ever and any physical effort is made all the more gruelling by the heat.

"So who would ever want to play summer rugby? Hard grounds chewing up all the skin on your feet, fluid pouring out of you and all in these nasty, modern, super-tight jerseys. Well, I wouldn't mind, actually.

"There are decent arguments against changing rugby's season to, say, February to November, and television rights are probably the most significant one. The sport needs that cash so, in a sense, will do as the boss says but I really think that if the right people took it seriously and tried it, the results would be worth the effort."

April 23, 2011

Saints face testing time

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/23/2011

Saints boss Jim Mallinder has got to juggle his resources between now and the end of the season © Getty Images

Rules over the amount of rugby played by England's elite players could hinder Northampton in the Aviva Premiership run-in according to The Guardian's Rob Kitson.

"The Saints finally have their healthy contingent of England squad players back available but may yet be about to suffer for it. Under the terms of the elite player scheme (EPS) agreement with the Rugby Football Union, senior England players cannot play more than 160 minutes in the current block of three Premiership games.

"Theoretically at least, that means the Saints director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, will have to replace Dylan Hartley, Ben Foden and Courtney Lawes during the final quarter at the Madejski Stadium. Hartley has just 65 minutes of playing time left, Foden has 67 and Lawes has 75. This will clearly not be an issue if Northampton are winning; should the scores be tied or Saints are behind in a tight game, however, it will be fascinating to see what unfolds.

"Northampton, with some justification, argue they should be allowed to field their optimum team at this crucial stage of the season, with the World Cup still more than four months away. The rules clearly apply to all Premiership clubs but Gloucester, for example, have only two senior EPS players and Saracens only one. The Saints are also upset at having to play Tuesday's midweek game at Kingsholm, arguing greater efforts should have been made to ensure it went ahead on its original Boxing Day date. "We shouldn't really be playing midweek fixtures," said Mallinder, whose side are currently in a run of five games in 21 days, including two huge European knockout matches. "It's also disappointing that you can't choose your best team every week."

Poignant lead-in to Cup for Henry

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/23/2011

Graham Henry and Carisbrook began their All Black life together and they are set to resume their relationship later this year. The New Zealand Herald's Wynne Gray writes.

"Henry survived the 2007 World Cup fallout while Carisbrook has received several final test tributes without the fatal curtain call.

"Protection of the new stadium surface in Dunedin has given Carisbrook another reprieve while Henry will suit up for his 92nd test in charge of the men in black.

"Since he began as All Black coach in 2004 at the 'Brook, Henry has taken the side through 78 victories and just 13 defeats.

"Nine men who were involved in Henry's first All Black test, the 36-3 triumph against England, are still playing in New Zealand.

"Several like captain Tana Umaga, wing Joe Rokocoko and lock Chris Jack are World Cup outsiders, the rest are strongly in the frame.

"That group contains Mils Muliaina, Daniel Carter, Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock."

Hook prepares to say au revoir

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/23/2011

James Hook's young son will lead the Ospreys out in probably his last game at the Liberty Stadium in what promises to be an emotional farewell in a must-win game against Munster this evening. The Western Mail reports.

"The Ospreys, the reigning Magners League champions, know they have to beat the league leaders, Munster, if they are to stand any chance of reaching this season’s semi-final play-offs.

"The 25-year-old, who has won 52 Wales caps, admits running out in Swansea for a probable final time promises to be an emotional occasion. “It’s been building up,” said Hook. “My son Harrison will be on the pitch as a mascot leading the team out so that will be emotional as well. But hopefully in a couple of years I can come back. My family will be emotional but it is something I’m excited about as well.

“It means an awful lot playing in the region to have played for the Ospreys for all these years. I’m going to France for a couple of years and who knows what will happen after that. I wouldn’t mind coming back at some point in the future. It will be an emotional time but I’ll just see how it goes. I want to go out on a high note."

O'Neill says no thanks to bookies

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/23/2011

The Australian Rugby Union will not follow its English counterparts and place bets with bookmakers on its team winning the World Cup this year. The Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden reports.

"ARU chief executive John O'Neill said yesterday that in recent months they had been approached by several betting agencies, including one overseas firm. ''They came up with a product to sell to the major rugby bodies, which is an alternative to taking out an insurance policy. We haven't pursued it, and it is very unlikely we will,'' O'Neill said. ' 'We are looking at more traditional methods of laying off the risk, and have sought some quotes from insurance companies revolving around the possibility we will have to outlay a considerable amount of money in terms of bonuses. We are currently weighing up the risk-reward ratio, and the premiums aren't cheap. But we haven't locked anything away at this stage.''

"If the Wallabies win their third Webb Ellis trophy in October, an Australian player, through win bonuses and match payments, could earn close to $200,000 from the tournament."

Calmness under pressure sorts men from the boys

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/23/2011

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Will Greenwood if we should we really be surprised when the professionals suddenly have their toddler moments?

"Sport, and especially rugby, is not just about actions, be they good or bad. It is all about the reactions. Control those and teams and individuals will flourish. Two fascinating examples of this have happened on a rugby field in the past couple of weeks, one from an individual perspective and one from a team view. Manu Tuilagi, of Leicester, is an incredible talent. Even though he is only 19, he needs to be included in Martin Johnson’s 50-man England training squad.

"If he has a good run towards the end of the season and gets a chance in one of the World Cup warm-up games, then he is in with a real shout of performing at the tournament proper. But – and it is a big but – he needs to tidy up his defence. His tackles are almost lethal when they are timed right and everything happens perfectly in his channel. It is when things go wrong around him that more often than not his reaction to someone else’s mistake compounds the problem."

Pro teams suffer from lack of direction

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/23/2011

The Scotsman's Allan Massie laments the state of the Scottish pro clubs.

"The opening weeks of next season look like being miserable ones for Glasgow and Edinburgh, weakened by departures and the absence of players on World Cup duty, and without adequate reserves to replace them. Sean Lineen has some experience of making bricks without straw, but Glasgow's sorry position, languishing near the foot of the Magners League, shows that this is a tough demand, even for one of his invincible optimism.

"He will have to piece together a side lacking Graeme Morrison, Ruaridh Jackson, Chris Cusiter, Moray Low, Dougie Hall (or Fraser Thomson), Alistair Kellock, Richie Gray, Johnnie Beattie and John Barclay. Just to cheer him up, Bernardo Stortoni is off to herd cattle on the pampas, Aly Muldowney is departing for Exeter and Kevin Tkachuk is retiring."

Burns is definitely one to watch

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/23/2011

Writing in The Independent, Brian Ashton reflects on his recent stint with the ESPN TV crew.

"In my ESPN role, I had the pleasure of reacquainting myself with a couple of players from my time coaching England: Ben Kay, the Leicester lock who appeared in consecutive World Cup finals, and Austin Healey. Given the response Austin attracted from the supporters in the Kingsholm Shed, he is quite clearly a popular man in the West Country!

"Austin was a unique figure in the England context, playing in every back-line position, often with great distinction. In fact, I would go so far as to say that of all the players I coached, he had the most positive mindset and the greatest understanding of attacking possibilities, with the added virtue of being able to translate ideas into reality. It was therefore interesting to hear him making complimentary remarks about the Gloucester back Freddie Burns, in whom, I suspect, he saw something of himself.

"Judging by the way the youngster backed his skills against Northampton, it's clear that the Gloucester coach, Bryan Redpath, is encouraging him to explore every facet of his rugby nature, even the most creative and mischievous ones. That being the case, I can only say: Go for it, Freddie."

April 22, 2011

Shanklin will go down as a Welsh great

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2011

Wales and Blues centre Tom Shanklin has seen his career ended by injury © Getty Images
With Tom Shanklin having been forced to retire through injury, the Western Mail's Delme Parfitt assesses the glittering career of one of Welsh rugby’s good guys.
"At the end of a week that has seen Gavin Henson fall from grace once again, there is a sense of heightened frustration at the forced retirement of Tom Shanklin.

"Assess the career of the Blues man and what do you find?

"A guy who made the most of a more limited stock of talent than his Grand Slam centre partner, who knuckled down to become Mr Reliable despite some dreadful luck with injuries, and who was only ever in the limelight for what he did on the pitch.

"Shanklin may have been renowned for being the joker of most teams he played for, the fellow who took charge of the music on the team bus, who made sure everyone was entertained during more tedious moments of the trips and tours that are part and parcel of the game.

"But for all his reputation as a bit of a mischief-maker, I don’t recall the 31-year-old ever becoming embroiled in the sort of tawdry headlines that have besmirched Welsh rugby’s reputation in the past few months.

"No. Shanklin was one of the good guys. Still is."

Pin-up boy picks on the wrong Jonny

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2011

Of all the stupid things Welshman Gavin Henson could have done to endanger his stay with French club Toulon, insulting Jonny Wilkinson was about the worst. Peter Bills writes in the New Zealand Herald.

"Henson, by general belief never the brightest spark in the electrician's box, was this week suspended for a week by the French club for alleged 'fights' with certain team-mates at a nightclub after the club's 21-9 victory over Stade Toulouse in Marseille last weekend.

"Now, as a result, Henson's whole future with Toulon is in doubt, as is his possible involvement in the Rugby World Cup with Wales later this year.

"But Henson's first mistake was to make it clear he didn't respect Toulon captain, South African Joe van Niekerk, either. This, too, showed Henson has clearly been short-changed when it comes to the grey matter.

"Van Niekerk, a former Springbok, is hugely popular at Toulon. He was quickly made club captain because of what was seen as his devotion and commitment to the club. He is regarded as an inspirational leader and a popular one, too, a player and personality revered among the club and its supporters. After his first season, Toulon offered him a longer term, improved deal. They were delighted when he accepted."

IRFU bet on Ireland's progress

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2011

The Irish Rugby Football Union has placed bets with a bookmaker on Ireland’s progress at the forthcoming World Cup in New Zealand to cover the cost of player and coach win bonuses. The Irish Times' Gavin Cummiskey reports.

"Following the disclosure, in the Guardian newspaper, that the English Rugby Football Union (RFU) placed bets of up to €284,000 to cover England’s progress to the semi-finals and beyond, the union confirmed to The Irish Times that it has laid similar bets at the previous three rugby World Cups.

“The practice of insuring progression of teams in professional sport is as common as insuring private houses,” said an IRFU spokesman yesterday.

“The IRFU, through their relationship with sponsors, Paddy Powers, effectively takes out an insurance policy on the performance of the team during the World Cup to allow the union to offset and minimise the financial outlay during the tournament.

"IRB regulation 6.2 prohibits any “player, referee, touch judge, coach, trainer, selector, health professional (associated with any team or player), member of team or club management, or any match official” from entering “into any wager, bet or any form of financial speculation, directly or indirectly as to the result or any other dimension or aspect of any match, tour, tournament or series of matches (international or otherwise) in which he is participating.

This, however, does not prevent a governing body from doing so."

Cipriani for the Waratahs?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2011

Danny Cipriani's Randwick rendezvous has Waratahs tongues wagging according to the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden.

"Danny Cipriani for the Waratahs? Surely not. Then again, strange things happen at Royal Randwick race meetings. Our snouts in Waratahland are adamant a NSW ''mover and shaker'' is interested in luring Cipriani from Melbourne, following Kurtley Beale's decision to go the other way. Apparently the Waratahs powerbroker was sighted palling around with the Rebels five-eighth at a recent Sydney race meeting shortly before it was announced the England Test pivot would play club rugby with Warringah this season. However, luring Cipriani to the Waratahs would be stridently opposed by several team officials due to doubts whether he would fit into their ''culture''. A common discussion point among the Waratahs is Cipriani's defensive frailties. He currently tops the Super Rugby statistics for the most missed tackles with 35. Maybe the Cipriani push simply involves marketing? We also hear several Force players - including a big-name forward - were interested in moving to the Waratahs but opted to stay put due to concerns about internal politics at NSW Rugby."

Long-lost hero

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2011

Scottish rugby's last link with the famous 1938 Triple Crown-winning side was believed to have been lost this week with the passing of Allan Roy, the former Waterloo and Scotland forward, but The Scotsman's David Ferguson has discovered that not to be the case.

"The Scottish Rugby Union, who keep the records of all former internationalists and invite them regularly to reunions, had lost all contact with Dr William Brewitt 'Bill' Young who left with his wife to become a missionary in Kenya. After attempts to contact him in later years failed, it was believed that he had passed away while in Africa.

"In the statement released to announce Roy's death, the SRU said: "Records suggest that Roy was the last survivor of Scotland's 1938 Triple Crown clinching victory over England at Twickenham." However, after reporting the death of Roy this week, a fellow former missionary friend of Dr Young contacted us to confirm that he was very much alive and well, having left Kenya after the death of his wife and returned to work as a GP in the south of England.

"His friend, David Thomson, told us: "I struck up a great friendship with Bill and he remains alive and well in the south of England.

"He married again, to a wonderful lady called Flora, who comes from Ayrshire originally, and though he is now in a residential home in Kent they are both very much fit and well."

"WB Young, a big back row born in Ardrossan, made a winning debut against Wales at St Helens in 1937 and made another eight consecutive appearances, forming part of the back row that defeated England in the 1938 Triple Crown. He still has a picture of himself shaking hands with King George VI before the match at Twickenham."

Hot spring treatment

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2011

The changing of seasons helps Premiership provide the perfect balance of running and attritional rugby, according to Shaun Edwards writing in The Guardian.

"Well, the referees have to be applauded, particularly for the way they have been controlling the contact area. Tacklers who do not release after the tackle and who try to strip out the ball before they have released their opponent are now being penalised ruthlessly, so the breakdown has become more clear-cut and the ball recycled faster.

"Quick ball means continuity and a flowing game but the change in emphasis has also altered the mind-set of defences at the breakdown. Fewer defenders are being committed directly to the breakdown, instead there has been a growth in counter rucking, one of those new-found skills which has come to show just how far ahead of the game the Lions coach, Ian McGeechan, tends to be.

"When Sir Ian moved to Wasps six years ago, vigorous counter rucking was one of the areas of our game he improved. Now others have learned that instead of competing directly for the ball they are often better off clearing opposition players from the areas above and around the ball.

"Another development to catch on is the Irish idea of using a couple of defenders to keep the tackled player off the ground while he is stripped of the ball – something we saw a lot of when England lost in Dublin during the Six Nations – and, while it is mostly perfectly legal, referees are going to have to be extremely harsh on those defenders who apply a headlock as they go after the ball."

April 21, 2011

Ignoring Father Time

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/21/2011

David Wallace is not planning on hanging up his boots © Getty Images

Ruaidhri O'Connor talks to Munster flanker David Wallace about his future plans in The Irish Independent.

"As each birthday passes and the big ticking clock moves through the 30s, the phrases 'age is only a number' and 'you're only as old as you feel' become as common as silly birthday cards.

"While you wouldn't know it to look at him, by the time the World Cup rolls around in September, David Wallace will be 35. In the mind of others, Father Time is calling.

"Only three of the 105 players he faced during the recent Six Nations were born before the openside on July 8, 1976 and he is the oldest player Ireland used in the tournament."

Where did it all go wrong?

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/21/2011

Chris Hewett laments the recent slide of rugby in The Independent.

"Eighteen months ago, concerned that the "hooligans' game played by gentlemen" was fast becoming a hooligans' game played by hooligans – not to mention drug abusers, misbehaving tourists who refuse to help local detectives with their inquiries, and barefaced cheats who invent injuries with the aid of blood capsules administered by professional medical staff – the great and the good of the Rugby Football Union launched a public campaign aimed at re-establishing a sense of discipline, decency and dignity. Recent events suggest the "core values" initiative was not entirely successful.

"The year is barely a third over, yet the RFU has already found itself blanching at the antics of some of the highest-profile, highest-paid individuals in the sport. They have seen Delon Armitage, the international full-back from London Irish, suspended for lambasting a doping control officer in language that would have had the fictitious political spin doctor Malcolm Tucker doffing his cap: indeed, the governing body's own published account of the incident records Armitage using 15 "f" and "c" words in three minutes flat, which is going some by any measure. As he also pushed his victim before threatening to "smash" him, it beggars belief that he had the temerity to appeal against his eight-week ban. Happily, that appeal fell on deaf ears."

Paying the price

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/21/2011

Former England hooker Brian Moore looks at the pros and cons of pay-per-view TV in The Daily Telegraph.

"Rugby demonstrates this point fully. When Sky won exclusive rights to show England's Five, now Six Nations Championship matches, the viewing figures were a fraction of the BBC numbers. The Home Unions Committee – France and Italy have separate deals – were alarmed by the decrease in exposure.

"They were also aware of numerous complaints about rugby not being free-to-air and the contract returned to the BBC. The viewers on Sky for the last round of games in the Heineken Cup, a top quality European club tournament, varied between 100,000 and 185,000. This year's England v France game had a peak audience of over 9 million on the BBC."

April 20, 2011

A surprise runner

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/20/2011

Mark Gerrard has been in strong form for the Rebels © Getty Images

Former Wallaby Mark Gerrard has emerged as a front-runner for Australia's Super Rugby Player of the Year, The Sydney Morning Herald's Jamie Pandaram reports.

"Gerrard has enjoyed a fine season for the Melbourne Rebels despite playing just five games due to injury, and has bucked the trend of players fading away after heading overseas.

"He gained an early release from the third year of his Brumbies contract to join Japan's NTT Communications in 2009, and played his last Test for the Wallabies at the 2007 World Cup, but national selectors will have taken notice of his renaissance."


Posted by Huw Baines on 04/20/2011

Mark Reason, writing for, looks at the lack of action taken in ridding the game of high tackles.

"Slade, who had the other side of his face broken in a preseason "friendly", was depicted as having a glass jaw, as if somehow the injury was down to his own lack of manliness. Heaven help the antipodes if that is what passes for macho culture over here.

"Highlanders assistant coach Simon Culhane said: "It's a little bit unlucky for him." General manager Roger Clark said: "It was just one of those freak things you couldn't do anything about."

"In what way was the tackle freaky? How could you not do anything about breaking another man's jaw? Thinking I might have taken one too many to the head myself, I asked a few other people to scrutinise the replay. Not one thought it was an accident and all agreed that the initial head clash was followed up with a punch."

A phenomenon

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/20/2011

Gerry Thornley assesses the size of Leinster's task in overcoming the mighty Toulouse in The Irish Times.

"As Leinster discovered in their 14-year quest for the mountain top, which was reached with back-to-back wins over Euro giants Munster and Leicester, and then having run into Clermont and Toulouse last season, nothing comes easy in the Heineken Cup. And so it is again.

"Having put away the current leading side in England, two-time winners and five-time finalists Leicester, in the quarter-finals, Joe Schmidt’s squad must now overcome the leading side in France in four-time Heineken Cup winners and six-time finalists Toulouse.

"Stade Toulousain are, quite simply, the most decorated club in the world, and that includes provincial powers. The Canterbury Crusaders may be the Super force of the Southern Hemisphere, but they are primarily a 21st century phenomenon. Toulouse have been a phenomenon, pretty much, since 1985."

April 19, 2011

On path to dream final

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

Are Joe Schmidt's Leinster on course for a Magners League showdown with Munster? © Getty Images

Munster and Leinster are setting the scene for a repeat of their historic 2001 Celtic League decider - Tony Ward writes for the Irish Independent.

"Hard to believe it is almost a full decade ago, but it was December 2001 when the inaugural Celtic League final was staged at Lansdowne Road. Over 30,000 fans saw Leinster defeat Munster in an absolute belter of a final.

"In retrospect, it was probably the day rugby became a serious competitor with Gaelic games and soccer in the hearts and minds of Irish sporting folk everywhere on this island.

"Prior to that, we had Munster and Ulster -- the latter successfully in 1999 -- reaching the biggest European stage in the Heineken Cup but once Munster and Leinster fronted up, albeit in the lesser competition, a new point in the game's development had been reached. And the ultimate tribal war was under way.

"Lest Munster need reminding, 14-man Leinster took that final 24-20 having had flanker Eric Miller sent for an early shower (just 25 minutes in) by referee Nigel Whitehouse for a relatively mundane incident involving Anthony Foley."

Brisbane league team in talks with SBW

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

A Brisbane league franchise that doesn't have a ground, a name or a competition to play in, is in talks to sign All Black Sonny Bill Williams after the Rugby World Cup. The New Zealand Herald reports.

"Williams is contracted with the New Zealand Rugby Union until the end of the this season and can't play in the NRL until 2013 as he's still tied to the five year contract he signed with the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2008.

"Cooper's contract with the Australian Rugby Union also expires at the end of 2011.

"We don't know whether we're in or not, but we have approached Quade and Sonny," Brisbane bid delegate Bill Rae told the newspaper.

"We want Quade and Sonny Bill to get their World Cup campaigns out of the way first, but once that is done we will up the ante for them."

O'Neill tips All Blacks-Wallabies final

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

Australian Rugby Union shief executive John O'Neill believes the Wallabies have enough players with the crucial ''X-factor'' to at least make the World Cup final this year and to be in with a strong chance of winning it. The Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Growden reports.

"Speaking before the annual general meeting next week, when the ARU will announce a $1.07 million surplus for last year, O'Neill said the Wallabies' World Cup prospects were ''really encouraging''.

''No one is sitting here saying we are going to win it. But my prediction is that we will make the final, and play the All Blacks. As to who might win the final … well,'' O'Neill said. ''Still, I like what I see.''

O'Neill said that, ''barring injury to key players'', the Wallabies would select a 30-man World Cup squad with ''genuine and substantial depth … which is unusual for us''.

''We haven't entirely overcome our weaknesses, but the vulnerability around the scrum is not as much of a concern as it was,'' he said."

Henson row sparked by 'Wilko taunts'

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

The nightclub incident which led to Gavin Henson's suspension by Toulon was allegedly sparked by the Welshman's criticism of team-mate Jonny Wilkinson, the Daily Telegraph's Gavin Mairs reports.

"French daily L'Equipe reported that Henson angered team-mates his criticising Wilkinson, and captain Joe van Niekerk, who was sin-binned during the game. The paper also alleges that Henson fought with Henjak, the Australian scrum-half.

"His suspension ensures he will miss the game against Perpignan on Saturday, leaving him possibly just one more game, against Montpellier, to prove he deserves a new contract for next season.

"Some sources have suggested that Henson can expect his contract until the end of the season to be terminated next week when he comes before Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal and head coach Philippe Saint-André following an internal investigation by the club."

Celtic League set to lose Magners as sponsor

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

Magners are poised to end their sponsorship of the Celtic League at the end of this season, and Italian car giant Fiat is believed to be one of the front-runners to take over, The Scotsman's Gareth Black reports.

"The league, which was expanded this season to allow Italian pair Aironi and Benetton Treviso to join, has been sponsored by Magners for five years, but the cider company is ready to call time on its successful involvement.

"Given the brand directon of Magners, the group wants to look at other opportunities and is doing so," a spokesman for parent group C&C said.

"The league, which features both Scottish professional outfits Edinburgh and Glasgow as well as sides from Ireland, Wales and the two from Italy, was without a sponsor for five years between 2001 and 2006, but has grown in popularity in recent years under the Magners banner thanks to some alterations to its format."

Quade the Wallaby weak link?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

Sport24's Gary Boshoff bucks the trend and suggests that in-form Reds fly-half Quade Cooper may not be the Wallabies' most potent weapon.

"However, despite his incredible abilities, it is his combination and almost telepathic relationship with his halfback partner, Will Genia, which has been the secret element of his success. Genia, like George Gregan was to Stephan Larkham, is the one that is always scanning for attacking opportunities: he constantly checks where the defences are lined up; who is lined up in defence and on what side and then makes the decision to attack with either a flat or wide ball.

"The combination of Genia and Cooper has much to do with the degree of success Cooper achieves in any given match. Saturday was one of those days when the combination could do no wrong and produced the desired results.

"While Cooper might be a very gifted stepper, passer and distributer of the rugby ball, he is not, in my opinion, the ideal flyhalf to take into a playoff at the upcoming Rugby World Cup.

"Firstly, his goal kicking success record is one of the lowest in Super Rugby while his passing exploits tend to be high risk and prone to being disrupted or spoiled by intelligent defenders."

When is an eye gouge not an eye gouge?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

Varying punishments for eye-gouging are baffling according to The Independent's Peter Bills.

"The disciplinary officer has the powers, as we have seen, to impose swingeing punishments for the worst offences. And even if he deems such an incident to be only in the range of moderately dangerous, what is termed a mid-range sanction, the recommended starting ban is 18 weeks.

"Thus, many eyebrows were raised this week when Cueto was convicted of such an assault but given only a nine-week suspension. That, most conveniently, ensures he will be available again for England’s World Cup warm-up matches in August.

"Now no-one is suggesting that anyone from Twickenham ‘got at’ the judge in this particular case, or indeed any other. I am sure that they are all honest, decent upstanding men only interested in fair play and applying the laws.

"Yet the Cueto case still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Afterwards, his apologists claimed that it was not a serious assault because the victim, ironically a player Cueto used to know well, did not make a formal written complaint."

Bath call for summer rugby

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/19/2011

Bath owner Bruce Craig is the latest high-profile figure to stir the debate about the future of professional rugby union, writes The Guardian's Rob Kitson.

"Go away for a week and suddenly it is the late 90s all over again. The future shape of professional rugby union in Europe is back under the microscope, with the leading English club owners increasingly restless. Bath's ambitious Bruce Craig is the latest to stir the debate, warning that the rugby calendar needs radical revision. He would prefer league and European club rugby to be scheduled between March and November, with the international window running from December to February.

"It has not taken Craig long to conclude the current model is significantly flawed. Or maybe Nigel Wray and Peter Tom at Saracens and Leicester respectively have simply shown him where all the skeletons are buried. Either way, a potential rift is opening up between those who effectively want to spend their way out of recession by raising the salary cap and those clinging desperately to the last piece of driftwood. A similar situation is occurring in France, where there has even been fanciful talk of following Ireland down the regional route. Talk about throwing the baby out with the eau de toilette."

April 18, 2011

How do you spell 'culture' in Melbourne? C-a-s-h

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/18/2011

Waratahs fullback Kurtley Beale recently announced his decision to join the Rebels next season © Getty Images

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Greg Growden argues that it is money, and money alone, which is attracting top players to the Melbourne Rebels.

"The Super Rugby scene has suddenly become a barrel of laughs. The first half of the Eden Park match on Saturday night was like watching an old TV episode of Batman, with ''Crash'', ''Bang'' and ''Kapow'' screaming across the screen every time a Waratah fell over, missed a tackle or knocked himself out.

"A few hours later came a marvellous moment of mirth when Digby Ioane performed ''the Dancing Crab'' after scoring an exceptional try for the Reds in an extraordinary match at Suncorp Stadium. Ioane should be fast-tracked into the Australian Olympic Games gymnastics team after that acrobatic effort.

"Nonetheless, the most side-splitting moment came when Rebels officials tried to hoodwink all by arguing the reason Kurtley Beale was leaving the Waratahs for Melbourne next season was related to culture, not cash. The Rebels clearly aim to make their organisation sound like the world's most enviable rugby outfit, and their agenda revolves around pushing the line: ''It's not about money.... It's the pursuit of excellence."

A European league would throw up a host of problems

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/18/2011

Brian Moore of The Telegraph analyses the possible effects of disbanding the Premiership in favour of establishing a new European league.

"The rumblings about the Aviva Premiership salary cap are only a symptom of a wider and much more divisive issue, that of a European league formed by elite clubs in England and France and regions from Wales, Scotland, Ireland and possibly Italy.

"If you want to have an educated guess at the sort of issues that this subject might create you can do no better than look at how the Champions League has influenced English football at international and club level.

"Only a minority of the Premiership’s 12 clubs make an operating profit and that is not about to change dramatically in the near future. Those clubs who can see extra revenue from increased gates through ground development or attracting wealthier benefactors are keen to break the salary cap because they see the possibility to buy space between them and clubs who do not have ready access to extra cash."

Season's end heralds more poignant farewells

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/18/2011

In his weekly column in the Irish Times, Bob Casey admits that, with the end of the season approaching, it feels like the end of an era at London Irish.

"There is no doubt professional sportspeople are a privileged caste for a variety of reasons and one fringe benefit is the number of invitations to events, across a broad spectrum. The key, where possible, is to be discerning rather than simply available. It is not a maxim adopted by all as there are one or two individuals who would find themselves in the same sentence as the words envelope and opening.

"There are times when players are obliged to fulfil corporate duties and, like any profession, these are generally enjoyable, occasionally less so. Then there are invitations of a more social context and I was fortunate to attend the opening of a restaurant, Bistro du Vin in London recently as a guest of the Rugby Players Association (RPA); it’s the British equivalent to IRUPA."

April 17, 2011

Premiership heading for a crisis?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

The Premiership broke new ground on Saturday with Sale's clash with London Irish played at Bolton's Reebok Stadium © Getty Images

The Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford believes the English Premiership is heading for a crisis as attendances and revenues fall.

"With the northern sides in meltdown, with major disagreements over the size of the league and the salary cap policy, with dilapidated stadiums, with only one English club through to the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, with attendances in decline and over half the Premiership still to operate profitably, and with issues of credibility looming over the relegation battle, is domestic rugby in England in crisis?

"This afternoon Leeds travel to Wasps for their latest attempt to remain in the top flight. It’s precisely what the Premiership should be about, a fiercely competitive, relevant rugby match. Yet it might not turn out that way. If the Cornish Pirates, in the semi-finals of the Championship, battling with Worcester, among others, to get promoted, prevail, then Leeds or Newcastle will not get relegated because the Pirates do not have a ground which satisfies the Premiership’s eligibility criteria.

"...The hypocrisy of the situation is staggering, given the state of some of the grounds in the Premiership. Tony Rowe, chief executive of Exeter Chiefs, spent the best part of 18 years moving Exeter to a position which satisfied the minimum criteria for entrance to the league. “We were quite surprised to see the state of some of the Premiership grounds when we finally arrived,” Rowe said. “We had to jump through some big hurdles to get into the Premiership, but I’m not sure a majority of the existing clubs have met those standards."

Cup beer price hike on cards

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

Rugby fans won't get much change out of NZ$10 (approx £5) when they buy a beer at Rugby World Cup matches according to the Sunday Herald's John Weekes.

"The Herald on Sunday has been told punters should expect to pay higher prices than normal for cans of Amstel Light or Heineken, the only beer allowed in the stadiums.

"David Allott, general manager of Eden Park Catering, says that at prestigious international events "it's not unusual that price structures are slightly different".

"Allott says the price decision will be made by the Rugby World Cup board within the next eight weeks.

"Glenn Corbett, a director at catering company Eurest, says there's "a real determination" to keep prices affordable for matchgoers - but prices will be in line with other global sporting events."

Irish jig is up

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

Irish rugby is managing to defy the country's broken economy to become the latest serious threat to New Zealand's player base, writes theSunday Herald's Gregor Paul.

"The offers made to John Afoa and Jared Payne to join Ulster were at never-before-seen remuneration levels.

"It is thought both deals were in excess of €400,000 ($750,000) a season and the New Zealand Rugby Union is nervous there will be more defections to Ireland in coming weeks.

"Matt Berquist has already signed a deal with Leinster and speculation is strong that Cory Jane could yet end up at Ulster as well. Sam Tuitupou is unexpectedly leaving Munster and they are in the market for a midfield replacement. Benson Stanley has been touted as a possibility.

"The NZRU is long used to foreign predators shopping for talent but the threat now posed by Ireland has taken them by surprise. Ireland had to accept an €85 billion bail-out late last year to keep the country solvent as the entire banking system was on the verge of collapse."

Ulster fall short

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

The Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning reports from Leinster's Magners League victory over title rivals Ulster.

"Shortly before kick-off in the RDS last night, a man who knows Ulster fairly well was suggesting that how his side reacted to their defeat by Northampton last weekend would tell us if they had what it takes to be real contenders. He didn't sound confident.

"Europe was done and dusted, but staying on course for the closing stages of the Magners was a hugely important test of their character. Well, after 13 minutes in front of a 17,670 crowd and on a lovely night for rugby, the second half against the Saints seemed a long way off, and the immediate test was to stay on the coat tails of a Leinster team that had raced into a 3-0 lead on tries.

"It was the sort of blitz we have become accustomed to from Joe Schmidt's side: everything was done with pace and aggression, and when the right level of accuracy is part of the mix it's unstoppable. To their credit, Ulster edged their way back into the game through the boot of Ian Humphreys, and were 17-9 behind coming to the half-hour mark."

Reds rack up sixth straight win

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

The Sydney Morning Herald's Phil Lutton reports from the Reds' latest Super Rugby success against the Bulls.

"When they trounced the Reds 30-6 in round two of the Super Rugby season, the Waratahs had every reason to feel satisfied with their night’s work.

"The problem is, next week they travel to Suncorp Stadium to face the very monster they helped create. The Queensland Reds are quickly becoming a rugby juggernaut and it’s the Tahs they have to thank.

"In a game of immense quality last night, the Reds posted their sixth consecutive victory with a 39-30 win over the defending champion Bulls at Suncorp Stadium. Tactically, there are improvements to make but the willingness to smash the ball into traffic or drop the shoulder in defence was beyond reproach.

"It wasn’t so in round two, when the Waratahs belted the ambition right out of the Reds and put them back in their box after the chirps they made in the previous season, one in which they went from laughing stock to potent threat."

Surprise triumphs over Auld Enemy

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

If Andy Robinson thinks he has a problem with the paucity of players to choose from, he should try coaching one of the national age-grade teams who are selected from what is more a puddle than a pool of talent.The Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison writes.

"It makes winning tough and, just two years ago, the Scottish under-18s lost twin Tests against their English counterparts by a combined score of 138-0.

"So it was as welcome as it was unexpected when the U17 and U18 teams both triumphed over the Auld Enemy in recent weeks. Both matches were also away from home, in Leeds

"The U18s kickstarted things with a 26-21 victory just a week after losing to Japan High Schools in Glasgow. The U17s then backed them up with a very healthy 30-10 win over the nation which boasts the largest number of players on the planet.

"Many rugby enthusiasts would recognise Mark Bennet's name from the U20 squad but another Ayr midfielder in the form of Robbie Ferguson took centre stage for the U18s. Ferguson showed up well for Kenny Murray's side in the British and Irish Cup and he was just as assured for the international side."

Bulls better...but stuffed

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

Sport24's Rob Houwing reflects on the Bulls latest Super Rugby defeat at the hands of the Reds.

"In certain respects, it might have been better if the Bulls had simply repeated their Timaru horror show last week and we could all have begun to suspect that there must be unrest of some sort in the champions’ camp.

"But events in Brisbane on Saturday, where the once-mighty Bulls were beaten once more -- 39-30 by the delightfully free-spirited and inventive Reds – did very little to suggest that disharmony is poisoning their flickering Super Rugby campaign.

"For the one thing Victor Matfield’s side did appear to win back in Queensland was their spirit, so glaringly absent for large tracts of their humiliation at the hands of the Crusaders.

"They got stuck in with much more of the bodies-on-line relish you could once virtually take for granted, and never allowed their heads to drop despite being on the back foot, both in field position and scoreboard terms, for the bulk of the pulsating contest."

An unspoken code

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

Writing in the Independent on Sunday, Bath's David Flatman reflects on a Mark Cueto's ban for foul play and the warning issued to Ben Foden over his conduct.

"While not quite an omerta, I do believe there is an unspoken code among players in rugby union. This is not a vow of silence, but more a proverbial line in the sand. And actually I think this is a healthy thing. Like the senior players getting the best spaces in the club car park, there has evolved a real set of rules with regards to the behaviour of players the world over that, while not official, tends, for the most part, to keep the blokes in line.

"On the subject of foul play, my views will no doubt anger some and please others, and this is fine, but I speak as a player with a pretty good disciplinary record who plays in a confrontational position. I do not want to have my eyes gouged or genitals detached during a game. Nor do I want to be hit from behind or from an unsighted position. These are cheap shots, and they are largely the work of cowards.

"I once received a good filling-in on the floor from a scrum-half you would know well. A scrum-half, you say? Yes, I was on my back at the time and both of my arms were trapped under my body. What a good lad. Ultimately, actions such as this cost you the respect of your peers, never mind the odd citing, and this tends to make them a rarity in the modern game. I honestly believe that if all the rough stuff is banished, rugby union will lose some of its traditional appeal. The all-in mass brawl is dead in this country and that's good news, but the odd bit of enthusiastic enforcement is the reason many play the game."

Eighty-two points and no winner

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

The Guardian's Paul Rees reports from the thrilling 41-41 draw between Leicester Tigers and Gloucester at Welford Road.

"Leicester have traditionally been in the business of handing out lessons, but their pre-eminence in England has not helped them in Europe in recent seasons. Today showed why. Leicester have metamorphosed from a side adept at grinding out victories and wearing down opponents into one of greater ambition, but at times they need to play with control; they too often flick the wrong switches. Their opponents, Gloucester, are themselves a side for whom the word expanse now means more than the girth of their front-rowers.

"So a fixture that not so long ago would have involved two gnarled set of forwards hogging the ball had an air of frivolity from the start, as if the sun had removed inhibition. It was Super 15 rather than old school, both teams claiming a try bonus point and three in all. All cavaliers and no roundheads. And no generals."

Back to a bleak future

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/17/2011

Neil Back condemned himself to a life of eternal toil and occasional torment when he became coach of Leeds according to the Daily Express' Steve Bale.

"First, Neil Back’s team have to gain sufficient points from tomorrow’s game at Wasps, where they won last season, the Easter Day visit of Harlequins and the finale at Northampton to keep their status and so avoid relegation for a third time in four years.

"That, for the former England hero, is the problem. Until all the rugby players on the market know Leeds’ fate no one is going to join. This delayed recruitment is what happened a year ago and now it is happening again.

“Of all the players who went at the end of last season, two were key losses – Seru Rabeni and Erik Lund – but they made decisions when they didn’t know if we would be a Premiership club,” said Back.

“If we don’t consolidate our position until late on in the season, the availability of key players is compromised because they have all signed elsewhere. We have to buck that trend. We haven’t been able to do it.”

April 16, 2011

Rise and fall of Lions king Phillips

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips is reportedly on the verge of a move to French giants Toulouse © Getty Images

The Western Mail's Delme Parfitt reflects on the imminent departure from the Ospreys of scrum-half Mike Phillips.

"He believes in his own mind he is the best, whether others share that opinion or not. He doesn’t do modesty. Period.

"And you may conclude that such self-confidence is a refreshing change, that a bit more of the same outlook might see the Ospreys and Wales start getting across the line more often when it really matters, instead of producing so many hard luck stories.

"...Though he may refuse to accept it himself, Phillips hasn’t really been on the money in the way we know he is capable since he came back from Lions duty, yet he’s held on to his Wales place for differing reasons throughout that period.

"Firstly, there have been times when his form, though not his best, has still been good enough.

"Secondly, he has an ally in Warren Gatland, whose innate conservatism has seen him willing to stick with players who have done a job for him in the past when coaches with a shorter fuse would have changed personnel."

Let's pitch All Blacks against the Rest

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Wynne Gray floats the idea of a trial match ahead of this year's Tri-Nations.

"Forget about Fiji and don't worry about getting Argentina to play the All Blacks at Carisbrook.

"Politically, logistically and financially, those July 22 proposals don't cut it for an All Black test which doubles as a Tri-Nations warmup and fundraiser for earthquake-stricken Christchurch.

"Looking at the Pumas is now the fourth choice after Samoa withdrew, Fiji produced government objections and Tonga was bypassed because they open this year's World Cup against the All Blacks.

"Assembling the Pumas from various parts of the globe to travel to Dunedin for a one-off test in mid-winter will bump up costs without any likely merits.

"So here's a few thoughts for the NZRU to chew on. Pitch the All Blacks against the Rest, put them up against NZ Maori or make it a Probables v Possibles match."

Reluctant nomad from Wagga Wagga

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

Leinster's Nathan Hines talks to the Irish Times Gerry Thornley ahead of his move to French club Clermont Auvergne.

"The man from Wagga Wagga, a remote marina army base in New South Wales, pitched up in Galashiels with a back pack to see the 1999 World Cup. It was meant to be a six-month Aussie “walkabout” yet, in a sense, he’s still hereabouts.

"Alongside an international career with Scotland which now numbers 72 caps and the ’09 tour to South Africa with the Lions, he’s played almost 200 games in six years with Edinburgh, four with Perpignan and two with Leinster, with two more to come at Clermont Auvergne.

"Yet he doesn’t particularly like the term “nomadic” as it hints at something of a rugby mercenary, with no loyalty. “I don’t see it as derogatory, but as a journeyman, or a rugby player for hire.” He cites his six years at Edinburgh and four at Perpignan as a sign that he’s something of a “serial monogamist, in rugby terms”.

"Indeed, he only left Edinburgh because he had briefly retired from international rugby and thus didn’t fit into Matt Williams’ “Fortress Scotland” philosophy, and had it not been for his decision to accept his Lions call-up and thus miss Perpignan’s French championship final in the summer of ’09, he would probably have stayed there.

"Likewise now, for Joe Schmidt and Jonno Gibbes wanted him to stay, but the IRFU Players’ Advisory Group – perhaps mindful that Hines would be nearly 35 by the time he had finished his World Cup commitments with Scotland – wouldn’t sanction even a one-year deal."

Young players need a hand

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

We are failing to teach our young rugby players the power of using two hands according to former England international Will Greenwood in the Daily Telegraph.

"There are lots of things you can do with two hands that you can’t do with one. Knitting, clapping, showing off some Paul Daniels magic tricks. You can add other things to the list, but one that needs to be near the top is a rugby player’s ability to fix and bamboozle defenders.

"Think back to the 1973 Barbarians v New Zealand game. We all know that Gareth Edwards try and the commentary in the lead up. But there is one phrase that had me pause the tape and rewind over and again: “John Dawes, great dummy.”

"Now I don’t want to take anything away from Dawes, but I have looked and looked and I am damned if I can see a dummy. Dawes himself admits as much, calling it “a dummy without moving the ball”. The dummy that wasn’t.

"The dummy that fooled the world. So what was it? It was all down to the fact of having the ball in two hands. For Dawes and players of his generation, carrying the ball in two hands was natural and it gave them some big advantages.

"It gave them the hip sway that happens naturally as you run with the ball in front of you. It put movement on the ball making it seem as if the player is about to pass, making defenders unsure of when it is shifting and where it is going."

Gala stalwart Bob Burrell dies

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

The Scotsman's Gareth Black reflects on the sad passing of Gala stalwart Bob Burrell.

"George Murray, former secretary of the South and a fellow referee, recalled: "Bob was a great humorist on and off the field and was a great one for encouraging the fun side of refereeing. He was an excellent referee and an inspiration to other referees.

"Ask anyone in Gala and they'll have a Bob Burrell story to tell. One of my favourites concerns a young Douglas Morgan playing against Langholm down at Milntown. Douglas broke down the blindside next to the stand but he was caught and ended up at the bottom of a ruck, where he was stood on and pushed face down in the mud.

"Douglas appealed to Bob 'What about that ref?' to which Bob replied, 'If I were you son I wouldn't go up the blindside again!'

"He was such a personality, the Jim Renwick of his day. He loved his rugby and wasn't very good at getting home early on a Saturday night."

Biarritz betrayed the imaginative spirit of Blanco

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

Writing in The Independent, Brian Ashton reflects on last weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

"Poor old Serge Blanco. What could the great man of Biarritz have been thinking as he watched the Basque side's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat by Toulouse on Sunday evening?

"Here was a remarkable individual who performed, almost on a weekly basis, astonishing feats for club and country: a rugby genius blessed with imagination, invention, pace, skill and courage – a master of the counter-attack who would back himself to make something happen when everyone else on the field was paralysed with fear. Quite simply, Blanco was one of the finest full-backs ever to play the game. Has any of his stardust been sprinkled on the Biarritz of today? Apparently not.

"Quite what he made of his team's approach down there in San Sebastian, heaven only knows. It amounted to nothing more than a collision-based driving game, based around an unending series of pick-and-go rumbles around the side by forwards who, quite literally, kept the ball close to their chests. Behind these behemoths, Dimitri Yachvili steered the close-quarter strategy from scrum-half, hoofing the ball in the air or down the short side in primitive kick-and-chase fashion."

Sale up against it

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

With three north-west clubs at Wembley, the big crowd envisaged for Sale's Premiership clash with London Irish at the Reebok Stadium is unlikely according to The Guardian's Paul Rees.

"It is typical of the misfortune Sale have suffered since winning the Premiership in 2006 that their plan to showcase rugby union in the north-west of England by taking Saturday's match against London Irish to the Reebok Stadium should be undermined by three teams from the area being in the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley.

"Sale had hoped for more than 20,000 to turn up at the home of Bolton Wanderers, as they look to develop their fan base and start making a profit after years of losses that have been made good by the club's owner, Brian Kennedy. The projected crowd has been revised downwards, though, thanks to the distraction of the two Manchester clubs meeting each other in the first of the semi-finals, followed on Sunday by Bolton against Stoke City.

"Kennedy describes the initiative, which is part of a three-year agreement with Bolton Wanderers to stage one match a season at the Reebok, as the last shot for a club that were the Premiership champions five seasons ago to prove that they can compete with the best.

"Sale have not had a sell-out at their Edgeley Park home this season and plans to redevelop the ground have barely advanced beyond the discussion stage because the £8m the work would cost is not in place."

April 15, 2011

Beale signing points to Rebels' winning ethos

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/15/2011

Waratahs fullback Kurtley Beale will be lining out for the Melbourne Rebels next season © Getty Images

Writing on Rugby Heaven, Adam Freier ponders the significance of Kurtley Beale's imminent move from the Waratahs to the Melbourne Rebels.

"No words can explain Kurtley Beale's decision to come to Melbourne more than his actual movement towards the Rebellion.

"His signature is a remarkable one for the Rebels but what we really need to pay homage to is that this is a colossal step in taking our game to a "national" level.

"The Rebels are fortunate, in that the NSW Waratahs have done a remarkable job in his development from a teenage prodigy into the young man he is now.
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"The Rebels can only ensure that he will join a nursery of talented young men with whom he will continue to grow. The question will be asked, should a state such as NSW lose one of its true talents to ensure the growth of rugby in Australia?"

Post-World Cup player exodus may head Down Under this time

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/15/2011

In his weekly column in The Guardian, Shaun Edwards wonders if the timing of the tournament may see exhausted players head south as they take account of different seasonal demands.

"Just fancy this. After the emotional high of winning a World Cup - or even coming close - you are pitched into league rugby almost immediately, in the autumn, and then do not get a rest until May.

"Don't say it couldn't happen, because it was what was expected of England's players after they had won the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003. And while Lewis Moody and his players will not go through the same thing this year, some of the England guys who earn their crust in France might. Rumour has it, it's causing a few of them to think about their careers."

Humphreys running in the right direction

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/15/2011

Ulster fly-half Ian Humphreys talks to the Irish Independent ahead of Saturday's pivotal Magners League meeting with Leinster at the RDS.

"When Sean O'Brien was reminded yesterday that the vast prairies of space into which he was ushered at Ravenhill when Leinster steamrolled to victory earlier this season may not be so inviting at the RDS tomorrow night, the Tullow titan responded forcibly.

"'Well, I suppose I'll just have to create my own space then!' came the verbal hand-off. One would have normally expected a group of grown men to wince in sympathy as we thought of O'Brien seeking out the rather large, imaginary bullseye on Ian Humphreys' midriff.

"Well, once we might have done; these days not so much. That's not to say that Humphreys has transformed himself into a Wilkinson-esque paragon of teak-tough tackling.

"Let's just say that he's escaped from the parody wherein he was ridiculed for his defence as much as he was lauded for his often outlandish, insouciant brilliance with hand and foot."

Curtain draws down on some fine warriors

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/15/2011

Liam Toland of the Irish Times argues that Munster’s success from the 1990s has been built on Shannon and co in sourcing and nurturing raw talent.

"Traditionally, Munster have done well in the market: Rob Henderson, John Langford, Doug Howlett and many more have graced the famous red jersey. But it is not their arrival that has created the success that Munster have enjoyed, it is the arrival of country talent from the province that moved somewhat by accident into Thomond Park. Ian Dowling, for one, wasn’t sourced by Munster. Neither were other legends such as John Hayes, Mick Galwey or, dare I suggest, the greatest Munster man of them all, Anthony Foley.

"All four of these Munster heroes where first and foremost Shannon sourced, nurtured and harnessed. When I say harnessed, I mean they were exposed to the realities of rugby, the pecking order and its physicality at club level, and only then were they allowed to play for Munster.

"Or more accurately put, only then did Munster want them. An almost finished product, if you will."

April 14, 2011

Weeks or matches?

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/14/2011

Mark Cueto was banned for nine weeks on Monday © Getty Images

Paul Rees questions the the wisdom in awarding bans over a period of weeks rather than matches in The Guardian.

"When Schalk Burger received an eight-week ban in 2009 for eye-gouging the Lions wing Luke Fitzgerald, the reaction outside South Africa was largely one of incredulity that he had been treated leniently for a heinous offence. The Italy No8 Sergio Parisse received the same suspension for committing a similar act on the New Zealand forward Isaac Ross and the uproar prompted the International Rugby Board to launch an investigation into crime and punishment.

"The outcome was an edict to all member unions that there had to be a zero-tolerance policy when it came to players who put their hands and fingers close to the eyes of opponents. No more turning a blind eye, as it were; the minimum ban of 12 weeks, which would apply to an act deemed reckless rather than intentional, was to be rigidly enforced with the maximum suspension, reserved for serial offenders, set at three years.

"The Sale and England wing Mark Cueto was this week banned for nine weeks after being cited for making contact with the eye or eye area of the Northampton second row Christian Day during the Premiership match at Franklin's Gardens at the start of the month. The three-man disciplinary panel that heard his case deemed there was some intent in the act and set the ban at 18 weeks, reduced by half because Cueto pleaded guilty, had shown remorse and had a prior good disciplinary record."

Over the hill

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/14/2011

Duncan Johnston argues that South Africa's Rugby World Cup campaign will be undone by the age of their big names on

"The Springboks won't be able to defend the World Cup because their core of stars are over the hill. The cracks began to appear last year and they are opening up in alarming fashion for Boks coach Pieter de Villiers during Super Rugby.

"From skipper John Smit in his confusing front row roles through to Bryan Habana's struggles on the wings, leading South African players are clearly struggling for form. Even the once-feared locking partnership of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha is losing its aura.

"Botha's ill-discipline will always pose a problem in a tournament situation and it's hard to dismiss the thought that Matfield's effort against the Crusaders last weekend was his worst performance in more than 100 Super Rugby games."

A look to the future

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/14/2011

Ian Bransfield reports on the future plans of Munster's retiring flanker Alan Quinlan in The Irish Independent.

"Alan Quinlan cut a slightly emotional figure yesterday as he announced his plans to retire at the end of this season, but he hinted that Munster supporters may not have seen the last of him.

"The 36-year-old Tipperary man gave a strong indication that he will remain with the province in a coaching capacity when the curtain comes down on a glorious 15-year playing career.

"A former mechanic, Quinlan laughed when asked whether he might consider a return to the motor industry when his playing days come to an end. "I don't think Pearse Motors will be busting a gut to get me back as a mechanic at this stage," he joked."

Over reliance

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/14/2011

Peter Bills argues that the All Blacks' reliance on Dan Carter could come back to bite them at the Rugby World Cup in The Independent.

"South Africa can’t get anywhere near matching that quartet of skill and quality. If either Jean de Villiers or Jaque Fourie loses form or fitness, the gap will be felt in the Springboks side. Juan de Jongh is an immensely talented young player but he lacks experience.

"But there is one position where, in my view, the South Africans have been much smarter than the New Zealanders. The Springboks have a proven back up to Morne Steyn in the No. 10 jersey. New Zealand doesn’t have, for Dan Carter in the All Blacks’ side."

April 13, 2011

Warrior spirit

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/13/2011

Alan Quinlan gets to grips with Leicester's Neil Back in 2002 © Getty Images

Hugh Farrelly salutes Munster flanker Alan Quinlan, who will call time on his career at the end of the season, in The Irish Independent.

""To be a warrior is not a simple matter of wishing to be one, it is rather an endless struggle that will go on to the very last moment." - Carlos Castaneda

"One by one, they are dropping off. The last links to the All-Ireland League-driven amateur era which forged the success Irish rugby has experienced, and continues to experience, since 2000.
Munster's Keith Wood, Peter Clohessy and Mick Galwey successfully bridged the amateur and professional days, as did Ulster's Paddy Johns and David Humphreys and Eric Elwood with Connacht -- all long since retired.

"In more recent times, Denis Hickie, Malcolm O'Kelly and Girvan Dempsey have moved on, and John Hayes and Ronan O'Gara are on the last laps of glittering careers dating back to Saturday afternoons in the 1990s when thronged clubhouses around the country stood glued to AIL teletext results, pints temporarily forgotten."

A bicycle wheel on a monster truck

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/13/2011

Toby Robson takes a light-hearted look at the latest Super Rugby action in The Dominion Post.

"Coach Todd Blackadder has fallen in love with small-town South Island."If I had my way, we would be going back every week to there [Timaru] and Nelson," he said, clearly enamoured with the former's Aigantighe Art Gallery and Nelson's Enriching and Wellness Day Spa.

"The good: A team that doesn't skip a beat without Carter at first five-eighth. All due respect to Matt Berquist, but it's a bit like putting a bicycle wheel on a monster truck and nobody noticing."

Fears for the future

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/13/2011

Mick Cleary talks to Sale chief Brian Kennedy about the perils of running a top-flight rugby club in The Daily Telegraph.

"It has cost Kennedy £16million of his own money to shore up Sale since getting involved with the Cheshire club 11 years ago. In a valiant attempt to test out a new market, Kennedy has switched Sale’s Premiership game against London Irish on Saturday from Edgeley Park in Stockport to Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, where a crowd of 17,000 is hoped for.

“It’s an experiment and it won’t tell us everything but it will be an indicator of things,” said Kennedy. “It’s a chance to showcase rugby in that part of the world, to take it outside its normal boundaries and see what happens. These are difficult times but this is worth having a crack at. It’s designed to give us a bit of hope for the future, to make us believe that we can build our crowds if we can engage people in the area by providing good facilities. The facilities at Edgeley Park are not the best. We know that. But we’ve just not been able to invest in infrastructure. Our monies go into paying wages and running the losses that professional rugby generates.”

April 12, 2011

Long in the tooth

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/12/2011

Victor Matfield was outplayed by the Crusaders' Chris Jack last weekend © Getty Images

Gavin Rich faces facts and looks at the current poor form being shown by leading Springboks on

"Okay, so maybe now is the time to start getting worried. Up to now judgement has been reserved on issues such as the form of the Bulls and of some of the top Springboks on the basis that it is a long season and much can change between now and September, when the World Cup starts.

"But it is now no longer February, it is mid-April, and the failure of so many top players who were such a pivotal part of previous Springbok successes, cannot just be glibly ignored as part of a plan geared towards building slowly into the season so that South Africans are at their peak when the World Cup arrives.

"If that was the plan, it hasn’t worked, for the Bulls looked a frustrated group of players against the Crusaders in Timaru, and it cannot be doing any good for the confidence of the so-called world beaters in the team that they are being made to look so rank average."

All to play for

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/12/2011

Hugh Farrelly assesses Ireland's options for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup in The Irish Independent.

"It's 153 days until Ireland kick off their World Cup 2011 campaign against the US in New Plymouth.

"An eternity for the Chilean miners (who were underground for 69) but for Ireland coach Declan Kidney, it does not seem that long. It will be on us before we know it and speculation on the composition of Kidney's 30-man squad has begun in earnest.

"Injuries cloud the issue; in an ideal scenario Jerry Flannery and Stephen Ferris would be fit and in fine fettle but given how their seasons have been ravaged by repeated setbacks, it does not look good for two of the world-class players at Kidney's disposal."

Too early for Slade

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/12/2011

Dylan Cleaver looks at the anointing of Colin Slade as back-up to All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter in The New Zealand Herald.

"Sometimes you can want something so badly you talk yourself into it happening. It's a phenomenon so common they've got a term for it - self-fulfilling prophecy. And so it seems to be with the rugby media and Highlanders star recruit Colin Slade.

"There's a sense that, with the dearth of credible contenders, we're prepared to overlook anything to anoint Slade as the back-up to Daniel Carter - even the facts.

"The 23-year-old wasn't awful against the Cheetahs on Friday night, but he wasn't very good either. If you were awarding marks out of 10 and were being totally objective, your finger would be hovering over numbers four and five."

April 11, 2011

Bulls lucky to get zero

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

The Crusaders' Kieran Read fends off the Bulls' Dean Greyling © Getty Images

Sport24's JJ Harmse believes the Bulls were lucky to only lose 27-0 to the Crusaders in their latest Super Rugby clash.

"The one positive the Blue Bulls Company should take from yesterday's woeful Bulls performance is that they probably won’t lose any players for the Currie Cup competition.

"It is incredibly hard to envision them producing any Springboks for the World Cup if they keep on performing like they did against the Crusaders.

"The Crusaders thrashed the (current) champions 27-0.

"It is not often that you see guys throwing away their names in 80 minutes of rugby like we saw yesterday, which is probably the Bulls' darkest day in recent Super Rugby history.

"You would have to go back to 2005, when they also scored zero points (against the Higlanders), to find a more pathetic performance like the one in Timaru yesterday.

"The Bulls were unable to catch, unable to tackle, unable to think, and showed about as much heart as a French soldier during the opening weeks of the Second World War.

"Yes, they were lucky to get zero."

Elsom shrugs off Horan criticism

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

Rocky Elsom has rejected former Wallaby great Tim Horan's suggestion he is burdened by the test captaincy. The New Zealand Herald reports.

"Horan last month argued the task of leading the Wallabies would prevent Elsom living up to his reputation as arguably the world's most feared blindside flanker.

"I believe the captaincy burdens Rocky too much," Horan explained. "The only way I think you see the best from Rocky Elsom is when he doesn't have the [captaincy or vice-captaincy] next to his name."

"But the 28-year-old Brumbies stalwart who is slowly recovering from a hamstring injury, disagrees. "Well, nothing is coming to mind to support that," Elsom said yesterday. "Obviously I don't appoint myself, but I'm happy in the role and I'm pretty keen to get into it [at the World Cup]."

Ulster pay a heavy price for mistakes

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

The Irish Independent's Niall Crozier reports from Ulster's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Northampton in Milton Keynes.

"Ulster's Heineken Cup dream is over for this year. Yesterday afternoon at a sun-kissed stadium:mk they were beaten by opponents whose brawn ultimately made the difference.

"Northampton Saints have an awesome scrum, their line-out is sound, Courtney Lawes was immense, and they have a maul which wears opponents down.

"But Ulster contributed to their own downfall, with 17 of Northampton's 23 points attributable to avoidable errors. The Saints made the most of those lapses, punishing Ulster on the scoreboard.

"Having led 13-10 at half-time, Ulster failed to score a point in the second half, during which the screw tightened. Slowly they were strangled as Saints squeezed the life from them."

Waratahs learn art of offload

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, John Eales reflects on the latest Super Rugby action.

"Offloads are a hot commodity in rugby and their poster boy is Crusader Sonny Bill Williams, who as of last week had made almost twice as many as anyone else in the competition. He had 24 and his nearest rival, teammate Dan Carter, 13, which in itself is a pointer to how the Crusaders play their game.

"Offloads are invaluable as they maintain momentum while raising ghosts in the minds of defensive patterns. Sometimes the most potent threat is a perceived threat: should a defensive line commit to the ball carrier or hold back for the recipient?

"Hence Williams's value arises as much through what he doesn't do as what he actually does. Not only can he offload but he can equally cause so much damage when running himself. The resulting uncertainty creates options for him and for those around him.

"Two of the Waratahs' tries came directly from offloads, one from Wycliff Palu, the other from Burgess."

Freshwater becomes unlikely hero

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

Perry Freshwater, the England prop, will remember his decisive second-half try against Toulon for a long time, "a golden moment at the Olympic Stadium in the autumn of his career" according to the Daily Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher.

"He certainly upstaged former England Test colleague Jonny Wilkinson who was making his debut in a Heineken Cup knockout match.

“I get paid to push not score tries, I can’t even remember the last time I scored,” said Freshwater after Perpignan overcame an error-strewn first half to salvage the day for the Catalans who took a big risk in moving the match to Barcelona.

“It was nice to score and one day I will look back on it with pride but I can’t overemphasise how important it was simply to win this game. For us, for a long time, it has been all about Perpignan reaching the Heineken Cup quarter-finals as a top-four team and getting a home draw so we take the match to Barca but I kept telling the guys that wasn’t enough. We needed to win the bloody thing.”

"Freshwater, a second-half replacement, was part of a much-improved forward effort from Perpignan after the break when they took a stranglehold of the game and manufactured a win that was considerably more comfortable than the scoreline suggested. As for Wilkinson it was a disappointing afternoon."

Melrose end 13-year wait for sevens glory

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

The Scotsman's Scott Wight reports from the home side's long-awaited success at the latest staging of the Melrose Sevens.

"Craig Chalmers remembers vividly the squad he was a part of in 1996-97, when Melrose claimed a unique domestic "Grand Slam" of Scottish Division One, Scottish Cup, Border League and Melrose Sevens trophies.

"It had never been done before and has never been achieved since, but after watching his team claim the first of those four on Saturday, ending a 13-year wait for another Melrose Sevens triumph, Chalmers admitted he believes this group is capable of emulating the feat over the next 16 days, starting with the Scottish Cup Final against Ayr on Saturday.

"The Melrose team that swept all before them 14 years ago included players such as Derek Stark, Rowen Shepherd and Peter Wright, as well as a core of locally produced international talent, including Chalmers, Bryan Redpath, Graham Shiel and Carl Hogg. There are no full internationalists involved now, but a similarly ambitious group built around a solid home-grown core."

Beaten at their own game

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

Writing in The Independent, Hugh Godwin reports from Leinster's Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leicester in Dublin.

"Whatever it was that enabled Leicester to dominate European competition a decade ago, it was not playing to the letter of the law. That turn-of-the-century team waged the physical battle to its limits and had a few hard-eyed so-and-so's led by Martin Johnson capable of getting the rest of the job done with mental resourcefulness.

"Unfortunately there are only so many Johnsons to go around in a generation, or even a lifetime, and everyone from the kids waving blue Leinster banners at the renovated Lansdowne Road to the Dublin taxi drivers ferrying sad-eyed Tigers supporters to the airport yesterday morning had seen it in this Heineken Cup quarter-final. Leinster beat Leicester at their own game."

April 10, 2011

Woodward favourite for RFU job

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

Former England coach Clive Woodward looks set for a return to the Rugby Football Union © Getty Images

Sir Clive Woodward is emerging as the only credible candidate for the performance director’s job at the Rugby Football Union even though he has not applied for the position, writes the Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford.

"The RFU had hoped to establish a shortlist and start interviewing, but is not yet in a position to do so after several prominent contenders dropped out or were considered unsuitable.

"Nigel Melville, the former director of rugby at Wasps who is now running USA Rugby, was seen as a potential rival to Woodward, but has indicated that his family is settled and happy in the United States and he is not yet ready to return to England.

"Jake White, South Africa’s World Cup-winning coach, has also withdrawn. White was initially put forward by his agent, but is now believed to be seeking employment within Super 15 rugby. Eddie Jones, the former Australia coach who worked alongside White during the Springboks’ World Cup campaign, is also a non-starter because of problems which arose when he was temporarily involved with Saracens.

"Woodward has indicated privately that he would consider the role if overtures were made. Fears that he would not get on with new RFU chief executive John Steele are wide of the mark. The two men have a sound working relationship and got on well when Steele was involved with UK Sport."

Who I back to wear black

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

Writing in the Sunday Herald, Richard Loe picks his New Zealand squad for this year's World Cup.

"I'd take five locks, as I think this is potentially a problem area for us if injuries intervene. Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock are certainties, with Anthony Boric third choice at present.

"However, provided they play plenty of rugby and come up the scale, I'd also have Ali Williams and Tom Donnelly in the squad, as I think we can make do with five loosies. Specifically, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read, Adam Thomson and Matt Todd. I don't think Liam Messam, Victor Vito or any of the other candidates are putting up their hands yet and that loose combination can easily cover all three spots.

"I'd also make a special case for halfbacks - three of them. That's only because of the big problems we have at first five-eighths. Jimmy Cowan is No1. I'd pick Piri Weepu even though he isn't playing and assuming he comes back from injury well enough - because he can play 10, has a cool head, good tactical appreciation and can kick pressure goals.

"The third choice would be Alby Mathewson, who nudges Andy Ellis out because of his running game and what he might add as a substitute."

Tigers sent home to lick wounds

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

The Irish Times' Carl O'Malley reports from Leinster's Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leicester in Dublin.

"The ground may be a little different but this was familiar territory for two old foes with a 10-game European Cup history equally shared into five wins apiece. The bragging rights had to fall in someone’s favour this evening and it was Leicester, for so long the experts in trench warfare, who gave that inch as their hosts booked a home semi-final against Biarritz or Toulouse.

"It wasn’t their fight that let them down, it never does, but in comparison to previous incarnations they were desperately lacking in ideas behind the scrum. That said, their opponents have evolved defensively in the time since they won this competition two years ago.

"Their organisation was impeccable and benefitted from admirable discipline and restraint when temptation could have led to trouble at the breakdown. They stayed on their feet, tacklers released and Leicester, more often than not, made their own mistakes."

Reds on top of Super rugby table

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

The Reds have stamped themselves as genuine Super Rugby title contenders by upsetting the previously-unbeaten Stormers 19-6 in Cape Town. The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

"It gave the Reds a 2-0 record from their two-week road trip to South Africa and put them equal with the Crusaders on top of the ladder (30 points), but in No.1 spot as they have enjoyed more wins.

"Not since 1999, when John Connolly coached them to the minor premiership, have the Reds sat atop the Super Rugby table.

"In a match which was to offer Queensland a true gauge of their ability following five wins over bottom seven sides, the visitors rose to the challenge in front of a packed-out Newlands Stadium.

"The Reds quietened the capacity crowd quickly by grabbing the upper hand largely through a superior kicking game from Cooper and Genia to play the bulk of the first half in the Stormers territory and with front-foot ball."

Melrose in full bloom

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

Memories of a golden era have been rekindled in the Borders' pursuit of a league and cup double according to The Scotsman's Richard Bath.

"All eyes were on Melrose yesterday for the Sevens, and it's a feeling that the club will be getting used to over the next fortnight. In consecutive weeks the Borders side are back at Murrayfield for their fourth national cup final in a row where they will face Ayr, followed the week after by the visit of the same opponents to the Greenyards for a match which could see Melrose seal their first league title since 1997.

"Those two matches against Ayr constitute, says veteran flanker and forwards coach John Dalziel, "the most important week for Melrose for the past 14 years". With the club fighting for silverware on two fronts, it certainly feels as if the side is on the cusp of a return to the halcyon days of the 1990s when the men in the famous yellow and black hoops won six league titles in eight years.

"Yet Melrose have reached this tipping point without making major changes to their squad along the way, a fact that 34-year-old Dalziel hopes will ensure that success is here to stay. "This is the sixth season for (head coach] Craig (Chalmers] and myself, and our league position has got better each year," he says."

The Saint who has a date with destiny

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

The man mountain Soane Tonga'uiha has been a rock for Northampton this season and will be unmoved by Ulster tactics today according to the Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin.

"When Soane Tonga'uiha says it is destiny that Northampton will reach this season's Heineken Cup final, you are inclined to agree – and not just because a simple raise of the eyebrow from this huge son of the South Pacific might split the ceiling, cartoon-style, of the hospitality box where we meet. Whereas the Saints were knocked out at the quarter-final stage away to Munster in 2010, the Irish must come to them today, albeit Ulster travel to Milton Keynes rather than Franklin's Gardens. The winners are guaranteed a "home" draw in the semi-finals – Northampton would use the same venue – and Tonga'uiha says: "It's a massive plus for us. It's almost like it was destined for us to get to the final."

"Northampton won the cup in 2000 but there are no survivors playing today, and they hope the "learning curve" moment everyone in Europe appears to subscribe to was in Limerick 12 months ago. As the 20-stone Tongan-born, New Zealand-raised loosehead prop recalls, they played well but were beaten by age-old tactics. "We got into too many of those one-on-ones off the ball," Tonga'uiha says. "Munster had been around the block and we hadn't. We learnt we need to take it on the chin and move on to the next play. To stay composed and not panic if we're behind or down to 14 men."

Authentic rugby in plastic surrounds

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

The Heineken Cup quarter-finals have found lovelier stages than stadium:mk but the Northampton-Ulster match must be taken seriously according to The Observer's Eddie Butler.

"It is a landmark fixture that pitches former champion against former champion. Twelve years have passed for Ulster and 11 for Northampton since they were Heineken Cup winners, but this is a quarter-final that should be approached respectfully. You don't make the last eight in 2011 lightly.

"And yet, you can't help but chuckle. This is a weekend of grand rugby, of Leinster against Leicester at Dublin's sparkling Aviva Stadium, of Biarritz and Perpignan transporting themselves deep into the spiritual heartlands of the Basque and Catalan peoples: to San Sebastián, a jewel of Europe's Atlantic coast, and Barcelona, giant of the Mediterranean.

"Northampton? Today they're playing at stadium:mk (sic) in Milton Keynes. It's a journey of 10 miles according to my, 15 for the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, who wanted to put a little more distance between the destinations when, in 2008 and in a different sport, Northampton Town first played against the MK Dons (once Wimbledon FC) in League One. The tone seemed to be that Northampton had thousands of years of history; MK had Ikea and concrete cows."

April 9, 2011

Todd plays role of chosen one

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Crusaders flanker Matt Todd in action against The Sharks during their recent clash at Twickenham © Getty Images

The New Zealand Herald's Wynne Gray charts the rise of Crusaders flanker Matt Todd.

"The Christchurch rugby club is the oldest in New Zealand with 32 All Blacks including five captains on their honours board.

"Their last inscription came a decade ago when a young Richie McCaw was added in gold lettering. Club members and many others who've followed Matt Todd's progress believe his name will soon follow the national captain.

"Ask at the club or provincial observers and they have no doubt, 23-year-old Todd is destined for the black jersey, the only argument is when. They believe they saw into the future a few years back when McCaw and Todd played a rare club game together against Lincoln University."

Cullen fears 'pit bull' influence

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Leinster skipper Leo Cullen is wary of the influence of Leicester coach Richard Cockerill ahead of their Heineken Cup showdown. The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly writes.

"Cockerill played hooker at Leicester for many years forming the renowned ABC front-row (the Tigers used to wear letters instead of numbers on their jerseys) with Rowntree and Darren Garforth and Cullen believes the Leicester coach is overseeing a team in his image -- direct and confrontational.

"He's your classic pit bull," said Cullen. "He was always pretty irritating to play against, and in his coaching style he's pretty prone to mood swings. As a forwards coach it was very much dependent on what we were like at the weekend.

"He actually pays real great attention to detail, spends a lot of time working with players individually, just on the smallest details from every game. He's a good, tough, hard character, 'Cockers.' There's a certain Leicester way of wanting to be a tough, physically imposing type of player and that's what he probably instils the most," added Cullen.

Tiger feats more than a provincial matter

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Sharing 10 meetings with five wins apiece, Leinster’s record against Leicester reflects their own European odyssey, writes the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley.

"Nothing quite defines Leinster’s 15-year history in the Heineken Cup quite like the 10 meetings with Leicester, especially the first and last. They have five wins apiece, dating back to 1996 when Leicester came to Lansdowne Road and won 27-10, and most recently when Leinster reached their Holy Grail in the Murrayfield final two seasons ago.

"A mere 3,500 turned up for that initial meeting in the Cup’s second season. Reflecting the flight of the wild geese to England, Eric Miller was playing with Leicester while the London Irish duo of Malcolm O’Kelly and Victor Costello, along with Saracens’ Paul Wallace, were “guesting” for Leinster.

“It was bizarre,” chuckles O’Kelly, who was playing in the first of his seven games against Leicester over 13 seasons. “We were getting beaten up and down England with London Irish, so we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It was a savage team but it was like a re-union of sorts. We were just drafted in for these matches and there was no Celtic League.”

Death knell sounds for ‘Gatland Law’

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

The Western Mail's Delme Parfitt believes James Hook’s move to France signals the end of ‘Gatland’s Law’ that favoured players based in Wales.

"The implication is that Gatland’s Law now only applies to those players who are deemed indispensable, in other words enforcing it is down to a subjective standpoint rather than the application of a specific rule.

"Dangerous territory surely, and, while we have waited for something concrete, assumption has ruled.

"Gatland’ s Law has simply been overtaken by events, the most significant of which was the decision of James Hook to join Perpignan in time for the start of next season.

"Once our most talented player decided to up sticks, sticking up two fingers to the ideal scenario of all our top stars staying in Wales, Gatland’s Law was dead in all but name.

"Hook wasn’t the first to decide the grass was greener on the other side of the fence, but still his departure could set a precedent."

Wilkinson enters the unknown

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson will compete in his first Heineken Cup quarter-final on Saturday - the Daily Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher previews their clash with Perpignan.

"Remarkably, after 14 seasons as a professional, it will be the first time the England fly-half has played in a Heineken Cup knockout game, having missed out on Newcastle’s solitary quarter-final appearance against Stade Francais in Paris in 2005 with a knee ligament injury.

"It is a poor return for one of the modern game’s great match-winners, brought about by a combination of persistent injury and his loyalty for over a decade to the Falcons, but now comes his chance to set the record straight.

"And the stage could scarcely be bigger or more colourful. Perpignan, proud Catalans first and French second, finally achieve a long held ambition by staging a big match across the border in the Catalan capital of Barcelona and although the Nou Camp would have been their first choice the Olympic Stadium at Montjuic is a splendid and emotionally charged second choice."

Raising skill levels

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Writing in The Independent, Brian Ashton looks ahead to this weekend's Heineken Cup clashes.

"One would expect all eight quarter-finalists to enter the arena with an overview – in other words, a clear idea of how they might dominate field position and impose their will on the opposition. But there is an ever-present danger when fixtures as important as these come around. All too frequently, coaches and players clutter up the overview with so much detail that the performance becomes robotic. Instead of people manoeuvring their way through situations as and when they arise, they fall back on the so-called "game plan" memorised during the week's preparation. Do the wonderful footballers of Spain allow themselves to be locked into a pre-ordained plan? I think not.

"This evening's big game in Dublin between Leinster and Leicester will be extremely instructive in this regard, for it throws up a classic confrontation between two half-back pairings – Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton; Ben Youngs and Toby Flood – who, at their best, understand the importance of clear thinking and sound decision-making under pressure. They met at the same venue as recently as last month, when England crossed the Irish Sea in what turned out to be a fruitless search for the Six Nations Grand Slam, but it would be a gross error of judgement to assume that these four individuals will perform in precisely the same way. Certainly, neither coach will fall into this trap."

Wilson relishes Ulster reunion

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Former Ulster No.8 Roger Wilson has warned his Northampton team-mates to be wary of their Irish rivals ahead of their Heineken Cup quarter-final clash. The Guardian's Paul Rees reports.

"The No.8 spent six years with Ulster before joining Northampton in 2008 and, while the Saints are unbeaten in Europe since losing at Munster in last season's quarter-final, they have only just returned to form after a mid-season wobble.

"The Heineken Cup is different from the Premiership," said Wilson. " Knock-out games are about pressure and we have to be able to deal with it better than we did a year ago. I think we will and this is a game I have been looking forward to ever since I knew we were going to be facing Ulster. I have always wanted to play against Ulster since leaving for Northampton and I have had a lot of people looking for tickets. I know a number who are coming over from Belfast and it will be a special weekend."

April 8, 2011

Scrum like it hot

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/08/2011

The Waratahs dominated the Chiefs up front last weekend © Getty Images

Greg Growden looks at the recent strides made by Australian franchises at the scrum in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"Over the years, Australian front-rowers have grown accustomed to being laughed at for resembling puffed-up pillows.

"However, it is only when the Australian scrums have at last gained some parity at set-piece time that the criticisms have come from a less personal angle, all aimed at undermining their progress. That was the case this week when the Chiefs queried the Waratahs' scrummaging technique.
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"After several seasons in which the Australian scrums have wavered, the early rounds of the Super Rugby season have shown the local front-rowers are getting their act together."

Granny's nationality

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/08/2011

Hugh Farrelly isn't a fan of the 'grandmother rule' in international rugby, and tells us as much in The Irish Independent.

"Grandad Farrelly was from Clare. He was born in Tulla in 1904 and we buried him there in 1989 after driving all the way down from the Dublin funeral mass with a Garda escort.

"Those motorcycle outriders were provided because Sean had been a Chief Superintendent and he always exuded that air of stern authority conducive to progress in the force. Outside work, his main passions were golf (he played off a three handicap), Bunny Carr's Quicksilver, and Boyne Valley Honey drizzled on to Flora-covered white bread.

"In short -- aside from shared DNA -- we had nothing in common, least of all a handed-down affiliation to Clare."

Newfound threats

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/08/2011

Chris Hewett looks at Ulster's recruitment drive in The Independent.

"Outmuscled financially by the French – the Eurozone may be falling apart in the real world, but on Planet Rugby it goes from strength to strength – the last thing England's beleaguered Premiership clubs need as they attempt to restore their Heineken Cup credibility is a fresh threat from Ireland. Which is precisely what they face.

"Ulster, who take on Northampton in the third of this weekend's quarter-finals, have set their sights on matching their more illustrious provincial rivals, Leinster and Munster, after a decade of playing second fiddle, and while they will start as underdogs on Sunday afternoon, they will not be outsiders for very much longer."

Europe on the move

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/08/2011

Shaun Edwards previews the weekend's Heineken Cup action, and is looking forward to some tribal warfare, in The Guardian.

"This is one of those weekends when rugby's tribes are on the move. Possibly even more than in the Six Nations, this is when the truly committed fan hits the road.

"Nearly 52,000 will pack the new Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday for Leinster versus Leicester, which would be a record for a Heineken Cup quarter‑final had Perpignan and Toulon not already crammed a guaranteed 55,000 into Barcelona's Olympic Stadium 90 minutes earlier.

"Then, on Sunday, the full-house signs will be up again in San Sebastián, where the Basques of Biarritz choose to play their big European games – and they don't come much bigger than those against Toulouse – and at Milton Keynes, which may not sound as colourful as either the Estadio Anoeta or the Catalan capital, but will certainly generate as much heat when Northampton lock horns with Ulster."

April 7, 2011

Polota-Nau needs to be wrapped

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2011

Tatafu Polota-Nau is set to be a cornerstone of the Wallabies' World Cup challenge © Getty Images

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Cully casts his eye across the Super Rugby stage with one eye on the World Cup.

"If the ARU were to book a significant delivery of cotton wool to Waratahs HQ every Monday morning with a polite but insistent note reading, "For the immediate and/or future use on one Mr. T Polota-Nau" it could hardly be blamed.

"The sight of the outstanding hooker - and, to a lesser extent, Benn Robinson - repeatedly peeling himself from the SFS deck in obvious discomfort on Friday night before hurling himself back into the action was another reminder in a World Cup year of the potential for the needs of the Wallabies and the Super franchises to clash.

"Thankfully, Australian rugby has been absent of the club versus country rows that have bedevilled northern hemisphere rugby, especially in England, and credit must go to the organisations involved for managing that relationship, or least keeping any disputes behind closed doors.

"There is no suggestion that Polota-Nau is playing injured but his immense worth to the Waratahs, and his own determination to play on through pain, at least create the possibility that what is good for the Waratahs might not be good for the Wallabies. Coincidentally, the debate about overplaying Victor Matfield has also begun in South Africa."

Don't take the party out of Party Central

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2011

A New Zealand Herald editorial hopes that fans' needs are not over-looked at Queens Wharf in Auckland.

"With cruise ships at Queens Wharf and its Shed 10 refurbished, the basic elements for a good time will be there. New Zealanders, as they have shown at events overseas, rather like a rustic old barn with minimum comforts for their social base. If the heavily timbered wharf shed is weather-proofed and equipped with big screens, bars for the provision of beer, wine, snack food and good coffee, it's probably all rugby fans will need in September and October.

"...It might work, it might not, but Queens Wharf is a big place and the World Cup is only five months away. It's too late to be quibbling about design features.

"The time remaining must be used to ready the wharf for the various ways it will be used and trust that its prime purpose cannot be compromised. The party must remain central to all that occurs at Party Central."

Famous try lives again as art

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2011

A bronze sculpture of All Black great Michael Jones has been given the go-ahead for Eden Park - but its subject may be too shy to have a close-up look. The New Zealand Herald's Isaac Davison reports.

"The 1.5 scale statue, constructed by fine arts graduate Natalie Stamilla, has finally been confirmed for the Rugby World Cup's base.

"It captures one of the most famous images in the tournament's history - Jones diving across the try-line against Italy in the 1987 Cup. Jones said he was completely humbled by a statue in his likeness.

"I might be avoiding that particular entrance to the stadium," he joked. "It's very flattering. But it's not so much a statue depicting me, it symbolises the first World Cup and the first try - it embodies everything that was wonderful about the 87 team.

"I could think of several other images which are just as important."

Wales are slow and cumbersome

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2011

Robert Jones has aimed a no-holds barred broadside at Wales and urged Warren Gatland to come up with new tactics or risk World Cup humiliation. The Western Mail's Andy Howell reports.

"But Jones warned that unless Gatland bins the structured approach he insists upon adopting, Wales will continue to under-achieve after their bleak fourth place finish in the Six Nations.

“Looking ahead to the World Cup, I’m not optimistic. Getting to the semis is the target, but getting through our group will be a major hurdle,” said a concerned Jones.

"The man who was a Test winner with the Lions in Australia in 1989 was hugely critical of Wales’ Six Nations campaign.

“Before the Six Nations, we would probably have been happy with three wins out of five, but it’s not just about the results,” said Jones. “It’s about performance and we never got going. We only played well in patches and the worst game of the lot was against France, when we hardly looked like creating anything."

Blair quits pro rugby for teaching

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2011

The Scotsman's David Ferguson talks to Edinburgh's David Blair following his decision to quit the pro game.

"It is easy to state that Blair simply did not cut it in pro rugby, and few Edinburgh supporters may curse his departure, hoping, of course, that a better stand-off takes his place. But Blair is not the only one wondering "what if". What if he had not been cruelly kneed in the back after just taking over from Sale's injured fly-half Charlie Hodgson four years ago, and enjoyed a lengthy run in the hard school of the English Premiership?

"What if he had not ripped part of his hand open when he was starting before Phil Godman at Edinburgh a year later, and instead ended up spending months in rehab? Blair, arguably the least cocksure of Edinburgh's trio of Blair brothers, does not imagine he would have metamorphosed into Dan Carter had those opportunities not been lost, but he does wonder what kind of player he may have been with that exposure."

200 not out for Terblanche

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2011

Sport24 reports that Stefan Terblanche is set to become the first player in the history of Sharks and Natal rugby to represent his province in 200 games.

"Since making his debut in South African rugby for Boland in 1994, the man who hails from Swellendam has played an incredible 400 first class games.

"This includes 37 tests for the Springboks, 87 for Welsh side Ospreys, two for the SA under-21 team, another four midweek games for the Boks, three for the Barbarians, 67 for Boland, and now 112 Super Rugby matches for the Sharks and 87 Currie Cup games for the KwaZulu-Natal side.

"The 400 games that Terblanche has played in South African rugby is almost 50 more than Ollie le Roux’s 357 in second place.

"Terblanche broke the long-standing record of Hugh Reece-Edwards and Steve Atherton (both 165) playing for the Sharks.

"His recipe of still leading his side by example at 35 years of age is a mixture of luck, hard work and intelligence."

April 6, 2011

Contingency plan

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/06/2011

Paul O’Connell’s latest injury setback is deeply worrying for Ireland’s World Cup aspirations, so what are the options if the unthinkable happens and Declan Kidney’s forward colossus is ruled out? Hugh Farrelly of the Irish Independent looks at the alternatives.

"When Paul O'Connell was being helped off the pitch after 46 minutes of Munster's pulsating victory over Leinster last weekend, the cameras cut to the crowd and those pictures carried their own narrative.

"A group of supporters gazed upon the scene, their faces a study of concern, and the fact they were wearing Leinster jerseys emphasised the gravity of the situation. In the midst of the latest compelling contest between two of world rugby's greatest rivals, tribal bias was subsumed by national concern in the face of O'Connell's distress.

"He is that important."

April 5, 2011

The big one

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/05/2011

Is Munster v Leinster the biggest club game of them all? © Getty Images

Tony Ward argues that Munster v Leinster is now the biggest club fixture of them all in The Irish Independent.

"The clock was turned back at Thomond Park on Saturday night as Munster and Leinster produced a match of passion in what is now the biggest club fixture in world rugby.

"It would be too simplistic to suggest the half-time interval turned this game around -- but it certainly had a major effect.

"So clinically efficient were Leinster in the first half that the last thing they needed was a break. With the score 20-9, the feeling was of Europe's form team being home and hosed, irrespective of the temporary halt to their gallop. By contrast, Munster couldn't get into the dressing-room quickly enough to regroup, reassess and reinvent themselves. And how."

Tribalism and colour

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/05/2011

Mick Cleary digs out the differences between the Heineken Cup and Super Rugby one last time in The Daily Telegraph.

"Super rugby is sport as entertainment, a high-tempo exhibition of skill played out before a predominantly home-grown audience. Heineken Cup rugby in the knockout stages is a different experience: the seething, raucous backdrop is invariably an element in the drama of the day. Confronting the opposition is the prime task. But taking on the crowd is very much part of the challenge, too.

"Ah, but is the rugby any good? An interesting question, although it should be no surprise that the top three ranked countries in the world, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, produce a better overall quality of rugby. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Super rugby can serve up duds, too. Would Crusaders or the Bulls beat Toulouse or Munster? Tight call, that one, but probably, yes."

Rugby's lesson for football

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/05/2011

Robert Kitson previews the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and comes over all misty-eyed in The Guardian.

"If there was ever a week to persuade neutrals that rugby union is a more satisfying sport than football this is it. The Heineken Cup quarter-finals will spread the gospel to previously uncharted territory from Barcelona to Milton Keynes, offering as vibrant and enthralling a spectacle as European rugby can deliver. Even the Six Nations, in all its traditional glory, cannot provide quite the same kaleidescopic range of backdrops.

"Will Leinster v Leicester be as good an occasion as Ireland v England in the same stadium last month? You would be unwise to bet against it. Perpignan v Toulon in the Catalan capital of Barcelona? Atmosphere-wise, it will make the Stade de France feel like a wet Sunday evening in Lowestoft. Even the Amlin Challenge Cup, once a decidedly second-tier competition, will serve up four games with a genuine edge.

"A better matchday experience than football? It is, naturally, a subjective debate with strong arguments for and against. To disciples of either sport it is like comparing the relative merits of cats and dogs. Minds tend to be made up early and habits duly formed."

April 4, 2011

A clash of styles

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/04/2011

The Bulls were able to smother the Hurricanes © Getty Images

Wynne Gray ponders the respective World Cup styles of the All Blacks and Springboks after the Bulls' win over the Hurricanes in The New Zealand Herald.

"Fast forward to October. The All Blacks want to play a fast-paced, ball-in-hand style of rugby at the World Cup.

"The Springboks will favour muscular confrontation and an aerial bombardment if they adhere to recent comments from coach Peter de Villiers, who wondered why his side should vary much from the attritional, combative style the Springboks had used with success in annexing two World Cups.

"Late-night kickoffs, greasy conditions, rugby under increased sudden-death pressure and lights - they are conditions favouring a kicking game unless your interplay is spot-on."

Try this for size

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/04/2011

Greg Growden brings up the idea of widening the field in order to increase the number of tries scored in The Sydney Morning Herald.

"When Manly rugby league coach Des Hasler last week suggested extending the size of the field as a way to cut down injuries, some thought he had misread his calendar and believed it was April Fools' Day. But Hasler was serious, explaining that by widening the field, ''there is more space to run into so the hits are less''.

"In the rah-rah world, the idea of making the field bigger has cropped up now and again as a way to make the game more conducive to try scoring. As rugby has two more players than league, space is compressed, defences are more cluttered, and getting over the opposition line supposedly harder.

"This has prompted calls for fewer rugby players on the field. That's not going to happen, so the next best idea is pushing the sidelines out a few metres. Usually in World Cup years, this idea gathers momentum, as teams go safety-first and focus on their defences. Already after seven rounds of the Super Rugby season, statistics suggest tries are harder to come by."

The big one

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/04/2011

David Kelly examines the wreckage after Munster's supercharged Magners League win over Leinster in The Irish Independent.

"Something for everyone in a Thomond theatre charged with electricity. The Magners League's superlative clash thus far allowed Munster to exorcise some pressing local issues of concern, while also enabling them to set their sights on foreign fields with renewed confidence.

"Leinster pointed their noses towards north, armed with a coach-load of regret having produced their best 40 minutes of rugby before crumbling beneath a ceaseless red tide inflamed by passion and desire.

"Joe Schmidt's measured tones masked a fury that will not have escaped Leicester as they plot a Heineken Cup away-day upset next weekend; Leinster have a week to apply some make-up to the second-half blotches and not a moment can be wasted."

A different type of contest

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/04/2011

Brian Moore offers his thoughts on the difference between Super Rugby and Test matches in The Daily Telegraph.

"It is correct that the game was one of the best examples recently seen at Twickenham of teams, particularly the Crusaders, giving an exhibition of running rugby, sleight of hand and the basics of running and support play. However, the automatic assertion that this is how the Tri-Nations teams play is wrong and any proper and disinterested comparison of the facts shows this.

"Unfortunately, anyone who has the temerity to point this out runs the risk of being denounced by rugby’s thought police. It is rugby’s equivalent of questioning whether Arsenal might temper their manager’s quest to play perfect football by occasionally being pragmatic and shooting at goal.

"During the said game, and in countless games in the Super 15 in this and previous seasons, teams are determined to commit the fewest number of defensive players possible to the breakdown. On Sunday last week, the defending team had two or fewer players in the vast majority of rucks and on several occasions had none, because the lone tackler himself got to his feet and then defended further out. If this sounds fanciful, watch the replays properly."

April 3, 2011

Feeling the heat

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/03/2011

Auckland's Daniel Braid is in danger of being left out of New Zealand's World Cup squad © Getty Images

Writing in the New Zealand Herald, Gregor Paul analyses which current All Blacks are most at risk of missing out on inclusion in the squad for this year's World Cup.

"There is a special kind of agony felt by those who get so close. The pain of being an All Black regular, a virtual World Cup certainty, then coming up short carries an element of humiliation. To be dumped two years out hurts. To be dumped two weeks out hurts much more.

"There will be more men than usual feeling that unique pain this year as several players, regularly involved with the All Blacks last year, won't be this year. Of the men who toured the UK in November, Daniel Braid, Joe Rokocoko, John Afoa, Alby Mathewson, Tom Donnelly, Liam Messam and Cory Jane are the most vulnerable."

Leicester's and Leinster's Heineken meeting is a delicious prospect

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/03/2011

Eddie Butler of The Guardian looks ahead to Leinster's mouth-watering Heineken Cup showdown with the Leicester Tigers.

"It is certain that neither Leinster nor Leicester will have lingered for a second longer than it takes to utter a brief phrase of praise or consolation to their international players in the wake of what happened on the final Saturday of the Six Nations, when Ireland upset England's grand slam pretensions and there began a public inquiry into what this meant for victor and loser with regard to the World Cup. For in Dublin and at Welford Road province and club had to get on with the business of completing the remaining weeks of the season.

"Leinster, for example, had to prepare for Saturday's meeting with Munster in the Magners League, a fixture that, even if there were only a bag of dog biscuits for a prize, would still demand the full concentration of its participants. The result: victory by a point for Munster. The rivalry among the provinces of Ireland is one reason why their rugby as a collective continues to prosper.

"And the strength of Leicester is one big reason why England found themselves in a position to challenge for the grand slam in the first place. With Toby Flood scoring 22 points and Ben Youngs and Dan Cole also back in their club team, Leicester registered their biggest victory at Bath in 96 years a week after England lost to Ireland."

Nick hits wall but proves he is Rock hard

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/03/2011

In his regular column in The Independent David Flatman salutes the bravery of Bath fullback Nick Abendanon in last weekend's clash with Leicester Tigers.

"Now, just for the benefit of those who did not see Bath's match against Leicester last week, Nick was smashed more times than I have ever seen anyone smashed in one game before. And what makes it even worse is that the blokes smashing him seemed invariably to be called Tuilagi. When the younger brother, Manu, hit Nick for the first time, the whole game stopped; we expected the grim reaper to appear in his cloak and offer to take him home. But no, Nick popped up right as rain and got on with it. Then again. And again.

"In the end, Abendanon was substituted for his own safety. We had underperformed and the game was lost, so to risk such an important player was deemed unnecessary. When he made it to the bench, his condition was probably best described as foggy. He wanted to stay out there, to right the wrongs and to have another crack at them but then he also called me Belly (the ultimate insult; I let it slip on medical grounds), so I think the doctor did the right thing. There was nothing illegal going on out there, just a bunch of massive blokes getting it right in the tackle.

"What struck me, though, was just how resilient Nick was in the face of such physical dominance. He did not, for one second, consider bottling a ball carry and opting to kick. Instead he got up, got his hands back on the ball and managed to break the line more than once."

In a business you don't dread anything if you plan properly

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/03/2011

After writing a controversial article on the state of Munster rugby in January, Brendan Fanning of the Sunday Independent decides to talk to chief executive Garett Fitzgerald to see where the province is headed.

"BF: There is a perception - perhaps outside Munster - that the organisation got lazy in the good times and are not equipped for a downturn. Is this fair?

"GF: I think it's a harsh criticism and it was written in your article a few weeks ago. I accept though that you based that charge on information coming from within Munster. If you work with Tony McGahan and Paul O'Connell, you certainly don't get lazy because they are two extremely driven men. They have a huge work ethic and demand high standards. We have a very hard-working staff who are focused on achieving what is best for Munster.

"I think at times, small as the island is, the comparisons that are made are not always fair given the geography and demographics involved. Look at Dublin with a population of one-point-something million. As the game has developed in Ireland, Leinster have done well but their whole academy and development is going to be different given the volume of people they have. We haven't changed anything we've been doing over the years but I think that given the success Leinster have enjoyed over the past number of years, what should have been more obvious then is obvious now, given the numbers."

April 2, 2011

Rugby is no laughing matter

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/02/2011

Harlequins prop Joe Marler has brought some colour to this season's Aviva Premiership © Getty Images

Colourful Harlequins prop Joe Marler insists rugby is no laughing matter - he talks to The Guardian's Rob Kitson.

"When people meet Joe Marler they generally form an opinion before they shake his hand. With his salmon-pink mohawk resting on a slab of cranial granite, he does not exactly blend into the background. The big prop is too young to remember Mad Max 2, the Australian road warrior movie released 30 years ago, but he is a dead ringer for Wez, the mad leather-clad biker intent on slaughtering Mel Gibson.

"It is a look that turns heads, particularly as the designs on his scalp keep changing. By the time Leicester arrive at The Stoop on Saturday for the defining game of Harlequins' season to date, the 20-year-old Marler plans to have reinvented himself again. The bullocking loosehead from Sussex returned to Bexhill-on-Sea on Wednesday for another stint in the salon and is keen to look smart for the visit of Martin Castrogiovanni, the famously hirsute Italian. "He's got great hair, fair play to him," Marler says approvingly. You would never have caught Gareth Chilcott admiring a rival's pre-match coiffure.

"To dismiss Marler as a mere poseur would be a serious mistake. There is a distinctive hard edge to go with the physical attributes that prompted his director of rugby, Conor O'Shea, to describe him this week as "a very, very special player". He may well become a globally recognised talent between now and 2015 but, as his club are finding, he intends to make that journey on his own terms."

Schmidt's troops can hit Munster for six

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/02/2011

The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly previews the Magners League showdown between Irish rivals Munster and Leinster.

"Tonight's task is followed swiftly by their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leicester and then another tricky game against Ulster. If those results go against Joe Schmidt's side, they could suddenly find themselves out of Europe and under severe pressure to secure a league play-off.

"Thus, the powerful desire to kick-off this sequence of games in the right manner. And there are individual motivations also. Leo Cullen captains the side and goes up against the Munster pairing that relegated his Six Nations involvement to brief cameo status when his form going into the championship suggested a more meaningful role.

"Kevin McLaughlin is at blindside flanker and will be keen to prove his full return to form and fitness for Ireland coach Declan Kidney as well as the lineout skills that could have earned him a place on the Six Nations bench ahead of Munster's Denis Leamy.

"His counterpart Donnacha Ryan gets the nod ahead of Leamy to counter that aerial threat and is another who will be eager to keep his name in Kidney's mind ahead of the World Cup.

"The scrum-half situation is particularly intriguing. Eoin Reddan and Peter Stringer ended the Six Nations as Ireland's top two No 9s but neither gets a start this evening. Isaac Boss gets the nod for Leinster, which is consistent with Schmidt's rotation policy, employing the bigger Boss for away matches and most physical tests, and there is every chance Reddan will start against Leicester."

Why Adam Ashley-Cooper left the Brumbies

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/02/2011

The Sydney Morning Herald's Chris Dutton reveals why Wallabies star Adam Ashley-Cooper swapped the Brumbies for the Waratahs.

"Matt Giteau reckons the changes in Adam Ashley-Cooper are as simple as the clothes he wears and ''that strange fringe he's growing''.

"But they go so much deeper than that. For the past two months, Ashley-Cooper has been a man conflicted. He was forced to choose between loyalty and love.

"Would he decide to remain with the Brumbies or end his time in Canberra to be with his partner and family in Sydney?

"Deep down he knew long ago that he was saying goodbye to the Brumbies, but he put his announcement off as long as possible.

"Why? Because Ashley-Cooper is no longer the starstruck kid who burst on to the scene seven years ago. He has new priorities and a new outlook on life."

Atwood looking to England

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/02/2011

Disgraced Dave Attwood hopes England will still come calling after ban for stamping - the Daily Telegraph reports.

"Attwood has had plenty on which to reflect, notably the fallout from a stamping incident in December against La Rochelle that led to a nine-week suspension.

"In its wake came demotion from the England senior squad, putting in jeopardy an international career that had barely begun.

"It had all looked so rosy: a summer tour to Australia last season, two caps from the bench in November and promise of things to come.

"And now? The World Cup is a remote prospect, all the more so given that Attwood is struggling to even get a start with Gloucester. He has managed 86 minutes playing time since the New Year.

"On Saturday afternoon he again has to make do with a place on the bench against Newcastle."

Pro teams need more clout

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/02/2011

Ahead of the forthcoming performance review to be conducted by Scottish Rugby, The Scotsman's Allan Massie offers his views on where things are going wrong at an international and club level.

"Edinburgh and Glasgow need to be bolstered by the recruitment of a couple of battle-hardened players each from the southern hemisphere. All their rivals have such players. Ulster's Springbok star Rudi Pienaar beat Glasgow almost by himself last week. The time when Edinburgh came closest to matching the best was when they had Todd Blackadder and Brendan Laney in their team. Somehow the SRU must find the cash to secure comparable recruits. Aren't there businesses or rich individuals who might be ready to pay for them?

"Without money there will be no consistent success. Occasionally big matches will be won, but defeat will be more common. Success in professional team sports generally goes to the big and rich battalions. The two teams at the bottom of this season's French top 14 - La Rochelle and Bourgoin - are the two with the smallest budgets."

Super 15 dynamos raise the bar

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/02/2011

Writing in The Independent, Brian Ashton reflects on the impression left by the recent Super Rugby clash at Twickenham.

"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Where do the die-hard critics of Super 15 rugby go now, following the fast-flowing splendour of the Crusaders-Sharks game at Twickenham last Sunday? I spent some time at the annual National Schools Sevens tournament this week and bumped into no end of people – from Joe Public on the one hand to international coaches and players on the other – who had been blown away by the standard of play produced by Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and the rest of the southern hemisphere cast.

"The question posed by those still to be convinced by the kind of spectacle produced by the New Zealand and South African franchises is a basic one: is it real rugby? There is no doubt that Super 15 has an element of "entertainment" built into it, but whether this is necessarily a bad thing is open to debate. You might argue that in the professional age, when people pay good money to watch live sport, "entertainment" should be obligatory. But leaving such philosophical discussions to one side, we can surely base a judgement on whether Super 15 is in any way artificial on the evidence of our own eyes, and I have to say that the heavy-duty scrummaging of the Crusaders tight forwards and the ferocity of the counter-rucking by both sides as they went in search of turnover ball looked pretty real to me."

April 1, 2011

Slade starts push for World Cup place

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/01/2011

Will Colin Slade be Dan Carter's deputy at this year's Rugby World Cup? © Getty Images

The New Zealand Herald's Dylan Clever reports as All Blacks hopeful Colin Slade prepares for his season bow.

"The Highlanders meet the Brumbies in Invercargill in a match between two franchises seemingly headed in different directions.

"The feature of the game will be the Super rugby debut of Colin Slade for the Highlanders. The first five-eighth broke his jaw in the opening pre-season hit-out against the Blues in Balclutha, Slade's first run in Highlanders' colours since making the shift south from the Crusaders.

"Since then Slade has been forced to eat meals straight from the blender while watching the likes of Lima Sopoaga, Robbie Robinson - prior to his late-night run-in with a can of pepper spray - and a blue-rinsed Tony Brown swan around at No10.

"It has been a frustrating time for the 23-year-old, who is hoping to push for the honour of being Dan Carter's back-up in the World Cup squad later this year, adding to the one cap he won as a replacement at Sydney during last year's Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cup.

"He can take some comfort in the knowledge that nobody has made any gains in his absence."

Still a huge amount to play for

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/01/2011

This season will be registered as a disappointing one because Munster were knocked out of the Heineken Cup. That’s the reality, as Anthony Foley tells the Irish Times Anthony Foley.

"While it must be difficult for the Munster fans to get their heads around not being in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time since 1998, making almost everything else this season seem a little anticlimactic, they still have a huge amount to play for.

"There are still home semi-finals to play for in both the Magners League and Challenge Cup (along with a home League final) and all the financial imperatives such big days entail, not to mention two trophies and further enhancing their status as one of the ERC’s top-tiered seeds. With the best winning ratio this season of any frontline team in Europe, most clubs would bite your hand off for such an “unfulfilled” season.

“And we all recognise that,” says Anthony Foley, “but unfortunately, we’re Munster and it will be registered as a disappointing season because we were knocked out of the Heineken Cup in the group stages and that’s the reality we deal with down here.

“But we’re in the professional game, we need to win games, there’s a big game this weekend and there’s a quarter-final that we need to win, for the financial impact it will have. But as players and coaches you win for your own selfish reasons. You want trophies. You want to win European trophies and your domestic league, and that’s where we’re at in our mindset.”

Scottish failure not down to funding - McKie

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/01/2011

The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports as Scottish Rugby announce a performance review - the first since 2007.

"Gordon McKie turned the spotlight firmly on the merits of professional rugby in Scotland yesterday, and insisted that he could only guarantee the future of Edinburgh and Glasgow up to 2014 unless changes resulted in success.

"The SRU chief executive insisted that to suggest there was no security for the teams beyond that date would be alarmist and sensationalist, but at no time in the media briefing held at Murrayfield did McKie offer the belief that the professional teams were a central tenet of Scottish rugby's future.

"What was clear in yesterday's briefing was that McKie and Scotland head coach Andy Robinson view the national team as the priority in Scottish rugby.

"It is into it that the rest of the game feeds, with the failure of the professional teams to compete with the best in the Magners League consistently, and qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter- finals, against teams with double, and in some leading European cases quadruple the funding Edinburgh and Glasgow receive, root causes of Scottish rugby's wider financial problems, such as disappointing crowds and struggles to secure broadcast and sponsorship revenue."

Joost's back... or is he?

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/01/2011

Sport24's Rob Houwing reports as former Springbok scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen makes a TV comeback following a much-publicised sex-tap scandal.

"The former Springbok scrum-half and (mostly Afrikaans-language) television rugby commentator and pundit got the boot from the Randburg-based organisation in 2009 after being at the centre of a “sex tape” scandal. He had been a long-time studio sidekick on the SuperRugby chat show to anchor Kobus Wiese, a colleague in the 1995 World Cup-winning Bok team.

"While not everyone’s cup of tea, he could be belligerently opinionated and was certainly capable of sharp analytical observations, especially in his mother tongue. But then his budding electronic media career went rather pear-shaped, for reasons mentioned above.

"Now, though, the 40-year-old is earmarked for a return to live activity in front of the cameras, albeit in a slightly different guise: he has been invited to be a key guest on the Matthew Pearce-anchored “Road to New Zealand” programme, part of the long-range build-up to the 2011 World Cup."

Wilhongi ban criticised as 'wholly unacceptable'

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/01/2011

The Independent's Chris Hewett reflects on the four-month ban handed to Sale prop Karena Wilhongi after failing a drugs test.

"At the beginning of the year, two Springboks – the wing Bjorn Basson and the hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle – were exonerated by a South African Rugby Union panel after testing positive for precisely the same substance. Indeed, the SARU chief executive, Jurie Roux, apologised to the players. "The banned stimulant was in a supplement given to the players in the warm-up before the Test against Ireland," he said at the time. "The product had been used by the Springboks before, without any adverse analytical findings. No responsibility attaches to the players."

"This case appears to have been strikingly similar, hence Hopley's allegation of inconsistency. Like the two South African players, Wihongi consumed a supplement sanctioned by a member of his team's medical staff, although bizarrely, he took only a swig during the half-time interval, having mistaken an energy drink for a bottle of water. The tribunal members decided he had "closed his mind" to the possibility that the bottle might have contained something rather different, although they admitted they had "some sympathy" for the player, saying that both the club and the product suppliers shared some of the responsibility."

Relegation no longer a devastating blow

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/01/2011

Writing in The Guardian, Wasps coach Shaun Edwards believes that relegation from the Premiership is no longer the crushing blow it may have been in the past.

"Once upon a time there were sceptics (and I may have been among them) who wondered about the wisdom of promotion and relegation. Those sceptics thought the thrills and spills of sides coming up to the Premiership or leaving it might have been more than offset by the harm such turmoil did to the foundations of professional rugby in England. It was easy to argue that without guarantees of long-term survival, clubs found it hard to build business plans to take to their backers or their bankers, along with plans to refurbish their old ground or build a new one.

"However, over the years clubs such as Harlequins have proved that a year out of the top flight is not necessarily a bad thing. There is no doubt that Harlequins today are very much stronger than the club that was relegated in 2005 and in case you had any lingering doubts about the value of promotion from the championship, along came Exeter this season to prove that an injection of new blood could do a lot to pep up the Premiership.

"From the first Saturday of the season, when they caught Gloucester napping and made the rest of us sit up and take notice, they have been one of the themes of the campaign. They pushed Leicester close at Welford Road before beating Saracens, Newcastle, Leeds and Sale, suggesting long before Christmas that they were here to stay and that those who had picked them out as relegation dead meat were very, very wrong. In short, they are already a success story."

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