A Calamitous Climax in Murrayfield

After I described last week at the Millennium Stadium as a farce, I hardly expected to be trumped in the very next match, but how wrong I was!  A dramatic end to the game for sure, but the tension could, and should, have been ramped up yet another notch.  It was truly farcical how nobody knew whether the match had ended or whether there would be one last play once Scotland scored their try after battering away at the Welsh line!  At home we could all clearly see that seconds remained after Laidlaw’s conversion and that Wales should have restarted, yet on a difficult day for Glen Jackson, he opted to consult the TMO who duly gave him the wrong information!

How does Rugby Union, and in particular the Six Nations keep on doing this to itself?  The clock in the corner of the screen, generally seen around the grounds too, is meant to avoid this kind of problem, but it doesn’t.  The thrills and spills of a dramatic final play were allowed to proceed in 2010 where Wales showed impressive ball retention skills against a short-handed Scottish defence before Shane Williams dived under the posts to seal the result.  And who can forget the infamous “10 seconds” Chris White accorded to Wales in Rome in 2007 when James Hook quickly kicked to the corner in the hope of securing lineout possession and crossing the whitewash to win the game, spurning a kick at goal to draw.  As Wales prepared to throw, White proceeded to ask TMO Geoff Warren for a time check before blowing for full time, to the consternation and dismay of those in red.  The man with the whistle, as things currently stand, is the sole arbiter of the watch yet it seems as though on pitch officials are happy to defer to someone else when it comes to timekeeping.

On the same weekend as the missing seconds in Scotland, a similar overtime scenario played out in the Super 15 competition 6,000 miles away in South Africa.  As the Sharks chased a win against the Cheetahs in Durban, the ball was kicked into touch with the clock reading 79 minutes and 55 seconds.  Unlike in Murrayfield, the on-field referee Rohan Hoffmann – without needing to consult the TMO – clearly and correctly explained to the players that although the clock had turned red by the time the line-out had formed, there would in fact be time for a last play.  This duly took place with the final whistle eventually blown at 81.30.  In South Africa, unlike in Scotland, the officiating team did a great job and without any fuss, demonstrating the distance Super 15 officials are ahead in terms of organisation and decisiveness compared to their Northern Hemisphere counterparts.

Other sports, and in particular Rugby League must look at instances such as the one last Sunday and snigger.  They have adapted their game beyond compare over consecutive seasons, now stretching to TMO’s explaining decisions to the crowd, much like an NFL umpire in the USA.  In Rugby League, timing is clear, a hooter sounds when the time is up and no-one is under any illusions as to whether there will be a “next play”.  In Ice Hockey, there is a buzzer for the same reason and we have even seen hooters used in Southern Hemisphere Union games, so why not introduce it now to the Six Nations?  This is really the only sure-fire way to eliminate all element of doubt come the end of the match.

Having said that, it still requires a time-keeper with a diligent eye and precise hand to stop the clock at the right time and restart it again on the referee’s say-so.  Many sports manage this simply enough, so surely it would also prove a resounding success in the Six Nations as well, although you have to wonder given recent timekeeping history!  The viewing public seem more aware of the clock and the laws surrounding the end of the game than some of the officials who call time when there are seconds still to play.  Correctly and accurately implemented however, there is no reason to believe that the introduction of a league-style hooter would be anything other than a positive innovation, and one which referees like Glen Jackson would surely also welcome.

Thoughts On 6 Nations 2015.

The ground frost and snowfall are now synonymous with the beginning of February which also spells the start of the 6 Nations season, the jewel in the crown of Northern Hemisphere rugby.  The matches between old rivals stir a whole host of emotions in any rugby fan, and the capital cities of Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy become party grounds for a month and a half.  The rugby bandwagon draws in all walks of life, all ages and all genders and nothing, it seems, will ever stop it rolling.

Every fan has an opinion about their team, and the opposition.  Suddenly everyone is a coach, selecting and dropping players, talking tactics and tweeting wildly optimistic prognostics.  The first game of this years’ tournament is the traditionally brutal derby between two old enemies, perhaps the greatest of foes, Wales and England.

England has suffered from a multitude of injuries in the build-up to the game, but still possess a potent threat behind.  Surely Wales must be favourites for this clash, at home and with probably the most settled and consistent side in the championship.  Whilst a win is undoubtedly better than a loss, and sets down a marker for what is to come at Twickenham later in the year, the public should be wary about placing too much emphasis on this game and going overboard if the win is delivered.  England will be a different side in September, and whatever happens in Cardiff they will be very focussed on the game in the World Cup.  Both sides should be cautious about peaking too early, though both will be equally trying their hardest to get the “W”.

This 6 Nations may well throw up more than a couple of surprises.  Of course the French could be magic or tragic, they have the players available to go unbeaten but as always their attitude could be their undoing.  If Philippe Saint-André can galvanise his stars to pull together, who knows where they could end up.  Perhaps though, the dark horses this year could be Scotland.  They are an unfashionable side to back but with the relative success of the Glasgow team and now with Vern Cotter at the helm, they are beginning to get the best out of their comparatively limited resources.  They have some good youngsters coming through in Grey, Seymour, Bennett and Dunbar (although they surely would also have loved to have been able to select Strauss and Matawalu too!) and will be smarting from their 50-point beating in Cardiff last year.  They have a point to prove to themselves, and without any real pressure or expectation on their shoulders to do so.  They really could pose more than their fair share of problems this time out.

I’m sure no coach will be discounting Italy on the pitch, and nor should they be taken lightly.   They will niggle away and stay on your heels, ready to pounce when you are unaware, as Wales, Scotland and France know all too well.  But realistically, the other 5 teams have enough firepower in their armoury which, if used correctly, should take them out of range of the Azzurri.  Most people’s favourites for the tournament will of course be Ireland, coming off the back of a great autumn series and with consistently strong results for provinces in the Pro 12.  Whilst it is difficult to bet against them, they don’t necessarily instil the same confidence right now as they once did and are seemingly still in transition trying to get over the loss of their talisman O’Driscoll.  Will their new kid on the block Robbie Henshaw be the new star of the 6 Nations?  Will Sean O’Brien rediscover his pre-Lions form?  Has the Irish scrum got a tighthead? All questions that will ultimately make or break their campaign.

I suppose if I had to pick a winner right now, it would have to be Wales if they can get off to a good start on Friday.  Mostly though, I’m predicting a few surprises before “Super Saturday” on March 21st.

Reaction to Rhys Priestland’s Move

The appetite for Welsh fly-halves by English clubs is not a new phenomenon, though the signing of Scarlets product and Welsh International 10 Rhys Priestland by Bath last week, has once again brought the issue to the forefront of people’s minds.  Bath are a great club with good coaches and forward thinking plans to develop their stadium and possibly the best training facilities in England.  The move on the face of it is therefore a good one for Priestland, who will almost certainly have increased his salary substantially by crossing the bridge into a league with more interest and less financial constraint than the Pro12.  Equally, living in Cardiff won’t make his journey to his new workplace a particularly arduous one, and he is treading a well-worn path of Welsh players to the “axis” of English clubs along the border such as Bristol and Gloucester as well as Bath.

The attacking style of Bath is however is far more suited to the style of George Ford, who plays more in the “moment”, bringing the ball to the line and adjusting his game to play what he sees in front of him.  I’m not certain this is Priestland’s natural way of playing and whilst he is undoubtedly a talented young player, I worry that he could be spending a good deal of time warming the bench playing second fiddle to Ford and only getting a run in the shirt during international periods, or when his rival is injured.

And what of his international aspirations?  If he does indeed get less game time than he would have enjoyed at the Scarlets then certainly the move won’t have done him any favours, but neither will the introduction of the so-called “Gatland’s Law”, if indeed it is fully enforced, which I somewhat doubt.  So far this has only been spoken about as and when it suits those who would like it to be implemented.  Indeed, this “law” appears nothing but a smokescreen created by the local hacks with so many loopholes even the WRU CEO, during one recent TV interview, seemed unclear as to what the policy actually is.

Whilst the Scarlets will certainly recover from the loss of their talisman, as they did when Stephen Jones joined Montferrand in 2004, there is already some concern over who can replace Priestland straight away.  Yet the Scarlets have for years had Jordan Williams on their books, although they have persisted in playing him out of position at full-back and on the wing, and now questions are being asked of his ability to step into the regional 10 shirt on a regular basis.  To me this situation highlights deeper issues within the “modern” Welsh game.  Whereas once we were a nation known for placing our faith in a talented and unpredictable fly-half full of flair to drive the team forward with their innate ability, now we rely on reliable performers who can effectively implement the game plan currently “en vogue”.

Whether this is purely down to the National team employing a Southern Hemisphere coach, or a rather more profound problem is not exactly clear, however what is certain is that younger players are being overlooked before they have the chance to fully develop.  I often worry that coaches are spending too much time coaching the “why” of the game, rather than the “how”.  As a former player who has experience in this position, I always looked to plan several phases ahead trying to manipulate defences, in a similar way to the game is now played.  Back then the game was much different though in many ways, and the coaches mantra of “ball-retention” was yet to be invented.  However, where once basic skillsets and self-preservation were vital, now there is emphasis on power, ball-retention and getting over the gain-line.  Rugby has seemingly become a chess match at the top level, rather than allowing those gifted footballers and playmakers to use the space they see in front of them and do what comes most naturally.

Ironically, this is exactly how Bath play their game, and their current 10-12-13 axis could herald a change in the way England themselves play, if Stuart Lancaster chooses to select Ford, Joseph and Eastmond en bloc, although I sincerely doubt he will given his selections to date.  Whilst Priestland doesn’t obviously fit into this style, he certainly has the talent to work into the role.  However players like Jordan Williams and also Matthew Morgan who came through the Welsh Junior ranks should not be neglected, and instead must also be given the chance to thrive in teams with the same free-spirit and emphasis on flair as the West Country side.  They should be given the same opportunities as their English counterparts Owen Farrell and Ford himself, who both progressed through the English system at exactly the same time as Williams and Morgan, yet enjoy far more acclaim in their home country with starring roles on the International stage.

With Gareth Davies now at the helm of the Welsh Rugby Union, things will undoubtedly change and hopefully we can reverse the flow of talent out of the country.  Already though, as well as Priestland and Morgan, Owen Williams and James Hook are playing senior rugby in England, and there are also emerging talented youngsters like Callum Sheedy and Matthew Protheroe pursuing their own development over the border.  The last 5 or 6 years could prove catastrophic for Welsh rugby if we are not careful, but things can change quickly if we act now and stop the player drain.

For this to be successful however, perhaps we need to alter our own mindset in Wales, and move our focus back to the flair fly-halves we all admired in days gone by.  Let us start promoting players on their ability and giving the youngsters the chance to develop their talents before we discard them for being the wrong shape or size.  Let us nurture the playmakers in our game for they are the ones who can change our fortunes.  Whilst Rhys Priestland’s move is more than likely based on money and European aspirations, he will most probably also develop these very attributes in a free-flowing Bath side.

After watching three high quality Aviva Premiership games last weekend, between Bath and Wasps, Sale and Northampton, and Gloucester and Saracens, compared to some dour Pro12 fixtures at Swansea, Cardiff and Glasgow, one must conclude that Priestland is an outside half who has seen what is in front of him and made the right play.  Good luck to him in any case, and particularly to other fly-halves prepared to buck the trend and unleash their flair.

The Problems with the European Challenge Cup

In the jigsaw like Northern Hemisphere rugby season, the game has moved into the Autumn International window, although some top-level clubs and regions have continued into yet another competition (the LV Cup) whilst others take a break and Welsh grassroots clubs effectively close down.  It’s easy to forget the excitement, just a few weeks hence, of the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup, the successor to the Heineken Cup, this time managed directly by the clubs and regions involved.

But what a great start to the competition it had been, some ferocious games, unexpected results, superb performances on both an individual and team level and a hugely encouraging competition all round.  Although the disjointed nature of the fixture list doesn’t help with its momentum, I for one am looking forward to the next two rounds in December with eager anticipation

However whilst the top tier of the new cross border competition flourishes, the level just beneath is in real danger of becoming a pantomime farce.  The European Challenge Cup should be a meaningful competition with crowds watching exciting matches week in, week out, in the same manner as the Champions Cup, however that is not the case.  The Challenge Cup has been relegated to little more than a simple development competition by the absence of criteria to ensure the winner is automatically entered into the higher tier event in the subsequent season, something which did in fact take place in the former Heineken and Amlin Cup tournaments.

All that really is at stake now as a result of winning a season-long competition involving many miles travelling is prestige.  And realistically, when compared to the Top 14 in France, or the Aviva Premiership in England, surely no-one expects the Challenge Cup to represent the same value to clubs participating in these leagues?  That is why we see sides like Stade Français playing their second string in Europe and whilst the Dragons deserve high praise for their win in Paris, it is difficult to imagine the same outcome had they been competing against the home sides first choice lineup.

Having won the battle for control, this was an opportunity for the newly formed European Professional Club Rugby organisation to get things right immediately, and whilst for the most part they did, they have also made a calamitous and potentially damaging mistake.  With French sides already playing their “Espoir” teams even at this early stage of the competition, I would be severely worried that propaganda could soon emerge from the EPCR critics who lost the “war”, highlighting exactly this issue for their own personal gain.

Overall, the situation does seem somewhat bizarre.  After all the gripes over the qualifying formats, subsequent changes spiced up competitions like the Guinness Pro 12 and turned them into meaningful events, yet one of the results of these alterations has been a diluted second tier in Europe.  Quite why this was not considered at the outset seems a rather bizarre oversight, however this is not a difficult issue to resolve and the administrators should seriously be considering making this change sooner rather than later so all clubs competing in Europe, and their multitude of fans, understand that every game, whether in the Champions or the Challenge Cup, will have implications further down the road.

Analysis of the Home Nation Fly-Halves.

The Northern Hemisphere season is now well underway and players with international aspirations are vying for attention, hoping for a place in their respective squads ready for the Autumn International fixtures, which will be upon us before we even know it.  Naturally, I always take a keen interest in those competing for the number 10 jersey and always keep a particular eye on those who dream of wearing the coveted three feathers.In Wales, Daniel Biggar looks by far the most accomplished performer and has a real match winning temperament.  He is currently doing a sterling job leading his young Ospreys side, and kicking an extremely high percentage of his goals.  Behind him, the competition is much of a muchness, with no one player showing the consistency to pull ahead of the rest.  Rhys Priestland, James Hook, Rhys Patchell, Owen Williams, and Jason Tovey (who has again picked up an injury but is still yet to fulfil his huge potential), will soon find themselves under real pressure from the likes of Jordan Williams, Matthew Morgan and Angus O’Brien.  O’Brien has shown huge promise in pressure situations, for instance as a replacement against the Ospreys and will be one for the future.  Morgan is already in the selectors minds and simply needs a consistent run in the jersey, rather than being pushed to 15.  Jordan Williams is perhaps the most talented of the lot but is almost exclusively played out of his favoured position and asked to fill in at full-back or on the wing which will ultimately cost him his chance.Elsewhere in the British Isles, the situation is also evolving.  Scotland’s Duncan Weir seems to be settling into his role despite not looking like an archetypal fly-half and has really improved his game management in a good Glasgow Warriors side, undoubtedly nurtured by coach Gregor Townsend.  Ruaridh Jackson and Tom Heathcote have shown some good touches too, but neither was likely to threaten Weir for the starting spot this Autumn, even before Jackson’s unfortunate season ending injury just recently.  The Irish situation is almost similar, with Jonathan Sexton full of quality and a real shoo-in for the number ten berth with Paddy Jackson snapping at his heels.  Ian Madigan has all the attributes a fly-half requires and will soon pose a challenge.  However I really like the way Stuart Olding is developing and particularly admire his decision making capabilities.  My view is that his future could lie at outside half, or playing as a second receiver at 12.  Only time will tell.Contrasted to the other nations, England have almost an embarrassment of riches at 10 these days, with the likes of George Ford and Owen Farrell leading the way, closely followed by Stephen Myler, Danny Cipriani, Charlie Hodgson, Henry Slade, Toby Flood….and more.  Whereas in the past, English fly-halves were once openly criticised for not having a major controlling influence on the team, the boot is now on the other foot with even Wales looking outside their borders for quality 10’s and game-managing players.

Personally I’ve always rated Exeter’s Gareth Steenson.  Ever since he first came onto my radar playing for Ireland in the Junior World Cup in Scotland back in 2004 I could see he had the ability to run the game.  I’ve watched him play at the Cornish Pirates and Rotherham as well as Exeter and he is a real all-rounder at 10, displays great ability with the boot and shows outstanding attacking vision, particularly in his current position in the well-drilled Chiefs line-up.

Some might say Steenson lacks a touch of pace, but he more than makes up for that with reliability and quality game management.  He’s the sort of player you can put your life on who doesn’t give the opposition a chance.  All teams want a dependable man at fly-half – just look at the great New Zealand side of the late 80’s and early 90’s where Grant Fox was always chosen ahead of Stephen Bachop and Frano Botica for just the same reasons, despite the latter two winning the “popular vote”.So could there now be a place for Gareth Steenson, a 30-year old Irish player, who is now eligible for England?  Or is he just too old?  Has he arrived on the scene too late in the day?  Surely not.  In my view a player with enough ability to force a talent like Slade into the centre, capable of pulling the strings and with a steely determination to win is good enough to be in any side.Whoever Stuart Lancaster, Warren Gatland, Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt select need good game management skills, a cool temperament and the cunning and guile to unlock a defence, never an easy task these days.  As always, I’ll be watching with great interest.