A Poor Quality Six Nations in World Cup Year

The Six Nations may be the jewel in the crown of the Northern Hemisphere rugby season with all of the history and rivalry it entails, but some of the matches played so far this season have been dour, with skills and spatial awareness at times sparse or even completely absent.

Last weekend’s European derby in Rome was a real fast-forward-frenzy, perfectly formed for the Sky+ era with only about 5 minutes of play worth enduring at normal speed.  Forget the thrills; this was all about the spills as players from both teams juggled the ball like inexperienced clowns, time and again allowing it to fall to the deck.  What a depressingly poor quality match, and a terrible advert for the tournament as a whole.  Indeed, all of the French matches have been pretty dire thus far, and a far cry from the resplendent offloads and mazy running lines of days gone by.

Even when angles are cut and half-breaks made, try scoring opportunities are squandered and opportunities go to waste.  England has the most creative backline in the Championship and created several gilt edged chances against Scotland but failed to complete the job time and again.  In Cardiff, Wales defended heroically on their own line but the Irish must have been wearing Gold Cup blinkers as they pummeled away around the fringes and spurned countless men over on the wide outside.  As good as the result was for Wales, and as enjoyable as the tight games may have been for the fans, realistically one has to say that the lack of composure and clinical finishing does not bode well for the forthcoming World Cup.

Contrast the game in the North to the rugby in the Southern Hemisphere.  The Super 15 season is not long underway and the games are electric, the offloads come thick and fast and there is a much bigger emphasis on attack.  That isn’t to say that defensive duties are neglected, in fact far from it.  There are some bone crunching hits, well won turnovers and solid counter-rucks, but teams aren’t wasting time grappling on the floor to slow opposition possession, or simply trying to win a long-winded territory battle with the boot.  Instead, they concentrate on handling skills and working hard to break down defences with deft running lines, neat offloads and intelligent support play.  Fitness levels in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa must be immense; players are working so hard with and without the ball for 80 minutes, providing an enthralling spectacle week in, week out.  Come the World Cup in October, when the cream has risen to the top and players have been in International training camps for a few weeks, these teams could prove unplayable for the Northern Hemisphere outfits that seem to be playing at a far slower pace.

That isn’t to say there have been no rays of light in this year’s Six Nations, as the emergence of some new players onto international the scene have been a revelation.  The Italian lock Biagi, France’s Scott Spedding and La Rochelle Number 8 Goujon as well as a trio of centres from England, Ireland and Scotland – Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw and Mark Bennett have all proved their worth, with the Bath centre in particular taking his creative club form straight onto the Six Nations stage.  But what I’ve felt has really been missing is the intent from teams to go for the jugular and kill off the opposition with heavy scores.  Perhaps this is something a bonus point structure could address?  After all, the 6 Nations is now the only annual rugby tournament still not using points-scoring incentives of any kind.  Maybe now is the right time to break with tradition and introduce bonus points to improve the spectacle and encourage teams to play with a more attacking mind-set?  This year’s table might well look the same if bonus points were accounted for, but that simply reinforces the belief that no-one is really playing with enough ambition or desire to score more tries than they absolutely require to win.  Who knows just how the results could have been impacted had the extra point incentives been in play?

Overall, this year’s Six Nations has been rather disappointing and lacking a certain “je ne sais quoi”, as maybe teams have a bigger prize in mind and one eye on the World Cup in the autumn.  For all the excitement and importance placed on the final table at the end of this Saturday’s games, perhaps though we should be wary about proclamations and predictions of who will do what when the tournament kicks off in September.  Last Saturday, Wales did do well to beat a tough Irish team, and England did show they could make a break or two, but each and every team in this year’s Six Nations will have to reduce their error count significantly if they have great aspirations later on this year.  Come to think of it, perhaps the French have developed a cunning plan to get all of their mistakes cleared out of the way before the tournament gets underway in September…..

The Clairvoyance of IWRTV

When I co-founded IWRTV a little over a year ago, the landscape of Welsh rugby was bleak, perhaps as bleak as it had ever been.  Many words have been written about this period of Welsh rugby by amateur bloggers and the disastrous state the game was in and how it got there.  IWRTV was however, in my opinion, a little different.  We gave a voice to the grassroots clubs in a format they had not benefitted from for some time, and used experienced panel members to articulate their views on the problems in and around rugby in Wales.  Given the independent nature of the programme, we were able to freely and openly discuss these, and almost immediately the audience was captivated and complimentary.  What transpired over the course of the shows was, in retrospect, quite clairvoyant in how the situation was assessed and solutions suggested to overcome the problems.  Looking back over them now with hindsight, it is pleasing to think how we played our part in events of the last year, even once we had stopped broadcasting.

In episode one, Ben Jeffreys lamented the league structure and spoke about how the grassroots clubs were being ignored, a theme that carried through pretty much every subsequent show thereafter.  I joined with other panellists voicing concerns about how the new leagues, initially imposed with very little consultation or empathy for the clubs and their supporters, was leading to a feeling of resentment and would cause a larger problem sooner or later.  And so it transpired, with the EGM call largely set-up on the back of league restructuring issues.  In June, the clubs were by and large placated with reassurances of consultation, but the wheels of change had been set in motion.

Stephen Jones, of the Sunday Times, spoke of the need to market the game better at the lower level and bemoaned the missed opportunities to promote the sport.  Elsewhere, we were praised by club secretaries and regional Chief Executives for exposing the lower echelons to a wider public, showing off the talents of amateur players and generating interest for commercial partners at clubs, who in turn could benefit from greater revenue.  Although we were effectively “shut down” and stopped from showing the games, it was pretty obvious that interest within the clubs had stirred and they had begun to question why they too couldn’t enjoy some kind of coverage of this sort.

David Moffett had of course re-entered the fray and made key points about the WRU finances.  Again IWRTV took the lead with an exclusive interview, asking insightful questions and ensuring club members could hear all sides of the debate and make a balanced judgement.  Whilst others chose to overlook many of his actions and neglected to interview him directly, IWRTV preferred to retain an entirely open stance, although sadly our invitations to the WRU to join us on the show were refused on more than one occasion.

Our final episode lasted a full hour, even without footage, and proved the most profound of all.  Gareth Davies, still CEO of the Newport Gwent Dragons at the time, predicted that until a positive relationship could be found between the regions and the Union, arguments would perpetuate.  In typically robust fashion, Spike Watkins proclaimed Roger Lewis to be the sticking point and maintained that progress would not be made without his removal and a change in the Chairman of the Union.  Within months of the programme being broadcast, Gareth Davies had succeeded David Pickering, and soon after Lewis announced his resignation as CEO.  The tide had turned in the manner IWRTV had predicted in its short six month lifespan.

One prediction though remains outstanding, and that concerns the more distant future and the fate of Welsh rugby over the next 5 years.  Peter Jackson and Andrew Hore both echoed my own comments that the decisions made right now may not be felt today, but in years to come.  Hore went on to state that the legacy of the board can in fact only be judged at that time, and not in the immediate aftermath.  So for all of the current trumpeting in certain quarters, perhaps we should be mindful that Welsh rugby could be on the precipice for a few seasons yet to come.

Maybe one day IWRTV can make a comeback and hopefully continue to fill the vacuum in publicity for those grassroots clubs that so need our support, one can only hope.  For all of us who participated in the show however, it was an unmitigated success, moving the debate along and foreseeing the future.  The path may have seemed obvious to most, even without a crystal ball, but without the courage to speak and the platform to publicise, it is quite feasible that these developments could have remained simply pipe dreams.

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.

Why I’m Supporting #StayStrongForOws

First posted on this fund raising blog on 8th February 2015.

I admired Owen Williams’ talent as a player as I watched him develop through the ranks.  He has an old head on young shoulders and his brutish physical stature belied the deft touches and finesse of his game.  He was an all-rounder, and, so I’m told, a very grounded and level headed person to be around.  He had already pulled on the red shirt of Wales and looked immediately comfortable, like he belonged.  Many more caps were surely to follow.

What happened to Owen in Singapore was truly awful.  It was no-one’s fault, a freak accident, but one with devastating consequences for Owen himself of course, and for his family.  His rugby career was ended in one split second but his battles are still only at their beginning.  Every day he inches along the road to recovery, with the support of a close-knit family, his community club at Aberdare and of course his region, Cardiff Blues.  Owen’s situation resonates with every player who has ever played the game, and with every partner, parent or sibling who has watched.  The sport is one we deeply love, but one in which there are risks that we accept as we cross the whitewash.  Rugby brings people together, and those bonds are being demonstrated across the World as the rugby community joins together to support Owen in his recovery.

Gareth works for me in my Sport Business.  He had been providing me with consultative support for about four months when he mentioned the challenges he was hoping to undertake in 2015 and asked for my help.  Whilst I admire his determination and ambition, I couldn’t help but think he might have bitten off more than he could chew!  How many marathons had he done previously?  None, yet here was he telling me he would be running in Paris!  And more importantly, how many triathlons had he competed in?  Again, none!  But he planned to jump in at the deep end and sign up for Ironman Wales in Tenby!

I offered to support Gareth and we discussed raising money for a worthwhile cause.  Having been involved in rugby all my life and particularly spending many hours mentoring and nurturing younger players, just like Owen, I was passionate that his was the cause we should be donating to.  Gareth agreed wholeheartedly and approached Cardiff Blues for their blessing, which we duly received last week.  We have set an ambitious, but achievable target of £5,000 for the year, although of course we hope to raise more for Owen if we possibly can!

Gareth will also be joining the Cardiff Blues cycle ride to Paris in June if we can raise enough money (£2,000) in time, and of course his training will continue for the next seven and a half months.  Both of us will in the meantime be working tirelessly to promote his endeavours and spread the message, which will hopefully enable us to exceed our targets.

All I can say is this: if you can afford to give, even just a little, please help.  You can donate here.  If you know of anyone, or any company who can help publicise this fundraising effort, or make a donation, please contact us, or pass our details on.

Thank you all for your anticipated support.

PT

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 IRB Eligibility Criteria Conundrum

The recent wrestling with the IRB eligibility criteria is somewhat farcical, to say the least.  The current three-year residency regulation is being made a mockery of.  This is by no means a new development, but more and more often we see foreigners in the Northern Hemisphere leagues swapping allegiance to new countries and the Steffon Armitage situation really brought this to the top of the agenda.

It frustrates me to see players, often cast onto the reject pile by their country of birth, arriving on these shores for financial gain, subsequently gaining selection for their “new” nation and, worse still going on to represent the British and Irish Lions.  Players like Riki Flutey and Matt Stevens have all trodden this well-worn path in recent times and following the current trend will not be the last to do so.

None of the players who arrived in Wales during the “Grannygate” affair ever settled in the country afterwards, and the same was true of the ‘Kilted Kiwis’ in Scotland during the same era.  I believe if you play for a country you should live there, and more importantly, want to live there once your rugby career is over and not simply take the money and hot-foot it back to the warmer climes from whence you came.  I appreciate how difficult this is to enforce in practice, I just disagree with the spirit of the law and its liberal interpretation.  Clearly I understand the need to allow players such as Mako and Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau to represent England and Wales respectively.  After all, they are born and bred here and have real history in the UK.  And of course, circumstances do change and the door should not be forever closed to those who need to move for valid reasons.  I simply worry the system is beginning to be abused.

Where the line should be drawn is a real headache for the administrators, and how the law should be enforced another difficult question.  I just hope a workable solution can be found as the status quo is not a viable option in my opinion.