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…..

#StayStrongForOws Grand Prize Draw

Fund raising is not something I am particularly used to doing personally.  If the truth be told, I find it quite difficult asking for money from others, not least because this seems to be a daily activity most of us will encounter already whether in the street, online or on TV.  However, this year I have made a commitment to do my best to raise funds for former Welsh International Owen Williams, as has my colleague Gareth who is participating in several sporting events, beginning with the Paris Marathon in just a few weeks’ time.

One of the ways we have hit upon to raise funds is to hold a prize draw for everyone who donates £10 (or multiple thereof).  To encourage entries, we needed to get some pretty spectacular prizes together and I think we have just about managed to do that!  Thanks to a few of my contacts over my playing and coaching career, I was able to put out a few calls and the response was amazing.  Not one person turned down my request when they heard who the money would be for, and this really epitomises the strength of feeling in the rugby community and the support for Owen and the whole #StayStrongForOws campaign.

Thanks to the Welsh players in Paris, and particularly to Luke Charteris, we are able to offer a signed Racing Metro jersey as a prize for one lucky winner.  This is a really special piece of memorabilia, and something which is would be almost unique in the UK.  This is a really big prize for someone to win and it alone should pique the interest of most rugby fans, and will hopefully encourage many to donate a tenner to such a worthwhile cause to have a chance of winning it.

PrizesSeparately, through contacts in Wales we have pairs of tickets to regional games, including one derby (Scarlets v Blues) available and one potentially decisive fixture at the Liberty Stadium between Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors in May.  I’ve also been provided with a signed Newport Gwent Dragons shirt and Gareth will be getting a signed #StayStrongForOws ball from the Cardiff Blues.

Naturally these prizes are great and hopefully will encourage more donations.  Whether you decide to donate to enter the prize draw, or in recognition of Gareth’s exploits, or both, you can rest assured that everybody who joins us in donating to Owen and his family will, I am certain, be winners in their eyes.  So please do give all you can, cross your fingers and hopefully you may win a prize.  Tell all your friends and family to enter too and let’s work together to generate a good amount to help Owen in his recovery.

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

The Friday Farce

Well, what a let down Friday was for a Welsh rugby fan!  The awful decision to hold the game on a Friday night was just the start of it.  And we already know it won’t be for the final time, with a Friday night fixture already announced for the next two championships, presumably at the behest of the broadcasters with the usual scant regard for what the paying supporters actually would prefer.

And what on earth was the “light show” before the match all about?  Added to the now obligatory fireworks and the comfortable salary afforded to the CEO of the Welsh Rugby Union, anyone would think Welsh rugby has more money than it knows what to do with but of course that simply isn’t the case!  Grassroots clubs must be livid when they see their own money literally being burned in front of their eyes, a lavish spectacle lasting a couple of minutes preferred to the investment in club rugby and nurturing young talent and the future generation of Welsh players.  And they would rightly be annoyed when they consider what the CEO takes home for organising discos such as this one.

What is wrong with the band and choral hymns of old?  If that isn’t enough of a spectacle, well what about asking youngsters to perform some traditional Welsh dances?  Or getting the Under 20’s or Ladies teams to play a curtain raiser on a newly laid part-artificial turf that should easily now stand up to two games in one day?  What we were left with was more pop concert than sport and meant a complete lack of respect for the anthems as large electrical units were wheeled from the pitch during their singing so as not to delay the kick off.  One can only imagine what was spent on this spectacle all together.

As for the game itself, the result was certainly not what was expected from a solid and settled Welsh side, at home.  For all the horseplay about the roof, England left with no reason to accede to Welsh requests to close it ever again.  After a good start, Welsh fragilities began to show.  A complete lack of creativity behind the scrum was exposed as Wales failed to unlock the English defence.  In fact, it is difficult to remember Wales’ last clean line break and score full stop.  England on the other hand settled down and destabilised the opposition with fast footed players.  Ford, Joseph, Watson and Brown regularly stepped and jinked past first tackles and attacked weak shoulders.

Again Wales seemed to have no plan “B”.  The most creative player in their squad, Liam Williams, was left kicking his heels on the bench having looked hungry for the 8 minutes in which he replaced George North.  He, and Justin Tipuric, had the ability to at least change the style of the home team’s play but were not required on the day, even as Wales sought a way back in the second half.

Recent matches have demonstrated the big differences in the development structure of the two countries.  England are bringing their Under 20’s stars through the ranks, playing them in their “A” side and affording them a step up from Premiership rugby.  When they perform well, like Henry Slade, they are then added to the senior squad.  England seem to value their own young and creative talent whereas in Wales we are currently confining them to bit part roles.  Creative players in Wales are presently far less popular than larger physical specimens.  What has happened to Welsh flair and creativity?  Since the retirement of Shane Williams the team has lacked an X Factor player and is in desperate need of at least two in the backline.

Indeed what a farce last Friday turned out to be for a Welshman!  The WRU though, was as proficient as always in creating a spectacle using smoke and shadows, as it did on the night.  Hopefully though it was the grassroots clubs who truly saw the light and will begin to force for the changes in regime that are desperately needed in order to save our national sport.

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.

Reaction to Election of Gareth Davies as WRU Chairman

What a difference a few weeks make!  Even in the rapidly evolving world of Welsh rugby, the seismic changes at the top of the game such as those felt at this particular time are extremely rare occurrences.  After the damp squib of the EGM in June, many who had called for change felt dejected, yet once the clubs had chosen to remove Chairman David Pickering in favour of Gareth Davies and Anthony Buchanan one could feel a shift in momentum was afoot. Now that Davies is the new Chairman, selected just days after joining the board, this can only mean that members are truly intent on root and branch reform, and those of us who have been pointing out this need for change for many months will feel these events vindicate our strong statements.  On the opposite side however, those who have supported the Union’s stance to the hilt to this point, must be shifting uneasily as they wonder how the chips will fall.Gareth Davies is a strong leader, a man of great business acumen and a rugby man through and through.  He is a true Welsh personality with striking linguistic skills and an endearing persona who called for change in both his role as Newport Gwent Dragons CEO and through the Regional Rugby Wales body, and now has the realistic potential to be the very catalyst for those changes that are so needed.  In being prepared to join me on one of my IWRTV shows in May, he demonstrated his commitment to grassroots rugby, his forward thinking and above all his openness to discussion, a trait which has so obviously been lacking from the Union in recent times.Through his use of Social Media he becomes one of very few in the Welsh Rugby Union to embrace new technology and to engage with the general public on the issues surrounding the game.  He has previously also used this platform to pronounce his views on the impotent Welsh media, stating that the only serious journalists are based in England.  Sadly I anticipate the sucking up to Gareth Davies will have started already in the Cardiff press, but I am equally quite certain that Gareth will not be drawn in by this pitiful façade and will expose it for what it is.  It will be interesting to see what alters now and whether non-mainstream media such as IWRTV, previously marginalised by the Union, will now be allowed to engage and assist with the promotion of the game, particularly at levels beneath the professional ranks.

Davies is a vociferous supporter of the grassroots of the game, understanding the importance of the junior levels in finding and nurturing the talent of the future having come through the ranks at Gwendraeth Grammar School and Tumble RFC himself.  Whilst the Union has unashamedly concentrated most of its efforts on the revenue-making higher echelons of the game, those beneath have suffered from the neglect.  Some clubs have withered and died, others have lost players and cut back on teams.  Many have become disillusioned with the lack of support from above, especially on issues relating to the league restructuring which contributed to the call for the EGM.  There are huge challenges at this level of our game, to restore the broken trust and to reverse the current trend dragging people away from the national sport of Wales, but these are challenges the new Chairman will tackle head on.

All of these matters will be however be played out in the first instance as sub-plots to the main event.  The icy relationship between WRU Chief Executive Roger Lewis and Gareth Davies has just taken a dramatic twist and the end is surely nigh for the former.  For all the recent on screen chummy chat, the months spent wrangling across negotiating tables or debating in television studios and all of the evasive smoke and mirrors, will not be forgotten.  In short time, the regions have taken control of Welsh rugby, helping set-up their own competition, augmenting their funding and placing their own man at the helm, even in the face of countless political games and PR stunts.  Now the tables have turned and the cosy Pickering-Lewis alliance has been broken, I see it as just a matter of time whilst the case builds and the noose tightens around Lewis’ neck.  I am anticipating a case of “separation by mutual consent” sooner rather than later.  And in my honest opinion, the sooner it happens the better.


Rugby Paper Release Published 21st September 2014

The coating of Teflon is starting to melt away from the top echelons of Welsh rugby. The charade played out in the Welsh media that the ruling parties could do no wrong came to an abrupt end last week with the deselection of Chairman David Pickering from the board of the Welsh Rugby Union.  Ever since 2009, during my tenure as Head Coach of the Gwent Dragons, I, and many others in similar positions to myself, felt that the Participation Agreement signed by the Welsh Regions at that time would leave the game in dire straits. My own prediction of major troubles over the following three to four years came true as events transpired. The Regions really only had themselves to blame for getting into this mess back then, but all credit to them for having the courage to stand up to the threats and posturing of the Union this time around. Despite those at the top of Welsh rugby threatening them with extinction, the Regions hung on to their principles and formed a close alliance with clubs in England, negotiating an ultimately favourable settlement on their own terms. Although the damage caused by the long-winded discussions will take time to repair – possibly many years, at least the Regions have assured their own future and can begin the healing process.I can’t pretend that last Friday’s result wasn’t a surprise to me, as it genuinely came as a shock to hear of Pickering’s downfall. Not because I didn’t feel he deserved to be replaced but because I worried the WRU had become an unstoppable force in Welsh rugby, and yet another opportunity for change would be lost, just as it had been at the EGM in June. I cannot express just how pleased I am to be proven wrong on this occasion, and how proud I personally am of the clubs who voted for this change. David Pickering had a made a rod for his own back in failing to stand up to a power-hungry CEO and the clubs have punished him for this. Now they expect the whole house to come tumbling down, and should not rest until Roger Lewis is gone. In every company the World over, the CEO is employed by and accountable to his board. In the case of the WRU this simply has not happened, although maybe things are about to change.Enough is enough, and despite assurances of “dignity” from a “listening Union” acting “for the good of Welsh rugby”, issues at all levels of the game have compounded one on top of another with no positive resolution. Not that you would know it of course from the Cardiff media, who only seem to report what they are told and never probe beneath the surface to ask difficult questions of those in power. There are some journalists and players turned pundits who really must struggle to look themselves in the mirror these days, and have potentially compromised their reputations and integrity irrevocably.The whole rotten saga has however bolstered the reputations of some. Men like Paul Rees and Peter Jackson deserve a medal for persistently asking the salient questions and not succumbing to pressure placed upon them. In the same vein, I helped to form Inside Welsh Rugby, an online show which not only gave the grassroots of Welsh rugby a voice, but also gave a platform to open debate that simply wasn’t available elsewhere. Guests like Andrew Hore (Ospreys CEO), Stephen Jones (Sunday Times Rugby Correspondent) Gareth Davies (Newport Gwent Dragons CEO) and Peter Jackson himself joined me to voice concerns about the hierarchy of the Welsh game. As the show evolved, we found ourselves prevented from using game footage by the WRU and their broadcast partners, despite clubs showing the very same matches themselves on YouTube. We were told to first apply to the BBC for the rights, paying a fee (of “approximately £200,000”) and documenting our editorial stance. Quite why they needed information pertaining to our editorial stance was incredibly concerning and bore more resemblance to life behind the Iron Curtain than a democratic civilisation such as 21st century Britain. Either way, we were never able to afford the fees demanded and so curtailed production far sooner than we would have hoped. These programmes however remain relevant to the current state of affairs and can still be watched at www.YouTube.com/IWRTV. One thing for sure though is that if Welsh rugby ends up in a better position as a result of these travails, then we are very glad to have played a small part ourselves.However, perhaps the person who deserves the greatest plaudits of all is the man who started the ball rolling down this path, a certain David Moffett. Sometimes audacious, often vociferous and always on the button with his analysis, Moffett came back to Wales to gain election as Chairman of the Union himself. He might not ultimately have succeeded in that specific aim, but few could possibly argue that his re-emergence onto the scene has been anything than a success. After all, it was he, along with his “Twitter Twenty” that gathered support, wrote a comprehensive manifesto and forced the June EGM which began the process culminating in last week’s result.

And what of the two board members who did win favour with the clubs? Both live and breathe the sport, and have been involved at Regional as well as club level. Gareth Davies, in particular, has an impressive CV, with experience gained not just within rugby but also in a wider business context. Davies also has all the demeanour, poise and intelligence of a natural leader, plus the strength and courage to remain steadfastly on course when required. To me, he is the natural successor as Chairman, a man who can galvanise support, stand up to Lewis and restore the dignity in Welsh rugby, in exactly the way Gerald Davies implored the clubs to at the EGM. Thank goodness they have finally heeded his words.