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.

News from Paul Turner…

The players weren’t the only ones working hard during the Autumn Internationals!  Whilst I gave some predictions before the games (which I should point out, following a recent trend for spinning statistics, were a 100% improvement on last year…..when I gave none at all!), to add some spice to the occasion, I was also spending time on the fields of Southern England, and developing my new business, Paul Turner Sport.

As well as my usual roles as Rugby Pro at Reigate Grammar School and Head Coach at Ampthill RFC, I was very privileged to watch four international teams train on consecutive weeks before coaching skills sessions with the pupils of Latymer Upper School.  Their fantastic facilities at Wood Lane near Shepherds Bush hosted the Barbarians, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia teams before they each played at Twickenham and watching the intensity of their sessions and speaking with their staff really invigorated me as a coach.  Seeing the different habits and styles practiced on the training ground then come to fruition on match day brings home the need for good practice to reinforce the correct technique which will ultimately reap the rewards on the pitch. This is a mantra I have always followed in my own coaching sessions too.

However a large chunk of time in November was taken up developing the new business, or rather revamping my old business and formalising what I actually do, detailing all of the services I offer in one place.  Most people are aware of my coaching work, both in clubs and with up and coming young players in schools and on a one-to-one basis, however not many knew about the complete range of support services I offer to accompany these, such as supplying kit and equipment, or helping to organise tours abroad.  The new website gives the perfect platform to highlight these, and also gives space for a personal blog where I can share news and continue to give views on rugby in general, including of course the on-going political soap opera that is Welsh rugby!

Some might ask “why do this now”?  But in truth these developments have been on my mind for quite a while, as has the idea of expanding into other sports as well.  Why not assist with a hockey tour, or supply kit to a football team for instance?  It always seemed like a natural business progression and it was actually working on IWRTV earlier this year that helped to crystalise these thoughts.  At that time, working with Gareth (who presented the show) and his company Dischro Creative, I felt the potential was there to form a valuable partnership to really add value to the business and help publicise my work in a new way, so I invited Gareth to join me in Paul Turner Sport.  Since then, we have spent time re-branding the company with a new logo, a new website, new marketing materials and new social media profiles.

The business now has a fully fledged “voice” that will continue to grow and the website has space to properly provide information about the popular Disney trip at Easter and detail some of the bespoke skills and Sevens sessions on offer.  But these are exciting times and there is still more work to do as we explore other avenues such as Corporate Team Building days and one or two others that must remain under wraps for the time being!  I’ll also be recording my very first podcast very soon, so keep an eye on the site and of course social media for announcements….

So Christmas is fast approaching and thoughts are turning to the festive season, but I will still be busy working behind the scenes and looking forward to new challenges both on and off the field in the New Year.  I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts and views or from anyone who would like the input of my consultancy, so please do get in touch!

PT

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.

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.

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.


Asking Questions of TMOs.

Refereeing a game of rugby can seem like a thankless task at times, faced with the criticism from the stands, two sets of players who only ever see things their own way and living with the pressure of making match-altering decisions in a split second.  Even though it sometimes may not appear so when I am on the sideline with my coaches hat on, I fully appreciate the difficult job referees do, and the old adage that there would be no game without the ref is undeniably true.   A person whom I really admire is ex-referee and former Head of Elite Referee Development at the RFU Ed Morrison.  I respected him during my career as a player because of his great empathy for the game of rugby and in now taking the time to now make TV appearances on BT’s Rugby Tonight show to explain the laws he is helping fans with their own understanding of our sport.  In my view this programme in general is a refreshing change to the way rugby is presented on TV and in stark contrast to the rather dated output on offer elsewhere.The game is much tougher now of course, play is much faster and players far more “professional” and cunning, sometimes using deception to outwit a referee.  That is why it is vitally important the referees and assistants work closely and efficiently together as team and also why I absolutely agree with the introduction and use of Television Match Officials.  The TMO’s were not introduced to stop tries being scored, although I often ponder how the course of history would have changed had they been in situ in days gone by!  Would the 1976 Grand Slam have been French had a TMO helped to send JPR Williams to the stands for his charge on Jean-François Gourdon?  Perhaps the World would never have known Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation celebrations if Derek Bevan could have checked Abdelatif Benazzi’s grounding in the semi-final.The TMO involvement in the game is now a vital part of proceedings, and with their participation there is much less excuse for error.  Yet how often do we see the wrong calls still made, or decisions not even referred to the TMO, even when an element of doubt does exist?  Just recently Thomas Waldrom scored a try against Harlequins from an offside position in front of Mitch Lees who charged down Ben Botica’s kick.  Waldrom gathered and showed good pace to sprint to the in-goal area but the try should never have been allowed, yet the officials on the field could see no wrong, nor did they seemingly have the doubt that should have persuaded them to consult Geoffrey Warren in the TV truck.  When even commentators on a highlights show then failed to point out something so blatant, I was left contemplating the fact that not everybody knows all the laws of the game who maybe should.  As coaches we sometimes say that these decisions balance themselves out over time so it is perhaps ironic that just a year ago in a crucial Aviva Premiership game at Adams Park the TMO scrubbed out a perfectly legitimate Henry Slade try that would have meant Exeter qualifying for a European play-off rather than Wasps.  He later apologised for the error and despite the wheel turning full circle this season the primordial outcome should be that we get every decision right first time around.In fact, very few people at all speak up when these kinds of errors are made, as they still continue to be.  There are so many 50-50 calls in the modern game it is imperative to get them correct as often as humanly possible.  With the involvement of TMO’s, we should be improving our game, but are we?  How often do we now see the on the field referee staring a big screen and making his own call?  If this is the solution then what is the use of a fourth qualified official?  They are slowly becoming little more than glorified VCR operators, rewinding and forwarding footage for the man in the middle to steal the limelight for himself.  Surely if we are going to have the position of Television Match Official in Rugby Union we should value their input more, consult them whenever there is any doubt whatsoever, and act on the objective advice they give from a position detached from the action and the pressure of the players, coaches and fans.  Quite when they should be consulted is a another question altogether, and is sure to face further scrutiny in the wake of Jonathan Kaplan’s comments about the South African TV coverage of the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand.  Kaplan believes multiple replays of Liam Messam’s challenge on Schalk Burger that were shown on the stadium screen by South African producers directly influenced Wayne Barnes’ decision to review the incident and subsequently award the match-winning penalty to South Africa.  The incident had been missed by the match officials during play and without these replays, the kick would never have been given and the outcome of the match altered.  What kind of precedent this sets and how home broadcasters will act in future will therefore also now become a hotly-debated topic in the rugby world.

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.

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.