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Category Archives: Six Nations

What’s the French for deja-vu?

This witty but informative piece about the last 20 minutes of the France v Wales game is well worth a read.  It made me chuckle but it rightly exonerates Wayne Barnes from any charges of incompetence.

Click the link below:

Source: wayne through the looking-glass

Expect the unexpected


italyI was going to write a blog article about the weekend’s Six Nations games but this article by fellow blogger Double Dummy Scissors pretty much mirrors my view:

This weekend, more than any other, provided proof that should you ever feel you know what is going to happen in the sport of Rugby Union, you don’t. We have become heady with this Eddie Jones …

Source: Expect the unexpected

They’ve got goats…

goat daffodilsTravelling to Cardiff for the Wales v England game I can’t help but think back to the games I have seen at the Principality Stadium.  This will be the fifth Six Nations game I have seen there but it was a World Cup warm up game in 2011 which has the fondest memories.  It was played in the summer on a beautiful warm sunny day and to be honest I can’t remember who won (I think it was the Welsh).  But it was post match when the fun began.

I left the players’ dinner early with fellow Council Member Alex Murphy and went into the city which was a sea of red and white shirts as tens of thousands of English and Welsh supporters flooded the pubs and bars and celebrated the game of rugby and the healthy rivalry between the two nations.  Alex and I were wearing our RFU blazers and we were submitted to good-natured banter from both sets of fans.  The partying went on late into the night and I as far as I was concerned all was well with the relationship between the two old rivals.

Then came the nightmare of 2013 when an inexperienced England team was intimidated by a hostile crowd in a Grand Slam decider with Wales winning 30-3.  Cardiff was not a happy place to be for an Englishman having to watch the Welsh celebrations on the pitch, then walking back to the hotel for the post-match function wearing and England Rugby coat I was verbally abused more than once.  It wasn’t any different when England won in 2015 as I was called the same sort of names after that game too.

Clearly, playing England matters for the Welsh rugby fan and I had been fooled into a false sense of camaraderie in 2011, but I should point out that the majority of our friends over the bridge are nothing but good-natured and friendly to the English.  This time around I will be better prepared. 

Certainly the players will know what to expect and it wouldn’t surprise me if Eddie Jones played them parts of the 2013 game to remind them about the Welsh crowd and how intimidating they can be.  His pre-match press conference alluded to Welsh ‘shenanigans’, referring to the attempt two years ago to get the England team out on the pitch early on a very cold evening and make them wait there while the Wales team stayed in the warm.  My favourite phrase from Eddie was ‘They’re a cunning lot, the Welsh….they’ve got goats, they’ve got daffodils, they’ve got everything!’.  Wales is probably better known for its sheep rather than its goats but I’ll wait to see if either play a part in the Welsh game plan.

Six Nations to have bonus points

DSC00940For as long as I have been on the RFU Council, and this is my ninth season, the issue of bonus points for the Six Nations has been discussed by the 6N committee and each time it has been rejected.  This is because the Grand Slam is seen as the pinnacle of the competition but with a bonus point for scoring four tries and another for losing by seven points or less, it is possible to win all your games yet finish in second place.

For example, Team A wins all five of its games but fails to gain a four-try bonus point in any of the matches so scoring a total of 20 points.  Team B loses to Team A by seven points or less and wins the other four games with a try bonus point in each, thus scoring 21 points and winning the Championship.

So when I read the headline I wondered why there had been a change of heart.  As ever the answer is in the fine print.  The press release on the Six Nations site quotes the following rules:

(i) The Union that wins the Match shall be awarded four Match Points or (if it scores four tries or more in the process) five Match Points.
(ii) The Union that loses the Match shall be awarded no Match Points or (if it scores four tries or more in the process or loses by a margin of seven points or fewer) one Match Point or (if it scores four tries or more in the process and loses by a margin of seven points or fewer) two Match Points.
(iii) Unions that draw a Match shall each be awarded two Match Points and any of them that scores four tries or more in the process shall be awarded a further one Match Point.
(iv) A Union that wins all five of its Matches (a “Grand Slam”) shall be awarded a further three Match Points.

Point (iv) is the crucial one; the extra three points for winning all your games will guarantee the Championship and the Grand Slam.

Well done to the Six Nations committee for finding a solution that encourages attacking play but retains the primacy of the Grand Slam

Grand Slam for new England under Jones

DSC00937At last a Six Nations title for England, and a Grand Slam at that, after four consecutive second places.  Important foundations were laid by Stuart Lancaster after the embarrassing antics on and off the field at RWC 2011 in New Zealand but Jones has added a harder edge to what was in the main the same group of players.

Lancaster reconnected the elite players with the grass roots game but the ability to dominate and win games wasn’t quite there; Jones has added this vital component to a talented squad that doesn’t have any superstars although one or two are beginning to emerge.

But this hard edge is coming at the cost of some of Lancaster’s softer initiatives.  First was the appointment of Dylan Hartley as captain:  His dreadful disciplinary record raised many concerns and social media was buzzing with the poor example his being made captain set to others playing the game.  There is no doubt that Jones would have spoken to people at the highest level at the RFU before he made his decision but it shows how important it was that England started winning again that no-one tried to change his mind.  I think even the most vocal opponents of the decision have to agree that Hartley has led the team very well with hardly a flicker of the kind of behaviour that has landed him in so much hot water in the past.  At the post match dinners he has acted properly if a little irreverently, referring to the RFU Council as ‘Bill and the Blazers’ and shortening his pre-prepared speeches, but his likeable character has come though and he has proved to be a popular figure.

I understand that the Captain’s Run, where the squad train on the pitch the day before the game, has been scrapped for home games on the basis that it doesn’t add anything material to the team’s preparations and that time would be better spent training at Pennyhill Park.

Another Lancaster innovation that has been lost is the team coach stopping 50 yards short of the West Stand Lion Gate so the players would walk the last stretch through a route lined by supporters.  Anyone that has witnessed the players’ arrival would have seen them looking fixedly ahead usually with headphones blocking out  the noise, and it is clear that although it was nice for the fans to see their heroes, it couldn’t be anything but a distraction from their mental preparation for the game ahead.

At the post match dinners the players are now arriving later, sometimes after the meal has started, and they leave as soon as they have finished.  The players are still as friendly and as approachable as ever, but we all know that these are functions they could do without during a tournament.

But in mitigation, the open training session at Twickenham this season that attracted over 15,000 people was a huge success, allowing much closer and better access than could be achieved on a match day.

On to Saturday’s game and I have to say that the French crowd were as hostile as any I have witnessed.  The chance to spoil an England party was one they wanted to take and throughout the match there were whistles and booing at decisions that went against Les Blues and when Farrell lined up a kick.  Perhaps this all helped to motivate the players because this was the best French performance of the tournament with the wing Vakatawa and full back Spedding causing all sorts of problems.

DSC00947There were a couple of things that you may not have seen on the TV after the game; The players did a lap of honour with the trophy but when they got to the the section with their family and friends, most rushed over to celebrate with them.  Meanwhile, Jack Nowell got hold of a Cornish flag and draped it around his shoulders, while the Vunipola brothers shared a moment on the field to offer a prayer of thanks.

Ultimately England were deserved winners and after a celebratory glass or two we made our way to the function room.  We had already had one dinner pre-match but the French like to show off their cuisine so another meal was to be served, but not until the players had arrived.  A 9pm kick-off meant that everything would be delayed and it wasn’t until 1am that the England players came in.  The formal speeches had to be done with Owen Farrell taking over the captain duties with Hartley having to rest after his nasty knock to the head.

DSC00958It was 1:30am before dinner was served and while the French all tucked in, perhaps more used to eating so late, the English guests were a little less enthusiastic.  The England players left as soon as they could and at 2:30am the rest of us were still ploughing through the menu, but it wasn’t long afterwards that we got onto our coach leaving the French players and guests to carry on eating and drinking.

So another Six Nations is over with England winning a tournament that wasn’t of the highest quality.  There is a long way for the team to go and the three tests in Australia over the summer will no doubt take them several steps further along their development journey.  Although I’m sure that Eddie Jones would acknowledge that this season he has built upon Lancaster’s work over the past four years, the next four will be down to him.

A weekend in Rome

DSC00704I always look forward to the Italy v England game as Rome is one of my favourite cities;  the food, culture and style combined with a relaxed attitude to life all resonate well with me.

This year it proved to be a little more difficult than usual to arrange the flights as match day fell on Valentine’s Day and even as long ago as October Ryanair were charging £450 for a Saturday flight returning on Monday.  So after hunting around I booked a flight leaving on Friday from London City Airport via Amsterdam, returning Monday via Milan, for considerably less than half the Ryanair price.  I wasn’t the only one to think of it as roughly half the passengers on the flights were England supporters.

The disadvantage was that the journey time was a little over five hours and by the time we arrived in a rainy Rome and taken a 40 minute taxi ride to our hotel, it was already 9:30pm local time so after a beer or two we turned in for the night.

Saturday morning and afternoon were the only times we would have to ourselves so after breakfast we hopped onto a sightseeing bus as although I had seen most of the main sights before, the bus tour would take me to slightly further flung places such as the Circus Maximus and the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, both of which were impressive although for different reasons.

WP_20160213_15_12_50_RawNext stop was the Scholars Lounge, an Irish Bar off Piazza Venezia to meet up with an old friend Nick White and watch the Ireland v France game.  Nick is a former ECRU referee who lived in Sudbury when i first met him and he tutored my refereeing course 20 years or so ago.  We last saw each other when he was refereeing and playing in the Suffolk Vets 20/20 competition that I ran in the early 2000s but he decided to take early retirement as a teacher and sail around the world crewing on yachts. 

I would see where he was from the occasional Facebook posts he put up but I was surprised when in 2011 he contacted me to say he had go a job in Kaduna High School in Northern Nigeria.  I go every couple of years to Nigeria (where I was born) to offer what help I can with rugby development in the country and we hoped to be able to meet up but never quite managed to do so.  Then on my last trip I contacted him to say I had put a day aside to fly to Kaduna from Lagos only for him to tell me that he had left to buy his own yacht and live the life of a sailor.

Then last year I went with my friend Brian to spend a week on his yacht which was moored at Cagliari on the southern coast of Sardinia.  In response to my Facebook post I got a message from Nick saying that he was sailing off Northern Sicily and we made a preliminary plan to sail towards each other and meet somewhere to the west of the island.  But time proved to be against us and once again we didn’t meet up despite being quite close.

So when he contacted me last week to say he would be in Rome for the Italy v England game we resolved that this time we would get together and we spent a happy couple of hours catching up while lamenting the poor standard of rugby being screened, although I only had time to watch the first half of the Ireland v France game.

WP_20160213_19_28_55_RawAll too soon it was time to go back to the hotel to change for the first official function of the weekend.  We were to have dinner with the Italian committee at the Palazzo Colonna, a palace in the centre of Rome owned by the Colonna family since it was built in the fourteenth century.  The entrance was pretty modest where we were met by a guide who would take us on a short tour.  The history of the building was fascinating as were the beautiful sculptures, pictures and tapestries, but the final gallery was breathtaking.  It is worth having a look at the Palace’s website to get an idea of the place.

Regional food was the theme of the weekend and all the food and wine came from the Naples area.  I sat between to Italians, one from Rome and the other from Naples, who, in between the rugby talk, spent the evening trying to convince me that their region was the better of the two.  Eventually it was time to leave and rejoin our partners who had stayed at the hotel for the evening.

Next day was game day and with the coach leaving at 11:30 we didn’t have much time to dawdle, so once again we left our partners behind and headed for the the Stadio Olimpico for a pre-match function but not before a few of us paid a visit to the Peroni Village for a couple of cold ones.  The food and wine were once again excellent with a huge range of meats, fish and pasta available from a buffet.  You cannot fault the Italians for being the most generous hosts.

It was with some relief that I got into the stadium bowl and some fresh air to find that I had a seat with the England subs bench just a few feet to my right.  It was interesting to see how the conditioning coach kept them alert with regular warm ups and got each individual prepared before they went onto the field.

DSC00717Now to the game.  The first 50 minutes were a turgid affair as far as England was concerned. but one shouldn’t underestimate the Italians ability to disrupt their opposition.  Sergio Parisse was magnificent popping up everywhere and you can’t help but think how much his country will miss him when he retires.  However, England did put together some good phases in the final thirty minutes with Care’s grubber kick for Joseph to run on to and Jamie George’s deft offload to Farrell being for me the two highlights.

This performance may still be well short of what England needs to do before they are worldbeaters but they have won two games away from home playing opposition against whom they were predicted to struggle, scoring seven tries and conceding none and they can only improve under the new coaching team.  They may not necessarily win the Six Nations this season but the building blocks are beginning to be put in place.  On top of that, Hartley has got through a second game without a yellow card and as far as I could see he kept out of trouble.  What are the odds on him continuing in that vein for England all season?

After the match there was a gap of about two hours before the players’ dinner, and although there was coffee, water and juice available, there was no beer despite Peroni being a major sponsor!  Let me tell you that RFU President Jason Leonard was not happy although he suspected that it was a planned move to stop some of the people due at the function from overdoing it.  I suggested we might go out to the Peroni Village but he told me that having tried that two years ago, he was mobbed from the moment he stepped outside and progress towards the public bars was impossible.

DSC00742Our enforced spell of prohibition over we settled down for dinner.  Usually, the captains will sit with their players but the Italians had Hartley and Parisse at the top table with Jason, Bill Beaumont and their Italian equivalents.  Jason presented Paul Hill and Maro Itoje with their England caps while Dylan Hartley thanked ‘Bill and the Blazers’ for their support at the game.  I though he was referring to some 60s rock group but in fact he meant the RFU Council and their Chairman Bill Beaumont.

I had the chance of a couple of words with Ben Youngs and asked him why he thought he was warded Man of the Match by the Italian broadcaster RAI.  He said he was as mystified as anyone and had offered to give it to Jonathan Joseph, but he refused to take it.  Once the formalities were over we headed back to our coach where we had a police escort back to our hotel, which was exciting but pointless as the streets were largely deserted.

While many of my my colleagues headed to the bar I retired to my room only too aware that I was leaving for London in the morning with a day of meetings at Twickenham and the rest of the week at work to look forward to.

We will do it all again in a fortnight when we entertain the Irish at home, although I have an extra international to look forward to next weekend when I travel to Brussels for Belgium vs Holland where I will be catching up with my Flemish friends.

Pictures from the weekend

Six Nations to remain on free-to-air TV

6N trophy I was delighted with the news that the Six Nations, perhaps the best annual international rugby competition in the world, is to remain on terrestrial television for the next six years (click here for the story).  Pay to view TV has taken so many major sports and sporting events, making them inaccessible to the majority of the population, that it seemed almost inevitable that the Six Nations will follow, particularly after the thrilling finale to the 2015 tournament.  But the 6N committee agreed that it should remain free to view despite the joint BBC/ITV bid being lower than Sky’s.

I remember when the RFU sold the rights to all England’s home games to Sky back in the late 1990s I think, and it was disastrous.  Participation levels started to fall, particularly in the younger age groups, and it wasn’t long until common sense and the games returned to the BBC.  A present-day example of the dangers of selling out to Sky can be seen with cricket.  Live Test matches can only be seen on Sky in the UK and I don’t think it is a coincidence that participation levels in cricket have dropped by 7%.

At an RFU Council meeting sometime last year, the subject came up of the Government’s list of sporting events that must be shown on free-to-air television.  The view of the RFU Board was that the Six Nations should not be on that list as it would restrict the number of broadcasters that would be able to bid for the TV rights.  This in turn would lower the value of potential bids from the remaining broadcasters and income to the game would therefore reduce.  I thought at the time it was a risky strategy but it proved to be a successful one and we can look forward to six more years of unrestricted Six Nations coverage, albeit with adverts for half the games.

A Six Nations finale to remember

st george cross in crowd I predicted that Saturday would be dramatic but I never imagined what a rollercoaster of emotions supporters of Welsh, Irish and English rugby would go through.  I was at Twickenham all day and witnessed the hope and the anguish on the faces of people there and I am sure that was repeated in rugby clubs all over England.

Italy’s half time lead seemed to have put paid to any hopes of Wales winning the Championship but a ruthless second half saw the men in red lay down a marker that had Englishmen worried; could they beat the French by 17 points when they had not done so for decades?  By the time the game in Edinburgh started there were several thousand in front of the giant screen in the West Car Park at Twickenham to see if England’s job was going to be made any harder.  Once again, the half-time score flattered to deceive and the Irish scored 20 second half points leaving England with a mountain to climb.

Jack Blackham It is fair to say that the mood around the stadium was pessimistic but you would not be surprised to hear that many were relieved that the Welsh were now out of contention.  I was particularly interested in the pre-match anthems as the England team Mascot was Jack Blackham (on the left in the picture), a young player from Wymondham RFC in Norfolk, and I am delighted to report that he gave the national anthem everything.

Then the match kicked off and I witnessed the most remarkable game I have ever seen at Twickenham.  A brilliant start for England which sparked some hope that maybe they could get the 27 point win they needed.  But within 15 minutes that hope turned to despair as France scored two tries to lead 15-7.

Then England did what they had promised to do the whole series, making breaks and converting them into points, with the French playing their best game of the year throwing the ball about and demonstrating their Gallic flair.  As play went from end to end the crowd were mesmerised and gave full voice to support their team, and when in the last ten minutes it looked like the impossible might happen, the atmosphere was frantic.

As Jack Nowell went over to leave England a converted try short of the championship, the stadium became a sea of noise and when the final 13-man maul edged towards the French line in the last minute every Englishman in the stadium wanted to run on the pitch and join the shove.

The French played their part by playing to type and rather than take the easy option and kick for touch they still tried to run from their own line.

It was a thrilling game for fans and spectators, but at the post match dinner the England players were devastated and exhausted.  Ben Youngs looked out on his feet when I spoke to him and he admitted he was completely drained (although his actual words were more colourful!).

But rugby players are a resilient breed so when Dan Cole received an award for winning his fiftieth cap, his captain told him that he had to sing to mark the occasion, and for good measure Nick Easter was ordered to do the same having avoided the ordeal when he won his fiftieth cap in Dublin.  Dan Cole’s choice was ‘Singing in the Rain’ while Easter went for the Only Fools & Horses theme tune, both of which got the dinner guests joining in  Click for Video

Erika Jason A memorable day made all the more so by my guest, Erika Roe.  I introduced her to as many people as I could, some of whom had asked to meet her beforehand, but it was great fun to see the double take as I said her name.  I know Erika enjoyed the day despite not knowing that much about Rugby; when she met Jason Leonard she had to confess that she didn’t know who he was but he was clearly delighted to meet her.

So another Six Nations ends and yet again England finish second, but for my money they were the best and the most entertaining team and will have learnt from every game they played.  There are three warm up games before the World Cup starts on 18 September and I am still firmly of the opinion that England will make it all the way to the final.

Pictures from the day

What a day it will be tomorrow!

I am looking forward to this weekend at Twickenham more than I have in a while. The whole day will DSC04898_thumb.jpgbe building up to the final game of the Six Nations by which time England will know precisely what they have to do the win the competition. The two previous games will be shown on the giant screen in the West Car Park at Twickenham and I’m sure there will be plenty of people arriving early to watch the games at the ground.

But there are other reasons for my looking forward to tomorrow. Firstly, the England mascot on the day will be Jack Blackham, a young player from Wymondham RFC in Norfolk who won a competition to lead the team out on the Twickenham turf. It will be a very proud moment for him and I will make sure I get some photos to send back to his club.

Secondly, my guest for the day will be Erika Roe who many of you will remember as someone firmly embedded in Twickenham folklore (those of you too young to have heard about Erika or are still mystified as to what she is famous for, please Google her). I first met Erika in the Autumn when I was approached by her cousin Nina Roe who plays for Southwold Swallows and was one of the organisers of the very successful Southwold Beach Sevens. After many years of comparative anonymity, Erika launched a calendar in aid of ABC (Against Breast Cancer) and wanted to meet Bill Beaumont as part of an awareness campaign.

The significance of meeting Bill was that he was England captain when Erika infamously invaded the pitch during half time when they were playing Australia in 1982. The story goes that Bill was giving an impassioned half time team talk when hooker Peter Wheeler interrupted by saying, “ There’s some bird on the pitch with your arse on her chest”.   Bill had never actually met Erika so when Nina contacted me to ask if I could help I of course said that I would.

So before England played Australia in November 2014 the two met for the first time although the RFU did impose some conditions: She could not mention the calendar and she would be allowed only 15 minutes; after that she had to leave. To make up for it I invited Erika to be my guest at tomorrow’s game and at the preceding lunch and I couldn’t have picked a better day in terms of the drama of the final game.

Thirdly, I am looking forward to seeing my favourite referee, Nigel Owens, take the whistle for this game. In my view, and those of many others, he is the best referee in the world at the moment and he is the only referee for whom I buy a Ref Link to hear what he is saying. His rapport and banter with the players is second to none and it is a pleasure to watch him at work.

So the scene is set as I set off for South West London this afternoon. Will England win? I certainly hope so although the French at their unpredictable best can easily upset Stuart Lancaster’s plans. England created so many chances last week and failed to convert all but three, but they still gave the Scots their heaviest defeat of the campaign so far. Scotland are more than capable of giving Ireland a hard time at Murrayfield and the Italians are no pushover when playing at the Stadio Olimpico.

However it pans out, Saturday will be a great day. Enjoy the rugby wherever you are watching it tomorrow.

Dublin was no disaster

WP_20150301_002 It’s been a hectic week but I have finally found some time to write some thoughts on the weekend in Dublin.

Ireland’s capital is one of my favourite cities to visit with everyone so friendly and welcoming, but I did detect an air of confidence in the Irish that their team would be able to overcome England in the Sunday game.  First of all we needed to find somewhere to watch the Saturday Six Nations games and so we met up with friends from Commons & Lords RFC in the Oval Bar off O’Connell Street.  Despite a couple of the C&L team being Scottish I was delighted for Italy that they won their game and playing away from home at that.  The Italian supporters are passionate about rugby and are always so despondent when they go through a Six Nations without a victory, but the win will give them and the game in Italy a huge boost.

During the France v Wales game it was interesting that the Irish in the bar were split 50/50 in their support for the two countries. 

After the games it was time to resume the pursuit of Guinness, so after visiting McDaid’s and Bruxelles we settled ourselves in the Bank on College Green, a beautifully decorated bar that has reminders of its financial past all around.  Friends from Clacton and Brightlingsea Rugby Clubs joined us and the rest of the evening is a bit of a haze.

DSC06013Match day dawned and after a quiet morning we got on the coach to take us to the Aviva stadium.  The sky was grey and overcast but everyone was surprised when it started to snow!  However the hospitality of the Irish was very generous and the Guinness flowed once more before lunch but it was soon time for kick off.  The teams were presented to the Irish President who is a tiny man and I had to chuckle when he shook hands with the 6’10” lock Toner; he just about came up to his chest.

As for the game, my view is that the Irish had a game plan to beat England and executed it perfectly, with Murray and Sexton’s aerial bombardment coupled with great chasing keeping England on the back foot.  I thought it was telling that when Sexton was forced to go off England started to gain the advantage, and when the Ireland tight head was substituted the England pack started to dominate.  Clearly, strength in depth is an issue for the Irish and when it comes to the World Cup this could prove crucial.  I think it is likely that England and Ireland will meet in the semi-final and it will the the team that has the least injuries that will prevail.  That is why I don’t see the result as a disaster, more an opportunity to learn from mistakes and recognise just how many good players England can call upon.

At the post match dinner Nick Easter was presented with an award to recognise his fiftieth cap and after the formalities were over I left to meet up with one of my oldest friends for a catch up, visiting Neary’s and O’Donohue’s before talking into the small hours with the help of Guinness and Jamieson’s at the Westbury.

Another memorable weekend in Dublin.

Click here for pictures

 

Postscript: I am surprised that the rugby press is firmly of the opinion that Wales will beat Ireland on Saturday.  Wales’ performances haven’t set the world alight so far while Ireland have kept to a simple game plan and executed it well.  If I was allowed to bet on rugby (which I’m not) I would but my money on an Irish Grand Slam.

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