Saints win away from Home

April 25,2015
StadiumMK, Milton Keynes

Aviva Premiership
Round 20
Northampton Saints v Saracens

Northampton…….25
Saracens…………..20

Attendance 27,411

Stadium MK will get its first taste of international rugby at the World Cup later this year, when it is scheduled to host three matches, including the France v Canada game on October 1.Today’s “Best of British”, top-of-the-table clash between Northampton Saints and Saracens has long been switched to the 30,500 capacity stadium as part of tournament organiser England Rugby 2015’s operational testing programme.
Let’s hope they were watching closely. There was gridlock around the ground for more than three hours before the 3.15 kick-off; due it would seem mainly to road closures.
The last time I was here I picked a Saturday when the infamous “engineering works” meant a half-an-hour journey took almost five times as long. Has anyone bothered to check that Network Rail does not intend to carry out work on the West Coast main line next October?
This wasn’t the only cock-up. Saracens had to do a quick change of shirts at half-time because of a clash with Northampton. Saints had informed Sarries that they would be wearing a St George’s Day kit of red and white, designed to support Help for Heroes. Saracens must have not got the message and the visitors turned up in their normal away strip of all-white. The referee allowed the game to go ahead while Saracens had their normal black shirts delivered by a police escort in time for the second half.

Both teams have used Stadium Mk as a home from home in the past. Saracens were the first club to host a rugby match at the ground when Bristol visited in 2008, providing a grand stage for Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Richard Hill’s 288th and last appearance for the men in black. A last-minute try from Kameli Ratuvou ensured Hill’s 15-year club career finished on a winning note.
Northampton then used Stadium MK as a base for their assault on the Heineken Cup knockout stages in 2011. The Saints defeated Ulster and Perpignan in front of big crowds in the quarter and semi-finals. The following season also saw Munster stop by for a pool match, with Simon Zebo marking one of the most thrilling chapters in the stadium’s short rugby history with a hat-trick as the Irish side won an entertaining contest 51-36.Saracens once again visited for their home Premiership fixture against the Saints on December 310, 2012, while their new stadium at Barnet was being built.

MK Dons moved to their brand new stadium (which cost about £50million to build) in 2007. From the outside it has a modern look, with good use of silver coloured cladding and a large amount of glass on view. The most striking feature is the stadium’s roof, which sits high up above the ground with a large gap between it and the back row of seating which allows more natural light to reach the pitch. The stadium is totally enclosed and has a bowl like design.
The overall look of the stadium has recently benefitted from the installation of seating into the previously unused upper tier. This will take the capacity to 30,700 for the World Cup. It is two-tiered, with three sides having a large lower tier over-hung by a smaller upper tier. The west side of the stadium is slightly different, with the seating areas in the upper tier being replaced by the Directors box and executive and corporate hospitality areas.Unusally the spacious concourse areas at the back of the lower tier see directly into the stadium, so where is what seems a noticeable gap between the lower and upper tiers is where the concourse is located.

Once you get into the stadium it is a delight. Chatting with other fans, the majority were greatly impressed, commenting on the comfort and legroom in the seating, with excellent views of the action and a great atmosphere. The toilet facilities have been especially praised by many fans, male and female, offering wide entrances, soap and hot running water. Such luxuries at a football ground! The stadium even has such creature comforts as padded seats and the ability to watch the game in progress whilst munching a burger on the concourse.
There was an excellent fan area with around 15 branches of famous restaurants. Provided you set off in the next week or two to make sure you arrive on time, then the Milton Keynes World Cup experience should be fabulous….

But enough quibbling…let’s not forget there was a game of rugby. This biting and blasting contest marked the end of Northampton’s late-season dip. After their heavy defeats at Clermont and Exeter they had the game to hold off an heroic attempt by Saracens to dethrone them from the top of the table. Saracens, themselves coming off a draining match in France against Clermont, had to absorb the massive blow of losing Billy Vunipola in the first half to injury, being pulverised by the referee and losing a significant lead. But their commitment was beyond praise.
However, the Saints eventually overcame the sinners of Saracens, whose discipline collapsed along with their scrum after the break, when they were penalised 13 times and finished a match they led for the most part fortunate to have a bonus point. When Stephen Myler gave his side the lead for the first time 63 minutes in it was via his fifth penalty, and the Saints had found a way to win.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

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Is the Challenge Cup worth the hassle?

A distinct hint of déjà vu swirled around last weekend’s European semi-finals. A decade ago three of the four last eight ties in the then Heineken Cup were hosted by French clubs. Of those French sides, all reached the semi-finals and two of them – Toulouse and Stade Francais – contested the final.

Now dig a little deeper into the Euro pyramid. Ten years ago there were five Top 14 sides in the European Challenge Cup last eight; this year there were none. As far as the French are concerned, European club rugby’s second-tier competition is no longer worth the hassle.

They are not alone. What should be the UEFA Cup or Europa League of rugby feels more akin to the League Cup. For all sorts of reasons the Challenge Cup is presently in danger of losing its raison d’être. The winner is not even guaranteed to qualify for the Champions Cup next season (something football’s equivalent will offer this season’s winners), having to make do instead with a play-off spot.
The principle of three second-placed pool sides dropping down from the elite competition for the knockout phase has also been quietly dropped since the main tournament was reduced from 24 teams to 20.

Next season will be a different story – but only because it is a World Cup year. The Challenge Cup winners will qualify for the following season’s Champions Cup but in 2017/18 there will be a permanent switch back to the play-off system.
If say Gloucester win this year’s Challenge Cup to outflank the seventh-placed Premiership finisher, they will only play in the elite event should they beat the seventh-placed Pro 12 side , followed by the seventh-placed Top 14 side on May 30.
By then everyone involved will be on their knees…..

It all threatens to spawn a competition that is a waste of everyone’s time and effort. The whole driving force behind the new European set-up was to reward merit. Surely it says more about a team’s qualities if they battle their way through a series of sudden-death matches to win a worthwhile trophy, rather than simply rewarding them for mid-table mediocrity.
If there has to be a play-off for 20th place, perhaps it should be between the seventh-placed Pro12 team and the top-ranked Italian club, if the latter has finished outside the top six. That would retain the principle of Italian involvement in the Champions Cup – but only absolutely guarantee a place if they earn it on the field.

Automatic Champions Cup qualification would similarly reinvigorate the meandering Challenge Cup and make it worth cherishing again. A seriously competitive Challenge Cup – incorporating a worthwhile prize for the Champions – should not be beyond the wit of European rugby’s administrators.
These should be boom times for European club rugby – and that is before any “knock-on” effects from the World Cup. There were 84,068 at Wembley a few weeks ago, and, despite London Welsh’s struggles, there is reportedly a 5% rise in Premiership attendances this season. This all suggests spectator interest in the sport is growing – yet directors of mid-table squads across Europe are all being forced to prioritise the domestic front.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Same old (Heineken?) Story

For the third season in a row, Toulon, Clermont and Saracens are into the semi-finals if the European Cup. Leinster join them this year where Munster had joined them the two years previously, a total of five teams over three years.
During the three years previous to that, however, Ulster, Edinburgh, Clermont, Leinster, Saints, Perpignan, Toulouse, Biarritz and Munster had all appeared in the final four of the now defunct Heineken Cup.
So while the competition may have been streamlined and given a new name this season, it seems little has changed in terms of where the power lies on the pitch.

And looking back at the quarter-finals, one thing we learnt above all else – from three of the four results at least-is that when it comes to knockout rugby, it pays better to be powerful and clinical than daring and inaccurate. Leinster, Saracens and Toulon all came out on the right side of the result despite playing much less attacking rugby than their opponents. They won their games through the power and precision of their packs, and the boots of messrs Madigan, Bosch and Michalak respectively.

And this provides the answer to the main question that emerged from the helter-skelter final day of the Six Nations-namely, “why don’t teams play like this more often?”In the cold, hard world of knockout rugby, when winning is all that matters, it is more often than not the side that has the greater power-and therefore doesn’t need to chance its arm by flinging the ball around and making more errors-that will come out on top.
If teams don’t need to throw caution to the wind because they know they can win by battering the opposition and kicking the resulting penalties, they will do so.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Jevans’ departure: A PR disaster for RFU?

It’s not surprising that Debbie Jevans has decided to keep quiet her “personal reasons” for resigning as chief executive of the England World Cup 2015 organising committee because it has since been revealed that she is expecting a £150,000 pay-off. Her annual salary was said to be in the region of £250,000.

However, the Twickenham rumour mill has been working overtime with reasons for the Jevans walk-out, just six months before the tournament starts.
One reason touted is that the former director of sport for the London Olympics had a series of fall-outs with RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie. She already knew him as CEO of the All England Club, where Jevans is a committee member.
There are strong suggestions that Ritchie, in turn, was being pressured by the RFU management board, and the RFU committee (Will Carling’s 57 “old farts”) to make sure that the RFU bucket and spade brigade were being properly looked after by England World Cup 2015 in terms of hospitality and tickets.

So with Jevans refusing to ladle out the gravy to the RFU blazers, preferring instead to make sure World Rugby and her former Olympics operatives were catered for-especially in terms of recruiting a 200-strong RWC2015 staff contingent – the knives were out.
Word was leaked that the World Cup trophy tour was not up to scratch and that grass-roots clubs were not being involved sufficiently. Then it emerged that Ritchie was shocked by staffing levels at RWC2015, which he considered to be excessive.

Whatever the reasons, it does not reflect well on the RFU to get into a position where an administrator with Jevans’ successful track record in sports administration walks away from such an important position because of “intractable differences”.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk