Bath regain pride;Toulon progress

Saturday January 23,2016
Bath Rugby v Toulon
ERCC Round 6
The Recreation Ground, Bath
Dyson Stand; Block H;Row R;Seat 212;£44.00

Take two of the more nakedly ambitious clubs, two of the more controversial owners/financiers, a liberal sprinkling of some of the most talked about players in European rugby…….If additional spice were needed, throw in Steve Meehan, a former head coach at the Rec but who now runs the Toulon attack. ….
And there’s never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal. His latest wheeze is that his club should leave the Top14 and move to the Aviva Premiership. English club owners were not slow in throwing cold water over that idea.

This game certainly had its attractions. A year ago Bath were on a high, about to qualify for the last eight of the European Champions Cup despite losing their first two group matches. But today they were playing only for third place in their pool, the so-called “group of death” in this year’s competition. Fellow premiership members Wasps were the team expected to struggle but after big wins against Leinster, Toulon and Bath they were the ones most likely to qualify. Toulon had to win today’s game to reach the quarter-finals.
Bath have not suddenly become a bad team but the confidence that bubbled last season has evaporated. That was clear last weekend when they timidly succumbed to a Leinster side that included only a sprinkling of regulars and a number of academy players. Bath supporters have been quick to give their opinions on why they think their side is not clicking. They range from Mike Ford isn’t a head coach, he’s an assistant; Farleigh Castle (Bath’s HQ and training facility) is too nice; George Ford can’t tackle; bringing in Sam Burgess was disruptive (even though he had returned to rugby league by the time this season kicked off); and that old chestnut, the players are paid too much money.
After Bath had lost away to Newcastle (who hadn’t won a league match), Mike Ford said he thought the players needed to look at themselves, obviously hoping to get a reaction. It worked (up to a point – they still lost) for the game in Toulon, but in the following match at Leinster Bath looked flat and lacking energy.

So Toulon knew exactly what they wanted from their final pool match, and with Bath playing for pride, a comfortable win by the current European champions seemed likely. In fact they had to dig hard and deep to subdue a brave and resourceful second-half performance from Bath that almost brought them a famous victory. But in the end, a rather lame start and a clear edge in power, especially up front, proved too much. That edge was epitomised by Steffon Armitage, the man England refuse to select, who once again gave a bull-like performance.
It was somehow typical of Bath’s season that the match was decided by one big mistake. A cross-field kick from right to left by Toulon’s Quade Cooper ran loose; David Denton grabbed it but then attempted a high, looped pass which fell into the grateful arms of Bryan Habana who was over the line in a flash.
In the end Toulon just about deserved the win and a quarter-final place, but at least it was close, and Bath deprived them of the bonus point win that would have seen them top the group. And then came news that Wasps had thrashed Leinster at the Ricoh Arena to put themselves top of the pile.

Despite their side having no chance of progressing Bath fans turned up in their numbers, which probably says a lot about the attraction of a team like Toulon. But there is more than a hint about the French side of a team, if not in decline, at least in the doldrums. They progressed to the quarter finals in much the same way as they have progressed throughout this year’s pool stages – incoherently but with enough muscle and know-how to get by. Perhaps it is little wonder that their owner is wanting to move to the Aviva Premiership….

Mike Miles

Why Neuter the Lions?

The rugby sports pages are currently dominated by new England coach Eddie Jones’s s potential choices for his first Six Nations squad. Fast forward 12 months and the journalistic chatter will centre around possible picks for the Lions squad to tour New Zealand in the summer of 2017.

World Cup winning New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has already stated his desire to stay on for the Lions tour. A number of his players have said they will back in New Zealand to meet the Lions after contracts overseas.

So what are the British rugby bodies doing to prepare for what everybody and his dog agrees will be a very tough tour. Perhaps it should be no surprise to learn that the chance of Lions success will be crucified because the players will only be released at the end of the European season when they will all have been battered to a pulp after a full domestic and international season. It seems no-one is prepared to move any part of the British or Irish season forward in order to give the Lions proper preparation.
As things currently stand, half the squad could easily be involved in domestic finals the weekend prior to the opening tour game If the Lions arrive in Auckland knackered even before they handle a ball it threatens to sour the whole glorious adventure.

I know rugby turns its nose up at any suggestion it might learn something from the running of the round ball game, but it is a fact that the European leagues have to finish a specified time before a major tournament such as a World Cup or European Championship. England still turn up knackered but that is the fault of their own league arrangements. Surely those who run world rugby could instigate a similar mandatory gap pre Lions tours.

And while we are having a go at the game’s administrators, it does not seem to have dawned on them that 2016 could be a key year for rugby union with the sport’s return to the Olympic fold in Rio. The seven-a side version may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it represents a massive opportunity to expand the sport’s worldwide appeal.
Yet the Great Britain squad appears to be entangled in the same red tape as the Lions. The leading Premiership and Pro12 players will be otherwise engaged until May and all the home unions have overseas tours in June. This sad affair focuses further attention on the club versus country tug-of-war which is still swirling around the sport, especially in England.
Mike Miles

So David Beckham is a rugby man!

In an interview in the Christmas issue of Radio Times David Beckham no less boasted that he is a rugby man!
He was quoted thus:” I love rugby – I love watching it and I love the whole thing.” Why? Well, it’s all about the fans. “People sitting together with no nastiness”.
Then the clincher: “I have enjoyed going to Twickenham more than I have enjoyed watching football.”

Ah David…we were doing so well. I like going to Twickenham as well, but alas have never managed an invite to the executive box which seems to be Mr. Beckham’s natural Twickenham habitat judging from when he appears on T.V. waving to the less fortunate.
And I bet he has never stood in the pouring rain watching Ealing Trailfinders play a Greene King Championship match against Yorkshire Carnegie along with 620 other damp souls.

In recent seasons Trailfinders have been the ultimate yo-yo club. They were playing in National Division 3 South as recently as 2009, but by the end of the 2012-13 season they had finished at the summit of National League 1 and were promoted to the Championship. They finished 12th and were relegated but bounced back after just one season (with an impressive haul of 136 points), where they now face another struggle to stay in the division.

Saturday’s opponents, Yorkshire Carnegie ( or Leeds Carnegie as they were then) were a Premiership club as recently as 2011,but while being generally regarded as one of the “big beasts” of the Championship have yet to seriously demonstrate their ability to reclaim their Premiership status. After Saturday’s 45 – 29 victory they lie in third place and are handily placed for the post-season play-off lottery.
They also have a player with 27 England caps in their ranks, albeit for the English rugby league side. At the age of 35 Kevin Sinfield decided he wanted to give rugby union a go after a silverware-stuffed career with Leeds Rhinos (who share a stadium with Carnegie so at least getting used to his surroundings wouldn’t have been a problem). After Sam Burgess’s much trumpeted and controversial switch to the union code Sinfield’s move was a much more low-key affair.
But he is obviously a quick learner and operated at fly-half in a very convincing display. He also operated as his team’s kicker, and I couldn’t help wondering what effect he might have had on English rugby union if he had made the switch 10 years earlier.
Mike Miles