Rugby needs to learn the right lessons from Football

Colin Boag is a regular columnist in The Rugby Paper, and I usually find him worth reading. However, he is one of those rugby writers who like to blame all rugby’s ills on football. He was at it again in a recent column. He was writing about players’ attempts to get others booked, and predictably enough, he saw it as “just another example of rugby starting to ape football.”

Ben Kay is a rugby analyst I would rank alongside Gary Neville on the round-ball game. But a recent column in The Times, was headed “It’s crucial rugby wins the battle that football has lost.”  The battle he was referring to was simulation, and came shortly after Alexis Sanchez was hit on the shoulder by a ball and then made a delayed, exaggerated dive in a bid to con the referee.

Kay claims to love football as much as rugby , and his column was intended, not to knock football, a la Boag, but to point at rugby’s need to stamp out a situation whereby it becomes an accepted tactic for players to try and gain an advantage in getting opponents punished by feigning injury.

“We have had some incidents of simulation in rugby and we cannot allow a situation to develop, as has already happened in football, whereby it becomes an accepted tactic for players to try to gain an advantage or see opponents punished by feigning injury.”

“There have been a few examples over the past few years and we cannot accept that attitude as part of the game. This is not rugby being pious. I wish football had been strict in dealing with this because it is an ugly scar on the so-called beautiful game. Diving and theatrics are the biggest problem in football and the sport should long ago have brought in citing commissioners, who would have the power to study footage and bring charges after the game. That is what rugby did when it had a problem with excessive violence.”

Kay then wanders off further into rugby’s moral maze. “Rugby is not a puritanical sport. Players spend all game trying to push the boundaries of the law. If a player deliberately and cynically breaks one of the laws, he does so knowing that he is taking a risk and could be sanctioned. That is very different from a player trying to get an opponent sent to the sin-bin or dismissed altogether when he has not broken any laws at all. Rugby has to clamp down on it.”

There are certainly other issues exercising the minds of rugby officials at the moment, including players appealing for penalties, arguing for opponents to receive yellow cards and back chat. Kay is less concerned about most of these issues. For him it is perfectly natural for players to appeal for things when they see them in the heat of battle.

However, when players feign injury they are showing a lack of respect for their opponent and for their game. “We do not want players gesturing for yellow cards but there is nothing wrong with a captain asking for clarification on a decision that he feels is too lenient. There is a fine line between back chat and the importance of keeping open lines of communication between referees and players. That needs to be monitored because respect is critical. When players feign injury they are showing a lack of respect for their opponent and for their game.”

Then just like London buses, Stephen Jones, “Rugby’s most outspoken and influential journalist”, wrote an article in the June issue of Rugby World headlined “Is rugby now becoming football?” I feared the worse. But lo and behold, Jones admitted that rugby has long looked down its nose at football but it has to stop being sniffy, and he even admitted he prefers many aspects of the round-ball game. He even appears to be a Spurs fan!

He cites a number of areas where rugby is aligning itself with football. A hire and fire scenario with coaches. The attitude towards referees, specifically the constant appealing by players against decisions against them. Oh, and yes, brandishing an imaginary card to get a player booked. He reckons that in the last calendar year he has heard at least 20 players asking the referee to consider carding an opponent.

He does claim that in rugby there isn’t diving…….

In the 2014 European Cup final, Bryan Habana was reprimanded by Alain Rolland, the referee, for exaggerating a small off-the-ball collision with Owen Farrell.

At the 2015 World Cup, Stuart Hogg was rebuked by Nigel Owens for diving in Scotland’s game against South Africa at St James’ Park. “If you want to dive like that again, come back here in two weeks and play [when Newcastle United are at home],” the referee said at the time. And how we all laughed…..

World Rugby, a body which only calls the fire brigade when the house is already burnt down , issued a law amendment in 2015 that gives referees the power to issue a yellow card if they witness a player diving.

Surely this is the demolition of the last justification for rugby’s moral superiority. As Jones admits, the sport is now on the way to being just another sport.

I just wish other rugby scribes would admit it…

Premiership Rugby ambition must be challenged by RFU.

The Champions Cup final this weekend will lack a team from the Pro 12 for the fifth consecutive season following the Munster and Leinster semi-final defeats.

The tournament has become an Anglo-French production, although in those five years only four clubs have made it to the final: Toulon, Saracens, Clermont Auvergne and, last year, Racing 92, whose fall this season was emphasised by their recent 50-point defeat at Montpellier.

Gaps are all around. Saracens, pursued by Exeter, are well ahead of the rest in England where Wasps lead the table but will not emulate their achievements of the previous decade until they become harder to break down: they recorded bonus-point victories against the bottom two clubs in the league, Worcester and Bristol, in recent weeks but conceded seven.

Leinster and Munster are, following Ulster’s fickle season, the major forces in the Pro 12 and, while La Rochelle lead the Top 14 by a considerable distance, their failure to defeat Gloucester at home in their Challenge Cup semi-final suggested they will have it all to do win the play-offs where the more pragmatic Clermont, Montpellier and Toulon will be lurking.

There is a danger that some teams will outgrow the leagues they play in, which is one reason why Premiership Rugby, seeking to justify its intention to increase the length of the domestic season to 10 months from 2019-20, is looking to establish a tournament with the leading franchises in the southern hemisphere, which currently would mean four New Zealand sides.

With South Africa about to ditch two teams from Super Rugby next year, most likely the Cheetahs and the Kings, the prospect of their joining the Pro 12 has been raised. The organisers of the tournament are looking at ways to expand commercially to raise income for its sides, trying to keep up with the Premiership and the Pro 12, and even the United States has been explored.

As more money comes into the game, more is sought with most of the increase being absorbed in wages. Finance is the overriding reason why the Premiership wants to expand its season and, for all the assurances given to players about rest periods and a break at the midway point of a season, what about supporter fatigue and the extra costs fans face?

On the other hand Saracens can go no higher than they are in the current set-up. It is when the expansion of the club game cuts across Test rugby, the earner for the vast majority of tier one nations that the problems begin. That is not a concern for Premiership Rugby, which is why its ambitions should be challenged by the body that controls the game in England, the Rugby Football Union.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Championship to Premiership – Mind the Gap

Just to clarify at the outset, I am talking about rugby union’s particular problems with the gap between the Premiership and the Championship, though I am aware of the parallels with the round-ball game.

The other Saturday I passed a very pleasant afternoon watching London Scottish end their Championship season with a dismal defeat against Nottingham. I shared the experience with about 800 other souls, which represents a decent crowd for the Exiles.

But just what do people mean when they talk about the gap between the Championship and Premiership? I’d like to talk some about some of the less obvious issues that aren’t often talked about.

I’m a strong believer that to be successful on the pitch the club has to have its ducks in a row off the pitch first. So while most commentators will talk about the gap in player salary budget and lack of time to sign players as being handicaps for the championship sides I think it starts much earlier than that.

Sides in the championship don’t have the same budget and that does impact on the size and quality of the administration team. That cuts across marketing, accounting, etc…Even sides like Worcester Warriors and Exeter Chiefs, who are held up as shining examples of how to get into and survive in the Premiership, have had issues. Worcester had a LV= point deduction  for an administrative error around player registration in 2012, and Exeter had 2 Aviva Premiership points deducted for a player entering England on his Australian not Fiji passport.

However signs that London Welsh weren’t prepared were much larger with their team manager Mike Scott banned for life from rugby for falsifying player registrations.Welsh were also fined and lost 5 points.

The Rugby Players Association covers all Premiership players. One of the things they do is set minimum standards around player contracts and mediates between players and clubs when issues arise. Nothing like this is set up for Championship clubs, and it is evident not all the clubs would want it to happen.

Players in the championship can be on very short-term rolling contracts. This means they can be an injury or concussion away from losing their jobs and ability to pay the mortgage/feed the family. Whilst Premiership players might be on a year-long contract they don’t have to worry about where their money is coming from week to week.

Championship clubs can lack the experienced administrators to follow the rules correctly and have players on very insecure contracts. Where there are these kind of uncertainties off the pitch, the coaches and players don’t have the base to fully concentrate on delivering on the pitch.

The Clash..of two teams. chasing former glories

Bath Rugby v Leicester Tigers

April 8 2017

@ Twickenham Stadium

 

Bath: 27

Leicester:21

There was a time when Bath and Leicester Tigers would meet at Twickenham because they were the best teams in the country playing in an end-of-season shoot-out. On Saturday they were there for a regular-season fixture because Bath have a marketing department who have worked all hours and conjured a crowd numbering 61,816 in the warm spring sunshine. The game was officially billed as “The Clash”; less catchy, but they could have gone with “Two Faded Champions In Search Of Former Glory”.

The struggles of two of England’s greatest clubs have been curious and compelling to observe these past few years as they have attempted to snatch at the dominance that once seemed theirs by right. The league table tells some of the story: Leicester were fourth and Bath were fifth at start of play. They were wrestling each other for a place in the play-offs. At the end of this exciting but error-strewn contest Leicester are fourth and Bath fifth, albeit separated only on points difference. They are within reach of the top and yet also miles away.

In their greater times, they were models of success management. They knew the formula and they stuck with it. Now they are shuffling the cards, hoping that some day they will turn up an ace. Matt O’Connor arrived for his first day pitchside as Leicester’s head coach.-the third this season. Bath’s policy for their coaches, meanwhile, seems to have been that of the revolving door.

If there is any continuity here, it is Matt Banahan. He is Bath’s longest serving player: he joined in 2006 and has lost count of how many coaches have been and gone in that time.

Here he is trying to do the maths. “Maybe ten, maybe 13 different coaches,” he said. He then goes through them, one by one. He settles on 11. Then he remembers who he forgot: 12.

“Every coach picks up a squad, everyone gets excited and you get a few good games,” he said. “It’s just about maintaining it. We’ve got the squad to do great things; we just need to find that plateau to perform at a high level.”

Banahan is not intending to be critical. Not remotely. However, he could hardly make the point better. Bath rise and fall, their fortunes fluctuate; there is no plateau. What would happen if you stuck with one management team instead?

He will not say this, but I can: either Bruce Craig, the Bath owner, is too consistently poor at selecting his coaching teams; or he should stick by them and allow them to soak up the disappointments and turn them into successes.

Craig is not alone though. Shotgun management has become the order of the Premiership this season. (Sound familiar?)Your team hit hard times, you look around for answers, you sack one of the coaches. Leicester have done it three times this season. Rugby clubs used to pause and then react at the end of the season; this time, though, mid-season, five of the 12 Premiership clubs have made changes to their coaching structure.

And what of the clubs doing well? Well, there are only three of them and they tell the same story from the opposite perspective. At Saracens, who at present are, by some distance, England’s most successful club, Mark McCall has been director of rugby for six years. Top of the Aviva Premiership table? Wasps — where Dai Young has also been in place for six years. Second in the table are Exeter Chiefs; Rob Baxter, the head coach, was at the club before some of his players were born.

Does this not suggest that continuity wins? Banahan’s answer is straight to the point: “You’d obviously like that. But rugby, football, cricket — it’s a business, you are judged on results and that is how people keep their jobs and lose them.”

Bath have not had continuity. Not a glimmer of it. Yes, they started the season well, but the fixture list was kind to them and allowed them to build a head of steam against some of the weaker teams. Of late, though, they have run out of puff. They have lost their past three Premiership games, were humiliated 53-10 by Saracens, failed to score a try at home to Wasps and somehow conjured a defeat against Bristol.

The game’s other subplot revolved around the two fly halves, George Ford, of Bath, and Freddie Burns, of Leicester, who will swap clubs in the summer and will likely have something to prove to both sides.

Well into the final quarter it seemed that the aspirations of Bath had been roasted in the Twickenham sunshine, burnt to a frazzle and sent back to the kitchen. With 67 minutes gone Leicester led 21-13. , and then, finally, West Country hell was let loose.Taulupe Faletau went on a weaving run  and Anthony Watson cruised up outside with a trademark supporting run. The kick made it 21-20, and two minutes later, Faletau made big inroads again, the ball arrived in the hands of Watson via Banahan and it was 27-21 with the kick. Leicester were by now paying the penalty for their failure to cash in on their authority. Fly-half Freddie Burns commented:”Great occasion, disappointing result.”

Hid personal duel with Ford probably ended even. Both had their kicking boots on, and Leicester fell behind only after Burns had left the field injured.

Twickenham was magnificent on Saturday afternoon. There was a new crowd there, new fans; that is what Bath want to achieve and good luck to them. And they happened upon an almighty contest, full of history, over brimming with significance.

Mike Miles

Bath v Brive – The Rematch

Bath v Brive

April 1 2017

 

Back in the early days of the Heineken Cup it wasn’t entirely clear if all this cross-border competition was good for the game. France was the frontier town, and nowhere was more dangerous or more gilded than Brive, smack in the middle of the Limousin. This stand-alone town had already stunned the rugby world by humbling Leicester at Cardiff Arms Park in the final, only the second, of 1997.

 

For the third Heineken Cup campaign, the reigning champions from Brive were pooled together with Pontypridd, and the continuation of the two teams own feud. The rugby between the two clubs was brilliant, with the European champions winning 32-21 in a quite breathtaking game. Breathtaking, brilliant and brutal. The quality of the play was matched only by the quality of the fighting, a running brawl that extended way beyond the 80 minutes. After the rugby encounter in the Parc Muncipal, the teams met again, over the counter of the Bar Toulzac in the middle of Brive.

The Pontypridd players went into the Brive team’s drinking den to confront certain individuals, and in particular scrum half Philippe Carbonneau.Chairs, bottles and fists flew. By a wicked quirk of fate the two then met in what was called in those days a quarter-final play-off. Brive won at home 25-20, went on to win superbly at Loftus Road against Wasps in the quarter-final proper, and then beat Toulouse in Toulouse in the semi-final, on try count, after being tied 22-all after extra time.

 

Meanwhile, Bath, almost unnoticed, were in the final too, having beaten both Cardiff and Pau at the Recreation Ground. They were coached by Andy Robinson, had Jeremy Guscott and Ieuan Evans in the backs. They were considered a mature team with the best days behind them.

They were not expected to beat Brive in the 1998 final, especially not at the Parc Lescure in Bordeaux. And yet they did win, 19-18, with Jonathan Callard scoring all their points with a try, conversion and four penalties.

 

The reason for this trip down rugby’s memory lane is that the two teams met on Saturday at the Recreation Ground in a quarter –final of the Challenge Cup competition. 1998 had marked a European peak for both teams.

Bath’s best performance in the Heineken Cup was a semi-final appearance in 2005/06. They have been more successful in the Challenge Cup, reaching four finals since 2002/03, with one success, against Worcester in 2007.

Brive’s history since 1998 has been a rocky one, and includes two relegations to the second division, one in 2000 for financial mismanagement. Their only notable European performance was a Challenge Cup semi-final appearance in 2005.

 

So it is not surprising that Saturday’s match at the Recreation Ground should be the first between the two clubs for almost 20 years. Bath were on a rocky run in the Premiership with three consecutive defeats. With a lunch-time kick-off and the sun shining, there was a springtime feel to the match. Brive contributed a good deal, but were undone by some wretched defending. Bath stopped the rot with a highly entertaining victory 34-20, to set up a semi-final clash away to another French side, Stade Francais.

 

 

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

Anglo-Welsh Cup Final 2017

Sunday March 19,2017

Anglo-Welsh Cup  Final 2017

Leicester Tigers v Exeter Chiefs

@ Twickenham Stoop ; k.o. 15.00

 

 

Leicester Tigers …..16

Exeter Chiefs………..12

 

 

Apparently there was a big rugby match in Dublin this weekend, but to say the Anglo-Welsh Cup Final slipped under the radar would be a massive understatement.  

This is a strange competition. Rather like its round-ball equivalent, the Football League Cup, it takes place seemingly when no one else is looking and is competed for by reserve and up and coming players. Originally known as the R.F.U. Club Competition (for which no Cup was awarded!) it kicked off in 1972. It became the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2006, and it says everything about its (lack of) profile that it is currently without a sponsor.

Finals used to be held at Twickenham on the other side of the A316 – I was among the 43,312 crowd who saw Leicester overcome Ospreys in a thrilling final 41-35 on a sun drenched afternoon in 2007.Over the last decade dwindling interest and attendances have caused the final to be shunted around various Premiership stadia. Harlequin’s Stoop was the latest to have the “honour”. The home side were knocked out in the semi-finals so just over 6,000 souls rattled around a stadium meant to hold 15,000 on a dry, blustery March afternoon.

 

Leicester Tigers annual claim to silverware used to be something you could take for granted, but this was their first trophy of any description in four barren years. In a season which has seen Leicester part company with long-time Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill, a first cup since their Premiership title of 2013 can’t have done confidence any harm.

 

On current league form Exeter were clear favourites. They had even trounced the Tigers in the Premiership a few weeks earlier at Welford Road. James Short crossed to give the Chiefs an early lead, but Tom Brady intercepted a loose pass for what proved the decisive try for Leicester before half-time. Freddie  Burns was the difference with three penalties and a conversion in difficult kicking conditions, while his Chiefs counterpart, Joe Simmonds, missed two relatively straightforward penalty attempts either side of half time. Sam Simmonds made it a nervy finish with a late try under the posts but it was too little, too late

 

Tigers became the first club to record a hat-trick of wins in the competition. Exeter were in their third successive final, having beaten Northampton in 2014 and lost to Saracens a year later. The 2014 win remains the club’s only major trophy in their 146-year history, though currently lying second in the Premiership that could change come the end of May.

 

Mike Miles

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

Aviva Premiership benefits from our chaotic calendar

There has been a lot of talk this season about rugby’s messy schedule. Concerns over a lack of alignment between the hemispheres, internationals in the middle of the season, the sheer number of games players are involved in and the length of the Six Nations tournament are all concerns for the men at the top.

Sir Clive Woodward recently proposed a five-week tournament, in order to better mirror the knock-out stages of a World Cup. There is also a concern that the tournament robs the Premiership clubs of their players for too long.

Because of the added fallow weeks, that is seven weeks the clubs lose their top players over the Six Nations. There is a further four weeks over the Autumn Internationals, not to mention the various training camps. Most importantly of all, it equates to seven missed premiership matches. That is a third of the season and a possible 35 points up for grabs. To put that in context, Saracens finished last season on 80 points. 32 below them were Bath in ninth.

There was a stark reminder of the situation recently as Gloucester downed the defending champions Saracens, Sale defeated the current table-toppers Wasps, and Newcastle completed their double over east-midlands heavyweights Northampton Saints. Even second from bottom Worcester also beat Saracens. Back during the autumn series, Newcastle claimed an important win against Harlequins and that first against Northampton, and Wasps lost to Gloucester.

The clubs are financially compensated for the loss of their players – with a figure in excess of £200 million agreed between clubs and country – but there is still murmurings about devaluing the game for the fans, not to mention the ‘fair’ aspect; how can we have a tournament where the best teams lose their best players for a third of the matches? When the English football side play competitive internationals there are no Premiership or even Championship matches scheduled.

I will be honest – I don’t care. The crazy, messed up schedule with international players coming and going, is part of the reason to love the Premiership. It levels the playing field just the right amount and stops an elite few running away with it. The bottom teams go into these matches with a glint in their eyes. They know the best are there to be beaten when they are missing those one or two players that separate them from the rest. It also means the best teams cannot rest on their laurels – during the internationals they are exposed and there is an opportunity, not just for their opponents, but for their rivals to gain ground on them.

The play-offs also take care of the ‘fair’ criticism to a certain extent. The occasional loss by the top teams does not necessarily cost them the trophy, they must instead ensure they finish in the top four and all is to play for come May. It may split the difference for a team with regard to fourth versus fifth, or a home or away play-off place, or indeed a spot in the Champions cup, but no system is perfect.

Perhaps more importantly, it also is invaluable for bringing through emerging players. There is the Anglo-Welsh Cup and that plays a role in giving exposure to young players, but it is treated with such disdain by most clubs that often they are little better than b-fixtures anyway. They are definitely not the same as playing in a Premiership game.

I understand the reasons people are calling for the rugby season to be changed – particularly when it comes to player welfare and the madness that the best players may have as little as six weeks off playing to let their bodies recover before preseason starts. And of course, this is a myopic Premiership centred view – it impacts some of the clubs in the Pro12 far more acutely (how are Glasgow expected to be competitive when they lose 15 players to the Scottish squad?).

But I for one like the chaos it brings to the Premiership. It creates the environment for giant-killings by the bottom clubs and the international stars of the future to get proper and sustained exposure to top level rugby. Everyone wins like this.

Mike Miles