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

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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

Six Nations:Can seven weeks equal five?

Scotland no doubt welcomed a rest this weekend after their gruelling encounter against France in Paris, during which four players sustained concussion and Greig Laidlaw limped off after 24 minutes with an ankle injury that ended his Six Nations. Three others had to be replaced because of injuries – so what shape would the side be in were the third round taking place last weekend , as has been suggested during the debate on the global calendar?

The Scots would have had six days to prepare for Wales, who themselves had a short turnaround for last weekend’s match against England after opening in Rome on the Sunday.

The argument for the Six Nations to be played over successive weekends is that it would free up space later in the season, that it could kick off in the latter part of February and replicate the World Cup, when the semi-finalists will play seven matches in six weeks or less. It is being championed by Premiership Rugby, which, under its agreement with the Rugby Football Union, cannot recall England players on the two fallow weekends during the championship.

The Southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship takes a week longer than the Six Nations as sides play six matches on a home and away basis. It is played in three blocks of two weekends and has two fallow weekends. It does not serve as a direct comparison because of the considerably greater traveling distances.

All matches in the Rugby Championship, though, are played on a Saturday. Were the Six Nations to be played in one go, would six-day turnarounds, especially after the first couple of rounds, enhance the tournament? As has already been seen this year, England have the strength in depth to cope with injury problems that wipe out half their pack, but the Celtic nations and Italy cannot.

A five-week tournament would be to England’s advantage, although would Premiership Rugby modify its agreement with the RFU regarding the call-up of players into the England squad if there were injuries in one or two positions? The Celts have the advantage of being able to add to their squads at will, although they lose control of their exiled players during the fallow weekends.

While teams have to play more matches in a similar period during the World Cup, they can often have two games against weaker opponents, when they are able to rotate their squad. And they have three months to prepare for the tournament rather than the couple of weeks they have for the Six Nations, when teams go into camp on the back of two European rounds. Saracens’ England internationals had full-on encounters with Toulon and the Scarlets before joining up with their international team-mates and a five-week Six Nations would require a greater lead-in period and a break for the players at the end.

Would it make a meaningful difference to the shape of the European season other than to keep the cameras rolling? When World Rugby started the talks over a global calendar, it said its main aim was player welfare. A five-week Six Nations would lead to sides hoping they drew Italy on the third weekend so they could – as England will at Twickenham in the next round – use the fixture to rotate.

An alternative is to look at the championship itself. It is 17 years since Italy joined, but recent results in the Six Nations show they are not keeping pace: they have conceded 40 points or more in eight of their last 14 matches. Scotland have done so twice in that period and France once.

A reversion to the old Five Nations, backed up by a second division, would be a way of playing the tournament over five weeks with the two matches each round scheduled on Saturdays. Every team would have a free weekend, although two, the ones who sat out the opening and final rounds, would play their games in one block.

It won’t happen, not so much because of what it would do for the Italian game (Italy are 14th in the world rankings, two places below Georgia) but because it would mean the loss of a home match every two years for the other five, on top of television getting fewer matches.

Recently the chief executive of the Six Nations ruled out promotion and relegation, but in doing so merely reinforced the impression that it is an archaic closed shop, more dedicated to making money for the unions than encouraging proper, meaningful competition.

What must scare the living daylights out of the organisers is the nightmare scenario where one of the big five had a really bad year, got the wooden spoon, and lost in any relegation play-off. Just imagine the furore if that happened, and their place was taken by one of the “minnows”.

RFU Championship – The lessons from London Welsh

All the media attention may be on the Six Nations, but I am looking forward to hearing how the RFU plans to revitalise the Championship.Somehow, the wealthiest national governing body in world rugby has allowed its second-tier competition to sink into disrepair.

Compared to the Premiership, it’s a veritable slum. There are reports of players not only earning well below the living wage, but also having to cover their own medical expenses.Many of these players have chosen to abandon the game. Others didn’t even get that choice. A fortnight ago London Welsh was expunged from the league – and possibly the history books – after Twickenham declared the club’s financial position to be “untenable”.

Sickeningly, the historic side’s one major misstep was in becoming too successful. Promotion to the top flight in 2012 saw them forced to abandon Old Deer Park, their spiritual home, for an industrial estate near Oxford. There they had the 10,000 seats as required by Premiership Rugby. Unfortunately, the bums needed to fill them remained back in Richmond.

The subsequent three seasons saw the Exiles relegated, promoted again and relegated again. This yo-yoing caused such a bout of the bends that they failed to score a single win during the length of the 2014/15 season. Worse, a host of hasty, stop-the-rot signings left them with a mountain of unresolved debts.

The rest is history; London Welsh are now history.

And with terminal failure so closely entwined with fleeting success, who would now want to take up the poisoned chalice of promotion? Perhaps that’s the gist of the RFU’s imminent reveal: a Premiership ring-fenced for the safety of all.

It’s easy to point accusatory fingers at Twickers, but it’s not fair. They can’t be expected to bankroll “untenable” enterprises. Like it or not, professional rugby is a business: it’s sink or swim, and only the fittest survive.

So perhaps we should just let nature take its course. Perhaps rugby in England just isn’t big enough to support two tiers of professionalism.

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Leicester Tigers are the rugby equivalent of Arsenal

I have written in the past how rugby union is acquiring the (bad) habits of the round-ball game. We are barely into 2017 and Leicester Tigers find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich – qualifying for Europe every season, while living within their means and reducing debt, but never seriously threatening to win the league or a European trophy.

Happy new year to you all,” wrote Richard Cockerill in what turned out to be his final programme notes as Leicester’s director of rugby. Less than 24 hours later, the club announced he had been sacked following the defeat by the club who have become as dominant this decade as the Tigers were in the 2000s, Saracens.

Cockerill became the second director of rugby of a Premiership club to lose his job this season following Andy Robinson’s dismissal by Bristol and five sides are now under different management from last season, as are the relegated London Irish. Leicester could not be accused of acting in haste as they faced up to a prospect of missing out on a trip to Twickenham in May for a fourth consecutive season. But as they showed in 2004 when removing another stalwart who had spent 23 years at Welford Road, Dean Richards, sentiment stretches only so far.

Before the start of the Twickenham double-header in 2004, Leicester were by some distance the best supported club in England and the only one to regularly record a profit. At the end of the previous season, their average gate for a league match was 16,120; Northampton were second, 5,000 behind. Bath, Wasps and Saracens did not make it into five figures.

It was a time when Leicester could sign big names from abroad, such as Pat Howard, Rod Kafer, Aaron Mauger – who is in interim charge of the first team after Cockerill’s departure – and Daryl Gibson, supplementing them with those lesser known such as Marcos Ayerza and Martin Castrogiovanni. These days, the elite end up in the Top 14 or as a marquee signing for English clubs able to live beyond their means.

Just as Roman Abramovich changed Premier League football when he bought Chelsea in 2003 and covered debts of £80m, so the ownership model of clubs ahead of Leicester in the table, Exeter excluded, has recalibrated the Premiership.

Saracens’ debt stood at more than £45m last year after an annual loss of nearly £4m, a shortfall covered by the club’s parent company, Premier Team Holdings Limited.

Bath lost £1.8m last year, down from £3m in 2014. Wasps lost £2.4m and took £35m in debt when they issued a bond scheme that is due in 2022, by which time the club anticipate a significant rise in revenue from outside rugby through the Ricoh Arena. Leicester, a public limited company, have the highest turnover of any Premiership club and the largest number of regular supporters, but paying to improve facilities – the latest upgrade at Welford Road cost £8m – left them reaching the salary cap but not making any marquee signings until the arrival of the Australian centre Matt Toomua last summer, and he played just a couple of matches before sustaining a long-term knee injury.

Leicester find themselves in the position of Arsenal post-Abramovich, going from vying for the title to battling for a top-four place while living within their means and reducing the debt on the Emirates Stadium.

It is in one sense fitting that Leicester’s first match without Cockerill was at Wasps. A couple of years ago it would have meant a trip to Wycombe but now it is a Midlands derby with the former London club now based in Coventry, a shortish drive from Leicester and Northampton, another club run on business lines that is scrabbling to keep up.

The Tigers board’s first task is to look at the coaching setup. Does it go for a director of rugby in the Martin Johnson mould, someone who would let the head coach run the rugby side while having responsibility for recruitment and contracts, or continue with the current structure? Then comes the question of how to compete with clubs such as Saracens, who are able to absorb large losses. Is the old way, on and off the pitch, becoming the wrong way for a club that should be the model for others?

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk