Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Is money everything?

With the news that Jonny Sexton is looking like he is on his way to Racing Metro from Leinster almost turning his back on the IRFU, it raises the question- Is the lure of money overtaking the pride of representing the National team. And to what extent is money making an effect on the rugby world?

Within the last few months we've seen a wealth of Welsh talent perform a mass exodus to shores of France to receive a bounty of money in comparison to their earnings back in their motherland. The French teams such as Toulon and Racing Metro have certainly been shelling out the Euros, drafting in an enormity of players from around the world. The effect this has had on the likes of smaller nations such as the Wales has seen them looking to drop from four to three regions, the financial capability just is not there. An issue for me is with all this talent in these squads game time will be restricted, bench time will become all to usual, demonstrating the sport to be drifting towards a big money game.

Many nations apply the ruling 'to play for the country you must play in the country!' Even this has now not become a big enough deterrent as the pennies are a bigger draw as opposed to pulling on the national shirt and displaying you pride for all the world to see.
The French seem to be slowly pillaging the talent from other nations seemingly to build Rugby's version of the English football premier league, but to what detriment to other nations and teams? Could this French cash splash be causing a shift in direction in the purity of the sport?

The IRFU's decision is a tough one, if they allow Sexton to continue to play for Ireland then it will allow other to do likewise plunging Irish rugby into a dire situation. A large issue regarding player flocking to foreign shores is sadly money. Salary caps are quite a contentious issue, the vast varying amounts in each leagues salary cap is almost astounding! The Welsh rugby has a cap of £3.5m, the Aviva premiership amasses to £4.5 yet the French Top 14 has a loosely based €9.5m cap. With such a vast difference the enticement to travel abroad to earn some extra money for security when their career comes to pass is understandable.
The RaboDirect Pro 12 has no actual implemented salary cap although Scotland, Ireland and Italy seem to observe the same principle as the WRU's salary cap due to being small nations in the terms of economy.
The Aviva Premierships salary cap is a little trickier to grasp but equates to £4.5m. The actual cap is £4.26m with additional academy credits, academy credits are an allocation of £30,000 for each home-grown player and a maximum of eight credits per team raising the cap up. The other little interesting allowance for each team is to have one player whose salary is not declared against the salary cap a 'Marquee player'.
The salary cap for the Top 14 is at €9.5m but there are many loopholes in the system meaning that certain clubs are able to flout this and stretch the boundaries. There is becoming a little rumble from France that they are worrying the lack of actual French talent is now being pushed aside for the wealth of foreign talent, so it's becoming detrimental to their own national game.

What solutions could there be to the exodus abroad, how could this be halted and stop club rugby almost losing its national stars and losing the progression of future stars? Surely with a continual progression of foreign players flooding leagues will make exciting rugby but start turning the game into the money orientated game of football. If you look at the English Premiership and study the amount of English players feature in the 22 teams on a regular basis, and then look at the state of English football on the world stage? There is still the encouragement of nurturing home-grown talent in rugby which seems lost in football, but will the draw of cash drive a wedge in this nurturing.
I believe a salary cap is one thing that is grounding rugby and stopping it from morphing into the same state that football has become. As football is more money orientated business more so than the sport itself the players are more of a commodity to the club rather than a team member. This may be considered as a harsh generalisation but there is a huge difference between the competitors in both sports-
- because of the players being payed such vast quantities of money footballers have separated theirselves from the real world. Money is no object and they can shroud themselves in the company only they believe to be on par with, how often do you see a premiership star shopping in sainsburys? Some may consider them as egotistical prima-donnas!
- rugby players still seem to have that air of normality about them and in fairness are still fairly normal guys, not in size though! It's quite simple to see generally the players are very responsive through twitter and are more than happy to respond to their supporters as they realise its them ultimately helps pay their salaries.

A suggestion is to equal out the salary caps across the various leagues, but again this could cause more issues. It becomes unfair on leagues that can afford and sustain the finances, whereas the smaller countries may not be able to do so and lead into to another financial melting pot. I do truly believe that it is time that a governing body such as the ERC or IRB took stock of the mounting problem and in turn brought the competing leagues together and tried to forge some sense of a amicable agreement to salvage an ailing problem before anymore damage is caused to club rugby, which I'm sure as in football has filtered into international level.

Rugby at this moment is time is still cantered around the sport and and the growth and development of the game not financial implications, but worryingly I can see it to be drifting in that direction. An evolution of the sport through the professional climate is inevitable but let's learn from football and ensure we stay away from the way they have evolved. I enjoy a good game of football but find it frustrating watching players attitudes towards officials and diving to gain a free kick/penalty and see a player carded. Rugby still has its purity and gentlemanly air shrouded around it, I would hate to see this lost!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

A first away day experience for an aspiring pundit

In my time as a Bath fan I've enjoyed the occasional away day quite a few of those I was lucky enough to go to Twickenham several times through the 80's and 90's. As for my eldest son's first Bath game was at the age of five where I got to take him up to Twickenham to see the final against Leeds, other than that he's only had the pleasure of watching Bath at the Rec. I felt at the age of 13 the time was right to take him on his first true away game expedition, our chosen fixture was Wasps at Adams Park.

Armed with belief, hope and expectations my son and set off on our boys day out heading in the direction of High Wycombe. Two wanna be pundits sat in the car chewing the fat and talking up the chances of Bath in this doable game safe in the knowledge if the Bath we believe we know can play. Surprising the so called knowledge that can be shared between a 13 and 34 year old in one journey, we would of put Austin Healey and Stuart Barnes to shame.
As we nestled down in our seats we noticed we had entered what can only be classed as a mosh pit of Wasps fans, this was to become a very enlightening experience during the match. A little bit of warm up action was going on in front of us, was good to see the Bath Boys looking fresh and confident. As we watched the players walk back done the tunnel we sat waiting displaying our colours like proud peacocks, filled with the belief this was a good chance for Bath to earn some valuable points.

On the return to the pitch my son was surprised by the difference in volume between fans, being more familiar to Bath receiving the cheers. Hats off to the Wasps faithful they certainly know how to make some noise. Slightly intrigued by the referee having to wait for the music to die down before blasting on his whistle to get the game under way.

We were soon to be jumping for joy, cheering and shouting as after 26 seconds saw Nick Abendanon crossed the line giving Bath a 5-0 lead, the Wasps fans around us really were not of the happiest bunch. To hear such a large voiced opinion through the match from the opposing fans was really actually very interesting, as majority of the time their opinion differed from mine and my sons. The differences of opinions I suppose comes from the passion of the game and your team, a decision goes against your side and you feel the referee is being unjust and at times harsh on your side, the rose tinted glasses syndrome. My personal view on the game it's self was the referee had a poor game for both sides equally, unlike my Wasps counterparts sat near us.
Through the game I found some of these differences of opinion to start becoming mildly amusing and realised this is how the Bath faithful must sound to opposing supporters. The two yellow card were a true sign of people's views over the officials decisions, both saw a player from each side spend 10 minutes on the naughty step.
Tom Varndell saw yellow for a an aggressive but borderline dangerous tackle on Agulla, lifting and driving him to the floor, the contentious decision was given over the lifting of the leg above the head. The swarm of Wasps surrounding me couldn't believe it to be to harsh and never in a yellow, although five minutes before kick off were discussing Toby Floods 'Tip' tackle. Vardell's yellow raised more anger after seeing Claasens bundle over in the corner after Mearsy offloaded to him of the back of a maul, Donald converting adding more salt to the wound.
The tables were firmly turned as it was Dominic Day to see the flash of yellow for pulling Cannon down in the line out, for his infringement Day was met with a huge chorus of 'off, off, off, off' this is a huge irritant of mine. I'm not stating that only Wasps fans chant this as I've heard it too many times at the Rec. Following the yellow for Day Jones had a shot for the penalty in which one lonely Bath fan opted to shout breaking the silence which was being observed for Jones' kick, from this one of the home supporters got very aggrieved announcing ' the Bath fans behaviour was disgusting and should be escorted from the ground'? This same fellow was quite happily joining in with the rendition of the 'off's'
This may come across as me slating the Wasps fans, I'm not for me and especially my son it was so interesting hearing the flip side of a fans view. We get so used to being the dominant crowd we sometimes forget what it's like to be the away supporter.
As the fixture progressed on and reached half time Wasps went in as the leaders aided with a Christian Wade try. The Second half started well with a Heathcote penalty, who came on at half time to replace Stephen Donald. Unfortunately the home side slowly turned the screw and through the second half became the more domineering side. The final nail in Bath's coffin came when Chris bell crossed the line after a chip over from Simpson, in that move sadly Abendanon opted to stick out a heel and trip Simpson resulting in Abendanon getting his turn in the sin bin. A desperate measure from Bendy which saw him turn from the sublime to the stupid in seconds. The pressure from Wasps in the second half had be so much it had seen them even turned down on two TMO decisions for tries. The final whistle came as Bath fought hard to at least try to rescue any signs of a losing bonus point but this was not to be, it finished with the home side winning 29-15.

The return journey home saw my son and I slip into punditry mode again and discuss our analysis of the Bath performance. A 13 year olds perspective can be very refreshing, the added bonus of him been very keen on watching and playing he's also quite a knowledgeable little man.
Our synopsis was-

The first half was a well balanced game although Bath failed to capitalise on their fantastic start.

Players that we felt had a strong performance for Bath were Louw (as always), Banahan ( covered good ground and hit some solid tackles), Mears (always in the mix a solid performance) and up until his little lapse into foolishness nick Abendanon (always unpredictable and everywhere)

Bath tried to build down the pitch and at the last minute attempted something a little too much and lost possession, almost trying to force things and concentrate on keeping possession.

Discipline!!!!! Where do we go with this, just to much ill discipline from Bath. Relentless unnecessary infringements giving away unnecessary points adding extra pressure to themselves to play catch up.

At times Bath seemed at sixes and sevens almost not knowing what to do, is there unrest between the players over contracts, players leaving, rumours of players coming in and then there is the whole Brad Davis situation.

Regardless of the final outcome of the game my son had an awesome first away game and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, hopefully next time the 'boys go on tour' Bath can top it off and win! Also if there's anybody out there wanting two bemusing pundits we're open to offers!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Are we in danger of the Hooker becoming a dying art?

There are many positions on the field that can be classed as specialised, the back line seem to be able to interchange and are now multi positional players as do the back row have the ability to move between 6,7 and 8. The two roles on the field which are truly specialised now are the scrum half and the hooker, for me the hooker is the more technically specialised.
The strength required to be in the front row is one thing alone, add the the ability to hook the ball and throw the ball at line outs hoping for accuracy. All three roles accumulated to one pivotal role in the team, if your line out or hooking is off key can cost the team dearly. To be a hooker it takes a special person, players such as Brian Moore, Keith Wood, Sean Fitzpatrick, Steve Thompson, John Smit, Graham Dawe and Lee Mears is a list of some of the most influential players on the field.

The scrum has been a major issue in the last few years and with the change of call from "crouch, touch, pause, engage" to " couch, touch, set" seeming to be easing the amount of resets that occur. The one point that has been an issue for many, including Brian Moore who has relentlessly voiced his opinion, is the feeding of the scrum. The feed should be straight down the channel enabling both hookers to compete for the ball while the other members of the pack push to aid the winning of the ball. A non straight feed is answerable to a penalty awarded to the opposing side, yet this is becoming a rare occurrence.

Is it becoming the norm and accepted that the scrum half can feed the ball into his pack and the only competition of the forwards is to attempt to push the other team of the ball, are we losing the hookers strike? Another question regarding this is why are the referees no longer penalising the scrum half for a crooked feed? By the hooker no longer striking for the ball surely this is changing their role, perhaps they're just to become glorified props who throw the ball in at line outs, even their position name will change......if they're not hooking then why have the position named that. Traditionally a hooker has always been a tenacious little scrapper who is there along with their other chores is to mix things up a little, the joy of rugby has always been majority of size or power generally there is a role for everyone, the change in stature of a hooker could mean the traditional hooker again could be lost.

It is totally evident from watching the game that the ball is blatantly being fed, sometimes almost straight to the second row yet the officials seem to turn a blind eye. While watching a junior fixture recently I noticed that it has filtered down through to there, even a scrum half turn to face his pack while putting the ball in, and as in top flight no punishment given. With officials ignoring a fundamental rule in the game young players are emulating there heroes. Around most international and professional games there are cameras showing all different angles and perspectives, while watching the Autumn Internationals they were showing areal views many on the scrum which truly highlighted the feeding issue. A rule is a rule yet the feeding is ignored what does this show the future players of the sport, rugby is a game of respect and discipline but now rules are being forgotten.

If the continuation of flouting the feeding rule would it not be that scrums could almost become an uncontested set piece as in rugby league. Perhaps a little melodramatic to compare the two scrummages, although the hook is seeming to become almost redundant the shove could be the only way to possibly win against the head. With bigger hits and harder shoves will only add to extra pressures upon the front rows necks potentially leading to more injuries, this will force the front row players into extra conditioning putting even more strain on their bodies becoming a vicious circle. With the big powering up of players to be able to withstand the 'hit' will without doubt lead to earlier retirements as their bodies will not be able to endure so much punishment over a length of time.

A large discussion of many for officiating scrums is the fact that many of modern referees are former backs and aren't aware of the workings of the scrum. It's takes a brave man to step up in the front row and I don't believe referees have the knowledge of first hand experience what it truly takes to put your body on the line. Another way of viewing the allowance of a crooked feed would be to allow the ball to leave the scrum as quick as possible, relieving the pressure upon the pack, if this is so then perhaps the IRB should review the laws and amend them accordingly. In all fairness to the referees the scrum is a busy time for him, he has a lot to keep his eyes on: bindings, boring, twisting and all other infringements that materialise during a scrum. A scrum is one of the times that the referee need the reliance of his touch judges to aid his control over the scrum, for the referee to see the crooked feed he needs to be crouched to have his eyes on the ball bindings etc could be monitored by the nearest touch judge to hand. A sense of delegation should be required during the scum situation, this is another thing that appears to be missing.

So far this weekend we have been shown the changes in the scrum format, even with Richard Cockerill referring to it as a power battle. Where has the technique and skill from the two sides gone? Is it now just about two packs battering each other in almost a brutal and simplistic manner does strength now out weigh skill? A trade can take years to master and in rugby terms a hooker has always been the master of trades but now that trade appears to being lost or even detracted away from. Slowly but surely we are losing simple aspects of the game, through the transition from armature to professional the game has changed. Evolution was always going to happen but do we really want to lose the true aspect and feeling of the game, lets not lose the feel of a game we all love and are so passionate about.

Regardless of your views over the feeding of the scrum it's a very contentious subject and need a serious redevelopment from the IRB and even possibly a step back to the old school. When you have 16 men coiled up with power and pressure built up waiting to make the 'hit' to gain advantage surely is a recipe for problems. A solution that many have discussed is to drop the 'hit' and revert to the two packs uniting, ball being fed in and then the two sides can drive. With a big impact sides can get a forward momentum and allow their side to drive forward, leading to the 'hit' to be more important than the hook and rendering the hooker almost redundant in the scrum.

I've been lucky enough to get some questions to a still practising professional hooker, a Bath and England legend not to mention a true example of what you would class as an classic Hooker......enter Mr Lee Mears.

From watching rugby for many years, I've noticed of late that the feeding of the scrum is becoming very crooked and seems it rarely reaches the hooker, would you say that's a fair point or just a media reputation?
The scrum has evolved with the different rule changes and I do believe that now it is much more of a pushing contest if you are not moving forward it is very tough to lift you foot to strike. The media have picked up on this but I do believe that is a restart of the game ie why should the opposition who have knocked the ball on get the chance to win it straight back. The scrum is now used to tire the big units out to create more space.

Is the new 'crouch, touch, set' a far better way to set the scrum, as the resets seems less than the 'crouch, touch, pause, engage'?
Miles better not sure why the refs ever actually had to say pause?!?!?!?!?!

To me the hooker is the most specialised position on the pitch, playing front row, hooking and line outs. If crooked feeding becomes more of an acceptance do you feel the art of hooking may be lost and in years to come a hooker may be seen as a glorified prop who throws the ball in? For me its the most exciting position on the pitch and is hate to see that lost.
I still believe that the hooker role especially in the scrum is still very vital everything sets around the hooker he controls the height, speed, angles of attack (probably best described over the phone or in person at some point). Plus its tough for props to learn to throw!!!!!

Slightly off subject, were you tempted to offer yourself up for the Autumn internationals as there was a lacking of Hookers available and you more than likely would of got a place? You could of been part of the NZ beating team...regrets or happy you served England well?

It was definitely time to move on, they've got some great young guys coming through and they need to blood them now to get the best out of them in the world cup 2015. I loved every minute of my caps and will still get a buzz every time England beat another country as I'm extremely patriotic and feel more like I helped keep the nation behind our country by being part of its history.

Would love to thank Lee for his input and interesting to hear a view from the hookers side!