The Business Of Rugby


As the denouement of the Six Nations, Heineken Champions Cup, Challenge Cup and domestic leagues have played out over the last few weeks, it was tempting to look off-field as well as on-field for all the rugby stories.

Here are a selection of some which caught my eye and my theme is the business of rugby….. very topical!

ON FIELD

  1. Smart play and self-belief saw Wales to worthy Grand Slam status – my Welsh birthplace comes to the fore so I can at least claim some heritage! Top performance by Liam Williams in particular across all the games if I had to pick out someone. They went about their business and worked it out game by game- highly professional.
  2. I played in seven Calcutta Cup matches and if you missed a tackle you agonised for days about it, as did everyone else. Twickenham saw a sensational match this year unrivalled in the history of the contest but firstly let’s pay tribute to a Scottish attack which will take so much optimism into Japan and, with a full squad, who knows. I called it a couple of months ago and at least I feel I wasn’t making it up.  Thinking clearly under pressure (TCUP) was coined by Sir Clive Woodward and reflects England’s issue perfectly alongside some leadership questions. This will bother them until they lift the World Cup, no time left to assuage the doubters.
  3. Was there a better weekend of club rugby ever for the Heineken Champions Cup Quarter Finals? 40,000 at Murrayfield to see Munster use their key moments a lot better than an Edinburgh team who will be back. The agony and the ecstasy for Racing and Toulouse players and supporters as a last minute winning try was overturned and the magnificent 14 man resistance by Toulouse saw them squeak through – what quality both teams showed and it ranks as one of the best matches I have ever seen, with the emotion to boot.
  4. A devastated Ulster just failed to overturn Leinster and their King of Wings blew a winning intervention – the ups and downs of sport. Meantime Saracens’ warriors were far too strong for the Celtic version and marched on ominously into the semi-finals where they employed their unique combination of power and pace to overwhelm Munster. For Toulouse, their young side will come again, but it doesn’t help when your 9 is picked at 10 for such a big match as Leinster, and Jonny Sexton wasn’t going to miss that opportunity.
  5. The Newcastle European Finalists are now known and both Leinster and Saracens have set the standard on how well organised you have to be at every level – it is a business. Multiple numbers of Academy based players dominate their squads, ie homegrown. Anyone can buy in talent and it mostly doesn’t work. Invest in your own and you get the best of all worlds.

 

OFF FIELD

  1. Talking of club-grown talent and adherence to the employment rules, or otherwise, in recent criticisms, particularly of Saracens….. let me ask a different question – how many clubs really look after their players from start to finish of their career, like they do? Whether it be injury, loss of form or retirement that suddenly calls time? Cricket has worse statistics, but rugby has a serious issue with depression and mental health issues for retired players in the professional game. Too many clubs pay lip service to this, and it is a real problem. Let us think about the duty of care to the players we enjoy watching and how they cope when it’s all over. I am wondering whether corporate sponsors should be contractually obliged to take some of these multi-talented assets on board?!
  2. Incoming monies are revolutionising the pro game right now and people are panicking because they doubt investors intentions. The reality is that our sport is commercially underdeveloped and these investments will add significant value. None of the rugby governing bodies can operate in a vacuum. It may be painful to break old habits but this is an inflection point for the game.
  3. Meantime, communication and shared objectives are critical in business. Too many rugby authorities think they can grow and develop on their own. Do not live in a bubble!

 

FINALLY

If I was to explain rugby management to an outsider, I would allude to four main characters in the game – the volunteer amateur (99% of the game), paid administrator, wealthy investor, ex player with business experience. Simplified but essentially correct. They all have a rightful voice, but the trick is to take what is best from all of them and the effective compromise is complete. The next 12 months will be the most critical in our professional game to date – and they all have to remember that they owe the game at large a successful outcome. A rocky time ahead, but a game which is surging in popularity around the world can harness huge waves of support.

Think correctly under pressure, on and off the field.

England Wing It Into Cardiff For The Big One


It has all been about England in this year’s Six Nations, with some very smart kicking strategy and then the ball most often in the hands of their playmakers and matchwinners. With this approach, the traditional back row contests and set piece battles become statistics but not match defining. I can think of plenty of talented backs starved of ball through their career who wonder why this has suddenly happened!

England’s win against France last week owed a lot to this phenomenon. Back in the 80’s, France was so full of talent they would pick centres on the wing – Charvet, Bonneval eg- and they became even more potent. England even did it once. Opposing wingers found themselves humiliated by intelligence and creative genius. But you have to be ready and able! To see the wildly impressive English wreak humiliation on the woeful French was great for a while until we realised that selecting three under prepared, out of position players in the French back field was asking for a cricket score and it duly happened. Fair play to England, they were perfectly happy to take candy off the French baby. To those who were awaiting a full-blooded clash there was something lacking about a game which could have been a victory by at least 50 points or more, something I alluded to last week but didn’t really believe – less le Crunch, more marshmallow.

I ask myself how England seem so superior all of a sudden? Partly due to the cycle of their post-World Cup endeavours, the continuing hurt of a pool stage exit and a poor season last year, partly because when all their players are fit and focused, they should be the number one team in the world. If the attitude is right, the selections smart and the tactics well thought through, then tick all three boxes so far this season. Add in a coach who has now realised that he doesn’t need to play so many word games and even the PR starts to look good.

The beauty of sport however lies in its unpredictability – England expects to win down in Cardiff and then onto the Grand Slam. Fanciful some may say after last year’s downturn, but such adversity makes you stronger. However, even the best players when given little space or time can crack – there can be no other Welsh strategy and let us not forget they have some pedigree of their own. I will never forget the wide-eyed look on Lancaster’s face after the 30-3 drubbing a few years ago but the steel and knowledge in the England squad this season is undeniable. Fascinating match in prospect, and if England win I suspect the rest of the tournament becomes an exercise in World Cup preparation.

Sorry about everyone else in Rounds 2 and 3. You earn the right to plaudits in my view – a promising Scottish assault on the stuttering Irish side momentarily caused the crowd to roar but the rest was a catalogue of errors and while Italy stayed in the game through Welsh profligacy (again) we were left wanting much more. An injury-ridden, half-strength Scotland in Paris may hand the French a vital win, while only an eternal optimist could see a victory for the Azzurri. Weather is set for cloudless skies, so the Piazza Navona could be a favourite venue for the travelling Irish to enjoy the magic of Rome.

Back here, it is all about the pressure cooker of Cardiff. I wonder, will it be Tom Jones or Max Boyce on the microphone???

H

 

Scottish Rugby In Bloom For The 6 Nations?


It may have appeared that Round 6 of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup was confirming known truths about Irish dominance and the resurgence of Toulouse as well as a brooding Saracens who look very tough and menacing at full strength. The real story though is for Edinburgh and Glasgow in the last 8 and if results play out then even a Scottish finalist!

Before I bring out my McIntosh Tartan in acknowledgement of such a feat, a quick reality check as the twin threats of Munster and Saracens stand in their way. Regardless, what eye watering quarter finals we have, including the two form teams in France Racing 92 and Toulouse who confront each other in the magnificent U Arena in Paris.

The other two Gallic powerhouses, La Rochelle and Clermont, face stern English opposition in the Challenge Cup but you cannot rule out a very French flavour to the Newcastle Finals.

Almost on a par with 6N fever, Leinster v Ulster will sell out the Aviva for their North South clash. No Brexits and no backstop in European Rugby.

Does all this mean that Scotland can hit the heights in the Six Nations? They are under the radar screen but let me tell you that Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell are the two form players in European rugby bar none – and remember how they destroyed England in 30 minutes of mayhem in Murrayfield. According to one England player last year that was just another away game – how naive. They will not make that mistake in Dublin will they? According to Eddie, England owe the Irish one – sure do after Twickenham last year but they haven’t chosen an easy match for the payback (a word used by Mike Teague before a famous Triple Crown win away in Dublin back in the 90’s against the odds, and delivered).

Everyone can beat everyone at club level across Europe this season and the same applies in the 6N. On the day performance will count as well as some individual stardust – can the returning England heavyweight stars hit form immediately is the immediate question? Please, if he plays, can Tuilagi run straight and put people into space.

However, do not imagine Ireland cannot cut loose rather than indulge in a brutal physical approach – Ringrose, Stockdale and Larmour could threaten a Lions team on current form. No place for faint hearts in Dublin this weekend.

Wales v France meantime could be an absolute classic but no more 15 minute scrums please!

Let the hype be justified and take your seats for a rollercoaster tournament! No predictions, the possible outcomes make Brexit negotiations look simple.

H

SWC & Rugby At The Wheatsheaf


We at Sporting Wine Club are delighted to be supplying Schalk Burger’s outstanding vintages for this special weekend event, hosted by The M2M Group.

On 2 February David Flatman and a host of special guests will meet for an afternoon of food, fun and rugby as England open up their Six Nations campaign against the best team in the world… AND… It’s all for charity!

As you know, supporting charities is one of our core activities, and if it is accompanied by a special glass or two of sporting wine so much the better.  As well as supplying the wines, all cases of wine ordered on the day will receive a 20% discount which SWC will donate to The M2M Group.

The Day
14:00 Champagne Reception
14:25 Welcome
14:30 Lunch
16:00 Pre match Q & A
16:45 KO Ireland vs England
18:45 Post match Q & A
19:00 Auction
19:30 Hog Roast

Booking
Ticket: £130 Includes – Champagne Reception / 4 Course Lunch / 1/2 Bottle of wine pp / Hog Roast
For all enquiries please email: contact@them2mgroup.com

You can find the full event brochure here Rugby at The Wheatsheaf-3

 

‘Le’ Crunch Time For England


I should have known better than risk a visit to Murrayfield with a Scottish team ready to hand out a reminder to England and others that they are a sustainable force again in world rugby. No doubt about that, and it was in the way they won rather than just the result. A cloudless sky and not a breath of wind would not traditionally favour a Scottish team let us be honest. But by the end you had to imagine that they took so much more from the game in terms of their World Cup development.
For England it was both sobering and worrying that they lost key battles in the back row and midfield. All that Italian promise unconverted. The lack of quick front foot ball was one reason (analysed to death by the media but given the back row picked totally obvious) and a lack of leadership another, as in Ireland last year. You think back to a few games in which Eddie’s men have pulled the game out of the fire with some smart ‘finishing’ and it leaves you with that nagging doubt of a team flatlining not developing as expected. 
 
France will build themselves up for the England match by stoking the fires of hostility legendary in Brian Moore’s day when we came up against the full force not only of Gallic strong-arm tactics but unmatchable flair. Not much of the latter these days (except for Teddy Thomas), but they also defend well so England have to find a special inner strength which they say they have. We will see, and if Bastareaud’s new status as leader and line breaker – 18 carries went 34 metres against Italy! – is the benchmark then this is a game which surely carries no fears especially into the last 20 minutes when we know the French will be feeling the pace.
 
Has Ireland ever gone to Twickenham to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s day? That is a wild notion but entirely possible if they down the Scots this weekend – who themselves can lift the Six Nations title if certain results go their way. The word I am starting to use for Ireland is relentless, based on the Leinster model of holding the ball for minutes at a time. But this doesn’t look like a Grand Slam team to me, and a pumped up England team (especially if they lose to France) will be playing for their World Cup futures so become very difficult to beat.
 
Finally, Wales’ new open style will allow Italy to express themselves and they will look back at the Treviso performance against Scarlets in the Champions Cup and take heart.
 
The Six Nations has been true to predictions, wafer thin margins between defeat and victory. Wales could be unbeaten, so could France…… I sense more surprises to come but nothing which is really causing the All Blacks to reach for the smelling salts – yet.
H.

Scotland Await England – In Hope More Than Expectation


You know something is afoot when Sir Ian McGeechan featured some of the greatest Calcutta Cup clashes in his weekly article in the Sunday Telegraph. I happened to have played in six of those games back in the 80’s and 90’s and they were all titanic struggles. The implication is that this weekend will be another one of those but I am not so sure. Scotland appear to have believed their own press from the Autumn Internationals – including mine! A cardinal error which was almost repeated against a French side which hasn’t won in months and had only one player, Teddy Thomas, to thank for a ray of hope thus far in the Six Nations.

England are apparently flatlining with an unconvincing win over a Scarlets-dominated Wales, or are they. Appalling conditions were just what the doctor ordered for the free running Welshmen, within 20 minutes England had scored twice and tactically embarrassed the men in Red. But there it stayed and by the end we were wondering if they were plain lucky after some Welsh near misses. I disagree – you can only beat what is in front of you, this is a fine Welsh team, and everyone is improving so by definition so is England. They just seem to get away with not playing much sustained rugby, with flashes of try scoring brilliance and the peerless Farrell directing affairs. It could be that they are developing the priceless ability to make the opposition believe that they simply cannot win. Is this the real Jones impact?

Is there a case for Scotland against whom England tends to lose only every now and then, usually from complacency? The dry weather forecast will help the Scots, but there is no point eulogising about Stuart Hogg’s class because England will snuff him out if there are no other threats. Finn Russell’s inexplicable ‘laissez faire’ attitude towards the game right now would have him out of the team if there was an alternative but there isn’t. He could have a horrible day at Murrayfield, especially as Eddie Jones has now chosen to big him up, or else all that will backfire and he has a blinder! Bottom line is that if only one Scotsman gets into the England team on merit then there should be only one result, and the psychology of last year’s hammering will be lurking under the surface.

It is ironic that the only in form flair player the French seem to have, Teddy Thomas, has ruled himself out with off field discretions, as if it could get any worse. People forget they were within an inch of being two from two but instead face an unlikely challenge from the desperate Italians, whose partial revival at club level cannot yet match the general uplift in standards of every else. It is their best chance for a win this year – I wonder.

Wales’ season rests on a triumph in Dublin so nothing to lose and they can definitely do it – Ireland has yet to click this season and, if so they will be relentless, but in my opinion it is anyone’s match.

Back to England and their approaching date with history – are they really to be denied their tilt at glory by this Scottish team, talented but maverick and not really of the standard of their great sides of the 80’s and early 90’s when they really did send the English ‘homewards tae think again.’ I think not, but then that’s what we imagined in 1990……..

H.

England v Wales – 6 Nations, Sumaridge & Smart!


We assembled at a wet and windy Twickenham for the crunch England Wales 6 Nations Match and spent all day trying to keep warm. What better way for 1000 people to enjoy Hospitality than with Smart Group and surrounded by Sumaridge Red and White Blend, together with a soupçon of their wonderful Sauvignon Blanc.

It put everyone in the mood for a very feisty encounter just edged by England which certainly warmed the heart. It keeps them on track for a Grand Slam and the biggest match of all against Ireland. Sporting Wine Club will be on duty again with Sumaridge to make it a great day.

Until then, plenty of Sporting fun to be had!

SCARLET FEVER BREAKS OUT AS PACEY ENGLAND AWAIT


The Six Nations got off to a mixed start last weekend as two cracking openers sandwiched a real stodge of a match in France, where neither side deserved to win or lose in all honesty.
 
Eddie Jones got it right when he said that European form did not matter for his England Squad. However, it absolutely impacted on Wales. The Scarlet influence coursed through the team from front to back – Rhys Patchell may have called the end of the Biggar era, and Steff Evans must already be one of Europe’s top wingers.  Aaron Shingler is a former top cricketer, but no doubting his skills at the Millennium. Perhaps they will make Alun Wyn-Jones an honorary Scarlet for his sensational running performance! 
 
In all truth, back in my day it was not sensible to pick a group of players from the same club to replicate their club form onto the International stage (e.g.Bath or Neath). The gap was simply too wide but not now, as top European performances these days can easily translate into an International one and so it has proved with Wales. Perhaps we can look at Glasgow’s poor away form for a clue as to how Scotland played in Cardiff (or Twickenham last year!). However, a bounce back is certain against a desperate French team, truly ‘Les Misérables.’
 
All the chatter for Saturday is about the Welsh flair and fitness being too much for England and throwbacks to 2015 when they spotted the fatigue of the England pack….. I just don’t buy it, although memories of that day in October Rugby Word Cup year are enough to make you shudder. Likely more to spur England on rather than give them nightmares. England is easily fit enough and will not be outflanked by the free running Scarlet waves. Their use of the bench (this topic needs reviewing by World Rugby) is world class. Mostly because their strength in depth is so awesome that the bench can be better than the starting line up!
 
Anyone who has been reading my ‘blogs’ over the last few years will know I have had little good to say about the England midfield. That changed last weekend, not because Italy are worldbeaters of course. The lines of running and positional play of the outside runners at last was spot on, and our best players were being given the time and space. No coincidence that Mike Brown was marshalling resources from deep rather than spearheading attacks. No more arguments about 12, over 4 years many pretenders have had a go. Owen Farrell is nailed on there and would also be at 10 if another inside centre existed of any quality.
 
Lastly, experience does count. Note Eddie Jones asking about Rhys Patchell’s temperament – canny! He has little knowledge of Twickenham and Aaron Shingler has never been there! These things matter. It will be a huge challenge that an inexperienced Wales put up but England should eventually win comfortably in my opinion. My justified nervousness about the quality of Englands winning performances last year have been put to one side because they simply HAVE to build momentum here. A step back at this stage will be very bad news indeed.
 
What I really want is a thumping Scottish win and a return of all their injured players for the Calcutta Cup on the 24th. What a prospect and this could be England’s biggest test, not facing a rather predictable Irish team at Twickenham.
 
But for now, nothing I like more than a bunch of optimistic Welshmen (Mae’r ddraig yn anadlu tân) beating a path to Twickenham to confront an England team waiting with points to prove.
 
 
H

Scarlets Breathe Fire Into The Champions Cup


I made a late decision to go to West Wales for the Scarlets Toulon match at the weekend because I had a feeling about it and also to support the stunning impact that Scarlets have had on the competition. With my birthplace just down the road and Llanelli the scene of many dramatic encounters when I was a player, I have a strong connection with the area!

What a sensational game it was, you had to be there to hear the passion of the sell out crowd who sing Welsh arias like no other and whose team played their dragon size hearts out to claim a home quarterfinal. This Champions Cup has not only come alive but scaled the heights in these pool stages with the climax this weekend past – and Scarlets will fancy that their style of play can challenge even the clear favourites Leinster. After some stunning interplay they had to withstand waves of Toulon attacks and their heroic defence showed its mettle, a key ingredient as a few other sides have found  out this year. The other newcomers La Rochelle  have lit the touch paper themselves this year, and will be unafraid to visit Parc y Scarlets. This quarterfinal will be epic.
 
Elsewhere, I pay credit to every team who had a sniff of a chance and gave it everything but fell short – Wasps, Bath, Ulster, Castres – and just as much to the likes of Glasgow, Harlequins, Northampton and Leicester (eventually) who played with much pride with nothing to go for. Anyone see Hogg’s performance against Exeter ?
 
Outside the tie of the round in Wales, Leinster v Saracens is as heavyweight as it comes and will not be for the fainthearted. Stuart Lancaster will see it as his biggest test yet, and no doubt the Aviva Stadium will be the venue. An International in everything but name and more besides given the status of past versus present Champions.
 
Is there a crisis in England, only one club represented? I was asked two years ago whether Celtic rugby would ever challenge Anglo-French domination again after the Saracens v Clermont final. Only English and French teams in the last 8 that year – I laughed out loud and suggested that Celtic Rugby may have a thing or two to say about that and look at them now! My answer is the same now for the English who will not be offering up excuses. It is true though that the Premiership, Champions/Challenge Cup and International schedule is bruising for the English players, witness all their injuries and the intensity of every game.  Scratched record time on some integrated thinking for the English game and everyone else because the injury count is unacceptable in that context.
 
In the Challenge Cup, I haven’t seen a much better game than at Gloucester on Friday night, where Pau justified their status with a comprehensive win and look very good value in a quarterfinal line-up featuring all the major nations including defending champions Stade Francais who actually lost their opening match against the Russians in Krasnoyarsk! Again, a wonderful mix of teams including Cardiff, Edinburgh and Connacht and it will take a mighty fine performance to win it this year.
 
As we take a breath and look to the Six Nations, Eddie felt compelled to defend the underperforming English clubs – and to be fair, players too – suggesting that this is no guide to International performance. Maybe not, but it does not help. I suspect that the Welsh and the Irish would like to bottle what their regions have served up and deliver it straight onto the International table. If only life was so simple …… ask Saracens, who live to fight another day but it was close and they will have to do it the hard way this year, starting in Dublin. Bring on April!
H.

2018 – A Rugby Year For The Brave


What kind of vintage was the Rugby Year of 2017 in the context of Japan, land of the Rugby World Cup 2019?
 
Apart from the British and Irish Lions performance against the odds, admittedly enhanced by Sonny Bill Williams foolhardy head tackle in the second test, this year was all about consolidation and preparing for the real tests ahead rather than any life-changing excitement. 
 
Without really breaking sweat, the All Blacks stayed ahead of the pack and have developed the depth they need, losing a couple of games along the way which all great teams have to suffer. 
 
England keep winning with the Grand Slam fading to a Championship, hardly a disaster. In leaving a nagging doubt that they just don’t play with enough sustained excellence, they have finishers, and how. If they can stay in a game they can win every time. Smart but risky. 
 
Ireland look very dangerous and they can beat anyone on their day – the best resource management in the world without doubt and all their best players are centred in a few provinces which makes a huge difference.
 
Let people not think Australia is an easy touch because England and especially Scotland sent them home to think again – they will peak for the World Cup and are a definite semifinalist with all their quality. 
 
France and South Africa are broken by their own internal issues and surely cannot recover in time – tragic, because they have such talent at their disposal. 
 
Scotland is the wild card which excites me – pace and power and a very very smart coach who is getting them to win games again (don’t mention the All Blacks). Organised chaos was their watchword in the 80’s, good enough for Grand Slams and World Cup semifinals. Here they come again. 
 
Sad to say, Wales and Argentina are riven by fatigue and injuries, undone by scheduling and a punishing game which demands deep resource or much better player management. But they are proud nations so expect a World Cup bounce whatever happens this year.
 
Fiji have so many outstanding individuals playing all round the world you must think they will spring a surprise if they can hold onto the players, or will that be the preserve of the hosts? Who can forget Japan v SA 2015!
 
All in all, most teams are marking time Internationally while domestic and European club rugby grows stronger and stronger – more on that another time.
 
My hopes for 2018 
  1. Coaches and players continue to push the boundaries of skill which are producing such high quality matches currently (reference Leinster, Exeter, Wasps, La Rochelle)
  2. World Rugby finally introduces new limits on high tackles and bans the clear out. The dangers are accelerating worryingly and defence coaches should also be held to account.
  3. Less well resourced nations like Fiji and Samoa are finally given the financial help they deserve and not just from World Rugby.
  4. If the right people are not put round a table to sort out the global season structure in 2018, we will have a real crisis and the main sufferers will be the players. Unacceptable. It is not made easier by the discussions likely over the domestic structure of the two club powerhouses of the Northern Hemisphere, England and France.
  5. A world class Six Nations for the first time in years, driven by a rampant Scottish team and somehow a French revival – or am I dreaming on that one?
  6. La Rochelle to break into the big time by challenging the best in Europe.
Lastly, somewhere soon somehow a scrum half will put the ball in straight – oh ok, only a joke.