Category Archives: Rugby Union

What Recent Developments May Mean for Welsh Rugby

“I don’t like the central control thing, I don’t necessarily believe in it. The way I look at it is there are things that make sense to do together and things that it makes sense to stay well away from.” WRU CEO Martyn Phillips during WalesOnLine Interview with Simon Thomas 5th January 2017

It came as a bit of a surprise this week to hear that the WRU are apparently planning a takeover of the struggling Dragons outfit, in light of the above comments only a couple of months ago.

They shouldn’t be taken in isolation I suppose.  The interview was headlined “WRU boss Martyn Phillips gives his blunt verdict on 16 Big issues facing the future of Welsh rugby.”  Number 5, of the Big Issues was The Regions.

It was encouraging to read a positive take on the relationship as it stands now.  Phillips spoke of a new trust leading to “grittier conversations” and said interestingly, “with trust comes compassionate ruthlessness.”

Of course, the honesty mentioned is a plus following the toxic circumstances of Roger Lewis’s time in the hot seat. By the time he had departed there was no sort of relationship at all between the clubs and the Union.  It’s a path well-trodden, but Lewis’s obsession with clearing the Stadium debt, and investing any spare money into the National team almost led the game to destruction.

It’s perfectly fair to observe that there was no movement on development of the four Professional teams for at least the last three years of Lewis’ tenure. Most of that time was spent haggling over the new Rugby Services Agreement, a document that is so juvenile in its make-up, neither party is willing to make it available for public viewing.

This in stark contrast to the agreement English Clubs have with the RFU and is an extremely sad state of affairs.  There is a sense that across the border the two groups are working together without being too constrained by the agreement, but it’s there in the background. The woefully low compensation for the clubs for International player release contributes to the struggles of the four teams.

This weekend, only the Ospreys have had players released to them for vital Pro12 matches. However some of the players retained have no chance of selection for the Ireland game on Friday night. It’s an appalling situation, that has not resulted in the proper questioning of a system that is not contributing anything to the growth of the sides trying to progress in the domestic competition.

The 6th big issue Phillips addressed centred on certain comments made earlier in the month by Cardiff Chairman Peter Thomas regarding the future of the Pro Teams in Wales. In an interview with Simon Thomas on 3rd January 2017, Peter Thomas made some startling statements.   When asked about the state of Pro Rugby in Wales at the time his response was

We all realise there has to be major change for the professional game in Wales because as we sit and speak the car crash is about to happen and Rome is burning. We recognise this and we have to make the changesWe all realise we can not compete in either the Pro12 or Europe when we are working on squad costs of £4m to £5m while the Irish and the Scots are at £6.5m to £7m and the English clubs are up at £8m. In fairness to the Welsh Rugby Union, they understand this. If we want to win titles, we have to change what we have got because what we have got is not working. That’s what I mean when I say Rome is burning.”

On the question of how to address the financial imbalance, Peter Thomas again referred to the improved relationship and talked of embarking on a new “set-up for pro rugby in Wales.”  He also mentioned the resurrection of the Professional Rugby Game Board  a joint venture between Regional Rugby Wales and the WRU, that was set up under Lewis but met only once, before it was unsurprisingly shelved.

Later in the interview asked if the funding system needed tweeking Pete Thomas said “It needs changing and we are in the process of putting those changes into place.”

Throughout the interview though, the Cardiff Chairman seemed keen to emphasise the necessity of four Pro Teams being in place, though not in what guise, being as strong they possibly could be, with the intention of a Welsh team winning the European Cup within the next ten years.

This brings us back to the initial question of the Newport Gwent Dragons.  The 8th issue of the interview with Martyn Phillips was concerned with the Dragons.  “What would a well run, successful professional team look like?  We are not where we want to be with the Dragons, but it’s my job to help it get there.”

A pretty damning statement in fairness and Phillips went further. It goes on. “You couldn’t say no to (to the WRU taking the Dragons over)….If it came to that we’d have to look at it and whether we could afford it, but my view is that professional rugby clubs going forward have to have a combination of union funding and private investment.”

Now, this whole piece is based on the premise that the Dragons’ story which broke this week is accurate.  If it is, what has changed in two months in terms of the feasibility of taking over the Dragons?  It seems to me that if the Union does consider it feasible, there would have been some serious investigation already underway at the time of the original interview, as Phillips doesn’t look like the sort of man to shoot from the lip, unlike his predecessor.

Further questions immediately come to mind How would that move look?  Would it be long term?  Peter Thomas’ ideas of greater co-operation, and the suggestion of improved funding streams suggest that there are concerted efforts to alter the whole set-up in the Pro game in Wales.  There’s no talk of an amendment to the Rugby Services Agreement.  Surely, that would be the way forward if that’s what is desired. But if not why not?

Martyn Phillips asserted that central control was not his favoured model, but now, within months, there is a plan to take control of one of the Pro teams.

I’m not necessarily a fan of central control.  Of course, Ireland and more recently Glasgow have been successful domestically under that system, but Wales’s pro game would be a hybrid model: three clubs funded under the RSA and the fourth getting their share, plus a little bit on top. Why should the other teams sit back and accept this apparent unfairness? And equally important, where would the money come from to make both the purchase and operation of the Dragons a success?

The impression I get from all of this, is that there is a movement to massively alter the way rugby is administered in Wales.  In Ireland, it’s already been mentioned that the money is running dry, and the four Provinces need to start attracting some private investment to keep the system working.

I feel that the reverse may well be under way here in Wales.  More control will be ceded centrally, which will change the landscape of the whole game.  There’s plenty more in the Martyn Phillips’ interview worth discussing, especially relating to the involvement of the Valleys, and it may be what was not said by the WRU man may well be more pertinent than what actually was.

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Welsh Management Floundering

“Gatland said had he quit after the 2015 tournament, he would have left the job “half done. He told BBC Radio 5 live: “There’s a group of players who honestly believe they are capable of winning the World Cup in 2015… so that’s hugely exciting.” BBC Sport website, 16th December 2013

It’s not that unusual because Wales have done something very similar with Warren Gatland. Lancaster has barely put a foot wrong in his three years in charge so far, but it is still a pretty massive show of faith in Lancaster and his coaches to say that whatever happens in the World Cup next year, and even if the World Cup is a disaster, you are still the man to take us through to the next one.” Chris Jones, BBC Sport website 1st October 2014

“I ultimately accept and take responsibility for the team’s performance,” said Lancaster. BBC Sport Website 11th November 2015

Currently, Wales are apparently attempting an evolution of playing style.  Some might say it needs to be a revolution, so far have Wales fallen behind the best nations in the World, but I’ll stick with evolution.

Its not an easy thing to do in some ways, so one would expect all hands on deck.  However, the captain of the ship, Warren Gatland, is off on B&I Lions’ duty.  Recently, he’s apparently been informing any who would like to hear that he’s having an easy time of it, attending lots of meals to satisfy the sponsors, and putting in an appearance at the odd match, so his face is seen by the cameras.

When you hear that has been said, as a fan of Wales that may get the blood boiling somewhat.  Of course, satisfying sponsors is vitally important on a tour that gives the opposition a sight more than it gives the Home Unions, but it needs paying for.

Considering the man left in charge is Rob Howley, one wonders even more about 1)the Wisdom of Roger Lewis extending Warren Gatland’s contract in 2013 for do long 2)Having a free reign to join the Lions’ coaching team should he be asked, written into his new, huge, contract 3) The wisdom of allowing Gatland to reappoint his coaching team en bloc, even though recent results prior to the reappointments, after 2013 have been far from inspiring.

But that is the situation we are left with and one that is unlikely to change soon.  I’ve never been a huge fan of Rob Howley.  He was backs coach for the Cardiff Blues and the team didn’t progress overly much, in fact you could say it went backwards.  Since joining Wales he has been at the mercy of Warren Gatland – and him still being there, you can draw the conclusion that he is doing exactly what is being asked of him.

I do feel a little sorry for him at present though. A caretaker coach, which is what Howley is doing at the moment, is normally in a position where he has a genuine opportunity to stake a claim for a job. He’s usually not a seat warmer.  He has the chance to put his own stamp on things, and impress the players with his fresh ideas and his employers too.

He doesn’t have that now.  From what we are aware of, Gatland returns after the Lions.  Therefore, Howley is in a very awkward position.  He cant, even if he is capable, enter the fray with brand new ideas and dazzle the players. This is into the 10th year of management for him and his second spell as caretaker.  Unless there is an elaborate ploy to hide the fact Gatland is on his way after June, all Howley is doing is putting into play the work that Gatland will continue on his return.  He has to, there is no other way.

This all leaves us with the question of whether Gatland’s ideas are good enough for modern rugby.  On past evidence, the overwhelming answer to that is no. We haven’t won a Championship since 2013.  We have not regularly beaten a team on top of their game when it really matters, with the exception of the “Rorke’s Drift” re-enactment against Ireland at the Principality Stadium two years ago.

Injuries or not, the World Cup exit was an indictment of the poor tactics we have been lumbered with for too long under Gatland and Howley. We beat a poorly managed England, but lost to Australia, who weren’t on top of their game at that stage, and were down to 13 men during the game.  We also lost to South Africa who have been in decline for some time.

The situation we are in is a direct result of that contract renewal for Gatland, and then allowing him to re-appoint his trusty lieutenants.  It’s a very sad state of affairs that the players he said believed were capable of winning a World Cup are being made to look more and more ordinary the longer they play for Wales.

Its also very sad that either the WRU are unable to pay off the coaching team that are driving the National team into the ground, or they believe there is no reason for a change.  I really hope it is the former. Contrast how England dealt with Lancaster after the World Cup. Its time to listen to the fans who watch and have watched the game year in year out, not just the eventers, valuable as they are to the sport.

Too many of my friends are walking away from the International game, and are doubting their support for the Pro game too, because of the lack of professionalism in the administration of that sport.  The game is approaching a crossroads, I just hope those in charge act quick enough before it’s too late.

SIX NATIONS PREVIEW PART 2: ENGLAND

Stuart Lancaster file photo
Lancaster was never able to quite hit the heights

Near the top of the list for many successful coaches , especially here in the Northern Hemisphere, is the conundrum of how to handle expectation. The favourites tag hangs heavy on many a team, and it could be said, none more so than the England team coached by Stuart Lancaster.

The most momentous result in English Rugby’s history is still fairly fresh in the memory. Indeed, England’s World Cup win in 2003, preceded by a Six Nations Grand Slam, attracted many new fans to the sport in England, and heightened expectation for all future teams and coaches.  “Do it once and you can do it again, and again,” or so it’s believed.

In truth, that team coached by Sir Clive Woodward was ground breaking.  However, he probably totally messed it up for future coaches – a common theme of mine is many NH teams don’t take to winning well.  It seems to be tough for those other than the very best to know that when you are at the top you cant stand still, you have to keep evolving.

That level of expectation was a problem for all Sir Clive’s predecessors and was still being felt when, under the radar somewhat, and to the protestations of many, Stuart Lancaster took over as caretaker coach for the 2012 Six Nations.

Results didn’t meet expectations

The Six Nations is unique in the way the tournament is set up.  There isn’t a home and away format.  There is an uneven spread of matches – one year it’s 3 home games and two away, and the next vice versa.  Coaches know how the games fall each year – for instance Wales have the teams in Blue all either at home or away, with England and Ireland fulfilling the opposite fixtures, and its always been so.

With the exception of Wales in 2012, the games that Lancaster’s England lost were all games away from home. In the proceeding 3 years, Wales (Round 5), France (Round 2) and Ireland (Round 3) all beat England at times when expectation was high or just when momentum was gathering.

4 years as Runners Up for England in this tournament didn’t really meet expectations – still high some nine years and more after November 2003. In the three Autumn Series under Lancaster he had recorded a huge win vs New Zealand in 2012, and two wins vs Australia.  On Summer tours, the only win recorded was on the Lions’ decimated tour of Argentina in 2013.

A 2-0 loss to South Africa and a 3-0 loss to New Zealand were tales of “what could have been,” with the draw in South Africa in 2013 painting a picture of false hope.

World Cup Woe and a New Coach

 

France v England - 2016 RBS Six Nations - Stade de France
Sorely missed centre Manu Tuilagi

All of this doom and gloom, and no mention of the 2015 World Cup? England entered that competition in fairly good shape.  Of course, it was described as “their World Cup” – it was on home soil, and consequently, many thought it was theirs to win too.

In England’s group, were Wales and Australia.   England had beaten Wales in the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations.  They had beaten Australia in the 2013 and 2014 Autumn series.  But really the build-up to the tournament wasn’t great.

There was no real succession planning for the injury prone Manu Tuilagi – a barnstorming centre who had torn the All Blacks to shreds in 2012.  England had used many different centre combinations, without settling on a steady combination, with injuries and form of the alternatives being a grave concern.

Chris Robshaw’s position at 7 was a real cause for debate.  As is usual, the British Press had begun to obsess about the concept of a “genuine 7” a guy who was strong over the ball, a carrier and a link between forwards and backs.  Lancaster had firmly nailed his colours to the mast and said that his captain was his 7, was more than capable of playing the role and would remain at 7 come what may,

On top of that, Graham Rowntree had come out and said he was coach of a “World Class Pack” but was looking to improve their all round ability with ball in hand.  The bench-mark from which he was working was the All Black forwards who were capable of Harlem Globetrotter-esque skills on times in some eyes. That was a mistake.

Throw into the mix the selection of Sam Burgess, cross-code convert who had been bought by Bath, but who was considered a back row player by his club, but a midfield star by England and the signs weren’t great.

History Maker

The rest they say is history.  Roll forward to November 2015 and England appoint their first foreign coach in Eddie Jones.  And what a success he has made of the job so far. England’s last World Cup game was against Uruguay, and a resounding 60-3 victory, heralding the beginning of 14 games unbeaten, the next 13 of them under Eddie Jones.

2017 RBS 6 Nations Package
Few would have imagined this picture after England’s 2015 or the follow up

He’s quite obviously not everyone’s cup of tea for sure.  And most certainly he hasn’t yet turned England into world beaters.  But, even the most bitter non-England fan can only stand back and admire his achievements. A resounding Grand Slam – the first in 13 years at the first attempt.  A 3-0 series win against Australia, in Australia.

A 4 wins from 4 Autumn series win – with victories against Australia and South Africa,  and against Argentina, playing with 14 men for much of the game.  All on the back of a pretty awful 2015 season.

What has been striking about his time in charge is his desire not to allow the team to get ahead of themselves. After every milestone, there was no looking back, only forward.  No real celebrations, although I’m sure they enjoyed the occasion.  The Australian tour, the same. (I would say that was tarnished by some unsavoury sparring with Australian coach Michael Cheika – but stoked by some pretty unsavoury “plants” at press conferences by the Australian media too.)


Forwards

Nathan Catt (Bath Rugby), Jack Clifford (Harlequins), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby), Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers), Jamie George (Saracens), Teimana Harrison (Northampton Saints), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), James Haskell (Wasps), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Kruis (Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Matt Mullan (Wasps), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Tommy Taylor (Wasps), Mike Williams (Leicester Tigers), Tom Wood (Northampton Saints).

Backs

Mike Brown (Harlequins), Danny Care (Harlequins), Elliot Daly (Wasps), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath Rugby), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Alex Lozowski (Saracens), Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby), Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs), Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Marland Yarde (Harlequins), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers).


Resurgent England

What’s also impressive is how the bones of the squad picked by Lancaster at the World Cup and the Six Nations Squad picked by Jones is similar too.  Of the 34 picked for this Six Nations, half were in the World Cup Squad. At least three more, in the Vunipola Brothers and Chris Robshaw would have been selected too, barring injury.

As I mentioned yesterday, Jones’ emphasis currently is on establishing a platform – effective and powerful scrum, lineout and defence are crucial to any successful team.  Back to the All Blacks once more, but at the heart of their success has been a decent platform in these areas.  Not wholly so, especially recently, as they have, in truth, become a counter-attacking team in many ways, feeding off turnovers and errors in the opposition, but it’s still a major part of their game.

As I also mentioned, this is a particularly English mentality.  This is not to say that it makes a team boring,  Far from it.  Being confident in your team’s ability to win your lineouts, especially at crucial phases of the game, is a beautiful thing.  Knowing that your team is confident at scrum time, and is even capable of disrupting the opposition scrum, often regularly, equally so.

But apparently, this is a fact not to the liking of Lions’ legend Jim Telfer, who has become the vox box of foolishness in recent times.  A quick google of his pronouncements, especially at this time of yearprovides painful reading, though. Just have a read of this little nugget.

“Eddie Jones doesn’t want to beat teams, he wants to demolish them, which I find a bit disappointing,” Telfer told BBC Sport. “To me he’s building his whole team on set piece and the building of the attack comes secondary.”

Of course, England aren’t purring in attack at the moment, but this gem contradicts everything Jones has said recently.  It raises some serious questions about Telfer’s mindset too.  I’ve never known a team approach an opposition by saying “let’s go easy on these folks, we don’t want to hurt their feelings. Give ’em a chance at scrum time, otherwise we might overwhelm them.  We can’t have that”

One might want to look at his coaching philosophy when on the ’97 Lions’ tour too.  Total opposite to the above.  He picked a pack to ask questions of “the manhood” of the South African forwards his winning team faced.

We all know the motivation for his rant – a proud Scotsman facing an English side on the up once more. Say no more though, read the article and bin it as utter nonsense.  He has previous and doesn’t do himself any justice here.

This is what Europe and the Rugby World are facing once more.  The prospect of an England team capable of challenging the very best. I think that really scares people and the old prejudices rise to the surface when that happens.

It’s obvious that the coach is in the heads of the players he has selected.  England will face challenges along the way – first up France, then Wales at home.  But they aren’t insurmountable, especially for a side that has won 3 on the bounce in Australia.  That’s the way Woodward built his sides – taking  them to places they had never been before, and winning, so those more familiar challenges lost some of their fear and became the norm.

We’ve certainly been along this road before with England sides of recent memory – built up in the media only to stumble, but for me there is a different feel to this side. It has the feel of winners.  I may well be proved wrong as early as Saturday evening, who knows.  But for those who enjoy England falling flat on their face, preparations should be made for a difficult 7 weeks.

Winning that “Grand Slam” decider on the last Saturday may well be a step too far.  Record breaking occasions – England could well beat the record for most consecutive wins for the Top Nations – are notoriously difficult to negotiate.  I wouldn’t put it past them though.

 

 

Six Nations Preview Part 1: Wales

Rugby Union - Dove Men Series - Wales v Tonga - Millennium Stadium

 

The build up to this year’s Six Nations has been pretty muted for some.  The Tournament billed as the “Greatest Show on Earth” in some quarters doesn’t seem to have the same elan it once had.  Many of the supporters of the Pro Game in Wales see the primacy of the National Team, the strict terms of the Rugby Services Agreement, where Team Wales gets more and more access to the players than ever before, as a source of real concern.

The four Pro Teams have invested quite heavily in producing the players that have brought Warren Gatland limited success.  At the same time, some of these players have left the game for pastures new, others have signed National Dual Contracts, limiting themselves to 16 games a season for their clubs barring qualification for knock-out rugby matches.

Indeed, the Pro Teams have come in for fearful stick for the recent lack of domestic success in some quarters.  Funny how the effects of years spent fighting Roger Lewis and David Pickering, under the auspices of the WRU have been ignored. The fact that Ireland, England & France even Scotland have had access to greater funds to invest in players, and yes better coaches too, while the Welsh had to make do with less and less comparatively, escapes far too many.

But the Welsh team have been lauded under Gatland.  Many  believe that 2 Grand Slams and a Championship (that sealed by a record victory against England allowing Gatland and Howley a longer period of grace)  is a wonderful achievement. After the barren years of the ’90s and early 00’s, we shouldn’t complain.  In fact, for many, Wales achieved this success in spite of the set-up, not because of it.  The hobby horse for way too many is “Region-bashing!!”

There’s also a real will to ignore the abysmal record when Wales play against the Southern Hemisphere.  And yes it is abysmal.  Again, the one of the trains of thought most commonly used is to regress to the 70’s when Wales produced one of the greatest ever group of players to play the game.  There’s no need to list those players.  They formed the backbone of history making Lions’ Tours to South Africa and New Zealand.

With a certain symmetry, their record against Southern Hemisphere Teams, when games against this opposition weren’t two a penny, they were valued, revered even, was poor.  It’s easy for some to rationalise both periods.

Fundamentally though, the final argument for many goes like this.  We’re a small country, with limited resources.  We’ve always had to fight tooth and nail for marginal gains.  Any we make shouldn’t be sniffed at. They should be celebrated.  When we don’t make any it’s understandable.  That’s the fall-back position.

Unassailable. Top that off with the terrible way the Pro game has apparently been administered, abused even, by incompetent “Regional” administrators, out to scupper the wonderful work of Lewis & Co., we shouldn’t complain.

Overall, that’s nonsense of course.  That “poor little us” mentality, hasn’t helped one jot – in more than rugby circles too.  For many a Wales supporter, that sentiment immortalised by the Stereophonics is still important.  “As long as we beat the English” still ranks higher than improving as a team and reaching something close to our true potential.

Warren Gatland’s immediate domestic success in 2008, followed by a victory over Australia, was welcome of course.  Coming 3 years after the Ruddock inspired Grand Slam of 2005, it showed some progression.  There was a solidity about that win.

However, that was just the beginning, or it should have been.  It took a further four years for another success in the 6 Nations in 2012, with a second Grand Slam. It took 6 years, and numerous attempts to achieve a second victory against the Southern Hemisphere teams in 2014 v South Africa. In amongst all that was Warren Gatland’s first World Cup with Wales in New Zealand in 2011.

Wales reached the semi-final in that tournament losing to France.  There are many who still blame Alain Rolland for his decision to send off captain Sam Warburton for a spear tackle for Wales’ demise.  There are also many more who were convinced that Wales would have beaten New Zealand in the final – for the first time since 1953  and first time ever in NZ – had they not been harshly treated and defeated by the referee.

Now I’m sceptical over that first claim, and utterly convinced the second is preposterous. Wales won many friends in that World Cup admittedly. However, they lost to South Africa – again.  They beat Ireland, then lost to France and then Australia – again, and finished fourth. There was respect for the way Wales played, and for their outward “professionalism.”

Again, what was the benchmark, notably in the press for all that hype in 2011? They were better than England who had a disastrous off-field tournament, with a laissez-faire attitude to alcohol consumption and  general behaviour, while on-field they were poor.

What was apparent in that period, was a lack of tactical progression.  In many ways it took that long to establish the pattern, or “the plan” as Adam Jones describes it in his book Bomb.  Our game was based on power. On physically dominating opponents. Using big men to get over the gain line, attempting to release more big men to smash more holes in defences that would be intimidated by our size and power.

Wales were not known for their strength, size or power in their barren times.  Indeed, watching us play the better teams, it was often a case of watching “men against boys.” Teams bullying us, while we tried to play an exciting brand of rugby, or often just tried to limit damage. By the time Gatland bedded in though, we had wingers of 16st+.  Forwards who could handle our European counterparts at least, and sometimes the Southern Hemisphere giants too.  This was anathema to the rugby watching public, and the coaches were hell-bent on making the most of it.  Forget the “Welsh Way” – whatever that is.  Wales were going to bully opponents.

This ignored the fact that our opponents weren’t kids who could always be bullied. They were also paid professionals. Paid pros who could tackle, even big lads, coached by other coaches who were capable of devising their own plans  to combat Wales’ “shock and awe” tactics.  Of course, that shock and awe worked initially in Europe. In 2012/13 we saw consecutive Championships. Still no win against a Southern Hemisphere team though.

In Owen Sheers book “Calon” he describes the routine Wales were put through in Poland before the 2012 Grand Slam.  It was identified that Wales had the desire to keep the ball in play for a minimum 35 minutes – a high figure at the time.  Adam Beard, the well respected fitness guru had also identified that players would run 7 or 8 kilometres during a match.

Importantly, players had not been taught to “run.” That sounds really strange, but the top teams have often drafted in specialists, such as Margot Wells to improve running techniques.  What was related next hit me a knock-out punch square between the eyes.  This next bit “Adam told the players again and again on the frozen beaches of Gdansk.”

“We should be the best at everything THAT DOESN’T REQUIRE TALENT.” Effort DOESN’T REQUIRE TALENT. Hard work DOESN’T REQUIRE TALENT. We should be the best at hard work.”

Of course, Wales went on to Grand Slam glory in 2012, so it could be deduced that what was being said worked. It can also be said that this is purely a “frame of mind” statement.  Take care of the little things and the rest will follow.

On the other hand, isn’t that a negative mindset? These  aren’t players who lack basic skills, although they’ve had a fair few coached out of them. Doesn’t that show why the team was so often “beasted” to death, why Gatland and Co. said more than once that Pro Rugby didn’t prepare players for the International game?

Indeed, why Wales’ style of play became so stale and predictable and why, since 2013 we’ve had limited success  against the best teams – although even in ’13 we lost to Ireland – pretty badly.

The accusation levelled at Wales is that they don’t play with any imagination. They have been found out.  Suddenly now,  Wales have been forced to make believe that they will take a new approach. To forget that size and brute force is the be all and end all.  Recently, Rob Howley stated that Wales would be concentrating on skills as “best practice” something they had done in the Autumn, but obviously a departure from previous camps.

That’s a pretty damning state of affairs – in fact a major worry for Welsh fans.  The best teams have put skills at the heart of all they do, for a long while.  Wales’ record in the Autumn Internationals was Won 3 lost 1. Pretty decent statistically – in fact our best Autumn series.  However, its long been an accusation of the coaches that they have been too reliant on statistics and not used the evidence of their own eyes to make decisions.

The one team to actually play well in the Autumn blew Wales away. Argentina and Japan weren’t at full strength, and South Africa were the incarnation of the worst Bok team on record.


Wales squad to play Italy

Scott Andrews (Cardiff Blues) (13 Caps),  Nicky Smith (Ospreys) (7 Caps),  Rob Evans (Scarlets) (12 Caps),  Rhodri Jones (Ospreys) (14 Caps),  Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs) (17 Caps),  Samson Lee (Scarlets) (29 Caps),  Kristian Dacey (Cardiff Blues) (3 Caps)
Ken Owens (Scarlets) (45 Caps),  Scott Baldwin (Ospreys (28 Caps),  Jake Ball (Scarlets) (21 Caps),  Alun Wyn Jones cpt. (Ospreys) (105 Caps),  Rory Thornton (Ospreys) (Uncapped),  Luke Charteris (Bath Rugby) (71 Caps), Cory Hill (Newport Gwent Dragons) (3 Caps),  James King (Ospreys) (10 Caps),  Justin Tipuric (Ospreys) (46 Caps),  Olly Cracknell (Ospreys) (Uncapped),  Ross Moriarty (Gloucester Rugby) (12 Caps), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby) (62 Caps) *,  Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues) (69 Caps),  Thomas Young (Wasps) (Uncapped)

Backs:
Gareth Davies (Scarlets) (21 Caps), Rhys Webb (Ospreys) (23 Caps),  Aled Davies (Scarlets) (Uncapped),  Dan Biggar (Ospreys) (51 Caps),  Sam Davies (Ospreys) (3 Caps), Owen Williams (Leicester Tigers) (Uncapped),  Jamie Roberts (Harlequins) (86 Caps) *,
Jonathan Davies (Scarlets) (59 Caps),  Scott Williams (Scarlets) (41 Caps)
Ashton Hewitt (Newport Gwent Dragons) (Uncapped),  Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues) (44 Caps),  Steffan Evans (Scarlets) (Uncapped), George North (Northampton Saints) (65 Caps) *,  Liam Williams (Scarlets) (38 Caps), Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon) (66 Caps)


Fundamentally, Wales have left this opportunity to develop their game three years too late at least. England floundered for the last two years of Stuart Lancaster’s reign, even though they finished as runners up four years in a row.  Now they are being coached by a man who is intent on making the most of the massive talent available to them.

During his time as coach of Japan, he identified the National traits of the players he led, and tried to get them to embody these in their rugby.  He is doing the same for England. And how well too?  Although they aren’t infallible, he’s won 13 games on the bounce with them, stretching their winning run to 14.

He’s trying to hammer home the importance of getting the basics right – scrum, lineout, defence – before developing the team’s attacking game. He still hasn’t nailed that down, with the scrum especially still being a concern, but that’s the goal. He’s said that he is operating under two 2 year plans corresponding to the above. God help the rest if he gets it right.

Ireland, under Joe Schmidt have discovered a new edge to their game again too, and have beat New Zealand, South Africa and Australia this year. Again, Schmidt is making the most of his resources. There seems to be an obsession with offloading in rugby.  How many offloads did his team perform in a near faultless display versus New Zealand in Chicago last year? How many versus South Africa?

France are also developing too.  Under Noves, is a team that pushed both Australia and New Zealand close. – after being destroyed by the All Blacks in the last World Cup. Should they get their selection at half-back right, they can be very dangerous this year. You can’t write off either Scotland or Italy either this year either.

For Wales the test is being able to really put into place this “new style.”  Its not necessarily a case of playing champagne rugby, but winning rugby, against better teams than they have played recently. With Howley taking the reigns with Gatland plotting for the hardest of all Lions’ Tours, he needs to show that he can re-programme eight years of the same old, and that’s no easy task.

The new caps picked are exciting young players, but there is a feeling that Howley is incapable of incorporating them into this team.  Last year Gatland made it clear that there is a fear of losing in this tournament.  The press and the public will get on the team’s back if they aren’t winning.

This is where I think the coaching staff have misread their fan base though.  If the public see a concerted effort to progress Wales’ game, there will be disappointment of course, but there will also be support.  Those who don’t offer that probably aren’t real fans at all.

As the better coaches in the tournament are now doing, they are getting the best out of their teams.  They are playing winning rugby –  not always champagne stuff, but its effective and it’s against the top teams in the world. We shouldn’t be fooled by Howley’s and our sycophantic press’s assertion that Wales won 3 out of 4 in the Autumn so we’re in good nick.

On current form, there is no way w can expect to finish any higher than 3rd in this year’s tournament.  What many will be banking on though is that this Tournament is no respecter of form.  Witness the ecstatic reaction to England’s hammering of New Zealand in the Autumn of 2012, followed by progressively weaker performances in the 6 Nations culminating in that result in the final game of 2013.

We genuinely aren’t in a position to be overly confident though, as it stands. It’s over to Howley and Alex King now to prove that we really want to be pushing the best in the World.  What a refreshing change it would be to prove us all wrong. I’m sure many won’t hold their breath.  For me, I’m hoping for improved performance.  Some sign of that and I’ll be happy.

Judgement Day IV – is it worth the hype?

This weekend sees episode IV of Judgement Day, the chance to see all four Welsh Pro teams in one hit.  Cardiff Blues v Ospreys and Newport Gwent Dragons v Scarlets.

It certainly rouses interest, especially over the last two years.  54k fans turned up to watch last year and as we can see from Pro 12 boss Martin Anyai’s tweet today 65k tickets have been sold for this year, with five days still to go.

Quite impressive right? Well, the day has certainly moved on somewhat, for sure.  Back in 2014, Steve James in the Telegraph didn’t paint a terribly bright picture of proceedings. On the backdrop of political in-fighting were previous incarnations painted.

At the heart of the issue for the four pro Teams in Wales was cash – they need more of it to be properly competitive with the English and French.  At that stage, Regional Rugby Wales were engaged in an unseemly scrap with Roger Lewis and the WRU.  It appeared that the Welsh Rugby Union were manoeuvring to put the four teams they had set up in 2003 out of business.  To wrest control and take ownership themselves.

Poorly negotiated sponsorship deals, poor remuneration for the work done by the pro teams to produce International players for the cash-cow that was and is Wales.  Not a popular opinion – indeed, if you were to read the press at the time, with few notable exceptions, the blame rested solely with the teams themselves.  Confused by Lewis debt reduction at WRU Towers, he was the shepherd, guiding unruly sheep,. and woe betide any that dare say otherwise.

Well, thankfully, those days are disappearing, slowly, but surely into the rear view mirror.  New men are running the Union now.  In Gareth Davies and Martyn Phillips, there’s a spirit of co-operation being fostered from bottom up, and it’s very positive.  Regional Rugby Wales have re-branded themselves as Pro(fessional) Rugby Wales, with a more forward thinking attitude.

Of course there’s still a major shortfall, where money is concerned.  At present, competing with the likes of England and France in Europe is a huge ask.  Their collective might, and sharp business acumen, I might add, have seen them shape the rugby landscape in the Northern Hemisphere.

Their hijacking of the old Heineken Cup, making it what it is today, has seen many a voice raised in opposition.  Across the water in Ireland, whose near monopoly of Europe in previous years has been eroded, there are many cries of “foul.”

Rightly or wrongly, and that’s a subject for a discussion on another day, the way those country’s clubs have run their ship has caused uproar.  However, in Wales, it’s the model that has been chosen.  That power-struggle was all about ensuring autonomy for the pro-game.  It’s fair to say, that Union run rugby is not the way to go.

Again, there are arguments against allowing rich businessmen to come in and run up huge debts in the pursuit of trophies.  However, there is little likelihood of these men walking away from their teams, leaving them in millions of £s or Euros of debt.  With the sponsorship deals negotiated by the French, the upcoming new agreement to be signed by the PRL and the RFU,  on top of their own TV monies, etc, the expert way they have built up their teams in their local areas, you can see the viability of what is being done.

It’s here that the Welsh teams need to catch up.  Judgement Day still doesn’t hit the spot truly.   Yes, it will be a fantastic “occasion.”  But that’s the issue – it’s a day out in the big smoke.  A day where fans, who pay their dues with season tickets, are relegated to poor view seats, whilst occasional fans get the best.  A day where one team will lose a home game and the revenue that brings.

A day where, still, the WRU will end up profiting more than the clubs themselves.  And that should not be the purpose of these days.  For all it’s hype, and the fact that thousands of people will be exposed to Welsh Pro12 Rugby that normally wouldn’t, the bread and butter of these four clubs needs to move forward. Should the clubs themselves share equal proceeds from the day, perhaps that would be a start.

More so, should there be a spike in attendances at Parc-y-Scarlets, BT Sport Arms Park, Rodney Parade and the Liberty, that would help too.  This year though, three teams still have an interest in league position.  Why should they be thinking of “entertaining” or evangelising for fans at such an important stage of the season?  Previous Days have had little or no effect on League attendances. It shouldn’t be asked of them to make this sacrifice at such an important time.

I will be attending, poor seat or no, but the WRU and PRW need to sit down soon and make some changes around this fixture. A big day such as this should benefit those involved, not the Union or Team Wales.  Its a great “occasion” but moving forward more thought needs to be invested on how best to improve the day itself and the beneficiaries.

Hopefully, it will be a good day, but also, next time it will appear in a different guise – should there be a next time.  If the clubs are intent on promoting there newfound professional outlook, this will be one of the things they look at to change, in some way.  Fundamentally, it hasn’t worked so far, unless bums on seats for someone else’s gain is the aim.  Let’s hope, for the sake of these four teams, we see a different approach in the future.  Go along by all means and enjoy – its a good day out.  But right now, fundamentally, that’s all it is.

Why Should Hopes be High for England Rugby?

A 6 Nations title should always be celebrated, a Grand Slam even more so.  England’s first Grand Slam since 2003, and only their second Championship in that time has understandably brought some extra rugby coverage in the National Press.  Forget the  supposed”paucity” of this season’s championship, 5 games, 5 wins is what rugby is all about.  It’s a business all about winning.

The engaging thing for me is not so much the team, as good as they may turn out to be, but the man who has come in to lead them, after a disappointing 4 years under Stuart Lancaster.

Eddie Jones, the coach who nearly stole Sir Clive Woodward’s thunder in 2003, has transformed opinions, feelings and outlook about and in, what is pretty much the same group of players that failed to perform at England 2015.

Not scared of a word or two, whoever he may upset, he’s not so much a breath of fresh air for Northern Hemisphere Rugby – many don’t like his outspoken attitude.  He does however bring a very different outlook to a set-up that had become almost too “touchy-feely” in its approach.

Martin Johnson seemed to lead a team that forgot about the privilege of representing their country in this great sport, whilst Stuart Lancaster’s approach was as diverse as you could possibly imagine.  It was all about image, it seemed for Lancaster, whilst the business of winning rugby matches seemed to be lost in the clamour for the right culture.

Jones on the other hand, has taken a different path.  That honour is at the forefront of all he does.  He appears to appreciate the responsibility and all that comes with it, as well as knowing that ultimately, nice guys usually come last.

There’s a huge irony for me, that it appears to have taken an Australian to point the English Rugby team in the right direction.  Perhaps, an Australian without the close connection to the last truly successful English coach would not have been able to get the team back on what seems to be approaching an even keel, but it’s such a wonderful meeting of opposites.

Then again, Australians are natural winners and it’s that ethos that needs instilling into rugby in Britain & Ireland.  You would hope that there isn’t a huge gap between “us and them” in the Southern Hemisphere.  Identifying where possible shortfalls may be, is the beginning of the job.

In Paul Rees’ article in The Observer last Sunday, Jones identified where he thought there was a shortfall.  He praised the professionalism of the English clubs but added

“…there is another part which is that highly unstructured, multi-phase, ball moving, continuous rugby. You can’t expect English clubs to condition their players for that, because they don’t need to be good at that. That’s the bit we need to add when we get them. It’s not a criticism of the clubs; it’s about what they’ve got to do and what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to use every minute when we are in camp to get the players to play a different sort of rugby.” 

Now, that isn’t rocket science is it?  Compare the approach of Wales to that ethos.  Up until recently, the successful blueprint in European Rugby was the one used by Wales.  Win the collisions, pay lip service to the set-piece, and kick the leather off the ball.

Interestingly enough, following these words from Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland today declared that his team had to lose weight. In a Wales on Line article penned by Andy Howell, Dan Lydiate declared that:

“if you’re lighter, you can get of the deck quicker.  When you are playing at a high tempo, you can’t afford to be carrying excess weight.”

A coincidence maybe?  A recognition from the Welsh management that there will be a change of approach? Well, the gist of the article was that one or two kilos could be the difference in these close games.  Lydiate’s assertion that he is 5lbs lighter than last year, 17st9lb, rather than 18st, tends to show where the Welsh mindset really is.

Eddie Jones’ approach, while putting an emphasis on fitness himself, is to use the physical nature of his players as part of a wider picture. You only have to look at the first half of the game against Wales in the 6 Nations.  Sean Edwards’ assertion that “he couldn’t get his head round” how Wales lost the game after outscoring England three tries to one, was possibly one of the silliest things I’ve heard.

The tactical nous shown by his team was actually a joy to behold.  Taking the game away from Wales’ big men, utilising the blind-side in attack, recycling quickly, organising his strike runners on the hoof.  Everything Wales have seemingly struggled to do in recent times.

Of course, the scoreline didn’t reflect the panning the first half suggested was on the way.  4 points was not a hiding, and as any real rugby fan knows, the game is an 80 minute contest, not one involving microcosms.  The challenge awaiting England in the summer in Australia is far greater than what they have met so far.

However, the signs are there for a bright future. World Cup winners?  That’s a long way off. There’s one guarantee though.  Eddie Jones won’t tolerate mediocrity.  Play your best and lose, you may be forgiven.  Any slacking off will be unforgiveable though.

As James Haskell, in a somewhat self-promoting interview in the Guardian with Donald Mcrae on Monday put it, Eddie Jones is like a “bomb waiting to go off.”  He’s also a “people person,” a man manager who attempts to get into the psyche of the players he coaches.  The work he did with Japan proves that beyond a doubt.  By looking at the assets he had, and how best to utilise them, he produced one of the greatest results in  the history of the game.

Different coaches have different methods to achieve the end result.  He may not turn out to be the real deal – or should I say, might not get England to be that.  But, step one of his journey is complete.  His warning to players, mind games they may have been, shows that there will be no resting on laurels.  My pre Six Nations prediction of an England Grand Slam turned out to be correct.

There’s a new sheriff in town now though.  The likes of Gatland and Schmidt may not be at the squeaky bum time stage yet, nor those Down Under, but this next year or two may see a shift in power, not just up here in the Northern Hemisphere, but down South too.