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Home > Blogs > Rupert Bates - A weekly blog from the world of rugby
Your NewsRupert Bates - A weekly blog from the world of rugby

Friday 28th October 2011
NEW ZEALAND WINS WORLD CUP

During the World Cup Rupert Bates wrote a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz). This article was first published in Rugby News October 27th.
 


The best-selling author Stephen King sparks stories by asking himself ‘what if?’ For example ‘what if vampires invaded a small New England village?’ inspired the plot for Salem’s Lot.

‘What if the penalty by a French first-five of Vietnamese descent had gone over and New Zealand lost the World Cup final?’ Now that would be a horror script right up there with King’s goriest.

My nerves were shredding in England as I got texts from my Tauranga father-in-law dying a thousands deaths in an Australian pub and not just because the beer is filthy. But my tension revolved around the £1000 I would pocket should France prevail. Francois Trinh-Duc – otherwise superb – you owe me a drink, or a small vineyard.

But I was genuinely not sure I wanted the money. I’m an old softie like that. Surely the health of four million people was more important than making a dent in the overdraft?

Of course the recent tragedies that have claimed many lives in New Zealand had injected sombre perspective into the glorious triviality that is sport, but not for 80 odd minutes they didn’t. This epic, tight contest was heart surgery without anaesthetic for a country that beats to rugby’s drum.

Many of my friends at the World Cup, henceforth known as ‘the bastards’, speak of a host nation that embraced the rugby world, despite pre-tournament fears that a combination of paranoia and obsession would make it all about one big dog in its own black yard.

For us English – god we were woeful – there is the consolation that if Richie McCaw wants his knighthood he has to kneel before the Queen of England. If her grandson-in-law Mike Tindall coaches her she’ll probably drop the sword, which McCaw will fall upon and recycle with reckless disregard for his safety. Not content with beating everybody to the loose ball, McCaw even beat me to the sheep gag, revealing in his post-match interview he was ‘shagged’.

Let’s not forget France, treated with shameful disrespect and labelled the worst team ever to reach a final. Excusez-moi? Why is France the only country not allowed to win ugly, simply because it betrays its rich heritage? There has surely never been a better display in defeat than that of France captain Thierry Dusautoir, one of the great tacklers in history.

With predictions of an embarrassing rout, French sports newspaper L’Equipe ran the headline the day before the game: ‘Why get up tomorrow morning?’ Reasons given included ‘because there are few occasions when you can go to paradise in pyjamas’ and ‘because when she wakes up my wife looks like an All Black.’

Last Sunday even Tony Woodcock looked beautiful. At the final whistle my father-in-law sounded like he’d been out with Israel Dagg and Cory Jane and his text as Sir Richard McCaw lifted the World Cup may as well have been in French.

Thank you New Zealand. The view was great – even from 12000 miles away.

 

 

 

Posted by: , on October 28th 2011 on 08:06pm0 Comments
Monday 24th October 2011
THIERRY DUSAUTOIR - IRB PLAYER OF THE YEAR


France captain Thierry Dusautoir has been named the IRB Player of the Year at the 2011 IRB Awards in association with Emirates Airline, during a star-studded ceremony at Vector Arena in Auckland on Monday.

Dusautoir is the second Frenchman to win the Award, following in the footsteps of former national team captain, Fabien Galthié, who claimed the accolade in 2002.

New Zealand were named IRB Team of the Year and Graham Henry IRB Coach of the Year, to add to the Rugby World Cup crown they claimed at Eden Park with a hard-fought 8-7 victory over the French on 23 October.

Dusautoir was outstanding all season for France, including in the World Cup and particularly the final where his defensive effort and ball-carrying inspired the French against the hosts. He was picked ahead of five other nominees – New Zealand scrum half Piri Weepu, flanker Jerome Kaino and centre Ma’a Nonu and Australia flanker David Pocock and scrum half Will Genia.

The winners were selected by the Awards’ independent panel of judges, chaired by Rugby World Cup-winner John Eales and made up of former internationals with more than 500 caps between them. The panel deliberated on every major Test match played this year, starting with the first Six Nations match and finishing with the Rugby World Cup 2011 Final.

The glittering event, which also celebrated 125 years of the International Rugby Board, was a fitting finale to what IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset described as an “exceptional” Rugby World Cup and was attended by all four semi-final teams, royalty and stars from sport and entertainment.

Earlier in the day, an estimated 240,000 fans turned up to catch a glimpse of the All Blacks who were last to arrive at the Vector Arena with the Webb Ellis Cup.

IRB Sevens Player of the Year in association with HSBC – Cecil Afrika, South Africa

Cecil Afrika was the outstanding player from the 2010/11 HSBC Sevens World Series and finished as the top try and point scorer. South Africa’s inspirational playmaker and sweeper, Afrika scored 40 tries and 385 points across seven events, returning from injury in double quick time to inspire the Blitzbokke to Cup success in Las Vegas, and was also key in their victories in London and Scotland.

IRB Junior Player of the Year – George Ford, England

George Ford becomes England’s first recipient of this Award after playing a key role in his country’s run to the IRB Junior World Championship 2011 final in Italy, where they ultimately lost 33-22 to New Zealand. The youngest player in the tournament at only 18 years and three months, Ford’s skills and vision belie his tender age, his maturity on the pitch giving the impression he always has options, more often than not taking the right one.

IRB Development Award – USA Rugby’s Rookie Rugby programme

Rookie Rugby was designed by USA Rugby, the sport's governing body in the US, to give young players between six and 12 years old a fun, safe and enjoyable sporting experience. It introduced a whole new raft of fans and athletes to the sport through programmes administered through schools, community-based and state-based rugby organizations and USA Rugby national events. The initial aim was to introduce 100,000 new children to rugby but the reality has far outstripped that and continues to gather momentum.

Vernon Pugh Award for Distinguished Service – Jock Hobbs

Jock Hobbs was elected Chairman of the NZRU in 2002 and served with distinction, overseeing considerable success on and off the pitch while also securing New Zealand the right to host Rugby World Cup 2011. In December 2010 Hobbs stepped down from his position as Chairman of both the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) and Rugby New Zealand (RNZ) 2011 Limited due to ill health but continues to be an inspirational presence in the country.

IRB Referee Award for Distinguished Service in association with Emirates Airline – Keith Lawrence

Keith Lawrence refereed 14 international matches between 1985 and 1991 and went on to become an outstanding rugby administrator in the match official sphere. Lawrence worked as a Referee Manager both within his native New Zealand and for the International Rugby Board as Sevens Referee Manager, a role from which he retired earlier this year.

IRB Women’s Personality of the Year – Ruth Mitchell

Hailing originally from Liverpool in England, Ruth Mitchell played rugby in Hong Kong before becoming an administrator and ultimately reaching the post of Director of Development for the HKRFU. A driving force behind youth rugby, Mitchell has also been instrumental in growing the women's Game.

Spirit of Rugby Award – Wooden Spoon

The IRB recognised the work of the Wooden Spoon and its volunteers for more than 25 years of work with underprivileged children across the UK by awarding them with the IRB Spirit of Rugby Award The prestigious award recognises the incredible feats that can be achieved through Rugby both on and off the field and recognises those who, through selfless action, influence the lives of others, make significant contribution to their communities and demonstrate the force for good that sport can be in all areas of the world. Wooden Spoon is the first charity to receive such an accolade.

IRPA Try of the Year – Radike Samo, Australia v New Zealand

The final Tri Nations and Bledisloe Cup match of 2011 between New Zealand and Australia in Brisbane was a breathless encounter won by the Wallabies, inspired on the day by Radike Samo. The Fijian-born 35-year-old forward received the ball on his own 10-metre line and shrugged off a couple of All Black defenders before outsprinting the cover defence to score a remarkable individual try.

IRPA Special Merit Award

Former captain George Smith is one of the greatest flankers ever to play for Australia and a veteran of 110 Tests for his country. Smith made his international debut against France in 2000 and played his final Test for the Wallabies against Wales nine years later. The 31-year-old has played for the Barbarians four times since, including earlier this year against England and Wales.

IRB Hall of Fame

Nineteen founders, pioneers and legends of Rugby World Cup have been inducted into the IRB Hall of Fame, including four men who made a major contribution to the creation of the tournament, the winning coach and captain of every edition from 1987 to 2007 and four players who have left an indelible mark for their moments of magic, inspiration or feats.

Full list of IRB Awards winners

IRB Player of the Year – Thierry Dusautoir
IRB Team of the Year – New Zealand
IRB Coach of the Year – Graham Henry
IRB Junior Player of the Year – George Ford, England 
IRB Sevens Player of the Year in association with HSBC – Cecil Afrika, South Africa
IRB Women’s Personality of the Year – Ruth Mitchell 
IRB Referee Award for Distinguished Service – Keith Lawrence
Vernon Pugh Award for Distinguished Service – Jock Hobbs 
IRB Development Award – Rookie Rugby 
IRB Spirit of Rugby Award – Wooden Spoon
IRPA Special Merit Award – George Smith, Australia 
IRPA Try of the Year – Radike Samo, Australia v New Zealand

IRB Hall of Fame inductees – Dr Roger Vanderfield, Richard Littlejohn, Sir Nicholas Shehadie, John Kendall-Carpenter, David Kirk, Sir Brian Lochore, Nick Farr-Jones, Bob Dwyer, Francois Pienaar, Kitch Christie, Rod Macqueen, Martin Johnson CBE, Sir Clive Woodward OBE, John Smit, Jake White, Gareth Rees, Agustín Pichot, Brian Lima and Jonah Lomu.


Posted by: , on October 24th 2011 on 10:28am0 Comments
Friday 21st October 2011
SPANGHERO - THE BOYS FROM BRAM

As France prepares for the World Cup Final against New Zealand, Rupert Bates turns back the clock four years to his meeting with the first family of French rugby during the 2007 World Cup.

Meet the Spangheros. A bit like the Sopranos, only scarier. Just kidding, for their successful business in the south-west of France – meat, cars and an astonishing family rugby legacy – is built on entirely reputable foundations.

Mind you, given the size of the Spanghero brothers, it would be unwise to pick a fight with them, commercial or otherwise. Tony Soprano v Walter Spanghero? My money is on big Walt.

If you alight on Narbonne – the delightful cathedral city in the Aude region of France – you are obliged, if you have an ounce of French rugby history in your soul, to track down the Spangheros – six brothers who all played in the Narbonne pack when the club was a force in the land.

Walter and Claude – legends of Gallic forward play – went on to play for France and in the case of Walter captain his country and earn a seat in the pantheon of the greatest players of all time.

While it was in the orange of Narbonne that the rugby legend started, you have to head west to the town of Castelnaudary to find the business heartbeat of the Spanghero empire. Even if all bar the few ducks who have wisely kept their heads under water on the Canal du Midi know them for their sporting prowess, everybody, including the very nervous ducks, knows them for their food.

Maison Spanghero is a 100 million euro a year food business, supplying supermarkets – vegetarians look away now – with that signature dish of the south-west cassoulet (beans, duck, sausage and pork), as well as beef and foie gras - cue ducks ducking under water.

Maison Spanghero was founded in 1970 by two of the Spanghero brothers Laurent and Claude. The company will get the meat from the abattoir to the shopping basket. Their range of meat dishes amounts to some 32,000 tons of meat a year, with the company now run by Laurent’s sons Jean Marc and David.

As I sit at their Castelnaudary headquarters – a town dedicated to cassoulet, with the dish on the sign as you enter and a huge statue of a woman holding a steaming pot of cassoulet - a family tree is called for. Guy Spanghero, who runs an international import-export meat business, is happy to oblige.

The six freres are Laurent, Walter, Jean-Marie, Claude, Guy and Gilbert, not forgetting the two sisters Annie and Maryse. The brothers’ late father Fernand came over from Italy and settled as a farmer in the village of Bram, near Castelnaudary. The meals served up by maman Romea brought a whole new meaning to the expression groaning table. They were feasts to sate giants, which was just as well, as she had given birth to six of them. Their famous Bram table was also the feeding trough for the farm workers, so huge slabs of meat were served up daily.

“Often we were 18 for lunch,” said Claude Spanghero, the former France second-row. Claude clearly did not go short, for at 59 he still he cuts an imposing figure. Working the land as children added muscle to bulk.

Claude, capped 22 times in the second-row and back-row in the 1970s, produces ‘plats cuisines’ traditional meat dishes of the region served in earthenware pots. When I met him he was dressed in a white butcher’s coat and drawing heavily on a cigarette.

From the safety of another country I would say he bore a striking resemblance to Herman Munster without the bolt. You suspect Claude, 6ft 5in, smokes a few cigarettes, for his voice is deeper than the ocean. Gruff does not begin to describe it.

He was good company, telling anecdotes from his rugby past, but alas dear readers, despite a reasonable command of French, I could not understand a word.

It was time for a beer and a short drive to the fabulous home of international businessman Guy Spanghero, whose son Nicolas played in the second-row for Harlequins, until his move back to France.

“You’ll like this room,” said Guy, leading me into what could only described as a very smart bar.

There was a giant screen for watching sport and the room was full of rugby memorabilia, as well as plenty of evidence of Guy’s love of wine. “Have you been to Gerard Bertrand’s L’Hospitalet vineyard and restaurant near Gruissan? He used to play for Narbonne.” I certainly had and drank deep from his cellar. I also met the mayor of Gruissan one Didier Codorniou – le petit prince – rugbymen everywhere.

Guy went behind the bar and pulled a ‘pression’ of beer from the tap, before bemoaning the demise of the once grand Narbonne club, relegated from the French Top 14 two seasons ago and where his second son Philippe now plays.

“Narbonne will not be promoted any time soon. The likes of Toulon and Racing Metro have too much money”.

Then to lunch and Le Tirou restaurant – a favourite and where Guy is treated like royalty. In Castelnaudary the Spangheros are royalty.
It had to be foie gras followed by cassoulet, washed down with the wines of the region. Nicolas Spanghero warned me I would be well looked after,

While at Quins Nicolas lived in Ealing with his wife and two children, renting Raphael Ibanez’s house. Inevitably Nicolas’s first club was Castelnaudary. He dreamt of being a fly-half until his genes told him he had to be a forward and he grew and grew into a 6ft 7in second-row.

“I then moved to Toulouse where I was competing for a place with players like Fabien Pelous and did not get enough first team games. I moved on to Dax and then Castres. I had plenty of offers from Narbonne and they still ring from time to time.”

A call from Dean Richards and the desire for a fresh challenge prompted the move to London where he immediately added beef to the Quins front-five.

Spanghero played for France age groups teams and progressed as far as France A, but a full cap eluded him and at 31 his chance has past. However he carries the Spanghero rugby torch with pride and passion.

“In France we heard about Harlequins’ dilettante reputation, but I found the opposite when I arrived and I have huge respect for Dean Richards. The Premiership is much more physical than the French Championship. The average standard of teams is higher in the Premiership too.”

He satisfied his taste for French food by frequenting le Bouchon Bordelais in Battersea or Brasserie Pierre restaurant at London’s Liverpool Street. Back to France at the communal Spanghero table he loves to spar with his father and uncles.

“They are very old-fashioned in their rugby views, forgetting the game has moved on. It is like we are talking about different sports and the arguments are very funny.”

The final stop on the Spanghero trail was to see the biggest name of all Walter at his Toulouse car business Sud Ouest Autos and he accepts his nephew’s argument.

“I am from another time. You would not have found me doing hamburger commercials as Frederic Michalak does. Good luck to him but France is famous for its great food, wine and natural products. Le terroir,” said Walter Spanghero.

Back to food and wine again. When once told that training at altitude helped increase your red blood cell count, Walter replied the best way to up the count was to drink a bottle of red. If there was a drugs test “drink a bottle of white to restore the balance”

He knows he’ll be accused of being an old fart – go on I dare you – but Walter Spanghero, who resisted all professional overtures from les treizistes, believes rugby lacks a little of the warmth and camaraderie of old.

“I appreciate it is a professional game now, but what about the club loyalty? I spent 15 years at Narbonne and only moved to Toulouse for two years because of work. And do not get me started on lineout lifting,” said Walter, remembering the warzone of lineouts in his day.

Spanghero’s great love of animals explains whey he is not in the family meat business. Walter has a teaching farm for children near Toulouse, complete with chickens, goats and a menagerie of others. You suspect he is also hiding ducks from his brothers, to spare them becoming foie gras.

Walter shares his office with two dogs. “Meet Jimmy. I named the dog after Jimmy Connors. I used to be the director of the Toulouse tennis Grand Prix.” I then meet Walter’s son Xavier who works in his father’s car business. Dynasty has got nothing on this lot.

Walter has had a series of eye operations, which he admits is slowing him down. He has a golf handicap. What is it? “My hands.” Your hands? “They are so big I cannot get the golf ball out of the hole!” he laughs and waves dinner plates that block out the Languedoc sun.

Walter is 6ft 1 - two inches smaller than Wales scrum-half Michael Phillips – but Spanghero’s presence says 7ft 1. Walter, who won 51 caps in the back-row and at lock from 1964 to 1973, keeps in touch with old teammates, including France lock Elie Cester, whose former bar Le Pub Twickenham I drank in regularly under his patronage during a year playing rugby for Valence in the Drome valley. This year was the 40th anniversary of France’s first Grand Slam in 1968, with Spanghero and Cester key figures.

If you have visited south-west France over the last 30 years, chances are you have eaten Spanghero produce or driven one of their eponymous hire cars. If you bought enough meat during the last World Cup you got a jersey displaying the pack numbers of all six brothers and a Spanghero branded rugby ball.

The family would like to get their meat into UK supermarkets. In the meantime a word of warning. Do not let any of the brothers slap you heartily on the back. Your shoulders will end up in a Cassoulet pot in Castelnaudary. A great rugby family. A great family full stop.


Posted by: , on October 21st 2011 on 11:06pm0 Comments
Friday 21st October 2011
RED, RED WHINE

 During the World Cup Rupert Bates wrote a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz). This article was first published in Rugby News October 20th.


For the French red wine; for the Welsh red whine. And we thought you lot were one-eyed. The coverage over here reminded me, with some notable exceptions, that former players however glorious their pasts, should just play golf and leave rational analysis to others.

The red card given to Wales captain Sam Warburton by referee Alain Rolland came after just 18 minutes. Now I was not expecting any sober reflection from Welshmen as most of them had been on the beer since sunrise in preparation for the most momentous morning in the history of this great rugby nation.

But in the ITV studios beaming pictures to us in the UK sat three forwards from the pantheon of back-row play in Francois Pienaar, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martyn Williams. They had 22 minutes and an ad break to think about the incident objectively and watch the replay a few times.

I exempt Williams from criticism. The man who Warburton succeeded on the open-side flank for Wales has played 99 times for his country and was entitled to be emotional. But Pienaar and Dallaglio, not helped by ITV anchorman Steve Rider calling the decision “unbelievable,” proceeded to spout passionate, biased nonsense and even 24 hours later after the New Zealand-Australia semi-final the former Springboks captain was still at it.

We all agree there was no intent by Warburton to inflict harm on France wing Vincent Clerc. If there is malicious intent to tip tackle someone and drive their head into the ground, it should not just be a red, it should be a life ban and a GBH charge. Don’t worry I won’t mention Tana Umaga and keven Mealamu on Brian O’Driscoll. Whoops I just did.

The defence of Warburton was that he’s a lovely guy and a star of the tournament and by removing the Wales seven after 18 minutes Rolland had ruined the game. I think a broken neck for Clerc might have ruined the game too.

The television pundits seemed to think that, despite the tackle happening right under Rolland’s nose, the referee should have consulted his assistants and then, not that he was entitled to, gone to the TMO for the adjudication on the colour of the card.

Rolland was also expected to look at the time on the clock and the weight of the occasion and think: ‘Hang on we’re only 18 minutes into a World Cup semi-final and the biggest game in Welsh history, I better bottle it and just make it yellow.”

The law rather naively dictates that Warburton, in the heat of battle and on a surge of momentum, should, rather than just letting go, have gently laid Clerc on the grass, kissed his forehead and sung the Frenchman a lullaby.

It may be an interpretive law, but because rugby is a physical game with serious injury risks is precisely why player safety is paramount, so rugby-mad dads singing lullabies to new-born sons in their cots feel comfortable about them playing this greatest of games.

 

Posted by: , on October 21st 2011 on 08:03pm0 Comments
Monday 17th October 2011
GRASS ROOTS BUT CLEAN KIT

50 GRASSROOTS RUGBY TEAMS GIVEN NEW KITS

& THE CHANCE TO TRAIN WITH ENGLAND

England Rugby Legends Will Greenwood & Austin Healey Back the Campaign at www.aeg.co.uk/grassroots

50 schools and junior rugby clubs throughout the UK are being given the chance to win a training day with the England rugby team.

The teams, which have already won themselves an Ultimate Kit & Laundry Package, which includes 22 bespoke Samurai kits and a top-of-the range AEG 9 series washing machine and tumble dryer, will compete against each other to gain the most votes for a chance to train with England.

Teams will be looking for the support of their local communities, businesses, family and friends. Not only will voters have the opportunity to make the dreams of 22 junior players come true, they are also given the added incentive of winning a holiday for four to the 5* Forte Village Resort in Sardinia, where their children will be coached by England rugby legends every morning courtesy of Super Skills Travel, while they relax by one of the many idyllic pools or get pampered in the spa.

The grassroots rugby campaign was launched by AEG, the premium home appliance brand that combines advanced technology with award-winning design, to support clubs at grassroots level in the hope they can redistribute the costs that would normally be spent on sportswear and laundry, towards training and other facilities for the club.

The Final 50 teams, who have all started their season in a specially-designed kit thanks to AEG, were also given a laundry package for their club house. The laundry package included the brand’s new AEG 9 series Protex-Plus washing machine, tumble dryer and a month’s supply of Vanish. AEG is putting their premier machines to the ultimate test with kit washers and rugby mums using specially designed programmes to remove blood, mud and sweat from the team kits.

Teams have one month to secure as many votes in the Final 50 competition as possible:

England World Cup winner Will Greenwood said: “It’s very simple, if the team want an opportunity to learn from the best, they need to get everyone they know voting. This is an incredible opportunity to not only learn from the players they idolise, but also from the team that coach them."

AEG’s UK Head of Marketing Graham Bremer said:

“Good luck to all of our AEG Final 50 teams, we’ve built a fantastic community around our campaign and will continue to offer more opportunities like this to other grassroots sports teams.”

A selection of team pictures can be viewed here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ravecommunications/sets/72157626255005049/


Regional Teams:

North East: Guisborough Rugby Club, Middlesbrough Rugby Club, Mowden Park RFC

North West: Macclesfield, West Park

Yorkshire & North Lincolnshire: Latymer Upper School, Mosborough, Skipton, Wath Upon Dearne Rugby Club, York

East Midlands: Amber Valley RUFC Mini/Juniors, Daventy Rugby Football Club, Market Bosworth, Melbourne, Nottingham Boots Corsairs RFC, Stamford Rugby Club

Eastern: Barnfield West Academy, Billericay, Hemel Hempstead, Huntingdon Rugby Club, Maldon Rugby Club, Oundle RFC, Swaffham, Wymondham RFC

London: Hackney Belles

South East: Buckingham, Chichester, Folkestone Rugby Football Club, Gosport & Fareham, Haywards Heath Rugby Club, KCS Old Boys, South Sussex Barbarians, Southwark Tigers Rugby, Sutton and Epsom Under 7s Superstars, Weybridge Vandals RFC, Winchester RFC

South West: Launceston, Penryn RFC, Salisbury RFC, St Agnes RFC Mini/Juniors, Whitehall Rugby Club

Northern Ireland: Belfast High School Former Pupils

Wales: Abercwmboi RFC, Narbeth

Scotland: Boroughmuir RFC, Brechin Junior Rugby Club

West Midlands: Bromsgrove, Lichfield, South Bromsgrove High School

 

The vote will close on Sunday December 4th.

3. For more information on the promotion, including terms and conditions, please visit: www.aeg.co.uk/grassroots

4. Electrolux is a global leader in household appliances and appliances for professional use, selling more than 40 million products to customers in more than 150 markets every year. The company focuses on innovative products that are thoughtfully designed, based on extensive consumer insight, to meet the real needs of consumers and professionals. Electrolux products include refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, cookers and air-conditioners sold under esteemed brands such as Electrolux, AEG, Eureka and Frigidaire. In 2010 Electrolux had sales of SEK 106 billion and 52,000 employees. For more information go to www.electrolux.com/press and www.electrolux.com/news.

 


Posted by: , on October 17th 2011 on 02:39pm0 Comments
Friday 14th October 2011
FALLING LEGENDS

During the World Cup Rupert Bates is writing a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz). This article was first published in Rugby News October 13th.

 

 

For legends of the English fall, read falling legends. England manager Martin Johnson has shrunk so much there is a danger he could be tossed about in a nightclub next time he travels south. Meanwhile Jonny Wilkinson apparently now cannot kick, pass or tackle.

With a large draught of hindsight Johnson should never have been made manager in the first place, with no coaching experience. In fact an unwritten rugby law states that if, in your playing days, you were referred to as legendary, iconic, or immortal, do not under any circumstances coach.

As for Wilkinson, he sometimes curses that drop goal in 2003. He never wanted to be a legend. It does not need acres of media coverage to tell the obsessive self-analyst he was a shadow of his former self at this World Cup.

Did Johnson, his captain in Sydney glory, show naïve, stubborn loyalty? Maybe, but Toby Flood has never sewn on the number 10 jersey. England supporters, outside of Leicester anyway, would tell you, even if kicking like a drain, it is still Wilkinson you want in the pocket with three points to nick it. The trouble is England played with their trousers down in New Zealand, unable to get anywhere near a pocket.

Such are the alternatives to Johnson trotted out by the critics, you might as well re-name Twickenham Jurassic Park. Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Ian McGeechan. Why not go the whole hog and dig up Sir Winston Churchill?

Former England first-five turned broadcaster and pundit Stuart Barnes even calls for Graham Henry – a knighthood dependent on Mike Tindall having a word with his granny-in-law.

Do me a favour Barnesy. If I was chief executive of the Rugby Football Union – and I have as much chance as any, given the disgraceful state of affairs at English HQ – I would head straight for London Irish and poach the Premiership club’s head coach Toby Booth.

Never heard of him? Good. I don’t think the word legend has ever been applied to Booth - in a rugby playing context anyway - but he is both an exceptional coach and communicator, who having never played at the top level does not trip over his past. 

Booth, 41, is also a qualified electrician and somebody needs to spark England and get them using their brains, not just their brawn. Booth would probably take his London Irish attack coach Mike Catt with him to teach England how to pass and create and exploit space.

But the biggest fallout from the quarter-final results is that my semi-final weekend with my south African mate Julian has been ruined. We planned to watch England on Saturday morning our time; then a bit of dwarf throwing, before plunging our heads into barmaids’ cleavages, while assuring our wives they were just friends.

We would catch the Springboks game on Sunday, before doing it all over again and perhaps jumping off a boat to round it all off. It would have been a legendary drinking session. And we know what happens to legends.


Posted by: , on October 14th 2011 on 08:00am0 Comments
Saturday 08th October 2011
WE FEEL YOUR PAIN

During the World Cup Rupert Bates is writing a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz). This article was first published in Rugby News October 6th.

 
The desolation felt by the entire New Zealand nation when Dan Carter limped out of the World Cup resonates back in the UK for several reasons.

Those in the northern hemisphere who care not a jot for the game’s spirit as long as their team triumphs, rejoiced that the world’s finest player and a sublime joy to watch when at his purring best - and boy was this cool cat starting to purr – was out of the tournament.

Others cursed because a World Cup by definition should be a contest between the best of the best.

It took All Blacks head coach Graham Henry to remind us that behind the myth, mayhem and media frenzy of a stricken body on the training turf was a man personally distraught.

Shattered dreams is a phrase used too freely, but for Carter the dream of rugby glory was forged at his Southbridge home in a paddock cleared of potatoes by his dad Neville to make way for a set of goalposts for an eight-year-old boy's birthday.

As the burden of four million people’s hopes was hurled from Carter to Colin Slade, there was only one New Zealand number 10’s name on everyone’s lips in the environs of Twickenham, South West London.

Sitting at the top of the English Premiership with six wins out of six is Harlequins piloted by Nick Evans, the best pivot in the Premiership by a street.

Evans joined the London club in 2008 and his contract extension last year ruled him out of a return to New Zealand and a shot at being second best again.

Twickenham Stoop where Harlequins plays is about 20 minutes from Heathrow Airport, so if New Zealand’s rigid policy not to select those playing overseas had been relaxed, Evans, 31, might have been in Auckland before you could say abductor longus tendon, preparing for his 17th cap, four years after his 16th. Even Carl Hayman, another All Black ‘in exile,’ tweeted “Nick Evans. Got ya phone on?”

Of course it was never going to happen but when we talk about the World Cup being a contest involving the best of the best, it is a crying shame the world’s second best first-five is not in his homeland.

Evans’s bank manager and the Quins supporters do not mind. Rather than being remembered as the man from Auckland’s North Shore who came home to replace the irreplaceable, Evans’s biggest rugby footnote will probably be the best overseas signing in the history of the English Premiership.

Will the man they call ‘Snapper’ for his love of deep sea fishing consider it ‘the one that got away?’ We’ll never know.

But with the England first-five who gave his name to the Stoop, Adrian Stoop, my second cousin twice removed (it’s as close as I get), I am very grateful Evans is playing in magenta, French grey, chocolate brown and light blue, rather than all black.

 


Posted by: , on October 08th 2011 on 06:33pm0 Comments
Friday 30th September 2011
GHOSTS OF BATTLES PAST

 
 
During the World Cup Rupert Bates is writing a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz). This article was first published in Rugby News September 29th.
 
 
 
You don’t really want to get too political ahead of Saturday’s clash at Eden Park, but rumour has it the Scotland players are on a big bonus to beat England and the money will be paid by the English taxpayer, who funds most things north of the border.

The trouble is you cannot imagine Martin Johnson firing up his English team for the Auckland game by citing an unfair tax system, while Andy Robinson, his Scotland counterpart, would rather chew off his arm, which to be fair he frequently tries to do in the coach’s box, than wear a kilt, as the former England boss is as West Country English as dry cider.

However you can bet the Scots have been digging up all the old slights, perceived or otherwise, through history. The spirit of Robert the Bruce and the Battle of Bannockburn will be summoned and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s face will have been painted on Scottish tackle bags this week.

It’s a load of old sheep guts really. The idea that our Celtic cousins have the advantage of passion and patriotism because they blindsided King Edward’s English army in a Stirlingshire village 700 years ago is a little fanciful.

Never let reality get in the way of a good cliche, but rest assured, 12000 miles from the action, I shall be shouting “Remember Flodden” in my Sussex local on England’s south coast, confusing mates with no knowledge of military history. Don’t you mean Foden?

Ah Ben Foden. A downside of following the World Cup from afar is you have to read the ghost written thoughts of players. Over the years I have been Francois Pienaar, Joel Stransky, Ieuan Evans, Serge Blanco, Mike Catt, Matt Stevens and Steve Thompson.

I even once got the word ‘existential’ in the England hooker’s column, which rather gave the ghosting game away, while Blanco, so upset after Australia’s win over France in the 1999 World Cup final, turned his phone off and the only word in my notebook was merde. That particular column was poetic license and an existentialist poet at that.

Foden, in two successive weekly columns for The Sunday Telegraph, has joyfully told us his girlfriend Una Healy, a pop star with a girl band called The Saturdays, is pregnant.

So we now know what the England full-back gets up to on a Saturday, although Foden, rather worryingly, told us “the pregnancy was a little bit unexpected.” Too much rugby and not enough listening in biology class Ben.

Many congratulations to the couple and Foden gave that familiar cradle-rocking gesture when he touched down against Romania, but it’s rugby insight I want, not extracts from Mother & Baby magazine.

The biggest England mystery, until officially announced as part of the squad, has been the whereabouts of Thomas Waldrom. Was the tank engine on the South Island, the North Island or the Island of Sodor? If England wears its change strip again at least Waldrom gets to be an all black.

 

Posted by: , on September 30th 2011 on 08:10pm0 Comments
Tuesday 27th September 2011
THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

During the World Cup, Rupert Bates is writing a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz) 
This article was first published in Rugby News September 22.
 


Privately Martin Johnson – Grumpy if a little bigger - was furious. The England players who tackled the dwarves, singing ‘swing low’ not ‘hi ho,’ clearly did not roll away.

What’s more a week later they repeated the offences – at the breakdown not the bar – against Georgia. The England squad is a great bunch of blokes, but they’ve got a Dopey and a Sleepy as well as a Hape.

Mike Tindall’s Stag do in Miami ahead of his wedding to Zara Phillips was referred to by one English newspaper as a ‘seven- hour drinking marathon’. That’s not a marathon; it’s barely the 400-metre Hurdles. A Buck’s weekend is one thing; professional sportsmen performing on the biggest stage of all, another.

It was meat, drink and royal jelly to the prurient press. If the News of the World had not closed, the infamous British tabloid would have had interviews with the dwarves - well seven of them anyway.

Nobody expects their players to be snow white – last dwarf gag for a while promise - but this was the height of idiocy, especially given Tindall’s wife is the Queen’s granddaughter.

Johnson got it wrong. Bungee jumping yes, for that is an adrenalin rush to enrich both body and soul. Relaxing over a few beers may be good for team bonding, but it is not the fuel of champions and in this all-seeing, all-judging age what goes on tour stays on CCTV.

Does Usain Bolt go for a barrel of rum between races at the Olympics? Actually scrub that. The Jamaican could drink the annual rum rations of the pirates of the Caribbean and still win at a stagger.

If anyone deserved to get epically drunk it was Ireland, a nation that has produced a few Olympic drinking champions down the years. The Irish forwards were immense against the Wallabies and I’m counting captain Brian O’Driscoll among them, as the centre could cut it as a Test seven.

We up north are now getting very excited as you big beast southerners could all end up on one side of the quarter-final draw. It’s like having Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in one half of the Wimbledon draw and Andy Murray in the other, except Murray doesn’t count in rugby terms, as he’s Scottish.

Whoops shouldn’t have said that. Scotland will now ruck England out of Eden Park.

Presumably if Wales had successfully appealed – if such a process existed - to have James Hook’s penalty re-instated, they would be regretting it now, as second in Pool D might be the best place to finish if Ireland has already produced its one big game.

Meanwhile France is doing its best to replicate its football team with its unique mixture of ennui and angst, not helped by Marc Lievremont being one croissant short of a continental breakfast.

I’m off to watch England get penalized against Romania. I hope the pub is not too crowded. I’m not very tall you see. Important to end on a low.


Posted by: , on September 27th 2011 on 08:04am0 Comments
Wednesday 21st September 2011
HELL FREEZES OVER

During the World Cup, Rupert Bates is writing a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz) 
This article was first published in Rugby News September 15.
 
 

We heard the thudding sound back in England. Jonny Wilkinson was doing his best impression of Dobby, the house elf in Harry Potter, who routinely beats himself up.

‘Bad Jonny’ chanted the England first-five as he repeatedly bashed his head against his hotel room wall. Meanwhile the new from Hades was that, as well as Wilkinson missing five penalties, hell had indeed frozen over.

There were thudding noises across the living rooms and bars of England too – the sound of jaws hitting the floor. Even when England plays like scalded, neutered cats against fired-up Pumas, there is always the comfort of ‘our Jonny’ slotting his kicks. Not any more. Goodness to win the World Cup England may have to be creative. That wasn’t part of the plan.

Even the relief of replacement scrum-half Ben Youngs skating over for the game-changing try against Argentina had England supporters screaming “ground it!” as he insisted on getting under the posts and almost ran out of dead-ball area. Fair play to the Leicester man; he thought surely even Wilkinson won’t miss if I get it beneath the sticks.

It’s not much fun shouting at the television 12000 miles from the rugby planet’s biggest party. Envious? You bet. Should I leave a note for the wife and slip off to the airport? She’s half Kiwi; she’ll understand.

The England team may not have scared anybody on opening week, but Brian Moore did, which given he makes Dobby look like David Beckham is not surprising. The former England rake, looking for his Dunedin digs, knocked on the wrong door and terrified an Otago granny. At least he did not say: “Hello, I’m an old English hooker working here for six weeks.”

Apparently New Zealand brothel keepers are expecting the best trade to come from England fans, presumably dressed in England’s change strip just in case the other half spots them on Google Earth. Playing in all black, whatever the motives, was crass in the extreme and with the numbers peeling off the jerseys within five minutes England was as sartorially shabby as its rugby.

How we laugh when we remind any New Zealander we know that it has been 24 long years; that should they choke again, but this time in their own backyard, Dan Carter will be lucky to get a job mustering sheep, yet alone a backline.

We cannot decide whether to mock the Haka as a faux-warrior dance, or respect it for its noble traditions. Well I’ve made a decision to follow the All Blacks as my second team – and not just as a nod to a Tauranga father-in-law foolish enough to move to Australia.

A lot of guff is spoken about a sport defining a culture, but in the case of New Zealand it is achingly true. I cheer for England, but should Richie McCaw lift the World Cup next month it will be one of the greatest moments in all sport. I just wish I was there.

 

Posted by: , on September 21st 2011 on 06:52pm0 Comments
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