Don’t Let Condensation Ruin The Six Nations


I heard last week that plans to condense the six nations are gathering momentum.

Condensation is a dreadful thing, just ask Craig Doyle of BT Rugby, maybe he can use contacts from his old job to double glaze the tournament and prevent this condensation from happening.

This is your Everest boys as Jim Telfer would say.

Ian Richie the CEO of England rugby supports plans to reduce the tournament’s length, and play it over five consecutive weekends

Unlike his namesake, Lionel, I’m not exactly dancing on the ceiling at the prospect


Richie says

We believe it is perfectly right to have a six-week competition as opposed to seven, it would narrow the off periods and help with the broader narrative, we think it would improve it”

I have to confess I have no idea what a broader narrative is, in this case, and even less of an idea as to whether or not it would be helped, but I do know that once again player welfare has been kicked into touch, and that is as broad a narrative as I need.

England with their strength in-depth may be the only home nation to benefit from such a reduction in recovery time, so maybe this is a factor in Richie’s stance.

Can you imagine  having to play the following weekend after the brutal Wales v Ireland encounter ?

Even more so in the case of the Scottish players, who suffered multiple injuries against England, having to return to action six days after the Twickenham clash would be a massive disadvantage.

The six nations board meet in April, and are expected to ratify plans to adopt a six-week tournament from 2020, with only a one week break between the third and fourth rounds

The old saying if it ain’t broken don’t fix it seems a very apt one in relation to the six nations tournament.

 

RUGBY WORLD MAGAZINE TWITTER POLL


Last week Rugby world posted a tweet asking “where was the furthest distance anyone had travelled to watch a rugby match”

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I didn’t feel remotely qualified to answer this question, as all my rugby life on and off the field has been spent in Europe.

 
Then it suddenly dawned on me that I must have travelled further than anyone, because following Wales for forty nine years has taken me to hell and back, and that is quite a distance.

Gerald Davies Hawkes Bay Vintage 1971 

Hawkes Bay is located on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island.

The hot summers and cool winters provide excellent weather for growing the grapes that provide the areas famous wines, particularly the highly regarded Cabernet Merlot blends.

It is also one of the most seismically active regions of New Zealand and has had around fifty notable earthquakes since the 1880’s.

However on Saturday July 17th, at McLean park, Napier, the earth moved for an entirely different reason when the British Lions came to town.

The epicentre of this phenomenon was a certain Welshman, Thomas Gerald Reames Davies.

This was the 19th match of the Lions tour they had already played two tests against the all Blacks with one victory and one defeat and were building up for the third test in which Gerald was to figure prominently.

Referees in those days were not neutral and one of the main remits of mid week teams was to beat the living daylights out of the touring team in preparation for their next match against the All Blacks, Hawkes Bay proved no exception in a thoroughly nasty match.

Amidst the darkness of brutality and violence there shone the golden bright light of sheer rugby beauty by the man from Llansaint.

Gerald scored three first half tries whilst on the right wing and one late in the second half whilst playing at centre, when Mike Gibson went off with an injured hamstring.

His first try came from a Hawkes Bay dropped goal attempt that bounced off the posts gathered by JPR, the ball went through six pairs of hands before Gerald Davies touched down.

The second try followed a chip through from Mike Gibson which Davies gathered before touching down to score.

Gareth Edwards long pass from a blind side ruck went to Davies who shimmied and sidestepped half of Napier before touching down with defenders spreadeagled all around him,his third try of the first half.


 

A fourth try came in the second half helping the Lions to a 25-6 win in a brutal encounter 

Dai Smith’s words from “Fields of Praise” written in 1980 beautifully encapsulate Gerlad Davies, the rugby player, I find it hard to comprehend, that I last saw him play thirty nine years ago, where has the time gone ?

Gerald Davies was poised on the field, his element, until the moment to switch and dart like a fish came. He sidestepped at a speed whose rapidity still never made him lose control, to left or right, squeezing fearlessly through eye of the needle gaps that no defence could cover, for no one else could have gone through them.

When his markers knew his intentions they could not master the execution of his desire, when he was checked in that one to one confrontation which comes to wing three quarters more than other players he was supremely brave, moving in close and quickly before, ingenuously and bewilderingly , pausing, absolutely and fractionally, only to shoot away.
Like the flickering tongue of a fly eating lizard he was nakedly on show, and then retracted to his own satisfaction, all in an instant.

His thighs were strong, despite a frail upper body, so that he could, if held, breakthrough any half grasping hands whilst his own understanding of physical limitations, that would have made head on bone crushing tackles either foolishly inept or worse, counter-productive, never made him an easy man to elude.

The lurking feline presence of Gerald Davies could instil a wary trepidation that let others in through less guarded entrances.

As the Lions head to the land of the long white cloud this summer, I will raise a glass of Cabernet Merlot to the memory of that magical day back in 1971, a Hawkes bay vintage indeed.

The Lions King Stephen Jones 


In my previous life the pain of working a night shift on a Saturday was always eased when, as dawn broke on Sunday morning, the newspapers would arrive at Heathrow airport.

As a customs officer, I was always strategically positioned to get the first copy of the Sunday Times, and as I sat bleary eyed and exhausted with my Costa latte, I would reach for the sports section and head straight for Stephen Jones.

Years later I find myself in the same line of work as my literary hero, albeit further down the food chain, and this transformation has resulted in that long time hero of mine becoming my friend, and that, for me was worth the career change alone.

As the Lions tour to New Zealand looms ever closer, the man himself prepares to meet the challenge of pressurised deadlines, and to negotiate the inevitable logistical problems, that reporting on a major rugby tour will bring, but when you mention the Lions, his eyes light up.

In ten days time the 2017 British & Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand will be announced, but the Sunday Times top rugby writers selection was a certainty and has never been in doubt.

Steve is about to embark on his ninth Lions tour as a journalist, and as we sat in a Bracknell coffee shop depleting the stores pastries in our customary manner, he revealed some of the joys and pain he has encountered since his first tour, to New Zealand in 1983

When asked about his favourite Lions tour he told me that there were many favourites for a variety of different reasons, but the first one in 1983,for the wide eyed wonderment of it all would probably edge it.


At this stage of the interview we struck a major problem, the cafes supply of croissants had been depleted, but Steve ever the professional switched to a couple of coconut topped flapjacks with consummate ease.

The interview then turned into a re run of the famous Barry John and Gareth Edwards meeting prior to their first Welsh international match together, where the plan was to discuss tactics and ideas, and ended up with Barry John saying “You just throw it Gar, and I’ll catch it”

Well Steve threw it, and I caught some of it, from the Springboks being out muscled by the Lions in 1997, and despite the defeats, the respect of the South Africa supporters shown to the Lions, unlike the booing by All Blacks fans as the men in red entered the field of play in latter years.


The fact is you could write a whole book on the man’s Lions experiences, and when his autobiography comes out in years to come it is going to be one heck of a read.

In the May edition of Rugby World magazine Steve writes about his favourite Lions memories, including his persuit of an armed bank robber in Wellington, where the welshmans lack of pace was cruelly exposed.


In the meantime check out his e book “Stephen Jones 30 years of rugby” from which the extracts above were taken, it’s well worth a read.


Also just released an updated paperback version of Behind the Lions just the thing to prepare you for the 2017 tour.


Both publications are available from Amazon for very reasonable prices

I hope to catch up with Steve after this years tour, so stay tuned later this summer,for more from the Lions king.

France Find Their Bite In Six Nations Finale

The final weekend of the RBS 6 nations, the tournament that straddles the seasons turning  winter into spring.

As with age, this years tournament seems to have passed by even quicker than ever.

This weekend I let the train take the strain and headed to Paris for France v Wales, an encounter which in my youth, invariably decided the outcome of the 5 nations tournament as it was then named.

The title always seemed to go to which ever team had home advantage that year, and the titles transferred hands on an almost annual basis.

A lot of water has passed under the pont neuf since then, and on this super Saturday the encounter had moved down the billing, and was the mid table fixture sandwiched between the wooden spoon and title winners.

A grey blanket hung over the Stade de France with a light drizzle falling since early morning, it looked more Pontypridd than Paris.

An early try by France looked ominous, but Leigh Halfpenny’s boot kept Wales in touch


To cut a long story short, a pretty scrappy uneventful match came to life in the last twenty minutes, unbelievably these were twenty minutes of stoppage time, during which the controversy increased minute by minute.

The match finally ended on 99.55 minutes, (more injury time than a M*A*S*H box set), when Damien Chouly went over for a French try, following eight penalties, one free kick and twelve scrums for the home side.


George North who has now got his bark back, was bitten by a French player, who was unable to be identified by the TMO.


This disgraceful incident may go unpunished due to lack of television footage, but the mark on North’s arm leaves no doubt that it took place, and French comments that it was self-inflicted, if not so hideous, would be laughable.

To add insult to injury France manufactured a way, to get their first choice prop, Rabah Slimani, back on for the vital scrums, when the French doctor Philippe Turblin insisted Antonio go off for a head injury assessment, which he duly did, whilst limping and clutching his groin, thank goodness for the hippocratic oath.

Prior to the change,one of the French coaches could be seen leaving the technical area, to speak to the doctor who then ran on to the field to withdraw Antonio.

Rob Howley the most affable and mild-mannered man you could ever wish to meet had the eyes of a cheated and incensed man, at the press conference following the game, he accused France of bringing the integrity of the game in to disrepute.


In fairness Wales were poor, they hardly threatened the French line, and once again too many basic errors cost them dearly, along with a scrum that was like a blancmange in the face of the gargantuan French eight.

So Spring is here, but Wales left Paris with very little bounce in their step

Au Revoir mes amis

 

 

 

Parisian Walkways And The Magic Of France v Wales


I remember vividly my first France v Wales match in Paris, it was on 17 February 1979, three days after my nineteenth birthday.

With long jet black hair and a face full of acne I felt like I was heading to another planet.

Thirty eight years later as I prepare to head to the city of lights, the acne has gone, but sadly so has all the jet black hair.

In mid February 1979 the whole of Northern Europe was engulfed in sub-zero temperatures, and snow was on the ground as I headed to Heathrow to catch a Gulf Air flight to Paris.

In fact the match itself was in doubt earlier that week, due to a piece of the roof falling off at Parc Des Princes attributed to the Siberian weather that had hit the French capital.

These were the days when airport security was unnecessary and virtually non-existent, the great Wales prop Denzil Williams walked through the boarding gates swigging from a large bottle of brandy, and no one batted an eyelid.

Arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport was like entering another world, it was the first time I had seen a policeman with a gun, in fact the entire staff of the airport appeared to be armed, including the cleaners.

But, the biggest shock of my life was about to occur, my first visit to a French toilet.
Now I had never been outside the UK, and nothing had prepared for the experience of “using” a urinal, whilst a French woman sang and polished the one next to me.

I was from West Wales, where even making eye contact with someone in a lavatory was deemed to be depraved behaviour, and then to cap it all, there was another woman sat at the exit of the establishment, with a saucer full of francs to which I embarrassingly had to make a contribution.

All weekend Paris was engulfed in a freezing cold, misty blanket, which didn’t help my main problem, dog mess !

Now I have never seen, before or since, so much dog mess in one city, as I did in Paris that weekend, I never saw any of the sights as I was too busy looking down at the pavement, leaping around like Rafa Nadal to avoid slipping on either canine excretion or ice.

The epicentre of this problem was right outside the Port de Saint Cloud metro station, the nearest station to the Parc Des Princes, where France played in those days, as did the football team Paris St Germain.

The Parc Des Princes was like a bear-pit inside, but lacked in asthetic beauty and resembled NCP car park from the outside.

The atmosphere in the ground was very hostile, unlike the sanitized Stade de France of today. 

The Wales time were roundly booed when they entered the fray, but the French saved their ire for the Gendarmerie brass band who were heckled so loudly that it was impossible to hear a note they played.

Having a ticket was somewhat superfluous , as every row of ten seats contained at least twenty people in situ, I had a burly Basque farmer on my lap for most of the first half, and in fact it was so cold, I was glad of the warmth.

He had a leather satchel draped around his neck filled with home-made Pyrenean brandy, which made him look like a Gallic St Bernard.

The bearded, beret clad St Bernard insisted every time Wales, or France, were awarded a penalty,that we both take a swig from his attachment, in the interests of Cymric/Gallic relations I felt it only polite to comply.

Wales were coming to the end of their golden era in 1979, JPR Williams was still around, and captained the team, and a new young star was emerging at scrum half in the shape of Terry Holmes.

For the record France won 14-13, with the scores at half time level at 7-7
Jean Francois Gourdon scored two tries for France, and Aguirre kicked two penalties.
For Wales, Terry Holmes scored a try, and Steve Fenwick kicked three penalties.

The wonderment of that first trip has gone, but the magic of Paris and a French home rugby international is something I never tire in experiencing .

Welsh Wails As Bread Of Heaven Goes Stale

We Welsh are an emotionally complicated people, prone to melancholy certainly, appearing to be perpetually sat on an emotional see-saw.

Roller coasters do not even come close to giving us the ride that following our national rugby team provide.

My great gran always had a hankie in hand to wipe away the tears from her eyes, tears created by sadness or laughter, there never seemed to be a halfway house of emotion.

Nothing embodies these characteristics more than being a Wales supporter.

There is a school of thought that being an All Blacks fan must be the most boring sporting role on earth, they hardly ever play badly and defeat is even more of a rarity.

There are some of us Welsh, who wouldn’t mind a few years of “boredom”

So why the melancholy ? Ok the weather doesn’t help, west maybe best, but sadly it also nearer the Atlantic, those beautiful green hills of Carmarthenshire don’t get to be that shade of green without the assistance of the weather systems brewed up in the bay of biscay.

At the moment a deep depression has settled in the west and has spread eastwards covering the whole country.

The long range forecast does not look promising, with the potential for a group of death even further east in 2019, at the rugby World Cup in Japan, although in the land of the rising sun maybe the weather will improve.

If Wales were caught between two stools in the autumn then they now find themselves caught between three stools, a kitchen table and a fridge freezer.

Young exciting rugby talents riddled with splinters, from sitting on the bench since last autumn, anxiously await a call up to national service, as many of the the old guard, both players and management, perform below par in an ever changing game in which Wales appear to be falling further and further behind.      

The 2017 six nations is lost, but there is an added ingredient this year, as the 2019 rugby World Cup draw is due to take place in May, based on team rankings at the the end of the tournament.

Wales are currently seventh in the world rugby rankings, and if they beat either Ireland or France in the coming weeks they will maintain that ranking.

If Wales lose both their remaining matches against Ireland and France, they will drop out of the top eight, and will get a tougher World Cup pool, with two top eight teams in their group, as happened in 2015.

By all accounts the Welsh camp is not a happy place, that Welsh melancholia has taken hold, there appears to be very little joy on the field, the fear of failure suffocating every move, every decision every waking moment.

As spectators and fans you feel for them, no Welsh team has worked harder or been braver.

For the next three weeks the pressure will be even greater to get that important win, but after that Wales really need to sort things out, sadly with Gatland and Howley on Lions duty, there will be a considerable delay in the much needed reformation.

So for the foreseeable future I suggest you hold on to your hankie.

 

Bernard Laporte’s Grand Plans For Les Bleus

French Federation president Bernard Laporte has spoken passionately in favour of his plan to introduce federal contracts and reform the approach to player development in France.

Les Bleus sit fifth in the RBS 6 Nations table after three matches, having beaten Scotland and lost away to England and then Ireland this weekend.

While France claimed the Grand Slam in 2010, they have not finished in the top half of the Championship in five seasons, and finished bottom of the table for the very first time in 2013.

As a result Laporte, who was elected president in December, has vowed to bring in strong measures to reverse this trend, introducing contracts with the FFR as well as working hard on the development of young players.

On Sunday, speaking on the programme Stade 2 on France 2, he went into depth about his plans for the national team, using the examples of Ireland and Scotland to illustrate his vision for the future.

Laporte explained that the players had already signed an initial commitment to the new reforms, with hopes to have federal contracts in place within two to three weeks.

“The first thing is to protect the French national team,” said Laporte, who coached France for eight seasons, winning four RBS 6 Nations titles including two Grand Slams, while he also coached Toulon to three European Cup titles.

“Other teams have reformed, I’m not talking about the southern hemisphere, I’m talking about the north, Ireland and Scotland. Protecting means that a player is available for France a lot more than they are today.

“There have been improvements but we realise that even the current convention isn’t enough.”

A new convention was signed in July 2016 for four years under previous FFR president Pierre Camou, giving France coach Guy Novès greater access to his players.

In this year’s Championship, the France coach has been able to keep an extended group of players with him over rest weekends thanks to a new elite list, rather than having to release them back to their clubs.

However Laporte wants to go further, giving Novès more time with the squad in the short-term, while working on development in the longer term.

He added: “There are two main axes, one is development. That I care about, there are too many positions where we lack players because our development isn’t ideal. So we will put people on the ground to train the coaches of young players and that’s a long-term project that we’re trying to put in place. And in the short term we want to protect the French team.

“On Monday we signed contracts with the players, individually, on a new convention, which we will go back over, but which is above all a commitment to say they are in favour of our project and the creation of federal contracts. So that players have a contract with their club and with the federation is the most important.

“When I say (the players will be contracted for) six months, that’s approximate, but for me if the French team is to be strong, the players have to have more preparation and recovery time than they have right now. The French team has to become our priority once again, like Ireland or Scotland.”

The next step for Laporte will be to negotiate with the LNR and the clubs to get them to agree to a new convention.