Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The lonely road of retirement

It’s the eve of the new season. The most exciting time in every Rugby player’s life. Weeks of gruelling pre-season drills under the belt, miles of tarmac covered, bleeps ingrained in the psyche. At 3pm tomorrow, the league kicks off.

But instead of being a ball of bursting, bouncing energy – sick with both nerves and excitement – I am typing this on a train home from Cardiff, sending tweets about the beautiful scenery.

I’ve changed.

This is the first time I have not been involved in the build up in anyway. The first time I have literally been on the sidelines looking in and I’m missing it already.

The end of the season was fantastic. A 40-0 County Cup win against Hertford rectified some of the hurt from the year before and secured some well deserved silverware for the Rangers.

I was awarded with the ‘Supporters’ Player of the Year’, which was a real honour. I think it may have been a victory for self promotion rather than genuine achievement but I’m extremely grateful all the same.

I’ve been through the reasons for my apparently early retirement any number of times with anyone who cares to listen! But the main question is – what do you do without Rugby? The categorical answer will come in a week or two.

Pretty soon my life will be a dizzying carousel or soiled nappies and sleep deprivation. And the last thing I’ll want to do is face up to a roid-rage mutant from Ampthill or the like.

The huge chasmic void has so far been partially filled by running and cycling. But it’s just not the same! (Start the violins) There isn’t the same camaraderie, there’s no banter, there’s no sense of group achievement. I’ve enjoyed running for the first time ever and I love cycling…but you can’t escape the sense of belonging that automatically comes with team sports.

I have been to two of Tring’s pre-season games so far. I saw the slightly under-whelming mini tournament between Marlow, Wheatley and Tring. But I was extremely impressed with the performance against Chinnor at Cow Lane.

I missed the first half, which apparently saw Tring concede a few soft scores. But what I saw was extremely encouraging for the oncoming league year. The pack looked very strong and dynamic. New signing French in the Front Row and an enigmatic Italian 2nd Row certainly gave some extra bite at the scrum…where were they last year?!!

Radders will need to be at his destructive best this year
It was difficult to admit but I was particularly impressed by the new 8, Lawry. He looked strong, athletic, direct and fearsome in defence. One bone-crunching smash on the unsuspecting Chinnor Winger even raised a wry smile on Radders’ battle-hardened features – no mean feat in itself.

The potential problems will be finishing. With no Mataei Express or Liam ‘Sicknote’ Chennells available, who will rack up the points this year?

There is the standard Fly-Half merri-go-round to contend with. First Jimmy ‘No Shower’ Fouracre and now Scotty ‘In-try-ception’ Browne has turned-coat and joined Canterbury. The stage is set for a battle for the 10 shirt.

As for me, I’ve already reduced my retirement to a sabbatical! I enjoy watching…but not when I know I could be playing.

I do love cycling and running and no doubt the competitor in me will enter some races at some point. But it will never replace Rugby and it is only a matter of time before I make a comeback in some shape or form.

Good luck to the Rangers tomorrow - or today when this eventually goes up. Win or lose, it'll be a rocking bus trip back from Westcliffe!

Friday, 4 May 2012

Revenge is a dish served...wet and very muddy!

'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more' - Henry V, William Shakespeare

County Champions 2012. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?! Yes, we finished the season in style with a 40-0 win against rivals Hertford in a reverse of the same game last year. The competition may have fallen on hard times but it was still an excellent way to round off a superb season.

When I played for Waterloo up in Liverpool, we played in the Lancashire Cup. I was lucky enough to reach the final, played at Sedgley Park in front of a sell-out crowd. Yes it was a 2nd team with the 1st team bench but we played every round with full intensity in front of large crowds each time. 

And yet, here we were last Sunday playing in the Herts Cup final for the 2nd year running without playing a single game in the build up. I'm glad to see changes are being made to this competition next year because something needs to be done. 

But, nevertheless, we were there to win. The club had never won the trophy before and we were determined to cap off our season with some silverware. And a rabble-rousing pre game talk from John Lamden certainly set us on the path.

The conditions were truly abysmal. Watford beat Old Verulamians in the 1st game in torrential rain and with a couple of inches of standing water in areas of the pitch. It seemed the Rugby Gods were mourning my retirement! However, as the warm up started, the clouds parted and sun began to shine through. 

Capt'n Morgan slides in
We knew Hertford had played the day before so were unlikely to field a full strength side but that didn't stop us going for the jugular. Belying the wet conditions, we played our normal expansive running game, determined to enjoy our last full outing as the Class of 2011/12. 

We looked composed, confident and effortlessly clinical as Tommy Newton capitalised on a mistake from the Winger to touch down for the first score. Our jinking magician scored his second as he slipped through infamous Prop Baz's grasp to score under the posts.

The scrums weren't pretty but we managed to hold our own - no mean feat I can tell you. I still have nightmares of previous games against Hertford!

We dominated the breakdowns and loose play. Harry Bloomfield continued his phenomenal form with some brutal forward running and commanding play in the air at restarts and lineouts. Kiwi/Aussie Marlen was his usual bullocking self and Papa Bear Lamden proved he can certainly shift for a big lad! The Mateai Express crashed through for a score and the half was closed by a fantastic flowing team try, gratefully finished by Capt'n Morgan, sliding in from what seemed like the 22 line!
Literally unstoppable!

The 2nd half continued much in the same vein. Some outrageous hands in the backs lead to a second score for Wills. And then, just as a squadron of pigs flew overhead, a perfectly executed driven lineout lead to a penalty try under the posts. Yes. That's right. A push over try against Hertford!

The defending Champions fought back in the name of pride but we were determined to keep them scoreless. With our sinews stiffened, blood summoned and fair nature disguised with hard-favour'd rage (see earlier quote for the Philistines!), they finished the game with nothing.

Some may feel this was a hollow win against a 2nd team in a meaningless competition. But, as a team, we have been through a lot this year so it was something of a relief to finish with some glory.  

Next year, Herts have scheduled some much needed changes to the trophy to make it more competitive. But for now the Tring's name will be etched into history forever more!

Next stop...The Players' Dinner! 

Friday, 27 April 2012

Swan song ends in swan dive

'And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain...'  - Frank Sinatra

WARNING: This post may contain generous helpings of self-absorbed introspection...well more than usual anyway!

The Tring Rangers wrapped up our most successful National 3 league season with the brutal 111-7 route of already relegated Havant. It was a merciless way to send down a once great club but also a great way for me to sign off in my last game at Fortress Cow Lane.

The last few weeks of a season are always tough. There is an 'end of term' atmosphere and it is difficult to get any real focus in training sessions. Players are usually held together by tape at this point, desperate to see out the long campaign. One eye is on a summer of DIY and Saturday shopping trips. A few practice cover drives or right arm seam actions can often be seen as well. But John was keen to reign this in and focus on finishing the season with a bang.

The match at Dorking had been extremely disappointing. Bar two errors, we had been supreme in the first half only to be physically dominated in the second. However, we knew Havant would be a different prospect. The Hampshire club had struggled all season and, without meaning to sound too arrogant, we knew it was a case of 'how much' rather than 'if'. But few would have expected the final score.

It took 10 minutes for the floodgates to open. We looked sharp and focused but still bombed a few early chances. However, once Tommy Newton touched down for the first score, our nerves settled and we finished our chances with finesse and aplomb. A Hat Trick for the Mateai Express, and scores from Papa Bear Lamden and Marlen Walker pushed the score well out of reach. A late rally from the visitors lead to a surprise score from Winger Duke but a 43-7 half time score meant the game was safely out of reach.

And then the screw was turned in the second half. Havant's fitness and heart had been broken and we were in no mood for pity. Further scores from Papa, Radders, Tommy, Claps and Scott Browne pushed the score out to 78-7 after just 53 minutes. In truth, I wish I could give more detail on these tries but there were just too many to recall. 

At this point, I was starting to panic. I had still not scored yet and the Naked Mile at the end of season Players' Dinner was looming large in my mind. I was desperately running the best support lines my legs would allow but with little to no tackling, no one was giving up the ball. 

And then, like a prayer answered, Ben Criddle burst through on the right wing. He passed inside to Tommy Newton. As he reached the 22, I screamed almost pleadingly for the ball. He drew the Full-back, popped inside for a glorious trott under the posts and a totally unnecessary, Ashton-esque swan dive!   

But we weren't finished there. More scores from Tommy, Wills, Criddler and JP poaching Cap'n Morgan's certain try meant a final score of 111-7. The highest score in the league that year. They even let me take the final conversion!

So that was it. The end of the most successful season Tring has had and my last appearance at Fortress Cow Lane. Seventh in the league with 13 wins is a fantastic achievement but I think we all recognise a few messy games after Christmas cost us a higher position. 

And what about me? Well, I suffered a lot of abuse on Saturday night from people saying I'm retiring too early! But I feel the time is right. To be honest, it could be more of a sabbatical than a full retirement. In a year's time, or when the Baby is a bit older, I'd like to come back and play at a more social level or maybe do some coaching. But I won't be able to commit to the extra fitness and gym work needed to compete at this level.

I feel I have had my best season for a number of years - possibly ever. My defence has been much improved and I have made more tackles and forced more turnovers than ever. However, I set myself the goal of making the County squad this year which I have failed to do. Ultimately, I did not perform well enough in key matches this year to catch the eye (Bishop Stortford away, Ampthill away, and Bracknell away). Also, one try a season is not an adequate return for a Number 8.
The next generation of Tring Ranger!
That said, it has been a wonderful journey. From my first days in the Centres at Under 12 to now, I have loved every minute. Stand out moments for me have been the win away at Jersey - now a Championship side - the 6-3 thriller in a hurricane at Chingford to secure promotion, and wins home and away against local rivals Bishop Stortford. 

I'll miss the boozy bus trips, the unwavering support both home and away, and, most of all, the unrivalled camaraderie in the changing room. We haven't got the biggest or most talented squad but we are successful because we play for each other.

The most exciting news is that I am expecting a son in September so the next generation of Tring Ranger is already on the way! 

Now...enough of this self-indulgence. Next Sunday sees us compete for the Herts County Cup against Hertford and it would be great to sign off with some silverware.

'...the record shows I took the blows and did it my way!'

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Dorking punish weak scrum

We had hoped for an unbeaten run at the end of the season. We had hoped for our first win over Dorking in three years. We had hoped for a lot of things...unfortunately, it was an all too familiar story. An 'encouraging' and 'passionate' performance, inevitably let down by a more dominant forward pack and a handful of errors. 

The convincing win against Gravesend had pleased everyone. We had stuck to our new gameplan and produced a physical and professional performance. Despite an Easter break, we were confident we could keep the momentum going and win our last three league games and secure 6th spot. 

Before the weekend, we had not beaten the Surrey side in five attempts. Previous clashes with Dorking had been hard-fought, entertaining and had generally produced an excellent standard of Rugby. So we were all looking forward to the match.

We started extremely well. We were patient but clinical at the breakdown and, most importantly, we looked merciless out wide. The Backs were very much in the mood. Young Beeny continued his good form at Scrum-half and the Centre partnership of JP and Papa Bear Lamden were a constant handful. The pressure told on 14 minutes. Fly-half Scott Browne waltzed through a gaping hole and off loaded the Tommy Newton to touch down.

A couple of penalties extended our lead but it was our mistakes that let the home side back in. Browne was caught in position and Dorking punished us with a try from Scum-half Crow. Undeterred, we continued to press our dominance but again a simple mistake lead to a score for prolific Winger Terelak.

However, just as the tables were starting to turn, stunning hands from the Backline lead to a quite brilliant score for Browne. Papa Bear's bootstrap catch and flick was worth the entrance fee alone. So we finished the half 23-12. An impressive lead and a potential scalp on the cards.

But then the tables really did turn...with brutal efficiency. The pitch itself had a fairly pronounced slope. We didn't notice it too much at first but playing uphill against a rejuvenated opposition was an entirely different prospect. Dorking started with blistering speed, keen to make up for early mistakes and a flowing move down the left lead to an easy score for Full-back Tyler. 

The scrum had struggled all day and the labour was intensified by the slope. A scrum on our five metre line lead to a humiliating and all-to-easy push over try, which was jubilantly celebrated. 

The cracks in our game had been prized open into fissures and there was no stopping Dorking. A number of penalties and a further try from Number 8-turned-Winger Lucas meant a final score of 40-23. 28 unanswered points in the second half left a bitter taste in our mouths.

It boils down to the ultimate sporting cliche...a game of two halves. The first: probably the best half we have ever played. We were excellent at the breakdown, securing quick ball for a pumped up Backline to work their very best magic. The second: Dorking, buoyed by a couple of gifted tries, closed out the game efficiently. But it was through no lack of effort or passion - more a loss of shape on our behalf.

6th place looks beyond our grasp unless we can pull off a cricket score against Havant and Luton can shock Civil Service. All-in-all we are hoping to get over the disappointment and finish the season on a high.

And so there are just two games left of the season. Havant at home and then Hertford in the County Cup Final. Two games left of what has been such a promising season. And just two games left of my Rugby career.

Yes, I am still planning to hang my boots up on 29 April (give or take a couple of Sevens tournaments in the Summer). It will be something of an emotional game on Saturday as I run out in front of the Step End faithful for the last time. With the baby due in September, I won't have the time to commit to the extra training, fitness and gym work needed to succeed at this level - I barely have now let alone with a screaming Rugrat in tow! It will be tough to stop altogether and I may be in a position to re-evaluate after Christmas but in the short-term at least I will be swapping muddy kit for pooey nappies!

I am hoping for a big end-of-season crowd at Fortress Cow Lane but I fear the weather may have something to say about that. Let's hope I cross the line on Saturday to avoid the embarrassment of finishing my career with the Naked Mile!

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Agony and Ecstasy of National 3 Rugby

Now, I know all the age-old adages - sour grapes, bad worksmen blame their tools, throwing toys out of the pram, et al - but sometimes the sheer chasmic differences in refereeing ability in this league is truly mind blowing.

Exhibit A took place on 24 March away at Westcliff. In truth, it was a free-flowing, fast-paced, action-packed classic and must have been fantastic for the supporters. But it was marred by any number of truly baffling decisions by the man in the middle.

And before you all cry out, I know they have a tough time. I know are giving up their weekend. I know the Game wouldn't go on without them...but when they give totally inexplicable decisions or doesn't award the glaringly obvious, it is difficult to remain calm.

It was a truly glorious day. Not a cloud in the sky, late teens degree-wise and impressive pitch and clubhouse facilities. Despite an initial period of thumb-twiddling due to early arrival, we were focused on the job in hand. 

But our ambitions were dashed within five minutes. The ball squirted straight out of a scrum but no whistle came and Westcliff took advantage with a neat grubber through to touch down and take the lead. We were guilty of not playing to the whistle but it was so painfully obvious that their pack were expecting a reset scrum as well. 

We fought back immediately, reclaiming the restart and forcing a lineout on their line. A well executed catch and drive lead to a first score of the season for Jamie 'Boycey' Brown. Our lineout has been solid all season but surprisingly this was the first try we had scored since Havant.

The home side took the lead again through impressive Number 8 Bryn Hudson. But we hit back straight away. Some excellent phase play and simple hands put in JP at the corner for a textbook score. A touchline conversion from Scott Browne squared the scores.

Further scores from Westcliff Winger O'Brien and an interception from Browne ended an entertaining half 21-21. But we had been hurt by inconsistent refereeing at the breakdown and a yellow card to Front Row Marlen Walker. 

It is maybe worth noting at this point that ini the recent England v Ireland match, the Irish scrum was under all kinds of pressure but not once was a yellow card given. This is because what happens in the Front Row is largely a mystery. So for our esteemed adjudicator to give a yellow card when we had an attacking scrum in the Westcliff 22 was again baffling. 

But by that stage he had turned against us. There was nothing we could do. Even breathing the wrong part of the pitch would have produced a penalty. An interception and a further try from Hudson lead to a final scoreline of 34-27 to the home side. 

Let's be clear here - Westcliff played fantastically well and deserved the victory. We had chances and didn't take them. But our confidence had been shattered. We didn't know what we could or couldn't do as the penalties seemed to be totally random. An encouraging performance and proof that the new system was starting to work but extremely frustrating. 
The bus home from Westcliff proved....eventful!
Exhibit B took place last weekend at home to Gravesend. We have enjoyed success against the Kent side in the past but we knew it would be diifficult as they had a narrow win against promotion chasing Tonbridge the week before.

But this was to be a Tring day. We were physical, fit, and fast but also controlled and intelligent. Playing our of Tring Corner in the first half, our defence was exemplary. We turned ball over and spread it wide quickly. We looked dangerous with the ball in hand, Papa Bear Lambden continued his good form, The Mateai Express was a handful and last minute replacement Beeny proved a livewire at Scrum-Half.

We bombed some excellent chances but restricted the score to 12-3 at half time. We had laid the foundations and could tell our wide play was tiring their pack already. We did not let off in the second half and could sense a special performance if we stuck to our guns.

There was a confidence and self belief flowing through the team which we haven't experienced since before Christmas. As we thought, the holes started to appear in the second half. Patient but relentless build up play ended with Ben Criddle scything through the defence to cross over for our first score. 

As their Back Row started to fade, I was given more freedom from the back of the scrum to gain yards. A break down the blindside eventually ended in the merciless hands of Mateai who bullocked his way through five defenders to touch down in the corner. 

Another score from Mataei was followed up with a flowing move straight from the kick off.  Ben Criddle was gifted a simple run in to secure a valuable home win - 28-17. It was an excellent, morale-boosting win and puts us level on points with 6th placed Civil Service. 

But the most remarkable thing about the game was that we barely noticed the referee. He was by far the best we had had all year. He let the Game ebb and flow naturally. He was clear and concise in his instructions and (shock horror) even let both teams compete for the ball at the breakdown! 

Our next Game is away at Dorking. The Surrey side's season seems to have come off the rails as well - they were put to the sword by Tonbridge last week. But they are strong at home and our Games are always close. 

Please can we have the same ref as last week though!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

On the road again...

So, I'm trying something new today...blogging on the bus! We're heading to Westcliff near Southend (or Saaaaafffend) in the glorious Saturday sun. Apologies in advance for any autocorrect mistakes!

The Game against Bracknell really took its toll on the squad. We were stunned by how rubbish we were. We didn't tackle, we didn't look after the ball, we were soft at the break down, all in all a bad day at the office. The only real positive was that we couldn't get any worse!

We worked hard in the week, determined to put in a big performance at home against London Irish. And we followed the script perfectly.

The first 20 minutes were perhaps the best we have ever played. We dominated in the forwards and looked sharp and dangerous in the backs. Papa Bear Lamden looked in imperious form and broke the line almost every time. The Mataei Express was in merciless mood as he Lomu-ed everyone in his path.

We took a 17-0 lead and looked untouchable. But Irish were not in mood to be steamrolled. They fought back, lead by influential Number 8 Sam McKinney. We stalled and seemed surprised they weren't lying down. We held onto a 17-14 lead at the half but the tide had turned.

The second half was a battle. Irish had the initiative and extended their lead. We battled to get back into the Game and pressured their line constantly but couldn't find the breakthrough.

The final score was a disappointing 27-20. It was a much better performance though and we registered a losing bonus point to keep us in touch with Civil Service.

Today we're away to Westcliff who have been enjoying something of a resurgence. We beat them comfortably at home but we're expecting a big test today.

We're all looking forward to a big bus trip home as well. 2 1/2 hours, a skinful of beer and Village People theme dress. Let's get the win and get the party started!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Fantastic season in danger of derailing's been a while (awkward tension). 

I apologise for not being more active but I have been distracted by a fairly major factor - all will be revealed in due course!

But what has happened in the meantime? Well, our glorious and magnificent season is in grave danger of becoming a train-wreck. A terrible string of results and uncharacteristically lackluster performances have lead to a debilitating tumble down the league table. And it all started with an away trip to the Herts/Essex border...

We approached the Bishops Stortford game with genuine optimism. Despite an embarrassing loss to Civil Service, we were convinced we could repeat our momentous away win to our Herts rivals. But things, inevitably, didn't go according to plan. For 20 minutes, we were in the game but then the tide turned...and apparently we forgot how to tackle.

Stortford deserved to win the game as we weren't at the races. But we weren't really allowed to be at the races. A truly baffling and inept refereeing performance meant we could not get a sniff at the breakdown area. As the defending team, we weren't allowed to even think about competing for the ball. If we did, instant yellow card. 

Frustration soon boiled over and we lost our cool. 45-10 the final score with three yellow cards and a red. This was a serious dent to our season but, more importantly, to our confidence and belief. 

And then the snow came. Our home fixture against Tonbridge was postponed due to the weather so we had two weeks of stewing and gym circuit training instead. When the ground finally thawed, we hosted Maximuscle's Staines.

The Rangers prepare for a scrum against Staines
We knew from previous games against the Middlesex side that they always push us to the limit. We were not expecting an easy game as their league position would naturally suggest. And we were not disappointed. They brought a fiery physicality and a desperate determination to push out of the bottom three. 

Despite going behind early, we managed to dominate large parts of the match. We were behind at half time but the tricky conditions meant we were still in with a shout. A tense but thrilling game was settled by a moment of genius from Scott Browne. A pin-perfect chip to the corner straight into the gleeful hands of Titch Roberts followed up by a crucial touchline conversion gave us the lead. The forwards kept Staines pinned down in Tring Corner until the final whistle blew. A tense 13-11 win to restore faith.

Just a week later, however, and we were faced with a problem. The home fixture against Tonbridge had been rearranged on a week that had been marked as free. This meant many people had already made plans and were unavailable so we were forced to field an under strength side. 

Now, to many this may seem like an arbitrary point - if there's a game you play as simple as that. But behind any amateur, semi or even full professional Rugby player is a long suffering partner. If plans have been made, it is very difficult/unfair to cancel them at the last minute - or risk spending the rest of the month sleeping in the dog house, which is no way to prepare for a game! I wasn't able to play in this game, but a 44-17 loss was all anyone needed to know. 

We had previously targeted the away fixture to Bracknell as a must/should win game. A match to rebuild our confidence and push on to triumphant unbeaten run to the end of the season. But last weekend was probably our lowest point. We totally capitulated. Our defence was weak. We coughed up the ball time and time again due to stupid and reckless offloads. And we were duly punished. 

We were taught a valuable lesson in Berkshire. For much of the game we dominated and played some excellent phases. The scrum was solid and our lineout was excellent. But we weren't nearly clinical enough. Like birds following a trawler (ooh I've gone all Cantona!), Bracknell lived off our scraps and made us pay.To be honest, we looked rusty and bereft of ideas under pressure. We were too flat and predictable in attack and too high and noncommittal in defence. 

A final score of 38-3 against a team we were expecting to beat shows we are a team at crisis point. It is easy to look for excuses - bad refs, illness, injuries and absentees - but we have to take ownership of these results and learn from the mistakes. We need to lick our wounds and regain some belief and confidence.

London Irish Amateur will be visiting Cow Lane this weekend and we know we are due a big performance. Or else face our season coming totally off the tracks. 

One final point, lamp-post impressionist David Shotton has decided to leave the club and start a new adventure in Australia. You never know, it might improve his chat! Good luck, mate.