Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Confessions of a Rugby Amateur

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Oh Danny Boy!

Oh Danny…what is going on!

Rugby has always held something of a pompous moral high ground over Football. A ‘man’s game played by gentlemen’ – none of these ‘diving nancies’. However, as more and more money flows into the Game, worrying similarities are appearing between the two sports.

Foreign owners, an influx of overseas players, big money signings, and talks of spiralling debts have all emerged over the last few seasons. One particularly alarming trend is the emergence of ‘player power’ and Rugby’s first prima donnas.

Now, there have always been arrogant Rugby players…I know a few myself. But as Rugby’s profile continues to rise, so will the wages and so will the media attention, merely fanning the flames of precious egos. Mr Cipriani is part of a new trend in modern professionals, the self-serving prima donna.

Firstly, we need to put things into perspective:
-       Yes, he is worth the hype and is extremely talented. He does tend to drift off and lose concentration but he is an exciting player with ball in hand and great to watch.
-       Yes, he is still a young man who wants to have fun and enjoy his success, He is not doing anything most men his age do every weekend. But he needs to understand, if his team mates aren’t doing it, he probably shouldn’t either!
-       Yes, the intense glare of the media spotlight is focused squarely on him, which no doubt exaggerates the tales of drunken debauchery. But he does seem to court the attention – the cameras don’t follow the likes of Dan Carter with quite such ferocity.

Initially, I was delighted with the decision to join the Melbourne Rebels. I am a huge fan of SuperXV and was convinced that a spell Down Under would not only refocus his attentions but also develop his abilities and make him one of the true greats.

How quickly I was proved wrong. Not only did he irritate his new employers by faffing around all Summer but he ‘forgot’ to fill in his visa papers in time and was several weeks late for training.
Danny Cipriani - misunderstood or wasting his talent?
Having made this mistake, surely any self-respecting human would arrive, tail between legs and keep his head down to show his new team mates he meant business…surely? But not our Danny – he was soon up to his old tricks, cavorting with Skye from Neighbours, of all people, and then swiping vodka from a bar - allegedly. Unbelievable. 

Lesson learnt? Apparently not. He is currently serving an internally placed ban for failing to meet a team curfew. The rumours about his ‘people’ approaching Bath and Toulon may well be spurious, but such sulking petulance would certainly be in character.

Yet, despite  this vitriol – mainly spurred through jealousy of his undoubted talent – I am a huge fan of Danny Cirpiani. He is an electric player and his raw untamed ability is sometimes jaw-dropping. But it is the equally jaw-dropping poor decisions both on and off the pitch which make him such a frustrating player.

On a positive note, the Rugby world is currently dealing with this new breed of player. Clubs have a wonderful if slightly socialistic ‘self-policing’ reputation where the team ethic still reigns supreme and those who step out of line a quickly admonished. The Rebels self-imposed ban, Henson denied a long term contract and Andy Powell leaving Wasps are all good examples of the sum total proving greater than the individual parts.

But how long can Rugby maintain this? Will the age of the big money signings take over as it has in Football, handing all power to players and agents?

I fear for Rugby’s logic when Toulon offer Willie Mason a three year contract when he’s never played a game of Union!

So, in summary, a message to Mr Cirpriani – Danny, cut the cr*p and become the player everyone knows you can be…please!

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Going back to a land down under

As the sun sets on an eventful season, we say goodbye to our Antipodean recruits, Tim Loughnan and James Stephenson. Rarely do people join a club and fit in as immediately as these two boys and they will be sorely missed both on and off the pitch.

Tim Loughnan

James Stephenson
The New Zealand club player exchange is a relatively new experiment for Tring and has already been extremely successful. Last year, Greg Blick set the backline on fire with his searing pace and Joe Collins slotted into the Front Row, although unfortunately he spent much of last season injured.

This year, we foraged the rugged South Canterbury plains to cherry pick two titans of the Crusaders Youth Rugby set up. Tim and James arrived in November amidst much fanfare. The team’s suspect run would surely come to an end now the next Dan Carter and Richie McCaw had joined our ranks. They instantly impressed in training and were itching to get out on the field. 

However, things didn’t go according to plan straight away. Indeed, the Kiwi cohorts must have wondered what they had signed up for - bemused by a three and a half hour journey to play Diss under two inches of snow! Despite the loss, the boys let their hair down on the bus trip home – their singing initiation may well have shattered glass and curdled milk but their  ‘game for a laugh’ attitudes fitted the team dynamic well.

James more than filled a Huw Slater shaped hole in the Second Row, bringing some added steel and aggression. His line-out expertise allowed us to successfully reshuffle and breath new life into our set pieces, which was a key factor in our fantastic run in. He ran hard lines for 80 minutes and would always make big tackles – the type that gives the whole team a lift.

James was something of a would-be-lothario as well, leaving a string of broken hearts around Tring and the dance floors of Aylesbury…even with those questionable neon blue jeans!
The famous jeans!
Tim brought a calming assurance to the back line. His laid-back, laissez-faire style was the perfect foil for the busy workers such as JP and Liam Chennells. His deceptive pace and highly affective sidestep meant he ghosted through tackles with a graceful air.

His versatility served us well, proving a solid Centre, Full Back and even a visionary Fly-Half in the Cup Final. But it was at Wing were he had the most success, scoring an impressive eight tries including two in the memorable victory at Bishops Stortford.

They both made fantastic contributions to the club this season and their Haka on the bus home from North Walsham was an excellent tribute to remember them by. As they embark on boozy jaunts around Europe before returning home to the Land of the Long White Cloud, we wish them all the best.
Haka on the bus

As part or a new Tring tradition, a verse to the club song ‘We are Rangers’ was penned in their honour:
[Verse to be sung in best New Zealand accent]

I know a couple of fellas from Kiwi
All: I know a couple of fellas from Kiwi
One called Timmy and one called Jimmy
One called Timmy and one called Jimmy
Tell the truth that I have found
Tell the truth that I have found
No sheep are safe while they’re around!
No sheep are safe while they're around!

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Epilogue of a Season

Last Friday marked the official end of the season with the Players’ Dinner and awards. It has been a hugely important season for Tring in which we have made huge strides forward…despite actually finishing lower than last year! But it has also been a long and relentless season so I’m sure everyone is looking forward to some time off to recharge.

The Players’ Dinner is always a somewhat raucous affair - one last chance for the everyone, from 1st to U-17s, let off steam before being handed back to families for the Summer. The format has dramatically improved over the last few years thanks the efforts of Sam ‘Professional MC’ Clapham and club guru Derek Newman. We were ‘warmed up’ with a stand up routine from Deborah, the slightly questionable guest comedienne. It must be a painfully daunting task to perform in front of an entire Rugby club in the middle of nowhere. She started confidently enough but soon dried up unfortunately.

Deborah the 'comedienne'!
Claps then introduced the speeches. This is always the highlight of the evening. There is so much fantastic, behind-the-scenes work that is done to make sure the club functions week to week. I felt a genuine sense of pride in hearing the excellent results and performances through the age groups and teams. I must give a special shout out to John Ball who seems to run both the 3rds and 4ths almost single-handedly!

There were two awards for the 1st team - Most Improved Player and Player of the Season. The first award went to the spring heeled, young-at-heart Mason! At a sprightly 37 years old, you may feel this was an odd choice but I think it would have been unanimous if put to a vote. The scrum was a real issue during the first half of the season. However, Mason has forged a powerful union with Boycy and Jonnobrow in the front row which has really turned round our set piece - so much so that we were winning scrums against the head by the end!

The Player of the Year went to…(fanfare please)…Tommy Newton. He has had a fantastic season, even by his high standards. With a stronger team around him than previous years, Newts has had a bit more space to work his mercurial magic - getting us out of jail on a number of occasions.

John ‘Jim Carrey from Me, Myself and Irene’ Preston won the special Steve Kempster award for Unsung Hero and it was a close call between Jerome and Chris Rose for drunkest person! Mason organised a competitive Naked Mile for all those who hadn’t scored which is always the highlight of any Players’ Dinner!

JP won the Steve Kempster Award

It has been a strange old season of contradictions. The league has been utterly unpredictable and the usual gap between those with money and those without is definitely decreasing. We had by far our most successful season at this level. Compared to last year, we won three more games, scored 120 more points, notched 12 more league points and yet we still finished a position lower in 10th!

However, when put into perspective, this is an excellent achievement. In January, we were rock bottom of the league so to pull back five wins out of last seven games and be within touching distance of mid-table is certainly encouraging. We’re no longer plucky underdogs snatching scraps under the table. We are a genuine and well-established Level 5 team. We no longer rely on a couple of superstars but have a well-rounded team who can compete with the best.

We may not have jumped up the table as we would have hoped - we would be 6th with the same points tally last year - but the team’s cohesion and progression under the nurturing eye of Jon Lambden has given us all the confidence to power on up the table next season.

Personally, I am relieved to have finished the season in one piece! It was probably the one of the best and most enjoyable in my career so far. I felt those two losses at the end took a bit of the wind out of the sales but it is certainly excellent motivation for the Summer. I have set myself some goals for next year:

  • Work on tackling technique - ie, learn more from Radders!
  • Keep focused during Games - concentrate and contribute for 80 minutes
  • Maintain fitness for whole season
  • Score more tries!
Me next year!!!
With these goals and Jonnobrow’s gym routine, I am hoping to force my way into contention for Herts next year.

I just want to play a game at Twickenham during my life…is that too much to ask!!!

Friday, 6 May 2011

Why is it always Hertford?!

As you can probably tell from the title, it was not the triumphant end to the season which we were anticipating! In fact, Hertford rather put us to the sword in last Sunday’s County Cup Final - 40-5 the margin on a scorching Bank Holiday at Harpenden. A disappointing end to an otherwise positive season.
On match day, we were treated to Motts’ finest coach - usually reserved for Wycombe Wanders away trips. So we arrived in relative luxury on a fine and glorious day. The Herts Trophy game between Chess Valley and Verulamians was already underway - we were
starkly reminded how far we had come as a team as we played in the same competition only a few years ago. 
We knew it would be a tough game. Hertford had narrowly beaten Bournemouth in a play off to secure promotion to National 2 and were riding a wave of confidence like a Kelly Slater! They were showing no mercy either, playing as near to a full strength side as possible. 

The game was hard, fast and physical. Hertford pressed our try line and some excellent last ditch defence kept them out. However, a lapse in concentration left Centre Ellis with an easy run in for the first try. Further quick thinking Hertford lead to a try for Compton and a strong run from the impressive Johnson left the score at a daunting 19-0 half way through the first half.

The returning Hugh Slater proving he's still got the magic!
We managed to pull ourselves together and put together some excellent phases. We gradually grew in confidence and started to use our dynamic backs - Nathan Lamden, JP and Tommy Newton running some excellent lines. We kept the ball well and peppered their line for the rest of the half, keeping our composure and patience. However, their ferocious and resolute defence kept us out and our hope started to fade.

It was much the same in the second half. We knew we had to score first if we had any chanced of clawing our way back and we Jon gave us a license to play freely. We started well too, Newts creating gaps in the Hertford line. But the execution wasn’t quite there - it was the last pass or last panicked off-load which didn’t quite make it to hand.

As realisation started to kick in, Hertford exposed our soft centre, scoring from their first meaningful attack of the half. Before we had a chance to reflect, we were under the sticks again, Hooker MacNamee put through a gap and off loading to Winger Riddle to make the score 33-0.

Rosey sticks it to 'em!
We did eventually trouble the scorers, Adam Cartwright-Howell finishing a break from the irrepressible Newts and we continued to enjoy good possession. As we pushed a little too hard, a handling error gifted Fly-half Manion a try leaving the score a debilitating 40-5. 
The reasons for such a heavy loss? It is easy to blame our preparations which were far from ideal, not having a full strength team at our disposal, an over-zealous trio of referee and touch judges enjoying the novelty of microphones rather than concentrating on the game! But in truth, we played a strong side who deserved the win.

Hertford had an innate confidence and air of total command which comes from having such a fantastic season. They gave off an air of invincibility which we need to learn from if we want to push up the table next year. But moreover it was their clinical execution that was so impressive. In defence they were ruthless and in attack precise. The overall score line flattered them greatly and didn’t reflect the effort we put in but it shows how costly momentary lapses are against good teams.

We were proud of the way we played though. A 50m sprint and superb try-saving tackle from Richie Roberts in the last minutes of the game seemed to sum up the uncompromising passion and determination of the team.

In the post match presentation, much was made by the Hertfordshire top brass of how Hertford deserved the win because they had played the previous rounds of the tournament. I hardly think we deserved such a slight. Indeed, the same top brass needs to make sure the tournament has the same pull and attraction as its counterparts to make sure teams don’t pull out. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Lancashire Cup draws a huge crowd and a full compliment of teams taking part. The Oxfordshire County Cup final was played at the iconic Iffley Road stadium in front of a bumper crowd. 

So the season has now finished and we have our Players’ Dinner this evening…which should be quite an evening!