Comeback kings see’s a sad day at Gardens

•12/05/2011 • Leave a Comment

Recent months have seen an absence of newspaper reports about the Saints. After a near undefeated first half of the season, before the Christmas break and the Six Nations competition, the Saints have failed to notch up the victories they need and deserve to obtain a better place in the Aviva Premiership play-offs. A reason for the lack of success could be over indulgences in Christmas pudding and the absence of some key players due to international duties in the Six Nations, but at the end of the day- a lot of teams had to part with key players too. So there is no excuse really.

However, results show that this can in fact take part blame in the lack of results- as in late March, once the Six Nations tournament was over, Saints started winning again. And winning victoriously.

But it is their consistent domination in the Heineken Cup which has gone mostly unnoticed, as for the second consecutive year they remained the only side in the competition come the quarter-final stage. But typical Saints, they went one better beating a very strong looking Perpignan side 23-7, to take them into the final.

I remember in the 2006-07 season was torrid affair for the boys. It saw them finish bottom and get demoted to the first division. A resurgent side however came back into the Premiership in the 2008-09 season. Experts said that it would take four years for the Saints to finish in the top 6, and six years for them to finish in the top 4. By the next season however, they had finished in 4th place, and have done again this season. I’d like to personally devote this post to the ‘experts’ that predicted with such doubt for the Northamptonshire based team.

Last weekend however, nearly saw one of the biggest shock defeats of the domestic championship as bottom of the table Leeds had but 20 points against the Saints, at Franklins Gardens within the first quarter. Head coach, Jim Mallinder must have given an inspiration team talk at half-time because they came out fighting and won in the dying seconds. This result saw them confirm their spot in 4th place, just qualifying for a tough away play-off match again Leicester, and also unfortunately confirmed Leeds as the side to be relegated this season. But their fate swings in the balance of the play-off result in the first division as a win from London Welsh would see them finish top but unable to be promoted to the Premiership because of insufficient spectator facilities.

The weekends fixture also saw the last ever home match that Saints legend Bruce Reihana will feature in, as he is set to start a new life away from rugby after a fruitful career in England. He obtained the captaincy and is without doubt one of the most popular players amongst fans due to his surging runs and infamous swallow dives. After an injury that saw him sidelined for 6 months, Reihana came back to score his 1,000 point for the Saints in 2007. The crowd’s cheer for such a iconic figure in the  history of the club was truly a tear-jerking affair.

I know, that all fans of the side will be wishing him well in his future.

Bruce Reihana- Northampton Saints legend – 2002-2011

Reihana's swallow dives made him a supporters favourite

The ‘camp’ era of rugby

•14/04/2011 • Leave a Comment

Now when you think of rugby, most people think of big ugly blokes running around a field, putting in crunching tackles and the occasional brawl. Far from ‘camp’, eh? Although I guess there are a few that see big butch men groping eachother, sticking their heads between other players’ thighs and rolling around in mud together.

Whichever way it is viewed, from experience I know very few homosexuals in the sport. Simply put, it just doesn’t seem to fit. However, I don’t see what the big problem is these days. Yes, homosexuality has been looked down on in previous decades but when it comes to sport- the sexual orientation of an individual does not define whether they are a good player or not. Not just in rugby, but in any sport. In fact, in any aspects of life.

Gareth Thomas is a sporting legend. He captained Wales in 2005 to their first Grand Slam victory since 1978. The same year he captained the British Lions tour of New Zealand. With 100 caps to his name he has one of the fiercest reputations on the field, and a row of missing front teeth to prove it. Standing at 6ft 3in and 16st of pure muscle, his masculinity has always been an absolute given. His whole life he wanted kids, with his wife suffering 3 mis-carriages it was not to be. The life he led would have left nobody thinking that Gareth was in fact gay.

After keeping his secret locked away for his whole life- emotions over-whelmed him following a Wales game at Cardiff in November, 2006. Breaking down in the changing room following the game, his secret was eating him up. His two closest friends were the first to know, fellow internationals Stephen Jones and Martyn Williams. The reaction of both was a shock to Thomas- they didn’t care what so ever and instead quizzed him as to why he hadn’t let them know before instead of bottling everything up. The following summer Gareth finally confronted his wife- their relationship broke down and he faced life as a single gay man- something he had never experienced before.

In December 2009, the decision was taken to go public, telling The Daily Mail “I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player. I am a rugby player, first and foremost I am a man”. In doing so Thomas became the first openly gay professional rugby union player. But furthermore by coming out he managed to pave the way for young gay rugby players to be accepted both in the sport and in society. Gareth Thomas has since been invited as a guest to the Royal Wedding- some achievement!

I fail to see what anyone has a problem with here. The fact of life is; we can’t choose these things.

International and club level referee Nigel Owens also publicly came out in May 2007. He too had a troubled childhood and contemplated suicide on several occasions. Although the reaction to himself and Thomas has been positive, there are still individuals in the stands of stadiums that will despise them now. How naive of them.

It’s not only in rugby that homosexuality has rocked the stories though.

Justin Fashanu was the first footballer to openly admit being a homosexual. He suffered rife conflict towards his sexuality throughout the whole of his professional career, this all being despite he was very good at what he did.

In August 1981, Fashanu became the first black footballer to boast a £1million signing when signed to Nottingham Forest. Here, he immediately clashed with manager Brian Clough after his superior found out Fashanu attended gay nightclubs. In 1990 after coming out publicly as being gay, former colleges of his spoke out in anger against him, stating gays had no place in sport, and even his own brother publicly disowned him.

In March 1998, when Fashanu was living in America- he was alleged to have sexually assaulted a 17 year old boy. The police attained a warrant to search his house. But he had already moved back to England. One month later he was found hanged in a deserted lock up he had broken into in London. It was later revealed that he was no longer wanted by the United States police, and the case had already been cleared. His suicide note read;  “I realised that I had already been presumed guilty. I do not want to give any more embarrassment to my friends and family.”

Fashanu made first team appearances for 17 different teams over 5 different countries

For a human being to be made to feel like this for his sexual orietation is just not fair. It prevented a good footballer from achieving greatness and in the end needlessly ended to him wanting to take his own life.

Once in a while we need a poke in the ribs to put a smile on our faces. If only things could have been this relaxed at the time of Fashanu

And we thought football was full of cheating…

•06/04/2011 • 2 Comments

In a previous post, I had a minor moan about footballers diving. Truth is; every sport has it’s scandals and cheats. Football has diving, bad language, poor role models off the pitch and failed drug tests. Even Formula 1 has drivers doing reckless acts with their cars off the track- Lewis Hamiliton being warned on more than one occasion. And while I dislike to admit it- rugby has more than it’s fair share of ‘bad boys’.

In the current era of rugby, you’d expect cheating and foul play on the field to be at a minimum. The refs  keep a keen eye out, they have two assistants that can intervene in play at any minute, and a video ref can spot pretty much any action happening on and off the ball- and is often used for incidents which require a player to face a disciplinary board. So why is it still done? And especially in this era where young players rely more and more on inspirational individuals to shape their futures and encourage them to achieve.

South Africa’s Schalk Burger is a prime example of this behaviour. Time after time he has received bans for indecent behaviour on the pitch- his main crime? Eye gouging. It’s a cowards way of attempting to maim an opposition. To intentionally stick your fingers in someone’s eye sockets is in my eyes a disgusting attempt at cheating. To be fair to the IRB they deal with 99% of cases. But I still sometimes feel that the punishments are not enough. Burger has received punishments around 8 weeks, but still continues to re-offend. So churn them up a bit. There must be a deterrent at this stage, else players of all ages are going to be at it- 8 year-olds across the world are going to be receiving slapped wrists for doing it soon enough, because lets face it you can’t stick them up in front of a disciplinary board. The high profile players have got to be fair on the pitch and be role models for the future players.

 

Burger was banned for eight weeks following this eye gouge on Luke Fitzgerald when the British and Irish Lions toured South Africa in 2009. He later refused to apologise for his actions.

Further offences on the pitch come in the form of illegal tackling. Reckless offences that can, in such a contact sport, end in serious injuries. It’s too difficult to list a number but the one that sticks out in my mind is, again, on a Lions tour. This time back in 2005 when captain of the All Blacks that day, Tana Umaga and prop Kevin Mealamu totally up-ended Irishman Brian O’Driscoll and seemingly power drove him (head/neck first) into the ground. Now this would have been a  bad tackle, if O’Driscoll had been in possession of the ball. But he wasn’t. The ball was 15 metres away, in the hands of an All Black on the attack. Umaga and Mealamu up-ended the Irishman following a ruck- which had ended, therefore all contact should have been. This ended O’Driscoll’s tour, 41 seconds into the first test. Fair?

There was outrage across the rugby world. And Umaga even had the cheek to re-open the feud in 2007 with the release of his biography when he referred to O’Driscoll as a ‘sook’ which is New Zealand slang for a ‘cry baby’.

To escape with nothing, was a mockery to the sport. The attack was malicious. It was intended. But went unpunished. Disgrace?

What is happening of late however is incidents off the pitch. And with the media so close behind every bad decision made it’s near impossible to escape without the whole world knowing.

Northampton Saints’ Ben Foden was recently the topic of talk for off the pitch stupidity as he was arrested and cautioned following an incident in central London after celebrating their victor over the Wasps a fortnight ago. Details hit the papers immediately, but not extensively as it has not been released what exactly happened- just that he has been cautioned.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/rugbyunion/article-1372656/England-Ben-Foden-cautioned-police-bust-taxi-driver.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

Through it all- should players really be allowed to get away with murder? Harsher punishments would, in most circumstances, see the rate of these offences reduced, and would most definitely provide a much better environment for for the sport to succeed and create the correct environment for the youth of today to follow.

On a less serious note- and where it’s not an illegal offences; One just for laughs…

 

So close but no cigar

•27/03/2011 • 2 Comments

With all the hype leading into what could easily have been a complete repeat of England’s 2003 Grand Slam winning year, followed by victory in the World Cup- England go out and perform like that. Brilliant.

So I guess it wasn’t meant to be. All the comparisons to 2003 have well and truly been abolished, so lets not be getting our hopes up for a third consecutive World Cup final. Or should we?

Remember that in the last two tests against Australia (a great rugby playing nation), we came out victorious. Now yes, people will try referring back to the Autumn Internationals where we were beaten by the other two great teams from the southern hemisphere; New Zealand and South Africa. But since then England have grown. The starting XV maintains and average age of less than 25 meaning what we may lack in experience, we sure as hell make up in youth and that extra zip from individuals such as Toby Flood, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden and not forgetting that try scoring phenomenon Chris Ashton!

Some journalists have linked England’s poor display against Ireland with the absence of captain Mike Tindall. What do I think? Bollocks. I don’t know why he’s still even on the starting team. Yes, he has massive experience spanning a long international career, but he is not what England need in the 13 position. He still has the build to make line breaks, but lacks pace amongst the younger stars, throwing him up (in my eyes at least) as a weaker link. Phase after phase Ashton, Foden and Mark Cueto found themselves over-running him because he is not fast enough with his feet or hands.

My suggestion… Get big Matt Banahan in. At 6’7″ and over 18 stone, he has the build to knock back the biggest of forwards let alone the smaller, more agile backs that will line up against him- but he also has enough pace to gas most other backs. Manager, Martin Johnson, had the perfect opportunity to mix things up this Six Nations and get some new guys in experimenting in new positions. Yes, it can be said he did. But not enough.

So with four warm-up games left as the only internationals between now and the first game of the World Cup against our biggest rivals of pool B. I honestly don’t know what Johnson will decide. But all I can say is bring on September 2011!

Ireland celebrating too early?

•19/03/2011 • Leave a Comment

So St Patrick’s day is over, the Irish are hoping this weekend to let the celebrations continue. The 2008 Grand Slam winners are hoping to upset England’s chance of gaining the same silverware.

I’m guessing the chances of a two day hangover for the team is wishing for too much, but heading into the game as potential favourites could see them take the title from us.

Having struggled against Scotland, the confidence in the England camp is more than likey to have taken a knock.  But isn’t this were we strive best? We have  re-occurring habit of performing when over looked- so now’s the time for that to happen again.

England have this opportunity on their plate now. They are 80 minutes away from greatness. And if you could choose anyone to be in the dressing room getting you pumped for the game, it would be Martin Johnson. And hey, if we do manage to win today and secure the Grand Slam, maybe we can see a smile on that miserable face of his!

The voice and support of a nation will be echoing around the Aviva stadium, all English supporters know what can be achieved. All the 15 men have to do is believe and do what they do best.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/rugby_union/9428979.stm

“What a player… What a player”

•18/03/2011 • Leave a Comment

After 41 appearances and 22 tries in Six Nations competitions spanning eleven years- Shane Williams has vowed to never pull on the Wales jersey in the competition again, following his promised retirement from international rugby come the end of the World Cup this November.

 

In 2008 Williams became the first Welshman to be named IRB International Player of the Year

A tear to his posterior cruciate  ligament has seen Williams pull out of a potential championship winning clash against France this weekend. Knee’s eh? I once tore my anterior cruciate ligament (its at the front not the back like Williams’), and that meant 9 months without contact sport- ouch!

The feat of scoring 22 tries alone is immense. But now compete that this number is 22 out of his whole 53 international tries, and then you’ve got a Welsh legend. I remember watching Williams in his early days, and thinking “he’s going to be no good. Look at the size of him!”, which is a bit insulting coming from an eight year-old; but c’mon, the guy was only 5’7″ and weighed a little over 11 stone when he played his first international game against France- three weeks short of his 23rd birthday. How wrong I was. What Williams was able to achieve was turning what most considered a height disadvantage, into an advantage beyond all measure. His small agile build meant he was able to surpass ANY defender with his deceiving side-step which, matched with his blistering pace, meant once clear he manages to break the gain line with ease.

If you were to choose a Welsh all star XV, leaving Williams off that left wing would be like leaving butter off bread, or Batman without Robin. It just makes sense, the guy is a try-scoring machine.

Becoming a key player on the team almost immediately, come the 2005 Six Nations championship he scored against Italy, Scotland and most famously the try that secured Wales the 11-9 victory and Grand Slam championship. Performing to such a high standard, Williams earned himself a seat on the plane to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions.

In 2008 Williams was included in Warren Gatland’s RBS Six Nations squad, and the winger proved a revelation in the championship. Williams amassed an impressive six tries, equalling Will Greenwood’s Six Nations try-scoring record (in the Lloyds TSB Six Nations, 2001).

The little try-scoring hero again earnt his seat on the plane with the British and Irish Lions in 2009, this time travelling to South Africa. Although being tipped to the starting line-up for the first two games of the series (both being defeats), Williams played in the last game of the series. A game where everything mattered. Pride was to be played for. And Williams stepped up in excellent fashion, scoring two tries in a game which was hailed as “one of the best and most heroic performances in the history of the Lions”  by The Times. The passion is shown by the unreported build up within the camp, to these 22 players from four separate nations, it was the biggest 80 minutes of their lives;

Shane Williams will be a rugby legend for a long time. He has stood tall amongst the greatest of wingers. He shall never be forgotten…

However as an loyal England supporter, I’m hoping Chris Ashton belittles Williams’ legacy come the end of his career. With the tries he scores though, it could come sooner.

Viva La… Italy!?

•14/03/2011 • 1 Comment

You know, say what you will about the ravages of sport in this corporate age where overpaid athletes expect pre-madonna treatment, but there is still something so unifying about sport in it’s purest form, when athletes rise above themselves and touch greatness and in doing so remind us all that we all have greatness within us.

Italy winning a match throughout the Six Nations tournament is an achievement in itself, having only won seven times in their eleven years in the tournament. They have upset Wales and Scotland in previous tournaments, but this Saturday saw something remarkable. France fell victim to underestimating Italy as a passionate rugby playing nation, and the Rome crowd loved every minute of their 22-21 victory over a full-strength French side.

The French team started strong, but as they relaxed Italy struck with venom. It looked towards the end that three missed kicks from Italian winger Mirco Bergamasco was going to the only cause for their loss. But in the dying minutes, he calmly slotted a penalty from the touch-line if he ever needed to step up to the plate, it was then.

The emotion come the end of the game was emphatic. You could feel how much it meant to the players and to hear the cheers of the crowd and see the tears of the players- it was enough to move the most emotionless of people.

So where does this leave things in the tournament?

It’s something nobody could have predicted. The shocking result has turned the tables completely. The strong looking France have now lost two from two, and head into the deciding weekend against an even stronger looking Wales (though helped by a referreing error) that have not lost since the opening game of the tournament. Italy now also look set to not be ending the tournament with the wooden spoon in tow, their confidence is going to be sky high against a Scottish team that has won diddly squit the whole tournament.