Fun rugby, viscious foul play and departing deities come under the microscope this month...

Beautiful rugby is back

Rugby has become a rather routine affair over the past five years, with hyper-organised defences creating largely risk-averse attacking strategies led by tactical kicking. But thankfully, May was different, and we start our Five Things on a positive note…

Led by Glasgow Warriors, Bath and the Hurricanes, rugby put its ‘boots’ away for four weeks and brought out its ‘jazz hands’. Admittedly, Bath didn’t quite manage to perform in the Aviva Premiership final, but combined with the new Guinness Pro12 champions, and the leaders of Super Rugby, they proved that an open passing and running game can be hugely effective. It is exactly what rugby requires and will hopefully inspire the next generation of coaches to at least try more expansive strategies. Coaches like Mike Ford, Gregor Townsend and Chris Boyd, combined with playing talent like the Canes’ Nehe Milner-Skudder, Glasgow’s Leone Nakarawa and Bath’s Jonathan Joseph should be praised for what they do, not what they don’t. It’s this desire to play attractive, effective rugby that will ensure rugby’s long-term appeal is in safe hands – or in one glorious safe hand in Nakawara’s case.

Huget gets away with it

You can be forgiven for not seeing Yoann Huget’s disgusting stamp on the face of Bordeaux’s lock Jandre Marais; as you’re not the only one.

It would appear that the referee and the League Nationale de Rugby’s citing commission missed it too. It is the worst stamp that I have seen since the game turned professional and has absolutely no place in rugby. It is the sort of footwork that you see in a zombie film when a man his trying to shake a member of the undead from his ankle. It would be slightly more understandable if it had been done by one of rugby’s hard men – at least you could blame it on a rush of rage. But this is a player who received a warning for play acting against Bath back in January.

The closing of the citing window is also a weak excuse for not punishing Huget. If you kick a man in the face, in the street, you don’t escape punishment because the ‘GBH window’ has closed. If this is the case then the window needs to be re-opened and slammed down hard on Huget. That stamp was not accidental and is a serious contender for a 52 week ban, let alone missing the Rugby World Cup.

Paul O’Connell’s last game for Munster

May saw Paul O’Connell probably play his final game for Munster. There was no fourth league title for O’Connell as Munster were soundly beaten in the Pro12 final by a magnificent Glasgow performance. However, that one performance is a mere freckle on a blemishless Munster career that has seen O’Connell become, and remain, one of the finest players in the history of European club rugby. The word legend doesn’t seem quite grand enough for a player of his stature.

‘Legend’ has become a word used to describe a mate who can eat three Naga Ghost chillies whilst running naked through a shopping centre. O’Connell is totemic; he is Munster. A player whose mastery of rugby’s basics has allowed a generation of Munster players and supporters to enjoy one of the most glorious periods in the Irish club rugby, including two European Cups and three league titles. O’Connell’s domination of Europe may have come to an end in Southern Ireland, but is highly likely to continue in Southern France. His move to Toulon has yet to be confirmed, but if and when it is, his domination of club rugby will continue for at least another two seasons. Bon Voyage Mr O’Connell.

British & Irish Cup changes in Wales

May saw Welsh rugby posit changes to the way it approaches the British & Irish Cup in a move that would see Regional ‘A’ teams being entered into the competition as opposed to teams from the Welsh Premiership. The issue has caused a big stir in the Welsh Valleys and particularly with Pontypridd RFC who have enjoyed reasonable success in the tournament and view it as their ‘European’ competition. However, whilst it is easy to sympathise with Pontypridd RFC, the decision to alter the qualification process must be based on what is good for Welsh rugby. There is a clear performance gap between Wales’ professional teams (regions) and the league below. The national team is at the top of the performance pathway and all players and processes need to be focused in that direction. Whether the decision is taken to enter ‘A’ teams into the British and Irish Cup remains to be seen, but it is absolutely the correct decision for Welsh rugby as a whole.

Butt of a cruel joke: Jamie George replaced Dylan Hartley in the England squad

Butt of a cruel joke: Jamie George replaced Dylan Hartley in the England squad

Hartley future in doubt – in more ways than one

May saw Dylan Hartley receive yet another four-week ban and add to a list of offences more akin to a 1950’s mobster than a professional rugby player. Hartley has now added head-butting to a rap sheet that includes eye gouging, biting and elbowing. This inability to remain calm on the field has already crippled Hartley’s career and has meant that he will soon have been banned for over 54 weeks – an embarrassing record for such a good player to have to his name.

Having already missed a British and Irish Lions tour, he has now also been omitted from England’s Rugby World Cup squad. But Hartley’s actions may have ramifications beyond the pitch. Whilst rugby players earn very good money, many still need to work after retirement, of which sponsorship and corporate speaking often provide good income. Hartley isn’t exactly a good fit for many commercial brands – Lonsdale being an exception to the rule – and the after dinner circuit is more lucrative for those have featured in Rugby World Cups and Lion’s tours.

Hartley’s short fuse has already caused his career immeasurable damage in the short-term, but the financial consequences could extend way beyond his playing career.

  • pontywelshwizard

    With all due respect to Mr. Paul Williams, I believe he is not fully aware of the issues surrounding the proposed involvement of Regional ‘A’ teams in the British & Irish Cup. Below I list just some of the reasons why it is a deeply flawed concept:

    1. The WRU and Regions claim that a stepping stone is needed between the Elite and Professional strata of the game in Wales. There are a number of issues that need to be addressed with regards to this assertion:

    a. Welsh club sides have a decent pedigree in the competition, especially with regards to the deficit in funding they experience in comparison to the Irish A-Sides
    and the English Championship sides, with Cross Keys making the final, Pontypridd twice semi-finalists (on each occasion losing out to the eventual winners, once on tries scores after the scores were level after 110 minutes) and Llanelli reaching the quarter-final stage on two occasions – this proves that despite the semi-professional nature of the clubs and their players they can compete with the best of their fully-professional counterparts from England and Ireland. Many other teams from the Welsh Premiership have gained notable victories in the competition, punching well above their weight.

    b. One reason for this unlikely success is that these young players are developing
    their skills within a strong team ethos, playing week in-week out alongside experienced veterans of the Welsh game in front of passionate crowds.

    c. It is difficult to see how taking players out of this type of environment and expecting them to gel into a team capable of beating teams of the high standards of Leinster A, Munster A, London Welsh, Bristol and Worcester (amongst others) within a short space of time is at all viable, especially considering the supposed absence of the veterans that provide the necessary experience in closing out or even just staying in games.

    d. If the WRU and Regions wish to make the Welsh Premiership and more competitive whilst developing players they can do so easily by releasing more
    fringe/development players from the Regional squads to play in league games, especially those young players that have (or will be expected to) sat on the bench or only play a short period of the ‘senior’ matches.

    e. Should the Regions be sincere in their objective of widening and improving the talent base available to the Wales national squad, should they not also spend less
    money on foreign players and give local boys the time and experience with which to impress at the professional level? There should be no complaints bringing in players of the standard of Gary Teichmann, Percy Montgomery, Justin Marshall or Jerry Collins, our boys can learn things from these greats of the game… but how many players of this standard have entered the Welsh game in recent years? And how many local boys are not being given the chance to be the best they can be?

    f. Club involvement in the competition also increases the opportunities for players who may have been overlooked by the Regional Academies to stake a claim, especially if they are considered late-developers.

    2. Crowd size:

    a. Club games at British & Irish Cup level can generate a huge amount of interest,
    as evidenced by the attendance at the Pontypridd semi-finals against Bristol and Leinster A, drawing crowds comparable to that of the regions at well over 5,000, despite the absence of any Welsh international players (a main excuse given by many supporters of Regional rugby for their own poor attendance figures).

    b. Pontypridd RFC are well known for their numerous and vociferous support – on the same weekend that Ponty played Leinster A in Ireland they took 600 supporters (and a good time was had by all!). The Scarlets played Leinster in Dublin the same
    weekend and their crowd has been estimated at less than 50. As much as these
    cross-border games are important to fans of Pontypridd RFC, they’re as much valued by our foreign competition. Without this type of support (which the proposed A-sides will not muster), interest in the competition from the English and Irish clubs will certainly diminish, leaving the very real prospect of no cross-border competition in which our young players can develop.

    c. Considering the failure of the regions to generate sufficient crowd interest in their first team games, it would be foolish for anyone to expect A-team games to garner any significant interest at all. Development players need to learn how to cope with
    highly emotive and pressurised situations. A-teams are extremely unlikely to provide such an atmosphere.

    3. Income Revenues:

    a. Pontypridd RFC is one of the few clubs (or Regions) that can claim to be making a profit, season upon season. As well as sound financial management, a large and
    committed fan base and the fine efforts of many volunteers, other valuable income streams arise from the big game gate receipts that the BIC provides as well as sponsorship deals, some of which could be put at risk due to reduced visibility if Pontypridd are no longer able to take part in the competition.

    b. Many of the English clubs, in particular, also have a very loyal fan base. These
    visitors, welcomed with the customary Valleys’ hospitality, often give a significant boost to the rugby clubs and towns they visit, something that is very much appreciated during these hard economic times, especially considering the poverty that many of these areas are experiencing.

    c. Although Pontypridd can claim to be doing relatively well financially, can the same be said of other clubs afforded the opportunity to play in the British & Irish Cup? Presumably, if the proposed plans again approval, yet more money will be diverted to the Regions. Haven’t they been given enough money? Should we not be trying to support the clubs (that ultimately provide players for the Regions) to make some money of their own based on the meritocracy of their achievements?

    4. The Community Game:

    a. We are now well used to the WRU stating its commitment to the community game.
    However, this proposal is obviously against that aim, further disenfranchising an already disillusioned sector of Welsh rugby fans for seemingly little or no gain. Clubs like Pontypridd RFC and Ebbw Vale RFC are important hubs of their communities and taking away their opportunity to prove why these communities are so special (especially to those outside Wales) is another kick in the teeth to these players, fans and volunteers that strive to keep rugby a meaningful part of their culture.

    b. The statement from WRU Chairman Gareth Davies that, “The only reason the
    Premiership [and by implication the lower leagues] exists is to produce players for the regions and for Wales. That is why we fund it. We don’t fund it for any of the clubs to win the league year after year. If the Welsh Rugby Union are investing £1.5m in it, that’s not just to perpetuate a competition, that’s an investment into the next generation of players. It is going in for the future welfare of our game,” suggests that the community game is really of no importance at all. Without the aspiration of winning their respective leagues or tasting cup competition success, the community game becomes meaningless.