The Toulon dynasty, Nick Abendanon's X-Factor, Lee Byrne's enduring class and social media aiding the refereeing process are all given the treatment
Five things we learned about rugby – April
Don’t hate Toulon, they’re simply getting it right.
Okay, so it was May 2, but it’s easy having a pop at Toulon. It’s like having a dip at Donald Trump’s hair – they’re both tempting targets and the jibes are largely fuelled by jealousy of their wealth. In truth, the argument isn’t about Toulon, their cash and stunning third European title in a row – the argument is broader. The crux is that you either like professional club rugby or not. Pro club rugby is all about cash and it’s not Toulon’s fault that they spend it rather wisely. Toulon were actually one of two teams in the Top 14 to make a profit last year – Brive being the other. The romantic notion of growing squads largely from academy players is laudable, but also time intensive and hugely problematic.
Even if you do manage to grow five or six quality academy players the likelihood of them being poached is huge. It’s like nurturing a greenhouse full of tomatoes only to find out that Mourad Boudjellal has snuck in overnight, picked the big ripe ones, and chucked some euros on the floor in exchange. If it’s not Toulon flashing their cash, it will be Clermont, Bath, Racing Metro, Saracens or even Pau, who having been promoted into the Top 14 have signed Conrad Smith and Colin Slade. Professional club rugby IS money and that is sadly never going to change.
Judgement Day taking shape
Welsh Rugby’s Judgment Day 3 was an undoubted success. The attendance figures were up significantly, at 52,762, and the entire event had been prepped and marketed at a level that far exceeded its earlier incarnations. In fairness Judgement Day 1 and 2 became almost symbolic of the mess in which Welsh rugby found itself at the time. Politically the events were a very difficult sell – it was like hosting a beauty pageant in 1665 during week three of the Bubonic Plague.
But 2015’s effort was far superior, nearing the levels of execution, anticipation and press support that the Aviva generates for its showpiece events. There are the usual detractors who attribute the events’ success to cheap tickets –but that’s how supply and demand works. Judgment Day now has the feel of a calendar event, a permanency around which people will plan their rugby diaries. Congratulations to all those involved.
Nick Abendanon – the beautiful risk
There are plenty of things in life that where the pleasure outweighs the risk. The Japanese eat ‘Fugu’ a fish which, if prepared incorrectly, can kill you. I took a similar risk a few weeks ago by riding on the back of a trolley in a supermarket aisle, lost control, and nearly wiped out about £400 of neatly stacked olives – but it was worth it. Nick Abendanon falls into the category. His attacking skillset at Bath was good, but with Clermont’s squad around him his standard of play in has been balletic.
Clermont may have lost the Champions Cup final but it must not be allowed to tarnish a stunning individual season. He led the Champions Cup’s in ball carrying, clean breaks, defenders beaten and metres made. Many will point at his erratic chip after 40 minutes which helped lose them the title. But his own try in the 62nd minute was one of the finest pieces of skill this season – leaving five Toulon defenders as motionless Qin Shi Huang’ Terracotta Army. Rugby needs more Abendanons, so let’s all get on the back of the shopping trolley and head straight for the stack of olives.
Farewell Lee Byrne
Having already dedicated a point to Welsh rugby in this article – a section on Lee Byrne may seem a tad ‘Taffia’ and I make my apologies. Yes of course, Byrne had a magnificent career in Wales including 46 caps and a Grand Slam in 2008. He was one of the original Welsh Galacticos and along with James Hook, Shane Williams etc helped usher in a Welsh renaissance at Test level that still thrives today. Byrne’s style spearheaded the penchant for long-limbed, powerful fullbacks who could dominate the air with boots and bombs – which led to his selection as first choice full back on the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour.
Some of Byrne’s up and unders were responsible for significant damage to orbiting satellites – if your Sky signal was ever interrupted at approximately 3.30 pm on a Saturday it was probably Lee’s fault. Byrne’s angles of running were sublime and were so effective that they even became known as the ‘Byrne Line’. But almost as important of any of the above, and the reason for the second ‘Welsh point’ in this article, is that some of his finest work wasn’t carried out in Wales but in France. Byrne genuinely cracked the Top 14 when he was at Clermont. Unlike many Welsh players who crossed the channel and whimpered home with their baguette between their legs, Byrne returned with the respect of French rugby. Congratulations on a great career.
Can Social Media help citings?
Rugby has become an impossible game to referee. Even with a referee, two assistants and a TMO it is a nightmare to officiate. Particularly when it comes to off the ball incidents like choke tackles and dangerous ruck clear-outs. But this is where social media can really help. With the ability of supporters to cut Vines (simple video clips) and post them to Twitter, the rugby public could turn four sets of keen eyes, from the officials, into hundreds of thousands of hawk like eyeballs.
A simple twitter account dedicated to each league could harvest hundreds of unseen incidents. Of course, you’ll have the odd idiot sending in pointless nonsense and they would be immediately excluded or blocked, but some could be of genuine use. It’s simple, cheap, easy to establish and equally easy to dismantle if it doesn’t work. It would also go a long way to improving supporter engagement via social media. Could be worth a try.