Welsh holding out for highest bidder


As we gathered up our stuff in the stand in Thomond Park last Saturday night, to head over to the post match press conference, a couple of Welsh and English colleagues asked which was the quickest way to get there.

“Sorry lads,” I said. “It’s for Irish journos only. Just those aligned to the Celtic brotherhood and signed up to the Accord.”

It was a joke. And en route to the other side of the ground we reminded our Welsh friend in particular how his lot would be quick to jump the fence – historically they have one leg over anyway -  if they thought the grass there was a nicer shade of green.

It kept us going until we arrived at the press room and the review of Munster’s win over Gloucester took over from the issue of where both teams would be playing their European rugby next season. If anywhere.

So when news broke last night of the Welsh regions declaring their love for the proposed Rugby Champions Cup it was, as they say in text land, an lol moment. Having been earmarked as the first to drop their drawers, the Welsh had assumed the position.

This was being interpreted first thing this morning as the final nail in the coffin of the Heineken Cup. Hmm, not so sure about that.

If there were gold medals on offer for preparing the battle-ground then PRL would be top of the podium. Just before ERC kicked off this season’s round of Heineken Cup regional launches PRL grandly produced the Rugby Champions Cup title, a daft handle but one that coloured in the picture of a new game in town.

Then, on the eve of today’s talks, they succeed in getting the Welsh to declare allegiance to something that as yet doesn’t exist, and has a broadcast deal that will be subject to legal challenge and whose detail has never been put on the table.

Meantime the backing track has featured chairmen from various Premiership clubs warning the Celts of the post Apocalyptic scene they will face if they don’t get on board.

This campaign has been so successful that what’s left of the Celtic alliance are bending over backwards to compromise and keep the show on the road. And does this alliance include the Welsh?

I think it probably does, in so far as their statement was worded carefully to leave the door open: they will run with whoever sets the right pace. And if that’s ERC, giving them more cash – they couldn’t give a toss about the structure etc – then fine.

What the Welsh want more than anything is the ability to budget with some confidence, to know that they might be involved with something that allows them turn a profit and keep their players in Wales. I’d say the eight Premiership clubs in England who lost money last season might settle for something similar.

The meeting in Dublin gets underway in a few hours and is scheduled to run through until tomorrow. Although I understand Stuart Gallacher, the Welsh regions rep, may be in town, I wonder will he skip the meeting to give his position some more clout. This is their demand to their own union, who they have been butting heads with over a new domestic accord, and ERC, to draw a new map with only prosperous countries. If that includes Wales in a revised and more profitable Heineken Cup then that’s what they’ll go for.

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Plumtree set to coach Ireland pack

Outgoing Sharks coach John Plumtree could soon be named as the forwards coach in the new Ireland set-up under Joe Schmidt, according to a well placed South African source.

The Kiwi would join Les Kiss (defence) as the third main coach in the operation where Schmidt will look after the backs/attack himself. It remains to be seen if Plumtree is expected to coach the scrum, but given that he was a back row forward through a playing career that took him from Taranaki to Natal it’s unlikely he would be able to fill that role at Test level.

Schmidt has spent much of his time, since succeeding Declan Kidney in April, figuring out a new coaching staff. Retaining Les Kiss was seemingly straightforward and when the new head coach went back to New Zealand for a few weeks after the North America tour it was as much about finding a forwards’ coach as having a holiday back home.

An IRFU source said there were at least three people on Schmidt’s shortlist, but wouldn’t confirm that Plumtree spent a couple of days in Dublin last week. A source in South Africa is certain that the Shark is Ireland’s man.  

Plumtree (48) will bring a raft of experience to the job, albeit very little of it at international level. As a player he represented Taranaki and Hawkes Bay with the bulk of his career then being spent in Durban with Natal. He started coaching in 1997, with Swansea, and after a short spell as analyst with John Mitchell’s All Blacks he moved on to Wellington’s NPC side at a time when Schmidt was with the Bay of Plenty.

He returned to the Sharks in 2007, as assistant, and then took over the top job a year later, remaining there until June of this year when he left having been told his contract would not be renewed next season. Plumtree’s exit – he was named coach of the year in South Africa in 2012 – may have as much to do with the arrival of former Springbok captain John Smit as chief executive of the organisation, as the coach’s performance on the field. When Plumtree coached Smit at the club he chose Bismarck du Plessis as hooker ahead of the Springbok captain. Brendan Venter will be director of rugby at the Sharks next season.

Clearly Plumtree had struggled this season, and the Sharks – having been tipped to lead South Africa’s challenge pre-tournament – missed out on the play-offs managing only a 50 per cent win rate in a campaign blighted by injuries to key players and rumours of unrest in the changing room.

In his five seasons with the Sharks he brought them to four Currie Cup finals, two of which were won, and one Super Rugby decider.

The ideal result for Schmidt would have been to unearth a front rower who could coach the scrum as well as the forward pack as a whole, making for a streamlined operation.

It remains to be seen what road he will travel on the scrummaging issue, and the role of kicking coach has yet to be filled as well.





Posted in All Blacks, Brendan Fanning, IRFU, Irish Rugby, New Zealand Rugby, Rugby, Rugby News, Rugby Opinion, Sharks rugby, South Africa rugby, Sports Comment, Super 15, Swansea Rugby, Wales, Wellington | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weary feeling as Lions take final step

Last Tuesday morning Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson was conducting a video review of his team’s win over Manly the previous night at the SFS. It had been a good win, keeping them in second place behind their arch rivals from South Sydney, the Rabbitohs. In the circumstances there was much to be pleased about. Top of that list was a sequence of play where they had to defend a couple of sets too close to their line for comfort, whereupon they didn’t just lift the siege, they went after Manly with menace, and without drawing breath, and worked a score at the far end.

Robinson acknowledged that the successful defence could have been followed by a breather, and he was well pleased that that hadn’t happened. “We don’t do fatigue,” he said, to a room where you could hear a pin drop. “That’s just not us.”

It seemed an appropriate theme for Warren Gatland to adopt in the Lions camp. A Third Test that needed winning was not what he had in mind when planning the break up in Noosa. Thursday was travel day. Another travel day. And at this stage of the show packing the suitcase again and boarding the bus for the airport must have seemed like having your prison term lengthened on the eve of release.

The spin from the Lions camp is that the Wallabies will struggle to get to the same emotional level as last week when they saved the series. The return of serve from the locals is that their best form is about to unfold.

“(We’re) Very confident,” Will Genia said today. “We can honestly say we haven’t played our best footy right throughout the series thus far, and probably made too many errors to give ourselves an opportunity to play any fast-flowing footy. We were able to do that in the last 20-30 minutes of the Test match in Melbourne, and we will probably take a lot of confidence out of that moving forward. We just have to make sure we start well, you know?

“I think we have we been chasing a bit too much in the last two Tests, and just playing off the back foot. If we can start well, and give ourselves the opportunity to get into the game, we will definitely back ourselves to play some good running rugby and really have a go.”

That line is credible for three reasons: the Lions are more tired; the home team should always find their best rhythm in the final Test; and when it comes to emotional investment, the tourists scraped together every penny they had and put in on being 2-0 by close of business in Melbourne last Saturday. Seeing that go down the pan was painful.

Now they need a load of things to go right: a scrum that yields penalties; a lineout that for the first time in the series yields positive ball; and enough breaks in play to frustrate the home team. Expect the Wallabies to continue the tactic of offering up the front of the lineout, but more usefully – on two counts – to limit the number of Lions’ lineouts in the first place.

In each of the games in Brisbane and Melbourne the home team allowed the Lions 12 throws to the lineout. Keeping the ball in play – something Gatland used to aim for with Wasps and Wales, when he was so confident of their conditioning – would not only tire the tourists but reduce their chances of launching Jamie Roberts down the middle of the field.

As for the scrum, they will continue to hit off-centre, as the Lions successfully did to the physically superior Springboks in 1997, and hope that the disaster area that is the scrum in rugby continues to claim casualties, primarily the referee.

If they get that much right then their only worry is if George Smith can climb the sheer cliff face that is required in order to get to the pace of this contest after so long out of the picture. And with a readymade replacement on the bench in Michael Hooper, they don’t plan on asking him to see out 80 minutes.

If the Lions are still in the hunt when the clock is counting down to that figure then Warren Gatland will have worked wonders. More likely he will be looking at players who are going backwards, and gasping. Some of that Roosters mentality wouldn’t go amiss.



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Dismal end for O’Driscoll

“We have not come up to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to be tourists. We have come north to this holiday resort to get body and mind in just the right place.”

When Brian O’Driscoll was giving that quote yesterday it was in response to criticism – from former Lions coach Clive Woodward among others – that the spin to Noosa was not a great idea. Whether or not O’Driscoll was toeing the party line or not is irrelevant in the light of the unique setback which Warren Gatland laid at his door earlier today. O’Driscoll is now, barring an injury to one of his midfield colleagues between here and Saturday, in the bucket and spade brigade.

In his delivery of the match 23 for Sydney, Gatland acknowledged that O’Driscoll was disappointed with the news, but that he would still be a key part of the leadership in the build up to this winner takes all Test. Eh, no Warren, he won’t. If you wanted him to fill that role then he’d be starting in ANZ Stadium on Saturday night instead of wearing his numbers ones in the stand with a camera in one hand and a match programme in the other.

As conversations go between coaches and players, the chat between Gatland and O’Driscoll must have put in the shade the short meeting between Declan Kidney and the same player six months ago when captaincy was the only item on the agenda. Back then Kidney got it in the neck for raining on the parade of the most famous player in Irish rugby history when O’Driscoll was, as we thought then, on his last lap. Heaslip struggled so badly in the role that it hastened the exit of the coach.

Gatland too will be buried in an avalanche of criticism if the Welsh midfield fires blanks on Saturday. It’s worrying that there will be 10 Wales players in the starting line-up when their record against Australia is so poor, winning just one of the last 13 Tests (losing the last eight in a row).

Leading that band will be Alun Wyn Jones. Given the recent history between himself and James Horwill the coin toss will be a Kodak moment, but you have to wonder how highly Gatland rates him as a captain. Clearly he is an outstanding player, but if Jones is such a good leader why has the coach not given him the job with Wales instead of passing him over several times when the opportunity arose?

Suddenly Jones finds himself trying to steady a ship in a storm. The squad will come down from Noosa tomorrow – another travel day so close to the Test doesn’t sound great – after a break where it spilled down for three days and the Lions seemed to be doing everything possible to forget about their predicament.

And their predicament is this: in Melbourne they came off second best in providing front-foot ball for their backs, which contributed to both O’Driscoll and Jonathan Davies having ordinary games. There was a time in O’Driscoll’s career when he was capable occasionally of creating something out of nothing. Not anymore. If your game plan is predicated on making headway off your set-piece to get quality go-forward from your midfield, then your set-piece needs to be dominant. And that wasn’t happening.

Dropping Brian O’Driscoll is a brave call by Gatland, evidence that he has the bottle to do what he thinks is right regardless of the fallout. But if he thinks O’Driscoll is the issue then he’s on the wrong track. And yet another Lions series will be derailed.


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Captain Marvel free at last


For the second time on this tour Wallaby captain James Horwill has been the fulcrum of a significant momentum shift towards his team. The first was after the Brisbane Test, when in the space of 24 hours it emerged that he had been cleared of a disciplinary charge for shoeing Alun Wyn Jones in the face, while the Lions lost Paul O’Connell with a broken arm. So the Wallabies retained their go-to man up front – and they would not have won the Second Test without him – while the Lions lost theirs.

Then this morning Horwill did it again. The escape act that is. The result is a turbo boost to the Australia who are already feeling the way most home nations feel when the Third Test comes around: well tuned.

The retrial of Horwill has predictably divided most down here into red and gold camps. Tonight in Sydney the Justice for Horwill supporters will be raising a few glasses for two reasons: at the sharp end they have hung onto their leader, who comes across as being effective and articulate and absolutely first rate at the job; and in the second they have headed off the IRB whose intrusion in the process has been presented as selective and unfair.

It’s worth remembering that the Australian Rugby Union are signatories to the amendment made just over a year ago that allows the IRB to revisit disciplinary cases between Tier 1 nations, and only Tier 1 nations. Moreover this option is clearly understood as part of the Tour Agreement between Australia and the Lions. The shock and horror in these parts at the interjection of Big Brother is theatrical, and those who are shouting loudest are the ones who understand it least.

Why was the amendment made? To ensure consistency in the process, and to allow howlers to be rectified. The appleal hearing has found that this was no howler, but clearly the IRB thought there was an unsustainable gap between the evidence and the conclusion in the Horwill hearing, so they invoked the clause.

It was easy to see where they were coming from. When you juxtapose Horwill’s testimony from the first hearing with the actual footage from the game it’s like something from ‘the cat ate my homework’ school of excuses. He said his action – the one that made contact with Alun Wyn Jones’s face and required a couple of stitches over the Lion’s eye – was an attempt to regain balance, that he was afraid of ending up on the ground on the wrong side of the ruck and in penalty territory if he didn’t take corrective action. Hello? Earth to Captain Horwill?

When I read that I figured there were other angles that we weren’t seeing and which told a different story. This is common enough: you look at something on the standard tv footage and are horrified; then you get the angles the citing commissioner has access to and you see a different story. This was confirmed in the written judgement of the original judicial officer – well, kind of.

“With nine video clips available to me ……with different angles and perspectives to those available to the Citing Commissioner. I was as a consequence in a position of some advantage over that of the Citing Commissioner.”

Great. And what did those angles tell you that lead to James Horwill being exonerated? Eh, we still don’t know. Interestingly when at a press conference after that first hearing Horwill referred to those same angles he was asked the same question, and made no reference to a whole different situation unfolding when viewed from a grassy knoll.

This morning at eight o’clock we fetched up at the Wallaby team hotel to be told that the scheduled press conference, to deal with the appeal judgement, had been postponed till lunchtime – because, remarkably, the decision still hadn’t been handed down overnight. Whatever about the disgruntled hacks, the Aussie media man looked unsettled at the prospect of being unable to appeal the appeal if indeed it was upheld.

Well, no worries mate. Captain Marvel is still a free man. The appeal hearing concluded that in the first case there had been no error in law or principle, and moreover that it was reasonable for the judicial officer to arrive at the conclusion which let Horwill off. The IRB had argued that a pillar of the dismissal was that the incident had occurred at a ruck, when it had been a collapsed maul, but that didn’t stand up.

It is a matter of opinion if you think James Horwill’s explanation of his action was credible. I don’t think it was, but two people in a much higher pay grade beg to differ. That the IRB took action and had it knocked back doesn’t render the move either unwise or not useful. And if James Horwill lifts the Tom Richards Cup here on Saturday night, I don’t think he’ll be complaining about the swing that helped them over the line.


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Gatland gambles in high stakes game

When Wales beat Ireland in Croke Park in 2008 en route to their first Grand Slam under Warren Gatland, they did it despite not having won in Dublin in eight years, and survived having two players put in the bin. The first of those was Mike Phillips. His inclusion ahead of Dwayne Peel had been a big call, and his offence was so daft and indisciplined that you reckoned he wouldn’t appear for the second half.

Out he came however. And went on to play a key role in the victory. Loyalty was always the most important card in Gatland’s pack, and he played it at half time in the dressing-room that day leaving the scrumhalf clear where he stood.

Perhaps top of his agenda when he took over in Ireland from Brian Ashton had been to provide consistency in selection, to allay the fears of players that one mistake would mean the chop. The trick thereafter is to get the balance right between players feeling secure to go out and play, and having enough insecurity to know that poor form might lead to looking in from the outside.

We saw that little swing from safe to vulnerable in Melbourne this morning. The coach was explicit in saying that it was a selection issue to leave out Phillips, that he could have played this Saturday despite the knee injury he’s carrying. Gatland could have given Phillips the comfort blanket of the injury line, but chose instead to expose him to the reality that in corners as tight as this, no one’s place  is safe.

It was good management from a man who has never looked so relaxed, but he must be deeply unimpressed by where Phillips is with his game to slot Ben Youngs into the gap. Youngs took his try well against the Rebels on Tuesday night, but it was bread and butter stuff against lower league opposition.

Replacing Phillips with Youngs is a shift to a different style of player, and not just a demotion for the man who came out here as first choice by a country mile. It’s good news for Conor Murray that he’s now in the Test squad, but while technically he has moved up from third to second, you wouldn’t bank on that pecking order obtaining when Gatland selects for the Sydney Test. Either way, Murray will be a much better player for the experience of being out here.

The other big calls from the coach saw him abandon Alex Cuthbert, a try-scorer from Brisbane and a man who sank England in the Six Nations, in favour of the player he wanted for the First Test, Tommy Bowe. I thought he would put Bowe on the bench, but you’d be happy that it will work out well.

Not so sure about the forwards however. The addition of Sean O’Brien to the bench is good business, but the nightmare scenario is an early injury on Saturday to Alun Wyn Jones, forcing Geoff Parling to shift from loose head second row to tight head, with either Dan Lydiate moving in from the back row  or Tom Croft coming off the bench.

The rationale for starting Lydiate, who played longer than I would have thought feasible against the Rebels on Tuesday, if he was starting on Saturday, is to add physicality to the forward effort. Croft’s value has been undermined by the Wallabies offering the Lions free ball at the front of the line rather than concede at the middle or tail. It lessens the value of Croft’s lineout ability.

Australia will continue that tactic but they will push up harder this time and try and mess up the delivery of that ball to the number two jumper. Moreover they will be hollering at referee Craig Joubert about the accuracy of Tom Youngs’s throwing.

When the ball is uncontested at the front then people tend not to care about the straightness of the throw, but after Youngs had, by my count, four dodgy deliveries unquestioned in Brisbane, take it that it’s an issue the Wallabies are raising with Joubert for Saturday.

They’ll be banging on about the scrummaging of Mako Vunipola as well. Gatland has taken a risk in his non-selection of a second row on the bench – the calculation being that with a closed roof and a dry ball there won’t be many more than the eight scrums we had last week – so to reduce that risk he’ll be telling Adam Jones that he’s in for an 80 minutes shift on Saturday, or pretty close to it. With a 50 caps-plus front row in the field for the first time in Wallaby history (and none of Cian Healy, Alex Corbisiero or Gethin Jenkins to worry about) the home team may even feel bullish about this phase.

Primarily they are relying on two things: avoiding the freakish run of injuries that dismantled their backline in Brisbane; and having their first-choice goal kicker available for long enough to count. You’ll remember that duty was shared unsuccessfully last weekend by the night owls Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor.

Earlier this evening Robbie Deans was peppered with questions about the two boys fetching up at a fast food outlet at close to 4am on Wednesday. The closest he came to saying that this behaviour was hard to fathom was in describing his subsequent meeting with the two lads as “uncomfortable.”

When asked soon after about how Beale would bounce back after literally slipping up on the job in Suncorp, Deans said: “He’s a stronger person (than a few years ago) and you could see that in how he approached his prep this week.”

You could? Imagine how Deans must have felt waking on Wednesday to the news that two players in whom he had invested so much faith had repaid it by being so utterly feckless. Warren Gatland has been blessed by comparison.  He’s hoping it makes the difference.



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O’Brien’s impact needed in Second Test

There are two times when players like getting taken off early: the first is when they are being beaten so badly the scoreboard can’t keep up; and the second is on a Lions tour when it’s four nights before the Second Test, and an early removal might suggest more involvement at the weekend.

So Sean O’Brien was on longer than he might have liked tonight at AAMI Stadium, a great venue which is just a 25 minute walk  from Melbourne city centre. In the one precinct you have the MCG, the Rod Laver Tennis Centre, Collingwood’s magnificent indoor training centre and then the  AAMI stadium, which is home to the city’s union and league teams. Sport matters in this city.

There was a full house at AAMI to see what kind of resistance the Rebels could mount, but while it was spirited it was never going to repeat the upset caused by the Brumbies a week ago. Instead we were mostly on Test watch.

With Warren Gatland confirming afterwards that Alex Corbisiero and Jamie Roberts would be available for Sydney, but not this weekend, it opens the door to a few changes. Mako Vunipola and Ryan Grant are the likely starters and bench looseheads for Saturday, while Richie Gray looks to have done enough to get the bench spot when Geoff Parling takes over from Paul O’Connell.

There was a theory floating here that with Australia giving the Lions free throws to the front of the lineout, Tom Croft had become a luxury. And his defence in wide channels in Brisbane was poor. In which case Dan Lydiate would start, with Sean O’Brien on the bench. The Lions badly missed O’Brien’s impact in the last quarter in Brisbane.

As it turned out tonight, Gatland left Lydiate and O’Brien on for longer than suggests they will have major roles to play when the show moves to Docklands on Saturday. So if O’Brien is to get a look-in it would seem to be coming at the expense of Lydiate on the bench. They are utterly different players: Lydiate is a stopper and chopper; O’Brien is a dynamic carrier, but with some way still to go on his link-game.

The Leinster flanker tried too hard to impress in the first half tonight and it led to a dodgy start that took him a while to overcome. Sometimes though it’s best to make these selection decisions on the basis of what’s worst for the opposition, which equates to what’s best for you. The Wallabies don’t want to see O’Brien in the squad.

With Tommy Bowe fit again – he will be wearing a protective hurling glove to protect his hand – Gatland has a straightforward call between himself and Sean Maitland on the bench. Unless he chooses to abandon Alex Cuthbert and draft Bowe back in to the starting team, which looks unlikely. Given that it was a break in his hand, mitigated by having bones on either side of it acting as a natural splint, it would be a terrific comeback for Bowe to get back into Test action. And, along with O’Brien, it would be a good call.



Posted in Australia, Brendan Fanning, British and Irish Lions, Irish Rugby, Melbourne Rebels, Munster Rugby, Rugby, Rugby News, Rugby Opinion, Wallabies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments