Saturday, 26 April 2014

Premiership Rugby: Do as I say not as I do

In the recent European dispute Premiership Rugby were very keen on a meritocracy.  The idea of Italians, Scots and Irish just waltzing in was offensive to every right thinking Englishman who had to shed blood over 22 to get the privilege.  

Unequal funding was wrong.  Why should the Celtic unions receive the lion’s share just because they were there in the beginning?  We all compete, we all contribute, why shouldn’t we all receive the same slice of the pie? 

And they were right.  And they won.
Which surely begs the question of why isn’t Premiership Rugby run on the same lines?

Do we have simple meritocratic funding?  No!  Premiership Rugby runs on a complex structure involving 4 different kinds of shares.  We have A shares, B shares, P (Capital) shares and P (income) shares.  The P shares can be bought and sold, the A shares are earned by promotion and the B shares earned after each year in the Premiership.

This means that to gain the same share of the Premiership’s revenue a promoted club must purchase a relegated club’s P shares; Exeter were reported to have paid £5m for Leeds’ P shares.  Money promptly lost to the game as Leeds’ rugby league masters drained them dry.

It also means that last season London Welsh were unable to secure a fair share of revenue as they only possessed the A shares + one seasons worth of B shares, whilst Bristol who had been out of the league for 4 years still owned their P shares and Newcastle still received a full slice of Premiership Rugby revenue.

These unequal conditions are making the Premiership stale.  The last ten years has seen only 15 sides feature in the Premiership compared to 26 different clubs in the Top 14.  This access to the top level and the oxygen of publicity is a key reason why French 2nd tier rugby is more popular.  Promotion is a realistic for the vast majority of sides and once you are there you are treated as equal.

This season’s best supported French club is almost sure to be Bordeaux in only their 3rd season in the Top 14, Racing are constructing a 31,000 capacity stadium but are in only their 5th season since promotion. 

Instead of this complex structure surely designed by a bastard cross breed of an Account and a Solicitor why don’t we opt for simplicity and meritocracy?  Basic funding topped up with English Qualified Player payments, compensation for TV forced fixture changes and a small £10k prize fund per finishing place.
Teams are rewarded based on what they achieve now not what they achieved in 1997.

In the European debate Premiership Rugby rightly argued that being around at the beginning shouldn’t protect you forever.  When will they take a look closer to home?

Friday, 18 April 2014

Awesome Foursome Line Up For Quins Test

Champions Leicester Tigers travel to Harlequins knowing that a win will secure themselves a place in the play offs for the 10th straight year.  A win will also put Tigers above Northampton and into position for a home semi final, for 48 hours at least.

Despite recording a maximum 5 points in the win against Wasps Richard Cockerill makes 5 changes to his starting XV.  The entire front row swaps over as Marcos Ayerza and Logo Mulipola start at prop with Stankovich and Balmain going onto the bench.  Neil Briggs makes his first start in 3 months as he is preferred to Rob Hawkins as hooker.  Tom Youngs is rested in line with EPS requirements.

In the backs former captain Toby Flood is reunited with Ben Youngs, Anthony Allen and Manu Tuilagi.  The awesome foursome have not played together in almost a year, the last time the quartet all started was against Northampton in last year's victorious play off final against Northampton.  Domestically they have lost only 1 of their 15 games together.

Owen Williams is unlucky to miss out but Cockerill has commented that after 6 straight starts he feels the young player needs to rest and mentally recuperate from some tough atmospheres.

Harlequins have become a bogey side for Tigers.  Quins failed to beat Tigers in 14 straight games from 2003 to 2010; but in the last 6 games the Londoners have won 5.  Tigers sole win was last year's Play Off Semi Final at Welford Road. 

The league meeting earlier this season was scarred with controversy; Julian Salvi received his only ever yellow card for the club on Tigers 2nd penalty of the match and Quins scored two tries, including one ruled fair on the controversial "momentum" interpretation of a forward pass, during those 10 minutes.  The referee that day was Tim Wigglesworth and fresh from his contentious refereeing of the fierce Gloucester-Bath derby the RFU have once again turned a deaf ear to controversy.  

Harlequins tactics of deliberately holding defenders down off the ball was highlighted by BT Sport this week, hopefully Wigglesworth was watching as without a keen eyed referee teams are helpless against the cynicism of the Harlequins machine. 

Harlequins name an unchanged side from the one which secured their own bonus point win away to Sale.  Full Back Mike Brown has been gaining rave reviews for his England performances whilst Nick Evans looked back to his best against the Sharks. 

15 Mat Tait
14 Blaine Scully
13 Manu Tuilagi
12 Anthony Allen
11 Vereniki Goneva
10 Toby Flood
9 Ben Youngs
1 Marcos Ayerza
2 Neil Briggs
3 Logovi'i Mulipola
4 Ed Slater (c)
5 Graham Kitchener
6 Jamie Gibson
7 Julian Salvi
8 Jordan Crane

16 Rob Hawkins
17 Boris Stankovich
18 Fraser Balmain
19 Geoff Parling
20 Pablo Matera
21 David Mele
22 Owen Williams
23 Niall Morris

15 Mike Brown
14 Ollie Lindsay-Hague
13 Tim Molenaar
12 Jordan Turner-Hall
11 Sam Smith
10 Nick Evans
9 Danny Care
1 Joe Marler
2 Dave Ward
3 Kyle Sinckler
4 Charlie Matthews
5 George Robson
6 Luke Wallace
7 Chris Robshaw (C)
8 Nick Easter

16 Rob Buchanan
17 Mark Lambert
18 Paul Doran Jones
19 Tom Guest
20 Maurie Fa'asavalu
21 Karl Dickson
22 Ben Botica
23 Ross Chisholm

Referee: Tim Wigglesworth
Touch Judges: Andy Watson & Roy Maybank TMO: Sean Davey

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Two for Tuilagi as Goneva signs New Deal

Vereniki Goneva celebrated signing his new contract by grabbing a try as Leicester beat Wasps 27-15 at Welford Road.  The Flying Fijian was given a rapturous welcome by the Crumbie terrace as he came out to warm up and he showed why Tigers fought so hard to keep him; on the stroke of halftime he held off two tacklers to squeeze in at the corner for his 12th try of the season.

Manu Tuilagi had an influential game and bagged a brace with two trademark powerful finishes.  He opened the scoring for Tigers in the 18th minute when he crashed through the Wasps defence from 5 yards following a powerful driving maul.

Not content with scoring tries he saved one at the other end.  He had the strength to wrap up Tongan international Will Helu and prevent him grounding the ball following good build up play from the Wasps forwards.

His second came in the second period where he brushed off the attentions of Italian international hooker Carlo Festuccia before a brutal hand off of James Short. 

In between Manu’s first score and Goneva’s on half time Wasps had taken the lead following a brilliantly taken try from Guy Thompson.  Flanker Thompson was the Jersey’s top try scorer last season and showed tremendous finishing ability after Tom Palmer’s borderline knock on in midfield was ruled a clean catch.

With Manu’s second try taking the score to 19-10 Tigers extended the lead again as Owen Williams slotted a long penalty following Festuccia’s ruck offence.  Williams struggled kicking in a stiff breeze hitting only 50% of his kicks at goal and often being wayward with his punts.

Wasps defence was spoiling Tigers ball, Fijian No.8 Nathan Hughes particularly to the fore, successfully utilising Andrew Small’s immediate call of maul rather than tackle.  Small’s assessors might like to remind him that once he calls maul both sides must enter from the back and it cannot be collapsed.

Tigers’ fans were starting to sweat when Elliot Daly’s delightfully angled kick rounded Mat Tait and found Tommy Bell perfectly in stride.  The Devonian got the score but Andy Goode could not find the conversion leaving Tigers 7 points ahead.

Tigers had switched their midfield around as Toby Flood replaced Matt Smith, with Manu shifting back to 13, and struggled for fluency in their new formation.  Ben Youngs was struggling to deal with the slow ball caused by Wasps and was replaced by David Mele.

A bonus point required one more try and that extra point could be crucial in the fight for a home semi final.  Tigers were pressurising the Wasps line with a series of pick and goes but couldn’t make it count, Hawkins knocking on under heavy pressure.  
With just 4 minutes left Tigers got a penalty after Blaine Scully’s progress was stopped by a high tackle.  With Toby Flood walking away from the spot time was lost as Owen Williams ran across the field before kicking to touch.  It didn’t matter though.  Tigers drove the lineout and David Mele snuck in the side to secure the ball, secure the grounding and secure the bonus point.
Job very much done but Tigers will be worried by Logo Mulipola’s withdrawal, hopefully a precaution, and by the lack of fluency in the performance.  Wins away to Quins and Sale in the next two fixtures will require better than this.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Tigers Change 4 Wasps

Tigers are set to welcome their 5th 24,000 sell out crowd of the season as Wasps are the visitors at the revolutionary kick off time of 3:00PM Saturday.  

Richard Cockerill makes 4 changes from the side that started last week's Heineken Cup Quarter Final.  Manu Tuilagi will start his first match at 12 since 2011 as Matt Smith comes in at 13 for Anthony Allen.  In the pack Boris Stankovich & Fraser Balmain replace Marcos Ayerza & Logovi'i Mulipola at prop with Graham Kitchener replacing Louis Deacon at lock.

This fixture has gone with the home side in each of the last 5 seasons with Tigers triumphing 35-16 in last season match at Welford Road.  Earlier this year however Tigers struggled to a 22-12 defeat at Adams Park, on what was Owen Williams' Premiership debut.

Lions international lock Geoff Parling makes his long awaited return to fitness and is named on the bench.  Parling has not been seen in a Tigers shirt since the visit of Treviso in the middle of October after injuring his shoulder on England duty.  Also returning on the bench is Irish winger Niall Morris who has been out since January.

In the front row Tom Youngs makes his 50th start for the club and young prop Fraser Balmain will start for the 10th time.  In the backline Owen Williams earns his club tie for his 20th appearance; Manu Tuilagi makes his 60th start for the club.  Tuilagi has started 4 of those games at 12 winning 3 and only losing one; scoring 2 tries and famously setting up Lucas Amorosino's winner against South Africa in 2009.

Wasps make a slew of changes after their Amlin Challenge Cup Quarter Final win against Gloucester.  Only 6 players retain their shirts from Sunday night's game; wingers James Short and Will Helu, captain Chris Bell, Tigers legend Andy Goode, prop Matt Mullan and number 8 Nathan Hughes. 

In the front row Tom Lindsay and Phil Swainston join Mullan in a powerful trio.  In the engine room Gloucester bound Tom Palmer joins ex-Saint James Cannon, with Ed Jackson and Guy Thompson in the back row.  England international Joe Launchbury is named on the bench.

Captain Chris Bell is joined in the starting line up by brother Tommy Bell at full back.  Charlie Hayter who joined last season from Moseley opposes Tuilagi at 12.  At scrum half Wasps select Charlie Davies, originally from Nottingham and previously a member of Tigers wider academy, alongside Andy Goode veteran of 10 years and 8 trophies at Welford Road.

Saturday's referee is Andrew Small.  Small, originally from New Zealand, has referred Tigers 21 times in 8 seasons overseeing 13 wins and 8 losses.  He has refereed Tigers versus Wasps 3 times, with the home side winning on each occasion, including the reverse fixture in October this year.

15 Mat Tait
14 Vereniki Goneva
13 Matt Smith
12 Manu Tuilagi
11 Blaine Scully
10 Owen Williams
9 Ben Youngs
1 Boris Stankovich
2 Tom Youngs
3 Fraser Balmain
4 Ed Slater (c)
5 Graham Kitchener
6 Jamie Gibson
7 Julian Salvi
8 Jordan Crane

16 Rob Hawkins
17 Marcos Ayerza
18 Logovi'i Mulipola
19 Geoff Parling
20 Pablo Matera
21 David Mele
22 Toby Flood
23 Niall Morris

15 Tommy Bell
14 James Short
13 Chris Bell (c)
12 Charlie Hayter
11 Will Helu
10 Andy Goode
9 Charlie Davies
1 Matt Mullan
2 Tom Lindsay
3 Phil Swainston
4 James Cannon
5 Tom Palmer
6 Ed Jackson
7 Guy Thompson
8 Nathan Hughes
16 Carlo Festuccia
17 Simon McIntyre
18 Ricky Reeves
19 Joe Launchbury
20 Sam Jones
21 Brett Sheehan
22 Joe Carlisle
23 Elliot Daly

Referee: Andrew Small 
Touch Judges: Ross Campbell & Kelvin Stewart. 
TMO: David Grashoff.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Close in Clermont

In the end we were close.  Dam close.  But we fell short.  With the ball in our possession and the match in our control we fell short.  Afterwards the press said we should be happy with the performance but at Tigers we set our sights higher.  Yes we are proud of the character shown once 16-0 down, but we came here to win and we didn’t do that.  As Cockerill said we don’t do gallant in defeat, whoever the opposition.

There has been talk that Rolland shouldn’t have let Clermont run down the clock after the game’s final penalty, and that is fair, but we are not Saints fans.  If we had taken one more of the perfectly good chances we had we wouldn’t have needed another. 

The atmosphere pre-match was like nothing I have ever experienced.  Clermont’s fans were louder in the warm up than most English crowds in the final minutes.  Their Ultras Vulcans were the inspiration for the name of this blog and they continue to be an inspiration in their support.

In the opening stages we seemed defensive, Tait twice kicking good counter attack ball back to Clermont but Tigers had the first chance after only 5 minutes.  

Julian Salvi pilfered the ball at the ruck.  Manu broke free down the left touchline with Goneva outside him and Tait inside.  The defensive shape marginally favoured the inside pass to Tait; Manu tried to force the off load but Tait couldn’t gather the ball.

Clermont broke straight away; Fofana spirited between Deacon and Mulipola, racing through the midfield it took a tremendous tap tackle from Goneva to stop him.  The Fijian covered at least 30m chasing back for the tackle.

The initial points came after Salvi entered a ruck from the side, rather than coming all the way round to the back foot.  Easy three points for Parra. 

Both teams were cagey, Tigers kicking game functional though lacking in a rally ending winner.  Mat Tait’s kicking had great length, utilising the “torpedo” technique he risked the odd skew but gained greater distance.

Their try came from nothing.  A maul stopped at source then one phase short right.  Parra whipped it out to Rougerie coming back at an angle.  Feeling pressure from the Tigers defence he goes inside, but the inside pincer is missing; Deacon is fended away as Salvi steams up to take him.  But there is little cover only Ayerza and Scully against 4 Clermont men.  Quick hands from Fofana put Zirakashvili into space; the prop executes a similar inside pass to the one Manu and Tait muff to put Fofana away for the line.  The Frenchman’s pace takes him past Allen’s despairing tackle.

The Marcel Michelin is seriously rocking now.  Tigers still stick to their plan of kicking but are undone; following a period of kick tennis Salvi seals off a Clermont counter ruck just outside our 22.  Parra makes it 13-0.  When Williams’ penalty hits the ornamental flag on top of the post there were serious worries that we might cop a hiding and be nilled.

That feeling only grows when a Clermont go 16-0 up.  Salvi is judged to have been offside winning a goal line turnover.  Clermont had surged from the halfway through Chouley and were rampant.

Things looked bleak.  Rugby is a game of momentum and we had none. 

Then like a shining burst of blonde energy Jordan Crane produces a moment of pure rugby skill to raise morale.  And finally we run the ball.  And finally we score. 

Crane gathers the bouncing ball with a casual flick of the boot, the ball magnetically drawn to his paws.  Williams spreads the ball left to Tuilagi, his brute strength gains 10m and attracts three defenders.  The Clermont defence drawn narrow, Williams sees the play and cross kicks for Gibson on the charge.  Gibson draws his man and frees Scully.  The Californian comes inside, drawing one, drawing two, drawing three defenders!  His inside one handed slung off load finds Crane sweeping in support charging under the posts.

A try!  Finally we have scored.  Finally we have run the ball.

Before half time there is time for one more call.  The penalty is signalled 4m away from the 10m line with 39 minutes exactly on the clock.  The penalty is awarded with the ball held up over the line and with 40:11 on the clock.  Over a minute of possession and 35m territory gain is advantage over in anyone’s book. 

19-7 at half time but the momentum is still in our favour.  A penalty, a couple great kicks and then a Gibson charge down.  Rougerie garrottes Tuilagi on the half way line.  Williams points at the posts.  A good yard inside his half but it sails clear over.  19-10.

Parra misses his kick at goal; the penalty is for Deacon entering a maul in the side. 

Clermont are tightening up.  The crowd is going, relatively, quiet and the players making mistakes.  Nalaga fumbles, Clermont cannot deal with Mulipola’s power in the scrum or on the rumble, with good turnover ball they concede a holding on penalty.  Williams strokes another over from inside his own half.  19-13 now and we are within a score.

Clermont’s long history of blowing leads is surely playing on their minds now.  Tigers have their tails up; Ben Youngs breaks from inside his 22 with Goneva in support.  The Tigers take it to 5m from the Clermont line before Tuilagi is forced into touch.   Clermont change kicker and blow another penalty after two successful mauls.

Williams closes the gap to just 3 on 60 minutes.  His cross field boom is gathered superbly by a flying Blaine Scully.  The American rose above French test full back Buttin to claim the ball, then the penalty as Buttin failed to release his man in the tackle.

Goneva’s attempted interception would have put us clear but the Fijian could only juggle at it, perhaps it was the last chance.

3 minutes later and all the momentum Tigers had built was lost.  Waldrom, on only 3 minutes earlier, was rightly shown yellow for side entry at a maul.  Parra kicked the testing penalty.  The noise lifted.  The tension lifted.  The momentum was gone.

Tigers attack stalled, Ben Youngs’ delicate chip took a wicked bounce to landed dead in goal, the scrum penalty goes to Clermont.  Everything that was going for us, suddenly against. 

Under immense pressure Tigers held out with the puncher’s chance of victory still in their grasp.  A 78th minute scrum penalty is kicked to the corner, it goes to Tuilagi then Flood goes himself.  Kitchener picks and goes for good yardage before Scully weaves his way to 5m out.  Ed Slater on a captain’s charge takes it to 3m.  He gets isolated.  He gets pinged.  Rolland in the heat of the moment doesn’t see the defenders failing to release or them coming in from the side.

It’s all over.

Another Quarter Final another defeat.  Since 2006 every time Tigers have entered the knock out stages they have been eliminated by the eventual champions.  So what is the key lesson to learn from single score defeats to Leinster, Toulon and Clermont in the last 4 years?  Silence a home crowd?  Play faster?  Sign bigger, stronger players?  No. 

If we had kept our lead at home to Ulster we would have got our first home Quarter Final in 5 years.  Get the pool stages right, play at home and avoid going away to Lansdowne Road, to the Mayol to the Marcel Michelin in the first place. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Know Your Enemey: Clermont: The History

Full Name: Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne
Known as: Clermont, Montferrand, L’ASM
Nickname: Les Jaunards, The Vulcans
Formed: 1911
Ground: Parc Des Sports Marcel Michelin (Capacity 18,030)
Colours: Yellow, Blue & White
Star Man: Wesley Fofona

Formed in 1911 as Association Sportive Michelin the modern day Clermont Auvergne were known from 1922 to 2004 as Montferrand, the name of an historic predecessor town to the current city of Clermont-Ferrand. 
Clermont have gained a reputation for bottling the big finals, throughout their history they have reached 27 finals; winning 7 and losing 20, including losing the French Championship Final 10 times before finally winning the Brennus in 2010.

Playing in white the club’s first real period of success came in the ‘30s losing the final of the Challenge Yves du Manoir in 1935, the Championship final in ’36 and ’37 before defeating Perpignan 23-10 to claim their first silverware in 1938 Yves du Manoir final. 

There was a long wait before more success as they lost the final of the Coupe de France in both 1945 and 1947, a Yves du Manoir final was lost on a tie break in 1957, a Championship Final was lost to the tiny La Voulte club 3-0 in 1970 and 1972 lost a Yves du Manoir final to double winning Beziers. 

Success finally came in 1976 with an Yves du Manoir victory.  But even that was not without its tragedy as just a week before international wing Jean-Francois Philponeau died on the Marcel Michelin pitch after being struck by lightening.  The end stand occupied by the famous “Ultras Vulcans” now bears his name.

In 1978 another chance to take the Brennus to Clermont was squandered as Beziers won 31-9 in Montferrand’s first trip to the Parc des Princes.  The 80s yielded fewer finals but one success when Grenoble were defeated to claim another Challenge Yves du Manoir.

There was a 16 year gap before their next Championship final.  In 1994 with both Saint-Andre brothers in tow Montferrand were leading Toulouse 16-9 in the second half. Guy Noves was in his first season as coach and Toulouse roared back to win 22-16.

The Toulouse curse struck again in 1999 and 2001 as Clermont lost in the Final to Noves’ men 15-11 then 34-22.  The team hit hard times in the early 2000s featuring in two successive relegation play downs, despite high profile signings like our own Richard Cockerill and Pat Howard.

The success of the modern era started with the appointment of Vern Cotter in 2006.  The Kiwi coach led Clermont to four successive Top 14 finals from 2007 to 2010.  The first was another epic Clermont heartbreaker.  They led Stade Francais 15-6 in the 60th minute; only to lose 23-18 following Radike Samo’s late try.

They lost again to Toulouse in 2008 before in 2009 throwing away another lead in the final.  Leading Perpignan 10-3 they scored only 3 more points as the Catalan’s scored 19 points to claim their first title in 54 years.  One year later and with revenge in mind they shattered the curse with a dominant 19-6 win against Perpignan.

Vern Cotter described winning the final as getting “the gorilla off our backs” such was the pressure of the 10 defeats.  Clermont have lost in the semi-finals each year since but with the Brennus finally in their collection the disappointment is reduced.

Instead they have set their sights on the European title.  In 2012 they were within a Fofana fumble of knocking out reigning champions Leinster in the semi finals before going one closer last year.  Leading 15-6 it seemed like the European crown was destined for Clermont, only for that gorilla to reappear and Toulon to score 10 points in three second half minutes to steal the victory.  I’ll never begrudge Jonny Wilkinson his moment of glory but in the tale of Clermont it was another nearly but not quite.

Tigers to make new signing?

French rugby bible Midi-Olympique today links Tigers with Portuguese teenager Paolo Fril.  Fril is a 19 year old second row forward currently playing in the Espoirs of Federale 1 club Nevers.  The 6’8” teen has been gaining rave reviews and will link up with his new academy teams mates in his homeland of Portugal when the Academy face Russian Champions Krasny Yar in two weeks time.
Fril has represented his native Portugal at Under 16s, 18s and 20s after starting his rugby education at 13 for Direito in Lisbon.