Monday 30 June 2014

The Perfect Bloom or a Soggy Bottom?

Stuart Lancaster has been shopping. 

He has an eye for the true, tried and tested ingredients he knows, and he also has an eye for ’hot on the shelves’ newer ones.  Ones that promise to add that extra dimension, element of surprise, and something very special to the mix.

It’s all about quantities and their qualities.  Can the newer ingredients live up to the promise?  Are the tested ingredients still coping with the heat? And last but not least, how will they react and perform together?

Rugby union is and always has been an ultimate team game.  There is no place for solo gratification.  Watch the All Blacks.  They epitomise the success of understanding and practice of team play alongside each squad member still endeavouring to be the ‘complete package.’

Ben Smith in the last test demonstrated this.  He kicked, he chased, he tackled and turned it over.  And he knew when to pass.

Billy Twelvetrees once said,
‘You need to do everything as a centre nowadays.’  And that’s the crux.

Making the yards is great but players must also commit to tackles and defend like their life depends on it.  They also have to know when to pass.  In the last test it is possible that another 2 tries were on the cards if the ball had been passed at the opportune time. Great pity.

Comments from the New Zealand commentators live during the third test included observations that Tuilagi played too wide, Eastmond  too close, Burns stats didn’t touch Cruden’s during the game and Cips was brought on far too late.  One also felt that Eastmond wouldn’t have been in their 22 at all.  Interesting statements from supporters of the winning team.
Stuart Lancaster is in charge of this crucial cake.   Mary Berry could advise on the stalwart ingredients to avoid a soggy bottom.   Heston Blumental might suggest a rarer ingredient to release the Wow factor into the reliable mix - but at the end of the day, the best rugby is played when all ingredients react and bloom together.

Mr Lancaster and we have seen a lot over this test period.  There is no room for passengers on the pitch.  I have a good idea who will mix and rise as the complete package for England.

What about you?

Tuesday 3 June 2014

'Rugby Tonight' ...I Shall Miss It!

It's fast approaching 8pm on a Wednesday, and what do you instinctively do?

...Switch on 'Rugby Tonight' live on BT Sport of course!

If Rugby Tonight was a flavour of crisp, I would definitely go for Steak this season!  This show has been meaty and wholesome, but it actually supplies absolutely every flavour for family entertainment, with live bands, mini 'Tour De Flats' remote control cars, Mike Tindall on the toilet, Stuart Hooper in the bath, James Haskell under the spray tan gun and Daws, Lol and Ben on Watt bikes (a forfeit for losing the prediction on the top four clubs in the Aviva Premiership and who would be relegated). 

....Seriously, what more could you ask for?

And as this groundbreaking, inaugural TV show draws to a close (for now) at the end of this spectacular rugby season, I want to reflect on what a success 'Rugby Tonight' has been - and will continue to be - as it is now so beautifully integrated into our rugby routines!

With the average studio audience attendance breaking 100 per week, there has never been any doubt that these live shows are informative and intelligent as well as being infused with reliable comedy gold.

It normally hits when Oz lowers his seat and makes his way to social media. The light humour continues with caption competitions and blistering banter – sometimes causing controversy – which Oz does so well!

And when the moment arrives to welcome the special guest or guests of the week, the excitement is evident and the traditional tunnel of rugby supporters cheer and greet as the famous guest walks through.

But on a serious note, the charity awareness raised by BT, including the auction for the High 'n' Tight campaign, launched on behalf of the Matt Hampson foundation and the memorabilia wall of auctionable items for charity, demonstrate that BT have gone above and beyond and are wholeheartedly involved.

With rugby news and highlights of the Premiership and Top 14 being a weekly feature, and the opportunity to vote on relevant rugby issues on the Twitter opinion polls, ensure audiences are guaranteed an update and insight into all the latest in the rugby world, as well as being given a voice.

It's fair to say BT Sport has accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve; having welcomed at least one rugby player from each of the 12 Premiership Clubs with open arms into the Stratford Studio.  And the players have laid themselves wide open to the experience, pawns in the palms of Ben and Oz when it comes to the jokers in the pack - but the trio of Bayfs, Lol and Daws keep the deadly duo in check, not to mention Sarra who referees and Craig who holds the fort!

It's fine-tuned, faultless and fabulous!

It has even started a craze throughout the country - the Smash-O-Meter! And yes, we've all giggled at James Haskell taking it on the ferry for ‘Tour De Flats,’ but keep practising Hask, I'm sure you'll be back for more next season to redeem yourself from your disappointing score, but will you ever beat the Master that is Mr Dallaglio? Well with an outstanding score of 101... Hask, you might be phoning 101 if you cause yourself an injury!

And no show would be complete either without the participation of teams like the Super Marines, Teddington RFC, Olney RFC, Wanstead RFC who have had the privilege of contributing to the demo's week in week out; Giving a clear, concise analysis and prĂ©cis of certain phases of play, in a real scenario, on the pitch, for those at home.  A perfect snapshot for any rugby novice or newbie!

There have been so many memorable moments and laughs during ‘Rugby Tonight’ and one word I would like to mention is consistency; this show is consistently great and somewhat addictive and I'm sure you'll all be back to tune in next season. I know I will!

And let’s not forget all those that work behind the scenes to ensure the cogs turn in tandem to make this show the best it can be.  Whatever our expectations were, well it’s exceeded them - wouldn't you say?

And what a way to top the season off; with David Flatman travelling to Toulon to perform the Pilou Pilou! Genius.

The journey the BT Sport team have embarked on has been remarkable and the team have collectively captivated their audience from start to finish.

But this is a marathon - not a sprint - so I look forward to many more episodes of ‘Rugby Tonight’ next season.

See you on the other side!

Monday 2 June 2014

Belief Was All it Took ….. Saints Storm to Victory and Make History!

Northampton Saints 24 - Saracens 20

“We've talked about this every Monday. We've talked about being Champions every Monday of the year and how we're going to get there” Dylan Hartley.

Aviva Premiership Champions 2014
Photo by Claire Jones, Red Hat Photography
So I woke up and kept saying to myself:  'I just have a good feeling about today,' but admittedly I was anxious. This was the second Premiership final Northampton had played in two years. Could they overcome the hurdle this time on the back of a painful loss to Leicester Tigers in 2013?
It felt like it was their time but was it?
It looked doubtful with the scores level at 80 minutes and the nail-biting tension of extra time. And even though it was the most nerve-racking last 20 minutes for any supporter, belief was what it took to see Northampton over the line in the dying seconds.  Good bye 'why not us?' and hello Aviva Premiership Champions 2014.
Tom Wood reflected on the importance of belief after the match:
“We always believe in ourselves towards the back end of games, fitness wise. We could see them tiring as we all were to be fair. It was an intense game but we always felt that was our felt like it was ours to win”
Northampton Saints did themselves and everyone associated with the club proud. Not to mention the dedication of the win from captain Wood and the team to his mascot - 12 year old Luis Ghaut, who's suffering from osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Luis has taken social media by storm, raising awareness of the condition with help from none other than Alex Corbisiero who started the 'Yes’  movement trending in support of this inspirational young man.  

Luis Ghaut with Alex Corbisiero and Tom Wood
Photo by Claire Jones, Red Hat Photography
So with that in mind and on the back of the Saints’ Amlin Cup win eight days earlier, belief in the camp was high.
Saracens arrived at Twickenham on foot and they were welcomed by a tunnel of red confetti and a barrage of bustling supporters applauding them. Similarly, as the Northampton Saints bus arrived, their supporters were also in full voice. Belief in bucketloads on both sides as 81,193 fans took their seats for the showdown.
But when you took away the supporters, back room staff and the Directors of Rugby, we were left with 30 men, one pitch and a battle - a battle of the best.

So where were you when Northampton Saints won the Aviva Premiership at Twickenham Stadium, the home of English Rugby, on 31st May 2014?
Referee JP Doyle was starring in his first ever Aviva Premiership final – he awarded no yellows, no reds and no manbags came out - and if you weren’t there or weren’t watching, well it was totally unbelievable - beyond belief and as Premiership Rugby tweeted in the throes of the match, ‘Drama drama Drama drama Drama drama Drama drama Drama drama’ And they weren’t joking!

There was nothing really to separate Saints and Sarries in the first half. They had both raised the bar to a level of intensity like no other.
The sheer physicality of the game and the acceleration, drive and momentum created by the players made for absorbing viewing. The contest was bound to be a tough one but Northampton took a while to reinvigorate their momentum and mojo as a few careless handling errors made way for the first points of the game to be settled with a penalty, from  the boot of Owen Farrell. And only six minutes later he added to his tally - 6-0.
The play seemed quite daring in parts with both teams challenging copious amounts of high kicks, causing the crowd to sigh as the ball saw the blue skies. But even with Northampton causing demolition in the scrambling defence, with a spectacular sandwich tackle on Farrell from an interception pass, the Saints were penalised for not rolling away at the break down. Farrell’s kick went wide.
The Saints’ response was swift.  An incredible run by Ken Pisi brought Northampton to life. He dodged several defenders with his fancy footwork and gained his team considerable ground , scorching out of his 22 into the Saracens 22. The momentum was maintained and as the ball swept along the back line at speed Ben Foden crossed the try line at pace, Twickenham erupted!
Stephen Myler converted to take the Saints into the lead, but right up to half time they found themselves defending their try line like their lives depended on it!  The Saints went into the break on the front foot... but only just.
HT Northampton Saints 7 – Saracens 6
The Sarries came out all guns blazing and I could sense they were about to tear up the pitch as another penalty by Farrell edged them forward, four minutes into the second half.
But in no time at all, Northampton were back playing their way, matching the quick pace of the Wolf Pack. It was tantalising to watch with dollops of remarkable rugby all over the pitch. Hard hits, impeccable impact and fierce facets of play got the adrenaline pumping just that little bit more!
Especially when an astonishing hit from Owen Farrell on George North saw him bounce and land hard. It was a real stinker of a tackle and with possession of the ball lost for Northampton, it became like ping pong, back and forth it went.  
And then it was time... time to bring on the deadly Dylan Hartley with just over 25 minutes to go. He needed no introduction, just a standing ovation from the Saints Nation! He was back and he was back with a vengeance. He needed to make an impression and he did just that. He said after the game;
“This is a testament to years of hard work and this year especially a squad effort, we've got an unbelievable squad”
Into the last quarter we went and with two points in it, my stomach was churning. But in a matter of moments a chip from Myler saw North charge through the Saracens defence making phenomenal ground. When the ball came back to Myler a few metres out, he prodded a deft kick through the Saracens’ defence for George Pisi to dive onto and score. Mr Myler converted. 
Game on!

Back came Sarries. Bulldozing Billy Vunipola looked exceptional as always on the attack. He committed to every tackle.  If there was a ruck, he was there creating turnovers. If there was an opportunity to blast through the Saints defence, he was there. He definitely added the ammunition the Saracens had been searching for.
The London side took charge and the boiling point came when they seamlessly soared into the Saints 22. Farrell crossed the line and dotted down. The try was awarded and 'Sarries, Sarries' was chanted around the stadium... but it turned out to be premature. 
On closer inspection by Graham Hughes the TMO, the pass to Farrell was ruled forward, the try was disallowed and the score reversed.  Disbelief and shock swamped the Saracens supporters, not to mention the players. Farrell hobbled off with a leg injury.
We knew this game would be close but just how close?
With the momentum back to Saints,  Courtney Lawes made his mark, with a mammoth hit on Charlie Hodgson that was felt by the whole stadium.
But in a split second Northampton were caught off guard and Marcelo Bosch scored in the corner . It had been a long time coming and  a well-deserved try but with scores level at 14 a-piece and with just six minutes left to play Hodgson’s conversion kick bounced off the post.
The tension grew as the clock wound down and then, for the very first time, a Premiership final was into extra time.
The teams were allowed a brief moment to huddle, recuperate and prepare for another gruelling 20 minutes of intense rugby, as if 80 minutes wasn't enough!
So into extra time the game went, but it seemed to go so quickly. Myler and Hodgson both kicked penalties in the first ten minutes so the score remained level yet again, 17-17 going into the last ten.
With time ticking away, Northampton were penalised for an off the ball tackle on Hodgson and he booted the ball to secure a vital three point lead.
Two minutes to go and Northampton worked their way to within a few metres of the Saracens’ try-line. All they needed was a drop goal, but the drive and determination of a succession of pick and go plays edged them closer and closer to the line.
And then it was crunch time. The ball was over, but was it grounded? The TMO was consulted and on the stoke of the 100th minute, the fate of the last game of the Premiership season was in the hands of Graham Hughes. "Try -  Yes or No?"
More than 80 thousand nervous onlookers and 30 ultra exhausted and equally nervous players awaited the decision, and then it came.  An almighty explosion and eruption of elation lifted Twickenham off its' foundations.  Alex Waller had scored the match-winning try on the 100th minute, made history and taken his team to the title.  While the Saints Nation celebrated and the Saracens players and supporters slumped,  Myler kicked the last points of the game and that was it – they'd done it.
Northampton Saints were Champions of the Aviva Premiership 2014!

Getty Images
FT Northampton Saints 24 – Saracens 20
Stephen Myler injected pace and precision across the pitch and was deservedly named Man of the Match. But Northampton's passion spanned the whole team from one to 23 and the intuitive nature and camaraderie the team showed just gave them that extra edge over the Saracens. 
After the match, Jim Mallinder said : “I think it's fantastic for the club.  It's the first Premiership title. And particularly after coming close twice, last year and the Heineken Cup, it's a special moment”
“It's the best. We've generally been on the up the last seven years. We've had a couple of disappointments but we always talked after the disappointments that  when we won a big one it would be sweeter and it is”
But how can I not commend this exceptional London side? They pride themselves in professionalism, courage and bravery and they've been leaders from the word go.
The Wolf Pack has been tamed for the moment but they'll be back and probably even stronger next season...
For now though, this is Northampton's time to shine.
Well done Saints you've made those past and present, your town and your supporters immensely proud.  You had the belief, this is your time. Enjoy.