Friday, September 27, 2013

Cardiff Blue, but Zebre Earned Their Strips

Perspective is a strange creature. It can vary greatly from person to person, it's easy to lose sight of and can cloud judgement, especially when you lose it.

A lot of people lost perspective this weekend after Zebre picked up their first competitive win in their short history, beating the Blues and Cardiff Arms Park. As Zebre won the game some fans and journalists instantly lost perspective. The reaction at the final whistle were akin to the Blues being defeated by an 11 man Holyhead.

Some responses (and by no means do I mean all) from radio pundits and via Twitter bordered on arrogance. Talks of the Blues "being better than this" and the "eleven internationals" they had playing dragged on far beyond the echo of the referee's whistle and the singing of the Zebre fans on Westgate Street. 
People who at the start of the season told me their new signings had made them ready to compete, now bemoaned their recruitment policy. Sane, sensible Blues fans tried to talk them down from their soap boxes, but it was too late. Their perspective had left them, packed it's bags and flown to Parma.

The truth is the Blues haven't become an awful team. Missing quality in a few key positions? Maybe. Inexperienced? Definitely. Awful? Certainly not.

Zebre have become an increasingly good team though. Last season they came close to an elusive victory many times. Almost half their defeats reaped a losing bonus, not a bad show for a team formed just 3 months before the season began giving them little time for preparations or recruitment.

Signs of a brighter season this time around were evident even before a ball was even kicked. Shrewd signings coupled with new coaches meant the Italians entered the new season on the front foot. Indeed Andrea Cavinato has a history of creating the upset, he coached Rugby Parma to victory over Brive in Challenge Cup.
A Zebre victory looked on the cards earlier in this season. The boys in black and white led Munster at half time in Parma before a second half blitz from the Irishmen put paid to any talk of an upset. By the time the players trudged off at the Stadio XXV Aprile it was clear they were a bigger, better, strong animal than 12 months previous.

Of the new recruits, no signing will be more influential at Zebre (Or possibly the whole Pro 12) than Brendan Leonard. An experienced scrum half who proved his credentials at Super Rugby's Chiefs and at one time was challenging Piri Weepu for the All Blacks "9" jersey, he is the key to unlocking a talented backs division behind an experienced pack that contains the likes of Mauro Bergamasco, Quintin Geldenhuys and Marco Bortolami.

Leonard's direction and experience coupled with Luciano Orquera's flair and exuberance are the lynchpin of the team. To counter the Blues "11 internationals" the halfback pairing were themselves two of 9 internationally capped players in the Zebre starting XV with another 4 sat on the bench.
Andries van Schalkwyk and Dion Berryman aren't capped. Like Leonard however, they also have Super Rugby experience, all be it in differing degrees. Meanwhile, Samuela Vunisa looked set for big things in the South Hemisphere after being name Taranaki's most promising player two years. He choose to pursue professional rugby in Europe, but even at the tender age of 24, the Fijian looks more than capable in the back row.

Flying David Odiete's promise means it's more a case of when then if he will play for Italy. His try in the Welsh capital will only further enhance his campaign for an international call in the near future and Dario Chistolini cut his teeth at Gloucester and is already an 'Italian A' player.

With that kind of talent, only the foolish or the brave would bet against the Parna club taking another scalp or two this season.

And, with a slightly different perspective, it's easy to see that this has nothing to do with the decline of the Blues. This was all about Zebre, earning their stripes.

Johnny Cash - Stripes

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rugby Canada: Hit of the Summer

September has started with the promise of a calendar packed with the club competitions in the Northern Hemisphere and the Rugby Championship dominating proceedings south of the Equator. One nation though will surely be happy to spend a little longer basking in the warm glow that came with August.

Canada finished the summer with a flourish. Back-to-back victories against the USA in a two legged tie ensured The Canucks a spot at the World Cup in two years time, whilst condemning their rivals south of the border to a tricky tie against Uruguay to keep their World Cup hopes alive.

They had all bar guaranteed qualification with an 18 point victory of the Eagles in Charleston before they confirmed it on home soil a week later at Toronto's BMO field, continuing their impressive run of victories against the US.
Rugby Canada, Rugby, Canada, Line Break, USA, Eagles, RWC 2015, CanAm
The Red Nation also impressed at this year's Pacific Cup boasting victories against Fiji and Tonga with scrumhalf Phil Mack looking like he could test the defences of any team on his day. Meanwhile, big things are also expected of backrow specialist Tyler Ardron and his progress should take an upward curve having signed with Swansea based region the Ospreys. Ardron is joined at the Liberty Stadium by fellow countryman Jeff Hassler, a winger with a try scorers instinct.

And whilst Kieran Crowley's men were busy booking their spot in the RWC 2015 the women were storming their way up the IRB rankings helped with an impressive showing at the Nations Cup.

Canada's Women's Under 20s were already Nations Cup holders when the senior team entered their tournament. Excellent performances from winger Bianca Farella and the sure boot of Magali Harvey saw them beat the much fancied England for the second time in a week and secure the title for the first time.
Rugby, Rugby Canada, Women's Rugby, Ashley Patzer, World Cup, USA
The success of the cup has boosted their standing, pushing them up the IRB rankings into the top 5 to just one spot behind their rivals from the USA.

Success has come in the 7 player form of the game too. The Canada Women's 7s grabbed silver at the Sevens World Cup in Moscow, succumbing to New Zealand in the final. It's another signal of their increasing power in the women's game under coach John Tait and influential captain Jen Kish after they were also named as one of the six core teams for the World 7s Tour.

The Rugby Canada Centralisation Programme has announced it's latest plans for 2013/14 and, with the Olympics in mind, it's the Sevens game that has been given priority. After the women's relative success in the reduced numbers game they get the majority of the funding. 
Langston BC, Rugby, Rugby Canada, Line out
Some 24 women and 18 men have received funding from Sport Canada with each person receiving between $900 and $1500. On top, Own The Podium has paid $2.45m toward the Rugby Sevens programme with the hope of results in Rio 2016.

Such funding can only help to serve the Rugby Canada in both codes and push them further forward in international rugby terms and make them more likely to compete against union's big guns. All there hopes and ambitions of a continually brighter future will be aided by the purpose built and increasingly impressive facilities on offer at Rugby Canada's home in Langford BC.

So, as autumn starts to set in and the leaves begin to fall, the maple leaf is on the rise. Rugby Canada and the Red Nation is the feel good hit of the summer.

Feel Good Hit of the Summer - Queens of the Stoneage

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pro 12: Preview

This weekend the Rabo Direct Pro 12 kicks off with the finest teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales battle it out for the title. Here is a quick rundown of each team and the players to keep an eye on this season.
Benetton Treviso
The Italians have continued to improve since their induction into the Celtic League and are more than able to compete with any team in the Pro 12 on their day. They have sprung the odd upset in the past and blew away the Scarlets as the regular season drew to a close.
With little bit of luck and added consistency they could finally make their mark on the competition.The playoffs may be a step too far but a top half finish is certainly acheivable.
One To Watch: Their star man must be Alessandro Zanni. Often unsung for Italy as praise is heaped on Sergio Parisse, but some regard Zanni as the better man. When not running at defences he scrapping for possession at the ruck. 
Zanni, Alessandro, Treviso, Italy, Flanker, Number 8, rugby
Cardiff Blues
The Blues have made some significant changes since their disappointing performance last term. A new pitch will at least stop Cardiff Arms Park becoming the quagmire is was last season.
Two thirds of a former Lions front row have been brought in to shore up a faltering scrum. Gethin Jenkins is a welcome return and Matthew Rees takes hold of the captains arm band bringing in much need reinforcement.
One to Watch: After being named player of the Six Nations and Man of the Series on the Lions tour, Leigh Halfpenny is still the man to watch. Halfpenny is world rugby's in form player with pin point accuracy with the boot, sparkling in attack and is the bravest of defenders.
Leigh Halfpenny, Kicker, Fullback, Cardiff Blues, Wales, Lions, Penalty, Conversion, Rugby
Ireland's fourth province have been working hard to make some ground on their countrymen for some time. Whilst Ireland's big three have been winning titles and conquering Europe, Connacht have struggled to keep up.
Now Connacht will be hoping the tide will turn. Last year they finished just two places behind Munster and will set their sights on trying to narrow the gap further this time around. They have made wholesale changes this summer with 12 leaving and 13 new faces.
One to Watch: Craig Clarke, a behemoth of a man who was captain of the Chiefs team in Super Rugby that took the title two years on the bounce. To say he is a coup is an understatement as big as the man himself. Connacht don't have the attraction that Leinster currently carry and signing a player of Clarke's quality and standing is a deal to be applauded.
Craig Clarke, Connacht, Chiefs, Second Row, rugby
A terrible season just passed for Edinburgh which culminated in a 10th place finish and an inability to compete with their Glasgow rivals.
A few savvy signings in the summer should have made them more competitive this time but they have a big mountain to climb to bridge the gap between themselves and their fellow country men.
They will again look to 'Flying Dutchman' turned 'Flying Scotsman' Tim Visser to bag them tries. Forget talk of Chris Robshaw or James Hook, Visser was the unluckiest player not to tour with the Lions this year and Edinburgh will hope he spends this season showing Gatland and Co. what they missed.
One to Watch: Other than try machine Visser, young centre Matt Scott has started to show glimpses of the ability he holds and put in some big performances at the Six Nations. If he can continues on this path he may become a regular for an improving Scotland team.
Matt Scott, Edinburgh, Scotland, centre, rugby
Glasgow Warriors
What a season for Glasgow last year. They bagged a third place finish with some impressive performances and will be looking to emulate it this year.
Much of that success came in no small part to Niko Matawalu who proved to be the find of the season at scrum half. He will miss the start of the league this year but will be looking to make an impact upon his return.
One to Watch: Unfortunate to miss out on the initial Lions squad, Ryan Grant is proof that there are still props of the highest calibre coming off the production line. A solid scrummager and an even better ball carrier, Grant will be looking to make an impact from the front.
Ryan Grant, Glasgow Warriors, Scotland, Prop, Lions, rugby
Defending champions and top point scorers, big things are expected of Leinster again this year. Ulster will again be their biggest competitors for their crown and the Irish rivals may duke it out for the championship.
They have lost Sexton to French big spenders Racing Metro, but Ian Madigan is chomping at the bit for an opportunity to make the number 10 shirt his own. The signing of Zane Kirchner is also a significant one; a current South African international with heaps of ability, Kirchner could set the Pro 12 alight.
One to Watch: It's sink or swim time for Ian Madigan. Many feel he is the real deal and of international quality, now he gets the chance to prove it. Most will be betting on Madigan to prove himself and challenge Sexton for the Emerald jersey of Ireland at the same time.
Ian Madigan, Leinster, Ireland, Outside Half, Fullback, Rugby
Munster will hope to put last season down to a blip. In terms of a play off position they were never really at the races, which is a rarity for the red quarter of Ireland.
This time around they have lost some of the old guard, but are still expected to be contenders when the end of the season rolls around. The talismanic Paul O'Connell has stayed though and if you ever need a leader to guide you from the mire, O'Connell is it.
One to Watch: Fleet footed winger with the promise of tries, Simon Zebo is an exciting prospect. Zebo announced his arrival on the international scene with an audacious bit of trickery against Wales and expectation will be on him this year to live up to his billing.
Simon Zebo, Munster, Winger, Ireland, Lions, rugby
Newport Gwent-Dragons
Widely considered Wales' least competitive region, Dragons have done little in recent seasons to shake that tag. This summer they have started something of a revolution, however. There are now new players, new coaches, new captain and whole new mentality at Rodney Parade.
Lyn and Kingsley Jones have come on board to guide the ship whilst Richie Rees, Jason Tovey and Kris Burton are among a few marquee signings. Ieuan Jones and Hallam Amos step up from the academy with a great deal of promise.
One to Watch: Their best piece of summer business was getting Toby Faletau to commit to a new contract. The Tongan born Welshman has shown great loyalty to his region despite reported interest from overseas. Faletau's rise has been meteoric and it's hard to believe he is still only 22. Already though he is gathering a fine selection of admirers with legends Graham Mourie, Sean Fitzpatrick and Pat Lam praising his ability and attitude.
Toby Faletau, Dragons, Number 8, Wales, Lions, Rugby
After sneaking fourth place in the previous two seasons and claiming the title once, the Ospreys will be hugely disappointed at missing out on a playoff spot last season. They will want to be back in the top 4 this time around.
Their pack works as a well-oiled machine, able to compete in the set piece against the finest of opponents and in Adam Jones they have one of the World's best scrummagers.
One to Watch: For all their power in the tight 5, the Swansea based region have a real star on the flank in the form of Justin Tipuric. A scavenger at the breakdown, but with the technical ability the back division would be proud, Tipuric is already pushing Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton for a starting spot internationally.
Justin Tipuric, Ospreys, Wales, Lions, Flanker
If the Ospreys are a team based on forward play there West Walian rivals are the flip side of the coin, playing the kind of back based flowing rugby their history demands. Much has been made of the loss of George North to Northampton, but the loss of Andrew Fenby will hurt the region just as badly.
The acquisition of John Barclay will add experience and battle to a sometimes weak pack. Simon Easterby has attempted to readdress the forward/back balance since taking the coaching role and it snatched them a playoff spot last year. This year they will want the same, at the very least.
One to Watch: The loss of North and Fenby will mean they need someone to step up and lead the attack from the backline. Liam Williams is quickly gathering a reputation in Wales and has already gained cult status at Parc Y Scarlets. An exciting runner with a solid tackle and a fiery personality, 'Sanjay' may get the chance to step up and lead by example.
Liam Williams, Scarlets, Wales, Fullback, Winger, Sanjay, Try, Rugby
Another team with a strong back division. Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson work together superbly as the fulcrum from which the whole team operates. With the likes of Bowe, Gilroy and Trimble in the back line it is hardly surprising they scored so many points last time out.
Last season they were pipped at the post by Irish rivals Leinster and this year they will want silverware. If they can keep their forwards solid and get their backs firing as they were last year, it will take good team to stop them lifting the title come spring.
One to Watch: There is no end of players to keep your on eyes on here, but purely for entertainment Nick Williams is the one to watch. A giant man with amazing strength and basketball player handling skills. It's not rare to see Williams swatting away opposition defenders whilst completing a one handed pass.
Nick Williams, Ulster, Number 8, Rugby
The newest team in the competition following the folding of Aironi in the continually turbulent world of Italian club rugby. Zebre entered with competition last season and barely registered a whisper, let alone a bang. They lost all 22 of their games, but did pick up 10 bonus points along the way.
Out of season they have made all the right noises and reinforced the squad well, but still kept a focus on Italian talent. The losses of Tito Tebaldi and Carlo Festuccia are big but recruitment has been very good and they will enter the season feel equipped to improve on last seasons poor show.
One to Watch: No doubt about it, Brendan Leonard. He learnt his trade at Waikato before graduating to the all conquering Chiefs squad. Graham Henry called Leonard the "best attacking scrum half in the Super 14" back in 2007 when he battled Piri Weepu for the All Blacks jersey. Injuries weren't kind to Leonard after that, but regular rugby could get him firing again and get Zebre playing on the front foot.
Brendan Leonard, Waikato, Chiefs, New Zealand, Scrum half, All Blacks, Zebre
Good luck to all teams, players, coaches and fans for the forthcoming season. It's been a long wait for club rugby to hit British and Irish shores again. The time is now upon us. 
 Moloko - The Time is Now

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Cliff Morgan

He was one of the finest 10s to leave the production line at the Outside Half Factory. Such was his influence for the Lions, a South African newspaper once declared him "Morgan the Magnificent!"

Cliff Morgan may have been small in build, but he was far from it in terms of personality and standing within rugby. An evasive runner at stand off who mastered the show-and-go, he earned his first international cap at the tender age of 19 and was part of the last Welsh team to date to defeat the mighty All Blacks. He was also part of the Barbarians tradition of playing in the famous black and white hoops before ever representing his nation.
A quiet, charming man with a love of sport and song. Such was Morgan's passion for the rugby he was expelled from university after he skipped an exam in favour of playing a game.

After numerous appearances for Cardiff, Wales, Lions and Barbarians, Morgan retired from the sport and moved into broadcasting. In 1970 he became the first ever captain of 'A Question of Sport' opposite boxing legend Henry Cooper. At the BBC he rose through the ranks (via a short stint at ITV) eventually becoming 'Head of Outside Broadcasts.'

It was though, just three years after his first appearance on 'A Question of Sport' that Morgan's crowning glory as a broadcaster would take place.
With Bill McLaren struck down by flu, Morgan took the mic for Barbarians v New Zealand at Cardiff Arms Park. Shortly after kick off Phil Bennett caught a loose kick from All Blacks winger Bryan Williams. Bennett's dancing feet set a Baabaas counter attack on the way. The ball passes through seven pairs of hands before Gareth Edwards crosses in the corner for what is universally agreed to be 'The Greatest Try Ever Scored.'

On the day, Morgan was the 8th man behind the try as he added pitch perfect commentary to every move. The commentary was almost as perfect as the moves themselves. When the game got back underway Morgan waxed lyrical; "If the greatest writer of the written word would have written that story, no one would have believed it. That really was something." Morgan was just happy to bear witness to the game.

For all the great man had achieved in his life, one thing eluded him. In the Treorchy Male Choir magazine he wrote, "I would give up the caps for playing for Wales if only I had had the ability to be the conductor of the Treorci!"

Clifford Isaac Morgan

For 'Cliffy,' here is the Treorchy Male Choir singing Myfanwy.