OUT FOR A RUN Connacht’s Daniel Riordan breaks away from the Montpellier defence on the way to scoring a try in the European Challenge Cup at the Sportsground, Galway last Friday night
Robinson goes but questions remain
EUROPEAN club rugby returned to our fields and screens over the weekend but it’s the ongoing strife at RFU headquarters in Twickenham that continues to grab the headlines over here across the water. Allegations and responsibility as to who is to be held liable for England’s dismal run of form has shifted from assistant coaches Phil Larder, Joe Lydon and Dave Alred to head coach Andy Robinson over the last eight months. The clear out of the coaching staff continued last week with the sacking of highly regarded fitness guru Dave Reddin, who was behind the conditioning of England’s World Cup winning side in 2003. Yet even with the change of personnel in charge of the English team, question marks still hang over the structure of the English game, never mind the coaching set-up. Are those at HQ really tackling the right issues?
World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward launched yet another stinging attack on the RFU hierarchy over the weekend, questioning the role and ability of Elite Rugby Director Rob Andrew and the effectiveness of Chief Executive Francis Barron. With speculation rife as to who will be Andy Robinson’s successor, Woodward believes Andrews’ hovering presence and interference with team matters and selection will not only make his own role untenable but will also put off prospective candidates for the head coach position. The RFU are promising a big shake-up in order to turn fortunes around. But Woodward remains adamant that, as he stated when resigning in 2004, “what is needed is for the England head coach, alone, to be given complete control over every member of the England squad.”
In fact Woodward went as far as saying that winning the World Cup was the worst thing that could have happened to English rugby, as it masked the flaws behind the scenes at the RFU. Chief Executive Francis Barron has been credited for getting the finances of the governing body in shape. But Woodward believes that a CEO who has more experience and knowledge of the game and player welfare should now replace Barron. He argued that England won the World Cup in Australia despite the system that was in place rather than because of it. Either way, a recent survey conducted by the Professional Players Association suggests the system needs to be demolished and reassembled with player welfare the focus point rather than an afterthought.
The ongoing dispute between clubs and the RFU regarding player availability (for training, games and the amount of games per season) is arguably the biggest clink in the system. Whereas Ireland’s top players are all contracted to the IRFU, their counterparts across the water are caught between both club and country and PRA members are becoming increasingly concerned at the demands made of them. To combat player burnout, a medical study has been undertaken and has already discovered that English players are twice as likely to suffer from this syndrome than players in New Zealand. PRA Chief Executive Damian Hopley says its time the governing bodies, the RFU, the clubs and Premier Rugby took the players seriously and granted them greater representation in the decision-making process. It would be a good starting point. The other main findings provided further sober reading for the game’s rulers. A total of 398 Guinness Premiership professionals from the 545 members were surveyed and the survey revealed that: 80% of all players believe injuries are increasing; 60% of players felt season was too long (the figure was 77% among elite players); 58% of all players felt they had been put under pressure to play while not fully fit; 25% of all players are out injured at any one time; 19% of the season, the amount of time a player is out injured.
According to the Management Board of the RFU, the blueprint for English rugby beyond the 2009 season seeks to reduce the number of games elite players (international squad members) play from 32 to 28; limit the number of autumn internationals to three; and ensure there is a least one physio available for every 15-20 club players. It’s a step in the right direction but if you consider that Ireland’s top players such as Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara play only around 25 games per season, well, there is a long way to go. The fields across the Irish Sea certainly do look greener at present. Clive Woodward reckons that “a generation of players has missed out because they have not been given the opportunity to play for England to the best of their ability”. He concludes by saying: “England’s head coach must be a man of massive stature to do an all-encompassing job”. So a reshuffling of the pack to see who comes out as head coach may not provide the answers to England’s plight, but the man who gets the job will be an indication as to the direction the RFU are willing to go.
‘QUINS FAIL TO MAKE
HOME ADVANTAGE COUNT
BACK TO the playing field and apart from Ulster’s defeat to London Irish in Reading it was a good weekend for the Irish provinces. Both Munster and Leinster recorded victories in the Heineken Cup while Connacht accounted for Montpellier at the Sportsground last Friday night in the Challenge Cup. Harlequins are in the same group as Connacht and the French side, and we took on Bath last Saturday at The Stoop to see who would remain top of the group after round three. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make home advantage count. Having clawed our way back from 13-3 and 16-9 down to lead 18-16 going into the last 10 minutes, we ultimately lost 24-16.
We travel to Bath this Saturday and a win is vital if we want any chance of topping the group. Connacht travel to the south of France and a win for the Western province would see them right back in the hunt as well. No doubt it will go down to the final round of games in January before anyone can say they are through to the quarter-finals. Drama is always guaranteed in European cup competition.