The (un)talented Mr. Church

Loathe him or hate him, you just can’t like him. The man previously known as Mr. Charlotte Church, Gavin Henson (28) has announced that he has between 8 and 10 years of rugby left in him and is stil pestering Warren Gatland for a place on the Welsh national side.

Why the dislike for the divine bryl-creemed one? Well….. where’s to start? Just recently (this week, in fact), Mr. Church made a high profile move from Ospreys (Wales) to Saracens (England). Fair enough. His two very young children live with their mother and he obviously wants to be nearer to them. Ms. Church, the former child soprano once voted ‘Rear of the Year’ (no, I’m not making this up) is based in London for her singing career and took the wee Hensons with her after the wonderful Welsh couple split earlier this year. Naturally, a transfer to an English club by the beautiful one was on the cards. Meanwhile, Mr. Church (let’s call him Gav) has been partaking of a Saturday evening BBC show called Strictly Come Dancing as a ballroom dancing contestant with a serious chance of winning (no, really, I’m not making this up), and Gav has stated that his move to England will diminish the attention he has been garnering back in Wales as a result of the show (so, nothing to do with rugby then). Apparently, he is not so well-known in England. In Ireland he’s really well-known for gifting the Irish national team a 6 nations fixture a few year’s back after a piss-poor performance in the no. 10 jersey.

So, what do the Saracens think of his turn on the floorboards doing the cha-cha and the bossa-nova? Have they told him the fun is over and to stop poncing about in those skin-tight keks, now let’s get back to playing some rugby, okay? Well, here is the official release from Saracens camp: “The player’s path back to full match fitness will dovetail with his participation in the show.” (Jesus, you really couldn’t make this up).

Gav seems to be getting more royal treatment than Maradona and Cristiano Ronaldo put together. But it doesn’t end there. Earlier this year the WRU launched their new national jersey for the 2010/11 season by hanging a giant photo of a Welsh player resplendent in the new attire the entire height and width of one side of the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. Who did they pick to wear this jersey? The record try-scorer and darling of Welsh rugby, Shane Williams? The utility back and handsome James Hook? The captain, Ryan Jones, even? Ha, you’ve guessed it. They picked the player with the famous ex who hadn’t touched an oval ball in anger in more than a year. There were more than a few people scratching their heads in Cardiff (and around the rugby world) that day.

Gav strongly believes that he can make a difference at Saracens and get back to the top of rugby union, cure cancer, stop the cavalry for Christmas, and play for Wales again. He is completely oblivious that Warren Gatland has not included any Welsh players from England’s Aviva Premiership for the autumn Internationals (the primary selection process for the 6 Nations). Undaunted, Gav believes that he will be selected again for the national side if he is “top of his game and playing really well” (No, really. He actually said that). His belief is based on his signing for a club that “know my desire to play for Wales again is really strong. That is basically why I got back into rugby, because I missed playing for my country, so they won’t stand in my way because they know how keen I am to play for Wales.”

That said, we really should get used to seeing the ex Mr. Church more in rumba trousers than in rugby shorts for the foreseeable future.

I wonder if Gav is related to the late, great puppeteer, Jim Henson, because he sounds like a right fucking muppet.

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Saturday. 30th October. 2010. 15.00.

Note the date and time. This is the first Bremen rugby derby of the 2010/11 season. And, being played on the day before hallowe’en it’s guaranteed to produce some scares, more blood and, dare I say it? some gruesome spectres (haha, see what I did there?).

In the red corner, Union 60 host 1860 Bremen in the green corner. The age and experience of Union face an undaunted and youthful 1860 in what should be a pretty physical encounter. We may even see some rugby played. Coach Spencer Ryan is always game to raise a smile (or a smirk, at least) during the game, whilst 1860’s John McLaughlin may pass a wink and a jovial laugh from the sidelines in between crunching tackles.

To win? You can never tell with these two. They are about as consistent as an England team but more loathe to kick (the ball, that is, but don’t count out a few wild swings at each other over the 80 minutes). The telling difference will be Union’s secret weapon (to be revealed on match day) which may inspire the 15 to whiteline fever and a famous victory (or a desperate defeat – either is equally likely).

Whatever the result both teams will retire to the Bayern tent at the Freimarkt to drink copious amounts of south German beer and partake in another annual rugby tradition that is bound to shock and surprise.

One thing’s for sure. Union would win any drinking on the night event hands down. Well, we have been training just as much in the bar as on the field.

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Going back home…..

After almost 75 years in Germany the British army will be pulling out in the year 2020 at latest.

What’s this? The High Tackle is starting to cover non-rugby politics now? Not a bit of it. This has a lot to do with rugby. In the early post-war years garrisoned British Army rugby teams offered valuable opposition to the replenishing rugby teams, first in Northern Germany (then the FRG) and later throughout the rest of the country.

The revival of rugby in Germany post-war cannot be attributed solely to the British Army, but they can claim, legitimately, to have helped through their participation in ‘friendly’ derbies, cup matches, and invitationals. Demobbed squaddies and other assorted servicemen have also decided to remain on and contribute their skills and experience as coaches (the head coach of our club included), and players.

Sadly, any further team participation will cease in nine years from now, and with recent military budget cuts by the British Conservative/Lib Dem government it will be highly unlikely that these teams will be allowed to continue to contribute teams to the established competitions, albeit officially.

Another era draws near to an end.

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Farewell, Big man…..

Last Monday rugby lost a legend.

Moss Keane, a name known to a generation of Irish, and respected across the rugby community passed away at the age of 62 after a long battle with cancer.

Maurice ‘Moss’ Keane was unusual for a rugby player of his time. A late-comer to the game, he came from a non-rugby family and originally played Gaelic Football up to under-21 level for his native county of Kerry. A friend in university introduced him to rugby, which he quickly mastered thanks to the jumping and ball-handling skills of Gaelic, rising up to provincial level and becoming a mainstay for the Munster team throughout the 70s and early 80s.

Moss Keane lines out for Ireland v France in 1983

He made his debut for Ireland at the late age of 26, not so unusual in the amateur era when players often made late debuts making only a few appearances. Moss Keane played a then record 51 times for an Irish forward, and was never dropped. Success on the international stage came early with a debut Five Nations trophy in 1974. He was rewarded towards the end of his career by being a member of the Irish triple-crown winning team of 1983, retiring from the game shortly after.

But it was for Munster that he played his most famous game. In autumn of 1978 the New Zealand All-Blacks toured the UK and Ireland defeating not only all of the home sides (England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales) but every club and provincial team in between tests. Midway through their tour (October 31st) they travelled to Thomond Park to take on Munster. Until that date no Irish team had beaten the All-Blacks (Munster once held them to a 3-3 draw) but Munster incredibly went on to beat them 12-0 (one converted try, two drop goals), in a game that has entered rugby mythology, so much so that it inspired an award-winning play – Alone It Stands, the name deriving from the Shannon RFC song The Isle.

Moss Keane challenges in the lineout against France in 1983

In the amateur era of the game it was necessary to hold down a full-time job. Moss worked as a milk inspector at the Department of Agriculture, a position he held until his retirement in July 2010. His transfer to Dublin required a change in clubs and he selected Landsdowne, a club he had grown to love and respect when he travelled to Dublin on International duty. Munster’s loss was Leinster’s gain and it was when he made the move that I first got a glimpse of the big man in the flesh. Moss Keane was an inspiration for all the schoolboy players of the time. In school everybody wanted to be the scrum-half, a position that imparted power and usually came with the captaincy, but for Ireland everybody wanted to emulate Moss, the second row lock who was in all-likelihood the inspiration for the current Irish locks of Paul O’Connell, Malcolm O’Kelly, Donnacha O’Callaghan, and Leo Cullen. He was the Chabal of his day, fast, strong and athletic in the air, and a real workhorse who was always dedicated to his game. Off the pitch he was eagerly sought out by autograph hunters and fans who were in awe of his presence, and he always obliged, such was his temperament (sadly, my personal autograph is long lost).

Maurice Ignatius “Moss” Keane (27 July 1948 – 5 October 2010)

Moss was interviewed a few times since his retirement from rugby, particularly to give his opinion on the game since professionalism, the new generation of rugby players, and to reminisce on his time in the game. I was most shocked with how much he had aged, looking far older than he should have. But the Moss I remember is the one of him running across the field of Landsdowne Road, rucking and mauling and rising for the ball in the lineouts. And after the game, my ten year-old self running over to the tunnel entrance with a pen and paper which this giant snatched from my hand, scribbled his name and handed it back to me as I watched, wide-eyed, as his steam-covered silhouette walked gingerly down to the dressing rooms.

It is an image I will take to my grave. Thanks, Big man.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

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My top five tries

In a rare free moment I like to look back over some of the best tries I’ve seen over the years on television. These are the five most memorable and, in my opinion, the best.

Think you know some better ones? Let me know.

In no particular order……

Sebastian Chabal v Namibia in the 2007 World Cup.
Sheer power and determination. No wonder the French call him ‘l’animal’.

Welsh captain Ieuan Evans scores against England. Great counter-attack from nothing.
And the voice of rugby gives his wonderful commentary, as always…

USA v South Africa, world cup 2007.
USA steal the ball off their own try line and beat the eventual world champions with style and power.
The best counterattack I have ever seen. Truly try of the tournament.

France try v England in Five Nations, 1991.
This wouldn’t happen today but it was a joy to watch 19 years ago.
A big lesson in following up the missed penalty.

Brian O’Driscoll for Leinster v Wasps.
I could have picked any of dozens by Drico, but this was a real beauty.
I also had the pleasure to be in the crowd to see it live…🙂

Hope you enjoyed my choices!


Os jogadores brasileiras atraentes…..

The Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, in 2016, and most of the male audience watching it on tv will probably be tuned into either the 100m men’s final or the women’s beach volleyball, or both.

Me, I’ll be watching the women’s sevens rugby – and rooting for Brasil.

South American champions, great rugby players and, well, damn, they’re Brasilian.

Meninho, meu coração velho pobre……

2016 can’t come any sooner.

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Wagging the finger

After my whimsical blog entry earlier this week it’s time to get serious again.

A few weeks back, after the first game of the season I was asked if I was interested in taking up the position of sevens coach for the club. Naturally, I was. Coaching my own rugby team has always been a dream of mine. Of course, in my typical self-deprecating style, all I could think of was, “Wow, they must really be hard up to have asked me”. But, as anyone that knows me knows, I actually do take my rugby very seriously, and knew that by thinking of me they hadn’t made their choice lightly.

Before I plan to start in October I have decided to do a lot of preparation to make sure that my players got the most out of the sessions and that my time and theirs will not be wasted. In the past week I have also taken part in some newbie training sessions as coach, and a Verbandsliga (beginners league) training session as assistant coach. The Newbies course is a joy. Touch rugby, focus on fun and basic skills (so lots of passing), ball handling in general, and learning the attack, defence, and counter-attack methods. Pretty much everything I had been teaching in my summer touch rugby classes for the past two summers. The players learned fast and worked with the skills I taught them, and improved from mistakes.

Verbandsliga was something different. Young, eager, fit and strong. Good for rugby players but they also lacked skills and discipline. Fine, that was the job of the coaches to sort out and I was duly handed the task of demonstrating, teaching and supervising tackling. With several different levels amongst them I decided to teach the schoolbook tackle, what every schoolboy rugby player around the world is taught at the age of 9, so simple and effective and which never fails to take a down an opponent. Approach the attacker with small steps, crouch low at the last moment, keeping shoulders above the hips, step slightly to the side of the player and put a lead arm straight across their midriff, throw the shoulder into their hip and head against the arse and push whilst encircling with the other arm, bringing them to ground. If done right this will take down an opponent of any size or shape and will, most importantly, neither injure you nor your opponent. Then get up on your feet and steal the ball. Simple.

I demonstrate on a player or two. They then partner up and give it their best. Some problems are evident but I’m walking the line and offering advice and encouragement. Next thing there’s a bit of horseplay going on. Lifting and carrying the other players. I shout them down and tell them to get on with the task in hand and keep the tackles as I showed. One questions me and asks why we are not doing forward contact tackles and I remind him that I am the coach and know what they need to learn. Next thing the same player is doing a forward tackle into the midriff of the other player with head against the ribcage. I shout at him that if he does that again he’ll break his neck. He rubs his neck and apologises. Some are tackling around the legs, taking just one leg in hand and, naturally, get dragged along the ground effecting no tackle. I demonstrate again that the tackle will only happen if both legs are taken and they immediately improve.

Things are going okay and they all agree that this tackling method is effective, but I sense that they want something a bit more physical. We put them into two training lines and do attack/defence training, effectively a game of five on five. They learn fast with three coaches shouting at them and, eager to succeed, effect the moves promptly and efficiently. Ten minutes from the end of the session, however, disaster strikes. One of the players goes for a half-forward/half-classic tackle and gets only one leg of an attacker. The arm between the legs gets caught by the trailing leg and his shoulder is rendered, dislocating it. It is a huge blow not only because the player showed great promise throughout the session but, as we would later find out, the injury was worse than though putting him out of the game for six months.

With just two weeks before they play their first match this team will be facing a massive uphill task to reach a level acceptable for playing competitive rugby. It’s not really a pratical goal and the best that three coaches can do is try to minimise the mistakes the players make and to ensure that there are no major injuries. This is no light statement. If a player gets seriously injured in a training session then I hate to think what will happen in a competitive game, espcially if there is a rush of blood to the head. I get the impression that in Germany (and not just in the verbandsliga, but in senior teams, too) there is a tendency to misunderstand what rugby is actually all about. It is by far not a simple game to learn and, although appealing to players attracted to a physical game, it does also attract the overly aggressive and even the violent who see it as a legitimate way to vent. When this happens the game often takes on a violent air and descends into nothing more than a method to seriously hurt opponents while occasionally scoring tries.

There is also an indifference here to the necessary skills such as passing which is often seen as a boring and only occasionally useful part of the game, and a very dangerous tendency to play players that are considered experienced when they clearly are not.

Let’s take them in order.

Rugby is a safe game. There is actually a reason we don’t wear armour. Whilst American football encourages often life-threatening hits requiring protective armour, there are laws in rugby preventing dangerous play and penalising it with penalties and/or cards. A referee has the right to call off a game if conditions endanger any or all players.

Tackling, believe it or not, is not always about hitting your opponent as hard as you can and inflicting injury. It is meant to be physical, sure, but tackling requires bringing a player to ground and the most effective way to do this is by unbalancing him. Once tackled the tackled player must release the ball and the tackler then takes the opportunity of getting to his feet and stealing the ball. I can imagine many of you rolling your eyes and muttering “Yes, we know this, John”, but I don’t see this happening very often in a game, or even training for that matter. Tackling seems to be taught as a way to charge the mid-riff of a ball carrier and to then pick the ball away from his fallen corpse. Not a very effective method if the tackle goes wrong and both players end up injured, which is very likely in this situation, espcially if the players are of different body builds.

Passing is, with tackling, one of the two most important skills in rugby – if not the most important. Everyone, at some time or another during a game, will pass or tackle. All the other skills, such as kicking, rucking, scrumming, lineouts etc. are specific to certain players in the field. And yet, passing is generally accepted as being both boring and good enough only for training purposes – for warming-up, if you will. Astonishing. No wonder there isn’t anyone I watch playing here that can actually pass. However, it is always the first skill I teach new players and the first thing they practice before each new session with me. Passing drills, running lines, one-hand passes. I drill hem for at least a quarter of an hour before we do anything else. I see you rolling your eyes again, “But John, I CAN pass!”. Okay, you know how a ball can be passed, but do you know when to pass? Who to pass to? When not to pass? Where to pass to? How to make space and draw in a defender so that the receiver of the pass can take advantage of that? What to do when you can’t pass? Do you go to ground? Kick for space? Kick for touch? Do you try to maul? These are all the options that make passing more than just spinning a ball to a teammate. Passing opens the game, gives you more options for scoring, disrupts the defense, and allows for penalties caused by a desperate defence that may infringe. Apart from an attacking line from a scrum and a very rare back line attack most German rugby offensives consist of a pick and go, ruck, pick and go, ruck, a lucky breakout with a player running a beeline through the defense (but with no support), followed by a tackle, lost ball forward or won on their feet, and a counter-attack. No passing. Just big hits, recycle and ground by metres. This is WWI trench tactics. Not pretty, and a good opponent will sense your weakness and punish you for it. If you are in my coaching class you will learn tackling (my way) and lots of passing before you learn anything else. Otherwise you can go and play soccer.

Finally, I have often been told about a player that he/she is ‘experienced’. From this can mean that they have attended several training courses, and have played a few games. The Verbandsliga player who got injured this week was one such ‘experienced’ player. Apparently he had played a few games. But from what I saw of him he could barely tackle and had only basic passing skills. So, any time in future that I hear that a player is experienced I will instantly assume that they are a novice. It is a better assumption to make than putting them in to play against a real experienced player and ending up calling for the Krankenwagen again.

In my books an experienced rugby player is not only someone who understands the rudiments of the game, but also tackling, passing, the tasks of all of the different players on the pitch and how they affect you and vice versa, the objectives of the game, the laws of the game, at least basic tactics of the game, and how to enjoy the game. It is also quite mind-boggling how many players tell me that they enjoy playing in their position in rugby without knowing anything about what they are to do!

I don’t know who or what is responsible for all of this. Is it a general confusion with the game? Is it poor coaching? I think a bit of both. It took me 33 years to learn rugby and I am still learning. I also had great coaches from the age of 9 and so I was taught well, but it took me nine years in school to bring me up to an acceptable level, so it was not quick, and I was lucky to learn the game in digestible amounts. That is not a privilege available anywhere in Germany. The coaches here have an unenviable task of teaching a relatively unknown game in Germany to enthusiastic but inexperienced youths in a ridiculously short time. These coaches need to assess what to teach first and what is most important for their team to succeed and win games. Unfortunately, in some cases this can also lead to apathy over important skills I have already mentioned, and a disregard for safety, resulting in unnecessary injuries.

The majority of coaches are usually very experienced but also unpaid and the responsible ones deserve more than just thanks for sharing their knowledge and skills, not to mention their time. However, their greatest reward is watching many generations of new players taking up a beautiful game that is far more than just big hits and hard tackles.

I am one of those coaches now and have my own daunting task ahead of me. I’ll do my damndest to make the people in my team great players but I hope they’ll do their bit and help me to become an equally good coach.

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