A cautionary fable

This is the tale of Tiffany Trog
who could not wait for the rugby blog.
With each new day she would complain
“Where’s this week’s blog? It’s late again!”

Vexed and frustrated she would write
disgruntled letters filled with spite
That called the author a work-shy fop
and threatened him with a riding crop.

Grown vain on fame from all over town,
The author won’t take this lying down
And, finding out where Tiffany lives,
goes round and does her in with shivs.

In summary, my tale makes clear
that Patience is a virtue dear.
So, gentle reader, know your place,
and don’t get on my ****ing case.

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Lost weekend

Saturday, 11th September. While the Union 60 team are in Jesteburg, the two injured players and this old duffer of a blogger take to the field as officials in the 1860 v Schwalbe match in Bremen. First impressions last and we look the business in our black, white and red jerseys. Boris on whistle again, Thomas and me on the lines. You’d never have guessed looking at me that I’d crawled out of bed just over an hour before the kick-off after partying all of Friday night. Anyway, rugby seems to have that sobering effect, and I was no exception to that phenomenon.

I managed to get a coffee into me before leaving home, which was pretty much the only energy I had for the duration of the game. Schwalbe, I’ll remind you, are the team that beat Union 60 in Hannover the previous weekend. A large, physical team, with a remarkably fast winger (and a couple of overly aggressive forwards) and a cross-eyed hooker who was still throwing in crooked lineouts and doing his team no favours five or ten metres out from 1860’s line. 1860 are no pushovers themselves with a collection of large forwards and backs, all of them runners. Funny how they still managed to lose so comprehensively in their first game just six days previously. Well, they made up for it in a fast, physical game that saw one of the best defensive tackles I have seen outside of the professional game. The flying Schwalbe winger ran an exceptional 20-30 metres and was just short of a certain try-scoring opportunity when a full-back in kamikaze mode came in hard and crunched him about three metres into touch. I was just glad that I wasn’t able to keep up with him or I would have been caught up in that particular car-wreck…..

1860 came out with a comprehensive four tries to two win and I was thankful to finally tuck into some wurst and beer and chill out for a while. About an hour later the news came in that Union 60 had won against Jesterburg 25-22 with 14 men! Two tries to our American flanker of inderterminate heritage, Michael, who took a bit of the shine off his performance by spending 10 in the sin-bin. Happily, it didn’t affect the overall result and Jesteburg had one of their own sent off for 10, too, alleviating any possibility of two consecutive defeats for Union.

Our boys were informed, once off the train, to meet at Eisen and then move on to Hegarty’s for the Rugby Bremen joint celebration, and I grimaced at the thought of punishing my liver for the second night in a row. Still, I couldn’t let the team down so I showed up for a few, and then a few more, and then a few more and, well, then it’s too late to go so, being the trooper I am I stayed the distance. While Union 60 are quaffing beers in the traditional rugby manner, the lads from 1860 are getting out of it and, inevitably, things get pretty wild. I won’t describe what happened on a main street in downtown Bremen (I don’t need to, I made a movie – but I can’t share it as impressionable children and other assorted minors are known to read my blog) but take my word for it, you really don’t want to know. Grown men saw it live and baulked.

Once things quietened down somewhat, and I was quite enjoying my umpteenth beer, Boris bid his farewells and said he’d see me tomorrow for the ladies’ game. Sure, I said, I was looking forward to taking some good photos. He kind of smiled awkwardly and reminded me that I was the referee. My innards melted. I had completely forgotten. And while a doomed expression crossed my face my company partook in what they call in these here parts schadenfreude. Suddenly, my appetite for beer disappeared and I felt it might be better if I went home myself and got some sleep (and had a quick scan over the laws) before the game the next day. Luckily I live a straight line away from the pub so, closing one eye, I did a bee-line along Vor den Steintor, and got in at the healthy hour of 11.30 at night.

Sunday, 12th September. I wake up in a seated position, my legs dead from lack of bloodflow. How I fell asleep on the toilet I can’t remember. I looked at my watch. 7am. Eight hours until kick-off. Great. But I still feel drunk. God knows when the hangover will kick-in. I make it back to bed and crash out. I wake up and it’s still dark out. Hmm.. Must still be night. I look at my watch. 12.30. Shit! I’ll never be ready on time. Then I remember Boris’s words that he will step in if I don’t want to do this. Hell, no, that’s the pussy’s way out. I’m motivated. I WANT to do this. Another coffee, a hot shower, and I’m ready. 2pm. Feeling pretty good. I pull on my kit, decide to wear the Australian flanker jersey to stand out on the pitch, and then for some reason I sit down, switch on my computer and start to check Facebook and my email. I must still be out of it because while I’m reading about all the ladies making their way to the game I’m about to referee, I’m calmly sitting like it’s a normal Sunday afternoon. I finally decide that it’s maybe best I leave and cycle the ten minutes to the pitch. It’s drizzling a little but still warm so the conditions for playing are great. I needn’t have worried about being late, though. St. Pauli have yet to arrive from Hamburg, and our ladies are still warming up, doing some nice drills and passing practice out on the pitch. I must still be out of it as I am not the slightest bit nervous. Some of the lads have turned out so I chew the fat with them and then I turn to Arne and Boris (my two touch judges) and we go through our routines for the game. Three thirds of 20 minutes each, non-contested scrums, ten players to a team, 15s rules. Simple.

St. Pauli arrive looking damned smart and eager. I brief the two captains that I’m using English (because even if I use German I’ll keep slipping back into the terms I know), and we get ready to start. First problem. The groundsman, in his infinite wisdom, has marked out the pitch the night before and the overnight rain has washed away all of the lines. It takes me a few minutes to find the very faded centreline (not for the only time in the game), and Union 60 ladies then get us kicked-off. My first 20 minutes are not the best, to be honest, and some of my decisions confound even me, but reffing is HARD! At least I’m keeping out of everybody’s way, and keeping things smooth. Second twenty minutes takes a while to get going again. I’ve given the teams their five minutes but the coaches are abusing it to give longer team talks, and they take their time coming back for the restart. I can’t blame them. The ground is starting to break up and running is becoming a chore. Already some of the ladies are looking breathless.

The second twenty starts well and the game is becoming more fluent with some jinky runs and good play from both sides but it’s St. Pauli who are running in the tries and Union 60 are defending desperately. And then something happens that shows a unique divide between ladies and gents rugby. A player knocks-on and I give a scrum to St. Pauli. The front rows form and I’m about to give the commands when, all of a sudden, the six ladies start having a chat between themselves. ‘Ladies?’. Natter, natter. ‘Er, ladies?’. Natter, natter. ‘LADIES!’ Natter, natter, giggle, giggle. A sharp blow on my whistle and I have their attention. ‘Ladies, we have this game to play. Crouch, touch……’.

Final 20 minutes and I’m running around like I’m ten years younger. Tons of energy, not missing much, I’m in my element. I’m almost sorry it’s coming to and end now I’m into my flow. I can’t say the same for the ladies. They are mud-streaked, panting, cheeks flushed pink from exertion, muscles bruised, and sinews stretched but still giving their all. Last minute and St. Pauli kick a ball into the 22 and chase. Lena, playing at full-back runs to cover it but it’s too far forward to catch and she gets a bad bounce, the ball falling nicely for the onrushing attacker who scoops it up and runs it in for the final score of the match. ‘How much longer?’ I’m asked as the kicker lines up the conversion. ‘This is the last action of the game.’ The kick hits the bar and drops back. Union pick-up and run towards the centre and I blow for full-time. They look surprised but I clarify that the conversion was the last action. They look crestfallen.

The two teams then line up facing each other and I discover another unexpected custom. I must deliver the scores to the team and also make some comments about the game. I congratulate both teams for a good game, give some cliche about rugby being the big winner on the day and make some excruciating joke about invisible lines before deciding that it would be best to round it off by saying something stupid about barbecue and beer that gets a cheap laugh. I look at a large divot in the ground and wonder if it is large enough to crawl into.

Both captains address the other teams, make some (rather flattering) compliments in my direction before ending with the mandatory team yell at each other. I am just getting ready to walk off to the clubhouse when someone suddenly runs at me from behind the line with a bucket of water (which I realise was used for washing wounds and rinsing gum guards) and dumps it full over me. My first game as ref in Germany. I have been baptised. I have mixed emotions….

While everyone tucks into the barbecue, Arne, Boris and I grab a few beers and post-mortem over the officiating in the bizarre surroundings of a kiddie rollerskating competition. We rejoin the rest for some food and I realise that it’s six in the evening and this is the first food I’ve eaten all day. I get an energy rush that leaves me refreshed and revitalised. I am (not unusually) one of the last there, and those left decide to finish the night with a few more beers at the local bar. I get home just after midnight and collapse exhausted in pretty much the same state I’ve been in all weekend (barring the match time).

Monday morning, 13th September. Can’t feel my legs. That’ll teach me not to warm up and to warm down (not to mention break in my boots). I’ve woken up twice during the night with the pain. I crawl out of bed and into work. Having a look at Facebook I see that most of the ladies are in the same shape as me (but they were actually playing, John…). Then I remember reading somewhere that women feel twice as much pain as men and then I sit and look back over the game and think: ‘Respect, ladies. Respect.’

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The cynic’s dictionary: Part 2

    Playing positions

No. 10 (out-half in most countries, fly-half in England):

A backline player pivotal to the role between forwards and backs, who receives ball from the scrum-half, kicks for position, passes to the three-quarters, and occasionally kicks penalties and conversions.

In England, an injury-prone player who scores all of the team’s points.

No. 9 – scrum-half:

A generally smaller player present at scrums, rucks, and mauls, who interfaces the ball between forwards and backs, recycles at the breakdown, goes on sniping runs, and commits to first and last-level defence.

In Italy, an openside flanker.

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First Blood

Saturday 4th September. First game of the season.

The Union 60 XV have been rallied to meet at Bremen Hbf at 10:00 for the trip to Hannover to play FC Schwalbe. Being true sportsmen not many have arrived without hangovers and a couple are still dragging on their cigarettes before entering the smoke-free building, bags around their eyes from the few snatched hours of sleep. No problem. We tank up on coffee and food that in Germany is a typical railway breakfast but which in any other country would amount to a main course.

Sören going to Hannover

Sören on the train to Hannover

80 minutes to Hannover on the regional and our carriage is buzzing. The weather is great, the guys have trained hard for this and they are eager, so we are looking forward to a good opening game. Somebody put me in charge so I’m shouting at people to carry the kit, practice balls etc., and once we get to Hannover I am expected to navigate the group to the pitch. Child’s play. One S-bahn and a short walk and we are at the pitch just after 12. The game doesn’t start until 14.00 and the other team hasn’t even arrived yet. It starts to rain and we shelter under an overhang. A perfect opportunity for another pre-match cigarette….

I’ve done my bit and am looking forward to watching the game over a few beers, carrying out my occasional waterboy duties, and snapping some shots for posterity. Boris, our club captain, is officiating for the day, and just a few minutes before the game strolls over to where I’m quaffing my Hefe. He sheepishly announces that the other team hasn’t provided a second touch judge (in fact they hadn’t even provided one given the piss poor decisions, or non-decisions, made on the other side of the pitch during the game), and that I would now be spending my chill time running up and down the touch line. Freak! Desperately trying to remember the touch judge’s duties I get up and do my best to get prepared. There’s a small crowd to watch the game and I feel every pair of eyes will be on my performance – not the players. There is a problem from the start; the groundsman has marked out the pitch over visible football markings and now there are two parallel lines onlya few metres from each other, the old football line and the new 22-metre line. It would cause a few confusions in the early stages of the game.

Boris and John officiate in Hannover

Boris and John, the officials from Bremen

Anne, one of the ladies players from Union 60 is in town and comes along to watch, so I turn over my waterboy duties to her, and she also has the great sense to pick up my camera and take some occasional shots which will prove historic, as you will soon see.

Union 60 XV in Hannover

Union 60 line up for the kick-off

The game was a pretty much push-shove affair with neither team dominating through ruck and maul and Union 60 winning in their lineout and getting a lot of reverse decisions due to piss-poor throw-ins by the Schwalbe hooker. Luck then plays a big part in Schwalbe’s first try. Their right-winger collects the ball and races down the touchline on the side where their touch judge is located and he conveniently does not see anything wrong with the winger’s foot going into touch before racing across the try line.

A few minutes passes and we were back on level terms when our centre, Klaas, was brilliant in anticipating an interception pass and then managing to run 40 metres flat out, with several defenders hot on his heels, to score the equaliser. Disaster followed after the break with Schwalbe exposing Union’s left wing by cross-kicking for their huge right-winger who caught and fell over the line a la Aurelien Rougerie. Nice to watch from a rugby perspective but painful for Union. There was no way to defend that but by challenging for the ball in the air.

Klaas scores in Hannover

Klaas scores between the posts after intercepting a pass

But the final five minutes brought the most dramatic incident. I had noticed that our full-back, Michael, had swapped positions with the left-wing, Sören. An attack by Schwalbe on the right saw Michael slightly out of position and too far infield and so too far away from his wing. The ball was passed out to the right-winger and Michael raced desperately to cut off the straight run (which is what a full-back does) but the winger cut back in as Michael committed to the tackle and he ended up getting boots to the face as a result, and the photos tell it all. The first photo is the last to be taken of Michael with a pre-rugby face committed just as the winger turned, and the second is of him just after he was flattened, and Klaas too late to prevent the winger’s scoring move. Anne’s photo is, unfortunately, obscured by the 22-metre flagpole, so we were robbed of the moment Michael’s nose went 90 degrees west.

Michael pre-injury

The last photo of Michael before his face was altered forever

Michael flattened

Michael after losing a battle with his opposite number

I was right next to him when it happened. Only after the try had been scored did I hear a scream like a banshee and looked down to see Michael with a hand over his eyes and blood pouring out from under it. First thought was, shit, his eye’s out. The following conversation then took place between us:

“Oh, please tell me my nohz isn’t brohken!”
“Show me. No, your nose is fine, Michael. I thought it was your eye that got hit.”
“My eye! my eye! What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, Michael. You got hit on your nose.”
“My finger! My finger!”
“Yeah, your finger’s fucked.”
“Oh, noh! Now I cahn’t finish typing my trans-laytion fuhr Munday!”

(Okay, I made that last line up, but it was mentioned in context later over our post-match beers). Anne ran up with the first-aid kit I had the good sense to bring along and took over the Schwester duties. Being a woman (and knowing about such things) she was able to tell Michael how best to stop the blood flow, while I resumed my last few minutes duties on the line.

The final whistle sounded and the Union players looked crushed, losing 19-7, in what was a tighter game than the score suggests. It was a victory there for the taking and yet it got away from them. I walked back to see the fallen man and he popped up with two bandages in his nostrils looking for all like a couple of tampax, and he trotted off to the others to do the post-match face-off, feeling chuffed about surviving his first ‘serious’ rugby injury, his eye blackening slowly but not enough, as he would comment later, to give him street cred. Several team-mates subsequently offered to ‘improve’ it for him…

Michael Tampax

Michael bears the battle scars at the final whistle

Schwalbe put on a small feed for us and after a few beers it was time for me to resume my team duties and I ordered everyone back to the station to get our train home. Since we were taking a regional (on which drinking is allowed) drinking was suggested, drink was bought, drinking was done and, since we bought lots of cheap beer from Lidl, drinking continued outside the Hbf in Bremen for several hours after we arrived back and even the regular alcos and cider-punks who line the small green daily were disgusted at our drunken behaviour. Running out of beer finally, we surprised Maxi at his Schnoor Irish bar and stayed there until we had completely and utterly forgotten the dual pains of battle and result.

Endgame Hannover

The end of the game in Hannover

I checked Facebook this morning and saw Michael displaying his war wound like a kid with a new bike. Well done, that man. Bloodied, but not broken.

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Back in from the cold

Last winter I and about 15 others went through a three weekend rugby coaching course in Bremen organised by the IRB in Germany. Our IRB Educator for that time was Torsten Schippe.

Over the course of just nine days our small group was completely immersed in coaching techniques, methods and field exercises, and we left our last weekend much richer in the way we would approach the game, both as players and would-be coaches. That was the mark of Torsten, a teacher who listened to our ideas and then worked on our knowledge of the game to show how it could be used to train and improve players.

IRB coaching course 1

Torsten shows Richard the correct Loosehead scrum stance

Earlier this week I heard the surprising news that Torsten had been appointed the head coach of the national rugby team just last month. It was doubly surprising to hear that this is his second tenure having previously held that position in 2000-2001. Having played rugby for the German national team in the early 1990s, he progressed to coaching his former team, DSV 78 Hannover, before being appointed to his first stint as national coach (a position he held alongside his club duties). Despite some good results he was removed from this position for unknown reasons after only a short time in charge.

Politics exists in all sports so I won’t dwell on it.

IRB coaching course 2

Torsten demonstrates the scrum front row from the loosehed position

His latest arrival comes at a difficult time for the German national team. With five defeats in a row in their last five games (four of them heavy) they were relegated from the European Nations cup Division 1A. He has now to turn around a demoralised team in just over two months for their first two games in Division 1B against Poland and Holland in late November, and then for three more matches in March and April next year against the Czech Republic, Belgium, and Moldova respectively. It’s a grim task.

The games and results from this season were as follows:

Feb. 06, 2010: Georgia 77:3 Germany
Feb. 13, 2010: Romania 67:5 Germany
Feb. 27, 2010: Germany 0:69 Portugal
Mar. 13, 2010: Russia 48:11 Germany
Mar. 20, 2010: Germany 17:21 Spain

Pretty disastrous results in almost all respects.

Germany’s goal must surely be to regain promotion to the Division 1A and remain there, preferably for at least the next five years, thereby giving them the best chance at qualifying for Japan RWC 2015.

Torsten will have to prove his mettle at the helm with the autumn internationals in November. Some seriously good results will be needed to consolidate his position as coach, and it will be interesting to see if he and his coaching staff can achieve this and revitalise a German team that really should do better.

I’ll certainly be maintaining a close interest.

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The cynic’s dictionary: Part 1

Rugby: A game played on a rectangular field where the object is to chase a man with a ball who then dives to score a try.

Football: A game played on a rectangular field where the object is to chase a man with a ball who then dives to try to score.

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Sevens heaven

Purists revile it, but the game of sevens rugby has attracted a strong following, mainly due to its frenetic pace, simpler rules, and athletic image, making it a popular game in countries where even 15s has failed to take hold.

Its invention was not recent and was also partly accidental. In 1883, in Melrose, Scotland, two brothers had the idea to establish the game to enable a one-off, one-day tournament as a means to collect money for charity. Seven-player teams would compete for short intervals in a round-robin tournament of simplified rugby focussed more on an open-style of passing and kicking. It was an instant success, however, and became an established game in its own right becoming known as the ‘Borders game’ after the region in Scotland. Its spread to England (and beyond) rechristened it the ‘Scottish game’.

Sevens tournaments are now a common fixture of the rugby calendar with several high profile events such as the Hong Kong 7s, European Sevens (held in Hannover, Germany in 2008), and in Melrose FC, its birthplace. When the voice of rugby, Bill McLaren, retired from international commentary in 2002 he announced that he would commentate his last games at the Melrose 7s later that summer.

Rugby sevens has been especially successful in the south seas countries with Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga dominating at club and international levels. It has also been beneficial to countries keen to develop and promote rugby but lacking the resources for 15s rugby.

After a hiatus of 92 years rugby will return to the Olympics in 2016. In 1924 the game was last played at the Paris Olympics using Rugby Union laws, with the USA beating France in the final to win the gold medal. The (mostly French) supporters rioted after the final whistle, invaded the pitch and attempted to attack the US team, only being prevented by the French players with the aid of the police. The backlash from the IOC was severe and rugby was promptly banned from the list of Olympic sports. A sustained campaign by supporters finally saw the reintroduction of rugby to the olympic calendar in 2009. Rio de Janeiro, unusually, has been given the honour to be the first Olympic city to witness rugby in almost a century, and this time it will be rugby of the sevens variety that will be played.

Not bad for a game that was only meant to be played once.

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