June 21, 2013
How much would you pay to see your side play in a Rugby World Cup final? © Getty Images
£715 for a World Cup final ticket in 2015. Don't say you weren't warned. Debbie Jevans, ER2015 chief executive, must think we were born yesterday - and have made bundles of money overnight.
Announcing this news two days before the first Lions Test looks like a cynical attempt to bury bad news. The assurance that tickets will still be available for £7 is utterly irrelevant, except probably to a handful of children in Milton Keynes, where the least attractive pool match will be played.
Regardless of Ms Jevans claim that she is "passionate about having those lower prices" that will apparently be subsidised by eye-watering prices for the final and other major matches, the situation has arisen from a string of cock-ups.
1. ER2015 agreed to an absurd £80 million ticketing guarantee to the IRB at the outset. No other potential host nation could come close to that figure.
2. The £80 million was agreed on the basis of selling around three million tickets, at a time when there was no arrangement to stage matches in venues big enough to accommodate such numbers. Assumptions must have been made on the availability of Wembley and Old Trafford, which were incorrect.
3. Consequently, when the venues were announced on May 2, 2013, the number of tickets had reduced to 2.6 million. Now, without explanation, it has dropped to 2.3 million. What has happened to 300,000 tickets?
4. Without being bailed out by Cardiff's willingness to host eight matches outside England, the situation would be considerably worse.
With ticket prices so astronomic, it is essential that a system of exchanging them legally during the knock-out stages of the tournament is put in place. There is no mention of such a scheme. Working from the Olympic ticketing model simply won't suffice for a knock-out tournament. All the talk of eliminating touts will come to nothing if fans are stuck with the wrong tickets for quarter-finals and semi-finals, as is bound to happen with pool results unknown.
Anyone stuck with a £715 ticket for a final that his team doesn't reach should be excused for wanting to sell it. In Sydney, after the semi-finals in 2003, the streets were awash with New Zealanders offloading final tickets, all gratefully taken up by English and Australians. Technically, that wasn't allowed, but a World Cup final watched by corporates and disinterested neutrals would be scandalous.
June 19, 2013
Wales ... or rather Wales B ... look dejected after losing to Japan © Getty Images
In eight international matches played to date this month by the four home nations, 31 players have made their debuts. Squads of B-list players under the tutorship of interim coaches have travelled the world, mostly playing tier two nations.
Hidden by the vast shadow of the Lions tour to Australia, these low-profile internationals perform a valuable function in terms of development. With the 2015 Rugby World Cup looming, all four unions will have learned something about their youngsters and, crucially, discovered whether they have strength in depth.
England's second string beat Argentina twice without being severely tested, because Argentina, in turn, fielded a team lacking its French-based first choice players. Stuart Lancaster took stop-gap coaches while Messrs Farrell and Rowntree worked with the Lions and, appropriately enough, the BBC sent its B-list summarisers to accompany Eddie Butler. A development opportunity for everyone, and wasn't Andy Robinson a breath of fresh air? Full of insight and constructive comment, pleasantly lacking the ref-bashing rants BBC viewers have endured for several years.
Scotland's defeats to Samoa and South Africa saw nine new caps and a string of injuries, while Ireland left USA and Canada feeling lucky to have notched two wins.
Wales, the most depleted by Lions calls, suffered ignominy in Japan, if anyone takes these results seriously. Which is the point, because no-one really does. All these matches mean nothing in the context of this year's Six Nations or next year's. They mean nothing in terms of where any nation stands in the world order of rugby because there were so many absentees and other mitigating factors. As a result they mean little or nothing to the public.
Yet, in terms of international cap accumulation, running on as a replacement for Ireland in Toronto last weekend carries the same weight as being in Wales' Six Nations winning team or taking on the Wallabies in Brisbane this weekend. The currency of international appearances, already battered by the introduction of more and more replacements, is further devalued by the pretence that this summer's tours are anything like the real thing.
Recognition as a full international should come when both nations field their strongest team, with injury or suspension being the only factors preventing a player's selection. These tours, while undeniably valuable development, should be classed as nothing more than that.
The 31 players newly capped this month will be proud of their achievement, but deep down they, their families and their friends know that they are not proper internationals until they are picked when everybody is available.
June 14, 2013
Are Lions fans getting a raw deal? © Getty Images
In my provincial market town is an old-fashioned cinema, modest in every way and lacking the high-tech equipment of the big city movie centres. Sweets and soft drinks are available at the same window as the tickets. Our box office manager/confectioner morphs into a projectionist at show time. The people watch a film, then leave. It is quite possible to be in the building for three minutes longer than a film and miss nothing. Locals love it for it's simplicity and convenience, and tolerate the iffy sound quality.
Half an hour's drive away is a modern cinema. To watch a film, you first have to negotiate a one-way system, a multi-storey car park, walk through a shopping centre, buy extortionate tickets, avoid rip-off popcorn and drinks, watch endless adverts for things you don't want and trailers for films you would never watch, while being deafened by a sound system that you only wish was iffy. When the film starts 40 minutes later than advertised, mild grumpiness is understandable.
The rugby world is currently stuck watching the trailers. So exhausting has the preamble been, however, that viewers could be excused if they just gave up and went home. The Lions fanfare, already a year long, is falling flat because the sponsors and brand pedlars driving the event failed to ensure there would be worthwhile rugby to watch outside the Tests.
The rugby is the one thing the money men currently can't control, but like the cinema film, it's the only thing the public are interested in and, so far, it's been rubbish. Yes, the match against Queensland Reds was competitive. Fantastic in the context of the other three games, but we are surely clutching at straws. Tours of old had their soft games, but those were tours of 22-30 matches that had time for a bit of everything in the amateur days.
We have players who describe tour selection as the pinnacle of their careers playing against patchwork teams of amateurs and apprentices who might have a more even contest if they played against the Lions' supporters instead. If selection is the pinnacle, it is a scandal that some of the players will return from the tour not having played against any team better than Bedford, with due respect to Bedford.
The reasons for such woeful spectacles of warm up matches are well rehearsed, but after so much hype, such extended, sponsor driven build-up and the Herculean efforts of the players just to get on the tour, it's easy to wonder if it's all worth it and if Australia is worthy of hosting Lions tours. After all, the World Cup is rugby's main event.
Much of this will be forgotten if we witness a blockbuster Test series with the Lions winning the final game and the series by a point after a Campese-style cock-up from whoever wears Quade Cooper's shirt.
But it should be remembered when planning future tours and the hosts, who make a fortune from these tours, should be contractually obliged to provide respectable opponents for the players and something worth watching for the rest of us. If they can't provide local opposition, they should hire it from, for example, the Pacific island nations.
The main event had better be worth the long wait.
June 6, 2013
Brian O'Driscoll spearheaded the Lions' victory over the Western Force on Wednesday © Getty Images
For years the sporting world has looked Australia's way for excellence. At times those glances became envious when Australia was at or near the top of the pile in both forms of rugby, cricket, hockey, swimming, tennis, sailing, to name a few.
In 2000 Sydney hosted what were, for just under 12 years, universally regarded as the best Olympic games ever. When English children wanted to be John Eales, Adam Gilchrist, Kathy Freeman or Ian Thorpe, it was almost understandable, if hard to excuse.
English sports fans who have regular contact with Australians have been accustomed to mockery and bombastic, domineering statements since the dawn of electronic communication, and some time before then. That's all stopped now, replaced by apologetic and self-flagellatory mutterings and gloomy predictions for all that lies ahead.
We English should be loving it, and many certainly are taking the frequent opportunities to repay some of the 'banter' we have endured in the last 25 years. Surely it's wrong to feel sympathy for our Australian cousins, yet they come across as bereft, being unaccustomed to such widespread sporting mediocrity.
In Perth on Wednesday, Western Force conceded more points on a rugby field (69) than Australia's cricketers scored runs the previous day (65). They have excuses, but when were excuses an integral part of the Aussie sporting psyche? Both matches were warm-ups for bigger events, but Australians don't play friendlies at any level.
The Socceroos are shadows of their recent selves, tennis players don't get near the second week of a Grand Slam tournament and, last heard, Mark Webber was moaning about all things concerning the Monaco Grand Prix.
When Chinese and South Korean badminton players were sent home from London 2012 for not trying, some wags suggested double standards were at work while the Australian team was allowed to stay. The word toxic was used about the culture of the swimming team, just as it was by Quade Cooper about the Wallaby squad he is, absurdly, no longer part of.
In the year of a Lions tour and back-to-back Ashes series, British and Irish sports fans look to be in for a spell of domination like never before, but it's an uneasy feeling; there must be more to Australian sport than we are currently seeing.
The Lions can only play the opposition put in front of them. They did the job in Perth, and are not to blame that it was as dreary to watch as the Hong Kong exercise. If Saturday's match in Queensland doesn't provide a stiffer test, questions should be asked about the value and status of Lions tours, for while host countries can't or won't provide respectable opposition prior to the Tests, it's not so much an honour as a chore for players and spectators alike.
Robbie Deans' witterings about the Lions 'getting a bit attitude' from Western Force and being taken apart 'limb by limb' sound desperate and hollow now. It's time for Australia to show some substance, some pride, some backbone, all those characteristics we used to fear and, quietly, admire.
June 2, 2013
Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips races away to score a try against the Barbarians in Hong Kong © Getty Images
If you dread an event badly enough and for long enough, (a gathering of the global extensions of the in-laws for instance) the reality, when it comes, is often far less ghastly than anticipated.
Conversely, when something as over-hyped as this Lions tour has been for so long finally hatches into real men in red shirts playing rugby, it can feel like something of a damp squib.
So it was on Saturday as the tour finally got underway in what must have been a sponsor-driven, fairly useless curtain-raiser in Hong Kong.
International cricket teams touring England used to start with a glorified net against Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk's XI at Arundel Castle. The Duchess considerately selected a gaggle of has-beens and never-will-bes intended to offer little resistance to the visitors (though they beat the 1981 Australians), money was raised for charity and lashings of Pimm's consumed. Quaint, but irrelevant.
What we learned from this weekend's Hong Kong stopover was no more telling than Kepler Wessels bowling a maiden over for Australia against the Duchess's XI in 1985.
It was hot and humid, the Barbarians concept doesn't work in the professional era, Jamie Roberts is good, Owen Farrell is a petulant brat and Joe Rokocoko is still one of the best. Nothing new there.
What we did learn is that to wag a finger at an opponent before swallow-diving in for a try is absolutely fine if you are Mike Phillips, but two wholly unnacceptable, disrespectful examples of how rugby is nose-diving into the darkest recesses of football's behavioural cesspit if your name is Armitage or Ashton. Good thing Rokocoko hasn't attended the Brian Moore school of 'chinning'.
And for all the column miles that have been written about the Lions' essential absence of national identity in favour of the ultimate team ethic, TV viewers in the UK were subjected to the normally steadfast Stuart Barnes banging on incessantly about how well Wales were doing.
Indeed they were, against scratch opponents who also took a pasting from England's second string a week earlier. The real business of the tour can't come soon enough.
May 29, 2013
There's just no getting over the fact that his name will keep being mentioned ... © Getty Images
The long weekend prompted the barmy suggestion to predict the Lions starting XV for the third Test in Sydney on July 6.
The Crooked Feed habitually scoffs at endless media pre-selections which are based on form snapshots and often taken far too seriously by self-styled selectors and readers alike.
What follows is not a selection, more a series of guesses as to which players will be a/ not injured, b/ in form and c/ in favour with Gatland in six weeks time. Further, it is the work of a committee of three who acknowledge that committees, in general, don't work.
Rationale - Lydiate will break down so the flankers pick themselves. Heaslip will get injured , Ben Morgan will have played blinders for England on tour and get drafted in and then - on form- selected as No.8 for the Test side by the last game. O'Connell will provide the bulk and Parling will run the line out. With 'old' second rows we'll see Stevens on as the most mobile prop. Jones is a certainty and Best the best hooker. Cole and Tom Youngs on the bench.
Ben Youngs is the best scrum half. Sexton will be a playmaker relying on Halfpenny to kick.
Injuries will bring Wilkinson on tour. He will be on the subs bench and will come on to win the game.
We'd be interested to see your predictions for the third Test.
May 21, 2013
Delon Armitage dives over for Toulon's try in the Heineken Cup final © Getty Images
Delon Armitage has shown himself to be an impulsive clown on many occasions, most recently by waving at an opponent in the Heineken Cup final. Unfortunately for him, Armitage has enemies with keyboards just waiting to pounce.
Brian Moore, one-time master of winding up opponents, advocated violence as his response of choice. Which is obviously far more acceptable than a cheeky little wave.
Armitage's wave was unnecessary and very easy to spot as he approached the try line. Moore, who condemns the hypocrisy of others countless times in the 's*** book' at which Armitage later had a rather feeble pop, had the luxury of close-quarter encounters to bait his opponents, unseen by the cameras.
Moore's playing career is littered with tales of violent conflict, sometimes without obvious cause. Just read the 's*** book' for examples, the 1989 Lions tour and the 1992 France v England match to name a couple. Whiter than white, Brian? Probably not.
As a player, Moore loved to get under the skin of his opponents. Now, almost 20 years after retirement, he's still at it, provoking Armitage to a furious reaction.
One of the enduring mysteries of rugby union is the thugs/gentlemen relationship. The violence frequently dished out during Moore's time, and to a lesser degree now, was often pre-meditated, dangerous and yet considered an acceptable part of a contact sport. A mildly disrespectful raising of one hand, however, is seriously bad.
The 's*** book' is actually a damned good read, but the carping about others' hypocrisy looks a bit thin now.
May 15, 2013
Not convinced by all the 'Jonny Wilkinson won't go on the Lions tour' talk? Not fooled by the selection of only two fly halves in the party?
Neither are the bookmakers.
One leading bookmaker has Wilkinson at odds of 10/11 to be in the match day 23 for any of the Lions Tests. More than that, England's 2003 World Cup winner is 9/4 to score a drop goal in a Lions Test.
For a player who was unavailable for selection, probably needs surgery during the summer and says his body requires "day-to-day management", these odds suggest that that bookmaker knows something that many suspect.
Right now Australians are sniggering into their schooners of fizzy beer as Owen Farrell's game has disintegrated before he was even measured up for his tour kit.
But Aussies fear winners. They will stop laughing if Jonny turns up with his boots in late June, as seems increasingly likely.
May 9, 2013
Jonny May could get his chance to shine in Argentina © Getty Images
About 124 weeks from now is the day of reckoning. England will play Wales in the World Cup Pool A match at Twickenham. With due respect to everything that passes between now and then, September 26 2015 must be the focal point of everything Stuart Lancaster and England do.
A daft seeding system means that one of England, Wales and Australia will be eliminated at the pool stage of the World Cup. Meanwhile, a quarter final is all but guaranteed for Samoa or Scotland in Pool B. Goldfish could devise a better system, but that's another story.
Lancaster's decision to use the upcoming Argentina tour for development is excellent, and not only because he's taking a handful of wings that will put Chris Ashton's recent performances into perspective. This summer is his chance to steal a march on Wales and Australia while they concentrate on the shorter term issues presented by the Lions tour.
Whatever disappointment some players felt when omitted by the Celtic-eyed Gatland, if England beat Wales and Australia to win Pool A in 2015 on the way to something special, they won't care about the Lions. There are enough England players and coaches on the Lions trip to examine Gatland's methods, Wales' players and, to a lesser degree, Australia. Good homework.
Simultaneously, key men like Robshaw, Care and Flood are resting (subject to Lions injuries) while Lancaster grooms England's puppies in Argentina.
England are well placed to prepare thoroughly for the biggest event of their careers. Had things gone differently in Cardiff at the end of the Six Nations, Lions selection and the current picture would be very different. For now, however, it is coming together like a plan.
Wales lost narrowly, but repeatedly, in Australia last summer. If they win this summer with a few ringers from the other home nations, I hope they remember who to thank.
May 7, 2013
Tom Arscott crosses for London Welsh in the final match of their season © Getty Images
Before we get wrapped up in the Aviva Premiership play-offs, spare a thought for London Welsh. Relegated after one season blighted by harsh treatment, employee fraud and bad luck, Welsh managed to retain their dignity and give a good account of themselves on the field.
The odds of survival were stacked heavily against them from the start. Their playing budget was dwarfed by other Premiership clubs and they had only a few weeks to recruit a squad after legal prevarication delayed confirmation of their promotion.
Their final match at their temporary home in Oxford, a 33-22 win over Worcester, saw the players show the fighting spirit expressed by everyone involved at London Welsh over the past year.
Players and backroom staff are leaving out of necessity, CEO Tony Copsey's short tenure didn't stretch to the end of the season and their major financial backer, Kelvin Bryon, recently reached the end of his tether. Deducted five league points by an RFU panel for the Mike Scott fraud event over the registration of scrum-half Tyson Keats, there was nothing left to smile about.
Lyn Jones' nomination for Director of Rugby of the Year speaks volumes for what has been achieved on a financial shoestring. Among the many strengths the Aviva Premiership boasts is the relative parity of the teams; any team can beat any other on their day. Welsh achieved five wins (and seven defeats narrow enough to earn them a losing bonus point) despite the inequitable distribution of funding among the clubs. Short of ending promotion and relegation altogether, the Premiership is about as closed as a shop can be. There are lessons to be learned.
Injustices and unfair financial arrangements aside, London Welsh should be congratulated on punching above their weight in the Premiership. They kept smiling when it seemed impossible, and though it is hard to see them getting back to the top flight any time soon, there are surely enough guts and spirit in the club for them not to slide into oblivion as Orrell has.