Posts Tagged ‘London’

Outsiders and insiders

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I HAVE just returned from London, where I looked in vain for some evidence of excitement building up for the Rugby World Cup.

Understandably, I guess, it has been eclipsed by Thursday’s general election, which will be as closely fought as the play-offs between the world’s top rugby teams are likely to be in a few months’ time.

The latest polls show the Conservatives and Labour neck and neck, with the third most popular party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), at 12%. UKIP, with its narrow definition of Britishness and its anti-immigrant stance, has to constantly fend off accusations of racism.

For instance, they have just had to ditch one of their prospective MPs, Robert Blay, for threatening to put “a bullet between the eyes” of his Conservative opponent if he ever became prime minister. Ranil Jayawardene, said Blay, was “not British enough to be in our parliament” because his father was born in Sri Lanka.

We are not the only country struggling with xenophobia. Between the dodgier elements of UKIP and an ongoing demonisation of immigrants in the right-wing media, those perceived as outsiders might not feel too welcome in Britain either.

Unless they happen to be rugby players. The inaugural European Champions Cup, which replaced the Heineken Cup, has intensified the competition between French and English clubs and some of the latter are campaigning to be allowed to spend more on recruitment, which means more players from the rugby-rich southern hemisphere.

In another closely fought contest, Toulon last Saturday beat Clermont to take the European crown for the third time in a row. Toulon are the game-changers in European rugby. Their continued ascendance has rattled the English clubs.

Toulon owner Mourad Boudjelellal has the money to buy the best players from all over the world. The English clubs, though, have a salary cap of £5m. The Saracens have been accused of breaching this cap, a charge they vigorously deny. However, the owner of Saracens, Nigel Wray, is quoted as saying the salary cap “does not allow us to compete on a level playing field with teams in Europe”.

However, as Robert Kitson points out in the Guardian, it is not simply unlimited funds that make Toulon impregnable.

“The collective desire to deliver a suitably grand send-off for their three soon-to-retire heavyweights, Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman — the trio’s names were even stitched into the inside of the team’s jerseys” — helped to give Toulon the edge on Saturday.

“Toulon may have loads of money but the French champions also have the good sense to sign committed people rather than mercenaries … it is Toulon’s can-do attitude towards recruitment that is taking them to places others cannot reach.”

Outsiders can become insiders then, given the right attitude by the hosts.

The looming Rugby World Cup gives the Us and Them question a new impetus.

Toulon player Steffon Armitage is the subject of hot debate. Britain’s Rugby Football Union stipulates that, in order to be considered for the England squad, a player must play in the Aviva Premiership. Exceptions are permitted, though, and one would have thought Armitage’s talents would have had England coach Stuart Lancaster calling.

Apparently, Lancaster is afraid introducing an outsider — even a British one — would upset his current team.

Pragmatic Australia have no such qualms. The Australian Rugby Union has amended its RWC eligibility rules in time to give another Toulon veteran a shot at inclusion. Matt Giteau might get another chance to play for his country. When he left Australia for France, the rules were that foreign-based players were no longer eligible to play for the Wallabies. The new rules allow players with over 60 Test caps and at least seven years with Australian rugby into the squad.

We too have changed our rules since Heyneke Meyer became coach. The fact that the RWC will be played in the UK means players accustomed to northern hemisphere conditions will have an edge. That includes another Toulon player, Bryan Habana. Described last week in the London Sunday Times as “still quick but not lightning anymore and he spends too much time moaning”, Habana is nevertheless guaranteed a spot in the Springbok squad.

Meantime, World Rugby is under pressure to review its rule that allows foreign players to qualify for a national squad if they have lived in their host country for three consecutive years and have not been capped at A level in their country of birth. Rory Kockott qualifies to play for France under this rule.

I hope they review it. I think it takes the expediency of professionalism a bit too far. Rugby World Cups bring out the visceral patriotism in most of us and we ought to be allowed to indulge it once every four years, safe in the knowledge that every player in our team is indeed one of us.

 

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I HAVE just returned from London, where I looked in vain for some evidence of excitement building up for the Rugby World Cup. Understandably, I guess, it has been eclipsed by Thursday’s general election, which will be as closely fought as the play-offs between the world’s top rugby teams are likely to be in a […]

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Springboks have a good chance of winning RWC2015

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The backdrop for the first big marketing push for the 2015 Rugby World Cup – at the Springbok museum at Cape Town’s Waterfront earlier this week – was a pair of mock Beefeaters, a cardboard cut-out of Big Ben and plates of bangers and mash. In contrast to these twee symbols of Little England was the soundtrack: London’s Calling by the seventies punk group, The Clash. Despite its grim warnings of nuclear holocaust and environmental devastation, it offered one of the more compelling reasons for South Africans to fork out their rapidly weakening rands to accompany the Springboks to Britain next September.

Firstly, because there is a good chance that they might be able to bask in the glory of a triumphant home team, aligned with the conquering heroes of the day in one of the most competitive and challenging cities in the world.

And secondly, because it is such a stimulating place to be. One in four Londoners was born outside Britain.  Successive waves of migrants – the latest being East Europeans – make this city a great example of successful multi-culturalism.  London Calling is about looking outward, rather than inward. It is a good example to South Africans, so obsessively preoccupied with our own issues.  A few weeks in London will put our problems in perspective: they are pretty similar to those of many other countries and we are doing as well as any in dealing with them.

I’m optimistic about our chances of winning mainly because of Heyneke Meyer’s single-minded focus, his attention to detail and the fact that he knows how to win which, in the end, is all that counts. I’ve watched how, over the past couple of years, he has identified problems and then, quietly and effectively, dealt with them. In the first year, the weakness was in the breakdown so he tracked down the leading breakdown expert – Scotland’s Richie Gray – to sort it out. Last year, he brought back Bakkies Botha – and now Victor Matfield – to counter the inexperience  in the second row. Pieter Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth are hugely talented but still very young.  And Etzebeth’s towering presence at the Springbok museum the other day testified to the need for depth:  he expressed his deep frustration at being unable to join his Stormers team-mates in Australia because of a broken bone in his foot. Du Toit, meanwhile, has succumbed to a season-ending injury.

Meyer appears to be reassembling the winning 2007 RWC squad: Jean de Villiers, Matfield, Botha, Jaque Fourie, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, JP Pietersen, Bismarck du Plessis.  He knows that, under the intense pressure of a World Cup, experience and tried and tested on-field combinations – team-mates with long histories of playing together – make the difference.  He has had to resist constant public and media pressure to co-opt every bright young spark who lights up the latest Currie Cup or Super Rugby campaign – the Lions’ fly-half, Marnitz Boshoff being the most recent.  It is over many seasons that a player’s mettle is tested and he becomes sufficiently battle-hardened to take on the biggest challenge of all.

 

At the moment, we are second in the International Rugby Board’s global rankings, which means our pool games should be a walk in the park.

The first is against Japan in Brighton; then we take on Samoa in Birmingham, followed by Scotland in Newcastle. From then on, it’s all in London. Where it gets interesting is the quarter finals at Twickenham where are likely to face either England, with its home ground advantage, or Australia, the team which bounced us out of the last Rugby World Cup.

If we get through the quarters unscathed – and there is every chance we will given our recent record against both these teams –  we are likely to come up against the All Blacks, current world champions, in the semi-finals. If we manage to beat them, we are home and dry for the finals.  This year’s two Rugby Championship games against the All Blacks are critical: we need to be able to show we are capable of consistently beating them.

I’d advise anyone with a bit of spare cash to consider booking a ticket to London next year: the advantage of the packages now on offer courtesy of a SARU joint venture with a travel company is that you are guaranteed tickets to games. But, starting at R16,700 for just a flight and tickets to two games: the opening game – England against Oceania – and our first game against Japan, they are quite steep. If you can get a ticket through your rugby club next month or when sales open to the general public this September, the cheapest seat will cost you only 20 pounds.

Tickets to the quarters and semi-finals are likely to be much harder to come by so, if that is what you are aiming for, it might be worth considering a package.

Throw in the fact that September and October are Britain’s most pleasant months and there is every reason to heed the call from London.

This column first appeared in Business Day

McGregor is author of Springbok Factory: What it Takes to be a Bok

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The backdrop for the first big marketing push for the 2015 Rugby World Cup – at the Springbok museum at Cape Town’s Waterfront earlier this week – was a pair of mock Beefeaters, a cardboard cut-out of Big Ben and plates of bangers and mash. In contrast to these twee symbols of Little England was […]

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We should be playing in Paris, not Perth

News | Non Fiction | South Africa 2 Comments

As our oldest rugby competition, the Currie Cup, reached its climax, tentative steps were being taken towards a brand new one. The broadcast contracts which tie us into the rugby existing menu expire at the end of 2015. A new deal needs to be hammered out, ideally by the end of this year so that work can then start on scheduling early next year.  But it is all still up for grabs, with much furious negotiating under way. One of the options on the table is to renegotiate the deal with our SANZAR partners, Australia and New Zealand. The other is to look north instead where English and French clubs are breaking away to launch a new pan-European championship and would love to add South African teams to the mix.

The advantage of sticking with SANZAR is that it is a known quantity:  we know all the teams involved and what to expect. And it undoubtedly sharpens our skills to play regularly against the world’s top players.

The list of cons is much longer. First is unfairness: South Africa contributes 68% of TV viewers but the vote is split three ways, exacerbated by the fact that Australia and New Zealand tend to gang up together. An example is the whopping great fine – R235,000 – imposed on the Stormers  earlier this year when some of their team members allegedly dissed the ref.  Graham Henry goes on to publicly and indisputably criticize refs and TMOs not once but twice and gets off scot-free.

CEOs of Super Rugby franchises here talk about the additional travel burden imposed on South African teams – the 5-week long tours, 17-hour flights and debilitating jetlag.   TV scheduling suffers from the extreme time difference: how many people can watch a game at 9.35 on a Friday morning? Players hate the protracted Super Rugby schedule, which now drags on from February through to August, interrupted by the June Test window.

Flights are not only very long but also expensive which inhibits the number of travelling fans, as does the limited charms of New Zealand and Australia. A once in a lifetime visit to each is quite enough.

Above all, though, there is a feeling that we need something fresh. The Rugby Championships must stay so that we get to pit our wits against the All Blacks and the Wallabies twice a year but Super Rugby has had its day.

 

Seismic shifts in European rugby have opened up new horizons.  French and English clubs, which operate their own independent domestic leagues, have announced their intention to quit the Heineken Cup because they feel they are disadvantaged by the distribution of tournament revenues and the qualification process.

From next year, England’s Premiership Rugby and France’s Ligue Nationale de Rugby plan to create a new tournament called the Rugby Champions Cup. They would like clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales to join.

And they are particularly keen on South African franchises becoming part of the competition in 2016, when they are free to do so.

The challenges in taking the northern option are sizeable: any new competition would mean getting our heads around a different rugby season. The competition might well have to be played over December and January so as not to clash with the Six Nations.  Qualification to take part might also be an issue: would such a competition be able to accommodate all six of our franchises, given that the Southern Kings must now be included?

But the advantages are numerous: overnight flights for players so that they could nip over for a weekend for games.  Similar time zones mean no jet lag and optimum TV viewing times for all parties.

And, potentially a lot more money.  Now, SuperSport here; Fox in Australia and Sky in New Zealand enjoy monopolies: rugby must take what it is offered.  In Europe,  it is far more competitive,  with a much bigger pool of broadcasters competing for rights, which will inevitably drive up revenue.  Much richer economies should yield more generous sponsorship fees.

Cheaper, shorter flights and closer cultural ties might well swell the ranks of travelling fans.  Not to mention the many South African players now playing for French and English clubs, another major plus.

And it is new and different, which makes it exciting: imagine the Bulls squaring up to their old team-mate, Bakkies Botha, at Toulon?  The Stormers taking on Bath, whose captain is their old team-mate, Francois Louw?  The Sharks against Clermont? The chance to share new experiences – of different approaches to the game and different team cultures?  And how much more interesting to go regularly  to Paris, London or Toulon, after years and years of Auckland and Sydney?

It seems to me a no-brainer, all things being equal.

 

**This column first appeared in Business Day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As our oldest rugby competition, the Currie Cup, reached its climax, tentative steps were being taken towards a brand new one. The broadcast contracts which tie us into the rugby existing menu expire at the end of 2015. A new deal needs to be hammered out, ideally by the end of this year so that […]

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