…and it’s goodnight from him

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Esteemed readers! (both of you)

 

I have taken the decision to close down this blog, at least temporarily and perhaps permanently, as due to other interests and circumstances I will not have time to keep updating it to the standard I’d like.

 

If you so desire, you will still be able to catch my views on all things Falcons on the unoffy site Falconsrugby, and on Twitter.

 

Thanks for reading over the past few years. Take care, and see you at the Sevens in August!

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Saracens XV

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After the Edinburgh v Gloucester game on Friday night, BT Sport aired a half-hour show titled Saracens XV, following Sarries in the days leading up to their meeting with Harlequins at Wembley in March.

 

The show was fascinating, showing interviews with coaches Alex Sanderson and our own Joe Shaw, and several players, including David Strettle, Jamie George, Billy Vunipola and Alastair Hargreaves. Sanderson talked about building relationships with the players as individuals, Jacques Burger showed his family, and Petrus Du Plessis said that the family side of Saracens really helps the players give their all for the club.

 

Saracens have been condemned over the past five years for bringing in lots of South African players, signing lots of star players, allegedly breaking the salary cap etc., but whatever they’ve done, it has worked and they have consistently been one of the very top teams in England and Europe in recent seasons.

 

One European final, several semi-finals, this season’s LV= Cup and the 2011 Premiership title. In the last four years, they have been knocked out of the Heineken/Champions Cup by one of Saturday’s finalists, Toulon (in last year’s final) and Clermont Auvergne (the 2012 quarter-final, and the last four in 2013 and 2015).

 

You don’t become that successful by simply buying in mercenaries; you do it by blending talent with work ethic and team spirit. Talent, you can buy. Work ethic and team spirit, you cannot buy, it has to be created by the right people.

 

In training for the Harlequins game, captain Hargreaves is shown talking to the squad about the importance of sticking together during the match, trusting teammates and backing them up. Later, Chris Ashton talked about not wanting to let people down. That is a culture Saracens have built and it is something every club should aspire to.

 

Not everything that Sarries have done I have agreed with. Talking about playing a competitive home game in South Africa, playing one in Brussels, that’s taking the games away from the bread-and-butter fans. I don’t see the real benefit of them, but I guess Saracens must have done their research and planned how the Brussels game would benefit them.

 

The move to Barnet, from the sterile concrete tower of Vicarage Road, has helped give Saracens a real identity. The atmosphere for the Falcons’ visit there in February was fantastic. The ground has its drawbacks, for example the athletic track and the disjointed stands, but it’s a good day out, from what you expect (to get a beer and a pie quickly) to what you don’t (the Pioneers everywhere, who are very helpful and genuinely seem to be loving their part in the Saracens family).

 

The vibe I got from the interviews during Saracens XV, was of a group of players who genuinely enjoy what they are doing, genuinely love being part of Saracens, and genuinely want to be successful. Fantastic. I’d love to think that Dean Richards is bringing this kind of culture to the Falcons, and I think slowly it is coming together.

 

When the Falcons get to the point where they don’t even worry about the result, because they have 100% belief in what they are doing, 100% belief in every teammate, and 100% belief that they can attack superbly and defend resolutely, leaving nothing on the pitch, then the results will take care of themselves. It takes years to get there. But we can get there, and God willing we will get there.

 

By the way, Saracens beat Harlequins 42-14.

 

 

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Saturday afternoon in the bar

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I wrote this yesterday, so imagine it as Saturday afternoon:

 

This was supposed to be a blog about Italy v Ireland, but with my attention torn between a silent big screen, the sound blasts of arcade machines, the Falcons’ Twitter feed, and a pint of Budweiser, it turned into more of a “What’s going on in the big rugby games right now?” kind of article.

 

Right, so Eccles v Wigton was called off with one part of the pitch rock hard, the two-storey clubhouse apparently obscuring the sun from the grass. I had a feeling, as Mrs L and I arrived 35 minutes before kick-off and there was hardly anyone around bar a few cars and two blokes chatting.

 

I walked through the changing rooms and didn’t see or hear anyone. Neither Eccles nor Wigton’s Twitter accounts said anything about a postponement, but a gentleman opening the bar shutters explained that the game had been called off at 8am and why.

 

Nuggets.

 

Interestingly, Eccles RFC is off Junction 11 on the M60, on the opposite side to the AJ Bell Stadium, and we had seen some Sale scarves on our drive up towards Gorton Street. A quick check of the BBC Sport app showed that Sale v Scarlets kicked off at 2pm, so we thought about going to that game instead.

 

I also had a fleeting wonder whether Broughton Park might be at home, but even if they were we probably wouldn’t have time to get there.

 

About to hit the junction again, a decision had to be made and we decided to head to the Trafford Centre instead, where hopefully I could find a bar to watch Italy v Ireland before we headed to my boy Ant’s gaff in Chorlton. Finally ending up in a bar at the back of an arcade (a licence to print money if ever I saw one), the last few minutes of Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal were on the TVs.

 

We eventually got the rugby on twenty minutes into the game, finding Ireland 0-6 up thanks to two penalties from Ian Keatley.

 

A quick check of Twitter at 3.05pm shows that the Falcons’ U18 team are 8-25 down in the second half against Leicester at KP. The first team game in Reading remains scoreless.

 

London Irish have just scored a penalty, but on the plus side, Dan Marshall has scored for the juniors, who are now losing 13-25 with 25 minutes left. Continuing on the Falcons theme, I’ve just seen wor Josh Furno on the big screen for the first time today.

 

In Rome, Keatley has knocked over a third penalty for Ireland but with 75 seconds left until the break, Italy have a lineout on five metres. It’s thrown high to Furno and the maul collapses, Furno is in a bit of a scrap with Ireland’s Tommy O’Donnell but not sure what the decision is…Paul O’Connell doesn’t look happy as one of his teammates gets treatment…it’s an Italian penalty and Kelly Haimona, with an interesting combination of beard, short hair and a string ponytail, steps up to reduce his team’s deficit to six points as the two teams head into the tunnel.

 

Another penalty has been knocked over in Berkshire, and the senior Falcons are 6-0 down.

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So, to recap, I’m sat here in a bar deep in the bowels of the Trafford Centre, just metres away from Pizza Hut, where I had my first non-paperboy job in England way back in 2001. I didn’t like it much – the buses to get here were unreliable so I used to have to leave mega-early, the last bus would often be full so I’d have to spend a tenner on a taxi home (not too terrible I suppose as I could easily make £30 a night just in tips) and a lot of the staff didn’t like students.

 

In my second year, I switched to Oxford Street in Manchester city centre and there continued a story that led to me being in Regents Park one day in 2011 and meeting the now-Mrs Leipy.

 

Not sure I’ve ever had a beer in the Traff before, I’ve probably only been here two or three times for purposes other than graft, but this Budweiser is going down nicely. The blasting music having been turned down after the football isn’t unwelcome too.

 

Hoo, wor Carlo del Fava on the telly there! Can’t hear what he’s saying as the sound’s off.

 

Back in Falconland, the U18s are right back in the game with a converted try from Aidan Coulthard. It’s 20-25 at KP with seven to go.

 

Some highlights of Wales v England coming on now, excellent! I’m not sure if Leigh Halfpenny slipped as he turned to chase Mike Brown’s dribble for Anthony Watson’s try, but if so, it was a very costly one! Jonathan Joseph did so well to fight through the tackles for his try, and then that monster penalty from George Ford at the end – I doubt he will forget that as long as he lives!

 

Woo, the Falcons youngsters have scored a try… 25-25 as the conversion lines up…aw, it’s missed and the game ends in a draw. Cracking effort by the U18s though to come back from 8-25 down. Even better, Tom Catterick has converted Will Welch’s try for the first team and they are 6-7 up at the Madejski!

 

It gets better, Alesana Tuilagi is over and its 6-14! I see the Exiles had a player in the bin, which probably helped us.

 

Right, Ireland and Italy are back out in Rome and the talisman Paul O’Connell and Sergio Parisse are shown one after another.

 

Six minutes into the second half, haven’t seen much happening so far, but 130 Italian tackles to 58 by Ireland tells a story, amazingly the visitors still haven’t scored a try. Ireland looking dangerous off the scrum, the backs are hammering away and the inside centre is nearly at the line, but Italy have stolen it and looking to run their way out of trouble…looking hairy until finally the ball is booted towards halfway.

 

It’s through the Irish backs that a score is going to come here I think – just as I say that, it’s a classic ten-man rugby score as the forwards win a scrum penalty and Keatley knocks it over. 3-12 Ireland.

 

The #mightyfalcons are 6-14 up at half-time, excellent! Nothing game but good practice for Exeter next week.

 

Things are heating (my spellchecker doesn’t recognise hotting :-S) in Rome as home hooker Leonardo Ghiraldini, now known forever to me as ‘Joe Marler with much less hair), is sent to the bin, presumably as a team yellow card as his offside was way out on the touchline. Ireland have now forced their way over for the opening try and it’s 3-19. The favourites have surely opened their campaign with a win as the game has less than fifteen minutes left, more than half of which Italy will play with fourteen men.

 

It was Conor Murray with the try I see, scurrying over. Just a minute later, the aforementioned O’Donnell left the Italian defence in his wake with a storming run through the middle to touch down the second Oirish try. The conversion is again good (you don’t get many misses at this level – as I said last night, it’s a step above what we Geordies watch every week). 3-26 to Ireland, and ‘Joe Marler with much less hair’ still has five minutes in the bin.

 

Just dropping this in for no reason whatsoever, other than that I’m writing about the Falcons and Ireland – did you know that Mike McCarthy’s wife was on Dragon’s Den the other night? My brother went to school with her, that’s the only reason I know this fact, or apparent fact. Don’t know if she got any money though.

 

The second half is underway in at the Mad Jetski stadium and Irish have missed a penalty, but from an overthrown home lineout Ally Hogg has scored our lads’ third try! 6-19 to the Geordies, could it be our…sixth try bonus point in a row?

 

Just looking at some stats, the Falcons have scored tries in EVERY game this season, which is a revelation compared to 2013/14. Today is our 23rd competitive game this season and we have only scored one try in four of them (Northampton, Gloucester and Sale at home and Harlequins away).

 

Back in Rome, Ghiraldini is back on but with just over five minutes to go, it remains 3-26 and Ireland have the game won. Italy are attacking, looking for a consolation try.

 

With seventy seconds left, it looks like they may have got it in the left corner. Parisse chased a high ball but looks like he completely missed it, so it’s not a knock-on in my opinion and Haimona touched down. Try, surely!

 

Oh no, it’s been given as a knock-on from Parisse’s fingernails! Poor Italy!

 

No such problems in Reading apparently, it’s Ally Hogg again (apparently again, young Smithy’s Twitter feed says there is confusion over who scored the third try) and the Falcons have a sixth successive bonus point! Catterick’s conversion makes it 6-26, coincidentally just as the Ireland-Italy match finishes 3-26.

 

Just waiting for the good lady to return from shopping and then we can head off to Chorlton. Attendance at the Majestic Stadium is announced as 4,764, and Smithy reckons there are fewer than that there. Probably about what I expected for a dead game. The Falcons seem to be putting in a canny performance, shame there are probably about a dozen of our fans there to see it.

 

In case anyone’s interested, Sale beat Scarlets 38-3, so though that might have been a good game (don’t know), it doesn’t seem to have been overly competitive.

 

One final try by Jamie Helleur and it’s a five-try, 13-31 win for the Falcons! Fantastic stuff to lead into the Premiership run-in.

 

Right, off for a night out in Chorlton now, lock up your dogs as we are taking Woody and Luna out with us!

 

See you for Exeter next week (if the BBC guys can get the commentary working!).

 

 

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Under the Clock Chronicles: New thoughts on club v country

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Ahead of a three-hour journey back north on Sunday, I bought The Rugby Paper for the first time in, well, probably ever.

It’s a canny read, with plenty of analysis and opinion, which I like. However, I must take issue with Jeremy Guscott’s column on the upcoming England v New Zealand game, in light of the club v country argument that I have written about before.

Now I tend to be on the club side of the argument. Would I rather England won the World Cup or the Falcons won the Premiership? No need to even think about it. I’d rather the Falcons beat Cardiff this Friday than England won the World Cup next year.

I’ve mellowed a bit over the years, and I understand that it is ultimately good for the Falcons that we have players playing internationally, otherwise we will lose our best players, like we did with David Wilson and Mathew Tait. We can only hope that the same doesn’t happen with people like Mark Wilson, and Kieran Brookes’ selection shows that Stuart Lancaster and co are not against picking Falcons players.

I can see why some people go the other way though, their emotions are with England and that’s fine. Perhaps it’s easier when you support an amateur team who won’t lose players to England, or a club like Saracens who can live without their internationals for a few weeks because of their squad’s strength.

Where was I? Oh yes, Guscott’s column in The Rugby Paper.

He expresses concern that England won’t have had as much preparation time as the All Blacks. Sure, they won’t have had as much time to practice their systems and re-learn about each other, but the following sentence really baffled me: “Training does not replicate the intensity and emotion of a Test match, and there is no opposition on the training pitch as good as the All Blacks”. Well, obviously. However, I think this shows a big ignorance of the standard of club rugby.

Look at Toulon. They are an incredible side, and they would surely give the All Blacks an almighty game. Therefore, surely any Scarlets players selected to play against New Zealand in a few weeks’ time will have had a game of a similar standard recently.

Intensity and emotion? Never mind the Champions Cup, the Bath-Saracens Premiership game the other week was as intense as any international friendly (and that’s what the upcoming games are, lets not forget) I’ve ever seen, and many Six Nations games, with barely less emotion. Are we really saying that our win against Exeter last month didn’t have more intensity than an England training session, and didn’t benefit the likes of Brookes and the two Wilsons as they look to hit the international game?

I think in England, a country where the clubs and national team are run completely separately, there has to be a recognition from the union that they cannot and do not need to do everything, that the clubs can complement them.

I understand why England want to keep players the week before a test match to prevent injuries, but in some cases I’d imagine that playing for (for example) Leicester against Northampton in a top-of-the-table derby game would be perfect preparation for a match against New Zealand or France.

In another side-example, why do England need a ‘skills coach’? Do they really believe that the time the players spend with England (which we are always told is too short) is better spent practicing basic skills than running defensive drills, attack patterns and set plays with teammates they do not usually work alongside? If a player has been selected for England, presumably he can already pass, tackle etc. As well as he needs to, or at least to a standard that cannot be improved significantly in three weeks away with the national side. Unless I misunderstand the ‘skills’ part of Mike Catt’s job title.

Anyway, just some thoughts on an idle Tuesday lunchtime. Any comments or contradictions welcome.

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Under the Clock Chronicles – season so far

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With six games gone and the league taking a month’s break for cup outings, this seems a good time to take stock of what’s been going on since September began.

 

We have played Leicester, Wasps and London Welsh away, and London Irish, Northampton and Exeter at home. From that we have two wins and a losing bonus point, so nine points. I think if you reversed the London Irish and Exeter scores, then perhaps we have done pretty much as many will have expected since the start of the season, or at least dared to hope for.

 

Underneath the results, which leave us eleventh in the table but far closer to tenth and even fifth than bottom, we have been competitive in every game, and bar Juan Pablo Socino’s kicking off-day against Irish and a horrific first half hour against Northampton, we could well be sitting higher.

 

That false start against the champions and the end of the Wasps game, when we seemed to run out of steam a bit, have been the only times we haven’t really been competitive so far. The attacking style of play, led by the pace and trickery of Socino and Sinoti Sinoti, has been a revelation, and it’s actually fun to watch the Falcons in a way it rarely was last season.

 

Eight points ahead of London Welsh is perhaps more than we had hoped for at this stage, but then Welsh have been poor. Saturday at the Kassam was the first time in six games they have conceded below forty points this season, have scored just 47 points and conceded a massive 272 (we have the next-worst attack on 115, while the next-worst defence is Sale’s at 168). The Exiles’ points difference of minus 225, and they have nothing to show but a solitary try bonus point.

 

While we shouldn’t be complacent, if we continue to play as we have so far for most of the rest of the season, we shouldn’t have any relegation worries, even if Welsh do get it together by Christmas. I expect we will beat last season’s points total and challenge for tenth place if not ninth.

 

The key is to keep doing what has been working this season, and not fall back into the horrors of 2013/14.

 

So my summary of our first six games so far is – hit par, must keep improving.

 

 

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

It’s that time of the year again

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The season sure has crept up on us, on me anyway. I really don’t know where the summer has gone – it got lost somewhere in a haze of wedding planning and job searching, and one very drunken weekend in the Lakes where I nearly lost my right foot to a quad bike. Hence I haven’t posted much over the summer.

 

No time to worry about that now though, as tomorrow night the Falcons get their public pre-season underway at the stadium formerly known as the Reynolds Arena in Darlington. It’s time for the Premiership 7s, a tournament we have a decent record in having won it in 2011 and been runners-up the previous year.

 

This time our group opponents are Sale, Leicester and a team that will represent London Welsh. The Falcons, managed by Mark Laycock, have named a young squad that contains only two recognised first-teamers in Lee Smith and captain Tom Catterick. Other notable names include Brian Tuilagi, who has signed up to our academy and is from the same dynasty as our new signings Alex and Andy.

 

Sean Brown and Simon Hammersley will both be looking to push their claim for first team opportunities this season after both getting cup run-outs in 2013/14, while Ruki Tipuna’s injury may give Andy Davies a view to a bench spot come the start of the season.

 

I’ve been to the Northern Echo Arena before, back in 2003 when George Reynolds FC played Kidderminster in the stadium’s first competitive game. It was a nice ground, but reminded me a lot of the Madejski Stadium, just with different coloured seats. It’ll be interesting to see tomorrow night what, if anything, has changed, and what it’s like as a rugby ground.

 

Above all, it’ll be great to see some live rugby again after a couple of months off. Nine months of hope, despair, ecstacy, tension and terror begin here!

 

 

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)

Under the Clock Chronicles: #nottherealworldcup

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I can’t remember the last time I was so uninspired in the run-up to a football World Cup. Maybe it’s because I’m in the middle of planning a wedding and making sure I don’t return from our honeymoon unemployed.

 

However, that was before last night. First, wor lass got me to stick together the World Cup wallchart from the Metro and put it up on the spare room door. Then once I sat down for the last few minutes of preview and finally the opening game, Brazil v Croatia, I was well up for it. It was an interesting game, especially in the period when Croatia led, before Brazil’s sheer quality won through.

 

During the game I was following opinions on Twitter. As I follow a lot of rugby fans, I found plenty of good banter. Stuff like “Come on ref, that went out on the full”, “Why is he letting so many forward passes go?”, “England playing New Zealand on Sat morning and Italy on Sat night, Lancaster will need that strength in depth”, “Croatia deserve at least a losing bonus point” and my personal favourite: “Must have been a heck of a fight in the first half, both teams already down to 11 men!”

 

Oh, I forgot the contribution from a Bath fan: “Watching Brazil v Croatia is like watching Glawster RFC – both teams struggling to play anything resembling rugby.” I guess you could put a lot of teams’ names in there – the Falcons, certainly.

 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all fun and games. There were a few cynical posts, like “Football: 90 minutes of pretending to be injured. Rugby: 80 minutes of pretending not to be injured”, and all the talk of waiting for a dive. Well, the latter weren’t disappointed when Fred took a tumble for Brazil’s penalty, and my timeline reflected the cynics’ joy. They, like me, presumably also weren’t impressed by several Croatian defenders embarrassing themselves by surrounding the referee after he gave the penalty, as if they had ever once in their careers seen a referee change his mind under pressure.

 

My counter was: “I’m waiting for an eye gouge so Nigel Owens can run on and say ‘Come on lads, this isn’t rugby’”.

 

It reminded me of reading a blog on the Saracens v Northampton Premiership final last week, an absolutely superb game and top level sport at its very best. At least twice in the blog, the writer mentioned football – booing from fans was one cause. It might have been three times if he had noticed, as another tweeter had, that one of the Northampton players apparently made a TMO gesture at the referee after one of Saracens’ touchdowns. Sporting? Gentlemanly?

 

Then of course there was that punch on Tom Youngs by Silesi Ma’afuin the semi-final. The two players had banter about it on Twitter afterwards, and for many that seemed to make it alright. I agree that Youngs showed himself to be a top bloke with his reaction, but it was still a clear punch to the face. Can we accept that, as long as the assailant and victim later laugh about it on Twitter?

 

You don’t see that too often in the football Premier League. Nor do you see referees being pushed deliberately. When Paolo Di Canio pushed a referee back in the late nineties he was banned for twelve matches, twice as long as Kieran Brookes was this year.

 

Football has its problems – foul-mouthed fans and a minority of players diving. abusing referees and misbehaving in public – but rugby is not perfect. Dwarf-tossing, anybody? I have been watching football longer than rugby, and I have never met a football fan who carries a rugby ball-shaped Harry Ramsdens packet on his shoulder, but I’ve known plenty of people who are the other way around.

 

Is it really necessary? Can we not just live and let live, and if you don’t have anything nice to say, not say anything at all?

 

 

(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)