Rugby union

The truth about rugby is hard to admit for fans like me

The Six Nations begins today, bringing joy into the hearts of millions of rugby fans. It will, as ever, be a predictably unpredictable tournament – there are always upsets – which will showcase great athletic skill, close teamwork and raw physical courage; and like the first snowdrops, it is one of those reliable harbingers of spring guaranteed to lighten the gloom of cheerless February days. But this year, hovering in the background, is a spectre at the feast; the fast-accumulating evidence that rugby is a danger to the players’ health and well-being. The truth is that many rugby spectators, who love the game, end up feeling guilty. Celebrating a huge

A tale of two Englands

At the same time as England’s rugby union players delivered a magnificent hearts-of-oak performance to humble a very good Irish side in Dublin, England’s cricketers were giving a very passable impression of what happens to a pile of balsa wood when stamped on by an elephant. What happens next — especially looking ahead to the rugby and cricket World Cups later this year — is fascinating. The remaining Six Nations matches will show us whether Eddie Jones’s England, with the formidable help of the returning Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi, will go to Japan at the end of the year as a supreme force. I think they will. As my

Death hovers over the scrum

Rugby’s autumn internationals are almost upon us and dark thoughts hover over lovers of the sport. One day soon a professional rugby player will die playing the game. The players are fitter, bigger, stronger, faster and too powerful and it is no longer a 15-man game. It is a 23-man game: more than half the team gets replaced so the intensity and impact never subsides. Rule changes around the breakdown to encourage attack have had the opposite effect, meaning that defences line up across the pitch, no space is created and every game is 80 minutes of unsustainable collisions. Seasons go on longer, players get no rest and they keep

Three cheers for rugby’s Italian loophole

A friend was at Twickenham on Sunday sitting not far from the Italian coaching top brass, Conor O’Shea and Mike Catt. After an early tackle, and no ruck being formed, the Italian players ran to take up space in front of the England backs, blocking their attacking options. ‘That’s offside,’ shouted my friend. Catt, who knew her, glanced up. ‘No it’s not,’ he smiled gleefully. And it wasn’t. As the world now knows, the Italians had found a loophole — there couldn’t be an offside after a tackle once neither side formed a ruck. There cannot be many people who care for rugby and applaud the underdog who didn’t secretly

Unimpressed by the Root cause

Those who occupy them sometimes say that the only two jobs that matter in England are Chief of the Defence Staff and editor of the Times. Others argue for Prime Minister or England’s cricket captain. Either way, a shoo-in is not the way to get the right person. Remember Gordon Brown? Despite the best efforts of some of us to get Alan Johnson or even David Miliband to have a pop, in the end Brown took over as uncontested Labour leader and unelected Prime Minister. That went well, didn’t it? Now a similar din is building up for Joe Root to take over from Alastair Cook. I am not quite

Abandon dope, all ye who enter here

The World Anti-Doping Agency has just called on Russia to confront its wrongdoing and generally shape up. Well, good luck with that boys. The great and good of Wada would be better advised to visit a sharp and troubling new play at the Park Theatre in London. It’s called Deny Deny Deny (standard advice to athletes accused of doping before they come up with some hitherto unknown medical condition) and is by a former TV journalist, Jonathan Maitland. It tells of a young star athlete called Eve (Garden of Eden anyone?) who as she aims for Olympic gold falls under the influence of a ferocious female coach who persuades her

This looks like the greatest rugby side ever

British Lions fans of anervous disposition should avoid the telly of a Saturday morning. Live before your very eyes, as the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship unfolds, is the rebirth of an extraordinary new All Blacks side, now without Carter, McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and all. And, scarily, evenbetter than that World Cup-winning side. Warren Gatland, be very afraid. Our own Maro Itoje, the Saracens and England lock, wins every game he plays. The All Blacks win every game they play. How many players eligible for the Lions would get into the current Kiwi starting XV? Probably just Itoje. And how many from the rest of the world would get in? Again,

Blessed are the goalscorers

‘I am grateful to the gaffer for the opportunity and to God for letting me score,’ said Daniel Sturridge after his last-minute winner for England against Wales in Euro 2016 last week, a goal that certainly made me seriously question the Man Upstairs: I had invested quite heavily in the draw. What an enviable feast of attacking options Roy Hodgson has available at his fingertips for that tricky meeting in the round of 16 on Monday: Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, Sturridge himself, of course, and God. Not to mention Wayne Rooney, who is better used in a deeper role, but could be pressed into service up

Barometer | 22 June 2016

Big game hunt Wales beat Russia 3–0 to finish above England in their group at the European Football Championships. Which is bigger in Wales, football or rugby? — The Football Association of Wales was founded in 1876, five years earlier than the Welsh Rugby Union. However, rugby then took off rapidly in south Wales while football remained stronger in the north. — Wales lost their first matches to England in both football (2–1) and rugby (8–0). — Rugby and football matches have both filled Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium (capacity 76,000), though in a recent Wales Online poll, rugby was still reckoned more important, by 56% to 44%. Tall poppies A group

Three sides to our success

In the middle of Oxford is a socking great cinema: once the Ritz, it’s now an Odeon multiplex. Back in 1962, in the intermission of, I think, The Longest Day, the curtain moved and on walked a group of men, young I suppose, though to my 15-year-old eyes they seemed impossibly grown-up. It was the Oxford United team, led by their manager Arthur Turner, and including such titans as Ron ‘The Tank’ Atkinson, his brother Graham, John Shuker and Maurice Kyle. They had just won promotion from the Southern League to the Fourth Division (today’s League Two). They were introduced to the audience, and I have been a fan ever

Seb Coe is a fine man… but his roasting over the Russian athletics scandal is justified

So Smiley was right all along: the bloody Russians were the baddest of the bad. The Pound report on the epic scale of their state-sponsored doping and cheating in athletics was indeed seismic. It can’t have come as that much of a surprise, though. In a remarkable investigation in July 2013, Martha Kelner and Nick Harris of the Mail on Sunday blew the lid on the whole cesspool of Russian corruption. This was the headline: Drugs, -bribery and the cover-up! -Russian athletes— including those who robbed Brits of medals — ‘ordered to dope by coaches’ and officials ‘demanded cash to mask positive tests’. Pretty much what we got this week

I miss the days when French rugby was great. Thierry Dusautoir must, too

It used to be such a treat of a winter weekend, sitting down to watch France against Wales in Paris in the Six Nations. And not just because of the anthems. There would be the prospect of seeing players like Sella, Serge Blanco, the Williamses, JJ and JPR, Philippe Saint-André, Scott Gibbs, Rives, Jenkins — an almost endless list of exquisite, fluid runners, the essence of rugby genius. Now less so. It’s Mathieu Bastareaud and Jamie Roberts, a fifth of a ton of gristle and bone, banging into each other. The main question now is quite how poor Les Bleus will be. You can see it all in the resigned

What’s right with Saracens — and José Mourinho’s Chelsea

It’s hard to love Saracens rugby club — their centre is called Bosch, a word that also describes their bulldozing style of play — but you have to admire the demolition job they did on Clermont Auvergne in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup. The flamboyant French side, free-runners to a man, had 68 per cent of possession, 64 per cent of territory and yet were tackled into impotence. Clermont limped off the Twickenham turf, stuffed 46–6. The English club play Toulon, the defending champions, in the final in Cardiff on 24 May and again I will be supporting the French team, not just  because this will be the last

Wales, England, and the prospects for a Five Nations classic

‘Look what these bastards have done to Wales,’ Phil Bennett famously said in the dressing-room before a Five Nations match with their friends across the Severn in the mid-1970s. ‘They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and only live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us?’ Someone could have piped up at that point, Life of Brian-style, and suggested the Severn Bridge. But they didn’t of course. Bennett, that maestro of a fly half, went on. ‘We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English — and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.’ It is hard to imagine