Monday, May 15, 2006

I'll second that!

WHO dares wins? It could be the challenge that will decide the outcome in this month's Heineken Cup final.
Munster against Biarritz brings together two clubs who have ground their way to glory in this season's competition. Biarritz chose the ultra cautious approach to see off English clubs Sale Sharks and Bath in the quarter and semi-finals.
Munster's forward power was too much for Perpignan and Leinster. So does that mean the final will be nothing better than a battle up front, with goal kicking deciding the outcome?
London Irish Rugby Director Brian Smith insists it needn't be that way. Smith, who has masterminded Irish's march to the final of European rugby's No. 2 competition this season, the European Challenge Cup, with some outstanding attacking rugby, challenges Biarritz and coach Patrice Lagisquet to take the final by storm by playing in a more adventurous style.
"I'm not sure it's going to be a great advert for rugby, this final. I don't think Munster have any choice about the way they play. They have analysed their game down to the last iota, they know and understand fully all their strengths and weaknesses. They know what works for them and it is a pressure-orientated game based on territory, forward power and the kicking of Ronan O'Gara. They don't have a choice, that is their game. But Biarritz have a choice - they can play a far more expansive game.
"Unfortunately, Biarritz seem to have gone down the same road as Munster, certainly in the quarter and semi-finals this season. They have just dogged it out and kept it tight. But they can play another way, using their backs and attacking based on power up front. In fact, they are very dangerous when they play in that style. But it comes down to the coach's personality and whether he is prepared to be bold."
Smith thinks that if Biarritz used a wider game plan for the final at Cardiff on May 20 they could probably deny Munster their first ever and long awaited Heineken Cup title.
"Biarritz have more gears, there isn't any doubt about that. They beat Toulouse recently and played some superb rugby in the process.
"But are they prepared to have a crack at it in the final? Or will they come just to defend and keep it tight? But wouldn't it be wonderful for the game itself if Biarritz came to attack, in the way that Leinster went to Toulouse to take them on and win against the odds?"
Smith says that attitude, employed by teams like Munster, Biarritz and Leicester Tigers, is the lingering fall-out from England's World Cup win in 2003. Too many sides, he believes, took note of how England triumphed through the power of their forwards and a kicking fly half, and followed suit. To a guy who is a fierce advocate of the attacking game, Brian Smith abhors such a trend.
But he says: "I do see, at last, some signs that the English Premiership is at last moving on from that style. Teams like Northampton are playing attacking rugby and Bath have done, too, since Brian Ashton joined them. We do the same and I know that Pat Howard at Leicester is trying to drag Leicester out of their mindset which has been to play largely that way.
"That way of playing has been at the fore-front of people's minds for too long. Sure, England won the World Cup but they had to resort to a territory-based game to do it. It's a way to win but not the only way."
Smith believes it could be the best thing for rugby world-wide if France or New Zealand won the next World Cup with some outstanding attacking play. I believe he's right. After England's World Cup football win of 1966 and Alf Ramsey's style of playing without wings, the world copied.
It led to some boring football for the intervening years until that brilliant Brazilian side of 1970 reminded the world what the game really could produce.
It's the same scenario now in rugby - the game needs to see a team that attacks, walking away with the World Cup. Others would then follow.
But how important is it that Biarritz adopt an attacking approach to the final? Very important, according to Smith.
"I think a Heineken final needs to be a good advertisement for rugby. I know I was a back when I played but I still bet most people would agree with me when I say I'd rather see a match finish four tries to three than by five penalty goals to four.
"Professional rugby is trying to attract a new audience which means it must entertain people. I'd suggest that seeing seven tries is a whole lot better entertainment than watching nine penalty goals kicked."
I'll second that!

Japan's bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup

Johnson, who captained England to Rugby World Cup glory two years ago, is keen to see rugby broaden its horizons and backed Japan's bid ahead of those from established powers New Zealand and South Africa.
"Japan is a big rugby-playing nation and giving the country the World Cup could take the game to a new level globally," said Johnson.
"It would be a new venue for a lot of rugby supporters - a whole new experience for everyone connected with the tournament.
"Japan showed during the football World Cup that they can handle the occasion and I think they'll do it brilliantly in 2011.
"Japan is an amazing place and I'm sure thousands of fans would have a fantastic experience."
Johnson was joined at today's official launch by former England team-mate Jason Leonard and Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive.
Wheeler said: "I played my first game in an England shirt against Japan at Osaka. I didn't visit Japan again until earlier this year when I accompanied Martin Johnson to a dinner in his honour in Tokyo.
"A short presentation was screened at it on Japan's 2011 bid - and it impressed us both.
"Not just the details of the grounds and infrastructure that would be used, but also with its vision of how Japan 2011 would help the development of rugby world wide.
"I was in New Zealand for the 1987 and also South Africa in 1995 and I know they could both hold a great tournament again.
"But so could Japan - and it can so do much more too."
French legend Serge Blanco has also given Japan his tentative backing.
"It is a great idea but I don't think it will happen," said the current French National League president.
"Unfortunately there is a question of money and politics, and maybe because of this problem it won't happen. But it's a good idea, in my opinion."
The International Rugby Board will announce its decision on the host nation for the 2011 World Cup on November 17.

International Rugby Board Investments

The International Rugby Board is set to make the biggest investment in high performance rugby in its 120-year history. The IRB Executive Committee announced in Cape Town that it had approved an unprecedented £30 million, three-year programme of strategic development investments designed to improve the competitiveness of rugby worldwide.
The investments are a key component of the IRB’s Strategic Plan that was announced late last year. Its major aim is to “increase the number and competitiveness of Unions at Tier 1”. To achieve this the IRB will help maintain and strengthen the traditional base of rugby and will invest heavily in developing Tier 2 Nations.
The seven Tier 2 Unions – Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Canada, Japan, Romania and USA – will receive £15.5 million worth of investments so that they can effectively compete with Tier 1 Unions.
The Pacific Islands will receive over £3million in funding for high performance initiatives.
USA and Canada will receive £3 million between them with a further £2 million being invested in Japan and Romania. All of the Unions will also be incorporated into new cross border and international tournaments, which will receive funding from the IRB.
The IRB will invest in the 10 Tier 1 unions over the next three years in order to improve competitiveness at the top level. In line with the other Tier 1 Unions, Argentina will receive £750,000 in funding for its high performance requirements. But since Argentina needs further assistance if it is to remain a Tier 1 nation, it will receive an extra £1.5 million for additional infrastructure requirements including the establishment of new domestic structures and a cross-border tournament.
A further £1.5 million has been set aside for Tier 3 development initiatives. The IRB is presently undertaking a review of these Unions to identify which of them have the potential to become Tier 2 Unions.
This massive injection of funds for the above projects is over and above the £12 million the IRB invests annually in its 120 Unions.
IRB Chairman, Dr Syd Millar stated: “This is an historic day for rugby as it represents an unprecedented level of investment in rugby worldwide. To make lasting change you need commitment, people, infrastructure and competitions. That is exactly what we are putting in place and it will make a real difference for the Tier 2 Unions in terms of increasing their competitiveness. Ultimately the aim is to ensure that more Unions can challenge for and potentially win the Rugby World Cup.