Archive for the ‘rugby union’ Category

Misery for Wales; referee’s place in online history assured

It’s unusual in a team sport for one refereeing decision to determine the result of a major match quite as conclusively as happened today when Wales lost to France in the Rugby World Cup semi-final. Consequently, the referee Alain Rolland can be assured of notoriety online which will last a generation.

In the 18th minute of the first half the Wales captain Sam Warburton tackled French player Vincent Clerc illegally (for the detail of the law see 10.4 (j) here). Rolland immediately showed Warburton the red card, leaving Wales to play a man short for over an hour.

Many observers believe the tackle deserved a penalty and a yellow card at most (see, for example Dylan Cleaver in the New Zealand Herald). As Brendan Gallagher points out in the Daily Telegraph, the International Rugby Board has recently tightened the law on so-called spear tackles.

Curiously, Rolland chose not to consult the assistant referees (linesmen). The laws of rugby make provision for use of video replays for certain decisions but not currently for foul play unless it is in the in-goal area (see 6.A.6 (b) here).

In the end France just made it through to the final, winning 9-8. Wales had a kick which scraped the wrong side of the post and other chances which they weren’t quite able to take.

Alain Rolland’s entry on Wikipedia was rapidly hacked and may end up being locked to prevent further abuse. At the time of writing, the entry questions his neutrality, mentioning the fact that his father is French.

Inevitably, there has been widespread criticism of the referee on Twitter from the likes of former England player Jeremy Guscott and the disparaging remarks of former South African captain Francois Pienaar during the television commentary have also been tweeted.

The first minister of Wales Carwyn Jones said that he believed Rolland’s decision had been wrong and had “wrecked the game”.

Leaving aside the specifics of this incident, what should be done to reduce the risk of an incorrect decision by a referee changing the result of an important match?

The stakes are very high in international sport and there is intense pressure on match officials. Their authority is undermined when fans see in replays that a mistake has been made. It would seem reasonable for rugby referees to be required to use video replays for big decisions, or at the least to consult their assistants. This would reduce the pressure a little. Maybe even football will one day see through the weak arguments (in my opinion) against using video replays.

If today’s events lead to wider consultation by referees when making decisions then the misery felt both by Welsh fans and by Alain Rolland will not have been in vain.

Rugby World Cup provides lesson in scarcity value

Just over a week into the Rugby World Cup, Ireland beat Australia to provide the first major shock of the tournament. The stakes are particularly high because the Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and only takes place every four years.

There are plenty of international rugby matches – arguably too many – but the primacy of the World Cup is clear to all, whether players, governing bodies, sponsors, media or fans. There are some other sports which would benefit from similar clarity.

Rugby fans will recall that Ireland and Australia have had memorable encounters at previous Rugby World Cups. In two of their four matches, Australia won by a single point (1991 and 2003). Australia and Ireland have played each other once a year on average over the last 15 years, including a notable 20-20 draw in 2009, but it is the World Cup games which stick in the memory.

Similarly, today’s Welsh victory over Samoa has added significance because Samoa have twice beaten Wales at previous World Cups, a fact mentioned in most of the match reports (see, for example the Guardian and Sydney Morning Herald). Actually, Wales and Samoa have played five other matches over the years, the details of which I suspect few people can recall.

The addition of Rugby 7s to the Olympic programme in 2016 will provide a challenge to the Rugby World Cup and some of the top players may be tempted to specialise in 7s but ultimately it is sufficiently different from the 15 a side game not to be a direct threat. It will also provide a higher profile platform for the women’s game.

While other sports, ranging from football to cricket, athletics and tennis have a fairly clear hierarchy of tournaments, the competition between the the biggest events in each sport risks devaluing them all. For example, while the four Grand Slam tournaments are the highlight of the tennis calendar, both men’s and women’s tennis have end of season events for the top eight players in the world with big prize money on offer. The Davis Cup and Fed Cup are also in the mix and then there is the Olympic tournament.

Although it is natural for international federations to want to have a full calendar of major events, there is value in recognising and protecting the real highlights. This becomes more difficult when there are different rightsholders for major tournaments (such as FIFA, UEFA, other continental associations and the big national leagues in football).

Protecting the scarcity value of the top events matters for athletes, who risk burnout, and all of the stakeholders including the sponsors and fans who ultimately foot the bills. Greater focus on existing prime properties may be a better strategy for sports to grow than increasing the number of matches and tournaments. After all, sporting history is worth paying for, meaningless international matches are not.

When the Rugby World Cup final arrives on 23 October everybody from players through to fans will know that this is a genuine piece of sporting history.

Rugby injuries and the dilemma of tournament preparation

With the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand only a couple of weeks away, teams are playing warm-up matches. This is standard procedure in team sports ahead of major tournaments but the risks of losing top players to injury are high, perhaps too high.

Last week Wales beat England but Morgan Stoddart broke his leg and Gavin Henson suffered an injury that may keep him out of the tournament. On the England side Danny Care has also been ruled out and Lewis Moody limped off but hopes to recover in time. A round of matches yesterday seems to have passed off with fewer injuries but there are more games to follow next weekend.

It seems rational to want to try different combinations of players ahead of a World Cup so that the coach can select the right squad and test borderline players in a match situation. It also suits governing bodies, who earn extra revenue, and the media who have an opportunity to speculate about who will be picked.

What is difficult to prove in any scientific way is the beneficial impact on teams of playing these warm-up matches. International rugby squads spend a fair amount of time together, allowing them to run through different tactical combinations and to work on fitness. Is the match practice really so essential that it’s worth risking losing players through injury? Even though players will feel pressure in the warm-up games, it’s unlikely to replicate the psychological intensity of the World Cup.

Every player is aware of the risk but they all have to prove themselves to get selected so there’s no holding back. In any case, when you are physically and mentally tuned to performing at 100%, trying to hold back a little may even increase the chance of injury.

At the FIFA World Cup, which comes at the end of a long season, the phenomenon of under-performance by leading players has sometimes been attributed by commentators to exhaustion (see, for example 2010 World Cup organiser Danny Jordaan).

In the southern hemisphere the rugby season is coming to an end. A South African sports scientist argued in June that players reach peak condition after 12 weeks of matches and that this year’s Super XV competition is several weeks too long, leading to higher risk of injury and player burnout.

For rugby players competing in northern hemisphere leagues there is arguably more need for match practice as they have recently returned from summer breaks but these days internationals are highly professional and unlikely to report for duty badly out of condition.

Competition at international level in rugby drives interest more than the club game. Every national governing body is measured first and foremost on their performance at the World Cup and fans want to see the star players. To reduce the risk of them missing the tournament it would be worth at least considering a different way to prepare: short format warm-up games or even a period of time without competitive matches mandated for all teams.

As it stands, with the pressure from governing bodies, fans and the media, it would be a brave coach who insisted on doing less preparation for a major tournament rather than more to keep players fresh.

One often quoted example of success by an under-prepared squad is the Denmark football team, who won Euro 1992 after being included in the tournament only 10 days before when the former Yugoslavia was disqualified.

Any players who get injured in next weekend’s warm-up games may well wonder if the Danish way is worth a go.

Earthquake in New Zealand: how sport responds to tragedy

When tragedy strikes, as it did in Christchurch, New Zealand on 22 February, sports event organisers and athletes have to decide the best way to respond. The response is often dignified and well-judged.

The New Zealand cricket team, which includes several players from Christchurch, faced Australia in the Cricket World Cup just three days after the earthquake. There was a minute of silence before the match and the teams stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle during the break between the innings.

Looking further ahead, the Rugby World Cup will take place in New Zealand in September and October. The Lancaster Park rugby stadium in Christchurch has been closed for two weeks while the damage is assessed. Although forthcoming club matches have been moved to other venues, the early signs are that the stadium will be repaired in time for the Rugby World Cup.

It remains to be seen how the organisers will respond in September – everybody from the government to relatives of the deceased, the players and the International Rugby Board will have a view on what is appropriate. After the earthquake the organising committee quickly published a holding statement reassuring people that the tournament will still take place in New Zealand.

It is now a year since the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games where Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili tragically died in a training accident on the day of the opening ceremony. It was a huge shock for everybody at the Games (I was working there) and left very little time for changes to be made to the ceremony. There was a minute of silence in Kumaritashvili’s honour, the Olympic flag was lowered to half-mast, he was remembered in speeches and the Georgian delegation wore black armbands when they marched into the stadium. In what was a nightmare scenario, the organisers managed to respond in a respectful way.

The Vancouver case was particularly difficult because the accident took place at the Games. More often tributes at sports events relate to loss of life elsewhere. Football fans are familiar with the minute of silence before kick-off (sometimes now replaced with a minute of applause) and black arm-bands which may commemorate anything from the loss of a famous former player to a major natural disaster.

Spectator sports events are full of rituals, ranging from national anthems to the toss of a coin to handshakes between players. The audience knows these rituals intimately and so immediately understands the significance when the rituals are changed for some reason. Provided that the individual or people who are being remembered are in some way relevant to the audience, the response is usually heart-felt and genuine.

I am confident that the organisers of the Rugby World Cup will find the right way to remember the terrible loss of the people of Christchurch.

Six Nations rugby tournament reveals multiple national identities

The evergreen annual RBS Six Nations rugby tournament is underway and so it’s time for large numbers of Londoners to reveal themselves as Scottish, Welsh or Irish.

That is hardly surprising, considering that London draws people in from all over – there are many thousands of French and Italian people in the city as well. What is curious is that the identity of so many Scottish, Welsh and Irish fans is revealed only by the colour of their rugby shirt. In the absence of a distinguishing accent, name or home town, there may be no obvious clue. In fact, it’s quite common to meet rugby fans whose loyalty is to the land where their grandparents were born.

An article in the Daily Telegraph rather unkindly groups together these fans as “plastic Celts”: people who have probably lived all their lives in England and who, in many cases, will happily support the England football team.

It may seem inconsistent to support one national team in rugby and another in football but that doesn’t make the allegiance any less real. It is of course common in the UK for people to have relatives from different places so multiple identities are to be expected. And it can be very complicated. A fan who simultaneously supports the Welsh rugby team and the England football team may well root for Scotland when they play against England at rugby.

As international mobility increases, more and more people are likely to identify themselves with multiple countries and athletes also become eligible for more than one national team. Following controversies about eligibility in previous years, the International Rugby Board now only permits players to represent one country at senior level during their career.

Cynicism about the tenuous links that some fans (and athletes) have to their national teams is not going to disappear but their allegiance should be respected. One of the enriching aspects of  sport is the way in which it enables people to express their multiple identities.

Although I don’t claim any allegiance to Wales, I was reminded again on 4 February that the singing of the Welsh national anthem before Wales v England  in Cardiff is one of the great spectacles of world sport.

Rugby legend Gareth Thomas goes public about his private life

Gareth Thomas, the most-capped player in Welsh rugby union history, talked openly about his homosexuality in an interview with the Daily Mail on Saturday. He is the first famous rugby union player to do so, joining a handful of athletes from other sports in recent years.

Thomas, one of the legends of modern rugby, is close to the end of his playing career and says that he believes the time is right to be open because attitudes have changed. One of his objectives is to provide reassurance for young people who are going through the same emotional trauma that he did as a teenager. He has suffered a broken marriage and apparently contemplated suicide in his attempt to live a double life.

Following the publication of the interview, Thomas has received immediate backing from many in the rugby world and the media response has been universally sympathetic. Sir Clive Woodward, who appointed Gareth Thomas as captain during the British and Irish Lions Tour in 2005, told the BBC that the player’s sexuality was irrelevant to his achievements in rugby. Thomas himself reports that coaches and team-mates in whom he had confided were very supportive.

Like several other male team sports, including football and American football, rugby union has always had a macho, heterosexual reputation reinforced by a predominantly male fan base. In contrast to say entertainers and politicians, it has been completely taboo for players to talk openly about being gay. In fact there have been more sportswomen than men known publicly to be homosexual. One reason for this may be that the best known female athletes tend to come from individual rather than team sports, which have a very different audience.

Commentators in the Independent on Sunday suggest that it is the potential backlash from fans which prevents any gay footballers from speaking publicly rather than the response from their employers or team-mates. It seems more likely that a retired player or somebody close to the end of his career would go public than a younger player who is still making his way in the sport. Justin Fashanu, the only openly gay professional footballer, tragically committed suicide in 1998, eight years after making the revelation in a newspaper interview. 

Other athletes may now have the confidence to take the lead from Gareth Thomas having seen the positive public response, although it will of course depend on their personal circumstances. There will be a major news story when the first big name footballer says that he is gay but the media interest will surely diminish once a small number have spoken publicly.

Without wanting to trivialise what could be a very difficult emotional dilemma, there is a real opportunity in the next few days for a footballer to make headlines.

The opportunity of international name recognition

While visiting Argentina it is noticeable that many of the sporting stars who appear daily in the national media are very familiar to a British sports fan. This instant name recognition brings an opportunity which may not be fully recognised.

In the 21 October issue of Olé, the popular national sports newspaper, there were stories about Barcelona icon Lionel Messi, the Argentinian rugby team preparing for their forthcoming tour of the UK, rising tennis star Juan Martín del Potro and numerous pages previewing the weekend’s local derby between Boca Juniors and River Plate.

The focus for sponsors and rights-holders is often the country where a sporting competition is taking place but the media coverage can spread much further, depending on the nationalities of the participants. This has long been appreciated in Formula 1, where the nationality of drivers is a significant factor when teams decide who to hire. Football and basketball clubs are also well aware that a star name from overseas can help the fan base to grow in a new market - consider Beckham at LA Galaxy or Park Ji-Sung at Mancheter United.

However, the potential is much greater. It is perfectly plausible for a sponsor or rights-holder to create an event featuring hand-picked athletes or teams from specific markets. More often it seems to happen the other way around: the fact that a particular athlete or team is involved suddenly makes an event more attractive for a potential sponsor. Purists will understandably be concerned that qualification might be determined by a sponsor’s needs rather than on merit. Clearly there needs to be a balance between open and invitation-only competitions because fans will readily ignore meaningless contests.

At a time when many sporting bodies are under economic pressure, sponsors can be a little bolder in their negotiations. Even if they don’t go as far as creating their own event they may be able to influence  qualification criteria to increase the chances of key athletes or teams participating. 

For governing bodies and other rights-holders, uneasy at the prospect of having sponsors closely involved in their events, it is more important than ever to increase the depth and range of potential winners. If they succeed they will have a much stronger proposition to offer international brands. Unfortunately it’s easier said than done.

Football, rugby, tennis, basketball, volleyball and golf are therefore fortunate that the strength of Argentina’s athletes assures interest in their national media. However that doesn’t stop the Brazilians poking fun at their rivals’ struggle to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.

Confed Cup: testing, in every sense

In the end Brazil won it but there were plenty of surprises in the entertaining FIFA Confederations Cup, which acts as a test event for next year’s World Cup.

The USA defeated Spain, who had been unbeaten in 35 matches, and Egypt knocked Italy out of the competition. Media in South Africa were satisfied that the hosts reached the semi-finals.

The Confederations Cup can feel contrived as an event, featuring the champions of each continental confederation plus the World Cup winners and the host nation. Until this year’s event kicked off, few football fans probably remembered that Brazil also won it last time, in 2005.

In fairness to FIFA, it makes sense to have an international tournament a year ahead of the World Cup in the same country. The challenge for the organisers is to sell tickets and drum up interest in matches between unfamiliar teams. After complaints about slow sales, tickets were given away for some matches. Overall the tournament can be judged a success, particularly the exciting action on the pitch. According to FIFA’s assessment, transport and security issues remain to be resolved for the World Cup.

South Africa has hosted plenty of major international sports events since it returned from sporting isolation in 1992, including the Rugby and Cricket World Cups, this year’s Indian Premier League and the current rugby tour by the British and Irish Lions. However, the FIFA World Cup is on a different scale because of the massive attention it attracts virtually all over the world.

As with the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing last year, the significance of the event will extend far beyond the sporting competition on the pitch. The stakes are very high for South Africa and even Africa as a whole in terms of the impact on international image, business opportunities and tourism.

Through hosting the Confederations Cup, South Africa has had to face tough international scrutiny (see, for example balanced pieces in The Times and the Canadian Press). It may not all make comfortable reading for the World Cup organisers but the thorough test has surely been useful at this stage.

After the positive experience of these last two weeks, most observers would be more confident in predicting that next year’s World Cup will be a success than in predicting who will win it.

Enduring Appeal of 6 Nations Rugby

Last week Ireland clinched the Grand Slam in the 2009 RBS Six Nations rugby tournament after a dramatic victory in the final match against Wales in which the momentum changed several times in the closing minutes.

The celebrations of the Irish players and fans were enduring and heart-felt because it was the first time Ireland had beaten all of the other teams in the competition (the “Grand Slam”) since 1948.

This most traditional of tournaments, featuring England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy traces its origins to the late 19th century. France first took part officially in 1910 and Italy joined in 2000. Every team plays each other once over a six week period from early February to late March.

It might be expected that interest in such a tournament would wane: the same teams every year, predictable results, cold and wet weather. In fact, the tournament remains a huge success. The stadiums are always full and matches attract up to 5 or 6 million television viewers in the UK and France. Almost all of the major print and online sports media devote pages and pages to each weekend of action.

What are the reasons for this success? This is my view: 

- A simple format, which has not been tampered with
- The matches are broadcast live on Saturday and Sunday afternoons on free to air television
- The results remain surprisingly unpredictable and matches are often close
- It a

voids clashes with other major events (except the Olympic Winter Games one year in four)
- Historic and impressive stadiums
- Occasional innovations have generally proved successful:
     – Introduction of Italy into the tournament in 2000
     – Ireland home matches played at Croke Park (previously reserved for Gaelic Sports) while a new stadium is being constructed
     – First Friday night match held in 2009 attracted good viewing figures

There are lessons here for any sports event rightsholder. Tradition is a powerful asset but all sports events need to evolve. The RBS Six Nations has been nurtured and respected: it has moved with the times. 

The proof of the continuing appeal of the tournament is that in January the Royal Bank of Scotland, which has committed to significant cuts to its sports sponsorship after having to be rescued by British taxpayers, renewed its sponsorship of the Six Nations tournament through to 2013 for a rumoured £20m.

Performances in this year’s RBS Six Nations will be a major consideration in the selection of the squad for the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa in June. We can expect Welsh and Irish players to feature prominently.

Match postponed: frozen pitch

Much of Europe has experienced freezing temperatures since late December, leading to the postponement of dozens of football and rugby matches and many other sports events (even as far south as Madrid). It’s inconvenient and disappointing for television and radio fans but even more so for ticket holders, who may not find out about the postponement until they reach the venue.

To avoid the worst of the weather, several countries in northern Europe have a short winter break and extend the competitive seasons slightly at either end. Sport in Britain, in contrast, has always taken advantage of the fact that much of the population is off work from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day, scheduling a large range of fixtures right across the country. It can pay dividends. Harlequins rugby union club attracted a record crowd of 50,000 to Twickenham for their Guinness Premiership encounter with Leicester on 27 December and 21,000 spectators saw the popular horse Kauto Star win the big race at Kempton Park at the traditional Boxing Day races. 

These loyal fans braved cold weather and often difficult travelling conditions to follow their sport but the key factor is television demand. It would be unthinkable for the stations who have paid vast sums for the rights not to have live competitions to show when millions of people are at home and available to watch. In fact, the worse the weather, the higher the viewing figures are likely to be. Ultimately the loyal club fan with a season ticket is the one who suffers: either shiver in the stand or skip the match.  

The Scottish Premier League last had a winter break in 2002/3, despite the fact that postponements are a regular occurrence from December to February. As the BBC explains, the timetable of matches to be played before the finishing date prescribed by FIFA makes it very difficult to fit in a break next season.
For the same reason the Bundesliga in Germany is shortening its six week winter break to three weeks in 2009/10.

Naturally, postponements give rise to conspiracy theories, particularly at the lower levels: when the home club has lots of injuries there may be only three people half-heartedly sweeping snow off the pitch; sure enough, when they are in good form and looking for a win, dozens of volunteers appear and the pitch is miraculously cleared.

In contrast to Scandinavia and the more mountainous countries, there isn’t enough snow in Britain to rule out grass sport in the coldest weeks of the year. For the stoical British sports fan and amateur participant, enduring a few bitter, wintry days remains an essential demonstration of commitment to the cause. For the uninitiated, it’s madness. Don’t expect to see a winter break in the British sporting calendar any time soon.