CONFIDENT ABOUT WALES, CERTAIN ABOUT KIWIS
Sept 11: Well here we go again, six weeks (or rather six weekends) of rugby union that will be largely predictable results-wise until the quarter-finals at least and it's New Zealand's competition to lose.
The home team are clearly the best all-round team - their forwards can win enough ball and their backs have the imagination to score regularly.
As for their main rivals, France are inconsistent, England have one-dimensional back play, South Africa look over the hill and Australia? Well, they look the only side to challenge the Kiwis and the two great rivals should meet in the final.
As for Wales, I'm feeling more upbeat than usual. After a rather disappointing Six Nations when their backs failed to make use of plenty of possession, they were impressive in the summer and look like they have the stamina to absorb pressure, like a boxer on the ropes, and fight back.
South Africa are beatable but Wales can be beaten by Fiji and Samoa. This time they will be treating these two as equals.
If Wales finish runners-up in the group they are almost certain to face the Aussies. If the Welsh win the group it's probably Ireland in the quarters, who are not as bad as their summer game record suggests.
England should finish top of their group - Argentina and Scotland are the main rivals - and are likely to face France in the quarters although the French could spring another World Cup shock and beat pool favourites the Kiwis. I expect New Zealand to face Argentina in the quarters.
New Zealand, France, Tonga, Canada, Japan
Argentina, England, Scotland, Georgia, Romania
Australia, Ireland, Italy, Russia, United States
South Africa, Wales, Fiji, Manu Samoa, Namibia
Wales games and key pool matches:
Sept 10: Argentina v England, Otago Stadium, Dunedin (0930 BST)
Sept 11: South Africa v Wales, Wellington Regional Stadium (0930 BST)
Sept 17: Australia v Ireland, Eden Park, Auckland (0930 BST)
Sept 18: Wales v Manu Samoa, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton (0430 BST)
Sept 24: New Zealand v France, Eden Park, Auckland (0930 BST)
Sept 25: Argentina v Scotland, Wellington Regional Stadium (0830 BST)
Sept 26: Wales v Namibia, Stadium Taranaki, New Plymouth (0730 BST)
Oct 1: England v Scotland, Eden Park, Auckland (0830 BST)
Oct 2: Wales v Fiji, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton (0600 BST)
Winner Pool C v Runner-up Pool D
(Wellington Regional Stadium, 0600 BST)
Winner Pool B v Runner-up Pool A
(Lancaster Park Stadium, 0830 BST)
Winner Pool D v Runner-up Pool C
(Wellington Regional Stadium, 0600 BST)
Winner Pool A v Runner-up Pool B
(Lancaster Park Stadium, 0830 BST)
Semi-final One: October 15
Winner QF1 v Winner QF2
(Eden Park, Auckland, 0900 BST)
Semi-final Two: October 16
Winner QF3 v Winner QF4
(Eden Park, Auckland, 0900 BST)
BILL MCLAREN RIP
Jan 10: 'Jink, jink, jink',
'Flitting like a little phantom'
'It would be a miracle if he could score'
'Gerald Davies, where did he come from?'
Bill McLaren, perhaps the greatest sports commentator, has died. He mixed superb descriptions of the game with a unique turn of phrase, all spoken in a wonderful, mellifluous Borders accent.
But unlike some of his contemporaries, eg Peter Allis, he was never in love with his voice. He never wasted any words or used his 'catchphrases', such as 'There'll be raising a glass to so-so in such-a-such club', unneccessarily.
His favourite players were Ireland's Mike Gibson and Australia's David Campese, but I'll particularly remember his commentaries of the 70s when Wales were in the ascendant. Here's a few reminders of his (and Wales') brilliance - all against Scotland coincidentally but absolutely no bias from Bill, as you'd expect from the great man. RIP.
(Doesn't he look like Alan Bennett?) Pic: BBC
RAY GRAVELL 1951-2007
JPR Williams, Gerald Davies, Ray Gravell, Steve Fenwick, JJ Williams, Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards - I knew the Welsh backline off by heart in the mid to late 70s and I loved to watch them. Ray Gravell was in exalted company and didn't attract as much praise or attention as the others - JPR had his bone-crunching tackles and barnstorming runs, Gerald and JJ were the speed merchants, Fenwick a good kicker, Bennett the unpredictable genius, and Gareth - God!
But Grav? Well I remember the beard and the occasional crashball run but in truth I can barely remember him play at all.
He called himself "just a minor cog and, quite an ordinary player" so why were there 10,000 people at his funeral in Stradey Park, Llanelli?
Grav played 485 times for Llanelli between 1970 and 1985, scoring 120 tries and captaining the side from 1980 to 1982. He was capped 23 times between 1975 and 1982 in the Welsh side which dominated the Five Nations, winning two Grand Slams, four titles and four Triple Crowns, and also toured South Africa with the British Lions in 1980, playing in all four Tests.
Ordinary? That' s a pretty impressive career by any standards. But it was his character and his post-playing career that probably made him a much-loved character. That and his shockingly early death aged just 56.
Grav was the bear-like post-match interviewer brimming with enthusiasm and passion for the game and with little regard for personal space with his interview subject, laughing and putting his arm round them.
As Wales' national poet Gwyn Thomas said in his tribute peom to him:
There used to be
Detonations on the telly -
It was Grav discussing rugby.
There used to be
From the radio great warmth surging -
Grav was also an actor, playing alongside Jeremy Irons in Damage and Peter O'Toole in Rebecca's Daughters (Grav usually played versions of himself).
He had immense charm but as Frank Keating in The Guardian noted, he wore his insecurities on sleeve - for example he was worried about facing New Zealand in Llanelli's famous 9-3 win in 1972 (I still have the commemorative pen with the result on it) and later playing for Wales.
Here are two similar tales about Grav from two of the greatest fly-halves.
First, Barry John (IC Wales):
“In 1972 I played for Cardiff against Llanelli at the Arms Park and Ray was up against me,” he says. “I was only a few weeks from retirement and he was starting a new career. Deep into the game I kicked a long touch-finder and he came through and cleaned me out. The tackle was only slightly late, not dangerous or anything, but it left me lying on the ground.
“Grav turned around and when he saw me he was in total distress. Looking down, he said, ‘my mam will kill me’.
“He was just standing there. In the end I had to get up and order him, ‘Grav, you’d better get back into position and do some covering’. And he was on the other team!”
And Jonathan Davies (Independent) remembers him at the end of his playing career:
"I was a fervent Llanelli supporter, and his was the first autograph I ever collected. My mother and I used to bump into him when we went shopping down the Co-op on a Friday, and he used to take an interest in how my rugby was going.
When I was invited to train with the Llanelli seconds as a teenager, Grav would give me a lift to Stradey Park. Despite the fact he was one of my heroes, getting into the car with this mad, ginger-haired man who always had Irish rebel songs blasting out of the cassette was one of the most frightening experiences of my career.
After I failed to make the grade with Llanelli I eventually joined Neath, and one of my first games was against Llanelli, so I came face to face with my idols – and Grav was among them.
In one move I cut inside him but before I could get past he caught me high with a short-arm tackle. I went down like a sack of coal. Grav picked me up and dusted me down, saying : "Sorry, sorry." Then he ran to the touchline and shouted pleadingly to my mother in the stand: "I'm sorry, Diana, I'm sorry."
That was Grav all over: a fierce competitor but courteous and caring with it. Whatever he was doing, he never held back.
Davies also said: "He did not have an easy ride through life. His father committed suicide when Grav was 14 and it was he who found the body. He lost a leg through diabetes six months ago but was dealing with that setback as cheerfully as he did every other."
In Grav's whisky cabinet there is an unopened bottle of Penderyn whisky which he had intended to open on his eldest daughter’s wedding day. He leaves wife Mari and daughters Manon, 11, and Gwenan, eight.
A good man, gone too soon.
THE LAST GAME
April 07: It was all set for a Barnstoneworth finish. Just like in Ripping Yarns' Golden Gordon, Orrell had been thrashed all season, hadn't won trophies for years, were about to play their last game on their ground and had invited their greatest players to the ground (not to play, sadly) And they were winning with about 15 minutes to go.
But they lost. A last-minute try for Morley gave them a 24-17 win. So it's goodbye Edge Hall Road after 57 years and goodbye to professional rugby, and hello (next season) to St John Rigby school playing fields and the South Lancashire and Cheshire League 2 after the club merged with Orrell Anvils. It's a drop of about five divisions and Orrell will be playing the likes of Wigan, Crewe, Oswestry and Ormskirk next season.
I was expecting the ground to be packed like when I were a lad (eeh!) for the last game but the stand was less than half-full with a smattering of supporters elsewhere - including some from Bristol who presented a cheque for £400 at half-time to help our club.
Even though it was a sad occasion, there was a jovial atmosphere and it was a good game and a sterling effort by an Orrell team fleshed out by Manchester University players - Orrell had had to pull out of their game at Darlington the previous week because they couldn't raise a team (they were thrashed 78-0 after the game was re-arranged on April 28).
Orrell were in Morley's faces in the first half, sharp in the tackle and first to the ball against a clumsy and lethargic Morley side - what a difference to the first game of the season against the same opposition (see below). There was also a memorable last day try by Fergus Owen who cut through most of the Morley side to give Orrell a 17-7 lead at half-time. Morley upped their game in the second half against a tiring Orrell side to pip them at the post.
I stood in a spot at the 22 at the scoreboard end where I'd watched John Carleton and fellow winger Barry Fishwick score length-of-the-field tries as a kid. I moved to the other side of the ground at half-time, like I used to, passing the stand where my grand-dad had a heart attack and died while he was watching a game. Good to see the firm he founded was still sponsoring the stand.
It's still a grand little ground - even the Wigan rugby league gym (formerly the clubhouse) looks similar to the clubhouse which burned down.
The biggest change for me was the number of houses crammed onto the training pitches. This is still a bone of contention with Orrell and their former owner Dave Whelan and chairman Maurice Lindsay, who ran the club for three years before three successive relgations. They blamed the club for selling the pitches for £600,000 when Whelan offered more. Lindsay said Whelan paid £1,000 each to 500 members for control of the club and said less than a third of them turned up to watch matches.
Club president Jim Lloyd said in the final programme that money was wasted in the Whelan era and claims the club is still owed money by him. He also asks about money made from the sale of the pitches and why a new clubhouse wasn't built immediately - a good point
But I think Whelan has been harshly painted as the villain in this tale - Orrell had no team and no money when they went to Whelan. Their supporters were often outnumbered in Premiership home games and the team was out of its depth in many matches. Having said that, Lindsay's promises to clear debts and build a new clubhouse for the club never happened and Whelan did leave them in the lurch when they could have reached the Premiership again.
The difficulty is how do you sustain a side which doesn't have enough support to reach the top but wants to remain competitive. Look at Otley, they have finally succumbed in the First Division this season - playing part-time, having a £100,000 cut in their playing budget and paying for travel and accommodation finally took their toll. They were relegated on April 28.
Orrell, England and British Lions legend John Carleton doesn't blame Whelan - he feels the club would have closed a long time ago without him. I don't think he was at the ground on the last day but I saw Sammy Southern and Nigel Hislop.
So I'm off to the playing fields next season - it will be nice to see Orrell win at last (hopefully)
GOODBYE EDGE HALL ROAD:
Last game April 21
Feb 2007: Twenty-nine points adrift at the foot of the league and facing a third consecutive relegation; a 102-0 thrashing at Tynedale on Saturday after several key players left for other clubs and now the unthinkable - Orrell are leaving their ground in Edge Hall Road at the end of this season after 57 years.
If that isn't bad enough a rival Orrell team has started which will play at the bottom of the rugby union league ladder next season (probably the Up Holland and District league!).
The new team (Orrell Anvils) has the support of Orrell legends Des Seabrook and John Carleton and wants to start again with local amateurs. Both Orrell teams are scheduled to play at St John Rigby School next season but negotiations are underway about becoming one club. The choice of league is the sticking point - do Orrell drop one division to North One or start from the bottom?
How did it come to this? The club which made its name as the cup giantkiller in the 70s and almost became English champions in 1991-2 was probably ruined by professionalism. It couldn't match the big bucks wages of other clubs and it didn't have the crowds to match Gloucester and Leicester.
In desperation in 2001-2, the club turned to Dave Whelan owner of Wigan rugby league and football club. In his first season as owner, the club were promoted to National League 1, they finished fourth and then second in that league.
After three years, Whelan announced he was pulling out of the club but promises were made to clear the club's debts and pay for a new clubhouse which had been burnt down by arsonists. It's not quite clear what has happened to this deal - the local media treads warily where Mr Whelan and his learned friends are concerned and the club sometimes gives out confusing messages about what's going on.
The clubhouse is now a gym for Wigan Warriors rugby league club and Orrell RUFC cannot afford to pay the rent for use of the ground which is also used by Wigan Warriors.
Would the club have been saved if it had won planning permission for housing on its training pitches before Whelan stepped in? Was he only interested in the (rugby union) Premiership TV money? And did he bar access to the clubhouse because the club owed him a few thousand in cash? Who knows?
Since Whelan left the club seems to be scratching around for a team at the start of every season and relegation has been the result over the last two seasons.
Watching Otley this season is a stark reminder of what Orrell should be doing - forgetting about the Premiership but holding their own in Nat League 1 or 2. The lack of a clubhouse is crucial in this respect as Orrell attract the same number of spectators as Otley but miss out on booze/food revenue.
I don't care which league Orrell start playing in, I'd just like to see them win or at least be in a chance of a win.
See also: Times article on demise of Orrell (Jan 2007)
HEADINGLEY - A UNION GRAVEYARD
December 2006: Leeds Tykes 30 Otley 8
I've yet to see a decent rugby union game at Headingley and the local derby with Otley was no exception.
It was a bitty, stop-start game - no decent moves in the backs and penalties given away by either side every minute.
God knows what watching rugby league legend Jimmy Lowes thought of it all. If the Salford No2 was scouting for players, he freezed his arse off for no reason.
It just goes to show that a bad union game (constant penalties and rucks) is always worse than a bad league game (five British Bulldog charges with a kick at the end).
It was also a nightmare trying to explain the rules of the game to the lovely P who was making her first visit to a rugby match.
Otley gave a good account of themselves in the first half, taking a 3-0 lead, but never looked like a scoring a try when they had loads of possession early on.
It was 8-3 to Leeds at half-time and the Tykes turned the screw when Otley were down to 14 men early in the second half. The home side at last began to string phases of possession and camped in Otley's half for most of the second half.
The game was watched by 5,310.
October 2006: It's getting even more like Barnstoneworth now - Orrell have been deducted six points for using illegal players against Morley and Macclesfield, so it means they are at the bottom of the table on MINUS FIVE points, having lost all their games so far and by the beginning of this month are 14 points adrift at the bottom of the table.
September 2006: I know how Ripping Yarns' Gordon Ottershaw felt watching Barnstoneworth (8 bloody 1) after sitting through another painful thrashing for Orrell.
A new season begins and you always hope Orrell will find their feet in a division after two successive relegations.
But no - Morley crushed Orrell 47-7 at Scratcherd Lane and are bottom of the National League North 3 already after one game.
The tackling was shocking. Morley's giraffe of a flanker had a field day as Orrell missed their first tackles time and time again. On one occasion he nearly ran the length of the field through the flimsy defence.
Morley's No 14 also revelled in the space he was given - even when he was pinned against the touchline he still managed to beat his man a couple of times.
Orrell's line-out was also amateurish - they lost five in a row on their own throw in the first half and all Morley had to do was spread it wide and they scored.
Like Gordon Ottershaw I feel like tracking down the Orrell greats and getting them to play - Carleton J, Gullick D, Morris D, P Williams, Anderson F...
According to coach Chris Chudleigh, he was playing a lot of colts and second teamers due to several departures in the summer.