April 2012 Archives
Just when you thought Wales was too small a country for another rivalry, two teams are building themselves up to become the university equivalent of 'El Clásico'. The Welsh Varsity match between Cardiff and Swansea has been known to pit brother against brother, and friend against friend.
Swansea, triumphant in the last two Varsity meetings, have won ten from fifteen since this unique event kicked off in 1997. (There has only been one draw: 10-10 at Cardiff Arms Park in 2001.) Cardiff's four victories, however, were achieved in the space of seven years, from 2002 to 2009 - an indication of increased competitiveness.
Cardiff only gained promotion to the top British Universities league last year, and while many expected them to drop straight back down, they have thrived on the challenges posed by such established sides as Bath, UWIC and Hartpury. So much so, in fact, that they ended the season in third place: the top Welsh side in the league. On their way, they beat Swansea in both home and away fixtures and, in a feat that I believe makes them favourites at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday, they became the first Cardiff University side to beat cross-town rivals UWIC.
Busloads of Swansea University students will arrive in Cardiff on Wednesday morning. You'll know them from their green 'Varsity' t-shirts and general air of merriment. The streets of the city will run red as well as green, with Cardiff University's student body out to compete with a Swansea counterpart equally renowned for its carousing. It could be an anthropologist's dream, studying this demographic in its natural element: like a more mature Lord of the Flies, if they'd managed to put together a sports day on the island.
True story: a friend of mine was at a Varsity match supporting his fellow Swansea alumni around a decade ago in the Arms Park. Upon leaving the ground, he was accosted by a group of Cardiff University fans who called him and his friends 'Jack b******s' (Jack being the slang word for somebody from Swansea), little knowing that these boys were actually native Cardiffians. They ended up brawling two minutes away from his mother's house in Riverside, in the shadow of the Millennium Stadium: a rare but majestic example of passions running over.
That's the peculiar thing about Varsity games: it's not about where you're from -I'd wager that a bigger chunk of the fans are from England- but which university you're affiliated with. I know many a Cardiff soul born in the city who will be supporting Swansea because they have studied there.
The rugby match is a culmination of a day of sports held in the capital city. Given the back seat sport appears to be taking at an educational level these days, the Varsity is a reassurance that not all young people in Britain are wasting their precious window of athletic prowess in front of Call of Duty: Rwandan Genocide and greasy pizza boxes.
As well as the showpiece at the Millennium Stadium, games will be held at the Welsh Institute of Sport and Pontcanna Fields. Besides the more obvious events such as football, netball and hockey, the universities will also be competing against each other in lacrosse, tae kwon do and the paradoxically named Ultimate Frisbee (a game I'm told doesn't include explosive devices or razor-edged Frisbees).
As with last year's Varsity, the match is being broadcast live on S4C. This is a feather in the cap for the Welsh-language channel, which can proudly boast among its recent stirring accomplishments a farming version of The X Factor. As well as the roaring crowd, being on television adds an extra dimension for these players, many of whom will be looking to impress some of Wales's top coaches.
The carnival-like environment of the Varsity match is more reminiscent of a sevens tournament than a game of rugby union, which makes it all the more special.
One player who has experienced a rich and diverse tapestry of rugby in a short space of time is Cardiff University forward Arthur Ellis. At junior level, the Londoner played for Richmond, before being offered a place at another highly distinguished city club, Wasps, at the age of eighteen. From there he returned to his Welsh roots (his father Gwyn, once a Neath player, was also no stranger to Varsity rugby, having been an Oxford Blue), representing Newport Gwent Dragons alongside older brother Hugo. Since last season he has been enjoying life with the Bridgend Ravens, which, along with the former England Under-20 player's past experiences, has helped the 21-year-old in his preparations for the Varsity.
"Looking back at it now, the players I've managed to play and train with is staggering," says Ellis, recently converted from hooker to openside flanker. "People like Phil Vickery, Joe Worsley, Raphael Ibañez - the list is endless really. I still remember it now, being in that environment with them; how hard they trained was incredible to see."
Now in a battle against relegation and financial uncertainty, London Wasps are increasingly looking like a fallen empire, with Heineken Cup and Premiership wins a distant memory. "It's really sad to see them in the state they're in," he says. "I really hope they get out of it, because if they go down that could be the end of them. They've got no real assets behind them; they don't own a training ground or the ground they play at. All they have is their Premiership status."
In his first year of studying Business Management at Cardiff University, Ellis should have more than a few ideas about how a struggling club like Wasps can recover. While he hasn't left his house to be greeted by a new sports car with the key in the ignition, as some American collegiate athletes are accustomed to, the university does assist its players with funding for practical things such as gym membership.
Given the level of excitement surrounding the Varsity match on Wednesday, do any of the rugby boys experience the so-called 'Big Dog on Campus' effect? "No one knows me around campus at all," he admits, somewhat ruefully. "Nobody turns their head when I walk into Costa Coffee, nobody in my lectures knows that I play rugby."
Something that could change if Cardiff turn the tide in the Varsity after the last two defeats to Swansea. "That depends on how I play! People will know me if I play terribly, but hopefully for the right reasons we might get some recognition."
When Ellis says that Cardiff University have got an incredible team this season, you sense that he actually means it. While he is loath to single out any players, we discuss the likes of captain and Cardiff Blues-bound tighthead prop Jake Cooper-Woolley ("a really destructive force"), former Dragon and Wales U20 number eight James Thomas ("a class player" - also Ellis's housemate) and Welsh Students inside centre Ross Wardle ("he's one to look out for: big and physical but also a good distributor").
Warren Gatland was evidently impressed by Cooper-Woolley after his performance in Cardiff's 2010 loss to Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. In the Cardiff changing room after the match, the Wales coach said in a just-kidding-but-not-really manner that he'd "like to have a word with your tighthead". At the time, Cooper-Woolley, a proud Englishman, told me that he'd never entertain the notion of playing for any other country, but Gatland has been known to be persuasive.
"You never know with Wales. A few good games for your region and you're in the Welsh squad," suggests Ellis. We know what happened to another Englishman who joined the Blues not so long ago (though, at over 120kg, Cooper-Woolley might not have quite the right physique for show jumping).
If you thought I was being a bit a bit over-dramatic with my opening 'friend versus friend' gambit, it turns out Ellis will actually be playing against one of his best friends on Wednesday. Jonathan Vaughan is Ellis's teammate at the Ravens, and will be packing down at blindside flanker for Swansea University. He describes his friend as "one hell of a player and an unbelievable tackler, so hopefully he doesn't smash my shins because he likes to go low".
The Swansea link doesn't end there, because the forwards coach at Bridgend is none other than Richard Lancaster, head coach of Swansea University. Hence Ellis will be playing against more than one familiar face. "We've tweeted and texted each other," says Ellis. "They've been working really hard in preparation, as have we. They are my friends at the end of the day, so it should be good playing against them, what with the little niggles and stuff."
The only thing that appears to be majorly concerning Ellis in the run-up to the Varsity is which boots he should wear: "I've got a choice of electric blue or black and orange. Hopefully I can do them justice by scoring one or two tries." It's not an impossibility, given that the speedy forward scored in that famous victory against UWIC.
Having said this, Ellis will be relaxed about playing in front of thousands of screaming voices because he has experienced the infamous hostility of South American rugby fans. During the 2010 IRB Junior World Championship in Argentina, England faced the host side in Rosario. "I forgot how much the Argentineans still really hate the English," he says. The team was subjected to aerial bombardments throughout the match - though thankfully not of the kind seen in the Falklands that had presumably caused such animosity in the first place.
Here, the worst Ellis can expect is being exposed to the jiggly bits of the streakers that have been known to emerge from the crowd during these grand occasions. He has played in some of rugby's biggest venues, including Twickenham, but believes "nothing really prepares you for the Millennium Stadium".
How does he cope with mixing rugby and studying at one of the best business schools in the UK? "It is tough," he confesses. "Bridgend is quite far away, so I have to factor in a lot of time on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and on Saturday. It eats into a lot of work and revision time, but I love playing rugby."
While doing my research prior to this interview, I browsed Ellis's Wikipedia page - this blog is built on a foundation of journalistic integrity, after all - and found that he had some peculiar sponsorship deals. To quote the entry, these include 'Cherryade, Lilt and Nobby's Nuts. It is estimated that Ellis makes around £13 a week from these endorsements.'
"It's a good deal," he laughs. "They're getting me cheap!"
You don't have to be a student to enjoy the spectacle that is the Welsh Varsity. While I can't be seen to condone taking time off work to go and watch these students take part in an exciting day of sport (and drink, let's get real here), if you do happen to feel 'a little under the weather', you'd be better served spending the day out in the open rather than being stuck in the office, installing Adobe Acrobat Reader for the umpteenth time this week.
If you are one of those who feel morally bankrupt at the mere thought of feigning illness to avoid work, take heart in the fact that the rugby kicks off at 7pm.
It's going to be a magnificent day for British sport. Don't miss out.
Cardiff University Varsity Squad:
1. Bradley Thyer 2. Ross Grimstone 3. Jake Cooper-Woolley (captain) 4. Nicholas Huntley 5. Craig Lodge 6. Jordan Wood 7. Arthur Ellis 8. James Thomas 9. Jonny Macdonald 10. Cameron Pimlow (vice-captain) 11. Rhys Howell 12. Ross Wardle 13. Elliot Jones 14. Will Jones 15. Charlie Simpson
Substitutes: 16. Geoff Lewin 17. Jamie Pincott 18. Llewelyn Jones 19. Lee Bray 20. Rhys Luckwell 21. Alex Devereux 22. Matthew Purcell 23. Steffan Morgan 24. Max Woodward 25. Joe Casella
Location: Millennium Stadium. Tickets cost £10.00. Entry: 17.30 (19.00 K.O.)
For more information, see welshvarsity.com
They say you should never meet your heroes, and it's a sentiment that probably applies to Gavin Henson and myself. Much as I admire him as a player -more than many other people at the moment, it seems- something tells me that I might get the mother of all letdowns if I met him on a night out.
Because this is when Henson seems to be at his worst. People may wonder, If you can't hold your drink, why drink at all? I know many people that can't sing, but it doesn't stop them doing it. Drinking should be an enjoyable experience; it's just hard to know when to stop for some people.
During the Grand Slam celebrations seven years ago, Henson famously got in trouble for doing damage to the toilets of the Yard Bar in Cardiff city centre. The bar is owned by Brains Brewery, who were then sponsors of Wales, and the story goes that Henson signed a cheque to pay for the damages addressed not to Brains, but to 'Brians'. The cheque is now apparently framed in the brewery's headquarters.
Those of us who've had our drunken regrets have committed embarrassing acts in relative anonymity. But if you are one of Wales's most famous sportspeople travelling on a small plane from Glasgow to Cardiff, chances are you should be on your best behaviour because you're going to get recognised.
Henson has made the Blues' task of trimming down their budget all the easier with his dismissal. It's been said that they took a risk by signing him, and that he has thrown the opportunity back in the region's face. But how much of a chance did they really give him? When Jamie Roberts left the field injured at Firhill on Friday night, Henson came on as a replacement... on the wing. With 15 minutes left to play. You don't play an individual with the playmaking talents of Henson on the wing. Did this influence how hard he hit the bottle that night and the following morning?
Up until this point, Henson's win ratio with the Blues was good, and he played an important part in victories over sides such as Ulster and London Irish. There were some injuries during his time with the region, but nothing to indicate that this wasn't a player worth sticking with.
As it is, Henson might be the first of many backs to leave the Blues. Alex Cuthbert might have regretted pledging his undying loyalty to the Cardiff region upon seeing the offer Toulon put on the table for him, while Leigh Halfpenny and Jamie Roberts are forever being linked to big-name clubs outside of Wales.
Those who understand the value of having a dynamic forward platform might not blame them if they did leave. Two of Blues' long-time props are headed to pastures new (Gethin Jenkins to Toulon; John Yapp to Edinburgh), and hooker Rhys Thomas is moving to London Wasps.
While the few recognisable front-row players that remain are good, the strength in depth in this vital area is worryingly lacking. The word is that the Blues academy is producing very few promising scrummagers, which would be acceptable if they had the ability to sign some experienced players.
Sadly, with Jamie Roberts out for up to half a year with a knee injury, coupled with the Henson fiasco, Cardiff Blues' trip to Leinster this weekend for the Heineken Cup has been made twice as hard as it already is - which is very hard indeed.
THE BOOK THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND COLUMN INCHES
In 2005, the release of Henson's infamous book, My Grand Slam Year, was viewed by stuffy members of the rugby Establishment as a damnable move by this brazen newcomer. It didn't make a difference to them that it was exactly the sort of thing that might get youngsters not only reading, but reading about rugby.
The blurb on the back of the book, from the Observer, tells you all you need to know about the impact Henson was having on rugby at the time: "Henson has almost single-handedly ushered the Welsh game out of the age of scrubbed-scalp, gap-toothed boyos into the new one of Cool Cymru."
While fully aware that such books are mostly ghost-written, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. There are some very funny passages in it. Take the team-building exercises -or, as Henson puts it, "the weird stuff"- for the 2005 Lions tour, which highlighted the difference in upbringing between the Welsh and English players.
Told to form groups, the Scottish, Irish, English and Welsh players are asked to act out role-playing performances in front of the cameras. Henson is immediately squirming with embarrassment:
"I wasn't the only one who felt uncomfortable. Lots of other boys were, too. Gareth Cooper, our Wales scrum-half, was hating every minute of it. In fact, he hates that stuff even more than I do. Of course, some of the English boys were loving it. They'd probably done it before every week at public school."
You only need to look at Welsh rugby players when they appear on A Question of Sport to see what Henson is referring to. Whereas Matt Dawson (former England scrum-half and Royal Grammar School alumnus) and the like exude confidence in public speaking, the Welsh players can often seem reluctant to be outgoing and crack jokes.
Amazingly, in another chapter Henson says: "I'm 23 now and no longer considered a youngster making his way in the game. I've got this fear that one day a young kid will come along and run rings round me -make me look and feel like an old man- and that's probably going to be the day I retire."
From what we've seen of him in his recent outings in a Blues jersey, there's nothing to suggest age is affecting his game, especially with the two years he has taken out of the game. Jonny Wilkinson believes the longevity of his career has been enhanced by his enforced lay-offs, and there's a man who knows the meaning of the word 'injury'.
The careers of Wilkinson and Henson couldn't have taken a more different path. You couldn't say that Wilkinson eschewed publicity because, like Henson, he had several high profile and lucrative commercial contracts. What Wilkinson successfully achieved was complete image control -limiting his availability to the media considerably- where Henson, or his agent, appeared to make some pretty unwise choices (anybody remember those Bingo adverts?).
Wilkinson also released a host of books, but most were to do with how to play the game. He admirably saved saying anything of interest until his international career was over but, up until the release of his autobiography last year (during which he signed books for six hours at the RFU shop), tomes such as Tackling Life and My World were just plain boring. Sorry, Jonny.
Wilkinson's supposed successor to the England fly-half throne, Danny Cipriani, never stood a chance in the eyes of the English public. Like Henson, Cipriani had a celebrity girlfriend, has fallen foul of coaches, fought with and irritated teammates (as a 19-year-old, he turned up to his first England training session in a Ferrari), and was a marquee signing for a foreign club.
Such activities are rites of passage for footballers. Rugby is less forgiving.
While the 2005 Lions tour failed to make the most of a Wilkinson-Henson double-act, the opportunity arose again in 2011. Henson was to join rugby's Golden Boy (a nickname he didn't get because of a tanning regime) at Toulon, after a recce at Saracens proved fruitless, in spite of the surreal footage of him doing an impressive 'worm dance' in front of delighted teammates.
In the games he played, his performances were good (but, then again, this has rarely been the issue with Henson). He is alleged to have gotten into a drunken scuffle with former Wallabies scrum-half Matt Henjak, and possibly other members of the Toulon side. Nobody reported at the time that Henjak is no angel himself, having once broken a teammate's jaw in a barroom brawl while a player at Western Force.
Regardless, Henson's time in France was over. Alcohol had gotten the better of him once more.
TV KILLED THE RUGBY STAR
If his book was considered unwise -he was made to apologise to his teammates; his ghostwriter, Graham Thomas, was a catalyst in the breakdown of communication between coach Mike Ruddock and captain Gareth Thomas- it was the television career that really got up people's noses.
The argument goes both ways: if you can't blame a player for taking a bigger paycheque in France, can you blame him for taking a wedge for going on a reality TV show (one that could possibly ensure longevity in a post-rugby world)?
In my opinion, he came across well in shows such as 71 Degrees North (apart from a dodgy moment when he angrily threatened to slit some huskies' throats after losing a task). The morally vacuous The Bachelor we could have done without, taking the cringe factor to a new level as it did - and that was just from the acrid desperation of the female contestants. He was a breath of fresh air for Strictly Come Dancing viewers, whose only other glimpse of a six-pack on the show came from that miniscule whirling dervish from Eastern Europe.
It's sad that a large number of people in the UK who know the name Gavin Henson won't know him for his rugby, because when fully fit, he is outstanding. He was instrumental in Wales winning two Grand Slams, a feat made all the more incredible because, at the time, Wales didn't have strength across the board, unlike our recent champions.
He is a complex figure, as we find all the greats usually are. Of course, I don't know what Henson is like as a person. If he is arrogant, then you'll find there's someone like that in every team and you accommodate them accordingly - especially if they are talented. But I'm glad some notable players have come to his defence. One, Blues centre Casey Laulala, tweeted about Henson's in-flight actions: "It wasn't bad at all. Been blown out of proportion. Club are just amateurs dealing with things."
Though Laulala later removed his tweet, he can afford to be honest about such issues given that he is soon to be moving to Munster. I don't doubt that many outbound Welsh players will soon be passing judgement on the state of rugby in Wales once they are on the greener side of the grass.
Another player to comment on the Henson saga is Ryan Jones, a man who has shown that your best rugby can be achieved in your thirties. Jones tweeted: "No idea what's happened but wish the Henson headlines were about his rugby, at his best probably the most gifted player I've played with!"
You might already have read Mike Ruddock's verdict on the matter. He condemned the Blues for leaving Henson "out to dry". Two of Wales's most successful coaches in the professional era clearly value Henson as the key to a successful side, and I imagine Warren Gatland desperately wanted him at the 2011 World Cup. So what went wrong at the Blues?
I get the distinct impression that some of those in charge of the Blues didn't want Henson there. If it has anything to do with his personality, then that's sad. We need only look at football to see what a toxic personality truly looks like. Carlos Tevez continues to play at Manchester City, regardless of his shocking attitude to the fans and manager alike. Closer to home, we have Craig Bellamy, who still gets treated as a necessity to Welsh international football, despite a back catalogue of transgressions including: smacking a mild-mannered Norwegian teammate on the legs with a golf club; various violence allegations, including one made by two women in a club in Cardiff; and slapping a pitch invader in broad daylight. (He was never going to match Eric Cantona's flying kick on a Crystal Palace fan, but a slap?)
For Henson's off-the-field actions, maybe fans reserve the right to be judgmental, but on the field, he has been nigh on peerless in the Welsh number 12 jersey. It is to our good fortune that, in his absence, along came a certain Jamie Roberts. Roberts won a Lions Man of the Series award, a feat achieved by another Welshman, Scott Gibbs, 12 years previously in South Africa. In what now looks like a cruel twist of fate, Gibbs was born in the same village as Henson in Bridgend, played in the same position, and both were teammates during the Ospreys' formative years.
Henson, unlike Gibbs and Roberts, has yet to experience the joys of a Lions tour (New Zealand in 2005 is widely acknowledged to have been a shambles, even without taking into account the 3-0 series whitewash). More astoundingly, he has failed to make a single World Cup squad - twice because of supposed form issues, and more recently because of a wrist injury.
In 2003, Henson was informed by coach Steve Hansen that the Llanelli fullback Garan Evans (now Scarlets team manager) was to be chosen ahead of him for the World Cup squad. As detailed in Henson's book, his response was typically honest, if poorly judged:
"At that point, I just laughed. 'Garan Evans? You honestly think Garan Evans is a better choice than me?' Garan was the guy I had thrown into the perimeter fence the previous season, when I was sent off at Llanelli. He was a good fullback and versatile enough to play on the wing. But he didn't play in any other position. He was also a lot smaller than me and I felt he was physically vulnerable at the very top level."
Evans played only a few seconds of that 2003 World Cup in Australia. Stretchered off against the All Blacks after colliding with captain Colin Charvis, he was ruled out of the campaign with a neck injury. Henson wasn't called up to take his place.
2007 should have been Henson's chance to shine in a World Cup. Alas, the official excuse for his exclusion under Gareth Jenkins was failure to recover from an Achilles injury. Around this time, it was rumoured that Henson's performances in the Welsh training camp in France were abject: he was dropping balls left, right and centre. Equally damnable, I heard that these preliminary training camps were in stark contrast to the Polish trips undertaken by today's Welsh squad: apparently they were more like family holidays. Either way, Henson was a no-show at RWC 2007.
2011 saw Henson enter the Welsh World Cup training squad in the rare position of being without a club. Set to take his place within a team on the cusp of becoming something special, he dislocated his wrist in Wales's 19-9 defeat of England at the Millennium Stadium. It would have been hard for him to watch Wales's young guns perform so well in New Zealand without him.
In April 2012, the question remains the same in rugby circles: what club is going to want to sign a 30-year-old with a history of courting trouble? Then again, maybe we're asking the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking: where is the right environment to get the most from Henson?
WHO CREATED THE MONSTER?
Not all rugby fans have been so quick to turn on Henson after this latest incident. One from Cardiff tweeted that Henson has been unfairly singled out for his behaviour when other players have done far worse and gone largely under-reported: "@bbcscrumv Did you commit as much time when [player names deleted] bottled a guy as you just did for Henson throwing ice cubes? #mediabias".
Others have pointed out that he brought pride and a winning attitude back to Welsh rugby. Before the new breed of ultra-muscular Welsh backs we see today, Henson was keeping himself in incredibly good physical condition.
Sport websites and the back pages of newspapers perpetuate the celebrity tag that is these days affixed to Henson's name, just as they claim to condemn it. They built him up so they could watch him fall in classic British fashion.
It's easy for us to sit back and become armchair critics -because we assume that people on television are fair game for criticism- but what red-blooded male in his twenties would say no to getting paid to audition thirty or so good-looking women to be their 'girlfriend', as Henson did in The Bachelor? Or, for that matter, would say no to an adventure-filled trip to the Arctic Circle for 71 Degrees North? I doubt Henson has many regrets on that front, other than the time out it meant he had to take from rugby. He said he needed time off from the game to allow his injury-ridden body to recover fully from the rigours of the game.
Back in 2004, when his career was in the process of taking off, my school's rugby team attended the BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year awards at St David's Hall in Cardiff. The Welsh rugby side were there to support their captain Gareth Thomas, who was nominated for the main award. I saw Henson stood at the top of a flight of stairs in his tuxedo. He was alone, away from the rest of his teammates, gazing out of the window into the distance. With hindsight, that image of a solitary Gavin Henson has become symbolic in my mind.
If this is the end of his rugby career, I'd rather remember him as the player who helped bring pride back to Welsh rugby - not the man who has become tabloid fodder.
The dream that was Gavin Henson is over for now. Long live Gav.