BBC BLOGS - Ben Dirs

Archives for September 2011

England aim to stifle Scotland's passion

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Ben Dirs | 10:44 UK time, Thursday, 29 September 2011


Down on Queens Wharf on Wednesday, I spotted several members of the England squad taking an evening constitutional. Followed every step of the way by a full Scottish pipe band. From where I was sitting, the England boys failed to see the funny side.

Kids' stuff, really, next to the ferocious and sometimes absurd build-up to the Grand Slam decider of 1990 - "I wasn't exactly leading the charge at Culloden," England captain Will Carling told one scheming Scottish journalist - but proof, if proof was needed, that you cannot beat a rugby international between the Auld Enemies for fun, games and trickery.

The Thursday before that 1990 Calcutta Cup encounter, hooker Brian Moore slipped a copy of Shakespeare's Henry V into Carling's hands, opened at Act III, scene I: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends" and all that. England manager Martin Johnson, on the other hand, is rather more prosaic: "There is a lot of history there," said Johnson. "But that is all for the build-up and the exterior. It is about us playing well. If we do that we will put ourselves in a good place."

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Where Eagles dare

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Ben Dirs | 07:43 UK time, Monday, 26 September 2011


Like a cat stretching out on a veranda, ironing out the kinks and the creases, New Zealand is slowly easing off the last vestiges of winter, so that when I opened my curtains this morning I was greeted by a blazing sun and uninterrupted blue skies - not a single long white cloud in sight. I'm not sure if Dulux do a colour called 'screamer', but surely this would be it.

From Nelson's Tahunanui Beach, speckled with families wielding buckets and spades, you can look out across Tasman Bay and see the white-peaked Arthur Range. To this Englishman, at least, it is a view that scrambles the senses - golden beaches and snow-capped mountains do not belong in the same view together. At least not in Romford.

Opposite Trafalgar Park in the middle of town is Club Italia, the centre of the Italian community in Nelson. The Italians have been here for more than a hundred years, lured by fertile soil and a climate similar to that back in their native land. Out front, two old boys do what old Italians do, drink coffee and wave their hands. When they speak, they do so in a mixture of Italian and Kiwi, so that God only knows how they pronounce 'grissini'.

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Johnson finally has something to smile about

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Ben Dirs | 11:59 UK time, Saturday, 24 September 2011


With 20 minutes remaining at Otago Stadium, some poor unfortunate decided it would be a grand idea to stamp his authority on the game.

The pitch intruder in question may live to regret his moment in the sun - you can get three months' porridge in this part of the world for that kind of behaviour - but he did achieve the almost impossible and get a smile out of Martin Johnson.

A few minutes later, when Chris Ashton went over for his hat-trick, the England manager's shoulders were fairly rolling. "I always look pretty angry," said Johnson at Thursday's pre-match media conference, "even on a good day." So those rolling shoulders spoke volumes.

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The small-town values that made Dan Carter

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Ben Dirs | 08:58 UK time, Thursday, 22 September 2011


When Christchurch was struck by an earthquake in February, Neville Carter packed up his firefighting equipment and headed for the carnage. "As everyone was leaving the city, I was heading in," says Neville. "People would put their thumbs up from underneath the rubble and the crowd would roar. But we knew there were heaps of others."

Neville has a tighter handle on the notion of heroism than most - but he is also acutely aware that heroism comes in many different guises.

So while there is no shrine, as yet, to the brave men and women who risked their lives to save others, he fully understands why the small country town of Southbridge is one giant shrine to his son, a certain Daniel William Carter.

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Chasing the All Black dream

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Ben Dirs | 21:12 UK time, Tuesday, 20 September 2011


"When a kid is born here in New Zealand, one of their aunties or uncles will buy them a little All Blacks jersey, a little ball, and he'll be dreaming of playing for the All Blacks from the time he laces up boots." Gordon Hunt, 1st XV coach, Rotorua Boys High School

Isaac hesitates when I ask him if he feels under any pressure to make it as an All Black. Eventually, and mercifully, his mate Mason fills the uncomfortable silence. "I feel the pressure," whispers Mason. "Just knowing there are other boys out there who want it and knowing you have to put in the extra yards. It's important, it's going to be my job for life."

On the walls of the principal's office are reminders that the path from Rotorua Boys High School 1st XV to the All Blacks is a well-trodden one. And not just the All Blacks: there, opposite a jersey signed by Jonah Lomu (not an old boy, but 'discovered' by principal Chris Grinter over in Auckland) is an England shirt worn by hooker Dylan Hartley.

"Dylan was a good student and had pretty good skills for a big fella," says Hunt. "But I meant to ask him when I last met him, 'what's with all these punch-ups?' He was a softie at school. He used to be into the cheap stuff but he never used to throw his dukes."

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England still searching for another gear

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Ben Dirs | 13:39 UK time, Sunday, 18 September 2011


At the end of a week which taught us that booze, bar-room bundles, blonde 'stunners' and England rugby players do not mix - unless you are a headline writer for a red top rag - Martin Johnson's men would have hoped for an emphatic display against Georgia in Dunedin to keep the critics at bay. But on a weekend when some of their biggest rivals revealed high-ranking hands, England kept their cards close to their chests.

Georgia, it should be noted, were magnificent, especially in a first half when they had 75% of territory and mangled England at the breakdown. With Montpellier flanker Mamuka Gorgodze - voted best overseas player in the French Top 14 last season - running riot, England's back-row, as against Argentina, was made to look pedestrian at times.

And if it were not for an off-beam display from fly-half Merab Kvirikashvili, who looked as if he was kicking with a beach ball, England might have been behind at half-time.

As it was, England's superior conditioning told in the final quarter against a side which played Scotland only on Wednesday. While the International Rugby Board must be praised for ploughing money into the sport in less-established countries, burdening the so-called minnows with such short turnarounds only heightens the sense of a them-and-us attitude: come and join the party, have a good time, but we don't really want you to win anything.

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All Blacks glitter, but doubts will remain

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Ben Dirs | 15:45 UK time, Friday, 16 September 2011


When Sir Colin 'Pinetree' Meads speaks, his fellow Kiwis hush up and listen, his pronouncements on rugby the sporting equivalent of Franklin D Roosevelt's fireside chats.

Drive into his home town of Te Kuiti in the Waikato region and you will see a huge sign bearing the legend 'Meadsville - where rugby is the only religion'. While this might be news to the congregation of Te Kuiti Anglican Church, it gives you some idea of his standing. What the late Sir Donald Bradman is to Australia, so Meads is to New Zealand.

So when the 75-year-old announced before the All Blacks' second World Cup 'hit-out' (they love saying that down here) against Japan that he had his concerns, it caused a certain amount of hand-wringing. As fellow All Black Andrew Mehrtens said on New Zealand television, if 'Pinetree' thinks our boys have got problems, then there must be something to it.

Meads was not the only Kiwi querying the All Blacks following their stuttering victory over Tonga in Auckland last week. Indeed, conspiracy theorists have been out in force all this week. And when they start spinning their yarns, you know something like paranoia has set in.

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Russian rugby begins new chapter

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Ben Dirs | 14:22 UK time, Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Kingsley Jones – former Wales captain, ex-Sale Sharks supremo and now head coach of the Russian national team – is scanning the walls of Slava Moscow’s clubhouse: the framed shirts and pendants, the tankards with inscriptions, the yellowing newspaper cuttings and the beer-stained programmes.

He has seen a thousand clubhouses which look exactly like this. It confirms what Jones already suspected: that wherever you travel to in the rugby universe, the essential elements of the sport’s DNA remain the same.

Suddenly he spots his old man, peering out from a tattered old photograph, and a shiver scuttles up his spine.

“How’s that?” says Jones, the man charged with leading Russia in New Zealand at their maiden Rugby World Cup. “The fella who showed me the photo didn’t believe me at first, but then he explained they played against my old village, Blaina, in 1976. Rugby is an amazing thing.”

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The World Cup's hardest man?

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Ben Dirs | 07:16 UK time, Tuesday, 13 September 2011


Jacques Burger chuckles when I ask him to take me through his current list of injuries and ailments. "I've done my knee," says the Namibia captain and budding Saracens great. "I had a 'scope' on that the other day. I've got a bit of a dodgy elbow and I've got a couple of ankles that are a bit loose. But, all in all, nothing serious."

It is this sanguine attitude towards the kind of pain that would have most of us confined to bed enquiring after our mummies that has earned Burger a reputation as perhaps the hardest man in the English Premiership: Saracens' enforcer-in-chief and players' player of last season, the 28-year-old forward is the kind of man who would crawl over broken glass to triple-up on a tackle.

Possessing a battered head that points in a hundred different directions, if Picasso had painted Burger when the Spanish master was at his most surreal, the end result would have been a perfectly symmetrical representation of the ideal face.

"My wife thinks I'm good-looking," says Burger to another journalist, one who is far braver than I am.

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Knock-out blow eludes Wales as Boks find sucker-punch

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Ben Dirs | 14:08 UK time, Sunday, 11 September 2011


It was the classic match-up: gnarled old champ versus young pretender; old smarts versus youthful vigour; seen it, done it versus still to prove anything much.

In a compelling World Cup encounter in Wellington, Wales proved they could be contenders one day. But you have got to rip the title away from a champion, and unlike in boxing, in rugby union scorecards rarely lie.

While you could not exactly see South Africa growing old on the pitch - with 815 caps shared between the starting XV going into the match, the joints had been creaking for some time - there were times when they resembled some ancient edifice being laid siege to, marauding Welshmen dismantling them bit by bit.

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Dysfunctional England in need of expression

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Ben Dirs | 15:02 UK time, Saturday, 10 September 2011


A win is a win. You will hear this phrase uttered in clubhouses across England in the days that follow their brain-freezing victory over Argentina in Dunedin. Because 'a win is a win' is not just a phrase, it is a pernicious culture.

A culture of just doing enough, of stultifying functionality. Functionality is good, of course, but only when married to bells and whistles. And the only whistles at the Otago Stadium on Saturday belonged to the all-singing, all-dancing Argentine fans. Oh, and referee Bryce Lawrence, who almost wore his out.

In truth, the performance of Martin Johnson's side was not even functional. But it is this striving to be functional - a culture that permeates English rugby to its roots - that leads to sides which are guileless, inflexible and which lack verve and brio - because functionality is an arch enemy of passion and expression.

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World Cup fever kicks in

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Ben Dirs | 15:14 UK time, Friday, 9 September 2011

John claimed he was into rugby - "just like everybody else in Dunedin" - which is why I started asking him questions about the World Cup. "How excited are you to be hosting it again after 24 years? Will the All Blacks win it?"

Ok, so this line of questioning is unlikely to win me a Pulitzer but I'm thinking John's reply should fill a blog. Then, a couple of minutes into our chat, he starts railing against the "popinjays" in charge of the national broadcasters for only showing rugby on the telly.

"I'm a motorbikes man myself but it's never on bloody TV," says John, getting angrier all the time. "All there ever is is bloody rugby. Why can't they show anything else? Like bloody motorbikes?"

My cabbie - that's right, the same one as yesterday - sounds vaguely apologetic when he says he isn't into rugby. "I try to keep up to date," he tells me, conspiratorially, "but only because it's what anybody wants to talk about - even the women."

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England pack on war footing

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Ben Dirs | 10:08 UK time, Thursday, 8 September 2011

When it comes to pre-tournament squad announcements, it is sometimes best not to spring to judgement and instead take a deep breath and summon the words of Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking: "How can you lie there and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?"

When Martin Johnson named his 30 for the tournament in New Zealand, much of the criticism - and it came thick and fierce - centred on an apparent lack of flair and guile in the three-quarters, with Shontayne Hape seemingly a shoo-in at inside-centre alongside the equally one-dimensional Mike Tindall. Meanwhile, Bath battering ram Matt Banahan was apparently one injury away from making the starting XV. As one wag put it, their combined turning circles would rival the Eddie Stobart fleet.

What a difference a couple of warm-up matches make. Livewire displays from the 20-year-old Manu Tuilagi, who scored tries against Wales and Ireland, and Delon Armitage, in from the cold after missing the Six Nations because of a ban, mean rapiers outnumber cudgels in the England back-line for their World Cup opener against Argentina on Saturday. In the case of Tuilagi, you could say he goes into battle with one in each hand.

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