News Blog

The Conductor of the Orchestra

19th May 2018

Time flies. I am amazed to see that it is nearly 2½ years since I went to see the Glasgow Warriors play the Scarlets at Scotstoun Stadium in the group stage of the 2015-16 European Rugby Champions Cup.

On that occasion, my subsequent blog- “What’s in a Name?” 14th December 2015 (reproduced in Still An Ordinary Spectator) – did not go into detail aboutthe Warriors’ comfortable 43-6 win. Rather, its focus was on the name of the visitors, who had dropped the original Llanelli component several seasons earlier, notwithstanding its resonance across the rugby world. I was relieved to report that the team had been popularly known as the Scarlets long before the professional era started, when the modern branding managers were mere twinkles in their mothers’ eyes.

Over the last 18 months, the Scarlets have prospered. They won last year’s Guinness PRO12 competition by thrillingly defeating Munster in the final in Dublin. This season, they reached the semi-final of the European Cup before succumbing to Leinster.

For their part, Glasgow, whilst continuing to falter in the European arena, topped their half of this year’s Guinness PRO14, which, bolstered by two South African sides, was split into two Conferences for the regular season. This gave the Warriors the twin benefits of home advantage for yesterday’s semi-final (against the Scarlets) as well as a week off, when their opponents, who had come second in their Conference, had to defeat the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs in a qualifying play-off.

Although there were sizeable pockets of Scarlets support, notably in Scotstoun’s expanded temporary West Stand, the bulk of the 10,000 crowd was biased in favour of the home side. Not surprisingly, of course – biased and colourful and noisy. The middle-aged lady next to me, with husband and two children in tow, was to contribute significantly to the volume with some sustained shrieking throughout the match.

After the Scarlets had taken the field, they were kept waiting for almost two minutes before Ryan Wilson sprinted through the long corridor of flag-waving camp followers to lead his side on to the pitch. The crowd, prompted by the mc and with the knowledge of Glasgow’s unbeaten PRO14 record at Scotstoun this season, roared with a combination of anticipation and intimidation as Finn Russell started the match with a high, hanging drop-kick.

The first minute provided a perfect microcosm of the game as a whole. Wilson made an illegal contact with the Scarlets winger, Tom Prydie, as the latter sought to take the kick-off. The penalty kick, close to the touch line, was then drilled 40 metres downfield by the visitors’ fly-half, Rhys Patchell. At the ensuing lineout, the experienced Scarlets captain, Ken Owens, nailed the throw-in expertly to the athletic Tadhg Beirne and the Scarlets retained possession of the ball. They had kept their composure and weathered the initial storm.

Later, when I watched the recording of the match on television, I noted what the respected Sky Sports analyst, Ieuan Evans, had said in commentary about the Wilson infringement: “Well actually, it’s not a bad penalty to give away. It shows an intent from Ryan Wilson… Very physical… Not prepared to allow any sort of space for the Scarlets and time to clear their decks”.

With due respect to the expert, I wasn’t so sure about this. In fact, I thought that it was a very poor penalty to give away. It meant that, rather than contesting for the ball on the opponents’ 22 line, Glasgow were immediately forced back to a defensive position deep in their own half, the penalty award – by definition – having given the Scarlets “time to clear the decks”. Three minutes later, after sustained Scarlets pressure, Patchell darted over from short range for the opening try. I suspect that, even at that point, some in the crowd had already begun to realise that the evening might not turn out as they had wished.

The Scarlets played the match at their tempo. On their line-out throw, the forwards would walk slowly to the mark, often keeping the Glasgow pack waiting in their turn, before there was a sudden flurry of activity and Owens unerringly hit his mark. In open play, it often seemed to be the opposite – unstructured, almost chaotic, and therefore risky – as the ball was kept alive and each player took responsibility for assessing the opportunities that might be available. Allied to this, however, was the consistent threat of the ball-handler being given two or three options by support runners taking different lines – an approach that Glasgow found difficult to contain. Their right-hand side defence was opened up twice more before the interval to produce tries for Gareth Davies and Rob Evans.

Patchell was the conductor of the orchestra. His initial kick for touch was only the first of a series of long pin-point punts from penalty awards, which gained huge amounts of ground without jeopardising the retention of possession for the Scarlets at the subsequent line-out. Benefiting from a swift and accurate service from Davies at scrum-half, Patchell was also dangerous in open play with his choice of running and passing options and his tactical kicking. It was no surprise when, a couple of minutes from the end of the game – by which time he had been replaced – he appeared on the large screen in the far corner of the ground: a deserved man-of-the-match.

Glasgow have been vulnerable all season to opponents deploying the driving maul from close-range line-outs: both the Exeter Chiefs and Leinster had success with this tactic during the European Champions Cup. The Scarlets, having done their homework, followed suit. Aided by Glasgow having a player in the sin-bin, the visiting forwards drove Owens over the line after 10 minutes of the second half to give their side, with Patchell’s fourth conversion, a 28-3 lead.

Perhaps inevitably, some of the crowd began to look for scapegoats. A dropped pass by one of the Glasgow centres brought a heavy groan and then a wayward chip from Russell was scathingly reviewed by my neighbour – “Take him off”, she yelled. However, the chief contender was the Irish referee, John Lacey, who, with one or two decisions – including (correctly) not allowing Glasgow tries claimed by George Horne and Jonny Gray – probably did not make himself the most popular man in the G14 postal district. I thought he had a good match, keeping a firm control and letting the play flow – and, not always the case with current referees, backing his own judgment with important decisions, rather than falling back on the comfort of a TMO referral.

Overall, however, the crowd stayed with their team and they were rewarded by two legitimate Glasgow tries in the last 20 minutes, when the usual army of replacements took the field and the Scarlets went off the boil. By this stage, the result was not in doubt and the Scarlets management team was probably already thinking ahead to the significant challenges that will be posed in next Saturday’s final – another encounter with Leinster, we now know – in Dublin.

One final observation on the Scotstoun crowd. After 10 minutes, the Scarlets captain, John Barclay, was helped from the field with a leg injury to take no further part in the match. If he does not recover in time for the final, this will have been his last Scarlets appearance, as he has joined Edinburgh Rugby for next season.

Barclay’s approach to the Main Stand was marked by a sustained round of loud applause, as the spectators paid proper tribute to a former Glasgow player, whose consistent excellence during five years in Llanelli had helped to restore him to the Scotland team (with its captaincy) after several seasons (perplexing to me) in the international wilderness. This season, Barclay has led his country to victories over Australia, France and England. It was sad to see him depart this particular stage in this manner, but also uplifting to see the crowd (literally) rise to the occasion.

The Pensieve in the Attic

1st May 2018

[By way of a change, a blog on my (modest) playing – rather than spectating – career… ]

We finally got round to clearing out the attic. A ruthless purge of the evidence of family life over 30-plus years: stair-gates, a baby bath, spare rolls of carpeting…

I knew what was in the bundle in the corner – wrapped in a couple of large black bin bags – as soon as it was unearthed from underneath a sack of kids’ toys. I had tied up the straps of my cricket bag for the final time at the end of the 1985 season. I took it down to open up in the garage.

The only item of clothing was a pair of boots: freshly whitened, a stud missing on each sole and with marked signs of wear by my right toe. A memory was triggered: in the latter stages of my off-spinning days, I completely lost my rhythm and dragged my foot along the ground during the delivery stride.

All the rest was for batting. There were two sets of gloves: one an inner pair, the other (outer) pair with thick sausage fingers. Underneath these was a jock strap – who keeps a jock strap for 30 years? – and a plastic box. Next to them, my trusty thigh pad – home-made by my mother – with the longer upper strap to tie around my waist. I used to wear the pad high up, over my hip; a blow on the bone is considerably more painful than one on the fleshy part of the thigh. And resting on top of all this, three (?) pads: two an obvious pair – again newly whitened – the other a random spare.

Another memory. I always used to put the left pad on before the right. And – again always – with the buckles on the inside of the legs, so that they wouldn’t be mistaken by an inattentive umpire for the outside edge of the bat.

That had been the extent of my protection. There was no helmet, of course.

My bat was inside its own soft protective sheath. I had obviously oiled it for a final time before storing it away because it stuck to the inside and was difficult to extract. (Does anybody still oil their bats these days?) A Gray Nicolls GN100 Perimeter Weighted – a “Scoop” – with the vivid orange gouge on its back compensated for by the enhanced thickness of the edges.

Yet more recollections came. I thought about some of grounds on which I had played and the runs that the bat had supplied: a 100 on the Bank of England ground at Roehampton, a half-century for Saltaire CC in Roberts Park, a couple of scores in Cambridge on the flat tracks of the college grounds at Jesus and Trinity…

These were the exceptions, of course. The afternoons of triumph had been heavily outweighed by the failures elsewhere – a sketchy 9 here, a half-hour 3 there, a dodgy lbw on a green wicket in Guiseley… My last match was a second-ball duck at Weybridge: caught at second slip after I had hung my bat out at a wide one from a medium-paced trundler. I knew, as I trudged away to the pavilion, that that would be my final game of cricket.

In the garage, I looked again at the cricket bag and I realised what it really was. It was – in JK Rowling’s magical world – a pensieve: the precious bowl in Professor Dumbledore’s office in which an individual’s distant memories can be located. The bag contained my stock of playing memories, some of which were now escaping…

The cricket bag and its contents survived the purge of the attic. In another 30 years, perhaps.

The Mist at the Boundary Edge

6th April 2018

I woke up at four o’clock this morning from a dream…

I have been sitting on the wooden benches of the open terrace for some time now watching the players depart, down a slight slope, towards the far side of the ground. On the distant boundary edge, a mist seems to have descended, obscuring some of them from view.

The men are elderly, their progress slow and halting. A couple need some assistance.

When they had been in the middle – in my youth – they had been strong and robust. And skilful and determined. They had frequently argued amongst themselves, it is true – clashes of personality, as euphemistically described – but their collective will had prevailed. Six CountyChampionships and two Gillette Cups in the 1960s.

Tony Nick is the first whom I can no longer see – taken before he had even reached his half century. Hour upon hour, he had bowled uphill or into the wind: the master of seam and length, his radar permanently fixed on the top of off stump.

Some time later, Freddie is the next to depart into the mist: gruff and opinionated, but with a cricketing brain as sharp as a tack. Phil and Don have walked off together, as you would expect the two great friends to do. One was short and round with the hands of a magician at first slip. The other, tall and angular, had followed in the path of the county’s great left-armers.

Then, the captain. At once, both England’s youngest test match player, to whom the game seemed to come so easily, and the hardened veteran – and I mean hard – with bruises to show from West Indian fast bowlers and county committees. In the field, Brian Close would take the blow at short leg, but woe betide you if you didn’t catch the rebound.

John Hampshire is the most recent to have disappeared into the mist. The straight drive was his trademark: a wonderful synthesis of power and grace. How many times, from this seat here on the terrace, have I heard the crack of the rifle-shot as bat hit ball and then waited for the muffled echo to come back from the shadows of the Football Stand?

The remainder of the team continue to make their way slowly across the distant outfield. They are still clearly visible, praise be.

With affection, I recall their younger selves: Geoffrey’s turned-up collar and immaculate straight bat; the cheery Dougie Padgett’s ruddy face (and, later, his honest appraisal of my limited showing at the Indoor School); Ken Taylor’s athletic fielding and his double life as a professional footballer; Jimmy Binks standing back to Fred behind the stumps. And Raymond, the off-spinning all-rounder and, later again, Ashes-winning captain: the cricketer on whom I modelled myself.

Of course, I realise that, fairly soon, I will have to leave my seat and start my own walk across the outfield and towards the mist. It’s a journey that we all must make at some stage. Forgive me, however, if I delay awhile: I should like to cast my mind back and – with a smile of fond memory – take another look at this team in action in the middle.

Funding Priorities

26th March 2018

That Kieron Achara is a big man – 6 feet 9 inches and 240 pounds – is probably a help to him in his current occupation. He is a professional basketball player with the Glasgow Rocks, who compete in the top tier in the sport in the UK: the British Basketball League (BBL). Next month, he will captain Scotland in the men’s basketball competition in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

In Scotland, the principal BBL franchise has moved around somewhat since the establishment of the Edinburgh Rocks in 1998 with their base at Meadowbank. They were transformed into the Scottish Rocks on moving to Braehead in 2002 and then into the Glasgow Rocks on taking up residence at the city’s Kelvin Hall in 2009. Since 2012, the Rocks’ home has been the Emirates Arena in Glasgow’s east end, which is where I saw them take on the Leicester Riders on Friday evening.

This was only my second-ever basketball match. Over 30 years ago – as reported in An Ordinary Spectator – I took advantage of a free evening on a business trip to the US East Coast to watch the New York Knickerbockers play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the MadisonSquareGarden. One might as well start at the very top, I thought. I noted that there was “something balletic in the speed and grace of these big men and the skills that they possess… There would be the careful working of a position and then a sudden flurry of fast action as the scoring play was attempted and defended”. I also recorded that one of the Knicks – Patrick Ewing – was a mere 7 feet tall and that the match programme included an endorsement for a natural control hairspray by a New York rabbi!

Compared with other sports, basketball appears to be well down the pecking order in this country. Media coverage is limited – though I recently caught the two-hour coverage of a BBL match on the Free Sports satellite channel – as is, crucially, the central funding from UK Sport. I return to the latter point below.

To its credit, the BBL does attempt to ensure that, for domestic basketball players, there is a pathway to the top level so that the elite sides are not dominated by imports from overseas. There is a limit of three players from outside the European Union in a team’s roster for the season with a maximum of five non-British players being allowed in any particular game.

The Leicester Riders fixture was a good one to choose. The visitors are on course to win the BBL Championship for the third consecutive year, having established a clear lead in the league table above the franchises in Newcastle and Glasgow. The Rocks’ current third place – the position they finished in last season – is under some threat, the side having played more games than their nearest rivals, but they are easily on course to be one of the top eight (out of 12) sides that will contest the separate knock-out Play-Off tournament in May.

The tempo of the game was swift and upbeat and established by the relentless countdowns on the arena’s electronic clock: the 10-minute quarters (with the last single minutes counted down to the tenth of a second); the one-minute time-outs (when the Glasgow Rockettes enthusiastically went through their routines in the centre of the arena); the 25-second limitation on a side’s possession before it would attempt a shot at the basket.

The urgent rhythm was compounded by continual bursts of upbeat music – Status Quo’s Rocking All Over the World and Van Halen’s Jump being predictably prominent – and the speed with which, for both sides, defence would be transformed into attack when the opponents’ assault was halted and possession regained. The Rocks’ Nate Britt, for one, was impressively quick over the court, whilst the Riders’ Pierre Hampton stood out with his skill and physicality.

That every second counts was emphatically confirmed in this match. Two penalty shots enabled the Riders to take the score to 80-77 with the clock ticking down to the end of the last minute. A final Rocks attack then saw Gareth Murray land a three-point basket from some distance. The ball passed through the net to a huge roar from the crowd – by now all on its feet – and, by the time I looked up at the clock again, it had counted down to 0.00. This was proper sports drama, of the type that has reeled me in over these many years.

The five minutes of overtime passed very quickly, even allowing for the tactical time-outs. At the close of play, it was the Riders who had edged home by 90-88: their ability to inch over the line perhaps indicative of being the league’s leading team.

The visitors’ success was all the more impressive, not only because they had only a handful of supporters in the crowd, but because the whole atmosphere was geared in support of the Rocks. This extended to the systematic stamping of the crowd’s feet – prompted by the mc – as the Riders attempted a penalty throw at the basket and the subsequent playing of ironic duck quacks if the attempt were missed. It was not exactly Corinthian Casuals, though – I emphasise – it was not hostile, just orchestrated to be heavily biased, and I assume that this is the norm throughout the league. I also noted that the players shook hands with all their opponents (and with the referees) before the match – and did so warmly, not in the cursory manner usually seen before a soccer game.

It is clear that the Glasgow Rocks organisation is heavily involved in schools and community work. The match programme stated that the players had delivered roadshows in 87 schools in the current season. For the Riders match, the crowd in the arena was of all ages, including organised groups from three primary schools as well as teenagers, couples, families and office groups.

At half-time, a long queue of (mainly) youngsters formed on the court to take shots at the basket. Given the weight of the ball, it was not surprising that some struggled to reach half the height of the net – including a fully-attired Superman aged about seven – but others raised loud cheers from the crowd for their accurate throws. One young girl – probably aged about 11 or 12 with her ginger hair in a ponytail – addressed her shots with poise and calmness and nailed three out of four from the penalty line, each of her successes barely touching the rim of the basket.

Let us return to UK Sport, whose criteria for a sport’s financial support are clearly set out on its website: “The primary role of UK Sport is to strategically invest National Lottery and Exchequer income to maximise the performance of UK athletes in the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the global events which precede them”. Hence, for example, the website reveals that sailing will receive over £25 million and equestrianism over £14 million in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By contrast, basketball will receive £630,000: the British men’s and women’s teams came 9th and 11th, respectively, in London in 2012 and neither qualified for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Of course, there have to be some criteria for the allocation of funding – and UK Sport is fully transparent on the course that it has decided – but this particular methodology is not without its critics. It places all its eggs in the basket of winning medals, rather than taking into account any broader impacts – economic, social, health – that a sport might have at the grassroots level. Thus, in the case of basketball, it does not take account of the low cost to the individual of taking part or its accessibility to potential participants in the major urban (and other) centres, where (again for example) options such as sailing and equestrianism might be less readily available.

It is a characteristic of modern democracies that there should be a continual debate about the allocation of public resources, the availability of which will always be limited. At the macro level, this involves big decisions: health or education or defence… etc? But the same principle applies throughout the hierarchy of public expenditure.

Hence, we should regularly ask: is the allocation of the (limited) public funds available for the support of sports participation and achievement the most appropriate that we can devise? I looked at the half-time queue on the court at the Emirates Arena on Friday evening – including the 7-year old Superman and the 12-year old girl with the ginger ponytail – and I did wonder if the current priorities were correct.

In the meantime, things move on. Good luck to Kieron Achara and Gareth Murray and their five Rocks colleagues representing Scotland in the Commonwealth Games. And to their other colleague, Kofi Josephs, and two of the Leicester Riders – Shane Walker and Andrew Thomson – who will be in the England squad for the first of their Pool B preliminary matches in Townsville on 5th April. That match is England versus Scotland.

Even Better Times at Rugby Park

12th March 2018

I am not sure what the psychologists would make of this. On Saturday, despite not having any particular allegiance to either team, I was drawn to Rugby Park to watch the Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership match between Kilmarnock and RossCounty. It was the third time I had seen these two sides play on this ground in 2017-18: see “Difficult Times at RugbyPark” (2nd October 2017) and “Better Times at RugbyPark” (22nd January 2018).

I can only put this down to a curious interest in the “journeys” – to use a term familiar to viewers of Strictly Come Dancing or The X-Factor – that the two sides have made over the course of the season.

In the autumn, Kilmarnock were bottom of the league, their then-manager (Lee McCulloch) was dismissed the day after the match and Ross County (who won 2-0) looked to be a well-organised side that might prosper under their new manager, Owen Coyle.

However, by the time of the 4th Round William Hill Scottish Cup tie in the New Year, it was Ross County who were propping up the league; by contrast, a run of Kilmarnock successes under the experienced Steve Clarke had taken the home side well clear of the relegation threat. The respective league fortunes were echoed in the cup-tie, when a debatable 87th minute penalty secured the victory for Kilmarnock.

In the period between these two RugbyPark fixtures, the sides had also met once in a league fixture at the Victoria Park ground in Dingwall: a 2-2 draw in mid-December. Within the narrow confines of this particular rivalry, therefore, last Saturday’s match could have been considered the season’s “decider”.

At the start of play, Kilmarnock were in fifth place in the league table. Beaten only once in the 16 games played in all competitions since the beginning of December, their impressive recent record had included home victories over both Celtic and Rangers. The Scottish Cup run was also still in progress; tomorrow’s replay against Aberdeen will decide the semi-final opponents for Motherwell.

By contrast, RossCounty remained rooted in twelfth and last position, three points below the side above them. The club having parted company with Coyle following his unsuccessful five months in charge, joint-managers – Stuart Kettlewell and Steven Ferguson – had been appointed on an interim basis until the end of the season.

I am a creature of habit: a latte consumed on the train journey from Glasgow; a quick lunch in the internet café in King Street; a walk to the ground followed by the purchase of match programme and lottery ticket; a (now familiar) place taken in the Frank Beattie Stand. (I am still mystified as to how I managed to lose a pair of gloves during my own journey from the turnstile to my seat).

Until five minutes from the end of the match, the action on the pitch was as if set out in the pre-ordained script. A flowing move down the right brought Kilmarnock’s opener from Lee Erwin after a quarter of an hour; the veteran Kris Boyd hammered in his 125th goal for the club within a minute of the second-half re-start (thereby taking him closer to the 138 that he registered in his periods at Rangers); with 15 minutes to play, the substitute – “birthday boy Eamonn Brophy”, as introduced by the stadium announcer – scored a third almost immediately after having taken the field.

Kilmarnock were three goals up and cruising. The near-end-of-match announcements began: the man-of-the-match award (the home side’s Rory McKenzie), the size of the crowd (4,001), the number of visiting supporters in the Chadwick Stand (103, generously applauded by home fans near me)…

Then, in the 86th minute, a complacent back-pass from the Kilmarnock midfield enabled Billy McKay to secure a goal for the visitors. Shortly afterwards, a run and cross down the left wing by the persistent Michael Gardyne brought a second for Alex Schalk. With the stadium clock showing 90 minutes played, it was announced that there would be three minutes of added time. The sudden nervousness in the home crowd – which had previously been enjoying their side’s complete supremacy – was palpable.

There was to be no final sting in the tail, however. Kilmarnock duly secured the winning points and took another step towards consolidating their place in the top 6 (see below). Success against Aberdeen tomorrow would bring a first Scottish Cup semi-final for over 20 years. These are even better times at RugbyPark.

The home point that Partick Thistle gained against Aberdeen on Saturday means that RossCounty are now four points adrift at the bottom of the table. It will be a difficult task for joint managers Kettlewell and Ferguson to steer the side away from relegation at the end of the season’s “journey”. In this match (as in the cup-tie in January), RossCounty had their fair share of possession, but did seem to lack the decisive cutting edge “in the final third” (to use the analyst’s jargon). On the plus side, the squad has some experience – including a couple of members of the Inverness Caledonian Thistle team that I saw lift the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park three seasons ago – and also, clearly, some spirit. At 0-3 down with a few minutes left, away from home and playing into a lashing rain, other sides might have thrown in the towel.

There is a possible footnote to this season’s Kilmarnock/Ross County saga. In the unlikely event that Kilmarnock were to slip back into the bottom 6 of the league table by the time of the Premiership’s “split” in April (after which the teams in the top and bottom halves play only each other in the final 5 matches), they would meet Ross County again. Moreover, notwithstanding that Kilmarnock have had home advantage in two of three league meetings this year, there is no guarantee that Ross County would host that final game. (It would depend on how the other fixtures within the bottom group happened to fall). I might have to make another visit to RugbyPark before the end of the season.

700-plus years after Edward I – a two-all draw

26th February 2018

The 2018 Calcutta Cup match was played on Saturday – Scotland versus England at Murrayfield. The annual rituals of national identification were presented: Flower of Scotland, swirling bagpipes, the red rose, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot… Scotland succeeded in sending their visitors homeward, tae think again: 25-13.

By the time the game kicked off (in the early evening), I was about to begin my return journey to Glasgow from a place with a history of far more serious – and bloody – conflict between the Scots and English. Over the centuries, Berwick-on-Tweed was the location of continual and bitter dispute – including sacking and massacre – the town changing hands more than a dozen times in the 400 years before it was finally retaken for England by the future Richard III in 1482.

Thankfully, the occasion of my visit was for more peaceful matters: Berwick Rangers versus Montrose in the Ladbrokes Scottish Professional League Division 2.

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The later border tensions of the (first) Elizabethan era are revealed in the town’s extensive defensive ramparts that date from that time, the restoration of which now provided an invigorating walk on a sunny, but chilly, day. I was following in good company. A plaque on the walk’s route noted that LS Lowry had been a frequent visitor to Berwick and that one of his pen and pencil sketches – Football Match – captured an impromptu soccer game being played in one of the dry moats. Sure enough, when I reached the top of the rampart, I had a clear view of two teams battling it out on a pitch in the middle distance – red and yellow, as if Manchester United were playing Wolverhampton Wanderers – the shrill blasts of the referee’s whistle and the cursing of frustrated players carried towards me on the stiff breeze coming off the sea.

After a quick lunch in a cafe near the Town Hall (1754-60) – a cheese and tomato toastie followed by a slice of a rather good toffee cake – I walked over Berwick Old Bridge (1610-24) and down the road to Shielfield Park. I paid my £7 senior’s entrance fee and then a further £7 for a Berwick Rangers coffee mug in the club shop, fully recognising that this would not assist in my wife’s current desire to rationalise our stock of kitchenware. The Berwick drinking vessel has thus been added to an eclectic list that includes Arsenal FC, the Washington Redskins and Melbourne Cricket Ground.

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Montrose are having a good season. Prior to Saturday’s match, they were 5 points clear at the top of the league – chasing the automatic promotion slot – albeit that they had played one game more than their nearest challengers, Peterhead. For them, this is unfamiliar territory: the club has been nestled in the fourth tier of Scottish football for over 20 years.

By contrast, Berwick began the day third from bottom of the 10-team division, although they were probably already sufficiently well clear of bottom-placed Cowdenbeath to be concerned about the end-of-season play-off match with the winner of either the Highland League or Lowland League to decide next year’s league status. An away draw at Peterhead in the previous match had aided their cause.

Montrose’s championship challenge has been assisted by their excellent away form, which has gathered in more league points than in their home fixtures. Before Saturday, 9 matches had been won out of 13 played with only 8 goals conceded. It was a surprise, therefore, that it was a pair of defensive lapses that twice allowed Berwick to draw level after Montrose had taken the lead.

After Berwick had conceded an early own goal, it was a defensive misjudgement between the Montrose centre backs and the goalkeeper Allan Fleming, when a high kick downfield was held up in the wind, that allowed the skilful Ousman See to nudge home the first equaliser. Then, midway through the second half, a Berwick free kick taken by Paul Willis from wide out on the left was allowed to pass through a crowd of players and into the far corner of the goal. At 2-2 with 25 minutes left, there was all to play for – and both teams did indeed search enthusiastically for the winner – but the score remained unchanged, the end result being a fair reflection of the afternoon’s efforts. The nearest to a winning goal came from another (and closer) Willis free kick, which was splendidly saved by the acrobatic Fleming.

Just as at Murrayfield – indeed, just as at virtually any regularly held sporting event – the events at Shielfield Park provided all the participants with their own rituals and customs, to be drawn upon as they wished. The plastic cup of Bovril from the fast-food stall; the 50-50 half-time draw (a Mr Harrison won £126); the manager’s reflections in the excellent match programme on the unjust defeat in the previous home game; the black and gold woolly hats; the announcement of the man-of-the match (Berwick’s Darren Lavery); the reporting of the attendance (417)… It is the comfort of the familiar. I also noted that both managers shook the hands of all their respective players at the end of the game, that the stewarding was pleasantly low-key, and that the referee (Craig Charleston) had a sound match.

And so this was Berwick on a Saturday afternoon. A town of about 12,000, of whom a very small percentage had ventured out to watch their soccer team. A town with its cafes and pubs and hairdressers and charity shops…all seeking to keep themselves afloat in a challenging economic climate. A town with a history.

I think it’s the sense of place and time that I always have difficulty putting into context. Above the steps leading down to the platforms at Berwick railway station is a large plaque marking the spot where, in 1292, Edward’s I’s arbitration in favour of John Balliol (rather than Robert Bruce) in the contest for the Scottish crown was announced.

I walked down the steps towards the waiting room. The ruins of the castle were just a little way over to the left. It was 700-plus years later and I had just been to see a football match about a mile and a half down the road.

 

Nationality

7th February 2018

The 2018 Six Nations Championship began on Saturday with comfortable wins for Wales and England over Scotland and Italy, respectively, and a dramatic last-minute victory for Ireland in Paris. Over the next six weeks, there will be the familiar annual cocktail of drama, skill, hype, excitement and frustration for the supporters of the national teams.

One issue that had interested me for some time is the composition of those “national” sides. A couple of statistics. For last weekend’s matches, 20 out of the 90 players in the six starting XVs were not born in the country they were representing. The same applied to 13 of the 48 players on the replacement benches. This meant that 33 out of the 138 players – 24% – were born outside their country’s borders. (The same applied to 4 of the 6 head coaches). For 5 of the countries, the foreign births accounted for either 4 or 5 of the 23-man match-day squads; in the case of Scotland, the figure was 10, including 8 of the starting XV.

Of course, the circumstances surrounding the players’ places of birth will have varied considerably and, for this reason, it must be emphasised that this is a very crude measure of national “attachment”.

In many cases, the strength of the players’ national and cultural identification cannot be in any doubt. For some, the place of birth simply reflects the (temporary) employment of one or both parents. For others, it was the family’s location prior to the player’s migration and full assimilation into his new environment. Hence, for example, Ross Moriarty of Wales was born on Merseyside at the time that his father, Paul (himself previously capped on 21 occasions by Wales), was playing professional rugby league for Widnes; George Biagi of Italy was born in Scotland to a Scots/Italian father and Scottish mother and went to school in Scotland, but attended university in Italy and stayed on in that country to play his first club rugby.

However, there are also other factors at play – and, as discussed below, it is some of these that have recently come under scrutiny, not least from World Rugby, rugby union’s world governing body.

(As an aside, I shall simply note in passing that the qualifications issue is one that has also exercised the minds of the followers of other sports – both team and individual – for some time, ranging from the Ireland football team and the England cricket side to the East African-born middle-distance runners representing Middle Eastern countries).

The current eligibility criteria for playing international rugby union (apart from ability) are based on either the place of birth of the player (or his parent or grandparent) or a residency qualification of three years.

To some extent, the impact on eligibility of the residency qualification is linked to straightforward market forces. The Australian and New Zealand rugby unions have long benefited from the higher overall living standards that their countries offer to promising rugby players from the PacificIslands. Similarly, in those cases where the visa requirements can be met, the wealth of English and French rugby clubs constitutes a powerful magnet to players from overseas. A prime example here is the case of the Auckland-born Denny Solomona, part of whose 3-year qualification period for England (it has turned out in retrospect) was spent playing rugby league for Castleford prior to his switch of codes with Sale; he was selected for the England rugby union side last year as soon as he was eligible.

Some countries have attempted to work within the existing rules to offset the advantages of size and wealth that the larger rugby-playing countries possess. Two complementary strategies have been followed. The first has been to spend resources systematically identifying young talented rugby players in other countries who would be eligible for selection via the parent or grandparent route. In Scotland – to give one example – an upgraded Scottish Qualified Programme was launched last autumn with agents in the rest of the UK, Europe, Japan, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Second, when the ancestral route is absent, there is the option to identify so-called “project players” to qualify on residency. These players are offered contracts with regional professional sides in the hope or expectation that they will graduate to international level at the 3-year mark. It is noticeable that media discussions of overseas-born players in the Irish and Scottish professional teams often include reference to the countdown to their international eligibility.

At this point, the question should be asked: does any of this matter? After all, the rules are the same for everyone.

In my view, the main danger does not lie with the likely attitude of the players. There is no reason to view the on-field commitment to their respective causes of the 24% (as calculated above) to be any different to the other 76% representing their countries.

Rather, the potential risk is to the credibility of international rugby – and therefore to its status as a source of spectator interest and identification. At what point does the proportion of players born outside the country mean that it is not really the “national” team that is being represented? If one-in-four is roughly the currently starting point, is it two-in-four or three-in four, or what? At what stage does the England versus Scotland Calcutta Cup match cease to be the sport’s equivalent of an England/Scotland soccer match and become analogous to the old-style Football League versus Scottish League contests? The latter were representative matches, whose teams were drawn from those (in theory of all nationalities) playing in England and Scotland, irrespective of their places of birth. The fixture dated from 1892, but was discontinued due to lack of spectator interest (and club support) in 1976.

The issues surrounding international rugby player eligibility have been debated for some time. (I note, in particular, an excellent article by Sarah Mockford – “How rugby’s eligibility rules must change” – in the August 2015 edition of Rugby World). And World Rugby has responded. In May 2017, it announced that the residency qualification period for international players would be extended from three to five years from the end of 2020, thus ensuring that players have a “genuine, close, credible and established link with the nation of representation”. The same theme was picked up by the WR chairman, Bill Beaumont: the reform is an “important and necessary step to protecting the integrity and credibility of international rugby”.

The change from three to five years is a significant one: it is a long time for someone to commit to a new country and develop their career in the hope of making an international squad other than that of the country in which they were born. It will also represent an increased financial commitment by the home union on those marquee players that have been identified.

However, it will also have the effect of raising the importance of the parent/grandparent route as a means of identifying potential talent. (Those involved with the Scottish Qualified Programme can expect an increased pressure to deliver results). On this point, my view is that the grandparent criterion should be abolished and that only the parental link should be retained. For many players, it must be difficult to justify an emotional or cultural link with an ancestor who was born perhaps 80 years earlier and whom they might not have even met.

In the meantime, the 2018 Six Nations bandwagon moves on – this weekend to Dublin, Twickenham and Murrayfield.