A record season for the PRO12 in Europe!..

.. but unfortunately not a good one. It’s easy to look at the Champions Cup from a PRO12 perspective with doom and gloom this year. For the first time since its conception, not one PRO12 side has made the knockout stages of Europe’s premier rugby competition; The European Champions Cup.

 

It seems a long time since the days where you could safely pencil and Irish side into the quarter finals. The Welsh sides are no longer making such an impact and haven’t reached knock out territory since the Ospreys lost to Biarritz in the quarter finals in the 2009/10 competition and many feel that in Scotland, Glasgow aren’t reaching their potential. But should we be worried just yet?

This year was disappointing by most accounts. In one of the tightest pools we’ve seen in European rugby, Ospreys were one game point away from an away semi final to the impressive Wasps and can feel hard done by after some excellent performances, particularly in their games at home and away against the French giants, Clermont. The other Welsh representative was the Scarlets, who can be summed up by hijacking a quote of the infamous Honey Badger. You could say that Scarlets were “like the kid who fell out of the tree, he just wasn’t in it”. Perhaps returning star Jonathan Davies and new recruit Rhys Patchell will bring a bit more cutting edge next time around. In the same pool Glasgow did the double on the Scarlets, but two disappointing games against the Northampton Saints denied them their first crack at knockout rugby against the best Europe has to offer.

Leinster suffered heavy defeats to Wasps on both occasions and despite an excellent display of their young talent in their solitary win against Bath, they didn’t give fans an awful lot to shout about. Many are calling for Leo Cullen to step down as it seems the mighty Leinster have fallen. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s Cullen’s first season as a professional coach and once he has his first season out of the way, he could potentially rebuild Leinster to their previous strength with plenty of stars already at his disposal.

Perhaps more understandably, Munster fans also want head coach Anthony Foley out. They’ve put out a series of dire performances this season and that’s only the surface of their issues. Fans are tired of high prices especially on less important games. This frustration has of course been augmented their string of poor results. The lack of action from the powers above at Munster has angered people, although at least they now have the new Irish rugby recruit, Andy Farrell to help out for a short while. Rocky times certainly lie ahead for the men from the south. As for Ulster, a different pool draw in my opinion would’ve seen them out of the pool. They were very impressive, but ultimately Saracens were just too good for them.

On a positive note, before this year’s competition, if you said the names Gary Ringrose, Stuart McLoskey, Zander Fagerson or Sam Underhill, only a select few would know who you are talking about. At the conclusion of the pool stages, McLoskey and Fagerson have been called up to their national sides ahead of the Six Nations for Ireland and Scotland respectively. Ringrose is twenty and although he hasn’t made the Ireland squad this time around, he has the backing of many including Irish rugby’s biggest hero, Brian O’Driscoll. Over in Wales, Sam Underhill is playing for Ospreys as an open side and has turned many heads this season, particularly following Osprey’s defeat of Clermont at the Liberty Stadium. The Ospreys certainly won’t want to lose him back to his home country, England. Other stars have come to light too, but to a lesser extent in the media. For example, it’s hard to ignore how well Ali Price has performed in the absence of what was Glasgow’s first three choices at scrum-half

With Underhill and perhaps Northampton Saints’ Harry Mallinder exceptions, the vast majority of exciting young talents spotted in the Champions Cup have come through the ranks of PRO12 teams and their academies, which shows that the league shouldn’t be taken lightly. The big issue of course as ever, will be retaining these players and fighting off bids from richer and potentially more appealing clubs. However, in what has been a tough campaign for the PRO12 sides there is a lot of hope and developing talent which in a few years time could be the envy of the big guns of Europe.

But what do you think? On twitter, I gave four conclusions for the PRO12 in Europe this year; The future is bright, Poor management, Lack of quality players or simply hard luck. The majority (42 percent) chose hard luck, second place being a lack of quality players (33 percent). Lots of people also brought up the fact that money is an issue, which certainly plays a big factor in retaining and obtaining talent. (You can see more about financial woes and the PRO12 as a league in general, here)

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My very limited Twitter poll

 

Come next season, the outlook could well be brighter. Teams such as Glasgow and Leinster have lost some big names in recent seasons and are having to adapt to that. Once they do however, they could be a real threat. Ulster aren’t miles away. Munster have heritage, and will be eager to come back. The Ospreys will learn from their mistakes. There are teams in the league who may not win the trophy, but can certainly make their mark on club rugby’s biggest stage. This is the lowest ebb for PRO12 rugby in Europe, but they’ll be back, they’ll be better and they’ll be providing big international stars for years to come.

As usual, I’d love for you to weigh in either on twitter or by posting a comment.

The Scribbler, 28th January 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

Can Toulon realistically join the Premiership?

Never far from controversy, Mourad Boudjellal, President of RC Toulon, has this week put pen to paper, proposing that Toulon leave the French league (Top 14) to join the English top flight. This move comes after continuous rows between the French millionaire and Top 14 about the salary cap.
At present, the Top 14 has a salary cap of €10 million (£7.7 million), which despite the beliefs of many, the Top 14 is particularly strict on. However, when you look at a side such as Toulon who boast names such as Brian Habana, Drew Mitchell, Leigh Halfpenny and Quade Cooper, it’s not hard to imagine that a bit more than €10 million is passing through the hands. This is because Toulon are currently exploiting a loophole in the Top 14 salary cap, enabling them to pay bonuses at sky high percentages of players wages.
However, Top 14 are set to change the rules and state that if players receive more than ten percent of their salary as a bonus, it will be included in the salary cap for that club. This would of course cause more than a few problem for our friend Boudjellal. Despite his claims that he’s “serious in his approach”, many think he’s just attempting to provoke Top 14 bosses to loosen the laws a little bit. Whatever it may be, what would the consequences be of such a move?
The first big problem I can see is the location. Toulon do have a large fan base and it’s certainly a desirable location for travelling fans to visit, too. However, Treviso in Italy is right beside Venice and they don’t see huge numbers travelling to their games (that is of course a reflection of the quality of their games,too). Perhaps initially the games would be attractive to travelling fans, but in reality, as we see in the PRO12, it’s not financially viable for fans to constantly travel long distances for away games. For the French fans too, derby games and old rivalries would be lost, save for the chance they may be drawn in the same European pool as Clermont for example. This brings me on to the next point, Europe.
In Europe, the current French quota is their top 6 sides and it’s the same from the Premiership. If Toulon were to change allegiance, it’s would likely cause havoc in Europe. Toulon would no longer be part of the Top 14 and therefore they could not take their usual slot as a French side. The real problem comes with the RFU. How likely are the RFU to allow a French side to potentially take the place of one of their English teams who directly feed the national side? I’d say they’re unlikely to agree to it, no matter how much of money Boudjellal throws at them.
One of the positives of the French crossing the channel would be the exposure. Arguably, English rugby is keeping up with the likes of Toulon, with sides like Wasps and Bath coming painfully close to defeating the French giants in the last few weeks and indeed Wasps sealing the deal back in November Certainly, there’s no club rugby crisis in England. However, the fact remains, Toulon still win, almost every time. Even when they don’t play well, they find a way to get the result. If English sides came up against Toulon more often and in less pressurised circumstances, it would provide a great opportunity for the young guns to try themselves against some of the best rugby players of the professional era.
The final point is the elephant in the room, the salary cap. The Aviva Premiership has a salary cap of £5.1 million cap for full, senior players and further money available for Academy players and injury cover for example By the 2017/18 season, that’s set to rise to £7 million. However, having had a look through what’s available on the Premiership rugby website, it was very hard to see whether there is any clause that covers the ‘bonus’ loophole that exists currently in the Top 14. It seems unlikely that any gap does exist though, otherwise there would certainly be even more overseas players choosing England over France. With Toulon already spending more than that in France this season, it seems highly unlikely that a move to the Premiership would accommodate them.
In the end, it’s clear that this is just another one of Boudjellal’s outrageous claims that boils down to him not getting his way and throwing his toys out. Any cross seas move would cause a number of problems for fans, the clubs and leagues themselves and of course financially. As an outsider to Toulon rugby, I hope that the Top 14 hold firm. You’re always going to have teams with better players and larger budgets, but I feel that Toulon ruin the prospect of European rugby somewhat. Teams become hell bent on beating Toulon, even just in a pool game, but Toulon always seem to prevail eventually. If they stay in the Top 14 and accept the salary cap, it would make European rugby a whole lot more exciting.

The Scribbler, January 24th, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

How is the PRO12 faring as a league?

 

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Photo source: PRO12 Rugby

 

The PRO12 has often been marred with the label of the ‘development league’ and has had no easy road since Rugby went professional, with the Welsh civil war of a few years ago still fresh in many minds. With the quarter finals of the Champions cup looking as though they will be dominated by teams from the Premiership and Top 14, where is the PRO12 as a league and how can it improve?

To start with the positives, despite enduring rocky times the PRO12 boasts the same number of European champions as The Premiership (6), which is only 2 shy of the French sides. Granted, these titles are all held by Irish provinces, but other teams have pushed on into the knock-out stages from all the PRO12 nations, except for Italy.

There has also been an increase in audience, both at the games and on the TV. Whilst the Welsh derby day ‘Judgement Day’ pulled a crowd of over 57,000 fans in 2015, the 1872 cup this year attracted over 23,000 fans, a Scottish club record and the Irish provinces always draw good crowds too. According to ‘Rugby World’s’ interview with the PRO12 Director and Chairman, an average round of PRO12 rugby attracts over half a million viewers and receives higher viewing figures than the Premiership and Top 14.

As for the academies, many would argue the PRO12 teams have the best youth academies in Europe. This season for example has seen rise to the likes of young Scots Ali Price and Zander Fagerson, over in Ireland Robbie Henshaw has climbed the ranks to be a mainstay in the Irish team at just 22 years of age, whilst many pundits such as Brian O’Driscoll are backing youngster Gary Ringrose to answer Ireland’s call at 13. On top of this Connacht are no longer the whipping boys of Ireland with quality young players developing among their barracks. This strong academy system can be incredibly beneficial to the Unions, providing young players who have been exposed to quality players from across the World. This video shows just a selection of excellent tries scored in last season’s competition.

Due to the number of quality young players, Wales and Ireland coped with injuries to get to the quarter finals, whilst Scotland produced some of their best rugby in years, unlucky not to reach the semis. On the other hand, England didn’t make it out of their pool and France were left awe struck as the eventual champions, the All Blacks, ran rings around them (and smashed through the middle of them, too). I’m not saying academies are the only reason behind all of this, but they certainly helped these nations and maintained the regional squads whilst over 100 PRO12 players were away on national duties.

Now we come to the flaws in the league. One of the principle problems facing the PRO12 today is being able to compete financially for players against the far wealthier English and French clubs. 2015 was a record breaking year, with Dan Carter the first professional rugby player to receive a payslip of 6 digits when he joined Racing 92. To put that in context, David Denton is one of the highest paid Scottish professionals and receives just shy of £300,000 at Bath. If this made him one of the best paid Scots, what was his salary like in the PRO12? I don’t know the answer, but it’s certainly a lot less.

One of the reasons for a lack of money had been due to sponsorship. With the Welsh civil war and the Italians considering leaving, no one wanted to invest and with RaboDirect bank choosing not to renew as title sponsors, things looked dismal. Since then however, things have stabilised and PRO12 now have both Sky Sports and Guinness on board which will have helped to raise the profile and the income streams.

Another issue which contributes to poor finances is the attendance. As mentioned before, interest is growing, but many of the teams are still regularly posting attendances of less than 5000 people and I believe this is largely due to the nature of the league. An away game isn’t a case of just popping on a train for a day like in England and France. It’s often a flight and a bus, some accommodation and of course food and drink. If PRO12 want to increase attendances they need a main travel sponsor, who can provide quality trips to away games for fans at a reasonable price. With pre-organised trips it will save people a lot of hassle and make them more likely to travel to away games. This is not the only reason for poor attendance, but I believe a sponsorship like this would help bolster numbers as watching away games will be more viable and the atmosphere all the better for it.

The Welsh regions have particularly struggled with attendances, as years of rugby history was forgotten in order to create the 4 regions. This has worked well in developing Welsh talent such as Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb, but many don’t feel a connection to the clubs and interest in these teams is relatively small when you consider Rugby is the national sport of Wales.

Italy have also struggled in the professional era, which makes the bottom of the league pretty uninteresting. I don’t think that abolishing the Italian teams is the answer, nor do I think relegation is the answer. Many people want to see the PRO12 expand to include London Welsh and London Scottish, which could work. However, for the development of Rugby as a whole, I would like to see teams from countries like Georgia involved. For the first time ever, they have qualified automatically for the next World Cup, giving investment in Georgian rugby huge potential. If they had a professional team and got the backing of native players signing for them like has happened in Argentina with Los Jaguares, they could put out a competitive side. Unfortunately lots of players such as Mamuka Gorgodze would be unavailable and hard to buy out of contracts, as they are half of the way through stints at clubs such as Toulon.

On a final note, I feel like choosing Murrayfield for the PRO12 final was a big step. I have always thought that having a final in a club stadium takes away from the spectacle, although I realise if the expected teams don’t reach the final it may be harder to fill the stadium. The PRO12 final last year was a great game, but Ravenhill didn’t seem fitting for a final. It’s an excellent stadium, but it’s capacity is just over 18,000. Murrayfield is over 67,000 and has the potential to be a real spectacle as the finals in the Premiership and Top 14 are, although I fear the stadium may be rather empty this time around. Either way it sets the mark for hopefully grander and more inviting finals in the future.

To see more on PRO12 development, take a look at Rugby World’s “The Big PRO12 Interview” to hear from the Director and Chairman of the league.

As usual, any comments appreciated. Would be interested for people to weigh in on the idea of adding new teams particularly.

The Scribbler, January 11th 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

Relentless Racing outmuscle injury-struck Glasgow

 

Ali Price
Youngster Ali Price in action

Going into this game it was only to be expected that Racing 92 were favourites. Undefeated for their last 8 home games, at the summit of the Top 14 after beating Clermont away from home, playing some of their best rugby yet and orchestrated by Dan Carter, you can understand why Glasgow came into the game as under dogs. They sit 8th in the PRO12 at present. Despite this, many who have followed the Warriors over the last few seasons knew this game wasn’t a foregone conclusion. With the likes of Stuart Hogg, Taquele Naiyarovoro and Sean Lamont making up the back three, this game had the potential to produce a result for last years PRO12 champions.

 

However, on the day it was not to be. When Glasgow’s first line out misfired within the opening minutes, it seemed ominous. Racing were playing in the right area of the field very early on and many thought it was only a matter of time before they found the line. This didn’t happen in the opening stages and Glasgow played with intent. For the remainder of the half they strung together some promising phases of play and looked threatening at times.

Unfortunately, it was another day where the ball just wouldn’t stick. Opportunities were squandered, notably a Glasgow overlap where Stuart Hogg decided to cut inside, only to knock the ball on in contact. It was a different story for Racing. They took their first try on 29 minutes excellently by running a poor Glasgow kick back at the disjointed line, exploiting the open nature of the field, an area in which Glasgow have thrived in previous seasons. Combine this try with two missed Glasgow penalties and Racing went into half time 13-3 to the good.

This is where my report struggles for specific detail. Unfortunately, watching from abroad on a live stream means that at times the game got difficult to follow with the connection dropping or the picturing becoming delayed and broken. However, to state the obvious, Glasgow’s opening 10-15 minutes of the second half were abysmal. Before the game everyone had acknowledged the strength of the Racing pack and that certainly showed. Glasgow simply could not cope with the driving maul, a running theme when you look at Scottish rugby as a whole over the past 12 months. The momentum did later shift back in Glasgow’s favour, but the damage was done with the score at 27-3. The TV pundits put the momentum down to the exit of Dan Carter, but I also want to acknowledge the Glasgow bench, who made a positive impact too. Alex Allen did well when he came on and I have no criticism for Lee Jones from what I could see. The fresh legs seemed to boost the team.

Things look up for a sustained part of the second half for Glasgow, especially after a brilliant line out move to use the long levers of the Fijian giant, Leone Nakarawa to get over the line for Glasgow’s first try of the game. Unfortunately, as is the story of their season, Glasgow couldn’t find the last few passes for the rest of the game and this was to be their final score of the day. The game closed emphasising the strength of the Racing pack with a huge maul to the line with backs involved too, giving them the much deserved bonus point win.

Call me an optimist, but I genuinely felt this was largely a more promising game for the Warriors than some of recent. Hogg looked to run the ball and exploit the slightest of gaps. Youngsters Ali Price and Zander Fagerson both had good games, with Price playing good heads up rugby, with quick ball and Fagerson making some good hits. Russell’s first start at 12 in a while saw him throw some excellent passes. Chris Fusaro also looks hungry to get noticed by Vern Cotter and showed excellent skill and balance to stay in field 5 metres out from the Racing line to keep an exciting period of Glasgow play alive. I genuinely believe if things click next week, Glasgow can beat Northampton at the Gardens and at very least give Racing 92 a run for their money the following week. This all depends on Glasgow shaking off their demons and getting down to business however.

Let’s also hope that Mark Bennett is alright and that Glasgow have no more injuries too as we are looking thin on the ground at a number of positions. Any comments appreciated.

The Scribbler, January 9th 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

Scotland’s Form XV- Pre 2016 Six Nations

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(Photo source- Scottish Rugby Facebook)

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag for Scottish Rugby recently. The announcement that Glasgow’s 1872 cup leg was to be played at the home of Edinburgh Rugby, certainly hit a wrong note. Whether it was the correct decision or not, the way the announcement was made, did little to endear Scottish Rugby fans. On the other hand, what an excellent achievement to pack over 23,000 supporters into Murrayfield the week prior to that, a record Scottish club attendance.

FRONT ROW

I have to profess, I’m no expert on the front-row. However, following the World Cup and their from for Edinburgh, its hard to see past the front row of Dickinson, Ford and Nel. Both Dickinson and Ford bring a huge amount of experience to the front row, invaluable when playing against sides such as those in the Six Nations, all of whom have formidable scrummages. Additionally, in recent games I’ve been impressed by Zander Fagerson. Fagerson is young, but has started to get more regular selection by Gregor Townsend and it seems inevitable that he will soon add to his age grade international honours. It’s a shame to have seen Stuart McInally injured at RWC because he bought something new to the fold at hooker and could make a good future replacement for Ford.

SECOND ROW

In the second row, Jonny Gray has to be one of the first players on Vern Cotter’s team sheet. At the World Cup he put in 67 tackles, giving him one of the best tackling stats at England 2015. He continued this in his MOTM performance against Edinburgh in the second-leg of the 1872 cup. Brother, Richie, wasn’t far behind, putting in a staggering 55 tackles. This high work rate, combined with strong line outs, puts these two in the second row (we’ll forget about the last line out against Australia, where we threw to the back during torrential downpours). Grant Gilchrist could easily have been here if it wasn’t for his persistent injuries and Tim Swinson isn’t all that far off either.

BACK ROW

John Hardie. Say what you will, but this man is a rock at 7, some seriously good scouting from Cotter and his team. He’s an out and out 7, always going for the turnover, with a good lineout, and a killer instinct with crunching tackles that will put the chills up any number 10’s spine. Factor in his impressive offloading stats, coming in within the top 20 at Rugby World Cup 2015 and it’s hard to look past him. I’ve always been a fan of Kelly Brown and Chris Fusaro has looked good for Glasgow, but it’s hard to see Hardie shifting aside anytime soon. It also seems fitting to mention the retirement of Roddy Grant. A shame to never see him with a thistle on his chest, but a great servant of Edinburgh Rugby none the less.

At 8, following a tremendous World Cup, David Denton has seen himself become one of the highest paid professional Scottish rugby players. At present he seems to be holding the shirt for both Scotland and Bath. However, with a back row which as of next season will include Taulupe Faletau, Japan 8 Amanaki Mafi alongside the likes of Francois Louw and Leroy Houston, he will have a challenge. Denton is a reactive player and hopefully this will only strengthen his game further. However, he’s not guaranteed a spot at Scotland if Josh Strauss can find form once more.

To fill the Six shirt I would have Ryan Wilson. An astute tackler, with great strength who does all of the nitty gritty work expected of a six. On the bench I would probably still keep Blair Cowan, although he hasn’t made the same impact with London Irish this season as in years gone by. Another impressive season means Edinburgh’s Cornell Du Preez could be considered, but do we need another foreign import?

SCRUM HALF

Another position, that for me, is a no brainer. I am of course referring to Greig Laidlaw, nominee for World Player of the year 2015. His move to Gloucester seems to have reignited his love for the game and added more to his playbook. We’ve seen more innovation, such as those sniping runs he made which helped to penetrate the Argentinian defence in the autumn internationals last year. His kicking has been as sound as ever and in key moments against the likes of Japan, he made the right decisions to keep us in the game and ultimately, to win it.

Second choice for me is Pyrgos. Hidalgo-Clyne looks to be promising for the future and certainly deserves some game time. However, at times he doesn’t quite show the cool head nor consistency needed for top flight rugby. Rest assured though, I see him as a key part of the Scotland team in the near future. Pyrgos brings experience and consistency to the shirt, which is pivotal as this Scotland team works around having a sturdy 9.

STAND-OFF

This part is refreshing. In my eyes, we now have class options in this position. Finn Russell has been the clear shirt holder for the last year or so, but I have recently been reminded of a certain Ruaridh Jackson. Having recovered from an ACL injury, Jackson was very unlucky not to make Scotland’s RWC squad. However, he appeared comfortable in the 15 shirt against Ireland in the warm ups and was key to the unstitching of an eye-wateringly brilliant Toulon line up. At present, he’s being kept out of a starting berth at Wasp’s by Jimmy Gopperth. The story is the same at Glasgow for Russell, who is currently seeing a lot less game time as a result of Duncan Weir’s development. Although not quite the live spark of Russell or Jackson, he has started to show a new side, with darting runs and dummies, both for Glasgow and most notably, for Scotland against South Africa, where he set up an excellent length of the pitch try. I personally would try the old combination of Jackson with Weir on the bench for the England test. Russell would respond to exclusion, potentially helping Scotland massively in the following games.

INSIDE CENTRE

Matt Scott has long looked to have this position nailed down, until Alex Dunbar came along. Unfortunately Dunbar’s year has been defined by his on-going spell on the sidelines as he suffers injury after injury. In this time, Scott has re discovered his form from a few years back and looks solid on the ball, bringing both physicality and an illusive step, enough to deserve the starting 12 berth at present.

OUTSIDE CENTRE

Another easy choice with World Rugby break through player of the year nominee Mark Bennett. His elusive running and excellent lines have earned him a number of fans, as well as THAT intercept against Australia in the Semi-Finals. His form has continued as he pierced the finest defence in the PRO12 at present (Edinburgh) 2 times in as many weeks. That said, Duncan Taylor has been in form for Saracens, so don’t be surprised to see him pushing for a spot in the team.

WINGERS

A controversial selection as a result of his defence, Tim Visser. Unfortunately it looks like he will miss the start of the Six Nations, but with 5 tries in as many games for Harlequins he’s looking back to his devastating best, showing a rounded skill set.

The other berth goes to Sean Lamont. Aged 34, he is still the fastest player in the Glasgow squad and possess a mammoth amount of power. He has linked well with the young Scottish team in his recent tests. With Tommy Seymour looking off-colour, he takes the shirt for me. You may be thinking of Maitland, but now that he is playing regularly at fullback with Irish, I see him as best starting on the bench.

FULLBACK

Stuart Hogg. Was there ever any doubt? Since his rise to the fore in 2013, Hogg was never quite been so explosive. He has however, added an awful lot to his game. He now has a cooler head for big games and has been linking tremendously with Taquele Naiyarovoro at Glasgow, particularly in setting up one of the wingers 3 tries against Scarlets at Scotstoun. If he can carry this into the Six Nations and work well with Visser and Lamont, it could prove to be a very exciting back 3. There is also the option of Maitland or Jackson as previously mentioned to come on as cover.

  1. Alasdair Dickinson
  2. Ross Ford
  3. WP Nel
  4. Jonny Gray
  5. Richie Gray
  6. Ryan Wilson
  7. John Hardie
  8. David Denton
  9. Greig Laidlaw
  10. Ruaridh Jackson
  11. Tim Visser
  12. Matt Scott
  13. Mark Bennett
  14. Sean Lamont
  15. Stuart Hogg

So there you have it, my form XV for Scotland. This is my first ever attempt at an article and I’m looking to write more and more as I find the time. Any comments, positive or constructive are very much appreciated.

The Scribbler, 8th January, 2016

Follow me on Twitter: @RugbyScribbler