Thursday, 25 November 2010

An East Anglian Double-Header

The classic picture-postcard view of King's College
Hopperational details
Wednesday 24 November 2010 (3pm) at Grange Road, Cambridge University 47pts Steele-Bodger’s XV 27 pts.
This match in one sentence
CU Captain Jimmy Richards (in the fetching light blue outfit) receives the Varsity Match challenge from Nick Haydon of Oxford University.  To summarise: "See you at Twickers on 9th December".
The university side received their traditional challenge from Oxford before kick-off, were behind 7-13 at half-time, but ran in six more tries in the second half for a comprehensive victory over their “scratch” opponents in this traditional fixture.
So what?
Cambridge have one more game, against London Scottish, before the Varsity Match at Twickenham on 9th December.
Who caught the eye on the pitch?
Two highly respected officials and a scrum

The university side looked good enough with the ball in the first half, but worryingly fragile in defence as their line was broken as early as the second minute.  A flow of second-half replacements for both sides had a greater negative effect on the visitors’ fluency and the students sealed the win with four tries in a ten minute spell.  Only two penalties were kicked for goal in the very early stages - both sides ran the ball from their own 22 as often as possible.  Great stuff for the neutrals and the alumni in the crowd.
This match had the same effect on my pulse rate as …
… climbing over the fence into the adjacent Cripps Court (where I lived as a student for four years back in the 70s) after a late night of intellectual beverages and discussion of croquet tactics.
A snippet from the programme
This game against an invited XV is traditionally “a fast flowing, high scoring match”.  The team have also been bonding in time away from rugby with “fruitful trips to the American Cemetery and the Zoo … as well as supporting the Women’s lacrosse team in action.”
What I learned today
The gulf between the behaviour and atmosphere of rugby union crowds and football (i.e. soccer) crowds is as big as ever.  To be honest, you could really only recommend rugby as a family experience with young impressionable children in tow.
What Next?
The A14 Eastbound …

Hopperational details part 2
Wednesday 24 November 2010 at Notcutts Park, Woodbridge Town 2 Leiston 2 in the step 5 Eastern Counties Premier League.
This match in one sentence
Leiston were reduced to 10 men in the first half but deserved a point from a highly entertaining and somewhat feisty local derby.
So what?
Woodbridge Town’s run of six league wins in a row comes to an end. That’s 19 points from 7 games to add to the 5 from their first 12, so they should continue to climb away from the relegation zone. Leiston climb a place to 3rd but have an amazing 7 games in hand over both teams above them, with an unbeaten league record to go with a great FA Cup run this season.
Who caught the eye on the pitch?
It’s worth telling the story of this game as it unfolded. This was a really excellent spectacle on a freezing evening.
  • Woodbridge could not deal with Leiston’s physical presence at corners and Danny Smy headed the visitors ahead.
  • Leiston’s Danny Cunningham received a straight red card for a tackle. I was at the other end so am not in a position to comment on the tackle itself.  What I can comment on is the verbal and physical dissent by this player.  Two team-mates ushered him away towards the dressing rooms and, after a defiant gesture to the ref, he walked deliberately and petulantly slowly off the field.
  • Just before half-time, Liam Scopes equalised for Woodbridge. Visiting supporters behind the assistant directed a tirade of personal abuse at him, convinced that it should have been called offside.  I was almost but not quite in line – all I can say for sure is that it must have been very, very close.
  • Woodbridge took a 2-1 lead in the second half as they began to make the extra man count, but Leiston responded well and pushed men forward.
  • 35-yo Sam Banya was involved in clever link-up play for both Woodbridge goals.  He had great presence on the pitch and I trust that if volume controls are invented for humans, the management will put him forward.  19-yo Ryan Stafford had a confident game at left back for Woodbridge.
  • Woodbridge centre-half Chris Pratt miscued a clearance which spun into the air for Leiston’s Michael Brothers to smash it home for 2-2, triggering a frantic final few minutes.
  • Woodbridge keeper Glyn Dixon saved superbly from a one-on-one and Pratt balanced his evening with a crucial goalline clearance as the ten men of Leiston pressed for a win.  One point each and a happy ‘hopper.
This match had the same effect on my pulse rate as …
… going to Sainsbury’s to buy a tin of Schrodinger’s Cat Food, only to find that it is simultaneously out of stock and on special offer as part of a Quantum Physics Weekend Special.
A snippet from the programme
Prophetic words in the opening notes:

“Tonight’s match has all the credentials to be a cracking encounter with the two teams placed in first and second place in the form table.”
Modus Hopper Random Talking Point
This is the first time I have watched live games of rugby and football within a few hours of each other.  The debate about the FA “Respect” campaign, whether it is working to change players’ behaviour towards officials and each other, is missing a point.  The differences are fundamental, embedded and cultural and we need to include the spectators in the need for change.

Earlier today I saw a referee with a smile on his face, a player sin-binned for 10 minutes without a murmur, and a crowd that appreciated the efforts of both teams.  This evening I saw overt dissent, foul and abusive language as the norm, and tribalism.  No-one can tell me that the rugby lacked passion.  I reckon it should be possible to be partisan and civilised simultaneously without sacrificing a determination and a will to win within the rules.

Everyone now seems to accept that a certain amount of dissent is the expected norm from players and spectators, and it is still getting worse, not better.  I can say this with credibility because I have had the good fortune to be able to watch 184 games at 184 different venues in the last season and a half. I have no axes to grind, and this blog has never made fun of people doing their best in challenging circumstances. Most of my humour in here is affectionate.  However, I hate bad sportsmanship with a passion.  Leiston’s Danny Cunningham, even if it was a harsh red card, should get more of a suspension because of his reaction.

I will always prefer “soccer”.  It’s a simpler game, the one I grew up with, learned to play (up to a point) and to referee (likewise).  I love the fact that giant-killings happen more often, and that the result of so many games is still in the balance after seventy minutes or so.  I love the fact that West Brom’s next match against Everton on Saturday  is essentially the same game as Woodbridge against Debenham Leisure Centre here at the same time.  I’m a groundhopper because I am celebrating that this is our NATIONAL game, that became, if you like, a gift to the world.

If the authorities want to change the culture, they have to find some way of changing the rules so that teams lose out on the pitch if they are indisciplined.  Yes, of course this has to be alongside better development and accountability for officials too.  Rugby union has the immediate 10-metre advance – that works because gaining distance is an integral part of that game.  It is less applicable to the round ball game.  My ideas for how “soccer” could be tweaked are no better than anyone else’s, and I know it’s never easy to make changes, but the FA should be leading the way more effectively than at present. 
What Next?
Too early to say – the weather forecast for these parts on Saturday is along the lines of, “Stay Inside! Don’t Go Anywhere! Eat Up Your Tinned Food and Cup-a-Soup”.

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