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Change not for the better at rugby union’s grassroots

February 7, 2017 in News & Features

Having been inspired by England’s 2003 World Cup success, I was started playing tag rugby that winter.

Aged six or seven, I joined my local club, Esher, and played through its age-group teams for the next 11 years.

Grassroots rugby is something that has been important to me ever since. Those roots are precious and need nurturing.

A big part of that is the valuable life lessons the sport teaches its youngsters. These include respect for the referee, and it’s always been a virtuous circle.

Young players grow up respecting match officials and carry this through to adulthood, where they act as role models for the next generation.

Evidence

Compare that to the dissent and disrespect that’s become part and parcel of football.

Players at the highest levels harass and harangue referees while their managers abuse fourth officials on the touchline.

The risk is that young players will emulate this behaviour, but could this become a rugby problem as well?

There is evidence that the game’s long-cherished culture of respect is changing.

Steve Grainger, rugby development director at the Rugby Football Union, believes that an influx of new players and their parents is having an effect.

Success

These youngsters, encouraged by their families, are inspired – just like I was 14 years ago – by England’s recent success, but also by the increasingly lucrative rewards available in the professional ranks.

“The stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it”

Grainger believes verbal abuse from parents and coaches on the sidelines in the amateur game is a bigger problem than player dissent.

“We are starting to see some challenges in touchline behaviour,” Grainger told BBC Radio 5 live.

“Traditionally, a lot of kids that have come into the sport because their parents have been involved in it, so you have a culture there,” he said.

“As we broaden that, we are bringing in parents who themselves have had no exposure to rugby.”

Influx

Unfortunately, and without wishing to negatively stereotype, the behaviour Grainger is referring to has been around in football for many years.

Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Football Association is preparing to to relaunch its Respect campaign as the verbal and physical abuse towards match officials at grassroots level increases.

Maybe it is because the stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it – if you are good enough.

Average annual salaries in the Aviva Premiership are now around £100,000 – more for ‘marquee’ signings and experienced players – and gaining international recognition can massively boost that figure.

The top 10 earners in the Premiership all earn in excess of £290,000 a year. No.1 is Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers on £425,000.

Semi-pro woes

Esher RFC has always prided itself on being a successful semi-professional club. This culminated in 2008, when the club took on Northampton Saints in the National League 1 – now called the Championship.

“A club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially”

When they played the Saints that season, the opposition included players such as future England captain Dylan Hartley.

A club of Esher’s size and resources, however, was never going to be able to survive in the long-term at such a high level, and they currently play in National League One – rugby union’s equivalent of football’s League One third tier.

They’ve still managed to attract quality players in recent years including Fiji’s Nicky Little, plus brothers Steffon and Bevon Armitage. The former now plays at Toulon.

Lured away

But living strictly within its means, while other teams have continued to embrace professionalism, means many of Esher’s best young prospects – including some I used to play with as a teenager – are lured away to bigger clubs.

In some instances it proved divisive as players have flitted around different teams, trying to work out which one offers them the best chance of making it big.

However, Esher’s achievements have also accrued benefits, and Premiership clubs often send younger players there on loan. Esher helped to hone the talent of George Lowe of Harlequins, and he is now regular starter for Quins.

But a club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially.

Justify

In March last year year, Esher told director of rugby Mike Schmidt that that his contract would not be renewed after 11 years.

mike-schmid (Credit: Get Surrey)

Esher had to part with Mike Schmidt

Esher’s chairman of rugby, TV presenter John Inverdale, said the decision was entirely down to financial reasons.

“It’s getting harder and harder to justify the expenditure at the second and third levels of the English game,” he explained.

Given Schmidt’s key role in Esher’s rise to the heights of playing in the second tier, it was a sad way for that relationship to end – but such are the realities of an increasingly professional game.

As modern rugby evolves, clubs like Esher, who are the lifeblood of the game, are struggling to keep up with its demands.

The England national team’s record-breaking run should be inspiring a feel-good factor in the sport.

But unless the grassroots game at clubs like Esher is taking into account, rugby’s future may not be quite so healthy and secure after all.

Confusion reigns over rugby union’s high tackle laws

January 26, 2017 in News & Features

Concussions have increasingly become an issue for concern in elite rugby union. In recent years, the number of these potentially serious head injuries have soared by 59% in the Premiership.

Players are bigger, fitter, faster and stronger, the hits are harder, so it’s no surprise that a re-think of the rules around tackling has happened.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly” – Jonathan Davies

Several high-profile incidents have fuelled calls for more to done to protect the health and safety of those on the pitch.

Northampton Saints were heavily criticised after letting their Wales and Lions international winger George North play on after seemingly lost consciousness (see image at top) following a collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone.

North was cleared to return to the game, but BT Sport pundit Ugo Monye said at the time: “I don’t think George North should [still] be on the pitch; it’s a simple as that.”

Long-term effects

The England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, published in collaboration with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, showed that although the rate of injuries remained stable during the 2013-14 season, their severity continues to rise in the professional game.

The Rugby Football Union has recruited former England internationals to pioneer a study into the long-term effects of playing rugby.

World Rugby have also issued a revision to its laws which came into effect on the January 3rd.

It has increased the severity of the punishment for reckless tackles, with a minimum sanction of yellow card and a red where deemed appropriate.

It has also encouraged an increase in any accompanying bans, but the changes have confused coaches, players and spectators alike.

Fallen foul

Ex-Wales star Jonathan Davies, now a BBC pundit, said: “Inexperienced referees have gone berserk in imposing yellow cards.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly. They’ve gone to the letter of the law, and it’s gone crazy.”

“Wayne Barnes admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them”

Davies argued that referees need to use common sense about what can be considered a ‘high shot’ and is a ‘cheap’ one.

A player who has fallen foul of this recently is England international Brad Barritt.

The Saracens centre was banned for three weeks after a high tackle on international team-mate Geoff Parling during the match against Exeter.

Originally, Sarries prop Richard Barrington received a red card for his part in the tackle.

However, an RFU disciplinary panel found that ref Ian Tempest had punished the wrong individual. You can see the tackle in question here and make up your own mind.

‘No massive change’

Leading international referee Wayne Barnes told BBC 5 Live recently that the laws themselves have not changed, only how officials are being told to interpret them.

Barnes insisted: “[There’s been] no massive chance, we’ve carried on doing what we’ve done for a while now.”

He admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them.

But what do people involved in grass-roots rugby union think of the situation?

I visited my local team, Esher RFC, to watch them play against Fylde, and talked to spectators about the high-tackle controversy.

Overall, there was general support for the ‘new’ laws and a recognition that something needed to be done.

‘Protection needed’

James Sharman, a former Surrey county youth player, said a more rigorous approach to high tackling is the best way forward.

“It’s good to see that these laws
are being put forward to help
protect us”

“Having looked at the [injury] statistics, it was evident that it was only going to end up this way,” he said.

“These players are putting their bodies on the line week in, week out. They need modernised ways to protect them.”

Joel Keefe, who plays at amateur level, said the changes have been made at the right time.

“Being someone that plays rugby, it’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us,” he said.

“Now all that needs to happen is to make sure that the referees judge their decisions diligently and correctly. The worst thing that could happen is if the rules were made a mockery.”

Committed

Clearly, this fresh interpretation of rules around high tackles is going to take some time to bed in.

With the 2017 Six Nations just around the corner, and the British & Irish Lions touring New Zealand in the summer, all eyes will now turn to the international game to see how the laws are enforced at the very highest level.

There’s bound to more controversy along the way.

But ultimately, it is good to see rugby union’s governing bodies demonstrating that they are committed to protecting the players who week in, week out put their bodies on the line for club and country.

Is it time for captain Cook to go?

January 24, 2017 in Opinion

He is England’s most capped player, their highest-ever scorer, longest-serving Test captain, and is a double Ashes-winning skipper.

But all good things must come to an end, and Alastair Cook’s leadership of England’s Test team looks set to end ahead of the summer.

“Captaincy always brings pressure… when things do not go your way, instantly questions will be asked of you”

After this winter’s tour struggles in Bangladesh and India, is the time right for the Essex man to step down?

Joe Root, the current vice-captain of the Test side and Cook’s most likely successor, has loyally expressed his desire for him to remain as skipper.

“I do think he’ll make a decision in the best interests of the team, and in my opinion it would be great if he did stay on and lead it forward. I think he’s got a lot to offer.

“Regardless of what decision he makes – whether he’s captain or not – he will continue to be a massive leader and a focal part of this team moving forward.”

Pressure

Former Ashes-winning England captain Michael Vaughan does, however, expect Cook to resign. He told BBC Sport: “His body language over the last three matches [Against India, all ending in defeat]… he looks like he might be thinking of calling it a day.”

Cook without a doubt is one of England’s greatest cricketers, having amassed over 11,000 Test runs. His average as captain in Test cricket is an impressive 47.84, but his recent form in the series in Bangladesh and India has dented that.

Cook’s top score in the series in India, at Rajkot in November, was 130. One century in your last 14 innings is not good enough.

Captaincy always brings pressure. You are expected to thrive in every match but when things do not go your way, instantly questions will be asked of you.

Nothing left to prove?

One example would be Angelo Mathews being captain of the Sri Lankan team. In Test cricket, Mathews’s average has sky-rocketed to 50.94 as captain when critics have been on his back for not scoring runs.

“The pressure onSangakkara was lifted and he was freed up to focus on delivering match-winning performances for his team”

This shows that Mathews has the ability to handle pressure as captain and continue to score runs and produce hundreds.

This situation on the England Test captaincy is similar to when MS Dhoni gave up the leading India during their Test series against Australia in 2014, with Virat Kohli succeeding him.

After a stellar career at Test level, Dhoni probably felt he had nothing left to prove, and the negative of the job had begun to outweigh the positives.

Cook won’t want to step down after a bad winter for England, but he’s achieved so much and has cemented his place in England’s cricket history.

Match-winning performances

Of course, no-one is suggesting Cook should actually stop playing for England as well. As Root says, he still has a lot to offer, and with the pressures and responsibilities of the captaincy removed, he can just focus on his batting.

Cook’s best Test innings came pre-captaincy in 2011 against India when he scored a mammoth 294. Giving up being skipper has benefited other players, including Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara.

In 15 matches as Test captain, Sangakkara scored seven Test hundreds with one double century. Pretty good, but after he gave up the captaincy in 2011, he became a run machine that could not be stopped.

He scored another 13 hundreds, with three double centuries and one triple ton between June 2011 and August 2015.

The pressure was lifted and he was freed up to focus on delivering match-winning performances for his team.

Inspiring young players

Another reason why Cook should give up the captaincy but remain in the side is because it will benefit up-and-coming Test players, with his experience helping inspire the likes of Haseeb Hameed.

“Root will surely become England’s captain and has the potential to lead them to even greater heights than Cook”

The possibility of him giving up Test cricket completely can’t be totally ruled out, and it would allow younger players a chance to get into the side.

Personally, I think England should want to keep Cook in the Test side, freed from the stresses and strains of the captaincy.

Less pressure will be on him, he can focus on his main strength which is his batting, whilst also helping younger players who are finding their feet at Test level.

But Root will surely become England’s captain and has the potential to lead them to even greater heights than Cook.

England look to build on win over Boks

November 16, 2016 in Features

Last weekend saw England emerge 37-21 winners over a slightly lackadaisical South Africa side.

They know they could have performed better, but let’s not take that away from the result. England were determined to dominate, and they did.

It was the first time England had beaten the Springboks in over a decade. The list below shows the past 10 results between the sides before Saturday’s clash.

  • Nov 2014: England 28-31 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2012: England 15-16 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 14-14 England, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 36-27 England, Ellis Park
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 22-17 England, Kings Park
  • Nov 2010: England 11-21 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2008: England 6-42 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Oct 2007: England 6-15 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Sep 2007: England 0-36 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Jun 2007: South Africa 55-22 England, Loftus

England were slow to get out of the blocks, going 0-6 down within the first 10 minutes. However a swift and free-flowing counter-attack allowed Jonny May to do what he does best and finish in the corner.

From then on, England kicked on and were superior to the Springboks in nearly every aspect – not something which is normally seen in games between northern and southern hemisphere sides.

Key stats

In terms of attacking statistics, England made 451 metres throughout the match, compared to the Springboks 395m. England also made nine clean breaks, to South Africa’s four, the pick of the bunch being Ben Youngs’ dummy passes to set up both George Ford and Owen Farrell.

England also displayed a great defensive mindset; something that head coach Eddie Jones is keen to implement throughout the XV, the most important thing being that you have to put your body on the line for the team.

A key statistic in this respect was England’s nine turnovers at the breakdown compared to South Africa’s four. Watching the game, you could see that the team in white would do everything and anything to get the ball back.

 Discipline

However, the only visible downside to England’s game was the penalty count they racked up, conceding 11 in total. It’s something that Jones evidently wasn’t pleased about, as shown by his post-match comment that England can get a lot better.

Skipper Dylan Hartley backed up the Aussie, saying: “There’s plenty to work on, so that keeps us grounded. We conceded six penalties in the opening 20 minutes and that isn’t good enough.”

Man of the match

The standout performer was Youngs; he was everywhere he could possibly be on the pitch and had the vision to spot the break in the line not once, but twice to set up Ford and Farrell.

 A new week, a new challenge

This weekend brings a new challenge in the form of Fiji, regular so-called whipping boys who will be wanting to make an impression in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham on Saturday.

 Draining the talent pool

One of the many reasons that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa haven’t managed to excel as much as they would have wanted is that their talented pool of players is often raided by other rugby nations.Mike Brown in action during the last clash between the teams in 2015. (Credit: Rugby News)

Take Manu Tuilagi; when fully fit and on the top of his game, he is unstoppable, showing this against New Zealand a couple of years ago.

Although he and a few of his brothers had dual nationality, playing for England would be a much more lucrative opportunity than a Pacific Island team.

To put into perspective why many of these players adopt other nations over Fiji for example, just look at how much players are getting paid for this match in the Autumn internationals series.

Nathan Hughes, who was actually born in Fiji, will take home £22,000 playing for England, while his former countrymen receive just £400 each.

 Olympic glory

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Fijians.Fiji celebrating with their Olympic gold medals (Credit: Associated Press)

They have had something to be ecstatic about this year, winning their first-ever Olympic medal – gold in the rugby sevens tournament, beating Great Britain in the process.

It wasn’t a tight game in the slightest, with Fiji trouncing GB 43-7 in the final in Rio.

Although sevens is a very different game, Jones will be wary as to what could potentially unfold over 80 minutes.

Fiji’s danger men

Centre Vereniki Goneva should be well known to England fans, having played for Leicester Tigers between 2012 and 2016and scoring 205 points in the process.

In the 2015–16 European Rugby Champions Cup, he scored a try in every game finishing with six in five matches in the knockout rounds, making him the competition’s joint top try-scorer alongside Thomas Waldrom.

Lock Leone Nakawara currently plays for Racing 92 in France, and was one of the players who won an Olympic sevens medal at Rio 2016, scoring a try in the final in a one-sided 43-7 victory over Great Britain.

During his time at Glasgow Warriors, Nakarawa was named man of the match for in the 2015 Pro12 Grand Final in Belfast. He had the most offloads in the 2014–15 European Rugby Champions Cup with 25.

Fly-half Ben Volavola is, perhaps surprisingly, the youngest player in the current squad at 25. He signed for the Crusaders in the 2016 Super Rugby season to replace a number 10 exodus at the New Zealand club, with Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor having moved to play their rugby in Europe.

During his three-year stint at the Southern Districts side, he racked up 248 points in 36 appearances.

Overall record 

In the six matches the teams have played against each other, England have never lost to Fiji, racking up 245 points to their 94. The largest win came in 2012 when England demolished them 54-12.

Jones knows all about upsets though, pulling off arguably the biggest one in international rugby history when his Japan team beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.

A repeat is unlikely on Saturday, but Jones is too wily and experienced a coach to take anything for granted.

Jones eyes more England progress

November 11, 2016 in News & Features

This time last year, Eddie Jones had just done the unthinkable. He had led a cast of nobodies (no disrespect intended to Japan) to victory over South Africa in the World Cup – arguably the biggest shock in rugby union’s history.

Japan celebrating a momentous win over South Africa. (Credit: Gallo Images)

Japan celebrate their win over South Africa (Credit: Gallo Images)

Now he finds himself with the best winning percentage as an England head coach since Sir Clive Woodward, with a 100% record.

Who would have thought England, a team who capitulated as World Cup hosts under Stuart Lancaster, would begin a new era under Jones with nine wins out of nine.

It is time for England fans to truly believe something big is happening.

With England still the only Northern Hemisphere team to have won the World Cup, beating Australia in their own backyard in 2003, many thought that finest hour was unrepeatable.

Fair enough, that they made the final in France 2007, but they were humbled by Saturday’s opponents South Africa. However, this clash has a build-up that’s completely different to that game nine years ago.

Time to take advantage

England come into this game looking like one of the best teams in the world right now.

Ireland’s sensational 40-29 win over New Zealand in Chicago last weekend showed the All Blacks do actually have some weaknesses, and it’s time for England to take advantage.

England go into the autumn internationals ranked the second-best team in the world, and it is up to them to make the biggest statement possible.

This will be one of Eddie Jones’ biggest tests.

The build-up to these matches has certainly been a tough one, and England’s summer whitewashing of Australia down under has created great expectations.

Injury crisis

Jones will be without Manu Tuilagi, James Haskell, Sam Jones and Anthony Watson – all out of the picture with long-term injuries.

Let’s also not forget that player of the year last year, Maro Itoje is out too, as are Jack Nowell and George Kruis. It’s nothing short of an injury crisis, for sure.Itoje & Jones chatting at an England camp. (Credit: PA)

Although England have amazing depth in many positions, there is no denying that the players out injured would have had a key role this autumn. Watson, for one, has scored 70 points in 24 games.

Jones has had to rethink his strategy, drafting in Wasps’ Elliot Daly for his full Test debut at outside centre, Jonathan Joseph being dropped in the process. This is a clear statement from Jones, who who has previously said he will do what is necessary to get the win.

Ideology

Jones has also said in the buildup to Saturday’s Twickenham clash: “I told the players…. If you are not physical you need to play volleyball – rugby is a physical sport.”

It’s clear to see what Jones expects from his players in the face of the famed brute force of the Springboks.

Mako Vunipola has voiced the ideology that Jones has enforced, saying: “The biggest message is not being happy with where we are at the moment, we have to keep improving every time we go out on the pitch. We want to improve every day.”

This just goes to show how much has happened with the team since the dreadful World Cup campaign just over a year ago.

This is a different England side that are not afraid to be physical, who want to be the best, and know they can achieve their aim.

Jones has instantly made his mark, bringing in experienced faces to his coaching staff, something that made a big story under Lancaster’s reign, for the wrong reasons.

He has had short-term input for his backs from Australian legend Glen Ella, George Smith has been helping out the back rows, and the fly-halves from England legend Jonny Wilkinson.

Quality

The effect that both Jones’ strengthening of the England team, and the success of clubs such as Saracens, has seen an amazing improvement.

Take into account that only two English players were shortlisted for the IRB’s World Rugby Player of the year in the past 12 years; this year there are three alone.

“With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer”

Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell have all been nominated, following their stellar performances at international and club level.

The matches against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia are the perfect opportunity for England to show what they are really about, that the Jones honeymoon isn’t over just yet.

With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer.

Many fans will be licking their lips at this clash, and it’s clear that England fans finally have something to smile about.

Depending on the outcome of these matches and next year’s Six Nations, people will be starting to ask whether 2019, when Japan host the World Cup, could be England’s year.

But let it sink in that when that World Cup comes around, it will have been 16 years since we triumphed over Australia.

 

Give England job to the ‘Anti-Sam’

November 11, 2016 in Opinion

The ever-increasing probability of Gareth Southgate’s promotion to permanent England manager faces its final obstacle when Scotland visit Wembley.

As Matt Law reported earlier this week, barring a first defeat to the ‘auld enemy’ since 1999, The FA plans to formally appoint Southgate after the latest international break concludes with England’s friendly against Spain.

southgate-training

Southgate watches over England training at St. George’s Park. Pic. The Guardian.

The former central defender’s elevation has been met with scoffs and wry smiles alike throughout certain areas of the media.

Likewise, England supporters have been quick to display their lack of faith, through radio phone-ins, in the 46-year-old’s character.

Yet for every claim of Southgate serving only as an FA puppet, put in place as a PR move to calm the choppy waters created by Sam Allardyce’s dismissal, the former Middlesbrough manager can prove otherwise.

Southgate’s public persona is different to that of other managers.

His measured approach to reporter’s questions and intelligent manner whilst working as a pundit, breaks the mold of bashful characters such as Allardyce. In this respect Southgate is the Anti-Sam.

Intelligence within football has often been misconstrued as softness. Someone who dances to their own beat and displays a hint of quirkiness will, wrongly, raise eyebrows.

Strength of mind

Yet no player can survive in professional football having played upwards of 500 senior games, by being a soft touch. This insinuation about the former Crystal Palace defender simply isn’t true.

His decision to drop (or protect) captain Wayne Rooney for the World Cup qualifier in Slovenia, served to confirm Southgate’s strength of mind.

Steve McClaren had attempted the same tactic in 2006, by not picking David Beckham in his first squad as England manager. But the current England manager’s decision to address the media head on, sitting alongside Rooney, also demonstrated class and consideration for his players’ state of mind.

Modern players at the highest level will respond positively to a manager who shows they care about them, and Southgate clearly understands this. Rooney, who has many years of big-game experience, has been assured of his starting place against the Scots, another indication of his manager’s ability to ‘know his players’.

southgate-rooney

Wayne Rooney will start tonight’s game, Southgate has confirmed. Pic. The Guardian.

Gaining such knowledge around the mindset of young people, some of who are 20 years his junior, comes as a bi-product of years of experience within The FA’s infrastructure.

Appointed as Head of Elite Development in 2011, the man who represented his country 57 times would later become England Under 21s manager in 2013.

Southgate’s reign saw the development and progression of players such as John Stones, Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane into the full squad, as well as a tournament victory in Toulon during the summer; the first for 22 years.

Euro 2016 proved that England are a long way from winning a major tournament.

The FA’s mission of reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2020, followed by the aim of becoming World Champions in 2022 appeared in tatters as Roy Hodgson’s team lay dejected amongst the Viking-clapping Icelandic team.

But the mission still has six years until completion, so why stop now? And who better to take the reigns than someone who understands from top to bottom, exactly what the aim is and the process in place to achieve it.

A long list of clubs and national federations have successfully promoted from within in recent years, creating a pathway for former players to learn their trade within age-group football, before stepping into first-team management.

That is by no means to suggest that herein lays the magic formula to success; there are many variables that determine the outcome of any appointment.

But as an intelligent, media-savvy, strong-minded and experienced coach with a working knowledge of young players, England should look no further than Southgate.

Fifa blocking ‘political’ poppies is madness

November 1, 2016 in Opinion

By a quirk of the fixture list, Armistice Day on Friday, November 11th, sees England host Scotland in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley. 

Two British national teams who, of course, will want to pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Traditionally, Remembrance Sunday weekend sees football clubs across the UK, their, fans, players and staff, coming together to show their respects.

Fifa, however, would rather England and Scotland didn’t make too much fuss when they renew international football’s oldest rivalry.

“Nothing is more powerful than the yearly tribute shown by thousands of people grouped together at a football match”

Football’s world governing body has remained defiant on refusing permission for poppies to be worn on players’ shirts, with president Gianni Infantino describing it as  “political” gesture.

Rare chance

For as long as I can remember, wearing the poppy has been something we can be proud of, and supporting one of the worthiest causes out there each year is something us football fans look forward to.

Nothing is more powerful than the annual tribute of a minute’s silence at stadia up and down the country.

“The Three Lions’ clash with Scotland for many has been seen as a rare chance to unite in tribute to the war dead at a home international.”

So for Fifa to step in and tell the Football Association and Scottish FA that their players cannot mark the anniversary of WWI ending – especially in a fixture between two of the home nations – is ludicrous.

The Three Lions’ clash with Scotland for many has been seen as a rare chance to unite in tribute to the war dead at a home international.

Personally, I don’t see how a poppy has any political, religious or commercial connotations? It’s a charity, a worthy cause and a mark of respect to those men and women who’ve passed away fighting for their country.

It about casualties from all sides, so really it shouldn’t be upsetting anybody. I can understand Fifa’s stance on political statements but this simply isn’t the case here.

Blocked

You would’ve thought a bit of common sense and flexibility on the part of Fifa would allow the wearing of poppies. But then again this is an organisation that’s notoriously inflexible.

poppy armbands

In 2011, Fifa allowed England to wear poppy armbands in a friendly against Spain

Not to mention corrupt. With all the bad press Fifa has had in recent years, you’d think it would be keen to win friends, not antagonise two of its oldest members.

Both Wales and Northern Ireland have also been blocked from allowing their players to wear poppies on their kits against Serbia and Azerbaijan respectively.

If England go ahead and flout the ban, the FA would likely face a fine but other sanctions could also be in store, with a points deduction possible.

However the FA have been urged to take Fifa on over the issue by Falklands veteran Simon Weston.

Tributes

Speaking to The Sun newspaper, he told the FA and SFA to “swallow any potential fine” rather than sacrifice the commemoration.

The 55-year old said: “The FAs of both ­Scotland and England should stand up and be counted.

“Both those countries took part in both World Wars and should take the lead. They should pay any fine Fifa give them. This is not a political gesture.”

The FA is currently in talks with Fifa over how they can add their own tributes to the day, which will see commemorations across Britain.The FA’s statement

Support

An FA statement read: “We are working closely with the Royal British Legion once again this year to honour and remember the sacrifices made by those serving in the armed forces.

theo walcott boots

Theo Walcott dons a poppy on his boots in 2011

“In recent weeks, the FA has led Remembrance discussions with Fifa to allow the England team to show its support for the poppy appeal during the World Cup qualifier with Scotland.”

Previously, in 2011, Fifa eventually backed down after threatening to ban the England team from wearing poppies in a friendly against Spain, allowing them to display the symbol on black armbands.

Many players wore the poppy on their boots to show their support.

David Cameron, prime minister at the time, also wrote to Fifa to urge the governing body to reconsider its stance. Hopefully, Theresa May will follow suit.

The British Legion’s red poppy has become a powerful symbol to remember servicemen and women killed in conflict.

In light of many negative opinions of the governing body in recent years, letting our national sides pay their respects is the least Infantino could do.

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