Wednesday, 24 December 2014

2014 - A Year In Live Music

Much like I have done for the last few years, I am going to post what will likely be my last blog of the year talking about live music and the gigs and festivals that I have been to over the last twelve months. For anyone that has read one of these blogs before, I tend to split up festival sets and gigs for the simple reason that it makes my life easier. It does make me smile that I have a list of best festival sets after being so adamant that I wouldn’t be going to a festival in 2014, and then ending up at 3 one day festivals and 3 weekend ones (although only for 2 days of one of them). Clearly will power when it came to booking festivals was nonexistent (especially considering the first one for 2014 was booked in the summer of 2013!) Anyway, normally what I would do is copy and paste what I wrote from the various reviews I have done on this page but I have decided against that for this blog – I will just write fresh words.

For last year’s blog, I had 15 festival sets to try and turn into a top 10. I decided instead of plucking 5 out as “honourable mentions” I would just do a top 15. This time things are a little bit easier as I have a definitive top 10, but a lot of great sets that are worth talking about.

Honourable Mentions (in chronological order):

Camden Rocks – The Hype Theory, Ginger Wildheart, The Subways. Camden Rocks was an ace day. The chance to see Ginger and The Subways sold me a ticket but everything else I saw that day made it a great day. The Hype Theory were a band I checked out before going to the festival briefly and decided I wanted to see, and they were excellent. It is something I will definitely consider going to most years now (although annoyingly, it does seem to clash with the Premiership Rugby Final – so if I go in 2015, I’ll be making the decision about going nearer the time).

Download – Skindred, Flogging Molly, Bad Religion, Ginger Wildheart, Linkin Park. Download 2014 was the fourth year in a row I had been at Download in some form or another and it was a great one. Skindred were their usual ace selves, Flogging Molly were ace, Bad Religion were so much better than I thought they would be (not that I thought they’d be bad mind!), Ginger’s acoustic set after The Wildhearts played was a great sing along. Finally, Linkin Park make this list and not the top 10 purely because I only stayed to watch them play Hybrid Theory. I’m not a fan of their albums following Meteora (aside from the latest one, Hunting Party) and decided to leave knowing what I had seen was immense.

British Summer Time – Faith No More, Gallows. This was my first visit to Hyde Park and actually going inside the arena (as opposed to sitting outside and listening for free) since 2008. When this line up was announced, I knew I had to buy a ticket. There were a lot of great bands that day, but Faith No More on the main stage smashed it (despite some sound issues) and over on one of the seemingly many little stages, Gallows were immense. The organisers had replicated a small club venue at their festival and to see Gallows in that environment was superb. However, a light bulb or two inside might have made it a bit better!

Sonisphere – Calling All Cars, Eureka Machines, Iron Maiden, Sweet Savage. I only went to the Saturday and Sunday of Sonisphere (due to the BST line up on the Friday). Calling All Cars were the alternative to Babymetal and I thought they were great. What probably made them better was the fact they had a small crowd and they still smashed their set. Eureka Machines are great live, always (you will see their name pop up a few times in this post) and it was cool to see them at one of the countries “major” festivals. Iron Maiden were great as ever and the Maiden England setlist for 2014 was great. They are an honourable mention as I wasn’t feeling too grand during their set and couldn’t enjoy it as much as I normally would have done. The only honourable mention from the Sunday is Sweet Savage. I saw them at Wacken in 2008 and I’m not sure what happened between 2008 and 2014 but they were far better in 2014. I suspect it could be the fact I was seeing them in a small tent as opposed to seeing them on a massive main stage (when I expected them to be Exodus). Whatever the reason, they were really good and deserve their place on this list.

Wacken – John Diva & The Rockets Of Love, The Vintage Caravan, Hell, Megadeth, Amon Amarth. John Diva and his band played famous songs that John Diva had a hand in writing, or just songs he liked. It was a cracking covers set. The Vintage Caravan and Hell were back to back in the Bullhead City Circus tent and I am really pleased that I enjoyed them enough to include them here as I missed Slayer and Carcass to watch them (along with others). Megadeth were the best I’ve ever seen them on this day and Amon Amarth were just great as well.

Top 10:

10. Eureka Machines – Camden Rocks. This was the second time for me seeing Eureka Machines in 2014 (the first you’ll read more about later) and it was excellent – they were the best band of Camden Rocks for me. One thing which I thought was cool was that they played the Electric Ballroom, the festivals biggest stage and had a decent size crowd. This was cool because when they normally play London, they tend to play in rooms 1/6th of the size of the Ballroom. As I said for their Sonisphere performance, they just seem incapable of having a bad set from what I can tell. This day was no exception to that.

9. Against Me! – Download. My first introduction to Against Me! was on the WWE DVD about CM Punk. I really enjoyed the song (which if memory serves was I Was A Teenage Anarchist) but didn’t bother to check them out properly. A shame really as I did when they were announced for Download and discovered a great band that had just released a belter of a new album. Their set though was something else; they had 30 minutes in the tent and just smashed through song after song only pausing towards the end to thank the crowd and express their hope they will be back soon. It was one of the best sets from the weekend and that is no exaggeration.

8. The Wildhearts – Download. Last time The Wildhearts played Download, they had their power cut after encouraging the crowd to bombard the stage with anything they could find. One memorable moment from this set was Ginger catching an egg that was thrown. This year’s set was slightly calmer in that hardly anything was thrown. That was the only thing calm about this affair though. I found myself front and almost centre right by the barrier and for 40 minutes, everyone was dancing, jumping, singing and having a great time. The set was packed with as many hits as they could play which made for an even more fun atmosphere.

7. The Offspring – Download. I have made no secret of the fact that the only time I had seen them live previously, I thought they were disappointing. This time, around, they were doing an anniversary tour for their album Smash (which would take up most of the set) and follow it up with a short “best of the rest” set. I’m not sure if it was because they headlined the stage this time (as opposed to being a part of the undercard when I saw them last) but they were excellent.  It was really cool to hear them play Smash in full with the slightest of changes to the running order in moving Self-Esteem to the end of the play-through. A smart choice as it got everyone dancing just before they launched into their second set. The Offspring were a great end to the first day at Download for me.

6. Twisted Sister – Download. Whoever decided that Twisted Sister and Fall Out Boy would clash directly at Download is a cruel person. However, I was not missing Twisted Sister again (having opted in 2011 to see Avenged Sevenfold and stay towards the front of the stage for SOAD). Not missing Twisted Sister was an excellent move as they were just fantastic. Performance wise they were just spot on. The main thing I remember from this set, which still makes me smile, was during the song “Burn In Hell”, a plane came into landing at the nearby DHL airstrip. Not expecting this, Dee Snider, the Twisted Sister front man stopped the song as seeing a plane that close shocked him and suggested bands should be warned about that sort of thing and then said “I just had 9/11 flashbacks” and then said “how can I carry on singing a song called Burn In Hell now?!” which made everyone around laugh. Closing on a cover of Motorhead – Born To Raise Hell, I left that stage chuffed to say I had seen Twisted Sister live, and they were every bit as good as I hoped they be, and then some.   

5. Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls – Sonisphere. After seeing Frank Turner for the first time in 2011 at Reading, and realising just how good he is, I was interested to know why it only seemed to be Reading/Leeds of the major festivals that would give him a significant spot on the main stage (Download had booked him to headline the 3rd stage against Linkin Park in 2011). So, when Sonisphere did this year, it didn’t matter who was playing at the same time, I was going to be there watching. It was a good decision as predictably, Frank Turner was ace. The setlist was a condensed version of the arena tour setlist from earlier in the year but that was hardly an issue as that setlist was damn near perfect (I reckon my opinion of that tour might be mentioned later...maybe).

In the various drafting of the lists that appear in this blog, all 4 of the next bands have all been number 1 at some point. What is being posted is my current opinion of how I’d rank them, knowing full well that if I thought about this again, it could well change.

4. Black Sabbath – British Summer Time. In the past, just before seeing Ozzy live either solo, or with Sabbath, I have expressed my hope that his voice holds out. I’ve seen a number of live reports where it didn’t and at Wacken 2011, he was off stage for quite a while in the middle of the set. I am pleased to report that his voice held up and Black Sabbath were once again excellent. A shorter version of their Download 2012 set with some new material thrown in as well was the setlist for the day and this was no bad thing. This show ended their tour and ended with a bang. At one point, it seemed as though this might be their last gig. If it transpires that it was, it was one hell of a way to go out.

3. Avantasia – Wacken. I said after seeing them at Wacken 2011 that I would definitely consider flying to mainland Europe to see them again as they don’t play the UK. Sadly, when they did play the UK in 2013, I didn’t discover until afterwards just how do-able it was, so when they were announced for Wacken 2014, I wanted to go. I don’t know if it was as good as their set in 2011, but what I do know is that it was epic. Given that they were the main draw for me going, they made going worthwhile, which is all I can ask for really. Admittedly, the next day when I was getting harassed by a cleaner at Hamburg Airport (who spoke German and Spanish but not English) while taking a shower, I did wonder if it was all worth it, but that is another story for another day.

2. Metallica – Sonisphere. There have been four Sonisphere festivals at Knebworth, and Metallica have headlined 3 of them. Now, if any other festival with any other band did this, I would likely be critical. However, it is Metallica and I am more than prepared to be accused of having an inconsistent train of thought by being fine with this. This time around, they were doing Metallica: By Request which meant the fans could vote for the set. I had hoped for a set full of rarities but it was not to be (who would have guessed that the songs people like the most would be voted for?). I did get to hear them play their cover of Whiskey In the Jar though, which made me exceedingly happy. This was the 11th time I’ve seen Metallica and I’ve never walked away disappointed. They’ve been announced for Reading and Leeds. There is a chance one of those shows might be number 12. Maybe

1. Aerosmith – Download/Calling Festival. Am I cheating by including both of their sets here? Probably. After they headlined Download in 2010, I didn’t know if I’d get the chance to see them live, let alone twice. Aerosmith are one of those bands that have a very distinctive sound, and a major part of that sound comes from Steven Tyler’s vocals. I would go so far as to say he would be irreplaceable if he left Aerosmith. I knew for me there were a couple of songs which would judge how good his voice still is. One of those was I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing – and he completely nailed it. For both sets, the band were just phenomenal. One final thing to mention about the sets is that in both of them, they covered The Beatles song Come Together. That was not something I expected (the first time at least) but something I loved. I walked away from their set at Download saying they could well be the best headliner I’ve seen play at Donington. They would be up against some stiff competition for sure, but they would definitely be in the top 5, if not top 3.

Even when writing that list, I added more honourable mentions to it. The top 10 was pretty much sorted straight away (in terms of what was in it, the order changed significantly as I was writing it up). There were a lot of bands I could have mentioned though. I saw a lot of good festival sets this year. I also went to a lot of good gigs. Much like the last list, I will do honourable mentions first with some words and then count down a top 10. The honourable mentions I will list in chronological order.

Honourable Mentions (in chronological order):

Less Than Jake/Reel Big Fish/Zebrahead – Guildhall, Portsmouth. Originally scheduled for the Pyramids but moved after the Pyramids got damaged during a storm which battered the south coast. This gig was ace. I think the only downside to it for me was that Reel Big Fish didn’t end the night as I preferred them to Less Than Jake, who were still great mind.

Black Stone Cherry – KOKO, London. The Southern Hospitality tour was a special short run in the UK in smaller rooms before they came back and hit arenas. It made me smile that the 1,400 capacity KOKO was now considered a smaller room, as when I first saw them, they were playing the Wedgewood Rooms in Portsmouth (400 capacity). It was a great gig although the Q&A portion of the gig certainly seemed odd.

Amaranthe – o2 Academy Islington, London. After discovering Amaranthe at Wacken 2012, I really wanted to see them live again. I seem to recall them playing pretty much everything I wanted to hear them play, which was great. One thing I do remember is the gig ending and stepping outside the venue to see it was 9.30pm. I knew there was an early curfew but not that early!

The Wildhearts – Electric Ballroom, London. The Wildhearts, The Von Hertzen Brothers and Hey! Hello! – what’s not to like?! This was the last date of the tour and the second night of the tour I went to. I wish I had been able to go to one of the first few nights as they had some songs in that set I’d have loved to hear live (Nexus Icon being the main one). That aside, I loved this set. One of the highlights for me was the first time I had heard something from the album Endless Nameless performed live, which was ace.

Edguy – o2 Academy Islington, London. The previous times that I had seen Edguy, they had been superb. This was no exception. They released an album this year called Space Police which was great and their set contained the best off of that album + some other material. I was chuffed that they played their cover of Falco – Rock Me Amadeus alongside the bonus track England. Makes sense after all, it was in England (and we do have Steve Harris).

Black Stone Cherry – Wembley Arena, London. I mentioned earlier about the first time I saw BSC was in a small club in Portsmouth that held 400 people. There was something very cool about seeing them in a room with 8000+ people, all there to see them. They proved through their performance that they deserved to be headlining Wembley Arena.

Skindred – Talking Heads, Southampton. Skindred played in a pub in Southampton. Do I need to say much more? This band is far too big to be playing pubs and yet, here they were. It was immense seeing them in this environment. They also introduced me to a band called MakingMonsters, who are a good band.

Eureka Machines – Barfly, London. I made a snap call at about 6am the morning of this gig to jump on a train after work and head to London for this gig. I made the right decision as it were excellent. They played a couple of songs off of their new album which is due for release next year (which after this gig I am even more excited about hearing). They also played a cover from their newly released 80s covers EP “Remain in Eighties”. Very happy I decided to go. Eureka Machines just don’t do bad gigs.

A Day To Remember – Guildhall, Portsmouth. This would have been in the top 5 had the band played their full set. Just over half way through, someone jumped off the balcony. That balcony is probably 20 foot high. It didn’t well for the guy who jumped who apparently ended up with a fractured skull. The gig was ended early which (now the information is all out) was a damn shame as A Day To Remember were sounding fantastic.

Epica – The Forum, London. After much contemplation I decided to grab a ticket for this gig. This was a good call as Epica were really good. It was technically a co-headliner with Dragonforce (a decision which still baffles me) who were better than I thought they would be, but that wasn’t hard as I wasn’t overly looking forward to seeing them. So in the end, it all worked out nicely.

Machine Head – Guildhall, Portsmouth. I entered the venue as Machine Head were playing their first song which was decent timing. It was the first time I’d seen them play a full set on their own headline tour and it has to be said, they were excellent. I’ve never seen them be subpar, but when they are headlining and on stage for 2+ hours, even better.

Kreator – The Forum, London. This was the same venue I saw them in last year. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered with this gig but the support was Arch Enemy, who I missed at Wacken in favour of seeing Prong so I wanted to see them. Both bands were excellent and I’d say this gig was the best Kreator show I’d been to.

That was a lot of honourable mentions! However, for me, the next ten gigs were just that little bit special (or in some cases, a lot special).

Top Ten:

10. Nine Inch Nails – LG Arena, Birmingham. This tour falling at the same time as the Heineken Cup final was a ball ache! I was in Cardiff the night they played London so I headed to Birmingham the weekend before to make sure I caught a night on this tour. I wasn’t disappointed as NIN delivered in a big way. The one thing which surprised me was how empty the arena was. That didn’t detract from how good the gig was mind. I really liked Hesitation Marks and we got a lot of it played on this night, which was ace.

9. The Ginger Wildheart “Oh F**K I’m 50” Birthday Bash – The Forum, London. Ginger said something to the effect early on in this gig after belting out two songs from G.A.S.S that this wasn’t really a gig, it was more of a party. He wasn’t wrong. Each section of the gig had a standing band with special guests coming on at different times. Some of the highlights from this show include having the guys from Exit_International join in on bass for Body Parts (that song with 3 bassists is cool), a Mutation song, Rats, being played with Ginger on drums followed by a cover of Howling Willie Cunt’s Country Boy, a number of Wildhearts songs with two drummers, and for Suckerpunch, two drummer and two bassists (as predicted by Ginger, it did sound seismic). Some of the guest vocalists for Wildhearts stuff was pretty special as well – the stand out one for my money was Yolanda Quartey on vocal duties – immense! The gig concluded with 29x the Pain and with everyone coming back out on stage for I Wanna Go Where The People Go. One hell of a party indeed.

8. Against Me! – Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth. This tour was announced a few weeks after Download if memory serves and with their set fresh in my mind, I bought a ticket as soon as I could. I was also really pleased to hear that the support was Billy the Kid, who I had wanted to see live for a while. She was great. I had wondered though if Against Me! could better their Download Festival set where they crammed in 10 songs in 30mins. They were on stage for about 75 minutes and aside for when they went off stage for a brief period before coming back out for their encore, they smashed through their set. It was better than the Download set and then some.

7. Eureka Machines – The Borderline, London. I had a golden ticket for this gig, which meant that I was among a small crowd of 50 who got an acoustic set, a signed poster and a cup of tea. The acoustic set was ace, in which they played a song I really wanted them to play live called Scream Eureka. I’m not sure how many times I can get away with typing the same sentence but I’ll do it again. I don’t think it is possible for Eureka Machines to play a bad set. A personal highlight for me was hearing them play Do or Die, a song I liked but didn’t listen to very often at all. Following this gig, this song has become one of my favourites. I’m hoping that following the release of their new album (tentatively titled Brainwaves), there will be another tour. If so, count me in!

6. Volbeat – Pyramids, Portsmouth. Volbeat are one of my favourite live bands. I was gutted when they cancelled their planned show at the Wedgewood Rooms in 2010. They said when that tour was cancelled that they would make up for it, and so with this tour, it came to Portsmouth but in a bigger room. That was the only thing wrong with this tour is that it was in the Pyramids as opposed to the wedge but you can’t win them all. The support for this show was Hatebreed which was different but excellent at the same time. Since I’ve started seeing Volbeat live, they tend to play more from their later albums live and very little from the early albums apart from a few staples, which is fine by me (although I do cast an envious eye at the one and only Euro show in 2015 in Denmark which will have a setlist based around the first album). The big surprise of the night was Barney from Napalm Death coming out to do Evelyn with Volbeat. That, like the previous times I’ve seen it happen, was just immense.

5. Mongol Horde – Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth. Frank Turner, Matt Nasir (from the Sleeping Souls) and Ben Dawson (from Million Dead) make up Mongol Horde and their album is very different to any Frank Turner release since he was in Million Dead, The album is superb. Live however? It was something else. They played their whole album with a few covers as well (including Weenie Beenie by Foo Fighters and Refuse/Resist by Sepultura). I now can’t listen to their album without thinking about just how good that gig was, which is why they are on this list.

4. Pearl Jam – National Bowl, Milton Keynes. I fell to sleep during the main support act, which probably says all I need to say about them. Pearl Jam though were magnificent. They were on stage for nearly 3 hours. I had given thought to trying to get near the front but decided instead to sit on the hill instead and watch from a distance. I’m glad I did that as it was an ace experience. The only downside to this gig was of my own doing which was choosing the worst time to go to the toilet. As I entered the urinals, I could hear Pearl Jam start playing Even Flow. Poor call on my part, but then the whole thing was just immense so it was alright in the end.

3. Foo Fighters – Islington Assembly Hall, London. The Foo Fighters playing a venue that holds 800 people, what is not to love! Billed as The Holy Shits, they played 3 UK shows in the week they were in the country for the Invictus Games closing ceremony. I was lucky enough to be able to snag a ticket to the last one. There was the odd rarity thrown in but this was a set of Foo Fighters playing their more well known songs to a very appreciative crowd. I still can’t quite believe I saw Foo Fighters in that size room and also that I forgot just how good they are live. Anyone going to see them in 2015 is in for a treat.

2. Reel Big Fish – Wedgewood Rooms, Portsmouth. I think this gig certainly takes the title of most fun I’ve had a gig in a long time (that is a shit title though, that is under referral). This gig was immense. As soon as they came on stage, the room started dancing and the venue got hot. The centre of the room just turned into a really happy mosh pit – one where people were occasionally bumping into each other but were generally just happy to be there. There is very little more I can say about this gig without stressing again just how fun it was, so there, it was fun!

1. Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls – Guildhall, Portsmouth. Before talking about how good Frank Turner was, I want to just give a quick tip of the cap in the direction of Flogging Molly, who were the main support for the evening. Had they headlined, I’d have left more than happy and that gig probably would have made this list (perhaps not number 1 but still). They were outstanding and set the bar really quite high. I guess the thing about having supports that set the bar quite high is that it means you really have to do something to be better, and Frank Turner managed it with ease. Picking a setlist covering all of his albums, while still leaning heavily on his latest release Tape Deck Heart, he pretty much played the perfect setlist as far as I’m concerned. For some of these entries, I’ve picked highlights but really, this was all just superb. So good in fact I was actually a little bit gutted when I couldn’t make the September tour which took in towns he doesn’t normally play (at one point, I was pricing up a hotel in Bristol for 2 nights so I could go to the gig in Bath on the Friday then go to see Bath Rugby play Leicester Tigers the next day – Bath won that game 45-0!) When I think back over all these gigs, this one was definitely my favourite.

And that is my top 10 gigs for 2014. That was a tough old list to compile which is by no means a bad thing. I said for 2014 that I wouldn’t be doing a weekend festival and I did. As it stands, I won’t be doing a weekend in 2015 and actually sticking to my promise, no matter how much I eye up Download at the moment! As far as live music goes, I’ve got some great gigs already booked already. First up is the rearranged Royal Blood gig at the Pyramids. After that it is Queen and Adam Lambert in London, Slipknot in London, Amon Amarth in Southampton, Fozzy in Southampton, System of a Down in London, Cancer Bats and While Sleeps in London and the mighty AC/DC in London. There are others on my radar as well, so 2015 could be another great one as far as live music is concerned. Aside from what I’ve got booked, I’m hoping that Rancid announce a UK tour following the release of their album, and I’ve heard rumblings that there will be a Wildhearts tour as the anniversary of P.H.U.Q is next year. They would both be great I am sure.

See you in 2015!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Premiership Rugby Salary Cap - Should It Stay Or Should It Go?

Following the news that Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly half, will sign for Racing Metro following the Rugby World Cup (and at the same time, become the world’s best paid rugby player), there has been some discussion regarding the policy in the English Premiership about the salary cap. Saracens CEO Edward Griffiths lead the call this weekend that the cap should be scrapped and claimed he had the backing of six other clubs. I’m not sure how accurate that is considering all I have seen since that declaration is most clubs distancing themselves from Griffiths’ comments and supporting the cap. I intend to discuss the pros and cons of scrapping the cap but before I do, I just wanted to briefly mention what level the cap currently is. For the 2014/15 season, the cap is £4.76m with £240k extra available for academy credits (available for players who joined their club before their 18th birthday, is under 24 at the start of the season and earns more than £30k per season), and each club is allowed 2 excluded player whose salary is not included in the cap. The cap is being increased for the 2015/16 season to £5.1m with £400k extra available for academy credits. Each club will also now be allowed to nominate two excluded players. How I am going to approach this debate is start with the statement “Premiership Rugby should scrap the salary cap” and list the pros and cons that I can think of for this before concluding at the end.

Premiership Rugby should scrap the salary cap.


  • One thing that I just learned that came as a surprise to me is that there is a salary cap on clubs who play in the Top 14 in France. I assumed due to their free spending ways that there wasn’t (one came in for the 2010-11 season). However, it is a much more generous cap than is available for other clubs in Europe, particularly Premiership Rugby clubs. In 2013-14, the cap for French clubs was increased from €9.5m to €10m with young players being excluded from the cap unless they earn more than €50k a season. Additionally to that, each club is allowed to exceed the cap by €100k per member of the France squad they have in their team. With everything factored in, that is essentially double the spending power available to Premiership Rugby clubs (and more than double for Pro-Direct 12 clubs) which naturally gives them a bit of an advantage when it comes to Europe. The last 5 Heineken Cups were won by Toulon twice and Toulouse once (and Leinster twice, from Ireland). By the looks of this year’s European Champions Cup, the French teams are going to have a good showing in the quarter finals, potentially filling 4 of the 8 places available. If Premiership Rugby were to scrap the cap, then English clubs could potentially strengthen their squads to make them more competitive in Europe and make things more level with the French clubs. 

  • In less than 2 weeks time, it will be 2015 and that means we are in a Rugby World Cup year. For all fans of rugby this is a big deal but for English fans in particular, this is even more of a big deal because the tournament is being held in England. This means that all the best rugby players will be coming to Europe for just over a month to compete for the biggest international prize in rugby. I anticipate that this will lead to TV viewing figures to increase as people who may not usually be interested in rugby might tune in to watch some of the world’s best play each other. If Premiership Rugby scrapped the salary cap, a lot more of these players could be signed to Premiership clubs and watching the world’s best players every week could be a reality.


  • The current salary cap is due to increase next season to £5.1m (plus all the extras). Every time the salary cap increases, it widens the gap between the richer and poorer clubs (the haves and the have nots) and makes the Premiership much less competitive. While it could be argued that the league isn’t that competitive anyway (for the last 3 seasons, the top 4 has consisted of the same  four teams), removing the salary cap would completely do away with the competitiveness of the league as clubs who have a lot of spending power at their disposal would just dominate over teams who don’t. Even increasing the salary cap further (as has recently been suggested by the Exeter Chiefs chairman) would increase the gap further and is something to be wary enough. I am sure teams like London Welsh would argue the gap is wide enough as is! Which leads me on to the next point. 

  • This point is quite similar to the last one when it comes to widening the gap between clubs. One thing that needs to be considered though is what happens when a team is promoted to the Premiership. I don’t think it is unfair to suggest that London Welsh are going to get relegated this season. It is quite likely that one of Bristol or Worcester will replace them (I’m not sure how many teams in the Championship are actually eligible for promotion, but that is another issue for another day). London Welsh came up, and with limited funds at their disposal, they built a squad they hoped would be able to compete. That clearly hasn’t worked out well. I seem to recall in the build up to the Championship final, barely a day would go by without Bristol announcing they had made a signing pending on their promotion to the Premiership. Now, they didn’t win promotion and some of those players didn’t end up joining them. Would scrapping the cap mean promoted clubs being at a disadvantage from the off? There are already question marks over the fairness of the funding the clubs receive from Premiership Rugby, scrapping the cap would mean that newly promoted clubs (unless it was Worcester or Bristol) would receive less money than everyone else and then have to try and spend a really significant amount of money just to maintain their Premiership status. 

  • There has been some discussion this season regarding a rule that came into place in 2011 (I think it was) regarding England and their selection policy. It is fairly straightforward – if you are qualified to play for England but play your rugby outside of England, you will not be picked for the England national team barring “exceptional circumstances”. What this means is the best English players are in the Premiership and get regular game time to improve their game against competitive opposition. Would this still be the case of the salary cap was scrapped? I’m not so sure it would be and the best example I can give of this is looking towards another England national team – the football team. There is no real control of spending in football and clubs in England have signed a large number of players from abroad (and on the flip side, very few of England’s top players play abroad). One of the knock on effects of this has been that the national team just doesn’t have enough good players to compete. The English players are not getting enough opportunity at the top level to become world class and as a result, the England football team just cannot compete on the world stage against the best teams (or as was shown in this year’s football World Cup, even against teams that aren’t the best). If spending controls were removed from Premiership Rugby clubs, there would be nothing stopping them from filling their squads full of the best players from Europe and the southern hemisphere and all of a sudden, there are fewer opportunities for the best players from England to play at the top level.

In conclusion, I would say that I am in favour of keeping the salary cap and keeping it at the level it is currently at. While I agree that it is necessary that English clubs are competitive in Europe, I feel as though our domestic game is more important and having a stronger national set up is essential. There is very little that can be done now to close the gap between the richer and poorer clubs, but opening it even more would create a two-tier top level of English rugby which wouldn’t be good for anyone in the lower tier and would mean the only games worth watching would be when the two richest teams played each other. That might seem like quite a dramatic picture I am painting there but it is certainly a possibility. For the future of domestic rugby in England and a strong national team, Premiership Rugby needs to keep the salary cap. As a final note, it was interesting that the day after the Saracens CEO said the cap needs to be scrapped that it came out investigations are taking place about salary cap breaches for both Saracens and Bath – the two richest clubs in the Premiership (I believe). I’ve long heard rumour about Saracens and questioning how they are under the cap, but it was the first time I’d heard anything about Bath. From what I read, it was a disgruntled former agent that has revealed that Saracens operate in breach of the salary cap regulations, whereas Bath are being investigated for the number of high salary offers they appear to be making to players. As a Bath fan, I hope it is not true, but if both clubs are found to be in breach of the cap rules, they both need to be punished to send a message that breaching the salary cap regulations is not acceptable. 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

European Rugby Champions Cup - The Story So Far

It is the half way point in the pool stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup (the Heineken Cup replacement) and so far, it has lived up to all expectations. Before the competition started, I looked over the pools in an attempt to predict who would qualify and didn’t get very far. Not only are we half way through the pool stage but this week (starting tomorrow) is the second game in the double header games. I love the way this has been organised. I’m going to talk about the tournament so far and go pool by pool. I am going to make predictions to how I see the pools ending up but just like earlier in the season when I tried to predict how they would end, this will be a tough ask!

Pool 1

Current Standings:
1.       Clermont Auvergne – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 10 Points
2.       Munster – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points.
3.       Saracens – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points.
4.       Sale – Played 3, Won 0, Lost 3. 2 Points.

Well, this pool could hardly be any tighter after 3 games. I seem to recall reading an interview with the Sale Sharks Director of Rugby Steve Diamond who said that Sale were not just in this group to make up the numbers. I saw this as him doing his job, but really I gave them no chance of qualification. After their first game, where they came so close to beating Munster at home, I wondered if I was wrong to have written them off (they wound up losing that game 26-27 with Munster claiming the win in the dying minutes of the game). Unfortunately they then went to Clermont and got taken apart 35-3. After a narrow loss at home to Saracens, Sale find themselves at the bottom of this pool and facing elimination (I think with the way things are going across the board, even if Sale got 3 bonus point wins, they still wouldn’t have enough points to qualify). Clermont picked up a huge win away at Munster, becoming the first French team to win at Thomond Park I think. Their only defeat so far coming in a close game with Saracens where it was just the one score that separated them. The one defeat that Saracens have had in this pool has been against Munster at Thomond and I think that Saracens will be disappointed they got nothing out of that game.

Clermont – Munster (H), Sale (A), Saracens (H)
Munster – Clermont (A), Saracens (A), Sale (H)
Saracens – Sale (H), Munster (H), Clermont (A)
Sale – Saracens (A), Clermont (H), Munster (A)

Clermont are in the driving seat in this pool, but only just. Had Munster or Saracens picked up an extra bonus point in one of their games, this pool would be even closer. As it happens, they didn’t and Clermont have the smallest of advantages. What they and Saracens both have though is the benefit of two home games left out of their three fixtures. In Europe, you have to see your home games as winnable, and when you start to lose them, that is when you start to look at elimination. Clermont will see they have Munster at home, who no doubt will be smarting after their home loss, and still see that as a winnable game – Saracens will be the same except they will be looking to gain some revenge on Munster (after losing at Thomond). I am expecting to see both Clermont and Saracens win their home games this weekend and then be fighting it out for the top 2 with the winner of the pool being decided on the final game of the pool...where Clermont are at home. Munster lost their home tie to Clermont last weekend and if they lose this weekend, I think they will be all but eliminated. Sale at this stage could use this time to bring in some new faces into their team to give them European experience against some top clubs, but they could still influence the outcome of this pool. They came very close against both Munster and Saracens to getting the win. It would be a real shame if they went through the pool stages losing all their games, but I fear that is what will happen. My prediction for this pool is that Clermont will win the pool with Saracens finishing runners up and maybe qualifying for the knock out stages.

Pool 2

Current Standings:
1.       Harlequins – Played 3, Won 3, Lost 0. 12 Points
2.       Leinster – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points
3.       Wasps – Played 3 Won 1, Lost 2. 7 Points
4.       Castres. Played 3. Won 0. Lost 3, 1 Point.

There are only 2 teams in this tournament so far who have 100% records, and Harlequins is one of them. They kicked off the tournament with a 25-9 win over Castres, went away to beat Wasps 16-23 and last weekend beat Leinster 24-18. Leinster started off their campaign with a home win against Wasps (25-20) and went to France and got the win against Castres (16-21). Wasps could argue the biggest disappointment of their campaign thus far was the home defeat to Harlequins. They have picked up a bonus point in all 3 of their games so far (a feat made even more impressive when you consider their winning bonus point was away in France), so even though they have lost 2 games, they are not out of this competition yet. Castres are having a bit of a nightmare season so far – bottom of the Top 14 and bottom of Pool 2 with no wins. I think it is safe to say that they will likely be eliminated.

Harlequins – Leinster (A), Wasps (H), Castres (A)
Leinster – Harlequins (H), Castres (H), Wasps (A)
Wasps – Castres (H), Harlequins (A), Leinster (H)
Castres – Wasps (A), Leinster (A), Harlequins (H)

Harlequins go into the final 3 games undefeated but have to travel to Leinster this weekend. That will be a nasty game for them and I expect Leinster will be unhappy with having lost on the road and will want to win at home to make up for it. If Quins lose this game, they have to get their first bonus point of the competition to keep things tight at the top. Quins have already received a double blow in that both Robshaw and Evans are out of this match injured. If they get the win in Ireland, it will be a famous European victory for sure! I think the game against Wasps could go either way (although they have now won their last 4 against Wasps) and I would expect them to get a result against Castres, even though it is away. Leinster could lose this game and still qualify but it would make life very hard for them. Wasps have to win all 3 of their remaining games. They, like Leinster, are fortunate enough to be in a position where they have 2 home games in their last 3 fixtures. Their game this weekend is Castres and normally I would expect them to win this game, but as it is the last game at Adams Park before they move to the Ricoh Arena, it could well be a very emotional game for fans and players alike, so I am convinced they will go all out to get a win. Wasps could win all 3 of their games but it will be a tough job. Then again, there are no easy paths to the knock out stages in this tournament! The last game, their first European home game at the Ricoh against Leinster will be tasty. Castres I expect with one point to their name will likely turn up for these games but I don’t see them putting up much of a fight. I imagine now their main focus will be to get off the foot of the Top 14 table so they will field their strongest team in those matches, as opposed to a European Cup that they are already all but eliminated from. I predict Leinster will win this group, and Harlequins will be a very close second and they will qualify for the quarter finals.

Pool 3

Current Standings:
1.       Toulon – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points
2.       Leicester Tigers – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1, 8 Points
3.       Ulster – Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2. 6 Points
4.       Scarlets – Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2. 4 Points

The last winners of the Heineken Cup, Toulon, got their campaign off to a start with a 28-18 win over Scarlets that had a lot of people saying that Toulon will need to be much better if they want to win this tournament. They then won away at Ulster 13-23 before going down 25-21 to Leicester Tigers, picking up their only bonus point so far. Leicester started off their campaign with a 25-18 win against Ulster before losing 15-3 to Scarlets. I was surprised to see them lose to Scarlets in all honesty. Ulster’s single win of the campaign came in round 3 against Scarlets when they beat them 24-9 at Kingspan. Scarlets biggest result was of course the win against Leicester.

Toulon – Leicester (H), Ulster (H), Scarlets (A)
Leicester – Toulon (A), Scarlets (H), Ulster (A)
Ulster – Scarlets (A), Toulon (A), Leicester (H)
Scarlets – Ulster (H), Leicester (A), Toulon (H)

I think all eyes will be on the rematch between Leicester and Toulon this weekend. Last week’s match was a fiery affair in which Leicester deservedly won. After the game there were a couple of incidents including Martin Castrogiovanni (former Tigers player) launch into an expletive-laden attack aimed at Leicester Tigers and Richard Cockerill. Another incident that remains alleged surrounds Delon Armitage and him abusing Leicester Tigers fans. In a recent interview, Richard Cockerill said he doesn’t think this will add anything extra to the weekend’s game but I can’t see how it won’t. It will be an excellent game, that is for sure and if Leicester play just as well as they did on Sunday, there is no reason why they couldn’t get the win. As for the rest of Toulon’s games, I think they will beat both Ulster and Scarlets. I think now that Leicester have seemingly reduced their injury list, they are a much harder team to play and as a result, will likely also beat both Ulster and Scarlets. Ulster away could be a tricky one for Leicester though. Ulster comfortably beat Scarlets last weekend and I think it will be a tighter affair this time round but I see Ulster getting the win. I suspect the winner of the second Toulon/Tigers game will likely end up winning the pool. I think that Toulon will win that game at home and go on to win the group but Leicester will be a very close second and they will qualify for the knock out stages.

Pool 4

Current Standings:
1.       Toulouse – Played 3, Won 3, Lost 0. 12 Points
2.       Glasgow Warriors – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points
3.       Bath Rugby – Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2. 5 Points
4.       Montpellier – Played 3, Won 0, Lost 3. 2 Points

Much like Harlequins in Pool 2, Toulouse are undefeated so far and are looking pretty decent as well. After a bit of a rough start in the Top 14, they seem to have steadied the ship domestically just in time for Europe and have come out swinging. Their first win was a close match with Montpellier, with Toulouse winning 30-23. Their second game was a massive away win at Bath (the 19-21 score line flattering Bath somewhat) before beating Glasgow at home last weekend 19-11. Glasgow started off their European campaign by battering Bath 37-10 before beating Montpellier in France in a very close contest (13-15 the final score). Bath’s campaign got off to a poor start with the away defeat to Glasgow (in which they very much looked like the second best team) and a home defeat to Toulouse (where very rarely did they look like they would threaten the Toulouse defence). Last weekend was the final roll of the dice for their European campaign really and they beat Montpellier 5-30. Montpellier, much like Castres, are yet to get a victory in this seasons competition.

Toulouse – Glasgow (A), Bath (H), Montpellier (A)
Glasgow – Toulouse (H), Montpellier (H), Bath (A)
Bath – Montpellier (H), Toulouse (A), Glasgow (H)
Montpellier – Bath (A), Glasgow (A), Toulouse (H)

I think Glasgow will definitely consider the Toulouse game at Scotstoun to be a winnable game. If they do win, and Bath win their game against Montpellier (with a bonus point), it really opens this pool up. I think though if that happened, then the runner up in Pool 4 would not make it to the knock out stages. Toulouse if memory serves have an excellent record at home in Europe, and I would imagine they will get the win against Bath at home. That win would definitely eliminate Bath from the competition, regardless of what they could achieve against Montpellier and Glasgow. If Bath turn up and play their best, there is no reason why they can’t beat Glasgow at The Rec in January. Glasgow however will be hunting for a place in the knock out stages. I think their home match with Toulouse will be very tight. If Glasgow can get the win against Toulouse, then I can see them going on to win the pool. It was widely predicted that Montpellier will field a weaker team against Bath as there is no chance of them qualifying for the knock out stages now and it has been announced they are making 8 changes to the team that lost 5-30. However, due to my lack of knowledge of their squad, I am not in a place to comment on whether or not they have weakened their team (although one would assume with that many changes, they have). Bath on the other hand are starting Sam Burgess and Francois Louw for the first time this season – if that is not a signal of intent, I don’t know what is. I predict that Toulouse will win this group and Glasgow will finish second, but I’m not sure if they will qualify for the knock out stages.

Pool 5

Current Standings:
1.       Racing Metro - Played 3, Won 2, Drawn 1, Lost 0. 10 Points
2.       Northampton Saints – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 10 Points
3.       Ospreys – Played 3, Won 1 , Drawn 1, Lost 1. 7 Points.
4.       Treviso – Played 3. Won 0, Lost 3. 0 Points.

Racing Metro started their campaign with a bang by beating Northampton at home and denying them a losing bonus point (the final score was 20-11). Their next game was away against Treviso where they won 10-26 – the biggest surprise here being that they didn’t get the try bonus point. Their game last weekend against Ospreys ended in a 19-19 draw, so far the only draw of the European Rugby Champions Cup. After losing their opening game, Northampton won their next two games very convincingly, picking up try bonus points against both Ospreys and Treviso (34-6 and 15-38 respectively). Ospreys have had a mixed campaign so far. Their 42-7 home win against Treviso was to be expected. Their best result so far though has to be the 19-19 draw against Racing Metro (a game I am sure many people, myself included, expected them to lose). As for Treviso, there are no easy pools in the top European competition for an Italian club. I can’t say I’m surprised that they are on 0 points though.

Racing Metro – Ospreys (H), Treviso (H), Northampton (A)
Northampton – Treviso (H), Ospreys (A), Racing Metro (H)
Ospreys – Racing Metro (A), Northampton (H), Treviso (A)
Treviso – Northampton (A), Racing Metro (A), Ospreys (H)

I suspect that Racing Metro will beat Ospreys on their patch and go on to beat Treviso there as well. I predict similar results for Northampton as well setting up a final day clash to decide who will win the pool. I’d say Northampton would go in with a slight edge as the game is at Franklin’s Gardens but Racing have beat them already in this competition. Both teams are going well domestically so this final week clash will be tasty. Ospreys I suspect probably will lose their next two and go into the game against Treviso with little on stake but pride.  Treviso will do well to get some points on the board. If they can cause an upset, it could change the way the group will play out, but I don’t see it happening (otherwise it wouldn’t really be an upset then would it?) I predict that Northampton Saints will win this pool with Racing Metro finishing second. If both teams go into this game having got maximum points out of their other games, there is no reason why the runner up shouldn’t qualify for the next round.

And that is it for the first 3 rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup. There has been some excellent rugby with some more to come as well I am sure. It is interesting to note that out of 5 pools, only one is not currently being lead by a French team (Pool 2). Based on the predictions I have made, the quarter finals could contain Clermont, Saracens, Harlequins, Leinster, Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Toulouse, Glasgow, Northampton Saints and Racing Metro. Any combination of those teams making up the final 8 means we are in for a belting European tournament which concludes on May 2nd at Twickenham. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out!