Rugby Union: Ball In Touch

Starting today is WhatCulture’s first regular rugby column by our rugby correspondent, Jeff Ball. Keep an eye out for his thoughts on all the latest developments within the world of rugby every week

After a couple of weeks off after the World Cup, my batteries are recharged I am ready to report all the latest on-goings in this, the catchily named €œBall In Touch€ column. The rugby savvy amongst you will see what I€™ve done there with the title, this being the cheaper option than changing my name to Jeff Rugby Ball, but I don€™t want to make this column all about me. If you have any questions or comments then please feel free to voice them either in the comments below or to my Twitter @jeffreyball. As a telecom company would say, it€™s good to talk.

Big Chief Sonny Bill

Before we leave the party of New Zealand, the flawed All Black genius that is Sonny Bill Williams announced he was staying in New Zealand and signing for Super 15 franchise the Chiefs for the 2012 season. Sonny Bill came to the attention of rugby union fans back in 2008, switching codes to join Manchester City-alike Toulon for a hefty contract and in the process walking out of his existing one with Australia€™s Bulldogs. From there he returned to Canterbury Crusaders in time to be selected in the World Cup winning squad.

On the field Williams is a sight to behold. A mountain of a man with shovels for hands that means he can offload the ball like it was a tennis ball, coupled with a decent turn of speed and an eye for a tackle, his season with Canterbury produced the sort of rugby that rightly gets described as mercurial. Watching him at the Super 15 Twickenham game this year, with Dan Carter inside him and the likes of Israel Dagg outside, it was quite frankly the best running rugby I have ever seen and shames English league rugby by comparison.

But it is off the field that he has gathered most of his headlines. The move to Toulon was a tarnish that has proven difficult to remove, €œMoney-Bill€ being a journo€™s favourite. One of the quirks of his New Zealand contract was, being unable to match the financial clout offered by French rugby, that the NZRU allowed him to make up the difference by continuing his ambition to be a professional boxer. A quick trip to Youtube will show he has yet to be picked on by someone his own size, but it demonstrates the character of the man.

And it is this €˜try-everything-and-make-lots-of-money€™ attitude that has meant some have failed to endear to him. The shortness of his new twelve month contract will not help this as no sooner will the fans have learned to love him then he will be off on his next adventure.

His absence at all three victory parades for €˜family commitments€™ irked some New Zealand rugby fans, so he still has his work cut out in some quarters to be the household name he could be for all the right reason. Tune in in twelve months to see what the next episode is€

Rugby Gap Year

With a scruffy rucksack packed with protein shakes and a scrum cap that doubles for a bed in the overnight stopovers in those far and distant train stations, James Haskell has sent his most recent postcard home.

The England man, one of the few to leave the World Cup with an increased (playing) reputation, can be currently found plying his trade with a certain Ma€™a Nonu for Japanese Top League side Ricoh Black Rams.

Having being released by the financially troubled Stade Francais in the summer, the back rower re-signed with his first club London Wasps. But not before he hitchhiked his way to the other side of the world to see how well the oval balled game translated over there, meaning his move to Wasps will not take place until the 2012/13 season.

When his Japanese stint ends in February he will join Super 15 side the Highlanders and be staying in Dunedin, England€™s World Cup base, for five months. It was also the sight of that incident, you know, that one. No, not the dwarf one. Or the ferry one, or the€well you get my point. I€™m talking about the lewd taunting of a female hotel worker one.

Haskell has always claimed innocence over this event and remains confident that the eventual release of the video of it will admonish him from guilt. A return to the scene of the crime so soon afterwards does not seem like the actions of a guilty man to me, but we will have to see what the evidence shows us.

So why is he doing this and should we be bothered? Well anyone who knows Haskell knows he is a very driven guy, moulded in the shape of his role-model Lawrence Dallaglio. So basically he is a number 8 with a mouth on him and not afraid to rub people up the wrong way. Sometimes this works, other times not, but he clearly isn€™t a yes man. So when his agent suggested a trip back over the pond he has clearly stuck to his guns and said he wants to experience something new when still at his playing peak, before it is too late.

Ex-Wasps club-mate Dave Walder is also in Japan but he is winding down his playing career and cranking up his coaching career. Haskell breaks the English mantra of keeping close to home and I reckon he will come back better for it. As many say, travel broadens the mind, unless you are Karl Pilkington of course. England boss Martin Johnson spent a spell in New Zealand and it did wonders for his career. Current England player Tom Wood did something similar a couple of years ago and it is starting bear fruit, the Northampton man€™s name already mentioned to take over the captaincy.

After Nonu, Haskell will be playing alongside the likes of Hosea Gear, Andrew Hore and Colin Slade and of course against other players still buzzing from their recently acquired winners medals. Surely this can only benefit a player that will no doubt become increasingly important to the England pack in the next few years? If not, at least the chance to try and teach the Wasps forwards what€™s what at Yo! Sushi will provide some solace.

One World Cup and Two Fish Courses, Do Dah, Do Dah€

Freed from the shackles of the club nutritionist, ex-England Captain and 2003 World Cup winner tasted victory again after winning Celebrity Masterchef last month, defeating journalist Kirsty Wark and actor Nick Pickard in the final.

The big man clearly knows his food (from what he cooked I mean! Honest Phil!) and his enthusiasm for cooking it shone through as the series went on, my natural rugby bias giving way to acknowledgement to the fact this guy was talented. It raises an interesting question about how much the ability to compete, to win, to achieve something, comes from within us and can be applied to any situation. €˜Vicks€™ has been to two World Cup Finals, played for the Lions and won with Wasps over his career and appears to have a way of doing things that can be used successfully in all walks of life.

As if to prove he isn€™t your stereotypical prop, he was clever enough to set up Raging Bull, his line of rugby inspired clothing that is doing very well for itself and has been around for a few years now, Vickery having created it whilst still playing. All credit to the guy for applying this formula for success in whatever he does as it seems to be working.

One of my enduring memories of him will be the interview by a naïve lady reporter who was quizzing him about his ability to hear with his heavily cauliflowered ears, the sign of a good prop. It was only after the third or fourth time he said €œI€™m sorry I can€™t hear you€ that she realised why his team mates were falling about in fits of giggles in the background.

What€™s caught your eye in the rugby world this week? Please leave a comment below about anything rugby or send a tweet to @jeffreyball and Jeff Ball will respond to any comments or questions you have


Follow @BallInTouch on Twitter to keep up to date with all the latest rugby news and columns. Jeff Ball is a Geordie with a Newcastle Falcons season ticket, a rugby coaching badge, a bias for Newcastle United on Playstation games and was terrified by Jurassic Park as a child. For more of his personal musings following him on Twitter @JeffreyBall If you have any comments about this story please post a comment.