Rugby Union: Ball In Touch

The latest edition of WhatCulture’s first regular rugby column by our rugby correspondent, Jeff Ball. Our rugby writer explores the link up between Saracens and Wigan, sings Argentina’s praises, studies the fall in revenue for beauty salons in South Wales and Robert DeNiro's appearence for the Newcastle Falcons

In League Together Reigning Premiership champions Saracens this week announced a link up with Wigan Warriors, the current rugby league Challenge Cup holders and last years Super League Grand Final winners that will see them sharing ideas, resources and players. The relationship blossomed on the back of discussions between the two clubs that resulted in England international Joel Tomkins switching codes after the London based club bought out the four remaining years of his Wigan contract for a reported £250,000. With the resultant cash, Wigan were able to secure Tomkins€™ younger brother Sam on a lucrative new contract believed to be worth £200,000 a year until 2016 for the 22 year old who has become one of the biggest names in the sport, and has been much coveted by many within both union and league. With rugby union€™s salary cap of £4.2 million overshadowing the powers of their Super League counterparts (who have only a paltry £1.7 million to play with), the securing of the younger Tomkins is good for rugby league, a move vindicated by yet another impressive performance last weekend against Australia in the flagship Four Nations competition. The move for the also highly thought of elder Tomkins is the latest by a Saracens side pushing to develop itself off the field as much as on it. Winning the league last year was just reward for a side that fought inconsistency for many years to develop a winning, if not always entertaining, formula for success and one that is been continued this year (they are currently second in the table). But this one trophy is not enough for Saracens. They want to replicate the success of Bath in the nineties and Leicester in the noughties, when both sides enjoyed a dominance of the sport for many years. The playing squad has been shaken up to be a mix of seasoned pros (John Smit recently signed) and promising Academy players, with a recognised South African flavour that has been an influence by the arrival of Bredan Venter, the ex-Springbok as coach (now Director of Rugby) in 2009. As well as their playing staff, Saracens have been keen to upgrade their facilities and stadium, have played at Wembley several times and even plan to play their Heineken Cup game against Biarritz in Cape Town, South Africa, a move not dissimilar to the efforts of the NFL who have played a showcase American Football game at Wembley for the last four years to great fanfare and reviews. A mixture of publicity stunts is helping them get their name out there and it can only be good for the sport in general to have sides with raised public profiles to remind people there is an alternative to football out there. The deal with Wigan also shows how much the attitudes between the two codes has changed over the years. Rugby league was formed from a split from union back in the late 19th century and the wound has taken along time to heal. Increasingly rugby league tactics and patterns have became intergrated into union and league has seen many of its best players €œstolen€ by the increased spending power of its cousin, though with mixed results. Jason Robinson, try scorer inEngland€™s 2003 World Cup Final triumph who made his name at Wigan, the same place as current England winger Chris Ashton, are two stand outs. Unfortunately there still exists a level of mistrust between the two sides even down to grassroots levels and the debate over which code is better has never taken a breath, but hopefully this move with Saracens will mark the beginning of a change in attitudes that benefits both sports in the long run. Arise, Rugby Championship Anyone who has watched Argentina in the last five years will have fallen in love with them a little bit (in a rugby way!), their fierce determined approach belittling the lack of preparation and organisation that has unfairly punished their progress for many years. The nomadic existence of a side that finished 3rd in the 2007 World Cup has been brought to an end by their inclusion in the Tri-Nations, now renamed as the Rugby Championship. Unless you are playing them, they are a sight to behold, blessed with some wonderfully talented individuals and a team ethos that would sell for millions if it could be bottled. While not always masterful in their play, the level of difficulty they introduce upon every opposition who takes them on makes them one of the best sides in the world. Anyone who saw the England game against them last month will be more than aware of the sheer brutality and ignorance of personal safety they play with. But time and again for all their heart it was the lack of precision and structure that let them down. With only a selection plying their trade back in Argentina, the rest are mainly spread around the top European leagues. Not many actually play together regularly, compared to the Celtic players who encounter each other on a weekly basis. Attempts to enter the Six Nations were quickly dismissed, with seven teams being unmanageable in an already crowed calendar. So the gaze fell to the Tri-nations. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand have resisted the move for a couple of years now, the increased distance of travel becoming eye watering compared to the trips the Northern hemisphere sides have to make to each other. But the Pumas form on the world stage means at last, from 2012, Argentina will take its seat at the top table of international rugby and will surely flourish. It may be a bit hasty to say, but if they can match their attitude to the game with the resources and organisation of their new peers, the 2015 World Cup could see a new contender for the crown emerge. Ban The Tan Welsh Pro12 side Ospreys have revealed they have banned players from wearing fake tan and coloured boots. The region that produced reality TV star cum rugby player Gavin Henson have taken the step to try and change their public image of being a collection of superstar players to being a good old fashioned rugby team. For many years the Ospreys teamsheet read like a who€™s who of Welsh and world rugby. Henson was joined by Mike Phillips, James Hook, Lee Byrne and Jerry Collins as the leading names in a side that didn€™t always match the height of its ambitions. Now all these big names have moved on and the culture of the club has evolved we are told, seemingly for the good. The record so far this season stands at seven played and six wins, so something must be working. Boot makers though can take heart that there is some leeway. If a player has played for the Ospreys more than 50 times, or their country more than 15 times then they are allowed to wear coloured boots, but it means it is a right that now has to be earned. In a sport that ensures the route to the top is always by the hardest path it will be interesting to see how well they do this season.

Are you donatin€™ to me? For those of us watching the Newcastle Falcons vs. Worcester Warriors game last Friday, a murmur of confusion went around the stadium when the home open side was apparently replaced by Robert DeNiro in Travis Bickle mode, the character of his much acclaimed 1976 hit, Taxi Driver. After a brief pause, the PA revealed it was in fact our very own Redford Pennycook sporting a spectacular Mohawk. Originally styled to copy Erik Apple, a fighter in recent film, Warrior, Red€™ has decided to keep the style to help his support of Mo-vember, the annual charity event that sees men everywhere cultivate their top lip for the 30 days of November to raise awareness of prostate cancer. Popular with many rugby players, and Kurtley Beale permanently it seems, Red's Mo(hawk)-vember efforts (as moustaches are so 2010 apparently) are being matched by all the Falcons players and staff in the more traditional manner, though styling isn€™t allowed until they hit the final week of growing. This means there will be plenty of itching and children scared at KingstonPark for another couple of weeks by Red€™ and his Mo Bros, but I'm sure it will be more than worth it. Well done boys, keep growing!

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.