That was the month that was: February 2024

Colin Renton gives his monthly round-up of rugby stories from around the world

Referee Aimee Barrett-Theron raised a few eyebrows for the way she ticked off the captains of the England and Wales Under-20s teams.
Referee Aimee Barrett-Theron raised a few eyebrows for the way she ticked off the captains of the England and Wales Under-20s teams.

by COLIN RENTON


Welsh semi-pro competition launched

The Welsh Rugby Union has granted nine licences for its new ten-team semi-professional league, which is aimed at providing a pathway to help develop amateur players for the professional game. The clubs will be aligned to the professional regions. The tournament appears to have many similarities to the FOSROC Super Series which has been ditched by Scottish Rugby, although the Welsh version will feature existing clubs, which will receive increased investment from the WRU. The governing body has invited applications for the final place in the competition.


McFarland leaves Ulster

Former Scotland and Glasgow Warriors assistant coach Dan McFarland has left the post of head coach at Ulster. The 51-year-old Englishman, who moved to Ireland in 2018, led Ulster to the Pro14 final in 2020. He had recently agreed a contract extension that would have kept him in the job until 2025. However, three successive defeats, including a 19-17 loss away to Ospreys which prompted an outburst by McFarland against the referee, turned supporters against him and prompted his employers to take action. A new permanent head coach will be appointed in the summer.


White hot form earns Toulon extension

Scotland scrum-half Ben White has agreed a contract extension at Top 14 outfit Toulon. White moved to France after the collapse of London Irish. He has made a strong impression, and his excellent form has made him Gregor Townsend’s first choice No 9 in the Guinness Six Nations. The 25-year-old will stay in the South of France until at least 2026.


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Surprise in Tier 2 tourney

Portugal, who had drawn praise at the World Cup for a refreshing style that delivered a win over Fiji, crashed back to earth on the opening weekend of the Tier 2 Europe Rugby Championship. Now coached on an interim basis by the Argentinian Daniel Hourcade, who succeeded Patrice Lagisquet, and having seen the retirement of several key men, the Portuguese went down to a shock 10-6 defeat away to Belgium. However, Portugal bounced back with wins over Poland and Romania to secure a play-off spot against Spain – Georgia and Romania were the other qualifiers. There was Scottish interest in the tournament, particularly in Poland’s squad, which featured Craig Bachurzewski who recently player for Southern Knights, Selkirk’s Zen Szwagrzak and Max Loboda of Boroughmuir Bears.


Chelsea makes Six Nations breakthrough

Chelsea Gillespie is the latest Scotland-based official to break through onto the international stage. New Zealand-born Gillespie will be assistant referee for the Ireland v Wales and Wales v Italy matches in the Guinness Women’s Six Nations. Hollie Davidson will be the other assistant for Ireland v Wales and will take charge of the Ireland’s match at home to Italy as well as Wales against France. Andrew McMenemy will be TMO for two of the tournament’s 15 matches.


Bookie reacts to Berry blunder

Despite World Rugby’s refusal to offer an opinion on the ‘try’ that would have seen Scotland beat France, the general consensus among observers is that Nic Berry erred in refusing to award the score. Adding to the noise was the online betting business Paddy Power. The company announced that it was taking action to correct the injustice and would be refunding stake money in the form of a free bet to anyone who had gambled on a Scotland win.



SA open to private equity investment

South African Rugby has opened talks with a private investment company over an investment of $75 million. Media reports revealed that the US firm, Ackerley Sports Group, is interested in adding the stake to its sports portfolio. Rian Oberholzer, CEO of South Africa Rugby, sought to address widespread unease over the plan by issuing an open letter. In his communication, he insisted that negotiations were at the discussion stage only, and were aimed exclusively at improving commercial activity.


A Swift exit for Wales

The match between Wales and South Africa on 22nd June has been switched from the Principality Stadium in Cardiff to Twickenham. The Welsh venue will be in concert mode for events by Taylor Swift and the Foo Fighters. The game will form the first part of a Twickenham double-header, with Fiji facing the Barbarians later in the day.


Landmark appointment for Piardi

Andrea Piardi became the first Italian referee for a men’s Six Nations game when he was in the middle for the Ireland v Wales in Dublin. The 31-year-old had a familiar face to help him through the afternoon, with Gianluca Gnecchi – a fellow resident of Brescia – among the assistants.


Ref scolds naughty players

The old adage of a good referee being one who goes about their business virtually unseen and unheard is evidently a thing of the past. Increasingly, whistlers are high profile individuals who occupy centre stage. One example was Aimee Barrett-Theron, who took charge of the England v Wales Under 20 clash. The encounter was feisty at times, and the official felt obliged to have a word with the two skippers, addressing them like a mother who had just caught her kids smoking, saying she was not angry, just disappointed.


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About Colin Renton 288 Articles
Colin has been a freelance writer on various subjects for more than 20 years. He covers rugby at all levels but is particularly passionate about the game at grass roots. As a fluent French speaker, he has a keen interest in rugby in France and for many years has reported on the careers of Scots who have moved across the Channel. He appreciates high quality, engaging writing that is thought provoking, and hopes that some of his work fits that bill!