Friday, February 15, 2013

Bullet In The Chamber Opens Fire

In the early hours of Thursday February 14th, Valentine’s Day, a young woman was brutally murdered by her boyfriend, receiving four fatal bullet wounds from a 9mm pistol in a domestic dispute, which ended in the direst of circumstances.
The sense of shock surrounding the incident was intensely magnified as it emerged that both the victim and the suspect were world famous personalities within their relative fields, creating a huge sense of personal connection to the bizarre and deeply saddening events that took place.
The suspect, Oscar Pistorius, is regarded among one of South Africa’s greatest icons, represented as a true sporting superstar, whose victory over adversity has given hope to millions worldwide.
Born without fibulae, he is a double amputee who, at just 26-years young, already owns six Paralympic gold medals, having set numerous world records along the way and is regarded as one of Nike’s biggest athletic clients.
The victim, Reeva Steenkamp, 29, was a South African model and celebrity, known as both an FHM cover girl and the face of cosmetics brand Avon...
Written by Dom Wallace

Thursday, January 17, 2013

EPL Bayernly Crossed My Mind


On Wednesday, Pep Guardiola officially announced his agreement to take on the manager’s role at Bayern Munich at the end of the season, when current gaffer Jupp Heynckes, aged 67, retires.

The decision of the 41-year-old former Barcelona legend to sign a 3-year contract with last season’s Bundesliga runners-up has been met with shock, especially in England, where media hype had fans convinced his arrival on British soil was imminent.
However, anyone with half a brain cell or a semi-respectable knowledge of the football industry will appreciate that Bayern Munich were the only club that Guardiola was ever interested in, for some painfully obvious reasons.
So, while Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness conceded, “Only a coach of Guardiola’s caliber came into consideration,” the feeling was entirely mutual on Guardiola’s behalf....
***Click here to read full article***
Written by Dom Wallace
Sport 4 Thought
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USA: The Land of the Freeland

As a 16-year old, Joel Freeland was a gangly English boy from Farnham, Surrey, who stacked shelves in Sainsbury’s and daydreamed about the special offers his future had in store. Unbeknown to him, less than a decade later, he would be signing a multi-million pound contract to play in the world’s most elite league of a sport he had never played.... Continue reading>>>>>>>>>

Five Famous Football Fightbacks

On Saturday, an 87th minute Javier Hernandez header sparked scenes of elation for Manchester United and their 3,000-strong travelling support at Villa Park, as the visitors clawed back a two-goal deficit to defeat Aston Villa 3-2.
The Mexican took his tally to seven goals in his last five appearances, clinically converting either side of a Ron Vlaar own goal, that Hernandez himself forced upon the Dutch centre-back. Andreas Weimann’s double sandwiching half-time, gave Villa a surprise, two-goal cushion, but with 40 minutes still remaining, United were far from dead and buried.... Continue reading>>>>>>>>>

Beckham Quits LA Galaxy

On Tuesday, David Beckham announced he will quit LA Galaxy.
After six eventful years with the MLS outfit, the former England captain, 37, has announced his last game will be next Saturday, December 1st in the Major League Soccer Cup.
Despite an option in his contract signed in January to stay for one more season, Beckham has opted to part ways with the club, although he refuses to close the door on a return to Major League Soccer in the future.... Continue Reading>>>>>>>>>

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Harrison Has To Hang Up Gloves

Audley Harrison MBE, Commonwealth Games gold medalist, the first British fighter to win an Olympic gold in the superheavyweight division and the first boxer in Britain to sign a direct broadcast deal, was once regarded as the hottest British boxing prospect.
However, anyone unfortunate enough to have witnessed the pathetic demise of Harrison in recent years will feel embarrassed to have ever held this man in such high regard.
The boxing industry is notoriously fickle, but Harrison’s latest defeat, a woeful display of ultimate cowardice, served to expose his true incapability and confirm the end of his career in the most dire of circumstances... >>>Continue Reading
Written by Dom Wallace

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Football Needs Olympic Spirit

With the London 2012 Olympics labeled as a rip-roaring success, following an unforgettable fortnight of pure passion and physical poetry, we have been left with serious withdrawal symptoms. Despite the commencing of the new Premier League campaign, it is the Paralympics that everyone is now talking about.
At this year’s Olympic Games in London, Team GB accumulated a staggering total of 65 medals, 29 of which were gold, in what was undoubtedly their best Olympic performance ever. Sure, Britain boasted more medals at the 1908 Olympics, but they also accounted for a third of all athletes during the 6 month contest, including events such as tug-of-war and motorboating.
Following a fruitless first five days, once Helen Glover and Heather Stanning had secured Team GB’s premier gold medal of London 2012, heroes were born by the day, with the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Ben Ainslie, Chris Hoy, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and even Mr. So Close But So Far himself, Andy Murray amongst the faces of fortune in the British camp.
Preceding the Olympics and aided by months of a typically self-destructive media, Great Britain had plummeted so far into a cesspit of self-loathing that calling the whole event off at the last minute seemed the only option to prevent falling even further from grace, if at all possible.
Over the previous 12 months, scandals surrounding MP’s expenses, banking, the Leveson Inquiry and of course rioting had left a nation, known for its stiff upper lip, with a quivering lower lip and numerous scars. An indication of severe self-harming.
However, against all odds, London 2012 managed to capture all that typifies the perfect Olympic Games. It was the unison of competitor and spectator. The relentless and unconditional support from each and every onlooker for those wonderfully brave enough to attempt to conquer their personal goals in front of a worldwide audience. The country each athlete represented faded into insignificance as the most incredible display of sportsmanship and mutual respect inspired all involved. Continue reading 

Written by Dom Wallace

Sport 4 Thought

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ferguson's Age Causes Concern

Fergie looking to the future
The Premier League season 2011/12 will be remembered as the most scintillating in English top-flight football history, although it was undoubtedly a season Sir Alex Ferguson would rather forget. As the media produces a cacophony of apparent support in Roberto Mancini’s favour, despite having rallied wholeheartedly for his removal just three weeks previous, the Manchester United faithful focus their own spotlight on the man responsible for their club’s unrivalled success in the last two decades.

Originally set to step down as manager in 2002, Ferguson has since scrapped two further dates for his retirement, claiming, "Retirement is for young people... If I get off the treadmill, where do you think I am going? Down there. Trust me. When you get older, don't retire."

No Manchester United fan would dream of questioning Ferguson, yet those left shell-shocked by the manner in which their ‘noisy neighbours’ stole their Premier League crown, are understandably concerned at their recent inability to perform in big games. Blame for inconsistent performances must fall on the players, but a closer analysis of the tactics employed by the Red Devil’s boss raises questions of their own.

The famous night in Barcelona
A brief history of England’s most successful domestic outfit is not complete without mention of the likes of Best, Charlton, Law, Cantona, Giggs, Ronaldo and Rooney. These names illustrate a few examples of the ruthless attacking potency that has defined United’s success – a club based on fast, direct, skilful offense, bombarding defences with unrelenting waves of aggressive football.

‘Ruthless’, ‘direct’ and ‘aggressive’ are indeed adjectives that many would have chosen to describe Ferguson, especially in his earlier years, but at the ripe age of 70, the Scotsman’s number two, Mike Phelan admits “He has mellowed out, definitely.” The boss himself concedes, “I don't have any confrontations really, not nowadays, although maybe when I was younger I would have.”

Ferguson, famous for recognising potential talent and moulding great teams over time, has always had his personality firmly emblazoned on every side that has graced Old Trafford. His never-say-die attitude has become a trait so dominant in each of his creations that United are now renowned for scoring late goals to save and win matches, such as the 2-1 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich in 1999 at the Camp Nou, owing to two injury-time goals.

Too much on his shoulders?
As Ferguson ages and his ability to become aggravated subsides, his tendency to err on the side of caution dramatically increases, powerfully highlighted this season through his choice of formation and tactics in numerous games, in which United have failed to gain the result they required and were expected to achieve.

In seven key fixtures this season, Ferguson fielded a United team that boasted just one lone striker, resulting in four defeats and three draws, causing their exit from Champions League, F.A. Cup and Europa League competitions and directly effecting their surrendering of the Premier League title:

Sep 27  Basel         Champions League    3-3      Draw

Oct 15  Liverpool     Premier League        1-1      Draw

Nov 22  Benfica      Champions League    2-2      Draw

Dec 07  Basel         Champions League    2-1      Loss

Jan 28  Liverpool     F.A. Cup                  2-1       Loss

Mar 15  Ath. Bilbao  Europa League         2-1      Loss

Apr 30  Man City     Premier League        1-0       Loss

United have won countless trophies in the past, operating a tried and trusted 4-4-2 formation, allowing two strikers to work together, forming a lethal partnership and running opposition defences ragged, exemplified by combinations of: Bobby Charlton - George Best, Mark Hughes - Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke - Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - Teddy Sheringham and Wayne Rooney - Cristiano Ronaldo.

United legends
However, in recent seasons, Ferguson has felt the need to play a lone striker in United’s big games, in a move that signifies a lack of belief in his team’s ability to overpower their opposition. The only successful operation of a lone striker policy arises when the chosen forward is exceptionally tall and able to win every aerial battle, or outstandingly fast, capable of breaking offside traps and running around defenders.

In Rooney, United have a wonderfully talented player, but one that is neither especially tall, nor particularly quick, yet, Ferguson insists on forcing his most talented asset to play a role he is entirely unsuited for. Rooney is a world-class striker who has shown through electric partnerships with Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez that he can expertly dictate games against even the classiest of opposition.

To strip Rooney of a striking partner is to remove The Hulk of his anger – it significantly reduces any threat that he may otherwise pose. For United, this has led to opposition teams being given a free ride in defence, confident that four men could always outrun or out-jump the England international.

Will the power shift be temporary?
In Ferguson’s defence, the modern game has evolved and we are currently in an era where possession of the ball is more important than ever before, as so flawlessly exhibited by Barcelona and the European and World Cup Champions, Spain. Increased numbers of teams flood the midfield in an attempt to retain possession in a Muhammad Ali-esque tactic, which focuses on tiring the opposition, both mentally and physically, before launching scathing attacks. When playing superior opponents, who are masters of the art of ball retention, it becomes necessary to match their numbers in midfield and for this reason, we witness a growing popularity of a lone striker formation.

United supporters must also appreciate that having never replaced Ronaldo or Tevez, that they are not the force they once were. In relying on players in their late 30’s, such as Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, who lack pace, there is always a vunerability in the midfield. This is often accounted for through use of an extra holding midfielder, at the expense of a striker and although Michael Carrick had his best season for United, when comparing any of this trio to a player of Yaya Toure’s ability, the gulf in class is all too apparent. In any case, the best form of defence is attack.

United followers will be hurt by their loss this season, but given City played the better football, they will be more concerned by the manner in which they seemed to surrender their apparent stronghold on the title. Playing a midfield five at the Etihad of Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Park and Nani, against City’s 4-4-2, Ferguson made a shocking error of judgement. Only Nani boasts any pace, though himself and Park had a mere three starts between them in the previous ten outings. The likes of United’s most in-form stars in Valencia, Young and Welbeck, who all offer speed in abundance, languished on the bench as the one striker policy provided City with 90 minutes of unanswered domination. In essence, Ferguson played for the draw and was punished for doing so.

The young, ruthless Ferguson
If you pose no attacking threat to your opposition, there is only one possible outcome. Being beaten by a better team holds no shame, but failing to play for victory is a sin at any level, especially for Manchester United, one of Europe’s elite empires. A sin that a young Ferguson side would never make.

With Manchester United enduring their first barren season since 2004/05, the future looks uncertain at Old Trafford. Manchester City fans are quick to suggest this is the end of an era for the red half of Manchester, though only a fool would fail to recognise this is hopeful optimism. United still hold a strong squad, thriving with young talent and their narrow failure this season will undoubtedly result in significant summer signings.

However, personnel aside, the real key to United’s response lies not in the hands of Sir Alex Ferguson, but in his head. The lack of confidence in his players’ ability was all too apparent this season, epitomised by his negative tactics. If he is to mastermind a comeback, as he has done on so many occasions before, he must take heed of the Manchester United motto and once again ‘Believe’.

Written by Dom Wallace

Friday, May 4, 2012

Aussie Rules For Me

Sport 4 Thought guest writer Andrew Hatch goes down under to investigate what makes Australian Rules Football so wildly popular. A special report from the MCG, Melbourne.

I landed in Australia four weeks ago but only truly arrived this Saturday. 

The first weekend I was here it was suggested that I go see a game of ‘footy’ at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The game I was meant to see was the season opener between Richmond and Carlton but it fell through for one reason or another. I would have to wait another 3 weeks before I finally got my first taste. 

So on Saturday the 21st of April I was going to see Carlton, who I was told had made a blistering start to the season and were expected to challenge for the title, play Essendon: a mid-table team who would be lucky to escape without suffering an embarrassing defeat. This as you can imagine meant nothing to me because since missing that first game a few weeks earlier I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to the AFL, the game was nothing but a curiosity to me and if I’m honest I just wanted to see inside the MCG.

As a kid my only memories of ‘footy’ were seeing a bit of Aussie Rules on Channel 4’s Trans World Sport early on a Saturday morning before Going Live came on the other channel. This weird game played out on a gigantic, circular pitch befuddled me. Why were they allowed to use their hands? Why were there no nets in the goals? Why did they not have sleeves?

In the pub, (a strip bar naturally) before the game, I looked around and saw (besides the topless barmaids) Carlton fans mixing with Essendon fans. No sign of aggro, no sign of any kind of tension. Two sets of fans relaxing, drinking, talking. Nothing weird about that is there? Except for an English football fan there is a bit. Around Old Trafford there are ‘home pubs’ and ‘away pubs’. It’s not quite like Glasgow where a Celtic fan would be lucky to escape from a Rangers pub with his nose still attached to his face and vice-versa, but still, you won’t see many away fans, garbed fully in their team’s colours mind, mingling jovially with the home support. I asked my Aussie friend who the home side were; it doesn’t really work that way with footy, he told me.

Almost everything that came up in our discussions leading up to the game was related back to the Premier League in some way, partly to make the alien subject matter clearer to me and partly to manage my expectations of the game. ‘It’s not like in the Premier League’ was quickly established as the phrase of the day.

“How many can we expect there to be in the MCG today then?” I asked.
“There’ll be a big crowd, maybe 80,000, but the atmosphere won’t be anything like in the Premier League,” he said.
“It’s a big pitch for the players to cover, is the game all stop-start like rugby?” I asked.
“Oh no the game is quick, but it’s not like what you’re used to in the Premier League.”

So we approached the stadium, brushing past whole families wearing Carlton shirts, Essendon shirts and even a few Liverpool and Manchester United shirts thrown in for good measure too, with my expectation level well and truly managed. We shuffled past numerous statues of Australian sports luminaries, the majority of which I hadn't heard of, save for Don Bradman and finally got to our gate, which is when I got my first sight of the stadium.

I’ve been to some giant stadia before: the old Wembley in London, Cardiff's Millennium Stadium and of course Old Trafford in Manchester but I have to say that the Melbourne Cricket Ground is the biggest, grandest, most dramatic stadium I have ever seen. The sounds were equally impressive, both sets of fans (seated together) were getting warmed up and in terrific voice creating not so much a wall of sound but thanks to the stadium’s bowl shape, more of an enormous ball of sound that seemed to swell and linger on the pitch and could find no means of escape.

Never mind ‘not like the Premier League’, this was better.

Immediately I knew that this game, this strange hybrid of football and rugby, would compel me. And I was right. 

From the first siren I was impressed by the athleticism of these players. They sprint and leap and twist and turn with such ferocity and under such immense pressure. You think it’s impressive how Xavi engineers space, giving himself time to play his pass perfectly? Then you ought to see for yourself how quickly these men can receive the ball (more often than not at terribly awkward heights), find a teammate and offload it (in the legal manner: ‘knocking’ the ball with the fist) before two or three hulking men come crashing down on them. And have you ever tried sprinting whilst bouncing a rugby ball on the ground every 15 metres like you’re playing basketball? Not easy.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a huge fan of rugby. I've been to a few Premiership games before, but the game just never grabbed me. I find the reliance on brute strength and physical attributes disheartening and prefer my winners to be the ones who were more wily, more creative on the day, not just simply faster, stronger or fitter (hence why I prefer the technique of a Federer to prevail over the brawn of a Nadal, the guile of a Barcelona to the dull, if determined, discipline of a Chelsea). I appreciate there are nuances to the game, that in my ignorance I do not understand and intricacies in skill that I just cannot see, but I will never be a fan.

I expected ‘footy’ to be more like rugby than like football. I expected the physical attributes of the players to have more of a bearing on the outcome than their wit and skill.

What I actually found was that ‘footy’ is almost the exact half-way point between rugby and football. It is required for the players to be on the whole tall, muscular, quick on their feet and tough, but at the same time I can not imagine, having seen this game first hand, a player succeeding at the top level without being able to marry these attributes to nimble hands and an exceedingly quick mind. It can appear at times as if they are merely playing hot potato but when you take a look at the wider picture and see the intricately set out patterns of the players and the almost telepathic knowledge of where their teammates should be positioned, it’s pretty obvious that there’s more to it than that.

Even the referees are athletic in this game. They need to be. The way they throw the ball back into the pitch when it has gone out of touch is amazing. They stand on the touchline with their back to the pitch, swing the ball low between their legs and fling it as hard and high as they can over their head, a sort of backwards tossing the caber motion. Most of the refs in the Premier League would put their backs out trying it.

I needed no more comparisons with the Premier League to be made once the game got under way. There were passages of play remarkably similar to those you might see in a football match with intricate one-twos being played, play being switched from one flank to the other, through balls being kicked in behind defences. At one point I even noticed how high the Carlton defence were up the pitch and remarked to my friend how dangerous that was given the pace Essendon’s forwards had displayed. My prophecy instantly came true and Carlton were hit on the counter attack on more than one occasion and trailed at half time. I felt right at home. 

I expected the game, due to the size of the pitch (2.8 times the size of a regulation association football pitch), to be played out at a relatively sedate pace. It was not. It was fast, intense, frenzied action for each of the four 30 minute quarters. Towards the end of the last quarter, some of the players were visibly tiring but only indulged in putting their hands on their knees or behind their heads during breaks in play. It was astounding stuff really. The fitness levels of these players is nothing short of freakish. Carlos Tevez would have needed more than a few run outs with the reserves to get up to speed in this game.

There was a moment where the referee felt it necessary to refer to a video. The footage required was shown on the big screen, high up in the stadium’s massive third tier and within quite literally three seconds he’d blown his whistle, made the call and the game was gotten on with. Another lesson to be learnt for the Premier League?

The game finished in a sound defeat for Carlton. Essendon’s supporters were delirious. The stadium rocked with noise. I was hooked.

This game, which began largely as a regional passion for Victorians, quickly outgrew it’s native state to encompass the whole of Australia, evolving from the Victorian Football League (VFL) into it’s current guise as the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1990. With the right backing, perhaps similar to that which saw the Football League morph into the behemoth that became the Premier League in 1992, who is to say that this hugely entertaining game couldn’t one day prove every bit as popular?

I’ve already asked my friend for tickets to the next Carlton match.

Written by Andrew Hatch

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Conversation About: The Bahrain Grand Prix

They’ve got penguins in Melbourne. I’m walking along this rocky outcrop, stretching a hundred yards out to sea to get to where they nest and I finally get to this wooden gangway where you can see them up close. There are signs saying, ‘No flash photography – use infra-red instead; penguins don’t recognise the colour red’ and ‘Don’t climb onto the rocks – this is a nature reserve’ etcetera etcetera. I turn to see this Frenchman climbing onto the rocks with a massive camera hanging from his neck...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Goal-Line Technology Not Welcome in Football

F.A. Cup confusion
The debate surrounding goal-line technology in football has surfaced once again, following a phantom goal during Chelsea’s F.A. Cup semi-final victory over Tottenham at Wembley on Sunday. At the time of the goal, The Blues held a slender 1-0 lead, but following the absurd refereeing blunder, they went on to complete a 5-1 demolition of a bemused and bewildered Spurs side. As predicted, many of football’s greats, past and present, took to their social networking sites of choice to air their grievances regarding the latest high-profile controversy, as the introduction of goal-line technology appears increasingly imminent.

But, would this really improve the game of football?

As stated in Law 10 ‘The Method of Scoring’ on page 32 of the official FIFA ‘Laws of the Game’ manual: “A goal is scored when the whole of the ball passes over the goal line, between the goalposts and under the crossbar.” 

At present, this is a judgement call made by the referee and assistant referee, whose view is potentially obscured by players, leading to the belief that introducing technology would eradicate such issues.

FIFA is currently testing two potential camera-based methods, including ‘Smart Ball’ and ‘Hawk-Eye’.

The former refers to balls equipped with censors and magnetic fields around the goal to give a real-time verdict on whether or not the ball has crossed the line.

Lampard out of luck
A similar system was trialled by FIFA in 2005 and discarded upon learning of just a 95 percent accuracy rate.

The latter system uses triangulation, through six high-speed cameras, only needing to observe 25 percent of the ball to determine its location, overcoming the concern of players blocking the line of vision.

However, this is not real-time and would therefore require stoppages in play for disputed incidents. Cost of installation has also been estimated at £250,000 for each stadium to utilise such technology. 

In this instance, a greater divide between the Premier League and the lower leagues would be created, an act which would be frowned upon by those unable to afford such facilities. It seems difficult to justify the costs of implementation for a scenario which is relatively rare.

True, most big-money sports in the modern era take advantage of technology to aid decision making, including finish line calls in horse racing, swimming and athletics. Cricket and tennis both use Hawk-Eye for in-line judgements, whilst rugby employs video referees for dubious try decisions.

To many general sports fans, football may appear to have been left in the dark ages, but all dedicated football fans will appreciate the one resounding difference between their favoured discipline and the others mentioned above.

Keeper 'saves' a goal
Football is the only non-stop sport, whereby breaks in play are few and far between and the very ethos of the game is based on hard, fast, flowing action. To introduce lengthy stoppages, interrupting the natural rhythm of the game, would be to remove the heartbeat of a sport which has survived perfectly well throughout the ages, without the need for such inclusion.

The most famous case in recent history occurred in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when Frank Lampard’s 20-yard strike was judged not to have crossed the line, despite video replays showing the ball was a foot over the chalk.

Sure, England had reason to feel hard done by, but the fact remains, they were horrendously outclassed and convincingly defeated 4-1 by much classier opponents. So, rather than being a decision that changed the outcome of England’s World Cup fortunes, it became an event that was used as a scapegoat to mask England’s lack of talent.

Similarly, on Sunday, Tottenham were equally unlucky to have a goal awarded against them, which never crossed the line. But, despite Chelsea scoring on four other occasions, in an impressive 5-1 rout, it was the irrelevance of the goal that never was, which stole the headlines.

As with these two instances, there would be little to no overall change of the successes and failures in the football world.

The 1966 World Cup Final
The one major argument in favour of goal-line technology is justice. The problem being, the use of technology for one scenario creates inconsistencies in others.

For example, a referee may possess the power and knowledge to award a goal after confirming, through video replay, that the ball has crossed the line. Yet, if the corner that lead to the goal should never have been given, because video replays show the defender never touched the ball, it is impossible to claim justice in this situation.

The only way to achieve real justice throughout football is through the total use of computerised, video-assisted, robotic referees for every single decision, including throw-ins, free-kicks, corners, goal-kicks, penalties and goals causing uncountable stoppages and the complete death of the game.

Yes, sometimes humans get decisions wrong and sometimes they go in your teams favour and sometimes they do not, but this is part of the game. 

Genuine football fans would agree that half the enjoyment of being a spectator, is the debates that ensue over the referee’s big calls. As the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, claimed, “Fans love to debate any given incident in a game. It is part of the human nature of sport.”

FIFA not keen on cameras
FIFA have always claimed their objective is to open up football to the world, a notion that is made impossible by the undermining of its universality. 

The idea of an ancient sport being replicated all over the planet, promoting ‘jumpers for goalposts’ football, is removed with the suggested inclusion of complex modern goal-line technology.

After all, football is an art, not a science.

Written by Dom Wallace

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Conversation About: Mario Balotelli

Queuing up to get into a swanky bar the other night, shielding my chin from the bitter wind in the top of my coat, when some vagrant shuffles up to me...

Monday, April 9, 2012

Stuart Lancaster's England Are a Wilting Rose

New man in charge
On March 29th, Stuart Lancaster was named as permanent head coach of the England rugby team. Following his successful, although brief, period as interim boss during a Six Nations campaign that saw England win four out of their five matches, many have been quick to heap praise on the new boss. However, a more in-depth investigation into the events surrounding his appointment would suggest that the current optimism in the English rugby camp may be short-lived.

A woeful World Cup campaign in New Zealand at the end of 2011 will be remembered more for the irresponsible and unprofessional antics of the England rugby team off the field than their undisciplined and disorganised behaviour on it.

Unsavoury reports of law-breaking during matches and drunken misdemeanours between fixtures left Martin Johnson with no option, but to resign, proving that great players don’t always make great coaches.
The month of mayhem left the reputation of the England Rugby Football Union in tatters and with confidence at an all-time low, many had pencilled this year’s Six Nations as a potentially huge embarrassment for English rugby.

Enter Stuart Lancaster.

A shameful World Cup
A new-look England squad made heavy work of their opening two fixtures with narrow victories over Scotland and Italy, although winning was the most important factor. A spirited performance against Wales, ending in a controversial defeat, showed signs that Lancaster had moved quickly to change the ethos in the camp. A memorable victory in Paris and a resounding win over the Irish at Twickenham further compounded the suspicion that whatever Lancaster was doing, was working.

The constant flow of penalties that England had conceded under Johnson, combined with a lack of conviction and identity had been replaced with a passion, discipline and belief causing players and pundits alike to pay homage to the impact of Lancaster in his role as interim head coach.

Debates ensued as to who held the credentials to take on the role of England head coach on a full-time basis and it appeared in recent weeks that the RFU had narrowed their list of suitable candidates down to Lancaster and former South African and Italian head coach Nick Mallet.

Lack of discipline
Due to England’s relative success in the Six Nations, many voiced opinions to suggest that Lancaster should be rewarded for his outstanding work and when unveiled as the new permanent boss, the news was met with enthusiasm from the overwhelming majority.

But, was Lancaster the right man for the job and will he still be regarded as the saviour of English rugby come the turn of the year?

When assessing the calibre of Lancaster’s opposition, it becomes obvious that the magnitude of Mallet’s achievements far outweigh his own.

With a coaching career that commenced in 1984 and boasts five clubs, two national teams, World Cup experience, two French domestic titles, a Tri-Nations triumph, a claim to raising Italy to the heights of a world-class rugby nation and a record winning stretch of 17 consecutive test wins with the Springbok, amongst others, Mallet’s accolades speak for themselves.

Vastly experienced
In stark contrast, Lancaster’s coaching career began recently in 2006 as Director of Rugby at Leeds Carnegie, having run Leeds RFU Academy for the previous five years.

Former England World Cup winner Ben Cohen admitted, “I don’t think he’s the right man. Nick Mallet has got credentials coming out of his ears, he has got a great CV [and is someone] who knows how to react in tough times.”

In Lancaster’s defence, he has stated in no uncertain terms that his reign will be one of steady progression, warning against building expectations too high, too soon. The RFU has moved quickly to back-up Lancaster, re-iterating that his ultimate mission is to bring success to English rugby when the 2015 World Cup is played on home soil.

Cohen countered, “Yes...he has got four years to build up to the World Cup, but you want someone who has got experience of managing through that. You look at the Six Nations as a honeymoon period and there are testing times to come ahead.”
Many current England internationals filed rapid responses in favour of Lancaster’s appointment, although cynics would claim these were acts of personal gain to get on the right side of a man who disagrees with favouritism.

Favours Mallet
England’s Six Nations captain, Tom Croft, announced, “He did a great job so he is the ideal man to keep in the role. I look forward to working with him again in the summer, if I am selected.”

A host of ex-internationals seemed to back Lancaster, though few appeared to speak with real persuasion. Jeremy Guscott revealed, "The results made it almost impossible not to give him the job. The future for Lancaster is fairly bright, but we have to keep a lid on the expectation.”

Leicester head coach and former England hooker, Richard Cockerill, believes, “Stuart is there by circumstance rather than by ambition.”
Ex-England captain, Martin Corry, went further into the nature of Lancaster’s appointment, suggesting, “I think the process has to be questioned a little bit. You look at Wayne Smith [former All Blacks assistant coach], who I regard as a world-class coach. He ruled himself out, saying the job seemed more like a PR exercise than actually coaching a world-class side.”

Lancaster has emerged from the Six Nations with a glowing reputation but, as is often the case with sports fans, followers must not be short-sighted and acknowledge that much tougher tasks lie ahead. In June, England travel to South Africa for a three match series, before hosting the ‘Big Three’ southern hemisphere teams and Fiji at Twickenham this winter. There is a real possibility that England will walk away from the next seven fixtures with just one victory.

Tough tests lie ahead
Even former England hooker Brian Moore, overtly vocal in his support for Lancaster, conceded, “They have got southern hemisphere games that they are likely to lose and it will not be a straightforward path.”

In December 2011, the English were in a state of despair with their national rugby team, given their failure to conduct themselves appropriately on and off the pitch. Four months later, this appears to be a distant memory as the media misrepresents a small step as a giant leap in the revolution of English rugby.

While the outcome of the last five games was a pleasant surprise for most fans, three narrow victories and one comfortable result against a diminished Ireland side, is not enough to convince most realists that England are a transformed outfit.

Given that they face the possibility of several heavy losses before the end of the year, it will be interesting to see whether the public still believe in a highly inexperienced head coach as the right man to lead England come December 2012.

Stuart Lancaster’s red rose has weathered the first storm, but must withstand some treacherous conditions before it has the chance to bloom.

Written by Dom Wallace