Saturday, 24 September 2011

So we are at the World Cup after all

So finally England have come to life, and now that the matches are more regular and elimination/progression issues are being resolved, the World Cup has truly begun. About time too. 

New Zealand ominously dispatched their bogey team France, and look all set for the knockout stages and most likely a clash against Scotland or Argentina. Les Bleus meanwhile can look forward to taking on Les Blancs. Unless France are playing in white again and we play in black, in which case it's Les Blancs et Les Noirs but I don't think the race-relation PR people will be too happy with that. 

Regardless, it was good to see England firing again, albeit against a weakened Romania team. Make no mistake, this wasn't the same team that ran Scotland close a fortnight ago, they were significantly weakened, looking ahead to the match against Georgia, which could seal their qualification to the 2015 tournament. Rugby's very own version of Mick McCarthy and Ian Holloway

Still, Mark Cueto makes a big difference (although he only actually seemed to touch it 3 times), adds balance and takes away the reliance on Chris Ashton. Besides, we don't have too many players in our team who have scored perfectly legitimate tries in World Cup finals before (see video). It'll no doubt be a grittier match against Scotland so we'll need some more powerful, fast and accurate running to complement the centres Tindall and Tuilagi who offer powerful, strong and powerful running. 

One feature of the match was Wilkinson being removed at half-time for Toby Flood. The commentators seemed baffled by it, which in turn baffled me. Surely protecting our most injury-prone star would seem fairly logical at 34-3 up. A lot of big matches are coming up and having him fully fit is pretty important.

It also got me thinking, especially in light of the well-received comparison between Jonah Lomu and Ronaldo recently, how I've never seen Jonny Wilkinson and Michael Owen in the same room either. Have you?
Jonny Wilkinson

Michael Owen
Back in December 2002, a BBC article said "And his (JW's) modesty and good looks have made him on of English sport's top role models - rugby's equivalent of Michael Owen." You say equivalent, I say same person, tomato tomato (oh wait, that doesn't really work in a blog).

So let's examine the evidence, in order of how compelling it is:

  • Both have an image as good clean, honest, Englishmen
  • Both played for Newcastle and have had spells at continental clubs
  • Both have won world player of the year awards (Owen - Ballon D'or 2001, Wilko IRB International Player of the Year 2003)
  • Both have won BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards (Owen '98, Wilko '03)
  • Both have been plagued by injuries throughout their careers, severely hampering both their international and club careers
  • Both were born in 1979
  • Both play at number 10 for England (yes present tense, come on Fabio, call him up)
  • Both made their international debuts in 1998, aged 18
  • Both have played exactly 89 times for England (correct as of 24/9/11)
  • They look exactly the same (ish)

Your honour, I rest my case.

PS - if anyone stumbles across this article, just remember that it is sensationalist fiction writing from that well known tabloid The Times. 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Waiting for the World Cup to Kick Off

I can scarcely believe we're only a week into the Rugby World Cup. A relentless flood of nailbiting matches coming thick and fast, there's barely time to breathe between the end of one game and the start of the next. It's difficult to contain the excitement, building to a fever pitch crescendo of national fascination in the tournament.

Well sort of. In reality there has been little more than a couple of interesting matches and a bunch of usual drubbings and odd unconvincing early performances from the bigger teams. Wales - South Africa was undoubtedly the best game of the tournament so far, with a good standard of rugby as well as plenty of drama, controversy and a near upset. England - Argentina was interesting but more in a painful, why am I being made to watch this agony kind of way. If you imagine a combination of the X-factor, Glee and Big Brother, somehow put together in an all-singing all-dancing repetitive, musical reality show, you're beginning to see what it was like. Besides that, we had unconvincing wins for Ireland and Scotland (x2), the All Blacks not at their best but easily good enough, the Wallabies playing like two different teams in each half, at 6-6 with Italy at half-time before cruising through 32-6, and France looking solid enough. 

But that was all last weekend, since then we've had a break for some reason. The (association) football World Cup in South Africa started on July 11th and there were 2 or 3 matches every single day without fail all through the groups, right until the last 16 matches were done (19 consecutive days), and even then there was only a couple of days break until the quarters. 

You can't really blame the English lads for getting out and keeping themselves busy. Steve Thompson and Dan Cole were obviously using their good looks and charm with these young ladies. I can't imagine there was any other reason they would want to be pictured with international rugby players for photos that would appear all over the world press. 
It was also good to see the dedication of our backs, not only putting in the hours outside of the training ground, but even working on their rolling mauls. I'm sure the dedication will pay off. 

One interesting aspect of the tournament so far has been the frankly dreadful standard of kicking (looking at pens and conversions). Not all teams are guilty (SA, Aus & Fra have struck 70% of more of kicks) but the following numbers don't make pretty reading. Look at the successful to missed kicks:

Wales - 4 scored, 2 missed (66%)
New Zealand - 14 scored, 7 missed (66%)
Scotland - 9 scored, 7 missed (56%)
Ireland - 3 scored, 5 missed (38%)
England - 3 scored, 5 missed (38%)

Undoubtedly the standard will improve as the tournament goes on and the kickers get used to the balls. Certainly England will need Wilkinson or Flood to be on top form because chances against the big teams will be few and far between. Playing a pool match every 3 years or so should give them both enough time to practise and ensure we see a lot of line judge flags in the air over the coming weeks...

Special, unrelated sporting mentions to Djokovic for being simply incredible yet again this year. And also for the England cricket team, a genuinely top class performance to beat the world champions 3-0. So much for just being a test match team. Once again I find myself with too many topics and not enough time

Thursday, 8 September 2011

An All Black World Cup?

Ex England winger Ben Cohen: "I can't see New Zealand winning it. I think they will choke."

As the Rugby World Cup begins, the big question is quite simply, can the All Blacks do it at last?

Few sports can ever have been so utterly dominated by one nation. New Zealand are the leading points scorers of all time, have a winning record against every single other test nation, have held top spot in the rankings for more time than all other countries combined (at least 75% of the time) and have only ever been beaten by 5 countries in over 100 years of test match rugby, and only 3 teams have ever beaten them at a World Cup. They have won their world cup pool every single time and have never once lost a pool match.

And yet, not since 20th June 1987 have they held the great trophy aloft. Billed as great chokers, in the mould of the South African cricket team, they fail to perform on the biggest stage. 

They have awesome records against their major rivals, that is until they play them in the World Cup. 

They have beaten Australia 67% of the time (96 of 142 matches). In World Cups, 0% - they've lost both times they've played them (semi's in '91 and '03).
They have beaten South Africa 55% of the time (46 of 83 matches). In World Cups, 33% (1 of 3).
They have beaten France 73.5% of the time (36 of 49). In World Cups, 50% (2 of 4). 

"Mike Catt, door mat"
Against every other team they have won every single match. In other words, they are incredible and overwhelmingly capable, but when it comes to the crunch matches, in the semi's and finals, they just don't do it. What's perhaps even more amazing, given their record against the other nations is that they've only made 1 final in all those years since '87. That was '95, the year of Jonah Lomu. In the games leading up to the final they scored 43 (against Ireland), 34 (Wales), 145 (Japan - a record score), 48 (Scotland) and 45 (England). With such devastating scoring, against a South Africa team performing averagely, there was only one result. They'd scored 41 tries in just 5 matches. 
They managed 3 penalties and a drop goal, all from Andrew Mehrtens. Zero tries and a bizarrely absent performance from Lomu*. They'd bottled it, and haven't got close since. 

Is this year going to change all that?

 * Am I the only person to notice that Jonah Lomu and (Fat) Ronaldo are the same person? Immensely powerful, blisteringly fast, devastating finishers who utterly dominated a World Cup before having a poor and fruitless final, ending in defeat and surrounded by controversy and a mysterious illness. They each hold the World Cup scoring record, of tries and goals respectively. Both with 15. Also, they look identical. It's almost worth a blog post on its own

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Spectacular Smattering of September Sport

What's a sports blogger to do? There are only so many hours in the day and only so many posts before my readership (i.e. you) gets bored so which of the below topics ought one cover? Maybe just a bit on each...

World Athletics Championships - Team GB not exactly blowing the competition away, especially given the increasing value of gold. A few upsets but we can't escape the fact that no-one really cares what happens. Bring on the Olympics so we can at least be excited about the whole thing, while still not actually caring about any individual events

European Championship football qualifiers - considering that as a country we are obsessed with football and that it utterly dominates our topics of conversation, why are these qualifiers so utterly dull for fans? That said, it was a surprisingly entertaining weekend with mixed results for the home nations; England convincing, Wales delighted, Scotland robbed and Northern Ireland disappointing. Truth is though, we'd all just prefer a normal weekend of Premiership matches. Do all the qualifying one summer, then the tournament the next summer I reckon.

England - India ODI Series - England saved by the rain today, not sure they're going to be so lucky in the remaining 4 matches. The world champions are severely weakened but still a much better all round team than us it appears. We've got the players to win a couple so maybe we'll get through with a tied series or even a 2-1 win if another match is lost. After all, we did come through against Sri Lanka when things didn't look too good.

US Open - Nearly half-way through the final major of season, coming off the back of an epic fightback from Murray against Robin Haase, with Djokovic in unbelievable form and seriously threatening to be the first man ever to win the US Open without losing a set but ultimately no real talking points. Things will certainly heat up but all signs are positive for our dream semi-final line up again. 

Rugby World Cup - On Friday 9th September, the World Cup begins in New Zealand. The All Blacks are clear favourites, despite the Wallabies shock victory in the Tri-Nations final last week. Never rule out England and South Africa, while Argentina, Ireland, Wales and France could pull off a result or two. A fascinating few weeks ahead and time will tell whether New Zealand will choke again or whether they will dominate as they are capable of doing.