Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Out with the old, in with the Novak?

As Djokovic defeats Federer for the second time in a row, could there be an upset at the top end of the tennis table in 2011?

After crashing out to the Serb in the semi finals of the Australian Open last month – his second Grand Slam semi defeat by Djokovic in a row – Federer was quick to quieten any talk of a revolution in the men’s game.  “They say that very quickly” he asserted.  “Let’s talk in six months again.”

Well one of those months has now passed and, if anything, a changing of the guard looks more likely.  Djokovic displayed yet more determination to sweep the Swiss aside in straight sets, 6-3 6-3, in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Saturday.  He dug deep to come back from a break down in the second set and secure his third straight title at the tournament. 

But while the impressiveness of Djokovic’s form can’t be overlooked, neither can the apparent deterioration of Federer’s.  Since he ended 2010 with a deserved Barclays ATP World Tour Finals trophy in London, and began 2011 with another win in Qatar, the serial champ has hit something of a slump.  A bumpy road to the semis in Australia was blocked by a superior Djokovic, and in Dubai his usual class and efficiency were replaced by crass errors.  But if he wasn’t able to return the Serb’s serves, he could still hit back at sceptics: “Things are over in a hurry sometimes in best of three set tennis,” he reasoned.

With Federer and Nadal having ruled the rankings for a good half decade now, it’s all too tempting for tennis fans to consider that a coup might be about to take place.  Since winning the first of his sixteen Grand Slams at Wimbledon eight(!) years ago, Federer has hit heights to more than justify his reputation as, probably, the greatest player there has ever been.  But in the last couple of years his priorities have undoubtedly shifted.  Marriage, fatherhood, charity work and turning 30 in August will all have an affect on his appetite for more titles in the years to come.

The imperious but injury-prone Nadal is a much tougher tennis tyrant to overthrow.  After a slow start, the world #1 dominated the clay court season and went on to claim three Grand Slam titles in 2010.  But there are chinks in Rafa’s armour.  As with last year, the hard courts of the Australian Open proved tough on his unreliable legs and he has sat out of the circuit since he suffered a hamstring injury in his quarter final against David Ferrer.  It will be interesting to see how he comes back at Indian Wells in a couple of weeks, but his continuing physical inconsistencies and occasional mental lapses will give hope to those after his crown.

So who are the most likely successors to the throne?  Djokovic surely has to be first in line.  With his 100% match record this year still intact and his self belief seemingly growing by the week, his years as bridesmaid to Federer and Nadal’s bride and groom (or groom and bride?) could soon be over.  He still has some distance to catch up with the Rafa but with less than 100 ranking points currently separating him from the Swiss, the #2 spot is well within his reach.

A quiet man who has also been causing a stir this year is Robin Soderling.  Aside from a surprising fourth round defeat to Alexandr Dolgopolov at the Australian Open, the Swede has won all three of the other tournaments he has played this year.  Soderling has reached the last two French Open finals – losing to Federer and Nadal respectively.  It will be interesting to see if he can take this year’s title in a few months time.

Elsewhere, David Ferrer has had a fine start to 2011; defeating Nadal to reach the semis of the Australian Open and winning in both Auckland and Acapulco.  Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych also continue to hover around the top end of the rankings, though neither has a 2011 title to his name yet.

While Roger may be more reluctant to concede the crown, Rafa has said to the Spanish media that their reign is under threat: “For sure I think this monopoly ended some time ago.  There are many players ready to challenge now.”  There are indeed – but the challenge has already begun.

Martin McGale

Cycling for Brits and dummies: an introduction

Events like the World Cup or the Olympics unite billions of folk and their passion for sport. Some sports unite only a few nations. Cricket is more or less only enjoyed by the Commonwealth Nations and Rugby, in the Northern hemisphere, is most popular in the Six Nations Countries.

Another one of these curious sports that seems to attract the interest of a handful of European nations is cycling. Its mainland is Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and most of all Belgium, the latter being a country most of the world forgot about.

However more and more people around the world are becoming cycle enthusiasts and the recent success of the Americans (Lance Armstrong)  and Australians (Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen) have given a huge boost to cycling’s popularity in the ‘New World’.

Events like the Tour of California and the Tour Down Under will never reach the legendary status of the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix (The Hell of the North) but all the sport’s stars are competing in these new races.

The Holy Grail – Tour de France

So why have the British Isles and Ireland stayed immune for the cycling virus? The chairman of the International cycling federation (UCI) is Irishman Pat McQuaid and in recent years the Brits have joined the peloton in the likes of time trial specialist David Millar, Tour de France contender Bradley Wiggens and last but not least, Mark Cavendish, who was the best sprinter of 2010 and has become one of the most popular riders in the peloton.

So in attempt to familiarize you with the Grandeur of cycling, Champions Chat will provide you with ‘Cycling for dummies and Brits’. The highlights of the race calendar and all the stars of the sport will be discussed in the months to come.

Here’s a quick peak for what to expect:

Iconic events like the Hell of the North, Le Grand Boucle, La Primavera and the Race of the Falling Leaves are the stages where athletes become legends and hero’s fall from grace. In the following months I will address the highlights of the cycling calendar and acquaint you with the leading actors in this sporting spectacle.

The year starts with The Spring Classics divided by the cobbled classics and the Ardennes classics. A combination of cold spring winds, rain, mud, broken tarmac and fierce climbs await the riders in one-day races which have an average distance of 260 kilometres.

The Hell of the North

After a tough spring the teams prepare themselves for one-week events such as the Dauphiné Libéré (nick-named the mini Tour de France) and the Tour of Switzerland to test their form for the highlight of the season: the Tour de France

Le Grand Boucle as it is also called is the Holy Grail of the sport. Also, the Giro d’Italia with its epic tales and the Spanish Vuelta with its impressive stages are truly great sporting events worth noticing. Preview, reviews and features on all the three ‘Grand Tours’ will be available on Champions Chat.

But the cycling calendar does not end in July after the Tour. There’s the Vuelta in September, a few weeks later  the World Championships in Copenhagen  after which the autumn classics with the legendary Tour of Lombardy in October will prove another climax in an exciting year of competition.

But sport isn’t just about the location or the events; it’s about the athletes, the hero’s that cycle more than 200 kilometres a day in all-weather conditions and all parts of the world.

It’s about the sprinters who after a whole day of cycling explode into human bullets and race to finish with speeds up to 80 km/h and make Chris Hoy look like a pensioner in a wheelchair. It’s about the nimble climbers who conquer the Alps and the Pyrenees like Sherpa’s (only without oxygen masks and entangled in a fierce battle for victory).

‘Cav’ and the art of sprinting

And it is about the all-rounders who triumph in the Tour, the Vuelta and the Giro after three weeks of gruelling challenges. They become part of the cycling legend that produced icons like Fausto Coppi (Il Campionissimo), Eddy Merckx (The Cannibal), Miguel Indurain (Big Mig) and of course Lance Armstrong (The Boss).

In short, cycling’s growing popularity outside its mainland is not without its reasons and if you keep an eye on Champions Chat, you’ll soon find out why!

Stef Meens

Remember ’67, The Dream Never Dies

It’s been 44 long years since the richest and best supported team in the NHL last won the Stanley Cup.  For millions of hacked off fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs professional hockey just does not seem fair.

But actually, it really is.  Too fair even, you might say.  The whole league is based around a set of rules designed to make the playing field as level as possible.  The NHL’s draft system ensures a fair distribution of quality players and prevents the big teams from consistently dominating at the expense of their less illustrious rivals.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the system of youth player selection in North American sports allow me a moment to explain with an example:

Let’s say that there is a highly talented 18-year old who wants nothing more than to play for his beloved Calgary Flames.   But he cannot simply be signed by Calgary, his playing rights need to be secured by them in an entry draft which occurs every summer for NHL teams.  If this 18-year old is the best available amateur prospect then unless the Flames hold the number one pick he is headed elsewhere.

There are five rounds where teams can select players, with the teams ordered in the draft based on where they finished in the standings the previous year.  The worst team out of 30 receives the top pick; the second worst receives the second pick and so on, with the best team receiving the last pick of the first round of the draft.

There are now subtle nuances involving draft lotteries and Stanley Cup winners to make it slightly more interesting but that is the basic premise.  Alongside the draft system there are also salary restrictions for every player and team which prevent the clubs with the most revenue streams from outmuscling their opponents financially.

I can see the merits of the system.  Especially coming from Scotland where two teams have hoovered up 95% of the support and money and won 40 out of the last 44 league championships.  To us, the idea of an even competition is a completely alien concept.

That said, there is something very peculiar about a situation where the richest and best supported team in the league is one of the worst teams, and has been bumbling around the lower reaches for quite a few years now.

In terms of fanbase the Toronto Maple Leafs are like the Manchester United of the hockey world.   They are also my first sporting love.   As a young boy growing up in southern Ontario I never had any say in becoming a Leafs fan.  The hysteria caused by the resurgent team of 1992-1993 that came within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final made it seem like hockey was the only thing that mattered.

The level of support generated in southern Ontario for the hard luck Buds is unmatched, and only historic rivals the Montreal Canadiens can claim to be anywhere near their level in terms of turnover.

Despite this, the Leafs currently hold the dubious honour of having the longest active cup drought, a distinction that was passed on last season when the Chicago Blackhawks clinched their first cup since 1961.  The Leafs last cup win came in 1967 when the league consisted of only six teams.  Since then they have been mostly dreadful, with only a handful of successful seasons to cling to and just one divisional triumph, in the 1999-2000 season.   Years of mismanagement and sheer bad luck have put the Leafs in this unenviable position.

There were a couple of good playoff runs in the late 90s and early 00s, but in recent times being a Leafs fan has been hard to stomach.  They have missed the playoffs for the last five years in a row, and the management’s penchant for signing ageing former greats on ludicrous contracts during the past decade has really come back to haunt them.

Trading away high draft picks (collected as a result of being so poor in the last five years) on a regular basis for puzzlingly bad 30-something players has been a regular feature of the last five years, but even despite all of this the Leafs still command an enormous and boisterous support at every single home game.

While living in Toronto in 2009 I was hoping that the Leafs would have a playoff year and I could relive some of the great times I remember as a kid watching them play nerve jangling playoff hockey.  Unfortunately, the team were terrible and it didn’t happen.

At least, I thought, that would make it easier to get tickets to see a game. But that was not the case either.  The Leafs have sold out every single home game since 2002 and tickets are still incredibly hard to obtain, despite the declining fortunes of the team.

Southern Ontario is a hockey mad place and deserving of a successful team.  A huge amount of great NHL players come from the region, and if in some alternate universe a rule was introduced whereby players could only play for their own home province or state then the cup would likely never fall out of the hands of Toronto or Montreal.  They would end up becoming the Canadian Old Firm, except much more polite.

Fast forward to the present season and we see a familiar story.  It was written off as yet another ‘rebuilding’ year as a mid-season slump dropped the Leafs out of playoff contention but an 8-2-2 run in February has moved the Leafs to within four points of a playoff spot and has fans starting to believe that after five years in the doldrums the young, new look team are on the brink of bringing good times back to Toronto.

Could this be our year at long last? Well, you never know.  For some reason, we all still believe.

Stuart Findlay

Jumpers for Goalposts Ep4

Welcome JfP followers to this week’s episode of the podcast.

Stu Martinez takes over the hosting duties and is joined in the studio by regular guests Elliot Busby, Colin Stone and Stef Meens.

Topics deliberated today include Clarence Seedorf’s genital parts, our deaf listeners and the more serious matters of the FA Cup, the Premiership relegation battle and the Champions League.

This week’s episode is slightly lengthier than usual, but unless you listen to all of it you’ll miss out on some life-changing banter.

Click the link to download from the usual site or listen below.

The Lads

Scottish clubs need to get behind Rangers’ European campaign

Matias Fernandez’s 88th-minute equaliser for Sporting Lisbon against Rangers last Thursday could prove to be the death knell for Scottish clubs in Europe this year – and for years to come.

With the co-efficient of Scotland’s clubs in dire straits, the SPL need Rangers to progress as far as they can to give Scotland a much-needed rankings boost and regain the two lucrative Champions League spots.

The Gers will face Sporting Lisbon tomorrow in the second leg of the knockout stages of the Europa League after the 1-1 draw at Ibrox, but Rangers will need to score in the Estadio Jose Alvalade to stand any chance of making it through to the last 16.

If Rangers crash out in Portugal, then Scotland could potentially slide further down the rankings pole with Switzerland breathing down their necks.

However, manager Walter Smith has reason to feel confident due to previous encounters with the Iberian side.

During Rangers’ run to the UEFA Cup Final in 2008, Smith’s men drew 0-0 at home with Sporting before an impressive 2-0 win in Portugal sealed their progress. A tap-in from Jean Claude Darcheville and a solo effort from Steven Whittaker proved to be enough on the night.

Supporters will be hoping that Smith can mastermind a similar result this time round, but Rangers look to be having serious problems in the striking department.

With £4m striker Nikica Jelavic ineligible and Steven Naismith out injured, it looks like Smith will have to persist with Northern Irishman Kyle Lafferty up front.

The much-maligned and unpopular striker has scored just 6 goals in 26 appearances this term, and in over 2 and a half years at the club has only scored 15.

With injuries piling up and the team having suffered a 3-0 loss to rivals Celtic at the weekend, it’s not looking good for Rangers as they try to claw back some co-efficient points.

As it stands, only the winner of this season’s SPL will qualify for the Champions League (and the preliminary rounds at that). Second and third place, along with the winner of the Scottish Cup, will take the Europa League spots.

However, due to other countries slipping up, Scotland are set to regain their two Champions League places for season 2012-13 and move back up the rankings table to 15th place – which would be a welcome financial boost for the participating clubs.

But Swiss clubs are hot on Scotland’s heels and if Rangers fail to get past Lisbon on Thursday then 15th place could be in serious jeopardy.

If Basel and Young Boys, who are both still very much in their respective ties, progress to the last 16 and Rangers do not, then Switzerland will inherit the two Champions League places instead and Scotland will slip even further into the co-efficient abyss.

Thursday’s result could have an impact on the Scottish game for years to come.

Rangers, if they do embark on a European run this season, will probably lose the SPL title and will also miss out on the millions of pounds that come with the Champions League spot. 

This makes it all the more crucial for the Gers to win on Thursday to bring in some much needed finance, and more importantly, some much needed co-efficient points.

Colin Stone

What’s all the fuss about Emilio Izaguirre?

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish is reportedly interested in bringing Celtic’s Honduran defender Emilio Izaguirre to Anfield.

The 24 year-old left-back signed for the Hoops from Motagua in his homeland in a £600,000 deal last summer and has made 21 appearances for the Glasgow side this season.

With Celtic apparently sticking a £10m price tag on Izaguirre’s head after little more than six months in Scotland, it shows how highly manager Neil Lennon rates the diminutive defender.

Arguably Celtic’s best player this season, the Honduran has impressed with his pin-point crosses, running, dribbling, ability to take on his man and his role in setting up crucial goals.

His most recent contribution was to set up striker Gary Hooper’s second goal during the 3-0 win over Rangers on Sunday. The left-back ran from inside his own box, beat the offside trap spectacularly and played a delightful ball across the box for the English forward to poke home.

Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish was at Sunday’s game to cast his eye over the World Cup star, whilst Manchester United supremo Sir Alex Ferguson was in attendance at the 2-2 draw between the Old Firm earlier in the month to see whether or not the defender could be a potential long-term replacement for Patrice Evra.

But with the Frenchman having signed a new deal in the past few days, it seems like Liverpool could be the Honduran’s next destination.

And with Glen Johnson out of form and Paul Konchesky out on loan, Izaguirre may soon be moving to pastures new.

“He’s incredible,” Celtic boss Neil Lennon said recently. “He’s had an incredible season. He gives me the heebie-jeebies sometimes. He just wants to play, he does Cruyff turns in his own box at times but he’s been wonderful.

“Our chief scout John Park saw him play in the World Cup for Honduras and he brought us some DVDs. We had a good look at him and I thought ‘yeah, he looks decent’.

“But again, you just don’t know what you are going to get. You don’t know the temperament is going to be like, what the character is going to be like and we’re very lucky because what we’ve got is very solid.”

Lennon’s New Year resolutions beginning to pay off

There can’t be many New Year resolutions that survive the month of January. Quitting the cancer sticks. Sweating Tennents lager onto a treadmill five days a week. Flipping 50p’s into an old jam jar every time a profanity slips out your gub. I’ve heard them all, but will power alone just doesn’t cut it.

For those still hanging in there come the end of February, it usually takes discipline, hard work, sacrifice and a dogged determination to mute your doubters.

I can’t be sure what Neil Lennon promised himself as the big hand embraced the wee hand at midnight on December 31st, but it was probably along the lines of “I promise to keep my mouth shut and let my team’s football do the talking.”

As we wave goodbye to February and step into March, Lennon’s New Year vows remain intact. 11 games played, 9 wins, 2 draws and no defeats, with his Celtic side conceding just five goals. It’s been a hugely credible 2011, combining a run which has booked his team’s place in the League Cup final, maintained their presence in the Scottish Cup and extended their lead at the SPL summit to eight points, with just 12 league fixtures to fulfil.

Neil Lennon deserves credit for the turnaround in Celtic's fortunes since the turn of the year

But perhaps most significantly for Lennon, and certainly for his band of hooped followers, Celtic have inflicted successive Old Firm league defeats on their greatest adversaries, Rangers. By twice reversing a morale sucking 3-1 loss at the hands of their city rivals on their own patch in October, Lennon has instilled belief and excitement amongst Celtic supporters for the first time since he took his place in the Parkhead dugout.

Yet it was all so different at the tail end of last year. The removal from European competition was followed by some insipid home performances in the SPL that appeared to show the first sign of cracks at the once fortress building on London Road. Some distasteful touchline antics and misjudged comments to the press heralded a six-match touchline ban for Lennon, and when his side travelled to Ibrox on January 2 there weren’t many Celtic supporters who envisaged such a bruising defeat of their neighbours.

But gradually, the team that Lennon has built almost single handedly (of Celtic’s starting eleven against Rangers on Sunday, only Scott Brown and Giorgios Samaras started in the defeat to Ross County last April) have established a togetherness, a fluency and a work ethic which has superseded all who have come before them.

So impressive is Celtic’s current form that when you sit back and measure the impact Lennon has had in his inaugural season as a coach, it is impossible not to praise his performance level thus far.

Some of his signings have been nothing short of a revelation. “Izaleftback? No, Izaguirre.” Few people had heard of this galloping, nimble Honduran before he checked into Scotland in the close season. Gary Hooper’s Scottish profile before signing for Celtic was reduced to a name on a team sheet in a Sunday newspaper sports section.

There are, of course, a gluttony of other signings who have quickly embraced their flame topped manager’s ethos, but Izaguirre and Hooper have been particularly outstanding. The early form of Kris Commons, signed in January, continues to support the theory that Lennon has an ability to spot raw talent when it comes to player recruitment.

Beyond the signings, though, Celtic have benefitted from some bold decision making on the part of their manager. Hampered by the inability of some of his defenders to keep a clean sheet in the early stages of the season, Lennon refused to obsess over this deficiency and instead concentrated his side’s focus on doing what they were good at: going forward.

While some managers may have choked their side’s attacking advances to concentrate on building from the back, Lennon instead signed a further attacker in January in the shape of Freddie Ljunberg. Defensive signings weren’t forthcoming, so instead Charlie Mulgrew was picked to hold the hand of Daniel Majstorovic in central defence. The former Aberdeen player has so far enjoyed great success tucking into a more central role. Such decisions, which may once have appeared baffling to the club’s supporters, now look decidedly shrewd.

It’s amazing to think that just 10 months ago the same club, coached by Lennon on a short-term basis, limped out of the Scottish Cup after a comprehensive defeat to Highland minnows Ross County.

Off the field, Lennon appears to be focusing his energies on coaching his team as they look to wrestle the SPL title from the hands of Rangers, where once his mind was on other things. As he awaits the outcome of his touchline ban appeal, referees have been off his agenda of late. Sports hacks have been scratching their heads for a golden quote, but even this has been side stepped by the Northern Irishman. Even his Twitter account has been inactive for over a month.

Lennon continues to divide opinion in Scottish football, and some of his outbursts earlier in the campaign were inexcusable. However, he appears to have cleaned up his act of late. One would suspect this has been on the back of the advice of some senior figures inside Parkhead.

If there is anything at all that can be taken from this, it’s that his team and their supporters have built up some kind of siege mentality against all and sundry. This has manifested into a team who have recently shown an astonishing level of energy and commitment on the field, with some of their attacking play being a joy to watch.

Lennon deserves great credit for what he has achieved on a limited budget after inheriting a substandard team. But as he said himself after the 3-0 thumping of Rangers on Sunday, the title race is far from over.

If his passion and drive continue to flourish, there’s no reason why his New Year resolutions can’t continue until the end of the season.

Paul Barnes

Bryant proves he is still King of the court in All-Star clash

The biggest event in the basketball calendar took place at the weekend in Los Angeles as the stars of the NBA took to the Staples Centre in an impressive spectacle culminating in the 60th East v West All-Stars clash. Kobe Bryant led the Western Conference to a 148-145 victory as well as picking up the Most Valuable Player trophy for the 4th time.

flying high to win dunk contest

The All-Star game ended a weekend of intrigue and entertainment including seeing L.A. Clippers power forward Blake Griffin giving an impressive aerial display, jumping over a car to lift the slam-dunk contest trophy.

Griffin and his dunks

The battle for Conference supremacy between Bryant and LeBron James was obvious in the All-Star game with Bryant and the West dominating the first half securing a 12-point lead going into the second. The final quarter saw James really make his impact resulting in the East coming within 5 points of an inspired comeback.

The Lakers guard and Miami Heat forward brought Showtime back to the court with Bryant scoring 37 points with 14 rebounds. James put away 29 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, being only the second player in NBA history to achieve a triple-double (a score in double-digits in three statistical categories) in an All-Star game.

Kobe Bryant proved at 32-years old he could still steal the spotlight from the up and coming stars of the court with his steals and drives alongside double, reverse and fast-break dunks marking his dominance in the world of basketball and he joined Bob Pettit as the only player to achieve a fourth All-Star MVP title.

Jo Wilson

A Rao-sing start to the season

Fanatical followers of tennis will already be familiar with the name Milos Raonic.  More casual spectators of the sport soon will be.  After an impressive run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, the Canadian has come blazing out of the blocks to reach two finals in a row. 

Raonic qualified for only his second Grand Slam back in January and few would have predicted the run he made.  After taking out the tricky #22 seed Michael Llodra in straight sets in the second round, he toppled #10, US Open semi-finalist Mikhail Youzhny, in the third.  He stole a set from eventual semi-finalist David Ferrer in the fourth round before bowing out.  It was a flash of brilliance from a rising star but nothing to get too dazzled by yet, right?  Wrong.

Since Melbourne, Montenegro-born Milos has been outshining some of the Tour’s best and brightest on an almost daily basis.  Aside from a stumble at the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg, the 20-year-old has spent most of the past two weeks spitting out seeds with admirable audacity.

At the SAP Open in San Jose, Raonic won his first of surely many ATP titles to come.  In a route to the final that saw him navigate past #4 seed Xavier Malisse, veer ahead of veteran James Blake and run over rising Lithuanian prospect Richard Berankis – all in straight sets – Raonic was shown a shortcut in the semis when #2 seed Gael Monfils withdrew with a wrist injury.  In the final, though, he proved his worth by defeating #1 seed Fernando Verdasco 7-6(6) 7-6(5) to become the first Canadian to win an ATP tournament since good old Greg Rusedski (before he jumped ship to Great Britain).

As if vanquishing Verdasco once wasn’t good enough, Raonic did it again in the first round of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis just four days later.  A frustrated Fernando rubbished Raonic for relying on his serve rather than running and rallying.  But the Canadian could hardly care as another impressive run, in which he has beaten Radek Stepanek and Mardy Fish, has taken him to his second consecutive final, this time against fifty-times ATP finalist Andy Roddick, which will be served up tonight.

According to wise old Wikipedia, even if Raonic loses tonight he will still rise to #37 in the world.  Not bad considering he started the year at #159.  He is also set to be the highest ranked Canadian player in ATP history – again, perhaps not the most impressive statistic given the dearth of Canucks at the top end of the game, but certainly nothing to be sniffed at.

In many ways, Raonic combines some of the best elements of the best players in one 6’ 5” package.  He has the serving accuracy and hardcourt speed of Andy Murray; the fire and energy of Rafael Nadal; and the work ethic of fellow Balkan Novak Djokovic.  Add to that the trophy-winning tendencies of Roger Federer and Milos Raonic could rise to be the brightest start in the sport by the end of the year.

Martin McGale

The 6 Nations Story So Far…

With the first two rounds of fixtures completed, this years RBS 6 Nations Championship is starting to heat up. Spectacular tries and controversial celebrations in the bag, only one team has really come out of the blocks flying.

England have started the championship in superb form; thrashing Italy at Twickenham and beating Wales comfortably in what was predicted as a potential ‘banana-skin’ fixture. Their opening win in Cardiff confirmed England as a strong favourite for not only the championship but a Grand Slam as well.

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Predictions of a tense, brutal battle were correct, and the free-flowing match captivated the spectators. Neither team managed to get a foothold in the game, and with both sides playing expressive attacking rugby the momentum shifted without warning. Wales’ lacked efficiency and there ill-discipline meant England’s Toby Flood could stretch the gap time and again through his trusty right boot. Wales fought gallantly but ultimately fell short, resulting in England’s first victory in Cardiff for 8 years: the game finished 19-26.

To quote a certain blogger;

“It was snakes and ladders on a rugby field. And in a contest of relentless ebb and flow, England emerged from the rubble with a precious victory.”

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Confidence rife in the England camp they went into the next fixture with Italy predicting of a demolition job; and that’s how it turned out. Italy were no match for a powerful England side and as a result the English ran out comfortable 59-13 winners, scoring 8 tries in the process. Four of these tries were scored by winger Chris Ashton, who’s controversial ‘swallow dive’ celebration has sparked much debate. However his ability cannot be questioned, and his rugby league type supporting runs have rejuvenated the English attack. Having scored 6 tries in two matches so far, England coach Martin Johnson won’t care how they are scored as long as Ashton keeps up his rich vein of form.

Chris Ashton's spectacular 'swallow dive'

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Italy, in contrast to England, started well in their first match but lost any sort of momentum when they were thrashed at Twickenham. The Italians will have taken a great deal of confidence from their close-fought battle with Ireland in Rome, losing 11-13. A strong defensive performance in the Stadio Flaminio gave them a good platform to grab an opening day win but a catalogue of errors from both sides meant neither could get a foothold in the match. And with time running out, substitute Ronan O’Gara provided a crucial drop goal which gave Ireland the points.

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Consequently, Ireland went into their second game with confidence and hoping to build on their momentum. Welcoming reigning champions France to the Aviva Stadium the Irish knew they would always be in for a tough challenge. The home side made a confident start, scoring twice in the first half and going in 15-12 at half time, but as is so often the case discipline was to blame for their downfall. Giving away 6 ‘kick-able’ penalties over the course of the match, and on top of winger Maxine Medard’s penalty, Ireland were the architects of their own collapse, eventually losing 22-25.

French winger Medard slides over for their only try

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Previous to the match in Dublin, Frances opening game went as well as most predicted winning against Scotland in Paris. The French ran out 34-21 winners in the Stade de France and put on an impressive attacking display. Four tries, a penalty and a drop goal helped defeat the Scots, who managed to score 3 tries of their own. A good attacking display from Scotland was not enough as their defence crumbled under the pressure the French created. However, the future looked bright for Scotland with many predicting them to run Wales close the following week at Murrayfield, and if they played as freely as they did in Paris there is no reason why they couldn’t.

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Scotland welcomed Wales to Edinburgh in what was predicted to be a tight affair, but what turned into an embarrassing display from the Scots. Hoping to build on momentum following an impressive display in Paris the Scottish fans were expectant. Instead, they witnessed a lackluster Scottish performance rife with errors and lacking in penetration. The Wales line stood firm, and even with two Welshman in the sin bin the Scots could not capitalise. Two tries from Shane Williams and four James Hook penalties meant Wales raced to a 6-24 win.

Fullbacks Hugo Southwell (Scotland) and Lee Byrne (Wales) clash at Murrayfield

The men from Cardiff have had mixed fortunes so far in the tournament. But having lost to England in the first game of the championship their title charge looks somewhat frail. It remains to be seen whether the 2009 Grand Slam champions can mount a serious challenge, and their next game away to Italy could be a real test.

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Results:

Sunday 13th Feb

Ireland 22 – 25 France

Saturday 12th Feb

England 53 – 13 Italy

Scotland 6 – 24 Wales

Saturday 5th Feb

France 34 – 21 Scotland

Italy 11 – 13 Ireland

Friday 4th Feb

Wales 19 – 26 England

 

For upcoming fixtures check out the 6 Nations Preview article.

 

Elliot Busby

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