Saturday, 19 November 2011

ATP World Four Finals

Two years ago, in the first ATP World Tour Finals in London, Nikolay Davydenko won the tournament. The Russian was ranked 6th after a season where he made just 1 Grand Slam quarter final (French), and won only 1 title all year. No-one would claim that our bald Mr Consistent was the best player in the world that year but the truth was, everyone else was knackered. Del Potro, newly crowned US Open Champion, fought through to the final and then proceeded to put in one of the weariest performances of his career. With Nadal, Murray and Djokovic all eliminated in the groups, it was very much a damp squib of a season climax.

Then last year, the tournament exceeded all expectations, the big four filling the semi-final slots and Murray/Nadal producing one of the most epic 3 set matches in recent history. It also saw Roger Federer playing the sort of breathtaking tennis that he's capable of but only sporadically produces and inflicting upon Djokovic his last defeat before his marathon winning run, ended 6 months later at Roland Garros by the Swiss himself. 

So which way will this year go? The few months after the US Open are always strange, players missing tournaments and retirements/withdrawals aplenty. But after a run of tournaments that aren't prioritised by the top players, the O2 presents a crucial challenge to all 8 of the competitors this year.

Djokovic has unquestionably been the best player in the world this year, with a season virtually unmatched in history (that said, RF went 81-4 in '05 and 92-5 in '06, ND is currently 69-4). It is only fitting surely that he finishes the year off by sealing his second Tour Finals victory (won in '08). But he's been struggling with a shoulder injury and hasn't won anything since the US Open. He'd be a deserving winner but is that going to be enough?

Nadal has never won the Tour Finals and, given that he's one of the greatest players ever, he must claim it at some stage. His physical style batters his body and so he usually comes to the end of the season weary and not performing his best. In the final against Federer last year he was certainly affected by the length and intensity of the semi against Murray the day before. He's not played since Shanghai in early October so how he's playing or what kind of fitness he's got will be as hard to predict as the overall winner.

Murray will of course never win a Grand Slam, purely by virtue of the fact that he's British, so is this the biggest prize to target? He's never really threatened to win the whole thing, but knows he can beat any of the 7 and there's surely no better time to be in Djokovic's group. With the crowd behind him but less pressure than at Wimbledon, if he is fit, this may well be his year.

Federer has found some incredible form, claiming his first Paris Masters' title, and is unbeaten in 12 matches since the US Open. He's won this title 5 times and showed last year that he can produce even when he's been written off. How he'd love to show people yet again that he's as good as ever, and with the form behind him, you can't blame the bookies for making him favourite.

For Ferrer, Fish, Tsonga and Berdych, this title, especially against the other four competitors would undoubtably be the highlight of their careers thus far, but unless it's a 2009 repeat, I don't give them much chance.

Given that whatever I predict on this blog, it goes completing the opposite way, I won't jinx anyone. I just hope it's more like last year than the year before.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Can Anyone Stop Man City?

We've got that Dentyl mouthwash that has both green and blue liquid in it. You shake it and it becomes somewhat turquoise and then after a while the colours settle back down into separate layers.

The first few months of the Premiership are much the same. Teams like Blackpool last year find themselves flying, only to settle back to where they're destined to fight for survival. And teams like Arsenal of this year struggle initially only to slowly rise and challenge for the European places. By early November, the table has started to roughly resemble how it will look in May (with a few exceptions - sorry Toon Army, it ain't gonna last)

Now that we're into double figures in the Played column and it's no longer what can be appropriately described as 'early season', the question really must be

"Can anyone stop City?"

They're 5 points clear, have dropped just 2 points all season and since beating Everton 2-0 on 24th September, they have scored 20 goals in 5 league matches, never failing to score at least 3 goals in a 
match. Which of Aguero, Balotelli, Silva, Nasri, Dzeko, or Toure would fail to get into any team in the league? My Football Manager experience tells me that a squad rotation system is for blooding youngsters and giving the players you rely on a bit of a break, not just because you've got so many world class players it's fun to experiment. My mistake.

The only comfort for Utd, Chelsea et al. is that City haven't been here before. They have multiple league winners in their squad but as a club they're very much new to leading the league and being title favourites. They could yet turn out to be a Newcastle of 95-96, who led by 12 points at Christmas time, only to be overhauled by Utd.

Every team has poor spells of form or a month with a few key injuries, the only question is how City will cope when that inevitably comes. So far they've managed to combine devastating (e.g. at Old Trafford) with gritty (e.g. yesterday at Loftus) and get the results every time. When the Champions League knockouts, the FA Cup, even the Carling Cup, are all knocking at the door, Mancini's plate-spinning skills are really going to be tested.

But I think the hardest challenge for City this season could be the 2012 African Cup of Nations in January. So far this year Yaya has been their driving force, providing infinite energy and power as well as attacking prowess. Most importantly for City he combines the ability to go forward and create & score goals with the defensive skills required to allow Mancini to play multiple forwards. Players like Barry/Hargreaves/De Jong offer the defensive side, players like Silva/Nasri/Johnson offer the sleight, skilful attacking side. When Yaya is away for what is likely to be the full 3 weeks, it is going to really test the depth and mental strength of the new league leaders, especially during what is traditionally United's strongest period of the season...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Rugby World Cup: A great Six Nations warm-up

A thoroughly unusual and surely unique sensation overcame me at around 9.05am on Sunday morning. 

Having arisen hours earlier to do my standard 10 mile run, 1 hour Bible study and a plethora of unquantifiably charitable good deeds, I turned onto the ITV website and endured the un-skippable adverts, to find I'd just missed the Haka. As I settled in to watch what I expected to be a whole-heartedly enjoyable devastation de l'equipe francaise (Blogspot won't let me do accents, so no criticism please), it came as something of a shock to find myself supporting not those of an All Black nature, but their Gallic opponents.

I've previously noticed that it can be difficult to determine who you want to win a sporting contest until a moment of great tension, such as a hawk-eye call or penalty shootout, when your true desire is revealed. Can you imagine the surprise then to find in those early moments that I genuinely wanted France? I've pondered long and hard how a true patriotic English sports fan with suitable disdain for anything tricolore could possibly be supporting them with more than a passing interest but nothing conclusive comes to mind. A mystery left unsolved.(*obviously if it was against Germany or Australia one is entitled to support France, or indeed any nation on the planet to be honest). 

The truly remarkable effort from the French does set up the 2012 Six Nations to be a potential classic in the history of the tournament. On the eve of the Rugby League Four Nations, it appears as though the annual northern hemisphere round robin could similarly be between four nations. Any of the below must consider themselves strong contenders for the title:

Ireland - defeated Australia during the WC and always difficult to beat, they do have away matches at England and France but 3 home games gives an advantage. They beat England so convincingly to deny them the Grand Slam earlier this year, it'd be crazy to rule them out. A lot might depend on which of the 3 O's are still there (Gara, Connell and Driscoll). William Hill current odds 6/1

Wales - won over many neutrals during the RWC with attacking rugby stemming from a young and energetic team. Considered in most parts as unlucky to go out but a more than mediocre kicking performance and a shaky display in the groups against Samoa suggests they're not quite the finished package yet. Similar to Ireland, they have 3 home games in the 6N, but their away games are in Dublin and London so they'll have to really perform to come out on top. William Hill: 3/1

England - reigning champions who, let's not forget, have a team with vibrant youth and attacking intent buried deep within them. Ashton was joint top try scorer for the RWC, Tuilagi is showing the promise to be a great, and Toby Flood will surely grow into the No 10 jersey which must now be permanently vacated by Wilko, whether he wants to retire or not. Would need to be the first team since Ireland in '09 to win the 6N despite playing 3 away games but with two of them at Scotland and Italy, they'll be in the hunt, regardless of whether Johnno is still in charge. William Hill: 5/2

France - World Cup finalists, beating England and Wales on the way, the mercurial French have been installed as favourites and 3 home matches, including hosting England and Ireland will stand them in good stead. It remains to be seen how Philipe Saint-Andre's management will affect them but if they perform anywhere near the level they produced against New Zealand, it'll be hard to beat them. I can promise my inexplicable spell of amour des cuisses de grenouilles will not be recurring. William Hill favourites at 7/4

After my attempts at making predictions at the quarter final stage, I think I'll steer clear of putting my neck on the line for the time being...

Sunday, 16 October 2011

A World Cup to remember, even by English standards

So England's World Cup has come to an end. And what a journey it has been. Going from one glorious performance to another, consistently punctuated by professional and high class off-field incidents. It seems only fitting to put together some form of memorial to commemorate such an epic campaign - for future generations to gaze upon and draw inspiration for their own battles ahead.
Much as the modern generation of football fan looks back to the footballing greats such as Pele, Beckenbauer, Di Stefano, Cruyff and Maradona with nought but youtube videos to convey their greatness, so it shall be in just a few short years, when names such as Tindall, Wilkinson and Johnson fade from memory. The pitiful offerings of 2003 shall be resigned to DVD extras, as the feature length presentations focus on the events of the last month or so and the glory showered upon our great nation by its oval-dropping throwing representatives.

I appreciate that the wealth of material available has meant that others have put together brief timelines, referring to a few of the more celebrated happenings, but here's a brief run-down of my own of how things have panned out so well for us recently:

11/9: Encouraging signs from the word go as the new All Blacks (black is the new white) grind out a win against mighty rugby nation Argentina, England apparently "composed under pressure" - Wilkinson a particular highlight, safely putting away 3 kicks, and missing just 5.

12/9: Celebrating the dizzy heights of the spectacular 13-9 win over the Pumas, England descended upon the Altitude bar. A few harrassed females and thrown dwarves later and commendably the lads created a few more headlines to really raise the game's profile and get youngsters interested in the sport. One can only applaud such dedication.

13/9: As well as Courtney Lawes being banned for two matches for a gentle rub on the temple with his knee-cap, Martin Johnson's defensive skills get another run out, this time defending the decision to allow a slightly more unusual form of training. Namely, bungee jumping.

18/9 & 24/9: England take it easy, coming through a couple of matches against lower ranked teams and starting to appear as though they actually care about winning rugby matches more than doing as much for New Zealand's tourist office as Murray from Flight of the Conchords.

29/9: Two England coaches unfairly suspended for helping an old man (Wilko) by giving him a different ball to kick with after the one he had been using kept frustratingly dodging the gap between the posts. Such care for the elderly should surely have been commended but alas not in this instance, and in this a so-called gentlemen's sport. Lamentable.

1/10: The second month of the tournament begins with another famous win, preserving our 100% record, but I think enough has been said about the monumental victory over the Highlanders, and just what a strong position England were in at this stage. 

3/10: Delon Armitage banned for the quarter final for an over-exuberant neck hug during the Scotland match, his attempt at affection seemingly misinterpreted by the authorities.

4/10: Manu Tuilagi becomes the first of 3 (also Moody & Lawes) to be fined for doing his best to resuscitate the economy by the supporting small businesses with a bit of dental advertising. 

8/10: Having been to the last two finals, and beating France on the way on both occasions, it was only right that we let them have their moment au soleil. We couldn't throw the game of course so decided instead that a 16 point half-time handicap was more appropriate. Made it look realistic you see. We were also ever so good sports throughout the match, regularly giving the ball back sportingly, even when there was no injury or apparent reason to do so. Good old chaps those English boys. I'm sure they just wanted to return to their families anyway; I gather for some there may be things to discuss back at home.

9/10: Our favourite Samoan then decided to celebrate a successful campaign and particularly his own form (which was actually good), with a quick dip in Kiwi waters. Turned out to be a relatively expensive one for him but no doubt it was refreshing, and gave us all a bit of eye candy so everyone's a winner really.

And that was that. A treat for all to behold really - well organised, disciplined, professional and ultimately successful. Who wouldn't want an 80% winning percentage and a quarter final place? It's more than we've done in football world cups for more than 20 years. Similar standard of penalty taking to 1990 as well. A month and a bit to make a country proud of its sporting heritage and skill - surely Martin Johnson will choose to leave now on a high - quit while you're ahead as it were. 

(I thought I'd be a little less subtle than the last article which proved a bit much for certain dimwitted folk to understand)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A World Cup fight at Close Quarters

No more group matches, no more working out point difference, bonus points and qualification permutations. We are at the do or die stage. This World Cup has finally reached a genuinely interesting and difficult to call round of exciting Quarter Final matches

Bar the NZ-Arg match, which is unlikely to have the edge of our seats and the ends of our nails worn down, there are 3 truly close matches ahead. These are the top 8 IRB ranked teams in the world and as per last week's rankings they were paired as 2 vs 3 (SA-Aus); 4 vs 5 (Eng-Fra) and 6 vs 7 (Ire-Wal). France's defeat to Tonga has since seen them drop to 8th but make no mistake, they aren't just making up les nombres...

England - France
As amusing as it would be to continue a very thinly disguised attempt at English sporting arrogance (and endeavour to evoke a further remarkable barrage of abuse from those whose understanding of sarcasm and irony is about as advanced as Jonny Wilkinson's involvement in twitter), there's simply no way England can confidently assume their semi-final place is secure. The "convincing" Six Nations win was only 9-9 at half-time and a missed Yachvili penalty just before the break could have made for a very different result. 
England are going with Flood and Wilkinson, the fairly blunt instrument that has been Tindall dropped ruled out with an horrific dead leg, an injury so devastating and crippling that it was kept completely under wraps until it happened to be that Johnson had to reveal that he didn't want our royal centre to play. Extra kicking options, wingers with 9 tries in 5 matches between them and a self-belief that we're better than our Gallic rivals in disarray makes England strong favourites.
As much as I might try to suppress my patriotism, it seems to be winning out over the English sporting cynicism, so I'm going to go for a 21-13 victory pour les Blancs.

Ireland - Wales
The Celtic clash has been well covered by Ben Dirs so I won't labour to expand upon his analysis but I can't help feeling it is going to be worth the early morning start. These two expansive, attractive rugby-playing nations are 1-1 in World Cup head-to-head but 63-46 to Wales all-time and Ireland have never made it beyond the quarter final stage. But after a famous victory over the Wallabies in the pool, and a convincing dismantling of a potential banana skin in Italy, the Irish must be brimming with confidence. Wales have had a couple of close shaves, one nearly sneaking a win against the world champions, one narrowly escaping going down to the less-than-mighty Samoa. A swansong for greats like O'Driscoll, O'Gara and Williams will only add to the drama.
The fact that I have them in my work sweepstake has nothing at all to do with the fact that I believe Ireland will come through for a 24-17 win.

Australia - South Africa
An absolutely mouth-watering clash between 2 of the 3 teams to have ever defeated the All Blacks in the RWC. They share a 1-1 world cup record and have both won the tournament a joint record 2 times. Remarkably, Australia have never been ranked 1 in the world and the reigning Tri-Nations champions have a losing 26-40 overall record against the Springboks. That said, they beat them in both of the Tri-Nations clashes and go into the match marginal favourites, despite the form of new record South African try scorer Bryan Habana
Not too sure why, but I've just got an inkling that it could be the Springboks' day and I'll go for a closely fought 18-14 win for the Africans.

New Zealand - Argentina
By no means a guarantee without the talismanic Dan Carter but the dominant All Blacks who, dismissive of the pressure on them, have looked thoroughly solid thus far, start as overwhelming favourites against a team they've not lost to in 13 matches. Argentina will no doubt do what they do well, and keep the tide at bay for periods but there'll be no stopping New Zealand making their 6th semi final in 7 world cups.
No second consecutive semi for the Pumas unfortunately, going down 37-9 I reckon.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Dominant England on course for World Cup Glory

Another devastatingly convincing performance from England, overcoming the gritty and ugly-rugby playing Scots to prevail yet again and preserve our perfect 100% record. No matter what opponent is put in our path we show the strength of character and high level of skill and mental attitude to display our utter superiority over the rest of the rugby world and cruise through one comfortable victory after another.

A team unified, convincing, focussed and dominant
It's a shame that we'll only have to beat France and then some Celts before winning the final because no doubt those small-minded and jealous nations who don't win the World Cup will say we had it easy and make up nonsense about us fixing the draw. I'd almost rather have come second in the group so we could get New Zealand done and dusted before beating the Wallabies and Springboks easily. Tactically this might have made sense therefore to lose to Scotland but we're just such winners, there's no way we could allow ourselves to lose. We obviously gave it some thought, but just decided in the 76th minute that we may as well just win every match, not least for the stats and whatnot. 

Now that the Quarter Final draw is complete, we can look at how weak the other 7 teams are and therefore how comfortabe England should find the next 3 weeks:

New Zealand have lost their only good player through injury and seem certain to fall apart now. They've not exactly been convincing to date anyway, only 36 tries and 240 points scored so far and that meagre total mostly just from biased refereeing influenced by unfairly Kiwi crowds. They've already got the benefit of playing at home, I don't see why the majority of the fans should be from the country as well

Argentina could only scrape a win against Scotland, reliant on a late try from the right wing so we're clearly streaks ahead of them - also evidenced by our crushing obliteration of them earlier in the tournament. Could well meet them in the final cos they're in the weak half of the draw but nothing to fear there.

Australia lost to Ireland who we of course destroyed only a few weeks ago. They're even worse than the All Blacks for complaining about all their injuries and look disjointed and ripe for the picking. A shame we probably won't be the team to knock them out cos that's been fun the last 2 World Cups. 

South Africa were reliant on the ref deciding that James Hook's penalty hadn't gone over otherwise they'd have been staring down the barrel as well. They've been leaking points very freely, that's 24 now in just 4 games, and that includes 16 in one game! Wouldn't catch England conceding so many points in a match during a world cup. 

Ireland failed to even score a try against the Wallabies and we all know how easy it is to beat them in World Cups. I barely even remember the last time we lost to them, and I know full well we've never lost to Ireland in a world cup (and don't go on about how we've never played, cos you're just making excuses)

Wales conceded a try against Namibia and barely even got past Samoa! They also lost to South Africa so it's fairly obvious they're not a threat - I simply cannot imagine how a top class team such as England could ever lose to them so that'd be something of a bye into the final should they meet us in the semi. 

France - well this one speaks for itself. A dismal 20 point loss to New Zealand, eclipsed only in its embarrassingly poor nature by a shocking defeat to Tonga. They are in clear disarray, with a squad crippled with the sort of ill-discipline and irresponsible behaviour you simply wouldn't get from a professional outfit like England. It'll be almost too easy to breeze past them next Saturday. 

So there you have it, a solid, unified and disciplined England team playing convincing and attractive rugby lining up against 7 teams without a good phase of rugby between them. There's only one winner to this thing. You might call it classic English arrogance but what can you do when we're Simply the Best?

There may be an argument for ensuring you're well informed of a particular idiom when reading this article.

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. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A quizzical US Open preview

With the 2011 US Open nearly upon us, and the men's singles draw done, it is customary for a tournament preview. But rather than my usual rolling out of docile and ultimately inaccurate opinions on who's on form, who will win and who to watch out for, I thought I'd find out the right answers first, then make you do the work. 

Rafa later regretted agreeing
to do the quiz himself
That's right, it's a US Open quiz (mostly focussed on Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray), combining my geeky love for stats with my obsessive love for tennis, and hopefully producing some vaguely interesting facts to raise an eyebrow or induce a "really?". The real dream for a quiz creator is for the quizee to google (other search engines are available) something because they find it so astonishing that it can't possibly be true. (Not ideal if it turns out to indeed be too good to be true, but I'm sure that won't be the case here). Anyway, I digress. 

Happy being bemused, befuddled, bamboozled, bewildered and ultimately bored bowled over like a Lasith Malinga yorker. Answers at the bottom

1. Last year, Juan Martin Del Potro was reigning champion after his 5 set defeat of Federer in '09 - how far did he get defending his title? (2 points)

2. Which of the top 4 have lost the most number of matches at the US Open? (1 point) How many times has he lost? (1 point)

3. Put the top 4 in order of their all-time winning percentage at the US Open. (2 points or nothing)

4. How many double faults did Djokovic serve during last year's US Open? (3 points if you get it exact, 1 point if you're within 3)

5. This is the first US Open since which year that Federer has been seeded outside of the top 2? (2 points) Who was top seed that year? (1 point)

"Come on Roger, you know this!"
6. How many times in the last 4 years of Grand Slams (i.e. out of 16) have Federer/Djokovic been on one side of the draw with Nadal/Murray on the other side? (2 points - exact answer or nothing)

7. Which of the 4 was in the top 20 fastest servers at last year's US Open? (2 points) BONUS point for the speed of the serve

8. How many times in the Open Era has someone won the US Open without dropping a set? (Wimbledon has been won once, Aus twice, French five times) (2 points)

9. Which of the 4 made most line call challenges during last year's tournament? (2 points) BONUS point for the number of challenges

10. There has never been 8 different nationalities represented at the QF stage of the US Open. Which two countries had more than 1 player in last year's quarters? (1 point for each country)

11. Which player/players have a positive overall head-to-head record against the other 3? (2 points)

"I should have known that
Scotland wasn't the answer to 14."
12. Excluding JMDP in '09, who was the last man to win a Grand Slam other than the top 3? (1 point for the name, 1 point for the year + GS)

13. Which of the 4 won the US Open Boys' Singles title? (2 points) BONUS point for the year

14. After the USA, which country has the most Open Era US Open Men's Singles titles? (2 points)

15. Which is the only of the 4 to have lost more Grand Slam singles matches in a year than he won? (2 points)


Post a comment with your score - if you've not done too embarrassingly that is. Maximum is 32 (35 if you get the bonus points too)

1. He was injured, so didn't compete in the tournament at all.

2. Nadal - he has lost 7 times (from 8 appearances). Djokovic, Federer and Murray have all lost 6 times. ND/AM from 6 appearances, RF from 11

3. Federer 90.32%, Djokovic 81.25%, Nadal 80%, Murray 73.91%

4. He made 28 double faults, the tournament leader was Verdasco with 36 but my favourite has to be Berankis, with 30 from just 2 matches!

5. 2002 - Lleyton Hewitt was top seed. Federer was 13th seed. Pete Sampras, seeded 17, was victorious

6. 15 of the last 16 Grand Slams have had that pattern. Roland Garros 2010 is the only time that it hasn't been Murray/Nadal on one side of the draw and Djokovic/Federer on the other side, despite constant variations in seedings

7. Andy Murray, with a 136mph serve.

8. Never - the US Open is the only Grand Slam to have never been won without the loss of a set

"I was right with all 23 challenges,
Hawkeye got the other 14 wrong"
9. Djokovic, with 23 (9 of which he was correct. Their successful challenge percentages were Nadal 46.67%, Djokovic 39.13%, Murray 35.29%, Federer 25%)

10. Spain and Switzerland with Nadal/Verdasco and Federer/Wawrinka respectively

11. Only Nadal. His record against the others is 45-24. Djokovic is 27-34, Federer 28-34 and Murray 16-24

12. Marat Safin - 2005 Australian Open. (not Gaston Gaudio at Roland Garros 2004 as I put first!)

13. Andy Murray 2004 - incidentally, Gael Monfils won all 3 of the other boys' Grand Slam titles that year 

15. Federer, in 1999, lost in the first round of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, while not playing in Aus/US

PS If you hated my quiz and thought it terribly dull or boring, please try this one then come back to me.