Has the penny finally dropped for England @ The RWC?

A few tough weeks are not yet forgotten, but England’s performance against a poor Romania side this morning provided some significant respite. Less unforced errors, fewer moments of silly indiscipline and a more assured and confident day with the ball in hand all added up to a much improved showing from Martin Johnson’s men, and it was about time.

Though the opposition were at times staggeringly poor, it was vital that England treated the game with respect and that they did. From their early decision to slot three nerve-easing points from a penalty to their late attempt at what would have been an incredible breakaway try, England performed with total professionalism and hunger as finally they laid down their marker for the tournament.

In a week where South Africa and Australia silenced their critics it was the perfect time for England to make an impression and this result may not have sent out shockwaves, but it certainly will have made a few teams sit up and take note that England aren’t a team in total disrepair.

No matter how poor their opposition were it was encouraging to see England playing with far greater intent and this was helped dramatically by their improved handling throughout. Ben Youngs dictated the pace of the game very smartly at 9 and got the England backs firing right from the word go and he was well supported by Jonny Wilkinson in the first half and Toby Flood in the second. The combination play between the half-back pairings was neat, tidy and efficient and brought England’s try-scorers into play on a consistent basis.

It seemed that England knew a simplistic approach would suffice if they injected pace into their attacks and the vast majority of their tries came as a result of this approach. England were strong up front and endeavoured to provide Ben Youngs with the quick ball he thrives upon and this enabled the likes of Manu Tuilagi to play a starring role.

Tuilagi revelled in his greater involvement in attack

The young Pacific-Island dynamo was invited to play at his dangerous and brilliant best this morning with the quick service allowing him to take the ball on the shoulder of Wilkinson and Flood right up on the gain-line. For me he was the real star of England’s display and he was demonstrative of everything that England did right in attack today. His support running was fantastic and his hands consistent as he continuously made breaks through Romania’s defensive line and provided the simple hands necessary not just to score himself but to provide assists for others. In England’s previous games they haven’t played with enough confidence and conviction to bring Tuilagi and their other devastating supporting runners like Chris Ashton in from the fringes of the game, but today was a totally different story.

Has the penny finally dropped for England in New Zealand? It seems it has. Simple and strong rugby played at pace usually does for the minnows in tournament play and boy did it work today. Romania’s display was committed as was expected, but their error-strewn handling, shabby set-piece play and their inability to keep pace with England’s relentless execution of the basics meant that they failed to keep touch with their far more able opponents. From now England’s remaining matches in this World Cup will all be against truly world class opposition. Their next opponents Scotland have a huge match against Argentina tomorrow and whatever the result is they will be coming for England’s blood next week.

It is fair to say that England’s more direct and simplistic approach was suited better to today’s task rather than their upcoming encounters, but they would be well advised to take note that uncomplicated rugby does work if executed with confidence. England’s more exciting performers like Youngs, Tuilagi, Ashton and Ben Foden are the key to their potential success at the World Cup, but the way to utilise them most effectively is to get the basics right in the first place.

 

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Noisy Neighbours still have much to learn after Super Sunday in the Premier League

Yesterday afternoon was a fine exhibition of just why Manchester United must be considered the favourites to win the Premier League. That isn’t to say Manchester City can’t challenge strongly or indeed Chelsea, but the performance levels of each of the sides and the results that came with them are indicative of United’s favourable chances of retaining their title.

Nani was electric against Chelsea

On a fantastic afternoon of Premier League football there were several fixtures and results that caught the eye. Not only were the combined winners of the last seven titles going head-to-head, but there were several huge games going on around the country and each of them produced four goals apiece.

In the North East there was the battle of two sides who having invested heavily over the summer should really be aiming to go one step better than a mid-table battle this season. Sunderland and their visitors Stoke have brought in high quality buys from some of the league’s stronger clubs and will both hope to challenge for European qualification via their league placing. Big names such as John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Nicklas Bendtner have flocked to the Stadium of Light this summer and yesterday was maybe just the beginning of things to come as they trounced their in-form opponents 4-0. It is fair to say that Stoke’s big signings such as Peter Crouch,Wilson Palacios and Jonathan Woodgate (all formerly of Spurs) are still settling in following their moves to the Brittania but yesterday was a defensive nightmare, something not often associated with Stoke performances.The Black Cats will certainly hope to carry this form into their upcoming matches after a poor start to the season.

Sunderland's new boys seem to be settling in at last

Another 4-0 win was registered yesterday, and this was by Spurs. They like Sunderland have struggled for form thus far this season amidst the unsettling Luka Modric transfer saga, but new signings Scott Parker and Emannuel Adebayor continued their great starts yesterday as they provided a real freshness and willingness against Liverpool. Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was once again left upset by the performance of the referee in his side’s humbling but I would go as far as to say that the referee handled the key incidents perfectly. For me Charlie Adam’s red card was a dead-cert and Martin Skrtel was sent off for offences which are without question worthy of yellow cards in the modern era.

Could Adebayor be the signing of the summer on loan from City

Maybe the most significant result of the weekend was the 2-2 draw between Fulham and Manchester City. Having controlled the game and taken a seemingly comfortable initiative at 2-0 up City lost their way and with it the two of the three points they had firmly in their grasp. As has been the pattern this season Manchester City had the opportunity to lay down a marker for their more illustrious neighbours and up to this point they had done a good job of it. Yesterday though was the first plain indication this season that City do indeed have some frailties. Rather than the unbelievable claims of Roberto Mancini that he lacks midfield resources at present, I think the concession of their lead has much more to do with pressure and a lack of experience at leading the pack.

City are indeed dealing with notable absences such as Nigel De Jong and James Milner in the heart of their midfield but it is hardly a nightmare to have to cope with playing Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure in this role. After all they have won the Champions League, La Liga and FA Cup titles between them so they aren’t exactly mugs are they? It must be simply terrible to have the likes of Kolo Toure, Pablo Zabaleta, Adam Johnson, Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli on your bench mustn’t it? Give me a break.

Mancini's excuses were hard to stomach, but City are a huge threat under his guidance

On a more serious note it has to be said that Mancini must have been desperately upset with his team’s second half display to have lowered himself to such nonsense. However, City and in particular their new star striker Sergio Aguero are continuing to look a serious attacking threat and one which could cause Sir Alex Ferguson a few sleepless nights as the season goes on.

In stark contrast to City’s inability to turn a decent performance into three points was Manchester United’s rather erratic display which earned them a massive 3-1 win over major title rivals Chelsea. It was so hit and miss from United on the day but they still managed to down a Chelsea side that were playing with far greater purpose than they have done so far this season. In attack it was wingers Nani and Ashley Young that were once again in an extremely dangerous mood and they gave the Chelsea defence a torrid time. Though Rooney wasn’t his usual self in front of goal his contribution to the exciting build up play was once again magnificent and it was this that combined beautifully with the wide men’s persistent torment to provide an outstanding counter-attacking display which was reminiscent of Chicago Bulls in the 90’s. Not all the pieces of the jigsaw were quite there for United and a heck of lot was lacking at times but their winning mentality and attacking flair once again did the trick. Sir Alex Ferguson claimed  that the game was “painful” for him to watch, but even he must be staggered by the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling as they continue to hush fears of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s absence in the heart of the United defence.

On a Super Sunday of Premier League football United once again asserted their authority and continued to deal with their absences without fuss, whilst this time City came up short. The Noisy Neighbours are gaining momentum and are a huge threat to United’s crown, of that there is no doubt, but yesterday suggested that they are still playing second fiddle in the City of Manchester for now. Tons of goals and tons of entertainment mean that I haven’t even got the time to mention Fernando Torres’ horrible miss…

Familiarity breeds contempt, and Haskell can’t bottle it up any longer

Another day another stuttering victory for England. Another day another bout of criticism, only this time it has come very firmly from within as well as from the media and supporting public. James Haskell’s frank dressing-down of England’s display was on one hand refreshing and on another entirely worrying. It is rare for a sportsman to come out and speak with such bluntness and clear dismay at the performance of their under-fire team mates so in that sense it was a strange and rather wonderful spectacle. However, the very thinly veiled harshness of Haskell’s message is indicative that much is not right within the England camp at present.

An angry Haskell felt obliged to air his misgivings yesterday

Usually you would expect members of the side and the coaching staff to support an unconvincing showing provided that it brought with it a solid victory, as was the case today. Whilst offering aid to the cause it is often common place to hear acceptance that things weren’t quite up to the mark but that they soon will be. Haskell’s appraisal of the current state of play though was far less sympathetic as he stated that they can’t possibly “win the World Cup” if things remain as they are, an opinion which was publicly shared by Martin Johnson. One has to wonder whether Haskell’s words were directed entirely at the on-field efforts given the difficult week that the England camp has endured under the scrutiny of the world and it’s wife in the wake of off-field troubles.

I think it is wise to steer clear of an in-depth analysis of the week’s off-field dramas other than to say that things clearly got out of hand. You would expect Martin Johnson to defend his men unless huge misdemeanours came to light and this was the case with his moment of tabloid gold in saying “rugby player drinks beer…shocker!” This was a defiant line designed to demonstrate his contempt for the ‘excessive’ media coverage of events but ironically it was lapped up like sweet nectar by the press. His message is understandable and there was a dry-ness to it that provoked a chuckle, but maybe given the furnace-like pressure amidst World Cup fever it would have been wiser to avoid such a provocative remark.

Anyway, moving on to yesterday’s match itself… It is fair to say that the game provided a little more optimism than the opener against Argentina but not enough to satisfy the doubters. There was a familiar pattern to the previous match in terms of the game being littered with errors and ill-discipline hence the frustrations that were vented by Haskell and Johnson. Though these are certainly issues to be dealt with before matches against Romania and Scotland there were at least some real positives to be taken from the game.

Ashton flying again?

In attack there was a greater intent and desire to move the ball through the hands, which is highlighted by the fact that wingers Chris Ashton and Delon Armitage shared three tries between them. Shontayne Hape and Manu Tuilagi in the centres were also given greater invitation to run attacking lines and this resulted in them each getting on the scoresheet as well. The increased opportunities for the back-line runners must be attributed to the greater urgency and distribution provided by Leicester half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood who were re-introduced as the starting playmakers in the line-up. Flood also must be credited for a stronger goal-kicking performance than Jonny Wilkinson’s against Argentina under the roof at the Otago.

There is certainly reason for ongoing concern given that yesterday’s opposition were considerably weaker than Argentina, but Georgia did play beyond their means and England did  manage to put forty points on them. The mistakes were again there for all to see and they were alarmingly similar to those present in the nail-biting win over Argentina, but certainly in attack there were signs of improved conviction and invention which should hopefully serve them well going forward. A tough week has now come to an end and England have managed to produce a victory with the always helpful addition of a bonus point for their greater assault on the try-line. Minor improvements there were, but major scope for improvement remains. The England camp will be praying on a quieter week this time around and with it a comfortable win over Romania should be achieved. Familiarity breeds contempt and the off-field dramas need to stop as do the indifferent performances.

Is Torres on the road to ruin or recovery?

Eighteen months ago he was arguably the most coveted centre forward in World football, but Fernando Torres is now the name on every football fans lips for the wrong reasons.

In his pomp at Liverpool

No matter whether you like a player or their respective club it is always immensely disheartening to see fading genius and there is nothing quite like it in football for causing widespread compassion. There are of course people who can’t put aside silly prejudices and fail to have sympathy for players like Torres, but I think it is fair to say that the majority of real football fans would love to see ‘Nando’ firing on all cylinders once again.

Many are attributing his lack of form to the pressure he has felt under the burden of a huge £50 million price tag. This is of course a staggering valuation of one single player’s potential contribution to a football club, but in the modern era you would expect one of the most able footballers of a generation to live up to the expectation rather than collapse under it. Also, it must be said that his form was ailing long before his switch to Stamford Bridge and this begs the question of whether he stayed with Liverpool for too long? Given his injury troubles towards the end of his stay and the lack of silverware won in his time at the club, it is not out of the question that an earlier move away from Anfield could have prevented his continuing slump. There certainly would have been plenty of takers had he expressed a desire to seek pastures new a little while before his eventual departure.

The other buzz-word attributed to Torres’ plight is ‘confidence’. Everyone (myself included) who has voiced an opinion on the topic has been guilty of using this cop-out of a reason for his apparent downhill slide and of course everyone is probably right. Of course he is low on confidence and of course it is inhibiting his play, but really this confidence issue is probably more a symptom than a cause. His lack of confidence is in my opinion just the most prominent knock-on effect of the frustrating period he has endured where he has struggled to avoid injury and to produce his best football.

The first time that Torres appeared to be drastically short of sharpness and form was the World Cup last summer when he begun the tournament as one of the stars of the World’s best side and ended it as the flop of the tournament (along with the England, France and Italy.) It is curious how one so talented can seem to burn out and drop from the pinnacle of World football so quickly, but it is worth baring in mind that he would be far from the first to do this if he never recaptures his finest.

Warming the bench in the World Cup final

If you think back to other greats of the past ten years then names like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka might come to mind. Ronaldo looked to have lost it on a couple of occasions due to weight gain, injury and mental deficiencies before the age of 26 and eventually slipped off the top of the World stage by the time he reached his thirties. Ronaldinho, despite having recently begun to find a little form back in his homeland had already seen easily the best days of his career by the age of 28 (just two years after winning World Player of the Year for the second time). The story unfolding for Kaka appears to be similar also. He too won World Player of the Year in 2007 and has failed to live up to this moment of glory ever since. He is still at Real Madrid but injury and a consequent lack of form seem to have put pay to his chances of lighting up the World again and he is just 29.

These are all sad stories of players losing their touch and their fitness well before their expected use by dates and there is a recurring theme. They are all successful Brazilian internationals, and they certainly aren’t the first players from this nation or South America as a collective that have fallen into premature decline having made it to the very top of the game.

Of course Fernando Torres isn’t South American so his development as a man and a player has been immensely different from the majority of the aforementioned players and his home nation of Spain  have managed to produce several players of enduring quality. Current Real Madrid Captain Iker Casillas, current Barcelona Captain Carlos Puyol, and ex-Galacticos Raul, Michel Salgado and Fernando Hierro all provide great supporting evidence having enjoyed long and fruitful careers at the top of the game. The three ex-Madrid stars amongst them all managed to continue as top-class players up to the age of thirty five and beyond, in fact Raul and Michel Salgado are still playing first-team football in the Bundesliga and Premier League respectively.

If Torres needs motivation to work his way back to something like his best and to seek long-term success then he need look no further than his illustrious compatriots and the legacy left in their wake. It is entirely foolish to write Torres off as a spent force and Chelsea fans and management alike are right to keep faith with their man. His performance on Tuesday night was something more like his old self even if his significant contributions were more team oriented than self-glorifying, and maybe just maybe, the appreciation of his team mates on the night will go some way towards repairing his fragile state of mind.

Torres will look forward to trying to terrify United's defence once again

This weekend sees Torres come head-to-head with Manchester United (if selected) and he has enjoyed more success than most against the Red Devils. In the past he has given the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic a torrid time with his unrelenting probing runs in behind and towards the last line of defence and he will hope to be given the opportunity to do so again. If he plays, and if he scores then perhaps the re-building of his game will really gain some momentum. “Right him off at your peril”. “Form is temporary, class is permanent”. They are cliches for a good reason.

 

Djoko Proves He Is Numero Uno

Another glorious fortnight has come and passed for Novak Djokovic, and another Grandslam success has left everyone wondering how on earth he is going to be brought back down to earth. Last night’s epic against Rafael Nadal was an exhibition of patient and deadly tennis from start to finish. As he has done all year, he went toe-to-toe with Nadal in every long, hard-hitting and gruelling rally and more often than not he came out on top. The brutal nature of this match was most evident in their incredible 17 minute long game on Nadal’s serve in the second set. Mark Petchey (Sky’s commentator) added perspective when he said that you “can get full sets of tennis that only last that long”, it was a phenomenal demonstration of physical and technical ability from both men but there was a sense of inevitability about it’s eventual victor.

Djokovic looked pained in the fourth but still came through in style

This game further underlined Djokovic’s fantastic year which has seen him win 10 titles, win 3 Grandslams and only suffer 2 defeats. This has been the stuff of dreams for the Serb and doesn’t he just know it. More to the point doesn’t Rafael Nadal just know it…

The likes of Nadal and Roger Federer have too had magnificent years of domination since their emergence as the super powers of World tennis, but I don’t think either of them would argue that they’ve been quite this brilliant over the course of one season. It is outrageous that anyone could reach this stage of the year with only two losses (one of which was due to retirement) in any generation of men’s tennis, let alone in arguably the greatest and strongest era of all time.

Federer ousted Djokovic at the French

Federer is widely regarded as the best player ever and he has only managed one victory of Djokovic this year, and Nadal has been labelled the major threat to Federer’s crown but he hasn’t managed to beat Djokovic at all this year. The only man other than Federer to beat him this year was Andy Murray and though Murray controlled the match throughout it was eventually due to retirement that he prospered, and it remains unclear whether Murray’s domination was down to Djokovic’s inhibited play. Even in spite of the immense competition at the top of the men’s game, this year Novak has been simply untouchable.

This year has been a masterclass from Djokovic and he has taken he some of the greatest players of all time out of their comfort zones on a consistent basis. It is fair to assume that Federer and Nadal would regard Djokovic as the significant threat to their legacies and that in itself is great testament to his ability and incredible form. So is it too early to considered one of the greatest players of all time? Maybe it is, but this past year has certainly written his place in the history books.

Given the level of Novak’s domination this year the next few months are incredibly important for all of his rivals in preparation for the next Grandslam event, the Australian Open, in January. In the wake of the US Open it seems there is an awful lot of ground to make up but there have at least been some glimmers of hope for the chasing pack in the last major of the year. The first man to really cause concern for Djokovic was his compatriot Janko Tipsarevic who matched up well to his more illustrious friend in a four-set match that resulted in his retirement through injury. This challenge was followed up by a huge scare against Federer who threw away two match points having led the Serb by two sets to love, but somehow Novak managed to find a way to summon the energy and nerve to battle back and take it in five.

Winning Smile and a tribute to 9/11

It is said that true champion’s come up with the goods when their backs are against the wall, and at the moment that is a key element to his success. Some time in the future his form is inevitably going to run out and tougher times will face him but for now it is unclear when that time will come and who will be the players that can bring about something of a demise in his fortunes. We know of course that the likes of Federer, Nadal and Murray can compete strongly with him when they are at the top of their games but who else could give him a sleepless night or two? Perhaps some of the more extroverted and athletic competitors on tour like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan-Martin Del Potro could manage to ruffle his feathers but it is hard to see where a consistent threat is going to come from outside of the World’s top four players.

For now Nole is number one and it appears that he could be there to stay for quite a while. Next on his agenda is the aim of completing a career Grandslam and who’s to say that he can’t go on and do it?

 

Don’t Disappoint Like Our Footballers

In their World Cup opener this morning England’s rugby team looked worryingly as though they are suffering from a touch of the “Cappello’s”. The symptoms, if you needed reminding of our football team’s terrible performance in South Africa last summer, are a lack of conviction, a seeming lack of desire and the players seeming incapability of producing their bread and butter stock trades amidst the pressure of the World’s premiere competition.

One would hope that these rather nasty symptoms are not allowed to develop further and that Martin Johnson and his back-room staff can act as England’s immune system and bring them back to full health.

 

Today  was shocking, the players seemed inhibited and Argentina had them absolutely rattled. Fortunately for England, Ben Youngs’ introduction sparked life into the backs division as they managed to scrape a narrow four-point victory, but had Argentina capitalised on Jonny Wilkinson’s uncharacteristically abject kicking performance with some better goal-kicking themselves then they would have won. The sad truth is that they probably didn’t deserve to lose and England’s performance wasn’t anything like worthy of winning a huge World Cup match.

Having ripped into a lifeless display from England, here are some positives to take from the game. Number one is that they beat a decent side even when playing at pretty much their worst. Number two is that they didn’t appear to pick up any real injuries. Now I’m struggling… I guess some might argue that it was good to get a bad performance out of the system early on and learn from it in time for the next big test against Scotland in their final group game, but it’s probably best to not have any poor performances at all isn’t it?

Next up for England are Georgia and in theory it should be a walk in the park if they find even the slightest glimmer of their best form. Though the Georgian’s are likely to front up and demonstrate real physicality, the gulf in class between the two sides in attack and in defensive organisation should really tell from start to finish and a comfortable win should be there for the taking.

Following on from the Georgia game is a match up with Romania which should be another easy win despite their impressive showing against the Scots in the ungodly hours of this morning. A theoretically straightforward couple of weeks should ensure then that England comfortably cruise towards qualification for the quarter finals without much cause for further panic or hysteria. However, they must be aware of just how much a major scalp would mean to the minnows of the competition and must make some serious alterations following today’s deficiencies.

In the wake of their limp display today it seems likely that Johnson will switch things around in the quest to play some more fluent rugby and get two confidence boosting victories under their belts before the Scotland clash. It is more than likely that Ben Youngs will come back in after his inspirational return from injury and he may well be partnered by club mate Toby Flood at fly half after Wilkinson failed to impress with his usually metronomic boot. Other changes could see Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Tom Palmer, skipper Lewis Moody and Mark Cueto return to the fold and if they all perform well then who’s to say that they won’t keep a hold of their place when the bigger matches come around?

If Fabio Capello had shifted things around dramatically last summer after a poor opening draw with the USA then perhaps he would have reaped the rewards as Martin Johnson will dearly hope to do in England’s next two fixtures. If the rugby team need inspiration to improve then they should look no further than the likes of Capello and Wayne Rooney who have endured very tough years since their underwhelming performances at the football World Cup. Though rugby is certainly a sport which receives less media spotlight than football it is important that England are inspired by the negative reaction to today’s performance rather than bothered by it otherwise they could end up on the receiving end of a serious barrage of abuse come the end of the tournament.

Can Johnson’s Wisdom guide England To Glory?

England embark upon another World Cup campaign on Saturday morning, and for now the weight of expectation is surprisingly manageable. The general consensus seems to be that England are short of the mark in comparison to the likes of hosts New Zealand who kick things off tomorrow morning, and as such they are going in unfazed, but also prepared and ready to try and slip under the radar as they did four years ago in their defence of the title. Perhaps it is the rather surprising run to the final four years ago which should inspire belief amongst the supporters, but for now it seems that qualification from the group is all many are expecting for the time being.

Four years ago England went into the tournament out of form, low on confidence and struggling to settle on the right line-up. This time around things appear to be a little more comfortable for them having dominated the 6 Nations earlier in the year. Though this campaign fell short with a Grandslam ruining defeat to Ireland, the level of performance leading up to the fall at the final hurdle was very encouraging.

Flood and Wilkinson are set to battle for the 10 shirt throughout the tournament

One of the successes of England’s opening four victories in the 6 Nations was the role played by Toby Flood at fly-half, where he played a higher attacking line and fulfilled his role as a playmaking 10 with confidence and verve. Four games into the campaign Flood will have been forgiven for thinking that he was a nailed on selection for the first XV come the World Cup, but as today’s announcement has revealed he hasn’t made the cut and 2003 hero Jonny Wilkinson is back at outside half. This turnaround in selection over the past six months is indicative of the highly competitive and hungry squad which Martin Johnson has at his disposal.

Other signs of strength in depth are also evident in Johnson’s selection for the Argentina match. Perhaps the strongest indication comes in the form of Delon Armitage who has gained a recall to the line-up at the expense of injury ‘risk’ Mark Cueto on the wing. Having endured a tough period in his career since an outstanding burst on to the International scene in 2009,  Armitage is back in England’s first choice Test side and though he is suprised to have got the nod he is determined to prove himself worthy.

Martin Johnson himself has admitted that Cueto would be able to play the match if entirely necessary and I guess his decision not to play him is testament to the reserve power which he believes England have in abundance. Something England have done well over the past couple of years has been to demonstrate versatility and flexibility in the face of adversity. The likes of Courtney Lawes have stepped up strongly when given the opportunity to impress and as such they have kept their places and go into the World Cup as first choice players.

Insert Lewis Moody Here...

So it seems that England’s strength going into the World Cup lies with their ability to pull together as a squad and fill in where and when needed. Whereas overwhelming favourites New Zealand and second favourites Australia boast ‘big name’ players with an ‘X-Factor, England’s squad is made up of more understated performers each of whom are interchangeable with the secondaries in their given positions without much damage ever being done. Martin Johnson is more aware than most of how you go about getting your hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy and it seems that his focus is quite rightly upon the importance of rugby being played as a squad game. If England are to spring a surprise and land a second World Cup title, it will be surprising if most of the squad don’t feature somewhere along the road.

At present it seems that England’s squad have found a fine balance of realism and optimism which should serve them well. I think the majority of the camp would be modest enough to accept that they perhaps lack the star quality of the tournament hosts but I imagine that they like Johnson back the depth and spirit of their ranks to rival any other side that they come up against over the next few weeks.

The feeling seems to be that maybe this World Cup has come to soon for England’s developing squad but young dynamos such as Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes will benefit hugely come 2015 if England go deep into the tournament this time around.

30 Man Game

Opening Round Predictions:

Group A:

Winners – New Zealand, Runners Up – France

Group B:

Winners – Enlgand, Runners Up – Argentina

Group C:

Winners – Australia, Runners Up – Ireland

Group D:

Winners – South Africa, Runners Up – Samoa

Unconvincing England Still Rule The Roost

England’s tepid showing yesterday in a rare home nation’s International was hardly enough to send shivers down the spines of World and European Champions Spain, but it did go to underline their continued domination of British Football. Many will say that last night was demonstrative of England’d eternal footballing plateau and a rise in Wales’ fortunes, but the truth is that England were at their uninspiring worst yet they still beat a Wales side who played at something like their best. Though Wales should have equalised late on when Robert Earnshaw fluffed his lines England were just about the better team over the course of the game and Lampard missed almost as good a chance to put England 2-0 ahead.

Earnshaw miscues his moment of glory

This week has though has seen something of an epiphany in Welsh football and two very creditable performances later they should now be feeling much more positive ahead of next year’s World Cup qualification campaign. They have fought very hard and the win against Montenegro will have hugely boosted their hopes going into their narrow defeat to their neighbours. Though it is a shame they didn’t take home a point from Wembley, things under Gary Speed certainly seem to heading in the right direction.

Though it was a display lacking any real authority or class from England the result gained from it was a crucial one. Coupled with Friday night’s away day glory in Bulgaria this result has near enough ensured England’s place at next summer’s Euro’s and Fabio Capello’s first part of re-building after last Summer’s car crash in South Africa is nearly complete. Remember of course that England qualified strongly under Capello for their ill-fated World Cup campaign before it all went wrong, but taking inspiration from cheesy eighties pop act Yazz “The only way is up!” from that horror show. With a batch of talented youngsters emerging at each of last year’s top six Premier League sides there is reason for belief that England can this time give a better account of themselves off the back of a decent run in qualifying. I am in no way suggesting that England might win next year but a run to the Semi’s isn’t out of the question with the current squad.

Cool finish from Naismith

The early-season International break has also offered hope to Scottish football. Though their failure to win both of their games this week has left them with only a slim chance of qualifying for next summer, they did at least show an enormous amount of character in both of their matches. Their draw with the Czechs provided a real test of character amidst the malaise caused by some outrageously poor refereeing and this was followed up with a tight but utterly essential win over Lithuania with a significantly weakened side. Craig Levein may be left to rue the aforementioned refereeing nightmare but all in all he should be proud of his side’s efforts over the past few days.

Completing the set for British football this week were Northern Ireland, and their week has been horrific. A narrow defeat at home to the dangerous Serbia over the weekend left a bitter taste in the mouth and this was not remedied by yesterday’s humiliating 4-1 defeat away to Estonia. This pair of results should be of huge concern to Nigel Worthington and the country’s football association, there is an awful lot for them to do in preparation for World Cup qualifying next year and this could signal the end Worthington’s tenure.

The displays of the home nations over the International break have shown signs of encouragement with the huge exception of Northern Ireland’s performances, and with the England and Wales going head-to-head thoughts of how a British Olympic football team would look were once again inspired.

The rules of Olympic football state that the squad must be made up of Under 23’s and with no more than three exceptions to this rule. With a long and rigorous domestic season in store and next summer’s Euro’s taking centre stage in the footballing world it must be assumed that at least the majority of England’s squad members for the Euro’s will be spared the extra exertions of playing in the Olympics. Another assumption is that the selectors will opt for an experienced figure-head who can Captain the side and act as an ambassador for British football and the Olympics, many think that this role will be taken by David Beckham and I would be surprised if he wasn’t involved.

Will Beckham return to lead Team GB?

Based upon these assumptions and an effort to include personnel from each of the home nations my proposed starting XI for Team GB would be as follows: (4-2-3-1)

GK: Joe Hart (Manchester City and England)

RB: Chris Smalling (Manchester United and England)

CB: Craig Cathcart (Blackpool and Northern Ireland)

CB: Phil Jones (Manchester United and England)

LB: Gareth Bale (Tottenham and Wales)

DCM: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal and Wales)

DCM: Darren Fletcher (Manchester United and Scotland)

RAM: David Beckham (LA Galaxy and England) (C)

ACM: Jack Wilshere (Arsenal and England)

LAM: Craig Bellamy (Liverpool and Wales)

ST: Danny Wellbeck (Manchester United and England)

Close Calls: Alan McGregor, Wayne Hennessey, Craig Dawson, Johnny Evans, Corry Evans, Jordan Henderson, Chris Brunt, Steven Davis, Jack Rodwell, Barry Bannan, Charlie Adam, Tom Cleverley, Kenny Miller, Jordan Rhodes.

Given the requirements placed upon the modern day footballer, Britain’s lacking recent history of Olympic football, and the disputes going on between each of the home nations’ football associations it is almost impossible to predict the line-up for London 2012. However, it would be a surprise if not even a few of the above names got the call-up.

Team GB @ The World Champs; The Winners, Losers, Highs and Lows

Charles Van Commenee set Team GB the target of seven medals at the Championships and seven medals they delivered. The fact that two of these medals were Gold even managed to exceed his goal of one Gold medal for the Brits in Daegu, so all in all I think it must be considered a job well done. However, there were also some disappointments throughout to balance out the moments of British elation.

My summary of Team GB’s showing in Daegu is mapped out by my own very special prize giving of sorts below, and the lucky winners are as follows…

Athlete of the Champs:

Dai Greene

Welsh Wonder

Our new hero Dai was absolutely stunning this week. From his composure in qualifying to his technical hurdling genius in the final, it really was a masterclass. It must be said that he seemed a little off the pace through the first two thirds of the final but his impeccably clean clearance over each and every hurdle through the latter stages sucked him up and through the field with a little room to spare come the finish line and a new hero of British athletics was born. All the signs were there that he could rule triumphant and he duly delivered. One event, one Gold medal, can’t argue with those stats.

Disappointment of the week:

Jessica Ennis

Too much weight on her shoulders?

There are no two ways about it, Jessica Ennis is a stunning athlete. She is utterly exceptional, a magnificent role model for all and that sadly could be the reason for her “failure” in Korea. The weight of expectation on her shoulders would be immense in any age of British athletics given her class, but when there is less than a year to go until London 2012 the pressure must simply be unbearable for our ‘poster girl’.

Usually a model of consistency, as all top heptathletes must be of course, Ennis seemed off colour throughout and combined PB’s in some events with blow-outs in others, particularly the javelin which she has highlighted as her major weakness. An awful lot of work must be put in to prevent the same inconsistencies occurring come next summer where of course the expectation levels will be heightened even further.

Most Agonising Moment:

Mental and physical pain encapsulated

Mo Farah being pipped to the Gold in the 10,000

I won’t be able to put it better than this fantastic summary from Jonathan McEvoy in the Daily Mail so sit back and enjoy this glorious bit of sports journalism:

“Mo Farah is the 9,980 metres champion of the world. It was only then that it went wrong, Farah’s teeth almost falling out of his face and his eyes bulging from below his skull in one final push, as Ibrahim Jeilan of Ethiopia flogged himself past the Briton’s exhausted and bony little frame.”

This beautifully sums up the sheer agony of Mo’s near miss and I think it is fair to say the whole world felt his pain as his marvellous first 99% didn’t quite manage to deliver the Gold he so deserved.

Proudest Moment:

Golden Boy

Mo Farah winning the 5,000

Never one to lose that winning smile of his Mr Farah learnt from his miniscule tactical misjudgements in the 10,000 and nailed it in the 5,000. I can barely remember a sporting moment which made me happier, hats off Mo, lets make it two Golds in London!

Biggest shock:

About as shocked as the rest of us!

Hannah England

Talking of winning smiles… A magnificently crafted run in the Women’s 1500 final saw Hannah England’s life change in the space of four minutes and five seconds. This performance has marked an incredible rise to prominence and she has gone from a virtual unknown to a 2012 poster girl in double-quick time. There certainly won’t have been many that could have predicted such a huge success, a massive shock indeed, but it must be said an incredibly pleasant one.

Bravest Loser:

No choke this time, but Silver again for Idowu

Phillips Idowu

Ranked number one in the world and big favourite to take the title. Sadly though, he fell agonisingly short but he was absolutely brilliant nonetheless. He struggled to accept a ‘disappointing’ Silver in Beijing when he went in as favourite but this time there were no such regrets. A storng couple of jumps measuring 17.70 and 17.77 would usually have secured a comfortable victory for Team GB’s Field discipline star, but on this occasion he was outdone by a freak jump from 21 year old American Christian Taylor of 17.97.

Most Successful Loser:

Andy Turner

Shock podium finish for Turner

Another of the tournament’s real surprises. A very impressive run to fourth place in the Men’s 110m Hurdles was rather bizarrely rewarded with a Bronze as the race winner Dayron Robles was disqualified for collisions with Liu Xiang. A confused Turner was over the moon but understandably disbelieving when the news was broken to him. He probably would have preferred to have landed the Bronze in happier and more straightforward circumstances but a medal’s a medal, congratulations!

One To Watch in 2012:

Could Porter star in 2012?

Tiffany Porter

The dual-national Porter ran magnificently up until the ninth hurdle of her brilliant PB in the Women’s 110m hurdles only to hit the last and come home in fourth. With 11 months hard work this girl could well prove a major medal hope in London and the sad truth is that this time around she was undone by her own pace. She stated in her post-race interviews that she was “flying” and that she had “never run so fast”, no surprise then that she lost control at the critical time. Nevertheless she performed out of her skin and we look forward to seeing more of her next year.

Overall, the World Championships were thoroughly exciting. From Bolt’s false start in the 100m final, to his outstanding win in the 200, to Sally Pearson’s imperious showing in the hurdles, to Mo’s medal successes, to Dai’s hurdling genius, to Robles’ Gold medal disqualification, I could go on for hours… It truly was a feast of sport packed with emotion, drama, joy and disappointment, bring on 2012!

Southern Football Back On The Map

For many a year now the football league has been dominated by London based and Northern based clubs but finally Southern football seems to be returning to prominence. In the not too distant past the likes of Portsmouth, Reading and Southampton were going head-to-head in the Premier League whilst Brighton and Hove Albion were plying their trade in the Championship. This brief era of hope was sadly followed by a major decline in the region and in the space of just a few years each of the aforementioned sides had slipped down at least one division.

At last though it does appear that the region’s football clubs are on to something rather good. At the forefront of this resurgence are Southampton, Brighton and Crawley Town. Each of these clubs have gone from strength to strength in recent times and have each been climbing up the football league hierarchy.

Southampton experienced a torrid time following their Premier League exit in 2005 and in fact came very close to becoming involved in a second successive relegation battle. Luckily at the time a late season surge of form and results saved them from the threat of dropping even further down the football league, but sadly for them this luck wasn’t to continue for too long. In 2009 Southampton’s slump years got even worse when they had to go into administration. With this change in club status came the punishment of a 10 point deduction which sadly ensured another relegation for the club. Even in spite of the club’s continuing failure to meet expectations they were labelled as favourites to lift the League One title. True to form though the Saints once again flattered to deceive and missed out on a return to the Championship.

Adkins has been guided Southampton through a successful past year or so

Finally after five successive years of disappointment Southampton have made a turn in the right direction. Last year saw manager Nigel Adkins inspire his side to a second placed finish and automatic promotion back to the Championship. Upon their return the club’s good fortune has continued and they currently sit pretty in second place after five games. In addition to their good league form they have so far also had great success in their only Cup matches of the season. Their opening round match in the Carling Cup saw them thrash Torquay by four goals to one before a second round victory over fellow Southerners Swindon by three goals to one helped add to the feel good factor around St.Mary’s at present.

The only team to better the Saints in last year’s League One table were Brighton, and they too are enjoying a fantastic start to life back in the Championship. They have also endured a tough last few years including a few non-event seasons of League One football where they found themselves locked in either mid-table mediocrity or battling just to avoid relegation. Gladly though these years appear to be behind them and they are currently staking a very good claim to being the happiest club in World football.

The past year has been nothing other than sheer delight for the Seagulls and their fans as manager Gus Poyet has managed to mastermind a perfectly timed promotion back to the Championship, which has been marked by the long awaited unveiling of their new stadium.

Brighton's glorious new ground

The trials and tribulations of Brighton’s stadium dream have seemed to last an eternity, but finally they have their new ground, The Amex Stadium, and the start of this season has suitably reflected the excitement surrounding the club at the moment. Five games into the league they are yet to have lost a game and are flying high at the top of the Championship. They have also advanced to the third round of the Carling Cup with a thrilling victory after extra time at home to a near full-strength Sunderland. The packed ground raised the roof after record signing Craig Makail-Smith’s winner and their Premier League conquest has furthered the Seagull’s ever-growing ambitions for the rest of the season.

As if the feel-good factor wasn’t already booming at the Amex, Poyet this week tied up a deal to bring Spanish international Vicente to the club on a free transfer. Though his career has been blighted with injury, he was once regarded as one of the finest up and coming talents in World football and it is understood that Brighton fended of Premier League and La Liga interest to land their latest recruit. If he manages to keep fit then they may well have signed a seriously good player capable of impressing not just at Championship level but at Premier League level also. It is an astonishing statement of intent from the Seagulls to have signed a player of such a high calibre.

Could Vicente inspire Brighton to the Premier League?

Sussex is a county that has had very little to celebrate on the football pitch in recent times and Brighton’s resurgence has left many reeling, but it isn’t only Brighton that are drawing attention to the area.

Crawley Town have also been beginning to cause a stir in the football league and they are becoming notorious for their recent influx if finances into the club. Having been taken over, the club then went on to enjoy great success last season resulting in a famous FA Cup run that saw them travel to Old Trafford as well as storming to the Conference title. A combination of recent success and their considerable financial backing has seen them touted as favourites to win League Two this season and if they are to achieve this feat then who’s to say that they can’t go on and make it three promotions in a row next year?

Crawley's big day out Vs. United last season

All in all, things are beginning to really look good again for Southern football’s big hitters. There is an awfully long way to go still this season but the likes of Southampton, Brighton and Crawley have all made hugely encouraging starts upon their arrival into their respective divisions. Speculation of greater things to come is rife around the stands at a lot of Southern football grounds at present and it would be fantastic to see such expectations being met. If clubs such as Portsmouth, Reading, Bournemouth, Swindon and Plymouth can turn their form and off-field strife around then this era of positivity could gain even greater potential.