6 Nations: : Lions Watch

After a few Blog-less months (caused by the stresses and strains of a journalism course which has somewhat taken over my life the past few months…), I am pleased to make my return and what better excuse to do so than the 6 Nations and the forthcoming Lions tour.

The British and Irish Lions have a mouthwatering summer tour of Australia lying in wait and as is always the case in a 6 Nations tournament in the lead-up to a Lions tour, competition for places is starting to hot up.

Gatland has much to consider after the first weekend of action

The opening weekend had all British rugby fans wishing that the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse were not Italian and were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish dynamos instead as they helped inspire Italy to a stunning victory over France.

The opening weekend also saw a rejuvenated Ireland conquer Wales who are continuing their free-fall from their Grandslam-winning pedestal, and England demonstrating the sort of attacking verve en-route to victory against Scotland that helped them defeat world champions New Zealand in the Autumn.

As is nearly always the case in a Lions year, the opening weekend provided a fascinating insight into who might make the trip and who might not.

It threw up the usual blend of ‘dead-certs’ confirming their status as being such (e.g Dan Cole, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Chris Ashton), former favourites for selection on the wane (Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, the latter seemed to just have an off-day) , and young unexpected contenders throwing their hats into the ring for selection (e.g Joe Launchberry, Billy Twelvetrees.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled on the wonderful opening round of this year’s tournament it is time to look ahead to this weekend’s action and I have decided to highlight some of the key British and Irish players and clashes to look out for this weekend.

Cian Healey Vs. Dan Cole:

Come the first test match against Australia this summer these two could well be partnered as the first-choice tight-head and loose-head props for the Lions but this Saturday they will be head-to-head and it promises to be a snarling battle. Both were true to form on the opening weekend and proved why they are both regarded amongst the very best in the world in their respective positions.

Ben Youngs Vs. Danny Care:

This is an ‘in-house’ battle within the England setup and one which seems to drive both players on rather than inhibiting their performances. They are both world-class, both exciting, both energising, but unfortunately both are still pretty young and each have a tendency to undo some of their fantastic work with some clumsy errors. They are however both in the running for a spot in the Lions squad as well as being locked in a battle to wrestle the number 9 England shirt from one another. Hopefully this battle can continue to inspire the pair of them and we can look forward to a big 60 minutes from Ben Youngs this weekend and an exciting cameo from Care in the last 20.

Justin Tipuric:

 

Justin TipuricLess than a year ago it seemed that Sam Warburton could do nothing wrong. He had performed and led the Welsh side superbly at the World Cup in late 2011 and then he flourished again as skipper as Wales went on to Grandslam glory in 2012. He has however been a steep downwards slide since then and so have Wales as a collective unit. Captain Sam is missing this weekend though and at the moment this actually seems to be a positive for the Welsh as it opens up a space for the dynamic Justin Tipuric. Prior to last weekend I had heard an awful lot about him but hadn’t seen much of him myself, however, his performance after coming off the bench against Ireland made me sit up and take note. Could he be the answer to Wales’ desperate prayers of late? Could he even be Lions material? We might just find out against the French this weekend…

Brad Barritt Vs. Brian O’Driscoll:

Brian O' Driscoll 6 Nations 2013This week Sir Clive Woodward conceded that in England’s last Grandslam winning year in 2003, when Brian O’Driscoll was at his dazzling best, that he earmarked no less than three England players to nullify the Irish master’s threat. If last weekend is anything to go by then Stuart Lancaster may have to follow Woodward’s lead in his team instructions as O’Driscoll returned from injury in stunning fashion. Barritt playing alongside Billy Twelvetrees in the England midfield will surely be charged with such a task this weekend at the Aviva Stadium and the whole game could well hinge on this battle.

Other things to look out for this weekend:

The Irish back-three (even without the absent Tommy Bowe), the battle of the two fly-half Lions front-runners Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the development of Scotland flyer and Lions full-back hopeful Stuart Hogg who made a great impression at Twickenham last Saturday.

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6 Nations Review 2012 and Team of the Tournament

So, what has the 6 Nations taught us?

Wales:

Wales Grandslam 6 Nations

Super-Sam Warburton lifts the trophy for Wales

Wales have been fantastic. They may have suffered their fair share of scares along the way, think the Ireland, England and France matches, but ultimately they overcame every obstacle thrust in their way and they have landed another Grandslam.

Consequently, Wales are in a state of rugby-based euphoria once again but questions remain about the timing of their success, have they yet again peaked too early? Their three recent Grandslam wins have never come within a year of the start of the World Cup, in fact, both this weekend’s triumph and that of 2008 have come in the immediate aftermath of Rugby’s showpiece event.

For now Wales have every right to live in the moment and enjoy their hard-earned Grandslam glory but it is yet to be seen whether they can build on this and become one of the stand-out favourites for the World Cup in 2015, which must surely be their aim going forward.

England:

Second placed England have too been fantastic. After a sluggish but typically gritty and successful start

Stuart Lancaster England Rugby

Lancaster has helped restore pride for England

England have grown into the tournament with arguably one of their best performances coming in their only defeat of the tournament, against Wales.

Much has been made of England’s poor showing on and off the field at the World Cup and many thought that interim boss Stuart Lancaster would struggle to re-build and galvanize the troops but how wrong were they?

Lancaster has arguably been the success story of the entire tournament and the manner in which he has gone about his business has been truly admirable. He has demonstrated all that you need to be a success in the world of management in international rugby, from his media savvy to his raw enthusiasm and appreciation of the privileged position in which he has found himself, he has demonstrated extraordinary composure en route to guiding England to a pleasantly surprising campaign.

Three wins out of three on the road (a 6 Nations record) and two very creditable home performances in the narrow defeat by Wales and the romping victory against Ireland has made for a far more rosy outlook for English rugby. This tournament has been a far cry from the World Cup exploits of the touring party and that alone should be enough to ensure that Lancaster is favourite to grab the job on a full-time basis.

Ireland:

Ireland 6 Nations

Tommy Bowe has one of only a few exceptional performers for Ireland

Ireland managed to pretty much replicate their World Cup performance. They once again showed great promise but they lacked the bottle and killer instinct necessary to get themselves into real contention.

The performance against England was entirely regrettable, but arguably more disappointing were the failures to put away Wales and France when they had engineered themselves winning positions. They may feel a little aggrieved at the nature of their defeat against Wales given that there were some questionable decisions from the referee that contributed to Wales’ eventual triumph but really they need to focus more on their inability to close out games.

Wales were the better side in their head-to-head with Ireland, yet Ireland manufactured a match-winning lead going into the very final moments only to let an ounce of indiscipline undo all their hard work which should have earned them an improbable victory. To coin the old report-card classic… Ireland: ‘Could do better…’

France:

Saint-Andre France

Saint-Andre must find a better attack-defence balance for France

France’s first campaign under the tutelage of Phillipe Saint-Andre was rather bizarre. They were, as per usual, pretty unpredictable but the real surprise came in the way that Saint-Andre seemed to set them up in terms of their tactical approach to games.

The joy of French rugby has always been that though they are capable of implosion at any moment that they always look for a way to get on the front foot and take the game to the opposition and more often than not with the ball in hand, trying to produce flowing and exciting rugby.

This campaign saw an entirely different emphasis though. Saint-Andre had clearly tried to impress on his troops that defence was the priority, and for the most part their defence was indeed fairly decent (the first half against England aside).

The problem for the French though was adapting to this new style of play. Their more able attacking forces seemed inhibited and, as a result, their plan to hit teams on the break with counter-attacking rugby fell flat on it’s face at times.

Maybe Saint-Andre should stick to what the French know best. They have always been a bit of an all-or-nothing team and perhaps that is what they must remain. Turning the French into a disciplined and defensive unit is like turning England into a lethal, fast-paced team founded upon their thirst for try-scoring and flowing backs moves. It just doesn’t seem to fit. Lancaster seemed to get that in his first tournament in charge of England but sadly for France this didn’t appear to be the case for their new boss.

Italy:

Fifth-placed Italy deserve enormous credit once again for their efforts in avoiding the wooden-spoon.

Venditti Italy Rugby

Venditti crashes over to avoid the wooden-spoon

Their solitary win against the Scots may not have been attractive but it was ruthless. In Rome they gave Scotland a painful lesson in taking your chances when they come. Venditti may have resembled a baby rhino lacking in any natural running technique when he went over for the decisive score but the fact remains that he was the only person who managed to do so all game.

Italy’s campaign wasn’t though entirely based upon their final day win as they also performed well against England and France. They may have ultimately succumbed to defeat in both games but their willingness to take the game to France and the attitude they showed to come back from an early deficit and go in at half time with the lead against England suggests that the gap between them and the rest is shortening year on year. It is hard to tell just how much the Italians are progressing at times but I think they have shown enough in this year’s tournament to suggest that they are moving forward.

Scotland:

Scotland flattered to deceive. An opening day performance of decent promise against England was ruined

Scotland Rugby

Plenty of promise for Scotland, but ultimately failure

by a lack of composure, their great resistance in the early stages against Wales was eventually ground down and overwhelmed and they again had their moments against France en route to defeat.

It has been a very strange tournament for them really. The past few weeks have seen them receive plaudits for their much-improved style of rugby which will have made Coach Andy Robinson a very proud man but ultimately they have lost all five of their games and their performance against Italy was pretty sub-standard.

The likes of Richie Gray, Dave Denton and Stuart Hogg have shown in this tournament some real rays of light for Scottish rugby but Andy Robinson may pay for his side’s lack of killer instinct. Robinson does seem to me to have the right ideas to take the Scotland side forward but the lack of positive results may well cost him his job.

The Conclusion:

Wales are fantastic and have to now use this success as a foundation towards bigger and better triumphs in the long term.

England do still have a side with the potential to build towards 2015 and should stick with Lancaster after a very encouraging first taste of job.

Ireland need to learn how to win big matches and need to learn what life will be like without the killer instinct of Brian O’Driscoll, which they have sorely missed throughout the tournament.

France are better off being cavalier and arrogant than they are being resilient. Lievremont experienced something of a mutiny within his ranks at the World Cup but somehow they still nearly won it, Saint-Andre targeted unity and discipline and it seems as if this ended up blunting the French threat en route to a disappointing 4th placed finish.

Italy need to keep on plugging away. They are perhaps still a little too reliant on the likes of the brilliant Sergio Parisse and Martin Castrogiovanni but they are making strides in certain areas and they appeared a little more threatening going forward in this year’s Championship.

Scotland need to either show great confidence in the new Andy Robinson ethos and accept that it might take a while for it to truly reap it’s rewards or alternatively they must move on to a new Coach with a new style immediately, they can’t afford to stick with Robinson in the short term and then get rid of him after losing their next couple of games. Their have been real signs of life in their ranks this tournament and it has been refreshing to see them taking on the opposition but no wins in five suggests there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.

My Team of the Tournament:

Coach – Stuart Lancaster (My apologies to Mr.Gatland who has obviously done a great job as well…)

Front Row – Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley/Rory Best, Dan Cole

Second Row – Alun Wyn Jones, Richie Gray

Back Row – Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Tom Croft/Sam Warburton

Half Backs – Mike Phillips, Owen Farrell

Centres – Wesley Fofana, Jonathan Davies

Wings – Alex Cuthbert/George North, Tommy Bowe

Full Back – Leigh Halfpenny

The 6 Nations: Game-Week 3 Predictions

England Vs. Wales:

Match of the tournament potential.

With England, the reigning champions of course, coming up against the form team of this year’s championships most true rugby fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of this encounter.

England will look to counter the size and strength of Wales' back-line with the returning Manu Tuilagi

On paper it seems that Wales have the potential to slaughter England and humiliate them on their own patch. England’s form has been no better than solid whereas Wales and their much-vaunted back-line have been rampant in their opening games.

It is true of course that Wales only just achieved victory against Ireland and that it took a considerable period of time before they broke down the Scottish resistance at the Millenium Stadium a fortnight ago but the confidence of their two performances to date has been a far-cry from the edginess and nervousness involved in England’s two gritty victories.

As it stands though, England are level with Wales in the standings and have shown enough to suggest that they are capable of giving at least a half-decent account of themselves at Twickenham tomorrow. Unfortunately for England though, a ‘half-decent account of themselves’ won’t be enough to beat this Wales side and it will take something rather more convincing to cause what would have to be considered an upset tomorrow evening. I think Wales will win, but they will be pushed.

Prediction: England 17 – 26 Wales

Ireland Vs. Italy:

Ireland have found themselves in a rather unusual predicament in this year’s championships after they lost out in last-gasp fashion at home to Wales and then had their second game of the tournament called-off due to a frozen pitch in Paris.

As such, the Irish players and supporting contingent will be looking to kick-start their campaign with a convincing home win over Italy and really this should be within their reach.

Though Italy have certainly had their moments against France and England in their opening two fixtures, they still lack a real killer instinct and failed to capitalise on their real moments of promise. This was particularly evident against England when they could easily have used the momentum of their late first half charge to inspire them to a victory on home turf. Sadly though, some slack play and some poor decision making both from the players and from the coaching staff cost them dear as they went on to lose narrowly.

It is hard to see how a side like Italy with their lacking attacking thrust and the loss of their talismanic front-row stalwart Martin Castrogiovanni to injury, can compete with a balanced side like Ireland’s where their attacking threat and defensive strengths are evident all across their line-up. I think Ireland will bag a few tries and get themselves the morale-boosting victory they desire.

Prediction: Ireland 30 – 14 Italy

Scotland Vs. France:

Scotland are a much improved side in many ways from a couple of years ago, but they still lack the ability to take full advantage of promising attacking situations and as long as that is the case it is hard to see them defeating any of Europe’s top International sides. They need to continue playing with the same solidity and determination, but they simply must add a more potent attacking threat to their list of strengths. They would do well to learn from this weekend’s opponents France who at times can be utterly indifferent with their form but still always carry a real threat when going forward.

Andy Robinson's Scotland side will need to be more clinical if they are to push the French

France’s opening game win over Italy was a great example of this as they struggled to keep control of the game for long stretches, but ultimately they won by a convincing margin due to their defensive composure and their clinical attacking rugby which consistently utilised their limited try-scoring opportunities.

It is a shame for France that their second game against Ireland was postponed due to poor conditions, as they would have liked to bag a home victory and reaped the rewards of a run of good results and the momentum that would have come with it. However, I still think they have enough to beat Scotland at Murrayfield. It will be a tough day’s work but I can foresee another wasteful Scottish attacking display undermining their work ethic and defensive capabilities and thus allowing France to steal a fairly narrow win.

Prediction: Scotland 11 – 18 France

6 Nations: Game-week 2 Predictions

Italy Vs. England

Italy played with great courage for long periods last week but simply couldn’t break through the French wall in defence, whereas England’s chances for glory were few and far between in a fairly messy game at Murrayfield yet they came away with the win and the points.

Stuart Lancaster’s side managed to edge out the wasteful Scots in his first game in charge and will be hoping for a little more go forward  against the Italians. England will of course go in as favourites and I do expect them to win but, just as they did to France last week, I expect the Italians to go after England and force them to work hard for their victory.

Prediction: Italy 14 – 24 England

 

France Vs. Ireland

Though they were made to look second-best for the majority of the game against Wales last week, Ireland should ultimately have closed the game out and landed a significant opening victory. As it is though, Ireland will surely have to win away to France today if they are to have any hope of placing themselves in serious contention to win the tournament.

France were awesome in defence against a spirited Italian offensive last week and when they needed to turn the magic on attack they did so. Their clinical and timely finishing kept the Italians at bay in a game that really deserved to have been made a lot more interesting in terms of the scoreboard.

If this game were being played at the Aviva then I would have fancied their chances of a first win in this year’s tournament but I am going for a narrow home win for the French in what I expect to be a very entertaining game of rugby. Ireland have little to lose having already taken a notable slip in their challenge for the title, but France have an enormous amount to play for and will be looking forward with ambitions of Grandslam if they land a win here.

Prediction: France 25 – 21 Ireland

 

Wales Vs. Scotland

Wales will be overwhelming favourites going into this one.

Though they were literally seconds away from losing their opener against Ireland, Wales were effervescent in attack with Mike Phillips running the show and the likes of Jonathan Davies and George North providing more than able support as the Welsh lines flooded forward time and time again. Though they were almost irresistible at times, if they had lost the game then perhaps they, like Scotland in their home match against England, would have been accused of being wasteful. Difference is though, that Wales just about made enough of their ambition and the chances that came with it whereas Scotland came out of their opening weekend with another confidence shattering defeat.

Scotland were pretty decent throughout against England and not many would have had any complaints about the result had they come away with something from it. They didn’t though and I simply can’t see them keeping with this Wales side.

I think Scotland resist the early thrusts of the Welsh attack but I can envisage Wales running in four or five as the game wears on.

Prediction:

Wales 31 – 14 Scotland

6 Nations: Predictions (with the benefit of opening round hindsight)

Usually, I and many other sports enthusiasts and writers, make the foolish mistake of trying to predict things as accurately as possible without the benefit of hard, and topical evidence. Having learnt the error of my ways, I have taken it upon myself to predict the outcome of the 6 nations with the benefit of some hindsight and, hopefully, some half-decent foresight.

Wales opened up with a last-gasp win in the pick of the weekend's action

With one game down and England, Wales and France all off the mark in the wins column here is my prediction for the outcome of this year’s tournament:

Wins       Losses

1. Wales                 5                 0

2. France               4                 1

3. England             3                 2

4. Ireland              2                 3

5. Scotland            1                 5

6. Italy                   0                6

 

Wales:

Predicted – Grandslam Winners

Against Ireland, Wales played with a similar determination and attacking prowess as they did throughout their highly praised World Cup run. They may well have had to rely on a controversial-ish last gasp penalty to get the job done but an away win against Ireland is a big scalp and I think their attacking threat deserved to see them through in the end. Jonathan Davies’ hard-run lines in the midfield caused havoc while Wales were in full flow, and as ever Mike Philips dictated the game beautifully at 9. They may no longer have the prolific Shane Williams amongst their ranks, but George North’s performance at the weekend was one of a true heir to the Williams throne. He has the strength, character, hands and pace of a world beating winger and he is continuing to prove why he is one of the hottest young properties in the world of rugby.

I have Wales as my favourites to win, not just the tournament but another Grandslam, because they play with real flair and the character shown to rescue the game at the Aviva was very impressive. If the likes of Philips are at their best then Wales will be the team to beat.

France:

Prediction – 2nd

The French enjoyed a fairly routine victory in their opener as they faced up to the team that everyone would like to start their competition against. The Italians, of course, are a lot stronger than their earliest years in the competition but they are still a little of the pace when it comes to the more dominant forces of European rugby and they tend to provide decent competition for the opposition to break themselves into the tournament.

France weren’t at their fluent best and Italy actually played very well for long stretches in the opening game but the difference between the two sides was to be found in their defences. France’s defence was tight, compact and unforgiving, whilst their attack found just enough holes in the Italian rearguard to take them to  a reasonably comfortable win.

Up next for France are Ireland and this will almost certainly provide a stiffer challenge, but, Les Bleus will be confident of making it two from two on home turf.

England:

It wasn’t exactly glamorous and it wasn’t exactly dominant but Stuart Lancaster’s new-look England side just about did enough to prise victory in the Calcutta Cup. There was little on show at Murrayfield worthy of great note as it was a game left bereft of really outstanding moments but England showed enough to suggest that they will at least bag themselves two victories in this 6 nations campaign.

England’s debutants all played fairly well against Scotland, with the two new centres Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt taking most of the credit for assured first outings, as well as Chris Robshaw for his characteristically workman-like showing in just his second game for his country and his first as captain.

I have a sneaking suspicion that England will beat one of the other members of the ‘big four’ and I think that win will come at home to Ireland in a few weeks time. If they manage to beat Italy next time out and take at least one of the big teams then a top 3 finish is on the cards.

Ireland:

Prediction – 4th

It is amazing how much one minute of rugby can impact upon a team’s success in the 6 nations ’round-robin’ format and Ireland are this year’s hard-luck story from the opening round of fixtures.

Had the game finished just one minute earlier then Ireland would have a victory of huge significance under their belt and all the talk would be of potential Grandslams, as it turned out though they are amongst a group of three teams on the bottom of the table and will be left feeling a little damaged.

For periods of the game they were overwhelmed by the Welsh attacking threat, yet they still managed to keep the scoreboard ticking over and just a little more composure in the dying seconds might have seen them triumph. I think this defeat will hit them hard and though I expect a decent reaction in Paris, I think they will come up narrowly short again and could then be left struggling for motivation when it comes to facing England at Twickenham later in the tournament.

Scotland:

Prediction – 5th

Scotland might have shown enough at home to England to suggest that they should avoid the wooden-spoon but their inability to take advantage of their very decent attacking opportunities against England will be a huge concern for Andy Robinson.

Sadly for Scotland, this has been the problem for way too long now and it must be getting very tedious indeed for their coaching staff and indeed the rugby enthusiasts that pack out Murrayfield consistently  to provide one of the greatest atmospheres in world rugby. I think they will have enough to beat Italy but their achilles heel of lacking composure in attack is too blatant for me to foresee them beating any of the major forces. 5th it is then…

Italy:

Prediction – Wooden Spoon

A predictably decent but ultimately disappointing day for the Italians saw them open up with a loss against the World Cup finalists, France.

For spells they were the better team and they had France going backwards and making simple errors in the midfield early on, only for them to be undone all too easily by one cohesive French move resulting in Aurelien Rougerie’s opening try.

Though the Italians continued to battle hard, they fell quite a long way short in the end and their inability to make pressure really count was undone by France’s contrastingly clinical show in the final third. I can’t see the Italians finishing any higher than 5th and in truth I think Scotland will probably beat them in the battle to avoid propping up the rest of the table.

 

Crunch time for Murray as the Aussie Open heads into the Quarters

With a lack of free-to-air coverage of the Australian Open you’d be forgiven for feeling a little bereft of ‘Murray-Mania’ and perhaps even for being completely unaware that the Scotsman has once again advanced to the final eight of a Grandslam event.

Murray has breezed through the early rounds in Melbourne

Thus far, Murray has come up against the talented US teen Ryan Harris in the opening round, Edouard Roger-Vasselin, the awkward Michael Llodra and the in-form Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan. Each of the four matches have provided their own unique dangers, but Murray has dealt well with all comers to date and has only dropped a single set en-route to the Quarters.

His most recent triumph against Kukushkin had the edge taken off of it by the Kazakh’s injury problems, which were almost certainly down to the tough five-set battles that he had endured in the lead up to his encounter with Murray.

Having defeated strong opponents such Viktor Troicki of Serbia and the mile-a-minute Gael Monfils of France, both of whom were seeded in the top 20 for the first ‘Slam’ of the Year, Kukushkin appeared to be in great shape ahead of facing up to Murray (mental shape that is). Unfortunately though, his endeavours in these impressive scalps left him with little left to offer physically against the fourth seed and Murray eventually ran out a comfortable victor by a scoreline that read 6-1 6-1 1-0 prior to his opponent’s retirement.

Not only was it nice for the Scot to bag another big winning margin, but by virtue of his opponent’s premature departure he only needed to be on court for a measly 49 minutes. This will undoubtedly have been welcomed not only by his body but also his fare Scottish skin which would have been taking a severe pounding in the baking Melbourne sun.

With this win Murray has progressed to the last eight at a ‘Slam’ once again and only Japan’s Kei Nishikori stands between him and a place in what would be his fifth consecutive Grandslam Semi-Final appearance. Though Nishikori has impressed en-route to these latter stages of the tournament, he like Kukushkin has had to grind his way through two five-setters already and Murray will look to make not only his superior game but also his fresher body count when they come head-to-head.

Nishikori earned his showdown with Murray through a brilliant win over Tsonga

Murray’s comfortable navigation through the early rounds in Melbourne has once again stirred up public belief, perhaps even personal belief, that the Aussie Open provides the greatest opportunity for him to break his Grandslam duck.

He has previously made it to each of the last two finals at the tournament and has forever spoken fondly of his time ‘Down-Under’ and his comfort on the harder surfaces of Grandslam tennis. Couple this with the sizeable gap between the US Open and the Australian Open and it becomes clear that this tournament will provide him with a significant opportunity on an annual basis.

This lengthy gap between the current ‘Slam’ and the previous one means that Murray’s major rivals Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are likely to have not had the opportunity to have constructed significant runs of devastating form as they are all capable of in more fixture-heavy periods of the year. Therefore, going in to the start of the new year Murray will know that if he gets himself in perfect physical shape and practices hard that perhaps the gap between him and his arguably more illustrious rivals will be at it’s very slimmest, not that there is a huge gulf as it is.

So then, victory over Nishikori would mean a match up with the world’s most feared player of the moment in the form of Djokovic and then who knows who he would face if he triumphed again. In all likelihood Murray will have to defeat two of the world’s top three players if he is to land his first Grandslam win this week, and although he is painfully aware of the difficulty of this task he will be high on confidence and hopeful as ever. COME ON ANDY!

Ferguson’s 25 Golden Moments from 25 years at United

As a United fan I am in awe of Sir Alex. What he has given to the football club is unbelievable and the job he has done over such a long period of time will surely never be matched by anyone in English football. If any criticism is to be aimed at United’s main man then maybe it could be argued that he hasn’t brought an enormous amount of European glory to the club. Given the length of time over which he has consistently guided United into European football’s premiere competition, the Champions League, he has by his own admission come up a little short. However, Ferguson has more than made up for the slight European disappointments with an enormous amount of domestic success in his tenure at the ‘Theatre of Dreams.


 

Over his 25 year period at the helm he has weighed in with 12 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cup wins, 4 League Cup successes, 10 Community Shields, 2 Champions League victories, 1 Super Cup, 1 Cup Winner’s Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup and 1 Fifa Club World Cup win. For me this enormous amount of silverware marks him down as the greatest football manager of all time. Though I have only been in existence for 22 of his 25 years at United I have many special memories of his time in charge and below are my 25 golden memories of his reign (or at least those that I have been alive long enough to recall). The selected highlights aren’t necessarily all about the great man himself but they have all happened in his time at the club and in truth probably wouldn’t ever have occurred if it weren’t for him. So United fans, sit back and enjoy…

1. That win against Forest and the consequent Cup run that ‘saved Fergie’s career’:

This was the season where Ferguson overcame his critics by overcoming an awful start to their league season with survival and a first piece of major silverware as manager of the club. The win over Nottingham Forest early in their run has gone on the record as the “win that saved Fergie’s career”. Though it has since been voiced that he was never in danger of the sack, few are convinced and this remains arguably the most important result of his career and United’s recent history.

2.Fergie’s first league win – The winners of the Inaugural Premier League title in 1992-1993:

The moment Sir Alex led United to the first Premier League title was the moment the world really sat up and took note of what could be about to unfold. No one would have imagined that he could still be at the club 20 years on having amassed a shedload of silverware, but it was clear that Ferguson was a man of enormous resilience and that he had a young squad capable of great things. The writing was now on the wall…

3.The Double Win 1993-1994:

Inspired by King Eric United followed up their first league win under Sir Alex with a their first League and Cup double under his guidance. On reflection, maybe this was the moment the world really sat up and took note of what Ferguson could achieve at the club.

4.Eric Cantona’s Kung-Fu kick:

Without a doubt this is one of the most memorable moments of Sir Alex’s period in charge. It is in fact one of the more remarkable things that I have ever witnessed on a football pitch and one more regularly seen on youtube as part of a shoddy recording of an Argentinian third division match. Though he undoubtedly shouldn’t have done what he did, it is a moment which added to the legend that is Cantona and in a sadistic sort of way just endears him further into the hearts of football fans over the world. There was always the slimmest of lines to cross between footballing genius and sheer insanity when it came to King Eric, and Sir Alex was always on watch to oversee plenty of both the former and the latter from one of the best players he has ever had the privilege of managing. 

5.Eric Cantona’s triumphant return from the Kung-Fu kick and the fireman’s pole celebration:

You can’t keep a good man down. One of Ferguson’s finest achievements as a manager was the management of the Cantona-debacle. Sir Alex stuck with his star man through his suspension from the game and was rewarded with the glorious moment that Cantona returned to score against bitter-rivals Liverpool, prompting his infamous ‘fireman’s pole’ celebration.

6.The Golden Generation (The Neville’s, Butt, Scholes, Beckham and Giggs…):

Almost all gone, but certainly not forgotten. The ultimate proof of Sir Alex’s brilliant youth development skills and of the value of producing a consistent line of young talent rather than always investing heavily in the transfer market.

7.”You can’t win anything with kids” Part I:

Hang your head in shame Alan Hansen… Having written off United’s chances of success with this infamous quote, the former Liverpool player and Scotland International was left feeling rather smug when Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle were flying high at the top of the table come Christmas. However, Fergie’s written off young-guns found their very best form in the new year and charged to the title in arguably the most exciting season in the history of the Premier League. The fierce rivalry between the two managers was epitomised by Keegan’s infamous on-air rant directed at Ferguson on Sky Sports where he yelled “I would love it if we beat them!” in rather maniacal fashion.

8.”You can’t win anything with kids” Part II: The FA Cup

Again… Alan Hansen hang your head son… For a man that is usually so brilliantly insightful in his punditry this was a rare moment of blindness, but what a moment of blindness! As well as humiliating Hansen with their Premier League recovery, they also compounded his misery by making it a double with an FA Cup final win over his beloved Liverpool. The moment that King Eric retreated in the penalty area late on against our fierce rivals to fire home a magnificent scissor kick was right up there with my favourite moments as a United fan and I imagine it ranks pretty highly in Ferguson’s favourite career moments as well.

9.Beckham’s 60 Yarder:

This was the moment where the star in waiting burst onto the scene with an outrageous exhibition of his ability, lobbing Neil Sullivan with a pinpoint drive from inside his own half. Sullivan was hardly a mile out of his goal, but such was the accuracy of the attempt it might even have troubled him had he been rooted to his goal-line. The confidence and vision exhibited by Beckham in this magic moment was typical of the confidence and technical ability of Ferguson’s golden generation emerging from the academy at this time. 

10.Roy Keane’s night of sacrifice:

Cometh the hour cometh the man. This game epitomised everything that was brilliant about Roy Keane and everything that has been brilliant about the many United sides led by Ferguson. In one of the biggest challenges of Ferguson’s era they had to go to Turin and win but things initially seemed to be going awfully. 2-0 down to the Italian giants and skipper Keane booked and suspended from the final, their backs were well and truly against the wall but Roy Keane was on a mission and he inspired his side to one of the most glorious evenings of Sir Alex’s managerial career. With this brilliant performance he also inspired one of the most famous pieces of commentary of the modern era of English football; “FULL STEAM AHEAD BARCELONA!”.

11.Winning the Champion’s League against Bayern:

“Can Manchester United Score?… They always score”, “Giggs with the shot….SHEEERRRRIIINGGGGHHHAAAAMMM!”, “AND SOLSKJAER HAS WON IT!!!”. Three famous moments of commentary that sum up the best couple of minutes of Sir Alex’s managerial career. That night in Barcelona was agony from the very start, but ultimately ecstasy won out and Ferguson was a Champions League winner for the first time. 

12.Winning the Treble:

Couple this first Champions League triumph with success in the FA Cup and winning the Premier League and you get Ferguson’s finest hour as a manager. Inspired by his golden generation of youth academy products and a couple of his best ever signings, he had managed to win all three of the most prestigious pieces of silverware available in one fell swoop. This was the greatest year to be a United supporter, hands down.

13.Yorke and Cole:

Probably more a personal favourite than one of the real highlights of his tenure, but Ferguson’s decision to bring Yorke to the club worked an absolute treat. Some questioned the move initially given Yorke’s lack of experience at the pinnacle of European football, but the partnership forged by him and Andy Cole fired Manchester United all the way to their treble winning success. It became as enjoyable to watch their clear friendship as it was to see them banging it in the net time and again.

14.The Comeback:

It is hard to believe now that Ferguson was meant to retire a long, long time ago but that really was the case. Perish the thought! What would we have done without the old codger?

The Signings….

15.Signing Roy Keane:

Ferguson had been monitoring the progress of Nottingham Forest’s fiery young Irish midfielder closely for some time and knew from the moment he signed him that he could be the man to lead his golden generation. As it turned out his decision to sign him was utterly vindicated and once upon a time Ferguson went as far as to say he was “the best player [he] ever managed”. Quite the compliment…

16.Signing Eric Cantona:

In his time he has made some controversial signings and Cantona was right up there with the best of them. Big talent coupled with an even bigger personality is often a concoction set for disaster but Ferguson knew exactly what he was taking on and made him one of the best players ever to wear the red shirt.

17.Signing Cristiano Ronaldo:

The decision to let Beckham join Real Madrid in 2003 rocked the club, but little did they know the spaghetti-haired Ronaldo would go on to surpass to individual achievements of their former poster-boy. Impressed by his showing in a friendly against United, Ferguson was hot on the heels of Ronaldo II with immediate effect and landed his man shortly after parting company with Becks. Not only had United lost one of their all-time greats that summer but they had also come agonisingly close to landing the world’s best player in waiting Ronaldinho. Had they not landed the world’s best player in waiting-in waiting then this summer could have been a mini crisis, as it turns out though Sir Alex had pulled off yet another masterstroke.

18.Signing Wayne Rooney:

From the moment he curled the ball sweetly around the best efforts of David Seaman in the Arsenal goal as a teenager he was set for stardom. The only thing left unclear in the world of Rooney at this time was which club he would become a star at, but Ferguson worked his magic and landed his man, the rest as they say is history.

The Rivalries….

19.Fergie Vs. Mourinho:

Enormous respect for each other on and off the field. One of Fergie’s greatest managerial rivals and in private very close ‘friends’, I hesitate with the use of ‘friends’ as you sense that really they have been in too direct a competition to establish a real friendship, but they certainly appreciate each other’s talents and achievements to the maximum. As stubborn as each other, as controversial as each other and in a scaled down sort of way as successful as each other. It all made for a brilliant rivalry which could potentially manifest itself in the form of Mourinho returning to English football as Ferguson’s successor.

20.Fergie Vs. Wenger:

Probably the greatest rivalry of Fergie’s managerial career and like the men involved it has matured greatly with time. Once upon a time Wenger was the new-boy striving to emulate Ferguson’s achievements and every now and then he has looked capable of doing so. Though he hasn’t quite matched the master, they are now both too old, wise, and frankly in awe of each other to quibble too publicly. Having said that, they are still partial to the odd war of words and a spot of the old mind games.

21.The Bust-Ups:

Jaap Stam, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the BBC, Kevin Keegan, Arsene Wenger, Carlos Tevez, and Rafael Benitez to name a few… he sure knows how to pick ’em doesn’t he! He simply wouldn’t be the Sir Alex we know, love and in some cases hate if weren’t for his high profile bust-ups.

22.7-1 win over Roma:

This may not have been the most significant result of Ferguson’s tenure, but to come back from losing the first leg of a Champions League quarter final and win the second leg by such a remarkable margin was incredible. It was one of those brilliant evenings at Old Trafford which went right from the word go, the passing was super-slick and the finishing clinical. One of Ferguson’s less celebrated signings Michael Carrick had the best game of his career and played a major part in many of the goals including two fantastic strikes himself. Alan Smith’s magnificent team goal that night spoke volumes about the counter attacking genius of Ferguson’s sides through the years and is probably one of the finest goals scored by one of his United lineups.

23.Winning the Champions League against Chelsea:

Ferguson’s second triumph was more about his brilliant young signings than it was about youth products but it was hardly any less satisfying. After almost a decade without European success United were back at the summit of European football courtesy of a penalty shootout success against modern-era title rivals Chelsea. Inspired by the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez this was a United side full to the brim with attacking quality and though it did take a shootout, this was a side that played their football the right way and they had also overcome the threat of a Barcelona side on the edge of greatness. This was an outstanding achievement and Sir Alex himself would tell you that this was right up there with his greatest successes as he has always regretted what he regards as a lack of European glory.

24.Holding on to Rooney:

Just about as good an exhibition in man-management as you will ever see from a football manager. Ill-advised, disillusioned and ashamed of himself, Wayne Rooney was on a crash-course with Sir Alex and the upper-echelons of United’s hierarchy which seemed certain to result in him leaving the club. Rarely has Ferguson seemed so defeated as the day Rooney told him he wanted to leave the club, but somehow he managed to work wonders and keep his star man. No one knows just how he did it, but hats off nonetheless.

25.The renewed United-City rivalry:

Maybe this a golden moment still waiting to happen really, but the prospect of City and United battling it out as England’s big-two with Ferguson still at the helm is mouth-watering. Though nothing would hurt Sir Alex more than falling narrowly short of City in a title race, nothing would satisfy him more than narrowly edging them in a title race. Let the renewed rivalry commence…

 

What an awesome 25 years it has been then. No matter whether you like him or not, I think it is fair to assume that everyone respects his longevity in the game and the achievements which have enabled him to stick around for so long at United. Just as a final little ode to the great man, below is my United XI from Ferguson’s era:

 

My Ferguson First XI:

Schmeichel, Neville, Pallister, Ferdinand, Irwin, Beckham, Scholes, Keane, Giggs, Ronaldo, Cantona

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.

 

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.