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Thursday, 10 November 2011

61-18 since lunch

Every now and again, a football scoreline can described as being "like a rugby score." Earlier this season, Martin Tyler used these very words during Manchester United's annihilation of Arsenal.

At the time of writing, Australia are 21-9, 14 runs shy of their lowest score in Test cricket. This in itself is ridiculous. The fact they started the day at 214-8, and that South Africa were 49-1 compounds the lunacy. Robin Jackman, struggling to maintain his composure, announced as Australia's 9th wicket went down that the game figures were 61-18 since lunch - This, I think we will all agree, is a Rugby score. Australia vs Fiji kind of Rugby score, but a Rugby score none-the-less.

The Test to this point has had everything. At the lunch break, Robert Key was eulagising about the quality displayed during Michael Clarke's 157. There were comparisons to Atherton's great 185* in the same country and it was certainly Clarke's best innings against a fiery and accurate Dale Stein. He was patient and positive in equal measures, negating a bowler friendly pitch and a world class bowling attack.

At 49-1, Australia needed to bowl well after lunch and that they did, Shane Watson delivering with great accuracy and nouse, backed up by an able Harris and some splendid fielding. Having stumbled to 96 All out, South Africa were staring down the barrel, trailing their anti-podean rivals by 188 runs.

For all the world the game seemed Australia's for the taking. A pitch providing assistance for the seamers and a lead of 188 that may have been unassailable without addition. South Africa's only hope lay in the sublime or the ridiculous. The nature of Test cricket suggested one or the other might happen, but it is rare that both happen. It is even rarer that sublime and ridiculous are witnessed in consecutive innings.

Philander provided the Watson performance, taking his first 5 wickets for 9 runs. It must be said though that, some poor shot selection from the Australians has helped their cause. At 4-0, Watson was given out wrongly, but didn't think to review it. Philander, supported by a superb Morkel (3-9) has reopened a closed game and given South Africa unlikely hope of fashioning a result.

Australia should still win - but this game has proven once again that sometimes, we must expect the unexpected. Since I started typing, Australia's 10th pair have doubled their team's total (finishing 47 all out) which has provided a well-needed boost to their lead. Flip the coin and the South Africans will feel that if Peter Siddle can score runs on this pitch, so can Kallis, Smith et al.

To this point, this is the most bizarre and entertaining day's cricket I have witnessed. Test cricket has had a turbulent time of late. The betting scandal and the constant threat of a decline in worldwide popularity has left the longest form of the game's devotees in a state of nervous discontent.

This test match provides a timely reminder of why test match cricket is so special and why we must do everything within our power to protect it.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Stoke vs Man City - LDV vans trophy 1999

Every football lover will remember when they caught the footballing bug. My moment, was after my first live game, it was after my first major competition (World cup 94) and came as late as the end of the second season that I collected football stickers. It was the first time I was truly excited about a game, a goal and a player all at the same time.

During the 1996 FA cup final I was sat in the back of my mothers citroen BX (great car) with my mate Paolo, stuck in M25 traffic on the way back from Godstone farm. For those of you who haven't been, Godstone is more than just a farm - there is a first rate adventure playground with an ice cream parlour of some note.

Tired from the morning'sexcitement and a generous picnic, Paolo took tan executive decision to have a well earned snooze and left be with BBC radio 5 live's coverage of the cup final.

The game was Manchester United vs Liverpool. A rivalry I was yet to understand. The score was 1-0 and the scorer was Eric Cantona. The game is described by the history makers as an unmemorable one and perhaps I was lucky to hear it on the radio rather than watch it on tv. At 8 years old, my imagination allowed me to witness a far more vividly exciting game than any two teams could have realistically produced. I distinctly remember receiving a fairly serious reprimand for my reaction to the goal. It was a celebration of epic proportions, not because I supported United (I actually wanted Liverpool to win the game), but because of my surprise at the racket provided by the commentators.

A month later, Euro 96 kicked off on home shores and I was hooked.

Since 96, the cup final has provided many of my favourite moments in football. Di Matteos record breaking goal in 97, Owen's late brace against Arsenal in 2001 and the thrilling 2006 game between Liverpool and Wham!, Gerrard's last minute equaliser being the best I have witnessed in an FA cup final. Aside from the final, the cup has brought many exciting moments for me. The Giggs goal vs Arsenal in 99, Darren Ambrose's stunning strike against Villa last year and a Leeds side led by Jermaine Beckford turning United over at Old Trafford.

Bearing all of this in mind, it might surprise you to know that I couldn't care less about tomorrow's cup final. It even surprises me. Aside from Palace's involvement, I haven't been too bothered about the FA cup for several years. The only thing that is getting me up for tomorrow's game is the 20 squid I have on Stoke (paddy power are offering 7/2). What worries me is that I am not alone in my growing apathy towards the competition. The thing is, I want to care, and I want other people to care but the clubs, the premier league and the manager's don't take it seriously any more.

You can choose to believe the regurgitated bollocks provided by the managers, players and commentators about the relevance of the cup and the magic that is “still alive” within the competition, or you can face the facts (I'm not trying to get a job in the sun I really am that pissed off).

Last season Chelsea's top scorer in their cup-winning run was... wait for it... Daniel Sturridge. During City's game against Tottenham in midweek, the commentators told us in their infinite wisdom that City would rather finish 4th than win the cup and to top it all off nicely, the big game tomorrow isn't even the cup final. It is the game at Ewood park, where City's rivals could seal their historic 19th league title against Blackburn.

It is bad enough that the cup final is during the regular season, the Champions league obviously has to take preference, but the Premier League's refusal to move Saturday's fixtures to Sunday is a perpetuation of the attitude towards the cup which has contributed to its demise. It is possible that City will kick off the final minutes after United are presented with the league title. If City do win the cup, a United league and champions league double would take the gloss off it somewhat.

For Stoke it is a red letter day. No one would ever expect them to win the cup and even after a 5-0 drubbing of Bolton in the semi's, they are big underdogs. The FA Cup however has become a cup for the Stokes and Boltons. Not relegation candidates, but not challenging in Europe or for the title. The competition is a big anticlimax – exciting whilst Crawley are involved, then increasingly drab. It is big for the small teams. Massive for the middling team, and a bonus for the great sides. How did this all happen in the last 15 years? The answer is probably money. How do we fix it? I haven't the foggiest. All I know is, I want my Cup back.

Ps/ if you work for the sun and want to give me a job, I will obviously take it


Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Darling Buds of April at Augusta

Will Pearson

The Augusta National Golf Club is a part of the world irrevocably associated with the senses, specifically sight, and more explicitly, colour.  This is particularly fitting when one considers the history and heritage that is sewn into the Georgian land on which the club was built.
Two hundred years ago, long before Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts bought the land for $70,000 in 1931, the site was an indigo plantation: colour, quite literally, runs through Augusta’s veins. 
And the evolution towards the vibrant Augusta we now know as the home of the Masters doesn’t end there: in 1857 a Belgian Baron named Louis Mathieu Eduoard Berckmans and his son, Prosper Julius Alphonse, bought the old plantation and established a nursery called “Fruitland”, importing exotic foreign plants and flowers with which to endow their business. 
The evidence of these purchases is still abundant throughout the famous course today, most notably in the grand variety of azaleas and dogwoods, rhododendrons and pines that line Augusta’s renowned grounds.  The land’s history imbues the very names of the holes themselves, each giving reference to the predominant shrub or tree that adorns it, from Tea Olive to Holly.
The 365-acre site has over 80,000 plants, from over 350 varieties, but the wealth of effervescent tones at Augusta is prevalent throughout the course in many other forms: the grass simply seems greener; the bunkers are furnished with sand a burning, pure white, a white matched only in clarity by the pristine clubhouse and cabins; and those famous yellow flags…
The place is undoubtedly special:  special for the fans, special for the media, and most of all, special to the players.
Perhaps it is because the Masters is the first major on the golfing calendar; perhaps because it is always held in the first full week of April, at the dawn of spring, with a long summer stretching out before it; but most likely it is because this most prized of tournaments is always held at the same location.  Year after year the Augusta National plays host to a pantheon of golfing greats and the memories they often create there are as kaleidoscopic as the colours that play witness. 
The place is special; it just has an aura.
This year’s tournament promises to be no less of an occasion.  After travelling down the centuries-old 61-tree vista of Magnolia Lane, “unique” seems to be the recurring word used by players to describe both the Masters and Augusta; a unique place and a unique course that usually requires four superb rounds to claim a coveted green jacket.
Returning champions – already members of an elite guild – have been paying testament to the location in the build up to this year’s competition.  Current Masters champion and world no. 3, Phil Mickelson, stated that returning to Augusta was like “coming home”, while on the twentieth anniversary of his sole major triumph Ian Woosnam eloquently referred to walking off the first tee as like “walking in to paradise”.
But what of 2011’s crop of contenders?
Most bookmakers make Phil Mickelson favourite at odds of around 7/1 after his confidence-boosting win at the Shell Houston Open last week.  The 2010 champion unquestionably feels “at home” at Augusta: already the custodian of three green jackets, his incredible back nine last year – including that 6-iron from behind a tree on 13 – left him level with such greats as Gary Player and Sam Snead in Masters wins. 
Mickelson has the game to make bold choices around Augusta; he knows his reserves of short-game gold can drag him out of trouble from anywhere around these immaculate, yet treacherous, greens.  Could this be the year that “Lefty” puts himself on a historical par with Arnold Palmer and Woods by making it four?  You wouldn’t bet against it. 
And yes, to Tiger Woods.  Without a win in what seems like an eternity, yet amazingly still second favourite in most betting establishments at around 12/1.  Tied for fourth on his return from controversy in 2010 – but Tiger’s early season form this year has been modest at best; currently the former no. 1 is in the process of reconstructing his swing in a fervent search to regain his A-game.  2006 heralded his last win at Augusta, but don’t ever count out Tiger.
The new breed of big-hitting US stars such as Bubba Watson (40/1), Nick Watney (16/1), and Dustin Johnson (28/1) could certainly pose a threat to this year’s title, although their length is unlikely to come too much in to play at Augusta without the introduction of rain.
Closer to home, however, the European contingent of this year’s field has rarely looked so strong.  Coming off the back of last autumn’s Ryder Cup success, six of the current top-ten ranked players in the world are European. 
Recently-instated world no. 1, Martin Kaymer is placed sixth favourite at 22/1.  Although yet to make the cut at the Masters in three attempts, last year’s major success at Whistling Straights in the PGA Championship should boost the German’s confidence going in to the 2011 event where his cool temperament could be a key factor.
Not since Nick Faldo in 1996 has a Masters winner been found from our shores, but with so much home-grown talent knocking on the door could 2011 be the year this changes?
World no. 2 Lee Westwood was pipped at the post in 2010 by an inspired Phil Mickelson despite leading after the second and third rounds.  One of the most consistent golfers in the world in recent times, the Worksop man was briefly ranked at no. 1 in October after a string of good finishes in majors over the last two years.  Despite Westwood’s mixed form this season he should be confident of challenging for his first major and is rated third favourite by bookmakers at 14/1.
Having “shaken the monkey” off his back with victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February, England’s Luke Donald looks good at 20/1.  Sometimes the focus of criticism in the transatlantic media, Donald would do well to remember that even the great Seve Ballesteros was subject to casual stateside barbs throughout his career, once quipping “In the United States, I'm lucky; in Europe, I'm good.”  Despite missing the cut in two of the past three Masters, Donald’s game seems set up for Augusta with his consistency of approach and superb short game.
Paul Casey (33/1) is in good form this year having won the Volvo Championship in January and has made the weekend in all four PGA events this year, while compatriot  Justin Rose (also 33/1) will finally look to string four unfaltering rounds together after having lead on each day at some point before falling away.  The extravagant Ian Poulter (50/1) will revel in the occasion while Ross Fisher has slipped back since a fine 2009 season and is an outsider at 150/1.
Irish friends Graeme McDowell (45/1) and Rory McIlroy (28/1) will be both gunning for glory this week too.  McDowell obviously has major pedigree after his US Open win at Pebble Beach in 2010, but can he better his previous Masters best of tied seventeenth and avoid his fear of being a “one major wonder” (surely there are worse things to be...).
McIlroy is indisputably an exceptional talent and despite missing the cut last year the Holywood man tied for third in the last two majors of 2010 and has enjoyed a good start to the year.  The key to his success might lie in his decision making; can McIlroy rule his heart with his young head at a course famed for its ruthless acceptance of wayward risk-and-reward efforts.
Finally, a mention must also go to Scotland’s new hope in Martin Laird (66/1), who after a win at Bay Hill in Arnold Palmer’s event is this year making his Masters debut.
And so, eighty years after Jones and Roberts bought the nursery that would become the greatest golf course in the world, new memories and new heroes wait in the Augustan wings for the beginning of this year’s Masters story.
On this most vivid and stimulating of sets, ablaze in the luminous light of thousands of Berckmans’ dogwoods, perhaps one of our British starlets – either young or old – might now blossom into a major winning champion.  
In doing so they would write their name indelibly onto the pages of sporting history, stain it on the paper in Georgian indigo.  

Saturday, 8 January 2011

You couldn't make it up – well actually you could, and they did!

Henry Salmon

Anyone who frequents the BBC website will have no doubt stumbled across the story from Brazil about the player known as Somalia (Paulo Rogerio Reis da Silva to his parents), who has sparked controversy after it emerged he faked his own kidnapping as an excuse for being late to training...

The story has more than a touch of the “Peckham Spring” about it; how on earth did he think he would get away with it?

Enthused by such idiocy I decided to delve into the murky depths of my own memory, that of Thomas Moran (son of the great Thomas Moran), and the endless information of the internet to draw up a list of the 10 worst lies and excuses provided by the Just Williams – past and present – of the sporting world.

10) Rio Ferdinand – blessed as he is with brains as well as looks – famously missed a drugs test while at Manchester United in 2003 because he was mentally preoccupied with moving house and, forgetting his obligation, went shopping instead. In comparison to some of the lies later in the list this is pretty uninspired; but for the sheer cheek of it I have included him.

9) Roberto Rojas, Chilean goalkeeper in the 1980s, was the centre of one of the most dramatic moments in sporting history when, during his side’s 1990 World Cup qualifier against Brazil, he collapsed to the floor, nursing an open wound to his head. It appeared that a smouldering firework, which lay on the field next to him and had been thrown by a Brazilian fan, had hit him on the head and had caused the bloodied noggin and associated writhing. The Chilean players refused to return to the field, believing their player to be the victim of a gross injustice. However, television replays showed that he had not been hit by the firework but had inflicted the injury upon himself with a razor blade hidden in his gloves. Why oh why I hear you cry? Chile were 1-0 down and needed to win to qualify for the world cup – had he succeeded in his charade, Chile may have been awarded the win due to the gravity of the offence. Needless to say, he was banned from football and Brazil were awarded a 2-0 win, appearing at the finals in Italy the next year. As an aside, for an extra bit of amusement, follow this link and scroll down to the section on Patricio Yanez -

8) Tyler Hamilton, Gold medal winning cyclist at the 2004 Olympic Games, failed a drugs test after foreign red blood cells were found in a sample he gave after the games. He refuted the claims, creating a story that Mary Shelley would have been proud of. He argued that the presence of foreign blood cells were the fault of his unborn twin brother who he had absorbed while in his mother's womb.

7) Mervyn King, East Anglian Darts playing sensation, blamed the air conditioning for his defeat at the hands of Raymond Van Barneveld in the semi-final of the BDO world championship in 2003. He declared that his darts were lighter than Barney's and that the particularly strong air conditioning had blown his darts off course. The next year, in his first round match, he requested that the length of the Ochey be measured as he believed it to be incorrect. It wasn't. He was.

6) Rosie Ruiz, Cuban born marathon runner, crossed the line in the 84th Boston marathon in a record breaking time of 2:31:56 (at this point the third fastest time by a woman in any marathon ever) until she was stripped of her title when it emerged she hadn't run the entire course. Concerns arose as her legs seemed too flabby, she couldn't remember any of her split times, and she seemed generally un-fatigued. Her carefully thought out reason for her apparent lack of exhaustion was simply “I got up with a lot of energy this morning.”

5) Dieter Baumann won the gold medal in the 5000m at the 1992 olympics in Barcelona. In 1999, he was suspended for failing a drug test for the banned substance nandrolone. Following further tests, the levels in his blood varied depending on the time of day the tests were taken at, leading Baumann to blame the presence of the drug on spiked toothpaste. The German athletic committee believed him – the IAAF were less impressed and imposed a two year ban.

4) Paulo Rogerio Reis da Silva, the inspiration for this article, told the police he was abducted at gunpoint at 7am Thursday on his way to training at Botafogo. Police Video evidence shows him leaving his apartment at 9am, thus providing the real reason for his tardiness. If he is found guilty, he may face 6 months in prison. The BBC have reported that he was on time for training on Friday...

3) Manchester United's worst ever kit is probably that grey one. Remember it? Of course you do. We all remember it, and we all remember what happened in the game against Southampton in 1996. At half time, trailing 3-0, United blamed the grey kit for the score line suggesting they couldn't pick each other out. They changed shirts, but still lost 3-1...

2) Lighton Ndefway, former Gambian tennis player produced an even more infantile excuse for his defeat at the hands of Musumba Bwayla than both Mervyn King and Manchester United combined. Asked why he lost he responded: “Bwayla is a stupid man and a hopeless player. He has a huge nose and is cross-eyed. Girls hate him. He beat me because my jockstrap was too tight and because when he serves he farts, and that made me lose my concentration, for which I am famous throughout Gambia.” What a guy.

1) Stephen Ireland, Aston Villa and Ireland Midfielder, missed the Ireland vs. Czech Republic clash – pulling out on compassionate grounds, following the passing of his maternal grandmother. However, the Irish press found that his grandmother was alive and well, at which point most folk would wave the white flag. Not Mr. Ireland. His self-dug hole deepened significantly when he claimed it was actually his paternal grandmother who had died. She too was found to be still alive. Stupid as this all seems, the most ridiculous part is that his reason for wanting to go home was that his girlfriend had miscarried which, had he informed Steve Staunton (Ireland manager at the time), would have surely been grounds enough for passionate leave...

If anyone knows of any other stories along these lines, feel free to email us at or leave a comment below!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

A Tale of Two Countries

Will Pearson

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

For Andrew Strauss and England, the best: a draw in the first Ashes test – snatched from what at the end of day three looked very much like the gaping jaws of certain defeat – must have tasted as sweet as victory.

For Ricky Ponting’s Australian side it was undeniably the worst: after scenting the metallic tang of first blood for so much of this encounter, the deflation at stumps yesterday was palpable;  nowhere was the pain more evident than in the image of tired resignation etched on the captain’s weary and weathered face as he trudged from the field.

And while it is far too early to label this Ashes series with the term so often afforded to the novels of Charles Dickens – “a classic” – this opener had all the hallmarks of what made the two previous contests so thoroughly compelling.

The story of the 2009 series, of course, began in a similar fashion: a famously stoical last stand between Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar saved England from defeat in Cardiff, after Australia had posted a mammoth first innings total of 674 – a deficit of 239 over England’s opening efforts.  The squandering of such a powerful position certainly damaged Australian morale and confidence that time, with England going on to win the next test at Lords – the first time they had done so since 1934 – and subsequently the series 2-1.

While England’s comeback at the Gabba might not be quite as psychologically galling to the Aussies as failing to bowl out one of the worst batsmen in international test cricket, it was a sizeable blow all the same.  That it occurred at what has long been an Australian stronghold in Brisbane – England last won at the Gabba in 1986 – only served in further souring Antipodean taste buds.

It has to be said, however, that Australia didn’t lose the match; the series is of course very much alive.  The interesting thing will be to observe how Ponting and his team respond to this setback.

An always-frantic build up had been largely dominated by Australian pessimism, yet for the first three days of this test the prevailing mood appeared ill-founded. 

It may seem like a lifetime ago, but things started very well for Australia: after winning the toss and electing to bat, England captain Andrew Strauss fell to the third ball of Thursday morning before Peter Siddle ripped through the middle-order with the first Ashes hat-trick since Darren Gough’s in 1999, leaving the visitors deposed for only 260.  The previously-maligned Mike Hussey and wicket-keeper Brad Haddin then vociferously proceeded in taking apart England’s muted bowling attack, launching Australia in to a 221-run lead.  This flying start resulted in a noticeable upsurge of mood and confidence in both the team and Australian public.

And surely if this series is to rank up there with classic Ashes of yore, that can only be a good thing.

Australia need that swagger and self-assurance. It has always been natural for Australian sportsmen to embody confidence and to maintain an unshakeable belief in their own ability, to revel in their status as world-beaters and to excel to such a loathsome extent.  If it were to become any different it would devalue this age-old contest: the Australian spirit is all part of the theatre of the spectacle, and England and its fans wouldn’t want it any other way.  It is, after all, the pantomime season and the English love nothing more than to hate a villain.

And so, in some ways, it was a shame when the wheels came off Australia’s unprecedented revival in the final two days.  A bad Sunday was followed by a terrible Monday, the likes of which even the most fanatical Barmy Army patron could scarcely have envisaged at the end of Saturday.  The best of times had rapidly wilted to the worst for Australia, and the lingering doubts and negativity returned. 

England, though, were in dreamland.  The fightback that had begun positively on Sunday continued unbroken through Monday, and with it a plethora of records fell faster than you can say Roy Castle and Cheryl Baker: the magnificent Alastair Cook’s 235 not out was not only the highest ever knock at the Gabba, but also the longest innings of any English batsman in Australia.  On a team note, it was the first time the top three had all scored centuries in an innings since 1924, and the first time that England have ever scored 500 for the loss of only one wicket.  Stunning.

Everything went England’s way, and Australia were unrecognisable.  When Michael Clarke put down a simple catch in the slips heads began to droop in what was an uncharacteristic display of self-doubt.  Ricky Ponting’s captaincy had taken a battering in the lead-up to the match and once again the Tasmanian failed to rally his flagging troops when faced with adversity.  Throughout England’s second innings Ponting was continually guilty of ball-following, and the defensive nature of his field settings on Monday morning was truly baffling.

Ammunition aplenty for critics of Ponting’s reign.

As the game slowly slipped away from Australia so too did their fans, as Monday saw the swathes of empty that Cricket Australia had earlier feared.  And when a contest as fiercely competitive as the Ashes is struggling to fill grounds then surely that should be a major concern for anyone involved with cricket.

Credit has to go to Kevin Mitchell Senior and Junior for creating a wicket that not only hosted two 6-wicket hauls, in Siddle and Finn’s efforts, but five centuries as well.  It may have flattened in to the type of road more at home on the Lincolnshire Fens by the final two days – when only two wickets fell for 624 runs – but it served in providing a superb sporting exhibition all the same.

The pitch was indisputably a dream to bat on, but the nature of the test’s denouement raised questions over whether either team can claim 20 wickets in a match.   Australia will certainly be looking at making changes, the awful Mitchell Johnson looks the most likely to miss out in Adelaide after returning figures of 0-170.  England’s attack is not completely bereft of worry either, with the usually reliable Graeme Swann appearing most out of sorts in the first test.  The Adelaide wicket – although also flat – usually offers a bit more turn but this will be elementary if Swann cannot regain a consistent length.

However, from an English perspective, this initial encounter did nothing if prove a newly-instilled resilience and confidence to take forward in to the rest of the series. 

The Australians should not be underestimated though.

Dickens’ themes of destruction and resurrection in A Tale of Two Cities resonate strongly in the sporting world.  Time and time again the world has witnessed eminent sporting teams crumble before rebuilding anew; and with such cricketing legends as Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist – to name but two – retiring in the last five years perhaps it is unsurprising to find Australia at their lowest ebb in two decades.  Before a rise there is inevitably a fall, and whether Australia’s renaissance occurs in this series or beyond, only time will tell.

Andrew Strauss travelled not to Paris, but to Australia to bring an urn back to Lord’s; if he proves to be successful in his quest then critics in Australia may be calling for Ponting to do “a far, far better thing” than he has ever done as captain by calling time on his era as skipper.  Perhaps, like Sydney Carton’s demise in the Dickens classic, only the self-sacrifice of Ponting – unquestionably one of the greatest batters ever – will allow the rebirth of a truly great team.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Roar Strand loves sweeping chimneys...

Henry Salmon

All around the world, sporting greats live under constant scrutiny from the media, with their private lives receiving as much (and in some cases more) attention as their exploits in the profession that brought them fame. These top players usually go into coaching or punditry, whilst the ones that don't are able to live off their success for the rest of their life without too much concern. However, some sporting luminaries career-paths take bizarre turns, and I have chosen a few of the more amusing life choices to share with you.

Football is a sport associated these days with glamour and glory. The big contracts result in attractive girlfriends and lavish lifestyles. Not for Roar Strand. The first of two Norwegians on this list, the former Rosenborg player retired from football and took up the unenviable task of sweeping chimneys for a living. No joke.

One of the most peculiar ends to a career came when Argentinian international goalkeeper Carlos Roa gave up his gloves in 1999 (aged 29) to preach in Argentina. He believed the world was going to end in the year 2000 and spent his life trying to convert people to 7th day adventism. When oblivion failed to rear its ugly head, he went back to Real Mallorca and continued to play football until 2006. Roa is not the only footballer to have replaced football with religion, Alan Comfort became a vicar on retirement, and both are likely to be followed by the holy man himself, Brazilian star Kaka.

Some more politically minded readers might remember the curious case of Terry Marsh in the 2010 general election. Terry Marsh started out in the spotlight as a light-welterweight boxer. He retired in 1987 as undefeated IBF light-welterweight champion. In 1989, he was put on trial for the attempted murder of his trainer, Frank Warren, for which he was eventually acquitted. After this, he took the route any retired boxer and marine accused of murder would take – politics. In 1997, he ran as a Liberal democrat in Basildon, before having to withdraw under accusations of fraud. Better still, in 2010 he changed his name by deed poll to None of the Above X as a protest against the voting system, and ran as an independent candidate For South Basildon and East Thurrock. Needless to say, Mr. X was unsuccessful.

The next person on this list is here partly for his post-cricket career choices, but also for his incredible change of accent. Like Steve McClaren, Jack Richards, former England wicket keeper, has developed an extraordinary Dutch accent since emigrating. After retiring at 30, Richards moved to the Belgian/Dutch border working as a shipping broker in Rotterdam. He is also head-coach of the Belgian Under-16 team. Not in cricket, but in Rugby...

Americans seem to do everything bigger and better, and in the case of this blog, this is as true as anywhere else. Richard Seigler was a line backer in the NFL for the Pittsburgh Steelers until a couple of years ago. On a handsome wage, one would think that he would not need to break the law to earn his living. Mr. Seigler though, might be described as “old school”. Not content with the money he was making from “football,” Siegler was found to be soliciting prostitutes in Las Vegas for his pocket money. As if being a pimp and a celebrity at the same time wasn't a stupid enough combination, he advertised them on popular US website, Craigslist!

Ugueth Urbina, may not be a name that British are familiar with but the Venezuelan former major league baseball pitcher is the second of our criminal sportsmen. His ranch in Venezuela was the scene of the attempted murder he was convicted of on two of his employees. He attacked them both with Machetes and tried to pour gasolene on them for “stealing a gun”. It turns out they were just trying to escape his employ as he was using them on his ranch practically as slaves.

Finally, Liverpool and Rosenborg fans might remember Norwegian right back Vegard Heggem. I remember his goal in the stunning win for Rosenborg at the San Siro in 1996, but it was my cousin, a certain Paul Gilbert esq. who informed me of his post football career as the owner of a salmon fishing business in rural Norway. I don't know why I found that so amusing, but in some ways, this is my favourite story of all. Salmon fishing – outrageous!!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Can the Six Nations fight Southern fire with fire?

Henry Salmon

For as long as I am able to recall, I have listened to the good and the great in rugby wax lyrical about the standard of the game in the southern hemisphere. In terms of style, there is a perceived gulf in class between the rugby played by New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and that of the Six Nations. After England’s success at the 2003 World Cup – a tournament they won as favourites – many pundits still criticised their tactics and suggested the best team in the competition was probably the All Black side defeated in the semi-finals.

In truth, watching Australia vs. New Zealand and England vs. France in 2003, it would be difficult to argue the case for the latter match as the more exciting. England won it (in drab conditions) thanks to the tireless endeavour of their forwards and the boot of Mr. Wilkinson. It was slow and predictable, contrasting starkly from the open encounter eventually won by the Wallabies. New Zealand further proved their credentials as rugby's most exciting side in the 3rd place play off, putting France to the sword with a string of breathtaking trys.

Exciting though, doesn't necessarily mean better. Before almost every World Cup, New Zealand are touted as one of the strong favourites (if not bookmakers favourite) arriving at tournaments on the back of impressive wins against most sides in the draw. Their flamboyance makes their games the most eagerly awaited worldwide. However, for all their attacking flair and perceived dominance, they haven't won a world cup since its inaugural year in 1987. France are another side heralded as enigmatic talents but who have also never won the most coveted trophy in Rugby.

In contrast, England's successful side of 2003, and to a certain extent South Africa's 2007 winners, won on the back of rugby's truest cliché: “Forwards win matches, backs decide by how much.” For England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, this is the basic mantra to the game. All four are built around the strength of their forwards to create opportunities to accrue points via boot or try. When correctly implemented, with a strong defence, playing this way is hugely effective.

Considering all of this, it may come as a surprise to you when I say that this will not be enough in the autumn tests starting Saturday – or at the world cup next year. I was fortunate enough to watch all 80+ minutes of Saturday's contest between New Zealand and Australia in Hong Kong. It was one of the most thrilling and evenly fought matches I have seen in any sport, with the fantastic extra-time climax. The standard of rugby on show was at times breathtaking, with neither side willing to relinquish possession by resorting to a kicking game, and keeping the ball in hand even within the confines of their own 22. The quality of handling on both sides resulted in phase after phase of attacking rugby which was only prevented from turning into a try-fest by the quality of both sides defence.

This is nothing new though. Many southern hemisphere sides have displayed such feats of excellence without converting them into world cup successes. It is worth adding that neither side was without fault: both made numerous errors in terms of turnovers, penalties conceded and wasteful kicking – particularly when the Australians kicked from hand.

The reason I fear for the northern hemisphere sides is the quality both sides showed at the breakdown. Richie McCaw has been commanding at the ruck for years but in David Pocock, Australia have their own McCaw and all eight members of both packs showed enormous levels of skill and savvy on the floor. Their backs too showed willingness and adeptness in protecting the ball and counter-rucking. The result was regular quick ball and the aforementioned turnovers and penalties.

Previously, England in particular have been able to control the breakdown and stifle the attacking threats of the more creative southern hemisphere back lines. If they play this way during the autumn, they will be embarrassed.

I don't think any of the northern hemisphere sides will beat any of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa this autumn. However, I think they can prepare for the world cup and give themselves a chance if they play attacking rugby and try to take on their southern opponents on in all areas. The only way they will force mistakes is if they compete in all areas. If they kick the ball away – they will live to regret it.

Of the northern hemisphere sides, I feel it is England who have the best chance at next year’s world cup. Their backs seem to have the right blend of youth and experience, while their forwards will be bolstered by the long awaited return of Andrew Sheridan. Will they break the mould and attack? Who knows.