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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.