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Tomorrow morning (Disunited Kingdom and Namibian time) the British & Irish Lions will play the 1st Test of their 2017 tour against New Zealand’s All Blacks. It is a much anticipated match, one of the most important in which most of the players will take part. 

My first rugby memory is of the 1971 Lions tour of NZ, the only time that the Lions have won a Test series there. Of course, as a 7-year old I did not realise that the 1971 tour was, and would remain, so historic. 

I didn’t say that I was witnessing history, as live TV of sporting events occurring on the other side of the world did not exist in 1971. At least, not for rugby. So we listened live on the radio, at 4am (as matches were played mid-afternoon local time). Later in the day, highlights would be shown on TV, which we also watched even though we knew the score. 

The “we” were myself, my two sisters and my parents. My father gave us no choice in whether we were woken up to listen to the Test matches in 1971; refusal was not an option. 

The 1971 tour remains burned in the minds of so many rugby fans, and not just supportes of the Lions but those of the All Blacks too. Many Kiwis of my age will tell you that their rugby heroes were Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies or J.P.R. Williams, not the men who represented New Zealand at that time. 

This 2017 tour is not only a chance to get that second series win, It is also a chance for Kiwi Warren Gatland to put one over on his native country and put himself at the head of the list to succeed Steve Hansen as the next All Blacks’ coach. Here is the team chosen for the 1st Test. 


To many people’s surprise, Leigh Halfpenny and George North have not been included. Gatland and his coaching team have, instead, gone with a far more attacking back three. The other major talking point is Allan Wyn Jones’ inclusion ahead of Maro Itoje, but I’m not surprised by this. Although Itoje has been in great form, Alun Wyn is one of the most experienced and best locks in World rugby. Tour captain Sam Warburton had pretty much declared himself out of contention to start the 1st Test, feeling that he’s not yet fit enough. 

If the Lions can win the 1st Test then it will be a huge result. Not only will it make winning the 3-Test series a real possibility, but it will also be the first time that the All Blacks have lost at Eden Park since 1994! A loss by the All Blacks would send shockwaves through New Zealand rugby. The Lions need no greater motivation to play the game of their lives. 

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The 3rd weekend of the 2017 6 Nations saw home victories in all three matches. Scotland beat Wales at Murrayfield, Ireland beat France in Dublin, and England beat Italy at Twickenham.

Scotland v Wales

Scotland beat Wales for the first time since 2007, with a well-deserved win that saw them score 20 unanswered points in the 2nd half. Wales went into half-time with a slim 13-9 lead. It could have been more, with Wales missing a chance to go 16-6 up with only a few minutes left of the first half. Instead, Scotland scored a penalty just before half-time and instead of 16-6 it was 13-9.

If ever there was a game of two halves this was it. The second half saw Scotland score 20 unanswered points, including two well deserved tries. It is true that Wales did have their chances to score points in the 2nd half, but Scotland were by far the better team after the break and fully deserved their victory over a largely ineffective Welsh team.

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Scotland beat Wales 29-13 in a well-deserved victory, their first win over Wales since 2007.

Whereas the Scottish team took their chances, Wales were unable to come away with points when they were in the Scottish 22. It was a poor performance by Wales, but also a very good one by Scotland. After being uncompetitive for most of the last 10 years, it is good to see Scotland back mixing it with the other countries in the 6 Nations.

Ireland v France

This was a cracker of a match. For a neutral, it had everything. Ireland went into half-time with a narrow 7-6 lead, and it was not clear well into the second half who was going to win this keenly contested match. In the end the better play of Irish half-backs Connor Murray and Johnny Sexton proved decisive, Ireland emerging victorious 19-9. With first Ireland, and then France, being the last two sides that Wales will face, the performance of both teams in this match does not bode well for Wales’ chances of winning either match, in my opinion.

England v Italy

I have not seen this match, but am looking forward to seeing the highlights, mainly for the tactics which Italy adopted. By not committing any men to the breakdown, they avoided any rucks forming and thus the off-side line which normally exists did not apply. This allowed them to have men standing between the English backs, completely disrupting the game that England hoped to play. In fact, so effective was this tactic that Italy were 10-5 ahead at half-time. It is, apparently, only in the second half that England got to grips with this novel tactic, and eventually ran away to win 36-15.

The 4th weekend

The 6 Nations now has another brief hiatus, before the next round of matches in just under two weeks. Ireland come to Cardiff to play Wales on Friday evening (10th March), then on the Saturday Italy take on France before the big game of the weekend, England v Scotland. Not only is this for the Calcutta Cup, but both countries are going for the Triple Crown. It will  be the first time in probably some 20 years that Scotland will go to Twickenham with even the slightest hope of winning.

Based on our performance against Scotland, I cannot see Wales beating Ireland, which leaves us with the real possibility of finishing the 2017 6 Nations with only one win. Quite where this will leave the Welsh team and management is a good question,  but it is clear from our performances this season that Wales have not developed the creativity in attack which is needed to win matches. Scotland showed us how it should be done; all we could do was look on and marvel at how much they have developed and how much we have regressed.

 

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The second weekend of the 2017 6 Nations is over, and I think it is fair to say that this year is on course to be one of the most exciting 6 Nations in history. After Ireland running rampant in Italy, England narrowly beat Wales in Cardiff by scoring a converted try in the last 4 minutes, and France narrowly beat Scotland in Paris. It seems that 5 of the 6 nations are pretty evenly matched, so most of the games look like they could be very close.

Italy v Ireland

Ireland went to Rome seeking to make amends for their loss last week to Scotland. They won comfortably by 63 points to 10, running in 9 tries. Italy were woeful, not to take anything away from Ireland, and it has re-opened the debate as to whether Italy deserve to be in the 6 Nations at all. An idea which has been floating around for a while is that there should be relegation from the 6 Nations, with the second tier European countries like Romania and Georgia in a play-off against the bottom placed country in the 6 Nations table to see who should make up the sixth place the following year.

But, one needs to bear in mind that, when France joined the then 4 Nations to make the 5 Nations (back in 1910) they barely won any matches for well over a decade. Their initial record in the 5 Nations was worse that Italy’s current record in the 6 Nations, but they went on to be one of the best teams in the world. So, in my opinion we should give Italy more time to bring their rugby up to speed, not expel them yet.

Wales v England

This was, for most people, the big game of the weekend. Wales and England have been playing each other since 1881, and had played each other a total of 129 times prior to this weekend. With the record at 60 wins to England, 57 to Wales and 12 drawn matches, long-term they could not be more evenly matched.

It was a cracking match; at no point were the two sides more than 5 points apart, and the ferocity and competitiveness on display was something to behold. This was the best Welsh performance since beating England in the world cup in September 2014. And, it is a match that Wales could have won and should have won. At half time we were 13-8 up, and between 50 and 75 minutes we were, in my opinion, by far the better side. England looked rattled, and at 74 minutes the score was 16-14 to Wales.

With England threatening the Welsh try line, Dan Biggar made a superb interception and broke up field. Isolated, he kicked ahead and a desparate English defence kicked it into touch, giving Wales an attacking line-out in the English 22. But, we fluffed it, and this for me was the incident which lost us the match. With only 5 minutes on the clock, we could have won the line-out, and played out the remaining 5 minutes in England’s 22, or even gone for a drop goal.

But, instead, we found ourselves back under pressure near our own try line. The ball came back to centre Jonathan Davies, who kicked up-field. But, rather than kicking into touch, he kicked in-field, something the Welsh team had been doing all afternoon. It was a crazy decision; he should have belted it into the stands and given the Welsh forwards as much time as possible to slow the game down and regain their breath for the line-out. Instead, George Ford caught Davies’ in-field kick, passed it to Owen Farrell who spun a long pass to winger Elliot Daly. Daly outclassed a poor Alex Cuthbert to score in the corner, and Farrell slotted the conversion to rub salt into the wound.

We went from being in control and 16-14 ahead to losing 21-16.

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Wales lost to England 21-16 in Cardiff, with England snatching a try with only 4 minutes left on the clock to break Welsh hearts.

As I say, in my opinion not only were Wales the better team, but it is a match that we lost rather than England winning it. Poor decision making, particularly in the last 5 minutes, cost us what would have been a memorable win over a very good England team. On the plus side, it was the closest this England team under Eddie Jones has been pushed during his 14 months in charge. And, Wales are finally beginning to develop their game beyond the Warren-ball of the last too many years. I hope we can back it up by winning in Scotland in two weeks’ time.

France v Scotland

This was another close fought match, with France sneaking it 22-16. Scotland had their chances, and they are a much improved side. They have so many good back-line players that they look dangerous from anywhere on the field, and it is great to see them so competitive again. They are going to be a tough prospect for Wales in what is our next game.

Round 3 of the 6 Nations

The 6 Nations now takes a slight hiatus; the next round of matches are in a fortnight’s time rather than this coming weekend. On Saturday 25th February, Wales head up to Murrayfield to take on Scotland, with the KO at 14:25. The second match of the day is Ireland at home to France, KO is 16:50. On Sunday 26th, England host Italy at Twickenham, with the KO at 15:00. I will preview these matches closer to the time.

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On Monday (6th February) the sad news was announced that the great South African scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen (JVD) had died at the age of 45. In 2011 JVD was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Over the next few years he did much to raise awareness of and money to conduct research into this cruel disease; showing the same fighting spirit which led to his being one of the true greats of rugby of any era.

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Joost van der Westhuizen was one of the greats of world rugby. In 2011 he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He died on Monday (6th February) at the age of 45.

 

I heard it said this week that JVD was the first muscular scrum  half and the first large scrum half (a position traditionally played by smaller men). I would disagree with both of these statements. I grew up watching Gareth Edwards, often considered the greatest Welsh rugby player, who was a strong, muscular and dynamic scrum half. The only thing he lacked was height, but in the early 1980s Terry Holmes played for Wales, and he was 1m87, the same height as JVD. So, I would not agree that JVD was the first muscular scrum half or the first scrum half who was as large as a back-row forward.

It is sometimes easy when someone has died far too early to overstate their greatness. But, JVD was a great scrum half, there is no denying that. He was an inspiration to his team, and someone that other teams feared. In the 1995 World Cup, he was the first player to successfully tackle Jona Lomu, who had run rampant through every team against which the All Blacks had played.

But, JVD showed his true greatness in the way with which he dealt with his motor neurone disease (MND). He took it as an another challenge, and spent the rest of his life raising awareness of MND and raising money for researching in to it. In the video below is an excerpt from an interview which JVD did with the BBC in late 2014 or early 2015. It was replayed on Monday evening, the day of his death. Listen to his final words, when he is asked whether his MND may be considered a “blessing”

In a way I am glad I had MND. I now know what life is about

RIP Joost van der Westhuizen.

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The first weekend of the 2017 6 Nations is over, and it threw up a few surprises. On Saturday, Scotland beat Ireland in Edinburgh, and England came close to being beaten by France at Twickenham. Yesterday (Sunday), Wales won comfortably in Rome, but not before Italy gave Wales a bit of a scare in the first half.

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Wales beat Italy in Rome by 33-7 to get their 2017 6 Nations campaign off to a positive start.

Scotland v Ireland

The biggest upset of the first weekend was Scotland’s surprise win over Ireland. Ireland had gone into this 6 Nations being tipped by many pundits as the favourites to win the tournament. They were not favourites with the bookmakers, but that is because few of them can see beyond England. But, with many (most?) rugby experts, Ireland were felt to be the team most likely to win the title this year.

Scotland, however, had different ideas. In a blistering first half they went 14-0 up with two wonderful tries. They then scored a third try, and were 21-5 up before Ireland slotted a penalty to bring the half-time score to 21-8. The second half saw Ireland surge back to go into the lead 22-21. Scotland teams of the last few years would have folded at this point, but this Scotland team showed glimpses in the autumn of having reached a level not seen by any Scotland team since the 1990s. They scored two more penalties and deservedly won a stunning match 27-22.

England v France

It has, of course, become a total cliché that you never know which France will turn up, and this match against England was a perfect example of why that cliché is so true. France came out with all guns blazing, and were by far the better team for most of this match. It was 9-9 at half-time, but England were lucky that France didn’t didn’t go into half-time with a comfortable lead. France then went up 16-12 in the second half, and I believe a more experienced and better composed French team would have closed out the match. But, inexperience combined with some astute substitutions by England saw them score a converted try to snatch the game 19-16. Their unbeaten run under Eddie Jones continues.

Italy v Wales

Wales usually start each run of games poorly, so having Italy as the first match was a bit of relief as they are still the easiest side in the 6 Nations to beat. However, Wales have lost in Italy, twice I think since Italy joined the annual tournament. And, during the first half Wales could not convert their possession and territory into points. I was a little baffled that, so early in the match, we turned down kickable penalties to go for touch with the aim of scoring a try. I think this was a mistake so early in the match, and Italy went into half time with a 7-3 lead, even though Wales had dominated.

The second half was much better for Wales. At 50 minutes Rob Howley replaced both props, and suddenly Wales were in the ascendancy. One of the Italian props was sin-binned for dropping to his knee in a scrum, and Wales ran in two tries during the time that Italy were down to 14 men. With some 5 minutes to go George North ran from his own 22 to score Wales’ third try, and the possibility was on to score a fourth try and win a bonus point. Liam Williams came very close in the dying seconds, but failed to ground the ball so the match ended 33-7. It was a comfortable win, but I would not say that Wales were that impressive. We should have cut loose in the second half as Italy became more and more disorganised.

Next weekend

I will preview next weekend’s matches properly on Friday, but it sees Ireland go to Italy, Scotland go to France, and England come to Wales. For me, the question is whether England’s relatively poor performance against France is a good or a bad thing for Wales. Some times sides come back stronger after a defeat, and I am sure had England lost against France they would be coming down to Cardiff all fired up to make amends for their defeat. As it is, they scraped a win without deserving it and putting in their worst performance under Eddie Jones. Does this mean that they will come down to Cardiff with their confidence dented, or with a feeling that they can win in Cardiff without playing that well?

As for Wales, we won comfortably in Rome but it was a stuttering performance. We looked very good in the last 20 minutes, and were the better team in the first quarter and the third quarter of the match, but during the second quarter Italy were better than us. We failed to convert lots of chances in the first half, but during the second half we did a lot better in this regard. As even Jeremy Guscott, the ex-England centre, said on TV last night, if the best players in Wales’ side play the kind of game which they are capable of playing we should beat England. Unfortunately, they have not shown that kind of consistency of play for over 3 years now. It will be a fascinating encounter.

 

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This weekend, the Australian Open saw both Serena Williams and Roger Federer make tennis history. Serena beat her sister Venus to win her 23 Major title, meaning she has now won more Majors than any women in the Open era. The following day, Federer beat Rafa Nadal to win his 18th Major title, extending his lead over other men in tennis history. Both finals were like a throw-back to 10 years ago, no one would have imagined finals involving the Williams sisters and Federer and Nadal.

Sublime Serena

Anyone who has read my blogposts on tennis knows that I am a huge fan of Serena. However, I found myself hoping that her sister Venus would win on Saturday, a strange position to find myself. It’s not that I didn’t want Serena to win her 23 Major title, I did ver much. But, I also thought that this could be Venus’ last chance at a Major title, she seems much closer to retiring than her younger sister, partly because she battles with an auto-immune disease.

However, the fairytale of Venus winning was not to be; her younger sister overpowered her in two sets to take a well-deserved title and hence become the winner of an incredible 23 Major titles. This takes her clear of Steffi Graf, and so Serena is now the greatest woman tennis player in the Open era. Only Margaret Court has won more Majors, but she won hers during the time when tennis was not open, so one could argue (as I would), that Court was not playing against all of the best women players, some of whom had turned professional.

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Serena Williams won her 23 Major title, moving one clear of Steffi Graf and becoming the woman who has held most Major titles in the Open era. Only Margaret Court has held more, 24, but she won hers before tennis went open.

One of the many remarkable statistics about Serena is this is the 9th Major she has won since turning 30! This compares to Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Majors in total but only 3 after she turned 30. Serena shows no sign of slowing down, if she looks after her body there is no reason why she cannot carry on for another 2 or 3 years. Already, in my opinion, she has shown herself to be the greatest woman tennis player in history; but she would take great pleasure in not only passing Margaret Court’s 24 Majors, but obliterating it by winning 25 or more.

Federer vs Nadal – déjà vu!

After Serena v Venus on Saturday, on Sunday we had another trip down memory lane; a Federer v Nadal final. If you didn’t know it, you would have thought that you had been transported back to 2007! Both Federer and Nadal came into the Australian Open after very little competitive tennis, both having suffered injury riddled seasons in 2016. For Nadal this is nothing new, sadly his injuries have dogged his career in the last 3 to 4 years. But, for Federer to have an injury lay-off is something completely new to him. Ironically, the knee operation which forced his 6-month break from the tour was not sustained playing tennis, but instead by twisting his knee when he slipped in his bathroom running a bath for his children!

But, it looks like the freshness had done both a favour. With Djokovic going out in the second round,  and Murray in the third, the draw opened up for both men to make it to the final. A Federer v Nadal final is something that I am sure neither thought that they would see again in their careers.

It was a cracker of a match. Federer won the first set, Nadal the second. Federer cruised through the third (6-1), but Nadal came back to win the fourth. He even broke Federer in the first set of the fifth, and it looked like the writing was on the wall for Federer. But, at 3-2 down in the fifth, Federer raised his game, broke back to 3-3 and then won the next 3 games to take the final set 6-3.

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Federer beat Nadal in a thrilling 5-set match to win his 18 Major title. He now stands 4 clear of Nadal, and it is his first Major title since winning Wimbledon in July 2012.

Just like Serena, Federer showed once again why he is, arguably, the greatest tennis player the men’s game has ever seen. That is a highly contentious claim, and I would qualify it by saying that we really can’t compare eras. But, for my money, the only player from any era who could claim to be the greatest ever if it’s not Federer would be Rod Laver. Both Federer and Serena are 35; but contrary to Serena, Federer has only won two Majors since turning 30. I think Federer is closer to the end of his career than Serena, but if he manages his body and tournaments wisely I see no reason why he cannot win Wimbledon for a couple more years, he is still the finest natural grass court player around today.

Well done the oldies!!!

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A bit of a hullabaloo has broken out at Chelsea over a potential move by Diego Costa to China. According to reports circulating in the media (see e.g. here), the Chelsea striker has been offered some £30 million a year (about 34 million euros) to go and play for Tianjin Quanjian (no, I’ve never heard of them either). Already, the highest paid footballer in the World, Carlos Tevez, is playing in China. Clearly, China want to attract some of the World’s best football talent by paying them huge sums of money.

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Rumours are circulating that Diego Costa has been offered £30 million a year to move to play in China, leading to his falling out with Chelsea coach Antonio Conte.

Despite whatever problems are going on between Costa and Conti (it sounds like a double-act), Chelsea are still continuing to play sublimely under Conti. They beat Leicester City, the defending champions, 3-0 on Saturday, and are now sitting 7 points clear at the top of the Premier League. Manchester City continue their bad run of form; on Sunday they fell apart and were thrashed 4-0 by Everton. Liverpool and Manchester United both did Chelsea a favour by battling to a 1-1 draw. So, one has to ask, do Chelsea even need Costa to stay? If Conti feels not, he’ll be on his way to China sooner rather than later. 

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