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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.

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.

 

Tomorrow (Saturday 4th of February) sees the start of the annual 6 Nations rugby competition. Despite the attempts of the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship to increase its appeal, there are few who would disagree that the 6 Nations is the greatest and most intensely contested tournament in World rugby. The 2017 6 Nations sees England start as both defending champions and favourites, and this despite Ireland’s autumn test series which saw them beat New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Wales, quite deservedly, start as third favourites behind England and Ireland, which is where I would place them too.

England are not only defending champions, but also they won the 2106 6 Nations with a Grand Slam. Very few sides have won back-to-back Grand Slams, so England will be hoping that they can achieve this rare feat. They are also unbeaten since Eddie Jones took over after their disastrous showing in the 2015 World Cup; so each of the other 5 nations will be looking to get that first win under his leadership. England’s opening match is a home one against France. France used to be perennial contenders for the 6 Nations crown, but have fallen badly behind Wales, England and Ireland in the last few years. Few expect them to cause an upset at Twickenham tomorrow.

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The 2017 6 Nations starts tomorrow (Saturday 4th of February). Wales’ first match is an away match to Italy on Sunday, followed the following Saturday (11th) by a home match against England.

Wales start their 6 Nations campaign on Sunday with an away match against Italy. No away match is easy in the 6 Nations anymore, and Wales have lost a few times in Italy. But, of all the away matches to start with, one against Italy is probably the most favourable. We have gone to Italy before and racked up points, and if we manage to do that on Sunday it will be a great start for us. Sadly, we usually start any campaign poorly, so I suspect that we will scrape a win against Italy, but it will not be a convincing one.

Our second match is against England in Cardiff on Saturday 11th of February. It would be a fairytale if we could be the first country to beat England under Eddie Jones’ leadership, and if this match were third of fourth or fifth in the campaign I would fancy our chances. But, I am not sure that we will be firing on all cylinders by the second match, and although I hope that we will win I fear a home defeat could well be on the cards.

Wales are, of course, going into this 6 Nations under the leadership of interim manager Rob Howley, as Warren Gatland is on leave to prepare for the summer’s Lions’ tour to New Zealand. We also won three of our four autumn tests under Howley, something that we had not done since 2004. But, we did not win any one of those three matches in a convincing fashion, and England and Ireland currently look streets ahead of us. But, at this level the margins are very very fine.

The Welsh squad certainly have the talent to be as good or better than England. In my opinion we have better players than England, but we are not functioning at the same level as they are as a team. The question is, can Howley iron out those little problems which were so apparent in the autumn series and see us get back to the level of play we showed under him in the 2013 6 Nations? Remember, that is the season when England came to Cardiff chasing a Grand Slam in the last game of the 6 Nations, and we annihilated them 30-3.

In some 8 days’ time, the game against England will be over and we will know if we are back to anything like that kind of form again.

Here is Wales’ schedule for the 2017 6 Nations. All times are GMT, not the local time (in Rome or Paris, which are one hour ahead of GMT).

  • Sunday 5th February – Italy v Wales (KO 14:00 GMT)
  • Saturday 11th February – Wales v England (KO 16:50 GMT)
  • Saturday 25th February – Scotland v Wales (KO 14:25 GMT)
  • Friday 10th March – Wales v Ireland (KO 20:00 GMT)
  • Saturday 17th March – France v Wales (KO 14:45 GMT)

COME ON WALES!!!! DERE ‘MLAEN CYMRU!!!!

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!!!

At number 1 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “A Day in the Life”. This song is the last track on the band’s seminal album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which is consistently rated the best album of all time by many different experts and lists. See, for example, my own blogpost about Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all time, here.

It may come as a surprise to many of you that this is the song Rolling Stone Magazine have chosen to be the greatest Beatles song of them all. In some ways it surprises me. Although I like this song a lot (I would put it in my top 20 Beatles songs), there are others which I would put above it based on the assumed criteria which Rolling Stone Magazine have used to rate Beatles songs, which seem to me to be

  1. impact
  2. inventiveness and/or originality and
  3. just a great song

Based on these assumed three criteria, I would say that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is clearly the song which had the biggest impact on the music world and on The Beatles, because it was their break-through song in the United States. No other song by The Beatles had such a profound effect on the course of popular music, or on the band’s own destiny.

In terms of inventiveness, I would say that, for example, “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” are more inventive songs than “A Day in the Life”. Yes, “A Day in the Life” is an inventive song, but there isn’t really anything in it that The Beatles had not already done in terms of studio techniques.

It is, definitely, a great song. No arguing with that, in my opinion. And it is one, if not the, last example of a collaboration between Lennon and McCartney. In fact, it is two unfinished songs stitched together. Lennon had composed a song based on some newspaper stories, real-life events and his recent experience of acting in the movie “How I Won the War”, but it didn’t have a middle-eight or chorus. McCartney had started on a very different type of song, a whimsical ditty based on his memories of going to school on the top deck of the bus. The band decided to put the two very different songs together, to create a masterpiece.

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At number 1 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “A Day in the Life”

Here are the lyrics of “A Day in the Life”. There has been much speculation as to who the man was who blew his mind out in a car. Most experts seem to agree that it was socialite Tara Browne, who died at the tender age of 21 when he drove his Lotus Élan into the back of a parked van. The “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” comes from a newspaper story which Lennon read about potholes in the roads in Lancashire. The line “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall” is just pure genius.

I read the news today, oh boy
About a lucky man who made the grade
And though the news was rather sad
Well, I just had to laugh
I saw the photograph

He blew his mind out in a car;
He didn’t notice that the lights had changed
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords

I saw a film today, oh boy;
The English army had just won the war
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book

I’d love to turn you on

Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up, I noticed I was late

Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream

Ah I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

I’d love to turn you on

Added to the lyrics which Lennon wrote is the beautifully haunting sound of his voice. With a little bit of echo, it floats in space. No one has a voice like John Lennon, it has a magical quality to it which is there in spades in this song. An ethereal, haunting quality to it. With lyrics like “I’d love to turn you on” and “…had a smoke….and went into a dream”, the song was banned from many radio stations for supposed references to drugs and getting high. Both Lennon and McCartney have denied that their lyrics had anything to do with drugs, and not long after this song they became fairly open about their drug taking, so had no reason to lie.

Thankfully, this hauntingly beautiful song is available on The Beatles’ official Vevo channel, so here is a link to it which will presumably not be removed. Enjoy!!

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. 

A number of people have been asking me over the last two or three weeks what the (very) bright object is in the evening sky. It is Venus, the brightest of all the planets. If you look towards the west (the same part of the sky as where the Sun has set) on any clear(ish) evening over the next two months, within a few hours of sunset, you should easily be able to see Venus.

Here is a diagram showing the evening sky for this evening (12 January 2017) as seen from Cardiff, and I have set it up to show the sky at 6pm. In Cardiff today the Sun sets at 16:29. Venus will not set until 20:51, nearly 3.5 hours after the Sun has set. This is why it is visible for such a long time after sunset.

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The western sky at 6pm as seen from Cardiff. Today the Sun will set in Cardiff at 4:29pm, with Venus not setting until 8:51pm. This is nearly 3.5 hours after sunset, and today is the day of maximum eastern elongation.

In fact, today (12 January) is the day when the time between the Sun setting and the time at which Venus sets is at its greatest. That is why I chose today to blog about Venus. This is called maximum eastern elongation, and it is shown in the diagram below.

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When the angle between a line from Earth to Venus and Venus to the Sun is a right angle, we have maximum elongation. As Venus is currently to the East of the Sun (rising after and setting after the Sun), it is today at maximum eastern elongation.

Venus will dominate the evening sky for another 6 weeks or so, although it will start setting closer and closer to the time of sunset now that we have passed maximum eastern elongation. It will swing in front of the Sun (something called inferior conjunction) on 25 March, so will be lost in the glow of the Sun for a few weeks before that. A few weeks after inferior conjunction, it will reappear as a morning object, becoming increasingly visible before sunrise as opposed to after sunset.

So, enjoy the wonderful sight of Venus in the evening sky over the next 6 weeks or so. And, if you can get hold of a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you will see that Venus exhibits phases. Currently it is a quarter phase (half of it is illuminated), but as it approaches inferior conjunction it will become more and more crescent, but also appear to get larger in your viewing device (this cannot be seen with the naked eye). It was observations like these which enabled Galileo to show in 1610/1611 that Venus could not be orbiting the Earth, but that both Earth and Venus must be orbiting the Sun.