Teamwork makes the Dreamwork

Barring a massive shock, Chris Froome will today win his 3rd Tour de France. His lead of 4 minutes 5 seconds over Romain Bardet all but guarantees his place as only the 8th rider to have won the event 3+ times. Cycling has been an area of strength for Great Britain at the Olympics for a while now, and this is beginning to show in the Tour as well, with 4 of the last 5 Tours having now been won by Brits (3 for Froome, 1 for Bradley Wiggins).

What must also be noticed is that all 4 of these wins belong to Team Sky, who have certainly become a dominant name in road cycling in recent years. As great as Chris Froome is, much of the credit must also go to his supporting cast. Cycling may seem at first glance to be a very individual sport, but the team is arguably as important in this as in football or rugby.

 

In recent years, the quality of Team Sky’s domestiques has given their team leader every chance of winning the Tour. You just need to look at what some of these riders have done since leaving the team:

Richie Porte was a key figure in Wiggins’ Tour win and both of Froome’s previous victories; having moved to BMC Racing Team ahead of this season, he has established himself as team leader and finds himself in 5th place in the General classification, despite losing time to a punctured tyre in the 1st week and also being caught up in the crash on Mont Ventoux.

Mark Cavendish was a support rider in the 2012 Tour win for Bradley Wiggins, whilst also managing to win a number of sprint stages. A prolific sprinter now at Team Dimension Data, he is currently 2nd in the all-time list of Tour de France stage wins and has every chance of breaking the record moving forward.

As if having Cavendish and Porte supporting wasn’t good enough, Wiggins also had Chris Froome himself as a super-domestique in the 2012 Tour. Apparently helping his team leader win the Tour wasn’t enough for Froome as he finished 2nd in the General Classification before going on to become team leader and Tour winner himself the next year.

 

The role of a domestique is a selfless one, as we saw in Stage 19 of this year’s Tour. Geraint Thomas, gold medallist in the Road race of the 2014 Commonwealth Games and set to equal his best finish in the Tour de France of 15th in the GC, sacrificed his bike and his race (he lost 6 minutes) when Froome fell on a descent and damaged his bike. Wout Poels then did a great job to lead Froome up the final climb, resulting in him finishing 9th in the stage and actually increasing his lead in the General classification. It was also picked up during this climb that Poels was constantly looking back to ensure that Froome was still with him and benefiting from his actions. This is a team of 8 riders doing whatever is required to make ensure their leader wins with as little drama as possible. It has been mentioned on numerous occasions that there have not been many real attacks from competitors this year, but you just have to look at how Team Sky have raced, setting a hard pace that they are able to raise as soon as someone makes a move in order to draw them back in before they could cause any danger to Froome’s GC hopes.

 

When Chris Froome crosses the finish line in Paris this evening, it is likely that he will have all his teammates around him. Though he will be the one wearing the yellow jersey, this is a win for the whole team and for a fantastic team mentality. Congratulations to them all!

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7 to watch in Premiership Rugby

A few days ago, I found myself reading an article on the #Rugbyunited website listing the signings that each Premiership club has made ahead of the 2016/17 season. I found myself getting very excited by this for 2 main reasons: 1) It means we’re getting closer to the start of the new season. 2) There is some real quality joining the Premiership this season!

With this in mind, I thought it time to do my 1st article looking ahead to the new season, focusing on the new arrivals that I am most looking forward to seeing this season. I am not limiting myself to players new to the league, but instead looking at anyone who has moved teams over the summer as they are in a new environment. I have also decided to limit myself to no more than 1 player per team, otherwise I’d be here forever looking at the players some teams have brought in.

Taulupe Faletau – Newport Gwent Dragons to Bath Rugby

What a difference a year can make. 12 month ago Bath were runners-up in the Premiership final and were packed with options in the back row. Carl Fearns left that summer as he found himself behind Sam Burgess in the pecking order, but then Burgess also chose to leave after the World Cup. Bath endured a torrid season, finishing 9th, which spelled the end for head coach Mike Ford. As if that wasn’t enough, they have lost Alafoti Fa’osiliva and Leroy Houston this summer, and also said goodbye to Amanaki Mafi after a brief but controversial spell. David Denton, signed to replace Sam Burgess, was limited due to injury but when on form can be a top player. The good news for Bath fans is that they have signed arguably one of the best number 8s in the world for this season. A very reliable tackler whose ability on the ball frequently shines through for Wales, it will be great to see such a quality player in the Premiership. With strength, flair and guile aplenty, the likely back row of Denton/Garvey, Faletau and Francois Louw will be exciting to watch as Bath look to rebuild this season.

Matt Toomua – Brumbies to Leicester Tigers

As easy as it would have been to go for JP Pietersen here, I have chosen to go for Toomua due to the Tigers’ recent struggles in the midfield. Manu Tuilagi has had more than his share of injury troubles in recent years and experienced internationals Jean de Villiers and Seremaia Bai have both left this summer. Anthony Allen was also forced to retire last summer due to injury. There have been a number of times over the last few seasons where players have had to play at centre even though it is not their preferred position, such as Owen Williams, Vereniki Goneva (who has now also left Tigers) and, most recently, Peter Betham. As well as being a strong runner (handy if Tuilagi isn’t available) he is also a very skilled playmaker, reducing the pressure on the fly-half and opening up a number of tactical options. Even with supposedly weaker squads, Tigers always seem to find a way to make the playoffs. This could be the strongest squad they’ve had for years.

Vereniki Goneva – Leicester Tigers to Newcastle Falcons

Newcastle have lost a lot of experience this summer: Andy Goode, Kane Thompson, Todd Clever and the Tuliagi brothers have all either retired or been released, whilst Josh Furno, a top-quality lock when on form, has moved to Zebre. The majority of players signed for this season are from lower leagues or the Sevens circuit, a very risky move for a team likely to be fighting towards the foot of the table. Dean Richards will be hoping that the signing of Vereniki Goneva pays off as it could be the difference between Premiership and Championship rugby in the 2017/18 season. A regular try scorer at both club and international level, Goneva’s years of Premiership experience will give him every chance of succeeding, assuming that his teammates are able to play to a similar level.

Louis Picamoles – Toulouse to Northampton Saints

Northampton missed Samu Manoa last season. Finishing 5 points behind 4th placed Leicester, a number of their losses were by small margins (7 losing bonus points), as were a number of their wins. A player with real physicality could easily tip the balance of a close match in your favour. Louis Picamoles definitely has that physicality. A star in the World Cup, it was clear how much the French missed his powerful running during the most recent 6 Nations. Teimana Harrison is young and likely to only get better, with Picamoles joining him in that Saints back row, their backs will be expecting a lot of ball on the front foot. However he has shown on a number of occasions that he may have a darker side to himself on the pitch, so Saints will be hoping that doesn’t show itself at a crucial time.

Sean Maitland – London Irish to Saracens

I’m sure most people who look at Sarries’ new signings will be paying close attention to Schalk Burger (with good reason), so I have decided to go down a different route and pick Sean Maitland. He’s had a number of ups and downs over recent years, including an injury midway through this year’s 6 Nations, but it must be remembered that he was a member of the British and Irish Lions 2013 Tour. Having grown up in New Zealand and played in Super Rugby for a number of years with the Crusaders, he is clearly a talented player and this move to Saracens could be just what he needs to reach his full potential. With the quality of squad at Saracens, he will have to work hard to earn his place in the team, but the quality of the players inside him, combined with their effective game plan, will give him every chance to thrive as they look to defend their Premiership and European double – something I think they are perfectly capable of doing this season.

Danny Cipriani – Sale Sharks to Wasps

A lot has changed since Danny Cipriani left the then-London Wasps in 2010. Cipriani has played Super Rugby for Melbourne Rebels, picked a fight with a bus and got himself back on the England radar with his performances for Sale in recent years. Not to be undone, Wasps have dropped the ‘London’ and moved to Coventry whilst making a number of high-profile, big money signings over the last few seasons. Jimmy Gopperth is a reliable fly-half, but I think that Cipriani has the ability to take this team to the next level. At the same time, playing in a team that should be fighting at the very top of the table should help Cipriani’s hopes of getting called up by Eddie Jones for the 6 Nations, especially if George Ford struggles at Bath. If nothing else, Wasps should be exciting to watch this season.

Josh Charnley – Wigan Warriors to Sale Sharks

Players who switch codes from league to union generally fall into one of two categories: Boom or Bust. From what I have seen of Josh Charnley, I fully expect him to fall into the former. This guy is a prolific finisher, averaging roughly 1 try per game in just over 150 games for both club and country. A code switch is never going to be easy, but from what I’ve heard, Sale are planning to play him on the wing, giving him the best possible chance to succeed. In 2000, an English winger moved from a starring role at Wigan to take a chance at union with Sale – Jason Robinson. He is arguably the most successful English code-switchers of the modern era. As if this didn’t already sound similar enough, they’re even switching codes at pretty much the same age! I’m not saying that Charnley will reach the same heights as Jason Robinson, but I certainly feel that he has the ability to become a star for Sale and possibly even the national team.

 

There are so many other players that I could have included on here, but I think this is long enough as it is! I would love to hear which new arrivals you’re most looking forward to seeing this year, both for your own team and as a fan in general.

Final thoughts on Euro 2016

Before the semi-finals of Euro 2016, I did an article about my thoughts on the tournament up to that point. Now that the tournament is over, I wanted to quickly revisit this by adding a few more thoughts. some of these may be an expansion on my original 6 thoughts, but some will be entirely new.

Deserving Champions?

First of all, congratulations to Portugal on winning the European Championship. They may not have been playing pretty football (more on that below) but hey have now done something that the golden generation of Pauleta, Luis Figo and Rui Costa never managed, winning the country’s first ever major international tournament. What makes this even more impressive is that they have done so by beating the host nation, who were clear favourites, having lost their star player – and captain no less – within the first half hour.

That said, many people have questioned whether they deserved to be in the final in the first place. Throughout the tournament, they only won a single game within 90 minutes (the semi-final against Wales) and finished their group with 3 draws, qualifying 3rd behind Hungary and Iceland.

I made it clear in my last article that I didn’t agree with the way the tournament was set up to allow many of the 3rd placed teams to qualify as it didn’t encourage positive play and going for the win. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say Portugal don’t deserve to be champions – by the rules of the tournament they did what was necessary and won fair and square – I hope that this encourages UEFA to review the format ahead of Euro 2020.

Be positive

This may be a historic tournament for a number of teams (1st appearance in a major tournament for a number of teams, 1st major tournament victory for Portugal) but for many, it’s not a tournament that will live long in the memory. Over the course of 51 matches, there were just 108 goals (2.12 per match). Euro 2012 averaged 2.45 per match (76 from 31 games), Euro 2008 managed 2.48 per match (77 from 31) and even Euro 2004 – when defensively minded Greece won the tournament – managed 77 goals from 31 matches. 22 matches were goalless at halfway and not many of those were particularly thrilling.

20 goals (18.5%) were scored from the 85th minute onward, clearly the teams were capable of playing attractive attacking football, but it seems that many of them chose to sit back and defend. Portugal’s solid, defensive approach is certainly impressive (they are unbeaten in 14 competitive games under Fernando Santos), but it won’t be winning them many fans.

I am firmly of the opinion that this was due to the ability of teams to qualify for the knockouts by being one of the best 3rd place finishers. 3 points gave a good chance of qualification, 4 points (1 win and 1 draw) guaranteed it. Hopefully if this is changed going forward, we will see more goals and much more exciting games in the next tournament.

Stop the hating

Now, unfortunately, it’s time for a little rant.

As much as I agree with having the right to voice your opinion, I did get sick of seeing all the hate going round online during the tournament. I understand that Cristiano Ronaldo is not the most popular of players, but the levels of hate I saw towards him, even after his injury, was ridiculous!

And it wasn’t even all directed at certain teams and players, but even the sport as a whole. I consider myself first and foremost a rugby union fan, but I do love a number of other sports and will willingly watch – and enjoy – even more sports. Though I still try to watch on a regular basis, I will admit that I have been somewhat put off of football in recent years due to the ridiculous wages and the actions of the players on the pitch, such as simulation and attempting to influence the referee (thankfully there has been very little of this in this tournament). However I still don’t feel that there is any need for all the “my sport is amazing, your sport is ****” posts that have been going around during the tournament. Everybody loves a bit of inter-sport banter, but a number of people took this too far. As a fan, you are representing your sport as much, if not more, than the players. I’m sorry to say that I’ve seen a fair few rugby fans moaning about everyone talking about football and it being all over the TV. I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate football fans acting like that when the 6 Nations or the Rugby World Cup comes around.

Treat others how you would want to be treated. If you’re not interested in the tournament, then just change the channel, it’s as simple as that!

Rant over.

 

So what are your thoughts? Do you think I’ve missed anything, or do you think the complete opposite? Let me know, I love to hear other people’s opinions!

6 Thoughts on Euro 2016

After France’s victory last night over everybody’s new second team, Iceland, we are down to the final 4 teams in Euro 2016. Portugal take on Wales tomorrow night for a chance to take on either Germany or the French for a place in Sunday night’s final.

With that in mind, I decided it was time to have a look back at this year’s tournament and give my thoughts on what has, on the whole, been a good tournament. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I have not been watching religiously this year. A number of matches were missed due to work and other commitments, and I’ve fallen asleep on the sofa during a fair few of the later kickoffs (unfortunately not the England v Iceland game). So don’t consider this a comprehensive review of the tournament, rather the ramblings of a casual observer.

Fan Power

As with all big tournaments, the actions of the fans go a long way to determining how successful the event will be. In the early days of this tournament, it looked like Euro 2016 would be remembered more for the antics of hooligans from a number of countries than for the actual football. In total, 8 of the 24 countries involved in this year’s tournament were charged by UEFA due to the behaviour of their fans, which included throwing flares and other objects onto the pitch and also violence, most notably from the Russian and English ‘fans’. In my opinion, the idiots involved in these events were likely not fans on the whole, as I can see no reason why anyone would want to tarnish the image of a sport they love. Attending a tournament like this can be a once in a lifetime opportunity for many people, and I feel sorry for anyone who had their experience ruined by the antics of these hooligans.

Thankfully, as the tournament has progressed, the behaviour of the fans has improved and we have seen much more positivity in the media surrounding the fans’ performance. The fans of a number of countries, such as the Irish, have also come in from praise for both the atmosphere they helped create at matches and their general performances in public. As a rugby fan, the performance of the fans is something that I am very proud of in my sport, so I hope this will be the last time we hereof crowd trouble in football.

Even more years of hurt

Being a fan of the England national football team is a hard and often thankless job. Every 2 years we have to build ourselves up from a tournament disappointment, have a strong qualifying campaign and friendly performances build up our hopes to a point where we think “This could be our year”… then watch a series of poor performances culminating in an early exit even more demoralising than the one before. I saw a tweet last night that Iceland could concede 5 or 6 goals against France and still come out with more pride than England did in this tournament, and I think it would be a struggle to find someone who would disagree with the sentiment.

The Premier League is arguably one of the best leagues in the world, if only the same could be said about the national team. The team is made up of a bunch of overpaid and over-hyped players who believe they deserve the win purely because they are England. Unfortunately nowhere near enough of them show enough pride in the shirt they are wearing. As good as Iceland were, not a single player or coach in the England team came out looking good.

Their shortcomings were heightened when you compare with the achievements of the Welsh in this same tournament. Wales arguably have fewer players at ‘top’ teams and playing regularly in top competitions, however they came in with a clear game-plan and a fairly settled starting XI and have actually looked like a team. As a result, they are pushing for a place in the final, whereas the England players are back at home with their Ferraris and diamond-encrusted bathrooms.

Bigger is better

This year’s tournament saw an expansion in the number of teams qualifying for the finals from 16 to 24. This has been a massive success! A number of these teams have come out and taken their chance to entertain at a major tournament, and as a result have been involved in some of the best matches over the last few months.

Hungary had already guaranteed themselves a place in the knockout stages by the time they faced Portugal, but still chose to push for the win, resulting in an exciting 3-3 draw and what was surely an emotional roller coaster for Portuguese fans. And just when they thought they could celebrate, Iceland got a late winner to push them down to 3rd in the group.

By contrast, a number of ‘better’ teams have struggled throughout the tournament. France’s campaign could have been very different had it not been for a couple of very late goals in group games, whilst Portugal and Croatia took over 100 minutes to register a shot on target in their last 16 match (or so I heard, I was soon snoring on the sofa).

Probably the 2 biggest success stories have been those of tournament debutantes Iceland and Wales. Both have shown that pride in the jersey and a willingness to play as a team can take you a long way in a tournament. Unfortunately Iceland came up against a French team in fine form in their quarter-final, but the Welsh will certainly feel that they have a every chance of beating Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal tomorrow night, and good luck to them!

Where’s the incentive?

As great as it has been seeing an expanded tournament, I think it would be a good idea for organisers to look at how the groups are arranged and how teams qualify for the knockouts. In this tournament, the top 2 teams in this group qualified, and then the top 4 of the 6 third placed finishers also qualified. Now I personally had 2 problems with this qualifying format:

My first problem is that by letting 3 out of 4 teams in a group have a chance of qualifying, it meant that 3 draws would likely be enough to see a team through, as was the case with Portugal. These major tournaments should be encouraging positive play to the point that even 4 or 5 points may not be enough to guarantee a place in the knockouts.

My other issue with this format is that this then means teams are not just competing with the other 3 teams in their group, but also with teams in other groups. As is the nature of these tournaments, as much as the organisers try to balance the groups, there will always be some groups that are stronger than others. The Republic of Ireland qualified 3rd from a group containing Italy, Belgium and Sweden. By contrast, Group A was made up of Hungary, Iceland, Portugal and Austria. With all due respect to those teams, that seems like a group which the Irish could have comfortably qualified from, possibly even won.

I don’t have the answer on how to improve this moving forward, but i think someone needs to have a look at the options available to see if this can be improved moving forwards.

Giving yellow card suspensions the red card

It’s generally accepted that totting up 2 yellow cards in a tournament will lead to a 1-match ban, I have no problem with that. My issue here comes from the fact that, unlike most major tournaments, the slate is not wiped clean after the group stages, but instead after the quarter-finals. As a result, we are seeing a number of influential players missing the chance to appear in a semi-final, an opportunity they may never get again. Wales will be without Ben Davies and star midfielder Aaron Ramsey against Portugal, who will themselves be missing William Carvalho. In the other semi, the Germans must take on a dangerous French attack without Mats Hummels. Going into the quarter-finals, there were as many as 45 players one booking away from missing a possible semi-final, so it could be seen as a surprise that only 4 players fell foul of the 2nd yellow at this stage in the competition.

I can see the logic here, to wipe the slate when they do means that it would require a red card in the semis for a player to miss the final. However I feel that it would be a better option to make it 3 yellows before a suspension and wipe the slate before the semis, or to go back to wiping the slate clean after the group stages. In an age where referees are only to happy to brandish the yellow, it is far too easy to accumulate 2 yellows over 5 matches, especially when there is the possibility of 2 of those games going to extra time.

As I stated earlier, it’s the fans who make the tournament a success, unfortunately they have paid significant money to watch the best players in Europe, which they are now being denied. To me, that’s just not right.

 

So what next?

So there are my thoughts on what has come so far in the tournament. Now it’s time for the all-important predictions for the rest of the tournament:

Portugal 2-1 Wales       As much as I want Wales to win, I think that the loss of Davies and especially Ramsey will be the deciding factor here. Wouldn’t be surprised to see another Bale free kick find the back of the net.

Germany 0-1 France       France look like they may have clicked going forward, whereas the Germans have struggled to reach the level we expect of them. Hummels’ suspension, as well as injuries to Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez, will give the French an advantage in front of their home supporters.

Portugal 0-2 France       Portugal ave benefited from being on the weaker side of the knockouts and I expect this to show when they come up against better opposition. Spurred on by their home fans, this game should be easier for France than their semi final.

 

 

The Evolution of Rugby: A look at the new law changes

As the Summer Tours come to an end and Premiership players begin preseason training, it’s a time of change. Promotion, relegation, players leaving, new arrivals and coaching changes will mean all teams are coming together with some degree of uncertainty as to what the coming season will hold. To add to this, players and coaches must now adapt to a number of law changes made by World Rugby.

A number of these new laws have already been used in the southern hemisphere since the turn of the year, but 7 of these changes officially came into effect on July 1st, with another law change relating to the maul starting a month earlier but not being counted during the internationals.

Below is a quick recap of July’s law changes, and my thoughts on each of the changes:

  • The replacement of a player injured following foul play does not count as one of the allotted number of replacements available to that team. Hopefully this rule won’t need to be used often, but it is a very sensible one. After an act of foul play the victims should be at an advantage. A penalty allows a chance of points/territory and if the foul play was severe enough, there should then be a numerical advantage. However under the old law, if all substitutions had already been made then the team that had been fouled would have been disadvantaged themselves by having to play a man down. Let’s just hope this doesn’t lead to any late substitutions of supposedly injured players in the dying minutes, we don’t need another Bloodgate.
  • Advantage may be played following a scrum collapse, if there is no risk to player safety. Yes! Yes! Yes! As someone who used to play in the front row, I should love watching a good scrum. I don’t. Too often teams look to get scrum dominance in order to win a penalty rather than to put the backs on the front foot. There have been too many reset scrums, which slow the game down and bore even the most die-hard fans. If the ball can come out, let it come and play on. If nothing comes of it, you still have the penalty advantage .
  • Play acting or “simulation” is specifically outlawed in the game in a move that formalizes resistance to a practice that has been creeping into the game in recent years. Any player who dives or feigns injury in an effort to influence the match officials will be liable for sanction. Possibly my favourite of the law changes. Rugby is a sport that prides itself on respect and honesty. Football has become a joke in recent years with the amount of simulation, so it’s good to see it being stamped out in rugby before it becomes more widespread. Diving or feigning injury is blatant CHEATING, there is no other word for it and no way to defend it. It’s just a shame that this law has had to be included and that players could not be honest in the first place.
  • Teams must be ready to form a scrum within 30 seconds of the scrum being awarded, unless the referee stops the clock for an injury or another stoppage. Thank goodness for this. Too much game-time is already wasted preparing for a scrum that will likely never even be completed without the ref blowing their whistle. The quicker we can get the scrum started, the quicker we can get the ball back in open play. Be that as it may, I’m sure I’ll be cursing this law next time I’m having to rush to get to a scrum and realising how unfit I am!
  • At a re-set scrum following a 90-degree wheel, the ball is thrown in by the team that previously threw it in rather than the team not in possession. It shows how much of an issue the scrum is in the modern game that 5 of July’s 7 law changes are related to this one aspect of the game.As mentioned above, we just want the ball to get in and out of the scrum as quickly as possible, so anything to deter practices like crabbing and encourage a team to scrummage straight can only be a good thing.
  • The scrum-half of the team not in possession at a scrum may not move into the space between the flanker and number eight. I’m interested to see how the game changes as a result of this law change. Too often we’ve seen a number eight being tackled by the opposition scrum-half the moment he even puts even a finger on the ball. This should help encourage positive rugby following a scrum as it allows the number eight a chance to pick up cleanly and get some momentum before being tackled, improving the chances of the attacking team getting front foot ball. It also means that there is more importance on the defensive flankers quickly breaking off the scrum to tackle the number eight, otherwise we’re going to see a number of half-backs becoming human speed-bumps this season.
  • When the ball has been at the number eight’s feet in a stationary scrum for 3-5 seconds, the referee will call “use it” and the attacking team must use the ball immediately. Nothing much more to say here than what I’ve already said on some of the earlier law changes. This is all about encouraging positive rugby rather than looking for the penalty. Now they just need to convince hookers to hook and ensure scrum-halves feed the ball straight and we may be able to enjoy the scrums again.

As of June, there was also an amendment to the laws governing the maul:

  • Upon the formation of a maul, the player in possession of the ball cannot ‘swim’ to the back of the engagement. Instead, the ball must be transferred ‘hand to hand’ to the back of the maul by the ripper, who must remain in contact with the initial receiver at all times. In recent years, the maul has been such a potent attacking weapon, once going it’s been all but impossible to stop legally. This law change should cause the attacking team to take more care getting the ball to the back and ensure players remain properly bound. Now if only the officials ensure that players entering the maul come in through the back, I’m sick of seeing the hooker throw in at the line-out and get away with blatantly entering the maul right near the front of their team.

 

As always, these are my personal views. I’m sure I don’t speak for all rugby fans, so would love to hear your opinions. What do you think of the new law changes? Is there anything else you would change? I’d love to hear your views.