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Seeing red

16 October 2011

After a thoroughly depressing game of rugby on Saturday, Wales are out of the world cup. I’m too despondent to write a coherent blog, so here are some bullet points

– Under a strict letter of the law, the ref has the right to give a red for the Warburton challenge. It does seem to me to be at the less dangerous end of the range, but the ref is entitled to his opinion.

– However, many many similar challenges go unpunished regularly, even in this world cup. We can’t complain too much if one of the top referees in the world sticks to the letter of the law (and recent protocols), but the world cup semi final seems an odd place to start closing the gap between practice and strict law.

– The majority of players (former and current) and “experts” seem to think it shouldn’t have been a red. This shows a worrying disparity between the law and practice that the IRB should address.

– For me, more of a problem than the sending off was the injury to Adam Jones. It put Wales on the back foot for about 40 minutes in a number of scrums, and Paul James gave away two daft penalties (including the one Parra kicked to go 9-3 ahead).

– The Welsh failure to win, despite the injury and the red, came down at the end to poor kicking. We missed six efforts at goal – Halfpenny’s long range pen was forgiveable, but it was poor that Jones and Hook between them didn’t convert one of the other three kicks from the ground (Jones’s failure to kick the conversion was especially unimpressive), and their two drop goal attempts were laughable. The fact that Jones didn’t manufacture another attempt in the last ten was crucial; you can’t expect to win at this stage of the tournament if you can’t game manage a drop goal scenario.

– Wales have had a tournament which exceeded the hopes of their fans, and have something here to build on. Only a small number of the key players will be retiring (thanks for everything Shane), and we should be seriously targeting a four year plan culminating winning the next world cup (along with a few others, including England). A couple of young props may be needed as Gethin and Adam have a lot of miles on the clock now, but they are well stocked in most other areas. The key may well be retaining the existing management team.

– France have a very good lineout and a top notch back row, and Parra is a great kicker.

– They don’t have an awful lot else; yes, they played the percentages well and played the game in front of them, but have looked limited in all of their games to date. I expect them to lose at the weekend (although I’ve said that the last two weeks!)

– New Zealand looked very good in all areas in the second semi. It was also evident how much their players wanted the victory and how much it will mean to the nation if they win the final. They should do now; there don’t look to be many areas in which the Kiwis look vulnerable. Their defence was superb against a series of strong Aussie attacks.

– Australia lost to a better side on the day, but have had a strong world cup. They still lack front row quality (especially in the replacements) and Quade Cooper is flaky, but the young core they have means they will be amongst the contenders in 2015.

– ITV’s coverage is terrible, but at least Phil Vickery has gone home.

Yours in sport


Magnificent sevens

9 October 2011

As the World Cup draws on, the standard of play from loose forwards, and in particular the opensides on show, impresses more and more. In the three of the four quarter finals that I saw (I have to admit that tiredness overcame me during the New Zealand-Argentina matchup), the victory was based on a titanic effort from the winning team’s back row, both in defence and with their own ball. I’m sure we’ll see more of the same next week in the semi-finals, with the young Welsh trio up against some of Europe’s smartest and most experienced operators in the French pack, and in the trans-Tasman contest where the awesome Richie McCaw will come up against one of the next generation, David Pocock, who was a key part of a resolute Aussie performance this morning.

I am delighted to be able to write about Wales going into a world cup semi, but it is well deserved; after solid group performances, they went up a gear against the Irish. Two of the back row trio, Warburton and Lydiate, were to the fore as leaders of the defensive effort as we absorbed a huge amount of Irish pressure; but there were a number of other excellent performances, including huge ball carrying efforts from Jamie Roberts and his centre partner Jonathan Davies, the game of his life from the punchy Huw Bennett and a superb all round effort from Leigh Halfpenny at full back. Ireland were smothered in every department and their own back row titans were neutralised for once. They did have a period of dominance capped by the Earls try to get back to 10-10, but Wales, facing a situation where in the past they would so often have lost their heads, were calm and methodical and regained themselves a platform, which they used to score two more tries and close out a great win. They will face France in the semis, with every chance of progressing.

France came out against England and proved all the cliches are true – you never can write off France and they can pull a brilliant performance (or at least a brilliant half hour) out of the bag at any time. England had no answer to the intensity and pressure France came out with, led by the superb back row of Dusatoir, Harinordoquay and Bonnaire and the direct running of the backs, most notably Medard from full back. England were a shambles, as they have been all world cup, suffering from conservative tactics, erroneous team selection (Stevens is not a loosehead and the selections at inside centre have been laughable for seasons). They did gather themselves in the second half (once some of the good players came on from the bench and some of the useless ones were subbed off), but it was too little too late. They worried the French enough to encourage the Welsh, but France will be on a stratospheric high after their terrible group performances and it could go either way.

The southern hemisphere semi may also be a hard one to call, if only because New Zealand may run out of fly halves. I’ve barely seen the Kiwis in this world cup and they seem to be winning with ease, but the reports suggest they have not looked as awesome as they have for most of the last four years. Australia meanwhile have had a couple of hard games but came through well against South Africa this morning with a backs against the wall effort. South Africa’s backs didn’t seem to be able to ask the right questions of a tight Aussie defence, and in the end Aussie grit old. Australia beat New Zealand last time out (admittedly in Sydney) and will fancy their chances, but I’m still expecting the Kiwis (led by their monsterous back row) to come out on top, to hopefully meet Wales in the final.

Looking further back, I never got around to writing a blog after the group stages; it would have no doubt been a fairly patronising big up to some of the perceived over-achievers (most notably Tonga, but Georgia, Canada and Samoa also provided some great games), a criticism of Scotland’s inability to manage a game or score a try and a whinge about the scheduling of the tournament. While my feelings aren’t as extreme as those of Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, I completely agree with his point; the World Cup (and indeed the IRB as a whole) is run for the benefit of the 5 big teams and 4 or 5 other, and isn’t showing much concern for anyone beyond that. Both the short turnrounds between games and the lack of competitive fixtures shows a level of disregard for the smaller nations.

In the IRB’s defence, there doesn’t seem to be much money to go around, and so for commercial reasons they need to put the top seeds on at weekends. I can also understand why the Kiwis or the Aussies go on autumn tours and sell out huge stadiums in the traditional European powers rather than heading for less lucrative games in Fiji or Tonga, and why England or Wales don’t see much upside in inviting Georgia to town. But the issue will have to be seriously looked at to ensure a decent level of depth in the world game and avoid some of the blowouts that we’ve seen at this world cup (look at the difference between Wales-Fiji 2007 and Wales-Fiji 2011). The much mooted idea of a play off between the Six Nations wooden spoon holder and the winner of the second tier Six Nations deserves more consideration than I can give it here; it could lead to the diminishing of some hugely historic rivalries, but it would give opportunities to second tier European teams that just don’t exist now. Similarly innovative thinking around the globe is needed if future world cups are to be competitive and sustainable.

Yours in sport

Rainbows in the Sky

26 September 2011

What a season Mark Cavendish is having. His Tour de France stage wins and green jersey confirmed him as the best sprinter in road cycling; now, following the narrowest of wins yesterday, he’s added the rainbow jersey of the world champion, a feat not achieved by a British cyclist since Tom Simpson won it in the sixties. He’s been in absolutely dominant form, and will doubtless add a number of wins to his impressive record while wearing the jersey throughout next season. The worlds will probably not be at such a sprint favourable course for a while, so Cavendish has taken the best opportunity he’ll have for a few years. The Olympic road race looms large as a target for next year.

It seems likely Cavendish will be a member of Team Sky when he wears the rainbow next year. That only seems appropriate after a huge effort from the members of Team GB yesterday (at the Worlds, riders race in national teams not sponsored teams, but there’s a huge overlap between Sky and GB). The win was down to two things, a huge team effort to control the race by the British team and then incredible bike handling, nous and explosive speed from Cavendish. His seven team-mates gave their all to ride add the front of the main peleton all day, chasing down breaks and setting the pace while all the while giving Cavendish an armchair ride. Bradley Wiggins in particular put in a huge effort in the last 10kms to chase down a four man break which included Thomas Voeckler and Johnny Hoogerland (both heroes of the Tour in different ways) before peeling off completely exhausted and leaving mighty efforts from Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas to get Cavendish into the last kilometre. Last time Wiggins and Cavendish rode together, it was in the madison on the track at the Beijing Olympics, and a poor effort by Wiggins, knackered from the pursuit events, left Cavendish as the only member of the British cycling team not to win a medal. I think Cavendish will probably have forgiven Wiggins after his efforts yesterday.

The British train did crumble a bit in the last kilometre as the efforts of the previous few hours took effect. It was at this stage that Cavendish’s own unique abilities came into play. Rather than needing to be delivered all the way to the line, he was able to weave through the pack at high speeds and get on the wheel of the Aussie Matt Goss. He then kicked past Goss at just the right time and won the sprint by a wheel-length. Impressive stuff – Sky’s lead out train will likely need to improve to be on a par with that of HTC in the last couple of seasons, but Cavendish has shown an ability to finish his own wins off as well. Looks like a bright future for all concerned.

Yours in sport

RWC 2011 – preview

7 September 2011

It’s the high point in the four year cycle – the rugby world cup starts on Friday with the hosts New Zealand taking on Tonga. Not all the top sides have timed their form perfectly (I’m looking at you Ireland), but it should be a competitive tournament. New Zealand, with skillful backs, a solid pack and the key man Dan Carter at 10, are clearly the best team, having won 39 of their 48 games since the last World Cup (and 19 of 22 at home), but lost to Australia in Sydney last time out. Home advantage could help, but it could add to the stifling pressure that the Kiwi squad will be subjected to. They are massively fancied to win, and are my tips too, but it will be interesting to see how they deal with it if they get into a tight game.

Of the other main contenders, Australia are the most exciting, with a set of young fearless backs led by Quade Cooper at fly half. The older generation has been discarded (Giteau dropped, Elsom no longer captain), and the Aussies will be basing their game on pace, hard competition at the breakdown and an improved pack. This is no longer a unit who can be bullied by the English or South African scrum. A trans-Tasmin final is a predictable prediction, but one that it’s hard to avoid.

South Africa’s build up was somewhat fragmented, as they left their entire team at home for most of the tri-nations. The full team did beat an understrength Kiwi side 18-5 last month, but it’ll be a different game if they meet in the World Cup. South Africa still have a strong pack (keep your eyes on Heinrich Brussouw), but with question marks over the team selection and the staying power of figurehead John Smith, a repeat of the 2007 victory looks unlikeled.

Who knows what we are going to get from France? Lievremont seems to have picked several thousand players in the last few years, with decidedly mixed results (they’ve won in NZ and lost in Italy). I can’t give an outlook for them as I have no idea what their best team is. All round, they have more talent than practically anyone, with a fantastic back row, brutal tight forwards and flair and invention throughout the backs. The questions here are over tactics, selection and mindset, and they really could go either way.

England have turned up to the tournament trying to draw a veil over several gaping holes (lack of playmaking centres and desparately slow use of ruck ball being the most obvious two). Nonetheless, they are on an updward curve over the last year or so after a poor 2010 Six Nations. I don’t think we’ll see the off-the-leash tactics of last autumn’s fluid win over Australia, and the current ascendancy of the likes of Wilkinson, Easter and Tindall suggests we will see a typically English approach. But they have the players to do this – a physical and technically excellent tight five who will perform at the scrum and the lineout, a superb kicking fly half, powerful and direct centres and an exciting back three. Their back row will be taken to the cleaners by certain other sides; but if they can get into an arm wrestle with teams, they will beat many of them, and they probably have the draw they would have chosen (pool with none of the Tri Nations, then likely France and the Aussies in their half of the draw rather than the more powerful Springboks and the dominant Kiwis). Will and self belief will have to make up for some technical flaws, but they will be in the mix once again.

I’m going to draw a line there and say these are the only teams who could win. That isn’t to say there won’t be upsets, or that Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Argentina won’t worry the above. But I don’t see any of those sides as World Cup winners or finalists. To be honest, I can’t see any other than NZ as the winners; maybe they’ll prove us all wrong once again though.

Looking at the pools in turn:

Pool A

New Zealand and France will qualify from this, likely in that order (a French win in the pool game between the two would put a huge cat amongst the pigeons, but I can’t see it). Cliche alert: Tonga will present a massive physical challenge, but both top sides should have too much for them. Canada and Japan will be fourth and fifth in this group.

Pool B

For a while, this looked like a nice three way scrap, but lack of rugby for Argentina (who were horribly rusty and off the pace against Wales) and Scotland’s failure to build on a decent 2010 have left England as the clear front runners here. Both of the others will fancy their chances in dragging England down to their level (having been at Twickenham this year for England v Scotland, I can confirm that was an effective tactic for Scotland that day), but England will kick goals (which Argentina will be more hit and miss on) and eventually take their chances to score tries (which Scotland struggle with) and will likely win the day. Second place could come down to bonus points; I’d take Scotland (just about) to beat Argentina and continue their run of being in every World Cup quarter-final. I don’t know much about Romania and Georgia – they are locked together in the world rankings and had two close qualifiers. Previews suggest that Georgia at least could prove difficult to see off, much as there were last time out when they held Ireland to 14-10.

Pool C

Probably the clearest 1-2-3; I can’t see either or Ireland or Italy upsetting Australia, and I think Ireland (leaving aside their terrible game in Rome this year) will have too much for Italy, with guys like O’Driscoll and O’Connell desparate to make up for past disappointments. Ireland will wish the World Cup had come two years earlier, although the emergence of Sean O’Brien will at least make them glad it didn’t. Italy will see off the USA and Russia with no problems, and I’ll take the US to win the cold war game

Pool D

Messy. The only certainty seems to be that, with South Africa, Wales, Fiji and Samoa to contend with, Namibia won’t win a game. South Africa, rightly, are favourites to win the group, but all 3 of the other sides will throw everything at them, sensing a possible fragility not there in past years. The Springboks should come through it as group winners, but will pay a price in weariness and injuries that other pool winners may not.

There will be a big battle for second, despite (slight) improvements in Welsh performances during the warm-ups. Wales would have perhaps fancied a battered South Africa last; instead, they are up first, and will probably use their superior lineout as a key weapon against the fragile Welsh throw. Wales then move on to the South Sea teams, who have always given them problems at World Cups. Given how little rugby they have played since the last World Cup, it’s very difficult to assess these teams (Fiji have been given 7 games against the top 10 nations in 4 years, all away, and Samoa have had 8). Objectively, the experience and quality in the Welsh squad should see them through, but the combination of physicality and pace is different to that shown by opponents in the Six Nations. The likes of Warburton and Roberts will have to be very prominent for Wales in these battles. Anyone tempted to take either of the opponents lightly should remember that Wales (admittedly not at full strength) drew with Fiji last autumn, at home. And Samoa beat Australia (admittedly, not quite at full strength) in Sydney recently. This will be messy, and any of these three could join the South Africans in the last 8.

That gives a likely QF line up of:

NZ v Scotland or Argentina
England v France
Australia v Wales/Samoa/Fiji
South Africa v Ireland

I’d expect the tri nations to win their games fairly handily (they seem to manage that every autumn). A fired up and on form Ireland could cause trouble to a banged-up South Africa, but having harped on about the Southern Hemisphere for years I’ll stick with the tip. England v France could go either way, it’s the classic cliched English strength and bluntness against French flair and flakiness. Either way, I’ll tip Australia to beat the winner, while New Zealand should have no both with South Africa (or Ireland).

And there you are – trans-Tasman final, with NZ to win at last, as stated above. Seems obvious, right? Let’s hope it’s not as predictable as that – the upsets of the 2007 tournament (Argentina, Fiji, France’s epic win in Cardiff against the Kiwis, England’s improbably quarter-final and semi-final) were the best parts. I’d love to see the South Sea teams and Argentina sow chaos again or the Europeans standing up for themsleves against the might of the Tri-nations. Fingers crossed, it should be a fun month.

Yours in sport

We’re calling it! NFL 2011

5 September 2011

This weekend marks the start of the NFL season – we’re calling it (please note that Happy is the champion of this, after tipping the Packers for last year’s Superbowl, although our predictive powers were not the greatest generally – see

NFC East

Happy: With all the off-season additions, the Eagles will be tough to beat. There’s quality in this division, and will be interested to see how the Cowboys rebound now Romo’s back, but the Eagles look like the business to me.

Grumpy: Eagles, definitely. Just better than the rest.

NFC North

Happy: This is a very tough division. I fear for my beloved Bears – watch out for the Lions who have Ndamokung Suh leading a dominant D-Line. However, the pick has to be the Green Bay Packers to repeat, great D, great passing game.

Grumpy: Might be my soft spot for them, but Packers to repeat. Too soon for the Lions, but will be interesting to see their progress this season.

NFC South

Happy: Falcons, Bucs and Saints all have great offensive weaponry. I like the Saints on the other side of the ball the most, so let’s go with them. It won’t be the Panthers.

Grumpy: I see it as 2 horse not 3 horse race but agree that Saints should prevail, pushed by Atlanta.

NFC West

Happy: Who cares, this divisions sucks. St Louis to be the best of a bad bunch.

Grumpy: I agree it will probably be St Louis but in the interests of having some different from Happy’s predictions, will go for the Cards.

AFC East

Happy: I got burned betting against the Patriots last year – won’t make that mistake again.

Grumpy: Hmmm, think I just about agree, though the Jets will push them hard. Also I have the Patriots to reign supreme so can hardly not go for them here.

AFC North

Happy: Baltimore and Pittsburgh to battle it out. Steelers have more options on offense I think, so them to edge it, but the Ravens won’t be far behind.

Grumpy: Ditto

AFC South

Happy: Once again, I have a quiet feeling about the Texans this year, especially if Peyton really is hurt. Incidentally, how good are the RBs in this division – CJ, MJD and Arian F.

Grumpy: Manning’s situation continues to look questionable, Jaguars Texans.

AFC West

Happy: I’ve been banging on about San Diego for the Superbowl for about three years now. Obviously that hasn’t worked out. But they still have Rivers and Gates, and Vincent Jackson is back. I’ll keep faith in the Chargers, not least because I don’t rate the opposition. Hope they can keep their weighty RB combo away from the pies.

Grumpy: San Diego cake/pie walk.

Wild Cards


Happy: Falcons for one. Toss up between Cowboys, Giants and Lions for the others – Let’s say Cowboys. (I’d love to say Bears but don’t see it)

Grumpy: This is getting a little silly/repetitive, but see the Falcons and Cowboys too. Would love the Lions sneak it.


Happy: Ravens, Jets. Looks like the Colts will miss out.

Grumpy: Still struggling to disagree with Happy, but will go for Jets and Colts.

NFC Champs

Happy: Eagles to beat Green Bay at home in the championship game

Grumpy: Ditto.

AFC Champs

Happy: Patriots to beat the Chargers.

Grumpy: Ditto. Good grief.

Superbowl winners

Happy: Philadelphia

Grumpy: At last some divergence – Patriots.

Rugby world cup 2011 – an excuse for lots of air miles for some very average European players

22 August 2011

Following warm up matches of varying success for different teams, the deadline day has arrived and the squads for the rugby world cup are being announced. England, naturally, are hosting a gala dinner tonight at Twickenham for the announcement, but their squad is fairly set, and most of the others have been announced today (I think the Kiwis and South Africans are announcing first thing tomorrow).

I’ve been looking out mainly for the Wales squad. The three friendlies have confirmed exactly what I expected about Wales, which is (a) they have lots of talented individuals (b) the squad still lacks depth, especially in the backs and (c) we still don’t have much of a lineout. Both England and Argentina used a heftier and more established pack effectively, and at times in all three games Wales looked like they were hanging on a bit. However, the defence was tremendous, helped massively by the fact the squad as a whole is extremely fit (all those spartan trips to Poland seem to have worked). When the pack did win some ball (more so as the games went on), they do have talented backs who can use it. George North is in storming form and looks to have a big future, but the likes of Hook, Priestland and Roberts all showed what they can do with the ball in hand. Shane Williams isn’t as twinkling of toe as he used to be, but still has a key role to play, and the scrum-halves have performed well. Apart from Byrne (shaky at full back and missing lots of kicks), the backs look good.

The tight forwards have been less impressive, especially in the set piece, although to be fair they have been functioning without a Lions test front row. The return of Adam Jones helped a lot on Saturday, but losing two hookers (including the captain Matthew Rees) and having Gethin Jenkins travelling with an injury (looks like he’ll miss at least the South Africa game) makes this a potential Achilles heel. The lineout was also the usual shambles against England, and neither of our apparent first choice options stands out as a top jumper at this level. The plus side in the forwards has been some excellent ball carrying and support running (not least from Ryan Jones and the previously out of sorts AWJ) and the breakdown work of Warburton and Lydiate. Warburton has made the seven shirt his own, and will captain the squad at the world cup aged only 22. He has had an excellent August, and will relish the opportunity to prove himself on a bigger stage.

The eventual squad selection was fairly easy, as with two exceptions the 30 man squad contains the only fit, available and adequate rugby players Wales have (even Andy Powell). The lack of options in some cases is depressing – Byrne travels as the only specialist full back in the squad, for example, and I’m not sure our front row reserves will scare anyone. The two who may feel aggrieved to be left out are Dwayne Peel and Martyn Williams, and I do wonder if Gatland is missing a trick. Peel hasn’t been flavour of the month since he went to Sale, but his vast experience may have been a better option in an emergency that Lloyd Williams (one cap). As for Williams, it’s a sad reflection on his decline over the last 18 months that he couldn’t convince Gatland a sixth back row was needed. Wales travel with Warburton as the only specialist seven, which seems crazy given the tough and physical nature of the group. Lydiate or Ryan Jones could be deployed there at a push, but I can’t help feeling Williams would have been a better option (on and off the pitch) than one of the reserve backs, either Scott Williams or Aled Brew.

Wales will travel in good heart on the back of two hard fought home victories, and the series will have done a lot for the mood in the camp. However, injuries are taking their toll and the level of quality is becoming ever more diluted. I think they have a good enough first fifteen to navigate the pool, but I don’t expect anything more than that. And let’s hope they manage to keep Andy Powell away from any golf buggies.

Of the other European nations, France and Scotland have had the most successful warm-ups; between them, they have recorded 3 wins over Ireland, and Scotland have beaten Italy. The Scottish squad, as usual, is heavy on physicality in the forwards and light on quality in the backs. However, they’ve shown a better record in the last two seasons and will be targeting the Argentina pool game as the key one for them to win (Argentina did not look up to much on Saturday). They will also engage in a tussle of wills with England which I do not expect to be pretty for the spectator; England will likely win 9-6, or something like that.

France, for once, seem to have foregone bonkers squad selection and named a 30 man list that actually includes their best players (although the exclusion of Sylvian Marconnet does show Lievremont can still throw a slight curve ball or two). Any squad containing Dusautoir, Harinordoquay, Clerc, Heymans, Parra, Trinh-Duc and the rest of them will be exciting and hard to bear; France have been tempermental in the last season or so, let’s see if they have been building to something or if it really has been as half cocked as it has at times seemed.

Ireland, meanwhile, are once again going into a world cup in disjointed fashion. The core of their 2009 grand slam squad is still there, but recent form is very patchy and only once this year (the thrashing of England at Lansdowne Road) have they played to their best. They’ve missed a number of key players through injury – they will look a much more dynamic side with Ferris and Bowe back in place – but I do feel this world cup has come a year (or perhaps more) too late for the squad as a whole and for individuals such as O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Gara. They are another whose ambitions are probably most realistically set at the quarter final stage.

England haven’t named their squad yet, but it seems pretty well set; the only decisions seem to be whether to take Riki Flutey or an extra scrum half, and whether the last forward should be a sixth back rower, a fourth lock or a fifth prop. At the minute, Joe Simpson and Simon Shaw (two players at the opposite ends of the experience scale) seem set to win those battles. I’m not sure I agree with either; omitting Flutey (aside from removing the emergency cover at number 10) means you leave out the only creative option at inside centre, and effectively guarantees the unconvincing Shontayne Hape will start every game. Shaw adds a lot of experience, but this isn’t a big problem for England, whereas the injured state of Lewis Moody might be. I know Haskell, Croft and Wood can all move to seven if needed, but taking the specialist Fourie, with Croft and Easter to cover the three main locks, would be my preference.

These two likely selections say everything about how the month has gone for England and their likely tactics down under. The English pack dominated possession and the set piece in both games against Wales, but there was an utter lack of cohesion and incision behind the scrum, despite bright games at Twickenham from Tuilagi and Armitage. Flood did not deliver his form of the spring, and there will be a great temptation for England to stick to what they know – pick a big physical pack, stick Jonny at 10 and play a conservative kicking based game. This will play to the strengths of the likes of Tindall, Hape and Cueto, physical guys who like contact, run straight and defend hard. The more exciting alternative may be to pick a more athletic pack – Lawes instead of Deacon, say, Stevens not Cole, Croft in the back row – and give Toby Flood the role at 10 with instructions to bring his exciting outside backs into the game (and to stop using that inside pass move because everyone has worked it out now). If this is the plan, there may be some slightly more interesting options at centre. My fear is that Johnson will pick some miserable hybrid of the two, and England will lumber through the group unimpressively and eventually implode. The troubling thing for England fans is that they go into the world cup with so many of the key starting positions up for grabs (they have one more game, against Ireland, to try to nail things down). At least Wales and Scotland know their limitations and are working around them.

The Tri Nations has been going on simultaneously with all these European friendlies. New Zealand lost to South Africa at the weekend, but with what was largely a B team, and prior to that had lost only 1 of the last 22. They remain favourites, having beaten Australia and South Africa (or more like South Africa C) heavily in the home legs. They have the tournament decider in Sydney on Saturday, and it’s not clear whether the full strength will return. I suspect it will as the Kiwis will not want to lose bragging rights to Australia so close to the main event. Australia have recovered fairly well from the almighty snafu against Samoa, but the feeling of a vulnerable pack lingers. However, their backline is so strong they can afford to drop Matt Giteau (imagine how much England would give to have him), and will give the Kiwis a close run (especially if any paranoia about pressure starts to kick in on the All Blacks).

I still rate New Zealand the world cup favourites by a fair way from Australia, with South Africa, France and England the other sides capable of making the final (imaginative, eh?). As we get closer, everyone seems to have a weak spot, be it the pack, the backs or the reserves. The Kiwis will hammer us all, of course, but it will be worth watching.

Yours in sport,

We’re calling it: Premier League 2011/12

12 August 2011

As we were so accurate last year (, here are the predictions for the forthcoming Premiership football season (I assume Yanky and Lanky can add some wording about the lower leagues).

1. Top Three (1,2,3)

Happy: For me, there’s a fairly obvious top three – Arsenal and Spurs have (at best) stood still over the summer while Liverpool’s raft of signings look like the sort you make to reclaim fourth rather than push for the title. So it’ll be the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea, but in what order? City probably have the best squad (certainly in attack and midfield), but not that great a defence and lack the collective unity that United showed to great effect last year. United’s summer signings probably haven’t resolved their greatest issue (centre midfield), but are still very strong, especially when compared to English teams rather than Barcelona. Chelsea don’t seem to have worked out their best side yet, and key players are ageing and not being replaced. A lot depends on whether Torres wakes up. I’ll take them for third and a close battle between the other two; for a bit of variety, I’ll go for City, although United won’t lose many as long as Alex Ferguson is running things.

Grumpy: 1) Man Utd, 2) Man City, 3) Chelsea. Community Shield shouldn’t be used as supporting evidence but it simply demonstrated why United will reign over City. Am not sure City will even make 2nd.

Yanky: 1) Man Utd 2) Chelsea 3) Liverpool – I’m not convinced by Man City yet. I think any of the top 5 can beat each other on any given day so it will come down to consistency against the weaker teams. Man Utd are so far ahead of the other teams in terms of a winning mentality that it’s a no-brainer for me. Chelsea still have a pretty solid core so should hang on to 2nd. I fancy Liverpool to have a resurgence – some good signings since the beginning of last season (Carroll, Suarez, Adam, Henderson and Enrique) – and hold off Man City and Arsenal.

2. Golden Boot

Happy: Depends if Tevez stays; he’ll be in the mix if he does. But I’ll tip Van Persie to finally complete an injury free season and win this.

Grumpy: Van Persie? Do me a favour. I reckon ol’ little pea himself will have an excellent season.

Yanky: Suarez – easy.

3. Relegation from Premier League

Happy: I know nothing of the promoted teams, so have randomly selected one of them to go down. Wigan were dire at times last year, so can’t see them staying up again. The same can be said about Blackburn. Wolves will also struggle, but seem to be well run with a decent core of players. Bolton could be drawn in; also keep an eye out for Newcastle if they continue to sell everyone.

Swansea, Wigan, Blackburn

Grumpy: Can’t see Swansea or Norwich staying up. 3rd name in the hat is trickier. QPR could well implode, but can see them doing enough to stay up. Much as I like Martinez insanity, think it will be Swansea, Norwich, Wigan.

Yanky: Swansea, Wolves and Wigan. Norwich are hard to beat at home so should make it.

4. First Manager to lose his job (resign or sacked)

Happy: Ideally Harry Redknapp, in such a way that means he never gets another one. More realistically, I could see QPR losing patience with Warnock if things start badly, but will go for Steve Kean

Grumpy: as it includes resignatino, Warnock must be high up. Between him and Martinez and Mike Ashley being a twat. Like Happy’s suggestion, but think I will go for Martinez.

Yanky: I think Wigan will stuggle from the off and Martinez will get the hook by Halloween.

5. Player of the Year

Happy: I love this to be Luis Suarez. But as I’m bigging up Man City for the league, I’ll say David Silva.

Grumpy: No idea. Now Joey Barton’s out of the picture I’ll go for Suarez. If he’s still young enough for Young Player of the Year then Albrighton for that.

Yanky: It’s going to be Rooney.