Aviva Premiership

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Occasionally I put some thought into these things, but sometimes I just batter out any old crap safe in the knowledge that nobody reads an amateur sports blog hidden away in the darkest nooks and crannies of WordPress anyway. This one definitely falls into the latter category but it’ll definitely be fun to find out how many of these I get right come the end of the season, so here’s my final standings in the 2014/15 Aviva Premiership based entirely on guesswork and with absolutely no impartiality whatsoever (like I said, no one reads this gibberish) –
1. Saracens (they’ve got 2 first XV’s remember)
2. Leicester (too wizened and gnarly not to sneak a home Semi)
3. Northampton (it all depends on Corbisiero’s knee & how they manage it)
4. Harlequins (it all depends on whether they run Evans into the ground early doors)
5. Bath (even with all that money spent, they’ve got some ropey coaches & an iffy 10)
6. Gloucester (there’s only so much Hook, Afoa & Hibbard can do)
7. Exeter (great in the sun, but have you seen a West Country winter????)
8. London Irish (lovely training ground but with no O’Connor, it’s Tom Homer v the rest)
9. Sale (Cipriani is a personal fave but Steve Diamond is insane)
10. Wasps (they still need better depth on the front row)
11. London Welsh (let’s hope they fill out all the paper work this season)
12. Newcastle Falcons (even with Alesana Tuilagi and a rubber pitch)

So who’s gonna make the NFL playoffs?

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My philosophy on life is one with a distinct deterministic bent, so making productions could be seen as counterintuitive; luckily my fatalistic viewpoint is on heavily underpinned on a foundation of hypocrisy so here goes nothing! The only correct answer to the question “who will make the playoffs?” is “your guess is as good as mine”, but I enjoy being wrong so I’m gonna commit myself to picking 6 NFC teams and 6 AFC teams (obviously);
The Seahawks are probably still the strongest team in the NFC, but that doesn’t mean some of the smarter coaches in the league won’t figure them out, I personally expect the Packers to push them all the way in the season opener (I mean who wants to see a healthy Clay Matthews racing Julius Peppers to their Quarterback this season? Not Pete Carroll that’s for sure).
I expect the Saints to run the Seahawks close for the NFC title this time out though, there’s just something about 2 maverick coaches in Rob Ryan & Sean Payton and the steady hand of Drew Brees at Quarterback that make me smile.
There’s not really much between the rest of the NFC challengers and apart from the traditional battle between the Panthers and the Falcons to squeeze into the Playoffs it should be much the same as last year with the 49ers and the Packers both making the post season. It’s tough to call between the Panthers and the Falcons but if (admittedly it’s a BIG if) the Falcons offense can stay healthy they should beat the Panthers mighty defence to the playoffs) but only by the odd win. The final NFC playoff team will obviously be the winner of the NFC East and while that seems to be least competitive division in the conference Chip Kelly’s high octane Eagles are the clear favourites with the bookmakers and they’re never wrong, right?

The AFC is a somewhat different picture and after their representatives in the last Super Bowl receiving a jolly good thrashing at the hands of a merciless Seahawks (who could have been beaten by 3 different NFC) teams it shows just how far behind they’re lagging in terms of conference bragging rights. Predictably the Patriots are my favourites to make the postseason alongside last year’s vanquished Super Bowl challengers the Broncos because Peyton Manning can sleepwalk through a regular season, it’s just January he doesn’t like (and occasionally February).
I think the Steelers could be over the worst of their recent troubles because even though their O line is older than some religions they’ve actually got a running back who can Big Ben a hand with 16 games worth of heavy lifting, LaVeon Bell looked every inch the Steelers running back of old at Wembley last year and while Joe Flacco and his Ravens are recovering from the “coaching” the offence received from Jim Caldwell last season Ben and his offence should be on the same page as Todd Haley.
The Colts are probably going to wind up winning the AFC South although that will mainly because somebody out of those 4 misfit teams HAS to win the division; there could be 2 teams who finish runners up in divisions with better records than the Colts.
For my money the other 2 AFC playoff spots will be filled by teams who made the postseason last year, the Bengals and the Chargers, the Bengals defence should be pretty tricky to score against this season and if the Chargers give Phillip Rivers his head as they did in the 4th quarter against the Broncos last January that Chargers offence will be too much for most defences to stop, the 17 points they scored in the 4th quarter proved that.

The inevitable England v Wales blog



With the weather (forecast to be) set fair, the 2 top teams from last year’s 6 Nations table renew their much overhyped, by the English media at least, rivalry. I can’t remember a day this week when the newspapers haven’t carried an article with one English player quoted as saying something along the lines of “last year’s defeat still hurts”, new boy Jack Nowell said “we know Wales hate us” (as if England’s main goal on the pitch is to win over their detractors and make lifelong friends), whilst I can only remember 2 Welsh players being cited. Adam Jones said something very understated along the lines of “it’s great to play at Twickenham but we’re not scared of it” and the returning Jonathan Davies said he would “embrace the hostile atmosphere”.  Not exactly “are you looking at my missus” in their aggression are they?  It’s obviously difficult to tell if the hype has been ramped up back in the land of my fathers, but given the effort the press put into finding something possibly controversial in Warren Gatland’s press conference I think that it would have been pointed out by some desperate hack had any of the players said anything even slightly contentious.  All they managed to get from Gatland was him questioning why England were favourites when Wales have won on the last 3 games against England, once again hardly rhetoric worthy of a Vladimir Putin speech.

For what it’s worth I think Wales will probably succumb to a reversal of last year’s result where England were “drubbed” as the Daily Star (I know, I thought the Daily Star only did football and wrestling too) put it 30-3.  Maybe it’s just paranoid pessimism getting the better of me but I can’t imagine a team would spend quite so long dwelling on a past result, or even be allowed to let something quite so ancient rankle so much, unless they were using as the ultimate motivational tool.

Now, motivation, just like Scott Johnson, is a funny old thing and speaking as someone who could never tell if he was “up for it” to borrow the vernacular or about to throw up on the pitch until a game had kicked off I can tell you it’s totally unquantifiable.  Sports psychologists on the other hand they love a good (or bad) theory and by far the best example of this is the “inverted U theory” of Yerkes and Dodson which they developed in 1908 (or so say those adorable little rouges at http://pe-arousal.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/inverted-u-theory.html).  Technically Yerkes and Dodson claimed there’s was a theory of “arousal”, but motivation is essentially the same thing (not to mention more family friendly), their theory states that there is a peak level of motivation midway between being totally lacking in motivation (me every week day morning) and being so motivated you completely lose focus and become distracted from your main goal (me every night when I’m trying to sleep).  Dylan Hartley in the 2013 Premiership Final is a prime example of a player who was well passed the optimum level of motivation for a game and proceeded to show how unfocussed he was by berating referee Wayne Barnes until he was sent off in less than 40 minutes.  Under motivation is very difficult to notice, just ask Dimitar Berbatov.  This is a very long and meandering way of asking if all these England players who have been so keen to offer their thoughts on how they still hurt or how much disdain their opponents proffer from across the Severn Bridge have been putting far too much emphasis on what is essentially 1 game of rugby?  Maybe Dylan Hartley and friends would have been better starting off under motivated instead of risking the chance of blowing their top’s before the half time oranges are even out of their netting by working themselves into a frenzy days before they even have to compensate for their coach parking in the wrong car park at Twickers.

The bookmakers have England as favourites, something that Brian Moore seemed to neglect to mention when he tried to pile the pressure on Wales in his newspaper column outlining how Wales need to face up to being favourites.  It is a little strange considering Wales have won 5 of the last 8 meetings and baring in mind England can only call on 3 forwards who made last summer’s Lions squad (and Dylan Hartley missed the entire tour through a ban) and 2 of those in Tom Youngs and Mako Vunipola are only substitutes.  Conversely Wales’ whole Lions front row will start the game on Sunday. 5 of their Lions backs will start too, including the back 3 who could trouble a relatively inexperienced English back 3 and with Mike Phillips and Justin Tipuric on the bench Wales can boast 14 Lions in their match day 23.  Wales’s front row should attain them a certain advantage in the scrums and with the referee from the 3rd Lions Test Romain Poite in charge of proceedings they may even sneak the penalty battle too.  Controversial figure Steve Walsh, who refereed the Millennium Stadium steamrollering last season is also one of the officials on Sunday, so there’s always that excuse for the English to cling to in the event of a 4th consecutive loss.

I still can’t bring myself to disagree with the bookies over the result, the one area where I can’t quite see eye to eye with them is the winning margin.  They have England to win by less than 5 points as their favourite score line but I can only see the victors walking all over their opponents, 18-20 points should be the final winning margin.  England have been telling everybody for what seems like weeks that they have a point to prove, so anything less than an utter domination will make them look rather silly.

Sam Burgess’ Mission Impossible

This might be the wild optimism of a Welsh fan in action but I’m struggling to find enough positives to make me believe that Sam Burgess will be a success at the 2015 Rugby World Cup held in England, which he longs to play in after his experience in last year’s home Rugby League World Cup.  Maybe it’s the anti-capitalist in me hoping that Rugby hasn’t turned into football where buying players is considered the norm ahead spending time and money on developing talented individuals like Sam Hill and Tom Stephenson, both winners of World Cup’s for England at age group level.  Recent history does after all show that even the payers who switch codes rarely go on to become super stars in both codes, only 3 really spring to mind; Sonny Bill Williams, Israel Folau and Jason Robinson.  England have tried to convert a few League players to Union Centre’s, with mixed results, Andy Farrell was hampered by injury, Henry Paul managed just 6 caps for England’s senior side excelling instead at 7’s, Chev Walker played just 6 games of Union, Shontayne Hape received 13 caps but during a particularly successful time for England and Kyle Eastmond is currently occupying the 12 jersey for Bath, which Burgess is due to fill and fill amply next season.  Eastmond has 2 England caps and looks more than promising, but the recent news has cast a fairly hefty shadow over his International prospects.

There’s no doubt he’s a phenomenal athlete there are umpteen YouTube videos to attest to that, he’s just 25, he is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weights over 18 stone, so he’s bigger than Jamie Roberts.  His League upbringing means that he has the ability to offload whilst being tackled by 2 or more players but on the adverse side of that, not many players are going to try and tackle him above the waist and once he’s on the ground his offloading will be largely negated.  Former Bath Centre and cross code International Shontayne Hape called Sam “Great Britain’s Sonny Bill Williams” when Burgess was just 17 years old, now I’m not sure of that’s a positive or a negative, he’s already got an awful lot to live up to and he’s yet to even play Rugby Union.

The negative points are that even England head coach Stuart Lancaster has gone on record saying that Burgess faces a “difficult transition” in order to be ready to represent England in the 2015 Rugby World Cup with under 12 months between his expected arrival in Rugby Union and the first game of the World Cup in Twickenham.   Positionally it will be an interesting move, partly because in League Burgess is a forward and in Union he’s expected to play as an Inside Centre but also because by and large successful cross code players have tended to be outside backs, or at least inside backs in League.  Normally in Union the 12 will lead the defensive line and since most Union defences are coached by former League players I can’t imagine Burgess will have a problem with that, where he may have an issue is standing so far away from the breakdown in the defensive line.  With more players committed to the breakdown area in Union the inside backs aren’t as close to the action as forwards are in League.

One slight concern could be Burgess’ penchant to be over physical in defence, he received a 2 game ban from the NRL for a “squirrel grip tackle”, he has also received separate 1 match bans for other tackles, once in the NRL for a grapple tackle on Canterbury full back Ben Barba and in the World Cup for a high tackle on Sam Thaiday which some commentators would have been punished with an 8 game ban had it been in the NRL.  During his time on Australia Burges has also missed time with injuries, a shoulder injury required surgery and saw him miss a month in 2011 and an ankle injury prematurely ended his 2011 season.

I’m slightly confused as to why England would feel they need another Centre at the moment, they’ve unearthed a gem in Luther Burrell who has scored 2 tries in his 2 starts in Test match rugby and they have Manu Tuilagi to come back from injury who himself has notched up 10 tries in 20 starts.  All the talk has been of a creative influence needed in midfield and unless I’ve seriously misjudged just how much decision making League forwards are involved in Burgess won’t be the new Will Greenwood that the media seem intent on finding.

The last point is the most pernickety by far and not really anything to do with Burgess, more a matter of circumstance, Stuart Lancaster said in an interview he expected Burgess to be aiming for a Lions tour and the 2019 Rugby World Cup.  Burgess’ deal with Bath is only a 3 year contract, which would take him to the Lions tour of New Zealand and a possible showdown with the aforementioned Sonny Bill Williams, but not to the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Winter Olympics and Cold, Cold Hearts

Over 300 people complained about the BBC TV commentary of Team GB’s first Olympic Gold medal on snow.  Yes, you read that right, a British woman (snowboarding legend Jenny Jones no less) makes history and some people find something to complain about.  It’s hard not to judge these people, or at the very least jump to some ill informed stereotype about the type of people who would complain about something being broadcast on a TV channel (presumably the only channel they can receive on their tele-box, otherwise they would have switched to a different one). 

The complainant’s mindset aside, I can only assume they made a special effort to get out of bed at quarter past 9 on Sunday morning just to enjoy a sedate morning’s slopestyle and were appalled by the lack of “decorum” (a word I read in a newspaper report of the complaints). 

Ok so it’s confession time, I am a terrible snowboarder I am just about capable of riding to the bottom of the most simple of green runs without dying, but I am nonetheless a snowboarder, as oppose to a skier, or a moaner.  It’s not that I am per se terrible at athletic pursuits (I’ve played rugby, football, cricket and hockey all pretty averagely but with the odd flash of success) it’s more that riding a snowboard is one of the most unnatural actions one can perform, it’s essentially controlled falling and that’s when your board is contact with the snow!  Frankly anyone who can survive a 635 metre course with a 151 metre change of altitude and that includes 3 jumps and 3 rail sections deserves a medal.  This particular slopestyle course has been criticised by competitors for the size of its jumps and Charles Guildemont the American leader of the snowboarder’s union compared them to “dropping out of the sky”!  The course was altered a week before competition but not before it had claimed the collarbone of Men’s favourite Torstein Horgmo and caused 2 time snowboard halfpipe Gold medallist Shaun White to withdraw, even since the course was changed it has caused casualties as Canadian freeskier Yuki Tsubota was stretchered off the course after taking a hefty fall in the Women’s slopestyle competition today.

All 3 of the BBC’s commentary team on Sunday are elite snowboarders and 2 of them are former British Champions, like bronze medallist Jenny Jones, the 3rd member of the team is Aimee Fuller who happens to be Jones’ best friend, so they’d all be rightly emotional to see a home team competitor finish their run in 1 piece, let alone win a medal.  It’s hard to disagree with the people who didn’t approve of them cheering when Austrian competitor Anna Gasser slipped during her final run, but come on people the fact that the each rider just gets 2 runs instead of the “jam style” competition that is seen at the X-Games means pressure get’s to everyone, if you can’t enjoy Britain’s first medal on snow then maybe you should turn off the TV.

Le Crunch time

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France v England is one of oldest rivals in International rugby, they first played in 1906, so just the 108 years ago then.  This weekend’s game though is more interesting than most though with France needing to bounce back from heir dismal wooden spoon season last year and England trying out some new backs, apropos of nothing Stuart Lancaster went on record saying he’d only give players debuts if he thought they looked ready during the weeks leading up to this game and Anthony Watson looks to have far more stardust in his boots than Nowell or Burrell to me, Lancaster could left looking foolish in 24 hours.  Here’s a quick breakdown of both team’s assets and restrictions

England, the good –

§  That pack, Dylan Hartley is not a man you’d want dating your sister, or driving your car for that matter but against a French front row who will be up for a battle there’s not many tougher cookies than Hartley and with 2 of Saints teammates alongside him England’s forwards should more than stand up to the test.

 

§  Owen Farrell’s goal kicking is right up there with the best in the world and with a pack that will pressurise a French team in their own backyard it will be a valuable asset.

 

§  Jack Nowell and Jonny May, I can’t imagine either are household names in France and with both lining up against players who prefer at 15 they have a chance to make a mark on International rugby.

 

§  Billy Vunipola, if the 7 forwards ahead of him can get him a solid platform he could run rings around his opposite number, the lumbering behemoth Louis Picamoles.

 

The bad –

§  Both Nowell and May have a propensity to get in awkward positions to defend and particularly when it comes to tackling, both can be susceptible to ungainly tackles that lead to yellow cards.

 

§  Nigel Owens is not a referee who likes “encouragement” from the players on the pitch and Danny Care in particular does to love to voice his concerns to officials. Aggravating any ref is never a good idea but particularly not Nigel Owens.

 

§  Will Carling tweeted today that Paris is a great place to make your debut, in relation to Huddersfield born Luther Burrell.  Will Carling can count his lucky stars Mathieu Bastareaud wasn’t playing when he was.  Burrell may be a revelation in the English backline but Bastareaud is even bigger than the 17 stone Burrell, not many will be standing between those 2.

 

§  Joe Marler & Dan Cole will be coming up against 2 of the best scrimmaging props in the world in Nicolas Mas & Thomas Domingo and while both Cole & Marler are more mobile they will have the devil’s own job if they try to drive straight at scrum time.

 

Now for the unpredictable (to say the least) French, the good –

§  Well they’ve picked a backline with plenty of flair, very much in the image of the coach Philippe Saint-Andre Dulin, Huget, Medard and Pilsson could change any game.

 

§  The front row, they have 116 caps between them and they’ll be looking to use that experience in the scrums, they may struggle to keep up with England’s more dynamic props during open play though.

 

§  The back row, more importantly the 2 back row replacements on the bench, if England do try to play an expansive and fast game using their new backs fresh legs in the back row could be vital and England’s only back row cover is number 8 Ben Morgan.

 

§  Wesley Fofana, he’s the top French try scorer in the Top 14 this season with 10, only his ASM teammate Naipolioni Nalaga who plays outside him has scored more.

 

The bad –

§  That backline might tackle like Saint-Andre did in his pomp (not very well).

 

§  Discipline could be a problem, any team whose captain already has 5 yellow cards and a red this season could be slightly “overenthusiastic” at the breakdown.

 

§  The French have recently taken to playing 9’s at 10 and vice versa and Saint Andre has selected Jean Marc Doussain at 9.  Doussain is a great player and one with the rare claim to fame of playing in a Rugby World Cup final just months after playing in a Junior RWC for the French U20 side, but he has been playing at 10 for his club team Toulouse in recent weeks and is even listed on Wikipedia (the online home of inaccuracy) as a “Fly half”, he will probably adapt, but it could be a risk and he may take a while to settle.

 

§  Jules Plisson maybe a great rugby player but he’s not the first choice Fly Half at his club after the big money arrival of Springbok fly half Morne Steyn, incidentally the reason that Doussain has been shuffled around his team is due to big money foreign imports, so dilution of the French talent pool is a serious issue, especially where halfbacks are concerned.

 

§  There’s has appeared to be a serious disconnect between Saint-Andre and his charges ever since he took over from Marc Lievremont (even more than the tradition dissent French players show their boss), either Saint-Andre can’t express his ethos to his players before they take the field, or he’s picking players who incapable of fulfilling his game plan and this is why I can only see England winning this game.

Super Bowl Schmooper Bowl

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If I were to write a blog about the Super Bowl it wouldn’t undoubtedly outline how the Broncos have the best offence and the Seahawks have the best defence and outline how each time Tom Brady & Peyton Manning meet in the playoffs the victor wins the at big show.  But every Bronco and his Seahawk has, or will opine about what an epic clash of top seeds this will be, I however have an alternative offering.

The story of this NFL has been one an almost countless number of injuries and some pretty substandard officiating. The story of the NFC has been of how fortunate the Seahawks have been to lose only 1 veteran player to injury for the season, wide receiver Sidney Rice was placed on IR on October 30th and how opposition offences have played right into their hands and afforded them the opportunity to make 28 interceptions during the regular season, I mean the Seahawks backfield has been dominant but somebody has to throw the ball for it to be intercepted.  Another reoccurring theme, though not just this season, has been Richard Sherman’s ungracious (at best) remarks.  During the 2012 season he bode farewell to Tom Brady as they left the field in Seattle with a rather unsavoury taunt of “You mad bro?” as the cornerback followed Brady off CenturyLink Field.  In last season’s playoffs Sherman taunted Washington Redskins offensive lineman Trent Williams after the Seahawks beat the Redskins 22-14, Williams however chose not to ignore Sherman’s unnecessary goading like Brady did and hit Sherman squarely in the face starting an unsightly fracas.  Now all this maybe just be an oversensitive Brit mistaking good ol’ fashioned American “Trash Talk” as an affront to my old fashioned “airs and graces”, but here’s the kicker; Sherman is 1 of 6 Seahawks who have been found guilty of Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) offences since 2011, 4 of these players are play in the Seahawks much vaunted defensive backfield, Sherman along with fellow cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond and the free safety Winston Guy have all been banned, Browner for a year.  In June 2012 Sherman was even quoted as saying “it seems that way” when asked if the Seahawks had a PED problem, call me old fashioned but if I’d hope a player under such scrutiny and from a team under such a cloud would maintain a shred of humility.

That’s the main reason I’m not a huge Seahawks fan, here’s another Pete Carroll celebrates everything like it’s part of his master plan.  The Seahawks could have lost their previous 4 games, in actual fact they only lost 1 to divisional rivals the Cardinals.  Had Saints wide receiver Marques Colston stepped out of bounds and left the fancy passing stuff to his quarterback Drew Brees the Seahawks wouldn’t have progressed to the NFC Championship game and had the Rams who beat the Chicago Bears 42-21 arrived in Washington state instead of the “bad St Louis Rams” who appeared at CenturyLink Field in week 17 the ‘Hawks wouldn’t have finished top of the NFC West.  Without injuries to 2 of the 49ers most crucial players and some pretty mystifying officiating the 49ers would have been playing in the Super Bowl and not their northerly division rivals.

During the regular season the Broncos outscored the Seahawks by a total of 606 to 417 points and Peyton Manning is surely destined to equal his brother Eli’s number of Super Bowl rings.  But the Seahawks have managed to win games they’ve had no right to win over the last month and a half so I can’t see how they’ll lose this one.  I for one wouldn’t mind seeing Wes Welker “pick” Richard Sherman with the sort of vigour he showed on Aqib Talib though.