Thursday, 29 September 2011

Carlos Tevez: The case for his defence

Carlos Tevez. Disgraceful. Ridiculous. Disgusting. And those are just the nicer things they’re saying about the talented little Argentinian after he allegedly refused to play for Manchester City at Bayern Munich on Tuesday night.

Manager Roberto Mancini, who has had to deal with a fair few disgruntled players in his billionaire-infested dressing room over the past 18 months, says Tevez will never kick a ball for City again.

The former Liverpool and Scotland manager Graeme Souness sounded like he might have shot the bloke for his bizarre actions on the bench at the Allianz Stadion.

And yes, for a bloke paid £250,000-a-week, you’d expect better. At least a ten-minute burst, though it wouldn’t have made much of a difference on a night when City were comprehensively outplayed, one of those nights when they lost 2-0 and were lucky to get nil.

But I have a case for the defence Carlos Alberto Tévez, the 27-year-old from the mean streets of Ciudadela in Buenos Aires. Though he stands barely 5ft 8in (1.73m) high, he somehow survived the toughest of upbringings in the distinctly dodgy neighbourhood of Ejército de Los Andes, known as "Fuerte Apache". And he grew up to become "El Apache" with his elaborate skills attracting the attention of Boca Juniors.

Scarred by boiling water as a child – he was in intensive care for two months after the incident – Tevez refuses to have cosmetic surgery when he made it as a young professional. When Boca Juniors offered a cosmetic surgeon, he said simply: “My scars are part of who I am.”

But other, less obvious scars remain. As a youngster, Tevez found himself in a difficult position in those early years in Argentina. So along came a company called Media Sports Investments, and an Iranian-born agent called Kia Joorabchian.

Both Tevez and his mate, Javier Mascherano, suddenly found the money pouring in... but at a price. Joorabchian and his company now owned the pair’s registrations. Against all FIFA regulations, Tevez had effectively had his footballing soul purchased.

The rest is history. The controversial loan move to West Ham United from Brazilian club Corinthians, where he had been named player of the season. A difficult start in London, but then the goals which saved the Hammers from relegation in 2007. Remember all that? The last-gasp goal against Manchester United. Salvation. The furore when it was discovered West Ham didn’t actually own his registration.

Sheffield United tried to sue, the FA looked generally confused, FIFA made statements... and Manchester United quietly moved in for Tevez, while Mascherano sloped off to Liverpool... and eventually Barcelona.

Though successful with United, Tevez then made the shock move across the great divide to Manchester City amid further stormy headlines and, worse, angry frowns from Sir Alex Ferguson.

Why did he make the move? Simple. The poor bloke is still run by Joorabchian. He still gets a cut. When Tevez demanded a transfer over the summer – despite a fine season at Eastlands last season – what did we find? A certain Kia Joorabchian telling us: “Everybody is working to make this happen, me, Corinthians, Tevez and Adrian Ruocco (another of Tevez’s representatives). It is impossible to determine the situation, but I think it’s close.”

I didn’t happen of course. But given the week’s events, it might now. And that’s my defence of Tevez. Yes, he should be raring to play at every opportunity for a club that pays him all that money. But he claims there was a misunderstanding... and he’s got Kia Joorabchian plotting his every move.

A couple of weeks ago, after claiming Tevez wanted to be closer to his wife and family in Argentina, Joorabchian claimed he nearly pulled off a swap deal, with Wesley Sneider moving to City and Tevez to Inter Milan.

That didn’t happen either. But Joorabchian, explaining why Mrs Tevez and the kids might be happier in Milan than Manchester, insisted: “Carlos is the kind of player who adapts everywhere he goes. He adapts to every league and has won every major domestic competition he has ever played in. He himself has no problem with Manchester but, culturally, Milan or Spain would be easier for the wife to adapt to.”

Really? Or is this all about money. And the share of the transfer and wage negotiations which will go the way of Mr Joorabchian.

That shame of it is, Tevez is one of the finest talents to appear in the Premier League. But from where I sit, his career has been blighted by what amounts to being footballing slavery.

And for that reason, I find it hard to condemn the man.

England's latest balls-up at RWC2011 sees mystery man Dave Alred banned

Dave Alred, the enigmatic brain behind the boot of Jonny Wilkinson, has been banned from entering Eden Park when England face Scotland in Auckland on Saturday - after being found guilty of “ball tampering”.

No, this isn’t the Cricket World Cup, it’s rugby’s great showpiece – and England have been told they will be thrown out of the tournament in New Zealand if they attempt to switch balls again.

Alred and conditioning coach Paul Stridgeon will both have to stay in the team hotel for the make-of-break clash against the old enemy. Both men have been found guilty of switching balls for Wilkinson in the comfortable win over Romania last Saturday.

Alred, a former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings in the American NFL, spends at least at least two hours a day kicking with Wilkinson, rain or shine, and is worried about his bootiful charge’s current form. The pair have developed a close relationship which verges on the obsessive - as the current storm suggests.

Alred, who has also been used to help the kicking of England football goalkeeper David James and others, rarely comments in public and was not put up for interview as the England camp responded to the “Ballgate” controversy.

A RWC Ltd investigation revealed Alred and Stridgeon changed balls illegally before two conversions taken by Wilkinson in Dunedin. On neither occasion did England request permission for the switch from referee Romain Poite. Video evidence shows the try-scoring ball being kicked away before Wilko is given the “better” ball to use for the conversion.

Rugby World Cup regulations insist the try-scoring ball must be used but Alred felt that one of the eight numbered balls was “better for kicking” and ensured Wilko used that ball for his kicks. At half-time, the England management were warned to stop tampering.

The English RFU took swift action against Stridgeon and Alred – widely considered to be the key to Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning heroics in 2003 – ensuring that Wilko and team boss Martin Johnson will not need to give evidence in a possible misconduct hearing.

The RFU admitted: “Two management members took it upon themselves to substitute balls during the match in contravention of both the laws and spirit of the game. This suspension means that they will not be able to be in the stadium for the next match in any capacity.

"The RFU fully accepts that the action of those team management members was incorrect. The RFU has therefore decided to reprimand those team management members, to warn them as to their future conduct and to suspend them from participation in England's next game. "

After the RFU’s statement, the RWC responded: "We accept the RFU's assurances that it will abide by both the laws and the spirit of the game going forward. However, it must be pointed out that any similar breaches in future will be dealt with severely.”

England, under pressure off the field after Mike Tindall’s dwarf-throwing antics, have already been in hot water with RWC officials for having shirt numbers which peeled off in the edgy opening win against Argentina.

And lock Courtney Lawes became the first player to be suspended at this World Cup after kneeing Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma in the head during a tackle. The latest controversy will not make the Red Rose any more popular as England bid for a record third consecutive World Cup final appearance.

Johnson made three changes to his team yesterday in the build-up to that final Group B game against Scotland in Auckland on Saturday – but kept fellow 2003 hero Wilko at fly-half ahead of Toby Flood.

England can afford to lose but only if they avoid defeat by seven and take a losing bonus point. A win would see Johnson’s men play France in the quarter-finals, with a semi against Ireland or Wales.

Johnson, adopting a approach similar to the one he used over the furore surrounding Tindall early in the tournament, said: "It is unfortunate we have had to take this action but ultimately there was a breach of the laws of the game. It's happened, some action has been taken and we have to move on."

Wilkinson, who struggled with his kicking beneath the roof against Argentina, missing a record five attempts, said: "I'm not going to comment on the ball-switch issue. It's not a place I want to put my foot right now.

"Whatever we have been through has brought us as close as we can possibly be and we know the direction we want to go.

“The Scotland game means so much to this team, this squad. That’s why it feels so tense."

Monday, 26 September 2011

The voice of rugby backs Springboks to win the World Cup: They'll do it by stealth says Eddie Butler

Eddie Butler does not suffer fools, gladly or gwladly, to use the Welsh phrase meaning “righteous nation”.

That’s why, when the former Welsh captain starts talking about South Africa winning this World Cup in New Zealand, people tend to listen. The fact that he’s well over six foot, has fathered six children and is still intimidating at 54 helps too.

Yesterday in the British Observer newspaper – not one of those trashy tabloid phone-hacking scandal sheets – the world’s finest rugby commentator was quite emphatic about how the Springboks are doing in the land of the long white cloud.

Though the Springboks left South Africa under a cloud of their own, Butler reckons the reigning champions are quietly on course to become the first nation to win the Webb Ellis Cup three times.

Despite a highly-fortunate 17-16 victory over Butler’s Wales in their opening Pool D encounter, the most respected voice of rugby in Britain insists: “South Africa seem in an ominously understated mood. Even in “Little Jo'burg” last Thursday night, in front of a massed throng of expats in North Shore, their 87-0 victory against Namibia was registered as routine. The defending champions seem to be doing this World Cup by stealth.

“Perhaps it was that game against Wales that has knocked them off the radar. There is a theory that they spent so much time with all their sponsors at swanky farewell parties back home that they arrived a little overfed and watered in New Zealand. We know how dangerous it can be to party hard.

“There is another theory: that Wales simply played very well and provided the kick in the rear that the defending champions needed.”

I’ve been saying that all along and taking flak from the not-so-sheepish Wales fans on, but such theories carry weight when Butler insists: “South Africa are not light on confidence on any road, even if for the moment it is hushed. As is their coach, Peter de Villiers, normally a car crash of quotes waiting to happen. Many South Africans are embarrassed by his gaffes. On Schalk Burger's eye-gouging incident in 2009, he said: "Rugby is a contact sport. Shall we all go out and buy tutus?"

“But there seems to be a growing body of support for De Villiers, especially among Afrikaans speakers who recognise that what comes out of his mouth in English may have started off as a slightly less outlandish thought in his first language.

“Besides, it may serve the Springboks well to have a coach who pulls all the attention towards himself.”

South Africans – especially those who love to watch the Afrikaans-only braai-barbeque World Cup match-day magazine programme “Toks and Tjops” (which is unlikely to attract Julius Malema as a guest anytime soon) – will be particularly intrigued to hear Butler insist: “It is said that De Villiers’ internal man-management skills are excellent, and that his players adore him.”

Butler points out: “When it came to the last rounds of the Tri-Nations, at home, the Springboks lost to Australia, but beat New Zealand – or New Zealand B – in their last game. Then they ate, said goodbye, travelled here, were scared by Wales and started to put themselves back into shape against Fiji (49-3) and Namibia (87-0). They are cranking it up.”

With Bismarck du Plessis –arguably the world’s best hooker despite the presence of World Cup winning captain John Smit starting ahead of him in New Zealand - ready to be launched in the Springboks’ final pool match on Friday, Butler believes De Villiers has been spot on with tricky selection problems.

As I said on eTV’s Sunrise on Monday morning, Bismarck will emerge against Samoa with steam coming out of his ears and Butler says: “The Springboks still beat themselves up a bit as to whether Smit should be keeping Bismarck out of the starting line-up. But the captaincy of South Africa comes with baggage that no other country can imagine, and Smit has done wonders as an ambassador facing the outside world and as a glue keeping his team together. He should be allowed to choose the moment of his departure.”

With his usual sharp eye for form, Butler also points out the value of Danie Russouw, the 33-year-old who has shone at lock while the iconic Blue Bull Victor Matfield and his “not so batterproof” partner Bakkies Botha struggle with injury.

He argues: “It’s typical of the rising determination of the Springboks that Rossouw, even at the ripe old age of 33, has seized his chance and has been outstanding.

“Schalk Burger is back to his rampaging best. He insisted on returning to the field against Namibia, with stitches in his head, when he could have chosen to have the rest of the evening off. There seems to be an infectious enthusiasm among even the old guard.”

Butler also highlights the form of Frans Steyn and Jaque Fourie and argues Bryan Habana, who scored a record-breaking 39th Bok try against Namibia – should make way for Francois Hougaard on the wing.

He says: “Hougaard looks a bundle of cranky energy, aggressive, darting and speedy. He is almost the team's talisman, the player who prefers to play at scrum-half but who has come on as a wing and made a real impact. He is the sign that the Springboks are stirring.”

And as for all that guff about South Africa throwing Friday’s clash with Samoa in an attempt to meet Ireland rather than Australia in the quarter-finals, Butler blusters: “There's no chance of that. Route one, please, that goes through the brick wall, all the way to the title.”

Saturday, 24 September 2011

England's new batting sensation Alex Hales: a godfather's emotional reflections

I had my first chat with England’s new batting sensation Alex Hales in January, 1989. It wasn’t much of an interview. He dribbled a bit, farted and threw up on my best work shirt.

The 6ft 5in (1.96m) Nottinghamshire opener, who scored an undefeated 62 off 48 balls to help England to a ten-wicket T20 success over the West Indies at The Oval on Friday night, was barely two days old when he first met. A few months later, I became his godfather at Denham Parish Church in Buckingshamshire. And 22 years on, when he reached that first international milestone in just his second international appearance, I was in tears 5,000 miles away.

Last month, when he was snared leg before by India’s Praveen Kumar after two balls of his England debut, it had been tears of a different sort. That’s what happens when you see somebody you have known all your life suffer the cruellest of ducks live on a television screen.

Tears? Yup, sorry. Emotional moments. Alex’s father Gary and I played football and cricket together for years after we met kicking about for the now sadly defunct (and little known) Chalfont Athletic in 1985. Golf and tennis too. Squash and snooker. Even darts. The Hales genes were never hard to spot. Gaz would crush me on all fronts. He’d even beat me left-handed at table-tennis. Easily.

Gary could have been a top cricketer. He scored a double ton for Ealing in his teenage years. His brother and Alex’s uncle David did the same at Uxbridge. The Hales brothers broke all kinds of records over the years in the local leagues.

Gary once had a game stopped when an outraged neighbour strode on to the pitch at Denham to complain about the seven sixes he’d put into his garden. Made the front page of the local paper. I think Gary got about 180 that day. I was at the other end on about 40. It was the same when I batted with Alex years later.

Alex’s grandfather Dennis, just last year, showed me the yellowing cuttings of his epic encounter at Wimbledon against the great Rod Laver circa 1967. And he was still hitting a cricket ball with some venom despite a dodgy hip deep into his pensionable years.

But none of the older Haleses really got the chance to showcase their sporting prowess. Den was a Middlesex bus driver, Gary and David were Gerrards Cross postmen when fame and fortune called. Always easier to make it to the top when you’ve got a public school and a family name behind you.

Alex had some of that. But only because he was always such a bloody giant. Taller than his peers – and my son Kriss, a year older – before he came out of nappies, Hales had trouble keeping his head down. He could hit a golf ball 50 yards when he was two. Kick a football through a window. Put a stone over the fence when other kids threw like pansies.

At Denham First School, the dinner ladies decided the big kid was the one behind all the trouble in the playground. When he hurriedly moved to St Joseph’s Primary in neighbouring Chalfont St Peter he was banned from the school bus in the first week.

That’s when Gary and I decided a private school might help Alex’s development. Gaz went looking for Locker’s Park Prep in Hemel Hempstead after seeing an advert in the local Bucks Advertiser... but they ended up going to the wrong place – Westbrook Hay, a tiny, sports-mad institution just down the A41. The sports coach took one look at this towering bundle of talent and gave Alex Daniel Hales a sports scholarship.

A couple of years in boarding school settled the big kid. He ended up at the nearby Grammar School – they still have the medieval 11-plus in Buckinghamshire – in Chesham.

By then Hales was already something of a phenomenon. Gary and long-suffering sports mum Lisa had moved to the cottage on the side of the Wade-Tillard Memorial Ground in Denham, not a stone’s throw from the home of actor Sir John Mills.

There’s a grainy video somewhere of dad and god-father hurling down deliveries at eachother when Alex was one and my twins, Kriss and Laura were two. Not text book childminding for fathers, but I don’t recall any tantrums as they watched their sweating fathers from pram-side seats. Clearly, even the mightily talented Alex was too young to participate... but I guess he was taking it all in. Probably gurgling at my turgid batting style.

The edge of the cricket ground was a lovely place to live if you love the outdoor life and don’t mind lethal sixes flying over the fence. Great too, for a youngster eager to play the game. Alex was 10 the first time Denham’s Sunday XI found themselves a man short and Gary’s boy was hurriedly enlisted.

His first adult game and we put him on from the posh end, with the sprawling mansions rather than council houses behind the bowler’s arm. He was that good. His line and length never deviated. Those crack-of-dawn Sunday morning sessions at High Wycombe and Gerrards Cross, the local cricket nurseries, had paid off. As had the endless hours spent in the single, tatty cricket net at Denham.

Strange thing is, Alex was a bowler then. Too tall and too quick for his own good. Quickly spotted by the Hertfordshire junior selectors while he was at Westbrook, he was dropped at Under 14 level for “bowling too aggressively in the nets”. Gary made a quick call to Buckinghamshire and progress resumed. Wickets and bruises all round. Genuine pace and plenty of height made him nearly unplayable as an opening bowler.

Oh, he could bat a bit too. At 15 he came down to play for Chalfont St Peter’s mighty Sunday Second XI, taking a break from the increasingly onerous Saturday League cricket at local rivals Gerrards Cross. Opposition sides refused to play against us if “that Hales boy” was about. But we’d wheel him out for our annual Sunday derby against the Cross, who were once hit for 182 not out by their own young prodigy. Even the mighty Sunday Seconds won if Alex and younger brother Nick were about.

Look, it wasn’t just cricket. Like his father, Alex was a superb footballer. In 2005, aged 16, Alex joined my local Chesham Sunday League outfit, the Three Pigeons. The year before he joined we were the worst side in the area, ending our inaugural season winless after conceding over 100 goals in Division Two. Surrounded by the toughest of local youngsters with his father in goal and me next to him at centre-back, Alex serenely helped us to a League title and a local cup success.

Alex was phenomenal with a tennis raquet too, often upsetting England-ranked juniors at Gerrards Cross Lawn Tennis club where his father had left the Royal Mail to become the groundsman and administrator. Alex could hit a golf ball too. A long, long way. He qualified for district athletics with a single, uncoached triple jump. But cricket remained the passion, records fell with bat and ball.

Neil Burns, the former Somerset and Leicestershire wicket-keeper, picked the lanky youngster out of a mob of 473 hopefuls aged 15 to 24 in a “Bowling Idol” competition at Lord’s. But it wasn’t as a bowler I wrote my first story about Alex, it was as a batsman hitting 55 off a single over in a subsequent pro-celebrity match at Lord’s in 2005. Alex was 16. I wrote this at the time: It proved prescient.

By then, the bigger fish were sniffing about. The MCC Young Cricketers got hold of Alex at 18 at got him down to Lord’s. On his debut at Uxbridge, against a Yorkshire Second XI featuring former England bowler Chris Silverwood – who was genuinely quick – he scored 175 before tea on day one. Watching that day was the Hertfordshire county coach who had axed Alex for being “too aggressive”. Gary had fun chatting with the bloke.

And the rest of course, is his story. History. A move to Nottinghamshire and lengthy drives to Trent Bridge for Gary and Lisa. A late call into the England Under 19 set-up, because Alex hadn’t quite gone to what one might consider a “cricketing school”.

Winters in Australia, with varying degrees of success before a record-breaking double century for South Croydon in Melbourne. A televised 150 not out for Notts in the 40-over competition two summers ago, the highest score of the summer. A place in the England performance squad at the end of 2009 in South Africa. Mike Atherton saying on Sky: “This boy could play for England,” and everyone who knew Alex frantically calling eachother to bathe in reflected glory.

This week came the big breakthrough, 24 hours after winning the PCA Young Cricketer award in London.

Oh, there were other ducks before the debut zero against India. Some of them on the telly, one first baller against Worcestershire in 2009 sticks in the mind. But class can’t be denied. By the time Craig Kieswetter scored the winning runs at The Oval on Friday night, the cricket-speaking world were well aware of Alex Hales’ class.

The new Kevin Pietersen is what I said six years ago. He may be better than that. And not just in the shortest form of the game. He scored over 1,000 runs in the Championship last season and averages 58.99 in the first class games.

And four hours before his big moment at The Oval on Friday, Notts confirmed a two-year contract extension with timing nearly as good as the lad himself.

He’s a good lad, Alex. It hasn’t been plain sailing, there are always ducks about on the tempestuous sea that is a batsman’s life. But it’s full steam ahead now. Proud of you God-son.

See also:

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Small people in New Zealand beware: Martin Johnson steps in to defend dwarf-throwing Mike Tindall, note drink driving convictions at foot of story‏

England's dwarf-throwing, drink-driving, Kiwi-loving Mike Tindall. What a man. Asked last night if the press attention after his post-Argentina foray in Dunedin had bothered him: "Not really, no."

And it gets better. When curious journalists tried to get Mr Zara Phillips to talk about the pressure he’s been under on the front pages back home, boss Martin Johnson, all 6ft 7in of him, stepped in and stopped the line of questioning with some gusto before Saturday’s Group B clash against minnows Romania.

It was Sky’s experienced rugby follower Phil Edwards who had the guts to ask Tindall (that’s “shamed Tindall” according to today’s Sun in England): “Since captaining England in that opening game we’ve not heard much from you Mike, must have been a bit challenging at times.”

Tindall, deadpan, responded with all the experience a 32-year-old with a 2003 World Cup winners’ medal and 63 caps can muster: “Not really, no. I’m just disappointed I didn’t get a run out against Georgia.”

Pressed further, Tindall – who missed the last World Cup in France with a broken leg - said: “You want to play every game and I was disappointed I didn't get a run out last weekend but you work hard and hope you get picked by the coach every week. It is as simple as that."

And when Edwards, a veteran broadcaster who has covered four World Cups, asked if Tindall’s form might be affected with his wife Zara on her way to the England camp after some tears in Ireland last week, the 2003 World Cup-winning centre grinned: “I hope my own game’s fine.”

And that’s when big, bad Martin put his oar in, with a gruff: “Put it to bed mate.”

When Edwards tried to press things further, arguing that the story would run and run if questions weren’t answered, Johnson growled: “Phil, we’re looking forward to a big game against Romania. I said to you last week what happened. We had this conversation last week, we’ve played a game since then. If you’ve got any questions about that, we’re happy to answer them.

“We’ve moved on. I said what we said last week, we had a long press conference about it. We’ve all moved on.”

Back in the Sky studio, former England scrum-half and rugby analyst Dewi Morris refused to back colleague Edwards. He said: “Martin Johnson, rightly or wrongly, allowed the guys to go out for a drink.

“I think rightly. Martin has treated them as responsible adults, one or two have let them down. I don’t think there’s a story in it.”

Wales-born Morris, who played 26 times for England between 1988 and 1995, added: “As far as people going out for a drink, that’s it. We did it. We didn’t get the same publicity.

“I’m more interested in what Martin Johnson’s going to do against Romania.”

But if you’re of a certain height or are a New Zealander with breasts, it might be best not to go out in Dunedin on Saturday night. Just a thought.

What Wikipedia tells us about Michael James Tindall, MBE: On 21 December 2010 it was announced that he was engaged to Zara Phillips, the daughter of the Princess Royal, and her first husband Captain Mark Phillips. Phillips is the granddaughter of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. The wedding was held on 30 July 2011 at Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh with the attendance of all senior members of the Royal Family.

Tindall has two convictions for drink driving.[10] In 2000 he was disqualified for 16 months (a period which was in excess of the obligatory 12 month disqualification for a first offence).[11] On 15 March 2008, following a day out at Cheltenham Racing Festival with Phillips, Tindall was stopped by Gloucestershire Police on the M4 motorway and required to take a breath test. In consequence, on 8 January 2009 he was disqualified from driving for three years and fined £500 for drink driving, with £75 costs.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Wilkinson is back and it's do or die for England after "harsh talking" from Johnson

Jonny Wilkinson believes England are ready to bounce back from their stuttering start and make a “do or die” assault on the William Webb Ellis Trophy in New Zealand.

Back in the side for Saturday’s clash with minnows Romania, Wilko insists the current campaign – which has featured a tight 13-9 win over Argentina and a less-than-sparkling 41-10 trouncing of Georgia – can end in a third successive World Cup final on October 23.

He compares the squad’s mood with 2007 in France, when Brian Ashton’s side were crushed by 36-0 by South Africa in their pool clash – but bounced back to play the Springboks in the final, where they lost 15-6 thanks to a controversial disallowed Mark Cueto try.

After a “harsh talking” squad gathering (not a crisis meeting, insisted the England management) this week, Wilko - who missed a record five kicks in the opening win over Argentina - insisted: "It’s the same kind of energy now. That 36-0 defeat sparked a path that we had to go down and thankfully we did.

“Maybe in 2007 we needed to lose to South Africa to make us realise we had to win the next two games against Tonga and Samoa otherwise we'd be out. It’s about accountability. We know we must do better, understand the mistakes we made and we know that ill-discipline in a World Cup is going to cost you.”

Wilko, who has been starting his kicking routine at 7am since his uncharacteristic inaccuracies under the roof at the Carisbrook “House of Pain” in Dunedin, added: "The punishment is looking at the other 14 guys who are working their backsides off. It's the feeling that you've put the guys in a difficult position, and made things difficult for the England team. That hurts more than any punishment.

"If you don't get these things spot on, it gets to the situation when you say, 'we've got to do better next time'. You don't get next week in a World Cup."

Wilko, who scored the sudden-death drop goal which secured the World Cup at Australia 2003, returns to the starting squad in Dunedin on Saturday with fly-half rival Toby Flood of Leicester rested despite being one of the few to emerge from the Georgia victory with any credit.

England finish their pool games with a potential banana-skin – old rivals Scotland in Auckland a week later. Having given away a record 11 penalties in the first half against Georgia, Scottish kicker Chris Paterson may be the key. Defeat would probably see a quarter-final against New Zealand, a win would pit England against unloved neighbours France.

Wilko revealed exactly why defeat in Pool B is not an option: “Martin Johnson told us: 'You'll be back watching the semi-final on TV and then going out to play Newcastle away.’

"He's absolutely right. I know exactly what he was talking about because he was playing against me that day. In 1999 we got knocked out in the quarter-finals and the next weekend was possibly one of the coldest, rainiest days we had at Newcastle and we were playing against Leicester.

“He’s right, that’s how it works. World Cups are do or die. We have to make sure we don't leave ourselves in that position. We just can't afford to keep giving penalties away. That's why there's an urgency about our meetings … everyone knows that sooner or later it's going to have an effect that we can't come back from. We need to make sure we nip it in the bud before then."

Mike Tindall – presumably after a talking to from his wife Zara Phillips, who arrives in Dunedin on Friday – is also back for the Romania clash after being splashed across the English tabloids for an evening of dwarf-throwing and Kiwi-clenching after the Argentina game.

But Wilkinson believes Tindall’s indiscretion has helped rather than hindered England. He said: "That story has been massively motivational to everyone in the team.

“We are more together than ever. We understand whatever's happened has happened and a huge element is there to drive into the squad to separate us. And the guys refuse to do that. The guys are pulling tight together.

"Just because someone says some things and writes some things makes no difference. We are aiming to continue on the path we're on, which is the right one."

On the injury front, prop Matt Stevens's ankle is said to be responding to treatment, so is Alex Corbisiero's calf, while Ben Foden has a sore side. At No8 Nick Easter could yet be replaced by Leicester's New Zealand born Thomas “The Tank Engine” Waldrom.

Cueto, so nearly the World Cup winner in 2007, is ready to start on the wing after a back problem. Bath's David Wilson is expected to make his World Cup debut in the front row.

Wilko, described as a “basket case” for his obsessive kicking practice in 2003, concludes: “It’s very difficult to explain World Cups. I’ve given up trying other than just knowing, deep down, you have got to come with everything and you never know what’s round the corner.”

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Why England are not the most popular nation at the Rugby World Cup. And that's putting it mildly.

It’s time for Englishmen now abed to admit what too many of us have known for too long. Poms are not the most popular of people.

And when it comes to the current Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, the Red Rose is giving off a distinctly dodgy aroma.

So far, Martin Johnson’s side have managed a narrow 13-9 win over Argentina and an unsatisfying 41-10 victory over Georgia. Next up: Romania. A win over the gypsy nation is hardly likely to lead to a burst of enthusiasm, especially with the forced eviction of travellers at Dale Farm hogging the headlines on Sky News.

Between those two unspectacular victories, Mr Zara Phillips – also known as veteran England centre Mike Tindall – managed to get a nightclub manager fired and arrested for posting a video of his wild night out with a full-breasted female Kiwi. And all this whilst his team-mates were attending a boozy dwarf-throwing contest.

Today, boss Johnson – the former World Cup-winning ogre with the joined eyebrows who has never coached a club side and exhibits few of the traits we associate with a national manager – is apparently launching a “charm offensive” to put right this awful injustice.

Lots of autograph signing, plenty of friendly media appearances, lots of sympathy for Christchurch earthquake victims. You know the sort of thing.

It ain’t gonna work. I mean, look at our history. Since the post-Roman era, the Anglo-Saxons have tended to colonise nations – just ask the local Maori historians in Wellington – rather than cuddle them. Often using weapons of mass destruction.

Before the invention of gunpowder, we used thousands of working class scruffs and quasi-religious fervour to crush the kilts out of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh. And as our proud nation developed, we chose concentration camps and machine guns to deal with the locals in South Africa, Kenya, India etc etc.

More recently, we have chosen Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to blood our Sandhurst graduates from the playing fields of Eton and Harrow.

Not the best way to win a popularity contest. Germany aren’t at this World Cup. But France are. And the Italians. Don’t even ask.

It doesn’t help that so many of the current England squad aren’t even subjects. Matt Stevens, the little South African prop with an historic dope problem, is back from his two-year cocaine suspension to add his curious aksent to the mix.

Then there’s Shontayne Edward Hape, the 30-year-old New Zealand rugby league international born in Auckland. He played 14 games for the Kiwis before deciding he was English.

Hooker Dylan Hartley, born in Rotorua 25 years ago, is in the squad, along with Leicester's Samoan-born centre Manu Tuilagi, famous for punching England team-mates. He scored two tries against the luckless Georgians.

Kiwi centre Riki Flutey, the former Maori captain, is on stand-by to fly out, as is Saracens lock Mouritz Botha, from Vryheid in South Africa. Like the world-beating England cricket team which features South African-born Kevin Pietersen, Matthew Prior, Jonathan Trott, Jade Dernbach, Craig Kieswetter and even captain Andrew Strauss, passports tend to be overlooked in the quest for glory.

And the latest call-up? That’s New Zealander Thomas Waldrom, 27, flying in as back-up for crocked No8 Nick Easter.

Waldrom, born in Lower Hutt and nicknamed “The Tank Engine” at Leicester, has an English grandmother. Even Pietersen managed an English mother.

With Waldrom, Hape and Hartley wearing the Red Rose rather than the Silver Fern, New Zealanders may be excused for wondering what’s going on. England boasts a world-beating 166,672 registered senior players while New Zealand have just 27,374 to choose from according to the latest International Rugby Board figures.

So the least popular side at this World Cup were greeted by about 100 hardy fans at Auckland Airport at the start of the tournament. No great fanfare for the all-whites who have chosen to wear a locally-reviled all-black away strip at this World Cup.

A poll of fans in New Zealand will simply confirm what Limeys, Rooineks and Poms have always known: We are the least popular nation at this odd-shaped-ball fest.

England, once described as the “great white orcs” in the nation which gave birth to the Lord of the Rings movies, are pure evil.

Which isn’t to say they might just raise the Union Jack over this World Cup with a bit more stiff upper lip. Just wish they could do it with a little more panache.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Strange tail from the Rugby World Cup: Forget Paul the psychic octopus, it's time for Billy Wool, the paranormal sheep. Would ewe believe it?

Forget Paul the psychic octopus, meet Sonny Wool, the three-year-old paranormal sheep. Dyed-in-the-wool rugby fans are going to love him and his ewe-phemisms.

Yes, the 2011 Rugby World Cup has it’s own psychic match predictor. And in a nation besotted – and heavily populated - by sheep, it had to be a woolly one. Don’t go off to the baa... I’m not flocking about.

Last year, Paul the psychic octopus correctly predicted results throughout the FIFA World Cup in South Africa before succumbing to a premature end, presumably exhausted by his efforts.

But Sonny Wool – named after dynamic Canterbury Crusaders centre Sonny Bill Williams - is alive and well, and wearing a customised All Blacks jersey in suburban Wellington.

How does Sonny Wool operate? Why, he decides between two bales of hay, each bearing the flag of rival nations. Last week, he chose the New Zealand nosh, and turned up his nose at the Tongan offering – much to the delight of the largely Kiwi crowd.

After a slight hesitation, he confidently settled underneath the standard of his home nation with one fan insisting: "Billy Wool sniffed around Tonga and then it walked to New Zealand, with a bit of coaxing from the fans. It would have been in the oven if it chose Tonga, so it chose wisely.”

Similarly, Paul the Octopus chose between two flags flying over his lunch – a mussel - in his tank in Germany.

Paul (born 26 January 2008, died 26 October 2010) was born in Weymouth, England but moved to the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany where he correctly predicted the winner of each of the Germany's seven matches – and the final, where Spain beat Holland.

Sonny Wool – born in rural Dannevirke, the son of a humble ewe, in 2009 – is not just following in Paul’s erm... tentacle steps. He actually goes a step further than Paul, and is a bit of a player. His “owner and agent”, Dan Boyd insists he enjoys chasing rugby balls in his pen.

Boyd also points out: "He's the black sheep of the family. The other sheep don't like him at all. He hangs out and likes humans more. He also likes to predict when it’s going to rain. He taps on the door to get inside the house when he feels it coming.”

Since Paul the Psychic Octopus emerged last year, the animal world has seen a host of imitators, including a somewhat clairvoyant crocodile in Australia and Bo Si, China’s psychic panda.

But with New Zealand running out 41-10 winners over Tonga in their opening World Cup clash last Friday, Sonny Wool is on the path to fame and fortune-telling.

Kiwis can be a little sheepish about the subject, but in a nation of just over four million people, there are an estimated 40.1 million sheep, giving a ratio of 10 sheep per person - though the Rambo movies were not filmed there.

Billy Wool is now the most popular sheep in the capital, Wellington, but that may change. Boyd warns: "Our next game is against Japan and if he picks Japan over the All Blacks, then they will be the team to win. No question."

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Spanish lesson: why Poms and Boks have no need to panic. Yet.

Remember how Spain bulldozed everyone standing in their way during the World Cup in South Africa last year? How their particular blend of Barcelona brilliance and Real Madrid magic made them impossible to beat?

Not quite. You’ve already forgotten the shocking Swiss rollover. For those holding their heads in their hands after the opening shots of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, Spain’s path to glory at South Africa 2010 offers a unique perspective, no matter what shape your balls are.

England were absolutely awful in their opening Pool B game, Jonny Wilkinson missing a record four penalties in a bottom-clenching 13-9 win over Argentina on Saturday. And holders South Africa were a line-judge’s flag away from losing their first match against Wales in Wellington on Sunday. One game in, and those proudly sporting Red Roses or Springboks have all but given up hope of seeing their emblem feature at Eden Park on October 23 when the Webb-Ellis trophy is handed over.

Here beginneth the lesson. On June 16 last year, Spain entered the fray as reigning European champions and joint favourites for the World Cup. Beaten just once in 41 games, the football-speaking world reeled when Switzerland, unfancied but hard-working, produced the only goal of the game from a now-forgotten striker called Gelson Fernandes.

But the Spanish, undaunted, bounced back from a worst-possible start in Durban to lift their first ever World Cup, dispatching Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and Holland in the knock-out phases. They knew they had the quality, that one bad result could be overcome. The likes of Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Iker Casillas don’t become ordinary players overnight. That’s what cricket, rugby and football World Cup tournaments are all about.

Just last week in the athletics World Championships, Usain Bolt overcame an absurd disqualification in the 100m to surge to glittering gold in the 200m. A lesson for all professionals in the sporting sphere.

There are numerous examples of world-beaters starting tournaments with a hiccup rather than a hurrah. But surely none better than Spain’s opening defeat in South Africa last year.

That’s why nation-quaking panic in South Africa and England is not necessary after those epic struggles over the weekend. England should remember the Falklands – and the fact that Argentina are ranked the ninth-best rugby side in the world. South Africa must realise the Welsh live and breathe rugby and are currently ranked sixth.

Much-derided Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers, judged a clown by those who dislike moustaches and high-pitched defiance, said after his side’s 17-16 win over the gallant Welsh, said: "We came to win the first game and we achieved that goal. Our bench went on and made the difference, that's why they were there.

"It wasn't a rugby test. I call it a test of character. At the start, Wales flooded the breakdowns and never allowed us to get going."

Div may not be the best coach in the world, but his decision to throw on match-clincher Francois Hougaard for the great Bryan Habana cannot be overlooked.

England boss Martin Johnson, with no track record as a club coach and eyebrows which join in the middle, said: " World Cup games are about finding a way to win in difficult circumstances against difficult teams. You charge down a kick, you think you're going to counterattack and it spins back 15 yards to their possession you think, 'Christ, it's going to be one of those days.' Clearly, while we could have been a lot better, we found a way to win.”

Again, it was Johnson who put Ben Youngs on as a replacement scrumhalf... and saw him score the only try of the match in Dunedin.

And really both Div and Johnno are adopting the Spanish philosophy: the World Cup in any format, no matter what size or shape your balls, is a marathon not a sprint. South Africa have Fiji (ranked 15 in the world) next while England must take on Georgia (16).

Both have already edged out the next best teams in their group. Though the favourites and hosts New Zealand looked impressive in the first half of their 41-10 win over Tonga (12) and Australia had few problems crushing world No11 Italy 32-6, both the All Blacks and the Wallabies have yet to play their most difficult group rivals, France (4) and Ireland (8).

Until they have, let’s reserve judgement. There’s no denying South Africa and England both started with a wobbly win rather than a vibrant victory. Hair has been duly pulled out, nails have been bitten.

But we’ve got six weeks of crouch-touch-pause-engage to come. And for worried Bok fans, a few points worth noting.

Events in Wellington will ensure past-it captain John Smit won’t over-shadow in-form hooker Bismarck Du Plessis at this World Cup. You don't have to worry about the living legend Jonny Wilkinson's mental state. And imagine how James Hook at the Welsh fans must feel have been denied a perfectly good three points by the errant flags of the touch-judges in the first half.

Still, it all means Wales – if they make it – will now avoid New Zealand in the semi-finals as probable runners-up in Pool D. Perhaps that’s why Rhys Priestland duffed his late drop goal attempt from right in front of the posts.

In essence, after the opening weekend, nothing has changed. There were no Senegal v France 2002 or Cameroon v Argentina 1990 type opening shocks. Remember when Turkey and South Korea reached the semi-finals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup?

It doesn’t happen in rugby, not with your set-plays, huge forwards and incredible fitness levels. As things stand, you have to back New Zealand, France, England, Argentina, Australia, Ireland, South Africa and Wales to reach the last eight. And then – and only then - the real World Cup begins. Just ask Carles Puyol or Andres Iniesta.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

It's England v Wales tonight, and John Terry's lecturing Andy Carroll on drinking!

You know you’ve got a drinking problem when John Terry tells you to go easy on the bottle. And that’s just what happened yesterday, as England prepared for their Euro 2012 qualifier against Wales at Wembley tonight.

Yes, Terry, the bloke you may think uses “Troubled” as his first name, has told Liverpool’s pony-tailed striker Andy Carroll to lay off the booze.

Chelsea and England defender is famous for his boozy nights and rash affairs – not to mention having an alleged drug dealer as a father and a convicted shop-lifter as a mother.

No better man to give Carroll a word of advice is there? Carroll, remember, had to move in with his former Newcastle captain Kevin Nolan as part of his bail conditions after an assault charge last year. After having his car burnt out in the driveway, Mrs Nolan and the two kids had to decamp to Liverpool when Nolan and Carroll started throwing wild parties in the family home.

And then there was the time he broke a team-mates jaw after a row over a girlfriend at training. Nice guy, Andy Carroll.

Hence the need for Terry to warn him: “I've made my mistakes, maybe drank a little bit too much when I was younger and gone out a little bit too much.

"But, having gone through that, at 26 or 27 you maybe look back and are glad that you did it then because you don't want to do it now."

Ah. Carroll is only 22, still wet behind the ears after his £35m/R350m move from hometown Newcastle to resurgent Liverpool, where he has managed just one goal this season. Does that mean he has four more years of drinking to come?

Apparently not. Terry tells the Sun how young Master Carroll should try a more healthy style, adding: "Andy is a young player who's at a very big club with a really good future. He has still got to enjoy his time away from football. I'm sure he will. He's a really good pro on the pitch and good around the camp”

As England go into tonight’s key qualifier, Wales boss Gary Speed, fresh from his side’s 2-1 win over mighty Montenegro, are concentrating on another reformed bad boy, Wayne Rooney.

The United star scored twice in the 3-0 win over Bulgaria on Friday night and Speed admits: "We have looked at ways of minimising Rooney’s effectiveness but it's going to be difficult because of his quality.

“I wouldn't like to be a centre-half playing against him. Rooney is an amazing player and, from a pro's point of view, great to watch. People talk about his goalscoring but his movement off the ball is fantastic as well and causes teams so many problems.

"We haven't done that much in training because of the time but we do a lot of work off the pitch in the video room."

Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey will have the armband tonight. He admits: "We know the task ahead of us and we will all be ready for him.

"He's proved this season that he is back to his best. But, hopefully, we can keep him quiet."

Speed has no injury worries but is without the suspended Craig Bellamy and David Vaughan after their bookings in the 2-1 win over Montenegro on Friday.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The coach, the minister and the barber may be crazy but who will stop the Boks?

Look it’s not just because Francois “Steffi Graf” Steyn has cut his hair. Or because the South African sports minister said farewell to the squad by telling the Springboks to ‘Moer hulle’ (beat them up).
It’s not even because, in Morne Steyn, they have South Africa’s answer to Jonny Wilkinson circa 2003... with a very effective youngster called Pat Lambie as a back-up fly-half.
If you had to give one reason why South African can win old Bill again, it’s because so many of them have been there, done that and got the medal to prove it.
When the battered Boks turned up for France 2007, everyone was calling for the head of Jake White after a disastrous build-up. This time, it was much the same for the puppet-voiced Pieter de Villiers as he uttered nonsense beneath his bushy moustache throughout a tough Tri-Nations.
But then, after three crunching defeats, the rebirth. Back came all the old, battered Boks – particularly all-conquering Bulls locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha – and along came a final, grinding warm-up victory over the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth three weeks ago.
Playing international rugby in PE is like trying a rugby Test at Millwall. Just not the done thing. But the people of the unfashionable Eastern Cape rose to the occasion and so did captain John Smit – who came on as a late sub for a clearly miffed but beautifully-named Bismarck Du Plessis – and the rest of his charges in an 18-5 triumph.
Look, it wasn’t beautiful and it didn’t conjure a try, but beating the All Blacks – a feat repeated by the Australians a week later – proved the perfect send-off. Confidence restored, the sports minister cussing merrily, 35,000 people in Sandton to wish them farewell... and the nation believes, as it did in 1995 when Nelson Mandela did his Invictus thing.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula joined the craziness, telling the assembled masses: "We stand here, black and white, red, yellow and purple... As a rainbow nation. Moer hulle! Bliksem hulle, die bokke sal dans!"
In English, that's something like: Crush them, thump them, the Bucks will dance.
And he may have a point. Just listen to the stats. This squad boasts 1,224 caps between them, 18 of them played in the 2007 win, 12 of them starters in the final against England. Matfield, Bryan Habana, Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira (Lions fans will remember what he did to Phil Vickery in 2008) and Botha are living legends here, Smit has lost a little of his lustre but remains a vivid leader of men.
The others? Little Stormers wing Gio Aplon, tough to stop. The newly-shorn back Steyn, the youngest ever scorer in a final four years ago (behind a certain Jonah Lomu) is back and kicking the length of the field.
Schalk Burger missed the end of the season with a broken digit but should be fit for the Boks’ opener against Wales on September 11. In a Group D which also features Aussie-beating Samoa, free-running Fiji and neighbours Namibia, a solid win there should see the Boks to the semi-final against New Zealand.
And like Paris four years ago, who’s going to bet on the Bok stopping there? The apparent madness of their coach, their sports minister, their barber and their semi-retired captain may be just the job.