England should go for the jugular

So far, so good Ashes-wise.  Two games, two victories, and everybody of an English persuasion is happy.  We’ve even had some history-making moments.  We have had a record score by a number 11 batsman; we have had a record 10th wicket partnership; we have had a truly outstanding delivery to dismiss the opposition’s captain and main batsman (Anderson to Clarke at Trent Bridge); we have had a bollock-clenchingly close finish; and we have had a hilariously brutal spanking.  Yet, there are some who claim to feel a particular emotion that is utterly alien to almost every English cricket fan; that of sympathy towards the Aussies.

This was most notable at the end of Australia’s first innings at Trent Bridge.  Ashton Agar had just been dismissed for 98 in his debut innings, an astonishing effort as everyone acknowledges.  However, you could hear murmurs of ‘isn’t it a shame that the poor lad didn’t make his century.  I wouldn’t have begrudged him an extra two runs.’  Excuse me?  This lad has just contributed to a stand which may very well have taken the first test away from England.  From a position of impregnability, we are now staring down the barrel of a 70 run deficit after the first innings.  We want him out as soon as possible.  Every run may be crucial.

There is something in the British psyche that looks down on winning too easily.  Drumming home one’s obvious advantage is seen as vulgar, not the done thing.  We root for the underdog, and often fail to acknowledge sheer sporting class because we are too busy sympathising with the loser.  For example, following this year’s women’s Wimbledon final, most reports concentrated on the collapse of Sabine Lisicki’s form, rather than praising Marion Bartoli for her high-class, tactically prefect play.  This may have something to do with the relative attractiveness of the two players, which is a different issue entirely (for more information write to J Inverdale Esq, BBC Sport, Chauvinism Place, Misogyny Road, I’m-no-looker-myself-ville), but also displays the British fixation with a plucky, but tearful loser over a deserved winner.

In reference to the cricket, any supporter who has lived through the barren years of 1989 to 2005 is not going to feel sorry for the Aussies in a hurry.  The first Ashes series I was aware of was the 1989 fiasco which, to my mind, seemed mainly to consist of Steve Waugh scoring runs, and Graham Gooch getting out to Terry Alderman.  England fielded 29 different players in that series, including such luminaries as Phil Newport, Tim Curtis and John Stephenson.  Between 1991 and 2005, the following players have played Test cricket for England against Australia: Eddie Hemmings, Martin McCague, Mike Smith, Warren Hegg, Ian Ward, Jimmy Ormond, Richard Dawson.  In the same period Australia have had the following selection dilemmas: which Waugh twin to play (1991); Michael Slater or Matthew Hayden (1993); which fast bowler out of McGrath, Gillespie, Reiffel or Kasprowicz to leave out (1997); Ricky Ponting or Michael Bevan (also 1997); Michael Slater or Justin Langer (2001); how are we possibly going to deal with the loss of Shane Warne, oh well better call up Stuart MacGill I suppose (2003); is our batting line-up strong enough to ignore Brad Hodge, Stuart Law, Matthew Elliott, Jamie Cox, Michael Hussey, Darren Lehmann and Michael Di Venuto (most series from 1997 onwards – the answer’s yes by the way).  Given the disparity in quality and selection policy between the two teams for 16 long, predictable years, I am certainly not about to offer up any sympathy towards this current Aussie outfit.  Keep your metaphorical foot on their metaphorical throat is my message to the England team.  And don’t worry about the metaphorical bit.

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The Open Championship

The 142nd British Open Championships begins on Thursday at Muirfield on the east coast of Scotland and for the first time in a decent while, there is no obvious favourite.  The unique demands of Links golf means that any one of the entrants into golf’s oldest major championships has a chance of lifting the Claret Jug.  Conditions are such a huge factor in determining the outcome of The Open, more than at any other major.  The Links golfer has to adjust his ball-flight to counter the effects of the wind, be deadly accurate and also be prepared to use the contours of the course to his advantage.  Accuracy, especially off the tee will be absolutely imperative given that the rough at Muirfield this year is penal.

‘Lefty’ Phil Mickelson has thrown his hat into the ring with his victory at the weekend at the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart.  It was an impressive victory for a man who is to driving accuracy what Tiger Woods is to monogamy.  The Californian also has an enviable short game which can get him out of even the deepest spots of trouble and he will need it if he is to be victorious this week.  It would be a fool to discount him, but I am said fool and I just don’t think he has the requisite patience to conquer Muirfield’s testing nuances.

Britain’s newest major champion, Justin Rose will be hoping to add to his tally this week.  He has all the stats this season to suggest he can definitely be a contender:  13th in Driving accuracy on the PGA tour, 1st in sand saves with over 70% and 15th in Greens in Regulation.  He will have to equal those stats at least to have a chance of lifting the Claret Jug on Sunday.  I also don’t think he quite has the minerals to win round Muirfield – his putting isn’t consistent enough and since he burst onto the scene as a precocious teenager in 1998 at Royal Birkdale with a T4th placed finish as an amateur, he has failed to finish in the top-10.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Worksop’s Lee Westwood will have a very good week.  He has had a quiet 2013 thus far:  5 top-10 finishes; no victories but he is always there or thereabouts at the big tournaments and hardly ever has a shocker of a round.  His consistency especially off the tee will come in handy – he simply needs to have a hot two days with his putter, easier said than done of course but that’s all it will take for Westwood.  He has every shot in his armoury – he now needs to believe he can do it on the greens too and if he does, this might be the tournament for him.

What of the other contenders?  World number one Tiger Woods has been in pretty horrible form since winning the Players Championship in May.  You can never discount him, but I am going to, so obviously you can.  Similarly with Rory McIlroy; his form has been seriously mediocre in the past few months.  The Northern Irishman by his own admission does not overly enjoy playing on Links courses (which I find surprising for a man who has hit a 59 round Portrush) and I can see that attitude rearing its ugly features this week.  At the moment McIlroy’s swing is still too inconsistent.  Every round he hits at least two terrible shots that, at Muirfield, will be very expensive.  Masters winner Adam Scott is another who has had a lean time of it since his amazing victory in April.  The Australian came so close at Royal Lytham last year, only to be pipped by Ernie Els after some rather injudicious shots.  He comes into this tournament with no pressure but also no form so I can’t see him featuring on the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon.

It is customary for me at every major tournament to tip Matt Kuchar to win but I am not going to this time (cue Open victory).  Although my heart doesn’t think he will, I want the matador Sergio Garcia to finally break his major duck.  He is the heir to Seve Ballesteros’ throne, a maverick who takes on shots no other player would even consider.  It has often been to the detriment of his results (e.g the 17th hole at this year’s Player’s Championship) but Sergio only knows one way to play – all-out attack.  When he gets it right it is a thing of beauty – Garcia with an iron in hand is like his compatriot Picasso wielding his paintbrush.  His opening 66 at the Masters is as close to perfection as you are ever likely to see on the golf course.  Unfortunately he is about as consistent as an incontinent after 10 pints and a vindaloo.  He has been adversely affected by the mindless comments he made about Tiger Woods at the BMW PGA in May but over on (sort of) home soil he will get more support from the galleries than across the pond.  If he is still knocking about at the weekend, anything can happen.

What about the defending champion?  Ernie Els has come to Muirfield a little under the radar which is exactly how he likes it.  He is in pretty good form too.  A victory at the BMW International Open was preceded by two top-10’s at the U.S Open and the BMW PGA at Wentworth.  He won his first Open Championship at Muirfield 11 years ago so he knows what it takes to win round this challenging course.  He also has the most aesthetically pleasing golf swing in the world.  If that isn’t enough to convince you to head down to the bookies straight away then I don’t what is.

So there you have it.  What is for certain is some lucky fellow will be holding the famous Claret Jug aloft on the 18th green on Sunday evening with a cheque for £950,000 in his back pocket.  What is also almost certain is that it will be none of the players I have mentioned in this article.  I have an uncanny knack of giving the kiss of death to any of my tips so here’s my advice: have a flutter on any of the players I haven’t tipped.  They’ll probably win.

Lions 3rd Test reaction.

I was tempted to write something in the immediate aftermath of the Lions win on Saturday, but given the state of elation I was experiencing at the time, it would probably have gone something along the lines of ‘WHOOOOH!!!  YEAAAAHHH!!!  Go Lions!  Give everyone a knighthood.  Halfpenny for King.  Gatland for Pope.’  Now that I’ve had a chance to calm down, my first instinct is still to write 1,000 words with precisely that sentiment, but I’m going to rein myself in, and try and be a little more objective.

It was an outstanding performance from the tourists.  They were defensively superb, the forwards carried the ball strongly, the backs exercised their moves when it mattered and, most importantly, they absolutely monstered the Wallabies in the scrum, so much so that you started to almost feel sorry for the Australian pack, and a British sport-lover does not dole out sympathy to an Australian sportsperson willy-nilly.

As a former back, I genuinely have no idea what goes on at scrum-time (along with the rest of the human race).  I am au fait with the term ‘hinging’, I can bollocks on about slipping your bind with the best of them, and I understand what an early engagement is, but generally I look at the scrum with a certain amount of bemusement, and then cheer/groan when the inevitable sanction occurs (because, let’s be honest, the ball hardly ever comes out).  However, even I could tell that the Lions scrum was doing something special.  Those in the know were praising the referee Romain Poite for finally refereeing the scrum properly, and clearly the extra power of Alex Corbisiero and Richard Hibbard made a difference.

I was worried that the pack selection had too much emphasis on ball-carrying ability and not enough on craft at the breakdown, but as it transpired the breakdown was not contested as hotly as in the second Test, and, when it was, Poite importantly allowed a proper contest.  Therefore the three loose forwards could work as unit, as evidenced by the first penalty conceded by the Wallabies.  Dan Lydiate felled Joe Tomane, with Sean O’Brien in close attendance, meaning the Irishman could get his hands on the ball before any other Aussie could get near enough to form a ruck.  However, the Lions were smart, and only committed to the breakdown when there was a clear chance of winning the ball, or if they were defending near their own line, when they were excellent at slowing the ball down, probably illegally.  Jonathan Sexton was possibly lucky to avoid a yellow card in the second half, when he held on to the tackled player a couple of metres from his own tryline.

And then we come to ball-carrying.  The difference between the second and third Tests was startling.  Jamie Heaslip is a fine player, quick, with an outstanding offload, and an eye for space, but a shirt-up-jumper ball-carrier he is not.  Given the style of play Gatland prefers, it was a surprise that Toby Faletau had to wait until the third Test to get a start, but he made a huge difference, always making yards, catching restart ball, and coming up with a crucial, possibly even game-changing turnover in his own 22, a couple of minutes before Sexton’s try.  Sean O’Brien, the object of an unexpectedly large amount of man-love from the commentators on Australian TV, was also prominent ball-carrying-wise, although not as much as in previous games – here his main contribution was breakdown work, and putting in an astonishing number of tackles, getting into double figures before the end of the first half.  Finally, Richard Hibbard improved even on Tom Youngs’ work in the loose, notably getting up unharmed from two almighty head clashes, and then collapsing into a state of catatonia on being replaced.

As far as the backs were concerned, their efforts in the first hour or so were primarily defensive.  Jamie Roberts is Wales’ defence leader, and obviously had no trouble slotting into the system alongside his usual partner Jonathan Davies, while George North impressed, giving Israel Folau an early greeting, and then pulling off a highly impressive catch of a high ball in his own 22 under pressure from two Wallabies.  However, when an attacking opportunity arose, they displayed the incisiveness of a warm sharp metal object meeting a lump of dairy product, in particular for the second try, where Tommy Bowe’s decoy run created just enough hesitation in the Australian defence, giving Jonathan Davies just enough room to slip round the outside.  For the fourth try, the angle of Jamie Roberts’ run, and the timing of Conor Murray’s pass were so beautiful and so perfect, that I fully expect to see an exhibition based around them displayed at the Royal Academy within the next 12 months.

Then we have Leigh Halfpenny.  Wonderful, wonderful Halfpenny.  The man to whom I am intending to marry my as yet unborn daughter, whether she wants to or not (although let’s face it, she probably will – girls go gooey at his curly locks and soulful eyes, in the way that blokes go misty-eyed at his flawless kicking technique and low centre of gravity).  He quite simply gets everything right.  The opposition fly-half blooters a kick downfield – don’t worry Halfpenny’s in the perfect position to field it, and barely has to move to catch it, before cracking a dead-eyed reply into touch in the opposition 22.  Oh no, the most dangerous runner in the team has gathered his own chip and chase and is haring into our 22 – don’t worry, Halfpenny has grabbed him round his knees and has him down on the floor before he even has a chance to think about an offload.  What’s this, the opposing scrum-half has booted a mediocre kick towards the left hand side of the pitch around the halfway line?  Can’t see us making too much out of this opportunity though.  Hang on, Halfpenny’s predicted exactly where the kick will go, has caught it and set off on a mazy run, stepping outside then inside before drawing the full-back and sending our giant left-winger over in the corner.  He is an utterly brilliant player in every facet of the game.

There is much else to mention in conjunction with the game – the way Adam Jones never ever takes a backward step in the scrum; the fact Jonathan Sexton is always shouting angrily at someone; Jesse Mogg’s tracer-like left boot; Geoff Parling’s epoch-making ankle tap on the aforementioned Mogg; Geoff Parling’s beard, which makes him look as though he should be telling whimsical yet subtly hilarious stories at the Edinburgh Fringe; Kurtley Beale’s line-breaking ability; Warren Gatland’s slight smile as the Lions win another penalty at the scrum; the way that even joy at a Lions victory cannot hide the fact that Stuart Barnes is an obnoxious tosser .  However, that’s all for another day.  Instead let’s savour the win, and put £50 in an envelope entitled ‘New Zealand 2017 fund.’

The Ashes

What a weekend for British sport; and it’s about to get a whole lot better.  If anything can top the Murray/Lions euphoria, 22 men from England and Australia playing for a comedy, pint-sized urn can.  With more thrills and spills than Michael Barrymore’s Christmas party, this series has already had more than its fair share of controversies – and a ball hasn’t even been bowled yet.  Many so called ‘experts’ are predicting an easy England victory but this blog (always 100% accurate with its predictions) isn’t so sure.

 

            On the face of it, the Australian cricket team is in absolute turmoil.  They sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur, two weeks ago; one of their batsmen (David Warner) punched an England player (Joe Root) in a nightclub and was banned from playing in the warm-up matches; and when they played India, earlier this year (whom England beat 2-1 just before Christmas) they got absolutely hammered 4-0.  The Aussies also suspended four of their players for failing to do their homework on the India tour.  So far, so good from an England perspective.

 

            The reality is not necessarily so rosy.  Australia have appointed ex-batsman Darren Lehmann as their new coach which is something of a masterstroke.  Unlike the draconian Arthur, Lehmann is a people’s person from the old-school, someone who will encourage and galvanise the side and this makes them potentially very dangerous.  Lehmann will install some stereotypical hard Aussie grit back into the team and make them very hard to beat.  The tourists may not be as technically gifted as England but you can bet your bottom Australian dollar that Lehmann will extract every last drop of determination out of his side.  The mental side of sport is too often ignored, but in this case it can and probably will make a big difference to the Australian side England will face on Wednesday and the side they faced in the Champions Trophy four weeks ago.

 

            Australia have the luxury of the world’s best batsman, captain Michael Clarke, in their ranks  Since the beginning of 2012 he has been a run machine, scoring four Test double-centuries (one of them was a triple century) in a single calendar year.  Clarke’s back has been playing up a bit recently but if he’s fully fit, England will have a serious job on their hands shifting him.  Supporting their captain will be Chris Rogers and Shane Watson.  Rogers is very much a horses for courses selection who has excelled for years in English domestic cricket.  Watson has oodles of talent but in 75 innings for the Baggy Greens, he only has two centuries to his name.  At 32 it is now or never for the broad-chested all-rounder and Australia will need him to improve on his current record.

 

            Much has been written about the vaunted England attack but there has been relatively little said about the Australian bowlers.  Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Starc all have the armoury to excel in English conditions, and James Pattison and James Faulkner in particular look like very promising seamers.  Starc could be the trump card for the Aussies.  He is a handy lower-order batsman and crucially bowls left-arm fast.  Another left-armer, New Zealand’s Trent Boult, caused serious problems for the England batting order earlier this year and Starc will try to exploit that weakness.  Siddle also has had success in English conditions, taking 20 wickets in the 2009 series.  His consistency, pace and aggression is bound to trouble the English batsmen this summer.  The current weather could in fact negate their impact and may in fact play into England’s hands.  The hosts are more experienced in these drier conditions.  James Anderson is a master of reverse-swing and also bowls brilliant cutters when the ball is not doing much.  The Australians are yet to prove they can bowl effectively in batsman-friendly conditions.

 

            That is not to suggest that the Australian bowlers won’t get opportunities.  I have felt for some time that England’s batting order is a little too brittle and recently they have failed to post the sort of imposing first innings totals that were commonplace between 2009 and 2011.  England have two relative newcomers in the top six (Root and Jonny Bairstow) who will no doubt come in for some special treatment during the series.  They Yorkshire pair have both had impressive starts to their test careers but nothing can prepare them for the intensity of series against the old enemy.  The decision to open with Root is certainly a bold move – one that represents England’s faith and confidence in the 22 year-old.  Both their performances could well be a deciding factor in the destination of the urn.

 

            One area England do have a significant advantage is in the spin department.  Since his début in 2008, Graeme Swann has risen to become one of, if not the best spin bowler in the world.  The likeable Nottinghamshire man has the ability to bowl in all conditions be it in a containing capacity or as a wicket-taker.  With all due respect to Australia’s Nathan Lyon, England’s top-6 are hardly going to be having nightmares about his off-spin.  In a move that smacks of desperation, Australia have called up newly qualified native, Fawad Ahmed into their A squad who are also touring England this summer but he has barely played any first-class cricket, let alone test cricket.  Even if he does get called up, I find it hard to believe that he will immediately become some sort of world-beater.

           

            On paper, England have a far stronger team.  Their batting is superior to Australia’s, the seamers and spinner are more experienced and England have a wonderful wicket-keeper/batsman in Matt Prior.  But cricket matches are rarely, if ever, won on paper.  This Australian side is dangerous; they have absolutely nothing to lose.  They have a new coach who will have boosted morale no end and if the key players perform, like Clarke, Shane Watson, Siddle and Starc, and England aren’t at their best, the Aussies have more than just a chance of victory.  All this talk of England winning 5-0 is complete nonsense.  It will be a lot closer than that.  The series will be won during two or three key sessions.  Whoever performs when it matters most will be lifting the little urn at the Oval in late August.  I hope (and think) it will be England but you can unfortunately never discount the Aussies.

The Ultimate Test

The end of the 2013 Lions tour is fast approaching and the series has come down to the final test.  The tension on Saturday in Sydney will be practically unbearable, and that’s just for the spectators, either in the stadium, or watching in a pub/at home/on an illegal internet feed.  For the players (especially the Lions players) it will be possibly the most important match of their career.  One thing has dominated, and will continue to dominate the build-up to the game, however, and that is Warren Gatland’s decision to omit Brian O’Driscoll, the first time, it seems, that the Irish legend has been dropped in his senior career.

I’ll come to that issue shortly, but first of all, let’s look back at the tour as a whole.  Personally, I think a Lions tour is one of the great sporting events.  For me, interest in a sporting event is often proportional to length of time between occurrences.  So in football, a World Cup is more exciting than the Champions League, in athletics the Olympics is more exciting than the World Championships, in golf the Ryder Cup is more exciting than the US Masters.  This argument falls down slightly when looking at cricket, where the ODI World Cup is a turgid bloated lump of disinterest, but that’s more the fault of the format of the tournament, rather than the event itself.  However, what puts a Lions tour above almost every other sporting event (the Olympics and possibly the Ryder Cup can rival it) is the fact that the team and the concept only exists for a month and a half every four years.  For both the rugby and football World Cups, the teams that are playing have been building towards that tournament for years, and the element of surprise and suspense is lacking when the team takes to the field.  The fans know, broadly, how their team will play, which players combine well, which players are in form.  Naturally, that can’t happen for the Lions.  Therefore there is a sense of history being made during every minute of a Lions game, in particular during the test.  Scoring a Test try in a Lions jersey is a rare thing, and those that do will have their careers defined by doing so.  Think of the most memorable tries by (for example) Brian O’Driscoll, Jason Robinson, Ieuan Evans and Matt Dawson, and I imagine you’ll pick the tries they scored whilst playing for the Lions.

Ramble aside, I think this has been a successful tour, irrespective of the result of the final Test.  Yes, the lack of top quality opposition in the tour matches was an irritation, but it is entirely understandable.  The coaches of the Super Rugby teams are naturally going to prioritise a strong league performance over victory against a touring team.  As much as such a victory will probably be remembered for longer, a poor season will lead to him losing his job, so the Lions match is the obvious time to allow your important players to benefit from a rest.  It is similar to cricket teams who tour England – 20 years ago they would play most of the counties in either a 3-day or a 1-day match, and the counties would put out their strongest team, anxious to claim a famous scalp.  Now the two or three counties who actually play a touring team view it as a chore, and they tend to send out a development XI, resting as many players as possible without looking rude.  I thought the Lions made excellent use of their warm-up games – every player was given ample time to play themselves into (or out of) form, different combinations were tried, and the expansive style of play won Aussie admirers and enthused British watchers.  Naturally, the intensity wasn’t the same as in a Test, but then no warm-up match can be.

The first two Tests have seen more buttocks clenched, more fingernails chewed, more breath held per square mile than any other occasion on record (except for in Hoxton on the day the Glastonbury line-up is announced).  The Wallabies have looked more likely to break the line, and Will Genia has been marvellous at keeping the tempo relentlessly high.  The heart-breaking try towards the end of the second Test was down to his constant probing and ability to read in a split-second where the Lions defence was at its weakest.  Attack-wise the Lions have looked a little flat, and have lacked a ball-carrying presence in both games (welcome back Toby Faletau).  Jonny Sexton has kicked nicely, but has failed to deliver the ball to his fellow-backs with the required zip and regularity.  Too often, especially in the second Test, a forward (normally Mako Vunipola) ended up at first receiver, slowing down any chance the Lions had of taking advantage of width. 

So, to the team selection for the final Test.  Corbisiero for Vunipola makes sense.  Although I thought Vunipola had a pretty decent game last Saturday, helping the scrum win a few penalties and tackling like a dervish, he also gave away a few high-profile penalties, got in the way of attacks, and, as keeps being said, is probably a better impact player.  Hibbard for Tom Youngs also makes sense, in that the Welsh Dmitri Szarszewski (only not as handsome) is a better scrummager and ball-carrier.  The only caveat is that his throwing has been mediocre at best all tour, and the Wallabies may well target the Lions lineout even more.  Mike Phillips will be welcomed back, not only because it means the world’s slowest passer, Ben Youngs, won’t be on the field, but also because, given the right protection from his back row, he is a potential match-winner, whose physicality may well prove useful.

The back row selection is an interesting one, in that Gatland has decided against replacing the injured Warburton with a Justin Tipuric, the other turnover merchant in the squad, but has instead gone for Sean O’Brien.  Now O’Brien is a terrific player, who makes a staggering number of yards with the ball in hand, and could, at a push, be used in the lineout.  However, it seems that Gatland was struck by the lack of ball-carrying by the forwards in the second Test, and so has moved to remedy that.  Hibbard, O’Brien and Toby Faletau, who has replaced Jamie Heaslip at number 8, make a large number of hard yards, but this particular Lions pack now looks like it will lack something at the breakdown, especially now the Aussie have recalled George Smith, precisely for his ball-snaffling abilities.  Tipuric is on the bench, and should make an impact in that respect, but I worry it will be too late by then.

So, finally to the biggest call of the lot – the dropping of Brian O’Driscoll.  First of all it is clear that the Davies/O’Driscoll partnership wasn’t working – neither player has shown any kind of penetration.  If fit, Jamie Roberts was always going to return to the side, because of his abilities to break the gain line, suck in defenders, and leave more space out wide.  That is the way Gatland always envisaged playing, and as such Roberts’ injury was crippling to his game plan.  Therefore, the choice was between Davies and O’Driscoll as to who would partner him.  So far in the Tests O’Driscoll has been a slightly blunted instrument.  He has had little chance to get his hands on the ball, little space to show his quick feet, few opportunities to demonstrate his immaculate timing of a pass, and, after being pinged twice in dubious circumstances during the first few minutes of the series, has lost his breakdown mojo.  He has kicked poorly, and even looked a little panicked when faced with a quick decision.  Against that, he has been defensively immaculate, tackling everything, positioning himself perfectly, and being a vocal organiser.  An Irish Brad Barritt if you will.  Davies has been better during the tour itself, and has looked more potent going forward during the Tests, but has also started to look jaded, and it was technically his man who broke through for the Australian try in the second Test (although given the excellence of Adam Ashley-Cooper’s angle, anybody would have struggled to stop him).

From a rugby point of view, I think Gatland’s decision makes sense.  Here he has two outside centres, neither of whom are playing particularly well, to choose from.  One is 34, struggling a little for confidence, and would be playing with an unfamiliar centre partner, while the other is 25, has more of a physical presence, and knows the game of the man inside him like the back of his hand.  But this is Brian O’Driscoll we are talking about, one of the greats, not just of this era, but of any era; a leader, a player who has performed on the big stage, a player who inspires his teammates by his presence, as well as scaring the opposition.  He isn’t the player he was – indeed his level of performance has dropped steadily over the last four years – but he is still a formidable force.  This is a decision that will define this tour, one which will define Gatland’s coaching career.  I can see why he has made it, but I worry it is the wrong one.

The return of the serve-volley

How refreshing was it to see Sergei Stakhovsky beat Roger Federer the other day?  Any victory against the Swiss genius should be heralded but it was the manner in which Stakhovsky played that made victory all the more special.  He got his tactics spot-on with a bit of old-fashioned serve-volley tennis.  It was a joy to behold.

            Serve-volley tennis has been on the decline since primate Pete Sampras hung up his racket.  In days gone by, all the big guns used to serve-volley: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, Steffan Edberg, the list is endless.  These days however it is a dying art.  The ground strokes and service return of your average tennis player have improved no-end to the detriment of the volley.  Nowadays a venture into the net is about as common as a yeti.  The problem is that because the ground strokes are so good, the volley has to be near perfect otherwise the man at the net is just a sitting duck and will be passed easily.  Consequently, volleying has no longer become an integral part of the game at a junior level where players rarely learn how to play the shot properly and confidently.

            Since Sampras retired, few players have had success with the tactic.  Federer used to serve-volley a lot more often in his early career – indeed he beat Sampras in 2001 and also won Wimbledon in 2003 with that strategy.  Recently he used it as a surprise tactic.  Perhaps, with his advancing years, he should re-embrace the serve-volley in a bid to shorten the points.  It may well prolong his career.

            Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski used to serve-volley with varying degrees of success.  Rusedski employed it throughout his career, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2002, memorably beating Andy Roddick in straight sets in the process.  Henman reached numerous Wimbledon semi-finals with a serve-volley game and it worked well until he played someone who was better than him.  Henman’s serve was not quite good enough to trouble the top players and so could be returned with interest as Lleyton Hewitt, Sampras and Ivanisevic all proved.

Roddick had a fearsome serve and used to back it up with some pretty handy volleying.  He never used it as his stock tactic, though perhaps he should have because his ground strokes (especially his backhand) were pretty ropey.  He still reached three Wimbledon finals, all defeats to Federer and played one of the all-time great matches in his 2009 loss to the Swiss maestro.

            Other recent exponents of the art of serve-volley include Sebastian Grosjean – who beat Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2004, Michael Llodra – who has yet to win anything of note but his commitment to the tactic is unwavering, Pat Rafter – who reached two consecutive Wimbledon finals in 2000 & 2001, and Radek Stepanek, who got soundly beaten by a young Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2005.  Britain had its own serve-volley hero in Chris Eaton who, in 2008, beat Boris Pasanski in the first round of Wimbledon.  He got absolutely mullered by Dimitri Tursunov in round two and has yet to do anything of note since, but we live in hope.

            Apart from Stakhovsky there are still the odd exponents of serve-volley at this year’s championships.  In his first round defeat, Gilles Simon employed the strategy against Feliciano Lopez who himself was partial to a little jaunt to the net after one of his serves now and again.  Jamaican/German Dustin Brown beat Lleyton Hewitt in round two with a spot of serve-volley action.  Even Andy Murray has been known to crack out a serve-volley but only very rarely.

            I hope that this mini-renaissance in serve-volley is not a mere flash in the pan but heralds a new era for grass-court tennis.  The modern game is all too often a slug-fest from the back of the court relying on brute power.  It is time a bit of finesse returned to the sport.  Sergei Stakhovsky I salute you for successfully bringing the archaic art form of serve-volley back to SW19.