Sporting Heartbreak

As a sport lover, one of the questions I get asked most often is ‘Why do you like sport?  What’s so great about watching a load of people running around indulging in an ultimately pointless and futile activity?’  All right, they might not use quite so many words, but the tone used often implies them.  It’s an interesting question – there are many things that make sport, both the playing and the watching, utterly marvellous, and it is usually very difficult to elucidate these when put on the spot in that way.

Don’t worry, this particular article isn’t going to be chock-full of pseudo-intellectual bollocks on the meaning of sport; it will still be dripping with pseudo-intellectual bollocks of course, but on a slightly different subject.  One of the things that I find wonderful about sport is that it causes the participant or watcher to feel some pretty strong and intense emotions, but via a medium that ultimately doesn’t matter.  So the sight of your team scoring a goal causes elation and excitement, but fleetingly, and if they didn’t score at that particular moment, you wouldn’t miss the brief high.  However, sport can also cause distress, sadness, and occasionally real heartbreak.  In this article I would like to detail some of sport’s most heartbreaking moments.

Before starting, I should acknowledge the debt the format of this article owes to The Guardian’s excellent Joy of Six series – if you have a few hours to spare, look up the back catalogue online; one of life’s most enjoyable ways to waste time.  As the old saying goes – if you can’t beat ‘em, steal ‘eir idea and pass it off as your own.

 

1. Andy Roddick v Roger Federer, Wimbledon Final 2009

Recent Wimbledon finals have seen plenty of outpourings of emotion, whether it be in victory, such as Pat Cash’s perilous ascent up to his family in the players’ box in 1987 (a move now seemingly de rigeur for any champion), Goran Ivanisevic’s touching incredulity after his victory as a wild-card in 2001, and, dare we say it, Andy Murray’s relief this year, or in defeat, most famously Jana Novotna’s world collapsing in 1993, but also including Rafael Nadal in 2006, Andy Murray again, last year, and Sabine Lisicki this year.  However, for me Roddick’s loss to Federer in 2009 was the most heartbreaking precisely because he didn’t break down in floods of tears afterwards.

Men’s tennis in the United States is, while not in a parlous state, nowhere near as strong as it was in the 80s and 90s, where American men would routinely contest Grand Slam finals, often against each other.  There seemed to be an endless production line of world-class players from Ashe, Connors and McEnroe to Chang, Courier, Agassi and Sampras, and when Andy Roddick first came onto the scene, it was assumed he would be the next in that line.  Since then, despite the likes of Jan-Michael Gambill, Robby Ginepri, James Blake, John Isner and Mardy Fish (one of sport’s greatest names), Roddick is the only American player who has consistently been in the top 10, top 5 even.  He, like Lleyton Hewitt, straddled the era between Sampras/Agassi and Federer/Nadal, and therefore was at his peak ranking-wise at a young age.

He was clearly an excellent player, although, if not an enfant terrible, at least an enfant assez mal, prone to on-court outbursts and racket throwing.  His serve was his main weapon, but he also had an excellent forehand, and his backhand improved as he got older.  What he lacked in comparison with the greats was tactical nous, and the ability to mix up his play.  However, he won a Grand Slam, the 2003 US Open, and before 2009 had reached three other finals, Wimbledon in 2004 and 2005, and the US Open in 2006, each time losing to Federer.

Federer in 2009 was a player just starting to wane.  Defeats to Nadal in the 2008 Wimbledon final and the 2009 Australian Open final (the latter loss prompting a biblical outpouring of tears) had dented his aura somewhat, but with Nadal incapacitated by knee trouble, he won the French Open in May 2009 to complete a career Grand Slam, and also move level with Pete Sampras on 14 Grand Slams.  He was clearly the player to beat at SW19, and he moved through the rounds serenely, losing only one set before the final.  Roddick had come through a titanic 5-set quarter-final against Lleyton Hewitt, before turning Pete Sampras to Andy Murray’s Tim Henman in the semi-final and sending yet another year’s worth of British tennis fans home disappointed.  He was clearly playing well, and serving excellently, but there were doubts as to whether he could seriously challenge Federer, whom he had never beaten in a Grand Slam.

Everything was set up for Federer to win his record-breaking 15th Grand Slam.  It was at Wimbledon, his favourite venue.  Past legends Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver were in attendance, while Pete Sampras turned up halfway through to much fanfare, his first visit to Wimbledon since 2002.  But Roddick would not stick to the script.  He played the match of his life, and it was all Federer could do to hang on.  Most importantly Roddick served out of his skin, barely giving his opponent a sniff.  As a result Federer was always under pressure when serving himself, although with typical insouciance he usually brushed it aside.

In terms of pure tennis it wasn’t a particularly good game, being effectively a serve competition.  Roddick broke twice to win two sets, while Federer won two on a tie-break.  The final set was particularly attritional, but Federer managed to cling on to his serve on every occasion, and just waited for his chance.  Finally, after 37 consecutive holds of serve (a consistency which is frankly astonishing) Roddick was broken in the final game of the match, losing 16-14 in the fifth.

It is in Roddick’s response to defeat that the real heartbreak lies.  For him to break down and bawl his eyes out would have been a perfectly reasonable course of action.  He had played probably as well as it was possible to play in a match against a man who he would beat only three times in his career, at the final of tennis’ most prestigious tournament, one which he had been told from a young age was the most likely for him to win, and yet he had still lost.  It must have been crushing.  He must have felt conflicting emotions, proud at himself for having played absolutely to his potential, but at the same time utterly deflated.  Here was a man who needed an outlet for these emotions.  As the microphone-toting Sue Barker approached for the on-court post-match interview you felt sure that the waterworks were imminent.

Instead Roddick gave an interview of quite staggering magnanimity.  He praised Federer for his performance, he thanked the crowd, he even made a joke.  But all the while, you could see the devastation lurking just below the surface.  From the moment he was introduced to the crowd as runner-up and received a tumultuous ovation, to the moment he walked off the court Roddick was struggling to keep his emotions to himself.  As any actor will tell you, it touches people so much more if they can see you trying to supress the fact you are upset, rather than just crying straight out.  We have all been in situations where we know we shouldn’t cry, but just can’t help it, and so can empathise when we see it in others.  That Roddick managed to get through that presentation ceremony and interview with barely a tear is to his immense credit.  No-one would have been surprised had he broken down – in fact most may have expected it – but his refusal to do so makes this defeat of his far more heartbreaking.  This game should have been all about Federer breaking Sampras’ record, but, even to a Wimbledon crowd that is perennially pro-Federer, Roddick’s conduct made it more about him.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR79Bi-GqB4 – watch it here, and compare Roddick’s speech to Federer’s egocentric crassness.

2. Felipe Massa 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix

The thing about sport is that it’s a competition, therefore at the end there has to be a winner and there has to be a loser.  That may sound like stating the bleeding obvious, but bear with me.  As a youngster playing sport, you are often fobbed off with platitudes after defeat such as ‘you were all winners out there’ and ‘it’s not the winning, but the taking part.’  This may indeed be true at the level of junior or social sport, but at the highest level, winning is everything, not just to assuage the competitive instinct, but also because defeat may be the difference between getting a playing contract for the next year, or indeed a large amount of prize money.  So it is of little consolation to the elite sportsperson to lose a hugely memorable contest.

The climax to the 2008 Formula One season was famously one of the most dramatic moments in any sport.  The denouement was such that the writers of Happy Days would have dismissed it as fanciful, and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, would have cast it firmly into the Not section.  Coming into the final race of the season, Lewis Hamilton had 94 points and Felipe Massa had 87.  Both drivers had won 5 races, and the permutations were thus: if Hamilton finished 5th or higher, then the 4 points he would gain would be enough to win the title, wherever Massa were to finish; if Massa won, and Hamilton finished lower than 5th, then Massa would be World Champion; if Massa finished second and Hamilton finished out of the points, then Massa would be champion; if Massa finished second and Hamilton eighth, then everyone who tried to work out the mathematics of it all would spontaneously combust because of its complexity, and the championship declared null and void.  I made that last bit up, mainly because I’m not sure what would have happened.  Arm wrestle maybe?

As with Federer above, it seemed as though all was perfectly set up for Massa to triumph.  The script had been written.  It was his home Grand Prix, Hamilton had choked from a similar position the season before, and two races previously a controversial Japanese Grand Prix had involved a collision between the two title rivals that caused Hamilton to rejoin at the back of the field from where he was unable to conjure up a points finish.  Would the two points Massa gained that day prove vital?

The race was an exciting one, with intermittent rain causing all sorts of tyre changes.  With 8 laps remaining, Massa was leading, but Hamilton was in a fairly comfortable fourth position.  Then it started to rain.  All the leaders came into the pits to change from dry to intermediate tyres, with one exception, the Toyota of Timo Glock.  When the order had re-settled after the pit-stop flurry, Hamilton found himself in 5th position, still ahead in the Championship, but with Sebastian Vettel, then merely an annoyingly precocious German, up his chuff.  Struggling for grip, and hampered by back-markers, Hamilton ran wide with two laps remaining, allowing Vettel through, and seemingly once again coughing up his Championship chances.  He chased Vettel for two laps, but couldn’t get close enough to even attempt a pass, and that, you thought, was that.

But remember Timo Glock?  The man who had decided not to change his tyres?  He was now in fourth place, but struggling badly on an increasingly wet track on slick tyres, his lap times dropping furiously.  On the final corner of the final lap, Vettel and Hamilton caught him and passed him, thrusting the Englishman up to 5th position, and making him World Champion.  In the Ferrari garage the mechanics and the Massa family celebrated, unaware of this last minute pass, before someone tells them the bad news.  The look on the faces of Massa’s father and brother as they realise what has happened is heartbreaking.  It is almost impossible to believe a countenance can change from elation to disbelief to devastation in such a short space of time.  That the entire season should come down to the final corner of the final race is incredible, but for Massa the fact that he played his part in such an exhilarating finish was of no consolation.

In hindsight it is even more heartbreaking.  Massa was gracious in defeat, saying ‘I know how to lose and I know how to win and as I said before it is another day of my life from which I am going to learn a lot,’ and intimating that he was looking forward to challenging for the title again, but this was his best chance.  A year later he suffered a near-fatal injury at the Hungarian Grand Prix, and hasn’t been the same driver since.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsLX2Uen2dc – watch the final laps here.

3. Derek Redmond, 400m semi-final, Barcelona 1992

Why do we empathise with sportsmen and women when they break down in public?  It’s not as if we can put ourselves precisely in their situation.  99.9% (a conservative estimate) of people watching an elite sporting event will never come anywhere near to experiencing what a sportsperson does – performing, after years of hard work, sacrifice and practice, in front of a vast audience, knowing that every action you take will be scrutinised, over-analysed and dissected until the cows have returned to their domiciles.  We can recognise, however, the pain of failing to attain something we desperately want, and when that failure comes because of something arguably out of your control, the distress is intensified.  Derek Redmond’s famous breakdown at the Barcelona Olympics contains this form of heartbreak, along with oh so much more.

Redmond was a genuinely high-class athlete, although not a world-class one.  He held the British record at 400 metres twice, and was part of the team that won the 4x400m relay at the 1991 World Championship (involving a goose-pimple-inducing final lap from Kriss Akabusi).  He was, however, injury-prone; he had missed the previous Olympics thanks to achilles-knack, and had undergone 8 operations during his career by the time he arrived in Barcelona.

His performances in the early rounds suggested Redmond was now in the form of his life.  Nearly 27, perhaps his body had matured enough to withstand the rigours of international athletics.  He breezed through the first round, setting the fastest time of all the qualifiers, and then won his quarter-final with ease.  He was expected to have no trouble qualifying for the final, before, hopefully, bothering the medal positions in the final.

Looking relaxed before the race, Redmond started well, running smoothly and easily, and looked to be in a good position, before, around halfway through the race, he clutched his right hamstring and came to a very abrupt halt.  This is a mildly heartbreaking scenario in itself; injury-prone athlete, seemingly recovered and performing at the peak of his ability, is let down by his body again at a crucial stage.  We’ll call this your common, or garden, sporting heartbreak.  A few moments later, we see the heartbreak-o-meter ramped up to level 3, as Redmond decides that, despite being practically lame, he wishes to finish the race and starts hobbling around the track towards the finish line.  What is interesting to notice is that he still stays in his lane as he slowly progresses, as if his muscle memory is preventing him from straying out of lane and risking disqualification.  Redmond said that his motivation for completing the race at this point was that, in his addled state he believed that he could still catch the other runners, and by finishing could still potentially fulfil his dream and reach the final.

As he rounds the bend, with pain and distress etched on his face, a figure emerges from the crowd, fighting off the (rather flimsy) attentions of the security guards, and approaches Redmond.  It turns out to be his father and mentor, dressed rather comically in blue shorts, a large white Nike cap, and a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Have you hugged your foot today?’  The heartbreak-o-meter goes up to 11 before exploding in a billow of smoke, as Redmond, becoming aware of his father by his side breaks down completely, collapsing onto his shoulder and sobbing uncontrollably.  They cross the line together, Redmond absolutely broken while his father, remarkably calmly given the circumstances, shoos away any official who dares to approach.  The crowd, recognising a seminal moment with far more perception than said officials, cheer themselves hoarse as Redmond Sr leads his emotional wreck of a son off the track, to somewhere where he can grieve more privately.

The footage of this incident has been replayed countless times, and yet it never fails to move.  There is so much to it, the emotion as multi-layered as an onion.  The advent of Redmond’s father is where the heartbreak becomes too much to bear, as we see a fully grown man, a top-class athlete, revert to being a small child, seeking comfort and solace in the arms of a parent.  It’s something I’m sure many of us have wished we could do when times get tough.  They say that there is no love that can surpass that of a parent for a child, and Redmond Sr (enough shilly-shallying, he has a name, so let’s use it.  He’s called Jim.) acts in a beautifully caring way.  He instinctively knows what to do – he at first joins his son, just offering his presence if it is required; next he comforts his son, all the while continuing to help his towards his goal, the finish line; and finally he protects his son from the attentions of the green-jacketed officials.  There are tens of thousands of people in the stadium.  There are hundreds of millions watching on television, but for Jim and Derek Redmond there are only two people present, a caring father comforting his devastated son.  For me, this is the most moving occurence I have ever seen in sport.

Sadly the only footage on YouTube is of montages set to vomit-inducingly saccharine music, but this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nifq3Ke2Q30 is the closest I could find to experiencing the event as it happened.  I challenge you not to cry.

4. Simon Shaw, Lions v South Africa 2nd Test, 2009

Any regular readers of this blog (stop sniggering at the back there – it could happen) will know that I have a bit of a thing for the British and Irish Lions.  It’s wonderful how a scratch team (of admittedly extremely good players) can, after a handful of training sessions, mix it against one of the top three international teams in world rugby (we’ll forget about the 2005 tour to New Zealand for the moment).  Most rugby players share the same love of the concept of the Lions, and for many the ultimate dream, and the ultimate accolade is to pull on the famous red jersey.

In 2009 Simon Shaw was approaching 36 years of age.  He had played top-flight rugby for nearly twenty years, international rugby for thirteen, had toured with the Lions in 1997 and 2005, and was generally regarded as one of the hardest men in the game.  His call-up to the Lions squad was unexpected and fully deserved – he was tough, fit, brimming with experience, a huge presence in the set-piece and, above all, a leader and winner.  Although definitely not a favourite for a starting place in the Test team, his presence on tour was expected to be a bonus, and he certainly wouldn’t shy away from any physical challenge.

To be honest the 2009 Lions tour is one of sport’s ‘what ifs…?’  What if Ugo Monye could keep hold of a rugby ball?  What if Adam Jones had started the first test?  What if the referee had had the stones to send Schalk Burger off in the first minute of the second test?  What if none of Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll and Adam Jones had got injured in the second test?  What if Ronan O’Gara’s parents had persuaded him a rugby career was a terrible idea?  The Lions should have won the first test, choked in the second test, and won the third at a canter when it didn’t matter.  Like the team that toured Australia in 2001, they played some mind-blowing rugby, and still managed to find a way to lose.

After losing the first test, despite threatening to complete one of sport’s all-time great comebacks, the Lions made a few (some enforced) changes to their team, including replacing the rangy athletic Alun Wyn Jones with Shaw, who partnered Paul O’Connell in what is scientifically proven to be the most gnarled second row pairing of all time.  The game was a belter.  Stephen Jones, the Sunday Times Rugby Correspondant, and generally held as the authority on rugby in these isles (when he’s not being unreasonably patriotic about Wales) rates it as the greatest test he’s ever seen.  Frankly you could write a Tolstoy-esque tome on the match.  Suffice to say South Africa won the game 28-25, with a last minute penalty from inside his own half by Morne Steyn, thus taking an unassailable 2-0 lead in the series.  The Lions, and their fans, were devastated.

Out of all the team sports, rugby is probably the hardest to shine in as an individual.  All 15 players need to contribute, and much of the most valuable work is unseen, or at least unheralded.  However, in this game Simon Shaw was demonstrably magnificent.  He won line-out ball; he tackled non-stop; he was omni-present at the breakdown; he was prominent in the loose, carrying ball, making breaks, offloading with a hitherto unsuspected dexterity.  In short he, like Roddick, played the game of his life, and still lost.

To paraphrase The Cure, rugby players don’t cry; especially not hard bastard forwards.  As man of the match, Shaw was interviewed afterwards, and from the very beginning you can see the pain in his face.  His answers are delivered in a flat, tired voice, but you can see he is trying to provide as much good humour as is possible, a thoroughly decent bloke doing his best to help out the interviewer who seems to understand that this is a pretty thankless task for both of them.  Towards the end of the interview, the interviewer (not sure who he is, sorry) suddenly gushes out a torrent of praise for Shaw, telling him that he’s never seen him play so well in all his career, and asking how it felt finally, at the age of 36 on his third tour, to play for the Lions in a test match.  Not many of us are comfortable with receiving such praise that directly, especially not when we are feeling as distraught as Shaw was then.  You can see the tears start to well up in his face as he searches for a way to reply that won’t unleash the waterworks, eventually coming up with the pathetic (in its original sense) ‘I would’ve liked to have won today,’ like the good team player he is.  He did, however, manage to keep the tears in, thus preventing him from being banished from the rugby forwards’ union.

Here’s the interview in full http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9-WejPDRyY

5 & 6 Darren Clarke, Ryder Cup, 2006 and Matthias Steiner, Beijing Olympics, 2008

In a sense, these two examples don’t belong here.  While the previous stories have been of heartbreaking moments occurring because of sport, these two are of heartbreak within a sporting context.  Yet because they happened within a sporting context, and both within contexts where the stakes were so high, they do belong.

Let’s begin with Clarke.  A popular player, famous for always having a cigar on the go, he seemed, along with the similarly rotund Colin Montgomorie, to be destined to finish his career as an unfulfilled talent.  A smooth backswing led to consistency off the tee, but he was let down around the green somewhat, and, despite regularly bothering the leaderboard at major championships, had never been able to make the step up from very good to great.  In the Ryder Cup, however he was a different proposition, especially in the fourballs, where he could afford to play the risky shot that you often cannot when playing just for yourself.  A final record of played 20, won 10, halved 3 is excellent.

In 2004 Clarke’s life and that of his family changed forever, when his wife, Heather, was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer, a particularly devastating blow as she had come through primary breast cancer in 2001.  Over the next couple of years he played little golf, nursing Heather through the illness until, in August 2006, she died.

Six weeks later, at the K Club in County Kildare, the Ryder Cup started.  Given his partial withdrawal from golf over the previous two years, Clarke did not qualify to be on the Europe team automatically, but the captain, Ian Woosnam, had said that if Clarke was ready, he would be one of his wildcard picks.  Presumably needing the catharsis, Clarke decided to play and, supported by his teammates, including his very close friends Paul McGinlay and Lee Westwood, won all three of his matches as Europe walloped the Americans 18 ½ points to 9 ½.  The wall of sound that greeted him as he stepped up to the first tee in his first match was hair-raising, a reception he received throughout the tournament.  As he knocked it his putt to seal a 3&2 win over Zach Johnson in the singles, the crowd on the 16th gave him a thundering prolonged ovation, reducing Clarke, many of the other players, and probably most of the crowd to tears.  When asked what he felt in the moments after that putt had gone in, he replied ‘emotions that I hope you never have to feel.’

The story of Matthias Steiner is similar in that it involves the death of a spouse and the use of sport to help in the grieving process.  However, there is much more to it than that.

Steiner is a heavyweight weightlifter born in Vienna.  Starting in the under 105kg category, he competed internationally for Austria for several years, finishing 7th at the 2004 Olympic Games.  However, things went sour at the 2005 European Championships – Steiner had decided that the efforts to keep his weight under 105kg was too much, and so competed in the over 105kg category for the first time.  After disagreeing with his coach over how much he should attempt for his first lift, he proceeded to fail to complete all three of his lifts, with the national federation accusing him of having deliberately failed his final one.  Steiner got in a huff and vowed never to represent Austria again in international competition.

Luckily, this didn’t mean the end of his international ambitions – earlier that year he had married a German girl named Susann (they met due to some mildly stalker-ish behaviour on her part – after seeing Steiner on TV, she pestered Eurosport with e-mails until they finally gave her his contact details, but we won’t dwell on that).  As a result, he could qualify to represent Germany, which would mean three years of non-competition in any international event.  He would be eligible to compete again in 2008, which just happened to be Olympic year.

In his three years out, Steiner concentrated hard on bulking up, ready to be able to compete in the over 105kg category.  However, in the summer of 2007, Susann died in a car accident.  Steiner was, as you might imagine, devastated, stopped training and lost 8kg, quite a significant amount if you’re lifting more than twice your own body weight.  Eventually, using Susann’s memory as an incentive, he started training again, getting himself in peak condition as the 2008 season started.

An overall silver at the European Championships proved that he had used his time away from competition well, and, with the giant Iranian world record holder Hossein Rezazadeh retiring just before the Olympics, there was no obvious favourite.  To cut a long story short, big blokes lifted implausible amounts of metal one after another, until eventually it came to the final lift in the competition.  Steiner, in the clean and jerk, would have to lift 258kg, 10kg more than he had never managed before, to win the gold medal.

There could only be one outcome, I suppose.  Steiner steps up, looking incredibly determined, but also clearly struggling emotionally.  He composes himself somewhat, bends down to grab the weight, and lifts.  Somehow, from somewhere, he finds the ability to lift the bar first to his shoulders and then above his head, his eyes almost popping out of his face with the effort.  As he slams the bar down the realisation kicks in.  He lets out a scary animal-like roar, clutches momentarily at his chest, and then goes beserk, totally unsure of how to celebrate.  He jumps up and down; he rips off his outer vest; he hugs; he kisses the floor; he waves to the crowd, all accompanied by shouts of who knows what emotion that seem to come from deep down in his gut.  Knowing what has occurred before, you cannot fail to be moved by the release of it all, watching this man who has lived the last year under the most extreme emotional pressure, who is only able to compete here because of someone who cannot be with him to share his joy.  To top it all off, Steiner holds a photo of his wife on the podium as he receives his medal, before sobbing – not crying, not weeping, but sobbing – through the national anthem.  Heartbreak can occur in sporting victory, as well as defeat.

Slim YouTube pickings on these, but http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLN4OHxfbGQ for Steiner, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWBwasy_h7I (briefly, at around 2mins 30 – make sure you fast forward through the nauseating spectacle of the USA winning at Brookline in 1999, wearing those t-shirts) for Clarke.

 

 

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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 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.

Another Six Nations preview

Anyone remember the first weekend of this season’s Six Nations?  Way back in early February when optimism reigned high, France were many people’s favourites for the tournament, and England still had a representative in the European Champions’ League?  Well, on that first weekend, 16 tries were scored.  England looked clinical in attack, Scotland had a new and exhilarating back three, Ireland and Wales served up a try-laden classic, lit up by some startling skill by Simon Zebo and Brian O’Driscoll.  And Italy beat France.  Not be out-grunting them in the forwards, but by outplaying them all over the pitch.  My my, we thought to ourselves (probably), this season’s Six Nations looks like being a throwback to the early 2000s when scrums took mere seconds, tries were abundant, and Ronan O’Gara looked, well, exactly the same actually.  Roll on the rest of the tournament.

And what has ensued?  Turgid game after turgid game.  Watertight defences, torrential downpours, butchered overlaps, endless penalties and as much excitement as watching beige paint dry whilst listening to Geoff Boycott explain the history of the forward defensive.  16 tries in the first 3 games has led to 15 in the next 9.  The shrewd mathematicians amongst you will have noticed that makes 31 tries in total.  The lowest total number of tries in Six Nations history came last year when 46 were scored.  We’re on course for a record low by some margin.

I know what many of you will say (when I say many, I mean both.  This blog isn’t popular enough to warrant the use of the word ‘many.’  Yet).  Lack of tries doesn’t necessarily mean lack of excitement.  And you’d be correct.  Remember the Ireland v Australia game at the last World Cup?  No tries, but a gripping game nonetheless.  However, the games in this year’s tournament have been nothing like that absorbing contest – two excellent well-drilled defences snuffing out some inventive attacking play.  Instead we have seen excellent well-drilled defences finding it pretty simple to keep out predictable attacks, with said attacks pissing all over any chances they do get due to lack of basic skills and calmness under pressure (exhibit A England failing to score with a 6 on 2 overlap v Italy).

So what can we expect from this weekend’s games?

Italy v Ireland (Saturday 2.30)

Let’s be honest – any game that isn’t England v Wales this weekend is right on the back-burner as far as the tournament is concerned.  Yes, there’s the scramble not to finish last, and both of these teams could yet finish in that ignominious position, which for Ireland would be a disaster and probably lead to some pretty strong questioning over Declan Kidney’s position as Head Coach.  The main subplot to this weekend’s games, however, will be of course The Lions.  Warren Gatland has said that he has yet to make his mind up on about a third of his 37-man squad, so a strong performance this weekend could force one’s way into Gatland’s thinking.  For Ireland, that means Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Craig Gilroy, Conor Murray and Rory Best (among others) will be looking to play their way onto that QANTAS flight.  Italy, on the other hand will be looking for their first Six Nations win over Ireland, and, following their strong performance at Twickenham, confidence will be high.  Given stakes are low, and the pressure is off, one might hope that both teams will go on the attack.  If Luciano Orquera plays well, then Italy could win, but I think Ireland, given the incentive of grabbing a Lions place, will win by 7 points.  Hopefully Brian O’Driscoll will remain fit, and play the whole 80 minutes, as it seems this will be his final Six Nations games, and it would be appropriate if such a truly outstanding player (he’s probably the best number 7 in the Ireland team as well as the best 13) could bow out in style.

France v Scotland (Saturday 8.00)

Who would have predicted such a dismal tournament for the French?  Yes, last season they were poor, but the 33-6 thrashing of Australia in November made many people sit up and take notice.  They also have some of the outstanding performers in world rugby – Wesley Fofana is a gem of a centre, with speed, gracefulness, and an eye for a pass, not dissimilar to Jeremy Guscott; Louis Picamoles is a true man mountain, who always makes yards and saps the life out of the defenders who have to tackle him; and Morgan Parra is, you would think, the perfect French scrum-half, able to run the game, quick of pass, accurate of boot and fearless in defence.  The decision not to start him in the early stages of the tournament appears ludicrous.  It seems as though that defeat in Italy dented their confidence, and subsequently they haven’t looked like a coherent attacking force.  Parra will start against Scotland, and given the huge amount of talent in the backs (Clerc, Medard and Huget is, on paper at least, a formidable back three), you suspect it’s only a matter of time before it all clicks.

After Scotland’s victory over Italy in Round 2, all the talk was of the Scottish back three, who, between them, had scored 4 tries in 2 games.  The clamour for all three of Hogg, Visser and Maitland to go to Australia has subsided a little following Scotland’s try-less last two outings, but with positions on the wing for the Lions definitely up for grabs, a good performance in Paris could be crucial.  The problem for Scotland this tournament has been the opposite of that in previous seasons.  Instead of having plenty of ball, but failing to do anything with it, they have been starved of ball, losing the breakdown battle, but have looked dangerous, with Greig Laidlaw forcing the pace from scrum-half.  I suspect that France, despite being under pressure to avoid their first wooden spoon in the Six Nations era, will finally come good and win with comfort, by at least 10 points.

Wales v England (Saturday 5.00)

And finally, the championship decider.  One of these two teams will win the tournament (it could even be shared if Wales win by exactly 7 points, but England score two more tries.  Just like I could own a Ferrari, date Jessica Biel and win several Oscars with a little more luck.  And talent).  But does either team deserve to?  England have been rampant against Scotland, diligent against Ireland, resilient against France, and lucky against Italy, while Wales, apart from the first 50 minutes against Ireland, have been efficient and impregnable.  Neither side has shown vintage form – Wales’ starting backline, unchanged during the tournament, always looks as though it will deliver something dazzling in attack, and never quite seems to, but the effort required to fell North, Cuthbert, Roberts et al, not to mention the forwards, takes its toll over the course of 80 minutes, and Wales’ fitness levels appear the best of all the teams.  England have picked up the knack of finding a way to win, without always playing particularly well, but importantly, their big-game players have been excellent.  Ben Youngs, despite always taking that fraction of a second longer than seems necessary to make a pass, has kept the tempo flowing, and made a couple of eye-catching breaks, Geoff Parling, unlikely-looking athlete that he may be, has ensured the lineout has remained steady, and Chris Robshaw has foraged constantly and led by example.

Warren Gatland has said this match is not a trial for selection for the Lions (he has also given hope to any Scottish and Irish hopefuls by stressing that they have big games too), but it is impossible not to see it as such in certain areas.  Robshaw v Warbuton, Tuilagi and Barritt v Roberts and Davies, Youngs v Phillips, Launchbury v Alun Wyn Jones – all of those battles will be interesting subplots, and whoever wins each individual battle will not only help their team towards victory, they will also edge ever closer towards selection for Australia.  Despite their stuttering performance against Italy, and Wales’ watertight defence, I’m going for the return of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell to make a difference, and for England to win by 5.