Ireland 13-13 France: Picking the pieces apart

13 Mar

Unsatisfactory. This seems to be the common theme of Ireland’s faltering Six Nations campaign. This was the case yet again at the weekend as Ireland drew with France at the Aviva stadium to make it one win in four in this season’s campaign.

Ireland v France Six Nations

With the Irish leading 13-3 at half time and looking the better side, Irish fans must have been thinking that a much needed win was within their grasp. But as has been the case on numerous occasions this campaign, no points scored in the second half let a poor French team crawl back in to the game and left both sides dejected, craving that crucial win.

In wet and windy conditions, the game was always going to be dominated by the packs and this proved to be the case with some massive performances from France’s no 8 Louis Picamoles and Ireland’s blindside flanker Peter O’Mahony. Throughout the game, Picamoles looked determined to end France’s winless streak and his perseverance paid off with a well taken second half try. O’Mahony on the other hand was his usual rampaging self, putting his body on the line, carrying well and looking like one of the leaders of the team. This can be summed up by his run towards the end of the game which created Keith Earls try scoring opportunity. O’Mahony broke tackle after tackle, showing yet again his courage and dedication to the cause. With the Munster flanker the kind of character that would thrive on a tour, he did his chances no harm of heading down under this summer. But that is for another day.

Ireland knew coming in to this game with the treacherous weather conditions, that their tactics would have to be spot on and they were in the first half with Man of the Match Conor Murray cleverly box kicking to put Ireland in to good attacking positions. No line breaks transpired however, and it was left to Paddy Jackson and the forwards to put points on the board. Jackson, having been criticised for his poor kicking against the Scots, gave a composed performance from flyhalf scoring eight points on only his second appearance for Ireland. Landing two difficult penalties and converting Jamie Heaslip’s try, the Ulster man did also not shy away from the contact area and his O’Gara like dummy to beat a French defender showed his undoubted talent. With Jonathan Sexton as his mentor, Jackson can surely only go from strength to strength as Ireland’s second choice out-half.

Man of the Match Conor Murray gave an assured display from scrum half.

In the second half, France began to look more dangerous and used their maul successfully to cause problems for the Irish forwards. With Picamoles and Dusautoir standing out as key performers. Ireland began to look less dominant and a couple of handling errors let the French come back in to the game. Ireland’s already depleted squad was then tested with the impressive Luke Marshall going off with a concussion after a collision with substitute Mathieu Bastearaud. O’Driscoll soon followed before returning shortly after to a standing ovation, in what could be his final home game of his illustrious Ireland career. Yes, he does not have the pace and broad range of skills he used to in his early years, but he is still a warrior who can change a game in an instant. In contention as a possible Captain for the Lions this summer, few would argue he doesn’t deserve it.

The impressive Picamoles then barged over the Irish line with seven minutes remaining to set up the disappointing Freddie Michalak with a conversion to draw the teams level. He made no mistake. Ireland had a last minute try scoring opportunity when O’Driscoll put a kick through for Earls to chase but he was shouldered in to touch by French replacement Vincent Debaty. Video replays showed that Earls had been pushed off the ball but no penalty was forthcoming and the game ended on a sour note with what looked like a serious injury to scrum-half Eoin Reddan. Ireland surely wondering after how they let that game slip away, having been so dominant in the first half.

It is not all doom and gloom for the Irish however. With a squad continually being depleted by injury, some of the younger players showed that Ireland may have a bright future ahead. Man of the Match Conor Murray (inset) had arguably his greatest game in a green jersey while Ulster centre Luke Marshall defended superbly to put his hand up as a long term replacement for Gordon D’Arcy. Hopefully he will be fit for Italy next weekend. Peter O’Mahony, as I have already mentioned, was a close second for Man of the Match while Paddy Jackson answered his critics with a solid performance from fly half.

France, on the other hand, will be disappointed to have left Dublin with a draw, leaving Head Coach Philippe Saint Andre under a lot of pressure coming in to the last round of games. His preference for Michalak to take the kicks was mind boggling, considering scrum half Morgan Parra is so consistent with the boot. There is no doubting Michalak is a quality player, but he has not proved it on a constant basis at International level. In Picamoles, France have a no 8 of high quality and with such a strong squad, surely this winless streak cannot continue.

Next up for the French is a home game against Scotland where they will look to finish their disappointing Championship on a high with a comprehensive victory. Scotland will have other ideas, however.

As for Ireland, it is a tough trip to face the Italians in Rome. Buoyed by their impressive performance against England last weekend, the Italians will fully believe they can come out on top. Ireland have been handed a major boost with the return of Jonathan Sexton and Craig Gilroy to full fitness, with fingers crossed as to the availability of Donnacha Ryan (shoulder), Brian O’Driscoll (concussion) and Luke Marshall (concussion). With conditions expected to be good for the game, Ireland will hope that the backline can use this to their advantage.

In Rome on Saturday, it promises to be a fascinating battle. Can Ireland finish off the series with a win? Can any players make a last ditch bid for inclusion on the Lions tour this summer?

We will find out this St Patrick’s weekend.

SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Dave Gantly.

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Chelthenham Preview: Feature Races

10 Mar

Two members of UCC Horse Racing Society take a closer look at the feature races in the week ahead. Get your betting slips ready!

Cheltenham2

Champion Hurdle

It is hard to look past the Willie Mullins trained Hurricane Fly. The 2011 champion has got over the disappointment of finishing third last year, and looks in top form after two composed wins at Leopardstown. Ruby Walsh has picked to ride him ahead of Zarkandar, and that surely must be a clear sign for punters that there is value at the 2/1 which Paddy Power are offering at the moment. Odds for last year’s winner Rock on Ruby are shortening, currently trading at around 5/1, while some sneakily fancy Binocular to do it again after failing to live up to the hype after winning this race in 2010 under AP McCoy. Grandouet has had an interrupted campaign, and is not expected to launch a serious assault on the frontrunners. Hurricane Fly is the best hope the raiding Irish have for a big win at the festival, and don’t expect him to disappoint.

The Champion Chase

Sprinter Sacre looks unbeatable at the moment. He is currently a 2/7 shot to land the race. Nicky Henderson’s gelding beat a very talented group of novices when he demolished the field in last season’s Arkle. His jumping is exquisite and he travels superbly. Looking through the opposition, 2011 champion Sizing Europe looks a cracking bet at 5/1. Last year’s winner, Finians Rainbow, has failed to deliver this season probably owing to bad ground. Should we get very soft ground then the defending champion will not run. Sanctuaire has failed twice to threaten Sprinter Sacre so far this season. He does have ability but it is his temperament that cost’s him. Somersby, a Victor Chandler winner, is another talented individual and is available at 20/1. Mail de Bievre could be the one to mount a challenge though. This French bred looked really impressive at Newbury and a shorter trip could suit. If his jockeys’ comments are anything to go by, then Paddy Brennan’s mount could get in on the place money. Also, it is worth noting that connections have coughed up £16,000 to supplement him into the race. He looks a good each way bet at 14/1. Can the Favourite be beaten? All will be revealed but perhaps each way is the way to approach this year’s race.

The World Hurdle

A World Hurdle without Big Bucks! Seems bizarre doesn’t it? This race is very open this year. Reve de Sivola was second, albeit a distant one, to Big Bucks earlier this season. Big Bucks won at a canter that day, which he normally does. Reve de Sivola is no Big Bucks. However, he was most impressive in running away with the Long Walk at Ascot and following up that victory with a win in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham. Oscar Whiskey is better over a slightly shorter trip. However, his pilot Barry Geraghty is confident of a win. This race could also be the target for Peddlers Cross, another classy sort. He has been deemed a spent force by many but cannot be ruled out. Bog Warrior has been rejuvenated since his return to hurdles and has a chance. He will perhaps need heavy ground if he is to be victorious. The horse that finished second to him earlier this season, Solwhit, is another Irish challenger. He has returned following a near two year break from the track. It is unlikely that Quevega will take her chance here. Reve de Sivola looks the best bet at 9/2.

Gold Cup

It comes as a surprise that the 2011 champion Long Run is not fancied by many to regain his crown. He is available at around the 6/1 mark with Paddy Power. The favourite, Bobs Worth, has only had one outing this season when he won the Hennessy Gold Cup in Newbury. That is a negative.  Should he win, he would emulate Dawn Run in winning a Gold Cup with so few runs over fences prior to the race.  Sir Des Champs recovered from a weak showing in the Lexus Chase to win the Irish Hennessy, but may find the step-up in standard tough to cope with, even on harder ground. Silviniaco Conti is fancied by many too after an impressive win in the Denman Chase in February. But you can’t rule out the winner of the King George; Long Run,who unlike Kauto Star last year, looked fresh in closing out the feature on St Stephens Day, and seems well able to go the extra quarter mile for a repeat of his 2011 success.

SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Jordan Healy-McCarthy and Brian Barry.

Cheltenham 2013: Preview

8 Mar

The Cheltenham Festival is undoubtedly the highlight of the National Hunt racing calendar. It is seen as the Olympics of horse racing. Sports fans will be stuck to television screens shouting on their selections in a week that sees the workplace or the college assignment become a hindrance.

Cheltenham

However, this year’s event sees many big names absent. Big Bucks, Al Ferof, Flemenstar and Imperial Commander are some of the stars that won’t be on show at Prestbury Park. With that, Jockey Robert Thornton has been ruled out through injury, Patrick’s day falls on a Sunday and the Horse Burger fiasco is still in the media!

However, do not fret as it looks set to be an action packed week ahead. We have many great horses and jockeys still on show and all going well it could be a fantastic feast of racing. So many questions will be answered, new stars will emerge and heroes (equine and human) will cement their place in festival folklore.

It really is a very exciting time in the racing season. On top of that the Anglo/Irish rivalry seems to come to the fore during the four day festival. Trainers, Jockeys and horses from both sides of the Irish Sea will battle it out for the major honours of the jumps season and in doing so bring home some tasty prize money for their owners. The English clearly have a quality group of horses to send to battle but what do the lads fighting in the green corner have to offer?

Bookmakers Coral are currently 11/8 for 10 or more Irish trained winners. The Irish of course had 13 winners at the festival in 2011. Last year did not quite match that but this year could. The Irish challenge is spearheaded by Hurricane Fly.  He bids to become only the second horse ever to regain the Champion Hurdle. The last horse to do so was Comedy of Errors back in 1975. The Fly clearly has the class to do so. He has trounced his rivals in Ireland in his two runs so far this season. However, there are at least three British challengers who stand in his way.Rock on Ruby, Zarkandar and Grandouet all have big reputations going into the race and the Montjeu gelding will have it all to do if he is to reign supreme. Bookmakers seem very keen to lay Hurricane Fly. Don’t forget he came into this race as a ‘certainty’ last season and failed to hit the target. However, he is the best horse in the race.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, the Irish queen of the staying hurdle ranks Quevega bids to emulate Golden Miller in winning the same festival race for a fifth time. She has won the last Four David Nicholson Mares hurdles and few would bet against her making it number five on Tuesday evening. We won’t get rich backing her at a current price of 8/15 but no doubt every sports fan on the emerald Isle will be shouting her on.

Sir des Champs goes for gold on the final day of the festival. He is another Willie Mullins trained runner and looks like he could end Ireland’s drought in the Blue Riband event. The drier ground that we expect could be key to this horse’s chance. He won the Irish Hennessy this season and is going for a third festival victory in a row.

Pont Alexandre is considered by many to be the Irish ‘Banker’ during the week-long festival. The Mullins-trained runner goes for the Neptune Investments Novices hurdle on Day two of the festival. If he meets expectations then a current price of 9/4 in places could be excellent value. The Irish also have a strong hand in the opening race of the festival, the Supreme novices hurdle. This race always proves to be a cracker. Like many other festival races they seem to go a mighty gallop. However, favourites have had a dismal record in this race in recent years.

Jezki, a half a million euro purchase earlier in the season by JP McManus, goes into the race with a decent chance. He has been eclipsed by another McManus runner in My Tent Or Yours but still has to be respected. Jezki was eighth in last year’s Bumper but trainer Jessica Harrington seems sure that this horse will run a massive race. If Davy Russell’s recent comments are anything to go by the Un Atout will play a huge part in the Supreme. This horse is a future chaser but could strike a blow here.

Our Conor is another horse trained in Ireland who goes to this year’s festival with a great weight of expectation on his shoulders. The Dessie Hughes trained juvenile takes on Far West and Rolling Star in Friday’s Triumph Hurdle and is currently the 7/2 favourite. He was most impressive in winning at Leopardstown last month.

Back to our chasing prospects, Sizing Europe is sure to stake a claim in whichever race he goes for. This dual festival winner has been the best two-miler on this side of the Irish Sea this season. His festival target remains unclear but a crack at the Champion Chase is still on the cards. He is possibly our only hope of toppling the mighty Sprinter Sacre but the latter seems to be a freak of nature! Perhaps the Ryanair would be the best option for the ‘Sizer’. That race could also be the target for Lexus Chase runner-up First Lieutenant. Should he go for this race then we could see him add to his festival victory of two years ago. The Mouse Morris trained gelding still holds an entry in the Gold Cup and looks a cracking each way bet for that race at 12/1(Ladbrokes). However, owners Gigginstown House Stud may want to keep him and Sir Des Champs apart.

Salsify will line up in the Foxhunters chase and is a best priced 11/4 with Paddy Power. The winner of this race last year, he will bid to give the Sweeney family another day to remember at the theatre of National Hunt Racing. Alderwood, Arvika Ligeonniere, Ballycasey and Boston Bob all go into the festival with good chances and feature towards the head of the betting in their respective races. Let’s not forget our Champion Bumper representatives headed by Golantilla. The Irish have an excellent record in this race and Willie Mullins is represented by Union Dues, the likely mount of his son Patrick, as well as Sizing Tennessee, Clondaw Court and Briar Hill. Of the last 16 winners of the Champion Bumper, the Closutton man has trained 7 of them.

The Irish clearly have a talented bunch of horses going to the Cotswolds next week. It is important to remember that Flemenstar, Rite of Passage and possibly Monksland will not be present. Still it looks a very good contingent. Willie Mullins has an exceptionally strong team and as Donn McClean has pointed out, then success of the Irish trained horses at the festival will very much depend on the kind of week that the Champion trainer has. He has a current strike rate of 36% this season. His stable is in superb form. Either way it proves to be a very exciting week. History could be made in several races. This is probably the highlight of the year for most sports fans, racing enthusiasts or not. Miss it at your peril.

 SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Jordan Healy-McCarthy.

Manchester United v Real Madrid: Preview

4 Mar

Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo makes his eagerly-anticipated return to Old Trafford on Tuesday night, when two European giants go head-to-head in the second-leg of the Champions League last-sixteen. Dave Gantly previews what is sure to be a thrilling encounter.

The Man United defence face a busy night on Ronaldo's return to Old Trafford

The Man United defence face a busy night on Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford

It had to happen some time didn’t it? The return of one of the greatest players to ever the don the red jersey is nearly upon us. Cristiano Ronaldo returns to Old Trafford for the first time since his big money move to Real Madrid back in 2009. What a momentous occasion it promises to be. The second leg of the last 16 Champions League tie is so delicately poised that it could be the Portuguese magician Ronaldo that makes the difference. With his top class header in the first leg proving my point.

With the tie finely poised at 1-1 from the previous encounter at the Bernabeu, It really is too tight to call. United have stretched their lead at the top of the Premiership back to 15 points, playing some of their best football of the season. While Madrid are going from strength to strength following consecutive wins over Barcelona. In players such as Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria, they have the quality to counter attack with pace at every opportunity and Sir Alex will be weary of this. The news this morning that Phil Jones is effectively ruled out of the clash tomorrow night with an ankle injury is a major blow for Ferguson’s side. The former Blackburn Rovers defender man-marked Ronaldo brilliantly in the first leg and is the kind of player you want in this fixture.However, Fergie will have to make other plans if he is to shackle arguably the greatest player in the world.

 The make up of Sir Alex’s back four is, needless to say, crucial to United’s chances of success. David De Gea between the posts is a given. Does Fergie go with stalwarts Rio Ferdinand (rested at the weekend) and Nemanja Vidic against the wealth of Madrid’s attacking options or will Jonny Evans partner one of the two? Only time will tell, however I suspect Evans to partner Ferdinand in central defence, with Rafael and Evra taking up the right and left back positions respectively. Micheal Carrick is surely pencilled in to start in the heart of United’s midfield, up against the maestro that is Xabi Alonso and Semi Khedira. Carrick’s midfield partner could be Ryan Giggs who is still waiting for his 1,000th United appearance. Tuesday’s game is undoubtedly a tie worthy to reach this milestone for the United legend. However, he may start on the bench with either Tom Cleverley or Anderson starting alongside Carrick.

After his match winning hat-trick against Norwich last Saturday, Shinji Kagawa is expected to start behind Rooney and Van Persie. His composure on the ball and confidence against Norwich is something we have not seen on a regular basis from the former Borussia Dortmund midfielder. If he can add consistency to his game and stay injury free, he could prove to be a quality buy for United. On the right hand side Antonio Valencia should be given the nod, helping Rafeal with the threat of Ronaldo in the process. On the opposite flank, Nani, Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck battle it out for the left wing spot. With Welbeck being a constant menace in the Bernabeu, Fergie could stick with the England International.

As for Madrid, they showed their strength in depth at the weekend resting Ronaldo, Ozil, Higuain, Khedira and Alvaro Arbeloa against Barcelona, with Kaka, Michael Essien, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema drafted in. With the league now all but gone for Madrid, this was not too much of a surprise, with their focus firmly set on winning the Champions League. At the back Mourinho has been boosted by the return of Iker Casillas. However, he is expected to start on the bench with Lopez continuing to deputise. Sergio Ramos and the impressive youngster Raphael Varane are expected to lead the defence with Fabio Coentrao at left back and Arbeloa on the opposite flank. Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira should continue in midfield with Ozil and De Maria causing mayhem down the flanks. Ronaldo will spearhead an attacking line, which will consist of Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain. But all eyes will surely be on the returning Ronaldo.

As Sir Alex Ferguson said today “I don’t think it gets any bigger than this for a European night. It’s set up to be a potentially marvellous game – I don’t think we will be disappointed.”

Prediction: Man United 2 – 1 Real Madrid

SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Dave Gantly.

Are the current crop of Man United stars better than the treble heroes of 1999?

2 Mar
The current crop of  Manchester United stars have been firing on all cylinders this season.

The current crop of Manchester United stars have been firing on all cylinders this season.

It is not uncommon for people to make comparisons of a present team with a team of the past. In fact it seems that every season a comparison is made to a team that is performing well. The most recent comparison being made is the current Manchester United team with the treble heroes of 1998/99. Ferguson has not only said that this United side are the best he has had since the team of ’99 but better! It’s understandable for a manager to come out and make a statement that will boost his side’s spirit as we approach the business end of the season. His side are in the driving seat in the league having opened up a twelve point gap on rivals Manchester City. They are in the last eight of the FA Cup and have every chance of toppling the Madrid boys at Old Trafford next week. It’s safe to say that United are in a terrific position. However, are they better than the United team of that historic treble season?

There is a tendency in every sport to label a current athlete, footballer, manager, or team as being the greatest of all time. Of course, the person or team in question have obviously done something significant to be put into that category. However it does tend to get a little out of hand. In doing so it tends to agitate some passionate sports fans.  A recent letter in the Racing Post comes to mind. In this letter a reader refers to the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) syndrome. The person was pointing out that Frankel had been labelled the greatest of all time even though many other horses (Brigadier Gerard, Sea the Stars, Dancing Brave) have perhaps been overlooked. The point is that first of all, it is very difficult to compare and contrast teams or athletes from different eras. However, even if we do we need to be critical. For example Frankel is the greatest horse we have seen for some while and are likely to see for another while. But is he the Greatest of all time?  He is a magnificent animal and has been the best horse over a mile.  It is important to remember that Sea the Stars won an Arc and a Derby though. So how can he be measured against a horse that has not raced past 1mile and two? Either way, there is a certain air of inevitability that a talented sport star, equine or human, are going to be seen as the Greatest since ‘x’ or the greatest of all time. I don’t think this Manchester United team is threatening to be the greatest of all time. However, Ferguson’s comments on the current group being better than those of the Treble season seem to come under the influence of the GOAT syndrome.

There is no doubting that this current United side are having a good season as has been outlined. However, something is missing. The squad of 1999 had strength in depth. Sure, the United frontline seems to have that at the moment but overall they are not better than the team of 1999. What that United team achieved was something special. Not only that but they beat better opposition too. The Arsenal side whom United pipped to the title in 1999 was one that had class for sure. Overmars, Bergkamp, Anelka, Vieira, Petit are names that would make the current Arsenal side look like a division one team. United’s defence has no doubt been extremely weak at times this season. Without the firepower of Van Persie and co. at United’s disposal, the Premier League table would look somewhat different to say the least. I’m sure Denis Irwin, an actor in the events of ’99, wouldn’t agree with Ferguson’s recent comments. He has played in much stronger United backlines than the present one. This column is not having a go at De Gea. He was superb in Madrid. However, does he match up to Peter Schmeichel? De Gea is a super shot-stopper and that has been stated on numerous occasions. However, it is evident that crosses are his weakness. The hustle and bustle in the box from corners is part and parcel of the English game. Teams like Stoke City make great use of set pieces so it is important to have a keeper to deal with this. Somehow United have managed to grind out results though and that is testament to Fergie and his team. The current defence, although an improvement from the first half of the season, is by no means miserly. Stam, Johnsen, Neville and Irwin would no doubt have some interesting opinions on that!

David Beckham, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke celebrate during the treble-winning season of 1998/99.

David Beckham, Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke celebrate during the treble-winning season of 1998/99.

The midfield is nowhere near up to 1999 standard and I think that is clear. Sure, Michael Carrick is having a good season and Cleverley is beginning to shine. Kagawa seems like a decent prospect. However Anderson, Nani and the likes are not up to United standard. Fletcher is a real pro who works hard and he is a player that will hopefully make a comeback next season. Valencia has probably been the best winger for us since Ronaldo. Giggs and Scholes have carried the midfield over the past few seasons. Either way although the midfield has had some model professionals, something is missing. That something is a ball-playing midfielder. Yes Scholes and Giggs can knock it around exquisitely but who else in the middle of the park can make a defence-splitting, game-changing, season-defining pass? This is not just with regards to this season. This has been missing for some time now. Look at the major European clubs and numerous super midfielders spring to mind. Lampard, Sneijder, Pirlo, Xavi, Iniesta, Gerrard, Silva, and Cazorla – you get the idea. These guys don’t just fall out of the sky, however. Ferguson failed to bring Sneijder to Old Trafford and that looked like it would prove costly. The table states otherwise though and they say the table never lies. On the other hand a ball-playing midfielder is what is needed if the Red Devils are going to become Kings of Europe for a fourth time.

A lot of luck is needed to win the Treble and that is what United will need. Take for instance when the treble looked to be on the cards in 2008 but for things to go pear shaped against Pompey in the FA cup which resulted in Rio Ferdinand standing between the sticks. That United side was better than the current side. Ronaldo will testify to that I’m sure! So even if Manchester United do go on to win the Treble they won’t surpass the quality of the side of 1999. Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham, David Beckham, and Peter Schmeichel the list goes on. The only comparison of the current crop with that of ’99 is that of Messrs Scholes and Giggs. One could argue that these two have improved! Either way, Fergie’s recent comments are perhaps part of the mind games that exist at the Premiership dinner table. They need to be seen as an act of propaganda rather than fact. Should United win all three trophies then it would be a massive boost for English football which has begun to become eclipsed by Spain’s La Liga and most recently Germany’s Bundesliga. Should this team topple Madrid and more importantly Barcelona then maybe they are as good as the crop of ’99. However, it’s all about who they beat. Are the current teams in Europe as good as the Juventus, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Inter Milan teams of the late 90’s? Are Premier League teams as good as those of the treble season? That is open to debate. However, teams of the current season, particularly the British teams, have been playing below par. Is this the strength of other European leagues? One cannot help but be impressed by this current Dortmund team. Bayern Munich clearly are still a force to be reckoned with. Madrid and Barcelona will be the ones to beat if a team is going to lift ‘old big ears’ in May. What about that lesson United got from Bilbao at Old Trafford last season? A team somewhat off the pace in La Liga demolished the English giants. What does that tell us about the strength of the Premier League? This is another debate for another day.

Either way this current United side has got it all to do. Although it does look like Fergie’s men are on the verge of success. Paddy Power has reportedly paid out on them lifting the league title already. The Champions league is another matter but if anybody can do it, Ferguson can. The manager has clearly been the defining factor in the clubs success over the years. He is the Greatest of All time (Damn there I go!). Another treble season looms. It will prove to be an interesting few months but can they do it? Only time will tell.

SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Jordan Healy-McCarthy.

 

Belgium: The new footballing superpower

1 Mar
Vincent Kompany is mobbed by his Belgian team-mates.

Vincent Kompany is mobbed by his Belgian team-mates.

International football is said to represent the pinnacle of any football player’s career. When one casts a thought over the true powerhouses of international football, teams such as Brazil, Argentina, England, Germany, spring to mind. Pele, Maradona, Hurst, Beckenbauer, the list of truly great footballers is one that is dominated by players from the traditional ‘superpowers’ of international football. However, football is changing and a new group of talented young footballers are coming to the fore. Constantly overshadowed by its overpowering bigger brothers, Belgium is emerging from the wilderness.

Situated between the footballing strongholds of France and Germany, Belgium is ready to make its mark on international football. With a number of talented young players at the disposal of the national team, the future of the ‘Red Devils’ has never looked so promising. In a country famed for its sprouts, a new dish is ready to be served. With Marc Wilmots as head chef, footballing success looks like it will be on the menu for years to come.

A thriving domestic league is often seen as a key ingredient to success at international level, e.g. Spain, France, etc. Parallels can be made between the state of a country’s domestic league, and the level at which their international team plays. Take Spain for instance; domestically, La Liga houses some of the world’s best teams, while internationally, La Roja will go down as one of the greatest sides in history. Sadly, Belgium has not enjoyed a fraction of the success of their European counterparts.

Belgium’s domestic league is one that has had many ups and downs. Although currently ranked by UEFA as the 12th best league in Europe, its history is one that is marked with financial irregularities and foul play. In 1984, an investigation by the Brussels District Attorney found that there was a criminal underbelly present in Belgian football. A bribery scandal was unearthed, leading to the suspension and fining of players and clubs. This scandal had implications for the financial future of Belgian football, as banks became hesitant to hand out loans to clubs.

Belgian football suffered for a number of years due to the scandal, even setting up a business model to combat the impending meltdown. However, the business model became obsolete in 1995 when the infamous Bosman Rule came into effect.

Finance continued to trouble the Belgian league at the turn of the millennium, culminating in the demotion of two teams to the third division (2004) after being denied premier division licenses. Belgian clubs continued to suffer and the outlook looked bleak. However, the arrival of a new mega-bucks television deal in 2002 was a saving grace, as it confirmed the long-term future of the Jupiler Pro League.

In 1997 the television rights for the Belgian domestic league were a measly €13 million. However, they increased fivefold just five years later when a deal was agreed with VTM, RTBF and Canal. Teams would now earn €15 million each per season, in stark contrast to the €2-3 million earned in the late nineties. This much-needed cash-injection allowed clubs to plan for the future and invest in new facilities. Standard Liege opened the Academie Robert Louis Dreyfus in 2007, which became the flagship for developing domestic football. Other teams followed suit and the Belgian Jupiler Pro League began to reap the benefits. Although it is struggling to shake off the ‘stepping-stone’ league tag, (i.e. a league in which other players use to get noticed by the bigger European clubs, e.g.  Cheick Tiote, Gervinho) the pool of talent continues to improve at an alarming rate. There is no doubting that the conveyor belt of Belgian football will continue to run for many years to come.

The stability that the 2002 television deal provided has unsurprisingly coincided with the development of the most talented Belgian side in modern memory. Talented young footballers continue to sprout (pardon the pun) out of the Belgian polders and the Jupiler Pro League has never been stronger. The international team has become one of the most improved sides in world football, boasting a number of young stars that will undoubtedly continue to make strides. The squad reads like a who’s who of highly talented European footballers, and it is a testament to their success that many have been at the centre of multi-million pound deals. The World Cup in 2014 may come a little too early for the Belgians, but winning Euro 2016 is a realistic target. The squad has strength in depth in all positions and are sure to dominate world football for the next 10-15 years.

In Simon Mignolet they have one of the Premier League’s top goalkeepers. They also have Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, who at just 20 years of age has established himself as La Liga’s most consistent goalkeeper as a result of some stunning performances on loan at Atletico Madrid.

Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany is joined by Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Arsenal’s Tomas Vermaelen in defence. Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten also forms part of a resolute group of defenders.

Belgium’s greatest strength lies in their midfield, with the likes of Everton’s Marouane Fellaini and Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele playing starring roles. Zenit St. Petersburg’s €40 million star Axel Witsel is in good company, with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Racing Genk’s experienced Thomas Buffel also donning the Red Devil’s jersey.

Up front, Aston Villa revelation Cristian Benteke is joined by Everton’s Kevin Mirallas and West Brom’s on loan-striker Romelu Lukaku. Dries Mertens of PSV Eindhoven is also available and Eden Hazard’s younger brother, Thorgen, is believed to be one for the future.

Other notable players include Porto’s Steven Defour, Racing Genk’s Jelle Vossen and young Manchester City defender Dedryck Boyota.

As can be seen from the impressive list of players above, Belgian football is on the rise. Having qualified for the European Championships just once since 1984, (as co-host in 2000) and failing to reach the last two World Cups, the drought appears to be over. Marc Wilmots’ side currently lead their qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, having won three and drawn one of their four games. In a group that includes Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Wales and Scotland, the Red Devils know that a place in Rio is within reach.

As mentioned previously, the 2014 World Cup may be a tad premature for this Belgian side but Euro 2016 is a real possibility and at 16/1 Belgium represents great value. A new footballing superpower has arrived, and it is time the world took notice.

SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Richard Barrett.

The Irish Six Nations campaign thus far

27 Feb

Dave Gantly, the newest member of the ‘Sport Is Everything’ team, dissects the Irish Six Nations campaign thus far and addresses the Declan Kidney ‘situation’:

Paddy Jackson, who had a day to forget in front of the Murrayfield  posts.

Paddy Jackson, who had a day to forget in front of the Murrayfield posts.

What a difference a few weeks can make. Coming in to the first round of the Championship, Ireland were quietly confident they could beat a Welsh team low on confidence in their own backyard.

At the Millennium Stadium that day, in the first half this proved to be the case. Ireland played some of their best rugby in recent times in the first 40 minutes. Even the most pessimistic Irish fan was surely being turned by the way they kicked off their campaign. Thoughts of a Grand Slam and Triple Crown began to have some substance for Ireland and they hung on to beat Wales 30 – 22. Job done. Confidence high.

Next up was an eagerly anticipated clash with England at the Aviva. In very poor conditions, Ireland’s mistakes cost them dearly as a tenacious English side recorded a first win in 10 years in Dublin. Their troubles did not stop there, however. Munster winger Simon Zebo went off injured in the first 10 minutes and was substituted by Keith Earls. A big loss to the Irish team for a player who has that x factor to make a difference in such a tight encounter. It was later revealed he had broken a bone in his foot and as a result was ruled out for up to 10 weeks. Munster fans waiting nervously for news on Zebo’s injury were left disappointed. He is now likely to be ruled out of their Heineken Cup quarter Final against Harlequins on April 7th.

But back to Ireland’s problems. As if losing Zebo was not bad enough, shortly after in form out-half Jonathan Sexton pulled up with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Ronan O’Gara. We all know what happened next. England closed out the game to win 12 – 6 with England flyhalf Owen Farrell putting in another composed performance at the age of just 21. Doing his Lions prospects no harm in the process. While his contender for the no 10 jersey down under watched on from the sidelines. Ireland’s worst fears were realized soon after as it was revealed Sexton had torn his hamstring and would be lucky to play again in this year’s Six Nations.

The injuries didn’t end there however, with second row Mike Mc Carthy damaging ligaments in his knee. Gordon D’Arcy followed the trend by being ruled out of the rest of the campaign with a foot injury. An act of madness (stamping) by loosehead prop Cian Healy has left Ireland, more than likely, without his services for the rest of the campaign. Add these to the list of long-term absentees such as Tommy Bowe, Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris and you knew Ireland’s strength in depth was being stretched to the limit.

Declan Kidney’s team announcement to take on the Scots was an intriguing one to say the least. Kidney, usually so conservative in his approach, named Ulster rookie Paddy Jackson to start at out half. A few eyebrows were raised to say the least. There is no doubting Jackson’s talent, but to make his debut in a game of this magnitude against Scotland was a nerve-wrecking task for the Ulsterman. O’Gara’s poor performance the weekend before for Munster working hugely in Jackson’s favour. In what was no real surprise, Earls came in for the injured Zebo on the wing while Ulster centre Luke Marshall was handed his début at inside centre, replacing the injury stricken Gordon D’Arcy. Tom Court was chosen ahead of Munster’s Dave Kilcoyne to replace Cian Healy. Big boots to fill and a surprising decision given Kilcoyne’s performances this season.

Unfortunately, what transpired at Murrayfield is that little bit harder to explain. Despite enjoying vast amounts of possession (71%), Ireland never really looked like threatening and a lack of leadership was evident. At various times, Heaslip opted for the corner when a kick at goal seemed the more sensible option. Possibly Paddy Jackson’s nervy start at out-half was the reason. In a game that is so close, you need your out-half firing on all cylinders. His missed kicks came back to haunt Ireland but the blame cannot be pointed solely at Jackson. They were playing a poor Scottish team and even with the amount of injuries they had, you would have expected an Irish win to set up a clash against France at the Aviva. This was not to be.

Perhaps it shows just how poor Ireland’s performance was that Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland’s best player against Wales, was relatively quiet by his standards. Sean O’Brien made a few breaks that we haven’t seen in a while and is one of a few to come out with his reputation intact. Warren Gatland watching from the stands, surely impressed.

 Heaslip on the other hand is seeing his touring chances diminish with every game he plays, not leading by example and O’Driscoll making the decisions tells it’s own story really. Calls for O’Driscoll to be reinstated as captain will surely not come to fruition. Heaslip has a lot of making up to do in the weeks ahead. What was refreshing was the performance of Luke Marshall at inside centre, making two fine breaks and being a constant threat throughout. Lets hope for more of the same against the French from the Ulster centre.

All in all, Kidney’s gamble to play Jackson at out-half backfired and his decision to choose Tom Court ahead of Dave Kilcoyne should be reversed against France. Kilcoyne’s ability in the loose head has been demonstrated on numerous occasions this season and he should be next in the pecking order behind Cian Healy. As for O’Gara, who has had a few disappointing outings recently, his position on the bench may come under threat by the in form Leinster outhalf Ian Madigan. But the man who is now under the most pressure is Declan Kidney. Where does he go from here? Calls for his resignation are a bit harsh considering the success he has brought to Ireland. However, a change at the helm could re-energize the Irish team. Kidney’s next moves will be fascinating. Does he stick with Paddy Jackson and Tom Court against France or reshuffle his cards once again? Surely he will stick at least with Jackson, giving him invaluable experience against Les Bleus.

Kidney has just two games to prove his critics wrong. This writer hopes he does.

SPORT IS EVERYTHING. Dave Gantly.

You can read more of Dave’s insights into the world of rugby by clicking here for his personal blog.