Would you believe it? This is about sport!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

England's future blooming at Franklin's Gardens

Chris O'Keefe

Amongst those well entertained Saturday's classic Heineken Cup Pool One match between Northampton and Munster was one Martin Johnson. Aside from one of the best matches at this stage of the competition anyone can remember, the England coach will have been intrigued by a number of performances from young English players for the hosts.

Shane Geraghty had made many of the headlines after his coach suggested he could team up with Jonny Wilkinson and the Northampton stand-off lived up to the hype, scoring a clever try from a tap penalty and setting up two tries for Chris Ashton, another convert from Rugby League.

However, it was the work of someone in a position close to Johnson's heart that may have caught the eye best, Courtney Lawes. Saints coach Jim Mallinder had been reluctant to start Lawes in previous Premiership games. Lawes was considered right for the task of stopping a renowned Munster second row of Donnacha O'Callaghan and Lions captain Paul O'Connell.

Lawes brought plenty of strength and athleticism to the game both in the loose and causing problems in the lineout along with Juandre Kruger. Of course, you cannot say Lawes will be picked for England based on one performance. That said, it really will be a case as to when rather than if Lawes wins his first cap. Do anyone honestly believe Johnson wasn't focused upon someone in the role he executed with great repute?

Geraghty can only continue playing the way he has. The former London Irish player was full of creativity his chip ahead to set up Ashton's first try. His instinct in taking the tap instead of going for three points as the whistle was about to go for half-time showed a intelligent player capable of playing high-class international rugby. Munster's side, laden with internationals, were not wise to the possibility.

Throughout all this, two other players didn't get a mention, Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley. Hartley is already England's first choice although his own lineout occasionally came under pressure, something he will not want to repeat during the autumn internationals. Foden didn't have a bad game either. He was merely overshadowed by others.

Jim Mallinder has created a wonderful squad that may go on to win major trophies, including Europe's top prize. However, he has also brought together a number of promising player that may make Twickenham a second home.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Jackson claims another medal as Adlington misses out

Chris O'Keefe

Jo Jackson claimed her third medal of the World Swimming Championships in Rome with a silver in the 800m, but double Olympic Champion Rebecca Adlington could only finish fourth in a tight race.

Both British swimmers were up with the early pace along with Lotte Friis of Denmark, Camelia Potec of Romania and 1500m champion Alessia Filippi from Italy all bunch together through the first half of the race. Then Friis looked to break the field with a surge between 400 and 600 metres and left the other contenders too much to do.

After Filippi made her move, reaching the final turn only a fraction behind Friis, Jackson came through with a sprint finish to take her second individual silver ahead of Filippi and a visibly disappointed Adlington.

Friis in truth has stolen the race which was slower than Adlington's Beijing World Record victory but made her move at exactly the right time. For Jackson, it was an incredible effort considering her heavy schedule during the meeting. Adlington started her training programme later in the year and was playing catch up to Jackson for much of the year, but her chances of success in future years shouldn't be dented by the current disappointment.

Elsewhere at the Championships, Michael Phelps won his grudge rematch with Milorad Cavic in the 100m Butterfly. Phelps pipped Cavic by the narrowest of margins in Beijing but Cavic destroyed Phelps's World Record in the Semi-Final. Cavic also took out the final at a blinding pace, being almost a body length ahead of his rival at the turn. However, Phelps powered past Cavic in the past 25 metres to record 49.82 to Cavic's 49.95, the first two swimmers under 50 seconds in the event.

Liam Tancock smashed the 50m backstroke World Record to qualify fastest for tomorrows final. Tancock clocked 24.08, nearly a quarter of a second inside the old record. Fran Halsall followed up her success in Friday's 100m Freestyle Final by qualifying for the 50m Freestyle Final tomorrow.

David Davies was third fastest in his heat ahead of the final of the 1500m Freestyle and is eyeing his own British Record. However, Richard Charlesworth went out in the same heat and could only register the 22nd fastest time overall.

Monday, March 30, 2009

O'Connell still a good bet for captaincy

Chris O'Keefe


With the squad for the Lions' tour of South Africa announced later this month, much of the talk has been surrounding who will captain the side in the summer. Much of the discussion surrounds two Irish Grand Slam winners.

Brian O'Driscoll, captain of 2005 touring party until a spear from Tana Umaga ended his test series in the opening minutes of the first test in Christchurch. O'Driscoll, is still considered a reasonable choice for captain, and rightly so! The Irish captain was key to much of his sides good play and crucial scores on the way to a first Grand Slam in 61 years. He will be a credit to the captaincy and is already likely to be one of senior figures in the squad, whatever his role.

However, former Lions and England fly-half Stuart Barnes suggested that Paul O'Connell may not be the right choice because if he was selected in the role, he would likely lead by example and take the game to what is a formidable South Africa pack and therefore would possibly go against him.

However, the Times' gang of five, casting their opinion on who to select had contrasting views. Lawrence Dallalgio believes it has to be a forward and therefore O'Connell or Phil Vickery would get the nod, discounting O'Driscoll after his "traumatic" experience in New Zealand four years ago. O'Connell as captain was an idea shared by Jeremy Guscott, Kenny Logan and Times chief sports writer David Walsh.

Now, it is easy to suggest its a certainty that O'Connell will be named captain based upon this summary. That obviously will not be the case. However, it appears the bookies are equally confident who Ian McGeechan will call upon.

Oddschecker.com currently has the Munster lock at 6/11 to be captain, Brian O'Driscoll is 6/5 and Wales and Ospreys back-row Ryan Jones is 9/2 although he is less certain for starting berth come the first test in Durban, June 20.

O'Connell would be a fine choice as captain. He was integral to Ireland's Grand Slam, having a storming game when it mattered in Cardiff only a week ago. Indeed, his leadership for Munster over many years has, in part, helped secure two European Cups for the club. There is little doubt he can, if anyone, make it work.

Stuart Barnes is understandably respecting a strong Springbok pack. They will be some challenge to overcome. With McGeechan, Shaun Edwards and Warren Gatland involved in this Lions setup, they won't mind the challenge. Before the First Test of the 1997 series in South Africa, Lions coach famously gave his pack a "roasting" making sure they were well worked over and mentally ready for a brutal test series. It was a series where forwards like Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallalgio and Keith Wood and surprise packages like Scot Tom Smith as a result.

There is no reason to suggest the same cannot happen again in the summer. Therefore Paul O'Connell, probably one of only a few fairly certain picks in the test team, is a good bet to be captain.

Monday, February 25, 2008

England see off error ridden France

France 13-24 England

By Chris O'Keefe

England's championship showing to date had been an anti-climax. Throwing away a lead against Wales and labouring to victory in Rome doesn't suggest a team building on a World Cup Final appearance. However, England produced a resolute performance in Paris and - with help from a charitable French outfit - sealed their first Six Nations victory in Paris for eight years.

It all started with something not spotted by the match officials. Jamie Noon's crunching tackle on Cedric Heyman's knocked the ball loose, forward off Noon as replays showed. However, Paul Sackey sprinted onto the loose ball, kicked ahead and touched down. England hadn't had to go through significant phases or territory yet manager to sneak in front.

England were strong in defence and waited for the errors which came in their droves. Perhaps distracted by Mark Regan getting under the skin as the Bristol man put it, it was not really an excuse for Les Bleus. England in key areas were winning ball. Michael Lipman, Tom Croft (who replaced James Haskell) and Man of the Match Nick Easter worked hard in the loose to create a platform for England. The front row of Sheridan, Regan and Vickery were creating nightmares for their French counterparts, France conceding a number of significant penalties in the scrum.

WIlkinson was fairly faultless after the criticism and doubts that have emanated from some quarters. For the undoubted quality of Cipriani as a stand off, Wilkinson is still amongst the best in the world and 14 points were invaluable to England as France struggled to stay in contention. Quite frankly, the fact that he wasn't imperious for 80 minutes in his last two games doesn't matter. He is human, but he is vital with the boot and ball in hand as well as his leadership and psychological impact on the opposition.

Other performances of notes came from Toby Flood at centre and Richard Wigglesworth at scrum half. Wigglesworth's late try capped off a fine performance. Delivering solid phases into the channels, he was calm and assured, possibly a regular starter is years to come!

Overall between England's ability to capitalise on French errors and a largely tidy (if unspectacular) performance will increase Brian Ashton's confidence that his side may yet win the title. However, Ashton must know his side still has areas to improve. Iain Balshaw was woeful under the high ball at full back and a fully fit Josh Lewsey must wonder what he has to do. Equally Regan for all his 'clowning' around to paraphrase French coach Marc Lievremont and his work in the scrum, his line-out throwing was abysmal to say the least.

Too much set play was given up in that area. Either Regan needs to improve his throwing, or someone needs a chance. The shadow of Steve Thompson's comeback may not loom large yet but it may do in future months. Thompson himself wasn't a thrower without fault, but Regan really did miss too many of his jumper, helped only by Dmitri Szarzewski equally poor showing at hooker

For now England can smile about their improvements. An 80 minute effort rather than a 40 minute one. Fewer errors, two tries and still without a bulldozing try from Lesley Vainikolo who became a more important figure second half. Games against Scotland and Ireland will test this English still but hope has flowered in the Parisian night.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Great sporting theatre awaits!

Chris O'Keefe

Boxing has had its detractors in recent years, a significant amount of which was justified. We all remember those occasions when Tyson resorted to biting Evander Holyfield’s ear. Lennox Lewis’s “draw” against the same opponent who was clearly being beaten when a judge had the score even. Of course, the injuries to Michael Watson and Gerald McLennan have also overshadowed the fight game.

The sport has needed a night like this for years, a symbol for a golden age. An Ali-Foreman, Leonard-Duran….you can see where this is going. Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather are two of the best pound for pound fighters in the world, if not the two best at the moment.

This fight is not just the average hype, although there has been plenty of that around thanks to HBO and the press scrum, all of which has left Hatton “exhausted” according to Hatton’s trainer Billy Graham. No, this is a match that people will talk about regardless of the outcome and it will likely live in boxing folklore as a result.

It is also difficult to pick a winner. For all of Mayweather’s bravado he is unlikely to underestimate Hatton and Hatton certainly won’t leave anything behind in his quest to dethrone his opponent and his belief in his grandeur. This is what boxing in its purist form. Two very technically gifted tacticians, no Tysonesque reliance on a haymaker, no journeymen thrown up as practice bouts. A rare occasions when two fighters at their peak square off and no-one has a concrete idea as to the victor.

Even for those not so keen followers of the game, this is a window. Myself, I can’t follow it religiously but this is moment in time that people will talk about for years to come.

Right! Enough hype on my part. Enjoy!
Picture: ChinaDaily.com

Monday, October 15, 2007

England go 12 rounds with France and win on points

Chris O'Keefe

Two heavyweights went to war in Paris on Saturday night and the Stade De France might as well have become Madison Square Garden for the night. One thing is for certain. It was the fight of the century where souls where sacrificed and so where bodies. Not pretty, but a war of attrition.

The first round, Les Bleus lower their guard to a box kick - a preverbial jab if you will - Damien Traille pays with a huge blow from Josh Lewsey. Taking the retaliation, Lewsey powers through, first blood England.

France go to their jab, their fly half, the loose play, constantly chipping away at the English guard. Chabal, the French equivalent of the haymaker knockout blow, is entered into the fray. Can the impact player make the impact this far out from the final whistle?

Only a couple of kicks, light hits, not damaging. England now behind on points, and heading for the ropes. France put more points on the scorecard, but not England to the sword. Chabal, pounding away, England standing tall and taking the punishment. Then the cross-field kick.

Imanol Harinordiquy, taps back and Vincent Clerc has an open target. The killer punch, surely? Enter Joe Worsley, his own tap, Clerc's ankles lose his balance and the chance seems gone. Chabal trying to hit through the rearguard, not to be. The referee intervenes and England breathe again.

Now England believe they can snatch the honours with their counter punching. Wilkinson a rapier boot, normally, is off target, but for how long? Not long at all, as Robinson takes a blow to head for his trouble. Jonny, with precision, strikes and French heads begin to drop. 11-9 in the final exchanges. Then Chabal the menace, the brut, the player to fear gets in trouble with the referee for an illegal shot. Not only had heads dropped but France were losing theirs with indiscipline.

A kick to touch and England tried to set up the killer blow, the inevitable shot that everyone knows, opponents try to stop it but still fail to succeed. Jonny Wilkinson's boot. He nearly got through with a right foot effort early in the second half but was denied by the post. France were still standing. However, when England pounded away with the travelling maul setting up the final punch. Wilkinson getting into position, delivers with a kick travelling alomst in slow motion.

France on the canvas and need a knockout blow. England hold out to the final bell and the referee confirms it. They've beaten their heavyweight rivals for the crown and one win away from eternal glory.

It may not have been pretty, indeed it was brutal but it was an interesting spectacle and a test of resolve and commitment to the cause. You can keep your Rumbles in the Jungle and Thriller's in Manila, this was the heavyweight contest to behold. Next week, there's another one...somebody should call Don King really!

Picture: IrishRugby.ie

Friday, October 12, 2007

From prevrebial breakdown to winning the breakdown

Chris O'Keefe

What a difference one performance can make. Before Marseille last Saturday, talk was of England just trying to avoid an embarrassing defence of their crown and whether they could scrape past Tonga just to reach a match against Australia.

Suddenly after a performance of vigour - not seen by an Englishman or indeed the rugby fraternity since those heady days in Australia - England and their followers are realistically considering being the first side to successfully defend the Rugby World Cup. Unthinkable, at the end of last year, when Andy Robinson was relieved of his duties. Even at the beginning of this tournament, ranked a lowly seventh, the prospects of England playing competitive rugby seemed a distant wish.

The performance against South Africa lacked imagination, commitment and direction in the kicking and phases of play as Brian Ashton's men went nowhere whilst leaking points in defence.

However, since that fateful night England have stopped fretting about how to stop a team and have started playing their own game. From the kick off of the Samoa game the purpose was there and, admittedly with a few changes to the side and a Mr Wilkinson back, a cutting edge.

The defeat of Australia had much to do with a fantastic performance from the pack, in which they dominated the breakdown, made a huge number of turnovers and broke through the game line as Australia under the physical force. England back row, Nick Easter said he looked at the Australian players around ten minutes into the second half and believed England had them beaten.

How long has it been since an England side could say that of an opponent and proverbially stride with confidence into a major test match. As Easter suggested, confidence never wavered within the dressing room, even if the confidence was never around anywhere else.

That said England failed to score a try, a may have to be more clinical when taking chances. On a number of occasions chances were wasted to score a try which would have settled the game long before Stirling Mortlock missed his penalty.

The French are a different prospect. A great pack and plenty of attacking options in the back line. England must prepare as if the French will bring the best game to the Stade de France and fight fire with fire! No player can give anything less than their best.

Although the French are favourites, England have plenty of experience of beating Les Bleus and both sides had equally brutal quarter finals as the bruises will show. Jonny Wilkinson's boot has put French sides of the past to the sword and Paul Sackey, Jason Robinson and Josh Lewsey will pose a regular threat to the French try-line. And then of course the pack, still eager to prove their worth.

No one says it is going to be easy, but it is, most certainly, a possibility. A final with England involved? We've seen stranger sights!