Sporting Front…

2 12 2008

There are a couple of sporting issues which have raised their heads over the past weekend. The first is the Rugby Union autumn internationals. The second is the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Firstly then, the autumn internationals which, from an England point of view, have been a dire reminder that our time at the top table of international rugby have long since gone. As Argentina have replaced us as the fourth top seed for the next World Cup in 2011, so we look forlornly on the collapse of the team which had, in the previous two World Cups, won it and finished second. That record, it seems, is not enough to keep England as top seeds for the next event in three years time. As I see it, the problems with English rugby began in 2003. As Jonny Wilkinson slotted home that dramatic drop-goal, things were on the road to collapse. Already a number of players had declared that they would be retiring from international rugby, most notably the inspirational leader Martin Johnson. Others went soon afterwards, pack sniper Neil Back and Jason Leonard. The old guard was on its way out. Woodward probably knew this, the pundits knew this, the team even probably knew this. They had done what they spent much of the previous four years preparing for, that is, winning the World Cup. For them, that was it. The trouble was, that nobody had adequately prepared for what was next.

Over the course of the next five years, England have huffed and puffed, rarely keeping a settled team, with nobody really holding down a position. The next generation were not ready to fill the shoes of those who had been so successful. Yes, there was a degree of misfortune, who could have foreseen that WIlkinson, inspirational backs leader that he had become, would be absent for much of the next five years with injury? I maintain though that England were not properly prepared for the loss of key players through retirement. Those who were to come into the side were not ready, had little or no experience, and subsequently struggled. Anyone care to remember James Simpson-Daniel, who was thrown into the team, struggled and quickly discarded. He still plays an important role for his club team Gloucester, and whilst he still floats around English set-ups, has not been thrown back into the first XV. The remarkable journey to the final of 2007’s final was a victory not for organisation or preparation, but for heart and guts (and was, in no small part built around the return of Mike Catt, who at 36, was the oldest player to play in a World Cup final). Brian Ashton’s team were not, by rights, world beaters. Yet they came within milimetres of winning the cup (after Mark Cueto’s very tight disallowed try).

England have not had a solid, consistant team for many years. In comparison to the big teams (New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa) this is a bad thing. Problems that exist are not worked on if the players are dropped quickly. There is little in the way of reserve players who are able to step up to the grade. Everything that Woodward had done for English rugby has fallen by the wayside. It is hoped that Johnson can now help pull England back into line in time for 2011. That has to be his goal, regardless of the Six Nations. English rugby needs to go back to basics, with a working structure producing good players who can and will step up to the plate when required. Having said that, there needs to be some consistancy too. Johnson needs to pick the same XV as frequently as he can, letting players grow into the team, and learn the roles that they need to play. Proof in point is Danny Cipriani, who was dropped following a couple of poor performances recently. At 21, he has time on his side, and could become a player in the Wilkinson mould. I say play him, it cannot hurt giving him international experience if you are confident he is the future, as most around England are. England need a lot of work, I’m hoping that it is Johnson who can lead the repairs. I am not convinced though.

So onto Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY). The list of the ten candidates was released yesterday, with the Beeb keen to point out that it was drawn up by a panel of independent judges. The list, found here, includes seven olympians, one motor racer, one tennis player, and one boxer. The controversy though is over who has been left out, with various people calling for the likes of Shane Williams (recently crowned Rugby’s best player in 2008), Victoria Pendleton (who took Olympic gold as well as two world championship titles), or Eleanor Simmonds (the 13 year old who beat the world, twice, in the paralympics). Some complain that Lewis Hamilton should not be on the list simply because he has turned his back on British taxes to live in Monaco. Others point to the fact Murray did not actually win a grand slam this year. Others look at the comparative difficulties of the different sports.

I for one think the list is pretty good. The Olympics was always going to dominate, following the success that was had, especially in the pool and the velodrome. Including Lewis Hamilton was a no-brainer either. I am slightly more skeptical about Murray, but to give him his due, he has had an exceptional year. It is impossible to satisfy everyone when drawing up such a shortlist. Those who didn’t make it, failed for a reason, they were good, but not good enough. The results, annouced on the 14 December, will be interesting. My pick would be Hamilton. I think the sheer fact he is a more recognised name will very much help his cause. Likewise I expect Murray to do well, even though the likes of Wiggins, Cooke, and Romero maybe deserve the recognition more. We wait and see.

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