Dear Warren Gatland…

Dear Warren Gatland,

I expect you’ve enjoyed your four month break from what must be an extremely tedious, testing job. Hopefully you’ve been able to acquaint yourself with some sunshine, and have experienced the joys of  civilisation before your imminent return to the neanderthal territory of Wales [I’m kidding, of course].

I’m writing to you today with some recommendations concerning the difficult decisions you find yourself facing as regards the upcoming Lions tour to Australia.

I know you probably think you’ve seen it all before, and that your tenure as head coach of a national team makes you an authority on the matter, but – please – stretch an ear my way on this matter! I’ve probably watched more rugby than you this year [I catch at least 4 games every weekend], and I once represented my school at Second XV level. Now that’s what I call an impressive CV.

Allow me to educate you.

1. It’s important to remember that just because you are the Wales coach, it doesn’t mean you are obligated to pick Welsh players. Yes, they beat England by a considerable margin at the end of the Six Nations, but which team had performed better overall in the previous four games? Which team showed more character and ability against the Southern hemisphere teams in the Autumn internationals? Obviously, it was England. Wales beat England by winning the power forwards battle [and by dodgy binding at every single scrum], but Australia’s strength lies in the mobility rather than the power of their pack so to pick a tight five based on scrummaging power alone would be a futile exercise. Look for ball winners and ball carriers, players who will do the job in the scrum and excel in the loose. I’d also like you to not select your back row on the basis of one or two recent performances, but rather on sustained form.

2. Pick quick. Given the quality that Australia’s back line possesses, it would be fair to say that they have under-performed in the last two or three years. With players such as Quade Cooper, Will Genia, James O’Connor, Kurtley Beale and Digby Iaone, they have ability and pace in abundance. Don’t be conservative with your selections, Warren, because Australia definitely won’t be. Enjoy and take the opportunity to display the best that British and Irish rugby has to offer, and please don’t embarrass us with park-the-bus tactics.

3. Don’t be afraid to take a few uncapped players with you. Just because their national coaches haven’t put faith in someone’s ability, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. If you see someone who is clearly performing well for their club, then call them up! I’m afraid I can only comment on English players here as I don’t watch that Pro12 nonsense, but here are a few suggestions:

Christian Wade. He’s been the most exciting player in the Premiership this season, and would be the quickest player in either team were he to play for the Lions against Australia. His vision is superb, and his ability to score from seemingly impossible situations is reminiscent of a certain Jason Robinson. Whilst he may not have the dancing feet of Robinson, he’s certainly got the pace.

Christian Wade: Game Changer
Christian Wade: Game Changer

Lee Dickson. The Northampton scrum half featured heavily for England in last year’s Six Nations, but has since inexplicably fallen out of contention for the white 9 jersey. I say “inexplicably” because he has been one of Northampton’s stand-out performers this year. The manner in which he dictates the pace of the game with such authority is exactly what a mashed-together Lions XV should be looking for in a 9, and the incredible accuracy of his passing from the base of the ruck often goes unnoticed.

Ben Foden. Another England player who appears to have slipped off the radar somewhat. Whilst Alex Goode has defended, kicked and marshalled solidly for England over the past 6 months, he has hardly set the world on fire. Foden brings something different to the table. His ability to spot gaps in defenses is valuable, and his slaloming running style often causes defenses to lose their shape, opening up space for second phase runners to exploit. His kicking game has also vastly improved in recent times, and the fact that he’d comfortably fill in at scrum half if required could, should you choose to go down that route, open up another space on the bench.

Matt Kvesic. There’s an obvious vein of bias running through this letter, and I think it’s just reached its heart, but Matt Kvesic has been in sublime form all season for the Premiership’s most exciting team, Worcester. The number 7, aged just 20, earned himself a call-up to the senior England training squad for the Six Nations. Whilst he didn’t feature in the tournament, many have touted him as a future England star and even captain. His exploits on the field have earned him a contract with Gloucester next season, a move that many would consider a backwards step but one that shows Kvesic’s charitable nature and heart for those less fortunate than himself.

I hope you take these suggestions into consideration, Warren. I have many more suitable candidates up my sleeve, please let me know if you’d like me to send you my 60-page report on the matter. I’ll leave you with my recommended Lions XV.

1. Cian Healy. The “big boy” of the scrum, his form has been one of the few silver linings for what has been a poor two months for Ireland. Healy will be a reliable cornerstone in a very exciting pack.

2. Dylan Hartley. If you’d asked me before the Six Nations, Tom Youngs would’ve been wearing number 2, but both Italy and Wales brutally exposed the Leicester man’s weakness in the scrum. Hartley has been impressive when coming off the bench for England, although Rory Best is nipping at his heels.

3. Adam Jones. It really was close between Jones and Dan Cole, but Jones nicked it for me on the back of a strong performance against England. Whoever gets picked at 3, it’s fantastic to have such healthy competition at tighthead.

Adam Jones
Adam Jones

4. Geoff Parling. Jim Hamilton was a strong contender for the 4 jersey, but Parling has formed a strong partnership in the second row with Joe Launchbury and will be a vital lineout operator. I can’t recall the last time Parling played poorly.

5. Joe Launchbury. A vital component of England’s recent success. Still very young and inexperienced, but with that comes an adventure and commitment which, added to his good mobility and ball handling sills, makes Launchbury a nightmare for opposing teams.

6. Tom Croft. I’ll probably be maligned for proposing such an England-heavy pack, and Croft might seem a particularly strange choice at 6 – he has, after all, barely seen a rugby pitch in the last 12 months. However, Croft is more than a ball-winner; he is a match-winner. He’s one of those special players who can turn a game in the blink of an eye. Yes, Lydiate probably wins more turnovers and makes more tackles, but Croft has got the X Factor and the Lions will need the X Factor.

7. Tom Wood. The Northampton man has been played out of position for much of the Six Nations, but is a brilliant 7. Wood is the first man on my team sheet; his dominant performance against New Zealand earned him man-of-the-match, and his all-round game [carrying, tackling, breakdown] has been consistently world-class over a six month period. If he doesn’t make your team, you clearly haven’t been watching him.

8. Toby Faletau. The Welsh supremo completes a very exciting back row. Faletau has been the standout 8 amongst the home nations for a while now – his ball carrying has been vital in giving Wales the go-forward that their game requires, and he is the master of sucking in defenders to create space for his teammates. Toby will be a really key player for you, Warren.

9. Greg Laidlaw. The Scotsman has been the only consistent performer throughout this year’s Six Nations, and has really developed into a fine all-round 9. His distribution has been excellent, and anyone who is able to get tries out of a very ordinary back line is clearly doing something right.

Greg Laidlaw
Greg Laidlaw

10. Jonny Sexton. I’d prefer to put Owen Farrell at 10, but I’ll be accused of bias so I’ll play Switzerland and recommend Sexton at fly half.

11. Christian Wade. Why not? Everyone likes to see a flyer, and every team needs one in my opinion. We need a Plan B when crash ball stops working after the third minute, so why not have Wade on the wing? With powerful runners inside him, there should be plenty of space on the wing for Wade to work his magic and score millions of tries.

12. Manu Tuilagi. At a position where the Lions lack any real depth, Tuilagi seems the obvious choice. Yes, I know he normally plays at 13 but I’ve reserved that jersey for someone rather special…

13. Brian O’Driscoll [c]. Clearly O’Driscoll is past his best, but he simply has to start for the Lions. He can still run unbelievable lines and unlock the stingiest of defenses, even when the pressure is on. I can think of no-one better suited for the role of captain, and his experience will be crucial in an otherwise fairly inexperienced back line.

14. Alex Cuthbert. I don’t know whether Cuthbert plays 11 or 14 for Wales, but either way he was the best winger in the Six Nations. A great finisher, and his power will complement Wade’s pace perfectly. If his fine form continues, I think he’ll be a contender for “player of the tour” come July.

15. Leigh Halfpenny. I toyed with the idea of putting Halfpenny on the wing and sticking Hogg at fullback, but chose Halfpenny on the basis that whoever plays at 15 will be contending with a lot of high balls from the likes of Cooper, Beale and O’Connor and the Welshman has proved himself to have the safest pair of hands in the world in that regard. Then again, that flipping scrum cap does annoy the heck out of me so Hogg may yet have a chance…

England : 7 players

Ireland: 3 players

Wales: 4 players

Scotland: 1 player

So there you have it, Warren. I strongly suggest you act upon my recommendations if you’re looking for a winning Lions formula. I once captained my schools Under 16 basketball team to victory against local team Perdiswell Pacers so I know what I’m doing when it comes to big sporting decisions.




London 2012: How I think it will all pan out

What a great opening ceremony we were treated to last night! We’re told that over 1 billion people worldwide tuned in to feast at a banquet of British culture that featured Sir Paul McCartney, Mr Bean and a spectacular lighting of the Olympic Cauldron.

So the ceremonial niceties are over, and now it’s time for what we all paid for – the sports! I’ve spent the last seven days letting everyone around me know exactly which Brits I think will win Gold, so I think it’s about time I put my blog’s reputation on the line and offer up some predictions for the next three weeks.

1. Britain will win at least 15 golds.  17, to be exact. We’ll also win about 25 silvers and 20 bronzes. These figures are not randomly plucked from the air, I have actually weighed up our chances in every discipline.

2. Cavendish will win our first gold. Mark is odds-on favourite to sprint for gold in today’s road race after a fantastic victory at the Champs Elysées in the TDF. Can’t wait.

3. Adam Gemili will run 9.95 in the 100m final, and in doing so will become the first Brit since Dwain Chambers to break the 10 second barrier. Gemili ran a record time of 10.05 at the World Junior Championships in Barcelona recently, and whilst a medal is extremely unlikely in London, he is undoubtedly an exciting prospect for future Games. Bolt will win the 100m in a time of 9.74.

4. GB will win more rowing and cycling medals than any other nation. This might be a fairly obvious one, but I need to ensure I get something right.

5. USA will top the medals tableI know China were comfortable winners in Beijing, but home advantage had a large say in that. I’m fully expecting the USA to reclaim their place at the top of the medals table.

6. Ennis and Farah will deliver, Idowu will flop. Jess Ennis in the heptathlon and Mo Farah in the 5000m will be my two favourite victories for GB, and Ennis will break the Olympic and World record in winning Gold. Phillips Idowu, GB’s best triple jumper since Jonathan Edwards and silver medallist in Beijing, will sadly fail to make the top five.

7. Robbie Grabarz, Holly Bleasdale and Perry Shakes-Drayton will be surprise medallists. Grabarz is the best British high jumper in my memory, Bleasdale is an exciting young pole-vaulter and Shakes-Drayton has been finding great form in the 400m hurdles this year.

Why Roger Federer will always be the greatest

Statistically, Roger Federer the tennis player is unrivalled. He holds the records for most Grand Slam titles won [16], most consecutive Grand Slam semi-final appearances [23] and most consecutive weeks as number 1 player in the world [237]. Statistics, however, do not do Roger Federer the man justice. He may be the greatest to ever grace the court, but Federer is more than just an incredible tennis player. He is also a remarkable human being.

To state that Federer works just as hard away from tennis as he does on the court would not be an embellishment of the truth. Success in sport has not filled the Swiss with self-conceit; rather, it seems to have strengthened his appreciation of the privileges he enjoys. Federer is the husband of former Women’s Tennis Association player Mirka Vavrinec and is father to twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva. So he’s something of a family man – a rarity in itself amongst top athletes in the modern day.

On top of upholding duties to his family and teaching them how to swear in Spanish [because let’s face it, Nadal needs a tongue-lashing], Roger is also heavily involved in charity work. In 2003 he set up the Roger Federer Foundation with the intention of providing the disabled/underprivileged with opportunities they would otherwise never have. And as if he didn’t have enough on his plate already, the Fed Express frequently fulfils ambassadorial roles for organisations such as UNICEF and has been know to rally [no pun intended] groups of top tennis players together for exhibition matches to raise funds for relief efforts. “Hit for Haiti” raised over £114,000 for those who suffered at the hands of the Haiti Earthquake. Impressive.

So whilst Federer has certainly achieved a lot in the last eight years, I firmly believe that his success can only be praised because of how he achieved it. He is the perfect model of a professional sportsman balancing commitments to family, profession and charity. In the words of Pete Sampras: “Roger Federer is the greatest”. I strongly hope/believe that he has a few more years ahead of him, and at least another 3 Grand Slams in the tank.


The Aussies are out but not down!

The Australians are a funny old bunch. They’re born with a permanent tan, spend most of their time upside-down, celebrate Christmas in the summer and cook every meal on the barbecue. If they’re not indulging in Australia’s two favourite past-times [surfing and crocodile hunting] then it’s because they’re in didgeridoo class. They love the Outback, hate the English and aren’t quite sure what to make of drama teachers [see Chris Lilley’s fantastic Mr G]. Oh, and they’re pretty fond of their cricket.

When England recorded their first Ashes Series victory [3-1] in Australia for 24 years earlier this year, the land down under was in a state of shock. A 6-1 Aussie triumph in the following ODI series spared further embarrassment, but consistency has been hard to come by for the men in yellow recently – a fact highlighted by the manner in which they were ousted out of the Cricket World Cup at the hands of India. The result served to prise another Aussie finger away from the post-Ashes straws at which they had been clutching. From an English perspective, it’s nice to see imperfection in the Australian ranks!

It’s fairly obvious that the Australian cricket team are not at the top of their game – they’re lacking form, confidence and good leadership. Yet, in my opinion, they can still be the best team in world cricket. Here are three causes for Aussie optimism:

1. Shane Watson

Shane Watson, or “Watto” to his teammates, is a “new-breed” cricketer. He hits big, bowls fast and plays hard. He was Australia’s shining light in an otherwise dark Ashes series, consistently scoring well and playing smart cricket. He is also pretty useful with ball-in-hand too, averaging 31.41 runs per wicket at Test level. With Watson in the team, Australia can only get better. He leads [and plays] from the front.

2. Fan base and infrastructure

Cricket has an incredible following in Australia. No other [and larger] cricket-loving nation – India, England, South Africa – has consistently produced such fine cricket teams throughout history. From pre-school playgrounds to the professional arena, Australia places too much emphasis on achieving sporting success to slip away from the top. If the Aussies covet a trophy, they’ll get it. Remember, there are just 22 million people living in Australia. That several of their largest cricket stadia [The Adelaide Oval, The Gabba, The MCG and the WACA] have a greater capacity than England’s biggest venue, Lord’s, is testament to just how serious they are about the sport.

3. Aussie Pride

When Australians lose, it is more than just their reputation that is wounded. It is their pride too. Over the last 20 years, Australia have been the team to beat in world cricket. We’ve all been playing catch-up whilst Warne, Ponting and co have been running the show. This is no longer the case, and the fact that they are now seen as mere mortals, beatable in any form of the game, will fuel a desire to return to the top of the rankings charts. A wounded man is more dangerous than a winning man, for he has nothing to lose but everything to gain. So despite being out of the World Cup, the Australians should certainly not be down about it.

I hope some of this makes sense. Personally I’m an England fan, but I’d love to see the Australians make the next Ashes series a little more interesting. This last one was all too easy.