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A Tale of two halves: Bledisloe I, and expectations for this year’s Rugby Championship

6-40 at half time! Not a score that would bring any comfort to Australian rugby supporters following a tumultuous week where the Western Force were summarily removed from the Super Rugby Championship for ‘financial’ reasons. Not that anyone expected the Australians were going to have parity in this test match. The Australians have won only two of their last five international games, and they were against Italy and Fiji. In the same period, the All Blacks have played three Test matches against the British and Irish Lions, and although the All Blacks were unable to win the series due to the Lions’ strength of character and some debatable refereeing in the final test, they were still hugely impressive at times and were playing a far better team than the 2017 Wallabies.

The Daily Telegraph published an interview with Australia’s Bernard Foley this morning, who described how disappointing the current situation for Australian Rugby was and how the Wallabies, in their previous match against the All Blacks, believed that they had prepared well and were up to the task. In the event, they lost 42-10 and it doesn’t remotely surprise me that a similar outcome resulted in this match. The Australians were completely outmatched in the first half, even though they appeared to have the bulk of the possession (they did, for the entire match the Wallabies had 57% possession). But the All Blacks were utterly dominant with the ball in hand, recording their first try ten minutes in through a breakaway on the far-side of the field by Liam Squire. It was at this point that the Wallabies needed to rethink their defensive alignment and not overcommit at the tackle area and whilst rushing out of the defensive line. What actually happened was that the Australians became increasingly flustered by the All Blacks superiority at the gainline, and shipped a further five tries before the end of the half, with Rieko Ioane’s effort in the corner particularly bearing note.

But as the second-half began, the All Blacks took their foot off the gas alarmingly for Steve Hansen. They did, initially, continue in the same vein as they had done in the first half, scoring tries through Damian McKenzie and Ben Smith, but the final half hour belonged entirely to the Australians, who scored four tries without response and demonstrating a fight and cohesiveness that had been sorely lacking in the early massacre. The All Blacks had by this point replaced key names such as Ryan Crotty, Joe Moody and Aaron Smith with Anton Lienert-Brown, Wyatt Crockett and TJ Perenara, but they were unable to find any real rhythm from this point on, even when Beauden Barrett came close to scoring a try having charged down Bernard Foley. And many of the Australian points came from Kiwi carelessness, Folau’s try on 69 minutes resulting from a scrappy Foley pass that could have been intercepted, only for the ball to bounce into Folau’s hands as a path to the line beckoned. Kurtley Beale’s try was of a similar vein, Damian McKenzie getting caught in possession with the ball allowing Beale to sprint away with Barrett in a close, but unsuccessful pursuit.

It was clear by this point that the All Blacks knew the game was one, but for a team who previously prided themselves on putting games out of the opposition’s reach in the 45-65-minute bracket, this was a major wake-up call and will lead Hansen to doubt the commitment of some of his replacements. I would also be surprised if McKenzie were not relegated to the bench. For the Australians, the defensive system needs a thorough overhaul before next week’s rematch, but it was exciting to see the Australian’s effort in the second half in a lost cause, and Michael Cheika will be particularly pleased with Beale, Adam Coleman and Tevita Kuridrani.

Within the context of the tournament itself, having seen South Africa beat Argentina, I can’t see any team other than New Zealand winning the title again, even if they let leads slide in the second half. Their strength in depth is better than any of the other teams in the competition and they have world class names throughout. For the Australians, their big tests will be the matches against South Africa and Argentina in Bloemfontein and Mendoza, because winning those, will likely confirm their second-place status.

That is under serious threat from the Springboks, though, who will be looking to build upon an encouraging summer test period where they triumphed over France 3-0. Although this team has much to work upon and has very few heralded names to compare against the great Victor Matfield generation, they do have real talent in Jesse Kriel, Tendai Mtawarira and Eben Etzebeth. It will be telling though to see if the likes of Siya Kolisi, Raymond Rhule and Ross Cronje can impose themselves during the tournament, because currently these are areas in which the Boks are lacking. The Argentinians are under a similar type of pressure to the Boks, in that they have been underperforming since the 2015 Rugby World Cup and are currently attempting to integrate a large number of inexperienced players into the team. Besides the experience of Nicholas Sanchez and Leonardo Senatore, the Pumas really need to step up behind the scrum rather than relying on forward-power alone. Joaquin Tuculet is a capable full-back, but those inside him have never truly performed on the world stage and were unable to effectively repel the Springboks quick handling game.

Ultimately, we all want to see a competitive Rugby Championship that isn’t a procession in black. It’s time for the three other competitors to step up and re-establish themselves as rugby powerhouses, but this year’s tournament may be too early to expect the toppling of the dynasty.

The ARU, The Force and Litigation in Australian Rugby

‘Cowards’, ‘a terrible decision’ and ‘the biggest mistake the ARU could have made’. Safe to say that the announcement that the Western Force were to be kicked from Super Rugby has not gone down well with current and former employees of the franchise, and the wider rugby world. For months, this saga has dragged on since Sanzaar announced in April that they were to cut two South African and one Australian team in order to rebalance Super Rugby after the introduction of the Jaguares and the Sunwolves. In regard to the ARU, the whole process appears to have been bungled, having initially promised a quick decision within days of Sanzaar’s declaration. Instead, the wrangling impacted upon the remainder of the Super Rugby season, with both the NSW Waratahs and the Reds recording dreadful seasons with only eight wins cumulatively, knowing that they were safe from Bill Pulver’s axe.

Of the other three teams, the Brumbies came second in the Australasian group behind the Crusaders (but recorded fewer points than any of the five New Zealand teams) and were subsequently humiliated at home by the Hurricanes in the Qualifiers (having also been summarily dispatched 56-21 in Napier by the same opposition in April). As a traditional rugby powerhouse and the capital club, their status was never in serious doubt. The two teams in the firing line were therefore the Force and the Rebels. You wonder the ARU’s long-term planning in founding the Melbourne based team in 2010 and then very nearly cutting them within the decade. As it is, the Rebels dodged the guillotine in favour of the far less deserving Force, who, aware that the franchise were under threat recorded a 6-9 season, finishing as the second best Australian team including beating their Victoria opponents during their sole match this season.

What does this mean for elite Australian Rugby? It means that it will be confined to the West Coast and Melbourne, where traditionally Aussie Rules has been dominant. By axing the Force, the ARU has ensured no team further west than Victoria State and condemns Western Australia to sporting second-class status, which was part of the reasoning as to why Super Rugby expanded in that direction initially. Perth does have other sporting avenues to explore with two AFL teams and a handful of cricket and association football teams, but losing Rugby is a hammer blow to a region, which although largely unsuccessful since joining the competition, has built up a strong following and trumpets the sport away from traditional rugby heartlands.

In terms of Australian success in the Super Rugby competition, there is absolutely no guarantee that cutting the nation’s second-best team will improve the prospects of the national side or of the individual teams themselves. It is clear that Australian Rugby Union has been suffering for an extended period, but culling one of its most vibrant franchises is not the way forward.

The Best of Wimbledon 2017

Wimbledon, the premier tournament in the professional tennis calendar has come to a close once again with Garbine Muguruza and Roger Federer winning amidst the greenery at SW19. Every year, the tournament throws up surprises; Rafael Nadal knocked out in the fourth round having won the French Open at a canter, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki failing to reach the Quarter-finals, the spate of injuries that claimed Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. Equally assured are brilliant matches between closely matched opponents where only those who can keep their nerve survive to the next round. The best six are contained below:

Rafael Nadal v Gilles Muller (3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 13-15)
A hugely entertaining match that should have been a comfortable win for the two-times winner. although Nadal’s body may be letting him down more often than it once did, you cannot doubt his courage. In the face of an onslaught from the unheralded Luxemburger, Nadal fought back having been two sets down and was constantly under the heel of his opponent in the fifth, but refused to relent for over four and a half hour before hitting a forehand long, handing the match to his opponent!

Svetlana Kuznetsova v Garbine Muguruza (3-6, 4-6)
One of the matches caught up in the controversy over the number of women’s matches played on the centre court and judging against any number of factors, this should have been. Ranked fourteen, the eventual champion Muguruza overcame her Russian opponent ranked twice as high as her through her clinical groundstrokes from the back of the court and an unrelenting set of service games. Both sets only saw one break of serve, but Kuznetsova was unable to cope with Muguruza’s intensity and accuracy from the baseline. The Russian arguably had the best of the rallies at the net, but found herself unable to break the Spaniards momentum in a match that only lasted an hour and fifteen minutes.

Simona Halep v Johanna Konta (7-6, 6-7, 4-6)
The WTA’s most tenacious player played the quiet, unassuming Brit in this dramatic quarter-final clash. Having beaten Victoria Azarenka in the previous round and with the draw opening up with the loss of Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova, Halep was tipped by many as a potential champion, but was unable to match Konta in the rallies despite defending doggedly. With the first two sets decided by tie-break, the third opened up as Halep’s resistance was finally broken in her third service game and Konta was able to hold serve for a spectacular win in just over two and a half hours.

Angelique Kerber v Garbine Muguruza (6-4, 4-6, 4-6)
A titanic clash between the World No.1 and the 2016 French Open Champion. Kerber looked on course to progress having won the first set 6-4, but was unable to match Muguruza’s power in the second and third sets. The match made for an interesting spectacle between two competing tennis styles, Muguruza’s aggressive attacking play versus Kerber’s ability to counterpunch after soaking up pressure. Ultimately, the stats told the course of the match with Muguruza completing 50% of her breakpoint chances to Kerber’s 30% with the Spaniard also recording more aces and wins on her second serve.

Any mixed doubles match involving Henri Kontinen and Heather Watson
For many, the appeal of Wimbledon lies in seeing the world’s best singles players compete in titanic battles on centre court, under the gaze of thousands of lucky ticket holders and VIPs, but for me, the best games have often been those just off the peak of the tennis world, with players attempting to win their first titles or demonstrate their flamboyance to adoring crowds. The mixed doubles competition also falls within this bracket, with an injection of fun into the usually steely gaze of professionalism. This is most clearly demonstrated in the partnership of Henri Kontinen and Heather Watson, who having won the title last year, lost in this year’s final against Martina Hingis and Jamie Murray. Even amidst the tension of close matches, Kontinen and Watson always found a way to smile and enjoy the game, the peculiarities of doubles creating both greater opportunities for skilful players whilst requiring close coordination. For Kontinen and Watson the latter might not have always been the case, but it was their attitude that stood them out and allowed them to weather the pressure as few others could.

Looking to the future: The Lions Tour in 2021

Hallelujah! Whatever the doubters may say, and there have been many, the Lions tour will continue to be a highpoint in the international rugby calendar following a pulsating tour which saw an unheralded side ridiculed by elements of the Kiwi press and written off by many of their own supporters. To achieve a draw versus the sport’s greatest team and to achieve parity against the most enterprising rugby nation on the planet is a huge achievement and a worthy achievement for a group of unrelenting professionals who refused to buckle under the pressure. But now that the tour in four years time has been assured (to be honest, it was going to happen whether the Lions got eviscerated or not, although with this year’s result, it is to be hoped that a more favourable tour schedule can be arranged for South Africa ’21), we can speculate on those likely to make the tour in four years time.

Of course, this is largely a subjective exercise and there will be players who make the tour who currently don’t even exist on our radar (Who would have named Ben Te’o in the test team this time four years ago) and others for whom their international careers will take off in the intervening four years (Zander Fagerson? Kieran Marmion?). But there are many of this year’s vintage who will likely return in four years time, with many hoping to gain their first Lions triumph after this year’s dead rubber. This article will therefore be split into three separate areas regarding the forwards, backs and the longer view on which positions look particularly weak at the current moment and are resultantly there for the taking.

The Forwards

It would not be a huge surprise if the same front-three that lined up against the All Blacks in the drawn third test are the same as those who start the first test in South Africa four years from now. Tadhg Furlong, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George all had hugely impressive tours, even though George felt he had let the team down with his line-out throwing during the final test. But looking at the alternative options available, there aren’t many who stand out to compete against this established triumvirate. The Welsh front-row does not look particularly strong in the near or mid-future, with Tomas Francis, Scott Baldwin and Samson Lee failing to convince Gatland of their worth this year and will need to step up their form dramatically to gain consideration. Zander Fagerson, Allan Dell and Fraiser Brown all show promise with the Scots, but they’ll need to build on this year’s Six Nations successes rather than repeating their defeat to Fiji. The Irish currently have a dearth of hooking options, but England do present options with Sinckler and Marler having previous Lions experience, Ellis Genge tipped by the Daily Telegraph and Tommy Taylor an outside shout if he can establish himself as George’s understudy as Hartley ages.

In the second row, the English also present strong options. Each of this year’s triumvirate of Lawes, Itoje and Kruis will be within the right age range in four year’s time and Joe Launchbury, who was hugely unfortunate to miss out this year, will also be in his prime at thirty years of age. The Irish will likely gain representation with Iain Henderson and possibly either Ultan Dillane or the upcoming James Ryan. The Welsh again seem largely bereft of future second-row talent although Rory Thornton and Cory Hill may surprise us, but the Scots do have options in the two Gray brothers, although it looks like the second-row will be heavily contested once again.

In the backrow, we are likely to see change considering the age of Warburton, O’Brien and Haskell, but it would not be a surprise if Billy Vunipola, having withdrawn this year, finally made his Lions bow against what is likely to be a monster South African pack. England Under-20 captain Zach Mercer, Jack Clifford and Sam Underhill could all be in contention, whilst the Welsh should have representation in at least two of Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Thomas Young and Justin Tipuric. The Irish have real talent in the Leinster pair of Jack Conan and Dan Leavy and Peter O’Mahony will likely be looking to improve upon his Lions experience following his demotion following the first test loss. Apart from perhaps Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury, the Scots cupboard looks bare.

The Backs

Murray, Webb and Laidlaw will all be thirty-two or older when the next tour comes around and scrum-halves need to be quick around the fringes, particularly against the lumpen Springboks. It is possible that none of these three will make that tour, although Murray probably will, but the other positions are very much up for contention. For Wales, Gareth Davies presents another option if he manages to supplant Webb in the Welsh national team and the same applies for Ali Price north of the border. For England, neither Ben Youngs or Danny Care are likely to get another opportunity considering their ages and so a whole new cohort of scrum-halves will be required for the national team. Jack Maunder is a possibility, although I think his Exeter colleague Stuart Townsend is the bigger talent, although Wasps’ Dan Robson could be set for a late career surge. For Ireland, there is a veritable chasm created in Murray’s wake and it will be up to either Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion to fill it.

At fly-half, both Owen Farrell and George Ford will be approaching their prime in 2021, but will likely have to battle each other for the England shirt in the meantime. Dan Biggar will be thirty-one in 2021, but his experience would count in his favour and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he filled the third spot in the position. Finn Russell needs to cut out the inconsistencies in his game, but is definitely in the mix. The other two leading contenders are the Irish pair of Paddy Jackson and Joey Carbery. I’m not convinced Jackson can improve to the extent required and Carbery may jump ahead of him in the intervening years. Mick Cleary believes Carbery could also be an option at full-back. The options at centre also look a little sparse with Jared Payne and Ben Te’o unlikely to feature again. In their stead, expect Elliot Daly and Robbie Henshaw to appear once again and Garry Ringrose and Henry Slade to compete. Scott Williams may well get his day in the sun representing Wales and Huw Jones, who could easily have made the squad had he not got injured during the Six Nations, could represent Scotland in a country he knows well.

In the back-three, England have contenders in Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and potentially Denny Solomona, whilst Simon Zebo will be looking to add to his sole Lions experience in 2013. George North will only be twenty-nine in 2021 having experienced his first Lions tour at the age of 21, although the Scarlets’ Steff Evans could pip him to a spot if he cements his place in the Welsh national team. Scottish contenders seem slightly light on the ground aside from Stuart Hogg who was so unfortunate to get injured so early in the tour. He could be joined at full back by Liam Williams and/or Leigh Halfpenny once again, although Halfpenny will be thirty-two at the time. Tiernan O’Halloran is an outside bet for Irish representation whilst a fog of mystery surrounds Mike Brown’s successor for England. Anthony Watson could be utilised as a specialist full-back or Jonny May?

The Longer View

Full Back for England? Hooker for Ireland? Second-rows for Wales? Wingers for Scotland? Staring into the future is a fraught exercise based on guesswork and subjective assumptions, but there are positions where each of the home nations will need to gain resolution, if not improvement in their squad selection. For the English, the positions of fly-half, second-row and prop appear strong for years to come, but with Mike Brown, Ben Youngs and Danny Care approaching retirement age, there are openings at full-back and scrum-half. As discussed briefly above, both Anthony Watson and Jonny May have played full-back at times during their careers, but neither are expert full-backs, particularly in regard of their kicking ability. The other likely options appear to be the Saracens duo of Max Malins and Nathan Earle. Malins was part of the England team who came second in this year’s U20 World Cup whereas Earle played for England against the Barbarians in May on the wing. At scrum-half, I think Stuart Townsend has the maturity of a man twice his age.

The Irish have major issues at hooker. With Rory Best on the verge of retirement and Sean Cronin already thirty-one, the options look sparse. For this summer’s tour to Japan, Joe Schmidt selected Dave Heffernan, Niall Scannell and James Tracy, none of whom has more than seven international caps and Tracy, the most experienced, only has one full year of international experience under his belt. Ireland will likely continue with Best and Cronin in the short-term, but eventually, new blood will be required. The Welsh have a similar issue at second-row. With Alun Wyn Jones and Luke Charteris ageing, players such as Jake Ball, Cory Hill and Rory Thornton need to step up if the Welsh are to achieve Six Nations success once again. The issue isn’t helped by the Welsh Regions’ appalling record in European competition and so it could benefit players like Hill to move to England or France in the short-term.

Finally we have Scotland. The Scots look particularly bare at Number Eight, Wing and Flank going forward with Seymour and Maitland ageing and the likes of Rob Harley and Ryan Wilson unable to make the grade. There are deeper issues in Scottish Rugby that have been addressed in far greater depth than can be here, but suffice to say that the Scots would hugely benefit from a crop of dynamic back-row forwards and youthful energy close to the touchline. And another hooker wouldn’t go a miss either. The Scots finished fifth at this year’s U20 World Cup with Robbie Nairn and Darcy Graham scoring against Wales and Australia, but whether they can be effectively integrated into the national team is yet to be seen.

My team for 2021

FB Hogg

WG Watson

CT Daly

CT Ringrose

WG North/Evans

FH Farrell

SH Townsend

N8 Vunipola

FL Tipuric

FL Leavy

LK Itoje

LK Launchbury

PR Vunipola

HK George

PR Furlong

Final Call: British and Irish Lions

At the end of the most compelling Lions tour in a generation, a number of Lions stalwarts have participated in their final tour wearing the red jersey. For some, such as Rory Best, Alun Wyn Jones and Sean O’Brien, the Lions has been an important and repetitive part of their professional sporting careers, with seven tours between them. It will be bittersweet for these players not to have won their final Lions tour considering the successes of four years ago in Australia, but drawing away to the All Blacks is a huge achievement, and should be considered as such. The fact that the Kiwi media no longer treat the concept with disdain is evidence enough. Beyond the seasoned campaigners, Jared Payne, Ben Te’o and James Haskell all added something to the tour, but are unlikely to be able to repeat the experience due to their age and the influx of new talent that heralds an exciting new era for Northern Hemisphere Rugby. But before we speculate on the potential players four years from now, we should salute those who were valued warriors in the field, but will likely have to settle for spectating during South Africa 2021.

Alun Wyn Jones

A true warrior, and one for whom losing is the ultimate anathema. Alun Wyn Jones has been the cornerstone of the Lions pack under Warren Gatland’s leadership and has played all nine test matches in the last three Lions tours. At the age of thirty-one though, he is unlikely to make the squad for South Africa and even if he were, it would be a surprise if he made the test team with the likes of Joe Launchbury, George Kruis and Iain Henderson snapping at his heels. For Jones, representing his country is the ultimate honour and as captain during the Lions’ victory in the Third Test in Sydney four years ago, he gained the honour of lifting the trophy with Sam Warburton. His influence on the dressing room will be missed, but others will step into the breach.

Sean O’Brien

One of the players of this year’s tournament and a singular pain to opposition forwards both at the breakdown and in the loose. Currently thirty years old, O’Brien will be too old at thirty-four to perform the dynamic role required of an Openside Flanker against the expected marauding Boks pack. With two successful Lions tours under his belt though and five test caps, the stalwart Irishman can be hugely proud of what he has achieved in the jersey and will add to his burgeoning reputation as one of the best forward to emerge from the Leinster set-up. With him gone, expect to see continuing Irish representation in the form of Dan Leavy and Jack Conan.

Rory Best

Tipped as a possible captain before the squad announcement and a consummate professional at the age of thirty-four, Rory Best has been a credit to the shirt even though he never achieved a test cap during his two tours. It is too his credit though that he has dominated the Ireland no.2 shirt for so long, so much so that the position looks rather bereft with his retirement looming in the next couple of years. He may have regrets over his lack of test caps, something largely down to his lack of carrying dynamism and erratic line-out throwing, but he will be long remembered as a gentleman of the game and no doubt will go on to influence the next generation of Irish international hookers.

Jonny Sexton

Another two-timer whose age will preclude any further Lions appearances. Jonny Sexton has been the heartbeat of the Irish side since the start of the decade and his proved his international class having appeared in all of the last six Lions tests, starting five. He didn’t have the strongest domestic season with Leinster in 16/17 and struggled at the start of the tour after a long season, but grew into the tour and proved crucial in his axis with Owen Farrell which stretched the All Blacks defenders and allowed the Lions to gain a foothold against a team known for pulling away in the second half. It is not as if the Lions will be lacking for fly-halves in South Africa in four years times, but Sexton’s experience will be missed, even if Owen Farrell was the man with the golden boot.

James Haskell

A man for whom overseas tours is his key motivation in rugby. James Haskell had previously never managed to secure a spot on the flight on a Lions tour and only succeeded this year when Billy Vunipola ruled himself out with an injury. Even though he failed to make a test appearance, he added a semblance of experience to the midweek side appearing in four matches, including the win over the Chiefs. He was regarded as integral to the squad dynamic off the field and instilling a relaxed atmosphere when the squad could have adopted a siege mentality. If Gatland gets the chance to coach the team again, he will need players like Haskell to shape the dressing room against the Boks, but at thirty-six in 2021, that is unlikely to be Haskell himself.

Dan Cole

There is a possibility that Dan Cole could make a third Lions series in 2021. As a thirty-four year old prop, Cole wouldn’t necessarily be out of place against the Springboks against whom the battle in the scrum will be crucial. He was unable to build upon the three caps won against Australia four years ago during this year’s tour, but other than Tadhg Furlong was the team’s strongest scrummager and will have benefited his younger compatriots with his knowledge and judgement. He will likely go one playing for Leicester and England for many years to come, but with the front-row evolving into a more athletic position, Cole will probably miss out on completing a clean sweep of all three Southern Hemisphere giants.

Talking points of Wimbledon 2017 so far

Lack of grass courts specialists

This is nothing new in modern tennis terms, but it does appear that the slow but unremitting death of serve and volley and the sheer lack of experience on the surface has rendered grass courts an anathema in both the men’s and women’s tours. There are exceptions, but Roger Federer is almost 36 and players such as Gail Monfils and Dustin Brown although brilliant to watch, don’t have tournament winning quality and thus the title more often than not ends in the hands of players who favour alternative surfaces.

Within the women’s game, aside from Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova is a stand out name having won two Wimbledon titles since the turn of the decade and will hopefully regain her status as a regular contender following the traumatic year she has suffered. Other players who were tipped to be successful on the surface, such as Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska, but women’s tennis hasn’t had a grass court trailblazer like Federer since 2000 (Williams is just a trailblazer on any surface).

What does the future hold for grass court tennis? It has been reported in certain papers that players feel the balls are slower this year than previously, thereby closing the gap between grass and the other playing surfaces. Additionally, without an increased number of grass court tournaments on tour (Rosmalen, Queens and Halle being some of the few), the cycle will continue with upcoming players developing on hard and clay courts without learning acquiring the skill set suited for grass.

Openness of the women’s draw

One of the most exciting things about this year’s Wimbledon is the openness of the women’s draw. With Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova not competing and Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka still adjusting to rejoining the tour, the door is open for a whole new raft of hopeful to stake their claims this year. Of those, Jelena Ostapenko may fancy her chances having won the French Open although I believe the draw favours the likes of Garbine Muguruza and Dominika Cibulkova. Every year throws up its surprises but with Angelique Kerber having struggled this season and Simona Halep still trying to master the mental part of her game, the next champion could be a true dark horse.

What of Jo Konta? She successfully navigated her first round tie against Su-Wei Hsieh (who she lost to at the same stage at this year’s French Open) and is up against the relatively unknown Croatian Donna Vekic in the Second Round. Konta should dispatch the world number 57, but if she manages to get past the third round she’ll likely meet Kvitova early next week and recovering or not, Kvitova knows what it takes at Wimbledon.

The resurgence of Rafa Nadal

In his heyday, Nadal was a ferocious competitor, able to play Roger Federer of the court on grass! But his extremely physical style of play took a major strain on his body and his last three Wimbledon appearances have been uninspiring with the fourth round marking his furthest progression. But, he has achieved two grand slam finals this year for the first time since 2014 winning the French and put on a bravura display to dispatch Australia’s John Millman yesterday 6-1, 6-3, 6-2. It appears that the Majorcan has rediscovered his game this season at a time when his other competitors are waning. For all those who believe that Roger Federer will win this year’s men’s competition (as indicated by a BBC poll), it would not be a surprise to see Nadal lifting his third Wimbledon title on this form.

Lions Update: Who’s performed well and who’s likely to be in the test team in 11 days’ time?

With four matches played and two wins for and against, the Lions tour to New Zealand has begun with a bumpy start and several performances that have not been up to scratch against highly-motivated Kiwi teams on their home soil. Starting with the win against the Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei, the Lions have recorded losses against the Highlanders and the Blues, but secured a win against the previously unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch. In these first four games, Gatland will have gained an appreciation of the players he wants for his test team and has given each player the opportunity to demonstrate their talents. Here is a list of those who have and have failed to likely impress the coach so far.

In the reckoning:

Conor Murray

A concern before the tour due to injury concerns and has only played one game on tour so far, but Conor Murray outshone his teammates against the Crusaders with a consummate performance that nullified much of the Crusaders’ attacking threat and allowed the Lions to gain a firm grip on a game that could easily have slipped away. His kicking from open-play is a huge asset considering the type of wingers Gatland has selected for the tour and his mental resilience will allow him to go toe-to-toe with Aaron Smith. Gatland will need to be mindful of managing his workload though and we may only see him once more before the first test in Auckland.

Liam Williams

A player who complements Murray’s kicking game and would have been a useful addition against a Highlanders team who kicked more than expected. Although he got a costly yellow card against the Blues in the second game, he was a star performer against the Crusaders where his aerial ability came into its own. Depending on how Gatland wants to play, he would be advised to get Williams into the game more because of his propensity for Tommy Bowe-esque running lines and his commitment in challenging for the ball and in the tackle. He may not be the quickest, but then Anthony Watson is in the squad for that reason.

Mako Vunipola

Forwards are often unheralded in Rugby Union and fail to receive the plaudits as flashier colleagues behind the scrum often do. Not the elder Vunipola brother. Appearing against the Barbarians and the Crusaders, Vunipola has been hugely influential in giving the Lions a strong platform from which to impose themselves upon their Kiwi hosts. As referenced below, the Lions are currently struggling to get numbers to the breakdown before their opponents, resulting in needless penalties caused by a lack of communication and understanding. Vunipola is useful in this regard, in that unlike other front row colleagues, he not only makes ground more often than not, but he is also adept at retaining the ball and stealing it when defending.

Need to step up their game:

James Haskell

Haskell has appeared against the Blues and the Highlanders so far and has struggled to assert himself in New Zealand. In his most recent match in Dunedin, Haskell made a couple of handling errors and was unable to win the breakdown battle against Luke Whitelock and Gareth Evans. At times he also looked lost with ball in hand and does not appear to have the speed to effectively counter opposition attackers. Gatland will likely give him one more game to prove himself before the tests, but Haskell will need to re-evaluate his game and put in a big performance if he is to be considered.

Jonathan Joseph

Having appeared against the Barbarians and the Highlanders, Joseph has scored one of the Lions’ few tries on tour and has demonstrated a couple of neat touches and command under the high ball, but has not been able to tear enemy defences apart as he did during the Six Nations and often finds himself targeted by opposition attackers who are aware of his defensive frailties. Admittedly, in the Highlanders game, he did manage to catch and tackle Malakai Fekitoa having been stepped, but he was also bumped off in the tackle by Richard Buckman with relative ease in another phase and seems unable to escape the clutches of enemy defenders when an opportunity presents itself.

Elliot Daly

Daly has appeared against the Blues and the Highlanders so far on tour and has been unfortunate in being denied the clinical service that presented him with opportunities during the Six Nations. Like many of his Lions’ colleagues, he has been unable to fully adapt to the playing patterns that Gatland favours and has therefore been at a loose end in attacking phase play. Additionally, and not that this is fatal to his chances of selection, Daly missed the final penalty that would have won the Lions the game against the Highlanders. Owen Farrell had missed an earlier kickable penalty that would likely have had the same result and Daly’s was from a far greater distance, but it won’t count in his favour even though the Lions have lost another long-range kicking specialist in Stuart Hogg to injury.

Of course there is time for players to turn their fortunes around and for the test team to change its dynamic considerably based on injuries and form, but it does appear that Gatland already has an understanding of his favoured team with those playing against the Barbarians and the Crusaders more likely to walk into the test team. The differing interpretations of northern and southern hemisphere referees may also play a part in Gatland’s selections with two French referees potentially giving the Lions an advantage in the test series.

Inflation and Sporting Success: The Rugby and Football Stories

It seems a long time ago that West Bromwich Albion signed Hungary captain Zoltan Gera for £1.5 Million. That was in July 2004. Gera played just over 250 games for the Albion and Fulham in a ten-year stint in England’s top division, and was consistently one of the league’s most reliable and entertaining players. Thirteen years on, football clubs couldn’t buy a teenager from Colchester for the same amount of money, inflation in football having reached epidemic levels. The most recent example being the £43 Million that Manchester City have shelled out for Bernardo Silva. Do not mistake me, Silva is a good player, but that is an exceptional amount of money for a 22-year-old whose reputation is largely built on one good season at Monaco. Compare that with the £7 million fee paid by Chelsea in January 2012 for Gary Cahill. True, this was a truly brilliant piece of business from the London end and a particularly disastrous one for the Wanderers, but it does show that value could be had until very recently for the top drawer of players; Cahill having been named in the PFA Team of the Year three times and having won every domestic and European trophy open to him since arriving at the Bridge.

It is not as if teams did not pay over the odds in earlier times, Fernando Torres’ £50 Million move to Chelsea in 2011 and Andy Carroll’s switch from Newcastle to Liverpool on the same day come to mind, but what is worrying is that it has become far more common and it is squeezing the bottom of the market. Take West Brom again, a team run on a very secure financial basis with a tight wage structure and no superstars. Amongst the team that finished 10th in this year’s Premier League, Claudio Yacob and Gareth McAuley were signed as free agents and Ben Foster joined for a reported £4 Million. This represents huge value for money in a market where the very best players are beyond the reach of the vast majority of teams and finding hidden gems is a continual preoccupation.

Compare this to Rugby Union. The best teams are not always those with the most money. Look at Toulon, even though the Mediterranean team have imported numerous foreign superstars on big money deals since the start of the decade, they have only won one Top 14 title, although they have secured three European Champions Cup triumphs. If it was entirely down to money, Toulon or some other French spender would have won the Champions Cup in the last two seasons as well, but instead Saracens have taken the crown. Why? Because once you reach a peak in sport there is only one way to go and that is down. The All Blacks have proved exceptional in sustaining themselves at the peak of international team sports longer than virtually anyone else, but the same does not apply to Toulon. They had their time, and they still have the playing quality, but desire and teamwork often count for more and having won it three times you can understand a dip in drive.

Moving from France to Devon, the greatest current example of team work and desire overcoming money and superstardom lies with the Exeter Chiefs. This year’s Aviva Premiership Champions following a close fought final against Wasps, the Chiefs have retained several players from their promotion success seven years ago and it was fitting that one of those, Gareth Steenson, kicked the winning points on Saturday. They have focused primarily on local and British talent, bringing through the likes of Jack Nowell, Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie, with a few foreign signings along the way. But it is the squad cohesion and enthusiasm that makes this team better than the sum of their parts. Opposition teams continually underestimate Exeter because of their lack of pretence, but Exeter have proved they can deliver on the biggest stage against teams with seasoned internationals and years of European experience. And long may it continue.

West Brom are unlikely to emulate Exeter because of the financial imperatives of the Premier League. Football has strayed too far from it roots to the point where players receiving £150,000 a week feel that they are being underpaid. Rugby, thankfully, still retains a measure of its amateur ethos and has not entirely succumbed to commercialism as football did under Sky, but it needs to be wary of following a similar path. Thankfully they have an example of how not to do it.

Lions Tour: Scheduling Expectations

With any ten test Lions tour, Warren Gatland and his coaching staff will need to be mindful of player fatigue and its implications for the tests when selecting his sides for the earlier matches against the New Zealand Barbarians, the five Kiwi Super Rugby franchises and the Maori All Blacks. Saying that, Gatland will want to give his leading squad players time to play against high quality opposition in readiness for the All Black onslaught, a scenario open to the Lions coaching staff with Steve Hansen allowing his All Black players to play for their domestic teams during the warm up games. There is no question that this tour is going to be among the most punishing of modern times, with the Australian tour of four years ago having been relatively comfortable against a fairly week Wallaby team.

3 June – New Zealand Barbarians – Whangarei

The opening game for the Lions and almost certainly the easiest one they will face. With the game coming only weeks after major domestic cup finals in the Northern Hemisphere, it would be a surprise to see the likes of Jonathan Davies, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Courtney Lawes featuring, but Gatland will be looking to give a run-out to more inexperienced members of the team to allow them to acclimatise to the Kiwi style of rugby, and perhaps to players who haven’t played for an extended period due to injury. I would therefore expect to see Anthony Watson, Ben Te’o and Iain Henderson featuring alongside the experience of Rory Best, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton.

7 June – Blues – Auckland

A real test for Gatland’s men in their second match. The Blues have been average this season in the Australasian Group of Super Rugby having recorded 6 wins from 11 so far, but that does include the demolition of the Rebels in the opening week and wins against the Bulls, the Brumbies and the Force. The Lions will need to be particularly mindful of the Ioane brothers who have been regular try scorers this year and the All Blacks, Steve Luatua, Patrick Tuipulotu and Sonny Bill Williams. Gatland will have the luxury of having had his full squad together for a more reasonable period for this game and will therefore probably name a strong side of test hopefuls including Murray, Jonny Sexton, Maro Itoje, George North and Stuart Hogg.

10 June – Crusaders – Christchurch

A test match all but officially considering the sheer quality available to the Crusaders and their dominant form that has seen them win every game of the season so far including hugely impressive wins against the Highlanders, the Waratahs, the Sunwolves and the Bulls. Numbered among their ranks are World Cup winners Kieran Read, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Joe Moody, Luke Romano and Israel Dagg and they have several other All Blacks in addition to those. This match will be a real indicator of the Lions chances and reasonable expectations on this tour. If Scott Robertson names a full-strength side (probably minus the injured Read) and the Lions struggle, then it is indicative of the Lions likely struggles against the full All Black team a month ahead, but if the Lions play effectively as a team and isolate the inexperienced members of Robertson’s team then it could be a truly terrific contest. Gatland would be a fool to name anything but his strongest team in Christchurch: Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Stander, North, Itoje, the lot.

13 June – Highlanders – Dunedin

By this point in the tour Gatland will be looking at squad rotation and will likely have picked up injuries. This is unfortunate because in the Dunedin-based Highlanders, the Lions face one of the strongest New Zealand teams of the last five years and one packed with current All Blacks. Gatland’s men will therefore have to contend with the likes of Aaron Smith, Liam Squire, Malakai Fekitoa, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith. The South Islanders also have a large and aggressive pack that will need to be neutralised before the ball can be played out wide. Expect Ross Moriarty, Taulupe Faletau, Alun Wyn Jones and Robbie Henshaw.

17 June – Maori All Blacks – Rotorua

An unknown quantity as an invitational side, but still providing a real test, the Maori All Blacks last played in November in tests versus Harlequins, Munster and the USA. Gatland will probably use this match as an opportunity to rest some of his bigger names and give those on the edge of test selection the opportunity to press their claims. With the possibility of fringe All Blacks such as Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie getting the call, it will be interesting how Gatland tries to nullify their hard-running threat and may try to match up like-for-like by selecting Anthony Watson, Rhys Webb and Jamie George.

20 June – Chiefs – Hamilton

It doesn’t get any easier for the Lions as they journey across the North Island to Hamilton to take on the Chiefs. The Waikato franchise won two Super Rugby Championships on the bounce in 2012-13 and are still a real threat, currently sitting third in the New Zealand conference and sixth overall. Amongst the stars that Dave Rennie may be able to select include current All Blacks Sam Cane, Liam Messam Brodie Retallick, Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden and several other players with experience of wearing the shirt. Leinster-bound James Lowe has been a try-scoring machine this season and Tim Nanai-Williams is electric with ball in hand. With the first test against the All Blacks only four days away, Gatland probably won’t field a full-strength team, but will want a strong performance and may well select Dan Biggar, Ben Te’o and Lawes to do the job.

24 June – New Zealand – Auckland

The first test and a crucial one in dictating a successful tour. Of the last three Lions tours, the team that has won the first test has gone on to win the series and the Lions can’t afford to give the All Blacks an inch. In the absence of injuries, it can be imagined that the First Test team will comprise Murray, Farrell, North, Warburton and Itoje with the other spots filled on performances earlier in the tour. Lining up against them will be the likes of Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Aaron Smith and it will be the fine margins that dictate the outcome. But make no mistake, if the Lions find themselves on the backfoot early, chances are this will be less a battle and more a siege.

27 June – Hurricanes – Wellington

The current Super Rugby Champions and fifth in this year’s competition so far, the Hurricanes are unlikely to have all if any of their All Blacks playing due to the scheduling of this match between test matches. In their absence, Gatland will probably give his charges a well-deserved rest, handing playing spots to non-test players such as Ken Owens, Kyle Sinckler, Greig Laidlaw, Te’o and Henderson. Even without their All Blacks, the Hurricanes will still be gunning for success on home turf with Jordie Barrett, Reggie Goodes, Chris Eves and Brad Shields likely to get game time.

The final two tests

There is no question that the Lions are going to throw the kitchen sink at the All Blacks but will it be enough? There will likely be a high attrition rate during the test considering the size of the All Black team and therefore it is possible that players who no one saw starting tests at the beginning of the tour may get their opportunity. Dan Biggar, Tommy Seymour and Joe Marler may fall into this bracket. It is also possible that players not currently selected to tour may make the Test team following earlier injuries, an eventuality that occurred four years ago when Alex Corbisiero replaced Cian Healy and started the first and third tests.

Transfer Talk: Premier League Squad Overhauls this summer

It may not have been the contested end to the season that Sky and BT wanted, but that only enhances the performance of the league’s best team this year. Chelsea have dominated this season, largely thanks to Antonio Conte’s inspired tactical switch following defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool in September, as other teams have faltered or fallen below expectations. Having benefited from the lack of European football following last season’s tenth place finish, the Blues have won 29 out of 37 matches and will record the highest score in a Premiership season of 93 since 2004-05, with a win against Sunderland on Sunday. But this summer’s transfer dealings will alter the balance of the league once again with those unsuccessful members of Premier League royalty looking to reclaim the title next year. For the happily mid-table, the off-season will offer an opportunity to sign reinforcements and shore up problematic positions and for those in the lower reaches, it will be a battle for bargains and real talent in a hugely inflated marketplace.

The Big Movers

Manchester City: Pep Guardiola has yet to put his mark on the Manchester club having recorded a disappointing first season in the North West. Pablo Zabaleta had an emotional send-off last weekend and will likely be followed out of the door by Bacary Sagna, Jesus Navas, Gael Clichy, Willy Caballero, Nolito, Joe Hart and possibly Yaya Toure, Kelechi Iheanacho and Aleksandar Kolarov. Guardiola will be looking to build his team around the quality of Kevin de Bruyne and Leroy Sane whilst enhancing his defensive and goalkeeping options after being exposed in Europe and against the likes of Everton and Leicester in the league. Although their pressing style has proved fairly effective against lower level teams, this squad has gotten to the end of its shelf-life with many of those leaving over thirty. Guardiola will need to replicate that experience in his signings, but crucially will need players capable of performing against the very best and inspired to win domestic titles in arguably the world’s toughest league. Keeping Sergio Aguero is a must and signing Kyle Walker would also be a step in the right direction.

Swansea: A deeply disappointing season for the Swans and one which they will be thankful to leave behind. Having secured safety on 38 points, Paul Clement will be looking to considerably improve his squad for the following campaign with defence a particular concern. In the triumvirate of Federico Fernandez, Alfie Mawson and Mike van der Hoorn, Clement does not have a centre-back partnership capable of surviving another Premier League season and therefore needs to look for experienced alternatives who can mentor the inexperienced Mawson and restore the defence to its position whilst Ashley Williams was at the helm. Off-loading some of the dead weight in Borja Baston, Marvin Emnes and Bafetimbi Gomis would be beneficial although it is crucial that Gylfi Sigurdsson, Ki Sung-yeung and Fernando Llorente remain with the team. Despite Swans’ chairman Huw Jenkins claiming it would be “dangerous” to make serious squad alterations, I would expect there to be movement at the Liberty Stadium, and John Terry may be one of those incoming.

Stoke: Largely under the radar once again, but having struggled to get the best out of their talented squad, Mark Hughes needs to reassess his playing staff having dropped from a ninth place finish last season to the (current) obscurity of fourteenth. Of those who haven’t performed, it is likely that Giani Imbula, Stephen Ireland and Ibrahim Afellay could be headed for the door, whilst Lee Grant may leave in search of first team football following Jack Butland’s return from injury. Glen Johnson has been confirmed as staying, but Wilfried Bony will return to Manchester City following his loan spell. Hughes would do worse than integrate Philipp Wollscheid back into the team following his loan spell at Wolfsburg and work hard with Saido Berahino over the off-season, but it will be a surprise if there are not some incomers. He may well push the panic button this summer, off-loading long-serving strikers such as Jonathan Walters and Peter Crouch in favour of younger models such as Bournemouth’s Josh King or Southampton’s Shane Long.

A few changes:

Southampton: Southampton have not had a bad season by any means, they are the leaders in the middle-pack of Premier League teams ahead of West Brom and Bournemouth and look likely to finish in the top half. But, the ownership are not convinced that Claude Puel has achieved this season’s objectives and with a managerial change in the offing its likely there will be some changes in the playing staff. If Southampton want to better this year’s league position it will likely take major investment, as they are fifteen points off Everton in 7th with a game of the season to go, but it is more likely they will try to improve the squad on margin in order to maintain a top-half finish. For this, the Saints will once again reply heavily on their academy and may let bit part players such as Jeremy Pied and Shane Long leave St Marys. But keeping Virgil van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand is crucial.

Leicester: Craig Shakespeare has done an excellent job in revitalising Leicester following the club’s collapse under Claudio Ranieri mid-season. He has instilled the steel needed for the team to remain in the league, but refortifying will be required to ensure what happened this season doesn’t happen again next year. Leonardo Ulloa and Bartosz Kapustka are likely to leave although it is likely Shakespeare will retain the core of the squad that took the title twelve months ago. He will be looking to get the best out of Jamie Vardy once again, but may well freshen up his defence with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan ageing. Maya Yoshida, Ben Gibson or Calum Chambers may well be on the cards.

Everton: A positive season for Ronald Koeman’s men has culminated in a seventh place finish way ahead of the chasing pack. But although Koeman has a squad he is happy with and that surpasses that of many of their Premier League rivals, the threat of Romalu Lukaku and Ross Barkley leaving means that the Toffees may need to reinforce. Fortunately, were Lukaku and Barkley to depart, then Koeman would have considerable funds with which to bolster his squad with Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ajax captain on his wish list. Everton will still be unable to attract the very best talents, but with a £70 Million price in the offing for Lukaku, they should be able to sweep up most others.

Pretty quiet:

Spurs: For Spurs this summer will be about maintaining squad cohesion following a brilliant campaign in which they trumped more heralded names. They look likely to lose Kyle Walker to Man City, but it would be a shock were Eric Dier, Christian Eriksen or Hugo Lloris were to depart. Mauricio Pochettino is constrained by the club’s wage policy and there will be interest from abroad, but I expect Spurs to dig in their heels during negotiations as they have a contented squad with Champions League football ahead of them. If Spurs felt they did require new signings it would likely be up front with Harry Kane having borne a disproportionate scoring burden this season.

Burnley: Not a team known for their high-spending or slapdash nature in the transfer market, Burnley will likely remain stoical while others bid over the odds for players who will get little game time. Not that that means Burnley do not need improvements. They have defended well this season, but losing Michael Keane would be a mighty blow and in front of goal they have struggled, having scored the fewest number of goals in the league other than the three relegated teams. Expect Dyche to dabble in the transfer market with Jermain Defoe likely near the top of the list.

Bournemouth: The unheralded Southerners have proved the doubters wrong once again, improving on last season’s 16th place and providing entertaining football having scored and conceded more goals than any other middle table team. Eddie Howe is not blessed with extravagant amounts of cash at the Vitality Stadium and will be hugely satisfied with the club’s progression, but will be looking for a few new names to replace the departing Jack Wilshere. He will also have to be mindful of others seeking the likes of Josh King and the impressive Ryan Fraser. Defence has to be Howe’s priority in the off-season with Stoke’s Marc Muniesa, Ben Gibson and Calum Chambers all options. A smart move would also be to bring Marc Wilson back from his loan at West Brom and integrate him within the team. Others tipped include Dijon’s Lois Diony and the Chelsea pair of Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic.