Archive for the ‘Rugby’ Category

From Cavaliers to Roundheads

Tuesday, February 25th, 2020

I watched Wales playing France on Saturday, and was completely depressed by their performance. To be honest, I am not a great fan of modern rugby. It reminds me so much of rugby league which to me has always been a second cousin to rugby union. That is, when rugby union was played with flair and verve. I know rugby union went through a barren period during the sixties embodied by a match between Wales and Scotland. The Welsh captain on that day was Clive Rowlands. Playing at scrum half, he received the ball  from  the lineout for the umpteenth time, and proceeded to kick for touch approximately 96 times. It was a  diabolical spectacle. His gifted half back partner, David Watkins, never received a pass.

Rowlands’ performance led to a change in the laws. It was decreed that kicking directly into touch would only be permitted from within your own twenty five. Otherwise, the ensuing lineout would be taken back from where the kick was taken.

Fifty plus years on kicking from the hand still played a huge role in Saturday’s match. But this was much worse. Wales’s Biggar and Halfpenny continued to punt the ball aimlessly up the field invariably straight into the hands of their French opponents who to their credit showed far more imagination than their Welsh opponents. Why opt to kick and give possession of the ball to your opponents allowing them to counter attack?

I guess I romanticize over the golden era of Welsh Rugby in the seventies and eighties, but with justification. They claimed that Wales had an outside half (fly half) factory churning out the next super star. Believe me, the team revolved around the outside half until the great Gareth Edwards came along and stamped his own authority on a match from scrum half. But that’s another story. Let’s concentrate on the line of fly halves that adorned the Welsh jersey in the Golden era.

David Watkins started the ball (pardon the pun) rolling when freed from the shackles of Clive Rowlands. He was replaced by a legend  called “The King”, Barry John. He received the mantel “King” from New Zealand journalists following his exploits in New Zealand in 1971 when he guided the British Lions to their first and only series win over the All Blacks.

My dad and I had endless arguments about Barry John having the talent to play for Wales let alone being regarded as the best fly half of his generation. My dad was used to fly halves making side steps to elude opponents while John  would invariably swivel his hips and glide through the opposition. Unaccountably, John retired at the premature age of 27 when he was at the peak of his career. Fortunately, Phil Bennett was waiting in the wings to take his place.

Now Bennett played a pivotal role in one of the greatest games of rugby. In 1973, the All Blacks toured Britain and Ireland and finished undefeated until the last game against the Barbarians. The Barbarians were an invitational XV, but on this occasion it comprised the majority of the British Lions squad which was so successful in 1971. This match will explain the difference in rugby style between the golden age and the ponderous modern game. Running and passing the ball, beating an opponent with deft of movement, using magical skills of fleet of foot, and slick handling. It was poetry in motion.

Instead, Wales had a great opportunity to score a try to bring them back into contention just before half time, and France had been reduced to 14 men with one player sent to the sin bin. Time and time again they attempted to bludgeon their way over the try line which was only 5 yards away when the situation cried out for a pass to their backs lined up in anticipation. Needless to say, they failed miserably and France went on to win the match despite a couple of late tries by Wales. I was angry watching their abject failure to create any kind of magic. Worse still, I was saddened by the state of Welsh rugby, and the state of the modern game in general.

Before I sign off I must mention another fly half, Jonathan Davies, who  played with a swagger and managed to stamp his own personality and range of mercurial skills on the game. He was lost to the union game far too early when he decided to take the money and go north to play rugby league as did David Watkins. Both players were highly successful in Rugby League, which in the case of Jonathan Davies left a chasm in the Welsh team. Davies was probably the last of the artisans to wear the number 10 jersey for Wales which led to an inevitable decline in Welsh rugby.

Yes, Wales have won Grand Slams in the 21st Century, but the current attitude in the game was sadly summed up by the current captain, multi-capped Alan Wyn-Jones: “Test rugby is about winning matches and throwing the ball around can be very pretty, but it is not winning.” In response I would conclude by asking: why can’t we win with flair?

My Sporting Heroes

Thursday, October 3rd, 2019

The title of this post is a contradiction really. Regular readers of my blog (if there are any) will know that the sporting teams I support include Swansea City and Tottenham Hotspur on the football front, the Atlanta Falcons from the NFL, the Atlanta Braves from major league baseball and the Wales rugby team.

Why the contradiction? Well I have had more than my share of disappointments supporting these teams over the last few years. Swansea City were relegated from the Premiership about 18 months ago, but did survive seven seasons in the top flight whilst winning the League Cup (or whatever it was called) in 2013. Paying millions for over rated players, changing managers through a revolving  door eventually put paid to their elite status. Currently, they sit at the top of the Championship table after 10 games, but it’s a long season, so don’t hold your breath.

Where do I begin with Tottenham Hotspur? They overachieved last season by reaching the final of the Champions League, but played so flat that the late Donald Campbell could have broken the land speed record across their backs. The summer almost brought a wind of change through the management and squad. Manager Pochettino cast envious eyes towards Real Madrid, Christian Ericksen, Toby Alderwald, Danny Rose, and Jan vethongen wanted to leave. However, Real Madrid rehired Zidane as head coach, and Manchester United, another possible destination for Pocchetino, made Solksjaer their permanent manager. Meanwhile no suitable offers came in for the want away players, and they all remain members of the squad.

Rumors on the internet claimed that Vethongen had an affair with Eriksen’s girl friend, and several of the squad are not speaking to each other. I don’t know whether there’s any truth in the rumor, but Spurs suffered the worst home defeat in their history by losing 2-7 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League Group Stage last Tuesday. They looked like a team falling apart at the seams, and perhaps Pochettino has them as far as possible. Rumors are also rife that Real Madrid intend hiring him next season, and he will take Harry Kane and Eriksen with him. Speaking of Kane, he looks to have lost a yard or two in pace, and he wasn’t the fastest greyhound in the first place.

This is painful to recall, but the Falcons were leading the New England Patriots 28-3 entering the final quarter in the 2017 Super Bowl only to concede 31 unanswered points and lose the game in overtime. Following an unsinspiring 2018 season when they went 7-9 Dan Quinn decided to part with his defensive and offensive co-ordinators, and too over defensive duties. A quarter of the 2019 regular season has been played and we are currently 1-3. the not so mighty Quinn claims the team lacks consistency and they can find the solutions to a season  which is rapidly sinking like the Titanic. I put their malaise down to the three Ts: tackling, timing and turnovers. They are simply an ordinary team that has an over inflated opinion of themselves.

The Atlanta Braves last won the World Series in 1995. They should have repeated in 1996, but shot themselves in the foot. In my opinion the franchise has never fully recovered from that damaging loss to the Yankees. Yes, they managed to return to the playoffs on a few occasions since, but couldn’t add another World Series. They won 97 games this season and comfortably made the playoffs. However they never learn from previous mistakes. They rested players during the last week and half of the season, and proceeded to be swept 0-3 by the New York Mets in the last series of the season.

Once again they are playing an opponent, St Louis Cardinals, who surged into the Playoffs while the Braves appeared to take their foot of the gas and have last their momentum. There are injury worries concerning Freeman and Acuna and they have two or three inexperienced pitchers in their rotation. Game 1 and 2 are being played tonight and tomorrow in Atlanta, so watch this space.

Wales are currently involved in the Rugby World Cup, and produced a superb display last Saturday to narrowly defeat Australia. If they can win their remaining matches in the group  against Fiji and Uruguay they will top their table and avoid New Zealand and England in the quarter finals. Wales have not done particularly well in the World Cup, apart from achieving 3rd place in the inaugural event in 1987. They have found the proverbial banana skin in previous World Cups having lost to Fiji once before, so I am not counting chickens just yet.

Menage a Trois

Friday, December 28th, 2018

Thanks to the overwhelming response to my previous post “Partnerships,” (I received one comment which was from my son) I am continuing a similar theme. Only this time I’m concentrating on trios that were linked in some macabre way. Let’s begin with a comedy act from America, “The Three Stooges,” Moe, Curly and Larry. They didn’t appeal to British audiences, but were very successful in America.

Shell Petrol sponsored “World of Golf” featuring Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and they became to be known as “The Big Three.” I mentioned in my previous post that Best, Law and Charlton dominated the stage at Manchester United in the 1960s. There’s a  statue of the three of them forever linked in bronze to commemorate their achievements. I also can’t leave out the midfield trio from Tottenham Hotspur: Blanchflower, Mackay and White, who were instrumental in Spurs being the first club to achieve the Double (Championship and FA Cup) in the 20th Century. John White was tragically killed by lightning sheltering under a tree on a golf course in 1965, and was never really replaced.

Turning to politics, Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party died suddenly in 1963, and there were three contenders to replace him: Harold Wilson, George Brown, and James Callaghan. Wilson eventually won the leadership contest and became Prime Minister in 1964. Brown served as Foreign Secretary while Callaghan lived next door to 10 Downing Street as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Brown gained notoriety by appearing on television several times in an intoxicated state, and arguably made more sense when he was drunk.

Show business inevitably is littered with trios: The Bachelors, The Beverly Sisters, The Andrew Sisters, The Supremes, The Crystals, The Springfields. Dusty Springfield achieved  greater fame as a solo artist. Eric Clapton comprised for a short time one third of the rock band Cream, but he too achieved greater success as a solo artist. Emerson, Lake and Palmer deserve a mention as one of the first super groups. I could have included Crosby, Stills and Nash but Neil Young made them into a quartet.

Rugby has natural trios in the form of front rows, none more famous than Faulkner, Windsor and Price, They were Wales’s first ever one-club front row, and immortalized in a song by Max Boyce as the Viet Gwent. Comments on a postcard please if you believe I have misconstrued that phrase. Wales had a tremendous back row in the seventies in the shape of Merv the Swerve, Basil Brush Taylor, and Dai Morris, The Shadow.

Finally it would be remiss of me not to mention the “Three Tenors,” Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. The 1990 World Cup brought them into prominence with the general public when the BBC used “Nessa Dorme,” beautifully sung by Pavarotti, as their theme song for televising the month long tournament. The Three Tenors gave a memorable concert towards the end of the tournament which propelled their careers to greater heights.

I could write a sequel on quartets where rock bands like the Beatles, Stones and The Who would be rich pickings. But I’m becoming rather bored with this theme, so goodness knows what it’s doing to my reader. So there you are. It only remains for me to wish y’all a Happy and Healthy New Year.

An Unacceptable Outcome.

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Draws or ties have no place in American sports. They want a winner and a loser. Try and explain to an American that in test matches in cricket they can play for five days and finish with a draw. Mind you, I can recall some test matches where a draw resulted in an exciting finish. Who can forget Colin Cowdrey marching out to bat with a broken arm to save the test against Hall and Griffith at Lords in 1963?

Football has provided us with some exciting draws where a point won the Championship for a club, or a hard earned point saved them from relegation. But England’s win over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final was achieved by the match extending into extra time. Can you imagine the anti-climax if the two teams had to settle for a draw and share the World Cup?

But that’s precisely what the British Lions and All Blacks had to be content with. Competing in a best of three test match series,  each team had won one with subsequently  all to play for in the third and final test. The tour began with sleeping pills and howls about a “suicidal” schedule. After the first two games the Lions were being called “pathetic” and incompetent by the locals. So it was no surprise when The All Blacks  comfortably won the first test 30-15.

By the time the second Test approached, Coach Gatland was wearing a clown’s nose and the whole future of the Lions was in doubt. That was all forgotten as everyone was heading back to Auckland to settle the argument after a crazy night in Wellington.

Let’s be clear about one thing. The Lions had been very lucky in the second test. The All Blacks were reduced to 14 players when Sonny Boy Williams was sent off in the 25th minute for a reckless shoulder charge into the unprotected jaw of Lions wing Anthony Watson. The All Blacks actually led at half time and it was only the result of two late tries that won the day for the Lions 24-21.

More to the point, the Lions were 14-21 down with 13 minutes to play. The last occasion the All Blacks lost at home was to South Africa in 2009; as well as the 47 test unbeaten home record. It is also three years since New Zealand failed to score a try in a test match.

The Lions management, coaches, and players had to be buoyed by the victory even it wasn’t very convincing, and they had to be very confident of winning the series in the third and final test. Everything was on the line – a series decider, a World Cup Final. Did I forget to mention that the All Blacks are the reigning World Champions, and had not lost at Eden Park since losing to France in 1994.

The Lions had not won a series in New Zealand since 1971. The last time the All Blacks lost two in a row at home was way back in 1998, a defeat to South Africa in Wellington compounded by another a week later in Christchurch against Australia. And yet the Lions felt they were perfectly poised to ruin another weekend for the All Blacks and their fans after the come-from-behind victory in Wellington.

The Lions fielded an unchanged team from the previous test while the panicky All Blacks made several changes. On this occasion it was the All Blacks who scored two tries and the Lions had to be content with 5 penalties, four from Farrell and a long range effort from the English winger, Daly. The game proved to be  very tense affair littered with basic mistakes. The All Blacks led for most of the match until Farrell leveled the scores 4 minutes from time. There was further drama at the very end of the game when the Lions hooker was adjudged to be offside, and the referee awarded the All Blacks a kickable penalty only to change in his mind after consulting video evidence. So the match ended in a 15-15 draw and the series tied. The Lions coach summed it up succinctly when asked for his reaction: “It’s like kissing your sister!”

I’m not suggesting they should have played extra time, or been subject to a penalty shoot out. But I just believe it was a terrific anti-climax following the narrow win in Auckland and the All Blacks were there for the taking. It was a very good but unsatisfactory finish to  what turned out to be a pulsating and riveting series.

 

 

Black Hat, Purple Cool

Friday, February 17th, 2017

The last ten days or so have been quite traumatic for my favorite sports teams on either side of the Atlantic. On the morning of the Super Bowl, Swansea City travelled to Manchester “Millionaires” City in more hope than expectation. Yes, they had won their previous two matches and had clawed their way out of the relegation zone, but playing Man City away is a tall order. The first half proved to be a startling exercise in survival. City scored early in the game, and I was fully expecting the flood gates to open. But to their credit the Swans defended doggedly with shades of desperation at times, and despite City having 82% of the possession, the score remained unchanged at half time.

The Swans played more positively in the second half, and received their reward when Siggurdson scored the equalizer with a perfectly placed shot into the corner of the net.  A valuable point appeared to be secured, but a late lapse in concentration by the Swans defense allowed City to snatch the winner well into injury time.

I was a little disappointed with the result, but nothing compared to the devastation I was to experience later in the day. The Atlanta Falcons were playing in only their second Super Bowl in their less than illustrious 50 year history. Their opponents, New England Patriots, on the other hand, are the Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid of the NFL. They expect to make it to the Super Bowl every year.

The game began very well for the Falcons who completely dominated the first half, and at half time comfortably led the Patriots 21-3. The Falcons began the second half in similar fashion, and quickly scored another touchdown to take a seemingly unassailable lead of 28-3 over their opponents. The Patriots replied with a couple of field goals, and the fourth quarter resumed with Atlanta leading 28-9. Our champagne was on ice and we were dying to pop the corks. Not so fast young man!!!

What happened in the fourth quarter defies belief. The Patriots scored 19 unanswered points to tie the game and take the game into overtime. The Patriots duly won the toss and scored another touchdown to win the Super Bowl in devastating fashion. There are a number of possible reasons why the Falcons capitulated. I didn’t read or watch media coverage for over a week because it was too painful to listen or watch the talking head analyse why the Falcons provided the worst collapse in Super Bowl history.

New England Patriots’ James White scores the winning touchdown between Atlanta Falcons’ Jalen Collins, left, and Robert Alford during overtime of the NFL Super Bowl 51 football game Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston.

Its over a week now since our calamitous defeat, and I’ve had time to try and make some sense of what went wrong. I believe it was a combination of factors. Surprisingly our offense was only on the field for a total of twenty minutes which meant the Patriots offense controlled the ball for the other sixty minutes. Consequently, as well as they played in the first half, our defense was completely exhausted in the final quarter. Matt Ryan also came under ferocious pressure in the final quarter and looked like a deer in headlights. It didn’t help matters, that Center Alex Mack played on one leg! The offensive Coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, also made some horrendous decisions on his play calling. In essence the Falcons were playing not lose in the final quarter and in doing so the momentum of the game dramatically swung in the Patriots favor.

I thought the following Saturday may bring some light relief in my sporting calendar when another of my favorite teams, Tottenham Hotspur, were playing Liverpool at Anfield which incidentally has never been a happy hunting ground  for the Spurs. Saturday was no exception, and Spurs meekly surrendered and lost 0-2, and it could have been much worse.

Into the evening, and the curse of the bambino continued. Wales were entertaining England at the Millinium Stadium who were full of confidence following a fifteen match unbeaten run. Wales played well for sixty minutes and deservedly led the auld enemy from across the Severn Bridge. However, the theme of my sporting week decided to intervene yet again, and England scored a try in the dying minutes to snatch victory from  the jaws of defeat.

Sunday morning, and the Swans were on the big screen yet again playing at home to the Champions Leicester City. Leicester have been performing more like chumps this season, and were on the same number of points as the Swans both of whom were hovering just above the relegation zone. I can be a bit of a masochist on times, and decided to complete my sporting set of failures and watch the game in a fatalistic mood.

Lo and behold, there is light at the end tunnel. The Swans scored two stunning goals in the first half, and ran out comfortable winners. On New Year’s Eve, they were languishing at the bottom of the league and about to sack their American manager, Bob Bradley and appoint their third manager of the season, Paul Clement. They are not out the woods yet, but Clement has given this beleaguered fan hope and the possibility they can remain in the Premiership. Hopefully, something can be salvaged from a season which was beginning to resemble a train wreck.

 

 

A Great Weekend for the Men in Crimson

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

There are similarities in my two sports teams other than they both wear red shirts. The Atlanta Falcons were coming off a 4-12 season and I didn’t believe they made sufficient moves to strengthen the team. Wales lost two of their star players, Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb, to injury and I didn’t believe they would qualify from the group stage let alone win the World Cup.

Both teams came from behind  on the weekend to win against the odds. Wales had the unenviable task of trying to defeat England in their own back yard. They did so miraculously 28-25, but unfortunately lost yet another key player, Scott Williams, to injury. There was much to savor if like me, you’re a Welshman. The English media devoted columns to analyzing England’s chances while The Western Mail was the only national (albeit in the Principality) newspaper to give a detailed perspective on Wales’s chances.

The National media in England is so myopic that they still believe England can qualify for the quarter finals. They would have to beat Australia in order to progress which is asking for a near miracle. Ask Welsh fans, miracles do sometimes occur at Twickenham.

The Atlanta Falcons were playing the Dallas Cowboys away which is always a daunting task. However, the Cowboys had several players missing through injury and suspension, none more so than their quarter back Tony Romo which gave the Falcons a slight edge. Nine minutes into the game the Falcons were 0-14 down and the Cowboys running back, Randell, was running amok. He scored 3 touch downs in the first quarter. Atlanta managed two touchdowns of their own, but went into the locker room at halftime trailing 17-28.

The Falcons came out for the second half resembling a different team and won comfortably 39-28. There were two stellar performances from Devanta Freeman and Julio Jones. Freeman produced the best rushing performance since 2012 with 30 carries, 141 yards and 2 TDs. Julio Jones continued his demolition of NFL teams’ defenses with 164 yards, 12 receptions and 2 TDs.

Obviously, Tom Jones not only inspired the Welsh team on the weekend, but he got the message across to Julio Jones who must be a relative, or a kindred spirit. The Falcons are 3-0 on the season, one of only 7 teams left undefeated in the NFL. They are looking forward to two home games against Houston and Washington and on current form neither should present much of a challenge.

Similarly Wales have a trap game against Fiji tomorrow (Thursday) which shouldn’t present too much of a problem following their heroics on Saturday. But if my memory serves me correctly, Wales have lost to Fiji in a previous World Cup. Despite their run of injuries, the pack remains in tact. The Falcons need to wrap Julio Jones in cotton wool during the week and only let him loose on Sunday because he is the difference maker.

Speaking of dog soldiers, the unsung heroes of the pack, Falcons Head Coach was not satisfied with the Offensive Line during pre-season games and a week before the regular season signed 3 or 4 journeymen to protect the quarter back, Matt Ryan. Ignoring a few hiccups they have done a good job impressing Atlanta cynics; including myself.

I would still not place a bet on Wales winning the World Cup or the Atlanta Falcons winning the Super Bowl. But that doesn’t diminish the excitement and exhilaration they created for me and thousands of other fans last weekend. Go Falcons; Cymru am Byth!

A Bloody Marvelous Day

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

I may be accused of being myopic, but the realization that we annihilated England by 30-3 is unfathomable to those who are not Welsh. Well I guess the Scots and the Irish completely understand our emotions but then Celts are of a singular mind.

It was not just the result; it was the occasion. England were undefeated in the Six Nations. entering the final game, and according to BBC pundits they merely had to show up at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and claim their first Grand Slam in 10 years, the mythical Triple Crown and the Championship.

After all who were they playing? They were playing a nation living in the past; a past when they reigned supreme in the seventies with Gareth, Barry, Phil, Gerald, JPR, and Merve the Swerve. We mustn’t forget Dai Morris, Basil Brush or Ripper Wheel.

I must admit that the modern game bears little resemblance to the panache of the seventies. The only similarities appear to be the shape of the ball and the dimensions of the pitch. Nevertheless the rugby on display particularly the second half was breathtaking.

What made it more compelling was the prospect of selection for the Lions tour to Australia in the summer. Prior to the game the media, had penciled in more than 10 Englishmen to make the Lions team, and based on their performances this season they had made England as one of the favorites for the World Cup in 2015.

From the kick-off the tackling and hits were ferocious from both sides, but Wales had a distinctive edge in the scrums where Adam Jones was a colossus at tight head closely followed by Captain Gethin Jenkins and the marauding blond Viking Richard Hibberd at hooker.

Even so Wales only led 9-3 at half-time despite having most of the possession, and quite rightly the English pundits (the three stooges) on the BBC panel predicted that we would see a different England in the second half and they would finish the stronger.

We did witness a “different” England in the second half. Wales began turning possession and pressure into points and on the hour mark England replaced their front row which sent a message to the Welsh crowd and the team that England were beaten and bowed into submission.

Alex Cuthbert scored two tries created by the awesome Welsh back row. Wales gambled by selecting two open side flankers who many thought could not play together. Warburton and man of the match Jason Tuperic were the difference makers. Tuperic played like an” All Black “and there couldn’t be higher praise. Wearing his distinctive blue skull cap he ran and distributed like a three quarter and tackled like a man possessed.

When handing out the laurels we must not forget the contribution made by Leigh Halfpenny at fullback. His courage and tenacity under the high ball reminded me of the legendary JPR while his goal kicking was supreme.

At the end of the day (I’m running out of clichés) this was a magnificent team performance and Wales did not have a weakness. The Lions selectors could not be criticized if they penciled in the names of the fifteen Welsh players for the first test against Australia in the summer.

 

Doctor, Doctor, Give me Something to ease my Pain

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

Two weeks ago the Atlanta Falcons were within 10 yards of reaching the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. That they fell tantalizingly close lies squarely at the feet of quarter back Matt Ryan. Yes, he threw for 300 yards and 3 touchdowns, but failed to deliver when it really mattered.

The Falcons led 17-0 after one quarter and 24-14 at halftime. They couldn’t score another point in the second half and, shades of the previous week, the defense appeared to run out of steam yielding two more touchdowns for a Niners 28-24 victory. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to lay the blame solely on Ryan’s shoulders, but he gave up two interceptions and a fumble in a pointless second half.

 There was more than a ray of hope when Harry Douglas’ catch was confirmed after review; allowing Ryan to attempt another comeback win with very little time on the clock. Alas some players are destined for greatness while others are confined to mediocrity.

Defeat was a tough pill to swallow, made sickenly worse by the buildup to Super Bowl Sunday. The two teams contesting for the Lombardi Trophy are the Baltimore Ravens and of course the San Francisco Forty Niners. Ironically brothers Jim and John Harbough are the respective head coaches which have afforded the talking heads a field day.

Niners’ quarter back Colin Kaepernick maybe a nice guy but I do not want another shot of him kissing his tattooed bicep. Neither do I want to witness “killer” Ray Lewis getting his hands on the trophy. The last time the Super Bowl was held in Atlanta was in 2000. In the early hours a man was found dead in Ray Lewis’ limousine and Lewis was covered in the man’s blood. One of Lewis’s gang friends is currently serving time for the team.

A few days later, 4000 miles away, the Swans helped to ease my pain by holding Chelsea to 0-0 draw and defeated the Pensioners 2-0 on aggregate to reach the League Cup Final for the first team in their 100 year history. Ironically, the Swans were forced to savor a bitter sweet moment because of the silly antics of a ball boy, Charlie Morgan.

Chelsea were pressing for a goal with a few minutes remaining and the ball had gone out of play. The proper Charlie refused to return the ball to Chelsea player Hazard, and the seventeen year old heir to a $60 million fortune promptly lay on the ball to prevent Hazard from retrieving it. Real time presented a picture of Hazard giving the ball boy a good kicking which he richly deserved. However replays confirmed that the player kicked the ball from under the spoilt little brat. Nevertheless Hazard was sent off and Charlie received his fifteen minutes of fame worldwide.

What can one make of this crazy world when a ball boy achieves more headlines than his club reaching a cup final in their Centenary year? Thankfully the sporting romantic side of me received a shot in the arm from the march of the giant killers in the 4th round of the FA Cup. Premiership teams Liverpool, Aston Villa, Norwich, Queens Park Rangers, and my beloved Spurs all fell to clubs from lower divisions. Americans don’t quite understand the concept of sharks swimming in the same pool as minnows and sometimes coming off second best.

Football’s January transfer deadline proved to be a whimper save for some panic buys by Harry “barrow boy” Redknapp in his quest to save QPR from relegation while Alan Pardew bought himself a French Connection at Newcastle. Surprisingly Swansea City agreed to sell Danny Graham without arranging a replacement. Graham was the club’s top scorer last season with 14 goals. Admittedly he hasn’t played regularly this season due to the emergence of Spanish midfielder Michu, but he managed to score 7 goals this term with limited playing opportunities.  I hope they don’t rue the day Graham returned home to his native North East because Spaniards don’t relish the cold weather.

Yesterday, Wales began their defense of the Six Nations Title only to be kicked into touch by a rampaging Irish team. No team, not even the All Blacks, can trail 3-30 at half time and expect to win at international level. It was commendable that Wales fought back to 22-30 in the second half, but can we stop deluding ourselves? Wales has now lost their last five home games with Rob Howley temporarily in charge in lieu of Warren Gatland’s leave of absence to coach the British Lions. Unfortunately foot soldiers rarely make good generals.

How many weeks are there to the beginning of the baseball season?

Merv the Swerve: 1946-2012

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Two days before Wales won the Grand Slam with a pulsating win over France, one of the country’s rugby legends passed away after a long illness. The word great is often over-used in describing a sportsman. Mervyn Davies wasn’t just great at his craft, he was the greatest No 8 to have ever played the game.

Mervyn made his debut for Wales for 1969 and remained a fixture in the team for seven years, captaining the team to a Grand Slam ironically against France in 1976. He suffered a serious calf injury during the game which left him limping for  most of the second half, but he refused to leave the field of battle. His players and the crowd knew that if he had not remained on the field, Wales would have lost the match and the Grand Slam.

Mervyn Davies was not a big man by today’s standards but his 6ft 4inches gangly frame, weighing in at just over 151/2 stone gave him the ability to be one of games  finest line out specialists. He possessed superb ball handling skills which explained why he played basketball for Wales prior to earning fame with the oval ball. His ability to cover the field in defence was second to none. He was a tackling machine and he could read a game superbly.

Wales won two grand slams and three triple crowns during his mercurial reign at No 8. He was a member of the first and only British Lions team to win a series in New Zealand in 1971. Surprisingly he went to South Africa with the Lions in 1974 as second choice to England’s Andy Ripley. However, Mervyn rightfully reclaimed his test place and made an immense contribution to the Lions’ trouncing of the Springboks.

My first memory of Mervyn Davies was as a fellow pupil at Penlan Comprehensive School in Swansea. There were nearly 1500 boys on the register, and following a lesson there would be a sea of pimply youths meandering their way along the narrow corridors to the next lesson. I distinctly remember a massive figure with a shock of black curly hair walking towards me head and shoulders above the rest of the seathing cauldron; totally oblivious to his surroundings. I later learned that was my first sighting of the legendary No 8.

The mass of curly hair would soon be adorned with his trademark thick white head band, and the distinctive Zapata moustache created an imposing and unforgettable character on the field of play. Mervyn was scheduled to captain the British Lions in New Zealand in 1977 until he suffered a brain hemorrhage playing for Swansea against Pontypool in a Welsh Cup semi-final. He would spend six months in hospital recovering and a great career was prematurely ended at the age of 29. Wales only lost 7 matches when his name was on the team sheet.

Many observers claim that Mervyn Davies redefined the No 8 position, but I disagree. He was a one off. Since his enforced retirement 36 years ago nobody has dominated the position in the way he did. Some pretenders enjoyed similar line out skills, but nobody has possessed his mobility, his vision and uncanny timing for being in the right place at the right time.

May you rest in peace, Mervyn.

Mervyn Davies: Penlan Comprehensive, London Welsh, Swansea, Wales and the British Lions.

 

It’s a Family Affair (Part 2)

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

Nobody else appeared to share my concern over Swansea’s city center and it was time to embark on the next leg of our trip which would prevent me from running down to County Hall screaming and shouting about the abject demise of a once proud regional center. Out of town shopping is not acceptable as an alternative to a city center which should be maintained and nurtured as the flagship of its conurbation. I must be getting delusional in my old age.

Typically it was grey and overcast with a persistent drizzle when we left the friendly confines of Tycoch and headed for the M4 which would take us to our next destination on the outskirts of London. I dropped my wife off in Staines where she was to spend the night with a girlfriend exchanging recent nomadic travel experiences; not to mention consuming copious amounts of chardonnay.

Meanwhile I continued onto Bracknell to stay the night with my son. I traveled through the little town of Ascot and didn’t realize that the famous and historic race track dominates the town. It was difficult to imagine on an overcast late afternoon in November that the monolithic stadium was home to Royal Ascot during one week in June.

I finally caught up with my son and we headed for a local hostelry. I continued my quest for nostalgic meals and promptly ordered a plate of liver and onions. It was slightly congealed around the edges but was palatable enough washed down with a couple of pints of local ale.

I spent a sleepless night in my son’s flat fighting the virus given to me by grand daughter earlier in the trip. During the night I lurched from bouts of shivering and high temperatures. Needless to say daylight finally arrived and I felt much better. Hopefully, my son would change the sheets before reclaiming his bed.

My wife and I were reunited and returned the rental car to Heathrow before heading for our hotel in Shepherd’s Bush which we used as our base for three nights; taking in the sights and sounds of the nation’s capital.

First port of call was Gordon’s Wine Bar in Charing Cross. It is considered to be the oldest wine bar in London and probably the world. It was established in its present form in 1890, having served for many years as a warehouse until the river was embanked and the building became landlocked.

As we entered the bar down a narrow flight of stairs we found ourselves in a room with wooden walls covered in historical newspaper cuttings and memorabilia faded with age. Making our way to the cellar we needed to stoop to claim our rickety candlelit table.

The owners have maintained the original décor, kept music out and sell only wine while providing traditional and well priced pub grub. In its colorful history, the building has been home to literary giants Samuel Pepys (1680s) and later Rudyard Kipling (1890s.) My wife discovered the place on a business trip and was determined to share the experience with me. Wonderful!

We didn’t necessarily have a bucket list, but I wanted to visit the new Wembley stadium to make a comparison with the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Quite frankly I was disappointed. I was expecting “a state of the art” type of structure but was confronted with a concrete bowl devoid of a atmosphere and character. The guide proudly announced the stadium cost a staggering 750 million pounds, but I could not comprehend how they could spend so much money on a nondescript finished product.

However there were a couple of highlights; the Bobby Moore statue at the stadium’s entrance is a lasting and well deserved tribute to a great footballer and captain of England’s world cup winning team of 1966. Luckily we spotted another legend, Bobby Charlton, entertaining members of the Japanese FA in the lower echelons of the stadium. One prominent feature on display in the museum was the infamous cross bar from the world cup final held at the old Wembley between England and West Germany.

My wife lived in London for eighteen months and she loved attending plays and musicals in the West End with her girlfriend. My brother had enthusiastically recommended “The War Horse” to us but it was sold out until next spring. Suddenly I had this brilliant idea of buying tickets for “The Mousetrap” which was celebrating its 60th anniversary. Let me just say this was not one of my finer moments. The play was simply awful; the actors were wooden, and the plot reminded one of cold, clotted custard.

The newest tourist attraction in London is the London Eye which is a cross between a giant carousel and ski lift. It does provide great views of traditional landmarks: The Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey. But the entry fee of 18 pounds and fifty pence for a 30 minute ride seemed exorbitant to me. Come to think of it; everything in London costs at least 18 pounds!

On our final evening in London, we caught the tube to Richmond to reunite with my son and meet his girlfriend and her little boy for the first time. We went up the high street to a pizza restaurant and discovered that my son’s girlfriend and I have a mutual liking for anchovies on our pizza. Unfortunately we were both disappointed to be informed by the waitress that anchovies were not available. Never mind, anchovies have bonded us for life.

I hope y’all have a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year. Here’s looking at you Kid!