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The FA Cup’s Top 5 ‘Cupsets’

March 6, 2017 in Features

cupset

n. (context sports British slang English) An upset in a cup competition.

After the heroics of Lincoln City and Millwall in this season’s Emirates FA Cup, Elephant Sport delves through the archives, and looks back at our top 5 cupsets of all time.

5: Bournemouth 2-0 Manchester United – FA Cup 3rd Round – 8/1/1984

Division Three strugglers knock out holders:

Third division strugglers Bournemouth, managed by fledgling boss Harry Redknapp, upset the odds as they dumped cup holders Man Utd out of the competition.

The Reds, then managed by Ron Atkinson, were rocked by goals from Milton Graham and Ian Thompson as their star studded line-up, including the likes of Arnold Muhren, Arthur Albiston and England Captain Bryan Robson, were dismantled by the Cherries.

Trouble ensued on the terraces, but Bournemouth held on to record one of the biggest FA Cup upset’s of all time, on a day billed by Harry Redknapp as “The best of my life”.

4: Leicester City 1-2 Wycombe Wanderers – FA Cup 6th Round – 10/3/2001

The tale of the Teletext striker

Record fees, big wages, cheesy medical photos and managers hanging their heads out of cars. Those are some of the answer’s you expect to receive if you were to ask the regular football fan about the transfer window.

But take a trip back in time to 2001 and things were a little different for Wycombe Wanderers. With an injury list including SIX strikers , Wycombe manager and Cup hero Lawrie Sanchez turned to Teletext to fill the breach left by his depleted forward line.

The solo reply to his message came from Roy Essandoh, a forward who’s career had taken him to Scotland and Finland, via Austria. His impact as a second half substitute would send him into FA Cup folklore and the Chairboy’s into the semi-finals.

In an action-packed game at Filbert Street, Wycombe took the lead through a Paul McCarthy strike, and whilst Muzzy Izzet equalised for the hosts, Essandoh won it for the Chairboys.

Wycombe would go on to be knocked out in the semi-finals by Liverpool, with Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler cancelling out Keith Ryan’s opener.

On a sadder note, the world of football lost McCarthy this week aged 45 with tributes pouring in for the former Wycombe and Brighton and Hove Albion defender.

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(Video Courtesy of FA TV)

3: Lincoln City vs Burnley – FA Cup 5th Round – 18/2/2017

Non League underdogs shock Premier League opponents

Lincoln City were history-makers as they broke a record dating back to 1914 by defeating Sean Dyche’s Premier League outfit.

The Imps, managed by brothers Danny and Nicky Cowley, struck in the 89th minute through a towering Sean Raggett header to take the non-leaguers through to the 6th round of this season’s Cup, a feat that had last been achieved by non-league QPR in 103 years ago.

But the Imp’s FA Cup story didn’t start in the 5th round, as they successfully negotiated their way through rounds 3 and 4 leaving Ipswich Town and Brighton & Hove Albion in their wake.

A champagne tie at the Emirates Stadium awaits them this weekend, which will no doubt boost the finances of a club that has seemingly steered itself out of troubled waters.

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(Video courtesy of FATV)

2: Liverpool 1-2 Barnsley – FA Cup 5th Round – 16/2/2008

Lets talk about facts

Barnsley, then managed by Simon Davey, head to Anfield languishing in the lower echelons of the Championship. The 90 minutes of football that ensued would be remembered by football fans across the nation.

Already under pressure following his failure to deliver silverware at Anfield, Rafa Benitez fielded a line-up that featured international pedigree including Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kuyt, Ryan Babel, Sami Hyypia and John-Arne Riise.

However the tricky Tykes were not star-struck as they levelled the game through Stephen Foster following Kuyt’s opener.

A string of saves from former Manchester United goalkeeper Luke Steele kept Barnsley in the tie, with Brian Howard winning it in the final minute to send them into Round 6.

Whilst Liverpool’s Cup campaign faltered, the Tykes then took another Premier League scalp in the form of Chelsea.

Kayode Odejayi netted the winner to dump the holders out of the cup that day, and send the Tykes to Wembley for a semi-final showdown with eventual runners-up Cardiff City.

A year later, Davey was sacked, and following spells with non-league Darlington and Hereford, has never managed professionally since.

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(Video courtesy of BBC/Barnsley FC)

1: Sunderland 1-0 Leeds United – FA Cup Final – 5/5/1973

“There is no way that Sunderland can beat Leeds”- Brian Clough

The big-spending Leeds United of the 1970s were simply a football machine, featuring some of the country’s finest footballing talent in their ranks.

They took on lowly Second Division Sunderland, managed by the charismatic Bob Stokoe, at Wembley and what followed would be widely classed as the greatest FA Cup shock of all time, and produced Sunderland’s solitary piece of post-war silverware.

The tie would be decided by two moments of brilliance, buoyed by Leeds’ instability. Sunderland took the lead through Ian Porterfield who slammed the ball past David Harvey in the Leeds goal.

A Leeds onslaught followed, with Sunderland keeper Jimmy Montgomery pulling off a string of fine saves, including one from Leeds maverick Peter Lorimer, to keep the Mackems in the game.

Sunderland held on to take the Cup and in turn send ‘Dirty Leeds’ back to Yorkshire without the trophy that they had clinched the season before against Arsenal.

It was a result that sent shockwaves through the footballing world.

Seagulls’ rising Welsh star looking to ‘make every chance count’

March 6, 2017 in Features, Interviews

Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s forward Bronwen Thomas is looking to continue to make her “chances count” for club and country.

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Thomas in WSL action against Oxford

The Seagulls hosted their opening home Women’s Super League game on Sunday at Culver Road, and it was 16-year-old Thomas, Wales’s young player of the year, who scored their only goal.

Albion Women drew 1-1 with Oxford United in the competition’s Spring Series format, to make it two draws in their opening two games for George Parris’s side following an identical result against London Bees in their opener.

Thomas found a way through the Oxford back line on 31 minutes and her deflected shot looped over goalkeeper Demi Lambourne.

After the game she said: “It’s really nice obviously to start, but to get the first goal is great. It’s not just about me but it’s the whole team performance. The goal took a deflection and hung in the air for a while, but it was great to get the goal.

“I’m going to work hard in training and when I get my chance I want to make it count wherever I can”

“Oxford posed a threat, they were physical and in the second half our standards dropped a bit, but looking at us (Brighton), there’s definitely things to work on, and overall it’s a positive performance.

“We are a new group of girls, so it’s building on the positives and mending the negatives. Personally, I’m going to work hard in training and when I get my chance I want to make it count wherever I can.” added Thomas.

Interim Albion women’s manager Parris praised Thomas after the draw on Sunday: “It was a great goal, where we were sitting it took an eternity to hit the back of the net! She is an extremely promising player.”

Rapid raise to success

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Thomas collecting her prestigious award in November

Just three seasons ago, Thomas was playing in the Sussex County Women & Girls Football League with Horsham Sparrows, captaining their under-14 team to Sussex Girls Challenge Cup success.

Since then, the young Brighton forward has been recognised as one of the game’s brightest talents and was  crowned Wales’ young women’s player of the year in November 2016 at a ceremony which also saw awards given out to Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Wales men’s team coach Chris Coleman.

Thomas’s award capped off a remarkable year in which she already broken into the Albion Women’s senior team and netted a hat-trick as the Seagulls retained the Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup in a 5-1 win over Crawley Wasps.

Praise from Albion chief executive

“We are incredibly proud of Bronwen, as a young player who has come through the club’s Regional Talent Centre”

Speaking last year, Albion chief executive Paul Barber led the congratulations, and said: “It has been an amazing year for Bronwen.

“She has broken into our first team, scored a hat-trick in the Sussex Senior Cup Final, been called up to the senior team by Wales, and now won this well-deserved award.

“We are incredibly proud of Bronwen, as a young player who has come through the club’s Regional Talent Centre, and in three short years made the step up to international football.”

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Netting a hat-trick in the Women’s Sussex Challenge Cup final

On winning the award Thomas said “It came as a total surprise. I was so excited to have an invitation to attend the Wales awards evening with the meant that had done so well at the Euros and had no idea I was going to get an award!

“I had to go up and receive it in front of everyone and then be interviewed in front of them all. I will never forget the evening

“It means a lot, just playing for your country means a lot but to be picked as a young player of the year is amazing, and it is a great honour.

“It won’t do it any harm (to my future career) but I completely believe ‘you are as good as your last game’ is the way to approach things.”

Remaining grounded

“She is an extremely promising player”

Despite her remarkable rise, the teenager remains grounded. “I’ve got to keep working really hard and improving as a player to keep getting the opportunities I am at the moment with Brighton and Wales,” she says.

Thomas is set to link-up with her fellow Welsh internationals this week as the national team travel to the Cyprus Women’s Cup tournament. The women’s side will face Hungary, Czech Republic and Israel in Group C.

MERTHYR, WALES - Tuesday, February 14, 2017: Wales' Bronwen Thomas warms-up before a Women's Under-17's International Friendly match against Hungary at Penydarren Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

International duty: Cyprus Cup

She will not be the only player away from Brighton on international duty. “The team (Brighton) will get back on the training pitch but with the nature of the set up, we have six ladies off on international camps,” said Parris. “This is great for them and the club, but for us back here, we will keep on working”.

Albion Women were meant to be at home to Doncaster Rovers Belles this coming Sunday, but because of the international call-ups, Brighton’s request to postpone the game was accepted.

The other players absent on national duty are  Alessia Russo (England under-19s), Jenna Legg (England under-23s), Laura Rafferty (Northern Ireland), Sophie Perry and Emma Byrne (both Republic of Ireland).

The postponed match means the Seagulls’ next game is a trip to Millwall Lionesses on Sunday 12th March.

 

8 Premier League/Championship players who’ve played non-league

March 1, 2017 in Features

Clubs spend millions on their academies these days as they seek to produce their own talent.

But, as striker Jamie Vardy proved last season with Leicester City, players with non-league backgrounds can still make it to the top of the game.

Here are eight other players who also once plied their trade at levels below the football league.

 

Michail Antonio (West Ham)

Michail Antonio

West Ham’s powerful winger played plenty of non-league football as a youngster, signing for Tooting & Mitcham at the age of 17.

He scored 33 goals in 45 games for the south London side who play in the Isthmian League Division One South. So Antonio, 26, is now operating at a level eight tiers higher.

Before joining the Hammers in 2015, he also had spells at Reading, Southampton, Colchester, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest. He’s currently West Ham’s top goal scorer.

 

Neil Taylor (Aston Villa)

 Neil TaylorNew Aston Villa and former Swansea left back Neil Taylor, 28, started his footballing career with non-league Wrexham.

He spent three seasons at the Racecourse Ground, playing 75 games in League Two and at National Conference level.

Taylor then left football’s lower tiers behind to sign for Swansea City in 2010 in a deal worth £220,000, spending seven years at the Liberty Stadium.

Taylor also featured for Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic football team and played a major role as Wales reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals.

 

Callum Wilson (Bournemouth)

 Callum WilsonBournemouth’s goal-scoring machine Callum Wilson didn’t start his career in non-league football but has had a taste of it whilst being on loan from Coventry City at Kettering Town and Tamworth.

For Kettering, Wilson scored just one goal in 17 games, and only played three times for Tamworth thanks to a fractured foot.

Despite being plagued by injuries, Wilson, 24, has scored 31 goals in 71 appearances for Bournemouth.

He also played a vital role in the Cherries promotion to the Premier League.

Ben Foster (West Brom)

 Ben FosterFormer England international and current West Bromwich goalkeeper Ben Foster, 33, played on loan at several non-league clubs  early on in his lengthy career.

Originally signed by Stoke, the Potters loaned him to Tiverton Town, Stafford Rangers, Wrexham and Kidderminster Harriers before selling him to Manchester United in 2005.

He only made 12 appearances for United in five seasons, but enjoyed two successful seasons on loan at Watford, before signing for Birmingham and then the Baggies. Foster has played eight times for his country.

 

Yannick Bolasie (Everton) 

Yannick Bolasie

Everton’s tricky, powerful winger Yannick Bolasie once played in English football’s 11th tier for Hillingdon Borough.

He then played for Maltese side Floriana before three seasons at Plymouth Argyle, followed by two loan spells at Barnet. A productive spell at Bristol City earned him a move to Crystal Palace in 2012.

In five seasons at Selhurst Park, his price tag rocketed thanks to some great performances. He even has a skill move featured on the Fifa 2017 game called the ‘Bolasie Flick’ after performing it against Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen.

 

 

Dwight Gayle (Newcastle)

 Dwight GayleNewcastle’s top scorer also leads the Championship with 2o league goals, but has also featured in the lower tiers of English football.

Gayle earned recognition by scoring 40 goals in 42 games for Stansted in the Essex Senior League, leading to a move to Dagenham & Redbridge.

He was then loaned back to non-league Bishop’s Stortford and his excellent performances earned him a step up to Championship level with Peterborough.

Gayle then signed for Premier League side Crystal Palace for £4.5m and bagged 22 goals in 65 games but the Magpies swooped for him last summer.

 

Ashley Williams (Everton)

 Ashley WilliamsThe Wales captain spent two seasons playing non-league football for Hednesford Town after being released from West Bromwich as a teenager.

A five-year spell at Stockport County put his career back on track, and an initial loan to Swansea City was made permanent in 2008.

Williams played over 300 times for the Swans as they climbed the leagues, established themselves as a Premier League club and won the League Cup in 2013.

He helped Wales the Euro 2016 semi-finals last summer before earning a big-money move to Everton.

 

Lee Tomlin (Bristol City)

 Lee TomlinBristol City’s tricky attacking midfielder has played in all top four tiers of English football.

On the books of Leicester City as a youngster, he played four seasons in the Conference with Rushden & Diamonds, including a loan spell at lowly Brackley FC.

After four years with Peterborough, Tomlin spent a season at Middlebrough before being signed by Premier League newcomers Bournemouth for £3.5m.

However, he made only six appearances for the Cherries before being loaned to Bristol City, who made him a permanent signing last summer.

Tomlin won’t be the last player to pay his dues in the non-league game before going on to achieve every footballer’s  dream of playing at the highest levels.

 

Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 2

January 12, 2017 in Features, Opinion

A thrilling 2016-17 NBA season has thus far delivered entertainment, elite individual performances and plenty controversy.

But, best of all, we have only just reached the halfway mark. Allow Elephant Sport to run through some of the most exciting categories since our first instalment.

Best Team: Houston Rockets

Before even diving into the excellence of Mike D’Antoni’s team, we need look no further than the Rockets’ record during this half. Led by James Harden, they are sitting comfortably in 3rd seed with a 30-10 record. Add to this only two losses in 19 games.

If the Rockets were the most improved team in the first quarter, they are undoubtedly the best one in the league right now. This has been aided by the return of potential defensive all-star, Patrick Beverley.

A lot has been said about Houston’s lack of defensive prowess but, with the aforementioned point-guard back, many of the criticisms have been erased. Beverley is averaging more rebounds than any other player in the team. Meanwhile, the Rockets have climbed into the top 15 defensive sides in the league.

But beyond number-crunching, this is a team rich in chemistry and unity. In a recent match against the Dallas Mavericks, small-forward Trever Ariza got into a verbal altercation with Salah Mejri. At the end of the game, the entire Rockets squad waited for the Mavs’ centre in an attempt to confront him.

While violence is not to be condoned, especially in a professional environment, it’s refreshing to see the Rockets team stick up for one another when, just a few months ago, they had a lot of internal disagreements and issues.

The Rockets are flawed – they certainly struggle to close out games and protect the rim when Clint Capela is missing – but they are living and prospering by the 3-ball. It could very well see them usurp many teams in the play-offs come season end. 

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

Neither Jeremy Lin nor Brook Lopez can lift the Nets out of their current rut. Which is ironic, since an arrangement of both their names phonetically adds up to Brooklyn.

This pun is atrocious – much like the Nets have been this season. They are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and, in 41 games, have yet to reach double digits in wins.

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Brook Lopez warming up

Where the Nets have struggled most is in the creative department. Lin has been underwhelming and inefficient when running the point. Even when he has been at his very best, he has a lack of sharpshooters to lay the ball off to.

On the other hand, Lopez has tried his hardest to deliver wins. But in the game where he dropped a mammoth 38 points – all from inside the post – his team still lost by a comfortable margin.

Perhaps the over-reliance on these two stars has created a pressure hard to overcome for the Nets. But what is certain is this: they have an inefficient bench unit and a non-existent supporting cast.

Sadly, they look to be tanking for the remainder of the season – a testament to how insurmountable they view a comeback or, at the very least, improvement. 

Most Improved: Utah Jazz

 The Utah Jazz were almost unanimously everyone’s sleeper tip going into the new season. Many suspected they would finish in the top four in the West and, while they are currently sitting in 5th, just imagining that would have been far-fetched 20 games ago.

After the first quarter, Utah looked devoid of confidence and quality. Despite the dominant play of Gordon Hayward and the robustness of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were struggling to string offensive plays together.

Fast-forward to January and they are now one of the league’s in-form teams. While the aforementioned players have turned in titanic performances, it is in the coaching that the Jazz have seen the biggest improvements.

Quin Snyder has drawn up a variety of plays revolving around a combination of point-guard George Hill and Hayward that has led to some excellent ball circulation in recent weeks.

Whether it is the long-range alley-oop, or the bounce pass-to-scorer, the two have struck up a chemistry unlike anything Vivint Arena has seen this term.

Add to that Rudy Gobert averaging one rebound short of the number one spot and the Jazz finally look like that team everyone had expected them to be. 

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Toronto Raptors

 The Raptors may be one of the finer teams in the league; in their conference, they are second to only the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there is no shame in being second to the reigning champions and LeBron James, there is shame in being miles behind them.

In the three times the teams have met up this season, the Raptors have been torn apart. Two of these games were in this highlighted half.

What the Raptors missed most was a dominant centre – somebody who could prevent Kyrie Irving from entering the pick ‘n’ roll with Tristan Thompson. Furthermore, they lacked a real presence on offence inside the paint. This isn’t a team that shoots outside the perimeter often, so their reliance on inside scoring requires a centre who can do it on both ends.

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The fans at Air Canada could do with seeing a dominant centre every other night

Unfortunately, there are very few centres that can dominate on both ends that are available. Certainly DeMarcus Cousins seems attainable but, since he seems closer to the Boston Celtics, it makes little sense to include him here.

There is, though, one centre who is most definitely attainable. While he may still be young, the potential is there to become one of the finest at the five spot. That player is the Philadelphia 76’ers Nerlens Noel.

The 22-year-old is up for trade now that the 76’ers are shopping for a point-guard. He is the unfortunate collateral damage of this search, since the franchise deems Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor to be more valuable assets.

But when Noel plays, he dominates on both ends. And he is a former Round 1 pick in the draft (2014).

Under the wing of the Raptors – an inside scoring and rim protecting team – he could come into his own.

This is a risk worth taking because it benefits the Raptors in the years to come. They may not be able to challenge the Cavs just yet but, if they can unite the right pieces, that could change in coming seasons.

Surprise Package: Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were predicted to scrape the play-offs; a true bottom-of-the-barrel team. To say they have exceeded expectations is an understatement.

In just the last 20 games, Memphis have defeated the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the former they crushed twice.

Mike Conley, a point-guard of immense quality, has been in and out of the team with injury. In his absence, they were unbeaten. Upon his return, they continued to win games.

In veteran centre Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have found a sharpshooting rim-protector. While that may sound like a preposterous hybrid, it is exactly what the Spaniard has become. He has hit game-winning 3-pointers and combined that with blocks and defensive plays aplenty.

As the focal point of their play, Gasol has carried Memphis to 6th in the West within a couple of games off 4th.

MVP at the Half: James Harden

Only one man seems worthy of the award as of this halfway mark. James Harden has dominated the NBA in recent months, breaking records and personal bests alike.

He carved out his highest points (51), assists (17) and rebounds (18) in a historic night against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve. He is the first player in NBA history to amass a triple-double of 15-15-15 or higher; he also leads the league in assists by a country mile.

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Harden playing some defence for Team USA

Why Harden instead of Russell Westbrook, some may ask? It’s simple. Westbrook is registering crazy numbers, too. But his team isn’t winning as often, or emphatically, as the Houston Rockets.

That plays a part in contention for the MVP award, particularly when The Beard’s team were ruled out of play-off contention by many punters.

Coach D’Antoni has placed immense belief and confidence in Harden – asking him to command the ball with more regularity and lead the team. This was something Harden had been criticised for in the past: leadership.

That, and defence. It would be an understatement to say he has quashed those criticisms this season.

Houston are winning and Harden is playing his heart out. If voting were to end today, the MVP of the 2016-17 season would be as clear as day.

Rookie of the Year at the Half: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the first, and only, repeat appearance of this series. Yet that’s more of a mixed bag than a clear indication of Embiid’s annihilation of the award.

While the Cameroonian centre has undeniably been the best rookie so far, there is an argument to be made that nobody is actually challenging him.

Buddy Hield, for all his enthusiasm, has struggled to find consistency in New Orleans. Meanwhile Brandon Ingram looks far too meek for the NBA as of right now.

Perhaps Embiid’s dominance is, too, down to the fact that he is one of the oldest rookies in contention for the award. This, of course, is owed to his 26 month injury. But, on the flipside, for him to be playing at the level he is considering said injury is mind blowing.

He could genuinely get into the all-star team come February – he’s currently fifth in the West’s frontcourt voting (top 10 take part in the all-star game). The last rookie to achieve such a feat was Blake Griffin in 2011.

He’s also averaging 19 points and seven rebounds a night, despite a minutes restriction to prevent injury. 

Offensive Play of the Half: Larry Nance Jr. Dunk

This was the best dunk of 2016 – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it remained better than anything conjured up in 2017.

Larry Nance Jr. channelled his inner-Michael Jordon to throw it down on one of the better rim protectors in the league: Brook Lopez. A man four inches taller than the Lakers’ power-forward. 

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Defensive Play of the Half: Durant block to Curry 3

The best defensive plays either win you games or flip opposition possession into your own points.

Kevin Durant’s emphatic chasedown block, collected by Stephen Curry and dispatched for three, falls into the latter. And it’s a thing beauty.

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Who is the 2016 team of the year?

December 8, 2016 in Features, News & Features, Opinion

2016 has been yet another fantastic year of sport, one well worth celebrating, be it the remarkable story of the underdog or persistent dominance at the top level.

Below are Elephant Sport’s top five teams of the year, which range from the record breaking Team GB Women’s Hockey squad, how a rugby-loving nation went football mad and the fairytale story of Leicester City.

5) Mercedes F1; the continuing domination

The Mercedes F1 team sealed their third successive double of Constructors’ and Drivers’ World Championships in 2016.

The team clinched both accolades in 2014 and 2015, and now 2016 when the constructor’s crown was sealed in Japan and Nico Rosberg clinched the driver’s title, in the last race of the season at Abu-Dhabi.

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Mercedes celebrate a third consecutive Constructors Championship

Not only are Mercedes on a fantastic run spanning three years, in 2016 they managed to break several records on the way.

The German works team won a record 19 of the 21 races in the season, helping them to notch up another record; an impressive tally of 765 points in a single campaign.

They also bagged the most poles in a season; 20, one away from a whole season of Mercedes poles.

Their 10 consecutive race wins could have been another history-maker; if Lewis Hamilton’s engine wouldn’t have failed in Malaysia (effectively costing him the drivers trophy), Mercedes would have 16 consecutive race wins.

“Making history along the way and re-writing the record books, what we’ve achieved together is mind-blowing”

After helping to secure the constructors championship with a win in Japan, Rosberg said: “I’ve been here since day one of this project in 2010 and it’s really phenomenal the journey we’ve taken together towards being the best team in Formula 1.

“Making history along the way and re-writing the record books, what we’ve achieved together is mind-blowing and I’m really proud to have played my small part in that”

The standards Mercedes have set in 2016 will take some beating.

4) England’s rugby union winning streak

A year on from the disappointment of a dismal home World Cup, England rugby union’s squad completed a perfect 2016, equalling their record of 14 successive wins, set in 2003.

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England coach Eddie Jones celebrating one of the teams 14 successive victories this year

Eddie Jones’s side equalled that mark by achieving their highest ever score over rivals Australia at Twickenham; a 37-21 win on December 3.

England can surpass their current record in February 2017, when they face France at Twickenham in the RBS Six Nations opening fixture.

Since Jones’s arrival in November 2015, England have made tremendous progress, with a Six Nations Grand Slam, a whitewash of Australia in the summer Test series down under, and a first win in a decade against South Africa.

According to the wily Australian, “10-15 English players” could feature in the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

“We are not looking at records, just the next game. But we can draw a line under this year with a good victory against a quality side [Australia],” England captain Dylan Hartley told BBC 5 Live.

“I’m very proud of the guys over the last few weeks, and it’s nice to go back to our clubs knowing we have done English rugby and the shirt proud.

“We leave it in a good place until the Six Nations,” added Hartley.

3) Wales impress at Euro 2016

A rugby-loving nation went football mad over the summer, when the Welsh national side qualified for their first major tournament since 1958 and outstandingly reached their first ever major semi-final.

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Wales score their first goal at a major tournament since 1958

More than half the population watched the Euro 2016 semi-final defeat to Portugal, beating the record set for a sporting event, which was in fact only previously set by the Welsh in their Euro 2016 quarter final victory over Belgium.

It was only five years ago that Wales were ranked 117 in the world, and in 2016 they finish an impressive 12th according to Fifa’s rankings; one place above England.

Thanks to their successful surge, Wales were seeded for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, which could set them in a great position to qualifying for only their third major finals next year.

Star man Gareth Bale has also been nominated for the 2016 Footballer of the Year award. The Real Madrid striker scored three goals at Euro 2016, making him Wales’ all-time top goal scorer in major tournaments.

“When you start playing around with the top 10, that’s a good feeling”

Wales manager Chris Coleman told the Evening Standard that after 2016’s success the nation must “not get carried away”.

“We have had some dark times when we have dropped outside the top 100. So when you start playing around with the top 10, that’s a good feeling.

“But there’s a different kind of pressure on us, we can’t be ‘plucky old Wales’. People will expect us to deliver.”

2) Team GB Women’s hockey gold

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Team GB’s women’s hockey squad became history-makers by winning the nation’s first-ever female field hockey gold.

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The GB women’s hockey team celebrate gold

Danny Kerry’s squad were huge underdogs when they faced the Netherlands in the final.

The Dutch comfortably won gold in both the 2008 Olympics (Beijing) and 2012 (London). They were also ranked number one in the world.

The final finished 3-3 in normal time, with Britain’s keeper Maddie Hinch making a string of remarkable saves.

And the Dutch could not beat Hinch in the resulting shootout, which Britain won 2-0. Helen Richardson-Walsh and Hollie Webb scored the decisive penalties to seal a famous victory.

Captain Kate Richardson-Walsh and wife Helen Richardson-Walsh became the first married couple to win gold for Britain since Cyril and Dorothy Wright in the sailing in 1920.

“That will change the face of British hockey”

After the game former Team GB men’s hockey bronze medallist Simon Moore told the BBC: “I am genuinely struggling to put this result into words.

“GB were under pressure for huge chunks but we thought if it went to penalties we could win. Fair play to Maddie Hinch, just incredible.

“That will change the face of British hockey.”

And according to the University of the Arts hockey president Dhalyn Warren, the sport has already seen a huge “rise in participation”.

1) Leicester City; Premier League Champions

In at number one; the greatest underdog story of all time; in May 2016 Leicester City were remarkably and deservedly crowned champions of England, and not one of us predicted it.

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Former Leicester star Gary Lineker was one of many to doubt the appointment of Claudio Ranieri

Having pulled in manager Claudio Ranieri, sacked from the Greece national side in November 2014, the whole of England expected to see Leicester relegated back to the Championship from which they were promoted in 2014; especially after flirting with relegation in 2015.

The Foxes are now in the elite club of only six sides to have won the Premier League since its inception in 1992.

A number of newspapers described their title win as the greatest sporting upset of all time. Not forgetting the huge record pay outs by the bookmakers on early-season odds of 5,000-1.

lcfc-champs

Leicester City lif the Premier League trophy

Star striker Jamie Vardy also broke a record; scoring 11 goals in 11 consecutive league games. Vardy was also the ninth player to score 20 top flight goals in a season.

Ranieri’s side had the fewest away defeats in any top flight season; defeated only twice on their travels. The club produced a further record for the most consecutive wins in the top flight (five).

The club have also continued their underdog story; successfully progressing into the Champions League knock-out stages.

Former Foxes midfielder Robbie Savage told the BBC: “I’m speechless, it is unbelievable. I’ve seen England win the Ashes and get OBEs and MBEs.

“This Leicester team’s achievement is greater than any of that. They should be recognised in the honours list”

Overall the fairytale of Leicester City makes this side, the team of the year for 2016.

Is video gaming a real sport?

December 6, 2016 in Features, Multimedia, Opinion

There is a grey area when it comes to determining if certain activities are a sport.

These can range from card games, chess and wrestling to fishing or pool. In recent years however, a new pastime has become part of the debate – gaming.

As with the other activities touted as sports, opinions are sharply divided. But those who argue that gaming should be considered a sport make a surprisingly strong case.

At first glance it might seem downright silly to call gaming a sport but there are a lot of commonalities between classic sports and playing on a console or PC.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of a sport is: “A game, competition, or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to the rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job”.

The key word here is, of course, ‘physical’. Gaming is not a physical activity (button-mashing Tekken doesn’t count), no matter what level you compete at.

However, I don’t think that the lack of a physical aspect to gaming completely rules it out as a sport.

Similarities

Here are a few similarities between sport and gaming:

  • There is a competitive, individual/team activity.
  • They draw crowds (and big crowds at that). The big events even take place in stadiums and arenas and are broadcast on TV with pundits, analysts and commentators.
  • Both involve a high level of strategy, especially games like Defence of the Ancients (DOTA), League of Legends and even Call of Duty.
  • There is also the classic argument made by every gamer ever that playing requires high levels of reaction times.
  • They have rules and codes of conduct.

Experiment

So now we’ve established that there are a lot of close similarities, but re-read those points with the context of TV cooking shows.

Can it be both?

Can it be both? (Image Credit Pixbay)

Done? Again, apart from the stadiums and reaction times, they seem to somewhat match the aspects of sport, but that doesn’t mean that cooking should be considered a sport.

Michal Blicharz is a former judoka who now organises events on the Intel Extreme Masters circuit, an elite global pro-gaming tour.

He told the BBC: “I’ve sweated on the judo mat enough times to have a good opinion about it.

“Judo and e-sports are not that dissimilar. In terms of training you have to put in the same amount of hours, perhaps even more in e-sports.

“You study strategy, technique and opponents. All the elements are there – the excitement, the adrenalin, players crying tears of sorrow and joy.”

Prize pool

On top of all of that, professional gaming is becoming an exponentially growing business.

The prize money on offer at major tournaments such as League of Legends World Championship, Halo World Championship, and DOTA 2 International are now reaching similar levels to those of major sporting events.

E-sports has become a big bucks pursuit (Image Credit: Flickr)

The entire prize pool for the 2016 Defence Against the Ancients Championship reached over $20m with the winning team (Wings Gaming) receiving just over $9m.

Each team consists of five people which works out as $1.8m per player. The total of the prize pool at the US Open tennis was over $36m with the singles champions getting $3.5m.

It’s also worth pointing out that each year the prize pools at major gaming events have increased so it is not unrealistic that eventually pro gamers will be earning as much as top athletes.

Gaming also has a similar format as in sport when it comes to making it to the major tournaments.

A pro-gaming team first has to get into a Secondary Pro League which is a national event by competing in local and regional events. The winners and runners up of the Pro League are then seeded into the world championship.

 Verdict

So is gaming a sport? My personal opinion is that it isn’t, even though there are undeniable similarities.

I believe that it is acceptable to call it e-sports but it should become its own establishment with its own governing body rather being approved by sporting councils.

For me, watching someone playing Fifa on an Xbox or PlayStation and calling it a sport is almost an insult to all those athletes who put in the many hours training to improve their skills.

By no means am I saying that improving skill, ability and intellect in gaming doesn’t take time and effort and dedication, but rather that there is a difference.

Just like cooking is cooking, art is art, and music is music, so should pro gaming be pro gaming, or in this case, e-sports, but not sports.

Feature image of the League of Legends tourney courtesy of Wikimedia.

How a pursuit of mastery turned Osipczak away from the UFC

November 29, 2016 in Features

It’s June 20th, 2009. ‘Slick’ Nick Osipczak forces Frank Lester to tap-out in the first ever UK v US Ultimate Fighter series in the United States. His unique submission move sees his name echo around the MMA community and reach the ears of the UFC.

Despite not making it past semi-finals of the competition, more performances in a similar vein to the one against Lester earn Osipczak a UFC contract.

Fast-forward a few months; Osipczak wins his first UFC fight and goes on to compete in four more after that until November 2010. That was his last fight in the UFC – a split decision loss to Duane Ludwig.

But why exactly did the British welterweight of Polish descent, who showed such promise, just vanish? After all, his combined MMA and UFC record was a positive 6-3 (as per Sherdog).

The decision

Nick recounts his first ever UFC win: “I just found myself in that situation [winning a UFC fight], it wasn’t a lifetime goal or anything like that.

“In fact, I would more likely have been thinking to myself around that time, ‘how did I come to be here, doing this?!’. One thing for sure is I knew I wouldn’t be like the majority of fighters who would compete continuously for as long as they could until their bodies gave up on them and had taken too many head shots.”

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Nick pounds on Matt Riddle for his second UFC win [image courtesy of Dave Mandel]

But the question remains – why did he just disappear with such a promising career beckoning? He makes a revealing comment.

“As UFC is first and foremost an entertainment business, it’s difficult to train optimally when you have to answer to their beck and call,” said Osipczak.

The key word in that sentence is “optimally”, as it helps explain what happened next.

Upon leaving UFC, Osipczak embarked on a journey to learn and master the internal arts – or more specifically, Tai-Chi Ch’uan.

This spiritual martial art that focuses heavily on mind, body and soul is one of the most demanding arts in the world and demands pure dedication from its students.

What began as a hobby has now consumed Osipczak’s life as a fighter – not only is he still a student, but he also teaches.

“We [students] are drawn to the feeling of ‘oneness’ that is experienced during complete presence of the moment.” says Osipczak. “For me, the Internals are a more direct route towards understanding the essence of the inter-connected workings of the mind, body and spirit.”

His devotion to learning the craft and its inner-workings is rare to see in someone previously involved in an activity which, by his own admission, was part of the entertainment business but with real blood.

“Cutting weight, fighting when and where they say, and doing the promotion side of things – it’s difficult to balance,” he said.

“For me, mastery is a life-time pursuit, whereas you only get a few shorts years to compete in the Octagon. I cannot say anyone has or will stop me from achieving mastery of the Martial Arts – the choice is mine.”

Tai-Chi Ch’uan

Osipczak is seen as one of the first fighters to develop the art of Tai-Chi within professional MMA, which has been showcased in his most recent fights outside the UFC.

Although Nick has been fighting professionally on and off since 2015, he isn’t tied to one specific competition or industry.

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Nick demonstrates some moves [image courtesy of Raised Spirit]

Carrying an entire art in a professional environment is an achievement that brings with it a lot of pressure for someone still trying to master the craft.

“Of course it [using Tai-Chi professionally] means there is a great responsibility on my shoulders, should I chose to contemplate that side of things too much,” Osipczak says, laughing.

But behind the laughter is someone with a deep respect for Tai-Chi and a hunger to absorb every part of its wisdom.

Tai-Chi Chu’an is said to have been created in 12th century China by Zhang Sanfeng and has since become one of the nation’s five most important martial arts, along with the likes of Kung-Fu.

The modern day version is practiced both as a means of self-defence but also for personal health, as it is viewed as a way of loosening muscular and bone-related pains, and burning fat.

Accuracy

There is a misconception that Tai-Chi is a martial art that is trained leisurely – something that pensioners incorporate as part of their daily stretching routine – but the execution of the art as self-defence can be brutal.

The focus is on eliminating the distinction between offence and defence, with each movement being powerful and all the while remaining rooted and balanced.

Essentially, that can make a fighter far more efficient inside the octagon – giving them an advantage over their opponent.

“I do not believe any one style or system holds a monopoly on knowledge. However, compared to my training before embarking on my Tai-Chi journey, more emphasis was given to the ‘softer’ side of training, with balance always at the forefront of the mind, and longevity as one of the primary goals,” said Osipczak.

When speaking, Osipczak gives off a vibe of gentleness and intelligence rare in sporting figures. He speaks like a master of the arts; a quote-machine in his own right.

Better fighter

While the 31-year-old values personal development over a career with the UFC, it was interesting to hear how he rates his previous career.

“Iron sharpens iron, as they say. I was only 3-0 as a professional fighter when I entered the UFC, and had only been training in MMA for four years. Being thrown in with the sharks is a good way to learn how to swim,” he says.

“I have started to see my career more in terms of how many people can I have a positive effect on during my lifetime”

“In terms of professional fighting, competing for the UFC is widely acknowledged to be the pinnacle. However, how well I did battling other men will carry little weight as I approach my death bed, and so I have started to see my career more in terms of how many people can I have a positive effect on during my lifetime.”

But, the million-dollar question remains: will the fighter formerly known as ‘Slick’ Nick ever return to the octagon?

“I don’t know. I feel I am still a few years away from reaching my peak. I am happy with the rate I am currently improving, and am putting a lot of my time and energy into raising my family and teaching workshops.

“If I do return to competition, it will be to represent the Internal Arts, and demonstrate their superior efficiency,” he asserted.

Teacher

Tai-Chi Ch’uan’s health benefits mean it is growing in popularity in the UK. But Osipczak is not one for forcing it on people.os

“I try not to see things in terms of what people should or shouldn’t do – simply, when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” he says.

“But I’m sure Tai Chi will explode in popularity over the next few years, not too dissimilar to the way yoga has done before.”

Osipczak also admits that teaching still the best way of learning, which is why both are so important to him.

“Much of my enjoyment and fulfilment comes from furthering my competence of Tai-Chi Ch’uan, so for me it is a bonus that I can share the benefits of it with so many others,” said Osipczak.

Supernova

supernovaIn his first career, the 31-year-old was known as Slick Nick. But now, he is looking to develop a new persona and nickname for his on-going journey representing the Internal Arts.

“When I returned to competition after a five-year break, I knew I was a completely different fighter to the one that had competed before so ‘Slick’, no longer seemed appropriate.

“I knew a new one would pop up organically, and the day before my fight, I saw the photo hanging in my hotel room, labelled ‘Supernova’ – I knew a fit had been found.”

Much like a supernova, Osipczak will be hope his career continues to shine with unparalleled brightness.

You can find Nick’s classes here [http://raisedspirit.com/index.html]. He will also be hosting workshops in Goa (February) and Oxfordshire (June).

 

 

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‘Kicks kept me out of prison’

November 29, 2016 in Features

Nathan Owor reckons he owes a lot to the Premier League’s Kicks community scheme – maybe even his life.

‘Growing up on a rough council estate in East London, most my friends were getting into trouble with police and around the neighbourhood,” he recalls.

“The Kicks project is the reason I believe I’m not in prison or who knows maybe even worse.”

‘Before Kickz I had never played for a football team because I never had the funding.

One of the highlights of the programme is the annual Premier League Kicks Cup, which brings together all of the clubs for a showpiece small-sided football competition.

Owor added: “The free football allowed me to develop my skills and even go on to play  in regional tournaments in Derby, Manchester and Blackburn which I will never forget.”

Free sessions

Currently in its tenth year, the Premier League Kicks is one of the Premier League’s flagship community programmes.

“I’ve had young men come through project with natural raw talent which just needed a bit of coaching to then see them earn trials at various clubs”

Jointly funded by Sport England, the project (formerly known as ‘Kickz’) uses the power of football and the value of sports participation to change young lives in some of Britain’s toughest and most troubled neighbourhoods.

Kicks runs free sessions to bring together 12-to-19 year olds who are potentially vulnerable to involvement in street crime but have a keen interest in sport.

It’s backed by all of the Premier League’s clubs, plus many others in the Football League, and also has the support of the Football Association.

Over 50,000 young people took part in the programme in 2014-15 alone, and it has helped thousands of youngsters to find routes into education, training and employment – and even kickstarted some football careers in the process.

Darren Johnson, a coach affiliated to Tottenham Hotspur’s Kicks scheme told Elephant Sport: “I’ve had young men come through project with natural raw talent which just needed a bit of coaching to then see them earn trials at various clubs.”

Star names

In some areas where Kicks is active in the community, police have reported falls of up to 50% in incidents of anti-social behaviour.

West Brom KickzIt began in 2006 as a pilot project in London between the Premier League and Metropolitan Police, with the aim of using football to bring communities together and engage with young people.

It is currently in operation at 56 Premier League and Football League clubs across the country, with the involvement of several police forces.

Footballers such as Jermaine Defoe and Heurelho Gomes have previously visited Tottenham’s project for kickabouts, with the likes of Yannick Bolasie  and Wilfried Zaha visiting Everton’s and Crystal Palace’s versions.

Engagement

Johnson added: “Professional footballers such as brothers Matty [now at Man Utd] and Chris [Arsenal] Willock used to train here alongside playing for Arsenal which shows our level of coaching is very high.”

Despite the name, Kicks is not all about football as the project introduces young people to other sports and activities, including table tennis, dancing and basketball – all part of its efforts to build ‘a safer, stronger and more respectful community’.

The scheme’s long-term goal is to give participants something to work towards for the future, whether it is football or other career paths, while other non-sporting elements of it seek to engage teenagers in music, educational and other personal development activities.

England look to build on win over Boks

November 16, 2016 in Features

Last weekend saw England emerge 37-21 winners over a slightly lackadaisical South Africa side.

They know they could have performed better, but let’s not take that away from the result. England were determined to dominate, and they did.

It was the first time England had beaten the Springboks in over a decade. The list below shows the past 10 results between the sides before Saturday’s clash.

  • Nov 2014: England 28-31 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2012: England 15-16 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 14-14 England, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 36-27 England, Ellis Park
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 22-17 England, Kings Park
  • Nov 2010: England 11-21 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2008: England 6-42 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Oct 2007: England 6-15 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Sep 2007: England 0-36 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Jun 2007: South Africa 55-22 England, Loftus

England were slow to get out of the blocks, going 0-6 down within the first 10 minutes. However a swift and free-flowing counter-attack allowed Jonny May to do what he does best and finish in the corner.

From then on, England kicked on and were superior to the Springboks in nearly every aspect – not something which is normally seen in games between northern and southern hemisphere sides.

Key stats

In terms of attacking statistics, England made 451 metres throughout the match, compared to the Springboks 395m. England also made nine clean breaks, to South Africa’s four, the pick of the bunch being Ben Youngs’ dummy passes to set up both George Ford and Owen Farrell.

England also displayed a great defensive mindset; something that head coach Eddie Jones is keen to implement throughout the XV, the most important thing being that you have to put your body on the line for the team.

A key statistic in this respect was England’s nine turnovers at the breakdown compared to South Africa’s four. Watching the game, you could see that the team in white would do everything and anything to get the ball back.

 Discipline

However, the only visible downside to England’s game was the penalty count they racked up, conceding 11 in total. It’s something that Jones evidently wasn’t pleased about, as shown by his post-match comment that England can get a lot better.

Skipper Dylan Hartley backed up the Aussie, saying: “There’s plenty to work on, so that keeps us grounded. We conceded six penalties in the opening 20 minutes and that isn’t good enough.”

Man of the match

The standout performer was Youngs; he was everywhere he could possibly be on the pitch and had the vision to spot the break in the line not once, but twice to set up Ford and Farrell.

 A new week, a new challenge

This weekend brings a new challenge in the form of Fiji, regular so-called whipping boys who will be wanting to make an impression in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham on Saturday.

 Draining the talent pool

One of the many reasons that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa haven’t managed to excel as much as they would have wanted is that their talented pool of players is often raided by other rugby nations.Mike Brown in action during the last clash between the teams in 2015. (Credit: Rugby News)

Take Manu Tuilagi; when fully fit and on the top of his game, he is unstoppable, showing this against New Zealand a couple of years ago.

Although he and a few of his brothers had dual nationality, playing for England would be a much more lucrative opportunity than a Pacific Island team.

To put into perspective why many of these players adopt other nations over Fiji for example, just look at how much players are getting paid for this match in the Autumn internationals series.

Nathan Hughes, who was actually born in Fiji, will take home £22,000 playing for England, while his former countrymen receive just £400 each.

 Olympic glory

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Fijians.Fiji celebrating with their Olympic gold medals (Credit: Associated Press)

They have had something to be ecstatic about this year, winning their first-ever Olympic medal – gold in the rugby sevens tournament, beating Great Britain in the process.

It wasn’t a tight game in the slightest, with Fiji trouncing GB 43-7 in the final in Rio.

Although sevens is a very different game, Jones will be wary as to what could potentially unfold over 80 minutes.

Fiji’s danger men

Centre Vereniki Goneva should be well known to England fans, having played for Leicester Tigers between 2012 and 2016and scoring 205 points in the process.

In the 2015–16 European Rugby Champions Cup, he scored a try in every game finishing with six in five matches in the knockout rounds, making him the competition’s joint top try-scorer alongside Thomas Waldrom.

Lock Leone Nakawara currently plays for Racing 92 in France, and was one of the players who won an Olympic sevens medal at Rio 2016, scoring a try in the final in a one-sided 43-7 victory over Great Britain.

During his time at Glasgow Warriors, Nakarawa was named man of the match for in the 2015 Pro12 Grand Final in Belfast. He had the most offloads in the 2014–15 European Rugby Champions Cup with 25.

Fly-half Ben Volavola is, perhaps surprisingly, the youngest player in the current squad at 25. He signed for the Crusaders in the 2016 Super Rugby season to replace a number 10 exodus at the New Zealand club, with Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor having moved to play their rugby in Europe.

During his three-year stint at the Southern Districts side, he racked up 248 points in 36 appearances.

Overall record 

In the six matches the teams have played against each other, England have never lost to Fiji, racking up 245 points to their 94. The largest win came in 2012 when England demolished them 54-12.

Jones knows all about upsets though, pulling off arguably the biggest one in international rugby history when his Japan team beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.

A repeat is unlikely on Saturday, but Jones is too wily and experienced a coach to take anything for granted.

The explosion of rugby in Spain

November 8, 2016 in Features, News & Features

You might be forgiven for thinking that rugby union barely registers on the radar of most Spanish sports fans, but its popularity among them is growing rapidly.

Clubs are now going professional, and the national side was one of 12 teams that took part in the first-ever Olympic rugby sevens competition this summer in Rio de Janeiro.

The rise of rugby union in Spain is arguably down to two key factors: the proliferation of English language/culture on TV and the country’s economic struggles in recent years.

With everything from English music videos to Premier League football available to Spanish viewers, it’s only natural that they begin to absorb some of those cultural imports.

Rugby union has become one of those things that, after decades of disinterest, you can now find aired in Spain on national channels, as well as having its very own channel (Canal+ Rugby).

There is, all of a sudden, a demand for the sport that was once deemed too brutal for Spanish tastes.

Social context

One also has to consider the social and economic context of rugby’s rise. While it is perceived as a predominantly middle-class sport in England, Spain subverts that notion.

As the country’s economy has declined, participation in rugby has shot up to previously unimaginably high levels.

“My dream is that, one day, people will look at Spain and think ‘wow, they are great at football and rugby!'” – Marco de Lorenzo

This sport belongs to the working class, as the idea of hard work and physicality taps in to the hyper-masculine psyche and gives people an outlet to vent their anger and frustrations.

This is why the Spanish national teams, both male and female, are dominated by state-educated players largely from lower-class backgrounds.

This is the main crux as to why the sport has both grown in participation and spectatorship. The connection of seeing someone from the same walk of life as you representing the country is rare in Spanish sport, and rugby now carries that torch proudly.

The influx of money in football has seen a growing disconnect between the working class and the sport, whereas basketball – the nation’s second favourite sport – has seen many players join NBA teams and forget their roots.

A voice of experience

One Spanish rugby stalwart who has witnessed its growth first-hand is Marco de Lorenzo, the national team’s head physio, who has spent two decades in the set-up at times working with elite club Santboiana (one of the oldest teams in Spanish rugby union).

He told me: “I have never seen kids more hungry and willing to play rugby in my 20 years in this sport. It fills my heart with joy to see that this is no longer a sport forced upon our children.”

poggi

Marcos Poggi. Image provided by PhotoScrum

The 57-year-old, though experienced speaks with a youthful enthusisam for his sport, and shares contact details of of a player currently in the Spain set-up. His reason? He just wants more people to know about rugby in Spain.

Toward the end of our conversation, Lorenzo admitted: “It’s been so frustrating seeing our country try to be good at rugby but fail at every hurdle. But look at us now!

“The Olympics, World Cup… people are starting to believe the hype. I want everyone to know about how hard myself and this country have fought to make rugby big here.”

Shortly afterwards, I called the player he put me into contact with, Marcos Poggi – a 29-year-old fullback who, despite his physique, is softly spoken but passionate about his sport.

“Qualifying for the Olympics was crazy. The coach kept telling us to not get ahead of ourselves but, deep down, we knew that he too believed we could do it,” said Poggi.

“This was a unique chance to say ‘yes, we play rugby here!’ It was also a chance to help those who love rugby not feel weird for loving it. The country is crazy for it now.”

Increase in interest

Up until 2010, studies show that only 7% of the nation showed an active interest in rugby when the final of the national cup was aired live. During last season’s domestic campaign, 55% of population tuned in to watch the dramatic cup final, according to Estadisticas de Rugby.

This rise in interest has allowed the rugby to make huge progress, with the money available now allowing clubs to turn professional and offer their players a decent wage.

Attendances are on an upward trajectory, helped by low ticket prices. A sport for the working class has to cater to modest household incomes.

Academies have been established around the country, with children eligible for training from a young age.

In 2011, rugby became a part of the physical education curriculum in every school. Ages 6-15 are expected to participate in tournaments and activities.

Expectations are not high but, after defeating Samoa in the repechage final of the Rio 2016 qualifiers, this current Spanish side has the chance to make every kid in the country dream.

League construct

But there’s more to Spanish rugby than just the national team.  The sport’s top tier is Spain, the Division de Honor, has been around since 1953 but it is only now that interest has reached the level it deserves.

Only 10 teams compete in the division, with the bottom side relegated to the Division de Honor B and the top side from that second tier taking their place.

It’s a brutally competitive sport; the winner of the top division also qualifies for the European Challenge Cup, allowing them to show their quality against sides from all over Europe.

In the last 10 years, five different teams have won the Division de Honor, which is a testament to its competitive quality, unlike the current state of its footballing counterpart, La Liga.

Add to that seven different winners in 10 years of Rugby’s Copa del Rey tournament. That speaks volumes for the unpredictability and growing entertainment value of rugby in Spain.

Sky is the limit

The current dominant power is Valladolid who, prior to last season, had won the league four years on the trot, including two Copa del Rey triumphs sandwiched in between.

Having said that, the most recent winner of both was SilverStorm El Salvador who stole the title from the clutches of Valladolid and trumped them 13-9 in the cup final.

With different cities, towns and regions sharing the honours around in Spanish rugby, it’s only natural that the sport is spreading at a rapid pace.

It taps into the fierce local pride that most Spaniards still feel for their towns, cities and regions.

The sky truly is the limit for Spanish rugby union and, if it continues growing at this speed, we may very well start hearing a lot more about it on the world stage.

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