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How did Sri Lanka fare in 2016?

November 21, 2016 in Opinion

It’s been a distinctly mixed year for Sri Lankan cricket. There were many highs as well as many lows – from being totally outclassed by England in all formats to breezing past the Aussies in the Test series. 

The year started in preparation for the 2016 ICC World T20, hosted by India. Sri Lanka had a mammoth task in trying to defend their crown without the likes of the retired Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.

Before the World T20, they had a short tour of India and made the journey to Bangladesh to compete in the 2016 Asia Cup.

South African Graham Ford returned as head coach – a position he left in 2013 – and he and the selectors picked a bunch of fresh names for the challenge.

Vice-captain Dinesh Chandimal took charge, and the side to face seasoned stars such as MS Dhoni and Rohit Sharma included young fast bowlers Kasun Rajitha and Binura Fernando.

The tour started well, and Sri Lanka surprised the Indian spectators as they won the first game by five wickets. However, India went on to win the series 2-1.

The Asia Cup provided worryingly little improvement, and the only game Sri Lanka won was against the UAE.

World T20 shambles

That turned out to be a taste of the disastrous things to come at the World T20.

Sri Lanka went into the tournament without feared fast bowler Lasith Malinga – out with a knee injury – who would have played a key role in their title defence. The Lankans were also in a tough group along with England, West Indies, South Africa and Afghanistan.

“The tour of England came around and with it a chance to see some new faces prove their worth”

They defeated minnows Afghanistan in the first game but went on to lose all their others, although there was some close encounters.

They nearly handed a defeat to England but crashed to bad losses against West Indies and South Africa to make a humiliatingly early exit. The Windies went on to win the tournament, defeating England in the final.

Much soul-searching followed, with speculation about whether the veteran Tillakarante Dilshan would retire, and questions asked about the calibre of some of the players picked.

As it was, Dilshan carried on but veteran bowler Rangana Herath decided to retire from T20s, and then the tour of England came around and with it a chance to see some new faces prove their worth.

Skittled in England

Going to England, Sri Lanka were always seen as the underdogs in all of the formats – and so it proved as the tourists failed to win a single game against the hosts.

“The one-dayers were no different, with lacklustre displays throughout”

For their fans, it was miserable to see poor performances in pretty much every match. The last time Sri Lanka toured England was in 2014, when they made a winning clean sweep of the one-day, T20 and Test series.

But there were still some individuals who managed to stand out and have a pretty good tour. Kusal Mendis impressed many, scoring 53 in the first Test in a pressure situation.

Captain Angelo Mathews showed some consistency with the bat, scoring 34 in the first Test and 80 in the second.

Those were the only positives to take from the Test series, however, and the one-dayers were no different, with lacklustre displays throughout aside from a few good individual performances such as that of wicketkeeper Dinesh Chandimal.

Steamrolling Australia

The home Test series, beginning in July, gave Sri Lanka a chance to get back on track with victory over the mighty Australians.

Herath remains one of Sri Lanka’s best bowlers. Pic by Jumpy News, flickr creative commons

That lofty aim became a reality as Sri Lanka won the series 3-0.

Herath was the best bowler, taking 28 wickets in the three matches as well as being name player of the series, and a new hero came to light in the shape of Dhananjaya De Silva.

De Silva scored 325 runs with a best of 129. Kusal Mendis was also in scintillating form, with a top score of 176 in the first Test.

For the first time this year, Sri Lankan supporters had something to cheer and be proud about.

Whitewashing Australia in a Test series will certainly be a top memory for many fans, and one of the most memorable achievements in the country’s cricketing history.

The one-day series that followed felt like a close encounter despite the fact that Sri Lanka lost the series 4-1.

Dominance

Months after the Australia tour, Zimbabwe presented a new challenge. Chandimal and Mathews did not travel due to injury, so it was a chance for other players to gain some experience. Herath was named as captain for the Test series and guided his side to a 2-0 win.

The whole team clicked and once Mathews and Chandimal come back, there will certainly be tough competition for places in the starting XI.

The Sri Lankan side are currently still in Zimbabwe competing in a tri-series along with the West Indies and Zimbabwe.

The Lankans end 2016 with a really tough tour to South Africa, with the first Test beginning on Boxing Day.

With good form since defeating Australia, you never know, they could rise to the occasion and win a Test series against South Africa for the first time.

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.

SA Rugby’s problems are bigger than wins or losses

November 14, 2016 in Opinion

When Nelson Mandela presented the Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar after South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph, what had traditionally been seen as a white man’s sport briefly seemed to have the power to unite the Rainbow Nation.

In reality, rugby union in South Africa has been something of  a political football ever since, with the game’s custodians under constant pressure to make the national team more representative of the country’s post-apartheid society.

Staying in the top five of the world rankings for years on end, winning the 2007 Rugby World Cup and making the semi-finals in 2015 was all well and good.

But powerful voices in South Africa criticised the Springboks’ continuing failure to reflect and connect with the black majority.

Photo Credit: GovernmentZA

Identity crisis

Currently, the team is struggling badly under head coach Allister Coetzee, beaten in recent weeks by England, Wales and even – for the first time in their history – Italy.

What many are seeing as an ailing squad, a team without leadership and or direction is in fact the manifestation of a country going through an identity crisis.

Just this year alone, there was a protest held by the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) outside the South African Rugby Union (SARU) HQ regarding the lack of visible transition in the Springbok team.

According to Sport24: “Chaos erupted outside SARU. Protesters were carrying placards with phrases such as ‘Cricket, Netball and Tennis are next. White Supremacy must fall’.”

Do they have a point? Does white supremacy still exist in South African sport?

In September 2015, Siya Mnyanda writing for the Guardian Africa network said: “Rugby’s reluctance to grapple with its past and take concrete steps to mirror the country’s demographic make-up reflects how black South Africans remain spectacularly sidelined in many aspects of life.”

This was in the wake of then-head coach Heyneke Meyer selecting an overwhelmingly white squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

But the ANCYL aren’t their only enemy either. A little known party called the Agency for New Agenda took SARU to court over “the lack of transformation in South Africa rugby”.

Sanctions

“Although much has been done to transform the country, the national team’s rugby selection criteria are racially exclusionary and biased in favour of whites. Fikile Mbalula [the sports minister] has failed to transform rugby, and any argument SARU represents to justify it’s failure to do so should be treated with disdain.

“It has betrayed the trust of millions of South Africans, continues to resist change and should attract the severest sanctions possible.”

“A scholarship here and there to a few non-white players isn’t going to cut it”

These were the words of the ANA’s president, Edward Mahlomola Mokhoanatse. Despite their case being eventually thrown out, the fact that such a situations developed shows how bad race relations are in South Africa, and how much worse they could get.

Coetzee has been the scapegoat many have chosen to point their frustrated fingers at. To some it’s the fact that he has never actually coached an international side, having been an assistant to Jake White in 2007.

Others are calling for the entire system to be brought down. Just recently, a petition was started in the name of overhauling the entire Springbok coaching staff.

A quick scroll down the comments section and it doesn’t take long before you run into the interesting comments that have dominated this issue, ever since the government decided to turn its attention to SARU.

Transformation

Loyal fans may cry over poor form and losses, but the sad truth is that the issue is bigger than that.

Rugby union’s grassroots transformation in South Africa has been great, it has yielded results.

“If organic means have failed to bring about this change, it must be engineered to bring about a Springbok team that represents all of South Africa”

But unfortunately that transformation has failed to reach the highest tier of SA Rugby which is their national team.

In order to aid the transformation going on below national level, it too has to transform. Rugby will remain a white sport if the country is to depend on grassroots transformation alone.

A scholarship here and there to a few non-white players isn’t going to cut it.

They say seeing is believing. What is going to motivate young black boys to pursue a career in rugby when year after year they watch a predominantly white Springbok team?

How is the seed going to be planted in their minds when their parents, their families either despise the team or at, best, don’t identify with it?

Oppression

To South Africa’s black majority, the Springboks have never represented them.

Instead, they have been a constant reminder of the old South Africa that many wish to bury in the depths of their memories.

The old regime of racial segregation and white-minority oppression may have been dismantled many years ago.

But, sadly, and despite the efforts of SARU and the Ministry of Sports, the Springboks have failed to refresh and update themselves to be more representative of today’s South Africa.

If achieving this means taking 10 steps back, appointing a coach who has never held international credentials or enforcing an aggressive quota system, then so be it.

Yes, sport should be kept separate from politics, but if the sport cannot govern itself well enough to fall in line with the new South Africa, then politics must intervene.

If organic means have failed to bring about this change, it must be engineered to bring about a Springbok team that represents all of South Africa. Not a team made up of old boys from predominantly ten white schools.

Jones eyes more England progress

November 11, 2016 in News & Features

This time last year, Eddie Jones had just done the unthinkable. He had led a cast of nobodies (no disrespect intended to Japan) to victory over South Africa in the World Cup – arguably the biggest shock in rugby union’s history.

Japan celebrating a momentous win over South Africa. (Credit: Gallo Images)

Japan celebrate their win over South Africa (Credit: Gallo Images)

Now he finds himself with the best winning percentage as an England head coach since Sir Clive Woodward, with a 100% record.

Who would have thought England, a team who capitulated as World Cup hosts under Stuart Lancaster, would begin a new era under Jones with nine wins out of nine.

It is time for England fans to truly believe something big is happening.

With England still the only Northern Hemisphere team to have won the World Cup, beating Australia in their own backyard in 2003, many thought that finest hour was unrepeatable.

Fair enough, that they made the final in France 2007, but they were humbled by Saturday’s opponents South Africa. However, this clash has a build-up that’s completely different to that game nine years ago.

Time to take advantage

England come into this game looking like one of the best teams in the world right now.

Ireland’s sensational 40-29 win over New Zealand in Chicago last weekend showed the All Blacks do actually have some weaknesses, and it’s time for England to take advantage.

England go into the autumn internationals ranked the second-best team in the world, and it is up to them to make the biggest statement possible.

This will be one of Eddie Jones’ biggest tests.

The build-up to these matches has certainly been a tough one, and England’s summer whitewashing of Australia down under has created great expectations.

Injury crisis

Jones will be without Manu Tuilagi, James Haskell, Sam Jones and Anthony Watson – all out of the picture with long-term injuries.

Let’s also not forget that player of the year last year, Maro Itoje is out too, as are Jack Nowell and George Kruis. It’s nothing short of an injury crisis, for sure.Itoje & Jones chatting at an England camp. (Credit: PA)

Although England have amazing depth in many positions, there is no denying that the players out injured would have had a key role this autumn. Watson, for one, has scored 70 points in 24 games.

Jones has had to rethink his strategy, drafting in Wasps’ Elliot Daly for his full Test debut at outside centre, Jonathan Joseph being dropped in the process. This is a clear statement from Jones, who who has previously said he will do what is necessary to get the win.

Ideology

Jones has also said in the buildup to Saturday’s Twickenham clash: “I told the players…. If you are not physical you need to play volleyball – rugby is a physical sport.”

It’s clear to see what Jones expects from his players in the face of the famed brute force of the Springboks.

Mako Vunipola has voiced the ideology that Jones has enforced, saying: “The biggest message is not being happy with where we are at the moment, we have to keep improving every time we go out on the pitch. We want to improve every day.”

This just goes to show how much has happened with the team since the dreadful World Cup campaign just over a year ago.

This is a different England side that are not afraid to be physical, who want to be the best, and know they can achieve their aim.

Jones has instantly made his mark, bringing in experienced faces to his coaching staff, something that made a big story under Lancaster’s reign, for the wrong reasons.

He has had short-term input for his backs from Australian legend Glen Ella, George Smith has been helping out the back rows, and the fly-halves from England legend Jonny Wilkinson.

Quality

The effect that both Jones’ strengthening of the England team, and the success of clubs such as Saracens, has seen an amazing improvement.

Take into account that only two English players were shortlisted for the IRB’s World Rugby Player of the year in the past 12 years; this year there are three alone.

“With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer”

Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell have all been nominated, following their stellar performances at international and club level.

The matches against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia are the perfect opportunity for England to show what they are really about, that the Jones honeymoon isn’t over just yet.

With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer.

Many fans will be licking their lips at this clash, and it’s clear that England fans finally have something to smile about.

Depending on the outcome of these matches and next year’s Six Nations, people will be starting to ask whether 2019, when Japan host the World Cup, could be England’s year.

But let it sink in that when that World Cup comes around, it will have been 16 years since we triumphed over Australia.

 

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