Thursday, March 6, 2008

Red Bull revives Rafa - PremCorrespondent

Do you ever see people leaving the cinema before the end of the film? The earliest people start to trample on the spilled popcorn (why popcorn?) is when the credits start to roll, but at Arsenal on Saturday, most of the crowd had pushed off by the time clumsy striker Nicklas Bendtner equalised clumsy defender Phillippe Senderos' own goal. With the title on the line and a young team straining against a very decent Villa oufit, why would you say, "What I need now is a look round the Holloway road." London fans eh?

And that equaliser was vital, as Manchester United and Chelsea had long since secured the points against London "opposition", Championship bound Fulham and feeble West Ham (continuing Alan Curbishley's uncanny knack of turning off once relegation is avoided).

It was also a good week for the chasing pack, with Liverpool bagging six points thanks to easy wins over Gary Megson's Bolton (yes, this is the all-star Premier League and I did write Gary Megson's Bolton) and whipping boys West Ham, a tonking distinguished by another Anfield hat-trick from Paris Hilton lookalike, Fernando Torres. Rafa owes his Red Bull plenty this season. Everton had their problems against the gigantic Portsmouth team, but cruised home once Tim Cahill scored and chose to remind us that many Australians have family connections with convicts.

Amongst the halt and the lame, Birmingham shrugged off the hangover of the Eduardo match better than Tottenham shrugged off the hangover of the Carling Cup celebrations to record a 4-1 win thanks to a Dirk Kuyt, sorry, Mikhael Forssel hat-trick. Derby's 0-0 with Sunderland and Manchester City's 0-0 with Wigan were every bit as much fun as they sound, whilst the other two North Eastern clubs lost at home by the odd late goal, Middlesborough to Reading and Newcastle to Blackburn. Don't giggle. It's not funny.

The net effect of all that is... nothing. Arsenal and Man Utd are separated by a point, then there's Chelsea too efficient for fourth, not exciting enough for second, the Merseyside head-to-head for fourth, the celtic managers of Blackburn and Villa fighting for sixth, fading Man City and Portsmouth vying for eighth, and two London clubs stuck in the middle, West Ham and Spurs. At the bottom Derby are long gone and Fulham look doomed, but the fun starts next with four points covering Reading, Bolton, Birmingham, Sunderland, Wigan, Newcastle and Middlesborough. Cock-fighting is banned, but this is the next best thing. Premcorr's tip for the drop? Newcastle!

NFL Review 2007 - the Velvet Bear

Remarkable how fast the last 5 months went, isn't it? At the start of September everyone was fresh faced and excited at the start of a new NFL season. Now it has all been and gone, with only the prospect of the 2008 draft, pre-season rumours and inevitable fall-outs to keep us going for the next 7 months.

Back in September I looked at each individual team and predicted how they would do in 2007. How did I do? More importantly, how did they do?

ARIZONA CARDINALS (2007 Record 8 wins-8 losses)

Prediction: They'll be hoping that the new coaching team of Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm can work that out in a way that enables them to get the best from their stars.

A pretty nodescript season really, with two wins in their last two games taking them to an 8-8 record in a season where they didn't play anyone of any note. That they finished second in their division is testament only to just how feeble the NFC West is.


It's hard to get a worse start to the season than the Falcons have already had, with the Michael Vick affair ... If they win as many as six games this season I'll be surprised.

Unbelievably, it got worse, with coach Bobby Petrino quitting before the season was over, injuries, no settled quarterback. Hopefully 2008 will be better for them, although they have already released their most potent attacking threat, Alge Crumpler.


The Ravens surprised many people last season and probably hoped that they would make it all the way to the Superbowl. This year they will do well to do half as well. They're an ageing team where most of their best players are, at most, two seasons from retirement.

The Ravens came crashing down to earth, turning a 13-3 2006 into a 5-11 2007. Along the way they had the embarrassment of being the only team to lose to the woeful Dolphins. With a new head coach in John Harbaugh, they'll be looking for plenty of trade activity in the offseason and will at least qualify for some high draft picks, too. Nothing less than a complete overhaul will do.


Losing McGahee will mean that they look ever more to the passing game. QB JP Losman is no longer the innocent youngster of previous seasons and, on his day, has a phenomenal arm.

Defeat to the Eagles in the last game of the regular season meant that, like in 2006, they finished with a losing season and missed the playoffs. Having to play the Patriots twice didn't help, but then neither did a big fallout between coach Dick Jauron and Losman.


2006 was a huge disappointment. Injuries to Steve Smith illustrated just how badly one-dimensional they had become, even for a side with DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams in the backfield.

Pretty much of the same. Smith spent a chunk of the season injured and nothing much else happened. They also went through no fewer than four quarterbacks. If their season is remembered for anything at all, it will be for being the side who finally persuaded Vinny Testaverde to quit playing.


Even as a Bears fan I still have to ask how the hell they managed to win so many games with a liability like Rex Grossman at QB. Anyone who saw his nightmare Superbowl ought to know that this was no shock to Bears supporters… the Bears will rely upon the erratic Cedric Benson for their points – unless a miracle happens and Grossman manages to find receivers Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Mohammed on a regular basis. The defense, lead by star linebacker Brian Uhrlacher, remains a ferocious prospect for opponents.

It was worse than most fans expected. Grossman was benched early in the season, replacements Brian Griese and Kyle Orton were not much better and Grossman was back behind center by the end of the season. That said, there is a tradition of the side which loses the Superbowl slumping the following season and this was no worse than some recent sides have done. The search for a QB will go on over the offseason and Mohammed has been released, but their real worries may be on defense, where Urlacher needs neck surgery and Lance Briggs, the team’s leading linebacker last season, is available as a free agent.


Expect much, much more from the Bengals this year. With Carson Palmer on form and Chad Johnson… stopping them scoring will take a better team than most of those they will face. They'll concede plenty of points … but you'd always expect them to be a score ahead anyway.

However much you expected, they didn’t produce it. No notable wins, not many points, a huge fallout with Johnson (who wants away but isn’t being allowed to go). How long a QB as good as Carson Palmer will stick this is debatable. Another season of going backwards will probably see him off to pastures new.


Last year was a disaster. This year won't be much better, unless rookie QB Brady Quinn comes good … they'll all need to put more effort in if the Browns are to have much of a season.

What can I say? The Browns surprised everyone this year – and it wasn’t because of the much-vaunted Quinn, either. After trading starting QB Charlie Frye following the first game of the season, replacement Derek Anderson took them a winning season, almost to the playoffs and on the way threw a franchise record number of touchdowns in a season. He and three team mates also made it to the Pro Bowl. The Browns have paid a lot to keep hold of him for next season, so much will be expected of him.


With TO for once living up to his self-generated reputation and Jason Witten a potent threat at TE, they shouldn't miss the injured Terry Glenn at all.

2007 was pretty much like 2006 for the Cowboys. Play great football, beat most people out of sight in the regular season, lose dismally in the playoffs. Only this time with added Jessica Simpson. Many thought the Cowboys would romp to the Superbowl, but a combination of the Giants and an injured Tony Romo did for them and the season’s frustration was probably summed up when Romo began screaming in anger at center Andre Gorode at the end of that game. They will be determined to learn from their mistakes next season and should be even better than they were this. The Romo-Owens double act has attracted a lot of attention, but watch the Romo-Witten one closely, too – the tight end had a record season for receptions this year and could be even more important next.


The astute off-season signings of Daniel Graham and Brandon Stokeley should open up more options for Jay Cutler this season, whilst Travis Henry gives them running options. It is probably too much change for a young QB like Cutler to absorb in the early season, but expect them to come strong in the second half. Having Champ Bailey and Dre' Bly on defense will make them very hard to score against, so once they can get some points on the board they will be a formidable outfit.

It all went a bit wrong for the Broncos and there’s no obvious reason why. After a winning first half of the season they started losing matches and simply couldn’t stop losing and only a narrow victory over the Vikings in the final game gave their season any degree of respectability. When one of your highest paid players retires and admits he wasn’t playing well enough to stay, as Matt Lepsis has done, that’s when you’ve had a bad season.


You have to feel sorry for Lions QB Jon Kitna. He's a talented player who deserves much more than he has to work with here… sixteen weeks of humbling.

Well, they didn’t get humbled for sixteen weeks. In fact, they started quite well, but then fell away badly towards the end. They actually managed not to finish bottom of their division and will regard the season as being something of a success. Kitna basically carried the offense, though, despite at one point suffering a concussion and wibbling on about angels, so they will need do recruit heavily in the offseason if they are to build on this performance.


So, Old Man Favre returns for yet another season in Wisconsin. He's interesting to watch, because his play has become increasingly maverick as the years have worn on – which must make him infuriating to coach and to play with. Just how much scope he will have for that this year, when his only real weapon is WR Donald Driver, is open to debate. He's either going to make someone a star, or it is all going to go horribly wrong for the Packers. Their defense is at least consistent, in that they make as many cock-ups as they do brilliant plays. Expect a losing season.

I thought I was sticking my neck out with that last comment and I was right. The Packers were one of the teams of the season and everyone’s second choice to be the NFC’s Superbowl contenders. In the end, they lost a thrilling conference championship game to the Giants in freezing conditions and bowed out. Favre played as if he was still fifteen years younger and the word is that he probably will be back for his eighteenth straight season come August.


All change in Houston, where the talented – if untried – Matt Schaub has replaced David Carr at QB … it could be a tough learning curve – to the point where it is a toss up who will be wishing he had stayed in Atlanta, him or the Falcons. Things might be a little easier if the defense was reliable, but it isn't, it's inexperienced and has a real vulnerability at CB.

Actually, not only was 8-8 an improvement on the previous season, it was a real achievement for a side who had to play the Colts, Jaguars and Titans twice, all of whom reached the playoffs. The Texans were a solid, unspectacular side in 2007 and with a little more flair and offensive penetration they could be contenders for at least a playoff spot this year.


What would you like me to say? They have Peyton, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Joseph Addai and Dallas Clark. The defense is a mess, with a mass of off-season defections being led by star linebacker Cato June, but the only way that will matter will be if Peyton gets injured; the real weakness of the Colts lies in the fact that it is so much his team now, without him it is doubtful they'd cope.

When people look back on 2007, most will forget that the Colts actually ended the regular season with a better win-loss ration than when they won the Superbowl the year before. Instead, they’ll be remembered for their spectacularly lacklustre performance against the Chargers in the divisional playoff game that ended their season. That they did this for the most part without Harrison, who was injured for three months of the season, bodes well for 2008, especially now that they have signed Clark to a new long-term deal.


A slightly disappointing 2006 for the Jags, largely as a result of their failure to hold onto the ball. If they could just stop dropping the thing, they would be a pretty formidable proposition. This season, expect much more work for running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, who were the best RB pairing last season. The defense has the enormous tackle combination of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, plus star CB Rashean Mathis, so they will be very hard to score against. Expect a better season than last.

And a better season they certainly had. The Taylor/Jones-Drew combination proved to be a formidable one, the combination of youthful arrogance and sage experience benefitting both players (Taylor made his first ever Pro Bowl). Their performance against the Patriots in the playoffs, whilst ultimately futile, showed that they were the first side to find the key to stopping that particular offense and thereby led, albeit indirectly, to the Giants’ win.


A two man team if ever there was one. Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez must be wondering what they did wrong in a previous life to end up playing behind a line as clueless as this one. The defense has been strengthened by the arrival of Napoleon Harris and Alfonso Boone, but really it was youth, not weight, the Chiefs needed here. Expect plenty of 4th quarter scores against this ageing unit.

Bearing in mind how bad the Dolphins’ season was (see below) it takes something to be known as the most disappointing team of the year, but the Chiefs shomehow managed it. They struggled against everyone and only avoided bottom spot in the AFC West because the Raiders were even more inept. Even so, this is a team which didn’t win a game after October 21st and that just isn’t good enough for a franchise which made the playoffs the season before.


It all went very wrong for the Dolphins in 2006. They started as playoff favourites and ended as also-rans. Having released Daunte Culpepper, it is hard to see how they will be any better off with the injury prone Trent Green. The offense lacks any real weapons... Another tough year in prospect.

I don’t think anyone could’ve imagined just how tough. Green got concussed early in the season and never recovered. This left them with Cleo Lemon and the rookie John Beck, neither of whom looked the part. On defense, Jason Taylor was his usual immaculate self and became the poster boy for the first ever regular season game in London, but his long time cohort Zach Thomas was injured in a car crash in October and missed the rest of the year. With a new coach in place and Bill Parcells pulling the strings elsewhere 2008 could only get better, yet it has started with Thomas joining the Cowboys. Not auspicious.


The good news for Vikings fans is that the close season saw them shift Brad Johnson, the world's least mobile QB and a whole host of other makeweights. The bad news is that they've not actually been replaced by anyone. Second year QB Tavaris Jackson will lead them this year and will spend most of it handing the ball to Chester Taylor and rookie Adrian Peterson (not to be confused with the Bears' rookie of the same name), because the Vikings' passing game is going to be non-existent. Being more positive, the defense isn't bad, with a solid reputation against both the pass and the run.

Peterson was a revelation, setting an NFL record for running yards in a single game and picking up the MVP award at the Pro-Bowl. Jackson surprised many people, myself included, by winning a few games and only a loss in their last match kept them from the playoffs. They will hope to do even better in 2008.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (16-0, lost Superbowl )

Tom Brady will be licking his lips in anticipation. An offense which not only features Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth, but which is so strong, they could afford to let Reche Caldwell go last week. Not only that, but the defense, bolstered by Adalius Thomas, lacks any obvious weakness either. Only overconfidence can stop them now.

And it did. It is hard not to think that, having blasted just about everyone aside in the previous 18 weeks, the Patriots thought they could just roll up in Phoenix and wander off with the Vince Lombardi trophy without breaking sweat. They were badly outthought by the Giants’ coaching staff and outplayed by the Giants. With an aging defense they will be busier than most people expect during the close season. Rumour has it they are looking to trade their seventh pick in the Draft for several lower picks in order to bolster that defense.


With Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Deuce McAllister and last year's surprise new arrival Marques Colston, it is arguable that the Saints should've won more games, scored more points and generally beaten the hell out of most other teams. What let them down was a defense which lacked both speed and penetration; nothing they have done in the close season has changed this, so expect a very similar season to the last.

Actually, it was much worse than last. McAllister was injured very early on, Colston lacked the impact of his rookie season and Bush once again played like a man who totally believed his own hype. You have to feel sorry for the good people of New Orleans, who not only had to get through this season with only 7 home games but have lost one of next year’s to London, too. Then again, if you have to miss seeing a team, missing out on this one isn’t all bad.

NEW YORK GIANTS (10-6, won Superbowl)

The Giants have one huge problem, which is that Eli simply isn't Peyton. In fact, if he wasn't a Manning, it is arguable that the Giants would not have persevered with him anything like as long as they have. The Giants' solution to his regular brain freezes was always to give the ball to Tiki Barber, but Tiki isn't there any more and Brandon Jacobs and Reuben Droughns are just not as reliable at digging a side out of a hole. All this is before you consider that any side which has Plaxico Burress as their #1 receiver has problems anyway. They'll be looking to their tough defense, buoyed by new co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo, to keep them in games.

I’ve left in my entire preview, because I stand by every word of it. The fact that Eli Manning suddenly hit a world-beating streak of form at around Week 16 doesn’t make him as good as his brother. The interesting thing was that where other QBs fell to pieces in the post-season, he got stronger and stronger. Coupled with Spagnuolo’s genius, the surprise package that was Ahmad Bradshaw and, of course, some outrageous luck, the Giants outperformed absolutely everyone’s expectations this season. Now, of course, they have a lot to look up to.


In signing Thomas Jones from the Bears the Jets have at last given Chad Pennington a decent weapon to work with. The o-line is sound, but they lack class otherwise, with Jerricho Cotchery having had a particularly shoddy season last time around. The defense has historically been good against the pass but feeble against the run and this will hurt them again this year if some serious improvements are not made.

While the Giants were astounding everyone, the Jets were worrying no-one. Another dire season, with no outstanding moments to look back upon. Two of their wins came against the Dolphins, just about everyone else regarded them as easy fodder. The side as a whole simply isn’t good enough and they must make wholesale changes during the close season if they are not to be embarrassed again in 2008.


It is hard to see how it is going to get any better for the Raiders in 2007... As for the defense, well, the only stars are in the corners and that is never a good thing, because you're just asking to get run into oblivion.

It did get marginally better, in that they won two more games. JaMarcus Russell took over as starting quarterback in December and showed some promise and a very strong arm, but unfortunately also showed a tendency to chuck the ball straight at his opponents. Another team who need a wholesale clearout and to start again.


Donovan McNabb can't shore them up forever, but then again I say that every season and every season he does so. Brian Westbrook remains the main alternate threat, especially if McNabb's dodgy knee flares up again. They look weak wide out, though. The defense will blitz and blitz and blitz on the back of good line discipline and a talented secondary. At times it will go wrong, but no-one is going to rack up a cricket score against them.

Westbrook was a star, McNabb a crock. Their problem was that they kept on losing close games. Only the Cowboys and the Giants managed to beat them by more than one score. There’s a lot to hope for next season, especially if they can find themselves a healthier man to put behind center.


An 8-8 season was such a disappointment to them last year, as they tried to adjust to life post-Bus. This year, they have to adjust to life post-Cowher. Can they do it? Well, a year out of the spotlight can only have helped Ben Roethlisberger and Willie Parker remains a threat on the ground. Hines Ward will be #1 receiver and the better for it, especially with Santonio Holmes to keep him company. The defense will continue to do the basics very well indeed, secure in the knowledge that if you get past the line, you've still got to get past the human cannonball that is Troy Polamalu. Definitely should have a better year this year.

2007 was definitely a better year, even though Parker and Holmes spent much of it injured. They won their division by a short head from the resurgent Browns and even managed to scrape a 3-0 win over the Dolphins in a torrential downpour. Their capitulation in the playoffs was a disappointment, though. Whilst all might look good for 2008, they have a horrendous start to the season – 8 of their first 10 games are against sides who made the playoffs in 2007 and they have two games against the Patriots, who beat them very easily in December


The big question here whether the creaky o-line can give Marc Bulger enough time to unleash Steven Jackson, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. If they can, the Rams will be a side to be reckoned with. If, like last season, they can't, Bulger faces another season seeing more turf than gaps.

And if Jackson gets injured they will be utterly pants and the Rams will sink like stones in sheep dip. They didn’t manage a win until Week 10. Jackson was the leading rusher in all three of their wins and basically, they were so much a one man team that they posed no threat to anyone.


It isn't hard to see what will happen here. From the snap, Philip Rivers will hand the ball off to LT, LT will blast another hole in a hapless defensive line, and the Chargers will keep doing it until they score... In defense, they've got Shawn Merriman, Quentin Jammer and a whole host of others as adept at stopping the run as their offensive counterparts are at making it. Hard to beat.

Maybe not as hard to beat as they had been the year before, the Chargers surprised everyone by not only reaching the playoffs but actually making it to the AFC championship game. Unfortunately, by then Rivers, Tomlinson and Gates were all so beaten up, the team were hardly in the game against the Patriots. Notwithstanding that, the Chargers will regard this as having been a fantastic year and, if they can keep all of their stars fit, will hope to go two games better in 2008. And kicker Nate Kaeding played for five weeks with a broken leg. That’s dedication!


Still an improving side, the 49ers. Bringing in Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie gives Alex Smith some much needed options downfield, …49ers fans everywhere – have much to hope for this year.

Oh dear. It is hard to find something positive to say about all this. They were not the worst team in the NFL – they just tended to play like it. Smith played much of the season with a damaged shoulder and against his wishes, causing a certain amount of unhappiness between him and head coach Mike Nolan. At least they could boast the defensive rookie of the year, linebacker Patrick Willis. That very fact, though, demonstrates just how under the cosh their defense was for most of the season.


Last season was spoilt for them by the injury which deprived them of Matt Hasselbeck for a good part of it. This year, they have lost Darrell Jackson and Jerramy Stevens, so an awful lot depends upon Shaun Alexander recovering his 2005 form. The defense is built on speed, not power, so expect them to take a pounding there, too. A shadow of their former selves.

A fractional improvement on the season before. The offensive line struggled, which meant that Alexander struggled, whilst injuries meant that, at times, they were having to play backup QB Seneca Wallace as a wide receiver. Coach Mike Holmgren caused anxiety towards the end of the season by dithering over whether to return for another year, eventually deciding to do so but announcing that it would be his last.


Anyone expecting the Bucs to bring in some youth to replace their aging side will have been very disappointed. Instead, Jeff Garcia will be the second oldest starting QB in the NFL. Moreover, he's their only threat on the ground apart from Cadillac Williams. The defense is in better shape, with Gaines Adams a quality signing, but nothing less than a complete overhaul could've prevented this being a very tough season for the Bucs.

Not as tough as they might have expected, it seems. Getting to the playoffs really was their Superbowl, especially as, like the Patriots, they were outplayed by the Giants when they got there. Garcia had another solid season and Adams was a star throughout. How much better they might have done had Williams been fit for all but the early part of the season is anyone’s guess, but they never stopped trying and did a great job of turning around their disastrous 2006 season


If he could play QB, RB and WR all at the same time, then Vince Young would. Moreover, if he could, the Titans would let him, because the options are LenDale White, Chris Henry and David Givens, which doesn't add up to an awful lot in my playbook. They've no Pacman Jones on defense, either, but they do have the hugely underrated Nick Harper, for which they may come to be incredibly thankful indeed.

The Titans somehow managed to cough and splutter their way into the close season. You got the sense that they never really quite got moving, yet they kept grinding out wins when it mattered and White was more productive than anyone expected him to be. A surprise win over a weakened Indianapolis in Week 16 sent them into the playoffs, but no-one was very surprised when they were well beaten by the Chargers the following weekend.


Don't expect too much passing from the Redskins. Mark Brunell had real trouble finding his receivers last season and things aren't going to change much this year. But given that they will have to go to a running game, losing Derrick Dockery seems at best careless, at worst tantamount to allowing Clinton Portis to be assaulted several times a week. Luckily, they now have Ladell Betts as a quality backup. They'll need to put plenty of points on the board, though, because their defensive line is old, injury-prone and likely to ship points like an old bucket ships water.

The tragedy of Sean Taylor’s fatal shooting overshadowed everything and this was a season for triumphing over adversity for the Redskins. Not only did they lose their defensive leader, Taylor, but starting QB Jason Campbell (Brunell was replaced at the start of the season) and head coach Joe Gibbs announced that he would stand down at the end of the season. Even getting to the playoffs was an achievement and the fact that they did so with all of this behind them and under the leadership of Todd Collins, a quarterback who hadn’t thrown a pass in anger for eight years, the stuff of fairytales. It all came to a thudding halt at Seattle in the first week of the playoffs, but this was definitely the feelgood story of the season.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Two Wheels Good – by Mimi

Four wheels bad. Or so some might think in an Orwellian way. But for me - someone who loves both - this time of year is fiendishly exciting.

MotoGP is just getting underway – the boys have been testing all winter and soon, soon we will see them in anger. The SuperBike Boys are already racing. Aussie Troy Bayliss has laid down some fairly serious markers but SuperBikes are kind of the Championship of bike racing. MotoGP is the Premier League and they haven’t quite started yet.

This year the boy Casey is definitely going to be the one to beat – he astounded us all last season. Going from Crash Casey to Smooth Casey was kind of quite hard to understand. It was like watching a moody teenager in a stormy family (Honda) grow into being a sensible grown-up in a calm home (Ducati).

How weird was that? The calm of Japan being replaced by what we normally think of as fiery Italy? But here’s a thing. Casey was a raw talent who couldn’t be brought into an old family. He found his niche with the small, almost privateer team that is Ducati. Somehow the characters meshed beautifully and the young gun took the fight to favourite Valentino Rossi and to the shock of the world, youth beat experience.

Casey played the season to perfection and even for an old Rossi fan like me, I loved his brio, his joie de vivre and his excellence. In the off season there has been a lot of talk about Rossi’s eye being off the ball because of his problems with the Italian tax authorities and stuff, but to Valle’s credit, he has said that last season he was beaten by the best.

Now as we get near to starting the season, Valle has sorted a deal with the authorities, he has a new tyre deal for his bike and we are soon to see who is fastest on the track.

So that will all happen soon. The next to happen soon will be the commencement of Formula 1.

Despite all the politics and rubbish that is involved in this sport, I am awaiting the start of the season with huge excited anticipation. March 16th is when it gets underway in anger in Melbourne. This year I have a special reason for setting my alarm clock and watching it live.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Melbourne and drove part of the Albert Park circuit as they were beginning to close off the roads and put up the circuit barriers. It was a great experience, even in a rather placid road car, to zoom past the pits and gun the engine up the straight. I will wake early – boil the kettle for a cup of tea and re-live my little minutes charging round that beautiful lakeside track.

Then next I will have to compare my pathetic road cycling between Hopeman and Elgin with the stages of the first season races for my real heroes: the boys in lycra. This is our last chance, as I see it, to prove that road/pro cycling is a proper clean and decent sport.

For us saddos, we have followed the demise of the Astana team this winter, we have seen more individuals have results from last year stripped from them due to either positive drug tests, or suspicions. We have seen T-Mobile withdraw their sponsorship.

At one point, this winter, it seemed that cycling would not recover. But then Jonathan Vaughters got it all going with Slipstream-Chipotle and even an old cynic like me got excited. He got David Millar (former drug-cheat and I hope that’s the last time I ever have to type that) to buy into his clean team. A team that said – we don’t want to win races, we want to take part and play nice.

JV has a long history with cycling and never ever a whisper of anything nasty so this is a team we can believe in. Not having ambitions to win is maybe not so much to believe in as there is so much talent stuffed into this new team. They’ve got Magnus Backstedt (maybe a Swede but he lives in Wales and actually has a Welsh accent!), Tom Danielson (so much promise), Julian Dean (NZ has never had a finer rider) and two fine Americans Christian Vandevelde and the explosive Dave Zabriskie.

They have made one mistake, this new and exciting team – who have already been invited to the Giro and will without doubt get an invite to Le Tour – they launched at the end of last year with a lovely Argyle strip. A complete first for any team but as we come close to the first big races, it seems they have reduced the Argyle to only the socks. Cowards!!

As a new team they will have to go head to head with some established guys who have also set themselves up as new and squeaky clean. The biggest of those is CSC. CSC is a pretty major player worldwide in computer stuff but there is some major damage from last year so well done the sponsors for hanging on. Bjarne Riis had to fess up to doping which could have been catastrophic but an in-house, UCI accepted doping programme has sort of cancelled that out. This year the spotlights are going to be on old Aussie Stuey O’Grady who had a really bad injury last year but if recovered could be stonking and the Schleck brothers. Strange how Luxembourg can deliver these international class sportsmen. It is of course, only about half the size of the Isle of Wight!

I could be ever so dull and give you a run down of all the teams in this year’s competition but I feel your pain already. Keep an eye on High Road – that’s where our young hero from last year Mark Cavendish is, and where Olympic certainty Bradley Wiggins is doing his training. Also watch Caisse d’Epargne – Alejandro Valverde is one of the most unknown of the “next great things”. In the last few years he has managed to injure himself at the most awkward of times so we still don’t know quite how far he can take his undoubted and very clean talent.

Four wheels to finish. Because despite the inexorable move in Formula 1 from talent to technology, I have hopes for this new season.

Yes, Ferrari will lead the pack and yes, McLaren will head up the followers and no, I don’t want Ferrari to win everything again. But this year they are so out in front that the interest will be in the chasing pack and there is interest.

My boys, Frank and Patrick at Team Willy, have hit the ground running and with Nico Rosberg they have a young driver who could pick up points, podiums and maybe wins. Toyota will be rubbish again, as will Honda (poor old Jenson – better luck next year), but Red Bull Racing may provide a surprise or two.

Force India will be the team to watch. Not for wins or podiums, maybe not even points, but they’ll punch above their weight and with Mike Gascoyne there, I doubt they’ll be short of a comment or two.

For the first time in years, it is really exciting this lead up into the motor-racing season. I can’t wait and I WILL get up at stupid o'clock for Melbourne. And I will, in an emotional way, remember about driving part of Albert Park. Maybe, if a dream or two comes true, I will get to cycle part of Le Tour as well this year.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Groundhog Day - Chanelle

3rd March 2008
So here we are and spring has sort of sprung though it is supposed to snow later this week. But there is a feeling of like progress about most things at this time of year yeah and New Year resolutions are way in the past and life goes on.

Except. This year so far it has seemed that India and Australia have got like totally stuck like always playing cricket against each other.

It started back in December 2007 right with the Test Match series which is called the Border Gavaskar Trophy. So they played four of those and then they played a Twenty20 game and then began the Commonwealth Bank Series which is being played between Australia, India and Sri Lanka and in that Series they all play against each other over and over again yeah and it hasn’t finished yet. So for more than two months right there has been always a cricket match on or about to be on or just finished between the Indians and the Australians.

Now this wouldn’t matter so much right except that they like totally hate each other right well their supporters do anyway. Trouble kicked off at the Test in Sydney and there were accusations of abuse etc etc as I have mentioned before yeah. And even though Australia have won most of the many many encounters since yeah there has been no lightening up - sigh - and you still cannot set your like virtual foot on a cricket blog without being surrounded by Aussies and Indians like hurling insults at each other yeah about aborigines and the caste system and all kinds of stuff which is so so stupid because if you go back like 150 years right everybody was downtreading somebody and there was still like slavery and that was then this is now.

And I said to Karl, I was like, I really hate this, yeah, what has happened to my cricket blogs which were full of nice old people worrying about whether or not Monty Panesar is truly developing a fine cricket brain and how vulnerable is Ali Cook if they keep bowling outside his off stump and suchlike things. I was like, it’s like being back at school with all this overheated testosterone yeah but Karl was, like, on the footie blogs this is completely normal right so I give up right.

Anyway, there are now three final matches in the Commonwealth Bank Series and Sri Lanka right who are really good players, yeah, but have been kind of like a greyhound between two rottweilers lol have gone home, yeah probably heaving sighs of relief and so the three final matches are between guess who. And like only in cricket would you have three finals, yeah, I thought final meant last not last but two duh. [ed's note still better than the US with seven finals for baseball]

As I write this India have won the first of the finals yeah in a convincing fashion as the saying goes. The great Sachin Tendulkar right who is known as The Little Master which would totally piss me off if I was him has scored a fine century, yeah, after not we must admit doing anything like spectacular in the earlier rounds so just in time eh Sachin :). Harbhajan Singh has been rude again *sigh* but perhaps everybody is getting used to it now, yeah, or at least have run out of energy to make a fuss or is that too much to hope for - anyway Hayden said something snotty about him on the radio yawn yawn yawn yawn you see the problem. And Australia managed to be defeated without actually grinding their teeth to fine powder, right, but it was a close thing lol and India are certainly in with a chance of winning the CB series if it ever ends.

Because in fact this Commonwealth Bank is making me remember when I first was introduced to cricket yeah and thought it was a form of slow torture and although in theory, right, it will soon be over and it seems they will not be doing it again, yeah, I have a strange strange feeling that part of the cricket world has stepped over into another dimension, yeah, and somewhere the Indians and Australians will always be playing cricket against each other and there will be nothing anyone in our like version of the universe can do.

Perhaps, yeah, they are like those ancient Greeks who died and had to spend the like afterlife pushing big rocks up hills and stuff yeah or maybe the not quite legendary Ricky Ponting yeah has struck a bargain with the Devil right so that he can play India for like all eternity until his legendary status is established.

Maybe when they get on their planes yeah and think they are going home the planes will like go through some hole in space and time and they will step off the planes and find they are mysteriously back where they started, right, and have to play all the matches again, yeah, would they be allowed to have different results I wonder.

I am quite worried about this like feeling of trappedness and like endless repetition not to say paranormal doom yeah but Karl says if I supported one of the top four in the Premier League I would be quite used to feeling like this so there we are.

Update 4th March 2008
Well so India have just won the second final, yeah, which means they have won the Commonwealth Bank Series - hooray and hurrah - and the Aussies are smiling while grinding their teeth again yeah and will probably say oh it’s just the CB it doesn’t matter, right, which is what they said when we beat them in the last one lol.

And now we shall find out, yeah, because they won’t play the third final right on account of there is like a result, yeah, so the teams should be like dispersing now and going home right but...will they get there yeah? Will there ever be like an end? Will those planes land in our dimension or in like somewhere else, right, where they have to start all over again with the Border Gavaskar Tests? Am I right and they are doomed forever throughout like unending time?

Alisha is like, Chanelle you have completely lost the plot and this is what getting into cricket does for you.

Monday, March 3, 2008

One night (or three) in Paris – the Velvet Bear

At the risk of upsetting the Welsh and Irish, there really is no other place to start rounding the last round of the 6 Nations action than with England’s win in Paris. Which of course runs the risk of upsetting the French. I am sure that Brian Moore would approve, and at least the Scots and the Italians will be pleased that I’m not drawing too much attention to how abysmal they were.

England’s 24-13 win may, finally, have put paid to French coach Marc Lieveremont’s attempt to win the tournament without picking most of the side which reached the World Cup semi final only four months ago. In fact, it is probably true to say that the different approaches of the two men in charge played as much a part in England’s victory as anything which happened on the pitch.

Prior to the game, both sides were forced into changes at scrum half. France were unlucky to lose the exciting Jean-Baptiste Elissalde to injury, whilst England’s last two performances indicated that they simply could not continue with Andy Gomersall, who was showing less form than an amoeba.

Lievremont picked 19-year-old Morgan Parra for his first international start, while Brian Ashton went for the Sale Sharks’ Richard Wigglesworth, who was also starting his first international. The significant difference in the two was that Wigglesworth weighs 13½ stones, whilst Parra looks as if he barely manages 13½ pounds sopping wet.

The consequence was that Wigglesworth was able to snipe around the fringes like a latter-day Dewi Morris and keep the English attack moving, whilst Parra spent the afternoon being pancaked by the English back row.

Lievremont’s lack of tactical nous was shown up during the game, with a series of uninspired substitutions. This was no better emphasised than during a five minute period of madness in the second half, when both hookers lost what little common sense they had.

First of all, a French penalty on England’s five metre line was reversed when Dimitri Szarzewski decided to tackle Mark Regan so long after the whistle had blown it was almost Easter before he arrived. Regan, idiotically, then decided to weigh in with a few punches of his own at the next ruck, resulting in a penalty against him. Ashton immediately withdrew Regan from the game, Szarzewski was still there and still giving away penalties when the final whistle blew.

Having said all this, England still won in spite of themselves. A more alert coach then Lievremont would have exploited England’s weakness at full back and on the wing, where Lesley Vainikolo looks to be lacking an awful lot of pace for this level.

England will go to Murrayfield in a fortnight with a justified air of confidence. Scotland will be dreading it, after finding themselves comprehensively outplayed by the Irish on Saturday.

In truth, the current Scottish side would struggle against most second division nations like the USA or Canada and they were cruelly exposed against an Irish side who finally started playing like a team and who ran in five tries with very little difficulty, including two for winger Tommy Bowe, who has been in fine form all season and really should’ve started the last two games as well.

Ireland’s next game is against Wales, who barely broke sweat in thrashing Italy 47-8. Italy were abject and a mere shadow of the side who had performed so well against England and Ireland. The Welsh again took time to get going (the score was only 13-8 at half time), but will be pleased that all of their five tries came from their back division, whilst their pack performed well against a stronger and heavier Italian side.

It will be an interesting match, because neither side starts well but both have finished very strongly in all of their matches to date. The game could turn on whoever piles up the most points in the first half.

Italy meet France next and are likely to do so without flanker Mauro Bergamasco, who has picked up a thirteen week ban for eye-gouging. Although this is less clear on the film I have seen, the punishment should really be anything from a six month to a two year ban and only Bergamasco’s previously good character can have saved him from a lengthier suspension.

Which will be a shame for the Italians, as they have a chance against the French. Their pack is better and France are one side where their lack of a kicking fly half will not matter, because you don’t want to kick the ball to Clerc, Rougerie and Heymanns anyway. On the plus side, lock Carlo Del Fava has escaped a ban for a shocking knee to the head of Welsh fly-half Stephen Jones, whilst Lieveremont has dropped eight of the side who lost to England, including Heymanns, Parra and, inexplicably, Thierry Dusautoir, who was their best forward in that game.

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