Category Archives: Sport

History of Rugby World Cup: 1999

Australia became the first country to land two Rugby World Cups as the millennium ended. Of all the Rugby World Cups, 1999 may be the least memorable overall, but it perhaps contained the most memorable match.

A peculiar format resulted in a set of playoffs before the quarter finals, after which all of the Home Unions had been eliminated (England was drop-kicked out 44-21 by defending champion South Africa, for whom Jannie de Beer hit five field goals among 34 individual points).

As they had earlier in the year in the Cricket World Cup, Australia and South Africa played out a semi-final tie which resulted in Australian progression, this time after extra time. The other semi-final provided the most bizarre quarter hour in the history of the tournament. Jonah Lomu had New Zealand strolling to another comfortable semi-final win against France, when suddenly it all just went horribly wrong. Flowing, passing, running rugby saw the All Blacks shell shocked by four unanswered converted tries in direct succession.

Everyone was left stunned, even the French, who crumbled in the final 35-12 to the rampant Australians.

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1995

One vehicle driver got a surprise on the evening of the World Cup Final in 1995, when he found the captain of the winning team thumbing a lift – it was truly a World Cup which resounded, and even spawned a film.

Francois Pienaar could not quite believe the interest new South African President Nelson Mandela showed in the team before its first ever World Cup match, against none other than defending champion Australia. The Springboks dominated, and cruised through the pool phase with only one minor issue – James Dalton’s red card against Canada. This was to become curiously relevant.

The quarters were notable for a repeat of the previous Final, between England and Australia. Australia never led from early on but kept pegging England back, getting it to 22-22 heading into the final minute. Step forward that man Rob Andrew again, with a monster drop from the left side to put England through.

He would end up, maybe, wishing he hadn’t. In the semi-final, the English defence faced humiliation from the moment New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu literally ran over Mike Catt. Two tries already conceded, England still hadn’t registered when All Black forward Zinzan Brooke calmly unleashed a forty-yard dropped goal.

With one semi a metaphorical wash-out, the other was nearly a literal wash-out – and suddenly that earlier red card mattered. If the game were deemed drawn, for any reason, disciplinary record would decide it and South Africa would be out of its own World Cup. The game was played forty minutes late in a swimming pool, with France finally having to surrender while only four points down and camped on the Springbok line.

The final was not thrilling but was tense. At 9-9 going into extra-time, with Lomu stopped by courageous Springbok tap tackling, South Africa’s disciplinary record looked once again as if it may prove costly. At 12-12 at half-time in extra-time, this was even more so. Joel Stransky was left to step up, and ensure the happy ending, the celebrations – and the hitch hike of champions.

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1991

The first Northern Hemisphere World Cup merely confirmed Southern dominance as the era of amateurism and the four-point try approached its end. Yet it was not New Zealand but Australia, with stars Michael Lynagh and David Campese, who returned home with the gold.

The opening game hinted at ongoing Australasian dominance as New Zealand edged Grand Slam winner England 18-12 in London. Wales was humiliated, crashing to Western Samoa and exiting right at the start. Scotland, the previous year’s grand slam champions, was left to eliminate the South Sea islanders in the quarter final.

With New Zealand cruising past Canada, we seemed all set for one Northern semi and one Southern. Enter Gordon Hamilton, striding into the left-hand corner to put Ireland, incredibly, 18-15 up against the mighty Wallabies with just a few minutes remaining. Enter then Michael Lynagh, cool and calm under pressure, unwilling even to think of the drop to force extra-time, to lead his team through with a last-gasp try of its own.

Meanwhile in Paris England also rolled over the line for a late try to eliminate France 19-10. The scene was set for a repeat, eighteen months on, from the epic Grand Slam decider during the Poll Tax protests. In a game of much courage but little creativity, Scotland led 6-0, was pegged back to 6-6, and then ever reliable stalwart Gavin Hastings was left to slot a penalty midway through the second half from no distance, level with the right-hand post. Only the kick never came inside the post, England escaped to the other end, and Rob Andrew curled over the winning drop for vengeance and a place in the final.

The final was no better, with Australia always leading though somewhat fortuitous at times. A single, early converted try was the difference and the gold shirts lifted the gold trophy 12-6. Much would change before it was competed for again, not least the entry of a traditional rugby playing nation hitherto barred…

History of the Rugby World Cup: 1987

This is the first in a weekly series of my own memories of the Rugby World Cup, starting next month and ending at Halloween. Rugby is not my sport, by any means, but it is a great tournament (even though I think it goes on too long), and one which has already provided many great moments.

What a different game it was too. It was entirely amateur, with just four points for a try. Dropped goals were allowed direct from free-kicks (the first points in the Final came that way) and scrummages; place kicks (which included most kick-offs) were taken without tees. At half-time players remained on the field, there were no substitutions or cards, and (very much unlike football) players on the field barely celebrated scores at all. 

TV coverage was also more limited, with no ref mics or such like to indicate why penalties had been awarded or how the game was being managed. 

Things have certainly changed!

We may not have known from the first tournament, a straightforward win for New Zealand, the game’s dominant force, just what a fine competition this would become.

In 1987 there were only seven test-playing nations at cricket, and with South Africa similarly excluded, there were only seven senior rugby nations too – the “Five Nations” plus the two Bledisloe Cup rivals, Australia and New Zealand, who hosted the first tournament. Fiji was the extra country to reach the last eight – this was before the rise of Argentina and Italy.

As it was, New Zealand and Australia eliminated Scotland and Ireland respectively and Fiji fell to France. The only all-Northern match in the knock-out phase saw Wales comfortably defeat England.

For Europeans, in an era before multi-channel broadcasting and the tradition of staying up late for games, the tournament was really noted for a remarkable semi-final match between Australia and France. With New Zealand awaiting in the Final, a Wallaby victory was assumed and sure enough, the home side led for the most of the match. However, France ran in four tries to win 30-24 – an important win not just for France, but for Northern Hemisphere rugby.

The Final was a step too far, with the All Blacks dismissing France 29-9. But those two teams would have many a close-run thing in future…

A “Northern Ireland” team for everything?

Here is an interesting petition advocating a Northern Ireland team for all sports played internationally.

It seems a simple and sensible enough case, and to be clear it is one with which I am instinctively very comfortable. In most sports, countries have their own team; and sharing in the trials and tribulations of a shared Northern Ireland team would help build a Northern Irish identity (and a potentially shared and inclusive one at that).

However, a bit like the case for a Northern Ireland flag, I do not think it is as simple as that.

The census tells us that “Northern Irish(ness)” is a concept with which those of a broadly Nationalist background are increasingly comfortable. However, this may well be for quite different reasons from the “Northern Irishness” as expressed by those of a more Unionist persuasion. This distinction remains relevant; for it may be that it is precisely the ability to lead an “all-Ireland” life culturally (including in most sports) while not having to bother with the complexities of merging distinct economies and losing the NHS which makes those of a Nationalist background more content than ever with the designation “Northern Irish”. Ironically, therefore, it may be that by cutting off an all-Ireland aspect of their lives previously taken for granted (in sports such as rugby, hockey or cricket) that in fact the burgeoning and shared “Northern Irish” identity would be restricted and damaged.

(That is to leave quite aside the fact that people in Northern Ireland are not compelled to support a “Northern Ireland” team just because one exists. It can, in fact, be just as divisive as anything else.)

There are practical issues with having no Northern Ireland team in some sports, that is for sure. World rankings, for example, assume that the “Great Britain” Olympic hockey team is made up of players from England, Scotland and Wales (which each otherwise has its own team), leaving Northern Irish players coming up through an all-Ireland set-up to jump through hoops if they wish to play for it (as many do; they are British and there is a serious medal chance as part of the British team, but none realistically as part of an Irish one); a specific Northern Ireland team would be practically useful there (with players at Olympic level then free to opt for “Great Britain and NI” or “Ireland”).

On the other hand, there are practical reasons in some sports that you would never even consider a separate Northern Ireland team. In cricket, for example, there is already a combined West Indies team and actually a combined England and Wales team; so why, particularly as it challenges for test status over the next few years, would anyone contemplate breaking up a perfectly adequate combined all-Ireland team?

Even beyond practicalities, some sports already serve the range of identities relatively well. People of “Northern Irish” identity will have little difficulty in rugby union supporting Ulster (in the Pro12), Ireland (in the Six Nations) and the British Isles (on tour). Even golfers can on occasions represent Northern Ireland (in individual tournaments), on other occasions Ireland (in the World Cup), on other occasions Great Britain and Ireland (in the Walker/Curtis Cup or Seve Trophy), and on others Europe (in the Ryder/Solheim Cup).

There is also a reality that sports where there is a Northern Ireland team – notably football, snooker and the Commonwealth Games – still need to do more in terms of symbols and anthems to make those teams genuinely inclusive. (That is not to deny great strides have been made; nor is that problem confined the Northern Ireland teams – all-Ireland teams have a similar problem.)

To be clear, I would personally like to see a Northern Ireland team in more sports. But then, I would also like to see an agreed flag. However, there are reasons of history, politics and even theology that we have divided identities in this place, and that many would genuinely disagree with me on that point. This cannot be overcome merely by a mixture of enforced change and wishful thinking.

England U21s show spoiled players doomed to failure

I watched England U21s’ second half performances against both Portugal and Italy at the ongoing European Championship, and did so with absolute bemusement. Technically marginally more limited, they were tactically much inferior, and were thus eliminated quickly from the tournament by two countries with a sixth of the population.

This gives the lie to the old argument that the Premier League is blocking “English talent” because teams sign too many “foreigners”. On the contrary, the problem (as I have long argued here) is that the “English talent” does not exist in the first place. If it did, those players would be signed.

That does not mean that the Premier League does not cause a problem. The problem is that it offers too many opportunities to local players, not too few – and specifically that those opportunities come loaded with gold before a player has even really proved himself.

Young Raheem Sterling – who qualified for the U21s but opted for the seniors – is a very good case in point. On the back of one decent season with Liverpool, an Englishman of student age who has actually won precisely nothing in the game can now command £100,000 per week. This is utterly obscene, of course – and it inevitably means that he and his ilk will lack hunger. After all, if you can command that much without a single trophy to your name, why bother to get really good? And, of course, if your decision about where you will play is based solely on who pays the most (rather than about which club will care most about your ongoing development both as a professional sportsman and a young man), then you may miss the best option even if you are hungry.

Compare this with, say, Alexis Sanchez. From a poor mining village in Chile, Alexis signed on early with Udinese in Italy knowing that this would give him the opportunity of two loan spells back in the Southern Cone – one in Chile and one in Argentina – during which he could learn the game, not least the tactical and team aspects of it. Upon graduating to Udinese itself, he soon picked up all kinds of individual awards and off he went to Barcelona to win lots of trophies. Not content, however, with a bit-part role, he no doubt took a pay cut to come to Arsenal in a country where he did not speak the language and accept the challenge of leading a second-tier club (by global standards – I admit that as an Arsenal supporter and member!) to success. Even at the start of 2014/15, when Arsenal was playing poorly, Alexis’ determination and hunger were evident – it is highly doubtful you will see the same from any of the current England U21 crop at age 26.

English footballers, arguably like English children, are now spoiled – literally. Offered all the rewards on the basis of raw talent before they have really done anything to earn them, they miss core aspects of the game (such as how to work as a team and how to change things tactically even on the pitch). Sadly, this means embarrassment at the hands of countries like Portugal – smaller, poorer, but hungrier and better – will continue to be the norm.

English have to grasp team sports are not about individuals

It is incredible. At the weekend, England, a relatively wealthy country of 53 million people, was comfortably beaten at cricket by Sri Lanka (a much poorer country of just 20 million) and at rugby by Ireland (a comparably wealthy one of just over 6 million). This came after further humblings at the Cricket World Cup by New Zealand (4 million) and Australia (23 million), all following in from elimination from football’s World Cup at the hands of Uruguay (3 million) and Costa Rica (6 million). Even the hockey team has mustered only one major success since 1988. Seriously?!

I cannot help but think the media’s reaction was informative. Bring back “KP” (Kevin Pietersen) into Eoin Morgan’s side and all will be well, apparently. Did anyone writing that stop to consider, just consider, that the very fact they were even debating whether or not a South African should play for an Irishman’s team is the basic problem?!

The point is twofold. First, England has a peculiar inability – at any team sport – to bring through talent to elite level. Second, the English seem to believe you succeed at team sports merely by changing around individuals.

The problem is that the culture of believing that teams are effectively just groups of individuals, and that scant thought should be given as to how those individuals best work together, is becoming ever more pervasive. The English media are also quick to pin team failures on one individual, but slow to recognise when that was obviously nonsense – how is the successful campaign to remove Alistair Cook as England’s one-day captain working out?

It is hard to get away from the fact this all derives from our general culture of thinking that there are easy solutions to complex things – we believe we can solve the entire financial crisis just by changing a few politicians in much the same way we believe the English cricket team would be world beaters with one change of personnel. The idea that this is a much broader problem, consisting not just of spending or personnel but also of efficiency and team-building, seems beyond our grasp.

Yet the New Zealanders, Australians and Sri Lankans (even, dare I say, the Irish) seem instantly aware that sporting success – even social success – come from working as an efficient and cohesive unit, not just tampering with the edges of the line-up on a near trial and error basis.

Those who drive public debate in England – managers, administrators, commentators and so on – now have a responsibility to recognise there is something fundamentally wrong when a country of such vast population and resources fails so comprehensively at team sports time after time. Public debate has to shift away from individual performances here and there, and on to the business of building teams as efficient units which operate cohesively. Otherwise, this same story will be repeated for generations.

Chelsea’s fundamental problem with racism and xenophobia

It was 1 September, 1997 – the early days of multi-channel television and the (dial-up) Internet. I was sorry to hear Lady Diana had died during the wee hours, but never one for celebrity it was not something I dwelled on. I switched to German satellite TV, only to find that it too had handed over all its channels to coverage of the incident.

So I went to the Arsenal FC web site “chat room” to talk about something else, but in vain – I was by a stream of highly sympathetic messages about what had occurred. People from Beijing, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen and elsewhere were queuing to pay their respects. Many paid specific respects to England/UK given that she was from the same country as Arsenal, but generally it was accepted that the world had lost someone special. It was all done in a spirit of generosity, and was in its way quite touching.

The only other club which had anything similar in those early days was Chelsea FC, so I headed over there really out of interest to see if something similar had occurred. Oh dear.

A Swedish supporter paying respects was told in response: “Get lost, she was British. Ours. Nothing to do with you”.

One message from Waterford was met with the retort: “Get lost. Your lot killed Mountbatten”.

Except, er, they didn’t write “Get lost”.

This was but one example of many – from a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s letter this week to a FourFourTwo article a decade ago – which indicated there is something different about a very significant number of Chelsea FC supporters. This does not apply to all of them, of course; but the level of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semiticism – or general “fear of other” – experienced when coming into contact with Chelsea supporters is vastly disproportionate.

We know this in Northern Ireland, with our own battles trying to overcome the innate “fear of other”. Indeed, it was sadly predictable that one of the three supporters identified in connection with last week’s incident was from Northern Ireland. What we know beyond all dispute is it is not good enough to think you can overcome it by applying a penalty to a few who happen to get caught or happen to display this fear at a particular extreme; nor is it remotely reasonable to dismiss it as a “few bad eggs”.

No one doubts the sincerity with which its manager and lead executives have approached last week’s incident, but the truth is Chelsea FC has a particular problem. It needs to start by admitting it.

2015 Preview – Sport

I appear on UTV to review the year this evening, but of course previews are much more fun because we can look back and laugh at them later! Over the next three days I intend to look at sport, politics and the economy for 2015.

2014 was a great year for Northern Irish sport. The football team is in a strong position to qualify for Euro 2016; Rory won a couple of majors; there was boxing glory at amateur and professional level topped by Carl Frampton, as he took a Titanic fight to win the World Championship; and there was Kelly Gallagher’s magical gold medal. I expect more of the same in 2015; Rory and indeed GMac will be there or thereabouts at most majors; I think Northern Ireland will qualify for Euro 2016 (indeed there’s a possibility of a British Isles grand slam); and there will no doubt be other breakthroughs.

More generally, it is an odd-numbered year thus global events are less numerous. I expect the All Blacks to win a first Rugby World Cup away from home; Real Madrid to become the first team to retain the Champions’ League; and Chelsea to fend off Manchester City to win the Premier League reasonably comfortably. Closer to home, unfortunately Ulster will continue to struggle; Linfield will likely win the Premiership; and Armagh will probably prove the best hope of bringing the Sam back across the border.

What say you, dear readers?!

Premier League, Government Finance and the Motivation to Innovate

This excellent article over on ESPN offers an explanation of the decline in performance of Premier League teams and a comparison to the downfall of Serie A 15 years ago.

Put simply, the story goes like this. Italy’s senior football league, ‘Serie A’, emerged as the strongest in Europe in the late 1980s and remained so through to the late 1990s. Because it was the strongest league, it attracted the strongest players, and was thus home to the richest owners, and also the richest TV deals, and so became without question the richest league. How on earth, therefore, could this ongoing spiral of signing ever better players with ever more money be brought to an end? When the clubs forgot to innovate, and other clubs in other countries did. Spurred on by better nutrition and better tactics, England’s ‘Premier League’ overhauled ‘Serie A’ as the richest and best league by the mid-2000s. The cycle has repeated itself, and the Premier League is now on the downward curve familiar to most Italian football fans.

Spain’s ‘La Liga’, with slightly less money, has already taken over from the Premier League as the leading league in terms of continental performance; Germany’s ‘Bundesliga’ will almost certainly also do so and move into second place this season, despite vastly fewer resources at its clubs’ disposal. How can this happen? Again, it is to do with innovation, and specifically the motivation to innovate.

When Italy’s clubs were the richest in Europe and attracted the world’s best players, they saw no further need to innovate. Nutritionally and tactically they fell behind teams from comparably sized countries. Initially, they were able to stay ahead through pure spending, but soon that did not work either. The key point is this: not only did teams from England, Spain and Germany have reason to innovate, teams from Italy didn’t – they (the players, the agents, the owners etc) were guaranteed big bucks anyway. Guaranteed, that is, in the short term – but in the longer term, hamstrung by spending too much money on ageing players or ‘big names’ long past their sell-by date, Italy’s clubs began to collapse in on themselves amid scandal and corruption, and soon fell behind the other three big leagues. Now we find the precise same thing with the Premier League, whose clubs spent more than any other league’s this summer (excluding the madly exceptional ‘Clasico’ clubs in Spain), yet have mustered only five wins out of 16 in Europe’s senior competition. They are spending, but they have lost the motivation to innovate which is leaving them clearly behind their Continental rivals.

So it is with Government. In a recent interview with the Welsh Health Minister, a BBC correspondent spent the entire duration of the discussion talking solely in terms of the amount of money being spent on the Welsh NHS. There was absolutely no discussion about how that money was being spent, or if it could be spent better (or worse, for that matter). The way we talk about politics and government finance, it is as if ‘more spending’ automatically means ‘better service’. In fact, it can mean the precise opposite – if the ‘big spending’ removes the motivation to innovate.

Northern Ireland, unfortunately, is a classic example. Faced with rises in Health spending which are below the requirement to keep up in percentage terms with increasing demand, the Service’s first act was to close an Multiple Sclerosis respite unit. This was a callous and outrageous act, from a Service which has, per capita, 42% more administrators than is the case in England. The first act should have been to cut the administrators, not the vital services.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s public service has, by and large, lost the motivation to innovate, guaranteed (as it has been since 1998) ever increasing resources simply to keep doing the same thing. As a result, with some exceptions (e.g. in primary education), management techniques, government structures, bureaucratic systems and everything else are now decades out of date. Other countries are able to achieve the same or more with far fewer resources, because they have improved management, streamlined structures and reformed systems.

That we have a bloated political culture with no motivation to innovate either doesn’t help, of course. The latest farce was the failure to agree to put through the Housing & Regeneration Bill in time to transfer functions to local Councils when the new Councils come into being – a political mess which came about despite civil servants working hard to ensure the timescale was met. We also have the nonsense of moving a Department to Ballykelly for no particular reason; the failure to deliver a proper Education & Skills Authority; the outrageous waste of millions on a road (the A5) which was never, ever going to be built; as well as the planning nonsense at the Maze and Sprucefield. A proper, evidence-based set of priorities both at political and governance level with learning and information shared properly across all departments – which would have required innovative methods of collecting, assessing and distributing that evidence – would have seen none of these shambles taking place.

We are not alone. France and Italy offer two further examples of the classic ‘bloated bureaucracy’ unwilling to contemplate change because, for too long, money has been guaranteed regardless of the fact is has removed the vital motivation to innovate.

Public spending in Northern Ireland will now be reduced, fairly sharply. Again, a truly innovative public sector would already have prepared for this (and would already have innovated in anticipation of having to do more with less). In the short term, there will be outright cuts in services (which, note well, there absolutely wouldn’t need to be if there had been proper preparation for them) and these will have ghastly knock-on effects – not just on service users but on small businesses and even individual households.

We can only hope that, in the long term, cutbacks and reductions in the public sector will see some motivation to innovate appear within government, just as it did in those leagues with had to catch up with the Italians despite far more limited resources. Football fans, like the electorate, always just demand ‘more spending’ – and, like the electorate, they’re ignoring the fact that ‘more spending’ is no substitute for proper innovation and simply doing things better than the opposition within the resources you already have!

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