A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

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Every year the football season ends, and every year the television and radio broadcasters roll out their trailers for the ‘summer of sport’, complete with soundtrack from Dodgy or Mungo Jerry.

You can forgive them for going a little overboard this year though, this year’s slightly different; in case you weren’t aware of it yet (although I’m not sure that’s possible), there’s the small matter of a summer Olympic Games in London to think about.

The games have become such a sporting behemoth that they have, and will, influence just about every other sporting event on the 2012 calendar.

London's Olympic Stadium

London’s Olympic stadium will be at the centre of the sporting world this summer. Photo: Phil Jones

With this in mind I’m going to add to the list of summer previews and give my take on the events in store for us in the next 3 months.

I won’t cover all the events, mainly because there are just too many to talk about, but I will give a brief overview of what I will be keeping an eye on, why it is worth your attention, and giving my prediction of how events might unfold (there’s no real insight involved in my predictions and any money lost from bets placed is not my responsibility).

Where to start then? Well we’re in the middle of the French Open tennis so that’s as good a place as any:

French Open Tennis (May 28 – June 10):

Why? – The potential for numerous pieces of history to be made. Rafael Nadal can set a record of seven titles in the Paris suburbs and join Bjorn Borg on 11 major titles. Novak Djokovic could become the eighth man to win the career grand slam, whilst simultaneously completing the ‘Djoko Slam’ of holding all four major trophies at once, and keeping alive his chances of completing the calendar Golden Slam. Federer could become only the third man to complete a second career grand slam were he to win, and Maria Sharapova could complete her first if the Russian gets her hands on the women’s title.

Who? – Nadal and Sharapova. I’d be stupid to bet against Nadal really. If Djokovic makes the final I’d still back Nadal, but he’d be less of a certainty to win. If he’s up against Federer though, then I can’t see the Swiss getting anywhere near the trophy. On the women’s side it just seems like everything has come together for Sharapova to triumph – the Williams sisters are both out, as is Francesca Schiavone and world number one Victoria Azarenka, Na Li hasn’t been too convincing either. I’d keep an eye out for Sam Stosur though.

UEFA European Championship Finals (June 8 – July 1):

Why? – It’s England in a football tournament, no matter how much we say we don’t expect anything, we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. The Euros tend to provide more entertainment than the World Cup, less meaningless games and the football is generally of a higher quality. Any tournament with an Irish presence is better for it as well.

Who? – I’ll be very boring, play it safe, and say Netherlands v Spain in one semi, Germany v France in the other. That means the final could be a repeat of Euro 2008, but I’ve a sneaky feeling the Germans might just get their revenge and win their first tournament since Euro ’96.

Andy Murray at Queen's 2011

Andy Murray faces a potentially career defining summer in 2012. Photo: Carine06

Queen’s Club, Aegon Championships (11 – 17 June):

Why? – It marks the start of the British sporting summer, it means Wimbledon is just around the corner and there are few finer sights than watching a load of professional athletes slipping around at the back of a slick grass court.

Who? – If Murray’s fit then I’d take him to make it three titles in West London. He humiliated Roddick there last year and the American is worse now than he was then, suggesting that Murray’s only real competition will come from Big Willy himself, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Olympics Athletics trials (22 – 24 June):

Why? – The cream of British athletic talent all fighting for their place at a home Olympics. There’ll be some surprises, athletes who come from relative obscurity to book their place in the Olympic village, and there’ll no doubt be the odd high profile one who misses out too.

Who ? – I’m going to go for James Dasaolu to make headlines for all the right reasons. I interviewed him last summer during another period of rehab from injury, even at that stage his only focus was getting fit for the Olympics in his home city of London. The second fastest Brit over 100m last year, he’s already bagged an A standard qualifying time this season – all he’s got to do now is finish in the top two in the trials for his dream to become a reality. I also reckon a certain Mr. Chambers will fail to qualify for the individual event, his form this season doesn’t look good and I think the emotional roller coaster he’s been on over the past few years may have finally taken its toll.

Wimbledon Championships (June 25 – July 8):

Why? – Because it’s Wimbledon. Centre court has played host to some of the greatest finals of all time in the past five years and as is the way with any major tournament in this era, there are records to be broken. Federer could finally equal Pete Sampras’ record seven titles, or (depending on how events unfold in Paris) Novak Djokovic could march on to the third piece of the Golden Slam, Nadal could potentially win his twelfth major title or (whisper it) Andy Murray could win his first/second major title (OK 2nd is a little ambitious).

It’s not just the men’s draw that entices though, Sharapova will most likely be the favourite on the women’s side but those Williams sisters always save their best for the grass of South West London. Petra Kvitova won’t give up her title without a fight and Victoria Azarenka will be determined to reassert her authority on the women’s game. Throw into that the unpredictability of the women’s game at present and you may as well pick the quarter finalists out of a hat.

Who? – I’m going to stick with my Roland-Garros predictions and go for Sharapova and Nadal. Djokovic just isn’t quite on the high that he was last year, and if he’s not right on the top of his game then I think Nadal has the edge over him – as shown by the two clay court finals they’ve contested thus far this spring. You can never completely write off Roger either but his recent record at Wimbledon (only QF’s in the past two years) is worse than Murray’s, so you’d have to give Murray more chance than the Swiss magician.

On the women’s side, Sharapova has been pretty consistent in 2012, generally only losing to Azarenka, and should she make the final in Paris she’ll be coming to London with the number one ranking, a more consistent serve than she’s had for a couple of years, and potentially the confidence that comes with just having won a major title.

Dwain Chambers doing interview.

Will Dwain Chambers have be forced to run at in Helsinki to confirm a place at the Olympics? Photo: maxzix74

European Athletics Championships (June 26 – July 1):

Why? – Taking place the week after the trials, it’s surely the final opportunity for British athletes to grab the third discretionary place on offer at the Olympics if they didn’t perform at the trials. There may well be a lack of big names as the already qualified athletes will take a week’s rest in preparation for the games, but the competition is sure to be intense with so much at stake for those who do make the trip to Helsinki.

Who? – Who knows? It all depends what happens in Birmingham the previous weekend, who will have guaranteed their place and who will still be desperate to impress the selectors?

Tour de France (30 June – 22 July):

Why? – A sporting highlight every year for me. I can understand why people may find it boring and I can understand why some may be disillusioned with the regularity with which drugs cheats are highlighted in cycling. But I’ve been watching it since I was young, when I didn’t know what EPO was and when channel 4 gave me coverage in bite sized chunks at 6:30pm every evening. I remember Tom Steels blinding past me in 1998 to sprint to another stage victory, and I remember sitting having dinner in Lausanne, watching Marco Pantani ride past on his way to winning a post Tour criterium. Much has changed in the world of professional cycling since those days but much is reassuringly the same, Gary Imlach’s hair and the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are synonymous with the Tour de France, bringing an air of class to proceedings come those three weeks in July.

Who? – Without wishing to sound too myopically patriotic, Britain’s riders genuinely have the potential to make history at this year’s Tour. Bradley Wiggins has what will probably be his best chance ever to grab himself the yellow jersey in Paris, and Mark Cavendish doesn’t look to have much serious competition in defending his green jersey. Doubt comes in the form of Wiggins’ main rivals for yellow, whom we should know more about after this week’s Dauphiné, in which Brad is looking to defend his title from last year. There will also be doubt over Team Sky’s ability to support both Wiggins and Cavendish in their separate goals, the squad as a whole is looking good though and if any squad is capable of winning two jerseys, then I’d suggest Sky are the team to do it. With that in mind I’ll go for Wiggins in yellow, Cavendish in green and Cadel Evans and Pierre Rolland rounding off the podium places.

Test Series v South Africa (July 19 – 20 August):

Why? – The top two ranked test nations in the world going head to head. England desperate to hang on to top spot and Graeme Smith’s South African side desperate to wrestle it away from them. Eight of the world’s top twenty batsmen will be on show (four each), seven of the world’s top twenty bowlers (4-3 to England), the world’s best all-rounder, this series has it all.

Who? – Take your pick really. Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world, Vernon Philander is chasing him for that moniker and James Anderson would like to have a say in the matter too. Andrew Strauss could become England’s most prolific century maker of all time, Kevin Pietersen always likes to put on a show against his former compatriots, Ian Bell loves batting in the English summer and Jacques Kallis is a match winner with bat or ball. Were it any other year this would be the most anticipated sporting contest of the summer.

Olympic Games (July 27 – August 12):

Why? – The biggest sporting occasion in history, in London. Do I really need to add anything more?

Who? – Too many to mention and that’s why I love the Olympics – wherever you look there are stars being born. The obvious star is a certain Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake will push Bolt all the way for the sprint double but I think Bolt will still win both and add the relay title to cement his place in sporting legend.

Elsewhere I think Jess Ennis might just falter, but I reckon Phillips Idowu, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford could all have a golden summer.

In the hockey I think the GB women could go all the way to the final. They beat the world number 1s Argentina twice recently, however the Argentinians were missing their star player in Luciana Aymar, so I’ll hold fire on predicting a definite gold. The GB girls are more than capable of delivering it though. For the men I think the best they can do is fifth, since winning the European Championships in 2009 and a silver in the 2010 Champions trophy, they seem to have been on somewhat of a downwards spiral of results – I’ll go for a German victory over Australia in the final.

Laura Trott riding for GB

Will Laura Trott ride away with omnium gold? Photo: Rob Duin

We won’t be as all-conquering in the velodrome as we were in Beijing. I still think we’ll come away with five golds though; both pursuit teams, the women’s omnium and one each from Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton – not a bad return really!

On the road (providing safe passages through the Tour) I think it’ll be win or bust for Mark Cavendish, IF he makes it over Box Hill 9 times and is still on the front then the gold is his for the taking – if not then someone like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd is more than capable of riding away with gold. In the time trial I think Wiggins can get a medal, probably not gold but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the podium.

For the women I’m not so au fait with the opposition, although in Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead we have two of the best road racers in the world, and Emma Pooley has previous in the time trial as well.

In the triathlon I’d be hugely shocked if there wasn’t a Brownlee on the top step of the rostrum. Don’t ask me to say which one but Jonny’s early season form and Alistair’s pedigree suggest that if they’re both fit they’ll be fighting between themselves for gold and silver. For the women then Helen Jenkins looks to be in top form so far this season, she’s not as far above the rest of the pack as her male teammates but anything less than a podium place would be a big shock.

I could keep going and going but my knowledge starts getting a bit patchy for other sports now, so I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who’ll take home the medals in the greco-roman wrestling.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Will Djokovic have had a record-breaking summer when he gets to New York? Photo: Carine06

US Open Tennis (Aug 27 – Sep 9):

Why? – For every reason I’ve mentioned previously. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are a joy to behold, throw in Murray’s penchant for the hard courts and crowds of New York and we’ve got the recipe for another cracker on our hands. On the women’s side, Serena would dearly love to put last year’s meltdown in the final behind her, Sharapova could well be coming to New York with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal round her neck, and Azarenka could have bounced back on the hard courts she loves to be a favourite again.

Who? – We’re still three months away from the action kicking off at Flushing Meadows with an awful lot of tennis to be played in between so it’s too early to say really. All the usual suspects will be there, but I’d throw the names of Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki into the mix as well.

That’s me done for now, no doubt I’ll go into more detail for specific events as the summer progresses. I’d be interested to see how many of my predictions you agree with though, and if anyone fancies calculating how much I’d win if I put an accumulator on all my predictions then you can have a cut of the proceeds when they all come good!

What have I missed?:

Three golf majors, England vs. Australia ODI series, a summer of Formula 1, a summer of Moto GP, Royal Ascot, Eastbourne tennis, domestic T20, Paralympics, Vuelta a España, World T20.

Enjoy your summer.

Seeing Red

During the recent Rugby World Cup semi-final between Wales and France the Welsh captain and one of the players of the tournament so far, Sam Warburton, was given a red card for a dangerous tackle on French winger Vincent Clerc. Now that some time has passed, Wales have played and lost the 3rd place playoff match, the media circus surrounding the decision and its consequences has died down somewhat.

Webb Ellis Cup

Did Sam Warburton's actions cost his country a shot at the Webb Ellis Cup? Photo: americanistadechiapas

*Disclaimer: I am not, and have never claimed to be, an expert on the intricacies of rugby. I have never really played the game other than during PE lessons at school as I am neither big enough to be a forward, fast enough to be a winger or brave enough to tackle someone running straight at me. I do however enjoy watching the game and have a basic grasp of the laws. I also have no anti-Welsh agenda, like most frustrated England fans I wanted Wales to beat France and win the subsequent final.*

First of all let’s get the series of events that led to Warburton’s dismissal noted as I see them:

1. Sam Warburton tackled Vincent Clerc and lifted the Frenchman off his feet.

2. Warburton proceeded to tip Clerc so that his feet were above his head.

3. The Welsh captain began to move Clerc downwards and then dropped him to the floor.

4. Clerc landed on his shoulders and his head slapped against the turf with his feet still in the air.

The immediate reaction to the tackle angered me and I will now attempt to explain why:

As I have already mentioned I am no expert on the laws of rugby but I am familiar enough with the principal that if you lift someone whilst tackling them it is your responsibility to put them down safely. I have also read enough about dangerous tackles in the aftermath of the spear tackle that prematurely ended Brian O’Driscoll’s Lions tour in 2005, to know that any tackle in which the feet of the tackled player are brought above their head can be interpreted as dangerous. As a result it was immediately evident upon seeing Warburton’s tackle that he could be in trouble with the referee.

In the aftermath of the decision to send him off and in order to clarify the situation, the following passages of the laws of rugby union have been widely circulated:

Law 10.4 “Lifting a player from the ground and dropping or driving that player into the ground whilst that player’s feet are still off the ground such that the player’s head and/or upper body come into contact with the ground is dangerous play.”

“Referees…should not make their decisions based on what they consider was the intention of the offending player. Their decision should be based on an objective assessment (as per Law 10.4) of the circumstances of the tackle.”

A memo sent by Paddy O’Brien of the International Rugby Board (IRB) in 2009 stated, with regards to the type of tackle described in Law 10.4:

“For these types of tackles they [referees] were to start at red card as a sanction and work backwards. Unfortunately these types of tackles are still being made and the purpose of this memorandum is to emphasise that they must be dealt with severely by referees.”

Vincent Clerc playing for Toulouse

Vincent Clerc is the innocent party in all of the discussions. Photo: Gil Calmon

So according to the laws of the game the referee was well within his rights to send Warburton off and that should have been the end of the matter. However for a number of reasons it was not and it inevitably became the major talking point of the game (admittedly by writing this blog I am provoking further debate so I am just as guilty as anyone else for not letting the issue rest).

The first thing that struck me upon watching these events unfold on ITV was the words of the co-commentator, former Welsh captain Michael Owen.

Before seeing a replay of the tackle he said:

“I don’t think there was anything malicious in that there, Sam Warburton just got a great hit on. I think he just slipped up over the top, there’s not much you can do when you make a tackle as sweet as that.”

There may not have been any malicious intent in the tackle, and my opinion is also that there was no intent to harm, but as I have shown above the intent of the tackling player should not be considered – only an objective assessment of the tackle. He also did not “just slip over the top”, this wasn’t a borderline high-tackle that went awry, Warburton deliberately tipped Clerc. However I will give Owen the benefit of the doubt as he had yet to see a replay.

Having seen a replay:

“He takes Clerc man and ball, it’s just one of those things, it’s a good tackle and unfortunately his legs have gone above his shoulders.”

No I’m afraid I can’t agree with you there Michael, it’s not just one of those things and it wasn’t unfortunate that his legs went that high. It was the deliberate action of the Welsh captain that resulted in Clerc being up-ended. I don’t believe that anyone playing international rugby would not know the rules regarding spear/tip tackles, therefore it is a bad tackle and a bad decision.

Upon seeing Warburton at the side of the pitch and assuming he had been yellow carded:

“I think that’s very very harsh to get a yellow card for that [before knowing it’s a red], you’re playing rugby, it’s a very ferocious game – it’s very hard to bring someone down with care.”

I agree that it is hard to bring someone down safely, but if you make the decision to lift them then it is your responsibility to do so, if you don’t lift the player you don’t have to worry about how you put them down. Also suggesting that a tackle such as this should go unpunished is irresponsible, tip/spear tackles have been outlawed and deemed dangerous because that’s exactly what they are. I accept that rugby is an inherently dangerous game, however these types of tackles are unnecessary and come with a high risk of serious injury.

After learning that the card was actually red:

“I think he’s got that completely wrong there, I don’t think it should’ve been a sin-bin, I think a penalty maybe, he’s got that completely wrong.”

Once again he suggests that a penalty would be sufficient punishment which I cannot agree with. The second issue of whether it should have been a red card is up for debate, opinions from current and past players suggests that a yellow card would have been more reasonable.

Adam Jones at the 2007 World Cup

Adam Jones was forced to leave the game early through injury. Photo: Manuel MC

From an outsiders perspective I am completely comfortable with the red card punishment for what was an unnecessarily dangerous tackle. However were a yellow card to have been awarded I don’t think I would have questioned the decision as Warburton did not ‘spear’ Clerc into the ground.

My main issue with the outcry about the decision, and how it ruined the game and Wales’ prospects of making a World Cup final, was the instant condemnation of the referee when the evidence proves that Alain Rolland was within his rights to send Warburton off.

I have seen little analysis that condemns Warburton for a rush of blood that potentially cost Wales a place in their first ever World Cup final. If he had not made what I will again call an unnecessarilly dangerous tackle his team may be preparing for the biggest game of their lives on Sunday instead of flying home without even so much as a bronze medal in their pockets.

We can’t even honestly say that his actions lost Wales the game either as the loss of Adam Jones early in the game and numerous missed kicks at goal can equally be blamed for Wales’ demise.

I only hope that sportsmen and women will learn from this lesson, if you don’t give the referee/umpire a decision to make then you won’t be complaining afterwards. Responsibility falls to the coaches and players themselves to behave and tackle in a fair manner at all times or face the consequences.

Parallels can be drawn with Wayne Rooney’s three match suspension from competitive England internationals following his petulant kick in the recent game against Montenegro. Complaints (though admittedly few) have been aimed at UEFA for inflicting the full three game suspension when it could have only been one, but if Rooney hadn’t lashed out in the first place then UEFA wouldn’t have had a decision to make.

Referees and umpires are not perfect, they make mistakes, but so do sportspeople and we can’t complain when the laws of the game are upheld, especially to punish dangerous behaviour such as that exhibited by Sam Warburton.

Photos: Webb Ellis Cup – americanistadechiapas, Vincent Clerc – Gil Calmon, Adam Jones – Manuel MC