Sunday, 17 April 2016

World Snooker Championships: The O'Sullivan paradox

RONNIE O'SULLIVAN begins his bid for a sixth world title against qualifier David Gilbert at the Crucible in Sheffield today.

The Rocket - previously champion in 2001, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2013 - is an overwhelming favourite, not only in his first round match but for the tournament as a whole.

In fact, O'Sullivan is generally as short as 7/4 with most bookmakers - and, undoubtedly, he remains the biggest draw in the sport.

Paradoxically, though, his continued dominance is not particularly healthy for snooker as a whole.

A post-Ronnie era has yet to emerge even though O'Sullivan is now aged 40 - and, while this has much to do with his own fitness from his regimented healthy lifestyle, even the Rocket has expressed some frustration with the competition.

In 2013, O'Sullivan won his fifth world title, defeating Barry Hawkins 18-12 - despite having spent a whole year outside of the game.

Afterwards, he said: "The standard's great. Look at the way Barry (Hawkins) played in the final. But what you are lacking is someone who adds a bit of pizazz.

"I think every sport needs someone like Alex Higgins or Eric Cantona, it's about the characters.

"They're all nice guys and all good boys, but it needs someone to get in there. Some of them are trying to do it but it's just not natural. You need someone like me who just comes out and does my thing."

Earlier this year, at the Masters at Alexandra Palace, Hawkins was on the end of another beating by O'Sullivan who delivered a 10-1 thrashing in the Final.

Speaking as part of a generation which includes fellow former world champions John Higgins and Mark Williams, O'Sullivan said: "We have kept our level high and are waiting for someone young, or two or three, to come through and take it away from us – but it doesn’t seem to be happening."

Perhaps that is a little unfair on the likes of world number one, 2014 champion Mark Selby, or 2010 champion Neil Robertson.

But even fans of the Jester from Leicester would have to agree that he often grinds his way through games, a style which led to O'Sullivan labelling him as "The Torturer".

Meanwhile, Robertson himself is no spring chicken at 34 years old - and another one-time emerging force in the sport, Ding Junhui, has so badly lost his way that he was forced to qualify for the tournament this year.

Instead, the most likely heir to the title of fans' favourite remains Judd Trump, the 26-year-old who was runner-up to John Higgins in 2011.

However, a searing lack of consistency blights the Bristolian's game - though, last year, he was unfortunate in losing to Stuart Bingham in the deciding frame of a classic Crucible semi final.

Bingham, of course, went on to win the title - beating Shaun Murphy 18-15 in the Final - but already it has been assured that there will no repeat of that outcome this year.

The Crucible Curse - which determines that no first-time champion has ever successfully defended their crown at the venue - struck again on the opening day as Ali Carter won a decider.

Carter - a two-times runner-up - was always going to be a tough opening opponent for Bingham - and, while the latter has been a gracious and gentlemanly world champion, the result is not actually that big a shock.

For Bingham, as lovely a bloke as he seems to be, was hardly a big name champion.

Indeed, the only time that snooker has made it onto the back pages of the newspapers this year was when O'Sullivan controversially decided against making a 147 at the Welsh Open in February.

This was nothing new for O'Sullivan who had previously almost turned down a maximum at the World Open in Glasgow in 2010 before being convinced by referee Jan Verhaas on that occasion to complete the break.

But there was nothing which could convince O'Sullivan in Cardiff this year - and, while his unusual 146 break earned snooker some rare backpage headlines, it was not exactly the finest moment for the sport.

World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn recognised that and described O'Sullivan's action as "unacceptable" and "disrespectful".

However, Hearn is well aware that, although there is no single player bigger than the game itself, the Rocket comes close to holding that status.

Not that this necessarily means the bookmakers will be right. The World Championship at the Crucible is a 17-day event, a psychological marathon which tests every sinew in a survival of the fittest.

Therefore, it would be no surprise if a battler and a grinder like O'Sullivan's torturer Selby prevailed again.

Whatever happens, though, the action at the Crucible usually makes for epic viewing with coverage provided by the BBC and Eurosport throughout.

Best of 19 frames

(1) Stuart Bingham9-10Ali Carter

(16) Stephen Maguire7-10Alan McManus

(9) Ricky Walden10-8Robbie Williams

(8) John Higgins10-3Ryan Day

(5) Judd Trump10-8Liang Wenbo

(12) Martin Gould8-10Ding Junhui

(13) Mark Williams10-4Graeme Dott

(4) Neil Robertson6-10Michael Holt

(3) Shaun Murphy8-10Anthony McGill

(14) Marco Fu10-2Peter Ebdon

(11) Barry Hawkins10-5Zhang Anda

(6) Ronnie O'Sullivan10-7David Gilbert

(7) Mark Allen10-3Mitchell Mann

(10) Joe Perry9-10Kyren Wilson

(15) Michael White7-10Sam Baird

(2) Mark Selby10-6Robert Milkins

Best of 25 frames

Ali Carter11-13Alan McManus

(9) Ricky Walden8-13John Higgins (8)

(5) Judd Trump10-13Ding Junhui

(13) Mark Williams13-8Michael Holt

Anthony McGill9-13Marco Fu (14)

(11) Barry Hawkins13-12Ronnie O'Sullivan (6)

(7) Mark Allen9-13Kyren Wilson

Sam Baird11-13Mark Selby (2)

Best of 25 frames

Alan McManus13-11John Higgins (8)

Ding Junhui13-3Mark Williams (13)

(14) Marco Fu13-11Barry Hawkins (11)

Kyren Wilson8-13Mark Selby (2)

Best of 33 frames
Sat 2.30pm*Alan McManus10-14Ding Junhui
in play(14) Marco Fu9-10Mark Selby (2)
*to a finish

143 Kyren Wilson
141 Barry Hawkins
140 Michael Holt
139 Ronnie O'Sullivan
138 Marco Fu, Ding Junhui
136 Marco Fu, Alan McManus
135 Marco Fu
134 Mark Selby
133 Mark Selby
132 Mark Selby, Ding Junhui
131 Ding Junhui
130 Kyren Wilson
129 Kyren Wilson
128 Alan McManus, Ding Junhui
125 David Gilbert, Alan McManus, Mark Selby
124 Ronnie O'Sullivan
122 Mark Allen
121 John Higgins
119 Anthony McGill, Alan McManus
118 Ronnie O'Sullivan
117 Anthony McGill, Liang Wenbo
115 Michael Holt, Mark Selby
114 Alan McManus, Marco Fu
113 Stuart Bingham, Ding Junhui
112 Ding Junhui
111 Marco Fu, Martin Gould
110 Ding Junhui
109 Shaun Murphy, Michael Holt, Ding Junhui
108 Sam Baird
107 Liang Wenbo, Neil Robertson, John Higgins, Alan McManus
106 Judd Trump (2)
105 Shaun Murphy, John Higgins (2)
104 Mark Allen, Robbie Williams
103 Sam Baird, Ali Carter, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Kyren Wilson, Mark Allen (2)
102 Ali Carter, Mark Williams, Michael White, Marco Fu, Barry Hawkins, Ricky Walden
101 Ronnie O'Sullivan, Neil Robertson, Mark Selby, John Higgins
100 John Higgins, Ding Junhui (3), Sam Baird, Ali Carter, Marco Fu

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Grand National: Teenage kicks Rule The World

TEENAGE jockey David Mullins landed in dreamland after he rode the aptly-named Rule The World to victory in the 169th renewal of the Grand National at a sodden Aintree racecourse.

Mullins powered home in the final straight of his maiden National to finish six lengths clear of joint favourite The Last Samurai and 100/1 shot Vics Canvas.

For trainer Mouse Morris too, this was an emotional triumph over the hurdles. Morris's son Christopher - nicknamed Tiffer - died last year aged just 30 of suspected carbon monoxide poisoning in Argentina.

And while victory on Merseyside cannot bring his son back, Morris immediately turned his thoughts towards him, saying: “Tiffer was looking down on me today. He helped me there."

For 19-year-old Mullins, a nephew of champion trainer Willie, this was an incredible start to his Grand National career.

But, for others in the starting field of 39, this was a very short race indeed. That was certainly true for Hadrian's Approach who unseated his rider at the first, while First Lieutenant and the fancied Holywell fell at the second.

At the front, Aachen took up the early lead from The Romford Pele, Double Ross and last year's runner-up Saint Are.

Meanwhile, Many Clouds - aiming to become the first back-to-back winner of the National since Red Rum in the 1970s - took up a good early position.

The Romford Pele then unseated his rider at the Canal Turn - but Aachen, Double Ross and Saint Are continued to lead the race as they headed back towards the grandstands.

A loose horse caused some bother at the Chair where On His Own and Sir Des Champs both fell.

Nonetheless, a large part of the field remained in with a chance of the big prize as they crossed the Melling Road to begin the second circuit.

They included still, of course, the history-chasing Many Clouds and his history-chasing jockey Leighton Aspell - and, as they jumped the 19th, they hit the front once more.

Excitement built as they retained their lead heading over Foinavon, around the Canal Turn and onto Valentine's.

But it was still too early to be rewriting the history books - and, at the 26th fence of 30, Many Clouds duly made a terrible error which completely took the wind out of his sails.

Thereafter, he and Aspell understandly went backwards - and, instead, it was the other joint favourite The Last Samurai who took the lead ahead of Morning Assembly and Vics Canvas.

As Morning Assembly faded just as quickly, Rule The World finally moved into a threatening position, taking the last fence in third behind The Last Samurai and Vics Canvas.

It was clear as they rounded the Elbow that this had indeed turned into a three-horse race - and, ultimately, it was Mullins who had timed his mount's ride to perfection.

Steaming past the other two contenders, nine-year-old Rule The World completed what was remarkably his first ever win over fences.

And it all means Mullins wakes up this morning knowing life will never be quite the same again.

Aintree, 5.15pm (Channel 4). Going: Soft, heavy in places. 39 ran.
1stRULE THE WORLDDavid Mullins33-1 (6 lengths)
2ndThe Last SamuraiDavid Bass8-1JF
3rdVics CanvasRobert Dunne100-1
4thGilgamboa Robbie Power28-1
5thGoonyella Jonathan Burke12-1

Other finishers

6th Ucello Conti (25/1), 7th Vieux Lion Rouge (66/1), 8th Morning Assembly (16/1), 9th Shutthefrontdoor (12/1), 10th Unioniste (28/1), 11th Le Reve (50/1), 12th Buywise (33/1), 13th Pendra (50/1), 14th Triolo d'Alene (50/1), 15th Just A Par (40/1), 16th Many Clouds (8/1JF)

Failed to finish (pulled up unless stated)
1st Hadrian's Approach (unseated rider)
2nd First Lieutenant (fell), Holywell (fell)
8th (Canal Turn) The Romford Pele (unseated)
12th Rocky Creek
14th Silviniaco Conti
15th (The Chair) On His Own (fell), Sir Des Champs (fell)
18th Gallant Oscar (unseated)
19th Ballynagour (unseated)
21st Soll, The Druid's Nephew, Home Farm, Black Thunder
22nd (Becher's Brook) Katenko (fell), Boston Bob, Aachen, Onenightinvienna (unseated)
24th (Canal Turn) Wonderful Charm
26th Double Ross
27th Kruzhlinin
29th Ballycasey (unseated)
30th Saint Are

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Touching Distance

 03 April 1996 - FA Carling Premiership
Liverpool 4 Fowler 2, 55, Collymore 68, 90+2
Newcastle United 3 Ferdinand 10, Ginola 14, Asprilla 57

Liverpool David James - Jason McAteer, Mark Wright (Steve Harkness 45), John Scales, Neil Ruddock, Rob Jones (Ian Rush 85) - Jamie Redknapp, John Barnes, Steve McManaman - Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler
Newcastle United Pavel Srníček - Steve Watson, Steve Howey (Darren Peacock 82), Philippe Albert, John Beresford - Peter Beardsley, David Batty, Robert Lee, David Ginola - Faustino Asprilla, Les Ferdinand. Booked Peter Beardsley, David Batty
Attendance 40,702 at Anfield Referee Mike Read (Birmingham)
Kick-off 8pm. Live on Sky Sports.

KEVIN KEEGAN slumped over an advertising hoarding at Anfield. It is a defining image of football as a Newcastle United fan in the 1990s.

Stan Collymore closed in on his stoppage time goal exactly 20 years ago today as the Magpies' stab at a first league title since 1927 suffered a horrendous blow.

This 4-3 match is still considered an era-defining game and was voted as the Premier League's "match of the decade".

But, as a Newcastle fan, it would be a soul-destroying 90 minutes.

The anxiety began early as the aforementioned Collymore produced an inch-perfect cross for Robbie Fowler to head Liverpool into the lead after just two minutes.

Newcastle under Keegan, however, had genuine spirit - after all, they were going for the title - and they fought their way back to take the lead inside of the first quarter hour.

First, Faustino Asprilla jinked down the right and set up Les Ferdinand to strike in front of the Kop - then David Ginola finished a fast break by firing home from the edge of the box.

The Magpies held the lead at half time - but the first 45 minutes of action had merely served as an aperitif of what was to follow.

Liverpool got back on terms within 10 minutes of the break as Steve McManaman turned Philippe Albert inside out on the right before setting up Fowler for his second. Fowler slid into the net head first in celebration.

Nonetheless, two minutes later, Newcastle were ahead again with the best goal of the game.

Peter Beardsley slipped in Robert Lee on halfway and the England midfielder slid in Asprilla down the right-hand channel.

David James came right out to the edge of his box in an attempt to close the angle but the wily Colombian maverick swerved the ball with the outside of his right boot into an empty net.

It was 3-2 - but there was still more than half an hour to play. I was only 12 years old at the time and was afforded the luxury of watching the match on Sky Sports at a neighbour's house. It seemed like an eternity.

Collymore equalised for Liverpool on 68 minutes after he stabbed home from Jason McAteer's dangerous cross just ahead of Pavel Srníček.

And, clearly, the action was not about to dissipate - both teams were still going hell for leather.

Newcastle created the next big chance as Albert, looking to atone for his backing off earlier, found Ferdinand in the left-hand channel.

The big-hearted Londoner battled past Steve Harkness and was clear in the box but he could only shoot straight at James who did not know a lot about his save.

It should have been Ferdinand's 24th league goal of the season and it should have been 4-3 to Newcastle.

But it was neither of those things. Instead, the script was set for a stoppage time winner and it was John Barnes for Liverpool who had the ball.

Barnes and substitute Ian Rush - both of whom would turn out in black-and-white just over a year later - slalomed through a tiring and retreating Newcastle rearguard. They were being roared forward by the home support, and the tension was unbearable.

The pair made it to the edge of the box then Barnes, after adjusting his feet around Rush, found Collymore in space on the left side of the box. The rest is history.

Keegan's reaction summed up the feelings of every Newcastle fan. This was a glorious match in which to be involved, but it was also a crushing defeat. For the first time in following Newcastle, I shed tears and felt scarred.

Author Martin Hardy, in his excellent recent book Touching Distance - about the Magpies' 1995/96 season - wrote: "Everywhere you looked people seemed exhausted, drained. I don't recall a game lasting so long.

"Keegan had slumped over the advertising hoardings in front of the visiting dugout when the fourth goal went in.

"Once more, his mood mirrored those following the club. Deflated. It was impossible not to be."

Incredibly, less than a week later at defending champions Blackburn Rovers, there was another huge blow to come - more tears were shed and more wounds inflicted on my psyche.

Given a late lead in another tense match live on Sky Sports through David Batty, Newcastle were set to close back to within three points of Manchester United with a game in hand.

But the Liverpool game loomed large in the haunted memories of the Magpies' defenders and, with four minutes left, Whitley Bay-born Newcastle fan Graham Fenton volleyed unmarked past Shaka Hislop to equalise.

Then, in the last minute, it got worse. On the break after a desperate Newcastle attack, Alan Shearer - in a two-versus-two - again found Fenton unmarked.

From the edge of the box, Fenton dinked the ball past the onrushing Hislop for a certain winner. It finished 2-1 at Ewood Park.

Strangely enough, after that game, Newcastle rallied somewhat - winning a trio of games 1-0 against Aston Villa, Southampton, and Leeds United.

Of course, the Leeds match infamously ended in Keegan's declaration that Newcastle were "still fighting for [the] title" and that he would "love it if we beat them [Manchester United]".

Mind games, it may have been from Alex Ferguson - but Keegan had been provoked into his rant by the Manchester United manager suggesting unfairly that Leeds and Nottingham Forest would not try as hard against the Magpies as his own side.

As it happened, Forest held Newcastle to a 1-1 draw at the City Ground in another evening game on the last Thursday of the season as Ian Woan cancelled out a Beardsley goal.

Nevertheless, Newcastle still went into the last day with a mathematical chance of the title. Keegan's men were two points behind Manchester United with an inferior goal difference so needed a win while the Red Devils lost.

Fate had already decided that it was not going to be Newcastle's year, however - and the Magpies could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham Hotspur.

Manchester United, meanwhile, cruised to a 3-0 win over Middlesbrough who - ironically, given Ferguson's comments - did not seem to put up much of a fight. Boro, of course, were managed by former Old Trafford skipper Bryan Robson.

At the final whistle of the match against Spurs, I left the social club where I had watched the game on television with my uncle - full of Coca-Cola, full of disappointment.

I got home to my room, alone, and broke down in tears again. Yet, even then - as a 12-year-old - there was a certain pride felt in how close Newcastle had gone.

There was a realisation that Tyneside had been blessed with a very special team and a very special manager. Ferdinand, Beardsley, Lee, Asprilla, Ginola, Gillespie, Srníček, Beresford, Barton.


It is certainly not like that now. This weekend, Newcastle suffered another agonising stoppage time defeat - but, rather than Liverpool at Anfield, it was against Norwich City at Carrow Road - and, rather than to win the title, it was to retain any realistic hope of staying in the Premier League.

Indeed, to actually name any of the individuals currently involved with Newcastle United in the same breath as that team from 1995/96 would be a waste of oxygen.

So I won't bother with that self-defeating exercise.

Instead, I will just indulge in some more memories of 20 years ago, smile, and perhaps not feel so sad this time.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

IDS brings down shapeshifter Osborne's house of cards

IAIN DUNCAN SMITH sent shockwaves through Westminster last night after resigning his position as Work and Pensions Secretary over disagreements with George Osborne's budget.

Mr Duncan Smith, a former Conservative party leader, wrote of cuts to the benefits of disabled people to be "a compromise too far" when set against the desire for the country to balance the books.

He added: "While they are defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers."

Here, Mr Duncan Smith refers to the increase in the starting point of the 40% tax band from £42,385 now to £45,000 in April 2017.

That was a move by Mr Osborne which was generally well received as, along with the increase in the personal allowance to £11,500 next April, it helps many workers in middle England.

Moreover, fuel duty was frozen for a sixth year in a row - while beer, cider and spirit duties were also frozen.

Yet, despite these little pick-me-ups, the overall impression of the budget this year was unquestionably negative.

No doubt to some extent that was down to Mr Osborne himself. Growth forecasts were revised downwards markedly for the next five years while borrowing was revised upwards.

Mr Osborne also admitted he would miss his target of reducing debt as a share of GDP - one of his three golden rules - but declared public finances were still projected to achieve a £10.4bn surplus in 2019/20.

That can only be achieved by making a further £3.5bn-worth of cuts by 2020, some of which were projected to fall upon the disabled.

Consequently, the budget was not only perceived as being negative, it was also considered to be unfair in a poll by a margin of 38%-28%.

Only 13% of people support the disability cuts while 70% think they are the wrong priority at the present time, including 59% of Tory voters.

In fact, this is the first budget which has been considered more unfair than fair since the "omnishambles" of 2012 - and Mr Osborne's personal ratings had already taken a hit even before Mr Duncan Smith's decision.

Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, has said he is "puzzled and disappointed" that Mr Duncan Smith has resigned.

He added: "While we are on different sides in the vital debate about the future of Britain's relations with Europe, the Government will, of course, continue with its policy of welfare reform."

Ah yes, Europe. The issue which has divided - and, at times, torn apart - the Tory party for over 30 years has been dragged to the forefront of the political arena with the referendum date set for 23 June.

London mayor Boris Johnson has already made a calculated move by putting himself on the side of Leave. Would it be too cynical to suggest Mr Duncan Smith, another in favour of Brexit, is trying a similar tactic?

Perhaps it would not. After all, Mr Duncan Smith did not seem too concerned about welfare reform - i.e. cuts - when he celebrated wildly in the House of Commons last summer.

Instead, this decision to depart the Cabinet allows the MP for Chingford and Woodford Green to campaign more vigorously against Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne in the run-up to the referendum.

A rivalry with Mr Osborne, in particular, exists ever since the Chancellor is said to have described Mr Duncan Smith as "not clever enough".

But, whether that is true or not, this perceived scheming is doing little to give the impression that this Conservative government has the best interests of the country - rather than itself - at heart.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has this morning called directly on Mr Osborne to follow Mr Duncan Smith by resigning.

Mr Corbyn cited "a Government in disarray and a Chancellor who has lost the credibility to manage the economy in the interests of the majority of our people" while imploring again that "the Government must change economic course".

That, of course, seems unlikely - but the biggest worry for Mr Osborne may be the Government's wafer-thin majority.

Having already been forced into a U-turn over cuts to tax credits last year, the Chancellor faces a group of several Conservative MPs who have written a letter threatening to rebel again.

Either way, Mr Osborne's budget plans are now in a total mess - full of missed targets, broken golden rules and, worst of all, an attack on some of the most vulnerable in society.

It has taken a while to come to this - but the great British shapeshifter has finally started to become unmasked.

Earlier Budget reports from Mr Osborne 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015(March)

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Shouldn't T20 cricket be solely a franchise sport?

ENGLAND opened up their World T20 campaign today with a disappointing defeat to a Chris Gayle-inspired West Indies team.

Gayle scored a splendid century, off 47 balls, smashing 11 sixes and five fours as the Windies chased down their target of 183 with ease.

Of course, it should come as no surprise at all that the 36-year-old Jamaican was the difference between the two sides.

After all, unlike most of the England team, Gayle is a T20 specialist and plays for various franchises in several different competitions around the world.

Indeed, despite his advancing years, he is very much the embodiment of a modern day cricketer, globetrotting and raking in the cash with only a minimum amount of effort by playing the shortest form of the game.

By contrast, Test cricket - for Gayle at least - is an anachronism. As far back as 2009, he commented that he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket was superseded by T20 cricket in the future - and, in fact, he has not played in the five-day format since 2014.

Now, please do not misunderstand this blog - it is not going to be another English-centric rant about how T20 is killing off our beloved Test cricket.

If anything, T20 is doing the opposite by attracting a younger and more family-oriented audience to the sport.

There are no guarantees but these people may just go on to check out a 50-over match or Test cricket - and, even if they do not, that would be their choice and would unlikely be the fault of T20.

Furthermore, this write-up is not a criticism of Gayle - or, for that matter, a certain Kevin Pietersen - or indeed any other modern cricketers who want to monetise the value of their talent in the same way as top-level footballers do.

That is their right and, ultimately, the amount of money which they make out of the game will depend on the quality of the product and their contribution to it.

Instead, this is an attempt to find a way in which T20, One Day Internationals and Test cricket can peacefully coexist.

This is not a straightforward matter but clearly there is far too much cricket being played every year at the moment.

Players cram game after game in exhausting tours, while teams often lack consistency and struggle, particularly, in away series.

One key change which could be made would be to abandon T20 internationals altogether, at least among the top countries.

For, if T20 is all about the razzmatazz - something which fits in seamlessly with the likes of the Indian Premier League and the highly successful Big Bash in Australia - then this is not something which works quite so well in international cricket.

International team-mates are more dryly determined by an accident of birth or their choice of naturalisation, and not the fantasy team-based constructs to which the whole idea of T20 would seem to belong.

Of course, this sort of change is unlikely to happen anytime soon, if at all. The world governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), understandably sees too much money to be made with T20 to remove its own stake.

However, in making this choice, it ignores the wider picture of player burn-out and a declining interest around the world in Tests.

In terms of a solution, then: what about an arrangement where the ICC agreed to give up on organising their own T20 cricket in returning for fixing the dates of various sanctioned franchise events?

Outside of the T20 tournaments, the ICC would be able to schedule the traditional Test and ODI series - here too, though, there is a lot of room for improvement.

Actually, at least on that issue, the ICC appears to be moving in the right direction. Test cricket badly needs a simple structure which can be easily understood and, indeed, successfully marketed.

For example, England's fine recent win in South Africa ultimately counted for little except for a slight adjustment in the fabled Test rankings of a few points either way.

But how much more important would that series have felt it had saved England from relegation to a second tier?

Basically, it seems obvious to me that a proper round-robin structure with promotion and relegation between different tiers is long overdue.

Finally, it is my view that ODIs should stay as, in the absence of T20 internationals, they would provide a reasonable contrast to Test cricket while providing the guarantee of an on-the-day result.

Nevertheless, there should certainly be no more than five ODIs played at the end of each Test series.

Of course, it also makes sense that both Test and ODI results contributed to a team's place in the league, in a similar way to which the Women's Ashes are currently contested.

Meanwhile, the original - and still primary - Cricket World Cup would continue to be played every four years outside of the promotion/relegation structure.

Instead of all this, however, the World Cup's 'little brother' - the World T20 - looks set to continue, with the 2020 tournament already scheduled to be taken to Australia.

Frankly, anyone could turn up there as defending champions after the heavy loss for favourites India in their game against New Zealand yesterday - in fact, even England have won this competition once in 2010.

Surely, though, the bigger question which needs to be asked is how much would it really matter if it happened again?


16 Mar 14:00MumbaiWEST INDIES 183-4 18.1 beat ENGLAND 182-6 by six wickets
17 Mar 14:00KolkataSRI LANKA 155-4 18.5 beat AFGHANISTAN 153-7 by six wickets
18 Mar 14:00MumbaiENGLAND 230-8 19.4 beat SOUTH AFRICA 229-4 by two wickets
20 Mar 09:30MumbaiSOUTH AFRICA 209-5 beat AFGHANISTAN 172 by 37 runs
20 Mar 14:00BangaloreWEST INDIES 127-3 18.2 beat SRI LANKA 122-9 by seven wickets
23 Mar 09:30DelhiENGLAND 142-7 beat AFGHANISTAN 127-9 by 15 runs
25 Mar 14:00NagpurWEST INDIES 123-7 19.4 bt SOUTH AFRICA 122-8 by three wkts
26 Mar 14:00DelhiENGLAND 171-4 beat SRI LANKA 161-8 by 10 runs
27 Mar 10:30NagpurAFGHANISTAN 123-7 beat WEST INDIES 117-8 by six runs
28 Mar 15:00DelhiSOUTH AFRICA 122-2 17.4 bt SRI LANKA 120 19.3 by eight wkts

(Q) WEST INDIES3100.366
(Q) ENGLAND3100.156
SRI LANKA130-0.462


15 Mar 14:00NagpurNEW ZEALAND 126-7 beat INDIA 79 18.1 by 47 runs
16 Mar 09:30KolkataPAKISTAN 201-5 beat BANGLADESH 146-6 by 55 runs
18 Mar 09:30DharmasalaNEW ZEALAND 142-8 beat AUSTRALIA 134-9 by eight runs
19 Mar 14:00KolkataINDIA 119-4 15.5 beat PAKISTAN 118-5 18 by six wickets
21 Mar 14:00BangaloreAUSTRALIA 157-7 18.3 bt BANGLADESH 156-5 by three wkts
22 Mar 14:00MohaliNEW ZEALAND 180-5 beat PAKISTAN 158-5 by 22 runs
23 Mar 14:00BangaloreINDIA 146-7 beat BANGLADESH 145-9 by one run
25 Mar 09:30MohaliAUSTRALIA 193-4 beat PAKISTAN 172-8 by 21 runs
26 Mar 09:30KolkataNEW ZEALAND 145-8 beat BANGLADESH 70 15.4 by 75 runs
27 Mar 15:00MohaliINDIA 161-4 19.1 beat AUSTRALIA 160-6 by six wickets

(Q) NEW ZEALAND4001.908
(Q) INDIA310-0.316

30 Mar 14:30DelhiSF1 ENGLAND 159-3 17.1 bt NEW ZEALAND 153-8 by seven wkts
31 Mar 14:30MumbaiSF2 WEST INDIES 196-3 19.4 beat INDIA 192-2 by seven wickets
03 Apr 14:30KolkataFIN WEST INDIES 161-6 19.4 beat ENGLAND 155-9 by four wickets

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Trump towers over his rivals on Super Tuesday

SUPER TUESDAY RESULTS Primaries and Caucuses
ALABAMA01-MarDEMOCRAT Clinton 77.8%, Sanders 19.2%
REPUBLICAN Trump 43.4%, Cruz 21.1%, Rubio 18.7%
ARKANSAS01-MarDEMOCRAT Clinton 66.3%, Sanders 29.7%
REPUBLICAN Trump 32.7%, Cruz 30.5%, Rubio 25.0%
GEORGIA01-MarDEMOCRAT Clinton 71.3%, Sanders 28.2%
REPUBLICAN Trump 38.8%, Rubio 24.4%, Cruz 23.6%
MASSACHUSETTS01-MarDEMOCRAT Clinton 50.1%, Sanders 48.7%
REPUBLICAN Trump 49.3%, Kasich 18.0%, Rubio 17.8%
MINNESOTA01-MarDEMOCRAT Sanders 61.7%, Clinton 38.3%
REPUBLICAN Rubio 36.5%, Cruz 29.0%, Trump 21.3%
OKLAHOMA01-MarDEMOCRAT Sanders 51.9%, Clinton 41.5%
REPUBLICAN Cruz 34.4%, Trump 28.3%, Rubio 26.0%
TENNESSEE01-MarDEMOCRAT Clinton 66.1%, Sanders 32.4%
REPUBLICAN Trump 38.9%, Cruz 24.7%, Rubio 21.2%
TEXAS01-MarDEMOCRAT Clinton 65.2%, Sanders 33.2%
REPUBLICAN Cruz 43.8%, Trump 26.7%, Rubio 17.7%
VERMONT01-MarDEMOCRAT Sanders 86.1%, Clinton 13.6%
REPUBLICAN Trump 32.7%, Kasich 30.4%, Rubio 19.3%
VIRGINIA01-MarDEMOCRAT Clinton 64.3%, Sanders 35.2%
REPUBLICAN Trump 34.7%, Rubio 31.9%, Cruz 16.9%
ALASKA01-MarREPUBLICAN Cruz 36.4%, Trump 33.5%, Rubio 15.1%
COLORADO01-MarDEMOCRAT Sanders 58.9%, Clinton 40.4%

FRONT-RUNNERS Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton boosted their respective chances of winning their party nominations for the general election after both took seven states on Super Tuesday.

Mr Trump won in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia in the Republican race - while Mrs Clinton dominated her only rival Bernie Sanders in the South.

Indeed, Mrs Clinton took Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia as well as Massachusetts narrowly.

And, while the defeats in the southern states were far heavier, they were expected - and so it is the Massachusetts result which will give Mr Sanders most cause for concern.

Massachusetts was one of a quintet of states - along with Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Vermont - which Mr Sanders admitted he really needed to win.

But the fact that he did not fully succeed in this aim suggests his race is nearly run - with bookmakers having now made Mrs Clinton as short as 1/33 to be the Democrat nominee.

By contrast, for now, the equivalent Republican contest is still alive - but Mr Trump is undoubtedly in control.

The entrepreneur's nearest rival Ted Cruz met - or even perhaps even slightly exceeded - expectations in winning Alaska and Oklahoma as well as his home state, the delegate-heavy Texas.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio finally got on the board with his first primary win in Minnesota.

However, Mr Trump was at least relatively competitive pretty much everywhere, recording his lowest percentage of the night in Minnesota.

There, it was still 21.3% - and his much higher figures elsewhere have helped him pick up delegate nominations even in the states which he did not win.

And this is important - for, ultimately, it is the number of delegates which counts, not the number of states won (although both, of course, go hand-in-hand).

Currently, Mr Trump leads the way with 316 nominations ahead of Texas senator Mr Cruz by 90.

Mr Rubio trails in third place on just 106 delegates but the one-term Florida senator has so far declined Mr Cruz's request for him to end his campaign.

Mr Cruz understandably wants to have a go at Mr Trump all on his own - but Mr Rubio will not pull out as he fancies his chances in the upcoming winner-takes-all contests in Ohio and on his home turf of Florida.

Moreover, Mr Rubio considers Mr Cruz's strong pull of the evangelical vote to be too narrow to win in the general election - or even against Mr Trump.

In fairness, he is probably right in this regard - Mr Cruz should have done far better already. Nonetheless, Mr Trump hardly looks to be quaking in his boots at the thought of a resurgence from Mr Rubio.

Already, indeed, the Queens-born businessman last night instead turned his sabre-rattling towards his anticipated rival for the presidency, Mrs Clinton.

Earlier, Mrs Clinton had made her own Super Tuesday speech in which she said: "I’m going to keep saying it. I believe what we need in America today is more love and kindness, because you know what? It works."

She added that she wanted to "make America whole again" - but this was derided as a meaningless statement by Mr Trump who added: "She [Clinton]'s been there for so long.

"If she hasn't straightened it out by now, she's not going to straighten it out in the next four years. It's just going to become worse and worse."

At least, this time, he launched a legitimate attack on his main political opponent - rather than earlier in the week when he was quoting Benito Mussolini on Twitter.

Or, then, more seriously, appearing reluctant to disavow support from David Duke, the leader of the notorious white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan.

Nevertheless, it seems Mr Trump will have plenty of other opportunities yet for mis-steps, both deliberate and planned.

A Republican contest which was previously unclear has now shifted inextricably in his favour and Trump v Clinton on 8 November beckons.

Put the date in the diary folks and then cross your fingers that a badly-coiffured lunatic does not end up in the White House.

It moved one step closer after his and Hillary Clinton's Super Tuesday.

IOWA01-FebDEMOCRAT Clinton 49.8%, Sanders 49.6%
REPUBLICAN Cruz 27.6%, Trump 24.3%, Rubio 23.1%
NEW HAMPSHIRE09-FebDEMOCRAT Sanders 60.9%, Clinton 37.9%
REPUBLICAN Trump 35.7%, Kasich 15.8%, Cruz 11.7%
DEMOCRAT Clinton 52.6%, Sanders 47.3%
REPUBLICAN Trump 45.9%, Rubio 23.9%, Cruz 21.4%
DEMOCRAT Clinton 73.5%, Sanders 26.0%
REPUBLICAN Trump 32.5%, Rubio 22.5%, Cruz 22.3%

Democrat (2382 to win)
577 Hillary Clinton
386 Bernie Sanders

Republican (1237 to win)
316 Donald Trump
226 Ted Cruz
106 Marco Rubio
25 John Kasich
8 Ben Carson

Saturday, 27 February 2016

FIFA looks to turn a fresh leaf under Infantino

(Q) Gianni Infantino (SUI/ITA)88115
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa (BHR)8588
Prince Ali bin al-Hussein (JOR)274
Jérôme Champagne (FRA)7-
Tokyo Sexwale (RSA)w/d-

GIANNI INFANTINO became the most powerful man in world football yesterday after winning the race to elect a new FIFA President in the second round in Zurich.

A Swiss-Italian lawyer by trade, Mr Infantino took a narrow lead over his main rival Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain in the first round.

And the former UEFA general secretary then hoovered up votes which had originally gone to Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan for a decisive victory.

In the grand scheme of things, Mr Infantino's rise to the top of FIFA actually comes as quite a surprise.

He was only backed by his own confederation UEFA after previous candidate Michel Platini was suspended by the FIFA Ethics Committee from all football-related activity in December alongside Sepp Blatter.

Blatter, of course, had only just won a fifth successive term as president last May - before resigning four days later following the FBI-backed dawn arrests of several FIFA officials by the Swiss authorities.

At first, Blatter avoided being caught in the net himself - but he was then found guilty of making a £1.3m "disloyal payment" to Platini who was also implicated in the deal.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Mr Infantino's hometown of Brig is less than six miles away from Visp, from where Blatter hails.

But, having been elected on his own merits, it feels only fair to judge him on his own words and actions.

On his election, Mr Infantino said: "I want to work with all of you together in order to restore and rebuild a new era of FIFA where we can again put football at the centre of the stage.

"FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis, but those times are over. We need to implement the reform and implement good governance and transparency. We also need to have respect.

"We're going to win back this respect through hard work, commitment and we're going to make sure we can finally focus on this wonderful game."

Seemingly reasonable words from a seemingly reasonable guy - and Mr Infantino, in fairness, was always a far less divisive candidate than his closest rival, Sheikh Salman, who faced a slew of questions over human rights abuses in his own country.

The 45-year-old will also surely be helped by several key reforms which were approved in this Extraordinary Congress including a limit to three terms in office for a president.

A new council will replace the current executive committee, featuring a female representative from each confederation, and there will be greater transparency about the salaries of FIFA members.

But the proof, eventually, will be in the pudding.

Indeed, the reputation of FIFA is deservedly so low that it is only natural this latest turn of events has naturally attracted a cynical perspective from some writers.

Paul Hayward, in his column for the Telegraph, even argues that welcoming Mr Infantino into the top job "requires ignorance, forgetfulness and hypocrisy".

However, a more balanced assessment is made by David Conn in the Guardian. Even then, though, Conn's support for Mr Infantino stems from the fact that he was the best of a poor slate of candidates and that he managed to beat Sheikh Salman.

Ultimately, it will be the big calls on which Mr Infantino will be judged.

At this late stage, with qualifiers in some confederations having already begun, the 2018 World Cup is unlikely to be moved away from Russia.

Mr Infantino must simply therefore hope that the event passes without a major racist or homophobic incident - or too much political interference from Vladimir Putin.

However, big questions remain over Qatar 2022 - and then, despite the structural reforms, there are major doubts whether the toxic atmosphere of bribery and secrecy can really be stamped out.

Action speaks louder than words, Mr Infantino - and now is the time for action.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The EU: Should we stay or should we go?

THE FUTURE of Britain's 43-year membership of the European Union will be decided in a referendum on Thursday 23 June following an announcement last weekend by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Voters will be asked: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Or, as The Clash almost wrote in 1981, albeit not about the EU, should we stay or should we go?

It will, undoubtedly, be a big, generation-defining decision which will hopefully settle an argument that has continued to rage in British politics ever since the 1970s.

Back in 1975, Harold Wilson's Labour government held the last referendum on the issue, the result of which strongly backed the decision of Mr Wilson's predecessor Ted Heath to enter what was then known as the Common Market in 1973.

Even then, Mr Wilson made an admission in a letter to the public. He wrote: "We do not pretend, and never have pretended, that we got everything we wanted".

And, since the return to power of the Conservatives in 2010, the issue has headed to the forefront of the political scenery once again.

Moreover, truthfully, it has never much looked like going away either. In 2014, Nigel Farage's insurgent UKIP won the most votes and seats in the European elections.

Meanwhile, under pressure from Conservative eurosceptic backbenchers, Mr Cameron had already guaranteed, in January 2013, a national vote on the EU if his Tory party won a majority.

At the time, that looked fanciful. After all, Mr Cameron had failed to secure a majority in 2010 in an election against Gordon Brown after 13 years of New Labour.

In 2015, however, a perfect storm for the Conservatives developed as Labour collapsed in Scotland to the Nationalists while the Tories themselves gained a whole swathe of seats in the south west from the Liberal Democrats.

Just like in the 1992 general election, the pollsters had got it wrong - and, just like in 1992, the United Kingdom had a Conservative majority government.

So, now it has been established how exactly we have got to this stage, the big question for the pollsters is if they will do any better for this vote?

Frankly, the early signs are that the polls will not necessarily be a good guide to the actual outcome - some surveys have a lead for Remain while others put Leave ahead.

Perhaps an explanation for this muddled picture is the lack of clear information to hand. Certainly, the media coverage so far has not exactly helped.

Indeed, the biggest story which has emerged to date has been that London mayor Boris Johnson will campaign for "Brexit".

It is a decision inconsistent with some of his previous statements but one which would seem best to suit his naked ambition to be the next Conservative leader and PM.

Ultimately, it was the Guardian which summed up the whole charade pretty well, dismissing the importance of Mr Johnson's move and reminding us that we will all have a vote to use on 23 June.

So, where do my thoughts currently lie then? Instinctively, in an ever more globalised world, my view is that the UK should stay in the European Union.

The bloc is the country's biggest trading partner - and it is also an organisation which has done wonders for workers' rights and other everyday stuff from the price of flights to the price of mobile phone data charges.

At the same time, I understand some of the concerns and complaints of the Leave campaigners - that the EU is just too shadowy an organisation with unclear decision-making processes.

In an ideal world then, the next few months would see a firm analysis of a variety of issues surrounding the EU.

But, with much of the media being sidetracked into irrelevance or having made up its mind, there already seems little chance of that.

Of course, the consolation to be taken from this is that the result on 23 June will likely be based on the majority of the nation's gut feeling.

And, at least, that way there should be no complaints about the outcome. The British people will have spoken.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

US election 2016: Year of the outsiders

OUTSIDERS Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders continued their shake-up of American politics after both gained big victories in their respective New Hampshire primary elections.

In the Republican race, Mr Trump took 35.7% of the vote to finish well ahead of his rivals Ohio governor John Kasich (15.8%), Texas senator Ted Cruz (11.7%), and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (11.0%).

Current Florida senator Marco Rubio, of whom so much had been previously expected, performed terribly and his eventual fifth place on 10.6% has indeed left the continuation of his campaign in doubt.

It had all looked so different after the season-opening Iowa caucuses a week ago. There, Mr Rubio had finished third - and, although he did not win, his 23% had put him just one percent behind Mr Trump and just over four points behind winner Mr Cruz.

In other words, Mr Rubio was well in the race. Under the slightest of scrutiny, however, he has totally crumbled.

Perhaps the most seminal moment of the whole campaign so far came in a debate on Saturday in which the fresh-faced Mr Rubio was challenged by another candidate Chris Christie.

Rather than defend himself, though, Mr Rubio instead attacked incumbent President Barack Obama - and then, bizarrely went onto repeat the same line, almost verbatim, twice more in quick succession.

This robotic response was seized upon by Mr Christie as further evidence that Mr Rubio, as a first-term senator, was not yet for the ready for the responsibility that comes with occupying the White House.

And that perception now looks very difficult for him to shake off.

Instead, the focus has now turned back to Mr Trump, a loose cannon - to say the least - having infamously earlier declared he would ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

Rather then, the focus in the Republican camp is on finding a candidate who can reliably stand up to Mr Trump's relentless anti-establishment message.

Could that perhaps be Jeb Bush, son of the 41st President George HW Bush and brother of the 43rd President George W Bush?

Frankly, that seems unlikely. Mr Bush has out-spent all of his contenders by a huge margin - and yet still only came fourth in New Hampshire having been absolutely nowhere in Iowa.

Certainly, it can be said that there is no great clamour for another chapter to be added to the Bush dynasty.

Of course, the same could partly be said about the Clinton dynasty. Hillary Clinton, wife of 42nd President Bill, is standing for the top job for a second time, having been beaten by Mr Obama in 2008.

In New Hampshire, however, she suffered one hell of a bloody nose as Vermont senator Mr Sanders scored a huge win in the Democrat primary.

Self-styled - and self-funded - socialist candidate Mr Sanders took 60.9% of the vote to dwarf Mrs Clinton's 37.9% in what, unlike the Republican contest, is a simple two-horse race.

In fairness, Mrs Clinton herself has admitted she is not connecting with some voters, particularly the young - but the problem for her is that the problem, for many, is herself.

That is actually not an altogether unfair verdict from the electorate when taking into consideration a few key issues.

For a start, Mrs Clinton supported the Defense of Marriage Act and yet now pretends to be an ally of the gay community. Additionally, she voted in favour of the Patriot Act and the Iraq War, both of which were opposed by Mr Sanders.

At the same time, though, Mr Sanders must concede that New Hampshire - well-known for its independent streak - cannot be viewed as typical of the USA as a whole.

Neighbouring his home patch in Vermont, it is also possibly the state with the most favourable demographics for him of all 50 of the states.

So, basically, it could be said that, if Mr Sanders had failed to win in New Hampshire, Mrs Clinton would already have this contest in the bag.

Instead, her 74-year-old opponent most likely now has enough momentum to make it at least to Super Tuesday on 1 March when 11 primary and caucus elections will be held on the Democrat side. On the same day, meanwhile, 14 different states will select their Republican candidate.

By the start of next month then, the race to the White House should start to become a little clearer.

But, for now - in this strangest of electoral cycles - we are largely none the wiser.

Primaries and Caucuses

IOWA01-FebDEMOCRAT Clinton 49.8%, Sanders 49.6%
REPUBLICAN Cruz 27.6%, Trump 24.3%, Rubio 23.1%
NEW HAMPSHIRE09-FebDEMOCRAT Sanders 60.9%, Clinton 37.9%
REPUBLICAN Trump 35.7%, Kasich 15.8%, Cruz 11.7%
Next: Nevada caucus for Democrats (20 Feb), South Carolina primary for Republicans (20 Feb), Nevada caucus for Republicans (23 Feb), South Carolina primary for Democrats (27 Feb), Super Tuesday (1 Mar)

Does not include super-delegates
Democrat (2382 to win)
36 Bernie Sanders
32 Hillary Clinton

Republican (1237 to win)
17 Donald Trump
11 Ted Cruz
10 Marco Rubio
5 John Kasich
4 Jeb Bush
3 Ben Carson

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Six Nations shared between BBC and ITV



Sat 06-Feb14:25 BBCFRANCE v ITALYStade de France
Sat 06-Feb16:50 BBCSCOTLAND v ENGLANDMurrayfield
Sun 07-Feb15:00 ITVIRELAND v WALESAviva Stadium


Sat 13-Feb14:25 BBCFRANCE v IRELANDStade de France
Sat 13-Feb16:50 BBCWALES v SCOTLANDMillennium Stadium
Sun 14-Feb14:00 ITVITALY v ENGLANDStadio Olimpico


Fri 26-Feb20:05 BBCWALES v FRANCEMillennium Stadium
Sat 27-Feb14:25 ITVITALY v SCOTLANDStadio Olimpico
Sat 27-Feb16:50 ITVENGLAND v IRELANDTwickenham


Sat 12-Mar13:30 ITVIRELAND v ITALYAviva Stadium
Sat 12-Mar16:00 ITVENGLAND v WALESTwickenham
Sun 13-Mar15:00 BBCSCOTLAND v FRANCEMurrayfield


Sat 19-Mar14:30 BBCWALES v ITALYMillennium Stadium
Sat 19-Mar17:00 ITVIRELAND v SCOTLANDAviva Stadium
Sat 19-Mar20:00 BBCFRANCE v ENGLANDStade de France

BOTH BBC and ITV will broadcast this year's Six Nations Championship in a £300m deal which runs until 2021.

The BBC - which has had exclusive rights since 2003 - brokered the arrangement as part of a cost-saving exercise in which its sport department has been asked to cut £35m from its budget.

At least this way all of the tournament remains on free-to-air television. The BBC will show the home matches of Scotland, Wales and France - while ITV takes charge of England, Ireland and Italy home games.

The way that the fixtures are laid out actually works out well for the BBC this year. It will show two matches on the opening day - including Scotland v England - and two of the three matches on the final matchday, including France v England.

As usual, much of the attention in the build-up has been on England - but perhaps, this year, that is even more so the case.

For, England have a new head coach - the Australian Eddie Jones - as they seek to repair their tattered reputation after a disastrous home World Cup.

Jones, of course, had a totally different World Cup experience with Japan. The Cherry Blossoms caused one of the biggest sporting shocks of all time by beating the two-time winners South Africa in the Pool stages, and England have appointed their new man expecting similar inspiration.

Nevertheless, there has been caution aired ahead of the Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland on the first day - with Jones even declaring the resurgent Scots to be favourites, given their home advantage.

That is still not something with which the bookmakers agree - and it is true that Scotland must turn the tide of recent history to be successful this spring.

Scotland have never won the Six Nations title - they have, though, collected four wooden spoons since Italy were introduced in 2000, and finished bottom last year.

But, after that, they recovered gamely, recording a series of comeback wins in the Pool stages of the World Cup before a heartbreaking and controversial defeat to Australia in the quarter finals.

Indeed, the first Six Nations after a World Cup is often seen in the context of the latter - and this year will be no different.

For Wales, this is good news. Also subject to a heartbreaking late defeat to a southern hemisphere superpower - in their case South Africa - the Welsh nonetheless produced some stirring displays and memorably beat England at Twickenham.

They can be proud of their World Cup efforts - and, certainly, the re-match against England on 12 March, again at Twickenham, should hold no fears.

Meanwhile, Ireland - who have won the last two Six Nations titles, and often in some style - are in a state of flux following their wholly unexpected defeat to Argentina in the World Cup quarters.

Former captain Paul O'Connell has joined the totemic Brian O'Driscoll in retirement and this leaves a lot of pressure on fly-half Jonny Sexton as the clearest link back to one of Ireland's greatest teams.

Indeed, the first match for the Irish - against a more settled Wales team in Dublin - promises to be the most enthralling fixture of this first weekend, even accounting for the Calcutta Cup contest.

Six Nations campaigns cannot be decided in one game - but that tête-à-tête in Dublin may nevertheless go a long way to determining the fate of those two teams this year.

For now, surprisingly, England have been classified as favourites with the money men - despite their awful World Cup and despite the fact that they have finished runners-up for the last four years.

And, while it is a new era for English rugby, it would be no surprise if they extended that record to a fifth year in finishing behind the Welsh.

Scotland will improve but Ireland will still sneak third place ahead of them by winning the match between the two teams in Dublin on the final day.

Finally, the two continentals - France and Italy - will just be there to make up the numbers, a damning indictment on the French, whose World Cup campaign was ultimately little better than that of England.

It would be no surprise, of course, if these predictions are completely wrong - but the fun part is watching and seeing what happens - on two television channels this year.

TEAM-BY-TEAM GUIDE Odds from Ladbrokes
ENGLAND Odds 13/8 fav
Coach Eddie Jones Captain Dylan Hartley
TwickenhamFixtures Scotland (A), Italy (A), Ireland (H), Wales (H), France (A)
IRB Rank: 8Six Nations titles 4 (2000, 2001, 2003, 2011)
FRANCE Odds 6/1Coach Guy Novès Captain Guilhem Guirado
Stade de FranceFixtures Italy (H), Ireland (H), Wales (A), Scotland (A), England (H)
IRB Rank: 7Six Nations titles 5 (2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010)
IRELAND Odds 9/2
Coach Joe Schmidt Captain Rory Best
Aviva StadiumFixtures Wales (H), France (A), England (A), Italy (H), Scotland (H)
IRB Rank: 6Six Nations titles 3 (2009, 2014, 2015)
ITALY Odds 500/1
Coach Jacques Brunel Captain Sergio Parisse
Stadio OlimpicoFixtures France (A), England (H), Scotland (H), Ireland (A), Wales (A)
IRB Rank: 12Six Nations titles None
SCOTLAND Odds 14/1Coach Vern Cotter Captain Greig Laidlaw
MurrayfieldFixtures England (H), Wales (A), Italy (A), France (H), Ireland (A)
IRB Rank: 9Six Nations titles None
WALES Odds 9/4Coach Warren Gatland Captain Sam Warburton
Millennium StadiumFixtures Ireland (A), Scotland (H), France (H), England (A), Italy (H)
IRB Rank: 4Six Nations titles 4 (2005, 2008, 2012, 2013)