All posts by Tom Ballard

Beginners Guide to Baseball

“Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.”

So said Yogi Berra, a 10-time World Series winner famous for his quirky nuggets of wisdom about the sport known ‘America’s National Pastime’.

Many British sports fans perceive baseball as a glorified version of that schooldays staple, rounders.

Others see the connections between its rich traditions and those of cricket, our own national summer sport, not least in its fervent devotion to team and individual statistics.

With the 2017 season just around the corner, here’s our beginners guide to understanding what those ‘boys of summer’ will be getting up to between now and the World Series in October-November.

2017 Season

The new season will officially begin on April 2nd, when the reigning World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs, take on the St Louis Cardinals.

Miami’s Marlins Park will host the 2017 All-Star Game

The regular season is scheduled to end on October 1, with the post-season or play-offs beginning two days later, and the best-of-seven-game World Series scheduled to start on October 24th.

Major League Baseball (MLB) explored the possibility of bringing some regular season games to the London Stadium, home of West Ham United, but the plans were dropped due to a lack of time for negotiations.

There are 30 MLB teams, split between the National and American Leagues, and split within those into regional divisions.

Each team plays a massive 162 games in the regular season in a schedule that includes contests against their divisional rivals as well as cross-divisional and cross-league encounters.

Team Positions

Teams consist of nine players and take turns fielding and batting, with the home team batting second.

An inning consists of batters from each team taking their turn at bat until three batters are out. A game lasts nine innings, but is extended into extra ones if the scores are level.

“Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand” – New York baseball legend Leo Durocher

The fielding side consists of a pitcher, catcher, four infielders, and three outfielders.

Pitchers throws overhand, using a variety of deliveries from a raised mound to the home plate.

If the batter misses three legitimate pitches, or fails to swing at three judged hittable by the umpire, he is out on strikes.

But if the pitcher throws four pitches outside the strike zone, the batter gets a walk to first base.

A strike is also called when the batter swings at a pitch whether it is deemed to be in the strike zone or not.

If a ball is struck out of the field of play, also known as the ballpark, it’s called a home run.

A tactic within baseball is to load up first to third base, then get the designated hitter to hit a home run; the team batting gets four runs on the scoreboard due to all of the players on the bases.

Brief History of Baseball

The origins of baseball are the subject of much debate and dispute, but the first recorded game in America took place in 1838.

In 1871, the first professional baseball league was born. By the beginning of the 20th century, most large cities in the eastern United States had a professional teams.

The sport really came of age in the 1920s, when Babe Ruth (perhaps it’s most famous-ever player) led the New York Yankees to several World Series titles and became a national hero thanks to his unrivalled ability to hit home runs.

World Series

The first World Series was played in 1903 and has taken place every year since. The New York Yankees have appeared in 40, winning 27 times – no-one else even comes close to their feats.

And yet, the World Series seen as the greatest ever didn’t involve the Yankees, but featured the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves in 1991.

Clayton Kershaw, star pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Five games in this series were decided by a single run, four games were decided in the final at-bat, and three games went into extra innings.

Both Game Six and Game Seven went beyond the 9th inning, with Minnesota winning both at their Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome home.

Game Six was won in the 11th inning on a walk-off home run by Minnesota outfielder Kirby Puckett.

In Game Seven, Minnesota pitcher Jack Morris threw a 10-inning, complete game shutout, with Twins utility man Gene Larkin getting a series-winning RBI single in the bottom of the 10th. (AXS, 2015)

Baseball Statistics

Baseball statistics play an important role in evaluating a player or team’s progress.

Since the flow of a baseball game has natural breaks, and normally players act individually rather than performing in clusters, the sport lends itself to easy record keeping and statistics.

Statistics have been kept for professional baseball since the creation of the National and American Leagues, now part of Major League Baseball.

A lot of people agree that the statistical side of the game helps people to understand what is going on on the field.

However, not everyone likes the influx of statistical measurements that now go on in the MLB.

An interview between MLB Network’s Brian Kenny and Chicago White Sox TV play-by-play announcer Ken Harrelson shows this.

What started out as a pleasant conversation quickly devolved into Harrelson decrying the use of numbers in baseball and introducing the most interesting metric of the past 25 years, ‘The Will To Win’.

Give it a go

The statistical side of baseball can be very complicated but don’t let that put you off of potentially going to watch a game live or watching a game on ESPN which is part of the BT Sport package.

The atmosphere at baseball games is second to none, and nothing beats watching a home run soar into the stands.

Book Review – Long Shot by Craig Hodges

“You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”

The first line in this autobiography, subtitled ‘The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter’, is a intriguing one.

The quote immediately makes you want to read on. Why isn’t Craig Hodges someone you want to be like?

For those not familiar with the name, Hodges, 56, is an American retired professional basketball player. He played in the NBA for 10 seasons, winning two NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan.

Hodges led the league in three-point shooting percentage three times and, along with Larry Bird, is one of only two players to win three consecutive three-point contests at the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend.

Vilification

But in the story of American sport, Hodges is – as that subtitle suggests – more than just another good hoops player.

Always ready to speak out on issues and never happy to simply keep his head down and – in more ways than one – play the game, Hodges refused to  just take the money and run.

The foreword by firebrand US sportswriter Dave Zirin explains why sport and politics continue to make for uneasy bedfellows.

Not so long ago, as Zirin explains, any sportsman who dared to rock the boat would be blackballed and “written out of the history books with a casual cruelty that would make Stalin jealous”.

Sure, times have changed. But as NFL star Colin Kaepernick discovered when he began marking the national anthem with down-on-one-knee ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest, politically-outspoken elite sportspeople still risk vilification.

Speaking to current New York Knicks player Joakim Noah, Hodges says: “Don’t let those big paychecks buy your silence.”

It could be argued that modern-day athletes such as Kaepernick and NBA star Steph Curry have used Hodges as a role model in this respect.

Limits

Like many black American athletes, Hodges is proud of his African heritage. When visiting the White House, he wore a white Dashiki, saying: “I was raised to know that my history was unwritten, so if the books weren’t going to represent it, I would.”

“What happens when a college or the NBA doesn’t come knocking? In a certain sense, the child stops existing. An emptiness sets in” – Craig Hodges

He took the opportunity to hand a letter to President George Bush Sr, speaking about his beliefs and the battle for equality for African Americans.

But as the shooting guard says in his book, written with Rory Fanning: “I’d soon learn, however, that the overlords of the league had other plans for me and that my freedom of expression had serious limits.”

One of the main points I took from this fascinating read is that Hodges put his beliefs ahead of his career and it cost him.

Craig Hodges in 2016

But it was still a career that offered him a way out of poverty, although he makes the point: “What happens when a college or the NBA doesn’t come knocking? In a certain sense, the child stops existing. An emptiness sets in.”

Having watched the IVERSON documentary on Allen Iverson, there are similarities between him and Hodges.

Kids like them had to do all they could to make it into the big leagues or, as Hodges says, “end up in the Ford factory” – if they were lucky.

Fanning has helped Hodge to tell his story in a way which connects his personal and professional lives, his exploits on the court with the activism which so irked the basketball hierarchy.

Hodges claims, for instance he was traded from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Phoenix Suns because of his affiliation with members of the Nation of Islam, and his political views.

Criticism

In 1996, towards the end of his playing career, Hodges filed a $40m lawsuit against the NBA and its then 29 teams.

It claimed they blackballed him for his association with Louis Farrakhan and his criticism of “African-American professional athletes who failed to use their considerable wealth and influence to assist the poor and disenfranchised”.

‘Long Shot’ firmly places Hodges in a tradition of activist athletes which also includes Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Muhammad Ali – sportspeople who have often paid dearly for refusing to compromise their political beliefs, and they deserve credit for that.

After reading about the trials and tribulations he went through during his career, I finally understood the statement “You don’t want to be like Craig Hodges.”

However, as Zirin writes in his foreword, it should say “You DO want to be like Craig Hodges.”

Long Shot – The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter is available on Amazon UK for £14.99.

Change not for the better at rugby union’s grassroots

Having been inspired by England’s 2003 World Cup success, I was started playing tag rugby that winter.

Aged six or seven, I joined my local club, Esher, and played through its age-group teams for the next 11 years.

Grassroots rugby is something that has been important to me ever since. Those roots are precious and need nurturing.

A big part of that is the valuable life lessons the sport teaches its youngsters. These include respect for the referee, and it’s always been a virtuous circle.

Young players grow up respecting match officials and carry this through to adulthood, where they act as role models for the next generation.

Evidence

Compare that to the dissent and disrespect that’s become part and parcel of football.

Players at the highest levels harass and harangue referees while their managers abuse fourth officials on the touchline.

The risk is that young players will emulate this behaviour, but could this become a rugby problem as well?

There is evidence that the game’s long-cherished culture of respect is changing.

Steve Grainger, rugby development director at the Rugby Football Union, believes that an influx of new players and their parents is having an effect.

Success

These youngsters, encouraged by their families, are inspired – just like I was 14 years ago – by England’s recent success, but also by the increasingly lucrative rewards available in the professional ranks.

“The stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it”

Grainger believes verbal abuse from parents and coaches on the sidelines in the amateur game is a bigger problem than player dissent.

“We are starting to see some challenges in touchline behaviour,” Grainger told BBC Radio 5 live.

“Traditionally, a lot of kids that have come into the sport because their parents have been involved in it, so you have a culture there,” he said.

“As we broaden that, we are bringing in parents who themselves have had no exposure to rugby.”

Influx

Unfortunately, and without wishing to negatively stereotype, the behaviour Grainger is referring to has been around in football for many years.

Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Football Association is preparing to to relaunch its Respect campaign as the verbal and physical abuse towards match officials at grassroots level increases.

Maybe it is because the stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it – if you are good enough.

Average annual salaries in the Aviva Premiership are now around £100,000 – more for ‘marquee’ signings and experienced players – and gaining international recognition can massively boost that figure.

The top 10 earners in the Premiership all earn in excess of £290,000 a year. No.1 is Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers on £425,000.

Semi-pro woes

Esher RFC has always prided itself on being a successful semi-professional club. This culminated in 2008, when the club took on Northampton Saints in the National League 1 – now called the Championship.

“A club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially”

When they played the Saints that season, the opposition included players such as future England captain Dylan Hartley.

A club of Esher’s size and resources, however, was never going to be able to survive in the long-term at such a high level, and they currently play in National League One – rugby union’s equivalent of football’s League One third tier.

They’ve still managed to attract quality players in recent years including Fiji’s Nicky Little, plus brothers Steffon and Bevon Armitage. The former now plays at Toulon.

Lured away

But living strictly within its means, while other teams have continued to embrace professionalism, means many of Esher’s best young prospects – including some I used to play with as a teenager – are lured away to bigger clubs.

In some instances it proved divisive as players have flitted around different teams, trying to work out which one offers them the best chance of making it big.

However, Esher’s achievements have also accrued benefits, and Premiership clubs often send younger players there on loan. Esher helped to hone the talent of George Lowe of Harlequins, and he is now regular starter for Quins.

But a club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially.

Justify

In March last year year, Esher told director of rugby Mike Schmidt that that his contract would not be renewed after 11 years.

mike-schmid (Credit: Get Surrey)
Esher had to part with Mike Schmidt

Esher’s chairman of rugby, TV presenter John Inverdale, said the decision was entirely down to financial reasons.

“It’s getting harder and harder to justify the expenditure at the second and third levels of the English game,” he explained.

Given Schmidt’s key role in Esher’s rise to the heights of playing in the second tier, it was a sad way for that relationship to end – but such are the realities of an increasingly professional game.

As modern rugby evolves, clubs like Esher, who are the lifeblood of the game, are struggling to keep up with its demands.

The England national team’s record-breaking run should be inspiring a feel-good factor in the sport.

But unless the grassroots game at clubs like Esher is taking into account, rugby’s future may not be quite so healthy and secure after all.

Confusion reigns over rugby union’s high tackle laws

Concussions have increasingly become an issue for concern in elite rugby union. In recent years, the number of these potentially serious head injuries have soared by 59% in the Premiership.

Players are bigger, fitter, faster and stronger, the hits are harder, so it’s no surprise that a re-think of the rules around tackling has happened.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly” – Jonathan Davies

Several high-profile incidents have fuelled calls for more to done to protect the health and safety of those on the pitch.

Northampton Saints were heavily criticised after letting their Wales and Lions international winger George North play on after seemingly lost consciousness (see image at top) following a collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone.

North was cleared to return to the game, but BT Sport pundit Ugo Monye said at the time: “I don’t think George North should [still] be on the pitch; it’s a simple as that.”

Long-term effects

The England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, published in collaboration with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, showed that although the rate of injuries remained stable during the 2013-14 season, their severity continues to rise in the professional game.

The Rugby Football Union has recruited former England internationals to pioneer a study into the long-term effects of playing rugby.

World Rugby have also issued a revision to its laws which came into effect on the January 3rd.

It has increased the severity of the punishment for reckless tackles, with a minimum sanction of yellow card and a red where deemed appropriate.

It has also encouraged an increase in any accompanying bans, but the changes have confused coaches, players and spectators alike.

Fallen foul

Ex-Wales star Jonathan Davies, now a BBC pundit, said: “Inexperienced referees have gone berserk in imposing yellow cards.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly. They’ve gone to the letter of the law, and it’s gone crazy.”

“Wayne Barnes admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them”

Davies argued that referees need to use common sense about what can be considered a ‘high shot’ and is a ‘cheap’ one.

A player who has fallen foul of this recently is England international Brad Barritt.

The Saracens centre was banned for three weeks after a high tackle on international team-mate Geoff Parling during the match against Exeter.

Originally, Sarries prop Richard Barrington received a red card for his part in the tackle.

However, an RFU disciplinary panel found that ref Ian Tempest had punished the wrong individual. You can see the tackle in question here and make up your own mind.

‘No massive change’

Leading international referee Wayne Barnes told BBC 5 Live recently that the laws themselves have not changed, only how officials are being told to interpret them.

Barnes insisted: “[There’s been] no massive chance, we’ve carried on doing what we’ve done for a while now.”

He admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them.

But what do people involved in grass-roots rugby union think of the situation?

I visited my local team, Esher RFC, to watch them play against Fylde, and talked to spectators about the high-tackle controversy.

Overall, there was general support for the ‘new’ laws and a recognition that something needed to be done.

‘Protection needed’

James Sharman, a former Surrey county youth player, said a more rigorous approach to high tackling is the best way forward.

“It’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us”

“Having looked at the [injury] statistics, it was evident that it was only going to end up this way,” he said.

“These players are putting their bodies on the line week in, week out. They need modernised ways to protect them.”

Joel Keefe, who plays at amateur level, said the changes have been made at the right time.

“Being someone that plays rugby, it’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us,” he said.

“Now all that needs to happen is to make sure that the referees judge their decisions diligently and correctly. The worst thing that could happen is if the rules were made a mockery.”

Committed

Clearly, this fresh interpretation of rules around high tackles is going to take some time to bed in.

With the 2017 Six Nations just around the corner, and the British & Irish Lions touring New Zealand in the summer, all eyes will now turn to the international game to see how the laws are enforced at the very highest level.

There’s bound to more controversy along the way.

But ultimately, it is good to see rugby union’s governing bodies demonstrating that they are committed to protecting the players who week in, week out put their bodies on the line for club and country.

Review – The Battle by Paul O’Connell

To rugby union fans, the name Paul O’Connell is synonymous with the northern hemisphere game; he is one of the modern greats of the game, but has an incredibly humble background story.

He won over 100 caps for Ireland, won a Grand Slam in the Six Nations, been on three British and Irish Lions tours, and played in numerous World Cups, not to forget Heineken Cup wins as well.

Had it not been for Brian O’Driscoll’s brilliant career at the same time as his, he would have arguably been the best Irish player of his generation.

He was a die-hard second row forward, putting his heart into every tackle and getting stuck in at most of the breakdowns. He finally retired at the age of 35 in 2015, after an illustrious 14-year career with Munster, his home province.

Having played rugby for 10 years myself, I was keen to learn about his experiences playing the game at the top level, and this frank and honest memoir explains just how brutal rugby can be – not only physically, but mentally as well.

Calling it quits

O’Connell was a player who strived for excellence throughout his career, be it playing for Munster, Ireland or the Lions. He wanted to be the best, and he wanted to be in peak physical condition whenever he played.

“O’Connell is an honest man, and he knew he had run out of steam, which is fair enough for a player who had given his life to the sport for the best part of 20 years”

He recalls how, after years of doing it, he took the big decision to quit whilst swimming, a passage which resonated with me about my own childhood experience of playing sport.

He recounts having to tell his father of his choice, and how hard it was to get the words out, because, having put so much effort in to help him, he was worried his dad wouldn’t be happy with his decision. His reply? “It’s your decision and I’ll back it” – a similar reaction to the one I encountered.

Towards the end of my rugby career at youth level, I was finding the sheer physicality was taking its toll on me mentally, and even though we are completely different people, O’Connell was in a similar state of mind towards the end of his career.

Aftermath

O’Connell talks about getting injured in Ireland’s final game of the 2015 World Cup, saying: “It came into my head that I’d be stronger in the second half. And then, on 39.42, I got pulled out of the ring.”

This resonated with me after looking back at my career, playing one of the best games of my life, only to break my collarbone in a tackle.

The mental battle during the months of recuperation ahead is the toughest part of injuries – a key topic O’Connell which dwells on throughout the book.

He recalls how as entered the final phase of his career, the aftermath of matches began taking an increasingly tough toll. “When I got into my thirties, the same aches and pains were telling me it was time to retire.”

O’Connell is an honest man, and he knew he had run out of steam, which is fair enough for a player who had given his life to the sport for the best part of 20 years.

Choking

Nor was was it just on the field of play where the stresses and strains of an increasingly professionalised sport manifested themselves.

“He was a brutal player too, and reminisces about the dark side of rugby”

O’Connell recalls one training session where “we collapsed the maul and the digs were flying… I rained five or six punches down on the back of Quinny’s head… In the dressing room afterwards, he was laughing about it. He couldn’t believe I’d belted him.”

Contrast that with another episode in 2007 when, during Ireland training, he got into a scuffle with Ulster player Ryan Caldwell. O’Connell punched him, fracturing his jaw and knocking him out, and was terrified he was swallowing and choking on blood.

This was a turning point for O’Connell. “What happened to Ryan Caldwell changed me,” he reveals. “It was the worst moment of my career. I never threw a punch in training again.”

Brutal

I got great enjoyment out of reading this book simply due to the fact that I could relate to a lot of the issues that O’Connell discusses.

Of course, he’s a legend in his sport and captained his country, but having skippered my youth team for the last five years of my playing career, I could buy into where he was coming from.

O’Connell wasn’t your everyday modern rugby player. He flitted between sports, trying to find his niche throughout his teenage years, and didn’t begin to excel at rugby union until he was 16 years old.

He was a brutal player too, and reminisces about the dark side of rugby. “The first thing you do after kick-off, find your opposing player, and give him a shoeing without getting caught.”

As bad as it sounds that was kind of the enjoyment of rugby – there were never any hard feelings after the game, a shake of the hands and you just crack on with it. This is something that O’Connell emphasises throughout his story.

 Mental strain

The mental battle O’Connell went through was the most interesting topic of all, though. He’d beat himself up if a performance wasn’t up to standard, and even went through stages of depression when he knew he wasn’t good enough.Paul O'Connell in action for Ireland. (Credit: Irish Daily Star)

O’Connell was always in a battle with his mind about his fitness, for the last 10 years of his career, he doubted whether he was good enough.

He was so passionate about the sport he didn’t want to let himself or his team-mates down.

He was a player who took this kind of thing to heart. Perhaps it was the thing that spurred him on to achieve greatness.

This is something that many people can relate to, whether they play sport or not, I know I took some comfort in knowing that I can relate to someone who was as good at rugby as O’Connell was.

What I enjoyed the most is the connection you can have when reading an autobiography; you look for the similarities and whether you have been in similar situations. In this case there were many similarities and that’s what made it such a good memoir for me.

The Battle by Paul O’Connell is published by Penguin Ireland.

George Ford celebrates with passion after scoring a try against the Springboks. (Credit: Laurence Griffiths)

England look to build on win over Boks

Last weekend saw England emerge 37-21 winners over a slightly lackadaisical South Africa side.

They know they could have performed better, but let’s not take that away from the result. England were determined to dominate, and they did.

It was the first time England had beaten the Springboks in over a decade. The list below shows the past 10 results between the sides before Saturday’s clash.

  • Nov 2014: England 28-31 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2012: England 15-16 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 14-14 England, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 36-27 England, Ellis Park
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 22-17 England, Kings Park
  • Nov 2010: England 11-21 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2008: England 6-42 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Oct 2007: England 6-15 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Sep 2007: England 0-36 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Jun 2007: South Africa 55-22 England, Loftus

England were slow to get out of the blocks, going 0-6 down within the first 10 minutes. However a swift and free-flowing counter-attack allowed Jonny May to do what he does best and finish in the corner.

From then on, England kicked on and were superior to the Springboks in nearly every aspect – not something which is normally seen in games between northern and southern hemisphere sides.

Key stats

In terms of attacking statistics, England made 451 metres throughout the match, compared to the Springboks 395m. England also made nine clean breaks, to South Africa’s four, the pick of the bunch being Ben Youngs’ dummy passes to set up both George Ford and Owen Farrell.

England also displayed a great defensive mindset; something that head coach Eddie Jones is keen to implement throughout the XV, the most important thing being that you have to put your body on the line for the team.

A key statistic in this respect was England’s nine turnovers at the breakdown compared to South Africa’s four. Watching the game, you could see that the team in white would do everything and anything to get the ball back.

 Discipline

However, the only visible downside to England’s game was the penalty count they racked up, conceding 11 in total. It’s something that Jones evidently wasn’t pleased about, as shown by his post-match comment that England can get a lot better.

Skipper Dylan Hartley backed up the Aussie, saying: “There’s plenty to work on, so that keeps us grounded. We conceded six penalties in the opening 20 minutes and that isn’t good enough.”

Man of the match

The standout performer was Youngs; he was everywhere he could possibly be on the pitch and had the vision to spot the break in the line not once, but twice to set up Ford and Farrell.

 A new week, a new challenge

This weekend brings a new challenge in the form of Fiji, regular so-called whipping boys who will be wanting to make an impression in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham on Saturday.

 Draining the talent pool

One of the many reasons that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa haven’t managed to excel as much as they would have wanted is that their talented pool of players is often raided by other rugby nations.Mike Brown in action during the last clash between the teams in 2015. (Credit: Rugby News)

Take Manu Tuilagi; when fully fit and on the top of his game, he is unstoppable, showing this against New Zealand a couple of years ago.

Although he and a few of his brothers had dual nationality, playing for England would be a much more lucrative opportunity than a Pacific Island team.

To put into perspective why many of these players adopt other nations over Fiji for example, just look at how much players are getting paid for this match in the Autumn internationals series.

Nathan Hughes, who was actually born in Fiji, will take home £22,000 playing for England, while his former countrymen receive just £400 each.

 Olympic glory

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Fijians.Fiji celebrating with their Olympic gold medals (Credit: Associated Press)

They have had something to be ecstatic about this year, winning their first-ever Olympic medal – gold in the rugby sevens tournament, beating Great Britain in the process.

It wasn’t a tight game in the slightest, with Fiji trouncing GB 43-7 in the final in Rio.

Although sevens is a very different game, Jones will be wary as to what could potentially unfold over 80 minutes.

Fiji’s danger men

Centre Vereniki Goneva should be well known to England fans, having played for Leicester Tigers between 2012 and 2016and scoring 205 points in the process.

In the 2015–16 European Rugby Champions Cup, he scored a try in every game finishing with six in five matches in the knockout rounds, making him the competition’s joint top try-scorer alongside Thomas Waldrom.

Lock Leone Nakawara currently plays for Racing 92 in France, and was one of the players who won an Olympic sevens medal at Rio 2016, scoring a try in the final in a one-sided 43-7 victory over Great Britain.

During his time at Glasgow Warriors, Nakarawa was named man of the match for in the 2015 Pro12 Grand Final in Belfast. He had the most offloads in the 2014–15 European Rugby Champions Cup with 25.

Fly-half Ben Volavola is, perhaps surprisingly, the youngest player in the current squad at 25. He signed for the Crusaders in the 2016 Super Rugby season to replace a number 10 exodus at the New Zealand club, with Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor having moved to play their rugby in Europe.

During his three-year stint at the Southern Districts side, he racked up 248 points in 36 appearances.

Overall record 

In the six matches the teams have played against each other, England have never lost to Fiji, racking up 245 points to their 94. The largest win came in 2012 when England demolished them 54-12.

Jones knows all about upsets though, pulling off arguably the biggest one in international rugby history when his Japan team beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.

A repeat is unlikely on Saturday, but Jones is too wily and experienced a coach to take anything for granted.

Jones eyes more England progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to take advantage

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

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

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

This will be one of Eddie Jones’ biggest tests.

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

Injury crisis

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

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

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

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

Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Five loan players who returned to haunt their clubs

On-loan goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski recently put in the performance of his life for Empoli to thwart his parent club Roma in Serie A.

The Pole stood firm against the likes of Mo Salah and Edin Dzeko as strugglers Empoli held high-flying Roma to a goalless draw, leaving them four points behind leaders Juventus.

Loan players often have clauses in their temporary deals to prevent them from playing in competitive matches against their clubs – in England this is pretty much standard practice.

But there have been enough instances of it happening across continental Europe to warrant us selecting a top five of players whose clubs were left to rue the day they let them go on loan.

5. Lukasz Skorupski (Empoli vs. Roma)

Skorupski was in commanding form (Credit: Gabriele Maltini)

The most recent of the bunch, Skorupski played for Empoli last weekend and had one of the games of his career. Saving multiple shots and keeping out Stephen El Shaarawy in the 93rd minute of the game.

It opens up the age-old debate: is the player putting in a super-human effort because he’s playing against his parent team to prove a point? Only Lukasz knows the answer to that.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that Roma boss Luciano Spalletti will be pleased with his performance…

4: Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich vs. Juventus)

Kingsley Coman is the world’s new young footballing superstar, having played for Paris Saint Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich, all before he turned 20 years old.

Bayern signed him on a two-year loan deal with an option to buy in the summer of 2015.

In March, he returned to Juve and gave them cause for regret about the conditions of his loan by scoring the final goal against in Bayern’s 4-2-comeback win at the Allianz Arena in the Champions League.

I think it’s fair to say he might not be too welcome back in Turin anytime soon….

You can watch Coman’s goal here.

3. Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid vs. Chelsea)

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Courtois denies Gary Cahill (Credit: Javier Soriano)

Before the build-up to this game there was a lot of controversy surrounding the decision to allow Thibaut Courtois to play against Chelsea.

This was due to Courtois having a clause in his loan contract not allowing him to play against his parent club; however, Fifa reversed this ruling, allowing him to play.

Atletico thanked their lucky stars that Fifa got involved because the Belgian pulled an amazing performance out of the bag, thwarting multiple Chelsea attacks and helping Atletico advance to the next round in the Champions League.

His performance evidently underlined his qualities for the Blues, and he became their first-choice goalkeeper as of the next season.

2. Anderson Talisca (Besiktas vs. Benfica)

Anderson Talisca is one for the Football Manager heads reading this article. He’s an incredibly talented Brazilian youngster who is on the books with Benfica.

The 22-year-old attacker is somewhat reminiscent of Ronaldinho or Juninho when he’s standing over a dead-ball situation.

It was surprising to see him go on loan to Besiktas at the beginning of the season; however it was even more surprising to see him come on at half-time with Besiktas trailing 1-0 to Benfica in the Champions League.

What happened next isn’t something you see everyday. Talisca hit the ball sweetly from a direct free kick and the ball whistled into the top corner. He did this in the 92nd minute to earn Besiktas a draw against his parent team.

You can watch Talisca’s wonder goal here.

1. Fernando Morientes (Monaco vs. Real Madrid)

Back in 2004, Fernando Morientes, a player unwanted by Real Madrid and loaned to Monaco, scored a goal in each leg which helped condemn his parent club to the unthinkable.

The striker had a point to prove against his parent club, who had decided he was ‘not needed’.

What better way to prove yourself than scoring two goals and knocking your team out of the Champions League in the semi-finals?

Seeing as he was on his way to Liverpool the next season anyway, it was the perfect parting shot for Morientes.

Swapping Champions League for non-league

Champions League choices… Bayer Leverkusen v Spurs or Leicester v FC Copenhagen on TV in the comfort of my living room.

In the end, I went for neither and opted instead to catch Woking’s FA Cup replay against Torquay in the flesh.

Admittedly, the fact that Woking’s Kingfield Stadium is just 15 minutes from where I live helped to swing the decision, but ultimately it was one I didn’t regret.

Kingfield is an impressive venue by non-league standards, with one large stand and a capacity of around 6,000 – mostly standing, though.

In true football fashion, I kicked off my first-ever trip to a non-league match by heading straight to the bar for a pint of lager, followed by pie and chips.

Determined

During my fast-food workout, I watched the players warming up and immediately noted that the quality of their drills and footwork wasn’t too bad.

Having done some research, I knew a few of the Woking names likely to catch the eye, including Jake Caprice, a fleet-of-foot full-back.

“With Woking languishing near the foot of the National League, this was a much-needed victory”

Another was Charlie Carter, an industrious and playmaking central midfielder who has made his way through the academy ranks. Plus, Dennon Lewis, a young winger spending a season-long loan at Woking from Premier League outfit Watford.

Having drawn 1-1 in Devon three days earlier, Woking were determined to make an impact from the off and reach the FA Cup first round proper for just the second time in five years.

Let’s not forget, Woking have had their moments in the competition, including a giant-killing victory at West Bromwich Albion in the 1990/91 season.

Poor penalty

Non-league teams like Woking and Torquay are desperate for good cup runs, because of the potential revenue it can produce. It was evident that this was a motivating aspect in this game.

With not even 10 minutes gone, Woking had a chance to open the scoring from the penalty spot after Carter made a nuisance of himself and was brought down by opposing keeper Brendan Moore.

However, a poor penalty from Delano Sam-Yorke and a fine save from Moore kept the ball out of the net.

Torquay capitalised on this and after gaining a corner, scored from the resulting set piece. Giancarlo Gallifuoco flicked the ball onto a post and Sam Chaney was on hand score just before half-time.

Whatever Woking boss Garry Hill said at half-time seemed to work as the hosts were fast out of the blocks again, and this time it proved fruitful.

End to end

Garry Hill and the team applauding the fans at the final whistle.
Woking applaud their fans

Caprice, confirming that he has talent, was causing trouble on the wing and whipped the ball into the box. Gozie Ugwu was on hand to slide the ball past Moore and the Cards were finally level.

Five minutes later and the game was turned on its head as Woking completing their second-half comeback.

A Fabio Saraiva corner from the left was met by the head of Ugwu who looped the ball back past Moore and into the corner of the net for his second goal.

For the rest of the half, it was end to end stuff with chances for both teams – exciting to watch from a neutral’s perspective.

The game nearly took another turn in the 88th minute, with Torquay piling on the pressure and Woking looking weary.

A goal-line scramble ensued in the Woking area, with some amazing stops from home keeper Brandon Hall, aided by Caprice, who took one for the team and blocked a certain goal with his face.

With Woking languishing near the foot of the National League, this was a much-needed victory and an opportunity to progress further in the Cup.

Woking now host Macclesfield on November 5th, and with their opposition just outside the National League play-off positions, fireworks could ensue.

 

Photos courtesy of David Holmes.