Category Archives: Features

Djokovic’s struggles continue with an early exit at Indian Wells

After his early exit at Indian Wells, it looks like being a long, hard road for Novak Djokovic to get back to his glory days.

Before his six month break from tennis to undergo and recuperate from elbow surgery, the Serb was the most dominant player around.

He won four straight grand slam titles from 2015 to 2016, but at Indian Wells he showed little of that form as he was upset by Japanese qualifier Taro Daniels 7-6 (7-3) 4-6 6-1 in the second round.

The Serbian, 30, who has won 12 slam titles but is currently languishing at 13th in the ATP rankings.

After his latest defeat, Djokovic said: “For me, it felt like the first match I ever played on the tour. Very weird”

Djokovic, who let a 5-2 lead slip in the first set, committed 61 unforced errors as he showed just how rusty he was.

He has had great success at the Indian Wells, winning five titles, but this was his quickest exit from the competition since 2006, when he made his debut.

To find the last time Djokovic lost a qualifier, you have to go back to 2008, when he crashed out in Miami.

Soldiering on

Even before the elbow problem worsened, his form had been waning during 2016, and he alluded to off-court issues. Reports at the time claimed his marriage had hit problems.

 

But his biggest problem on the court was coming from his elbow, which eventually required surgery.

Djokovic had soldiered on to Wimbledon 2017, where he reached the quarter-finals against Thomas Berdych but only managed to play two sets before pulling out.

He then had the operation and did not pick up a racket for nearly five months before returning to training, and then playing in January’s Australian Open warm-up event in Abu Dhabi.

For his first match against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic wore a sleeve over his troublesome elbow but beat the Austrian 6-1, 6-4.

Expressing his relief, Djokovic said: “I’m smiling inside and outside. I just love this sport so much.”

Even though Djokovic wasn’t at his best, he moved on to Melbourne, where he’s won six times, but lost in the fourth round to South Korea’s Hyeon Chung.

After his defeat, he said: “It was a good tournament. I mean, it’s disappointing to go out in the fourth round [but] I have to accept it. That’s the reality. It’s frustrating, of course, when you have that much time and you don’t heal properly.”

Del Potro backing

There is one player that knows how it feels like to be out of the game injured, and that’s Juan Martin del Potro.

Once seen as the next dominant force of the men’s game, the 2009 US Open winner was hit by numerous wrist injuries which slowed his progress.

However, the Argentine believes that Djokovic will recover and get back to his best.

 

“I think it’s only a matter of time to get where deserves to be. And if his body feels good, the tennis comes along and the confidence comes along too.”

What next for Djokovic

The next tournament for the Serb will be the Miami Open (March 21 – April 1). Djokovic is a six-time winner in Florida, so this is clearly one of his happier hunting grounds.

Furthermore, with two of Djokovic fierce rivals, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal out injured and still recuperating, and only Federer of the ‘big four’ in action, it’s a great time for the Serb to be playing if he can regain something like his top form.

But his defeat in Indian Wells suggests this is some way off, so the younger generation – especially players like Alexander Zverev ranked 5th and Thiem who’s ranked 6th – will fancy their chances.

Will we ever see the Djokovic of old again, the modern great who combined a powerhouse physical presence and amazing stamina with sublime skills?

As he approaches his 31st birthday in May, maybe we have seen the best of him, but he’ll be fighting to prove otherwise.

Novak Djokovic image by Mirsasha via Flick Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Unbeaten Hatfield reap benefits of Phillips’ relaxed approach

Hatfield Queen Elizabeth RFC head coach Gary Phillips said his side’s unbeaten run came from the massive improvements made after their narrow 19-18 opening day success over Tring 3rds.

The Roe Hill club have gone all season unbeaten in the Herts and Middlesex Merit Table 3, a run stretching to 11 league games and counting.

At any level of sport, going unbeaten is incredibly impressive, and the club have turned a massive corner on the pitch since Phillips came in during the summer. After edging to victory over Tring, Phillips went about making his team unbeatable.

Tactical improvements

He recalled: ‘’Our defensive line was static, we gave Tring so much time. We didn’t pressure them enough, so the first thing we did was work on that. Even if you’re shattered at the end, just two steps forward and it will put the scrums and fly halfs under pressure.

‘When we play Tring away [in the last game of season], I expect us to bloody kill them because we’ve come on leaps and bounds’ – Gary Phillips

‘’Another thing we learned from that game was that we weren’t observing what was going on ahead of us. So as they flooded forward we had nine defenders up against three or four attackers and four of five defenders up against nine or ten attackers, so that was the other major thing we learned.

“We needed to look up and observe what was going on better, and the lads took to that really, really quickly and now our defense is far harder to get past.’’

For 1st XV captain George Stone, now in his third year as skipper at the club, it’s all about what Phillips is doing off the pitch that has improved the side.

‘’I think it’s down to planning, communication and the players that came in. We worked a lot with regards to player retention and getting everyone on board. Everything has just come together at the right time for us.

“Gary is very good. He breaks things down very well and if things are going well he will tell us, but if not, he isn’t afraid to let us know.”

Learning and improving

The club has a fantastic campaign so far and sit top of the table, but Phillips says the team are hard on themselves as they strive to be better. ‘’We are self-critical but you can’t argue with an unbeaten start to the season.

‘’The games against Hendon and Enfield (which they won 12-38 and 47-0 respectively), there’s nothing you can take from them and you don’t really learn too much because the opposition didn’t really give us a game.

‘I think it’s about how you address the players and getting their belief up’ – Hatfield skipper George Stone

“The Tring game, in all fairness, they should have beaten us. Their kicker missed quite a few and we were lucky to scrape by. That was a huge learning curve for me as a coach, to see where we needed to make strides.

“We could see from the off where we needed to get better, but we were fortunate. When we play them away [in the last game of season], I expect us to bloody kill them because we’ve come on leaps and bounds.

“When you’re beating teams 30/40-0 you don’t learn anything. It’s pleasing as a coach to see a few things come off, but you don’t learn much.’’

Skipper Stone says: “I hoped that we would hold our own and give a good account of ourselves. I say to the boys every week, it doesn’t matter who we come up against, as long as we give our best and show what we can do.

“Personally, I haven’t done anything differently. I think it’s about how you address the players and getting their belief up. It doesn’t matter if we make mistakes or we don’t have the best players, it’s about that belief and carrying on.’’

International help

Phillips also runs his own coaching company outside of the club, something that he says is benefiting the team this season.

International coaching has helped Phillips

“I get to work with coaches from New Zealand, Samoa, South Africa, Fiji, Tonga etc. So I get an eclectic approach to the game. I’ve picked up loads from these guys who have coached at international level and as a coach you’re always learning.

‘’On a Saturday I don’t do too much. My job is in training, and when it comes to the matches, it’s down to the boys. In truth, the lads now have a lot of confidence. We played Luton 2nds after Christmas and for the first 40-50 mins we forgot how to play.

“We had a word, calmed down and then when back to what we do best. There was no panicking and there was a steel to the guys. They have huge confidence now.’’

Positivity

Chairman Toby Garrett brought the head coach in during the summer and said he has brought a great deal of positivity, which is not only reflected on the pitch but during training, too.

‘’I didn’t know I had brought any!” Phillips laughs. “I’m just a very positive person, that’s how I am. When I met Toby and George I said it’s all about enjoyment at this level, so I wanted to make training fun and have a laugh. We’re not going to be world beaters, we know our limitations.

“I tried to bring through a brand of through-the-hands rugby which is a break from the Hatfield tradition. We try to have a giggle at training, have fun and get dirty. We try things and if they don’t work it doesn’t matter. We have fun, which is the main thing.’’

Fitness

A ‘fair few’ beers are drunk after training

In sport, fitness is key. It means you can last the whole season and not fade, can last longer in matches, and pre-season is a core element that brings success. So for a team at the top of the table how key is it for Hatfield?

‘’Fitness is a major fault at this level. The fitter teams normally do better, but it’s hard,” Phillips said.

‘’A lot of the guys have families and children and the uni lads have a lot of work on, so we can ask them to go and do as much as we like, but we know our restrictions. We’re not out marching every night, it’s what you can do. The social side is doing well rather than running five miles and doing bleep tests.

‘’Mark Crystal is a fantastic club secretary and he puts in a lot of hard work. It’s a fantastic social club and at this level it’s all about having fun. They go down the pub after matches and training and a fair few beers are drunk.

“If fitness isn’t one of our strengths we will find a way around it. I’d love to go out and do a bit more – but it isn’t going to happen!’’

Stone added that it is more about squad unity than fitness and says they just control what they can.

‘’Whatever happens come April happens, we can only control what happens the hour and half on game days, from the moment we meet until the final whistle.’’

Belief

Hatfield play Tring in the final match the season, and with the two teams locked in the top two, it could be a winner takes all.

Phillips is confident they can win the league, whilst Stone says, no matter the final outcome, they have achieved this season.

The skipper said: ‘’I think we can win it. With the players we’ve got, the belief, the structure of the club right from the top with the committee to the fans we have the belief and we have a great feel good factor around the club.

“All we can do is keep performing. Win, lose or draw on the last day we’ve achieved and had a great season.’’

Phillips added: ‘’We’re confident we can win all the games. The last game of the season v Tring is a possible winner takes all. I’m trying to get the fellas to understand how to win games and how to exploit the opposition.

“The fitter teams normally do better at this level, but we have some great defenders and attackers. We want to win the league and we are hungry to do so.’’

Hatfield Queen Elizabeth RFC are on Twitter @HatfieldQEII

F1 2017 season preview

The new Formula 1 season kicks off in Australia this weekend without a defending champion for the first time since 1994 following the shock retirement of Nico Rosberg after clinching the 2016 drivers’ title. 

The announcement came just five days after the German was crowned F1 champion for the first time, bringing chaos to the ‘driver merry-go-round’ over the winter break.

The new season is also notable for the most substantial raft regulation changes since the introduction of the hybrid turbo engine in 2014, with cars set to lap five seconds faster than last season’s models.

The aim is to improve the F1 spectacle. Truth be told, 2016 was not the most exciting campaign, but there is hope – albeit not shared by all parties – that these changes will lead to  more overtaking and more exciting races.

Driver line-ups

Months of speculation followed Rosberg’s retirement before Mercedes finally announced Valtteri Bottas as his replacement. The Finn, 27, earned his seat with the champions after impressing at Williams

In what was likely the shortest ever retirement, Felipe Massa returned to Williams in Bottas’ place, having originally been replaced by now team-mate and F3 champion Lance Stroll. Confusing, right?

Other changes see Belgium’s Stoffel Vandoorne replace Jenson Button at McLaren, with the Briton taking a sabbatical, although whether he’ll return to F1 is debatable.

Vandoorne made his debut for McLaren last year, replacing Fernando Alonso for the Bahrain GP. He became only the second reserve driver to finish in a points-scoring position on their debut after Sebastian Vettel, coming 10th.

Former Mercedes reserve driver Pascal Wehrlien joins Sauber after missing out on the Mercedes race seat to Bottas. Wehrlien was at Manor Racing last year, in a deal where they received Mercedes engines.

The 22-year-old German secured the team’s only point of the year in Australia, and takes the seat of Brazilian Felipe Nasr after he was released by Sauber.

Kevin Magnussen joins Romain Grosjean at Haas Racing after he lost his place at Renault to Nico Hulkenburg, who in-turn has had his seat at Force India filled by Esteban Ocon who drove the second half of 2016 at Manor.

Given that Ocon and Vandoorne have had previous experience on the grid, that means 18-year-old Stroll will be the only true ‘rookie’ driver on lining-up at Australia.

So here’s how the team’s line up:

Scuderia Ferrari: 5 Sebastian Vettel (Germany), 7 Kimi Raikkonen (Finland)

Sahara Force India: 11 Sergio Perez (Mexico), 31 Esteban Ocon (France)

Haas: 8 Romain Grosjean (France), 20 Kevin Magnussen (Denmark)

McLaren Honda: 2 Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium), 14 Fernando Alonso (Spain)

Mercedes AMG Petronas: 44 Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain), 77 Valterri Bottas (Finland)

Red Bull: 3 Daniel Ricciardo (Australia), 33 Max Verstappen (Holland)

Renault: 27 Nico Huklkenberg (Germany), 30 Jolyon Palmer (Great Britain)

Sauber: 9 Marcus Ericsson (Sweden), 94 Pascal Wehrlein (German)

Scuderia Toro Rosso: 26 Daniil Kvyat (Russia), 55 Carlos Sainz Jr (Spain)

Williams Martini: 18 Lance Stroll (Canada), 19 Felipe Massa (Brazil)

Race calendar 

The 2017 schedule drops back to 20 races, with the German GP axed after F1 supreme Bernie Ecclestone (now deposed from power) failed to reach an agreement with the finically-stricken Hockenheim and Nurburgring circuits.

The race in Baku has been moved back a week to avoid clashing with the Le Mans 24hr race, having also had its title changed from the European to the Azerbaijan GP. Other changes see the British and Hungarian Grand Prix move back a week to fill the gap left by the German race.

March 26 – Australian Grand Prix

April 9 – Chinese Grand Prix

April 16 – Bahrain Grand Prix

April 30 – Russian Grand Prix

May 14 – Spanish Grand Prix

May 28 – Monaco Grand Prix

June 11 – Canadian Grand Prix

June 25 – Azerbaijan Grand Prix

July 9 – Austrian Grand Prix

July 16 – British Grand Prix

July 30 – Hungarian Grand Prix

August 27 – Belgian Grand Prix

September 3 – Italian Grand Prix

September 17 – Singapore Grand Prix

October 1 – Malaysian Grand Prix

October 8 – Japanese Grand Prix

October 22 – United States Grand Prix

October 29 – Mexican Grand Prix

November 12 – Brazilian Grand Prix

November 26 – Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Regulation changes

The biggest complaint over the past few seasons from drivers and fans alike has been the inability to constantly push the cars to the limit, due to tyre degradation and fuel-saving.

The new regulations have been designed to drastically increase speed by increasing downforce from both aerodynamic and mechanical methods, in an attempt to better the spectacle and reduce the difficulty of overtaking.

Opinions on the changes have been mixed, however. They have indeed made the cars quicker, but it’s yet to be seen whether we’ll see more overtaking.

There are also some loopholes being closed this season with respect wet-race starts and the 75 grid place penalties we have seen previously.

Technical changes

Cars have had 20cm added to their width, bringing them up to 2m and matching what they were in 1997.

The width of the tyres is also increased by 20% to increase mechanical downforce and in an attempt to better balance where grip comes from, not just relying on aerodynamic downforce – although this has also been improved.

Pirelli have also been given a brief to decrease tyre degradation, allowing drivers to push harder for longer. The downside of these changes is that the increase on drag which could increase the ‘dirty air’ the car produces – one of the main reasons why overtaking is so difficult.

Fuel consumption will also be affected. The more drag, the more fuel consumption, meaning that the cars’ minimum weight limit and fuel consumption have both been increased.

Changes to the front wing, bargeboards, rear wing and diffuser has given more scope to designers to generate increased aerodynamic downforce, again increasing speeds.

Rear and front wings have also been widened by 15 and 20cm respectively, allowing more room for aerodynamic features on the wings. The nose of the car has also been lengthened by 20cm, whilst the rear wing is 15cm lower and mounted 20cm further back, at more of an angle.

Bargeboards will also be returned to pre-2009 prominence, after years of being restricted, again allowing designers to be more creative as they seek greater downforce.

The same applies to the rear diffuser – they are taller, wider and moved further forward, although the regulations here are only slightly more lax in an attempt to keep dirty air to a reasonable level.

Rule changes

Last year’s Belgian GP saw Hamilton take a ‘tactical’ grid penalty of a record 75 places, after reliability issues earlier in the season forced him into a fifth engine change.

Given that this had already dropped him to rear of the grid, Mercedes used the opportunity to change other components, knowing that he could not drop any further back. This season, teams will be unable to ‘stack’ penalties at one race, meaning that individual penalties must be served at individual GPs.

Wet races which start behind the safety car will now having a standing start once the track has been deemed safe. If a race is suspended due to wet weather, however, then it will resume using the traditional rolling safety-car start.

What happened in pre-season testing?

It was Ferrari who set the pace at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest lap of 1:18.634, ahead of team-mate Sebastian Vettel.

Mercedes followed close behind while also being the only team to complete over 1,000 laps, showing they have the reliability to match the speed. It all points towards a fierce competition between Ferrari and Mercedes.

Red Bull and Williams are also looking good, so it seems unlikely to be another one-horse race as it has been for Mercedes over the past few years.

There has been talk that Ferrari were ‘sandbagging’ and could go ever faster. Hamilton has suggested that they are favourites for victory in Melbourne, although Vettel has refuted this.

Despite the team’s speed, it would be unwise for Ferrari fans to get too excited. Last year they also showed similar pre-season pace but failed to win a race in 2016, although another winless season would be surprising.

Mercedes should also benefit from what appears to be a much healthier working relationship between Hamilton and Bottas. This should allow the team to focus solely on on-track matters instead of having to sort out feuding team-mates.

Red Bull, tipped to be Mercedes main challengers, have also shown good pace, alongside Williams who could be the dark horses. Massa was followed by Max Verstappen as the fastest cars behind Ferrari and Mercedes. The two teams will be hopeful of chalking up a few wins between them.

The midfield appears to be very tight – just six-tenths of a second separated Carlos Sainz of Toro Rosso in 7th place down to Kevin Magnussen for Haas in 15th.

McLaren are the team who are once again suffering. Despite the car performing well aerodynamically, there are still big issues with the power unit supplied by Honda.

“No power and no reliability,” is how an increasingly frustrated Fernando Alonso described the car.

Who will win the drivers’ title?

Despite Ferrari’s pace in testing, Hamilton remains a clear favourite to take his fourth title with odds of 11/10 followed by Vettel (10/3).

Hamilton will certainly fired up after the disappointment of narrowly missing out in his fierce battle with Rosberg.

Bottas is not there to make up the numbers, however, and is aiming to give Hamilton a tough time. However, the general consensus is that challenging for the title in his first season at Mercedes will be a step too far for the Finn.

Vettel is widely tipped to be Hamilton’s biggest challenger, and it is hard to argue against that. With Ferrari looking improved this term, it is almost a certainty that the German will be challenging for wins on a more regular basis.

Despite the criticism he occasionally faces regarding his race-craft, Vettel, the most successful driver currently on the grid, has always challenged at the top from pretty much the beginning of his career, and there’s no doubting his speed.

Kimi Raikkonen should also not be overlooked. Perhaps he doesn’t have the raw pace of Vettel, but you can be sure that he will go quietly about his business and perhaps sneak one or two wins.

The team with the most exciting line-up has to be Red Bull. The rivalry between Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, two young, fired-up and immensely talented drivers, could reach the intensity of Rosberg v Hamilton.

Red Bull should never be written off either. They have consistently produced cars capable of victory over the last eight years, although some were expecting them to show a little more pace in pre-season.

Williams, meanwhile, are definitely the dark horses. They have shown impressive pace, clocking faster times than Red Bull, and the return of Paddy Lowe as chief technical officer appears to have helped them to step to the next level.

In the last few seasons, they have been the best-of-the-rest without winning a race. This year, securing their first victory since Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish GP in 2012 is not unlikely.

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.

Seagulls’ rising Welsh star looking to ‘make every chance count’

Brighton and Hove Albion Women’s forward Bronwen Thomas is looking to continue to make her “chances count” for club and country.

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Thomas in WSL action against Oxford

The Seagulls hosted their opening home Women’s Super League game on Sunday at Culver Road, and it was 16-year-old Thomas, Wales’s young player of the year, who scored their only goal.

Albion Women drew 1-1 with Oxford United in the competition’s Spring Series format, to make it two draws in their opening two games for George Parris’s side following an identical result against London Bees in their opener.

Thomas found a way through the Oxford back line on 31 minutes and her deflected shot looped over goalkeeper Demi Lambourne.

After the game she said: “It’s really nice obviously to start, but to get the first goal is great. It’s not just about me but it’s the whole team performance. The goal took a deflection and hung in the air for a while, but it was great to get the goal.

“I’m going to work hard in training and when I get my chance I want to make it count wherever I can”

“Oxford posed a threat, they were physical and in the second half our standards dropped a bit, but looking at us (Brighton), there’s definitely things to work on, and overall it’s a positive performance.

“We are a new group of girls, so it’s building on the positives and mending the negatives. Personally, I’m going to work hard in training and when I get my chance I want to make it count wherever I can.” added Thomas.

Interim Albion women’s manager Parris praised Thomas after the draw on Sunday: “It was a great goal, where we were sitting it took an eternity to hit the back of the net! She is an extremely promising player.”

Rapid raise to success

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Thomas collecting her prestigious award in November

Just three seasons ago, Thomas was playing in the Sussex County Women & Girls Football League with Horsham Sparrows, captaining their under-14 team to Sussex Girls Challenge Cup success.

Since then, the young Brighton forward has been recognised as one of the game’s brightest talents and was  crowned Wales’ young women’s player of the year in November 2016 at a ceremony which also saw awards given out to Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Wales men’s team coach Chris Coleman.

Thomas’s award capped off a remarkable year in which she already broken into the Albion Women’s senior team and netted a hat-trick as the Seagulls retained the Sussex Women’s Challenge Cup in a 5-1 win over Crawley Wasps.

Praise from Albion chief executive

“We are incredibly proud of Bronwen, as a young player who has come through the club’s Regional Talent Centre”

Speaking last year, Albion chief executive Paul Barber led the congratulations, and said: “It has been an amazing year for Bronwen.

“She has broken into our first team, scored a hat-trick in the Sussex Senior Cup Final, been called up to the senior team by Wales, and now won this well-deserved award.

“We are incredibly proud of Bronwen, as a young player who has come through the club’s Regional Talent Centre, and in three short years made the step up to international football.”

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Netting a hat-trick in the Women’s Sussex Challenge Cup final

On winning the award Thomas said “It came as a total surprise. I was so excited to have an invitation to attend the Wales awards evening with the meant that had done so well at the Euros and had no idea I was going to get an award!

“I had to go up and receive it in front of everyone and then be interviewed in front of them all. I will never forget the evening

“It means a lot, just playing for your country means a lot but to be picked as a young player of the year is amazing, and it is a great honour.

“It won’t do it any harm (to my future career) but I completely believe ‘you are as good as your last game’ is the way to approach things.”

Remaining grounded

“She is an extremely promising player”

Despite her remarkable rise, the teenager remains grounded. “I’ve got to keep working really hard and improving as a player to keep getting the opportunities I am at the moment with Brighton and Wales,” she says.

Thomas is set to link-up with her fellow Welsh internationals this week as the national team travel to the Cyprus Women’s Cup tournament. The women’s side will face Hungary, Czech Republic and Israel in Group C.

MERTHYR, WALES - Tuesday, February 14, 2017: Wales' Bronwen Thomas warms-up before a Women's Under-17's International Friendly match against Hungary at Penydarren Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)
International duty: Cyprus Cup

She will not be the only player away from Brighton on international duty. “The team (Brighton) will get back on the training pitch but with the nature of the set up, we have six ladies off on international camps,” said Parris. “This is great for them and the club, but for us back here, we will keep on working”.

Albion Women were meant to be at home to Doncaster Rovers Belles this coming Sunday, but because of the international call-ups, Brighton’s request to postpone the game was accepted.

The other players absent on national duty are  Alessia Russo (England under-19s), Jenna Legg (England under-23s), Laura Rafferty (Northern Ireland), Sophie Perry and Emma Byrne (both Republic of Ireland).

The postponed match means the Seagulls’ next game is a trip to Millwall Lionesses on Sunday 12th March.

 

8 Premier League/Championship players who’ve played non-league

Clubs spend millions on their academies these days as they seek to produce their own talent.

But, as striker Jamie Vardy proved last season with Leicester City, players with non-league backgrounds can still make it to the top of the game.

Here are eight other players who also once plied their trade at levels below the football league.

 

Michail Antonio (West Ham)

Michail Antonio

West Ham’s powerful winger played plenty of non-league football as a youngster, signing for Tooting & Mitcham at the age of 17.

He scored 33 goals in 45 games for the south London side who play in the Isthmian League Division One South. So Antonio, 26, is now operating at a level eight tiers higher.

Before joining the Hammers in 2015, he also had spells at Reading, Southampton, Colchester, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest. He’s currently West Ham’s top goal scorer.

 

Neil Taylor (Aston Villa)

 Neil TaylorNew Aston Villa and former Swansea left back Neil Taylor, 28, started his footballing career with non-league Wrexham.

He spent three seasons at the Racecourse Ground, playing 75 games in League Two and at National Conference level.

Taylor then left football’s lower tiers behind to sign for Swansea City in 2010 in a deal worth £220,000, spending seven years at the Liberty Stadium.

Taylor also featured for Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic football team and played a major role as Wales reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals.

 

Callum Wilson (Bournemouth)

 Callum WilsonBournemouth’s goal-scoring machine Callum Wilson didn’t start his career in non-league football but has had a taste of it whilst being on loan from Coventry City at Kettering Town and Tamworth.

For Kettering, Wilson scored just one goal in 17 games, and only played three times for Tamworth thanks to a fractured foot.

Despite being plagued by injuries, Wilson, 24, has scored 31 goals in 71 appearances for Bournemouth.

He also played a vital role in the Cherries promotion to the Premier League.

Ben Foster (West Brom)

 Ben FosterFormer England international and current West Bromwich goalkeeper Ben Foster, 33, played on loan at several non-league clubs  early on in his lengthy career.

Originally signed by Stoke, the Potters loaned him to Tiverton Town, Stafford Rangers, Wrexham and Kidderminster Harriers before selling him to Manchester United in 2005.

He only made 12 appearances for United in five seasons, but enjoyed two successful seasons on loan at Watford, before signing for Birmingham and then the Baggies. Foster has played eight times for his country.

 

Yannick Bolasie (Everton) 

Yannick Bolasie

Everton’s tricky, powerful winger Yannick Bolasie once played in English football’s 11th tier for Hillingdon Borough.

He then played for Maltese side Floriana before three seasons at Plymouth Argyle, followed by two loan spells at Barnet. A productive spell at Bristol City earned him a move to Crystal Palace in 2012.

In five seasons at Selhurst Park, his price tag rocketed thanks to some great performances. He even has a skill move featured on the Fifa 2017 game called the ‘Bolasie Flick’ after performing it against Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen.

 

 

Dwight Gayle (Newcastle)

 Dwight GayleNewcastle’s top scorer also leads the Championship with 2o league goals, but has also featured in the lower tiers of English football.

Gayle earned recognition by scoring 40 goals in 42 games for Stansted in the Essex Senior League, leading to a move to Dagenham & Redbridge.

He was then loaned back to non-league Bishop’s Stortford and his excellent performances earned him a step up to Championship level with Peterborough.

Gayle then signed for Premier League side Crystal Palace for £4.5m and bagged 22 goals in 65 games but the Magpies swooped for him last summer.

 

Ashley Williams (Everton)

 Ashley WilliamsThe Wales captain spent two seasons playing non-league football for Hednesford Town after being released from West Bromwich as a teenager.

A five-year spell at Stockport County put his career back on track, and an initial loan to Swansea City was made permanent in 2008.

Williams played over 300 times for the Swans as they climbed the leagues, established themselves as a Premier League club and won the League Cup in 2013.

He helped Wales the Euro 2016 semi-finals last summer before earning a big-money move to Everton.

 

Lee Tomlin (Bristol City)

 Lee TomlinBristol City’s tricky attacking midfielder has played in all top four tiers of English football.

On the books of Leicester City as a youngster, he played four seasons in the Conference with Rushden & Diamonds, including a loan spell at lowly Brackley FC.

After four years with Peterborough, Tomlin spent a season at Middlebrough before being signed by Premier League newcomers Bournemouth for £3.5m.

However, he made only six appearances for the Cherries before being loaned to Bristol City, who made him a permanent signing last summer.

Tomlin won’t be the last player to pay his dues in the non-league game before going on to achieve every footballer’s  dream of playing at the highest levels.

 

Elephant Sport’s NBA Quarterly Report – Pt. 2

A thrilling 2016-17 NBA season has thus far delivered entertainment, elite individual performances and plenty controversy.

But, best of all, we have only just reached the halfway mark. Allow Elephant Sport to run through some of the most exciting categories since our first instalment.

Best Team: Houston Rockets

Before even diving into the excellence of Mike D’Antoni’s team, we need look no further than the Rockets’ record during this half. Led by James Harden, they are sitting comfortably in 3rd seed with a 30-10 record. Add to this only two losses in 19 games.

If the Rockets were the most improved team in the first quarter, they are undoubtedly the best one in the league right now. This has been aided by the return of potential defensive all-star, Patrick Beverley.

A lot has been said about Houston’s lack of defensive prowess but, with the aforementioned point-guard back, many of the criticisms have been erased. Beverley is averaging more rebounds than any other player in the team. Meanwhile, the Rockets have climbed into the top 15 defensive sides in the league.

But beyond number-crunching, this is a team rich in chemistry and unity. In a recent match against the Dallas Mavericks, small-forward Trever Ariza got into a verbal altercation with Salah Mejri. At the end of the game, the entire Rockets squad waited for the Mavs’ centre in an attempt to confront him.

While violence is not to be condoned, especially in a professional environment, it’s refreshing to see the Rockets team stick up for one another when, just a few months ago, they had a lot of internal disagreements and issues.

The Rockets are flawed – they certainly struggle to close out games and protect the rim when Clint Capela is missing – but they are living and prospering by the 3-ball. It could very well see them usurp many teams in the play-offs come season end. 

Worst Team: Brooklyn Nets

Neither Jeremy Lin nor Brook Lopez can lift the Nets out of their current rut. Which is ironic, since an arrangement of both their names phonetically adds up to Brooklyn.

This pun is atrocious – much like the Nets have been this season. They are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and, in 41 games, have yet to reach double digits in wins.

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Brook Lopez warming up

Where the Nets have struggled most is in the creative department. Lin has been underwhelming and inefficient when running the point. Even when he has been at his very best, he has a lack of sharpshooters to lay the ball off to.

On the other hand, Lopez has tried his hardest to deliver wins. But in the game where he dropped a mammoth 38 points – all from inside the post – his team still lost by a comfortable margin.

Perhaps the over-reliance on these two stars has created a pressure hard to overcome for the Nets. But what is certain is this: they have an inefficient bench unit and a non-existent supporting cast.

Sadly, they look to be tanking for the remainder of the season – a testament to how insurmountable they view a comeback or, at the very least, improvement. 

Most Improved: Utah Jazz

 The Utah Jazz were almost unanimously everyone’s sleeper tip going into the new season. Many suspected they would finish in the top four in the West and, while they are currently sitting in 5th, just imagining that would have been far-fetched 20 games ago.

After the first quarter, Utah looked devoid of confidence and quality. Despite the dominant play of Gordon Hayward and the robustness of Rudy Gobert, the Jazz were struggling to string offensive plays together.

Fast-forward to January and they are now one of the league’s in-form teams. While the aforementioned players have turned in titanic performances, it is in the coaching that the Jazz have seen the biggest improvements.

Quin Snyder has drawn up a variety of plays revolving around a combination of point-guard George Hill and Hayward that has led to some excellent ball circulation in recent weeks.

Whether it is the long-range alley-oop, or the bounce pass-to-scorer, the two have struck up a chemistry unlike anything Vivint Arena has seen this term.

Add to that Rudy Gobert averaging one rebound short of the number one spot and the Jazz finally look like that team everyone had expected them to be. 

Who Needs to Trade Immediately: Toronto Raptors

 The Raptors may be one of the finer teams in the league; in their conference, they are second to only the Cleveland Cavaliers. While there is no shame in being second to the reigning champions and LeBron James, there is shame in being miles behind them.

In the three times the teams have met up this season, the Raptors have been torn apart. Two of these games were in this highlighted half.

What the Raptors missed most was a dominant centre – somebody who could prevent Kyrie Irving from entering the pick ‘n’ roll with Tristan Thompson. Furthermore, they lacked a real presence on offence inside the paint. This isn’t a team that shoots outside the perimeter often, so their reliance on inside scoring requires a centre who can do it on both ends.

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The fans at Air Canada could do with seeing a dominant centre every other night

Unfortunately, there are very few centres that can dominate on both ends that are available. Certainly DeMarcus Cousins seems attainable but, since he seems closer to the Boston Celtics, it makes little sense to include him here.

There is, though, one centre who is most definitely attainable. While he may still be young, the potential is there to become one of the finest at the five spot. That player is the Philadelphia 76’ers Nerlens Noel.

The 22-year-old is up for trade now that the 76’ers are shopping for a point-guard. He is the unfortunate collateral damage of this search, since the franchise deems Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor to be more valuable assets.

But when Noel plays, he dominates on both ends. And he is a former Round 1 pick in the draft (2014).

Under the wing of the Raptors – an inside scoring and rim protecting team – he could come into his own.

This is a risk worth taking because it benefits the Raptors in the years to come. They may not be able to challenge the Cavs just yet but, if they can unite the right pieces, that could change in coming seasons.

Surprise Package: Memphis Grizzlies 

The Memphis Grizzlies were predicted to scrape the play-offs; a true bottom-of-the-barrel team. To say they have exceeded expectations is an understatement.

In just the last 20 games, Memphis have defeated the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Oh, and the former they crushed twice.

Mike Conley, a point-guard of immense quality, has been in and out of the team with injury. In his absence, they were unbeaten. Upon his return, they continued to win games.

In veteran centre Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies have found a sharpshooting rim-protector. While that may sound like a preposterous hybrid, it is exactly what the Spaniard has become. He has hit game-winning 3-pointers and combined that with blocks and defensive plays aplenty.

As the focal point of their play, Gasol has carried Memphis to 6th in the West within a couple of games off 4th.

MVP at the Half: James Harden

Only one man seems worthy of the award as of this halfway mark. James Harden has dominated the NBA in recent months, breaking records and personal bests alike.

He carved out his highest points (51), assists (17) and rebounds (18) in a historic night against the New York Knicks on New Year’s Eve. He is the first player in NBA history to amass a triple-double of 15-15-15 or higher; he also leads the league in assists by a country mile.

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Harden playing some defence for Team USA

Why Harden instead of Russell Westbrook, some may ask? It’s simple. Westbrook is registering crazy numbers, too. But his team isn’t winning as often, or emphatically, as the Houston Rockets.

That plays a part in contention for the MVP award, particularly when The Beard’s team were ruled out of play-off contention by many punters.

Coach D’Antoni has placed immense belief and confidence in Harden – asking him to command the ball with more regularity and lead the team. This was something Harden had been criticised for in the past: leadership.

That, and defence. It would be an understatement to say he has quashed those criticisms this season.

Houston are winning and Harden is playing his heart out. If voting were to end today, the MVP of the 2016-17 season would be as clear as day.

Rookie of the Year at the Half: Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid is the first, and only, repeat appearance of this series. Yet that’s more of a mixed bag than a clear indication of Embiid’s annihilation of the award.

While the Cameroonian centre has undeniably been the best rookie so far, there is an argument to be made that nobody is actually challenging him.

Buddy Hield, for all his enthusiasm, has struggled to find consistency in New Orleans. Meanwhile Brandon Ingram looks far too meek for the NBA as of right now.

Perhaps Embiid’s dominance is, too, down to the fact that he is one of the oldest rookies in contention for the award. This, of course, is owed to his 26 month injury. But, on the flipside, for him to be playing at the level he is considering said injury is mind blowing.

He could genuinely get into the all-star team come February – he’s currently fifth in the West’s frontcourt voting (top 10 take part in the all-star game). The last rookie to achieve such a feat was Blake Griffin in 2011.

He’s also averaging 19 points and seven rebounds a night, despite a minutes restriction to prevent injury. 

Offensive Play of the Half: Larry Nance Jr. Dunk

This was the best dunk of 2016 – and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it remained better than anything conjured up in 2017.

Larry Nance Jr. channelled his inner-Michael Jordon to throw it down on one of the better rim protectors in the league: Brook Lopez. A man four inches taller than the Lakers’ power-forward. 

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Defensive Play of the Half: Durant block to Curry 3

The best defensive plays either win you games or flip opposition possession into your own points.

Kevin Durant’s emphatic chasedown block, collected by Stephen Curry and dispatched for three, falls into the latter. And it’s a thing beauty.

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Who is the 2016 team of the year?

2016 has been yet another fantastic year of sport, one well worth celebrating, be it the remarkable story of the underdog or persistent dominance at the top level.

Below are Elephant Sport’s top five teams of the year, which range from the record breaking Team GB Women’s Hockey squad, how a rugby-loving nation went football mad and the fairytale story of Leicester City.

5) Mercedes F1; the continuing domination

The Mercedes F1 team sealed their third successive double of Constructors’ and Drivers’ World Championships in 2016.

The team clinched both accolades in 2014 and 2015, and now 2016 when the constructor’s crown was sealed in Japan and Nico Rosberg clinched the driver’s title, in the last race of the season at Abu-Dhabi.

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Mercedes celebrate a third consecutive Constructors Championship

Not only are Mercedes on a fantastic run spanning three years, in 2016 they managed to break several records on the way.

The German works team won a record 19 of the 21 races in the season, helping them to notch up another record; an impressive tally of 765 points in a single campaign.

They also bagged the most poles in a season; 20, one away from a whole season of Mercedes poles.

Their 10 consecutive race wins could have been another history-maker; if Lewis Hamilton’s engine wouldn’t have failed in Malaysia (effectively costing him the drivers trophy), Mercedes would have 16 consecutive race wins.

“Making history along the way and re-writing the record books, what we’ve achieved together is mind-blowing”

After helping to secure the constructors championship with a win in Japan, Rosberg said: “I’ve been here since day one of this project in 2010 and it’s really phenomenal the journey we’ve taken together towards being the best team in Formula 1.

“Making history along the way and re-writing the record books, what we’ve achieved together is mind-blowing and I’m really proud to have played my small part in that”

The standards Mercedes have set in 2016 will take some beating.

4) England’s rugby union winning streak

A year on from the disappointment of a dismal home World Cup, England rugby union’s squad completed a perfect 2016, equalling their record of 14 successive wins, set in 2003.

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England coach Eddie Jones celebrating one of the teams 14 successive victories this year

Eddie Jones’s side equalled that mark by achieving their highest ever score over rivals Australia at Twickenham; a 37-21 win on December 3.

England can surpass their current record in February 2017, when they face France at Twickenham in the RBS Six Nations opening fixture.

Since Jones’s arrival in November 2015, England have made tremendous progress, with a Six Nations Grand Slam, a whitewash of Australia in the summer Test series down under, and a first win in a decade against South Africa.

According to the wily Australian, “10-15 English players” could feature in the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

“We are not looking at records, just the next game. But we can draw a line under this year with a good victory against a quality side [Australia],” England captain Dylan Hartley told BBC 5 Live.

“I’m very proud of the guys over the last few weeks, and it’s nice to go back to our clubs knowing we have done English rugby and the shirt proud.

“We leave it in a good place until the Six Nations,” added Hartley.

3) Wales impress at Euro 2016

A rugby-loving nation went football mad over the summer, when the Welsh national side qualified for their first major tournament since 1958 and outstandingly reached their first ever major semi-final.

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Wales score their first goal at a major tournament since 1958

More than half the population watched the Euro 2016 semi-final defeat to Portugal, beating the record set for a sporting event, which was in fact only previously set by the Welsh in their Euro 2016 quarter final victory over Belgium.

It was only five years ago that Wales were ranked 117 in the world, and in 2016 they finish an impressive 12th according to Fifa’s rankings; one place above England.

Thanks to their successful surge, Wales were seeded for the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, which could set them in a great position to qualifying for only their third major finals next year.

Star man Gareth Bale has also been nominated for the 2016 Footballer of the Year award. The Real Madrid striker scored three goals at Euro 2016, making him Wales’ all-time top goal scorer in major tournaments.

“When you start playing around with the top 10, that’s a good feeling”

Wales manager Chris Coleman told the Evening Standard that after 2016’s success the nation must “not get carried away”.

“We have had some dark times when we have dropped outside the top 100. So when you start playing around with the top 10, that’s a good feeling.

“But there’s a different kind of pressure on us, we can’t be ‘plucky old Wales’. People will expect us to deliver.”

2) Team GB Women’s hockey gold

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Team GB’s women’s hockey squad became history-makers by winning the nation’s first-ever female field hockey gold.

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The GB women’s hockey team celebrate gold

Danny Kerry’s squad were huge underdogs when they faced the Netherlands in the final.

The Dutch comfortably won gold in both the 2008 Olympics (Beijing) and 2012 (London). They were also ranked number one in the world.

The final finished 3-3 in normal time, with Britain’s keeper Maddie Hinch making a string of remarkable saves.

And the Dutch could not beat Hinch in the resulting shootout, which Britain won 2-0. Helen Richardson-Walsh and Hollie Webb scored the decisive penalties to seal a famous victory.

Captain Kate Richardson-Walsh and wife Helen Richardson-Walsh became the first married couple to win gold for Britain since Cyril and Dorothy Wright in the sailing in 1920.

“That will change the face of British hockey”

After the game former Team GB men’s hockey bronze medallist Simon Moore told the BBC: “I am genuinely struggling to put this result into words.

“GB were under pressure for huge chunks but we thought if it went to penalties we could win. Fair play to Maddie Hinch, just incredible.

“That will change the face of British hockey.”

And according to the University of the Arts hockey president Dhalyn Warren, the sport has already seen a huge “rise in participation”.

1) Leicester City; Premier League Champions

In at number one; the greatest underdog story of all time; in May 2016 Leicester City were remarkably and deservedly crowned champions of England, and not one of us predicted it.

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Former Leicester star Gary Lineker was one of many to doubt the appointment of Claudio Ranieri

Having pulled in manager Claudio Ranieri, sacked from the Greece national side in November 2014, the whole of England expected to see Leicester relegated back to the Championship from which they were promoted in 2014; especially after flirting with relegation in 2015.

The Foxes are now in the elite club of only six sides to have won the Premier League since its inception in 1992.

A number of newspapers described their title win as the greatest sporting upset of all time. Not forgetting the huge record pay outs by the bookmakers on early-season odds of 5,000-1.

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Leicester City lif the Premier League trophy

Star striker Jamie Vardy also broke a record; scoring 11 goals in 11 consecutive league games. Vardy was also the ninth player to score 20 top flight goals in a season.

Ranieri’s side had the fewest away defeats in any top flight season; defeated only twice on their travels. The club produced a further record for the most consecutive wins in the top flight (five).

The club have also continued their underdog story; successfully progressing into the Champions League knock-out stages.

Former Foxes midfielder Robbie Savage told the BBC: “I’m speechless, it is unbelievable. I’ve seen England win the Ashes and get OBEs and MBEs.

“This Leicester team’s achievement is greater than any of that. They should be recognised in the honours list”

Overall the fairytale of Leicester City makes this side, the team of the year for 2016.

How a pursuit of mastery turned Osipczak away from the UFC

It’s June 20th, 2009. ‘Slick’ Nick Osipczak forces Frank Lester to tap-out in the first ever UK v US Ultimate Fighter series in the United States. His unique submission move sees his name echo around the MMA community and reach the ears of the UFC.

Despite not making it past semi-finals of the competition, more performances in a similar vein to the one against Lester earn Osipczak a UFC contract.

Fast-forward a few months; Osipczak wins his first UFC fight and goes on to compete in four more after that until November 2010. That was his last fight in the UFC – a split decision loss to Duane Ludwig.

But why exactly did the British welterweight of Polish descent, who showed such promise, just vanish? After all, his combined MMA and UFC record was a positive 6-3 (as per Sherdog).

The decision

Nick recounts his first ever UFC win: “I just found myself in that situation [winning a UFC fight], it wasn’t a lifetime goal or anything like that.

“In fact, I would more likely have been thinking to myself around that time, ‘how did I come to be here, doing this?!’. One thing for sure is I knew I wouldn’t be like the majority of fighters who would compete continuously for as long as they could until their bodies gave up on them and had taken too many head shots.”

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Nick pounds on Matt Riddle for his second UFC win [image courtesy of Dave Mandel]
But the question remains – why did he just disappear with such a promising career beckoning? He makes a revealing comment.

“As UFC is first and foremost an entertainment business, it’s difficult to train optimally when you have to answer to their beck and call,” said Osipczak.

The key word in that sentence is “optimally”, as it helps explain what happened next.

Upon leaving UFC, Osipczak embarked on a journey to learn and master the internal arts – or more specifically, Tai-Chi Ch’uan.

This spiritual martial art that focuses heavily on mind, body and soul is one of the most demanding arts in the world and demands pure dedication from its students.

What began as a hobby has now consumed Osipczak’s life as a fighter – not only is he still a student, but he also teaches.

“We [students] are drawn to the feeling of ‘oneness’ that is experienced during complete presence of the moment.” says Osipczak. “For me, the Internals are a more direct route towards understanding the essence of the inter-connected workings of the mind, body and spirit.”

His devotion to learning the craft and its inner-workings is rare to see in someone previously involved in an activity which, by his own admission, was part of the entertainment business but with real blood.

“Cutting weight, fighting when and where they say, and doing the promotion side of things – it’s difficult to balance,” he said.

“For me, mastery is a life-time pursuit, whereas you only get a few shorts years to compete in the Octagon. I cannot say anyone has or will stop me from achieving mastery of the Martial Arts – the choice is mine.”

Tai-Chi Ch’uan

Osipczak is seen as one of the first fighters to develop the art of Tai-Chi within professional MMA, which has been showcased in his most recent fights outside the UFC.

Although Nick has been fighting professionally on and off since 2015, he isn’t tied to one specific competition or industry.

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Nick demonstrates some moves [image courtesy of Raised Spirit]
Carrying an entire art in a professional environment is an achievement that brings with it a lot of pressure for someone still trying to master the craft.

“Of course it [using Tai-Chi professionally] means there is a great responsibility on my shoulders, should I chose to contemplate that side of things too much,” Osipczak says, laughing.

But behind the laughter is someone with a deep respect for Tai-Chi and a hunger to absorb every part of its wisdom.

Tai-Chi Chu’an is said to have been created in 12th century China by Zhang Sanfeng and has since become one of the nation’s five most important martial arts, along with the likes of Kung-Fu.

The modern day version is practiced both as a means of self-defence but also for personal health, as it is viewed as a way of loosening muscular and bone-related pains, and burning fat.

Accuracy

There is a misconception that Tai-Chi is a martial art that is trained leisurely – something that pensioners incorporate as part of their daily stretching routine – but the execution of the art as self-defence can be brutal.

The focus is on eliminating the distinction between offence and defence, with each movement being powerful and all the while remaining rooted and balanced.

Essentially, that can make a fighter far more efficient inside the octagon – giving them an advantage over their opponent.

“I do not believe any one style or system holds a monopoly on knowledge. However, compared to my training before embarking on my Tai-Chi journey, more emphasis was given to the ‘softer’ side of training, with balance always at the forefront of the mind, and longevity as one of the primary goals,” said Osipczak.

When speaking, Osipczak gives off a vibe of gentleness and intelligence rare in sporting figures. He speaks like a master of the arts; a quote-machine in his own right.

Better fighter

While the 31-year-old values personal development over a career with the UFC, it was interesting to hear how he rates his previous career.

“Iron sharpens iron, as they say. I was only 3-0 as a professional fighter when I entered the UFC, and had only been training in MMA for four years. Being thrown in with the sharks is a good way to learn how to swim,” he says.

“I have started to see my career more in terms of how many people can I have a positive effect on during my lifetime”

“In terms of professional fighting, competing for the UFC is widely acknowledged to be the pinnacle. However, how well I did battling other men will carry little weight as I approach my death bed, and so I have started to see my career more in terms of how many people can I have a positive effect on during my lifetime.”

But, the million-dollar question remains: will the fighter formerly known as ‘Slick’ Nick ever return to the octagon?

“I don’t know. I feel I am still a few years away from reaching my peak. I am happy with the rate I am currently improving, and am putting a lot of my time and energy into raising my family and teaching workshops.

“If I do return to competition, it will be to represent the Internal Arts, and demonstrate their superior efficiency,” he asserted.

Teacher

Tai-Chi Ch’uan’s health benefits mean it is growing in popularity in the UK. But Osipczak is not one for forcing it on people.os

“I try not to see things in terms of what people should or shouldn’t do – simply, when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” he says.

“But I’m sure Tai Chi will explode in popularity over the next few years, not too dissimilar to the way yoga has done before.”

Osipczak also admits that teaching still the best way of learning, which is why both are so important to him.

“Much of my enjoyment and fulfilment comes from furthering my competence of Tai-Chi Ch’uan, so for me it is a bonus that I can share the benefits of it with so many others,” said Osipczak.

Supernova

supernovaIn his first career, the 31-year-old was known as Slick Nick. But now, he is looking to develop a new persona and nickname for his on-going journey representing the Internal Arts.

“When I returned to competition after a five-year break, I knew I was a completely different fighter to the one that had competed before so ‘Slick’, no longer seemed appropriate.

“I knew a new one would pop up organically, and the day before my fight, I saw the photo hanging in my hotel room, labelled ‘Supernova’ – I knew a fit had been found.”

Much like a supernova, Osipczak will be hope his career continues to shine with unparalleled brightness.

You can find Nick’s classes here [http://raisedspirit.com/index.html]. He will also be hosting workshops in Goa (February) and Oxfordshire (June).

 

 

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‘Kicks kept me out of prison’

Nathan Owor reckons he owes a lot to the Premier League’s Kicks community scheme – maybe even his life.

‘Growing up on a rough council estate in East London, most my friends were getting into trouble with police and around the neighbourhood,” he recalls.

“The Kicks project is the reason I believe I’m not in prison or who knows maybe even worse.”

‘Before Kickz I had never played for a football team because I never had the funding.

One of the highlights of the programme is the annual Premier League Kicks Cup, which brings together all of the clubs for a showpiece small-sided football competition.

Owor added: “The free football allowed me to develop my skills and even go on to play  in regional tournaments in Derby, Manchester and Blackburn which I will never forget.”

Free sessions

Currently in its tenth year, the Premier League Kicks is one of the Premier League’s flagship community programmes.

“I’ve had young men come through project with natural raw talent which just needed a bit of coaching to then see them earn trials at various clubs”

Jointly funded by Sport England, the project (formerly known as ‘Kickz’) uses the power of football and the value of sports participation to change young lives in some of Britain’s toughest and most troubled neighbourhoods.

Kicks runs free sessions to bring together 12-to-19 year olds who are potentially vulnerable to involvement in street crime but have a keen interest in sport.

It’s backed by all of the Premier League’s clubs, plus many others in the Football League, and also has the support of the Football Association.

Over 50,000 young people took part in the programme in 2014-15 alone, and it has helped thousands of youngsters to find routes into education, training and employment – and even kickstarted some football careers in the process.

Darren Johnson, a coach affiliated to Tottenham Hotspur’s Kicks scheme told Elephant Sport: “I’ve had young men come through project with natural raw talent which just needed a bit of coaching to then see them earn trials at various clubs.”

Star names

In some areas where Kicks is active in the community, police have reported falls of up to 50% in incidents of anti-social behaviour.

West Brom KickzIt began in 2006 as a pilot project in London between the Premier League and Metropolitan Police, with the aim of using football to bring communities together and engage with young people.

It is currently in operation at 56 Premier League and Football League clubs across the country, with the involvement of several police forces.

Footballers such as Jermaine Defoe and Heurelho Gomes have previously visited Tottenham’s project for kickabouts, with the likes of Yannick Bolasie  and Wilfried Zaha visiting Everton’s and Crystal Palace’s versions.

Engagement

Johnson added: “Professional footballers such as brothers Matty [now at Man Utd] and Chris [Arsenal] Willock used to train here alongside playing for Arsenal which shows our level of coaching is very high.”

Despite the name, Kicks is not all about football as the project introduces young people to other sports and activities, including table tennis, dancing and basketball – all part of its efforts to build ‘a safer, stronger and more respectful community’.

The scheme’s long-term goal is to give participants something to work towards for the future, whether it is football or other career paths, while other non-sporting elements of it seek to engage teenagers in music, educational and other personal development activities.