Back from the dead: Incredible sporting comebacks

Today’s Super League fixtures saw one of the most remarkable matches in many years, as Hull FC snatched victory over local rivals Hull KR 22-20. What stood out was the manner in which they claimed the spoils. With just over 20 minutes to go, the Black and Whites were yet to get on the scoresheet and had to claw back a 20-point deficit. However, they did just that, and in the process rose to fourth in the table. Here are three more amazing fightbacks.

Tottenham 3-4 Man City, FA Cup, 4 February 2004

In the days before Arab money transformed them into a trophy-winning side, Man City often found themselves languishing in the bottom half of the Premier League. They looked to be heading for a fourth-round exit at White Hart Lane. After 43 minutes, Tottenham looked to be out of sight following goals by Ledley King, Robbie Keane and Christian Ziege. To compound matters for the away side, current Burnley midfielder Joey Barton was given a second yellow just after the half-time whistle had sounded (surprising given his mild-mannered nature). This decision only served to galvanise City, with strikes from Sylvain Distin, Paul Bosvelt and Shaun Wright-Phillips drawing them level with ten minutes of normal time remaining. Then, with time running out, a searching cross from the left-wing by Michael Tarnat was met by a floating header from Jon Macken to send the team through to a meeting with arch-rivals Man United. That is where the fairytale ended however, as the Blues lost 4-2 at Old Trafford.

James Ward 6-7, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6, 15-13 John Isner, Davis Cup, 6 March 2015

On paper, the odds appeared heavily stacked in the American’s favour, as he was nestled just inside the top 20. Despite being a useful singles player, inconsistency has dogged Ward’s game, and at the time of their encounter he lay 91 places below his opponent. The match seemed to be going to form, with Isner’s massive serving and composure during the big points pulling him through the first two sets. However, a break of serve in the sixth game of the third set got the spectators in Glasgow right behind the Briton, as they sensed a revival. A series of gutsy shots then set up a fourth-set tie-break. On this occasion, he held his nerve, and an errant Isner took the match to a decider. The fifth set was an epic tussle. Ward had the opportunity to close out the match at advantage and 5-4, but a booming Isner serve proved snuffed out the chance. Another opportunity presented itself for the Londoner at 10-9, but a forehand on the run just looped long. Finally, at 14-13, Ward had three breaks and did not squander the opportunity, as he drove a double-handed backhand towards the front of the court, which the American could only parry into the net.

The joy was short-lived for Great Britain though. Despite beating their opponents 3-2, they were eliminated by Italy in the next round by the same scoreline.

France 43-31 New Zealand, Rugby Union World Cup, 30 October 1999

Before Japan’s stunning triumph over South Africa at the 2015 tournament, this was in contention for the greatest shock in World Cup history. New Zealand were the clear favourites to progress to the final with the irrepressible Jonah Lomu in their ranks, while France were hoping to build on their third-place finish from four years earlier. Three converted penalties preceded a superb try, instigated by Christian Dominici and finished off by talisman Christophe Lamaison, which put Les Bleus in the ascendancy . A barnstorming try by Lomu put the All Blacks back in front, as he barged past half the French team to ground the ball. A mesmerising move then saw the ball change hands with lightning speed before Lomu once again carved a path to the line. Following the conversion, the Southern Hemisphere side were 14 points to the good, but then came the comeback. Two drop goals from Lamaison in quick succession gave his side renewed hope.  A hopeful punt over the backline then set Dominici away, with the bounce falling perfectly for him, as he sprinted away to the jubilant celebrations of the majority of the Twickenham crowd; they were now in front. Lamaison then produced another piece of genius, lofting the ball into the path of Richard Dourthe, who held on and grounded. The All Blacks were now rattled, and a missed pass deep inside French territory set the Europeans away. The ball was booted downfield, with Olivier Magne giving it a further punt. In hot pursuit, Philippe Bernat-Salles seized on the loose ball and drove successfully to the line, despite the close Kiwi attention. In the dying moments, Jeff Wilson scored a consolation try but it was too little, too late.

France may have played heroically in this match, but they came up against an imperious Australia in the final, losing 35-12.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Action Images

Advertisements

Rhinos defeat Saints in entertaining encounter

Leeds Rhinos saw off perennial Super League rivals St. Helens in a thrilling clash in front of 17,131 at Headingley Carnegie Stadium.

The Rhinos went into this match with just one win in their opening five games and were fresh off the back of a 28-6 drubbing at the home of 2015 Grand Final opponents Wigan. The team included a first start in eight months at home for Jamie Jones-Buchanan, and returns to the squad for Carl Ablett, Brett Delaney and Joel Moon.

The Saints had started this season brightly, and were spreading their tries around the team, with 13 different players having got in on the act so far this term.

Leeds’ poor form has been exemplified by their lack of attacking verve, but it was on show today in a blistering ten-minute spell at the beginning of the match, epitomised by the superb wing play of both Zak Hardaker and Ash Handley. Handley enjoys playing St. Helens, having scored hat-tricks in both outings against the Merseysiders in the regular 2015 season. The 19-year-old right-winger had an instrumental part to play in the opening try, intercepting an attempted kick-through and driving at the Saints defence. He was held up, but the ball was recycled, with Jones-Buchanan receiving an incisive offload by Keith Galloway before powering over on his 300th appearance for the club.

Ash Handley was a constant thorn in the side of the Saints’ defence

 

Following a Liam Sutcliffe conversion, the Rhinos rumbled on, and soon after the first try the advantage was doubled. Beau Falloon was at the heart of much of the good play that the team mustered, and he was on hand to deliver the telling pass to Adam Cuthbertson, who went over between the posts despite the close attentions of two defenders. The Rhinos’ fans were in dreamland and it was not long before the team had stretched further ahead. More sloppy play from Keiron Cunningham’s side saw Kallum Watkins get his hand to a misplaced Saints pass, which Liam Sutcliffe profited from, slicing through for an emphatic finish. Although he couldn’t make it a hat-trick of conversions, the stand-off had been an pivotal presence in the opening exchanges.

However, the tide started to turn in what was a crazy first half. A threatening set of six just after the third try of the match signalled the Saints’ intent, and shortly after that they had cut the deficit, with Kyle Amor neatly sidestepping Hardaker before diving for the line. Despite that lift, the visitors were still not finding their range with their kicking in open play. However, with ball in hand they were starting to play with real zip, and a neat move saw goal-kicker Luke Walsh pick the lock following a concerted spell of pressure following a neat dummy. The home crowd were now getting agitated, while the travelling supporters chanted ‘‘you’re not singing any more’’ to their West Yorkshire adversaries. Both sides were playing a speedy, expansive style of rugby, but it was the Saints who were now capitalising on mistakes, as a game of pinball broke out inside the Rhinos’ 22, with nervousness setting in among a group of players not used to such a sticky run of form.

St. Helens upped their game significantly as the first half wore on

 

Although the team continued to attack, the seeming lack of runners from deep was frustrating the home faithful, who were sensing a dramatic turnaround, and sure enough this transpired. Walsh was again at the heart of the move, with Louie McCarthy Scarsbrook latching onto his pass and dancing through.

Then the Rhinos revival kicked into gear. The half had looked to be petering out, but the tricky second-row Ablett was on hand following Rob Burrow’s cute pass to fight off the challenges of a few St. Helens players and sprint to the line. Given the low-scoring performances that have been a feature of the beginning of the season, this was a welcome return to the flair play that so captivated the league during vast swathes of last season.

The second half was by contrast a more disjointed affair. The tempo in the first 40 minutes had been unrelenting and both teams would have been forgiven for feeling shattered. The game was re-ignited by a scintillating passage of play that saw the tireless Handley haul down a St. Helens runner with the line in sight. Shortly after, Ablett went scampering into enemy territory before feeding Watkins, who you would have fancied to finish off the move. However, he was caught just a few metres away from glory. The move got the crowd off their seats though, and it was not long before they were up celebrating a fifth and final Rhinos try. Falloon, who had been industrious all evening, produced an impudent kick through, and the energetic Handley pounced, grasping and grounding the ball to roars from the Headingley crowd.

Both teams brought physicality to the table

 

With less than 25 minutes of the match remaining, the match became a bit more of a bitty affair, with a few flare-ups on the pitch and disgruntled supporters venting their spleen at referee Ben Thaler for what they felt were blatant offside claims against St. Helens players. Another Sutcliffe penalty put the game to bed with roughly ten minutes to go, before Jones-Buchanan came off to a rapturous reception. The 34-year-old is a popular figure in these parts and having been out for so long is starting to show signs that he can recapture the form that made him such an important part of this team.

There was still time for one meaningful chance for either side. A St. Helens breakaway led to an advantageous attacking position, but they failed to make the most of it, passing into the more congested part of the field and therefore the chance was snuffed out. Following this, man of the match Handley attempted a kick-chase in the dying moments, but he was held up just short.

This game was certainly the Rhinos’ most dominant performance of the season. The departures of Jamie Peacock, Kevin Sinfield and Kylie Leuluai have certainly hit hard, but the new acquisitions, returning faces and youthful replacements can certainly fill the breach.

Alex Bowmer

All images courtesy of Paul Greenwood at the Daily Mail

 

 

 

 

Great Britain seek success stateside

With the World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon having just started, the 23-person strong British contingent will all be gunning for success. Without the likes of Olympic ‘‘Super Saturday’’ stars Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford in the squad, the competition represents an opportunity for some of the lesser-known athletes to thrust themselves into the spotlight ahead of this year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Here are five athletes who are in contention across the pond.

James Dasaolu

Age: 28

The second-fastest Briton ever over 100m, Dasaolu had to withdraw from this competition two years ago after sustaining a thigh injury, having sewn up the European 100m title in the same season. A relatively late bloomer having started sprinting at 18, he has certainly made up for lost time and is one of the best sprinters this country has produced in a long time.

Chris Baker

Age: 25

His lack of a Wikipedia page indicates how meteoric the rise of this athlete has been. Despite a relatively modest outdoor PB of 2.27m, he posted a monstrous jump indoors of 2.36m in February this year, which was the joint-second best performance in the world so far in 2016. Such was his performance that he has put 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Robbie Grabarz in the shade.

Dina Asher-Smith

Age: 20

The second year history student at King’s College London is an elite athlete in the making. Having broken the British women’s 100m record last year (becoming the first woman from these shores to dip under 11 seconds), the Orpington-born sprinter also broke the 200m British outdoor record in 2015. Her indoor form also saw her secure a silver medal in the 60m at last year’s European Championships last year. At this year’s event, she reignites her rivalry with Dutch sensation Dafne Schippers.

Tiffany Porter

Age: 28

The former US athlete is a seasoned campaigner. She broke the British indoor 60m hurdles record back in 2011 having only switched allegiance around six months earlier. Porter has also come close to breaking Ennis-Hill’s outdoor record. Her performances in competition at both distances have been distinguished, and she medalled at the last two World Indoor Championships, securing a bronze and silver in Sopot and Istanbul respectively.

Shara Proctor

Age: 27

Another who switched allegiance (this time from Anguilla), Proctor has gone from strength to strength since first donning a British vest in 2011. In that time she has improved her outdoor PB by nearly 40cm, smashing the British record in the process with a 7.07m jump at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. She has also dramatically improved her own PB indoors with a leap of 6.91m, coming within a whisker of Katarina Johnson-Thompson’s British record.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A tale of two teams

Ligue 1 has always been a halfway house when it comes to European football. Its league has historically been considered superior to many of those in the east in the continent, yet France’s top sides have never quite measured up to the elite in Germany, Italy and Spain (or, dare I say it, England).

In the last two years, two of the league’s most successful clubs, Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco, have benefited from takeovers by consortia who promised to pump eye-watering sums of money into the club in an attempt to get them to Europe’s top table on a regular basis.

Since then, the top two clubs have experienced divergent fortunes. PSG were bought by Qatar Sports Investments (QSi) in 2011 for the relatively modest sum of €50 million, with the figure eventually rising to €100 million. Following the purchase of the club, PSG finished the 2011-2012 season in 2nd behind Montpellier, and in the process broke the record for the highest points tally for a second-placed team in Ligue 1 (79). They have not looked back since, wrapping up the league title in the following three seasons (by margins of 12, nine and eight points respectively), and claiming nine honours since the takeover a little under five years ago. The club have also banished lingering doubts about the ability of sides from across the Channel to attract the cream of the crop. Among these big-money signings were Thiago Silva (signed from AC Milan for around €42 million) and Lucas Moura (signed for more than €40 million as a teenager), as well as David Luiz and Angel di Maria. The purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic added a further cutting edge to their team. Despite reports of off-field wrangling at previous clubs, his goalscoring record at nearly all the clubs he has played for has been impressive. Added to that the guile of Javier Pastore and the athleticism and tenacity of Blaise Matuidi and you have a force to be reckoned with.

In all, the club has spent over €500 million on players, in the hope that they will not just dominate domestically, but will unsettle those in the upper echelons of the Champions League. Their 4-2 aggregate win over Chelsea this week suggests that, despite the London club’s struggles, they may be ready to mount a serious challenge in this year’s competition. This is the fourth time in succession that they have reached the quarter-finals, and having been knocked by Barcelona (twice) and Chelsea on the previous three occasions, they will be looking to break through the glass ceiling this time around.

AS Monaco’s ride has not been so smooth. They were purchased at a similar time as PSG, by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev following their relegation to Ligue 2 in 2011. This was an ignominious fall from grace for the Corsicans, who had been one of the giants of French football in the preceding decades. Following the injection of Rybolovlev’s roubles, the team made a return to the promised land in 2013 under the stewardship of Claudio Ranieri, quickly acquiring the services of highly-prized sharp-shooter Radamel Falcao and youthful sensation James Rodriguez that summer. Their first season back in the big time was a roaring success, as they finished second, with Rodriguez and Falcao playing starring roles. However, following Colombia’s electrifying showing at the World Cup, it was inevitable that massive clubs would come calling. Both made moves to more illustrious surroundings (Rodriguez headed to Real Madrid for an astronomical fee, while Falcao departed for United on loan). As a result of these losses, they regressed, finishing 12 points adrift of PSG in third position during the last campaign. They have also failed, in the time that Rybolovlev has been on the throne, to claim any domestic silverware. Furthermore, although they made the last-eight of last season’s premier European competition, a defeat to Valencia this campaign at the play-off stage meant that they had to be content with a spot in the Europa League. To add insult to injury, they were unable to qualify from their group, finishing comfortably behind both Tottenham and Anderlecht.

In turn, they have failed to convince potential foreign imports that they are similar in ambition to PSG. They have not splashed out nearly to the same extent, while expensive recruits like Geoffrey Kondogbia, Aymen Abdennour and Lucas Ocampos moved on to pastures new relatively quickly. PSG’s strength was in signing players like Javier Pastore, Ibrahimovic and di Maria, who had all shone in more competitive leagues. By contrast, Monaco have not been able to make any real marquee signings since the days of Falcao and Rodriguez, leading the project to look a little stale.

This chasm that seems to be developing has been drawn into sharp focus this season. While Les Rouges et Blancs are second in the table, six points ahead of Lyon (who so ruthlessly dominated for most of the noughties), Les Parisiens have waltzed effortlessly into a 23-point lead over their cash-rich adversaries. Such is their dominance that they could sew up the title this weekend, a tad more than two months before the final round of fixtures is played.

What this state of affairs goes to show is that while we may bemoan English clubs for falling behind in the pursuit of European glory, there is always another side to the argument. PSG are exceptionally strong, but they have made the rest of the league look feeble. We should be thankful that four teams just about remain in contention for the Premier League title, and that the top two have come on leaps and bounds, breaking up the cosy cabal of clubs that seem firmly ensconced at the top of the division. For French football, that intrigue and unpredictability could not seem more remote.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Franck Fife/AFP

Davis Cup defence papers over the cracks

 

The Davis Cup begins in earnest on Friday, with Great Britain beginning the defence of their crown against Japan, which has the makings of a tussle. Andy Murray and Co. will no doubt be confident following last year’s triumph. Their 3-1 win over Belgium (in their own backyard) ended a 79-year hoodoo which some thought had restored the reputation of British tennis, for a long time seen as an embarrassment. While the victory last year was great to watch, it shouldn’t disguise the fact that a lot of work still needs to be done.

The problem that needs addressing is the over-reliance on Andy Murray. This has not been a new phenomenon. Of the 12 rubbers that the team won last year, eight were singles victories from the world number two. The other four victories were during doubles encounters, which all included Andy and his brother Jamie. In other words, no player outside the Murray family had a stake in Great Britain’s success. The upsurge in fortunes for the team can be directly attributed to the increased involvement of the 2013 Wimbledon Champion. If we contrast last year’s pattern of results with those of previous Davis Cup winners down the years, the difference is stark. Of the 12 rubbers won by 2014 champions Switzerland that year, seven involved Roger Federer in singles and doubles, with the other five involving Stan Wawrinka and the doubles players Marco Chiudinelli and Michael Lammer. In 2013 it was a similar story, with Tomas Berdych contributing to seven victories, while Radek Stepanek, Jan Hajek and Lukas Rosol also chipped in. These wins were far more about the team, rather than an expectation that one talented family would come to the rescue.

The health of a country’s tennis is in part measured by its strength in depth at the highest level. If you take the younger Murray out of the equation, the next highest-ranked player in singles in this country is Aljaz Bedene, at World No.52. However, he is ineligible to play in the Davis Cup having competed previously for Slovenia in the competition. With 21-year-old Kyle Edmund out injured for the opener, the pressure falls on world number 157 Dan Evans. He may have shocked Kei Nishikori, Japan’s best player and the current world number six, at the 2013 US Open, but Evans has a far better chance of success in his tie against Taro Daniel, who is still ranked at a respectable number 87. It remains to be seen how much Bedene, Evans and Edmund progress, but one doubts that any will reach the levels of the elite.

Team GB can’t afford to see Andy drop his level. Indeed, the last time he lost a Davis Cup tie, against Italy’s Fabio Fognini, the team were eliminated from the World Group at the quarter-final stage. It is of course likely that he will rise to the occasion as he has done time and time again when he has been called upon, yet there is no reliable back-up should he have an off day. Edmund certainly has immense potential, and could certainly broach the top 50 in the next few years. However, the problem has so often in British tennis been converting promise at junior level (and the fledging years at senior level) into consistent excellence at the top table. To have produced only two truly world-class men’s singles players in the last 20 years, in a country where 400,000 people play once a week, is staggering. Countries like Croatia and Serbia, with far fewer resources, have managed to roll far more elite players off the production line during a similar time period, showing that it is not beyond the authorities in this country to match such success.

Although the Davis Cup victory last year was great, it concealed a broader problem of youth development. Great Britain will always be in contention in every match they play thanks to the involvement of Murray junior, but the lack of competition among the players in this country currently means that when the two-time Grand Slam winner decides to hang up his racket, there could be another long wait before the country witnesses another Davis Cup triumph.

Alex Bowmer

Featured image: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images