Anthony Joshua vs Oleksandr Usyk review: A fork in the road or a new era of dominance in Heavyweight Boxing?

At the time of writing it’s been nearly a week since Oleksandr Usyk shocked the boxing world and stripped Anthony Joshua of his WBA Super, WBO, and IBF world heavyweight titles. The dust has settled and people have drawn their conclusions of what this fight proved and what the future could hold for both men. Nobody really needs another opinion to be thrown into the void of the internet but without it this blog wouldn’t exist so here I am! This was an incredible fight, make no mistake about it. I know that you should never underestimate anyone in the heavyweight division, especially Usyk, but I didn’t see this happening. It wasn’t only a win for Usyk, it was a complete demolition job. This was the biggest fight of his career so far and without shadow of a doubt his biggest win. It adds to his already impressive CV of wins away from his native Ukraine, where he has already beaten Tony Bellew and Derek Chisora in England, Michael Hunter in the United States, Marco Huck in Germany, and won in hostile environments in Poland, Latvia, and Russia against Krzysztof Glowacki, Mairis Briedis, and Murat Gassiev respectively.

He lured AJ into his trap from the first bell and didn’t let him go. His jab was relentless and he didn’t take his foot off the gas for the full 12 rounds. It seemed like everyone was waiting for Usyk to tire a bit so it could lead to Joshua piling on the pressure but it didn’t happen. Usyk has one hell of an engine and an even stronger chin. Whenever he did find himself in spots of bother he clinched on and fought on the inside. Many thought before the fight that Joshua would be able to use his size to his advantage against someone who was 9 kilograms lighter and 3 inches shorter, but if anything Usyk did. He was much lighter on his feet and looked far quicker. Joshua did well in the sixth and seventh rounds when he won more success with shots to the body but he couldn’t keep it up and looked tired as the rounds went on, with Usyk pouring on the pressure and wobbling Joshua a few times. This isn’t the first time Joshua has lost his titles but this felt incredibly different to the first fight against Andy Ruiz Jr. Ruiz caught him on the temple which in turn ruined his equilibrium and balance for the rest of the fight before the stoppage, Usyk completely dominated the bout.

According to the point-scoring system CompuBox, a computerised point scoring system used for fights around the world, Usyk not only landed the more punches (148 landed compared to Joshua’s 123) he also landed a greater percentage of his punches (28% to Joshua’s 19.2%). Whilst AJ was technically the busier fighter throwing 641 punches compared to Usyk’s 529, Usyk made his count much more. Interestingly, Usyk’s 148 landing punches is the highest amount landed by any of AJ’s previous opponents and in round 12 Usyk landed 29 shots which is the most any opponent has landed on Joshua in a single round. Through Usyk’s incredibly impressive win it means he’s only the third person to hold world titles at cruiserweight and heavyweight, after Evander Holyfield and David Haye (not the worst company for the Ukrainian).

So what exactly does this all mean? In my opinion, it shows that Oleksandr Usyk really is that good and I honestly believe he will be a huge draw in the UK for years to come. Not only is he a great boxer he has a brilliant personality to go with it. Some people online are trying to use the result to shine Joshua in a negative light and I couldn’t disagree with them more. All you need to do is look at Usyk’s career path. You don’t become an amateur world champion, win a gold medal at the Olympics, unify the world titles at cruiserweight, make the jump to heavyweight, end up dethroning one of the division’s biggest names in your third fight at the weight, and do all of this while undefeated by accident. None of that is a fluke, in the same way that Joshua didn’t win Olympic gold and his heavyweight titles by being a naff boxer which people are still trying to argue in the big ol year of 2021. It’s proven that AJ can fight conservative and box well in his wins over the likes of Andy Ruiz, Joseph Parker, and to an extent Kubrat Pulev before the knockout as well as possessing terrifying power which stopped the likes of Dillian Whyte, Wladimir Klitschko, and Alexander Povetkin.

Fans will understandably be disappointed as it means an all British fight between AJ and the ‘Gypsy King’ Tyson Fury is off the cards for the foreseeable future with a rematch with Usyk in Kiev looking incredibly likely for Joshua. I really wanted that fight as did everyone else in the boxing world and we were so close to seeing it but Fury got tied up into a trilogy fight with Deontay Wilder. This isn’t to say that the fight won’t happen one day, Joshua may end up winning the rematch setting up a Fury showdown next summer. Fury-Joshua for all the belts at Wembley, July 2022 anyone? Even if not try and tell me after Saturday’s fight that you wouldn’t want to see a Fury-Usyk unification if it came to it. If Usyk wins the heavily rumoured rematch with AJ then that’s easily the two best heavyweights in the world fighting for full heavyweight unification (for what it’s worth I think Usyk would beat Wilder fairly comfortably, not a hater I just think he doesn’t have as strong a ring IQ as AJ and Usyk coped with him fine). This is all just hearsay mind and who knows what will end up happening next, plus we all now how quickly things could change in the division in the next few months (I’m looking at you potential Joe Joyce WBO mandatory).

Saturday night will be one of those performances that will be talked about for years to come. How the challenger came into the champion’s back garden with 67,000 in attendance watching on, rose hell, and left with the titles. You can’t underplay Usyk’s performance at all. Maybe Joshua wasn’t at his best on the night but in all honesty I’m not sure which plan would’ve stopped Usyk from getting the win. This could definitely be the start of something special in the heavyweight division. There’s a new king at the table and he won’t be going away anytime soon.

Euro 2020 Final Review: The Final Hurdle

So that was Euro 2020. 4 weeks of football filled with highs, lows, cheers, tears, and Peter Walton agreeing with every refereeing decision. The stage was set for two gladiators of European football to battle it out to see who would be crowned European champions. The mighty Azzurri of Italy against the Three Lions of England trying to bring football home, or bring it to Rome. Rome would be the destination football went to with Italy narrowly beating England 3-2 in a penalty shootout. Tricky old penalties yet again becoming England’s undoing and while 55 years of hurt never stopped them dreaming, the wait for glory carries on. For Italy it would be their second Euros title with their previous win coming in 1968 in what has been an unbelievable rebuild and turnaround for the squad in recent years. From failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup to the Roberto Mancini appointment to now champions of Europe again, it’s been quite the turnaround. So without any further ado, let’s get into the review!

Italy vs England

Result: Italy 1-1 England (Italy win 3-2 on penalties)

The match couldn’t have got off to a better start for England. It took only 1 minute and 56 seconds before Luke ‘Shawberto Carlos’ Shaw fired England into the lead with a brilliant half volley. Early goals always give teams confidence and the Three Lions were going to need it if they were going to stand a chance against Italy. England really impressed me in the first half. They looked dangerous every time they attacked and they could’ve been more than 1 up going into half time. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips controlled the midfield completely with Rice looking solid and managing to keep the shape of the midfield well while Phillips aka the Yorkshire Pirlo created chances and got himself into handy positions. Harry Kane had Giorgio Chiellini completely beat in the aerial battle winning headers and making his presence felt against the Italian captain. Italy didn’t come without their threats in the first half. Tournament breakout star Federico Chiesa was creating chances and getting forward well. Into half time England went with their 1 goal lead and many England fans dared to dream. This was the closest football has been to coming home in 55 years. All those years of heartbreak could be put to end in just 45 minutes.

However they didn’t take one important thing into consideration, the Italian second half. I don’t know what it is but in the second half of games this tournament Italy just look that bit better. The substitutions Mancini made helped turn the tide of the game. Bryan Cristante came on for Nicolo Barella who didn’t have the best game and Dominico Beradi replaced Ciro Immobile who was surprisingly quiet. Following this the onslaught of Italian chances came. Waves after waves of pressure came along with England completely losing shape. They started to tire quite quickly as Jorginho and Marco Veratti completely controlled the ball in midfield. Then in the 67th minute the inevitable happened when Leonardo Bonucci equalised. From here on in it didn’t get too much better for England. I was surprised that Declan Rice was substituted for Jordan Henderson, I thought Rice was doing a good job of trying to keep shape and chased absolutely everything but he did look tired. Neither team could get through in the remaining 20 minutes and it was extra time we went.

Neither team particularly threatened that much in extra time. Italy managed to control the midfield well and they still looked fairly strong in attack even without Chiesa. England had a few chances down at the other end but never really looked like scoring. It was pretty clear that both teams towards the end were playing for penalties with Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford coming on for England towards the end of the second half of extra time, and it would have to be penalties to settle it where the Azzurri would be victorious. Harry Kane and Harry Maguire scored their penalties with Jordan Pickford managing to keep out Andrea Belotti and Jorginho. But misses from Rashford, Sancho, and teenage wonderkid Bukayo Saka meant that penalties from Beradi, Bonucci, and Federico Bernardeschi were enough for the win.

Italy are deserved winners of this tournament. From the first game they have been many people’s favourites and yet again it stays true that if you beat Wales at some point then you’ll probably win the tournament. That last bit is true, look at the 1958 World Cup where Brazil beat Wales 1-0 in the Quarter Finals and Euro 2016 where Portugal won 2-0 in the Semis (that has to count for something, right?). As I’ve said many times before, Mancini has completely turned this team around. From exiting Euro 2016 at the Quarter Finals to not going to the 2018 World Cup full stop this Italian team needed some serious work, and that’s what it got. They’ve played brilliant football all tournament and even at times when they didn’t look so convincing they managed to find a way. Not only do they have depth in every position, the quality of the backup players is outstanding. Players like Bernardeschi, Beradi, and Manuel Locatelli are good enough to get into most national team’s starting XI’s, this shows that they are just that good. The best team at the tournament this Euros and without shadow of a doubt will be many people’s favourites for Qatar in 2022. I hope they can end up getting quite far in the next World Cup, the thought of them playing the likes of Brazil, Argentina, or Uruguay makes me very excited. But let’s not look too far ahead yet, they still need to qualify first.

As for England, you can be damn proud. From the team and manager to the majority of fans, you’ve held yourselves in good light. This is a team that is likeable for the first time in however long. A team that stands up for what they believe in. Showing solidarity with black people all around the world and the Black Lives Matter movement by taking the knee before games as well as wearing the rainbow armband in support of the LGBTQIA+ community. Gareth Southgate has been central to this, defending his positions of solidarity and his players when questioned by politicians, aspects of the media, and even small minorities of idiots who have there nerve to call themselves England “fans” despite booing the team when taking the knee. They didn’t win Euro 2020, but Southgate brought football home again for England. English fans now have a national team that they can be proud of and can relate to no matter their background. A team that represents people regardless of their gender, sexuality, or race and a team that stands in solidarity with the English public’s struggles. Some might try and hijack their success and use it to fuel division and their own idea of nationalism i.e. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel jumping on the bandwagon despite criticising them for taking the knee and saying fans had the right to boo it, but this isn’t what this England team represents. It represents a better and more united future. The support that has been shown for Rashford, Sancho, and Saka since they missed their penalties in the shootout has been incredible. Good hearted fans are holding racist thugs accountable online whenever they’ve used slurs against the three of them leading to one losing their job for posting a racist tweet and another 50 year old man arrested for similar. In a world of hate we need to mirror with love and compassion and that has been shown in the last few days since the final. Love will always overcome, and hate will never win.

This was a tournament like no other. With how unstable the last 16 months have been around the world the Euros brought a bit of normality back. It lifted spirits after what’s been an incredibly tragic period in our lives and shows that there is definitely light at the end of what has been an incredibly long tunnel. It was the last bit of football that was played in the UK before the start of the new season in August, and with any luck the stadiums will be full once again because my god it’s been far too long.

Euro 2020 Semi Final Review: Lasergate, Penaltygate, Southgate

And then there were two. The final hurdle is in sight but there’s only room for one at the top. This week we were treated to back to back semi finals at Wembley where four of Europe’s elite battled it out to get that step closer to winning Euro 2020. I’m sure by now you’ve made your choice of who you want to see lift the trophy under the Wembley arch, or maybe you’re like me in that you don’t really care who wins because your national team aren’t playing in which case good on ya! But before Europe halts to a standstill at 20:00 BST this Sunday, there’s still the task for me to look back at the semi finals. Two pretty decent games all in all, and two long games at that. But at the end of it all the two favourites made it through to set up a final between arguably the two best dressed managers in international football, but Gareth Southgate loses a few points for ditching the waistcoat. Dapperness debate aside, lets get into the reviewing!

Italy vs Spain

Result: Italy 1-1 Spain (Italy win 4-2 on penalties)

Bit of a cagey opening this one. Italy are at their most dangerous when they hit on the counter and with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci at the back they can afford to be. However I was quite surprised at how little Italy did attack in the first half. Granted, they created some decent chances and did always look dangerous going forward but couldn’t quite get through. Spain on the other hand looked very strong. They were creating a lot of chances and were able to get shots away but the lack of a recognised striker was showing slightly. In the 60th minute Italy’s midfield maestro Federico Chiesa fired them into the lead and it looked as if it would be a dead cert that the Italians would hold on to see them through to the final but as is the rules, football doesn’t care for things making sense and the football gods only want scenes. Alvaro Morata came off the bench to score the equaliser that came in the 80th minute sending us to extra time. Neither team could break through and after some incredibly questionable penalties in the shootout, Italy prevailed making them the first team to make the final. This was a pretty fun game for the neutral. I’m not sure that it was the incredible game that the commentators and pundits made it out to be, nor do I buy Danny Murphy’s claim that it was the best game he’s seen in years when it wasn’t even the best game this tournament. There were some tired bodies out there by the end but luckily for Italy the other semi final would end up going to extra time in order to level the playing field a bit. Italy’s style of football just works. After what was a pretty woeful couple of years Roberto Mancini has got them back to playing at their best. They’ve no doubt benefited from the improvement of what were previously somewhat smaller teams in the Serie A in the last few years. Players such as Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Beradi from Sassuolo, Andrea Belotti from Torino, and Rafael Toloi from the incredibly impressive Atalanta team paired with quality from the big usual suspects such as Juventus, AC Milan, Internazionale, Napoli, and the two Rome teams (Lazio and Roma) then the base is there for a quality national side. The balance of youth and experience seems to be spot on whilst under the watchful eye of Mancini. They’ve more than bounced back from the disappointment from failure to qualify for Russia in 2018 and now they stand on the brink of greatness. As for Spain, with any other team I think they would’ve won that game. They played really well but as I said before I think they’re lacking an out and out striker. Morata is talented but far too inconsistent and whilst Gerard Moreno set La Liga on fire last season he’s not really done it at the Euros. But Spain can take pride in the fact that they proved me wrong, they actually are quite good at football.

England vs Denmark

Result: England 2-1 Denmark (aet)

Ooh this was tasty. This had a bit of everything which made it enjoyable for the neutral and 120 minutes of absolute living hell for the fans of either side. I personally had my heart set on penalties again because I find them fun, some men just want to watch the world burn (it’s me, I’m men). Denmark got off to a very strong start. They were winning the ball back well and looked dangerous every time they went forward. England started to creep back into it slightly before Mikkel Damsgaard scored an absolute belter of a free kick after 30 minutes to fire the Danes into the lead. Was it a free kick? The foul leading to it was a bit soft and it wouldn’t have been given in the Championship but regardless, for the first time this tournament Wembley was stunned into silence… for about 9 minutes. Bukayo Saka’s couldn’t be cleared by Simon Kjᴂr with the Danish centre half firing the ball into his own net. The second half came and went fairly quickly without too much fanfare and then, oh and then, we get into extra time. The game was only going to go one way once this happened. Denmark looked absolutely spent and had used most of their substitutions by that point. Then we get to the penalty which has caused the mother of all debates online from whether Raheem Sterling did his best Tom Daley impression and everyone on earth becoming an expert in military grade lasers overnight. For my two pence, I thought the penalty was a bit soft from Mᴂhle’s challenge but it looks like there was contact from Jensen on the follow through. This is where Peter Walton would’ve been able to give some actual insight but just used the old “plain and obvious” line and agreed with the referee’s decision, in other news the sun is hot. Kasper Schmeichel saved Harry Kane’s penalty but couldn’t keep out the rebound to give England the lead. Denmark did threaten in the second half of extra time but England held on to set up their first major final appearance since 1966 leading to Baddiel and Skinner, Neil Diamond, and Atomic Kitten to be played around Wembley. An interesting trio but I’ll let it slide, my main Spotify playlist is a lot more varied than that. Something weird has happened here, the England is quite team likeable. I know the anyone but England crowd exists and fair enough I totally get why, but you can’t honestly sit there and say you hate Marcus Rashford, Sterling (maybe you can if you support Liverpool), or Saka. The togetherness they’ve shown is admirable and Gareth Southgate’s persistency to stand up for minorities when facing backlash and criticism from politicians in the highest offices in the country and some fans shows incredible leadership. From Southgate wanting players to continue to take the knee in a stand against racism and Kane wearing the rainbow armband in support the LGBTQIA+ community, they’ve shone themselves in a good light. This is how you use a platform to bring awareness to struggles in society. As for Denmark, hold your heads up high gentlemen because my god you’ve made your country proud. To come back from the most horrific of all starts to the tournament to make the semi final is absolutely outstanding. Damsgaard has proven himself to be one of Europe’s best youngsters and Kjᴂr should be in the team of the tournament for the leadership he showed when Christian Eriksen collapsed and performing CPR until the medical team came with a defibrillator. You’ve done your country proud and gained a lot of new fans on the way, be proud of yourselves.

So it’s Southgate vs Mancini, The Three Lions vs Gia Azzurri, Steak and Ale pie vs Spaghetti Bolognese, James Newman vs Måneskin (Eurovision 2021 joke, my references know no boundaries), Carling vs Birra Moretti (I know exactly which one of those I prefer), England vs Italy. If you’re lucky enough to be going to the game then enjoy it, there’s a lot of people who would love to be where you are so soak up every second of it regardless of the result. Just promise me one thing, fans from both teams now, don’t boo the national anthems. It’s beyond disrespectful and booing any national anthem just makes you look like a bit of a mug and yes that includes home nation fans booing God Save the Queen (plus Il Canto degli Italiani is easily in the top 3 best national anthems in the world and a certified banger. And the Italians make a lot of noise so it’ll sound amazing Sunday). Geopolitical(ish) issues aside, this should be an incredible game. Two fairly different styles of play between two teams who not that many people would’ve bet on making the final. I thought it was going to be France-Netherlands myself but both of them went out in the last 16, brilliant cutting edge analysis yet again from yours truly. This will end up being either an absolute trouncing or a 0-0 settled on penalties, there won’t be anything in between. Only thing is I have absolutely no clue which team will do it. Whether you hope football’s coming home or football’s coming Rome, finals on stages like this are always exciting. And I for one can’t wait.

Home Nations Gameweek 1 Recap: The Good, the not too bad, and the lob from 50 yards

I’ll keep it honest with you guys, I’ve been a bit under the weather the last few weeks. My symptoms have included a weird feeling of excitement and nerves in my gut, the sudden urge to get myself to the closest pub, and a strong sense of national pride that I don’t always have. I spoke to NHS direct and my fears were confirmed, I’ve come down with a strong case of Euro fever with no cure in sight! Yep, last week Euro 2020 got underway after a year of waiting which felt like forever. This is a particularly exciting one as for the first time ever Wales, Scotland, and England all qualified for an international tournament (sorry Northern Ireland, there’s always Qatar for the 4 of us to get to). Better yet, Scotland and England have been drawn in the same group with Wales having a tasty matchup in gameweek 3 with world beaters Italy. So I decided I’d do gameweek recaps for the home nations throughout the group stage then general recaps for the knockout rounds whether any of the home nations are there or not. Got it? Smashing. Whether you think football’s coming home, fitbaw’s coming hame, mae pêl droed yn dod gartref, or what’s most likely to happen in my opinion la football rentre à la maison (I hope Google translate hasn’t let me down there, my French isn’t what it used to be), there’s plenty to get excited about. Without any further ado, let’s get into it!

Wales

Jeez Louise, another 2 group games like that will see me off. This was a weird one, the first 5/10 minutes we looked great. Dangerous whenever we attacked and were winning the ball back well. For whatever reason then we decided that it was going a bit too well and completely switched off for the next 65 minutes. The passing was incredibly lazy, Switzerland saw far too much of the ball and were happy enough to keep possession of it, and any sense of urgency was gone. Unsurprisingly, Switzerland take advantage of this and Breel Embolo (that’s a name familiar to Football Manager players) fired the Swiss into the lead just after half time. Wales woke up a bit after this deciding to attack a bit more before the best footballer (and human being) alive today, Kieffer Moore, used his massive head of his to draw us level. General Page then decided to take off Dan James in his infinite wisdom and the game finished 1-1. This isn’t a terrible result given how Wales played for most of the game, and the fact that Switzerland are a solid team. Whenever Wales attack they’re at their best, it showed in periods of this game and it showed in the first half of the France friendly before Neco Williams got sent off. Why they don’t do it more I don’t know, and they’ll have to adopt this attacking style of play against Turkey in what is a massive game on Wednesday. I’d make some changes to the side for Turkey. I’d swap Neco Williams for Connor Roberts, Ben Cabango for Chris Mepham, and Ethan Ampadu for Joe Morrell whilst keeping the rest the same. All in all, a good result against a very good team after not the best performance.

England

IT’S COMING HOOOMEEEE!!!! England supporters sing in jubilation after beating a geriatric Croatia side 1-0 in their opening game (oh come on I’m allowed one little dig, don’t tell anyone but three lions is a banger). The ghost of World Cup Semi Finals past was put behind the three lions as Raheem Sterling was on target for England to win their Group B opener. Wasn’t a bad game really. I thought England played pretty well in what wasn’t a bad performance at all. Phil Foden nearly set England off to the best possible start after his shot hit the post in the opening 5 minutes in what was the best chance and highlight of the first 45. Kalvin Phillips turned into prime Andrea Pirlo creating some incredible changes and setting up Sterling’s goal in the second half. I’m not too surprised Gareth Southgate opted for Declan Rice and Phillips, he’s a big fan of more conservative possession/defensive football in big games so this was always going to be a given. In the end it paid off and props to him. I’m also not too surprised that Jack Grealish didn’t feature, he’s played a lot of football in the last month for Aston Villa and England in the warmups. I think he will end up featuring at some point for the Scotland game in what will be a mostly unchanged side. It would be massively harsh to drop Sterling after his performance and Foden is Foden so I imagine Grealish will end up coming on as a substitute at some point. The best possible start for a tournament with a lot of hype and expectation surrounding England, but then again when isn’t there a tournament with a lot of hype and expectation for England. Good performance, and one that should beat Scotland with relative ease.

Scotland

Ah lads what went wrong. Wait 23 years to feature at a tournament, have your first game on home soil, and Marshall gets lobbed from 50 yards. I thought the Scots got off to a decent start. Up until the first goal Hampden was rocking and Scotland were playing alright. Andy Robertson had a good effort saved by Tomas Vaclik before and absolutely stunning cross from West Ham’s Vladimir Coufal was met by the head of Patrik Schik to put the Czechs 1 up just before half time. Scotland started the second half pretty well but Hendry’s blocked shot fell perfectly for Schik again who lobbed Marshall from the halfway line to put the nail in the coffin. Stuart Armstrong and Lyndon Dykes had some decent opportunities but Vaclik saved both well. This was a disappointing result for Scotland. Arguably their most winnable game in the group (I personally disagree, the Czech Republic are one of my dark horses and I’m not convinced Croatia are all that) but it wasn’t to be. No doubt they’ll be fired up for England where they’ll be hoping Kieran Tierney will be fit to play. I’m not saying at all they would’ve won if Tierney was fit but he offers more than Liam Cooper in a back 3. There’s still a kinda slim chance of making the last 16, especially with the format of the third place teams but we’ll see. England will be full of confidence and Croatia are still strong, although I think they’re definitely in with a shout against Croatia. It’ll have to be a better performance against England because if not then it could be quite grim reading at Wembley this Friday.

Six Nations Week 5 Recap: Super(ish) Saturday and a Decider in Paris

So I was hoping this would be able to be a reflection piece. A look back at the Super Saturday that was and the tournament as a whole as a winner would’ve been decided, England would’ve played down to their competition again and Italy would’ve had a fairly grim showing again. The latter two happened, but the winner is still well up in the air. It was a bit of a weird one. The first two games didn’t really mean much and the final could’ve been a championship decider, but we have to wait until the conclusion of Scotland-France before we know about that. So what better way than to cover all this than splitting this post into two. The first (and main bulk) will be the bog standard gradings that I’ve done all the way through but keeping a bit at the end until after the Scotland-France game is concluded. I might even do a reflection grading every team’s tournament after all is said and done, but I’m still undecided on that front. Anyhow, I’ve rambled enough. Let’s get into the ratings!

Italy

As certain as I am that the sun will rise in the East and set in the West, Italy will look impressive against a good team for 5 whole minutes before completely going off the rails. I said last week that it would take some doing for Italy to do worse than they did against Wales, but they somehow managed it. Every week since the opener they’ve got progressively worse, and this was the bland icing on top of the disappointment cake. Just a really bad performance, it kind of summed up their tournament. The little sparks of creativity were completely non-existent and the second half was the worst they’ve looked all tournament. Discipline went out the window completely by the end, I think it was down to frustration on Italy’s part. Ioane I thought was quite lucky as well not to get sent off, red cards have been given for tackles like that. They looked weak in their phase play as if (yet again) they had no idea what to do after the third phase each time, add to this getting battered at set pieces then it made for a very poor afternoon. A grim match which Italy were glad to see the back of, and a grim tournament I imagine they’d be happy to see the end of.

Grade: F-. Very poor, and have been progressively the whole last few weeks. Be careful somebody doesn’t sneak into your place with the rest of the class, Georgia has been making a lot of noise and turned some heads recently.

Scotland

B-E-A-uitiful! Yes Italy were poor, but lets not take anything away from Scotland. The first five minutes were an absolute disaster but the Scots bounced back more than impressively. They were brutal going forward yet again and were sound in defence. I was really impressed with Hamish Watson and thought David Cherry was quality. I saw a piece with Stuart Hogg before the game where he said he was nervous about playing at no. 10 but it didn’t show at all, I thought his kicking was tremendous. This has been a really solid tournament for Scotland, and they really could’ve done even better. With 15 men I think they would’ve beaten Wales and the Ireland game was just crazy. The journey of improvement they’ve come on in the last 4 years or so has been brilliant, and long may it continue. A lot of Scottish players had a very solid tournament, and don’t be surprised if we see a lot of Scottish players in the Lions squad for this summer.

Grade: A+. Star of the week! Same again against France would be lovely.

England

I knew after week 1 this was going to be a rough tournament, but never in my wildest dreams did I see this team performing as bad as they did against Ireland. That was England’s worst game in years. The defence was all over the shop, absolutely nothing came flowing in terms of attack and the discipline was laughable. You cannot give away that many penalties at this level of rugby. Too many silly mistakes were made in the back and it cost them dearly. Granted they did their homework at the lineout, but at the total expense of everything else. I thought the Sarries lads were back to their (near) best after the France game but they were way off it this week. The most frustrating thing is that we all know how good this team can be. The world cup wasn’t a million years ago, yet this side is a million miles away from that semi final performance. I was really hoping this would be an opportunity to see the quality in depth there was considering there was so little to play for but alas Eddie Jones stuck with who he knew and we ended up with whatever that performance was. Do I think the big names still go on the Lions tour? Yes. They can still play well, but those who don’t need to be rested for the North America tour. Take them by all means but that tour needs to be about some new blood and the younger lads. Poor game.

Grade: D-. Very poor showing, back to the drawing board and think about where we go from here.

Ireland

I’ve cracked it. So first off, well done on a big win. Did I think Ireland were world beating? No. But they were very clever in what they did. I’ve come to the conclusion Ireland and Burnley are annoyingly similar in their game plans. They have the quality players there, but they’re even better at getting teams to play down to their level if they’re having an off day. Their defence slaughtered England forcing them to make mistakes and thus use the penalties well. They had quality going forward and made the most of opportunities they had. This kind of performance can work wonders against bigger teams, and does it sound similar to a previously mentioned football club from the Lancashire that play in claret and blue? So you could call Ireland the Burnley of international rugby, or vice versa. I don’t know the analogy makes sense to me. In terms of individual performances, Furlong is proving to be even better than I thought and alongside very few other players has basically solidified his place in the Lions starting XV (for what it’s worth I think only Furlong, Stuart Hogg, Josh Adams and Tom Curry have solidified their starting places, the rest is massively up for debate). Sexton was okay and Keith Earls impressed. I’ll be honest I stopped watching before full time, I’d had enough of England being bad and opted for the South Wales Derby instead (needless to say I made the right choice).

Grade: B. Well done! Good work all and I’d like to wish CJ all the best of luck for his future endeavours!

France

The mad lads actually did it, they made Super Saturday a bit of a dud (ooohhh the salt is strong in this one, I’ve been working overtime this week at the South Wales Sodium mine). All in all, fair play France, that was a great last effort in the last 20 minutes to come back. The start was pretty mental, we saw much of the France that we did against England in the just attack and hope for the best. Was a bit like an entertaining football match to start, you have a go we have a go and just not care about defending (how un-Shaun Edwards like of them). Once they went down to 14 I thought that was more or less game over, but they pushed on and got the harshest of heart-breaking overtime wins (I’m still not bitter). Wales should’ve done better at the scrum, they had the ball with 90 seconds left in a winning position for a Grad Slam how do you not win from that? But alas, the French fought on and ended up stopping a Welsh Grand Slam setting up a huge decider against Scotland. All eyes on the decider in Paris at 8PM GMT Friday for the second week running.

Grade: B. Did well to come back, please don’t poke other classmates in the eye.

Wales

Hello darkness my old friend, how you’ve come to haunt me with Welsh rugby again. Yeah, this hurt. Thank god Cardiff won the South Wales Derby and something went right (this is where I’d usually say “sorry Swansea fans” but I’m not really sorry lolz). I think Wales had the right idea, fight fire with fire from the off like England did the week before and it worked for a bit. The front and second row had a decent showing again and with 10 minutes left everything was coming up roses and then, well and then. Once Camille Chat overthrew the lineout I thought that would be it more or less done, man advantage with not much time left is always nice, but the rugby gods had other ideas. Too many penalties conceded will always lead to yellow cards and France nick it with two late tries.

*On that note, the abuse Liam Williams got was nothing short of an absolute disgrace. Much like the “fans” who sent abuse to Sonja McLaughlan for her interview with Farrell and death threats to Ellis Genge for not clapping after the Wales-England game, you’re disgusting and not wanted in the sport*

I can’t be angry at Wales, they didn’t get slaughtered, it just wasn’t to be. To have two less than convincing performances to start to be within touching distance of a Grand Slam is pretty special and I don’t think anyone saw it. There won’t be an appearance from Irritating Welsh Rugby Fan™ this time around, he’s spent his time since the final whistle rapidly searching Ancestry for any kind of Scottish heritage and trying to find the best deals on Scotland shirts. On to Friday we go to see where the title ends up!

Grade: C. Not bad, just lost discipline and tripped at the final hurdle. You’ve done well, dust yourself off while some of you can look forward to a summer trip to South Africa.

So like I said, we’re splitting this into two parts. I leave you now, and I’ll finish it after the Scotland-France game because oh lord that just got massive. In a bit! (or in a now because the game will already have happened)

*Spongebob Squarepants transition voice* One Week Later

France

Hmm, weird one (drinking game: take a shot every time I say those three words to open a grading). For a team that had to win by 20 and get a bonus point, France really didn’t look up for it. They weren’t as free flowing as they have been all tournament and considering they’re known for their quality in attack this tournament it wasn’t really on show. I thought Virimi Vakatawa was a bit quiet, he almost looked a bit hesitant at times. They still looked dangerous whenever they went forward, but they were met by a strong Scottish defence (there’s a Hadrian’s Wall joke to be made there). They should’ve done more with the penalties they were gifted in the run up to halftime and definitely should’ve done more with the man advantage in the 9 or so minutes after but no dice. When another man advantage came with Finn Russell’s red card they shot themselves in the foot three minutes later with Serin’s yellow. Discipline started to drop when it came to the mid point of the second half, they basically did what Scotland were doing just before half time. Then comes the finish, maybe they were desperate for a bigger win but for god’s sake lads just kick it out and save some face when you’re in a winning position. Ah well, I’m not complaining considering it won Wales the championship. Just wasn’t to be for Les Bleus, again.

Grade: C+. Okay at times but fell at the last hurdle. You’re obviously very talented, just try again next year.

Scotland

“OOOOHHHHHH FLOWER OF SCOOOOOOOOOOOOOTLAAAAAAANDDDDD WHEN WILL WE SEE YOUR LIKE AGGGGAIIIINNNNNNN” thank you gents, much appreciated. Scotland went into this with a solid game plan from the word go and it worked. Discipline dropped before half time, they were lucky to get away with conceding so many penalties with only the one yellow card. Their attack was strong when it needed to be and the defence remained solid, even in the times they were playing with 14. Stuart Hogg had a good game solidifying his place as a Lions starter even more, Hamish Watson and Finn Russell (despite his red card) have basically confirmed themselves to be in the squad, and some of the lesser talked about potentials such as Huw Jones, Ali Price, Dave Cherry and Duhan van der Merwe just to name a few made solid cases for squad selection. Scotland needed this win. It had been a long time coming and wins in Paris and Twickenham makes it a solid tournament. This squad is definitely going places, the improvement they’ve shown in the last 4 years or so has been incredible. Don’t be surprised if this time in twelve months we’re looking at a Scotland championship, I think they can do it. On their day they beat anyone in the Six Nations and honestly I think next year might be their year, who knows.

Grade: B+. Very impressed! I know the Welsh contingent of the class were watching closely and are very grateful. Discipline needs working on a bit but we’ll let future Scotland worry about that

Class Clown of the Week(s): Ellis Genge. Not necessarily for anything he did on the pitch but his response to Tendai Mtawarira calling him out on twitter was legendary stuff, a level of unbothered I aspire to have. Well played Gengey.

And that was that! I did have a thing I wanted to write out properly planned but I’m tired. So thanks for sticking around and all the shares, likes and reads. This has been a lot of fun, maybe I’ll do something like this for the Lions but that’s ages away yet. So yeah, cheers peeps!

*Two weeks later, again* Tom here, yeah sorry I kept you waiting. In all honesty, I completely forgot I hadn’t posted this. I’ve had it written for ages and dissertation writing has kept me busy for a few weeks. With so much writing I just assumed it had already been posted until I realised about an hour or so ago that I hadn’t. Soz x

Six Nations Week 1 Recap: The Show Rolls On

It’s that time of year again! Albeit in very different circumstances, the Six Nations is back. There’ll be no bootcut jeans with brown leather shoes, no pints of Guinness poured, no pubs packed, no whatever those absolutely horrendous daffodil and pink sparkly cowboy hats are, seriously, they are absolutely awful, and no red chinos at HQ (even typing that makes me sick). It’s a very scary and weird world out there at the moment but this will bring some kind of escape. Sure, it’s not quite the same. But with the rate of vaccine distribution hopefully this time next year the stands and pubs will be packed again, better days are coming friends. Until then we still have tins and listening to Eddie Butler, Jonathan Davies, Sir Clive, Martin Johnson, and the whole gang to see us through. This will become a weekly thing, I know consistency isn’t really my strong point (just look at how many times I’ve posted in the last 12 months) but I’m fully committed to this one. I’ll look at teams week by week and give them a grade, as if we were back at school, or home-school in this case. That’ll be the last reference to covid, I promise. So all that’s left is to get into the grading!

France

Va va voom! Les Bleus that was some beautiful rugby! For me, the performance of the round by a team. They were silky, quick, and their ball in hand and possession rugby was a sight to behold. This team has really strong potential to go far. We saw many glimpses of it in last year’s Six Nations and not only were they quality going forward their defence looked strong too. Shaun Edwards has transformed this French team to become the quality side we all knew they could be. But being the slight cynic I am, there are some grey areas still. One is the fact that they played Italy, no disrespect but top tier European rugby’s punching bag (sorry lads). It was always expected that they would win and probably quite comfortably. The second is the fact that, well… it’s France. “Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, you never know which France will turn up.” Not to go back to it, but it’s true. It was proven against Scotland last year that their inconsistency is still a bit iffy. That performance in particular showed that they can have the most well planned and balanced team with quality in every area, it’s still France and they still have the ability to self implode. Maybe this year is different, maybe this is the start they needed to kick off their chase for a first Six Nations title (and maybe even Grand Slam) since 2010 and end the British-Irish domination of the last decade because that performance proved they have the ability to. But never count them out to do something stupid or hilarious to bottle it.

Grade: A+. Top of the class! Star of the week

Italy

Yikes, that was harsh on you guys. Despite the score line I honestly think Italy weren’t that awful. There were glimpses of quality, I thought Montanna Ioane had a solid game, but it just wasn’t to be. Their passing at times was a bit meh and they in turn cost them points. The French tries were either quality French rugby or Italy having brain farts in the first half and they were completely tired out by the second. This is a young core, losing Sergio Parisse was always going to be rough and it’s kind of showing. That being said, this team can go far. Once they gel I think they have the potential to go quite far, but this isn’t the year for it. Georgia will be watching that result and licking their lips as they do but I think they’ll improve. Will they win a game based on this weeks performances, at the moment possibly not. Not because they’re particularly awful, more so because the other teams are just better. However, this unit can definitely go far. It’ll be an interesting tournament for the Azzurri with a lot of learning, and possibly an interesting few years. They’ll be one to keep an eye on.

Grade: F. Sorry, it’s not nice to give you this as I saw you try but that score just isn’t good enough. See me after class

Scotland

Well done Scotland, you really earned this. It’s been a very long time coming but you know what? Hats off. They played a very disciplined style of rugby enjoying a lot of ball possession. It might not be too easy on the eye but it works. It gets results, and what a result this was. They played incredibly well at the lineout and were strong in possession. This team can go places. Don’t be any under illusion, this is absolutely massive for morale. To win against England at Twickenham will give them a massive confidence boost. I’ll go out on a limb, Scotland are my dark horses this year. With how some of the other bigger teams played I can see them doing really well and having a strong Six Nations. I’m not saying they’ll go all the way and win it, but I think based on this weekend they’ll finish top 3. The quality’s definitely there, it’s just whether they can put the performances together. I’ve got my eye on you Scotland, and I really like what I see. Dare I say, triple crown winners this year? Maybe it’s too early to say, but I think they were the best performing British-Irish team this week.

Grade: A. Very impressed! Keep up the good work

England

Oh England… England, England, England. What will we do with you? I have a really weird relationship with this team. Being half English, whenever they’re not playing Wales I support them (something punishable by trial at the Hague where I’m from but meh, I don’t care). I had high hopes for this team, I really thought after the Autumn Nations Cup and last year’s Six Nations we’d see much the same, but again I was wrong. That performance was pathetic. Scotland did play well but good lord it was poor from the men in white. They kind of need to get it into their heads that kicking to my starting Lions full back really isn’t the one. The tactics were awful. When they played with ball in hand there were glimpses of quality, it’s something they really need to do more. But alas, we get 80 minutes of kicking it to a team who are happy with ball possession. It’s painfully obvious that the Sarries lads haven’t played enough at a top level recently, that needs sorting asap. In all, they have to be better. It’s Italy next who’s probably ideal, because this team desperately needs a confidence boost.

Grade: D-. Really must try harder, stay after class with Italy for quite a serious chat

Wales

I want to goad. I want to be irritating, I really do. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. That was lucky, a bit too lucky. It was… okay. Look a win’s a win but that wasn’t very convincing. It was quite tight, a bit scrappy and aided a lot by Peter O’Mahony’s sending off. There’s no way I thought that was deliberate by the way, I think the intention to make a tackle was there but you can’t not send somebody off for a challenge like that. There were definite positives however. Ken Owens really impressed me, I think he was really strong in the scrum and played well at the lineout. However my player of the match was definitely Louis Rees-Zammit. It was always going to be big boots to fill replacing Josh Adams, but he more than stepped up to the task at hand. I’d love to see him start more. The winger situation really excites me. Adams, LRZ and Liam Williams are quality players and I can’t wait to see what will happen in Rees-Zammit’s very bright future.

Grade: C+. Not bad but I know you can do better, would like to see improvement next week please

Ireland

Last but not least, Ireland. I don’t want to go in too heavy on them, they weren’t good but neither team were. The red card killed it in my opinion. They looked fairly steady up until that point and they had to play a long time against 15 men. If they didn’t have O’Mahony sent off then maybe they would’ve won, but it was that kind of game it’s quite hard to tell. Fairly scrappy, possibly just a bad day at the office, and ended up tiring themselves out quite a bit. If there was anything that summed it up for me then it was the kick for the corner going dead after 80 minutes were up. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very strong team. This could be the making of them for a strong tournament, but they need to improve. If I’m being completely honest, based off what I saw I don’t see them finishing top 3. They still have time to turn this around and come March it could have just been a bad dream, but they need to step up to the plate a bit more if that’s the case.

Grade: D+. Disappointing. Improvement needed, and please refrain from shoulder charging fellow classmates

How the Awful Year that was 2020 Brought out the Best in Sportspeople

Rejoice! Tis the 31st of December, the absolute living hell that is 2020 is only a few hours away from being over. Before absolutely anything, I just want to say well done. The last twelve months have been absolutely horrible from the first month to the last. Wildfires, flooding, coronavirus, the death of George Floyd, seemingly never-ending lockdowns, uncertainty around employment, separation from loved ones for months on end, one of the most divisive elections in recent memory, the health service being stretched to the absolute maximum, and yet you made it through it all to put two fingers up to the last 12 months, I’m so proud of you. As millions of Facebook mums have said, this year has put so much into perspective and sport is no different. There were still big moments, Kansas finally had a winning team as did Liverpool, the Lakers won the NBA Championship for Kobe Bryant, and the Exeter Chiefs look to have started a rugby dynasty to name just a few. The hardship of this year can’t be overlooked, however it did bring out the best in many.

At the same time, it proved how little but how much our passion matters. Whilst the cancellation of more or less all sport back in March was completely needed, it left a massive hole in so many people’s lives. Seasons were stopped, Euro 2020 and the Olympics were postponed, jeopardy as to when sport would start up again, just nothing fun was happening in the world of sport. Sure there were reruns of old classics such as the 1966 World Cup Final, classic British Lions Tests and the always incredible third 2019 Ashes Test, but it still didn’t quite feel right. That’s why I spent my Saturdays in May watching 3 different Bundesliga games at the same time on various devices and the morning of VE-Day watching Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors against Suwon Samsung Bluewings in the restart of the K-1 League. We just missed it. As weird as it sounds, the return of sport was a real morale booster. I kind of doubted it when people said early on that it would be but they were 100 percent spot on. Credit has to be given to Nascar, a sport I’ve never watched but they played such an important role. The return of Nascar stateside proved to be a pivotal moment in showing how sporting bubbles work, a tactic that ensured cricket, basketball, baseball, and boxing were able to come back later in the year and that the NFL season could start on time.

Sportsmen and women contributed in many different ways in the fight against coronavirus. In the UK, footballers used their platform and financial ability to be able to help those who needed it most. Marcus Rashford will always be remembered as a hero for all the work he’s done to feed kids in poverty who rely on free school meals when the Government wouldn’t and voted against the motion of free school dinners during the Easter, Summer and half term holidays. Jordan Henderson started a fund for NHS workers, Wilfried Zaha offering NHS workers free accommodation, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs doing the same with their hotels. And Matt Hancock had the nerve to say Premiership footballers needed to do more to help others, how about your government does its job and looks after its people instead of the public having to rely on Premier League footballers and ex-pros helping out. Just a thought. Outside of the UK, Charlotte Hornets star Bismack Biyombo pledged $1 million worth of PPE to health workers of the Democratic Republic of Congo in their fight against the virus. Houston Texans Defensive End JJ Watt donated $350,000 to the Houston Food Bank in order to keep families in poverty fed. Joyce Sombroek, gold and silver medal winner in London 2012 and Rio 2016 and regarded one of the best women’s hockey goalkeepers of all time, completed her training as a GP in March and has been on the front lines in the Netherlands in their efforts to battle the disease. These are all just a select few of the countless heroes who have helped fight this virus, your actions aren’t going unnoticed and we can’t thank you enough.

Away from the world of covid-19 we saw more examples of sporting heroes. The Australian Open tennis tournament took place whilst wildfires were ravaging the Australian outback which led to Maria Sharapova, Nick Kyrgios, and Ashleigh Barty just to name a few donating portions of (or in Barty’s case, her whole) purses to the relief fund. Much closer to home, the South Wales Valleys were devastated by floods after Storm Dennis however the aftermath saw an incredible sense of community with the people of RCT helping each other out. Merthyr Town FC offered a free Sunday Dinner to emergency service workers while Taffs Well RFC players helped in the clear out of debris from houses. This kind of community spirit and togetherness proves how close knit people from this part of the world are. Although it may not have made major headlines, the actions of Merthyr Town, Taffs Well and countless volunteers in the aftermath of the storm and floods will be remembered for a long time in South Wales. Following the murder of George Floyd an outpouring of support came from sportspeople for black people around the world. Michael Jordan pledged $100 million over the next decade for racial equality groups and charities. Anthony Joshua spoke at a Black Lives Matter protest in London calling out racial inequality in the UK proving that it isn’t only an American issue. Lewis Hamilton wore BLM shirts throughout the remainder of the F1 season and wore one in the first week back demanding the arrest of the police that murdered Breonna Taylor. Sportspeople using their platform like this is so important and will inspire more to challenge racial inequality. Leeds Rhinos legend Rob Burrow won the hearts and support of the nation for the incredible job he’s done in raising awareness of motor neurone disease, an absolutely devastating condition that has no known cure. Burrow’s former team mate and friend Kevin Sinfield helped with running 7 marathons in 7 days raising £2.6 million for the Motor Neurone Disease Association in a display of kind heartedness and friendship, god bless you Mr. Sinfield.

All in all, 2020’s been grim. Uncertainty about so much for so long was really heavy on all of us, but it looks like there’s some light at the end of a long, wet, nasty, dark, disgusting tunnel. 3 vaccines have been found to be at least 95 percent effective and 2 already approved by the UK government. Sportspeople showed how kind hearted they can be putting a definite end to the annoying stereotype that they only care about money and themselves because that just isn’t true. Here’s to 2021 where we’ll hopefully see crowds back at full capacity and a hell of a summer to look forward to with the postponed Olympics and Euros and the scheduled Lions Tour of South Africa. Because 2021, for the love of god and all that’s holy, you need to try harder than whatever the hell those last 12 months were.