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Keeping the C-word private

It’s not a word sports fans like to use in polite company, but we have seen the C-word an awful lot in the media in recent weeks.

I mean ‘cheating’, obviously. (Did you think I was talking about a different word? Shame on you.)

Bloodgate

We have had ‘Bloodgate’ in rugby union, a very public controversy about Harlequins‘ mainipulation of the blood rule, where a player with a ‘blood injury’ can leave the field, substituted, for treatment and subsequently return. This can certainly confer a small advantage: for instance, a fresh pair of legs is brought on, affording the substituted player a few minutes’ rest before returning. (Compare this to the rule in cricket which allows a substitute fielder to temporarily replace another player, a loophole which teams regularly exploit to the hilt to routinely rotate players on and off the field, bringing on specialist fielders while allowing bowlers to take a breather.)

The Bloodgate scandal has resulted in Harlequins director of rugby Dean Richards resigning in disgrace with a three-year coaching ban, as well as the departure of chairman Charles Jillings and physio Steph Brennan. (The club has also been fined £260,000, a hefty sum in rugby terms.)

This has largely been treated as an isolated incident in an otherwise honourable sport, even though others have come forward to suggest that faking blood injuries and other cunning circumnavigations of the rule-book are far from uncommon practices. Indeed, rugby union is a sport often held up – particularly by the football community – as a model of good behaviour, where players properly respect the referee’s authority and spend their spare time polishing their halos. It is also a sport where gouging, stamping, biting and any number of other unpleasantries more usually associated with a Friday night pub brawl are commonplace in scrums and rucks, where they frequently escape the attention of referees and TV cameras. Some brush off such acts as part and parcel of a physical game; I think of them as systematic cheating. But apparently we don’t talk about that sort of thing in public, do we?

Crashgate

By contrast, Formula 1 is a sport which has historically thrived on the column inches spawned by ongoing controversies, accusations and counter-accusations. Technical arguments over whether so-and-so’s front wing or rear diffuser or energy recovery system is legal are commonplace – pick any season in F1’s history and you will find at least a couple such disputes. Conspiracy theories abound. We have had the controversy over team orders influencing the outcome of races, which came to a head after Ferrari‘s Rubens Barrichello was ordered to pull over in the closing metres of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix to gift teammate Michael Schumacher the win.

But very rarely in F1’s not exactly whiter-than-white history have we seen a case as bizarre as the current ‘Crashgate’ controversy.

The potted summary is thus. At last year’s Singapore Grand PrixRenault‘s Fernando Alonso, starting towards the back of the grid in a very competitive car, won the race courtesy of a safety car period initiated by teammate Nelson Piquet Jr crashing into a wall shortly after Alonso had made an early fuel stop.

Piquet was sacked by Renault last month, ostensibly for being rubbish (which, to be fair, he generally was); the news caused barely a ripple in the media, being largely expected.

What was much less expected was the announcement two weeks ago of an FIA investigation into the events of the Singapore GP, based on claims that Piquet was ordered to crash deliberately by team principal Flavio Briatore and engineering director Pat Symonds as part of a plan to help Alonso win.

Who knows? Renault, naturally, are claiming Piquet is motivated by bitterness and a desire for revenge. But given F1’s chequered history of rule-bending it is far from implausible, particularly given the street circuit nature of the Singapore track, where it would be possible to deliberately crash at relatively low speed with minimal risk to the driver and guarantee the appearance of the safety car by scattering debris across the track.

Regardless, it is a delicious story which the mainstream media have bitten into, and which promises to run and run. F1 aficionados, however, know that such Machiavellian machinations are far from unusual in the sport; ‘cheating’ is just part of F1’s DNA. It always has been; it probably always will be.

Festina-gate the turning point for cycling

Particularly over the last decade or so, cycling has – literally – had cheating in its bloodstream. In a sport as demanding of strength and stamina as road cycling is, it is hardly surprising that cheating has been prevalent among cyclists for decades. In the early days of the Tour de France, we had competitors disqualified for hanging on to trains; in the 60s it was amphetamines; since the late-90s it has been about highly efficient blood-boosting drugs such as EPO and Cera, or even blood swapping.

For the current generation of cyclists and cycling fans, it was the Festina-gate scandal at the 1998 Tour de France which exposed the doping culture in the sport for everyone to see, and which nearly brought one of the world’s great sporting events to its knees. And the roll-call of scandal has been incessant ever since, from Operacion Puerto to the disgrace of Floyd LandisAlexandre VinokourovRiccardo Ricco and Stefan Schumacher (I could go on and on) repeatedly twisting the knife ever deeper into the sport’s reputation.

The recent announcement of positive EPO tests from samples provided by Spaniards Mikel Astarloza and Inigo Landaluze of the Euskaltel-Euskadi team in June barely merits a mention in the context of a sport which continues to inflict collateral damage on itself, but which has at least been open and increasingly vigilant about pursuing the cheats and trying to make itself clean.

Cycling should be applauded rather than damned for its attitude. It is at least confronting reality, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Football has its head in the sand

Like cycling, cheating has long been endemic in football, whether it is the righteous indignation over Eduardo da Silva‘s diveDiego Maradona‘s celebrated ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in 1986, or the common practice of systematically committing deliberate acts of cheating – such as tugging an opponent’s shirt – which are technically fouls but generally deemed minor enough to escape punishment.

The authorities’ success in enforcing rule changes and purging the game of cheating have been distinctly mixed. By and large, major rule changes such as outlawing back passes and tackles from behind have worked well, as has the practice of issuing a straight red card for professional fouls (not that this has stopped defenders committing them, but at least the punishment now fits the crime). However, ‘cheating’, which runs the whole gamut from shirt-tugging and waving imaginary cards at a referee to diving and other forms of ‘simulation’, remains largely ignored. And the less said the better about the complacent attitude to drug-testing, where football remains steadfastly a decade or more behind sports such as cycling or athletics.

Video technology is available to help punish the cheats – and aid match officials in making correct decisions – either during or after the fact, as it does in both codes of rugby and several other sports. But both FIFA and UEFA remain vehemently opposed to it. Go figure.

In an ideal world there would be no cheating at all. But most of us are realistic enough to know that where there are rules, then sportspeople will always push the boundaries to the very limit, and will continue to systematically commit deliberate but minor infringements to gain an advantage.

Like it or not, cheating is part and parcel of competitive sport. It can never be completely eliminated, but it can be controlled and punished. What is particularly hard to swallow, though, is when sport’s dirty laundry is aired in public to do little more than damp down an outcry or to set an example, with no intention of actually addressing the underlying issue.

It is here that cycling is doing a good job in battling the cheats, backing up words with actions (and results). Football – and I cannot stress this enough – is not. Even though the evidence is there for all to see – frequently from multiple angles in super slow motion – it appears the powers that be would rather keep the C-word private, except where it is convenient and politically expedient.

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Fractions and margins

Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

England gave 100% on Saturday night, but it wasn’t enough against a South Africa side which was ultimately too strong and too well organised. 15-6 was perhaps a little unkind to England, but there was little doubt that the Springboks had been the better side and were worthy world champions.

Like any good sporting competition, this match was won and lost by the finest of margins. Some tight refereeing decisions certainly went South Africa’s way; in particular, an obstruction against Bryan Habana that wasn’t given, and one by Mark Cueto a couple of minutes later that was. Cueto’s ‘try’ early in the second half was – correctly – chalked off by the television match official who spotted his foot brushing the touchline before he touched the ball down in the corner.

But to blame the defeat wholly on marginal officiating decisions is to miss the point. England had squeaked through the quarter and semi-finals against Australia and France by the finest of margins – Stirling Mortlock’s late penalty miss, Joe Worsley’s tap tackle on Vincent Clerc which prevented a certain try – so what goes around has to eventually come around.

For all England’s passion and heart, the truth was they never looked able to either mount sustained pressure or to provide the flash of inspiration to scythe through the South African defences. Only once – Mathew Tait’s thrilling line break which resulted in the try that never was – did they look capable of scoring a try.

And the reason for that was all too obvious from the opening minutes of the game, as the Springboks twice won the ball from England lineouts. They would steal seven in all (and disrupt several others), while winning all 13 of their own, starving England of the vital oxygen of territory and momentum from which they could have launched a serious threat. England ultimately had the lion’s share of both possession (55%) and territory (57%), and spent twice as long in South Africa’s 22 as they did defending their own. But they never managed to gain control in the critical areas where they could really hurt the Springboks.

Not that it was all doom and gloom, of course: on the contrary, there was much to be proud of. This was a vastly better side to the one which surrendered so meekly, 36-0, to the same opponents just five weeks before. The tournament’s most dangerous try-scorer, Bryan Habana, was a non-factor offensively, and as a team South Africa rarely threatened England’s try line. And there were England heroes all over the pitch, from the man-mountain that is Andrew Sheridan to Tait’s thrilling run to the unflinching crunching tackles regularly administered by Jonny Wilkinson.

England finished the tournament disappointed, but with their heads rightfully held high. They gave absolutely everything. With the rub of the green, they might even have won. But it just wasn’t to be.

Ultimately, Brian Ashton’s team couldn’t quite deliver the fairy-tale ending. But nonetheless it was quite a story.

Perchance to dream

Exactly five weeks ago, England, the defending world champions, were whitewashed 36-0 by South Africa in a World Cup pool match which was every bit as one-sided as the scoreline suggests.

Tomorrow night, England will face the Springboks once again, only this time it will be in the final of the tournament, a prospect which would have been regarded as preposterousness of send-in-the-men-in-white-coats proportions five weeks ago.

Is this a bridge too far? Or do we dare dream the seemingly impossible: that somehow, this beaten-up England squad – a side which has lost more than half its games since winning the 2003 World Cup, a team so widely written off before the tournament they were considered 33/1 outsiders – could actually triumph over adversity and all expectation and actually retain the trophy?

This is no small matter. England teams have only ever won two World Cups in a major sport; the football team were unsuccessful in their defence of the Jules Rimet trophy in 1970, and so the rugby squad stand within 80 minutes of an unprecedented achievement.

Over the past month, a faint hope has grown into a very real possibility. After the earlier defeat by South Africa, it was by no means certain that England would even avoid the ignominy of failing to qualify from their group. But Samoa and Tonga were competently disposed of, and in a titanic quarter-final against an Australia side hell-bent on revenge for 2003 they somehow emerged triumphant against the odds. By the time last week’s semi against the hosts, France, rolled around, the obvious improvement in England’s confidence meant that it came as little surprise when they again overcame their underdog tag, running out 14-9 winners in another nail-biter of a game. There is no doubt that significant momentum has built up over the past few games.

The question is: is that enough?

By pretty much every objective measure, South Africa should win tomorrow night. They have the more talented players. Where England lack outright pace across the team, the Springboks have Bryan Habana, arguably the fastest and most dangerous winger in world rugby today. They have beaten England in their last four meetings, twice scoring more than 50 points.

And yet.

If there is one thing this World Cup has underlined, it is the capacity of sport to produce glorious surprises. From Argentina’s win over France in the opening match to Ireland’s shock exit to the quarter-final defeats of favourites New Zealand and Australia by France and England, the tournament has proved that the more talented side in any match is not necessarily the better one; an advantage on paper does not automatically transfer onto the scoreboard. Just look at New Zealand: the best side in the world over the past four years, odds-on favourite entering the tournament, but dumped out unceremoniously in the quarter-finals.

This England rugby side remind me so much of Greece’s football team at Euro 2004. In terms of talent, they were distinctly mediocre, but that didn’t stop them from winning the tournament through a combination of solid defence and outstanding team play and tactics.

And that is where we are with England. Here we have a side with good but not outstanding talent, certainly less than both their last two opponents and tomorrow’s. And like Greece, England’s defence and overall team solidity have been the rocks on which they have ground out workmanlike if unspectacular wins. This is a team which has rediscovered how to win, even against nominally superior opponents. And they have demonstrated it in the past two weeks, not once but twice.

Three times a charm, perhaps? We can but dream …

Expect the unexpected

You’ve got to love sport. Just when you think you’re on top of what’s going to happen, something comes along to throw all your expectations out of the window.

The Rugby Union World Cup kicked off a month ago with a major upset, as hosts France were blind-sided by Argentina. However, despite notable wins and performances by several of the so-called lesser nations in the group phase – which saw Argentina and Fiji qualify for last weekend’s quarter-finals at the expense of Ireland and Wales – the tournament had not really come to life.

In part this was due to England’s frequently feeble attempts to emulate the World Cup-winning side of four years ago; a tournament in which the defending champions are classified among the also-rans is never a good thing. But there was also the feeling that the quarter-finals were likely to be little more than a tune-up for the triumvirate of southern hemisphere powers – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – who have dominated world rugby over the past few years.

The widely-held expectation on Saturday morning was that by evening the World Cup would be waving goodbye to both the current holders and its host nation.

So when England edged out Australia 12-10 in the opening quarter-final, it classified as a shock. Even more so because the win was thoroughly deserved, built on a solid foundation of a dominating scrum and destructive defensive play. By the end the Wallabies simply had no answer, and although Stirling Mortlock had the opportunity to snatch the win late on with a long-range penalty, the neutrals could hardly begrudge England their hard-won victory.

In Cardiff, where New Zealand were preparing to play France, the All Blacks’ fans were gloatingly chanting “four more years” at the Aussies. And as the All Blacks moved smoothly into a 13-0 lead on the back of some coruscating attacking play, there was little sign that France were capable of extending their presence in the tournament. But 13 unanswered points either side of half-time brought the French level, and a dashing try 12 minutes from the end put them in the lead for the first time in the match, 20-18. And despite some frenetic pressure in the closing minutes from New Zealand, that’s how the score remained.

In a few short hours, the Australia v New Zealand match-up that most had been taking for granted has been blown out of the water, and it will be France who take on England – hosts versus defending champions – in next Saturday’s semi-final.

Yesterday’s games were no less dramatic. Fiji registered two rapid-fire tries early in the second half to tie South Africa at 20-20. And although the Springboks eventually overcame their tiring opponents to run out 37-20 winners, the final scoreline flattered them. In the last quarter-final, Argentina opened up a 19-6 advantage over Scotland, but had to withstand a sustained assault in the final quarter of the game before finally emerging 19-13 winners.

Four quarter-finals had produced four dramatic and entertaining matches, with the result of every match in doubt until the closing minutes (indeed, until the final whistle in three out of four cases). For many casual fans (among whose number I include myself), the Rugby World Cup has been something of a take-it-or-leave-it affair as it gently ambled its way through the past month, as the fireworks of the Twenty20 World Cup and the ongoing soap opera of Premier League and international football have dominated the attention.

Not any more. The Rugby World Cup is very much front and centre now. The tournament may only have four games remaining, but better late than never. And the fact that no sane person would have predicted the final four – South Africa, France, Argentina and England – which have emerged (an unexpected line-up reminiscent of the 2002 Football World Cup, which saw South Korea and Turkey in its semi-finals) is just the icing on the cake.

And, who knows, this time next week we may just be salivating at the prospect of something which no England team in any major sport has ever achieved: the successful defence of a world championship. Now that’s worth getting excited about …

You know summer’s coming to an end when …

… The TV schedules are filled wall-to-wall with major sporting events. Everywhere you look, a major tournament is under way (or about to start).

In cricket, there is the excitement of the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup and its relentless biff-bash-bosh, thrill-a-minute format. England will go into the tournament on a high, having recorded their first major one-day series win since Lions versus Christians (possibly even longer ago than that). The talismanic Andrew Flintoff returned, just about fit – as good as we can expect these days – to take three vital wickets as England roared home on Saturday to edge the series against India 4-3. And, having invented the format, you would have to hope that we would be quite good at it. Certainly we should have a better chance to put in a good showing than in the recent ‘proper’ World Cup – not that that’s particularly difficult …

In rugby union, the World Cup got off to an attention-grabbing start as the hosts France wilted under a testing examination from Argentina‘s rugged, physical defence, crashing to a 17-12 defeat. It was a shock, and yet not a shock; it was the Pumas’ fifth win in their last six encounters with Les Bleus, although the first time they had won a match of such importance. And the rest of the opening weekend hinted at a clear North/South divide, with England, Ireland and Wales labouring against the USA, Namibia and Canada respectively, while the southern hemisphere triumvirate of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa ran up cricket scores in their respective openers.

The F1 season continues to speed towards what promises to be a thrilling climax, with Fernando Alonso leading Lewis Hamilton home in Italy, despite the British rookie executing spectacular overtaking moves on both Ferrari drivers. It was McLaren’s first ever one-two finish at Monza, made doubly sweet in the light of the continuing ‘Spygate’ scandal which threatens to engulf the sport in political acrimony. With four races remaining, Alonso has cut Hamilton’s lead to just three points. Expect more fireworks at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend, assuming the World Motor Sport Council does not decide to take drastic action against McLaren this Thursday.

Across the pond, it was the start of the new NFL season, which is particularly tantalising with the first ever regular season game in the UK coming to the new Wembley next month. Kickoff weekend didn’t disappoint, wth six games being decided by seven points or less. In New York, New England‘s Ellis Hobbs fielded a kickoff eight yards deep in his own endzone and ran it back, untouched, 108 yards for a touchdown – an NFL record. In Dallas, the Cowboys beat the New York Giants by a crazy 45-35 score. (In football terms, think of the 5-4 North London derby game from a few years back.) And in San Francisco, my beloved 49ers squeezed out a 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with just 26 seconds remaining, having nearly fumbled the ball away at the goalline the previous play. My heart is still recovering from that one.

The World Athletics Championships have been and gone already, but that didn’t stop Asafa Powell stealing headlines on Sunday with a searing run to shatter the 100 metres world record. In setting a new mark of 9.74 seconds, he shaved three hundredths of a second off the previous best time he had jointly held with the now-banned Justin Gatlin. A blink of an eye to some, but equivalent to a gap of nearly one-third of a metre compared to the previous record – as good as a mile in an event which frequently requires freeze-frame images to determine the winner. The only shame was that he had not produced this run on the grand stage of the World Championships only weeks previously.

And then there’s the small matter of Euro 2008 qualifying, with the home nations experiencing mixed fortunes: Wales battered by Germany, Northern Ireland losing disappointingly in Latvia, the Republic of Ireland only earning a draw in Slovakia, Scotland easing past Lithuania, and an injury-ravaged England neatly side-stepping the banana skin that was Israel at Wembley (and looking surprisingly decent in doing so). Next up is Russsia – by far the harder of the two games – tomorrow.

Last but by no means least, the women’s football World Cup kicked off in China yesterday with the defending champions Germany administering an old-fashioned shellacking – 11-0 – to Argentina. Hope Powell’s England squad, a modest 12th in the world rankings and with the misfortune to be drawn in Germany’s group, face an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout stages, but if they can beat Japan today in what is to all intents and purposes a winner-takes-all eliminator, who knows? If you’ve never watched the women’s game before, you should give it a try. You might be surprised at the level of skill and strength on show – and pleased at the lack of professional cynicism which we have come to accept as part and parcel of the men’s game.

All that in the space of a five day span, Friday to Tuesday. Not bad!

So, while it’s a shame summer is coming to an end, if you like your sports it’s really not so bad. Roll on winter!

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