Boozing Blunders in British Sport

After a video of England cricketer Ben Stokes punching a man to the ground outside a Bristol nightclub hit the headlines last week, I review 10 alcohol-related affairs in the recent sporting history of Britain:

  • Paul Gascoigne and the ‘Dentist’s Chair’ – Before the 1996 World Cup, Gazza was pictured strapped to a dentist’s chair and downing tequila in a Hong Kong bar. His subsequent celebration mocking the incident went down as ‘one of the most notorious moments in English football history’.
  • The Pedalo Excursion – England cricketer Freddie Flintoff was famously stripped of the vice-captaincy following a 4am excursion on a pedalo during the 2007 World Cup in Sri Lanka.
  • Motorway Golf Buggy Driving – Welsh rugby’s wild boy Andy Powell, in search of some cigarettes after a 2010 match in Cardiff, drove 45 minutes down the M4 in a hotel golf buggy. He was arrested and handed a 15-month driving ban.
  • Rugby World Cup 2011 – England’s World Cup campaign was disastrous from start to finish in 2011, and cost coach Martin Johnson his job. Several England players were photographed drunk at a dwarf-throwing contest after their first win against Argentina. Later in the tournament, Manu Tuilagi was held by police after jumping off a ferry.
  • Ched Evans Rape Case – The Sheffield United player was convicted of rape in 2011 after having sex with a girl who was allegedly too drunk to consent, but was later cleared after new evidence came to light. He has since returned to professional football.
  • Leicester on Tour – On a 2015 tour of Thailand, three players, including manager Nigel Pearson’s son, filmed their booze-fuelled orgy with local girls. The Sunday Mirror obtained the footage, and they were promptly sacked.
  • Danny Cipriani – England’s bad-boy Cipriani has faced a number of alcohol-related controversies during his career. Last year, he was convicted of drink-driving, and he has been dropped numerous times for ‘breaching protocol’ with boozy nights out. Also, in 2013, he became the Otley Run’s most famous casualty after being hit by a bus near the Beckett city campus.
  • Hardaker’s Student Assault – In another Leeds incident (2015), Rhinos and England rugby league player Zak Hardaker was fined and enrolled on anger management classes after drunkenly assaulting a student at the Opal One accommodation on Burley Road.
  • Rooney in a Mini – Last month, England legend Wayne Rooney was charged with drink-driving after admitting to being three times over the limit. He was driving a Mini belonging to a woman he’d met on his night out, who accompanied him in the car. The result: a two-year driving ban and a marriage on the rocks.
  • Ben Stokes – It will be difficult for the ECB to justify a return for Stokes in the face of such damming evidence. He’s been warned before as well, after being sent home from the 2013 Ashes tour for persistent late-night drinking. The board are also bound by past decisions – they sacked Kevin Pietersen, and he was never filmed assaulting someone.
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Sampson Sacked as England Manager

Mark Sampson was last week removed from his post as head coach of the England women’s team, following an extended scandal over accusations of racism and inappropriate behaviour.

In an interview with the BBC following the sacking, FA chief executive Martin Glenn confirmed it was in no way related to allegations of racism and bullying made by England player Eni Aluko. Sampson was instead removed following a re-evaluation of his behaviour at Bristol Academy, which was deemed ‘incompatible with the standards we’d expect at the FA’. However, Glenn also stated that Sampson was ‘absolutely clear to work as a coach in football’ and acknowledged that in 2015 the FA’s safeguarding unit cleared Sampson of wrongdoing in relation to his conduct at Bristol. This contradiction has led many to conclude that the FA have used an old incident to get them out of jail over the recent allegations made by Aluko.

The saga only became public in August, when the Daily Mail revealed the complaints Aluko made against Sampson in 2016. Two investigations had cleared the coach and his staff of wrongdoing with regard to Aluko’s allegations, but a number of shortcomings in the investigation process have since come to light, leading many to accuse the FA of a cover-up. The scandal has rapidly escalated into a major, multi-pronged problem for the FA, with senior executives set to face a parliamentary inquiry to answer to the exposed shortcomings.

The Sampson scandal has ignited debate across the press and in the wider football community. It appeared to have split the team itself; Drew Spence and Lianne Sanderson came out in support of Aluko, whist other players rushed to back Sampson. In last week’s 6-0 win over Russia, played the day before Sampson was sacked, the starting XI celebrated their first goal with the manager in a show of support for him. The Professional Footballers’ Association has actively supported Aluko in her campaign against the England management, but her support in the football community has not been universal – former England goalkeeper David James recently suggested she was disgruntled at losing her place in the team.

Sampson, who led England to two major semi-finals, is yet to make a statement in the wake of his sacking, but is thought to be considering legal action. Whether he said what has been alleged may never be known, but it remains that the FA’s inadequate investigation has caused a significant fallout which will likely prove damaging for the organisation in the weeks to come.

A Last-Minute Lions Squad Selection

Warren Gatland will end months of speculation tomorrow when he announces the 37-man Lions squad selected to tour New Zealand this summer.

The quality of this year’s Six Nations has added a new level of intensity to the quadrennial inter-fan debate on selection. English fans, buoyed by back-to-back Six Nations wins, believe this is the year that the men-in-white can dominate the Lions red, with some suggesting up to ten English players could start the first test. The Irish fans, the only ones to have experienced victory against this summer’s formidable opponent, will feel that their team deserves a strong representation in the touring party. Scotland, ever the under-represented minority, had their strongest tournament in years and have some star individuals who will feel they’ve earned their spot. The Welsh players then, following a disappointing Six Nations, would arguably be the most likely to miss out. However, with Gatland as coach and the 2013 victory firmly in the minds of the selectors, a healthy Welsh contingent remains likely.

Predictions, in sport and in politics, have proved themselves pointless as of late. Leicester winning the title then sacking Ranieri less than a year later. Connacht winning last year’s Pro12 title. Tony Bellew beating David Haye. Trump. Brexit. And now a snap election. And, to my surprise, doing a psychology discovery module last term didn’t teach me to mind read (doesn’t that defeat the point of studying it?). So, as the sun sets on the pre-press conference period of speculation, hype and the apparently defunct ‘expert columns’, all I can do is offer a final opinion on the squad selection. Oh, and pray that Warren Gatland has an appreciation for student blog posts and an appetite for Theresa May-esque U-turns.

Props

Annoying as he is, Brian Moore is right: the front row is key. At loosehead, Mako Vunipola and Jack McGrath are shoe-ins, with Healy and Marler contending for the third spot. I would go for Healy, an explosive impact player with previous tour experience. At tighthead, a notoriously difficult position to perfect, the rising Irish star Tadhg Furlong will compete to start against Dan Cole, the respected elder of northern hemisphere tightheads. Kyle Sinckler, a stellar performer for Harlequins in the last two seasons and a breakthrough star in the Six Nations, can provide some X-factor off the bench.

Hooker

With the hooker debate comes the captain debate, which I’ll address later. But, in terms of pure ability as a hooker, I would pick Rory Best, Jamie George and Ken Owens, omitting Dylan Hartley. In the Six Nations, the England captain’s contributions on the field were meagre in comparison to Owens, whose tackle and carry stats made him almost a fourth back-row. George has shown his quality at Saracens and deserves a shot at the big-time.

Second Row

The lanky lineout men have proven to be the hardest decision for Gatland this year. Ultimately, it’s a good thing – all the contenders merit not only a touring spot but a starting place. Gatland took 5 locks in 2013 and will likely do the same again, given the intensity of a Test against New Zealand. Alun Wyn Jones, Wales’ standout performer in the difficult years since their last Six Nations win, is a definite. His leadership qualities and experience will be essential, given the youthfulness of his competitors. The youngest two, Jonny Gray and Maro Itoje (both 22), can rival Retallick and Whitelock with their all-round skills. Joe Launchbury’s Six Nations performances simply cannot be ignored; I’d pick him over compatriots Lawes and Kruis. My final choice, Iain Henderson, is perhaps an outsider, having not started most of Ireland’s Six Nations games. A very mobile player, he provides something different from the heavyweight carriers listed above, and his energy will be invaluable in the midweek matches.

Back Row 

Unusually, options in the back row this year are relatively limited. At flanker, Warburton, Stander, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Tipuric are the favourites to go and also my picks, and I can’t see Gatland choosing differently. At number eight, I would reluctantly leave Jamie Heaslip at home in favour of Vunipola and Faletau. It’s a similar situation to the second row – all three deserve a place – but Vunipola is undroppable following his imperious performances under Eddie Jones, and Faletau’s support play and defensive workrate will be vital against the uber-fit All Blacks.

Scrum Half  

Conor Murray to start with Ben Youngs on the bench and Greig Laidlaw as a potential mid-week captain. Rhys Webb slightly too inconsistent for me.

Fly Half

Owen Farrell is the best no. 10 in the northern hemisphere and I think that’s where he should start. It’s his natural position, he’s the strongest defensive option (Ford and Sexton would be targeted) and his game-management won Saracens the double last year. Sexton obviously goes as back-up. George Ford is too defensively vulnerable against the All Blacks, and it seems pointless to take him as a reserve, so I would bring in Dan Biggar, who is a big-game player and a real leader on the pitch.

Centre

With Farrell also an option at inside centre, that leaves three spots: one at inside and two at outside. Robbie Henshaw was the standout inside centre in the Six Nations, and his physicality will be needed against a ferocious Kiwi defence. With Farrell at 10, I would start him at 12. Jonathan Davies, who defied the critics when picked over O’Driscoll for the final test in 2013, returned to form in the Six Nations. He’s been trapped in an underperforming Welsh backline, but remains one of the best in the world in his position. Jonathan Joseph, after being challenged by Ben Te’o in England colours, returned to his best against Scotland, and will compete with Davies and Henshaw to start. Elliot Daly also deserves a place as perhaps the best under-25 player in the Six Nations. A utility back of his quality is a great addition to any Lions squad.

Back three 

In this department, the Lions are blessed with several versatile wing-fullbacks capable of scoring against any defence in the world. Stuart Hogg, Six Nations Player of the Tournament, is the most obvious pick. Liam Williams has been consistently good for Wales despite the lack of creativity inside him, and can play wing or fullback, as can Anthony Watson. George North returned to form this year, and any Lions fan will remember the breath-taking pace and power he displayed in 2013, so he tours. Sean Maitland, a Kiwi expat and 2013 Lion, has excellent vision and off-loading ability and was a key part of Scotland’s success this year, so I think he deserves a shot. The final pick is a difficult one, but I’m going to opt for Jack Nowell, who has been a star in Exeter’s rise over the years and has shown his carrying power and defensive qualities in an England shirt. Daly, as mentioned above, can cover wing and full back.

Captain

Within the squad I have picked, Warburton, Wyn Jones, Best, Farrell and even Connor Murray have all been suggested as potential captains. Personally, I think Warburton and Wyn Jones, having both captained the side in 2013 and worked under Gatland with Wales, are the main contenders. Both are equally capable, but I would go for Sam Warburton. He is certain to start if fit and, after a break from captaining Wales, is ready to reassume the role and lead the Lions to victory.

In defence of Wenger

The cacophony of voices calling for the removal of Arsène Wenger, after 20 seasons at the helm of Arsenal, is louder now than ever before. The manner of the Champions League defeat to Bayern last week was embarrassing, but the European complaints of Claude & co. on ArsenalFanTV are unfounded – what else can they expect against the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich? Fourth in the league and a last-16 exit from Europe have become synonymous with the complaints of the ‘WengerOut’ campaign, but Arsenal fans should expect nothing more. In modern football success is ultimately dictated by money. It is a frustrating argument given Arsenal fans pay the most in the League for their season tickets. Many will retort: ‘but if Leicester can win the League…’! Unfortunately, though, it is reality. For the Arsenal board, what Wenger brings is consistency in return for their investment – Arsenal have not finished outside the top four in his time as manager, a feat no other club has achieved. Arsenal fans are entitled to want more. But sacking Wenger by no means guarantees this. Look at Manchester United. The post-Ferguson era has been remarkably unsuccessful for them. 3 seasons, 3 managers and £350 million later and they lie 6th in the League. Wenger certainly has questions to answer – the post-Christmas capitulation is becoming far too regular an occurrence. Sacking him, though, would be the Brexit of the footballing world: a shift from stability to uncertainty, a leap of faith with only the dreaded Europa League as a safety net.

England edge past Wales in colossal Cardiff encounter

England vs Wales. The rose vs the daffodil. Episode 130 of a rugby boxset offering all the tension, twists and trauma of a Netflix creation. Coming into the game, the two sides were arguably further apart than they have been for a decade. England, with their new coach and new approach, unbeaten in fifteen matches; Wales, drawing criticism for their one-dimensionality, undoubtedly falling behind in the race for hemispheric hegemony. Yet the hype surrounding it seemed to rival previous matches which have, on paper, carried much greater significance. The fervour, it turned out, was justified.

From the off, the game was fast and open; the Six Nations this year appears to be returning to its former glory, after a series of turgid and attritional tournaments. England gained the initial momentum, dominating possession and territory in the first fifteen minutes, but what they were met with was a Welsh wall – the lesser-known cousin of Trump’s mythical construction, built not by Mexicans but by Moriarty, Tipuric and Owens. Ultimately though, it was not impenetrable, with Youngs squirming over for the first try of the game as the phase count hit the quarter of a century mark.

At this point, beer-holding, daffodil-wearing fans around the Principality Stadium feared a repeat of the 2016 game, when England effectively won the game with a strong first-half display. A Liam Williams break two minutes later quickly alleviated these fears, marking the start of a crucial 20 minutes during which momentum rested firmly on the side of the Welsh. Whilst more drama was to come, the post-match analysis of both sides may well highlight this as the period when the game was won and lost. Although Wales eventually came away with a try shortly before half-time, the result of a perfectly executed set piece move which put Liam Williams under the posts, critics will argue that seven points was a meagre return after dominating the second quarter of the game. For England, their ‘whatever you can do we can do better’ attitude to defence, embodied by the imperious Launchbury, kept them in the game and showed the collective spirit which left them unbeaten in 2016.

After half-time the game continued at breakneck speed, with both defences ferociously physical. England, after escaping another 20-plus phase Welsh attack with only a Halfpenny penalty to cancel out Farrell’s earlier three points, began to assert their authority on the game. They were fuelled by powerful carries from George and Haskell, both of whom laid down strong claims for a starting place through their impact off the bench. On 64 minutes, with England pressing the Welsh line, a Youngs pass destined for Brown and an English try fell into the hands of Biggar, whose quick-thinking interception was the pinnacle of a performance certain to silence his critics.

England, though, continued to build momentum and a 70th minute penalty moved them to within two points. Ben Teo’o, another effective substitute, then made a break which forced Wales into more desperate defence, spurred on by a now hysterical Cardiff crowd. In the end, the relentless attacks of England’s ball-carriers proved too much for tired Welsh minds and bodies: a panicked clearance kick and non-existent chase gave Elliot Daly, whose exploits marked his maturity and promise, space to dive over in the corner.

The image at the final-whistle of Maro Itoje thumping his chest with raw passion, as Alun-Wyn Jones stood doubled-over and dejected behind him, told the story that matters: a sixteenth consecutive victory for England, an agonising defeat for Wales. Maybe it also symbolised the diverging paths of the neighbouring rugby nations. But, overall, England’s 21-16 win on Saturday should be remembered mostly as an incredible sporting spectacle; a game of remarkable skill, spirit, and physical sacrifice which will have Six Nations fans everywhere thirsty for more.