Rowing at Oxford: Memoirs of a Not-Very-Sporty-Person

Rowing at Oxford: Memoirs of a Not-Very-Sporty-Person

Thanks to my objectivity as resident Not-Very-Sporty-Person, I was able to observe the phenomenon of the metamorphosis of the boys on the men’s teams into Manly Man Rowers. The process begins harmlessly enough: in race week, the flock of Manly Manlings first schedule their daily post-rowing trips to Mission Burrito, and insist on proudly showing me the progress of their loyalty cards, complemented by boasting of completion of the Mission Burrito Challenge. It’s almost endearing. But the symptoms multiply. The Manly Man Rowers are prone to emitting strange cries, particularly the coxes, who seem to forget that they have microphones and insist on roaring things like “set – here – row – here – KILL- THEM – MURDER – THEM”. But the lycra one-piece suits are the worst. These shockingly tight garments provide ample opportunity for the boys to strut around like black-and-gold-coloured peacocks, flexing their biceps and shamelessly checking on the progress of their already bulging arms in the boathouse mirrors. Not content with this, many of them also find it necessary to  strip the top half of the suit  completely off after races, despite the fact that it’s actually quite cold around the time of the Christchurch Regatta (not that they feel it; they’re kept warm by an excessive sense of virility).

But the favourite behavioural pattern of the Manly Man Rower is the wounded hero impression. In Torpids this year, Brasenose M2 managed to avoid getting bumped and staggered into the boathouse for a twenty-minute break with the air of warriors on borrowed time, about to resume battle. And in this strange war of oar, I had become nurse on standby. One of the boys heads my way, asking if he can have some of my cooling gel for his aching arms (and of course, the effect wouldn’t be the same if it were not necessary for me to rub it into his gargantuan flexed arms myself). He is followed by another, who requests the same treatment, and then by a third. As I’m in the process of rubbing down number three, our cox for the day – who just happens to be one of the College Deans – comes in with a start and asks what exactly he has just walked in on.

The display of Manly Man-ness continues into the celebratory dinner which finishes off the week of racing, with macho sconces and the public display the boys’ trainer makes of eating a ghost chilli. (He hides its effects marvellously, except for the fact that he has to ask the kitchens for several pint glasses of milk.)

Nevertheless, however amused I may be by the boys’ delusions of man-deur, I have to admit that on some level it works. They train hard because they don’t want to disappoint their fellow teammates, and their manly man-ness is expressed as something which unites them as a team, not as a rivalry between them; it is an unselfish manliness. Well, mostly. Partly they just enjoy checking themselves out.

Stand up if you love the darts – in praise of Britain’s most ridiculous professional sport

Stand up if you love the darts – in praise of Britain’s most ridiculous professional sport


The past couple of weeks have seen the William Hill World Darts Championship take place at London’s Alexandra Palace. The Championships have a prize pot of £1.25 million, which places it among the most lucrative events on the British sporting calendar, above the likes of the Grand National, Rugby’s Aviva Premiership and Cricket’s LV County Championship. For a sport that consists of throwing darts at a board from 10 feet, that seems ludicrous.


The 5 biggest stories of the Commonwealth Games

The 5 biggest stories of the Commonwealth Games

England dominate the team gymnastics



As the crowds gathered inside the brand new SSE Hydro arena to see the days gymnastics, there were high hopes surrounding both the male and female English teams – but few could have predicted the extent of their domination.


The men took to the floor first and the team made up of Olympians, Max Whitlock, Kristian Thomas, Sam Oldham and Louis Smith MBE as well as Junior European all-around champion Nile Wilson were forced to draw on all of their experience at the highest level early on as Sam Oldham was rushed to hospital after a nasty landing from the vault. The men rallied, with Whitlock and Wilson in exceptional form, and Team England won with a fantastic score of 266.804 points, despite Oldham’s absence forcing him out of two of the rotations on the vault.


A strong Scottish team featuring 2012 stars Dan Purvis and Dan Keatings put on an inspired performance in front a loud home crowd and secured a silver medal with a team score of 257.603 points.


Next up, the women took to the arena, with Rebecca Downie, Ruby Harrold, Claudia Fragapane, Kelly Simm and Hannah Whelan representing the English. Like their male counterparts, the women were forced to show all of their quality in the later stages of the competition as a nervous start, in particular on the beam, meant that a gold medal place was far from certain. In a team that featured senior Olympians Hannah Whelan and Becky Downie as well as GB squad member Kelly Simm, it was the 16 year old Claudia Fragapane who produced the display of the afternoon and held her nerve to put in a performance of the highest quality both on the beam and on the floor to secure a gold medal after a team total of 167.555 points.


While the Australians impressed with a score of 161.546 points, enough for the silver medal, they were ran all the way to the wire by the Welsh, a team made up of Raer Theaker, Lizzie Beddoe, Jessica Hogg, Angel Romaeo and Georgina Hockenhull came impossibly close to the silver medal but had to settle from bronze despite an impressive 160.095 points.


Springboks end All Blacks Sevens run



Rugby Sevens, a sport being planned for its first time inclusion at the Rio Olympics in 2016, was under close inspection by the organisers and it did not disappoint. The teams from the southern-hemisphere were dominant with New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Samoa all progressing to the semi-finals and England, Wales and Scotland crashing out at the quarter final stage.


The All-Blacks were understandably the favourites going into the final against South Africa having won their last 30 matches at the Commonwealth Games and the top prize at every Games since the sport’s introduction in 1998. Despite a strong start from New Zealand with Sherwin Stowers scoring, it was through Seabelo Senatia that the Springboks forced their way back into the tie and taking a 12-7 lead early in the second half. The memorable upset was secured by the flying back Cecil Afrika who scored the final try which was enough to fight off the late All Black resurgence and give South Africa a 17-12 victory.


English athletics medal haul



Tuesday provided a fantastic night for English athletics with Will Sharman claiming silver in the 110m hurdles and narrowly falling short of the gold by an excruciating four hundredths of a second with Andrew Riley of Jamaica taking gold. The successes did not end there; Leicester and England’s Laura Samuel smashed her personal best by 34cm and took silver in the triple jump.


Ex-World Junior silver medalist Laura Weightman took silver again after a perfect execution of her race tactics in the 1500m, holding off Kenyan star Hellen Obiri and Canadian Kate van Buskirk to finish strongly only behind Kenya’s brilliant Faith Kipyegon. Finally, decathlete Ashley Bryant capped off a fine performance over the 10 events and brought home an astounding fifth silver for England that day.


Nigeria stun India in team table tennis



The Nigerian table tennis team produced one of the most memorable displays of the Games to shock India in the bronze medal playoff. With Singapore proving too strong for Nigeria in the Semi Final and eventually England in the final, it was left for Nigeria and India to battle it out at the Scotstoun Sports Campus in front of a truly absorbed crowd.


In the deciding game, despite Indian opponent Achanta being ranked No.40 in the world and Nigerian Ojo Onaolapo ranking well outside of the top 300, it was the Nigerian who held his nerve and brought the crowd to their feet and many teammates to tears with a superb performance to secure the bronze medal for Nigeria.


13 year old Davies takes brilliant swimming bronze



Few would have predicted that it would fall on 13 year old Erraid Davies and Scotland’s youngest competitor to provide one of the week’s biggest shocks and take a bronze medal in the SB9 100m breaststroke; much to the delight of her home crowd. Hailing from the Shetland Islands, Davies smashed her previous personal best twice on finals day and swam an amazing 1.21.38 to become the youngest ever Commonwealth medalist.


Such an incredible performance at such a young age only highlights her potential as a swimmer that could dominate the Paralympics for many years to come and a strong performance in Rio would be most impressive, but less surprising.

Is a third consecutive Team Sky victory in the 2014 Tour de France now impossible?

Is a third consecutive Team Sky victory in the 2014 Tour de France now impossible?

Within the build-up to the 2014 Tour de France, the most prominent news story – at least in British terms – was Team Sky’s omission of Bradley Wiggins from their nine-strong squad in favour of Chris Froome. Such a choice by Sky’s General Manager Dave Brailsford was glamorised further by the purportedly ongoing “feud” between Wiggins and Froome whose origins lie in the 2012 Tour in which Froome’s loyalty to Wiggin’s eventually successful attempt at winning the yellow jersey was called into question: during the ascent of La Toussuire, Froome, at this point 3rd in the general classification, left behind Wiggins and the rest of the peloton, only to be called back on the team radio.

Since these ignominious beginnings, the highlights reel of their apparent mutual hostility has included Wiggins withholding bonus payments from Froome for the 2012 Tour de France victory, a twitter spat between Froome’s fiancée and Wiggin’s camp over the leadership of the 2013 tour, and most recently (and I should note in answer to an extremely leading question) Froome telling BBC Radio 5 Live that he sensed mental weakness in Wiggins during the 2012 Tour. All this being coupled with the fact that this year’s tour commenced in Britain for the first time since 1974, and moreover with the fact that British riders have won the tour two years on the trot, and it became clear that many British eyes would be on Froome, to see if he could live up to the billing once more.

But alas, as another addition to Britain’s miserable summer of sport (which of course includes Cavendish’s retirement through injury early in the tour), Froome made it to France and then in Stage 4 and 5 fell off his bike several times, the final time fracturing his wrist and hand, and forcing his retirement from this year’s tour. With the wonder of hindsight, questions must be and have been asked, primarily what Wiggins could have offered as a second rider in such an eventuality. Whilst favouring Froome over Wiggins – who is older, has less recent success, and was arguably no less dominant in his tour victory than Froome was in his own – is clearly rational, the decision to omit Wiggins altogether seems to have left Team Sky with no insurance option in terms of an attempt to win the yellow jersey, or at least thus goes the opinion of three-time tour winner Greg LeMond:

“There’s [sic] a lot of risks in this sport, it’s a big budget sport. I think Sky’s got a €20million budget, around $30million, and you’ve got to have insurance on this thing”

Nevertheless, in this land of hope and glory, though certainly a rank outsider compared to the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador, and though not so much a member of Britain as a member of the Commonwealth, the Australian Richie Porte offers Team Sky a second chance at winning a third consecutive yellow jersey. The decision to have the 29 year old Porte now leading Team Sky is in no way ill-considered; he was Froome’s second rider in the 2013 Tour de France, and was set to be Sky’s leader at the 2014 Giro d’Italia before illness forced him to withdraw. Indeed with the tour soon to take to the mountains, Porte, an expert climber, should be in his element. Without the expectation and the baggage of in-team rivalry which belonged to Froome, Porte, often in the background of Team Sky but seldom absent, has a chance – if not to win – to cement his stake as a soon to be first-choice team leader. With Nibali, the present wearer of the yellow jersey, riding consistently well with the help of his team mate Jakob Fuglsang (currently in second place), and with Contador four minutes behind the race leader, but seemingly biding his time for the more mountainous stages, Porte will have his work cut out to regain the yellow jersey for Team Sky; nonetheless, along with his British team mate Geraint Thomas (another potential future tour winner), Porte looks set to deliver at least some degree of success to Team Sky in this year’s Tour de France.

Louis Van Gaal: Master gambler, man manager, Ferguson’s heir?

Louis Van Gaal: Master gambler, man manager, Ferguson’s heir?

 Apparently it was all part of the plan. Sitting smugly in front of an adoring press, Louis Van Gaal recounted how the apparent masterstroke of substituting first choice goalkeeper with supposed penalty expert Tim Krul as extra time in their World Cup quarter final against Costa Rica drew to a close was a premeditated move. ‘We thought it through’ he said. ‘Every player has certain skills and qualities and they don’t always coincide. We felt that Tim would be the most appropriate keeper to save penalties’.

However despite the fact that Krul has the longer reach of the two goalkeepers, and despite his borderline unacceptable tactics of intimidation which almost certainly contributed to the two Costa Rican penalty misses that contributed to their shootout defeat, there is absolutely nothing in his previous penalty saving record for either Newcastle or the Netherlands that suggests he is a penalty expert. Van Gaal obviously knew this, despite his comments, which leaves only the explanation that the last minute keeper switcheroo was an elaborate bluff. The Costa Ricans could not possibly have known about Krul’s penalty record, which would mean that the only possible explanation for the switch was that he was, in fact, a penalty specialist, a move which sufficiently unnerved the Costa Rican penalty takers, flawless in their 5-4 shootout win against Greece in the last 16, to lead to the two misses which led to their defeat. Krul’s antics, his devious leftward and rightward steps that lured his opponents to put their penalties exactly where he wanted them, were the actions of a man galvanised by his manager’s complete faith in him. This substitution was not simply, as Van Gaal would have us believe, the substitution of one skillset with another. It was a psychological ploy, a bluff that became a truth and that is what took it from being an innovative and radical tactical manoeuvre to a true masterstroke and, perhaps, the greatest substitution the World Cup has ever seen.

However, in the rush to applaud Van Gaal’s tactical genius and to recast previous astute manoeuvres such as that to bring on Huntelaar for Van Persie whilst his team were trailing against Mexico in the last 16 as flashes of inspiration of a similar calibre a key fact has been forgotten. Louis Van Gaal is, at this World Cup, a man with nothing to lose. During the Netherland’s impressive rush to the semi-finals it has been easy to forget that the team arrived in Brazil under almost no expectation. With a squad made up of ageing stars and largely unknown players from the Dutch league, and having been placed in a group with double European and World champions Spain, as well as a highly impressive Chile side there was little expectation on the Oranje, with many pundits expecting them to fail to get out of the group. Add this on to the fact that Louis Van Gaal has a job at Manchester United once this tournament is over and you have a man capable of making the kinds of decisions that he has. It would be easy to imagine the media bloodbath that would ensue if, like Van Gaal, Roy Hodgson had announced that he was changing his tactics just 2 weeks before the start of the finals and one can only imagine what the lengths the more sensational parts of the British press would go to if he had tried a similar goalkeeper switch and it had not come off. Van Gaal has no such worries.

In spite of the Netherlands impressive overachievement in reaching the semi finals the question must be asked; how far has Van Gaal’s tactical innovation actually contributed to them getting this far? It was clear from the emphatic 5-1 win against Spain that the counter attacking 5-3-2 system he chose to employ can be brutally effective against opponents who are looking to take the game from the Dutch but subsequent dubious performances against Australia and Mexico, and their failure to break Costa Rica down calls into question its effectiveness against defensive sides. Even where it is effective it is not exactly original. Martin O’Neil, a bright ray of intelligence amongst the rest of ITV’s gormless punditry team, pointed out in his analysis of their victory against Mexico that Van Gaal was employing a system almost identical to one he himself had used at Leicester in the 90s and which Brian Clough had conceived whilst leading Nottingham Forest to 2 European Cups in the early 1980s. Indeed the Netherlands’ detractors have pointed to the fact that, at least during normal time, their key strategy has seemed to be to just give it to Robben in the hope that he might make something happen in a way reminiscent of Argentina and Messi at this world cup, something which their coach Alejandro Sabella has taken criticism for.


What Van Gaal has had that Sabella has lacked have been these last minute fudges, the Huntelaars and Kruls, with which he has been able to pull his team out of the mire. This is something that is sure to have pleased every Manchester United fan watching this World Cup. Whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was never one for elaborate tactical experimentation, often sticking the with tried and true 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 formations what made him the most successful manager the game has ever seen was his unparalleled ability to read and change a game. Fans of clubs other than Manchester Untied talk about ‘Fergie time’ as a kind of unfair ‘get out of jail free’ card employed by intimidated referees to get United off the hook. Whilst it is true that United, and indeed all big clubs, do tend to get the rub of the green whilst losing at home in terms of added time, it was Ferguson’s superb late game tactical management that meant his teams took advantage more than most. Van Gaal’s ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at this World Cup has seemed Ferguson-esque in its execution.

What will perhaps be most encouraging however is the similarity in the situation of the Netherlands team whom he has taken far further than expected and the Manchester United squad he will inherit after the tournament. Both are ageing sides with a couple of genuinely world class players capable at times of carrying their teams unaided and a supporting cast of various and sometimes dubious quality. But where Van Gaal has perhaps excelled the most this World Cup is in man management, blending the likes of Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar and the limited Bruno Martins Indi into a functioning and effective defence and giving the likes of the untested Daley Blind and the ageing and one dimensional Dirk Kuyt the confidence and platform to perform beyond themselves. Whilst it would be astounding to see the Netherlands win the World Cup after Germany’s evisceration of Brazil and last night and perhaps even a shock to see them progress from tonight’s semi final against Argentina the fact that they have got this far should be a great source of pride to Van Gaal and the Dutch nation. Whilst those claiming that this World Cup has proved that Van Gaal is an unparalleled tactician are conveniently glossing over the many things him and his team have done wrong this World Cup there is no doubt that Manchester United have secured themselves a manager who, in terms of tactical and man management ability, has all the hallmarks of a worthy replacement to the great Sir Alex Ferguson.

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