With the World Cup now expanded to forty-eight teams it seems anyone and everyone, including their grannies, will be participating at future world cups to such an extent that even Oceania now have one guaranteed spot in the finals.
When this news first came out I was initially outraged, expanding the tournament to thirty-teams had already diluted the product so what would another sixteen teams do to an already overblown format? But then I began to think about it from a New Zealand perspective and I realised the potential this expansion had to the game here in New Zealand. Not only would it give the country added exposure and experience playing against the top teams but the knock on effect down right down to the grass roots of the game.
Young players would now have a chance to represent their country on the biggest stage in the game but those tentative shoots of promise shown as New Zealand under age teams make a ripple in the global game, would be less likely to peter out with a real prospect of participation in a global senior competition. No longer would we just be one of the warm ups who worked out the kinks for the host country in the warm up event but we would get a seat at the main table as well.
But of course there is always a fly in the ointment and in this case it is the murmurings across the pond that Australia may be considering a return to the Oceanic Football Federation but if they do, instead of doing the neighbourly thing and welcoming them with open arms, New Zealand football should make it as difficult as possible for the Aussies to return to the fold.
I know there are arguments that having New Zealand and Australia under the same banner would be good for the game in this part of the world but would it be good for New Zealand? Hasn’t the treatment of the Phoenix in the Australian press shown what they think of New Zealand football and how much they value it?
If Australia are to re-join the OFF then they need to prove they are doing so for the good of football in this region and not so they can have an easier ride through the qualification process. We all know Australia are the footballing powerhouse in this neck of the woods but if they want to come back then they at least need to appear to be doing it for the right reasons and I would suggest one way of showing this is to have at least one more New Zealand team in the A-League. Now what would Mark Bosnich think of that?
After one round of the Six Nations most people’s predictions, if they haven’t already fallen off, are teetering on the edge of a cliff. England, so majestic throughout much of 2016 looked slow and ponderous during most of their match against France, whilst a lot of people’s favourites, Ireland, suffered an agonising defeat against Scotland at Murrayfield. Even Wales, whose 33-7 victory against Italy on paper looks impressive, had to wait until the Italians were down to fourteen men before they pulled away in Rome.
Yet whilst most people would say that Ireland were the big losers at the weekend I would suggest that Georgia may be the nation who are rueing most the competiveness shown by all teams in a tight fought opening weekend. Georgia are by far and away the seventh best rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere, having one the last six “Best of the Rest” Northern Hemisphere rugby championships and a disappointing display by Italy or Scotland would have furthered their argument to be allowed to play off with the bottom placed team for a place at the top table. Yet what this weekend showed us is that whilst Scotland are not going to win the Six Nations and Italy may struggle to win a game, they can both be competitive on their day.
So where does this leave Georgia? Like the Pacific Islands and Japan, smaller “tier 2” nations need to be able to play the big boys more often than they do, not just every four years at the World Cup. Every “tier 1” nation should be committed to playing at least one of the smaller nations once a year. What harm would it do if England preceded their summer tour with a stopover in Japan or Fiji and surely instead of playing money grabbing friendlies in America, wouldn’t the grass roots of the game be better served if the All Blacks warmed up for their Autumn tour by playing the likes of Western Samoa? They could even play the game here in New Zealand if they were worried about the travelling!
Finally, on the subject of “tier 1” and “tier 2” nations I have been amused that as England close in on New Zealand’s record of consecutive wins the Kiwi press have started to follow the All Blacks record of 18 with the words “against tier 1 nations”. Surely a win is a win and if England do manage to get to 19 by completing a second consecutive grand slam their achievements should be recognised and not diminished because they had the temerity to play Fiji! And if they do fail will the Kiwi press remove the addendum?
If they do I am afraid they will have to add another because between 2008 and 2014 Cyprus won 24 consecutive rugby matches, 6 more than the All Blacks managed and a total which would mean England would have to win every match until the end of the year!
After a mixed bag of results during the week normal service was resumed at the weekend with most matches panning out as one would predict, some would argue Liverpool would have been expected to beat Hull but Hull are a team in form and Liverpool have been abysmal since Coutinho was injured. With this in mind my score of 69 points is pleasing but the average score of 51 shows how easy to score if all the results end up as expected.
Having watched Romelu Lukaku in mid-week against Stoke I was considering transferring the Everton player out as was evident at the Bet365 that if he is not getting the service the Belgian doesn’t bring a lot else to the team but I am glad I kept the faith as Lukaku grabbed a mouth-watering 21 points and my Giraffe of the week. Unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum, my Lemon of the week goes to a Stoke player for the second game week in a row. Whilst he has been undoubtedly Stoke’s best player this year my one criticism of Marko Arnautovic is his inconsistency and sadly Saturday was one of the days nothing seemed to go right for him.
Again I would have loved to have brought Saido Berahino in for Stoke’s match against a Crystal Palace side that Grab the Cash Sam seems to have done the impossible and worsened since he took over from Alan Pardew but Liverpool’s form has been so bad of late that I have decided to replace Roberto Firmino with Spurs’ Christian Eriksen.
Before the first Bledisloe Cup match last year in Sydney a listening device was found in the armchair in the All Blacks team room. Now if you are familiar with the All Blacks you will be aware of their paranoia when it comes a good conspiracy theory. They lost the 1995 world cup because they were poisoned by dodgy milk and would have been world champions in 2007 if Wayne Barnes didn’t hate the Kiwis and of course there have been numerous bugging scandals from both sides of the Tasman. Yet the recent the alleged involvement of Adrian Gard, the security guard who found the bug in the first place, in Autumn’s scandal takes this latest bugging story to a whole new bizarre level.
Gard has been charged with public mischief by the New South Wales police which wouldn’t be too strange except for that fact that Gard is a well-respected security consultant who was working for the All Blacks at the time. Gard may be New South Wales police’s number one suspect in the strange case of the bug in the armchair but would he really be so stupid to commit the biggest career suicide since Grab the Cash Sam fell from grace as the England Manager? And if not Gard then who placed the device, here are the main suspects:
As far as the New South Wales police are concerned the Kiwi security consultant is the main suspect but this is a professional who has guarded some of the most famous people in the world and runs his own highly successful security business. If this was a BBC crime drama you would be asking what was his motive and unless some new information comes to light, then there doesn’t appear to be one.
Not actually the Wallabies coach himself but someone part of the Aussie’s back room team. The Aussies clearly have the motive in wanting to beat the All Blacks for the first time in what seems like whatever. They would normally be the number one suspect, and they allegedly have previous, but they have been cleared by the police and as much as you may not like his gruff persona, Cheika doesn’t seem the type of person who would be involved in such shenanigans.
Again not actually the CEO of New Zealand Rugby himself but as a man who seems to be concerned with cashing in on the All Black brand what must he have thought as England dominate the summer rugby press with their first whitewash on Australian soil? With the Northern upstarts showing potential to be the All Blacks main challengers in upcoming years and facing a match that might have meant something if Australia had a team which could play rugby what better way to add spice to what many viewed as a dead rubber
The Aussie Press
In a sports mad nation have the Aussie Press have to be considered as one of the more likely suspects but would they have been after team tactics or some juicy gossip like when Ben Smith is sitting his accountancy exams?
Once more a name picked out of a collective group but if this was a practical joke by the All Blacks that has spectacularly backfired who would you expect to be the clown in the Kiwi pack, as long as he wasn’t taking a toilet break
Mr or Mrs X
As none of the above suspects seem to be a likely fit the possibility that there is still an unknown player in the equation seems plausible. The only problem is that the New South Wales police have made a mistake and that could never happen. Could it?
One hundred Premier League goals is no easy feat and one which should be celebrated and if you’re going to celebrate then why not do it in style:
With Chelsea seemingly marching on towards the title the main talking points in the Premier League for the following months will no doubt revolve around the battle for survival and the chase for those elusive European places. With Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool all stumbling recently Spurs seem the best placed to secure one of the Champions League places and you never know Jose could just manage to sneak Manchester United into the top four.
Indeed, my Team Giraffe for January goes once again to last month’s winner Manchester United, who are still in the hunt for four trophies, although the Premiership has to be the least realistic as Chelsea seem unstoppable at the top of the table.
At the other end of the table what looked like a four-way fight for the safety of 17th place now looks like a six-way tussle to avoid relegation with both Middlesbrough and Leicester City being dragged into a relegation dog fight. However, I think both of these teams will survive as their respective owners have not pushed the panic buttons by firing their managers and this continuity will keep them safe. The same, I am afraid, cannot be said for Sunderland, who although they have also kept faith with their manager, have had an abysmal January and as such win my Team Lemon of the month.
Here then is my updated prediction for the end of the season (and how it has changed since the start of the season):
- Chelsea (2nd)
- Tottenham Hotspur (6th)
- Arsenal (4th)
- Manchester City (1st)
- Liverpool (5th)
- Manchester United (3rd)
- Everton (7th)
- Stoke City (8th)
- Southampton (10th)
- West Ham United (9th)
- West Bromwich Albion (13th)
- Watford (14th)
- Burnley (17th)
- Bournemouth (16th)
- Leicester City (12th)
- Middlesbrough (11th)
- Swansea (15th)
- Hull City (20th)
- Crystal Palace (18th)
- Sunderland (19th)
In a month where transfers dominate the footballing news I was tempted to go for “Grab the Cash” Sam as my Individual Lemon of the Month but Palace’s first win under the Greedy One’s reign on the last day of the month just saved him. Instead my Individual Lemon of the Month goes to Claudio Bravo, more for an accumulation of goalkeeping errors since he arrived at the start of the season than the numerous statistics which have been bandied about this month, which only confirm what I have been saying since Pep shipped Joe Hart off to Italy.
In handing out my Individual Giraffe of the Month I wanted to showcase the magic of the FA Cup, which only really exists during the first month of the year when the third and fourth rounds give the minnows a chance to shock the big boys, just think of Wolves managing to knock out both Liverpool and Stoke! One of the biggest fairy tales has been Lincoln City’s cup run as they knocked two Championship teams out of the cup and in the case of Brighton, convincingly. Therefore, my Individual Giraffe of the Month goes to Theo Robinson who terrorised the Brighton backline in the second half.
Midweek fixtures can often throw up the odd weird result but usually nothing as a bizarre as what has happened over the last few days. Arsenal losing to Watford, Costa missing a penalty and Sunderland not only getting a point but also managing to keep a clean sheet against Spurs. There was “Grab the Cash” Sam’s first win at Palace but most improbably Manchester City managed to keep a clean sheet, they did have to drop Bravo to achieve this though! In light of these strange going on I am not too disappointed my one below average 34 points.
With none of my outfield players performing anything like their potential my Giraffe of the Week goes to Tom Heaton who has to be everyone’s favourite fantasy goalkeeper this season, but a word of warning to Burnley fans, last year’s surprise goalkeeping package is currently stuck playing Pokemon Go around the Stoke City medical centre. Sadly my Lemon of the week has to go to Stoke’s captain, Ryan Shawcross, for grabbing Everton a point and giving Mystic Mark a coronary on the side lines.
With Stoke away to West Brom I would love to have Saido Berahino in my line up but with three Stoke players in my team I will have to be content to play the long game. So in preparation for bringing Berahino into my team I have got rid of Shaqiri, who is definitely out of form, and brought in Michail Antonio.