Monday, 6 July 2009

Lions' roaring redemption song draws series of great and gruesome to an enthralling end

Pride is a term tossed about too often in sporting cliché, but the Lions restored theirs with a stirring 28-9 victory in the final match of an absorbing tour of South Africa.

Smarting from an agonising 28-25 defeat in the previous Test, the tourists were galvanised by a collective pain and feeling that a golden chance of a series win had been missed.

As the dust settled on the Ellis Park pitch, there was a buoyant feeling rare for a losing side, perhaps underlined by the sense of records set straight, a little justice regained.

Mike Phillips gets to grips with Heinrich Brussow

The series showcased the best and worst of a sport magnificent and brutal in equal measure. The second Test in particular will be remembered for years; a titanic battle lifted to stratospheric heights by both teams’ attacking prowess, whilst simultaneously dragged into the gutter by disputation and cowardice.

Despite the brilliance of Rob Kearney and Bryan Habana’s tries, even this humdinger will be tainted by Schalk Burger’s gouging of Luke Fitzgerald’s eyes in the first minute. That linesman Bryce Lawrence could only recommend “a yellow card at least”, and that referee Christophe Berdos could not summon the bravery – no, just the common sense – to show a red card, only compounded the debacle.

Controversy abounded in the final Test too. South Africa’s decision to sport white ‘justice’ armbands (in support of the banned Bakkies Botha) was an ignorant statement, belligerently rich for a team whose infantile siege mentality continues to erode an already damaged reputation.

If their support of Botha smacked of insecurity, their coach’s apparent toleration of Burger’s actions was just stupid.

Peter de Villiers proved a PR disaster for South African rugby. Claiming that gouging is “part of the game”, he showed himself to be not only myopic but woefully out of touch. If de Villiers still feels that his side were not given enough credit for their series win, a good starting place for him to find reason why would be the mirror.

After defending the indefensible, de Villiers then backtracked and reiterated his comments with dizzying confusion, before concluding with an unconvincing homage to the tourists: “I always said they were a brilliant Lions team.”

The class of 2009 may not be heralded in the same way as their 1974 predecessors but their fiercely competitive displays will have helped quieten doubts about the viability of Lions tours.
The victory will also have eased worries on a personal level. Phil Vickery, battered by fans and press alike after his mauling at the hands of Tenda ‘The Beast’ Mtawarira, rose to the occasion admirably by overwhelming his tormentor in the scrum.

There was catharsis for Shane Williams and Ugo Monye as well, with the two wingers scoring between them three crucial tries of real class.

Such a bright ending points to 2013, and springs hope of a triumphant series in Australia. With Alun-Wyn Jones, Jamie Heaslip and Tom Croft likely to be present, the pack will be a hardened, formidable proposition. Meanwhile, backs Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts and Kearney will already be thinking about piercing Wallaby defences.

With reputations restored and the foundations laid for an encouraging future, the atmosphere among and around the Lions is an understandably positive one.

And this wave of optimism is epitomised by arguably the most redeemed of all tourists, Vickery, who summarised the lasting core values of a Lions tour: “I can honestly say I have never been on a tour with so many good men. We’ve put a huge amount of pride back into the Lions shirt.”

Friday, 3 July 2009

Centre Court: Celebrity Sanctum

Wimbledon’s Centre Court is as much a British establishment as Pimm’s or talking about the weather, and it has recently proved to be the centre of attention for more than tennis reasons alone.

As well as boasting the most talked about roof since Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (or maybe the ceiling on which Lionel Richie danced and sang about), the venue has also become a celebrity attraction during the past fortnight.

Andy Murray’s progress has been enlivened not only by his imperious serving and cheeky drop shots but by the legion of stars present at his matches.

Ewan McGregor, Miss Scotland and Clive Woodward have all been spotted, but perhaps the most eye-catching spectator was the young supporter sporting a Hassidic Jewish hat and synthetic curls during Murray’s win over Stanislas Wawrinka.

From Bruce Forsyth appearance in the opening round to Kate Winslet at the quarter-finals, there seems to be a gradual rise in stardom at Centre Court as the tournament nears its climax. We wait with bated breath for today’s attendees but it has been rumoured that the Queen will be present if Murray reaches Sunday’s final.

Kate Winslet applauds Andy Murray's, erm, 'Titanic' quarter-final win

Wimbledon, with traditionally glitzy visitors such as Cliff Richard and, er, Jimmy Tarbuck, is far from being sport’s only star attraction. Away from the baseline rallies and strawberries and cream, other sports pride themselves on their glamorous clienteles.

Football can now even be considered chic. A far cry from meat and potato pies on crumbling old terraces, Flavio Briatore, QPR’s wealthy and vibrantly orange owner, has pledged to introduce ‘boutique football’ to Championship crowds.

Whether Briatore can attract friends such as Naomi Campbell to a home match against Scunthorpe remains to be seen, but his plans are certainly lavish enough to make Roy Keane choke on his prawn sandwiches when he takes his Ipswich Town side to Loftus Road next season.

While the hardened fans of sides outside the Premier League may need some convincing, Briatore can count on a growing number of fair-weather supporters to subscribe to his new brand of the game.

Sylvester Stallone famously paraded an Everton scarf before seeing them play Reading, Tom Hanks is supposedly an Aston Villa fan, Dr Dre has been rumoured to respect Liverpool as ‘cool cats’, and the late Michael Jackson once attended an Exeter City match with Uri Geller.

On a par with the aforementioned names in terms of fame but on a different scale entirely of commitment is Jack Nicholson, who is a partisan fixture at LA Lakers games. NBA courtside seats are as likely to excite the readers of Heat as they are basketball followers, with Ben Affleck and Denzel Washington among the spectators at the recent play-offs.

If the pomp of major US sport is matched by its audience’s star-quality, so too are the social and cultural traditions of the UK’s other main sports. In England, rugby union is as synonymous with public school as games of ‘soggy biscuit’ and boys’ names like Oscar, and matches at Twickenham are often attended by Prince Harry.

Somewhat differently in Wales, where rugby’s origins are rooted in mining communities, you’re likelier to see Joe Calzaghe or a former Big Brother contestant cheer the national team.

Like rugby, cricket’s fanbase has a more regal feel, and its stiff-upper-lip reputation is amplified by the prominence of former Conservative leader John Major at test matches played at the Oval.

Even with their aristocratic traits, however, both these former symbols of imperial Britain trail in Wimbledon’s wake, where an invitation might be issued to Buckingham Palace should Murray overcome Andy Roddick later today.