Sunday, 21 July 2013

20 years at Le Tour part 1/2

The Tour de France is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. The sheer physical toll this bike race takes on it's competitors is greater then any other competition. As we celebrate the 100th edition's completion this evening, I decided to reflect upon my own memories of 'Le Grand Boucle' and as if by fate, this will be my 20th edition to follow.
I have compiled my most vivid memories from each Tour not necessarily a defining moment when a champion was crowned or an incident that you would see on the back pages of tabloids in this country, and I've delved a bit into the archives to help set the scene for the events of each Tour. I've decided to omit certain achievements or victories which have been proven to be tainted by doping, but have included others which may be under suspicion. That said, it would be impossible now to go back and analyze every rider's performance at the time for the use of doping and to a certain extent, we should let those moments be. Cycling is vastly different to what it was in 1994 and we should be thankful for a much cleaner, exciting sport and not dredge through the past on a witch-hunt looking for people to blame. If you want to comment on this article, please do, but please don't point the finger at riders who may or may not have doped so many years ago. If you want to have that discussion, send me a tweet.

So, here it is, the first half of my list of 20 of my memories from Le Tour from 1994 to 2013:

1994 – 'The Crash'

The Tour has an innate ability to create drama, whether that be from a blistering attack in the mountains or a hectic sprint finish after 200km on the flat. My first moment occurred during the latter.
The 94 Tour route was strange, starting in Lille with the prologue then after a swift Tour of Northern France, a jaunt across La Manche for two stages in England. The first stage proper of the race was to finish in Armentieres and upon closer inspection, it looked perfect. A nice wide road, a gentle right hand bend to finish where none of the sprinters would have to worry about using their breaks in the final kilometer. This would be a straightforward bunch sprint, or at least it would've been until there was Police involvement.
As the sprinters were about to unleash their final efforts for the push to the line Wilfried Nelissen, who had held the yellow jersey for a few days in the previous year's Tour, crashed and brought down a handful of riders in a nasty looking crash. (every crash looks pretty nasty at 60 kph, but this one especially so) Upon further viewing however it did not appear to be his fault, as a police officer brought in to control the crowd and prevent them hanging over the barriers taking photographs, thus endangering the riders' safety was himself standing out from the barriers taking a photograph of the riders. Nelissen admittedly had his head down and was not looking in front of him as he sped towards the officer, but given that he could see the barriers, he knew where he was on the road, and should not have expected anything other than a bicycle to appear in front him.
There was an official police investigation and it was found that the police officer was not at fault in any way whatsoever for the crash and there was no camera involved. The officer broke his leg after being hit by Nelissen, and presumably was never deemed fit enough to marshal the crowd at the finish of a stage again.
Nelissen was never the same as a rider and after a brief battle with injury, he admitted defeat at retired a few years later at the age of 28. Of the other riders involved in the crash, the most seriously injured was an exciting French sprinter and previous green jersey winner Laurent Jalabert. Jalabert never regained his speed in the bunch sprint and was forced to adapt his style to survive in the race, but more of him later.
The Tour has since worked tirelessly to eliminate most of the risks is sprints finishes, and now there is no-one between the barriers at the finish except the riders themselves and perhaps the odd support vehicle, so if anybody crashes during the finish, they only have themselves or another rider to blame and that's how it should be.



1995 – Fabio Casartelli

Fabio Casartelli was the Olympic road race champion in 1992 in Barcelona and was a member of a young a promising Motorola squad at the Tour de France. Sadly tragedy struck and on the 15th Stage of the Tour, Casartelli was riding in a small group on the descent of the Col de Portet d'Aspet in the Pyrenees when there was a crash. Dante Rezze fell down a ravine, but was pulled out by spectators with relatively minor injuries. Dirk Baldinger broke his leg and was out of the Tour, but those injuries were minor compared to Fabio. Casartelli fell and struck his head on a cement bollard at the side of the road. Pictures and video show him lying in the fetal position with blood streaming down the road from his head. The doctors were on scene within 10 seconds and he was immediately airlifted to Tarbes to a hospital. His heart stopped three times in the helicopter and although he was revived twice, he succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at the hospital. This was a huge shock to the peloton and I even get emotional when thinking about that day. Casartelli as was the custom in racing at the time, did not wear a helmet, only a cloth cap to protect him from the sun. The coroner who inspected his body at Tarbes concluded that although he still would have been seriously injured, if Casartelli had been wearing a helmet he would have avoided some serious injuries and could have survived. A memorial is built to Casartelli on the mountain and is visited regularly by cyclists of all ages and abilities. The following days' stage was neutralized and Casartelli's Motorola team-mates crossed the line together pointing to the sky and the memory of Fabio. Casartelli was the first rider to die on the Tour since Tom Simpson perished on the slopes of Mont Ventoux almost 30 years before.
Stage 18 was won by Lance Armstrong after a long breakaway and although he dedicated his victory to Fabio, perhaps the more important legacy left after the Italian's death is that helmets are now mandatory in most cycling races and have save countless lives on the roads all over the world.



1996 – Big Mig Cracks

Miguel Indurain was a machine in the early 90s, famously overtaking 2-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon in a time trial in 1992 en route to becoming the first and now only five time consecutive winner. The Spaniard had been flawless, gaining large amounts of time in the time trials and marking his opponents in the mountains, with the occasional attack a la Hautacam 1994. He never seemed vulnerable and looked set in 1996 to overtake Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault at the top of the all time winners list.
1996 would be the Basque's undoing, and it would be spectacular. He entered the 7th stage in 8th overall, 4:17 behind the yellow jersey, but only 12 seconds behind another pre-race favorite in Alex Zülle after the participants in a previous day's breakaway occupied the top spots in the general classement.
During the stage, there were no warning signs, Indurain stayed safely with the rest of the favorites, Zülle, Yevgeny Berzin and Bjarne Riis. He repeatedly repelled attacks from the select group with his usual vigor and they had even distanced themselves from former sprinter and now re-invented all-round rider Laurent Jalabert.
Suddenly Tony Rominger, Berzin and Riis upped an already frenetic pace set by Indurain's former team-mate Aitor Garmendia. Indurain dug into his well and tried to respond, but this was not to be a fairytale finish for Mig, he had pushed his Spanish V8 engine into the red-zone and far beyond any sustainable effort.
In a scene that was repeated this year on the double ascent of Alpe d'Huez, Indurain signaled to the team car that he needed more fuel and a full bidon. Even that could not arrest the slide of the great rider. Perennial polka dot jersey winner Richard Virenque summed it up best, “When the other broke, he just appeared to cycle on the same piece of road. Truly, it is the most remarkable sight I have seen on the Tour”
Indurain could count himself lucky, the commissars decided not to punish him an additional 20 seconds for his illegal feed, the fate the befell Froome and Porte on Thursday, instead allowing the natural course of events to play out. At the end of the stage, the man who had dominated the previous five Tours, the man who had consumed so many French mountains had been defeated, demoralized and destroyed. He only lost 3:23 to new yellow jersey Berzin and Riis who would go on to win the Tour. He would never get any closer in the following stages, and when the peloton arrived in Paris, he was over 14 minutes behind. He left the Tour like so many former greats, broken by the toughest race, never to return.


1997 – Ullrich the Phenom

In 1996, Jan Ullrich was a promising young rider and loyal team-mate to winner Bjarne Riis, he won the white jersey for the best rider under the age of 26 and was touted as a future winner of the race. Riis had returned to defend his title, but he could not compete with the East German diesel possessed by Ullrich. That isn't necessarily a slight on Riis though, as no-one could compete with Ullrich in 1997.
After 8 flat stages and a prologue, Ullrich sat 2:56 off yellow and 1:03 ahead of Riis, a further 27 seconds in front of Virenque and 4:21 in credit of Marco Pantani. On stage 9, only Virenque and Pantani could stay with Ullrich on the road to Loudenvielle with all three finishing with the same time and taking 27 seconds off Riis. This had allowed Ullrich to close the gap to yellow jersey holder Cedric Vasseur to just 13 seconds and surely it was a matter of time before he took his place at the head of the peloton.
Such is the petulance of youth that Ullrich went out the very next day and on the climb to Andorra Arcalis, he blew the field away on the longest mountain stage on the Tour, effortlessly cruising up the slopes to lead the field home by 1:08 an with it a secure hold of the yellow jersey with a cushion of nearly three minutes.
Riders were quick to heap praise on the young star. Lance Armstrong preached, “It's not so surprising. He's a talented young guy who was world champion as an amateur. He could win many more Tours”
Ullrich himself summed it up best, “I made the break, then I looked back and saw no-one coming with me so I thought, this is it and pressed on”
This seemed to be his mantra for the remainder of the Tour and after a brief respite for the competition with a bunch sprint into Perpignan and a rest day, Ullrich resumed his demolition of the field on stage 12, an individual time trial around St. Etienne. He beat the field by over three minutes, catching Virenque on the road and extending his overall lead over the Frenchman to 5:42. He had not completely silenced the peloton however, as Pantani won the following stage up to Alpe d'Huez albeit with a new record time, but again Ullrich took time from Virenque, this time 40 seconds. Pantani reclaimed 1:17 into Morzine, but this was too little, too late and Ullrich hammered the final blow on his Mickey Mouse opposition in the penultimate stage, another time trial this time at Disneyland Paris. He finished 2:47 ahead of Virenque with Pantani a further 1:03 behind. Ullrich cruised up the Champs Elysees to complete his crushing victory, in the end 9:09 ahead of Virenque and 14:03 in front of Pantani. Defending champion Bjarne Riis finished 7th, 26 and a half minutes behind Ullrich. Such was the domination of victory, only 15 of the 139 finishers were within 1 hour of Ullrich at the finish line of the Tour. The era of Ullrich was upon us.


1998 – Festina

In 1998, the Tour began in Dublin, but the drama had already started well before 'Le Grand Depart'. 3 days before the Prologue in Dublin, Festina soigneur and Richard Virenque's personal carer Willy Voet was stopped by customs on the Belgian-French border. His car was searched and officials found anabolic steroids, EPO syringes and a whole host of doping paraphernalia. Voet was arrested and taken into custody. Police then searched Festina team headquarters in Lyon and seizing more doping products including perfluorocarbon, an artificial carrier of oxygen suspected to have caused many riders to collapse on the road due to it's instability as a doping product.
Two days later in Dublin, Festina directeur sportif Bruno Roussel maintained his innocence and claimed Voet was acting as a lone wolf and had nothing to do with the team at the Tour. Meanwhile in France, a judicial inquiry had been called to investigate the matter and Voet would be imprisoned for two weeks for his possession of the doping products.
On the first day of the Tour, French police announce that Voet's car had contained 250 bottle of EPO and 400 bottles of other substances including steroids. They also announced their intention to question Virenque, Alex Zülle and Laurent Dufaux once they returned to France.
On the day of the fourth stage, Roussel and Festina team doctor Eric Rijckaert were arrested and taken into custody in Cholet. The Festina team hotel was also searched by police and the following day Roussel was stripped of his license to run the team by the UCI. Despite this, Festina intended to continue and team officials Miguel Moreno and Michael Gros would take over. Virenque called a press conference with a few of his fellow riders to assure fans that they would continue.
The following day however, the charade was up. Roussel admitted to systematic doping on the team and explained that riders were paid a premium to dope on the team and that all but one of their Tour team had been doping during the race. That one rider was crucial however, his name was Christophe Bassons.
Race organizer Jean-Marie Leblanc expelled Festina from the Tour and they did not start the seventh stage on the race the following day. Richard Virenque spoke to reporters in tears and left the race to face the French authorities.
Almost a week later 12 members of the Festina team were taken into police custody. 8 of the 9 riders in the team for the Tour along with another rider and three team officials were to be charged by the French authorities, but Bassons was exonerated from charges as he was the only rider not implicated in the doping program.
During the seventeenth stage of the race, the riders refused to race due to the scrutiny being placed on doping. When they eventually started riding, they cruised along the road very slowly in protest. Laurent Jalabert pulled out of the race followed by his entire ONCE team, Team TVM were also called under suspicion of doping and several riders were ordered to take blood tests.
The following day, the Kelme and Vitalicio Seguros teams also pulled out and reports surfaced the the drugs found in Voet's car were to be shared by three French teams; Big Mat, Francais des Jeux and Casino. It was also reported at the time, that during interviews with police, the Festina riders had corroborated this story.
Team TVM then pulled out prior to Stage 19 of the race, and now less then 100 of the 189 riders who start the Tour remained. The Tour, in case you'd forgotten bout the racing, was won by Marco Pantani. The era of Ullrich was over.

The ramifications of the Festina affair continued and it was not until 2000 that they reached a French courtroom. Of the nine riders taken into police custody after their expulsion from the Tour, 8 tested positive for EPO, the ninth tested was Christophe Moreau who although his results were borderline, had already admitted to using EPO. Voet then gave an interview with Le Parisien where he revealed only three of Festina's riders were clean, Patrice Hagland, Laurent Lefevre and Christophe Bassons. Virenque maintained his innocence to the point where he had a heated confrontation with Voet and Rijckaert.
The courtroom trial had ten defendants, amongst which were Virenque, Voet, Roussel and Rijckaert. During the trial, Virenque admitted to doping as did team-mate Pascal Herve. 8 of the defendants were found guilty and given suspended prison sentences and heavy fines. The charged against Rijckaert were dropped due to his poor health and his death a month later from cancer. Inexplicably, Virenque was cleared, but was banned a week later by the Swiss cycling federation and was vilified by the press.
Cycling was in tatters, widespread allegations of doping implicated almost the entire peloton. Cycling would have to provide a new hero to alleviate the depression caused by the so called 'Tour de Dopage'



1999 – Cipo and Bassons

Super Mario, the Lion King, Pretty Mario or simply just Cipo. Mario Cipollini embodied the superstar popularity cycling has in Italy. The larger than life character had already appeared during stages wearing zebra and tiger skins suits racking up more than his fair share of fines before he arrived at the 1999 Tour. During that race however, he cemented his legendary status in the pantheon of Tour sprinters. Belgian Tom Steels had won stages 2 and 3, but was denied a famous hat-trick by Cipo on the run-in to Blois. In doing so, Cipollini set the fastest ever average speed for a mass start stage at a mesmerizing 50.355 kph. His team Saeco had implemented and perfected the lead-out train and time after time Mario was delivered to the front with uncanny efficiency. Famed for his movie-star looks, Cipollini rode the majority of stages with his gelled, slicked back hair on display for the cameras. It was said that at the time the hardest and most dangerous job in the sports was to be the rider tasked with returning to the Saeco team car to retrieve Mario's helmet with 10km remaining. His date with destiny approached as Cipo won stages 5 and 6, blasting past rivals with his customary nonchalance while completing his own memorable hat trick. Thionville would be his defining moment and he was once again launched by his team with just over 200m to go. As he had with allegedly over 1000 women in his prime, Cipo sealed the deal and repeated his victories of the previous three days, completing the first four-timer at the Tour since Charles Pelissier in 1930. Super Mario celebrated in his typical style, dressing as Julius Caesar during the first rest day, and despite a valiant effort, abandoning during the first mountain stage just as he had on every previous Tour.
The legend of Cipollini was always entertaining, but this was his crowning moment in Le Tour. He won 12 stages in his career, and we have someone else coming up later who may have a couple more.

One of the darker moments in the Tour's history also occurred in 1999. The so called Tour of Renewal after the previous year's Festina scandal, had been criticized by rider Christophe Bassons, an outspoken critic of doping who had referred to the return to cycling and ascent to the top of the sport by Lance Armstrong as having “shocked the peloton” in his daily column for newspaper Le Parisien. This had angered the peloton two-fold, firstly by accusing them of doping, which most of them were, and secondly by breaking the riders' Omerta on doping or 'code of silence'. On Stage 10 to Alpe d'Huez, they organized a go-slow for the first 100km with the co-operation of all riders except Bassons who was deliberately kept out of the loop. Bassons had a loyal mechanic in his team however and found out about the protest the evening before.
While the peloton were content to roll along the roads and protest their innocence, Bassons decided to take a stand. He continually attacked during this period and despite being brought back to the peloton every time, he would not give in. The only man who could force him to stop would be all-time villain on the Tour, Lance Armstrong. Bassons said in an interview with BBC Five Live in 2012,

. . . and then Lance Armstrong reached me. He grabbed my by the shoulder, because he knew that everyone would be watching, and he knew that at that moment, he could show everyone that he was the boss. He stopped me, and he said what I was saying wasn't true, what I was saying was bad for cycling, that I mustn’t say it, that I had no right to be a professional cyclist, that I should quit cycling, that I should quit the tour, and finished by saying fuck you. . . . I was depressed for 6 months. I was crying all of the time. I was in a really bad way.”

Bassons was exiled from the peloton and vilified for taking a stand. The other riders wouldn't even talk to him and his own team treated him like the enemy.
Especially in the light of the revelations of the last year or so, we should salute Bassons and the other riders who spoke out and whistle-blew on doping. Frankie and Betsy Andreu among many others had the courage to swim against the tide and stand up for a sport they love and principles they believe in. Cycling owes a debt of gratitude to Bassons, the Andreus and many other, a debt that it can never repay.



2000 – David Millar

2000 was a short and sweet Tour for me. We were treated to the rise of a new British hero on the opening stage. Following the history of Chris Boardman's prologue wins, an unknown Scotsman took the 16.5km time trial at Futuroscope. David Millar became only the fourth Brit to wear the yellow jersey after Tom Simpson, Sean Yates and Chris Boardman. Millar's margin of victory was only two seconds, but he claimed yellow and held it for the following two days before ONCE won the team time trial. Millar however would not be forgotten and after a drug ban in 2004, he returned to the Tour to become one of four British stage winners in 2012 and is the only few British rider to have won a stage and worn the leader's jersey in all three grand tours. Only Sir Bradley Wiggins has worn all three jerseys and although Mark Cavendish has won all three sprinters' jerseys he has never worn yellow.



2001 - “The Look”

In 2001, Lance Armstrong was arguably at his most dominant in the the Tour. He had won the previous two Tours by a combined 13:46 and despite conceding almost 36 minutes to a 14 man breakaway two stages earlier, the big, cheating Texan was going to make a statement on Stage 10, form Aix-les-Bains to Alpe d'Huez, the only Alpine stage in that year's Tour. Armstrong pulled the second biggest deception of his career. Riding at the back of the pack grimacing and looking ready to drop off the back and concede time to Jan Ullrich and the Team Telekom machine.
When the rider arrived at the foot of the Alp, only Laurent Roux was ahead of the group, 7 minutes up the road. Ullrich had shed most of his team-mates trying to drop the laboring Armstrong. When Armstrong's team-mate Jose Rubiera attacked, only Armstrong and Ullrich could respond and when Rubiera finally dropped off, Armstrong looked back, seemingly straight into the eyes of Ullrich, then he was gone. Armstrong suddenly had a rocket on his back, he flew up the climb in the second fastest time in history, only Pantani was faster. Ullrich who had put a lot of effort into the stage already was powerless to follow and limped slowly up the mountain as Armstrong set off after Roux. The German was broken, and when they arrived in Paris, he was nearly 7 minutes behind.
Armstrong stated in an interview after the finish that he wasn't looking at Ullrich, rather that he was looking back down the mountain to see who else was in the group. Given what we now know about Armstrong, how can we be sure.



2002 – Au Revoir Jaja

2002 saw the retirement of one of France's best loved cyclists, The Panda, Jaja, Laurent Jalabert. He had been a great sprinter and after his horror crash in 1994, he had re-invented himself as an all-round cyclist. In 1995 he repeated a feat that only Eddy Merckx and Tony Rominger had accomplished. He rode in the Vuelta a Espana and won the sprinters' jersey, mountains jersey and the overall race. He is also one of only five riders to have won the sprinters' jersey in all three tours along with Merckx, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish. The 2002 Tour was his farewell, a victory lap around France. The previous year, he won the polka dot jersey, and it seemed to suit him and he rode in as many breakaways as possible to mop up the points. He took his bow and all of France saluted him. Sadly for French cycling, they have not had much to celebrate since as Jalabert himself was the last French winner of the green jersey in 1995, Bernard Hinault was the last French winner of the Tour in 1986 and although Richard Virenque won 7 polka dot jerseys in his career, only two riders have won it since. How the French must envy Sir Dave Brailsford's rider factory now.



2003 – Beloki's thigh and a yellow bag

The 2003 Tour was defined by two moments, neither of which necessarily fueled by EPO and they highlight the best and worst parts of professional cycling.
Firstly the worst. Joseba Beloki had been impressing in the first week of the race and looked like Lance Armstrong's main competition for a then fifth Tour title. Stage 9 finished in Gap, a popular finishing town and although the hard work in terms of climbing had already been done for the day, the excessive heat and multiple breakaway groups up the road posed the biggest threats to the main GC contenders like Armstrong and Beloki. Alexandre Vinokourov, himself no stranger to doping scandals had attacked on the final climb of the day and during the descent of the Cote de la Rochette, it was a close call as to whether the chasing group could catch him.
Shortly after passing the Col de Manse, Beloki and Armstrong entered a right hand bend and possibly due to the aforementioned heat and a patchy road surface, Beloki slid his bike into the corner and was vaulted off his machine and onto the tarmac. He landed heavily on his hip and although initially he tried to climb back on board, he was unable to continue. He had broken his collarbone, possible some ribs, but most importantly and cruelly, he snapped his femur (thigh bone) and was out of the Tour. I can still hear his cries of pain when being helped up and into the team car on his way to a hospital on Gap.
The drama of the moment however was not over as Armstrong was following Beloki closely and after the Spaniard's crash, was forced to swerve to the left and take evasive action into an empty field.
What followed was almost surreal, he continued through the field, as though he was riding a mountain bike. As the road looped back following a left hand bend, Armstrong unclipped his pedals and hopped over advertising hoardings. The Texan remounted just as the chasing group turned through the left hander and he rejoined the pursuit of Vinokourov. The group would not catch the Kazakh and although he vaulted up to second overall, Armstrong was just glad to still be in the race, unlike the unfortunate Beloki, who like so many before him would never recapture his former form and retired under the cloud of Operacion Puerto a few years later.
The polar opposite moment of Tour riding came on Stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden when during the last 10km of the Stage, a group containing Armstrong, Ullrich, Iban Mayo amongst other were chasing down a two man break of Santiago Botero and Sylvain Chavanel. Just as Armstrong was beginning to accelerate, he got too close to a spectator at the side of the road, hooked his handlebars on a bag being carried by a child and the pre-teenager had taken down a then six time Tour winner. Armstrong was quick to get back on his bike, but Ullrich as the second placed overall rider ordered the group to stop and wait for Armstrong to recover and rejoin the group. Armstrong had waited for Ullrich and a crash a few years previous and such is the custom in the peloton that a rider doesn't attack when a rival has a mechanical issue or a small crash. Armstrong thanked Ullrich when he rejoined the group and repaid the German's sportsmanship by sprinting up the mountain and leaving Ullrich and Mayo 40 seconds behind him. If Ullrich had attacked when Armstrong crashed, then the American may not have rejoined the group, but that's how Lance operated and a cyclist and apparently as a person.



Thursday, 21 February 2013

World Club Challenge 2013


2013 World Club Challenge



Leeds Rhinos vs. Melbourne Storm
Headingley Carnegie Stadium
Friday, February 22nd 2013. 20:00 GMT



It's that time of year again where League fans on the other side of the world huddle around their radios to listen to their Champions, having triumphed through the previous NRL season travel to the old country to take on Leeds.
This year it's the turn of the Melbourne Storm, coming off their “first” Premiership in over 10 years, the Storm come seeking their “second” WCC title.
This game is often referred to as Leeds vs. NRL (this may actually be the first time) as Leeds have featured in 4 of the last 5 renewals of the WCC, splitting those match-ups with Manly and Melbourne.



LEEDS RHINOS
So, Leeds. Well clearly they have the upper hand in this clash as the Super League season has already started, with Leeds picking up wins against Hull FC and Salford and losing to Castleford. They will also have home advantage as the WCC has been held in England every since 1998. The 1997 WCC was a farcical 22 team tournament which put the future of the competition in doubt, while the previous title was held since Wigan's victory at the old ANZ stadium in Brisbane in 1994. Not only do the Rhinos have a home advantage in this tie, they also have the “world's greatest player” in Sir Kevin Sinfield of Oldham. Sinfield has dragged this Leeds team to the majority of their success behind a strong pack and straight running backs that only seem to play organized and successful rugby in February, September and the first Saturday in October. Another thing to consider when looking forward to this clash of titans (but not shoulders) is that the “famous” Headingley pitch was relaid in the winter and in true Yorkshire style, many locals complained about the £1m cost. This is the first new pitch at Headingley since 1963, and despite the obvious need to provide a quality playing surface for our Australian visitors, the Rhinos declined to renovate their crumbling relic of a stadium with the uncovered West terrace and the 80+ year old South Stand getting a reprieve from modernization yet again, much to the delight of the whippet-fancying masses.



Leeds Squad (from):
Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, McShane, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Sinfield (c), Ward, Delaney, Kirke, Clarkson, Achurch, Moore, Keinhorst, Vickery.



The main dangers to Melbourne are Danny McGuire, Ryan Hall and obviously Sir Kev. McGuire will be playing in his 300th game for Leeds and has racked up 224 tries, particularly impressive for a half back. Although he's lost a step of pace since his debut 12 years ago, McGuire is still a threat, especially as he has a knack of popping up on the inside when one of the outside backs makes a break, and more often than not, his tries are walk-ins under the posts. Hall can legitimately be referred to as one of the world's best wingers, and with the exception of Wigan's Sam Tomkins and the world's best Sir Kev, Hall would be the only English player to make it into a World Dream Team. While McGuire may be Super League's all-time leading tryscorer, Hall is catching him at an alarming rate. With 100 tries in 119 appearances, the maths graduate will be a big danger on the wing and may cause problems for Melbourne's Mahe Fonua. Kevin Sinfield is clearly a cut above the rest on this field, and having watched him first hand drag Leeds into the Super League grand final, he then almost single-handedly beat Warrington at Old Trafford to lift his 5th Premiership. Despite being the world's greatest Five-Eighth, Sinfield has also played at hooker, lock, second row, full back, goalkeeper, defenseman, third-base and whatever other position he likes, although not quarterback as Danny McGuire usually plays there. He often referees games and although he may not be afforded that opportunity in this game, that won't stop a man like Sir Kev. Leeds will miss recently converted fullback Zak Hardaker, who sits this one out with a broken thumb.
Leeds will look to bulldoze Melbourne in a way that Canterbury couldn't in the Grand Final and key to that will be 40 year old prop and Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock. I would expect coach Brian McDermott to set his team's stall out to punish the Melbourne pack for five tackles then ask Sir Kev to make Storm fullback Billy Slater chase his kick on the last. Leeds will also try to pin Melbourne into a corner and force the error then spread the ball wide to Hall, Ben Jones-Bishop, Kallum Watkins and homesick Joel Moon to attack the in-experienced Fonua, Justin O'Neill, Will Chambers and elder statesman of the Storm back-line Sisa Waqa. If they can implement this game-plan and limit the effectiveness of the Melbourne spine, they will have a great chance of becoming the most successful side in WCC history.



MELBOURNE STORM
Melbourne came over last week to acclimatize to the British conditions and trained in London for a week before traveling to Leeds via Huddersfield where most of their squad took in the Super League game between the Giants and Brett Finch and Ryan Hoffman's old club Wigan. The Storm are yet to play a competitive match this season and during their trial matches, they have featured mixed squads of young players including the U20s and a sprinkling of experience. This game will be their 4th appearance in the WCC and 3rd in the past 6 years, losing 11-4 to Leeds in 2008 and “winning” the title in 2010 with a 18-10 victory over the Rhinos. Both of those game were played at Elland Road, so for many in the squad, this will be their first taste of Headingley. Interestingly enough, the two players who have featured at Headingley Finch and Hoffman have never lost there, playing out a 22-22 draw in 2011 and Finch's last visit resulted in a 50-8 victory. Good omens for anyone wearing purple tonight. The Storm have a good mixture of youth and experience with the average age of the starting 13 just over 25 with the elder statesman of the side Billy “The Kid” Slater. Despite the youth on display, the starting line-up have accrued 75 international caps as well as 60 Origin appearances and there are two Golden Boot winners; Melbourne, Queensland and Australia captain Cameron Smith and Billy Slater. They also boast England five-eighth of the future in Halifax lad Gareth Widdop who will add to his total of 8 caps whenever the world's greatest player steps aside.



Melbourne Starting Line-up:
Slater, Fonua, O'Neill, Chambers, Waqa, Widdop, Cronk, J Bromwich, Smith (c), Norrie, Harris, Hoffman, Hinchcliffe
Replacements (from): Ryles, Finch, Vave, Moors K Browich, Setu



Melbourne were successful last season by grinding out the hard yards and playing mistake free football then allowing Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater to bamboozle defenses from 20m out. That formula has served them well and although they may be lacking in match sharpness, once the forwards get a few carries under their belt, they'll be ready to perform. The ability to offload will be key for Melbourne as Leeds have a tendency to tackle by mob in order to attempt to set the tone in these big games, and running at Jamie Peacock has to be their aim. Although he has been a class player throughout his illustrious career, he is vulnerable and if the Storm can isolate him and force him to make 40+ tackles in this game, he'll be spent. Another key to Storm victory is limiting Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, Burrow especially has a lightning dart of pace and cannot be allowed to run from dummy half. The markers will have to be alert at every play-the-ball and get Burrow to ground as quickly and efficiently as possible. When defending their own line, the Storm must be careful not to buy any of McGuire's dummies and look to defend the flat pass to an outside runner cutting back across the field. These predictable moves from the Rhinos seem to be missed by all of their opponents in the big games, and should Melbourne neglect to pay attention to them it may be their downfall.



VERDICT
This has all the hallmarks of a classic (well I would say that wouldn't I) the experience and “been there before” know-how of Leeds against the youth and international star quality of Melbourne. Burrow vs Smith, McGuire vs Cronk, Sinfield vs Widdop. There are key match-ups all over the field, but this game will be won and lost in the same place it always is, the pack. Melbourne have the physical ability and experience of a much quicker game to dominate Leeds. If they can maintain a quick play-the-ball and offer regular service to the outside backs, then the excellent kicking game of Cronk, Widdop and Smith should put them over the top. The Storm showed in the Grand Final that they have plenty of bite and determination, while an appetite for defense under the stewardship of Craig Bellamy continues. This is the team that shutout the Doggies in the second half of the NRL Grand Final, Slater is one of the greatest fullbacks to play the game and second only as a defensive fullback to Kris Radlinski. Leeds will come out of the gates fast and look to rile the Storm and involve the Headingley crowd, Sinfield will once again come to the fore and direct his troops all over the field. Do not be surprised if they force a couple of goal line dropouts early and pin Melbourne in their own 20 for large periods of this game. In the end the difference for me is the play-making ability of the Storm spine. Cronk and Widdop in the halves creating overlaps and holes in the Leeds line for the back five to exploit and Smith's kicks from dummy half to Slater in the in-goal have been a highlight of their play and that will continue in this game. Leeds are a champion side and they won't go down easily. Sinfield won't allow that to happen, and with big performances from Peacock, Hall, Burrow and Jones-Buchanan they will be in this one for at least 60 minutes. An accurate kicking game is always key in a game of this magnitude and with the world's greatest five-eighth, Leeds will be able to turn the Melbourne pack around time and time again and make Slater return the ball from inside his own 10m line. If Burrow and McGuire are allowed to consistently make meters from the play-the-ball, then the big Leeds forwards will be able to take the Rhinos close to the Melbourne line and with Hall on the field, there's a chance they can score at any time. The rotation of impact forwards for Leeds will allow them to continue to hit the ball up at pace and like with Melbourne, if they can offload in the tackle, there will be mismatches out wide and Moon, who has been in impressive scoring form now that he's closer to Sydney has the pace and ability to get through the Melbourne line.
At the end of this match, I think Melbourne will come out on top, and I think their defensive ability will allow them to beat the spread and with the game-breakers in their side, I think they'll have too much firepower for this aging Leeds side.



ADVICE
4 pts Melbourne -6.5 points (Evens William Hill)
2 pts Melbourne to win by 6-10 points (5/1 BlueSquare)
2 pts Mahe Fonua first tryscorer (10/1 Paddy Power)
1 pt Joel Moon first tryscorer (16/1 Paddy Power)
0.25 pts Ryan Hall first tryscorer and Melbourne to win by 6-10 points (45/1 Bet365)
0.25 pts Mahe Fonua first tryscorer and Melbourne to win by 11-15 points (45/1 Bet365)
0.25 pts Joel Moon first tryscorer and Leeds to win by 1-5 points (50/1 Bet 365)
0.25 pts Ryan Hoffman first tryscorer and Melbourne to win by 11-15 points (115/1 Bet 365)









Saturday, 19 January 2013

NHL 2013 Season Overview

As I have included regular season previews in my previous two posts, I will now lay down some outrights and hopefully won't have to add too many sections to this post where I see some value and adjustments to how we trade this market.

East Outright
Bruins (8/1) The Atlantic teams are too short, and if Boston can win their division, they are a top three seed and their depth should help them get past most teams.
Sabres (16/1) Have bulked up over the offseason and still retain a lot of speed in their forwards. Goaltending will once again be strong.
Capitals (19/1) Change in philospohies should help them become a contender once more and Alex Ovechkin can score any time he is on the ice.

West Outright
Blues (8/1) Best defensive team in the league, will be tough for any team to beat.
Wild (14/1) Made a lot of big money free agent signings and goals was the only thing they lacked last year.
Oilers (20/1) Young squad, 3 consecutive No. 1 draft picks, if they can stay healthy and one the ice, they may be the last team skating.

Stanley Cup Winners
Rangers (10/1) Too short to win the conference, and if they win the conference you have to fancy them to win everything.
Bruins (18/1) They've only lost 4 players from the 20 that clinched game 7 in Vancouver.
Blackhawks (16/1) Should be suited by the shortened season and they're ready to compete again.

NHL Eastern Conference 2013 Preview


EASTERN CONFERENCE

Northeast Division
Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs

Winners : Boston Bruins (10/11 Ladbrokes)
The Bruins have kept the majority of their roster from the last two seasons intact and welcome Dougie Hamilton, the 9th overall pick from the 2011 draft to the big team after spending a year bulking up physically in Juniors. After Benoit Pouliot joined the Lightning, there is an open spot on the third line, which looks most likely to be filled by Chris Bourque, son of Bruins legend and Hall of Famer Ray Bourque. Bourque will face competition through the season for his spot, but as Jordan Caron in injured to start the season, the man acquired from Washington will get the nod.
The Bruins had 12 players playing in Europe during the lockout, including both goalies, their first choice defensive pairing and their top two centers. Tyler Seguin impressed while at EHC Biel in Switzerland, almost averaging a goal a game and leading the Swiss league in goals before returning to the Hub. Bruising power forwards Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton stayed at home, Lucic stayed in Boston during the lockout and celebrated the birth of his first baby Valentina on Thursday, while Horton returns after missing the majority of last season with a concussion. Both have looked sharp in training camp and the top line with David Krejci at center could be one of the most destructive in the league.
Tim Thomas is sitting out the season “to reconnect with the three F's. Friends, Family, and Faith.” I have three F's for Thomas but they're all the same word and are followed by off. Tuukka Rask takes over as the number 1 goaltender and will be back up by Anton Khudobin. Rask has put up fine numbers behind Thomas and even led the league in GAA and save percentage in 2010, but he has struggled with injury the last two seasons, so if he can remain healthy, the Bruins won't miss Thomas at all.

Playoff Contenders : Ottawa Senators & Buffalo Sabres
The Senators have solid goaltending and veteran leadership along with a young defensive corps and stability within the organization. Daniel Alfredsson has been a model professional throughout his career and at the age of 40 this must be his last shot at winning the Cup.
The Sabres have bulked up during the lockout and picked up agitator Steve Ott and defenseman Adam Pardy to help them compete with the Bruins after being pushed around by the Big Bad Bs in the last couple of seasons, especially after Lucic's collision with Ryan Miller. Although they have great goaltending in Miller, they still lack toughness and with the schedule taking place in conference, they will struggle with the more physical Eastern Conference style of play

No Hopers : Montreal Canadiens & Toronto Maple Leafs
The Canadiens are dreadful, and have done nothing on the ice to change that. Off the ice, they've brought in Marc Begevin as the new GM and Michel Therrien as head coach.
Toronto are even worse than Montreal, a situation which will be compounded if they trade for Roberto Luongo. Brian Burke was fired as GM after years of hopeless trades and that won't be solved by the acquisition of James van Riemsdyk from the Flyers.


Atlantic Division
New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins

Winners : New York Rangers (9/4 Victor)
The Rangers have one of the youngest teams in the league and those fresh legs will help with the compressed schedule of the 48 game season. They were very consistent last season and were rewarded with the number 1 seed in the East. I expect the same level of consistency this season and John Tortorella will not allow his players to slacken off in their pursuit of the Cup. The Rangers made the biggest offseason acquisition in the league, finally prying sniper Rick Nash from Columbus. They could put out a line of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash, God help their opponents if they do. The Rangers can also call one of the best goalies in hockey with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. They have a young defense and plenty of experienced players that should take them deep into this postseason.

Playoff Contenders : Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers & New Jersey Devils
The Penguins have Sidney Crosby back after a nightmare two seasons with injury and the league's best player will once again propel his team into the playoffs. Evgeni Malkin had to step into a leadership role last season and he walked with with the Hart Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy. Pittsburgh traded Jordan Staal to Carolina, but they won't miss him too much as he's missed a lot of games in the past few seasons. They have solid goaltending and Dan Bylsma always has his troops ready for a battle.
The Flyers knocked off the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs last season and should be competitive once again. They've re-signed Brian Boucher as back-up to Ilya Bryzgalov and acquired Luke Schenn from Toronto to give Bryzgalov some help as it doesn't look like Chris Pronger will return after suffering a nasty concussion last season. Claude Giroux takes over as captain and he can continue to grow into a superstar of the league in his fifth season with the Flyers.
The Devils will have Martin Brodeur back for his 20th season with the Devils and having lost in the Stanley Cup Finals last summer, they should be well placed to make another assault on the playoffs. Although they lost Zach Parise to Minnesota, they signed Krys Barch and re-signed or extended most of their squad before free-agency.

No Hopers : New York Islanders
The Islanders can't move to Brooklyn quick enough because they are garbage


Southeast Division
Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets

Winner : Washington Capitals (3/1 Paddy Power)
Newly enshrined Hall of Famer Adam Oates is the new coach of the Capitals after Dale Hunter was shown the door despite knocking off the reigning Stanley Cup champions in last year's playoffs. Oates prefers to play a much more attack oriented free flowing game than Hunter's defensive shutdown hockey. All of that is good news to Alexander Ovechkin who got himself engaged to Maria Kirilenko during the lockout, and Ovi enjoys offense. He struggled towards the end of Bruce Boudreau's tenure in Washington and reportedly clashed with Hunter several times and was not impressed when asked to play a more defensive style of hockey. The play-making freedom he will be awarded under Oates should be the spark he needs to re-ignite his career and although the Caps have lost Alexander Semin to Carolina, they should have enough offense to compensate ($7 million was too high a price for any self-respecting GM to pay for Semin) Braden Holtby impressed at times during last season and especially in the playoffs, out-dueling Tim Thomas in the first round and going close against Henrik Lundqvist in the second round. So long as he can maintain that form as a starter, Washington will have the best goaltending in the division as Michael Neuvirth is an able backup.

Playoff Contenders : Carolina Hurricanes & Tampa Bay Lightning
Carolina were very busy during the offseason, picking up Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin as mentioned they also re-signed defenseman Joe Corvo and picked up Kevin Westgarth from the Kings. Along with Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward, the Canes already have a good core to their team, and with Corvo becoming the oldest member of their squad and only player over 31, they have plenty of youth on their side.
Tampa are another one of the “last chance” teams and have stocked their side with veterans for another tilt at the Cup after missing the playoffs last season and coming up just short of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011. The Bolts brought in Sami Salo and Matt Carle in free-agency and executed a trade-and-sign for Benoit Pouliot. The one thing they lack of cohesive goaltending and that will be their downfall.

No Hopers : Florida Panthers & Winnipeg Jets
Florida are rebuilding and will be ready to challenge in a couple of seasons, but not yet.
Winnipeg are in the wrong division, the wrong conference and as soon as the NHL can figure out what to do with them, they'll start winning. At the moment, they serve as a distraction as a road-trip.

FINAL EASTERN STANDINGS
1 Rangers
2 Bruins
3 Capitals
4 Penguins
5 Flyers
6 Senators
7 Sabres
8 Hurricanes
WHO CARES

Thursday, 27 September 2012

NRL Grand Final

NRL GRAND FINAL

This season's Grand Final pits 1st versus 2nd from the table after the weekly rounds as minor premiers Canterbury Bulldogs take on Melbourne Storm.

THE BACKGROUND
The Doggies last won the title in 2004 after defeating the Roosters. Last year's grand final winning coach Des Hasler joined from Manly, they look to have been galvanised and they come into this game having won 15 of their last 16. They knocked off Manly in week 1 of the finals and thumped Souths last week to set up this encounter. Their only defeat since May came in Canberra, losing 34-6 to the Raiders. That game aside, the have been consistent all season and as a result swept this year's Dally M awards, Hasler won coach of the year and Ben Barba, won the Dally M Medal as voted by the journos, the Provan-Summons medal as voted by the fans and the Peter Frillingos Memorial Award for best single-game performance, against the Storm in a 20-4 win in round 16. He also grabbed 21 tries during the season and that translated to a share of the top try-scorer award. As a result of their dominance through the regular season, the Doggies had Barba named at fullback, Josh Morris at centre and Sam Kasiano at prop in the team of the year at the Dally M awards. Should Canterbury win, Hasler will become the first coach in history to win back-to-back Premierships with different clubs
The Bulldogs don't have any players from that 2004 championship side still active, but they do have plenty of experience with 5 of the squad having tasted the Grand Final previously Aiden Tolman, Krisnan Inu, Dene Halatau, David Stagg and Sam Perrett. Not to forget they have James Graham in his first season in Australia, he has played in 6 Super League Grand Finals, losing the last five.
The Bulldogs have named an unchanged side for the third week in succession and the only problem Des Hasler has is deciding who to leave out.

Bulldogs
1. Ben Barba
2. Sam Perrett
3. Josh Morris
4. Krisnan Inu
5. Jonathan Wright
6. Josh Reynolds
7. Kris Keating
8. Aiden Tolman
9. Michael Ennis
10. Sam Kasiano
11. Frank Pritchard
12. Josh Jackson
13. Greg Eastwood
Interchange: James Graham, Dale Finucane, Corey Payne, David Stagg, Dene Halatau (one to be omitted, probably Halatau)

Melbourne come into the game having won their last 7, but after that loss to the Bulldogs in round 16, they lost their next 4. They've looked sensational in the first two weeks of the finals, disposing of the Rabbitohs 24-6 and beating Manly 40-12 last week.
Much of their success this season has been down to the play of their 'Big Three' Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater. The rest of the squad have ably supported that and bought into coach Craig Bellamy's philosophy and despite the controversy over the 2010 salary cap scandal they've been the most consistent side in the NRL during the last 6 or 7 seasons, in fact even although they were docked of all points in the 2010 season, they would've finished 5th in the table.
As a result of that salary cap breach, they were stripped of their Premierships in 2007 and 2009 and their minor premierships in 2006, 2007 and 2008, but hey retain 7 players with Grand Final experience in: Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Ryan Hoffman, Todd Lowrie, Dane Nielsen and Will Chambers.
The Storm have more doubts over fitness and as a result Craig Bellamy has named a 21 man squad as follows:

Storm
1. Billy Slater
2. Sisa Waqa
3. Dane Nielsen
4. Will Chambers
5. Justin O'Neill
6. Gareth Widdop
7. Cooper Cronk
8. Jessie Bromwich
9. Cameron Smith
10. Bryan Norrie
11. Sika Manu
12. Ryan Hoffman
13. Todd Lowrie
Interchange: Ryan Hinchcliffe, Kevin Proctor, Jaiman Lowe, Richie Fa'aoso, Rory Kostjayson, Mahe Fonua, Siosaia Vave, Anthony Quinn (four to be omitted, Fonua will play if Waqa fails a fitness test)

THE GAME

FOR BULLDOGS TO WIN: Well it's simply enough, they have to dominate Melbourne's pack, keep the big three quiet and get the ball to Barba inside 20m, easy eh? They need to stick to Melbourne early in the game as Melbourne are outstanding when they take a lead into the sheds. They've won 27 of their last 28 when leading at half time. They need to dig deep in the halves, Reynolds and Keating are up against Cooper Cronk (Queensland and Australia) and Gareth Widdop (England) so they have to make up for their lack of experience with real effort and contain Cronk's incisive running and link with Smith and Slater. If there's one area the Bulldogs look stronger it's in the forward pack and if the likes of Sam Kasiano, Frank Pritchard and James Graham can get them rolling forward it will put the Storm on the back-foot. They look strong in the centres too with New South Wales and Australia's Josh Morris and Krisnan Inu who is playing in his third grand final in four years and after two losses previously with Parramatta and New Zealand, he will be desperate to finally grab a premiership ring.

FOR STORM TO WIN: Dead simple job for them too, stop Ben Barba. As I mentioned earlier he won the Dally M Medal and won the Peter Frillingos Memorial Award for his performance against the Storm scoring a try and setting up two others including his remarkable run from inside his own in-goal area to set up Josh Morris. If he gets the chance to stamp his class on this game, it could be curtains for the Storm, however he is up against, for me, The best fullback in the game in Billy Slater. Slater won last year's Dally M and won the Clive Churchill (man of the match) last time Melbourne played in the Grand Final. Melbourne's kicking game must be spot-on as it has been for most of the year. Cronk and Widdop need to find the corners at every opportunity. During the regular season 60.5% of the Storm's kicks in play found the grass, they excel at kicks around the goal line especially with Cameron Smith out of dummy half. Defensively they excel at diffusing bombs, they were the best team in the regular season safely defending 45 of 50 attacking bombs, and as Canterbury scored 27 tries during the regular season from kicks (best in the league) that defensive nous and skill has to show up on Sunday to keep the Doggies out. They say that to win big games, your big players need to show up and in Slater, Cronk and Smith, Melbourne have three of the biggest and arguably the best 1, 7, 9 combination in league.

THE VERDICT

The handicap line is set at Melbourne -2, but recent history tells us Grand Finals don't finish this close, you have to go back to Melbourne's win over St. George in 1999 to find a match with less than a try between the sides. So which side to pick? The Bulldogs have been almost unbeatable over the last 4 months, and with Hasler at the helm, they have all the tools to win this. However, the Storm were sensational in beating the Rabbitohs, completing 88% of their sets and despite the very wet and slippery conditions, they only made 5 errors and played old school footy, sticking it up their jumpers and running over the Bunnies. They dropped a bit in completion rate against Manly to a measly 82% but stepped up to dominate the Sea Eagles pack, limiting them to 774m against their own 1633m, breaking the Manly line 7 times and only missed 8 tackles. Particularly telling is the missed tackles stat, as Canterbury rely on breaking the line and cleaning up broken fields, which led to 3 of their tries against Souths last week. The Doggies however missed 22 tackles and although they gained 350m more metres in the game, they committed 8 errors and their success mainly came from their line breaks and offloads. If Melbourne can shut that down, they can win their first legitimate Premiership since 1999.

ADVICE

4pts Melbourne -2 : 10/11 generally (Melbourne -3.5, 2.10 with Centrebet)
1.5pts Will Chambers first try : 12/1 Paddy Power (13.00 with Centrebet)
1.5pts Ryan Hoffman any time try : 3/1 Ladbrokes (4.00 with Sportsbet)
2pts Cooper Cronk to win Clive Churchill Medal : 5/1 Coral (6.00 with Sportsbet)
1pt Sika Manu to win Clive Churchill Medal : 40/1 Bet365 (51.00 with Luxbet)

Friday, 25 May 2012

Eurovision Song Contest 2012 Preview

As you should all be aware, this Saturday night sees the final of the Eurovision Song Contest. If this is the first you're hearing about it, you've missed two cracking semi-finals, including most of the novelty acts who have now been sent home. Tuesday night saw ten qualifiers produced for Saturday as did Thursday night. These twenty acts will join the big 5 (UK, France, Italy, Spain and Germany) and last year's winner and venue for the final, Azerbaijan, or as the host of the show will say, AZ-ER-BAI-JAN. The songs for the final have been drawn in a semi-random order and the order in which I preview them will be the order in which they will perform. The results will be provided by a 50:50 split between the public vote, and a jury of musical experts from each country that entered, regardless of whether they made the final or not. Points are allocated 12,10,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, and the country with the most points gets the dubious honour of Eurovision winner and the expense of hosting next year's show. As my twitter followers may have noticed, I tweeted along to both semis, so I will include those thoughts too where appropriate.

1. United Kingdom
Entry: Engelbert Humperdinck - Love Will Set You Free


Politics: Who knows how many votes the UK will get, there are the usual few countries that hand over their twelve points, but as the UK has generally steered away from winding up Europe, it looks like for once the song may be judged on it's merits which can only be a good thing.
Last Year: 11th
Best Result: Winners 1997, 1981, 1976, 1969, 1967
Hero: Sir Cliff Richard, typical of the UK's involvement, he finished 2nd in 1968 (UK has 14 2nd place finishes) and third in 1973
Best Friends: Ireland, Austria, Portugal
Music: A dreary ballad, had me searching for a rope. It's poor, I have no idea why anyone would want to pick up their phone and vote for this.
Best Odds: 20/1 (bwin)
Prospects: Despite 'The Hump' getting involved, this song was doomed to fail. 11th-15th for me.

2. Hungary
Entry : Compact Disco - Sound Of Our Hearts


"Hungary making a bid for an electronics advert soundtrack. It's garbage, get it off. "

Politics: Suffered ever since the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and that episode of McGyver that is just film from the Italian job. As with many Eastern European countries, they got their best result on debut and have been rotten since. Somehow they have friends in Scandinavia and that could help them get a few votes as the Scandinavian bloc has a near full quota.
Last Year: 22nd
Best Result: 4th 1994
Hero: Fredeika Bayer, owner of that fourth position finish
Best Friends: Finland, Iceland, Poland
Music: Rocky ballad, performance exhibits some passion, but the lyrics are meaningless and weak.
Best Odds: 250/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Grim, it's not the greatest of songs and it's not the greatest position in the running order. I don't think they'll finish last though.

3. Albania
Entry: Rona Nishilu - Suus


"Scream if you love Albania, oh she has.
"Albanian hairstyles are a bit behind the rest of us. "

Politics: Firmly in the Balkan bloc, they have been competing since 2004 and they only seem to miss the final when they sing in Albanian, so it is a surprise to see them get this far. They don't have many enemies, but they don't have too many friends either. They should chuck a few points the UK's way as Albanians are mad for Norman Wisdom.
Last Year: Did Not Qualify
Best Result: 7th 2004
Hero: Anjeza Shahin, their first ever entry
Best Friends: Macedonia, Greece, Switzerland
Music: She stands on stage, sings for a bit then starts bawling. Just like bonfire night, keep your dogs away from this.
Best Odds: 150/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: I hate it, you'll hate it, the whole of Europe will hate it. Probably last.

4. Lithuania
Entry: Donny Montell - Love Is Blind


"The diamante blindfold and disco music makes me sick."

Politics: Part of the ever increasing Baltic bloc, they can count on Estonia and Latvia's votes, as well as a few from the Scandinavians, Russia and Belarus. No real hope for widespread support across Europe however as they haven't made much of an impact, and their song isn't good enough to warrant that support.
Last Year: 19th
Best Result: 6th 2006
Hero: Ovidijus Vyšniauskas, he couldn't even get a point in the semi-finals
Best Friends: Latvia, Ireland, UK
Music: First half ballad, second half disco. All rubbish and painful to listen to.
Best Odds: 250/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Dead in the water, will be happy if it finishes in front of Albania, should be embarrassed if it doesn't.

5. Bosnia
Entry: MayaSar - Korake ti znam


"Bosnian ballad makes me weepy. "

Politics: Solid member of the Balkan bloc, and based on the dross that precedes them in the running order, could be a hoover for points. If you take into account that the other Balkan entries are mince, this song could get a fair few 12 pointers, so could end up giving layers a red face.
Last Year: 6th
Best Result: 3rd 2006
Hero: Hari Mata Hari, the 3rd place getter
Best Friends: Croatia, Turkey, Slovenia
Music: A powerful ballad in Bosnian, not an elaborate performance, but she's got a great voice, and that's what should matter.
Best Odds: 150/1 (Bet365)
Prospects: I'm a big fan and given the position in the running order, a good recent history at the event and the fact that it goes against the grain by having a slower song, I give it a big chance, certainly bigger than the layers do.

6. Russia
Entry: Buranovskiye Babushki - Party For Everybody


"Tatu they are not. "
"That had winner written all over it. "

Politics: The supreme power in Europe, literally has the power to turn out the lights. Putin's (re-)election wasn't to warmly received in Russia, however the UK, France and Germany will be delighted that their gas supplies are safe for now. It remains to seen if they can retain the crown so soon after their 2008 triumph, but the anti-Stalin grannies could do it.
Last Year: 7th
Best Result: Winners 2008
Hero: Dima Bilan and Evgeni Plushenko, one of the finest choreographed performance in the history of Eurovision.
Best Friends: Estonia, Latvia, Israel
Music: It's 6 grannies singing a song the Cheeky Girls would be proud of whilst their magic pasty oven spins in the background. What's not to love?
Best Odds: 13/2 (Ladbrokes)
Prospects: Hilariously strong, the song blends the traditional Eurovision cheese with a back-story that would have X factor finalists weeping. The Babushki are trying to raise money to rebuild their church that was torn down by Stalin's forces 70 odd years ago. Aww. Well worth a cheeky fiver.


7. Iceland
Entry: Greta Salome & Jonsi - Never Forget


"Iceland were strong, they could smash this tonight. "

Politics: Mostly neutral in European affairs, until they started messing with British fish, collapsing economies and destroying holidays with their volcanoes.
 They vote in the Scandinavian bloc, but they're the outsiders of that group. Most of Europe's holiday makers have gotten over Eyjafjallajokull so they might get some votes.
Last Year: 20th
Best Result: 2nd 2009, 1999
Hero: Jonsi, this is his second appearance representing Iceland
Best Friends: Sweden, Norway, Denmark
Music: Strong ballad, Greta plays the violin, it's in with a shout, despite her horsey looking face.
Best Odds: 80/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Decent EW shout, will get plenty of Scandinavian votes and should be strong with the juries.

8. Cyprus
Entry: Ivi Adamou - La La Love


"Surely she used to be a bloke? Cyprus out tonight I think. "

Politics: Not much of a player on Eurovision scene due to their dodgy geographical location and political position stuck between Greece and Turkey, although Greece and Turkey tend to exchange 12 points like teenage saliva. Cyprus usually suffers as their public vote to choose their act often ends up picking a young, unknown Cypriot to represent them.
Last Year: Did Not Qualify
Best Result: 5th 2004, 1997, 1982
Hero: Lisa Andreas, 5th in 2004
Best Friends: Greece, UK, Malta
Music: Upbeat dance number with what appears to be a dancing bench. It's kinda catchy and I'm happy to say I've changed my view from Tuesday night
Best Odds: 50/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Without too many allies across Europe it's going to be tough to scrape the votes together, especially as the other dance tracks seem to be more popular with the public. The dance bench is worked into the performance well, but nothing else seems to happen.

 9. France
Entry: Anggun - Echo (You and I)


Politics: It's early days yet for Francois Hollande, but the noises being made form Paris aren't likely to be received well by the rest of the EU. The other Eurozone countries might have to preach their austerity in terms of donating points to France. We don't have a semi-final result to gauge what that level of support is, but my guess is they wouldn't have qualified.
Last Year: 15th
Best Result: Winners 1977 1969 1962 1960 1958
Hero: Marie Myriam 1977 winner
Best Friends: Switzerland, Norway, Greece
Music: Awful, it offends my ears, repetitive tuneless crap.
Best Odds: 150/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Dire, it's a horrible song, they're knee deep in controversy, and to top it all off they're French.

10. Italy
Entry: Nina Zilli - L'amore è femmina


Politics: Where do you start, since the disposal of Berlusconi and the downgrading of their credit rating, the Italians haven't exactly been the most popular in Europe. At least Berlusconi wasn't strung up from a lamppost. They also tend to go in the huff with Eurovision and pull out every few years, so I suppose we should be thankful they're here this year.
Last Year: 2nd
Best Result: Winner 1990, 1964
Hero: Gigliola Cinquetti, 1964 winner
Best Friends: Portugal, Spain, Finland
Music: Winehouse-esque Italian/English mix. Not my cup of tea, but plenty will enjoy it.
Best Odds: 11/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Could go one better than last year, plenty of appeal in the song itself, but the Italians aren't really a part of any big voting bloc, so they may be counting on charity from across the Adriatic.

11. Estonia
Entry: Ott Lepland - Kuula


"Heart-throb ladies? Estonia defying their huge price with this effort.

Politics: Firm member of the Baltic bloc, but has a poor recent record. They will benefit from Latvia and Finland's absence and possibly scrape a few Scandinavian votes. They have a lot of public support for the competition which reversed the decision to pull out of the 2009 contest, and they don't make enemies in Europe.
Last Year: 24th
Best Result: Winner 2001
Hero: Tanel Padar, 2001 winner
Best Friends : Finland, Sweden, Ireland
Music: Another ballad from the second semi, well performed and simply presented, but Ott is the star of Estonian high school musical, and I'm reliably informed he's a cute guy, so that could sway a few female votes.
Best Odds: 100/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Given that this track struggles with the Estonian jury in the selection process, you'd think they'd be in trouble, but I'm not sure, it's a good song, Ott has a strong voice, and it will be popular with the voters across Europe, chance at a big price.

12. Norway
Entry: Tooji - Stay

 
"We'll see Norway on Saturday, but never again after that.

Politics: Enjoys the support of the Scandinavian bloc, but not universally popular because of their flirtation and teasing with EU membership. With the Brevik trial coming so close to Eurovision it's fresh in voters' minds and could play a part in who they decide to cast that vote for. Norway officially have the worst record of any participant at Eurovision, despite winning the contest 3 times, they have finished last on 10 occasions
Last Year: Did Not Qualify
Best Result: Winner 2009, 1995, 1985
Hero: Anita Thallaug, nul points 1963
Best Friends: Sweden, Ireland, Iceland
Music: It's so forgettable, I just listened to it to jog my memory from Thursday, and I've forgotten it again. It's just bland rubbish.
Best Odds: 80/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Could be ten times that price and still not worth it. Use this opportunity for a tea break.

13. Azerbaijan
Entry: Sabina Babayeva - When the Music Dies


Politics: New boys on the scene, this is their fifth competition and their worst result is 8th. The novelty may be wearing off, and I expect their support to wane in the not too distant future
Last Year: Winner obviously
Best Result: Winner 2011
Hero: Eldar, our AZ-ER-BAI-JAN host.
Best Friends: Turkey, Ukraine, Russia
Music: It's almost immaterial what the music sounds like, they can't win back to back.
Best Odds: 66/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: None, the last back-to-back winner were Ireland when they knocked in a three-timer in the early 90s and as such, we're highly unlikely to see another back-to-back for a while if at all.

14. Romania
Entry: Mandinga - Zaleilah


"You will hear this in every club in Malia, Magaluf etc this summer. Get in Romania. "
"He's got bagpipes, that gets my vote on Saturday. "

Politics: New boys in the EU, but starting to get the same treatment in Western countries as Poles etc. Embraced capitalism and Eurovision, entering for the first time in 1994. Never missed the final since the introduction of the semi-finals in 2004
Last Year: 17th
Best Result: 3rd 2010, 2005
Hero: Paula Selling & Ovi, 3rd in 2010
Best Friends: Spain, Moldova, Israel
Music: Dance track, with five guys pretending to play instruments. The highlight of the performance is the moon-walking bagpipe player at the start. The singer also looks a bit like Tulisa, but with her mouth empty.
Best Odds: 25/1 (BetFred)
Prospect: I like the track and I feel it'll resonate across Europe, my only concern being the juries may not be too keen on it.

15. Denmark
Entry: Soluna Samay - Should've Known Better


"Instantly forgettable from Denmark. "

Politics: Firmly ingrained in the Scandanavian bloc, hasn't made any big political moves in Europe which has helped them slip under the radar in this competition and they should be top 10.
Last Year: 5th
Best Result: Winner 2000, 1963
Hero: Jorgen and Niels Olsen, Fly on the Wings of Love 2000 winner
Best Friends: Norway, Iceland, Sweden
Music: Easy listening background music when you trying to concentrate on something far more important. does have a double bass mime and a xylophone solo though.
Best Odds: 40/1
Prospect: Most will have forgotten the track by the time it's finished, plus it's sandwiched in the running order between two far more popular tracks.

16. Greece
Entry: Eleftheria Eleftheriou - Aphrodisiac


"Catchy tune Greece, 10/1 looks good about now. Not too racy, but certainly going for the lads vote. "

Politics: Everybody in Europe hates these plate-smashing, debt-defaulting, neo-Nazi voting, man-boy love purveyors. Somehow they've managed to finish top ten every year since 2004. Except Cyprus, the entire Eurozone blames Greece for their fiscal difficulties
Last Year: 3rd
Best Result: Winners 2005
Hero: Helena Paparizou, winner in 2005, 3rd in 2001
Best Friends: Cyprus, Spain, UK
Music: It's catchy enough and the lads will enjoy the wind machines and the skimpy outfit.
Best Odds: 50/1 (BetFred)
Prospect: Minimal, they've got one of the worst time-slots possible, right next to Sweden.

17. Sweden
Entry: Loreen - Euphoria


"Overrated nonsense from Sweden. Get it to fuck. "
"Probably the most chart ready entry though. Can see why money is coming for it.

Politics: Probably the leader of the Scandinavian bloc and has great past form in Eurovision for bring the most successful act to ever perform in the Contest
Last Year: 3rd
Best Result: Winner 1999, 1991, 1984, 1974
Hero: ABBA
Best Friends: Norway, Denmark, UK
Music: I'm not a big fan, the song itself is bearable, but it's the performance that annoys me, the hippie nonsense of pushing the energy around and her stupid crab shuffle during the first chorus.
Best Odds: 5/4 (Boylesports)
Prospects: If she wins, good luck, if not, good for the music industry and TV viewers everywhere.

18. Turkey
Entry: Can Bonomo - Love Me Back


"Looks like the Turks are still taking fashion advice from Assassins Creed revelations. "
"Annoyingly catchy from Turkey, got stupid money on that. "

Politics: Murky at best, outsiders in Europe and outsiders in Asia, probably not the best way to try and win a popularity contest across Europe. The influx of Western European tourists has helped broaden Turkey's appeal and the adoption of Turkish cuisine as a new 3am snack should grab a few UK votes
Last Year: Did Not Qualify
Best Result: Winner 2003
Hero: Sertab Erener, winner.
Best Friends: Germany, France, Netherlands
Music: It's a jaunty little tune, reminiscent of the Inspector Gadget theme tune and it does have some spectacular choreography when the dancers construct a boat onstage.
Best Odds: 80/1 (Betfred)
Prospect: Despite the position in the line-up, I still think this track could grab some votes and finish towards the top of the table.

19. Spain
Entry: Pastora Soler - Quédate conmigo


Politics: Relatively safe, usually votes with Portugal and the other Latin countries, taken a bit of heat over it's economy but nowhere near
Last Year: 23rd
Best Result: Winner 1969, 1968
Hero: Julio Iglesias, 4th in 1970
Best Friends: Portugal, Greece, Switzerland
Music: Belting big song, could be a winner with the voters and the juries alike, but hasn't won in over 40 years.
Best Odds: 33/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: Not brilliant, but could be due a win after all these years.

20. Germany
Entry:Roman Lob - Standing Still


Politics: Flexed it's muscles during the economic crisis, but starting to feel a bit of backlash from the new French administration and voters in Greece. Could be seen as rising above the rest of Europe in a big brother type role, the rest of Europe remembers how that went last time and will be keen to avoid a repeat.
Last Year: 10th
Best Result: Winner 2010, 1982
Hero: Lena, first winner since re-unification
Best Friends: Spain, Denmark, Portugal
Music: Middle of the road ballad, but Germany has had some success with songs in English
Best Odds: 40/1 (BetFred)
Prospects: Relatively poor, it's a decent song, but their challenge this year is hampered by their political position.

21. Malta
Entry: Kurt Calleja - This Is The Night


"Much better Malta. Quality effort. That's a finalist. "

Politics: It's little Malta, everyone like Malta, but nobody really votes for them. Being an island in the middle of the Med does have it's disadvantages believe it or not. Solidarity with the UK due to being a former member of the British Empire both sides actions regarding HMS Illustrious during the Second World War
Last Year: Did Not Qualify
Best Result: 2nd 2005, 2002
Hero: Chiara, 2nd in 2005 and 3rd in 1998
Best Friends:Ireland, Croatia, Turkey
Music: Great little tune, with the exception of the female backing singer who's English is pretty poor along with her command of her pitch, but clearly the best dance moves of the field, and the shuffle will be going into my repertoire
Best Odds: 150/1 (bwin)
Prospects: Limited, doesn't have the political capital to cash in on this great spot in the running order. Should be a vote-winner, but not sure how Europe will like it.

22. FYR Macedonia
Entry: Kaliopi - Crno i belo


"Decent effort from Macedonia. Brought along their own Bonnie Tyler this year. "

Politics: Balkan through and through and with less Balkan states than expected in the final, they could get a lot more votes than they should, especially sitting so late in the line-up.
Last Year: Did Not Qualify
Best Result: 12th 2006
Hero: Vlado Javenski, debut performer in 1998
Best Friends: Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia
Music: Gravelly, screeching ballad. Shouldn't be that popular but seems to have some appeal.
Best Odds: 150/1 (Stan James)
Prospects: Slim, a lot of voters will be put off by the vocal performance, and the juries won't be too impressed either.

23. Ireland
Entry: Jedward - Waterline


"A walking advert for abortion. Give my "my lovely horse" anyday. "
"Those two fuckers could drown in a shower. "
"Jedward are too stupid to live.

Politics: Ireland's liability across Europe seems to have dampened and their back to their stereotypical slow-thinking jovial drinking selves in European eyes. Probably brought the most exposed performers to the show, and their broad appeal should be a help to Irish chances
Last Year: 8th
Best Result: Winners 1996, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1987, 1980, 1970
Hero: Father Ted Crilly and Father Dougal McGuire




Best Friends: UK, Sweden, Switzerland
Music: Really catchy bubblegum pop track, upbeat, strong lyrics and a standout performance from the semi-final with the water fountain
Best Odds: 33/1 (SportingBet)
Prospects: I think it's great track and it will connect with the viewers across Europe it's in a perfect spot in the order and the lads just need to refrain from going completely over the top in their performance and they could have a winner on their hands

24. Serbia
Entry: Zeljko Joksimovic - Nije Ljubav Stvar


"Not that impressive from Serbia. Wouldn't be a surprise if they don't make it."

Politics: One of the Balkan states left in the competition, so there are plenty of votes available, certainly improved their standing in Europe in the last 5 years, and if they could just stop producing war criminals, they'd be doing much better than they have been.
Last Year: 14th
Best Result: Winner 2007
Hero: Marija Šerifović, winner in 2007, the first song in Serbian to win.
Best Friends: Bosnia, Slovenia, Switzerland
Music: Dreadful ballad, it appears to be all the Serbians like to listen too.
Best Odds: 10/1 (Boylesports)
Prospects: I just don't see the appeal of the song, and I can't understand how it can be so short in the market. I certainly won't be voting for it.

25. Ukraine
Entry: Gaintana - Be My Guest


Politics: Dodgy, although they are getting ready to co-host the European championships, Yulia Tymoshenko still resides in prison and she has plenty of friends in Europe, can't seem them overcoming that, twinned with the furore over prices of hotels for travelling football fans.
Last Year: 4th
Best Result: Winner 2004
Hero: Ruslana, and her wild dances
Best Friends: Poland, Russia, Belarus
Music: It's a dance track straight out of 1992
Best Odds: 40/1 (Betfred)
Prospects: Ukraine has a great record in Eurovision, but I'm inclined to oppose them due to their sticky political situation and the fact I don't like their track.


26. Moldova
Entry: Pasha Parfeny - Lautar


"Moldovan Chico with Moldovan Saturdays. I used to enjoy Moldova's entry, but this is tame by their standards. "

Politics: A newcomer to the event, they vote with the Balkans and the Black Sea blocs, they have consistently qualified from the semi-finals and they do usually pick out a memorable performer for our entertainment like Zdob si Zdub. They haven't been that successful in the competition itself, but they do have a tremendous online support.
Last Year: 12th
Best Result: 6th 2005
Hero: Sergey Stepanov  EPIC SAX GUY

Best Friends: Romania, Portugal, Ukraine
Music: It's cheesy Eurovision finest. Parts of the song are in English, yet the quality of English is laughable.
Best Odds: 100/1 (BetFred)
Prospects: None whatsoever

ADVICE
Estonia 0.5pt EW @ 100/1
Bosnia and Herzegovina 0.5pt EW @ 150/1
Cyprus 0.5pt EW @ 50/1
Turkey 0.5pt EW @ 80/1
Ireland 0.5pt EW @ 33/1