Tag Archives: Italy

Time for a New Six Nations?

So the Six Nations tournament is in full swing. This always gets me thinking about rugby, and in particular, the competition’s format. Rugby fans might find what I am going to say controversial, whilst nobody else will give much of a shit. But as a rugby fan, I want to make my feelings heard. And before we go any further no, this blog isn’t about the self-destructing Wales team.

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You see, I don’t think the Six Nations should be six nations. Not any more. Frankly, Italy (wooden spoon winners in two of the past three seasons and odds on for a hat-trick) are not strong enough to contest and do themselves no favours by continuing to slug it out with the big boys of European rugby. From the 85 games they’d played up to the start of the current championship, they’d lost 72 and their overall points difference stood at an alarming -1553. That’s more than twice as many as the second worst team, Scotland.

It’s nothing personal. I admire the way Italy stick to their guns, often in the face of overwhelming odds. They are a strong, powerful team, and have produced a couple of top players. But this season really should spell the end of their involvement in the Six Nations tournament. Who needs it? They were effectively out of the reckoning after just two games, having been on the end of two home thrashings at the hands of Wales and Ireland (7-33 and 10-63 respectively). They usually have one good game a year, and that came last week at Twickers. They gave England a scare, more through clever exploitation of the rules than any real skill, but still ended up losing by double digits. All the evidence suggests that Italy are getting worse at this rugby lark, not better. It could be time to go. And you know what? They can take France with them.

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Controversial? Let me explain…

At several points in it’s long history (the first comparable tournament was played way back in 1883) the Six Nations was known as the Home Nations, and consisted of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Then in came the French and it became the Five Nations. Then Italy made it six. Where’s it going to end? Shall we just invite every rugby-playing nation in Europe and call it the 17 Nations? Of course not, that would be impractical. But then you have to wonder why Italy deserve a place. Georgia are actually above them in the world rankings and Romania and Russia aren’t far behind.

I want a return to the old days. But not because I’m some Neanderthal racist who hates Italians and Frenchies. Nope, I have a plan. The tournament should return to its roots, but I think we should do it differently this time. I want the home nations to play every other home nation twice a season, for a total of six games. And lets mix up the draw each year, pulling the fixtures at random, instead of having the format and fixtures set in stone. That gets boring. The draw for the next tournament can be made at the end of the previous one to give fans time to make arrangements, and thereby amping up the drama even more. Put it on live TV, make a spectacle out of it like the FA Cup draw.

Let’s be honest, nobody really likes playing the French. Not because anyone is afraid of them (though they do have a nasty habit of running in good tries), but because they bring nothing to the tournament, especially the way the team is at the moment. They currently stand at 8th in the latest World Rugby rankings, lower than any of the home nations, and haven’t been serious contenders for years. They were fortunate to beat Italy last season. If they’d lost, they would have suffered a second whitewash in four years. Not good enough, sorry.

There’s long been talk of introducing a two-tier system into the Six Nations, with promotion and relegation. If that ever happened, Italy would undoubtedly be the first team relegated. And there’s a decent chance France could follow. I suggest we take the initiative and cull them now, then put them in a separate European group with two of Georgia, Romania and Russia. Maybe even Spain, Germany or Portugal. All are emerging nations ranked in the world top 25. Playing each other (along with France and Italy) on a regular basis would improve their game immeasurably, which can only be good for the sport. The European group of four (even five or six would be manageable as these teams play less games per year than the elite) can also play each home and away, then face the winners of the British group in a grand final every year at a neutral venue. Obviously France would dominate for the first couple of years, but I the other teams would soon catch up with them.

There, sorted. Think about it. This proposed new format would benefit everyone involved. The British teams would only have to play one (or two, if they get to the grand final) more games a season, there would be more opportunity for sponsors and TV revenue, the fans would get more of what they really want (Wales v Scotland, England v Anybody), the smaller rugby-playing nations would have a framework and a chance to develop, and there would be a huge showpiece final every year to rival the (football) European Championship.

Who’s with me?


Boss Blogs #1: Meet Me in the City Tonight

For many people, seeing Bruce Springsteen live, especially with the E Street Band, is akin to a religious experience. His epic three-hour plus live shows are the stuff of legend. The vast majority of artists have their carefully arranged 16-song set consisting of a smattering of tracks from their latest sub-par album, closing the show with a few hits from when they were more popular to send the crowd home happy. They play the same songs, in the same order, every night. Even their salutations are hollow. “Thank you (INSERT NAME OF LATEST STOP ON THE TOUR)! This has been the greatest night of our lives!”

Of course it has, pal.

Springsteen doesn’t just go through the motions. Every show, every note of every song, is shot through with energy, emotion and intensity. Virtually every night the set list is different. Sometimes there are minor tweaks, sometimes there a radical overhaul. He usually does something special, making it unique for those lucky enough to be in attendance. He might dust off a rare deep cut, a non-album track, a new arrangement of an old classic, or an unexpected cover. He has an extensive repertoire to draw from, and nothing is off-limits. After Prince died last year he played Purple Rain as a tribute, in London he played the Clash song Clampdown in homage to Joe Strummer, and in Australia he played the relatively obscure INXS track Don’t Change as a nod to Michael Hutchence. It wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to witness him tackle a George Michael or Motorhead standard at some point. The first time he ever played in Wales on the Magic tour in 2008 he started the show with From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come), in reference to the size and stature of the country.

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I’m not as fanatical as some Springsteen aficionados. I’ve met people who have seen him live literally hundreds of times, making my six gigs in four countries over twenty years seem pretty fucking weak. Still, I do have some good stories. Like the time I was on a coach coming back from Rotterdam and French border police decided to take us in a room one-by-one and strip search us all. I’d never had that treatment before, so that was an experience. As was travelling all the way from Wales to Philadelphia for the reunion tour in 1999 only to arrive at the venue to find the show had been cancelled because of a hurricane. After being shut in the hotel bar for the night, we eventually got to see another show later in the week so the trip wasn’t completely wasted. Unlike me that night in the hotel bar. At the actual gig, my then-girlfriend went out for a cigarette halfway through the show and security wouldn’t let her back in, so she had to stand in a car park by herself in downtown Philly for two hours. No, I didn’t go out to find her. A man has to get his priorities right. Besides, I didn’t know what had happened until later. There were no mobiles in 1999.

Thinking about it, my Boss gigging history has been dogged by drama. I was also at the infamous Hyde Park gig in 2012, when the council pulled the plug in the middle of a historic duet with Paul McCartney. Hilariously, the Boss started the next gig in Dublin in the middle of Twist & Shout and had a fake policeman drag him from the stage at the end. The first time I ever saw the him live was as a starry-eyed 18-year old at Wembley Arena in 1992. By some fluke, my friend and I had great seats, just a few rows from the front. But probably my favourite ever Boss gig was at the San Siro, Milan in the summer of 2003. I’ve always thought the music spoke to me on some weirdly personal level, and that show seemed to prove it. I still worked in a factory in Wales at the time. I had a car, a steady girlfriend and a PlayStation. All the things that are supposed to make you content. But man, I was so fucking miserable. I was beginning to realize it’s a big world out there, and I was frustrated at only being allowed to experience a tiny part of it. My first book had just been released and, I knew big changes were coming in my life. He sang ‘Follow That Dream,’ a song he doesn’t do often, and it almost sent me over the edge. It certainly put things in perspective. I decided to roll the dice and risk everything to pursue a career in writing. Within a few months, I’d split up with my girlfriend, sold my car, laid my PlayStation to rest (which I still think is the biggest loss) and moved to Southampton to study journalism. Strange how things turn out. I look back on that San Siro gig as some kind of tipping point.

When Bruce & the E Street Band began this latest tour, they were playing The River album in it’s entirety from start to finish, then a handful of oldies at the end. Everyone knew it wouldn’t last. It was too rigid, too predictable. The handful of oldies at the end soon stretched to a dozen, then 15 or 16, and by the time he got to Europe the ‘whole album’ format had been discarded altogether in favour of a career-spanning mash-up. What’s even better is EVERY show is being recorded and released via his website. I used to collect live bootlegs. Over the year I amassed hundreds of them. I’ve always been aware that the studio albums, even taking into account the 4-CD retrospective set Tracks, only tell half the story. But they were expensive and the sound quality was hit or miss. Normally miss, to be fair. These new releases are absolutely flawless, and at $9.95 (MP3 format) for four hours of music, reasonably priced. There’s a bit of polishing and mixing going on, but if it enhances the sound quality I’m not against it like some purists are. Incidentally, if you want my opinion, I don’t think you can go far wrong by investing in the Washington National Park show.

After a few months off following the last US leg, the River tour found it’s way to Australia last month. Because, bizarrely, it’s summer there. And winds up next week in New Zealand. I’m envious of all you Australasians who were lucky enough to get tickets but I’m not that put out. I’ll just get the MP3s.

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Spring – Film Review

How on earth have I not seen this movie before? The Internet says it’s been around since debuting at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2014. It did have a very limited theatrical release, then went direct to streaming, though, which is where a lot of things tend to get lost. More’s the pity, because it’s an exceptional piece of work. Part of the attraction is that it’s so many things, and yet at the same time none of them. At it’s core it’s a love story, but it’s also a sci-fi flick, a monster movie, a mystery, a comedy, and one of those meaningful coming-of-age dramas like The Beach. It’s a huge risk trying to do so much within the confines of a single movie. So much can go wrong. But the directing team of Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson (who also wrote it) have done a magnificent job of crossing boundaries and meshing those genres together into something that is captivating, original and truly unique.

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A directionless young American, Evan Russell (Lou Taylor Pucci, who starred in the recent Evil Dead remake) loses his mother and his job within days of each other. He also gets in a spot of bother with da police and some local hoodlums, so decides to skip town and use his inheritance to fund a voyage of discovery to Italy. Once there, he meets two hilarious Englishmen in a hostel, and hooks up with a local hottie called Louise (Nadia Hilker). And that’s where the fun begins. Louise slowly reveals herself to be a 2000-year old murderous genetic freak, who gets herself pregnant every twenty years so her body can ingest the cells in her embryo and keep her young. Yup. She regales Evan with tales of 17th Century witch trials, erupting volcanoes, and surviving the Great Plague that swept Europe, all of which Evan takes remarkably well (“At least you have the same back-story as Harry Potter. That’s pretty cool”). Such is the power of love, I guess. Louise then reveals that she can only return to anything resembling a normal state if she falls in love. But does she really want to and risk giving up the life to which she has become accustomed?

The dialogue is sharp and witty, the plot compelling, and the Italian setting stunning. Spring is much more than a mere comedic sci-fi flick. The subtext throws up some interesting existential questions and addresses some pretty fundamental moral dilemmas. Overall, this is a supremely creative, entertaining and imaginative movie. Go watch it right now.

The original version of this review appears in the latest Morpheus Tales supplement. Available FREE.


The Sunderland Revolution – And why it’s bad for Football

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Let’s face it. It was no surprise to see Paolo Di Canio given his marching orders on Sunday. In just six short months, he had managed to upset and alienate everyone at Sunderland from the fans to the board, and probably even the tea lady. Before he had even sat behind the manager’s desk, he had incurred the wrath of the media for his supposed political leanings, and never really recovered. As the British football media is prone to doing, they spent the next six months sharpening their knives.

The one highlight of Di Canio’s brief but eventful Sunderland reign was the surprise 3-0 win over local rivals Newcastle toward the end of last season which went a long way toward saving the Black Cats from relegation. When he took over the team were staring the Championship in the face, and it was obvious that a complete overhaul was needed. To his credit, Di Canio has achieved that much.

But with an overall record of just two wins from twelve league games, and his club now rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, the end was nigh. In the press the madcap Italian has been roundly labeled a ‘dictator,’ and rumours abound that, among other things, he had numerous run-ins with members of staff, partially excluding some and eventually forbidding those not coaching the first team to talk to the players. He even banned ketchup from the club canteen. As Di Canio felt the pressure, insiders claim that the atmosphere around the club had become permeated by fear and paranoia as a result of Di Canio’s threats and intimidation.

Di Canio certainly ‘lost’ the dressing room. And was in danger of ‘losing’ the fans and the board. That’s a lot of things to lose. But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for the bloke. It was always going to be a difficult job moulding 14 new players into a formidable team. As the cliché says, it takes time to gel. Especially when most of the players come from different countries, speak different languages, and are being asked to relocate to Sunderland, which is hardly the French Riviera.

So is Di Canio a misunderstood genius or a complete mentalist?

The main problem with Di Canio seems to have been his continued public criticism of his players. But maybe some of it was justified. Phil Bardsley did no one any favours by putting a picture on Twitter of himself lying on the floor of a casino covered in £50. Who does that? It does make you wonder about the mentality of some players, who would do well to remember that they are, first and foremost, athletes and role models. I mean, who are we dealing with here? A bunch of spoiled school kids or a group of highly-paid professionals? The same goes for a number of high-profile players this summer who effectively went on strike in order to try and force transfers. That’s just unprofessional. And don’t even start me on the ones who routinely throw their toys out of their prams if they are, God forbid, played out of position or something. For the amount of money these guys earn, I would play football anywhere, anytime, in any position. In fact, I’d probably do anything the manager wanted me to do, without question. For a few hundred grand a week, I’d do it fucking well, too!

The Sunderland team had lost four of their last five games, and were quite obviously not playing well. They have to take their share of responsibility for those results. In most other industries, if you don’t do your job well you face the consequences, and that often includes taking criticism. It’s a tough world. Get used to it, lads. By that token Di Canio was just doing his job, and with such high stakes (Sorry, Phil Bardsley), quite within his rights to reprimand them. At times certain people made comments or observations, often pundits and journalists with contacts still in the game, which made you think there was a lot going on beneath the surface at the Stadium of Light. When a struggling team sells all their best players, its never going to be easy. Star man and Belgian international goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was sold off to Liverpool, but probably an even worse move than that was the sale of Stephane Sessegnon to West Brom.

The final straw for Di Canio came immediately after a 3-0 defeat at West Brom where, as Sod’s Law would have it, Sessegnon scored past his old club, hammering another nail into his old manager’s coffin in the process. In the aftermath of that loss, Di Canio stood before the travelling supporters, who were already losing patience with him, and made a series of slightly condescending ‘chin-up’ gestures. Then he went into the changing room and lay the blame for the third goal squarely at the feet of Lee Cattermole, which was a bit harsh as the ex-skipper had only been on the pitch for the final quarter. He also rubbed up Italian international Emanuele Giaccherini the wrong way by subbing him at half time. The former Juventus winger was one of the club’s marquee signings of the summer, is potentially one of the best players in the league, and evidently, does not like being subbed. It all led to a revolt, with one (unnamed) senior player allegedly telling Di Canio, “Nobody likes you here. Nobody wants you,” before marching off with his mates to plead their case to chief executive Margaret Byrne, who in turn approached Ellis Short.

Some may say Di Canio got what he deserved, paying the ultimate price for his arrogance, naivety, and woeful man management skills. But the dismissal itself only tells half the story. The real issue here is player power. What if this eclectic group of over-paid, under-performing stars decide they don’t like their next manager’s attitude or training methods, either? Will they all troop en masse to the chief executives office again and demand his removal? It worked once, so why not again?

And what if this petty form of rebellion spreads elsewhere? It’s fair to assume that at every club there is a section of disaffected individuals who would relish a change of hierarchy. This could give them the means, opportunity and precedent to force through their aims.

I see trouble ahead, and not only at the Stadium of Light, where any new manager coming in will have to contend with the same problems Di Canio did. There will still be 14 new signings who don’t know each other and can barely speak the same language, and they will still be bottom of the league.

This article first appeared on the Huff Post UK. See my archive here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/chris-saunders/

My new book, From the Ashes: The REAL Story of Cardiff City FC is available now:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/From-Ashes-Story-Cardiff-Football/dp/1845242130


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