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R.I.P Marco Simoncelli

October 23, 2011 Leave a comment

The world of motorsport is in mourning for a second consecutive weekend following the tragic death of Italian Moto GP rider Marco Simoncelli in Malaysia today. The 24 year old died just four minutes in to the race in Sepang when he came off his bike and skidded in to the path of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, who were unable to avoid him. The impact of the two bikes hitting Simoncelli caused injuries from which he was unable to recover, despite the best efforts of the medical team and around 45 minutes later, the tragic news of his death was announced.

 

Marco Simoncelli was one of Moto GP's most colourful characters (This image is the property of Reuters)

The incident occurred at turn 11 on only the second lap of the race as the Gresini Honda rider ran wide and tried to maintain control of the bike. He was unable to do so and the front end of the bike went from underneath him. It must be said that this is a highly common occurrence in Moto GP (four riders did the same thing last week) and does not normally cause any issues as the bike slides away from the rider. However, on this occasion the bike took Simoncelli with it and in to the path of two oncoming riders. Colin Edwards careered in to the stricken Italian at great speed before being catapulted out of the saddle himself (Edwards suffered a dislocated shoulder in the incident) and then the impact of Valentino Rossi’s Ducati appeared to be what removed Simoncelli’s helmet. The red flag was immediately waved and medical staff were on the scene very quickly to tend to the Italian, who lay there motionless. The race was eventually cancelled once the seriousness of Simoncelli’s condition was known. Around 45 minutes later, at 16.56 local time, it was announced that they had been unable to save him.

In a hastily arranged and highly emotional press conference, Medical Director Michele Macchiagodena explained what had happened: “He suffered a very serious trauma to the head, to the neck and the chest. When our medical staff got to him he was unconscious. In the ambulance because there was a cardiac arrest they started CPR (cardiac pulmonary resuscitation). Immediately in the Medical Centre, with the help of the doctor of our staff at the Clinica Mobile and local doctors, he was incubated and it was possible to take off some blood from the thorax. The CPR was continued for 45 minutes because we tried to help him for as long as we thought it was possible. Unfortunately it was not possible to help him and at 16:56 (local time) we had to declare he was dead.”

Questions will inevitably be asked about the safety of the sport, although it should be noted that this is the first death in the Moto GP class since 2003. Paul Butler (Race Director) stated that “Quite clearly the consequences and circumstances surrounding the accident will be thoroughly investigated.” Perhaps most worrying is the way Simoncelli ended up without a helmet and there will no doubt be questions raised about the design of such head protection. All of this is however for another time and for now; everybody’s thoughts and prayers are with Marco Simoncelli’s friends and family. We should also reflect on just what a huge talent and colourful character the sport has lost.

This was only Simoncelli’s second year in Moto GP following a successful career on smaller bikes, and he certainly made an impact. After entering the sport’s top tier, he quickly garnered a reputation for risky, swashbuckling driving which was exciting but also the subject of much criticism. The Italian’s aggressive riding style led to altercations with the likes of compatriot Andrea Dovizioso and Spain’s Dani Pedrosa. In fact, a crash with Pedrosa at this year’s French Grand Prix saw the Spaniard miss three races with a broken collarbone and Simoncelli serve a drive through penalty. Following the incident, the 24 year old admitted “in the future I will try at certain times to evaluate the situation better and be a little more cautious.”

 

The Italian's maverick riding style won him fans and critics alike (This image is the property of Moto GP)

Despite the criticism, Simoncelli’s talent was undeniable. He showed an ability to eke every last mph out of a non-factory bike and his capacity for overtaking was already becoming legendary. Two podiums this season, including a second place finish last week in Australia, had helped Simoncelli seal a deal to ride for Honda’s factory team next year and he was seemingly on his way to becoming the sport’s next big star before tragedy struck in Malaysia.

The Italian was brave on the track and much loved off it. He simply loved the thrill of riding at speed on his bike and his flamboyance in and out of the saddle won him the adoration of many fans. Several experts, including the BBC’s Steve Parrish, were tipping him to be a serious title contender on the Honda next year. Simoncelli was delighted at being offered a ride on the best bike on the grid, but the sight of a highly talented, highly exciting Italian on the machine is one of which we have been robbed.

There are rumours that Valentino Rossi, a close friend of his countryman, will retire following this weekend’s crash as he is said to be devastated and it was evident that the tragedy had caused much introspection amongst the other riders. The accident has rocked the sport to its core and it will take a long time for it to return to something like normality, but in the meantime let’s remember a young man who just loved riding a motorcycle and who provided us with fantastic entertainment both on and off the track. Thank you for the memories Marco, you will be sorely missed. R.I.P.

The Reactions of fellow Moto GP Riders

Casey Stoner (Honda): “As soon as I saw the footage it just makes you sick inside. Whenever the helmet comes off that’s not a good sign. I’m so shocked and saddened by the loss of Marco. When things like this happen it reminds you how precious life is, it makes me feel sick inside. All I can say is how sorry I am for Marco’s whole family. I can’t imagine what they are all going through and our thoughts and wishes are with them at this time. I hope they all stay close and pull through this tragedy together.”

Andrea Dovizioso (Honda): “He seemed invincible. What happened seems impossible. We raced together since we were kids. I saw him always pushing to the maximum. He crashed many times but without major injuries. In these circumstances, words don’t seem to be appropriate. I think of Marco’s family and all the people dear to him, in particular his father and mother. I also have a child and what happened today is the hardest situation you can imagine. I watched the images and I’m shocked. In a race you fight and push hard and disaster is often around the corner. Marco was a strong rider and he always pushed hard.”

Dani Pedrosa (Honda): “Many times we ourselves forget how dangerous this sport can be and, when you lose people on the way, nothing has any meaning. It’s clear we all do what we like, what we love, but on days like today nothing matters.”

Cal Crutchlow (Yamaha Tech 3): “RIP Marco Simoncelli! A great rider and all round nice guy. My thoughts are with all his family & friends. I will never forget today.” (From Twitter)

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Categories: Motorsport

Rugby World Cup Final Preview: France vs. New Zealand

October 20, 2011 3 comments

This Sunday (23rd October) the IRB Rugby World Cup Final takes place at Eden Park in Auckland and sees Marc Lièvremont’s unpredictable France side take on the might of New Zealand. The two teams have taken very different paths to the same destination, but come Sunday night none of that will matter and the team which performs best on the field will be able to call themselves world champions. Sport Report assesses the showdown.

The Webb Ellis Trophy is the prize for the victors

Route to the final

France

Finished 2nd in Pool A with 11 points.

QF: Beat England 19-12

SF: Beat Wales 9-8

Not many people picked France to be in the final prior to the tournament kicking off back in September and in all honesty, nothing that we have seen during the course of this World Cup should have changed our minds. Yet here they are, preparing for a rematch of the 1987 final.

Francois Pienaar was perhaps getting carried away when he claimed that France had been ‘the worst team in the tournament’ but it would not be inaccurate to claim they have been bad. Their campaign got off to a solid, if unspectacular, start with a 47-21 victory against Japan and continued in a similar vein against Canada, a game which Les Bleus won 46-19. Then came the game that many felt would decide the group as France met the host nation. The All Blacks came out of the blocks quicker than Usain Bolt on a world record sprint and were almost out of sight before France had realised the game had started. The French conceded three tries in the opening 20 minutes and when Israel Dagg added another just after half-time, it looked like a rout was on the cards. To their credit, the French kept going and emerged with a reasonably respectable 37-17 defeat thanks to tries from Maxime Mermoz and François Trinh-Duc. Lièvremont will know however that his side cannot afford a repeat of this slow start on Sunday.

France’s final game was a seemingly straightforward tie against Tonga, but in a way that only they can, Les Bleus turned it in to a match which was anything but. Amid rumours of disunity in the camp and ill-discipline off the field, they put in an abject performance and lost 19-14. Fortunately for them, this was not enough for Tonga to leapfrog them and they had safely, and unconvincingly, made it through to the quarter finals where they would meet England.

The performance in the quarter-final against Martin Johnson’s men was a vast improvement on what France had shown in the previous two games, with captain and blindside flanker Thierry Dusautoir, openside flanker Julien Bonnaire and number eight Imanol Harinordoquy all putting in excellent performances. Two first half tries from Vincent Clerc and Maxime Médard helped give France a 16-0 half-time lead and despite a spirited fight back from England in the second half, they emerged as 19-12 victors. By doing so, they had set up a semi-final with one of the tournament’s most impressive teams, Warren Gatland’s Wales.

The record books show that France won 9-8 but that does not tell half the story. Wales captain Sam Warburton was controversially red carded after just 19 minutes for what referee Alain Rolland (conspiracy theorists have been quick to point out that he is half-French) deemed to be a dangerous tackle on Vincent Clerc. Still Wales were the better team but Morgan Parra’s excellent goal kicking saw Les Bleus book their place in the final. Despite the improved performances against England and Wales, many feel France still have not produced the one big performance we have become used to seeing from them at rugby’s showpiece event. They will need one if they are to triumph over New Zealand.

New Zealand

Finished 1st in Pool A with 20 points.

QF: Beat Argentina 33-10

SF: Beat Australia 20-6

Whilst France’s road to Auckland has been rocky, the All Blacks’ progress to their first final since 1995 has been serene. They cruised through Pool A with four wins from four, scoring 36 tries and racking up 240 points along the way. The likes of Richard Kahui, Israel Dagg and sporting superman Sonny Bill Williams ran in tries at will and Dan Carter continued to add to his world record points tally. The 83-7 trouncing of Japan was the highlight for New Zealand in the pool stage, but being as professional and proud as they are, Graham Henry’s men did not let up and piled on more points against France (37-17) and Canada (79-15) to seal a quarter-final berth.

The All Blacks went in to their quarter-final against Argentina days after the news that rocked New Zealand: Dan Carter was going to miss the rest of the tournament following a groin injury picked up in training. The final score of 33-10 makes it seem like a straightforward victory for the hosts but it was very much a hard fought win in what was an attritional game of rugby. Piri Weepu was the hero, kicking seven penalties from seven attempts, and tries from Brad Thorn and Kieran Read made the game safe. The All Blacks had booked a semi-final against their great rivals, Australia.

New Zealand have been considered the best rugby team in the world for the last four years and last Sunday’s semi-final performance showed just why this is the case. Richie McCaw put in a performance more than worthy of a three-time IRB International Player of the Year, dominating at the breakdown, and the All Blacks’ scrum was a thing of beauty. Israel Dagg was sensational at fullback and set up Ma’a Nonu’s fifth minute try and Cory Jane caught every high ball aimed at him. The man charged with replacing Carter and his replacement Colin Slade, Aaron Cruden, looked like a seasoned test player and the midfield did an excellent job of keeping pantomime villain Quade Cooper quiet. The All Blacks dominated for the most part and eventually ran out 20-6 winners. They were many people’s favourites going in to the tournament and based on what we have seen to this point, that assessment was accurate. They still have one big game to go however, and in Auckland in front of a partisan crowd, the pressure will be on. Can they handle it?

Key areas

When we look at where this game may be won and lost, there is only one obvious place to start; the scrum.

New Zealand’s scrum was dominant against Australia and the inexperienced Aaron Cruden benefitted hugely from the go forward ball the pack secured. However, the All Blacks are unlikely to have it all their own way against a first choice French pack which contains top class, experienced players such as Nicolas Mas, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusautoir. If France are able to push the formidable All Black pack back, they may be able to force the likes of Cruden and Weepu in to mistakes in the midfield. If New Zealand are able to dominate as they did in the semi-final, it will be a long and painful night for France.

Goal Kicking: If we look at past finals, it quickly becomes apparent that they have been, more often than not, very tight affairs. Only the 1987 and 1999 editions have seen winning margins in double figures and if Sunday’s match is also tight, then goal kicking will be key. Many top fly and scrum halves have struggled to successfully kick penalties and conversions in this tournament, most notably Jonny Wilkinson and even, to some extent, Dan Carter before injury ruled him out. Many have blamed the ball, others the conditions but there can be no excuses in a game of this magnitude and in which every point counts. Piri Weepu is likely to carry on with the kicking duties for New Zealand and his form since taking on the responsibility has been patchy. In the quarter-final against Argentina he performed superbly, kicking seven penalties from seven. However, last weekend against the Wallabies, he was much less convincing, kicking only four from seven and missing one conversion attempt. Nevertheless, he has shown that he is a more than capable goal kicker and if he can reproduce his quarter-final form with the boot, New Zealand will be odds on favourites.

 

Morgan Parra will need to be on form with the boot (This image is the property of Getty Images)

France have divided kicking duties in recent times with scrum half and occasional fly-half Morgan Parra and star man Dimitri Yachvili both sharing the burden. Parra kicked all the penalties in the semi-final as Yachvili was carrying a thigh injury and he was the difference between the two sides. Parra was rock solid under immense pressure and successfully kicked three penalties to score all of his team’s points. The two have been solid throughout the tournament, particularly with penalties and this may be crucial in a game in which Les Bleus are unlikely to cross the whitewash too often. If France are to stand any chance of defeating the overwhelming favourites, they can ill afford to throw away points through poor goal kicking.

The lineout: This World Cup has demonstrated the importance of set-plays and nowhere has this been more apparent than at the lineout. France successfully stole a lineout from England five metres from their own try line in the quarter final to save what looked like a certain try and they also out-manoeuvred the Welsh on several occasions last weekend. The likes of Bonnaire, Lionel Nallet and Pascal Pape are all excellent in the lineout and if they can secure the ball in good areas, they will give their team a platform from which to attack and bring in the fliers of Vincent Clerc and Maxime Médard.

New Zealand have been no slouches in the lineout themselves, winning more than their fair share. Kevin Mealamu has done an excellent job of throwing winnable ball which the likes of Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock have gleefully snapped up. In the past, the All Blacks have shown a willingness to be inventive and go short, even throwing straight to the scrum half at times. If France sleep on this threat, they may be punished in the harshest possible way.

Key Players

France

Morgan Parra: If France are to win, their goal kicking will need to be excellent and it looks like the Clermont Auvergne man will be tasked with making sure it is. His kicking so far in the tournament has been superb with an 85% success rate and he proved in the semi-final that he can keep his cool under the most intense pressure. That said, he will have 50,000 rugby mad Kiwis heckling him at every attempt this weekend and it remains to be seen how he copes with that. Parra does of course bring much more than just goal kicking. He showed a willingness to carry the ball in the semi-final and he is technically excellent, able to pass accurately and quickly on either side. He is also a big influence on the field, as his nickname le petit général suggests.

Vincent Clerc: The man known as Moses has been France’s most potent attacking force in this World Cup and is in fact the tournament’s joint leading try scorer with six. His pace on the wing and small stature allows him to spot gaps in the defence, run through them and evade tackles and New Zealand will have to keep a close watch on him when France are in possession, if they fail to do so, he may very well add to his 31 international tries. His experience, earned over a 55 cap career, is also a big plus for Marc Lièvremont’s side.

Thierry Dusautoir will no doubt do his best to rouse his troops (This image is the property of Getty Images)


Thierry Dusautoir: Both sides have top class loose forwards, all of whom will need to be on top form on Sunday. If Dusautoir, Bonnaire and Harinordoquy are not, then Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read may just have a field day. Dusautoir has the added responsibility of being captain and if the All Blacks get off to a flying start as they did in the pool stage game, it is he who will need to rally the troops and make them believe that they can still win. If he is at his inspirational best, he could possibly just make his teammates believe that they can pull off the upset.

New Zealand

Richie McCaw: With whom else but Captain Marvel could we start when looking at the All Blacks key men? The three time IRB International Player of the Year has been affected by a list of injuries that would impress Darren Anderton, yet he has still produced top class performances whenever he has played. His performance last week against Australia, in which he outplayed fellow number seven and David Pocock, was truly remarkable. He was part of a defence that looked sturdier than the Berlin Wall and his work at the breakdown was exceptional. If he is at his best, there is no better player in the sport. Inspired by a raucous home crowd and fired up by the knowledge that this may be his last chance to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy, he may just play the game of his life.

Aaron Cruden: Aaron Cruden’s story is pure Hollywood. Just three weeks ago he was on his skateboard at a local skate park with his friends, now he is the man tasked with replacing rugby’s poster boy Dan Carter in a World Cup Final in his home country. Cruden showed against the Wallabies that he can more than hold his own at this level, but the All Blacks’ tight five dominated and gave him good go forward ball. How will he react if France trouble the New Zealand scrum and put him under pressure? France may look to target Cruden as what they see as a weak link and it must be said that eight caps is no real sort of preparation for a game of this importance, particularly in a position as pivotal as fly-half. If Cruden answers these questions emphatically, he will be a national hero come Sunday night.

All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw can cap a fine career with the sport's ultimate prize (This image is the property of the Belfast Telegraph)

Israel Dagg: Israel Dagg has had an interesting tournament. He arrived as New Zealand’s second choice fullback, has been disciplined for going on a drinking binge with Cory Jane, established himself as his country’s first choice number 15 and has been one of the host nation’s star performers. His direct and pacey runs from the backfield have opened up gaps for others, as evidenced by Ma’a Nonu’s try against Australia, and Dagg has himself crossed the try line on five occasions. He was excellent against the Wallabies and if France focus on stopping the likes of Nonu and Jane, Dagg could be the main beneficiary.

The Verdict

In recent years, New Zealand have been rugby’s supermen, but at World Cups France have proved to be their kryptonite. Les Bleus triumphed 20-18 in a classic four years ago, but I just cannot see a repeat this time around. France have been remarkably underwhelming so far and rumours of disunity in the camp continue to be published on a daily basis. New Zealand have quality all over the pitch, as well as impact players of the calibre of Sonny Bill Williams on the bench. This quality will allow them to punish France if they are even one per cent below par. In front of a home crowd and with the opportunity to end 24 years of hurt, I expect the All Blacks to finally deliver on years of promise and win the World Cup by a margin of 20 points.

Sport Report Prediction: New Zealand 35-15 France

Categories: Rugby Union

Casey Stoner Seals Moto GP World Championship on dramatic weekend at Phillip Island

October 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Casey Stoner today (16th October) won his second Moto GP world title, in his home Grand Prix, on his birthday. A fairytale ending some might say, but unfortunately it did not come in the manner that the new world champion had hoped for as a crazy race day brought a dramatic weekend of racing action to a close.

Heading in to this weekend’s round at the legendary Phillip Island circuit, many felt that the Repsol Honda rider and proud ‘Aussie’ had a slim chance of sealing a championship that was within touching distance. In order to end his four year wait for a second title, Stoner needed to score at least 10 points more than his nearest rival and defending world champion Jorge Lorenzo. However, the Spaniard’s consistency in finishing on the podium this season meant that most experts and fans expected the championship to go, at least, to Sepang next Sunday (23rd October). In fact Stoner himself rated his chances of finishing the job on home soil as ‘very slim.’

That Stoner won the race is no great surprise. He loves the Phillip Island circuit and has now won five years in a row and at no point this weekend did that streak look like coming to an end. Despite crashing in the first practice session on Friday, he recorded the fastest time of the day with a 1:30.535. He was imperious during Saturday’s qualifying, securing pole as the only rider to go sub 1:30 and looked odds on to win yet another race. He did of course complete a superb weekend, winning at a canter, but the real shock is what happened to those behind him on the grid.

Casey Stoner in full flow on his way to becoming World Champion (This image is the property of AP)

Yamaha’s Ben Spies crashed out at 150 mph during the second qualifying session on Saturday and sustained severe bruising and a suspected cracked rib. He was still expected to line up on the grid but complained of a fuzzy head on the morning of the race and stated that he was unable to concentrate during the warm-up laps. Yamaha decided that it was too dangerous to send the American out and one of their riders was out of the race.

Then came the big news of the day and it was news that changed the whole complexion of the world championship race. On the last corner of the last lap of the warm-up, Jorge Lorenzo’s bike took on the role of bucking bronco and despite the best efforts of the Spaniard to keep it under control, the Yamaha YZR-M1 catapulted him from the saddle. Lorenzo walked away seemingly unscathed but appeared to be examining his left hand with great concern. His hand became trapped under the bike when it threw him off and we have since learned that he lost the tip of his ring finger in the incident. Thankfully he underwent successful surgery in Melbourne and according to a Yamaha team statement released today ‘no functionality will be lost in either the finger or the hand.’ He will, however, miss the race in Malaysia next weekend.

Lorenzo’s misfortune meant that Stoner only had to finish in the top six to become world champion, but as has been the case all season, the Australian showed the rest how it is done, but not before he showed that he is also a top class act out of the saddle. Upon hearing that Lorenzo had been taken to hospital, Stoner’s immediate reaction was to do the human thing and enquire as to the welfare of his great rival. He then expressed his disappointment at not being able to try to win the championship from the incumbent directly. How many sportsmen would have acted in such a dignified manner?

Back to the track and the unpredictable elements put paid to the hopes of the great Valentino Rossi, who passed Alvaro Bautista at speed but was unable to stop the bike quickly enough on surface water and crashed out. They also saw the end of Bautista himself who also slid out. Cal Crutchlow and Hiroshi Aoyama were also victims, and Karel Abraham’s nightmare weekend ended in fitting fashion, in the gravel trap. Andrea Dovizioso and Marco Simoncelli thrilled the crowd with a close run battle for second which involved several overtakes and numerous close shaves.

Whilst all of this carnage was taking place, one man was forgotten by the TV cameras, the man who can now deservedly call himself the best in the world. Stoner serenely rode, unopposed and unstoppably, to the world title which has, in truth, had his name on it for some time. In commentary, Stoner’s excitable countryman Charlie Cox referred to him as a ‘magician on a motorbike,’ and based on what we have seen this year, it is impossible to disagree. The statistics speak for themselves. Nine wins, six podiums and 11 poles from 16 races are championship form by any measure and in many ways, what happened in Australia was something of a microcosm for the season as a whole.

The Australian celebrates the perfect birthday present (This image is the property of Andrew Brownhill)

Jorge Lorenzo has been very good this season, but has made several costly mistakes. He crashed out at Silverstone in Round Six and never looked comfortable in the final sector this weekend, the sector in which he crashed out.  The man widely considered the best rider in the history of the sport, Valentino Rossi, has struggled on a less than stellar Ducati, crashing out in the last two races. Stoner’s teammate Dani Pedrosa has been solid but has paid the price for missing three races as a result of his crash in France earlier in the season and Marco Simoncelli has simply suffered too many DNFs (four).

Stoner has not made such errors. In fact, only once, at Jerez where he did not finish, has Stoner failed to get on the podium. He has simply been head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Many have unfairly put this down to the superiority of the Honda Honda RC212V, which has usurped the Yamaha as the best bike on the grid. Whilst there is some truth in the claims that the Honda has been better than every other bike, the pace Stoner has been able to eke out of the machine has been phenomenal. He has left everybody in his wake, and let us not forget that this is his first season on the Honda having switched from Ducati at the end of the last season. Stoner has shown signs of frustration at the lack of appreciation he has received in the past and one has to have some sympathy for him. He is a bona fide two-time world champion in an elite sport and may even go on to emulate, or perhaps even better, the record of fellow ‘Aussie’ and former Repsol Honda star Mick Doohan, who won five world titles between 1994 and 1998.

Today is not, however, a day for Stoner to dwell on the lack of credit he gets or what the future may hold. It is instead a day for revelling in his fantastic achievement and enjoying his birthday with his nearest and dearest. The world title is the best present he could have asked for and may even make up for the fact that his father did not buy him anything for his 26th birthday!

Congratulations Casey Stoner, a deserved 2011 Moto GP World Champion.

Categories: Motorsport