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London 2012 heroes including Ben Ainslie, Bradley Wiggins and Jessica Ennis gave us the time of our lives – Patrick Collins

Thank you, Sir Ben and Sir Bradley, Jessica, Ellie and David for giving us time of our lives

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UPDATED:

00:15 GMT, 30 December 2012

It was towards the end of the Opening Ceremony that a blissful certainty descended. In the space of a single enchanted evening, Danny Boyle had painted a picture of a nation at ease with itself; compassionate, resourceful, diverse and quirky. And as we stumbled away from the stadium, senses reeling from the spectacle, we knew beyond question that Boyle’s masterpiece had set the stunning tone; that London would stage an Olympics for the ages.

The heroes would emerge in golden clusters; Mo and Jessica, Bradley and Victoria, Ben, Andy and all those for whom first names alone now suffice. Over the past few weeks of the awards season, those heroes have been duly feted by a grateful public. Soon they will tramp in massed ranks to the house at the end of The Mall, where a sword will touch deserving shoulders and medals will dangle from worthy lapels.

Arise: Ben Ainslie is one of the Olympic heroes being honoured for their achievements

Arise: Ben Ainslie is one of the Olympic heroes being honoured for their achievements

Pace setter: Bradley Wiggins celebrates winning the Men's Individual Time Trial

Pace setter: Bradley Wiggins celebrates winning the Men's Individual Time Trial

Something to behold: Jessica Ennis flew the flag for Britain as she won the heptathlon

Something to behold: Jessica Ennis flew the flag for Britain as she won the heptathlon

More from Patrick Collins…

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Patrick Collins: How Fergie's bedtime habits set standards at Old Trafford
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Patrick Collins: The anti-Wenger mob should be careful what they wish for
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Patrick Collins: England's sensational miracle workers have everyone believing again
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Patrick Collins: Captain Cook must stand the test of time before he can join the greats
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Patrick Collins: Football's silent majority must set the tone, not the bigots who just want to be noticed
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Patrick Collins: Richie McCaw, Dan Carter… your boys took one hell of a beating!
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VIEW FULL ARCHIVE

It is right that they should be rewarded, especially if those rewards help us remember how it felt in the days of high summer, when great deeds were done in stadium and velodrome, on lake and road and in all those arenas which held the country entranced for day after magical day. And not merely the deeds themselves, but the numbers and the passion of those who witnessed them.

Those of us who have followed the Olympic circus down the decades had grown used to stadia being thinly populated for heats or qualifiers or so-called ‘minor’ sports. Not in London. Sebastian Coe had promised that the Games would be watched by capacity crowds. To the amazement of the International Olympic Committee, that promise was emphatically delivered.

The numbers were unprecedented. If tickets were unobtainable, then the public would stand five, ten, 15 deep to cheer on the triathletes, the marathon runners or the road racing cyclists. And not only the British contenders, but each and every Olympian.

The feats of the gods demanded full tribute, of course. Usain Bolt was already installed as a citizen of the world, while the likes of the American swimmer Michael Phelps, and Kenya’s David Rudisha, whose 800 metres world record was perhaps the performance of the entire Games, produced the kind of excellence which far superseded nationality.

But the same approval and admiration was accorded to the overmatched boxer, the outclassed swimmer, and to young Sarah Attar, the first woman athlete from Saudi Arabia to compete in an Olympic arena. Sarah finished more than 30 seconds behind the field in the 800 metres but thunderous cheers told of her ultimate triumph. Somebody asked if she had a message for her countrywomen. ‘I’d tell them: Don’t give up on your dreams,’ said Sarah, and a roomful of reporters began blinking furiously.

Usain and Michael, David and Sarah; we treated them all alike. Never was a Games more welcoming, less partisan. It was an object lesson in how civilised sport should be conducted. In truth, we surprised ourselves. For there was courtesy and friendliness, a willingness to chat with strangers, advise on travel and recommend decent pubs. This was not what visitors expected from Britain, and most certainly not from London. Their surprise was our delight.

Delivered: Sebastian Coe oversaw a fantastic Olympics in front of packed stadiums

Delivered: Sebastian Coe oversaw a fantastic Olympics in front of packed stadiums

Global citizen: Usain Bolt is known all over the world and his popularity increased further still at the Games

Global citizen: Usain Bolt is known all over the world and his popularity increased further still at the Games

What about the golf

If anybody is foolish enough to ask me about the last day of the Ryder Cup, I tell them at some length about standing on the fringe of the 18th green at Medinah, so close to the winning putt that I actually heard Martin Kaymer’s ball fall ‘clonk-clonk-clonk’ into the cup.

And it’s true, at least I think it is. Difficult to tell as, at that moment, the world went mad in celebration of the most incredible recovery in the history of the event.

In any other year, it would have been the outstanding sporting memory. In the year of the London Olympics, it took its place in a long queue.

The same may be said of Rory McIlroy. Being leading money-winner on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as US PGA champion, qualifies him for no more than an honourable mention. Even so, it was a staggering year for the young Irishman.

Naturally, the mood was assisted by the extraordinary success of Team GB. At this nostalgic time of year, the tales of gold are lovingly retold. Even those of us present on the first ‘Super Saturday’ occasionally wonder if it really happened.

But the reality was gold in the women’s team pursuit, gold in the men’s coxless four and gold for Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland in the women’s double scull. All of which was a prelude to a night of sheer fantasy in the Olympic Stadium.

Heptathlon gold for Jess Ennis, long
jump gold for Greg Rutherford, 10,000 metres gold for Mo Farah. Lord Coe
called it ‘the greatest day of sport I have ever witnessed’. But it was
even more; with six Olympic gold medals, it was the greatest day that
British sport has ever known.

And so it continued; Wiggins in the time
trial, Murray at Wimbledon and, absurdly, another Super Saturday with Mo
winning an historic 5,000 metres and Bolt’s Jamaicans obliterating the
sprint relay world record.

Magic MOment: Farah crosses the line to win the 5,000m at the London Olympics

Magic MOment: Farah crosses the line to win the 5,000m at the London Olympics

Spectacular: It wasn't just the stadium and the fireworks which looked great

Spectacular: It wasn't just the stadium and the fireworks which looked great

Along with a fierce pride in our city and its people, there was a deep and genuine sadness when the Olympic flame died. We told ourselves that never again would we know such times, nor see such sport. That mournful conviction lasted precisely 17 days.

For, quite astonishingly, the Paralympics were equally compelling. Long before the first week was through, the names of David Weir and Sarah Storey, of Sophie Christiansen and the captivating Ellie Simmonds were rolling off the tongue. Ellie’s 400 metres performance in the Aquatic Centre was equalled only by the drama of the men’s 100 metres, when Britain’s Jonnie Peacock sprinted away from the overwhelming favourite, Oscar Pistorius.

Captivating: Ellie Simmonds (right) was one of the Paralympians who stunned us again and again

Captivating: Ellie Simmonds (right) was one of the Paralympians who stunned us again and again

Thrillers: David Weir and Sarah Storey (below) delighted us during the Paralympics

Thrillers: David Weir and Sarah Storey (below) delighted us during the Paralympics

Sarah Storey

Sarah Storey

The Paralympics were no longer worthy and esoteric. In less than two weeks, they had moved into the mainstream. It was perhaps the most significant advance that British sport made all year. And when they ended, in lachrymose lashings of Coldplay, the melancholy began in earnest.

I remember leaving the Olympic Park on that Sunday evening and boarding the Docklands Light Railway. Across the carriage, in their distinctive purple and red suits, sat a couple of volunteers. They were middle-aged, tired and a little emotional. Unpaid and largely unheeded, they had worked throughout the Olympics, then the Paralympics. Save for a single basketball game, they had seen little live sport.

On that final day, they had completed a double shift, getting up at 6.15 for the early start. It was almost midnight, and their faces were grey with fatigue. Tomorrow, they would become civilians again. They were not looking forward to it. ‘So you enjoyed the Games’ I asked. They smiled at the foolish question. ‘Enjoyed it’ said the man. He shook his head, slowly. ‘It was the best time of our lives.’ In those few words, he had given us the perfect summary of our Olympic summer.

Murray delivers the dream

There were times during 2012 when the bare facts read like tall stories. Andy Murray, Wimbledon finalist, was one thing. Andy Murray, Olympic gold medallist, was another.

And Andy Murray, US Open champion, the first Briton to win a Grand Slam since 1936, was of another order entirely. Yet in the course of his staggering summer, he delivered all three. In a normal era, it would have been a sensational achievement. But in an era containing the finest players the game has known, it was a feat beyond compare.

Enlarge

What a year: Andy Murray memorably won the US Open title in November

What a year: Andy Murray memorably won the US Open title in November

Unless the comparison happened to be with the deeds of Bradley Wiggins. His victory in the time trial at the London Games was his fourth Olympic gold. He also happened to win the Tour de France.

It goes without saying that he was the first Briton ever to do so; the first to scale the mountains, to charge through the valleys, to endure the sprints and the time trials and to ride into Paris in a yellow jersey. He covered 2,173.75 miles and devastated the most formidable field his sport could assemble.

To have a Murray or a Wiggins once in a lifetime would represent lavish prosperity. To have two such athletes in the same astonishing year was sporting wealth beyond measure.

Pietersen keeps finding new ways to steal the limelight

One abiding image of the celebrations which followed England’s series victory in India is of Kevin Pietersen grinning at the camera, the autographs of his team-mates scrawled all over his shirt front. The picture screamed ‘reintegration’, which was presumably what Pietersen wanted to convey.

It was a momentous year for English cricket. A great captain, Andrew Strauss, made way for the youthful Alastair Cook, who also has the whiff of greatness about him. And England lost a hard-fought home series to a formidable South Africa team, which made their subsequent triumph in the sub-continent the more remarkable.

Yet throughout the year, Pietersen had invaded the headlines to the discomfort of the cricket authorities. There was his texting to South African opponents — ‘provocative’ but not ‘derogatory’, he insisted. There were his crass public statements, the indiscreet jabber which invited retribution.

Whirlwind: Currently there is tranquility between England and Kevin Pietersen... will it last

Whirlwind: Currently there is tranquility between England and Kevin Pietersen… will it last

And there was his unfortunate habit of listening only to bad advice, taking only unsound decisions and repeatedly allowing ego to over-rule his dubious judgement.

But there was also his talent, that glittering ability which allowed him — in Colombo, at Headingley and, most dramatically, in Mumbai — to play, in a calendar year, three of the finest innings the modern game has known.

It was that glorious talent which saw him reintegrated into a team that sorely need his gifts. At the moment, all is tranquil between Pietersen and England. We must hope that tranquillity reigns in 2013.

Greed and ugliness 3

Drama and Sense 2

At the last gasp, Manchester City won the most dramatic title contest the Premier League has seen. Still more improbably, Chelsea emerged from the Champions League clutching the trophy with the big ears.

Another massive TV deal was signed, prompting agents to order fresh stocks of Krug. And England chose an immensely capable and experienced man to be their new manager.

There were those who declared it an excellent year for football. And they were wrong.

For the most urgent priority of the English game was the pursuit of the bottom line. The Premier League was the richest, therefore, it had to be the best.

Racism was ugly, of course, but it was a problem for less enlightened countries. We have no truck with that kind of thing here. Likewise hooliganism; all in the past. And yet, the cases began to accumulate. The Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra affair was shabbily treated by Liverpool.

Shambolic: Liverpool's treatment of the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra race row was poor

Shambolic: Liverpool's treatment of the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra race row was poor

The John Terry-Anton Ferdinand scandal dragged on through much of the year and was appallingly handled by just about everybody involved.

The moral leadership was non-existent, the consequences deeply damaging.

Meanwhile, crowd chants grew uglier, more threatening, and grounds suddenly seemed less safe than they should be.

Good things were happening, too, and the appointment of Roy Hodgson was sane and sensible. He may not have sufficiently talented players and the Brazil World Cup is surely a hopeless quest. Yet he represents an important step in the right direction.

The national game — so wealthy, so confident yet so little loved — needs many such steps in 2013.

Manny Pacquiao reveals his top secrets

It's top secret: Manny Pacquiao

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UPDATED:

11:54 GMT, 29 December 2012

Boxer Manny Pacquiao

Who is your sporting hero

Steve Nash of the LA Lakers is a great guy. He is maybe one of the best ever but he is also dedicated to charity work. When we are in these influential positions, we need to realise we can help pioneer change in this world.

What would you be if you weren't a sportsman

I was a tailor when I was younger, so maybe I would have owned my own store. Boxing has given me the platform to get into politics but even without it I like to think a path would have been made for me to get into politics.

Which other sportsman would you like to be

I can't pick one player on the team but I would like to help Boston Celtics win the NBA title. I'm pretty good.

Career highlight

I made less than two dollars for winning my first fight but two dollars meant a lot to us. I knew I was good, and those two dollars showed me if I kept on fighting we would not need to worry about money.

…and the worst moment

Probably the fight against Tim Bradley. If you lose you lose, but I was sure that I won. None of his punches hurt me.

If your house was burning down, what one possession would you save

Everything can be replaced. I have had nothing before, and while I don't want to have nothing again, I know what is really important is to have your family healthy. Of course it's nice to know your family are healthy while driving a Ferrari!

What's the best advice you've ever been given

When you think you are 100 per cent ready you're probably not.

Favourite karaoke song

La Bamba.

Three most-listened-to songs on your ipod

Ordinary Song by Marc Velasco, Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill, and Imagine by John Lennon.

Actor Jericho Rosales

Actor Jericho Rosales

In a film of your life, who would you like to play you

It's already happened – a guy called Jericho Rosales (above) played me.

Last film you saw

I watched Toy Story 3 with my kids.

Last book you read

The Bible. Even on the night of a fight, I make sure there is time to study it.

Favourite pre-match meal

I eat pretty much the same meal every day. I have Filipino beef broth and chicken soup with rice.

Can you cook Best dish

I have a cook.

Your favourite holiday destination

We had a great family vacation where we visited Japan and Australia in the same trip. Both are beautiful countries.

What's the most expensive thing you've ever bought

My yacht. It is so nice being at peace with the world out on the ocean, surrounded by your family and the people you love.

Tell us a secret…

When I fight the crime rate in the Philippines drops like crazy during the fight. At first I thought it was a myth, but it's been backed up by statistics.

Billy Joe Saunders beats Nick Blackwell to keep Commonwealth middleweight title and win British belt

Classy Saunders beats Blackwell to add British belt to Commonwealth title

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UPDATED:

02:54 GMT, 16 December 2012

Billy Joe Saunders retained his Commonwealth middleweight title and added the vacant British belt to his growing collection with a unanimous points win over Nick Blackwell.

The former Olympian, who remains undefeated after 16 professional contests, was forced to dig deep during the middle rounds but his class was reflected by scores of 117-112, 116-113 and 115-114 on the judges' cards.

Blackwell, who was fighting for the British strap for the second time, provided a stern test for the 23-year-old, but faded in the second half of the fight.

Champion: Billy Joe Saunders celebrates with his belts after victory over Nick Blackwell

Champion: Billy Joe Saunders celebrates with his belts after victory over Nick Blackwell

Saunders, 22, was fighting for the fourth time in a busy 2012 but only once had he been pushed, when winning a unanimous decision over Bradley Pryce in June.

In winning the vacant Commonwealth strap in April, Tony Hill was brutally dispatched in just 30 seconds at the Royal Albert Hall.

Unbeaten Australian Jarrod Fletcher last slightly longer when he made the trip to London but only until the second round when he too was stopped.

Blackwell's only previous defeat meanwhile came against world title challenger Martin Murray who faces WBC champion Sergio Martinez in Argentina next spring.

The 22-year-old emerged via the unlicensed circuit, winning all 18 of his fights before turning professional in 2009.

Since losing to Murray last summer, Blackwell had stopped his four subsequent opponents, most recently Mikheil Khutsishvili in May.

After a tense opening to the first round, Saunders began to exert control, landing with several flurries while Blackwell struggled to manoeuvre himself into position with his jab.

Saunders' pressure punching looked to be
taking its toll but Blackwell began to find his range towards the end of
the third stanza as he took advantage of Saunders' low right hand to
land several effective jabs.

Growing in confidence, the Trowbridge fighter began to move downstairs with his left hand and by the fourth round, an evenly-matched contest had developed.

And as a thrilling fight reached the
halfway stage, Blackwell was producing the more eye-catching
combinations as Saunders was forced on to the ropes and his right eye
began to redden.

Resistance: Blackwell put up a strong defence but Saunders deserved to take the fight on points

Resistance: Blackwell put up a strong defence but Saunders deserved to take the fight on points

Saunders' rod-like right jab proved effective in keeping Blackwell at bay in the seventh but the challenger was intent on stalking his opponent around the ring and had no hesitation in trading toe-to-toe.

Having boxed just one round since March, Blackwell began to tire in the eighth session as Saunders regained control of the bout. Although the ninth round was punctuated by solid jabs from Blackwell, it was the champion who stretched his lead on the scorecards with ever-more punishing combinations.

Aside from sporadic attacks to the body, Blackwell was also second best in the tenth round and was repeatedly beaten to the punch in round 10 while missing with shots of his own. Saunders took his foot off the gas in the penultimate round, perhaps aware that hearing the final bell would assure him of victory.

But Blackwell threatened to spoil the party in the last round as a punishing body shot momentarily stopped Saunders in his tracks but a barnstorming final two minutes failed to deliver a knockout blow.

Saunders was pleased to have been taken 12 rounds.

'Nick was very, very game and those rounds will hold me in good stead for the future. I've moved on to the next level,' he said.

Earlier in the evening, Liam Smith and Steve O'Meara both played their part in an enthralling contest for the vacant Commonwealth light-middleweight title, with Liverpudlian Smith winning by unanimous decision.

One of four boxing brothers, the 24-year-old looked set for an early finish when a left hook to the body had O'Meara, 28, on the canvas as the bell went for the end of the opening session.

The home favourite beat the count and showed no ill-effects but Smith's superior work rate and punishing blows saw him open up a commanding lead.

Despite trailing by large margins, O'Meara was far from outclassed and had plenty in reserve to contribute to a thrilling final round in which both boxers went toe-to-toe.

But having been unable to land the knockout blow, O'Meara lost for the third time in his career by scores of 112-116, 110-118 and 112-116.

Tough test: Blackwell impressed in defeat as he took Saunders to the final bell

Tough test: Blackwell impressed in defeat as he took Saunders to the final bell

Tony Conquest lost his unbeaten record, and his WBO International cruiserweight belt, when he was knocked out in less than two minutes by Neil Dawson.

Conquest started brightly but just as the contest was warming up, he was floored by a sharp left-right combination to the head and failed to beat the referee's count.

Bradley Skeete delivered the best performance of his career to win the Southern Area welterweight title with a fourth-round stoppage of Chas Symonds.

Skeete struggled to a laboured points victory over journeyman Peter McDonagh in September but produced a vastly-improved showing against Symonds.

Boxing behind the jab, the 25-year-old floored his opponent in the second round courtesy of a vicious left hook to the body.

Symonds, 30, had no trouble beating the count but Skeete began to land his right hand with alarming regularity and by the fourth round, Symonds' left eye was almost closed shut.

The doctor cleared him to continue but yet another right hand delivered Symonds to the canvas for a second time and although he again rose quickly, the contest was waved off.

Crowd favourite Frank Buglioni enjoyed yet another early night when Ciaran Healy retired on his stool with an injured back at the end of the second round.

The rising star from Enfield enjoyed his fifth stoppage from seven fights – a left hook to the body doing the damage, sending the Irishman to the floor before his corner called it a day.

Finally, Mitchell Smith needed less than four rounds to stop Estonian Igor Chuev in his fifth super-featherweight contest.

Smith, 20, had his opponent on the canvas in the third session but Chuev beat the count and although his corner threw in the towel seconds later, the referee opted to continue the contest.

But he did wave it off towards the end of the next round as Smith extended his unbeaten record.

Will Bradley Wiggins be allowed to defend his Tour de France crown?

Will Bradley Wiggins be allowed to defend his Tour de France crown

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UPDATED:

21:41 GMT, 15 December 2012

Bradley Wiggins would be the first to admit that his year of awesome achievement would not have been possible without the methodical mind of the man who has become the most influential figure in British cycling.

But now Dave Brailsford faces one of the most difficult decisions of his sporting life: does he encourage Wiggins to fulfil his dream of consecutive victories in the Tour de France — or ask the man who is clear favourite to lift the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award to follow team orders to play second string to Chris Froome’s attempt to win the most gruelling event in sport

Bradley Wiggins

Champion: Bradley Wiggins has had a sensational year but now is the time huge decisions will be made on next year's Tour

This summer, Brailsford presided brilliantly over Team Sky’s militarystyle campaign which enabled Wiggins to ride triumphantly along the Champs Elysees as the first British winner in the 109-year history of the Tour de France.

For his encore, Wiggins won an Olympic gold medal nine days later against the backdrop of Hampton Court Palace and Brailsford, as British Cycling’s performance director, had confirmed his status as a linchpin in Wiggins’s life for the past dozen years.

Now, with Wiggins talking for the first time last week of wanting to defend his Tour de France title rather than concentrating on the Giro d’Italia and playing a support role to Froome on the 2013 Tour, Brailsford knows he must manage the expectations of two of road racing’s greatest exponents.

Bradley Wiggins

Golden boy: Just nine days after becoming Britain's first ever Tour champion, Wiggins stormed through the streets of London to take Olympic gold

‘We haven’t finalised our plans for next year,’ said Brailsford, speaking last week from the warm weather camp in Majorca where Wiggins has been getting back to work in the afterglow of his phenomenal summer.

‘Bradley’s had a taste of celebrity but he has relished getting back the structure in his life and he is in great shape. Brad loves normality.’

Froome, thought to be marginally favoured by the route of next year’s Tour, which includes four mountain summit finishes and fewer stage miles in the time trials, and Wiggins have both publicly pledged to abide by the decision Brailsford arrives at with his trusted right-hand man, Australian Shane Sutton. Yet, briefly, there was tension between the two riders this summer, if swiftly managed.

Bradley Wiggins

Champion team: Wiggins celebrates with team-mates on the Champs-lyses

On Stage 11, Froome risked leaving Wiggins, leading the Tour by two minutes, exposed on the road when he made an unscheduled break on a climb.

‘It looked worse than it was,’ insisted Brailsford last week.

‘Through Froomey’s eyes, Brad was going really well and had a big buffer and he was thinking about his own position in relation to (Vincenzo) Nibali.

‘It was a brief bit of exuberance from Chris. If his intention had been to attack Bradley, he’d have kept going but, once he realised Brad was not on his wheel, he played his team role. There was no malice or going against team orders.’ Even so, he had to be told to back off.

Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain and Team SKY chats to Team Principal Dave Brailsford

Team talk: Sky team principal Dave Brailsford will soon decide who will lead his team in next year's Tour. Will it be Wiggins or Froome… or even both

At the time, Wiggins was distinctly unamused. ‘From that moment, through the rest of the Tour, I didn’t quite know what to expect from Chris when it got into the heat of battle,’ Wiggins wrote in his autobiography.

For Brailsford, the incident is consigned to history; a small blip during a Wiggins- Froome blitz of the world’s best riders.

Instead he remembers how Wiggins, a man who already possessed six Olympic track cycling medals, three of them gold, turned his career around two years ago to enable him to win the greatest bike race in the world after 21 glorious days in July.

According to Brailsford, Wiggins’s road to glory on the Tour de France began in a private — and uncomfortable — meeting at the end of a disappointing first season for Team Sky.

‘Bradley had to look hard at himself in the mirror at the end of 2010,’ he said. Brailsford acknowledged that mistakes had been made — ‘We over-complicated everything,’ he admitted — but Wiggins also faced a personal crisis.

His performance dipped and his mind wandered as he mourned the death of his beloved grandfather, George — his role-model after his father, Gary, a professional cyclist, walked out on him and his mother, Linda, when he was a child. Wiggins’s world crashed. He turned off his phone and could not be contacted. Patience within Team Sky was close to being exhausted.

Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France cycling race, celebrates as he crosses the finish line of the last stage of the the Tour de France

Magic moment: Wiggins crosses the finish line in Paris, but many say next year's route would be better suited to the mountain climbing strengths of Chris Froome

At one low moment, Wiggins later learned the crisis ran so deep that Brailsford asked team psychiatrist Steve Peters: ‘What should we do with Brad He’s a bloody nightmare.’

Eventually Wiggins, with the support of his wife, Cath, realised he had to address his problems. At a team summit with Brailsford, Sutton agreed to Wiggins’s request to coach him.

Last week Brailsford recalled: ‘We had words and we had some honest feedback with Brad. But after that first year, as a team, we went back to the drawing board.

 Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome

Team tension: Chris Froome congratulates Wiggins on his gold medal but was itching to break free from his supportive role in this summer's Tour

'We had clarity of purpose with everyone thinking the same way. But Brad deserves a lot of credit for his unbelievable hard work and the maturity that now makes him easy to coach.’

Never had a man on a bike travelled so far, or so fast, into the consciousness of the public than Wiggins.

‘The first week of the Tour is all about not losing any time, but it’s also about not crashing,’ said Brailsford. ‘The safest place is at the front of the bunch — but every other team is trying to do the same, so it becomes like a scene from Ben Hur.’

 (L-R) Silver medallist Tony Martin of Germany, gold medallist Bradley Wiggins of Great Britain and bronze medallist Christopher Froome of Great Britain

National treasure: Bradley Wiggins is joined on the podium by German silver medallist Tony Martin and Britain's Chris Froome, who finished third

On the third stage, Kosta Siutsou, a key support rider for Wiggins, broke a leg.

‘That shook everyone in the team and the mood was pretty fraught,’ admitted Brailsford.

‘Of course, for Brad it brought back memories of how his Tour had been ended by a broken collar-bone the previous year. It was quite a jolt because, at the time, we didn’t know how the story was going to unfold.’

From that moment, Team Sky had to combat their rivals with eight men rather than nine. And Brailsford had to gather the riders and staff together to restore morale as fast as possible.

Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins

Power house: Wiggins is the best time trialist in the world but next year's Tour will have fewer time trial miles

‘It is a mini-grieving process,’ he said. ‘Anger surfaces and then there is an acceptance that life is not fair, that the goalposts get moved.’

Brailsford’s management style is fastidious and he leaves nothing to chance.

‘We take our own beds from hotel to hotel and everybody has their same pillow every night,’ he said. ‘We vacuum and dust every room before the riders arrive and we install airconditioning and de-humidifiers.’

The team travel with their own chef and the team bus is a haven of luxury. Wiggins excelled as each day came and passed.

He earned the Yellow Jersey on stage seven and wore it all the way to Paris, where he was greeted by thousands of ecstatic British supporters, many wearing fake sideburns as a tribute to their laid-back hero.

‘For me, there was a feeling of elation and pure joy at Brad getting that jersey,’ said Brailsford.

‘It was a perfect performance from the team — one of my best days in cycling. ‘Brad is a connoisseur of the sport, he knows its history. You had only to look at him to see how much it meant. Fundamentally, he is a family man, a decent man and a very funny man.

He’s a colourful character, strongminded like all champions, and someone who occasionally courts controversy — but Brad has a heart of gold.’

Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins of Sky Pro Racing (yellow jersey), followed by team mate Mark Cavendish, during Stage 20 between Brambouillet and Paris, France.

Leading the pack: Team Sky's strategy of leading from the front worked spectacularly well during the summer

On returning from Paris, Wiggins was given the honour of ringing the bell at the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium, symbolically declaring the Games had commenced.

Four days afterwards, he was receiving an Olympic gold medal after destroying all-comers in the road time trial, the race of truth.

‘To make history in the Tour de France was a big deal but then to take Olympic gold so soon afterwards makes what Bradley did this summer exceptional,’ said Brailsford, who will be in the audience at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards tonight.

Brailsford’s own day of judgment — whether to throw his support behind Wiggins or Froome on the 2013 Tour — lies ahead this winter.

Norwich 2 Sunderland 1: Match report

Norwich 2 Sunderland 1: Canaries flying high after escaping Black Cats' claws

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UPDATED:

18:35 GMT, 2 December 2012

Norwich survived a second-half onslaught from Sunderland to secure their fourth straight home Barclays Premier League win and condemn the Black Cats to yet another defeat.

A second goal in eight days from former Newcastle defender Sebastien Bassong and a smart finish from Anthony Pilkington gave the home side a well-deserved two-goal lead.

But Craig Gardner pulled one back just before the break for Sunderland, who then wasted numerous chances in a second half they dominated without managing to secure a much-needed result.

Doubling up: Anthony Pilkington makes it 2-0 to Norwich in the first half

Doubling up: Anthony Pilkington makes it 2-0 to Norwich in the first half

Match Facts:

Norwich: Bunn, Whittaker, Bassong, Ryan Bennett, Garrido, Snodgrass (Elliott Bennett 77), Tettey, Johnson, Pilkington, Hoolahan (Howson 88), Holt.

Subs Not Used: Rudd, Martin, Jackson, Morison, Barnett.

Goals: Bassong 8, Pilkington 37.

Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley, Kilgallon, Cuellar, Rose, Johnson, Gardner, Larsson (Vaughan 90), McClean (Campbell 85), Sessegnon, Fletcher (Wickham 46).

Subs Not Used: Westwood, McFadden, Colback, Bramble.

Booked: Kilgallon, Bardsley.

Goal: Gardner 44

Attendance: 26,228

Referee: Phil Dowd

The win moves the Canaries up to 12th
in the table, with Sunderland still only one place and one point above
the relegation zone.

The hosts dominated the opening
exchanges and looked much sharper in possession, with Sunderland
defender Matthew Kilgallon cautioned by referee Phil Dowd after just
three minutes for tugging at Norwich skipper Grant Holt as he turned
past him.

Another free-kick conceded five
minutes later led to the opening goal as Robert Snodgrass' set-piece was
flicked on by Bradley Johnson, the ball taking a deflection off the arm
of Carlos Cuellar before being bundled home from close range by
Bassong, with the borderline offside decision going in Norwich's favour.

Sunderland finally tested Mark Bunn
in the 28th minute as Sebastian Larsson pulled a corner back to the edge
of the box to Danny Rose, who fired in a low effort that the Norwich
goalkeeper did well to keep hold of. The game became a little scrappy as
the half progressed but the Canaries would double their lead eight
minutes before the break.

Bradley Johnson played a through ball
into the run of Pilkington, who was played onside by Kilgallon, and the
winger ran through on goal before rounding Cuellar and coolly slotting
past Simon Mignolet.

From distance: Pilkington sees his effort fly in

From distance: Pilkington sees his effort fly in

With just one minute remaining before half-time, Sunderland hauled themselves back into the game.
Adam Johnson skipped down the left flank and pulled the ball across to
Gardner who arrowed a low effort past Bunn, although the former
Blackburn goalkeeper may feel he could have kept it out.

Gardner's effort was the first goal
Norwich had conceded in the league at home since Liverpool's 5-2 victory
at Carrow Road at the end of September and it meant the Black Cats went
in at the break with renewed vigour ahead of the second period.

Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill
introduced striker Connor Wickham at half-time with Steven Fletcher
making way and the visitors started the second half brightly, with only a
clearance from Ryan Bennett stopping Wickham from tapping home to make
an immediate impact.

Going ahead: Sebastien Bassong scored an early header for Norwich

Going ahead: Sebastien Bassong scored an early header for Norwich

Where Norwich had looked calm and
assured in possession for the majority of the first half, Gardner's goal
seemed to knock them off their stride and they played a number of
lacklustre passes in the early stages of the second 45 minutes.

After weathering a Sunderland storm,
Chris Hughton's side started to reassert themselves on the game and only
a flying stop from Mignolet prevented Pilkington scoring his second
from just outside the box.

Back in the game: Craig Gardner celebrates scoring his side's goal

Back in the game: Craig Gardner celebrates scoring his side's goal

The heat is on: Sunderland manager Martin ONeill looks on as his side were beaten by Norwich

The heat is on: Sunderland manager Martin ONeill looks on as his side were beaten by Norwich

Sunderland should have been level
moments later as a rasping Gardner free-kick rattled the post and
Kilgallon turned the rebound over the bar from six yards out.

Bunn's goal continued to live a
charmed life as the goalkeeper's punched clearance from a Sunderland
corner fell straight to Gardner, whose effort was cleared off the line
by Javier Garrido.

Stephane Sessegnon was the next
Sunderland player to have a chance to level matters but he shot straight
at Bunn who had stayed on his feet.

Taking a fall: Connor Wickham goes to ground after a challenge from Bassong

Taking a fall: Connor Wickham goes to ground after a challenge from Bassong

Fight for the ball: Sunderland's Stephane Sessegnon and Norwich City's Alexander Tettey battle

Fight for the ball: Sunderland's Stephane Sessegnon and Norwich City's Alexander Tettey battle

The Benin international again came
close on 73 minutes when the Norwich defence allowed an innocuous ball
into their penalty area to bounce and Sessegnon's overhead kick flew
wide.
Wickham had the ball the back of the net with 13 minutes remaining after
Bunn spilled Rose's long-range effort, but the former Ipswich man was
flagged offside.

With his side still struggling to
contain the visitors Hughton introduced Elliott Bennett from the bench
in place of Snodgrass to offer more pace in attack.

Holding off: Wes Hoolahan fends off Matthew Kilgallon of Sunderland

Holding off: Wes Hoolahan fends off Matthew Kilgallon of Sunderland

Making a break: Ryan Bennett vies with Sunderland's Danny Rose

Making a break: Ryan Bennett vies with Sunderland's Danny Rose

Holt then had a great chance to
punish the profligacy of their visitors but a heavy touch after being
played through by Wes Hoolahan meant Mignolet could collect the loose
ball, before Elliott Bennett found Holt with a decent cross a minute
later only for the Canaries captain to blaze a difficult chance over the
bar.

O'Neill threw on Fraizer Campbell and
David Vaughan in the closing stages but Norwich held on to extend their
unbeaten league run to eight games and move six points ahead of
Sunderland in the table.

Adam Scott, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els and Co wait to hear if long putters will be banned

Scott, Bradley, Els and Co wait to hear if controversial long putters will be banned

|

UPDATED:

11:08 GMT, 26 November 2012

Golfers around the world are waiting to hear if long putters are to be banned – or at least the way many currently use them is banned.

But one influential voice is urging professionals not to take radical action even if they do not like having to change.

European Tour chief executive George O'Grady said: 'Speaking personally on behalf of the Tour, one of our great facets is that we are connected to the game that every amateur can play as well.

Verdict: Long putters could be banned from the game

Verdict: Long putters could be banned from the game

Justin Rose feels the fourth

Justin Rose

Justin Rose's closing 62 for second
place behind Rory McIlroy in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai has
taken him to fourth in the world – his highest placing.

But by finishing only joint 48th in
the 56-strong field, Lee Westwood has dropped to sixth – his lowest
position for over three years.

'We could go separately. I would urge the Tour to follow the rules as laid down by the governing bodies.

'We are a very strong lobbyist, our views being sought all the time. There's been a lot of discussion throughout the year with the USGA (United States Golf Association) and the R&A (Royal and Ancient Club) and the PGA Tour.

'I think the rules-making bodies have to do what they think is right for the game.

'The view of our leading members and our players must be listened to, but I haven't heard one of our members want to break away at the moment. They want to be connected to the game.'

The issue has come to the fore with three of the last five major champions – Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Ernie Els – among those using long putters.

Nobody had ever won a major with one until Bradley's victory at the USPGA Championship last year.

Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive, said in July after The Open: 'Anchoring is what we're looking at -method of stroke – and it's all about putting around a fixed pivot point, whether that is in your belly or under your chin or on your chest.

'It has dramatically increased and we're also seeing now people who can putt perfectly well in the conventional way thinking that an anchored stroke gives them an advantage.

'I think that's the fundamental change that we've witnessed in the last couple of years.

'The objections I find from those at elite level are “if people have become failed putters in the conventional way why should they have a crutch to come back and compete against me when I haven't failed in the conventional way” That's the general argument one hears.'

Russia 2 USA 2: Fabio Capello and Jurgen Klinsmann draw

Russia 2 USA 2: Capello denied victory as Klinsmann's men fight back in last minute

|

UPDATED:

19:50 GMT, 14 November 2012

Mix Diskerud scored deep into stoppage time as the United States twice fought back from a goal down to hold Russia to a 2-2 draw in the first match between the two former Cold War adversaries since 2000.

Debutant Fyodor Smolov put the home team 1-0 up in the ninth minute of the friendly before Michael Bradley's spectacular volley in the 76th minute rewarded an improved second-half display by the Americans in the southern city of Krasnodar.

Roman Shirokov restored Russia's advantage with an 84th-minute penalty and it seemed they would extend their winning streak to five games under Italian coach Fabio Capello.

Good to see you! Russian coach Fabio Capello (left) and his USA counterpart Jurgen Klinsmann

Good to see you! Russian coach Fabio Capello (left) and his USA counterpart Jurgen Klinsmann

Good to see you! Russian coach Fabio Capello (left) and his USA counterpart Jurgen Klinsmann

Substitute Diskerud's low shot then took a lucky bounce and fooled keeper Vladimir Gabulov four minutes into stoppage time.

The Americans were tentative early on and the hosts took full advantage, Smolov beating keeper Tim Howard with a low drive into the corner of the net.

Smolov's joy was short-lived though as suffered a leg muscle injury and had to be substituted.
The U.S., who also lost skipper Carlos Bocanegra to injury early in the first half, had trouble keeping possession.

Clarence Goodson, who replaced Bocanegra, produced the first shot for the visitors after nearly half an hour but it was easily saved by Gabulov.

Russia increased the tempo after the break as Alan Dzagoyev went close with a header and fellow substitute Renat Yanbayev fired straight at Howard from close range.

Level pegging: Mix Diskerud rescued a draw for the United States against Russia

Level pegging: Mix Diskerud rescued a draw for the United States against Russia

Capello introduced several newcomers including winger Denis Cheryshev who plays for Real Madrid's B team Castilla and has yet to feature for Jose Mourinho's side while U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann gave a debut to midfielder Joshua Gatt who plays for Norwegian champions Molde.

The Americans slowly started to find their rhythm and Bradley controlled Jozy Altidore's header before blasting the ball in from the edge of the box.

Shirokov made it 2-1 to Russia only for Diskerud to save the day for the U.S. when his shot took a deflection, bounced over the keeper, hit the post and went in.

Despite the setback the Russians, who have won all four of their World Cup qualifiers, stretched their unbeaten run under Capello to six games.

Battle: Igor Denisov (centre) and Danny Williams fight for the ball

Battle: Igor Denisov (centre) and Danny Williams fight for the ball

'I'm really pleased with what we showed today,' the former England manager, who replaced Dick Advocaat following Russia's poor showing at Euro 2012, told reporters.

'I've managed to see a lot of new young players tonight and now I could use them in competitive matches.'

Klinsmann praised his players for a spirited display against 'one of the best teams in the world. We showed a lot of character to come back. We showed we can play with the best teams in the world,' said the former Germany striker.

It was a fitting end to a good year for the Americans who beat Italy 1-0 in Genoa in February, outclassed Scotland 5-1 in another friendly in May and earned a first away win over Mexico by a 1-0 margin at the intimidating Azteca stadium in August.

The teams last met in a friendly in Moscow 12 years ago won 2-0 by Russia.

Stoke boss Tony Pulis calls for retrospective action on diving after admitting frustration with Norwich goal

Pulis calls for retrospective action on diving after admitting frustration with Norwich goal

|

UPDATED:

18:42 GMT, 3 November 2012

Stoke manager Tony Pulis felt his side had been 'kicked in the teeth' by poor refereeing decisions during their 1-0 defeat at Norwich.

Bradley Johnson's headed goal at the end of the first half proved enough to secure the Canaries a second successive Barclays Premier League home win.

Pulis, though, was left less than impressed by the award of the initial free-kick for a foul by full-back Andy Wilkinson on Robert Snodgrass out on the far touchline, and also referee Andre Marriner ruling midfielder Charlie Adam had dived earlier in the first half.

'The goal was a disappointment. I have been in to see the referee to have a quick chat,' said Pulis.

Frustration: Tony Pulis' side have won just once this season

Frustration: Tony Pulis' side have won just once this season

'I thought it certainly was not a free-kick, and the disappointing thing is when the lad falls, Andre and the linesman are so close to it.

'He has booked Charlie in the first half for diving – I have just had a look at that and [Javier] Garrido pushes him in the back, so that is a double kick in the teeth when he gets both those decisions wrong and even worse when they score from it.'

Diving has become a contentious issue in the English game, and Pulis believed retrospective punishment is the way forwards.

He added: 'Referees give the decisions they see on the day, and he has seen it differently to what we have. When he sees it again on the telly tonight, he will have a different opinion.

Having a word: Referee Andre Marriner and Ryan Shawcross get to grips with one another

Having a word: Referee Andre Marriner and Ryan Shawcross get to grips with one another

'I think the [diving] situation should be taken completely out of the hands of the referees and it should be retrospective on a Monday, there should be a panel which sits to decide whether a player has dived or not, that eases the pressure on referees and they only make that decision if they are 110 per cent certain someone has cheated.'

Norwich manager Chris Hughton defended Snodgrass against any accusations of unsportsmanlike conduct.

He said: 'I have not seen it since, but I have heard the comments. If anything is labelled at Robert Snodgrass, then you have got to say the same about Charlie Adam, who went down.

'If you are looking at incidents in the game, there are so many and you are always going to pick out a few, but it is a tough physical game and you have to be able to deal with it.'

Heated: Passions overflow between the two sides at Carrow Road

Heated: Passions overflow between the two sides at Carrow Road

Stoke had won just once in the league before this afternoon, drawing six. Norwich, meanwhile, are now four games unbeaten in all competitions following the international break, having reached the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup with victory over Tottenham in midweek.

Hughton, though, accepted the Canaries could have given themselves more breathing space during the closing stages this afternoon, when the hosts soaked up plenty of pressure.

'You cannot be too disappointed when you have won the game, but we could have made life better for ourselves,' he said.

'We needed to put a little more pressure on them, we could have done better when we had the ball and had two very good chances apart from scoring the goal.

Precious strike: Bradley Johnson hit the only goal of the game to send Norwich into 14th

Precious strike: Bradley Johnson hit the only goal of the game to send Norwich into 14th

'We should have pressed more, but that takes a lot of energy, especially when you are playing against a team like Stoke.

'But I thought we dealt with it very well and apart from Kenwyne Jones' header we restricted them to a couple of half-chances.'

Heineken Cup 2012-13: Sportsmail"s guide to Europe"s premier rugby competition

Ready to rumble: Sportsmail's guide to Europe's premier rugby competition

By
Chris Foy

PUBLISHED:

21:37 GMT, 10 October 2012

|

UPDATED:

23:49 GMT, 10 October 2012

The Heineken Cup kicks off this weekend as 24 teams will battle to win the crown that Leinster won at Twickenham in May. Here, Sportsmail's Chris Foy gives his guide to the six pools and the teams involved.

Wrecking ball: Courtney Lawes is colossal for the Saints

Wrecking ball: Courtney Lawes is colossal for the Saints

POOL ONE

A classic Pool of Death. Three of these four reached last season’s quarter-finals, with Edinburgh making it to the last four. The Scots belied their league struggles with epic home-and-away wins over Racing Metro, the rich French side who have just signed Olly Barkley from Bath. Munster don’t seem to be the force they were but Saracens, now with Chris Ashton’s prolific finishing, have the calibre to finish top.

Predicted qualifier: Saracens.

Edinburgh

Coach: Michael Bradley.
Captain: Greig Laidlaw.
Ground: Murrayfield (capacity: 67,144).
Last year: Semi-final. ERC ranking: 13.
Star man: Tim Visser (wing) – Scotland’s giant ‘Flying Dutchman’ has emerged as a try-scorer extraordinaire.
Title odds: 125-1.

Munster

Coach: Rob Penney.
Captain: Doug Howlett.
Ground: Thomond Park (26,000).
Last year: Quarter-final. ERC ranking: 4.
Star man: Ronan O’Gara (fly half) – The veteran has won countless pressure games for his province in Europe.
Title odds: 14-1.

Racing Metro

Coach: Pierre Berbizier.
Captain: Jacques Cronje.
Ground: Stade Olympique Yves du Manoir (14,000).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 29.
Star man: Juan Martin Hernandez (fly half) – ‘El Mago’ (The Magician) is a regal playmaker at his best.
Title odds: 66-1.

Saracens

Coach: Mark McCall.
Captain: Steve Borthwick.
Ground: Vicarage Road (18,214).
Last year: Qtr-final. ERC ranking: 20.
Star man: Schalk Brits (hooker) – South African is a combative forward with the skills of a midfield back.
Title odds: 16-1.

Opening fixtures — Saturday: Edinburgh v Saracens, 1.35; Racing Metro 92 v Munster, 1.35.

POOL TWO

Leicester are hell-bent on making amends for failing to reach the knock-out stages. Richard Cockerill’s side can progress if they avoid a pile of injuries, but Toulouse – awash with Test talent – are the team to beat. The Ospreys retain clout up front but their wait for European glory is destined to go on.

Predicted qualifier: Toulouse.

Leicester

Coach: Richard Cockerill.
Captain: Geordan Murphy.
Ground: Welford Road (24,000).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 9.
Star man: Ben Youngs (scrum-half) – Back from injury to galvanise the Tigers with his high-octane running.
Title odds: 14-1.

Ospreys

Coach: Steve Tandy.
Captain: Alun Wyn Jones.
Ground: Liberty Stadium (20,520).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 14.
Star man: Adam Jones (prop) – Every side craves a top tighthead and the Welsh region arguably have the world’s best.
Title odds: 40-1.

Toulouse

Coach: Guy Noves.
Captain: Thierry Dusautoir.
Ground: Stade Ernest Wallon (19,000).
Last year: Qtr-final. ERC ranking: 2.
Star man: Dusautoir (flanker) – Rugged, inspiring leader, brutal in defence and a menace at the breakdown.
Title odds: 5-1.

Treviso

Coach: Vittorio Munari.
Captain: Antonio Pavanello.
Ground: Stadio Comunale di Monigo (9,000).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 28.
Star man: Robert Barbieri (Flanker/No 8) – A back-row bruiser with a handy knack of scoring tries.
Title odds: 2000-1.

Opening fixtures — Friday: Ospreys v Treviso, 8pm. Sunday: Toulouse v Leicester, 3pm.

POOL THREE

Aviva Premiership champions Harlequins suffered a shock defeat at Connacht last season but having won in Toulouse, Conor O’Shea’s men will believe they can handle a trip to Biarritz. The most Connacht and newcomers Zebre can aim for is an upset win at home.

Predicted qualifiers: Harlequins, Biarritz.

Biarritz

Coach: Laurent Rodriguez.
Captain: Imanol Harinordoquy.
Ground: Parc des Sports Aguilera (13,400).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 3.
Star man: Dimitri Yachvili (Scrum-half) – The little general makes the Basque team tick and is a renowned goal-kicker.
Title odds: 14-1.

Connacht

Coach: Eric Elwood.
Captain: Gavin Duffy.
Ground: Sportsground, Galway (9,000).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 24.
Star man: Dan Parks (fly-half) – The Australian-born, former Scotland No 10 is an experienced playmaker.
Title odds: 1000-1.

Harlequins

Coach: Conor O’Shea.
Captain: Chris Robshaw.
Ground: Twickenham Stoop (14,282).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 11.
Star man: Nick Easter (No 8) – Veteran former captain is on song and hasn’t lost hope of a Test recall.
Title odds: 10-1.

Zebre

Coach: Roberto Manghi.
Captain: Marco Bortolami.
Ground: Stadio XXV Aprile (5,000).
Last year: N/A. ERC ranking: N/A.
Star man: Salvatore Perugini (Prop) – A one-time cornerstone of the Italy scrum who made his mark in Europe at Toulouse.
Title odds: 5000-1.

Opening fixtures: Saturday: Zebre v Connacht, 1.35pm, Harlequins v Biarritz, 6pm

POOL FOUR

Northampton lost the 2011 final to Leinster in agonising fashion after storming into a big lead, but have one of the most formidable packs in the tournament. Ulster have responded to the shattering death of their young centre, Nevin Spence, by sweeping all before them in recent weeks and with their blend of South African and home-grown quality bolstered by the return of Tommy Bowe.

Predicted qualifier: Ulster.

Castres

Coach: Laurent Travers.
Captain: Matthias Rolland.
Ground: Stade Pierre Antoine (10,000).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 27th.
Star man: Romain Teulet (Full back) – Goal-kicking full back has been a club stalwart since tournament debut 11 years ago.
Title odds: 80-1.

Glasgow

Coach: Gregor Townsend.
Captain: Alastair Kellock.
Ground: Scotstoun Stadium (5,000).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 19th.
Star man: John Barclay (Flanker) – One-time Scotland captain who is renowned as a classical openside poacher and forager.
Title odds: 200-1.

Northampton

Coach: Jim Mallinder.
Captain: Dylan Hartley.
Ground: Franklin’s Gardens (13,591).
Last year: Pool.ERC ranking: 6th.
Star man: Courtney Lawes (Lock/flanker) – When fit, he is an athletic carrier, strong in the air and a wrecking-ball tackler.
Title odds: 20-1.

Ulster

Coach: David Humphreys.
Captain: Johann Muller.
Ground: Ravenhill (11,700).
Last year: Runners-up.
ERC ranking: 8th. Star man: Stephen Ferris (Flanker) – Figure of monumental influence for his home province, even though his knees are creaking.
Title odds: 18-1.

Opening fixtures: Friday: Ulster v Castres, 8pm, Sunday: Northampton v Glasgow, 12.45pm

POOL FIVE

Exeter jump in at the deep end on their debut in Europe’s premier event – starting with a trip to Dublin to face the champions. Leinster have a raft of Test players and have set new standards of attacking cohesion thanks to Joe Schmidt’s inspired coaching. Clermont have a staggering array of firepower and forward clout, with imports such as Lee Byrne, Nathan Hines and Sitiveni Sivivatu. The Scarlets are not the force of old but they have a potent back line.

Predicted qualifiers: Leinster, Clermont.

Clermont Auvergne

Coach: Vern Cotter.
Captain: Aurelien Rougerie.
Ground: Stade Marcel Michelin (18,000).
Last year: Semi-final. ERC ranking: 7th.
Star man: Wesley Fofana (Centre) – France’s latest midfield sensation was at the heart of run to last four last season.
Title odds: 8-1.

Exeter

Coach: Rob Baxter.
Captain: Tom Hayes.
Ground: Sandy Park (10,744).
Last year: N/A. ERC ranking: 34th.
Star man: Tom Johnson (Flanker) – The back-row dynamo has been instrumental in the Chiefs’ rise, earning England recognition.
Title odds: 500-1.

Leinster

Coach: Joe Schmidt.
Captain: Leo Cullen.
Ground: RDS Arena (18,500).
Last year: Champions. ERC ranking: 1st.
Star man: Richardt Strauss (Hooker) – Amid the household names, the South African who may play for Ireland has been outstanding.
Title odds: 7-2.

Scarlets

Coach: Simon Easterby.
Captain: Rob McCusker.
Ground: Parc y Scarlets (15,180).
Last year: Pool. ERC ranking: 18th.
Star man: George North (Wing) – Giant star of Wales’ Grand Slam and World Cup campaign. Surely a Test Lion-in-waiting.
Title odds: 50-1.

Opening fixtures: Saturday, Clermont Auvergne v Scarlets, 3.40pm, Saturday, Leinster v Exeter 3.40pm

POOL SIX

Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, has been amassing an ‘army’ and this may be the year when his troops conquer Europe. The French club have such remarkable depth that their pool rivals face a seemingly impossible battle. Yet, the Blues beat Toulon in the Amlin Challenge Cup Final two years ago and have a few high-calibre players of their own, although the new regime is already under fire. Sale return on the back of six straight league defeats leaving them bottom of the Premiership. Montpellier are fourth in the Top 14, but can’t hope to edge out their compatriots in this pool.

Predicted qualifier: Toulon.

Cardiff Blues

Coach: Phil Davies.
Captain: Andries Pretorius.
Ground: Cardiff Arms Park (13,000).
Last year: Quarter-final, ERC ranking: 5th.
Star man: Sam Warburton (Flanker) – Wales skipper has had injury issues but when fit he is among world’s best No 7s.
Title odds: 66-1.

Montpellier

Coach: Fabien Galthie.
Captain: Fulgence Ouedraogo.
Ground: Stade Yves du Manoir (14,719).
Last year: Pool, ERC ranking: 30th.
Star man: Mamuka Gorgodze (Lock/back row) – Colossal Georgian known as ‘Godzilla’ who England struggled to handle at the World Cup.
Title odds: 66-1.

Sale

Coach: Bryan Redpath.
Captain: Dave Seymour.
Ground: Salford City Stadium (12,000).
Last year: N/A, ERC ranking: 25th.
Star man: Richie Gray (Lock) – Yet to hit full throttle since move from Glasgow but Scots’ talisman is a major talent.
Title odds: 200-1.

Toulon

Coach: Bernard Laporte.
Captain: Joe van Niekerk.
Ground: Stade Felix Mayol (14,500).
Last year: N/A. ERC ranking: 12th.
Star man: Steffon Armitage (Flanker) – Among all the global superstars, the English openside has been the most consistent performer.
Title odds: 7-1.

Opening fixtures: Sale v Cardiff Sunday 12.45pm, Toulon v Montpellier Sunday 8pm

Keegan Bradley brings new backbone to USA

Rookie Bradley brings new backbone to USA

|

UPDATED:

23:36 GMT, 28 September 2012

The only time Keegan Bradley had
attended a Ryder Cup before this was the notorious Brookline edition in
1999, when his father Mark hoisted the then 13 year-old on his shoulders
to give him a view over the crowds.

Mark Bradley could not help but
remember that visit on Friday as he watched his son overcome cloying
nerves on the first tee and nail his opening drive down the fairway in
the second Foursomes match of the Ryder Cup.

Get in: Keegan Bradley celebrates

Get in: Keegan Bradley celebrates

As last year's USPGA winner Keegan should be equipped to deal with the major moments, that title earning him repeat chants of 'Major winner!' before he teed off, designed to mock his opponents Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, who have so far fallen short of that honour.

The family Bradley – which includes Auntie Pat, one of America's best women golfers – need not have worried, for that drive up the first was the precursor to one of the finest debut days ever seen in the competition.

The 26 year-old from Vermont capped a magnificent display with his belly putter by holing a monster on the fifteenth to down Donald and Garcia four and three before lunch, and afterwards he helped derail the European juggernaut of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell two and one alongside Phil Mickelson.

More than anyone, even Nicolas Colsaerts, Bradley made this the day of the rookie, and with his wired, eye-bulging intensity he turned out to be America's answer to Ian Poulter. Asked if he was tired at the end he blurted 'Oh baby, I could go 36 more.'

Up for it: Bradley after nearly making a long eagle putt on the 15th

Up for it: Bradley after nearly making a long eagle putt on the 15th

Another massive achievement was that he
managed to turn Mickelson into some kind of Ryder Cup titan rather than
the wimp he has often looked in this competition.

Against Europe's go-to pairing in the afternoon Bradley, lining up his
putts with the look of a psychopath planning some dastardly deed,
delivered five birdies to establish a three hole lead.

When his level then dropped a little Mickelson was inspired to step into
the breach, carving out a series of halves against McIlroy to protect
it, culminating with a sensational drive on the seventeenth over the
water to win their second point .

Over these three days the Americans desperately need their veteran
triumvirate of Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk, who have been the
wobbly spine of the team for the past fifteen years, to come good.

Delight: Bradley celebrates victory over Donald and Garcia

Delight: Bradley celebrates victory over Donald and Garcia

They bear the most responsibility for America's sliding performance in
the bi-annual as a virtual common denominator in the turnaround of the
Europeans' fortunes that goes back to Mickelson's debut in 1995.

The Californian has four Majors, but prior to yesterday he had played in
eight Ryder Cups and won just fourteen points from 34 matches, too
often going missing when his team most needed him.

Woods has only a marginally better record and Furyk one even worse, but
at least Mickleson yesterday started to look more backbone than
invertebrate, thanks to the company of someone who was barely nine when
he made his Ryder Cup debut.