Tag Archives: colossus

Lawrence Booth: England were dominant but India took their eye off the ball

Lawrence Booth: England were dominant but India took their eye off the ball

|

UPDATED:

10:47 GMT, 17 December 2012

In the end, it was easy. If you’d told England supporters after the first-innings debacles at Ahmedabad with ball and bat that their team could afford to block out the final five sessions of the fourth Test to make sure of a series win for the annals, they would have asked what you were on and where they could get some.

But in providing the ballast for England’s series-clinching 352 for 4, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell – the two centurions from Warwickshire – merely underlined the momentum shift that has played itself out over the past few weeks.

Dominant at Ahmedabad, India got cocky. MS Dhoni started asking for pitches designed for the sole purpose of humiliating England and wreaking revenge for 2011. They did what no cricketer should ever do: they took their eye off the ball.

Leading from the front: England captain Alastair Cook was dominant with the bat

Leading from the front: England captain Alastair Cook was dominant with the bat

England, meanwhile, were fortified by events in the second half of the first Test. Alastair Cook, a colossus in this series until he was defeated in Nagpur by negative bowling, a duffer of a pitch and the umpiring of Kumar Dharmasena, made 176 and Matt Prior 91. India’s spinners, it turned out, were no Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman or Rangana Herath.

It helped that England picked the right team in Mumbai. In came Monty Panesar for Tim Bresnan, and a pitch of pace and bounce played right into their hands – for the inclusion of Panesar, with his extra pace, meant England now possessed the superior spin attack.

In a spin: England's spin bowlers of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar out performed the Indian spinners

In a spin: England's spin bowlers of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar out performed the Indian spinners

It helped that Kevin Pietersen had a post-reintegration point to prove. For attacking intent, only Virender Sehwag’s opening-day century at Ahmedabad could even begin to live with Pietersen’s 186 at the Wankhede.

Batting for glory: Jonathan Trott was able to bat for the majority of the final day to see England home to the draw they needed in the final Test

Batting for glory: Jonathan Trott was able to bat for the majority of the final day to see England home to the draw they needed in the final Test

And it helped that Cook, having told his players that – when it came to fluffing their lines against spin in Asia – enough was enough, was a captain on a mission.

At Kolkata, Jimmy Anderson joined in the fun, finding reverse-swing that proved beyond his Indian counterparts, and combining with Steven Finn on the third afternoon in another game where the nature of the pitch had proved a pre-match distraction for the Indians.

And at Nagpur, England won an important toss – at last! – and so were able to keep control of their destiny on a pitch that ensured the fourth Test was played in slow motion. Joe Root proved an inspired pick, and Anderson was outstanding once more, especially on the third evening, when India’s hopes of a big first-innings lead evaporated in an hour.

For many reasons, this must rank as one of England’s finest series wins – home or away. They arrived with a reputation as poor players of spin in Asian conditions, and with the Pietersen saga still a tangible undercurrent.

They had a new captain, who could have been granted a tougher assignment for his first series as full-time leader. They were up against a team that had lost only four series at home out of 40. And they were written off after the first Test.

At least in Australia two years ago they arrived with hope and a little expectation. Here, victory has been a bolt from the blue. At the end of a wondrous year for British sport, the cricketers have finally joined in.

We are unable to carry live pictures from the fourth Test in Nagpur due to a dispute between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and international news organisations.
The BCCI has refused access to Test venues to established picture agencies Getty Images and Action Images and other Indian photographic agencies.
MailOnline consider this action to be a strike against press freedom and supports the action to boycott BCCI imagery.

Jamie Peacock says Leeds Rhinos Super League Grand Final win is best of his eight

Proud Peacock enjoys eighth wonder and colossus says Leeds win is best of the lot

|

UPDATED:

19:29 GMT, 7 October 2012

Moments after collecting his eighth Super League winner’s ring, Jamie Peacock sat in the Old Trafford dressing room and declared it the best of the lot.

The former England captain, 34, remains a colossus for Leeds Rhinos. He was the only man to make more than 200 metres in a compelling Grand Final against Warrington, leaving his body covered in bruises.

But his grin was unmistakable. ‘It’s an overwhelming feeling when you win that way,’ he said of the 28-16 win. ‘It justifies all the self-sacrifices and all the difficult decisions we’ve made over the past eight or nine months.

‘You never want to be disrespectful to previous teams you’ve played with but this is the best win.

Serial winner: Jamie Peacock savours victory

Serial winner: Jamie Peacock savours victory

‘We didn’t come into the play-offs with any form. We got beaten by 12 men at Huddersfield (in the last league game of the season), and then we had to beat a great Wakefield side who were in form, go away to Catalan, win at Wigan and then beat a side we’ve never beaten before in a final.

‘To come from behind and have that belief shows a special group.’

Peacock’s exertions were just the tip of a collective effort from Leeds that confirmed their position as the best side British rugby league has produced since Wigan’s team of the late Eighties and early Nineties.

‘The belief in this group is very strong,’ said Peacock. ‘When you’ve been in this position before, it allows you to have faith in the person next to you and trust them in those situations. Our belief never wavered.’

Drive time: Peacock powers on

Drive time: Peacock powers on

Leeds hooker Rob Burrow paid tribute to the rampaging prop.

Burrow said: ‘JP gets more grey every day, but he seems to get younger each week with his performances. He commands respect, and Kev (captain Kevin Sinfield) is the same. You wouldn’t have anyone else captain the side and as assistant captain you’ve got JP — how can you get better than that’

Leeds pounded Lee Briers, with Carl Ablett given responsibility for targeting Warrington’s creative force when Wolves had the ball.

Ablett said: ‘I was just trying to get in his head, letting him know that I was there.’

The tactic left Sinfield clear to guide Leeds to another remarkable triumph. ‘There’s no better kicker under pressure in this country in either code,’ said Peacock.

‘He’s the greatest Leeds captain of all time.’

Joe Allen has big Liverpool ambitions

Little big man: 15m mini midfielder Allen's big ambitions at Liverpool

|

UPDATED:

21:48 GMT, 17 August 2012

Fantasy football 2012

The first thing that strikes you about Joe Allen is his size. Midfielders in the Barclays Premier League often resemble characters from Land of the Giants, with their bulk and power. But Liverpool’s new 15million man, all 5ft 6in of him, is elfin in stature.

To see him walk into a room not far from the fabled ‘This is Anfield’ sign and hear him speak, it would be easy to mistake Allen for a university graduate. Given his father is a dentist and his mother a nurse, he could easily have pursued a career in medicine.

Yet Allen, whose parents allowed him to ‘follow his dream’, has shown you don’t need to be a colossus to flourish in the top flight and his ability to retain possession is the reason Rodgers was so desperate to bring him to Merseyside from Swansea this summer.

Good on the ball: Joe Allen has an excellent pass completion rate

Good on the ball: Joe Allen has an excellent pass completion rate

To put into perspective how impressively he performed last season, consider this: Allen’s pass completion rate of 91 per cent was better than one of Barcelona’s fabled conductors, Andres Iniesta. No Liverpool midfielder managed better than 86 per cent.

‘You can read stats how you like,’ said Allen, almost blushing when the facts are relayed. ‘It’s great to hear those things; to be associated with those players is a dream. Xavi and Iniesta are two players I admire massively. They really inspired me to play a similar sort of football.

‘If you think I’m small now you should have seen me when I made my debut (as a 16-year-old against Blackpool). You would be surprised. I was even slimmer and smaller then.

‘When I was younger, it was a big issue for some people. I was always confident there were other aspects of my game that were better off because of my size. But there were a few doubters.

Superman: Allen is hoping to help Liverpool adapt to Brendan Rodgers' football philosophy

Superman: Allen is hoping to help Liverpool adapt to Brendan Rodgers' football philosophy

SMALL BUT DEADLY

Joe Allen is one of a few mini-marvels in the middle of the park who could light up the Premier League this season.

Joe Allen (Liverpool) — 5ft 6in
Signed from Swansea for 15m

Eden Hazard (Chelsea) — 5ft 7in
Signed from Lille for 32m

Santi Cazorla (Arsenal) — 5ft 6in
Signed from Malaga for 16m

Vurnon Anita (Newcastle) 5ft 6in
Signed from Ajax for 6.7m

‘I’ve been lucky that every manager I’ve
played under at Swansea has been someone who has played the style of
football that suits me down to the ground.’

None more than Rodgers. The new man at Liverpool believes in giving opposition teams ‘death by football’, a style that frustrates them to the point of distraction, passing them into submission. The first proper glimpse will be at the Hawthorns on Saturday afternoon.

For that philosophy to pay off at Liverpool, Allen, 22, will play an integral role. The interchanging he will do with Steven Gerrard and Lucas in midfield will provide the foundations for the forward trio of Luis Suarez, Fabio Borini and Stewart Downing to cause mayhem. ‘He is a manager who instils faith and confidence in you,’ said Allen, whose switch to Anfield was sealed after he had represented Britain at the Olympics.

‘It really makes a difference and helps when you go out on to the pitch. I’m sure the other players will find that out soon.

Chit chat: Allen talks to Jay Spearing in training

Chit chat: Allen talks to Jay Spearing in training

‘I think they are all looking forward to it as much as me. The manager is passionate about football. His heart will be in this job 24/7. Individually and collectively, he will give every player what they need to go out on that pitch and perform.’

If Rodgers has played an integral role in propelling Allen to the position in which he finds himself, it would be wrong to overlook Gary Speed’s input. The late Wales manager predicted that Allen would play on the biggest stage, and his words continue to provide rich encouragement.

‘He was very influential,’ said Allen. ‘He was a great man who is sadly missed by everyone. In the year before his death, he was massive for me. If there are times when there are any doubts, you remember the things he said and you realise that you’re not doing too badly.

‘I’m ambitious. I’ve always dreamed about playing at this level and I have worked every day of my life to try to get here. I’m someone who wants to be the best I can be every single day.’

EURO 2012: Steven Gerrard angry at England injuries

We needed Cahill: Gerrard angry at England's growing injury list

|

UPDATED:

06:49 GMT, 4 June 2012

Skipper Steven Gerrard admits he is 'angry' at England losing so many key players through injury in the build-up to Euro 2012 with central defender Gary Cahill the latest casualty.

But Gerrard does not blame Belgium player Dries Mertens whose push on Cahill during Saturday's international at Wembley led to him colliding with Joe Hart and suffering a double fracture of the jaw.

It means England have now lost keeper John Ruddy, the midfield duo of Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard plus Cahill ahead of the tournament in Poland and the Ukraine.

Not happy: Steven Gerrard is angry at the number of injuries

Not happy: Steven Gerrard is angry at the number of injuries

Liverpool's Martin Kelly has been called up to replace Cahill.
Gerrard said: 'Losing Gary is a massive blow.

'His performances in the last six months have been colossal for Chelsea.

'He was a colossus in the Champions League final win over Bayern Munich. We needed him.

'I am angry because we have lost some big players with a tournament eight or nine days away.

Major blow: Gary Cahill fractured his jaw after a clash with Joe Hart

Major blow: Gary Cahill fractured his jaw after a clash with Joe Hart

'That's the blow and that's the price you pay for these warm-up games.

'To do well in these tournaments you have to have your big players and to lose Gary is another huge blow on the back of Frank Lampard and Gareth Barry.'

But, as regards the challenge by Mertens, Gerrard said: 'I don't think you can blame the guy because he was itching to score a goal.

'Maybe he got carried away but I don't think you can put any blame on the kid.'

Big miss: Frank Lampard is out of the tournament with a thigh injury

Big miss: Frank Lampard is out of the tournament with a thigh injury

Mertens was quick to apologise for the consequences of his actions although he is adamant there was no malice in his challenge.

PSV Eindhoven player Mertens, who was yellow carded for the challenge, said: “It was an accident. It was unintentional.

'He (Cahill) blocked me off and he's hit his head (on Hart's shoulder). But there was no malice in what I did.

'Absolutely, I feel for him. If that was me in his place, getting injured like that a week before the Euros, I'd feel so bad.

'I'd feel terrible. I'm sorry he's not able to go.'

Yaya Toure exclusive interview – Manchester City

From barefoot kid to football colossus, how Yaya Toure became the biggest beat

|

UPDATED:

23:31 GMT, 9 May 2012

Yaya Toure arrived with nothing to declare but his talent. That is one memory they have of Toure on Beveren’s Klapperstraat: he did not own football boots.

Another is that he could not get out of bed in the morning; that he ate like a horse and drank like a fish, but Fanta, not alcohol. There were repeated descriptions of Toure being ‘different’, ‘introverted’. But most of all they recalled the sheer scale of his ability and the certainty that Yaya Toure would make it.

Considering that Gnegneri ‘Yaya’ Toure landed in Beveren, a small, white, Flemish-speaking town west of Antwerp, just turned 18, having been raised on the French language in the back streets of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, certainty was the last thing Toure had. He had little money, one pair of shoes and few clothes.

Main man: Yaya Toure (left) has been the driving force at Manchester City

Main man: Yaya Toure (left) has been the driving force at Manchester City

But here in Flanders, they say that even as a teenager, the boy who won the European Cup with Barcelona and who has done as much as anyone to shape this season’s Premier League title possessed a sense of himself that set him apart.

Today Toure stands out — a dynamic midfield force, experienced in victory and ready to lead Manchester City to their first league title in 44 years on Sunday, his 29th birthday. Back then he was prepared to stand out.

‘I picked them up every day, Yaya and two friends,’ said Anouar Bou-Sfia, who played with Toure at Beveren. ‘Yaya had an attitude — he knew he was going to be the best. He knew. He was very kind, but he knew.

‘Where they lived was on my way to the stadium and there were many days when Yaya had to be woken up for training, but you could see he was different. Compared to the others he was more intelligent and mature. All the others had that crazy African mentality — they were young boys suddenly in Europe — but not Yaya. He didn’t like the cameras, the papers, he was very shy. He wouldn’t go out like the others. He was straight Muslim. I’m Moroccan, I’m Muslim.

‘Sometimes on the pitch he could be crazy. But most of all, he was unbelievable. I played with him for two-and-a-half seasons but for a lot of that time I was on the bench. So I watched him, I brought my friends just to watch him. He was so good.

‘Look at the first goal he scored at Newcastle on Sunday, he made it look easy. Just look at the way he did that. He won the Champions League at Barcelona playing beside (Gerard) Pique in central defence. He made it look easy.

Back in the day: Toure (back, centre) during his time with Beveren in Belgium

Back in the day: Toure (back, centre) during his time with Beveren in Belgium

‘I think he looked bored sometimes playing for Barcelona. It all comes easy. In Beveren he had that — in France they call it nonchalance.

‘Yaya didn’t show much. I did the translating for all of them, took them to the supermarket, took them to buy boots because they didn’t even have boots. I never knew what was in Yaya’s head. But he knew.’

Yaya Toure’s career path looks like crazy paving. He came to Beveren in 2001, part of an African experiment in Belgium designed by former France midfielder Jean-Marc Guillou, a man close to Arsene Wenger.

Guillou had established an academy in Ivory Coast — from which Yaya’s elder brother Kolo went directly to Arsenal.

No go: Toure had an unsuccessful trial with Arsenal

No go: Toure had an unsuccessful trial with Arsenal

In KSK Beveren, Guillou found a small, drifting club needing investment. So he bought it, with help from Arsenal.

Belgium’s generous naturalisation laws meant that Guillou now had a vehicle. Any transfer fees for players sold on would be split, Beveren getting around 30 per cent.

Another Jean-Marc — Bosman — a Belgian, had created a new economic climate in football with his landmark freedom of movement court victory in 1995.

The Freethiel Stadium on Klapperstraat, where Beveren still play, albeit in a new guise, saw an overnight influx of Africans. Belgian football had become a hub. There were 23 Africans at Beveren, most from Ivory Coast.

Often there were 10 black players in the team. Locals became bemused, suspicious and tense. The players were only earning around 250 a week. But they had cars, and no driving licenses. What’s more, the African players spoke French.

But suddenly Beveren were good. They reached the Belgian Cup final in 2004 for the first time in two decades.

But by the time of that final, Yaya Toure had been and gone. Two years later Guillou departed too, the Belgian authorities dismayed by the new arrangement and the role of Arsenal. /05/09/article-2142022-0F03BFE500000578-727_634x385.jpg” width=”634″ height=”385″ alt=”Young at heart: Toure (centre) as a boy playing for Jean-Marc Guillou's ASEC Mimosas in the Ivory Coast” class=”blkBorder” />

Young at heart: Toure (centre) as a boy playing for Jean-Marc Guillou's ASEC Mimosas in the Ivory Coast

‘But as a man Yaya left an impression. They both do, really humble, lovely people. And they love football — we’ve heard about the Neville brothers’ obsessions, the Toures are like that.’
Danny Stuer was in his gym on Tuesday afternoon. Yaya Toure knows it well. Stuer was the fitness coach when Toure was at Beveren.

Club records show that Toure was 12st 3lb when he made his debut. He was already 6ft 1.5in. Today Toure is most commonly judged to be 6ft 3in.

But he is almost two stone heavier than when he was a teenager. And as Stuer said: ‘He got muscle, pure muscle. When Yaya came he was tall but he was not strong. He did a lot of weight training here so he gained muscle. He was weak. After a few months he got stronger and stronger. He liked to work. He was able to protect the ball. And he got more flexible, which is not easy for someone his size.

‘They were all skinny. They didn’t have weights in Africa, they didn’t have training. All they had was a ball. The boys came from Ivory Coast to a strange country, different food. And they were put in an apartment and given some furniture and that’s it. Incredible.

On the verge of glory: Toure at City

On the verge of glory: Toure at City

‘When one of the mothers came over, they would eat properly. But otherwise it was junk food and that’s not good for a top player.’

Valy de Meerlen, a Beveren volunteer then, said the smooth power we know Toure for now was coming through. ‘He had that sort of hip wiggle, then whoosh, he just went through teams.’

Although Toure said in a Sportsmail interview that he had done ‘stupid things’ in Beveren, no-one recalled that. In fact Stuer said the opposite: ‘Yaya was introverted. He was a little bit on his own, not spontaneous, always quiet. He loved to work. He’d come here to this gym and he was professional from the beginning. Others were not, to them it was all a game.

‘After matches Yaya didn’t go out for beers. He just wanted to go home. He watched TV, football and more football.’

As an example of Toure’s individual determination, Stuer added: ‘He lived with others in the beginning but they would go out, come back late and disturb him. So he asked to live alone. The club did that.

Maybe he went to parties behind my back. Others did that, they put on weight. From what I know, Yaya was different.’

In Beveren they noted the African boys would go to Liege or Brussels for parties. ‘They speak French there,’ was one comment.

After two-and-a-half seasons and 70 games for Beveren, Toure was sold for 2million. At the new Waasland-Beveren club there are shrugs when the question arises of where that money went.

Two rivals, Anderlecht and Club Bruges, both wanted Toure but not at that price. So, aged 20, he moved to Ukraine and the second club in Donetsk, Metalurh. It was not the career trajectory of someone who was going to star for Barcelona but Toure has said the move did him good. ‘Football is actually a job; in Ukraine I learnt that.’

Next came another sideways move — to Greece and Olympiakos. Club Bruges may have declined to pay €2m but their manager, the Norwegian Trond Sollied, had joined Olympiakos. Toure was signed and won the Greek title and cup. ‘I saw a diamond, something special, when he was at Beveren,’ Sollied said. ‘He did not have the same extreme power he has now, or score many goals. But he was not in such a good team.

Spanish sizzler: Toure (left) also enjoyed a successful spell at Barcelona

Spanish sizzler: Toure (left) also enjoyed a successful spell at Barcelona

‘Getting him to Greece was a sensation. Physically he was more mature, he was a harder man after Ukraine. We knew we couldn’t keep him long. He was sure about himself. I think his brother helped him. They could share experiences.’

After the 2006 World Cup, AS Monaco, Wenger’s former club, bought Toure for around 4m, though there was a dispute stretching back to Donetsk about who owned his contract. Another sideways step.

But after only one season in France, it would be Barcelona. Along his circuitous way, Yaya Toure has garnered nicknames like ‘colossus’ and ‘human train’ but Pep Guardiola described him as ‘a diesel player’ — takes a while to get going but then never stops.

It feels like a summary of Yaya’s zig-zag journey to the top. As Stuer said: ‘When the African boys were messing about, we’d say to them, “What Is Beveren your final destination You’ve come all the way from Africa and you’re stopping in Beveren” Some saw it as a beginning. Yaya saw it as that.’

Geordie in Belgium: Jonny Rowell

Geordie in Belgium: Jonny Rowell

The Belgian connection

Where once there were 10 Africans in the Beveren line-up, today there is a mix. Included is Jonny Rowell, a 22-year-old Geordie, who was in the same Newcastle United youth team as Andy Carroll and who then played for Hartlepool.

The midfielder moved to Belgium two years ago to play for Olympic Charleroi in the third division. He joined the reconstituted Waasland-Beveren in the second division last summer.

‘When Yaya Toure was here it was a different club,’ Rowell said. ‘There are still some African players here but they’re not in Yaya’s category. One of them is on loan from Chelsea, Emmanuel Sarki.’

Rowell has suffered injuries but went on as a substitute last Sunday in the first game of a play-off mini-league to see if Beveren can win promotion back to Belgium’s top flight. His side won 4-1 against Ostend. Tonight is the second game, at Westerlo.

SIX NATIONS 2012: England front row outstanding, Ben Kay

Ben Kay: Young guns in the front row lead the way for Lancaster's England

|

UPDATED:

22:02 GMT, 18 March 2012

England's scrummaging on Saturday was fantastic. People had been talking up the Irish scrum but England blew them away and Dan Cole took apart Cian Healy, who has been tipped to be the Lions loosehead. Mike Ross came off with an injury but by then he had already been destroyed by Alex Corbisiero.

What struck me was the comparative body shapes of the two front rows. England had so much more strength and athleticism. While the props played a major role in establishing dominance, it is also important to acknowledge the part played by hooker Dylan Hartley.

Fronting up: Dan Cole (left), Dylan Hartley (centre) and Alex Corbisiero (right)

Fronting up: Dan Cole (left), Dylan Hartley (centre) and Alex Corbisiero (right)

This was another sign of how England benefit from the set-piece focus in the Aviva Premiership. Coaches like Richard Cockerill at Leicester and Dorian West at Northampton have a real appetite for scrummaging, so other teams have to work hard at it too – more so than the sides in the RaboDirect Pro12.

England have become one of the best scrummaging nations in the world although their relative inexperience was exposed by Wales. At tighthead, Cole will beat anyone in a fair, one-on-one pushing contest. He and Corbisiero are still young and they are developing fast.

Ben Morgan had a superb game for England, with the scrum advantage putting him on the front foot. England were able to wheel around at will so it allowed him a free pick-up with space to attack.

Overall, England had a very good campaign. They showed doggedness to beat Scotland and Italy, and that bonded them as a team.

Colossus: Ben Morgan was outstanding for England

Colossus: Ben Morgan was outstanding for England

A sign of how a side are functioning comes from the backroom staff, because the players spend a lot of time with those guys. On Saturday I spoke to the kit man, masseuse and physios, who all said it had been as good an eight weeks as they’ve had.

England need to focus on being more accurate, as there have been a lot of handling mistakes which nearly cost them a win against France.

In midfield, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi have been good individually, but they need to develop together as a pair.

England also need greater accuracy in the line-out.

Stuart Lancaster has created a positive atmosphere in the squad that everyone wants to be part of, so has done enough to get the head coach job.

Ben Kay is a rugby analyst for ESPN’s Aviva Premiership coverage

SIX NATIONS 2012: Wales bid to avenge World Cup agony

Now for a Grand finale! Wales bid to avenge World Cup agony in Cardiff

|

UPDATED:

22:01 GMT, 16 March 2012

The last time Wales played France there were 65,000 people watching at the Millennium Stadium. It did not matter to them that the game was being played on the other side of the world.

Five thousand more people watched the World Cup semi-final on a giant screen in Cardiff than at Eden Park that day. Five months later and an unfancied French side stand once again between Wales and history.

This time it is personal. This time the prize is a Six Nations Grand Slam. It would be Warren Gatland’s second in five years and Wales’s third in a decade.

Hands up if you want the Grand Slam! Wales train at the Millennium Stadium on Friday

Hands up if you want the Grand Slam! Wales train at the Millennium Stadium on Friday

There will be a minute’s silence for Merv the Swerve before kick-off and that will only encourage comparisons between this generation of Grand Slam hunters and the golden era of the Seventies. Three players on Saturday – Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Ryan Jones – are on course for a third Grand Slam.

Rob Howley, a former captain himself and now attack coach, described the death of the ‘colossus’ as bringing poignancy to an already emotional occasion.

Only the Grand Slam would honour a man who lost just nine matches in the red of Wales. ‘We can speak frequently of world-class players but icon and legend belong to Merv the Swerve,’ Howley said. ‘It gives us that extra motivation for the game, if we needed any.

‘We have a mixture of experienced players and new kids on the block and it’s important we go out and play without fear.

‘The youngsters haven’t got that baggage of losing games and the one thing that is special about this side is they find a way to go on and win. In the last 15 minutes, in dogged situations, we back ourselves.’

Heading into battle: Sam Warburton (left) with George North

Heading into battle: Sam Warburton (left) with George North

Captain Sam Warburton has been too worried about his knee to reflect on the red card from the last meeting and any Frenchmen praying he is a little off the pace need only watch his performance against England, one built on one and a half training sessions in two weeks.

His battle with rival captain and openside Thierry Dusautoir will be one of the afternoon’s most compelling.

Howley said: ‘When you look at their back row of Bonnaire, Harinordoquy and Dusautoir, it will be one hell of a battle between the six, seven and eights. You’ve got six connoisseurs of world rugby, you’ve got the ingredients of ball-carrying, decision-making, physicality at the breakdown, the tackling element. It will be a joy to watch.’

The forecasters predict heavy rain and the roof will be open on the request of France coach Philippe Saint-Andre. He has picked a physical side to suck the flair out of the game, a front five to bully and irritate.

Agony: France beat Wales in the World Cup semi-final in New Zealand

Agony: France beat Wales in the World Cup semi-final in New Zealand

Gatland and Saint-Andre have done battle in the English Premiership as respective bosses of Wasps and Sale and Gatland knows he faces a pragmatic, conservative coach – so unlike Saint-Andre the player – who simply wants to win.

The fact he is considering an approach to the IRB over the current rule over the stadium roof – that both sides must agree to it being shut – shows how upset he is that a spectacle will be jeopardised.

For the ever-present players in the Wales side, a Grand Slam jackpot of 92,000 is up for grabs to go with the glory. For the French, well, who knows

Basque monster Imanol Harinordoquy has promised a proper farewell for Julien Bonnaire and William Servat in their final games, and we all know what happens when the French want to win.

But for all that World Cup trauma, for the joie de vivre with which this Welsh team play and for the memory of Merv, the heart says Wales.

Andrew Flintoff: Depression and despair blighted my England career

Flintoff: Depression and despair blighted my England career

/12/31/article-2080787-0F4F1A3D00000578-212_233x628.jpg” width=”233″ height=”628″ alt=”Anguish: Flintoff captains England on the calamitous 2006-2007 Ashes tour” class=”blkBorder” />

Anguish: Flintoff captains England on the calamitous 2006-2007 Ashes tour

It”s one of the iconic moments of joy in British sport: Freddie Flintoff, the swashbuckling colossus of the England cricket team, revelling in the cheers of the crowds in Trafalgar Square after his all-night celebration of the triumph over Australia in the 2005 Ashes.

Yet 18 months later, Flintoff was crippled by such despair he was hardly able to get out of bed and wholly lost his joy for the game. He turned to drink and feared he had a serious illness.

Speaking for the first time about his anguish, Flintoff said: “I didn”t understand what was happening to me. I felt tired and miserable and I was tested for everything, including diabetes.”

Those who know Flintoff feared he had depression. “Friends have since said they think I showed many of the symptoms,” he said.

Flintoff became a national hero as the figurehead of the team that won the Ashes for the first time in nearly 20 years.

It seemed the 6ft 4in all-rounder could do no wrong with bat or ball, and he won BBC Sports Personality of the Year and received an MBE.

But it was the following year that he found himself in the depths of despair, as he captained England to a humiliating 5-0 defeat in the Ashes series of 2006-2007 in Australia.

The 34-year-old will explore the depression suffered in private by so many of his fellow sports professionals in a BBC1 documentary, Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side Of Sport.

Speaking of his crisis on the tour of Australia, he said: “I was having a quiet drink with my dad Colin on Christmas Eve 2006 and as we made our way home I started crying my eyes out. I told him I”d tried my best but that I couldn’t do it any more, I couldn”t keep playing. We talked and, of course, I dusted myself down and carried on. But I was never the same player again.

“I was captain of England and financially successful. Yet instead of walking out confidently to face Australia in one of the world’s biggest sporting events, I didn’t want to get out of bed, never mind face people.”

Lancashire-born Flintoff won a fearsome reputation for his capacity for drink after partying throughout the night in 2005 to celebrate the Ashes win, but alcohol became part of the problem. In 2007, after a World Cup defeat in the West Indies, he was stripped of his England vice-captaincy when he had to be rescued from the sea in the early hours after falling drunkenly from a pedalo.

Public image: Freddie with his wife Rachael

Public image: Freddie with his wife Rachael

“The whole time I was on the field and throughout that World Cup all I could think about was that I wanted to retire,” said Flintoff. “I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I knew when I got back to my room I couldn”t shut off, which is why I started having a drink. It got to the stage where I was probably drinking more than I should.”

He added: “All I wanted was for the doctor to tell me what was wrong but no one suggested it was depression.”

‘All I wanted was for the doctor to tell me what was wrong but no one suggested it was depression.”

His condition reached the point where even victory seemed to mean nothing. Flintoff said: “There’s a certain sense of shame when I remember sitting in the dressing room after winning a one-day international in the West Indies.

“The lads were celebrating and I didn”t want to be a part of it, I didn”t want to do anything but sit on my own in the corner.”

Flintoff retired from cricket in 2010 and has three children with wife Rachael, whom he married in 2005. He now works as a broadcaster.

Looking back on his career, he said: “As a sportsman you build a certain persona. In my case it was unflappable, fun-loving Freddie. The public look at you and think you don”t have a care in the world.

On top of his game: Flintoff achieved massive professional and financial success - but he wasn

On top of his game: Flintoff achieved massive professional and financial success – but he wasn”t happy

“In many ways I was lucky because it never became so bad that I couldn’t carry on. I was able to get through it but others haven’t been so lucky.”

Flintoff acknowledges that it may be difficult to empathise with the depression of professional sportsmen. “Because sporting stars earn high salaries and have a privileged life compared to the majority of people, there’s a perception that they can’t possibly suffer from mental health issues. They don’t want to seem ungrateful or whingeing and may be hiding their suffering rather than getting help for it.”

He admits in the past even he lacked understanding of depression suffered by team-mates. He said: “My only excuse is that I was battling my own emotions and wasn”t as aware of others” problems as I should have been.”

Those sufferers include his friend Steve Harmison, the fast bowler, who after spearheading the attack to claim victory against Australia in 2005, fought a long battle with depression. Speaking to Flintoff in the programme, Harmison said: “At one point I was the No 1 bowler in the world – yet I was struggling inside.”

Winning personality: Flintoff picked up the BBC

Winning personality: Flintoff picked up the BBC”s Sports Personality of the Year award following his Ashes showing

The condition affected Harmison on the field on a tour to South Africa. He said: “I couldn’t breathe and I was hyperventilating. I felt panicky and anxious and I was shaking. I couldn”t let go of the ball. I remember looking in the mirror and asking, “What’s wrong with me””

Marcus Trescothick, the opening batsman who was another vital member of the triumphant 2005 England team, has had a long battle with depression. He retired from the national side because of the illness.

A 2001 study revealed English professional cricketers were twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male, putting them in the same risk bracket as Army veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

In November, cricket writer and former player Peter Roebuck leapt to his death in South Africa. His long career included captaining Somerset when Ian Botham was part of the county team. David Bairstow, the England and Yorkshire wicketkeeper, committed suicide in 1998 after years of depression.

Psychologists believe the see-saw existence of sporting professionals – where euphoria is often followed by despair – puts them at risk of depression. Stars may also feel unable to talk about mental health problems because they fear that showing signs of weakness may affect their careers and alienate teammates.

Freddie Flintoff, Hidden Side Of Sport is on BBC1 on Wednesday, January 11 at 10.45pm.

Whitewash: England surrendered the urn just over a year after their famous victory on home soil

Whitewash: England surrendered the urn just over a year after their famous victory on home soil

Andrew Flintoff reveals battle with depression

Flintoff: Depression and despair blighted my England career

/12/31/article-2080787-0F4F1A3D00000578-212_233x628.jpg” width=”233″ height=”628″ alt=”Anguish: Flintoff captains England on the calamitous 2006-2007 Ashes tour” class=”blkBorder” />

Anguish: Flintoff captains England on the calamitous 2006-2007 Ashes tour

It”s one of the iconic moments of joy in British sport: Freddie Flintoff, the swashbuckling colossus of the England cricket team, revelling in the cheers of the crowds in Trafalgar Square after his all-night celebration of the triumph over Australia in the 2005 Ashes.

Yet 18 months later, Flintoff was crippled by such despair he was hardly able to get out of bed and wholly lost his joy for the game. He turned to drink and feared he had a serious illness.

Speaking for the first time about his anguish, Flintoff said: “I didn”t understand what was happening to me. I felt tired and miserable and I was tested for everything, including diabetes.”

Those who know Flintoff feared he had depression. “Friends have since said they think I showed many of the symptoms,” he said.

Flintoff became a national hero as the figurehead of the team that won the Ashes for the first time in nearly 20 years.

It seemed the 6ft 4in all-rounder could do no wrong with bat or ball, and he won BBC Sports Personality of the Year and received an MBE.

But it was the following year that he found himself in the depths of despair, as he captained England to a humiliating 5-0 defeat in the Ashes series of 2006-2007 in Australia.

The 34-year-old will explore the depression suffered in private by so many of his fellow sports professionals in a BBC1 documentary, Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side Of Sport.

Speaking of his crisis on the tour of Australia, he said: “I was having a quiet drink with my dad Colin on Christmas Eve 2006 and as we made our way home I started crying my eyes out. I told him I”d tried my best but that I couldn’t do it any more, I couldn”t keep playing. We talked and, of course, I dusted myself down and carried on. But I was never the same player again.

“I was captain of England and financially successful. Yet instead of walking out confidently to face Australia in one of the world’s biggest sporting events, I didn’t want to get out of bed, never mind face people.”

Lancashire-born Flintoff won a fearsome reputation for his capacity for drink after partying throughout the night in 2005 to celebrate the Ashes win, but alcohol became part of the problem. In 2007, after a World Cup defeat in the West Indies, he was stripped of his England vice-captaincy when he had to be rescued from the sea in the early hours after falling drunkenly from a pedalo.

Public image: Freddie with his wife Rachael

Public image: Freddie with his wife Rachael

“The whole time I was on the field and throughout that World Cup all I could think about was that I wanted to retire,” said Flintoff. “I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I knew when I got back to my room I couldn”t shut off, which is why I started having a drink. It got to the stage where I was probably drinking more than I should.”

He added: “All I wanted was for the doctor to tell me what was wrong but no one suggested it was depression.”

‘All I wanted was for the doctor to tell me what was wrong but no one suggested it was depression.”

His condition reached the point where even victory seemed to mean nothing. Flintoff said: “There’s a certain sense of shame when I remember sitting in the dressing room after winning a one-day international in the West Indies.

“The lads were celebrating and I didn”t want to be a part of it, I didn”t want to do anything but sit on my own in the corner.”

Flintoff retired from cricket in 2010 and has three children with wife Rachael, whom he married in 2005. He now works as a broadcaster.

Looking back on his career, he said: “As a sportsman you build a certain persona. In my case it was unflappable, fun-loving Freddie. The public look at you and think you don”t have a care in the world.

On top of his game: Flintoff achieved massive professional and financial success - but he wasn

On top of his game: Flintoff achieved massive professional and financial success – but he wasn”t happy

“In many ways I was lucky because it never became so bad that I couldn’t carry on. I was able to get through it but others haven’t been so lucky.”

Flintoff acknowledges that it may be difficult to empathise with the depression of professional sportsmen. “Because sporting stars earn high salaries and have a privileged life compared to the majority of people, there’s a perception that they can’t possibly suffer from mental health issues. They don’t want to seem ungrateful or whingeing and may be hiding their suffering rather than getting help for it.”

He admits in the past even he lacked understanding of depression suffered by team-mates. He said: “My only excuse is that I was battling my own emotions and wasn”t as aware of others” problems as I should have been.”

Those sufferers include his friend Steve Harmison, the fast bowler, who after spearheading the attack to claim victory against Australia in 2005, fought a long battle with depression. Speaking to Flintoff in the programme, Harmison said: “At one point I was the No 1 bowler in the world – yet I was struggling inside.”

Winning personality: Flintoff picked up the BBC

Winning personality: Flintoff picked up the BBC”s Sports Personality of the Year award following his Ashes showing

The condition affected Harmison on the field on a tour to South Africa. He said: “I couldn’t breathe and I was hyperventilating. I felt panicky and anxious and I was shaking. I couldn”t let go of the ball. I remember looking in the mirror and asking, “What’s wrong with me””

Marcus Trescothick, the opening batsman who was another vital member of the triumphant 2005 England team, has had a long battle with depression. He retired from the national side because of the illness.

A 2001 study revealed English professional cricketers were twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male, putting them in the same risk bracket as Army veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

In November, cricket writer and former player Peter Roebuck leapt to his death in South Africa. His long career included captaining Somerset when Ian Botham was part of the county team. David Bairstow, the England and Yorkshire wicketkeeper, committed suicide in 1998 after years of depression.

Psychologists believe the see-saw existence of sporting professionals – where euphoria is often followed by despair – puts them at risk of depression. Stars may also feel unable to talk about mental health problems because they fear that showing signs of weakness may affect their careers and alienate teammates.

Freddie Flintoff, Hidden Side Of Sport is on BBC1 on Wednesday, January 11 at 10.45pm.

Whitewash: England surrendered the urn just over a year after their famous victory on home soil

Whitewash: England surrendered the urn just over a year after their famous victory on home soil