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Montenegro mayhem is nothing new for England

Montenegro mayhem is nothing new for England as Roy's boys return to Podgorica

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Back again: England have played in Podgorica before, in a qualifier for Euro 2012…

Back again: England have played in Podgorica before, in a qualifier for Euro 2012...

A picture of Bent in action features prominently in the programme for tomorrow's game but these days he cannot hold down at place at Aston Villa and among Roy Hodgson's big decisions ahead of his big night is who to pair with Rooney.

The stadium will rattle with noise. Pictures have been painted of a hostile reception from the local fans but if the last visit is anything to go by this will be nothing more sinister than a spirited reception for a newly-independent nation.

...and the home fans celebrated on the pitch after watching their team secure a draw

…and the home fans celebrated on the pitch after watching their team secure a draw

As so often in this part of the world, the football team has given the former Yugoslav states a platform to show who they are and what they stand form.

The people of Montenegro provide a warm welcome. The fervour inside the stadium is because this little team is proudly punching above its weight.

Scoring for fun: England will find it much tougher in Montenegro than they did in San Marino on Friday

Scoring for fun: England will find it much tougher in Montenegro than they did in San Marino on Friday

Teams emerge from a tunnel in the corner of this 12,000-capactiy ground, beneath the noisiest of the supporters.

The game in October 2011 culminated in a pitch invasion but this was due mainly to the euphoria of the team's progress into the play-offs.

What Hodgson can be sure of is that it will be uncomfortable and many of those in his team were not on the pitch the last time.

Red mist: It was in Montenegro in 2011 that Wayne Rooney was sent off for kicking out at Miodrag Dzudovoic

Red mist: It was in Montenegro in 2011 that Wayne Rooney was sent off for kicking out at Miodrag Dzudovoic

Red mist: It was in Montenegro in 2011 that Wayne Rooney was sent off for kicking out at Miodrag Dzudovoic

Branko Brnovic's team will be disciplined and tight at the back, reliant upon the star strikers Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic to provide the magic up front, perhaps pinch a goal which will turn the pressure on England.

How can they can cope That will be the test.

Rooney's red is a warning to them all. They must manage their frustration and they must think clearly amid the din.

India v England ODI series: Eoin Morgan praises preparations

Morgan praises England's preparations for India as one-day series looms large

. There are a lot of foundations already set so it's a matter of building on that,' he said.

'The majority of our preparation has already been done pre-Christmas. Many of us have been here (with the Test squad) since the 24th or 25th of October and some of the guys who weren't spent three weeks here before Christmas too.

'Over the next few days we'll just be doing top-ups in different areas of our games. We are prepared.'

'We've seen in past series how important that is – like the (2010/11) Ashes where we were there three or four weeks prior to the first game. It has done us good in the Test and Twenty20 matches and hopefully it will in the one-dayers too.'

While England are looking to get 2013 off to a winning start at the Palam Services Ground, all eyes in Delhi will instead be on the host nation's ODI match against Pakistan.

India have already lost that series after back to back defeats to their fierce rivals, but there is plenty still to play for in the final fixture.

Media pundits, former internationals and fans alike have called for a change when the squad for England is announced and established stars like Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh are all in need of runs.

Run drought: Gautam Gambhir is in a rut

Run drought: Gautam Gambhir is in a rut

Spin bowler Ravichandran Ashwin has been another target for criticism, having performed also modestly against England in the Tests, but Morgan is not ready to take the reigning world champions lightly.

'I don't think it is a good time to play India. I don't think it is ever a good time to play India,' said the Dubliner.

'We know how successful they have been in the past and they are the World Cup champions at the moment.

'They might be going through a bad patch but they are very, very dangerous cricketers and they have guys who can turn the game on its head in a matter of minutes.'

Tomorrow's match is due to begin at 9am local time (3.30am GMT) in conditions likely to be colder than an April outing at Chester-le-Street.

England's new limited-overs coach Ashley Giles is in charge of his country for the first time and has a couple of selection issues to ponder.

Somerset's Jos Buttler and Yorkshire's Joe Root appear to be battling for one place in the top six, while the variations of Jade Dernbach and the pace of Stuart Meaker offer different options for the final pace bowling spot.

Giles must also decide whether to leave Ian Bell at opener or restore Kevin Pietersen, back in the 50-over set-up after reversing his retirement, alongside Alastair Cook at the head of the innings.

Yaya Toure beats Didier Drogba to African Footballer of the Year award 2012

City star Yaya pips Drogba to defend African Footballer of the Year title

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UPDATED:

23:56 GMT, 20 December 2012

Manchester City midfield powerhouse Yaya Toure has beaten his Ivorian compatriot Didier Drogba to be crowned African Footballer of the Year for a second time running.

The 29-year-old helped his country reach the African Cup of Nations final and was one of the key men as Roberto Mancini's side won the Barclays Premier League in May.

Barcelona midfielder Alex Song, who left Arsenal in the summer, finished third as the award was made at the African Football gala in Accra, Ghana.

Thank you: Yaya Toure accepts his award while Didier Drogba (right) looks on, before the pair embrace (below)

Thank you: Yaya Toure accepts his award while Didier Drogba (right) looks on, before the pair embrace (below)

Congratulations: Drogba and Toure have a cuddle

Congratulations: Drogba and Toure have a cuddle

Although Toure has not quite been able to replicate his form this season, his incredible power and tenacity helped City dominate games last term.

He grabbed six goals in the top flight including two in the penultimate match against Newcastle – which City won 2-0 and gave them a fighting chance of snatching the title from rivals Manchester United on the final day.

Presentation: Drogba and Toure hold large certificates of their achievements

Presentation: Drogba and Toure hold large certificates of their achievements

The Ivory Coast lost to Zambia in the final of the African Cup of Nation in a penalty shoot-out, but Toure had been substituted by that point.

Zambia were rewarded for their success by being named African Team of the Year and their boss, Herve Renard, was Coach of the Year.

Toure joined Senegalese forward El-Hadji
Diouf on two victories, although it is unlikely he will be able to
eclipse Cameroonian ex-Barcelona striker Samuel Eto'o, who picked up the
title four times.

Fair play: Zambia coach Herve Renard helped his side shock the Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations

Fair play: Zambia coach Herve Renard helped his side shock the Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations

Essential: Toure bagged both goals as City saw off Newcastle in the season's penultimate game

Essential: Toure bagged both goals as City saw off Newcastle in the season's penultimate game

Drogba, 34, was also in with a strong chance of winning the award because of his influence on Chelsea's successful pursuit of the Champions League title.

When the going got tough in Europe, the striker was there to produce for his side.

With the Blues needing a result in their final group game against Valencia to qualify, Drogba struck twice and was at his dominating best, despite indifferent domestic form, to get Andre Villas-Boas's team through.

After the Portuguese manager was sacked, Drogba gave his replacement Roberto Di Matteo a huge boost in his third game in charge.

Accra: Drogba and Toure travelled to Ghana to attend the award ceremony

Accra: Drogba and Toure travelled to Ghana to attend the award ceremony

Decisive: Didier Drogba wheels away after saving Chelsea's skin with a superb header against Bayern Munich

Decisive: Didier Drogba wheels away after saving Chelsea's skin with a superb header against Bayern Munich

He opened the scoring and turned in another superb display as Chelsea came back from a first-leg defeat to rout Napoli before grabbing another crucial goal against Barcelona in the semi-final.

Drogba saved the best for last – equalising against Bayern Munich in the dying moments with a bullet header, then converting the deciding penalty in the shoot-out.

After his key contribution Drogba left the club on a free transfer, moving to Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua.

Big move: Alex Song (second left) upped sticks to Barcelona after a strong year with Arsenal

Big move: Alex Song (second left) upped sticks to Barcelona after a strong year with Arsenal

Song, meanwhile, came into his own under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.

The
25-year-old curbed previous indiscipline and became a creative force
going forward – his incisive passes to Robin van Persie were a key combination in the
Gunners' attack.

Barcelona picked him up for 16million in the summer and he has featured 14 times for the Spanish giants since.

Twickenham crowd must match Welsh noise makers – Chris Foy

Crowd at HQ must roar to silence wails of the Welsh

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UPDATED:

23:22 GMT, 6 December 2012

It must be some kind of record. Almost three years before England v Wales at the next World Cup and the mutual antagonism is already evident.

When the draw was made on Monday for the
2015 tournament, Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis caught
the host nation on the hop by offering to stage the Pool A clash between
the old foes in Cardiff. England’s stunned response was of the ‘thanks,
but no thanks’ variety.

Let’s cut through the sabre-rattling here. The game will not take place in Cardiff. That scenario is unthinkable. It is England’s event and although much is made of the organisers being independent of the RFU, conceding home advantage to their near neighbours is a non-starter.

Turn it up: Twickenham Stadium needs to bring the noise against Wales

Turn it up: Twickenham Stadium needs to bring the noise against Wales

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VIEW FULL ARCHIVE

The Millennium Stadium will be used as a World Cup venue on the simple basis that it suits English requirements. It satisfies the need for a geographical spread of matches. The West Country has a passion for rugby but lacks big stadiums, so taking games to Cardiff ticks a strategic box.

While there is no realistic prospect of England v Wales taking place there, Lewis will lobby strongly for the Millennium Stadium to host Wales v Australia. He will press his point on the basis that the home of Welsh rugby is ‘the best rugby stadium in the world’. He’s right. It is.

Located in the heart of Cardiff, on matchdays it is the heart of Cardiff, with a loud pulse all of its own. Twickenham is bigger, but the Millennium’s stands are steeper and closer, creating an intensity of atmosphere which is enhanced when the roof is shut.

So much is about the people. In Cardiff, there is fervent support, in London it is more passive.

Many Twickenham patrons turn up to be entertained, as if at the opera, while their Welsh counterparts embrace an interactive experience. There are contrasting demographics and they create a contrasting backdrop.

England’s players talk dutifully of wonderful support, but in truth they largely have to perform for their crowd, rather than feed off vocal backing.

Even when the hordes responded to the Haka last Saturday by singing Swing Low, there was one full-throttle rendition, then an almost apologetic second take which petered out into murmuring near-silence.

Ultimately, the England v Wales pool game at the World Cup won’t be staged at the Millennium, but perhaps the away players from the ‘host’ nation would be more inspired by the commotion if it was.

Commotion: There is normally a great atmosphere in the Millenium Stadium

Commotion: There is normally a great atmosphere in the Millenium Stadium

How are the Lions looking

Now that the dust has settled on the autumn Tests, it’s another opportune moment to predict how the Lions might line up for their first Test against Australia in June.

Based partly on form and partly on long-standing personal preference, a possible matchday 23 is listed below. One striking factor is the physical power of what would surely be the most imposing threequarter line the Lions have ever mustered, plus a bench role for that great wasted Welsh talent, James Hook.

Chris Foy’s latest Lions matchday Test squad: Halfpenny; Visser, Tuilagi, Roberts, North; Sexton, B Youngs; Healy, Hartley, Cole; Parling, Gray; Wood, Heaslip, Warburton (capt). Replacements: Best, Corbisiero, A Jones, Lawes, Robshaw, Phillips, Hook, Foden.

Wasted talent: Chris Foy would include James Hook on the bench

Wasted talent: Chris Foy would include James Hook on the bench

Captain Chris tackles his critics

Among modern sporting cliches, ‘he does his talking on the pitch’ is particularly well-worn, but it was a fitting summary of Chris Robshaw’s defiant work last weekend.

He had been lambasted for a close call at the end of England’s defeat against South Africa, but the national captain presented a stoic face and responded with stirring deeds in the epic win over New Zealand.

Once again, his leadership was confirmed by the raft of post-match data, which showed he was England’s leading carrier and second in the tackle count, with 19, missing none. What was most illuminating was that Robshaw hit 27 rucks, while blindside flanker Tom Wood led that list with 39.

This indicates that the back-row balance was right. Put these two together and they cover all bases required of a 6-7 combination, with a blurring of the demarcation lines, which works well.

This may present problems for Tom Croft when he is fit to press for a recall, as the rangy Tiger is a different beast entirely and his lesser impact at the breakdown means he may struggle to break up the Wood-Robshaw axis.

Stepping up: Chris Robshaw showed his worth against the All Blacks

Stepping up: Chris Robshaw showed his worth against the All Blacks

The Last Word

One of the most daunting challenges for World Cup organisers will be to sell out large stadiums in the north, but it appears the RFU aren’t rushing to assist. There have been suggestions that, prior to the tournament, a major Test could be relocated to a northern venue such as Old Trafford, but that concept now appears to be on ice. The reason is — shock, horror — money.

RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie said: ‘There are financial imperatives. If Xmillion doesn’t come in because we don’t play at Twickenham, how many regional development officers is that worth I don’t think we would be dashing to do it (play in the north).

Also, is a single match really going to transform things’

First of all, it is outrageously simplistic to say moving a Test up north = less revenue = reduction in grass-roots funding. The RFU spend a lot of money on a lot of things, not just development officers. Old Trafford’s capacity is only 6,000 below Twickenham’s and it has ample corporate facilities, so why not take a modest monetary ‘hit’ for the good of the game The answer is tied up in considerations such as the debenture scheme at HQ, which discourages an ‘away-day’ Test.

Ritchie cannot dismiss that concept, then argue — as he did — that taking the Saxons up north is a viable solution. Only the senior team against ‘A’-list rivals will have the desired effect.

Rugby World Cup 2015: England dismiss Wales offer to host showdown

England dismiss cheeky Wales offer to host World Cup showdown

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UPDATED:

14:34 GMT, 4 December 2012

Rugby Football Union chief executive
Ian Ritchie has rejected the proposal that England's crunch 2015 Rugby
World Cup pool match against Wales should be played in Cardiff.

England are the host nation of the
tournament but the RFU's bid included the prospect of the Millennium
Stadium being used for up to eight matches, including two
quarter-finals.

Cheeky: Wales want to host England at the Milennium Stadium

Cheeky: Wales offered to play England at the Millennium Stadium

England and Wales were drawn together alongside Australia in the World Cup's pool of death, with the likelihood of them being joined by Fiji as Oceania qualifiers.

Immediately after the draw, Welsh Rugby Union boss Roger Lewis suggested Wales should play England at the Millennium Stadium because 'it is the finest rugby stadium in the world'.

Ritchie's response to the WRU was a polite thank you but no thank you – and that is the message he will take to the board of England Rugby 2015, who will make the final decision on venues.

'We have a very nice home of our own and I would hope very much we would contemplate playing the match here,' said Ritchie, who is overseeing a 76million upgrade of Twickenham stadium.

'With our modest little stadium here at
Twickenham, with the further investment we might be able to make it into
a decent spot to play rugby.

'We equally believe we are very good hosts here and that we could hold a
decent game here and would very much want to do that. Shock, horror and
astonishment that I would suggest that!

'We will not get a better opportunity to inspire people to play rugby, be volunteers and participate in rugby.

'We are putting the building blocks in place to make sure we can take the most advantage of having the World Cup.'

Home: England will be determined to host the match at Twickenham

Home: England will host the match at Twickenham

England coach Stuart Lancaster is
convinced home advantage could make a decisive difference at the World
Cup and he wants to be at Twickenham, where his team were roared on to a
record 38-21 victory over world champions New Zealand on Saturday.

'Clearly from our point of view Twickenham would be our preferred venue,' Lancaster said after the draw was made.

'Before the All Blacks game I was asked about the haka and said that we'd respect it as a cultural ritual but it was also true we had 82,000 people behind us.

'We certainly felt that in the stands and I am sure (captain) Chris (Robshaw) and the boys felt it on the pitch. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. It was a special day.

'What home advantage did for the Olympians is a great example of how it inspires people to an extra five or 10 per cent and sometimes at this level that's what's needed.

'It's massive for England to have the World Cup here. For the game in general, so many people who will benefit from the tournament which will last way beyond 2015.'

Australia are the top seeds in the group with England in the second tier and Wales slipped into the third band after last weekend's 14-12 defeat to the Wallabies.

Lancaster's plan is to turn those seedings upside down by using victory over the All Blacks as a launchpad to propel England into the top two in the world by 2015.

'Our self-belief has grown, but it has to continue to grow to a point where we are consistent,' he said.

'We want to improve our rankings so that we're a top two side by the time the World Cup comes around.

'If we get to that point, we'll know we've got the consistency and inner belief to get across the line.'

Chris Foy: England have a great deal to learn after South Africa defeat

180 seconds of madness! But England have much more to put right than just scrambled thinking

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UPDATED:

01:16 GMT, 26 November 2012

Each week there is a different focus for the England inquest. This time, Stuart Lancaster was asked to identify the principal shortcoming in his side's game.

'Composure' was the response. The national coach is growing weary of the so-near-yet-so-far routine.

Another single-digit defeat against weakened southern-hemisphere opposition leaves England in grave danger of concluding this QBE International campaign with a dire return of one win and three defeats.

Madness: Captain Chris Robshaw made the wrong call in the latter stages of the game

Madness: Captain Chris Robshaw made the wrong call in the latter stages of the game

Crucial score: Willem Alberts goes over the line for the only try of the game despite the attentions of Joe Launchbury

Crucial score: Willem Alberts goes over the line for the only try of the game despite the attentions of Joe Launchbury

That supposes the host nation cannot possibly upset the world champions on Saturday.

On the basis of the latest evidence,
that is a fair assumption. The All Blacks swatted Wales aside while
England were picking through the rubble of this latest setback.

Put aside the debate about 'that'
penalty and Lancaster's observation about composure stands up to closer
scrutiny on various levels.

This result was not solely a
consequence of scrambled thinking in the dying seconds, it was founded
on a lack of composed execution too. While a piercing spotlight is
trained on captain Chris Robshaw's decision making, a telling example of
the fundamental shortcomings hindering England actually took place
seconds earlier.

With referee Nigel Owens playing
advantage, the home side worked an overlap on the right, Alex Goode
jinked forward but his pass was high and in front of Chris Ashton, who
fumbled.

Manu Tuilagi was lurking outside and
would have taken some stopping if released.

When the pressure was
stifling, the composure to execute accurately was lacking.

Earlier, in the 53rd minute, came an
even more glaring example. Tuilagi seized an interception and burst out
of defence before calmly waiting for support and releasing Ashton.

Family affair: Tom Youngs (left) attempts to intervene as Eben Etzebeth grapples with brother Ben

Family affair: Tom Youngs (left) attempts to intervene as Eben Etzebeth grapples with brother Ben

The Saracen appeared ready to reprise
his wonder try against Australia two years ago with an arcing run clear
of the covering defence, but instead he tried to release Mike Brown and
the pass was woefully inadequate.

A rare scoring chance was wasted. In a
day of debate about decision making Ashton admitted he may have taken
the wrong option, saying: 'Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I thought he
was a lot closer.

'I'm thinking now I probably should have had a go.'

While the wet conditions did nothing
to aid handling precision, England also lost lineout composure, with the
towering Eben Etzebeth managing to poach several home throws.

England had plenty of possession, but
it was squandered with aimless kicks – too deep and without the back-up
of an effective chase.

Toby Flood missed two shots at goal before he was replaced by Owen Farrell.

Hands up: Chris Robshaw is closed down by Adriaan Strauss (left) and Francois Louw

Hands up: Chris Robshaw is closed down by Adriaan Strauss (left) and Francois Louw

The first-choice No 10 left
Twickenham in a protective boot after suffering a toe injury and,
although a scan revealed no broken bones, he is seemingly destined to
miss the clash with New Zealand.

In that event Farrell is the man
most likely to take over at fly-half, but he could not conjure an
opening as England's replacement playmaker during a second half when
Lancaster's men swarmed forward but didn't appear capable of unlocking a
robust Springbok defence.

Gloucester's Freddie Burns re-joined the squad last night as the form stand-off in the country and he will be considered.

Bath wing Tom Biggs and, with Alex
Corbisiero struggling because of a knee injury, Gloucester prop Nick
Wood were also summoned.

It is fitting to note that the
attacking platform this week was made of sturdier stuff as the home pack
rose to the challenge posed by South Africa's imposing forwards.

After being out-muscled by Australia this was a stirring riposte.

Running free: Alex Goode breaks away from the clutches of Jannie du Plessis

Running free: Alex Goode breaks away from the clutches of Jannie du Plessis

Lock Geoff Parling was magnificent,
Joe Launchbury showed power and aggression on his full debut, Tom Wood
galvanised the improved breakdown operation and Alex Corbisiero led a
dominant scrum.

The visitors somehow led 9-6 at
half-time then took a firm grip on proceedings by snatching one of the
most fortuitous tries in memory.

Juandre Kruger fumbled near England's
line but, when Ben Youngs tried to kick the ball clear, it ricocheted
off JP Pietersen towards the line, Wood was unable to hold it and Willem
Alberts dropped on it.

Are you sure Owen Farrell remonstrates with Robshaw

Are you sure Owen Farrell remonstrates with Robshaw

Breaking away: Manu Tuilagi skips past Jean de Villiers

Breaking away: Manu Tuilagi skips past Jean de Villiers

Pat Lambie converted for 16-6. Three
penalties by Farrell took England to within a point but the last of
those provided the major talking point and left Robshaw defending himsel
f against accusations of losing composure.

Lancaster backed his captain, saying:
'International sport is tough for people if they make a mistake. You've
got to make sure people are supported.'

Players also spoke up for Robshaw but not even an adherence to the party line could disguise their frustration.

'Chris has the final decision but there are other guys on the field who should be assisting,' said prop Dan Cole.

'Sometimes the right decision is the
quick decision. We live and learn.' England will have to learn fast. In
five days' time they must try to smash the All Black juggernaut off
course.

If composure is lacking again,
Lancaster's side will be heavily beaten and this autumn campaign will be
damned as an abject failure.

Clearing his lines: Ben Youngs gets a kick away despite the attentions of Duane Vermeulen

Clearing his lines: Ben Youngs gets a kick away despite the attentions of Duane Vermeulen

Locked up: Joe Launchbury is tackled by Gurthro Steenkamp and Duane Vermeulen

Locked up: Joe Launchbury is tackled by Gurthro Steenkamp and Duane Vermeulen

HOW THE KEY FINAL MOMENTS UNFOLDED

Really Owen Farrell (left) argues Chris Robshaw's call

77min 14sec Referee Nigel Owens signals a penalty pending for England, just outside South Africa’s 22, slightly to the left of the posts, but allows the home team to play an advantage.

77.23 England ’s attack to the right breaks down when Chris Ashton is unable to hold on to Alex Goode’s pass, so Owens blows his whistle to award the penalty. Mike Brown and Danny Care can be seen urgently waving their arms for the ball to be passed rapidly back to the penalty mark.

77.34 Chris Robshaw initially points to the posts, but Owens is looking the other way. The England captain then asks Owens if the clock can be stopped, but the referee says ‘No, I can’t’.

77.43 Robshaw instructs Owen Farrell to kick for goal and the Saracens player indicates that he thinks England should kick to the corner. The skipper over-rules (right) him and orders him to go for the posts.

77.49 The discussion between captain and kicker continues for several more seconds, with Farrell turning round to offer a further observation before he begins to line up the penalty.

77.52 Farrell puts the ball on the turf next to Owens, then turns around once more and makes another comment while clearly shaking his head in frustration at the decision.

78.00 With Farrell still waiting for the kicking tee to be brought on and the crowd booing, an evidently concerned Robshaw approaches Owens again and asks ‘Can I change the call’ The referee says ‘No’ so Robshaw shouts to his kicker ‘Faz, quick! Quick!’.

78.30 Farrell quickly composes himself and finally the ball is struck, through the posts to bring England to within one point at 16-15 down.

79.00 South Africa ’s restart flies towards the touchline on England’s right flank, replacement lock Mouritz Botha attempts to catch the kick but spills the ball and it rolls into touch.

80.14 Having claimed the subsequent lineout and recycled the ball at a ruck, the Springboks drive again, Ruan Pienaar passes out to Francois Hougaard and he kicks the ball into touch to end the game.

France 39 Argentina 22: Frederic Michalak pulls the strings as Les Bleus tame Pumas

France 39 Argentina 22: Michalak pulls the strings as Les Bleus tame Pumas

PUBLISHED:

23:21 GMT, 17 November 2012

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UPDATED:

23:21 GMT, 17 November 2012

Vincent Clerc scored two tries and
Frederic Michalak booted 24 points as France followed up their rout of
Australia with a home victory over Argentina in Lille.

Argentina had started well and led
13-3 after 17 minutes, but Clerc's first try sparked a run of 21
unanswered points for France that saw the home side establish a 24-13
half-time advantage.

The Pumas continued to battle hard
in the second half and reduced the gap between the two sides to eight
points on a couple of occasions, but they could not get any closer and
Michalak's kicking ensured France would come out on top.

Star man: France's Vincent Clerc scored two tries

Star man: France's Vincent Clerc scored two tries

Les Bleus stunned the Wallabies 33-6 in Paris last weekend but they have found Argentina a tough nut to crack and have only have triumphed in four of the 11 meetings between the two nations.

And another night of disappointment looked to be on the cards for the French at Stade Lille Metropole when, after Michalak had put them ahead with a penalty, Argentina promptly replied with a flurry of points.

A break from Gonzalo Tiesi helped centre Marcelo Bosch, who plays his club rugby in France for Biarritz, go over for the game's opening try in the fourth minute, and then Nicolas Sanchez added eight more points from a conversion and two penalties.

Argentina soon found themselves on the back foot though and a 17-minute 21-point scoring blitz from the French all but ended the South American nation's hopes of following up their win over Wales with another triumph.

Bish bash Bosch: Argentina's Marcelo Bosch scores a try

Bish bash Bosch: Argentina's Marcelo Bosch scores a try

Experienced winger Clerc collected two tries – taking his tally for his country to 34 – and flanker Yannick Nyanga crossed for another in quick succession as, with Michalak adding the extra points for each, the hosts powered into an 11-point lead at the interval.

There were no more tries in the second half, which turned into a shoot-out between Michalak and Sanchez.

Sanchez brought Argentina back within touching distance with two penalties and a drop goal, taking his personal tally for the evening to 17, but Michalak slammed the door shut with three more penalties in the final 12 minutes to seal France's triumph.

Davis Cup final: Spain lose to Czech Republic in doubles

Berdych and Stepanek down Spanish pair to close in on Davis Cup glory

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UPDATED:

18:08 GMT, 17 November 2012

London's O2 Arena will have seemed a long way off from its Czech counterpart for Spanish duo Marc Granollers and Marc Lopez as they slid to a Davis Cup final defeat, just six days after the high of winning under the Millenium Dome.

The champions of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals were downed by host nation’s Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek in a feverish atmosphere to put the Czech Republic within one victory of winning the 100th edition of the sport’s premier team competition.

In the pivotal doubles rubber it was again shown that there is no substitute for sheer ability and big match experience, whatever the format, as the two better known players prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3, in three hours and 19 minutes.

Czech mates: Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek beat Spain in the doubles

Czech mates: Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek beat Spain in the doubles

It was an impressive effort from Berdych, who finished his singles match not long before midnight on Friday, barely fourteen hours before resuming with the partner alongside whom he now has a 12-1 record in doubles in the team event.

Sunday will require one last slog from the Czech No 1 as he takes on his opposite number David Ferrer, who never gives an inch.

Assuming he still has enough puff left, 34 year-old Stepanek is slated to play the decisive singles against Nicolas Almagro if Berdych cannot finish off the job.

On the basis of what we saw on Friday, when the Spaniards played above themselves and looked comfortable with the pace of the court, the home side are still a long way off from emulating the old Czechoslovakia team of 1980 that won this title.

If they did manage to cross the finishing line then what is beyond doubt is that it would spark off delirious celebrations as the last two days have provided more proof that team competition stirs emotions in a way that the individual format struggles to match.

No answer: Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez were bought back down to Earth

No answer: Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez were bought back down to Earth

Without the luxury of a specialist doubles team to give them a day's rest, Berdych and Stepanek were slow off the mark against the Spanish pair, whose confidence gleaned from London appeared to have carried over.

It did not help that Stepanek, whose serve was vulnerable on Friday, dropped his in the second game to give the visitors the perfect start.

Only in the second set set did the Czechs begin to look more co-ordinated, and they were eventually able to prey upon what emerged as two key weaknesses in the opposition – the reflex volleying of Granollers at the net and the serving of Lopez, whose profile before this year has been connected to his friendship and sometime partnership with Rafael Nadal.

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Pure delight: The win sent the patriotic crowd into rapture

In the fourth the crucial break came for 4-2, and although Berdych looked edgy as he tried to serve the match out at 5-3 they summoned up enough composure to seal the win without ever looking completely convincing.

After a mediocre display on Friday Stepanek grew into the match, and will feel better about himself if he has to come out to play what would be a nerve-shredding deciding rubber against Alamgro, the talented baseliner who is nonetheless at his least comfortable when playing indoors.

Ferrer looked extremely accomplished in his opening match, and Berdych will need to be at his best to try and hit through him on a court designed to enable him to do just that.

So the Spanish may have more energy for the task, but as their Captain Alex Corretja succinctly put it: 'We would still rather be tired and 2-1 up.'

Mako Vunipola – the making of England"s prop (via Tonga)

EXCLUSIVE: After Mako Vunipola's England debut inspires a Pacific nation, will the Red Rose now reap… a Tongan harvest

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UPDATED:

23:00 GMT, 12 November 2012

When Mako Vunipola ran on to the pitch at Twickenham for his England debut on Saturday, it was around 4.45 in the morning in Nuku'alofa, but his proud father and hordes of relatives in Tonga's capital were wide awake, savouring the occasion.

The sight of one of their own playing in the Red Rose shirt was a big deal in the Pacific-island nation. Several rugby clubs were open in the early hours of Sunday morning to show the Italy v Tonga game followed by events from London, which suddenly took on added significance for those conquering tiredness to follow the footage on TV.

Having come on as a replacement in the 46th minute against Fiji, Vunipola jnr acquitted himself well – helping England maintain their scrum dominance while also showcasing his ball-carrying clout. Thousands of miles away, Fe’ao observed his son’s efforts with great satisfaction.

Hard yards: Mako Vunipola in training with the England squad at Pennyhill Park on Monday

Hard yards: Mako Vunipola in training with the England squad at Pennyhill Park on Monday

Hard yards: Mako Vunipola in training with the England squad at Pennyhill Park on Monday

Speaking to Sportsmail, the former captain of Tonga, who now coaches the national Under 20 team, said: ‘When I spoke to my wife, Iesinga, after the game, she said Mako wanted to know what I thought of how he played. I was very happy with his performance. In the past, his weakness was that his priorities were wrong – he preferred to carry the ball rather than do the hard yards in the scrum and lineout. I told him, “If you can’t sort out your set piece then forget about England”. Mako knew he had to improve his scrummaging and he scrummaged well on Saturday.’

The 21-year-old Saracens prop and his younger brother, Billy – who is emerging as an outstanding No 8 prospect at Wasps – were both huge Polynesian children who were brought up here, first in Wales while their father played for Pontypool, then in England. Fe’ao’s exploits meant they were destined to be rugby players, but he didn’t always push them in that direction. ‘They were big and strong from when they were young kids,’ he said. ‘They stood out because of their size and the lighter boys would always try to run around them.

‘They always wanted to play rugby – it is in our family, but I tried to discourage them. I wanted them to study hard and try to become lawyers or doctors or teachers. I told them that if they played rugby, as well as all the hard physical work they would have to accept being dropped without any reason. But they were determined to be rugby players.’

England debut: Vunipola made his international bow against Fiji at Twickenham on Saturday

England debut: Vunipola made his international bow against Fiji at Twickenham on Saturday

England debut: Vunipola made his international bow against Fiji at Twickenham on Saturday

He credits his wife with doing so
much to help her sons fulfil their potential, adding: ‘Their mum is a
Methodist minister and her faith has helped the boys a lot. She did
incredible work raising them. Sometimes, being in England, they can
become a bit arrogant and we have to tell them off and keep them humble.
They are more English than Tongan, so they only go to church because we
tell them off if they don’t!’

The Vunipola brothers began playing in Wales and Mako’s first club was New Panteg, where he appeared alongside another rising star of Tongan descent, Toby Faletau – now the Wales No 8. Recalling where it all began, Billy said: My first memory was playing touch rugby, standing in the middle of the pitch and not knowing what I was doing, at Newport High School. My dad got us into rugby and trained us up. I remember training with Toby down in Wales which was pretty cool.’

Eventually, the family moved on to
Bristol and then High Wycombe, with Mako going on to attend Millfield
School – a few years after England captain Chris Robshaw – while Billy
wound up at Harrow. Fe’ao had strong views on the thorny issue of
national allegiance, given the Tongan background, Mako being born in New
Zealand, Billy in Australia, and the pair growing up first in Wales
then on the other side of the Severn Bridge. But the boys had their own
ideas.

Little cherub: An 11-month-old Mako

Little cherub: An 11-month-old Mako

Holiodays: Mako (right) and Billy in the USA

Holiodays: Mako (right) and Billy in the USA

‘I tried to convince
them that they should play for Wales, out of loyalty,’ said Vunipola
snr. ‘As a family, we ended up in the UK because of Wales, because of my
contract at Pontypool. We lived there before moving to England so I
wanted them to play for Wales, but they said they wanted to play for
England. I couldn’t change their minds.’

Explaining that decision, Mako said: ‘I wanted to play for the country I was growing up in. My father wanted us to strive for the best and that’s why we went for England. When we moved over we concentrated on getting into the England set-up.’

While the Tongan background is a firm part of their identity, there has been no doubt about the siblings’ ultimate target, with Billy adding: ‘We know where we are from so it’s just about whether people in England will like us playing for England. Everything has been pretty positive. We know where we come from but it has been a dream to play for England.’

Perhaps the biggest challenge along the way has been the need to work hard to hone their giant physiques. Much has been made about the big strides made by Mako when he spent last summer back in Tonga and Fe’ao suggested that all the graft has been the key to his older son’s sudden rise to Test status. That and his set-piece work.

Big catch: A Wallabies jersey-wearing Vunipola

Happy family: Vunipola's mother Singa with sisters Tiffany (left) and Anna (right)

Happy family: A Wallabies jersey-wearing Vunipola (left) and mother Singa with sisters Tiffany and Anna (right)

‘He came over to Tonga with his own programme and put it to good use,’ he said. ‘Mako hates doing long-distance running but that is what they wanted him to do and he did it. He’s now down to around 120kg, but at one time he weighed 140kg. Him and Billy were both fat and were told to slim down. They had to start watching their diet. I thought Billy would be the first to make it into the England team, but Mako has proved me wrong by improving his scrummaging.’

While the work ethic has been enhanced over time, there was always abundant natural talent. John Mallett, now coaching at Millfield, remembers an audacious display of skill from Mako, unheard of in a prop. ‘I’m still laughing at the day he dropped a goal from the halfway line in training, with a coat over his head,’ said the ex-England prop. ‘He was always doing little stunts but that was exceptional.’

Saracens coach Alex Sanderson has seen Mako’s development at close quarters over several years and soon knew this was a rare talent, albeit one who ‘looked like he was 30 when he was still a schoolboy’. ‘I’ve always had an eye on him since I coached him in the England Under 18s,’ he said.
‘I’ve always known about his potential. In that team we had Mako at loosehead and Joe Marler on the tight. Mako has had to grow up in the last season because of the demands in the Premiership. He’s now a big man who can hold his own in the tight and do his stuff in the open play.’

The shirt fits: Mako aged 17 (left) with brother Billy aged 16 (right) in England Under 18 kit

The shirt fits: Mako aged 17 (left) with brother Billy aged 16 (right) in England Under 18 kit

On Thursday, Stuart Lancaster is due to name his England team to face Australia in the second QBE International. Despite the fact that the country’s premier loosehead prop, Alex Corbisiero, is now back from long-term injury, the head coach insisted that Mako is ‘definitely in the mix’ to retain his place in the match-day 23. If he does, there will be another sleepless night for many in Tonga. ‘It’s normal for Tongans to play for the All Blacks, but for a Tongan to move further away and play for England is new, so people here are really excited about it,’ said Fe’ao.

‘The Tongan people put England on a high pedestal in every aspect of life and rugby started in England, so for a Tongan boy to play for England is unbelievable. Now that the door is open I’m sure more Tongans will aim to follow in Mako’s footsteps. There are loads of young Manu Tuilagis and Mako Vunipolas in the islands, who will now aspire to play for England.’

For Test teams visiting Twickenham in the future, that is an alarming vision.

Chris Ashton absence will affect England, admits Stuart Lancaster

It's a trying task without world-class Ashton, admits England coach Lancaster

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UPDATED:

22:00 GMT, 5 November 2012

Stuart Lancaster suggested on Monday that Chris Ashton is all but irreplaceable for England, as one of a rare breed of ‘world-class’ finishers in Test rugby.

But in Ashton’s enforced absence, the head coach insists his team can score tries against Fiji on Saturday.

The cross-code Saracens wing is serving a one-match ban for three yellow-card offences this season and without him for the first QBE International at Twickenham, the national team’s potency seems markedly diluted. Ashton has by far the best strike-rate in the senior squad – the next highest try-scorer, Ben Foden, is unavailable all autumn due to injury.

Missing: Ashton has been suspended for England's clash against Fiji on Saturday

Missing: Ashton has been suspended for England's clash against Fiji on Saturday

ENGLAND'S FINISHING FIGURES

Top try-scorers Ashton (15 in 26 Tests) and Foden (seven in 30) are unavailable, so how do the contenders shape up

Ben Youngs 24 Tests, 6 tries
Manu Tuilagi 13, 5
Danny Care 33, 4
Toby Flood 50, 4
Ugo Monye 13, 1
Owen Farrell 8, 0
Brad Barritt 7, 0
Mike Brown 7, 0
Alex Goode 2, 0
Charlie Sharples 2, 0

In an ideal world, England would aim to hit the ground running with an all-singing, all-dancing rout of the Pacific Island nation to give them momentum going into the sterner Tests against Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Without Ashton, the onus will rest on Ugo Monye and Charlie Sharples as the likely wings.

Lancaster was bullish on Monday about his weakened team’s try-scoring potential, saying: ‘Tries come as a product of all sorts of things – good set-piece, strong defence creating turnovers, good kick-chase, all that sort of stuff. We have to get all that right, otherwise it doesn’t matter who you’ve got on the wings.

‘With Charlie Sharples, who can finish, and Ugo Monye, who can finish, we’ve got those and other guys who we think can perform that role. This is their opportunity to put a marker down.’

However, despite his commendable determination to see every glass half-full, the head coach knows he could do with more prolific predators. For now, the top try-scorers in the Aviva Premiership – Wasps pair Tom Varndell and Christian Wade – are being overlooked in favour of players who offer a more all-round package of attacking and defensive qualities.

Deadly finisher: Lancaster admits England will miss Ashton's try-scoring prowess

Deadly finisher: Lancaster admits England will miss Ashton's try-scoring prowess

‘We’ve got some, but it’s something we definitely want to get more of,’ said Lancaster, of the out-and-out finishers like Ashton. ‘But you can’t just manufacture finishers, can you They come through in the Premiership and we pick them from there.

‘There are players who are playing well in the Saxons – guys like Tom Biggs – but in terms of world-class finishers, there aren’t many around. We’ve got a couple, we feel, but Chris is one of them and unfortunately he isn’t available this weekend.’

Problems to tackle: Ashton

Problems to tackle: Ashton

In the absence of Ashton, Foden and injured rookie centre Jonathan Joseph, there are concerns that the England side may lack a sufficient quota of backs blessed with a game-breaking spark of magic. Lancaster dismissed that notion, adding: ‘It doesn’t have to be on the wing – Danny Care, Ben Youngs, Alex Goode, Toby Flood, Owen Farrell. There are lots of playmakers in our team who can change the course of a game.’

Meanwhile, the head coach revealed he has spoken to Ashton about the need to channel his aggressive streak, to avoid more stints in the sin-bin and suspensions. The 25-year-old has been punished for three dangerous tackles already this season. ‘I’ve had a chat with Chris,’ Lancaster said.

‘One of his real strengths is his competitive nature. It’s about tempering that to make sure we get the best out of it, alongside working on his tackle technique. He’s more disappointed than anyone that he’s not available, but he’s got to put that frustration to bed and work on those areas to make sure he is ready for next week.’

Wasps lock Joe Launchbury was called up on Monday after club colleague Tom Palmer was unable to train last week due to a tight calf. But Palmer did train on Monday and should be fit, along with prop Joe Marler and No 8 Ben Morgan. Alex Corbisiero, the London Irish loosehead, should play for the Exiles this weekend and be ready for Australia next week.