Proposed Rugby Calendar for 2022

Continuing the discussion regarding the professional rugby calendar for 2021, which I posted a few days ago, and a revamp of the Pro 14 tournament that I also proposed, I thought I would attempt to demonstrate how a global calendar could be possible. It’s not easy but is possible.

The idea is to have tournaments play out, making the season easier to follow. There would also be a progression of competitiveness and intensity from domestic competition and concluding with international matches.

  • 2022 Professional season runs from February to November. The grass roots game continues to run from August/September to April/May. Minis and Junior rugby enjoy a winter break during December and January.
  • The season should be structured to follow progression of competition (Domestic, European, Six Nations, Autumn Internationals) with no overlap of tournaments, allowing for clarity for teams, players and supporters.
  • Top 14 starts in the first week in January, with the English Premiership and Irish/Welsh/Scottish/Italian domestic competition at the end of the month.
  • Given the weeks allocated to domestic rugby the English Premiership and Top 14 will need to drop their end of season play off system from 2022.
  • European Champions/Challenge Cup played after the northern hemisphere summer tours to the south.
  • Six Nations pushed to the autumn and played following the completion of European competition.
  • 2022 season culminates with the southern hemisphere tours of the northern hemisphere.
  • Following the changes of competitions during 2020 the Super Rugby AU competition could continue in Australia and run concurrently with the Mitre 10 tournament in New Zealand.
  • Grass roots rugby can continue with the current schedule (September to May). For example, in Wales traditional Christmas and New Year derbies will now feature Welsh Premiership rivalries, such as Pontypridd v Merthyr, Cardiff v Newport and Swansea v Llanelli, boosting interest in local, rather than professional, rugby during the festive period.

This is my proposal for how the rugby calendar could run in 2022 given the teams and competitions currently in place for 2020.

KEY

Friday Date Saturday Date Sunday Date

England

Wales/Ireland/Scotland/Italy

France

New Zealand/South Africa/Australia/Argentina

group of people doing a group hug
Photo by Julius Holstein on Pexels.com

January 2022

Friday 31st Saturday 1st Sunday 2nd

Winter Break

Winter Break

Top 14 – Round 1

Winter Break

 

Friday 7th Saturday 8th Sunday 9th

Winter Break

Winter Break

Top 14 – Round 2

Winter Break

 

Friday 14th Saturday 15th Sunday 16th

Winter Break

Winter Break

Top 14 – Round 3

Winter Break

 

Friday 21st Saturday 22nd Sunday 23rd

Winter Break

Winter Break

Top 14 – Round 4

Winter break

 

Friday 28th Saturday 29th Sunday 30th

English Premiership – Round 1

Welsh, Irish and Scottish/Italian Domestic Tournament – Round 1

Top 14 – Round 5

Winter Break

February 2022

Friday 4th Saturday 5th Sunday 6th

English Premiership – Round 2

Welsh, Irish and Scottish/Italian Domestic Tournament – Round 2

Top 14 – Round 6

Super Rugby – Round 1

 

Friday 11th Saturday 12th Sunday 13th

English Premiership – Round 3

Welsh, Irish and Scottish/Italian Domestic Tournament – Round 3

Top 14 – Round 7

Super Rugby – Round 2

 

Friday 18th Saturday 19th Sunday 20th

English Premiership – Round 4

Welsh, Irish and Scottish/Italian Domestic Tournament – Round 4

Top 14 – Round 8

Super Rugby – Round 3

 

Friday 25th Saturday 26th Sunday 27th

English Premiership – Round 5

Welsh, Irish and Scottish/Italian Domestic Tournament – Round 5

Top 14 – Round 9

Super Rugby – Round 4

men playing football
Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels.com

March 2022

Friday 4th Saturday 5th Sunday 6th

English Premiership – Round 6

Welsh, Irish and Scottish/Italian Domestic Tournament – Round 6

Top 14 – Round 10

Super Rugby – Round 5

 

Friday 11th Saturday 12th Sunday 13th

English Premiership – Round 7

Pro 14 – Round 1

Top 14 – Round 11

Super Rugby – Round 6

 

Friday 18th Saturday 19th Sunday 20th

English Premiership – Round 8

Pro 14 – Round 2

Top 14 – Round 12

Super Rugby – Round 7

 

Friday 25th Saturday 26th Sunday 27th

English Premiership – Round 9

Pro 14 – Round 3

Top 14 – Round 13

Super Rugby – Round 8

April 2022

Friday 1st Saturday 2nd Sunday 3rd

English Premiership – Round 10

Pro 14 – Round 4

Top 14 – Round 14

Super Rugby – Round 9

 

Friday 8th Saturday 9th Sunday 10th

English Premiership – Round 11

Pro 14 – Round 5

Top 14 – Round 15

Super Rugby – Round 10

 

Friday 15th Saturday 16th Sunday 17th

English Premiership – Round 12

Pro 14 – Round 6

Top 14 – Round 16

Super Rugby – Round 11

 

Friday 22nd Saturday 23rd Sunday 24th

English Premiership – Round 13

Pro 14 – Round 7

Top 14 – Round 17

Super Rugby – Round 12

 

Friday 29th Saturday 30th Sunday 1st

English Premiership – Round 14

Pro 14 – Round 8

Top 14 – Round 18

Super Rugby – Round 13

men playing rugby
Photo by Patrick Case on Pexels.com

May 2022

Friday 6th Saturday 7th Sunday 8th

English Premiership – Round 15

Pro 14 – Round 9

Top 14 – Round 19

Super Rugby – Round 14

 

Friday 13th Saturday 14th Sunday 15th

English Premiership – Round 16

Pro 14 – Round 10

Top 14 – Round 20

Super Rugby – Round 15

 

Friday 20th Saturday 21st Sunday 22nd

English Premiership – Round 17

Pro 14 – Round 11

Top 14 – Round 21

Super Rugby – Round 16

 

Friday 27th Saturday 28th Sunday 29th

English Premiership – Round 18

Pro 14 – Round 12

Top 14 – Round 22

Super Rugby – Round 17

PRO14June 2022

Friday 3rd Saturday 4th Sunday 5th

English Premiership – Round 19

Pro 14 – Round 13

Top 14 – Round 23

Super Rugby – Round 18

 

Friday 10th Saturday 11th Sunday 12th

English Premiership – Round 20

Pro 14 – Round 14

Top 14 – Round 24

Super Rugby – Playoff Round

 

Friday 17th Saturday 18th Sunday 19th

English Premiership – Round 21

Pro 14 – Semi Finals

Top 14 – Round 25

Super Rugby – Semi Finals

 

Friday 24th Saturday 25th Sunday 26th

English Premiership – Round 22

Pro 14 – Final

Top 14 – Round 26

Super Rugby – Final

img_0059July 2022

Friday 1st Saturday 2nd Sunday 3rd

Summer Tour (First Test)

 

Friday 8th Saturday 9th Sunday 10th

Summer Tour (Second Test)

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 1

 

Friday 15th Saturday 16th Sunday 17th

Summer Tour (Third Test)

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 2

 

Friday 22nd Saturday 23rd Sunday 24th

Break

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 3

 

Friday 29th Saturday 30th Sunday 31st

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 1

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 4

imageAugust 2022

Friday 5th Saturday 6th Sunday 7th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 2

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 5

 

Friday 12th Saturday 13th Sunday 14th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 3

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 6

 

Friday 19th Saturday 20th Sunday 21st

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 4

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 7

 

Friday 26th Saturday 27th Sunday 30th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 5

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 8

September 2022

Friday 2nd Saturday 3rd Sunday 4th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 6

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 9

Friday 9th Saturday 10th Sunday 11th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Quarter Finals

Mitre 10 Cup/Super Rugby AU – Round 10

Friday 16th Saturday 17th Sunday 18th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Semi Finals

Rugby Championship – Round 1

 

Friday 23rd Saturday 24th Sunday 25th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Finals

Mitre 10 Cup – Semi-finals, Rugby Championship – Round 2

imageOctober 2022

Friday 30th Saturday 1st Sunday 2nd

Six Nations – Round 1

Mitre 10 Cup – Finals, Rugby Championship – Break

 

Friday 7th Saturday 8th Sunday 9th

Six Nations – Round 2

Rugby Championship – Round 3

 

Friday 14th Saturday 15th Sunday 16th

Six Nations – Round 3

Rugby Championship – Round 4

 

Friday 21st Saturday 22nd Sunday 23rd

Six Nations – Break

Rugby Championship – Break

 

Friday 28th Saturday 29th Sunday 30th

Six Nations – Round 4

Rugby Championship – Round 5

Eng Wal 2016 2November 2022

Friday 4th Saturday 5th Sunday 6th

Six Nations – Round 5

Rugby Championship – Round 6

 

Friday 11th Saturday 12th Sunday 13th

Break/Optional Autumn International

 

Friday 18th Saturday 19th Sunday 20th

Autumn Internationals

 

Friday 25th Saturday 26th Sunday 27th

Autumn Internationals

img_0318December 2022

Friday 2nd Saturday 3rd Sunday 4th

Autumn Internationals

 

Friday 9th Saturday 10th Sunday 11th

Winter Break

 

Friday 16th Saturday 17th Sunday 18th

Winter Break

 

Friday 23rd Saturday 24th Sunday 25th

Winter Break

 

Friday 30th Saturday 31st Sunday 1st

Winter Break

Winter Break

Top 14 – Round 1

Winter Break

This is just my idea and, although radical in some respects, does show that a proper global rugby calendar can be achieved. It can make the season simpler to follow, none of the issues of “which competition are we playing in this week?”

Proposed Rugby Union law changes

As I seem to be on a roll with improving rugby union at the professional level, with ideas about the 2021 calendar and the Pro 14, I thought I’d share some additional ideas about the game itself.

Scrums

  • Infringement or collapse before the ball is put into the scrum with no definite penalty to be awarded, scrum half has the option to take a tap kick from his current position in the middle of the scrum. This is intended to help speed up the game, reduce the number of scrum resets and potentially increase the opportunity for attacking play.
  • Consider that a penalty during the scrum is awarded at the mark of the scrum but a free kick has to be taken from the back of the scrum, not where the offence occurred, unfairly costing the non-offending team yardage.
  • Collapsing a scrum is dangerous and must be penalised with a penalty. However, technical offences such as improper binding could be downgraded to a freekick offence, which again can be taken by a scrum half at the middle mark of the scrum.

Free kicks

  • Free kicks – To encourage more running rugby the scrum option of a free kick should be removed (Law 20.3).

IMG_0430Replacements/Substitutions

  • Coaches must name a 23-player squad but can only use 4 of the 8 named replacements. This would mean that more players will have to play a full 80 minutes and remove the ability to change more than half of your starting XV.
  • All 3 front row positions must be covered in the event of injury. However, if a front row player is injured after all 4 replacements have been used then the injured player must be replaced by another player appropriately trained for the position but in order to make that change an additional player must leave the field too.
  • This change is intended to encourage more cardiovascular fitness instead of power and muscular bulk, which can have an impact on the severity of injuries occurring in the modern game.
  • For context the British and Irish Lions second test match with South Africa in 2009, dubbed by some as one of the most brutal games in history, saw four injuries requiring replacement (Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Jamie Roberts, Brian O’Driscoll), the same number as being proposed.

Holding on

  • Instead of blowing for a penalty immediately, referees should be assisting with achieving a turnover by calling “Release ball carrier” or similar. This will create more turnovers, reduce the penalty count, and potentially increase try scoring opportunities.

Just a couple of ideas, which are easy to implement, but could have a positive effect on professional rugby union as a spectator sport by reducing the number of scrums and resets, encouraging more turnovers and exposing players to fatigue and thus increasing try scoring opportunities.

My proposal for a new PRO 14 competition

A couple of days ago I had a crack at the professional rugby season for 2021 which you can read here. Key to that idea was restructuring the Pro 14. A better tournament could be achieved by having more competitive games, more often. For example, is there much point in the Dragons going over to Leinster to get beaten by their second team by 30-40 points every season?

Rumours abound that the two South African teams currently competing could be replaced with the Super Rugby franchises, taking it to a 16 tournament competition. This idea is based on the current format but could easily be adjusted to two divisions of 8.

PRO14For now however I’ll work with the situation as it stands.

  • The Pro 14 is restructured to have the top 7 ranked teams compete in Division 1 and the remainder in Division 2 with promotion and relegation. Placings are based on points accumulated during the 13 matches played in 2019/20 season so far.
  • The 7 teams in each division play each other home and away with each team getting 2 byes during the 14 rounds, helpful for player welfare.
  • Semi-finals can be completed with the team ranked 1 (home) playing the team ranked 4 (away) and teams ranked 2 (home) playing 3 (away). Winners of the two semi-finals then play each other in Grand Finals for Division 1 and 2. The winner of the Division 2 final also wins promotion, replacing the bottom ranked team in Division 1.
Division 1 Division 2
Leinster Toyota Cheetahs
Edinburgh Benetton
Munster Cardiff Blues
Ulster Dragons
Scarlets Zebre
Connacht Ospreys
Glasgow Warriors Isuzu Southern Kings

Of course we still want to have local rivalries so to kick the season off with a bang there could be new Welsh and Irish domestic tournaments established, culminating in the final round being played at the national stadium (i.e. WRU Judgement Day). As Scotland and Italy only have 2 professional teams they will unfortunately have to unite for fixtures. These new domestic tournaments provide a formal setting for preseason warmups and competition for places, regionally and internationally, before the Pro 14 tournament begins.

Here is an example of how it could work:

  • Welsh Regional Challenge Cup (Round 6 to be played at Principality Stadium)
  Game 1 Game 2
Round 1 Cardiff Blues v Ospreys Dragons v Scarlets
Round 2 Ospreys v Dragons Scarlets v Cardiff Blues
Round 3 Dragons v Cardiff Blues Ospreys v Scarlets
Round 4 Cardiff Blues v Scarlets Dragons v Ospreys
Round 5 Ospreys v Cardiff Blues Scarlets v Dragons
Round 6 Cardiff Blues v Dragons Scarlets v Ospreys
  • Irish Regional Challenge Cup (Round 6 to be played at Aviva Stadium)
  Game 1 Game 2
Round 1 Leinster v Ulster Connacht v Munster
Round 2 Ulster v Connacht Munster v Leinster
Round 3 Connacht v Leinster Ulster v Munster
Round 4 Leinster v Munster Connacht v Ulster
Round 5 Ulster v Leinster Munster v Connacht
Round 6 Leinster v Connacht Munster v Ulster
  • Scottish/Italian Trophy
  Game 1 Game 2
Round 1 Glasgow v Edinburgh Zebre v Benetton
Round 2 Edinburgh v Zebre Benetton v Glasgow
Round 3 Zebre v Glasgow Edinburgh v Benetton
Round 4 Glasgow v Benetton Zebre v Edinburgh
Round 5 Glasgow v Zebre Benetton v Edinburgh
Round 6 Edinburgh v Glasgow Warriors Benetton v Zebre
  • Although only a brief 6 week tournament it provides the opportunity to create interest in rugby union to start the season by tapping into the local rivalries of regional team. Who will be the best Welsh/Irish team? None of them will want to finish at the bottom of the pile.
  • The 16 rounds of the proposed new Pro 14 plus 6 rounds of the proposed domestic competition also matches the 22 round league season of the English Premiership.

This is just an idea but I think the result would be a better product through more competitive games and produce better players for international level.

Rugby Calendar for 2021

With the remainder of 2020 likely to be needed to conclude unfinished tournaments, the Rugby Calendar for 2021 requires a bit of work. It’s a tricky prospect but I’ve had a stab at it. When you break down how many rounds need to be played for each tournament there is not a lot of wiggle room. Mindful of player welfare, I have attempted to include breaks where possible but as not every team will qualify for latter stages of tournaments such as the English Premiership and Pro 14 some players will more opportunity for breaks than others. Here is a brief summary followed by the full list:

  • Six Nations tournament remains in it’s traditional slot to allow for cross border competition to aid British and Irish Lions selection.
  • European Tournaments to run in the autumn AFTER the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa. This allows for reasonable squad preparation time before the tour.
  • English Premiership has to run on some weekends of Six Nations fixtures.
  • Pro 14 changed to a Division 1 and 2 format, based on rankings for 2019/20, with a simplified Home and Away format, plus end of season playoffs.

KEY

Friday Date Saturday Date Sunday Date

England

Wales/Ireland/Scotland/Italy

France

New Zealand/South Africa/Australia/Argentina

January 2021

Friday 1st Saturday 2nd Sunday 3rd

English Premiership – Round 1

Pro 14 – Round 1

Top 14 – Round 1

Winter Break

 

Friday 8th Saturday 9th Sunday 10th

English Premiership – Round 2

Pro 14 – Round 2

Top 14 – Round 2

Winter Break

 

Friday 15th Saturday 16th Sunday 17th

English Premiership – Round 3

Pro 14 – Round 3

Top 14 – Round 3

Winter Break

 

Friday 22nd Saturday 23rd Sunday 24th

English Premiership – Round 4

Pro 14 – Round 4

Top 14 – Round 4

Winter Break

 

Friday 29th Saturday 30th Sunday 31st

English Premiership – Round 5

Pro 14 – Round 5

Top 14 – Round 5

Winter Break

IMG_0424February 2021

Friday 5th Saturday 6th Sunday 7th

Six Nations – Round 1

English Premiership – Round 6

Super Rugby – Round 1

 

Friday 12th Saturday 13th Sunday 14th

Six Nations – Round 2

English Premiership – Round 7

Super Rugby – Round 2

 

Friday 19th Saturday 20th Sunday 21st

English Premiership – Round 8

Pro 14 – Round 6

Top 14 – Round 6

Super Rugby – Round 3

 

Friday 26th Saturday 27th Sunday 28th

Six Nations – Round 3

English Premiership – Round 9

Super Rugby – Round 4

March 2021

Friday 5th Saturday 6th Sunday 7th

English Premiership – Round 10

Pro 14 – Round 7

Top 14 – Round 7

Super Rugby – Round 5

 

Friday 12th Saturday 13th Sunday 14th

Six Nations – Round 4

English Premiership – Round 11

Super Rugby – Round 6

 

Friday 19th Saturday 20th Sunday 21st

Six Nations – Round 5

Super Rugby – Round 7

 

Friday 26th Saturday 27th Sunday 28th

English Premiership – Round 12

Pro 14 – Round 8

Top 14 – Round 8

Super Rugby – Round 8

img_0376April 2021

Friday 2nd Saturday 3rd Sunday 4th

English Premiership – Round 13

Pro 14 – Round 9

Top 14 – Round 9

Super Rugby – Round 9

 

Friday 9th Saturday 10th Sunday 11th

English Premiership – Round 14

Pro 14 – Round 10

Top 14 – Round 10

Super Rugby – Round 10

 

Friday 16th Saturday 17th Sunday 18th

English Premiership – Round 15

Pro 14 – Round 11

Top 14 – Round 11

Super Rugby – Round 11

 

Friday 23rd Saturday 24th Sunday 25th

English Premiership – Round 16

Pro 14 – Round 12

Top 14 – Round 12

Super Rugby – Round 12

May 2021

Friday 30th Saturday 1st Sunday 2nd

English Premiership – Round 17

Pro 14 – Round 13

Top 14 – Round 13

Super Rugby – Round 13

 

Friday 7th Saturday 8th Sunday 9th

English Premiership – Round 18

Pro 14 – Round 14

Top 14 – Round 14

Super Rugby – Round 14

 

Friday 14th Saturday 15th Sunday 16th

English Premiership – Round 19

Pro 14 – Round 15

Top 14 – Round 15

Super Rugby – Round 15

 

Friday 21st Saturday 22nd Sunday 23rd

English Premiership – Round 20

Pro 14 – Round 16

Top 14 – Round 16

Super Rugby – Round 16

 

Friday 28th Saturday 29th Sunday 30th

English Premiership – Round 21

Pro 14 – Semi Finals

Top 14 – Round 17

Super Rugby – Round 17

June 2021

Friday 4th Saturday 5th Sunday 6th

English Premiership – Round 22

Pro 14 – Final

Top 14 – Round 18

Super Rugby – Round 18

 

Friday 11th Saturday 12th Sunday 13th

English Premiership – Semi Finals

British and Irish Lions Training Camp

Top 14 – Round 19

Super Rugby – Playoff Round

 

Friday 18th Saturday 18th Sunday 20th

English Premiership – Final

British and Irish Lions Training Camp

Top 14 – Round 25

Super Rugby – Semi Finals

 

Friday 25th Saturday 26th Sunday 27th

British and Irish Lions

Training Camp

Top 14 – Round 26

Super Rugby – Final

IMG_0551July 2021

Friday 2nd Saturday 3rd Sunday 4th
 

DHL Stormers v

British and Irish Lions

   

Top 14 – Quarter Finals

Break

 

Friday 9th Saturday 10th Sunday 11th
 

Cell C Sharks v

British and Irish Lions

 
   

Top 14 – Semi Finals

Break

 

Friday 16th Saturday 17th Sunday 18th
 

Vodacom Bulls v

British and Irish Lions

 
   

Top 14 – Final

Break

 

Friday 23rd Saturday 24th Sunday 25th
 

Springboks v

British and Irish Lions

 
   

France Summer Tour

International fixtures

 

Friday 30th Saturday 31st Sunday 1st
 

Springboks v

British and Irish Lions

 
   

France Summer Tour

International fixtures

NZ FRAAugust 2021

Friday 6th Saturday 7th Sunday 8th
 

Springboks v

British and Irish Lions

 
   

France Summer Tour

International fixtures

 

Friday 13th Saturday 14th Sunday 15th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 1

Rugby Championship – Round 1

 

Friday 20th Saturday 21st Sunday 22nd

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 2

Rugby Championship – Round 2

 

Friday 27th Saturday 28th Sunday 29th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 3

Rugby Championship – Break

September 2021

Friday 3rd Saturday 4th Sunday 5th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Break

Rugby Championship – Round 3

 

Friday 10th Saturday 11th Sunday 12th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 4

Rugby Championship – Round 4

 

Friday 17th Saturday 18th Sunday 19th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 5

Rugby Championship – Round 5

 

Friday 24th Saturday 25th Sunday 26th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Round 6

Rugby Championship – Round 4

October 2021

Friday 1st Saturday 2nd Sunday 3rd

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Break

Rugby Championship – Break

 

Friday 8th Saturday 9th Sunday 10th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Quarter Finals

Rugby Championship – Round 5

 

Friday 15th Saturday 16th Sunday 17th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Semi Finals

Rugby Championship – Round 6

 

Friday 22nd Saturday 23rd Sunday 24th

European Champions/Challenge Cup – Finals

Break

img_0060November 2021

Friday 5th Saturday 6th Sunday 7th

Autumn Internationals

 

Friday 12th Saturday 13th Sunday 14th

Autumn Internationals

 

Friday 19th Saturday 20th Sunday 21st

Autumn Internationals

 

Friday 26th Saturday 27th Sunday 28th

Autumn Internationals

December 2021

Friday 3rd Saturday 4th Sunday 5th

Winter Break

 

Friday 10th Saturday 11th Sunday 12th

Winter Break

 

Friday 17th Saturday 18th Sunday 19th

Winter Break

 

Friday 24th Saturday 25th Sunday 26th

Winter Break

Admittedly, it does look like a brutal year for the very top players of successful clubs. But this format would keep the dates already earmarked for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, allow the southern hemisphere season to be played out as usual and finish the season with some Autumn internationals for revenue.

REVIEW: Cats (2019 Movie)

Let’s get this out of the way from the off; Cats is quite possibly the worst film I have ever seen in a cinema. I shall explain my rationale for such a statement in due course but basically it fails on every single level.

The release of the trailer for Cats brought a collective shock. Shots of high profile actors with completely ineffective CGI triggered global ridicule. Director Tom Hooper kept working right up until the very last moment to try and salvage the picture. Unfortunately, his efforts have been in vain.

A decision was made to realise actors in cat form using computer generated fur technology. It does not work. Faces are merely transplanted onto an artificial frame. As a result every shot leaves the viewer perplexed, possibly horrified but crucially distracted. It is a significant stumbling block and the fact that at no point senior creative people involved in the production didn’t recognise that the technology had failed and would sink the box office takings is astonishing.

Francesca HaywardThe major issue is that there is no blending of the performers facial features and the artificial feline creation. In the original West End production the makeup was intended to conceal the human face and make it appear more feline. It wasn’t entirely effective but it gave you an idea. For this movie they simply haven’t bothered with any makeup which makes the differentiation between the real actor and the CGI facade all the more stark and jarring.

Although there is seemingly no need for the costume department to become involved given the reliance on the computer, some characters do have costumes. For example, Dame Judi Dench and Idris Elba wear fur coats. Fair enough if this is part of the look for the character, consistent with the CG fur but then those coats are removed. Elba for instance appears without his outer garment in one scene which just makes it look like his character is completely naked. Except for CGI fur of course. It is utterly bizarre. Other cats are seen wearing shoes, helpful when Skimbleshanks the railway cat tap dances across screen but it is impossible not to ponder, “why are these cats wearing shoes?”

Additionally, the choreography in terms of the physical performance is inconsistent. At one point Jennifer Hudson crawls away on all fours, like a cat. Not long later she walks in like a bipedal mammal. Similarly, seeing Dame Judi Dench reclining in her basket like Kate Winslet posing for her drawing in ‘Titanic’ seems rather undignified. So this creates further inconsistency. Characters behaving like cats one minute, nuzzling each other affectionately then dancing superbly in the next. We know these are human beings pretending to be cats but be consistent with how they are presented and you might convince viewers that you’ve actually put some thought into all this. The choreographed dance numbers are strong but the direction of them leaves a lot to be desired.

Taylor SwiftTom Hooper’s style of directing is typically tight and mid-shot to get up close in order to capture the emotions of his performers. That makes sense for Jennifer Hudson performing ‘Memory’ (more of that later), but isn’t as effective for the big dance numbers with multiple performers. When Hooper does push the camera wide it exposes yet another flaw in this doomed production. The set design, specifically the scale, is all over the place. There are certain shots where the cats look tiny in the environment, such as on the railway rails, and in others, unsurprisingly, they look human size.

Another major issue with the film stems from the source material and should’ve been expected. There isn’t really a plot to Cats. Originally developed as musical accompaniments to a series of T. S. Eliot poems it remains just that. A series of songs about individual cats and eventually one of them will pass on to the Heaviside Layer in some sort of implied mercy killing. This group of Jellicle cats gather at the Jellicle Ball to make the Jellicle choice. The term Jellicle comes from the original T. S. Eliot poem describing a specific type of nocturnal black and white cat. But if all the cats looked the same it wouldn’t be that appealing visually so that uniformity is abandoned. Yet the term Jellicle remains. It is nonsense but over the years the songs in particular have connected with audiences. Not least the show’s big hit ‘Memory’.

Jennifer HudsonThe ‘Memory’ moment is appropriately big. So highly anticipated was it that it was given prominence in that much maligned trailer. Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award with her debut performance in ‘Dreamgirls’, has been brought in to deliver the song. She performs it well but even if you get beyond the CGI distraction there’s another one. I’m not sure if Hudson recorded the scene whilst suffering a heavy cold but the fluid streaming out of her nose completely takes you out of the moment. Elaine Paige need not worry. Her version of ‘Memory’ will remain the song’s pinnacle.

Taylor Swift, a self-confessed cat lady, fully embraces her brief role. Although the false English accent is toe-curling, she is probably the highlight. Swift and Jason Derulo are arena performers and unsurprisingly deliver the best moments in the film, knowing how to convey a song to thousands in an audience rather than delivering a performance to camera. Conversely, James Corden and Rebel Wilson doing yet more ‘chubby comedy’ is as embarrassing as it is unfunny. Both are better than this. More traditional stage actors, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen bring gravitas but lack the dynamism, amongst other things, that this version of Cats really needs. Francesca Hayward as Victoria is clearly a talent, you’d expect that from a Principal ballerina at The Royal Ballet, but the decision to have her play a white cat is bordering on the abhorrent and possibly the biggest sin of the entire film.

Overall, Cats is horribly and catastrophically executed. Without doubt one of the worst things ever to be released into cinemas. On every technical level it fails spectacularly. No wonder it stands to lose A LOT of money.

REVIEW: Joker

I have been looking forward to Joker for several months. Joaquin Phoenix is one of my favourite actors and has been since he played Johnny Cash in ‘Walk the Line’. But after Romero, Nicholson, Hamill and Ledger (we’ll ignore Leto), could Phoenix bring something new to the character? Yes. Would this movie live up to expectations? An even bigger yes.

Poster 3Retro

Firstly, the film is set within a Gotham City of an unspecified period but somewhere in the 1980’s. This extends to a retro Warner Brothers logo which is a lovely detail. It is the period of ‘Taxi Driver’, ‘The King of Comedy’ and the seminal Batman graphic novel ‘The Killing Joke’, although in reality a period separated by more a decade. As with these key influences the setting is an amalgamation. The non-specific time frame also allows for commentary on our modern world.

Gotham is a city which is bubbling with social unrest. The elite, epitomised by Thomas Wayne, are safe within their bubble seemingly unaware of the hard times and suffering which the less fortunate people in Gotham are having to endure. News reports are inflaming the situation further with stories of giant rats feasting on the festering rubbish littering the streets due to a strike. Budget cuts are causing the removal of care services. Medications are no longer available for those who need them.

Poster 1Joaquin is Joker

Simply put Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing. He dominates the film and is in every single scene. His descent into the more maniacal Joker that we are already familiar is a shocking and at times deeply distressing journey. Phoenix’s appearance as Arthur Fleck is merely a reflection of how he has been mistreated and abused mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Malnourished. Bruised and beaten. He works as a clown but even that is not without perils. In the evening he returns home to take care of his mother and, much like his job, is also a negative experience. Fleck is not a character that you have sympathy for, instead you just pity him.

Whilst watching the movie it is difficult not to want to see that eventual metamorphosis into Joker. That’s why we bought the cinema ticket. But at the same time you don’t really want it to come because, when it does, you realise it isn’t going to be pretty. Boy, is it not pretty!

The explanation of Arthur’s laughter being an involuntary response, seemingly occurring at times of stress, anger and nervousness, was a smart way of accounting for that particular trait of Joker. Medicalising it as the result of a brain injury or impairment was, in my opinion, reaching a bit. But it also balanced with his inability to understanding comedy. Arthur has a desire to be a standup comedian but laughs at the setup rather than punchline. His sense of humour is not obscure or dark, it just isn’t funny.

Venice winnerDirected by Todd Philips

Perhaps the only genuine criticism that I can level at this film is the lack of subtlety. This should be no real surprise as it comes from the director of the Hangover trilogy. The points being made are unquestionably clear. ‘Look what happens when you don’t treat people with mental health problems appropriately’. ‘This is what happens when the wealthy defecate on the poor’. ‘A lack of gun control and the accessibility of weapons can have dangerous consequences’. ‘The media portray the wealthy in glowing terms no matter what they do’. These themes are not painted with the dexterity of a paintbrush on canvas, more like a wrecking ball smashing into a wall. But the messages are clear and that has proved to be effective.

Joker won the Best Film award at the Venice Film Festival plus others and is expected to perform well when awards season hits. That is a credit not just to Phoenix’s sensational performance but to director Todd Philips who have collectively created something truly unique. It isn’t a comic book movie in the conventional sense. The whole thing also looks incredible. A period setting, brilliantly shot and with terrific cinematography by Lawrence Sher. If you can get to an IMAX screening then I would highly recommend it.

Poster 2Violence

It is unquestionably a movie which has created controversy. Joker could quite easily be considered to be a dangerous film, capable of inciting violence in a way that ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was claimed to have influenced on its release. Much of the attention of the debate surrounds the violence which Joker instigates but that would be missing the point entirely. Fleck’s violent outbursts are as a result of the violence he himself has had to endure. Those moments are a reaction to something inflicted upon him but they become increasingly greater over-reactions. First, a physical assault. The second and third instances are based upon long-term abuse with the latter more implied and not entirely clear. Finally, a reaction to being made fun of. Instead of continuing to take the abuse Fleck lashes out in increasingly dramatic ways. Much like Gotham itself the bubbling anger and frustration boil over and the result is carnage and chaos.

That said the film could’ve been far more gratuitous in its violence. In the UK the film received only a 15 certificate so it could easily have gone further still and achieved an 18. The violence is shocking because it occurs unexpectedly. Yes the acts are inherently violent in themselves but in a lot of cases it will catch people off guard and that accentuates the shock. It is a movie full of tension but not a constant unease which elicits terror in the viewer. Uncomfortable to watch but not due to the content if taken in isolation.

SoundtrackOverall

Special mention has to be made to the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir which is a work of brilliance. Mournful sounds of cello strings accentuate the tension and contribute to an unforgettable experience. It is not for the faint of heart. Whilst I did not need to see yet another version of Thomas and Martha Wayne being murdered in front of a young Bruce, it felt like an appropriate ripple as Gotham caught fire. Joker becomes a hero. A symbol for a groundswell of social unrest. Let’s hope this particular element remains where it belongs, on screen and not in reality.

I would be surprised if Joaquin Phoenix does not get award nominations for this role. Whilst it is a difficult and at times harrowing film to watch Phoenix and Philips have delivered something truly exceptional.

REVIEW: WWE WrestleMania XXXIV

WM34I have let a few days pass and recovered the hours of sleep lost on Sunday night/Monday morning. I’ve also been able to revisit certain moments, particularly the Main Event and trust me the bulk of this review will focus on that final match. After a few days of consideration my initial reaction to the show has remained largely unchanged. So, let’s dive right into it.

Duration of the Show

Let’s get this out of the way early. A 7 hour show is absurd. The main card went over 5 hours and with a 2 hour pre-show it was simply too long. As someone watching in the UK this meant staying up past 5AM. Unsurprisingly I dozed off on a few occasions. But as a live experience I’d be surprised if audience fatigue was not a factor as the show took a definite nosedive.

WM34_AndreMatt Hardy wins the Andre the Giant Battle Royal

Kicking off the action were all the male superstars otherwise not appearing on WrestleMania. Dolph Ziggler tried to showoff, skinning the cat over and over again but let’s not forget that he’s no longer a gimmick. The match itself was pretty boring, as Battle Royals can be, and then the conclusion was confusing to say the least. Matt Hardy won but the appearance of Bray Wyatt muddied the waters. Given all the entrants filling the ring I wasn’t 100% that Bray hadn’t been in the match. Wyatt’s emergence from the ‘lake of reincarnation’ clearly only saw him reacquire his lead apron. Odd finish but decent result. Shame it doesn’t matter in the long-term as the oversized trophy has been rendered meaningless in recent years.

The addition of Jim ‘JR’ Ross and Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler for this match was an odd choice with Byron Saxton effectively being the lead commentator. It smacked of a meaningless gesture to two Hall of Famers but it was nice to see and hear them once again.

WM34_Cedric_MustafaCedric Alexander defeated Mustafa Ali to win the WWE Cruiserweight Championship

Whilst a perfectly competent match, with some entertaining sequences and high spots, I wasn’t gripped. The cheesy dialogue between the two combatants concerning heart and soul was tedious to say the least.

WM34-Womens-Battle-RoyalNaomi wins the Women’s Battle Royal

This match wasn’t too bad with a small showcase for some NXT competitors, Billie Kay was oddly absent but Peyton Royce stood out. But once again the conclusion of this match was confused with fans initially think that Bayley had won only for Naomi to re-emerge and snatch victory. As predicted it continued the bubbling storyline between Bayley and Sasha Banks which will hopefully be built for a SummerSlam main event spot. As an aside, the look on Paige’s face when she tried to suggest that she might make the Women’s Battle Royal was heartbreaking as you could tell that she didn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. She formally retired from in-ring competition the following night.

Three matches in and the preshow didn’t catch fire but that would all change when the main card began.

WM34_Miz_Finn_SethSeth Rollins defeated The Miz (c) and Finn Balor to win the WWE Intercontinental Championship

As a match to kick off the show who better to deliver than these three top performers. The fast pace and impressive action was the perfect start with Rollins capturing the gold to become a Grand Slam champion. The Miz seems to be moving towards a face turn, sending the Miztourage back to the locker room, and so three baby faces in the same match didn’t really work. But the action was smooth and entertaining, it just wasn’t a match viewers could emotionally invest in because any outcome and victor would’ve been enjoyed and accepted.

WM34_Asuka_CharlotteCharlotte Flair (c) defeated Asuka to retain the SmackDownLive Women’s Championship

Probably the match of the night. Personally I thought Asuka tapped out to the Figure 8 Lock a bit too quickly. She could’ve held on a little longer given she had been undefeated up until that point. Some of the moves were as spectacular as Charlotte’s entrance with the moonsault counter and Spanish fly standing out in particular. The emotional conclusion was also a nice touch and it seemed appropriate that Charlotte Flair, undoubtedly the best female in the company, was the individual to break Asuka’s streak and cementing her legacy. Asuka herself now needs to go on another run of victories but this loss certainly won’t hurt her. What will is the fact that she’s now no longer able to use the armbar submission, presumably neither is Becky Lynch, because of Ronda Rousey’s addition to the roster.

WM34_Jinder_Orton_Roode_RusevJinder Mahal defeated Rusev, Bobby Roode and Randy Orton (c) to win the WWE United States Championship

A Jinder victory was unexpected. His unsuccessful WWE title run would’ve been more suited to the US title but it’s a bit late to try it now. Rusev is over with the audience. The ‘Rusev Day’ chants are everywhere but seeing Jinder pin Rusev was effectively a middle finger to the audience. How dare the WWE Universe support someone the company didn’t intend them too! So Jinder is the champion and I fear more distasteful promos on the blue brand.

WM34_Kurt_Ronda_HHH_StephRonda Rousey and Kurt Angle defeated Triple H and Stephanie McMahon

Talk about the shock of the night! I, like most, feared that this would be a car wreck of a match. With the exception of Stephanie gently placing Kurt’s head into the steel steps in a manner akin to the way she probably rests her children down on a pillow, and Kurt struggling to extend his legs to back body drop Triple H over the rope, the match was largely excellent. Although Steph being able to block a former UFC champion’s armbar was straining the believable, it did make the moment when she inevitably locked it in electric. There was also a great tease that she might force Triple H to tap to the submission. Overall the match was simply great fun and proved to be a highlight of the whole show.

WM34_Usos_NewDay_BludgeonThe Bludgeon Brothers defeated The Usos (c) and The New Day to win the SmackDownLive Tag Team Championships

This is possibly where the show began the decline. A short match that needed a stipulation that could’ve elevated it to the heights of the highlight reel mainstay that was the TLC II match at WrestlemaniaX7. Instead it was a short match that successfully sent the SmackDownLive tag team division in a new direction. Expect the Usos or New Day to move to RAW in the upcoming superstar shakeup.

WM34_taker_cenaThe Undertaker defeated John Cena

So after all the build up fans were treated to a sub 3 minute squash match. Firstly, Cena appeared in the crowd on the Kickoff show. Unfortunately, this meant that the action was regularly interrupted to cut to Cena watching on. Cue an overreaction the moment he realised that he was now on camera. When a referee ran down to ringside after the Charlotte/Asuka match to tell Cena that catering had been stocked up backstage, it triggered his sprinting up the ramp that became a meme creators dream. When Cena came down to the ring and the lights went out, the whole of the Superdome leapt from their seats. Then Elias came down. “Were you expecting someone else?”

That moment was sublime. Unfortunately, Elias’ continued elevation in the thoughts of the WWE Universe was undone by a typical Cena burial. As Cena made his way back up the ramp once again the lights went out again. A spotlight revealed Undertaker’s hat and coat in the ring where it had been left the year before. With a flash of lightning the items disappeared. Then Undertaker emerged. All of this was brilliantly delivered. But then the match began.

Whilst Undertaker looked in great shape, moving smoother than he’d managed in recent outings. The match was completely one sided. All it accomplished is the possibility that The Undertaker could return at any point. After an emotional departure from the ring at WrestleMania XXXIII he deserves to be allowed to retire with dignity. Instead I fear we may continue to get unsatisfactory contests on the biggest show of the year for the foreseeable future. Will we get shorter and shorter matches until ‘Taker’s body finally declares that enough is enough? I hope not. But on this occasion, given the lengthy buildup and teasing, the final match was largely unsatisfying.

WM34_OwensZayn_DanielBryanShaneDaniel Bryan and Shane McMahon defeated Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

Viewers watching on the WWE Network can identify the precise moment that the crowd in the Superdome was lost. Seeing Daniel Bryan return to the ring after his retirement was supposed to be a highlight of the show. The ‘Yes’ chants were delivered with rabid passion that was extinguished by the sneak attack from KO and Sami followed by the powerbomb onto the ring apron. The subsequent stretcher spot was designed to prey on people’s worries about Bryan’s physical condition and ultimately see a triumphant hot tag to win the match. In the meantime Shane McMahon had to defy his own poor physical condition after Diverticulitis to get him some laughable punches and his coast to coast drop kick. Even then the momentum in the arena had been lost and the show could not recapture it. Taking Bryan out early poured cold water on the audience’s excitement levels and WrestleMania failed to recover.

WM34_Alexa_NiaNia Jaxx defeated Alexa Bliss (c) to win the RAW Women’s Championship

This was a peculiar story. Whilst positive that the bullied overcame the bully it did help that the former was an immovable object. The way Nia took out Mickie James was impressive, leaving Alexa alone to attempt to retain her title was part of the story. There were nice moments but it couldn’t match the technical heights achieved by Charlotte and Asuka. The match fell a little flat and this trend would only continue.

WM34_AJStyles_NakamuraAJ Styles (c) defeated Shinsuke Nakamura to retain the WWE Championship

Despite the expectations that this match would be an absolute classic these two failed to gel together. I admit that this contest was the first occasion that I drifted off during but awoke before the end. On rewatching it almost felt that Nakamura in particular was holding back. I don’t think this was deliberate but reflective of the fact that both competitors were baby faces. Nakamura’s heel turn at the end of the match sets up some further matches between the two where hopefully the dynamic of a classic heel v face contest will make up for this initial outing that was a little disappointing.

WM34_Bar_BraunBraun Strowman and Nicholas of the WWE Universe defeated The Bar to win the RAW Tag Team Championships

Now this was crazy. There was plenty of speculation about who could possibly be Braun Strowman’s partner for this match with several options. Instead of a returning or debuting superstar Braun wandered round and picked someone from the crowd. As it turned out, it was the son of the referee that was in the ring.

I think that it is a fair enough idea and does create the feeling that anything could happen if you attend a live WWE event. The issue I have is that this was for a major championship. Having two individuals of the talents of Cesaro and Sheamus squashed by a single competitor is bad enough. Yes Braun is a monster among men. But single-handed he has managed to destroy the entire RAW tag team division, including the champions. With Authors of Pain debuting from NXT on RAW the following day, they could’ve immediately been positioned as a dominating team by overcoming Braun. Instead the Tag Titles have been ridiculed. Being won by a 10 year old child is one thing but for them to then be simply handed back because of a scheduling conflict with the fourth grade, although amusing, weakens their value. Win them in the ring and lose them in the ring as Macho Man once said. On the night the moment worked but going forward it was never going to.

WM34_Lesnar_ReignsBrock Lesnar (c) defeated Roman Reigns to retain the Universal Championship

Buckle up. Here we go. The Main Event.

Firstly, the crowd were determined to defecate all over this match. They were determined to tell WWE, and Vince in particular, that they rejected both of these guys. Beachballs were flying. “This is awful” chants rang out. The crowd were not engaged in the match whatsoever. The final outcome surprised everyone because we all expected Roman Reigns to be victorious and Brock to return to UFC. I hold my hands up that I completely got it wrong and perhaps we were being played all along. Whilst I am not a huge fan of the prospect of Reigns with the belt, it was preferable to a part-timer who takes the biggest championship in the company off the show for the majority of the time. But the match itself highlighted why Brock is no longer a performer who people actually want to see in a squared circle.

The lack of variety in Brock’s move-set killed the match for me and Roman’s was no better. It was German suplex after German suplex. Then F5 after F5. When Brock tried something different, namely an overhead belly-to-belly suplex onto an announce table, it was so poorly executed that Roman nearly knocked himself out. Reigns in turn had spears and superman punches but very little else. There was no variety. However the biggest issue is the kick outs from finishers, which frankly is killing the business. Anyone who has followed the story of Brock’s title reign expected Roman to kick out of an F5, the move which has downed Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman, the guy who has destroyed the entire RAW tag team division single handed. Only one of those moves was needed to defeat those two behemoths. But Roman is not a normal superstar.

Things got ludicrous after the third kick out. Then Roman gets put through the table and it’s still not enough. When a superstar hits their finisher that should be it. The best sequences in wrestling should be those where the combatants are trying to avoid each other’s finishing manoeuvre. Yes there’s a place for kicking out of a finisher to accentuate drama. But when it is done five times it is insulting the intelligence of the audience and exposing the business as choreographed. I understand trying to portray Roman as a tough guy but a total of SIX F5 finishers being needed to defeat him was absurdity of the highest order. No wonder fans in attendance rejected the match.

Adding to the surprises, Roman got colour. This was seemingly hard-way from a stiff Brock elbow to the head. But there was something odd about it. Perhaps Roman had taken an aspirin before the match, as used to be practice in the old days. Despite this, Reigns still could not overcome the odds and got pinned. Would it have been better for the match to have been called off at this point? The Main Event of WrestleMania stopped due to blood loss would have delivered scorching heel heat on Brock and set up the now scheduled rematch in Saudi Arabia. Instead the conclusion was probably the flattest end to a Wrestlemania of all time.

Overall, the 7 hour spectacle was entertaining but torturous at times, not least because of the running time. The main card started on a high, managed to maintain the momentum and then the show plummeted off a cliff. Yes the result of the Main Event was a surprise to everyone but the quality of the match and the multiple finishers left a sour taste. As a result, the gut reactions as the show ended were of disappointment and fatigue. Days later that still remains the opinion of Wrestlemania 34.

Why the build for Wrestlemania XXXIV has been so poor

WM34Wrestlemania is WWE’s biggest show of the year. The 34th edition of the ‘Grandest Stage of them all’ has one of the most stacked cards in history. There is no shortage of talent on display. However, the majority of these matches are multi-person contests to get anyone with a performer contract an appearance on the event. Tag matches, triple threats, a triple threat tag team, see a pattern? Whilst some noteworthy collisions have been created, the buildup has been poor at best and for many matches simply nonsensical. The anticipated outcomes are equally predictable, further dampening down excitement levels of this particular viewer.

WM34_Lesnar_ReignsBrock Lesnar (c) v Roman Regins for the WWE Universal Championship

Let’s start at the top with what is likely to be the Main Event. This has had some positive moments in the buildup, particularly when Paul Heyman has been on the microphone. The previous contest three years ago was a very good physical bout which got usurped by Seth Rollins. Hopefully they will put on another solid effort but we all know that Roman is going to triumph. Dana White has confirmed that Brock is returning to UFC. Frankly this is a good move as Brock’s year long run with the top title on RAW has weakened the belt’s value and ensured that week after week the top athlete in the company has not been on the flagship show. Fans may not want Roman as ‘the guy’ but Vince McMahon does and that’s the end of that.

The reaction of the crowd will be interesting. Whilst it is undoubtedly a good move to give the belt to a full-time performer, capable of consistently putting on solid matches, fans may not want it to be Roman Reigns. For me it is his overuse of the Superman punch that riles me about Reigns. Hitting five of them on RAW this past week proves my point. It’s overused and just looks a bit rubbish. That said I am looking forward to a Reigns title run against some deserving challengers like Samoa Joe, Finn Balor and others.

WM34_AJStyles_NakamuraAJ Styles (c) v Shinsuke Nakamura for WWE Championship

Now this is one match that I am actually excited about. It hasn’t needed much to build anticipation as many predict that it will be a classic. Previous history in Japan, including their WrestleKingdom 10 match which received a 4 and 3/4 star rating from Dave Meltzer, has been alluded to but not the focus. It is simply a match where two of the best wrestlers in the world will collide to work out who deserves to be the champ. Here’s hoping for a five star contest. If delivered the winner won’t actually matter too much.

WM34_Kurt_Ronda_HHH_StephRonda Rousey and Kurt Angle v Triple H and Stephanie McMahon

Since her debut at the Royal Rumble all roads have built to this, Rowdy Ronda Rousey’s first match in a WWE ring. Rousey’s signing to the company will have drawn additional attention to the product. Unfortunately, this has proved to be a double edged sword. Rousey’s inexperience in the Sports Entertainment environment has been exposed with poor delivery of her scripted promos. In terms of the match, Rousey against Stephanie is no contest at all. Whilst one has no previous experience in a WWE ring, the other’s is pretty limited. In fact Stephanie’s last match was at Summerslam in 2014. It is therefore unsurprising that more experienced hands Triple H and Kurt Angle have been added to the match. Unfortunately, Angle is not in great condition. His inability to stand up straight in the ring is one obvious example. When he covered for Roman Reigns at TLC Angle was protected, actually having a break in the middle of the match before getting a triumphant return. Triple H will be a safe hand guiding the match but few expect Rousey to lose in her first WWE match then we can all move on.

WM34_Asuka_CharlotteCharlotte (c) v Asuka for the SmackdownLive Women’s Championship

Now we get onto the more nonsensical stuff. Fair enough Asuka won the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble and could challenge either Women’s champion. We all anticipate a good match but the way these two have been pushed together highlights how poorly the Women’s division on SmackdownLive has been booked in recent months. Despite performers like Becky Lynch and Natalya, Asuka has been brought in to provide Charlotte with competition for the biggest show of the year. Asuka’s streak against Charlotte’s title makes plenty of sense but ridicules the so-called brand split. Having two competitors on different shows has limited the opportunity for confrontations, not that that matters anymore. Corey Graves manages to make both shows. Also if Asuka wins, and we all expect her to, then will the title go with her to RAW?

WM34_Alexa_NiaAlexa Bliss (c) v Nia Jaxx for the RAW Women’s Championship

Now this has been embarrassing. Alexa has proved herself to be a tremendous champion. A heel champ that fans actually respect and like to a certain extent. The manufactured friendship breakdown has been done simply to give Alexa an opponent and that’s fine. What is completely unacceptable has been the ‘fat shaming’ of Nia. Yes Alexa is a heel but it is totally unnecessary. For all of WWE’s positive steps forward with the Women’s division this strategy is embarrassing. Not least because it comes from a talent who admits to have struggled with an eating disorder in the past. It also makes a mockery of the company’s anti-bullying messages.

Rumours are circulating regarding Carmella’s Money in the Bank cash-in opportunity. I have a feeling that Alexa might fluke a win, Nia will destroy her in frustration only for Carmella to cash in and take the title. This would see Carmella move to RAW and Asuka, assuming she wins, moving to SmackdownLive.

Now look at the next few bouts. Multi-man matches rule this year and remind me of WrestleMania 2000 which was hugely overbooked. The remainder of the card is a mishmash of multi-man contests that sadly reek of getting performers a ‘Mania pay cheque. At least one tag match has the benefit of a returning hero!

WM34_OwensZayn_DanielBryanShaneDaniel Bryan and Shane McMahon v Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

The confirmation that Daniel Bryan was cleared to return to the ring has been a huge lift for SmackdownLive. For a start it actually provides closure on a storyline which has been meandering for months and months. Owens and Zayn have been an entertaining force on the blue brand but their confrontations with Shane have been crying out for a resolution. Bryan has turned from being on their side to an adversary to create this match. Perhaps it will be revealed that he remains on their side after all? It would be surprising to see Bryan lose on his return to in ring action but turning on Shane would see him move from General Manager back to being a wrestler. It would also setup a Shane v Bryan contest at some point and ensure that Zayn and Owens remain contracted to WWE.

 

WM34_Miz_Finn_SethThe Miz (c) v Finn Balor v Seth Rollins for the WWE Intercontinental Championship

Three top stars in the company clash for the IC title. Whilst this is sure to be an excellent match, part of me thinks that not only have the combatants been thrust together with nothing else on offer but that they should be colliding for the main prize. The Miz is a fantastic Intercontinental champion and his character suits carrying gold. Post-Wrestlemania I would like to see all three individuals push on and challenge for the Universal title. Finn was robbed of a decent run with the belt due to injury, Seth’s best work came when he was the WWE champ and The Miz’s excellent work this past year also deserves reward. For now, the combination of one heel and two faces will probably divide the audience with many also cheering for The Miz, making for an interesting atmosphere. At least the match itself will be high on quality.

WM34_Jinder_Orton_Roode_RusevRandy Orton (c) v Jinder Mahal v Bobby Roode v Rusev for the WWE United States Championship

Speaking of competitors thrust together because they have nothing better to do. Randy Orton has been going through the motions for a couple of years now. A veteran who has accomplished so much he has little more to strive to achieve. Jinder’s poorly judged reign with the top title on SmackdownLive would’ve been better suited to a run with the US championship. To do so now would be pointless. As for Bobby Roode, his is a character that needs to be a heel. He hasn’t connected with the general audience as well as he managed in NXT. The ‘Glorious One’ gimmick is crying out for becoming an arrogant heel and the US title would help with that. However, if you want someone who is properly over with the audience then look at Rusev. His addition to the match is at least acknowledgement of his growing popularity and a Rusev victory would provide a popular Wrestlemania moment. But even then another run with the US strap is hardly progress.

WM34_Usos_NewDay_BludgeonThe Usos (c) v The New Day v The Bludgeon Brothers for the SmackdownLive Tag Team Championship

Whilst The Usos will finally get a spot on the Wrestlemania main card it will be another multi-man collision. Given the setup at Fastlane and the brutality of The Usos and New Day’s epic Hell in a Cell match, this match needs a stipulation. With that rivalry prolonged a win for The Bludgeon Brothers will hopefully provide the tag team division on SmackdownLive a refresh. That said, The Usos have been outstanding champions and are more than worthy of their spot on the main card rather than kickoff show fodder.

WM34_Bar_BraunThe Bar (c) v Braun Strowman and TBC for the RAW Tag Team Championship

The strength or failure of this match will be the identity of Braun’s partner. ‘The Monster Among Men’s decimation of the entire tag team division on RAW belittled all of those teams. Braun has been booked like the all conquering monster but has slipped down to the tag team division, again just to fit him on the card. His partner has not been revealed yet so WWE must have someone up their sleeve. Rumours are of an anticipated return from Samoa Joe, either at ‘Mania or the RAW following. Personally, I like the idea of Ellsworth being his partner. It continues the storyline that Braun doesn’t really need a partner and completes the circle of Ellsworth’s career in WWE. Whoever it is, they’ll have a tough task trying to match the pop that met The Hardyz last year.

For those who haven’t managed to make the main card, the kickoff show does provide an opportunity to get an appearance.

WM34_AndreThe Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

All the remaining male superstars will have the opportunity to lace up their boots and get in the ring at Wrestlemania. Unfortunately, it will be in the utter pointless Battle Royal. Actually winning the match is entirely meaningless. See Mojo Rawley last year. It is simply a device used to appease the athletes who have worked tirelessly all year only to have positions on the biggest show usurped by part-time performers. Hopefully it’ll be over quick.

WM34-Womens-Battle-RoyalThe Women’s Wrestlemania Battle Roya/l

The controversy over the initial naming after the Fabulous Moolah has overshadowed this match. Again it is an opportunity for the women on SmackdownLive, aside Charlotte, to get a Wrestlemania appearance. Hopefully this match won’t end in the same way as the first Women’s battle royal at Wrestlemania, won by a man, or the controversial ending to the Women’s Money in the Bank match. The likelihood is a continuation of the bubbling Bayley and Sasha Banks rivalry with one of those two favourites to lift the appallingly cheap looking plastic trophy. Whilst it would’ve been a stronger statement had this match been on the main card, supporting the self proclaimed Women’s revolution, this match may form part of the kickoff show screened on the USA Network. Thus it might get more viewers than a lot of the other matches so perhaps it is a wise move.

WM34_Cedric_MustafaCedric Alexander v Mustafa Ali for the WWE Cruiserweight Championship

Hopefully this match will conclude the kickoff show. Concluding the tournament to crown a new champion for 205Live this should be one of the best contests in terms of in ring action. I have no preconceptions or expectations for this match so I’m looking forward to being impressed.

And then we come to this match…

WM34_taker_cenaJohn Cena v The Undertaker

Prepare for a rant.

At time of writing this match has not been confirmed but we are all expecting it. John Cena has failed on multiple occasions to create his path to a Wrestlemania match. The head of the Cenation, has since turned into a whiney irritant. It also sets a dangerous precedent. How many more superstars will fail and simply call out ‘Taker to get on the Wrestlemania card? This is not a match that I have any desire to see. Perhaps 10 or maybe even 5 years ago but not now. Rumour is that ‘Taker was unhappy with his performance last year and wants to correct it. How he expects to perform even better after another year out is perhaps an indication of his confidence in his surgeon rather than his own abilities. Undertaker’s match against Roman Reigns last year was a painful watch. But the story was told of a gunslinger’s final battle. He left the ring and the stage with dignity. It was very emotional. For that all to be undone just so John Cena can have a match is embarrassing. Anyway, shouldn’t Cena be planning a wedding? That, not in the least bit predictable and totally genuine, proposal was a year ago after all.

Fans are predicting a return of the American Badass gimmick, with Kid Rock entering the Hall of Fame. That is hardly something that people have been clamouring for. How many of the current fans even remember the American Badass version of Undertaker? A little promo video would’ve helped. Just let the man retire. The fact that we go into Wrestlemania weekend not knowing if this match will happen is ridiculous. Assuming ‘Taker does turn up, he has to defeat Cena so what does it accomplish? Maybe the match won’t happen this year but we’ll get the start of a build for Wrestlemania XXXV? Of course that is what this match will need, another year of toe-curling buildup!

Whilst I plan on staying up to watch Wrestlemania XXXIV this weekend I am not looking forward to it. Very few of the matches are ones I am keen to see. Perhaps I’m just a glutton for punishment or anticipating some calamities but for all the talent on show the buildup has been utterly abysmal. It will take some stellar matches to engage me for what will inevitably be a torturous 6 hours of WWE programming.

WWE Raw 25 and Royal Rumble 2018

It has been a big week for the WWE. Beginning with the heavily promoted RAW 25 spectacle and ending with the Royal Rumble, WWE’s third biggest event of the year, there is plenty to comment upon. Interspersed between these two points were the typical offerings from SmackdownLive and NXT plus the major announcement of a returning XFL in 2020. It is however a week which perfectly encapsulates everything wrong with the product offered by World Wrestling Entertainment that is seeing casual and diehard fans turning away.

C20BF330-B4B7-492E-9641-08B6D3E1F834RAW 25

The 25th Anniversary of Monday Night Raw is a huge deal for the WWE. The self proclaimed ‘longest running weekly episodic television broadcast’ reached the landmark on January 11th but the go home show before the Royal Rumble was a good opportunity to combine promotion of the Pay Per View and a celebration of RAW. In terms of numbers, RAW 25 was a success achieving a 3.01 rating and an approximate average of 4.53million viewers over the 3 hours, the best figures for the show since the post-Wrestlemania 31 show in 2015. However, there was very little to encourage viewers to return the following week and highlighted to some why they had stopped watching in the first place.

The opening segment was perhaps the highlight but even that was flawed. The pop for a simple glass shattering was the biggest of the night but it was a shame to let Stone Cold, perhaps one of the greatest ever on a microphone to pass through without saying a word to those in attendance. In contrast another iconic legend in the form of The Undertaker was given the mic. Although composed with the vocals, absolutely nothing was said. In fact the majority of viewers would be hard pressed to explain what the Deadman was talking about. Will he be performing at Wrestlemania or will his beautifully poetic retirement last year remain untarnished?

678DBA56-36EA-4EF0-B8CA-D28075EADC7FOther advertised stars were less fortunate. They either appeared as a part of brief backstage vignettes or simply came out on stage to wave at the crowd. Closing the show however was an attempt to brush the gold dust from some legends onto members of the current roster. The DX plus Razor Ramon reunion saw the passing of the ‘Too Sweet’ baton to the Balor Club. Whilst well intentioned it required The Revival to take the role of sacrificial lambs. Even then the duo delivered a masterclass in how to take finishing manoeuvres.

The in-ring product was also typically average with the exception being the crowning of a new Intercontinental champion. Whilst absolutely the correct thing to do as it brought out the very best from The Miz it summed up the disastrous nature of The Shield’s reunion. It is no surprise that six days later Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose substitute Jason Jordan would also lose their tag team championships. Attempts to promote the Royal Rumble pay per view were also clumsy with Braun Strowman’s dominance telegraphing that the Universal Title would be retained by Brock Lesnar. This highlights the problem with WWE programming currently; predictability.

CD903D9A-82C2-4D50-8D57-937E0AF823CCRoyal Rumble

We have only just begun on the road to Wrestlemania and yet we know where all of this is going. Everyone knows that we are going to get another Roman Reigns v Brock Lesnar title match. The only two men to defeat The Undertaker on the biggest show of the year clashed in 2015 only for Seth Rollins to steal the gold. There is unfinished business and after a year with the title Lesnar is long overdue a defeat. His yearlong reign with part time schedule has weakened the title and hampered the flagship show on Monday night. So it was no surprise that Lesnar defied the odds and retained his title at the Royal Rumble. Had they attempted to give Roman Reigns another victory in the rumble match Philadelphia might have seen a riot. Instead expect a number one contenders Elimination Chamber match and a Roman Reigns victory.

On the blue brand an AJ Styles v Shinsuke Nakamura dream match was predicted. It is a pairing that stole the show at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in New Japan two years ago and fans around the world wanted to see it again. Perhaps the only surprise is that what the fans wanted will actually happen. It was as close to an unexpected result as viewers received. Victor in the historic Women’s Royal Rumble match was the undefeated Asuka which was once again entirely predictable. The only potential stumbling block was the incoming Ronda Rousey. There was no need to worry. One year on from her final UFC defeat Rousey only needed to show up and point at the Wrestlemania sign to book a place on the biggest show of the year. If the goal was to insult the 30 women who had just competed in the Royal Rumble then mission accomplished.

B21C3AA8-3973-493E-9BEC-555D0E842F93The arrogance of Ronda Rousey was offensive but failed to match the grotesquely poor taste concussion angle used in the RAW tag team championship match. The recently dismissed Enzo Amore suffered a genuine concussion during a match on pay per view, ending the contest and rightfully so. For medical professionals to allow a performer showing even a storyline head injury is reprehensible. Is this what we can expect from the new XFL in 2020? Athletes continuing playing with head injuries? I sure hope not!

0130A6FC-2051-48A8-B3B9-61792CF560C9An XFL Distraction?

This week also saw the predicted announcement that the brainchild of Vince McMahon, the XFL, would return in 2020. For those interested in learning the story of the league’s only other season in 2001 I highly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 on the subject. With this on McMahon’s mind once again there is the possibility that the WWE product will suffer. Perhaps this has already begun with the predictable booking at the Royal Rumble and the deeply flawed RAW25 special episode.

Whilst we all know that sports entertainment is predetermined, the entertainment element comes from the viewers not knowing those outcomes. Currently, things are very predictable and that is severely hampering WWE. The saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ seems appropriate. In contrast NJPW is a new world and is entertaining me far more at the moment.

Review: Justice League

AE05378F-D18A-4676-962C-16E13A26ACABFollowing the tedious ‘Batman Vs Superman’ and the nightmarish ‘Suicide Squad’, The triumphant ‘Wonder Woman’ triggered optimism for the greatly anticipated ‘Justice League’. Unfortunately, the critical reception has been far less than stellar. It was therefore with great trepidation that I approached ‘Justice League’. Perhaps these low expectations helped me conclude that it’s actually not too bad.

Of course, the movie is stacked with flaws. From the predictable narrative to the generic CGI-filled fight sequences, there is plenty to find fault with. It is however difficult to appropriate blame following the loss of director Zack Snyder, a man once labelled ‘a visionary’, due to personal tragedy. In that context, the fact that the film remains vaguely coherent can be assessed to be an achievement. Unlike other recent offerings from DC on the big screen, there is a restraint and even an avoidance of the traditional grim and gritty visuals. Despite the death of Superman things seem a lot brighter visually than the murk of ‘Suicide Squad’. Things do venture back in that direction for the climax but the tones are much improved, clearly a decision based on the superior ‘Wonder Woman’ combination of dark moments within the bright instead of constant misery-inducing dullness.

6F1B0FC0-B77C-487C-A855-E5B5CD7AFF11Unfortunately, the plotting is entirely formulaic. There is little doubt from the outset that Superman would return, with death merely an inconvenience. This becomes increasingly inevitable given the presentation of the enhanced threat levels provided by the villain; Steppenwolf. Perhaps appropriately the logic behind the three cubes, one of which may or may not have been his mother, defies the understanding of mere human mortals. Steppenwolf is fairly convincing as an all-conquering destroyer so that Superman’s abilities would be required in addition to the other members of the team, the makeup of which is very deliberate.

justice

The Flash is the comic relief, although not a particularly funny one. Aquaman is the cool and aloof muscleman, Cyborg provides the technological wizardry and Wonder Woman is the unofficial leader. Batman in turn is less of a superhero and more of a facilitator, bringing together these gifted individuals. The Flash even draws attention to it by asking, “So what’s your superpower?” The response, “I’m rich”, although amusing reinforces that this Batman doesn’t really have a place within this team. When Superman is resurrected the gifted quartet fly to his aid. When Batman appears he may as well have been out of breath and bemoaning the buses. This hurts me as a person who has always preferred Batman to all other heroes. However, his place within this team seems largely unwarranted with Wonder Woman coming across as the real leader.

 

C18D0B6B-95B8-4A22-817A-17019D29C319Gal Gadot is the star of the piece with a sparkle and the twinkle in the eye required for a good Wonder Woman. Conversely Batfleck is just bland, lacking any edge which Keaton and Bale unquestionably brought to the role. Jason Momoa as Aquaman was flawless and badly under-utilised but I look forward to seeing the Aquaman movie in 2018. Similarly, I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Cyborg’s struggles with his new form that went underdeveloped. But do I want to see a Ben Affleck led Batman movie? Absolutely not. Ezra Miller as The Flash is in the middle of the two, tolerable but not massively engaging. Henry Cavill’s Superman also manages to generate some emotional moments when reunited with the wonderful Amy Adams as Lois Lane and of course his Mum. Outside of that there is a procession of generic action sequences until finally we reach a conclusion.

‘Justice League’ is clumsily put together and that is no surprise given the circumstances around it’s production. Although predictable and pedestrian in it’s storytelling Justice League is not as bad as one may have expected. That is until the after credits sequence when all positivity was washed away by the appearance of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. His spectacularly irritating performance in ‘Batman Vs Superman’ was mercifully absent from the rest of ‘Justice League’. Whilst the sight of Deathstroke was a bit exciting, Eisenberg’s Luthor is something I never ever want to see onscreen again. The prospect of Luthor building his own team of villains would see me prefer to revisit the abysmal ‘Suicide Squad’ than sit through that potential abomination. If such a project does transpire then I predict that ‘Justice League’ will be deemed a masterpiece in comparison.

For now, I’m going to watch the far more polished Avengers movies from Marvel.