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.

The British and Irish Lions make history

New Zealand 21 – British and Irish Lions 24

IMG_0654Context

In 40 matches over more than 100 years Saturday was only the British and Irish Lions’ seventh win over the New Zealand All Blacks. It was the first since 1993. Prior to that the previous victory over the New Zealanders was back in 1977. So Lions wins over the All Blacks are pretty rare. Just as rare are All Blacks defeats in New Zealand. This loss in the Westpac stadium was the first defeat on home soil since 2009. It was also the first defeat in Wellington since 2003. Historical records are made to be broken but it was a tough ask. It was made a little easier for the Lions however.

IMG_2036The Red Card

The big turning point was of course Sonny Bill Williams’ sending off. You’d like to think that in any era of rugby union his deliberate shot to the jaw of Anthony Watson would be a red card offence. But in today’s game, with the laws tightened this season to crack down and protect players, Garces had no option whatsoever. Even the most one-eyed Kiwi had to acknowledge that under the laws it had to be a dismissal from the field of play. For additional context this was the first red card given to an All Black in fifty years, only the third in history and the first on New Zealand soil ever. Such is the rarity of the event that the Lions had clearly not planned for it. As a result, they seemed rocked by the sudden tag of favourites.

IMG_0652Lions discipline costs them dearly

After halftime the Lions did practically everything they could to hand the game to the Kiwis. The one man advantage seemed to plague them with a string of rash decisions and indiscipline. Mako Vunipola gave away four penalties alone. His yellow card could’ve been very costly too. Mercifully Beauden Barrett missed three kicks at goal which kept the Lions in striking distance. Had he kick them, the All Blacks would’ve been out of sight on the scoreboard. Instead the Lions responded not once but twice.

IMG_0653Tries beat the All Blacks

It has been said all tour that to beat the All Blacks you have to score tries against them. Even in the poor conditions of a Wellington winter the Lions managed to score two exceptionally well crafted tries. These were needed because the Lions had allowed the All Blacks to build a decent lead. But when it really counted players’ handling was spot on. The finishing was also clinical, first from Taulepe Faletau and then by Connor Murray. When composure was required the players in red delivered. Whilst the Lions scored two tries they crucially managed to keep the All Blacks out from crossing the tryline.

IMG_0656Defence helps too

Certain changes in the starting fifteen were designed to win the collisions, particularly on the gainline. The back row, particularly O’Brien and Warburton combined well to make their tackles. Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones put in big hits, stopping the men in black from gaining momentum and yards which they had managed with ease seven days previously. It was a colossal effort. With Sonny Bill Williams off the All Blacks’ tactics changed somewhat. They themselves reverted to a ‘Warrenball’ style. Heroically the red defensive line held firm. A fluke occurrence of poor pass and a tackle in the air alllowed the Lions to sneak ahead and see the game out. Massive credit to Owen Farrell for slotting the vital penalty too. It levels the series up at 1-1 with a return to Eden Park in Auckland to decide the Test series.

IMG_0655The Decider

The Lions have proved that they can beat the All Blacks. Sometimes professional sport is just about belief. Momentum too. Both will now be on the side of the Lions. It was refreshing to hear Sam Warburton say the job was only half done following the final whistle. This is a player who has never beaten New Zealand and yet his first thoughts were of repeating the result next week. That is a real leader. All of these players will realise that an opportunity to become immortal legends has been earned. They’ve proved to themselves they can win. They’ve shown that they can score tries. If the British and Irish Lions players put in the performance of their lives once again then maybe, just maybe, the impossible can become reality.

The All Blacks will be a very different proposition next week. They might even keep fifteen players on the field. But they will also be under pressure and how they cope with that pressure will be a deciding factor. Ultimately the All Blacks wanted a competitive test series and a challenge. They’ve sure as hell got one now!

Why I am voting Labour on June 8th

What are my reasons behind voting Labour this Thursday?

As is traditional during election campaigning all the political parties present similar desires but different methods to achieve those same goals. For instance, all the politicians are promising to pump money into the NHS and increase the numbers of police officers. However, the Labour Party pledges some additional policies which, if delivered upon, I think can really benefit the country. There are also a number of other issues which have brought me to consider that right now after seven years it is time to return to a Labour Government.

IMG_0547Renationalise the Railways

Have you been on a train in recent years? That train will probably be delayed. If you need to use it at peak time then you probably won’t get a seat and you’ll feel a lot like a sardine in a tin. In addition the price of your train ticket goes up every year with no change to the standard of your service. This happens whilst the companies responsible for delivering your shoddy trip to work rake in huge profits.

A friend of mine recently complained about an overcrowded train to Arriva Trains Wales’ Twitter account. She was met by a generic response blaming limited rolling stock availability. This from a company who made nearly £30million worth of profit in 2016. Whilst ticket prices continue to rise, the service deteriorates. Imagine if those profits were pumped back into the service instead of lining the pockets of shareholders?

IMG_0545Renationalise Royal Mail

Ever wondered why you get so much junk mail through your letterbox each week? This is because companies pay vast amounts of money to Royal Mail to deliver these to every household. Does this money go back into the service? No. Just like the railways, profits go to shareholders. Now these do include employees who also have some shares and benefit from the company doing well. However they would happily forgo having to carry back breaking weights of leaflets and pizza menus on a weekly basis.

BBC News reported that Royal Mail’s pre-tax profits rose to £335m in the year to 26 March 2017. I’m sure the shareholders appreciate this but again, imagine if that money was reinvested in what used to be a public service. Having mail delivered to every address in the UK is a necessity. Hospital appointments, energy bills, important correspondence all need to be delivered. An extra £300million invested into the service could mean more jobs and also lessen the burden on postmen who have to contend with the growth of internet shopping.

Taxation

The Labour Party have been very open about their desire to raise taxes. However this policy will only affect the top 5% of earners. I’m sure they’ll survive. Similarly they are looking to raise corporation tax. This increase to 26% will still be a lower rate than it was in 2010. It will also be lower than the USA, Argentina and Australia, for example. Whilst some countries do indeed have lower rates of corporation tax, do they have the infrastructure and skilled workforce to support their business? The Conservative Party will look to lower corporation tax but still promise extra money for the NHS and security services. This explains why their manifesto included no costings.

Tory Manifesto and Social Care

Even with the benefit of knowing in advance of a need to prepare a manifesto, the final product from the Conservatives has been ridiculed for failing to include any costings for their plans. Labour however included a document which demonstrated that theirs had been fully costed. Then came the social care u-turn. First there was no cap mentioned. Then there would be a £100,000 cap. On Friday evening that £100,000 was now a floor. I know I’m confused. Is this really a party that can be trusted to solve social care?

Let’s not forget that under the Tory government the desire to deliver a seven day NHS has been so badly handled we saw junior doctors on strike. This plan has seemingly been abandoned for the time being. Instead Teresa May has decided to pursue a vote that would lift the ban on fox hunting. Therefore instead of concentrating on planning changes to social care she has chosen to pursue the barbaric practice of hunting foxes. This is terrifying prioritising of issues by our current Prime Minister.

IMG_0543Teresa May

The former Home Secretary became Prime Minister almost by default. As leadership candidates dropped out of the race she took on the role uncontested. Her party didn’t even have the opportunity to vote for her as leader. When she did come to power she was very clear that there was not going to be an election until 2020 as planned. How quickly that changed. She refused to attend the Leaders debate last week and when questioned arrogantly claimed that she was too busy planning Brexit. This indicates where Teresa May’s mindset is. She doesn’t think that she needs to campaign to win this election, it’s already won in her mind and she is looking forward to the task beyond this election. With the exception of Friday evenings Question Time, she has avoided appearances with the public and was clearly not comfortable in that situation. Instead she has hidden, surrounded by approved audiences.

Yesterday she tried to claim that “enough is enough” and that the country has been too accepting of extremist views. May is correct, enough is enough. As Home Secretary and now Prime Minister she has overseen the reduction of the police force by 20,000 officers. Whilst all political parties promise restoration of police numbers, the Conservatives campaign of austerity brought them down in the first place. But she is correct. Enough is enough. She asks voters to judge her on her record. Immigration targets have not been met under her watch. Similarly radicalisation in prisons has not been addressed. Seven years of Conservative government has left the country vulnerable. The security services and the NHS both need money pumped into them. Cutting corporation tax won’t achieve that. Their austerity policy built upon the desire to lower the deficit has failed spectacularly and has been pushed back further to 2025. So what is the alternative?

IMG_0544Jeremy Corbyn

Although the Tory friendly newspaper media have been battering him, the more Jeremy Corbyn has presented himself in front of the camera the stronger he looks. He is a man of principles. Some gave him a rough time for not clearly stating that he would press the red button to fire a nuclear weapon. This reveals a man who is not simply providing lip service to campaign promises. He realises what such an action means. Although an audience in York might be happy to condemn this planet to nuclear war the man who would be responsible was more burdened by that responsibility. His belief that peace comes with communication is also commendable and accurate.

He has been supported by Labour members, winning two leadership contests. Teresa May hasn’t won any. She wanted to make this a campaign about who you wanted to lead this country forward. The longer this campaign has gone on, the more that has been diluted. This is because we’ve now seen who is truly strong and stable and he’s wearing red.

For the many, not the few. Let’s make June 8th the end of May.

REVIEW: Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World

Last week Doctor Who ‘Extremis’ burrowed away in my brain for days and gave me a breakdown of sorts. My initial positive reaction gradually dissipated as gaping holes in the setup opened wide before me. There were huge flaws but as a story to set up a trilogy I accepted it. But then comes ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’…

Firstly the episode has to open with a recap of what happened last week. This means Bill relays the story that The Doctor has told her to her date, Penny. Knowledge of The Doctor is shared pretty freely it seems. Anyway, Bill and Penny return to the kitchen table. Now Steven Moffat clearly found his joke about the Pope interrupting a date so funny that he not only had to replay it for the audience but repeat it with someone else. It was misjudged in ‘Extremis’ and verging on offending the viewer by expecting another laugh seven days later. The pre-titles therefore serve no purpose whatsoever except to prepare you for what is to follow; scene after scene of plot exposition.

Pyramid at the End of the World 1
Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World (C) BBC

The Plot

From the very outset viewers endure scene after scene of humans and alien creatures conversing. Humans talking to humans. Humans taking to aliens. Alien talking to aliens in the presence of humans. The only potential action sequence of multiple human forces attacking the pyramid is swiftly negated. Instead we get scene after scene of exposition. There is no action whatsoever. Dialogue heavy scenes sunk series 9 stories and we are back to that method of storytelling. No show, all tell.

All the way through the episode is desperately attempting to explain what the hell is going on. From why is the pyramid in Turmezistan to the Monks need for consent, all of this has to be spoon fed to the viewer. The three minutes to midnight doomsday clock had to be explained too but why these creatures choose a 5,000 year old pyramid to hide out in was not.

At least the Monks did something this week. They actually took a few lives. But overall they just stood around, walked, pointed, did their inconsistent speech (flapping the jaw up and down irrelevant of the dialogue) and droned on about consent. “Fear is not consent.” If BBC Shop was still open that could’ve been the next t-shirt slogan. Was it intended to be a weird allegory about rape? Anyway, the Monks require a disaster to befall the human race in order to be invited to take control of planet Earth. But they don’t want the humans to know about it, just take their word for it. The Monks don’t even cause it, they just watch it happen. If the humans don’t know about the disaster befalling them then they won’t consent effectively to saving.  But I imagine these creatures of seemingly limitless power and benevolence can rectify everything even after it is too late? It’s just nonsense.

Last week we learned that the creatures have run simulations to identify Earth’s weakest moment. This was a simulation so intricate that it could predict the presence of two non-humans and that one of them was blinded by events that occurred in the far future. Yet they still didn’t anticipate that The Doctor, like he always has done, would save the day, which he does. For the viewer there was absolutely no doubt as to where the disaster would occur because they’d been shown it.

Pyramid at the End of the World 3
Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World (C) BBC

The Conclusion

One scientist has her reading glasses broken and the world will end because a hungover colleague gets his sums wrong and loses the ability to close airlock doors properly. What the hell kind of story is that? Getting the quantities of chemicals wrong, fair enough. But an experienced scientist is expected to lose the ability to shut an airlock door behind him because of a hangover? Come on! When you are working in that environment you are meticulous about safety protocols. Equally you wouldn’t just remove your helmet because you felt nauseous. Those suits are worn for a reason. Similarly what kind of air filtration system removes bacteria only to pump it out into the atmosphere? Bit of a design flaw that. At this point I lost patience with the product.

Anyway, The Doctor solves it all because that’s what he does. Then for all the technology in the laboratory a door is fitted with a manual locking mechanism. Why? Because The Doctor, you might not have realised this, is blind. You wouldn’t have thought so the way he flew round the laboratory but honestly he’s blind.

Pyramid at the End of the World 2
Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World (C) BBC

Blind or not blind?

When The Doctor first appears in the episode he opens his eyes and moves around the TARDIS console strumming his guitar. He then places the instrument down without any problems at all. No missing the rack, he just turns and places the guitar safely in its place. It certainly doesn’t imply that The Doctor is still blind. In the remaining scenes the sonic sunglasses provide some form of vision. Surely if you were actually blind you’d still move a little hesitantly even with these sonic shades?

To make things worse as The Doctor was locating the lab he removes his sonic shades, holding them in one hand. Despite being blind he still managed to move directly towards the TARDIS console and operate the correct lever to dematerialise. It was a smooth movement. He’d already walked around the console and yet showed no hesitancy whatsoever. And this was supposed to be a character who was blind? All of this inconsistency meant that I simply stopped believing that he was blind because he wasn’t moving like he was. The sonic shades were also so effective that he just moved around as normal. No tripping up the step in the TARDIS, or catching the corner of console. Nothing. So when I needed to believe that he was trapped because he couldn’t see I just didn’t.

Pyramid at the End of the World 4
Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World (C) BBC

Earlier in the episode the sonic screwdriver was shown to have the ability to lift a MANUAL barrier. It was seen in the series trailer and in promo pictures, you can’t miss that it is manual barrier. A sound effect tried to hide this fact but even the most moderately attentive viewer would’ve noticed this. If this magic tool can lift a manual barrier then to see it stumped by a door was simply inconsistent. Similarly, the idea that Bill had not worked out that the Doctor was blind stretched credibility. Nardole stood metres away telling the Doctor what he should be seeing made it a bit obvious. So far the character has been presented as sharp and intelligent making this at odds with the rest of the series. In her defence I stopped believing he was blind too. To base the entire finale on resolving this inconsistency was utterly bewildering. So then suddenly The Doctor has his sight back again.

Next Time…

Ultimately we’ve spent two episodes, nearly an hour and a half, to get to the point where The Doctor has sight again and we can have an episode with the Monks in charge of Earth. As a result we have had to endure not one but TWO setup episodes to get to that point. Frankly, it hasn’t been worth the effort. Missy will also be in that episode next week too so the Monks will probably be made redundant so she can get in her sparky dialogue. Other than the line “To rule with fear is inefficient”, there is very little about the Monks that makes sense thus far. In fact there is very little about them which is even notable at all. They just feel very generic and bland.

Next week ‘The Line in the Land’ could be a classic with some fabulously dystopian imagery. However the journey to get to that point, over the course of two episodes, has been prolonged, confused and tedious, full of inconsistent messages. After the first five episodes were so consistently strong, two thirds of the Monk trilogy have so far been nothing but filler material. I liked the simulation idea but gradually it fell apart. This week it didn’t take extended consideration to become irritated by the paper thin idea that a hungover scientist will bring about the death of civilisation.

When added together ‘Extremis’ and ‘TPATEOTW’ don’t stack up. Spectacular power and simulation technology is made completely futile when ultimately all they needed was a manual locking mechanism on a door to achieve their goal. Perhaps next time they attempt to take over a planet they could lead with that one and save us all the bother!

Doctor Who: Extremis: Why it’s bugging me

Extremis 1It has been a few days since I watched Doctor Who ‘Extremis’. On first viewing I was gripped and thoroughly engrossed with what was presented. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more the episode falls apart…

The Simulation

Initially I was impressed with this revelation, largely because I didn’t see it coming. My initial thoughts were of the Matrix or Deep Thought from ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. Unfortunately buying into the concept exposes the flaws of it.

Firstly, this simulation is so intricate that not only can it account for the rogue elements of a Time Lord and his assistant Nardole, but also details such as the inside of the TARDIS. Similarly, this simulation is so advanced that it can legislate for The Doctor going blind. What makes this even less likely is that these events occurred not only off-world but also in the far future. If an alien species can create technology that advanced why would they need to rehearse an invasion? In fact, what was it that was frightening about the Monks?

Extremis 2
Doctor Who: Extremis (c) BBC


The Monks

Visually the Monks were very striking. When the distorted facial features were revealed it was a strong moment. But other than emerging from the portals which they presumably opened, they did nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Consider when we were introduced to the Silence who, let’s be frank, are not a million miles removed from this new creation. In a scene in the Ladies toilet (The Impossible Astronaut, 2011) the quirk of forgetting the creatures when you were no longer looking at them was introduced. The alien then murdered an innocent woman in front of Amy Pond. In contrast the Monks ambled after a fleeing Doctor and did some pointing. There wasn’t actually anything which they did that was fear inducing. Even they way they spoke was clumsy. The mouth opened and a voice was emitted. Fine. Worked well for the Cybermen. But then there were moments when the jaw did move whilst the voice was projected. Pick one! Plus they fell into the classic Doctor Who monster flaw; utterly inept in a chase situation. Even a Doctor struggling to see managed to elude them.

Extremis 4
Doctor Who: Extremis (c) BBC


The Doctor

Again my initial reaction was how refreshing it was to see The Doctor being vulnerable. However the more I’ve considered it, the more illogical it became. In the past we have seen the Time Lord use some of his regeneration energy. Once it was used to recharge a fuel cell (Age of Steel, 2005) and on another occasion this energy was donated to Davros (The Witch’s Familiar, 2015). And yet this ability has been forgotten. Instead a new tool was introduced with some nonsense about borrowing from a future regeneration. The Doctor’s blindness could have been implied at the conclusion of ‘Oxygen’ then the simulation revelation could’ve been further reinforced by the bombshell that he was indeed still blind in our reality. Instead this simulation was, somehow, able to anticipate The Doctor going blind.

Nardole

Assisting The Doctor is of course Nardole and we had a hint that he’d been sent by River Song. He even claims and behaves like a bad ass, elevating his character above that of comic foil. Unfortunately seconds later he shrieks and undoes all of that positive work immediately. His character is just so inconsistent. Also we can assume that he isn’t human and is slightly robotic but yet the Monks were able to legislate for his presence and fit him within the software subroutines. Once again his place within the simulation program lacked credibility.

The Pope

The preview scene of the Pope interrupting Bill’s date typifies the episode. It is clumsy. Firstly, there’s a touching moment where Penny begins to reveal her nerves about her sexuality. Bill shapes up to help her through it in the caring manner that we’ve come to expect of her. To ruin this poignant moment is, of all people, the Pope. The way Penny reacted, not thinking it was a foolish student housemate but instead recognising the real Pontif was telling. This implied a history of Catholicism but that was not clear. Instead the scene degenerates into comedy but falls flat on it’s face.

Extremis 3Missy

Another guest appearance in the episode was a returning Missy. Her plot thread ran alongside the main story as The Doctor reminisced about the events leading to his guarding of the Vault which has been developing throughout the series. Whilst it came as no surprise who was in the Vault it could’ve been handled so much better. Firstly, whoever was in the Vault was clearly alive as we previously heard them banging on the door from the inside. Part of me was anticipating a Moffat-esque twist where it turned out not to be Missy inside. However with The Doctor venturing inside in an earlier episode and stating Missy directly by name that twist simply would not work. Again the more you think about it, the more you realise that it doesn’t quite work. Much like CERN.

CERN

The famous research centre’s inclusion was an intriguing prospect. Why a catholic priest felt the need to share a translation that the world we are in was in fact a simulation is beyond me. With that information why would they then feel the need to partake of a mass suicide, using stock from ACME it seems, again doesn’t make sense. Had those responsible at CERN believed that they had been the ones responsible for opening the portals into our world, unleashing the alien creatures, then that would’ve been more logical. It would also have generated a sense of guilt and despair. Instead they just couldn’t deal with the idea of being part of the simulation. Like most of the other pieces of this episode’s puzzle it simply could’ve been better.

‘Extremis’ is the first of a trilogy and perhaps some of these elements will be developed further. My initial reaction of the episode was a positive one but as the days passed it began to trouble me all the more. I hope this post has outlined why.

Lions Squad 2017: Analysis

After months of speculation the initial squad for the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand has finally been named. History proves that call ups are a huge part of the tour. Some picked today won’t make the plane. Tomas O’Leary for example was announced as tourist in 2009 but broke his leg days later. Dylan Hartley, not named today, missed out on a tour in 2011 because of a ban. Others will be called up during the tour. But for now these players will take on the double World Champion All Blacks…

Backs

IMG_0445Dan Biggar

First name out and a bit of a shock. With Sexton expected to be taking the test jersey cover is required for the midweek games. For some it was a straight shootout between George Ford and Finn Russell for who would provide that cover at outside half. Should Sexton get injured, and that does happen to him recently, or Biggar hits form he may still get a test start. Bench spot for the test is certainly possible.

Elliot Daly

Played on the wing for England during Six Nations but could be a shout for outside centre too. Great finish against Wales showed his pace and a decent kicker too. Versatility got him on the plane.

Jonathan Davies

Started the third test in Australia in 2013, causing great debate. It proved to be the correct decision as the Lions won the series with Jon Fox playing well. Outside centre shirt for the tests is currently wide open.

Owen Farrell

One of the more interesting calls will be if Farrell plays 10 or 12. He’s named as a 10 but it adds to flexibility. The likelihood is Gatland will favour a big kicking game so having multiple kickers might happen come test time. Big defense game too might be crucial.

IMG_0446Leigh Halfpenny

Possibly a little fortunate to get selected with poor form at international level with no tries scored in ages. However his goal kicking accuracy will be vital in any game which might see him sneak into the test team on the wing.

Robbie Henshaw

The alternative to a Sexton-Farrell combination. Cemented his spot as an international centre for Ireland and could be a revelation a la Rob Henderson in 2001.

IMG_0448Stuart Hogg

Double Six Nations player of the tournament was a cert to tour. Odds on to make the test team but won’t be asked to cover 10 in a midweek game unlike last time in Australia.

Jonathan Joseph

Rumoured to have missed out yesterday but surely he was going to make the squad given his hat trick against Scotland in the Six Nations. Might struggle to find space to exploit in New Zealand but could prove Brian O’Driscoll level electric.

Connor Murray

In pole position for a test shirt but certainly has competition. Experience beating New Zealand in Chicago might give him an edge.

IMG_0447George North

Returned to form against Ireland in the Six Nations and if he finds the tryline in the early tour matches he will surely be a test starter.

Jack Nowell

Not selected consistently for England with plenty of competition between Anthony Watson and Jonny May, with the latter missing out on this squad. Howell has more creativity than May however and that might’ve proved the difference.

IMG_0450Jared Payne

A forgotten man during the Six Nations with injury but was a starter against New Zealand in Chicago and was outstanding. Although injury can dent your selection prospects it does at least keep you fresh with fitness going to be vital on tour.

Jonathan Sexton

Has had injury problems, particularly with concussion, but is the outstanding outside half in the northern hemisphere. Only injury could keep him out of the tour.

Tommy Seymour

The only other Scot to make the tour. Showed his finishing skills in the Six Nations and adds to the competition for a wing spot for the tests with not a lot to choose between the contenders.

Ben T’eo

Probably the shock of the selection given his lack of international rugby union experience. However the former Rugby League international born in New Zealand could be the John Bentley or the Jason Robinson for this tour.

Anthony Watson

Another talented winger to compete for test honours.

IMG_0451Rhys Webb

Missed out on the Rugby World Cup due to injury so hopefully makes this tour. Could still oust Murray for the test jersey if he continues recent Six Nations form.

Liam Williams

Most creative Welsh back was bound to make the squad. Where he will fit into the competitive squad is yet to be seen but could stand out in some of the provincial games.

Ben Youngs

Brother Tom doesn’t make the squad but Ben shakes off Danny Care to provide an English scrumhalf.

Forwards

IMG_0457Rory Best

Irish captain will surely take on the captaincy during a warmup match. Needs to improve lineout accuracy but front runner for a test starter.

Dan Cole

A reliable tighthead prop. Possibly lacking in the loose but at scrum time he will deliver some much needed solidity.

Talupe Faletau

Season hit by injury but Wales’ most consistent performer for years. Impressive for Bath recently and could be a straight shootout against Billy Vunipola for the test shirt.

Tadhg Furlong

Another of the Irish victors in Chicago and a real find at tighthead prop. Genuine contender to start the tests and will become a better player with the tour experience.

IMG_0454Jamie George

One of the most debated selections. The England second choice hooker is selected ahead of the captain. In reality George is probably a better player with Hartley fairly anonymous when it mattered. For example, England were a better team when George came on against Wales. Similarly his lack of leadership skills were exposed by Italy.  Jamie George was certainly a more logical selection.

Iain Henderson

Outstanding against England, Henderson edges out both Gray Scots and Devin Toner proving second row was an incredibly competitive area of selection.

IMG_0456Maro Itoje

That said Itoje was another cert to tour given his spectacular season in 2015-16. Covering blindside flanker for England but second row will be his regular spot.

Alun Wyn Jones

Tipped by some to be captain, having fulfilled the role in the third test against Australia. No doubting he’d be in the squad and current shoulder injury gives him time to rest and be fresh for the tour.

George Kruis

The type of warrior that the Lions will need in New Zealand and a foundation of the Saracens team which has been exceptional in recent seasons. Another who is coming back from injury and will benefit from the recuperation time.

Courtney Lawes

Another second row warrior and big hitter that will be invaluable on tour. Might not make the test team but will be a force in midweek which could see him start on a Saturday too. However how he edged out Joe Launchbury is beyond my understanding.

Joe Marler

Solid English loosehead who will battle McGrath to start the tests.

Jack McGrath

Like Tadgh Furlong he started against New Zealand in Chicago, an important experience that could edge the contest against Marler.

IMG_0444Ross Moriarty

One of the other big surprises in the selection but his outstanding performances in the Six Nations, particularly against England clearly stood out. Also offers versatility in the back row so could be a useful bench player.

Sean O’Brien

Outstanding at the breakdown, physical and brutal. Tourist in 2013 he will push all the way for a test shirt.

IMG_0452Peter O’Mahony

Had to step in last minute against England and produced an incredible performance which no doubt saw him selected for the Lions.

IMG_0443Ken Owens

Outstanding Six Nations tournament earned him the call. Ball carrier and accurate lineout throwing could see him start a test.

IMG_0453Kyle Sinckler

Highly rated by those that have worked with him and hotly tipped to tour.

CJ Stander

Another brutal competitor at the breakdown who has won against the All Blacks.

Justin Tipuric

Finally conquered the clamour to start at openside for Wales and proved his ability at international level. As Martyn Williams put it, it would’ve been a travesty had he not been selected. Offers a different option with genuine handling skills and world class support play.

Mako Vunipola

A tourist four years ago and played in all 3 test matches. Could do the same again this time round.

Billy Vunipola

Another who has had a season hampered by injury but was a ball carrying colossus the previous season. Could be an coin toss between him and Faletau or even Moriarty to start the test.

IMG_0442Sam Warburton (C)

Return to form saw him return to captain the Lions. Although injured for the third test he proudly lifted the trophy and deservedly so.

Overall it is a fascinating selection. Some surprises. Some shock admissions. But the reality is there will be injuries. Alex Corbisiero wasn’t selected four years ago but was called up and scored a crucial try in the third test. The buildup has only just begun…

REVIEW: Power Rangers (2017)

The Power Rangers from Saban are back in a new movie. Specifically a film adaptation of the origin story for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television series which became a global hit in the 1990’s. The series has since undergone multiple revisions including Samurai and Jungle Fury. Now given a big budget and the limitless scale of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) available does this modern reboot do the source material justice?

Firstly, some context. As a youth I was very much into the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I had action figures. I vividly remember buying the Megazord and playing with the constituent Zords constantly. Similar memories are also held of the White Ranger’s sword, a toy which came complete with sound effects. When the original television series made its big screen debut I entered a drawing competition at the local supermarket, putting the White Ranger onto paper and actually won tickets to see the movie. These memories have resurfaced because of this film and that strikes upon the appeal of this new movie; nostalgia.

For those of us of a certain age Power Rangers strikes a chord with what we remember of the series that we became swept up with as youngsters. Additionally, actors Bryan Cranston, from Malcolm in the Middle and of course Breaking Bad, and Elizabeth Banks, who we’ve seen in Role Models, The Forty Year Old Virgin, The Hunger Games and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, draw us in even further. Banks in particular savours the freedom to go wild with the villainess Rita Repulsa. Cranston largely appears as the talking face on the wall called Zordon. However neither appears to have just shown up for the pay cheque and indeed take the process reasonably seriously. Perhaps they too were savouring the nostalgia of the project?

Power Rangers 3

This search to deliver nostalgia is indicative of the tone of the film. It is not a film for children with some particularly dark moments, the implication that Rita was pulling gold teeth out of a homeless man’s skull for instance. Unfortunately the screening I attended had two families with young children who were clearly scared in these moments. Although the 12A certificate is entirely appropriate for this film, it does not mean that it is suitable for 6 year olds even if they are accompanied by an adult. It is clearly intended for that older audience, now in adulthood, that darker tones appeal to but without straying too far away from the original. Those kids in my showing also failed to have their attention kept by the extended character development.

As with any origin story time is spent explaining the premise. However the majority of the running time is dedicated to exploring the five lead characters. My heart sank with the prospect of a Breakfast Club style setup. Happily however that was dispensed with quickly. With the change of environment, from weekend detention to a quarry, the unlikely friendship then begins to develop between the teenagers. Although a slightly generic motley crew of characters they do cover all bases. The star quarterback has dented his future with some youthful hi-jinx. A former cheerleader who didn’t quite fit the Mean Girls mould. Someone struggling with how her ‘perfect’ family would react to her sexuality. Similarly a young carer struggling to look after his sick mother. Plus the smart one on the autistic spectrum. All of these characters however are handled well. Sensitively in fact, with a subtlety often missing from most movie blockbusters.

Each of them have a point to prove. Seeking acceptance from the other outsiders they form a strong bond as a group. Those themes of friendship and acceptance add an additional layer to the generic superhero and sci-fi material that will hopefully speak to others at that impressionable age. On reflection, this process of teasing out the character back stories is too long, not that I was in a hurry to see the inevitable battle between the Zords and Goldar. However I was caught up enough in the characters that I was eager for them to get their suits which were particularly impressive given the movie level budget. Admittedly this movie is not likely to receive widespread critical acclaim. The plot and script are not likely to win any awards for instance. But some films deliver based upon what the viewer brings to it.

As a nostalgic 30-year-old I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting a story from my youth. A modern retelling with a good budget and featuring two actors who I have enjoyed in other things before. Excitingly an extra scene in the credits alludes to a further story involving the Green Ranger. Perhaps history will repeat itself and he will trigger a peak in popularity for the Power Rangers?

REVIEW: WrestleMania XXXIII

Kevin Owens defeats Chris Jericho (C)

WM33_JerichoOwensAs anticipated this match fully delivered. Two former best friends able to deliver counter after counter and an awesome match overall. When the end finally came it came with a muted response as all the moments you thought would bring about the fall produced kick outs. Crowds then don’t anticipate the successful pinfall, denting their reaction. That aside it was a great match. It also made me consider that Chris Jericho really has been around for so long but still continues to have superb matches on the top show. Now time for him to enjoy his Fozzy break.

Bayley (C) defeats Nia Jaxx, Sasha Banks and Charlotte

IMG_0435Predictably Nia Jaxx did her dominating thing before being eliminated first. I like Nia but everything she does looks less skilled. I don’t want to say clumsy but less refined for sure. Charlotte on the other hand is smooth and executed everything perfectly. Even the exposed turnbuckle was utilised to perfection. Sasha was however largely memorable for having a lift to the ring, a wise move given the enormity of the ramp, but I don’t really recall anything else she did with Charlotte being the standout. The finish was solid with the marketed underdog Bayley getting her WrestleMania moment, eyes full of tears, that was a nice moment.

The Hardy Boyz defeat Anderson & Gallows (C), Sheamus & Cesaro and Enzo & Cass

IMG_0440Where to start with this one. As many probably knew the Hardys had dropped their RoH tag titles the night before, said their goodbyes and were heading back to WWE. However few expected them to show up at WrestleMania. Personally I was convinced they were going to be on RAW. So for them to show up and win tag title gold again was an incredible moment. From the deafening ovation that greeted their theme tune hitting I don’t think the crowd came down from the ceiling at any point. The match was subsequently a bit of a blur as viewers struggled to believe what they were seeing. It’s a shame for the six other individuals involved to be usurped in such a manner but they must’ve enjoyed the electricity in that moment which only a surprise entrant of that stature can deliver.

John Cena & Nikki Bella defeat The Miz and Maryse

WM33_tagSooooo predictable. Even Nikki struggled to look surprised. The reality era strikes again and Total Bellas dictates booking. If you’re into that show then you probably got a kick out of it. I’m not so I didn’t. But congratulations to the future John & Nikki Cena anyway. Also Maryse did very little in the ring, has the former champ really lost all her skills?

Seth Rollins defeats Triple H

IMG_0436In terms of story telling this was a great match. Lacking the bloody brutality the fight probably deserved it was instead all structured around a supposed knee injury. However Rollins was able to perform manoeuvres which defied a knee problem but sold it expertly. Anyway, the finish was perfectly executed with a number of smooth interchanges. Stephanie going through the table was notably quite shocking, I didn’t expect that at all, and it took her out of the picture neatly too. Then Rollins delivering a pedigree to defeat the Game provided a perfect conclusion.

Randy Orton defeats Bray Wyatt (C)

WM33_BrayOrtonI cannot for the life of me understand this booking. A victory for Bray Wyatt would’ve cemented his spot in the main event picture for the foreseeable future. We even had an impressive wielding of Bray Wyatt’s power with some impressive projections onto the ring. But no Randy Orton wins out of nowhere. What does that even accomplish? Just to emphasise that a Royal Rumble win practically guarantees you a title? No wonder the crowd reaction was pretty much total silence.

Brock Lesnar defeats Goldberg (C)

WM33_GoldbergBrockThen we were back to the utterly predictable. We all called this way back in January/February when the Kevin Owens/Goldberg match was made. The match with Lesnar at ‘Mania had already been made. It was so obvious that Goldberg would win the title only to drop it to Brock. Part of me hoped that they wouldn’t go through with it but they did. That being said I enjoyed the physicality of the encounter and was clearly better than the Survivor Series debacle. Of course it’s WrestleMania so for the first time in history, as far as I’m aware, someone kicked out of the jackhammer. Finishing moves somehow lose their devastating impact at the big show of the year. Perhaps it’s an adrenaline thing? When that happened and Goldberg went for another spear it became all the more apparent that he only had two moves in his arsenal. However why change a winning formula? Similarly Brock had the german suplex, quite a few of them and the F5 which worked for him. Anyway, title belt handed over, job done.

Naomi defeats Alexa Bliss (C), Natalya, Becky Lynch, Carmella and Mickie James

IMG_0439Continuing with the predictable, hometown girl Naomi won back the title she’d had to relinquish due to injury a few weeks ago. A single fall also stopped the match going on too long. I think 4 hours in, plus the 2 hour kickoff show on top of that, and intense Florida heat the audience was getting pretty fatigued. Only one match left though…

Roman Reigns defeats The Undertaker

WM33_UndertakerReignsThe clues were all there. It went on last. JR came out from the cold to provide commentary. Those observant will have noticed Taker’s wife in the crowd too. The ‘No Holds Barred’ stipulation opened things up even further. And yet Reigns kept hitting the awful superman punch. Five times I think it was in the end and it’s just absurd. It’s a rubbish move done far too often. It also took multiple spears to keep the Undertaker down for the pinfall. The crowd reaction was muted rather than being vociferously angry which I had anticipated it would be. The reality was there for all to see. The Undertaker looked old and spent. In the end the result was inevitable. The torch was passed on.

When the end came it was emotional. It was nothing short of devastating really. Quite rightly ‘Taker had his moment. For possibly the first time ever he seemed to break character as the enormity of saying goodbye washed over him, looking visibly choked up. Perhaps he should’ve gone out with a flawless undefeated streak at the biggest show at the year. But wrestling tradition is that you retire on a loss, you do the favour. The legacy of the Undertaker will live on for a long, long time. Personally I’m looking forward to an epic interview series on the WWE Network where his epic career is dissected and we finally get to hear from him properly about some of his greatest moments and matches.

RAW

imagePredictability returned on Monday night RAW with Kurt Angie becoming General Manager, as expected, and Finn Bálor returned from injury, as expected. The highlight however was the opening segment with the raucous crowd chanting ‘Undertaker’ for an extended period. Then Roman Reigns came out. Credit to him for simply standing there whilst the Universe vented their rage. “F*ck you Roman!” was a particular highlight. The “Roman sucks” chants also returned as the fans shared their opinions with Vince McMahon. Not that that will change things. When Reigns did speak, he nailed it. However the hangover from events at WrestleMania the night before seemed to drain the audience’s energy. The Undertaker’s retirement had had an instant impact.

SmackDown Live

imageNot to be outdone the blue brand also held their own post-Mania show in Orlando. The show started strong and continued throughout. SmackDownLive has consistently been delivering good television. Each segment is meaningful with no need to pad out a third hour. The highlights were undoubtedly the debuts. Tye Dillinger’s was great but Shinsuke Nakamura brought genuine spine tingling chills. There’s just something about that violin music! Styles v Nakamura is a thrilling prospect but will probably get messed up by the impending superstar shakeup. We will have to wait and see…

Why WrestleMania XXXIII is set to disappoint

WM33WrestleMania XXXIII is approaching this Sunday and the matches on the card have been set. Unfortunately the maneuvering of talent to set up these clashes has been largely predictable and none of the match-ups are inspiring sections of the WWE Universe. Just look at Bayley’s promo from this week’s RAW. When asked who was excited for Wrestlemania, the WWE Universe gave what can be best described as a muted response. Similarly on SmackdownLive it took a few seconds for the yes chant to get going and even then it was hardly rapturous. It is an event being promoted as ‘The Ultimate Thrill Ride”. But yet none of the matches are thrilling on paper. By analysing the card I shall explain why each contest is failing spectacularly to generate my personal interest in the ‘show of shows’ this year.

Goldberg (c) v Brock Lesnar for the Universal Championship

Where to start with this one. So back in November Goldberg returned to the ring to take on Brock Lesnar one more time. Fantasy warfare became reality. Unfortunately all the hype was misplaced as Goldberg squashed Brock in 1 minute 26 seconds. Although rumored to be a decision made by necessity due to an injury in the build up, it made Brock look terrible. This was accentuated in the Royal Rumble when Goldberg eliminated Lesnar with ease. So after losing two recent encounters, plus the Wrestlemania XX bout, it made little sense for Brock to issue another challenge. Even then he’d still be unable to overturn the current 2-0 scoreline in singles matches. Acknowledging this flaw the only strategy was to put the top RAW title up for grabs, taking it from an unfortunate Kevin Owens, in a desperate attempt to make fans care about this match. The only logical outcome is that Lesnar will win as you cannot see Goldberg having a continued title run after ‘Mania. Goldberg even posted a cryptic message on his instagram that suggested this match will be his last. How the contest will work in the context of the recent squash jobs is anyone’s guess. On RAW this week Goldberg again crushed Lesnar with a spear. But yet we all expect Lesnar to defy logic and win. A victory for either man is likely to be met with total ambivalence from the capacity crowd. Speaking of crowd reaction…

The Undertaker v Roman Reigns

If Roman Reigns was to win this match then the whole of Orlando might very well riot. Now whilst few question Reigns’ abilities many are irritated by the way he is presented to the audience. Personally the overuse of the Superman punch is what really winds me up. He is so often portrayed as the man who can overcome all obstacles, even in failure. Most recently it was his defeat of the colossal Braun Strowman on Pay Per View that emphasized this point. Strowman himself was very respectful in his backtracking out of the ring when faced with the Undertaker. Reigns did the opposite and if he was to win at ‘Mania he will get booed out of the stadium. Think Hogan turning heel levels of animosity. Although two victories have followed since the streak was broken, Undertaker’s continuing Wrestlemania run must be drawing to an end as his advancing years are obvious. With fewer and fewer appearances the selection of Roman Reigns as an opponent feels like a missed opportunity. Sadly the alternatives are few and far between. The dream match with Sting for instance has gone, we are not likely to see that now due to injury. In that context at least Undertaker is still on the card. Similarly at least Reigns isn’t entering the event as the Royal Rumble winner…

Bray Wyatt (c) v Randy Orton for the WWE Championship

The title of Royal Rumble winner goes to Randy Orton. It was a strange selection back in January but one the WWE Universe were mercifully content with when given the prospect of another Roman Reigns victory. At the Rumble event John Cena won a historic 16th world championship. The lineup of Orton v Cena yet again made everyone wince. So rather predictably Cena dropped the strap in the Elimination Chamber, making his fortnight reign as champ utterly pointless. It was equally apparent that Bray Wyatt was going to pick up the win in the Chamber given his long running storyline with Orton to set up a clash at the top show. The inevitable was prolonged further with Orton’s Rumble triumph being made redundant when he had to face AJ Styles to confirm who would battle Wyatt. When Orton aligned himself with Wyatt and Harper I didn’t buy it. Putting his hood up didn’t speak to me of Randy fully embracing the ways of Wyatt. Perhaps he should’ve tried growing a beard? So when the turn came, although very well done, it didn’t come as a surprise. Whilst the match will no doubt be solid, the hope is that a Bray Wyatt win will cement his spot at the top of the SmackdownLive brand. An Orton win won’t really achieve much. Both top titles have been snatched from those who have held it for the longest over the past 12 months to create these Wrestlemania matches. Of the two AJ Styles probably has the most to feel perturbed about…

Shane McMahon v AJ Styles

In defeat at the Royal Rumble AJ Styles and the victor John Cena but on a superb match all delivered within the ropes. Given that Cena would drop the belt a mere two weeks later Styles could’ve easily done that job. Having held the title since September Styles deserved better than a loss for the token gesture of giving Cena a record 16th win. Now he goes into Wrestlemania, having delivered a great match with Chris Jericho the year before, with a performer who is not even close to being a part timer in the ring. Make no mistake about it Shane O’Mac is no wrestler and certainly nowhere near the calibre of AJ Styles at the top of his game. I am really surprised that given the brutal attack that triggered the match and Shane’s announce table elbow, that a No DQ stipulation was not added. This was even pointed out on the SmackdownLive opening segment. Ultimately Shane McMahon is a stunt artist. An excellent one at that but a stunt artist nonetheless. Having been ‘the Champ who runs the camp’ for several months this is a real blow to Styles. Having a wrestling match with a stunt artist is a total waste of his talents on the grandest stage of all. But this is not just an occurrence on the blue brand with the red brand also guilty of punishing their most recent title holder…

Chris Jericho (c) v Kevin Owens for the US Championship

One of the highlights of RAW in recent months has been the Jeri-KO segments. Kevin Owens has taken the mantle of heel champion on brilliantly and delivered every single week. Jericho too has been thriving with his slightly pompous and arrogant persona. The List of Jericho was also a hilarious addition. Whilst I do want to see this match, one of very few I can say that of, it should’ve been for the Universal title. Whilst they’ve tried to do the ‘you robbed me of mine, so I’m going to take yours’ angle, it is unquestionably a step down from the main events since Owens’ late August anointing by HHH. Speaking of the COO…

HHH v Seth RollinsIMG_0436

Having been building since that August 29th screwjob this match was thrown into doubt given Rollins’ new knee injury. Losing the contest would’ve been a shame given Hunter’s spectacular promo performances thus far to antagonise the former architect of the Shield. We’ve also finally got ‘face’ Seth Rollins. Fans have been desperate to cheer him since he returned from injury and now they can. We now have an ‘Unsanctioned match’ which could be entertaining to watch but is perhaps a decision to protect the quality of the contest. Turning it into a fight removes the wrestling element and hopefully protects Rollins’ knee during the encounter. Given his inability to use a crutch properly on RAW over the last few weeks his knee should hold up fine. Maybe it will turn out like HHH v Shawn Michaels from Summerslam 2002 but we’ll have to wait and see.

Neville (c) v Austin Aires for the Cruiserweight Championship

WM33_NevilleAriesThis could be a show stealer. Austin Aires gets a chance to showcase his talents at the biggest show of the year and with a solid dance partner. However given that this is going to be on the kickoff show it probably won’t be allotted much time. Instead we’ll have highlights of the Hall of Fame, repetitive video packages and general inane ramblings from Renee Young. At least Shawn Michaels is on the panel with Jerry Lawler and Booker T.

Dean Ambrose (c) v Baron Corbin for the Intercontinental Championship

IMG_0437The futile attempts to get Baron Corbin over continue. However this match might at least give ‘Mania a story. Except if it’s anything like Zack Ryder’s win last year it will be short lived. If WWE officials genuinely believe that Corbin is a future headliner then beating Dean Ambrose at Wrestlemania could be a big step in that direction. Ambrose too was unceremoniously dropped from competing for the top title to the IC title and is currently just treading water. He’s in need of a gripping rivalry but Baron Corbin is not it for me. So whatever happens in this match I don’t really care.

John Cena & Nicki Bella v The Miz & Maryse

WM33_tagTalking of things I don’t care about. I have absolutely no desire to find out who the most dominant power couple of SmackdownLive is. However the Miz/Maryse Total Bellas parodies have been brutal in their genius. Unfortunately that shadow of Total Divas/Bellas has manufactured this matchup but puts the WWE’s biggest name on the card and has brought out the best in the Miz, his promo work. Cena’s responses too have been solid and genuine. But if this match was the plan all along then Cena’s 16th title reign has been made all the more pointless. Oh, and there’s a special guest ring announcer who I’ve never heard of.

Bayley (c) v Charlotte v Sasha Banks v Nia Jaxx for the RAW Women’s Championship

IMG_0435Although Bayley currently holds the gold the majority of 2016 was all about Charlotte and Sasha. In that period the belt exchanged hands multiple times. This was even pointed out by Nia Jaxx on RAW this week. Oh yes, Nia is on the roster so she needs to be involved too. The added elimination element extends the duration of the match but whatever the outcome it feels like the RAW women’s division is in need of a new direction. Nia won’t get the belt for reasons I won’t be crude enough to repeat. However if Asuka was signed from NXT it would spice things up and create new combinations for matches. After all these four women are literally the only four on the RAW roster.

Anderson & Gallows v Enzo & Cass v Shaemus & Cesaro triangle ladder match for the RAW Tag Team Championships

WM33_TripleThreatTagGiven the use of a ladder, of all the available objects in the backstage era, during RAW this week it became obvious that this would be a ladder match. It was logical given the limited number of extreme stipulations on the show. Now ladder matches are always entertaining stunt shows. Wrestlemania has had some classics. But can this match get close to the triangle ladder match at Wrestlemania 2000 for example? Probably not.

Alexa Bliss defends the SmackdownLive Women’s Championship against every woman available

IMG_0439As you can probably tell by this point we’ve reached the point where whoever is contracted to the company gets on the show. This one however is an oddity. We still don’t know if it will be a match to be won by pinfall or submission, or an over the top rope affair. So little attention has been given to the match that they can’t even announce that. What we can tell from the peculiar wording is that a surprise entrant may make an appearance. We’ve already had Naomi return on SmackdownLive this week but perhaps Eva Marie will return to win her first championship? That would be a great way to get the capacity crowd onside(!)

Fourth Annual Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

WM33_AndreAnd talking about getting all contracted superstars on the card the ultimate excuse is the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. Expect Braun Strowman to cement his spot as the undefeatable monster, assuming he isn’t up against Roman Reigns of course. It does also provides an opportunity for surprise entrants, such as a rumoured Shelton Benjamin, which could prove crowd pleasing.

Conclusion

Although the list of matches for Sunday night is a lengthy one, few are eliciting anything even closely resembling excitement. Many of the contests I have little interested in seeing. Consistent performers have been sacrificed for either part-timers or to facilitate a storyline ending showdown. AJ Styles and Kevin Owens can feel pretty hard done by but knowing their professionalism they’ll still produce great matches. The main selling point of the Undertaker/Reigns contest is the hope that Roman can’t possibly win. Surely he can’t. They wouldn’t dare. Or would they? Matches like Jericho/Owens and Neville/Aries will be technically solid. Similarly Rollins/HHH and the triangle ladder match will be entertaining fare. But none of them are really grabbing me. As for the Goldberg/Lesnar main event, it was a let down at Survivor Series. You lost me then. So to get me interested in another match is just not happening. Try again next year.

Looking beyond Wrestlemania the post ‘Mania RAW is already being promoted with a special on the WWE Network. Unfortunately we seem to be able to predict what will happen on that show. Kurt Angle will become RAW General Manager. Expect a surprise return from Finn Balor, who also can feel hard done by for not appearing in a scheduled match at the big show. Perhaps Finn will be in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. But the likelihood is he’s being held back for RAW to begin a rivalry with Seth Rollins, who put him on the shelf. Goldberg will step away and Lesnar will hold the title with Roman Reigns likely to challenge him for the gold. I hope I’m wrong and surprised but over the next few days we will see if WWE can deliver and crucially how the diehard fans of the universe will react. So far however apathy has set in at a crucial time which could harm PPV orders and Network subscriptions.

Wales’ Six Nations ends with 100 minute farce

Super Saturday 2017 will be remembered by Welsh fans for all the wrong reasons. The day had begun with an enjoyable watch; Scotland scoring tries and Italy managing to butcher their opportunities. It ended with England lifting the RBS Six Nations trophy in defeat. What happened in the middle still defies belief.

IMG_0425

Following the rousing victory against Ireland in Cardiff the Welsh team headed to Paris looking for a third win in a row in the French capital and a sixth successive victory since that devastating 8-9 loss at Eden Park in 2011. In a frenetic opening half the men in red rode their luck. France flew at them in attack but only scored a single try. The second half was much of the same with Wales defending manfully but failing to create any try scoring opportunities for themselves. In fact the skill levels from both teams were some of the worst seen in a Six Nations match for years.

IMG_0427

Although ineffectual with ball in hand, Leigh Halfpenny was the master of the kicking tee. With mentor Neil Jenkins watching on, Halfpenny produced a virtuoso kicking clinic worthy of Jinks himself. Six penalties from six attempts, including three notable efforts from barely inside the French half, gave Wales the lead. Although Welsh players all too often coughed up possession in promising positions through sloppy handling and breakdown work, their tactics were paying off.

 

IMG_0424

Those tactics were to have a high ball in play time. The monstrous French pack was being forced to work hard with kicks staying on the field of play. Even the French backline of behemoths were having their fitness tested. This strategy drew penalties from the French allowing Halfpenny to add to the scoreboard. A tentative 5 point lead might’ve been enough but Wales were hanging on by their fingernails. Injuries were piling up too with both Alun Wyn Jones and Jake Ball having to leave the field. Scott Baldwin also had blood pouring from his head meaning Ross Moriarty who had gone off holding his shoulder was pressed into service once again. Needing a converted try to win it, France were knocking at the Welsh tryline as normal time drew to a close. Then things got absurd.

IMG_0431

France were pressing for the crucial try. In their desperation to hold out the French the Welsh players were conceding penalties and it was obvious that scrums were going to follow. However the contest at the scrum had gone from France being totally dominant to a more even battle following the front row changes from both teams. Curiously referee Wayne Barnes came over to the French tighthead Antonio and asked, “Are you injured?” The response was that he had a sore back but was fine to go again. Out of nowhere a French medic then appeared. Smelling a rat Barnes directly asked, “As a Doctor are you telling me that this player needs a head injury assessment?” To which the referee was given a resounding “yes!”

IMG_0430As a prelude to this was the expected set of scrums and resets. But to counter this the French were somehow allowed to bring back on their first choice tighthead prop Slimani. He solidified the French scrum, putting pressure on Rob Evans by illegally binding on his arm. Things were complicated further when Barnes branded a yellow card to Samson Lee. This was inevitable given the penalties being conceded so close to the try line. Confusion then reigned as Thomas Francis had to rejoin the fray with debate raging over whether paperwork stated he had been replaced or substituted. Perhaps he should’ve run on the pitch at full pace and pulled his hamstring! The whole episode proved once and for all the shambolic nature of scrums at the highest level of the game. Although safety is paramount the resets and prolonged debate over who should be involved was nothing but a joke. Then things got even worse!

IMG_0432

Shortly after a defensive effort George North approached the referee brandishing his arm claiming he had been bitten. Barnes referred it to his TMO stating that there was clearly a mark. In the stadium only one angle was shown to Barnes. The TMO Peter Fitzgibbon stated that there was nothing conclusive. I would frankly be astounded if the French broadcaster provided Fitzgibbon all the available angles at that crucial moment. Again Barnes could only go on what he was being told and washed his hands of the situation saying it would be dealt with after the match. Surely however teeth marks on an arm are pretty damning evidence.

IMG_0423To add to the ludicrousness of the situation a French player suggested that North had done it himself. Astonishingly French boss Guy Noves was quoted as repeating this accusation. If that’s true then Noves should be ashamed. Wether an incident of biting did occur or not we will have to wait and see. But to claim North did it to himself is embarrassing. Eventually the red wall gave way. But it took entering the 100th minute of the game for that defence to be broken. To the skeptics amongst us French Fergie-time meant that this game was surely destined to continue until France scored. But the final whistle just began the fallout.

IMG_0429A furious Dan Biggar walked off the field before rightly being sent back by Howley to shake hands. Alun Wyn Jones was quickly nabbed by the BBC for comment but skilfully avoided using the word ‘cheat’. The WRU coaches refused media duties until they reviewed the footage. Martyn Williams working for BBC television said that he’d seen Slimani warming up minutes before Antonio’s mysterious sore back needed a head injury assessment. When Rob Howley did speak he suggested that French officials had left the technical area to relay a message to the Doctor, presumably to remove Antonio from the field which happened moments later. This story will inevitably run and run. Personally I wanted a camera on Shaun Edwards because I imagine he’d have been losing his mind with rage. For all their defensive efforts the Wales players did not deserve to lose in that manner.

IMG_0428The controversy in Paris, tentatively labelled ‘HIAgate’, must not be allowed to overshadow a disappointing Six Nations campaign. During the autumn the coaches clung to the straw of 3 wins from 4 in the face of poor performances and a lack of tries. Now there is no hiding. 2 wins from 5 and a fifth placed finish is unacceptable for this squad. Mercifully the potential calamity of falling out of the top 8 in world rankings for the Rugby World Cup draw was avoided. They raised their performances for the big home games against England and Ireland but were embarrassing in the second half against the Scots. Wales were the only nation not to score four tries against a poor Italy and although they played for 100 minutes in Paris didn’t look like scoring a try. The development of a new attacking game was nowhere to be seen.

imageNow the Six Nations is over attention turns to the Lions tour. Worryingly Rob Howley will be the backs coach and seems unlikely that in less time with players he’s never worked with before he can instil a spectacular offensive game to challenge the world champion All Blacks. That squad will however have plenty of quality players with England, Ireland and Scotland all going to contribute talent. From a Welsh perspective Rhys Webb and George North have impressed in attack during the tournament. Leigh Halfpenny would be a priceless goal kicker to have in the squad. Sam Warburton, freed from the burden of captaincy, has been outstanding as has Justin Tipuric. Alun Wyn Jones could be a captaincy contender and Ken Owens has also come from nowhere to become a genuine contender for a test shirt.

The rest of the Welsh squad are likely to go on tour to Tonga and Samoa with interim-interim coach Robin McBryde. This will be largely futile but will be an opportunity for fringe players to get caps. When Gatland and Howley return I fear a Graham Henry style reaction. When he returned from Lions duty in 2001 Henry was faced with Welsh players perturbed by losing out on selection to better English and Irish individuals. The changing room was lost and history could be about to repeat itself. Gatland, having been on sabbatical for a year, will have a difficult job to reunite an underperforming squad and then turn them into genuine World Cup contenders.