Rugby's World Cup has been surprisingly engaging--hooray for the gallant grandeur of England, France and the other small-fry nations! It has been salutary for the Celts, however, with Wales and Ireland given such a contemptuous bums' rush that each had to watch last weekend's quarter-finals on television back in their own homes and behind closed curtains. If their self-esteem is in shock, it's nothing to the severe clattering their bodies had to endure.
Mind you, that goes, with knobs on, for the surviving teams still scrapping to contest next week's final, for any rugby pitch is now a major crash site--bell-clanging ambulances, paramedics and all.
The skilful, expertly timed low tackle is a thrill of the past. The game no longer refers to tackles, but 'hits', preferably 'big hits', and the more hurtful, it seems, the better. Zap! Pow! Ughh! A sports injuries whitecoat-boffin said the other day that serious injuries in rugby had more than doubled since the game went professional a dozen years ago, with almost 70 per cent of them caused by one or other of those involved in heavy 'hits'. Bushy-tailed young colts are no longer taught or encouraged to dart or dodge, swerve or jink or sidestep: sole aim now is the sumo-collision, torso-on-torso, full-on and as powerful, even injurious, as possible. Licensed Neanderthal mugging.
The classic, extempore low tackle--taking down an opponent at full-pelt 'on the wing', and extolled by generations of schoolboy coaches--was part of the heroic lore. No more. Most fabled for my generation was the cornerflagging secateurs job on Cambridge's electric hare, John Smith, when all five of Oxford's John MacGregor Kendall-Carpenter took him round the ankles at the end of a palpitating length-of-the-field chase in the Twickenham gloaming at the very end of the 1949 University match. Five years later, same famous field on my first school trip, I saw All-Black legend, bald and bandy Bob Scott, boldly upend England's Martin Regan at full, heady gallop. Golly, did you see that? Wow!Continue reading
Maybe Michael Jordan knew it would be his last shot. With his Chicago Bulls trailing by one point in the dying seconds of Game 6 in last June's NBA championship series, His Airness shook off a Utah Jazz defender with a couple of quick fakes, pulled up 17 feet from the basket and launched a high, arcing jumper. The shot, to no one's surprise, hit nothing but net--Jordan is as famous for buzzer-beating heroics as he is for his soaring dunks. But instead of pumping his fist in celebration and leaping into the air, as he had on other series-winning occasions, Jordan held his position, his shooting hand suspended at the point of his follow-through. Then, showing no emotion, he turned and jogged back into the Bulls' defensive zone. Was the high hand a signal? At his retirement news conference last week in Chicago, Jordan said no. 'It turned out to look like I was posing for all the photographers,' he explained, smiling his enigmatic smile. 'But that was not the case.'
What a loss to the NBA. The league rebuilt itself from near-bankruptcy in the early 1980s by marketing its top players--including Larry Bird and Magic Johnson--and with each generational change, attendance and TV revenues climbed higher. But now the NBA may have to adjust its player-driven marketing scheme. Jordan wasn't just the best player of his time; he was the best of all time. And any successors, at least for a while, will seem wanting. Jordan could do it all. His dunks were acrobatic, his passes had eyes, he could make moves that left the best defenders flat-footed and he could score from just about anywhere on the court. There is a reason his company logo is a silhouette of his spread-eagled form suspended in midair, ready to slam the ball into the net. Midair was his office--it was as if his shoes were filled with helium.
Not content with just offensive glory, Jordan became the best defender, too. Fittingly, he made a crucial steal under his own basket, denying Jazz star Karl Malone, just before sinking the winning shot last June. And opponents say his greatest weapon was a strength of mind that enabled him to remained focused under the pressure of the big game. 'He has no discernible weakness,' marvelled hall-of-famer Bob Cousy. 'He's the best, without question.' Just as important in the image-driven NBA was that His Airness looked great. He was handsome, graceful, and he had that great smile.Continue reading