Martyn Williams shouldn't pay the penalty for penalties

In football they're called a lottery, they're called cruel, nerve-wracking and unsatisfactory. They're also called exciting, nail-biting and dramatic. Penalty shootouts. Neutral fans love them, partisan fans hate them, and the only thing that's certain is that they'll be controversial. In rugby however, they're just plain wrong.

Now, as a Man U fan, I've been party to a fair few unpleasant penalty shootouts over the last 12 months, there was John Terry's hilarious slip in Moscow last May, and there was the Everton FA cup loss last month. Both were unpleasant in their own way, but they didn't have a patch on the Blues v Leicester Heineken Cup Semi Final on Sunday.

I'm glad to say it was my first rugby penalty shootout, and if I'm not mistaken, it's the first ever. Well thank God for that, because even as a semi-neutral, it was one of the most unpleasant and unnecessary things I've ever witnessed in sport. In football, beating the keeper from 12 yards out isn't easy, but every single player on the field is skilled with ball at feet and should be able to make a fist of converting it.

In rugby, squeezing it over the posts from 22 metres out with an oval ball is hard enough for a fly-half after 100 minutes of brutal, body-destroying rugby, and they're supposed to be good at it. To ask a forward, a player who will maybe connect foot with ball a few times a season, to line up a place kick and stroke it over is not just absurd, and against the spirit of the game – it's cruel.

It's cruel because it takes the unsung heroes of rugby – the grafters, the fatties, the teak-hard bastards at the base of the ruck – and it makes them into villains. In no more horrific way could this have been shown than by Martyn Williams missing the kick that sent Cardiff out on Sunday. Martyn is a hero, a legend, a nice chap. But more than that, he is one of the greatest Welsh players of all time, the best seven in the Northern Hemisphere and a truly one-off player who typifies everything that's great about rugby.

Apparently he was inconsolable after the game, and it's unusual things like this that can really have an impact on your belief, your desire. From what he's saying, it seems that he's started to come to terms with it, and bloody good for him, and with a man like Martyn, I'm sure he won't suffer any long-term effects from it.

But it shouldn't have happened, and it should never happen again. It's the result of not only a lack of thought and intelligence on the part of the ERC, but of a needless desire to be like football, to distil rugby into something it's not – an individual's moment. Rugby isn't a team game, it's about 15 versus 15, not one player. Despite the increasingly glamorous image of the game, that's what it should be and what it will always be.

So what to do about it? Well, I have a few thoughts, and I'm pleased to hear that the ERC is prepared to review it. Talk of 'golden goal' type affairs have been mooted and that's probably better, but I have another idea...

My inspiration comes from college football in America, and in particular, the incredible climax to the Boise State v Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl game in 2007. At the end of the game, the scores were tied and overtime was imminent. But rather than the boring NFL rules where it's just the first team to score, each team would have be given a series of possessions in the Red Zone. They had four downs to score, the team going first could settle for a field goal if need be, but the team going second only had to match it to keep pace, or score a TD to win it.

It was incredibly tense, and will go down as one of the most brilliant moments of sporting excitement I've ever seen. As the video below shows, the winning 2-point conversion play was an incredible combination of ingenuity and team effort. And that's why it was great. It was a team effort. No scapegoats, no individual heartbreak. The team played the game, and the team won it. Brilliant.

So how does this apply to rugby? Well here's my thinking. After extra time is over, each team gets a five-metre scrum in front of the posts, and have 1:30 to score. Once the time is up, the play stops, end of. The teams can try to ferret the ball in, they can ship it out to the backs, they can go for the drop goal or they can try and win a kickable penalty. If the ball goes into touch, goes dead, or is turned over, it's the other team's turn. Teams would be forced to do what they do best – play rugby. The search for a game-tying try would be desperate, touchline penalties or conversions would be heartbreakingly tense.

But it would still be rugby. It would still be players playing the way they are supposed to, not being thrown in at the deep end of some ridiculous artificial shootout.

Of course, they'll never go for it, they'd say it was too radical, too gimmicky, too hard to implement. But let's not forget that we've just come through a season where one of the oldest elements of the game, the driving maul, was essentially jettisoned for the sake of 'entertainment'. So I ask you, why the hell not?


Lego x Nostalgia = Stupid Kids

Old news this may be, but I've noticed a slightly disconcerting trend. A trend that deals with something immensely close to my heart. Lego.

Now when I was a kid, lego came in brick form, if you were lucky, you maybe had a big box of bricks and shite, and then the odd pirate ship, castle, space station or if you were Pete Hayman, a petrol station...

You emptied the box all over your bedroom floor and went to town. Worlds were created, super duper, customised jet fighter/speedboat/space cruiser hybrids were built and then destroyed. It was great fun, but it was also the means by which i could be creative, learn basic engineering principles, appreciate the complexities of asthetic design vs functionality, it was a remarkably educational toy for something so enjoyable.

Try telling me K'Nex can do all that...

But over the past five or ten years, things have begun to change, with Lego teaming up with a variety of big-screen tie-ins, Spiderman, Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter and now Indiana Jones.

The biggest of these is of course the Star Wars kits, there have been literally hundreds of sets, from the tiny, to the truly massive. And I must say they are superb, brilliantly capturing the look of the sets and vehicles from the films in tremendous detail.

But what can you do with them!? You cant break them up to use for something else because a) they look so cool, b) they're so damn expensive, and c) all the parts are so specialised they wouldnt fit with anything else anyway, and as the hardcore builder knows, uniformity is key.

This isnt Lego made for kids, kids will buy this, and get bored cause you cant really do anything with it. So why when you look for the best selling Lego kits on Amazon its almost all Star Wars? The answer I'm ashamed to say, is me. I have sitting on my shelf, three lego star wars kits of fairly decent size. One was a gift from my wonderful girlfriend but the other two were symptoms of my childish obsession with all that is kitsch and nostalgic. Clearly I am not alone as Amazon shows, and was further evidenced on the occasion of the MagLab crew discovering Lego Indiana Jones. There were some very real calculations done by those present as to whether you could justify the expense of a Temple Escape Playset.

This is the problem, Lego is catering to man-children in their twenties to rake in the cash rather than continuing with it's own endeavours, gone are the pirate, space and medieval playsets of old, replaced with movie tie-ins and the hated Bionicle.

Hysterical teachers and politicians often lament the lack of creativity and imagination shown by children today and TV and Computer Games are often the percieved culprits, but if you ask me, you need only look over the water to the Denmark to see who really has corrupted our youth.

Mr Christiansen would be spinning in his grave...


IndieNewsweek, 8/2/08

So the behemoth of indie films that is Sundance has come upon us once again and as usual the hype over what will be this year’s Little Miss Sunshine has begun. The biggest cheque was handed out to the interestingly titled Hamlet 2, which was bought by Focus Features for $10 million. While the plot, which sees a high school drama teacher motivate his students by writing a sequel to the Shakespeare play, seems quirky if little ham fisted, the cast gives me some optimism. Steve Coogan hasn’t had much success translating his TV success to the big screen, Around the World in 80 Days was dismal, but when you’re essentially a device for Jackie Chan to riff off in a “zany” manner its hardly surprising. This offers much more promise, Coogan is at his best when he is essentially Alan Partridge in condensed form, and the role of eccentric but well meaning drama teacher Dana Marschz seems to suit him down to the ground, just don’t get me started on his forthcoming Eddie the Eagle biopic…

The other big news this week has been the continuing revelations about the tragic death of Heath Ledger and the impact it will have on his last unfinished work, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Paranassus. While rumours have been flying about the internet for the last week or so, it seems like we finally have word that it’s going ahead without him, making use of the footage he’s already shot as means of tribute, as you can read about in the latest issue of the mag.

While it’s a fitting tribute I can’t help but be a bit worried about how they are actually going to manage it without it feeling artificial and clumsy. Gilliam needs some success as his last few films have tanked horribly, so he’ll find himself in the awkward position of wanting to pay tribute to his dead star, but not doing so in a way that detracts from the film as a whole.

To end this week, I’d just like to wonder aloud at a worrying trend of music docs and biopics that seem to have taken over our cinemas of late. It started with Ray and Walk the Line but now seems to have ballooned out of control.

In the last few months we’ve had Dylan biopic I’m Not There and Control, the story of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis and soon we’ll have Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the Rolling Stones. As if that wasn’t enough, it was announced this week that Scorses plans to make a film about Bob Marley due to be released in 2010. But we don’t stop there, oh no, also this week Jesse Martin and Soprano’s star James Gandolfini have been lined up to star in Sexual Healing, Lauren Goodman’s biopic of the last days of Marvin Gaye. If you were reading aloud there and felt the need to pause for breath, I don’t blame you. While all of these films might be great in their own right, if you start flooding the market with anything, even independently made music pictures, then eventually we’re going to get bored of them. I mean, who wants to watch low budget atmospheric horror films anymore?

Taken from IndieNational Magazine Filmblog


Gerstmanngate - And the whole thing comes crashing down...

Advertising is the bedrock of commercial journalism. Without it our magazines wouldn't stay afloat and our internet sites would be offline in a matter of days.

But when that advertising starts to try and dictate a media outlets coverage of one of their products, you have to ask the question whether the line between PR and Journalism is being blurred to an unacceptable degree.

One of the most troubling apparent cases of this trend is the recent Jeff Gerstmann fiasco, or "Gerstmann-gate" as it has been rather predictably been monickered.

For those who don't know, Gerstmann has been a reviewer and editor for premier games website Gamespot for over ten years. Yet last week he came into work and found his office locked and his belongings residing in a box on the floor. He had been fired.

The internet being the vicious rumour mill that it is, instantly erupted into all sorts of tales of boardroom treachery and the like, yet for once, these rumours seem not to be going away.

The furore surrounds a review by Gerstmann on the site for Kane and Lynch. The review gave a rather mediocre score of 6/10 for the highly anticipated game, and in the review itself he seemed to be more scathing than the score would perhaps indicate.

Gamespot is a predominantly free reviews and previews site that relies on ad revenue to make a profit. One of the main ways they do this is to "skin" the site. Basically the whole website is decked out in frames that form one big giant ad for an upcoming game. It just so happened that last weeks skin was the aforementioned Kane & Lynch.

You can see where this is going. And its made worse by the fact that after Gerstmann had been sacked the review he had written was edited to improve the "tone" of the piece and the accompanying video interview was pulled altogether.

The word on the street was that Eidos, the publishing giant behind Kane & Lynch was furious with Gerstmann's negative tone and had threatened to pull future ad revenue. Leading the higher ups at Cnet, Gamespot's parent company to act.

Now this is all of course, hearsay. However in the past week more and more information has surfaced to make this tale seem even more suspicious.

First there was the anonymous blogger claiming to be a Gamespot insider who indicated how bad things at the site have gotten:

"Over the last year there has been an increasing amount of pressure to allow the advertising teams to have more of a say in the editorial process; we've started having to give our sales team heads-ups when a game is getting a low score, for instance, so that they can let the advertisers know that before a review goes up. Other publishers have started giving us notes involving when our reviews can go up; if a game's getting a 9 or above, it can go up early; if not, it'll have to wait until after the game is on the shelves."

This isn't just targeted advertisement, this is pure and simple propaganda. If a company wa
nts to use the editorial team to sell a product, they should do it in a clear and open way like the "promotional features" we're seeing more and more of in magazines. I don't like it, but at least they're up front about it.

The sad thing is that something like this wouldn't even be attempted in print as the powers that be would demolish them for it. The fact is that online being such an accessible and easy medium to publish on means that ad men think that if standards in journalism go down the toilet on the internet then their professional ethics can do likewise. I truly sympathise with Jonah Falcon's lament at what this fiasco is going to do to the already low regard at which online material is held, but the industry has brought it on itself.

Gamespot have remained remarkably naive on the subject, as if thinking that this is the sort of thing that will just blow over if they keep denying everything and making really rubbish excuses. Because we all know that the public are totally ok with being misled.

In the mean time the freight train looms even closer.

Rumours of mass walkouts amongst Gamespot staff abound, not helped by further revelations from our anonymous insider. "E
veryone at GS now thinks that if they give a low score to a high-profile game, they'll be shitcanned," he reveals. "Everyone's fucking scared and we're all hoping to get Josh Larson (executive editor) removed from his position because no one trusts him anymore. If that doesn't happen then look for every game to be Game of the Year material at GameSpot."

Perhaps the most vitriolic criticism has come from former Gamespot employee Adam Buchen who has called for users of the site to delete their accounts. However he seems as shocked as anyone. "I can't speak for other publications, but that's NEVER, EVER before been the modus operandi of GameSpot's editorial department," he claims. "If it was, then why would Jeff be so freaking obstinate about it? You'd have to imagine that people would be getting fired left and right! But no, they don't."

Maybe this is a one off, maybe someone pushed a bit too hard and they're getting the comeuppance they deserve. I'll leave the final word to Gamepolitics: "If the highly detailed rumors surrounding Jeff Gerstmann’s firing are true, then the people who run GameSpot have, by their own hand, utterly trashed a great media brand."

Yeah. Nice one.


Two million coaches and every one a cynic...

It is often said that Wales is a nation of two million coaches, and that every single one of them has a different opinion on how the Welsh rugby team should be managed. But a strange thing seems to be happening at the moment, everyone seems to agree. Agree that we're crap.

But I thought we were alright...

I'm not one of these blinkered rugby fans who think no matter what glaring reality is staring me in the face, everything will be fine and my team will win everything. In fact, I'm a complete and utter pessimist of the highest order.

On the day we won the Grand Slam I sat with 3 minutes left in the game, 12 points up, shitting myself. I was completely and utterly convinced that somehow, we would concede two tries in quick succession and that would be it. Of course it wasn't and I became quite the optimistic for the next ten months, that is until them over the bridge brought me down with a catastrophic bump.

But against South Africa all in all, it wasn't too bad.

Yes there were problems, oh good Lord there were. We lacked a dynamic ball carrying back row player, we lacked a cutting edge on attack, and the defence, well, lets not make things any worse.

Yet the Welsh press have leaped on these negatives bemoaning how screwed we are. It's almost as if they have forgotten that we've only beaten the Saffers once in our 102 year test history. Forgotten that they won a certain big game in Paris last month, on the back of a withering defence and clinical attack. Forgetting also that they had not one IRB World Player of the Year in their starting XV, but two.

All in all. I thought we were going to get nilled, and they'd probably put a half century on us too. Anyone who actually bought into the pre-match media optimism was either ignorant or stupid. Cynics say that after the first half the Springboks sat back and let us bounce off their watertight defence. Granted, they definitely did, but that's what good teams do when they have a comfortable lead, especially when your defence is as good as South Africa's is.

We scored two tries against the best team in the world, who have the most impressive and physical defence I have ever seen and there's something to be said in that. I dare say we would have scored a few more had Shane Williams and Lee Byrne not withdrawn late and James Hook suddenly not reverted to his shaky summer tour kicking game.

So it wasn't all bad. But where to now?

The future is obviously Black, the Black of the Ospreys. Not wishing to sound ridiculously partisan, but due to our ridiculous summer spending spree a great deal of our young talent can be found in 'Ospreylia':

Mike Phillips is the future Wales 9 and anyone who thinks he isn't has been reaching for a biscuit every time Dwayne Peel has held the ball in the last 12 months.

James Hook is the man at 10. For the next year or so, Stephen Jones will probably win us more games, but talents like Hook come along once in a Gareth Edwards length lifetime...

Gavin Henson, welcome back. Please check your ego at the door this time.

Alun-Wyn Jones - Will captain Wales, for a long time, on the way to being recognised as the best lock to ever wear the three feathers.

Frankly I could go on, but I won't. The point I'm making is that we are not in an England position, we are not having to mourn the loss of our 'Golden Generation'

We constantly think our players are nothing special and that it must be this new coach, or that new coach that occasionally, momentously elevates us to a higher level. But anyone who thinks that needs to look at where Worcester are with such dynamic leadership.

The fact of the matter is, Wales has always and hopefully will always produce great talent. Chatting with Ponty legend Dale McIntosh the other day, he was keen to impress on me how much talent there is in the young players coming through at all age levels, and that in terms of skill we have something really exciting to look forward to.

So lets stop mourning our World Cup misery and for crying out loud let's stop obsessing about losing on Saturday. It was only the 'Prince William Cup' and frankly we all know where his loyalties lie...

The talent will always be there, and short of a rather large Martyn Williams shaped hole for the next few years we aren't in bad shape. We have the talent, we hopefully have the coach, what we need is patience to allow the side to grow and develop.

Until then? Well there's always YouTube...

"If the greatest writer of the written word..." Yeah. Exactly.


Gaming for grownups?

I like video games. A lot.

I always have and hopefully I always will. I will talk about them, watch programmes about them, I'll damn sure read (and hopefully work for!) magazines about them, but I'll tell you what, I hardly play them any more...

Last year I had a grand total of 6 whole hours of lectures. They were so much fun, I actually went to about two thirds of those in any given week, sometimes less.

Now this meant that two things happened. Firstly I became immensely apathetic and lazy, and secondly it meant I had all the time in the world to game to my hearts content.

Half Life, Counterstrike, Company of Heroes, Madden, Pro Evo, Supreme Commander, Battlefield 2142, Zelda, Mario, I literally bought a game a fortnight and merrily worked my way through them and still had time to have a girlfriend and a social life.

And then came the post-grad. Don't get me wrong in spite of several reservations I love this course, writing is my fourth favourite thing in the universe and there was no way I would be doing anything else (in spite of what I might say when stuck in uni till 5pm on a Friday evening...ahem...) but it causes a problem.

What it means is that I now have a tiny window of free time every day which I have to really manage to make the most of. Now I love my lovely ladyfriend and I want to spend time with her, and I like at least half of my friends and want to spend time with them, I also like to write inane gobshite on the internet... as you can see.

What this doesn't leave much time for is gaming. This is where I think gaming foolishly gets it's tag as being childish, immature, or only for geeks, losers and the mentally ill. People with lives do not have time for gaming. Since September I have played Madden through half a regular season with the Bucs, last year, I had already completed every game mode and won the Superbowl 5 times by October.

No game better illustrates this than Bioshock. I upgraded my PC purely for the pleasure of playing a game that looks this darn pretty.

I ended up shelling out a fair chunk of my playscheme wages on upgrading and yet more for for the game. And it is brilliant. Not just good, great, or even excellent, but brilliant. I am fairly sure I have never played anything like it before and it may be a good while until I do again, it redefines my opinions of how the medium can tell a superbly crafted story, combined with stunning, atmospheric game play. It is, and I do not throw this term around, genius.

And yet I have played it for roughly two hours, perhaps a fifth of this magnificent opus. This isn't because it is too hard or I don't really like, but because a game like this cannot be enjoyed in half an hour bursts like Pro Evo or Tiger Woods. You need to sit with it for a week and become immersed in the story as you would a good book or gripping tv series. And that is why I can't play games like this any more, I don't have the time to give them the credit they deserve.

This makes me sad, I know I'm missing out on a lot, and maybe as time goes on I can manage my time well enough that I can come back to them. Until then, I completely understand why only kids and bums play games and until the industry can do something to change the way they work, it will always be that way. The Wii is a start but it's still not really hitting the right notes. Gaming bank holiday anyone?


Yids for the Championship anyone?

Having just wasted 90 minutes of my life watching Spurs just about managing to beat Hapoel Tel-Aviv I have firmly concluded that it was actually the worst game of football since last years completely abysmal FA Cup final. And that was really, really bad.

On paper it looks like a comfortable result for Spurs but it wasn't, it was a dull boring match with exactly 57 seconds of interesting play and the rest of it soul sapping, mind numbing rubbish.

Spurs scored two goals from the exact same play and then spent the remaining 89 minutes showing everyone just how poor a team they are.

No disrespect to Hapoel Tel-Aviv, but they are shit. And I do not say that lightly. In UEFA ranking terms Hapoel are a whopping 127th, below powerhouses such as Grasshoppers Zurich, Hearts and even the mighty Millwall.

Spurs on the other hand are ranked 55th, not exactly high flyers either but a gulf this big should mean that Spurs should be metaphorically shitting on them from a great height. You can say that Spurs have had a shocking start to the season but Hapoel have too, so much so that their manager will be out the door on Sunday if they lose and he seems to wish they didn't have to play in Europe anymore...

But instead of dominance, for the first hour of the game we had complete and utter ineptitude. They looked panicked in midfield, hurriedly shooting off half-arsed passes as soon as they were put under the tiniest bit of pressure. As for defence the makeshift assemblage which had Chimbonda at centre-back, looked as if it was going to break under the slightest pressure, if not for Hapoel's complete lack of adventure and one uncharacteristically fine save from Paul Robinson, they would have bagged at least one.

After an hour though, things somehow, got worse. Gal Shish was dismissed for a second booking and it seemed like Spurs might actually make the win look impressive, but no. Within ten minutes Robbie Keane, the only player who seemed to care, was off, and double goal provider Malbranque followed soon after.

Spurs played most of the second half with a man advantage, with three strikers on the pitch, and somehow the keeper had less to do than vegetarian in a butchers shop.

They were woeful, inept and at many times painful to watch, especially as Berbatov seemed to be genuinely trying to get sent off. What has happened? Spurs last season would have pounced on an opportunity like that to put five goals past them in style!

The problem, as Pete, Andy and I discussed in the pub, was heart. It's not that the players don't care about the team, or about winning, they're professional sportsmen and want to perform to the best of their ability. Even Berbatov seemed to care, despite the rumours that he is so lazy and malcontent at Spurs this season that heartfelt pleas of loyalty are required to try and convince the fans that he's not off in January.

Several times Berbatov shrugged with a look of "what the hell was that" when yet another pass went astray. But that was all he did and that, is the problem.

When a team are struggling with form, as Spurs clearly are, you need fire, you need leaders to step up on the pitch and make a point that you need to pull your finger out. No one on that field in Israel was prepared to do that, when Robbie Keane went off, the captain's armband went to Paul Robinson. Paul Robinson?! That says a lot about the mentality in the White Hart Lane dressing room.

Great teams have players that are never satisfied, even when all is well they are screaming, shouting, extolling and berating their team mates to sharpen things up, to push up to the next level, to make the team better.

Man United are brilliant at getting players like that. Roy Keane used to look thoroughly annoyed even when they were 3-0 up and when they were down or playing badly he would become positively psychotic. They have similar players now in Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and others who are shouting at their team mates non-stop from start to finish, embarrassing them into not becoming complacent.

Without such players, teams get sloppy, teams get comfortable, and then you start wondering why that top four finish you were targeting has turned into a relegation battle. Spurs don't have a big, angry personality to keep them in line, even the new coach seems positively taciturn no matter what is going on, and that does not bode well for Spurs this year.

But I don't really think that the Yid Army will be enjoying away days at Ninian Park next year, the sheer amount of quality in their attacking line-up combined with how poor Derby, Bolton and others are playing this year gives me hope, but that won't solve the problem. Mild mannered, aloof players with fantastic ability are great when you're winning but useless when your losing, who will stand up and fight for Spurs?