Staff Writer Eagles, Rockets set to play for the division’s top spot Middletown North keeps rolling along This Friday night, the chase for the Shore Conference’s Federal Division championship faces its most important juncture, when the division’s last two undefeated teams square off at the “Swamp” at Middletown High School South. The host Eagles sit atop the competitive division at 4-0 after getting by Ocean 13-0 Friday in Middletown. Eagles’ QB Brandon Kennedy led the way once again, rushing for 199 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries as the Eagles avenged a loss to the Spartans in last year’s CJ Group III playoffs. The Eagle defense continued its impressive play, holding the 1-3 Spartans to just 138 total yards, allowing the South crowd to revel in another dominant effort. But the South faithful know full well what’s looming this weekend, when the undefeated Raritan Rockets come to town. The idle Rockets had a week off to prepare for this key divisional matchup, pitting the top two team against each other in what could decide the division championship. Raritan has been licking its chops at this game after surprising Long Branch two weeks ago, and should be ready to attempt another upset against the No. 3 Eagles. But beating a Long Branch team without its top player (injured QB/linebacker Berkeley Hutchinson) and toppling the mighty Eagles on their legendary home field are two very different tasks. In recent years, the Eagles have been virtually unbeatable at the “Swamp,” especially in games of great significance. If first-year coach Derek Sininsky’s Rockets escape with a win this week, people will have to begin to believe that this Raritan team is a legitimate contender come state playoff time. Game time on Friday is 7 p.m. Elsewhere in local action, the Shore Constitution-leading Middletown North Lions will be back in action at Neptune, after getting by Central Regional 13-6. Once again it was junior tailback Billy Lyons leading the way (23 carries for 158 yards, two touchdowns), as the fifth-ranked Lions remained undefeated. Lyons has been the workhorse for North once again and continues to lead his team to victory. A win this Saturday at Neptune would put the Lions in great shape in the division race with an important matchup with second-place Lacey looming ahead the following week. The St. John Vianney Lancers will also be back in action this Friday, as they face Monsignor Donovan, fresh off their 27-7 domination of Red Bank Catholic. The Lancers capitalized on six RBC turnovers on Friday as QB Kyle Williams threw for three touchdowns to lead Vianney to its second win of the year. Vianney is now in the middle of the pack of the Shore Liberty Division, trailing undefeated Manasquan and Wall (both 4-0), and Point Boro (3-1). Game time in Toms River is 7 p.m. As for the Keyport Red Raiders, their chances for another Shore National Division title took a severe hit on Saturday as they fell to the surprising Garnet Gulls of Point Pleasant Beach, 14-6. The game, which began on Friday but was suspended until Saturday due to lightning, saw the Red Raiders struggle to get anything going offensively, as the Point Beach defense hung on for the win. The loss dropped Keyport to 2-2, entering the Red Raiders bye week this week. The Holmdel Hornets played to similar results on Saturday, dropping a 13-10 game to an improved Rumson-Fair Haven squad. The Hornets fell to 1-2 entering this Friday night’s game with 2-2 Shore Regional. Game time is 7 p.m. As for Rumson, they will travel to Mater Dei to face the 0-3 Seraphs, who had a bye this week. Game time is 1:30 p.m. The Matawan Huskies also fell this week, dropping a 21-20 heartbreaker to Long Branch on Saturday when the Green Wave defense stopped fullback Tom Corley on a two-point conversion attempt in overtime. Tailback Kevin Davis was brilliant once again for the Huskies, racing for 155 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries, including an overtime TD which got the Huskies within one. But when the PAT failed, the Huskies dropped to 2-2. Matawan will look to bounce back when they host 0-4 Manchester on Saturday. Game time is 1:30 p.m. By doug mckenzie
The Monmouth Power Sports Club (MPSC) is holding its fifth annual Slam Fest Basketball Tournament from April 28-May 4 in the Monmouth County area. Cost per team is $350 for a three-game guarantee. The club will hold its fifth annual Peak Performance Seminar April 8 at Marlboro High School at 7:30 p.m. This free seminar will focus and discuss the following: goal setting, supplement and steroid abuse, tobacco, weight training, physical therapy, chiropractic care, and sports profiles. The MPSC golf tournament will be held at the Miry Run Country Club April 6 and will benefit the new cancer center at CentraState Medical Center. The cost is $150 per golfer and includes greens fees, cart fees and a barbecue. For more information, call (732) 833-5020, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY WARREN RAPPLEYEAStaff Writer With five wins in its first six matches, the Raritan High School wrestling team appears to be well on its way to bettering last winter’s 15-7 mark. Coach Ron Nucci’s team is also 3-0 in division play, having defeated Holmdel, St. John Vianney and Manasquan, as the Rockets look to defend their Shore Conference Class A Central title. Raritan’s other triumphs came in nonconference matches against Middletown North and Toms River South. Their lone loss came against powerful Jackson in a nonconference match. Raritan opened the campaign with a fourth-place finish at the Richmond Invitational Tournament in Virginia. While Nucci termed last season successful, the team fell short of the 20-4 mark it compiled in 2003-04, when Raritan upset Delaware Valley to reach the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II finals. “We’re getting back to where we want to be,” the fifth-year coach said. “Our guys are all working very hard and pushing each other, while also supporting each other, and everything seems to be clicking. Our goal is to get back to where we were two years ago and make our presence felt in CJ Group II.” The Rockets have several key veterans back, including District 22 champions T.J. Mitchell (119 pounds) and Jeff King (HW). Mitchell, a junior and a two-time District 22 titlist, is currently 13-1, while King owns a 12-1 mark, after posting 22 wins a year ago. Raritan’s other top competitors include junior Kevin Moore (125), 11-5; sophomores Bill Voutsinas (120),10-2, and Bob Kolb (135), 9-5; and freshman Dan Seidenberg (140), 15-0, who won his weight class at the recent Manchester Hawk Tournament. Nucci’s team has had to do without junior Dave Seidenberg (135), a 20-match winner last year who suffered an ankle injury in the Richmond Invitational and has been out ever since, while Bryant, 1-0, who won 25 times last season, has been out with a knee injury. Both grapplers are expected to return to the lineup later this week. “Getting them both back will give us a boost,” Nucci said. “We’re heading into the heart of our schedule, so the timing couldn’t be better. They’re quality guys and I know they’ll put some wins on the board for us.” Kolb, who has filled in admirably in the absence of Dave Seidenberg at 135 pounds, will remain in the lineup, but Nucci said he will likely move to another weight class. Other members of the Raritan team include seniors Kevin Gilgannon (160), 5-7, Anthony Kinzel (171), 7-7, and Jim Curry (189), 8-6; junior Greg Alexander (103), 4-7; sophomore Dan Bilowus (152), 4-3; and freshmen Cody Mooney (112), 5-5, and Marcus Mandeville (145), 4-5. Nucci also noted that little things can mean a lot for a successful team. This season the Rockets have access to an all-purpose room that enables them to begin practice sessions right after school and end them earlier, whereas practices began at 4:30 p.m. a year ago. In addition, the influx of talented young wrestlers like Dan Seidenberg, Mooney, Mandeville and Voutsinas has been a boon to the program. “Because of young guys like them, our program has been improving every year,” Nucci explained. “Our recreation wrestling program is now up and running and it’s turning out quality competitors. It’s a big help when guys come into the program already knowing technique.” The Rockets are back in action this afternoon at Holmdel and are slated to visit Long Branch on Saturday. BY WARREN RAPPLEYEA Staff Writer
Kum Sung Martial Arts held its 45th semiannual Championship Tournament in Toms River on May 5. Winning the grand championship in the Black Belt division was assistant instructor Robert Romanski, and winning the super grand championship in Black Belt division was Peter Kanyuk, both from Middletown Master Coyne Kum Sung Karate. Competition includes Kata, weapons, sparring, breaking, seirum and other special events. Kum Sung Schools from Middletown, Toms River, Brick, Howell, Belmar, Forked River, Cape May, Sommerset and Tennesse competed. The students demonstrated their ability to perform in front of others, to have self-control, confidence, to focus and also to have fun. Competitors from Middletown Master Coyne Kum Sung Karate (everyone who competed placed in events) were Robert Romanski, Peter Kanyuk, Ryan Sydor, Hayley Connelly, Alyssa Torres, Justin Lautenburg, Chuck McGrath, Thomas Pinnola, Frankie Pinnola, Jake Quinn, Andrew Cornelio, Jack Healey, Thomas Ashmore, Sean McCann, Orgil Pount, Nicholas Fanzini, Valencia Vitale, Jack Mandato, Boris Onufriyev, Melissa Edgar, Noah Scalzo, Michael LaRocca, Brandon Puiu, Ian McKillip, Jacqueline Veress, Michael Veress and Jonathan Hatter. The Middletown Summer Basketball League, for players currently in grades three and four, five and six, seven and eight and nine through 12, will be played at various outdoor parks located in Middletown. The registration fee is $550 per team, with a maximum of 12 players per team. Shirts, officials’ fees, and insurance are included. There is a 10-game league scheduled beginning in mid-June and continuing until the beginning of August. All AAU, recreation, school teams, and Mid-Monmouth teams are welcome. Games include IAABO-certified high school officials. Visit the Web site at www.leaguelineup.com/msbl07748 for more details, register online, e-mail email@example.com or call (732) 513-0813. The Fair Haven Track Club hosted the 2006 Greater Red Bank District Hershey Track and Field Championships for ages 9-14. Athletes from nine area towns competed, with the champion in each event advancing to the Hershey N.J. State Championships to be held at Franklin Middle School on Saturday. Performances of the winners at the state championship meet will be compared with other state winners in the region to determine qualifiers for the Hershey national championships to be held the first week of August in Hershey, Pa. The local qualifiers (by town) were: Hazlet – girls ages 11 and 12, Kendall Baldwin (standing long jump). Hazlet United’s U12 Force concluded its MOSA spring season with an emphatic 6-1 victory when the squad overwhelmed the Staten Island Nitros under the lights of the Ticetown Soccer Complex in Old Bridge. In their previous meeting, the teams had played to a hard-hitting 1-1 tie, but it was the intention of the Force to end the season with a win. Hazlet had already clinched the division title, but a loss for the Nitros would drop them a division next season, so there was a lot at stake for the Staten Island team. Hazlet scored in the first two minutes of the game and netted its second goal at 14 minutes. A penalty was called on the Nitros at 22 minutes, and the Force responded to the free with their third goal, a low and tight shot to the corner of the net. At the half, the Hazlet Force led 3-0. The second half was played with the same determination, and Hazlet scored once again in the 10th minute of play. The Nitros responded with a goal of their own at 16 minutes, but the Force weren’t finished, and nailed another direct moments later. The final goal of the game would also belong to the Hazlet squad with less than a minute left to play, bringing the Hazlet Force a well-deserved 6-1 victory. The Force’s season finale brings their record to 8-1-1, scoring a total of 30 goals with only seven having been scored against them. The U12 Hazlet Force MOSA National 4 Division Champions are Dave Alfano, Justin Bivians, Pat Conway, Tyler Eltringham, Brett Hilliard, Nick Ligouri, Danny O’Sullivan, Mike Parleman, Kyle Prata, Troy Prata, Dylan Quinn, Bryan Snyder, Raymond Supple and Scott Wilson. The Force players are coached by Mark Bivians, who is assisted by John O’Sullivan. The Aberdeen/Matawan girls fall softball league is now accepting applications for girls in grades four through 12 as of September. Registration fee is $50. For more information, call Jim at (732) 290-9576 or visit www.leaguelineup.com/amyaa. Holmdel Stallions boys travel soccer team is looking for players for the fall U15 season. Please contact Dave at (732) 946-0596 for more information. The Hazlet Sting U8 boys travel soccer team finished out their team’s first year together on a high note as they won their final clash by defeating the Sayreville Bombers at the 2006 Sayreville Summer Classic tournament held at the Sayreville Soccer Complex last weekend. The extreme heat forced a team to withdraw from the tourney, leaving only the Sting and their Sayreville hosts to compete in their designated U8 boys travel flight. In the absence of their head coach Ralph Troisi and two of their players, Alan Troisi and Russell VanCleve (due to prior commitments), it was up to the Sting’s assistant coaches Bob Edwards and Pete Miragliotta to lead the team in pursuit of their final victory of the season. Playing with only two subs, the Sting scored the lone goal of the game in the first half, which was enough to award them a 1-0 shutout over the Bombers in the closely contested match. The Sting’s offense and defense, both determined and well-conditioned, proved once again they were up to the challenge, which resulted in their final U8 victory of the year. Hazlet’s goalkeeper Resul Abas was awarded MVP for his superior performance in the net. The Hazlet players and their families are grateful to the HUSA Sting coaching staff for their dedication and commitment to the team throughout their inaugural year. Come fall, the Hazlet Sting look forward to competing at the U9 level of the MNJYSA (Mid New Jersey Youth Soccer Association). The 2006 Sayreville Summer Classic U8 Hazlet Sting Resul Abas, Jake Capichana, Adam Chang, Brian Edwards, Jacob Hiban, Joey Koempel, Andres Medina, Chris Medina, Joe Miragliotta and Barry O’Sullivan.
St. John Vianney’s Katie O’Reilly tosses up a shot in the lane over Rumson-Fair Haven defenders during the A Central Division game in Holmdel on Jan. 6. The Lancers staged a fourth-quarter comeback and beat the Bulldogs in overtime, 54-47, to remain undefeated. ERIC SUCAR staff St. John Vianney High School had 5.2 seconds and the length of the court to go if they were going to avoid a defeat against rival Rumson-Fair Haven.Two clutch free throws by RFH’s Ashley Cooper had given the Bulldogs a 47-45 lead with 5.2 seconds left in the Jan. 6 game in Holmdel between a pair of undefeated teams.For the final play of the game, the Lancers put the hall into the hands of senior point guard Jackie Kates, and she delivered, breaking the hearts of the Bulldogs, who had played so splendidly all game and seemed poised to pull off the upset.Kates would dribble the length of the floor and put up a layup that hung on the rim momentarily before it dropped through the cylinder as the buzzer went off. The game was moving to overtime, and the Lancers had all the momentum, having overcome a six-point deficit in the final 1:16. They would hold the Bulldogs scoreless in the four-minute overtime and pull off the great escape, 54-47. St. John Vianney’s Jaclyn Gallagher (bottom) dives for a loose ball in front of Rumson-Fair Haven’s Nicole Isaacs (top) during the Jan. 6 A Central Division game played in Holmdel. SJV remained undefeated, pulling out a 54-47 overtime victory. ERIC SUCAR staff On the final play of regulation, Kates said all she was thinking about was taking the ball to the basket.“It was the end of the game, there was nothing to do but go to the basket,” she said, adding that when she saw a Rumson defender sliding over to defend Lancer teammateAngela Esposito in the corner, “I knew the layup was going to be there.”Bulldog head coach George Sourlis said Kates’ play showed what she is all about.“She made a great play,” said Sourlis. “She showed why she’s a great player. We talked about defending her, but she slithered through and made a great shot.” After Kates’ basket gave the Lancers a second life, they took full advantage of it, holding the Bulldogs scoreless.Kates admitted that the Lancers had to draw upon all of their championship experience to pull this victory out.“We got together and said, ‘We can do this,’ ” she pointed out. “We were down six [45-39], and it was a matter of what can we do from here. We had to forget about the past mistakes.”What the Lancers did was get a field goal from Esposito that made it 45-41. The Bulldogs were called for a five-second violation under the Lancer basket, and St. John Vianney got the ball right back. Kates drove to the hole and passed the ball to Missy Repoli, who swished a three-pointer from the corner, and just like that it was 45-44 with 53 seconds left.SJV got the ball back with 36 seconds left, and Aaron Zimmerman was fouled on her shot attempt. She made the second of her two shots to tie the game at 45-45.Cooper, outstanding for the Bulldogs all game, drove hard to the basket and was fouled with 5.2 seconds left. She made both free throws, with neither touching iron, and Rumson had what looked like the winning points. That is, before Kates went coast-tocoast and delivered a crushing blow to the Bulldogs.Sourlis was more than pleased with the game his team played but bemoaned the fact that the Bulldogs had left the door open by missing free throws late.“I thought we played a great game,” he said. “To beat the champs on their floor, you have to do all the little things. We missed two front ends of one-and-ones [in the final 1:20]. We pride ourselves on our foul shooting.” Cooper led all scorers with 20 for the Bulldogs, and teammate Nicole Isaacs had 13. Rumson fell to 7-1 in the loss.Kates led SJV with 17. Katie O’Reilly had 16 points and Repoli had 10. The Lancers improved to 7-0 with the A Central Division victory.For SJV’s four seniors — Kates, Repoli, Zimmerman and O’Reilly — the win was another example of what championship experience can do for a team. They have been together for four years, have won a Tournament of Champions title and went to a second TOC final last year. They know pressure and how to respond.“We trust each other,” said Kates. “We have a special bond. We know where we’re going to be on the floor instinctively. We have something special.” Rumson brought out that something special in the Lancers, and the good news for basketball fans is that these two outstanding teams will see each other again on Jan. 31 in Rumson (5:30 p.m.) for the second of their A Central Division match-ups. Defeating Rumson in overtime BY TIM MORRIS Staff Writer
Chelsea substitute Demba Ba struck a dramatic late goal to seal a 2-0 home victory over Paris St Germain and a place in the Champions League semi-finals on the away goals rule on Tuesday.PSG were heading for a first appearance in the last four since 1995 when Ba bundled in a loose ball after 87 minutes to clinch the tie, which ended 3-3 on aggregate.Chelsea went ahead in a tense end-to-end battle at Stamford Bridge with a superbly-taken goal from substitute Andre Schuerrle after 32 minutes and they also hit the bar twice in two minutes early in the second half.PSG, who won the first leg 3-1, dominated early on and Edinson Cavani missed two good chances in the closing stages which added to the almost unbearable tension on the night.Chelsea, despite losing playmaker Eden Hazard to injury after 17 minutes when Schuerrle came on, finished strongly and were worthy winners on another memorable European night in west London.In the night’s other match, lacklustre Real Madrid edged past Borussia Dortmund 3-2 on aggregate after slumping to a 2-0 defeat on Tuesday to advance to the Champions League semi-finals and stay on track for their tenth crown.Two first half goals by Marco Reus, both coming from Real mistakes, gave Dortmund a deserved lead as the Spaniards, who had a penalty saved in the 17th minute, were left mesmerised by the Germans’ frantic pace.Real, with top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo left on the bench due a minor knee injury, saw their 3-0 advantage from the first leg in Madrid almost evaporate in a disastrous first half for them.Real, who twice lost to Dortmund in Germany in last season’s competition including a 4-1 thrashing in the first leg of their semi-final, briefly recovered in the second half before the Germans, last season’s runners-up, again surged forward, missing half a dozen clear scoring chances and also hitting the post.
By Tim CollingsTriple European champions Manchester United and their under-fire coach Louis van Gaal face a tricky task against little-known Midtjylland in the last 32 of the Europa League following Monday’s draw.United, knocked out of the Champions League last week, meet the Danish league winners, an unsung club backed by owner Matthew Benham who are in their maiden European campaign and eliminated Southampton earlier in the competition.Midtjylland’s pony-tailed chairman Rasmus Ankersen, appointed by former financier and professional gambler Benham, who also owns English second-tier club Brentford, issued a warning after the draw.“We have already beaten one English team so we are not afraid,” said Ankersen. “We are a small club with a small budget and we know we can’t outspend them so we have to out-think them and, so far, this way has worked for us in the Europa League.“We know we have a chance and we will take up the challenge. If we can beat Southampton we can beat Manchester United and the players will feel that and believe it.”Midtjylland have adopted the use of mathematical modelling and key performance indicators in their management and style of play, factors Van Gaal will need to study after a probable call to fellow Dutchman and Southampton manager Ronald Koeman.Van Gaal has received a lot of criticism following his team’s Champions League exit and their 2-1 defeat by promoted Bournemouth in the Premier League on Saturday.In other eye-catching ties Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp returns to Germany to face Augsburg, another club in their maiden European campaign, while Sevilla, bidding for a hat-trick of Europa League titles, meet Norwegian team Molde.Former Champions League winners Borussia Dortmund and Porto also lock horns while Olympique de Marseille take on Athletic Bilbao, Anderlecht play Olympiakos Piraeus, Shakhtar Donetsk face Schalke 04 and Lazio meet Galatasaray.The first legs will be played on Feb. 18 and the return matches seven days later.Europa League Last 32 draw:Fiorentina v TottenhamMidtjylland v Man UnitedAugsburg v LiverpoolValencia v Rapid ViennaBorussia Dortmund v PortoFenerbahce v Lokomotiv MoscowAnderlecht v OlympiakosSparta Prague v KrasnodarGalatasaray v LazioSion v BragaShakhtar Donetsk v SchalkeMarseille v Athletic BilbaoSevilla v MoldeSporting Lisbon v Bayer LeverkusenVillarreal v NapoliSaint-Etienne v Basel
By Iacovos ConstantinouAPOLLON v Omonia in Limassol is the standout game of the 19th round of the Cyprus football championship this weekend. Elsewhere, leaders AEK are at home to AEL while bottom of the table Ayia Napa entertain second-placed Anorthosis. Following their unexpected defeat against Ethnikos last Monday, Apollon will be looking to put their championship charge back on track against much improved Omonia.Papoulis is a major doubt for the game as he picked up an injury during a training session and with Guie’s absence a certainty, Apollon coach Pedro Emmanuel may have to rejig his forward line even more.Omonia are enjoying a purple patch with four wins and a draw in their last five games. A win over Apollon will see them leapfrog their opponents into fourth place, a position they have not held since the early stages of the season.There are no injury concerns for the visitors who will be hoping that 38-year-old Nuno Assis will continue to impress with his virtuoso displays.Leaders AEK are up against AEL in what appears, on paper at least, to be an easy game for the Larnaca team. Their opponents are languishing in 11th place, having scored just ten goals.However they will be without the suspended duo of Tomas and Boljevic, both so influential in the middle of the park for AEK.Laban is expected to get a recall to the starting line-up while the other position may go to recent signing Rosa.Goal-shy AEL, precariously close to the relegation zone, will be hoping that their new signings of Stepanovic and Piech will give them some more cutting edge up front. Soares is expected to drop back into defence to replace the suspended Adrande.Second-placed Anorthosis will be favourites for their clash against Ayia Napa but they will need to improve irrespective of the position of their opponents.Seven points separate bottom of the league Ayia Napa with Paphos just above them, but their coach Kosmas said that his players will battle for survival until the very end, something that Anorthosis should not dismiss.APOEL seem to have bounced back from their surprise defeat to Doxa a couple of weeks ago with a couple of comfortable wins in the league and cup.With winter signings Gianniotas and Milanov slotting easily into the team and with an injury list dwindling, the home side should have few problems in overcoming Enosis.The visitors will be without the suspended trio of Budimir, van Ransbeeck and Bouwman, players that most often than not are in the starting line-up. Winter signing Santini is expected to make his debut in goal.The two other weekend games involve four mid-table teams that are separated by just three points.The pleasant surprise of the season so far Doxa travel to Limassol to face Aris while Ermis are at home to Ethnikos Achnas.The final game of the round takes place on Monday between struggling Paphos and sixth-placed Nea Salamina.Saturday: Apollon v Omonia (17.00), Ayia Napa v Anorthosis (18.00), AEK v AEL (19.00)Sunday: Ermis v Ethnikos Achnas (16.00), Aris v Doxa (17.00), APOEL v Enosis (18.00)Monday: Paphos FC v Nea Salamina (19.00)
ENGLISH rugby’s shot at redemption under new Australian coach Eddie Jones and fiery captain Dylan Hartley begins against Scotland in the cauldron of Murrayfield on Saturday (6.50pm) in a Six Nations melting pot of teams looking to erase memories of World Cup disappointment.Though England’s memories of last year’s global showpiece are arguably the most bitter, having become the first hosts to be eliminated at the pool stage, the quarter-finals were as good as it got for Ireland, Wales, France and Scotland in a tournament dominated by southern hemisphere teams.England are not the only team to signal a changing of the guard, with Ireland handing the captaincy to Rory Best after the retirement of talisman Paul O’Connell, while France emerge under a new coach, Guy Noves, and a new captain in Guilhem Guirado.Bookmakers have made England favourites, ahead of Wales and Ireland, despite winning only one Six Nations title since 2003.Straight-talking Jones takes the English reins with a reputation as a ruthless and demanding coach, who fullback Mike Brown says will want England “to play quick, never let the opposition defence settle, get the ball to space and go at teams”.Jones’ attention to detail is meticulous, evidenced by the way his well-drilled Japan side ruffled more than a few feathers at the World Cup.After calling up seven uncapped players in his initial squad, Jones has played it safe by naming a relatively conservative team for his first match, with all eyes on recalled hooker Hartley, whose career has been plagued by disciplinary problems.Joe Schmidt’s Ireland have their own demons to exorcise despite having won the past two Six Nations championships.Fancied to reach the World Cup semi-finals for the first time, the Irish were crushed by Argentina in the last eight and are now hampered by a number of injuries, though flyhalf Jonny Sexton has been passed fit after concussion concerns.Coach Schmidt believes his side face a huge test on Sunday against a hugely experienced Wales line-up (5pm).“They comfortably have 300 caps more than any other country in the competition; and on top of that, we know how physically combative they are,” Schmidt said.“The stats from the World Cup show that they are, literally, the biggest team in world rugby, averaging 106 kilos a man. For us, that’s always a massive challenge.”Wales emerged from the World Cup with huge credit after their injury-ravaged squad beat England en route to the quarter-finals, where they succumbed to a late South African try at Twickenham.Fullback Leigh Halfpenny and scrumhalf Rhys Webb have not recovered from the injuries that ruled them out of the entire tournament, but Wales’ strength in depth should not be underestimated.France, like England, begin a new era under veteran coach Noves, who has replaced Phillipe St Andre and is charged with restoring some panache to the French game after a dreary run of shapeless performances.An opening win over Italy at home on Saturday (4.25pm) will be a must for Noves, who guided French club side Toulouse to four European Cup triumphs.For Scotland, hope springs eternal.With only one win in their past dozen Six Nations matches, they begin again with renewed optimism after coming desperately close to reaching the World Cup semi-finals, denied by a controversial last-gasp Australian penalty.
New Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has no intention of ditching the methods that brought him success in Spain and Germany and wants to prove it is possible to win in the Premier League by playing attractive football.Guardiola won two Champions League trophies, three La Liga titles and two King’s Cup crowns as Barcelona coach before two domestic doubles followed at Bayern Munich.He took over at City from Manuel Pellegrini, who guided the club to one Premier League title and two (Capital One) League Cups in his three years in charge.“I have no preconceptions at all about coming to England or the football in the Premier League. I want to learn as much as possible,” he said in an interview on CityTV.“I have an idea of how we will play, but when I arrived in Germany with Bayern Munich, I had some ideas of how the team would play but changed them as I went along.“I know how hard the Premier League is and some people have said that I will find it hard to play the football I like to play in England, so I said to myself, ‘Why not?’ That’s why I’m here – because I want to try,’” he added.Guardiola will take his first training session on Monday as he prepares for his City debut against Bayern on July 20 at the Allianz Arena before taking his new squad to Asia for their pre-season tour and he was fully aware of the task ahead of him.“We have to find a way to win and if we win one game, the next week we will say, ‘OK, let’s try and do the same things this week’ – and if we win again, we’ll say, ‘let’s do the things that won us those two games’ and so on,” he said.“I’ve been told it will be hard to do that in the Premier League but we did it at Barcelona and Bayern Munich and people may say, ‘Yes, that’s because it was Barcelona and Bayern – it won’t be possible to do that in England’ and I just say OK, let’s try.”Guardiola was presented to about 7,000 City fans on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium where he conducted a question and answer session and was asked if he would sign Lionel Messi.The Spaniard replied: “He’s not a bad player this guy. Messi has to stay in Barcelona for the rest of his career.”