Saturday, 19 November 2022

Advance Australia's Pair

A day before the football World Cup kicks off atop the graves of thousands of migrant workers killed building the stadia for it in Qatar, the Australian men's and women's teams both lifted the top prize in a double header final of the Rugby League World Cup at Old Trafford this afternoon.

You could probably have put both Australian teams down as trophy winners before they boarded the plane from the Antipodes; the only real surprise was that it was Samoa that the men's team beat in the final, after the Pacific Islanders' shock extra time golden point drop goal victory against hosts England in the semi-final at Arsenal's stadium last Saturday afternoon.

The dominance of Australia in international rugby league - with a dozen World Cup wins out of the fifteen contested since the first in France in 1954 - is down to a number of things: the Australasian NRL is the top level, and highest paid, domestic competition in the world, attracting the best young players from both Europe and the Pacific Islands; League is not only the leading rugby code in Australia, but also the foremost sport in the big cities on its eastern coast, with youth systems feeding a stream of talent into its clubs and the national side; and in the women's game, the female version of the NRL is now fully professional, hence the achievement of England's semi-pro women in reaching a semi-final against today's runners-up New Zealand.

There's lots to celebrate from this World Cup, including the emergence of Pacific Island quarter finalists Tonga and Samoa alongside established rugby league nation Papua New Guinea, the expansion of the women's competition, and England winning the wheelchair final at Manchester Central last night - I'm already looking forward to the 2025 tournament in France.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Champion Ale

I picked up a bottle of McEwan's Champion Ale from Sainsbury's last week. I'd seen mixed reviews of it online, but you can't really go wrong at £1.50 for almost a pint of a 7.3% beer. A strong ale in the Scottish "wee heavy" style, it was first sold in 1998 after winning a competition, hence the name, and is the British version of a beer brewed for the Belgian market, 8% Gordon's Scotch Ale.

William McEwan's, who began brewing at Fountainbridge on the outskirts of Edinburgh in 1856, joined the twentieth century merry-go-round of brewery mergers and acquisitions by linking up with local rivals William Younger's to form Scottish Brewers in 1931, before becoming part of Scottish & Newcastle in 1960 (one of my childhood memories is of driving into Manchester along Princess Parkway past their Moss Side brewery with the McEwan's Laughing Cavalier on the side) and then Heineken in 2008; their beers are now brewed by Marston's at the former Wells & Young Eagle Brewery in Bedford.

The label describes the beer as "smooth, full-bodied and complex", and it's certainly that. The first thing that hits you as you pour it into the glass is the waft of alcohol. There's quite a pronounced metallic taste and some sherryish notes, a bit like Fuller's 1845, one of the few remaining Burton ales, a style not a million miles away from Scottish "wee heavy".

I expect a few similar beers will be brewed for the coronation of King Charles III next summer.

Saturday, 22 October 2022

Up for the Cup?

I watched Australia's 84-0 demolition of Scotland in the Rugby League World Cup last night, in front of a sparse crowd in that hotbed of the sport, Coventry.

Surely the time has come for a two-tier competition in which the lower ranked nations play amongst themselves before one of them joins the three top teams, Australia, New Zealand and England, in the knockout stages.  I'm all for spreading and developing the game around the world, but one-sided contests like last night's don't help anyone.

The sport should probably also look at excluding some of the artificial teams that are now turning up to World Cups, representing countries where the game isn't played at professional level and there's little public interest in it (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Jamaica, Greece, Italy and Lebanon), made up of players who hail from Sydney or Salford rather than Sorrento or Skiathos and are the distant descendants of immigrants from them, making them in effect Australia and England "B" sides.

Australia's opening match at Headingley last Saturday night was also sparsely attended, despite Leeds being on the M62 corridor that runs through rugby league's heartlands. The postponement of the competition because of Covid and rising inflation have both pushed up costs, just as the disposable income of fans has dipped,  and the price of tickets is now likely to be beyond the pockets of many diehards, let alone the casual spectator outside the areas where the game has traditionally been played who might otherwise have been prepared to pay for one as a one-off experience. 

Thursday, 6 October 2022

Heading for trouble

I watched a TV programme last night in which the former England rugby union hooker Steve Thompson, now 42, described the distressing effects early onset dementia is having on him, his wife and their young children.

Brain damage caused by repeated blows to or pressure on the head is an issue for several professional sports and has also been linked to motor neurone disease. The things he called for – longer breaks between matches, no concussive collisions in training sessions and better care of players during and after their careers – would obviously be welcome, but I get the feeling that they aren't going to be enough and far more radical solutions will be needed for these sports to continue without inflicting more misery on those taking part in them in future.

One of the problems he identified is that not only are rugby players, both league and union, running at each other faster than before but they're also much bigger, so weight restrictions are probably now needed, as well as an end to contested scrums. American football will have to ban helmets too, football heading (the lighter ball doesn't seem to make much difference) and boxing shots to the head. It'll make for very different games, but better that than the ongoing carnage we're seeing now.

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

The Queen in Stockport

I happened to be in a pub in Stockport, meeting up with a few mates who I hadn't seen for a couple of years because of Covid, when the news came that the Queen had died, almost a fortnight ago now.

I knew when I left home to catch the train to Stockport that the Queen was seriously ill and that it was possible she might die in the next few hours, and wondered what would happen if she did – would the pub shut, or people sit silently over their drinks in a mournful atmosphere? – but in the end a bloke at the bar asked his mate if he thought they'd get the day off for the funeral and they laughed and things carried on pretty much as normal. Later, we walked back down the hill to the station and there were groups of people coming along Wellington Road in high spirits on an evening out, which would have been unthinkable seventy years ago I reckon.

Funnily enough, the only time I saw the Queen, quite by accident, was at Stockport station in 2004, when I was dropping some relatives off there and her train came in on the next platform - she was on her way to what was then the Royal Manchester School for the Deaf, and I to work as one of her civil servants at the social security office across the road, where, given my republican sympathies, the telling of my encounter with our employer was met with some mirth.

I'd travelled into Stockport on the train a couple of times before in the last few months, for the beer festival at the football ground and the evening at Ye Olde Vic to celebrate it having been in the Good Beer Guide for 21 years, but on both occasions had left the station by the approach on the Edgeley side, so hadn't seen the new buildings around it or the bus interchange going up in the shell of the old one.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

Ye Olde Vic: 21 not out

I went to Ye Olde Vic in Edgeley last night, for an evening on which Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA celebrated it having been in the Good Beer Guide for 21 years in a row.

As I wrote here, after my first visit to it in 2015, for years I thought that when people talked about the derelict looking pub at the top of the approach behind Stockport station, they were referring to the imposing, but long closed, and now converted for other use, Blue Bell Hotel rather than Ye Olde Vic just down the hill.

It's actually only a few weeks since my last visit, having popped in for a pint en route to the station after Stockport Beer and Cider Festival at Edgeley Park, and its unique atmosphere of a street corner local largely frequented by regulars rather than destination pub visitors cum eclectic bric-à-brac emporium and the well-kept cask beer which has led to it long appearing in the Good Beer Guide were the same on both occasions.

Another draw last night was the presence on the bar of Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild, the strong mild ale created by a widow of that name in 1921 that disappeared for thirty years until the recipe for it was rediscovered by her grandson in the late 80s, which, combined with a cheese and onion cob in its home at the Beacon Hotel, Sedgley, was one of the highlights of my holiday to the Black Country a decade ago.

Saturday, 30 July 2022

Farewell Neighbours

The Australian soap Neighbours came to an end last night with a special hour-long finale.

I've been watching Neighbours since it started in the mid 80s, at first the dinnertime episode on a tiny TV in a classroom at secondary school, and then the teatime one in a shared student house in the early 90s (one of my lecture shy housemates always used to get up especially for it).

While ratings have inevitably dropped since their late 80s peak, the real reason that Channel 5 - who took over the show from the BBC in 2008 and underwrote its production since - has finally pulled the plug is that it's now cheaper for it to make its own programmes - like their inferior remake of All Creatures Great and Small - and then sell them to the US networks, rather than buying them in from elsewhere.

The appeal of Neighbours has always been that it's sunny, breeezy and light, a youthful, upbeat and optimistic contrast to, and escape from, the gloomy, divided Thatcherite Britain of the 80s and now, politics having come almost full circle, our post-Brexit fate of isolation and decline, and although the show became more issue-driven of late it never lost its balance of drama and comedy, and thankfully never descended to the unrelenting grimness of Eastenders or, having chosen to ape it, Coronation Street, which has broken from its roots in Northern working-class humour and transformed itself into a completely different programme more akin to a Salford-set equivalent of The Wire.