Nathan Cleverly: I’m going to take the title

Nathan Cleverly has vowed to smash Italian Antonio Brancalion and win the vacant European light-heavyweight belt when the pair go toe-to-toe on Saturday.

The undefeated 22-year-old, who has vacated his Commonwealth crown to take up the fight, will face the 34-year-old Italian in a top-of-the-bill bout, at Wembley Arena.

And the Cefn Fforest fighter, who has been tipped to follow in the footsteps of Joe Calzaghe, is in confident mood:  “I’m really looking forward to the fight and I’m getting really excited.  It will be great to get back in the ring.  The time has come and I have to step up and take my chance.

‘Training has gone well.  It’s been a bit frustrating and gone on longer than usual because of the postponements, but I’ve been consistent in my training and made sure I don’t peak too soon.

“I’m really confident. I feel in good condition and want to take the belt.”

It is third time lucky for the bout, after two postponements and if Cleverly beats Brancalion, he will become only the seventh Welshman to have held British, Commonwealth and European belts.

Cleverly said: “Brancalion is a good fighter, he provides it’s a step up in class, but I’m going to take his belt.”

Brancalion who has 32 wins, two draws and seven losses to his name, lost his last fight, and the European belt, to Juergen Braehmer in June.  Where as Cleverly boasts an unblemished record of 18 professional wins, with the last five coming by way of knock out.

Cleverly said: “I was brought up in a tough area and at a young age I was involved in a lot of street fights. I was very competitive.  One day I convinced my dad to take me along to the local boxing club. It was a place where I could channel my aggression and competitive edge, and I’ve never looked back.

“I’m still trained by my dad and Alun Davies in Bargoed. It’s a good team and a great place to train. It’s quiet there aren’t many distractions. It’s ideal.”

And the Cardiff University student, who is in the final year of a mathematics degree, already has his sights on world domination: “I’m in my final year at Cardiff and have my last set of exams in May.  It can be difficult at times, especially when there are a lot of exams, but education is important to me and it’s something I wanted to do.

“There are a lot of big names in the division.  People like Roy Jones Jr and Bernard Hopkins are still around then people like Antonio Tarver and Chad Dawson.  But that’s something a little further down the road.

“I want to win this belt, defend it in the summer and then get a world title shot at the end of the year.

“I’ve fought at some big arena like the Millennium Stadium and Las Vegas, but this is the first time I’ve topped a bill at such a big venue and I can’t wait to get in the ring and do the business.”

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Gatland makes changes

Wales have made two changes to the side tripped up at Twickenham ahead of Scotland’s visit to the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.

Jonathan Thomas replaces Luke Charteris to form an all Osprey second row with Alun Wyn Jones, who has escaped further punishment for his indiscretion at HQ, and Leigh Halfpenny coming in to the side at the expense of his regional team mate, Tom James.

Wales head coach, Warren Gatland said: “Jonathan’s been playing well for the Ospreys, we felt we wanted that experience in out tight-five and also he gives us a little more mobility.

“Leigh would give us more options, being a right-footed player, and also his long kicking because we missed a couple of shots at goal from inside our own half, so he gives us a little bit extra there.

“He didn’t train at all in the build-up to the England game, but his return to full fitness allows us to select him in the starting XV.”

Wales captain Ryan Jones added: “JT has matured superbly in the last few years. He brings a lot of experience. He’s composed and logical at lineouts and brings an edge he’s an all-action player and a tremendous athlete.”

Gethin Jenkins also returns to boost the squad, after missing out last week due to a calf strain, but he will have to be content with a place on the bench.

Gatland said: “We think we have a very strong bench with the right mix of players each able to make an impact if called upon.

“We’re pleased to have Gethin back although he will have to pass a fitness test later in the week.

“He didn’t train at all last week and hasn’t so far this week. We are confident he will make it, but we felt it would not be fair to drop Paul James.

“He played well against England and the scrum went well, but Gethin will get a chance.”

Gatland was also quick to defend his selection of Gareth Cooper despite numerous calls for his Cardiff Blues’ teammate, Richie Rees, to be given his first international start.

The Wales boss said: “The fact that people are calling for change, makes no difference. As coaches we have to get through the video. We felt the options he took were the right ones and we feel he will get better with each game.

“Richie came on and made a good impact, but we’ve decided to stay with Gareth at nine.”

Meanwhile, Scotland have made three changes of their own for the trip to Cardiff. The Scot’s have recalled Cardiff Blues’ new recruit Dan Parks along with Euan Murray and Rory Lamont to the starting line-up.

Murray, who missed Scotland’s 18-9 defeat at the hands of France due to his Christian beliefs, will sure up a creaking Scottish scrum and put pressure on a weakened Welsh front-row.

Gatland said: “ I thought the Scots were tenacious. There was a point when the French really looked like they were going to put them away, but they hung in there and dug deep, they weren’t afraid to move the ball and caused the French some problems.

“Their scrum was under quite a bit of pressure but that will improve a lot with Euan Murray. Dan Parks will also play a little bit flatter on the gain line, it looks like they will kick more.

“We were all disappointed with the result last weekend but the good news for these players is that they have an opportunity now, just seven days after losing a game we all feel we could have won, to bounce back against Scotland.”

“The championship is by no means over and we are back home at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday looking to kick-start our campaign.

“This is a must win game for us and the Millennium Stadium factor will have a big part to play, as will the fans, and we are all very much looking forward to coming home.”

WALES: Lee Byrne (Ospreys); Leigh Halfpenny (Blues), James Hook(Ospreys), Jamie Roberts (Blues), Shane Williams (Ospreys); Stephen Jones (Scarlets), Gareth Cooper (Blues); Paul James (Ospreys), Gareth Williams (Blues), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Jonathan Thomas(Ospreys), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Andy Powell (Blues), Ryan Jones (Ospreys, Captain), Martyn Williams (Blues)

Replacements: Huw Bennett (Ospreys), Gethin Jenkins (Blues), Bradley Davies (Blues), Sam Warburton (Blues), Richie Rees (Blues), Andrew Bishop(Ospreys), Tom Shanklin(Blues)

SCOTLAND: C Paterson (Edinburgh); T Evans (Glasgow), S Lamont (Scarlets), G Morrison (Glasgow), R Lamont (Toulon); D Parks (Glasgow), C Cusiter (Glasgow, capt); A Dickinson (Gloucester), R Ford (Edinburgh), E Murray (Northampton), N Hines (Leinster), A Kellock (Glasgow), K Brown (Glasgow), J Barclay (Glasgow), J Beattie (Glasgow).
Replacements: S Lawson (Gloucester), A Jacobsen (Edinburgh), R Gray (Glasgow), A MacDonald (Edinburgh), M Blair (Edinburgh), P Godman (Edinburgh), M Evans (Glasgow).

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Alun-Wyn Jones not to be punished further

Wales kicking coach, Neil Jenkins, says he doubts Warren Gatland will drop Alun Wyn Jones for Wales’s crucial match against Scotland on the weekend.

In the wake of Wales’s 30-17 defeat at Twickenham, Gatland was enraged by Jones’s trip on England hooker Dylan Hartley which saw the lock sin-binned and Wales subsequently concede 17 unanswered points.

Jenkins said: “I think we’ve all made mistakes and Alun made one on the weekend, and we’ve had other players in the past that have been sin-binned, and we’ve come through it unscathed.

“On Saturday we didn’t, we conceded some points, but it’s one of those things. I think we learned from it and we move on.

“I think sometimes some things are said, aren’t they? Alun’s a fantastic rugby player.

“He’s made a genuine mistake and we’ve got to accept that, deal with it and move on and hopefully discipline-wise we’ll be fine next Saturday.”

And Jones’s teammates have continued to back him, Bradley Davies and Shane Williams, the latest to come out in support of the 6ft 6ins second row.

Jones’s Osprey team mate said: “I know what it’s like to make a mistake, I wouldn’t solely put it on Alun-Wyn, obviously it contributed, it put us under the cosh and unfortunately 17 points were scored.

There were a lot of other boys on the pitch trying there best but unfortunately it didn’t work out, on another day it could’ve been someone else and they get away with it.

He is more disappointed about it than anyone else on the field.  He has learnt his lesson.  There are a lot of disappointed Welsh people out there, but there isn’t one more unhappy and gutted than Alun-Wyn.I hope he plays and on form he certainly should be.”

Davies also came out in support of his second row rival and said: “I think he’s a world-class player. He showed that for the Lions in the summer, I’m obviously disappointed for Al but he’s a great player and he’ll bounce back.”

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Jamie Roberts looking forward to Six Nations

Jamie Roberts has vowed to hit the heights in this year’s Six Nations as Wales target a fourth consecutive win over the old enemy.

Since returning from South Africa, Roberts has struggled to hit the form which saw him named Lions Man of the Series.  But the 6 ft 4ins powerhouse is determined to make a big impact in this year’s tournament.

Roberts said: “I’m passionate about playing for Wales and that hasn’t changed.  I’m hugely determined to earn the right to wear the red jersey of Wales and perform when I wear it. It’s just a huge honour.

“There are always doubters out there but I feel fresh and I feel in form.  It was nice to get some tries under my belt last weekend, against Harlequins, and I feel back at the top of my game.

“There’s always people trying to knock you down, but I just get on with it, I train hard, work hard and just try to stay at the required level.

“Things have come so quickly for me that there is an expectation to perform.  It’s tough, but I’m not one to shy away from it, I just embrace it and enjoy it.”

And Roberts, who has been criticised for being quiet at times on the pitch, believes it is time for him to raise his game to the next level and become a more prominent leader within the set up.

“I enjoy responsibility, it’s something I thrive upon.  I believe it’s time to step up and deliver.  The Six Nations is a huge tournament, I feel I’m at about the stage where I really need to kick on and show more leadership.”

Twickenham provides a happy hunting ground for Roberts, having won on both occasions he has played there.  First came the Cardiff Blues EDF Cup triumph over Gloucester, then with the Barbarians.

“I won there with the Blues and the Baa-baa’s last year so Twickenham holds fond memories for me.

“And of course I always remember two years ago when we won there.  It was my first involvement in the Six Nations, I was water boy that day, but winning there really kick started us on our way to the Grand Slam.

“It’s an amazing place to play especially when it’s sold out, it should be a great occasion for the neutral.”

The game will also be the first time that Roberts lines up against the players he toured South Africa with, but the medical student does not see this as a problem.

“I don’t think it makes too much of a difference, it works both ways, you know stuff about them and they know stuff about you.  They’re guys I’ve become good friends with so I’m sure there will be an extra bit of spice and banter flying round.”

“I learnt a huge amount from Riki Flutey.  He is a very agile guy, he’s very skilful, he kicks well, passes well, plays into space and is a very tricky guy to contain.

“If he plays, whether with someone like Matthew Tait or Shontayne Hape, they can unleash the back three and be very dangerous, so our defence needs to be on the money.  But we have been doing our analysis, and I think we can contain them.

“With the ball it’s important that as a team we are scanning what’s in front of us, scanning each phase, playing clever and boxing clever around defences.”

It has been really good in camp this week, we’ve all really enjoyed it and had a bit of a laugh but there’s a good buzz about the place and a real determination to go to Twickenham and get the result.”

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Gatland’s Young Guns

Tom Prydie

In 2008, as Wales marched to their second Gland Slam in four years with a 29-12 triumph over France at the Millennium Stadium, a group of 15-year-old team-mates were sat in Porthcawl Rugby Club drinking pints of orange squash.

Now almost two years later Tom Prydie finds himself included in Warren Gatland’s 35-man squad in what the 17-year-old has described as a dream come true.                                                                        “It’s amazing I couldn’t believe it at first, but it’s great to be here and it’s really starting to sink in now after meeting Warren [Gatland] and Shaun [Edwards].

“At the beginning of the season I was working towards playing each week for Swansea.

“I then got the call from Shaun Holley and Scott Johnson to train with the Ospreys and was hoping to get the odd game in the LV Cup or while the boys were away on international duty.  So to be here now is unbelievable.”

If Prydie does play a part in Wales’s Six Nations campaign, he will become the youngest player ever to pull on the red shirt, beating the record held by Norman Biggs who made his debut at 18 years and 24 days in 1888.

But the Ospreys’s flyer has admitted he does not expect to pull on the jersey just yet, but aims to make the most of being in an international environment.

Prydie said: “Obviously I’m not expecting to play, but if I do get on it will be a massive bonus.”

He faces a tall order if he is to be included in a match-day squad, with the likes of Lee Byrne, Shane Williams and Leigh Halfpenny all ahead of him in the pecking order – but Prydie was full of praise for the Ospreys duo.

“I don’t model my game on any particular player, but there are boys that I keep an eye on.  At fullback, players like Lee Byrne and Rob Kearney on the Lions tour were obviously fantastic.

“Shane Williams is another, he is one of the best players in the world, so you always try to pick things up from them but I just love watching rugby and trying to develop my own game.

“Speed is definitely one of my biggest strengths.  I have always been quick. I did a bit of athletics and represented Wales at the UK school games, but the boys there were a different class.”

If Prydie is involved in a match day squad he will follow in the footsteps of James Hook and Leigh Halfpenny who were both plucked from relative obscurity to play for Wales and Gatland will hope Prydie can have the same impact in this year’s Championship.

RHYS GILL

At the end of last season Rhys Gill feared his professional career was over.  He had been released by the Cardiff Blues and could not secure a contract at any of the other regions.  He was the unwanted man of Welsh rugby.

But after crossing the border to join Saracens, Gill has capped an astonishing turnaround with a call-up to the Six Nations squad.

“It is incredible, I was not expecting it at all and didn’t believe it at first – I thought it was a joke.  I knew the squad was being announced at 1pm, and after training I had a text saying I had been selected for the Six Nations squad.  I was ecstatic when I saw that.

“If you asked me last year if I would be sitting here today I would’ve said there was no chance in hell.

“I tried to get a contract with Cardiff but they’ve got some quality props like Gethin Jenkins who is just a legend, and said they had no room on their books.

“I tried the other regions but there was nothing available. Nobody wanted me.  I thought perhaps it wasn’t to be and began looking for full-time work in quantity surveying, while talking to Cardiff and Neath about playing semi-pro.

“But then quite late on, Saracens said they wanted to offer me a contract to become their third choice prop.”   Since then it has been onwards and upwards for the 18 stone prop.  He has been selected in the Saracens match-day squad on 21 occasions and received plaudits from a range of English commentators for his all-round performances.

Gill said: “I’ve started about 13 games so far, I didn’t expect that at all.  My goal for this season was to get involved in 10 games but things have just taken off, it’s been fantastic.

“Carlos Nieto the tight-head prop is a fantastic scrummager, he has been fantastic with me up there.

“All he wants to do is scrummage, that’s all he wants to do all day every day, and one of the coaches, Cobus Visagie is another legend of scrummaging so he’s taught me a lot.”

Gatland will almost certainly start with the Lions Test trio of Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rhys and Adam Jones against England and Gill knows he will be left to fight it out with Eifion Roberts and Paul James to secure a place on the bench.

“To get in a match day squad will be a dream but I’m just going to get my head down, work hard and see what happens.

“My friends and family have been ecstatic and really supportive, when I got the text I turned my phone off not sure whether to believe it.  I turned it back on and had 42 messages, so they’ve all been brilliant.”

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Knockout blow to the ‘Super-Fight’ of super fights: Pacquaio v Mayweather off

In a knockout blow to boxing fans worldwide, Manny Pacquiao’s promoter Bob Arum yesterday revealed that the super-fight of the decade between Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather jr, was off.

The fight billed as the richest bout in history was scheduled to take place in Las Vegas on 13 March, but it has fallen victim to a blood-testing bust-up between the two camps.

For weeks Mayweather’s camp have claimed Pacquiao’s astronomical rise, which has seen him win world titles at seven weight divisions, has been down to steroid use.

And it was Mayweather’s demands for random drug testing in the weeks before the fight that has brought the bout to a grinding halt.

Pacquiao had agreed to give blood samples, at the beginning of the press tour and after the fight, but this was not enough for team Mayweather.

Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, said: “The sanctioning bodies and the state commissions run the boxing world, not Floyd Mayweather.

“Who is this guy to tell us that we have to have blood tests, or urine tests, or any tests? He’s just looking for a way out of the fight.

“We have passed every test ever given to us. We go by the commission rules, since when does the fighter make up the rules?

“When Manny gives blood it takes him three or four days to recover from it. I am not going to have my fighter going into a fight feeling weak and not sure of himself.

“Mayweather is scared, and he’s just afraid that he’s going to get his ass kicked.”

While Mayweather countered: “I understand Pacquiao not liking having his blood taken, because frankly I don’t know anyone who really does.”

“But in a fight of this magnitude, I think it is our responsibility to subject ourselves to sportsmanship at the highest level.”

So who is at fault?

Is Mayweather running scared, trying everything he can to wriggle out of the fight?

Or has Pacquiao got something to hide?

What ever happens the powers-that-be must iron out their differences so the fight can go ahead, it is vital for the future of boxing.

It is boxing’s chance to pick itself up and put itself at the top of world sport.  Pacquiao v Mayweather is a fight that compares to the great fights throughout history.  It is a fight which would bring the world to a standstill in a way no other sport could match.  It is fights like this that define generations.

As BBC boxing correspondent, Ben Dirs wrote this week: “This was boxing’s big chance to emerge from the slump. If the dunces can’t sort this mess out, many will think the sport is not worth forgiving.”

To read more about the potential of Pacman squaring up to Money Mayweather click here.

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Where is the ambition?

After announcing the re-signing of hooker Gareth Williams and second-row Deniol Jones, on three and two year deals respectively this week, the Cardiff Blues look set to sign Scottish fly half, Dan Parks.

Cardiff have been linked with several outside halves over the past few weeks including Wales and Lions duo James Hook and Stephen Jones, however Cardiff fans will be disappointed to hear it is Australian-born Parks who is expected to sign on the dotted line.

31-year-old Parks has made over 100 appearances for the Glasgow Warriors and has won 47 Scottish caps, but he is a controversial figure who well and truly divides opinion.

He has come in for a great deal of criticism from Scottish fans in the past for his lack of consistency and lack of attacking ability.  So is he really the answer to Cardiff’s problems?

Fly half has been a problem position for several seasons at Cardiff.  Nicky Robinson received a lot of criticism himself for being inconsistent and sometimes struggling to control a game.

Robinson hit fine form last season and was at one point tipped as a potential British and Irish Lion. Robinson however departed at the end of the season and Australian Sam Norton-Knight was brought in to fill the vacant number 10 shirt.

Norton-Knight has so far struggled in the role, having played the majority of his rugby at fullback. He has been unable to make the shirt his own and has at times looked lost at outside half.

If true it will be an incredibly underwhelming signing, especially after Peter Thomas’s comments last spring (which I wrote about it the previous post).

Sure Parks is fine tactical kicker, but he is a Magners League player at best.  He will undoubtedly be an asset grinding out wins on cold and wet Friday nights against the likes of Connaught.

But Thomas talked of bringing Cardiff back to the top of European Rugby. For this to come to fruition Cardiff need a top-class outside half, which Parks isn’t.

The signing of Williams and Jones on long-term contracts is another example of Thomas’s lack of ambition.  They both give their all for the Blues, but at the very top of European rugby they struggle.

To achieve European glory Cardiff need greater strength and depth and class of players than present and these signings are hardly the answer.  Unless Thomas has bigger signings up his sleeve it looks like he will have to wait a little longer.

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