English teams seek redemption in 2007

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Ringing in the new year will come as blessed relief for English sports fans after the miseries of 2006. The performances of the national football, rugby union and cricket teams during the past 12 months were equally depressing, but all three have significant opportunities for redemption in the coming year.

Steve McClaren’s World Cup flops can try to rebut criticisms that they are overrated, overpaid and rather ordinary by ensuring their place at the 2008 European Championships during eight qualifying matches. The rugby union and cricket teams, however, have bigger stages on which to regain their reputations since two of 2007’s highlights are those two sports’ world cups.

The Cricket World Cup takes place in the West Indies (March 13-April 28). While this is a delightful location for fans, only the wealthy will be able to afford the island hopping required to view the tournament in any depth. England remain ambivalent about the one-day game, so, particularly after the Ashes humiliation, expectations are not high. At least they are in one of the easier groups, facing New Zealand, Kenya and Canada in the early games.

Ireland and Scotland will also be there, but progress for them beyond the group stage would be a miracle. Meanwhile, the hosts hope the event will lead to a cricketing renaissance in the islands that collectively dominated the game not so long ago.

The Rugby Union World Cup (September 7-October 20) also offers an enticing and more convenient travel opportunity, with France hosting. Rugby politics, though, has ensured some fans are treated with contempt. The French bid to host the tournament felt it necessary to offer some games to Wales and Scotland. This means that Australian, Japanese, New Zealand, Romanian, Fijian and Canadian fans, in addition to the expense of travelling to France, will have to stump up the cost of going to either Cardiff or Edinburgh as well if they wish to see all their teams’ pool games. Fiji versus Canada in Cardiff seems a particularly ludicrous idea.

New Zealand are overwhelming favourites to win the trophy – indeed their second XV would be second favourites if they were allowed to enter. So if the home union teams are to mount a serious challenge, they will looking to the RBS 6 Nations tournament (February 3-March 17) to hone their tactics and boost confidence for the autumn.

Sailing will gain a rare period in the world spotlight when the America’s Cup returns to Europe for the first time since 1851. The Swiss team, the unlikely winners of the Auld Mug in 2003, will seek to defend it off Valencia (June 23-July 4) against the challenger that emerges as winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup (April 16-June 11), also contested off the Spanish port.

The sporting year in Britain sees its first major event in March, with the European Indoor Athletics Championships being held in Birmingham (March 2-4). Athletics’ biggest event, however, comes later with the world championships in Osaka (August 25-September 2).

March also hosts horseracing’s Cheltenham Festival (March 13-16). The Gold Cup will be particularly anticipated, with the brilliant Kauto Star looking to complete the treble of this race, the Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase that would scoop a £1m bonus prize.

The other red letter days for racing fans are the Grand National (April 14), The Derby (June 2), Royal Ascot (June 19-23) and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (October 7).

May brings the usual climaxes to the domestic football and rugby union seasons with the bonuses of the Uefa Cup Final being held at Hampden Park, Glasgow (May 16), and the Heineken Cup Final at Twickenham (May 20).

England’s cricket team begin their summer programme with the first of four Tests against West Indies at Lord’s (May 17-21), with this series followed by three Tests against India (commencing July 19). Whether Duncan Fletcher will then still be team coach is a moot point following the debacle in Australia.

Wimbledon fills its traditional mid-summer slot (June 25-July 8), and one story will dominate: whether Roger Federer can equal Bjorn Borg’s record of five consecutive championships. Home hopes will rest on Andy Murray. By then the Scot will have had a year’s tutelage from Brad Gilbert, just one of a host of world-class coaches that the Lawn Tennis Association has splashed out on in a last-ditch attempt to lift British tennis out of the mire.

Indeed, England will be the focus of world sporting attention that first full weekend in July. While the finals are played out at Wimbledon, cycling’s Tour de France (July 7-29) begins in London for the first time and the British Grand Prix is on July 8. At Silverstone, British eyes will be on rookie driver Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren car as the 21-year-old continues his debut season, which begins at the Australian Grand Prix (March 18).

The dates that really matter for golf fans, however, are for The Open, which returns to Carnoustie from July 19-22. Tiger Woods, who has won 12 majors, will be seeking to edge ever closer to Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.

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