The Rugby Championship begins this weekend, with the four nations keen to find form ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan.

New Zealand have won the tournament in each of the past three years and the All Blacks are favourites to once again finish above Australia, Argentina and South Africa.

We run the rule over the quartet ahead of the start of the Rugby Championship, where teams will only face each other once in a World Cup year.

NEW ZEALAND

The All Blacks are chasing more than just a fourth successive title and third consecutive World Cup in the coming months, with a slice of history also on the line. No team has ever won the Rugby Championship - or the Tri-Nations, as it was previously known - and also lifted that year's World Cup.

New Zealand were beaten by South Africa in Wellington during last year's Rugby Championship - the first time in nine years the Springboks had won an away game against the All Blacks - while a 16-9 defeat to Ireland in November will have given the rest of the rugby world further encouragement.

Sonny Bill Williams, who will not feature against Argentina on Saturday, has had an injury-hit Super Rugby season and Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock will be rested for the Pumas clash. However, this is a star-studded team regardless - one that contains 2016 and 2017 World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett - and they remain the gold standard.

SOUTH AFRICA

The Springboks were runners-up last year and might have finished top of the pile had they not thrown away a 30-13 lead against New Zealand in Pretoria after beating them in their own backyard. They ended the year with seven wins from 14 games so consistency will be the key.

A home Test series success over England was a sign South Africa could be a team to fear under Rassie Erasmus, whose decision to relax the rules on selecting European-based players has paid dividends.

Fly-half Handre Pollard was brilliant during the Super Rugby season, finishing as the league's leading point scorer, though he will be rested against the Wallabies in the opener and Aphiwe Dyantyi is sidelined by a hamstring problem.

AUSTRALIA

The Wallabies endured a horrendous 2018, losing nine of their 13 Tests. They suffered three heavy defeats to the All Blacks and were beaten by both Argentina and South Africa.

Australia slipped to their lowest-ever ranking of seventh following their first loss to the Pumas on home soil since 1983 and then lost two of their three November internationals, against Wales and England. They have not played a game in 2019 but former star full-back Israel Folau has already been making headlines, having been sacked by Rugby Australia following a controversial social-media post in which he wrote "hell awaits…drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters".

Coach Michael Cheika, who has left Quade Cooper out of his squad, made clear he will walk away if Australia do not lift the World Cup in Japan, so this competition should give an indication to his long-term future. Cancer survivor Christian Lealiifano could make his first appearance in three years at this tournament, though he will miss the South Africa clash with a shoulder problem.

ARGENTINA

The Pumas' 2018 did not start well - two home defeats to Wales preceding a 44-15 thrashing at the hands of Scotland in Resistencia - and coach Daniel Hourcade vacated his post, replaced by Mario Ledesma.

Having never won more than once in a single Rugby Championship campaign before, Argentina claimed two victories in 2018 by overcoming South Africa 32-19 in Mendoza and then beating the Wallabies on Australian soil, but they were winless in November Tests against Ireland, France and Scotland.

The Jaguares, who provide the bulk of this Argentina squad, reached their first ever Super Rugby final this year, only to be beaten by the Crusaders, but translating that club success on the international stage is an altogether different challenge.

Chris Paul did not get what he wanted, but he is apparently not too mad about it.

In the meantime in MLB, batters really need to start watching their heads.

And in the NHL a ton is happening, and yet, nothing actually is.

 

1. Paul staying with Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder had hoped to move Paul quickly after acquiring him in a package for Russell Westbrook last week, but that is apparently not going to happen.

Paul is likely to start the season in Oklahoma City, according to ESPN, and could play out a good portion of the campaign, or even longer, there.

Oklahoma City reportedly tried to move Paul to the Heat, but their proposals were not to the liking of Miami, so Paul, and his three years and more than $100million left on his contract, will stay with the Thunder.

Fortunately, both Paul and the Thunder reportedly see value in him sticking around, so it is not a total loss for either party.

2. Plunk wars

It is that time of year. Baseball players are throwing at each other again and two pitchers were suspended for their actions on Wednesday after throwing at the heads of opponents a day earlier.

Philadelphia Phillies reliever Hector Neris was mad at himself so he threw at David Freese.

Then, Los Angeles Angels reliever Noe Ramirez threw at Jake Marisnick for breaking his catcher's nose and giving him a concussion.

Both players were suspended for three games. Both men will appeal.

 

3. NHL has oddly eventful week

For some reason there was a lot going on in the NHL this week. There were several signings and a somewhat notable trade.

- The Chicago Blackhawks traded Artem Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators for Zack Smith.
- Minnesota Wild re-signed Ryan Donato to a two-year deal after he excelled following his trade there for Charlie Coyle at the deadline.
- The Washington Capitals re-signed Jakub Vrana to a two-year deal.
- Colorado Avalanche signed J.T. Compher to a four-year deal but still have not given Mikko Rantanen an offer.

Rantanen remains unsigned as do other restricted free agent stars such as Patrick Laine (Winnipeg Jets), Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary Flames), Brayden Point (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs).

All of these men face holdouts if they do not get the deals they want, but with all of the contracts already handed out teams simply might not have enough money to give especially with a lower salary cap than many anticipated. There could be a lot of disappointed young players this offseason.

 

4. Falcons, Deion Jones agree to four-year, $57m deal

This is how much Deion Jones means to the Atlanta Falcons defense.

After going down early in the season to injury, Jones was still given a four-year, $57m deal on Wednesday. Jones played in just six games in 2018, but Atlanta clearly have no concern about his long-term health and locked him up accordingly.

The Falcons are due for a bounce-back season if they are healthy and Jones will be a big part of it.

It was an eventful start to proceedings at the 148th Open Championship, with some of the biggest names in the sport enduring a day of toil.

Royal Portrush was a hot ticket as the world's best golfers began their quest for the coveted Claret Jug.

There was sunshine, rain, wind and all sorts of drama out on the course.

As ever, Omnisport's reporters had their eyes peeled for some of things you may have missed, collecting the highlights into this bite-sized diary.

THINGS QUICKLY GO AWRY FOR RORY

It was quite an experience standing on the first hole when Rory McIlroy's name was announced to an expectant crowd, with the fans giving a typically deafening roar.

Sadly for McIlroy, who shot 61 at Portrush in 2005, things quickly went wrong. His opening tee shot veered out of bounds and smashed a fan's phone in the process.

A quadruple-bogey eight followed and it was a subdued crowd who witnessed their homegrown star trundle to the second tee, with the applause turning to little more than a polite smattering.

 

WONDER IF HE FOUND HIMSELF IN THE WOOF?

Plenty of players are jostling for the lead at The Open, but one good boy perhaps should have been kept more tightly on his...

A happy dog found his way on to a tee box and managed to escape the attentions of fans and officials trying to usher him back under the spectator ropes.

ARE YOU TAKING THE MIC? - DUVAL NOT IMPRESSED

Poor David Duval endured quite the day, kicking it off with back-to-back birdies before a quadruple bogey on the fifth and an eye-watering 14 on the seventh.

He played two provisional shots off the tee and then ended up continuing with the wrong ball, incurring a hefty penalty.

To his credit, the 2001 champion turned up for his mixed zone duties after his round of 91, but he was not keen to speak into the podium microphone.

First, he side-stepped the device altogether, but when it was thrust towards his face, the American swatted it away again.

In sport the greatest of dreams can instantly become the stuff of nightmares.

For Rory McIlroy, Thursday's Royal Portrush homecoming for the first round of The Open must have felt like that fabled dream where you're stood naked in front of a room of your peers, as his worst fears were laid bare in front of the world in a torrid round on the Dunluce links.

It simply wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't the narrative so many had expected or hoped for, even.

Addressing the media this week, McIlroy discussed how he did not feel like the centre of attention.

It was an admirable attempt at staying low key, but there was never any chance the focus of everyone's attentions at Portrush would not be on the four-time major winner.

Ever since he made a mockery of Portrush's reputation as one of the game's toughest links course as a 16-year-old with a startling course-record 61, McIlroy has been the man in these parts of the world.

But boy did Portrush have its revenge on Thursday and in the cruellest of fashions.

An almighty roar welcomed McIlroy onto the first tee as an expectant home crowd waited with bated breath to see what one of Northern Ireland's greatest sons would produce.

A spectator's broken phone as a result of McIlroy's opening wayward tee shot was a fitting metaphor for a round that fell to pieces from the off.

By the time he trudged off the opening green, having made an ugly quadruple eight, the smattering of almost apologetic applause told its own story. 

It was tough viewing as McIlroy scratched his way through the early holes. There was hope a recovery was on the way with birdies at the seventh and the ninth, and he went 12 holes without a bogey.

Yet, just like the showers that arrived at intermittent intervals, that hope proved brief as McIlroy three-putted inside five feet at the 16th – aptly named 'Calamity Corner' – before triple bogeying the last.

A clearly disappointed McIlroy put on a brave face and struck a determined tone, even allowing himself a little joke when asked if there was a way back to the cut mark from 79.

"Definitely a way back to Florida," he quipped. "I definitely think if I can put the ball in the fairway tomorrow I can shoot a good enough score to be around for the weekend. 

"Obviously I'm pretty sure anyone starting with a 79 in this golf tournament doesn't think about winning at this point. But I think I can go out there and shoot something in the mid-60s, be around for the weekend, and then try to play good from there."

Suggestions nerves due to the weight of expectation on his shoulders were a factor were quickly quashed by McIlroy.

"I don't think so. I was nervous on the first tee. But not nervous because of that. Nervous because it's an Open Championship," he added. 

"I usually get nervous on the first tee anyway, regardless of where it is. So maybe a little more so today than other places. But I don't think it was that. It was a bit of a tentative golf swing with a hard wind off to the right and the ball just got going left on me."

There is a sadly familiar pattern in golf's four biggest majors with McIlroy. He has 10 top-10 finishes since he won the last of his four majors at the 2014 US PGA Championship.

But there have not been many times he was genuinely in contention and this week – one of the most important McIlroy has had in his career – is surely now another lost cause.

Juventus have won the race for Matthijs de Ligt and handed Maurizio Sarri an €85.5million asset set to immediately challenge for a starting spot.

The Netherlands international commanded the attention of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and more before agreeing a five-year contract in Turin.

De Ligt, 19, captained Ajax with distinction in Europe and the Eredivisie last term and compiled a set of statistics consistent with a player who could change the look of Serie A's strongest defence. 

Our dive into the Opta data illustrates why one half of Juve's established centre-back pairing might be looking over his shoulder.

Bonucci battle brewing

De Ligt has walked through the doors at Allianz Stadium in rather more triumphant fashion than Leonardo Bonucci did almost 12 months ago.

The Italy international returned from an ill-fated stint at AC Milan and resumed his partnership with Giorgio Chiellini at the heart of the four-man defence regularly employed by Massimiliano Allegri.

The results were not as intended.

Juve conceded more goals – 30 – in Serie A than in any of their previous seven title-winning campaigns, and were breached twice in the Champions League on four separate occasions.

De Ligt could apply serious pressure to the 32-year-old's position.

New boss Sarri favours a 4-3-3 system and his shiny new acquisition outperformed fellow right-footer Bonucci in most key defensive measures last term.

Across all competitions, De Ligt won more duels (5.48), aerial contests (3.77) and tackles (0.61) per 90 minutes, while also completing a greater average number of clearances (3.95) and recoveries (6.53).

Dwarfed in each category by the Dutchman, Bonucci ranked last behind Chiellini, Daniele Rugani and the now-retired Andrea Barzagli for duels (3.02), aerial contests (1.75) and clearances (2.86).

 

Aerial prowess an alternative weapon

Sarri's Chelsea were accused of being a one-dimensional team that sought only to break opposition sides down through often tedious passing sequences.

Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain floundered in their attempts to spearhead the front three and the Blues scored the fewest goals of all top-six sides in the Premier League.

Tormenting defences domestically should be no trouble for Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Moise Kean and Juve's high-class attacking cohort, but Sarri would be wise to seek out a variety of scoring sources for an assault on multiple fronts.

In De Ligt, he has an aerial ace capable of climbing above any pack.

The 19-year-old conjured seven goals for Ajax last season: three in the Eredivisie, one against rivals Feyenoord in the KNVB Beker, and a further three in the Champions League.

Six of those were headed, including the towering effort which knocked Juve out of Europe while he also nodded an equaliser for Netherlands in their Nations League victory over England.

Bonucci, scorer of three goals, was the only Bianconeri defender to manage more than two.

Crucial interventions in big matches could tip the selection scale in De Ligt's favour.

 

Durability threatens established order

In the wake of Barzagli's retirement and the end of Martin Caceres' short-term loan, Juve reinforced their defensive stocks by signing Turkey international Merih Demiral from Sassuolo.

The 21-year-old will almost certainly find his place in the pecking order behind Rugani, a favourite of Sarri's since their time together at Empoli.

Bringing in a fifth centre-back to compete for one of two positions could lead the Italian champions to consider replenishing a diminished bank balance.

Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City have reportedly shown interested in Bonucci, whose future is at least less certain than that of captain Chiellini.

What is in no doubt is De Ligt's readiness to carry the load required of a regular starter.

Throughout a demanding 2018-19 season, the reigning Golden Boy award winner turned out more times (55) than Chiellini and Rugani combined. Bonucci, Juve's top appearance-maker, started 14 fewer games.

Sarri demonstrated appreciation for a high degree of availability as he consistently paired David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger together at Stamford Bridge until a knee injury removed the latter from calculations.

Now, armed with hard evidence of De Ligt's excellence, the Bianconeri boss might forge a fresh partnership in Turin to herald the beginning of a new era.

Matthijs de Ligt's protracted move to Juventus has finally been completed, with the defender becoming one of football's priciest teenagers.

The Ajax captain will play for the Serie A champions next term after Juve saw off competition from clubs including Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Manchester United.

De Ligt's star rose last term with Ajax reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, as well as claiming a domestic double under coach Erik ten Hag.

But he now faces justifying a fee of €75million, potentially rising to €85.5m, that makes him the most expensive under-20 defender of all time. Omnisport takes a look at the 10 most expensive teenage transfers and how they fared.

Kylian Mbappe: Monaco to Paris Saint-Germain - €180m

Likely to remain the world's most expensive teenage signing for some time, Kylian Mbappe is already well on the way to justifying the €180m outlay PSG made to prise him away from Monaco two years ago. Mbappe had fired Monaco to a shock Ligue 1 title triumph before departing and his goals have continued to flow in the French capital with 33 in just 29 Ligue 1 games last season. Still just 20, Mbappe has arguably eclipsed team-mate Neymar already, while he has won a World Cup with France. Pele has acknowledged comparisons with the forward, who looks a certain Ballon d'Or winner in the near future. It would take a world-record fee to buy Mbappe, but he has hinted he could be open to leaving PSG.

Joao Felix: Benfica to Atletico Madrid - €126m

Potentially rivalling Mbappe for top individual honours in the years to come could be Joao Felix, who shoulders the burden of replacing Antoine Griezmann at Atletico Madrid, assuming the forward forces through his desired move away from the Wanda Metropolitano. Joao Felix hit 20 goals in all competitions for Benfica last term, three of those strikes coming in the Europa League, to announce himself among the world's top talents. It remains to be seen whether he is ready for the step up, with Atletico gambling €126m that the 19-year-old is a star of the future.


Matthijs de Ligt: Ajax to Juventus - €85.5m

Barcelona were linked with De Ligt, having already sealed a deal for club and country team-mate Frenkie de Jong, but the Ajax captain has instead opted for Serie A. There, he will work under the new Juve head coach Maurizio Sarri with European success demanded after the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo failed to deliver the prized Champions League. Domestic dominance is virtually assured, but De Ligt will have to show he can slot straight into one of the planet's tightest defences. A high-profile mistake against England in the Nations League semi-finals showed De Ligt is not yet the complete package, but Italy could be the ideal finishing school.


Anthony Martial: Monaco to Manchester United - €60m

Eyebrows were raised when United parted with €60m for Martial in 2015, with one British newspaper describing the deal as a "waste of money" in a back-page splash. Martial has not quite proved that assessment wrong, although he scored 10 goals in 27 Premier League appearances last term. At 23 he has further development to come and the departure of Jose Mourinho, whose lack of faith in the France forward appeared clear, might well help him make a jump to the next level under successor Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.


Rodrygo Goes: Santos to Real Madrid - €45m

Real Madrid have been signing young talent in recent seasons in a departure from their Galactico-focused days, although the signing of Eden Hazard and a potential deal for Paul Pogba may change things. Rodrygo Goes will link up with Zinedine Zidane's squad for 2019-20 having remained on loan with Santos after completing a transfer to the LaLiga giants. The 18-year-old is full of promise and Madrid will hope he can be their Neymar.


Vinicius Junior: Flamengo to Real Madrid - €45m

Rodrygo is following in the footsteps of fellow Brazilian Vinicius Junior, who was a rare shining light for Madrid last term, scoring two LaLiga goals. It remains to be seen where Zidane sees Rodrygo and Vinicius fitting in, especially as Hazard seems certain to take up one of the attacking positions and Luka Jovic has also arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt to compete for a striking berth. Fitting everyone in seems set to be a challenge, but Vinicius could be Madrid's future along with Rodrygo.


Luke Shaw: Southampton to Manchester United - €37.5m

Like Martial, Luke Shaw is another player who seems to have laboured under a large price tag at times – which perhaps should be a warning sign for new arrival Aaron Wan-Bissaka after the 21-year-old joined from Crystal Palace. Shaw also had a fractious relationship with Mourinho but made the United left-back spot his own with 29 Premier League starts in 2018-19. The 23-year-old will hope to make further progress this term, but did not make the cut for Gareth Southgate's England squad for the Nations League Finals, with Ben Chilwell and Danny Rose preferred.


Wayne Rooney: Everton to Manchester United - €37m

Wayne Rooney certainly repaid his fee – he was British football's most expensive teenager – becoming United's all-time leading goalscorer and winning five Premier League titles at the club, as well as the 2007-08 Champions League. Rooney will go down as a United great despite affairs such as agitating for a move and falling out with Alex Ferguson. Rooney dropped out of favour in the latter years of his time at Old Trafford and was also sidelined for England, with a return to boyhood club Everton failing to spark. But joining MLS strugglers DC United has been a clever move and Rooney, now 33, is inspiring their rise.


Renato Sanches: Benfica to Bayern Munich - €35m

Bayern thought they were signing a player who would become one of the era's dominant midfielders when they snapped up Renato Sanches from Benfica, but the transfer has not worked out at all. Bayern bought Sanches before he won Euro 2016 with Portugal but, three years later, that remains the highlight of his career. Sanches flopped in a loan spell with Swansea City in the Premier League and seems surplus to requirements at Bayern. The 21-year-old desperately needs to kickstart his career with a move away and has been linked with Turkish giants Fenerbahce.


Gabriel Jesus: Palmeiras to Manchester City - €32m

Handed City's number nine shirt ahead of the 2019-20 season, Gabriel Jesus seems set for a defining campaign. At times after his arrival from Palmeiras the Brazil striker – who just helped his side win the Copa America on home soil – seemed to be preferred to Sergio Aguero by City boss Pep Guardiola, but the tables were turned last term as the Argentina attacker finally won his manager's total faith. Jesus was restricted to just eight Premier League starts in 2018-19 but still scored seven times and he was picked over Aguero for the FA Cup final demolition of Watford, in which he scored a brace.

One of the more prolonged transfer sagas of the close-season is over after Juventus completed the purchase of highly rated Dutch defender Matthijs de Ligt from Ajax.

The 19-year-old is regarded as one of the finest prospects in world football and will cost Juve a total of €85.5million, with the Serie A champions beating off competition from a host of major European clubs for his signature.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Barcelona and Liverpool were all strongly linked with the imposing centre-back, but he will instead bolster Juve's already impressive squad.

Juve have moved with impressive decisiveness in the transfer market in recent times and new coach Maurizio Sarri has a particularly strong array of defenders to choose from next term following confirmation of De Ligt's arrival.

Below, we examined what Sarri's squad looks like after De Ligt's signing, what further changes could be made and how the team might start the season...

GOALKEEPER AND DEFENCE – An end of an era?

There have been changes aplenty in this department at Juve recently. Wojciech Szczesny can expect to remain first choice between the posts, but the return of Gianluigi Buffon on a year-long contract will keep the Pole on his toes.

One of the most surprising things about Juve's close season is their apparent willingness to offload Joao Cancelo, a standout performer last term. He is being strongly linked with Manchester City, as Danilo seems likely to go the other way.

Nevertheless, Juve's defence has been suitably bolstered. With Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci getting on in years, the sought-after De Ligt, Cristian Romero and Merih Demiral provide long-term quality and youthfulness at centre-back (albeit Romero will remain at Genoa on loan next season], while 19-year-old Luca Pellegrini offers competition at left-back.

Sarri's biggest decision will revolve around his centre-back choices. Having worked with Daniele Rugani at Empoli, he might see more action and De Ligt can surely expect to feature regularly.

An end to the Chiellini-Bonucci dynasty might not be far away.

 

MIDFIELD – Big roles for Pjanic and Ramsey

Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot are the new midfield arrivals and both join with massive expectations – particularly the former, who many feel could be Juve's answer to the Marek Hamsik of Sarri's Napoli side.

Sarri's favoured 4-3-3 dictates one of the midfield trio will sit deeper. He likes that player to be very comfortable on the ball and a fine passer, meaning Miralem Pjanic looks set to fill the 'Jorginho role', as the Bosnian appears rather more suited than Sami Khedira and Emre Can.

Given Rabiot's lack of action over the past year at Paris Saint-Germain, he looks to have the most work to do to break into the starting XI, while Rodrigo Bentancur's fine development means he is likely to become essential.

However, should Juve pull off the signing of Paul Pogba from Manchester United, he would surely be an automatic pick on the left of the central trident.

 

ATTACK – Departures galore expected

Juve's options in attack are numerous, and several of them were being linked with moves away even before Sarri's appointment was confirmed.

Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa and Mario Mandzukic are all reportedly for sale, while Gonzalo Higuain's situation is by no means clear.

The Argentinian excelled under Sarri at Napoli and joined him at Chelsea in January, but he underwhelmed in the Premier League. As such, it is difficult to see how he fits in at Juve, but he and the coach clearly have a rapport.

Federico Bernardeschi and Cristiano Ronaldo are untouchable, while Moise Kean showed plenty of promise towards the end of last season, but if all of Sarri's expendables leave, they will be left a little short on the flanks.

Few wingers have been linked with the Bianconeri, though they are said to hold an interest in Callum Hudson-Odoi, Federico Chiesa and Burnley youngster Dwight McNeil.

 

POSSIBLE JUVENTUS XI FOR 2019-20

Szczesny; De Sciglio, De Ligt, Rugani, Alex Sandro; Pjanic, Ramsey, Bentancur; Bernardeschi, Ronaldo, Mandzukic

Not even the arrival of the rain could dampen the spirits of the fans on the final practice day for the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush.

The sunshine that bathed the Dunluce links on Monday and Tuesday was replaced by a cloud and drizzle on Wednesday.

But the weather did nothing to paint a bleak outcome for a tournament the R&A said will be the best attended Open outside of St Andrews, with an estimated 237,750 people expected to walk through the entrance gates from Thursday to Sunday.

And, just a day out from the beginning of play, our Omnisport team brings you the behind-the-scenes goings on in Northern Ireland. 

HOME HOPE MCILROY ECLIPSES TIGER

The interview room in the media centre this week has been visited by Claret Jug holder Francesco Molinari, multiple major winner Brooks Koepka, former world number one Dustin Johnson, and the legendary Phil Mickelson, among others.

But the battle for the best-attended media conference was always going to be between 15-time major champion Tiger Woods and home hope Rory McIlroy.

And, after some admittedly rushed counting of empty seats - of which there were very few - during each event, this Omnisport reporter can declare McIlroy as the winner!

There's no trophy to accompany this honour, Rory, but I'm sure you're proud of the achievement...

 

MCILROY AND MCDOWELL NEED A DE-CIDER

McIlroy famously shot a course record at Portrush back in 2005, at the age of just 16.

It was a clear indication the young Northern Irishman was destined for great things, but fellow major winner and compatriot Graeme McDowell reckons his best score on the links course might be more impressive, given that he was under the influence at the time.

He explained: "I remember when Rory shot the 61 – I thought, 'wow, that's a serious score' and that he was a serious, serious player. 

"I shot 63 a couple of times, although not in the North of Ireland Championship like he did – maybe it doesn't count as much when you're having a Magners on the 10th tee with the lads! Or maybe it counts more…"

 

WHERE'S THAT BALL GONE THEN?!

It is not only out and about on the course you can see the world's best players at a major championship, with the practice range a huge draw for the patrons.

One of the funky features of the range is the LED screens that surround the bays that track the progress of a player's golf ball.

That technology is made possible by Toptracer, who a couple of Omnisport staff on the ground spent some time with ahead of the start of play.

Any thoughts of a high-tech tent were quickly misguided, with a beautifully simplistic set-up on display. 

Unsurprisingly, Dustin Johnson was high up the leaderboard in terms of longest drive, but it was Chan Kim who was leading the way...

The NFC North might just be the strongest division in the NFL.

It was the Chicago Bears who surprisingly took the division title in 2018 as the league's stingiest defense helped first-time head coach Matt Nagy make an immediate impact.

The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers took steps back but, given the wealth of talent on the two teams, it would not be surprising if either or both made deep playoff runs this time around, while most of Chicago's roster remains intact.

Here is the outlook for the NFC North heading into training camp:

TEAM ON THE RISE

Green Bay Packers

Surely the only way is up for a Packers team coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1992? Aaron Rodgers will have extra motivation to prove it was former coach Mike McCarthy and not the quarterback that was the problem in Titletown. The defense already had a fine young core in Jaire Alexander, Blake Martinez and Kenny Clark. Throw in first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage, and free-agency acquisitions Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos, and Mike Pettine's unit has top-10 potential.

That, coupled with some typical Rodgers magic, should be enough for the Pack to get back on track under new coach Matt LaFleur.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Detroit Lions

The other NFC North teams enter the 2019 season all with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, leaving the Lions as the odd ones out. Detroit finished 6-10 in Matt Patricia's debut campaign — losing seven of nine before a meaningless Week 17 clash with Green Bay — and the dip may get sharper in 2019. 

Patricia's old-school methods reportedly rubbed some the wrong way and the murmurs of discontent will only grow louder if Detroit cannot get off to a good start, with the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Packers and Vikings all on the schedule in a tricky opening six-game stretch. Then there is quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for a paltry 3,777 yards across 16 starts in 2018. At 31, he is running out of time to prove he can take the next step.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions: Former Patriots defensive coordinator Patricia saw in New England how a do-it-all tight end can transform an offense and Detroit drafted Hockenson eighth overall in the hope he could have a Rob Gronkowski-like impact in the Motor City. Only one Lions receiver — Kenny Golladay (1,063 yards) — accrued more than 517 receiving yards in 2018 and Levine Toilolo (263 yards) led all tight ends so Hockenson should provide an immediate upgrade.

David Montgomery, RB, Bears: Having traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles before the draft, Chicago moved up in the third round to pick Montgomery, an elusive back seemingly more suited to Nagy's offense. Tarik Cohen will once again provide the pizzazz outside the tackles but Montgomery can do plenty of damage inside for a team that had the sixth-most rushing attempts in 2018. If Kyler Murray doesn't live up to the hype, Montgomery might walk, or run, away with the Rookie of the Year prize for a Bears team likely to lean on the rush again given Mitchell Trubisky's limitations.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Kirk Cousins

He was supposed to be the man to push the Vikings over the hump but Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2018 after reaching the NFC championship game in the campaign before. Cousins begins the second season of a three-year, $84million, fully guaranteed contract desperate to prove he can be spectacular, and not just steady, and Minnesota has to find a way to better protect a QB who was sacked 40 times in 2018. In Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cousins has arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. If the offensive line can hold up, he has no excuses.

KEY INJURIES

Dalvin Cook, knee and hamstring: Cousins' life will become a lot easier if Minnesota's star running back can stay healthy. Cook has missed 17 games over his first two seasons in the league but has flashed plenty of ability in his time on the field. The Vikings brought in Gary Kubiak to aid their offense this season and Cook figures to thrive in his zone-blocking scheme if he can put his injury troubles behind him.

Kerryon Johnson, knee: Rookie Johnson snapped Detroit's 70-game streak of not having a 100-yard rusher, and he might have become their first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013 had a knee injury not ended his campaign prematurely. Heading into his second season, the Lions need Johnson to pick up where he left off as he will be the focus of the ground attack in an offense that might be one of the more run-oriented in the entire NFL.

There is a stencil artwork of a young Rory McIlroy on a wall by the Portrush seafront. The photograph on which it is based shows the cherubic face of a boy no older than seven or eight, his eyes tracing the flight of a golf ball he has just struck.

Off in the distance, about a mile from that depiction, sits the town's famous links course, Royal Portrush, which plays host to the 2019 Open Championship.

On Thursday, a 30-year-old McIlroy will step onto the first tee as the favourite to win the Claret Jug. It would be the Northern Irishman's second, and a fifth major triumph in total.

Speaking on the eve of that landmark day, McIlroy addressed a crowd of media larger than that which had assembled for 15-time major winner Tiger Woods 24 hours earlier and declared: "I'm not the centre of attention."

It may have been modesty, or perhaps just a case of wishful thinking, as McIlroy appears determined to understate the role he has to play on home soil while everyone else talks up his part.

"One of my sort of mantras this week is: Look around and smell the roses," he said. 

"This is a wonderful thing for this country and golf in general, and to be quite a big part of it is an honour and a privilege.

"I want to keep reminding myself of that, that this is bigger than me, right? This is bigger than me."

He said it twice, first posed as a question, the second time a statement. It was an attempt to convince not only those listening but also himself.

McIlroy knows that even if the tournament itself does indeed eclipse his own significance, there is no single player this week who will attract a greater share of the spotlight. No, not even Tiger.

The Open has been a happy hunting ground for McIlroy, who won it in 2014 before an ankle injury suffered during an ill-advised football kickabout ruled him out of defending his title.

Since then, in three subsequent outings at the world's oldest major, he has not finished outside the top five.

Woods and Phil Mickelson are the only two active players with more major wins than McIlroy, but it has been five years since his last and there is a growing sense he may fall short of the admittedly lofty expectations that once rested on his shoulders, and in many ways still do. 

Over the next four days - because the notion of McIlroy missing the cut at this event cannot be seriously entertained - he will feel those expectations manifest in the form of widespread goodwill from the massed ranks of fans who will line the Portrush course in the hope of seeing a fairy tale play out.

The locals here are proud to see this venue hosting The Open once again, many of them having not been born when it last had the honour 68 years ago. For one of the country's most famous exports to win it would make them prouder still.

That would be a story a young McIlroy could scarcely have comprehended.

Cronulla Sharks were the victims as Cameron Smith marked his landmark 400th NRL appearance in style last week.

And the Sharks are now in desperate need of a win as they approach a fixture with New Zealand Warriors, who they have a good record against.

Josh Mansour and Penrith Panthers are also facing favourable opponents, while Smith and Melbourne Storm might be able to further improve an outstanding season.

We take a look at the week's key statistics, courtesy of Opta.

 

Thursday

Brisbane Broncos (6-9-1) v Canterbury Bulldogs (5-11)

- Each of the past six NRL games between the Broncos and the Bulldogs have been won by the home team on the day.

- Anthony Milford has had four try involvements (one try, three assists) in his past four NRL matches against the Bulldogs.

Friday

New Zealand Warriors (6-9-1) v Cronulla Sharks (7-9)

- The Sharks have won nine of their past 11 NRL games against the Warriors, including four on the bounce.

- However, Cronulla are on a four-match losing run. The last time they endured more consecutive losses was a 10-match span across the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

Penrith Panthers (8-8) v St George Illawarra Dragons (6-10)

- The Panthers have won four of their past five NRL games against the Dragons at Panthers Stadium, conceding an average of just 11 points per game in that time.

- Mansour has scored a try and produced at least two tackle breaks in each of his previous three NRL matches against the Dragons.

Saturday

Sydney Roosters (10-6) v Newcastle Knights (8-8)

- The Knights are looking to defeat the Roosters twice in a single campaign for the first time in premiership history.

- Kalyn Ponga has had three try involvements (two tries, one assist) in his past two NRL matches against the Roosters.

Canberra Raiders (10-6) v Wests Tigers (7-9)

- The Raiders have won five of their past six NRL matches against Wests, with those victories coming by an average margin of 40 points per game.

- Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has gained 999 metres returning kicks in NRL 2019, the most of any player this season.

North Queensland Cowboys (7-9) v South Sydney Rabbitohs (11-5)

- The Rabbitohs have won their past three NRL games in succession against the Cowboys – twice by a margin of just one point – after having won only one of their nine prior meetings.

- Cowboys have scored the joint-most tries (11, also Parramatta Eels) in the final 10 minutes of the first half of games this season.

Sunday

Gold Coast Titans (4-12) v Melbourne Storm (14-2)

- The Storm have won six of their previous seven NRL games against the Titans, keeping them scoreless in the second halves of three of their past four meetings.

- Smith has successfully kicked 13 of his past 14 shots at goal against the Titans in the NRL.

Manly Sea Eagles (9-7) v Parramatta Eels (9-7)

- The Eels have won seven of their past eight NRL games against the Sea Eagles, but they were defeated 54-0 when these teams last met at Lottoland.

- The Sea Eagles and the Eels have scored the joint-most tries (10, also Melbourne Storm) from their own half of the field of all the sides in the NRL this year.

It does not matter if you are Tiger Woods, an aspiring amateur, a club-shop pro, or a recreational golfer - the truth is anyone who has picked up a club at some point or another has hit a duff shot.

Don't even lie about it. You've done it, I've done it. Every professional golfer has at one point or another done it. It's okay, it happens – after that initial fury bubbling up inside you subsides, you realise it's all part of the learning process.

Now, in a bygone era it may have been a friend or relative offering 'advice' as to why your ball has gone inexplicably careering to the right.

You lifted your head too soon, you over-rotated, you're swinging too quickly. Yes, dad, alright, I get it, that was a terrible shot.

But, the experience of the driving range is meant to be fun and is only being enhanced thanks to the Toptracer technology, which Omnisport checked out at Royal Portrush's practice range ahead of the 148th Open Championship.

For those unfamiliar with the company, the funky ball-tracking lines on broadcasts following the progress of a player's shot are made possible by Toptracer.

The idea was essentially to enhance the viewing experience of fans watching at home by tracking the flight of a ball and adding graphics so you can see the height, trajectory and destination of a shot.

In 2012, Toptracer expanded its reach to driving ranges in a bid to improve the experience off the practice mats.

"I think this really suits every standard as a golfer. As a beginner your eye isn't particularly well trained on what the golf ball could be doing and so very often you see when a beginner will look for a golf ball and see where it's gone," Paul Williams, General Manager of Toptracer Europe, told Omnisport. 

"By having the information right there in the [driving range] bay on a 21-inch touch screen, giving you feedback on how high it's gone and what direction, gives them insight, education and a journey into the sport. 

"They instantly become more engaged, we're seeing lots of our venues running beginner golf groups and booking straight onto improved courses because they're getting hooked straight way."

Even at just shy of 5.30pm on Tuesday, when Omnisport visited the Toptracer tent, there were still plenty of professionals out honing their skills and throughout the day the grandstand behind the practice range was packed with patrons trying to get a glimpse of their favourite golfer – a certain local hero by the name of Rory McIlroy proving a particularly popular draw.

The LED screens to the left of the range - featuring Toptracer graphics - do provide a genuinely enhanced experience in this part of the week, but the players also gain useful information such as ball speed, curve and apex.

"The tournament range set-up has been used at The Open since St Andrews four years ago. Each year more players are becoming more familiar with the technology available to them," Williams added.

"It's quite interesting. We see very similar reactions from the best players in the world to people we see at our driving ranges, where they'll hit a shot and after watching a second or two of ball flight they'll look at the screen and go 'right what did the ball do?' 

"It's just for that confirmation of data that they're looking for to improve their game and, for these guys here, making sure they're in the best condition for The Open Championship.

"We have some of the players' caddies pop into the station to the side of the driving range. They'll come in and ask for their player to be put up on the boards.  

"Each of them can have their data on their warm-up rounds, and obviously before they go out in the tournament - the tech is live until Sunday when they leave the range."

So, what about behind the scenes? If you're imagining a futuristic room packed with funky gadgets then you'd be very much mistaken. It is a beautifully simplistic set-up, with only a handful of staff in the tent with laptops and screens.

One such man helping to bring the practice sessions to life is Dustin Thomas, who helps run Toptracer's range operations.

Part of his job involves hitting a few practice shots prior to the players arriving and picking which names to include on the LED board.

"I pick and choose based on what they're hitting and we do like to listen to the fans and also the players," he said, while demonstrating the different features available.

"If someone is requested we like to choose them. But also we like to use the long hitters out there and use some pretty cool drives."

So, who have been the big hitters so far at the practice range at Portrush?

"Right now we have Dustin Johnson, Kevin Kisner and C. [Chan] Kim on the leaderboards. That was when the wind was kind of down," Thomas added.

"The top drive is 320 yards. Johnson is following with 315. We can do some cool features with those long drives and show it in fireworks mode. We take all of the long drives, put them into a group and send them all off at once."

'Fireworks mode' is a pretty apt term considering the field at The Open this week will be looking to produce sparks out on the course at Portrush.

And who knows? Perhaps the man who gets his hands on the Claret Jug on Sunday may have done so with the aid of information they gleaned from Toptracer.

Rory McIlroy is used to the intense gaze of the golfing world being locked onto his every move but that feeling will be enhanced tenfold at the 148th Open Championship.

For the first time in McIlroy's lifetime, The Open will be held in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush – where he holds the course record.

Expectations will be high from a partisan home crowd and from McIlroy himself.

But McIlroy heads home without a major championship to his name in the past five years, the last of his four coming at the 2014 US PGA Championship.

At that time it seemed laughable McIlroy would not add to his tally. Now, though, after several near misses, the question of whether the 30-year-old can be a major winner again is up for debate, which is exactly what two Omnisport writers have done ahead of The Open.

STAND STILL AND YOU GO BACKWARDS IN THIS GAME, RORY - RUSSELL GREAVES

In 2014, McIlroy had the world at his feet. His Valhalla victory made it back-to-back major triumphs, the 25-year-old adding the US PGA title to the Claret Jug he had lifted the month before.

With four majors to his name, the sky was the limit.

But in the game of golf, if you stand still you will go backwards. And that is the fate that has befallen McIlroy.

In the past three years alone, Brooks Koepka has drawn level with McIlroy's major haul, while Jordan Spieth is within one. Even Tiger Woods, who was declared finished by some, has returned to the winner's circle at one of golf's four headline events.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has flattered to deceive, collecting top-10 finishes (10 of them, in fact) without ever showing the killer instinct to finish the job.

There have been collapses, but mostly he has just faded away or else quietly put together a decent Sunday round to add window dressing to an underwhelming outing.

His form at The Open underscores this tendency to appear on the radar without actually threatening to strike.

In 2016 he placed tied fifth after a fine closing 67, but he was 16 shots adrift of the imperious Henrik Stenson. A year later, at Royal Birkdale, another final-round 67 saw him share fourth spot, seven strokes behind. And last year, when Carnoustie hosted, he was within two of Francesco Molinari's winning score.

McIlroy has often appeared to be in close proximity to major glory, but he has in truth been a world away, gazing longingly from the vantage point of a man who once knew what such lofty achievements felt like. It is a feeling he may never experience again.

RORY IS A VICTIM OF HIS OWN SUCCESS, HE WILL BE A MAJOR WINNER AGAIN - PETER HANSON

Let's put something into context here. McIlroy had four major wins to his name before the age of 30.

Only three players could boast more by the same milestone. Two of those were Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the greatest to have played this toughest of sports.

You see the problem when a player like McIlroy is marked as a prodigious talent is that anything short of the extraordinary is deemed a failure.

But not many in history can lay claim to the same achievements by this stage of his career than McIlroy can. Against what benchmark should we be monitoring him here?

The successes of Spieth and Koepka are not an indication of a player standing still, more an era in which it is nigh on impossible to stand as a lone dominant force.

McIlroy's top-10 finishes must not be viewed as a sign of failure but as one of a player with remarkable consistency.

No one will be more disappointed than McIlroy himself that things have not quite been able to click all at once over four days in major tournaments over the past five years.

But when it does all come together, and it absolutely will, McIlroy – who has been a victim of his own success – will be a major champion once again.

The AFC North has been dominated by the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers for years, but this finally could be the year of the Cleveland Browns.

It is a division that has a new look all around, as the Browns and Ravens made some big offseason signings, the Bengals added a new head coach for the first time in 17 years and the Steelers moved on from two thirds of their 'Killer B' trio.

Here's the outlook for the AFC North heading into training camp:

Team on the rise

Cleveland Browns

The Browns had nowhere to go but up in 2018 after posting a winless record the previous season, but after going 7-8-1 last time out they could really take off in 2019.

One of the biggest stories this offseason was Cleveland's acquisition of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants. But the Browns didn't stop there and made a controversial decision to sign running back Kareem Hunt following his release from the Kansas City Chiefs after the emergence of a video appearing to show him in a violent altercation with a woman. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 campaign following an NFL investigation.

Among those returning for the Browns after helping turn around the team last season are Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb, making the Browns not only the most intriguing team in the AFC North but also one of the most interesting ones in the entire NFL.

Team on the decline

Cincinnati Bengals

It's a new era in Cincinnati, which means the Bengals could be looking up from the bottom of the division for a year or two as they find their footing.

The team brought in first-time head coach Zac Taylor after parting ways with long-time coach Marvin Lewis, and the 36-year-old will face the tall task of helping the team rebound from their first last-place finish in the division since 2010 after the Browns held the position from 2011-17.

However, much of the team's turnaround will depend on the recovery of their offense after the Bengals lost quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb), wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) and tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) to injuries last season.

Rookies to watch

Devin Bush, LB, Steelers: The Steel Curtain has been far from impenetrable since the team lost Ryan Shazier to a spine injury, so Pittsburgh traded up to take Michigan standout Bush 10th overall and he quickly made an impression on his team-mates during OTAs. Bush, who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine, had 172 tackles, 18.5 tackles for losses, 10 sacks and an interception in 32 games in his three seasons with the Wolverines.

Marquise Brown, WR, Ravens: The Ravens surprised many taking Brown with the 25th pick of the first round. The team doesn't have the best history drafting receivers, and Lamar Jackson carried much of the offensive load last season as he ranked 30th in rushing yards, joining Cam Newton (49th) as the only quarterbacks in the top 50. Still, Brown proved to be a valuable — and speedy — weapon as Kyler Murray's top target at Oklahoma, posting 75 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Player spotlight

Earl Thomas

After spending the first nine seasons of his career in Seattle, ex-Seahawk Thomas is in for an adjustment in 2019 with the Ravens, but that doesn't mean he isn't up for the challenge.

A key member of the "Legion of Boom" secondary and Seahawks defense that was among the NFL's stingiest for almost a decade, Thomas brings a level of intensity, determination and leadership that the Ravens defense has arguably lacked since Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed's retirement.

Imagine what Thomas brings to a defense that ranked first in yards allowed in 2018. His fire was only fuelled after he broke his leg last season, and he famously didn't hide his feelings from the Seahawks...

Expect to see that ferocity throughout this season, beginning Week 1 when he finally makes his return to the field.

Key injuries

James Conner, ankle: The Steelers running back broke out last season as he took on a larger role in the absence of Le'Veon Bell during his contract holdout, but an ankle injury limited Conner to just 13 games. With Bell gone, expect Conner's duties to be expanded - if he can stay healthy - as he looks to build on the 973 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns he had in 2018.

Andy Dalton, thumb: The Bengals quarterback went down with a thumb injury late in the season, landing on injured reserve on November 26, but threw for 2,566 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions before being sidelined. Pairing his return to the field with Green and Tyler Eifert's comebacks will certainly give Cincinnati a boost.

It was another glorious day at Royal Portush as preparations for the Open Championship continued on Tuesday.

Players aplenty faced the media - including a certain Tiger Woods - and there were a host of big names out on the course.

And they weren't the only ones strolling the stunning links track, with Omnisport's reporters also on the prowl.

Here's a sample of what they happened upon during their travels inside the media tent and beyond...

 

NO PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT?

Brooks Koepka's record is a peculiar thing.

The world number one has won four of the past 10 majors and placed second at the Masters and U.S. Open either side of defending the US PGA Championship in the first three major tournaments of 2019.

But he is only a twice a winner on the regular PGA Tour. So what's the difference?

"I just practice before the majors. Regular tournaments I don't practice. If you've seen me on TV, that's when I play golf," he said to laughter from the press pack.

Top marks for honesty there, Brooks.

PINT OF GUINNESS, TIGER?

Tiger Woods was in a jovial mood during his media conference, which as ever was the best attended of them all.

When asked if he'd had chance to have a sip of Guinness, the three-time Open winner offered this assessment of one of the more popular Irish delicacies.

"This week? No, not this week. In the past...hmm," he joked.

 

LOST IN THE ROUGH

One of the joys of covering an Open Championship is heading out on the course to take in the sights and catch a bit of golf.

On practice days, with reduced crowds, it's an opportunity to follow some of the big names without having to contend with the masses that follow the action during the tournament.

But the plans of one Omnisport reporter, who set out to watch Brooks Koepka, were thwarted by some poor navigation and, in fairness, a little bit of bad luck.

If you take a wrong turn on this course and get stuck the wrong side of one of the boundary ropes that funnel spectators down certain pathways, you can end up a long way from where you want to be.

And so it proved for this lost reporter, who never did track down Koepka and was left instead to watch Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who has won four fewer majors than the American.

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