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4 sports thoughts

We’re halfway there…

After the disappointment of the Swans I really needed the Wallabies to deliver last night and thankfully they did. Well, they delivered half a performance. It seems it takes 40 minutes for these guys to wake up and play like we know they can.

Against Argentina, half a performance was adequate to get the win but against New Zealand or any other more consistent team, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Our first half was dismal. We looked disorganised in defense and lacklustre in attack. At times both teams looked to be treating the ball like it was a hot potato. Argentina thrive on broken play that lets them throw the ball around and find gaps in our off guard defensive line and we gave them plenty to capitalise on.

In the second half we looked like a different team. We had upped the tempo and soon left them in the dust. We were hunting as a pack and it made a huge difference. Supportive and organised play makes front-foot ball much easier to obtain and sets your attack up for success. In the first half our work at the break down was miserable but it did pick up in the second half. There is still a lot of room for improvement in that area though if we are to compete with New Zealand.

McMahon had a cracking game and made a serious impact. While Beale’s kicking left a bit to be desired (namely metres) he performed well around the park, and his skills were on display when the tempo increased. Foley’s kicking made it a much more convincing win on the scoreboard and I wish he could deliver accuracy like that consistently. Consistency is really the key and I know it is what Cheika is demanding of them.

Uelese seems to be a star well and truly in the making. With both Uelese and Polata-Nau in fine form and making their presence felt, it seems unlikely Moore will return to the side, barring injury, which in Tatafu’s case is highly likely. I had few complaints with those on the field in the second half and I was very impressed by our scrummaging efforts. It’s the less glamorous side of rugby, but an important part. Sometimes you need to win ugly and the consistent pressure we put on at scrum time paid off, highlighting how far the Pumas have fallen in that area of the game.

Prior to kick off I was treated to the closing stages of the game between New Zealand and South Africa. What a terrible match for the South Africans. The All Blacks were in devastatingly excellent form, not slowing down at any point and never taking their foot off the pedal. They didn’t just want to win, they wanted to destroy their opposition and they did. What really impressed me was their defensive effort. To allow not one point to go against you is no mean feat. It means not one lapse of concentration can occur for the entire match and as much as I long to see them defeated, I can’t help but admire their effort.

We were treated pretty harshly for our first loss to them but I was proud of our performance in the second half. While we won’t be making a case for any trophies this season, we have shown guts and ability and I am not ashamed of our side or efforts at all. There is undeniably a lot of work to be done, but the same could be said of South Africa. I will be interested to see how the rest of the matches play out, as I think we are building something good. An 80 minute performance is just around the corner. I hope.

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Only love (and football) can break your heart

It was one hell of a ride. It had to end somewhere and sadly last night was that somewhere. My evening got off to a shocking start, with my train running over 40 minutes late. I walked through the door to discover the game had already started and I had a sinking feeling it wouldn’t end well.

Despite kicking the first goal of the match, we didn’t play particularly well from the get go. We were outclassed all over the park. Everything we tried to do, they did better. We couldn’t take a mark, kick a goal or even defend it appeared. Sadly, it was last week all over again and this time we had Essendon’s role.

Buddy failed to kick a goal, contributing only three behinds, while Dangerfield kicked four. Everything they touched turned to goals and everything we touched was dropped. I felt for McVeigh, who kicked an admirable goal in his 300th game. He deserved a match to remember but he got one that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

By half time I knew it was over. We didn’t have it in us to fight back. The commentators claimed it was down to our star players not performing. They listed Kennedy, Franklin, Parker and Hannebery, but really the list could have been longer. What I found amusing was they highlighted just how many stars we have. Despite the loss, we still have a hell of a lot of talent and I don’t see that as a downfall at all.

Given the result of the match was decided so early, I had plenty of time to reflect. The entire second half in fact. It has been an undeniably amazing season. To turn it around the way we did after losing our first six on the trot was a feat to be admired. We played into week two of finals footy. That in itself is unbelievable. Longmire has suggested they were exhausted and it is little wonder after playing for their lives every week since round seven.

Geelong could afford to have a bad week last week and so could GWS. We couldn’t. We robbed ourselves of that luxury long ago and last night we finally paid for it. The harsh reality of footy, is to experience those exhilarating wins, someone has to endure a heart wrenching loss. Last night, we enabled Geelong and their fans to celebrate. Sometimes, that is how it goes.

At three quarter time, I was nothing short of heart broken. It hammered home for me just how much I love this team. Those who say only love can break your heart clearly aren’t football fanatics. What they achieved this year was inspirational and watching them limp towards the end of their season was difficult to watch.

In the closing minutes of the game I left the room but forced myself to return. They deserved my support in the closing moments of their season. Like any relationship built to last, you have to be there through thick and thin. I am committed to the Sydney Swans and while they were beaten last night, I will be proud to cheer on the red and white next season. They are an extraordinary club and they will always be my club.

The time of my life and the tie of theirs…

Attending my first AFL final was everything I hoped it would be. From the minute we hit Central station the swarm of red and white was evident. The closer we got to the ground, the thicker the crowds became and it was clear it was the place to be.

The queue to get into the stadium was insane. It took a ridiculously long time to make it through the gates and the first bounce occurred before we were able to take our seats. I wouldn’t have had it any other way though. There was not a spare seat in the house and the effect was amazing.

The atmosphere was incredible. The first quarter was a lot closer than it should have been, with our defensive efforts (or lack thereof) keeping them in the game. Fortunately their inaccurate kicking kept them from converting any ascendancy into scoreboard pressure. The few Essendon fans in the stadium were bravely piping up and letting us know they were there.

Let’s just say the second quarter silenced them. Sadly, the game was all but over by half time. With Buddy kicking a few and almost everything we touched turning to goals, there was not a lot of fight left in Essendon for the rest of the game. It was a dominant performance and one that highlighted just how far we have come this season. As the Swans left the field at half time we gave them a standing ovation. They had essentially gotten the job done and we couldn’t be more proud.

When a win is effectively secured so early, you cannot help but start to worry about injuries. As Rohan was forced from the field with what appeared to be a leg injury, I was more than a little concerned. It happened right in front of us and while play continued, our eyes were fixed firmly on Gary and the attention he was getting from the physio. As he got to his feet and began to run it off along the sideline, we applauded and cheered. It seems we all know just how important he is to our finals campaign.

When the final siren sounded we all got to our feet and belted out our song. It was an amazing performance and they are undoubtedly a team filling their fans with pride. I am nervous but hopeful about Geelong next week, but given the nature of our season, we are already winners in my eyes, no matter where our season ends.

Living the hard life of a dual code footy fan, I had to hurry home for my next instalment. I missed the first 15 minutes or so of the rugby and wasn’t surprised to see only penalty goals had been exchanged. It was to be expected playing South Africa. Going into the match I wasn’t sure which way it would go, but I think the ending was fitting.

Our attack was good and seems to be improving. Beale is really stepping up and his kicking around the field has really improved. He seemed more capable of getting us down the other end of the park than Foley and I am pleased to see those duties getting shared around. There were still more errors than we can afford and I feel our work at the breakdown leaves a lot to be desired. Both New Zealand and South Africa have stolen too much ball and we don’t seem to be returning the favour.

With very little between the two sides it could have gone either way. We had our chances and so did they. Our set piece was not as reliable as it should be and their dominance is ultimately what kept us from capitalising on our opportunities. If we could insert their set piece into our game, we would have a side that could take down the All Blacks. If only.

As tough as it would have been for the players, I think it was the right result. No team deserved to win and no team deserved to lose. In another bizarre turn of events, after the rugby finished I turned my attention to the other AFL final. With a few minutes to go the possibility of a tie was being discussed. I thought it unlikely given how easy it is to score a point in AFL. I was wrong.

With scores tied at the end of the fourth quarter, they went into two extra time periods. An amazing effort prevented a behind during regular time and off to extra time they went. With Port Adelaide three scoring shots ahead I thought they had it won. West Coast however, kept refusing to lie down. In a ridiculous turn of events they kicked a goal after the siren to win by two points. All I can say is good luck to GWS next week.

After a weekend off from footy last weekend, I must admit I loved having it back. There is nothing more interesting or unpredictable and completely and utterly addictive. Here’s hoping the Swans get up next week, because I am not ready to give up my weekly dose just yet.

You two have got to stop meeting like this

With the Swans kicking off at 4.30 and the rugby slated to start around 5.30, it was guaranteed to be a weekend of divided attention. I had high hopes the Swans would have things well and truly under control by the time the rugby started, relieving some of the pressure. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.

After a strong start we allowed Carlton to get back into the game in the second quarter, giving up much of our substantial lead. Unfortunately for them though, it seems that was all the fight they had left in them this year. So finals here we come. It was a dominant performance that built as the match progressed, ending in an 81 point victory.

Just as interesting as the result of the game itself was Buddy’s attempt to chase down Josh Kennedy in the race for the Coleman Medal. He gave it a fair shake. 10 goals shot him from fourth place to first by the end of the match. Kennedy needed to kick six goals in the game against Adelaide last night and he managed only one, despite West Coast getting the win and sneaking into the eight.

It will undoubtedly be an interesting finals series, with Adelaide, despite sitting on top of the ladder, falling to both us and now West Coast in the lead up. No matter what happens from here on in, it has been a remarkable season for the Swans. From 0-6 to one of the most formidable teams in the comp heading into finals, they can deservedly take a bow. With a final against Essendon at the SCG I have high hopes it won’t end there.

After last week I had no idea what to expect from the rugby on Saturday night. Once again, it was completely bizarre. A Wallaby try within the first 30 seconds was not something you can ever predict against New Zealand. Let alone scoring the first three tries and leading for most of the match. Our intensity was much improved and our tackles were actually sticking. What was more surprising though, was how many mistakes the All Blacks made.

You won’t get a better opportunity than that to beat New Zealand. Uncharacteristic errors riddled their game, with Sonny Bill in particular struggling to gain composure. Sadly though, we still weren’t good enough. Missed opportunities to punish them with seven points for every try kept them in the game.

As we looked set to score with 15 minutes to go I was actually willing us not to. It was too soon. Way too soon. Hanging on to a tiny lead like that is hard work against anyone, let alone those guys. Don’t get me wrong, I celebrated every one of our successes but I knew I had to enjoy it while it lasted. Sadly, it didn’t last.

There were plenty of efforts to be commended though. Kuridrani was outstanding, delivering his strong running that always makes ground. Our defensive effort on the wing was also noticeably improved. Pola Ta-Nau made a huge difference when he came on and reinforced my argument for bringing him into the starting side. While it was a good effort, it wasn’t enough.

It was an admirable effort when you consider what our preparation was leading into these games. With dismal performances all round for our Super Rugby sides, with the Brumbies the only side to feature (if only briefly) in the finals series, it was always going to be a tough ask. The Crusaders nabbed yet another title this year and the New Zealand teams starred all season. I still believed that a united front could triumph though. Maybe next year…

In the meantime, I will be thankful for the AFL and rugby to simply stop meeting like this.

 

Whirlwind weekend

It was always going to be a big weekend of sport. With the Swans spending Friday night at the Adelaide Oval trying to bring down the top team and the Wallabies welcoming the All Blacks to Sydney, there was a lot of work to be done. Sadly, only one team delivered the result I was after. At the end of the day, though, it was better than two losses.

I was scheduled to return home early on Friday evening and had made plans to settle in front of the TV and watch the swans play what I suspected would be a cracking game of footy. High winds and an airline stuff up saw me settling in front of a TV in a Melbourne hotel room. It was annoying, sure, but I could still watch the game, so I wasn’t too upset.

I couldn’t have predicted the great start that we got off to. It was exactly what you always hope for but rarely get. It is not by mere luck though that Adelaide sit on top of the ladder. I was more than prepared for them to fight back and turn it into the close game everyone was hoping for. And fight they did.

Throughout the match the crowd had a pretty massive impact. Adelaide Oval is far from a friendly place for opposition teams and you couldn’t help but notice the influence the crowd had on the umpiring decisions. Hilariously the commentators claimed to have been oblivious to any bias, however were brought back to earth when the stat of 28 free kicks to 14 was presented to them.

While it was our composure that ultimately won us the game, our goal kicking was impressive. With only 5 behinds kicked all night, it was really what proved the difference, with Adelaide struggling to convert their set shots. Sam Reid was again outstanding and finds himself in just the place at the right time.

With four minutes to go my heart was pounding. A three point lead is far from sufficient with any kind of time left on the clock. I was completely prepared for my heart to be broken but amazingly it wasn’t. It was hardly surprising that in the closing stages Rohan was there to collect the ball and ensure it was up the right end of the ground when the final siren sounded. All I can say heading into finals is guys, look out. We’re coming.

Saturday saw me finally return to Sydney and I was able to settle in for a night of rugby. Or something. I am not sure what I was watching in the first half but it definitely didn’t feel like a test match. It was nothing short of embarrassing. Following an early passage of play where we put together 16 phases and got a measly three points for our efforts, we patted ourselves on the back and then lay down.

The All Blacks steam rolled over us. Over, and over, again. Our defense was non-existent. We seemed to politely step aside as they ran in try after try. You could have been forgiven for thinking you were watching a first grade side taking on a fourth grade side; the skill level was so disparate. I was counting down to half time, willing the pain to stop. Thankfully it eventually arrived, but not soon enough.

With the game well and truly lost it was not surprising that Cheika made changes in the second half. Kuridrani, Polata-Nau and even Phipps made a huge difference when they came on. Kuridrani is the sort of solid and straight running player we need, especially with Beale back in the side. Both he and Polata-Nau injected a sense of urgency in defense and the team as a whole lifted.

With their backs to the wall they did well to outscore New Zealand in the second half but there was a lot that factored into it. With nothing to lose, our players felt free in taking a chance with their attack. New Zealand on the other hand had played an entire match in the first half, so were really a little tired and aware they had already won the game, didn’t have the same level of urgency as us.

While the first half was horrendous, the second was not bad viewing. Sure, we let them score more points against us than they ever have before, but it was a game unlike any I have seen before. The pace and intensity was ridiculous, even for New Zealand. All we can hope is that the next match is a little slower and we find our way into it earlier on. I haven’t completely given up hope and if we can improve our defense we stand half a chance. As Cheika said, “It is that simple, we just need to make those tackles.”

Finally, a relaxing Friday night

Friday night games can really set the tone for your weekend. Last week, I was heart broken. I went to bed feeling angry and disappointed and woke up feeling pretty down. Last night was a whole different story.

The team we fielded would have no problem taking care of almost every team in the competition (barring Hawthorn, but we won’t mention that). There was so much talent on display and so much to be optimistic about as finals draw near. McVeigh was as brilliant as ever, calm and considered and steering the ship with confidence.

Heeney and Reid demonstrated just how special they are, having amazing moments throughout the night. Rohan made the most of every touch and contributed as he always does. One couldn’t help but notice Hayward, as he stood up and kicked three impressive goals.

It was an even more impressive victory when you consider that we were without Josh Kennedy and Buddy kicked only one goal. The side on display last night were a complete team and Geelong didn’t have the answers. Granted they were without Dangerfield and Selwood went off injured for a while, but they really didn’t have what it took to work their way back into the game.

It didn’t help that they failed to capitalise on the opportunities that arose for them in the third quarter. Kicking behinds didn’t make much of a dent in the margin. At times we also struggled in front of goal but ultimately we found them when we needed to. A string of goals soon crushed Geelong’s hopes and I could relax.

The game was wrapped up pretty quickly, allowing the commentators to reflect on the game and the implications of its result for the last 12 minutes of play. I was finally able to enjoy a relaxing Friday night in front of the footy. Last week we saw the Hawthorn effect on full display, but when you look at the record, it seems Geelong suffer from a Sydney effect. Let’s hope it’s contagious.

The Hawthorn Effect

Tonight was beyond frustrating. It is only now that I can even contemplate sitting down and writing about what I witnessed. The score line was nothing unusual for a Sydney Hawthorn game; it seems almost compulsory now that our games be decided by a goal or less. What was unusual was the poor standard of football played by both sides.

The team that played half of the match this evening was one we hadn’t seen since the early rounds of this season. They were disorganised, almost listless at times and had no sense of direction. If I had a dollar for every ‘kick and hope’ that took place tonight I would be very rich. Watching them fail to adjust after time and time again it proved a fruitless tactic was infuriating.

The team we have come to be so proud of over the last few weeks were gone. It seems form means nothing when we enter into a match against Hawthorn and it is starting to get ridiculous. We are more than capable of playing footy that would have destroyed Hawthorn tonight. Yet we didn’t even get close to that kind of performance.

This strange hoodoo that holds us back against them is a classic example of the anomalies that exist in sport. We were the team going from strength to strength, sitting higher on the ladder and with the talent to get the job done. Yet they won. Why? The Hawthorn Effect. We take to the field against them and suddenly we feel rushed. We second-guess every move and we make mistakes.

It appeared that tonight the monkey had returned to the back of Buddy Franklin, his own personal Hawthorn Effect. Whenever he received the ball he was unsure what to do with it, fumbling and generally making a mess of it. It was painful to watch. Tonight was a night we desperately needed him to rise and do those impossible things that only he can do. Aside from a few well-placed kicks, the extraordinary Buddy was really very ordinary.

Thankfully at least one Swan appears to be immune to the Hawthorn Effect. McVeigh never ceases to amaze me, with his cool head and excellent decision-making no matter what pressure he is under. Tonight was no exception and he helped keep us in touch despite our dismal performance. Now if he could only share some of that immunity with his teammates, we might stand a chance.

Tonight also made me acutely aware of how vital Rohan is to this side. All across the ground he contributes, whether it is his great tackling, pace through the middle of the ground or ability to take strong marks and boot goals. He was missed. Oh, was he missed. I can’t help but think that the Rohan Effect could have been enough of an antidote to overcome the Hawthorn Effect.

Overall the game was fairly unimpressive. Hawthorn are far from their best and it was their inability to kick goals in the back end of the game that gave us half a chance to win. Sadly, we had neither the time nor the conviction to get the job done. At half time I knew what would happen – we would fight back, get close but ultimately lose. It is a script well rehearsed and as fans we know every line. It is a steep climb home now but thankfully not one likely to be further hampered by the Hawthorn Effect.

The red and white army

What a Saturday night. I will never tire of the joy that comes with decking myself out in my red and white and joining my fellow fans as we converge upon the SCG. One of the great things about live sport is that the atmosphere extends beyond the ground and across the city.

As I climbed off the train at Central I had little need for the signs directing me to the shuttle buses that would take us to the ground. All I had to do was follow the sea of red and white streaming out of the station. There was a nice mix of first timers and seasoned professionals, with one woman’s membership gear making her the called upon expert when someone wasn’t quite sure which side of the street the buses left from.

Standing on the bus for the short trip to the ground didn’t worry me, as my excitement by that point was palpable and unlikely to be contained within a seat. As my comrades surrounded me I was given a lesson in the power of belonging. Brandishing my red and white scarf I had the pass to their club, our club.

Once we arrived at the ground the atmosphere kicked up a gear. St Kilda fans were few and far between and really had little to cheer about. It was an impressive crowd of nearly 36, 000 and despite the game never really being close, the crowd were really engaged in the game. Further testament to the great footy we are playing at the moment.

I was worried early on when we appeared to be rushing a little, making quick decisions when we had more time. Eventually though we found our rhythm and got the job done. Importantly we were able to answer almost every goal they kicked with one of our own shortly after. It’s the kind of play that really gets your opposition down and sends you a long way to victory.

I cannot help but marvel at the athleticism of these guys whenever I watch a game live. On the TV they look impressive, but they’re on TV and hardly seem real. When faced with them just metres from you, it becomes impossible to deny that they are real and they are seriously impressive. Witnessing brilliant marks close up and seeing Buddy’s ridiculous goal from close quarters was an experience I am unlikely to forget.

In choosing our seats last night, we really struck gold. Not for our view of the ground, but for our complimentary commentary, courtesy of two members of the red and white army behind us. They were classic, pointing out Buddy prefers to kick goals on the run, at every chance they got. “Oh it’s a set shot, he isn’t likely to get this one – stick him a few more metres out and on the run and he’d have no worries.”

My favourite comment though came towards the conclusion of the game. The wind had picked up and those sitting in the rows in front of us had headed home. The guys behind us were enjoying the cool wind as much as we were and we could all have been forgiven for heading off before the game was done. When one of our neighbours asked if they should stay to sing the song, his friend replied, “Of course, bloody oath we will.”

In a match celebrating pride, the Swans inspired just that. As the final siren sounded and we belted out the song, I couldn’t have been more proud to be a member of the red and white army. I’ll leave it to my comrades to charge the MCG next week. Look out Hawthorn – we’re coming.

We’re looming large

After watching the Swans on Saturday night, three words came to mind. Here. We. Come. Sitting in sixth at the end of this round we are looking likely to be taking part in the finals series and everyone else in the comp should be scared.

After St Kilda went down on Friday night I knew we would be looking good if we could get the win. Despite the discrepancy in our positions on the ladder I was quietly confident we could get the job done on GWS. Playing out games for essentially no result can really take its toll on a team and I feel the draws have really damaged their confidence.

It was a much closer game than last week and really entertaining. At no point could we really count them out and at no point was I able to get comfortable watching it. We kept our noses in front but didn’t really secure victory until the closing stages of the game. It was a good test for us, as we were forced to continually find the answering goals as GWS hit back.

Our defensive effort really impressed me and makes me excited for the coming rounds. The intensity we are bringing to games is what is getting us home again and again. Our victories are about so much more than kicking goals. It’s the hunger in the eyes of our guys as they hunt down their opposition and demand possession of the ball.

While it has been nerve-wracking sweating over every game for fear of blowing our season, it has brought out the best in this team. They are everything I love about the Swans – brave, passionate and committed. Our season started so much worse than we ever could have imagined and yet here we are. It could have been over weeks ago and somehow, it isn’t.

Like any game of AFL, it really isn’t over until it’s over. Momentum can swing in an instant and it appears we now have it all. We have some challenges ahead of us but I believe we are up to the task. A win next weekend would further cement our place in the eight, but I am wary of St Kilda after their big loss this weekend.

It’s a game I will be sitting in the stands for and when I planned it all those weeks ago, I feared it would be nothing but pride we were playing for. How very wrong I was. Saturday night can’t come soon enough and I will be donning my red and white with pride. It’s time to give those Saints their marching orders.

 

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