4 sports thoughts

A novice’s night at the NHL

As a sport fanatic, a night spent at the NHL was a perfectly natural addition to my itinerary on my current trip to Canada. I will admit that prior to arriving at Canadian Tire Stadium last night I knew next to nothing about ice hockey. While my knowledge now is minimal at best, I experienced an entirely new phenomenon. Watching sport through a novice’s eyes, with no background knowledge or insight acquired over years of viewing, reading and listening.

From the moment we stepped into the stadium and saw the illuminated field we knew it was going to be a special night. The atmosphere was amazing and unlike anything I had experienced before. The entire evening was centred around providing as much entertainment as possible. Every lull in proceedings was filled with music, competitions and even the iconic kissing cam. I have to admire the concentration levels of the players given music would blast for a few seconds and then stop just as play recommenced.

The other aspect impossible to escape throughout the evening was advertising. Every aspect of the game, whether it be a replay or a challenge to encourage the crowd to make noise, was sponsored. I lost count of how many brands were mentioned throughout the night and was heartened by what it signified – these companies were confident in reaching their audience through live sport. It really was an impressive crowd for a Thursday night after a freezing day punctuated with snow.

The game play itself was exciting and I was easily swept up in it. It wasn’t long however before I sensed how the game would end and sadly our Ottawa Senators did indeed go down to the St Louis Blues. St Louis had a level of aggression Ottawa simply couldn’t match. The keys to their success were momentum and a flow to their play that seeemed to stem from solid combinations of players with an understanding of how to support each other.

One of the funniest spectacles was watching the substitutions take place, with players clambering over the sideline barrier to get onto the field as others were quickly ushered back off the field. With so many players in a constant rotation it would be difficult to keep track of who was on and who was off – it mattered little to me however as I didn’t know a single player!

Despite no scoring in the first period there was no lack of entertainment. One of the bizarre aspects of the game was the response to any fighting that broke out. With players getting slammed into walls for most of the night it wasn’t surprising that tempers were flaring. We watched in awe as players knocked off the helmets of opponents and even threw punches. The strangest part though, was watching nobody intervene. It was allowed to play out and then the players were given only a short time penalty of a couple of minutes as a result.

Sadly St Louis only needed to enjoy a short period of productivity to seal victory. Three fast goals dashed Ottawa’s hopes and despite scoring one goal back, they weren’t able to come back. Their attack lacked shape and they struggled to find a way through the defense. Their goalie had a very tough night at the office and was valiant under the circumstances. The most confusing play of the night however, came in the last few minutes, when Ottawa pulled their goalie off and St Louis scored, with the goal left empty.

Research later revealed to me that when a team is within two goals of another, in the closing stages of a game they can pull the goalie in order to play an additonal attacking player in an attempt to score. It clearly backfired. The crowd were very unimpressed and began to leave, shuffling into the aisles and beginning their journeys home. In surroundings so unfamiliar it was strange to see the ‘leaving early’ phenomenon play out, just as it does at home.

Despite the result, it was undoubtedly a fantastic way to spend an evening in Ottawa. Not only do you escape the cold, but you get an evening packed with entertainment of every kind. They undoubtedly have a lot of room for improvement but the Senators really did steal my heart. I do love an underdog and ice hockey isn’t bad either.


M.I.A. in Murrayfield

From the outset of the match, it was clear last week had taken its toll on the men in gold. It appeared it wasn’t just the fans that were crushed by the defeat England handed us last week and the task of bouncing back against Scotland proved too much to ask.

Our efforts were lack lustre, as though someone had taken all of the wind out of our sails. They were there, but they weren’t there. It seemed as though they were wishing to be anywhere but on that pitch and I suspect the thought of heading home was on their minds.

What resulted was a lot of ill discipline and disorganisation in both defence and attack. Our scrum was solid early on but even that dominance didn’t last. Scotland weren’t required to do anything outstanding; it was just simple, straight, hard running. They were playing with the energy we so sorely needed and seemed unable to locate.

There were flashes of brilliance from the likes of Foley and Kuridrani and McMahon played as he always does, bulldozing through the line of defence. It just simply wasn’t enough. When we scored after a build up of 20 phases, I started to believe we could turn it around. It wasn’t long though before the ultimate mistake from Kepu left us a man down for the rest of the match.

The half time chat seemed to have injected some promise into us when the second half got underway. A man down we had the perfect start, holding possession and managing to score. Our energy was up and once again I glimpsed some hope. And then it was promptly dashed.

Broken play resulted in more points for Scotland as their energy once again gave them the edge. That was essentially the end of any positivity from either our players or supporters. The rest of the match saw both players and fans (equally helpless) watch Scotland run in try after try.

They really showed no spirit and as a result, were beaten before they started. In such an utterly depressing game the amazing singing around the stadium provided a welcome distraction from the demolition job occurring on the field. The match was most aptly summarised by the commentator who simply stated, “Australia have been blown apart by Scotland.”

I have no idea where our energy and spirit was today but it certainly wasn’t at Murrayfield. My guess is the plane home; Qantas are always claiming to carry the spirit of Australia.

One moment can turn a match, but only if you let it

I went into this match expecting a loss. We were due for one, but I certainly didn’t predict it would be of this magnitude. We started relatively well, considering we didn’t have much of the ball. The first ten minutes saw a lot of scrums packed down and we handled it well. England looked good from the get go and their support play was strong with ball in hand.

We were also under a fair amount of pressure, with their impressive line speed forcing us to rush and make silly errors. It wasn’t a good sign when Foley shanked our first shot at goal but I didn’t let it dim my hopes. Our decision to kick for the corner shortly after would have been a lot easier to take if we had managed to secure our own line out. Instead, it was another point of frustration.

The miserable weather really set the tone for our match. Despite our best efforts we weren’t able to secure any real points. Managing to somehow escape being two men down without conceding any points, was a miracle. Unfortunately it was the only one we were to receive today.

There were many moments in this match that were nothing short of crazy. With loose ball bouncing around you were never quite sure who would end up with it. After a while though I learnt to expect it to roll towards the sea of white jumpers, as though our bright gold were a force field repelling it.

It wasn’t just the ball being forced away however; points were similarly deterred and gave us a wide berth for the entire match. Both efforts to score were not to be, with an offside player and a frustrating piece of obstruction denying us tries. Our opposition were much more fortunate throughout the match.

I couldn’t help but be insulted by the commentary that was provided around Cheika’s reaction to a call within the game. Suggesting he had a ‘woe is me, the world is against us’ attitude, was rude and disrespectful. I was pleased to see Drew Mitchell call it out on Twitter and highlight it was much more likely Cheika was cursing his own player for infringing. He wears his heart on his sleeve and for me that is never an issue.

Halfway through the second half, we looked set to finally turn the tables and run in our first five pointer. Instead, Kuridrani dropped the ball. It was kicked, down field and apparently, stayed in. I say ‘apparently’ because in my opinion, it was out. It was the moment. The moment that changed the game. Because we let it.

What ensued was not pretty – dropped ball, scrums dominated by England, kicks that went wildly wrong. All the while the English crowd sang, adding insult to injury. As the score line blew out, all I could do was shake my head. It was a close game that became a joke.

We were hardly done by with some of the decisions, there is no doubting that. What disappointed me though, was how we handled it. We let it break us. Yes, a single moment can turn a game, but only if you let it. It is that we have to work on moving forward and I have faith that Cheika is the man to do that.

Ye of little faith will be quick to forget our performance against New Zealand and all the progress we have made this year. I haven’t forgotten and I don’t plan to. It is a set back, not a disaster. Calling for anyone’s head gets us nowhere. We have the personnel and the talent, now we need the tenacity. Your task is clear Cheika, now hop to it.

When 15 is just a number

While it lacked the exhilarating triumph of our game against New Zealand, our outing against Wales confirmed that we are in fact the real deal. The first half score line was flattering for the Welsh, considering how dominant we were. They were playing football not dissimilar to that we were offering up early on in the season. Opportunities were missed and handling errors were enemy number one. They were rushing and it was because of the pressure they were under across the park.

Our forwards had a solid game and after a few indiscretions early on our set piece became a real asset, acting as a platform from which to score tries. As the commentators marveled at us electing to take a scrum after being penalised in the one previous, I had to laugh. Of course we would take that chance to set things right, on our terms and get our confidence back up. We secured the ball and scrummaged admirably for the rest of the game.

I was pleased to see the ref let play continue on a number of occasions when the scrum collapsed after the ball was out. It is how it should be, reducing the impact and lag that scrum resets bring to the game. The game was played at a rapid pace and we thrived on it. After the intensity of the game against New Zealand we certainly weren’t shying away from big hits.

While it was an impressive team effort, I have to call out the superstars we currently have sitting at 9, 10 and 15 (but let’s be honest 12). Genia is really back to his best, taking charge and directing play with confidence. Foley is bringing the varied attack that we were treated to this weekend and I feel it has a lot to do with the guy out there with him. While Kurtley was at fullback this weekend, it is no longer where he belongs. Whatever the number on his back said, he was playing as a 12. He is our second option, taking the heat off Foley and offering up something that means an eye must always be kept on him.

The Welsh got a reminder of that when he managed to turn a tackle into a try. It was completely demoralising for the Welsh and highlighted what a superstar he is. I am far from sold on Kerevi at 12 and couldn’t ignore the amount of ball he lost through contact. Without Folau I think we have to play Hunt at 15 and let Kurtley shine in the number 12 jersey he now owns.

What really impressed me about this match was our ability to stay calm and absorb pressure. As Hooper departed for the sin bin with just over 12 minutes to go, I was panicking. I would happily lose anyone but him at such a critical time. To their credit though they stood tall and didn’t let the situation undo all their hard work. Wales deserved the try that eventually came at the death, but they didn’t deserve the win.

To his credit what Cheika has now built is a team. They are succeeding because they have the confidence in each other that they can get the job done. Wales scored, we needed to reply and we did. That is what makes a good team. While you could never bank on a try like Beale’s, the rest of our points came through strong, patient support play. It is sustainable football, you only need to look at New Zealand’s record to know that. A solid start to our spring tour, but I have no doubt there is plenty of magic left to witness yet.

The turning of the tide

Last night I witnessed the best game of football I have seen all year. There were no trophies on the line and it wasn’t part of the Rugby Championship but I can tell you that meant very little. What we achieved last night was monumental. The intensity on display was of a level I have not seen in years. For New Zealand playing at that pace and with that ferocity is fairly standard. What was so exceptional however was the force with which it was returned.

I have a real love for the group of players we fielded last night and a real respect for what they have been doing all year. Against South Africa we went toe to toe and just came up short of getting the win. Twice. While incredibly frustrating, it was also heartening. We were not the sort of team that gives up.

We got off to a fantastic start, taking a rare easy seven points to get us going. It wasn’t long though before New Zealand were able to hit back. Throughout the first half I studiously took notes, admiring what it is New Zealand do so well. To keep them out you need nothing short of a brick wall. Their play is smart; they don’t work any harder than they need to. They seem at times to have the ball on a string; placing it exactly where we weren’t and gaining free metres after every kicking exchange.

Heading into this match it was what I expected to happen. Our weaknesses all season have been our kicking around the field and our efforts at the breakdown. There was a lot of dropped ball, expected given the conditions but the pressure we were under when we had possession was immense. Regardless of whether New Zealand are attacking or defending, they undertake both with equal intensity.

Running the ball through their defensive line is like swimming against the tide. To make any progress takes a doubled effort, with real grit and determination. Eventually our efforts paid off and after stringing together a number of phases we found ourselves with front foot ball and Folau found himself over the line. Approaching half time we had managed to put ourselves back in the game and a small shift of momentum had begun.

After the delay resulting from the injury of Rob Simmons, I was worried we might struggle to return to the intensity needed to finish what we had started. I needn’t have been concerned. It was like the turning of the tide. We were confident in kicking for touch and confident in our ability to score tries and capitalise on our ascendancy.

At times, the actions of the All Blacks seemed desperate and silly mistakes cost them. Our momentum by this point was undeniable and my notes were becoming something more akin to scrawl. At the 63rd minute mark I knew that had we been playing against any other team, I would have felt confident we would win. Things were so clearly going our way, I wanted to believe. But it was New Zealand.

By the 68th minute, I had thrown my notebook and abandoned all studious behaviour. I was gripped. As the clock slowed and our four point lead became two, I became a complete wreck. My mind was ticking over, analysing just how many points we had left out there through inaccurate goal kicking. By the 73rd minute, I was rocking back and forth, consumed by anxiety and praying for a miracle.

The final minutes were pure agony. Hodge kicking the monster penalty goal and then New Zealand winning possession after sloppy work at the break down let us down. However the final play of the game summed it up. They cracked, under (can you believe it) pressure. Our pressure.

It was the most inspiring performance I have seen in a long time. Guys like McMahon and Dempsey having enormous impact and throwing themselves into the game at every opportunity. Guys like Foley and Beale, getting thrown around by the All Blacks and jumping straight back up for another go.

Beale really stood up and could be seen screaming at the troops, firing them up and injecting the passion he so clearly has into them. I wasn’t surprised when he departed at the 70 minute mark after once again running himself to a stand still. Cheika has spoken about fitness a lot this season and seeing how we stayed with New Zealand, at that ridiculous level of intensity and pace, for 80 minutes I can see that hard work has paid off.

After all the effort these guys have put in this season, they really needed and deserved the win. More importantly, it was the kind of game that rugby needs. Yes, the scrum still caused frustration and continues to be a penalty fest, but ultimately, watching two incredible sides give their all for 80 minutes is the best entertainment you will find.

Sure, it was just one game. Sure, New Zealand still walk away with the silverware. But if you were going to win just one game, let it be a game like that and let it be against New Zealand.

A scrappy success

This morning’s match went much as I expected it would. Argentina started quickly, but not cleanly. In their haste they make amazing line breaks and find gaps in a defensive line left reeling. They move at such pace that not even their teammates can predict their next move. In a test match, that is not ideal. The result is a lot of dropped ball and a lot of missed opportunities.

As expected, we got drawn into their messy style of play. Our backline that was last week pulling off smooth, rehearsed manoeuvres was this week looking mighty clumsy. Folau and Beale had little impact and our attack looked rushed and careless. Interestingly, even when we had secured victory we were still rushing our possession, as though we were desperate to score more points.

Despite looking fairly unimpressive in the first half and the scores sitting level, I didn’t ever doubt we would win. I waited for Argentina to tire and the pace to drop off just enough for our class to show through. Sure enough the gaps in their line appeared and we made it look pretty easy. Koroibete thundered down the sideline to score and Foley stepped his way through and over the line.

Hodge had a great game and is a great option to have on the field. Tatafu Polata-Nau delivered a fantastic performance, diving on loose ball and demonstrating a real desperation and commitment that can be so important in a test match. Dempsey had a number of great carries and made some good yards. There is a lot of promise within this side and with more work, patience and confidence they can do great things.

Foley had a forgettable night in front of goal but thankfully we did enough and the points left on the park didn’t hurt us too much. The TMO had a busy night, particularly with five minutes spent combing over footage of a completely legal tackle. Bizarre, but thankfully nobody invented anything to find an issue with. Stranger things have happened lately.

While it was a perfectly entertaining match, I would have loved to see the New Zealand and South Africa game. It would have been painful for them to get so close but shows again that New Zealand always manage to get away with it. Somehow. Argentina will no doubt be disappointed in their performance in the Rugby Championship, but they were valiant as always. When playing against the top teams in the world, sometimes you just have to celebrate the little victories.

In two weeks we will have to pick up our game and take on New Zealand. There may be no trophy to play for, but that would mean very little if we got the win. I am not talking about a little victory either. In this case, only a big one will do. Let’s be honest, the whole rugby world needs it. And I believe we can deliver. After all, blind faith is what keeps sport interesting.

Tit for tat

If anybody doubted that the previous match result between Australia and South Africa was an accurate reflection of where the two sides sit, they can hardly argue now. Not once, but twice the two sides have been unable to be separated. It makes for stressful rugby but it also makes for really entertaining rugby.

Neither side are perfect and both have impressive skill sets. I thought we defended really well, particularly in the opening stages of the match when South Africa got off to a strong start. We waited for our possession and capitalised on most of it. Our combinations are starting to work and I felt confident in the team we fielded.

McMahon put in a mammoth effort as always and Hooper was the man on the spot diving in and snatching any loose ball. Foley had a great game and demonstrated just how to use his support players, passing at just the right moment. While Folau is great with ball in hand he still has moments where his judgement leaves a bit to be desired.

Understandably the players would be frustrated. South Africa were desperate to prove they were better than the 57-0 thrashing they suffered at the hands of New Zealand. This was the perfect opportunity, playing Australia at home and at altitude. Only it wasn’t. We turned up and fought to keep them at bay. Nobody ever gained control of the match and even when they scored I felt it was only a matter of time before we got one back and we did.

The altitude factor is always an interesting one. Kicks were sailing far beyond any distance they normally would and Foley was caught out, overcooking a kick for touch. The fitness factor was evident in the closing stages of the game as players like Hodge and Beale were simply dead on their feet. They did amazingly well to keep going as long as they did and nobody could accuse them of not giving their absolute all.

Once again, it wasn’t a win, but I am not overly upset by it. To travel over there and face a side with everything to prove, at altitude and come away with a draw is pretty close to a win if you ask me. It sure is a whole lot better than losing.

Next week will be another interesting game, travelling to Argentina. New Zealand by all accounts put in a solid performance against them this weekend and got the job done, but it wasn’t up to their usual standard. It will be interesting to see what the Argentinians bring, but based on our form I am expecting a good win.

If I have learnt anything though, it is best not to expect anything in sport.

No crowing, but a mighty roar

Today was a big day. 100,000 people crammed into the MCG to create an atmosphere most of us tragics will only ever dream of. Today was the day Richmond fans and players have been dreaming of for 37 years.

After watching both Adelaide and Richmond over recent weeks I was pretty confident Richmond could win. If they showed up. I know all too well it is never a guarantee when the stakes are so high and the atmosphere so intense. They had one thing on their side and it is why I was backing them. Their style of play hinges on their defensive effort and once they threw themselves into it, they were into the game.

Adelaide on the other hand, were seeking clean ball that allowed them to demonstrate their silky smooth skills and generate goals. There was nothing clean about this game. It was gritty, it was ugly and it was tough. And Richmond loved it.

I have rarely seen such pure determination demonstrated in a grand final. It reminded me of the Swans of old. Their intensity crushed their opposition, regardless of who had possession of the ball. If a mistake was made or an opportunity lost, they hunted down their man and won that ball back.

The first half was a truly stellar game. It was fascinating to watch and seriously entertaining. It is always a different experience, watching a game that doesn’t feature your team. Once Richmond kicked away I was sure of the result. There was no blind hope tucked away in the back of my mind, like it would have been if I were an Adelaide fan. There was no irrepressible apprehension, inevitable if I had been a Richmond fan. I could look at the score and objectively determine the result and honestly, it left me a little cold.

It made me realise that objectively, sport loses its gleam. It is the subjectivity that lets us invest irrational levels of emotion in it. It is subjectivity that brings us that pure, unadulterated joy when our team wins. To develop a love for a team, to truly invest in them, gives you access to the extremes of the sporting landscape and it is under those extreme conditions that you sail higher than you ever dreamed possible or hurt more than you could ever imagine.

Richmond fans today will experience the greatest return you can ever get on your investment and I encourage them to save it, for it will get them through the inevitable disappointments in years to come. Adelaide fans will be hurting but their time will come. If the Bulldogs can do it, anyone can.

I must say I am pleased for Jack Riewodlt. He has been working tirelessly for Richmond for years and today he finally got to claim his reward. Something and someone it was impossible to ignore today was Dusty. Ah, Dusty. He is possibly the most unconventional player I have ever seen. He wouldn’t appear out of place on the NRL field and his ‘don’t argue’ would certainly serve him well. His brilliance lies in his strength and his ability to get things done whatever the circumstances. Somehow, someway he will get the ball to his team mate.

It was that attitude across the park that got them home today. They hunted as a pack, they backed each other at every contest and they supported each other outstandingly. If they didn’t win the ball in the air, they were waiting to claim it on the ground. They were determined to win. They fought and fought until they won.

It might have been 37 years in the making, but today, Richmond finished first again and ninth seems a hell of a long way away.

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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