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4 sports thoughts

New Zealand can hardly wait

After a stressful Friday night I was hoping for a settling and comfortable win from the Wallabies on Saturday. The score line might suggest it was, but I found it far from comfortable. Once again I found my team frighteningly close to losing. With five minutes to go, Italy found themselves within one point of us. One point. Five minutes. Really guys?

I didn’t understand the changes made to the team during the week and after the game I still don’t understand them. There didn’t seem to be any logic or reason to any of it. What resulted was a team that have never played together before and boy, could you tell. We started poorly and our game was punctuated with errors all the way through.

It was really our errors that kept Italy alive and let them draw to within one point of us. Defensively they were poor and it took little more than simple catch pass to open them up and score, as we did on a number of occasions. However our lack of communication gave them ample opportunities to strike back and they did. Their attack is quick and given half a change they punished us.

This is what scares me – every one of those moments we mess up will be turned into tries against New Zealand and worse still, their defense is airtight. What was worrying was how flat our attack was. Upon receiving the ball our backs had little room to move before running into the Italian defensive line. I could almost see the likes of South Africa and New Zealand rubbing their hands together with glee. They will pounce on that ball and with a simple intercept, punish us severely.

Our attack showed plenty of pace and capitalised a number of times on the wing, but really, I wanted more. There were very few who were willing to try straightening our attack, which was what so badly needed to happen. Our lateral movement was painful to watch and frankly uninspiring.

Yes, we held on in the end and managed to score twice, making our win somewhat convincing. I, however, remain unconvinced. Italy had no right to get that close to us and it was through our own errors that they did. It is simply not good enough. I found myself shaking my head and asking how, at this level, these simple mistakes could be made?

I can imagine New Zealand can hardly wait to crush us, and if we put in a performance like that, they will. I will continue to have faith though and hope against all hope, that come August, we rise. And just maybe, win.

 

Probability is nothing

I had tonight in the diary as a relaxing Friday night sitting at home watching the footy. More fool me. There is nothing relaxing about watching the Swans at the moment. With their season hanging on every match it is enough to send me completely insane.

It was a close match from the get go. Nobody really looked like pulling clear, until we built a small lead but were unable to really put on serious scoreboard pressure. It seemed for most of the match that someone had (unbeknownst to us) modified the objective of the game, making it instead to kick behinds. Neither team were accurate in front of goal and even the likes of Buddy struggled to get between those two pesky middle posts.

Essendon were impressive. When the lead was built they didn’t lie down, capitalising on their chances and executing their game plan well. I was really impressed by their speed and ball movement throughout the whole match. Once they hit their purple patch and started drilling goals we looked positively ragged in comparison.

We had our moments of brilliance throughout the match and going in I must admit I was hopeful of a win. At half time I was still quietly confident, believing if our kicking in front of goal could be tidied up, then we could get the job done.

Kennedy was outstanding as always, with impressively impactful touches all over the ground. Reid battled valiantly all night and the marks Heeney took were outstanding. To see him crashing to the ground in an awkward landing and then go on shortly after to kick a thoroughly impressive goal was a real highlight of the evening.

Sitting there as the Bombers kicked clear and the momentum had definitively swung in their favour I began to reflect on the match. Where we had really lost it was in the speed of the play. The little moments were killing us as Essendon swiftly punished us for our mistakes. I was sitting quite calmly, sadly ruminating on what was now surely a lost season.

19 points down with 3 minutes to go, you can safely write the game off. Or so we thought. The Essendon players were ecstatic, celebrating what was surely their climb into the eight. Swans fans were heading home, ready to admit defeat. Only their team weren’t. I am still questioning how exactly it happened.

Even as the goals sailed through I wouldn’t let myself have hope. There wasn’t enough time. But the points continued to come. As I watched Papley smother Essendon’s kick I noted how admirable his effort was right to the end. Then Rohan found himself on the end of a kick. With less than ten seconds left in the match. And he just happened to be directly in front of goal.

I was in shock, unable to move. I knew he had to kick it. It was directly in front. But kicking it meant we would win and that was as improbable, as his kicking it was probable. As it sailed through we were given an education on sport once more. Probability is nothing.

Longmire’s reaction mirrored my own, his head in his hands in complete disbelief. How Rohan can have done it two weeks in a row stuns me. He really is made for the big moments.

Tonight was undoubtedly one of those nights we will point to in weeks, months, years to come and say this is why we do it. This is why we take the journey with our teams, through the heartbreak and the pain. We do it because nothing can compare with the ecstasy that is brought by a come from behind, one point win, in the dying seconds of a game. Nothing.

Forget multitasking, try multi footballing…

Saturday posed something of a challenge for me, as you can imagine. By now you would know that there is only one thing I love as much as watching football and that is watching football. Never have I had a greater appreciation for half time breaks than when the Wallabies entered the sheds on Saturday afternoon.

I must say the start of the rugby was also welcomed, as the Swans floundered against Richmond. I was able to give my undivided attention to the first half of my beloved AFL but the team I was watching did not resemble my beloved Swans. I was seriously unimpressed. They were hopeless. I was almost beginning to wonder if once again they had been unable to find their way off their flight to Melbourne. I hate to say it but I found myself having a few grand final flashbacks.

One thing you must always remember as an AFL supporter though – it isn’t over until it’s over. That third quarter is the real teller. Fortunately for us, we arrived. Meanwhile, I was activating my rugby headspace, as the Wallabies failed to do likewise. The first half was seriously uninspiring. The game was controlled by what felt like a never-ending stream of penalties.

We helped it along by a delightful combination of poor decision-making, apparent lethargy and a serious lack of composure in critical moments. The ball being received from Genia was seriously slow. Scotland were praised for their impressive line speed but I was screaming at the TV more often than not, as the ball sat, waiting for Genia to pick it up and give our back line a chance to create something.

Granted, there were some very entertaining moments. Nobody could deny the impressive skill of Folau leaping onto the end of Foley’s perfectly accurate kick to score a try. I had to laugh at the contest between two fullbacks for a high ball being described as a ‘mismatch’, a term usually reserved for when a lightning quick back finds themselves outpacing a lumbering forward.

As half time began I switched to the Swans to find them drawing very near, dangerously close even, to Richmond. I was forced to realise we could actually win this thing. And win we did. I couldn’t look away, as every minute was so precious. So many times has my heart been broken as in the closing moments the opposition kick that final goal to seal our fate. Only this time, Rohan kicked that goal. And my heart soared.

Switching back to the rugby I was unsurprised to discover I hadn’t missed much. They continued in much the same fashion as the first half and with a number of chances to secure victory, couldn’t. I must say I was surprised by the results this weekend. I thought the Wallabies would win and I feared the Swans would finally rule out our hopes of playing finals footy.

Sadly, my nerves must endure more rounds of AFL with finals still a distant possibility. The Wallabies clearly need to sort themselves out and quickly, or we are looking at serious embarrassment against more impressive opponents. I really wouldn’t recommend multi footballing, and my heart probably agrees. Two close games in the same time slot resulted in more stress than even I could handle.

Job done, but a little wobbly

And so the test rugby season has begun. It is bound to be an interesting one for a code in the midst of what can only be called confusion. If we are honest, we must admit that this Super Rugby season is one best forgotten for all Australian teams involved. The Waratahs have been consistently inconsistent and all save the Brumbies, quite frankly forgettable.

With an answer on the fate of our Australian teams nowhere in sight, it is bound to be an interesting time for those wearing the green and gold. With no stellar team performances across the Super Rugby competition, talent can really come from anywhere. I can only imagine the importance of earning a place in the squad when your future is clouded by such uncertainty.

The team fielded against Fiji on Saturday was a little surprising to me. I know Genia played well but I cannot help but question if the opportunity to give someone younger experience at the top level was wasted. Another selection I have to question is that of Hunt at 12. Are there not scores of young guys, specialists in that position, who would kill to play at that level?

There is no doubting that Foley is our best 10 and not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. I want to see that 10 and 12 combination developed into a real strength. We have plenty of talented, quick guys that can be unleashed by a solid platform in centre field. Throwing an in form fullback in at 12 is not the answer, proven by the Folau experiment undertaken by the Waratahs.

There were a number of great performances. Foley stood tall and seems to have maintained his confidence, vital to giving those around him faith in his decision-making. Hooper was valiant as always, in everything and having an impressive impact wherever he went.

Surely the time has come for him to be given the captaincy on a permanent basis? What more does he have to do? He is one of few guaranteed a spot in the starting side and has now gained experience as captain of the Waratahs. Moore has always given his all, but the time has come for Hooper to be rewarded for his consistently stellar and inspiring performances.

While we got away with the win there were certainly a few kinks that will need ironing out before facing tougher opponents. I would have been happier with a bigger score posted and Fiji denied any tries, but I will take the win. Next week will require a much more polished effort and I believe we can deliver.

Australian rugby might be in a state of flux but now is the time for our players to come together and stand tall for our country and our code. The winning feeling may have eluded us in the Super competition but this is our chance to chase it. Go well boys, for Australia and for Australian rugby.

Half a game left us not a lot to gain

Tries are allowed to be scored in the first half too, you know Tahs. I started to write this at half time and I can tell you it was titled ‘Directionless and dismal’ because honestly that summed it up. For 40 minutes on the park we had nothing to show for our efforts, not a single point.

Our attack lacked any kind of shape and our team had no cohesion. Any time a player received the ball they looked stunned and had no clue what to do with it. A knock on or any number of silly errors soon followed. We appeared to be doing our best to ensure the Blues had plenty of ball with which to score their 26 unanswered points.

We kicked away all possession and we kicked it away badly. Kicking is a real sore point all over the park. Pinpoint accuracy is employed to pick out the opposition man and send it straight down his throat but apparently getting it over the sideline when we are awarded a penalty is too big of an ask. Surely something that can be fixed.

It is amazing what the Waratahs are capable of when they put their hearts into it. The second half and particularly its closing stages saw a different side take the field. We held onto the ball, we supported each other and most of all we showed real intent. Roach was willing to run straight and hard, the change of direction opening up gaps in the defensive line of the opposition and resulting in a try.

We shouldn’t have to be down 26 points to play with that kind of intensity. We let through a couple of tries with lapses in concentration and it destroyed our chances. All the Blues had to do was keep the scoreboard ticking over and they were home. We made a real mess of things in that first half and you can’t expect to win games like that.

It was fitting really that all we got for our efforts was a bonus point, we didn’t deserve more than that because we only played 40 minutes of football. The frustrating thing is, I reckon we only would have needed 45 to get there.

 

I’m sorry, who are you?

Okay, I am now willing to acknowledge we have hit something of a crisis point. Not one win for the season so far. I sat down on Saturday afternoon to watch what I secretly hoped would be our first win for the season. Instead I found myself asking who this team was. They were certainly not a Swans team. Not the Swans I know and love.

They were playing okay football with the occasional flash of brilliance. Sadly though, ‘okay football’ does not win games against half decent opponents. What makes this team so different to the one who contested the grand final last year? The little things that mean everything.

We have no confidence in anything that we do. We kick, but not with clear direction and purpose. We strike the ball with equal amounts force and hope. It is simply not good enough. Our defensive effort was admirable but when we did win ourselves ball we didn’t convert as we should have done. It appeared our plan was to grind away a win one point at a time. Three opportunities in front of goal should result in 18 points, not 3.

Our midfield that used to be a thing of beauty, humming away, now stutters. Every decision weighs so heavily on the shoulders of the players that they seem incapable of fluid movement. Moving the ball became an arduous task, painful to watch.

Inexperience definitely comes into it; there are a lot of young guys out there. However I cannot help but question where the leadership for those guys is coming from. There are enough players out there who have been doing this long enough to lead the way. But they aren’t.

Buddy was M.I.A. for most of the match. Rohan performed well until that sickening tumble. I kept asking myself though, where is the leadership? Where are the guys out there giving direction, instilling that passion and fire in the young blood? The defining characteristic of a Swans team was lacking. Hasn’t anyone passed on the message that we don’t go down without a fight?

All I can do is sit and hope that next week we finally break the drought. Winning just one game will do their confidence a world of good. I cannot stop wondering though, just how did we fall from grace so quickly, so spectacularly? I guess my only answer is sport. It is a complicated and fascinating beast and I for one will be watching keenly to see how this season pans out.

 

Soggy Sydney sides fail to shine

With what seems like weeks of rain in Sydney showing no sign of ending anytime soon, I was hoping for a brighter weekend on the footy field. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The Grand Final rematch. A pretty big game for round two of the AFL season and one I wasn’t prepared to miss. I had to record the game on Friday night and wasn’t able to watch it until Saturday evening. Yes, this meant another one of those personal blackouts. No social media, no Internet, radio or TV until I had watched the game. It wasn’t difficult and I have secretly come to enjoy them.

It was definitely worth it. The result didn’t go our way but it was an excellent match. Classic AFL. We got off to a fantastic start and Reid well and truly stood up in his 100th game and finished up with a stellar six goals. It is always a bit of a worry though when we are so quick out of the blocks. I knew a team as good as the Bulldogs were sure to find their feet eventually.

AFL is a long game. A very long game. They well and truly found their feet and their spirit is something to really admire. They really do out-Sydney, Sydney. You can see it in every tackle, every contest. They want the ball, whatever the cost and they want to win.

The Swans showed some great spirit and it was by no means a dismal performance. With a young side they performed admirably and fought hard to work their way back into the lead. Like so many games before it though, there was a pivotal moment where our momentum was ripped from us. Unfortunately that spelled the end and we were out of chances and out of time.

This afternoon I trudged to the footy stadium to watch the Waratahs with more fellow fans than I expected, given the miserable weather. Amazingly it cleared just before play got under way and we really couldn’t blame the weather for our performance.

I wasn’t anticipating a win. The fire is definitely not there this season, they just don’t seem to want it badly enough. It wasn’t a completely embarrassing performance. There were some really great moments that had us jumping out of our seats.

Watching Naiyaravoro race down the wing and run not around but straight through the oncoming defender was brilliant. Sadly those moments of brilliance were few and far between. The crusaders were by no means flawless. They seemed at times disorganised, which as a Waratahs supporter was unbelievably frustrating.

We were handed chances from messy play but failed to capitalise. This continued until the Crusaders scored those all-important points to put the game out of reach. Then they proceeded to rub some salt in our wounds. Sigh.

As a Sydney sider this weekend it was more than the weather that dampened my spirits. Let’s hope the sun emerges for these sides next weekend. Sadly, based on today’s performance I feel the forecast for the Waratahs and Hurricanes game next week will reflect their opponent’s name. An effort like today will see them blown off the park. Here’s hoping they lift their game and the Swans take care of Collingwood.

A step back in time, a step forward in brilliance

The heat is intense and the night a long one. I am filled with dread at the prospect of my early rise in the morning but I am pretending work does not exist. 2 weeks of sporting prowess about to reach an almighty peak. This is not 2009 and Kings of Leon did not just top the Hottest 100 (sadly). This is 2017. Though you would never know.

What goes around comes around, but it takes a while for the transition from daggy to vintage to take place. It took only 8 years for Nadal v Federer in an Australian Open final to be cool again. Appropriately it was coolness that won.

This year’s Australian Open was a strange one right from the start. With top seeds bowing out early nobody knew who would make it to the end. It seemed with Djokovic out surely it was Murray’s turn to finally taste success. Zverev however proved an awkward match up and once again Murray was to leave Australia without joy.

Then Federer showed up. After 6 months away due to injury he was just here to check his progress it seemed. What he brought was brilliance. Vintage Federer brilliance. Slowly overcoming his opposition with whatever game plan was required. His ball striking was superb, his placement beyond words. He was back. But so was someone else.

You will not find a more determined competitor than Rafael Nadal. Each time he is broken, seemingly defeated a fire is lit within him and he wills himself to fight back. And fight he does. His form was impressive and he seemed unhampered by injuries and able to play his signature exhausting style of tennis. (Exhausting both his opponent and himself).

They sliced, aced and smashed their way to the final. Overcoming younger, more match fit opponents. This Open highlighted Grand Slams are not a physical battle but a battle of the minds. Both Federer and Nadal have been there and held on in those impossible moments. They defy impossible on a daily basis. And that is why 8 years later they delivered a match none could ever have imagined.

I will admit to loving both of these guys. Their hard work, genuine personalities and remarkable talent have seen both climb to the top of the tennis world. To see both playing such extraordinary tennis after all this time fills me with joy. The match itself however, was not so joyful. I will admit to being firmly on board the Fed Express. Every year I will him to notch up that next Australian Open win and usually he falls short. I expected the same to play out this time around.

It was the epic match to end all epic matches. More ebbs and flows than I could handle. By the fifth set I was rocking back and forth on the lounge, riddled with nerves and unable to be still. Each time one seemed to gain ascendancy the other inexplicably rose to the challenge. Time slipped by. Work slipped further and further from my mind. I was in Melbourne, witnessing magic. The kind of magic that produces 26 shot rallies with each shot somehow more superb than the last. Commentators were left speechless. Spectators found it hard to believe their eyes. This final did not disappoint.

When the championship point was finally claimed, (after two nail biting challenges, just to add a pinch more tension) I was overcome with emotion. I was leaping around the room, bursting with relief and happiness. So was Federer and everyone in his camp. So were Federer fans the world over. This man has long been a fan favourite, avoiding the hoodoo of fame and sporting magnificence eroding good judgement and a sound mind.

Both Nadal and Federer remain somewhat humble. I saw Nadal earlier in the week calmly explaining he always has doubts, because he is not an arrogant person. It was a simple statement that summed him up. He knows he might not win but he will die trying. Federer upon winning after his injury setback admitted that everybody works hard, so he wasn’t going to shout about it. These guys know that slams are won in tiny moments and it is not something to ever be taken for granted.

After 6 months out of the game, Roger came to Australia to find out where he was at. Now we know. The top.

2016 from the Sidelines

As the year drew to a close I felt it necessary to write one last post. I read a few summaries of the year in sport that was 2016. The highlights were mentioned – this person won this, this team won that. If you are a real fan though a year in sport is more than the headlines. So here is my take.

I will start with my teams, the ones I dedicate my weekends to. The Waratahs had a tough year, but it was always going to be. We are in a building phase, with stars leaving and our glory delivering coach now shouldering the national burden we had nothing to lose and everything to learn. It was a disappointing year for all our Australian teams though, so we didn’t suffer alone.

The Wallabies are in a similar phase, much better than anyone gives them credit for. Consistency was our real issue, forced to field a different side week to week the fresh talent struggled to gain cohesion. I thought our Spring tour was an impressive outing, with Foley undoubtedly back in stellar form. A lot of our cohesion issues were resolved when we had someone owning that number 10 jersey. I believe a consistent team will lead to consistent performances.

The Swans. Oh the Swans! It was a tough day that ended our season but there is a lot to be proud of. I am still stunned by how consistently we have performed at the top of the competition. I was happy to let the Western Bulldogs end their drought (a headline I know), but next year we will be a force once again. They are a team that despite the result never really disappoint me. Their culture is something I still marvel at and reminds me of the power of sport.

When I reflect on this year, I recall moments of ecstasy, jumping with joy as goals sailed through and tries were scored. I recall sitting at the SCG, huddled and shaking. Partly because I was cold, partly because the game was so close it was messing with my nerves. I think about my personal black outs – shunning the internet and media of all kinds so the result of my recorded game is not ruined. Those mornings are unique – gloriously filled with anticipation and promise.

Every year has its ups and downs, the moments that make the headlines of our lives. Sometimes though, it is the little moments that make a year. When I watch sport the score line is a minor detail. I don’t watch sport, I inhabit it. I study the subtleties of each move, I try to enter the heads of the athletes and understand what it is that makes them so good, or why they are struggling. Sport is as much the study of people as it is the viewing of a game. The result may be the headline, but I want to know how they got there. Every step, every thought.

I did not write as much as I would have liked in 2016 but that is sport, we do what we can and we play what’s in front of us. So here is to 2017 – a brand new year in mint condition, unspoiled and unmarked by the complexities of life. The seasons start anew and anything can happen. In many ways it is my favourite time of year because fates are placed firmly in the hands of coaches and athletes alike and some, not many, but some, will do remarkable things.

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