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4 sports thoughts

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.

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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.

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.

 

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