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4 sports thoughts

They are human

A thorough defeat was handed our way this evening. But was it perfect? No. Granted, we didn’t win but we did show the world and most importantly the All Blacks, that they are in fact human. A good old-fashioned dose of pressure and these guys make mistakes. It’s true, I promise.

Not every pass landed, not every piece of set play was dominated. Fair portions of their points were handed to them on a platter courtesy of missed Wallaby opportunities. It was difficult to watch but also comforting. We had plenty of possession, we had plenty of go forward and we had, for once, ideas. Foley stood up and owned the number ten jersey and gave our attack some shape and direction.

I am extremely proud of the forwards we fielded tonight, all working together and giving us that front foot ball that is so hard to come by. I thought we held our own in the scrum and this was thanks to a mammoth effort from those boys.

The score line was far from flattering but up until that fateful moment halfway through the second half we were in with a chance. After a dismal start, two tries down in the first ten minutes, I thought we did well to get ourselves back in the game. We showed confidence in our attack and our backline started to work well. Folau was allowed to have a great game, the hard work of his teammates allowing him the time and space that makes him so dangerous.

There was a moment, a huge moment that tipped this game. When Speight’s try, which would have brought the score to 15-15 was disallowed, the Wallabies hopes were ended. The All Blacks usually don’t need an invitation, but here they had one. From that moment on they piled on the pressure, taking every chance they got to pile on points. Let’s just say by the close of the game the pile was quite a large one.

This ability to crush teams in the closing stages of games is what has made them so indestructible. Their fitness is unparalleled, there is an aura that surrounds them and they operate within a sphere of confidence. They have confidence in themselves to beat the man, they have confidence that their supporting player will be over their shoulder, ready to catch that miracle offload.

This confidence is not just felt by their opposition but also by officials. They tend to get the benefit of the doubt, as ‘everyone knows they are the best’. The most unbelievable aspect of their game was called out tonight by Matthew Burke. Their incredible defensive pressure is helped along by their collective and consistent efforts in being offside. They infringe as a pack and as such it goes unnoticed. Well, by some, and sadly, by those that count.

Our attention now turns to the Spring tour and I am feeling optimistic. I feel our side tonight was the best we have fielded this season and with more time together we could build a great team. One factor to give us all heart is we do not suffer alone. The colossal gap separating us from the All Blacks remains impassable for the rest of the world too.  I remain hopeful that someday soon it will be us making that giant leap.

 

Something bigger

I am not going to lie; this is not the post that I wanted to be writing after last weekend. It was not a possibility that I wanted to entertain. Sadly though, I must face the music along with all my fellow Swans fans (a loud rendition of ‘Sons of the West’). I went into Saturday filled with hope, a hope that had been steadily building throughout the regular season and then rising throughout the finals series.

Our loss to GWS appeared to have ignited a fire in the team and both Adelaide and Geelong were disposed of in fierce performances. I was really starting to believe we would win our next flag. We had the talent and now it appeared we had the momentum, the belief to win.

In one sense I was not disappointed, we performed in a manner much more reflective of our season this year. This was what we had failed to do in our last grand final appearance against Hawthorn. That was a day in which a team I had never seen before showed up, or rather didn’t show up. It was embarrassing.

There was nothing embarrassing about our performance on Saturday. We stayed in it right up to the closing stages of the game. Both teams played outstandingly. Heath Grundy played the game of his life and Josh Kennedy managed to find something when we needed it most, a fitting winner of the award for best finals player.

It was really the best way, if there is one, to lose. It was a brilliant and close game that eventually got away from us. It wasn’t a heartbreaker lost on the siren and it wasn’t a completely one-sided affair. It was excellent viewing and I was glued to my seat for the full four quarters. It really was a true grand final.

There were a number of interesting umpiring decisions and we were penalised a lot more than the Bulldogs, with 20 frees awarded compared to 8, but that is sport. It is about rising above those things and playing your own game. The crowd were yet another factor that had to be contended with; they were certainly not a friendly crew.

You can hardly blame them though; those supporters have been waiting since 1954 for this moment. I have to commend the Bulldogs, coming from 7th to win the premiership is a remarkable feat, but with the hopes and dreams of so many fans on their shoulders it must have been a tough game.

Ultimately it was their pure determination to finally break their drought that got them there. The Swans did not play poorly, they were simply beaten by something bigger. Our loss delivered a moment that Bulldogs players and fans alike have been waiting a long time for. The roar that filled the MCG was one of those amazing demonstrations of the power of sport. It was their day, it was their year. I will let them have this one. Next time however, I won’t be quite so understanding.

 

Clash of the Codes

Occasionally in life we must make a difficult choice. This sometimes occurs because we are faced with two equally unappealing alternatives. Sometimes, it is just the opposite. We are drawn towards both options, each seeming irresistible. I found myself facing just such a conundrum on Saturday night. The Swans were playing in a pivotal finals match at the exact moment the Wallabies were attempting to see off Argentina. How was I to choose? Well, if I am honest, I didn’t.

I settled in for what I knew would be a stress filled few hours, asking myself once again, why do I do this to myself? I wish I could say it was an amazing experience, but it just wasn’t. I was able to enjoy the first quarter of the Swans game, which was a relief after the less than convincing performance the previous week against GWS. They came out firing and showed the intensity that was lacking last week. Adelaide saw very little of the football and we were making it difficult for their famed forward line to make a real impression on the game.

Unfortunately it was after this stunning quarter of football that the Wallabies game kicked into action. My stress levels intensified. As soon as I settled on one channel I found myself wondering what I was missing on the other. I attempted at one stage to relieve some pressure by opening the AFL app, having the score sitting on my lap. It only made matters worse, a glaring reminder of the goals and action I was missing on the other channel. I found myself hanging out for half time in the AFL to provide some respite.

In this period I was able to gauge a better feel for the Wallabies game. Interestingly, they also had a strong start. Our defence was noticeably improved and it was really there that the game was won. Argentina played at a frenetic pace but fell victim to numerous handling errors. The Wallabies allowed themselves to be drawn into a similar style of play, not recognising if they slowed things down and stuck to their structures, points would result. The Argentinians thrive on broken play and we were starting to give them just what they wanted.

Interestingly, the games followed a similar pattern. Just as Argentina started to find a way back into the game, Adelaide lifted at the SCG. It was spooky. Impressively, both teams kept their heads and managed to hang on for the wins. The Swans managed to stand up and respond when required, keeping Adelaide at a healthy distance, with Papley and Franklin both kicking four goals each. Heading into a challenging game tomorrow night, I only hope they play as well as we know they can.

Back in rugby land the Wallabies’ bench provided a boost when required. I felt both McMahon and Polota-Nau had a huge impact when they came on and both should be in the starting line up. They brought the intensity that is going to be required to beat strong sides and helped lift the whole team.

At last my night of anguish drew to a close. Two wins, hundreds of channel changes and one very exhausted fan. Is it Summer yet?

What do we want?

As the Olympics draw to a close the media is awash with stories citing disappointment in our Australian team’s performance. I can understand this, it is certainly a fall from previous years but there are quite a few simple things we seem to forget. Australia has only 24 million people; compared to nations like the U.S., China and even Great Britain we are tiny. China boasts nearly 1.4 billion people. Can we really expect to produce as many top athletes as a nation of that size?

The other point that has been somewhat overlooked is a serious factor contributing to both Great Britain and Japan’s performances. London hosted the last Olympics and Tokyo is due to host the next. This makes a significant difference to these nations, focused on and funding their athletes for strong home performances. We have fared reasonably well following our own games in Sydney, snagging 16 medals in 2000. We are no longer bathed in that afterglow and have been relegated to tenth on the medal tally.

Much of the outcry relating to these poor performances by our athletes stems from the funds that were put into getting our athletes to Rio. Apparently people are the same as any other investment – we expect returns. This aspect of the discussion really bothers me and has me asking, is winning really that important? Is this not a direct contradiction to everything we tell our kids as they grow up? ‘Have fun, as long as you try your hardest it doesn’t matter who wins.’ Australia’s reaction to Rio indicates that apparently here in Australia, we only want winners.

In business we have now turned our attention to the triple bottom line – success is not determined only by financial success but by reaching social and environmental goals as well. So why in the sporting world do we measure our Olympic campaign only by gold? I found no shortage of amazing stories in these games, hard work and determination being rewarded. Some of those were not even gold medal performances (shocking I know). Dane Bird-Smith’s bronze medal in the 20km walk was a performance that moved me. He was overcome with joy, knowing he had done his best. It was the third best in the world, sure, but it was his best.

If part of the problem our athletes are facing is psychological, then I am afraid the blame lies not only with them. The scrutiny, the deep, deep, disappointment we have made abundantly clear must be doing wonders for their mental health. This negative attitude and claims that heads must roll is not creating an environment in which these athletes can flourish. Many of our medal winners were previously unknown names, what does this say? It appears the absence of public attention enables success.

I think Australia must ask itself, what do we want? Do we want to invest pots of money to ensure we bring home those gold medals? I hate to tell them but sport does not always work that way and for me it is the moments that defy logic that I admire the most. Watching the 50km walk I heard from Tallent’s wife all the science they had diligently applied to ensure he had everything he needed to succeed in the race. However it wasn’t science that won it. Toth’s form was shot, he looked ready to fall down not long before the end of the race, yet somehow, he found something to enable him to pass Tallent and claim gold. It is these moments that no money can buy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really care how many medals we win. I care more about how they are won.

Harder, better, faster…calmer?

As the sports tragic that I am I couldn’t let any more time pass before writing about the Olympics. Admittedly it has taken me until now to do so as I have been glued to the TV. I fall asleep watching it only to wake up the next day and turn it back on. I am completely addicted to it and not necessarily in the way that so many people are. That winning feeling is amazing and it is very easy to get caught up in it but that is not what has me glued to the set.

I love that it gives sports that usually lurk in the shadows the chance to showcase their athletes and their sport to the world. I have admired our beach volleyball team, have relished in the chance to watch the hockey (even if the results have been mixed) and marvelled at the strength of those playing water polo. Rugby Sevens in Australia may now get more attention after our group of girls delivered one of those elusive gold medals. There is one thing I know for sure, Australia love a winner.

Thursday morning saw me witness something special as we took on the USA in basketball. It was thrilling to watch, the result of course not showing how close it truly was. The most astounding thing was that we had them rattled; there was a slight look of panic in their eyes. We have developed a dream team of our own, with Bogut, the ever-imposing figure and Patty Mills scoring a raft of points. The real star I felt was Dellavedova, his distribution of the ball was outstanding, reading the play and knowing exactly where to put the ball when. It was beautiful to watch. While Anthony’s three point accuracy ultimately proved the difference I have a good feeling about these guys and if we continue on this path could well bring home a medal.

Special mentions must be made to Catherine Skinner, who held her nerve admirably in a tense shoot off and Mack Horton who delivered our first gold medal. I particularly enjoyed watching our girls bring home the relay gold. I love that the team swimming events exist because I feel they promote unity in what is otherwise a very individual sport. Concentrating on their teammates, instead of the clock offers them a chance to not just taste glory, but share it.

The pool has delivered its fair share of glory and disappointment as always and typifies the roller coaster that is the Olympic Games. Michael Phelps has shown the world that he has still got it and there is nothing he cannot do. Australia’s performance has been solid but isn’t without a cloud of disappointment. The Campbell sisters had a very tough day today and I think showed the true difference that is revealed in Olympic competition. It can best be explained by looking at the Men’s 100m final yesterday. McEvoy, with so much expectation on his shoulders had everything to lose in the final. Kyle Chalmers however, had everything to gain. Nobody was really concentrating on him, except him. He stuck to his plan and it paid off.

The Olympic Games are filled with outstanding athletes, the best in the world at what they do. The champions, those who bring home the gold, go harder, perform better, move faster but most importantly they remain calmer. The true differentiator is the ability to hold your nerve and not get lost in the wave that is this global event. 4 years (or even more) of preparation comes down to one moment and the ability to rise in that moment is the key. It cannot be taught, cannot be practised and cannot be tested until the moment arrives. It is then that we see champions emerge.

 

 

 

When a win isn’t just a win

On the weekend I witnessed something that once again reminded me why I love sport so much. It was an education in how sport can be so much more than what it first appears. The Shute Shield Grand Final was set to be a close match, two teams who had performed outstandingly throughout the season scheduled to do battle. There was no shortage of talent as always but what struck me was the passion that was demonstrated on the day.

Tom Carter played his final match for Sydney University and delivered the same level of commitment, fire and passion he always brings to the game. He brought them back in the second half in what was an unbelievable shift of momentum, scoring a try and giving the University supporters something to cheer about. I found myself starting to believe the occasion was all too much for Northern Suburbs, with Uni’s prolific performances in the competition, having won seven of the last ten finals, coming to the fore.

Northern Suburbs however, had something that I hadn’t counted on. They had a greater purpose. They had waited 41 years to taste victory in the grand final and they were not going to wait another. Their efforts in the closing stages of the game were truly impressive to watch. Every tackle was laid with grit and determination; they were hungry for the win. In moments when they could not be blamed for choking under the pressure, as so many of our sporting stars often do, they grasped the opportunity, spurred on by the crowd thick with supporters decked out in red and black.

The guys on the field were well aware they weren’t just playing for themselves, or their coach. They were playing for their club, for all the guys who had toiled away over the last 41 years and not tasted victory. Members of past teams had visited them in the week leading up to the game and they knew they had the opportunity to do something really special, to be a part of something bigger than just a win.

They finished the game in style, with a penalty nudging them ahead and giving them the confidence to take control of the match at last. A strong piece of play set up Woolf, their lightning fast winger, to score, effectively destroying Uni’s hopes for a comeback. The scoring wasn’t over yet though with Northern Suburbs finding time to run in one final try. It was then that it became evident what these boys had just achieved.

We will never know if that final try would have been converted, as they never got to take the shot. As the final try was scored the Northern Suburbs fans stormed the field, their unbridled joy unable to be confined to the sidelines. It was a fitting end to a win that was so much more than a win, for so many more people than those guys who scored 28 points to Uni’s 15.

Cheer, cheer

One week ago today I sat in the stands for the biggest game of the AFL season so far. 1 plays 2, Sydney up against Hawthorn at the SCG. Did we get the result we wanted? No. Was I disappointed? Yes. Do I regret going? Not in the least.

I never cease to be amazed by the experience that live AFL is. I am yet to see another sport that gives fans such a complete experience. The moment we hit Central station we were surrounded by fellow fans decked out in red and white and filled with anticipation. The bus trip to the ground saw us surrounded by in depth analysis from the die-hard fans that live and breathe the game. When we asked a fellow passenger how often she gets to the games she replied, ‘oh only every home game’ as if she was not a huge fan.

Once at the ground the atmosphere was incredible, with over 42 000 people packed into the SCG. Every seat was valuable, with the nature of the game moving the action around all parts of the ground with impressive speed. It is truly a superior viewing position, making the trade of comfort and warmth for a hard seat and cool wind completely worth it. AFL is as much about what is about to happen as what is happening. The truly great players are those that make excellent decisions and understand where the ball needs to go to create opportunities.

The game itself was thrilling. The two sides were so closely matched it was virtually impossible for one to develop any kind of lead. At that level it was clear they were the two best teams in the competition. I was expecting to sit back and watch Hawthorn kick copious amounts of goals and move the game out of our reach, as they are so well versed in doing. It didn’t happen. They were impressive in ways that I did not expect. As much as it pains me to say it, I feel the loss of

Buddy Franklin has caused them to become a more complete team. Their defence was incredible, rushing every Sydney player and robbing them of time, so valuable when the game hinges on good decision-making. They laid 81 tackles to Sydney’s 54, embarrassing for a team that prides itself on its defence.

Sydney did perform well, with Gary Rohan warranting a special mention, having an outstanding game and displaying what a superstar he is. Having battled through injury setbacks he is currently in fine form, a complete player taking stellar marks in both attack and defence and tackling like a man possessed. For me he epitomises the culture of the Swans, showing grit and determination. While Buddy was kept relatively quiet, Rohan stood up and showed we are a team who is not reliant on a single player, kicking 4 great goals.

While the final result didn’t go our way, it highlighted the ultimate difference between the two sides. Sydney have now lost 3 games this season within the final minutes, breaking hearts and generating serious frustration. We need to learn how to finish a game, how to make the right decisions in those final moments to avoid wasting the hard work they have put in all match. Hawthorn on the other hand, find a way to win games they have no right to win. They are a team primed for the big moments, evidenced by their incredible finals success. I watched Cyril Rioli take that final mark and knew that he would slot the goal because sadly, that is what they do.

My hope has not yet faded for a premiership and while I didn’t get to belt out the song on Thursday night, I fully intend to cheer, cheer my way into September. If we finally nail those closing moments of games and of our season, we can win and we will.

 

Beyond the finish line

One of the hardest things in sport, I have to come to realise, is something that happens off the field. It is the question that all our sporting heroes face one day and seemingly something that terrifies them most. What am I, they must ask themselves, when my sporting career is done?

For years they have been slaves to early alarms as they drag themselves out of bed and hit the training park. A tough life, a hard life, but a life filled with purpose. Their goal is always clear cut, perfectly defined and marked by a distinct beginning and end, with an undeniable result – a win, a loss, a PB, a world record. It is the pursuit of this that spurs them on and fills them with desire and importantly, gives their life meaning.

What do we do? We watch. We marvel at their determination, their commitment, and their skill. We heap praise upon them, we hold them up on pedestals and worship them, the gods of sport. Is it us, then, who are to blame when the lights go out and they descend to what now appears to be a painfully ordinary and dreary reality? We gave them the unbelievable high of glory and now it is gone.

One of the things not often considered is the length of a sporting star’s career. They spend years toiling away to reach their full potential. They finally reach the summit and then after a moment all too fleeting, they begin the descent. Some are not so lucky and their descent is not slow and gradual, but an injury fuelled free fall from the top. They wake one morning a star, the next, a person. One moment can make their career. One moment can end it.

It is a universal reality that one day we must all retire. The mental image conjured up in most of our minds is that of the grey nomads, plodding around the country in their caravans, enjoying life and kicking back. It is the lifestyle we tell ourselves we will one day enjoy, that makes the daily drudgery of work life bearable. For these sporting stars, the day their career ends, is the beginning of uncertainty. They don’t bear the signs of a long career and full life, their hair is not greying, their faces not crinkled with the signs of years of living, loving and laughing.

They are young but they have lost all they have ever known. Their days lie before them, a blank canvas no longer book ended by training sessions, their weekends no longer carved out around game day. They are faced with emptiness and the challenge to begin again. They must find a purpose once more and build a life most of us have already built. To be ordinary, I now realise, can be a blessing.

This struggle is not uncommon and in many cases results in mental illness and even criminal acts. Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe have both struggled, fish out of water, unable to find their feet. It is unsurprising that both attempted comebacks, desperately reaching out in the darkness for their glory days. This could only ever be a short-lived solution and even if successful, would one day leave them facing this same emptiness once more.

The sporting world needs to realise its responsibilities extend beyond getting the win, the medal, the record. It must teach its stars to be more than their sport. It must prepare them for what lies beyond the finish line and enable them to win at life.

‘Interesting’

Well that didn’t go to plan. However, I find myself unable to be disappointed. When asked for a comment on the Wallabies match on Saturday night, as I sat watching the English players’ (and amazingly coach’s) elation post match, I found the best way to describe the match was, ‘interesting’. This was met with some disbelief, because we lost. We were supposed to win, and we didn’t. It reminds us all that there is no ‘supposed to’ in sport; nobody can predict what will happen. We need only to look at last year’s World Cup, where Japan served South Africa an unpleasant reminder that ‘supposed to’ will not guarantee you a win.

There was certainly no lack of positivity to take out of the match from an Australian perspective. May I remind everyone, that this team have not played together for eight months, since the World Cup last year. England on the other hand, had just come off a win against Wales and a Six Nations victory, and have been injected with the fuel of a new direction and a determination to right the very serious wrong of their World Cup campaign. Let me then turn to the Australian side itself, the starting line up of which contained 3 debutantes. This all led me to expect a little rust on our side and it was there, but not necessarily where I expected it to be.

The debutantes were outstanding, granted there were a couple of nervous moments but I felt Kerevi and particularly Haylett-Petty played outstandingly. There are few things more impressive than Haylett-Petty’s try saving tackle, executed expertly. Good positional play truly is priceless. I thought Kerevi played well, embracing his opportunity. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of pain for Kurtley Beale, who before his heartbreaking injury, would surely have been guaranteed the number 12 jersey, after an outstanding start to the season for the Waratahs. Unfortunately though, this is the nature of sport.

The gritty reality of rugby was reinforced during the match when Rob Horne was sidelined after failing a concussion test and Rob Simmons was taken off with a back injury. I guess it was to be expected with all of Jones’ promise of a bodyline series and his determination to present an aggressive English side, headed by their captain of somewhat questionable discipline. Sadly David Pocock will also miss the rest of the series with a fractured eye socket. I will be watching keenly to see how Cheika orchestrates the necessary rearrangements.

In looking toward Saturday night, I am once again filled with anticipation. While the result was not ideal, this last match displayed everything I love about rugby. I was on the edge of my seat right to the end, with the Wallabies refusing to surrender and pushing England all the way. Our play was far from perfect, our terrible penalty count handing the match to Owen Farrell’s steady boot. Australia’s mistakes gave England control of the match and ultimately victory. I am sure Cheika will make the boys very aware of that this week.

Our path is clear – tidy things up, work on that set piece and let that back line shine. I am confident looking at this side, because it is the things that can be fixed that need to be addressed. The things you cannot teach, are working just fine. Watching Folau making impossible runs, Foley running beautiful lines and Kuridrani straightening the attack, I was reminded of just how special this back line is. Watching the construction of our four tries, I was filled with hope. We played a beautiful brand of rugby, not relying on missteps from our opposition, but creating points using our own ingenuity, skill and undeniable talent. Force our opposition to do the same and we can win. I believe.

 

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