A good day to be Australian


When I think about it, it’s been a crappy few years in Australia, and in fact for much of the world. There’s been little to celebrate, and much otherwise to fear, decry or sadden.

Yesterday was one of the better days in recent Australian history. Yesterday the heart soared, and it felt good to be an Aussie again.

There were two big moments yesterday, both of which might have soured, but this time came out just the right way.

Last night the Socceroos played Honduras in Sydney for the right to compete in the World Cup in Russia next year. It was a big event, a big crowd, and a lot riding on it.

Even before last night’s game the Socceroos had created history. No team had ever played so many matches to qualify for the World Cup. No team had ever travelled so far – the equivalent of six times around the world, they say. It had been long and arduous, and more recently, controversial and testy. Last night was it, one way or another.

Coming into the match playing on our home ground gave us the advantage, but at half-time the score was nil all and we were getting nervous. In the second half the game broke open, and Mile Jedinak, the skip, scored three times – twice from the penalty spot, and another from a deflected free kick.

That was it. There was a great outpouring of relief and happiness on the ground, in the stands, and in lounge rooms all over Australia. Sitting in my lounge room I exchanged SMS with friends who had been watching in their home, and engaged in social media. On Twitter I wrote I want to be Mile Jedinak when I grow up – such a great leader and commanding presence, we had lost our way without him, and came good with him back.

I feel sorry for the Hondurans. They fought passionately, but they were always a class below.

Earlier in the day something else had happened which should have a more enduring impact upon the nation.

The much criticised plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage turned out to be a resounding success, with more than 80% of Australians having their say. It was always thought that the Yes vote would win, but as always in moments like this, as indeed in World Cup qualifiers, you’re never sure of the result until the whistle blows. Yesterday the whistle blew on the plebiscite and the results announced: a little over 61% of Australians said “Yes’ to same sex marriage.

This was a great and emotional moment. At work a crowd had congregated in the staff dining area to watch the results announced on TV. I think every one of them hoped for the Yes result – I’ve yet to meet anyone who professes anything else. With it announced the news spread, there were high fives in the office and cheering. Around the country there were much greater celebrations.

This was a result I was very committed to, but it doesn’t affect me. For hundreds of thousands of other Australians the result of this plebiscite had a direct on their life and destiny. All going well this should pass into law sometime before Christmas, and those Australians can go off and married their loved one, just like the rest of us. It is a great moment of inclusiveness, and an acknowledgement that we are all equal, and with the rights now to enshrine it.

I felt so proud and happy. I believed that Australia would vote that way. It’s a victory for compassion, decency, and that great Australian dictum, a fair go for all. I am at times critical of our society, but I’ve always thought that Australians are natural democrats – it’s why we are renowned for being egalitarian. We’ll judge you on your merits, not on your title, wealth, or if you happen to be heterosexual or gay.

A final observation on this – anyone who witnessed Penny Wong break down at the announcement and wasn’t moved is a mug. She is a woman I admire greatly, very smart, a little fierce, a decent human being. She also happens to be gay. She rode this politically, but it was also very personal. Her tears gave expression to the relief and pure justice of this moment.

Advertisements

Touching the hem


I watched Winx win her third consecutive Cox Plate yesterday, and her 22nd win in a row.

She was hot favourite funnily enough, and given many of her dominant wins it was expected she would win easily again. As it happened she was challenged and looked like she might be headed at one point, before she steadied to win a head in front. It was a great race.

In most sports, the underdog gets good support. We like a good contest, and if the champ gets rumbled every so often then so be it. There are few so sacrosanct that they have our support no matter the competition or competitors.

Champion horses are an exception to that. Great horses capture our imagination like few human competitors can. They are beautiful things to start with, graceful and full of latent power.It’s in their sleek muscles, rippling flanks, and polished coats. They are wonderful athletes, but they are animals too, beasts if you like, and so they are beyond us. They are something other, and at the same time as they are not human the human emotions of envy and resentment. They are innocent, beautiful things in their own right, but vessels of hope too. They are above us – when they win they are things of wonder, and when they lose, just brute animals.

It’s the race that people come for, to witness latent power become rawly kinetic. The gates open and then they go, they explode, and the crowd explodes with them, waiting for this, expectant, feeling the thrill of it in them like a primitive thing, a rhythm, an urging. The horses pound the turf and you hear the reverberation as the horses near, feel the air sizzle with energy, and ahead of them, or coming down the outside, is the horse, your horse, the horse everyone proclaims, the horse you come to win and even so, even so, it surges to the front like a freak of nature. You feel it catch in you. You are here. This is real. And as the horses go by you see the horse has hit the front and there is something holy and wondrous to be here witnessing this, to be part of it.

When it’s a horse like Winx, or Black Caviar, or Makybe Diva, or any one of the great horses we stop to applaud their feats. Their victory is the validation of expectation, and proof of a larger wonder that for a few minutes on a racetrack we can indulge in. It’s a form of love, and in those few minutes everyone shares in it.

It’s rare that a human competitor inspires such feeling, almost unheard of really, but it does happen.

Usain Bolt is an example of an athlete everyone liked, not just because he is the best sprinter the world has seen, but because he is a larger than life figure. His victories give rise to that character, which is ultimately life-affirming. We might have our national allegiance, but there’s few really who didn’t want Bolt to win – I was certainly one. For him to win as he did in Rio seemed only right. It was justice served.

I imagine it was the same for the likes of Phelps and Thorpe in the pool, unbeatable at their best and almost godlike in their perfection. They did not rouse the same affection, but even among their fellow athletes they inspired awe – and to the crowd that came to watch them compete, they wanted them to perform and win. Herb Elliott, who retired undefeated, must have been similar.

There are few others I can think of – Tiger Woods perhaps, but then his fall illustrates the frailty and fickleness human expectation. Once the god is exposed as having feet of clay we reject them – unlike the sleek, dumb beasts we cheer on at the racetrack, man has a consciousness we can understand. His flaws mirror our own but don’t belong when you’ve been raised to a pedestal. If you are just like me after all, then why should you be up on a pedestal? Horses have no such fears.

I can know this, but it doesn’t make me immune from feeling it. I was captivated yesterday. I had tears in my eyes and love in my heart. And I’m glad for it. There’s something special about having your imagination captured.

The distractions of trade week


I’ve done fuck all work the last week. This has been my most productive day by far. Like many others I’ve been consumed with torturous wheelin’ and dealin’ of the AFL trade ‘week’. In fact it’s about ten days of relative tedium interspersed with moments of unexpected deals, rampant speculation, and craven hope. It’s hope that compels attention, regardless of what is actually happening.

As any committed sports fan knows, hope springs eternal. No matter how bad a season you’ve experienced there’s always hope for the next. Fresh starts and new beginnings are an integral part of sports myth. There’s always a new recruit, a new coach, a new approach that will make all the difference. As sports fans we ride the crest of emotion when the new star comes on board or the wins mount up; and are dumped when the star recruit does a knee, or wins becomes losses and hope evaporates.

If you’re an AFL supporter this time of year represents a kind of expectant limbo. The season is done and dusted, and all but a small proportion of supporters have been disappointed. The long tail of the season is given new impetus by the activities of the post-season, trade week and, in November, the draft. Only once December comes will it subside till early February.

So this has been trade week, and notwithstanding the drawn out nature of it there’re few footy supporters who haven’t kept a keen eye on it. This is our first go at rejuvenating our club and re-igniting our hope. This is a bite of the cherry which, if managed right, can make all the difference.

For me the ten days has been spent checking things online every few minutes – the footy forum I’m a member of, the AFL site, trade portals, Twitter, and so on. You never know when something might have popped up in the few minutes you weren’t looking! Rumour. Innuendo and unlikely scenarios are floated and shot down. Rumoured conversations and mooted deals do the rounds. So called ‘insiders’ give the benefit of their dubious contacts, exciting comment, hope and ridicule. Self-styled trade auditors will scribble down complex ‘three-way’ deals on a back of an envelope, and will publish it online as a possible outcome. The pessimists decry the likelihood of every prospect, the optimists barely contain their excitement, and the bed wetters fear everything will turn out bad. Hard-line realists like me have a more philosophical take on things: what will be, will be. It’s an objective assessment, though not immune from occasional excitement. (I also take pleasure in slapping down the bed-wetters and the nervous nellies).

This year, for the first time in living memory, something actually happened for my team. It was mooted early on, and the thinking was ‘that sounds great, but won’t get all that done’. Two out of three would be a good result. Then all the desired players nominated us as their preferred destination but, even so, what did we have to exchange for footballers of such calibre?

Step up Jackets Dodoro. He’s a bit of a legend among Essendon supporters, and also a divisive figure – I’ve always liked his style. His style can be surmised by a photo one year where he wore three layered jackets, portraying a sort of insouciant style of a recruiting Marlboro man. It captured the imagination of all supporters, hence his nickname.

In reality he’s more like a inscrutable card sharp playing expertly a hand of mixed quality. One after another he got the deals done, winning tricks with low cards, and topping it off by pulling in the big recruit trumping an ace with a pair of tens.

For a supporter of the Essendon football club it was beautiful to behold – no wonder I hit refresh so often. At the end of it there was a collective gasp of pleasure from the Bombers faithful. We killed it. In the space of a little over a week we brought in three very good players – including one who could be anything – for the price of a movie with dinner. With those moves we elevate ourselves from a dangerous mid-ranking team to a truly scary contender. One thing’s for sure, there won’t be a team more exciting next season, and the sky’s the limit.

Now I can get back to work.

Well done, Tiges


So, Richmond did it. In hindsight, it seems it was inevitable. I even had that feeling last week, my head was saying the Crows were the better team, but the Tigers might be irresistible. And that’s pretty well how it turned out.

My reservations about Adelaide proved to be spot on to. Richmond stifled them, closing down their run and creativity. That was always going to be the crux of the contest, but there was a strong school of thought that the Crows skill and precision would overcome that. That was wrong.

Richmond turned it into a first-half arm wrestle, and that’s the one game style the Crows can’t play. They either win – handsomely – playing their style, or more rarely lose – comfortably – when it fails. They’re incapable of grinding out a victory, and so Richmond turned it into a grind.

I’ll get to Richmond, but I have to say that Adelaide was pathetic. There have been some one-sided grand final wins, but few losses have been as insipid as the Crows. They barely gave a yelp. They didn’t try anything, they didn’t fight back. They played without any physical presence and good players few and far between – and most of their big name players very poor.

To some degree that’s a failure of coaching. I think Pyke is a very clever coach, but he’s predominantly cerebral, if not scientific. When the science breaks down he seems at a loss. There appears no plan B, and no inspiration – surely when the game is slipping away you’d try something different? There’s no tomorrow: try something.

It’s true to some degree of the players too. I found their inaction and lack of initiative frustrating. Back in the day, someone would have turned around to start a fight, and there’s great value in it. To start with it shows an intent sadly lacking. Secondly, it’s an opportunity to disturb the pattern of the game and get some momentum. Finally, it might fire up the team.

There was very little on-field leadership, and when I heard that Crows players were arguing amongst themselves at halftime I knew it was pretty well game over. This game was over a long away before the end, even when the scores were closer.

As for Richmond, they played like men on a mission. It’s how they’ve played the whole final series. They carried the momentum from the previous finals and crushed the Crows with it. It was a hugely committed, disciplined effort. They hungered for it so much more.

As I said the other day, this is a great testament to Dimma. I was so happy for him. He’s a genuinely nice bloke but has been underrated when in fact he is very shrewd. This his reward for persistence and intelligence.

It was late in the game I realised I was barracking for Richmond. They deserved it, and that counts for so much for me. Footy is a game of effort as much as skill. Then I saw Benny Gale – a lovely, very smart bloke – in tears I was so happy for them. There is romance I sport, and this was a win for the romantics.

It reminded me of a truth I had overlooked. I was happy for Adelaide to win because they were inoffensive to me. I have a much greater emotional connection to the Tiges though because I have grown up with them in the comp, have been rivals with them and often times jousted with their rowdy supporters. There are limits to the connection. I have a similar history with other traditional clubs, but it doesn’t translate to support. Richmond is a big club, but I’ve never hated them – maybe it’s because they wore a sash too, or because they were never really a threat. But I dislike Collingwood, despise Carlton, and hate Hawthorn, and could never in a month of Sunday’s barrack for them.

Well done Tiges, you’ve made a lot of people happy.

Tiger versus Crow


I’ve got the TV on in the background tuned to one of the footy stations taking in the pre-game. It’s Grand Final day, a big day in Melbourne, and this is just the start of it. I’ll be out later to suck on a beer or two and watch it with some friends. In the meantime, I’m happy to soak up the growing vibe in bayside Hampton, and I’ll be particularly interested in watching some of the TAC stars go round – tomorrow’s champions.

I’m tipping Adelaide today in the big one, and though it’s only by a slim margin, I hope they win too.

Adelaide should be a clearer favourite, but like many I’m wary of what Richmond can do. If the final was decided over best of three then I reckon the Crows would take it 2-1. When it’s just a single match anything can happen.

Adelaide have been the best team all year. At one stage I had some minor queries about them, thinking they were possibly frontrunners. They’d been in few close matches and lost them. Like a lot of South Australian teams of the past, they were free-flowing, fast and skilfull, but I wondered if they had the resilience to respond when challenged. Then they came back from being 50 points down against Collingwood to draw. It was a great effort, but didn’t completely answer the question – when you’re down that much you’ve left with no option but to go for it, which is very different from scrapping out a narrow victory. I still wonder a little bit, and favour Richmond if it becomes an arm wrestle, but overall think Adelaide are too good to let it become that.

The Crows gave us our biggest pasting of the year in Adelaide, but it was the return match in Melbourne that left me convinced they were the best team in it. We surged and surged again in that game, but each time Adelaide pulled away with slick and efficient footy. That’s the word that best describes them for me. They can play some dynamic, exciting footy, but above all they are efficient. With the forward line they have, that efficiency is generally sufficient to convert into a good win.

There’s no gainsaying the Tigers, though. They improved throughout the year. They’ve got probably the two best players on the field, but they don’t bat nearly as deep as the Crows. As I wrote last week their success is a testament to a playing style that capitalises on team strengths. They are ferocious around the ball and quick with ball in hand. They play disciplined footy, but I suspect their comparative inefficiency to cost them.

In everyone’s books, they’re a great story. For most of the year, I’ve sat across from a hard-core Richmond fan, and each Monday been made to endure his stories of how the Tiges have changed, and how well they’re doing. Early on he spoke with hope but lacked conviction. Then, as Richmond passed most tests, his belief grew in accord with the respect the football world slowly gave them. For so many years a joke and a disappointment, Richmond was finally being respected.

For me, their coach has to take much of the credit. I’ve always thought Hardwick underrated. He’s a raw sort of character who wears his heart on his sleeve, often with a rueful smile. He’s been there through the ups and downs and copped some blame for that – much of which he accepts. I’ve always been of the view that it’s been the recruiters who let Richmond down, not the coach. He took teams to finals who weren’t good enough to win them, but in truth weren’t really good enough to make it there in the first place. He took what he was given and moulded it into a unit better than its individual parts.

The mistake he made was dropping his original game style and trying to adopt the style so successfully played by Hawthorn. He didn’t have the players to do it though, and Richmond became a stultified team without energy. It’s only now that he has radically changed styles again that the team has leapt forward. He’s embraced the shortcomings of the list and made something unique out of it – even now, today, I would suggest that for talent Richmond is in the 5-7 range, the difference has been coaching.

If Richmond is to win then I’d be happy for Dimma. He was a great defender for my team and premiership player twice over. He was one of my favourite players back in the day because he was such an uncompromising – and occasionally brutal – footballer. He seems like an affable character off-field that it’s easy to forget he was one of the toughest in a very tough team. I’m happy for him.

I certainly don’t count Richmond out today. They’ve got momentum, and momentum counts for so much in sport. There’s a whiff of the fairy-tale to their rise, much like last year with the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs were perennially unsuccessful, whereas Richmond is royalty fallen on hard times. Once they roared and were mighty, only to become mangy and mediocre. This is their rise again, and don’t the tiger fans love it.

I concede that a victory for Richmond today would have some poetry to it, but it’s only occasionally that the sporting gods allow poetry to affect the result. I’m wary of what happens if they win. It will be mayhem and jubilation and, just quietly, Richmond fans will be even more insufferable – if that’s at all possible.

I don’t mind if they win, but I think the Crows will, and hope it too – they deserve it, they’ve been the best team all year. And Adelaide is – for me – one of the less offensive sides. They’re reasonable and respectable and, as an Essendon man, one of the clubs that treated us with respect through our dark days. Besides, they’re Cheeseboy’s team, and he wouldn’t allow me to do anything else.

Adelaide by 19 points

(I hoped to write about Dustin Martin today as well, but time and space have got away from me – suffice to say he is a mighty player and an interesting character. I have a lot of time for him because I reckon there’s a gentle heart that beats inside of him. And he’s a great story.)

Year of the tiger?


Second last weekend of the footy season coming up. There’s always much hype and anticipation around this time of year, but this time around there’s an extra vibe because of Richmond.

I was a kid during an era in which the Tigers were a force, but in the 30 odd years since they’ve been a disappointment. Here and there along the way they might get some momentum, and their huge army of supporters would rouse – only for it to come to nothing. They always found a way to fall short of expectations, to the point they became famous for finishing just out of the finals year after year. Ninthmond we would call them, mockingly.

Throughout Richmond supporters – who are a different breed – remained committed, hopeful, but almost always resigned to ultimate catastrophe. For the rest of us they became a club easy to disparage for their enduring mediocrity, and propensity for stage fright.

It’s different this year. Richmond are in the last four, and just a win away from the grand final. Far from being resigned to catastrophe, every Richmond supporter seems convinced that this is their year. There’s good reason for their optimism. For a start the Tigers are playing with a steel entirely absent since the early eighties. They’re the hardest tackling team in the comp, and have changed their style altogether to something much more sustainable in finals type pressure. They’ve been impressive, and their coaching staff have to take a lot of credit.

On the back of this the hype is like nothing I can recall. There’s a huge supporter base who for years have been starved of success, and now drunk with the possibility. It’s the very definition of over the top.

As an outsider I view it with bemusement. As someone whose team has been there multiple times since Richmond were last I study it curiously. But as someone who has watched AFL footy I wonder if Richmond are guilty of just about the worst sin in footy – getting ahead of themselves.

To be fair the club itself seems pretty sensible in its approach to these big games. It’s the supporters and the media who have gone crazy. Every supporter seems convinced that their destiny is a flag. Ex-Richmond in the media are proclaiming this week’s result a sure thing, and there’s already controversy about whether Richmond should have to wear a clash strip for the grand final. My advice – get there first, then worry about it.

A week ago I was pretty confident they would make the grand final (and lose). I tipped them to beat Geelong, which they did handsomely. They opened up to them the easier side of the drawer. More than likely they would play GWS in the preliminary final, who are very talented, but crippled by injuries and frequently disappointing.

That’s the match-up this week, but on the back of an impressive GWS win in the semi-final, and all the clamour and noise about Richmond, I’m now tipping GWS.

Richmond aren’t a great side. They’ve been structured and coached to a style of game that is effective, and which is basically greater than the sum of its parts. Interestingly, you could say GWS is the opposite. They’re a richly talented team who play too often as individuals (I believe poorly coached). Even then they’re dangerous, but when they click as a unit they’re very formidable. If that happens Saturday they should win.

Richmond dominated against Geelong and should have had a match winning lead at half time – instead, Geelong drew level in the third quarter. Richmond would ultimately go on to record a dominant win, but the game highlighted both their strengths and their flaws. They have not been a big scoring team this year, and have an undersized forward line (which has often been a positive). They don’t convert enough chances. Their efficiency too often breaks down going forward. Against Geelong it took a great player like Dustin Martin to take the game by the scruff of the neck.

I don’t think they can get away with the same inefficiency against a quality team in form.

That’s the question – GWS are a quality outfit, but will they be in form? They’ve been erratic in general, and this week must play on a ground in front of 100,000, of which just fifteen hundred are GWS supporters. The crowd will be overwhelmingly yellow and black, and noisier than you can imagine.

There’s a lot of ifs and buts in this game. GWS have the quality edge. Richmond will have the crowd on their side. Question is how they turn up on the day. I think we’ll know pretty early, but I’m inclined to GWS because all the hype for Richmond is unhealthy.

It will be an interesting vibe if GWS get up. The crowd will become silent, and there could be riots in the streets after, depending on how it plays out. I’m not sure if they can go this far next year.

In the other game I’m tipping Adelaide to beat Geelong at home.

The best of the best


Here’s a fascinating article if you like footy: http://www.theage.com.au/interactive/2017/afl-team-of-the-century/.

We crunched the numbers to find the best AFL team this century
17 flag winners. 7 key statistics. 11 footy experts. Our quest to find the best of the best.
http://www.theage.com.au

I don’t need to comment on it except to say that my experience of footy in that period would have me rank the 2000 Essendon side as best, followed by the 2007 Cats, and the 2003 Brisbane Lions.