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.

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.

Go with grace

Father and son

A rumour went around yesterday morning that Jobe Watson, captain of Essendon Football Club, was about to announce his retirement from the game. It was on the cards. He’s 32, it’s been a tough few years, and his form is not what it used to be. I felt a slight quavering though when I hear the news: I didn’t want him to go. A couple of hours later he confirmed the rumour with all his usual grace, class and Watson wit.

No matter what sport you follow you have your favourites. I’ve been following Essendon all my life. I’ve seen a lot of great players come and go. I feel a great affection for many of them, champions and characters of the game, the guys you’d turn up to watch and cheer on as they strutted their stuff. Most of them were very good players at least, and a lot of them big personalities as well. Terry Daniher say, or Simon Madden; Vander and Bomba; Lucas and Lloyd, not to mention Wanganeen, Longy, and Harvs, and all those others I’ve celebrated over the years.

You love them all, but there’s some you just love a little more than the rest.

I remember when I was a kid I idolised Graham Moss. I remember writing a letter to the big ruckman after winning his Brownlow asking him to stay. He didn’t, but I’ve never forgotten Mossy.

Later on I would watch Merv Neagle, taken not just by his dashing play, but by his good looks and insouciant aggression. When James Hird came along I was one of the many thousands who thought he was a golden haired wonder, incapable of vice or misstep, and an absolute legend on the field.

One of my favourites in his playing days was Tim Watson. He captured the imagination of a lot of us. Not only was he a child prodigy, he was an intoxicating mix of skill, power and pace, like Dangerfield, only better. He was a great player for many years and starred in a lot of big wins.

Later on he went into the media where his good looks, intelligence and sense of humour found him many more fans. I listen to him still today and can’t think of a better role model than him – a decent, funny, charismatic man of great personal integrity.

Of course he is the father of Jobe, who shares many of his attributes.

Jobe followed his father into the game about 10 years after Tim left it. He struggled at first, but eventually became the captain of the club, as his father had been, and a champion too, just as his dad – and won the Brownlow medal that always eluded Tim.

I was pre-disposed to love Jobe. He was the son of a much loved legend and I so wanted him to be a chip off the old block. As it happened he became quite a different player from his father. Where Tim was dynamic Jobe was relentless. Tim could turn a game in a quarter of brilliant football, whereas Jobe would construct a match winning effort over the course of the game. Tim was dash and verve; Jobe was insight and deft touches. Both are greats of the club.

I have great admiration for Jobe Watson the player. He was a very good player for a lot of years, and a great player for about four of them. When he won his Brownlow it was by a clear margin in a year when he polled votes in 12 of the first 13 games. Unfortunately his Brownlow became the Brownlow of the players who trailed him by 4 votes in that year – but that’s another story I don’t intend to dwell in.

Most of all I love Jobe Watson for the man he is. It’s common these days for supporters of many clubs to have admiration, even affection, for Jobe, and that’s because of his class and character. Unfortunately for him, and for us who followed him, that class has been on display too often because of the dreadful circumstances the club found itself mired in. It’s too well documented, and I’m not going to add to it now, except to say that Jobe gained a lot of admirers for his grace and dignity and fortitude in the most trying of circumstances. Among other things he proved himself a great leader through that time, as the testament of his teammates so well affirms.

It’s unfortunate that his career came to that. Some of the best years of his footballing life were directly shadowed by the events of the saga, ultimately leading to a year out of the game. I’m glad he returned to the game, but it’s not a story he can escape.

He spoke eloquently yesterday. Footballers get marked hard sometimes. Jobe has always been an articulate, sensitive and insightful character. He brought that yesterday, together with the wit he inherited from his father. I can’t imagine him gone, and don’t want him gone, but I understand.

For me Jobe is not just a great footballer, he is a man of integrity and character, worthy of admiration as a human being. He’s been made well, the product of good education, affection and love. The Watson’s, for mine, are an almost ideal notion of what a family should be. They are all good people.

So in a few more games, and hopefully more than a few, Jobe will grace the field before he leaves it together. The fairy-tale finish would be a premiership, and I’m barracking hard for that, but regardless he leaves the game on his own terms and to a new life – to New York, and beyond. There’s few people I could more sincerely wish great luck to. I hope he finds all he hopes for, and all he deserves.

Race without meaning

Can anyone tell me of a more pointless sporting contest than the America’s Cup?

Once upon a time it meant something. I remember it well. Forever and a day America had held the Auld Mug despite fierce competition from first the British, and then the Australians, with others coming and going in between. The contest was so lop-sided that it winning it became an obsession for a succession of Australian moguls – it’s very man a rich man’s sport. Despite years of toil and millions of dollars spent each and every occasion America retained the America’s Cup sailing offshore from Newport, Rhode Island.

It defeated Frank Packer, but then along came Alan Bond. He tried and failed, then he tried again. This time he came with a new boat with a revolutionary winged keel, designed by Ben Lexcen. Having defeated the challengers Australia III trailed Courageous 1-3 in the final, before it rallied. It levelled the series, and then in the decider crossed the line first. Cue widespread jubilation.

As I said, I remember it well. The nautical equivalent of Mt Everest had been conquered. It was front page news all over Australia. Bob Hawke famously proclaimed than any boss who fired some for not coming into work was a mug. The nation celebrated as one.

It had meaning then because it had never happened before. It was a contest between the starchy New York Yacht Club and, latterly, brash Australian entrepreneurs. Half the mystique was that clash of culture and entitlement, and the other half was the one sided nature of the contest till then. Once Australia took the cup from the American’s the mystique virtually disappeared.

It’s gone on since and changed hands several times – it’s hard to keep up and I couldn’t care less besides. They shifted from the graceful 12 metre yachts to rapid catamarans (losing a bit more of the cachet in the process). It’s been raced in parts all over the world. And to make a complete mockery of the contest though the yachts race under the flag of one nation they are crewed by peoples of all nations.

Yesterday the latest iteration of the event was won. This time the Kiwi’s won it, helmed by an Aussie, beating out the American’s who help the cup, also helmed by the same Aussie who won it for them last time.

This is a sport that has lost whatever tenuous connection it had with our world. It’s always been an elite, rich man’s sport, but that was leavened before by tradition, by the history of the contest, and lovely yachts themselves, like thoroughbreds. Back in the day it meant something to win it because it was an Australian team racing an Australian boat crewed by Australians. There was democracy in it.

Now it’s a profession, a mercenary contest limited to only the very wealthiest. Tradition has been lost, and history has become irrelevant. It has no heart.

Good on the Kiwis, good on their Aussie skipper (from Bendigo), and well played – but what in a sporting sense does it mean? I can’t think of a single thing.


Larry vrs Magic: the great days

30 For 30 must be one of the best programs of its type ever. For those who don’t know, it’s an ESPN program, which basically are in-depth sporting documentaries. What makes it different is the qualities of these shows which often take a different angle to a well-known story or personality, or perhaps take a more intimate perspective. They’re well made, highly intelligent, and far beneath the surface. If you happen across a story you like you find yourself completely immersed in it – this is what happened to me last night.

I happened across last night’s shows. I was doing some random channel switching when it popped up: Celtics vrs Lakers.

I discovered the NBA back in the early eighties. It would be on TV here in Oz late at night and then only the finals. Sitting in a darkened lounge room in suburban Melbourne and watching the feats of unknown basketball stars started off as a novelty. It was strange and foreign and to the teenager I was then pretty dreamy. As the novelty wore off real appreciation grew. I came to know the players and the teams intimately, I found my favourites and cultivated my allegiance. I don’t how or why, but I became a Celtics fan.

Back then if you mentioned Celtics in the next breath would be the Lakers, and vice versa. I can only imagine now, but I reckon I favoured the Celtics because they were the earthy alternative to the flash and glamour of the LA Lakers. I could appreciate the show the Lakers put on, but the Celtics seemed more authentic to me. And, they had Larry Bird.

I loved Larry Bird. He’s probably my favourite basketball player of all time, just ahead of Michael Jordan. I loved him because he was a superstar, and because he was such a damn smart player, and probably loved most because he was so damned unlikely. Here was a tall, gangly, very pale skinned, red haired white guy without any particular athletic gifts who dominated in a league of flashy and explosive athleticism. What he had was his great smarts, an incredible passing game, a pretty good shooting hand, and an unsurpassed competitive edge. He was a leader.

Like the Celtics and Lakers, if you mentioned Larry Bird then Magic Johnson came next. He was Bird’s Laker’s counterpart, and epitomised the differences in the teams. Magic was immensely talented, a great athlete, a happy go lucky, larger than life motor mouth with a great ability to take a game by the scruff of the neck. You had to love Magic. He and Larry came into the game at the same time – a blessing to the sport – and then dominated it for the next 10 years.

The show last night was about that great rivalry, between Celtics and the Lakers, between Bird and Magic, between two different cultures and philosophies.

I loved it. I remembered so much watching it. I could recall moments sitting there watching clutch moments in the key finals series between the two teams. Sport is like that. We interact with it as a spectator and an aficionado, and in so doing it threads its way through the simple day to day of our life. We remember things by the sports we watch, and remember sporting moments by the things we did. They become enmeshed.

This is a two part show and last night I watched the first part before having to go to bed. Tonight I’ll watch the second part which will feature the epic battles between the two sides. Can’t wait to watch.