Thursday, 26 April 2007

Forget Super 14 - Heart vs Head is the Real Battle

Each week I struggle with my conscience.

I make no apologies for supporting the Waratahs. I wear my heart on my sleeve and my jersey three-times a year when I go to a game at the SFS. I still have the Waratahs bumper sticker which came with last year’s pre-season Sydney Morning Herald – the sticker is on the fridge. And I routinely put the boot into all the other Australian teams when it comes to blogs, tipping comps or correspondence with my mates in Queensland.

But I don’t always tip them to win. And I often put money on them to lose and sometimes lose by lots. And while that has proven to be quite profitable this season it does nothing to assuage my feelings of guilt during a game.

I partake in tipping competitions for money and have a sports betting account.

This is not some coming-out statement or some sort of Gambler’s Anonymous statement. Indeed far from having a gambling problem I’m quite good at it, having finished runner-up in a Super 14 tipping comp one year (admittedly one that I run and in that same year my wife won – I would happily have come second last if it meant she had come last dammit) and won the work Rugby League tipping competition last year, pocketing $1300 in the process. I have wins and losses with the sports betting account but over the years haven’t lost more than maybe a hundred dollars all up.

The hundred dollars I view as a reasonable investment in providing me with an interest in sports that I consider myself knowledgeable (Rugby Union and Cricket) but for matches in which I have little interest (such as those involving South African rugby teams or subcontinental cricket teams). And tipping in Rugby League gives me an interest in a sport that I generally detest but can’t avoid – I support whoever I tip. But it’s when I come to the Waratahs that I am torn.

There is tipping and betting with heart versus head but there is also supporting on the day with heart or head. Each match I have to determine to what extent my support of the Waratahs is tempered by reality (and in anything is real it’s putting your hard-earned at risk). It’s not enough to say that I should never back against my own team. In tipping competitions you have to tip a winner from each match, and those that tip with their heart take a grave risk.

It’s not just the money, but the bragging rights. While there is money involved, in a tipping comp it’s bragging rights (against your mates or colleagues) but with a sports betting account it’s proving your worth against the ‘experts’, and there is no one more expert than those employed by the sports betting agency to frame odds that will ensure that the agency makes a profit. So it’s their knowledge versus mine. The amount isn’t important. It’s knowing that I know my sport better than the experts.

So what’s my tip for this weekend? Only that when it comes to money I use my head, but when it comes to the Waratahs my head will end up in my hands. You can bet on it. I have.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Dear Brendan Cannon

Dear Brendan,

Sorry to hear that injury has caused you to prematurely retire. But at least you didn't have to retire because you were crap and no one passed you the ball, like I did. You will get used to not being recognised when you walk down the street. I never get recognised when I walk down the street, it's as if these people don't know who I am or what I did. You'd think I was the invisible man or I'm in some weird Jim Carrey film where I've had my identity stolen, except that it's funny in a ha-ha way and not a clever way. But I have come to terms with it as I'm sure you will.

And when people say "Hey, didn't you used to be Brendan Cannon?" just nod and move on. At least that's what I would do but I've never been Brendan Cannon so I can't really comment.

Retirement will be harder than you think. It was for me. No more getting up every Saturday morning for five months of the year and hanging around the house watching music videos before a quick lunch and off to Moore Park in time for the toss and a quick stretch.

I've just been reading that sports psychologists say that retiring sports stars will experience depression, frustration, shock and grief. To that I add confusion, because I didn't experience any grief and the frustration came before the depression. This just confused me and made me question whether I retired too early. My former team mates though have been highly supportive and say that if anything I retired too late.

The other thing you will miss is the adrenaline rush of playing competitive sport. For me it was the half a dozen times each season when I didn't knock on and when an opponent got caught up in my arms and it was ruled a tackle by the coach.

You are never truly ready to retire, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Don’t get me wrong. I’d seen the writing on the wall pretty much from the day I first struggled with the tape around my ears (blindside flanker has never been more apt), but when it happened it still came as a shock not seeing my name listed as emergency reserve on the team sheet.

You might find it helps to keep training, just to keep your fitness up. Indeed I still take myself to the pub after games even though I don’t know where the boys are playing or even if.

Hopefully you have some qualifications or another career ready to fall back on, maybe in the media or maybe writing a sports blog that nobody reads. It’s good too to have experienced a real job before starting your career so you know what to expect, but then again, I delivered pizzas for a long time and that sucked.

Don’t get me wrong. A 9-5 job is tough. And that’s why I suggest you go for a 10-3 job.

Just remember that most people would give their right arm to have had the sporting career that you had, except those that don’t fancy getting their neck crushed in the bottom of a scrum of course.

So I hope you get to fill the black hole, the void, that awaits. Sure you might miss the discipline of a coach or manager telling you what to do and when. I guess I’m just fortunate that I still have people telling me where to go and to get off their property.

Good luck mate. Just remember too that while money can’t buy love it can buy fast cars and big TVs.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Club Rugby - The Search for Meaning

If a tree falls during a game of Rugby Union and no one is there to watch it, does it matter that no one will get hurt let alone hear it?

Club Rugby in Sydney started a new season a few weekends ago and as usual this time of year there was much philosophising on the meaning of existence (of the competition) accompanied by what could be described as one hand clapping given the scarcity of apparent support at each of the grounds.

Sydney’s club Rugby scene reinvents itself more often than Madonna (the pop singer, not the religious icon although like the icon it is rooted in faith, tradition and myth). Extra teams come and go (remember the Dirty Reds in first grade and the Central Coast only last year), scoring systems change, finals systems get tinkered with (six finalists this year, four last year, none the year before that) or vanish altogether, trophies being fought for get renamed, disappear and reappear.

And as provincial Rugby expands taking in new teams and more matches, Academy systems hang on to players, under 19 and under 21 representative teams swallow players and sevens Rugby goes from strength to strength, it’s amazing that there are any players left for the Clubs. Indeed it would be an interesting but impossible exercise to compare today’s Rugby Club strength to that of Suburban (or Subbies) rugby from 20 years ago.

No doubt the ARU and probably the clubs would argue that the player participation levels are up, skill levels have improved and an influx of islander kiddies are keeping club rugby healthy, but the ARU and the clubs have their own agendas. The ARU likes to pretend that the clubs are still a priority to it, while the clubs like to pretend that they are still a valuable resource and the heart, soul and standard bearer of Rugby in Australia.

And like all these things the real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle and just to one side. But is there a problem?

No one attends club rugby games - so what as long as people are watching any Rugby at all via the Provinces and the Wallabies and even if only on TV. No kid will be inspired to play the game by watching Illawarra go round against Parramatta at Granville. Kids wanna be Wallabies, not Emus or Pirates or Beasties.

Players don’t get paid much – big deal, the cream will rise to the top and they’ll get paid then – wasn’t this part of the reason the Australian Rugby Championship was invented?

Clubs don’t have much money to fund junior development – did they ever? Nearly every representative player since before there were Wallabies have come via the clubs and junior programs like Wallarugby are funded by and coordinated centrally at State or National levels.

Players are being lost to junior representative and 7s teams – excellent. The standard is higher, there is international travel and experiences to be had and players get to find out the advantage of playing a (sort-of) global game

The ARU pays big bucks to League players instead of developing junior players through the clubs – who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too? League players bring exposure and exposure means money. Some of them can play too. Think of it as an investment.

None of this is to belittle the role that club Rugby does play. Where else can I take my family for cans of beer served out of an esky by reserve graders and injured players from the back of a van, queue up to use a port-a-loo or go behind a tree, watch kids tackle each other in the mud behind the goal post and make a fool of my brother on live TV during his bucks party?

It doesn’t matter if 5 or 500 or 5,000 people turn up, the ground is a dustbowl or a swamp, the public address system is as unintelligible as the scoreboard and the pies are cold. The passion shown by the players on the field and the people who do turn up off it is all that matters (that and cold beer). And while the competition may not be great the competitiveness and passion is. The players know the score. If they’re good enough the rewards will come. If they’re not then the club system will provide them with a long career of memories (and hangovers).

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

What Can The Rugby World Cup Learn From The Cricket World Cup?

The Cricket World Cup has been going for many months already in case you hadn’t noticed, and quite frankly why would you? Endless games of meaningless rubbish between teams full of players no-one’s heard of from countries that don’t even really play cricket played out in front of half empty grandstands and broadcast in the middle of the night largely on Cable TV only. With a Rugby World Cup coming up in September the lessons are many and varied. And not just for the administrators. Players, fans, coaches and broadcasters need to learn from the mistakes of others or the Rugby World Cup could join the Cricket World Cup as a sporting anachronism that just seemed a good idea at the time.

So let the lessons commence:

1. No one even noticed that the Cricket World Cup started or took any interest until someone died. As far as marketing ploys go that was pretty desperate, but desperate times call for desperate measures and you can’t beat the murder of a coach after an upset win for headline grabbing attention. I’m not suggesting though that one of Rugby’s major coaches should be murdered. Actually I am.

2. Ensure the World’s number one team loses to a minnow. South Africa proudly boasted of taking the number one ranking from Australia in the build-up to the Cricket World Cup. For a team with a reputation as chokers that was a pretty brave call and sure enough when the heat was applied they collapsed in a heap against Bangladesh, a country where cricket is only played a few weeks each year as it is flooded for the remainder. The recriminations and excuses are a joy to behold, always are, as is the mad scramble from other uncompetitive nations such as England and the West Indies who suddenly think they’re in with a chance. So with this in mind it is beholden upon the All Blacks to lose, once again, before even reaching the final hurdle, and preferably to a minnow – like Wales.

3. Are World Cups for the World or for the locals? The International Cricket Council has decided on the former and to their detriment, stadiums are empty as ticket prices mean the locals can’t afford spending a week’s wages on the latest Scotland vs Bermuda blockbuster. Yet there is a positive; the West Indies lack of home-town support has seen them stumble to three successive defeats. The Rugby World Cup will be played in France, and a French victory in the World Cup and the subsequent thrusting of Gallic noses even further in the air must be avoided at all costs. So to prevent this, Rugby World Cup prices must be beyond the average Parisian’s reach. Fortunately, the Aussie dollar is doing quite well at the moment so at least there’ll be a scattering of green and gold.

4. What World Cup? Few people in Australia have cable TV and even those that do aren’t up at 3am to watch it. The French timezone isn’t great. Sure South Africans and Europeans are catered for but rugby in South Africa is a marginal sport for the vast majority of the population and a minority sport all over Europe except in Wales and they’ll be lucky to make the quarter-finals. Only in Australia and New Zealand is there enough support and likelihood of success that audiences can be guaranteed. The last Rugby World Cup in Australia proves the point. So play the matches at 3am France time, it’s the right thing to do for the good of the game.

5. Minnows are funny. They have funny names, are overweight and give social players hope they could compete on the world stage. Watching Herschelle Gibbs hit six sixes in an over off an unknown Dutchmen then pretend it mattered has been the Rolling Maul's highlight of the Cricket World Cup. Sure they’re cannon fodder but at the end of the day you want world records in World Cups. The answer is more teams, indeed I’d argue for all teams. No more of this nonsense qualification process, if Bosnia & Herzegovina (currently ranked 95th and last on the IRB rankings) and Finland (94th) want to play in the World Cup then put them up against the Springboks, Wallabies or All Blacks in front of an international audience. This has the added bonus of the Cup lasting at least six months and ensuring there's always something worth watching in the middle of the night.

Any other suggestions?

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Test Driving the Next Wallabies Coach

John Connolly is the smartest man in the world. By agreeing to coach the Wallabies only until the end of the World Cup there are only two possibilities. Either he retires, reputation enhanced, richer in wallet and stature, the genius that turned the team around. Or the Wallaby dream is shattered, team and administration bickering and long-in-tooth, a task too big to hurdle, Connolly enjoying the view from his retirement couch where he came from in the first place.

For Connolly’s successor, World Cup success could be a nightmare. Old players may not retire, new players clamouring for more money, incessant demands from sponsors, broadcasters and an adoring public, no chance to stamp one’s authority and build a team to match your plans. But let’s face it, that’s not looking likely, no matter how much the All Blacks are following the time honoured path to peaking too early.

So with this in mind let’s assess the applicants. In no particular order:

Ewen Mackenzie
– Long association with the Waratahs and is from New South Wales but played for the inaugral Brumbies so knows what it is like to hate. Likes to eat, especially pies. Has cauliflower ears so remembers when scrummaging was a tough man’s game unlike the feeble touch and cuddle variety of today.
Cons – Waratahs are having a shocker. Former prop so has no idea what goes on away from the immediate area of his legs. Writes for the Sydney Morning Herald so likely to blow his own trumpet.

Scott Johnson
Pros – Current Wallabies assistant coach so knows the set-up (then again, that could be a con) and the players (then again, that could be a con). Not afraid to turn up to a press conference wearing army fatigues and making practical jokes at the expense of the All Blacks or the Welsh. Former Wales coach so can probably sing well. Born and bred and played for New South Wales.
Cons – Has long hair so sets a bad example for the kiddies. Wales weren’t much better than Australia when he coached them (0 wins, 1 draw, 2 losses). Considered to be a ‘free-thinker’ which is bound to cause friction with the fascists at ARU headquarters. Played as a fly-half or back so thinks forwards are there just to make space for backs.

Laurie Fisher
Pros – Looks like Colonel Sanders so is bound to be a hit with obese people ultimately leading to a better Wallaby front row. Comes from a long line of Brumbies coaches (well, two) who went on to coach the Wallabies so a no-brainer for the ARU. Gets on well with Gregan, Larkham and Mortlock – the mafia who sacked David Nucifora as Brumbies coach.
Cons – Gregan and Larkham at least will retire or be sacked after the World Cup so no support from the team. Brumbies have done nothing since he took over from Nucifora. Hair will detract from on-field performance. Born in Canberra. Never played for New South Wales (or Queensland or anyone of any note for that matter)

David Nucifora
– Coaching Blues to Super 14 glory despite missing all his All Blacks for most of the season. Nobody in Australia likes him or wants him, why do you think he went to New Zealand? Coached the Brumbies to a Super 12 title despite imminent sacking by Gregan, Larkham, Mortlock troika. Played for Australia in winning 1991 World Cup so knows how to drink beer.
Cons – Has no loyalty to Australia (he went to New Zealand after all) is just a mercenary going where the money is. Has probably picked up a Kiwi accent. Players hate him – Gregan, Larkham and co got rid of him – they must have known something. Queenslander. Hooker (no wonder those backs at the Brumbies couldn’t stand him).

Robbie Deans
Pros – Most successful Super Rugby coach ever coaching Crusaders to 4 out of the last 6 titles. Works for New Zealand dollars so good value. Is not a Queenslander.
Cons – Sunburns easily. Has a thing for sheep. Doesn’t like the beach. Speaks with a funny accent. Likely to stay in the country after being sacked and go on the dole.

The Verdict
Winning a game of Rugby is not a popularity contest. Money can’t buy love and can’t buy victory but it can buy David Nucifora, the best coach on the planet.

Monday, 2 April 2007

The Australian Rugby Championship - What Were They Thinking?

In the Rugby world one thing you can always rely on is that it’s never too late to revive a contentious issue. So in this spirit of flogging a dead horse, the Rolling Maul is turning its attention this week to the Australian Rugby Championship (ARC).

For those not in the know, the ARC was invented to bridge the gap between club level rugby and Super 14 level, sort of a similar level to New Zealand’s NPC and South Africa’s Currie Cup. The reasoning goes that by providing a higher level of regular professional rugby for fringe Wallabies and top club talent, ultimately all Australian Rugby would benefit; the standard of play would improve, fans would come streaming through the gate, Melbourne would stop whining about missing out on a Super 14 team, TV ratings would go through the roof, the Wallabies would win every World Cup, League players would scramble for a piece of the action and Rugby Union would rule the planet. Or something like that.

The leather patches in old club land didn’t like it (old club land being the slowly decaying inner city clubs that have produced thousands of Wallabies for millennia but we drive big kiddie crushing cars and live in expensive houses so we know what we’re talking about). The flannels in new club land need the cash so love it (new club land being the slowly decaying clubs in Sydney’s and Brisbane’s suburbs and fringes that constitute millions of people that barely know Rugby is played around the corner but represent ‘potential’ and ‘the future’).

The eight teams have been announced with the rationale as below (direct from their websites and press releases – with comments from me):

The Sydney Fleet: Fleet conjures images of strength and tradition. The colours and logo quite deliberately echo the great Sydney teams of past years and will bring a sense of history to the future of the competition (I love a team that can invent its tradition before the competition has even started).

Central Coast Rays: The natural landscape has been the inspiration for the naming of the Central Coast Rays. The name and logo echo the strong maritime presence of the team's catchment area (Can’t imagine why Central Coast Zimmer Frames or Central Coast Goons was rejected – FYI Spike Milligan was Woy Woy’s most famous resident. He described Woy Woy as the world’s only above ground cemetery).

Western Sydney Rams: Western Sydney's pioneering past has been the inspiration for the name of the Western Sydney Rams. The Rams name and logo was decided upon for its connection to the history of New South Wales as a colony, when settlers such as John and Elizabeth Macarthur started the Australian sheep and wool industry on their farm at Parramatta (funny that they make no mention of ugg boots).

Ballymore Tornadoes: The team name was designed to represent the team's ambitions and location (well derr). When we take the field as the Tornadoes we expect to be forceful, destructive, and to leave damage in our wake (sounds like the team on their post-season trip).

East Coast Aces (QLD): Aces are winners and that's our goal from the start of the championship (And in the spirit of the Super 14 there is a team whose name gives you no idea where they’re from. Gold Coast in case you were wondering. And no, Aces has nothing to do with casinos or gambling on the future of Australian Rugby with the ARC).

Perth Spirit: The name and logo are readily identifiable as West Australian and was easily aligned with the Western Force brand. Just as Force taps into the natural elements that have shaped WA, the word Spirit is strong, powerful and dynamic, and reflects the independent, open-minded and entrepreneurial way West Aussies approach things (expect Alan Bond to lead the supporters club).

Melbourne Rebels: Like the great Weary Dunlop, Victorian rugby has a history of daring to be different, a touch of the larrikin, and always having a go. These qualities are what you want in a Rebel and characterise the way Victoria is successfully tackling this historic year. (My mate in Melbourne says the logo is reminiscent of Big M flavoured milk. My tip for the wooden spoon. Would suit my mate – he’s a Carlton supporter – and a Waratahs supporter for that matter).

Canberra Somethings: Not announced but will probably be the Vikings. Any other suggestions? How about the Bureaucrats or the Roundabouts?

So what about the comp itself? Well I’ve weighed up the pros and cons and it comes down to this. Too much Rugby is never enough. Bring it on.

What do you think of the comp or of any of the teams or logos?