Is a close game necessarily a good game?
As the AFL season throws up one crazy nail-biter after another, I suspect the answer from fans risking deep vein thrombosis from being perched permanently on the edges of their seats would be unanimous: Who cares?
Round 14 was a season in a nutshell. Four games decided by three points or less, three of those won by the team kicking fewer goals than the opposition.
You like quality drama? Last weekend alone made Breaking Bad look like Home and Away.
Sydney comes from 19 points down with less than five minutes left to play to beat Essendon with the last kick; Melbourne somehow finds a ridiculous late goal to defeat West Coast by three points in Perth; the Western Bulldogs hold on to win by a point against North Melbourne; Geelong surges back to beat Fremantle by two points, but only after the Dockers miss a shot moments before the final siren.
All of this after Hawthorn, seemingly debilitated by the departure of premiership heroes and injuries to those who remained, opened the round by beating the second-placed Crows at Adelaide Oval.
You might say you cannot make this stuff up. But, of course, this is exactly what the AFL has done.
Round 14 was the dream scenario of the game’s politburo when it imposed a form of sporting socialism by adopting the evening measures of American sports, the salary cap and the draft.
In a competition expanded from 12 to 18 teams, the AFL needed to sell hope to retain interest. You might be decades from a flag, but you are only a week away from your next possible victory.
Mission accomplished. Every AFL team can beat any other on any given Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
Well, almost. Greater Western Sydney’s 60-point thumping of the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba was a meeting between the AFL’s two remaining outliers.
GWS, boosted by draft concessions — though currently plagued by injuries — is the one team still capable of becoming a superpower. The Lions are the sole battlers, although perhaps only until their handful of talented key position players mature.
All of which has created some superb entertainment in the dying moments of games, but left one nagging question: does parity mean mediocrity?
Close finishes have disguised some very scrappy contests. Meanwhile, the promise of higher scoring this season has not eventuated as coaches, and by extension players, become more conservative than a Tea Party convention.
Thrilling as some conclusions were, only four teams scored more than 100 points this week as the defensive tactics adopted from other sports continue to increase congestion, while players — drilled to retain possession rather than kick to contests — play keepings off.
The AFL is thus simultaneously thrilling, wonderfully unpredictable but, at times, uglier than a shopaholic’s credit card bill.
So do fans want close finishes, or the brilliant aesthetics once produced by a handful of superior teams? The answer was roared by the crowds this weekend.
Socceroos take positives from Confederations Cup exit
Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou reacts during the draw with Chile. (Reuters: Darren Staples)
After Australia’s Confederations Cup campaign ended with a scintillating 1-1 draw against Chile, even the most trenchant critic of coach Ange Postecoglou’s attacking tactics would be hard pressed finding grounds for complaint.
In a game played at a cracking pace against a tough and multi-talented opponent, the physically robust Socceroos were arguably the better team and certainly deserved the lead they gained after James Troisi’s first-half goal.
A fearless performance, on the back of an earlier draw with African champion Cameroon, will be cast by some as vindication for Postecoglou’s tactics, but the coach’s ego is not so fragile that he measures his team’s success on one performance.
”It just doesn’t feel right at the moment,” said Postecoglou, who was visibly disappointed his team did not take greater advantage of the chances created by its enterprising play, not satisfied to have merely competed with the class of the Chileans.
But despite their elimination, the Socceroos looked greater than the sum of their parts against a team bristling with international stars, surely the ultimate expression of good coaching.
Barty’s persistence pays off, as comeback continues
Ashleigh Barty plays a backhand against Petra Kvitova in the final of the Birmingham WTA Tour event. (Reuters: Peter Cziborra)
Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to walk away.
An already successful professional tennis player — a grand slam doubles champion and rising singles star — Ash Barty took the courageous decision to take time out from the sport that was providing a generous living, but also creating some mental demons.
The demands of the game, particularly the travel, were taking a heavy emotional toll on a young woman who was both a wonderfully talented athlete and also a gifted student.
Wonderfully, the decision that might have ended Barty’s career seems to have saved it.
The 21-year-old Barty made the singles final at Birmingham on the weekend, beating former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza in the semi-final.
In the final, Barty was part of someone else’s fairytale, losing 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 to Petra Kvitova, who was playing just her second tournament after being the victim of a knife attack.
But Barty will move into the WTA Tour top 50 and be full of confidence heading to Wimbledon next week.
Tennis was once renowned for sucking in and chewing up young female athletes.
Barty’s decision to walk away, and return when she was ready to confront the challenges she faced is a great lesson in how the sport’s pitfalls can be avoided.
NRL sells Adelaide short courtesy of Origin schedule
As we noted last week, some thrilling finishes have kept the NRL competition front and centre during the Origin period.
But even after serving up another close encounter on Saturday night, the NRL owes Adelaide one full-strength NRL game at cost price.
The Roosters’ dramatic comeback victory over the Melbourne Storm provided some excitement for the 21,492 at the Adelaide Oval. But the absence after Origin duty of the Storm’s ‘Big Three’ in Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, robbed the spectacle of its major attractions.
The best salesmen undersell and over-deliver. In this case, by scheduling the game so close to Origin, the NRL sold Adelaide short and lost the chance to showcase the best of its breed.