NRL

From Collingwood proving their winning streak is about more than just luck to the NRL gambling on an American audience, the world of sport again provided an action-packed highlight reel. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Top shots

Players of Sydney FC celebrate on-field.
Sydney FC celebrates during the A-League Women grand final last Sunday.
Credit: Sipa USA

The conventional wisdom about Collingwood this year was that they’d slide. That last year, thrilling and successful as it was, they’d relied too much upon luck – seven of their games were won by less than a goal and that kind of fortune couldn’t be repeated. “We have two incredibly strong predictions,” the data consultancy company White Box Analytics wrote in March, in comments that would be echoed in footy commentary. “Collingwood to slide and Port Adelaide to rise, along with some weaker, yet still statistically significant picks: Richmond, Gold Coast, and GWS to improve.”

Well, after seven rounds, the Pies are top of the ladder and have now won nine of their past 12 games after having trailed at three-quarter time. In Nick Daicos, just 20 and only in his second year, they also have the clear Brownlow favourite. Their “luck” seems bloody stubborn. (And Richmond, starkly, have not improved – with only one win, their ageing stars are being humbled by Old Man Time.)

And so, was 2022 just a fortunate aberration for Collingwood? Doesn’t seem like it. Success has encouraged success, and after defeating Adelaide by a point last Sunday, Collingwood skipper Darcy Moore was a mixture of exhilaration and pride as he remarked on his team’s resilience. Both footy captains and sports hacks flirt with torrid clichés when trying to express a team’s virtue: so, suffice to say that Collingwood possess a powerful self-belief and charisma. And while they’ve humbled the data-driven prophets, they’ve thrilled the rest of us.

Elsewhere in the AFL, the long-delayed dream of a Tasmanian team came closer to realisation when the prime minister pledged to substantially fund a proposed new stadium in Hobart – a condition the AFL rather imperiously imposed on the release of a 19th club licence. Following this, AFL club presidents unanimously ratified the decision.

I’m thrilled by this idea but still unclear  about why the new stadium – at a notional cost of $750 million and with a proposed capacity of 23,000 – is necessary. Blundstone Arena, or Bellerive Oval, was upgraded just 10 years ago, after its federal funding was announced by the then Infrastructure minister, Anthony Albanese. It is AFL standard, having hosted games for 11 seasons, and its capacity is almost 20,000. The proposed site for the new stadium is just a few kilometres from Bellerive. To build a new stadium for an extra 3000 seats seems extravagant – and inadequately rationalised, beyond some vague “build it and they will come” lines.

To be fair, Blundstone is awkwardly placed on the other side of the Derwent from the city. Perhaps there is a practical and symbolic justification for building adjacent to Hobart’s CBD. It worked for the Adelaide Crows, when a decade ago they moved from the deep ’burbs to the gloriously remodelled Adelaide Oval in the city.

In the A-League Women, Sydney FC confirmed their status as one of the country’s great dynastic clubs after thumping Western United 4-0 in the Sky Blues’ sixth consecutive grand final. The win conferred their fourth crown, equal with Melbourne City, but the indignity of the scoreline belied Western’s own triumph: they had made the grand final in their first season, just three years after Football Australia delayed their licence because of a perceived shallowness in available talent.

Elsewhere in the beautiful game, a linesman in an amateur NSW match had his jaw broken in several places by a spectator – a suspended player, it turned out, of one of the competing teams. That team was the Greenacre Eagles, which has since withdrawn from the league, while the aggressor turned himself in to the local police station, was arrested and then refused bail. NSW Premier Chris Minns weighed in and said the “appalling” violence might discourage amateur league referees. One might assume the women’s World Cup, to be co-hosted here in July, will not be marred by male “enthusiasm”.

In the United States, the NBA playoffs were finishing their first round – and for the first time in more than a decade, a No. 1 seed was beaten by the eighth. The Miami Heat clipped the Milwaukee Bucks four games to one and, after the final match, Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo gave what became a viral response in the post-match press conference. Asked by a reporter if the season had been a failure, Antetokounmpo riffed indignantly. “You asked me the same question last year, Eric,” he said. “Do you get a promotion every year? No, right? So, every year you work is a failure? Yes or no? No. Every year you work, you work towards something. Towards a goal, right? Which is to get a promotion, to be able to take care of your family … It’s not a failure, it’s steps to success … Michael Jordan played 15 years, won six championships – the other nine years, was it failure?”

The moment was refreshing, and dramatic in its way, and was quickly celebrated online – Antetokounmpo eloquently offering perspective to a smugly flippant press corps. Antetokounmpo’s contempt seems about right for a group who are largely stupid but oblivious to their stupidity, and eager to bait headlines that will be forgotten tomorrow. But still, Antetokounmpo’s response struck me as both defensive and disingenuous. Jordan may have played nine seasons without a title but he wore a championship ring in every year the Bulls topped their conference at the end of the regular season. And so the equivalent here, if we’re comparing apples with apples, might be asking that question of MJ in 1998, had the Bulls lost the first round 1-4. But the Bulls did not lose that first round, or any other. Nor did this reporter have the wit to point that out – and Antetokounmpo’s displeasure prevailed.

In England, Manchester City assumed top position in the Premier League, with just six games to play, after trailing Arsenal for most of the season. The London team, gorgeously competitive at the turn of the century, have not won the league for almost 20 years, but were favourites as recently as March. But the Gunners have been chased down by the hungry apex predator, otherwise known as Man City – a team that plays a kind of near-perfect football I once saw achieved only in computer games.

The AFL announced it had finally found a replacement for outgoing chief executive Gillon McLachlan – its senior legal counsel, and fellow Melbourne blue blood, Andrew Dillon – while Rugby Australia announced the sudden resignation of its own chief, Andy Marinos, after only two-and-a-half years in the job and just four months out from the World Cup in France. In that classic corporate formulation, Marinos was off to “pursue new opportunities” but had famously had a wretched time working with the chairman.

It was announced that Matildas and Chelsea star Sam Kerr would be one of a contingent of “prominent Australians” at the coronation of King Charles today, while Dutch darts player Dirk van Duijvenbode feared he’d suffered a posterior cruciate ligament injury after falling while passionately entering the stage to the hardstyle beats of DJ Radical Redemption. Despite hobbling, he still beat his Irish opponent.

Meanwhile, Ding Liren became China’s first male world chess champion, after beating Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi at the World Chess Championship. “This match reflects the deepness of my soul,” Ding said after the final game. “I could not control my mood. I will cry. I will burst into tears. It was quite a tough tournament for me. I feel quite relieved.”

Fans will place an asterisk next to the win, however, as the world’s greatest player – and perhaps history’s – had declined to participate. Last year, the 31-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, who has topped global chess rankings since 2011, announced he was spent. He needed a break, and would not join the championship, which is held every two years. “The conclusion is very simple,” he said on his podcast. “I am not motivated to play another match. I simply feel that I don’t have a lot to gain. I don’t particularly like it, and although I’m sure a match would be interesting for historical reasons and all of that, I don’t have any inclinations to play and I will simply not play the match.”

We might be grateful to the NRL chairman, Peter V’landys, for piercing any remaining illusions we may have about modern sport. In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, V’landys referred to rugby league as “wagering content” and spoke, with admirable bluntness, about his desire to grow an American audience. “There are two strands in my eyes we can get extra revenue from: the broadcast subscription [first], but if we can put that with a wagering operator, you can get two times the revenue,” he said. “If you’re betting on the product, you’ll subscribe to the broadcast.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Top shots".

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