Is it ever morally OK to support the Aussies?

For me, it is often impossible to watch a sporting contest purely as a neutral.  As much as I may watch for the enjoyment of sport itself, at the back of the mind there is usually one team, or one individual I want to win.  This may be down to the skill of a particular performer (I always want Ronnie O’Sullivan or Roger Federer to win, as they are the most exciting players to watch, even if they are, in their own ways, arseholes); it may be down to a strange childhood obsession (I will always support Denmark at football, because of their 1986 team); it could be because of a mildly xenophobic dislike of certain countries in a sporting context (I will hardly ever root for a team or person from France, Germany, Australia or the USA); and it often stems from the peculiarly British desire to see the underdog win.  For this last reason, I despise Manchester United, the New Zealand rugby union team, and Tiger Woods.

It can happen that I care not, when following a sporting event, who wins.  This may be due to antipathy for the competitors (when Chelsea play Man United, the only real positive outcome for me would be if there were an unseemly brawl, resulting in a points deduction for both sides) or a liking for both the opponents.  For example I would have been happy for either Rafa Nadal or Stan Wawrinka to win the recent Australian Open Final, Nadal because he comes across as a lovely, humble bloke, and Wawrinka because he was the underdog and has one of the dreamiest backhands in the game.

The current Test series between South Africa and Australia is one such occasion when victory for either side would leave me content.  Like any right-minded English person, I have long held a deep-seated hatred for the Australian cricket team for many reasons: they are historically England’s cricketing rivals; I grew up watching gum-chewing, baggy cap-wearing, muscular men swatting aside the feeble challenge of some limited county pro; and their team always seemed to contain a number of highly objectionable individuals, such as Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Glenn McGrath (it has shaken my faith slightly in my judgement of character that McGrath comes across as one of the friendliest and most self-deprecating of men in the TMS commentary box.  At least Warne’s still clearly a cock).

Therefore, even against a South African team for whom I have no real affection (Graeme Smith in particular looks a self-satisfied bully), ordinarily I would be rooting wholeheartedly for the Saffers.  However, this is not necessarily the case.

Before you start accusing me here of not being a true England cricket fan, and threaten to snap my Ashes 2005 DVD before my eyes as not being deserving of it, allow me to explain.  I have not got a weird sporting version of Stockholm Syndrome and developed an affection for the Aussies.  I still despise Steve Smith’s piggy face, idiosyncratic batting technique and knack of taking vital wickets with some of the filthiest leg-spin this side of Scott Borthwick.  I can’t stand Michael Clarke’s false bravado and ridiculous captaincy decisions, mistakenly lauded in some quarters as inventiveness.  Every time David Warner flashes speculatively outside the off stump without even considering moving his feet, I want to punch him in the face, and make him say, several times, ‘it is a travesty, nay a scandal, that I have considerably more Test caps than Stuart Law.’

Instead I am searching for reassurance that England’s 5-0 mauling over the winter was not entirely down to English incompetence, but was instead thanks to an outstanding performance by a well-balanced and highly motivated team.  I am still not completely over spending most of November and December quickly checking the score at 3am before enduring several hours of introspection and gloom, interspersed with dreams about Mitchell Johnson’s moustache running off with my girlfriend, while Brad Haddin taunted England by batting with a stick of celery and wearing Boycott’s mum’s pinny.  If Australia could beat South Africa, then the memory of those disturbed nights might start to fade.

And, to be honest, it was quite fun watching a different team getting totally obliterated by Mitchell Johnson’s speed and aggression, while David Warner’s hopeful wafts kept on connecting, ruining Vernon Philander’s career figures.  But, come the second Test I was starting to feel a little uncomfortable – as much as it was satisfying to watch Graeme Smith forced into panicking his wicket away twice, it would be less fun if this was the start of another period of Australian cricket dominance.  What it needed, the right-minded amongst us felt, was a high-class fast bowler in excellent form to expose the Aussie batting line-up as the brittle fraud it is.  Thankfully Dale Steyn reminded us that he is one of the great bowlers of this or indeed any generation, and as a result we have a potentially epic decider on our hands.

As previously discussed, for me it doesn’t matter who wins – an Australian victory will in some way mitigate England’s shambolic performance, while if South Africa win, then, let’s face it, Australia will have lost, which is always enjoyable.  I’m looking forward to being able to follow some sport in an entirely non-partisan way. 

 

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The Southern-Hemisphere Jinx

The recent autumn internationals revealed some harsh truths for the northern-hemisphere teams.  Basking in a post-Lions glow, the expectation was that they would more than match their opponents from the other side of the globe.  The reality was a marked contrast.  Only England provided a glimmer of hope with an unconvincing 20-13 victory over a very under-par Australia.  Wales, Scotland and Ireland all lost to the big three of South Africa, the Wallabies and New Zealand.  Wales talked a good game, yet couldn’t quite walk the walk and whilst Ireland’s defeat to the Kiwis was heart-breaking, it was just so inevitable.  What can the 6 Nations teams (especially Wales, Ireland and Scotland) do to break the monopoly the southern-hemisphere currently has on the game of rugby?

            Firstly, the Lions: I am of the opinion that the Lions played almost to their top potential this summer (particularly in the finale in Sydney) whilst Australia underperformed considerably given the plethora of talent at their disposal.  The home nations assumed that they were going to steam-roller the Aussies (who have played 15 matches this year) just as they had done on that glorious July day.  Not so.  A variety of factors, the main one being off-load king Quade Cooper’s sublime form in the past two tests but also a renewed steel in the forwards (Michael Hooper take a bow) and some clinical finishing has led to a resurgence in the Australian team characterised by some thrilling running rugby.

There is a reason why Wales can’t beat any of the big three, and Wallaby fly-half Cooper displayed it swathes: talent.  Man for man, Wales simply aren’t as talented as Australia.  No amount of defensive drills, set-piece practice and teamwork can make up for that fact.  Over an 80 minute match, at one or two crucial points, this imbalance will manifest itself in an unstoppable attacking move – witness Christian Leialiifano’s try on Saturday.  The key thing here is ability.  Wales played supremely well on Saturday – probably the best they could have played – yet still they lost.  Wales don’t have someone like Will Genia, Quade Cooper or Israel Folau – someone who has that X-factor, who can produce the unexpected – a maverick if you will (well they do – James Hook – but he was playing for Perpignan instead).  They have a number of very good players, but no-one who can instinctively create something from nothing.  You get the feeling with Wales that they are just a battering ram, and a very good one at that, but they never really seem to search out the gaps – instead they seem to relish contact which I find bizarre.  Their players are wonderful physical specimens, but instinctive rugby footballers they are not.  Australia matched Wales’ physicality and their superior natural talent was the very fine difference between the teams on Saturday and this will continue until Wales can somehow conjure up a Shane Williams/Gavin Henson clone.

Speaking of Henson, I must state how Cooper’s performance on Saturday reminded me of the once great Wales centre.  During his prime (2004-08), Henson played as if he was having a Sunday afternoon stroll.  When he got the ball it was as if time stood still and no-one could touch him.  He made the game look easy whilst all around him players were straining every sinew to match his outrageous talent.  The same is true of Cooper.  In setting up the Wallabies’ opening try, under pressure from two defenders he nonchalantly flicked an offload to the waiting Joe Tomane who set up Lealiifano to score.  The genius of this was that he drew George North in from the wing to create space for the waiting Tomane.  Few players in the world game have that sort of vision, particularly in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a Test match.  Henson was similar in that defenders were drawn to him because they knew that he could create something in the blink of an eye.  Once the defence was concentrated on him, he had the ability to create space for other runners around him and, crucially, deliver a pass from which they could take advantage.  George North is a player who attracts defenders simply because of his immense physical strength, yet rarely does he use this to pass to a teammate in space.  Instead he goes into contact and, because of his upright body position, often gets turned over.  It is not enough to have a game-plan based around brute force.  International defences are so good these days that teams need a touch of ingenuity to breach the try-line.  Cooper was the difference between the two teams on Saturday and exemplified the importance of a running fly-half (step forward James Hook).

Ireland’s loss to New Zealand (it has to be described like that) was a bitter pill to swallow.  In all honesty they should have never been beaten after leading 22-7 at half-time but, like Wales, Ireland don’t have that winning habit over the Southern Hemisphere.  It must be said that to be leading by 15 points against the World Champions at the break is a herculean effort and they should be commended for putting up such a committed performance.  New Zealand however, are a relentless juggernaut that play at 100% intensity for the full 80 minutes (82 in this case).  Ireland showed a little naivety in not seeing out the match by playing territory and trying drop-goals but against the All Blacks (this year’s vintage are one of the greatest teams to ever play the game), they can be forgiven.  The issue is that was Ireland’s best chance to beat New Zealand, and probably will be for the foreseeable future.  It is telling that at the weekend, even when playing at almost 100%, the Northern Hemisphere teams still can’t beat the Southern Hemisphere when they’re not on top form.  I don’t know whether it is better coaching, more commitment, better quality of opposition, physical strength, stronger mental strength that is the difference between the sides (probably a combination of everything), but one thing is for sure; they are more talented.  Until this imbalance is rectified, the dominance of the Southern-Hemisphere over the rugby world looks set to continue.