Cutting some slack for a man of few words

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THE WEEK THAT WAS: Nobody ever said it would be easy at the top, as two of the more prominent captains in Australian sport have discovered. Chief writer RON REED reports:

OF ALL the football awards handed out over the past two or three weeks, one would probably be revised if it had to be done again. Adelaide’s Tex Walker was judged by his peers, the other players, to be the AFL captain of the year, which is an accolade of some significance given that all team leaders, by definition, occupy a hot seat with everything they say or do coming under intense scrutiny. Maybe that applies even more so to the coaches but the captains take a lot of heat too. Maybe that’s what went through Walker’s mind when the late Phil Walsh asked him to take the job and his response was that he needed to have a hard think about it.

It didn’t take long for Walker’s award to bite him on the bum. He played a shocker in the Grand Final, failing to lead from the front, and before you could say, “Stone the crows,” derisive “missing persons” posters started populating social media. He also came in for a barrage of criticism for his post-match speech on the ground, which lasted for just 26 words and about 10 seconds. And within another day or so, he was reported to have delivered an angry sledge at one of his own team-mates, Jake Lever, who announced he wanted to leave to join Melbourne. Clearly, big Tex has not had an enjoyable week.

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For his on-field non-performance he deserved all he got but he surely could be cut a bit of slack over the speech, in which he said only: “Firstly congratulations Richmond, too good. Thanks to the sponsors and sorry Crows fans, we couldn’t get it done. Thank you very much for travelling. Thank you.”

There is nothing more unforgiving than social media and Walker copped it from both barrels for being a sore loser and a bad sport especially after North Queensland captain Gavin Cooper spoke for far longer and in much more generous terms towards the opposition after being similarly thrashed in the rugby league decider a day later. Yes, Cooper struck exactly the right note – eloquent and classy — and should be congratulated for it. But poor old Tex did congratulate the winners, he did thank his own team’s fans and he did not whinge, complain or make any negative comment. Yes, it was perfunctory but given he is not known for any proficiency as a public speaker he probably wouldn’t have been on his feet much longer if he had been the victor.

Dusty Martin, another man of few words, was even briefer in his acceptance of the Norm Smith medal. Walker is a good footballer who was in the middle of a desperately disappointing experience with nowhere to hide – let’s leave it at that. However, there is little doubt now that the true captain of the year was the Tigers’ Trent Cotchin, who re-invented himself through the year and presented himself superbly on and off the field during the finals. And if you’re seeking an even better example of all a team captain should be in elite sport, look no further than Melbourne Storm’s Cameron Smith.

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He played superbly throughout a premiership year and was probably unlucky to be pipped by team-mate Billy Slater for the Norm Smith equivalent, the Clive Churchill medal. And as he showed last year when Storm lost the grand final, he speaks superbly whether in defeat or victory. He should write a book about the art of captaincy.

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STEVE Smith is another captain who has had an inauspicious week, losing the one-day cricket series to India 4-1. It is quickly turning into an inauspicious year — to say the least.

Since routing Pakistan in both Tests and one-dayers last summer, the Australians have been beaten 2-0 in ODIs by New Zealand, lost 2-1 in Tests against India, failed to win a match in the one-day Champions Trophy, lost a Test to lowly Bangladesh for the first time and now this latest failure.

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All of these disappointments have come away from Australia so it would be stating the bleeding obvious to say that Smith and his troops will be relieved to be back on home soil in a few days’ time to prepare for the Ashes.

But that doesn’t mean he will necessarily be sleeping any easier.

An Ashes defeat would be bound to attract intense scrutiny of his captaincy record, which currently stands at 13 wins, eight defeats and five draws, for a 50 per cent win rate. While that is comparable with his predecessor Michael Clarke’s 51 per cent strike rate and Mark Taylor’s 52 per cent, Smith has won only one of his past five series with only six wins from 15 matches.

To find the last leader who failed to break even you have to go back beyond Taylor to Allan Border, whose 32 wins from a mammoth 93 games in charge represented a strike rate of only 34 per cent. But Border is usually cut some slack because much of his tenure was in an unstable era for the game in Australia.

Smith’s captaincy at one-day level is also looking shaky. He currently has 24 wins from 46 matches, a percentage of 55.8. That’s on the positive side, but it is also the worst of any regular or semi-regular captain since Taylor’s 54.47 per cent from 67 matches before he was replaced by Steve Waugh.

While his numbers could do with some reinforcement, Smith wouldn’t appear to be in any danger of losing his job just yet. He is popular with team-mates and seems to have the faith of the administration.

Also, there is not exactly a queue forming of likely replacements. His vice-captain at both Test and ODI level is David Warner, and he is still a work in progress in terms of convincing people that he has matured to the point where he could be trusted with protecting the image of Australian cricket. Shane Warne had to go through a similar stage and he never did get to captain the Test team, regardless of how astute he was considered to be by many influential observers.

Behind Warner… who? No-one really, with perhaps Peter Hanscomb, newly installed as Victoria’s leader, perhaps a chance somewhere well down the track if and when he firmly establishes himself in the team, which he hasn’t quite done yet.

Of course, Smith can relegate all such speculation to the back-burner by reclaiming the famous little urn. But until he does, he’s in the hot seat.

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THIS WEEK saw the 35th anniversary of one the more uplifting days in the modern history of Australian sport when runner Raelene Boyle retired in style after winning the 400m at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982. It gave the popular Melbourne sprinter a record seventh Commonwealth gold medal as well as two silvers, to go with her three Olympic silver medals. Two of those Olympic medals should have been gold because she was beaten by a drug cheat and with better luck on other occasions she could easily have finished up as Australia’s greatest Olympian.

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As she is every year, she will be among the guests – as a long-standing inductee – at the Sport Australia Hall of Fame’s annual dinner in Melbourne on Thursday night. Certain aspects of the night are closely guarded secrets, including the identity of the 39th member to become an official Legend of Australian Sport.

There are of course plenty of outstanding candidates but Boyle’s tremendous career has been augmented by much valuable work on behalf of women’s health so if she was to be given the honour, it would be applauded thunderously. If not, her turn will surely come eventually.

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SPORTSMAN OF THE WEEK

BILLY SLATER gave Melbourne Storm fans everything they could have asked for – a premiership, the Clive Churchill Medal for best afield in the grand final and, perhaps most of all, a promise to play on for another year, when he will reach 300 games in round one.

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WINNER OF THE WEEK

Even more than Richmond in the AFL, MELBOURNE STORM enjoyed the perfect season, finishing top of the ladder by a long way (the Tigers were third) and then claiming every available individual award.

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LOSER OF THE WEEK

Rugby League pundit PHIL GOULD copped it from all quarters – well, all quarters south of the Murray – after declaring Storm were over-rated and then declining during the TV broadcast to admit he couldn’t have been more wrong.

QUOTE UNQUOTE

(This compilation is Tigers-free on the grounds that if you don’t already know what everyone thinks about their long-awaited premiership, after nearly 100 pages of it in the Herald Sun alone over the Grand Final weekend, then you’re just not interested anyway!)

Everyone’s pissed off about the whole situation because I think everyone in the world that watched the game knows it wasn’t a penalty.” Socceroo MATHEW LECKIE is not happy about conceding a highly controversial penalty in the 1-1 draw with Syria in the World Cup qualifying match in Malaysia.

“It has been a rocky road the last couple of years, but I certainly wouldn’t be standing here without her support. Thank you for everything you have done for me over my career, but especially the last couple of years. I love you.” Storm hero BILLY SLATER wins the Churchill medal for best player in the NRL grand final and gives the credit to wife Nicole.

“I didn’t have a banana sandwich. I actually traded it in for a chicken, salmon and ham wrap. So, I changed the routine a little bit and it’s paid off.” Storm lock DALE FINUCANE finds a new way to make sure he plays well in a grand final.

“Unfortunately, Tracey has faced extenuating family and personal circumstances this year which have made it difficult to continue in the role.” Hawthorn president (well, he was then) RICHARD GARVEY claims departing chief executive Tracey Gaudry had her own reasons for leaving after just five months in the job – really?!

“I am not going to change my story now … I have always said to Clarko he should go after 10 years. I have no idea what will happen when we get to the end of his contract. He and I have always had a good robust relationship – neither are sycophantic to the other. One might say his and mine were a little too robust, I don’t know.” Hawthorn’s reborn president JEFF KENNETT talks in riddles about the future of the coach Alistair Clarkson.

“His persona does not appeal to me at all. He’s a political animal. I wonder about his motives. I find it staggering, really staggering.” Hawk hero DON SCOTT is unimpressed by Kennett’s comeback.

“To beat Winx you’d want a bit of a head start, I’d say. We just happen to run into Winx. It’s good for racing that Winx is here – it’s not good for us.” Gun trainer DARREN WEIR couldn’t be any more frank about his stable star Humidor’s chances of breaking the mighty mare’s dominance in the Turnbull Stakes.

“I knew how to walk – nobody forgets how to walk – but I just couldn’t do it for some bizarre reason. I was pretty determined to walk alone and I’m an independent person so I didn’t love the notion of getting help, but it got to the stage where it was dangerous to get out of bed alone.” Young Victorian wicketkeeper SAM HARPER went through hell after he was accidentally hit in the head with a bat during a Sheffield Shield match last season.

 

“Everyone would like to bowl like Johnno (Mitchell Johnson) and terrorise the Poms like he did and take a thousand wickets in the series.” Fast bowler MITCHELL STARC is aiming pretty high for the Ashes.

“I’ve had better Sunday mornings.” Western Sydney Wanderers chief executive JOHN TSATSIMAS learns a week out from the new A League soccer season that coach Tony Popovic is leaving for a new job in Turkey.

“Fun fact my daughter’s initials are AO.” Tennis’s newest mother SERENA WILLIAMS says her newborn’s names (Alexis Olympia) are a nod to the Australian Open because she was pregnant when she won it in January.

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Author: Ron Reed

RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.

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