The Thailand Game – Preview

04 September 2017

This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Iran Game – the final World Cup qualifying match of the campaign in 1997 in which Australia conceded two second half goals to see World Cup qualification ripped from their hearts. In 2017, Australia is on a similar precipice with The Thailand Game, except there is at least a second chance via the playoffs if it all goes awry. At stake is direct qualification, and nothing short of a big win will ease concerns. Even with that, focus will turn to the match between Saudi Arabia and Japan, where the Saudis could still edge out Australia with a good win over a team that is already qualified for Russia 2018. The question is: which team will grasp the chance?

Russia 2018 - Asian World Cup Qualifying - Group B heading into the final round of matches

Group B of Asian World Cup Qualifying heading into the final round of matches

Both Australia and Saudi Arabia have let valuable points slip through the campaign, and that was the case with the last round of matches with Saudi Arabia losing 2-1 in the UAE and Australia losing 2-0 in Japan. That loss ended Australia’s unbeaten run in the campaign, albeit with 4 of the eight matches ending in a draw. The Saudis would feel more aggrieved, as they led 1-0, whereas Japan are tough at home for any team, and it’s a fixture Australia have never won. Despite hopes the Socceroos could obtain a result, it never looked likely with the team comprehensively out-played from the start. Of the handful of attempts on goal, all were speculative, and the team were exposed for its lack of ideas and attacking impetus – not to mention non-defending for Japan’s first goal. Players and coach interviewed afterwards lamented this seemingly unusual, lacklustre performance. Except, it wasn’t unusual. It’s been a problem for many years now, with this website often critical of excessive dallying on the ball and passing sideways, often into congestion, rather forward and into space.

Despite some of the complex scenarios and narrative drawn since Australia’s loss last week, the scenario is quite simple, with Australia still very much favoured to finish second in Group B. All Australia must do is get a better result vs Thailand than Saudi Arabia does vs Japan. If the Saudis lose heavily, then Australia can lose by two fewer goals. If the Saudis lose narrowly, then Australia needs a draw. If the Saudis draw, then any win is good enough for Australia. If the Saudis win, then Australia’s win must be bigger by two goals to overcome the 2 goal deficit in goal difference.

Examples: if it’s KSA-JPN 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2 for a 1 goal win, then AUS-THA must be a 3 goal win like 3-0, 4-1 or 5-2; if it’s KSA-JPN 4-1 for a 3 goal win, then AUS-THA must be 5-0, 6-1 or 7-2 for a 5 goal win.

It’s hard enough to imagine Saudi Arabia beating Japan at all, much less to win big, so realistically their largest win would be by 3 goals. Much of this will depend on the sort of team and mindset the Japanese bring to Saudi Arabia. While that fierce Japanese pride suggests they won’t roll over, being already qualified is the intangible. It could easily sap motivation, or they could play with great abandon. Conversely, Saudi Arabia at home will be either inspired by the local crowd or capitulate under the pressure.

The conundrum with The Thailand Game is that Saudi Arabia’s match is not played until several hours after Australia’s, so these “if” scenarios only apply to the Saudis. They have the luxury of knowing their minimum requirements while Australia must play as though it’s a worst case scenario and try to win 5 or 6 nil to protect itself from the any likely Saudi victory. Without such a win, it will be an eerie feeling after The Thailand Game. While it won’t be the devastation following The Iran Game, the mix of anxiety and hope after The Thailand Game will leave us bemused and curious about how we found ourselves in this position in the first place.

Confederations Cup 2017 Provides Encouragement for Vital Japan Clash

05 July 2017

Australia completed their Confederations Cup campaign in Russia with a loss, two draws, and plenty of encouragement for the crucial World Cup qualifier away to Japan on 31 August. The campaign kicked off with a 3-2 loss to Germany. It was a shocking first half, constantly exposed at the back, unable to keep the ball, clueless going forward, and lucky to be only 2-1 down at half time. Germany extended the lead to 3-1 on 48 minutes and then notably relaxed. While it’s true Australia began to assert more control and played much better, especially once they scored their second goal to bring it to 3-2 on 56 minutes, the Germans remained in general control. They dominated possession with 59%, doubled the shots on goal 18 to 9, and won more corners 4 to 1.

The second match, against Cameroon, was a more even contest, with Australia accruing more possession with 54% and Cameroon more shots and corners, 19 to 5 and 8 to 2, respectively. While both sides fluffed key chances, Cameroon had the better ones and Australia could lament the poor goal-keeping for Cameroon’s goal. Both teams would have left the field believing they should have won. The third game, against Chile, was easily Australia’s best performance for ages, not just this tournament. Needing to win by 2 goals to advance to the semi finals, they deservedly led at half time only to miss a series of decent chances early in the second half, eventually for Chile to equalise. Coach Ange Postecoglou has been experimenting with 3 at the back for the past two World Cup qualifiers, for the 4-0 loss in an exhibition match against Brazil in Melbourne, and into this competition – to obvious mixed success. It was crucial that some progress be shown to boost confidence for the final two World Cup qualifiers of this final group phase.

After the match in Japan, Australia’s final World Cup qualifier is against Thailand in Melbourne. While a win is obviously a must, ideally a draw in Japan is also required. Current situation sees Australia in third spot on goal difference (by one goal) on 16 points behind Saudi Arabia, and a point behind Japan on 17 points. Saudi Arabia will hope to win in Oman in their next match to take them to 19 points, which would leave Australia in a perilous state if they lost to Japan. Japan would be through on 20 points, with Saudi Arabia on 19 and Australia on 16 to fight for the final automatic spot.

With Saudi Arabia vs Japan the final match for those teams, a draw there would see Australia rely on the playoffs regardless of the result against Thailand, and would ruin the current promotion about the match in Melbourne as being the first decisive home qualifier since Uruguay in 2005. That’s why a draw against Japan is so crucial. The group would be wide open with Saudi Arabia on 19, Japan on 18 and Australia on 17, meaning any win would be enough against Thailand as long as Saudi Arabia don’t beat Japan. Otherwise goal difference would matter, with Australia needing at least a two goal win over Thailand.

Confederations Cup – Group B

Fisht Stadium – Sochi 19 June 2017 – 18:00 Local time
Australia 2 (Rogic 41′, Juric 56′) – Germany 3 (Stindl 5′, Draxler 44′ pk, Goretzka 48′)

Saint Petersburg Stadium – Saint Petersburg 22 June 2017 – 18:00 Local time
Cameroon 1 (Anguissa 45’+1) – Australia 1 (Milligan 60′ pk)

Spartak Stadium – Moscow 25 June 2017 – 18:00 Local time
Chile 1 (Rodriguez 67′) – Australia 1 (Troisi 42′)

 

Australia vs Iraq & UAE – Back on Course

2 April 2017

Credit where it’s due. Australia procured four precious points, as was the minimum requirement, away to Iraq and at home the United Arab Emirates this week. While the 1-1 draw in neutral Tehran against Iraq could have gone either way, the Socceroos ground UAE into submission for the win 2-0 in Sydney. It was a good response after the stunningly exciting 2-2 draw in Thailand to end 2016, where the Thais ran Australia ragged, playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king, and arguably they should have won. Curiously, Australia remains the only unbeaten in the group, yet still sits in third.

The results have provided some sort of relief to a side struggling for wins, not to mention adding much more excitement to the qualifying process itself. For an ambitious team and coach, it’s been a timely boost, especially after switching to a 3-4-3 system. Remember, coach Ange Postecoglou doesn’t only want to qualify for Russia 2018, he wants to perform well there. While the 3-4-3 worked well against the UAE, often it operated as 1-2-4-3 formation. Calling it 3-4-3 is probably more a statement on the team’s psychology – to reinvigorate and inspire a more attacking and confident mentality, rather that coast as usual like the previous two coaches, Holger Osieck and Pim Verbeek, would do.

The only quibble with the results is all three goals came from corners. Several of the few well worked opportunities Australia managed to create were let down by poor final balls and finishing. Aaron Mooy missed the easiest against Iraq, while the Iraqis should have received a penalty for an Australian handball. They scored anyway a few minutes later to cancel the damage from the referee’s error. Then it was a matter of holding the Iraqis out with some desperate defense and goal-keeping.

It shows how pivotal these moments become where one moment you could be 2-0 up and it’s a cruise to victory and then suddenly it’s all equal and you’re trying to protect that crucial one point. That extends to the group process itself. After two wins from the first two games, commentators like Mark Bosnich were talking about wrapping it up quickly. Four draws later finds itself desperate for the win to simply stay in touch. Australia in third place has 13 points, behind Saudi Arabia and Japan on 16. In fact, with Saudi Arabia and Japan both winning their matches, Australia only managed to hold their position after these two games.

The real crucial game is the one against Saudi Arabia in June. A win by two goals there and Australia jumps to second. A one goal win keeps them third. Their final game is home to Thailand, so they would expect to bank 3 points there to go to 19 points. The other game is away to Japan, so no a guarantee of any points. The good news is after Australia, the Saudis are away to the UAE and home to Japan. If Australia draws with the Saudis, they will need 4 points from their final two matches and hope the Saudis lose both. A loss means Australia would need two wins and the Saudis two losses. So that game in June against Saudi Arabia is the closest thing to a high pressure, crucial World Cup qualifier we’ve had since the intercontinental playoffs during the Oceania era.

Results

2016-11-15 Thailand 2 (Dangda 20′, 57′ PK) – Australia 2 (Jedinak 9′ PK, 65′ PK)
2017-03-23 Iraq 1 (Ahmed Yaseen 76′) – Australia 1 (Leckie 39′)
2017-03-28 Australia 2 (Irvine 7′, Leckie 78′) – UAE 0

Match Report – Thailand
Match Report – Iraq
Match Report – UAE

The Scenario

Current Points and Goal Difference

JPN 16 9+
KSA 16 8+
AUS 13 5+

13 Jun 2017: AUS beat KSA 2-0, IRQ lose to JPN 0-2

JPN 19 11+
AUS 16 7+
KSA 16 6+

31 Aug 2017: JPN beat AUS 1-0; UAE draw with KSA

JPN 20 12+
KSA 17 6+
AUS 16 6+

05 Sep 2017: AUS beat THA 3-0; KSA lose to JPN 0-1

JPN 23 13+
AUS 19 9+
KSA 17 5+

Two losses and a draw are assigned to KSA for their final 3 games. Given their form, it’s quite possible they win somewhere. If it’s at the UAE, that bumps them to 19 points with goal difference probably keeping them third. If they win or draw at home to Japan, then they overtake Australia. Note, Japan will most likely be qualified by the final so could send an experimental team to Saudi Arabia.

If Australia finishes third, all is not lost. The beauty of being in a large confederation like Asia is you do get second chances, and sometimes even a third chance. This would involve a playoff with the third team from Group A (likely Uzbekistan) and then a playoff with a CONCACAF team. Wouldn’t that be exciting!

Preview of Australia vs Iraq & UAE – It’s a Reset

23 March 2017

Australia resumes its quest to qualify for the World Cup in Russia next year with a two games over the next 6 days. It’s Iraq in neutral Tehran tonight, with the United Arab Emirates in Sydney on Tuesday. Currently Australia is in third place on the Group B table, with only 1 point separating them from Saudia Arabia and Japan, and are firmly on target to nab one of the two top spots. With the group so even, this midway point is effectively a reset – a new block of 5 games – and with Australia playing 3 of those at home, qualification looks a formality. The other two home games are Saudi Arabia in June and Thailand in September, while the other away game is Japan in late August.

Despite this apparently comfortable position, there have been rumblings from commentators and fans alike that Australia should almost already be qualified. It actually looked like that after they won their first two games before a reality check of 3 draws followed. Two of those were away from home while the other was against Japan. Questions are being asked, is it the coach, is it the A-League, is it youth development? Whatever is, the big concern is there is a stark contrast between our expectations and reality. They no longer match.

Some names: Craig Moore, Lucas Neill, Scott Chipperfield, Luke Wilkshire, Brett Emerton, Vince Grella, Jason Culina, Mark Bresciano, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. On the bench you have Tim Cahill and and John Aloisi. That’s the team that faced Japan at the World Cup in Germany in 2006. Let’s look at the last Socceroos team that took the field: Matthew Spiranovic, Trent Sainsbury, Milos Degenek, Bradley Smith, Jamie MacLaren, Aaron Mooy, Tom Rogic, Mile Jedinak, Matthew Leckie and Robbie Kruise. There’s no comparison. Other than Jedinak for Culina, it’s doubtful any others would make the field in 2006. Kruise might make it as a substitute. That’s about it.

Australia is in a trough when it comes to quality of players. It’s that simple. Gone are the days when we had three Socceroos leading a top Premier League team, or several playing in Serie A; we’re lucky to have three in the top division of the major leagues right now anywhere in Europe. Most fritter around in lower divisions, or low quality Asian leagues. As much as coach Ange Postecoglou likes to boast and inspire our team can do well, this lack of quality is catching us out. Furthermore, to expect them to run rampant against Asian teams like Socceroo teams of old is misty eyed nostalgia.

It’s a time to reflect on reality. Lower our expectations and appreciate the good, tough results, like those draws away to Saudi Arabia and Thailand. Hope to snag another draw tonight against Iraq and beat the UAE on Tuesday. That will propel us sufficiently forward. Then, if it comes, celebrate qualification hard, which most likely will be that final home match against Thailand. If we can’t manage to support our team during these difficult times then we’re not supporters at all and are only setting ourselves up for a world of pain when we play the top international teams at the Confederations Cup next year and then the World Cup the year after. Potentially it won’t be pretty, and that’s both on the field and the final results.

Pros and Cons of a 48-team World Cup

15 January 2017

After all the years of squabbling among the confederations for World Cup places, FIFA took the obvious answer to a surprising conclusion. While the World Cup was ripe for an increase in World Cup teams, to go from 32 teams now to 48 teams for 2026 was a drastic leap. The one caveat is the last increase was in 1998 when 32 teams participated, up from 24 in 1994. The World Cup probably should be 40 teams already, and by 2026 it will be 28 years since the last change. The format will be 16 groups of 3 teams with the top 2 progressing to the knockout phase, which adds a round of 32 to its schedule. While the number of matches overall in the tournament increases from 64 to 80, the maximum number of matches per team remains at seven.

PROS

1) More teams

This is the clear reason for expansion. Regions like Africa and Asia desperately wanted more places, and with the huge amount of money in Asia these days, it means more money for FIFA. Expect both regions to get an extra 4 spots, so Africa’s 5 becomes 9 and Asia’s 4.5 becomes 8 or 9. Oceania is certain to finally get the spot that a full member confederation deserves. They have a spot at every other FIFA tournament and the World Cup should be no exception.

2) More dreams

Teams that once had no hope to qualify now finally can dream about it. Oceania is a classic example, with the likes of Fiji, Vanuatu and Tahiti now only required to get past New Zealand, while in Asia the likes of China, Thailand, Vietnam and Uzbekistan can expect to regularly challenge for a World Cup spot. More than that, it will be nice to see these new teams at the World Cup. Look at the intrigue and excitement the likes of Iceland and Wales created in Euro 2016 when it expanded from 16 to 24 teams, or when Tahiti was Oceania’s representative at the 2013 Confederations Cup.

3) More excitement

The format means there’s one less group game and one more knockout game. While teams could often grind their way through the group phase with defensive tactics, now they need to tackly the group head on. Not so much to qualify, as 2 out of three is statistically an easier task, it’s for seeding purposes so to avoid stronger teams in the early rounds of knockout phase. There’ll also be far fewer, if any, dead matches. With 4-team groups, teams could often be qualified with one match remaining.

4) More representative of the world

Football is not a European and South American sport anymore. If they won’t cede spots to the likes of Asia and Africa to make the World Cup a fairer representation, then the number of teams must increase. Current speculation is Europe with have 16 spots (up from 13), Africa 9 (5), Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (.5) and 1 for the host. The only inter-continental playoff will be Asia vs Concacaf.

CONS

1) Too many teams

Nearly a quarter of FIFA’s members will now qualify, which dilutes the basic challenge in the first place. Where’s the prestige in qualifying? Also, after two years and many qualifying games, your reward is only two games at the World Cup, not three as currently. That aspect seems an imbalance at least. In percentages terms, the number teams qualifying still quite low, particularly compared to other sports. Under a quarter of teams at football’s World Cup, compared to often 100% of Test level nations at cricket’s and all of tier 1 and most of tier 2 at rugby’s.

2) Less dreams

Sure, while the minnows are now guppies, guppies like Australia become piranhas. So much of the joy when qualifying for 2006 was that it was the first such qualification in 32 years. That mountain to conquer is already a hill in Asia, and the hill will become rubble with the extra four spots allocated. Being perennial World Cup qualifiers is not ideal for a developing nation like Australia. We need the kick up the backside occasionally, much like our youth program is now receiving after recent debacles of multiple failed qualifying campaigns at youth and Olympic level. With the move into Asia I was already prepared to accept missing one World Cup out of every 3, or even missing two in a row if the sport was in malaise. Most top European countries occasionally miss major tournaments, and if it’s ok for them to bomb out at times it should be good enough for us.

3) No 4-team group

Even with the increase of teams over the years, one time honoured staple remained: groups of 4 teams. The change to 3-team groups means each team plays only 2 matches and the odd number of teams means the final games of a group can’t be played simultaneously. This means teams can play for certain results to help others progress. While this ethical problem is quite rare in practice and still possible in a 4-team group, FIFA were always so adamant in preventing it… until now. Tied groups will also become a problem. FIFA are talking about penalty shootouts to split drawn games. That would be a disaster as weaker teams will play for draws. Goal difference and other tie-breaking mechanisms must still be used. In the worst case scenario, maybe 30 minute playoffs are introduced.

4) The squabble for spots will continue

Everyone will be happy in the short term with the extra spots. After that, watch the squabbling resume. South America are so greedy they will probably want all their countries represented. Already if you consider they will get at least 1.5 extra spots, that’s 6 out of 10 teams going. Ridiculous. As mentioned in these pages many times, spots should be based on past performances, with confederations streamlined to facilitate this. That means the Americas should be one confederation and Oceania should merge with Asia. That leaves roughly four regions of 50 teams. To each goes 8 direct spots with 1 to the host. The remaining 15 spots are allocated by previous World Cup performances over the past 3 Cups. If Asia/Oceania get 6 teams among the top 15 best performed teams, that’s six spots to them. Typically they get zero or one, so they’ll sit on 8 or 9, while Europe with usually 8 teams through will get 16 spots in total.

COMPROMISE

My personal preference is four 40 teams over 10 groups. So you still keep the 4-team group and, more importantly, make each match extra important because only 6 of the 10 second placed teams progress to the knockout phase.

Socceroo Realm – Top 5 Moments of 2016

15 January 2017

A very quiet year for the Socceroos, football in general, and the Socceroo Realm. It’s ironic that with the move into Asia and therefore more serious matches that the net result is a dilution of the product. Win here, draw there, add the occasional loss, ignore the friendlies, it’s the pattern now. Even in the midst of a World Cup qualifying campaign it doesn’t lend itself to great highlights. Then there’s the impact of Twitter being such a convenient tool for instant and concise opinion. I can bang off something there immediately on the phone instead of sit in front of a computer for something more structured.

In the sprit of trying to return some zing to upcoming World Cup qualifiers and the year in general, here’s the Top 5 highlights for 2016.

1) Australia finish the year with three draws in World Cup qualifying

After starting with wins over Iraq and the UAE, the final group phase of qualifying was beginning to look like a procession. Even commentators were talking about wrapping it up with 2 or 3 games to go. Not so fast! Draws to Japan, Saudi Arabia and Thailand provided us with a nice reality check and brought us back to the pack. Ostensibly the group is in a four-way tie for the top 2 places at the half-way point so it’s effectively a reset. With 3 of those 5 remaining games also at home, Australia is still well placed to finish in the top 2.

2) Thailand 2 – Australia 2

This was a stunningly exciting World Cup qualifier to end the year, with Thailand running Australia ragged and playing inspired football in tribute to the recent death of their king. In fact, they should have won. With Iraq, they are the two teams seemingly out of contention at the moment. The group: Saudia Arabia 10, Japan 10, Australia 9, UAE 9, Iraq 3, Thailand 1.

3) Confederations Cup 2017 Draw

Australia will play Chile, Germany and an unknown African team. Please don’t let it be Ghana, as that would be 3 repeat opponents from previous World Cups (Chile 2014, Germany and Ghana 2010). In the other group is Russia, Mexico, Portugal and New Zealand. That’s a much more sexier group, particularly playing the hosts Russia. Mexico is an opponent we’ve dealt with easily in the past and haven’t played for a while, and when is the last time we played Portugal?

4) England 2 – Australia 1

Yes, we played England mid-year. This was a match more notable for they fact I couldn’t recognise England’s team as much as anyone in England could recognise Australia’s team. Given that we’re so entrenched in Asia these days and have so many meaningful matches, these so-called “friendly” matches are becoming more and more exhibition in status as the years pass. Even such a traditional rivalry like England vs Australia doesn’t help them.

5) Australia 1 – Japan 1

The first half of this September World Cup qualifier was possibly the worst display of any Australian team ever. Limp, clueless and ineffective were the words of choice at the time. The only real exception is the Youth World Cup of 2009 in Egypt where Australia was hammered in all three games and Craig Foster still saw it fit to write the team a letter of congratulations for the “brand” of football they played. This entry is only here to serve as encouragement for all future Australian teams that think they might of played the worst ever. No, you probably did alright compared to this woeful performance.

 

Melbourne Cup 2016 – The Verdict

31 October 2016

Preview (scroll down for the Review)

For anyone that’s read my Melbourne Cup preview for the past few years, they’d probably think “this guy is clueless”. In a sense that’s true, because for the few years this blog has been running the predictions have been poor. While last year can be forgiven considering a 100/1 shot won, which would have been missed by anyone using rational thought, and Admire Rakti was beset by a heart problem during the 2014 race that Protectionist won, Sea Moon was a poor pick in 2013 when comparing its form against the eventual winner Fiorente, and 2012 (Green Moon) was wipeout. Before that it was hit with Dunaden (2011) and Americain (2010).

About last year’s Cup, it was a slowly run race, which not only helped Prince Of Penzance win, it hurt the chances so many others, including Fame Game from Japan, the favourite. For some trainers and even one horse, 2016 is a year of redemption.

To repeat my usual guidelines:
1) Look for horses with form at, or near, the distance of 3200m
2) Look for horses in recent form
3) Look for horses with enough class
4) Look for horses that have, or are likely to, run well  in Australia
5) Ignore horses that have failed in the Cup before

Eight horses are back from the 2015 Cup, which is an unusually high number. Theoretically, if you follow rule 5, a third of the field is disqualified.

There’s also another rule, or trend, developing: The Caulfield Cup is a rubbish form reference. No Melbourne Cup winner has come through it since Delta Blue’s third in 2006, and the last Caulfield Cup winner to win the Melbourne Cup was Ethereal in 2001. Before that was Let’s Elope in 1991. Incidentally, both were mares with a light weight. It’s become so poor because many horses either skip the race, leaving it for lower grade horses or those using it as a hit out. Only four from this year’s race will even contest the Melbourne Cup.

Melbourne Cup field of 2016

Melbourne Cup field of 2016

I’ll award each horse Yes, Maybe or No for their chance to win. (I) denotes an international visitor, (R) denotes a return runner.

01 Big Orange $14 (IR)

The best credentialled international visitor, and  fifth last year. The connections rued the slow pace last year, which is ironic considering Big Orange made the pace. They admit the error of going too slow, which saw them out-sprinted at the end. There won’t be the same mistake this year. Big Orange is a grinder so he needs a fast pace and keep sticking on. I imagine the race pattern could be similar to 2006 when Delta Blues ran ahead off a strong pace and was unable to be caught. Yes

02 Our Ivanhowe $51 (R)

Form not good enough. No.

03 Curren Mirotic $34 (I)

The only Japanese horse this year. No 9yo has ever won it (9yo by Australian measure, 8.5 in actuality) and so inconsistent with his form. At his best can win. Came a narrow second in super fast over the 3200m of Tenno Sho three starts back. Then returned an 11th and 9th in his next two starts. Will most likely lead as the unofficial pacemaker for Big Orange. (Reluctantly) Maybe.

04 Bondi Beach $9 (IR)

Ran poorly last year, so that should disqualify him. He’s been set specifically, and is a year more mature after racing last year as a 3yo. Would not be so short if not for the trainer, jockey and owner, Aiden O’Brian, Ryan Moore and Lloyd Williams, respectively. Also add a few points for the iconic Australian name itself. He’s been specifically set for the race and while many experts rate him a good chance, for me it’s a reluctant Maybe.

05 Exospheric $20 (I)

In the hands of the Freedman’s now, he’s only a recent arrival so I still class as an international in terms of analysing for this race. While he was OK in the Caulfield Cup, that race’s form history is now poor and, of course, the winner was far more impressive. No.

06 Hartnell $5 (R)

The favourite, and the best horse in terms of class and form in the race. His issue is the distance, especially that he flopped in last year’s Cup. While, like stated prior, that was an odd race being run so slowly, he’s improved vastly since then anyway. Has the look of the 2013 winner, Fiorente, who also came through the WFA races and finished second in the Cox Plate. In the 2000m Turnbull Stakes prior to that, Hartnell destroyed the eventual Caulfied Cup winner. Yes.

07 Who Shot Thebarman $34 (R)

Third two years ago was his shot at it. Class never there, and form not as good either. No.

08 Wicklow Brave $15 (I)

Trainer Willie Mullins has a knack of travelling horses here and getting them to perform. Also has Frankie Dettori on board. Arguably the pair should have won last year with Max Dynamite. Won the Irish St Leger at his last start over Order Of St George. One of the top hopes. Yes.

09 Almoonqith $21 (R)

Ran 18th last year and doubt he’s ever had the last class, and this year form not as good. No.

10 Gallante $51

Sydney Cup winner so will run the distance. Class is the issue, and recent form average. No.

11 Grand Marshal $41 (R)

Another Sydney stayer. Winning the Moonee Valley Cup last start shows his form is solid. Class the problem. No.

12 Jameka $8.50

Devastating winner of the Caulfield Cup. Like the last two horses that did the Caulfield-Melbourne Cup double, is a mare with a light weight. It’s these reasons that I rate her among the top chances. Note she’s the only Australian bred horse in the field too. Named after Serena Jameka Williams, apparently because they share similarly big bums. Yes.

13 Heartbreak City $17 (I)

Last start won the Ebor Handicap, the closest Britain has to our Melbourne Cup. It’s a race not of the same standard, it hasn’t been a great form reference, and horse was well weighted. Won its previous two starts too, albeit hurdle races. Has it acclimatised too? You won’t know until the day. No.

14 Sir John Hawkwood $81

Won the Metropolitan in Sydney, which has as much relevance to the Melbourne Cup as the Bathurst 1000. Last start 10th in the Caulfield Cup. No.

15 Excess Knowledge $71 (R)

Ran OK last year to finish 7th. Form poor this year. No.

16 Beautiful Romance $81 (I)

Always skeptical of international mares (none have performed well that I can recall), and form barely average. No.

17 Almandin $11

Last two runs have been wins in local staying races. Question the class of those fields, and therefore the horse. The lightweight is responsible for his shortish odds. (Reluctant) No.

18 Assign $61

Similar form around Almandin, except was beaten convincingly by Almandin, hence the far juicier odds. No.

19 Grey Lion $51 (I)

Second in the Geelong Cup. It depends whether that’s a form reference this year. Other than the occasional hits – 2002 (Media Puzzle), 2010 (Americain) and 2011 (Dunaden) – it’s a hindrance more than a help. If you like the Geelong Cup, there’s two other horses drawing a bigger spotlight anyway. An international that will remain in Australia. (Only because it’s a grey) Maybe.

20 Oceanographer $8 (I)

Superb winner on Saturday to qualify for the Melbourne Cup after a close third in the Geelong Cup. That wasn’t the plan for this international visitor, so the big issue is whether he can run three big races in 13 days. Maybe.

21 Secret Number $31 (I)

The form looks superb with the last 5 starts being 1, 2, 1, 2 and 1. The problem is that it’s over 3 years! He’s only run one other race this year, with the previous race being the second place on the Queens Cup at last year’s Spring Carnival in Melbourne. Very tricky to place. Need to go on trust the stable can produce him on the day and, if so, especially down in the weights, a strong chance. Yes.

22 Pentathlon $126

Class and form queries. The price says it all. No

23 Qewy $26 (I)

The Geelong Cup winner, so if you fancy Oceanographer, you must fancy this. Maybe.

24 Rose Of Virgina $101

Never heard of it until I saw the Melbourne Cup field. It’s really a $201 chance. There must be sympathy money on it. No.

Summary

Five horses marked Yes: Big Orange, Hartnell, Wicklow Brave, Jameka and Secret Number.

Five horses marked Maybe: Curren Mirotic, Bondi Beach, Grey Lion, Oceanographer and Qewy.

Hartnell is the clear favourite with the public at $5, with Oceanographer ($8) and Jameka ($8.50) next. Oceanographer is exaggerated because of that big win on Saturday. For value (and that possible distance doubt), I’ll prefer Jameka over Hartnell, and hope it’s a return to form for the Caulfield Cup as a form reference. Otherwise, I’m writing it off forever! Again for value and also Big Orange already had a go last year, I’ll prefer Wicklow Brave over Big Orange for my second bet. I’ll also take small pot shots at Secret Number and Grey Lion.

The five “Yes” horses will go into my 5-horse boxed trifecta, while I’ll exclude Secret Number for my boxed First 4.

Remember, it’s only gambling if you lose!

 

Review

Final Results

01 Almandin
02 Heartbreak City
03 Hartnell
04 Qewy
05 Who Shot Thebarman
06 Almoonqith
07 Beautiful Romance
08 Exopheric
09 Pentathlon
10 Big Orange
11 Grand Marshal
12 Oceanographer
13 Bondi Beach
14 Grey Lion
15 Jameka
16 Excess Knowledge
17 Our Ivanhowe
18 Sir John Hawkwood
19 Assign
20 Gallante
21 Wicklow Brave
22 Curren Mirotic
23 Secret Number
24 Rose Of Virginia

I ended up changing from Jameka to Hartnell. The odds improved and the doubts about Jameka grew larger. It didn’t matter ultimately, as Hartnell finished a well defeated third. It was a good race for him, with the 4kg difference in weights proving the decisive factor between him and the winner, Almandin. The race was exciting itself with Almandin and Heartbreak City duelling to the finish line.

To continue my poor run of predictions, I had both Almandin and Heartbreak City a “No”. The class was always the issue, which means it’s the second year in a row a low weight overcame a class deficiency. In some ways, it’s a return to the Melbourne Cup of old, where horses would try and beat the handicapper to get into the Cup with a light weight and peak on the day. Does that mean we should begin to revise our guidelines for picking winners? Maybe. If a horse has won decisively at its last start, then that’s form you can trust.

Some rules were reinforced, particularly previous runners. All ran to their past performance, if not worse. While Hartnell in third, Almoonqith in fourth and Who Shot Thebarman in fifth were good, Big Orange was poor in 10th and let’s not mention Bondi Beach, Grand Marshal, Excess Knowledge and Our Ivanhowe. Hartnell is probably the exception anyway in that he clearly improved in form since the last Cup. He was a super horse in comparison and was unlucky that two sneaks produced on the day.

Horses that haven’t run in Australia before, again, it’s wise to ignore them. While they’ve come close like Heartbreak City today and Red Cadeaux in 2011, they mostly fail: Bondi Beach, Beautiful Romance, Secret Number, Wicklow Brave and Curren Mirotic. Even if one wins one day, that will be a rare exception you cop. After all, these rules are more guidelines, and horses aren’t machines.

The Geelong Cup, again, was a poor reference. While Qewy was good in fourth, Grey Lion and Oceanographer failed. The latter also only had 3 days to recover from Saturday’s win, which is alien to European horses. Much like the situation with Almandin’s and Heartbreak City’s recent wins, winners in Geelong need to dominate it, or be highly credentialled horses.

Distance: Most of them don’t run it out. Arguably even Hartnell you could say didn’t quite stay. The likes of Jameka, especially, if you have doubts, leave them out.

Class: Reinforced again with the likes of Who Shot Thebarman, Pentathlon and Grand Marshal. While they can run 3200, they can’t run it fast enough. Also be wary of plodders, or horses without a sprint. For all Big Orange’s ability to run a solid 3200, it’s pointless if several horses sprint past him in the straight. Curiously, Big Orange’s jockey blamed the pace. Last year it was blamed for being too slow when finishing fifth. This year it seemed fast enough and they only managed tenth. Excuses. Maybe he’s not good enough.

The Caulfield Cup: Yep, time to write it off as any sort of form reference.

The Japanese: It might be time to write them off too. Since the 1-2 in 2006, they’ve been a disaster.

Other than Hartnell in third, my picks were a wipeout. Wicklow Brave ran wide all the way, with Frankie Dettori saying the horse felt “flat”. More likely Frankie “flattened” him. To think he and Heartbreak City were in the widest barriers together, yet the latter ended up beautifully just off the fence midfield, while the latter was running 10 wide out of the straight the first time. A debacle of a ride. My outsider of Secret Number proved that: a secret, and just a number. Took the lead around the home bend and folded. It really is the last time I get seduced by an international horse without a run in Australia first.

I’m not the only stooge either. Only one of Channel 7’s “experts” on the day picked Almandin to win. Bruce McAvaney picked Almandin on the Sunday preview show. Several of the panel on ABC’s Offsiders had Almandin second or third, with the combined tally being Hartnell, Jameka and Almandin. On Sky Racing only Glenn Munsie from TAB had Almandin to win, while Ron Dufficy had it third. The other three panelists ignored it. Racing.com was similar with only one of the six experts selecting it to win, with one for third. Across those four media outlets, only a handful slotted Heartbreak City for a place, while Hartnell was the overwhelming top pick for most. It means the horses are far more reliable than the experts.

A good Melbourne Cup overall. You like to see a good race, a relatively popular winner and a nice story. We got a bit of all of that. Almandin was around fifth most popular in the betting and paying $11.80, the race was close to the end, and who can knock Lloyd Williams winning his fifth Cup? He has put so much money into the industry for approximately 40 years, that he deserves it. Nice to see he was trackside too for a change. He must have known something, the wily old bugger.

Two draws keep the group interesting

12 October 2016

Why is it the only goals Australia ever concede are “soft goals”? So it was for the second World Cup qualifier in a row that Australia conceded in the first 5 minutes. The first against Saudi Arabia last week and the second against Japan last night. Naturally, they were soft! Clearly there’s still a small superiority complex Australia has over Asian teams. In truth, the Saudi goal was a brilliant dismantling of our defence with quick passing and well timed runs, and the Japanese goal was a brilliant strategic goal created by pressuring our often over-casual possession of the ball and breaking free on goal. There was nothing soft about them. Indeed! If Australia scored them, we’d be marvelling at the brilliance.

Australia's coach Ange Postecoglou not entirely happy after 1-1 draw at home vs Japan in World Cup qualifier, Melbourne, 2016-10-11

Australia’s coach Ange Postecoglou not entirely happy after a 1-1 draw at home vs Japan. Image: AAP

Both games finished in a draw, 2-2 in Riyadh and 1-1 in Melbourne. Both games also finished in a similar pattern with Australia lucky not to lose both. Australia ending up taking the lead in Riyadh on 17 minutes and felt aggrieved at conceding a goal 8 minutes later. Except, not longer later, the Saudis missed a one-on-one attempt with the ball cleared off the line after being partially saved by Matt Ryan. Likewise, Ryan was at it again in Melbourne when, on 78 minutes, brilliantly saving a low header. Both games were a fair result.

With Saudi Arabia beating the UAE 3-0 overnight, it means the group is wide open. They lead by 2 points, with Australia next on 8, Japan on 7 and UAE on 6. Iraq is on 3 while Thailand has yet to score a point. Australia is yet to play Thailand so arguably has had the tougher run so far.

Personally, the group is nicely poised. While obviously I want Australia to qualify, there’s a big part of me that wants to see the campaign stay alive as long as possible. Many Arab nations are aggrieved that all Australia has done is taken a spot from them, and that’s a fair point. Our inclusion will be a failure if we are not tested, and even occasionally fail to qualify. If Japan won last night, I’d have found that acceptable. Probably the ideal scenario is Australia goes to Japan on 31 August needing a result. They get that, forcing Japan into the playoffs, this time through Central America, and qualify anyway.

There was a bit of publicity about the poor atmosphere at last night’s game at Docklands – even with over 48,000 in attendance. It was deathly quiet at times in the first half with the Australian cheer squad barely active – especially when compared to the visiting Japanese cheer squad. While apparently the Australians weren’t fully organised, the silence was apt for the occasion. Australia had conceded early and put on a limp, clueless and ineffective display in response. Also attacking towards the Japanese end didn’t help motivate the cheer squad.

The second half, when Australia were more active and got the goal, not only did the cheer squad react more, so did the entire crown. I prefer this form of dynamic cheering rather than the incessant and repetitive and often banal chants. If these concoctions are for entertainment purposes or to add to the atmosphere, what are you really saying about the sport itself – that it’s boring? Personally it doesn’t need it, and the quiet periods only enhanced the atmosphere, as they were a reflection of the game itself.

Results

06/10 Saudi Arabia 2 (Al-Jassim Goal 5′, Al-Shamrani 79′) – Australia 2 (Sainsbury 45′, Juric 71′)
11/09 Australia 1 (Jedinak 52′ PK) – Japan 1 (Haraguchi 5′)

Reports – Saudi Arabia
Reports – Japan

Two great wins to open the final phase of qualifying

08 September 2016

Australia could not have hoped for a better start to the final phase of World Cup
qualifying for Russia 2018 with two great wins. The first a 2-0 win over Iraq in Perth last week and then a 1-0 win in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday night.

The win over the UAE was particularly satisfying, with the UAE in good form after a 2-1 win in Japan in its first match and temperatures in Abu Dhabi in the mid 30s. It was a showcase of the future of Asian football when teams like the UAE won’t sit back and pounce on Australian mistakes. They will know that with points on the line at home, they must try to assert some authority, and this is where Australia excelled. Despite the tenacity and proficiency of the UAE, Australia had the game in complete control, forcing the UAE to chase for long periods, and then breaking forward whenever possible.

From the UAE’s perspective, they never relented either, and held Australia at 0-0 until the 75th minute when a sublime cross from Brad Smith was met on the volley by Tim Cahill. It was one of those magical moments in football when high pressure situation was released with an act of individual brilliance. That it was Cahill on the end of it, who’d just arrive on the field, was poetic for it further enhanced his mercurial qualities of scoring when Australia really needs it. As the Socceroo Realm has stated previously, if he belonged to any other country, he’d be the most annoying player ever. That Japan in Melbourne is Australia’s next home match is also poetic in that they are an opposition to which Cahill has done the most damage. Five days prior, Australia is away to Saudi Arabia, who have also won their first two games.

Tim Cahill scores the winner against UAE in Asian World Cup qualifier 2016-09-06

It’s all good signs after two difficult preparation games against Greece in June. A 1-0 win was followed by a 2-1 loss as Australia’s style to constantly pressure Asian teams was fully exploited by Greece, especially in that second game, where Greece really dominated the key moments. It’s a tactic Asian teams traditionally use except, this time, Greece had the strike power to finish us off. They pounced on Australian forays forward to the point Australia looked clueless, particularly barely able to penetrate when going forward. Much credit therefore to coach Ange Postecoglou that a more mature and balance approached was brought, particularly against the UAE.

Elsewhere in the group, Japan rebounded to win in Thailand, while UAE won their first match and Iraq and Thailand remain winless. With six teams in the group this time, up from 5 for 2014, statistically it will be much harder to qualify. While we hope for at least a draw in Saudi Arabia, that match against Japan be pivotal, both in terms of gaining points and to further knock them down the table. A loss will suddenly neutralise that promising start. That may not be too bad anyway, as the point of being in Asia is for a tough and fair challenge. For the good of Asia, it needs to be that way too. Mark Bosnich on Fox Sports was suddenly talking about wrapping it up with 2-3 games to go. First, that’s disrespectful to our opponents and, second, that would be boring. Without the journey, you can’t savour the success.

Results

01/09 Australia 2 (Luongo 58′, Juric 64′) – Iraq 0
06/09 UAE 0 – Australia 1 (Cahill 75′)

Match report, highlights and interviews

Rio 2016 Review – The Great Australian Choke

22 August 2016

“I don’t need a gold medal for self worth.”

“It’s not about winning, it’s about trying to win.”

“It’s a racing meet; times don’t mean much.”

With quotes like these, respectively from Cate Campbell, Bronte Campbell and Mitch Larkin, is it any wonder Australia suffered yet another disaster in the pool? It was so predictable that you could almost write the script. Big egos, a nonchalant attitude, and absurd excuses. The latter quote is one in perpetual use, as far back as double world champion Samantha Riley using it to explain her two failures at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996. The folly of it and all the other excuses is exposed when you understand that swimmers live and breath by times. They are obsessed by them, and personal bests. The opposite is actually true for them: results don’t matter, times do. All training is geared around achieving a PB, with the key focus being to deliver it in an Olympic final. We even saw Australian swimmers ecstatic at doing a PBs in an Olympic final. Unfortunately, they were the ones finishing fifth. For the favourites, it was implosion after implosion.

Australia's Chloe Esposito crosses the line to win the modern pentathlon at Rio 2016The surprise gold, the most emotional gold, the best gold of all. Australia’s Chloe Esposito crosses the line to win the modern pentathlon at Rio 2016. Image: Getty Images

With the three aforementioned swimmers, also add Emily Seebohm and Cameron McEvoy to the hit parade of inglorious failures. Seebohm – the double world champion at backstroke – was so abominable she finished seventh in the 100 and failed to even reach the 200 final. She’s probably more a case of a training error – not timing her taper correctly. As for McEvoy, apparently he got stage fright – something at the Australian trials he even warned the public was a possibility for any Olympic favourite. Talk about the proverbial chicken coming home to roost. If not for the upset win of Kyle Chalmers in the 100 freestyle, and Mack Horton’s narrow win the 400 freestyle, it could have been even worse.

There’s a bigger problem at play here: the mindset. Every single swimmer responded the same way at post race interviews. All tried to look for positives from their defeats, like just being in the final, or being at the Games themselves, that was success in itself. The Campbell sisters used the fact of two sisters being in an Olympic final as a means to extract something positive from their combined disaster. This is not a coincidence; they are schooled to react this way. Except, you only need watch their body language to realise it’s one big charade. It’s especially glaring if you watch those interviews with the sound muted. There’s no way anyone could align their words with the body language. Cate Campbell was clearly shell-shocked, while Larkin was constantly battling his instinct to express disappointment and his will to suppress it.

Who’s to blame? It’s the sports psychologists and so-called mentors. One of the losing swimmers attributed this to Leisel Jones: “If you’re not complete without a gold medal, you won’t be complete with one”. Note that Jones is Australia’s worst choker and biggest letdown in Australian Olympic history. Of the eight individual races she contested, she lost seven. That fact alone should disqualify her from any such mentoring role. At the very least, the swimmers should not be using her for inspiration. My vague recollection is the quote is actually from surfer Layne Beachley. That would be even worst, coming from someone in a tinpot sport of her time like women’s surfing. Regardless of the source, it’s clear the substance of that quote is embedded, because Cate Campbell paraphrased it.

Deep down, they do need a gold medal for self worth. Or, at least, for self vindication. They don’t spend 20 hours a week looking at a black line, winning world championships, breaking world records, leading the world by a whopping margin, and go to an Olympics and think “I don’t really need this”. It’s this conflict between their competitive fibre and the garbage from the sports psychologists that’s creating all the problems. They enter the pool deck and realise their dream is now in front of them. Countering that there’s voices in their head telling them it all doesn’t matter. It throws them off their concentration and race-plan, and reduces them to a physical and psychological wreck when they should be at their most confident and calm. In typical Australian fashion, their response to handling pressure is to bully the opposition. They always go out too hard rather than remain focused and be respectful of the task at hand. It’s no coincidence that the favourites all flopped and those swimming PBs came from the lower ranked swimmers. Swimmers from other nations were swimming PBs too. While you can pick out one or two of them that did fail, the difference is it was only one or two. With Australia it’s a pandemic within the team. It’s been enduring for past 20 years too.

Another problem is the timing of the selection trials. USA has theirs around 5 weeks before the Olympics whereas Australia’s is around 5 months. Ignore comments, particularly from former swimmers and commentators, that it works for us. That’s the typical Australian ego that likes to think it leads the world in everything. It doesn’t. Not when one Hungarian can win the same amount of gold medals as your entire team. After successive debacles, which includes the “successful Olympic meets” that still produced gold medals below benchmarks, it’s an unequivocal failure. It’s not even about gold medals. It’s about times, personal bests. Not enough swimmers produce them when it counts. They all can’t be suffering mental breakdowns or stage fright. It’s physical – as with Emily Seebohm. Remember, this is a 20 year embedded problem, not just the past two Olympics. Then consider the time lag means more chance of carrying an ill, injured or out of form swimmer to the Games. Conversely, late bloomers and those injured during trials miss selection. On a strategic level, Australia’s early trials also mean we lay a marker for the world to challenge, and beat.

The main concern with the American system of trials so close to a major event is the double taper. A taper is when athletes ease off after a period of hard training just prior to an event to re-energise the muscles ready to compete at peak performance. As a triathlete many moons ago and in many bodies ago, I can attest it’s a wonderful feeling to race after taper. You feel like superman and seem to have an endless supply of energy and power. Typically the taper period is about a week before an event. This will vary between sports, event and athlete, as will the training block needed just prior. For some, a few weeks won’t be enough, and if they can’t master the double taper, then it’s a decision to set for trials and hold form for the Olympics or set for the Olympics and rely on natural ability and the existing training base to qualify. Offsetting that is American swimmers don’t have to peak twice a year. Asking our swimmers to go through a hard training regime twice could be wearing down their bodies. Double-peak vs double-taper, you be the judge.

The USA’s continued domination on the world stage shows their system works. After an even world championships last year between the USA and Australia, it was a pummelling at the Olympics with the USA winning 16 gold to Australia’s 3. While you can argue they have a huge talent pool, and Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, you can’t deny that those athletes that qualify are consistently successful at the Games. There’s also that Hungarian. Katinka Hosszu won 3 gold medals by herself, and it would have been 4 if not for the USA’s Madeline Dirado swimming a massive PB to just win the 200 backstroke. Our stars, like even Ian Thorpe in the 200 freestyle at Sydney, will more often flop.

Even more devastating with the USA is those swimmers that haven’t tapered for trials will swim much faster at the Games once they have tapered. In contrast, ours consistently swim slower times than trials. 73% of them did, according to former head coach Brian Sutton. We went into 9 individual events with the fastest time of the year, which included 7 world championship holders and a world record holder, and left with one victory. That was Mack Horton. Madeline Groves can’t be faulted either, swimming a PB in the 200 fly when second by a whisker. Kyle Chalmers’ win was compensation – and relief – for Cameron McEvoy’s failure in the 100 freestyle. The third gold was the women’s 4×100 relay – who were favoured. So it’s 3 gold from 10 events at a 30% return. In that sense, Rio was far worse than the “disaster” of London where it was 1 from 2 at a 50% return.

There were also some strange strategic decisions made in the 4×200 freestyle relays. Emma McKeon, who rebounded with a bronze in a hot 200m freestyle field after folding in the 100m butterfly, was dropped for the women’s 4×200. Australia missed gold by just under two seconds, so would she have been two seconds faster than the fourth best swimmer? Same in men’s event, where McEvoy was dropped, seemingly to concentrate on the 100m. That backfired spectacularly with Australia just inches back in fourth from a silver and McEvoy imploding in his race anyway (thankfully Chalmers was there to clean up the mess). In hindsight, this strategy for them to focus on fewer events only increases the pressure. McEvoy surely would have enjoyed the relay swim, and grabbing a medal would have eased pressure and boosted confidence for his individual race. Let’s look to the USA again, or even Hosszu from Hungary. They have no problems with heavy programs and will even swim twice in the one evening.

The reason the the team received so much criticism was because Olympic sports receive so much of taxpayer money. This is no criticism of the funding. After all, the $332 million over four years is peanuts compared to the $1000 million we pay every single month on our national debt, and Australian success at the Games boosts national morale. The last thing we want is the return to the old days of barely any gold. It’s merely about return on investment, and the public has a right to expect a minimum standard of performing to your optimum. Of that $332m most went to swimming ($37.9m), cycling (34.1), rowing (32.4), sailing (29), hockey (28.6) and athletics (27.9). Also implemented was the “Winning Edge” program, where funds are directed to those at the top – those sports likely to win gold. Reputedly it’s a copy of Great Britain’s successful program that saw them win 29 gold in London and another 27 in Rio. Australia is at 8 after four years of a 10 year plan, so the “copy” aspect obviously still needs more work, even if Britain’s budget is much higher at 274.5 GBP (about 475m AUD). It’s worthwhile continuing with it until at least Tokyo 2020 before any review.

REVIEW OF SPORTS

Here’s a breakdown of the success of all sports at Rio with the amount in millions invested.

Swimming

$37.9m – 3 Gold, 4 Silver, 3 Bronze

Running through the events…

Men 100f – Cameron McEvoy: According to the head coach, he got “stage fright”, and finished 7th at 1 second slower than his best. Even within half a second of his best would have seen him win gold. When Kyle Chalmers came through and won, you could really sense the excitement mixed with relief on the faces of the coaches. Like most of us, they would have been watching McEvoy, exasperated at yet another impending Australian failure, only to catch a glimpse of Chalmers in the last metres surging through for the win.

Men 400f – Mack Horton: Came into Rio with the world’s fastest time of the year, and won gold, just pipping Sun Yang. Horton caused the biggest attention outside the pool with his criticism of Sun’s drugs record. The Chinese claimed the drugs were for angina and were later removed from the banned list. Interestingly, the Australian Olympic Committee encouraged Horton to speak up and hog attention in contradiction with their “One Team” philosophy. Ask Nick Kyrgios about that philosophy and he’ll say it’s only when it suits them, is politically correct or is in their own sanctimonious favour. Anything remotely controversial coming from the mouths of athletes and the speech police are out in force.

Men 100b – Mitch Larkin: Went out too hard, being just in front of world record pace, faded to fourth at .3 off his PB. Hitting is PB would have been good enough for silver only.

Men 200b – Mitch Larkin: Similar to his 100, except improved to silver, and cost himself gold by swimming .8 below his PB. He was thankful merely for the medal at this stage, expressing an “at least it’s something” attitude.

Women 50f – Cate Campbell: This was even more disappointing than the 100. With the pressure off after that flop, and for an event that requires no pacing, expectations were for her to rebound. It would have been an easy gold if she swam near her PB. She finished fifth. Her sister, Bronte, and world champion, was expected to get silver. She finished 7th. Bronte apparently had should problems leading into the Games so wasn’t fully ready.

Women 100f – Cate Campbell: The most famous meltdown of the Australian swim team and “possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history”, in her words. Fastest time by miles over anyone in the field and broke the world record only a few weeks earlier. That raised suspicions at the time she might have peaked too early. Anything near her best time and it’s a certain gold. Finished sixth. Her sister, Bronte, like with the 50, was the world champion and expected to get silver. She finished 4th.

Women 100b – Emily Seebohm: Hopelessly out of form. Her best time would have seen gold. Finished 7th.

Women 200b – Emily Seebohm: This time couldn’t even make the final. Best time would have won gold.

Women 200bf – Madeline Groves: One of the big chances based on producing the fastest time of the year. She did everything possible: swam fast, beat the Americans, beat the Chinese, beat just about anybody you’d suspect as tough competition. She lost to Spain’s Mireia Belmonte by just 3/100th of a second. She kept producing PBs so she can’t be faulted.

Women 4x100f relay: Justified their favourtism for an easy win, and in world record time. This result – on night 1 of the Games – proves the Campbell sisters arrived in form. It’s inexplicable both failed in the individual events.

Women 4x100m relay: With their best times, they would have won. Ended up second by just under 2 seconds.

In summary, 9 gold would have been the optimum return. You also counter that with the hope some swimmers improve from the trials, and you got that with the likes of Madeline Groves, who missed gold by a whisker.

Archery

$2.6m – 1 Bronze

Took a well deserved bronze in the men’s team event, and nearly caused a boilover when pushing the eventual Korean gold medalist to sudden death in the men’s singles.

Bastketball

$21.1m – 0 Medals

Women choked. Won all 5 pool games, led Serbia through the quarter final, lost by two points. Too many turnovers cost them and couldn’t cope with Serbia’s swarming defence. Warning signs were there in the pool games, where they had to make last quarter surges in their final two games to defeat Japan and Belarus. The men suffered a similar fate, also losing to Serbia, unable to cope with the pressure defence, and shooting so poor that their half time tally was only 14 points. This after beating Serbia in the pool games by 15 points, and the only loss being a close one to the USA. Then it was heartbreak in the bronze medal game, losing by 1 point to Spain. It’s the fourth loss in a bronze medal game, and one that will be rued. Not so much the bronze medal game, more the wasted opportunity in the semi final. They deserved a silver and to play for gold. While the funding seems high for the opportunity for only two medals, basketball is such a popular game that it’s worthwhile the investment. Also, had the men got that medal it would be have been one of our best and most celebrated of the Games.

Canoe/Kayak

$18m – 2 Bronze

Jessica Fox made an outstanding run in the K1 finals to secure bronze. It would have been silver if not for a faint touch on one of the gates. The Spanish winner was in a class of her own. Next Olympics C1 will be introduced for the women at the expense of the men’s K2. That will give her – and no doubt her precocious younger sister – an extra option for gold. The flat water was disappointing. The men’s K2-1000 bronze was the only medal.

Cycling

$32.5m – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze

A shocker. Even though Australia had no outright gold medal favourites, they had a plethora of top contenders and the result of zero gold is an abomination. There are some excuses, like the women’s pursuit team crashing in practice, and the ridiculously dangerous road race course saw Richie Porte crash out. Australia’s best hope, Simon Gerrens, was already out of the Games after a crash in the Tour de France. Rohan Dennis needed a bike change in the road time trial after breaking his handlebars, which cost him silver. The men’s pursuit team broke the old world record in the gold medal race only for Britain to break it by a greater margin – and win by just .8 seconds. That was superb effort. The women’s and men’s omnium events suffered from bad luck and a crash, respectively.

No excuses for our sprinters, with Anna Meares’ lone bronze the best achievement from six events. Meares entered the Games with dubiously low expectations for someone of her calibre: do better in the keirin than in 2012 (not hard since it was disaster) and to win a medal (took bronze in the keirin). Rio seemed more like farewell tour than a real, intense effort for gold. A nonchalant 10th in her pet event, the individual sprint, said it all. Matthew Glaetzer in the men’s events showed none of the speed seen in recent international events.

BMX was a wipeout with Caroline Buchanan just missing the final after a careless crash in her the final heat of her semi final. She’d not have beaten the Colombian winner, Mariana Pajon, in the final anyway. Pajon backed up after her 2012 gold medal to really demonstrate the meaning of pressure. In the men’s, both Australia’s best hopes reached the final undefeated from the semi finals, only to blow it in the final to finish 6th and 8th. Both had poor starts than usual. Quite possibly they wasted too much energy in the semi finals, allowing for fresher legs to steamroll them. The only equivocation is that BMX has a sudden death final for gold, which opens the possibility for misfortune. Earlier rounds are run over three heats, and this would be a much fairer approach to decide the medals.

Swimming’s big failures has meant cycling – particularly on the track – has escaped attention. No gold medals is outrageous for a sport that receives so much money. Authorities would have expected at least 3 gold medals, and hoped for more. With the exception of Athens 2004, cycling are perennial under-achievers. It was only one gold in London and none in Beijing. Even considering the dominance of the British track riders over those Olympics (7 from 10 in London, 6 from 10 in Rios), one gold in three Games is outrageous. Like with swimming, it’s no point popping up at world championships in other years and dominating. It’s about the Olympic Games and the sport needs an overhaul.

Diving

$8.6m – 1 Bronze

Popping up with gold two times since 2004 might have boosted funding. A minor medal or two is usually our standard, and that was the result here.

Equestrian

$10.5m – 1 Bronze

Led the eventing after dressage and cross country in both individual and team, only to lose it in the showjumping. While the individual had the precarious requirement to jump clean, the team of 3 riders could afford to drop 4 rails. That buffer was gone with the first rider. The second rider jumped clean only for the third rider – the individual leader – to drop two. That’s equestrian, and the team was really only in such a strong position after a superlative cross country. Rio will be a good base to build for Tokyo 2020 and get four more years experience into the horses.

Football

$8.1m – 0 Medals

Women lost their quarter final to Brazil in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw. Probably a tactical error that Michelle Heyman shot sixth, instead of on the potentially winning fifth kick. Midfielder Katrina Gorry missed that with a poor attempt, whereas Heyman, a striker, was clinical with hers. It’s an opportunity lost as the USA had already been eliminated by Sweden, leaving the gold medal race wide open. Sweden, who would have been Australia’s semi final opponent, lost 2-1 to Germany in the final.

The men had long choked when they couldn’t even qualify. They couldn’t even score a goal in their final qualifying tournament against the UAE and Jordan. Only against lowly Vietnam could they win a match. After a similar disaster four years prior in which they went entirely goalless through the final qualifying round, the question really must be asked whether it’s worth the effort to try qualify. Australia couldn’t get many of their players from overseas clubs again, and football itself goes almost unnoticed at the Games as the public and media focus on all the other sports. Most matches are played outside the host city, so it’s a very detached Olympic experience for the players too.

Football’s history at the Olympics is also a dubious one. In the amateur days, it was dominated by European communist countries. Once professional athletes were allowed in 1984, FIFA didn’t want the Olympics to rival the World Cup so European and South American nations could only field players that never played in a World Cup. That lasted until 1992 when it became an Under-23 competition. From 1996, three over-age players could be added. This compromise for legitimacy has perpetually undermined the value of the men’s competition. There’s no restrictions for the women.

If football didn’t earn so much money for Olympic organisers, it would be dumped. In fact, it should be dumped. Brazil finally winning their first gold medal in the sport is perfect timing for it to go. The money Australia spends is no issue, given it is the world’s most popular and biggest sport, and it offers the most prestigious competition in sport: the World Cup.

Golf

$4m – 0 Medals

Australia led the men for two rounds before, you guessed it, choked. In fairness, Marcus Fraser had the better of the conditions on the first day to build a lead. He was never in it after that. More important is the boycott by many of Australia’s and the world’s best golfers that undermined the credibility of the event. The women, at least, took it more seriously, and now Rio has its very first golf course. Whoopee!

Hockey

$26.7m – 0 Medals

The men, as hot favourites for gold, capitulated 4-0 to the Netherlands in the quarter finals. It’s yet another massive choke from a team of perpetual chokers. Their record is now one gold in 40 years and 11 Olympics despite consistent, and sometimes dominant, favouritism. The women were battered 4-2 by New Zealand in their quarter final to add to their woeful record in recent Games. For such a strong sport that nearly always produces a medal, Rio was a disaster. If funding is all about medals, you also must question the value of funding a sport with only two chances to win medals and only a niche appeal in Australia.

Modern Pentathlon

$0.190m – 1 Gold

Our best, and most surprising gold, of the Rio Games, if not ever for Australia. Seeing Chloe Esposito trying to control the tears as she’s running the final lap of the cross country combined and knowing she’ll win, it brings tears to your own eyes. I can’t remember a more emotional one. Up there are Debbie Flintoff-King in 1988, Cathy Freeman in 2000, Alisa Camplin in 2002, and Anna Meares and Sally Pearson in 2012 – and I’d say Esposito surpasses them. It was a remarkable win, needing to overcome a 45 second deficit in that final event to win gold. Missing only one of her 20 shots at the shooting range, she won easily and set an Olympic record. The $190k of funding received by Modern Pentathlon – the smallest amount by far for any Olympic sport – would only cover basic expenses. With Chloe’s younger brother, Max, finishing 7th in the men’s event and their father as coach, it’s primarily a family affair keeping the sport going. It’s a an old school gold medal in that sense, built on dedication, desire and sheer determination. A total contrast to the prima donna swimmers that are pampered to excess and full of excuses. Esposito surely would have carried the flag in the closing ceremony if chef de mission, Kitty Chiller, was not a former pentathlete herself.

Rowing

$31.1m – 1 Gold, 2 Silver

Kim Brennan came through in the women’s single sculls and was the second most deserved to the carry the flag at the closing ceremony (see previous paragraph). The men’s quad sculls and fours finished with silver. Both hoped for Gold. The quad sculls the most disappointing, dominating the event internationally for the past two years, only to lose when it counts. It wasn’t pleasant either, with Germany, out in lane 1 after qualifying through a repechage, rushed to an early and insurmountable lead, seemingly without the Australians realising. In the words of one of Australia’s crew, Germany “pulled a swifty”. Australia’s normally strong finish wasn’t good enough, and apparently the strong headwind didn’t help. The fours were beaten – again – by Britain. No great surprise there as the British have dominated this event for 5 Olympics now. Considering all the funding to the sport, rowing finished at least one gold too short.

Rugby Sevens

$6.6m – 1 Gold

The women won as expected. The men were outclassed as expected. This is one of the better new sports to the Games, as it’s exciting, is open to both genders, will quickly build depth, and is cheap to run. You only need a rectangular field, and all Olympic cities would have at least one of those. You wonder whether athletes from other sports might feel envious at this instant gold for Australia. They dream all their lives, and across generations, about the Olympics and here is a bunch of women scrambled together over a few years from other sports around the country and suddenly they are gold medalists at the Olympics.

Sailing

$29.3m – 1 Gold, 3 Silver

Four medals from seven events entered, so mirrored London in total medals (3 Gold, 1 Silver) and can’t be faulted. If you were picky, you might want an extra gold. In truth, it could have been four silvers if not for a masterful display by Tom Burton in the men’s Laser to finish by the required 5 places over Croatia in the Medal Race. He said his tactics to pin the Croatia before the line and force a penalty had less than a 10% chance of succeeding. Or it could have been two gold if the Nacra 17 crew finished five places, not 4, over Argentina in their Medal Race.

Shooting

$8.9m – 1 Gold

Didn’t hear a peep from it other than a surprise gold from Catherine Skinner in the women’s single trap early on (she needed a shoot-off just to reach the semi finals). Expect that to continue for future Games.

Track and Field

$29.2m – 1 Silver, 1 Bronze

Dani Samuels could have got a medal had she thrown her best. She finished fourth. Women’s middle distant events saw many Australian finalists, including 3 in the 5000m,with a consistent burst of personal best times. Not that any of them transferred into medals. The spectacular derriere of Genevieve LaCaze proved to be the biggest highlight, and I’m not even an “assman”. There was a bronze in the men’s 20km walk, and Jared Tallent took the silver in the 50km walk to match his gold from London. Track and Field is one sport that shows the value of participation means almost as much as winning medals. It’s the glamour competition of the Games, and arguably a gold there means much more than3 golds in sailing.

Tennis

$0.684m – 0 Medals

As usual, a waste of time. Samantha Stosur looked good in early rounds then folded. The men and doubles teams never on the radar. The only bright side was Monica Puig to win Puerto Rico’s first ever gold medal. Her tears made you think twice about tennis’ inclusion of the game. Then you think of all the other players that don’t care that much, that Grand Slams are still far more important, probably even for Puig, and tennis is a waste of time at the Olympics.

Triathlon

$8.5m – 0 Medals

Top 10 finishes in both events was about expected.

Water Polo

$14.3m – 0 Medals

The women choked, losing a penalty shootout after giving up a 2 goal lead to Hungary in the last quarter. The men, who were never a realistic chance for a medal, were knocked out in the group stage. Much like hockey, so much money for a sport with only two events available. In fact, it’s worst: the men only ever make up the numbers.

Other Sports

Badminton (2.2), Boxing (3.8), Gymnastics ($9.6m), Judo (3), Table Tennis (1), Taekwondo (1), Volleyball inc Beach (8.8), Wrestling (0.06) and Weightlifting (1.6) are the other sports to receive funding. All figures quoted from Australian Sports Commission, credit: ABC media.

ELSEWHERE

The Olympics are unique in that often there’s misery one day and elation the next. I watch more for general performances, and found great moments even among our depressing ones. The USA’s Simone Manuel (who said black girls can’t swim?) and Canada’s 16yo Penny Olensiak tying for first in Cate Campbell’s race (100m freestyle), and the tears from Denmark’s Pernille Blume winning the Campbell’s other failure, the 50m freestyle. It was Denmark’s first swimming gold since 1948. She would then go help the team win bronze in the 4×100 medley relay and there’d be even more tears.

The triple tie for second with Michael Phelps in the 100m fly – the first time there’s ever been a triple tie for a position in swimming. Even more amazing was Singapore’s Joseph Schooling winning the race, and beating his idol. It was Singapore’s first ever gold and meant a $1m reward for Schooling. USA’s Ryan Held, as part of the USA’s men 4×100 freestyle relay, was also in tears by sharing a podium with his hero, Phelps.

A wonderful bronze medal was New Zealand’s 19yo pole vaulter Eliza McCartney. Seeing her explode into tears after Australia’s Alana Boyd missed her final jump was amazing (sorry, Alana!). Usain Bolt was wonderful, if not overly self indulgent. It must be compensation for running for such a short time that the sprinters feel the need to spend so much time celebrating and prancing about after the race. He was trumped anyway by South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk breaking the 400m world record, and possibly Britain’s Mo Farah doing the double double of 5000m and 10,000m in successive Games. Finally, who could forget Fiji in the Rugby Sevens, or Brazil in football. It was one of the first times in ages I was cheering for Brazil.

Not quite the highlight was Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte in the 100 breaststroke. She was a big highlight in London when winning as a 15yo, and I’ve been watching her career since and hoping she could repeat in Rio. She was 4 seconds off her best (as world record holder) and finished seventh. Notably she was bulkier than 4 years prior and probably lost that suppleness in her stroke and sits a bit lower in the water.

PUBLIC REACTION

Needless to say, there’s been much criticism against the criticism of Australia’s poor result. Comments like 8 gold medals are a great achievement, expectations were too high, that by population we did well, and the athletes did their best, all miss the point. First, they (read: swimmers) did not do their best. They readily admit it themselves, failing to produce anywhere near their best performances. Second, medal predictions were based on benchmarks – an athlete’s best recent time. Produce that, you win, it’s that simple. Clearly something went horribly wrong when so many failed. Third, population is irrelevant, it’s about wealth and funding, Australia funds generously. Fourth, that funding is supplied by the taxpayers. Three gold from swimming equates to a cost of $13 million each. That’s unacceptable by anyone’s measure. Cycling was even worse with 0 gold.

For the record, we are proud of our champions. We’re proud of Esposito, Brennan, Skinner and Chalmers – all of whom did step up. That doesn’t mean we can excuse the failures. The team is funded with the aspiration of a top 5 place, which is about 15 gold and 45 medals. We don’t send them for participation medals and to be gracious losers. With the taxpayer as their sugar daddy, there must be a level of accountability. Otherwise, withdraw the funding, and let’s return to the days of little Aussie battlers scratching out a handful of gold.

TELEVISION

My only complaint with Channel 7’s coverage was switching sports all over the 3 channels. It made it impossible to record anything – annoying when this was the first Games I didn’t take holidays to watch. Some structure would be nice. While the app had everything live (if you wanted to pay $20 for it), who can watch things at 4am every night. Also, you couldn’t record or watch on delay, or stream it to your TV. Oh, and Bruce McAvaney, Chile recently won the Copa America, not the Copacabana! He messed that up during the opening ceremony. He also fluffed the description of Usain Bolt’s 200m win calling it the double triple. No, it was the triple double.

I was also peeved that some nights two of the channels were consumed with tennis and golf. These became more an intrusion to the Games than an inclusion. Yes, I’d rather see sailing, shooting and judo during the Games period than sports I can see any day of the week outside the Olympics. In fact, any sport where the Olympic Games is not their most prestigious competition, it should be out. As mentioned earlier, football is one of them. For sheer stupidity, out should go synchronized swimming, and possibly rhythmic gymnastics. These are purely artist events, not sport. Besides, both are sexist, because there’s no events for men.

RIO

Despite all the troubles with organisation, the lack of local interest, dirty water, muggings and stray bullets, the Rio Olympics ultimately proved a success. That’s because of the one great constant of the Olympics itself – the fabulous sporting competition. As a host city, it won’t be remembered well, and that will have ramifications for the choice of future host cities, which will need to be large, safe and with most infrastructure in place. Tokyo 2020 will be peerless in that sense.

SUMMARY

At 8 gold medals, Australia ended up with the bare minimum as marked in the preview. Even then there was some luck to reach that. Catherine Skinner in the shooting, Tom Burton in sailing, Chloe Esposito in Modern Pentathlon, and thankfully Kyle Chambers meant Cameron McEvoy’s flop was irrelevant (other than costing a minor medal). It was good timing to add Rugby Sevens to the Olympic program too. Of course, you will always end up with surprise gold medals, and that is the beauty of the Olympics. It’s the reason I rate Barcelona 1992 so highly because Australia had struggled for so long and suddenly we had 3 golds within a few days with Kathy Watt in cycling and two in equestrian, and eventually finishing with 7. Overall medals this time was 29, which is lower than 35 of the London debacle, and the lowest since the 27 in Barcelona.

Still a problem is our poor conversion of medals to gold medals. The best performed countries always have more gold than silver and bronze. Australia went 8, 11 and 10 compared to, say, Hungary at 8, 3 and 4, or Britain’s 27, 23, and 17. It’s more evidence of our choke culture, which we can see all the way back to Sydney. They were our Silver Games, not Golden Games, when the 16 gold medals had 25 silver medals as companions. Only Athens has shown some balance since. The “Winning Edge” program needs to include that so that even a poor Games by total medals will still look good when by gold medals. Actually, this Games would have proved exactly as so if not for the massive choke.

In comparison to similar sized and wealthy nations, Netherlands and Hungary also won 8 gold, with the Dutch unlucky to finish on a sour note when Dafne Schippers had to settle for silver in the 200m on the track and the women’s hockey lost in a penalty shootout to Britain when attempting to win their third gold in a row. Britain, in fact, were phenomenal and clearly the best performed nation in my estimation. Lower down Croatia was superb with 5, and that’s despite losing to arch rivals Serbia in water polo. Brazil will be rapt with their 7, picking up gold in men’s volleyball and beach volleyball to add to football in team sports. Other gold medals were judo, sailing, pole vaulting and boxing. Commonwealth cousins New Zealand and Canada won 4 gold each.

Realistically, the AOC’s aim to finish top 5 I feel diminishes the value of each gold medal. In fact, we don’t even care about silver and bronze anymore, unless it’s a spectacular result, like almost the men’s basketball. Countries like Britain (if their funding ever dries up), France (10 gold), Italy (8), Japan (12) and Korea (8) are roughly our direct competition on the table, and we should aim to settle at 30 medals per Games, with an average of 10 gold medals and a top 10 spot. The exception are years when we know we’re in for a strong Games, because those ones (Rio) should make up for the bad ones (London). Now with this double disappointment, is it look out Tokyo 2020?

Medal table from Rio 2016 Olympics

Rio 2016 Preview & Predictions