Friday, October 21, 2011

Tragedy comes in many guises.

It transcends all aspects of life, spares no one, as it turns lives that once prospered into nothing more than a memory. That tragedy cares not for anyone as those affected grieve for loved ones lost, yet it simply carries on with no thought of the devastation that emanates from its stealthy pores.

Sometimes it is beyond our control as Mother Nature tears our hearts asunder with her cruelty. At other times it is the result of human error. Either way, tragedy - or fate, as it were – rides roughshod over the very heart of our being.

Over the last eighteen months alone, in New Zealand, we have had our share. First there was the Pike River mine disaster with its twenty-nine fatalities that sent the small West Coast town of Greymouth into a state of mourning. Then, if that wasn’t enough, along came Mother Nature to wreak havoc on the unlucky folk of Christchurch, in the form of several earthquakes of a magnitude 4.9 or more.

Death’s door opened itself to the innocent, and unfortunately two hundred of them had but no choice to walk through.

And it is never one to discriminate - young, old, male, female, rural, and urban - it doesn’t care. It will strike down one and all, given even the slightest hint of an opportunity. Just ask the people of Greymouth and Christchurch. They never went looking for trouble. But trouble certainly came their way with a vengeance.

Sure, there have been bigger tragedies in terms of loss of life. It wasn’t, for example, on the scale of the holocaust, but as always one death is one too many. These were real tragedies. Ones that not only affected those that lost their lives, but family and friends too.

Often, in this modern day and age, the word tragedy is thrown around with reckless abandon. Sport has endless cases of “tragedies” happening. No sooner has a player dropped the ball as he was about to score the winning play, or a team lost, than there is a host of apologists lining up to justify the loss or error as a tragedy.

Well, no, a sporting loss is not a tragedy. Yes, it may hurt the participants for awhile. And yes, it may sting their supporters for a time. But they can move on, for there is a life awaiting them to move forth with.

If only that were the case of those that have lost their lives. They had dreams and hopes too. What did they do to deserve their ultimate fate?

Think of the Boston Red Sox. Now there’s a club that went eighty-six years without winning a world series. They won in 1918, then not again until 2004. No doubt there were a few losses during that long wait passed off as a tragedy. Of all the players that turned out for the Red Sox during that eighty-six year drought, one imagines that the majority went on to live long and happy lives.

Then there is the striking example of the All Blacks. Having not won a World Cup for twenty-four long years, each loss procures an outpouring of grief that would be expected to be more at home at a funeral. And it was big news as Dan Carter tore a groin muscle during the pool stages of this current World Cup. His dream was over- for now. A disappointment for him, it more than likely will be, but a tragedy... no. After all, he will in all likelihood get another opportunity in 2015.

One who won’t be around in four years time to live his dream is Dan Wheldon. On a fateful day around a Las Vegas Oval last Sunday, he died in a fiery crash as he clipped another competitor, rolling his car. In an instant, it was all over. At age thirty-three, he was dead. Now that’s a sporting tragedy.

Just like that, a life was taken. No ifs, no buts, no time to say goodbye to loved ones. A husband, a father, a hero, was gone, lost in one split second of mayhem that began a chain reaction of personal grief for a wife and two little boys, not to mention extended family and friends. Those boys, one twenty-two months, the other twelve months old, will now grow up without a father.

A father that won’t be there to play ball with them at the local park. A father that won’t be there to build them a tree house. A father that won’t be there to collect them from school.

And a father that won’t be there to pick them up and to encourage them to keep going when things get tough as they traverse their way through the rocky road that is childhood into adulthood.

Though Dan Carter will be back for more. Rugby tests, world travel, proberly that World Cup dream.

Meanwhile one wife and two little boys wait. They wait for a husband and a father to come home. But it’s a wait that will last an eternity.

They’re crying for a husband and father lost. Others will be weeping outwardly – some inwardly – for a hero lost.

A small Nation of four million waits with great expectation of a potentially famous World Cup victory. Meanwhile one wife and two little boys will wait forever for a husband and a daddy to come home.

Tragedies can occur in any arena of life. And sport is just one of those spheres. Motorsport was lucky to have Wheldon, albeit for a limited time. Here was a talented driver who gave others something to aspire too. He showed what could be done with hard work and talent. Most importantly, he has left achievements on record that, one day, when those two little boys grow up, will allow them in some small way to get to know their father and who he was.

At least there will be a small part of him that they will be able to hold onto forever.

Yes, there is a family that would much rather have him there at their side.

But that won’t happen as tragedy knows no bounds. For life may not necessarily be sport, but sport, for sure, is certainly part of life.

And in life, tragedies do occur. Just ask a wife and two little boys.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Roll up, roll up, come judge a Coach. Yes, that’s right Ladies and Gentlemen, girls and boys, here is your chance to let your inner Neanderthal loose.

Dare to frequent that judgemental and intolerant side as it prospers mightily. It’s okay, you can do it. Go on, give it a go. You’re allowed to; after all, he is a professional coach earning several hundred thousand dollars per annum. What with it being the end of the NRL season, and, of course, the end of Ivan Cleary’s rein as head coach of the New Zealand Warriors.

Now is the hour to pontificate over the legacy that Cleary leaves behind as he heads off in search of new horizons with the Penrith Panthers.

He may be gone, but will he be remembered as a success or as Ivan the terrible?

Maybe it will turn out to be somewhere in between. But, let us investigate.

For Cleary is the club’s longest serving coach in its seventeen season history, with six seasons under his belt. Some would say that in itself is grounds for a commendation.

Coaches have come and coaches have gone, at the Warriors, in an ever evolving turnstile that at times ratcheted up its speed to the stage that it made the speed of light in a vacuum look tediously slow. So much then for Einstein’s special theory of relativity.

There was John Monie, Frank Endecott, Mark Graham and Daniel Anderson before him. Not one of them lasted more than three seasons in charge, and more often than not, it had turned to custard well before then. Though, to be fair to Anderson, he did get two good seasons and a grand final out of his charges before the player revolt set in.

With Cleary steering the good ship Warrior, there was to be no revolt. Not even a whisper of one. Yes, there was the occasional unhappy chappy whose ego didn’t relish the thought of having been told that his services were no longer required. But, then, how often do you hear of discarded player sending the coach a Christmas card? More likely a poison pen letter.

So Cleary had a group that played for him. Not only that, but when it was announced that he was departing at the end of the season, those players continued to put in. Really, it speaks volumes for the man.

In his six seasons with the club, Cleary got his charges into finals football on four occasions. Take out 2009 which was an unmitigated disaster, in part due to the tragic death of rising star, Sonny Fai, and 2006 which started on a sour note with the club deducted competition points for a not insignificant breach of the salary cap. Of the two, the latter would have ended in a finals appearance had the previous management not been so deviously minded.

So, in reality, you can say Cleary acheived five good seasons in a coaching sense. Of 2009, though the death of Fai contributed, there were mistakes made. The squad that year had visibly bulked up. Aerobic fitness had been sacrificed for strength as Cleary and the club’s trainers searched for an advantage over other clubs. Needless to say, it didn’t pay dividends. To Cleary’s credit, he admitted the approach had been flawed and hadn’t worked.

It takes a big man to admit one has made a mistake, and an even bigger one to publically take the heat for it. But, he did.

Despite the numerous finals appearances, there have been those that could never quite comprehend how there would often be such wild fluctuations in form under Cleary’s watch. This season alone, normality has not been a regular attendee in the first grade side’s form line. More often than not, they have thought nothing of losing four in a row, then to turn around and win four straight, only to revert to a losing streak once again.

So, consistency within a season wasn’t always Cleary’s strong point, despite usually finding a way to get his side into the top eight. Perhaps this can be put down to the fact that he is still in the relative infancy of his coaching career.

During all of this, the Warriors had already begun to change from being a club that relied on recruiting the talent they required, to being a development club. Sure, they still go to market on occasions, when the need arises.

But that need has subsided over the last couple of years as their development programme starts to reap rewards. There has been Ben Mautalino, Russell Packer and Elijah Taylor in the forwards. And, of course, how could anyone forget the incomparable talent of the phenomenal Shaun Johnson.

Cleary has done a fabulous job of nurturing the rising superstar as the coaching staff worked on the young man’s defence. For sure, it must have been frustrating for Johnson, wanting to get onto the park and prove himself to the world, but been held back and, instead, being sensibly eased into the fray when he was genuinely ready.

In time, he’ll thank Cleary for this patient approach.

All four have come out of their now highly successful Toyota Cup team.

This is a side that has dominated their competition for two years now.

Stacked full of mesmerising talent, the Warriors now have a production line of young stars of the future just waiting for their chance in first grade.

And that will be Cleary’s legacy. Not so much that he has coached the club’s top side to yesterday’s grand final, but the talent that he has been responsible for developing, that could see the Warriors dominate over the next ten years.

Monday, October 3, 2011

What about the Warriors of 2011 eh? Nine years after hitting the big cahuna of Rugby League occasions for the first time, they finally arrived at the Promised Land again. It has been a long wait between drinks, but all that blood, sweat and tears, and here they were in a grand final.

Not that one would have thought it possible back in 2006. What with a rookie coach in Ivan Cleary, and a serious breach of the salary cap by the then management of the club, the Warriors were on their knees and doing a splendid impersonation of a basket case.

Slowly but surely, though, Cleary and his hard working band of helpers turned a dire situation around. For sure, it took a while. There were hiccups along the way. The entire 2009 season would be a fine example of how not to do things. But persevere, they did. Until finally, last Saturday evening, the mighty Warriors booked their entrance into the Grand final with a patient and calculating win over Melbourne. They turned up with their game faces on, and did a Melbourne on Melbourne.

And not only did the first grade side deliver the goods, but the club’s Toyota Cup side(under20’s) reached Grand Final day for the second year running with a savage beating of the Bulldogs. But wait, there’s more. If that wasn’t enough, just to add the Coup de Grace, the Warriors feeder side, the Auckland Vulcans, qualified for the final of the New South Wales Cup. That’s three finals today and the Auckland club represented in each and every one of them. It is a truly magnificent effort on their part.

This just goes to show what can be achieved with good management and some top class coaching. And, by all accounts, it has been done with the club operating well within the salary cap limits, too.

In the end the Auckland Club only won one of the three finals.

It’s onwards and upwards for this lot. Though apparently you have to lose one to win one. That’s what they reckon, you know.

The Warriors will desperately be hoping so, that is for sure.

They couldn’t snare the big one this time. For it was a mountain too high for them.

Up against a class outfit in Manly, who had grand final’s experience galore within their side, the Aucklander’s never looked likely for much of the encounter.

They are a young side though, patience is a virtue, and their time will no doubt come sooner rather than later. This is the team of future. The stratosphere eagerly awaits them.

One could have been forgiven for thinking they had played their Grand Final a week earlier in their terrific win over Melbourne. It looked it for the first sixty-five minutes. ANZ Stadium was looking suspiciously like becoming the Warriors one over easy paddock of discontent.

They had tried to take on Manly up the middle of the ruck during the opening hostilities. To a certain extent they succeeded. Defence was of a brutal nature from both sides. No quarter was given, no quarter was asked for. The Warriors players in particular, were regularly seen to have three men in the tackle, and forcing the ball carrier back several metres.

Torrid could best describe proceedings. Any form of fancy attacking fare was put on the backburner as it was becoming all to obvious that notions of any offensive fortitude, for the time being, had nowhere to go while both sides battled not only each other for any small territorial advantage they could gain, but also their own nerves.

Despite the occasional error being committed as that nervousness was allowed to craftily creep into the players lives, the standard of football on display was of the highest order. Though, who could blame them if it had not been? After all, this was the biggest stage of all.

Both teams were sticking to the basics. Second thoughts were not given to the health of the ball carrier.

It was all about defence. The Warriors outside backs were coming in from their wings to close down any potential attacking raid on Manly’s part.

Manly were alert to this. They could be seen many a time attempting to navigate their way around the edges of the Warriors defence. It was a risky ploy on the Warriors part, but in the main it worked for them as their defensive line held firm.

Even though the Warriors were the first to score with a penalty goal, it was Manly who eventually got on top. From the twenty-five minute mark onwards, there were little signs that they were slowly but surely heading to the north of ascendancy.

Their go forward was increasingly bending the spine of the Warriors defensive line.
More often than not Manly would start their sets of six on their own forty metre line, not deep inside their red zone as the Warriors would have wished. And tellingly, their foe was starting to miss tackles at an alarming rate. Perhaps all the effort required to stay with Manly in the opening quarter was starting to show in the New Zealanders performance.

And it was in that last ten minutes of the first half that the match slipped from the grasp of the Warriors. It was here that they conceded two tries, one right on the stroke of half-time to Daly Cherry-Evans. If the initial try to Brett Stewart had set the men in white back, this miracle length of the field effort put a dagger into the hearts of the Warriors players.

6-2 down at the break would not have been an insurmountable problem. 12-2, though, and that mountain has just had a unhelpful dollop of snow masquerading as ever increasing amounts of mental pressure to slow down the chances of a comeback. That revival seemingly immersed itself in a gloomy retreat into oblivion. Especially after another converted try to the Sea Eagles.

Or so it looked.

For just when one thought it safe to predict a result, the Warriors found another gear. All of a sudden they were soaring high as the home straight appeared. A try to Manu Vatuvei, then another to Elijah Taylor and it was game on again. Manly could barely hold on. The fulltime whistle could not come soon enough for them. Warrior forwards were steamrolling their way over the top of the once invincible Manly side. Then the offloads started to occur. Shaun Johnson and his remarkable footwork started to come into its own.

The dream was awakening. Could they do it? Could they, for the third week in a row, do what no one had given them a hope of achieving?

Alas, it was not to be.

It was to be one hurdle to many. But there is a feeling that the Rugby League Community is going to be hearing a lot more of this bunch as they challenge the upper echolons of footballing excellence.