The main talking point this week in AFL circles has been air-quality; and no, Melbourne has not suddenly developed a pollution problem. The air quality in question has been in Shanghai where, in an attempt to increase the global reach of the one country code, Port Adelaide took on the Gold Coast Suns for “competition points” on Sunday.
The “competition points” aspect is highlighted as in a series of unfortunate quotes during the week team representatives claimed that the AFL was the first “western sport” to play a competitive match in China.
Unfortunate, as the Asian giant already has well-established basketball and baseball leagues, and you can’t get much more ‘Western’ than that. Perhaps they meant to say “Australian sport”. Even that is way off the mark as Australian football teams have been playing extremely competitive matches in China as part of the Asian Champions League for years.
Australia is an isolated country but their fear of Chinese conditions over the last fortnight have reached new levels of ignorance. Playing in Shanghai was deemed a serious health risk to the finely tuned AFL athletes and there was even a supposed threat of a sand storm – maybe they got Shangh-ai mixed up with Dub-ai.
To further ramp up the ‘discomfort’ levels the (large) Port squad even had to fly “cattle class“ to the match. The desire to win a new fan base in China and spread the gospel of AFL to new frontiers is of course laudable and for that the Port president, TV host David “Kochy” Koch, deserves credit.
He is also following the lead of much bigger codes, such as the NFL and NBA in the US, who have set out on a path of global domination. The NFL have played matches at Wembley, for example, and the NBA have been playing in China since 2004, Shanghai to be exact.
Koch and the AFL are also keenly aware of the vast sums of money available for professional sport in China – witness the huge salaries being offered to join the Chinese Super League and Alibaba’s staggering $100m investment in rugby union in the country.
Power already have a sponsorship deal with Shanghai billionaire Guo Jie Gui. So why not grab a bigger slice of that very enticing pie? The AFL also knows that to expand further they have to do it outside Australia’s borders.
The sport saturates the domestic market to such an extent already that it cannot realistically grow more. The AFL is already comfortably the biggest football code in the country, although looking nervously over their shoulders at soccer, which continues to make strides.
League has hit its ceiling and remains popular in only two states, NSW and Queensland, and union has hit a major speedbump due to the poor performance of their Super Rugby teams. Port Adelaide are also simply honouring that great Australian tradition of having a go.
The AFL and Koch are (of course) claiming the match, played in a heavily modified athletics stadium built in 1934, as a major triumph and on the surface it certainly was. All 10,964 seats were ‘sold’, though not filled, and the pavilions for Australian tourism groups and entrepreneurs selling Aussie drinks and food were popular.
Pity perhaps that over half of those visiting the pop-up pavilions are already well acquainted with Australian attractions and produce as they travelled from Adelaide to see the match. Perhaps they should have mentioned the boost for Chinese tourism! Adelaide also claimed the four competition points on offer for their “home match”, so in Kochy’s own words it was a “win-win-win”.
“Set aside everything else for a second – something like this brings all these people together,” Koch said, gesturing around the crowd. “That’s what I love – there’s my granddaughter, playing Auskick against some Chinese kid.”
In terms of brand recognition Port have a fair way to go though as many Chinese fans at the ground still thought the game they were watching was “British rugby”.
But it’s one small step – and now that they are no longer terrified about air-quality and sand-storms – Port’s China-push can proceed in a more rational and ultimately more successful fashion.
It was a weekend of upsets in the NRL with the lowly Newcastle Knights defeating highly rated Canberra 34-20 and the Gold Coast Titans recording one of the greatest triumphs in the club’s history, coming from eight points down in the final 10 minutes to defeat ladderleading Melbourne 38-36.
To make the Titans’ triumph even more impressive they lost three key players to injury during the match – Jarryd Hayne (leg), Ryan Simpkins (knee) and Dan Sarginson (arm) – but a try to Tyrone Roberts and a “hail mary” courtesy of a Kane Elgey cross-field kick and Anthony Don tap-down which allowed Konrad Hurrell (below) to barge through to put the Titans ahead with a minute left.
A scintillating last minute try from captain Samu Kerevi (below) kept the Queensland Reds season alive as they recorded a ‘hoodoo-busting’ 29-24 win over the Rebels in Melbourne. It was the Reds first win on the road for two years and their first in 11 matches against Australian opponents.
So poor is the Australian Conference this season that although Queensland have just three wins from 11 outings they are sitting just three competition points behind leaders the Brumbies (3-7) and are back in the finals mix.
Normal service has been resumed with both the Swans and the Hawks on the rise. Both had been at the foot of
the table after Hawthorn lost their first four games and Sydney their first six. But the Swans have now recorded back to back victories while the Hawks have won three out of their last four.
Incredibly Hawthorn now sit just two wins out of the eight while Sydney are another win away. The Bulldogs won the Premiership last year although they finished seventh after the regular season.
French Rugby president Bernard Laporte has warned that world rugby is on the brink of financial ruin unless urgent steps are taken.
Laporte’s comments follow recent announcements of losses by the Australian, South African, New Zealand, Scottish and Italian Rugby Unions alongside plans to cut three Super Rugby franchises due to SANZAAR “hemorrhaging cash”.
The FFR president was in Dubai yesterday to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the UAE Rugby Federation, including plans for the French national team to play the world champion All Blacks in the UAE in November 2018.
“I arrive in five months (as president of FFR) and I see Australia – financial problems, Italian – financial problem, Scotland – financial problem. I think it is not fantastic” said Laporte.
“It is really important that we are looking carefully at this situation today. Not only to speak nice way about very strong powers. Rugby is a strong sport in the world. It is right that the Rugby World Cup is the third (biggest) sporting event in the world.
“But if you are looking carefully at the financial position of some unions, we have to be vigilant how to try and change this economic model to try to develop the financial income.
“A lot of international unions are losing money every year, if you look at general assembly of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia – not two weeks ago they lost two million, three million, six million.
“Everyone knows that if today you don’t have strong financial (position) you can’t support development of one sport. So we need to watch this.”
Laporte denied that his remarks were a criticism of World Rugby, the sport’s global governing body.
The organisation is in rude financial health with their most recently-published financial results showing pre-tax profits of $241.4m following record revenues of $445.3m aided by 2015 being a World Cup year.
“It is not the fault of World Rugby,” the 52-year-old former France and Toulon coach bristled. “It is the context of the economy. World Rugby is supporting a lot, spending a lot of money. It is the economic situation.
“If you look at the economy of rugby in the world you have two big countries – England and France.
“So the big chance of French Rugby Union is to organize rugby in the big economic country with strong financial reserve.
“We are sure England are following very closely with us cause England are a very strong country at this moment. We seek to work together to follow the same objective.”
The road to recovery for athletes is often long and arduous, although Winston Cowie is living proof of exactly why they put themselves through such pain and sacrifice.
Six years after dislocating his knee in the West Asia rugby union play-off final against Dubai Hurricanes, the 34-year-old Abu Dhabi Saracens player coach has been named in UAE coach Apollo Perelini’s squad to play in the Asia Rugby Championship later this month.
Perelini has picked a 28-man squad for a three-match tour to Malaysia, with Jebel Ali Dragons dominating the selection with eight players picked. There are six from Dubai Hurricanes, five each from Abu Dhabi rivals Harlequins and Saracens, two from Dubai Exiles and two UAE Shaheen players.
New Zealander Cowie had two operations following his injury in one of Gulf rugby’s showpiece games, his pain perhaps felt even more keenly when his Doha side went down to a last-minute Steve Smith try that saw Canes win 20-15.
He couldn’t even run properly for another two years – yet here he is, set to fly out to Ipoh for Division I games against the hosts, Sri Lanka and the Philippines as the UAE fight to get back to Asia rugby’s top table.
“It’s been a long road back to playing since dislocating my knee,” admitted Cowie, who took the reins at Al Ghazal last summer.
“Two operations, two years of not being able to run properly, but through a lot of hard work, a very understanding wife – Lucy Jones – and being involved with a great bunch at Saracens this year I have managed to get there.
“I’m incredibly grateful to AP (Perelini) for the opportunity and look forward to a massive campaign in Malaysia. It’s a really tight-knit bunch of guys and we look forward to working hard and doing the UAE rugby community proud.”
Cowie had no intentions of playing this year having taken on the Sarries’ coaching role. But when injuries and visa issues traveling to Doha left Sarries with a bare 15, including physio Tim Fletcher, Cowie stepped up, and in fact ended up playing 12 games.
“I was just going to change but then that changed in funny circumstances. I’m really pleased I did and I’m grateful for selection,” he added.
“Come the start of the year, I thought I would head along to the UAE training, go hard and have a crack. The training has been awesome and highly competitive, it’s been awesome to be a part of it.
“It’s been great to meet a top bunch of gents from the other clubs. So now we’re just really looking forward to getting on the plane and getting stuck in.”
Cowie, manager of marine policy for the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD), was out in the middle of the ocean when he got the call he would be going to Malaysia on Tuesday.
“I was out doing our coral monitoring in the western region of Abu Dhabi, flat calm, pods of dolphins, breaching turtles, and then this news at the end of it,” said Cowie.
“I was in and out of reception a few times so after each dive I’d be trying to check my phone, and then I got the news just as we came into port in Mirfa. There were a few high fives.”
Despite a difficult season on the field for the club, Cowie is joined by four more Sarries players on tour, including No8 Jaen Botes, props Murray Reason and Ross Byres and scrum-half Rickus Swart.
He added: “I’m so rapt for the five Sarries that made it. Jaen, Murray and Rikus are well established for the UAE, and I’m rapt for them but particularly for our loose-head prop Ross who has been excellent all season and deserves his call up. It’s going to be great.”
Ben Bolger (capt), Chris Jones-Griffiths, Ed Talbot, Ed Lewsey, Luke Stevenson (all Abu Dhabi Harlequins); Josh Ives, Dave Knight, Dan Perry (vice capt), Andrew Powell, Toby Oakeley, Lindsay Fitzgerald (Dubai Hurricanes); Dan Minks, Paul Hart, Ben Blamire, Dan Bell, Chris Masson, Kris Greene, Ryno Fourie, Scott Hayes (Jebel Ali Dragons); Jaen Botes, Murray Reason, Ross Byres, Rikus Swart, Winston Cowie (Abu Dhabi Saracens); Glenn Moore, Sean Carey (Dubai Exiles); Majid Al Balooshi, Ahmed Al Shehi (UAE Shaheen)