Sharks snap up their chance

Cronulla Sharks.jpg

Time grinds when your favourite sports team is imploding. This can happen in any manner of ways, be it consecutive losses, player injuries and just as depressing for the fan, off field indiscretions. The latter can be the worst, in fact, because when a highly paid athlete runs amok, is arrested by the cops, or photographed in a compromising situation, there’s little to reconcile a fan’s emotions. At least an injury is out of our hands, indeed out of everybody’s hands.

But time can speed up again, and rather quickly, when negatives drop away from memory and your team starts finding – tripping almost – into success. Only two years ago, players from the Cronulla Sharks rugby league club in southern Sydney faced doping allegations, sponsors were pulling out of their commitments and it felt as though the Sharkies, as they’re called locally, might be left at sea – for good. But investigations were made, punishments were issued, and sins were forgiven. Now, as if it never happened, the Sharks are perhaps the NRL’s best club. They’re fast, tough on defence, clever with their passing and can run up the score in a moment. In an outing against the routinely tough Canterbury Bulldogs, and staring down the barrel of another close loss, the Sharks kept coming up field, pressing, never relenting and sniffing for points. Eventually they spun the ball wide where their men overlapped the Dogs, and their striding winger went into the corner. The celebration was grand, and seemed to stand for so much more than just four points. It set the team up for the win, with a conversion kick, but also propelled them to the front of the pack, an impossibility just 24 months ago.

Now, at season’s end, they’re grand finalists. And so in their example, there’s so much to be said for persistence, sometimes, even more so than sheer talent. Not that Cronulla is short on that either. It’s been quite a year, one of the best in the club’s 50 years.

Wild Things of Baseball

pirates-fans

Baseball’s Wild Card race is a wonderful jolt after a long season. It teems with uncertainty and the sort of hope that’s often reserved for spring. I’d argue it’s one of the best aspects of the professional game, in fact, up there with an Altuve flip-to-second and the ongoing antics of the Philly Phanatic. I mean, if you’re a fan of teams like the Blue Jays, or Tigers, Cardinals or Pirates right now, then following the sport is momentarily more exciting than if you’re a Cubs or Red Sox fan. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true, especially as Chicagoans have waited so long for the Cubs to be relevant again, and Bostonians devour everything about their Sox like it’s a lobster roll. Certainly the prospect of those teams meeting up in October is equally enticing. But you know what I mean. Backing a winner into September is one thing: Racing for one of two Wild Cards, when the competition is as tight, as it has been of late, makes you wonder why the whole season can’t be configured this way – with a sense of urgency! Every game counts. Heck, every swing matters. This hot pursuit in a contracted period of time – at least by baseball standards – makes the sport endlessly compelling, when quite often, the tail end of the American summer lumbers along until the playoffs begin.

The days ahead come loaded with emotion, and Magic Numbers, only because of what preceded them. The same way we savour the end of summer, some of us can revel in the idea that our team’s 1,500 or so innings might actually count for something more.

By JP Pelosi

Does Man United have a plan?

Such is the pressure in the Premier League cooker for Manchester United, that any miscue ruins the mix. And so fans of the club have been serving up an earful of late because something is indeed spoiling the batch, an oddly constructed group of highly priced and inexperienced talent. Finally, it seems, United’s once impeccable reviews have soured. Some say it’s the fault of the very special head man, Jose Mourinho, criticised of being unable to make the most of his costly squad. He’s also not endearing himself to his players by hanging them out to dry. But with more sweating than usual a few of them need it. Complaints aside, this is just a game, so where’s the sense of fun? Where’s the energy?

Like so many big name clubs, be it the Cowboys in the NFL or the Yankees in baseball, inheriting any United team is fraught with risk. No matter how many stars adorn the roster or how polished the accolades they boast, expectations are grand. For all their pedigree, United players are typically filled with ambition and ego as well, and as such, the task of fitting those players together is perhaps more challenging than the average pundit might imagine. When failure is so rare, success is expected both inside the clubhouse and at its doorstep. There’s little space to breathe, anywhere. Let’s keep in mind that on previous Red Devils squads, several players came through the system together, as it was for the famed fledgling unit of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and Butt. This helped. In more recent times, however, with truckloads more money stashed in EPL cupboards, the groupings tend to be more of a mishmash, matched by lavish salaries perhaps more than complimentary skills. There’s also the task of balancing outgoing legends like Wayne Rooney with new prospects, never a casual undertaking. It’s certainly part of the manager’s job that’s exposed to the public lynch mob, too.

Manchester divided 

All this might be harsh, but consider the handling of recent marquee signing Paul Pogba, who, after an initial flurry of good play, seems lost in this new and less intimidating iteration of United, and faces plenty of questions about his ongoing contributions – and temperament – as a result. Some commentators say the Frenchman should be asked to defend less and push forward, while others want him to help the attack find more width, the way United teams used to. He’s quite possibly stuck somewhere in between. Perhaps most lacking though, is the team’s identity. What is it? Several writers have wondered lately and rightly, what the devil is the plan? I must admit, I’ve been stunned by United’s lack of cohesion and mission, especially in the middle of the pitch where possession is crucial. Too often, midfielders are drifting aimlessly, giving the ball away, barely thinking about how to string passes together and tire the defence. It’s a confused recipe to be sure, and Mourinho, whose hair must be greying to white by the day, needs to adjust quickly. Perhaps revisit some of the classics for inspiration, Jose.

The best United teams typically bamboozle opponents by making the straightforward look sublime: knocking the leather back and forth, before sending it wide to a surging winger, asking defenders to chase – not the other way around, as it has been.

By JP Pelosi

Steph Curry, Larry and the long ball

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Clippers
Copyright 1989 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

For me, basketball won’t ever be more thrilling than Larry Bird winning a game with an impossibly long three, over two defenders and with just seconds left. Bird’s threes were like brilliant comets, blazing through darkened arenas, before finally dropping beneath the hoop. They felt so new, probably because the three-point line was new, too (only introduced to the NBA in 1979). This has much to do with any nostalgia you or I might have for the Legend’s shooting prowess, but also any indifference – if that’s at all possible – one might have for the likes of modern three-point bombardiers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But the adoration for their ball club, the Warriors, is overwhelming, and largely due to Curry, who hits glorious long shots, like those flaming bombs conceived by the creators of the NBA Jam video game. As a talking point, well, few sporting moments – not even the once loved dunk – can compare. Somehow, ‘the three’, as orchestrated by Curry and Thompson, has superseded every other element of the sport. It practically is the sport, rendering most two pointers meaningless, especially amid the even exchange of goals usually tallied in a basketball game. So how do you beat it? How do you tame the Warriors? Surely, only with defence that’s so persistent and invasive, that the shooter relents. To this point, we haven’t seen it. And this might be why nobody ever talks about it.

By JP Pelosi

 

Dellavedova: gritty or just crafty?

Like DeNiro’s banana slip into comedy, the point guard position was redefined decades ago, well before Russell Westbrook agitated himself with Tiger Balm down his shorts, at least. And so shooting remains the first option of today’s antsy point, with passing about as familiar as Bob’s Tax Driver to today’s TV bingers. So it’s always refreshing to see it played as first intended – thoughtfully. Cleveland Cavaliers’ point Matthew Dellavedova, for example, didn’t score much in his team’s recent playoff series against Atlanta, but still found open shooters in very limited minutes. In Games 1 and 2, for instance, he had four and six assists respectively, in just 13 minutes each game. That’s hard to do, especially in the heat of the playoffs and in the face of fans wearing the exact same t-shirt. The media often describes “Delly” as gritty, which is the default term for any Aussie really, unfairly overshadowing traits like craftiness and guile. Most players get just one adjective, you see, unless they’re LeBron James or Steph Curry.