Smith’s winning attitude

WHEN Greg Smith first turned to wheelchair rugby after an outstanding wheelchair racing career, he could tell that he had a big task in front of him. The difficulty had nothing to do with whether he believed that he could make the Australian team; with the little experience that he had in the sport, he believed that he could and that was the problem.
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The national wheelchair rugby team of the mid-2000s was in trouble, according to Smith and Australia’s chef de mission for the London Paralympics team, Jason Hellwig.

Hellwig earlier this week told how there had been a bad attitude among some of the players and the Australian Paralympic Committee had demanded the team to right itself or the sport’s funding could be in danger.

Smith said he could see the flaws in the team. ”My competitive nature kicked in and I saw the team that was going to Athens and I thought, ‘I reckon I could get on the team with some of the boys who are going,’ so I trained hard and set that as a goal and four years later I was there in Beijing,” Smith said.

Hellwig credits the 45-year-old Smith, who has quadriplegia following a car accident when he was 19, for changing the attitudes within team, which has allowed it to transform into a world power.

Hellwig was so impressed by Smith that when it came time to appoint the flag bearer to lead the Australian team in the opening ceremony in London, he knew there was a top candidate. ”He transitioned his skills from one sport into another, but the leadership that he’s conveyed with that had just simply been remarkable and unique and stands him out from an outstanding group of people,” Hellwig said. Smith, who had been a physical trainer in the Australian army before the accident, competed at three Paralympic Games in wheelchair racing and cemented his standing as the world’s best in Sydney in 2000 by winning the 800, 1500 and 5000 metres with two world records.

He retired in 2001. But it was not long before he was invited to a social game of wheelchair rugby and, while sold on the game, was frustrated at questionable attitudes to training by some players.

”Sydney was the first Games where it was recognised as a Paralympic event,” Smith said. ”It probably didn’t have a professional attitude about it and particularly in Australia because it was so young. The athletes who were playing the game probably didn’t quite realise what it was to compete at the top level and the things you had to do … there was probably a little bit of disbelief at the things I was doing and professionals do to try and be the best. The guys started to take that on board [and realise] that if they wanted to compete at the top and try and take my position away from me that’s what they had to do and I think I helped breed a culture within the team that where we are is because of that.”

Superstar Ryley Batt has admitted that despite being part of the silver medal-winning team in Beijing, he had been disappointed with his fitness. ”Back in the day when they finished a game, guys would probably head off and have a cigarette or a pie or something like that,” Smith said. ”Those things don’t happen any more.”

Australia is one of the gold favourites in London after its silver performances in Beijing and the 2010 world championships, losing both times to the US.

As for leading the team at the opening ceremony, Smith said he was thrilled by the opportunity.

”I can’t wait to be out there with the flag flapping and 80,000 people cheering and clapping and hopefully the Queen will give me a nod and I’ll give her one back.”

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Pistorius the blade runner puts spotlight on Paralympics

EARLIER this month Oscar Pistorius was in unfamiliar surrounds – albeit for the fulfilment of a dream. The South African double leg amputee won a long battle to run at the Olympic Games and pit himself against the world’s best able-bodied athletes.
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This month he will again compete in that stadium, but it will be for the Paralympic Games where he is a proven champion and role model.

Pistorius, who required a double amputation below the knee before he was one, made history at the London Olympics when he ran in the 400 metres, where he finished last in the semi-finals, and was a member of South Africa’s 4 x 400-metre relay team that ran in the final.

It was an inspiring achievement made more difficult by the battle he had to get there. At one stage he was banned by world athletics body, the IAAF, and debate about whether the carbon fibre blades that he uses for running provided him with an advantage over able-bodied athletes.

At the Paralympic Games, Pistorius is to defend his titles in the 100, 200 and 400 metres. He had been concentrating on the 400 for the Olympics so his Paralympic preparation for the shorter events has been affected, which has him at a disadvantage for the 100 and 200.

But section manager for the Australian team Andrew Faichney said Pistorius’ reputation meant his influence on Paralympic sport was greater than just his results on the track.

”It’s an advertisement or promotion of Paralympic sport and the more we can have those role models who are out in the public eye, the greater it increases the focus and the public awareness of Paralympic sport and certainly Paralympic athletics,” Faichney said.

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Wallabies turn to 1978 for inspiration

THE Wallabies brains trust could not have chosen a better former Test player to present the jerseys to the team in Auckland yesterday than Tony Shaw, who is uniquely qualified to remind them that all is not lost.
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The Wallabies are considered no chance of keeping the Bledisloe Cup series alive tonight by winning at Eden Park – where they last won in 1986.

It is a dire situation, but much like 1978 when the inspirational Shaw was the Wallabies captain, and the team somehow overcame everything to win in Auckland with the highest score tallied against the All Blacks.

After losing the first two Tests, coach Daryl Haberecht had a heart attack and the players had to take control for the third and final Test, with a depleted squad.

”We just took over,” Shaw told the Wallabies at Eden Park yesterday. ”Bob Templeton was here and we could have brought him in to coach us. But we thought: ‘No, f— it, we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix it.’ Everyone in New Zealand thought we had no hope. It’s pretty similar to now. We were copping heaps from the Kiwis, and the press. There was some of the ‘Awful Aussie, Woeful Wallabies’ carry on that was still around from the 1972 Wallabies tour. But after that second Test, we picked the same team and kept it like that for the last five games of the tour.”

Before that Test the players also visited someone who knew New Zealand rugby backwards – former All Blacks coach J.J. Stewart. ”He just said to us: ‘I’ll beat any one of you over 10 metres.’ We were scratching our heads, thinking, ‘Who is this silly old fart?’ He added: ‘When I say go, you have to take a step backwards.’ The analogy was very clear to us. That was what we were doing to our backs. We weren’t winning ball going forward. We were on the back foot and were back pedalling before we started. It was like a light bulb had just gone on in our scones.

”So on the day, we knew we had to take it to them – demolish the lineout, [Wallabies prop] [Chris] ‘Buddha’ Handy was commissioned with the job of belting [All Blacks second rower] Andy Haden, which he reckoned he needed a step ladder to do, but he did it. Greg Cornelsen scores four tries and the rest is history. A 30-16 win.”

Shaw said there were so many comparisons between 1978 and tonight. ”This team has also been written off. They’re two skippers down and there’s lots of injuries. They know what they have to do – they just have to do it on the paddock.”

Quade Cooper is the key, he said. ”This is a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful opportunity for Quade to shine, and get rid of the demons. And he will. I reckon he will be the difference … he’s matured enormously from last year.”

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The unruly making of rules

With a reduction from intentional to reckless, and a good record dropping the charge to below 100 points, this incident should resultin a reprimand rather than a suspension…FINAL WORD
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IN FOOTBALL’S year dot, Jerry Bryant, mine host of the Parade Hotel, arranged a scratch match on Richmond Paddock.

In the Sporting Globe years later, one player recalled that it was many games in a chaotic one. ”Englishmen, of course, played rugby, Scotchmen a nondescript game – the Association game [soccer] not having yet seen the light – while Irishmen for the most part contented themselves with punting the ball as straight as a die heavenwards.

”Each man played a lone hand, or rather foot, according to his lights, some guided by their own particular code of rules, other by no rules at all.

”Disputes, wrangling and utter confusion were the inevitable outcome … but we have to thank the football Babel for some of the best points in the game as now.”

This is a scratch on the surface of a history of Australian rules before the establishment of the VFL in 1897, written by art historian Mark Pennings, published by Connor Court and soon to be released.

It is, to say the least, comprehensive and compendious. It runs to four volumes! The last will contain the names of 6000-7000 players who appeared before football’s supposed nascence.

Few cities in the world can have mushroomed as Melbourne did following the discovery of gold. In little more than a decade from 1851, these sprung up: Parliament and its buildings, the town hall, the GPO, the state library, national gallery, museum, zoo, Melbourne university, Queen Victoria market, The Age, Australia’s first railway and the first Melbourne Cup.

Nearly half of Australia’s population lived in Victoria, and were considered to be the richest people in the world. The colony was feeling its oats.

Cricket was the sport, but variations of football began to manifest in parklands and schools. Counterintuitively, school football was more rugged. Hacking – the kicking of shins – was permitted for schoolboys, but not for men, for whom a broken bone might mean financial ruin.

Some, including historian Geoffrey Serle, have puzzled over why Victoria did not simply adopt Britain’s football games, as it did most other institutions. Pennings explains that soccer and rugby themselves still were evolving then, and had not been codified. One motive of the founders of ”Melbourne rules”, including Tom Wills, was to create a simpler game.

Rugby was the seminal influence. But rugby’s school code listed 33 rules, the new game just 10 (those were the days).

Pennings says one unique aspect of Australian rules is that its laws evolved on the field.

He also makes clear that the new game never saw itself merely as a derivative.

”There was considerable pride in the game, and a desire to spread it throughout the world,” he writes. In some quarters, there still is.

In July, 1858, Wills famously proposed the new code, to keep cricketers fit, but also cricket grounds, which would benefit from being ”trampled upon”.

In September, 27 ”gentlemen” of South Yarra -based at Fawkner Park and probably including some Melbourne Grammar schoolboys – challenged the Melbourne players north of the river – essentially Melbourne Cricket Club – to a match on Richmond paddock.

The South Yarra team brought its own set of rules, but, The Herald reported: ”They were more interested in the breach than the observance.” Melbourne scored the only goal, embellished by Punch as ”one triumphant joyous kick”, whereupon ”every motley-coloured kicker betook him to a special liquor”.

In the same month, Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College played a celebrated three-week match.

Eighty players roamed all over what is now Yarra Park, but one, an enterprising type, scuttled away with the ball inside the MCG fence, whereupon umpire Wills adjudged it out of bounds.

The idea was to become the first team to score two goals, but after three weeks, neither had, so a draw was declared.

The next year, Melbourne Football Club was formed and the new game’s laws set down. The signatories were Wills (then secretary of the MCC), Thomas Smith (a classics teacher at Scotch) and two journalists, and the venue was Bryant’s pub, the closest to the MCG. The MCG, schools, pubs and the press as forces in the game: has anything much changed?

Australian rules was at square one, though it was probably not yet recognisably today’s game. The stipulation to bounce the ball when running, for instance, was added later. It remained a game of the rough and ready.

Pennings writes of Alex Bruce, who had an artificial arm with an iron hook, and ”when he pushed from behind, always of course with the iron hook, it meant weeping and wailing to his unfortunate victim”.

Other clubs appeared, representing fast-growing suburbs, and from 1870 a premier recognised. In 1877, the VFA was formed.

In his introduction, Pennings writes that the game was revolutionised in the 1870s and ’80s by Geelong. ”Its scientific approach to the game put an emphasis on speed and accurate passing to players running into open spaces,” he writes. ”This marked a radical departure from a game previously reliant on big packs and nimble players who could run with the ball.”

Who says history does not repeat?

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Sprints open for Atomic

NEW South Wales trainers sometimes delight in the misery of their Victorian counterparts over a long and bleak winter, but not Newcastle trainer Darren Smith, who has headed south with his grand sprinter Atomic Force in the search of firmer tracks.
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Smith said yesterday that he sent the dual group 1-winning sprinter to Caulfield a few weeks ago to prepare for today’s listed Carlyon Stakes at Moonee Valley after a frustrating run at his Broadmeadow Racecourse base in Newcastle.

”The weather up here has been disgraceful and the tracks are waterlogged, so we put him on a float to get him ready down there,” Smith said. ”The facilities at Broadmeadow are being upgraded but we’ve had no Pro-Ride track and no grass tracks to work on, so we thought we’d make use of the facilities at Caulfield to get him up and going.”

In the absence of super sprinters Black Caviar and Hay List, a number of the big sprints in Melbourne this spring are up for grabs and few older or younger sprinters can rival the seven-year-old’s record, highlighted by group-1 wins in last year’s Galaxy, and last summer in New Zealand’s premier sprint, the Railway Stakes. ”He’s not yet at his top but he’s given me every indication that he’s exactly the same as he was last season,” Smith said. ”He’s a seven-year-old but he’s still fresh and keen as ever.”

Atomic Force worked at Moonee Valley on Tuesday morning under today’s rider, Craig Williams, and while Smith said the gelding was on track for a winning return, he would benefit from today’s outing. ”But he’s a good fresh horse and handles all ground, so you’d expect him to be right there,” he said.

Atomic Force has never missed a place first-up in five previous campaigns and at his only run over the 1000-metre course at Moonee Valley finished third, beaten by a nose behind group-1 winners Buffering and the ill-fated Crystal Lily.

A five-times wet track winner, he will be suited by today’s surface, which was last night rated a slow (6).

Smith figures he has only had about five runners in Melbourne since his first venture south in his early 20s. That day, in 1996, he saddled Pimpala Prince in the Ascot Vale Stakes. ”We had him ready to run the race of his life and he ran into a horse called Encosta de Lago,” he said.

Also making a raid on the early Melbourne sprints is Canberra trainer Matthew Dale, who saddles Unanimously in the $120,000 race. A Melbourne maiden in four previous attempts, Dale said the five-year-old was well placed to turn in his best run after experiencing the Moonee Valley track for the first time earlier this month when a game second to the in-form Freereturn.

”Saturday’s race is tougher than last start but he is better placed with the experience around Moonee Valley,” Dale said. ”He drew the outside nine [barrier] last time, so from barrier five and being third-up he should go well.”

It was at the same Moonee Valley meeting last year that two prominent spring horses emerged through the 1500-metre race, this year called the SAJ Catercare Group.

Finishing second in the race was subsequent Turnbull Stakes winner December Draw, while unplaced was eventual Caulfield Cup runner-up Green Moon. There are a number of stayers coming through today’s race. Last year’s Ebor winner Moyenne Corniche and last season’s group 2 Herbert Power Handicap winner Shewan run first-up, while owner Lloyd Williams will start two cups hopefuls second-up in Tanby and Excluded.

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