Three years is a long time in sport.
If you don’t believe me, think back to a time when Mitchell Johnson was cracking skulls and taking names on his way to 37 wickets in a five-match Test series to reclaim the Ashes in emphatic fashion for Australia.
That was the time that I began at The Roar, and three years later comes a time to reflect on Mitch, and Michelle Payne, and the Socceroos’ Asian Cup triumph, and the Wallabies’ magic run to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, and the Western Bulldogs’ drought-cracking premiership, and the Cowboys and Broncos playing out the greatest grand final I’ve ever seen, and Jason Day’s remarkable run to number one in the world of golf, and Roger Federer stepping up to his backhand and back into the Grand Slam winner’s circle.
Reflecting on that, it’s been a hell of a three years.
And it started with one of my sporting idols, Mitchell Johnson.
Some of the most compelling vision on Youtube today is the unabridged version, complete with slow motion replays, of Johnson tearing through an experienced and talented English batting line-up. It was a team that was expected to show the Aussies precisely who owned the little urn. James Anderson and Stuart Broad and England’s best ever spinner Graeme Swann led the bowling attack, while two of England’s best ever, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook, headed up a batting line-up that included the to-date successful Jonathan Trott and the new man in charge Ian Bell, who had stamped his authority on the game in the last Ashes series.
Brad Haddin may have cracked nearly 500 important runs down the order, but the series was a bloody and bruising tale.
Mitchell Johnson forced on us his speciality – retiring batsmen. Single-handedly, or so it felt, he forced Trott and Swann out of the game, with Pietersen and Michael Carberry to follow in the fall-out, as well as England coach Andy Flower.
It was an explosive summer – one of the best we’ll ever see by a fast bowler who was ridiculed and doubted, even by home supporters, in the lead-up. We’ve never seen as fine a performance from a returning player, and at 32 years young, it’ll be a sporting memory that will last me a lifetime.
And even after Stanislas Wawrinka conquered the big four, and the Western Sydney Wanderers claimed Australia’s first title in Asia, 2014 would be remembered as the summer of Mitch.
Every game brought us a ‘Mitching hour’, a term coined in a piece by one of my favourite writers, Geoff Lemon; a moment where the mercurial Johnson would seize the game by the collar, give it a shake, and bring it right into line.
The story of Michael Cheika, Australia’s renaissance man of a rugby coach, began immediately after this as his Waratahs began their charge for the title, but I’ll leave that until the culmination of 2015, and move onto a landmark moment for The Roar.
2014 was a Football World Cup year. The biggest sporting event on the planet. Bigger than the Olympics – scarcely believable as that may seem to the non-round ball obsessed Antipodeans – but the power of the richest, largest, most powerful sporting organisation on the planet to unite people in a showcase of skill and speed is unparalleled.
The Olympics is a curiosity, a sideshow of the unknown and untested when compared to the droves of highly-remunerated mega stars who attend football’s showpiece event every four years.
This was no different. It was on perennial favourite Brazil’s home fields, with a number of emotionally-charged South American rivals hoping to one-up their bigger brothers.
Then there were the clinical European sides – The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium some of the more-fancied among them.
Australia, in a group containing heavyweights Netherlands and Spain, and upstarts Chile, were outgunned and outmatched, putting up a fight against the South Americans and the Dutch but being summarily destroyed by the defending champions.
A mere footnote in the competition, the bigger story of the ‘Group of Death’ was the departure of the defending champions Spain before the knockout stages – a surprise for anyone who happened to even glance at their stacked roster.
For The Roar, the 2014 Football World Cup marked a point in time. We covered every game, live and with video highlights, for the first time in a committed fashion since the site had existed. 64 games in a month – highlights packages up every morning, scores up to date each minute, expert reaction every single day. We were rewarded, Ryman White and I, with a record month, both in terms of site views and videos watched.
It was immensely pleasing to see a host of talented volunteers and paid professionals band together to produce a product we could honestly and truly say was valuable, and the audience rewarded us with their patronage. From an editor’s perspective, it was all we could ask for at the time. The tournament opened our eyes to what was possible when we worked hard, put in more effort than perhaps we should and put the right information in front of people quickly. The ethos we would use as our governing one for The Roar was borne out of the World Cup.
For the record, it was Germany who would go on to claim the title in a nail-biting final against Lionel Messi’s Argentina.
One of the enduring memories I will have of that tournament was the look of devastation on the face of Messi, who had scrapped and battled his way through each game, going above even his own superhuman endeavours at times, after Germany won.
The game was over, but Messi felt it as keenly as any sportsperson who’d ever graced a field or court.
It was in stark contrast to the elation on the face of James Rodriguez as he slotted home goal after goal for Colombia in his breakout tournament performance. That was the purest joy of sport, whether it was breaking legs or flicking home a winner from outside the box.
The Waratahs would be the next story to capture the imagination of the Australian sporting public, and it was their scintillating style of play, hard-nosed but fast, unforgiving but skilful, that would prematurely elevate Michael Cheika to the top job after the resignation of Ewen McKenzie.
Talk about a baptism of fire. Watching the Wallabies lose, keeping a lid on unsubstantiated rumours, and seeing Ewen McKenzie, who’d been a favourite of mine ever since he rebuilt the Reds in 2011, walk down that lonely hallway, seemingly a broken man, was a tough story to know what to do with.
Numbers told you it was worth keeping on with. Other indicators were you should just leave the bloke alone.
But it was the play of the Waratahs that was the real story that year. The linking of Kurtley Beale and Israel Folau was one of the most punishing Australian rugby partnerships we’d witnessed since Gregan and Larkham, or, fleetingly, Genia and Cooper.
Jaques Potgieter took no prisoners at blindside flanker, and it was his uncompromising ethos on how to treat your opponents that determined the way the Waratahs play the game. Wycliff Palu was at his best. Tatafu Polota-Nau knew no boundaries in defence and was a cannonball in attack. Sekope Kepu played perhaps his best year of rugby, both from set piece and open play.
Bernard Foley showed he had the potential to be Australia’s general, a position he’s since made his own (sort of). Nick Phipps’ service was fast and his play was full of energy.
It was brilliant – the culmination of Cheika’s version of Total Rugby. As a product, it stemmed from a vision that it’s only worth playing rugby that’s worth watching. Long may that attitude endure, and if the near fulfilment of the style at the 2015 Rugby World Cup is to be leant on, there’s something there for Australia to cheer about.
Because that was something to cheer about. Closing in on the end of 2015, with a quiet summer ahead, it was the Rugby World Cup that lit up the crowds in England and the servers on The Roar.
More Roar records melted away during the tournament, the third biggest sporting event in the world, as the originals who embraced the site from the earliest days of Spiro’s writing flocked to us, along with millions of others.
Servers didn’t exactly melt, but the consistency and engagement of the audience showed there are rugby fans out there, and they do want to enjoy the brand of rugby played by the successful Michael Cheika side.
The England game was a particular highlight – in stark contrast to what occurred the year after. It was, start-to-finish, the most dominant performance of the tournament from one of the top sides. Bernard Foley played his best game ever at fly-half, and the Wallabies showed exactly what could be built in a tick over a year.
To clean out the hosts so dramatically at Twickenham was something Wallabies fans mightn’t see again in their lifetime, so enjoy it!
As the tournament progressed, Australia’s easy run to the final, combined with a fraction of deterioration in their performance, meant the final against the All Blacks didn’t end in the dream that Aussies had dreamed. Against a great New Zealand side, however, there was a moment when Tevita Kuridrani crossed with 15 minutes to play when you thought it could have been.
It was a great performance from a team that was simply not that great on paper – certainly not when you consider the 15 they were confronted with wearing black.
From stories of falling heartbreakingly short to stories from earlier in 2015 of dominance and victory.
Early that year was a good period for Australian sport. Nick Kyrgios and Sam Stosur mightn’t have won the Australian Open (that honour was reserved for, surprise surprise, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams), but Australia did have blessed runs through the Asian Cup and Cricket World Cup, both held on our home turf.
After the excitement of fever of the Football World Cup six months earlier, it was great to see people embrace the Asian Cup with such open arms. The crowds, even for North Korea versus Uzbekistan, were great and supportive, and the quality of the football played by the Australians couldn’t be taken away from them. Sure, they might have avoided Japan in the semi-finals, however their game against an impressive South Korean team who had beaten them in the pools was a great tale of vindication, and underscored the squad’s capability under Ange Postecoglou.
Not just that, but the way they carried themselves and represented the sport, playing energetic, positive football, was a great step forward for the World Game in Australia.
Tim Cahill may have been ageing, and many of the younger players may have been untested, but Massimo Luongo, Trent Sainsbury, and Matt Leckie in particular burst into Australian football stardom. And Tim proved that he still had what it took to convert at the highest level – much to the excitement of home fans who had never seen one of Australia’s greatest head a ball in anger on the tournament stage.
To perform like that in a big tournament on your home pitch made for fascinating watching, and goes down as one of the more underrated achievements by an Australian team in the last three years.
Immediately after, or at least it felt like that, another event began in Australia, one that many people have labelled interminable over the years, but surely with a(nother) revamp of the format, including dispensing with the Super Six, and the Super Eight, and anything else super, would pay dividends?
As it turned out, the Cricket World Cup certainly proved to be less interminable than previous incarnations, with the welcome addition of earlier knockout stages, and the welcome subtraction of England before the knockout stages.
Australia were everything England weren’t. A well-drilled outfit from top to bottom, it was Mitchell Starc, Steve Smith and David Warner who would highlight the tournament throughout. They piled on massive score after massive score, with the one exception being Eden Park against New Zealand in the pool stages. They were skittled for 150, only to have New Zealand nine down in reply before they finally passed the mark.
It was a bad day for Australia, but still a telling blow. The side would continue into the knockout stages, obliterating Pakistan and India before coming up against the Black Caps in the final.
From the moment Mitchell Starc castled Brendon McCullum for a duck you felt as though the game was over. Johnson, Hazlewood and Starc stymied the New Zealand batsman, who thanks to another great knock by the largely unheralded Grant Elliott, scrapped their way to 183. Captain Michael Clarke would see out his one day international career on a high, knocking up a half century along with his successor Steve Smith, to see the Aussies cruise across the line.
You never want to see a disappointing final, but New Zealand had already played theirs – which was the best game of the tournament by some margin – a few days earlier in the semi-final against South Africa.
In a rain-affected game again at Eden Park, South Africa would set an imposing 281 off 43 overs – no easy total to chase down. This was a good Proteas team, with AB de Villiers clearly the best player in the world at the time.
But the Black Caps were arguably the form team of the tournament, and many thought the favourites to win the lot. Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum and that man Grant Elliott were all in the best form they’d ever been in with the bat, while bowlers Tim Southee and Trent Boult formed perhaps the most dangerous new-ball duo in world cricket.
It was Elliott who would stamp his name on the tournament, then and there, by somehow guiding New Zealand home. Possibly the greatest rugby rivalry in the world, realised on the cricket field, with the unfancied Black Caps doing the impossible from the impossible position. With just 17 balls left, and big-hitting Luke Ronchi and Corey Anderson already departed, Elliott would be required to hit long. Not his game, as a nudger and nurdler at heart who bowls useful mediums, but his country called.
This was real cricket, as the slim Elliott bopped sixes over the Eden Park fence.
Dream realised. New Zealand, perennial contenders and good guys under Brendon McCullum’s leadership, through to the final where a throttling from Australia awaited them.
It was okay, though. Australia were meant to win it. New Zealand were meant to entertain us. Australia were meant to contend in the Rugby World Cup, as destiny awaited a great All Blacks team. It was okay.
But that game against South Africa showed why one day cricket is still the ultimate contest outside a Test match.
No Asian Cup. No Cricket World Cup. No Ashes. No Rugby World Cup. 2016 promised to be a dire sporting year, if you compare to the years before, for a site whose wheelhouse was cricket, football, AFL and rugbies league and union.
The Olympics presented the major challenge, but with no blueprint to go off since the site was in its relative infancy in 2012, with half the writers and far less in-office capacity, forming a plan to ‘cover’ an event of the magnitude of the Olympics would prove to be the major hurdle of the year.
There was Origin. There was Melbourne Cup. All of those tick along – bringing huge numbers of people to The Roar along with them.
But the Olympics… that was a different beast. How do you get people to talk about the Olympics when they don’t exactly know who the athletes are, why they’re interesting, or why they should care? A sports editor couldn’t ask for a greater challenge, and the idea of giving an Australian public the information they needed was very attractive.
The Rugby World Cup was our standing record for a month’s traffic.
It would remain so after the Olympic games, but it was a close-run thing. We provided some of the best information for Australians on the web, from both a video and written perspective.
From how to watch the Games on telly, to what times all the events started, to when Aussies won gold medals, to live covering every single thing we could justify with our budget, it was a pleasure as a sports fan to sit down and enjoy what is in my view the greatest sporting celebration on earth, and have the privilege to report it to nearly two million people, a vast, vast majority of those in Australia.
Brazil had been the focus. The sewage. The favelas. How could such largesse be justified in the face of overwhelming poverty in a struggling state?
Whatever the politics surrounding it, Brazil did turn on a terrific event from a television perspective. There were horror stories – a green diving pool, Ryan Lochte getting mugged (then not), other athletes being mugged, the smell around the golf course all included – but from an international perspective Rio buffed up just fine, and delivered some great performances.
Mack Horton’s win over Sun Yang was as important and impressive out of the pool as it was in it. Horton clearly has his agenda. I accept that. But I laud him for taking the time to research an issue, determine a stance on it and talk about it in a firm but eloquent way. The Olympics functioned as an escape from the footy journalism churn that can burn out even the most gung-ho fan of the sport. Jacked amateurs, grossly underpaid, battling it out in sports only in the spotlight once every four years.
But realistically, as great as Catherine Skinner and Chloe Esposito were, the two people of the Olympic Games were Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.
Phelps is simply unlike any other person we’re likely to see in sport, ever again. 23 Olympic gold medals, and over a decade of dominance of a sport that is unforgiving on individuals – longevity is not in the jargon of swimmers.
And Usain Bolt, whose lost races at the highest level you can count on one hand, once again showed everyone what it means to be a pure athlete. Born with the right stuff, who honed his perfect physique to be even better, and performs at the highest level with unerring precision for such an imprecise discipline.
The smallest thing going wrong, whether it’s with your body, your mind, or your health, and you lose in the sports that Phelps and Bolt chose. Those are the best two athletes I’ve ever seen, in any sport, and it was a privilege to witness them one last time on the stage that elevates everyday nobodies to that day’s champion.
And finally, from Mitchell to Michael, it comes to the end of an important time for you as an individual, and all you can hope is that you’ve made a difference and a few friends along the way.
There are thank yous galore to make, but I’ll keep it brief.
Tristan Rayner, editor before me, gave me a hell of a shot when I was a 22-year-old, then 24-year-old kid. Thanks for believing in someone, and sorry you never got the send off from this gig you deserved.
Zac Zavos, my sensei. The best in the business. What an honour to work with you.
And Zolton, thanks for the guidance over the years, whether it was from across the long pong table or across the world.
And Ryman White, who I believe along with Tristan deserves much of what’s flowing my way. Thanks for taking a risk and putting up with my rubbish for three long years. I’m sure you’ll finally get some of your peace and quiet when I’m gone.
And the last and only thanks goes to everyone who reads, watches, contributes to and comments on these pages.
I’ve always operated by the mantra that it’s your site, not mine, and we’re only here to keep the seats warm in the office in case you need them one day.
It’s been an honour and a privilege to help make something people like, and it was always about doing something that people wanted to read, or watch, or be involved with.
Thank you for making this place what it is. It’s about the sport. It’s always about the sport. But it’s also more than the sport. It’s pure. A place where people can be comfortable. A place where people should be challenged. A place of debate. A place of respect. An intelligent place. A silly place.
A place I was proud to work at. A place I’m sad to leave.