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Opinion

Despite the lockdown, 2020 was a massive sporting year for Victoria

The Aussie women celebrate their T20 World Cup victory. (Photo by Quinn Rooney-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)
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21st December, 2020
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Victorians, do you remember what it’s like to attend a professional sports event?

The last I attended was the ICC Women’s World T20 final, on 8 March 2020 at the MCG.

What a memorable night that was! There was a crowd of 86,174 and the atmosphere was electric.

Australia dominated India throughout the contest. Player of the series Beth Mooney scored 78 not out and player of the match Alyssa Healy scored 75 runs from just 39 balls. Their efforts saw Australia score 4-184. Then opening bowlers Megan Schutt (4-18) and Jess Jonassen (3-20) took Indian wickets at will.

My night was topped off by the pre-game and post-game performances by pop superstar Katy Perry.

Australia Women’s T20 World Cup trophy.

The Women’s World Cup (Photo by Daniel Pockett-ICC/ICC via Getty Images)

Prior to that, I had spent a couple of nights at the Australian Open tennis – what a great event!

I went to a number of WNBL matches, including a game of the semi-final series between the Southside Flyers and Adelaide Lightning, and a game of the grand final series between the Flyers and University of Canberra Capitals at Dandenong Stadium.

I also was a spectator at a game of the semi-final series between the Capitals and Melbourne Boomers at the State Basketball Centre.

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I attended a number of BBL matches at the MCG, including the qualifier between the Melbourne Stars and the Sydney Sixers. I also went to the Rebels vs Waratahs match at AAMI Park and the Rebels vs Sharks at Mars Stadium, Ballarat (some people may say that my fellow Rebels fans and I have been social distancing before it was a thing).

When the pandemic hit and lockdowns occurred the only sport that seemed to continue without any significant disruption (other than no crowds) was horse racing. Most other sports either delayed the start of the season, suspended competitions after commencing the season or cancelled the season.

On the subject of lockdown, sending best wishes to the residents of Sydney and NSW, particularly on the Northern Beaches. Hopefully the latest outbreak will be under control sooner rather than later.

Sports fans owe significant thanks to Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government for helping a number of sports go ahead. Queensland was the main base for the AFL and Super Netball competitions and the WNBL was completed entirely in north Queensland. The Sunshine State also become the adopted home during lockdown of the Melbourne Storm.

Watching entire seasons of significant competitions, such as the AFL, NRL and Super Netball, completely on TV was a little surreal. This was especially so later in the season, when Melbourne residents weren’t able to travel more than five kilometres from home and we were watching sport from interstate where there were crowds. There didn’t seem to be any social distancing and fans seemed to be acting as if COVID-19 wasn’t in existence.

We weren’t able to attend and experience the atmosphere at the sporting events. However, a number of Victorians teams had successful years, some coming before the lockdown.

The Melbourne Aces won the Championship Series of the Australian Baseball League (ABL) in two straight games against the Adelaide Giants. Key players driving the Aces to the title were Delmon Young, who led the competition in home runs and runs batted in (RBI), and Colin Willis, who topped the league with a .427 batting average and scored the equal-most runs during the season. Championship Series MVP Shane Robinson went five for ten with a homer and three RBIs during the series.

The Melbourne Stars topped the BBL table after the preliminary matches but unfortunately fell at the final hurdle. Marcus Stoinis topped the competition run scorers’ list and was named player of the series. Haris Rauf was a revelation, taking 20 wickets in just ten matches after being picked up from Tasmanian club cricket, seeing him selected by Pakistan.

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Marcus Stoinis of the Stars leaves the field after being dismissed during the Big Bash League

Marcus Stoinis (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

A Southside Flyers team including Opals captain Jenna O’Hea, Leilani Mitchell, Sara Blicavs and Bec Cole finished the season on top of the ladder and won through to the grand final series. The Flyers lost the grand final in two close games against the Capitals, who won back-to-back premierships.

The joy for Victorian sports fans became more important during lockdown, with sporting teams’ performances bringing joy during a tough time.

The Rebels qualified for the finals for the first time in their history, albeit in a restructured, five-team Australian competition. The Rebels certainly left it late, with a last-minute try and conversion against the Western Force in the last round to edge NSW out of the finals. It was great to see the Force back.

Co-captains Kate Moloney and Liz Watson led the Melbourne Vixens to a thrilling two-goal victory over the West Coast Fever in the Super Netball grand final, in a perfect farewell to retiring shooters Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip. It was incredible to see how Thwaites reinvented herself as a goal attack this season. With the quality of her play, Thwaites could have continued to play, but she went out on a high.

Kate Eddy returned from injury to play in the grand final and formed a dynamic defensive group with Jo Weston and Emily Mannix. The athletic Malawi international goal shooter Mwai Kumwenda (aka MJ) was awarded the grand final MVP.

Despite some COVID-19 hub breaches that involved a day spa and some late-night kebabs, Richmond went on their merry way, winning their third premiership in four years, with the grand final at the Gabba. The Tigers won even after losing Nick Vlastuin in the first five minutes of the game following a collision with Patrick Dangerfield.

Dustin Martin’s goal just before halftime was vital in turning momentum in his side’s favour and in the second half, Martin took the game by the scruff of the neck, kicking four goals, amassing 21 possessions, five clearances and making three tackles. Martin was awarded with his third Norm Smith Medal for best on ground.

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Dustin Martin of the Tigers celebrates kicking a goal

Dustin Martin. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Jayden Short and Shane Edwards were among Richmond’s best and two goals each from Dion Prestia and Jack Riewoldt helped the Tigers to another victory. Short won his club’s 2020 best and fairest, and Riewoldt and Tom Lynch were the dynamic duo of the forward line throughout the season (despite Riewoldt having a seemingly slow start to the season), with Riewoldt kicking 33 goals and Lynch 32 during the season.

This victory brought plenty of joy to the yellow and black army, but may not have filled all Victorians with joy.

Geelong would have brought smiles to their fans during the season, leading the grand final at halftime, but unfortunately they were unable to send off Gary Ablett Jr with a premiership.

Tom Hawkins won the 2020 Coleman Medal, Cameron Guthrie won Geelong’s best and fairest, and Patrick Dangerfield and Mark Blicavs were consistent performers through the year, while Mitch Duncan would have had one hand on the Norm Smith Medal at halftime of the grand final. Cats fans will be hoping that the addition of Jeremy Cameron will help them take that extra step in 2021.

The Storm had numerous homes during 2020. In early May, in preparation for the resumption of the NRL season and to comply with the NRL’s Project Apollo protocols, the Storm relocated their training base to Albury, only for Albury City Council to vote against them training at Greenfield Park. The Albury Tigers Australian rules club stepped in and offered their training facilities.

After playing two games on the resumption of the season at an empty AAMI Park, due to the second wave of COVID-19 in Victoria, the Storm were forced to move interstate. After playing one home game at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium (aka Kogarah Oval), the club moved to the Sunshine Coast and played a home game at Suncorp Stadium and six at Sunshine Coast Stadium, before playing two home finals at Suncorp.

The only NRL side that sacrificed more than the Storm during the season were the New Zealand Warriors, without whose efforts the season wouldn’t have gone ahead.

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On grand final night the Storm opened the scoring with a penalty try to Papua New Guinean wrecking ball Justin Olam after three minutes. Craig Bellamy’s side withstood a sustained period of attack by the Panthers, who went into the grand final winning 17 matches in a row.

Suliasi Vunivalu scored against the run of play, showing all his athleticism as he jumped in the air to intercept a Nathan Cleary pass before picking himself off the ground, transferring the ball into his left hand and using his right hand to fend off Josh Mansour, as he ran 80 metres to score a try.

Suliasi Vunivalu

Suliasi Vunivalu of the Storm (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)

Captain Cameron Smith picked up the scraps after Apisai Koroisau knocked the ball out of Smith’s hand to score a try right on halftime. When Clive Churchill medallist Ryan Papenhuyzen blew through Penrith’s line after a scrum and ran 70 metres to score, the Storm led 26-0.

The Panthers came flying home and got the score back to 26-20 but, despite finishing with two players in the sinbin, the Storm held on and won the premiership.

The WBBL was held in a hub in Sydney. With the return of Meg Lanning and Natalie Sciver to team Green and the development of a number of younger players, the Melbourne Stars moved from bottom of the ladder to top after the preliminary rounds. Lanning topped the club’s run-scorers’ list, with 493, and Sciver topped the wicket-taking with 19. Lanning and Sciver and leg spinner Alana King were named in the team of the tournament.

The Stars qualified for the final, but – like their male counterparts earlier in the season – they fell at the final hurdle. Some wonderful bowling by the Sydney Thunder, especially Sammy-Jo Johnson and Shabnim Ismail reduced the Melburnians to 9-86 and the Thunder never really looked like losing.

COVID-19, hubs and condensed seasons created some unusual events, such as two WNBL grand finals during the 2020 calendar year. Due to there being no imports in the league, last season’s runner-up Southside Flyers added Australian Opals and Las Vegas Aces superstar Liz Cambage as a replacement for Seattle Storm WNBA championship winner Mercedes Russell and added the experience of Steph Blicavs and Rachel Jarry to the bench.

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In this season’s grand final, the Flyers took on the Townsville Fire. Due to early foul trouble, Cambage played just over 15 minutes. Despite this, she was contributed 14 points and six rebounds, and the Flyers won by 17 points.

The player that really stepped up while Cambage was on the bench was Opals and Washington Mystics guard Leilani Mitchell, who scored 31 points with a field goal percentage of 69 per cent and a three-point percentage of 71. Mitchell also contributed five assists and three rebounds.

Bec Cole scored 22 points at 70 per cent from the field and terrorised the Fire on the defensive end, having five of the Flyers’ eight steals. After overcoming a number of knee injuries, Cole’s play has gone to another level since she moved to Dandenong Stadium, firstly with the Dandenong Rangers and now the Flyers. I would love nothing more than to see Cole represent Australia at the Olympics.

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I will also highlight the efforts of the Melbourne Boomers, who fell just three points short of the Townsville Fire in the preliminary final. Ezi Magbegor, Cayla George, Tess Madgen and Maddie Garrick provided plenty of highlights throughout the condensed season.

Soon Victorian fans will be able to attend professional sporting events again, including the Boxing Day Test, BBL, A-League, W-League, NBL, ABL, Australian Open or any of the lead-up events. Or maybe you are waiting for the Formula One Grand Prix or for the AFL, NRL or Super Rugby to restart.

Whatever sports tickle your fancy, I hope you savour every moment.

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