Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham gets gig as waterboy

larkham Photo: act\daniel.briggsInternational rugby rules ban him from being on the field, but ACT Brumbies mentor Stephen Larkham will use a loophole to become the first Super Rugby head coach to double as a waterboy.
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Super Rugby’s governing body SANZAR has cleared Larkham to become the most high-profile waterboy since Adam Sandler played Bobby Boucher in the 1998 Hollywood hit.

International Rugby Board protocols dictate head coaches are not allowed to run the water.

But because Laurie Fisher is the Brumbies’ director of rugby, SANZAR has cleared Larkham to be on the field while Fisher is in the coach’s box.

Larkham will be the only head coach in any Australian sport to be an on-field coach.

”I haven’t seen a head coach on the field in rugby before, but if you look at soccer, the coaches are on the sideline,” Larkham said.

”It’s not dissimilar to that, but I just get the chance to get on the field.”

While Boucher was an expert in ”high-quality H2O” in the movie The Waterboy, Larkham’s concern is not so much hydration as it is emotion.

The former Australian Wallabies and Brumbies play-maker, who retired from playing Super Rugby in 2007, says he gets a better feel for the game on the field.

”You miss out on the emotion and communication if you’re up in a coach’s box,” he said.

”I think getting on and giving messages yourself is quite important. This way we can get two perspectives on the game and I can get on the field. I’m looking forward to that again.”

Larkham, 39, is also the youngest coach in Super Rugby.

Having former players as waterboys has caused angst in the NRL in the past while former Wallabies Matt Giteau and Stirling Mortlock have both had stints running water in Super Rugby.

Manly great Geoff Toovey and Nathan Brown caused uproar in rugby league because of the extended time they spent on the field directing the play.

It was thought Toovey was pushing players into holes and telling them where to run from behind play.

Larkham insists he will give minimal instructions, leaving Wallabies representative and five-eighth Matt Toomua to guide the Brumbies around the field.

”The guys are very experienced now, they have a good understanding of what needs to be played,” he said.

”I occasionally go out there and have a bit of a chat about what they’re seeing and what’s coming up next.

”But generally it’s left up to them to make all of those on-field calls … You get to feel the intensity on the field.

”You can hear the calls, you get the emotion and the atmosphere that the crowd provides. I’m not worried about it, it was quite beneficial for us last year.”

Fisher and Brumbies assistant coach Dan McKellar will sit in the coach’s box.

The Brumbies start their Super Rugby campaign against the Queensland Reds at Canberra Stadium on February 22.

They lost their opening trial match against the Otago Highlanders on Friday night, but will fine-tune their preparations when they play an ACT XV at Viking Park on Saturday.

SUPER RUGBY TRIAL

February 8: ACT Brumbies v ACT XV at Viking Park, Saturday, 7pm.

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Courting rituals in the Victorian bush

With the doors locked on the expensive big blue courts for another year, now the rest of Victoria can go back wondering how we’ll get the funding to keep our local community courts at a playable level.
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In October, a small town near Colac claimed to have the worst tennis courts in country Victoria. From the pictures I reckon I’ve seen worse, but to be fair, Cororooke is still trying to operate an active club on its courts.

There are plenty of abandoned tennis courts around the bush – overgrown and crumbled. Sometimes these remnants of another Australia are the only evidence left that a town was ever there at all, pointing to a different time in the history of the sport, when tennis was the only game in, well, town.

My husband grew up just outside of Horsham in a time where no one in country Victoria lived more than 200 metres from a tennis court and playing was non-negotiable. His local was Remlaw. If you look for it now you’ll find a monument amid the long grass commemorating its existence. It’s even on the Monument Australia website, touchingly archived under the major theme of ”culture”, sub-theme, ”sport”.

Tennis failed to find me in suburban Ballarat, where my early labelling as a recalcitrant PE student left me hanging about in the drains of the Yarrowee Creek in my spare time instead. (Kids, don’t do this at home – I’m now a mum and understand now that this is dangerous and not even classified as an extreme sport.)

Still, from our disparate worlds we ultimately set up camp not far from the remains of the original Tarrington tennis courts in western Victoria. Thanks to a recent subdivision they now form part of someone’s front yard. No monument marks their moment in the sun, but a local group of residents did erect a sign as part of a local heritage trail.

These original courts were replaced by new courts on the Tarrington Recreation Reserve in 1980. None other than our Premier Denis Napthine became the secretary of the Rec Reserve just a few years after the opening of the courts – a position I now reluctantly hold. Still, based on the recent meteoric rise of the Premier, I’m told my long-term career prospects are good.

Thirty-four years down the track, the courts are now in such disrepair that most serious players choose to play on the nearby Hamilton Lawn Tennis Club courts instead. Some sections of our fence are missing. The surface crunches with loose screenings and ruptured asphalt. The line markings are not terribly prominent. Weeds? We’ve had a few. But this little sporting oasis is not entirely unloved. There’s a bloke on the corner you can count on to poison the weeds when they go a bit Sideshow Bob. The nets are stored inside over winter to try and prolong their life. My two elder sons have learnt to ride their bikes there. Sometimes people hit a tennis ball there.

Courts are expensive to upgrade. Committees of management, such as ours, typically have no money, and no one with the time and expertise to chase any down. Grant money is occasionally available, but it again relies on these bodies being correctly structured (in an ATO kind of way) and, most importantly, they need to be able to demonstrate demand. It’s all a bit chicken and egg of course. And we’re not short on either of those things out here, thanks.

Given the challenges it is not surprising that local government and tennis associations are moving towards a model of regionalised tennis centres. While these might be great facilities for developing players, like the loss of junior football teams, there is undoubtedly something lost. No casual hit with friends at the court down the road means no time and space in which young players of dubious talent can fall in love with the game.

And while the era of the Hamilton courts being maintained by grazing sheep are now gone, country tennis is far from dead. Indeed, out of the 15 clubs that still operate in the Southern Grampians region, most have memberships above the state average, relative to population. The junior program run by the Hamilton Lawn Tennis Club (which has synthetic courts as well) is growing in popularity, although participation rates wane around the time the kids discover the joys of teenage life.

For the country parent this could be a blessing in disguise. Certainly after the third week standing on the freezing sidelines of my five-year-old’s Auskick session, and two more sons to go, there appears many more years ahead of footy, swimming, basketball, taekwondo, soccer, music, gymnastics, little aths, and junior campdrafting (that’s cow herding, people). But not so much tennis.

I don’t really care what sport my boys get into as long as they understand early on it will be the same one for all of them. Football, netball and basketball clubs are all part of regional leagues and for those clever enough to have given birth to girls as well as boys, they can often expect to be driving one child 100 kilometres in one direction for netball, while the other parent gets to ferry the other to the footy in the opposite direction.

Quite frankly, by the time the new year comes around, it’s a known fact that many of Hamilton’s sporting parents are so catatonic they spend all of January cowering in an annexe at the Port Fairy caravan park, tethered to a barrel of semillon, while the kids go all Cadel with their summer tribe. That’s when they’re not playing tennis on the beach. You know, just for fun.

Tarrington’s Naomi Turner is a freelance writer with a good backhand.

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Superstars of snow and ice ready to thrill in Sochi

There are plenty of stars to watch at the Winter Olympics which begin on February 6.
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Shaun White (US): Snowboard

If the X-Games is viewed as the great threat to the Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee, then White has proved to be the perfect bridge between the clash of the two cultures – the non-conformism of the freestyle sports versus the conservative European values of the IOC.

White is a different beast to the S halfpipe at the Turin Games in 2006.

Gone are the long red locks that earned him the nickname, ”the Flying Tomato”. Gone is the goofy teen who asked figure skating star Sasha Cohen out on date on American TV. Still present though is the hunger for success. White is not just a two-time Olympic snowboard champion. He is a businessman with estimated earnings of $20 million a year, a champion skateboarder and burgeoning rock star with his band Bad Things.

No expense is spared in his quest. Before the Vancouver Olympics, his sponsor Red Bull built White his own private halfpipe in Colorado that could only be accessed by helicopter. The same has been done in the lead-up to Sochi, this time, at Perisher in Australia’s Snowy Mountains.

Viktor Ahn (Russia): Speed skating

It’s a match made in heaven. Russia has never won a short-track speed skating medal, Ahn Hyun-Soo has won four at one Olympics, including three gold medals.

Ahn should be well known to Australian audiences. When he was 16 at Salt Lake City, he was part of the crash that cleared the path for Steven Bradbury’s miraculous gold medal in the 1000 metres. Four years later in Turin he dominated for South Korea, with four medals.

Two years ago, embittered by his omission from the Vancouver Games, the Seoul-born champion changed his first name to Viktor and declared his allegiance to Russia. For Ahn, adopting the name Viktor was more than just a case of Russification, it was a statement of intent.

The four-time world champion heads into Sochi on the back of five titles at the European championships in January, leaving one competitor, Sjinkie Knegt of the Netherlands, so incensed he flipped him the bird as he crossed the finish.

Mikaela Shiffrin (US): Alpine skiing

With a knee injury ruling out Lindsey Vonn from the US squad, the golden girl hopes have fallen on the shoulders of an 18-year-old from New Hampshire and Colorado who finished high school in December.

Not that slalom specialist Shiffrin is feeling the pressure. She was competing on the World Cup circuit when she was 15 and by 17 was a world champion. Three weeks ago she was named alongside NFL quarterback Peyton Manning as Colorado’s athlete of the year.

Her domination of the slalom circuit has earned her the tag the Mozart of alpine skiing. It’s not that she’s just a child prodigy, it is the technical expertise she displays, making the most treacherous course seem like an effortless ski down the slopes.

When she won the opening World Cup slalom race this season in Levi, Finland, Shiffrin was given a special prize: A reindeer, which she named Rudolph.

Petter Northug (Nor): Cross-country skiing

Cross-country skiing is the Winter Olympics’ most traditional sport and Northug is its least conventional star.

A top cross-country skier has rock star status in Norway, and Northug lives up to the hype.

He has a reputation as a bad winner and sore loser. But with four Olympic medals – including two gold – and a record-equalling nine world titles to his name, Northug is more often bad than sore.

He is versatile. At the Vancouver Olympics, he finished third in the sport’s shortest event, the sprint, but managed to win gold in its longest, the 50-kilometre race. Like Shane Warne, he is also a regular on the poker circuit.

But it’s Northug’s style that sets him apart. The Norwegian is a champagne-class stirrer particularly of cross-border rival Sweden. At the 2011 world championships in Sweden, Northug anchored Norway to a gold-medal performance in the relay but not before mocking the crowd in the home straight and slowing down to tease his rivals near the finish line.

His antics led one Swedish commentator to say that Northug ”is a wolf in the ski tracks and a pig at the finish line”.

But his fellow Norwegians did not mind with more than 100,000 fans gathering in Olso to greet him and his teammates when they returned.

Kim Yu-Na (S Korea): Figure skating

The spotlight shines no brighter at the Winter Olympics than on figure skating and Kim is its brightest star. The Ice Queen from South Korea has never missed a podium place at any championship, culminating in record scores and a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.

That victory gave Kim unprecedented fame and fortune for a female athlete in South Korea. Forbes magazine ranked her in the top 10 highest paid women sport stars in the world. Kim became an endorsement magnet, promoting major brands such as Hyundai, Nike, Samsung and Kookmin Bank (which reportedly paid her $US1 million for her world record score in Vancouver). She even recorded a song with pop star Lee Seung-gi for South Korea’s soccer World Cup campaign in 2010.

Kim enters Sochi as the reigning world champion and should she succeed in winning gold she will be the first back-to-back ladies’ singles champion since Katerina Witt of East Germany in 1984 and ’88.

South Korea has won 45 medals at Winter Olympics, and 44 have been in speed skating (both short and long track). Kim is the exception, as she so often is.

Felix Loch (Germany): Luge

It was no surprise when Loch won the gold medal in the men’s luge in Vancouver in 2010. After all, every champion in the Olympic history of the event had been a German speaker; even the two Italian winners (Armin Zö¨ggeler and Paul Hildgartner) came from home towns near the Austrian border where Deutsch was more often heard spoken than Italiano. What separated Loch from his predecessors was his age. He was just 20, the youngest Olympic champion in luge. A crowning glory to go with his world championship win as an 18-year-old.

In between both events he produced the fastest speed recorded on a luge track when he rocketed down the Whistler course at 153.9 km/h during an Olympic test event in 2009.

In a sport renowned for the longevity of its champions, it was a phenomenal beginning. He has now won four world titles and with the introduction of the luge relay, Loch could leave Sochi with another two Olympic gold medals.

Alex Ovechkin (Russia): Ice hockey

As the best player in the host nation’s most popular team, Alex Ovechkin could well be the face of the Sochi Games.

Fame and fortune have come easily to the Russian. He is engaged to tennis star Maria Kirilenko and is one of the top five paid players in the National Hockey League where he is the skipper of Washington Capitals. But despite being consistently one of the league’s leading scorers, Ovechkin is yet to win the Stanley Cup, with the Caps crashing out in the play-offs in each of the past six seasons.

His Olympic record is bleaker, with a fourth and sixth place finish at the past two Games. The Soviet Union won seven out of nine Olympic tournaments from 1960 to 1992 but since its break-up, Russia is yet to win one.

The pressure will be on Ovechkin to match Sidney Crosby’s efforts in Vancouver four years ago when the host nation won the gold medal.

If he does, he will match his mother Tatyana Ovechkina who won a gold medal at a home Olympics in basketball at the Moscow 1980 Games.

Ireen Wust (Netherlands): Speed skating

Speed skating may have lost some of its Olympic lustre to its brasher, short-track cousin, but not in the Netherlands. They treat short-track with the sort of sneer Test cricket watchers give the Twenty20 game.

Since 1928, the Dutch have won 86 medals at the Winter Olympics, and 82 come from speed skating. Like Australia’s passion for the 1500 metres freestyle, it’s the longer events that capture the hearts of the Dutch.

Wust burst on the scene at the 2006 Turin Games where she became the Netherlands’ youngest Winter Olympics champion in the 3000 metres. She followed that up with victory in the 1500 metres at the Vancouver Games. Since then she has won three all-round world titles and could win up to four gold medals in Sochi.

Sara Takanashi (Japan): Ski jumping

Ski jumping is one of the most popular sports at the Winter Olympics and has been a feature since the inaugural 1924 Games in Chamonix, France. The concept is very simple – jump as far as possible. Athletes ski down a steep ramp and jump until reaching a landing zone, with the skiers attempting to land smoothly and within the critical (or construction) point, or even exceed it, in order to get the highest amount of points.

While distance is the main component when the judges award points, other considerations include length of in-run attempt, steadiness of the skis mid-flight, body balance, smoothness of landing, and wind condition. Competitors receive 60 points for landing on the critical point, with points taken away for every metre the point is missed, and added for every metre the point is exceeded.

Women’s ski jumping is making its long-awaited Olympic debut in Sochi, and despite being only 17 Takanashi is the red hot favourite to claim gold. Takanashi has won seven of the eight World Cup events this season and notched up 760 points in the overall standings, 294 points ahead of her nearest rival, Germany’s Carina Vogt.

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Oliver pulls the right rein on Bull Point

MANFRED STAKES
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After having the choice of the plum rides on Bull Point and Prince Harada, it was no surprise to see a big smile on Damien Oliver’s face after Gai Waterhouse’s Bull Point scored a resounding first-up win in the group 3 Manfred Stakes (1200 metres).

”They are both good colts and were hard to split,” Oliver said.

”I rode them in consecutive days a couple of weeks ago and this bloke [Bull Point] really pleased me, the way he worked with the blinkers on.”

On Saturday, Oliver was able to settle Bull Point ($3.70) behind the speed, just ahead of Prince Harada ($2.80 favourite), who raced a little keenly. Oliver eased Bull Point out three wide on the turn and, after grabbing the leader Worth A Ransom ($20) at the 150 metres, drew away to win by 1¼ lengths.

”He put himself into a good position and then showed good acceleration,” Oliver said. ”You can get a good impression when you first get on them and he certainly gave me that and proved it here today.”

Prince Harada came wide in the straight but failed to finish off the race and was photo-finished out of third by The Quarterback ($11), who flashed home from last on the turn.

Jockey Blake Shinn thought the hot weather might have been partly to blame for the poor performance of the Tony Vasil-trained Prince Harada.

While Cox Plate winner Shamus Award remains $8 favourite for the group 1 Australian Guineas at Flemington on March 1, Sportsbet shortened Bull Point from $13 into $9 second favourite.

The Quarterback was a big mover and, after being a $17 chance, is now on the third line of betting at $10. Prince Harada eased from $9 to $12.

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Sampson to join Nine’s cricket coverage

Channel Nine’s male-dominated cricket team will increase its female presence next summer, with the station bringing sports presenter Yvonne Sampson into the coverage.
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And, while Sampson will be hosting, rather than providing special comments during play, Nine’s head of sport, Steve Crawley, said the cricket commentary team – long a male bastion – would definitely have a woman providing ball-by-ball commentary in due course.

Crawley said Sampson, who has been involved in the station’s rugby league coverage, would be brought into the cricket broadcasts for the 2014-15 summer as the station sought to improve its female representation. He said Sampson ”knew her cricket” and was expected to be used in a hosting/presenting role.

Nine has been in talks with Cricket Australia about how it can bring women into the coverage of men’s international cricket, with CA believing that the game will benefit enormously from more women in commentary roles – including ball-by-ball – given the high level of interest in cricket by women and the expertise available through Australia’s elite female cricketers.

Channel Ten has promoted Mel McLaughlin to a prominent hosting role in its coverage of the Big Bash League, in what has been seen as a success. CA believes the growth in female audiences and participation are paramount, and is aiming for a 50-50 audience split in viewership.

Nine used presenter Stephanie Brantz in its coverage of the Ashes in 2006-07 when she appeared on The Cricket Show.

But play-by-play calling remains something of a glass ceiling for women in cricket, a fact of which CA and Nine are acutely aware.

In the 1980s, Nine was criticised for using actress Kate Fitzpatrick, who had no cricket background, in a commentary role; today, the prevailing view – from Nine and CA – is that prospective female commentators should have the credibility of an expert. ”This will happen, it’s just a question of when,” Crawley said of Nine’s eventual introduction of a woman in a ball-by-ball commentary role.

Crawley said Nine had used Mel Jones and Lisa Sthalekar – both former international players for Australia – in its coverage of the Twenty20 games for women on its digital channel GEM.

Nine and Ten have been interested in the highly marketable dual sports (cricket and soccer) star Ellyse Perry, but Perry is under contract to Foxtel.

CA’s research shows that the female share of the Twenty20 and Big Bash League audience was higher than in the traditional forms of the game, even though the overall numbers are lower than the massive ratings for the Ashes.

Cricket is but one of a number of sports that have been forced to confront the issue of the relative lack of female commentators, given the huge female participation rates and/or audiences.

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