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Golden point and Crusaders scrape through in week 7

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by Rajitha Ratwatte

The Otago Highlanders after their record-breaking win over the Crusaders who looked unbeatable up to that point in the season, were up against the Waikato Chiefs who also seemed to have turned their season around after beating the Wellington Hurricanes. However, the chiefs were without their captain and All Blacks captain Sam Cane, who is out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. It was going to be an even contest and a keenly fought match was expected.

15 minutes into the game the sides were inseparable with the score line reading 13 each. In the 15th minute a penalty awarded to the Chiefs, right in front of the posts saw Damien Mackenzie make no mistake and the Chiefs crept ahead 13 – 16. The next 45 minutes saw no change in the score line and typical robust forward play and strong unshakable defence from both sides. It was only in the 60th minute that the Chiefs were able to finish a number of phases and scramble over the line, close enough to the posts to enable 7 points 13 – 23. In the 69th minute, Josh Ioane one of the “bad boys” from last week (dropped with 7 others for breaches of discipline) joined the line and spotted a gap to go over the line mid left of the posts. He converted himself and the score line was 20 -23 Highlanders catching up. 4 minutes from the scheduled close, the ‘Landers completed the catch up thanks to a simple penalty and the score was even Stevens at 23 all with two minutes to go. The Chiefs were awarded a penalty on the 50-meter line at the full-time hooter and Damian Mackenzie stepped up, but his kicking record particularly over long distances was not convincing enough to leave the die hard ‘Landers fans, without hope. Sure enough he missed and we were in to the Golden Point, extra time for the first time in Aotearoa super rugby 2021.

Golden point is when the game is restarted with another toss and played for 10 minutes and whoever scores first wins. If no one scores the match is declared a draw. Highlanders skipper Aaron Smith won the toss and picked the side of the field that he wanted to start from. Two minutes into the golden point, the Chiefs line out was penalised for jumping early. Since this was only a free kick the ‘Landers called for a scrum, it was a good attacking position on the opposition 22-meter line. The ball was won and passed straight into the pocket with Josh Ioane well positioned for a drop goal. Josh Ioane would have celebrated his comeback in style if he managed to convert this drop goal attempt, but it was not to be. Four minutes into extra time Anton Lennert- Brown that hard working All Blacks and Waikato center three-quarter showed us that backs can also play like forwards by supporting his own weight over the ball and securing a vital penalty off a ruck. It was around 37 meters out and straight in front of the posts. This was the extreme limit of the range that the diminutive Damien Mackenzie could achieve. He stepped up and the X factor that exceptional players are able to call on when the going gets tough, must have played a part in the kick sailing over the middle of the posts and securing a desperately needed win for the Waikato Chiefs 23 – 26.

Sunday afternoons game was Wellington Hurricanes against the Crusaders. Wellington playing at home and 19-year-old schoolboy, Rueben Love making his debut at no10. Aardie Savea was wearing the no 7 jersey for this game. Joe Moody who mans the loose head slot for the All Blacks and Crusaders was playing his 100th game and auctioning his jersey after the game in aid of prostate cancer. He lost his father to this disease around 10 months ago.

The debutant Rueben Love got off to a great start picking up the ball inside his 10-meter line and making a great run and a chip kick that took the ball into the crusaders’ 22. Two minutes into the game the ‘Canes got themselves a penalty around 50 meters out and in front of the posts. Usually, meat and drink for Jordie Barret but he was kicking into what Ian Smith (tongue in cheek) described as a breeze. There is never a breeze in Wellington, it is either a force 10 gale or a typhoon! Jordie missed, no addition to the score. Ten minutes into the game the Crusaders conceded another much easier penalty around 28 meters out and in front. J. Barret was not going to miss that, and the Hurricanes went into a 3 – 0 lead. The Crusader retaliation came just two minutes later when George Bridge, that great finisher powered his way over the line but seemed to be held up until Ngani Laumape of the “canes dived on top of the players and allowed the ball to be grounded. Laumape displayed a weakness that some Pacific island players have in relying on brute force when rugby union is really about finesse. 3 – 7 and Crusaders leading. In the 23rd minute George Bridge went over again for a try in the extreme left corner and Mo’uanga converted brilliantly, 3 -14. Meanwhile the “canes got out of jail” with a penalty reversal coming off a captains challenge and what would have been a gifted 3 points to the crusaders, turned into a clearing kick due to a high tackle that had been missed by the ref. A great example of the new trial rule working to perfection. Meanwhile lineout throws from both teams were not working and turnovers from lineouts were rife. Wild passes and handling errors from the Crusaders continued, at one stage Crusaders handling errors were 5 to nothing from the Canes. The mighty Crusaders pack was losing scrums and conceding penalties. Big trouble in the workings of the juggernaut. The 27th minute saw some great tireless forward play from Dan Coles the Hurricanes hooker, he got involved in three phases of play out of sseven and finally got a great pass off to Laumape who powered his way over the line for a 7 pointer. 10 – 14 Crusaders still in front.

At this point in the game there was a flurry of scoring. First the Crusaders clawed three points straight back with a simple penalty and went back into a seven-point lead. 10 -17. Straight off the resumption, the younger Savea brother, Julian sprinted down the right touch line and scored for the ‘Canes. Jordie Barret kicking into the wind from the extreme right of the field was able to bring the ball back and send it between the posts. Score’s level 17 all. Mo’uanga showed his absolute brilliance with a beautiful chip kick after drawing the defence and sent Seevu Reece (the leaping prawn) away. However, Reece was pinged for foul play and the Hurricanes got out of jail again! It was almost half time, and the Hurricanes got a 60-meter penalty but chose to kick for touch as they were kicking into the wind and even Jordie Barret may have found this difficult. However, they gained good touch and got over the line but were unable to ground the ball.

At this stage we had an incident that has begun to typify the way the Crusaders play. Highly unnecessary for a side with so much talent and ability. Scott Barret the Crusaders captain raised a captain’s challenge (the half time hooter had gone) and got the ref to review an incident when Ngani Laumape displaying the aforesaid unnecessary force that is his penchant, kneed a player on the ground. Now in the “bad old days” when rugby was still a man’s game such incidents when missed by the ref, were duly noted and referred to the “hit men” of the team and revenge extracted at an opportune moment. However now, and especially the Crusaders cry out in anguish to the referees, throw in some acting skills and usually get a yellow card or even a red card against their opponents. The ref duly obliged (yellow card) with a faint air of embarrassment, that I could relate to, and this meant the Hurricanes would start the second half one man down.

Second half started with scores level and the Wellington team playing with the wind at their backs, this would obviously add range to the already massive kicks of the youngest Barret brother. Two minutes into the second half Aardie Savea made a great break off the back of the scrum (he played no 8 although he was wearing the no7 jersey) and sent his no 9 Brent Hall away who then passed to Westhuizen on the left wing who scored. Jordie Barret converted with another brilliant kick and the score line was 24 -17, ‘Canes in the lead. Aardie Savea seemed to have taken a big knock on his knee but soldiered on and continued to make a huge difference to the Hurricanes loose play. The Crusaders went into full attack mode and usually when they do this, they are clinical and perfect and invariably score. However, basic mistakes, pinged for obstruction, conceding scrum penalties and chip kicks going astray led to the Hurricanes not conceding points. The Crusaders were unable to score with the opposition one man down and in fact the opposition scored! Maybe the rugby God’s are still able to have their way! In the 55th minute the entire Hurricanes side was pinged for not bothering to get onside off a kick from their full back. It was a huge booming kick from Jordie Barret and the fact that the Hurricanes players did not wait for him to put them on side would have made little difference to the game, but we are told the referees have been asked to crack down on this infringement. The resulting penalty was easily converted by Mo’uanga. 24 -20 but the home side still ahead. Another penalty this time for the ‘Canes, around 30 meters out posed no problem for Jordie Barret and with those 3 points he became the highest points scorer for the tournament (overtaking Ritchie Mo’uanga) to date and took his team to a 27 – 20 lead.

At this point two players who had been playing their hearts out for the Wellington team, skipper Aardie Savea and hooker Dan Coles were subbed off the field. This proved costly but would have been necessary as a man can only do so much! 63 minutes into the game the Crusaders strung together seven phases of play and Seevu Reece went over the line from what initially looked like a forward pass but was later cleared by the TV ref. scores level once again 27 all. 71 minutes into the game, the Hurricanes got a penalty 63 meters out but Jordie Barret was kicking with the wind behind him, and the crowd was chanting JORDIE< JORDIE and left their team with no choice but to take the kick. Aardie Savea was moving his lips in prayer from the sidelines. Jordie missed but it was not due to lack of distance! two minutes from the end Ritchie Mo’uanga tried a drop goal and missed, scores level at full time and two golden point games in succession.

This is where superior coaching and complete coaching comes to the fore. The acting Hurricanes skipper looked lost with the decisions he had to make when he won the toss and the Crusaders pulled off a great one- two trick with Ritchie Mo’uanga who usually takes drop goals running with the ball and getting involved in a ruck and making the Hurricanes defence think that the danger of a drop goal was non-existent, only to have David Havili kick a drop goal from acting first receiver. All over red rover, with just two minutes into extra time.

The Crusaders did win but they should be rather worried because the usually well-oiled juggernaut is not functioning the way it should.



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Sri Lanka on the verge of a selection committee shake-up

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A little over four months after winning the Asia Cup, Sri Lanka are on the verge of a selection committee shake-up and its chief Pramodya Wickramasinghe is likely to be among the first names on the chopping block.

Wickramasinghe has headed the selection committee since April 2021, overseeing a youth-driven overhaul of Sri Lanka’s limited overs squads. This has seen seniors such as Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne, cut from the white-ball sides. Under Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka adopted a less reactionary approach to the selection process.

In this time, with Mickey Arthur and now Chris Silverwood as head coach, the national side has seen varying degrees of success, most notably home ODI series wins against South Africa and Australia and an Asia Cup T20 triumph. But despite this, a limp showing in the T20 World Cup followed by chastening white-ball losses away to India at the start of 2023, has brought the role of the selectors under the spotlight.

To fully comprehend the current state of Sri Lankan cricketing affairs, a slightly wider outlook on the landscape is required – starting with the appointment of new sports minister Roshan Ranasinghe in May 2022 who succeeded Namal Rajapaksa, the nephew of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gotabaya was eventually forced to resign following wide-scale protests in the country amidst a severe economic crisis, which also set in motion Namal’s ouster from the role of sports minister.

Among Ranasinghe’s first acts as sports minister was to appoint former Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga to head a 15-member National Sports Council (NSC), tasked with advising the sports minister on sports-related matters in the country.

Ranatunga has long been a vocal critic of Sri Lanka Cricket’s executive committee headed by president Shammi Silva, and following the team’s subpar T20 World Cup performance, he wasted little time in calling for the selectors to be replaced.

Wickramasinghe defended himself in an interview with Sri Lankan newspaper the Sunday Times earlier this month, asking: “We are number three in the ICC Test Championship points table. Clinched the country’s first major title in eight years, the Asia Cup, and then earned direct qualifications to the T20 World Cup in 2024. In ODIs we won a series against Australia. Aren’t these results of our efforts during the last 18 months?”

It seems that the SLC is inclined to agree with Wickramasinghe, but they aren’t the ones seeking to shift out the selectors. That’s the work of the sports ministry-appointed National Sports Selection Committee (NSSC).

In Sri Lanka, sports law mandates that national team selectors be appointed by the sports minister, so much so that even the squads they pick must first get sports ministry approval prior to being ratified. And in October 2022, the NSSC – a seven-member committee headed by Sri Lanka’s Chief of Defence Staff General Shavendra Silva and including former chairman of selectors Sanath Jayasuriya – was appointed with the task of giving final approval to sports selection in the country.

Earlier this month, the SLC sent the NSSC a set of 10 names, including Wickramasinghe’s, from which to pick the new selection committee. However the NSSC, without rejecting them outright, expressed dissatisfaction and requested an updated list be sent. The NSSC are set to meet on Monday (January 30) to make a final decision.

Political influence on cricketing matters is not unusual in Sri Lanka, with its post-1996 World Cup history punctuated by a series of interim committees, upheaval in selectors and selection, and shifts in captaincy. (cricinfo)

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Aryna Sabalenka defeats Elena Rybakina for Aussie Open title

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MELBOURNE, Australia —The serves were big. So big. Other shots too. The points were over quickly. So quickly, including aces on seven of the first 13.And so it was immediately apparent in the Australian Open women’s final between Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina that the player who could manage to keep her serve in line, get a read on returns and remain steady at the tightest moments would emerge victorious.

That turned out to be Sabalenka, a 24-year-old from Belarus, who won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 at Melbourne Park on Saturday night, using 17 aces among her 51 total winners to overcome seven double faults.

It was telling that Sabalenka’s remarks during the postmatch ceremony were directed at her coach, Anton Dubrov, and her fitness trainer, Jason Stacy. She referred to them as “the craziest team on tour, I would say.”

“We’ve been through a lot of, I would say, downs last year,” said Sabalenka, who was appearing in her first major final. “We worked so hard, and you guys deserve this trophy. It’s more about you than it’s about me.”

Now 11-0 in 2023 with two titles, Sabalenka is a powerful player whose most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Long capable of hammering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some matches.

After much prodding from her group, she finally agreed to undergo an overhaul of her serving mechanics in August. That, along with a commitment to trying to stay calm in the most high-pressure moments, is paying off now.

The only set she has dropped all season was the opener Saturday against Rybakina, who eliminated No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the fourth round.But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style and, importantly, by breaking Rybakina three times, the last coming for a 4-3 lead in the third set that was never relinquished.

Still, Sabalenka needed to work for the championship while serving in what would be the final game, double-faulting on her initial match point and requiring three more to close things out.When Rybakina sent a forehand long to cap the final after nearly 2½ hours, Sabalenka dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until eliminating Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done one better and will rise to No. 2 in the rankings.As seagulls were squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph. They traded zooming groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in winner after winner.

“Hopefully,” Rybakina said afterward, “we’re going to have many more battles.”

The key statistic, ultimately, was this: Sabalenka accumulated 13 break points, Rybakina seven. Sabalenka’s trio of conversions was enough, and the constant pressure she managed to apply during Rybakina’s service games had to take a toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, an average of once per match. It took Rybakina fewer than 10 minutes of action and all of two receiving games to get the measure of things and lead 2-1, helped by getting back one serve that arrived at 117 mph.

A few games later, Sabalenka returned the favor, also putting her racket on one of Rybakina’s offerings at that same speed. Then, when Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to grab her first break and pull even at 4-all, she looked at Dubrov and Stacy in the stands, raised a fist and shouted.

In the next game, though, Sabalenka gave that right back, double-faulting twice, including on break point, to give Rybakina a 5-4 edge. This time, Sabalenka again turned toward her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms extended, as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina held at love to own that set.Sabalenka changed the momentum right from the get-go in the second set. Aggressively attacking, she broke to go up 3-1, held for 4-1 and eventually served it out, fittingly, with an ace — on a second serve, no less.

She acknowledged ahead of time that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: This was the most important match of her career to date.And if those jitters were evident early — double-faulting on the match’s first point — and appeared to be resurfacing as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled them well enough to finish the job.

(ESPN)

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Novak Djokovic back on top Down Under, win Australian Open

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Novak Djokovic found this trip to Australia far less complicated, and far more successful, than that of a year ago.

Unable to enter his best event in 2022 after being deported from the country because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19, Djokovic accomplished all he could have wanted in his return: He resumed his winning ways at Melbourne Park and made it back to the top of tennis.

Only briefly challenged in the final on Sunday night, Djokovic was simply better at the most crucial moments and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) for a record-extending 10th Australian Open championship and record-tying 22nd Grand Slam title overall. As a bonus, Djokovic will vault from No. 5 to No. 1 in the ATP rankings, a spot he already has held for more weeks than any other man.

“He’s the greatest that has ever held a tennis racket,” Tsitsipas said.

Djokovic stretched his unbeaten streak in Melbourne to 28 matches, the longest run at the tournament for a man in the Open era, which dates to 1968. He adds trophy No. 10 there to the seven from Wimbledon, three from the U.S. Open — where he also was absent last year because of no coronavirus shots — and two at the French Open, to match rival Rafael Nadal for the most by a man in tennis history.

Margaret Court, with 24, Serena Williams, with 23, and Steffi Graf, with 22, have the most among women.This was also the 93rd ATP tour-level title for Djokovic, allowing the 35-year-old from Serbia to break a tie with Nadal for the fourth-most. Jimmy Connors holds that mark, at 109.

Djokovic was participating in his 33rd major final, Tsitsipas in his second — and the 24-year-old from Greece’s other one also ended in a loss to Djokovic, at the 2021 French Open.

He was superior throughout against Tsitsipas, but especially so in the two tiebreakers. He took a 4-1 lead in the first and after it was 4-all, pulled off three points in a row. He led 5-0 in the closing tiebreaker and, when it finished, he pointed to his temple then climbed into the stands, pumped his fist and jumped with his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, and other members of the entourage, and collapsed, crying.

Little doubt this is of no solace to Tsitsipas, but there is no shame in failing to defeat Djokovic in Melbourne. Challenging his dominion on those blue hard courts is every bit the monumental task that taking on Nadal on the red clay at Roland Garros is.

Perhaps surprisingly, Tsitsipas was willing to engage in the kind of leg-wearying, lung-searing back-and-forths upon which Djokovic has built his superlative career. How did that work out? Of points lasting at least five strokes, Djokovic won 43, Tsitsipas 30,

Then again, on those rare occasions that Tsitsipas did charge the net, he likely regretted the choice, because Djokovic often conjured up a passing shot that was too tough to handle.

One of Djokovic’s many other strengths is his return game, and he accumulated three break points within 17 minutes, converting the last for a quick 3-1 lead when Tsitsipas double-faulted.

The trophy for which they were playing was displayed on a pedestal near a corner of the court, and both men would get within reach of it whenever wandering over to towel off between points at that end.So close, yes, but for Tsitsipas, never truly close enough.

It’s not as though Tsitsipas played all that poorly, other than a rash of early miscues that seemed to be more a product of tension than anything.

It’s that Djokovic was, put simply, too good. Too accurate with his strokes — making merely 22 unforced errors, 20 fewer than his foe — and anticipation. Too speedy and flexible chasing shots (other than on one second-set point, when, running to his left, Djokovic took a tumble). Too dangerous with his returns and damaging enough with his serves.

Djokovic pushes and pushes and pushes some more, until it’s the opponent who is something less than perfect on one shot, either missing or providing an opening to pounce.There has been more than forehands and backhands on Djokovic’s mind over the past two weeks.

There was the not-so-small matter of last year’s legal saga — he has alternately acknowledged the whole thing served as a form of motivation but also said the other day, “I’m over it” — and curiosity about the sort of reception he would get.He heard a ton of loud support, but also dealt with some persistent heckling while competing, including applause after the faults Sunday.

There was the sore left hamstring that has been heavily bandaged for every match — until the final, that is, when only a single piece of beige athletic tape was visible — and had worried him at the beginning of Week 1, prompting him to turn to what he said was “a lot” of pain-killing pills and other treatments he didn’t detail.

And then there was the more complicated matter of his father, Srdjan, being filmed with a group of people with Russian flags — one with an image of Vladimir Putin — after Djokovic’s quarterfinal victory. The tournament banned spectators from bringing in flags of Russia or Belarus, saying they would cause disruption because of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Both Djokovic and his father said it was a misunderstanding, based on Srdjan thinking he was with a group of Serbian fans.

Because of that episode, Srdjan Djokovic did not attend his son’s semifinal victory over Tommy Paul on Friday, and was not seen in the Djokovic guest box on Sunday.No matter any of it, Djokovic managed to excel as he so often does, winning 17 sets in a row after ceding one in the second round last week.

(ESPN)

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