Rising to the Occasion

Coaches, fans and footballers always say that good players perform during finals. So far this year that has been true with the regular names bobbing up with great stats and obvious influence in the fight. I think there are players who run onto the field and know they are going to dominate, such is their confidence in their ability and their single minded competitive nature. You see these types in other sports like Raphael Nadal in Tennis. He plays like every point is worth a Wimbledon crown, and every shot is assured, powerful and measured. I know nothing about swimming but Michael Phelps strikes me, as this kind of competitor as well, although I think freak is the best way to describe athletes like him and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.

All the very good teams of the last ten years have at least one of these guys. Michael Voss, Justin Leppitsch, Adam Goodes, Chris Judd, Gary Ablett and my favourite Brett Kirk all appeared to have or have had total belief in themselves, regardless of the occasion. They are not the only ones of course; they just stand out to me. Brett Kirk is what I think of as a process player. They are players who have been convinced by personal experience or by sound mentors that if they play their role for the team, if they follow the same process they followed each week of the season, then they will surely influence the game. The reason why Brett Kirk stands above others of this nature is because he seemingly led an entire club to the same process, to the same level of belief.

There is however another category of player who are remembered for their performances in finals, and I think these guys are influenced by a sort of magic. Here are the clichés. The hard work paid off. I just wanted to play my role for the team, anything above that was a bonus. Coaches will try to keep a lid on extraordinary performances as well. Yes, he has done everything we asked of him. I love understatement like that after a young player has just kicked 3 and had 24 touches in a prelim. I especially like it because a coach can’t let these guys get a big head, and nor should he. The fact is, that on big occasions, in big arenas, some people turn in performances far beyond their capability, and there is magic involved. Think about these examples of blessed Grand Finalists. In 2001 Shaun Hart won the Norm Smith after playing like superman. In 2003 Robbie Copeland gave Nathan Buckley a touch up. In 2005 Lewis Roberts-Thompson was plucking one handers on the last line of defence, and I don’t need to remind anyone of Leo Barry’s moment in the sun. And, best of all, in 2008, weighing in at about 140 kilos Stewart Dew and his massive arse brought Geelong to their knees in 15 minutes of big-bodied wonder. These guys did not sleep the night before the game and they couldn’t tell you what happened on the day. They’re sure they ran onto the ground and they were absolutely focused on playing well for the team. From that point on, something else was in control. Magic.

Thankfully all of us can experience these moments of sporting glory, when months of practice and obsession culminate in an inspiring performance on a big stage. In 2003 I was living with 4 mates in a share house in Brisbane. Ping Pong was everything, but the stage was a blowy spot in the corner of our exposed verandah. Some day’s the windy conditions made the ball near unplayable. However, despite the challenges, we honed our topspin religiously. Some days, rallies were barely below Olympic standard, though none of us ever competed on the world stage. All we cared about was dominance over our fellow housemates, but where could we go where the windy conditions couldn’t be used to excuse a defeat? The answer came when we discovered the Kelvin Grove Table Tennis centre. Our jaws dropped to the floor the first day we set foot inside the Table Tennis centre. It was Pongtopia.  Perfect smooth blue tables filled a large wearhouse. Each had it’s own competition standard playing area enclosed with sponsor’s barriers. There was a special feel there, like a hot shower after a week camping on Moreton Island. It was clean and welcoming. It felt like home, and much to my joy, it made me a far better player.

It reminded me of the first time I had competed on hallowed grounds and found a special performance from deep within. When I was in grade seven I was the second best high jumper in my class and went to the interschool athletics carnival at QE2. This arena is now known as ANZ stadium, the recently abandoned home of the Brisbane Broncos. After weeks of training on the grass oval at school we got our chance to compete on the tartan track that had hosted the Commonwealth games of 1982. Before that day I had never cleared higher than 1.10m. However, in that competition I inexplicably scissored (my technique before I learnt the Frosby Flop) 1.27m to place second in B division. This perfect leap was beyond my capabilities in the real world, and I can still remember my name and achievement up in digital characters on the QE2 scoreboard, 2nd Mapleston – 1.27m. Playing at Pongtopia was like competing at QE2. This comparison is the only way I can explain the phenomena. It is fair to say that I hadn’t returned to a performance anywhere near the sort of sporting excellence that sailed me over 1.27m until I set foot in Pongtopia, and proceeded to demolish my housemates in a dazzling display of power and top spin.

This year there are some fresh faces in the finals mix with the resurgence of the Dockers, Swans and Collingwood being led by some young talent. Gary Ablett and Dane Swan will dominate, Brett Kirk will lead by example, Aaron Sandliands will win a million ruck contests and, someone you’ve barley noticed will play a game the likes of which they could never have seen coming. Don’t miss it, it probably won’t happen again.


  1. SydneyMalakellis says

    I too have spent many an hour honing my quite possibly Olympian standard ping pong abilities. In fact, I would say that it is the defining moment in my career so far rustling ten dollars from twenty five people at work to raise the funds for a table, two packets of balls and four paddles. I bow to your Pong capabilities and long to joing you in this mysterious heaven called Pongtopia. I just hope that Tom Lonergan will too…

  2. Sydney,

    Ping Pong is the great game

    Footy is a narrow second

    and I am still looking for third best game in the world of sport.

    My Pontopia is in Brisbane, but I am sure every city has at least one.

  3. Also,

    Football players are either gamblers or Pong-heads. I think Lonergan may fall into the later category.

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