Visionary Barassi helped turn ugly ducklings into our Swans

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The great Ron Barassi – who died last week, aged 87 – took over as coach of the Sydney Swans in the middle of the 1993 season. This was after the most recent iteration of endless Swans disasters, which had brought the team to its very ankles, after a decade of being on its knees. The whole operation was a completely shambolic joke.

The first game under his command was against Carlton at the Sydney Cricket Ground. So stand beside him now as, with five minutes to go before showtime, he sits all his players down, softly closes the dressing-room door, and begins to spin them a tale. He speaks in a low-key but still strangely mesmerising tone. For he wants them to not be with him in the here and now, but to conjure another time, a time well in the future …

“Imagine,” he says with soft intensity, “that it’s 20 years from now. Imagine the Sydney Swans have now won the flag three years in a row, that they’re continuing to break ground records and have more than 100,000 people regularly turning up to games.

“Imagine you’re in a bar, somewhere in Sydney, and at the next table someone recognises you and says, ‘Hey, didn’t you use to play for the Swans back in the early ’90s?’ ‘Hang on,’ they’ll say, ‘weren’t you there when they won that really big game against Carlton or Collingwood or someone that turned it all around, won it at a time when things were so grim their whole survival was in question?’

Ron Barassi was Swans coach from 1993-95.Credit: John Shakespeare

“And men, I want you to imagine what it would be like to be able to say right then and there, ‘Yes, I was there when we turned it around. I played the game against Carlton when, out of nowhere, the Swans won and then kept on winning from there. I was a part of that team the day we turned the corner.’

“Men we can do it. It is possible that we can win this game. It’s up to you.”

And now, without another word, the new coach turns on his heel and walks out.

It was a vintage Barassi speech – told to me by one of the players there at the time, and confirmed by Barassi when I did a profile on him – delivered to some totally enthralled footballers. It is spoiled only by the fact that the newly pumped-up team didn’t go out and wipe their boots all over the fancy-pants schmucks from Carlton to record a famous victory. They did, however, run the men from Carlton close that day, and it really did signal a new era for the Swans. For, here we are 30 years later, and if the Swans are not quite at the top of their game at the minute they are still the jewel in the AFL crown, and with GWS are a pair of diamonds.

And no, it wasn’t Barassi alone who did that as coach, but you can certainly trace the Swans’ evolution from running joke to credible team on their way to being a real force, to his arrival in Sydney. I first got to know him a little on the speaking circuit and then more particularly after doing a book on Tobruk 20 years ago, where I covered the story of his father Ron Barassi snr, a great VFL footballer himself, who was killed by a German bomb on the evening of July 31, 1941, right by the Tobruk wharves. I wrote about it in the book, had laid a flower on his father’s grave at his behest, and he wanted all details I could glean beyond what was published.

I never knew him as a footballer of course, and only tangentially as a coach, but as man he was charismatic, generous, and wonderful company. Vale, Ron.

The late Ron Barassi, pictured during a tribute lap in Sydney in 2003, left an indelible mark on Australian football.Credit: Getty Images

Wallabies need to channel greatness

The scene is set in the dressing room at Groupama Stadium on Sunday evening (Monday 5am AEST) in Lyon, just as the Wallabies are about to take the field against Wales, in their third match of the World Cup.

The SMH columnist is seen to gently move Eddie Jones out of the way and speak softly to them.

“Imagine,” he says, “that it’s 20 years from now. Imagine the Wallabies have now held the Bledisloe for the last 10 years straight, have just won the World Cup for the second time, and have more than 100,000 people regularly turning up to games.

Jordan Petaia, Carter Gordon, Marika Koroibete and Ben Donaldson at training ahead of the crunch Wales clash.Credit: Getty

“Imagine you’re in a bar, somewhere in Sydney, and at the next table someone recognises you and says ‘Hey, weren’t you playing for the Wallabies that match against Wales, back in 2023 . ?’

“‘Hang on, weren’t you the one who took the ball up 14 times, straight into the teeth of the Welsh defence, and bowled them over like nine-pins? Or were you the one that did the cover tackle that saved the game in the final minute? Hang on, I remember now! You were the one who …’”

Well, you get the drift.

To quote me for a moment, we’ve bet the farm on you blokes, and we really are playing for sheep stations. We must win this match!

Rugby diplomacy

TFF has been doing a little swanning about Paris for the World Cup, including attending a function at the Australian Embassy on Thursday evening for the opening of an exhibition on the Wallabies, with a view to promoting Australia hosting the next World Cup in 2027. Australian ambassador Gillian Bird, Rugby Australia chair Hamish McLennan and RA CEO Phil Waugh all spoke well, pumping up the welcome the French could expect chez nous in four years’ time.

But the one that blew the room away was federal sports minister Anika Wells who, it turns out, speaks fluent and near accentless French courtesy of years studying the language having spent an exchange year in Nantes. She even got away with reminding them of Australia beating France in soccer’s Women’s World Cup last month and said it was the greatest privilege of her time in politics to have been present.

Lauding the coming Paris Olympics, she talked of how impressed she is by plans for the Opening Ceremony to have the athletes parade past in boats on the River Seine. She was not sure what her home town of Brisbane would do to match it in 2032 “on the big brown snake” that is the Brisbane River, but assured them the Queenslanders would think of something!

Brought la maison down.

Thinking outside the Boks

Not too sure who wrote this, but it is a meme going round rugby circles, too good not to run. It’s about the innovative approach the Springboks are taking right now, even above and beyond having seven out of eight reserves as forwards in the match against the All Blacks at Twickenham last month – unleashing them all with 20 minutes to go and belting the shell-shocked ABs by 28 points.

See, last week against Romania, they had four halfbacks in the match-day team. As the Boks warm into their match against Ireland on Saturday night (Sunday 5am AEST) in Paris, the meme ran: “As we go off to relax and enjoy the evening, spare a thought for the Irish technical analyst. He has to go and analyse the video footage & then report to Andy Farrell on what he can expect from the Boks. 1 scrumhalf on the wing. The other one at flyhalf! Alternating flanks at hooker. Last weeks fullback at flyhalf and a wing at 2nd centre. And a new flyhalf in the plane. Good luck mate!”

Love it.

What they said

Fiji coach Simon Raiwalui after the win over the Wallabies: “I am emotionally drained. It was a great contest, they are a great Australia side and we know each other well, but I am so proud of the boys. It kept us guessing till the end. They have worked really hard, we pushed them to the limits and they have never complained. When you work hard you get the results.”

Fiji’s Ilaisa Droasese and Samuel Matavesi embrace after defeating the Wallabies.Credit: AP

Eddie Jones after the Fiji loss: “We’re doing our absolute best and I apologise. It’s my fault. I take full responsibility for it. After that I probably deserved more [criticism from the crowd]. They should be throwing baguettes, croissants at me. I deserve whatever I get. It definitely hurts me personally, 100 per cent. I’m 100 per cent responsible for it.”

Former Wallaby Drew Mitchell, off a long run: “Eddie sits there and goes, ‘yeah, it’s my fault. I take full responsibility’. What the f… does that mean though? He doesn’t get dropped this week …. it’s just an empty f…ing line in a press conference. What does that equate to? Nothing.”

Wales coach Warren Gatland must be a TFF reader – who isn’t? – echoing what I wrote last week: “It is important that we continue, from a rugby perspective, to help develop these tier-two nations. There might be a situation where we can increase the number of teams in the World Cup to 24, and that would continue to help grow the game. You don’t want top-tier nations dominating, you want upsets – as long as I am not a part of it.”

French tennis player Julien Benneteau unhappy with Gerard Pique and his company’s Davis Cup format: “How do you dare to talk ??? You have literally killed one of the pillars of Tennis with the @ITFTennis So please at least shut the f… up.”

Lleyton Hewitt on the abysmal state of the Davis Cup where one half of the tennis world doesn’t know what’s happening, and half do but don’t care anyway: “We’ve seen what’s happened. This was meant to be a 25-year thing, and it’s turned into a four-year disaster. Until changes are made, we’re going to sit back and go through exactly the same stuff every year.”

Tottenham are unbeaten after Ange Postecoglou’s first five games in charge.Credit: Getty

Rafael Nadal conceding that Novak Djokovic is the GOAT: “I believe that numbers are numbers and statistics are statistics … I think that with respect to titles, Djokovic is the best in history and there is nothing to discuss about that.”

Ronnie O’Sullivan after winning a fourth straight Shanghai Masters snooker tournament: “I’ll be giving the trophy to my friend who is opening up a club here. I always give them away. My mate Paul’s got one, I gave one to a kid in the crowd. I’m not really bothered about trophies. I’ve sold quite a few of them – I don’t want any memorabilia left by the time I’m 70 or 80. I’m preparing for death – part of that is I don’t want no snooker stuff – waistcoats, cues, it’s all going to go.”

Ange Postecoglou, after another stirring win for his Tottenham team, wants the fans to get carried away: “No, no, no, let them go, let them go and enjoy it. My role is not to burst people’s bubbles. Let them get excited, let them get ahead of themselves. That’s the beauty of being a supporter. They go through enough pain mate, you want to let them enjoy it. If they think we’re going to be world beaters then great, that’s up to us to match that expectation.”

University of Colorado Buffaloes footballer Shilo Sanders talking about his father Deion Sanders – famously nicknamed “Prime Time”, who’s also the team’s coach – and his brother Shedeur, who is also on the team: “Monday is our day off, but that’s when I usually get breakfast with Coach Prime because I’m the favourite son. Shedeur isn’t coming but maybe this time he’ll pull up. But Coach Prime is always Coach Prime, so it’s always like coaching and family time all the time.”

Team of the Week

Fiji. Registered their first win over the Wallabies since 1954, following their victory over England three weeks ago. Superbly coached by Simon Raiwalui, they could be to world rugby what the West Indies were to global cricket in the 1980s and ’90s – the most entertaining, fabulous team out there.

New Zealand Warriors. At times they’re an afterthought, so well done to them for making it to the last four. Will the All Blacks do the same at the World Cup?

Melbourne Demons. Bounced in straight sets two years in a row.

Carlton. Back at the pointy end of the season for first time in a generation.

Ange Postecoglou. Has done incredibly well for Tottenham but if they beat Arsenal on Sunday (11pm AEST) will go to another level. (He wrote, for all the world as if he had the first clue.)

Brisbane. A big night north of the Tweed on Saturday with two preliminary finals – the Lions host Carlton in the AFL and the Broncos host the Warriors in the NRL.

Finland. Beat USA to advance to the Davis Cup quarter-finals for the first time. (I’m told. The new format of the international tennis competition completely passes you and me by.)

RIP Lionel Morgan. The rugby league player, who was the first Indigenous athlete to represent Australia in any major sport, died this week, aged 85. Played three Tests in 1960.

RIP Ron Barassi. The icon of Australian sport passed away, aged 87.

Watch all the action from Rugby World Cup 2023 on the Home of Rugby, Stan Sport. Every match streaming ad-free, live and in 4K UHD with replays, mini matches and highlights available on demand.

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Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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