A Sweet and Soward Relationship

Soward looking.... well sour.  source: Daily Telegraph
On any given Sunday a successful St George-Illawarra side is met with a slew of witty and cheeky slogans held aloft on the hills of Jubilee and Win Stadiums.

One of the most prominent, simple and eloquently constructed reads ‘Sweet and Soward’.
Right now that sign drips with a sweet and sour irony.

The banner, held up as support for the soon to be former Dragons five-eighth’s sweet play, could also represent the soured relationship the premiership winning half must now have with a club he only recently vowed to never play against.

Penrith fans will now want written confirmation of Jamie’s availability before every Dragons v Panthers game, because Soward is now a chocolate soldier, liquorice all sort, a Panther.

I must admit, Soward’s exit from the Dragons took me by surprise; seldom do clubs let go of premiership players without putting up a fight.

The apparent lack of enthusiasm shown by club chiefs in negotiating Soward’s contract is a sad way for what was a beautiful and fruitful relationship to end.

To be wanted by a club you love and offered the money you know you deserve must be a fulfilling and proud experience; so to be obviously unwanted by a club you love must be heartbreaking.

Soward was a player maligned by opposition fans but taken under the wing of the Dragon faithful through his obvious passion for a team that allowed him that most Australian of tropes; a fair go.

He was a huge factor in the Dragons run to the 2010 title under the guidance of Wayne Bennett. Soward’s style of play was masterfully worked into a Bennett system that saw his considerable strengths in kicking and organising come glowingly to the fore.

During those heady Bennett days Soward’s confidence grew on the back of a coach’s belief and a playing style tailor-made for his abilities.

In that brief, Bennett-run era success seemed omnipresent.

Soward, as the team’s number six, could rightfully lay claim to a significant slice of the winners’ pie. An influential player in a team feeding success to two merged clubs that had been starved of the ultimate prize.

But now the affair is over, and a new suitor from the southern climes is about to ride into Dragon town to assume the role as saviour of the big red V.

The tone of Dragons fans’ reactions to Soward’s departure is one of the strangest aspects to this episode of an unfortunately-timed annual horse-trading season the NRL refuses to fix.

(Surely a rule should be brought in to stop mid-season signings [not trades] for the following year, an absurd and ridiculous situation embarrassingly unique to the NRL.)

Fan forums are hot bed of hyperbole, hope and more than occasionally vitriol, but the signing of Gareth Widdop from the Storm seemed to have left Dragons fans largely unmoved by the departure of Soward.

It is as if the whole exchange was viewed as a fortunate step forward; Soward representing the adequate economy class ticket, Widdop the more desirable, business class upgrade.

But is Widdop’s signing the answer or just another question in the club’s seemingly obsessive search for a long-term playmaker?

To anoint Widdop as the saviour of the Dragons much maligned and often-benign attack is at best unfair and at worst bloody minded; a potential sacrifice to the god of instant results.

Widdop may be a harder head and more willing to place it in positions of dubious safety, but he is untested as a marquee player, having spent all of his time in the NRL playing alongside Melbourne’s big three and flourishing under Craig Bellamy’s tutelage.

Widdop’s well earned and significant reputation has largely been built around his running game and a sound defence, not the sleight of hand or high class kicking game the Dragons seem to want out of skilled pivot.

The Storm five-eighth is a class player with plenty of big game experience and if any number six has a chance of making a positive impact in a new, more responsible and high-pressure role it would be the Northern Englishman/Melbournian.

But there is no doubting the challenges Widdop faces in coming to a club that seems desperate for a creative, take control kind of five-eighth.

Foremost among these challenges is the knowledge that Widdop is replacing a passionate premiership-winning player who was effectively shown the door by a club with which he felt a close affinity through the opportunities they had afforded.

Dragons’ fans obviously hope the man to slip into Soward’s vacated number six jersey will enjoy the same sweet success the head-geared pivot had wearing the red V.

If he doesn’t, the fans may see yet another great red and white hope become the victim of a soured relationship.

How I Learned To Believe In The Knicks

A friend once said to me that listening to people recount their dreams is like being stuck in an elevator with Forrest Gump; a person telling you stories about a make-believe life you know nothing about and have little care for.

But last night I had a dream that has forced me to ignore this pearl of wisdom to regale you with how I became convinced that the New York Knicks could beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.

It involved former New York Knicks big man Patrick Ewing, current Knicks big man Tyson Chandler, actors from a 90′s American sitcom, a hot dog and a pair of stone washed knee length jeans.

This dream began with me sitting on a Central Park bench that was a picture of pure New York perfection.

Sucking down a chilli dog, I watched as Courtney Cox and David Schwimmer rowed a boat on the calm waters of Central Park Lake.

The charming repartee of these two TV siblings reminded me of all those zany ‘friends’ and how much I loathed that show.

I shouted something that couldn’t be repeated in a 7.30 timeslot, then looked down at my stone washed jeans that had been cut off at the knees, shrugged my shoulders and continued eating my hot dog.

Just when I thought the 90′s redux couldn’t get any more embarrassing or irrelevant, Schwimmer asked if he could have some of my hot dog.

It was about this time I almost convinced myself to wake up.

Then Patrick Ewing arrived. 

The legendary New York Knick big man of the 90′s sidled up to the bench I was sitting on, bent down and softly whispered “remember 99.”

“Why?” I asked.

He just flashed his seven-footer smile and calmly pointed in the direction of a burning Tim Hardaway Miami Heat jersey.

Reflected in the smoke haze was footage of Allan Houston’s last second game five winner from the 1999 Knicks first round playoff series victory against the Miami Heat.

That 1999 series was only the second time in NBA history that a number eight seeded playoff team (the Knicks) had defeated a number one ranked team (the Heat), and would cement the Heat versus Knicks rivalry that continues through to today.

As I looked back Ewing, ‘the beast of the east’, suddenly morphed into the modern day Knick middleman and part time fashionista Tyson Chandler.

Strange things happen in dreams, but the strangest thing was yet to come, as Tyson was about to convince me that the Knicks could beat the Heat in 2013. He did so by comparing his former team’s, the Dallas Mavericks, marvellous run to the title in 2011 with his current team, the 2013 New York Knicks.

In the 2011 finals Chandler and his Mavs defeated the first incarnation of the modern day Miami Heat and its equal parts fabled and maligned ‘big three’.
He waxed lyrical about a scorer of elite talent in Dirk Nowitzki, a man that at times during that 2011 series looked like he was playing alone in the yard, such was the ease with which he got his shots.
Carmelo Anthony will fill a similar role should New York meet Miami in this year’s Eastern Conference finals.

Anthony is the 2013 scoring champion and an out and out bucket filler. Like Nowitzki he has the ability to spread any defence with an innate ability to get to his spots.

Miami, like most teams, have this year found it hard to match-up on Carmelo and this will obviously be a massive plus for New York throughout any potential Miami match-up.
Chandler also reminded me that his teammate at the Knicks, Jason Kidd, was also a teammate during the Dallas run to the championship.

An exceptional leader, Kidd has successfully morphed himself from a pass first assist machine into spot up shooter of the highest order.

His championship experience and leadership with the Knicks second unit will be invaluable in trying to stop a Heat side that has improved markedly since that heady 2011 series.

And he saved special mention to the man known as Jet.

Jason ‘Jet’ Terry was a sixth man in name only, averaging 18 points off the bench during the 2011 finals series, and was able to create space for Dirk and others by spreading the Miami defence.
In JR Smith, a sixth man scorer averaging 18 points, the Knicks have a player that can potentially assume this Jason Terry style scoring punch off the bench.

This is provided that JR can keep a cool head and his mind on his allocated role, something that is not a given where an inked up Smith is involved.

I agreed that offensively the Knicks match-up well against the Heat, but mentioned that I thought it will be their defence that has to fire in order to check the devastating scoring ability of the Heat’s big one (LeBron) plus two (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh).

Chandler then went on to mention something about his fashion tastes and love of capes before reminding me of his not insignificant defensive basketball ability. In fact, Chandler is probably the X-factor for New York, the biggest piece of a potentially Heat busting Knicks puzzle.

With a healthy Chandler anchoring the Knicks defence, Miami will have difficulty penetrating the paint as they did in the 2011 finals when an exceptional defensive performance by Chandler stymied the attack of the Heat.

The Heat still have no one that can effectively match-up with Chandler and will rely on LeBron and Wade’s ability to attack the rim to force the Knicks big man into foul trouble early, something the Heat have improved on since 2011.

My dream ended as David Schwimmer stole a bite from my hot dog, fashion savvy Tyson Chandler told me he liked my shorts and Ewing reappeared and asked me to “believe” as he sauntered off into the darkness past the charred remains of Tim Hardaway’s Heat jersey.

I woke up with reinforced disdain for mid 90′s sitcoms, a curious interest in rediscovering stone wash denim, a strange craving for hot dogs and a new belief that the Knicks may be the one team in the NBA that have the players, system and ability to upset LeBron and the Miami Heat.
Well, in my dreams anyway.