Writers reflect on Covid-compromised year of sport

Richie Mo’unga, LeBron James and Courtney Duncan gave us something to celebrate this year. Photos: Getty Images/ODT file
Richie Mo’unga, LeBron James and Courtney Duncan gave us something to celebrate this year. Photos: Getty Images/ODT file
Despite Covid-19 bringing 
sport to its knees this year, there was still plenty to cheer about. The Otago Daily Times Sport department offers its verdict on the action.

Stephen Hepburn

BEST PERFORMANCE

Hard to give this to a Cantabrian but Richie Mo’unga was electric throughout the Super Rugby season. Even way back in February and March he was the key man for the Crusaders. When the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition came back, Mo’unga kept it up and led the red and blacks to another title. He was absolutely outstanding in the All Blacks’ demolition of the Wallabies in Sydney. That was a top performance. But he is still inconsistent and goes missing when things start going wrong.

Richie Mo'unga at All Blacks training in Japan. Photo: Getty Images
Richie Mo'unga at All Blacks training. Photo: Getty Images

BEST NATIONAL ATHLETE

Kane Williamson is the best batsman this country has produced. It is hard to beat Martin Crowe in full flight but on statistics and the ability to perform in the tough situations Williamson is top of the pile. Any guy who can play well in all three forms of the game has to be admired. Crowe is the No1 batsman for many but Williamson is sitting on the chair beside and knocking him over.

There are plenty of other contenders. At a southern sport level take your pick from: Aaron Smith, Ash Dixon, Jona Nareki, Erika Fairweather, Alice Robinson, Jacob Duffy, Mikayla Harvey and Courtney Duncan.

Also a special mention for Laura Langman who quietly slipped into retirement. The Richie McCaw of her sport with a lot less coverage and way smaller pay packet.

BEST INTERNATIONAL ATHLETE

Lean year really in the big sports as they battled the virus.

Bayern Munich and Polish forward Robert Lewandowski did all he could. Won the league with his club, the German Cup, the Champions League and was also named Fifa’s world player of the year, breaking the monopoly of the big two. Scored more than 40 goals in a season as we all started following the German Bundesliga for a few weeks.

Top marks also go to the likes of Mo Salah, Jordan Henderson, Steve Smith (can’t stand watching him), Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Cameron Smith.

But the top international sportsman must be former English rugby league skipper Kevin Sinfield. He ran seven marathons in seven days to raise money for his former team-mate Rob Burrow, who has the awful motor neurone disease. Sinfield wanted to raise $NZ147,000 (£77,777). He ended up raising more than $NZ4.7million (£2.5million). An absolute champion effort.

The roar of the crowd was sadly missed this year. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The roar of the crowd was sadly missed this year. PHOTO: ODT FILES

THREE THINGS I REALLY MISSED

1. You might head out on a Saturday and wander somewhere to see a game. On the way is another park where some game is being played. You might not know anyone in the teams but you can still watch for a wee while and then move on. Just those incidentals of seeing someone do well on the sports field.

With spectators banned for many sports when back at Alert Level 2, it was frustrating not being able to get along and watch people play. One question came from this: Would kids still play as much sport as they do if parents and caregivers were not allowed to watch it?

	Kane Williamson makes his century during day two of the first test match in the series between...
Kane Williamson makes his century during day two of the first test match in the series between New Zealand and Pakistan at Bay Oval in Tauranga, on Sunday. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
2. Last year the spring school holidays were stink as usual weatherwise and most were kept indoors. Never mind the world athletic championships were on and became compulsory viewing. But this year nothing like that happened. Those events you could watch late at night or early in the morning simply disappeared. The Golden League athletic meets, overseas rowing regattas, English super league. Most of them came back but it took a while and it was weird in front of no crowds.

3. Just the noise of a crowd. The game between Auckland and Otago was a fizzer, not just because the home got pumped. Hard to believe with appropriate social distancing a crowd of 2000-3000 could not have been allowed in.

I DIDN’T MISS

Missed everything. Made you appreciate everything. Lockdown sucked and anyone who thinks not is two short steps from a moron status. Maybe you kept your job and your house went up in value but lots of people lost jobs and loved ones. Can’t see the upside in that — for anyone.

A HERO IN DIFFICULT TIMES

You play sport so no-one is really a hero. They are just good at what they do. And that does not just apply to sportsmen. A lot of people lost sight of that.

REPORT CARDS

All Blacks C — Won the adjusted Tri-Nations but never really convinced. Not enough players at the peak of their powers.

Black Caps B — Yeah they looked good and all that, beating India but the walloping in Australia still sits uncomfortably in view.

Silver Ferns B — Never really got much going. Beat the Poms and the men but it was all a bit of a relaxed year as the Australians were not sighted.

OLYMPICS

Hard to see how it can go on. Like how do teams and athletes qualify? Will anyone be at peak fitness and have had a decent lead-up? Will any New Zealander want to leave the safety of this country — if it is safe then — to go to Japan and mix with 10,000 other people? But it will go ahead. Too much money has been spent by lots of big powerful governments, corporations and people for it to not go ahead. New Zealand will get 15 medals at least and five golds at a minimum. It could be a very good games for those in black.

Adrian Seconi

BEST PERFORMANCE

The Palmerston Flyer Courtney Duncan crashed early in the penultimate race of the Women’s Motocross Championships. With the title on the line she picked up her bike and made her way from last to first. Footage of that ride makes it appear like she was jumping over her rivals on her way back to her rightful spot at the front of the field. It was just the camera angle but it was pretty close to a miraculous ride all the same. She took lines no-one else was prepared to ride or could ride. And what a ride.

BEST LOCAL ATHLETE

Duncan again. This pint-sized genius set her sights on winning the world championship when she was just a child who was too fast for a lot of the boys. But she suffered setback after setback during her first three years on the world circuit. Despite clearly being the quickest, somehow the title kept eluding her. But nothing could stop her in 2019 and she defended her title in 2020 thanks to a stunning ride in the penultimate race and a mature effort in the final race of the season. And a special mention goes to the Otago Nuggets. Their marvellous effort to win a maiden National Basketball League title this season after six years in the wilderness bought this former basketball writer infinite joy.

Palmerston's Courtney Duncan shows her style on the way to winning both the races at the opening...
Palmerston's Courtney Duncan shows her style on the way to winning both the races at the opening WMX race in Matterley Basin in the United Kingdom. PHOTO: MXGP

BEST INTERNATIONAL ATHLETE

Lewis Hamilton. He drives really fast. Could have a future as an Uber driver.

THREE THINGS I REALLY MISSED

Live sport. Live sport. Live sport. For a long while I thought the last live match I would ever cover for the Otago Daily Times was a game of bowls. And, if I’m honest, my thoughts drifted. The sidelines around Otago are essentially our office and it is a much nicer spot to be than in front of a screen in the spare room at home where so much Covid-19 coverage was composed. There really is nothing like being there and we all had to do that remotely during lockdown.

I DIDN’T MISS

Getting dressed in the morning. The drive into work. Office politics. And professional rugby. It eventually got back up and running and Super Rugby Aotearoa was warmly received. But am I alone in thinking rugby at that level has morphed into a really boring game? A lot of the creativity has been squeezed out of the sport by people on the sideline who control the game by remote. Defence dominates and the rolling maul is king. Sorry, but I don’t watch rugby to see Ash Dixon score from a lineout drive or for a team to probe away for 15-odd phases before an outside back slips past a prop.

A HERO IN DIFFICULT TIMES

The Otago Nuggets celebrate after claiming their first NBL championship last night in Auckland....
The Otago Nuggets celebrate after claiming their first NBL championship. Photo: Getty Images
Bless those Otago Nuggets. They emerged from the abyss to win the National Basketball League. It is about as unlikely story as you will ever read. They had slept through their share of winters but the arrival of Covid-19 actually provided the franchise a pathway back. And we owe a debt of gratitude to Angela Ruske. If it was not for her efforts in keeping the franchise in our hearts and minds during the wilderness years, then it is unlikely the team would have risen from the ashes as it did so wonderfully.

REPORT CARDS

All Blacks C — Erratic. Must do better.

Black Caps A- — Marked down for poor performances in Australia in December/January.

Silver Ferns A — Dominant but never played Australia.

OLYMPICS

Will absolutely go ahead. No question. Whether that is a good idea or not is another question. And why we should even care about this obscenely commercial event. The countries who spend the most, win the most. New Zealand has bought into that philosophy and, while we all get to feel good when one of our athletes gets to the top step, there does not seem to be a thread of evidence to link the millions and millions we have spent on top level sport to improved health outcomes for the nation. Maybe some of the millions would be better spent at grassroots level.

Jeff Cheshire

BEST GAME

Kane Keil drives at Tom Vodanovich during this year's NBL Showdown final between the Otago...
Kane Keil drives at Tom Vodanovich during this year's NBL Showdown final between the Otago Nuggets and the Manawatu Jets in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images
Otago Nuggets’ win in the NBL final was not a great game in itself but the occasion was. It was a scrappy, tight and tense affair as the Nuggets held off the Manawatu Jets 79-77 to complete their fairy-tale return by winning the National Basketball League.

BEST LOCAL ATHLETE

In a tough year for the Southern Steel, young wing defence Kate Heffernan took another huge stride. Constantly disrupts attacks with her long arms and ability to read the play and come up with ball. Had a strong showing for New Zealand A and is surely on the Silver Ferns’ radar. Honourable mentions to Erika Fairweather (swimming), Shay Veitch (athletics), Rosie Elliott (athletics) and Zoe Richards (basketball).

BEST NATIONAL ATHLETE

Israel Adesanya is the undefeated world champion who is one of the UFC’s top fighters regardless of weight. A genuine big name in an increasingly popular global sport. Very outspoken but is an advocate for so many social issues.

Israel Adesanya.
Israel Adesanya.

BEST INTERNATIONAL ATHLETE

LeBron James won his fourth NBA title and became the first player to win Finals MVP with three different teams. He turns 36 at the end of this year and as he enters his 18th season, the King is arguably a better player than he has ever been. If he is still behind Michael Jordan in the greatest of all-time conversation, the gap is now paper thin.

THREE THINGS I MISSED

Socialising. Sports is much more than just the game. So much of the enjoyment comes from being among like-minded people. The random conversations and the people you run into all disappeared as sport went on hold.

Live sport. The classic games on television were great, but you cannot beat a game playing out in front of you.

March Madness. While a lot sport was cancelled, much of it was rescheduled or revamped. Unfortunately the college basketball national tournament — my favourite sporting event — was cancelled completely as the situation in the United States got very quickly out of hand.

I DIDN’T MISS

Super Rugby. It was a shame to not have the Highlanders to follow, but did anyone actually miss those games between teams like the Bulls and the Rebels? When Super Rugby Aotearoa — an infinitely better competition — began that only became clearer.

A HERO IN DIFFICULT TIMES

You could say the National Basketball League general manager Justin Nelson is an optimist. But he is an optimist who gets things done. The ideas for the NBL this year all seemed ambitious at first. But Nelson made them happen. In the process he has made tweaks that have boosted the league’ s popularity exponentially, which seems set to grow with his vision.

REPORT CARDS

All Blacks D — The golden run had to end at some point, but this was more of a crash. Won the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup. But three wins, two losses and one draw in a season when they did not play any of the world’s top five teams is not a great return.

Black Caps B — Crushed both India and the West Indies. However, the memories of last summer in Australia linger and the third test of that train wreck fell right at the start of 2020.

Silver Ferns A — Lost just one game — to the New Zealand Men — which they avenged in the Cadbury Series final by claiming a historic victory. Beat England convincingly and while it is hard to judge them without playing Australia, they could only play who was put in front of them.

OLYMPICS

They will go ahead. Predicting medals is a tricky business, but let’s go with eight and hope for more.

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