Munster and Morgan battle for Roos No.6

For Michael Morgan and Cameron Munster there is more than just a premiership ring on the line during Sunday’s NRL grand final.

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The future of the Queensland and Australian No.6 jerseys are also at stake.

The two halves have been earmarked as generation next by their state and country and will go head-to-head in a tantalising battle when North Queensland, led by Morgan, meet Munster’s Melbourne.

With Cowboys chief playmaker Johnathan Thurston out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga has a big call to make as to who will fill the five-eighth role during the upcoming World Cup and beyond.

Munster appeared to have the inside running after he was selected at five-eighth for Queensland during State of Origin three and Morgan was shifted to the centres.

He also has a ready-made combination with clubmate and Australian halfback Cooper Cronk.

However in Thurston’s absence, Morgan’s form has been irresistible and over the past four weeks has led the competition in most major attacking stats including try assists (four), linebreaks assists (seven) and forced dropouts (six).

“He’s a class player, he’s been playing some great football,” Munster said of his Maroons teammate.

“There’s a lot of good players in that position at the moment. You’ve got James Maloney in six, you’ve got Michael Morgan, you’ve got Anthony Milford as well. There’s three other people there going for that six position.

“I’m looking forward to playing against him.

“I just love watching the way he plays mate. He’s just a footballer, he plays off instinct and I really enjoyed playing inside him in Origin three.”

Munster put himself firmly in the frame as the country’s best young playmaker when he was selected ahead of Morgan and Daly Cherry-Evans for this year’s Origin decider.

After the Maroons leadership group, in particular Storm captain Cameron Smith, convinced coach Kevin Walters that Munster was the man for the job, he repaid the faith by playing the house down and helped Queensland to a series upset.

Munster said there was no acrimony between the pair and Morgan had taken Walters’ selection decision in his stride.

“Michael’s a great player but also a good bloke,” Munster said.

“He just wanted to do what’s best for the team, the same with me.

“Smithy and the leadership group at the time and Kevvie decided who should play in that postition. He took that decision and accepted it and said ‘whatever’s best for the team’.

“I would have done the same if I was in the same boat.”

TALE OF THE TAPE

How Michael Morgan and Cameron Munster have shaped up over 2017

*Morgan

Games: 26

Tries: 11

Try assists: 24

Linebreaks: 12

Linebreak assists: 18

Tackle busts: 81

Kick metres: 6,646

40/20s: 3

Forced dropouts: 21

* Munster

Games: 20

Tries: 1

Try assists: 13

Linebreaks: 7

Linebreak assists: 23

Tackle busts: 66

Kick metres: 1000

40/20s: 0

Forced dropouts: 5

Source: Fox Sports Stats

Gale overcome by Tigers’ AFL flag win

As Richmond chief executive Brendon Gale cried in the MCG stands on Saturday alongside club president Peggy O’Neal, his thoughts drifted away from his club’s historic AFL success.

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Two flashpoints went through Gale’s head, himself a 244-gamer at the Tigers.

First, there were the trying weeks of last season, when he grappled with coach Damien Hardwick on how to transform Richmond from also-rans to a competitive team.

The Tigers’ decision to stick with Hardwick – without a finals win in seven years at the club – has become the stuff of legend.

Gale maintained he never contemplated getting rid of Hardwick, opting instead to tinker and back in their man.

He wasn’t proud of the way the Tigers ran out the season – with two wins in nine games – but said he saw the start of something during the torrid run.

“Once (our chance of playing finals) was done mathematically, we fell off a cliff,” he said.

“We had to play kids, play guys in different positions. We started to see (Dan) Butler, (Jason) Castagna, (David) Astbury. We did fall away but there were green shoots.

“I was confident we could rebound strongly but I would never have thought we could get to a preliminary final and win a premiership, I’ll be honest.

“My heart is bursting with pride.”

Gale was also thinking of May this year.

Richmond began the season with five-straight wins before collapsing as winter set in.

Somewhat ironically, it was Adelaide who started a run of four-consecutive Richmond losses, with a 76-point win in South Australia.

Tight defeats to the Western Bulldogs, Fremantle and Greater Western Sydney followed for the Tigers but Gale saw leadership in the manner of the defeats.

“They became extremely resilient,” he said.

“Those three games in succession we lost narrowly, I just thought ‘wow, there’s something in the way they keep coming back’.

“(Our leaders) went through a period of self reflection last year.

“The captain (Trent Cotchin), (Alex) Rance, (Jack) Riewoldt … they all stood up today .

“And look at young Jack Graham, kicking three clutch goals. That’s leadership.

“I’m proud of the coach, I’m proud of the players and I’m full of joy for our fans. They’ve flocked to this club to support it. It’s just incredible.”

Hamilton on pole again for Malaysian GP

Lewis Hamilton has snatched pole position for the Malaysian grand prix by the narrowest of margins.

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His title rival Sebastian Vettel will start last on the grid after suffering an engine problem.

Vettel needed an engine change to his Ferrari after the last practice at Sepang on Saturday and immediately suffered a problem which could not be fixed in the first qualifying session.

Hamilton, whose Mercedes struggled with balance in practice, set the pace with a lap of 1min 30.076sec for the 70th pole of his career.

He edged Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen by 0.045sec.

“We had no idea what was going to happen today. I’m sorry for what happened to Sebastian and it is a real surprise to be up here with these guys,” Hamilton said.

The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Australian Daniel Ricciardo were next, followed by Valtteri Bottas in a Mercedes and Esteban Ocon in a Force India.

Three-time world champion Hamilton goes into Sunday’s race with a 28-point lead over Vettel, who was out of the points two weeks ago after crashing shortly following the start of the Singapore Grand Prix.

It was Hamilton’s fourth successive pole in Sepang and his fifth in the past six races on the circuit, where his only win came in 2014.

Vettel’s Ferrari had limped into the pits in the first qualifying session. He had already needed an engine change after a problem experienced in the day’s earlier last practice.

The Ferrari engineers were unable to repair the problem before the session ended, meaning Vettel will be last on the grid in Sunday’s race.

“It was a bad day but the race is tomorrow,” Vettel told Sky Sports.

“We need to see now what the problem is but we managed to do the change in time. It was a miracle and the guys were amazing.

“It was a shame that I couldn’t get it out.”

Stoffel Vandoorne in a McLaren, Nico Huelkenberg in a Renault, Sergio Perez in a Force India, and Fernando Alonso in a Mercedes completed the top 10.

RAAF airstrike may have killed Iraqi child

Human rights groups have accused the Defence department of using the cover of the AFL grand final to bury an announcement an Australian Super Hornet was responsible for an air strike in Iraq which may have killed a child.

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Chief of Joint Operations David Johnston has confirmed Australia’s involvement in that civilian casualty on June 7 as well as a separate incident on March 30, both in west Mosul.

Human Rights Watch Australian director Elaine Pearson said the timing of the announcement was “dubious”.

“We urge the Australian Defence Force to make public the detailed findings of its investigations into these strikes, including what redress is being provided to the families of those killed,” she told AAP.

Amnesty International Australia was also unimpressed.

“It’s extremely disappointing it has taken the Australian government until now to release information about Australia’s involvement in civilian casualties, including the possible killing of a child,” spokeswoman Diana Sayed told AAP.

In the June incident, Iraqi Security Forces were in a gun battle with Islamic State militants about 20 metres away and found themselves “pinned down”, Vice Admiral Johnston said.

A pair of Australian Super Hornets were nearby and were called in to provide air back up, following normal targeting procedures.

“It was a residential building, but it was assessed a legitimate target,” he said.

A single weapon – a GPS guided bomb – was dropped on the front of the building and it’s believed two IS fighters were killed.

Vice Admiral Johnston said no civilians had been observed in the area before the strike however afterward it became apparent some had been inside, as they “calmly” exited the rear of the building that was hit.

“A civilian was either seriously injured or killed as a result of that strike,” Vice Admiral Johnston said.

“It was a child carried out.”

The Australian fighter pilots reported the incident to the US-led coalition’s headquarters.

Vice Admiral Johnston insisted Australian rules of engagement had been followed and the strike complied with the laws of armed conflict.

The strike had successfully protected Iraqi soldiers on the ground, he said.

Meanwhile, in the March incident, a group suspected of being IS fighters had been positioned about 300 metres away from Iraqi Security Forces.

The US-led coalition authorised an air strike and seven civilians were killed or injured, including a child.

Australian aircraft were not involved in that strike but Australian defence personnel had been involved in the target decision-making process.

“It appeared the group was wrongly identified (as IS),” he said, adding that at the time the information the group was armed had come from a credible and reliable source.

The US-led coalition estimates, there have been 735 civilian fatalities since 2014 and 350 incidents are still under investigation.

Airwars, a non-government group monitoring air strikes and civilian deaths in the Middle East estimates close to 5500 civillians have died in coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria.

Rugby hooker Baldwin sorry after lion bite

Welsh hooker Scott Baldwin has apologised after being bitten on the hand while trying to pet a lion in South Africa.

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The incident has resulted in him missing the Ospreys’ Pro14 defeat to the Cheetahs on Friday.

The 29-year-old was described as “stupid” by Ospreys coach Steve Tandy after suffering the wound, which needed stitches, during a pre-match visit to a game park.

Baldwin took to social media on Saturday to apologise.

“Sorry all Ospreys fans for letting you and the team down by missing the game through the bite!” he wrote on his verified Twitter account.

“Should (have) known he wouldn’t be impressed with me stroking his lioness before introducing myself to him first.

“And for those asking, my hand is on the mend thankfully and should be up and running round soon enough, thanks for your support and concern.”

Baldwin came in for a ribbing from his coach after the 44-25 defeat at the Free State Stadium, where Tandy explained the incident to the media in candid terms.

“There was an incident with a lion, but in fairness it was nothing to do with the lion,” he said.

“He did bite Scott but when you put your hand in a fence where there is a lion, then you will get bitten.

“It was pretty stupid on Scott’s behalf and he is pretty lucky… I don’t know what sort of wildlife show Scott has been watching where you can pat a lion on the head as if it’s a kitten.

“It’s probably one of the silliest things I’ve ever been involved in, but thankfully he is OK and hopefully he will be back up and running in the next couple of weeks.”

The club confirmed that Baldwin had suffered the injury on Wednesday and said he was treated at the scene by the team doctor before being admitted to a local hospital in Bloemfontein on Thursday for further treatment to prevent infection.

He was released on Saturday to travel home with the rest of the squad as planned.

Premiership Tiger salutes late grandfather

As the Tigers faithful began to celebrate their first AFL flag in 37 years, Richmond youngster Daniel Rioli was thinking of his late grandfather Maurice.

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The spectre of the Tigers great had loomed large over Punt Road in the build-up to their grand final triumph.

It had been 35 years since Richmond last played on the final Saturday in September, with Carlton prevailing by three goals in the 1982 premiership decider.

Maurice Rioli made history in that game by becoming the first player from a losing side to win the Norm Smith medal.

The similarities in style between the pair were obvious, and many speculated 20-year-old Rioli could follow in his grandfather’s footsteps by being among the best-on-ground contenders despite only being in his second season.

It wasn’t to be for the Tigers goalsneak but he managed to win something his grandfather never gained – a premiership medal.

Speaking after the game, Rioli said his thoughts instantly went to his beloved grandfather as the Tigers’ achievement dawned upon him.

“It was in the last quarter, for sure,” he said.

“I was on the bench and I could hear the players and coaches saying ‘there’s only three minutes to go’.

“I just thought of my grandfather first up.

“He won the Norm Smith, so playing in the grand final, and wearing the No.17 … I just thought about him.”

The Tigers’ turnaround from finishing 13th last season after only eight wins to premiers this year has been nothing short of remarkable.

Rioli, who plans to return to the Tiwi Islands during the off-season to celebrate with his family, said it was a testament to the closer bonds formed between Tigers players.

“There’s a big connection now,” he said.

“I think last year we weren’t that connected as a group. Now we’ve certainly come together.

“We go to dinner together and celebrate special occasions together, and we’re a tight unit.”

Contested ball remains king in AFL

Forget all the AFL’s fresh trends and novel tactics: contested possession remains king in the AFL.

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Richmond’s stunning eight-goal hammering of Adelaide in Saturday’s grand final featured many novel tactics.

There was the undersized Tigers forward line.

The occasional use of pint-sized ruckmen by Richmond.

There were player formations which all but eliminate the traditional positions on an AFL ground — four-men forward lines, instead of the usual six.

There were sweepers and ‘plus one’ in defence; and crafty stoppage structures.

But all pale when compared to winning contested possessions.

Adelaide coach Don Pyke watched in horror as his club’s dream of a first premiership since 1998 became a nightmare.

Pyke spent all season hammering home his most-treasured theme: win contested possessions, win the game.

Adelaide entered the decider ranked as the league’s top-ranked side for winning contested ball but they were dismantled in that area by the AFL’s new premiers.

Last year, Western Bulldogs took the premiership cup with a 172-149 contested ball count in their grand final win against Sydney.

This year, The Tigers won 163 contested possessions to Adelaide’s 138.

That was where the premiership was won.

Richmond torched the Crows in the third quarter, which is dubbed the premiership quarter. So it proved.

In that decisive term, the Tigers walloped Adelaide in contested possessions — 51-31.

“At one stage the numbers I was looking at was minus 27 in the quarter and that is a phenomenal number,” Pyke said.

“Richmond outworked us at the contest.

“They won the contest … and no surprise, the game got played in their half and they were able to score.

“That is why the contest is so important.”

Hardwick’s grand final plans featured his much-talked about small forward line — just one tall attacker, the rest fleet-footed, pressure-packed smalls.

His plotting also included a sweeping defender — in AFL speak, a ‘plus one’ — and he deployed Bachar Houli in that role with telling effect.

Yet all of Hardwick’s plans relied on one premise: win contested possessions.

“Manic I think would summarise it,” he said of Richmond’s approach.

“Our pressure in the first quarter was a little bit off … but then we started to get up and going.

“The third quarter … was off the charts.”

Pre-game, Hardwick stressed to his players: match the Crows in the hurly-burly packs.

“We thought if we could just limit the effectiveness of their disposals when they are in close, a lot of their contested ball is from clearance, we would be OK,” he said.

“The third quarter was plus-20 (contested possessions) which certainly set the tone.

“Our guys really hunted hard around the contest.

“It was a real finals footy game — contested ball, tackle pressure, surge the ball going forward.

“As much as coaches like me think it’s rocket science, it’s not really.”

O.J. Simpson set for imminent release from Nevada prison

Simpson, 70, won his freedom from a Nevada parole board in July after nine years behind bars, at a hearing that did not take into account his 1990s trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a friend, Ron Goldman.

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The onetime football star turned actor and TV pitchman nicknamed “The Juice” during his playing career was found not guilty in 1995 following that sensational, 13-month trial in Los Angeles, which was televised live daily, transfixing much of the nation.

A civil court jury subsequently found him liable for the deaths and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages to the victims’ families, a judgment that remains largely unpaid.

The Nevada Department of Corrections, seeking to avoid the kind of media frenzy that often accompanies Simpson, has declined to say exactly when and where he would be released.

A department spokeswoman warned media not to try to chase his vehicle from the prison gates, saying officials could postpone the release for weeks if necessary to avoid “risk to the community” from such a frenzy.

Also unclear is the former star athlete’s ultimate destination. He told parole board members he hopes to move to Florida, where he has friends and family, a plan that must be approved by probation authorities there.

During the parole hearing, Simpson joked that he was willing to stay in Nevada, but “I’m sure you don’t want me here.”

His Las Vegas-based attorney, Malcom LaVergne, reiterated the Florida plans during an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program on Friday, adding that his client was looking forward to spending time with family members, eating steak and seafood and buying an iPhone.

LaVergne could not be reached for comment by Reuters.

Florida corrections officials say they had not received a parole transfer request for Simpson and had not been contacted by their counterparts in Nevada.

Simpson is a native of California, born in San Francisco, and played his final years as a pro football player for that city’s team, the 49ers. He lived in Los Angeles at the time of the murders.

But California corrections officials say he has not filed papers to live in that state either.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Tom Brown)

Morgan in best form of his life: Thurston

Australian Test half Johnathan Thurston takes no credit for Michael Morgan’s rich vein of form, saying he’s in career-best touch because of his own self belief and calmness.

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As Morgan prepares to take control of North Queensland in his second NRL grand final in three years, many commentators have credited Thurston with being the brains behind the bump up in Morgan’s form.

The 25-year-old has been the nucleus of the Cowboys winning streak from eighth position on the ladder to grand finalist with wins over fifth-ranked Cronulla, fourth-ranked Parramatta and second-ranked Sydney Roosters.

But Thurston said Morgan could take a bow himself ahead of Sunday’s decider against Melbourne.

“It’s started coming to him naturally. He’s a pretty deep thinker Morgs. He’s got a great awarenes of the game,” Thurston told Triple-M radio.

“He just needed that self belief. All the boys around him know how good he is but he’s too humble of a person to talk about it.

“He’s finally realised how good he can be and with that comes experience.

“He’s playing the best footy of his life,” Thurston said.

“His calmness as well. He doesn’t ever look too frantic.

“That real calmness you need in big games as the chief playmaker. You don’t want to be running around erratic as that will affect the playing group.

“He’s calm and controlled and you need that from your chief playmaker.”

Morgan has moved from No.6 into the No.7 jersey after Thurston, the Cowboys co-captain and grand final hero in the 17-16 extra time win over Brisbane in 2015, underwent shoulder surgery in late June.

That allowed mid-season signing from Penrith, Te Maire Martin, to slot into No.6.

“He’s a really good kid actually,” Thurston said of Martin, who celebrates his 22nd birthday on Monday.

“He wants to learn the game. He’s always asking questions about different situations like ‘what should I do here?’

“He’s helping out Morgo with things. He’s been a great addition for us this year and playing some really good footy for us as well.

“He’s very comfortable in the team now and formed a really good relationship with Morgo, taking the heat off Morgo a bit.”

‘A dream within reach’: Catalan separatists determined to hold independence vote

Catalan separatists showed determination Saturday to press ahead with an independence referendum banned by Madrid, occupying dozens of schools designated as polling stations to stop police from closing them down.

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“In these hugely intense and hugely emotional moments, we sense that what we once thought was only a dream is within reach,” Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont told a crowd of cheering supporters on Friday evening, as he wrapped up his campaign. 

Over in the town of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, though, a different scene played out in a large conference hall.

There, some 2,000 people who oppose separating from Spain rallied at a meeting called by Ciudadanos, Catalonia’s main opposition party.

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The vote has stoked passions in the wealthy northeastern region, pitting Catalan leaders against the central government in one of the biggest crises to hit Spain since democracy was restored after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

It has also sown divisions among Catalans themselves, with the region deeply split on independence, even if a large majority want to be allowed to settle the matter in a legal vote.

“There is nothing that justifies violating so basic a right as the right to vote,” said Omar Sanchis, a 29-year-old drama student, standing behind the railings of the Collaso i Gil school in Barcelona which he and others had occupied.

Authorities in Madrid have instructed police to ensure no votes are cast in a referendum that the courts have ruled unconstitutional.

For days, they have been seizing electoral items such as ballot papers while prosecutors have ordered the closure of websites linked to the vote and the detention of key members of the team organising the referendum.

A court on Wednesday ordered police to prevent the use of public buildings “for the preparation and organisation” of the referendum.

0:00 Spanish authorities confiscate Catalan referendum voting papers Share Spanish authorities confiscate Catalan referendum voting papers

Farmers and firefighters

But those for the vote have mobilised.

On Friday, tractors paraded through Barcelona, some decked with the “Estelada”, the separatists’ flag of red-and-yellow stripes with a white star on a blue chevron.

They and firefighters have vowed to protect polling stations.

As classes ended for the day, small groups of activists, including parents with their children, decided to peacefully occupy several schools in Barcelona where voting is scheduled to take place.

“I’m going to sleep here with my eldest son,” said Gisela Losa, a mother of three who was among a group of parents who had taken over the Reina Violant primary school in Barcelona’s Gracia neighbourhood. 

From district to district, people were gathering to form “Committees to protect the referendum,” using the Telegram messaging app to get organised and urging everyone to remain peaceful, said an AFP correspondent who saw some of the messages. 

The move appeared to be partly coordinated by a platform of “schools open for the referendum.”

By midnight, it was still unclear exactly how many schools were occupied, but organisers said dozens had been taken over in Barcelona.

There were believed to be a lot more in the city and around the region, with the sit-ins expected to continue throughout the weekend.

Over at the anti-independence rally, Dolores Molero, a 53-year-old secretary from Tarragona, a city further south, said the situation was “a dead end”.

“They want to destroy the state, Spain and Catalonia,” she said after a meeting that saw people waving both Spanish and EU flags, as well as the “Senyera” – the official Catalan flag of plain red-and-yellow stripes.

0:00 Vibrancy on the streets as Catalan students march in support of independence Share Vibrancy on the streets as Catalan students march in support of independence

Risk of ‘disruption’

Madrid has repeatedly warned those who help stage the referendum that they face repercussions.

On Friday, Spain’s education ministry said in a statement that head teachers in Catalonia “were not exempt from liability” if they cooperated.

But Jordi Sanchez, the president of the Catalan National Assembly, an influential pro-independence organisation, told AFP the court order said public spaces could not be used for the referendum on Sunday “but it did not say anything about leisure activities today and Saturday”.

“We have proposed that citizens organise activities, that they put in place a lot of activities to give life to these spaces which on Sunday should host the referendum.”

Barcelona’s Joan Brossa high school, for instance, advertised a series of activities for Friday and Saturday, including film screenings, football matches and Zumba dance fitness classes.

Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull said there would be “2,315 polling stations all over the region” for the vote.

Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, has also warned about the risk of “disruption of public order” if efforts are made to prevent people from casting ballots.

Madrid has sent thousands of extra police officers from other forces to Catalonia – which accounts for one fifth of Spain’s economy – to stop the referendum from happening.

Molero said she was worried about what would happen on Sunday.

“We’ll have to be cautious. I won’t go out,” she said.

 

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