Shane Warne may be sending a text message to Ben Cousins as I write this. Don’t worry he’s not changing sides. He still barracks for St Kilda. Warne, who’s forgotten more than most will ever know about life in the limelight, offered his support to the Australian Rules champion who is currently battling with ‘substance abuse’.
Cousins’ star-studded fact file includes the 2005 Brownlow Medal and a 2006 premiership medallion but his prowess on the field has only served to highlight his frailties off it. Ben’s father has spoken publicly of the ‘challenges’ facing his high profile son. His club, West Coast, has suspended him for what it describes as ‘personal and private issues’. Sometimes the first step in overcoming a problem is admitting that you’re speaking in euphemisms.
If you view sport as a substitute for war, then Aussie Rules is the ‘Vietnam War’ of football codes. It’s a guerilla game played all over an expansive field. There’s no offside rule so it becomes a game of skirmishes between equally matched opponents. The ability to run, to reinforce, to make the contest is everything.
Ben Cousins, the centreman, runs gut-busting half marathons on match day. He rides fearful hip-and-shoulder bumps every time he goes into a pack to get the ball. He’ll cop a jumper-punch from a no-good tagger when the umpy looks away, then bounce up and kick a long goal, with alacrity, from the boundary line.
In a game loaded in favour of attack, the best defensive outfits have players prepared to wind-sprint to shepherd a teammate, or to dive full-length to smother the ball off the boot of an opponent. Ben Cousins does all that and more. But at 28, with his life in turmoil, he’s deciding whether to go into rehab or go it alone in order to save his career.
Naturally, in a nation as obsessed with sport as Australia, the PM has weighed into the debate, urging the AFL to toughen up its drug policy from ‘3 strikes and you’re out’ to ‘zero tolerance’. With newly released police wire taps implicating more players, the Australian game has a journey into its own heart of darkness to complete. Round one can’t come soon enough.
On Saturday night, the grand finalists of the last two years, Sydney and West Coast, meet in the game of the round before 60,000 at the Olympic Stadium. Bitter rivals, they have split 2 pennants by less than a goal. The Eagles, without Ben Cousins, still run out with an awesome midfield led by the code’s best player, Chris Judd. The Swans will be at full strength and seeking ‘revenge’ for the loss of the 2006 Grand Final by a lonely point. Adam Goodes, who burned in the epic last quarter of that game, believes the Swans are fitter than ever and can reclaim the title this year. But he would say that. The Swans to win by 2 points.
In other matches, my selections are Melbourne to beat St Kilda, Fremantle to be too strong for Port, Brisbane at home over Hawthorn, Adelaide but only just against Essendon, Richmond to account for March champions Carlton, the Western Bulldogs to see off the improving Geelong and finally Collingwood to dispatch the Kangaroos.