Contributed by: Brett Northey
worldfootynews.com asked China's Team Manager and Australian Football Development Officer, Andrew Sawitsch, his thoughts on the 2008 International Cup from the perspective of the Chinese Red Demons. Overall he felt it was a great experience for both the players and staff, though he left no doubt that a development division was and remains their preference for the lower ranked sides. Sawitsch also has some interesting comments on China's opponents. "Sanga" as he is known, also revealed the surprising country that China formed the closest bond with. His thoughts are given below.
It's also interesting to note that the AFL are currently surveying the countries, asking for feedback on issues such as the pool structure, facilities, host locations (Melbourne and Warrnambool), frequency of the event (3 or 4 years), costs, umpiring and medical assistance, functions and how a junior carnival could be staged.
WFN - You had a tough draw as a new team. It was well documented that the AFL found itself in a tight spot with so many middle ranked countries wanting to be able to have a crack at winning the tournament. That created pressure for a single division, especially with perhaps a few less new countries showing up than they might have wanted. For better or for worse the switch was made from the original intention of two divisions to one. This kept the majority of nations happy (hence the quoted "it's what the countries wanted"), in particular the middle ranked countries, but certainly not China, and here's what they had to say.
Andrew Sawitsch - The draw turned out not bad for us, we coped with it ok and made the best of it. We learnt a lot from playing the more experienced teams and despite the scoreline, we feel that we gave them an OK hitout to prepare them for future games. Plus having our Chinese boys hear the 'star spangled banner' being followed by the very patriotic 'march of the volunteers' before a footy match was a very interesting and unique experience for all. It made us hungrier and desperate to finally get a win after 3 thrashings but all up though, the draw was quite disappointing, definitely have to go with a developing nations division for at least the bottom 4 in future, exactly what we thought was going to happen right up until the draw came out, we were absolutely shocked when we first saw the draw. I held off telling the players and officials about it for about a month in the hope that there would be a protest or change of heart that would force a fixture change, plus I didn't know how to break it to them that there had been a change in what we had been telling them for the past 6 months.
After day 1 of the Cup, when all but probably 1 of the games were blowouts, I was actually up late trying to put together a proposal I hoped I could put to the AFL and teams to change the draws from round 3 onwards, so that the bottom 4 teams could effectively forfeit their final pool matches on monday 1st Sept, but bring it forward that same day and get straight into their final games one round earlier, leaving the last day of the Cup free for another evenly matched game. The problem of course was what it would do to a few of the other games and how it affected middle band teams like Denmark, GB and Japan, plus of course times and games had already been advertised etc. but I still did discuss with them the possibility of changing things around as 3 games of getting smashed is just too much for guys new to the game; to our players credit, our players stood up very well and kept positive, and it probably made our eventual win mean just as much when we finally got it, because we'd been on the other end so much and knew how hard it was.
I have seen people on message boards and heard in other discussions that "it's what the countries wanted" (1 division) but I just want to make it clear that China has always communicated that it wasn't keen on playing the more stronger experienced countries, I think it was pretty clear before and after the Cup who those teams were, and the Denmark - Sweden result shows just how big a gap there is between those with IC experience and those without. I guess if one more newbie had've made it, they could have made it a nice even bottom 6, but i think you could still manage a bottom 4 or bottom 5 that used the byes to have practice matches or used the final matches to have the top 2 of the 4 development nations play challenge matches against the division 1 teams, as it was still a great experience lining up against the likes of USA and South Africa, but after 3 games of getting smashed, our boys were starting to fall apart.
It was about the only disappointment of the Cup. Not just for the embarrassing scorelines and the crook feeling in your guts 10 minutes into the 1st quarter knowing you are going to lose and that it's going to be ugly, but also for the transparency and inaccuracy in rankings, we think we are a better team than Finland and that we deserve to be ranked ahead of them, so would love a chance to prove it. Similarly if it was down to a final for the best of the bottom 4 in the development division, we would jump at the chance to line up with the Peace Team again, we believe we were very unlucky to lose that one and that we let ourselves down in our 1st quarter, they were well coached in the last quarter by flooding their backline and tagging our best player, to ensure that our run was shutdown and they could hold onto their lead. Will be keenly interested to see if they continue the program at Peres and make it more than a feel good story of the Cup, as they are one team we can't wait to play again.
WFN - To be fair to those sides though, personally I think Finland were a notch above the other lower ranked teams, they simply ran out of fit players towards the end of the tournament. And the Peres match - should you really get a second crack at the same team in the space of a 10 day tournament? So how did you find each of your opponents?
Andrew Sawitsch - South Africa - we knew this would be a pretty tough game, we thought before the game, lets just give it our all and see where we are at at half time, we thought some of our taller guys would be a factor that would throw them out a bit, but South Africa simply never gave us a chance to get started. We could see very early in the match, that the Lions would go far in the cup and would surprise a few teams. It turned out right.
USA - we knew the chances of winning this was very minimal and had heard before the game they would be happy to drop their on field numbers in the second half if the scoreline was getting quite one sided to try and make it a bit more competitive, however on the morning of the game we found out the US coaching staff had changed their minds on this, due to 'percentages', which we were obviously surprised at. It's not a big problem and we aren't asking for sympathy, we were happy with how the boys fought it out, but it was interesting to see teams such as Nauru and PNG who were better sides, lightening up and acting in the spirit of the tournament and allowing the Peace Team for example to warm up with them, reduce the numbers significantly and make it a bit more of a spectacle and practice for both teams. But we enjoyed playing them and it was good of them to have a big circle in the middle of the ground after the game uniting us all.
The physical pressure our guys showed particularly in the 2nd quarter was great and although the USA had a few out, we could sense they would struggle against South Africa in round 3. To get back up to the top, long term, I'd say the USA need to look for a bit more youth and focus on enjoying the tournament and footy experience a bit more, rather than taking it too seriously, it seems to have helped the likes of South Africa and Papua New Guinea on field, to relax and play with that instinctiveness and flair. I honestly think they will be back up the top in future tournaments, and for the effort they put in, they deserve to be
Denmark - a pretty good team who deserve to be ranked higher. Like us, they got a tough draw and by the time we got to them, they were ready to get some confidence back and stamp their authority on a game. Skill-wise they were good, they had some pretty athletic guys. I thought they switched the play pretty well around their attacking 50. The conditions were very ordinary and I think our guys were just in a bit of a lull, mentally and physically. It was easily our most disappointing game, we just weren't on the ball. Having a couple of pretty serious injuries on this day also topped off an all round bad day for China. There was a 6:30 beach season the next morning in the freezing Warrnambool water, as a punishment, but it proved the best turning point and bonding session the team could have ever had.
WFN - Curious as to who you'd rank Denmark higher than? Looking at the results, I'm thinking possibly Samoa, although that might depend on whether their captain and World Team player Fia Too-too was playing - he missed the end of the tournament which made a difference. Great Britain won their ranking final against Denmark, so that maybe leaves Japan at a stretch?
Andrew Sawitsch - The Danes, at full strength, I would tip them against this tournament's Samoa including Too-too, as well as Japan (who both also only won 2 games). That's 2 ranking spots ahead, and as another person posted on the comments section of WFN, Denmark finished with a wet sail against GB and if it was 20 min quarters, instead of 17, they probably would have won. I tend to agree. My thought is that they underperformed and only started to find their 'beat' at certain times during the tournament, if they pull it all together with their skill and fitness, there is no reason they couldn't sneak into the top 6. I saw glimpses of a much better side than the results reflected. I've had a good chat to their Coach, Jim, who accepts that the physical aspect is a weakness of their side and I understand this, but with a bit more time to settle, some of their guys could have put some skills together, got their forward line to function a bit better and played a lot better footy than they had a chance to in their 5 games which were 1) USA a team raring to go who were too tough, too physical, better structure up forward 2) RSA- Simply too good too fast, top 4 is a good reflection 3) China- their second string team smashed us comprehensively and just started to get some run even in atrocious conditions 4) GB- Finally got it together in last quarter and finished well but fell short 5) Sweden- smashed them. Not that bad a tournament. I guess I just felt pretty impressed with seeing them play and figure that that long having the sport in the country must count for something. Wish them luck in the future and hope to see them again.
WFN - And your other opponents?
Andrew Sawitsch - Peace Team - were pretty surprised at the Peace Team's confidence going into this match. They had scored a couple goals, but we knew for a fact that both PNG and Nauru were down to less than 15 players on the field for a lot of the match. We had watched them play and were confident we could beat them even with 3 big losses through injury. We treated the game as our semi final and it felt great finally going in at half time being ahead on the scoreboard, looking back, the players were probably a bit too fired up at this point and let the 2nd half slip. at the final siren we were short and congrats to Peace Team for getting the win. Our players felt really down after this game, as they knew it was a missed opportunity and it was different to the previous 3 games where they had played better opposition. We hope we have a chance to play the Peace Team again.
India - we played them as a practice match on the Monday before the Cup started. Even on that day, I was pretty surprised at how well they played. They had some players with even less time playing the game than us. There were some very fast guys with a good kick on them, they went really wide and used the big wings at Royal Park very well. Based on that game more than 1 week ago, we had to remind our players not to treat this game too lightly, as they would have improved just as much as us in their 4 games. In then end it was a very exciting match to watch and the indians played great. We could see early that Vishnu Rishie was causing some problems for us and #25 Xu Jian did a great job on him for most of the match. It was a very special moment for the Chinese players and shades of a grand final win when the final siren win.
By game 5, we were absolutely amazed at who was playing best for us. It was almost like the least experienced the better. Li Cheng, Zhang Wei, Ning Jin for example are guys who have only started playing Australian Football this year and we thought could improve from the experience and be good back up players, they were among our best players in the india game. Other surprise was Ren XiaoYu, a very shy young guy who has only picked up the game about a year ago who we touted as a back up ruckman, his skills and composure was great and he ended up being reliable in the backline pretty much every game. We elected him as player of the tournament and it was special having Kevin Sheehan from the AFL make a presentation to him and the team after the game. Pi Jia Ming, who is currently playing footy in Melbourne, was also a great player for us and a great leader on and off the field was apparently in contention for the world team, as he had got a few votes from the umpires. He set a great example for the younger guys and it was great have him part of the team.
WFN - What effect did it have being the host nation for the Olympics and so close to them?
Andrew Sawitsch - The Olympics were quite a hindrance. It was chaotic around China in the leadup to the games, transport, residence permits, security and accommodation and all these other things were clamped down on and unpredictable which caused problems, in addition most of our players, as a result of doing sports related majors at university, were connected to the games as volunteers or in some other capacity. So we couldn't train for about 3 weeks before departure. Luckily we had our selection camp and final practice match over and done with early. I don't think it was a major problem having the cup around Olympics time, it was hard to get any media attention as everything was just Olympic focuses, but to be honest that's hard enough as it is in China, virtually no one knows about the game over here. And even if it was a different time of year, as residents over here will tell you, the hype in China surrounding the Olympics has been felt ever since the announcement in 2001, and the Olympics have been discussed all year. We work closely with Multi Ball Sports Department of China Sports Ministry and they had a rep come with us to the International Cup, their department deals with promotion and national representation of other non Olympic ball sports such as rugby, cricket, bowling, squash etc. and they expressed that they have just the same issues with their sports (largely overshadowed by Olympic and other major sports) and were not put off by having the tournament so close to the Olympics. Their opinion is that China is a big country and the Olympic experience will leave a good imprint for other sports, as it promotes the idea of activity, amateur sports people otherwise wouldn't know of, learning about the world through sport and volunteering time to sports, that is something that Australian Football can get on the end of. That is already established in Australian Football, but China has a lot of development in those areas of sport.
WFN - You've been around international footy for a while now, but was this your first IC? Was it roughly what you expected?
Andrew Sawitsch - I was a spectator at the 2002 IC when I was at uni in Melbourne and was amazed. it was so impressive, not just to watch, but what it bought to the sport and the melbourne footy scene. It totally changed the way I saw footy. looking back now too with the 08 experience under my belt, I just can't believe they had 12 countries there 6 years ago. incredible. At that stage, I had just got back from a year in China and had had the odd kick over there and loved telling people about the game, so I made a promise to myself then that one day I would be a part of getting a Chinese team to the Cup. thankfully, a couple years down the track after getting the Beijing Bombers up and running and keeping the interest in it, I met Tom Parker who was then at the City of Melbourne, I discovered that he and some people at the AFL and based in Melbourne shared the same ambition. I was in China for the 05 Cup but checked the results very regularly (on WFN of course!); Tom Mattessi was based in Tianjin as a development Officer the very next year and I knew we were on track for China making a debut in 08. I had to be a part of it.
It was my first time as an official involved with the Cup, I think the thing that surprised me this time, and I think a few people will agree with me here, was the standard, really you have a look and see that on the whole most players have only been playing the sport for about 3 years, (I'd love to take a survey of every single player involved with the cup to find out more about them all) some more, some less but I'd guess it would be around that. When you realise that and then watch the game, it really is a credit to the countries just how far they have come. Some of the top 6 playoffs at the end of the tournament were just so enjoyable to watch, the standard and intent was great, plus they had something special to play for, their country.
The other thing I underestimated before experiencing it in the Cup myself was the camaraderie between teams. I must admit I'd seen it mentioned in reports about previous Cups but thought it was a bit drummed up to make a good feel good story etc. but actually being a part of the tournament, standing alongside all the players, it just felt so special and the players knew that it was an incredible life experience that they were a part of. It took a while, and I think our China guys were a bit taken aback by it all and seeing all these big internationals in one room, but 20 minutes into the welcome function they were interacting really well and really enjoyed this aspect of the cup. Everyone around the tournament were generally really nice and looking out for each other.
Off the track, but the highlight for myself and the thing I will never forget from this day is the connection we formed with the eventuall IC08 winners PNG. So funny to have 15th and 1st ranked teams, not even sharing the same language, looks or sporting backgrounds, all becoming great mates through footy. We shared accomodation in Warrnambool so we'd see the Mozzies around breakky, TV room and in the showers etc. So before heading off to our game v Peace Team, we had a quick address from PNG runner/Assistant/general nice bloke Jamie Briody, and then, totally unprecendented, as we got on the bus to head off to our game in the morning, the Mosquitoes had formed a guard of honour outside the door and cheered the boys on as they headed off. They were there to give condolances to the team as we got back as well which lifted spirits. PNG themselves were preparing for their own semi-final against SA that very night, and so a couple hours later it was the whole Chinese team forming the guard of honour and cheering the boys on as they left for their match. It was a totally unbelievable footy moment and one that our guys will never forget. It was made all the more special by having the PNG boys at the Royal Park North two days later celebrating with the Chinese boys after our first ever international win over India, and then that very day seeing them go on and become International Cup champions! I like to think we were some kind of inspiration for them to go on and win the Cup that night.
Brett - Just to sum up some of your feedback to the AFL, you'd prefer the next Cup in 3 years (2011), you were pretty happy with the umpiring, medical support and functions, except maybe the language barrier - a few long speeches that were lost on your guys. That crossed my mind at the functions. Any thoughts on how best this can be dealt with as the sport spreads into countries where English isn't that common even as a second language? Some of the speeches were good to hear, though not dissimilar from 2005. Are interpreters an option? Hand outs with a summary? Or just avoid them altogether?
Andrew Sawitsch - For language and the speeches, I'd just suggest they keep it in mind and keep the speeches compact at functions, short and sharp, but with some pauses and to the point, all groups have interpreters, looking back, I would make sure that our group had the interpreter bring the group together and translate the gist of what is happening as they go. some of our guys really felt lost and left out and I feel a bit bad now for not paying more attention to this. For the Crown gala function I'd even suggest they see about having subtitles in various languages come up as its being presented. Might seem a bit over the top, but I have seen it done at functions and even at a play/musical in Hong Kong and they did have the big screens at crown. I think it will add to the international atmosphere of the tournament. As keeper of the code internationally, the AFL does need to gradually interact with non-English speakers and so the International Cup could be good practice for having events that are multi lingual and can be enjoyed by people around the world. Kevin Sheedy is a legend in Australia, Simon Crean a recognised face, but it can't be assumed that they will be recognised by other international players, needs introduction and context. Things like the Rob Dickson highlights clip and Aboriginal performances went down the best for our group.
WFN - Good luck to China and let's hope we see them next time - who knows, maybe you'll be actively campaigning to be ranked higher than a development division.
World Footy News