NEWCASTLE JETS coach Branko Culina wants fans to be patient with marquee star Fabio Vignaroli, predicting his Italian playmaker will be ”flying” by the start of next month, provided he stays fit.
Vignaroli, 33, only completed drawn-out negotiations with the Jets three days before the start of the season – leaving him well behind the rest of the squad in his preparations. As a result, Vignaroli’s contribution to Newcastle’s unbeaten start to the season has been relatively subdued, but Culina senses the tide is starting to turn.
”People have to remember Fabio has had an interrupted pre-season, and even in the Asian Champions League he only played in three of our seven games – he couldn’t put two weeks together,” Culina said.
”He’s now had three weeks on the training field, he’s played a couple of games, and he’s getting better all the time. He’s a good pro, he really looks after himself, but like everyone, he needs games. The fact that he’s managed to avoid any problems is very encouraging. He’s only going to get better, and I’m sure by round five or six, he’ll be flying. I’m confident he’s going to be very influential for us this season.”
So far Vignaroli – who played for eight clubs during his 14-year career in Italy – has played as a left-sided midfielder for the Jets. Such is his versatility, the coaching staff still haven’t settled on his best position, although Culina admits he wants him further up the field once his fitness issues are behind him.
”We’re playing him there at the moment for two reasons – we have a lot of players missing and we need someone in that position, but also it’s helping him achieve the match fitness he requires without pushing him too hard,” Culina said.
”He can take a few rests playing out there. But as we get players back, and as his condition improves, we’ll find out where he best suits the team … we want him further up the field, where he can really hurt the opposition. He can slow play down, or quicken it up, and he’s one of the better finishers at the club. So it’s important we get the best out of him.”
THE world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, appeared to move one step closer to a visit to Australia yesterday with celebrity agent Max Markson claiming to be close to securing a deal to bring the hottest property in world sport on a tour Down Under.
”I’m in discussions with his management. It’s not confirmed yet but I’m hoping he will come in November,” Markson said yesterday. ”I’m hoping we’ll have him here in November. We’ll do a national tour – Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth – but he won’t be running.”
Bolt will be running today, in the heats of the 200 metres at the world championships. On Sunday night in Berlin, he added to the growing legend with a stunning world record of 9.58 seconds to win the 100m.
Bolt’s visit would be part of a planned global tour aimed at consolidating the superstar’s earning potential and establishing him alongside Tiger Woods as the richest attraction in world sport.
The tour is being planned in conjunction with the release of a biography later this year and is being put together by Bolt’s book deal agent, Chris Nathaniel.
Meanwhile, the strength of Jamaican sprinting was further underlined on Monday, when Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser grabbed gold in the women’s 100m in 10.73s, making her the equal third-fastest female sprinter in history.
Only Marion Jones and Florence Griffith-Joyner – two athletes long tainted by suspicions of drug cheating, and in Jones’s case suspicions later confirmed – stand ahead of Fraser, who held off fast-finishing compatriot Kerron Stewart in a thrilling finish.
The Caribbean nation dominated the event, producing four of the eight finalists, but it was Fraser who led the celebrations. The braces on her teeth could not hide the smile afterwards. She dropped to the track and laid her head down to soak up the moment. She had been one of the five Jamaican athletes threatened with expulsion from the team last week after not attending the team’s official camp. Only last-minute intervention by the IAAF secured her place on the starting list.
She took full advantage. ”The victory is no surprise for me, and the time neither,” she said.
In the official program for the world championships, the-IAAF approved authors list seven contenders for the gold medal in the 100m hurdles. Sally McLellan is not among them.
It is an extraordinary oversight, given that the Queenslander is an Olympic silver medallist, has the fastest time this year of all who will line up in the race, and her fiercely competitive spirit.
McLellan said of the omission: ”It doesn’t really faze me because I know what I’ve done, I know what my goals are and I know my preparation has been the best it can be.
”You can’t worry too much about what other people are thinking. You just go into the race knowing how good you have been this season and how good your preparation has been. You go out there and get fired up about it.”
It is perhaps no surprise that the rest of the athletics world has taken a while to twig to McLellan’s quality. At Beijing she was ranked fifth and snagged silver, but it is her results in the past month that have some belatedly realising she should not be overlooked.
At her press conference this week journalists regarded her as a curiosity – an Australian sprint hurdler amid a sea of Americans and Jamaicans. Then they looked at her recent times and realised she has as much right to gold-medal favouritism in the even field as anybody. ”It doesn’t really bother me, I’m not in it for recognition, I’m in it to do the best I can,” said McLellan, who raced in the heats overnight, Sydney time.
Many athletes become almost neurotic, obsessing over themselves, their bodies, tactics and rivals, but McLellan, 22, is uncomplicatedly grounded. She just gets out there and goes hard.
She professes not to feel much pressure. It is not because there is none upon her. ”Unfazed” is a word she uses a lot and it seems to sum her up. She has been asked many things this week: what lane she would prefer, whether possible rainy conditions would affect her, whether her rivals respect her enough. Each time the answer is the same: she doesn’t care.
”I don’t let anything get to me,” she said. ”I try and enjoy myself more than anything. This is what I love and what I train for. I get out there and just do my thing.”
The only woman to have gone faster than her this year, American Lolo Jones, is out through injury. But there are still big challenges, including two-time world champion Michelle Perry and fellow American Dawn Harper, the Beijing gold medallist. In recent weeks, though, McLellan has beaten both. She races much more than all of her rivals – more than 40 times this year. Most would regard that as excessive but she simply loves to compete.
Coach Sharon Hannan says her charge’s preparation has been much better than before the Olympics. ”She’s in better condition for sure,” she said. ”She’s not a dweller, she doesn’t dwell. She’ll just go out and think about the 10 hurdles in front of her.”
Hannan says there are seven women who have a strong chance to win. And in a highly technical event with a quick start needed and 10 hurdles to clear, it takes only one half-mistake to drop from first to fifth. McLellan’s greatest challenge may come in the semi-finals, where she will need to finish first or second to guarantee a spot in the final. Her lead-up form has been outstanding.
Fresh off the plane from Australia in France she ran 12.70 seconds. Soon after, in Lausanne, she won against a top-class field including Harper. Then she accounted for another top field that included Jones and another contender Priscilla Lopes-Schliep. In Monaco last month, a fortnight before the titles started, she won in 12.50s, a personal best, an Australian record and a time none of her rivals had managed all season.
McLellan thinks she will have to run faster, particularly in the semis, where the athletes will be fresher than in the final later that day.
Many have suggested she should add the sprint events to her program. Knowledgeable judges this week looked at her capabilities and wondered why she was not running in the 100m flat. Hannan says as her young charge matures, the 100m and 200m are possibilities. ”Don’t be surprised if you see her lining up in something different in the Commonwealth Games next year,” she said.
BRETT LEE is back in the selection frame, Nathan Hauritz has been consulting a Pakistan spin great and Stuart Clark continues to fly under the radar as Australia’s team for the fifth and deciding Ashes Test remains an unsolved jigsaw.
Lee is still at long odds to force his way back into the side, although Australian coach Tim Nielsen spoke enthusiastically about the paceman’s chances should reverse swing enter equations on a hard and dry pitch at The Oval from Thursday.
Clark, the incumbent, and Hauritz, who played the first three Tests, are locked in a three-way battle with Lee for the final bowling spot.
From the sidelines, Mickey Arthur – the South African coach whose side will assume the No.1 Test ranking should Australia lose or draw this game – can only watch in bewilderment. ”They made a mistake for the first three Tests,” he said of Australia playing Hauritz over Clark. ”Hauritz is a nice bowler, a good guy, but I wouldn’t have played him.
”I couldn’t understand why they didn’t play Stuart Clark – I wouldn’t have played a spinner at all.
”You need a guy that can hold [up an end] for you. [Clark] almost takes up that spinning role by doing the holding job that allows the other three quicks to run in and bowl aggressively. You could see in the first three games they didn’t know how to fit in, they were all strikers, and when they needed a holding job, they went to a spinner.
”Marcus North, Michael Clarke and Simon Katich can certainly give you some overs, all they have to do is probably bowl 12 to 15 overs maximum in a day.
”I think they got their balance right at Headingley and I always felt England was going to get exposed at some stage.”
Yet Clark’s place remains uncertain, with Australian selection chairman Andrew Hilditch indicating last week the only bowlers guaranteed a spot were Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle.
”I think if it does reverse [Lee will] very much put his hand up,” Nielsen said. ”Historically, it’s a drier surface that does bounce and carry a bit, and those sort of conditions can help the ball get scuffed up, which everyone knows helps it reverse.
”When that’s happening Brett is as good an exponent of [reverse swing] as anyone in the world. As long as he’s fit and gets through the next three days and the conditions suit, he’ll very much come into contention to play.
"It eased one of our concerns that his body would react poorly the first time he bowled flat-out [in last weekend’s tour match]. He bowled with good pace, swung the new ball away then had some success reversing it in Canterbury. All the things he brings to the table are really positive. He’s very much putting his hand up for selection.”
There are two problems in Lee’s way: a propensity for no-balls and Clark. Lee took 3-37 from 16 overs but bowled six no-balls against the Lions, albeit shaking off cobwebs in his first match since the beginning of the tour when injury ruled him out of the opening Test at Cardiff.
Clark is the more imposing hurdle, having done the required job of dismantling England’s batting card on the first day at Headingley. Nielsen and the selectors know all about Clark’s withering effect on English batsmen and dangers of dismantling a winning team. ”The team that played so well at Headingley has obviously given us a real quandary,” Nielsen said.
”It’s a nice one, obviously, to be able to go into a Test match with our full squad available and playing well.
”We’re trying to be sensible and calm and make the best decisions about what the best team is for the conditions we play in. I expect that if the wicket looks like it will bounce and carry, it will bring the fast bowlers into the game.”
Meanwhile, Hauritz had a training session with Saqlain Mushtaq on Monday, working on the doosra delivery made famous by the Pakistan spin great.
”I showed him my attempt at a doosra and he liked it but he said I need a lot of work on it,” Hauritz told Cricket Australia TV.
Saqlain was impressed. ”He’s a very talented guy. He’s got everything up his sleeve,” he said.
”He is working hard and he will do a lot for the country.”
The first season of Channel Nine's finishing school reality show Aussie Ladette to Lady was dogged by reports of bad behaviour from supposedly reformed ladettes and allegations, strongly denied, that the producers encouraged binge drinking. Now Nine is having to deal with what may be Australia's first ever reality TV strike. The Diary hears the contestants are demanding up to $5000 each from Nine to cover their out-of-pocket expenses. Until they are paid, they are threatening not to take part in any publicity to promote the show before it hits the airwaves. Reports reaching our desk suggest the global financial crisis has caused Nine to slash the budget for the latest series of LTL by 30 per cent. While the first series was filmed in England's grand Eggleston Hall, this time around the venue is relatively downmarket. We also hear two production crew quit the show within the first week, upset about the treatment of the contestants, who complained loudly about a lack of food and having to spend a lot of their own money during filming in Britain. Nine has even cut costs by ditching the ''reunion episode'' which involves flying contestants to Sydney. It was after this episode that some of the first series contestants played up, swimming topless in a hotel pool and damaging a hotel room. A Nine spokeswoman told The Diary: ''The terms of all our agreements with contestants are confidential, but the assertions are incorrect.''
A GOOD FACE FOR RADIO
In a six-decade career John Laws displayed the hide of a rhino, but the man who talked back without fear or favour has shown an unexpected fragility in retirement. Laws appears to be spending his declining years checking his notices. Last month the tarnished golden tonsils took exception to the Melbourne talkback host Neil Mitchell having the temerity to call him an idiot and bracketing him with Alan Jones as men of grubby ways courtesy of their cash for comments. At the weekend the Herald's Damien Murphy was rude enough to refer to Laws as ''the long-time pock-marked face of Toyota'' in the Private Sydney column. The redundant Laws may be car mad, Murphy said, but he appeared to have instilled little road sense into one of his sons, Josh, who is facing court for driving an unregistered, uninsured vehicle, driving when unlicensed and while talking on his mobile. Laws rang Murphy to take exception to the reference to his teenage days. ''I've had a 55-year career – what have you got to show? You're certainly no Hemingway,'' Laws said and, in the style perfected in his years of dealing with crazed callers, cut himself off.
People at the opening of the Salamander Haven Retirement Village at Salamander Bay on Friday by Nathan Rees were left wondering if the Premier had perhaps been handed the wrong speech by one of his minions. ''A lot of future husbands and wives will meet in this place,'' Rees began, furrowing many brows. ''And many will have children who will meet here and dance and argue and have fun and learn to swim. In these meeting places, a civilisation is built, customs are established, conditions made known, and that local spirit, that sense of place, of a sacred site, of tribal being is preserved through the ages.''
SADLY, NO SUBSTITUTE
The Fine Cotton affair scandalised Queensland's Eagle Farm racetrack 25 years ago today, entangling, among others, the Sydney bookie Robbie Waterhouse. Waterhouse was banned from racetracks after an investigation by the Australian Jockey Club found he had prior knowledge of the notorious ring-in, which saw Fine Cotton replaced by another, better-performed horse, Bold Personality, after the latter was painted with markings to match the former's. But rather disappointingly, no one appears to be planning to mark the event. The closest any of the participants has come was a plan by the Brisbane Racing Club to feature Fine Cotton as part of its opening meeting on July 4, thwarted when the horse died in February. Yesterday Waterhouse, who has always denied any knowledge of the substitution and regained his licence in 2001, told The Diary: ''I've no comment to make.''
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