NRL: Jack Ahearn has faith in his future

Raiders player Jack Ahearn sporting his old Tuggeranong Valley Dragons jersey. Photo: Katherine GriffithsThe similarities are obvious – same junior club, same playing position, same sleeve tattoos.
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But look further than skin deep, and emerging Canberra Raiders young gun Jack Ahearn couldn’t be more different from Josh Dugan.

The pair are good friends, a bond forged when they were juniors at Valley Dragons.

While Dugan was sacked by the Raiders last year, and has revived his representative career at the St George Illawarra Dragons, many are tipping Ahearn to break through for his NRL debut this season.

”I just smile,” Ahearn says of the comparisons.

”Duges and I are good mates and he’s a great player, so the comparisons don’t bother me at all. We get compared to each other a lot being juniors at the same club, and [with] the tattoos, but we’re fairly different in the way we play. That was a mistake by Duges and it’s unfortunate because he’s a wonderful player. It’s a learning curve for everyone and especially us young players coming through.”

About the same time as Dugan was infamously pictured drinking and giving the finger on a Canberra rooftop, Ahearn was finding his faith.

He has attended Holy Family Catholic Church in Gowrie for the past year, which he describes as ”a place of peace”.

”I was a bit scared about going to church but a school mate put up a Facebook status about church and he took me along,” Ahearn said.

”I do this program once a week where they teach us about the faith, the journey and the morals.

”It keeps me grounded going back to church and staying humble.

”I have a little church family that looks after me. It’s nice, relaxing and comforting.”

Ahearn’s tattoos have motivational or spiritual meaning, too, including the Lord’s Prayer and the lyrics of a Beyonce song.

”The paragraph of lyrics down my ribs is I Was Here by Beyonce. It’s about leaving your mark and doing the best you can,” Ahearn said.

”I’ve got four Chinese symbols – family, love, honour and believe – and Roman numerals on my back for date of birth.

”My favourite is the religious sleeve [on my left arm]. When I was 18 I told myself I wouldn’t get a sleeve, but two or three years later here I am. It’s a bit of an addiction.”

The 21-year-old is a creative ball-player with great vision. A fullback all through juniors, Ahearn has been earmarked as a potential five-eighth by new coach Ricky Stuart.

Ahearn said he was apprehensive when Stuart, one of the game’s greatest halves, told him he was switching to a playmaker role.

While Ahearn looks destined for the halves, he admitted Anthony Milford’s pending move to Brisbane could open up a chance to grab the fullback spot long term.

”But I don’t want to get ahead of myself, I want to stay humble and grounded and hopefully perform at NSW Cup level first,” Ahearn said.

”I knew taking on this [halves] role, if I go back to fullback it would help my ball-playing there anyway, and help my defensive game being in the front line.

”I was hesitant and nervous, but I saw it as a challenge and opportunity to test myself. I think it’s a change for the good.”

Ahearn is managed by former Raiders fullback and captain Clinton Schifcofske.

”I can see him as a six,” Schifcofske said.

”He’s got a great pass and he takes the right option more often than not and a great kicking game. He’s got great vision, a bit of Darren Lockyer about him. He’s not going to be Darren Lockyer, but he plays a similar style.”

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NBA: Patty Mills has eyes on top prize for San Antonio Spurs

When Canberra basketballer Patrick Mills talks about turning his ”window of opportunity into something big”, it’s got nothing to do with the million-dollar contracts in the NBA.
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The only prize Mills has his eyes on is an NBA championship.

The San Antonio Spurs are targeting finals redemption after being beaten by the star-studded Miami Heat in the championship series last year.

Mills’ NBA stocks have risen following outstanding performances in the past two months and he’s thriving on more responsibility while Spurs’ All Star point guard Tony Parker is injured.

His career-best form is set to earn him the biggest pay-day of his career, but Mills will delay contract negotiations until after the season to focuses on his championship dream.

NEW CONTRACT

Mills’ two-year contract with the Spurs, worth $1.133 million a season, is about to end but the former Marist College student says he is focused on team success with 25 games remaining in the regular season.

Mills was the top-scorer of all players at the Olympic Games in London two years ago, but until this season he was best known for his enthusiastic towel-waving in the NBA.

Mills will become a free agent at the end of the season and his strong campaign will likely result in a pay rise, with some experts predicting a potential increase to $3 million a year.

”To be honest I’m not too sure how it works, but that’s exactly my mindset at the moment,” Mills said.

”I’m not worrying at all at the moment. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

”But we’re focused on getting back to the NBA championship series, you don’t want any other distractions getting in the way of that.”

The speedy point guard, in his fifth NBA season, has bought a house in San Antonio and is in career-best form under the guidance of coach Gregg Popovich.

Mills’ NBA future was clouded before finding his feet at the Spurs, forcing his way into the regular rotation and playing all 57 games so far this season.

”I’ve always believed that I want to play in the NBA and I should be in the league,” Mills said.

CAREER-BEST FORM

Mills has cemented his place in the Spurs’ regular rotation this season and has relished the chance to spend more time on the court.

Parker is battling injuries, opening the door for Mills to earn his place as a regular contributor.

Mills averaged 16.5 points per game in February and has played in every game this season.

”You never know when a chance is going to come around again so you’ve got to take it, make the most of it and turn the window of opportunity into something big,” Mills said.

”I still understand I have a lot of hard work to do to contribute to team goals … It’s been a mentally challenging season.”

Mills earned a cult following last year for his enthusiastic, celebratory towel-waving from the Spurs’ bench, but he wants to earn on-court respect.

”Last year was a different role, I didn’t want to sit down and sulk. My way of contributing then was picking up a towel.

”This way it’s different. I want to be in the NBA to play, I feel like I can do that and it’s all about earning the right to play on such a great Spurs team.”

PERSONAL CHEF

Spurs coaching staff wanted Mills to return to training faster, fitter and stronger.

So the pint-size point guard started with trying to get a better understanding of his body to get him in peak physical condition.

He hired a personal chef for two months to teach him how to cook and the importance of nutrition.

Mills also gave up guilty pleasures such as strawberry milk, cheese and pasta. ”It’s just about knowing how to eat and what to eat … what to put in my body,” Mills said.

”I put myself on a strict diet from about April. I got a chef in to cook meals for the first few months of the diet and to teach about the food, what to eat and when.

”After getting the hang of it, I’m still going strong now. I wanted a better understanding of nutrition and being a professional athlete.”

Mills said his off-court life had given him a greater understanding of what he needed to do on the court.

”My strawberry milk is gone … it was interesting and fun knowing what your body does and doesn’t need. Now I understand what I need to do to play on a team like this after having two seasons with [coach Popovich] and San Antonio, I know this is what I need to do.

‘The biggest part I’ve noticed is I’ve been able to play a lot stronger for longer periods of time.”

THE PLAY-OFFS

The Spurs fell agonisingly short of an NBA title last season, losing to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the championship series.

Mills missed the end of the series with a mystery foot injury, but a brief taste of the action last year has made him hungrier for success.

The Spurs sit second in the western conference as the regular season nears its end.

”The play-offs count the most, that’s what I work hard for. I want to contribute during the season and at the end when it matters the most,” Mills said.

”I’ve still got to prove that I can contribute at the end of the season. I hope that I can have an effect, I believe I can and that I can make a contribution.”

Luc Longley and Andrew Gaze are the only Australians to have been part of an NBA championship triumph.

”We [the Spurs] all know how salty it tastes to lose one, we got so close last year and now we’re hungry to get back there and change it.”

DANTE EXUM

AIS star Dante Exum has nominated for the NBA draft and is in the US meeting with teams, preparing to launch his career.

The 18-year-old decided to bypass the traditional route of playing college basketball first.

Mills and Exum teamed up for Australia last year and Mills has contacted the teenage powerhouse to offer advice as he enters the NBA world of superstars and megabucks.

Exum is projected to be one of the top picks in the draft, which will earn him a million-dollar contract.

”From what I’ve seen he’s a very impressive athlete … he’s already making a name for himself over here and there’s no doubt he’ll go high in the draft,” Mills said.

”It’s great for him and great for basketball in Australia. There’s no down-playing how highly he’s rated.

”Every time they talk about the draft, they talk about him in the top five picks. He’s got great potential … coming through the AIS program gives him a headstart. From what I’ve seen, he has what it takes. He’s got the right mindset to be a professional athlete. I know how hectic it gets, so I’ll be there for anything he needs.”

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

The Australian Boomers have helped launch Mills’ career and the AIS graduate believes the national team is on the cusp of being a contender for medals at the world championships this year. The Boomers have four players in the NBA – Mills, Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova and Aron Baynes – with the prospect of Exum joining them next season.

Mills met with Boomers coach Andrej Lemanis in San Antonio earlier this week to start plans for the world championships in Spain from August 30 to September 14.

”Hopefully we can do something for Australian basketball and do something that a men’s basketball team has never done before [and win a medal],” Mills said. ”We knew at the last Olympics that we would have a core young group that could be really strong over the next few years, this is us growing up and maturing now.”

The 2008 Beijing Olympics launched Mills on to the NBA radar and the 2012 Olympics confirmed his status as a potential star.

Mills scored 127 points in six matches at the London Olympics.

The Boomers will play France, Greece and Turkey in the group stages.

Eight of Mills’ Spurs teammates will also play in the competition, with Mills set to square off against All Star French guard Parker.

”The trash talking has already started about who’s playing who, but that’s fun,” Mills said.

”I really do think we’ve got a chance at this world championships. The group is very ripe and will grow and develop more from this.”

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Weather may favour Mace despite play-on preference

RUNS: Steve Mace clips a shot away for his Charlestown team against Cardiff-Boolaroo. Picture: Peter StoopSINCE he started playing junior cricket more than three decades ago, Steve Mace has hated waking up on Saturdays to the sound of falling rain.
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But if today’s first-grade clash with Toronto at No.1 Sportsground is washed out, it will be understandable if the veteran Charlestown skipper’s disappointment is not quite as intense.

With two rounds left in the Newcastle District Cricket Association regular season, Mace’s Magpies are fourth on the points table – 10 points clear of their next nearest rivals, Newcastle City.

It is a commanding yet not totally unassailable lead.

‘‘We’re not there yet,’’ Mace said yesterday.

‘‘I think if we lost both games and City had an outright and picked up some bonus points, they could overtake us.’’

For that unlikely sequence of events to unfold, City would need to take maximum points against struggling Stockton at Learmonth Park.

That can only happen if the ground is fit for play today, and given the deluge of the past 24 hours it would be a surprise if any of the six scheduled games proceed.

Washed-out fixtures will revert to one-dayers next week, thereby torpedoing any plans for outright results.

Mace said Charlestown’s players had put the covers on at No.1 on Thursday afternoon, before the heavens opened, but he still doubted any play would be possible.

‘‘I’d be surprised if there were any games this weekend,’’ he said.

If that confirms Charlestown are certain semi-finalists in what shapes as his last season, Mace will not knock it back.

But in typical fashion he said: ‘‘You’d always rather be playing.’’

A rain deferral would benefit Charlestown on another front as it would allow wicket-keeper Dane Macourt to rest a suspected broken thumb he suffered fielding last week.

‘‘They think it’s fractured,’’ Mace said. ‘‘But he had a bit of a bat and a catch at training [on Thursday] and seems to think he’ll be all right.

‘‘It’s obviously still a bit ginger, so an extra week will be good for him.’’

Macourt is back behind the stumps after the departure of English import Callum Jackson, who will be replaced in the top order by the return of Daniel Arms from representative duties.

Toronto have also farewelled their three English recruits, Tom Bailey, Jake Ball and Sam Wood, allowing Ashley Weekes, Josh Newell and Matt Peterson to return.

By last night, there were two first-grade matches called off – between Hamilton-Wickham and Cardiff-Boolaroo at Passmore Oval, and Wests against Waratah-Mayfield at Harker Oval.

In games scheduled but not expected to start today, Belmont host leaders Merewether at Cahill Oval, and University are at home to Wallsend.

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Tevita Kuridrani chases World Cup dream with ACT Brumbies

Tevita Kuridrani has shunned European offers to chase his World Cup dream with the Brumbies. Photo: Katherine GriffithsWallabies outside-centre Tevita Kuridrani resisted the lure of cashed-up European clubs to chase his World Cup goal, declaring success in Australian rugby is his No.1 priority.
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Fijian-born Kuridrani also expects to be targeted by teams this season after enjoying a spectacular break-out campaign for the Brumbies last year.

Kuridrani has been recalled to the Brumbies’ starting XV for their clash against the Western Force in Perth on Saturday night.

The powerful back was almost tempted by lucrative overseas deals last year before former Brumbies coach Jake White convinced him to stay in Australia.

Kuridrani was rewarded with a Super Rugby grand final appearance and eight Test caps for the Wallabies.

”It wasn’t the right time for me to move on, it was too early and I needed more experience,” Kuridrani said.

”I wanted to play more Super Rugby and for the Wallabies. It was way too early, I still have things I want to achieve.”

The Brumbies hope Kuridrani’s addition will spark the team’s attack as they aim for their first win of the season.

Halfback Nic White will take over kicking duties to ease the pressure on fullback Jesse Mogg.

Mogg missed what would have been a match-levelling penalty in the Brumbies’ loss to the Queensland Reds, and then fumbled a kick in the dying minutes which sealed the Reds’ 10-point win.

Brumbies skipper Ben Mowen is confident they can make amends against the Force.

The Force beat the Brumbies in the last regular season game last year, ruining the Brumbies’ hopes of hosting a home preliminary final or grand final.

”We just spoke about trusting that we can pop sides in the end … we tried to force our hand [against the Reds],” Mowen said.

”We’ve got to make sure we’re the first side to put our foot down [on Saturday night]. We need to create some momentum this year so this is a great game to have. Execution let us down last week, we don’t think that a huge part in our game is wrong, it’s just one or two moments.”

Kuridrani has established himself as one of the most destructive ball runners in Super Rugby.

Kuridrani was the Brumbies’ last-minute hero in their preliminary final against the Pretoria Bulls last season, scoring a match-winning try in the dying seconds to lift the Brumbies into the grand final.

Less than 12 months ago Kuridrani could not force his way into the Brumbies’ starting XV.

But after starring in the Brumbies’ charge to the final, Kuridrani was Australia’s first-choice outside-centre by the end of last year. But the 22-year-old admits he faces a tougher task this season as opposition teams try to curb his influence.

”Hopefully it can be another good season this year,” Kuridrani said. ”I think this year I will have a target on me, but not only me, I think all of the Wallabies boys will have that.”

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Sportsmen are ‘guinea pigs’ for head trauma

Tiny grey spots appeared, as though television static had invaded my field of vision.
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Then a distant voice began posing confusing questions. How old are you? What day of the week is it? Who are we playing?

Suddenly, the blurriness vanished and I was shot back to reality. My vision cleared and I found myself shouting back ”I’m fine!” It was July 3, 2004, I was in my rookie season as a Wallabies representative, playing against a combined Pacific Islands team in Adelaide.

I’d just received a concussion, but I recovered quickly enough to convince the doctor I was fit to continue playing.

I received a second head injury later in the game and couldn’t sleep that night due to a persistent pounding headache.

By the Monday, I had no symptoms – that is, I knew who I was, I had a decent grasp of the calendar and my headaches were gone.

It was enough to clear me to play the next weekend, in my first Bledisloe Cup, a Test win against the All Blacks in Sydney.

Times have changed and brain injury in sport is a hot topic.

Concussion has become a dirty word among sports teams, often substituted for the now popular euphemism ”head knock”. Despite this, retirements from brain trauma are rare in rugby – although they do occur.

I remember Elton Flatley’s final Test match for Australia.

Flats was the kind of tough teammate I loved playing with because there was never any doubt he would put his body on the line.

Repeated concussions had left him struggling with blurred vision during matches, though he seemed to have overcome the problem leading into our Test Match against South Africa in Perth in July 2005.

During the warm-up, Flats got nudged by one of the reserves holding a tackle pad. It was a totally innocuous collision, but it was enough to effectively end his rugby career.

South Africa’s Krynauw Otto retired at the age of 28 after medical examinations revealed a subdural haematoma in the left frontal area of his brain. After complaining of headaches during training, Otto required surgery to drain blood and relieve pressure on his brain.

This week, the NRL released its rigorous new concussion laws, along with stringent sanctions for clubs who fail to abide by them. Teams now face the potential loss of competition points or large fines for putting a player back on the field with symptoms of concussion.

NRL head of football Todd Greenberg said: ”Rugby league is a very tough sport but player health and welfare is at the forefront of every decision we make. Clubs need to understand these are very serious issues.”

Rugby union has recently undertaken similar steps. Players are now required to complete two separate baseline tests, which are then used to assess a player’s recovery from concussion.

In addition to these tests, the pitch-side concussion assessment protocols will continue this season.

Encouragingly, the pitch-side assessments have led to a marked increase in players being permanently removed from the field of play following a head impact.

Match-day doctors assessing head injuries will be independent and steps are being taken to make video footage available to doctors to assist accurate diagnosis.

Despite these changes, I can’t stop feeling that current players are guinea pigs in a large, poorly understood experiment.

While it’s useful that the link between brain injury and contact sports is becoming less blurred, what’s being revealed is not comforting.

Increasingly, studies are linking chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of progressive degenerative disease, with contact sports. Some of the symptoms of CTE include memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression. Alarmingly, the onset of the disease can be so gradual as to not appear for decades.

In America, more than 4500 former National Football League players or family members have filed concussion-related suits against the NFL. Last year, the league agreed to pay $US765 million ($855 million) to settle the lawsuit, a figure rejected last month by US District Judge Anita Brody who said the settlement: ”may not be enough to cover injured players.”

When three-quarters of a billion dollars isn’t enough to make a problem go away, you know it’s worth our attention.

There’s an astonishing piece of footage on YouTube from a 1977 bout between 35-year-old Muhammad Ali and his bewildered adversary, 19-year-old Michael Dokes. There were 21 punches, all thrown with vicious intent at a man making no attempt to ”glove up”.

Not a single blow from Dokes lands, the flurry of air-swings ending with Ali taunting his challenger with a wiggle of the hips.

You don’t need be a boxing aficionado to appreciate the clip, which demonstrates the incredible evasive skills and sheer hubris of Ali.

Yet despite his artistry, we know Ali was repeatedly and brutally struck in the head over the course of his boxing career.

Three years after his retirement, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, a disease often linked to head trauma. Known for a wit as sharp as his punch, Ali’s speech is now laboured, and his body, once a floating butterfly, has become leaden.

While concussion protocols are designed to mitigate risks, the future doesn’t look bright for brains that insist on hammering themselves for sport.

Rugby players are getting bigger and faster, and collisions are becoming increasingly violent and frequent.

The intensity and physicality of the game cannot be allowed to subside – there’s far too much money at stake for that.

Rugby players are modern-day gladiators, and like gladiators we are subject to the primal cravings of the horde.

It’s not difficult to envisage a future where our enlightened descendants shudder as they reflect on a barbaric spectacle once called rugby.

It’s difficult to know the long-term implications of repeated head traumas resulting from sports such as rugby.

It’s this gap in understanding that makes it unlikely I’ll be encouraging my future children to play rugby, at least not until further research gives a more reliable picture of the risks involved.

This attitude might be accused of being ”precious”. But what is more precious than a human brain?

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