The Matildas are back and searching for consistency, someone is cutting onions in the W-League, there are climate change risks to Australian football, and much more. The ESPN Australian football wrap is here to catch you up on everything you might have missed in the round ball game.
Almost six months to the day he was entrusted with guiding Australia's most beloved team, Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson finally knows when he will get a first chance to put his squad through their paces.
Football Australia confirmed on Thursday that the women's national team will return to the field for the first time since they qualified for the Olympics, in March 2020, with friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands on Apr. 11 and 14 respectively; the 13-month absence was enforced by the logistical challenges presented by COVID-19.
With a highly credentialed and well-respected football brain at the helm for the next four years, there will be much excitement to observe how the Matildas tackle assignments against two European heavyweights, but, with such little time until the Tokyo Olympics, Gustavsson is taking a tempered approach to his side's opening salvos.
"With very limited time for the Olympics, I think this is not the time to experiment too much, because you need to give the players a fair chance to perform at their full potential," Gustavsson told ESPN. "So, a one-liner is to keep it simple.
"Keep it simple moving into the Olympics and make sure that when we get together in that April camp everyone has an understanding of 'this is what we want to do, this is how we're going to do it, this is your No. 1 position and you can be a back-up in this position as a No.2.'
"I do think that going into an Olympics where the numbers of a roster are less than in a World Cup, I actually think there's an advantage to the Matildas roster, that we have so many players [who] could play multiple positions, because that gives us a back-up.
"Looking at the Olympic schedule, you can see how tight the games are so sometimes it's difficult to play back-to-back-to-back-to-back if you're going to go far in the tournament. So we need every single one of them, not just the 18 or the 23 in the World Cup, we need a broader roster to help us be successful.
"So, most likely we're going to keep it pretty simple and clear and consistent in the time leading up to the Olympics, and then post-Olympics, when we have a little more time to look into more options, is probably where we're going to analyse the Olympics performance and then potentially looking at fine-tuning what we've done in the Olympics or potentially rebuild a little bit."
Australia will have 23 players in the squad for the fixtures against Germany and the Netherlands, with COVID-related logistical problems dictating it can feature only individuals who are not based in Australia.
Top-level talent will be well represented by figures such as Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter, but a number of fringe or even uncapped players from Europe, the American collegiate system or elsewhere could feature.
"We're always going to have an eye on the short-term preparation for the Olympics but we're also going to have a parallel process with a little bit of an eye to 2023," Gustavsson said.
"So, selecting that roster is probably going to be a parallel process of looking into what we need to find and look at to find a roster that can compete in the Olympics but also maybe potential vetting some players in this camp [who] might not be up and ready for an Olympic tournament but can be up for a World Cup in 2023.
"So it might be a mix there, obviously with a main focus on the Olympics but also with a small parallel focus for the World Cup."
It had to be Rhali
When one is undergoing a cancer journey, be it personal or due to the diagnosis of a loved one, the disease can feel like a black hole.
Without warning, every moment, every emotion, and every hope and dream for the future is suddenly subject to what feels like an inescapable anchor of despair and hopelessness. Decisions and plans suddenly have another and quite unwelcome dimension thrust upon their consideration -- one that casts a constant shadow of near-paralysing fear, doubt and uncertainty.
But somehow, despite all the turmoil it brings, the terrible disease can also bring out the best in people; it can serve as the catalyst for moments of love, joy and generosity of spirit that are as inspirational as they are heartwarming.
Friends, family and even total strangers will rally around those in need, who themselves will frequently rise to meet the challenges facing them with a hitherto unknown grit and determination that is astounding as it is inspiring.
Australian football was fortunate enough to see one of those moments on Thursday night.
Playing in the final game of her W-League career before she retires to support her partner, Matt, through brain cancer treatment, Rhali Dobson scored Melbourne City's first goal in their 2-1 win over Perth Glory before exiting the field in the 75th minute to a rousing ovation.
An unsuspecting Dobson was then surprised after the game when Matt dropped to one knee and, right in the middle of Frank Holohan Soccer Complex, produced a ring and asking her to marry him. Having already asked him to marry her twice after the news of his latest diagnosis, a response in the affirmative quickly followed from Dobson and the pair embraced -- before being mobbed by Dobson's teammates.
And when that circle ended, so did City's 2020-21 W-League season.
Not with a championship they may have grown accustomed to over the years but, instead, in a hug surrounding two amazing individuals getting set to face down one of the most daunting challenges of their lives. It's not a moment that can be immortalized in a trophy cabinet but, in the long run, its legacy might have an even greater impact on the club.
Australian Football and Climate Risk
In a peculiar way, football administrators being forced to scramble to reschedule games as a result of adverse weather conditions represents a return to normalcy after the past 12 months of COVID-enforced chaos.
Last Saturday, Jubilee Stadium's drainage systems proved unable to cope with the deluge and league officials were forced to postpone the A-League and W-League meetings between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory. The fixtures, thus, became the latest in a long line of fixtures affected by Australia's droughts and floods.
Just last season, heavily reduced air-quality as a result of devastating bushfires that swept the country forced the postponement of a number of W-League and Y-League games, and threw the leagues into "operational mode and learning mode".
And according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology's latest State of the Climate report, Australia will likely see more heat extremes in the years ahead; though there will be a decrease in cool-season rainfall overall, the report suggests, there will also be more intense, short-duration heavy rainfall events.
"Climate-exposed sports organisations and governing bodies, they probably need to incorporate climate risks into their strategic thinking-- just like you would for other risks," Dr Greg Dingle, a La Trobe University Lecturer in Sport Management, with expertise in climate change, sport and environmental sustainability, told ESPN.
"Businesses and not-for-profit organisations around the world are constantly facing risks -- political risks, economic risks, social risks. Now, what do I mean by 'climate exposed'? I mean people or organisations with activities where there are people and facilities exposed to the weather.
"Climate risks are just one of a basket of risks that organisations face. Coming back to climate-exposed sports [such as football], my view is that they may well benefit from incorporating climate extremes into their strategic thinking.
"It enables them to be proactive in their responses rather than reactive, and there's a range of benefits that come with that.
"There's already a global commercial practice of including climate in the strategic thinking of organisations -- especially for-profit organisations.
"If any organisation faces a risk, most risks can be managed -- and that includes some climate risks.
"Proactive responses are the way to go; they lead to better results financially, reputationally, safety, socially, market share, all of those things. Climate-exposed sports like football, I would say that they, in the longer term, be better off if they have plans to respond to climate risks and those climate plans will be climate-adaptation plans."
Hearts of Iron
For coaches, players who can be relied upon week in week out are worth their weight in gold.
Some, however, go beyond simply being a fixture on the team sheet and become ever-present figures through each and every game. Whether they are turned to steel in a great magnetic field remains an open question, but they are their team's Iron Men and Women.
Per FBRef, 13 outfielders have played every available second during the A-League season while 12 have done so in the W-League.
Under the guidance of first-year coach Warren Moon, Brisbane Roar field the most outfielders who have played every moment of the 2020-21 A-League campaign -- in Tom Aldred, Corey Brown and Jay O'Shea -- while Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory also field multiple players who have played without pause -- in Steven Ugarkovic and Nikolai Topor-Stanley, and Neil Killkenny and Daryl Lachman respectively.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a significant proportion of the competition's stalwarts are centre-backs: Central Coast Mariners' Ruon Tongyik, Sydney FC's Alex Wilkinson, Adelaide United's Jordan Elsey, and Curtis Good of Melbourne City all leading their clubs in minutes.
"Even when he's playing, he's then backing up with a training session, and then doing extras on top of that," Rudan said of Imai.
"One of the reasons I brought him to the club was that we needed to change our mentality and our mindset. It's easy to make excuses, very easy; no matter what you do you've got a choice to make, and someone like Tomoki chooses to work and chooses to work and try [to] be better all the time.
"Tomoki is a machine, and he's someone [who] other players should be looking at and asking how does he do it and why does he do it and how can we get to that level."
Though not quite hitting the 100% figure, Ziggy Gordon and Tim Payne lead Western Sydney Wanderers and Wellington Phoenix respectively in minutes while, having played 92.7% of Macarthur FC's minutes, Matt Derbyshire is the most 'well rested' of the A-League's iron men.
In the W-League, Melbourne Victory boss Jeff Hopkins -- a former centre-back himself -- has shown a clear preference for consistency at the back: Angie Beard, Kayla Morrison and Claudia Bunge all playing every available minute in 2020-21.
Despite the numerous logistical challenges that have befallen their campaign, Liz Anton and Natasha Rigby have consistently featured for Perth Glory, as have Cassidy Davis and Taren King at Newcastle Jets, and Clare Polkinghorne and Kim Carroll at Brisbane Roar.
Highlighting Davis' incredible consistency, the Jets' coming fixture against Brisbane -- assuming she plays -- will see her record her 97th consecutive W-League appearance, breaking Marianna Tabain's record.
Canberra United's Lauren Keir, Sydney FC's Natalie Tobin, and Matilda McNamara of Adelaide United have also logged every available minute to them in 2020-21 -- a record denied Western Sydney's Libby Copus-Brown by virtue of her 94th-minute substitution against Newcastle Jets in round two.
Speaking to the upheaved nature of their season, Melbourne City's most consistent outfielder -- Tori Tumeth -- has played on;y 90.5% of her team's minutes this season.
Good Football Thing of the Week
Reno Piscopo's first touch. Excellent.
Good Social Media Thing of the Week
Following her recent diagnosis with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, New Zealand international Rebekah Stott has began treatment and, much like Dobson, the football family is rallying around her.