WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT IN AUSTRALIAN SPORT IN 2016
AMBITION, HOPES SKY HIGH FOR RIO OLYMPICS
The stakes are high in Rio from August 5-21, with the Australian Olympic Committee striving for a top-five medal table placing and forecasting 13 gold medals – way up from 10th overall and seven golds at the 2012 London Games. Much expectation rests with the swimming team, a flop amid a toxic culture in London, and its seven golds at the 2015 world championships show the foundation is there. The freestyling Campbell sisters and dual world backstroke champions Emma Seebohm and Mitch Larkin will be all the rage but James Magnussen needs much to go right to get into gold medal shape after shoulder surgery. On the athletics track, Sally Pearson is struggling back from a badly broken wrist, but has her sights set on creating history as the first woman to win back-to-back 100m Olympic hurdles golds. With Mat Belcher among the sailors defending their London trio of golds, cycling icon Anna Meares likely back for more, and both the men’s hockey and women’s rugby sevens teams ranked first in the world, optimists have reason to believe.
THREE-PEAT HAWKS AIMING FOR AFL GREATNESS
History beckons for Hawthorn if they can beat Father Time by winning a fourth straight flag in 2016. Only Collingwood have ever achieved the feat. But that was back in 1927-30; around the time when wearing an onion on your belt was cool. Both fashion and the AFL have come a long way since then. But the biggest AFL news story in many years will wrap up before the season even starts. After three years and vast sums expended on lawyers, Essendon’s supplements saga finally ends when the Court of Arbitration for Sport gives its finding on WADA’s appeal against the AFL anti-doping tribunal’s decision to clear players over the club’s shambolic sports science program of 2011/12. As for the Brownlow? A fit-again Gary Ablett will be right in the mix, but star Fremantle midfielder Nat Fyfe is favourite to defend his crown. However, with Fyfe never too far away from injury or suspension, don’t expect it to be a smooth ride.
CAN NSW LOOSEN QUEENSLAND GRIP ON LEAGUE BALANCE OF POWER?
Coming off the NRL’s first ever all-Queensland grand final, there’s no denying that all of rugby league’s aces reside north of the Tweed. With the game’s No.1 superstar Johnathan Thurston seemingly getting better with age after a fairytale 2015, Queensland’s stranglehold on the 13-man game shows no sign relenting. Thurston’s North Queensland Cowboys have retained their premiership-winning core, the star-stacked Maroons have a new mentor in Kevin Walters but there’s nothing to suggest they won’t win a 10th Origin series in 11 years. And the man who guided Queensland to that decade of success – Mal Meninga – has now taken over in charge of the national side. So much for all those ‘southern conspiracies’…
SOCCEROOS WALK ROAD TO RUSSIA
After the challenge of the 2014 World Cup and the euphoria of 2015’s Asian Cup success, the Socceroos will spend 2016 qualifying for their next big test; the 2018 World Cup. March qualifiers will see Ange Postecoglou’s side safely into the next phase, where sterner tests await. A spate of Socceroos – Mile Jedinak, Massimo Luongo, Aaron Mooy, James Troisi and Alex Wilkinson included – may need club moves to keep their careers moving in the right direction. Olympic qualification for the Matildas and Olyroos would be welcome and on the home front, all eyes are on the wounded A-League champions Melbourne Victory. Can coach Kevin Muscat pick his players off the canvas or will Tony Popovic’s Western Sydney Wanderers march on to a maiden title?
QUEST FOR MAIDEN T20 WORLD CUP TITLE
National selectors have been studying the Big Bash League closely ahead of the T20 World Cup, the one major cricket trophy that Australia have never won. Resting is something of a dirty word for coach Darren Lehmann but workloads will be almost as important as wickets as his side negotiates a near non-stop schedule before that India-hosted tournament starts in March. Lehmann himself will take a break during a Caribbean ODI series in June, when Justin Langer fills in. The side’s major away assignment in 2016 is a tour of Sri Lanka but a home Test series against South Africa will be their most enthralling battle. The Proteas won their past two Test series in Australia, while the No.1 Test ranking could well be on the line.
WINNING BACK BLEDISLOE WOULD BE WALLABIES GOLD
The Wallabies’ charge to the World Cup final has given Australian rugby union fans reason to believe winning back the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in 13 years is eminently possible. The retirement of All Blacks greats Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, a sextet boasting more than 700 Test caps, further fuels hopes. An Ashes-like three-Test series against England in Australia pitting the coaching wits of Michael Cheika against former clubmate Eddie Jones is a tasty appetiser before the Wallabies eye trans-Tasman supremacy and Rugby Championship glory then end the year chasing a grand slam triumph over the four home nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Amid a big year, the national sevens teams chase gold at the Rio Olympics.
JASON OUT TO DOMINATE IN GOLF’S NEW BIG THREE
What a prospect for Australian golf fans. Jason Day battling it out with American golden boy Jordan Spieth and Northern Irish superstar Rory McIlroy for supremacy in 2016. The trio of 20-somethings separated themselves from the rest in the rankings following phenomenal 2015 seasons by Spieth and Day. The first great showdown is pencilled in for the Masters in April when Spieth defends, a fit-again McIlroy seeks a career grand slam of majors and Day bids to join Adam Scott as Australia’s second green jacket winner. Day still stings from blowing a two-shot lead with three holes to play to allow Scott to steal his thunder in 2013 and won’t lack confidence after his US PGA Championship breakthrough and taste of the world No.1 spot.
TENNIS WILD BOYS READY TO DELIVER
With Nick Kyrgios promising a major in “the next year or two”, Bernard Tomic established in the world’s top 20 for the first time and retiring champion and newly-appointed Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt committed to helping the two tennis wild boys restore Australia’s grand slam fortunes, there’s much to be excited about entering 2016. Kyrgios, already a two-time grand slam quarter-finalist at just 20, is also vowing to mature after a season laced with controversy and drama, while Tomic’s career-best season, highlighted by seven quarter-finals and a third ATP title, is proof the 23-year-old is finally ready to deliver. Look for one of the two, if not both, to go deep at Wimbledon.
ARE V8S ENTERING A NEW ICE AGE?
Will Ford star Mark Winterbottom be liberated after getting the monkey off his back by winning a maiden V8 Supercars championship? Confident and with a fast car, Frosty will be keen to start his own era of dominance. How Holden rivals Jamie Whincup and Craig Lowndes handle the addition of Shane Van Gisbergen to their stable could play a big role in that too. The V8s will break new ground in 2016 with an inaugural race on the streets of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Daniel Ricciardo’s hopes of breaking the dominance of Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg appear slim in Formula One with his Red Bull team yet to catch up on the engine front while Matt Brabham – grandson of Sir Jack – will headline an Australian-backed team in next year’s iconic Indy 500 in the United States.
THERE’S PLENTY MORE
* Surfer Mick Fanning’s return to J-Bay will no doubt be an eerie affair. His televised run-in with a large shark while competing there in July shocked the world. Despite initial calls for the J-Bay leg of the tour to be scrapped, it will go ahead as planned in 2016.
* The Hayne Plane encountered some engine problems in his first season in the NFL and he spent a big chunk relegated to the San Francisco 49ers practice squad after some fumbles. But Jarryd Hayne showed enough to suggest that, with another full pre-season under his belt, he could be ready for a breakout season. Just who he plays for remains up in the air.
* Could Australia have another No.1 pick in the NBA draft? Many experts are predicting so, with rising star Ben Simmons – likened to LeBron James – tipped to take the cake in 2016, following in the footsteps of Andrew Bogut in 2005.