Getting stuck without your main character is very difficult. The US office was not the same for the series finale following the departure of Steve Carell. Queen was so obviously all about Freddie Mercury that her performance with a replacement singer had to be described as “Queen + Paul Rodgers,” and it still didn’t feel right.
Australia, which co-hosted the 2023 World Cup, finds itself in a similar situation. Ever since the decision to award this tournament to Australia and New Zealand four years ago, everyone knew this World Cup was about Sam Kerr. Strolling through Sydney this week and she’s clearly the literal poster girl for it.
This is Sam Kerr, the Australian sports icon
But, in a tournament already battered by the absence of other key players through injury – Viviane Miedema, Beth Mead and Amandine Henry to name a few – came the biggest story yet. Kerr was left out of Australia’s training session yesterday with a calf injury. We don’t know how dangerous it is, but Australia coach Tony Gustafsson has hinted that it is dangerous. “You’re out for two games,” he said. “That tells you a little bit about his grade.” But what Gustafsson really meant was that Kerr was definitely out for two games, then the injury would be assessed. We can talk about more than two games.
Australia announced Kerr was out just two minutes before the team were to reveal their cards, despite knowing of her absence well in advance. Kerr’s nagging hip injury flared up at the start of yesterday’s training session, but she held a press conference in Australia last night, without mentioning her problem. Don’t take it or Gustavsson’s poker game.
“I hope you respect and understand why I can’t speak openly about it,” Gustafsson said afterwards.
“At that point, we didn’t know 100 per cent what it was. We had a meeting at 9:30 last night, and that’s when the sad news hit us. (Pause) Sam was a big part of Ireland’s game plan, so we didn’t want to give that up beforehand. We didn’t play any mind games that day. But we wanted to wait until the last minute.”
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And so, rather than Kerr captaining her country in the biggest match in Australian football history, she was sheltered. Named as a replacement to allow her to sit on the bench and remain close to the team, Kerr still acts as captain.
Steve Catley said afterwards: “I think it was probably one of the saddest moments of my career”. “Sam is one of the best players in the world. She’s our spiritual leader. She means a lot to this team. So, having her go down a day earlier than a moment like that was pretty awful. But I think, as a team, she added something for us; it added a little extra fire. And I think everyone looked at it and said, ‘Okay, I have to step up now,’ because we don’t have Sam.”
Kerr, who was in tears when the Australian national anthem was played around Stadium Australia before the match, was already a presence on the bench, but on the field, she was sorely missed. Part of Kerr’s brilliance is her ability to convert hopeful balls into crosses defined by her movement and speed. She makes her teammates’ lives easier.
Without it, Caitlin Foord would lead the line, but she’s not the same kind of guy. Mary Fowler worked in the back, connecting plays well, but she wasn’t doing classic Kerr games. As Gustafsson stated afterwards, Kerr is also central to the way Australia defended set pieces, and threatened Ireland with a stream of corner kicks.
“Sam Kerr is probably the best striker in the world,” Ireland coach Vera Bowe admitted afterwards. “But Australia have so many strong, fast attacking players that our style of play hasn’t changed because of that. The way they played, we set us up for it. And I think we (neutered) them the way they want to be late. They haven’t been late once. That’s a huge compliment to our team. Our game plan worked perfectly.”
But the game plan was helped, of course, by Kerr’s absence. Without it, Australia only had two runs with possession.
The first was to bring in the full-backs, Catley and Eli Carpenter, in and get them to play a one-two, which worked reasonably well at times, but also resulted in misplaced passes, deflections, and allowed Ireland to break.
As for the second, it is related to hitting the midfielders and midfielders for long balls full of hope for the two wings. This was less effective.
But it was this second mode of attack that finally paid off. Sure enough, Hayley Ruso’s Kyra Cooney-Cross ball was deflected, but Ireland’s Marisa Sheva fell into the back and conceded a penalty, converted with remarkable coolness from Catley. This was the only difference between the two teams.
Australia, in truth, has not created anything else. It was a typical performance for a host nation on the opening day; Nerves got the better of him a bit, Catley admitted afterwards. “We knew there were going to be difficult moments,” she said. “It was the biggest occasion of our career, and we were expecting to slack off, and we overcame it.”
But the question was not whether Australia had won this match. The question is whether they can win the championship, and without Kerr the likelihood of home success is greatly reduced. There is a week left until the next Australia match, after which their progress will be re-evaluated. There are no guarantees that she will be fit for the final group match against Canada, nor are there guarantees that she will play again in this tournament.
A guide to Australia at the Women’s World Cup: Will Sam Kerr make the tournament her own?
But Gustafsson insists that Kiir still has a lot of influence in this area. “The way she responded in training… Everyone knew it might be something, but the players were able to focus on training. This isn’t about me, this is about the team that plays tomorrow,” Sam said. And she said the same today. And for her to do that, in that devastating moment, says a lot about her as a captain.”
Catley, who replaced her in the role of captain and penalty taker, agreed. “Sam’s still around, you know. She’s still her influence on the team. She’s in every meeting. She’s there half the time talking to everyone. She’s doing the pre-game chat. She’s Sam. And she’s still with us. So, we’ll do everything we can to get as far as we can. And then, hopefully, we’ll see Sam Kerr later.”
(Banner photo by Maddie Meyer – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
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