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Sep 11, 2008

Who are the champions of your world?

"Naturally, I am greatly interested in Don Pep, and I make Marco promise to tell me when he arrives. I love to look at a top-notcher in any line, and I judge from Don Pep's

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“Naturally, I am greatly interested in Don Pep, and I make Marco promise to tell me when he arrives. I love to look at a top-notcher in any line, and I judge from Don Pep’s record that he is a champion of the world.”

When the great chronicler of New York life, Damon Runyon, wrote about Don Pep in the 1930s, he was writing not about a sportsman but a hired killer. Don Pep was reputed to be the best hitman in the world and he was recruited from Sicily by the Italian shopkeepers on Broadway for the express purpose of knocking off the local Mafia boss.

Runyon’s semi-literate narrator was intrigued by the stories he’d heard of Don Pep and how he was ‘for many years the outstanding man in all Italy at putting parties in their place’, supposedly killing 10 men or more. When the Sicilian finally arrived by boat in New York, Runyon’s narrator insisted on taking a look at the assassin and sizing him up.

The same broad sentiments will strike a chord for many of the sporting cognoscenti, those discerning viewers of elite sport who also insist on taking a gander at the ‘top-notchers’, no matter their chosen field.

Whenever the best sportsmen and women, and best sporting teams, hove into view, I always try to find time to see them. That might be the swimmers at the world championships in Melbourne last year, or the All Blacks, or Lionel Messi and the Argentine soccer team, or Tiger Woods at the Presidents Cup.

Yet, we – and excuse the Melbourne-centric parochialism, but the example could hold true in any Australian city at other times – have greatness in our midst and I’m not sure we recognize it.

Geelong is playing the game of Australian Rules like few teams before it. It has won 41 of its past 43 matches and is dominant in every aspect of the game. At the same time, it plays with a beauty that even the non-aligned can appreciate. Top-notchers, indeed. A premiership this year will go some way towards cementing the Cats’ position in the pantheon of great Australian sporting teams.

But the AFL’s salary cap, player draft and introduction of a Gold Coast team will ensure that the Cats’ golden run will soon come to an end. So the message is clear: while they are still ‘putting parties in their place’, get along to see football’s Don Pep before it’s too late.

In the NRL, Melbourne Storm has just won its third straight minor premiership. Were it not for its burdensome state-of-origin commitments, the Storm would have had the title sewn up weeks ago. Like Geelong, the Storm has no obvious weakness. Indeed, it has revolutionized rugby league with its emphasis on attack, through the likes of Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Israel Folau, and the athleticism of its players who can jump and catch high balls like very few of their predecessors. They, too, will be chasing their second straight premiership this month, and many will feel that is just reward for three seasons of thrilling artistry.

In the spirit of Runyon’s narrator, I went to see a Storm match at Olympic Park a few months ago just to see what all the fuss was about and came away entranced by their brilliance. They ended up beating Manly 26-4, the team that finished second on the ladder and who now loom as their greatest flag threat.

Yet just 13,875 turned to watch the Storm’s last home-and-away match at Olympic Park on Sunday which is a crying shame. Here, we have one of the great rugby league outfits on our doorstep, in a city that prides itself on its love of good sport, and yet they do their thing largely unappreciated.

In a former life, I covered the Italian Open tennis championships in 1991 in Rome. A claycourt event, it has long served as the traditional warm-up to the French Open. As I wandered around the outside courts early in the tournament, I saw a throng of people swarming around one particular court.

Ken to find out what all the fuss was about, I walked over and saw the object of their interest and fascination, these beautifully groomed Italian men and women aged in their late 50s and 60s: it was Rod Laver, the Rockhampton Rocket, who was playing in a seniors exhibition doubles match.

These tennis fans, who had grown up 30 years earlier with Laver dominating the sport, had turned out en masse to catch a glimpse of the Australian, even though he was 52 at the time, sporting an arthritic hip and a couple of wonky knees. But the groundstrokes were still a thing of beauty, and he had this ageing crowd in a corner of the Foro Italico grounds swooning over every shot.

Which begs the question: who would you drop everything to see? Who would you cancel a hot date for? The Brazilian soccer team? Lionel Messi? Tiger Woods? Zinedine Zidane? Michael Phelps? Stephanie Rice? Roger Federer? Serena Williams? Usain Bolt? Casey Stoner? Cadel Evans? American basketball’s Dream Team?

Who are sport’s Don Peps, the top-notchers and champions of the world? And is the spirit of Runyon’s narrator alive and well?

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