Waratahs coach Michael Cheika leads NSW in the right direction

They were the cappuccino-sipping glamour boys harnessed by a history of under-performance and hometown indifference.

They boasted all the big names but hadn’t achieved anything of note on the field. Jaded and fed up, their fans had deserted them.

Sound familiar? No, this isn’t the Waratahs.

It’s Irish province Leinster, the year their chief executive took a “calculated punt” on a virtually unknown Australian coach called Michael Cheika.

It was 2005. Declan Kidney had lasted one season in the job before leaving as quickly as he had arrived.

Leinster boasted Test luminaries Brian O’Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Felipe Contepomi and Leo Cullen but had just lost a European Cup quarter-final to English province Leicester.

In contrast to the brand of honest, tough rugby played down south by their arch rivals Munster, Leinster were known as the “ladyboys” of Irish rugby.

“It was due to poor performances in the past and not just on the field,” Cheika recalls. “We had the wrong stereotype. In Leinster we were the cappuccino-sipping ‘Dublin 4’ types.”

Cheika set about changing that, although he freely admits he was a little short on detail and experience.

“I didn’t really know what I was doing in year one at Leinster, to be honest,” he says. “I was just seeing what happened. Now I have more experience.”

Leinster made the European Cup semi-finals in his first season in charge, struggled through the next two seasons but broke through for their first European Cup title in 2009.

Five years later, Cheika is one season into an ambitious attempt to similarly transform Australian rugby’s under-achievers, armed with the lessons he learnt in those successful five years in Dublin, and a less successful subsequent season in Paris with Stade Francais.

“It’s going in the right direction,” he says. “The biggest thing for me is the attitude of the players and that we’re really starting to show our values on a day-to-day basis. Off the field, on the field, and building a really nice football club atmosphere. The peripheral stuff is out of our mind – all the excuses – we’re just concentrating on the job that they need to do.”

Welcome to stage two of the Cheika Project in NSW.

Stage one was full of ups and downs. A ninth place finish in Super Rugby was only two better than the previous season but change was taking place behind the scenes.

By the end of his first year, Cheika had turned his squad inside out. Big names exited stage left – Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell, Lachie Turner, Tom Carter, Tom Kingston, Sitaleki Timani, Lopeti Timani – while a new breed were ushered in.

Kurtley Beale was brought back to his old stomping ground, and one of the sport’s biggest names, Israel Folau, was retained for two more seasons.

Along with the high-profile stars, Cheika also brought home some forgotten faces. Cheika lured back former Waratah Matt Carraro from France, recruited talented young Australian back rower Tala Gray from France and offered popular former Brumbies captain Stephen Hoiles a shot at a second chance.

It was a similar recruitment tactic he used in Dublin.

At Leinster, he signed England-based Irish players Cullen, Shane Jennings, Mike Ross and Eoin Reddan, who all went on to play key roles in the province’s resurgence.

At the Waratahs, Carraro and Hoiles might not be instant starters but that’s not the point.

Cullen never achieved standout success at Test level but was a touchstone for Leinster. Cheika made him captain after Brian O’Driscoll relinquished the role in 2008. The tough second-rower led the side to a 25-6 win over Munster in front of 82,500 people at Croke Park in the European Cup semi-final and a 19-16 win against Leicester to take the title two weeks later. Cheika loves a homegrown toiler. He rewards loyalty and passion, and seeks its influence for his teams.

So far this season, things appear to be moving along nicely.

A six-try romp against the Blues and a 27-point annihilation of the Reds were impressive if not perfect insights into what the Waratahs threaten – hard, fast rugby with maximum ball movement and echoes of Randwick-era joyousness.

The better indicator, though, might be who did not start in those performances.

Rob Horne, Cam Crawford, Jono Lance, Ben Volavola, Brendan McKibbin, Pat McCutcheon and Jeremy Tilse all started in the squad’s second team that played the Argentine Pampas in the Pacific Rugby Cup on Friday.

For a squad that once would fold like deckchairs if three of their first XV fell over, that new-found depth sends an ominous signal to the Waratahs’ Australian conference rivals.

Gone too is the mental frailty that blighted the team last season, an insidious lack of confidence in the team’s capacity to deliver.

“The biggest thing we’ve been working on is not being worried about losing,” Cheika says. “NSW teams in the past have been too worried about the possibility of losing and what everyone is going to say.

“I would rather think about how we can win and do everything we can to do that. If that’s not good enough then so be it, but don’t have any regrets, just make sure you give everything to the game.”

One group still requires convincing. They’re called Waratahs fans, the toughest crowd around.

Fewer than 18,000 people went to ANZ Stadium to watch NSW wreak historic havoc on Queensland last weekend, but Cheika refuses to buy into the hand-wringing.

“I’m old school, if there’s five people there supporting us, we’ll play for five,” he says. “If there’s 18,000 we’re happy that those 18,000 are there because they’re loyal supporters, and we want to play for them.

“It’s such a complicated issue, it’s about getting everything right in the whole organisation. We have to keep showing our supporters – not necessarily the ones who aren’t coming, but the ones who are coming – that we’re giving our all every week.

“I am more interested in making happy the people who are coming proud of us, and then if the others come and join on, that’s great. I’m not dirty on them, but that’s got to be our concentration, and the rest will take care of itself.”

The football, the crowds, the ghosts of seasons past. Oh and don’t forget the Waratahs are supposed to be saving Australian rugby.

“We’ve been constantly disappointed with the Waratahs,” Australian Rugby Union boss Bill Pulver declared last month.

NSW is the ARU’s biggest market. After months of endless openness on the financial ills of the sport in Australia, Pulver put the heat on Waratahs Rugby.

“This should be their year,” he said. “Michael Cheika has been there long enough to put his imprimatur on the game. They’ve got an extraordinary playing group. We are expecting big things.”

None of this is news to Cheika, a businessman who understands commercial imperatives, but there is a hint of defiance in his response.

“I want to do well anyway so that’s a common goal,” he says. “I don’t carry anyone’s expectations except my own and of course my team’s to be able to deliver them the best possible preparation. That’s all we can do.”

It’s A Dundeel has class edge in Chipping Norton Stakes

Jockeys, particularly champions, make a difference. Glyn Schofield returns to Boban, lacking dash without him, in the group 1 Chipping Norton at Warwick Farm for his clash with It’s A Dundeel.

Jim Cassidy, too, will be out to bring out the best of Hawkspur – a stablemate of Boban, prepared by Chris Waller, and also a last-start failure – in the same race.

Cassidy is a legitimate champion, one who has held a high ranking in majors for decades, as has Damien Oliver, whose expertise will be on show at Flemington on Shamexpress in the Newmarket and Fiorente (Australian Cup).

At his best, It’s A Dundeel is dynamic but resuming after a spell has made some keen judges nervous about his prospects.

“I believe the odds, around even money, are no value about It’s A Dundeel against such a fighter as Boban, who has had two races this prep,” said Dom Beirne, for Betfair. He reckons there are two ways of looking at Boban’s recent failures, but he is going for “his wily trainer has simply been building his fitness level in parallel with the rating required to win feature assignments this autumn”.

“I expect Boban to improve considerably and demand It’s A Dundeel return a higher rating than he’s been capable of first-up in the past.”

Boban did better last start than Hawkspur, which flopped in the Orr Stakes at Caulfield on February 8, but Cassidy, for who he promised so much in the spring, is back on him. The combination won the Chelmsford at Randwick last year over Saturday’s journey, 1600 metres.

Perhaps the state of the surface, rated slow on Friday, will play a role as will just how the track reacts to four earlier races before the Chipping Norton. Boban hasn’t acted on ground worse than dead, while It’s A Dundeel has scored on slow.

It’s A Dundeel is accomplished at weight-for-age and has a decision over the mighty Atlantic Jewel. Resuming last campaign, the entire was fourth, beaten less than three lengths by Atlantic Jewel in the 1400m Memsie at Caulfield. Obviously he is better suited by further.

Verdict: It’s A Dundeel.

Reality check

Kerrin McEvoy returns to Guelph in the Surround Stakes after the filly had what many consider an unfortunate experience under Hugh Bowman last start. Bowman was criticised when Guelph was wide throughout and sixth at her first start back, to Sweet Idea in the 1200m Light Fingers at Randwick on February 22. Still the question arises: was Bowman the fall guy for a substandard performance? Guelph will have a return bout with Sweet Idea and others from the Light Fingers, including Real Surreal, which was having her first start for nearly a year. She was fourth, beaten 1¼ lengths.

Verdict: Real Surreal.

Ollie the edge

The Newmarket at Flemington, where Shamexpress chases his second, is a conundrum. Shamexpress scored in the same race last year with only 51.5 kilograms and goes up to 56kg. However, the entire is weighted to beat a top contender, Samaready, on their last-start clash in the Lightning (1000m) down the Flemington straight on February 15. Samaready is conditioned by Mick Price, who also has the form sprinter Lankan Rupee, renewed after a gelding operation, another big show. Price prefers the mare. Beirne has nothing between the pair and rates them at $4.50, and another over the odds is Spirit Of Boom, assessed at $12 by him but $20 on Friday with Betfair. On their clash in the Newmarket last year, topweight Moment Of Change is handicapped to beat Shamexpress but the latter has a big plus, Damien Oliver.

Verdict: Shamexpress.

Pace will suit

Tactic changes for the Lloyd Williams team should assist Fiorente in the Australian Cup, as second favourite Shamus Award is the likely leader. Melbourne stewards have been told Mourayan’s rider, Steven Arnold, will be instructed “to be positive, to be forward or lead” while stablemate Green Moon ”will be ridden in a positive position”.

Verdict: Fiorente.

Cases against Andrew Farley, Mike Kelly and Marieke Hardy show that Twitter users can be held to account for their comments

Making history: Teacher Chris Mickle’s legal action became the first defamation battle involving Twitter to proceed to a full trial. Photo: Central West DailyA teenager, a former Labor MP and a prominent columnist share an unlikely bond: they are among the first publishers in Australia to be sued over slurs on social media.

As the internet makes a media mogul of any person with a smartphone, tablet or computer, the defamation battles that were once waged only against well-resourced media companies are being fought on new ground.

Andrew Farley, a former student at Orange High School, found this out the hard way.

Farley did not have the benefit of editors, subeditors and lawyers vetting his posts when he made defamatory comments about music teacher Christine Mickle to about 50 Facebook friends and 60 Twitter followers.

Mickle sued him for defamation and, in an unpublished judgment in November that only came to light this week, he was ordered by the NSW District Court to pay $105,000 in damages. He has since declared bankruptcy.

”I never meant to defame her,” Farley said this week. ”It was never meant for public broadcast. This has really shaken me.”

The Mickle case became the first defamation battle involving Twitter to proceed to a full trial in Australia. It crossed the finish line before the Federal Court has heard the defamation case brought by pollsters Mark Textor and Lynton Crosby over a tweet by former Labor MP Mike Kelly.

Joshua Meggitt, the Melbourne music reviewer who sued columnist Marieke Hardy and Twitter in 2012, settled his claim against Hardy after she paid in excess of $15,000. He later dropped his case against Twitter.

Media lawyer Stephen von Muenster, the principal of Sydney law firm von Muenster Solicitors & Attorneys, said the Mickle case was ”unremarkable … beyond the fact it was on Twitter” and the same principles of defamation law would apply regardless of the medium.

While the decision does not create new legal principle, it has underscored that amateur publishers will be held to account for ill-advised comments – even if they are unaware of their legal responsibilities.

Stuart Gibson, of Melbourne law firm Gibsons, acted for Meggitt. He said he monitored potentially defamatory comments on social media for a number of clients, and warned people about republishing defamatory comments by forwarding emails, sharing posts and retweeting without any qualifying remarks.

Gibson said Meggitt’s case against Twitter was dropped because the tech giant had ”the most water-tight and extensive terms and conditions for users”, which excluded its liability for defamatory comments by other users of the site.

A person who was not a Twitter user and was defamed on the site would not be bound by its terms and conditions, but social media companies are rarely sued for defamation.

Unlike professional journalists, whose employer will likely be sued alongside them in a defamation case and cover any damages bill, amateur publishers will be left to fight the case alone for a number of legal and practical reasons.

In many cases social media companies would be able to use the defence of ”innocent dissemination” under state defamation laws, or potentially an even broader immunity from civil and criminal actions that is given to ”internet content hosts”. Assuming both provisions apply, neither protection is absolute: a company that is alerted to defamatory material and does not remove it may be liable.

There are other laws at play to shield US companies. Sydney media barrister Matthew Lewis said a combination of two US laws, the Communications Decency Act and the SPEECH Act, which fiercely protect US citizens’ right to free speech, made it ”highly unlikely” a plaintiff could successfully enforce a judgment or order against a US social media platform.

He said the companies generally did not have any assets in Australia and ”no foreign defamation judgment has been enforced in the States since 1964”.

He said it was for this reason that we were now seeing a plethora of cases around the world where the ”true publishers” of user-generated content were being sued for defamation rather than social media platforms.

CPAC: Republicans enter stage far-right at conservative political conference

Washington: Senator Mitch McConnell strode onto the stage at America’s largest conservative political conference on Thursday holding a rifle high above his head, and the ballroom at the Gaylord Resort just outside Washington exploded with joy.

Any sense that the Republican Party is veering to the political centre in the lead-up to the November mid-term elections dissipated in the din.

Senator McConnell, the Republican Party’s Senate leader, is viewed as suspiciously moderate by the GOP’s activist base and, along with many other establishment figures in the party, he is facing a primary challenge from the right. Hence the firearm prop.

Other speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference were either of the right or careful to appeal to it.

Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and presumed 2016 presidential candidate, is also viewed with deep suspicion and was invited to attend after being shunned last year. He was quick to emphasise his pro-life credentials. ”Twice for the first time since Roe v Wade, New Jersey has elected a pro-life governor,” he said.

Another presumed candidate, Ted Cruz, the Texas senator and right-wing firebrand, opened the proceedings with a speech that called for the GOP to ignore Washington consultants who are urging moderation, and to stand instead on conservative principle. He cheerily dismissed former Republican presidential candidates he believed had strayed too far from the right: ”Of course, all of us remember president Dole and president McCain and president Romney.”

Yet another man thought to be in the running for 2016, Marco Rubio, a Florida senator cast as the GOP’s saviour after its last election loss – until he angered the right by backing immigration reform – gave a studiously statesmanlike speech, heavy on foreign policy and thick with American exceptionalism.

”I don’t like to make these issues of national security partisan … but we cannot ignore that the flawed foreign policy of the last few years has brought us to this stage,” he said to applause that was just a little warmer than polite.

The crowd did not really warm up again until the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre drew standing ovations with an address that studiously prodded conservative hot buttons, sometimes in list form. ”Solyndra, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, Obamacare, massive unemployment, a debt that will choke our grandchildren, and one executive order after another right on top of each other,” he said, name-checking scandals that some conservatives believe the mainstream media has failed to cover.

He described a nation that was on the brink of collapse due to the lies of Washington politicians and the media.

”In this uncertain world, surrounded by lies and corruption everywhere you look, there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want,” Mr LaPierre said. ”We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and there are home invaders, drug cartels, carjackers, knockout gamers and rapers, and haters and campus killers, and airport killers, shopping mall killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse our society that sustains us all.”

The media, he told the cheering audience, would sneer at him for this speech, but the NRA would never back down.

After Mr LaPierre’s vivid portrait of dystopia, Donald Trump’s rambling concluding address seemed almost grandfatherly. He boasted to the audience that he would not be using a teleprompter and it showed.

Likening US President Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, he seemed to think the former president was dead, referring to him as the ”late, great Jimmy Carter”.

He lamented that America had not taken Iraq’s oil after the invasion and had instead left it to Iran. He railed against China, which he accused of devaluing its currency and stealing American jobs. With a deft pivot he went on to boast just how much the Chinese like him. ”My apartments, my ties, they love me,” he explained. ”I’ve got the largest bank in the world from China – Chinese bank – largest in the world, biggest bank in China, is my tenant.”

Given how unpopular the party’s right wing has become after the government shutdown it forced – and with the mid-term elections due in November – the time may come for a Republican run towards the centre. But perhaps not before the primaries are out of the way.

What mid-size wagon should I buy?

The Mazda6 wagon provides a strong diesel option and offers great reliability.The dilemma

Heather is in the market for a new wagon to replace her Mazda6 diesel hatch. She’s quite taken by the new 6 but is worried about road noise, one of the few complaints with her current car in her rural environment. Ford’s Mondeo wagon is another possibility (she previously had a diesel hatch and loved it) but its tired presentation is an issue. Now VW’s Golf wagon is on her list but she’s not sure whether she can trust its reliability.

The budget is not provided

The shortlist

Heather is bang on target both with her shortlist and getting to the crux of what could potentially help her sort it all out.

In the case of the 6, its bugbear is indeed road noise. It is, though, quieter than her current one – and either a benchmark or close in other key respects – so we wouldn’t be counting it out.

Same goes for the Ford. It might no longer be cutting-edge but it’s still a formidable all-rounder and, significantly, quite easy on the senses.

The Golf? Well, to be fair to the current seventh-gen model, it’s not responsible for recent negative headlines.

While it’s too early to make a definitive call on its long-term reliability, VW is standing behind it with a comprehensive capped-price servicing regime.

Ford Mondeo wagon, from $33,340

The fact Heather is looking at the Golf probably means bulk space isn’t vital but with this Ford she’ll get it anyway.

She can also expect flexible and economical performance in the diesel (the petrol is just OK in these respects), as well as spotless driving credentials and a seven-year/105,000km capped-servicing program.

Wagons are noisier than the hatch but still retain a noticeably pampering air.

The Ford’s age, though, is betrayed by a dour cabin atmosphere and lack of a reversing camera and sat nav. The base LX’s dowdy presentation and sparse specification add to the old-school feel; glitzier, better equipped Zetec and Titanium look fresher but will soak up more cash.

Mazda6 wagon, from $34,760

This Mazda is newer than the Ford and feels it. All models get a reversing camera, sat nav – and some get safety technology like auto braking.

It also has more powerful and thriftier petrol/diesel engines, and gains a further edge with a fuel-saving auto stop/start feature.

It’s a lovely thing to drive and, while it has a space deficit, it’s not significant.

However, while Heather can also expect more comfort and quiet than her current car, the Mazda is no magic carpet and the GT and Atenza – on their 19-inch rubber – are noticeably nobbly and noisy.

The 6 also does without capped-price servicing, though that is set to be redressed later in the year.

Volkswagen Golf wagon, from $25,540

This VW might be small rather than mid-sized but its classy cabin is far from shamed for space and it cedes nothing here on the lugging front.

There aren’t many black marks elsewhere. You get the access to the same drivetrains as the hatch (90 TSI, 103 TSI, 110 TDI, all of which are performance/economy benchmarks for their levels) and it feels just as agile, quiet and refined to drive (i.e. very). It’s much cheaper than the other cars here.

But the 103 TSI and 110 TDI, on their 17-inch rubber, aren’t as quiet or comfortable as cheaper versions. VW’s six-year/90,000km capped-servicing program offers peace of mind, but uncertainty over just how well it’ll hang together remains.

Drive recommends

The Golf is unbeatable in terms of what it offers for the money and looks pretty strong even when value is taken out of the equation.

But not being able to get a diesel with the quietest, most comfortable wheel and tyre combo in the range is a minus. While the seventh-gen model doesn’t seem bedevilled by the reliability issues, it’s fair to say the VW remains a question mark on this front.

If Heather has a laissez-faire attitude to such things (we don’t, but some buyers do) and wants to keep the spend down we would say get the Golf. She won’t be disappointed.

If she doesn’t she should get the 6, which isn’t whisper quiet but has a solid reputation for dependability and has the Mondeo comprehensively covered. Just avoid the bigger-wheeled models.

Melbourne GP will be a testing ground

Never before has the start of a formula one season been preceded by so much uncertainty and trepidation.

The season-opening Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park on Sunday week will be F1’s greatest step into the unknown because of the sheer scale of the changes to the cars.

The biggest technical shake-up in 25 years – and arguably the most sweeping since F1 was codified in 1950 – has created an unprecedented scramble by the teams to be ready for the first race.

After just three four-day pre-season tests, some are better prepared than others, but none is certain how their cars will perform in race conditions.

The Australian GP will be the first true test and not even the best teams are confident of a trouble-free weekend, such has been the challenge of the new technical package.

Concerns remain about the reliability of the complicated new powerplants that, by F1 standards, are untried because of the strict limit on pre-season testing.

For the first time in more than a decade, a high attrition rate is expected at Albert Park – as well as subsequent early races – due to mechanical breakdowns.

F1 cars, and particularly their motors, have been so well developed and reliable that we’ve become used to most of the 22 cars reaching the chequered flag.

The root of all the uncertainty and angst is the most profound technical change – the switch from 2.4-litre normally aspirated V8 engines to turbocharged 1.6-litre V6s.

But the difference is much more than a smaller motor with forced induction.

While the V8s featured a rudimentary energy recovery system in recent years to provide limited boosts of electric assistance, the new V6s feature sophisticated systems to harvest waste energy.

On-board batteries store power produced by regenerative braking and heat from the turbocharger – which uses high-speed exhaust gases to spin a pump that feeds pressurised air into the motor’s combustion chambers – to drive a pair of supplementary electric motors.

The turbo motors produce around 441kW (600 horsepower), with the electric motor generators providing a combined 80kW (160 bhp) burst of extra power several times a lap.

The new engines are so tightly integrated with the energy recovery systems (ERS) that F1 engineers now refer to the combination as a power unit. The total output means this year’s cars will be about as powerful as last year’s, but even the turbo engine alone will produce a lot more torque.

The V6s are limited to a maximum speed of 15,000 revs per minute, reduced from the V8s’ limit of 18,000rpm.

Turbocharged engines dominated F1 in the 1980s until they were outlawed in 1989.

Unlike the previous generation, which were flame-spitting, smoke-belching, big-horsepower motors, the new generation are more about efficiency than outright oomph.

To give F1 a green tinge, the fuel capacity of the cars is limited to 100 kilograms (about 139 litres) – about a third less than last year – and fuel flow is restricted to 100 kilograms an hour when the engine is operating at more than 10,500rpm.

Drivers will be struggling to manage the savage power delivery while conserving fuel and also tyre wear, raising fears among F1 fans that there will be less at-the-limit racing.

The cars will be more difficult to control and drivers will have to resist the temptation to perform crowd-pleasing slides out of corners to save fuel and go easy on the latest iteration of Pirelli’s purposely high-degradation rubber.

The move to turbocharged engines also means the end of the high-pitched wail that has been F1’s sonic signature for so long.

The noise will still be loud, but not piercing, with the now-mandated single exhaust pipe emitting a throaty growl.

While the power unit is the major change, a raft of other new regulations have further complicated the design and development of this year’s cars.

New limits to the front and rear wings, plus – most controversially – the height of the nose have resulted in a significant reduction in aerodynamic downforce.

As a result, the cars will be seconds slower than previously as the regulators wage their constant battle with F1 engineers to contain what would be ever-increasing lap speeds, which even the latest circuits could not contain if the spiral were not checked.

It has also produced cars that are, in the main, even uglier as designers have exploited the letter of the new rule limiting the height of the tip of the cars’ noses to 185 millimetres.

Although introduced primarily to improve driver safety in front-to-rear and front-to-side crashes, the intent was also to replace the ungainly high snouts of recent years with more-elegant drooping shapes.

But for aerodynamic reasons, most teams have stuck with raised prows with awkward projections that comply with the maximum height requirement.

While certainly producing a greater variety of noses to distinguish the cars, most are unsightly appendages that have been compared with anteaters, echidnas, vacuum cleaners and, inevitably, an anatomical extension.

Other significant changes range from a standardised eight-speed transmission to further limits on how many engines and gearboxes can be used per car during the 19-race season.

Following the initial pre-season test at Jerez in southern Spain and two trials at Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit last month, the Mercedes AMG team and others using Mercedes-Benz engines look to be in the best shape coming to Melbourne.

By contrast, Renault-powered teams struggled with the complex integration of software and hardware, with the world champion Red Bull Racing enduring a disastrous series of tests that left it with little real running ahead of Albert Park.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg did the most testing kilometres with the fewest problems and generally set the pace, earning the most tenuous pre-season favouritism in years.

The pre-season tests were so problem-plagued that any form guide is highly qualified at best.

Force India, with McLaren reject Sergio Perez joining highly rated returnee Nico Hulkenberg, looked strong, while McLaren, with speedy newcomer Kevin Magnussen alongside wily veteran Jenson Button, appeared ready to rebound from last year’s winless season.

Also a standout was Williams, which showed signs of finally emerging from its long decline. The team has been rejuvenated by the arrival of experienced technical staff and former Ferrari flunky Felipe Massa, plus a prescient change from Renault to Mercedes-Benz power.

Freed of his supporting role to first Michael Schumacher and then Fernando Alonso, Massa appears to be reborn in his new leadership role at Williams and was a regular front-runner in testing.

Ferrari was unconvincing despite Kimi Raikkonen rejoining the Italian team to form a top-heavy partnership with Fernando Alonso.

What is very clear, though, is that defending four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and his new Australian teammate Daniel Ricciardo are unlikely to be dominant at Albert Park.

Their new Red Bull-Renault RB10 was so plagued with problems in testing that even Vettel doubts a dramatic improvement in time for Albert Park.

While millions of F1 followers will rejoice at the prospect of Vettel’s reign coming to an end, the downside is that Ricciardo won’t get a chance to shine as Mark Webber’s replacement at RBR if the team’s woes persist.Foges’ fearless five

Ahead of what’s shaping up as a turbulent F1 season, motor sport writer Mark ‘Foges’ Fogarty makes these bold predictions:

1) Fewer than half the field will still be running at the finish of the Melbourne GP. But by mid-season, new cars will be bulletproof and finishing rate will soar.

2) F1’s favourite anti-hero, Kimi Raikkonen, will not be happy back at Ferrari. Too much attention, too little performance and too much favouritism of Fernando Alonso.

3) Assuming Red Bull Racing recovers from pre-season testing debacle, Daniel Ricciardo will win races this season. ‘‘Smiling Assassin’’ will disarm Sebastian Vettel and charm the team with his sunny personality while taking no prisoners on the track.

4) F1 rookie Kevin Magnussen will upstage Jenson Button at McLaren, leading the team’s recovery. Smooth stylist Button will be stunned by Magnussen’s raw pace.

5) Melbourne GP will continue after 2015, most likely for another five years. Race will still cost the government the best part of $50 million a year, but Ron Walker will get a better deal from his mate Bernie Ecclestone that helps cap cost escalation. Maybe that last bit is wishful thinking…

Smooth sailing for Kathy Hall

AT THE HELM: Newcastle sailor Kathy Hall in action aboard yacht PSP Logistics during a leg of the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race, which left from London.AS she prepared to sail into the South China Sea on the latest leg of a round-the-world yacht race, Newcastle’s Kathy Hall was just thankful to be off pirate watch.

When the 40,000-mile Clipper Round the World Yacht Race docked in Singapore last week, the 54-year-old grandmother spoke of the relief of getting through the pirate-infested waters off the Philippines.

‘‘Going through the Philippines around Mindanao, where we had to be on pirate watch, was a bit of a concern,’’ she said.

‘‘Thankfully, we got through and it was great to get back on land in Singapore.’’

While the threat of piracy was behind Hall and her crew, she said below-zero temperatures and treacherous seas presented new challenges en route to their next stop at the Chinese city of Qingdao.

‘‘It’s going to be really rough conditions heading up, particularly past Taiwan,’’ she said.

‘‘We’ll be banging about into a headwind and I believe there is massive seas up there, so it will be very interesting.

‘‘We’ve been through the Southern Ocean where we went through a couple of hurricanes, so we’re not unused to difficult conditions, but this will be a little different.’’

Hall is a crew member aboard yacht PSP Logistics, which departed London in September last year and has since sailed more than 40,000kilometres – just over half of the round-the-world voyage.

After reaching China, Hall will face another difficult leg to San Francisco, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean and returning to London in mid-July.

‘‘I’d say the trip across the North Pacific will be our biggest challenge remaining and then after that, it should become a little bit more cruisy, hopefully,’’ she said.

It’s A Dundeel has new part-owner John Messara excited

Spray day: It’s A Dundeel is awash with options. Photo: Pat ScalaThe future for It’s A Dundeel will be decided in the next eight weeks, starting with the Chipping Norton Stakes at Warwick Farm on Saturday. There are plenty of options on the table. Royal Ascot and the Arc at Longchamp get a mention.

A return “for unfinished business in the Cox Plate” is also there, but one thing is for sure – he has lucrative stud career ahead at Arrowfield, whose silks he dons for the first time at Warwick Farm.

“I have not wanted to mock him, so we haven’t planned anything after the Queen Elizabeth Stakes,” Arrowfield boss John Messara said. “He is certainly an exciting horse with exciting options, but it is all dependent on what happens in the next six to eight weeks. He has been inoculated so he can travel if we want him to, but that’s as far as any planning has gone. He could go straight to stud but it depends on this [autumn] campaign.”

It’s A Dundeel goes into the 1600m Chipping Norton first-up by design. He has given every indication that he is the strongest he has been and is fully mature. Jockey James McDonald said after a recent Randwick barrier trial win “he is better, if that’s possible”. It makes it hard for Messara to contain the excitement.

“He is really a 2000m weight-for-age horse with a great turn of foot,” he said. “That’s what makes him special. He needs to be fresh for the mile, which will mean he has that real sprint, which is what [trainer] Murray [Baker] wants. He is an amazing horse; when he won the Australian Derby last year his last 200m was quicker than Black Caviar ran in the T.J. Smith on the same day. That is speed and stamina, and is what you want in a stallion.”

Messara admits to being competitive “when it comes to anything” and it extends to the racetrack, where he shared the success of future Arrowfield stallions such as Charge Forward, All American, Snitzel and Animal Kingdom. He took an option of buying 75 per cent of It’s A Dundeel after he finished midfield in the Cox Plate for about $10 million.

“It is something I really enjoy being part of – the planning with a racehorse that is going to be a stallion,” Messara said. “Finding the right races that will increase their appeal and value and the thrill of winning big races can’t be matched. Here we have a five-time group 1 winner that might have the best in front of him. It is funny to say that, considering he won the triple crown here in Sydney as a three-year-old.

The Chipping Norton will be a stepping stone to the Ranvet Stakes in a fortnight before a start in The BMW or Doncaster, whichever Baker thinks is the best option heading into the main aim, the $4 million Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick on April 19.

“If he can win a couple of those races, there is not much he has left to prove,” Messara said. “The Queen Elizabeth at The Championships is the race everyone is shooting at, but we think he is the right horse. There are plenty of owners in him and they all have their thoughts on what races to target. Mainly we just want to see back him on the track and winning.”

It’s A Dundeel has won group 1s at each of his past three campaigns. His spring was rocked by hoof-abscess problems after he handed Atlantic Jewel her only defeat, in the Underwood Stakes. The Cox Plate, which was his main target, is best forgotten.

“He passed the vets twice before the race but he was a patched-up horse and had no luck in the race,” Messara said. “It wasn’t him at his best. We want to show the best of him in Sydney.”

Messara has nothing but praise for It’s A Dundeel’s trainer Baker, who he labelled an old-fashioned horseman.

“I haven’t had much to do with him before. He doesn’t say much, but it is blokes like him that are really tuned into their horses,” Messara said. “He knows him better than anyone and he is happy.”

Big wet welcome relief

Merriwa before and after the rainEARLY last month, the paddocks on Ron Campbell’s Merriwa property were bone dry and as brown as a tanned hide.

They’d been that way for more than a year.

But the skies opened on February 14, and almost 100millimetres of rain have fallen on his property since then in two bursts.

The first lot of rain finished on March 20 and put more than 60millimetres into his rain gauge.

The second two days of rain last weekend added another 38millimetres.

Taking a photograph yesterday at the same spot the Newcastle Herald had visited in early January and again early last month, the Upper Hunter Shire councillor said the difference was dramatic.

‘‘The lucerne has started to get away and if we get another lot of follow-up rain, then it should be right because lucerne is a winter growth plant,’’ Cr Campbell said.

Despite the welcome rain, he and other farmers in the Upper Hunter were still hand-feeding because it was important to let the newly viable pastures obtain some growth.

And not that the Upper Hunter had received anywhere near the amount of rain that fell on the coast.

Australian Bureau of Meteorology figures show Merriwa received 72millimetres during February, up from the 56millimetres the bureau describes as ‘‘normal’’ for the month.

By contrast, Nobbys received 207millimetres in February, all but double the normal 111millimetres.

At Cassilis, sheep farmer Anthony ‘‘Ant’’ Martin said his properties had received about 50millimetres and still needed good follow-up rain to ensure the pastures kept growing.

Midway through shearing more than 25,000sheep, the pasture growth had allowed him to halve his hand feeding from 20tonnes a week to 10tonnes a week.

Mr Martin said a storm was brewing over his property last night but had appeared to split in two and bypass him without any rain.

CONTRAST: Ron Campbell’s Merriwa property after the rain.

CONTRAST: Ron Campbell’s Merriwa property before the rain.

Kerrin McEvoy happy to stay home for Guelph

There are three group 1s around the country on Saturday and Darley’s retained jockey Kerrin McEvoy doesn’t have a ride in any of them, but he is happy to be on a support act that could be the real star in Guelph.

The planning for the massive Darley operation comes down to where it is best to have McEvoy, and it was an easy decision when Guelph lines up in the Surround Stakes at Warwick Farm.

”The team felt it was best to be in Sydney with her,” McEvoy said. ”She is pretty special. Of course Appearance was going to be in the Chipping Norton as well, which would have been a great ride, but she had to miss it because of a problem that happens in racing.

”It is a little bit strange not to have a group 1 ride but Guelph, Memorial and Barbed make up for it.”

Guelph suffered a shock defeat in the Light Fingers Stakes two weeks ago but trainer Peter Snowden and McEvoy are confident she will be better suited at 1400 metres.

”You could see what was going to happen after they went 50m in the Light Fingers,” Snowden said. ”She was stuck out three-wide over a trip which was below her best and they ran 1.09. I have put it behind me, and she has impressed me as she always has after that run.”

McEvoy was injured on Light Fingers day – the result of a fall in New Zealand, but is back in the saddle on Guelph, where he has won four group 1s. ”I’m confident, even from the [bad] draw, at seven [furlongs 1400m] she is better suited and the way she has worked suggests she is ready,” he said. ”It is just enjoyable any time you can get on her back.”

Two-year-old filly Memorial, a two-time winner before Christmas, returns to make her press towards the Golden Slipper, via the Lonhro Plate at Warwick Farm.

”Her form from before Christmas has stood up with Press Report [running second in the Silver Slipper], which is encouraging,” McEvoy said. ”She is stronger and will tell us whether she is up to the Golden Slipper in the next couple of weeks. She is no Earthquake, but she is one we think is up to the Golden Slipper.”

Darley will go to Canberra on Sunday where Guelph’s half-brother Ghibellines will run in the Black Opal. ”He might suffer a bit from being her brother but he has shown us enough to suggest he is very good,” McEvoy said.