Roar goalie deflects Tiatto swipe

If Griffin McMaster wasn’t a professional footballer, he would make a fair peacekeeper with the United Nations.

As Queensland Roar’s cold war of goalkeepers gained fresh impetus with Danny Tiatto’s call for regular first-choice Liam Reddy to be recalled for the A-League semi-finals, McMaster refused to return fire with a missile, instead playing the diplomat in a fashion that would make Henry Kissinger proud.

"Everyone’s got an opinion, that’s the way it goes," the 25-year-old said when asked what he thought of Tiatto’s publicly-aired view that he’d rather be in the trenches with Reddy behind him.

The veteran midfielder declared Reddy the top goalkeeper – "I’d rather have behind me – anytime" – but McMaster, the up-until-three-weeks-ago-reserve-keeper, put the "civil" into civil war following a training session at Ballymore.

"I’m only really worried about my input in training … so I’ll just keep working hard," said McMaster, who is vying for his fifth consecutive start in the Roar’s semi-final first leg against Central Coast on Friday week.

McMaster had appeared in an all-together less tolerant mood on the training pitch earlier, appearing to spray a few choice words in Tiatto’s direction as Frank Farina’s squad cheered his comfortable save from the midfielder’s driven shot.

He said the pair had shaken hands – "it’s nothing to be worried about" – before the training session and insisted he was unfazed to have Tiatto in Reddy’s corner.

"I just want to give 110% for the team – again I’m not really phased one way or the other," McMaster said, the Kofi Annan in him shining through.

"I just want to put in the hard yards. It’s just an opinion isn’t it at the end of the day? Again, I’m only worried about my efforts in training."

Worry he needn’t because Farina, the Roar coach, has made it clear he intends to stick by his ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it’ policy and retain McMaster for the visit to Gosford in eight days.

"He’s backing me yeah, that’s right," McMaster said .

"There’s another eight days or so until the semi-final so you’ve still got to put the hard yards in at training and get better and better."

Despite appearing to hold the ascendancy on the brink of the semi-finals, McMaster said his tussle with Reddy – who he displaced after the previously first-choice custodian suffered a hamstring injury earlier in the month – was one waged "day by day" at training.

Reddy was shuffled off quickly to a post-training massage at Newmarket. And while the pair are hardly spending their spare time playing Wii together, McMaster was adamant the goalkeeping arm-wrestle had not become personal.

"There’s a lot of competitiveness which I reckon is what it’s all about," he said.

"There’s 23 players that can all make the 11 and you’ve just got to put in at training and always put your hat in the ring and see where it takes you.

"The best preparation I can do is work hard at training. That’s all I can really worry about. The gaffer [Farina] makes the selection at the end of the day and you’ve got to live with his selections."

As is customary Farina is likely to wait until the day before the match against the Mariners before taking both candidates aside to inform them of his decision.

"[Farina] looks at your performances throughout the week and he’ll make a decision based on that," McMaster said.

"Next time, if given the opportunity, I want to capitalise on it more, and I’m sure whoever gets the nod is going to have a very good performance."

If it’s safety that the coach wants, both between the posts and at the centre of a potential internal club storm, he can hardly go past McMaster.

‘Phils’ set for battle

BATTING prodigy Phillip Hughes faces the five most important days of his young career, with Australian selector Jamie Cox travelling more than 1600 kilometres to see whether the youngster is good enough for the Test team. And Cox has revealed Hughes and fellow Blues opener Phil Jaques could both earn selection for the tour of South Africa.

While the two battle each other for the opener’s spot vacated by Matthew Hayden, selectors may include them both in the travelling squad to be named early next week.

"He [Hughes] is heading down the right path. Scoring a lot of runs is the one currency that is very hard to ignore, it is the one true pathway," Cox said. "There could well be positions for both [Hughes and Jaques]."

Cox flew from Adelaide to Canberra last night for today’s Prime Minister’s XI match at Manuka Oval, and will then drive to Newcastle for NSW’s Sheffield Shield clash against Tasmania immediately afterwards, with the Test squad to be announced following that match.

Hughes, 20, said he preferred not to think about the enormity of his next two games as he joined his PM’s XI teammates in the nation’s capital yesterday. "I don’t want to look too far ahead, I like to keep it very simple," he said. "I just want to take it as another game. There has been a fair bit of talk in the last couple of weeks [about Test selection] but I don’t want to think too much about it."

Cox said Hughes had the chance to establish a lengthy international career. "[South Africa] is one of the toughest tours but it could set up a wonderful career, and the same can be said for the Ashes later this year," he said. "They are the two most important tours we have coming up . . . I will be keeping a close eye on all the players [in Canberra and Newcastle], and if we feel that Phil has the game, we would pick him."

Jaques, who returned last weekend from a three-month lay-off following a back operation and made five runs in a grade game, will open with Hughes in Newcastle. While his last Test innings was a century in the West Indies and his Test average is 47.47, Cox said proof of fitness alone could not guarantee Jaques’s return to the national side: "(a) He has got to get back to playing, he needs to be playing the game, and he is fit to do that," Cox said. "(b) Certainly, runs will not hurt his cause; big runs would be advantageous for anyone."

South Australia’s Michael Klinger – also in the PM’s team – and Victorian Chris Rogers remained in the picture as well, Cox said.

Hughes said he wasn’t bothered by the hectic schedule, having to fly to Sydney straight after today’s match and then catch a bus to Newcastle. "I love playing cricket," he said. " It’s five days of cricket in a row so I’m happy."

It’s believed selectors will name a 14-man touring party. Eight players will be guaranteed selection if fit after the coming Shield matches. They are: Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Simon Katich, Michael Hussey, Brad Haddin, Mitchell Johnson, Stuart Clark and Peter Siddle.

That leaves six spots for a host of players, including Andrew Symonds, who will tour if Cricket Australia determines he is capable of handling the responsibilities after discussions with his psychologists.

If not, Andrew McDonald is likely to retain his spot as an all-rounder. There is a three-way battle between Bryce McGain, Nathan Hauritz and Jason Krejza for the spinner’s spot.

Factoring in that either Symonds or McDonald and one spinner will be picked, four places remain open, and one should go to Blues paceman Doug Bollinger, who made an impressive debut in Sydney earlier this month.

I heard it on the tomato vine: Hayden

In the end it came to Matthew Hayden in the garden.   Having headed on a family holiday to Stradbroke Island to escape the bulging pressure on his place in the Test team, it was a moment with his six-year-old daughter at the weekend that convinced the Queensland opening great it was time to retire.    “At one stage on Saturday afternoon I was picking this crazy bush of wild tomatoes that we had and I was with Grace at the time and we were just talking as you do, Dad and daughter,” said Hayden yesterday, ”and I just said ‘Darling I think I’ve had enough. I want to be here’.

 “She said `Oh Daddy, one more Christmas’. She loves the Boxing Day Test match. I said `No that’s it love. I think this is time’.”

Family was a centrepiece as a red-eyed Hayden announced his exit from the game at a press conference at the Gabba yesterday – wife Kellie, his children Grace, Joshua and Thomas and his parents and brother Gary were all on hand to witness a departure brimming with as much self-belief as any of his 184 forays into the batting arena in his 103-Test career.

If yesterday is any indication, the youngest of the Hayden clan is not lacking in the confidence department either.

As Dad announced his decision to pull the plug on his 20-year career, 20-month-old son Thomas took the opportunity to pull the plug on a journalist’s recording device and fiddle nonchalantly with television microphones.

Hayden was then joined last night by his family as he completed a lap of honour in the innings interval of last night’s Twenty20 international between Australia and South Africa at the Gabba.

“It’s a very special day to be here with my family,” he said, as the Brisbane crowd rose to acknowledge his two decades of service to Queensland and Australia.

“This little tribe is the reason it makes to so easy to give it away.”

Hayden said that prior to the weekend he had planned to continue playing and fight for his place in the Test side having been dropped from both the Australian one-day and Twenty20 teams.

"My true intention was to look at the face of adversity again and discuss with Kell what I wanted to do and to move forward with a new and invigorated game plan,” he said.    "I really did need to take that time to come out of that bubble and just look at other areas of my life.    Chief among them was spending less time on the road – “packing away the suitcase”, as Hayden described his exit from the transient life of a modern-day professional cricketer.

Finding the right time to call it a day was not a conclusion he came to on his own, though.    "We made the decision together,” Kellie said.

“We talked it though and it was no surprise. It’s just a really good phase in his life.”

While she stood and applauded like a wife in the know at the SCG earlier this month when Hayden walked off from what we know as his last Test innings, she said the thought that his career had come to an end was not running through her mind at the time.

"I was just proud to be there, for him to see me and for me to know that I was there for him no matter what he decided to do from there on in,” she said.

“I didn’t necessary think he was going to give it away. I was just proud of him.   “I’m proud of him whether he plays one Test or never plays another Test again because I know how hard he works and I know how hard it is to get there and then when you lose your spot how hard it is to get back.”   Kellie said she was looking forward to having the scorer of both Australia’s highest Test and one-day innings at home more often.

“Even through all of his pressure, he always walks through the door and he’s the same Matt,” she said.   “He never makes me feel like he’s had a bad day, he just comes in and it’s just as he always says ‘next ball’.   "I’m a really lucky woman. I live with an amazing man. He’s a positive man and I look forward to the next stage of our life together.”

Murray not Fed’s favourite

ANDY MURRAY the Australian Open favourite? Roger Federer was bemused.

Murray might be the recent nemesis of the dethroned Swiss champion, and the form player in the game, but the standout candidate for a title bigger than any Murray has won? According to whom, exactly?

"The bookies? Good for him. It doesn’t help him a whole lot," Federer, the world No.2 and triple Australian Open winner said at yesterday’s AAMI Classic launch at Kooyong. "I’ve been in that position before as well and didn’t make it.

"But look, he has put himself into a great position. He started off well, playing well in Doha, finished strong last year, but it still does surprise me that the bookies say that, because he has never won a slam. Novak [Djokovic] is the defending champion here. Rafa [Nadal] had an incredible season last year. I won the last slam of last season. It’s surprising to hear."

Murray has beaten Federer five times, apart from US Open final loss in September and their first meeting in 2005. His most significant recent win was at the Qatar Open in Doha last week.

They are rated joint Melbourne Park favourites by TAB Sportsbet at $3.50.

Asked about Murray’s improvement, Federer pinpointed the Scot’s ability to play at a high level, consistently.

"Before, he was very up and down," he said. "But I think he has shown now he is knocking on the door, he has been able to make his move, he is a good all-round player, he has good tactics, he has become very confident and you can see that every time."

Federer and Nadal have shared 14 of the past 15 grand slam titles, with only third-ranked Djokovic breaking the nexus when he triumphed in Australia last year. So is Murray ready to win a major title?

"Sure," said Federer, before qualifying his response. "He has put himself into a winning position, but still, winning a grand slam is a different animal. Not many guys have been able to win grand slams in the last years."

Federer returns to Australia as something other than the defending champion for the first time since 2006, and is ready to take his place in the Classic field after withdrawing late last year with what turned out to be energy-sapping mononucleosis. Also behind him is the back injury suffered late in the season.

Although within one title of equalling the grand slam record held by Pete Sampras, Federer claimed the pressure he had felt at the height of his domination about six or seven slams ago was now far less acute.

"Everybody was expecting me to win every single tournament I entered, almost. So that has gone away a little bit, which has been a bit of a relief actually," he said ahead of today’s opening round-robin match against Carlos Moya.

Federer arrived in Melbourne early on Monday, a day ahead of Nadal, and was quick to mention Murray’s barren grand slam status. A theme is emerging. The mind games have begun.

Minister won’t sack health bosses over unpaid bills

THE Health Minister, John Della Bosca, has refused to sack any of the chief executives in charge of the eight area health services and the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, despite all but two failing to meet NSW Health’s strict creditor payment policy.

The Area Performance Agreement for chief executives says paying all creditors within the benchmark 45 days is a key performance indicator.

In 2006, the State Government promised to tighten controls to ensure that creditors are paid on time after an Auditor-General’s report found the common practice of not paying bills was leading to the suspension of services, delays in supplying goods and additional time wasted in trying to have the orders filled.

The then-health minister, John Hatzistergos, insisted that area health service chief executives would be held personally accountable for unpaid bills.

"I’ve made it quite clear to area health chief executives … that their obligations and their performance is going to be measured by the extent to which they comply with the creditor payments policy," he said.

But despite figures released by NSW Health on Wednesday showing there was $117.5 million in overdue invoices across the system at the end of this month, not one senior bureaucrat has been held accountable.

In a clear backflip on his predecessor’s promise, Mr Della Bosca said yesterday: "It’s not about blaming individuals. I’m making everybody in the system accountable [and] the only way you can do this is by sharing the responsibility."

However, the chief executive of Greater Western Area Health Service, Claire Blizard, told the Herald she was ashamed to walk the streets of Dubbo after meat, fruit, vegetables and drug supplies to scores of hospitals had been cut off after bills went unpaid for months.

As doctors in the state’s west threatened to walk off the job at 5pm today, Mr Della Bosca authorised an emergency $1.8 million payroll run last night to cover months of outstanding invoices from numerous visiting medical officers in Dubbo, Bathurst and Orange. "We’re on top of that problem," he said.

Mr Della Bosca said the Greater Western service covered an area the size of Germany and about 100 health facilities, which had led to the difficulties in paying bills.

He dismissed calls for a return to local hospital boards but did not rule out a federal takeover of health. "The health system for a few generations has been a joint enterprise by Commonwealth and state governments and clearly that … has worked well when you consider the entire postwar period, and that relationship has led to us having one of the best health systems in the world."

The Australian Medical Association’s NSW president, Brian Morton, said a number of doctors had already resigned from the public hospital system because they felt they could not offer safe care. "Inability to pay suppliers is symptomatic of deeper problems and the ultimate concern is the welfare of patients," he said.

The chairwoman of the medical staff council at Orange Base Hospital, Ruth Arnold, said doctors’ hands were tied. They could insist on the area health service paying interest if their bills were not settled in 45 days but the "service is so strapped for cash that we would rather the money be spent on patient care".

She said some doctors had been paid since October but it was unacceptable that they had to make a fuss before they got their money.

Hospitals in spotlight

DELAYS: Moves are afoot to avoid ambulances queues at hospitals.LOCAL health districts including the Hunter’s will have to come up with plans by the year’s end to improve the movement of patients through hospitals, following a demanding winter for emergency departments, Health Minister Jillian Skinner says.

Under the measures, a local health district executive would be responsible 24 hours a day for monitoring patients’ access to ensure hospital and ambulance staff worked together.

Health district boards would endorse plans by the end of the year for moving patients more quickly throughout hospitals, Ms Skinner said.

It follows delays with ambulances waiting to offload patients at busy hospital emergency departments, or bed block.

Ms Skinner said the measures followed “a particularly busy winter” for emergency departments across the state.

Paramedics have long complained of ambulances being tied up for hours.

The Newcastle Herald reported earlier this year that in the past two financial years, Hunter ambulances had wasted the combined equivalent of a year sitting at overcrowded hospital emergency departments.

The Health Services Union will also renew today its campaign against rostering changes. It has dubbed today “yellow vest day” with members to wear vests to highlight what the union says is chronic understaffing.

It claims a shortage of 770 full-time positions, which the NSW Ambulance Service has rejected.

The union’s acting industrial manager Tom Stevanja said response times were blowing out in areas like Muswellbrook and Singleton.

The service was trying to make up for shortages and funding holes by asking paramedics to work shorter shifts and spend more time in an unpaid on-call capacity.

An Ambulance Services spokesman accused the union of “scaremongering” and said the shift changes reduced the incidence of lone paramedics being forced to respond to calls.

He said the service and the union agreed to trial the rosters and appear again before the Industrial Relations Commission on December 17.

Teen boys filmed sex acts on girl, 13, with mobile phones

A GROUP of teenage boys who subjected a 13-year-old girl to a series of sex acts and then circulated the footage on their mobile phones had limited sexual experience and were being "opportunistic", a court heard yesterday.

Four boys who engaged in sex acts with the girl in July 2007 appeared in the District Court yesterday after pleading guilty to aggravated sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 14.

The girl had met the alleged ringleader at Bankstown Centro shopping centre in July 2007 and they arranged to meet at a bus depot three days later to take a train to Yagoona, according to a statement of agreed facts.

But when he arrived, she saw that he had brought two friends with him, all dressed in their school uniforms, and they travelled to a park in Yagoona where four other males were waiting. The Court heard that the girl’s new friend then asked if she would perform sex acts on his friends, which she declined, but he continued to press her until she felt threatened and intimidated and finally said, "Yeah whatever."

Over the next hours they entered one of the toilet cubicles with her one after the other, calling to each other to "hurry up", and to her, "just smile like you’re enjoying it," the Court heard.

When council workers disturbed them, they moved to another public toilet in a nearby reserve and later to the rooftop of a Bankstown building.

That night a friend rang and told her that footage of her engaging in sex acts had been circulating among their friends on their mobile phones, and she reported the incident to police.

The lawyers representing the four teenagers yesterday argued that their clients believed the girl had consented to the sexual behaviour, and that they lacked sexual maturity.

One of them had never had any sexual education, because his parents had asked the school to exclude him from those classes until he turned 16, and another had been advised by an older brother to wait until marriage before he lost his virginity, the Court heard.

Luke Brasch, who represented one of the boys, said: "He may well have shown an unfortunate disregard for the young girl but it was an opportunity, a sexual opportunity, which he took."

However, the judge, Richard Cogswell, rejected the suggestion that they were not exploiting the girl. "An older girl may have had more sense and more experience and maturity to say ‘No, clear off’ but she’s a 13-year-old and says ‘Yeah whatever’ and it develops from there," the judge said.

The teenagers will be sentenced next month.

Smith staying on – for now

Newcastle Knights management have assured Brian Smith they want him to stay as head coach. The intriguing issue will be for how long.

Newcastle’s board of directors voted unanimously on Wednesday night to offer Smith a contract extension and have instructed chief executive Steve Burraston to kick off negotiations, most likely next week.

But the duration of the deal that will be tabled to Smith remains a matter of debate.

Smith is now starting the third and final year of the contract he signed with Newcastle midway through 2006.

A two-year extension would take his tenure at Newcastle to five years, the same length of time it took Craig Bellamy and Des Hasler to win premierships with Melbourne and Manly respectively.

But while the Storm and Sea Eagles were rewarded for showing faith in their coaches, it remains to be seen whether the Knights are willing to show the same commitment to Smith.

The trouble for Knights management is that the deal will probably be done before the season kicks off, which means that there will be a large element of guesswork involved.

Having finished one win out of the play-offs last season, Smith’s team are effectively an unknown quantity as they prepare for 2009.

It would not be beyond the realms of possibility for them to emulate Cronulla last season, who transformed from also-rans into a top-four outfit. But it also appears feasible that Newcastle might struggle to improve on their ninth-placed finish last season.

If the Knights were to miss the play-offs for a third consecutive year, fans would be entitled to ask at season’s end why officials moved so promptly to re-sign Smith.

With that in mind, it would be no surprise if the Knights hedged their bets and offered Smith an incentive-based deal that rewarded him for on-field performance.

His current arrangement included a "trigger" clause, by which he would have earned an extra year had the Knights made the top four in either of his first two seasons.

A similar proposal might be presented at next week’s negotiations a guaranteed one-year extension, which would become two years if the Knights reach the top four this season.

Burraston said "various tenures were discussed at the board meeting" and it would be his job to find "common ground" with Smith.

"It may be that it’s just a five-minute meeting and a shake of the hand, but if we’re apart we’ve got to work out some sort of compromise and how we can get together," Burraston said. "It needs to suit him and it needs to suit us."

Burraston said it would be premature to speculate on tenure but confirmed that trigger clauses were likely to be mentioned in negotiations.

"There’s a whole lot of things that go into the contract and it’s fairly complicated," he said.

"Once we get an understanding of all that, we’ll know exactly what the terms will be and how many years that is, and if it has triggers for new years or whatever."

Meanwhile, is is undecided if Tony Butterfield will be replaced on the nine-man Knights board after resigning to accept a new position as the club’s corporate and community liaison officer. The board can either appoint a new director or wait until the next annual general election, in April next year.

More than 500 firefighters battle blazes

More than 500 firefighters have worked through the night to battle blazes in Gippsland and in Victoria’s western region.

– More than 500 firefighters battling blazes

– Two men questioned but released

– Fires threaten communities

Firefighters have contained a large fire in Branxholme, in the western district, but are still battling to save dozens of houses in the Delburn area, south of Morwell in the Latrobe Valley

Two men were questioned at Morwell police station last night and released without charge over the deliberately lit fires.

“They have been released and our inquiries into the fires are continuing,” police spokesman Senior Constable Wayne Wilson said.

Country Fire Authority spokesman Darren Grevis-James said more than 300 firefighters were battling the blaze that had burnt about 1000 hectares.

“The fire was very active overnight, similar to what it was during the day,” he said.

“They’re just checking this morning to see whether there’s been any loss of property.”

Mr Grevis-James said while there were no reported property losses so far, there were a number of isolated holiday homes or shacks in the area that could have fallen victim to the fires, which began about 4pm Wednesday.

He said the terrain was a “very steep, difficult combination of native forest and pine forest.”

About 200 firefighters are still battling the fire at Branxholme, which has so far burnt through about 603 hectares of land, mainly open farming country.

A number of crops have been lost in the blaze.

Conditions in the region are predicted to worsen today, with temperatures into the mid-40s.

Mr Grevis-James said winds were expected to swing south-west today, with firefighters on their guard for a change in fire direction.

A total fire ban has been declared for the entire state today.

Residents of Gippsland are enacting their fire plans as another day extreme temperatures exacerbates the fire threat. video

Dolphins surface as sea’s smartest chefs

THEY may not have any hands or knives, but Australian dolphins make great calamari chefs.

Scientists have discovered the marine mammals can perform a series of sophisticated manoeuvres that rid a cuttlefish of its ink and bone to produce a tasty soft meal.

A wild female bottlenose dolphin was observed repeatedly using the same steps to prepare cuttlefish cuisine in her kitchen in the waters of Spencer Gulf in South Australia.

"It’s a sign of how well their brains are developed. It’s a pretty clever way to get pure calamari without all the horrible bits," the curator of molluscs at Museum Victoria and a member of the research team, Mark Norman, said.

First the dolphin herded a cuttlefish out of the weeds and onto a sandy patch of sea floor.

Standing on her head, she pinned it down with her snout. Then, with a powerful flick of her tail, she killed it with a rapid downward thrust.

Dr Norman said the black ink that cuttlefish squirt out to defend themselves was toxic. "It’s pretty horrible stuff."

To get around this problem the dolphin lifted the corpse up and whacked it with her snout "like a cricket bat" as it floated around until all the ink came out.

"Cuttlefish also have a big, hard surfboard of cuttlebone inside," he said.

To avoid this unpalatable part, the dolphin returned the cuttlefish to the sea floor and forced it along the sand to scrape off its skin until the cuttlebone popped out – and then dinner was ready.

The same female was seen preparing cuttlefish in 2003 and 2007, the researchers report in the science journal, PLoS One .

But the behaviour was likely to be widespread. "Repeated observations of clean cuttlebones bobbing to the surface in association with passing pods of dolphins suggest that some or all of this behavioural sequence is not restricted to a single individual dolphin," they concluded.

Female bottlenose dolphins have also been seen using sponges as tools in Western Australia, to protect their snouts as they probe the sea floor for food.

In the first evidence of cultural learning among dolphins, a study in 2005 showed that mothers teach their daughters the trick of breaking off the sponges and wearing them.

Dr Norman said it was not yet known whether the mothers also trained their daughters to become cuttlefish chefs.