No one could read the vibe going into Sam Kerr’s first media appearance since Australia announced she would play no part in their first two Women’s World Cup group games due to a calf strain. Was it good news? Bad news? Would they even dare to release bad news ahead of such a big game?
On the back of a 3-2 loss to Nigeria and facing a must-win match against Canada — who are also staring down the possibility of group-stage elimination — Kerr announced she is fit and will be available for Monday’s fixture.
“I’m definitely going to be available,” Kerr said. “But how we decide to use that is not to be given to the opposition, is the main thing.”
Kerr said she had her boots on and was training on Saturday. Afterwards, team-mate Ellie Carpenter confirmed this was Kerr’s first session with boots since her calf injury.
Kerr kept the mood light when asked how she felt about the national hoopla over a calf. “First of all, it’s hilarious because I have the biggest calves in the world,” she said. “So I’m not sure why it decided to play up the day before the World Cup. But that’s sport for you, isn’t it?”
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The Chelsea forward was cagey about the rest. She did answer a direct question about whether she is fit to play and to be selected for this game’s roster with a simple, “Yes.” But it didn’t go unnoticed that she also brought up that Australia didn’t want to give too much away to Canada. It was straight out of the playbook they used before their match against the Republic of Ireland, with Kerr and manager Tony Gustavsson going through the press conference the day before that fixture completely as normal, and then only announcing an hour before kick-off that she would be unavailable for at least two games.
And why not? With a player as important as Kerr — a generational talent who can drag a team to a result against the run of play — why not engage in some mind games? Ah yes, Kerr is available. You know we might be exaggerating, and we know that you know, but the important thing is that Canada doesn’t know for sure.
And it could be particularly effective against a Canadian squad that may or may not be freaking out. Again, why shouldn’t they be? Barring some kind of unforeseen result from the Nigeria-Ireland game in which Ireland not only wins but does so with a major goal-difference boost, this game could see either the sitting Olympic gold medalists or the much-hyped tournament co-hosts ejected in the group stage.
Earlier in the week, Canada had announced they would be cutting back on player availability, though this was framed as giving players extra days off as part of a technical team decision. Canada’s media officer sent an email to press saying, “We are looking into offering other opportunities to media as we understand this offers a limited amount of access going into a very decisive game.”
That doesn’t exactly suggest a team feeling easy-breezy confident. Canada could have found themselves buoyed by their performance against Ireland, coming back from a stunning Katie McCabe ‘Olimpico’ to win 2-1. But they could have also taken to heart that after struggling in their 0-0 opener with Nigeria, they then had to come back from one down against Ireland.
“Mentally it’s massive having more players available, and having Sam obviously available brings so much to our team,” said Carpenter. “But obviously also a lot to the opposition knowing that we have Sam available for this game.”
If you sense your opponent is a little freaked out, it’s fair game at a World Cup to play into that. Sure, Kerr is technically available by her own admission. Does that mean she can go for 30 minutes, or does it mean that she could limp along for 10 minutes if she has to? Why not make Canada waste the mental energy trying to prepare for either scenario? We’ve seen how thin the margins are here between any two given teams, let alone teams that are close in the rankings.
Australia aren’t exactly swanning into this game either; Carpenter herself called it a “do-or-die” game and got plenty of questions from the media about bouncing back from the loss against Nigeria.
“We wanted to park that performance,” Carpenter said. “We obviously wanted to learn what went wrong. We did that review straight after the game so we could get that out of our system. Turn the page and full focus for Monday.”
“I think yesterday was a day to digest the game and go through it. But today we woke up with a spring in our step. Everyone’s feeling really good,” Kerr said.
Carpenter also emphasized that even having Kerr rostered for the game provides a mental boost for a team that has been accustomed to her presence and leadership on the field.
“I’m really happy that she did put the boots on today and that she’s available for Monday. It’s a massive boost for us to get our captain, our leader, and such a world-class player back in our squad,” Carpenter said.
It’s also got to be in the back of both squads’ minds that Canada got the better of Australia twice in a row in a pair of September friendlies last year. “But we had four or five players out missing,” Kerr pointed out of those matches. “And we feel really confident. We’ve grown so much over the last year.”
So we’ve got two teams going into a critical game on, perhaps, shaky ground. Or perhaps not. Mental resilience in athletes can often seem totally foreign to people who don’t carry such heavy pressures and national hopes, and it seems almost alien how some of these players can look at a challenge with such high stakes and smile with toothy confidence.
Kerr wasn’t exactly sitting there and telling everyone that everything’s going to be fine; some of her comments painted a picture of a player who’s still very much touch-and-go. “I would love to tell you guys everything,” she said, responding to a question about how many minutes she could actually go for. “But that’s a massive thing the opposition wants to know. And like Tony said yesterday, it’s gonna go down to the wire.”
But neither did she give away that Australia is feeling anything but the usual pressure any team feels to succeed. Of course she was disappointed not to be available for the first two games — you could see it in her tears on the sidelines before the Ireland game. But there seems to be a sense of acceptance, or at least the appearance of it.
“It was obviously disappointing, and then I had to kind of suck it up,” Kerr said. “I’m part of a team. I’m not a part of an individual sport, it’s not about me. And that’s what I’ve done over the last however many days it’s been — I’ve had to put the team first. And you know, I’ve been lucky enough over the last couple of years, I’ve always been on the pitch for this team. And I’ve always had team-mates that have not been on the pitch and supported me and got me over the line. So that’s been my role the last 10 days. And to be honest, it’s an honor to be here. I feel really lucky and privileged to be here. So the most important thing is that I’m a good team-mate.”
So Kerr will be available. Maybe she’ll play. Maybe she won’t. Maybe she comes on for 15 minutes. Maybe for longer. Australia won’t say, and Canada won’t know.
“The plan for me is to be involved,” Kerr said. “And I’m excited. I’ve done everything I can. And no matter what happens, I know I’ve given everything, not just in the last 10 days. In the last four years, I’ve given everything to be here.”
(Top photo: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)