AFL introduces pre-finals bye

The AFL wants to make the risky pre-finals bye a permanent part of the fixture.

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The league sprang a major surprise at Thursday’s 2016 fixture announcement, with a second bye introduced between round 23 and week one of finals.

This will push the grand final back until October 1 – the second-straight season it has not been the traditional last week in September.

The late-season bye is a direct result of North Melbourne and, to a lesser extent, Fremantle resting players en masse last month before the finals’ opening week.

It was met with mixed social media reaction, but AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said clubs had given strong support.

“It goes to ensuring the integrity of our home-and-away competition and the integrity of our game,” McLachlan said.

“What happened in round 23 this year was unsatisfactory and we committed to addressing that.

“This is obviously our preferred position going forward.

“You have to execute right and make it work.”

McLachlan said there were plenty of ways the AFL could try to ensure the week off was not a momentum killer.

These include a Monday or Tuesday night game to end round 23 and potentially a Thursday night match game to start the finals.

As has become the norm, round 23 will be a floating draw until it becomes clearer which teams will make the finals.

The AFL also might move the Rising Star and All Australian functions into the bye weekend.

But McLachlan is not keen to move the Brownlow Medal from grand final week.

“The risk is … that this is a momentum killer, but I think it is small and I am very confident this is the right way forward,” he said.

The AFL was negotiating with cricket until Wednesday night to ensure the MCG was available for the October 1 grand final.

McLachlan is hopeful a deal can be reached with cricket that would mean the MCG would be available for AFL games over last two weekends in March.

Next season will start with the Easter Thursday Richmond-Carlton blockbuster on March 24 at the MCG.

OTHER NOTABLE FEATURES INCLUDE:

* Still no Good Friday game, although this remains on the table

* Carlton have paid for poor form, with no Friday night games and their first trip to Launceston. They are among six teams – all non-finalists – without Friday night exposure

* Improving teams Richmond, North Melbourne and Western Bulldogs rewarded with Friday night matches.

* Essendon and Adelaide are outliers in the double match-ups, where the teams are split into three groups of six based on their 2015 ladder positions. The Bombers (15th) do not play anyone in the top six twice and the Crows (sixth) do not play anyone in the bottom six twice

* The round-11 North Melbourne-Richmond Hobart game will be the first Friday night match in Tasmania

* The only Sunday night match will be the MCG Melbourne-Richmond Anzac eve game.

* Anzac Day falls on a Monday and the MCG Essendon-Collingwood blockbuster will be the only match on April 25

* Hawthorn will unfurl the premiership flag in round two against losing grand finalists West Coast

* After three years, there are no St Kilda games in New Zealand over the Anzac Day round. The AFL hopes this will resume from 2018 in Auckland

* Reflecting Essendon’s fall, they play Collingwood only once for the first time since 1991

* Boom Geelong recruit Patrick Dangerfield will play against old team Adelaide for the first time in round eight at Adelaide Oval

* St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt is set to play his 300th game in round two. North Melbourne’s Brent Harvey could break the AFL games record with his 427th match in round 19 against the Saints

Asia-Pacific ‘most disaster-prone’: UN

It has released a report showing natural disasters have killed half a million people in Asia and the Pacific over the past decade.

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The UN says most of these incidents are also cross-border, such as the earthquake in Afghanistan earlier this week which also affected Pakistan and other neighbouring countries.

Achieving sustainable development will be difficult, says the UN, if the region does not address these risks.

The 2015 Asia-Pacific disaster report, released by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), shows the region is the most disaster-prone in the world.

During the past decade, the Asia-Pacific region was struck by 1,625 disasters.

They killed half a million people and caused $733 billion (US$523bn) in economic damage.

The region also suffered 40 per cent of all the world’s disasters, 60 per cent of it deaths, and 80 per cent of the overall number of people affected.

However the study describes these figures as very conservative, calling them “gross underestimates”, and warning that there is no standard methodology for collecting disaster statistics.

The report says based on present trends, by the year 2030 economic losses in the region could average $224 billion (US$160 bn) each year.

Chief of the Policy and Analysis Branch from the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), David O’Connor, is not surprised.

 

“If we look at the economic damages from disasters in the region, we see that they have been on the rise and that’s not surprising of course because not only are more populations exposed through the developments of these coastal and deltaic cities… But also, as economies develop, more and more valuable infrustructure, more and more economic assets are exposed to the damages of major storms or earthquakes or other forms of disaster.”

 

The UN’s disaster risk reduction agency (UNISDR) says security concerns can be an obstacle to implementing so-called risk management initiatives in places like Afghanistan.

 

Spokesman Denis McClean says that they are much more likely to succeed if top government officials play their part.

 

“The main challenge in terms of avoiding a repetition of the kind of mortality figures that we’re seeing emerging from Afghanistan, the main challenge is to get political commitment towards disaster risk management. To have it elevated to a sufficiently high level in government that local governments and other actors pay serious attention to these issues.”

 

The disaster report has found the most frequent disasters were floods and storms.

Storms killed about 170,000 people and floods killed about 40,000.

Last week, Typhoon Koppu sent heavy rains and powerful winds to the northern Philippines, destroying crops, damaging roads and bridges, and displacing thousands.

But the managing director of crisis planning and training business Crisis Ready, Peter Rekers, says disaster preparedness has helped prevent further losses.

 

“Certainly public communication has become a growing centre of attention, I guess. More and more agencies are looking at it. Recently in the Philippines, the typhoon that went through there, they’re attributing a lot of the success, if you like, of the operation to public communications: better understanding of warnings and better understanding of what phrases like tidal surge means. It’s really important to communicate those sorts of things really well.”

 

The UN’s report attributes reduced death tolls from cyclones in Bangladesh to early warnings and preparedness.

It says a category 3 storm in 1970 killed 300,000 people there, compared to the 4,000 deaths from a category 5 storm in 2007.

Mr Rekers says governments in the region need to invest more in disaster prevention and preparedness.

 

“Most agencies are spending much less than one per cent of their budget around public communications. It’s clear that it’s a growing area of concern and interest and certainly attention but the budgets aren’t being transferred there. So I think governments need to be thinking a lot more and putting money toward public communication to make these departments work much better.”

 

Iran will join Syrian talks for the first time

As a key backer of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Iran has been excluded from earlier talks.

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But that is changing.

Iran’s foreign minister will join his counterparts from Russia, the United States and Saudi Arabia for negotiations aimed at ending the nearly five-year war in Syria.

Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, France and European Union representatives will also attend the talks in the Austrian capital, Vienna.

Iran’s inclusion marks a crucial shift after it was excluded from earlier talks mainly because of opposition from the United States and Iranian rival Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, along with Qatar and Turkey, say Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must leave power as a precondition for peace.

But Iran, which has been backing Mr Assad along with Russia, says any solution must involve him.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian says there is no other choice.

 

“We believe that the solution in Syria can only be a political one. Americans and foreign players in Syria have no choice but to accept the realities there. Mr Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government have the necessary readiness for talks with those insurgents who are committed to a political path.”

 

The Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group based in Turkey and backed by Western powers, says Iran’s participation in the talks will undermine the political process.

But German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says, while not a breakthrough, getting the key parties to meet is a necessary first step.

 

“This seems like not much, but, in light of the problems we had in recent weeks and months, getting the most important participants down at one table is a lot.”

 

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cautiously welcomed Iran’s participation.

 

“It’s hard to imagine a solution to the Syrian crisis without their participation. We hope that that participation can be positive and that they will join in the effort to create a political transition that leads to the end of the conflict, but that’s an open question. But the only way to test the proposition is to actually engage with them and to see what they are willing to do, in terms of the influence that they have with the Assad regime.”

 

It is not clear whether the Syrian government or the opposition have been invited.

Neither side was present at the last talks in Vienna.

 

Pakistan, Afghanistan areas reeling from quake damage

At least 385 people have died as a result of the quake, with the most severely affected areas in remote locations.

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While the 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck on Afghanistan’s side of the border with Pakistan, the Pakistani death toll days later is almost double its neighbour’s.

Most of those people killed are from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in north-western Pakistan.

Thousands of homes have been destroyed there, as well as more than a hundred schools.

Villager Sultan Khan says his two grandsons were killed after the walls of their school fell on them.

 

“When the earthquake started, the walls of the madrasah fell on my grandsons. We were looking for them and found them under the rubble. Then we took them to hospital, but they did not survive.”

 

The quake was so strong it also rattled northern India and Tajikistan, but those countries have escaped with minimal damage.

Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif has visited his country’s north-western city of Peshawar to attend a briefing on the scale of the damage across the region.

On local television, he has promised his government will provide what he calls “maximum compensation” to the victims.

It would range between 1,500 and 3,000 dollars Australian.

 

“For houses which are totally damaged, 200,000 rupees will be given to each person to rebuild their homes. And houses which are partially damaged, 100,000 rupees will be given to them.”

 

But villagers say they believe more needs to be done.

 

Aqalmand Khan, from Pakistan’s Swat Valley says his family has received barely any support.

 

“We have received only one tent for the whole family. Is it possible that people from a family in a three-room house can live in one tent? See how my three-room house is badly damaged? We can’t live in this house.”

 

Charity wings of Pakistan’s political parties have set up donation centres to collect funds and relief material.

 

In Afghanistan, aid agencies have started to support some of the people who need it most.

 

The Afghan Red Crescent’s Nangyalai Yousofzai says the most severely affected areas are very remote and communication has proven difficult.

 

“This big earthquake has affected Jalalabad city and most of Nangarhar province. It has destroyed hundreds of houses in Bahsoud district. Now we are distributing tents, blankets and kitchen items for the affected people.”

 

The Chinese government says it will provide further emergency aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan if need be.

 

Meanwhile, Pope Francis has honoured those killed by the quake during his weekly audience at the Vatican.

 

“Let’s pray for the dead and for their relatives, for the wounded and for those who have lost their homes, imploring from God relief from suffering and courage in adversity. May our brothers not be left without our complete solidarity.”