27 Feb

Try Whistling This
by Rob Wallace
27 Feb 2001

The first games of the S12 didn’t really explode into action for NZ teams this year, it was more like a whimper as rusty Kiwi teams were taken apart by slick Australian squads.

The Highlander-Blues game produced the only NZ victory, and that was probably only because there were 2 Kiwi teams involved, with the Highlanders winning 23-8. It wasn’t much of a game really, as were many of the first round games, being dominated by the referee’s whistle as players struggled with new interpretations of the laws.

The first half was fairly even with the Blues pack having a slight edge, but never being able to achieve much due to a poorly functioning backline and the staccato nature of play. Colin Hawke reduced his whistling in the second half and the Highlander forwards took the game to the Blues without really ever completely dominating as the Blues continued to struggle with the new interpretations. They suffered with discipline too, Ai’i was sinbinned for a knock down, and Riechelmann also received 10 minutes for diving over the top of a ruck. This was a ridiculous ruling – penalisable sure – but 10 in the bin for diving over the top? Even worse is Hawke not picking up on Otago players doing the same thing a few minutes earlier. It’s that lack of consistency that irritates me.

Even so, and not helped by only having 14 men for half the second 40, the Blues never really looked like scoring. The forwards toiled hard, the scrum held up pretty well although Hoeft, Oliver and Meeuws clearly had the upper hand, Taylor added some solidity and Parkinson was quick to the loose ball although freqently penalised. Cribb and Rush had fairly quiet games, and the combination of loose forwards didn’t seem quite right. The return of Flavell and Collins from injury should help this. Overall I thought it was an adequate first up effort from the forwards, with more work needed on those new tackled ball interpretations.

For the backs, Robinson was outstanding, and Spencer created the first try with a brilliant nudge off his knee near the line, capitalised on by Howlett’s pace, but later in the game seemed to lose confidence in his backline. The main reason for this seemed to be Tipoki’s natural instinct to cut back in to his forwards, so we saw virtually no ball spread wide to the wings and no running from Ai’i. There is no point having Vidiri in the team if you’re not going to feed him a lot of ball, and Ai’i is similar – his strengths lie in attack and skill, rather than defence, and were underutilised. Hopefully Wilson or Innes will start next week to try to improve the lines and distribution, but Kirwan’s skills as a backline coach also remain unclear.

In other games a flat Crusaders team, who looked nothing like the defending champions, copped a walloping from the Brumbies 51-16 while the Hurricanes promised much but couldn’t manage to do the basics well enough losing 27-18 to the Reds. The Chiefs looked short of forward cohesion in losing to a young and impressive Warratahs team 42-23 while in SA the Sharks beat the Bulls and more significantly the Cats managed an away win against the Stormers in Cape Town.

25 Feb

Wizards of Oz
by Paul Waite
25 Feb 2001

New Zealand teams travelled to Aussie this weekend and without exception all were sent home with a beating. Pity the poor Crusaders; their’s was a thrashing!

What does it all portend? Sweet FA that’s what.

Travelling away from home and playing the first game of a long Super 12 season in hot conditions is a recipe for a beating in anyone’s language. Add in the rash of injuries to the likes of the Hurricanes and Crusaders, and it just gets worse.

Looking over at Bruce Stadium (who the hell named that ground, was it a joke?) we saw the Brumbies unpacked from their boxes, successfully programmed with a gameplan download pre-match, and then sent out on the field with fully charged di-lithium cells. Robo-rugby is back! Not that I think they lack originality or flair or anything.

The Hurricanes were a bit of a mixed bag. Mostly it was a bag of manure, but the odd flower popped its petals out the top, notably a brilliant try by Tana Umaga. Lilley broke clear down the left, found Spice who carried it on and Umaga sliced them apart like a scalpel, sweeping behind him on a diagonal bound for the left corner flag to score. Nothing the Reds did bettered that. Er, well, apart from winning the bloody game that is.

Ah yes, I almost moved on without mentioning the referee, a chappie named Carl Spannenberg or something like it. Carl seems to come from a long line of South African officials who follow the ‘Hitlerian’ school of rugby law enforcement. He took both sides on a whistle-stop tour of the new interpretations, and had his arm out indicating advantage so often that it became streaked with pigeon droppings. Ok, so the Hurricanes exhibited their now legendary abilities to keep on infringing in the same way all through the game, like morons, but Carl was definitely contributing, and no mistake. Good to see that Andre ‘Stalin’ Watson, and Tappe Henning have some stiff competition.

Back to the games, and unfortunately with the Chiefs I can’t comment with authority. I started watching it, honest injun, but when I woke up it was over and I’d only seen the first 15 minutes. During that time I’d seen a Chief touch a ball about twice, and one of those was an adjustment to a jock-strap. To be frank I got sick of watching flash-harry Aussies dancing and jinking past our guys like we had an epidemic of partial paralysis of the lower limbs in the team. At times they looked so much sharper that I thought the Chiefs had been slipped a couple of valiums each. Maybe they need a few more Indians. In the end it seemed like I was the one who’d swallowed the valium.

Back home we were treated to a battle between the Highlanders and the Blues on the Friday. I saved this one until last ’cause a New Zealand team won it.

The Blues were, on paper, a strong outfit up front, and with a gifted backline to boot. That’s what they should do with it – boot it. The Tipoki-Spencer combination didn’t so much click as make a kind of nasty bubbling noise. Ok, it’s early days, but the indications are it isn’t a marriage made in heaven. Up front for the Highlanders, the ex-All Black front row which did so much for the gay movement with its exploits against the French in the 1999 World Cup semi-final had us sitting up in our seats. Well at least Oliver and Meeuws did; we’re not sure whether Hoeft was on the field. Of course Oliver has been in excellent form for a few years now, so we exclude him from the inferences, but Meeuws was back to producing some great stuff of his own. If he carries on like this, we might see Smith getting him in front of the fitting-room mirror to see what he looks like in a Black jersey again.

Back to the game and the Highlanders cleaned the Blues out up front both around the field and in the lineouts. They looked the more cohesive unit and deserved their first win over the Aucks in 2 years. Well done lads.

So that’s the first round over with. As I started by saying, the results mean little. This Super 12 competition is a long-haul effort and the euphoria over the Tasman might all look rather silly a few weeks hence.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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23 Feb

Preview 2001
by Tracey Nelson
23 Feb 2001

The countdown to the 2001 rugby year is over, and although the season is kicking off a week earlier than usual I think I speak for most NZers when I say that it will be a more than welcome diversion from the continuing woes of our national cricket side!

However, the pre-season warmup games have not exactly inspired thoughts of greatness for many of the NZ S12 franchise supporters with most teams not performing as well as they would like as the S12 season is about to kick off. How many NZ teams will reach the semifinals is anyone’s guess given the large number of preseason injuries sustained, however many are looking to the Hurricanes and Crusaders to make the semifinals this year. The Brumbies are odds on favourites for the title again as they were last season, but there may well be strong challenges from SA in the shape of the Cats and Stormers.

While the form of S12 teams and players from all three countries will be a pointer towards Tri-Nations standings later in the year, most interest in 2001 will focus on the three Australian sides with the upcoming Lions Tour in June/July. This is without a doubt the highlight of the 2001 rugby calendar and will be keenly followed by ruby fans in both hemispheres.

Australia, as the World Cup and Tri-Nations Champions, have lost two experienced campaigners with the retirement of Tim Horan and David Wilson, while speedster Joe Roff has chosen to take a break from the rigors of international rugby. The Lions will still have memories of their last tour in 1997, when they defeated the then World Cup Champion South African side 2-1, and will be keen to repeat that feat when they take on Australia.

Certainly this tour promises much, particularly with the early form of England in the 6N already sounding warning bells in the southern hemisphere. Obviously the bulk of the Lions forwards will be made up from the formidable English pack already acknowledged as one of the best in the world, but the thought of a potent attacking backline made up from the best on offer from the home unions is enough to cause more than a flickering of nervousness to those of us down-under.

This is going to be an interesting battle, with the two different styles of the hemispheres meeting in pitched battle on the hard, fast fields of Australia. On one side there is the traditional forward game of the northern hemisphere, that relies on the pure basics of rugby by maintaining possession, utilising the power of their pack in set play and grinding down the opposition. This year there is also the added chance of seeing some very good backs in action, although doubt remains whether the home unions can come up with threequarters to match the likes of those found in France or the southern regions of the globe.

Contrastingly, we have the strong running backs of Australia that have turned backplay into something resembling a choreographed dance in recent years, such is the precision and timing of some of their set moves. Australia’s pack can’t match their northern counterparts in size yet they are capable of spoiling the opposition’s attempts and are also very canny at looking after what possession they have. Australia have also been very proactive in many of the law changes in recent years that suit their style of play and often manage to nullify larger, slower packs. Indeed, many have suggested that Australia’s brand of rugby now resembles league rather than union, and there have been numerous mutterings about the bastardisation of the game from more traditional rugby followers.

So who will this writer be backing? Well that’s a hard one to answer. On the one hand there is a degree of loyalty to my Australian neighbours and all that southern hemisphere running rugby is about, but on the other I have a keen appreciation of superb forward play and the good old fashioned basics of rugby. I suppose what I’m really hoping for is that the games will be closely contested and that rugby is the winner on the day. But just maybe at the end of the tour we’ll all be musing what sort of a team we’d see if we could merge a northern pack with a southern backline¬Ö