25 May

The Right Track
by Paul Waite
25 May 2001

If you got the impression that the All Blacks have been going through a rebuilding phase since 1998, you’d be right.

First of all John Hart patched together a team for the World Cup after it all fell apart on him with that infamous 5-test losing streak in ’98. Following the World Cup debacle in 1999, we had a new coach at the helm last year, and another face-lift for the team.

But it all starts in earnest this season. I get the impression that Smith and Gilbert have had a big rethink since last year, and have decided to get back to the kind of hard-bastard tight forward play that the Black Jersey is famous for. At least that’s what it looks like.

Big, powerful locks, strong and fit props, a new hooker/captain, and some exciting new blood in the loose forwards promises much but will it deliver?

That’s the big question. It’s as much about playing approach and team-work as it is about player selection, and this can’t be developed by simply waving a magic wand.

Smith has selected a squad aimed at fulfilling his avowed purpose of developing intimidating forward power once again within the All Blacks game. If he succeeds, the opposition will be kept honest in the tight exchanges leaving more room for backplay. If it works, then we certainly have the talent out wide to roast anybody in World Rugby.

We have to be careful not to get too carried away however. As mentioned earlier, a team takes time to gel and work itself into the kind of understanding that makes a consistently winning combination. So, prepare for yet another roller-coaster season results-wise.

But this time we just might be on the right track!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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24 May

The best of the Chiefs – 2001
by Euan Kilgour
24 May 2001

After a record season for the Chiefs when they equalled their best ever placing in the S12 in spite of the fact that they won more matches than ever before, a number of Waikato players have found their way into higher honours. Congratulations must go out to first time All Black Squad members Marty Holah, Mark Ranby, Keith Lowen and Roger Randle. Mark Cooksley aka Lazarus gains mention as the comeback kid, last donning a Black Jersey in 1994.

I will fly in the face of popular opinion and state that Deon Muir has found his rightful place in NZ rugby as captain of NZ Maori. His inspirational captaincy of Waikato and this years Chiefs side to me meant that his All Black debut would be wasted if he was named as anything other than Captain, something which I believe firmly belongs to Anton Oliver.

While I fully expect only Cooksley to make it into the final 22, it is good to see the All Black Selectors keeping the faith by rewarding players who have played outstandingly well.

20 May

by Paul Waite
20 May 2001

Yawning, I made my way upstairs on Saturday evening with a vague feeling that some rugby might be on the telly. I was right – it was the Super 12 semi-final between The Brumbies and the Reds. Could I be bothered to watch it? Hell why not, let’s see how it goes.

Such are the deliberations of the TV rugby fan when his country’s teams have been knocked out of the Super 12 in the round-robin stages.

Semi-interested in a very relaxed non-partisan way, I watched what I had already decided was a foregone conclusion. Sure enough the Robo Masters proved that they are far more efficient at rugby than The Reds.

Efficiency. That’s what it came down to in this game. Efficiency at recycling. Efficiency at tackling. Efficiency at delaying the opposition at the ruck.

I don’t think I saw anything I could class as a bit of flair in this benighted game – nothing. All I saw was damned efficiency. Gregan is like a bloody machine behind that Brumby ruck isn’t he? I remember a film called Westworld with Yule Brynner in the starring role as a gun-slinger robot. Gregan reminded me of him; even the hair-style was the same.

I must be getting old. A lot of what transpired in this semi-final of the Super 12 left me stone cold, and it wasn’t just that I had no team there to support.

Ironically, the only thing which sparked me was the incident where Finnegan tap-danced on Foley’s head at a ruck. We had the ridiculous spectacle of Kaplan asking his video referee (Wayne Erickson) to review the thing and rule on it. It took an age. For God’s sake all Finnegan was doing was losing his temper a bit with Foley obstructing the ball and saying “piss off doing that ya bastard”. No harm was intended or done; you could see as much by the way he simply dabbed the foot. I agreed with Erickson’s assessment of a yellow card, but there it should have stayed.

But that wasn’t good enough for the judiciary of our game. Oh no. Apparently Finnegan has copped a five week ban. What a bloody ridiculous judgement that is. One day “the game” (whatever that is) will wake up and realize that it’s two-faced. On the one hand it embraces all the commercial hype and bullshit which pressures players to win at all costs as well as providing ever more showy entertainment value in a full-contact sport, and on the other it wants to sanitise the game to a level where Mother Teresa would bestow a blessing without a second thought.

The two approaches are like a pair of Supertankers on collision course.

Personally I’d like to see the referees told to rule a good old-fashioned punch in the gob for getting out of line in the old way – let the players sort it out between themselves. As for video referees – change the channel and put on an episode of Neighbours or something.

Getting back to the game, it was absolutely no surprise the Brumbies won this one so the result wasn’t interesting to me at all. I was looking at players and two stood out for me.

Firstly George Smith the Brumbies openside. What a marvellous player he is, and what a bane he is going to be this season for the Lions, All Blacks and Springboks alike! Not only is this guy fast, he’s as strong as an ox and could rip a ball out of the jaws of a Great White judging by his recent performances. Definitely one to watch this season.

On the other side, we had the inimitable Chris Latham. Latham is the thinking man’s fullback. His vision of the game is unsurpassed, I believe. The way he reads what his opponents are likely to do is only matched by the speed of his reply once he gets the ball. He always seems to have worked it out the day before, it’s that smooth. Burke would be warming the bench in my Wallaby team, whenever Latham was fit.

Speaking of Great Whites, over in the other semi-interesting semi-final, the Sharks were debunking the myth that the Cats were in contention for the 2001 Super 12. It was a bit like watching a bunch of rhinos running about amongst a flock of geese. Luckily no-one seemed to get trampled to death, but it was a close thing.

The Sharks have been a surprise package for this Super 12. They are a powerful mixture of speed and size, and look to be well capable of taking on and beating the Brumbies at Bruce Stadium next week. If I had money on this one – I’d be putting it on the South Africans.

Let’s hope the Final produces more interesting rugby than the semis.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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14 May

A Big Fat Zero
by Paul Waite
14 May 2001

Well, it happened. We’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous in a single season; winning the Super 12 for five straight seasons, then not even getting a team into the semis in 2001.

What’s wrong I hear you ask. Well the answer to that was perfectly encapsulated by the performances this weekend. Sorry if you’re of a sensitive nature but New Zealand rugby isn’t as good as either Australia’s or South Africa’s at present. In fact looking across the five franchises, we’re pretty much at an all-time low. In short we’re crap.

Look at the Blues vs Hurricanes on Friday. I’ve rarely seen an effort so devoid of basic rugby intelligence from a New Zealand side as the shite the Canes dished up in the swimming pool which was Eden Park. Wet weather rugby demands pretty well-understood modes of play and it turns out Hurricanes coach Graham Mourie spelled this out to the twenty-two mentally impaired cretins wearing yellow and black both before the game and at halftime. Instead we were treated to an embarassing balls-up where the team was running the ball from its own 22m in the first quarter and handing out tries on a plate to the Blues. The astonishing thing is, they kept on doing it!. It’s as if, when they gathered under the posts to watch yet another conversion, they said to each other “Shit, that was good, let’s keep on playing like this since it’s working so well”. Gordon Slater, a captain? Not in this lifetime mate.

For their part, the Blues were beaten by the Bulls. They are not a good side by any stretch of the imagination, but by dint of the stupidity of their opponents, pulled out a nice win. It doesn’t bode well for the future of New Zealand rugby; there are a lot of All Blacks and so-called All Black hopefuls in that Canes outfit.

So that’s two teams down. Let’s look at the other three.

In Canberra the Chiefs choked big-time. After the marvellous game in Wellington last week, they were caught cold by a couple of nifty seven-pointers by the Robo Masters, and from that point on seemingly lost all belief in themselves. No support, no cohesion and a singlular lack of collective heart. They battled alright, but didn’t battle as a unit, just as fifteen individuals who seemed to have accepted they were over-matched. Until this happened, I hadn’t realised how much I was looking to the Chiefs to at least share in providing us all with a basis for continuing our rebuilding at All Black level. Mind you it’s a maybe bit too soon. The Chiefs will learn a big lesson from that hiding, I hope, and come back the stronger next year. For now it has to be enough that they have completely turned themselves around from the historical series of gold medals in non-achievement. Well done on that score anyway.

Back home we had another rain-soaked game down in Dunedin. The Crusaders have definitely shown they are on the way down this season, and showed nothing to disprove that theory in this game. For their part the Highlanders were fairly workman-like without convincing anyone they were potential Super 12 champs. They ground out a healthy win, but deservedly failed to grab a semi-final spot. Pretty ordinary stuff.

By contrast over the Tasman we saw rugby of an entirely different kind and not only explained by the difference in the weather. The ideas and execution of the Waratahs’ and Reds’ rugby was of a much higher order, and has been all Super 12.

It’s not as if the Aussie style is anything new. In my memory they’ve always pursued the intricate jinking backline moves, the interpassing just behind the line of advantage etc. but we’ve always had teams which could read it, and come back with the kind of rugby to overmaster it.

Looking around at our five Super 12 franchises and the players within I have the distinct impression that the cupboard is much barer of players with the capacity to rise to All Black level and do this than say, six seasons ago. The change in style bringing with it a neglect of basic rugby techniques, players seeking fortune overseas, and the recently publicised problem with too much rugby being played have all had their part in this.

But there’s no use complaining about the fact of there being no New Zealand teams in the Super 12 semi-finals this season.

We deserve the big fat zero; we just weren’t good enough.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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7 May

Too Many Chiefs
by Paul Waite
7 May 2001

As A Hurricanes fan I watched the Chiefs demolish my team on Friday evening amidst feelings fairly common to fellow supporters of Wellington et al over the years. “Here we go again” I thought, as the guys dropped the ball, missed tackles and generally looked like a bunch of blokes from an unemployment queue who’d been invited to spend the weekend “running around on a paddock for a bit”.

Of course there was more to it than that. The Chiefs had done their homework, and effectively nullified the Canes style. They took them on in the tight, outplayed them in the loose, and shut them down out wide. When Holwell and Steinmetz were forced to kick with no other options on, there was always a Crichton, or Randle waiting in the right position to field it and run it back.

In the end it was easier for me to watch it than you might expect. Mitchell has shown himself, in my opinion, to be the best coach in New Zealand during this Super 12. To take the Chiefs and turn them around; forge them into a hard-nosed, technically effective squad, from the state they have been in over the past six years is only slightly less impressive than the legendary turning water into wine trick which Jesus did for his mates when they ran out of Monteith’s one Sunday arvo.

In short, the way the Chiefs played in this game was so good and so much better than their opponents, that I could only sit and admire it. If Deon Muir and Marty Holah don’t get All Black jerseys this season I’ll eat my hat, and do it without any barbeque sauce.

On the Canes side a few players are worthy of mention. Christian Cullen played the first forty minutes as if he’d scoffed a mogadon sandwich just before running on. The lights were on but nobody was at home as he bumbled around missing tackles and contributing nothing in attack whatsoever. Look out Cully! That All Black 15 jersey doesn’t have your name on it permanently.

In the midfield the Canes missed Umaga enormously. Jason O’Halloran is now a shadow of his former self, seemingly lacking confidence and ideas. He and Steinmetz were totally shut down in this game.

In the loose-forwards, Muir outplayed Tiatia with ease, and led his team by example for the full eighty minutes. Holah remains the best openside in New Zealand this season and is an easy choice for Smith. His opposite, So’oialo has bags of talent, but showed enough inexperience to be left to mature for another season, I think. At blindside for the Canes, Jerry Collins had a strong game, and must also be in contention for a Black Jersey.

In the end, it was a case of there being too many Chiefs whenever the Hurricanes looked to create chances. The outcome was predictable, despite a late second-half resurgence where three very questionable tries were scored by the home side. The first involved some pushing from behind and the others came from blatant knock-ons. A score of 51-5 would have represented the difference in the sides, but it ended up as 51-27 which flattered the home team.

The next day, we settled in to see what The Blues could do with the Brumbies up at Eden Park. Not a lot, was the answer.

Fresh from the ignominy of losing to The Spoonistes, The Bulls over in Pretoria, a team everyone else has beaten, The Blues spent the whole first half defending. They were so completely outplayed, I can’t even remember a time when they had the ball and did something with it.

This was set against the backdrop of Frank Oliver’s team selection, announced in the week prior, which had most knowledgable fans wondering whether Big Frank had psychiatric problems; a split personality maybe: one week he’s a rugby coach, the next a small brain-damaged hampster. Guess which one we think he was this week?

It’s not as if we don’t know how to beat The Brumbies is it; the Hurricanes and the Highlanders have shown how. You take them on up front and suck them in with big powerful commited forwards. Then you make Gregan and Larkham’s life a misery using the halves and loosies. Above all, suck in their forwards and don’t let them fan out across the park.

Leaving out Glenn Taylor for Flavell, which essentially conceded the lineout, and de-powering the front row was to say the least unexpected. Most of us considered it suicidal. If we’d told him, we could have said “we told you so”, but we didn’t. Next time maybe we should.

Back to the game. In the second half things were different, but not much. Eddie Jones was interviewed wearing an expression which made it look like Smithy had dropped an eggy one, and pronounced that he wanted “more intensity” from his team. Fuck, they’d been playing like men possessed for forty minutes; the guy must be a right bugger to work for.

As it happened, the Brumbies must have thought he said “more mistakes” (they must sound similar in an Aussie accent) because they dropped off their game and did the same with the ball. This gave the Blues some hope. Unfortunately it was just that, “some hope”.

However instead of just defending, they managed to get the ball and ruck it through several phases at a time. I counted 12 phases once, and they managed to gain 15m, all somewhere around halfway. The ineptness of their play and utter cluelessness in terms of how to try and break a defence is a testiment to the Blues coaching staff, who have had four solid professional months to bring their team to this peak of performance. I hope they gave the fans at Eden park their money back at the gate, and added $10 and an abject apology for wasted time, because that’s what this performance deserved.

Later on in the evening we were treated to some real rugby, which was a welcome antidote to the earlier rubbish. The Crusaders visited the Waratahs in their stronghold over in Sydney, and their mission was to regain some pride and perpetuate the slim mathematical chance of gaining the semis.

The succeeded in the former, but narrowly lost the game which puts them out of Super 12 2001 contention. But the match had plenty of good honest rugby in it, and it would be wrong to focus only on the end result. In the Crusaders forward pack Chris Jack contrinues to impress, and Ruben Thorne had another good game at blindside. Although playing at openside, Robertson also put in a solid eighty minutes, and was effective. Back at fullback, Leon MacDonald was the Crusaders best, making several telling runs, including a burst into the line to score a late second half try.

On the Waratahs side, at times they looked confused by the Crusaders aggressive defence, which was back to near its best, but they stuck to it. In the end it required some brilliance by Matthew Burke, who had recovered from his debacle last week, and an awesome lineout drive to break through.

The latter was the most impressive, and points the way back for rugby union in this country. From the lineout the Tahs grabbed the ball and drove. Their tighties assembled a flat-backed maul in seconds, and shear strength and control rumbled them forwards for a classic try. The sequence ought to be enshrined in a coaching video, it was that good.

A late try from the Crusaders brought them close, but in the end, although they could have won this game, there could be no complaints about the result.

For three seasons the Crusaders have reigned supreme as Super 12 Champions.

We salute that amazing achievement.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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