27 Jul

Advance Australia Fair (or otherwise)
by Rick Boyd
27 Jul 2001

Living in Australia, as I do, is not without its moments of humour.

They’re not shy, the sons of convicts, and modesty is not a word printed in the Macquarie Dictionary. The philosophy is simple: if it’s Australian, it’s one rung above perfect; if it isn’t Australian, it’s shit, and that’s on a good day.

Take the All Blacks-Springboks test in Capetown to open the 2001 Tri-Nations. We all know as rugby goes, it was a tight and fierce encounter won 12-3 by the All Blacks with all points coming from penalty kicks, and a mistake rate that was not entirely excused by the heavy, wet conditions.

Not quite what we have come to expect in these heady days on a strict diet of champagne rugby, but a win is a win, and a win in South Africa is better than a win.

But enough about reality — how did those space cadets on Planet Journo see it?

“On a wet pitch and in drizzling rain it was a typically attritional meeting between the sides and try-scoring opportunities were rare,” said a neutral Daily Telegraph in Britain, “The Springboks dominated territorially, but one in which they were incapable of breaking down an excellent All Blacks defence.”

All well and good so far. You couldn’t argue with any of that.

“The defence of New Zealand was chilling in its intensity,” wrote the SA Sunday Times, with characteristic Japie reserve, “They were not as inventive or daring as the Boks, but then they did not need to be: they fed off South African errors.”

I don’t know that I’d call the Boks inventive or daring. Maybe that’s what “wooden and predictable” translates as in Afrikaans. Still, nothing you wouldn’t expect from a disgruntled losing side after a loss on penalty kicks.

“Grim defence and superb discipline were the hallmarks of an outstanding All Black victory at a rain-soaked Newlands this morning, New Zealand taking first blood in the Tri-Nations with a 12-3 victory over South Africa,” said the New Zealand Herald.

I wouldn’t have thought the discipline was that superb (not as superb as South Africa’s crappy kicking, for instance) and as for an outstanding victory, unless you would call any victory over South Africa in the Republic outstanding, it was not a word I would have chosen for the game. Still, perhaps it’s understandable enthusiasm for the home side after some pointedly mediocre performances since 1997.

But over the ditch in the West Island they were having none of that.

“In one of the worst, mistake-ridden Tri Nations matches ever played, a B-grade All Black outfit somehow overhauled a C-grade Springbok line-up,” wrote Australian “journalist” Greg Growden, the man with only one working eye, and that with a green and gold monocle in front of it.

But it’s not surprising. Growden has been telling us all sorts of fascinating things lately.

“In this golden age of Australian rugby, with the Wallabies having defeated everyone of note on the international stage,” he wrote in the Australian this week, touching on a theme dear to his heart — just how wonderful Australia is. He’s only mentioned it the four of five thousand times since winning the Tri Nations last year, and frequently alludes to the Wallabies Bledisloe Cup victories in 1999 and 2000 and their wins over the All Blacks. He usually adds that the current Wallabies are the greatest Australian team of them all.

They must have pretty low standards, that’s all I can say.

Those Bledisloe Cup “wins” were actually “retains” as both years the series were drawn 1 all. And the glorious Tri Nations title that capped it all off in 2000 was two last-minute, desperately lucky penalty kicks from being a glorious Tri Nations wooden spoon. Still, if that’s all it takes to be a greatest Wallaby team of all time, then fair enough. Thank God the All Blacks still consider a draw to be a loss.

Mind you, Growden is not having it all his own way. Former Queensland coach John Connolly is “writing” for the Sun-Herald these days and giving Growden an awful run for his money in shameless self-aggrandisement.

“The hardest part of the international season is over,” he tells his readers.

Australia having disposed of the British and Irish Lions (just), the sons of convicts can now safely praise them as tougher than South Africa or New Zealand, which makes the Wallabies automatically better than everybody. Naturally.

“New Zealand rugby is not what it used to be,” says the biggest man in Queenland rugby (around the waist, anyway), and he goes on to explain that the All Blacks have a crap lineout, no confidence, a dud captain and coach, and their complete failure in the Super 12 just points the way of things to come.

This sort of thing must be contagious. New Zealand-born Wallaby hooker Jeremy Paul points out modestly on Rugby Heaven this week, “the fact that there was no New Zealand side in the (Super 12) semi-finals shows how much stronger we are now.”

He goes on to reason that “the fact that South Africa put them under so much pressure could mean that they (South Africa) will be our main rivals for the title this year.”

Lots of facts seem to be coming Jeremy’s way. The fact that front rowers should not attempt to write anything other than an “x” on the bottom of their contract could be one worth pointing out to him as well.

It all makes for a jolly good wheeze for we expatriates on missionary work in the West Island. You couldn’t get humour this rich from an Australian comedy writer (if such a thing exists).

It almost makes it all worth while.

22 Jul

Defence Wins The Day
by Paul Waite
22 Jul 2001

The All Blacks beat the Springboks by 4 penalty goals to 1 in Cape Town on the back of some committed defence.

A win over in South Africa warms the heart of any New Zealand rugby supporter, and both they and the All Blacks themselves will be rightly celebrating a nice start to the Tri-Nations campaign for 2001.

Looking at the game as if through Australian eyes might shed a different light on things, and wipe a few smiles off dials.

Leaving aside the subject of our defence for a moment, as important and encouraging as that undoubtedly is, we have all kinds of problems to overcome if we hope to beat Australia on Australian soil – a requirement if we are to regain the Bledisloe Cup.

Chief amongst these problems is our lineout. Continuing the trend from last season, we are plainly awful in this critical facet of the game. The reason is simply that we are playing a flanker out of position, as a lock, just like we did last season with Blackadder.

To rectify this and give us a chance against Australia we must bench Flavell and pick Chris Jack instead to give us genuine height. Between now and two weeks hence when we host the Wallabies in Dunedin, we also need to drill our lifters and locks ’til they drop.

Moving on to another area, distribution, I believe we need to give Byron Kelleher a start. Although good on defence around the fringes, Marshall’s distribution has taken a backward step once again this season and the time he dithers on the ball is putting pressure on his outsides.

Finally, our loose-forward mix is still not right. Although it was largely masked by the slowness of wet conditions, Taine Randell is still not a World Class openside flanker and Gilbert’s perseverance with him smacks of favouritism from when he coached in Otago. We have a genuine openside flanker in Marty Holah warming the bench, and I believe we need him to go head to head with George Smith and give us the edge at the breakdown we need.

At No.8 Ron Cribb had a decent game in Cape Town. For once he avoided running sideways and took the ball up much straighter. He also concentrated more on the basics and picked his moments to try the game-breaking stuff. With Jerry Collins a real alternative, maybe we will see Cribb raise his game. As it stands he deserves another shot on this performance.

Up front we continue to look a tad shaky at scrum time without ever losing it completely. Mauling and scrummaging needs to be practised ad nauseam if we are ever to make them into useful attacking weapons, but the shining light in the front row is Anton Oliver who had a magnificent game in Cape Town and is the nucleus around which to mold a good unit in coming seasons.

In the backs we basically played to a simple recipe against South Africa, but didn’t do it particularly well. With the wet conditions it was never a game to set fans of back-play alight, but Brown struggled to provide the kind of tactical kicking game that Andrew Mehrtens can. The gameplan was to get it quickly up into South African territory and then use hard defence to milk mistakes.

In the first half this went reasonably well, but in the second the All Blacks were guilty of a string of errors which coughed posession and put pressure on themselves territorially. As a result they never had control of the final result in the second 40 minutes, and were lucky, in the end, that South Africa did not have a recognised goal-kicker, and seemed to butcher clear-cut chances when in the All Black 22m.

Two clear tries were on, but squandered by a lack of finishing skill rather than All Black defence, and several fairly easy penalty kicks which would have changed the game dynamics were missed. Without this good fortune the New Zealanders’ improved defence would not have been enough to get them the win and this is the salutory lesson they should take away with them from Cape Town.

If they reflect on that, and work on the problems, especially the lineout, then they might have a chance against Australia in Dunedin. Let’s hope Otago puts on a nice cold one for them.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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15 Jul

Super-14: What's Super About It?
by Paul Waite
15 Jul 2001

Immerse yourself in the murky yesteryear World of John Le Carre. It’s 1969. The Cold War is at it’s height. Spies are everywhere, and there’s a Mole in The Circus.

Now bring yourself to the present. Imagine there’s a Mole in the NZRFU.

His mission is simple: infiltrate New Zealand Rugby, undermine it’s strength – the National Provincial Championship, disadvantage it’s position in the Super-12 with respect to Australia and South Africa, and do everything possible to increase player burn-out.

A nonsense scenario of course, but give the decision to cave in the Australia’s demands for the Super-14, it might as well be true since the facts seem to fit.

Let’s examine what the Super-14 will actually mean to New Zealand Rugby. Here are the essentials as they appear at the moment:

  • A longer ‘Super’ season: 94 games vs 69 for the S12.
  • A more compacted, intense international window. No rest weeks for the All Blacks now.
  • NPC shunted aside by pro-rugby. Very little All Blacks participation.
  • Extra team for Australia and SA in the S14.
  • No end-of-year tour for All Blacks to develop as a unit together

Now let’s look at the effects, as I see them, of each element above.

The first point: A longer Super season. God help me, but as a spectator I want less rugby than we have now, not more. This is killing us with kindness. I’d like to be able to savour a rugby season once more; to be hanging out for it to start each year, instead of thinking “oh no, not again” as it begins amidst the crack of leather on willow in the cricket season.

The effect of the large increase in the number of games will be to move rugby dangerously close to being simply an “entertainment commodity”. Under the assault, spectators will be forced to pick and choose and in so doing will simply browse Super-14 rugby like a soap opera – picking it up as and when they feel the need, discarding it just as abruptly. It will bring more of a new breed of spectator: the vicarious “shopper” for entertainment.

In short, too much rugby disenfranchises the true rugby supporter of old, and encourages the dumb thrill-seeker.

The second point: a more compacted international season. The massive Super-14 juggernaut has forced SANZAR to compress the international and Tri-Series season to fit. The result is that the players are being asked to play all their test rugby one week after the next, with no breaks. Given that the NZRFU stance was to address the problems of player burnout, this is a complete cop-out. The effects are simple here: more injuries, less quality play, and more players leaving for overseas contracts.

The third point: The Demise of The NPC. This is the worst blow of the lot. Notice that the NPC isn’t publicly being castrated of it’s All Blacks, but the effect will be the same. The NZRFU know that New Zealanders don’t want this, so they have managed to allow a small window of a few rounds of the NPC to remain. This will only last a season or two however, and after that the NPC will be a second-rate competition which sponsors and TV will gradually grow cold on. It will become a feeder for pro-rugby. The emphasis is always being directed towards the professional arena, and the NPC is lined up in the sights of the moguls. It has no place in their plans. It is an irritation to them.

The result is once again simple. New Zealand rugby will be weakened by this move massively. Our strength has always been the depth and the way we bring talent through the grades from a wide base wherein the elite All Blacks mix fully and share knowledge and encouragement by training and playing as far down the pyramid as possible.

The new model is the American model, where elite talent is scouted early and separated from mere mortals to be groomed in special academys and so forth. The drive is to separate the elite professional circus from the unwashed, and to keep it that way. In short The New Zealand Difference, our egalitarian pyramid of sport where everyone has an equal shot and mutual respect whatever their level of attainment is being surgically removed.

And another thing; has the NZRFU asked the players what they want? I’ll bet not. If they did they’d probably find most All Blacks really love getting stuck into NPC rugby as a balm against all the frenetic international stuff.

The fourth point: Extra teams for Australia and SA. This one is simple. The change benefits Australia hugely and to a lesser extent South Africa, whilst having no advantage for New Zealand. At the same time that we are shooting our own developmental strength, the NPC, in the head, we are increasing the development base of Australia.

The fifth point: No end-of-year tours for the All Blacks. Faced with the increase in rugby with the Super 14, and keen to try and pull the wool over everyone’s eyes that the NZRFU were addressing player burnout as promised, they have simply axed the end-of-season tour. What a brilliant strategy. At a time when our All Blacks are in dire need of the in-depth rugby immersion that the overseas tour offers, we remove the possibility.

The main effects are obvious. The All Blacks will become a bit like the Kiwi RL team, assembling for short periods just before jetting off and playing a test. Good for the balance sheet but bad for team morale and building the kind of understanding we have seen in previous New Zealand teams.

Additionally, the NZRFU were keen to stress that one of our our many “wins” with the Super-14 deal was that SANZAR would kindly support us in our quest for a share of overseas gate money. Aside from the fact that this promise equates to nothing tangible, the canning of overseas tours does seem to render this largely redundant.

In summary the Super-14 package is an absolute disaster for New Zealand rugby. The NZRFU and in particular Rutherford look to have had themselves well and truly rodgered by a professional set of negotiators and have come away having been convinced they’ve “won”. Classic.

What we’ve done is strengthened the opposition immeasurably whilst at the same time increasing the load on players, emasculating our NPC, treating our All Blacks like commodities, and threatening to bore the pants off the rugby public by saturating them with too much rugby.

The only hope is that apparently this deal still needs to be ratified by the NZRFU before it’s set in stone.

Ratified? What an appropriate phrase; the smell of rodent is pretty pervasive that’s for sure. Let’s hope the NZRFU have another look and trashify it instead.

It don’t look good from where I’m sitting. How about you?

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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1 Jul

The Lost Generation
by Tracey Nelson
1 Jul 2001

There is an entire generation in the Southern Hemisphere that has grown up without knowing what real rugby is all about. A generation that thinks rugby union is all about fifteen uniformly sized players running around the field playing a hybridised version of rugby league. Because that’s what it is – watch a game of S12 rugby and after a while you’ll realise that it’s really nothing more than faint whiff of what rugby union used to be about.

For instance, who can actually distinguish a lock from a flanker these days? How about even a centre? Something terrible happened to rugby in the 1990s, and I’m not just talking about Australia winning two World Cups (although that does have something to do with the story). What happened was that some clever sods (cunningly disguised as rugby union representatives where in reality they were actually marketing managers), took our beloved game into the professional era and in the process sold out to the almighty dollar.

Now there may well be folk who still enjoy watching Southern Hemisphere rugby, under the misguided belief that it’s a great running game where continuity is the key. I’m sure there are even some who enjoy getting their eardrums bombarded with pop music when they attend a S12 game. There may even be some that think S12 rugby is the best thing since sliced bread. But I would hazard a guess that these people are the ones who wouldn’t be able to tell you which province Pinetree Meads played for, which club boasts the most All Blacks, or even what colour jerseys Southland wear in the NPC.

They will also be the ones who have no idea what a maul is, nor will they have ever seen a good one in action. They think it’s quite normal for props to be running in the backline, and that stomping and trampling is rucking. No doubt they believe tackles are to be made around the armpits, and that dummy runners are the only way to create gaps. In fact, they probably even think that the Brumbies play good rugby.

But when it comes down to it, this isn’t rugby union. This frenzied, running-defensive game, that has evolved from the S12 as a result of the marketing machine that is SANZAR, is just a hollow version of the real thing – a bastardisation of the game as we once knew it. In reality, it’s looking pretty much like rugby league these days, and strangely enough the country that boasts the best league players in the world is now also boasting the best rugby team.

This isn’t just a strange coincidence though. Far from it. Because it has been Australia in the past decade that has pushed for the various law changes that virtually made the maul extinct, and encouraged the ball to ground in contact situations. From that developed a distinctive style of rugby as played by the Brumbies and now the Wallabies – a style of Robo-Rugby, as coined so appropriately by the guru of this site, Paul Waite.

Super 12 rugby has been the main reason Australia has leapt so far ahead in terms of its player depth and experience in the last five years. I have no great problem with that as such, but in the process they have almost managed to turn the Southern Hemisphere game into something that no longer resembles rugby. And now that they have got their domestic set-up working so well, they want to further enhance it by expanding the S12 competition. But wait, it doesn’t stop there because in the process of doing this, they want New Zealand and South Africa to scrap their domestic competitions in favour of the expanded competition.

Now I’m not sure how stupid they think we are, but it concerns me that they can even suggest it in the first place. The New Zealand NPC and South Africa’s Currie Cup are the backbone of rugby in those two countries, and the breeding ground for All Blacks and Springboks. There is no way either country should have to give up their national competitions to cater for Australia, who have previously languished for lack of a good, hard domestic competition to hone their own skills.

I can only hope that the NZRFU and SARFU will see some sense and give a firm NO to Australia’s suggestion. Afterall, they are merely newcomers to the top ranks of world rugby and I’m blowed if I can see why New Zealand or South Africa, with their proud rugby traditions and history, should bow to a previous minnow who has only managed to rise to the top of the pool thanks to professionalism and rugby league.

Which is also why I am hoping that the Lions can win their test series in Australia. How glorious is it to see the return of a distinct difference between forwards and backs; to see a good rolling maul taking the Aussie pick-and-go game apart; to see backs provided with front foot ball and running deep, using the ball to beat the man instead of the truck-up-the-middle mentality we are more used to seeing with league. The Lions are all about tradition, pride and great rugby and I think that this tour has come at a very pertinent time in world rugby. Perhaps we are finally about to see the worm turn, and rugby union will again become the game we loved so well.

1 Jul

A Win is a Win, But…
by Paul Waite
1 Jul 2001

The All Blacks registered a satisfying victory over their 1999 Rugby World Cup nemesis, France, shutting them out to the tune of a four tries to nil, 37-12 scoreline.

But some very basic problems stood out like the proverbial dog’s naughty parts despite the heart-warming result.

Looking across at what how the Australians fared with the Lions team just afterwards, and dosing yourself up with a bit of realism, you’d have to say we’d have been done like a dinner up front and gutted out wide by them just like our hapless neighbours were.

Stepping back and looking at the All Blacks vs France game, I can at least see a plus. The single biggest difference between this season and last is our commitment and organisation in defence. The style and hardness is reminiscent of the Crusaders at their best, and make no mistake, this will serve us well in the Tri-Nations to come.

But in other areas there is little or no improvement: we still can’t maul for shit, our lineout varies from being barely Ok, to being bloody hopeless, and our forwards still don’t know how to operate in general play as a tight five.

Added to this list, we have problems in the loosies. For some reason Holah isn’t being played at No.7. Instead we have Randell, a total misfit in the jersey, just like Robertson was last season. The difference Holah made when he got on was huge. At No.8 Ron Cribb (usually nicknamed “Crabb” in the Haka tea-room) was an utter bloody basket case last night. His body position remains a joke, his lateral running an encumbrance and his work at the back of the scrum a disgrace. As soon as Collins is fit he’s a must.

In the backs we’re currently worse off than last season. We have Mehrtens on the bench, replaced by a first-five who’s idea of an attacking option is to run head-down at the opposing midfield defence and recycle the ball, a fullback who has vision and skill but no pace, and a halfback who seems to have forgotten how to pass the ball once again.

On that subject, goodness knows what has become of Justin Marshall, but I think the whole nation breathed a sigh of relief when Kelleher replaced him. All of a sudden the ball started being delivered with pace and accuracy and we had a try as a direct result within minutes.

We have learned a lot in just a few tests so far. First of all we’ve (re)-learned that playing players out of position IS A STUPID THING TO DO. Why we keep doing it I have no idea, but it has to stop now.

Note to Smith and Gilbert: Randell is no No.7. Flavell is no lock.

The remedy? Easy, Holah has to start as our openside, and either Chris Jack or Mark Cooksley as the partner for Norm Maxwell. Please let this happen!!

At No.8 Ron Cribb once again confirmed his wierd upright running style and tendency to run laterally and at the wrong times do nothing for the side in tests which are played under pressure. His work at the back of the scrum, letting the ball out prematurely and fumbling pick-ups was also an embarassment. As soon as Collins is fit he should be our preferred No.8. Our suggested trio is therefore: Thorne, Holah, and Collins.

In the backs, we have problems with our halves. Kelleher should definitely start after Marshall’s awful display last night. At first-five hopefully Merhtens will be fit to give us the creativity that Tony Brown lacks in spades.

While Cullen is recovering, the back three should be Wilson (fullback), Lomu and Howlett. MacDonald has admirable vision and ability, but lacks the pace required at top test level. Once Cullen returns we’d go for the Cullen, Wilson, Lomu trio again.

We would place Randell on the bench, since he covers No.8, blindside flank, and in an emergency No.7 as well. Flavell would also ride the pine, covering No.6 and lock.

With these changes we might be able to rectify our problems in the lineout and give ourselves a chance against the likes of John Eales.

As to mauling, scrummaging and general tight-play, these won’t come overnight or during this season. But if we get the selections right and work with that material to develop along those lines then we’ll get there.

Meanwhile the Lions have another two tests to show both the Wallabies and the All Blacks how rugby should be played: with tight forwards doing tight-work as a unit, and backs using the room to deliver the killing blow.

Go The Lions!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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