7 Aug

Sydney — jam capital of the world
by Rick Boyd
7 Aug 2002

Yes, congratulations Wallabies, you’ve made your Guinness Book of Records appearance and you are now officially the luckiest sporting team in the history of sport.

I don’t suppose there’s any point in the usual histrionics, this pathetic farce is now into its third year and has become so predictable as to be utterly boring. The clash of the mediocre v the average has again resulted in a last minute penalty lottery and for the fourth game in a row the coin has landed Wallaby side up.

They should make a movie of it, the first scene being large red letters saying THIS IS A TRUE STORY. No scriptwriter would ever have the balls to invent a plot that sees four unbelievable Houdini acts in three consecutive years. Nobody would believe it for a second. Totally incredible, in the true meaning of the word.

Credit where its due, the Wallaby pack didn’t suffer by comparison to their opposite numbers in the All Blacks. The battle in the loose was fairly even, Robertson vanished back into his familiar role of obscurity. The Wallaby backs largely outpointed their opponents and looked more positive with the ball in hand. All in all, the Wallabies played their best game of the year.

The same cannot be said of the All Blacks. The forwards finally cleaned up the lineout but can’t come out of the game with much else to their credit. The backs again had moments of enterprise but with nothing like the pattern they should have, and let’s face it, New Zealand still doesn’t have a quality midfield — and the back three are not likely to put the fear of God into Tonga, much less Australia. The wind put paid to any kicking advantage New Zealand might have had.

I still think that the attitude and the consistency is improving.
Mitchell is on the right track but let’s be honest, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s arse, and this is only half a good All Black team.

None of which had much influence on the outcome, only on the mediocrity of play. The two big factors were once again New Zealand’s mistake rate, which was much higher than Australia’s and can’t be blamed on anyone but themselves (although true to form the Australians will all put it down to Australian pressure). And once again, the big decider, was the all too familiar ugly face of sheer, blind luck. And once again, for the fourth year in a row, the die rolled Australia’s
way. Two very cruel bounces of the ball that deprived the All Blacks of two dead cert tries. And the final ignominy, yet another totally unbelievable injury time penalty kick.

O’Neill said last year “You have to wonder how often these things can be scripted”. Well, like I said, you couldn’t script them because nobody would believe it.

Should we fall to our knees, like the endlessly suffering victim in a Greek tragedy, and scream at the heavens, “Oh stone-hearted Gods of Olympus, what have we done that you torture us so cruelly?

Is New Zealand cursed? What did we do? Isn’t it bad enough having half a good team to measure up to the deeds of the great teams of the past, without mocking us with these sadistic twists of fortune that elevate half a good Wallaby team to heights of which they are so richly undeserving?

Or is it that some terrible tragedy is about to befall Australia and this was but a morsel of good fortune to sweeten the hideous destiny that awaits them? The entire nation wiped out by a huge meteor perhaps? Right now I can only think that would be a great benefit to mankind, notwithstanding that I also live here in the home of the boastful and the land of the loudmouthed.

Yes, it will all begin again. How the Wallabies “won” the Bledisloe Cup (read: retained by yet another jammy, tin-arse escape act). How the Wallabies have “dominated” the Tri-Nations (read: another drawn series with the All Blacks but that’s as cose to dominating as we’re likely to get so we might as well claim it). Another mighty victory built on “composure”, “leadership” and “experience” (read: scraped home to another implausibly lucky one point win in injury time through the mistakes of our opponents but shit, we’re Australian, so we’re wonderful by definition).

All this toss about Australia’s culture of winning is media bollocks dreamt up by an optimistic Australian PR machine.

Look at the facts:
1998 – beaten by South Africa
1999 – drew with New Zealand
2000 – drew with New Zealand
2001 – beaten by South Africa
2002 – drew with New Zealand

Now if this is the sort of record a team with such a winning atiitude has then they’re welcome to it. The fact is that Australia have an average team at present, clinging on a bit past its use by date due to some unusually fortuitous finishes in close games, on the strength of having a couple of average teams to oppose them.

But quite frankly we need to take a look at the the whole tri-nations thing. In fact we need to do more than look at it, we need to take take it out, have it shot, stuffed, and mounted on the mantlepiece. Especially in view of the world cup debacle.

It is a concept only the brain-dead morons on the NZRFU could have approved.

It has become very tedious and the outcome is often some strange mixture of points that means bugger all, while the first and second team have drawn a series.

We need to go back to a proper tour every year. We should dump the Super 12, which was invented only to compete with league on the TV and have that function filled by putting the NPC at the start of the season, not the end.

This will also put an end to the extremely generous program of assisting the development of Australian rugby that the NZRFU has been gifting them with for far too long.

After the NPC the All Blacks can play a home test series against a couple of the minor nations and then a major series against one of the big five — Australia, South Africa, France or the Lions. Home one time, away the next. A proper tour with a month of provincial games, all of which would make good TV, followed by three tests, giving an actual winner. Then Australia wouldn’t be under the strange impression they have “won” the Bledsiloe Cup when they have only drawn a series but retain it because they won it some time in the past, when they might actually have deserved it. And New Zealand wouldn’t be under the equally strange impression they have “lost” the Cup when they have actually drawn a series but failed to bring home the silverware because they couldn’t manage a whitewash. The season could be finished off by a tour up north against the home nations. A year of top rugby and lots of variation, and real series with real results.

And lots more opportunities to grind Australia into the dust as they increasingly fall off the pace without the generous assistance of the NZRFU’s Australian player development program, or Super 12 as some peple call it.

Write to your provincial rugby council immediately and tell them to give some strict instructions to the new NZRFU board: take a break from tradition and make a common sense decision that will actually benefit New Zealand rugby.

25 Jul

Cup Fever
by Don Christie
25 Jul 2002

“The NZRFU considered breach of the clean venues condition exposed it to a liability of up to $A10m. A risk of that magnitude should not have been left dependent on an unconfirmed oral understanding” Sir Thomas Eichelbaum – Independent Rugby World Cup Inquiry, Report of the Reviewer July 2002.

This is a key conclusion of the well researched, well written and incisive report by Sir Thomas “Judge Jeffries” Eichelbaum. Ultimately this is the reason that messrs. Rutherford and McCaw are spending more time with their families than they might have anticipated a few months ago.
The report covers the period from 1997, when the ARU and NZRFU submitted a joint bid for hosting the Rugby World Cup and April 2002 where the RWC was finally yanked out of New Zealand’s grasp by the IRB. It categorises a series of failings, mis-understandings and bad governance from the IRB, the RWCL, the ARU and the NZRFU.

RWCL is the company set up by the IRB to manage the RWC. It’s chairman is also the IRB’s chairman, Vernon Pugh. Its vice-chair is also the IRB’s vice chairman, Rod Fisher. Fisher was appointed the new chairman of the NZRFU when McCaw resigned.

The original bid for hosting the RWC and the manner of its acceptance by the RWCL set the seeds the whole debacle. Whilst the IRB accepted the bid it did not actually sign-up for anything. In other words, it allocated the possibility of hosting the tournament to the antipodes whilst reserving the right to change conditions and costs right up to the point of signing hosting contracts. It changed conditions and costs with such gay abandon that the main contract with the principle host, Australia, was three years late in coming and not signed until late 2001. In addition the costs rose from a predicted $A20 million in 1997 to $A106 million in late 2001. NZ’s scope for offsetting these costs was limited and become further limited in 2001 as the RWCL started making demands for 100% rights to all corporate boxes (this was certainly not a requirement in 1997).

Over this extended period ARU / NZRFU relationship was souring. The ARU tried to make a grab for both semi-final’s in 2000 and was pressing hard on other fronts, such as Super 12 expansion, that the NZRFU was not so keen on. That John O’Neil is a pain in the arse to deal with is probably an understatement. In the meantime the RWCL was lacking in leadership and delegated authority. From the report it seems that Vernon Pugh was the only man allowed to make a decision. The poor, unfortunate Mr. Pugh, however, is overworked. He was not available for meetings, not available on the phone calls and generally harder than a bar of soap in a forwards’ bathtub to pin down.

That was the context. You might think that given the above circumstances the good Judge would set forth and exonerate the NZRFU board and its CEO from any major blame in the ultimate outcome.

But this is where the report comes into its own and why it should be used in the future as 101 reference manual for how to run a piss-up in a brewery.

Instead of exoneration the report revels in highlighting the systematic failure of the board to read the writing on the wall. Failure to realise just how irritating and whinging they appeared after years of persistent bleating, failure to develop a coherent strategy, including an “out” plan and failure to recognise that “he who angers you defeats you”. From the very early on the NZRFU’s position seen from the outside resembled that of Romeo’s sweetheart, Julliette “maybe, maybe not, maybe, maybe not”.

The NPC overlap debacle, potential losses, constant bickering with the ARU, a lack of staff committed to the project and a final hysterical outburst to the media, all contributed to the final breakdown. Of great concern was that the breakdown was not just with Vernon Pugh but most of the IRB as well.

The board has been true to its word and published the report in its full, unedited form. This open attitude and willingness to “take it on the chin” bodes well. Despite this it is hard not to feel every sympathy for David Rutherford, the CEO who represented the wishes of the board and the provincial unions to the best of his ability. His decision to resign (McCaw’s was surely inevitable) has opened the way for the NZRFU to “move on”. The direction of move will be interesting. It has to recognise the following:

1. New Zealand cannot go it alone. It needs to build up a broad base of international support that is sympathetic to our aspirations and views. We need to do this be recognising other international unions’ sensibilities and needs and supporting them where-ever possible.

2. There is a strong need to “sell” New Zealand rugby. How many IRB delegates from outside SANZAR did we wine and dine at last weeks tri-nations game? There should have been 22 invitations go out, wives and families invited along with a free skiing weekend in Queenstown. Oh, and don’t forget the free Air New Zealand tickets to promote a major sponsor and tax payer owned airline.

3. Reform of the structures that govern and manage international rugby is required. The NZRFU criticisms of the IRB and RWCL are very valid and it is no-ones interest (apart from a handful of gin swilling cronies) that these structures remain unreformed. Surely, at the very least, Pugh should be forced to relinquish at least a dozen of his many hats. I believe Wales need him desperately.

4. The governance of the NZRFU itself needs revue. This is a difficult area. Because rugby is a grass roots game in NZ and because its governing body is elected by the local unions (club to provincial to national) it is politically efficient to be seen to represent the interest of ones “grass roots”. Clearly there is room for conflict when the needs of local unions conflict drastically with the national needs. In trying to protect the NPC on behalf of the unions the NZRFU made themselves look complete loonies on the international stage.
It should also be recognised that old relationships are changing.

The ARU has a very different structure from the NZRFU and can be much faster at reacting to events. They are at the top of the world at them moment. The Olympics and their love of cricket has blessed them with huge stadia which can be filled if the right teams are playing. Their own team has benefited immensely from the advent of professionalism and the Super 12. They have won two of the four RWCs that have taken place. This is a union that does not feel the need (as it might have done in 1997) to partner with anyone. Whilst Australia will always be an important on the pitch rival it should never again be seen as a “mate” with which one would go naively into major deals.

In the meantime the South Africans are tiring of the long haul across the Southern Hemisphere when a more lucrative European market is just as accessible. Removing Italy and adding SA to the Six Nations would certainly add spice to that most revered of tournaments.

These are hard challenges and the NZRFU had better be up to facing them.

Finally, we New Zealanders need to think quite clearly about just what sort of player we want to be on the world stage. Frankly I find comments, from the likes of David Kirk, that NZ does not have the capability to host major international events to be quite stomach churning. Of course we have it, just look at the Americas Cup.

The major challenge facing us is whether we are going to moan and groan if the “markets” do not pick up the tab for these sort events or whether we are going to allow our governments and local authorities to spend money build infrastructure and environment that facilitates such events.
Without this sort of backing the NZRFU and every other sporting federation is always going to appear diffident and weak on a global stage. I know what I want – do you?

22 Jul

The icing on the Cake Tin
by Rick Boyd
22 Jul 2002

After a worrying start, New Zealand’s All Blacks continued their increasingly impressive improvement under John Mitchell, defeating the Bokke 41-20 in Wellington.

The qualities I suspect Mitchell is instilling into the team again came to the fore. The unity and cohesion is developing into a good, solid team attitude and what’s more, it’s consistent as well. No big lapses into complacency after a good score has accumulated. No last minute rushes from behind to catch up on earlier laziness. No twenty minutes of good rugby in an 80 minute game that can be undone by an unlucky last minute penalty. And they displayed an aggressive, uncompromising toughness that was tempered with discipline and self-control, with no sign of the passive, turn-the-other-cheek surrender of 1999.

But don’t let anyone tell you this team is at the top of its game. They still make far too many mistakes and while they are developing pleasing fluidity as their confidence grows, they have nothing like enough self-belief to maximise their opportunities.

The Springboks surprised with their willingness to attack. Full marks to coach Rudolph Straeuli for moving away from the old Springbok game plan of big hits up front and big kicks from the backs. Half back Conradie and flyhalf Pretorius both showed enterprise and skill with the ball in hand and fullback Greeffe demonstrated dangerous attacking ability, wrong footing four All Black defenders on his way to scoring the game’s first try. Some of the media have criticised the All Blacks for soft tackling in this play but I don’t see what they could have done different. With a bunch of new players in the team the Springboks were never going to be favourites but they should take heart that they have the makings of a half decent attacking team here. Bring back Paulse, and with a bit more athleticism in the forwards, we could be talking turkey.

The story of the Australia-New Zealand test in Christchurch was turnovers, with McCaw turning the tide in the loose whenever the Wallabies looked like scoring, but in this game it was his comrade Scott Robertson who did the damage. The South African defence around the fringes of rucks was negligible and Robertson made huge charges and obtained quality yardage beyond the gain line every time he touched the ball.

The Japies started with a pack of fatties and it was predictable that New Zealand would try to run them around for a big second half. But it wasn’t the fatties that brought South Africa early success, and at 10-3 the prayer beads were getting a work out. But it didn’t last long and a masterful series of forward charges set up Howlett for a try in the corner. Combine that with Mehrtens’ sublime judgement of the Wellington wind and three kicks that just about turned at right angles to slide between the posts, and New Zealand were back in the game looking as though they had never experienced a second of doubt. Then they polished off the half with a try and a penalty for a 21-13 half time lead and the writing was on the wall for the Japies.

I wasn’t greatly impressed with Australian ref Dickinson but for once most of the dodgy decisions were in our favour. One such was Hammet’s try from a set move around the front of the lineout, which video replay showed to have been thrown in illegally and collected illegally. On the other hand, it was frame-by-frame stuff and referees are not perfect, unlike we rugby columnists.

Coach Straeuli had a whinge about this in the press and about the ref calling a forward pass when flanker Joe van Niekerk was heading for the line, but he was being optimistic on the second one. The slow motion replay shows that the ball went forward significantly in relation to the ground marking, and since the ball travelled only about two metres the passer would have had to be travelling at close to the speed of sound for the forward movement to be due to inherent ball speed.

There was more enterprise in the second half and two more good tries scored, although the Boks were a bit unlucky with one of them which started when one of those hideous oval-ball bounces completely flummoxed fullback Greeffe. The Boks scored one of their own too, when susbstitute All Black centre Tana Umaga coughed up the ball in a defensive tackle. Robinson, the player he replaced, was again not immediately obvious to the untrained eye but Umaga looked decidedly rusty when he came on, with a string of errors. He started to fire up later though, so maybe he has done enough for a starting place in the absence of serious competition.

Jonah Lomu also came on later in the game, and while he had some solid charges and made ground every time with four Springbok tacklers clinging to him like playful nephews, his defensive and support work was again absent presumed missing. I’m hoping that Mitchell is saving a big role for Jonah in Sydney when he will be brought on after half time and fed a series of quick cut out passes to let him thunder down the left wing one-on-one with the defence and scoop up three quick tries to turn the Australian defeat into a hapless route. Or maybe that was just a pleasant dream I had one night.

Other fond imagining we might like to entertain is what the score might have been had the All Black mistake rate been lower. There may be a tendency to overlook these with a sizeable win of this nature, but it would have taken only a couple of reffing decisions and the odd bit of bad luck and they could have been vital. Let’s aim for constant improvement and eliminate things like these:

 the turnover that led to Greeffe’s try
 the restart kick that didn’t travel ten metres
 the lineout throw that ended up way over New Zealand’s side and was kidnapped by a charging Japie forward. OK, it may have been the wind. StillÂ…
 the loose pass from Marshall on the counter attack that was gratefully accepted by Pretorius and turned attack into defence in our own half
 the lineout throw that was knocked forward onto the South African side
 the dropped ball by Umaga in a tackle
 the maul that was pushed out over the sideline, giving SA the throw in
 another knock on in the lineout
 Umaga dropping the ball in a tackle again, leading to a try by Joubert
 the lineout throw following a penalty kick, which went way over the back of the lineout and was taken by South Africa
 the ball lost in a ruck when Ralph took it in and did not position it
 the ball lost in a ruck when Jonah took it in and displayed the retention skills of Allan Hewson.

OK, we won’t harp on about it, but let’s not pretend that we’re in a golden era when the rust has hardly been polished off the badly dented armour of 2001.

Meanwhile, over here in the land of the modest and the home of the magnanimous, the Australian media was strangely quiet. Wallaby stalker Greg Growden was not calling this game New Zealand B over South Africa C. Perhaps he’s afraid he might be writing about Australia D next Sunday. True to form, his report was mainly about what bruisers the Australian forwards are and how they won’t be taking any shit from those villainous Japie thugs, but he was unable to avoid mentioning the All Black win entirely, even if it was only to imply that this is as good as the New Zealand team is going to get.

Wallaby wing Ben Tune burst onto print with bold declarations of how unworried Australia was by either team. The subtitles here are plain. “Unworried” means “we are worried and we need to boost our guys’ confidence so they don’t start thinking negatively”. It makes a change from the usual “they must be starting as favourites” which means “we know damn well we’re favourites but we don’t want any complacency sneaking in.”

And I can see his point, undeclared though it was. The Wallabies lost a series to South Africa in last year’s tri nations and here is a young Springbok team with some good attacking backs and tough forwards, and Australia looking less than threatening — it’ll be a very interesting game in Brisbane next Saturday. Naturally I’m hoping for “a good game that is a credit to the game of rugby” — (that’s a “nil-all draw with about six injuries to each side” for those still having trouble with the sub-titles).

20 Jul

Boks Drubbed At The Caketin
by Paul Waite
20 Jul 2002

After a lot of chest-thumping and proclamations from the Springbok camp during the week leading up to this test, the reality was spelled out to them to the tune of a 5-tries-to-2, 41-20 thumping here in Wellington tonight.

The thing is, the All Blacks, when they review the video of this test, won’t be patting themselves on the back too hard either. They struggled in the first quarter and looked to be in for a rough ride entering the second. It took a bit of luck and a bounce of the ball to get things rolling their way, rather than the kind of iron-grip control up front that Mitchell is ostensibly looking for.

The win was welcome, and we’ll take it no question. But you have to stand back and ask yourself how good the Springboks are. It has a lot of young talent, and a sprinkling of older players like Dalton, Krige, Terblanche and Skinstad, but it hasn’t played together in more than a few warm-up tests. It showed.

After an opening burst of “give it hell” rugby, their lack of variation and combination was shown up as the All Blacks found holes which shouldn’t have been there. That, and a kindly bouncing ball at a critical part of the test served to swing things the All Blacks way and allowed them to build a decent lead.

The worrying aspect to this game were the number of stupid mistakes made by the men in black. The South African try that came from a terrible miss-kick from Pretorious, which several All Blacks stood and admired before reacting to, then fumbled a gift of a seven-pointer was carved out of solid dumbfuck wood. Similarly, the defence was staunch and organised for a period, then players would fall off tackles and let the opposition steam through 30m upfield.

To their credit the All Blacks did these things without looking like letting too many points in, but it was genuinely flaky and lacked the kind of steady control that Mitchell is looking for.

But enough of the negative. Video anaysis by the All Black camp will no doubt focus in on these things and try to eradicate them.

Looking at the positives, you have to go no further than Scott Robertson. The lad played a blinder. One out of the box no doubt. Whether Skinstad was too busy combing his hair or looking good for the cameras, or was just outplayed is not clear. We saw him very clearly just before kickoff, smirking at the Haka, but after that he wasn’t to be seen much, and when we did spot him, he looked a bit more serious. What we do know is that Robertson ran rampant on attack, around the scrum and ruck, and creamed everyone in sight on defence. A HUGE game from him and definite Haka Man Of The Match.

Close on his heels was Richie McCaw. He had a keen battle with opposite van Niekerk for 40-50 minutes, but got on top in the end before being subbed for Broomhall once the test was safe. He got through a power of work, and managed to grab a crucial turnover ripping the ball right on the All Blacks line late in the fourth quarter.

In the scrum we competed strongly after initially looking shaky. The mauling was average to say the least, and defending the opposition maul the same. In the lineout we also had a mixed test. Initially Hammett threw some more bad balls in, losing us posession, but this came right. Later on Willis replaced him and this area looked suddenly much more solid, without any apparent loss in scrummaging power.

In the backs Howlett and Ralph combined well with Cullen and probed dangerously at times. Ralph especially will look back on this test as a good one. He was dangerous with the ball, always running well in support, and he defended excellently and intelligently. The midfield was fairly subdued, with Robinson being subbed in the first half for Umage, something which pleased the crowd no end, but which didn’t really offer us much more, if anything at all, on attack. Mauger at second-five also had a fairly quiet time, and was hardly noticeable except for the odd intelligent kick for territory.

Merhtens was his usual commanding self, and figured largely in this victory. His kicking for territory was excellent and once again he always looked to create something when he kept the ball in hand. Justin Marshall had a very good one at halfback, vindicating his choice over Kelleher. His defence was good and he provided just the right mix of running, kicking and passing to keep the opposition guessing.

All in all a win where the scoreline flattered the All Blacks. A score of 30-20 would have been more like it, going by performance, but as I’ve already side, we’ll take it, no question of that!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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16 Jul

Singing in the rain
by Rick Boyd
16 Jul 2002

First match of the 2002 Tri-Nations and what do we have? A wet, woeful win to the All Blacks, but we’re desperate so any win over Australia is seven types of wonderful.

We have too many similarities to the last couple of years – basic errors (if our lineout was a horse, we’d shoot it), aimless attack, some pretty average players. Two mediocre teams battling to make the least number of unforced errors.

But we have a few differences as well. A bit of luck New Zealand’s way for a change, although in those last few minutes the old ticker got a severe workout as prospects of a last-minute Aussie try raised their ugly heads and other last-gasp Wallaby win loomed ominously like the mother-in-law with suitcases in hand.

In Richard McCaw we have a genuine openside flanker who forced the turnover at vital times. We won’t be hearing how marvellous George Smith is after this game. In contrast to his battles with Taine Randell last year, Smith was largely invisible.

And we have a bit of attitude. The All Blacks, to their credit, were consistent throughout the game, defended tenaciously and didn’t panic under pressure. And that’s important. I said last year that Mitchell was the man for this job because he had the ability to get his players thinking like a team, to develop unity and attitude. I’d say he’s on track. It’s up to the players now to start using that to develop confidence.

We have a beginning, possibly.

The Wallabies were again exposed as very average “world” champions. Their forwards were quiet, except in the lineouts where the All Blacks obligingly self-destructed yet again. Their backs, with a centre at inside centre, a fullback at centre and a centre on the wing, looked relatively pedestrian. They made a couple of breaks, but nothing the defence couldn’t handle. Larkham had a nice short-kicking game and Latham always worries with the ball in hand but considering they received an avalanche of possession from the All Blacks’ kicking game plan, the Wallabies did very little constructive with it. The fact is that Australia have now lost to all the other top five rugby nations in the last year. Some champions.

The All Blacks’ back line was nothing to write home about either. In the later stages Mauger looked like he was going to slip the Aussie defence at any moment, but the moment passed. His kicking options were a plus though. Robertson only came to prominence with a dodgy yellow card from strictly average ref Kaplan, and the back three were lucky to be rated just steady.

And let’s have a look at some of the more glaring mistakes:

- in the 31st minute a try is right on the cards but Sommerville can’t wait for Marshall to join him on a rush for the line from the base of the ruck, so he goes in first and earns a penalty for running interference. The best chance of the game so far goes begging.

- in the 46th minute a Merhts kick and Howlett chase get us a lineout close to the Wallaby goal line. The ball is won and a maul dvelops, driving for the line but somehow the balls pops out the side. Luckily the ref penalises Australia and at least we get three points but it could have been seven.

- in the 64th minute the All Blacks have an attacking scrum on the Wallaby 22, but the ball is knocked on in an ensuing tackle. Another chance lost.

– in the 67th minute was have a prime attacking lineout right on the Wallaby goal line but Hammet buggers around so long the ref gives a free kick to the Wallabies. Unbelievable!

- in the 71st minute the All Blacks find themslves with a 3 man overlap, a certain try looks on, by village idiot Hammet passes behind the nearest back and the ball goes to ground. Have him tarred and feathered, I say.

- in the 73rd minute we have a good chance to break the shackles of late Australian attacking pressure, but Mauger’s kick is charged down and the pressure is doubled. Like we needed that!

- in the 76th minute Mehrtens drops the ball in defence on our goal line from a scrum. Can it get any worse?

But regardless of all that the game was won on penalties, 4 to Mehrtens, 2 to Burke. A bit of a lottery, and a draw wouldn’t have been an unfair result, but the All Black forwards did start to look like they meant business in the final stages and Mehrtens’ kicking game was fairly impressive, so nobody should complain too much.

And we shouldn’t have our expectations too high either. Look at the team – this is a team that can aspire to being a good team, rather than a team of good players. The props and locks aren’t a problem, and we have depth there too. Hooker needs to be looked at. We have a very good openside flanker but the other two loosies are workmen at best. I still think Kellaher has the makings of a great halfback but maybe he has to wait one more season while Marshall does his curtian call. Mehrtens is God on his day, but he does have off days. Mauger is another star in the making but centre remains the single largest problem position since Bunce vacated the number 13 jumper. Our electric back three have been replaced by a steady but not very threatening trio. All in all, we’re great in two or three positions, good in maybe five or six positions and ordinary in the rest. We can expect wins, but hard fought wins. Our biggest advantage is that the other sides that make up the Big Five aren’t in any better position.

But enough of my half a cent’s worth. Let’s take a look at the modest, humble press over here in the not-so-Lucky Country.

Shameless Wallaby cheerleader Greg Growden was almost subdued in his Sydney Morning Herald report, although naturally the game was a “dim, grim tryless victory”.

I’d like to know how this game differed from last year’s Tri-nations opener, where New Zealand defeated South Africa 12-3 in a remarkably similar game. Strangely, Growders said of that game “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.” But I’m forgetting myself. The greatest Wallaby team of all time could not be described a C-grade outfit, even if they lose to the B-grade All Blacks.

But then Growders has never had a very firm grip on reality. “…considering how horrible the surface was, the limited number of errors was a credit to both teams”, he reckoned. That was a limited number or errors? I’d hate to see his idea of a high error count. And of course he couldn’t help pointing out that Mehrtens’ four out of four kicks were from easier positions than Burke’s two out of four.

And he felt obliged to finish off with an opinion that the Wallabies were “…on top of the All Blacks in the lineout, snaring five of the opposition throws before the break, and seven overall.” Yep, it takes some skill to snare lineout balls when they’re thrown right to you. Well spotted Greg.

Old Thunderguts, John Connolly, went for the “The All Blacks did not win last night’s cold war in Christchurch – Australia lost it” line. How this was managed when the All Blacks made more mistakes than the Wallabies is not immediately obvious.

The rest were almost objective. What a change from last season’s vainglorious opera of smarmy flattery to a Wallaby team that was no more talented than this one, just a hell of a lot luckier.

Next we face the Japies in Wellington. Let’s see if this All Black team has continuity of attitude. We won’t be counting our chickens before they hatch, in fact, I’m not even sure they’re chicken eggs or goose eggs at this stage. But if prayers count for anything — please St Colin, patron saint of rugby, have a word to be Big Ref in the Sky and keep the ball bouncing our way for a while.

13 Jul

Wet Weather Rugby
by Paul Waite
13 Jul 2002

Well the All Blacks did enough to win down at Chrsitchurch and deservedly so. Neither side made the error which would concede a winning try on the slippery night, and it came down to shear dominance on the park. The All Blacks had it up front where it counts, driving the Wallabies to within a couple of metres of a try in the first half only to be denied by a technical penalty against them.

But overall the All Blacks had the territorial advantage and the crucial two or three genuine pressure moments on attack to generate the infringment from the Wallabies for three points a pop. But don’t think that it was a foregone conclusion – far from it. The game was in the balance right until the end, but Crusaders-like defence saw the All Blacks shut out the more polished Wallaby attack, and the penalties made the difference.

Well done to the All Blacks, and its a good start on the long path to the Rugby World Cup in 2003. In the immediate future there is a South African side of unknown ability waiting at The Caketin next week!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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3 Jun

All the small things
by Rob Wallace
3 Jun 2002

Face it, the Blues were yet again underachievers in 2002. They promised a great deal preseason but never achieved the consistency needed to muscle into the top 4. The pack faded a little as the season progressed, and errors slipped in as they started to do the basic small things poorly. For Glenn Taylor, captaincy and a starting position came a year or 2 too late as he struggled to keep pace with the game. Meeuws and Woodcock were the star performers in the pack, while the loose forwards never achieved any real cohesiveness through injury and team changes. In the backs, Spencer probably tried to do a little too much and, Gear apart, the midfield was uninspiring. Again, team changes and injury prevented any major progress.

The greater Auckland region has plenty of talent but fails to fully utilise it. The best example of this is the continual stream of Auckland rejects, who when drafted into the Canterbury system, usually produce outstanding performances. So it’s not the players.

Having the same NPC and S12 team, as Canterbury do, and to some extent Otago also, is clearly helpful in terms of continuity and teamwork, yet international teams have no problem overcoming this, so it can’t be the whole reason for the Crusaders success.

Four different coaches over the last 4 seasons have not helped the Blues. The ever-changing coaching and management staff of the Blues have done nothing
to provide any continuity or direction, in contrast to teams like the Crusaders, and have probably been harmful. The last thing the Blues need right now is another coach. The touting of Graham Henry as coach for next year will not solve anything, despite the fact he’s one of the top 3-4 coaches in NZ.

Teams like the Hurricanes and the Blues need to formulate a 3-5 year plan and stick with it. Giving the franchise 2-3 seasons of consistent selections and coaching, with an aim to develop a proper franchise squad, with a core of experience, and to bring through over those 2-3 years a core of new young talent to fill any gaps at S12 level. To do this they need consistency at management, selectorial and coaching levels, and have everyone buy in on the plan.

I think the Blues need to be proactive about this. They should run Blues training squads for the top 30 players, especially those not involved in the ABs, throughout the year, and encourage another 8-10 promising development players to be involved in these sessions. They should petition the NZRFU to allow the Blues area to protect up to 36 players from the draft to build depth, and they need to target weak areas like the midfield now and develop or buy the players they need.

As for 2003, the Blues need to decide where Spencer will play, find more midfielders, develop a decent loose forward trio who complement each other, and develop a sense of teamwork. It’s a big ask, the players are there, but the small things need attention.

27 May

The World Cup — Nostradamus reporting
by Rick Boyd
27 May 2002

Ok, we know who the seeded teams are, even if they are completely arse about face due to Vernon Puke and his little band of village idiots having a combined IQ of about 9. If they’re lucky. And as for the finals — what a pile of reeking dingo’s vomit. Another masterpiece where Australia and New Zealand will meet in the semi-final.

But what about the rest? So far we’ve heard a fair bit about Europe 4 and Asia 3 — but what does it all mean? Andorra vs Macau?

There are four places going to Europe — and it is between Ireland, Italy, Romania, Spain, Czech Republic, Georgia, Poland, Holland, Portugal and Russia. Based on the brilliant mind of stats genius Ross Finlayson, this will be:
Europe 1 – Ireland
Europe 2 – Italy
Europe 3 – Romania
Europe 4 – Georgia

There’s one spot going to Africa: from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tunisia, Morocco, Madagascar and Ivory Coast. According to Ross it will be Namibia.

Asia gets one spot: Japan, Hong Kong, China, Korea, Sri Lanka and Taiwan will fight that one out. Ross says Japan is streets ahead.

The Americas get the nod for two places: and it’s between Canada, the United States, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay and Brazil. Canada and USA it is, according to St Ross.

Oceania has two places on offer: from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands. Fiji and Samoa are one place ahead of Tonga on Ross’s ladder.

Then we get to the Repechage. The second African country (Zimbabwe), third Americas finisher (Uruguay) and fifth European nation (Russia) will fight it out for one position, with Asia’s second nation (South Korea) and third Oceania team (Tonga) playing off for repechage 2. According to Ross the two spots will be going to Russia and Tonga.

So here’s how it looks:

Pool A — Australia, Argentina, Europe 1 (Ireland), Africa 1 (Namibia) and Europe 4 (Georgia).
Pool B — France, Scotland, Oceania 1 (Fiji), Asia (Japan), Repechage (Russia or Tonga).
Pool C — South Africa, England, Oceania 2 (Samoa), Europe 3 (Romania), America 2 (USA).
Pool D — New Zealand, Wales, Europe 2 (Italy), America 1 (Canada), Repechage (Russia or Tonga).

And so to the finals. If all goes according to plan, New Zealand should meet South Africa in Melbourne, but I’m not convinced England has that sort of consistency yet, especially away from home at the start of their season. I’m picking South Africa to win their pool, so England will get to meet New Zealand in smelly Melly. New Zealand to win in either case. New Zealand has done well against teams with forward-based play, limited backs and a structured game. But it’s a killer quarter final in either case.

The second quarter final is Australia v Scotland in Brisbane. Australia unless there is perhaps the biggest upset in world cup finals history.

The third quarter final is France against Argentina or Ireland in Melbourne. Take your pick. I’m inclined towards Ireland myself but it’s a close run thing. France to win in any case.

The fourth quarter final is South Africa v Wales in Brisbane. South Africa it has to be.

The semis are both in Sydney and did I mention Vernon Pugh is a halfwit? The first two winners meet in the first semi — New Zealand v Australia. I guess you’d be going with Australia based on recent experience and Ross’s ranking, but not this little all black duck. Australia has used up about 100 years of jammy good furtune in the last couple of years and are ripe for the plucking. So they can go and get plucked. New Zealand to win, and by a good margin at that.

The second semi is the final two quarter final winners — France v South Africa (although it could be England, let’s face it). Now there’s a nice three-way tie. Can France repeat their recent defeats of England/South Africa? According to Ross they can but since when did the French ever perform to expectations? My gut feeling is the wheels will be overdue to come spinning off the Gallic chariot by then. South Africa to win in Sydney. Sorry garlic-munchers, but there it is.

Sorry Australia, you’re out of the final, and it serves you right. Nya nya nya nya etc. What a glorious final — the All Blacks v the Springbox, the most hallowed contest in the great traditions of rugby. No food poisoning, no extra time, no drop goal lottery, New Zealand to win and win in style.

That’s the way I’m calling it. Call me madly optimistic that the great big bunch of jessies who have played in black jerseys recently can win the world cup, but I’ve got faith.

Now we can sit back and watch it unfold.

26 May

On A Roll
by Paul Waite
26 May 2002

The job is still a difficult one, no doubt about that, but a few furrows might well have disappeared from John Mitchell’s brow following the showing of the Crusaders on Saturday night as they dispatched the Brumbies in the Super 12 Final.

The brief smile, if it came at all, probably went just as quickly, as he looks to refine his squad for the announcement tomorrow lunchtime NZ time. Who will be in it? Well here’s a suggested 26, based on the squad he took with him on the end of season tour in 2001, and this season’s exploits in the Super 12.

Here are a few statements Mitchell has made recently: “We have got some interesting areas for selection and there are still some 50-50 decisions to be made,” Mitchell said. “We are well settled in some areas and there are still others which have to make it to the finish line.” And:”I think we are quite healthy in all areas, but it is a case of getting the mix right. We have to consider playing at night, having cover for places like prop, lock-looseforward and goalkicking.”

At hooker the situation would have probably been Anton Oliver with Hammett as backup. Hammett therefore steps up to replace the injured Highlanders hooker, with Tom Willis as his deputy.

The props are one of those difficult areas to predict given that we are in the happy position of having too many which are of a high standard. Meeuws is back to his explosive best with the Blues, and both Sommerville and Feek are doing all the right things for the Crusaders. Hoeft is also performing well, so we pick all four, which allows Mitchel to run two complete front rows in training. The unlucky man here is Dave Hewett, who may well get a call-up if somebody gets injured.

In the locks it’s really a case of who will partner Chris Jack, who is in absolutely outstanding form at the moment. Maxwell is his current Super 12 partner, and is playing at or near his best, having managed to keep the braindead side of his play submerged. Another to emerge this season is the Highlanders Simon Maling, and we pick these three.

Obviously No.8 is still somewhat of a problem area. Canterbury’s Scott Robertson is the incumbent, and is making a good fist of the job, but there are still question marks over him in this position. Taine Randell has had a dual role for the Highlanders this season, playing No.6 but switching into No.8 at times. He has also made a good job of the position, and has good vision in general play. This must be one of the 50-50 areas Mitchell mentions above, and we have gone for the incumbent, Robertson, plus Randell here.

The other loose-forward positions are also difficult to predict. Thorne at blindside is a certainty, and also our tip for the All Black Captaincy. We also tip that, once he’s made skipper he’ll stay skipper even when Anton Oliver is fit again, and will take the team to the World Cup. But back to the present, backup for blindside might be Wellington’s Jerry Collins. Although Collins started the season very bulky and slow, by the end he had improved markedly, and does a power of work in the position. He also offers emergency No.8 cover.
At openside Richie McCaw is streets ahead of anyone – his besting of the Brumbies George Smith in the Super 12 Final proved that. Backup is the other outstanding No.7 of the Super 12 Marty Holah.

In the backs the two halfbacks are Marshall and Kelleher. Both are test-hardened, and offer each other the kind of competition for the test jersey that will keep them honest.

At first five-eighth we have to be mindful of Mitchell’s requirement (rightly) to field a good kicker. With Tony Brown out of action for some months, this probably ensures that Carlos Spencer is the backup to Andrew Mehrtens. Spencer has had a mixed but generally good season for the Blues, and is completely at home playing No.10 in a black jersey. He also covers fullback.

At second five-eighth we have the inimitable Aaron Mauger. Players like him only come along once a decade or so – he has it all: physique, vision and sublime skills in both hand and boot. His backup would be a problem, and having a specialist second-five sitting on the bench is usually impossible. More on that later.

At centre Mark Robinson has been impressive in the last few games of the Super 12 season, and may have shaded Tana Umaga for the No.13 test jersey. At the very least he is a good bet for the squad since he also covers second five-eighth.

On the wings we are in a quandry. Jonah Lomu has looked sluggish and overweight all season, and our bet is that Mitchell will give him a rocket. We think he will still include him in the squad but that he will leave him out of the test team, at least at the start. Howlett has looked keen and fast for the Blues and should still be in the test team.

At fullback Leon MacDonald has clear air between himself and anyone else. Christian Cullen was disappointing in a poor team, and will probably miss out. The fullback position is covered by Carlos Spencer.

Finally we pick Caleb Ralph as a utility back to cover wing and centre. The full squad by positional breakdown is therefore:

Props: Meeuws, Sommerville, Hoeft, Feek
Hookers: Willis, Hammett
Locks: Jack, Maxwell, Maling
Openside: McCaw, Holah
Blindside: Thorne, Collins
No.8: Robertson, Randell (covers No.6)

Halfbacks: Kelleher, Marshall
First-fives: Mehrtens, Spencer (covers FB)
Second-fives: Mauger
Centres: Mark Robinson (covers 2nd-5), Umaga (covers wing)
Wingers: Howlett, Lomu
Fullbacks: MacDonald
Utility: Ralph (covers wing, centre)

If this isn’t correct then there are other players who must be in Mitchell’s mind. These include Mark Ranby (second-five), Dave Hewett (prop), Bruce Reihana (wing, fullback), Roger Randle (wing).

Other ‘bolters’ might be Jonno Gibbes (blindside), Dion Waller (lock).

All-in-all the players available to John Mitchell are very good right across the board, with some absolutely World class. Aside from the selection balance, the hard work has also been put in on them by the coaches over the past few seasons in terms of regaining that ‘hard yards’ ethos which fits so well with New Zealand rugby.

We’re all looking forward to a very good international season!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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26 May

A Great Win But Get It In Perspective
by Paul Waite
26 May 2002

Congratulations to the Crusaders and their fans. Commiserations to a Brumbies side which was well-mastered on the night.

With the pleasantries over with, let’s get a bit of perspective going here. There is a bit of background noise, mainly coming from Australia it has to be said, that the Crusaders have “taken the game to a new level”, or “raised the bar” is another little phrase being bandied about.

Utter nonsense.

What’s happened is simple, and it isn’t about one final or even one team either. Since 1998 New Zealand rugby has, let’s be blunt, been crap. It’s been languishing in the doldrums. The why’s and wherefores I’ll leave to another column, but that’s the plain truth of the matter. The post Fitzpatrick-Brookes-Jones and Bunce/Little era has seen the game here wafting along in lightweight rudderless fashion, and it resulted for the most part in us getting stuffed across the board.

However for two seasons now there has been a recognition of something that some of us saw even in 1997 (check out the colmns and match reports on Haka); that New Zealand rugby had to get back to the basics of tight forward play to earn the platform to win.

This season the work which has been put in by the coaches at all levels has started to pay off. Looking at the hard physical, confrontational games that the Highlanders, Crusaders and Blues have been producing is a testament to that. No team has integrated it as well as the Crusaders have, (and given their talented squad that’s probably not surprising) and this has given them the platform to do what they did in winning all 13 games in the first ever Super 12 Grand Slam.

The perspective I talk about is easily achieved. Get the videos out of Super 12′s 1996-1997 when The Blues dominated the scene much like the Crusaders these days. You see the same platform exactly – a set of forwards who know how to work as a unit and do the hard work, as well as using their vision and skills to develop the more expansive elements of play. What we see there is not much different in essence to what we see from the Crusaders, played in their own inimitable style. The hard yakka is done, the tight work is drilled and put together on the park, and the results come.

So all this yada yada about “raising the bar” is pure hogwash. What we’re actually seeing is a New Zealand team excelling in the basics of the game that New Zealanders took for granted pre-1997 when the wheels began to fall off.

And, Aussie fans, if you think the Super 12 was a bit of a worry, wait for the Tri Nations. Take a last look at the Bledisloe Cup and the 3N Trophy itself.

Both are headed back over the Tasman.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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