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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14 May

Be thankful for what you've got
by Rob Wallace
14 May 2002

The Blues came to Canberra with a big task, and they had a good crack at it, but were never able to exert enough forward pressure, nor break the defence, to obtain the win they needed. It was a better performance from the Brumbies after their mid-season slump and gives them a semi-final match-up against the Warratahs where they will fancy their chances after the Tahs dire performance against the Crusaders.

The highlight of the Blues game was an outstanding individual try from Samiu Vahafolau who was starting his first game of the season. Starting just outside his 22 he burst through collecting a loose ball, sprinted down the sideline, chipped the defence, recovered and scored a great try. Sadly it was not enough, and although the Blues led at halftime, the Brumbies upped the pace in the second half to edge into the lead, and then as the Blues became more desperate, they ran in 3 more tries to deservedly win.

The highlight of the weekend was the sublime performance from the Crusaders as they annihilated the Warratahs in an awesome display of power and skill. As for the Warratahs, well they didn’t really turn up to play, and you give the Crusaders leeway at your peril.

For what is in reality a limited side, the Warratahs have done very well this season. They have been well coached, and played with speed and skill, to surprise most pundits with their results. They’ve probably been found out a little at the tough end of the season but a semi-final win over the Brumbies would cap a great season.

This season has raised as many questions for the Blues as it has answered, and most of them are how to combine 3 unions into a top four S12 team. I don’t think there’s any doubt that having a single NPC team per franchise (as Canterbury, and in reality also Otago, do) is a big help in terms of continuity and playing style, and it helps to retain a top squad of 26 players.

However, the Blues do get to choose from a huge pool of players, yet seem unable to build the talent they need. Having the benefit of (what seem) 2 talented coaches this year, and improving a little, to sixth, has provided a starting point but the Blues need to begin organising/identifying a pool of 30-36 top players right now and spreading them between the 3 Unions, and probably running some training or planning sessions during this year to prepare for next year. The retention of Fox and Sloane will provide some continuity, and shortfall areas, like the midfield and loose forwards, need to be targeted by introducing some of the talented youngsters around, or judicious recruiting.

Without a coordinated plan within the Blues region, it’s hard to see them playing in the S12 final within the next few years.

6 May

Blowin' the Blues away
by Rob Wallace
6 May 2002

With one game to go, the Blues managed to come up with a fitting finale to their season losing 13-20 to the Highlanders, and giving the Highlanders their first S12 win at Eden Park and the first by any Otago team for 26 years. The worst thing is, the Highlanders did little special – they kicked for territory, minimised any mistakes and made their tackles while waiting for the Blues to choke under the pressure.

And they did. The Blues produced yet another dismal first half – error-ridden, patternless and devoid of structure. The Highlanders merely D’ed up, held their lines, attacked the ball in the tackle area and kicked the inevitable penalty when it came.

Later in the game, and with Tony Brown now off the field, the Blues did gain some ascendancy, but even then they made poor options. Taylor kept ignoring the shots at goal when they were 7 behind in favour of a try – but hey – 2 points was never going to be enough to gain a semi-final place – they would have been much better taking the 3 or 6 and hoping to get lucky with a last minute try.

Overall, it was hard not to feel the Blues got what they deserved – despite the talent they failed to impose their patterns on the game and were hustled off the ball by a smart Otago team. Mains 1, Sloane 0.

Game of the weekend was the Hurricanes-Crusaders clash. The Canes played well but a Canterbury squad, even resting key players, showed us all how big the gap is between the top of NZ rugby and the rest as they thrashed the Hurricanes. I though the Canes played pretty well but this is a very special Crusaders team and it will be a big surprise if they lose again this season, with all their games at home.

As for the Blues – they blew it – and despite the mathematical chances they have, in reality their season is over. It’s interesting, that despite the 4th coach in 4 years, and a huge injection of new players from NH and Northland, the same old problems reappeared, and it’s hard not to think, especially when you look at the Crusaders and the Highlanders, that having 1 (decent) team NPC team per S12 franchise is a real advantage in terms of continuity and cohesion.