by Paul Waite
31 Mar 2003
It was billed as a titanic tussle and it was. The build-up to this game took me back to the early Super 12 days in 1996-7 when the Blues had the likes of Zinny, Fitzy , The Iceman and Robin Brooke. The Brumbies were a threat way back then, but also got dealt to by the better team.
Since 1998 the Blues have been wafting around in the doldrums rebuilding with mixed success, but last year they finally blossomed in the NPC, and this season they are putting together some mighty rugby once again. The team is strong right across the board, but key features are the defence which swarms and suffocates and owes a lot to Graham Henry (about $26 each apparently), Carlos Spencer’s magic, a very hard-hitting midfield, and a back three which would give NCC-1701 a run for its money. On the ball the whole team puts pressure on defences by keeping the ball alive and minimising the slower ruck and run phases. Even on a typical Auckland rain-filled night they put together some impressive attacking forays.
With both teams keen as mustard, we were treated to a great game. Even Andre Watson, by head and shoulders the best South African referee, had a good ‘un apart from one piece of utter bollocks. At one stage Muliaina had the ball and was half tackled, got up and was tripped again. He regained his feet, and got whistled up by Watson who claimed he’d been held. The replay showed that, although a touch-rugby ref might have had a good case, one handling a XV-a-side game didn’t. I’ve noticed a few of these crappy calls this season, and hope it gets stomped on before it takes hold. We want a dynamic game where players try to keep the ball alive, not a terminally boring ruckathon with recycling at every little ankle-tap.
Next up were the Highlanders entertaining their neightbouring foe the Crusaders. I really thought they might crack the hoodoo this season, but as luck would have it the lads from Christchurch fluked a penalty in the final 6 minutes to scrape home by a single point. It was a pretty dour struggle of little interest to the non-partisan observer keen on watching some flowing rugby, but for the knowledgeable fan it had the feel of a tight test match. Tony Brown made his comeback from injury in this game, and put together a solid, if uninspiring display (which some cruel observers might dub being back to top form). He had two attempted droppies in the final 5 minutes which would have made him a hero if they had landed over the bar, but in the event just made him a “guy who can’t kick straight” instead. Once again the Crusaders scrape through in an early-mid round of the Super 12. Just like last season, and look what happened then.
The Hurricanes put together what could be described in technical terms as a “crap” performance but still beat the Chiefs, who can consider themselves unlucky. Notable aspects of this game were the continued resergence of Christian Cullen, who has got all his old timing back, if not quite all his speed, and the absolutely awesome form of Canes No.6 Jerry Collins. The latter drives the ball up like a freight train, and punishes like a land-mine on defence, but more importantly he’s also regained the speed and ability to be all over the park that he lost last season due to bulking up too much. The other improvement is that, touch wood, he doesn’t seem to get injured every five minutes like last year. If he keeps this form up, he’ll be a cert to be typed into cell A6 in John Mitchell’s “My All Blacks Team.xls”. Don’t forget to disable the cell protection afforded to All Black captains before trying to delete Rueben Thorne’s name, eh John.
As to the game itself it was a funny old affair. After an initial good patch the Canes just couldn’t string anything together at all. A break would be made followed by a fumble. After that the Chiefs had all the ball, and looked after it better. All in all it looked certain that the Chiefs would overhaul the slim lead the Hurricanes had, but they just couldn’t finish. Desperate defence from players well and truly buggered by the flight back from SA somehow managed to hold the Chiefs out, and then a fresh pair of legs in the form of Ricky Flutey put it beyond doubt by dotting down a few minutes from time.
Elsewhere the Reds tanned the Tahs, with RL legend Wendell Sailor making a rare impact on a game with a pretty spectacular try. The Reds had the kind of abandonment and relaxation in their game which bespoke a team which had nothing to lose, nestling as it is, in the nether regions of the Super 12 table, and this paid off. The Tahs, still having serious thoughts about getting into the semis, looked like they were genuinely worried about losing, so they did.
Over in South Africa there was a totally unpredictable game between the Cats and the Sharks. I have to say that because my Competition Pick was wrong. The Sharks won this one, but I haven’t a clue on anything else concerning the game. Oh, just one more thing – the Sharks probably got more points.