29 Jun

French Fire Warning Shot Across The Bow of NZS All Blacks
by Paul Waite
29 Jun 2003

If anyone imagined that the good ship NZS All Blacks was steaming for the tropical Island World Cup Trophy through calm waters, they got a storm warning yesterday.

The lads got the boat into some choppy water, and looked decidely seasick by the end of the night after a pretty dodgy win against France ‘B’.

To carry on with the nautical theme, the lineout was de-masted, the scrum was rammed amidships, and the skipper got to walk the plank.

Apart from a ‘golden spell’ of fifteen minutes in the first half when Rokocoko ran in three tries, it was all a case of floundering out of their depth pitted against a bunch of althletic but inexperienced second-string Frogs who had just lost two tests in Argentina.

Even allowing for the inevitable raising of the French game to meet the All Blacks on their home turf, you had to wonder at the basic problems on show: a lineout that couldn’t win its own ball, a scrum (reckoned as our best) which was shunted backwards on its own ball, a defence which couldn’t cope with players offloading and running at it with more than three changes in the point of attack, and finally an inability to control its own posession at the breakdown.

The problem, from the viewpoint of a land-lubber who eschews all the nerdy rugby techno-babble, looked to be that the French were playing a style the All Blacks couldn’t cope with. Once again we are reminded of the nemesis of Super 12 rugby, with all its stereotypical plays, it’s over-emphasis on continuity for the sake of “entertainment”, and the end result of schooling players in a kind of game which isn’t played anywhere else and which is exposed as a complete nonsense in tests like this one.

The problem is becoming worse as each season comes around as well, probably because hitherto we had players still involved in the game who had not spent their entire careers playing Super 12. These days it seems to take the All Blacks at least 2-3 tests to get Super 12 out of their systems, and if the competition expands then it will presumably take more in future. Excuse the application of logic at a time like this, but why not get rid of the main problem – Super 12 rugby played in it’s present form – and avoid all this? Let’s play “real rugby” instead perhaps.

Back to the test, and looking around the park at various players there were some performances to note. After being shown up in two tests by the effervescent Mealamu, in this one Oliver did nothing to offer any other judgement than he should be sitting on the bench for the next. The All Black scrum was going backwards before Mealamu got on, gainsaying those who promote him as our best scrummaging hooker. He may well be, but isn’t much different from Mealamu there, quite obviously. The throwing at lineout time was a different issue again – Oliver had problems from the start, tossing the ball short and gifting the French with posession when the All Blacks were hot on attack; unforgiveable.

The referee, Andre Watson, I have a lot of time for, but in this test he made two very strange calls. The first was to call the All Blacks back from a certain try for a forward pass which was so un-forward as to be blatantly obvious even to the camera which was positioned so as to emphasise the forwardness (if you see what I mean).

The second was to penalise Steve Devine in a preposterous incident. After feeding the New Zealand scrum Devine managed to get the ball away, but was sacked by the eager Galthie. In being castled Devine fell on his hands and knees, semi-raised himself against Galthie and fell again. “I saw that!” said the eagle-eyed Watson, blowing a penalty in the face of the surprised Devine. Saw what? Saw him falling over? What next, penalties for tackling someone with the intent to stop them?

To wrap up, this test marked the end of any pretence that the All Blacks have it all laid out before them to win the World Crown in November. To do so they must beat at least one Northern hemisphere team. France showed last night that with no less than nine first-choice test players out of the team their top lineup could run rings around New Zealand on their day, which is more than England took away with them.

Who knows we might see a New Zealand vs France semi-final again. In that event, given this latest performance, would we be confident of winning?

Well, at least this time we can’t say we haven’t been warned.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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25 Jun

England's World Cup Prospects
by Colin Johnston
25 Jun 2003

Having “Systematically Dismantled” Both the All Blacks and Australia What Are England’s World Cup Prospects?

With the Rugby World Cup 2003 set to kick off on 10th October, a few of the fancied teams have slipped. The cup is in the bag. England, undisputed world champions and winners of the RWC elect. All other countries are invited to attend the investiture and crowning of the new Kings of World Rugby.

But what are these heinous rumours floating about? The All Blacks have been mixing and matching their team, more like a cut price department store’s Men’s Department than the made to measure Saville Row tailor we know them to be? Ozzie management send Elton Flatley home for not handing his homework in on time thereby ensuring that their team has no recognisable shape or direction?

Rubbish, excuses, just face it England are the best – they must be because I read it in a newspaper. Prove it? Easy, lets quote Mick Cleary of London’s Daily Telegraph “It was a splendid effort and shoved all those naive, arrogant words down the throats of assorted Kiwis and Aussies who doubted England’s ability to score tries.” So there you go, it must be true.

England’s efforts since October 2002 have been exceptional with victories over every major rugby nation. This has been achieved in some cases home and away. But lets look at what lies beneath the armour-plated juggernaut with the go faster stripes.

Starting at 1 through 15, and based around the teams that have just “systematically dismantled” (© Daily Telegraph again) both the All Blacks and Australia, they are a handy out fit.

Right up front in the trenches Woodman, Thompson and Vickery in the front row are mobile ball players, they can scrummage too. Not the World’s best but they can scrummage. Vickery’s weakness is his uncanny ability to pick up long term injuries at the most inopportune moments. Thompson’s throwing and discipline can be suspect and Woodman has also had injury worries. He also lacks experience at test level. Leonard and Rowntree are an excellent advert for Help the Aged.

Second row of Johnson and Kay are Worldclass dreadnoughts that literally punch their weight. Kay is very beatable in the line (as is Johnson) and Johnson has the shortest fuse of any international captain currently playing. Think back to this year’s 6N. He could have been carded, usually red, for serious foul play in almost every game. Ref, fully wired up, bottled it in one test even after the touch judge told him live on air “4 white, kicking and punching – he’s got to get red”. Shame, because he is some player and had his best match in the loose against Oz on Saturday. The young guys coming through can play. They have a wee discipline problem too and some have even been known to miss tours to NZ and Oz due to such things as a swinging boot. The fine example that Johnson has set over the years and lets face it stamping on the throat of a prone and pinned back (John Leslie) is a pretty good example, must have left its mark (literally?) on the lads.

Back row? Well Hill, Dallaglio and Back are all fine ball players. Neil Back loves nothing better than to show off how good his kicking is should the chance ever arise. Aimless kicking, especially to a counter acting Southern Hemisphere side fresh from the 3N, could be disastrous. Richie McCaw proved to be 5 yards too fast for Back and Woodward may well have to call time on him before the knock out phase of the RWC. Dallaglio and Hill are also getting on and it is going to be warm in Oz in November – the question has to be asked, can they perform consistently in that heat, flat out for 80 minutes? Personally, I doubt it. The reserve back rowers aren’t in their class. Hill off and apparently some one called Joe came on against Oz.

Collectively, England’s packs biggest weakness is their love and unswerving commitment to coming in from the side, obstructing opposition’s quick ball, going to ground, handling on the deck, not releasing ball/tackler, foul play and so it goes on ad infinitum. All these tactics will be used to the point of frustration (see Ali William’s stamping on Lewsey) and with great effect during the RWC. Make no doubt about it, England will use these negative tactics if they are not ref’d accordingly. A strong ref can sort them out. We saw Back and Dallaglio taking deserved walks against the All Blacks for exactly these crimes. I still don’t understand why more didn’t follow. Yellow cards could be a tactic for the back row of course, lets these older guys get a breather for 10 minutes!

Onto the backs. Good scrum half and excellent outside half. Matt Dawson will start instead of Bracken. Wilco loves to tackle and mix it with the forwards. He is a hard little bastard and unfortunately for the rest of us, he is also the best goal kicker in the world at present. Dawson, like some of his forwards, has a bad habit of getting injured. Wilco doesn’t. If I were Woodward, I would have them both in an underground bunker for the next 3 months, including the tests against Wales and France later this summer (remember Wilco got subbed off against France in 2002 6N? The Froggie back row got at him and beat him up). Dawson and Wilkinson are too important to Woodward’s team. No Wilco, no nailed on 15 point start per match. No coronation.

Centres are settled in Tindall and Greenwood – that is about the most exciting thing you can say about them. The upside is they leave holes in defence and the loose forwards will have to cover this. Yet more work that these guys can do without in the Ozzie conditions. That’s assuming they haven’t gone for their 10 minutes breather!

Back 3? Robinson did nothing against the All Blacks and I can’t remember if he played against Oz. Every time he ran from deep, he ran away from the support. A blind man on a galloping horse can then see what he is going to do. Er? Run! Robbo was then double teamed in the tackle and he got gubbed every time. Result turnover ball or a penalty depending on how the ref plays. He is not that quick either. Neither is Cohen. Neither are a patch on Roff or Howlett, for example. Cohen does do a very impressive celebration when he scores and Woodward will have him in for that. You have to admit, Cohen has the sort of smug face that you wouldn’t get tired slapping. Luger, should he play, will keep the medicine men in business for most of the tournament, so make sure you buy shares in Boots the Chemist. Then we have Lewsey the full back. Remember him? Lucy is the bloke that moans about getting a shoeing for hanging on the ball on the deck and on the wrong side of the ruck. What does he expect? Against Oz, still Lucy still had the hump from the week before, Josh obstructed and then violently ruffled Matt Rogers’ hair off the ball. That was before he tried to hospitalise Rogers with a shoulder charge to the guts. Oh, and he can be suspect under the high ball. Confidence is a fragile thing and we have seen Lucy lose that in a couple of games during the 6N – brilliant one minute, scrabbling for the ball on the deck the next. So what of him? Well, whinging Pom that needs be exposed.

In reality though, we know that none of the above is true – the England team is unbeatable. It is as hard and flawless as the perfect diamond, so the English TV pundits would have it. The rest of the rugby world is clutching at straws. England the anointed one, the rest of us should aim for second and be grateful that we are allowed to attend the coronation.

Aye, right!

20 Jun

England Being Set Up For The Fall?
by Paul Waite
20 Jun 2003

It’s a set-up.

A victory against Australia in the on-off test being played this coming weekend will see England established as undisputed favourites for the Rugby World Cup starting November this year.

Looking at the way thngs have been unfolding recently, it doesn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination to believe that some degree of orchestration has been at work to allow this.

First of all the scheduling of the All Blacks v England test as the very first of the season is fairly suspicious. Anyone who has followed All Black rugby knows that the first test of the season has a history of rusty performances behind it. Only in latter years have the fixtures been changed to provide some soft opposition such as Fiji or Italy as warm-up tests for the Tri-Nations. Previously, first tests against the likes of Ireland have always had us pulling our hair out as the All Blacks dropped the ball, literally, and generally played like amateurs. This season, playing England first resulted in a test no different in this facet to the others – a rusty mistake-ridden effort with a predictable loss.

But looking at the bigger picture, the loss itself is actually arguably a benefit to New Zealand. England go off full of themselves, and likely to be brimming with confidence at RWC time. The All Blacks are left with a greivance, and the knowledge they can play 200% better than they showed.

Over the ditch let’s look at the Australians. Nobody wants to carry the burden of “World Cup Favourite”. It’s a title to be shunned, but was justifiably accorded Australia for obvious reasons. However in their build-up this season the Wallabies have had a lot of injuries to key players. The team has a very makeshift look to it, and struggled against Wales last week.

This week we see that Eddie Jones has taken an opportunity to sack his only genuine No.10, Elton Flately, for disciplinary reasons, and bring Nathan Grey into the position instead of drafting in another player. Now Grey is a well-known centre, but has about as much subtlety as a bulldozer. Eddie Jones looks very much to be setting his team up for an excusable loss.

If Australia do lose this weekend, it will do them the big favour of lifting the favourites mantle from their shoulders, and placing it reverantly upon England’s. At the same time, the Wallaby team to contest the World Cup will not be anything like the one which was fielded for this test, and therefore won’t carry any baggage from a loss. Win-win.

Nobody is saying this was all worked out to a tee months ago. Conspiracy theory is all very well, but in reality its just nonsense. However there is nothing to say that certain options were taken with a view to this possibly happening, and that, in Eddie Jones’ case, he has just taken advantage of opportunities which have come his way.

Is he that wily and cunning? Definitely.

So good luck England. We hope you win against Australia, and carry that heavy old piece of baggage labelled “World Cup Favourites” around from now ’til November, when it won’t matter a damn.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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15 Jun

Best Of Three?
by Paul Waite
15 Jun 2003

There are many things to commend the professional rugby era for, and an equal number which deserve to be kicked into touch. The fly-by-night one-off test match is one of them.

Used to be that a visiting team couldn’t simply jet into town, scrape a 2-point, Nil-tries-to-1 win over the hosts, and then escape with the spoils of “supremacy” laughing. No. Instead they’d have to back the first win up by turning out and doing it again in two weeks, and then again after that. Only by winning the series could they claim to be superior. Somehow, I don’t think that would have happened.

So, forgive me if I look at the result yesterday and seem pretty much unconcerned. We saw an English team, hardened to the point that depleted uramium ordinance would bounce right off it, coming at full noise off a grand-slamming 6N season to take on a newbie All Black side put together the week before and fronting in their first test of the season. So, the two points doesn’t really worry me, and it shouldn’t really worry the knowledgable English fan either. Looking at the game, the English were at full stretch, whereas the All Blacks have about 50% improvement in them.

So much for the perspective, what about the test.

Well it was a great occasion, and it was one to savour even for the All Black fan. Those lads in white put everything they could into this win, and deserved the result in the end of that there’s no doubt.

The turning point came when referee Dickinson (more of him later) saw fit to dispatch two English forwards to the sin-bin. Down to 13 men, Johnson rallied his troops and played wily time-wasting rugby brilliantly. For his part All Black Captain Rueben Thorne didn’t distinguish himself with leadership in this phase of proceedings and seemed to be happy to let the clock while away. At the end of this time, with two players still absent, the English handed the All Blacks a bit of a rugby lesson. They kept the ball in hand superbly and looked dangerous, getting inside the 22m for Wilkinson to put a droppie over the bar and extend their lead. When the All Blacks had the ball they saw to it that the defence formed a wall of white. It couldn’t be kept up for more than 15 minutes, but it was enough.

The All Blacks themselves looked predictably disjointed, in first-test mode. There were misunderstandings, slow delivery, lack of support and turnovers, but overall they fared much better than they have at times in the past. The tight five more than held their own against one of the best packs in the World, particularly at lienout time, and this is a good base to build from for November.

The main problem, from the All Blacks point of view was the lack of penetration and finishing power. They had the posession, but couldn’t turn it into points. The Umaga/Nonu experiment, brought on the team through injury, was a distinct flop. The twin dreadlocked hard-running centres might do well at Super-12 level, but at test level they are too alike and too predictable. Umaga is a test centre, not a second five-eighth, and should be put alongside either Carter or Mauger.

Aside from that there was inexperience from the talented lock Ali Williams, which saw him turn over posession a couple of times, but he showed he’s a player with a future in the Black Jersey. At No.8 Rodney So’oialo had problems clearing the ball with Bracken snapping at his heels – something he will have to rectify before he gets picked again, and he also had a tendency to get isolated, something which is part and parcel of his game.

Overall the tight-five did well, and even bested their experienced opponents. Scrums were more or less even, despite the moronically repetetive “..2, 3, 4, 5″ chant each time from the Englishmen. Lineouts were more or less the same, and in mauling the All Blacks took the honours. However rucks were a problem area, with the English spoiling tactic resulting (deservedly) in the two sin-binnings mentioned above. When they were on their own ball the English cleared more easily than their opponents.

A blight on this test was the performance of Australian referee Stuart Dickinson, who has the dubious honour of having awarded the most yellow cards in Super 12 this season. In what looked like an ill-disguised attempt to wrest the mantle from South African whistle-blower Tappe Hennings shoulders for “The Most Refereeing In A Game”, Dickinson blew the players into a frenzy during the first half. Penalties for “leaving the lineout 12 milli-seconds before the ball is thrown to the halfback”, and “daring to contest the ball in the air” were but some of the random stoppages he dealt out. Both teams suffered from this pedantic nonsense, and both were equally confused. The classic moment came when Dickinson called the skipper together and told them “there are too many penalties…”.

However it would be wrong to assume that all his rulings were without foundation. The English pack are adept at trying to spoil the opposition ball, and were trying to kill it at each and every ruck. I have a wish to see the sin-bin eradicated from test rugby forever. I think that no test should ever be decided except by 15 against 15, and the rest should be handled by penalties. However, in this test match we had the option, and Dickinson properly used it for repeated hands in the ruck. The bonus was that, due to exceptional leadership from Johnson and the response from his men, the issue didn’t really affect the outcome. In fact you could argue it fired up England to bring them the victory, since the crux of the game was the drop-goal from Wilco during this phase.

So England go away with the scalp they so badly needed. The All Blacks, for their part, will not be downcast, and can look back on a great effort for their first test of the season.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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1 Jun

Season Review 2003
by Rob Wallace
1 Jun 2003

The S12 final was a great game between the 2 best teams in the competition and the Blues managed to take their chances and win 21-17.

There wasn’t much between the teams in this game and both teams played well – hardly anyone had a poor game and there was top defensive work from both sides. As Thorne and Deans commented afterward, the Crusaders had their opportunities and didn’t take them.

The crowd would have helped the Blues a lot – the last 3 weeks of the competition saw very atypical crowds for Auckland – normally quiet, polite and filled up with noisy opposition supporters – but the recent crowds have been staunchly pro-Auckland, very vocal, and there was an atmosphere at the final that I haven’t seen since the early days we had the Shield in the late 80′s. A real buzz of excitement, and sort of hum around the ground.

The Crusaders pack owned the first half, and their tacking was awesome as they smashed the Blues backwards with 2 on the tackle and stopped any momentum dead. The Blues only survived due to Spencer’s kicking game – he reels off yards more distance than most other players and that and sound defence left things pretty even.

But the first 20-25 min of the second half was quite different and the Blues pack began to get ascendancy at the ruck and maul and managed a bit of go-forward ball. But the backline never really cut loose – the Crusaders’ defence was too good, especially in midfield where the Blues got very little penetration.

The Crusaders came back strongly in the last 10 minutes but it was too late and some tenacious defence from the Blues meant they held on to take the title.

It’s been a very interesting season for the Blues. They played the most exciting rugby of the competition and scored the most tries and most points, and showed that you can both entertain and win. But they also had the best defensive record and it has been the defence that has won them both the NPC and S12 titles. They also brought through a large group of talented young players and I hope they continue to introduce new talent.

Player of the year was obviously Carlos Spencer who is in the best form of his life, and controlled all facets of the game and showed some sublime touches. But he had a great group of players around him also, and a backline that suited his style and wanted to work with him

My forward of the year was Gus Collins who worked tirelessly near the ball and provided the glue for the forward pack. The other player who had made a huge difference is Meeuws, who since his return has provided the forward solidity that has been missing from Blues teams for a few years. Other players who had outstanding seasons were Williams, Mealamu, Muliaina, and of course Howlett. Braid, Manu and Woodcock found the going a bit tougher at S12 level than NPC but all played well, while Angus MacDonald looked quite at home there and will have a big future at blindside.

It was a mixed picture for the other NZ teams. The Crusaders pack slowly wound into top gear and look the best in the country, but injuries and lack of real wheels meant the backs never really capitalised on that.

Colin Cooper managed to turn a novice/journeyman tight 5 into a pretty decent unit, but they were not good enough to hold on to the top teams up front and lost out despite their stellar loosies and midfield.

The Highlanders looked to be well positioned and were playing a Mains-style conservative game that was well suited to their strengths, but internal ructions led to changes in personnel and style as they messily imploded over the last few games.

The Chiefs never had the players to compete at the very top, and Greene was unable to perform the sort of miracles that Cooper did with the ‘Canes, and the Chiefs suffered for this. They were competitive, scored some nice tries and were seldom hammered but never quite had the skill or toughness to close out games.