27 Jul

Half Marks
by Paul Waite
27 Jul 2003

Just to take a divergent stance from what I imagine the papers will be saying about the 50-21 victory over Australia in Sydney, I’d give the All Blacks a 5/10 pass mark.

True the backline was in such blistering form that it almost set fire to my telly, but there were a number of warts on the otherwise beautiful face of All Black rugby, and if they don’t get fixed, then we won’t win the World Cup.

First of all there’s the major problem of the goal kicking. It’s all very well running champagne tries past the Aussies, but the truth of the matter is they are a disorganised shower this season, and not representative of what we will face in a tight World Cup final against the likes of England or France. Should it eventuate, that game will probably hinge on as little as a single conversion from the side-line, and basically Spencer hasn’t a prayer of knocking one of those over.

The BIG problem is what to do to remedy the situation. There are only a couple of proven World Class goal-kickers available – Ben Blair and Andrew Merhtens.

Putting Blair in for Mils Muliaina would be a great loss, since Mils has been playing with a power and panache which looks like it will evolve into a truly top class combination with Rokocoko, Howlett, Umaga and Co. His domination of the high ball and rangy running with the ability to stand in the heavy tackle and get the pass away can not be matched by the diminutive Blair.

With this in mind, and as well as Carlos is playing at the moment, I have to say Andrew Mehrtens needs to be brought back into the fold. We only have two Tri-Nations tests to go, and time is a-wasting.

Back to the game and those warts. What on Earth happened to the team when Wendell Sailor was sin-binned? It looked like the forwards all decided to make it up to the opposition and play like duffers. Knock-ons, turnovers, and worst of all the lineout went to hell in a hand-basket.

After this game I’ve come to the conclusion that Ali Williams needs to be dropped. He does very little around the field, except for knocking the ball on and turning it over, and his lineout jumping was fumblingly poor. In addition, his scrummaging is quite obviously well down in power as compared with Brad Thorn, so Thorn should get the starting jersey.

The front-row which started this test is also questionable. When it was replaced with a Meeuws, Mealamu, Hewett one, and with Thorn in at lock and Jack packing on his normal side we wasted them. This also happened in South Africa, so it is clearly the best combination by a mile. Let’s start it next time, and have the solidity of Thorn at lineout, and using Mealamu as an impact player off the bench once again.

Finally there was the tackling. There is far too much scragging going on and not enough tackling around the waist/legs to bring ball-carriers down. This contributed to most of the breaks the Wallabies made, and also to their points tally, which should never have been allowed to get near 21.

To wrap it up, this All Black performance had some brilliant tries scored, and some awesome play leading up to them, but there was a lot of poor play as well. This Wallaby side is vastly inferior to those of previous seasons, and the scoreline is reflected in that.

It’s a great stepping stone to better things (including regaining the Bledisloe Cup), but let’s keep it in perspective, and our feet firmly on the ground.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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20 Jul

by Paul Waite
20 Jul 2003

Let’s be careful.

Like most kiwis, I retired to my bed last night pleased with the unexpected blow-out scoreline, but let’s not get carried away here. Before the game I was expecting a 20-point winning margin for the Blacks going by what I had seen so far in the Southern Hemisphere season. As it turned out the difference in the teams was augmented by some good luck, and a one-off nighmare of a game from the All Blacks’ 16th man, the unfortunate Brent Russell.

The poor wee lad had a game he’d not only like to forget but one which he’ll probably need 12 months of psychiatric treatment for. After knock-ons at the back, and spilling the ball when a try was begging his culminating act was to gift Rokocoko with a try by passing the ball to him after helping to snuff out an All Black attack. From hero to zero in one week.

The sole confort he can take is that nothing he did affected the outcome. The All Blacks were simply two quantum jumps ahead of the Boks in class and ability and were always going to win this one.

Positives for the All Blacks were easy to find. Aaron Mauger made a slick return to the No.12 jersey, and fitted in with Carlos as if they had played the whole season together, the finishing out wide was very sharp, and the defence was a hard-hitting unit which must have marked a few Springbok carcasses by the end of play.

The negatives were also easy to spot. Spencer proved beyond all doubt he isn’t a test level goalkicker anymore, the scrum wasn’t strong enough to guarantee its own ball, rucks were still not protected well enough and the delivery was too slow, and the lineouts were still not contested well enough.

Overall, it’s hard to say anything other than the All Blacks are on track at present, heading into the first of the Bledisloe encounters in Sydney next week. Given the Aussies were overpowered by this same Bok outfit last week, another victory looks likely for the men in black.

But let’s reflect a little more on the Springboks. Over the past five seasons or so they have re-modelled their game, eschewing the world-famous style based on forward power and a kicking fly-half which they had used for a 100 years of their rugby history. I said at the time that this was a mistake, that it didn’t fit the Springbok psyche, and essentially slipped the moorings from 100 years of rugby tradition and folklore.

Watching the Springboks being humiliated by the All Blacks this weekend was like driving slowly by a traffic accident and catching sight of the face of a close friend being zipped up in a body-bag.

South African rugby has fallen foul of a disease similar to the one which afflicted New Zealand up until 2-3 seasons ago, introduced to the country’s rugby playing population by an un-quarantined Super 12 competition. The effects are mainly seen in the forwards, who lose control of themselves and start running around upright in the backline and “entertaining” people as individuals.

South African Rugby badly needs to get in touch with the roots of their game again, right from the provincial level up. Like New Zealand did a couple of seasons ago, re-evaluate your game. Re-emphasise the value of brusing, hard, tight forward play and bring back that menacing power which was unique to SA rugby. Go back to the kicking fly-half and super-fast backs adept at roughing up and getting in the face of any opponent.

World Rugby needs the Springboks to be powerful. It also needs the kind of variety that each rugby-playing nation’s uniquely developed style brings, and trying to play like everyone else is a huge mistake. Admit the mistake, go back to your roots and watch the game take off again.

It will take 2-3 seasons to undo the harm brought about so far but for the sake of the game, SARFU, please, please do it!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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14 Jul

Domestic Blindness
by Tracey Nelson
14 Jul 2003

As a child do you remember wailing about something you couldn’t find, and then your mother coming to look for it and finding it straight away? Or perhaps those of you with a wife have the same thing happen when you complain that you can’t find your car keys and she calmly lifts the newspaper off the table, and there they are? This malaise is termed ‘domestic blindness’ and I would suggest it’s a common affliction for many of our so-called All Black supporters who are unable to see past the nose on their face (or should that be the beer in their hand?).

Now I don’t claim to be the greatest know-all on rugby, but I like to think that I’ve stopped and got all my facts straight before sounding off. To do so I have gone through the videos of all three test matches so far in 2003 and assessed the forwards. I looked at every breakdown and noted who were the first three forwards to arrive, who was taking the ball up, and who was doing what in the lineouts. So for all the Reuben Thorne knockers, take some Prozac and see if you can absorb this information.

Contrary to popular belief, Thorne is not standing about doing nothing. Considering John Mitchell does not see the No 6 role as a ball carrier, Thorne has nonetheless taken the ball up 16 times in the last three tests to compensate for a couple of slackers amongst the tight five (notably Ali Williams who managed 9 times in his two and a half tests, and Anton Oliver who managed 6 in his two tests). Notably, Thorne took the ball up 8 times against France, eclipsed only by Collins (15) and McCaw (12). The best tight forward at taking the ball up against France was Chris Jack (5).

Averaging it out, Thorne is amongst the first three players to the breakdown 34 times per test, which compares favourably with the likes of Holah (49 times v Wales), McCaw (39), So’oialo (28 times v England) and Collins (24). For all those that are going to cry out ‘But how effective is he when he gets there?’ can I just counter with ‘He is as effective as any of our forwards are when we only commit three or four players to the breakdown’.

So why are you expecting the blindside flanker to fulfil the hard yards role that our tight forwards should be doing? Jack and Williams are only carrying the ball 4 times a game. What are they doing the rest of time?

Why should Thorne be taking the ball up and into contact when we have already have ball carriers like Collins, Jack, Meeuws, Somerville and Mealamu in the side? Or would you rather see Somerville standing out wide to link and run with the backs? (No offence intended to Yoda, but you know what I mean).

How much faster do you think Thorne should be arriving at the breakdown, given that only our two opensiders (and bizarrely Chris Jack who averages 37 times a test this year) are eclipsing him?

Why are you lambasting Thorne for the lineouts against France when he did change things on our fourth throw and moved himself in as a lifter for Jack – and thereafter we had safe ball at the front of the lineout? Take a closer look at those lineouts, you might be amazed at what you see and not quite so surprised as to why Oliver has been dropped. (Refer to Straight Talking and Freeze Frame columns for all the various stats).

Statement of Fact: John Mitchell has said that he does not see the No 6 as a ball carrier – this is what he wants to see from his No 8 and opensider, working in tandem. Because the blindsider is bigger/taller, he wants him to have a lifting role in the lineouts first, and be a throwing option second. The blindsider is also there for his defensive role off the side of the scrum and as a linkman in open play.

Reality: Thorne is doing exactly what Mitchell requires of him. He is consistently close to the ball, his organisation of both himself and his team on defence is superb, he combines well with the opensider and No 8, and he can last a full 80 minutes on the field. He is a faultless lifter in the lineout, and a good jumping option if we need it.

And finally, what makes everyone think that a captain that yells and screams at his team is better at rallying the troops than someone who can remain cool and calm? The stats prove that Thorne is leading by example, which is more than can be said for the vice captain who is having trouble even catching the ball at the moment.

14 Jul

by Rob Wallace
14 Jul 2003

Watch those Aussies whinge!

First of all we have Whining Eddie moaning about the All Blacks cheating. Oddly enough I actually agree with Whining Eddie in parts. He’s completely wrong of course to suggest that the All Blacks are cheating – they’ve just become very effective this year in the clean out, and it’s a strength he would like to negate. However I really don’t like the ‘blowing over’ law. It doesn’t make sense to me that you can ‘tackle’ any player without the ball simply because he is within a 1m circle of the breakdown.

While driving bound players is quite different, I can’t see how ‘blowing over’ fits in with the rest of the game. NZ took a while to get used to the concept and I remember other teams, especially Australia doing this much more effectively than us, and it’s taken us a while to catch up and get it right. Now that we have, and have a relatively dominant forward pack (and Australia don’t) Fast Eddie is having a moan about it to try and deflect the attention from his ineffectual forwards.

And they were ineffectual.

This was the most dominant display I’ve seen from an All Black pack for some time. It seems petty to criticise them, but they shouldn’t have given so much ball to the backs – they should have just kept driving for the line.

And if moaning Eddie isn’t enough I see the Australian papers are now saying how unfair it is that the Bledisloe is decided by the holders winning 1 test out of 2, and are calling for 1 or 3 test series. I can remember how disinterested they were in this concept when they held the Cup. It’s funny how things change when the boot is on the other foot!

I’m still troubled by this flat backline of ours. It often looks messy, and I think the reason it does is because of where the first phase often ends.

With a traditional deep backline, a ‘no progress’ move usually ends in midfield, with the centre or extra man tackled on or just ahead of the advantage line. This sets a midfield target for the forwards and 2nd phase starts here. If the move works properly, then the wing is in space wide, but there is often time for the cover defence to reach him due to the longer time it takes to run from deep.

With a flat backline a ‘no progress’ move often breaks down much closer in, at the 1st or 2nd5, and often behind the gain line. This looks messy and wrong to me, but in fact sets up the second phase closer to the forwards, which may reduce turnovers. If the ball does get wide, the wing gets the ball faster, and the cover is much less likely reach him (think of the angles and remember speed of pass beats speed of player), and hence the wing is more likely to score.

So I think the tradeoff is swapping classical backplay with few clean breaks, for fiddly backplay that often breaksdown in close but when they do clear the ball wide is much more effective, and likely to create tries.

I’m not wholly convinced but I do think Wayne Smith knows what he is doing and if he says it’s the way to go I’m willing to wait and see.

I guess the final question is who are the best players in close for this style. Carter is a beautifully balanced runner who seems to need a bit more space than he is getting. I don’t think Tuitupou would be an improvement as he doesn’t yet have the distribution skills but a fit Aaron Mauger would be interesting with this flat formation. And maybe Carter would find a bit more space and time one position in.

I suspect Spencer is actually doing a pretty good job with this novel formation, but it’s clearly not his preferred option either.