26 Aug

RWC 2003 – Its A Two Horse Race
by Colin Johnston
26 Aug 2003

Only England and The All Blacks Can Stop New Zealand Now!

Tri-Nations 2003 is out of the way, All Blacks crowned best in the South and people are now looking forward to RWC ’03. It was all too easy in the 3N, averaging more than 35 points per match against 2 of world rugby’s super powers. So who is left to challenge All Black dominance? Only France and England have a chance and to be honest, I don’t think the Frogs have got what it takes to get there. Irrespective of what happens in Marseille this Friday or at ‘Twickers’ the following week.

England have a pretty straight run through until the semis, only the Boks could potentially hamper them and as we have seen they are pretty dire at present. England’s biggest worry after the Boks may well be ensuring that they have sufficient fit players after the encounter to continue in the tournament. An England:France semi would be worth watching but that supposes that the French can get there, too.

We all know about England now and for those of you that have read Col’s column before you will know that I have a pretty jaundiced view of this highly “professional” unit. But, undeniably, England have a good team spirit and play for each other. In most positions, except centre, they have strength in depth that the other nations can only dream about. Take the latest rout that we witnessed on Saturday when the full strength Welsh Druids were sacrificed at their own altar in Cardiff by a mixture of England’s 2 & 3 XV. To make things worse it was a record score.

In that Test the English forwards proved that world class strength in depth is not a problem in the front 5, the back row was efficient but there were no world beaters there. In fairness to the 2 second rows on show, they would probably walk into every other test side in the world after Saturday, they were that impressive. The backs on the other hand were not as accomplished as you would expect. King, the outside half, missed eight kicks at goal, but ran the ball well enough. The 2 new centres did nothing to prove that they would make the plane to Oz. Both wingers have been capped before and will probably be there, the full back won’t. Gomersall as the third scrum half? You pays your money, you takes your choice. I think they will go for Healey.

So where does that leave my usually crystal clear myopia? Previously, I wrote that England’s pack was over the hill and the heat would wilt their chances of picking up the RWC in November. Now, I don’t think so. Leonard, went the full game, at pace(ish) in hot conditions. So, if he can do it the younger guys can, too. The tight five are covered for subbing out during a game, no problem there, it’s the back row that may cause some problems for Woodward and Co. The young guns aren’t in the same class as the first choice back row, or for that matter the some of the other nations that they will face, especially NZ.

Their pack will control the ball and therefore the game. Sexy Super 12 handling and running will be of no use to anyone without the ball. If the England locomotive finds all the gears and the refs don’t kill them with penalties, there is not a pack in the world that can hold them. This is not good for the All Blacks because we saw the damage that the mediocre Bok and Ozzie packs did to their unit in the last 2 Tri-N matches. We also saw what a hardened 6 man unit can do against a poorly led and disorganised 8 in June. You add in the guaranteed Wilco 15 point factor and the ABs have to score and convert two tries just to catch up.

What about a challenge from the ‘Cheese munching surrender monkeys’, sorry the French challenge? Well, their summer tour was disappointing, even if they were short on top personnel. The team fires well with Gaultier but they struggle without him. To make things worse he is another candidate for Help The Aged and is injury prone. Their forwards are good scrummagers and ‘uncompromising’, shall we say, in the loose and everyone knows what their backs can do. Again, like England, they will not take NZ on in Super 12 fashion. Why should they? That would be suicide. But lets face it they won’t get the opportunity to anyway, so why waste space discussing them further?

So, who else is left to swipe the crown? Only the All Blacks. But has Mitch hamstrung their chances of final day glory by not having selected a squad with a recognised world class, experienced, international kicker in the squad ? You tell me, but I certainly think so. By going without a full blown kicker Mitch has also signaled the Kiwi’s intent to all comers: the All Blacks are going to score tries and to entertain in Oz. It is up to everyone else to try and stop them. So quite simply, the Rugby Wrold Cup crown can be summed up like this, all NZ have to do is to make sure that the number of tries they score adds up to more than the number of points England kick.

Sound familiar? Maybe a bit like 95 all over again with the Boks. The All Blacks were the best team there. They took rugby onto a new level but for a number of reasons, some under hand, some not, they lost to a spirited but limited Bok out fit. My guess is this time round, NZ will once again be the best team, excellent entertainment with banana kicks and slight of hand from a grinning Carlos but ultimately, that won’t be enough to win a hard nosed final against a dominant pack and Wilco’s Golden Boot.

17 Aug

Bledisloe Comes Home
by Paul Waite
17 Aug 2003

Was it convincing? No it wasn’t.

But it didn’t have to be convincing; it just had to be a win. A rugby commentator here in New Zealand whacked the nail right on the head by saying the the All Blacks had got a monkey off their backs with last night’s victory.

The unique pressures of the situation, and the wet conditions were always going to make this a test where the team making the least mistakes came out the winner. As it turned out New Zealand had a good go at making enough to lose the game in the last 15 minutes, and probably caused the Emergency Services some consternation in the process, but managed to hold on to win by four points in the end.

Aside from the excuses of pressure and a slippery ball, there is also the emerging character of this World Cup-bound All Black team. They are capable of the most sublime tries one minute, and the most stupid, elementary mistakes the next. Whether it’s a coincidence that this fits in perfectly with the makeup of Carlos Spencer is moot, but unlikely. Spencer showed wonderful vision at times in this test, but also some plain ordinary kicking from hand and tee, and a few costly fumbles. In the words of John Mitchell, “he had a difficult evening”. No John, that phrase would be suitable for times when he finds it hard to get served at a crowded pub. What Spencer had was “a game which was a mixture of crap and brilliance”. In other words the typical Spencer performance.

The All Blacks are also most definitely a dry weather team, suited to the fast tracks of Australia in November. In last night’s Bledisloe test they played the game, for the most part, as if the weather was dry and simply coped with the wet ball and ground. The result was a couple of wonderful tries and a few blistering attacks which rattled the Wallaby cage and singed their eyebrows. Only in the final 10 minutes did skipper Rueben Thorne call the forwards to play it tight down the tramlines to eat up time, something they half bungled with dropped ball from rolling mauls.

Like the Springboks last week, the Wallabies were understandably upbeat after their loss. Both teams had restored their own faith in themselves after 50-point maulings at the All Blacks’ hands ealier in the season, and the supertanker-like spectre of an all-conquering All Black team which had been steaming over the horizon towards the Rugby World Cup had been sunk.

Or has it?

Last night we saw the equivalent of a car designed for Formula 1 racing on a wet forest track suited to rally cars. Put it on hot sticky tarmac and it will get the kind of traction it was built for.

Aside from the conditions, there were a lot of negatives associated with last night’s task for the All Black team. The game was being played at home in front of a Nation which was demanding that the Bledisloe be returned home. In November the Rugby World Cup is an entirely different and entirely positive quest. An uplifting hope replaces the albatross of expectation, and the task itself is situated away from the damp, pressure-cooker environs of New Zealand. The team will be in perfect conditions, and in a perfect frame of mind, having won all the trophies on offer so far this season.

Those are the positives. The negatives were on show last night. Spencer’s kicking remains undoubtedly the biggest Achilles heel for the All Blacks. Against ‘loose’ sides like Australia he creates try-scoring opportunities with his running, but he is arguably not the man for a tight test against England where a single place-kick from the sideline will likely decide the result. If nothing else, this has been proved beyond doubt in this Tri-Nations series and the tests before it. Spencer might kick everything in sight on the practice paddock, but in pressure situations, he runs at about 50% which is plain awful. If Mitchell has a to-do list for the Rugby World Cup, then fixing this problem should be right at the top.

Of course, MItchell might have no intention of doing anything about this facet of the current All Blacks. The decision might simply be to go with Spencer, warts and all, and bank on scoring more tries than the other blokes.

It might just work, but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that hospital ER’s will become a hell of a lot busier in late November if that’s the case.

As to The Northern Hemisphere, with established World Cup favourites, England, sitting at home having visited and beaten both Australia and New Zealand it is easy to imagine there will be a lot of unease. At face value the proposition is an easy one; shut down the All Blacks from Carlos Spencer outwards and you have the game.

But, as ever, the issue (and the nagging worry) is: can they do it come the time?

Discuss it as we may, the answer to that question will only become manifest in November.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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9 Aug

The Boks Are Back
by Paul Waite
9 Aug 2003

The Springboks went back to their rugby roots at Carisbrook and turned on a performance at total variance with recent tests to earn the respect of the All Blacks and their fans alike finishing 19-11 down at fulltime.

This test match was one of the old school. A traditional All Black v Springbok test with both teams slugging it out toe to toe in the forwards, and scything each other down out wide.

In recent seasons the Boks have been developing a ‘lighter’ style of the game which hasn’t sat well with them, and would have resulted in a similar drubbing to the one in Pretoria had they tried it in Dunedin again tonight. Instead they came out with a fire burning in their bellies, and a no-nonsense 10-man rugby attacking game which suited the cold, dewy conditions to a tee. With Joost sniping in close, Koen hoisting garryowen after garrowen, the forward pack running on pure adrenalin for the full 80 minutes and the backs swarming in defence they shut down the much-vaunted All Black speed machine out wide, and threatened up the middle.

The test also featured two superb tries, one from each side. The first was a beaut early on from a magnificent kick through by Mauger for Rokocoko to slide in and score near the corner. But any thoughts that this was the first of many were dashed as the Boks hit back with a marvellous bust close to the ruck from prop Richard Bands. Joost in-passed on the fringes and Bands took off like a jet-propelled rhinocerous, handing off a Spencer challenge and bulldozing over in the clutches of Collins and another defender to score a mighty try only minutes after the All Blacks effort.

The score proved crucial, since it lifted a Bok team which still had doubts despite its resolution. After that point they came into their own, and took the battle right to the All Black tight five. The committment was tremendous, and the tackling ferocious, but neither team gave any quarter to the other.

In the end the attacking forays of the All Blacks had slightly more penetration and threat, if only by a small margin, and this allowed them to exert enough pressure to force the Springbok defence into errors which Spencer converted with the boot, for once well on target.

In the final 20 minutes the Bok defence did appear to tire just a little, and a few holes opened up. However these were covered just in time on two occasions when the All Blacks were threatening to score a further try, leaving the score close at the final whistle, and fittingly so.

As an All Black fan I hope that Straueli continues to develop the team along these lines somewhat, since the style they played looked so much like the teams of the mid-late 90′s, and produced a pulsating display of true test rugby, and seemed to fit them better than that of latter years.

If they do that then fans and pundits can forget about writing off the Springboks for the Rugby World Cup in November. The Boks may have been lost, but if so they found themselves again at Carisbrook tonight.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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4 Aug

Reuben Thorne: Visibly better than you thought
by Tracey Nelson
4 Aug 2003

There has been some lively debate since John Mitchell named Reuben Thorne as his captain at the start of this international season. Mostly it’s along the lines of ‘Thorne isn’t the best blindsider in the country; he doesn’t dominate his position; he’s Mr Invisible; he’s not demonstrative enough to be a captain’ etc etc.

I’ve already written one article about him (Nelson’s Column – “Domestic Blindness”), yet I find myself having to write another because even now (after two huge wins against SA and Australia) there are still some non-believers amongst us.

For the record (yet again) John Mitchell stated after the Wales game that he doesn’t see his blindsider as being a ball carrier – this is what he wants from his No 8, and he’s also selected other players in the side for their ball carrying abilities (ie. Mealamu, Meeuws, Jack, Brad Thorn, and at times McCaw). He wants his blindsider to be the link man and to organise the defence, while the No 8 and opensider work in tandem with the ball. The blindsider needs to be a lineout option, and to defend the blindside channel off the side of the scrum.

So is Thorne fulfilling this role? I say yes. Let’s break it down into the areas Mitchell was talking about.

Link man My stats on who is getting to the breakdown (First 3 to Breakdown – refer to ‘Freeze Frame’) show that Thorne is moving about the field and following the ball to assist ball retention and recycling at the breakdown. No-one should have any problems with his support to the ball carrier given that he’s never far from the ball and always there in assistance if required. He will carry the ball if the opportunity presents itself, but for the most part he looks to link and maintain continuity as his coach asks of him.

Defence His tackle stats show his defensive work is sound, and it should also be noted that the team as a whole are working well as a defensive unit under his leadership. He shows good awareness of the rules at the breakdown, knowing when he can pick the ball up or when the cleanout is required. A comment from former All Black captain and loose forward John Graham: “His job is to concentrate on getting to second phase when it’s in close, being accurate in what he does there. He makes very, very few mistakes. How often is he penalised? Yet he is constantly close to the ball.”

Lineouts Thorne’s height and previous experience as a lock make him an invaluable asset at the back of the lineout. We have only seen Thorne used as a lineout jumper on a couple of occasions so far this year, but his worth as a lifter is often not recognised. When we were having trouble in the lineouts against France, Thorne moved up the lineout and acted as a lifter to give our locks more height in the air to combat the French contesting – yet how many people noticed it, and realised that was why we started getting more of our own ball? Another thing Thorne is very good at is setting up a rolling maul from a lineout and keeping it going. Take a look at who sets it up next time we score a try from one.

Scrum A flanker’s responsibility at the scrum is to bind and push – something that is sadly too often lacking in the modern game where flankers spend too much time binding loosely with their head up at defensive scrums to make a fast getaway when the ball comes out. A sound scrum requires the flankers to bind tightly and add some grunt and stability to things. Thorne’s technique at scrum time is no doubt due to his time played at lock, so he is very aware of the importance of good binding and pushing as a flanker. Take a look at the last two scrums we packed down against SA and Australia when we shunted them off the ball – Thorne’s binding and leg drive as the push went on was outstanding.

Loose Trio Combination
- at least one of the three should have height for lineout jumping at the rear
- must work together as a unit
- ability to read the game and be in the right place at the right time
- run the right lines to support the backs at the breakdown
Thorne has the height for lineout jumping, he works well in combination with McCaw and Collins, he is running the right lines to get to the breakdown swiftly, and he’s in the right place at the right time when on defence.

Captaincy This man leads by example, he doesn’t need to jump up and down, pound his fist in his palm and rev up the troops by making a lot of noise. His troops follow him because he isn’t a dictator, he encourages his lieutenants on the field to have input into the game and makes decisions based on that input. He is calm, doesn’t lose his cool with the ref and he’s a team player. At the end of the day he is the man that John Mitchell has put his faith in, and from what I’ve seen he is doing everything that Mitchell requires of him. From recent results on the field I see no reason not to have faith in what Mitchell is doing, and it’s about time the rest of the country got in behind the captain and the team.