29 Feb

Super 12, Take-2
by Paul Waite
29 Feb 2004

Ok, as usual we can ignore the first week of the Super 12 as being more or less about a bunch of nincompoops who have forgotten everything they ever knew about playing rugby in the two short months away from the game, trying vainly to remember the “Rugby for Beginners – 101″ course their coach ran for them the previous week.

It used to be worse. A few years back we’d be watching 44 imbeciles running around aimlessly, dropping the ball every other pass, and generally doing a good impression of the blind leading the blind for a whole three weeks, and in addition to the mental retardation factor they’d also be totally unfit. Small mercies, etc.

In this second week we’ve begun well, having been treated to some good rugby in the form of the Crusaders v Blues game last night. In this game the “CC” stood for Carlos and Caucau. It was their show all night as the Fijian World Cup phenomenon with the bulging legs and the great left hook posted three tries, and Carlos a couple including the one which put the match beyond reach. The Saders can at least look back on a game they woke up for, unlike last week’s pathetic sleep-walk, but they also need Corey Flynn to arrive on the correct planet vis-a-vis lineout throwing. They should come right, and two early losses in this tourny mean nothing to a good side, as they’ve proved before.

Over in Canberra the Brumbies entertained the Cats. That’s assuming the Cats found being utterly humiliated in front of millions of TV viewers entertaining of course. ACT were so dominant that at one stage when Larkham had the ball, he felt he had to run into Jeremy Paul to provide himself with more of a sense of challenge. A 68-28 final score after notching up 6 first-half tries is an embarassment whichever way you cut it. The ACT robo-rugby machine is, as usual, plugged in and humming.

Well, not a very good rest of the weekend for New Zealand fans that’s for sure. Thank god I actually have a life and so managed to miss watching any of it as it happens. Of course that means I don’t really have much to say here either, but I’m sure you’ll forgive that.

Looking at the reports, the one that sticks out is the rampant incompetence of the Highlanders who let a 22-0 lead at halftime turn into a 46-25 deficit by the end. All of the players, the coach and the manager ought to be immediately sacked as a lesson to them not to do that kind of thing ever again. Either that or they have to change their name to The New Hurricanes, there isn’t a third option.

The Canes themselves fared much better against the Bulls, setting out their stall early with a 0-26 halftime deficit and romping home with a nice and logical 19-40 loss by the end. This is what we like to see – rugby with some sense and purpose to it. So take a pat on the back coach Colin Cooper – we’ve been waiting for some consistency from the Hurricanes for ages and now we’ve got it. Time was, they’d have turned that 0-26 into a silly 108-26 win with all points scored in the last 3 minutes, but those days are thankfully behind us.

Over in Aussie those hapless wankers the Reds beat the Chiefs by 39-25. This one was another truly logical game of footy not only in the way the scoring went, but also with the fact the Chiefs lost – the Chiefs always lose, and always after tantalising their fans with a plucky little struggle early on. This time they were 18-all after 48 minutes before sucumbing to their inimitable Chiefness.

Well at least we had a New Zealand winner out of the Saders v Blues game, so it isn’t all doom and gloom for New Zealand rugby, eh?

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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28 Feb

Blueprint for Failure
by Paul Waite
28 Feb 2004

This week we heard, to our astonishment, that the NZRFU were setting off to their IRB meeting lugging with them a set of Plans to revamp the way World Rugby is administered.

Apparently, these Plans are based, no less, on the recipe which has successfully seen the decline of New Zealand Rugby as a world power over the past 7-8 years.

Yes, the very same system which has brought us a succession of incompetent All Black coaches, no World Cup success, and the debacle of the loss of the 2003 Rugby World Cup sub-hosting is going to be put forward as the saviour of World Rugby.

For those foreign readers not familiar with the set-up which has been so (not) successful here, it involves jettisoning the tiresome encumbrance of having a board made up of stakeholders in the game from the lower levels and instead appointing a small group of business-oriented bods who are elected and then wield ultimate power without having to refer to anyone else.

The NZRFU board used to be made up from representatives of the New Zealand provinces. This resulted in a lot of hot air and slower decision-making, quite true, however for slower decision-making you can also read lively and lengthy debate which aired all the topics relevant to the provincial and general health of the game.

There are pros and cons to both systems of course. Large and representaive boards are subject to provincialism and stick-in-the-mudism and are often referred to as suffering from hardening of the arteries – the Old Farts Syndrome.

The streamlined boards can, for their part, do a lot of damage to the game in a very short time and can fail to look after the grass-roots due to their detachment from it and lack of genuine accountability. They might be effectively sacked at re-election, but by then it can often be far too late. On the other hand they can, in theory, do a lot of good for the game in a short time too but in practice this rarely seems to happen.

Having seen both in action I can say I’m a fervent supporter of the representative approach. Give me a board of mud-in-your-eye staunch provincial representatives every time over a small team of accountant/lawyer/bizzo types who don’t seem to look after the lower echelons of the game enough.

As for the IRB, my advice them them is to pat the NZRFU on the head and then tell them to put this pointy hat on, and go and sit quietly in the corner.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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8 Feb

Bigger Not Always Better
by Paul Waite
8 Feb 2004

As we ramp up once again for the February-to-May Super-12 marathon, it might be a good time to consider what comes next.

The News Ltd. TV contract with SANZAR runs out in 2005, and all the countries involved will be already working hard to follow the Super-12/Tri-Nations act that came on-stage way back in 1995 amid the turmoil of a Rugby World Cup and a hostile bid to annex World Rugby by the would-be WRC.

Ten years on, and we look back with mixed feelings on the first era of professional rugby, but love it or hate it, it is here to stay in some form or another and we are now at an important time once again in the evolution of the sport.

One would hope that the first decade would offer the powers that be some important lessons that they might heed, instead of relegating them to the status of “secondary issues” as they scramble for the best deal in money terms.

One would also hope they realise that if they fail to put rugby first and go for short-term gain then they are at the very least putting any future profitability in jeopardy, since this necessarily depends on the health of the game.

First and foremost is the lesson that the future marketing and success of the sport can’t continue to leverage revered rugby traditions, and at the same time stomp them into the mud in the name of short-term profits. Even the youngest, brashest marketing executive should be able to perceive that rugby’s points of difference (to use the lingo) with other sports should be preserved. The jerseys, the rules, the genuine camaraderie, the after-match dinners, the long tours, The Lions, the Welsh singing Cwm Rhondda, test-matches on brisk but sunny Saturday afternoons, the list goes on. All of these things are under various degrees of threat from short-sighted non-thinkers in the game today, and rugby must be protected from them or suffer the fate of becoming just another commodity spooned out to the masses via a satellite TV slot.

Another lesson which should have been learned is that there is simply Too Much Rugby in a given season. Not only does it leave the average fan feeling “rugbied out” by the end of October or even earlier, it results in players who either get injured or end up playing like automatons. Whole teams full of players on this huge treadmill end up playing journeyman football of no great worth, and nobody is served except perhaps the idiots ringing the cash-register. A secondary effect is the marginalising of the summer sports here in New Zealand, where cricket (and other sports) are now pressured at both ends of the summer by rugby.

Two additional lessons which should also be taken from the last decade can be summarised as follows: we want long tours back, and we want more variety in our rugby.

Both are linked in fact. Taking the second point first, the Super-12 and Tri-Nations were much too monolithic and repetetive. The 3N had the absolutely hateful effect, for me, of reducing the All Blacks v Springboks test match into just another ho-hum game. There used to be a raising of the hairs on the back of the neck, and butterflies in the stomach for the whole leadup week when the Boks were in town, or when the Blacks toured the republic, but now it’s just another Tri-Nations round. The people who did this to the game ought to be strung up by the balls.

People want variety, TV networks and the accountants want predictability. Ok, so let’s learn from the past decade and accept that what we’ve had is too boring. A compromise could be tried, where a Tri-Nations type of round-robin is done every other year, and major tours in the ones between. The TV networks and Co. will still have predictability, since tours are arranged years in advance, and the fans will have a decent variety, as they had in the amateur era – why should they have to settle for less?

If this were done, the resurgence of the major tour would inject a huge amount of life into rugby at the grass-roots of every country involved. Casting the mind back, some of the tour games I have seen were monumental, and well worthy of a Worldwide TV audience. The shear intrigue of seeing how the Lions go against the might of Auckland, or Canterbury is surely worth both cities weight in gold to the marketeers. Better by far than yet another boring round-robin between teams you’ve seen so many times you start commenting on the players hair-dos to keep from going to sleep in the middle of a game.

But we have been focussing more on the Tri-Nations; what is going to replace the Super-12 come 2005?

As the title of this article suggests, a bigger competition would be the ruin of rugby. It would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I enter a plea right here, for those who can really listen, to create something better, but not bigger. The two do NOT go hand in hand I’m afraid.

It seems inevitable that Australia will get a fourth Super-XX team in 2005. Ever the pet project of the erstwhile John O’Neill, and ever the pet hate of the NZRFU things have changed somewhat and I would guess that this will go ahead. There is a slight chance that New Zealand might drop a team, but this is unlikely due to financial concerns.

Possibly we might just end up with the Super-13, but don’t under-estimate the power of the Unlucky Number 13; the competition would be re-badged by a team of eager-beaver marketing graduates working from a room with rubber walls, as “The Superthing” or “Sanzar MegaRugby” or “The Great Big Fuckoff Rugby Comp”, or “Gladiators With Oval Balls” or whatever they think might appeal to a TXT-enabled teen with acne from too much face-paint, and more pocket money than brain-cells.

Another option is that as well as a fourth Australian team we get an additional team such as a combined Pacific Island franchise to make a “Super-14″. The testbed for this has already been seen recently as the IRB help to get some fixtures post-Rugby World Cup and bring some much needed money in to the Islands rugby coffers.

With either 13 or 14 teams, the powers that be won’t be forced to radically change the format of the competition to a Pool-play configuration, and they will undoubtedly opt to simply create a bloated version of the Super-12, a great wallowing Mammoth of a competition which numbs the minds of spectators, pummels the bodies of players, and squeezes summer sports more than ever before.

Hopefully sense will prevail and we will see something else. The best option would be to invite another one or two teams in, making 16 and reconfigure the competition for Pool play, and perhaps a two-level playoff (Cup and Plate) at the end. The Australians might raise a fifth team, or maybe the Japanese would be keen. If pool play was used, then Argentina might also be considered, since the travelling logistics can be lessened by the appropriate use of pools.

Whatever the outcome I hope that some sanity is brought to the table as well as balance sheets, and that the fans and players are considered. Above all the age-old saying that “bigger is not necessarily better” should be uppermost in their minds. There’s another saying which is appropriate here as well – “quality not quantity”.

Like all old sayings, they got old because they have value.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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8 Feb

The Answers Are In The Past
by Paul Waite
8 Feb 2004

For those of you still wondering how on earth the All Blacks can climb back to that special place of ultimate respect they used to enjoy in World Rugby, after eight years in the doldrums the answer is surprisingly simple. But first let’s consider how the present situation came about in the first place.

The cause has been under discussion by the rugby fraternity in this country for the past couple of years, and on this website for the past seven. The problem has been a lack of committment to putting it to rights.

It could be that the truth is too unpalatable for some people who should know better. After 100 years of dominance built on the foundation of hard, uncompromising and technically superb forward-play, they might find it a bit too difficult to swallow the accusation that New Zealand rugby has gone soft and stupid. But that’s what’s happened alright.

John Mitchell appeared, initially, to be the man to redeem us from this ignominious plight. He made all the right noises, going on at length about honing our set-pieces and getting the basics of the game right. It all looked like it might be falling into place until the 2003 season, Rugby World Cup Year itself.

We saw from the outset against England that the basic advice “pick your kicker first” had been ignored, and against the likes of the French ‘B’ side that the lineout was as vulnerable and naive as ever. It amused me to hear the excuses being put forward to explain that performance – it would never have been so in Colin Meads’ day. Other areas looked amazingly good at times. The scrum with a Hewett – Hammet – Sommerville front row, and the Jack – Thorn locking partnership was powerful enough to destroy any opposition. It bulldozed both the South Africans and Australians into small pieces of rubble. But this wasn’t persevered with.

As the World Cup drew nearer, it became more confusing. Sitting and watching at home, we believed the awkwardness was probably due to Mitchell holding his side back to thwart video analysis. During the World Cup pool-play things became even worse. At a time when Mitchell should have been giving his chosen first XV time to gel, we had a blizzard of team changes seemingly designed to confuse the bejaysus out of the opposition, players and fans alike. The injuries could only explain it to a small degree.

And then there was the gameplan. What a disappointment that turned out to be, didn’t it? Eschewing all pretence of basing our game on our set-pieces and time-honoured rugby techniques, Mitch and Deans set out to play sevens-style FastRugby, and to try and beat the World’s best teams by chucking the ball wide and running fast, mixed up with a couple of nominated “ball-carriers” taking it up the guts in the forwards.

The naivete of the plan, as it was revealed, was breath-taking. The clearest sign of its demise was the Pool game against Wales. The Welsh fielded a ‘B’ side which had nothing to lose that day, and they ended up embarassing the All Blacks by showing how vulnerable and one-dimensional they were.

Personally, with the Australian semi-final still well in the future, I was of the opinion that we were still hiding our light under a bushell, and that the gameplan against the Welsh was simply too stupid to be The One. Unfortunately, I was completely wrong in that assumption. The Aussies picked us off like fish in a barrel because that was our One And Only gameplan.

Enough of the World Cup. To use the vernacular, it’s a done deal, and simply represents another chance missed, and another monument to the incredible arrogance or stupidity (I’m not sure which) that we seem to have amongst the leading lights of the game in this country, that they can imagine we can beat The World without paying our dues to the basic tenets of the game – tenets that WE invented and more or less owned at one time. Aside from that, there is the almost criminal neglect of the legacy left to us by 100 years of All Black success.

So what of the remedy? Remedying the situation remains as simple and yet problematic as it has been since 1997, when we saw the last of the kind of players who understood how to play this game at the highest level and win.

In my view it’s no accident that these players spanned the amateur and professional eras. Paradoxically, the “amateur” players were in many ways more “professional” than the current crop. In all areas, save time to train, they had the wood on our cossetted, overpaid pros. This isn’t surprising. The amateur was like a self-employed, self-motivated man in business: out on his own to a great extent, and therefore forced to be much more resourceful and independent. If it all turned to brown-stuff he and his team-mates didn’t have a corporate support structure to turn to – they had to bloody sort it out themselves. In short the buck (no pun intended) stopped with them, out on a muddy paddock where they had to put the hard yakka and the leadership on the line or lose with nobody to blame but themselves.

These days we have pros who put in a few hours training down the gym, do some promos, and get a round of golf in the afternoon. They have big salaries, big sponsorships, and most importantly, they are part of a much larger organisation whether it be a Super 12 Franchise, or the AllBlacks.com juggernaut. They feel part of a corporate structure where there is hierarchical accountability. If the team fails week to week, there is pressure on them sure – but the ideas on how to sort it out are shared and mostly lie with “management” don’t they? In the old days, there was much less of this and we saw players taking real responsibility for thinking out problems off and on the pitch.

For evidence of this look no further than the fact that we see hardly any trace of real leadership out on the pitch these days. Why is it so hard to pick out an All Black captain from season to season? The answer is there are no candidates honing their leadership skills out of the paddock from week to week in the lower levels of the game. Instead there are too many walkie-talkies, too many coaches opting to run their teams like a bunch of robots from the sideline, and too much “corporatisation” taking responsibility away from the players which is the underpinning problem. To make matters worse, it’s a circular problem – there are no skippers worth a damn so coaches control everything; the coach controls everything so no skippers develop – ad inifinitum until someone deliberately breaks the cycle.

The remedy for our problems lies in the lessons provided by the way we did things in the past, and the mindset which fits the New Zealander playing rugby like a supple leather boot.

First and foremost, we need to give the game on the pitch back to the players on the pitch. Coaches should stop trying to control everything that goes on, and stop taking full responsibility for it as well – in a genuine sense, not in the lip-service sense we sometimes see when players are interviewed after-match and come out with the “no excuses” cliches. We need to develop some real captaincy before we can expect to see the All Blacks being able to change their gameplan to suit opposition tactics, once more.

Secondly, there needs to be a follow-through at all levels on John Mitchell’s initial promise to respect and re-develop the basics of the game and in particular in the forwards. The aim is to rediscover that hard-nosed-but-canny attitude that we were reknowned for a decade ago.

Let’s be clear. This second requirement stems mightily from the first. Give the game back to the players and you once more re-establish an environment for that special kind of kiwi ingenuity and capacity to do the extraordinary which lies latent in every true New Zealander.

As an addendum to this, we should also rid ourselves of this bloody silly idea that the game has to be “entertaining”. The game simply has to be WON, as the Poms showed us last year in Sydney. If New Zealand teams focussed themselves on playing no-frills rugby based on forward power and skills in the tight, the platform it provides will be more than enough to give the backs a chance to entertain.

The emphasis at all levels should be on developing the team to dominate opponents and win, not on entertainment.

We now have a new All Black coach – Graham Henry. His assistants, although yet to be officially announced, will be Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen. On paper, this represents the most powerful coaching team the All Blacks have ever had. All three could be The All Black Coach in their own right, and all three know a tremendous amount about the game and coaching it.

In the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final against Australia, we were very simply picked off by the canny Eddie Jones, who had our number as early as the post-match media briefing after the final Bledisloe Cup game in Auckland. In Graham Henry the All Blacks now have the man who out-thought and out-manoevred the legendary Brumbies and Wallabies coach Rod MacQueen in the early days of the Super 12, so that should be a thing of the past on his watch.

Another weak area for the All Blacks last year was the defence which Wayne Smith was notable for strengthening when he was All Black coach in 2001. Steve Hansen is simply an outstanding coach all-round, having brought the Crusaders success at Super 12, and improved Wales out of sight in a relatively short time. The coaching team is shaping up to be one where Smith takes special responsibility for the backs, and Hansen the forwards with Henry overseeing it all and driving it using his inimitable capacities for analysis and planning.

There are no question marks over the ability of any of these three, but there are important questions to be answered in this coming season. The first is how they will work together, and the second is whether they will collectively realise that in order to fix New Zealand rugby, they have to take a couple of steps back first, as outlined above.

Only time will tell. This coming season and the next will at least provide a good yardstick of what we can expect. With England visiting for a two-test tour this year, and the Lions coming the year after, we won’t be lacking for evidence for or against.

Whatever the outcome there is, as always, only one thing left to say at this point:

Go Black!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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7 Feb

Hurricanes '04 Preview
by Zand Moloney
7 Feb 2004

Well summer is here and my mind is focused on one thing, Super 12 rugby and the exploits of my beloved Hurricanes.

For the first time I am filled with genuine optimism, as opposed to blind faith, that things will go well. Normally I am happy if we are not the worst performing New Zealand franchise, now my expectations are a lot higher.

The first reason for this is coach Colin Cooper who did magnificently last year. The ‘Canes were a revelation with good solid forward play augmenting the slick back play that the lads have always been famous for. Cooper drilled the need for a forward platform, and discipline into the team and the results were there to see. Although struggling against the big three of the Blues, Brumbies and Crusaders towards the end I have little doubt that Colin Cooper is by far and away the best man for the job, and one of the best coaches in the country.

Backing up his technical nous is his ability to attract talent to the region, Joe McDonnell, who has been on the fringe of All Black selection, has joined the WRFU along with Tane Tuipulutu who has undoubted talent but cannot justify a regular place in the Auckland teams blessed as they are with so many great midfield backs. Also picking up Hosea Gear on the draft adds to the level in the backline. The reduction of the number of draft players this season also shows how far the franchise has come since the inauguration of the Super 12. Initially we had a hodge-podge of players coming in on the draft from all round the country as far away as Northland and King Country. Now we only have a few players coming in, and all are top quality, either in teams which are not one of the main unions or are behind incumbents at their regions Super 12 team.

I also believe that with the taste of semi-final rugby that the ‘Canes got last year gives them an idea of what the standard required is and that the team will be more prepared should they make that level again. The All Black selection of Collins, So’oailo and Nonu means we have another three players who have made the grade at the highest level and they will be battle hardened from the experience and can share this with the rest of the squad.

One of the only things that has dulled this sense of optimism is the loss of Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu with one going overseas and another ruled out by illness. Lomu loss was felt last year, but with Brent Ward playing so well the ‘Canes managed to deal with it. That said Jonah is a game breaker with few peers and it is very sad that we will not be able to see him play this season, and possibly ever again, all the best big man.

Personally though I think the loss of Cullen will be greater. He has been there from the start and was always one of our best, if not the best player in the franchise. My favourite memory of Cullen was the game against the Waratahs at McLean park in Napier in 1997 where he managed to run the length of the field, and through the entire Waratahs defence to score under the posts. His ability find gaps from fullback, break the line and make try saving tackles is unparalleled and I doubt we will ever truly replace him. Even last year, with a knee injury robbing him of speed, he still showed what world class skill he has. I wish him all the best at Munster but can’t help thinking it would be better for New Zealand to see him pulling on the Hurricanes jersey at least one more time.
Overall I think that anything less than a semi-final place would be a disappointment from the Hurricanes, this team has experience and skill and within the addition of many of the NPC finalist Wellington Lions, youthful enthusiasm.

Now they seemingly have got rid of the inconsistency tag that dogged them over previous season, now they just have to prove to themselves and us long suffering supporters that they are up to the standards of the Blues, Crusaders and the Brumbies.