by Paul Waite
23 May 2004
I’m sure we’ll hear lots of the “proud of the boys” comments from the Cantabrian supporters this coming week.
There’s a solace to be had in it I suppose, and a certain element of truth as long as you don’t take it too far.
The Crusaders lost the final in an opening 20 minutes of utter stupidity, and incompetence that was an embarrassment to every New Zealand rugby fan, not just Canterbury supporters, and that isn’t something to be proud about, or something which can be offset by the expected fight-back and rallying effort – something any team would do. Nor does a claw-back of points against a polished team which is 33-0 up and then takes its foot off the neck, as usual, offset it. The bald fact is, the Brumbies never looked like losing throughout the game since the points difference was always too great.
So what went wrong? Well you’d have to question players like Blair, who had a horror night to end all horror nights right from the first 30 seconds. He wasn’t alone. Basic errors of getting isolated, not catching high balls etc. affected all the team and couldn’t be attributed to pressure exerted by their opposites. Defensive lapses leaked tries like a sieve with no mesh in it. In fact it was a microcosm of all the inconsistent rubbish we’ve seen from the New Zealand Super-12 teams this season, and it is a big worry.
And while we’re busy asking people things, why don’t we quiz Deans regarding the astonishing substitution of Mehrtens for McIntyre? That can’t be simply dismissed as “touch of the old tactical subbing”. Tactics certainly had something to do with it, that’s a given, however it also has strong undercurrents to it, and ones which seriously bring into question Deans’ judgement this season. If Mehrtens was seen as the man to get the Crusaders out of trouble, why wasn’t he on there in the first place to make sure they didn’t get into any? If Mehrtens’ defence is so bad, and McIntyre’s much preferred, then were the Crusaders going into the final just to defend? At the very least that ill-considered desperation act will have damaged McIntyre’s confidence and belief very badly indeed – you only had to look at the lad’s face as he came off the field.
But it has to be said, from the time Merhts came on the backline started humming at a noticeably higher pitch. It was just a case of well-timed, well-executed passes, mixed with some Tony Brown-like running, but it made a big difference, and showed us what we’ve known all along – that Mehrtens should never have been demoted to the bench after that debacle in South Africa, and should have been persevered with.
So, turning to the positive in this lost cause of a game, there were indeed a few.
Once again there has to be caution with this, and the praise must be muted because the losing situation these players were in has its own unique kind of dynamic. That said, all the players settled in to graft for pride, and to a limited extent succeeded in expunging some 90% of the guilt for their inept performance.
A few deserve a special mention: Brad Thorn, Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter head this pack. The first two were Titans. The third was all class.
Just behind them come Merhtens, Mauger, the whole front row and Jack. I didn’t mention Rueben Thorne simply because he didn’t do anything outstanding. Leadership in that situation is a no-brainer, and with ball in hand, or on defence he was just an anonymous face doing the usual kind of work required. Thorne is like the glue holding a nice piece of wooden furniture together – you know it’s there, and doing a good useful job, but theres no need to admire it.
What does this mean for NZ rugby? Well, as we’ve seen from the way the season has unfolded, New Zealand rugby is on a downward trend in terms of overall strength and abilities. There are no surprises. We see a lot of players, like Merhtens, with class to burn but who are on their way out. Below them most of the youngsters pushing through don’t seem to have basic skills or intelligence or savvy about the game, and this continuous process has eroded any kind of advantage New Zealand used to enjoy.
Solace may yet come, for a while, at All Black level. There are only 22 players to pick, so there’s still room to get a competitive side together, but if things continue to erode, that won’t last either.
So all-in-all a very depressing evening of rugby-watching was had by all.
However the news this morning had another unpleasant twist to it. Apparently Police in the South Island are reporting an ever-increasing trend toward violence and disorder callouts, as disgruntled so-called “fans” take the loss out on their spouse, or whomever.
They say this is a growing trend. This is a sad indictment of the direction that sport, wrapped in its over-hyped, media-frenzied plastic packaging, is going. These people need to get a life, and a perspective other than the warped one promoted by the idiot-box in their living rooms.