23 Mar

Dead Set Certs for Round 8
by WAJ
23 Mar 2007

How come Goddard and Bowden are so poor at controlling scrums. You can guarantee a match that they referee will have double figure resets. And yet another SA team hits NZ and their form goes out the window. The Bulls, Stormers and Lions win all over Australia, get to NZ and fall flat on their faces – weird. What are the odds all the returning AB’s get through the weekend unscathed – I must admit I’m with Robbie Deans in throwing them all in now they are available – they are rugby players after all -and the only way to harden up is to play and with post match recovery so good these days get em out there! And things lurch from bad to worse on this side of the ditch – the Reds and Waratahs are truly woeful, the Brumbies gone for all money without the talismanic Mortlock, thank god for the Force they say. Mitch has done a hell of a job in Perth though, a new team on the verge of making the top 4 in its 2nd year is solid, though with the Sharks, Crusaders and Blues still to play it isn’t going to be easy. Assuming those 3 aforementioned teams move away from the field now, the scrap for 4th is a going to be a humdinger with 7 teams sitting outside the current top 4 all within a win of 4th and the Chiefs not completely out of it either.

48 points up for grabs this week – this is how to get them.

Blues v Waratahs – well looking at current form, and positions on the table, this should be a good old fashioned thumping. The Waratahs have been woeful of late – the forwards have been OK, but no more than that, with a pretty stilted approach, the backs have been woeful however with constant changes of personnel and positions both a symptom and an outcome. They need to decide on a No.8 and halfback combo and stick with it, Beale has talent but needs time in a lower grade to develop and learn (a season in the ANZC would be perfect), they have rotated 5 or 6 players through the midfield, and Hewatt at fullback is erratic to say the least especially with the all important goal kicking. The result is they can’t score tries, averaging 1 try a game over the last 5 games they have played, whilst leaking 12. The Blues are on a role, players in all positions in good form, with a strong bench and 4 AB’s returning. Nucifora and Flavell have them all well focused on a game plan which suits them down to the ground.
Blues 13+

Highlanders v Bulls – amazingly the Bulls have beaten the Highlanders only once in the history of Super rugby, and also of note is they have only won twice in NZ at all, both against the Hurricanes. They have made a few changes with Big Vic back being the critical one, and his match up with Ryan will be a beauty, and a few other rotations which won’t make a lot of difference. They forgot to play rugby last weekend and were pretty woeful in all aspects. This won’t be any easier but if last weeks performance doesn’t provide some motivation what will? With Evans ready to hit top form in a team of few stars, but plenty of team players, they will be too good at home, especially after freshening up with the bye last week and the Bulls on week 4 of a 5 week overseas tour.
Highlanders 1 – 12

Crusaders v Stormers – plenty of interest in this game. 6 players with plenty to live up to after excellent games from those they replaced last week. This should be a training exercise for the Crusaders and it will give the 6 AB’s a good blowout in preparation for some harder games ahead. The Stormers are hanging in and around the race for 4th. They have some talented players but plenty of dross as well and Watson cannot win them games every week. The battle of the loosies should provide some interest but all eyes will be on the 6 returning AB’s.
Crusaders 13+

Reds v Chiefs – Another 2 AB’s straight in for the Chiefs, but I would have benched Kinikinilau before Masaga, speed over power for me every time on the wing. I still have doubts over the flakey inside backs, though the extra bit of time Lavea gets is certainly helping him in his decision making. The Reds I fancy will test the inside back channel a few times with Johansson’s bulk, but apart from that they don’t offer much that would frighten anyone. The packs on paper look pretty even but the Chiefs T5 went very well last week considering they lack height and the loosies are as good as anything else going around. Kelleher and Sivi will add plenty of spark against a pretty average Reds backline lets be honest.
Chiefs 13+

Sharks v Brumbies – No Mortlock no Brumbies win – simple. When he plays the Brumbies are direct, follow a game plan, kick goals etc etc and it was noticeable last week that the Cheetahs pulled away after Mortlock broke his hand and left the field. Larkham being back will help, but he has played little rugby this year and now seems to take a game or 2 to get going and his return is offset by a very experimental midfield pairing of Huxley and Playford. The Sharks are on a role with selection being the biggest headache – who to leave out? With a large squad of good players from which to pick from, competition for places, rotations and injuries means these good players are all having to front week in. The Blues and Crusaders are in a similair position squad wise and these teams will be the top 3 accordingly. With the Brumbies having never won in Durban, with no Mortlock and their average overall form the Sharks will win convincingly.
Sharks 13+

Lions v Hurricanes – can’t wait for this one. Watching Jerry Collins run onto a rugby field again I know will bring a tear to my eye. The other 5 additions will also be handy, though the combination of lack of match fitness and altitude will tell at the end of each half. But the pluses these 6 bring far out weighs this and I would anticipate them being a few points up by the time they need to be replaced. The return of the 6 will also lift the confidence of those around them after some disappointing losses over the 3 weeks. A bit of a risk only 2 backs on the bench but that is becoming more and more common place these days – Gopperth now left right out (get the cheque book out Coops and go get one S Brett). The Lions are starting to find their natural place in the pecking order and with their bubble well and truly burst will struggle here again with a limited team who have also returned from NZ this week. Pretorius will be targeted again and he really struggles against good loosies.
Hurricanes 1 -12

20 Mar

The Beating of Drums
by Tracey Nelson
20 Mar 2007

OK, I’ll confess it right now – I am not a Troy Flavell fan. I never have been and I very much doubt I ever will be. So there you go, you know where I stand. No doubt those of you following the media frenzy over Flavell for the past few weeks will be wondering why on earth I don’t rate him, because surely his exploits on the field have been streets ahead of anyone else – you only had to listen to the TV commentators or talkback radio to know that. Apparently he’s just one step away from captaining the All Blacks should (heaven forbid) anything happen to Richie McCaw, if you were to believe the jungle drums at the moment.

So what has he actually done to deserve this high praise and have all and sundry predicting he’s a shoe-in for selection in the All Blacks this year? Sure, he’s captaining a winning Blues side and captaining it pretty well, if you ignore that yellow card he got in his first outing. He’s also playing hard on the field, and is consistently performing at a level you would expect from someone who has previously worn the black jersey.

Certainly he is a very athletic player and has some lovely ball skills, but for me he ruins his game by over-performing when simple execution is all that is required. There were “ooohs” and “aaahs” when he threw a pass behind his back in one game recently. I have no idea why everyone was so excited by it because the net result was it slowed down play as he did so, even while it was obvious to all and sundry (including the opposition defence) where the ball was going as there was only one player outside him to receive it. Why not just draw the defender and put the outside player into space with the quickest pass possible instead of going for the big, flashy, behind the back play? Sure, the try was still scored but why make it harder than necessary?

Then we have moments where he does execute a basic move and suddenly people are erupting in a frenzy of superlatives as though he had just parted the Red Sea. I hope Anthony Tuitavake could see the funny side of it in the opening game against the Crusaders – his double appearance and superb change of pace in one counterattacking move that led to a Blues try was completely overlooked as Flavell’s simple quick transfer of the ball in the middle of the movement was raved about.

Flavell has also been guilty of giving away at least one penalty per game for foul play. That’s foul play, not just your standard penalty at the breakdown or for offside at a ruck. I’m talking offences such as high tackles, late tackles, stomping, pulling down lineout players while they’re still in the air – the sorts of offences that will see jumpy referees pulling the yellow card from their pocket. Some have attempted to use the ridiculous argument of “So what, McCaw gets penalised more and we keep him in the All Blacks” – which is one of the biggest urban myths in the game today. McCaw tends to average two penalties per game, and all at the breakdown which is completely reliant on the referee’s interpretation of when a tackle turns into a ruck. McCaw does not get penalised for foul play, because he simply doesn’t transgress that way. Unfortunately Mr Flavell still does.

There are other areas of Flavell’s game that also remain unproven: can he steal opposition lineout ball? Is he tall enough to be an international lock, jumping against the likes of the South African and French locks? Does he play tight enough to be part of an All Black tight five, or is he more of a flanker come lock? Amusingly enough the game he received the least fanfare for was against the Lions in Week 6, yet I thought it was probably one of his best locking displays because he finally played a tight role and helped set an excellent forward platform for his backs to run off.

So my suggestion to you in the upcoming weeks, as the Blues take on some of the top sides and also have to tour South Africa, is to turn the sound off on your TV and see if you can actually spot what marvels Flavell is performing on the field without being constantly told by his fan club amongst the commentary team. I may be proven wrong and he may not concede another penalty for foul play, he may out-jump the opposition locks, and he may well be the total team player. But until I see it for myself I will not be marching in his supporters’ parade to pound on the All Black selectors’ door.

18 Mar

Half Time in the Super 14
by Tracey Nelson
18 Mar 2007

We have reached the halfway point in the 2007 Super 14 Competition in the year when 22 All Blacks were absent for the first seven weeks, reconditioning as preparation for the upcoming World Cup in September.

So what is the lie of the land now that we’re about to see the re-introduction of the All Blacks back into the NZ franchises and hit the second half of the competition? There is certainly a different look to the top of the table than in previous years, with two South African teams filling 1st and 4th spots, and The Force filling 3rd place.

There is less surprise that the Blues are sitting in 2nd, as they had retained a handy number of seasoned players and only had four All Blacks (Woodcock, Mealamu, Williams and Rokocoko) out. The Blues have a favourable draw this year with seven home games and they met the Crusaders minus their All Blacks in the first round. Their only hiccup has been a loss to the Hurricanes. With three home and four away games left to play they are seemingly assured of a top four finish if they can win at least four (with the hapless Waratahs and Chiefs amongst the upcoming games would you bet against the Blues being semifinalists?), although they have yet to tour South Africa. David Nucifora seems to have finally injected some patience and calm into this side, and his selection of Isa Nacewa at 1st 5 has paid dividends in spades with the backline cutting some merry capers to gain three bonus points from four-try victories.

The Crusaders are cruising ominously in 5th place, with a 3 from 6 win record to date while minus seven All Blacks (Somerville, Jack, Thorne, McCaw, Carter, Mauger, MacDonald). They should have won their game against the unbeaten Sharks in Durban but for a mind implosion on full time that allowed the Sharks to score the winning try. However, they will be fairly pleased to be just out of the top four with such an inexperienced side – their latest demolition of the Bulls was good reward to the young players coach Robbie Deans has shown faith in, and they have responded well to their challenge. Having completed their South African leg, four home games in the remaining seven and the return of their All Blacks there would be few around who wouldn’t be backing them to make the final four.

The Highlanders have been the quiet achievers, going about their business without the fanfare of media coverage the other NZ teams seem to command. They have been minus two All Blacks in Hayman and Oliver, have won 3 of their 6 games to date and finally have shaken the bonus point monkey off their back by gaining fourth try bonus point wins against both the Stormers and Reds. They too have completed their South African tour, and have five home and two away games to complete. Despite having to meet the Crusaders and Hurricanes back at full strength the draw is still looking favourable for the Highlanders to push for the final four.

The Hurricanes were the next hardest hit after the Crusaders with six All Blacks out (Hore, Eaton, Collins, Masoe, So’oialo and Weepu) and minus the majority of their pack have reverted to type to be the up and down team of yesteryear. Their wins to date have mostly been seat of the pants affairs, and they have won just 3 from their 7 games. They still have the bye to come and will have six games left to climb from the lower half of the table into the top four, which includes flying back from South Africa to take on the Bulls, and meeting the Crusaders in Christchurch. Will their returning All Blacks be enough or has it become mission impossible?

Then the Chiefs. So much was hoped for them given the core of their side was made up from the Air New Zealand Cup winning Waikato side, and they only had three All Blacks out (Kelleher, Muliaina, Sivivatu). But the Chiefs have taken until the seventh round to jerk themselves out of first gear, having lost four and drawing the other of their first five games. They have also suffered one of the worst runs of injuries along the way. Luckily they collected some close-loss bonus points and must have done some soul searching during the bye, before finally producing a good win at home against the Lions in round seven to place them mid-table at the halfway point. They too have completed their South African leg and have three home and four away games left to play, but will meet the Blues, Highlanders, Force, Sharks and Crusaders amongst those.

The wheels seem to have fallen off the Australian teams in a big way, with the Waratahs and Reds filling 13th and 14th place respectively. The Brumbies aren’t faring much better, and are also suffering from the same run of bad injuries as the Waratahs and Reds. The Force are their only shining light, but have to play the Sharks, Crusaders and Blues amongst their final six games. The inclusion of a fourth Australian side in the competition seems to be hitting Aussie player depth ranks hard, and I suspect they may well be wishing they’d sat their Wallabies out for a few weeks as the All Blacks have done – although one shudders to think how much worse the Australian sides would have been under that scenario.

The Sharks are the only unbeaten side so far, and along with the Bulls are in the leading pack – although they have only played one game away from home and haven’t yet left the shores of South Africa. However, with three home games still remaining they are looking good to stay in the top four. The Bulls have made history by winning two games on the trot in Australia, although they came back to earth with a thump against the Crusaders this week and have two more games in NZ before returning home for one away and three home games. The Cheetahs seem doomed as all their remaining six games are away, while the Stormers are mid to lower table and will meet the Crusaders before returning to South Africa during their bye for one away and three home games amongst which they will meet the Blues and Sharks.

15 Mar

Sooper Selections for Round 7
by WAJ
15 Mar 2007

What gives with the amount of injuries we see in some teams, yet not in others. The Chiefs, Brumbies, Reds and Waratahs all have shocking injury records this year, yet the other teams have the odd one or two. Is it luck or is there more to it? And if they are not top class players and have a history of injuries should you in fact pick them? We have a real treat in store for us this weekend – no SA refs are in action in the S14. Kappers is fronting in the 6N, but we are blessed over here is Oz in that tourney not being broadcast. And does anybody really rate the 6N teams for the WC, and though I haven’t seen any coverage I have read plenty and they all seem mediocre. France can’t score tries, Ireland very inconsistent, England ditto, with both of the last 2 lacking depth as well. The less said about Wales, Scotland and Italy the better. Finally what does Stephen Brett do in the upcoming years – he will always be 2nd string to Carter – so he will get a few NPC games but not much else, is that the best option for such a talented player – Waikato and Wellington (and their S14 franchises) should be chasing this guy hard.

So where do the 48 points come from this week:

Chiefs v Lions – well this was going to be very straight forward until I saw the Chiefs backs – bloody hell! Flaky Donald, then flaky Lavea (and when was the last time he played 2 5/8) and finally Tu’ipulotu, who is a 2 5/8, at centre! I hope Foster knows what he is doing with a completely untested combo, mind you if these guys can hold on to the ball then all may not be lost. Fortunately he has a very likely looking forward pack to get them on the front foot, might miss the hardworking Bates though and one of Messam or Lauaki will have to play tight, perhaps not either’s strength. The other thing in their favour is that the Lions have turned into pussycats in NZ. They were shocking last week, the Blues should have beaten them by 50 but for their 2nd half snooze, and I don’t see them improving this week. If you shut down Pretorius by crowding his space and limiting his ball they offer very little. So flaky backline and all the Chiefs should still get home reasonably comfortably for the seasons 1st win, they haven’t lost to the Lions in NZ yet either.
Chiefs 13+

Force v Reds – this game is all about the weak getting weaker and a win at last getting the monkey off a back or 2. The Reds injuries keep coming, though admittedly Rodders the Larger could have played if not directed by the ARU to be knifed. The Reds were exposed big-time by a limited Highlanders team and are really battling to get a win. With their playing roster and injuries they are going to struggle for the rest of the season. Now that the Force have finally won at home and get that huge gorilla off their back they go and lose Henjak and Giteau. The former not critical as O’Young is not bad as a replacement, but the loss of Giteau is huge with his game breaking abilities. Again Hilgendorf is no slug, and was very good at times last year, and he may actually run the game better, but Mitch would still be happier with Giteau playing. The confidence gained from the win last week will really boost this side and I would expect the likes of Shepherd, Cross and Mitchell to really open up now.
Force 13+

Crusaders v Bulls – well bugger me! You are on 3 game winning steak, with 2 excellent wins away, winning set pieces with ease, especially your opponents ball at lineout. So let’s rest our key lock, who also happens to be the best lineout jumper in the world, and give a Crusaders lineout, which isn’t a strength let’s be honest, a real chance of breaking even. Deans and co must be laughing nearly as much as Meyer last week when he saw Turunui matched against Habana. This will still be a tough game for the inexperienced Crusaders, especially up front against a big and tough Bulls eight. Again a lot goes on the likes of Flynn, Fillipo and Tuali’I to lead the way, and they have been superb in doing just that this year. Senio has been picked to do a job on du Preez clearly. The Bulls have won only twice in NZ, both times against the Hurricanes (note for round 9) and I expect that poor record to continue against a side who rarely lose at home these days. This may well be the last game, certainly to start, for a lot of Crusaders, and they will want to impress the new 2008 coach. So in the match of the weekend the forwards to win enough ball for the better Crusader backs to win the game.
Crusaders 1 – 12

Waratahs v Stormers – How bad are the Waratahs? Questions need to be asked of McKenzie I reckon on the suicidal team he put on the field last week. I have mentioned Turunui, but he picked a team to counter the Blues up front rather than beat them with their own game and then a lightweight backline totally bereft of any skill. And woe betide mollywoppy, this week he picks an openside flanker and makes 5 changes in the backline, that introduces some guile (Turunui) and strength (Tuqiri – who is definitely not worth the 1.2 mil, and shows how desperate the ARU are to retain any depth in player ranks they can – I mean would he make the AB’s) and pace(Valentine and Turner). I suppose the supporters should be thankful for that at least. The Stormers returned to the sort of form we expect from them last week after the aberration of Palmerston North, utter crap that is, and though they have a 50/50 record in Sydney, the crap will continue against the better structured Waratahs.
Waratahs 13+

Cheetahs v Brumbies – Tough one this. A much better Brumbies got their shit together for the 1st time in a long time last week, the senior players were to the fore and they won comfortably despite a last 30 min slumber. Can they do it 2 times in a row is the question? Mortlock gives them so much direction and guidance that I think they probably will. The Cheetahs hung in bravely last week to be just ahead at half time but the extra class of the Sharks took over in the 2nd half. And that is the problem with the Cheetahs, with all their endeavour they lack that real edge in the backs that the good sides have.
Brumbies 1 – 12

Sharks v Hurricanes – The Sharks had a good win last week and continue to impress in SA. They have good depth in all positions and have players shining all over the place. A solid T5, good mix in loose, some real skill in midfield and 2 young stars in Steyn and Pienaar. They have made Durban a real fortress these days with 8 wins in a row. The Hurricanes are battling at the moment – 6 AB’s down, injuries to Nonu and Umaga, and the lack of a decent 1 5/8 (how would Ellison go there I wonder) see them on a 2 game losing streak, neither of which they should have won either. Some players will be playing for future selection with the 6/22 due back next week so that will be some motivation, but this weeks team just plain aren’t good enough to beat the Sharks at home.
Sharks 13+

9 Mar

Crystal Ball Gazing for Round 6
by WAJ
9 Mar 2007

Well the esteemed Dr Birdsall has headed us all off with a weekly high of 24 points and also takes the lead on the cumulative table, clearly the planets are not aligned in the world of rugby. The only consolation is that 16 points moved you up at least 12,000 places. Two draws, only two home teams winning, and poxy last minute tries – what gives!

And fancy not one SA side losing – heaven help us – the next thing they will start to get cocky. And the Aussies are in a slump, and I for one give them no hope in the 2nd half of the year – too many players either injured, past their used by date or just not good enough. Their front row is an absolute shambles and halfback / 1 5/8 present huge problems. Connelly would want his best 22 – 25 penciled in by now, I reckon he would have 40 names down to cover for the above situations – and we are 1 day short of 6 months before the RWC starts.

So the 56 points this week – come from all the home teams. Why not – nothing else works.

Highlanders v Reds – good to see a better structure in the Highlanders back row this week – Blackie should always be the out and out opensider. Evans will be sharper after his understandably stilted performance of last week and needs to test out the inexperienced Reds inside backs. The Reds continue to stumble along – I almost feel sorry for Eddie – he is hit by yet more injuries and will, by all accounts, lose Rodders the Larger next week for the season as well, not that that is a huge loss as he is clearly down on form. The Reds actually spun the ball past 1 5/8 last week and scored a couple of tries in doing so. So what to expect this week – The Highlanders at home, with Evans running the shop, and their excellent defence holding up will be too strong for a side with too much inexperience (Quade Cooper is going to be good though) and not enough options. And why would Knuckles want Tune to hang around after the S14 – he’s crap these days.

Highlanders 13+

Brumbies v Stormers – An absolute crunch match for the Brumbies – they have to win or 2007 is wasted. Having the talismanic Mortlock back is huge for them and will give them some much needed direction which was clearly missing last week when Huxley took some terrible options. And they are the worst team when it comes to holding on to the ball. All sorts of excuses are given these days, especially when it is hot and humid, but the Bulls were OK with their handling last week so why not the Brumbies. The Stormers on the other hand have suddenly clicked. The T5 has held up, allowing the loosies into the game more and the midfield too has come to the fore. Still I can’t believe the Brumbies can be that bad 2 weeks in a row – there would have been an awful lot of soul-searching in Canberra, with certain senior players needing to show up – the likes of Paul, Chisholm, Rathbone and Gerard need to show why they are Wallabies.

Brumbies 1 – 12

Force v Hurricanes – well how the hell could you pick a winner here – the Force who cannot win at home v the Hurricanes who had a complete brain freeze for 75 of the 80 minutes last week. The Force will be better with Sharpe back but seem to lack real direction in the backs. Giteau is a world class player, runs and passes with the best of them, but can he run a game. All good sides have someone in the inside backs who can control things – the Blues have Nacewa/McAllister, the Lions have Pretorius, the Bulls have du Preez, and then look at the sides who have struggled of late, the Chiefs with Donald, Brumbies with Huxley, Gopperth without Umaga besides him is average, the Reds have 2 novices – Giteau needs a steadier beside him to control things and why they insist on putting Staniforth on the wing is beyond me. The Hurricanes were pathetic last week, to the point of conceding a pushover try (though I thought you were supposed to reset the scrum when the front rows came up). The changes in the backline will do them a world of good, Umaga alone a crucial gain. But I think their bubble has burst and the loss of the super six is really starting to bite now. So despite their inability to focus for the full 80, I am going to back the Force to break their cherry and sneak home.

Force 1 – 12

Blues v Lions – well just when everything is going along beautifully, combinations are starting to click, and players finding real form in their best positions f**king Nucifora gets his tea leaves read (as that is the only thing I can put it down to because it isn’t done on form) and changes it all. Is he giving out games as a reward for being a good bloke or something. At least Kaino is playing, but the one dimensional Williams worries the shit out of me, the no dimensional Holwell has me hyperventilating and the selection of McAllister on the bench just plain bloody stupid. And this against a side 3rd on the table and thus playing OK rugby. AAARRGGGHHH!!!!!! Can’t go on about this game anymore – too pissed off!!!! Still think we’ll smash them though:-)

Blues 13+

Waratahs v Bulls – another excellent match up in this round. With the table so congested these games are crucial, especially for home sides, and more especially for the Waratahs who are only 1 point off the bottom. The Waratahs have never lost at home to the Bulls, mind you neither had the Brumbies last week. The Waratahs need to improve by 20% to be competitive this year – they need to find a midfield influence, Turinui perhaps, who can get Tuqiri into the play with some effect, and need to be on the ball mentally up front for the 80 minutes. They seem to fall asleep for periods and let the opposition back in. The Bulls are exactly that – Bulls, you know what to expect, as I think I have said every week now, you just need to counter it – the midfield is probably their weakest area and thus the need to use Tuqiri sensibly in that area. Another close game I expect with both teams struggling to score a lot of points. Another draw perhaps???

Waratahs 1 -12

Cheetahs v Sharks – what can you say about the Sharks, the luckiest win this year sees them still unbeaten, they never look totally convincing but somehow find a way to win. They have a lot of experience though and that combined with the flair of the likes of Peterson and Pienaar is serving them well. This is a tough one however. SA sides love smacking the crap out of each other, and the Cheetahs have the bragging rights at the moment after they won all 3 Currie Cup encounters last year. The Cheetahs did well to come back from 16 – 3 down to be ahead until Donald kicked the last minute penalty to earn the draw. Another game where there won’t be a lot in it and the Cheetahs will win with only a kick or 2 in it.

Cheetahs 1 – 12

Regards Waj