25 May

Another Gobby For Eddie
by Paul Waite
25 May 2007

BigMouthIt’s time SANZAR thought about founding a new Annual Award. It would be called The Gossip Or Blather – GOB award, and be presented to the coach who, in the opinion of the judges, blabbed the most to the Media.

Naturally the award would become known as “The Gobby”, as in “hey Eddie, I hear you picked up your fifth consequetive Gobby this year..”

Eddie Jones, the garrulous rent-a-quote former coach of the Wallabies has been at it again, this time as coach of The Queensland Reds in the Super-14. The trouble is SANZAR, in typical “corporate suits” fashion, have drawn up a book of rules which forbid players and coaches criticising referees and a officials, and who knows maybe their contracts even put a stop to them discussing the SANZAR Chief’s wives in derrogatory terms.

The problem with this gagging of free speech is that it doesn’t result in the right things happening. For a start, the idea is SANZAR don’t want their competition “brought into disrepute”. Jaysus, what century are these pratts living in? Like the average fan is going to consider the game is disreputable, just because Eddie says the latest reffing display was crap. Bollocks.

All it does, if obeyed to the letter, is give us a bunch of drones who mouth the same bland cliche-ridden shite, even if the referee had a brain-cell implosion and totally disgraced himself. It isn’t in sync with the times.

These days fans are knowledgable, keen, and have to hand numerous instant messaging technologies to view replays, and discuss performances at will. Ordering coaches and players to stop saying what they think is like trying to dam a river by knocking a tent peg into the middle of it. And besides that, it makes SANZAR look at best plain silly, and at worst a bunch of draconian bosses who can’t face the truth, and aren’t committed to excellence through improvement.

Let’s look at the other side of the coin. Imagine you’re a referee, and you’ve just had a shocker. It was the wrong time of the month, your dog had given you a nasty nip in the testicles as you unwisely tried to give it breakfast dressed only in a pair of Y-fronts that morning, and an irritating eyelid tick has been with you all day affecting your vision. You awarded a try that wasn’t scored, and disallowed one that was. A stray dog wandered on the pitch and gave you a nasty nip in the testicles as you tried to order it off, and you issued five red cards for trifling offenses which didn’t happen.

In a Universe far away from here, where there is a SANZAR panel with some vision, both coaches and the players rip the shit out of you on prime-time TV. The public agree, and SANZAR do too, saying that your performance will be reviewed and steps taken to either get you right, or replace you. In the weeks that follow you do some retraining, the old testicles heal, and you feel better and get back to refereeing well.

In this Universe, since Fast Eddie Mouth isnt’ involved in this particular game, everyone is muzzled like the rabid dogs SANZAR believes they are. Comments range from a risky “I thought the refereeing could have been a tad better, but no complaints really”, to a “The referee wasn’t to blame for our loss” (even though the try he disallowed of theirs, and the one he awarded to them were the difference in the score). Meanwhile, on Planet Reality, the public discuss the game as it actually was in pubs, on the ‘net in forums, on mobiles and post video clips to YouTube etc. proving it. SANZAR wears the egg on its face in that well-known, but oblivious fashion.

Nobody is saying that coaches and players should be actually abusive about referees, or officialdom in general, but genuine criticism should be allowed to stand on its merits and voiced in the public domain. It’s a damn healthy thing to have leading lights in the game saying these things, especially when everyone else is going to be saying them anyway. It’s called Openness.

Accepting that referees and everyone else always have something to learn, and can improve is basic. Pressures brought to bear by criticism is part and parcel of forcing that process. People who mouth off in bad grace after games will soon be recognised as idiots and so the system is self-correcting; nobody wants to build a reputation as a fool or bad loser.

So get your act together SANZAR, and award Eddie his Gobby with a smile, and a pat on the back for all his constructive criticism during the season!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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21 May

The Clock starts Ticking
by Tracey Nelson
21 May 2007

The only real surprise in the All Black squad named for the Iveco series against France and Canada, and the four Philips Tri-Nations tests in June and July, is that of Hurricanes and Wellington prop John Schwalger. While many were tipping Chiefs and Waikato halfback Brendon Leonard for selection, few had even considered Schwalger’s chances. According to the selectors, Schwalger has the power and ability to play both sides of the scrum and this gave him the edge over the likes John Afoa and Clarke Dermody, both of whom went away on the end of year tour but have been relegated to the Junior All Blacks side that was also named today.

Leonard gets in on the back of some strong performances in the latter stages of the Super 14, and pips end of year tourist Andy Ellis and the in-form Jimmy Cowan for the third halfback slot. Graham Henry’s comment was ‘Brendon has been the best attacking halfback in the Rebel Sport Super 14 this season and has forced his way into the side based on form’. There was acknowledgement that Cowan had also shown form ‘making him possibly the unluckiest of last year’s All Blacks to miss the cut’ but in the end the selectors chose to go with a running halfback.

The rest of the squad is predictable, as indeed it had to be given the selectors’ stance on the reconditioning programme for their ‘elite’ gang of 22. Not many have shown anything close to the form we will be expecting from them come September/October at the Rugby World Cup – however, all but two of the chosen ones (the injured Greg Somerville and Jason Eaton) have been named. Nick Evans, Luke McAlister, Conrad Smith, Keith Robinson and Neemia Tialata – end of year tourists in 2006 – have been deemed good enough on Super 14 form. Doug Howlett and Isia Toeava, having fallen from grace after the Tri-Nations last year, have forced their way back in. The final place goes to Troy Flavell, who showed enough class and redeemed character during the S14 to also gain a recall.

I will confess to heaving a large sigh of relief when Henry stated “We’re focused on finding our form as fast as possible and then we want to build on it. We are looking to improve on where we were last year and there’s a lot of work to do”. That’s possibly the understatement of the year. The reconditioned 22 are so far short of demonstrating anything vaguely resembling form that it is going to take all the first three tests followed by the Tri Nations for them to become match fit and, more importantly, match savvy. Thankfully it looks like we’re going to see the likes of the Rokocoko, Mauger, MacDonald, Williams, etc get some much needed game time over the next two months.

While the All Blacks are playing their seven tests, the Junior All Blacks will be attempting to display the sort of form that could see them force their way back into the World Cup squad that will be named on July 22. There are 17 players who have worn the All Black jersey in this side, and it further underlines the depth of experience in New Zealand rugby ranks. Players on the fringe, such as Cowan, Gear, Kaino and Nonu will be looking for strong performances to press their claims for All Black selection.

And so begins the countdown to the 2007 Rugby World Cup…

6 May

A law unto themselves?
by Tracey Nelson
6 May 2007

He may have played his final Super game for the Hurricanes, but departing Hurricane and ex-All Black captain Tana Umaga fired a parting shot over the bows of the 2007 Super 14 competition when he claimed that Northern Hemisphere referees are far superior to their southern counterparts. This wasn’t a simple sour-grapes gripe after his side went down to the cellar-dwellar Waratahs, but in my opinion a fairly astute summation of the majority of officiating over the last 14 weeks.

Umaga voiced frustration over the way many officials seem to be penalising players “on reputation” rather than by deed, and I would suggest that to some degree he has a point – Troy Flavell being another player who cops more than his fair share of penalties and yellow cards due to his past record of indiscretions.

Equally over the past three months we have seen inconsistent rulings during games, poor policing of the offside line, lack of control of the gap in the lineout, confusion and mayhem with the calling of scrum engagements, some odd interpretations of offside at the ruck regarding “pillar” players, and pretty much a blind eye turned to a lot of incidents off the ball.

But the standout refereeing gaff in the entire history of Super rugby surely occurred in Perth on Friday night, during the Force vs Blues match. The incident in question was a quick throw-in with the incorrect ball, which resulted in a try to the Blues. The referee (South African Jonathan Kaplan) sought confirmation from his touch judge (Australian James Leckie) that everything was above-board before he awarded the try, and the subsequent protests from the Force players were ignored.

How it escaped the notice of the touch judge that the ball the Force had kicked into touch had sailed beyond the advertising hordings and bounced away towards the grandstand is anyone’s guess, but surely both officials should have noticed that the Blues got the ball off the ball boy for the quick throw-in. That alone should have been the pointer that a quick throw-in could not take place – even if it had been the same ball the Force had kicked out, once the ball has been touched by anyone other than the player throwing it in then a quick throw-in is automatically disallowed.

The try from the illegal quick throw-in was the third for the Blues, and it enabled them them to go on to score a fourth try to claim a bonus point win and move onto 42 points. What the implications might have been had the Bulls also ended up on 42 points but missed out on a home-semi because the Blues had the same number of points but a better points differential is now a mute point, because thanks to a record thrashing of the Reds the Bulls sailed into second place and relegated the illegal try to a blooper rather than a major incident.

It should be of no surprise to anyone that the touch judge official concerned is Australian, because it has been their referees who have copped the most flak during the competition – to the point where a couple of them have been relegated from refereeing to touch judging duties. However, this now suddenly looms as a problem as we head into the semi finals where we have two South Africa v New Zealand games which will require Australian referees and touch judges.

World Cup appointee Stuart Dickinson will be one of the referees, and will no doubt get the fixture in Durban due to the Sharks finishing as top qualifer. Who will get the whistle for the Bulls v Crusaders is anyone’s guess, probably Matt Goddard if it’s deemed he’s done enough penance for his website column words against Eddie Jones’ outburst on his refereeing performances. But do we really have any faith in those who may end up running the sidelines?

This should be of huge concern to SANZAR officials, because the referees and touch judges do have a bearing on the state of play on the field. Nobody wants to watch bad rugby, and too often this year results have been influenced as much by poor decisions from referees as the players themselves. If SANZAR wants to keep the Super 14 as one of the world’s premier rugby competitions, they will need to do some smart work on upskilling their referees.

I am normally loathe to condemn referees too quickly, because I know all too well the pressures involved when running the whistle in a fast game. However, it’s one thing to miss a forward pass or knock-on at the base of a ruck, but completely another to not have a good grasp of the laws of the game and apply them correctly. I am not an advocate of referees having to front interviews after a game, but there should be some level of transparency with their refereeing assessments and there certainly needs to be some accountability for poor performances, particularly when they influence the outcome of games.

So good on Tana for speaking out. No doubt he will get fined for doing so, but perhaps he’ll chalk it up to putting his money where his mouth is…

3 May

Last Chance Saloon – Predictions for Round 14
by WAJ
3 May 2007

How things change. With the Sharks, Bulls and Brumbies, Force all having good seasons, and playing well over the last couple of rounds particularly, and the Blues and Crusaders both stumbling, suddenly SA and Oz are real chances for the WC. With the focus in NZ on who of the “22″ is not injured, and of those who is actually selected, and who is pissing off overseas the AB’s would seem to be coming back to the field. And all this without and International being played, amazing. The SA’s still have a weakness at 1 5/8, and with the current selection policy are also weakened with the quota system meaning the best players may not be picked in all positions, The Awestruckenfailians still have a marshmallow front row and no depth in crucial positions like 1 5/8, centre and fullback (they are talking about Huxley as a test fullback at the moment FFS). With three training runs against the Frogs and Canadians to look at some fringe players, we remain in a great position with our great depth to continue on with last years form. The memory of last years NH tour and the four comprehensive wins seems to be slipping from memory. Nucifora worries me deeply. A Williams, Big Kev and Rokocoko are All Blacks for a reason, they are the best, or amongst the best, in the land in their respective positions. Should you not ALWAYS play your best players, especially in a crunch game. Instead Nucifora has seemingly panicked, or become extremely stubborn, and insisted on going back to the line up that did so well for him earlier in the season with inferior players lining up. I’ve flip flopped a bit on this over the last 24 hours, but the thing about top class sport is that class always shines through, and he has left buckets of it out of his XV with the benching of the AB’s. All your eggs David, all your eggs.

Only 80 points left for this year and this is how to get 56 of them:

Crusaders v Chiefs – a ripping game to start with, will be sitting down with a frothy or 2 for this, the curtainraiser to the main game to follow:-) Neither team was flash last week. The Crusaders out of sorts all over the place – the scrums struggled, the lineouts pathetic (black mark for Flynn), loosies outplayed as a unit, Senio playing on injured, Mauger trying to jink his way through non existent gaps all night, Laulala after showing early promise being largely ignored etc etc. McCaw the only shining light, but even he couldn’t carry them over the line. This weeks team has a better look to it with Gear and Jack back, even without Carter. They need to focus on two things – 1st phase possession and handling – do that and they win easily. You need to score more points than the Chiefs, they will score tries, and come into this game on the back of a 4 game winning streak and having won 6 of their last seven. They have a competent T5, excellent loosies, and a backline which is not highly rated but has enough individuals who can trouble any team, but need to tighten up on their option taking. They have 2 major hurdles in that the Crusaders have won the last eight games between these two and the Crusaders haven’t lost at Lancaster Park since 2004. Some great matchups as well at fullback, lock and loose forward. The Crusaders will want to to sned a message here I believe and will win pretty easily.
Crusaders 13+

Force v Blues – Bloody nervous about this already. Nucifora is putting a lot of faith in the team selected to right all the wrongs of the last 3 games. McAllister in will go a long way in doing that as the back play recently has been poor. With the best running centre around why would you not get the ball to him with a bit of space to work his magic and utilise the finishing abilities of Howlett and Wulf – get this right David and you may get the 4 try win you need to have to secure the top 4 spot and get back some confidence. The forwards are going OK, but they need to have more variety than the 1-off punching up from the ruck, these days a turnover or penalty is guaranteed if you are patient enough in defence against that tactic. And the thing that pisses me off the most, the static ruck while the halfback looks around for an option, rings his girlfriend, changes his boots, and then passes to a player who then charges into the nicly realigned defensive line, how many times did the Blues do that last week! The Force won’t be easy, solid at scrum and lineout, a couple of good loosies in Fava and Pocock(a player for the future if ever I saw one), better form from Henjak and the genius of Giteau, though I think he is better controlled at 1 5/8. Cross at centre could be the weak link, looks a bit ungainly to me. Have to back the Blues to win big to preserve their superior points differential over the Bulls as I would rather go to Durban than Christchurch. A bit strange a Kiwi coaching the Aussies and an Aussie coaching the Kiwi’s.
Blues 13+

Highlanders v Brumbies – this is a strange one. The Brumbies will know before the match pretty much where they stand after the 2 Friday games. If the Blues and Crusaders both win, and/or the Chiefs win with a bonus point, assuming the Sharks and Bulls both win as well, which is highly likely, then they have no chance of making the top 4. The Brumbies will win either way in a farewell game for a lot of players from both sides. The control exerted by Larkham will be too strong and the Brumbies backs should secure the win accordingly.
Brumbies 1 – 12

Hurricanes v Warratahs – The Hurricanes have won the last 3 between these sides including the 2 memorable wins last year, and have never lost to the Waratahs in NZ. That will continue and in Umaga’s last game the Hurricanes should cap off the season with a good victory over the hapless Sydneysiders. They Waratahs have been the big underachievers this season and whilst they have been better of late are still shit. Looking for another big game from Rodders, and want to see plenty from Weepu in his last run before the test season.
Hurricanes 13+

Lions v Cheetahs – is anyone even remotely interested.
Lions 13+

Stormers v Sharks – this is not as straight forward as the respective table positions would indicate. The Stormers have a 6 – 3 winning record in this local derby, though they lost last year in Durban in a close one when the teams were in similair positions on the table. They have steadily improved of late and have won 3 of their last 4 and also the last 4 games at home. There is always plenty of feeling in this game, that is why table positions mean little. If the Stormers T5 can hold up, then their all star loose forward’s could well be the winning of this game. The Sharks need to use their T5 muscle to dominate and give their young backs good ball to play with. Look for De Wet Barry to get amongst the youngsters and stir it up in the midfield. This should be a cracker and I’m going for an upset.
Stormers 1 – 12

Bulls v Reds – the Bulls will win by a million, with the Reds to be chewed up up front and spat out down back.
Bulls 13+