26 Oct

Henry Should Go
by Tracey Nelson
26 Oct 2007

trench_warfareApparently it’s D-Day at rugby union headquarters in Wellington, where the All Blacks coaching trio of Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith (along with selector Sir Brian Lochore and team manager Darren Shand) will be undergoing their RWC performance review.  I suggest that the D will not stand for Dis-establishment, Demotion or Dismissal, given that the committee reviewing their performance is made up of NZRU board members Mike Eagle, Ivan Haines, Jock Hobbs, Graham Mourie and Paul Quinn.  Members of a board that essentially gave Henry and his cohorts carte blanche to do whatever they felt was necessary to win the Webb Ellis Trophy, such as pulling the All Blacks out of the first half of this year’s Super 14 and letting them “recondition” over the summer, not playing any warm up games prior to the tournament, etc.  Any instant dismissal of the coaches would reflect on the board, and suggest that they themselves got it wrong too. Interestingly, Eagle and Hobbs were part of the three-man committee that was established in 2003 to oversee and manage the appointment process that engaged the current incumbents, so this process really is a double-edged sword for them.

The coaches, Sir Brian, Shand and some senior players (not that we are privy as to who they may or may not be) will be called upon to debrief the committee on what happened at RWC 2007.  The grapevine has it that the coaches will focus on the performance of referee Wayne Barnes in that quarter final loss to France, hardly surprising that tactic will be used given the level of sentiment spouted forth about said referee immediately after the game by one member of the review panel.  At least that part of the review game plan seems straight forward and logical.  There will no doubt be reference to the 85+% winning record of this coaching trio, certainly not something to be sniffed at and it must be remembered they won a Lions series (albeit against an awful outfit from the British Isles) and a Grand Slam tour.  Although we could compare that with John Mitchell, a coach who dipped out in a RWC *semi* final on the back of a very similar winning record and was packed off in disgrace.

Everything leading up to September 2007 was staked on winning the Rugby World Cup, not just in the minds of the public and the NZRU, but it came from Henry’s mouth too.  Words to the effect of “judge me on our RWC performance” when queried about the length of the reconditioning programme, and the effect the missing All Blacks were having on the Super 14 competition must surely come back to haunt him.  What was inherently obvious after the reconditioining programme was yes, the All Blacks were definitely faster runners and had some wonderful handling skills in open play, but they were lacking the physicality required to play the contact sport that is rugby.  We had lost our physical and (more importantly) mental brutality, at times we weren’t efficient and we were certainly missing the clinical element as was evident in the number of handling errors after each test match played in 2007.

That in itself could have been dealt with had everyone bought into the game “style”, the expansive, fast-paced, off-loading game that is so attractive to watch but requires players to be ultra confident in the game plan and the players around them.  This is where we fell over, because when the pressure came on we lost that confidence both on and off the field.  One senior All Black player has been purported as saying post tournament that at the eleventh hour the coaches changed the game plan against France and decided to go with a kicking game.  Evidence of this could be seen during the match; where previously the All Blacks had kept the ball in hand and minimised the number of rucks in order to keep the off-load game alive, in Cardiff we became seriously bogged down in a game full of rucks and kicking, more so than in all our pool games combined.  This was something the reconditioned players were neither used to nor conditioned for.  Add to that a re-gigged backline with players in unfamiliar roles and combinations, and an apparent disregard for the inclusion of the experienced Howlett and Mauger in the playing squad,  the outcome was written in stone before Wayne Barnes even got the pea in his whistle wet. The performance of a referee is something you cannot predict nor control, so therefore should not be factored into the way a team itself performs.

I could maybe forgive this coaching trio for the endless player rotation, the reconditioning programme, the sometimes cringe-inducing lineout antics of the past four years, the need for a senior management team within the players (sporting leaders are born, chaps, not made), the endless combinations in the midfield, the numerous “specialist” coaches and trainers that swelled the ranks of the management team to the point where not all of them could get passes to the RWC games… all of this I could have lived with if we had just stayed true to what we set out to do.  We didn’t.  We strayed from the plan. Whether it was by design or because of a small, underlying doubt is neither here nor there now.  If we had lost to France playing our brand of rugby then maybe it wouldn’t have felt so numbingly awful, although had we played that way I’m not sure we would have lost that game.   But to go into our shells and effectively back away from everything the last two years has been about was tantamount to treachery.

I have no idea what way the committee will go when they report back to the NZRU on Thursday, and it seems the rugby public are split when it comes to support for the incumbents keeping their jobs.  However, two things are crystal clear and at the end of the day should be the crux of the committee’s recommendation to the NZRU board.  Never in the history of New Zealand rugby has a coach had so much made available to him, both on and off the field.  And never in the history of New Zealand rugby have we bowed out so early in a Rugby World Cup tournament.

 

18 Oct

Au revoir France
by Tracey Nelson
18 Oct 2007

RWC2007My RWC trip ended by travelling from London to Paris on the Eurostar, a very quick and smooth ride once you hit the high speed tracks on the French side of the Chunnel.  I must say though, that I am not a fan of travelling through the Chunnel – the thought of being underground with all that water above just doesn’t bear thinking about!

The train was loaded up with England supporters travelling over for their semi-final against France that night, and when we arrived into Gare de Nord we were met by hordes of people trying to sell tickets to the game – not something I was all that happy to see, as I had six tickets we had organised to sell to English supporters who were arriving on trains after mine and the prices being asked at the station were lower than our agreed sale price.

I met up with my mates Tony and Clare, and Paul, and we then attempted to navigate our way out to St Denis on the Metro as there were two tickets we still needed to pick up from the ticket office at the ground before we could meet out buyers.  It was a surprisingly short trip out to the St Denis station, but then a good 10 minute walk to get to the stadium itself.  With all the tickets in our hot little hands it was just a case of finding a bar, organising rendezvous times and waiting for our buyers to turn up.  In due course they did, and we went through the slightly awkward task of having to count out hundreds of pounds in public and then handing the tickets over.  Once that was done, we headed back into Paris on the Metro with Clare and myself clutching our bags closely and feeling slightly uneasy with carrying all that money around with us.

Once we were back at Gard de Nord it was a case of working out which Metro line we had to get on next to make our way to the Eiffel Tower and the Parc du Champs de Mars below it where the big screens were up for the public to watch the games.  We had to take Line 14, which is a faster line than the rest of the Metro trains and is also fully automated with no driver.  When the train arrived the platform doors slid open to give access to the train, but there were a lot of people getting off at Gare de Nord so we had to wait for them before we boarded.  As the guy infront of us went to get on the train doors and platform doors slid shut, jamming one of his arms in the train while his body was still on the small piece of platform between the train and the platform doors.  There was much alarm amongst both those on the train and on the platform, as people from both sides yelled and rushed to pull the two sets of doors apart to free the poor guy.  This in turn made all the doors open so more people, including ourselves, went to jump on.  Of course, the doors then shut just as quickly again with Paul and I only just made it on (getting our arms jammed as we did) while Tony and Clare were left on the platform.  It was a case of mouthing and gesticulating to say we would wait for them at our next destination before the train shot off into the tunnel – somewhat reminscent of a cheesy movie in a lot of ways.  Mind you, we were pretty wary of Metro train doors after that.

Once we had regrouped at the next station we continued our journey to the Eiffel Tower, and what a sight she is at night all lit up and towering into the Paris sky.  There is a beacon light that swings around the Paris skyline from the very top of the tower, while sparkling white lights strobe on and off like stars from time to time.  No matter how many times you see the Eiffel Tower it still looks magnificent, and is just so quintessentially “the” French landmark that you can’t help but smile.  There were thousands of locals crammed into the Parc, to the point where even though you could see the screens it was impossible make out what was happening so we decided to ajourn to a small cafe nearby and watch it there whilst having a feed.

Of course, France lost (and how predictable was that – every time they beat us they fall over in the very next game!) so Paris became a little subdued after the game.  And we suddenly got ignored by the cafe staff, who obviously thought we were English because we were speaking English, even though we had been cheering for France during the match. We hastened to assure them we were New Zealanders and lo and behold, regular service was resumed.  This wasn’t something I had experienced before, but Tony and Clare had had a taste of it a few nights earlier in a small town en route to Paris.  Much later that evening we decided to call it a night, and thinking that the Metro was shut we cleverly decided that we could stroll back along the Seine to our hotels. One and a half hours and several sore feet later, we made it to the doors vowing that the next night we would not be walking.

Sunday, while the others went to the Louvre and walked the Champs Elysee, I met up with one of my French students who had done a 6 month stint with us in NZ earlier this year and was treated to a superb lunch with his family. I tell you what, the French may be clueless when it comes to a lot of things, but food is not one of them.  Magnifique!  I then met up with the others at the Arc de Triomphe and we headed for the Eiffel Tower.  I decided I would go up again with the boys, but Clare wasn’t keen so she went to visit the 100% Pure New Zealand display in the giant rugby ball at the end of the Parc du Champs de Mars.  After a lengthy wait in the queue, we made it to the top and discovered just exactly how prime a site the NZ display was sitting on, as it was the first thing you saw when you looked down from the top of the Eiffel Tower.  So at least there was still some NZ presence in Paris, even if it wasn’t at the stadium.

We watched the second semi final at a well-known French rugby bar Le Sous Bock which had been packed the night before.  However, Sunday night it was almost empty and we had our choice of tables which was good as we were running a bit late and turned up about 5 minutes before kickoff.  Paris really was a bit of a wasteland following their demise the night before.  Around 12.30am we decided to head back to our hotels and walked to the nearest Metro station only to discover that the Metro was shut.  Arghhhh.  More walking, although at least this time we were only half an hour away as opposed to one and half.

Last day in Paris, and we headed up to Monmatre to see the Sacre Coeur church as grey clouds rolled in across Paris and the temperature began to drop rapidly.  Next was Notre Dame, but first we stopped for lunch in a small cafe and I suggested that given we were in France perhaps we should try some escargot.  So we ordered six, Tony and Paul manfully downed two each, while Clare bravely put her one in her mouth and managed to swallow it.  But I have to confess I took a small bite of mine and despite the large amounts of garlic butter it was smothered in I liked neither the taste nor texture so attempted to hide the remainder under the spoon on my plate.  Busted!  I think I will get grief for a while about that, as Clare only ate her one as she thought I’d eaten mine…

In Notre Dame we got an unexpected treat as a female soloist was there practising a piece. The sound of her voice and the organ soaring through the high, vaulted ceilings of the cathedral was so evocative and compelling that the usual low hum of tourist voices fell to a deathly hush as she sang.  Even the half-wits taking flash photos (even though there are signs requesting you not to) stopped what they were doing to listen.   Finally it was time to head back to the hotel, grab my suitcase from the baggage holding room and head off to Charles de Gaulle airport for my flight back to New Zealand.

Au revoir France 2007.  It may not have been the result I, and the rest of NZ, was hoping for but I’ve had fun along the way.  I shall retain fond memories of places such as Lyon, the wonderful food and wine throughout, the pool games in the warmth of the south of France, the trials and tribulations of train travel, and all the great people I met along the way.

16 Oct

Henry Should Stay
by Paul Waite
16 Oct 2007

abcoachesShould the NZRU sack Graham Henry and his other selectors because the All Blacks lost a single test by two points, and where the referee played a huge part in the result? The answer has to be a resounding no.

There is a pattern emerging. It’s only taken 20 years, so we can forgive ourselves for not spotting it sooner. The first part to this pattern, is that we keep sacking the coach more or less directly after he gets back home. The second part of it is we persist in thinking that the Rugby World Cup, and in particular World Cup Year, are special.

Let’s take the coach-sacking bit first. If we look at life in general, it’s taken as a given that experience teaches better than anything else. We learn more from our failures than we ever can from books or teachers, and the lessons go deeper. By sacking the coach what we’re doing is preventing those hard-won lessons from being applied in the next campaign. Stupid. Instead we get a fresh lot of faces in, and they embark on their own particular learning experience, doing things in their own way. Why not, for bloody once, keep the coaches, and let them apply the lessons they’ve learned for the next World Cup effort?

Now let’s look at the issue of the World Cup and its place in things. For the past 20 years, I’ve felt that the whole event is blown up into much more than it should be. Put up on a pedestal, probably due to the actual concept of a World trophy more than anything remotely real, as can be seen by the extremely ordinary standard of rugby which has been played in this particular tournament. In the end what does it represent? Some kind of “we’re the best of the best” badge. Not really. If South Africa win it, they will have done so without playing New Zealand, or Australia or many other teams who might give them a good run for their money, so it certainly can’t pretend to determine who is best. No, it’s simply a festival, and should be enjoyed as such.

I believe other countries’ fans, and the teams themselves have bought into this too, and that’s why we see so much dour, crap rugby being played – the pressures more or less ensure that this happens.

 

All of this is just by way of telling you what I believe New Zealand Rugby simply must do, to be successful once again at a Rugby World Cup.

Look at the progression of World Cup campaigns mounted by New Zealand over the past 20 years. Each one has been successively more planned, had more resources spent on it, and had more detailed preparations made. This last one was The Mother Of All Rugby World Cup Campaigns. We went to town in a stretch limo. All Blacks were reconditioned, kept from real rugby and pumped up in the gyms, monitored closely by nutritionists, doctors, special performance advisors, psychological consultants, and more. Every “i” was dotted, and every “t” crossed – twice!

And we failed.

There is no pulling back from the initial Haka reaction here. Referee Barnes was a newbie who fucked up big time in a test he wasn’t ready for, and in so doing altered the course of the game against the All Blacks.

 

But the bottom line is, a truly well-prepared All Black team would still have won that tight game.

We ended up going home early because we over-prepared. I believe we need less of the kind of over-detailed “preparation” we’ve had, not more of it. Instead of abandoning a successful formula and doing special things in World Cup year, let’s just do the basics.

 

Which brings me back to the way we seem to consider the World Cup a kind of Holy Grail in this country. Why are the All Blacks so successful between World Cups? The team which lost in Cardiff hadn’t suddenly become a crap team, and god knows, the rest didn’t become any better than normal either – quite the reverse if anything. No, it was the very same All Blacks who did us proud for four years.

The difference was that they didn’t prepare for the event like All Blacks normally prepare for tours, or campaigns – with a shitload of hard work and just good, honest, pragmatic attention to detail. Nothing special, just the usual.

That’s how New Zealand should approach its World Cups – just business as bloody usual!

If we can just cotton onto this one simple tenet, everything would follow from there. De-emphasise the World Cup from it’s current loony proportions. Take each year in it’s own right, and prepare as we normally do for the international season. The way we approach World Cup year should be no different. Let the players hammer away as usual, and assemble the best squad to “tour” the World Cup.

 

No pampering, no reconditioning, no rotation, no losing.

 

So, the recipe to go forward is a simple one as far as I’m concerned. Keep the best coaching team we’ve ever had – beg them to stay in fact, and let them go over what happened and come to the right conclusions. We’ve seen them at work these past few years, and know that they collectively have a massive amount of rugby knowledge. To lose that would be a criminal waste.

To the coaches themselves – Graham, Wayne, Steve and BJ – please consider giving this thing another shot. There is a heap of unfinished business you’d have to admit.

The other part of it is the challenge of moving us through a period where quite a number of top All Blacks are going overseas. You guys can do that better than anyone, so please do.
All the best from Haka.

Addendum 28th October: Have a read of this superb article by Grant Fox on the RugbyHeaven website. I’ve got a lot of time for Foxy – he’s always right on the money.

 

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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10 Oct

All Blacks v France – the aftermath
by Tracey Nelson
10 Oct 2007

Before the Rugby World Cup began, Springbok coach Jake White stated
that it would be won by defense rather than attack. It would appear
that he may very well be correct on this count.

The All Blacks bowed
out of the 2007 competition at the hands of a French side fired up not
only by the prospect of bowing out of the tournament they are hosting,
but a side that had done its defensive homework well. Unlike so many
of the recent encounters between the two sides, this time the French
managed to shut the All Blacks down and claw their way to victory
against the pre-game odds.

Bernard Laporte may look insane, but his methodology going into this
match had all the hallmarks of a cold, calculating assassin. Shut
down the All Blacks’ offloading game, shut down McCaw and Carter, and
you’re in with a chance.

This the French did with remarkable
accuracy, and despite the All Blacks having a wealth of possession the
majority of it was slow ball. The French tackled like demons around
the fringes, possibly bordering on offside for the most part, but it
caused the All Blacks to go to ground and bring in more support
players.

With the ball slowed down, the French defence had plenty of
time to re-muster and gradually they dragged us into a game resembling
trench warfare rather than the fast offload game the All Blacks prefer
and excell at.

Therein lies the problem. With the All Blacks having over 60% of
possession in this match, it actually played into the French plan of
shutting down our game and frustrating us into kicking the ball. It’s
common knowledge that the All Blacks prefer to keep the ball in play
from a kick rather than to put it over the touch line, and that they
also like to attack from the back. So the French forced us into
kicking, then tempted us with a small game of force-back, before
kicking it to someone they knew would run it back at them.

It was
then a case of isolate the player and force the All Blacks to commit
players to the ruck, and hey presto – ball on the ground, players
trying to get back into position, and the All Blacks are slowed up.

When the ball did emerge from these situations, too often we were
forced into running sideways and though the French defence was
stretched to its limit, it held.

Perhaps this is where we slipped up along the way.

Being such a
successful, winning side (42 wins from 48 starts under this coaching
regime) means that often you don’t have to think too hard about what
the opposition are doing, and just work on what you want to do
instead. Whilst we were pretty good on defence in general, did we do
enough homework on our oppsition to employ offensive defence? To shut
down their game and their options? Did we sit back and wait for them
to come rather than go out and hunt them down, as they did to us?

Hindsight is a marvellous thing, and it would be all too easy for us
to sit back now and questioning the reconditioning period, the
rotation policy over the past two years, the rotation of players
during the pool games, and some of the selections going into this
game. But most of us bought into this programme, whether grudgingly
at first or willingingly, so to do so would be churlish and cast us
amongst the fair-weather fans.

The team did not go out on the field
to play anything other than the best they could. The coaches looked
at everything that had gone before in previous failed World Cup
campaigns and tried something different.

However, at the end of the
day in a sudden-death game, things didn’t go our way as they are
sometime prone to do.

Questions may well be asked about team selections, as to why the
in-form, experienced Doug Howlett missed out. Likewise the steady,
wise head of Aaron Mauger would have been invaluable in the last 20
minutes of that game. The lack of a true game breaker from our
bench was also shown up when France brought on the likes of Chabal and
Michalak in the second half.

The referee was a factor, but not the
deciding one that so many seem to be venting about. Sure, he missed a
couple of key incidents and also totally overreacted to yellow card
McAlister, but we were still in with a chance to win the game with 10
minutes to play despite what had unfolded in the 60 minutes
beforehand.

In the end we were under-prepared. But how to you prepare to take on
France in a quarter final, a team with their backs to the wall, when
your pool opposition have been the likes of an out-of-sorts Italy, a
second-string Scottish side, Romania, and first-timers Portugal?

We
played hard games in the Tri-Nations prior to the tournament, and
there was no shortage of hard-edged rugby there. But that was two
months ago, and there’s only so much value to be found in beating the
daylights out of the rugby minnows.

There’s one more thing. What about the other team on the field? As
per usual it seems to be all about the All Blacks losing, and not
France winning. This was a massive game for France, and they
responded as men possessed. Whether they can manage to string two
wins together after such a mental and physical effort remains to be
seen but I suspect that unlike in the past where they usually go down
with a whimper following a win over New Zealand, this French side have
now seen the glint of the William Webb Ellis trophy.

With the
semi-final being played in Paris and the chance to play in the final
on home soil, this French side will finally produce some of the flair
we know they are capable of.

9 Oct

Wailing in Wales
by Tracey Nelson
9 Oct 2007

Red ShoeI’m not going to start with the rugby yet, first I’ll fill you in on the rest of my week in Wales. Then we’ll get to the Wailing bit. I am ensconsed in Swansea, which is where I am doing some work this fortnight. Swansea is not exactly a “happening” place, so on the Friday night before the quarter final I jumped on the train and headed for Cardiff to catch up with a few people. That in itself was mildly amusing, because I had to take a bus to the train station and when I asked the driver if he went that way for the life of me I couldn’t understand what he said. So I begged his pardon and asked again. Still I couldn’t understand. Was he speaking Welsh or just had a broad accent? I was too embarrassed to ask again, so just got the ticket and sat down in the hopes I was going the right way.

The trains between Swansea (which is the end of the line) and Cardiff are regular, run on time and are in very nice condition – I feel I have had enough experience of trains on this trip to be able to give the cleanliness ratings and these ones would rate a good 8, if not a 9 (so long as it’s not late on a Friday night of course). It’s just under an hour down the line to get to Cardiff, and as you pull into the station you have a marvellous view of the Millenium Stadium. Cardiff is actually the perfect rugby town because the station is literally 500m from the stadium, and the central part of town is just one street over. I thought about Auckland 2011 while in Cardiff and had to shake my head. A waterfront stadium would have been ideal, mirroring the set-up in Cardiff which just works like a gem. Ah well…

Friday night in Cardiff is a bit of an eye opener. For starters, all the young things from out of Cardiff come in on the trains and I must be getting old because some of the get-ups would have been better suited for the Gold Coast, not Cardiff on a night where the temperature dropped to single figures. I was informed later that in the UK the colder the climate the shorter and skimpier the outfits. Apparently the more blubber you carry the more you want to show it off too. Add to that the, er, how do I put it… the three generations of Welsh women out on the town together, then you start to get a feel for things. Yes, that’s right. Gran, who is probably mid-50s, Mum who is about 35, and the daughter who is 18. All on the prowl. Scary stuff.

Then there was the chubby guy in the beige tracksuit ensemble, with the flashing neon-lit baby’s dummy around his neck. The door staff to this bar were turning away people wearing trainers on their feet, but they let Mr Sweat Shirt/Sweat Pants and his dummy in. Classy. Oh, and did I mention he obviously hadn’t bathed since last spring? I was wondering why there was so much space at that end of the bar. The last train back to Swansea left at 11.38 so I was feeling a bit like Cinderella most of the evening, watching the clock and hoping not to miss it incase I turned into a pumpkin. Heading out down St Mary Street towards the station was also an event, akin to some dockyard brawl zone and that was just the girls. I hate to imagine what it was like by 2am.

Saturday morning I headed back into Cardiff and met up with new friends Karen and Scott, Kiwis based in London whom I had met in Marseille when we ended up sitting next to one another and then again in Lyon. We had randomly run into one another again in Toulouse, so organised to meet up in Cardiff. We found a bar and settled in to watch Australia lose to England (bad omen for us I felt, and it turned out to be so), then I had a stroll around central Cardiff past the castle and round the streets which were full of All Black and French fans having a great time punting rugby balls back and forth, and generally having a good yarn about the Auz-England match.

Then it was time for our game, and nervously I walked into Millenium Stadium which is marvellously labelled and signposted making it incredibly easy and quick to find your seat. The stadium is just brilliant. I cannot give it enough praise (other than the turf which is a disgrace, but then what do you expect if the tournament organisers insist that you keep the roof shut for the week before the game. Don’t they know that grass needs sunlight to grow, or perhaps like so many other things IRB they like to keep us in the dark). There was probably a mix of 55% Kiwis, 45% French and 10% Neutral supporters in the crowd, but the French were pretty noisy and my nerves were at crisis point by the time kickoff came.

You all know how the game unfolded, and I shall dwell on that more in another column when I can bring myself to write it. Suffice it to say that with about 10 minutes to go, most Kiwis were turning the same shade as the All Blacks’ alternate strip and many had their heads in their hands already as though they could sense the game was slipping from our grasp. As the final whistle blew, most of us were slumped in our seats, some were crying but most of us were just silent. Shell shocked.

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay in the stadium to offer even a slight bit of support to the team because the last train to Swansea was due to depart in 20 minutes time – and indeed, probably a good 1/5th of the ground were headed to the train station to catch trains back to various parts of the country around Cardiff. There were a few delerious French fans on board, plus some locals who tried to offer sympathy, and the Kiwis who for the most part were just silent. There was nothing you could say. Nothing would even come out of mouths, you’d open it to say something and there was just nothing there.

Met Karen and Scott back in Swansea and we deposited ourselves in their hotel bar to try and battle through the dark blanket of depression that was starting to settle. A trio of Irishmen joined us with “Ah, yer still da best team in the world though” which was nice of them to say but didn’t really help. However, the Nolan sons and father were a kindly three and politely changed the subject and got us to talk about travel and New Zealand and dairy farming, which kind of helped. 3am came and went, until we took pity on the lone barman and departed ways. It was 5am when I finally managed to shut my eyes and hope for sleep, but all I could think was that if I was feeling this awful then what were the All Blacks feeling like? It was unimaginable.

Sunday morning I went to the local laundromat to do a load of washing, and met some fellow Kiwis who had only just come over that week to attend the RWC Cup. We had a yarn and the usual game dissection, but they too seemed to be in the same state of emotionless limbo I was in. That afternoon I went out to the Gower Peninsula, a scenic reserve just south west of Swansea. It was calm and peaceful, with just the noise of the waves hitting the shoreline below the cliffs. I stood up on the cliffs looking south out to sea as the afternoon sun began to dip, and as the realisation that our World Cup campaign was finished swept over me suddenly home seemed a long way away and I was swept with a desperate longing to see my beloved Southern Alps again. Were the All Blacks feeling that same longing for home, I wondered, or were they full of trepidation at the reception that might be awaiting them back in Aotearoa?

I have one more week away, which involves travelling to Paris on the Eurostar (not my favourite occupation as I don’t like being underground and under all the water in the Channel at the same time) on Saturday morning. I was supposed to be attending the semi final, but like many Kiwis will be trying to sell my (premium) seats – ideally to and English supporter who wants to dosh out lots and lots of Pounds for my ticket. I might possibly be able to partly console myself with a shoe shopping expedition. Possibly.

 

7 Oct

Message For The All Blacks
by Paul Waite
7 Oct 2007

absThis is directed at the All Blacks – I hope it finds its way to some of you guys at least. It’s actually a hard one to write, because it’s impossible to feel what somebody else is feeling. The only guide is that we fans stuck here back home are probably feeling a vestige of the same thing.

This defeat in the quarter-finals at the hands of the French is being compared with the semi-final defeat in 1999 at Twickenham by some. The two are, in my view, not at all similar except for the result. To be blunt about it, in 1999 the better team on the day won the test, today it did not. I know that’s of no comfort to you all at this point, but there it is.

 

Nothing written about this quarter-final test in Cardiff will be able to avoid mentioning the mistakes the referee made, and the effect they had. Let’s be quite clear, the referee determined the result of this test or if not, at very least had a massive, inappropriate influence on it. The sin-binning of Luke McAllister was a blight on the game, and was the turning point.

Faced with the rising French tide you gutsed out a great try for Rodney So’oialo to regain the lead, only to see it snatched away by yet more refereeing incompetence as a blatantly forward pass was thrown to create the winning French try, and missed by the officials of the day.

We then saw a titanic struggle against ever mounting odds as the referee allowed the French to plunder the ruck and come around offside almost at will, without penalty. When an advantage was being played, Luke had a shot with a snap droppie, only to discover the referee had abruptly decided that the advantage was over, when a 3-pointer could have won the test.

Watching it all unfold in that second half was like the stuff of nightmares. It had a curious and horrible momentum to it, like a huge boulder rolling downhill that is so massive as to be unstoppable. Some tests are just impossible to win. The playing field isn’t level, the odds stacked in some way. This was one of those.

Nobody likes to blame a referee for a loss. It goes against the grain, and I know that most if not all of you will refuse to do that. Luckily I don’t have to worry about the predictable accusations of ‘sour grapes’ – I don’t give a stuff; I just tell it how I see it.

 

I saw what happened out there today, and I have to tell you all that I was proud to be a New Zealander and an All Blacks supporter.

 

I think once you all get home and maybe have time to digest all the opinion and look at the test (if you can bring yourselves to) you will recognise the truth when I say that the better team on the day lost this one.

 

There are requests coming out of the camp from Steve Hansen asking for New Zealanders not to be too hard on the boys and that they are hurting 10,000 times worse than we fans.

Personally I reckon 10,000 times is an understatement. Richie, tell your boys not to worry on that score. I believe that, like me, every true AB fan recognizes what happened out there at Millenium Stadium today, and the only regret is that such a great team has been denied the chance to build through the semi-final to a peak in the World Cup final, as should have been.

 

We know you guys (and this includes you Graham, Steve and Wayne, BJ, plus all the support staff) put it all on the line out there, and the players today left everything out on that pitch. There wasn’t anything else you could have done. So reflect on that, come home and be welcomed back. Take the experience and use it to forge what’s done in the future, and don’t destroy parts of yourselves with the negative.
Time to come home, knock the rust off the barbie and think about summer.

Kia kaha from everyone here at Haka!

 

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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7 Oct

Nightmare On World Cup Street – Part III
by Paul Waite
7 Oct 2007

rubbishThe mainstream media probably won’t say it, so I will. The All Blacks got sent home 18-20 from this Rugby World Cup by France today due to two awful decisions by referee Wayne Barnes.

The first was the ridiculous sending to the sin-bin of Luke McAllister in yet another of these hair-trigger ‘clampdown’ decisions which have blighted this World Cup. The public want to see who is best of XV vs. XV, not a points lottery decided by a whistle-happy referee. Naturally in such a tight test this directly gifted the French a try during that 10 minutes. It was equally unsurprising that it marked the turning point of the test.

McAllister was simply going for a tackle and turned after the ball got chipped. He never changed direction in order to obstruct, and in fact didn’t really register the contact. The French player made the most of it – the phrase ‘Hollywood’ comes to mind.

The second was his, and his touch-judges missing of what was an absolutely blatant forward-pass to Michalak – a pass which made the break which created France’s winning try. In the after-match interview, Graham Henry was typically diplomatic, saying “we just didn’t get the rub of the green”, but privately I would bet he and the team are seething over this inept refereeing performance. Forward passes are often missed in a test, but usually because the officials are a log way off. In this case the touch judge was only 1 or 2m away, so how did he miss this?

Two tries borne on the back of incompetent officlals. It’s all enough to make you say “let’s just not bother” when it comes to being interested in World Cup rugby. If that kind of thing happens then why would you? – it just becomes a joke, a lottery in the end depending on which brand of idiot you get blowing the whistle, something I warned could happen some days earlier.

As for the remainder of the test, apart from a lovely try to McAllister, it rose to no great heights, and was absolutely painful to watch at times. Barnes seemed to have eyes only for All Black infringements for the whole 80 minutes, missing French offsides around the ruck as a matter of course, and naturally, when a French player turned to chase a kick and impeded an All Black later in the second half, this wasn’t punished with a sin-bin.

The general tenor in the media will probably be of the “All Blacks just weren’t good enough in the end” genre. That’s bollocks, they were good enough to take this test out. The other thing you will probably hear a lot of is “the All Blacks
didn’t have enough hard tests”. This is also wrong. Look again at the
way they played this test and you will see nothing less than you saw at
the height of the Tri-Nations – more in fact.

The reason they didn’t win was all down to the cretin blowing the whistle, end of story. If that makes me a sore loser in the eyes of many, then that’s just dandy. The truth is like that sometimes.

So where to from here? Well, even if this All Black team had lifted the trophy, a lot of it’s ‘stars’ are probably going to disappear off-shore anyway, in that way professional sport has of diluting the national game, so it isn’t as if it would have had any continuity much beyond 2008. I expect Henry will call it a day too, and hand over the reigns to someone else, perhaps Hansen. Alternatively a new broom may get Robbie Deans the top job, leaving Hansen free to go back and do a bit of redeeming in Wales.

 

No doubt we can look forward to a lot more hand-wringing and angst here in New Zealand over the coming weeks, as we face yet another “Four More Years” scenario.

Personally I’m not hugely bothered by this loss, apart from the way that it happened – if the IRB had any idea of good refereeing, which they haven’t, Barnes would be dangling by his privates from a lamp-post somewhere in Cardiff by now. That being as it may, the sun will come up again tomorrow, and there’s the comparative sanity of provincial rugby to look forward to.

But I think it’s high time for a different approach to be adopted by the New Zealand Rugby Union. Forget about this over-blown event and what we have built it up to represent. Since New Zealand won the inaugural World Cup about a million years ago, we have had this belief we “own” it. That together with our generally high standards we set for our test rugby has made it into some kind of Holy Grail.

It has been my unvarying view, for the past 20 years, that the Rugby World Cup is relatively unimportant. The team that wins it usually does so with a mixture of luck, skill and on-the-day happenstance, as you can always expect from a knockout tournament. It’s a great festival of rugby but nothing more. It’s like a birthday, where the party is a blast on the day, but life is all about the other 364.

So I believe the New Zealand approach should change course 180-degrees, Let’s simply not care whether we win or lose it, and especially not put in place some grand 4-year plan to win the next one, apply reconditioning windows etc. Instead just concentrate on building the strength and depth of the All Blacks to be the best they can be for every test in each and every season, and just concentrate on those year by year.

Then in World Cup year, just go to the event with whatever you have at the time and enjoy the bloody thing for what it is.
God knows the 100% meticulous planning paradigm hasn’t worked, so it’s time to try another one.

That way I believe, paradoxically, the World Cup will become easier to win, not harder. And rugby will shed some of this ridiculous 4-year-cycle nonsense that it has at present. The only fly in the ointment with that for 2011 of course is that WE are hosting the damn thing.

Oh well, maybe we can manage it when it’s in our own back-yard, but I’m not betting any money on that either – knockout tournaments are funny things as this one has proved.

I wonder if the All Blacks will meet up with the Wallabies at the airport on the way home for an early start to the summer?

Time to scrape the rust off the barbie and concentrate on the really important things.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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6 Oct

England Kick Aussie Out Of Cup
by Paul Waite
6 Oct 2007

What a test match! England, written off by everyone, hit the ground running, and blitzed Australia up front to knock them out of the Rugby World cup by 12-10.

In the week all the pundits were all speaking of a comfortable Wallaby win, with most predictions citing a fair margin of 20 points or so. However the stolid English had other ideas, and it’s a timely reminder for All Blacks fans, that a team with its back to the wall is a dangerous beast.

Right from the start England surprised. They came out and held onto the ball, running it up at the Aussie defence, and backing it with some nice cleanouts and turnovers at the ruck. With some territorial advantage, they knocked Australia onto the back foot, and they remained that way for the whole test.

The chief weapon for England was the scrum. It devastated the Wallaby unit, and visibly sucked all the energy out of the legs of Matt Dunning & Co. in general play. After some initial dodgy calls by the referee Alain Rolland, who failed to notice Dunning folding up like a soft toy against the giant Sheridan, he eventually saw through it, and started penalising the Australians. After that they had nowhere to hide and were in serious trouble at every scrum.

That great rugby thinker, Australian No.7 Phil Waugh, is probably regretting his words earlier in the week, when he let slip the fact that the Wallaby front row, which has been mashed to a pulp regularly in the past couple of seasons, was thinking of itself as potentially the best in the World. He might like to reflect on the old adage "don’t try to run before you can walk".

Aside from the scrum, England also blew Australia off the ball at ruck time, on both sides of the ball. Australia couldn’t get any kind of momentum recycling the ball, and had to rely on ‘miracle’ breaks by their more creative backs such as Barnes, Giteau, Latham, and Tuquiri. Even so they remained dangerous to the end, and always threatened to make that telling break which would result in a match-wining try.

But England ground it out well, with their aging, but therefore experienced pack using all their nouse to wind down the clock and deny Australia the time on the ball they desperately needed to force points onto the board. The nearest they came was a long-distance penalty which Mortlock (with this lemon of a World Cup ball) duly missed with about 7 minutes left.

So, well done England for surprising everyone, and also for keeping the Northern Hemisphere candles burning for yet another week. At least for NH fans it is now guaranteed not to be an all-Southern Hemisphere semi-final.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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3 Oct

And then there were Four
by Tracey Nelson
3 Oct 2007

Finally we are back in France, in the City of Love – where no love
will be lost this weekend as the hosts France take on reigning World
Cup Champions England, and the South Africa go into battle against
Argentina.

Semi Final 1, Saturday October 13: France v England

Referee: Jonathan Kaplan, South Africa

So it has to be asked – can France string together two big games in
consecutive weeks? Going on past history, most people will say NO.
France have a track record of playing one huge game and then rolling
over in the next one. Will this weekend be any different?

Possibly. They are playing the reigning World Champs who have been
anything but in the four years between tournaments, but last weekend
England turned on a display of immense forward power, combined with
the boot of the mercurial Johnny Wilkinson, to put Australia to the
sword. Although it must be said that the Australian pack is dreadful,
and it was only a matter of time before they got a referee who could
call it as it was happening. So other than snuffing Australia out by
having a better pack, can England match France?

If France can get their heads together and get out on the field with
the same mental determination they had to beat New Zealand last week,
and IF they can get their backline running, then they can win this
game. England have struggled to score tries, and while potting three
points at regular points during the game was enough to deny Australia
the win, you’d have to question whether it will be enough against a
team that is more than capable of matching them up front.

In France’s favour is the fact they are playing on home turf. This is
their tournament, and it’s do or die for them. With the hearts of a
nation behind them, those trumpets playing (Ole!!), and the lights of
Paris twinkling in the background you would have to think that perhaps
the scales are balanced somewhat in their favour. In England’s
favour, they have new belief after dispatching Australia and there are
some experienced players in that team. Though have they passed from
being experienced to just plain past it? All will be revealed this
Saturday.

Semi Final 2, Sunday October 14: South Africa v Argentina

Referee: Steve Walsh, New Zealand

Almost like two Sherman Tanks going for each other. Two magnificently
powerful yet mobile packs, vs two great running backlines. The match
ups in this game are mouthwatering to say the least. The pre-match
slanging has begun, and despite Argentina never having beaten the Boks
in their previous 11 meetings, it wouldn’t be a silly move to put a
sly dollar on the Pumas this weekend.

Argentina, the team that plays in neither the Six Nations nor the
Tri-Nations, has burst from black hole of rugby obscurity and by
winning the Pool of Death have marched on to make their first ever
appearance at the World Cup semi finals. Their forwards have carved
up the opposition like a hippopotamus blocked trying to get to the
river, and their backs play with all the Latin flair of their French
counterparts – no surprise that most of them play club rugby in France
then.

South Africa have continued their heritage of massive forwards,
twinkle-toed backs and of course that kicking game – because what is a
Springbok team without a kicking 1st 5? But they are street savvy,
and they are brutal. There are no prisoners taken when the Springboks
play.

This game could go one of two ways – it will either be an immense
struggle up front with neither backline getting to see much ball, or
it will be a display of running rugby like no other. Personally I’m
hoping for the latter, as I think the talent in both backlines would
be worth the admission price alone if they are allowed to cut loose.
Who will win? The Springboks are probably favourites at the bookies,
but Argentina are fast becoming the tournament darlings and have
almost slipped undetected and unfancied to the business end of the
matches. The first 20 minutes will determine the outcome of this
game, if South Africa can get a lead then I expect them to run away
with the game. But if Argentina can get a look in, then watch out.

2 Oct

The Eight Emerge
by Tracey Nelson
2 Oct 2007

The final eight teams have been decided, with the boil over being Fiji’s win over Wales – thus knocking the Welsh out of the tournament with the conclusion of pool play. The three southern powers of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia had already booked their quarter final spots by finishing undisputed top of their respective pools before the final round, however Pool D remained an enigma right up to the final pool game as to which of Argentina, Ireland and France would miss out on going through to the quarter finals, and who would finish top of the pool and thus miss playing the All Blacks in that game.

As expected (well, by those of us who usually reside south of the equator anyway), Argentina put paid to Ireland’s hopes, beating them comprehensively in the end to emerge the overall winners of Pool D by virtue of having beaten France in the opening game of the tournament. That there are two sides in the quarter finals, neither of whom compete in either the Tri Nations or the Six Nations, should be making some of the fuddy duddies at the IRB sit up and take notice. Not that we shall hold our collective breath.

With Australia, New Zealand and France all now ending up on the same side of the draw, South Africa looks to have the easiest road through to the final meeting Fiji in the quarter finals, and then most likely Argentina in the semi (Argentina meeting a less than impressive looking Scotland in the other quarter final). The fly in the ointment for South Africa could well be Argentina though, who are looking more and more confident as the tournament progresses and they have both the forward pack and the kicking game that could quell the Boks.

Australia will play the unfancied England in their quarter final, and given the woeful state of English rugby you’d have to think that Australia would win that game unless it comes down to a swathe of scrums which is the one area England would certainly have the wood on them. Meanwhile New Zealand will take on host nation France – although this game will be played on the neutral territory of Millenium Stadium in Cardiff and it remains to be seen how France will cope with the lack of home ground advantage.

With the rapidly decaying state of rugby in the home unions, and France looking out of sorts other than when playing the minnows, there remains a high chance of the semi finals being an all southern hemisphere affair. One has to wonder what the interest will be like in France and the UK should that happen. Surely the tournament organisers would not have wanted a New Zealand-France clash this early in the tournament, and likewise I’m sure that France would have been expecting to play a quarter final in front of a partisan home crowd on their home turf in Paris.

To win the Webb Ellis Trophy, New Zealand now faces the sternest path having to beat France, Australia and most probably South Africa to be crowned world champions. And if they can beat those three teams in space of three weeks, then they surely will deserve that mantle.