8 Jan

Stop Press!! Common Sense Outbreak at NZRFU!
by Rick Boyd
8 Jan 2008

There has been considerable moaning from media lightweights — and from a few people who should know better — but with one notable drawback, the NZRFU’s decision to continue All Black coach Graham Henry’s tenure is an asset for All Black and New Zealand rugby.

First and foremost, it signals that maybe, just maybe, the NZRFU are finally getting the message the Rugby World Cup isn’t the be-all and end-all of international rugby.

And even intellectual pygmies (with which rugby is abundantly stocked) should be able to figure out why. Just think about it, the Rugby World Cup measures all the wrong things.

Take a four-test international series. To win one of those is damn hard. A team has to be measured against its opponent four times, and come up victorious three times to claim the series. There’s no room for flukes, lucky breaks and the bounce of the ball. A team that does it three times in a row over an opponent has proven its mettle.

But there’s no four-test series in the Rugby World Cup, for obvious reasons. The Rugby World Cup is a series of one-off tests, with only the semi-final and the final providing any real opposition; and the occasional quarter-final if a team strikes one of the major players (mainly due to the ongoing stupidity that is Rugby World Cup seedings).

A team has one chance to make or break in the Rugby World Cup. One close game, one fluke, one lucky break — one unbelievably imbecilic decision by a blind pommy git referee — and it’s all over red rover.

What does the Rugby World Cup measure? Fuck all.

But then it was never designed to. The Rugby World Cup was designed to be a great showcase of the game, a marvellous carnival of rugby giving the game peak profile to the world’s media in one fantastic marketing window.

It was never designed to find the world’s best team.

Understandably, the media went into a frenzy over the Rugby World Cup. That’s what it was designed for. Less understandably, casual fans followed, mistaking the high profile of the event for high value of rugby. Incomprehensibly, national rugby boards and many grass roots fans trailed blindly after them, deciding that a trophy with world in the title meant that it was the pinnacle of world rugby achievement.

But it’s not. It’s the pinnacle of world rugby profile.

Arguably, the "best" team in world rugby has won the Rugby World Cup three times in six tournaments New Zealand in 1987, Australia in 1991 and England in 2003.

There are those deluded fools who say that the Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of achievement because all teams are on an even footing and they go into it knowing they have to produce their best in this one event. Which is, of course, simplistic nonsense. Firstly, knowing they have to produce their best has absolutely no connection to actually doing their best. If teams knew how to produce their best on demand, they’d do it every time. And secondly, a one off game is still a poorer way of evaluating ability than a series, no matter how even a footing all teams are on or how much they want to produce their best in one event. It is utter, utter nonsense to think otherwise.

It’s high time the Rugby World Cup was put in its place. Graham Henry and his brains trust took the All Blacks to a string of victories which was the envy of every other team in world rugby. Tri-Nations wins, Lions tour wins, Grand Slam wins no one should ask more of a coach than that. Yet one poor refereeing decision is supposed to turn that brilliant record into failure? How stupid do you have to be?

Ok, so he made a few mistakes. Resting All Blacks during the Super 14 may have been one, it may not. The rotational policy may have been one, or the manner the rotational policy was applied.

The demands on international players in the contemporary era are unreasonable, and the stress modern international athletes are subjected to makes them brittle. On the one hand the team needs players who are match fit, hardened against quality opposition and with enough time together to form working combinations. On the other hand the teams needs players that are fresh, in peak form and injury free – not a bunch of stale, exhausted players carrying a plethora of injuries. It’s a fine line, and many other cliches.

Personally, I think that the rotational policy is a matter of necessity while the international season remains so long and so demanding. And New Zealand has the depth to use it effectively. But what absolutely must happen is that key players have enough time in their key positions to be able to form combinations. It was absolute madness to throw Luke McAlister and Mils Muliaina into the French quarter final in only their third test together.

And let’s look at that Rugby World Cup quarter final, since it seems Henry’s career hung in the balance over one solitary test. Firstly, the All Black forwards did all that could be asked of them. The team had heaps of ball to play with and a lot of it from go-forward positions. Secondly, the All Black backs were flat and awkward. Some of this was due to the poor combinations, some due to Factor Three, excellent French play — particularly in defence — and some due simply to a poor day on the park. Fourthly, the All Blacks were underdone, and no one can deny it. The length of time since earlier tests, the soft pool games, and the decision by Scotland to play their B team against New Zealand in a gutless display of cynical gamesmanship that should be stamped out severely by the IRB. If the All Blacks had played a test series against France, they would have slaughtered them in the following tests. They needed one hard game to get them firing, but in the Rugby World Cup there are no second chances.

But all of those factors meant only that the game was close. The All Blacks were in front, they had dominated play, they had scored tries, they had done enough. And that’s where the real decider, Factor Five, came into play. An inexperienced referee, frozen in the headlights of world cup finals, gave one of the worst displays of test match officiating ever seen and tipped the balance of the match in France’s favour. Apart from the iniquitous direction of modern refereeing that sanctions constant offsides and interference off the ball, referee Barnes was too scared to give one penalty against France in the second half, despite a string of blatant offences that are there for all the world to see on video. And when France passed ridiculously forward to score the try that illegally stole them the game, Barnes was oblivious.

In summary, Barnes wasn’t the reason the game was close – that was the All Blacks’ own fault. But he definitely was the reason the French gained the winning score in that close game. And that’s a disgrace.

Graham Henry and his team must accept responsibility for the Rugby World Cup quarter final loss, but only for the factors under their control. And they should not outweigh Henry’s excellent test record since 2004, they should not even come close.Therefore the decision by the NZRFU to allow Henry and Co. to continue this excellent record is to be applauded, not least because it shows that the Rugby World Cup, while a worthy prize, is not the only prize, and not even the most important prize.

The one negative from this is the loss of Robbie Deans to the Wallabies. I would have been perfectly happy had Deans got the All Black job. Maybe it was time for a new face to have a go. He would have done a sterling job. But then I’m perfectly happy for Henry to continue too.

It’s just a shame that such a great coaching talent as Deans is now offshore. And I feel bound to say, this is not a feature of the modern game that sits at all easily with me. I know it’s a professional sport and rugby people naturally seek the maximum income from the sport they can. I do myself, after all (peanuts though that may be).

Call me a dinosaur, but for me a New Zealander is a New Zealander and should be putting his efforts into furthering All Black rugby. At a pinch, coaching Wales or Ireland might be seen as career development that would not adversely affect New Zealand. Good for the game of rugby (which is certainly my excuse for living and working in Western Australia, trying to educate these isolated heathens about the true, ancient and noble game – before you accuse me of raging hypocrisy).

But to coach Australia, South Africa or France and directly attempt to undermine New Zealand rugby, using all the knowledge and experience New Zealand rugby has supplied — no, that’s not on. Sorry Robbie, but there it is. Bad enough Russell "Turncoat" Coutts sold his soul for twenty pieces of silver; but Robbie Deans? A rugby man, an All Black, a mainlander? That I should live to see the day!

Which only leaves us to hope that Henry and his All Blacks mercilessly smash, humiliate and destroy Deans and his Wallabies this year.

Let’s have just deserts all round.

5 Jan

A Haka New Year To Everyone!
by Paul Waite
5 Jan 2008

With all the emotion of the World Cup disappointment having drained away, it’s time to look ahead at what ­promises to be a very interesting 2008 with Graham Henry retained as the All Black coach over Robbie Deans.

But first of all, in keeping with the religious origins of the Christmas Season, I’d like to present the Ten Commandments of All Black Rugby which more or less express the things I’d lik­e to see Henry and the Men In Black living by over the next season and beyond.

10 Commandments­­

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Okay, that’s enough of that. Let’s start the more serious stuff by congratulating Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen on their re-appointment to the job despite many calling for their heads to be paraded through the streets on a stick in the aftermath of the Rugby World Cup ‘debacle’.

I’m not going to reiterate the arguments over who or what was to blame for our piss-poor World Cup showing here. They have been given a good airing on this site and elsewhere already. According to various polls, there are roughly 50% of fans who would
have preferred the installation of Deans as coach but they need to get
over that now, and move on. Whether you are in the pro or con camp, the important thing as an All Black supporter is to get behind the team, and that means the coaches too.

The other important thing is that Graham Henry applies the lessons to be learned from the horrible experience in Cardiff. In the initial aftermath, he stated that looking back, they would have done nothing different. Unfortunately, your average fan is like any other person, and finds it difficult to grapple with the concept of hindsight.

To some, therefore, this sounds like ‘denial’, but that isn’t correct.

Listening closely, Henry has already admitted that things would be done differently in the future, which is what we would expect. Obviously we would all be very interested to learn the details, but it’s probably too early to get him to lay those out for us. In that event I’ll lay out my brief wish-list of changes to our approach for the intervening seasons and the 2011 World Cup here.

For the intervening seasons:

  • Re-value the Black Jersey. Rotation is good for building the depth we need, but the downside of it is that we miss out on the power and mana that a player gets from being THE All Black in his position. We also fail to maximise our combinations, which can only achieve full potential with the same players playing together in numerous tight tests.

  • Rotation should continue, but restrict it to ‘lesser’ tests, and play our core pack and backs in all big matches. That doesn’t mean an absolute 22, set in stone, but the run-on front-row, locks, loose-trio, halves, midfield and back three should all be played as a combination as often as possible in the top test matches.

  • No reconditioning window for All Blacks. Instead manage each player individually, and also perhaps impose a rule that some at risk All Blacks have to skip three Super 14 games, to be chosen by the franchise. Reconditioning is a great tool, where needed, but the degree to which it was applied in 2007 debilitated the players. They were well short of a gallop, come the Rugby World Cup, and that contributed to the showing in Cardiff.

For World Cup year 2011:

  • Don’t do a lot different. I can’t emphasise this enough. The big mistake I believe that the All Blacks have made for most of our failed World Cups is to treat them as a super-special year. This results in a lot of special steps being taken, the prime example of which, in 2007, was The Reconditioning Window. This has two very bad consequences. Firstly, and most importantly, we throw away our common-sense successful approach of simply knuckling down to hard training, doing the basics, preparing for the tour/games, and getting on with winning each game as it comes. Secondly, doing all that extra special stuff just winds up the pressure on the players. What they need most of all is normality and the very same preparation processes that they are familiar with, not special treatment.
  • Do the familiar and lessen the pressure. This is reiterating the above really, but in a different way. Workload, training, preparation should be the same as for a normal year apart perhaps from some timing differences to cater to the dates of the tournament. Pick the best players and don’t rest them. Work them hard, pick them in position as usual, and treat the World Cup tournament as just another end-of-year tour.

Ok, that’s my common-sense recipe for success for 2008 – 2011. I hope some of that gets put into practice by them whose job it still is to get the All Blacks where we want them to be.

Of all the above points, the major one for me has to be the aspect of the Black Jersey. The 2007 All Blacks went right along with Graham Henry’s vision of an interchangeable squad without much more than a few murmurings of discontent. They gave it their best without complaint.

But reading between the lines, and thinking about this more deeply, it’s pretty bloody obvious that it’s not the best approach. Far from it.

The players don’t like it. We, the fans, don’t like it.

It neutralizes the power and shear mana of that Black Jersey with a player’s number on it. Remember Jonah with his ’11′ proudly shaved into his eyebrow? It was his jersey. He owned it. Think back to various comments from past All Blacks. A jersey should belong to a given player until someone else comes along and proves beyond doubt that they are the better player in that position.

If you give all the players that honour you get some mighty benefits in return. First of all every player will crawl over red-hot coals to retain that jersey, once they have won it. Secondly, by default, you maximise the team combinations and rhythm by playing them together more.

Thirdly, you bring the All Blacks back into sharp focus for the fans. Instead of some nebulous horses for courses squad, you give them The Team.

So how does all this square with the dreaded R-word, "rotation" I hear you ask?

One of the problems we had in the past was lack of depth in key positions. Henry addressed that in spades with his rotation policy, whilst at the same time de-valuing the Black Jersey and missing out on the benefits mentioned above.

Quite obviously we have to follow a middle way. A compromise.

With the lack of the old-style tours, where up-and-comers could be played mid-week, and a recognised test team played in the real test matches, we still need rotation.

The way that we can accommodate all of our requirements is to play a recognised test team for all important tests. This team should be advertised by Henry as such – ie. by saying "this is THE test team". Nobody should be left in any doubt about it. The top tests would be all the 3N tests, and any end-of-year tour tests against the top-tier nations such as England and France. For some or all of the other, lesser, tests, employ rotation to blood the understudies for the test players.

If adopted, this approach would result in less rotation than we have
seen over the past few seasons, but the pay off would be worth it. The
test players would return to their proper standing once again, and the
Black Jersey would regain most of the mana it once had.

The idea could also possibly work in with the NZRU’s requirement to make more money from tests by increasing the number of them. Instead of adding an extra block-buster test between, say, NZ and England, why not add 3-4 tests against lower-tier nations, where Henry could field his rotation selections.

Well, that’s my two-cents worth said and done. Hopefully we’ll see some of it implemented.

­

Finally, here’s a toast to all of you All Black fans, Graham Henry, Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen, and all of the All Blacks. Have a great summer, and an even greater 2008 season.

I’d also like to raise a glass to the mighty Brian Lochore, who has stepped down from the All Blacks selection panel.

Our only World Cup winning coach, and a tremendous servant to New Zealand rugby both as a player and in many other roles. Thanks BJ.

The Haka Team

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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