31 Oct

Walk the Walk
by Tracey Nelson
31 Oct 2008

On the eve of the first off-shore Bledisloe Cup test between New Zealand and Australia in Hong Kong, the CEOs of the respective unions fired a small broadside at the IRB regarding the strength (or lack thereof) of northern hemisphere touring sides in the June test window.

For all that was discussed in Woking last year on the length of the global season, and the promises made that French club rugby would finish by the end of May, nothing changed at all in 2008 and doesn’t look any more likely to in 2009 – with the French club season not likely to finish before early June, and UK club sides reluctant to release players for national duties.

For several seasons now the northern hemisphere have been sending under-strength squads to tour New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, yet still expect to see full strength sides from down-under tour up north come November. Crowd numbers at such mis-matches in both New Zealand and Australia in recent years have reflected the public’s view that these "test" matches are nothing more than opposed training runs, and as result gate revenue has declined.

In a joint press conference held by the CEO’s of the Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australian Rugby Unions at the Hong Kong Stadium this afternoon, Australian CEO John O’Neill put forward the suggestion that should under-strength tours by northern hemisphere sides continue perhaps it was time the three big southern hemisphere sides either canned the in-bound June test window, refused to tour the northern hemisphere in the November window or demanded a bigger slice of the revenue from selling out 80 000 seat stadiums in the UK.

Certainly the interest this off-shore Bledisloe has generated lends a degree of merit to this idea, and already an unsolicited offer has come out of Denver in the USA to host a similar test in 2009. Globalisation of the game seems to be paramount in the minds of both Australia and New Zealand, albeit with a view to topping up some fairly empty coffers at present. While NZRU CEO Steve Tew was a little less forthcoming on the idea of canning tours to the UK should the current status quo around the June international test window remain, he did agree with O’Neill that the current situation was less than ideal and that other markets were definitely out there.

With Japan keen to host a Rugby World Cup, it seems logical that taking a Bledisloe Cup test there at some stage in the next two years would not only showcase the game to one of Asia’s biggest population bases but also give Japan the chance to prove they are capable of putting on such and event and filling the stadium.

It remains to be seen how the IRB, and more importantly the controlling member unions, respond to O’Neill’s bold stance on the current status of international test rugby. No doubt there will be some more howls of rage from certain "gin-swilling old farts" but there remains the fact that tours by the All Blacks and Wallabies sell out stadiums wherever in the world they go, so we can only hope that O’Neill and Tew have the fortitude to make the big decisions should it come down to it and do more than just talk the talk.

24 Oct

ANZC Final Preview
by Tracey Nelson
24 Oct 2008

As predicted, the final has become a showdown of Wellington against Canterbury. Easily the two best sides in the competition this year, both have only dropped one game on their road to the final.

Canterbury lost their only game in the very first round, unexpectedly falling to minnow-team Manawatu. Wellington, by contrast, fell in the last round losing to Otago at Carisbrook have survived their first and only Shield Defence of the year the week before.

The final sees the best attacking side (Wellington) up against the best defensive side. However, to back their defence up Canterbury have been the second best attacking side behind Wellington. The same can’t be said for Wellington, who in recent weeks have looked brittle on defence at times.

With this in mind, Wellington coach Jamie Joseph has chosen to shift All Black 2nd 5, Ma’a Nonu, out to the wing and play a midfield combination of Tamati Ellison and Conrad Smith. Serge Lilo makes a welcome return at openside, having been out with injury for the last month. Injury concerns over prop Neemia Tialata and lock Jeremy Thrush, who has had a massive season for the capital side, have receded and both will start this Saturday night.

Canterbury have bigger injury woes, having lost speedy winger James Paterson to a serious knee injury early in their semi final game against Hawkes Bay, while half back Andy Ellis has been ruled out with a medial ligament strain. With All Black captain Richie McCaw at openside and Kieran Read captaining the side at No 8, Canterbury will be looking to get the edge at the breakdown with the assistance of their mobile locking pairing of Michael Paterson and Isaac Ross, along with seasoned campaigners Corey Flynn, Greg Somerville and Wyatt Crockett in the front row.

This game promises to be a real battle right across the field, with the Wellington speedsters of Hosea Gear and Corey Jane up against the solid Scott Hamilton and Paul Williams. Midfield has Ellison/Smith versus Tim Bateman and Casey Laulala. First five has the unlikely match-up of All Black halfback Piri Weepu against in-form rookie Colin Slade, yet another 1st 5 off the HSOB/Canterbury production line. Both forward packs are strong and mobile, so expect no mercy to be taken by either side.

Wellington have home advantage and a sting in their attack, while Canterbury have a pretty handy attack themselves and a proven defensive record this season. Finals rugby often comes down to which side has the best defence, but this may not be the case on Saturday night. Either way though, it promises to be a great game of rugby.

Predicition: depends what mood referee Bryce Lawrence is in. Too hard to call this one.

WELLINGTON: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Ma’a Nonu, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Piri Weepu (captain), 9 Alby Matthewson, 8 Rodney So’oialo, 7 Serge Lilo, 6 Chris Masoe, 5 Jeremy Thrush, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 John Schwalger, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Neemia Tialata. Reserves: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Tim Fairbrother, 19 Thomas Waldrom, 20 Api Naikatini, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Tane Tu’ipulotu.

CANTERBURY: 15 Scott Hamilton, 14 Paul Williams, 13.Casey Laulala, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Hayden Hopgood, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Michael Paterson, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett, Reserves: 16 Steve Fualau, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Nasi Manu, 19 George Whitelock, 20 Steve Alfeld, 21 Hamish Gard, 22 Adam Whitelock.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (Bay of Plenty).

17 Oct

ANZC Semi-Finals Preview
by Tracey Nelson
17 Oct 2008

And then there were four. This weekend sees the semi-finals of the Air New Zealand Cup with Wellington taking on Southland at the Caketin, and Canterbury hosting Hawkes Bay in AMI Stadium in Christchurch. So what are the chances for the four contenders?

WELLINGTON v SOUTHLAND (1st v 5th), Friday 7.35pm

Wellington were made to work hard last week by an enterprising Taranaki side who really took the game to the competition favourites. Historically recognised for their good forward packs, the Naki unleashed a slick-running backline with 2nd 5 Jayden Haywood cutting some merry capers through the Lions’ defence at times. It took until the 70th minute of the game for Wellington to finally surge ahead on the board, and the final scoreline of 50-30 didn’t really tell the full story of the game.

Meanwhile, Southland had travelled north to take on Bay of Plenty and surprised many with the attacking game they brought with them. Despite Bay of Plenty scoring the first try, they were never really in the game after that and Southland gave them a stern lesson about getting numbers to the breakdown and have reliable set pieces. The final score of 45-11 in this match was a true reflection of what had happened on the field.

This semi-final match promises to be a true contrast of styles. Wellington have been in their own league as far as scoring points goes this season, yet defensively they have conceded nearly 200 points in 11 games. Contrast this with Southland, who have been very sound with a defensive record (163 points) second only to Canterbury and seem to be finally hitting their attacking straps at the business end of the season. On a dry ground at home, you’d back Wellington. But the weather is threatening rain and if Southland can play the percentages and maintain their strong defence, Wellington may well have a battle on their hands.

Key players: Wellington have the services of their All Blacks Nonu, Weepu, So’oialo, Schwalger and Tialata, with Conrad Smith on the bench. In a move obviously designed to shore-up their midfield defence, coach Jamie Joseph has shifted Nonu to the wing and brought Tane Tuipulotu back into the 2nd 5 slot. Southland have the in-form Jimmy Cowan, flying winger Pehi Te Whare who picked up a brace of tries last week, and a very solid front row.

Key areas: as always, the battle of the breakdown will be important and it will be interesting to see how the Wellington trio of Masoe, So’oialo and Waldrom match up in speed against Dion Bates, Tim Boys and David Hall. Southland will look to put the heat on at scrum time, and expect to see plenty of contesting from both sides at the lineouts. The edge in speed out wide probably goes to the Wellington back trio of Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu and Hosea Gear, but Southland fullback Robbie Robinson is an elusive runner and Te Whare is all power. At the end of the day this game will probably go to the team who has the better defence and can shut the opposition’s game down.

Likely result: hard to call if it rains, but you’d probably have to go with Wellington on their home track. Southland have a longer track record than Wellington for choking in the big games, but they have the form and game to upset the favourites if they can bring it.

Wellington: Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Tane Tu’ipulotu, Hosea Gear, Piri Weepu (c), Alby Mathewson, Thomas Waldrom, Rodney So’oialo, Chris Masoe, Jeremy Thrush, Ross Filipo, John Schwalger, Dane Coles, Neemia Tialata. Reserves: Ged Robinson, Jacob Ellison, Tim Fairbrother, Api Naikatini, Serge Lilo, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Conrad Smith.
Southland: Robbie Robinson, Mark Wells, Kendrick Lynn, Matt Saunders, Pehi Te Whare, Blair Stewart, Jimmy Cowan, David Hall, Tim Boys, Dion Bates, Hoani Macdonald, Josh Bekhuis, Chris King, Jason Rutledge, Jamie Mackintosh (c). Reserves: Matt Holloway, Fai Mika, Daniel Ramsay, John Hardie, Scott Cowan,Tane Puke, Willie Rickards.

CANTERBURY v HAWKES BAY (2nd v 3rd), Saturday, 7.35pm

Canterbury dealt swiftly and sharply to Tasman last weekend winning 45-10, and have now won 10 games on the trot to keep their momentum growing. Easily the best defensive side in the competition conceding a miserly average of 10 points per game, they are also the second best attacking side after Wellington and therefore would appear to be odds on favourites to win this semi final.

Hawkes Bay played some great attacking rugby in the first half of their quarter final against Waikato last week, clocking up a 28-0 lead at halftime. However, they nearly let the game slip in the second half conceding nearly as many points as they had scored, and just scraped to victory on the back of the lone penalty Matt Berquist kicked to win 31-28. Despite conceding twice as many points this season as Canterbury has, Hawkes Bay can boast a pretty healthy attacking game and without doubt have the best functioning lineout in the competition having lost only two on their own throw this season.

This semi-final sees a meeting of two teams who play a very similar style of game. Last time they met (a mere 3 weeks ago), Canterbury won 31-7. Since then, Canterbury’s game has grown and whereas earlier in the season they squandered a few scoring opportunites, in recent times they have been nailing most of them and in Crusader-like style. Hawkes Bay have performed well all season, interestingly having only lost to the three other semi-finalists. They will be hoping for a dry ground, as their game relies on the pace of their backline and keeping the ball moving.

Key players: Canterbury have the luxury of starting All Black captain Richie McCaw this week, and also have 2008 All Blacks Greg Somerville and Andy Ellis in their lineup. Add to that seasoned campaigners Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Casey Laulala and Scott Hamilton, All Black-in-waiting Keiran Reid, plus the youthful talent of Tim Bateman and James Paterson, and this is a side that will be hard to beat at home. Hawkes Bay have their hard-running, accurate-throwing hooker Hikawera Elliot, the up and coming George Naoupu at No 8, and a good deal of talent in their backline with the likes of Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Jason Shoemark, Matt Berquist and seasoned campaigner Danny Lee.

Key areas: both teams are aggressive at the breakdown, so watch for a battle royale there. Can the Canterbury side upset Hawkes Bay at the lineout, or will Elliot’s excellent throwing continue? Hawkes Bay have a pretty good scrum, but Canterbury have given most sides a testing time in that area. Keep your fingers crossed for a dry track, because there should be some wonderful running rugby on display from both sides. Question is, will Hawkes Bay be able to combat Canterbury’s great defence?

Likely result: potentially this game could be the master teaching the student a lesson or two. While both sides play a very similar style, Canterbury simply have more experience and the better bench. Expect a Canterbury win, but for the Bay to keep themselves in the game until midway through the second half when the Cantabs start to bring on fresh legs.

Canterbury: Scott Hamilton, Paul Williams, Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, James Paterson, Colin Slade, Andrew Ellis, Kieran Read (c), Richie McCaw, Hayden Hopgood, Isaac Ross, Michael Paterson, Greg Somerville, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Steve Fulau, Owen Franks, Nasi Manu, George Whitelock, Tyson Keats, Hamish Gard, Adam Whitelock.
Hawkes Bay: Israel Dagg, Jason Kupa, Jason Shoemark, Sam Giddens, Zac Guildford, Matthew Berquist, Danny Lee, George Naoupu, Karl Lowe, Michael Johnson, Bryn Evans, Johan Snyman, Anthony Perenise, Hikawera Elliot, Sona Taumalolo. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Josh Keys, Matt Egan, Pama Petia, Chris Eaton, Aayden Clarke, Mark Jackman. />

10 Oct

ANZC Quarter Finals Preview
by Tracey Nelson
10 Oct 2008

As we head into the quarter final games of the Air New Zealand Cup, just who has the form and talent to kick on to the semi finals?

Friday Oct 10, Christchurch, 7.35pm

In what is looming as a Crusaders trial game, Tasman coach Todd Blackadder will no doubt be wearing two hats as he watches this game unfold tonight. The two sides met in week 5 of the competition, with the Red ‘n Blacks coming out with a 44-15 victory that belied the pressure Tasman had put them under for large parts of the game.

This game will see Brad Thorn’s first outing in the Mako jersey, and he will be having his first ANZC game of the season as will All Black captain Richie McCaw who will come off the bench for the Cantabs. Some key match ups in this game are those between Crusaders halfbacks Andy Ellis and Kahn Fotuali’i, Casey Laulala who is returning from injury and will be up against the in-form Kade Poki who has successfully shifted from the wing into his preferred centre position, Tasman’s 1st 5 Miah Nikora against Colin Slade (initially the third choice 1st 5 for Canterbury at the start of the season), the up and coming Mako’s loosehead Ben May against the veteran All Black tighthead Greg Somerville, and Brad Thorn taking on the young Canterbury locks Isaac Ross and Michael Paterson.

Canterbury are the best defensive side in the competition, only conceding an average of 10 points per game, and more often than not it’s good defence in the big games that will see a side through. To bolster that defence though is their attacking game which is second only to Wellington this year. Despite some terrific performances this season. Tasman will need to be on top of their game to topple the second ranked team in the ANZC. Likely score: 34-15 to Canterbury.

Saturday, Oct 11, Mt Maunganiu, 5.05pm

Both teams go into this qaurter-final on the back of a loss in their last round robin game, BOP having lost to Hawkes Bay 12-46 and Southland going down to Canterbury 6-25. These two are probably the closest matched teams, with BOP just edging Southland 24-22 in week 9. Southland are one of the better defensive sides in the competition, but the worst attacking side of the eight quarter finalists. BOP tend to leak tries like a seive on defence but make up for it by generally scoring a couple more than their opposition.

BOP have no All Blacks to call on, so their side remains settled going into the play-offs despite some injury concerns around key backs Mike Delaney and Nigel Hunt. They have an impressive loose trio in Colin Bourke, Tanerau Latimer and Solomon King, and the speed and skill of Zar Lawrence at fullback. Southland have All Black half back Jimmy Cowan, but he perhaps hasn’t been the impact they were hoping for and was comprehensively beaten around the fringes by his smaller but zippier opposite Ruki Tipuna last time the two sides met. Southland have a mighty front row boasting props Jamie Mackintosh and Chris King, and keep an eye on young fullback Robbie Robinson who has been injecting himself into the backline well this season.

Delaney is the second highest points scorer in the compeition with 88, and it may well come down to which side can land all their kicking chances in what promises to be a very close clash. Likely score: 22-21 to BOP.

Saturday, Oct 11, Wellington, 7.35pm

On paper Wellington have to be the out and out favourites for this game, having scored a massive 353 points in round robin play and boasting top try scorer (11) Hosea Gear on the wing. However, since lifting the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland in week 8 Wellington have been making hard work of it, struggling to overcome a valiant Tasman in the first Shield defence and then being well beaten by out-of-contention Otago in the final round.

Despite Taranki losing their last game to Waikato in what was a marvellous display of try scoring but hardly a copybook approach to defence by either side, they scraped into the final eight thanks to Northland knocking Auckland out. The two sides haven’t played yet in 2008, last year Taranaki were well beaten 12-53 when they ventured down to the capital and they haven’t beaten Wellington since 2003.

Key players for Taranaki will be All Black hooker Andrew Hore, and first five Willie Ripia whose goal kicking has been outstanding this season and currently sits on 76 points for the season. Wellington have All Blacks Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu, and on the bench Rodney So’oialo. However, they have lost Neemia Tialata to injury and may struggle a bit at scrum time. Players to watch are up and coming Wellington lock Jeremy Thrush, and the outstanding opensider for Taranaki, Scott Waldrom.

It’s hard to see Taranaki having the mindset and the defence required to keep this Welllington side under wraps on their home turf, but both Tasman and Otago have shown that if you can take the game to them they can be vulnerable. However, expect Wellington to kick on to win this game and win it well. Likely score: 41-15.

HAWKES BAY v WAIKATO (3rd v 6th)
Sunday, Oct 12, Napier, 2.35pm

There are some games that just have that wee bit more to them than others, and this is one of them. The Magpies can boast that they have won the last three matches against Waikato, and on Sunday they will be looking to take that to four. The two teams met in week 8 in Napier, with the home side emerging victors 24-15. Add to this their pre-season victory and the 38-35 win they had over Waikato in the 2007 quarter final, the boasting rights are currently sitting with The Bay.

Waikato had a wretched start to the season, didn’t win a game until week 5 and only have four wins and a draw to their name, compared with Hawkes Bay’s 7 wins 3 losses record. Waikato also have the dubious honour of being the worst defensive side in the play-offs, but sit just one place behind Hawkes Bay in attacking prowess.

With the return of their ace goal kicking 1st 5 Matt Berquist from injury, Hawkes Bay are going into the play-offs with a very settled looking side. Hooker Hikawera Elliot may well be pushing for an All Black jersey for the end of year tour, while in the backline there is speed and guile in the likes of Zac Guildford and Jason Shoemark. Waikato have their All Blacks back in the form of Mils Muliaina (his first ANZC appearance since 2006), Richard Kahui playing at centre, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Sione Lauaki. First five Callum Bruce has racked up 75 points for the season, and Waikato will be relying on his accuracy with the boot.

This is another hard game to call, but on the strength of playing form going into this game, the home advantage and the 2.30pm kick off, my call is leaning towards Hawkes Bay. Likely score: 25-22.