29 Jun

Game Stats: All Blacks v Italy, Christchurch, 27 June 2009
by Tracey Nelson
29 Jun 2009

The usual analysis of the All Blacks game, being the First 3 to the Breakdown, ball carriers, tackle stats, penalties conceded, turnovers, the lineouts, and scrums.

Please note Completed Tackles means that player actually brought the ball carrier to ground (ie. halting the movement and being the tackler according to the laws of the game), not assists in the tackle situation which are tallied separately. Missed tackles also includes slipped tackles where the ball carrier isn’t stopped. Most importantly, I do NOT call a slipped tackle a tackle, it gets noted as a missed tackle.

Numbers in brackets are the first half/second half breakdown for each total. An asterisk denotes a player who came on as a substitute.

Team: Mils Muliaina, Lelia Masaga, Isaia Toeava, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Luke McAlister, Brendon Leonard, Kieran Read, Tanerau Latimer, Jerome Kaino, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, John Afoa, Keven Mealamau, Wyatt Crockett.
Reserves: Aled de Malmanche, Owen Franks, Bryn Evans, George Whitelock, Piri Weepu, Cory Jane.

Substitutions were: Weepu for Leonard, Whitelock for Latimer and Woodcock for Crockett at 50 min, Franks for Afoa at 59 min, Jane for Masaga at 68 min, de Malmanche for Mealamu at 74 min.

Points Scored NZ Italy
Tries 3 0
Conversions 3 0
Penalties 2 2
Total 27 6

Penalties/Free Kicks Conceded Pen FKs
NZ 12 3
Italy 8 0
Total 20 3

NZ Penalty Offences
Tackle Masaga, Nonu(2), Weepu 4
Ruck Thorn 1
Offside Kaino, Toeava 2
Lineout Read 1
Obstruction Kaino,Afoa,Woodcock/Kaino 3
Foul Play Masaga 1
Total   12

Opp Penalty Offences
Tackle 3
Ruck 2
Offside 2
Scrum 1
Foul Play 1
Total 8

Turnovers Conceded by NZ
Knock-ons 7
Forward pass 2
Spilled or passed to opposition 6
Kicks out on full 1
Missing touch from penalty 1
At the ruck 4
Total 21

First 3 to Breakdown Total Per half
Thorn 40 21+19
Mealamu 32 17+15
Read 28 9+19
Afoa 23 14+9
Crockett 21 17+4
Kaino 21 10+11
Latimer 21 18+3
Whitelock* 18  
Ross 17 9+8
Woodcock 12  
Toeava 12 7+5
Franks* 11  
Muliaina 11 5+6
Rokocoko 11 4+7
Nonu 10 4+6
McAlister 7 4+3
Masaga 6 4+2
de Malmanche* 5  
Jane* 2  
Weepu* 1  
Leonard 1 1+0

Ball carries
Kaino 10  
Read 4
Ross 4
Afoa 4
Latimer 3
Thorn 2
Mealamu 2
Crockett 1
Woodcock 1
Whitelock 1
Franks 1

Completed Tackles and Assists Tackles Assists
Read 12 (4+8) 2 (1+1)
Nonu 7 (4+3) 0
Thorn 5 (2+3) 3 (2+1)
Crockett 5 (4+1) 1 (1+0)
Mealamu 5 (3+2) 0
Latimer 5 (4+1) 1 (1+0)
Leonard 5 (3+2) 0
Ross 4 (1+3) 4 (2+2)
Woodcock* 4 0
Kaino 3 (1+2) 2 (0+2)
McAlister 3 (2+1) 0
Whitelock* 3 0
Masaga 2 (2+0) 0
Afoa 2(1+1) 0
Franks* 1 0
Toeava 1 (1+0) 0
Rokocoko 1 (1+0) 0
Total 68 14

Missed and Slipped Tackles
McAlister 2  
Mealamu 1
Afoa 1
Read 1
Leonard 1
Nonu 1
Rokocoko 1
Masaga 1
Muliaina 1
Total 10

NZ Line-outs Won From
First half 5 6
Second half 5 8
Total 10 14

NZ Line-out Jumpers Won From
Ross 4 5
Read 3 4
Thorn 2 2
Kaino 1 1

Italy Line-outs Won From
First half 6 7
Second half 7 10
Total 13 17

NZ Scrum Feeds Won From
First half 4 4
Second half 1 1
Total 5 5

Italy Scrum Feeds Won From
First half 3 4
Second half 2 3
Total 5 7

22 Jun

Game Stats: All Blacks v France, Wellington, 20 June 2009
by Tracey Nelson
22 Jun 2009

The usual analysis of the All Blacks game, being the First 3 to the Breakdown, tackle stats, penalties conceded, turnovers, the lineouts, and scrums.

Please note Completed Tackles means that player actually brought the ball carrier to ground (ie. snuffing out the movement and being the tackler according to the laws of the game), not assists in the tackle situation which are tallied separately. Missed tackles also includes slipped tackles where the ball carrier isn’t stopped. Most importantly, I do NOT call a slipped tackle a tackle, it gets noted as a missed tackle.

Numbers in brackets are the first half/second half breakdown for each total. An asterisk denotes a player who came on as a substitute.

Team: Mils Muliaina (c), Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Cowan, Kieran Read, Tanerau Latimer, Jerome Kaino, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Aled de Malmanche, John Afoa, Bryn Evans, George Whitelock, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Isaia Toeava.

Substitutions were: Weepu for Cowan and Afoa for Tialata at 56 min, McAlister for Donald and Toeava for Smith at 62 min, and Evans for Ross at 66 min.

Points Scored NZ France
Tries 1 1
Conversions 1 1
Penalties 3/5 1/5
Total 14 10

Penalties/Free Kicks Conceded Pen FKs
NZ 9 0
France 7 1
Total 16 1

NZ Penalty Offences
Tackle Ross, Nonu, Donald, Muliaina 4
Ruck Mealamu, Thorn, ? 3
Offside Thorn 1
Scrum Tialata 1
Total   9

Opp Penalty Offences
Tackle 5
Ruck 1
Offside 1
Total 7

Turnovers Conceded by NZ
Knock-ons 9
Forward pass 1
Kicks out on full 2
In the tackle 2
At the ruck 2
Passed to opposition 2
Total 18

First 3 to Breakdown Total Per half
Thorn 46 24+22
Latimer 33 23+10
Read 31 18+13
Ross 25 16+9
Woodcock 25 15+10
Kaino 25 14+11
Mealamu 23 11+12
Nonu 17 12+5
Tialata 16 13+3
Rokocoko 11 5+6
Jane 10 4+6
Muliaina 10 3+7
Smith 9 6+3
Donald 8 5+3
Afoa* 7
Cowan 4 1+3
Evans* 3
Weepu* 1
Toeava* 1

Completed Tackles and Assists Tackles Assists
Smith 9 (6+3) 3 (0+3)
Kaino 9 (3+6) 1 (1+0)
Latimer 8 (4+4) 3 (2+1)
Nonu 7 (4+3) 5 (2+0)
Thorn 6 (4+2) 2 (2+0)
Woodcock 5 (1+4) 2 (1+0)
Mulaina 5 (1+4) 0
Read 4 (2+2) 2 (1+1)
Donald 4 (3+1) 2 (1+1)
Jane 4 (0+4) 2 (2+0)
Mealamu 3 (2+1) 2 (1+1)
Tialata 3 (2+1) 1 (1+0)
Ross 3 (2+1) 3 (3+0)
Cowan 3 (2+1) 2 (1+1)
Afoa* 2 0
Weepu* 2 0
Toeava* 1 1
Rokocoko 1 (1+0) 0
Total 79 31

Missed and Slipped Tackles
Latimer 2
Thorn 2
Donald 2
Jane 2
Woodcock 1
Ross 1
Kaino 1
Smith 1
Read 1
Rokocoko 1
Muliaina 1
Total 15

NZ Line-outs Won From
First half 8 9
Second half 6 8
Total 14 17

NZ Line-out Jumpers Won From
Thorn 6 6
Kaino 3 3
Ross 2 3
Read 2 3
Quick throws 2 2
Total 15 17

France Line-outs Won From
First half 3 4
Second half 2 4
Total 5 8

NZ Scrum Feeds Won From
First half 2 2
Second half 5 5
Total 7 7

France Scrum Feeds Won From
First half 2 2
Second half 7 7
Total 9 9

19 Jun

All Blacks v France – 2nd Test Preview
by Tracey Nelson
19 Jun 2009

French FansIt’s been a few years now since so much interest surrounded the June test series in New Zealand. Where previously understrength teams have been sent from the UK and Europe posing as “warm up” tests for the TriNations, this year a relatively strong French squad winged their way down under minus just a few top players from the two sides battling out the French championship. Despite the New Zealand TAB having them at ridiculous odds to win the first test, the French got up and won – and in the process highlighted some serious shortcomings in the All Blacks’ game.

Obviously my memory has more elephantine properties than those of the All Black coaching trio, because when I think of France it brings back memories of Eden Park in 1994, Twickenham in 1999 and Cardiff a mere two seasons ago in 2007. All were games where the French pack fronted and didn’t allow the All Blacks to get decent possession or territory, and where their backs managed to race away and score tries against the run of play to win the game. I’m always edgy and nervous when we meet France, and last week just confirmed why.

While what the French did wasn’t any great surprise, for me it was how the All Blacks appeared to have planned to play the game. Injuries aside, even if we’d had our top players the game plan we endeavoured to employ in Dunedin was fatally flawed in two key areas:
1. Attempting to play expansive rugby from first phase in your first outing of the year on a June night in Dunedin
2. Not committing numbers to the breakdown against a big French pack who were putting two players in to every one of ours

Last week I said “It will be imperative for seasoned forwards such as Woodcock, Hore and Thorn to lead the way and ensure the hard yards are put in to allow a loose trio that has only played one test to function as a combination”. The only change I will make to that statement this week is subsituting Keven Mealamu’s name for the injured Andrew Hore. Tony Woodcock and his fellow prop Neemia Tialata will know they failed to front in the first 40 minutes of the test last week, so the acid is on them to up their workrate and hit as many rucks as they can.

With yet another new loose forward trio, the balance this week is improved on last week with specialist opensider Tanerau Latimer taking the place of Adam Thomson who suffered a broken hand. Kieran Read moves to No 8 and Jerome Kaino has recovered from injury to take over the blindside flanker role, to give the All Blacks a fetcher, linker and ball carrier respectively. But these three will only be able to perform if the tight five front up – the last thing we want is to have our loose trio and backs buried in the ruck, then look up to see the mis-match of French backs running against our front rowers.

The All Blacks attacking lineout worked well last week, but defensively showed frailties against stopping the rolling maul. There are two camps on whether you should or shouldn’t contest the opposition throw – I’m firmly in the “contest” camp, particularly if you’re lacking the skills to halt a rolling maul. The problem I have with the way the All Blacks form up on static defence against an opposition lineout throw in their 22 is that they don’t read where the throw is going as well as they do when they attempt to number up for the contest. You only have a split second to sack the ball winner when his feet touch the ground, and if that moment is lost then it’s virtually impossible to stop the initial momentum of a rolling maul.

More variation will be required in the All Blacks lineout throws this week, with Isaac Ross calling mainly to himself last week the French will have worked on how to disrupt that ball. Kaino and Read should provide alternate targets at the back of the lineout, and employing the short lineout may prove worthwhile if the weather conditions are wet and windy.

While there were some mutterings about the All Blacks kicking game last week, I go along with Wayne Smith’s comments that a kick is only ever as good as the chasers. Cory Jane showed why he is an All Black last week, with plenty of work off the ball and good chasing. The return of Conrad Smith should both steady the midfield and provide some extra leadership. Jimmy Cowan needs to exert some authority on the field and get his forwards working harder if he feels he’s not getting good clean, front-foot ball to work with.

There is limited experience off the bench this week, with two new caps in Aled de Malmanche and George Whitelock, so I’d like to see the All Black coaches back their starting fifteen and only make changes should injury or performance demand it.

Meanwhile French coach Marc Lievremont has made three changes to the starting lineup that beat the All Blacks in Dunedin last week. With the arrival of the players from the French championship side Perpignon he has named Maxime Mermoz at centre in place of Mathieu Bastareaud who moves to the bench, while Nichoals Mas replaces tighthead prop Sylvain Marconnet who is omitted from the squad completely. Sebastian Chabal starts at lock this week, flankers Damien Chouley (Perpignan) and Remy Martin (Stade Francais) come onto the bench.

This test match should prove irresistable viewing, with France sniffing a test series victory in New Zealand that hasn’t been repeated since 1994, while the All Blacks will be looking to prove that last week was just a blip and that normal transmission can be resumed. The formula is easy – commit players to the breakdown, play as a team not individuals, don’t play behind the advantage line, and don’t allow the French to get their tails up. Implementing that formula has just got that bit harder after last week.

New Zealand: Mils Muliaina, Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Cowan, Kieran Read, Tanerau Latimer, Jerome Kaino, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Keven Mealamu
Reserves: Aled de Malmanche, John Afoa, Bryn Evans, George Whitelock, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Isaia Toeava.

France: Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc, Maxime Mermoz, Damien Traille, Cedric Heymans, Francois Trinh-Duc, Julien Dupuy, Louis Picamoles, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Romain Millo-Chluski, Sebastien Chabal, Nicolas Mas, William Servat, Fabien Barcella.
Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Thomas Domingo, Remy Martin, Damien Chouly, Dimitri Yachvili, Yannick Jauzion, Mathieu Bastareaud.

15 Jun

Game stats: All Blacks v France, Dunedin, 13 June 2009
by Tracey Nelson
15 Jun 2009

The usual analysis of the All Blacks game, being the First 3 to the Breakdown, tackle stats, penalties conceded, turnovers, the lineouts, and scrums etc.

Please note Completed Tackles means that player actually brought the ball carrier to ground (ie. halting the movement and being the tackler according to the laws of the game), not assists in the tackle situation which are tallied separately. Missed tackles also includes slipped tackles where the ball carrier isn’t stopped. Most importantly, I do NOT call a slipped tackle a tackle, it gets noted as a missed tackle.

Numbers in brackets are the first half/second half breakdown for each total. An asterisk denotes a player who came on as a substitute.

Team: Mils Muliaina(c), Cory Jane, Isaia Toeava, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Cowan, Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Kieran Read, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Keven Mealamu, John Afoa, Bryn Evans, Tanerau Latimer, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Lelia Masaga.

Points Scored NZ Fra
Tries 2 3
Conversions 0 3
Penalties 4 2
Total 22 27

Penalties/Free Kicks Conceded Pen FKs
NZ 7 1
Fra 11 2
Total 18 3

NZ Penalty Offences
Tackle Thomson,Tialata, Messam 3
Maul Hore/Ross, unknown 2
Scrum Front row, Tialata 2
Total   7

Opp Penalty Offences
Tackle 1
Ruck 7
Off side 2
Scrum 1
Total 11

Turnovers Conceded by NZ
Knock-ons 7
Spilled or passed to opposition 3
Restart out on full 1
Drop outfrom 22 not over line 1
In the tackle 1
At the ruck 3
Total 16

First 3 to Breakdown Total Per half
Thorn 36 14+22
Thomson 27 14+13
Read 25 10+15
Messam 24 8+16
Ross 22 12+10
Woodcock 22 11+11
Tialata 20 11+9
Mealamu* 18 2+16
Latimer* 11  
Muliaina 11 5+6
Nonu 10 4+6
Jane 10 4+6
Toeava 9 5+4
Afoa* 7  
Rokocoko 7 6+1
Hore 4  
Donald 4 3+1
Evans* 3  
McAlister* 2  
Weepu* 1  
Cowan 1 0+1

Ball carries
Mealamu 8 (3+5)
Woodcock 8 (4+4)
Thorn 7 (4+3)
Messam 5 (3+2)
Latimer* 3
Read 3 (0+3)
Ross 1 (0+1)
Hore 1
Tialata 1 (0+1)
Afoa* 1
Total 38

Completed Tackles and Assists Tackles Assists
Tomson 9 (7+2) 2 (1+1)
Messam 7 (2+5) 2 (1+1)
Mealamu* 6 (1+5) 1 (0+1)
Thorn 5 (3+2) 5 (1+4)
Donald 4 (3+1) 2 (2+0)
Nonu 4 (2+2) 2 (2+0)
Cowan 4 (4+0) 1 (0+1)
Read 4 (1+3) 1 (0+1)
Muliaina 3 (1+2) 2 (2+0)
Woodcock 3 (1+2) 2 (0+2)
Ross 3 (1+2) 2 (1+1)
Tialata 3 (2+1) 1 (1+0)
Toeava 3 (3+0) 1 (1+0)
Latimer* 2 0
Rokocoko 2 (0+2) 0
McAlister* 1 0
Jane 1 (0+1) 0
Total 64 24

Missed and Slipped Tackles
Messam 3
Nonu 2
Woodcock 1
Thorn 1
Read 1
Thomson 1
Cowan 1
Jane 1
Rokocoko 1
Muliaina 1
Total 13

NZ Line-outs Won From
First half 8 8
Second half 5 6
Total 13 14

Line-out Jumpers Won From
Ross 7 7
Thorn 3 3
Messam 2 2
Evans* 1 2

Fra Line-outs Won From
First half 2 4
Second half 7 8
Total 9 12

NZ Scrum Feeds Won From
First half 3 4
Second half 0 1
Total 3 3

Fra Scrum Feeds Won From
First half 5 6
Second half 1 1
Total 6 7

14 Jun

All Blacks v France – Test Review
by Tracey Nelson
14 Jun 2009

The first test of the 2009 international season did turn out to be the banana skin test, with the All Blacks falling to a more passionate French side at Carisbrook. This was only the fourth ever French victory on New Zealand soil, and was also their highest test score in New Zealand. It was a test match won using better tactics, displaying better skills at the breakdown, and relentless in-your-face defence. Once again, France has out-passioned the All Blacks.

OK, so it was never going to be easy starting this season without Richie McCaw, and the added unavailability of Ali Williams, Rodney So’oialo, Conrad Smith and Sitiveni Sivivatu also left the All Blacks berefit of considerable experience. We already knew there would be no Dan Carter, and as Stephen Donald was the only 1st 5 looking even remotely like an international option there was no other choice there. A gamble was taken using three blindside flankers as the loose forward combination, a gamble that in the end failed to pay off as the French rumbled the All Blacks at the breakdown and gained three turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.

But the main problem the All Blacks had last night was an inability to adjust to what the French were throwing at them. Using their big forwards the French committed numbers to the breakdown and drove the All Blacks off their own ball, and yet again under this coaching regime we saw the side fail to respond and commit more numbers to secure the ball. The French employed a fast, flat defence that got up in the faces of the All Blacks – something the Springboks used to good effect in Dunedin last year – and like history repeating, the All Blacks simply failed to adjust until it was too late, and they continued to try and play with width from static ball.

Graeme Henry stated after the match that they had “hoped to play with a wee bit more freedom tonight and that didn’t happen”. It is either the height of arrogance or the height of stupidity to take the “free flowing” attitude into your first test match of the year with so many inexperienced players – not to mention in a test match played against France on a winter evening in Dunedin. Too many times now the All Blacks have been tipped up attempting to play attractive, expansive rugby at the cost of doing the hard yards required when playing test rugby.

To use the excuse of Super 14 rugby not giving the players the experience required for test rugby is just a cop out. If this year’s Super 14 taught us anything, it was that securing the breakdown and playing with front foot ball was the way to win. Quite how attempting to play from behind the advantage line against a flat defence was derived from watching the Bulls win the competition is beyond my comprehension.

Committing only two players to the breakdown when on attack is just foolhardy at any level, and the French were able to slow the All Blacks down and set their defence easily. Adam Thomson did the best he could, but he is not a fetcher and didn’t always run the right lines in support when the All Blacks were attempting to attack. There seemed to be no real ball carriers in the side until Mealamu came on, and while things got better in the second half when Latimer came on at openside, it was always going to be a struggle coming from behind on the scoreboard.

Stephen Donald put his team under pressure with some over-cute 22 restarts – nothing like adding to the pressure when you’re trying to get out of your own 22. There were also two halfway restarts that saw one going out on the full and the second only just missing doing the same thanks to some skillful work in the air by Cory Jane. Jane was a sole shining light for the All Blacks, his clever running from a Cowan box kick right on half time setting up the try for Liam Messam. But he and Rokocoko had precious little chance to show their skills. The midfield combination of Nonu and Toeava failed to fire and stuttered with several handling errors putting the All Blacks under pressure. A knock-on under no pressure by Toeava from a promising attacking move 10m out from the French line in the first half didn’t help set the tone.

The injection of McAlister didn’t improve things either, with first a spilt ball from a hopeful long pass by Weepu taking the All Blacks from attack to defending back in their own 22, and then the intercept by French fullback Maxime Medard to win the game being his legacy of his 20 minutes on the field. But it was the French defensive tactics of getting into the All Blacks’ line and positioning themselves between the support runners that put hesistation into the All Blacks line – something that yet again stemmed from attempting to play behind the advantage line.

The only highlight for the All Blacks was their lineout, where they won all but one of their 14 throws, and stole two of the French throws. But again the All Blacks were shown up by their inability to stop a rolling maul from the opposition throw, something the French used to good effect on several occasions to gain valuable territory. Even when the All Blacks didn’t contest and set up to defend against the rolling maul, they failed to stop their more skillful counterparts. This has to be one of the priorities for the All Blacks this week, as you can bet France will employ the maul again in Wellington.

So there will be plenty to work on this week with yet more injuries besetting the squad. Adam Thomson is out for six weeks with a broken hand while Andrew Hore has damaged ribs, which has seen George Whitelock and Aled de Malmanche called up from the Juniors. One thing the All Blacks will need to look at closely is not putting themselves under pressure – poor passes resulting in knock-ons, stupid chip kicks by forwards, confusion on defence and an inability to number up from a turnover are just some of many things the All Blacks will need to correct before next weekend. And well done France. Yet again they have masterminded a great victory by identifying weaknesses in our game and exploiting them well.

12 Jun

First test preview – All Blacks v France
by Tracey Nelson
12 Jun 2009

Is the opening Iveco test against France threatening to be the biggest banana skin to slip on for the 2009 All Blacks? With the non-availability of Dan Carter, pre-existing injuries ruling out Richie McCaw, Ali Williams and Sitiveni Sivivatu, and a plethora of new injuries plaguing the 26-man squad, suddenly the All Blacks are looking down the barrel as they get set to face France in Dunedin this weekend.

In the first week of the squad commencing training, Richard Kahui’s shoulder injury was deemed to require surgery thus ruling him out of rugby for the next six months. With a replacement needed in the squad the NZRU invoked its discretion clause, where Luke McAlister could come directly into the All Blacks squad without having to play for the Junior All Blacks should injury rule out other players.

But it didn’t end there. Two days after the test starting lineup was named there was a training injury to Rudi Wulf, who suffered a small fracture to his shoulder that will require up to six weeks recovery and effectively puts him out of the Iveco series and the first Tri-Nations test. This has resulted in another call-up from the Juniors with Chiefs winger Lelia Masaga brought in as cover. The reshuffle now sees Cory Jane take over the right wing position with Joe Rokocoko moving over to the left wing, and Masaga taking a seat on the bench next to McAlister.

Meanwhile the French have quietly slipped into the country and based themselves in Auckland, apparently on the recommendation of Byron Kelleher who has no doubt endeared himself to his former province Otago by claiming it’s too cold and wet in Dunedin in June – although the joke is on them with Dunedin enjoying unseasonably mild weather this week while rain has persisted in Auckland. No doubt they were quite pleased to arrive to dry weather when they flew south on Thursday.

Despite claiming they are tired after a long season – funny how you never hear the All Blacks complaining as they continue to spank the Northern Hemisphere sides on their end of year tours to the UK and Europe – the French are never a side to take lightly. World Cup games aside, the French have an uncanny knack of pulling off unlikely wins and there is a certain frequency to those wins on New Zealand soil. Every 15 years or so the French manage to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, and the last time they did so was in 1994. You do the maths.

Meanwhile, back in the All Black camp Richie McCaw has been working with Adam Thomson to school him up on the finer points of openside flanker play. This becomes more crucial than ever this weekend, not only because Thomson has not been playing regularly at openside, but because of the new interpretation at the breakdown allowing the first player on his feet to get his hands on the ball to continue to play the ball regardless of whether a ruck forms thereafter. Quite how this will be refereed will be of great interest to everyone.

There is no doubt that the French will start with fury and pace, and try to upset the All Blacks by playing a very physical, confrontational style up front. And so they should, as sides that have done so in recent years have shown the All Blacks can be rattled. It will be imperative for seasoned forwards such as Woodcock, Hore and Thorn to lead the way and ensure the hard yards are put in to allow a loose trio that have only played one test (v Scotland 2008) to function as a combination.

With no less than three new caps on the bench and one in the starting lineup, this is a very inexperienced All Black side. The importance of Brad Thorn lasting as much of the 80 minutes as possible cannot be understated. The new midfield pairing of Nonu and Toeava will be tested by the hard running Matheiu Bastareaud – a fearsome brute of a young man far removed from the silky runners France has traditionally played in the 13 jersey over the years. While this will be his first test cap, half back Julien Dupuy has been great form with Leicester in the Heineken Cup this season and is a dangerous runner from the base of the scrum.

So it becomes an exciting prospect not quite knowing how an early-season test match is going to unfold. All eyes will be on the All Blacks and how they function without the likes of Carter and McCaw – remembering that it was without McCaw that the All Blacks lost two test matches last year, one of which was at Carisbrook in Dunedin. In theory the All Blacks should win. But theory can’t compete with passion.

All Blacks: Mils Muliaina(c), Cory Jane, Isaia Toeava, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Cowan, Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Kieran Read, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, John Afoa, Bryn Evans, Tanerau Latimer, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Lelia Masaga.

France: Maxime Medard, Cedric Heymans, Mathieu Bastareaud, Vincent Clerc, Damien Traille, Francois Trinh-Duc, Julien Dupuy, Louis Picamoles, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Romain Millo-Chluski, Pascal Pape, Sylvain Marconnet, William Servat, Fabien Barcella. Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Thomas Domingo, Sebastien Chabal, Remy Martin, Julien Puricelli, Dimitri Yachvili, Yannick Jauzion, Alexis Palisson (two to be omitted).

5 Jun

The Greatest Crusader of Them All?
by Tracey Nelson
5 Jun 2009

In the 13th year of Super Rugby Leon MacDonald became the third most-capped player for the Crusaders. No other 2009 player involved in Super 14 rugby in New Zealand can boast such a lengthy career, having started his Super rugby career in 1997 at the age of 19 he has only missed two seasons with the Crusaders – once in 1998 when he was drafted to the Chiefs, and the other in 2004 when he spent a season with the Yamaha club in Japan. Having completed his 11th Crusade he is once again heading back to Japan to play club rugby.

In a year where the Crusaders were rebuilding, having lost 11 of the players that took them to their 7th Super title in 2008 including the likes of Dan Carter and Scott Hamilton from the backline, the experience of MacDonald was vital in a very young team – many of whom were having their first year of Super rugby. He seems to have a real belief that rubs off on the team, particularly when you have a young team like this year’s Crusaders where belief can take a while to develop. In some cases the players have performed above a certain level just because they’ve had Leon there said assistant coach, Mark Hammett.

The measure of the quiet, unassuming man known as Rangi to his teammates is no better illustrated than the way he stepped up this season to take over the goal kicking duties when the two young 1st 5s in the side, Stephen Brett and Colin Slade, were struggling with their kicking percentages. A load he was happy to assume, despite goal kicking causing him problems with a tight groin. He nailed a last minute penalty from the sideline for the Crusaders to win their match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and calmly dropped a goal against the Blues to win the last round robin game that assured the Crusaders of a place in this year’s semi finals.

Coach Todd Blackadder mused To me he’s our best Crusader, the length of time he’s put into the game, his professionalism to keep performing – he’s still got that enthusiasm about him, he still wants to compete and do well.

Never one to want the limelight, MacDonald epitomized everything that was great about the Crusaders franchise – a franchise that promotes the team ahead of the individual, where everyone is valued, and where there is no room for egos. Hammett summed MacDonald up, saying It’s a bit hard to do him justice in words. It hasn’t just been the last couple of years that he’s been instrumental and inspirational in what he’s achieved here, it’s been right from the start. He’s has had this attitude of how can I improve, where can I communicate, how can I give to the team’. The team always seemed bigger than him as an individual.

While MacDonald has never said much off the field, he has certainly stood out when playing. With an uncanny ability to seemingly find gaps where there were none, his counter-attacking skills from the fullback position were instrumental in the success of the Crusaders over the years and his courage on defence was second to none. But he would also add his efforts elsewhere around the field, as Hammett commented He’s a bit forward-like himself, he likes to get in and clean out and rucks, and run hard close to the rucks. That was something I used to really enjoy when I played in teams with Rangi.

It was in 2000 following the Crusaders’ third Super title that MacDonald was first selected for the All Blacks, and it started a career in the black jersey that spanned eight years and amassed 146 test points. MacDonald also represented New Zealand Maori, and was part of the side when they beat the British Lions 19-13 in 2005, scoring their only try of the game.

MacDonald is the third most capped Crusader with 122 appearances, only Reuben Thorne (129) and Caleb Ralph (126) have numbered more games for the franchise. With a total of 42 tries to his name only Ralph has eclipsed him in the try scoring stakes, while Andrew Mehrtens and Dan Carter are the only two players to have tallied more points overall. Todd Blackadder makes no pretense that they would like him to become the most capped Crusader, I’m hoping it’s not his last game, we’re desperately working hard behind the scenes to get one more Crusade out of him because his experience has just been critical this year. You can’t buy that sort of experience.

I don’t think there’s been anyone more consistent than him, which is why he’s been both a Crusader and an All Black all these years added Hammett, I should hope in time that he should become a very good coach himself, so that’ll be exciting and we’ll watch closely. As will the rest of us, although no doubt fans would love to see MacDonald back for one last Crusade.

Leon MacDonald’s player stats:

Provincial caps: 70 (37 Canterbury, 33 Marlborough)
Provincial debut:1994 v Buller (for Marlborough)
Super caps:127 (122 Crusaders, 5 Chiefs)
Super debut: 1997 (v Hurricanes)
Super points:351 (42 tries, 28 conversions, 27 penalties, 1 drop goal)
Test caps:56
Test points:146 (15 tries, 25 conversions, 7 penalties)
Test debut:2000 (v Scotland)

2 Jun

Super 14 Final: Bulls v Chiefs
by Tracey Nelson
2 Jun 2009

It was only the second ever Super Rugby Final held in the republic, and when the final whistle blew the Bulls had trampled over the Chiefs with a record winning margin of 44 points as they ran in seven tries to the Chiefs’ two to run out worthy champions 61-17.

While all smart money was on the Bulls to win at home in Pretoria, most were expecting the Chiefs to give the Bulls some opposition – at least when it came to running back play. The Chiefs did score first, in the seventh minute after a counterattacking run by Stephen Donald down the right hand sideline put him in the clear to offload the pass to a flying Lelia Masaga to cross the line for the opening try of the game.

But it really had been against the run of play, and the Bulls merely treated that try as a real bull would flick at a fly with its tail, and straight from the restart they were on attack thanks to a stupid, no-look in-field throw from Sione Lauaki that gave possession to the Bulls in the Chiefs’ 22. Toby Morland pulled off a great tackle to stop what was a certain try to Zane Kirshner as the Bulls backline roared into action from that turnover, but from the resulting FK awarded to the Bulls Fourie du Preez took a quick tap and charged over the line to score.

The next five minutes signalled the end of the Chiefs’ chances as the Bulls stepped up the pace and fercocity of their game. First a crunching tackle on Aled de Malmanche (that saw him leave the field for the rest of the game) gave possession to the Bulls and the quick-thinking du Preez took a small gap and raced off to score his second try. A ruck turnover following the restart then resulted to a try to Brian Habana down the left wing. and the Bulls were up 21-7.

Richard Kahui nearly had the Chiefs back in the game after a good break that saw Toby Morland knock the ball on just before the line. The Bulls quickly made their way back into Chiefs’ territory, and Morne Steyn popped the obligatory drop between the posts to take the Bulls out to a 17 point lead after a mere quarter of the game had gone. Another penalty from a Lauaki hand in the ruck, which was lucky not to land the Chiefs’ No 8 in the sin bin for a professional foul moved the lead out to 20 points, whilst Stephen Donald failed to land a penalty to bring the margin back.

Twenty points adrift would have been hard enough a task at the halftime break, but right on the 40 minute mark Habana intercepted a Chiefs’ pass and raced off to score, the conversion putting the Bulls into what was to become an unassailable lead of 34-7 and had the rugby gods been merciful that would have been the end of the game.

But the gods obviously felt they needed more, and indeed the huge crowd of Bulls fans filling Loftus were baying for more. The Chiefs started the second half the same way they did the first, with a try to captain Mils Muliania under the posts, followed by a penalty goal. And that was it for the Chiefs for, despite preventing the Bulls from scoring for the first 17 minutes of the second half, the home side cut loose in the last quarter of the game running in tries to Victor Matfield, Wynand Olivier, an 80m intercept try to Pierre Spies and Danie Roussow in the 79th minute.

While possession and territory were evenly shared in this game, key to the Bulls’ victory was their set piece (stealing 7 of the Chiefs’ lineouts) and the pressure they put on the Chiefs at the breakdown and tackle, forcing the Chiefs into 33 turnovers. Everything the Bulls did was that little bit faster and more polished than the Chiefs, especially on defence where they pushed the visitors into lateral play behind the advantage line. The Chiefs did themselves no favours with some poor kicking and 50:50 passing under pressure, and the Bulls took full advantage of that with two intercept tries.

The 2009 Bulls are worthy winners of the Super 14 trophy, and are building an impressive legacy at the fortress of Loftus Versfeldt where they are now unbeaten in 12 games. Gone are the days where this side play 10-man rugby – although when it calls for it they are more than happy to win that way. This 2009 Bulls team plays breath-taking rugby that any true rugby fan should admire, from the power of the tight five, the mobility of their hooker Derek Kuun, impressive No 8 Pierre Spies, the world’s best half back Fourie du Preez, drop-goal and kicking maestro Morne Steyn, the speed and guile of midfielder Wynand Olivier, through to the pace of Habana and Ndongane on the wings.

1 Jun

First All Blacks squad for 2009 named
by Tracey Nelson
1 Jun 2009

The All Black selectors have named their 26 man squad to play the Iveco Series against France and Itay in June. They have named a new captain in Mils Muliaina,and there are three new caps – prop Wyatt Crockett and lock Isaac Ross (both from Canterbury),and Tanerau Latimer (Bay of Plenty). One notable absentee from last year’s All Blacks is No 8 Rodney So’oialo.

The sqaud is:

FORWARDS: Tony Woodcock,Wyatt Crockett, John Afoa, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn, Ali Williams, Isaac Ross, Adam Thomson, Tanerau Latimer, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read, Liam Messam.

BACKS: Jimmy Cowan, Brendon Leonard, Piri Weepu, Stephen Donald, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Richard Kahui,Joesevata Rokocoko, Rudi Wulf, Cory Jane, Mils Muliaina (captain), Isaia Toeava.

Rodney So’oialo is being rested for this Iveco Series to recover from a neck injury, and will be named in the TriNations squad in July.

Key points from the press conference with the All Black coaches:

- Ali Williams has made a good comeback from his archilles injury but is not confirmed to be fit to start in the first test against France in Dunedin on June 13th. Bryn Evans will come up from the Junior All Blacks squad and start from the bench should Williams not be ready for that game. Evans is seen as a lock who performs the basics well, is good at restarts, a good ball carrier and one for the future.

- Wyatt Crockett is a good athlete, excellent lineout lifter and performs his role cleaning out at the breakdown well. He has worked on his scrummaging this season and is highly rated by Mike Cron.

- while there is no specialist No 8 from any of the Super 14 sides named in the squad, the selectors are confident that Liam Messam has the skill set and experience to play in this position. They also feel that Kieran Read is another to have the skill set to play at No 8.

- Sione Lauaki ‘makes too many errors at test match level’ to be considered for the squad and needs to demonstrate a decrease in the number of errors in his game.

- Adam Thomson will start at openside against France and is seen as their first choice at 7. Tanerau Latimer ‘will provide good competition’ for this position.

- Isaac Ross ‘has the potential, athleticism and skills to be a top international footballer. Has good aerial skills and is a very good athlete’ which is what put him ahead of the other locks named in the Junior All Blacks.

- Piri Weepu will be the back up 1st 5 to Stephen Donald for this series, and then they will reconsider the situation accordingly for the TriNations.

- Cory Jane and Isaia Toeava are both possibilities on the wing. The selectors have picked fullbacks with the speed of wingers, and wingers with fullback qualities such as high ball skills and kicking ability as this is an area you can ill afford to be caught out in under the new laws.

- Toeava is capable of playing nearly all backline positions but is primarily seen as a fullback/wing who can cover midfield.

- Bryn Evans and Owen Franks will join the All Blacks from the Juniors as part of the extended squad.

The Junior All Blacks have also been named to play in the Pacific Nations competition in Fiji this June.

FORWARDS: Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Jamie MacIntosh, Aled de Malmanche, Hika Elliot, Jason Eaton, Jeremy Thrush, Bryn Evans, Tom Donnelly, Karl Lowe, George Whitelock, Victor Vito, Sione Lauaki.

BACKS: Alby Mathewson, Chris Smylie, Colin Slade, Luke McAlister, Ryan Crotty, Anthony Tuitavake, Robbie Fruean, Hosea Gear, Lelia Masaga, Rene Ranger, Tamati Ellison, Israel Dagg.