15 Feb

Review of the new law interpretations
by Tracey Nelson
15 Feb 2010

The first round of the 2010 Super 14 saw only one of the home teams win, and already the Bulls and Crusaders are leading the points table. But it wasn’t just the game results that were of interest, but the new law interpretations.

TACKLED BALL

New (and at long last, the correct!) interpretation of Law 15.4 (a-c) the tackler will no longer have unlimited rights to go for the ball. The tackler must release the tackled player completely and get to their feet before they can go for the ball.

The opening game between the Blues and Hurricanes was a whistle-fest, as Australian referee Stu Dickinson struggled to get the players to adhere to this mandate. Of the 26 penalties in the game, 12 of them were at the tackle. Of those 12, 9 were against the tackler for not rolling clear while just three were against the tackled player for holding on to the ball on the ground. While you’d like to think that the majority of those 12 tackle penalties came in the first half, it was a fairly even split with 7 in the first and 6 in the second – which could well lead you to think the players were slow to adapt.

In contrast the game between the Crusaders and Highlanders saw only 7 penalties awarded at the tackle, with the Crusaders conceding 4 and the Highlanders 3 – perhaps a result of watching the previous evening’s encounter in Auckland. Of the other games there were varying numbers of penalties awarded at the tackle but overall the outcome seems to be positive. Attacking ball is clean and quick, there are definitely less players off their feet at the breakdown, and best of all we are seeing counter-rucking making a welcome come back as this is now the only legal means of contesting for possession when the ball is on the ground.

10m OFFSIDE FROM A KICK

Law 11.4(a) When a team-mate of an offside player has kicked ahead, the off-side player is considered to be taking part in the gae if the player is in front of an imaginary line across the field which is 10m from the opponent waiting to play the ball, or from where the ball alnds or may land. The off-side player must immediately move behind the imaginary 10m line.

Players were supposed to be made to comply with either standing still or retiring in relation to being in front of the kicker. Certainly we saw the standing still when the referees called for them to stop advancing but there are still occasions where players are within the 10m zone and rather than retiring are just staying still and waiting for a team mate advancing from behind the kicker to put them on side. d

This has long been an area where referees should be receiving calls from their assistants on the sideline, and while there is a greater policing of this law it is still not as good as it could be. I can easily think of at least three occasions in the match we called in Christchurch on Saturday night, and there were similar incidents in the other games I viewed. So my call on this is "still a work in progress" and hopefully referees will continue to remain vigilant.

SCRUMS

The scrum engagement must follow a true sequence, starting with all props required to touch, on the touch call. Props must also have their head and shoulders above their hips, and then hit straight on engagement. This enhances the chance of the scrum being contestable, and to stay up resulting in less resets.

Yes, this pretty much worked. Although I do have sympathy with the front rowers who in some games were forced to stand in the crouch pose for far too long as the referees slowed down the "crouch-touch-pause-engage" call to almost unbearable levels. But certainly the number of reset scrums was notably down on last year’s average, which can only be a good thing. Penalties were quick to come for those props not hitting straight, or for front rows not taking the hit. A definite pass mark here.

MAULS

At the time that a maul is formed, players supporting the ball carrier will not be allowed to obstruct the opposition. This is intended to at least make the maul defendable at the set up stage.

There weren’t many maul penalties, and those that were given were normally against the opposition for pulling down the maul rather than obstruction by the team forming the maul. There didn’t seem to be too many issues here, there weren’t many mauls in the NZ games but there were some rolling mauls in the Reds v Waratahs and the South African games, and obstruction by support players wasn’t evident.

We have only seen one round of games, but so far I like what I have seen. Not only is there more continuity and faster ball for the attacking team, but there was notably less kicking in almost all the games – contrasting notably with the France v Ireland 6 Nations test, where almost every second play of the ball was a kick. If this continues, we are set for some scintillating rugby in the 2010 Super 14.

10 Feb

Super 14 Preview
by Tracey Nelson
10 Feb 2010

The final Super 14 is just days away from kicking off, with next year seeing the start of the expanded Super 15 competition. So will the perennial favourite the Crusaders take out the last Super 14 title, or will it be back to back championships for the Bulls? Maybe the Chiefs can go one better than making the final last year, or will the Hurricanes finally shake their chokers tag? Perhaps the Brumbies will rise like the phoenix, with all their new signings. Just how will the teams fare? Haka takes a look.

NEW ZEALAND

BLUES

Last year finished: 9th

The Blues have been struck a huge blow before their season even starts with Ali Williams rupturing his achilles, putting him out of all rugby for 6 months. Losing such an important senior player and their key lock is sure to put a large dent in the plans of coach Pat Lam, and puts the onus on Anthony Boric to take up the mantle of senior lock. With 12 past or present All Blacks in the squad there is experience and skill in the Blues front row and backs,but there may be some question marks around the all important 8-9-10 axis with Serge Lilo, Alby Mathewson and Stephen Brett all new-comers to the squad. With an All Black front row in Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and John Afoa the Blues should hold their own at scrum time, but lack a proven world-class openside flanker could be telling against the top sides.

Key players: Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Luke McAlister, Isaia Toeava, Joe Rokocoko

CHIEFS:

Last year finished: Runners up (beaten by Bulls in final)

2009 was a stellar year for the Chiefs, where for once they were not ravaged by injury and finally fulfilled the promise their supporters had been touting for years. With only one draft player new to the squad this season they will be wanting to continue the form they showed right through the competition until that fateful final against the Bulls. Of great interest will be to see which of their All Black first fives will get the nod to start, with both Stephen Donald and Mike Delany taken on the end of year tour in 2009. The other selection to watch will be that of Sione Lauaki competing with Colin Bourke for the No 8 jersey. The return of Richard Kahui at centre after spending most of 2009 injured will further bolster a backline with speed to burn.

Key players: Kevin O’Neill, Liam Messam, Tanerau Latimer, Brendon Leonard, Mike Delany, Richard Kahui, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Mils Muliaina

HURRICANES:

Last year finished: Semi finalists (beaten by Chiefs in semi)

It was more of the same last year for the Hurricanes, who again fell at the last hurdle and continued the ongoing choker tag for teams based in the captital city. This is the last season Colin Cooper will be coaching the Canes, and he’ll be hoping his side can final shake the speed wobbles and live up to their potential. As usual the Canes are stacked with talent, and all eyes will be on young Aaron Cruden in his first season of Super rugby – can he make the step up and look to potentially fill the gaping vacancy as an All Black back up to Dan Carter? Cruden will have plenty of experience around him in the likes of ROdney So’oialo, Piri Weepu, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, and with a pack boasting plenty of All Blacks there is no reason to expect anything less than a placing in the top few teams. But can they take it all the way this year?

Key players: Andrew Hore, Neemia Tialata, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Conrad Smith, Cory Jane

CRUSADERS:

Last year finished: Semi finalists (beaten by Bulls in semi)

The fact that the Crusaders made the top four last year minus Dan Carter, not to mention the departure at the end of 2008 of several key senior players and long serving coach Robbie Deans should have been viewed as nothing short of miraculous, but the fact remains that the Crusaders have bred a successful dynasty that doesn’t know how to do anything other than suceed. So with a season of Super 14 under his belt, Todd Blackadder will be feeling pretty confident when he looks at the squad at his disposal this year. Not only is Dan Carter back this season alongside the skills of captain fantastic Richie McCaw, but the addition of youngsters Robbie Fruean and Zac GUildford and the return of veteran campaigner Chris Jack to the squad makes the Crusaders hard to go past as almost dead certs yet again for the play offs.

Key players: Owen Franks, Brad Thorn, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Zac Guildford

HIGHLANDERS:

Last year finished: 11th

While the Highlanders have the least number of All Blacks in their squad, the ones they have are instrumental to the style of game the Highlanders play. Adam Thomson’s workrate and skills at the breakdown make him a pivotal player alongside the powerful running of Alando Soaki and Tim Boys. Josh Bekhius is one lock who is not afraid to step up and accurately contest the opposition lineout, and will be complemented by the hard working Tom Donnelly. The up and coming Robbie Robinson is one to watch at first five as he makes the step up to Super rugby, while the silky running and aerial skills of both Israel Dagg and Ben Smith in the three quarters will provide the Highlanders with plenty of strike power. What the Highlanders will need to do this season is to turn pressure into points, an area of the game that has let the down in recent years.

Key players: Jamie Mackintosh, Josh Bekhuis, Tom Donnelly, Adam Thomson, Jimmy Cowan, Robbie Robinson, Ben Smith, Israel Dagg

AUSTRALIA

REDS

Last year finished: 13th

Almost the Australian equivalent of the Hurricanes, the Reds can turn on some scintillating running rugby at times – but then look like a complete rabble the following week. The appointment of Ewen McKenzie (sacked from the Waratahs) should help steady this side, but they lack key experienced players to take them all the way. In their favour they have Will Genia and Quade Cooper running their backline, so provided their forwards can compete and provide them with some ball don’t expect the Reds to be easy beats. However it is unlikely they will competiting for play-off positions at the business end of the competition.

Key players: Daniel Braid, Will Genia, Quade Cooper

WARATAHS

Last year finished: 5th

In 2009 they were one of the most painful sides to watch, and even their supporters looked bored at times with the bland form of rugby they dished up. Yet at times they played wonderfully, so this year they will be looking to be more expansive and the addition of Berrick Barnes should provide the backline with better direction than they had in 2008. With Phil Waugh at openside the Waratahs will remain a hard team to beat in Sydney, but it remains to be seen if they can shake off the shadows of last season and reinvent themselves.

Key players: Ben Robinson, Dean Mumm, Phil Waugh, Berrick Barnes, Drew Mitchell

BRUMBIES

Last year finished: 7th

The Brumbies have made two key signings in Matt Giteau and Rocky Elsom, and loom as the Australian side to beat in 2010. With the seasoned players like Stirling Mortlock and Justin Harrison (who has returned from Europe), there is a heady mix of youth and experience in the Brumbies side. It will also be George Smith’s last hoorah as he looks retire from international rugby and to head to Europe at the end of this Super 14, so the emotion factor will also come into play. It’s never been easy to win in Canberra, and this year looks to be no different. Should make the top four.

Key players: Mark Chisholm, Rocky Elsom, George Smith, Matt Giteau, Stirling Mortlock, Ada
m Ashley-Cooper

WESTERN FORCE

Last year finished: 8th

Much like the Highlanders, the Force are also a side who know how to grab defeat from the jaws of victory with many of their losses being by a mere two or three points in the final minutes of the game. Coach John Mitchell has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons with rumours of player revolts, and the loss of key players such as Matt Giteau, Scott Staniforth and Drew Mitchell will not help their cause – nor will the loss of Andre Pretorious who was signed as their marquee international but suffered a season ending hamstring tear one week out from the start of the competition. It’s hard to see the Force being any sort of force this year.

Key players: David Pocock, James O’Conner, Ryan Cross, Cameron Shepherd.

SOUTH AFRICA

BULLS

Last year finished: Champions

Loftus Versfeldt has become something of a fortress and along with the Crusaders’ home ground is probably the hardest stadium to win at for the visiting side. With names such as Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn, this side is nothing short of formidable both in size and their ability to turn the heat on when it counts. It also doesn’t help that Steyn can kick goals from the other side of halfway. While they have lost a strike weapon in Bryan Habana, who has gone to the Stormers, what should be worrying their opposition is that inspirational former coach Heyneke Meyer (who only lost out on the Springbok coaching role due to the internal politics of South Africa) is now the Bulls director of rugby and is instrumental in the development of their player succession plan – based around the Crusaders’ successful formula. The only thing that could hamstring the Bulls on their way to the play-offs is injury and player fatigue following the heavy load their Springboks had in 2009.

Key players: Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies, Fourie du Preez, Morne Steyn, Wynand Olivier

SHARKS

Last year finished: 6th

Boasting players such as Ryan Kankowski, Bismark du Plessis, John Schmidt, JP Pietersen and Ruan Pienaar this was a side that looked to be going to go all the way last year, but inexplicably the wheels fell off towards the end of the season and they failed to make the play-offs. For a side stacked full of Springboks with a very favourable draw where they played most of the top sides at home, this must have been frustrating for coach John Plumtree and vaguely reminiscent of his time with Wellington. A key signing for them this year is Argentinian Juan Martin Hernandez who plays first five and fullback. The big question is, can the Sharks get their headspace right this year and maintain their momentum through to the play-offs or, much like last year, will they again struggle to score tries?

Key players: Beast Mtawarira, Ryan Kankowski, Bisark du Plessis, Ruan Pienaar, Juan Martin Hernandez

STORMERS

Last year finished: 10th

The Stormers have gained the services of Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie, but whether they can turn around the fortunes of the Stormers remains to be seen. Last season was a bit of a rollercoaster ride for this side, with some great wins on the road offset by some very sub-par performances at home. Conrad Jantjes will be returning from his horrific leg injury to reclaim the fullback jersey, and Schalk Burger will be leading the side at openside flanker. This relatively young side should have learnt a lot from last year, so will be looking to build on their experiences. However, they are not likely to be contesting the play-offs.

Key players: Andries Bekker, Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana

CHEETAHS

Last year finished: Last

The Cheetahs are that annoying team who by all odds should be easy to beat yet often prove to be quite the opposite when at home. While they are unlikely to make the top four, they will nonetheless be that banana skin for any side who takes the too lightly. In their favour they have the outstanding flanker Heinrich Broussow at their disposal, and should he stay injury free he will form a formidable pairing with Juan Smith that will make the breakdown hard work for any side that comes up against them.

Key players: Heinrich Broussow, Juan Smith,

LIONS

Last year finished: 12th

On paper they would seem the most likely wooden spooners, but the appointment of Springbok assistant coach Dick Muir as director of coaching should be sounding some warning bells. Their key signing for this year is Carlos Spencer, who impressed during his first outing in their pre-season game over the weekend. Like the Cheetahs, they will no doubt tip up one of the big sides but against them is the road trip from hell where they have to play the Hurricanes, Brumbies, Waratahs, Crusaders and Highlanders in succession. Not exactly how you’d want to introduce a squad of relatively inexperienced players to the rigours of touring.

Key players: Carlos Spencer, Earl Rose, Marius Delport