31 May

Fit for the jersey?
by Tracey Nelson
31 May 2010

Four newcaps, the recall of Piri Weepu and several players who are marginal for match fitness are the key talking points in the 26-man All Black squad named yesterday.

To my mind the recall of Piri Weepu to international rugby is the biggest eyebrow raiser in this squad, and the selectors all but confirmed it is largely due to his goal kicking abilities rather than his running game that sees him in the squad ahead of the likes of Alby Mathewson. Despite earlier hinting that a halfback with the abilities to snipe around the fringes was what they were looking for, when the squad was unveiled yesterday it turned out that experience and perhaps a hint of conservatism was the deciding factor for picking their second halfback.

Wayne Smith was at pains to explain that both Cowan and Weepu bring a lot of test match experience to the squad and that Weepu in particular is a player who steps up at international level. Certainly he’ll need to after some fairly mediocre play in the 9 jersey for the Hurricanes in the latter weeks of the Super 14, but on a postive note Weepu’s goal kicking is sound and accurate which will be needed should the unthinkable occur and Dan Carter has to leave the field.

Aaron Cruden has been selected as back up 1st 5 to Dan Carter, and whilst he is very young and inexperienced at top level the selectors see him having the talent and character to step up. While confident he will suit the style of game they are trying to play, they are rightly erring on the side of caution and speak of needing to give him time to develop as a player. Goal kicking accuracy has been an issue for Cruden during the S14, but he has a master in Dan Carter to learn from. You cannot help but feel that under the guidance of Wayne Smith and Carter this is the best environment for Cruden to grow his game, and providing he isn’t thrust into the pivot role too early I go along with their instincts that he is an All Black 1st 5 for the future.

Benson Stanley would appear to have been on everyone’s radar save his own, and his humilty was almost too much to bear yesterday – at times it was hard to believe he really was excited about being named, and he seemed to be under the illusion it was more by default than form that he was there. Like the selectors and his fellow players, I have a lot of respect for the way Stanley plays. He is defensively strong, but has also demonstrated some good attacking play and his distribution skills are good.

Israel Dagg is rightly there on form, and again I agree with the selectors that his core skills as a fullback are sound and that he brings an exciting attacking game to the squad. Dagg continued on from his excellent provincial form and managed to be a shining light in a Highlanders side that didn’t always get to use their backline on attack. His goal kicking abilities are an added bonus.

Victor Vito is the only newcap amongst the forwards, and the selectors feel he has the required aerial skills, defence and ball running abilities they require from their loosies. I have a few reservations about Vito, but they were largely answered by Steve Hansen when he mentioned they will be working on his “work over the ball” to improve that area of his game, and that he will need to fit into the group and deliver high standard. Vito has been picked primarily as a blindside flanker/No 8, which I am happy enough with.

Sam Whitelock has been added to train with the squad as cover for Tom Donnelly who is unlikely to be fit in time for the first test against Ireland. Should Donnelly not be fit then Whitelock will be on the bench. Other players racing the clock for fitness are Richard Kahui, whom many were surprised to see named given there was talk of him requiring surgery to fix his chest injury, and Mils Muliaina who strained a calf muscle playing club rugby last weekend.

In the pack Aled de Malmanche gets the second hooking spot in the absence of Andrew Hore. Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks are specialist loosehead and tighthead props respectively, while Neemia Tialata and Ben Franks can play both propping positions. There was never any doubt Brad Thorn would be a test starting lock, and it is Anthony Boric and Tom Donnelly who join him – with Whitelock backing up. The loosies were predictable, McCaw will always start and play the full 80 so a back up opensider hasn’t been picked. That will be covered by Adam Thomson and to a lesser extent Kieran Read.

With the international season starting against Ireland there no soft start to the All Blacks’ season, so there will be plenty of work ahead for both the coaches and players when the squad assembles in Auckland on Wednesday.

30 May

All Black Squad for Steinlager Series named
by Tracey Nelson
30 May 2010

The All Black selectors have named their 26-man squad for the upcoming June tests against Ireland (New Plymouth) and Wales (Dunedin and Hamilton).

With a split of 14 forwards and 12 backs there are four new caps – Victor Vito, Aaron Cruden, Benson Stanley and Israel Dagg.

The squad is:

Props: Tony Woodcock, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Neemia Tialata

Hookers: Keven Mealamu, Aled de Malmanche

Locks: Brad Thorn, Anthony Boric, Tom Donnelly

Loosies: Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Jerome Kaino, Adam Thomson, Victor Vito

Halfbacks: Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu

1st5s: Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden

Centres: Benson Stanley, Conrad Smith, Richard Kahui

Wingers: Zac Guildford, Josevata Rokocoko, Cory Jane

Fullbacks: Mils Muliina, Israel Dagg

In something of a surprise Piri Weepu has won back his halfback spot ahead of form player Alby Mathewson, no doubt mostly due to his goal kicking abilities. Aaron Cruden has been named as deputy 1st 5 to Daniel Carter, after Stephen Donald suffered a shoulder injury playing club rugby on Saturday. Benson Stanley has been named as the only specialist 2nd 5, with Richard Kahui being named as obvious cover for that position despite still being under an injury cloud.

Israel Dagg has been named as a specialist fullback alongside Mils Muliaina (who is also recovering from injury, and is unlikely to be fully fit for the first test of the season against Ireland). Victor Vito is the only new cap in the forwards.

28 May

Haka's possible All Black squad
by Tracey Nelson
28 May 2010

This weekend the All Black selectors will name their 26-man squad for the upcoming June tests against Ireland (New Plymouth) and Wales (Dunedin and Hamilton). The field is wide open this year with a raft of injuries leaving the way clear for some new caps and bolters.

With a likely split of 14 forwards and 12 backs, this is what the team at Haka have come up with as a likely All Black squad.

Props: Tony Woodcock, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Neemia Tialata

Hookers: Keven Mealamu, John Afoa

Locks: Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Tom Donnelly

Loosies: Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Jerome Kaino, Adam Thomson, Victor Vito

Halfback: Jimmy Cowan, Alby Mathewson

1st 5: Dan Carter, Stephen Donald

Centres: Benson Stanley, Conrad Smith, Luke McAlister

Wingers: Zac Guildford, Hosea Gear, Rudi Wulf

Fullbacks: Cory Jane, Israel Dagg

Not considered due to injury:
Mike Delany, Corey Flynn, Jason Eaton, Andrew Hore, Richard Kahui, Lelia Masaga, Mils Muliaina, Ma’a Nonu, Isaia Toeava, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Ali Williams.

Possible bolters: Kahn Fotuali’i, Jason Rutledge

We’ve gone for five props and one hooker, with John Afoa to cover both positions off the bench. Adam Thomson will provide openside flanker cover. Alby Mathewson gets the nod ahead of last year’s end of tour halfbacks Brendon Leonard and Andy Ellis. We’ve named Stephen Donald subject to fitness, and he will provide cover for 1st and 2nd 5. Benson Stanley is our choice to start at 2nd 5 with Conrad Smith at centre, Luke McAlister to cover the midfield.

We’ve picked three wingers who encompass finishing skills, good workrate and ability under the high ball at night, which means Joe Rokocoko misses out despite his good form in the latter stages of the Super 14. With Mils Muliaina in doubt due to his calf injury we’ve gone for Cory Jane and Israel Dagg as fullbacks, with Jane also able to cover the wing.

Our possible bolters are Fotuali’i at halfback and Jason Rutledge at hooker. Otago’s Ben Smith may also come into contention though, as he can cover centre as well as playing wing/fullback. Should Stephen Donald not be available due to injury, Colin Slade is our next pick as a utility who can cover 1st 5 and fullback.

21 May

Super 14 Semis Preview
by Tracey Nelson
21 May 2010

It’s almost deja vu when it comes to the Super 14 semi-finals for 2010. In a repeat of last year’s first semi the Bulls are once again taking on the Crusaders, whilst the second semi sees the Stormers playing the Waratahs. So what are the likely outcomes?

he Bulls have been unbeatable at home but this year the semi final has been moved from their fortress of Loftus Versfeld due to the stadium hosting Football World Cup matches next month, and the semi will be played in Soweto at Orlando Stadium – bizarrely enough a staunch football ground. Orlando Stadium only holds 40 000 spectators, so the crowd will be slightly less daunting than the 51 762 that can fit into Loftus.

The Crusaders nearly upset the Bulls a couple of weeks ago, narrowly missing a win in the dying minutes of the game. The following week, with top place well and truly sewn up, the Bulls chose to rest 14 of their top side in their clash with the Stormers (a game the Stormers won to clinch second place at the completion of round robin play). So the Bulls go into the semi after what could essentially be termed a self-imposed "bye", and they have also lost Springbok lock Bakkies Botha who is suspended for 4 weeks for foul play in last week’s game against the Stormers.

What will this potential loss of momentum mean for the Bulls? Only time will tell, with the Crusaders bouncing back to some form of old in their demolition (40-22) of the Brumbies last week. A confident Crusaders side will be looking for some form of payback for their narrow loss to the Bulls after the hooter, and they are team that are well experienced at adjusting to travel and time zone changes. The inclusion of Daniel Bowden at 2nd 5 seems to have been the change that Dan Carter required to hit some form, and it would appear the Crusaders may also have the upper hand in fitness and mobility if recent weeks are anything to go by.

Meantime the Bulls are attempting all sorts of mind games, pointing out to referee Stuart Dickinson that the Crusaders might possibly be doing illegal things in the scrum – no doubt in desperate attempt to gain parity over a Crusaders scrum that has been dominant in this competition. Quite how Dickinson responds to this remains to be seen, but you would hope he would have learnt enough lessons from the Italy-All Blacks test match he refereed at the end of last year not to be taken in by any front row illegalities from any side.

Should it come down to a penalty fest however, you would have to put your money on the Bulls. Their 1st 5 Morne Steyn needs just 3 more points to eclipse Dan Carter’s record for most points in a Super 14 season, and his goal kicking prowess at altitude is second to none.

The second semi final sees the Waratahs travelling to Capetown to take on the competitions best defensive team, the Stormers. The Capetown boys have played some outstanding rugby this year, and have a very well balanced side. But despite having the best points differential of all four semi-finalists, going against them is their inability to score lots of points themselves. So the question is, will their defence be good enough to hold out a Waratahs side that has quietly gone about their work and manages to score slightly more points for in each game than the Stormers have?

The Stormers will have taken note from the Highlanders’ win over the Waratahs that the best way to shut down the Sydney-siders is to get up in their faces and swamp them at the breakdown. But the Waratahs backs, with Berrick Barnes running the show at 1st 5, have looked very slick in the last couple of games and it will take everything the Stormers have to keep the line intact against the very clever kicking game the Waratahs use.

Home advantage may well prove the difference in this game, but don’t be surprised to see a yellow card in this game with Mark Lawrence officiating. Drew Mitchell could be the key man for the Waratahs, sitting first equal as highest try scorer with 9 to his name. For the Stormers, could intercept king Brian Habana be the deciding factor if it’s a close fought game?

The Crusaders are the only side to ever make a Super Final from 4th place (vs Reds in 1999), and have met the Bulls three times previously in Super semis – winning in 2006, but losing in 2007 and 2009 with the Bulls going on to take the competition title in both those years. The Stormers have never won a semi, whilst the Waratahs last semi final win was in 2008 (vs Sharks). Just who the two finalists will be shall be revealed just after 6.30am on Sunday morning (NZ time) at the conclusion of the Stormers v Waratahs match. The Bulls v Crusaders kicks off at 3am Sunday morning (NZ time).

14 May

Virtual quarter finals in the 2010 Super 14
by Tracey Nelson
14 May 2010

It really couldn’t have been scripted better, the top six teams all playing one another in the final round of the Super 14 to decide the make up of the final four to play the semi finals. While the Bulls and Stormers are assured of semi final berths (and the Bulls already have first place and a home semi in the bag), the Crusaders v Brumbies and Waratahs v Hurricanes have become virtual quarter final play-offs to decide the other two semi finalists.

Round 14 kicks off with the Crusaders (6th) taking on the Brumbies (4th) in Christchurch. The Brumbies haven’t won in Christchurch since 2000, but have a better run going into this game with the Crusaders having returned from South Africa on Sunday evening with a very short turnaround time and on the back of three losses in a row. The travel fatigue and change of time zones is always tricky for sides returning from the Republic, adn while home advantage probably plays into the Crusaders’ hands I would still expect a close match.

The Crusaders haven’t hit top gear this season, and have spluttered along for large parts of the competition. However, their match against the Bulls last weekend saw them return to some classic form and they were very unlucky not to come away with a bonus point win. Meanwhile the Brumbies have turned around some mid-season form slump and come into the game with two good wins over the Reds and Highlanders under their belt.

This could be the last game in Brumbies colours for their skipper George Smith, so they will be throwing everything at the Crusaders to win this game and get themselves into the semis. But equally this is the sort of backs-against-the-wall challenge the Crusaders thrive on, and with Dan Carter returning to some welcome form you would just have to give the Crusaders the slight edge.

The very next match is the Waratahs (3rd) playing the Hurricanes (5th). This promises to be a humdinger of a match with the Hurricanes finding their best form at the business end of the season. These are two sides that play at the opposite ends of the spectrum, the Waratahs playing a measured, territory-based game while the Hurricanes are full of running.

The inclusion of Aaron Cruden at 1st 5 has been part of the Hurricanes’ turnaround in form, and he will need to be heavily marked by the Waratahs to avoid the Hurricanes’ backline being set loose. Piri Weepu at halfback provides an invaluable goal kicking boot, while Hosea Gear has been making every post a winner since his return from injury. Waratahs winger Drew Mitchell is sitting third on the top try scorers list with seven to his name.

The Waratahs come into this game after completely demolishing the Chiefs last week, following a shock loss against the Highlanders the previous round. The Hurricanes played brilliantly last week to shut down the rampant Reds and come away with a very resounding victory to follow on from their win against the Chiefs. Expect this match to be a right royal battle up front, and it may well come down to the team that makes the least errors on the night – both from a handling and penalty point of view.

Meanwhile, over in South Africa in the very last game of the round, the Bulls take on the Stormers. The Bulls are resting most of their team this week with the top finishing spot already cemented in place, so it should be a win to the Stormers unless something goes horribly wrong. The Stormers should also guarantee themselves a home semi final even without a bonus point win for four tries, because despite the possibility the Waratahs could end up on the same number of competition points the Stormers’ points differential is far superior.

So with the likelihood the Bulls and Stormers will be hosting home semifinals, it remains to be found out tonight which two sides will be travelling to South Africa to take them on. Obviously it will be the two winners from tonight’s games, but the order in which they finish could end up determined by how many tries the two winning sides score should either the two NZ or two Australian sides win.

Should both the Crusaders (36 points) and Hurricanes (37 points) win, and finish on the same number of competition points (the Crusaders by getting a bonus point win and the Hurricanes winning but not scoring four tries) then it would come down to points differential which the Crusaders (+75) have the better of the Canes (+51).Likewise, should both the Brumbies ((37 points) and the Waratahs (38 points) win and the Brumbies get the bonus point while the Waratahs don’t, the same thing will apply,but this will be a closer fought thing with the Brumbies (+85) only marginally ahead of the Waratahs (+81) on points differential.

In some ways you would have to think that it will be preferable to finish in fourth place and head to South Africa to play the Bulls in the semifinal because they will be playing in Soweto rather than at their fortress of Loftus Versfeld which is under preparation for the Football World Cup next week. The Bulls have looked far more beatable than than the Stormers, who will take on the third placed team in the other semifinal in Capetown. But however the final four are decided, it looks like a very exciting last weekend of round robin play.

5 May

Headlines
by Tracey Nelson
5 May 2010

Headlines for the week May 4th, 2009

MacDonald farewells NZ rugby

Crusaders fullback Leon MacDonald will return to Japan to play his rugby for the Kintetsu club at the end of this year’s Super 14, which will end an All Black career that started back in 2000. MacDonald spent a season with the Japanese club side Yamaha back in 2004, but returned to Crusaders and All Black rugby at year later. A serious concussion suffered when playing the Springboks in Dunedin cut his international season short last year, and injuries also sidelined at times during this year’s Super 14. MacDonald has played 56 tests for the All Blacks, 116 Super games (Crusaders and Chiefs), and 69 provincial games (Canterbury and Malborough).

Key All Blacks re-sign with NZRU

Mils Muliaina has re-signed with the NZRU and the Waikato Rugby Union through until 2011, while Ali Williams and Tony Woodcock have both re-signed with the NZRU through until 2012. Williams’ contract also contains a "sabbatical" clause allowing him time away from NZ next year. The three join join 2008 All Blacks Richie McCaw, Rodney So’oialo, Keven Mealamu, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Brad Thorn, Andrew Hore, Neemia Tialata, John Afoa, Andy Ellis, Richard Kahui, Brendon Leonard, Jamie Mackintosh, Rudi Wulf and Liam Messam, who are all signed with New Zealand rugby through to 2011 or beyond.

Latest Playing Apparel Revealed for All Blacks

At a launch in Auckland this week adidas revealed the two new All Black jerseys for 2009. Both jerseys feature a fern pattern across the front. A new all-white All Blacks jersey will be used as a second kit to complement the traditional, famous black apparel. The white jersey includes a white collar and New Zealand’s national symbol, the silver fern, on the left breast in black. It will be worn with the traditional black shorts and black sock with white stripes. The white jersey will only be worn when the All Blacks are playing outside of New Zealand when required in line with the IRB’s revised policy of the away team needing to change jerseys in the event of a clash. The first outing of the white jersey will be against France in Marseille, November this year.

New referees secure Test appointments

Bryce Lawrence has been appointment to control the opening Test between South Africa and the British & Irish Lions this June. In addition to the first Lions Test, Lawrence has also been named as Assistant Referee for the second Test and as Television Match Official for the third Test. He will also control a Tri-Nations match between Australia and South Africa in Perth in August.

Vinnie Munro joins Lawrence in all three Lions Tests as an Assistant Referee, while Chris Pollock and Keith Brown will both referee a Rugby World Cup qualifier each in June as well as officiate games at the IRB Junior World Championship in Japan in the same month.

Heartland Championship teams to trial Player of Origin

Heartland Provincial Rugby Unions will get the opportunity to have a Player of Origin in their 22-man Heartland Championship squads this year as part of a trial undertaken by the New Zealand Rugby Union. The Player of Origin will be in addition to the three loan players unions are entitled to have in their teams under current regulations. A Player of Origin will be defined as a person who from the age of 12-18 played rugby in the relevant Heartland Provincial Union (either for a club or school) for at least three years who is now playing club rugby outside the province.

SANZAR

The NZRU and Australian Rugby Union will continue to work towards expanding Super Rugby from 2011 in partnership with South Africa despite the current impasse in negotiations with SA Rugby. NZRU CEO Steve Tew and ARU Managing Director and CEO John O’Neill said this week that a continuation of the SANZAR alliance at provincial level remains the preferred option for both national unions.

Both New Zealand and Australia are determined to deliver a competition of the highest integrity to supporters and broadcasters and believe South African calls for further compromise will impact on that commitment. Talks will therefore continue on an alternative plan – an Asia-Pacific competition – to ensure a valuable and viable tournament is ready for implementation should resolution not be reached with South Africa on Super Rugby expansion plans.