5 Oct

Cup Balls: IRB Fines Player For Sponsorship Breach
by Paul Waite
5 Oct 2011

Mouth GuardAn un-named team at the Rugby World Cup has had one of its players fined for wearing an un-approved jock strap, it was revealed in a press release today.

In this tournament the IRB has been taking a hard line on teams and players who have strayed away from using officially sanctioned products.

‘We have to be very careful to protect the interests of our sponsors’, said IRB spokesman Francois Pissoire.

‘If we let this jock strap slip we would lose their support’, he added.

As the press conference went on, the assembled media learned of other similar breaches of protocol that the IRB investigators had uncovered.

It transpires that England first five-eighth Jonny Wilkinson was found inside a non-sponsored magic supplies shop in Auckland called ‘Disappearing Act’.

‘Lucky for Jonny, he couldn’t buy a successful kick at goal, so we ‘ave let ‘im go’ Pissoire explained.

Not so fortunate were the whole of the French team, who were slapped with a 10,000 Euro penalty for going up Cuba Street and attempting to buy themselves a spine after their nightmare outing against Tonga.

And of course there was the unfortunate case of the Samoan player wearing an un-approved mouth-guard.

‘Naturally billions watching the game on TV would have noticed this blatant attempt to advertise a competitors product immediately, and rushed out to replace their existing equipment. This cannot be tolerated and we have fined the Samoans $10,000!’, explained Pissoire.

‘We must do this so we can carry on our mission to globalise Rugby by donating $100 here and $50 there to the poorer Unions in the World, funded solely by the interest we make from the pallets of gold bullion we have lodged in Switzerland. We trust that Samoa will understand that our hands were tied.’

The Samoan Union could not be reached for comment in Apia, as their phone had been cut off due to an unpaid bill.

At this point what can only be described as a ‘troop’ of 15 IRB officials marched into the room and lined up behind their leader. Several of the press cohorts were visibly disturbed by the shiny polished knee-length boots, brown uniforms and black arm-bands with glittering IRB logo.

‘Allow me to introduce you to our Sponsorship Scrutineers’, Pissoire announced, to which there were several murmurings which sounded suspiciously like ‘SS’ from some present.

It then became obvious why Pissoire needed such reinforcements as he addressed the assembled media more forcefully.

‘It has also come to my notice that none of you are taking notes at these press conferences using official IRB-sanctioned pens. In fact none of you are writing anything, just typing into those stupid laptops and iPhones!’

At this point Pissoire became so angry and animated that spittle was spraying from his mouth, as he delivered his final statement.

‘So all of you are fined $100,000,000 Euro each, banned from the tournament, and we will make a heap of those instruments of the Devil and burn them. Dismissed!’

As the World’s journalists turned to begin filing out of the room, laptops held out ready, Bernard Laprat, Mr. IRB Himself, burst into the room wearing an immense pair of shoes, yellow and red striped pantaloons, a revolving bow tie, big red nose and flappy red hair.

‘Hahahaha! It’s all a big fucking joke!’ he shouted.

Nobody disagreed.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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2 Oct

Time To Front Up
by Paul Waite
2 Oct 2011

TrenchesWith Dan Carter out of the tournament the All Blacks’ chances now rely on the forwards fronting up in three consecutive World Cup test matches to provide their stand-in No.10 with a winning platform.

To be blunt, Colin Slade isn’t even half the first five-eighth that Dan Carter is. The All Black coaches acknowledge this with statements such as “we may have to simplify the attacking menu” for him. Andrew Hore also showed some of the same kind of thinking in the after-match interview after the final pool game vs. Canada when he told us that it was now up to the forwards to front up and give the No.10 the support he needs.

The old saying that it’s the forwards that determine the result and the backs by how much, has never rung truer for New Zealand than right now in this World Cup.

It’s going to be hard yakka from here on in, starting with a gritty Argentina, adept at muscling up in the bruising close quarter contact situations. The All Blacks need to treat the remainder of the World Cup as a series of battles in a war. The forwards have to fight the enemy to a standstill, and then dominate them, completely. There are no magical game-breaking options at No.10 anymore, and none of the subtle tactical kicking that Carter provided so effortlessly either.

Looking at the test match against Canada, and taking into account the second-tier nature of that opposition, Slade is evidently still short on form. His distribution to the backs was laboured, and his goal-kicking is still too patchy. Graham Henry admitted as much when he told us “he needs more rugby”.

Star-in the-making Aaron Cruden has been brought into the squad as the bench cover, and may get some game time to aid bringing him up to speed in this quarter-final, depending on how it goes, but it is a big learning curve to step into the All Blacks in the knock-out stages, when you haven’t even been involved with the squad for the Tri-Nations. That said Cruden is gifted enough to be a potential magic bullet for the team, albeit from a long-shot.

Piri Weepu also got some time against Canada at No.10, and his goal-kicking is better, however starting him there smacks of the same out-of-position selections which have bitten the All Blacks in the arse in several World Cups previously. Hopefully Henry & Co. will NOT go down that same road again.

Aside from the Carter-replacement issue, the All Blacks also looked disjointed in this test. A lot of that was the unfamiliarity evident in the Cowan-Slade-Sonny Bill Williams back-line. The ball was moved in the awkward, stilted manner you always see with backs which haven’t played much together in a test environment.

In the forwards Ali Williams also continues to underwhelm. His fumbles of the ball and general lack of work-rate around the field have us wondering what Boric needs to do to get more game-time than a quick cameo off the bench in the dying minutes.

The test also saw Mils Muliaina at fullback, where he did nothing more than show us he is a class act, but a fading one. But given the ‘brittleness’ of Israel Dagg it’s great to know he is there in squad ready if needed, and we wouldn’t bet against him getting his 100th test cap in this tournament.

On the left wing Zac Guildford had a blinder, redeeming himself and show-casing his speed and ability to finish. That said, he was allowed a great amount of space by Canada, space which won’t ever be available in the tight tests coming up.

The first choice back-three from now on still has to be Jane, Kahui and Dagg, fitness allowing.

In the forwards, we had Victor Vito at openside, and he played extremely well against a modest opposition. His ball-carries were excellent, and defence solid. Kaino made a much better fill-in at No.8 than Richie McCaw did recently and capped it with a push-over try from a 5m scrum, something hardly ever seen these days with scrum resets always pushed back to the 5m mark. Aside from that Kaino remains in awesome form both carrying the ball and on defence.

Perhaps the most satisfying performance was Keiran Read’s return from serious ankle injury. He played 60 minutes with no problems, which will give him the confidence needed for the knock-outs.

The All Blacks chances of winning this Rugby World Cup have undoubtedly taken a huge blow with Dan Carter being ruled out of the tournament.

But if they refocus, strip their game back a little to the basics revolving around forward dominance, and provide Slade with a solid platform then they are still able to beat any team in the World.

All that’s required is Three Big Tests.

Give it everything boys.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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25 Sep

Good Moaning
by Paul Waite
25 Sep 2011

Good MoaningThe ‘French’ gendarme in the Allo’ Allo’ TV series was an amusing impostor and, I have to tell you, there was more to the French team the All Blacks beat 37-17 last night than meets the eye as well.

It was a cold winter afternoon on the 26th June 1999. I and a bunch of friends sat shivering up in the infamous Millard Stand at Athletic Park here in Wellington on the occasion of the last test match that legendary venue was to host before being pulled down.

We had scored ourselves the ultimate seats for this historic test match, right up in the highest row of the Millard. Near to kickoff time Murray Mexted slowly ascended the perilously steep stand steps aided by two sherpas. As he summited and divested himself of his ropes and crampons, he bantered with the crowd, then made the even more perilous climb up a ladder and into the little shed perched on four spindly pillars of rust known, laughably, as the ‘commentary box’.

Looking down from the top of the Millard from just underneath that shed, the view was perfect, but not one for sufferers of vertigo. There it was laid out like a snooker table below you, the stand angle so steep that you felt if you over-balanced forwards, you would end up in a free dive onto the kickoff spot.

To add to the atmosphere, one of Wellington’s famous southerlies was streaming across the ground, freezing the fans, and rattling the questionable latticework of rusty ‘meccano’ which comprised The Park. But we loved it all the same and The Caketin is no replacement. But I digress.

That day the French were paying the All Blacks a visit for a ‘warm-up’ test prior to the 1999 Rugby World Cup which was to kick off later on that year in October. As well as seeing off Athletic Park, I and 38,000 other fans had come to see the All Blacks begin their Cup preparations in style, and they didn’t disappoint, winning emphatically by 54-7 and scoring 7 tries to 1.

After the match we had a great evening, and toasted how good this All Black team were looking, and what a great psychological filip it was to have put them firmly in their place before the tournament.

The next day I was flying back to Auckland and happened to find myself on the very same plane as the French team, with a couple of them sitting next to me. I looked around surrepticiously and listened, taking care not to look too much like a smug All Blacks fan. However it quickly became apparent that, far from being a team smarting from their loss, the French were in great humour. They weren’t bubbly, exactly, they were just calmly enjoying the trip like a bunch of tourists. It became clear that the result mattered not a jot to them. They had come down to New Zealand to have a good time, play some rugby, perhaps gather some intelligence on us, and then return. Nothing more.

It’s a facet of New Zealanders, insofar as rugby is concerned, that we struggle with this concept. We can’t imagine travelling across the World to play an international test match without doing all we can to win, and to agonise over the whys and wherefors if we lose.

History shows that the French rose to the occasion in the semi-final of that World Cup to knock the All Blacks out of the tournament with one of the most fabulous come-from-behind victories in the history of the game. The recollection still hurts like hell, as an All Black fan.

Fast-forward to the Rugby World Cup pool game against France last night.

There was a lot of talk during the week about France fielding a ‘B’ team, and not attempting to win the game.

The only thing I have to say about this is that, although no team goes onto the paddock with a mindset that they want to lose the game, there is an approach (with the French especially) whereby they aren’t going to be in their cups sobbing about a loss in a local bar in the wee hours if they do happen to come second.

This is the case here. The French have obviously looked at the Pool, looked at what lies ahead in the knockout stages, and rightly fixed on the pathway which suits them, and that is to come second in the Pool. They went out with a lower than top-strength team, saving some of their players and strategies for later.

The All Blacks, for their part treated this very much as a full test match, fielding their top XV and going all out to win, as they had to.

For 40 minutes (from the 10th minute to the 50th) they played some sublime rugby, with Dan Carter back to his shimmying best and, apart from goal-kicking, looking every bit the best No.10 in the Cup so far. After initial mistakes the Smith/Nonu midfeld looked strong and penetrating, and Israel Dagg was simply mercurial. In the forwards Richie McCaw, earning his 100th test cap no less, was his usual legendary self, aided and abetted by Jerome Kaino, about whom some French forwards will be having nightmares for days.

But it was far from an 80 minute performance, a fact not lost on Graham Henry who rated it 8 out ot 10. Carter threw an intercept try to the French, there were defensive lapses, and after the 50th minute play became very loose and lost structure. More worryingly the substitution of Hore and Williams on for Mealamu and Whitelock caused the scrum to go from being dominant to being dominated. Woodcock went from damaging his opposite to getting penalised for putting a hand on the ground. This caused the All Blacks to concede ground, penalties and eventually a try.

Seen as a progressive improvement this pool game was excellent, as long as the problems and flaws which were exposed are addressed.

And if it transpires that we meet the French again in the World Cup
Final, forget all about this pool game. They won’t bear any resemblance
to that team, and neither will the test.

All Blacks 32
Israel Dagg 2, Adam Thomson, Cory Jane, Sonny Bill Williams tries
Dan Carter pen, 3 con, drop goal

France 17
Maxime Mermoz, Francois Trinh-Duc tries
Dimitri Yachvili pen, 2 con)

HT: 19-3

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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20 Sep

Cup Balls: Kev & Nev’s View
by Paul Waite
20 Sep 2011

Kev and NevFollowing the surprise announcement of their robot ref, Kev Dagg and Neville Shepherd have been invited back by Haka to share some of their views on the coming week of exciting Rugby World Cup action.

Nev: We’re betting that, if you’re an Aussie fan, you’d be as sick as a dog that fell in the sheep-dip after seeing your team tipped up by Ireland like that.

Kev: Humbled.

Nev: Steady Kev. You ever seen a humble Aussie?

Kev: Good point. Anyway Genia and Cooper got done up like a dinner and a lot of folks this side of the ditch are saying ‘about time’. Looks like our Aussie cousins are going to meet South Africa in the quarters and to be honest I don’t fancy their chances there.

Nev: Could be dog tucker.

Kev: But never write those underarm bowlers off. If they get Pocock back, get the Doc to extract Digby’s thumb from his backside, teach O’Connor to kick, and really put it together they could win that and no mistake. Trouble is, a pack which couldn’t out-scrum Ireland has to get the wood on the Bokke tighties.

Nev: About as much chance of that as England players understanding The Laws. Did you see that rubbish with Georgia – what was that Kaplan joker on, valium? How many ruck penelties did he need before fishing the yellow plastic out?

Kev: Yeah that was slack. You had to admire those Georgia lads though. Hard yakka turning out to play the Poms four days after the Jocks eh? But they got stuck in alright. Some sore Pommie bodies after that one even if they did win.

Nev: So we reckon that, as usual, the Poms will play like the brown stuff on my milking shed floor but win their pool. I see in the papers they’ve already had their traditional crisis meeting where they ask each other what the bloody hell is the go with all the penalties, and then remember it’s because of the intentional cheating.

Kev: And having cleared that up they’ll come out and cheat at international standard instead of club standard and get through to the quarters and then the semis.

Nev: But that’s looking a bit too far ahead. The match of the round this week is going to be Scotland v Argentina without a doubt.

Kev: Yes it’s a do or die game this one. We fancy the Jocks to shade the Argies and put themselves in line for the pool runners up spot there.

Nev: Yeah they’ve banned bagpipes and lumped them in with those.. what’re they called Kev.. vulvazeelas?

Kev: Something like that. That’s like waving a tartan kilt at a jock that is. We think that’ll fire them up enough to get them through, whilst at the same time we do appreciate the absence of strangulated cat noises on the terraces.

Nev: England are facing off against Romania which should knock a few more dents into them. Those Romanian forwards are big units and that’s a fact. A tight first half and a Pom win by 3-4 tries by the end on that one we reckon.

Kev: The boys are playing France but we’re picking the Frogs to play it coy as usual. They’ll keep their powder dry, field a weak team, lose handsomely and not care a jot because they were always aiming to go through second so why get their perms in a tangle.

Nev: What about our lad Zac? Hung out to dry for having a few too many after the win in Auckland and the loss in Brisbane.

Kev: Would never have happened in Pinetree’s day.

Nev: Though I think most of the others might have got dropped for not drinking enough.

Kev: There is that.

Nev: Just to wrap it up, the rest of the games are pretty much business as usual stuff as far as results go, but we’ll be expecting more good footy to be played in all of them.

Kev: Yep, that’s one thing we’ve been served up plenty of this World Cup!

Thanks to Kev and Nev for that interview, and we’ll be back to hear more of their thoughts next week.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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20 Sep

RWC Summary and Predictions
by Paul Waite
20 Sep 2011

Let’s have a look at the story so far in the pools at RWC2011, and then have a quick look at what might (or might not) lie ahead as we zero in on the knock-out phase.

The 2011 edition of the Rugby World Cup continues to deliver more cracking games as compared with 2007. The first weeks of pool games are normally a succession of thrashings delivered with appropriate hauteur by the ‘tier 1′ teams to the ‘minnows, with the occasional evenly contested minnow-vs-minnow encounter. Not this time around!

In fact the term ‘minnow’ is now officially defunct. Inappropriate. There are no teams at RWC2011 which deserve that condescending label, and the people who, after 2007, were suggesting we revert to the 16-team format are thankfully being shown up for the short-sighted idiots they are.

Even the All Blacks’ 83-7 rout of an under-strength Japan falls into the same perspective, given the 145-17 stomping in 1995. The Brave Blossoms competed for the full 80 minutes and were not daunted, just over-matched.

There were other examples of the massive increase in global playing standards by the tier 2 teams. England vs Georgia was a classic. Georgia were playing a team which has won the Rugby World Cup once, and been finalists twice. To say they competed is an epic understatement. Georgian forwards, most of them looking like Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto, fired themselves into the English defensive line like missiles, and their heroic efforts earned them a close 10-17 deficit at halftime. They eventually went down 10-41 as they tired and leaked points in the second half, but given they were being forced to play only FOUR DAYS after their previous pool game against Scotland (a hard-fought 15-6 defeat), that was unsurprising. England left the field looking battered by the encounter, and still utterly confused by the Laws of the game.

The game of the round was undoubtedly Australia vs. Ireland played at a rainy Eden Park. Leading up to this Ireland had suffered through a forgettable August of World Cup build-up games losing to Scotland, England and twice to France. But it was a fired-up team of Emerald-isle men who really took it to the jaunty Aussies in Auckland. Though the damp conditions probably helped, it was mainly the shutting down of play-makers Genia and Cooper which delivered the surprise 15-6 result. That and a ton of Irish passion.

To say that the Aussie World Cup plans are now derailed is over-stating it, but they have undoubtedly been severely dented. Ireland still have to make good on their leg-up, but victories over Russia and Italy would seem to be well within their scope. If that happens then Australia will come second in the pool, and probably meet South Africa in the Quarter-final. An early exit therefore looms for one of the Southern Hemisphere giants. The Wallabies need to be very worried about this as the Boks, historically, have been well suited to beating them in this kind of pressure-cooker encounter.

All the other pools seem to be on course for the following probable quarter-finals in the knock-out phase of the cup:

QF1: Ireland vs. Wales
QF2: England vs. France
QF3: South Africa vs. Australia
QF4: New Zealand vs. Argentina or Scotland

QF1 does offer Samoa an outside chance of getting there ahead of Wales, but Wales have Namibia and Fiji to play, whereas Samoa have Fiji and South Africa, so it will be very difficult.

With QF4 Argentina are 3 points behind Scotland but Scotland has yet to play England which may well result in a zero points haul and Argentina has Georgia which should get them at least 4. So the Scotland vs. Argentina pool game next week should decide which of them goes through to the knock-out stages.

Looking too far ahead is dangerous, but we love danger so let’s throw the clich├ęd (and boring) ‘one game at a time’ rule out of the proverbial window.

In some parallel universe, the above quarter-finals will produce these semi-finals:

SF1: Wales vs. France
SF2: New Zealand vs. South Africa

And, being an All Blacks supporter, and a lover of symmetry I can’t help but predict that the 2011 Rugby World Cup final will be the same as the inaugural World Cup held in 1987 in this country:

Final: New Zealand vs. France

And the result of that will obviously be a New Zealand victory by 29-9.

Eh bien!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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

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18 Sep

Cup Balls: Robot Referee At Large
by Paul Waite
18 Sep 2011

gortIn a shock revelation it has come to light that one of the referees at this World Cup is a robot, developed specifically to provide what the makers term ‘a bit of a leg-up’ for the All Blacks.

At their invitation I went to interview South Island farmers Kev Dagg and Neville Shepherd.

PW: ‘Well we’re all quite taken aback by this obviously. What made you do it?’

KD: ‘It was that quarter-final in the last lot – the one that the ref lost for us by missing the forward pass. We decided we’d like a referee in our comp here, who was doing unto others as we got done unto us.’

PW: ‘So you built your own referee?’

NS: ‘Yeah, I had a few old tractor parts and Kev had moved over to dairy and had miles of number eight spare.’

KD: ‘The prototype looked a bit like a tractor tangled up in a fence, but a bit of midnight oil and a visit to the local.. ah.. body-shop got it looking cracker.’

PW: ‘What do you call it?’

NS: We were going to call it ‘R2D2′ but we thought that might give the game away.

KD: ‘We ended up calling it B.R.Y.C.E.’

NS: ‘That stands for ‘Bollocks Ref, You Can’t!’, with an ‘E’ added on the end to make it into a real name.

KD: ‘Yeah the players we tested it on kept on shouting that. Bollocks ref, you can’t.’

NS: ‘At least that’s what it sounded like.’

PW: ‘Yes, I see. Could you explain what it does?’

NS: ‘It referees a footy game, but with a few differences from your normal ref.’

KD: ‘Yeah, we’ve programmed all the footy Laws into it, but added a lot of randomness to how it blows the whistle at rucks and scrums.’

NS: ‘Those were the two areas we thought we could get away with. Not even the players know what the hell is going on there, so nobody would be the wiser.’

KD: ‘We modelled it on the sheep’s brain, which has the bloody thing running in one direction then the other at the drop of a hat depending on whatever sounds it hears or whether lots of its mates are running about.’

NS: ‘That’s right. Bit of a problem stopping it shitting all over the paddock every five minutes. We’ve sorted that out.. probably.’

PW: ‘Fascinating. And you say it’s actually been reffing in the Cup already??’

NS: ‘Yep. Obviously we can’t give away which games or the powers that be would give it an early shower.’

KD: ‘Let’s just say that one of the teams got so hot under the collar their jersey numbers were peeling off, and the other one we targeted was Australia.’

NS: ‘Because of the under-arm bowl.’

KD: ‘We’ll never forgive or forget that.’

PW: ‘Righto. And your robot ref is registered as a New Zealander, so it can’t referee the All Blacks?

KD: ‘Oh god, no mate.’

NS: ‘Bloody oath no. That wouldn’t do at all.’

So there you have it. The Cup is harbouring a robot referee, undercover as it were, and silently undermining the chances of the All Blacks’ opponents. If you can spot which one it is, then please let us know unless your name is Robbie Deans.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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17 Sep

All Blacks Rout Japanese 83-7
by Paul Waite
17 Sep 2011

Though it’s hard to judge individual performances against such a weak opposition, it’s safe to say that this pool game saw the All Blacks step up a gear in their preparations for the knock-out stages, and also gave us slightly more clarity on what their top selection is.

Looking ahead we have to ignore the 13 try to 1 point-scoring festival, and instead focus on what happened out there. For starters we had another ‘experimental’ 22 playing, especially so given the injury withdrawals during the week of Muliaina, McCaw, Dagg, and Carter. Given the makeshift nature of the team which eventually ran out onto Waikato Stadium, the insights it produced were excellent.

Looking at the overall picture it was pleasing that the team kept its discipline and structure for the full 80 minutes, even when subs came on, many playing out of position. Also pleasing was the number of set-piece moves that were practiced on the night, and with a high success rate. And once again we saw the All Blacks honing their mauling skills, something that has been absent from their repertoire for too long.

There were negatives as well of course. Colin Slade had a ‘mare of a game, missing easy kicks from the tee, fumbling the ball and throwing the intercept pass that gave Japan their solitary try. I have some sympathy with him however, given the kicking percentage across the whole Rugby World Cup so far is only about 60% and outstanding kickers such as Jonny Wilkinson are struggling with it. Clearly RWC Ltd. has, once again, allowed some manufacturer to create yet another ‘special’ World Cup Ball, which flies like a bag of dirty washing. You only have to watch the thing wobbling about in flight to see something is very wrong with it. [Ed: new information indicates the ball is the same one used in the 6N and other European comps with no complaints, and if so clearly the kickers are at fault not the ball!]

The early kicking problems seemed to sap Slade’s confidence, and he got into that ‘it’s all going wrong’ mindset. He’s a lot better than he showed, but it would be great if he could find some form, fast!

At halfback Andy Ellis was busy and accurate, and there isn’t anything obvious to separate him from Weepu and Cowan. However given the weakness of the opposition, I’d say that Cowan and Weepu still rate as the top two, with Weepu a shoe-in due to his ability to cover the No.10 jersey.

The wings are also still a bit of a conundrum. Kahui has definitely sewn up left-wing, but Jane on the right was a bit tentative without doing anything wrong. Toeava may get the nod from the selectors here vs. France we shall see.

Finally, I think that this game saw Sonny Bill Williams cement a place on the bench in the selectors’ minds, covering wing and midfield. They have been trying very hard to get him into the frame due to his perceived game-breaking abilities, and I would say that he has done that now. The starting midfield was always going to be the Nonu/Smith partnership, which once again showed its class in this match.

For my part I would prefer a Kahui, Jane, Dagg back three now, persevering with Jane on the right wing due to his quick-silver cleverness in tight situations, and expertise under the high ball. However the selectors might pick Toeava on the right instead.

Looking at the forwards, once again the lack of physical presence from Japan makes it difficult to reach solid conclusions. Plus points were that Thomson proved he has recovered fully from his arm injury, Woodcock got in a good form-building run, and Boric got on the field. It was great to see those trademark burrowing runs from skipper for the night Keven Mealamu too. But the standout forward of the night has to be Jerome Kaino who is building up the kind of unstoppable form that will be hugely valuable in the rounds to come.

Apart from the points above, the other big win on the night was that the All Blacks got through it with no further injuries.

All Blacks 83
Smith, Kahui (2), Kaino, Mealamu, Ellis, Slade, Toeava, Hore, SB Williams (2), Nonu, Thomson tries; Slade 9 con

Japan 7
Onozawa try; Williams Con

Halftime: 38-0

The Haka Top XV:
15 Israel Dagg
14 Richard Kahui
13 Conrad Smith
12 Ma’a Nonu
11 Cory Jane
10 Daniel Carter
9 Piri Weepu
8 Kieran Read
7 Richie McCaw (c)
6 Jerome Kaino
5 Brad Thorn
4 Anthony Boric
3 Owen Franks
2 Keven Mealamu
1 Tony Woodcock

Reserves:
SB Williams, Jimmy Cowan, Colin Slade, Sam Whitelock, Adam Thomson, Ben Franks, Andrew Hore

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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14 Sep

Carry On Tinkering
by Paul Waite
14 Sep 2011

After a brief flirt with picking a reasonably consistent team last season, the All Blacks Selectors are back to spinning the bottle once again. Just about the whole of the New Zealand rugby-going public, as well as most media pundits know in their guts that a Top XV must be played together, but it is not a feeling shared by the Three Wise Men.

The team announced to play Japan on Friday is as follows:

All Blacks: Woodcock, Mealamu, O. Franks, Thorn, Whitelock, Kaino, Thomson, Vito, Ellis, Slade, Kahui, Nonu, Smith, Jane, Toeava
Reserves: Hore, Afoa, Williams, Vito, Weepu, Cowan, SB Williams

[Ed: the team above has been changed after various 'minor' injuries occurred in training resulting in Carter, McCaw, Muliaina and Dagg being ruled unavailable. In fact, the resulting team looks a lot more balanced and useful than the original]

Let’s first talk about the specifics of this selection. In the backs we have Andy Ellis starting at halfback. With Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu presumably the top pair, and Cowan obviously short of game time this is a missed opportunity to start the Southlander and help his return to form which is lacking currently. Ellis is the third in line and should be just training until needed.

At full-back we have the most predictable change with Mils coming back. Love him as I do, I would simply play Dagg in every game from now on to hone his combinations there. I won’t be betting against Mils being handed another outing simply to make up his 100 either. [Ed: Mils now ruled out due to hamstring strain]

On the bench we have Sonny Bill Williams, which is an illogical choice for replacement cover. It looks to me like the only reason he is there is so Ted can carry on tinkering with combinations in midfield. Expect him to replace Nonu in the final 20 minutes for an outing with Smith perhaps.

In the forwards the tinkering continues. On the bench we have the venerable Ali Williams who, bless him, is fairly obviously a shadow of his former self, and doesn’t look like improving much more during this campaign. Out in the cold, not even selected, is Anthony Boric who badly needs game time after his injury lay-off. On top form Boric offers what we need so why isn’t he either starting or on the bench?

Finally picking Tomson at No.8 is another experiment. Vito did some good things at #8 in the Tongan test, so why not keep him building there whilst Read is out and develop him into his understudy? Against Japan I’m betting McCaw spends time actually doing the #8 job whilst Thomson ranges the field anyway. The only logic behind this selection is to give Thomson a run to prove his arm is ok again. [Ed: Vito now in due to McCaw minor injury in training]

Tinker, Tailor Told-ya, Failure.

So it comes down to this: rugby aficianados throughout New Zealand believe that there is value in a Top XV playing together, or a Top 22 if you like. Ted & Co. don’t.

Why do we think that a Top XV should be picked and played through now? What is it that this would give us?

An All Blacks team which knows itself to be the Top XV undergoes a subtle but powerful shift in mindset.

When it sees itself as such, the Top XV realise that they are The Ones. The buck stop with them and nobody else. It takes a few tests to properly sink in and have its effect as well – you can’t just pick it, and tell it to go out and perform today, it doesn’t work like that.

Identify and play a Top XV in tests one after another, and you get the best that the selected players can produce. Combinations click in to a higher level as players use the almost subconscious knowledge of particular habits which might only exist as a complete thing for a few weeks at a time.

And it’s these small improvements which the All Blacks have been missing out on, and which allow teams to overcome unusually difficult tests, such as those which have ejected them from previous World Cups.

By tinkering and fiddling about, these All Blacks selectors are missing out on this. Presumably they think that it’s good enough for us to play the Top XV from the QF onwards or the last pool game. That is, in my humble opinion, cutting it too fine.

They are on record as saying that this is a long tournament. Well, guys, it isn’t too bloody long if you get knocked out in the Quarter-final, is it?

My Top XV: Woodcock, Mealamu, O. Franks, Thorn, Boric, Kaino, McCaw, Read/Vito, Weepu, Carter, Kahui, Nonu, Smith, Jane, Dagg
Reserves: Hore, B. Franks, Whitelock, Vito/Thomson, Cowan, Slade, Toeava

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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11 Sep

Cup Balls: Heeeeeere's Jonny!
by Paul Waite
11 Sep 2011

England versus Argentina down in sunny Dunnydin turned out to be a corker of a game which took Los Pumas to the verge of victory with 8 minutes to go, before the dastardly Poms stole it 13-9 with a last-gasp try.

To be frank, apart from the final slightly fluky result, bugger-all went well for the English in their opening match of Rugby World Cup 2011. By half-time they were 6-3 down on the scoreboard, hadn’t looked like scoring a try, had watched Jonny Wilkinson miss most of his kicks at goal, had one man in the sin-bin, and all the numbers were peeling off their cheap imitation All Blacks kit.

To make things worse, judging by facial expression and some lip-reading, they thought they were being refereed by an alien life-form which had taken over the body of Bryce Lawrence and had been sent here to Earth for the sole purpose of putting them out of the tournament.

I have news for them, Brycie isn’t an alien, but is definitely a ‘special’ referee and all New Zealanders are thankful that he can never, ever, officiate in a game that the All Blacks are playing.

In a typical incident the whistle would shrill, followed by a polite request for clarification from the English forward penalised. "The fookin’ ‘ell was that fookin’ for??" asked the player, rising from his rightful position on the Argentine side of the ruck and carefully dropping the player he had by the neck. "You can fook right off" he prompted in an attempt to gently guide the referee’s thought processes in the right direction.

"Off your feet, playing the ball on their side of the ruck!" spat Bryce, in an officious and suspiciously metallic tone of voice.

At this the English forward (name omitted to protect the guilty) looks dumbstruck, then turns around and walks back to his mates with an expression of incredulity plastered across his gormless visage "that referee is an alien that’s taken over a human body" he whispers to them, and they nod in somber unison. "Probably a victim of a pod last night, I’ve seen it on’t telly.. it can happen" he adds. His team-mates look embarrassed. The "pods" are obviously a ridiculous notion.

Everywhere you look you can see panic rippling under the surface of the English players’ faces. They are in a nightmare situation. The Argentine forwards are much too strong for them to rumble the ball up-field for Jonny to droppie them out of trouble, they can’t win with penalties because they are the ones conceding most of them, and the ones they do get (horror of HORRORS), Jonny misses!

Yes folks, that nightmare of English rugby is upon them – the only way to win this game is to move the ball wide. Dear God.

Martin Johnson, doing an accurate impression of a mad bison with an angry wasp up its bottom, disappears in a storm of papers and body-parts as he thrashes about like a loony in his cubicle. Never one able to conceal his emotions, the sentence "I am going to rip the arms off everyone in the squad if they don’t win" is writ large across his face. Actually it was writ large in dripping red letters on the inside of his cubicle window, but I digress.

Back on the pitch the Argentinian team was self-destructing. Players were launching themselves into rucks and tackles as if they had spare bodies in pods, waiting for them back in their hotel rooms. Unfortunately this meant that the current bodies were being carted off the paddock in large numbers and eventually this allowed the English, on about their second visit all game into the Argie 22m, to score a try.

So the Poms won, against all the alien forces (referee, the Other Team, Laws of the game) that were arrayed against them.

But well done Argentina – you played all of the rugby!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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10 Sep

A Game Of Two Halves
by Paul Waite
10 Sep 2011

The All Blacks started the Rugby World Cup 2011 against Tonga in Pool A with a hiss and a whimper, playing great rugby in the first half, and an awful pile of rubbish in the second.

If Graham Henry intended to lull the opposition at this Rugby World Cup by convincing them that his side couldn’t last 80 minutes, could only scrum like Golden Oldies with the subs on, and can’t defend their line against determined (but predictable) pick-and-goes, then he probably succeeded.

The first half was pretty much as expected, with the All Blacks defence up hard on the one-dimensional Tongan attack snuffing everything out and turning their ball over. The only discordant note in the regular try-scoring was that most of them seemed to come from Tongan errors, or broken play, rather than from All Black control.

But the scoreboard was ticking over, and when they ran out for the second half we all expected it to mount to somewhere in the region of 50-something. Wrong.

Give the Tongans credit here for coming out with renewed energy and a more solid approach to defence, closing down the All Blacks attack more quickly. As we have seen against South Afrtica and lately against Australia in Brisbane, the All Blacks are vulnerable to this kind of defence, and seemingly still have no adequate answer to it. They tend to panic and make mistakes and this is what happened against Tonga. A littany of dropped ball, wrong options, and plain stupidity saw the clock being run down with no added points.

Tonga took heart from the changing fortunes and got some good field position in the All Blacks 22m late in the game. Seeing this as their chance to score a try they kept the ball in hand and simply drove at the All Blacks who visibly seemed to tire. With replacements on the field Franks for Woodcock (LH prop), and Whitelock for Thorn (lock) the All Black scrum suddenly went from having a marked advantage, to being under pressure. Repeated penalties to Tonga for collapsing 5m out from the All Blacks line were an effective ‘down-trou’ for the home team in front of their own fans, something they won’t relish watching on the replays.

After much pressure and an un-countable number of pick and goes, finally the irrepressible Taumalolo fired himself through grasping hands to score a deserved try. The positives that Henry, Hansen and Smith can take from this game are, in order of importance:

  • Kahui’s Man of the Match performance cementing him as a starting winger.
  • The SB Williams/Nonu combination showing promise as an option to the proven World-beating pairing of Nonu/Smith in midfield if injury requires it.
  • Kaino’s hard-hitting, bulldozing plays showing what superb form he is in.
  • Colin Slade improving with every game.
  • The maul is back as an attacking option!
  • No inuries.
  • Bonus point start to Rugby World Cup 2011

I expect that a lot of folks will be talking about how the Sonny Bill/Nonu partnership is now our best midfield option. Get a grip people, a few good touches against Tonga doesn’t trump seasons of proven World-beating partnership against the top sides in crucial tests. Great to see SBW looking sharp and to have him ready though.

The next team that Henry announces will be very interesting. Will he do more experimentation, or will it be (as I hope) his view of the Top XV + bench?

If you don’t pick you top starting XV in a World Cup and play it together in consequetive games, how can it possibly build enough rhythm to win a World Cup?

Make the right decision, Ted!

New Zealand 41
Israel Dagg (2), Richard Kahui (2), Jerome Kaino, Ma’a Nonu tries
Dan Carter (3 con, pen), Colin Slade (con)

Tonga 10
Alisona Taumalolo try
Kurt Morath (Con, Pen)

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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