18 Apr

RWC Squad – Who Will They Choose?
by Rob Wallace
18 Apr 2011

ABs_coachesI don’t think Henry will move far from his core players, and if there are newbies he’ll need to see them in action in the Tri Nations before naming them in a World Cup squad. I also don’t think he’ll move far from last years End Of Year Tour squad unless there are compelling form changes.

Hookers: Mealamu and Hore
Elliot was chosen for the EOY tour but he hasn’t shown anywhere near that form in 2011, and if you factor in his (rumoured?) personality I wouldn’t be surprised if they go back to Flynn.

Props: Woody, B Franks, O Franks, Afoa
With specialist injury backup from Whopper at loose-head. It’s hard to know who the backup tight-head would be. Tialata isn’t in the starting XV for the Canes currently and would need a personal trainer and a rocket to get him properly aerobically fit while in camp, and none of the others particularly appeal.

Locks: Thorn, Whitelock …
Probably Boric next, with Donnelly and maybe Ali Williams scrapping for the last place. The Blues play the OH twice in the latter half of the season which should help sort things out.

Loosies: McCaw, Kaino, Read, Todd, Messam
I think the selection of Braid last year signals they will take a backup specialist openside. This is where compelling form may lead to some changes and unless Braid plays out of his skin in the next few weeks I can see Matt Todd being included in the TN squad so they can have a closer look at him. What Braid gives that is important is leadership and experience which may be important for the wider squad seeing as the player selected here ain’t going to play much during the tournament. The last loosie place is still open – I’ll stick with Messam (EOYT) for now

Halfbacks: Weepu, Cowan, Ellis/Mathewson
Weepu is the key at HB – if he’s half fit they’ll take him. Cowan also and then a toss up between Ellis and Matthewson.

First Five-eighth: Carter
Carter only at first 5 with backup from McAllister and Weepu.

Centres: Nonu, SB Williams, Smith and McAllister
Nonu and SBW to fight for the starting position, McAllister sneaks in for his kicking game and ability to provide bench cover. I don’t know his exact placekicking stats but he seems to be kicking as well as anyone in the country and that’s whats going to matter in the big games.

Back Three: Mils, Toeava, Gear, Sivi, Jane and Dagg
Mad Peter de Villiers has suggested SA will be playing a forward based kick and territory game at RWC so ability under the high ball, and a kick-return game are going to be must-have skills for the back 3. So I’m leaving Fruen and Maitland out. Rokocoko needs to show stunning running form to make it so he’s out too.

Which interestingly is only 5 changes from the EOYT squad:

Current All Blacks
Andrew Hore Anthony Boric
Ben Franks Brad Thorn
Daniel Braid* Hikawera Elliot*
Jerome Kaino John Afoa
Keven Mealamu Kieran Read
Liam Messam Owen Franks
Richie McCaw Samuel Whitelock
Tom Donnelly Tony Woodcock
Albert Mathewson Andrew Ellis*
Conrad Smith Cory Jane
Dan Carter Hosea Gear
Isaia Toeava Jimmy Cowan
Joe Rokocoko* Ma’a Nonu
Mils Muliaina Sitiveni Sivivatu
Sonny Bill Williams Stephen Donald*

Where ‘*’ denotes a player change.

27 Mar

ELVs Are Not Yet Magical
by Rob Wallace
27 Mar 2008

The ELVs were promoted as a giant step forward towards a better game, but the jury is out as to whether they achieve this. Some of the ELVs are great; the game is certainly faster (although not necessarily better) but the tackle/maul, which was one of, if not the, main focus of the new laws remains a blight on the game.

Let’s begin with the good ELVs. An unexpected favourite is the offside line at the tackle. Over the last few years unbound players have been allowed to walk through a tackle/maul, well in advance of the last man’s foot, usually to try to interfere with the opposition as they clear the ball, and were not considered offside. Meanwhile all the other players on the field must remain at the last man’s feet. This inconsistency has now been cleared up and the game is better for it. This ELV means that teams can still drive over the ball, but

individual players cannot interfere. This fits well with the spirit and intention of rugby as a team game with offside lines.

Moving the backlines 5m back from a scrum also works well. Defences have improved greatly over the past decade and have begun to dominate the game and the provision of extra space to the attacking team redresses this imbalance and makes for a better spectacle. There have been some great tries scored from set play this season as a result of this ELV.

Stopping players passing the ball back to within the 22 before kicking out works well also. It rewards teams with long, accurate kicking games and keeps the ball in play.

But the ELVs related to the contact area are a complete flop. The contact area (tackle ± ruck/maul) has been an eyesore and problem area for years. Successive law "interpretations" have done little to help, as referees are unwilling or unable to sort this area out. The biggest problem has been the fact there are often multiple infringements all happening simultaneously at any collision, and these are compounded by the arbitrary nature of many refereeing decisions and the lack of consistency between referees. Because multiple infringements can happen simultaneously at the contact area, the provision of free kicks for offences is good as it stops an often random and unfair penalty being converted to points. But that ELV misses the point as multiple infringements continue to happen, and the real task here should be to reduce the infringements. Allowing hands in the ruck hasn’t worked as players simply flop over and seal off and protect the ball, with a net result of an ugly pile up on the ground and slow ball for either team.

The referees are also not strictly enforcing the tackler rolling away, especially getting off the tackled player, which again slows the ball down. Ideally the tackled player should be given enough time to place the ball, once he is free from the tackler. Sadly this is often interpreted as a split second. The laws should make it easy for a tackled player who has support to retain the ball, and for the opposition to take the ball off an isolated player – currently they don’t.

Another bugbear is the ‘gate’. This concept is not mentioned in the current full laws and is entirely a refereeing interpretation, although it is described in the ELVs. It is now unnecessary with the offside line at the tackle. As long as players enter the contact area from an onside position, there should be no necessity to come through an imaginary and arbitrary ‘gate’ which is open to referee interpretation.

The ELVs at the contact area need further work or the referees need sharpen up. The ELVs as they stand do not offer referees easy decisions at the contact point. Flopping players need to be discouraged, the ball carrier needs adequate but not excessive time to set up the ball and more than anything there needs to be consistency in the rulings in this area.

14 Mar

The Holy Grail – A Global Season
by Rob Wallace
14 Mar 2008

­­There seems to be some suggestion rugby is in trouble. Crowd numb­ers are down, as are TV viewing figures. The media suggest people are sick of rugby after the farce of RWC 07.

SARFU have already signed away their TV rights from 2010 onward, which suggests that SANZAR may be in trouble, given that South African media companies have generally paid proportionately more into SANZAR than Australia or NZ. Add in whispers of SA joining Northern Hemisphere (NH) competitions since they are in the same time zone, and John O’Neill’s recent proposal to expand the Super 14 into Asia and the Pacific and it would seem there could be a big changes in rugby as we know it over the next 3 years.

If there are to be changes, then they must occur within the concept of a global rugby season or NZ and Australia risk being marginalised, purely due to financial constraints. The end game for one such scenario is all top our players in Europe, much as soccer does now. A global season is the single most important and powerful way of protecting our interests. Given that the NH dominate the IRB, and given the financial clout of the NH clubs it is unlikely they will compromise very far from their current setup.

The easiest way to accomplish a global season would be to move the Tri-Nations to coincide with the Six-Nations competition, early in the year. This international window could be preceded by Southern Hemisphere (SH) teams touring the NH in January rather than the current November, and the NH teams touring down below in April, rather than the current June. This would give a 4 month international window from January to March. These windows could be extended or moved by 2 weeks at either end, but would still give an eight week window with no scheduled rugby somewhere in May/June/July.

There are some compromises with this setup. The test window will impinge on the NH club competition in a larger block than the current staggered system does, where the tours to the SH occur after the club season finishes. But it should still be possible to have 5 months of uninterrupted NH club rugby from August to December, and if necessary part of May could be freed up for Club finals after the Internationals have finished.

The downside for NZ is that the provincial championship would become an amateur second-tier competition, but as more provincial unions begin struggle financially this may not be a bad thing. The re-jigged calendar gives a 5 month window from July to November for a ‘Super’ competition. Given this may now the be only professional rugby competition in NZ it should be expanded to include ~8 NZ teams with amalgamation of the current provinces much as S14 does now. It would also be opportune to include Pacific Island, Argentinian, and Japanese teams in this new competition, as well as considering basing teams off-shore.

The NZ club season could run much as it has done over the past. The provincial competition (including all provinces but no fully professional players) could either run underneath the ‘Super’ competition as curtain-raisers or, since it is not using professional or contracted players, it could run during the protected 8 week rest period in May/June/July.

21 Jun

by Rob Wallace
21 Jun 2004

Frankly, I’m pretty disappointed with the England team on this tour. They didn’t play much good rugby, and I thought their off the ball play was even more cynical than their usual breakdown ball-killing. Add in the confused, completely out-of-touch rhetoric from Woodward and Dallaglio, and you have an ordinary team in disarray.

I think Wynne Gray got it right with his Herald column today “England ignored the self-assurance they used to become world champions; they were shown up in both tests as a group who resorted to bully-boy tactics when their skills deserted them. It has happened to all top rugby sides on the slide. When age hurts or skills deteriorate, the indiscipline escalates.”

That pretty much sums it up for me – ugly play by a bunch of arrogant heavies who lack the talent to actually outplay the opposition.

As for Shaw, it was a calculated deliberate attempt to harm an opposition player. There was nothing accidental about it, and it was certainly cardable. You can argue about the colour, but if Dickinson from 30m away thought he was aiming for the head then red was appropriate. Shaw was as stupid as Cohen in the previous game. There was a helluva lot of off-the-ball incidents in this test, most instigated by England. As for Robinson, it was lucky no-one saw his earlier little right hook that may or may not have connected. He should just ease it back a notch because the Aussies will wind him up nicely otherwise.

Back to the NZ players. Meeuws seemed to have a much tougher time with White this week, with White and Regan also able to upset Mealamu. Meeuws probably needs a few games like this to sort out the technical aspects of LH – I’m sure he’s strong enough, it’s just fine details he needs to work on. The English scrum was very sneaky and probably out-thought us given they were missing a lock. Jack had a very good game, and while Holah played well I think it was clear he’s not quite in the same league as McCaw. Rush has been a revelation – I wondered how he would foot it back at international level but he works hard, appears in all the right places and makes few mistakes. He’s just what we need at the moment.

Marshall didn’t have one of his better games and I wonder if he injured his left hand as he threw a couple of shocking passes to his right, both that were yards forward. He was also back to his ‘meerkat’ state of popping up his head and looking around, before throwing tiny short passes up everywhere, rather than the long wide pass.

I’m not sure about this backline alignment, being so flat, but I’ve now twice heard Smith saying this is what he wants. Carlos just gets so lateral with it….

The backs didn’t get a lot of good quality ball, but used what they had well. I thought Evans found out how big the step up really is – he needs to get his basics sorted out first and be a little less expansive until the game opens up.

Overall, while I’m delighted with a 2-0 series win over England, there is still a lot of room for improvement on that last performance.

10 Mar

It's on the Rocks
by Rob Wallace
10 Mar 2004

Without mincing words, the Blues feeble play against the Chiefs was the worst performance I have seen by any home team at Eden Park for several years.

The forwards seem to have returned from the RWC thinking they are stars, and completely neglected all the basics of forward play. Plus the error rate in the first half was inexcusable. The cardinal sin in my eyes was the failure to take *any* kickoff as far as I could tell. It was just bollocks. The forwards have been quick to demonstrate the worst of the problems we saw at RWC03, and I find it almost unbelieveable that after seeing how getting your pack set and kicking goals wins matches, the Blues are too arrogant to consider it. The Blues seems to think that a sloppy forward performance is ok, all they have to do is get a little ball and give it to the magical atttacking backline, and they’ll be ok. Sorry, mate, you won’t be. Add to that a league backline setup that even the Cowboys wouldn’t be happy with and it’s a miracle the Blues got any points.

Last year the Blues did not have the best forward pack but with several forwards having stellar seasons, and some good teamwork it was enough for a very talented backline. This year, they are a pack of donkeys. The worst is Ali Williams who seems to be having a concerted crack at the ‘I don’t ever want to see a Black Jersey again’ Award by being completely useless in nearly all phases of play. He looked fabulous at times last season – now he can’t catch, can’t run, does no work around the field, and is bugger all use at scrum time. Winning an occasional lineout is not enough, chump.

Braid works hard, but looks very ordinary this year, especially when compared to McCaw’s efforts, and was comprehensively outplayed by Holah. Without Meeuws the front row is ripe for the picking, especially with an injured Feek, although Mealamu still looks an ideal player for the ABs to bring on after 50-60 min.

It got a bit better with Justin Collins back on the field but unless something changes this is not a good enough pack to get through this years S12 draw. In some respects, the injury to Spencer may help things as the forwards are now going to have to knuckle down and do some work, and not rely on Spencer and Caucaunibuca to magically win the game.

Howlett’s form has been awful. None of the rest of the backs seem to know what they are doing apart from Caucau (run forward fast).

It was a really important result for the Chiefs. I think they are a limited team who have shown exactly what NZ teams need to do to win games at any level – get the basics right. The Chiefs forwards dicked the Blues in all phases of play and that was the end of the game. I cannot believe that after the RWC debacle we have the Blues playing rugby that is even less structured, less committed up front, and more flighty that the candyfloss crap we saw in Australia. I’m quite happy to kick for the corner with penalties, but the Blues have become way too obsessed with scoring tries at the expense of what is sensible. Good on the Chiefs for some decent rugby.

17 Nov

Whatever happened
by Rob Wallace
17 Nov 2003

I’m sorry but you won’t convince me this is a great Australian team, however they certainly strangled the All Blacks at the weekend. While Australia never looked like creating anything, this was finals footy, and all about accuracy, pressure and defence, and wow, did the Aussies deliver.

The Australians were better prepared and better coached, and used a sounder gameplan than Mitchell’s All Blacks. Someone needs to tell the All Blacks to walk before they run, and they needed to try to dominate possession and set pieces before going wide. In the past, World Cup playoff games have frequently been tight, and kicks matter. History will show the All Blacks were overconfident about their running game, and lacked a quality kicker. They made too many mistakes, and were never able to pressure Australia. Without a forward platform they could not develop any continuity, and they never had enough possession to counter attack.

Equally worrying was the lack of leadership on the field, and the inability to change tactics. This game was lost due to poor thinking and planning by the coaching staff, and poor execution on the field by the players. During their preparation they had not been exposed to pressure like this before, and when faced with it they folded.

The player selection Mitchell has used is also interesting. Most coaches would keep players like Oliver, Mehrtens, Randell, Maxwell and Cullen in the wider squad, if only for the leadership and experience factors they could offer. Not Mitchell. He seems to have placed more value on having a good team ethic, and players who could follow his lead. He has stuck with same group of players throughout the season, based entirely on S12 form. The only player dropped, Oliver, seemed to be on the basis of personality, rather than performance. Mitchell kept 2 players in the squad, Sooialo and Nonu, despite seeming to lack confidence in their ability to perform at the highest level, presumably to retain team spirit. I can’t help but think it would have been nice to have Mehrtens sitting on the bench to provide an alternative and keep teams guessing how we would play.

I don’t like blaming the coach for losses, but this loss looks like a system failure rather than individual player’s fault – the whole team was so awful. I have problems with the players selected (or not selected), the preparation for this campaign, the chosen game plan, and the execution of it. There was no leadership, no reorganisation under pressure and no visible change at halftime. Apart from the execution, all of the remaining problems are attributable to Mitchell and his management team. Add in the fact they have alienated almost everyone and I find it hard to see how Mitchell can continue as coach without some significant changes.

Mitchell stated it was his team, and he’d do it his way. If you take that attitude you get both the plaudits and also the blame if you fail.

14 Jul

by Rob Wallace
14 Jul 2003

Watch those Aussies whinge!

First of all we have Whining Eddie moaning about the All Blacks cheating. Oddly enough I actually agree with Whining Eddie in parts. He’s completely wrong of course to suggest that the All Blacks are cheating – they’ve just become very effective this year in the clean out, and it’s a strength he would like to negate. However I really don’t like the ‘blowing over’ law. It doesn’t make sense to me that you can ‘tackle’ any player without the ball simply because he is within a 1m circle of the breakdown.

While driving bound players is quite different, I can’t see how ‘blowing over’ fits in with the rest of the game. NZ took a while to get used to the concept and I remember other teams, especially Australia doing this much more effectively than us, and it’s taken us a while to catch up and get it right. Now that we have, and have a relatively dominant forward pack (and Australia don’t) Fast Eddie is having a moan about it to try and deflect the attention from his ineffectual forwards.

And they were ineffectual.

This was the most dominant display I’ve seen from an All Black pack for some time. It seems petty to criticise them, but they shouldn’t have given so much ball to the backs – they should have just kept driving for the line.

And if moaning Eddie isn’t enough I see the Australian papers are now saying how unfair it is that the Bledisloe is decided by the holders winning 1 test out of 2, and are calling for 1 or 3 test series. I can remember how disinterested they were in this concept when they held the Cup. It’s funny how things change when the boot is on the other foot!

I’m still troubled by this flat backline of ours. It often looks messy, and I think the reason it does is because of where the first phase often ends.

With a traditional deep backline, a ‘no progress’ move usually ends in midfield, with the centre or extra man tackled on or just ahead of the advantage line. This sets a midfield target for the forwards and 2nd phase starts here. If the move works properly, then the wing is in space wide, but there is often time for the cover defence to reach him due to the longer time it takes to run from deep.

With a flat backline a ‘no progress’ move often breaks down much closer in, at the 1st or 2nd5, and often behind the gain line. This looks messy and wrong to me, but in fact sets up the second phase closer to the forwards, which may reduce turnovers. If the ball does get wide, the wing gets the ball faster, and the cover is much less likely reach him (think of the angles and remember speed of pass beats speed of player), and hence the wing is more likely to score.

So I think the tradeoff is swapping classical backplay with few clean breaks, for fiddly backplay that often breaksdown in close but when they do clear the ball wide is much more effective, and likely to create tries.

I’m not wholly convinced but I do think Wayne Smith knows what he is doing and if he says it’s the way to go I’m willing to wait and see.

I guess the final question is who are the best players in close for this style. Carter is a beautifully balanced runner who seems to need a bit more space than he is getting. I don’t think Tuitupou would be an improvement as he doesn’t yet have the distribution skills but a fit Aaron Mauger would be interesting with this flat formation. And maybe Carter would find a bit more space and time one position in.

I suspect Spencer is actually doing a pretty good job with this novel formation, but it’s clearly not his preferred option either.

1 Jun

Season Review 2003
by Rob Wallace
1 Jun 2003

The S12 final was a great game between the 2 best teams in the competition and the Blues managed to take their chances and win 21-17.

There wasn’t much between the teams in this game and both teams played well – hardly anyone had a poor game and there was top defensive work from both sides. As Thorne and Deans commented afterward, the Crusaders had their opportunities and didn’t take them.

The crowd would have helped the Blues a lot – the last 3 weeks of the competition saw very atypical crowds for Auckland – normally quiet, polite and filled up with noisy opposition supporters – but the recent crowds have been staunchly pro-Auckland, very vocal, and there was an atmosphere at the final that I haven’t seen since the early days we had the Shield in the late 80′s. A real buzz of excitement, and sort of hum around the ground.

The Crusaders pack owned the first half, and their tacking was awesome as they smashed the Blues backwards with 2 on the tackle and stopped any momentum dead. The Blues only survived due to Spencer’s kicking game – he reels off yards more distance than most other players and that and sound defence left things pretty even.

But the first 20-25 min of the second half was quite different and the Blues pack began to get ascendancy at the ruck and maul and managed a bit of go-forward ball. But the backline never really cut loose – the Crusaders’ defence was too good, especially in midfield where the Blues got very little penetration.

The Crusaders came back strongly in the last 10 minutes but it was too late and some tenacious defence from the Blues meant they held on to take the title.

It’s been a very interesting season for the Blues. They played the most exciting rugby of the competition and scored the most tries and most points, and showed that you can both entertain and win. But they also had the best defensive record and it has been the defence that has won them both the NPC and S12 titles. They also brought through a large group of talented young players and I hope they continue to introduce new talent.

Player of the year was obviously Carlos Spencer who is in the best form of his life, and controlled all facets of the game and showed some sublime touches. But he had a great group of players around him also, and a backline that suited his style and wanted to work with him

My forward of the year was Gus Collins who worked tirelessly near the ball and provided the glue for the forward pack. The other player who had made a huge difference is Meeuws, who since his return has provided the forward solidity that has been missing from Blues teams for a few years. Other players who had outstanding seasons were Williams, Mealamu, Muliaina, and of course Howlett. Braid, Manu and Woodcock found the going a bit tougher at S12 level than NPC but all played well, while Angus MacDonald looked quite at home there and will have a big future at blindside.

It was a mixed picture for the other NZ teams. The Crusaders pack slowly wound into top gear and look the best in the country, but injuries and lack of real wheels meant the backs never really capitalised on that.

Colin Cooper managed to turn a novice/journeyman tight 5 into a pretty decent unit, but they were not good enough to hold on to the top teams up front and lost out despite their stellar loosies and midfield.

The Highlanders looked to be well positioned and were playing a Mains-style conservative game that was well suited to their strengths, but internal ructions led to changes in personnel and style as they messily imploded over the last few games.

The Chiefs never had the players to compete at the very top, and Greene was unable to perform the sort of miracles that Cooper did with the ‘Canes, and the Chiefs suffered for this. They were competitive, scored some nice tries and were seldom hammered but never quite had the skill or toughness to close out games.

18 May

Moving and shaking
by Rob Wallace
18 May 2003

I really enjoyed this game, and predominantly from a forward perspective. I really rate this Brumbies pack – it’s basically close to an Australian test T5, and Smith and Finnegan ain’t bad either. I had some concerns about how the Blues would handle it but smart thinking/preparation, great continuity and pretty good set pieces saw them through. IMO the Brumbies have the best pack after the CCs and the Bulls, and the Blues were more than competitive. I was delighted with the forward effort, and they set the platform for the win.

Whether they can step it up a notch further to cope with the Crusaders is another question, but I think even the CCs would have difficulty coping with some of the rapid driving and offloading we saw in parts on Saturday.

Mealamu was great – he outplayed Paul by miles and must be very close to that AB jersey – and the Manu/Meeuws combination looks very solid. MacDonald had a great game – he reminds me a bit of Thorne when he started his S12 career as a lock – high work rate rather than the traditional skills. Williams was a good as usual.

Gus Collins was my MOTM and would still be my bolter for the ABs – *no* No6 has outplayed him this season [think about it] and he works tirelessly for the team. He took beautiful lineout ball and no-one went past him. I will be interested to see the Thorne/Collins battle next week. And Rush looks back to his NPC form finally, after a few ordinary weeks.

Backs: One of the key points is the way Tuitupou keeps the attack straight or runs straight inside Spencer. Because he doesn’t drift, the defence has to hold up and this makes space out wide. Presuming Spencer starts in the initial tests he will need a second5 to do this – I suspect both Umaga and Mauger can.

Overall this was a good win, a definite step up from last week. But they need a notch more, and after losses in the last 2 times they faced each other [S12 and NPC] Canterbury will know just what is coming.

4 May

Shake the dope out
by Rob Wallace
4 May 2003

The Blues have looked anything but final contenders as they have struggled over the last 2 weeks to beat two of the worst teams in the competition. The win over the Sharks the previous weekend was probably the worst game they’ve played this season – with the first half being as poor as some of the rubbish they dished out during the Jed Rowland’s era. Sure, Peter Marshall gave the Sharks far too much slack at ruck and maul time, and didn’t police the offside line at all, but a good team should adapt to that. Add in the high error rate and it was a shocking first half, which thankfully did improve as the game progressed and the forwards began to get into their work. But really, they tried to do too much, too quickly, forgetting that every thing works better from good field position and a solid forward platform.

This weekend’s game against the Cats continued on from there. We began to see a bit more of the forward cohesion and drive that marked the Blues stellar start to the season but the error rate was still too high. Rush had the poorest game he’s had for a couple of seasons and Mika looked asleep for most of the time. Happily Spencer had his kicking game sorted out, and carved off huge chunks of territory to put the Blues down the right end of the field, which is a much better place to be when you begin to throw wild passes.

The forwards played well for much of the game but without the intensity, aggression and accuracy we saw earlier in the season. While very good, they are not the best pack around, and to beat the Crusaders or Brumbies they are going to have to improve a great deal on this performance.

The backline functioned a bit more smoothly, but still made too many errors. It’ll be a hard week at training this week, and hopefully things will improve for the game against the Hurricanes.

In other games, the Highlanders played the wrong style of football and lost. After grinding out a series of wins by shutting down and throttling the opposition, they decided to play wild and loose, but picked the wrong opponent. The NSW Warratahs don’t usually cope against a structured, organised team that dominates set phases, but are quite happy with broken, loose unstructured games, and showed that as they capitalised on the Highlanders bizarre plays to run in 4 tries for a deserved victory. What on earth were the Highlanders thinking? They have a solid pack but an ordinary backline, and playing this strange brand of rugby negates all their strengths and played right into the Warratahs hands.

Meanwhile the Crusaders ease toward finals football with a good performance against the Stormers. We’re still waiting to see them get it all together but finally, with Mehrtens back at the helm, they seem to be almost there. Nevertheless they still haven’t put all the components of their game together – the lineouts were woeful this time, but with Carter at 2nd5 (not 1st) the backline finally started to move.

Their back play made a neat contrast to the Blues, who quickly move the ball wide from set play, through a standard backline, and look to get their threequarters into space early. The Crusaders, however, seemed to be continually passing the ball one off to a forward to keep taking the ball up, and scored through opportunism, error, or by finally breaking down the defence. It’s not pretty but it does work. Their game next week against the Brumbies will be hugely interesting as we get to see the (presumed) majority of the Australian pack against the most structured NZ pack in what may be a foretaste of the Bledisloe games.

The Brumbies were very impressive in taming the Hurricanes pack and denying their backs any decent ball to grab a very important win. They appear to be finally delivering the quality they are capable of and will be tough to beat. The ‘Canes Achille’s heel was shown, as their tight 5 were dominated and their game collapsed. I’m sure they will learn from the experience, as they head into the semifinals.