13 Apr

Miss you
by Rob Wallace
13 Apr 2003

I’ll start with the Crusaders. Finally! is what springs to mind. Well, for half a game at least. New Zealand needs these forwards to perform and at long last we saw hints of the quality they can deliver. Great first half, 2nd was a bit close to deja vu really. Having seen the Blues pack struggle in set pieces against the Bulls it’s clear we need a top-notch forward pack and without the Crusaders performing we won’t find the best mix. These guys really need to step it up from here for the rest of the season, for the good of Kiwi rugby.

It was good the see Jack playing at TH lock and he looked solid in that more conservative role, while Maxwell looked wonderful for 30-50 min. Thorn wasn’t missed at all, and the Crusaders looked much better for reverting to the more traditional roles. Broomhall looked scratchy, and when Robertson replaced Thorne not much changed. In fact Thorne had one of his most nondescript games ever, and he really needs to pull finger.

Highlight for me was Hurst. Sure he received good ball, but he really got that backline going for the first time this year with his swift delivery and I thought he was a big improvement on Marshall. Hell, even Ralph looked good.

Worst part of the game: Skinstad’s hair.

The Hurricanes looked pretty solid in their 42-26 win over the Warratahs. Another good effort again by the pack, and Tana seems to love it at 2nd5. I keep waiting for the bubble to burst but they keep producing the goods. The OH clash will be a cracker.

The Chiefs were awful, losing 25-31 to the Sharks. At least Holah is running into some form. As for the others- forget it. How can Waikato be so good and the Chiefs so poor?

As for the Blues. This is a backline. It’s good they have some forwards to deliver the ball, but I wouldn’t rely upon them. They play a fast, light style of football that suits them, and while the Blues will thrash useless teams they will struggle against good ones until they get a better forward platform. Manu seemed to struggle, and the front row went backwards, and it was only the continuity and skill that kept them out of trouble. Mika looks injured to me and is a shadow of last years NPC form, while Williams is struggling as teams double-team him – he needs more support to take the pressure off [where are you, Bryce?]. Collins had a fantastic game, but the highlight was Muliaina – currently the best centre in the S12 while Umaga plays 2nd5. Overall, 5 points for the Blues, but more work needed.

On other matters: I’ve been to two of the Warriors home games, for a win and a loss. There’s no doubt in my mind that the smaller stadium facilitates a better crowd atmosphere. At Erickson you’re close to the sideline and always near someone who is cheering. It’s a better atmosphere than Eden Park [except when full] and you can move all around the stadium, which is great for the kids who go and play silly beggars on the steep hill behind the ingoal and then attack the fast food vendors. I’ll think about going to some more games, especially if they’re on a fine Sunday afternoon – stuff this night rugby.

At the movies with the kids last weekend we ran into Jonah Lomu. The kids said hello, and Jonah gave them a smile and a reply. Jonah himself is awesome in the flesh – lean, mean and really cut. It’s with a lot of sadness that I read in the paper that he’s had an operation on a vein to help his kidneys. I guess this is the creation of an AV fistula, connecting a high-pressure artery in the forearm up to a vein, giving a huge flow vein, which is a prerequisite for hemodialysis. It’s basically only done when the kidneys have failed to such a state that dialysis is inevitable. Sometimes, after a spell of dialysis, things improve, but deep down I’m worried we won’t see Jonah on a rugby field again. It’s also been salutary to see the article from John Mayhew, intimating that Jonah’s poor performances are illness related. If this is the case, I’m going to miss the big guy.

7 Apr

Southern Man
by Rob Wallace
7 Apr 2003

The Highlanders burst the Blues bubble with a 22-11 win in Dunedin to retain the Gordon Hunter memorial trophy. They thoroughly deserved their win, defended well, held their composure and minimised mistakes while the Blues never really got their impetus going.

There wasn’t that much between the two teams. The biggest difference came at the tackle where OH were more effective, and also at driving through the ruck/maul and spoiling the Blues ball. It was a team thing and the Blues didn’t adapt. This pressured Devine and Rush, neither of whom had good games, and delivered poor ball to Spencer, at about the same time as he received Blackie and Harding. Spencer has often looked uncomfortable in similar situations and this was another one, and he didn’t kick well either.

The other differences were that the Blues made too many errors and had no luck go their way. The Blues have had a few fortunate decisions this year, and the better of the 50:50 calls in most of their games, but not this time – most of the 50:50 calls went to OH. Swings and roundabouts.

The Blues tactics looked wrong and there was no clear effort to change them as the game progressed. The Highlanders played very flat defence but the Blues never stood deep and ran at them, nor spread the ball wide quickly. It was a rather one-dimensional attacking strategy.

Whereas the Highlanders had their tactics perfectly sorted out. Two tearway flankers flew at Spencer, Randell ran the show, while the front five set a solid platform. Oliver continues to work back toward his best form, and had a mighty game, while Maling completed his demolition of Jack last week by outplaying Williams, helped by Hayman’s superb lifting. Despite this, the Blues pack were not dominated, but were pressured into too many errors. The loss will get them to rethink and look at a few things, which will be good. Historically, the top team at the end of the round robin has won the S12 only 3/7 – it’s being sharp for those last 3-4 run in games and the semis that count. At least they’re still well placed to make the semis.

In other games the Hurricanes continued their splendid form with a 26-23 win over the Reds at Ballymore, with Umaga playing outstandingly well, both in offence and defence. The great achievement here is the way Colin Cooper has turned an average lot of tight forwards into a well performing pack.

Which is not the Crusaders at the moment. Their backs have been poor this year and now the forwards are have caught the same disease, with a slack performance in losing 31-34 to the Warratahs. The Crusaders pack showed no impetus or drive and were outplayed by a NSW team the scored 96 points against last year. Unless they pick it up, some of these guys will struggle to make the All Blacks. Even Chris Jack, one of the outstanding players of 2002 is looking more like a donkey currently. I’m sure the sleeping giant will wake.

As for the Chiefs – their season is virtually over after losing 55-31 to the Brumbies – their aim should be to keep make sure the Reds finish last. The Chiefs have looked ordinary this season – some of their selections haven’t worked, they miss the players who have moved overseas and they seem to have none of that fighting spirit that makes Waikato teams so powerful.

30 Mar

It's Raining Men
by Rob Wallace
30 Mar 2003

Horrible wet weather in Auckland was not enough to prevent the Blues from thumping the Brumbies 41-15, their biggest score against the Canberra team.

The rain hosed down all day, and gave the new drainage system at Eden Park a decent workout. Having been a bit wary of the new ‘hard’ ground, after the match the Blues were full of praise for the new surface, which was a vast improvement on the previous puggy surface when wet. And it helps to win.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca may have scored 2 wonderful tries, but it was the forwards who deserved the praise for the win. They unsettled the Brumbies and didn’t allow them to play their usual game, drove them back in defence, and did enough in set pieces to keep possession.

Bill Young, who along with Feek is one of the most destructive scrummagers in the game, gave the Blues front row some problems, and George Smith competed well in the loose, but otherwise the Brumbies were second rate. Williams and Mika cleaned up the lineouts, and in loose play the Brumbies had no answer to the succession of Blues players who contested the ball. The Blues also looked to create play, despite the conditions, whereas the Brumbies looked clueless.

Devine and Spencer were merely tidy, while despite the rain Howlett and Caucau looked continually dangerous. Tuitupou had an ordinary game, with several mistakes, and I’m sure that it will do him good and improve his concentration. Sometimes it can be all too easy, and better to see the errors here than later in the season.

In other games the Crusaders beat the Highlanders 17-16 in a tight game. The Crusaders forwards look to be working toward some form but they really miss the control and organization that Mehrtens brings. Currently the Crusaders backline looks directionless and without impetus, and other teams have now caught up with them defensively. And they no longer have the forward advantage that enabled them to capitalise on mistakes.

The Hurricanes eased to 2nd on the table with a 24-14 win over the Chiefs, and Cooper finally seems about to deliver the impossible – a ‘Canes tight five that can actually hold their own. Meanwhile the Reds overcame their appalling season start to beat the hopeless Warratahs in Sydney and extend their winning streak against NSW, while the Sharks also finally managed a win against the Cats.

Finally, back to an old favourite – the yellow card. The sending off of Fava in the Blues game, from what I could see, was unjustified. There was nothing in it. Yet the Blues scored 14 points while he was off the field and that, in reality, was the end of the game. It would have been much better for him to be cited, and dealt with later with evidence from both the referee and the TV shots, than to have this effect on the game for what seemed a minor offence.

24 Mar

Back into the groove
by Rob Wallace
24 Mar 2003

Teams can be a bit rusty after a bye and lose their momentum, but that didn’t trouble the Blues as they smashed the Reds 62-20 in Whangarei, which was ironic considering the Reds pregame shots about not rating the Blues, and implying the Blues were taking it too easy by rotating players.

It was by no means a perfect performance – there were too many errors – but it showed exactly what this Blues team is doing well. And it starts with the forwards – Spencer has always looked good with quality, front-foot ball and the current Blues pack is delivering it to him. And the whole team seems to be enjoying themselves as they play – a marked comparison to the dour faces from Christchurch. And when Carlos is enjoying himself, anything can happen.

Frontrowers Manu and Whitcombe started this match, and with Woodcock provided a very solid platform. Manu, in particular, had a very good game and I wonder how he now feels about his enforced switch to the Blues. Perhaps Auckland is looking attractive?

Ali Williams had a great game, and the pace and power of the Blues pack reduced the Reds to also rans. Support play was excellent and loose forward combination had another strong game.

The backs had a mixed day. Spencer was brilliant, both creating and scoring tries but the rest looked like they were trying too hard to score at times, and would have been better to play more controlled rugby and wait for the gaps to appear.

Gear had a tidy game at centre and set up a couple of tries with some nice short passes, Howlett enjoyed being back on the wing and looked more dangerous there as he ran in 2 tries while Caucaunibuca had his quietest game of the season as play didn’t flow his way.

Overall, it was good to see the team back into the groove as they begin to work toward the business end of the season. They may be top of the table but there’s a long way to go yet, and more often than not, the team that tops the table doesn’t go on to win the final.

10 Mar

Take Control
by Rob Wallace
10 Mar 2003

With Carlos Spencer running the game like he had it on a string, and the backline looking sharper than a scalpel, the Blues cleaned up a creaky Crusaders team with a brilliant 39-5 win at Albany. Five points is the least any Crusaders team have ever scored in a S12 game, and that was due to a magnificent defensive effort by the Blues team, who continually pressured the Crusaders into mistakes and gave them no opportunity to use any possession they had.

You could tell something special was happening from the first blitz by Spencer, when he cracked the defensive line, off loaded to Howlett who fed Caucuanibuca, who promptly ripped down the touchline past the surprised Cantabrians to score in the corner. It looked so easy but it was done with tremendous pace and timing.

There’s a saying that good teams make their own luck, and the ball bounced nicely for the Blues all night, while the hapless Crusaders knocked on, missed tackles and made sundry other minor errors. About the only place the Crusaders had clear ascendency was the scrums.

Even what is presumed to be the top All Black loose trio had trouble containing the Blues. McCaw had a quiet game and was shaded by Braid, Thorne was nowhere to be seen while Robertson was outplayed by Gus Collins who is unaccustomed to No8 play. Robertson may have scored the only try, but his embarassing razor’ gesture has long worn out its welcome, and looks as tired and dull as the Crusaders backline is.

The Crusaders pack won enough ball, and we’ve seen them win games in the past with less possession, but they were unable to do anything with it. Anything they did do was snuffed out by the Blues defence, and they were unable to come up any creative play, especially in the backline. Even Brad Thorn was kept quiet, and Tuitupou provided great moments when smashed Thorn, and later Feek, back with some piledriving tackles.

The Blues forwards competed well and won enough ball to let the backs score the tries, but they were also responsible for the heart and organisation of the defence which was the key to winning the match. The backline was fantastic. Spencer played the best game from a 1st5 in NZ for several years, Tuitupou straightened the line and looked for gaps, while Muliaina held it all together and serviced the lethal back 3, all of whom finished beautifully.

It was a lovely style of rugby to watch, well removed from the patterned play of the Brumbies, or the pressure and choking style of the Crusaders.

In other games the Highlanders beat the Bulls, with the OH front row starting to look pretty damn good. Jonah returned for the Hurricanes in their win over the Stormers but looked way out of form and very disinterested. The Warratahs had a good win in SA over the Sharks, while the Brumbies looked lost and patternless without several of their key players. And finally in the battle at the bottom the Chiefs beat the Reds.

3 Mar

Last Dance
by Rob Wallace
3 Mar 2003

The Blues began the weekend with a Herculean effort by a 7 man forward pack to defeat the Chiefs in Hamilton 30-27. After Troy Flavell was sent off for stomping after 5 minutes, the Blues pack showed fantastic determination to keep their team in the match. This was epitomised by Justin Collins who played lock for most of the game, yet still managed to outplay Gibbes in the loose.

Meeuws anchored a solid front row along with Woodcock, who put in a huge 80 minute effort. Mealamu’s current form is the best of any hooker in NZ, his throwing was accurate and his general play dynamic. Ali Williams dominated the lineout – even though he was the only lineout option the Chiefs were unable to shut him down. Rush kept it all together and led by example while Braid completely dominated Holah in the loose.

The backs had a more difficult time, with the Chiefs off side most of the game, but Caucuanibuca still managed to score a couple of brilliant tries. Spencer controlled the game well, but the backline really needed better front foot ball.

It wasn’t a good effort from the Chiefs. They are weak in the tight 5, relaxed too much when they were in front, and played the wrong pattern. Had they opted for territory and set pieces they would have been able to maximise their one man advantage, but their loose and sloppy style fell right into the Blues hands.

Despite the backline talent, they were too flat and unable to make any ground against an outstanding Blues defensive effort. This was Holah’s worst game in living memory, and Randle was lucky not to be sent off for a second yellow card offence after he stopped a certain try with off the ball obstruction. Randle continues to prove that when the big games come, he goes missing. In cricketing terms, he’s a flat track bully, and completely unsuited for higher honours.

In other games the Crusaders picked their game up another notch to beat the Reds 34-6. They haven’t hit top form yet but are moving toward it and next weeks clash with the Blues should be a cracker. Standout players so far have been Brad Thorn and Greg Feek. The Highlanders had a tidy 41-17 win over the Stormers, while the Hurricanes got thumped by a mighty Bulls pack and the boot of Louis Koen, losing 46-34 in Napier. This was the first win for the Bulls outside of SA and was thoroughly deserved. As for the Hurricanes – they’re not going to win many games until they get a decent front row.

I’ve been a Flavell supporter for a long time – so much talent, just waiting to be used properly – but this was the final straw. It was a reckless, stupid action, and one that hurt his team dearly. There really is no room for players like this in top level rugby, and I wouldn’t pick him for the Blues again ever – his talent is not worth the baggage that comes with it. He’s in front of the Judiciary and hopefully this episode of tapdancing on Greg Smith’s head will be Flavell’s last dance.

26 Feb

Slip sliding away
by Rob Wallace
26 Feb 2003

The Blues kicked off their S12 season with a pretty good win over the NSW Warratahs on a wet Sydney night. The Warratahs have a pretty decent home record, and have started the last few seasons fizzing, but produced a damp squib on this occasion. Too many lost-looking league players at the back and a soft forward performance by NSW saw the Blues take a deserved 31-18 win.

It was a promising start but there was plenty to work on. The lineouts went well but the scrums could do with some more practice. Most gratifying was the way the forwards stuck to their tasks and let the backs get on with theirs. The pattern looked very good (not unlike the Auckland NPC team) and with a bit more organisation the back 4 is going to trouble many teams this season. Sloane seems to have moved away from the bulky, smash-it-up approach he took last year and with quick recycled ball the Blues have the wide talent to run in points.

Tuitupou and Caucaunibuca were the pick of the backs but special mention should be made of Orene Ai’i who had a great first game back after a shoulder injury. However Spencer’s deft touch would have improved things further. A player to watch with interest will be Muliaina who has the talent to get close to the AB squad after a good S12.

Ali Williams dominated the lineout, Flavell made a promising start to his season and the loose forward combination worked very well.

In other games: The Highlanders struggled to get into top gear winning 29-16 against a Chiefs team that played pretty well, while the Crusaders made their usual slightly rusty start but still beat the Hurricanes 37-21.

3 Jun

All the small things
by Rob Wallace
3 Jun 2002

Face it, the Blues were yet again underachievers in 2002. They promised a great deal preseason but never achieved the consistency needed to muscle into the top 4. The pack faded a little as the season progressed, and errors slipped in as they started to do the basic small things poorly. For Glenn Taylor, captaincy and a starting position came a year or 2 too late as he struggled to keep pace with the game. Meeuws and Woodcock were the star performers in the pack, while the loose forwards never achieved any real cohesiveness through injury and team changes. In the backs, Spencer probably tried to do a little too much and, Gear apart, the midfield was uninspiring. Again, team changes and injury prevented any major progress.

The greater Auckland region has plenty of talent but fails to fully utilise it. The best example of this is the continual stream of Auckland rejects, who when drafted into the Canterbury system, usually produce outstanding performances. So it’s not the players.

Having the same NPC and S12 team, as Canterbury do, and to some extent Otago also, is clearly helpful in terms of continuity and teamwork, yet international teams have no problem overcoming this, so it can’t be the whole reason for the Crusaders success.

Four different coaches over the last 4 seasons have not helped the Blues. The ever-changing coaching and management staff of the Blues have done nothing
to provide any continuity or direction, in contrast to teams like the Crusaders, and have probably been harmful. The last thing the Blues need right now is another coach. The touting of Graham Henry as coach for next year will not solve anything, despite the fact he’s one of the top 3-4 coaches in NZ.

Teams like the Hurricanes and the Blues need to formulate a 3-5 year plan and stick with it. Giving the franchise 2-3 seasons of consistent selections and coaching, with an aim to develop a proper franchise squad, with a core of experience, and to bring through over those 2-3 years a core of new young talent to fill any gaps at S12 level. To do this they need consistency at management, selectorial and coaching levels, and have everyone buy in on the plan.

I think the Blues need to be proactive about this. They should run Blues training squads for the top 30 players, especially those not involved in the ABs, throughout the year, and encourage another 8-10 promising development players to be involved in these sessions. They should petition the NZRFU to allow the Blues area to protect up to 36 players from the draft to build depth, and they need to target weak areas like the midfield now and develop or buy the players they need.

As for 2003, the Blues need to decide where Spencer will play, find more midfielders, develop a decent loose forward trio who complement each other, and develop a sense of teamwork. It’s a big ask, the players are there, but the small things need attention.

14 May

Be thankful for what you've got
by Rob Wallace
14 May 2002

The Blues came to Canberra with a big task, and they had a good crack at it, but were never able to exert enough forward pressure, nor break the defence, to obtain the win they needed. It was a better performance from the Brumbies after their mid-season slump and gives them a semi-final match-up against the Warratahs where they will fancy their chances after the Tahs dire performance against the Crusaders.

The highlight of the Blues game was an outstanding individual try from Samiu Vahafolau who was starting his first game of the season. Starting just outside his 22 he burst through collecting a loose ball, sprinted down the sideline, chipped the defence, recovered and scored a great try. Sadly it was not enough, and although the Blues led at halftime, the Brumbies upped the pace in the second half to edge into the lead, and then as the Blues became more desperate, they ran in 3 more tries to deservedly win.

The highlight of the weekend was the sublime performance from the Crusaders as they annihilated the Warratahs in an awesome display of power and skill. As for the Warratahs, well they didn’t really turn up to play, and you give the Crusaders leeway at your peril.

For what is in reality a limited side, the Warratahs have done very well this season. They have been well coached, and played with speed and skill, to surprise most pundits with their results. They’ve probably been found out a little at the tough end of the season but a semi-final win over the Brumbies would cap a great season.

This season has raised as many questions for the Blues as it has answered, and most of them are how to combine 3 unions into a top four S12 team. I don’t think there’s any doubt that having a single NPC team per franchise (as Canterbury, and in reality also Otago, do) is a big help in terms of continuity and playing style, and it helps to retain a top squad of 26 players.

However, the Blues do get to choose from a huge pool of players, yet seem unable to build the talent they need. Having the benefit of (what seem) 2 talented coaches this year, and improving a little, to sixth, has provided a starting point but the Blues need to begin organising/identifying a pool of 30-36 top players right now and spreading them between the 3 Unions, and probably running some training or planning sessions during this year to prepare for next year. The retention of Fox and Sloane will provide some continuity, and shortfall areas, like the midfield and loose forwards, need to be targeted by introducing some of the talented youngsters around, or judicious recruiting.

Without a coordinated plan within the Blues region, it’s hard to see them playing in the S12 final within the next few years.

6 May

Blowin' the Blues away
by Rob Wallace
6 May 2002

With one game to go, the Blues managed to come up with a fitting finale to their season losing 13-20 to the Highlanders, and giving the Highlanders their first S12 win at Eden Park and the first by any Otago team for 26 years. The worst thing is, the Highlanders did little special – they kicked for territory, minimised any mistakes and made their tackles while waiting for the Blues to choke under the pressure.

And they did. The Blues produced yet another dismal first half – error-ridden, patternless and devoid of structure. The Highlanders merely D’ed up, held their lines, attacked the ball in the tackle area and kicked the inevitable penalty when it came.

Later in the game, and with Tony Brown now off the field, the Blues did gain some ascendancy, but even then they made poor options. Taylor kept ignoring the shots at goal when they were 7 behind in favour of a try – but hey – 2 points was never going to be enough to gain a semi-final place – they would have been much better taking the 3 or 6 and hoping to get lucky with a last minute try.

Overall, it was hard not to feel the Blues got what they deserved – despite the talent they failed to impose their patterns on the game and were hustled off the ball by a smart Otago team. Mains 1, Sloane 0.

Game of the weekend was the Hurricanes-Crusaders clash. The Canes played well but a Canterbury squad, even resting key players, showed us all how big the gap is between the top of NZ rugby and the rest as they thrashed the Hurricanes. I though the Canes played pretty well but this is a very special Crusaders team and it will be a big surprise if they lose again this season, with all their games at home.

As for the Blues – they blew it – and despite the mathematical chances they have, in reality their season is over. It’s interesting, that despite the 4th coach in 4 years, and a huge injection of new players from NH and Northland, the same old problems reappeared, and it’s hard not to think, especially when you look at the Crusaders and the Highlanders, that having 1 (decent) team NPC team per S12 franchise is a real advantage in terms of continuity and cohesion.