29 Apr

Super 15 – Round 11
by WAJ
29 Apr 2011

Terrible news for Blues lock Kurtis Haiu – we all hope for a fast and full recovery. Our world has an amazing ability to inject a little/lot ofperspective into life at regular intervals.

Seems there is going to be a salary cap in operation for the Aus sides. This will stop the likes of the Waratahs building ateamfull of Wallabies, probably force the Reds to dismantle their successful squad and work towards a stronger Force and Rebels. It will thus have the effect of making Aus teams less of a force in Soopa rugby as there will be noteams full of outstanding players like the Crusaders and Bulls of recent vintage. Unless of course players choose to play for less than their market worth. The Highlanders form of this season though gives hope to all teams.

Highlanders v Blues
What a great way to start the round, this should be a cracker. The Highlanders have been great all season, well coached by JJ, he has got the best out of his team with a simple game plan – get the bloody ballusing a great lineout, solid enough scrum and plenty of aggression at the breakdown, and don’t waste it when you have it on the back of a scheming 1 5/8.Simple, effective and everyone has bought in. Throw inthe outstanding form of individuals like Thomo, Hoata, Smithamd Poki and a depth in the ranks that must make JJ very happy to see come through – they are a real threat to go all the way. The Blues too continue on their winning way, and have also managed themselves through the inevitable injuries. The main isse for them is their hot and cold turns during the game – they won’t be able to do that tonight. I like the Blues for their greater strike power out wide, they will make breaks and they will score tries, hopefully they can sort out their defence for the full 80. Some great match ups too – Cowan v Matthewson and Kaino v Thomothe big ones but the lineout battle too looks a goodie. Can’t wait.
Blues 1 – 12

Cheetahs v Brumbies
The who cares game of the weekend. The Brumbies are coming off a bye and have been strengthened by the return of a few players. They will also want to put on a show for their new coach, though the way things are going not many of this years team will be left. They should be well prepared for the SA leg and with a 4 to 1 winning record against the Cheetahs will challenge strongly. The Cheetahs welcomeback the hugely influential Roussow and are a good chance to win this as they are not scared to throw the ball around. A toughie but think the Brumbies have a bit more class.
Brumbies 1 – 12

Hurricanes v Reds
A lot of injuries for both teams here, though the result won’t be affected. The Reds are on a roll on the back of their irresistable halves pairing and will be too strong here. The Hurricanes are having a shocker and will have a crack but have too many playersout or out of form.
Reds 13+

Waratahs v Rebels
I fear a repeat score of the round 1 clash between these two sides, though injury may limit the effectiveness of the Waratahs. Waugh, Palu and Mitchell are big outs, and with only Barnes returning they are down on strike power. But they have a dominat scrum and still retain some outstanding players in the form of the Flying Affro, Ben Mowen, Bealeand Burgo. If they maintain 80 minutes of concentration they will be too strong for an erratic Rebels team. The Rebels are close to full strength and have made a point of dropping their 2 worsat defenders, who also happen to be their best attackers, but will be arguably better off for it. This will probably mean they will lose by 20instead of 40.
Waratahs 13+

Force v Crusaders
I don’t fancy being a Forceforward this week, the Crusaders will be very keen to put last weeks disappointing effort behind them and get back on track with, in particular, a strong display up front. The loss of Thorn is the perhaps the key here and Romano and Jack will need to keep it tight to compensate. But with McCaw at the helm you feel this will happen and give the wonderfully gifted backline plenty of pill to run theForce ragged. The Force will be brave and the loosies will challenge all day, but they lack the class out wide that the Crusaders bring and will struggle to defend against them. A big game for Todd againstPocock and we will know more about him after this.
Crusaders 13+

Bulls v Chiefs
Can the Bulls get their faltering campaign back on track. They are 2 1/2 wins out of the playoffs at the moment and a loss here would almost certainly end any chance to defend their title. And you know, I fancy the Chiefs here to pull off an upset so bad are the Bulls playing. The Chiefs haven’t wonin Pretoria for 10 years, but certainly have the backline ammunition to break that streak. The forwards of course hold the key and anything close to parity will see them go close. The Duck hopefully has sorted out his kicking blues, he wasshit last week and they can’t afford to give anything away with Steyn always accurate as hell. The Bulls are so out of form, with all their big guns struggling, if the Chiefs put it together a win is on the cards. My upset of the week, and yes I know … it is the Chiefs.
Chiefs 1 – 12

Stormers v Sharks
And we finish off with a good old fashioned South African grudge match. It will be tight, niggly and extremely intense. I see Smitty holds his hooking bath ahead of the returning Battleship.The difference could be at 1 5/8 where two young guns could be set to face off. Their goalkicking will be critical and Lambie will want to improve on his efforts of last week. The Stormers with home advantage should get up. Interestingly these sides are dead even on wins and losses both home and away and 9 of the 14 meetings have been wins by 12 or under.
Stormers 1 – 12

Regards Waj

20 Apr

Who's Super in the Super Comp?
by Tracey Nelson
20 Apr 2011

We’re halfway through the 2011 Super Rugby competition, so which NZ players are putting their hands up as we start to think about the All Black squad for the Tri-Nations and further ahead to the Rugby World Cup?

With Colin Slade out with his second broken jaw before he had a chance to even generate us some decent stats and Stephen Donald also on the injured list, the race is wide open as to who will be Dan Carter’s back up this year. Do we pick a goal kicker, a line breaker or a combination of the two? Which backs have made the most linebreaks? Who is off-loading the most in the tackle? Who are the leading locks? Which flanker is heading the count for breakdown steals? All is revealed here.

Goal Kicking % Success Total attempts
Aaron Cruden 80% 10
Dan Carter 79% 39
Stephen Donald 75% 16
Luke McAlister 71% 35
Dan Kirkpatrick 63% 32
Mike Delany 62% 26
Stephen Brett 56% 16
Robbie Robinson 46% 26

1st 5 linebreaks
Stephen Brett 5
Dan Kirkpatrick 3
Dan Carter 2
Luke McAlister 2
Aaron Cruden 2
Mike Delany 2
Robbie Robinson 2
Stephen Donald 1

Top linebreakers (backs)
Isaia Toeava 10
Kade Poki 8
Sean Maitland 7
Andre Taylor 7
Leilia Masaga 6
Jared Payne 6
Ben Smith 6
Joe Rokocoko 6
Stephen Brett 5
Robbie Fruean 5
Tim Nanai-Williams 5
Shaun Treeby 5
Andy Ellis 4
Hosea Gear 4
Zac Guildford 4
Julian Savea 4
Sitiveni Sivivatu 4
Ma’a Nonu, Rene Ranger, Sonny Bill Williams 3
Conrad Smith 4

Top tackle offloaders
Sonny Bill Williams 29
Adam Thomson 14
Dan Carter 12  
Rene Ranger 11  
Israel Dagg 10
Stitveni Sivivatu 10
Brendon Leonard 9

Lineout jumpers – wins
Whitelock 14/14
Donnelly 9/9
Thorn 12/14  
Ross 11/13
Bekuis 10/12  
Boric 24/29  
Thrush 10/13
Jack 5/7
Williams 7/11
Eaton 7/11

Lineout jumpers – steals
Ross 6
Boric 3  
Thrush 1  
Jack 1

Lineout throwers Not straight Overthrows
Keven Mealamau 1 0
Dane Coles 2 1
Jason Rutledge 2 2
Andrew Hore 1 3
Aled de Malmanche 0 4
Cory Flynn 6 0
Hika Elliot 5 1

Flankers breakdown wins
Matt Todd 10
Adam Thomson 8  
George Whitelock 4  
Scott Waldrom 3
Jerome Kaino 2
Kieran Read 2
Daniel Braid 1

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
Forwards
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
Backs
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.

31 Oct

Duck Soup
by Paul Waite
31 Oct 2010

marxbrosThe basic story of the test reads: Rusty All Blacks concede 12 points, then right the boat, run in some tries and go in 17-12 at half-time. In the second half they get on top with the Aussies whipped and stuffed into a bag, but then Henry subs Stephen Donald (aka The Duck) for Dan Carter and he single-handedly loses a 12 point lead, and the game.

Let’s not beat about the bush, there was a lot wrong with this All Black performance apart from the end-game debacle brought about by the substitutions. In 2007 Graham Henry’s ideas about resting players from rugby back-fired on him big-time when they turned up to the World Cup way off the pace. It seems that nothing has been learned, and resting players after the recent Tri-Nations garnered us a similar result, if less important in the scheme of things.

The All Blacks took the field looking more or less the same as they did at the start of the season’s international campaign, playing in a loose disjointed fashion. All the usual culprits were there in their game, players getting isolated going to ground too fast providing easy pickings for the likes of Pocock, fumbled passes, poor passing in general, shonky lineout and so forth.

This reaped the reward of a 12-0 deficit in the first quarter, before they finally managed to get their systems firing on all eight cylinders again, and replied with a creditable 17 unanswered points to go in 17-12 at half-time. After the restart, the team started really putting it together. The forwards were doing some excellent work, especially Kaino and Read, aided by the ever-present McCaw. At scrum time the Aussies were also in disarray, the looks on their front row priceless as the referee was forced to penalise them several times. In the backs Dan Carter had the team humming and probing for gaps.

In this phase of the test the Aussies were a whipped force. The television cameras showed pained, beaten faces. Then, with twenty minutes or so to go Henry made some key replacements which were to lose us the test, just like that.

On came Toeava for an injured Cory Jane on came Stephen Donald for Dan Carter. John Afoa also came on in the front row. On the plus side Whitelock’s replacement of an out-of-sorts Donnelly at lock was a win.

Right away the subs had an effect, but overall it wasn’t the one Henry was looking for. From a scrum Genia spun the ball wide with a miss-out pass and Toeava, who was standing well out of position too far in-field was suddenly out-flanked. Turning he slipped, and a track the width of two bus lanes opened up down the Aussie left wing. Goodnight nurse. The seven-pointer brought the Wallabies within 5 points. A resurgent Australian outfit was sniffing a change in the wind.

They didn’t have to sniff very hard to catch that scent. The All Blacks were full of fight on defence, but there was one piece of the machinery which was misfiring. A foray up-field from some hard forward driving resulted in an Australian penalty infringment. A kickable penalty to take the points-margin to eight.

Now, many of us on these Aotearoan shores have despised the selection of Stephen Donald for this tour, ahead of up-and-coming Canterbury first-five Colin Slade. More on the whys and wherefors of that later, but one point his supporters were certain of was his goal-kicking. He might run an appallingly stilted backline, he might opt to do badly-executed grubbers and chip-kicks at inappropriate moments, but at least he can nail the goals.

Well he couldn’t even do that. A nice, kickable penalty which would have relieved the pressure and more or less assured the win was missed. Still a 5-point margin.

Fired up by their good fortune the Aussies fetched the sink from their changing shed and hurled it at the All Black lines. The men in black toiled on defence. We were treated to more bad signs from Donald however. Let’s dwell on one of these, because it is instructive to study his methods. The All Blacks were defending in their 22m and got possession of the ball. With the Aussies all packed between the half-way and the 22m Donald looked up and had a decision to make.

Now, as an aspiring All Black test player what would you have done? Would you have hoofed it out into touch perhaps? Or maybe you would have gone to your support and taken it up into contact, to retain possession? Either of those options would have been sane. What did Donald do? Well, all things considered, he thought it would be best to stab a grubber out from the 22m so that the Australians could just pick it up and bring it right back at us. Unbelievable, but more was to come.

A similar situation arose a few minutes later. This time, presumably learning from his last mistake, Donald decided to hoof the ball. Only he kicked it right to a man wearing yellow who didn’t even have to move to catch it just inside his half and run it right back.

But these were just minor points. Indicators of something badly wrong. This all came to a head in the pivotal moment of the test. Once again the All Blacks were encamped on defence in their own 22m, right where Donald seemed to want them, and the Australians were slavering like a pack of rabid Dobermans trying to get the ball over the line. Heroic defence drove them back, and the pressure forced a turnover. It was the 79th minute, possession had been regained at a critical moment, and the ball was in Donald’s hands.

All he needed to do was hoof it into the stands out beyond the 22m.

But Donald’s brain seems to work on a frequency different from the rest of us. It’s the same band as Radio BOZO, which I’ve heard, plays nothing but static.

Instead of kicking a safe touch he kicked it upfield straight to an Australian who, surprise surprise, ran it back in what was the final wave of attacks which unsurprisingly brought a try which O’Connor converted for a two point victory.

Why all the Donald-bashing? The reason is simple – he shouldn’t be in the squad.

When Dan Carter was out last season recovering from his achilles rupture, we went through this process of trying Stephen Donald as All Black first-five replacement. He showed then that although he’s not a bad player at Super Rugby level, and might look godly to some at Provincial level, he has neither the skillset nor temperament for test rugby. He simply can’t think and execute in the timeframes that test rugby demands. I thought we’d asked those questions, and got the answers already.

But instead, as with poor lumbering Sione Lauaki who also kept being selected despite numerous games showing he simply wasn’t a test player, we are stuck with The Duck for a whole Grand Slam Tour.

To add insult to injury the lad who should be touring, Colin Slade, who came on for Aaron Cruden and did the business under severe pressure in the recent Bledisloe Cup winning test match and showed that maybe he does have what it takes to play test rugby, is languishing back at home playing in a Provincial competition.

What a waste. Slade is missing out on a key development tour which may have seen him rise to be the obvious backup for Dan Carter for 2011.

With Sitiveni Sivivatu out with injury there is a spare squad place. If Henry had any sense he would be giving Slade the call right now, swallowing his pride and admitting he and his other selectors got it wrong. With Cory Jane under an injury cloud he can even justify Slade’s call-up on utility value as he covers full-back and wing.

I’d rather watch a Marx Brothers movie than watch Stephen Donald trying to play test rugby again for the All Blacks. At least I’d be able to laugh at a parade of stupidity and ineptitude and feel good about it.

New Zealand 24 (Jimmy Cowan, Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu tries; Dan Carter 3 cons, 1 pen)

Australia 26 (Quade Cooper, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Drew Mitchell, James O’Connor tries; Matt Giteau con; O’Connor 1 con)

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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18 Oct

Over-cautious, or over Cruden?
by Tracey Nelson
18 Oct 2010

Have the All Black coaches just wasted a precious four months and nine test matches in re-selecting Stephen Donald ahead of Aaron Cruden, and to a lesser extent Colin Slade? Or is it a case of pre-World Cup jitters?

The All Black touring squad for the Hong Kong Bledisloe test and tour of the UK was announced yesterday, and despite having spent most of 2010 experimenting with new talent at 1st 5 to back up Dan Carter, the All Black coaches appear to have succumbed to nerves and have gone back to the previously discarded Stephen Donald. Having taken a punt at the start of the year in selecting Aaron Cruden, they then proceded to have him ride the pine for the majority of the June-September test matches – giving him one sole start in the dead rubber against the Wallabies in Sydney last month.

Having had limited chances in the Super 14 for the Hurricanes Cruden yet showed enough on-field skill – and more importantly the on-field communication skills – that prompted the All Black coaches to name him in their first squad of the year. The hope was that under the guidance of Wayne Smith and Dan Carter, Cruden would be able to build on his game and gain valuable skills in the All Black environment. But with only 1 start and just 60 minutes played, and a total of 61 minutes off the bench in the other 8 test matches, there were limited chances to gain any significant experience. Playing 121 minutes of rugby over two months is never going to provide form either.

Cruden’s opportunities at All Black level were also partly thwarted by Piri Weepu being first choice back-up goal kicker to Carter this year. You can’t help but feel Cruden’s chances to go on the end of year tour were dealt a death blow by the horrific ankle dislocation and break suffered by Weepu in Wellington’s ITM Cup game against Taranaki on Saturday night.

Suddenly the coaches were faced with their second choice goal kicker being out of all rugby for 6 months, and the additional worry that Dan Carter would not be fit to play the Bledisloe test match in Hong Kong after undergoing ankle surgery in September. With Cruden’s goal kicking stats only sitting around the 70% mark and his lack of starts this year, the need for a proven reliable goal kicker became paramount. Despite having selected Colin Slade as 1st 5 cover for Cruden in Sydney, and he certainly performed in the 20 minutes he had on the field, nerves have obviously won the day and Stephen Donald has been re-called.

There is no doubt Donald has been playing well for Waikato in his come-back from a lengthy injury break, but he has been tried before at All Black level and wasn’t considered the answer. Yes he is a good goal kicker (excluding the one appalling S14 game he had this year), but as we look to the Rugby World Cup next year is he going to be the back-up to Carter? The question that needs to be asked is, if the unthinkable happened and Carter suffered a serious injury that put him out of the World Cup, just who would we want running our backline?

There seems to be a little too much juggling with the options at the moment, and basing current form on the ITM Cup is not really a good measure of how players will perform at international level. Should Donald fail on this end of year tour, we are left with the Super 15 campaign to decide who will be Carter’s back up for the World Cup. The coaches said they toyed with taking three 1st 5s but decided against it as with only 5 tests it would mean one player would not get much game time. Perhaps thinking outside the square and playing Carter off the bench to allow his understudies some desperately required game time may have been an option.

The full squad for the end of year tour is:

Backs: Daniel Carter (Canterbury), Jimmy Cowan (Southland), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Andy Ellis (Canterbury), Hosea Gear (Wellington), Cory Jane (Wellington), Alby Mathewson (Wellington), Mils Muliaina (Waikato), Ma’a Nonu (Wellington), Joe Rokocoko (Auckland), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Waikato), Conrad Smith (Wellington), Isaia Toeava (Auckland), Sonny Bill Williams (Canterbury).

Forwards: John Afoa (Auckland), Anthony Boric (North Harbour), Daniel Braid (Auckland), Tom Donnelly (Auckland), Hikawera Elliott (Hawke’s Bay), Ben Franks (Tasman), Owen Franks (Canterbury), Andrew Hore (Taranaki), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Richie McCaw (Canterbury, captain), Keven Mealamu (Auckland), Liam Messam (Waikato), Kieran Read (Canterbury), Brad Thorn (Canterbury), Sam Whitelock (Canterbury), Tony Woodcock (North Harbour).

29 Jun

Pet projects and all-rounders – All Black squad for Tri Nations
by Tracey Nelson
29 Jun 2010

The recall of Liam Messam and John Afoa, the dropping of Zac Guildford and the non-selection of form winger Hosea Gear were the key talking points when the All Black squad for the 2010 Investec Tri Nations was named on Sunday.

The 28-man squad is split into 15 forwards and 13 backs. While the squad named was mostly expected, there were still a couple of surprises from the selectors.

Props: John Afoa, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock

Tony Woodcock is a proven performer at test level, and showed his experience against Wales when he came on in the first test and shored up the All Black scrum on the loosehead side. Owen Franks has proven he is the best tighthead prop in New Zealand and continues to impress with his workrate around the field, including a huge tackle rate. His brother Ben is ranked behind Woodcock at loosehead but can play on both sides of the scrum, and like Owen has a praiseworthy work ethic at the breakdown. John Afoa joins the squad at the expense of Neemia Tialata, and he will be groomed as a potential cover for hooker which – if successful – could see him become the ultimate bench player.

Hookers: Keven Mealamu, Cory Flynn

Mealamu retains the No 1 spot and is back to his best form in the opening test series of 2010, but Aled de Malmanche makes way for Cory Flynn – subject to fitness. Flynn has been dogged by bone fractures to his forearms over the past few seasons, and further injuries to ankles haven’t helped his cause. The question remains as to whether he can remain fit enough to play, and in all reality if Andrew Hore was available he would be the second hooker.

Locks: Brad Thorn, Anthony Boric, Tom Donnelly, Sam Whitelock

The only question here is whether four locks is a luxury. Thorn, Boric and Whitelock have all shown good form in the opening tests, while Donnelly finally recovered from his injury to take the field against Wales in Hamilton. While not doing anything spectacular, he performed the basics well and was a proven performer on the end of year tour in 2009. Thorn is an automatic starter, his all round abilities and fitness making him the consumate professional rugby player. Boric and Whitelock would appear to be the best bets to contest and win opposition ball, so it seems likely that they will be vying for the other starting position. Whitelock becomes an official squad member having been named only as cover for the series against Ireland and Wales.

Loosies: Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Victor Vito, Liam Messam, Kieran Read.

A bizarre mix, with one specialist opensider in McCaw and then four players who are all essentially blindside/No 8s. Read has been tagged as back up to McCaw, which is somewhat intriguing given I don’t see him having the fetching abilities of an opensider although he does run good support lines. Kaino is a blindsider who can cover No 8. Vito is also a blindsider, but with ball running abilities that may one day see him become a great No 8.Messam comes into the squad at the expense of Adam Thomson, who was a blindside/openside option. Messam showed some good form for the Maori in their centennial series yet I still have doubts that he has removed the errors from his game and the question still remains over which position is his best. Currently that would be blindside, and I don’t see him as big enough to be an international No 8.

So it would appear that the selectors areaiming to have generic loose forwards in response to the new law interpretation at the breakdown, which has seen fewer turnovers won this year. However, this may come back to bite them as the out and out speed to the breakdown of a specialist opensider is still a key factor in securing possession even under the new interpretation. I would have preferred Adam Thomson to remain in the mix as he can cover openside/blindside from the bench, and with either Kaino or Vito starting at blindside you have adequate cover for No 8 should Read go off injured.

Halfback: Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu

No problem with Cowan, but you have to wonder whether Weepu would be in the squad if he wasn’t an exellent goal kicker. Nothing I have seen of his halfback play so far has led me to believe he is a superior option to the likes of an Alby Mathewson, and his two-step-then-pass combo is unlikely to do us any favours against a rushing Springbok defence. You can only hope that Graham Henry was speaking in jest when he suggested that Aaron Cruden may be the third halfback option.

1st 5: Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden

Nothing more need be said in praise of Dan Carter. With injuries to both Stephen Donald and Mike Delany, who were back ups to Carter on the end of year tour, Cruden got the call up ahead of Stephen Brett and Colin Slade for the Ireland and Wales tests and maintains his place in the squad. I have no problem with this, as neither Brett nor Slade are of true international class. Stephen Donald did not have a happy Super 14 so it may have been fortunate that he was injured as he may well have been dropped in favour of Cruden anyway. What Cruden contributes to this squad is some raw talent but an extremely well organised play-maker, and while it may be a year too early in the overall scheme of his rugby career it is better that he is slowly introduced to top level rugby now than thrown in the deep end during a RWC year. With Carter and Wayne Smith to guide him, I am sure we will see him develop quickly and successfully – assuming nobody follows through with the halfback idea!

Midfielders: Ma’a Nonu, Benson Stanley, Conrad Smith, Richard Kahui

Benson Stanley performed with aplomb in his first three tests, and as a true 2nd 5 he has complemented Carter well. Nonu returns from injury, but will have strong competition from Stanley for the 12 jersey. Conrad Smith remains everyone’s first choice as centre, but Kahui is a more than adequate back up and can also play inside at 2nd 5 and on the wing with his good pace. There was no place in the squad for Luke McAlister, despite him finally finding some of his old form for the Maori and performing well as a goal kicker – but you can’t help but feel the intercept pass he threw against England took the coaches’ minds back to the test against France in Dunedin last year where he did the same thing and cost the All Blacks the test match.

Wingers: Cory Jane, Joe Rokocoko, Rene Ranger

Hmmm. This is the one that probably bugs me more than the loosie mix. No problem with Jane, the guy istalented and more importantly has a rugby brain. He makes a line break nearly every time he gets the ball in hand, and has a phenomenal workrate both on attack and defence. Rokocoko seems to be flavour of the month with the selectors, and many consider him lucky to retain his place in squad given the workrate and skills of other wingers such as Guildford (who had limited game time in the first three tests) and Hosea Gear, who has been on fire for the Maori and is possibly the best finisher of all the current NZ wingers.

The argument from the coaches is that Rokocoko is the quickest winger (but over what distance?), and that there simply isn’t room for another specialist winger. They see Jane as a winger first and foremost, despite the fact he is equally accomplished playing fullback – ergo, doesn’t that add up to two specialist wingers?? Anyhow, that means the likes of Guildford and Gear have missed out to Rene Ranger, a player who is certainly not short of flash and dash, but has already shown his lack of nous by bombing a three on one overlap and going for the line himself in his first 30 minutes of test rugby. Apparently Ranger can cover centre though quite why you would need that when you have Smith and Kahui not to mention Muliaina – who was touted as capable of playing centre last year by the same three coaches – in your squad.

Gear has been labelled as "unlucky", whilst Guildford has been told to go away and work on the key aspects of being a winger. One would assume that scoring tries in the black jersey isn’t one of those given Rokocoko only managed two in his eight test outings last year, and despite the backline running riot against Ireland this year he still didn’t cross the line. Ranger is the new pet "project", so we’ll watch this one with interest. I can’t see it working myself, and with the calibre of talent already in the squad I’m not sure that raw "wow" factor is required.

Fullback: Mils Muliaina, Israel Dagg

Muliaina as the incumbent is struggling to get his form back after a lengthy lay-off due to injury. My concern with Muliaina is that he seems to have lost a yard of pace, and is lacking fluidity in his game – notably there were times against Wales in Hamilton where he should have given the pass yet chose to take the ball into contact. Hopefully he will regain the form that made him the best fullback in the world in 2007/08, but should he not then there is a very able replacement in Dagg who is the new up-and-comer. Dagg had a dream debut in the black jersey with four clear line breaks against Ireland, and he demonstrated some exceptionally clever running lines and angles. He is positionally strong, good in the air, deceptively fast with good acceleration, and his combination first up with both Dan Carter and Cory Jane was a delight to watch.

31 May

Fit for the jersey?
by Tracey Nelson
31 May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 May

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

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

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

The squad is:

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

Hookers: Keven Mealamu, Aled de Malmanche

Locks: Brad Thorn, Anthony Boric, Tom Donnelly

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

Halfbacks: Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu

1st5s: Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden

Centres: Benson Stanley, Conrad Smith, Richard Kahui

Wingers: Zac Guildford, Josevata Rokocoko, Cory Jane

Fullbacks: Mils Muliina, Israel Dagg

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

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

28 May

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

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

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

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

Hookers: Keven Mealamu, John Afoa

Locks: Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, Tom Donnelly

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

Halfback: Jimmy Cowan, Alby Mathewson

1st 5: Dan Carter, Stephen Donald

Centres: Benson Stanley, Conrad Smith, Luke McAlister

Wingers: Zac Guildford, Hosea Gear, Rudi Wulf

Fullbacks: Cory Jane, Israel Dagg

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

Possible bolters: Kahn Fotuali’i, Jason Rutledge

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

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

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

5 May

Headlines
by Tracey Nelson
5 May 2010

Headlines for the week May 4th, 2009

MacDonald farewells NZ rugby

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

Key All Blacks re-sign with NZRU

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

Latest Playing Apparel Revealed for All Blacks

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

New referees secure Test appointments

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

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

Heartland Championship teams to trial Player of Origin

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

SANZAR

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

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