1 Apr

ELVs to be sanctioned into law
by Tracey Nelson
1 Apr 2009

An International Rugby Board conference in London has reviewed the impact of the various experimental law variations (ELVs) being trialled around the world, and will recommend to the IRB’s Technical Committee Meeting on May 13 this year that ten ELVs be adopted into law.

The IRB conferencewas made up of60 representatives from the major fifteen unions, and a detailed review including game analysis and statistical surveys from over 800 games was carried out over two days. New Zealand was represented by Steve Tew, Neil Sorenson, Steve Hansen and Lyndon Bray (NZRU Referee Manager).

There are no major surprises in theten ELVs to be recommended, with laws such as the pass-back -which prevents ground from being made with a kick to touch if the ball has been passed back into the 22 – being an obvious favourite amongst all countries. Likewise the 5m offside line at the scrum was also unanimously recommended to go forward.

Two ELVs that won’t be recommended are the the variations allowing sacking (pulling down) of mauls, and the freedom for teams to choose how many players they put in a lineout. The sacking of mauls was a contentious ELV, with Ireland and Italy in particular voicing their dissatisfaction. Chris Cuthbertson, chair of the Rugby Football Union’s ELV Task group said: “The feedback from the Game and our game analysis indicates that pulling down the maul and unrestricted numbers in the line-out have not improved the game.”

Steve Hansen reported that while discussions had been “robust, with plenty of debate”, there was no suggestion of a Northern vs Southern Hemisphere split over the ELVs. Currently only the SANZAR compeitions (Super 14 and TriNations) are trialling the sanctions law at the breakdown, where free kicks rather than penalties are awarded for all but off-side offences. This ELV has been reccommended for further investigation and review.

Unfortunately the ELV sanctions have done nothing to tidy up the breakdown, and the IRB will be looking at the laws surrounding the breakdown areas of tackles, rucks and mauls. Confusion and lack of consistency with rulings at the breakdown have led to less attacking play and an increase in kicking as teams have become more hesistant at taking the ball into contact.

The IRB’s rugby committee will finalise their list of recommendations at a meeting in Dublin on 27 April before they go before the full IRB council meeting on 13 May.

The following ELVs will be recommended to be passed into law:

Law 6 – Assistant referees allowed
Law 19 – Kicking directly into touch from ball played back into
22 equals no gain in ground
Law 19 – Quick throw permitted in any direction except forward
Law 19 – Positioning of player in opposition to the player
throwing-in to be two metres away from line-out and the line of
touch
Law 19 – Pre-gripping of line-out jumpers allowed
Law 19 – Lifting in the line-out allowed
Law 19 – Positioning of receiver must be two metres away from
line-out
Law 20 – Five-metre offside line at the scrum
Law 20 – Scrum-half offside line at the scrum
Law 22 – Corner posts no longer touch in goal

The ELVs not recommended are:

Law 17 – Maul, head and shoulders not to be lower than hips
Law 17 – Maul, pulling down the maul
Law 19 – Freedom for each team to determine line-out numbers

The ELVs still under review are:

Sanctions and free-kicks at the breakdown

13 Jan

NZ Super 14 Squads
by Tracey Nelson
13 Jan 2009

The New Zealand Super 14 Franchise Squads and their wider training groups have been named.

* Indicates player named in Rebel Sport Super 14 squad for the first time.
(D) Indicates draft player.

BLUES: Tony Woodcock (North Harbour) , John Afoa (Auckland), Charlie Faumuina (Auckland)*, Tevita Mailau (Auckland)* , Keven Mealamu (Auckland), Tom McCartney (Auckland), Ali Williams (Auckland), Anthony Boric (North Harbour), Jay Williams (Auckland)*, Kurtis Haiu (Auckland), Justin Collins (Northland), Josh Blackie (Auckland), Onosai Auva’a (Auckland), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Chris Lowery (Auckland)*, Taniela Moa (Auckland), Chris Smylie (North Harbour), Tasesa Lavea (Auckland), Jimmy Gopperth (North Harbour), Michael Hobbs (Wellington) (D)*, Benson Stanley (Auckland), Jamie Helleur (Auckland), Anthony Tuitavake (North Harbour), Joe Rokocoko (Auckland), Rudi Wulf (North Harbour), Rene Ranger (Northland)*, Paul Williams (Auckland), Isaia Toeava (Auckland).

CHIEFS: Arizona Taumalolo (Waikato)*, Ben May (Waikato), James McGougan (Bay of Plenty)*, Joe Savage (Bay of Plenty)*,Hika Elliot (Hawke’s Bay) (D), Aled de Malmanche (Waikato), Kevin O’Neill (Waikato),Toby Lynn (Waikato), Craig Clarke (Taranaki) (D), Mark Burman (Waikato)*, Liam Messam (Waikato), Tanerau Latimer (Bay of Plenty), Serge Lilo (Wellington) (D)*, Sione Lauaki (Waikato), Colin Bourke (Bay of Plenty), Brendon Leonard (Waikato), Toby Morland (D) (Otago), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Michael Delany (Bay of Plenty), Callum Bruce (Waikato), Jackson Willison (Waikato)*, Richard Kahui (Waikato), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Waikato), Lelia Masaga (Counties Manukau), Sosene Anesi (Waikato), James Wilson (Southland) (D), Malili Muliaina (Waikato), Dwayne Sweeney (Waikato).

HURRICANES: John Schwalger (Wellington), Neemia Tialata (Wellington), Jacob Ellison (Wellington), Tim Fairbrother (Wellington), Andrew Hore (Taranaki) , Dane Coles (Wellington)*, Jason Eaton (Taranaki), Jeremy Thrush (Wellington), Bryn Evans (Hawke’s Bay), Api Naikatini (Wellington)*, Faifili Levave (Wellington), Scott Waldrom (Taranaki), Karl Lowe (Hawke’s Bay)*, Victor Vito (Wellington)*, Rodney So’oialo (Wellington), Josh Bradnock (Manawatu)*, Alby Mathewson (Wellington), Piri Weepu (Wellington), Willie Ripia (Taranaki), Dan Kirkpatrick (Wellington)*, Ma’a Nonu (Wellington), Conrad Smith (Wellington), Jason Kawau (Southland) (D), Tamati Ellison (Wellington), Hosea Gear (Wellington), David Smith (Wellington), Zac Guildford (Hawke’s Bay), Cory Jane (Wellington).

CRUSADERS: Wyatt Crockett (Canterbury), Ben Franks (Tasman), Owen Franks (Canterbury)*, Bronson Murray (Canterbury), Corey Flynn (Canterbury), Jason Macdonald (Otago) (D), Brad Thorn (Tasman), Ross Filipo (Canterbury), Isaac Ross (Canterbury), Michael Paterson (Canterbury), Kieran Read (Canterbury), Richie McCaw (Canterbury), George Whitelock (Canterbury), Thomas Waldrom (Canterbury), Nasi Manu (Canterbury), Jonathan Poff (Tasman), Andy Ellis (Canterbury), Kahn Fotuali’I (Tasman), Colin Slade (Canterbury)*, Stephen Brett (Canterbury), Tim Bateman (Canterbury), Ryan Crotty (Canterbury)*, Casey Laulala (Canterbury), Adam Whitelock (Canterbury)*, Kade Poki (Tasman), Sean Maitland (Canterbury), Jared Payne (Canterbury)*, Leon Macdonald (Canterbury).

HIGHLANDERS: Jamie Mackintosh (Southland), Clint Newland (Otago), Chris King (Southland), Anthony Perenise (Wellington) (D)*, David Hall (Southland), Jason Rutledge (Southland), Hayden Triggs (Otago), Tom Donnelly (Otago), Josh Bekhuis (Southland)*, Ross Kennedy (Otago), Adam Thomson (Otago), Tim Boys (Southland), Alando Soakai (Otago), Stephen Setephano (Otago), George Naoupu (Hawke’s Bay) (D)*, Jimmy Cowan (Southland), Sean Romans (Otago) *, Daniel Bowden (Otago), Matt Berquist (Hawke’s Bay) (D), Jason Shoemark (Hawke’s Bay) (D), Jayden Hayward (Otago)*, Johnny Leota (Otago), Kendrick Lynn (Southland)*, Brett Mather (Otago), Lucky Mulipola (Otago), Fetu’u Vainikolo (Otago), Ben Smith (Otago)*, Israel Dagg (Hawke’s Bay) (D)*.

The wider training squads are:

Blues: Auckland prop Nick White, North Harbour prop James Afoa, Auckland hooker Francis Smith, Auckland lock/loose forward Dean Budd, Auckland loose forward Peter Saili, Auckland halfback Grayson Hart, Auckland midfielder Winston Stanley, North Harbour wing Vili Waqaseduadua, North Harbour fullback George Pisi. Auckland fullback Dave Thomas will join the Blues group while George Pisi is rehabilitating from injury.

Chiefs: Waikato prop Hikairo Forbes, Waikato hooker Ole Avei, Bay of Plenty lock Culum Retallick, Waikato lock Romana Graham, Bay of Plenty flanker Luke Braid, Waikato loose forward Tom Harding, Waikato halfback David Bason, Waikato first five/fullback Trent Renata, Waikato wing Tim Mikkelson. Outside his New Zealand Sevens squad commitments Bay of Plenty loose forward Solomon King will train with the Chiefs wider training group.

Hurricanes: Taranaki prop Shane Cleaver, Wellington hooker Ged Robinson, Taranaki lock/loose forward Jarred Hoeata, Wellington lock Bernie Upton, Manawatu loose forward Nick Crosswell, Hawke’s Bay halfback Chris Eaton, Taranaki midfielder Nathan Hohaia, Manawatu wing Andre Taylor. Manawatu hooker Sean O’Connor will join the Hurricanes group while Andrew Hore is rehabilitating from injury.

Crusaders: Canterbury prop Peter Borlase, Tasman hooker Dan Perrin, Canterbury lock James Broadhurst, Tasman loose forward Jack Lam, Canterbury halfback Tyson Keats, Canterbury five eighth Hamish Gard, Tasman winger Blair Cook. Steve Fualau will join the Crusaders group while Corey Flynn is rehabilitating from injury.

Highlanders: Otago prop Keith Cameron, Otago hooker Peter Mirrielees, Otago loose forward Paul Grant, Southland halfback Scott Cowan, Otago first five Chris Noakes, Otago midfielder Aaron Bancroft, Southland utility back Pehi Te Whare, Otago wing Karne Hesketh.

5 Dec

All Blacks' Report Card 2008
by Tracey Nelson
5 Dec 2008

On paper you can’t really argue with the success of the All Blacks in 2008. With 14 wins from 16 games, and the Iveco Series, the Tri-Nations, the Bledisloe Cup and a Grand Salm all to their name, this has been a satisfactory year after the disaster of 2007. So how did the coaches and players measure up this year?

COACHES:

Thank goodness we seem to have seen the end of rotation and rest, despite claims from Graham Henry that All Blacks couldn’t be expected to play test matches over three consecutive weekends. The end of year tour (comprising the Bledisloe test in Hong Kong and the Grand Slam) put paid to that theory, with Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu playing in all five tests, Joe Rokocoko playing six games over four weeks, Ma’a Nonu playing four consecutive tests and the bulk of team playing three in a row. I suspect that a large part of this shift in mantra came from the players themselves, with Ali Williams being one in particular who has always been keen to start in every test. With continuity in team selection on the Grand Slam, we finally started to see combinations forming and a real understanding within the team emerged – this was no better demonstrated than by their exceptional defensive record during the Grand Slam test matches.

Despite the trophy cabinet being full and all titles claimed this year, there are three key points that I’m not happy about:

Inability of the team to win without Richie McCaw

It was no coincidence that the two test matches the All Blacks lost this year were the two that Richie McCaw didn’t play during the Tri-Nations due to injury. The test match in Sydney against the Wallabies was without a doubt the All Blacks’ worst game in 2008, and there were questions asked over selections, lack of a specialist opensider and in particular our defence

Admission of being out-coached and not up to speed on the ELVs

How they could not be up to speed on the ELVs given they’d had an entire S14 to watch teams play under the trial laws, not to mention players in key positions who had performed under the ELVs, will forever remain a mystery. The admission was not only a major lapse in judgement at a time when they still needed to get the public back on board, but was symptomatic of the trio’s inability to adapt and change with the modern game. Thankfully that seemed to come right as the year wore on, but the reality is that the home unions were cannon fodder so it remains to be seen how they fare tactically against South Africa and Australia next year.

Continuing to play players out of position

Having selected Rudi Wulf and Anthony Tuitavake as wingers, we then had to watch Richard Kahui (a specialist midfielder) being played on the wing instead. After limited chances, Wulf was discarded for the end of year tour. There were experiments with So’oialo at openside and blindside, using Adam Thomson at openside, Jerome Kaino at No 8, and moving Carter to 2nd 5 to accommodate Stephen Donald at 1st 5. Hopefully the lesson has been learnt that So’oialo is a No 8, Kahui is best at centre despite performing admirably on the wing, Donald is limited as an international 1st 5, Thomson is not up to the role of openside at top level, and Kaino’s best position is at blindside.

I would have added a fourth point over Sione Lauaki had they not finally seen the light and dropped him from the sqaud after the Tri-Nations (though I question his selection in the first instance). Player loyalty is admirable, but blinkered loyalty in the light of continual poor performance is another. Enough said.

PLAYERS:

Some stand-out perfomances by key senior All Blacks this year. Those who deserve special mention are Richie McCaw, Ali Williams, Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn, Mils Muliaina, Ma’a Nonu, and Dan Carter.

First accolades must go to captain McCaw. While continuing to perform as the world’s best openside flanker, his captaincy skills finally reached maturity and we now see a captain of true international standing. I am frankly incredulous that he failed to win Player of the Year both at the IRB and the NZRU Steinlager Awards – perhaps the fact that our own NZ judges couldn’trecognise the significance of McCaw’s playing abilities mirrors that of the IRB judging panel. If ever there was a leader who fell in the vein of “follow my example”, then it’s McCaw. I could wax lyrical about his work rate on attack and defence, his ability to read the game, his ball carrying skills, his lineout work – the list is endless. What I will say though, is that without McCaw this All Black side, even with the mercurial Dan Carter, becomes disjointed and vulnerable.

Ali Williams played in all 16 tests this year. His lineout work with nearly faultless, his overall game has stepped up to a new level, and to me he embodies the passion for the jersey. Ali Williams would never say he was too tired to play, or turn down the chance to start in a test. Most importantly, he proved the point that the modern professional player isn’t too precious to front up week to week in test matches.

Tony Woodcock is one of the un-sung troopers, but continued to do his hard work both in the scrums and at ruck time. This year he was rewarded with tries, the standout one being against Australia in Auckland worked from a set move at a lineout. With the departure of Carl Hayman he has taken on the mantle of senior front rower, and will only continue to make his mark as a senior player in this All Black side.

Brad Thorn, despite having a few head-rushes on the field this year, has proven to be the workhorse of the pack. His ability to gain ground as a ball carrier and flatten attackers with his tackles have been a pleasure to watch. However, it is his efforts in the scrum that should be heralded. There is no doubt that his presence as tighthead lock in the scrum has made the job easier for the new TH props taking over from Carl Hayman, and the All Black scrum was seldom bettered when Thorn was packing down in it.

Mils Muliaina was back to his best form on the end of year tour, but more importantly showed an assuredness and calmness that marked him out as something special in this team. His organisation from the back has been a standout, and it was his calming presence off the bench and wide pass to Joe Rokocoko that saved the All Blacks from defeat against Munster. Two tries to his name against England were just reward for the try-saving ankle tap he’d managed at the start of the second half.

Ma’a Nonu has had his doubters, and I put my hand up as one of them. But it’s always great to be proven wrong, and Nonu has done that in style. His game has come on in leaps and bounds, and his ability to straighten the line proved invaluable in the UK. He has increased his workrate around the field, and his defence has improved immensely – especially from set piece where he was prone to rushing the line earlier in the season. His hard, strong running has seen him score a bag of tries this year. One can only imagine what a nightmare it must be for the opposition to front up on defence againstour five-eighth pairing of Carter and Nonu.

Dan Carter, even when his kicking boots failed him, remains the consumate all-round player. While his attacking game remains as sharp as ever, his defence in combination with McCaw has become a formidable weapon for the All Blacks. There is absolutely no chance of getting through the inside channel against this All Black side with Carter and McCaw lying in wait for you. Even with some ordinary goal kicking by his usual high standards, Carter clocked up 203 points for the test season.

OVERALL:

Pleasing improvement in our lineout, which is now a consistent source of ball on our throw. Gone are the days of ducking and diving around before the ball was thrown in, there is a calmness that has improved our accuracy no end. Better yet, we contest the opposition thro
w to good success. The scrum is the All Blacks dominant set piece, and should continue to be so.

The loose trio, now that they’ve had a chance to gel without rotation, is a lethal and complimentary combination. Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu both came back from the wilderness and proved themselves at this level. We have depth in the midfield, and talent emerging at lower levels both in the forwards and three quarters.

However, we still lack international-class replacements for our two key players – McCaw and Carter. While it is impossible to replace perfection, this is one area that needs to be focussed on next year as without one or both of these players our game falters. It is the collective responsibility of the coaches and the team that we attempt to wean ourselves from relying on these two. There are glimpses that this is beginning, so I can only hope that we don’t see more key players heading offshore in the next year or so.

28 Nov

Match Preview: England v All Blacks
by Tracey Nelson
28 Nov 2008

The All Blacks are just one win away from attaining only their third ever Grand Slam on this end of year tour to Hong Kong and the UK. While achieving a Grand Slam is perhaps not the same accomplishment it was in 1978 , nonetheless this current tour is perhaps more noteworthy than the Grand Slam achieved in 2005. This time round the end of year tour has involved five consecutive test matches (thanks to the fourth Bledisloe test in Hong Kong) along with a slug-fest mid-week game against Irish side Munster – and this time round we have seen an end to the contentious rotation of the test side.

Before this tour started, Graham Henry stated that there was no way an All Black could play five consecutive test matches on ‘what will be the most demanding Test match tour schedule faced by an All Blacks team in the professional era. Yet this weekend we will see Ali Williams and Keven Mealamu front up to play their fifth consecutive test (Mealamu didn’t start in Hong Kong but came on within the first 10 minutes of the game to replace Andrew Hore), while Joe Rokocoko backs up for his fourth test but fifth game in the space of four weeks, and Ma’a Nonu plays his fourth test in a row.

Meanwhile the likes of Muliaina, Sivivatu, Carter, Cown, So’oialo, Kaino, McCaw, Thorn, Tialata and Woodcock will all be starting in their third consecutive test match. I see this as both testimont to the passion these players have for the black jersey and recognition by the coaching staff that not only can these players front up to the demands of test rugby week in and week out but their game has actually improved by doing so.

By fielding the same side (with the exception of centre) against Ireland and Wales, and with the make-up of the first choice forward pack pretty much settled since the latter games of the Tri-Nations, we have seen this All Black side gel in a way that was never evident during the doomed campaign for the RWC in 2007. But the litmus test will be this weekend, when the All Blacks take on a wounded England side at Twickenham, and we find out whether five consecutive test matches is indeed one too many in the new professional era.

England will be out to regain some pride after the humiliating record defeat they suffered on their home turf last week to the World Cup Champions South Africa. A loss in this test will see them slip below fourth in the IRB world rankings which in turn will see them lose seeding status for the draw for the 2011 World Cup on December 1st. The odds of this happening look slim, with the All Blacks going into this match as firm favourites on the back of seven consecutive test wins (the last six of which were all on the road) whilst England have fallen to Australia and South Africa on home turf in the last fortnight.

The luckless Danny Cipriani has been dropped to the bench and Toby Flood will be in the number 10 jersey marking up against Dan Carter who has scored an astounding 120 points against England in six test he’s played against them. Ricky Flutey, an ex Wellingtonian now playing for England will be matching up against the in-form Ma’a Nonu, while Michael Lipman has the dubious honour of taking over at openside flanker to mark Richie McCaw.

Chances are that England manager Martin Johnson will get his side to return to it’s 10-man rugby roots, a style of game more suited to the players they currently have available. England have looked good employing the pick and go with their pack but have run into problems when they have attempted to play the running/offload game, turning over possession regularly and not scrambling well enough in defence against the counter attack. One can only imagine the carnage that may result should such a scenario unfold against the All Blacks.

However, even in defeat there could be a small victory for England. So far on this end of year tour, the All Blacks have not conceded any points in the second half of their tests nor have they conceded any tries against Scotland, Wales or Ireland. To score a try against New Zealand would certainly be a small ray of light in what has so far been an abject season for England. And for the All Blacks, one can only imagine that to concede a try to England even while beating them would almost make a Grand Slam a failure.

ALL BLACKS: Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Rodney So’oialo, Richie McCaw (captain), Jerome Kaino, Ali Williams, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Hikawera Elliot, John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Kieran Read, Piri Weepu, Stephen Donald, Isaia Toeava.

ENGLAND: Delon Armitage, Paul Sackey, Jamie Noon, Riki Flutey, Ugo Monye, Toby Flood, Danny Care, Tim Payne, Lee Mears, Phil Vickery, Steve Borthwick, Nick Kennedy, James Haskell, Michael Lipman, Nick Easter.
Reserves: Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Tom Croft, Tom Rees, Harry Ellis, Danny Cipriani, Dan Hipkiss.

18 Nov

Change the record
by Tracey Nelson
18 Nov 2008

Every year we seem to go through this – Open Season on Richie McCaw. Gripes and complaints about him being “a cheat” and that referees don’t penalise him enough. It’s usually from some jealous type who doesn’t have an openside flanker of McCaw’s quality, and almost always from someone who doesn’t quite have their heads around the laws of the game.

Somewhat surprisingly this time it’s from former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer, who has complained that referees are allowing McCaw to enter the breakdown illegally ‘We think he is allowed by referees to make his first point of entry at which he claims a shot at the opposition ball from the side rather than going in through what is called ‘the rear gate’. He then swings the rest of his body around so he finishes up in an illegal position, shutting off any opponent from getting the ball. Illegally, he has denied the opposition a shot at possession’.

At the risk of repeating myself ad-naseum (and I was sorely tempted to simply drag out an old article dating back to the 2006 S14), you need to understand the laws at the breakdown correctly before you start showing yourself up as a complete idiot by making such statements as Dwyer’s. I’ll start with this ‘swinging of the body’ claim.

Fact – Richie McCaw makes more tackles per game than any other rugby player on the current international stage. Therefore, he has more chances than other players to legally contest for the ball simply because as the tackler he has rights to play the ball before a ruck forms.

Fact – if you are the tackler, position-wise the single onus on you is to get back to your feet before you attempt to play the ball. McCaw as the tackler (that being the defending player who has gone to ground with the tackled player in the tackle) is quite entitled to get to his feet and play the ball in whatever direction his body happens to be facing in. He does not have to retire back ‘through the gate’ to play the ball as the tackler.

Fact – If he’s smart enough to present his back to the attacking team while he attempts to win the ball, then it just shows he knows the laws and uses them to his advantage. If he is on his feet, he is not in an ‘illegal position, shutting off any opponent from getting the ball’. It is up to the opposition to get numbers there, bind to McCaw and form a ruck thus denying him the opportunity to continue playing at the ball with his hands. Tough luck if your side isn’t fast enough to get there before he turns the ball over.

What McCaw is doing as a defender is completely above-board and legal. He does not get away with illegal play at the breakdown, as was demonstrated by the excellent refereeing of South African Mark Lawrence in the weekend. When McCaw wasn’t the tackler and entered the breakdown illegally by not coming through ‘the gate’, or it became a ruck and he continued to play the ball, Lawrence penalised him.

Dwyer went on further with his complaints about McCaw, suggesting that when teams had possession referees were allowing entry from the side as well. I’m struggling to think where Dwyer has seen this happen, because most referees are managing to police this fairly well and those who haven’t have been consistent in letting all players do the same and not giving McCaw or any other openside flanker special rights.

In a final serve to the IRB referees, Dwyer suggested that they are allowing McCaw to bend the laws saying ‘There seems to be some other directive to referees, which informs that none of the laws concerning entry and sealing off apply to Richie McCaw’. Whilst I share some of Dwyer’s frustration with the current international refereeing standards, I find his claims to be somewhat off the mark. Perhaps he should be looking in his own backyard at another world-class No 7 in the form of George Smith, who is arguably only second to McCaw when it comes to contesting the ball at the breakdown. Is he a cheat as well?

31 Oct

Walk the Walk
by Tracey Nelson
31 Oct 2008

On the eve of the first off-shore Bledisloe Cup test between New Zealand and Australia in Hong Kong, the CEOs of the respective unions fired a small broadside at the IRB regarding the strength (or lack thereof) of northern hemisphere touring sides in the June test window.

For all that was discussed in Woking last year on the length of the global season, and the promises made that French club rugby would finish by the end of May, nothing changed at all in 2008 and doesn’t look any more likely to in 2009 – with the French club season not likely to finish before early June, and UK club sides reluctant to release players for national duties.

For several seasons now the northern hemisphere have been sending under-strength squads to tour New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, yet still expect to see full strength sides from down-under tour up north come November. Crowd numbers at such mis-matches in both New Zealand and Australia in recent years have reflected the public’s view that these "test" matches are nothing more than opposed training runs, and as result gate revenue has declined.

In a joint press conference held by the CEO’s of the Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australian Rugby Unions at the Hong Kong Stadium this afternoon, Australian CEO John O’Neill put forward the suggestion that should under-strength tours by northern hemisphere sides continue perhaps it was time the three big southern hemisphere sides either canned the in-bound June test window, refused to tour the northern hemisphere in the November window or demanded a bigger slice of the revenue from selling out 80 000 seat stadiums in the UK.

Certainly the interest this off-shore Bledisloe has generated lends a degree of merit to this idea, and already an unsolicited offer has come out of Denver in the USA to host a similar test in 2009. Globalisation of the game seems to be paramount in the minds of both Australia and New Zealand, albeit with a view to topping up some fairly empty coffers at present. While NZRU CEO Steve Tew was a little less forthcoming on the idea of canning tours to the UK should the current status quo around the June international test window remain, he did agree with O’Neill that the current situation was less than ideal and that other markets were definitely out there.

With Japan keen to host a Rugby World Cup, it seems logical that taking a Bledisloe Cup test there at some stage in the next two years would not only showcase the game to one of Asia’s biggest population bases but also give Japan the chance to prove they are capable of putting on such and event and filling the stadium.

It remains to be seen how the IRB, and more importantly the controlling member unions, respond to O’Neill’s bold stance on the current status of international test rugby. No doubt there will be some more howls of rage from certain "gin-swilling old farts" but there remains the fact that tours by the All Blacks and Wallabies sell out stadiums wherever in the world they go, so we can only hope that O’Neill and Tew have the fortitude to make the big decisions should it come down to it and do more than just talk the talk.

24 Oct

ANZC Final Preview
by Tracey Nelson
24 Oct 2008

As predicted, the final has become a showdown of Wellington against Canterbury. Easily the two best sides in the competition this year, both have only dropped one game on their road to the final.

Canterbury lost their only game in the very first round, unexpectedly falling to minnow-team Manawatu. Wellington, by contrast, fell in the last round losing to Otago at Carisbrook have survived their first and only Shield Defence of the year the week before.

The final sees the best attacking side (Wellington) up against the best defensive side. However, to back their defence up Canterbury have been the second best attacking side behind Wellington. The same can’t be said for Wellington, who in recent weeks have looked brittle on defence at times.

With this in mind, Wellington coach Jamie Joseph has chosen to shift All Black 2nd 5, Ma’a Nonu, out to the wing and play a midfield combination of Tamati Ellison and Conrad Smith. Serge Lilo makes a welcome return at openside, having been out with injury for the last month. Injury concerns over prop Neemia Tialata and lock Jeremy Thrush, who has had a massive season for the capital side, have receded and both will start this Saturday night.

Canterbury have bigger injury woes, having lost speedy winger James Paterson to a serious knee injury early in their semi final game against Hawkes Bay, while half back Andy Ellis has been ruled out with a medial ligament strain. With All Black captain Richie McCaw at openside and Kieran Read captaining the side at No 8, Canterbury will be looking to get the edge at the breakdown with the assistance of their mobile locking pairing of Michael Paterson and Isaac Ross, along with seasoned campaigners Corey Flynn, Greg Somerville and Wyatt Crockett in the front row.

This game promises to be a real battle right across the field, with the Wellington speedsters of Hosea Gear and Corey Jane up against the solid Scott Hamilton and Paul Williams. Midfield has Ellison/Smith versus Tim Bateman and Casey Laulala. First five has the unlikely match-up of All Black halfback Piri Weepu against in-form rookie Colin Slade, yet another 1st 5 off the HSOB/Canterbury production line. Both forward packs are strong and mobile, so expect no mercy to be taken by either side.

Wellington have home advantage and a sting in their attack, while Canterbury have a pretty handy attack themselves and a proven defensive record this season. Finals rugby often comes down to which side has the best defence, but this may not be the case on Saturday night. Either way though, it promises to be a great game of rugby.

Predicition: depends what mood referee Bryce Lawrence is in. Too hard to call this one.

WELLINGTON: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Ma’a Nonu, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Piri Weepu (captain), 9 Alby Matthewson, 8 Rodney So’oialo, 7 Serge Lilo, 6 Chris Masoe, 5 Jeremy Thrush, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 John Schwalger, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Neemia Tialata. Reserves: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Tim Fairbrother, 19 Thomas Waldrom, 20 Api Naikatini, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Tane Tu’ipulotu.

CANTERBURY: 15 Scott Hamilton, 14 Paul Williams, 13.Casey Laulala, 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Richie McCaw, 6 Hayden Hopgood, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Michael Paterson, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett, Reserves: 16 Steve Fualau, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Nasi Manu, 19 George Whitelock, 20 Steve Alfeld, 21 Hamish Gard, 22 Adam Whitelock.

Referee: Bryce Lawrence (Bay of Plenty).

17 Oct

ANZC Semi-Finals Preview
by Tracey Nelson
17 Oct 2008

And then there were four. This weekend sees the semi-finals of the Air New Zealand Cup with Wellington taking on Southland at the Caketin, and Canterbury hosting Hawkes Bay in AMI Stadium in Christchurch. So what are the chances for the four contenders?

WELLINGTON v SOUTHLAND (1st v 5th), Friday 7.35pm

Wellington were made to work hard last week by an enterprising Taranaki side who really took the game to the competition favourites. Historically recognised for their good forward packs, the Naki unleashed a slick-running backline with 2nd 5 Jayden Haywood cutting some merry capers through the Lions’ defence at times. It took until the 70th minute of the game for Wellington to finally surge ahead on the board, and the final scoreline of 50-30 didn’t really tell the full story of the game.

Meanwhile, Southland had travelled north to take on Bay of Plenty and surprised many with the attacking game they brought with them. Despite Bay of Plenty scoring the first try, they were never really in the game after that and Southland gave them a stern lesson about getting numbers to the breakdown and have reliable set pieces. The final score of 45-11 in this match was a true reflection of what had happened on the field.

This semi-final match promises to be a true contrast of styles. Wellington have been in their own league as far as scoring points goes this season, yet defensively they have conceded nearly 200 points in 11 games. Contrast this with Southland, who have been very sound with a defensive record (163 points) second only to Canterbury and seem to be finally hitting their attacking straps at the business end of the season. On a dry ground at home, you’d back Wellington. But the weather is threatening rain and if Southland can play the percentages and maintain their strong defence, Wellington may well have a battle on their hands.

Key players: Wellington have the services of their All Blacks Nonu, Weepu, So’oialo, Schwalger and Tialata, with Conrad Smith on the bench. In a move obviously designed to shore-up their midfield defence, coach Jamie Joseph has shifted Nonu to the wing and brought Tane Tuipulotu back into the 2nd 5 slot. Southland have the in-form Jimmy Cowan, flying winger Pehi Te Whare who picked up a brace of tries last week, and a very solid front row.

Key areas: as always, the battle of the breakdown will be important and it will be interesting to see how the Wellington trio of Masoe, So’oialo and Waldrom match up in speed against Dion Bates, Tim Boys and David Hall. Southland will look to put the heat on at scrum time, and expect to see plenty of contesting from both sides at the lineouts. The edge in speed out wide probably goes to the Wellington back trio of Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu and Hosea Gear, but Southland fullback Robbie Robinson is an elusive runner and Te Whare is all power. At the end of the day this game will probably go to the team who has the better defence and can shut the opposition’s game down.

Likely result: hard to call if it rains, but you’d probably have to go with Wellington on their home track. Southland have a longer track record than Wellington for choking in the big games, but they have the form and game to upset the favourites if they can bring it.

Wellington: Cory Jane, Ma’a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Tane Tu’ipulotu, Hosea Gear, Piri Weepu (c), Alby Mathewson, Thomas Waldrom, Rodney So’oialo, Chris Masoe, Jeremy Thrush, Ross Filipo, John Schwalger, Dane Coles, Neemia Tialata. Reserves: Ged Robinson, Jacob Ellison, Tim Fairbrother, Api Naikatini, Serge Lilo, Daniel Kirkpatrick, Conrad Smith.
Southland: Robbie Robinson, Mark Wells, Kendrick Lynn, Matt Saunders, Pehi Te Whare, Blair Stewart, Jimmy Cowan, David Hall, Tim Boys, Dion Bates, Hoani Macdonald, Josh Bekhuis, Chris King, Jason Rutledge, Jamie Mackintosh (c). Reserves: Matt Holloway, Fai Mika, Daniel Ramsay, John Hardie, Scott Cowan,Tane Puke, Willie Rickards.

CANTERBURY v HAWKES BAY (2nd v 3rd), Saturday, 7.35pm

Canterbury dealt swiftly and sharply to Tasman last weekend winning 45-10, and have now won 10 games on the trot to keep their momentum growing. Easily the best defensive side in the competition conceding a miserly average of 10 points per game, they are also the second best attacking side after Wellington and therefore would appear to be odds on favourites to win this semi final.

Hawkes Bay played some great attacking rugby in the first half of their quarter final against Waikato last week, clocking up a 28-0 lead at halftime. However, they nearly let the game slip in the second half conceding nearly as many points as they had scored, and just scraped to victory on the back of the lone penalty Matt Berquist kicked to win 31-28. Despite conceding twice as many points this season as Canterbury has, Hawkes Bay can boast a pretty healthy attacking game and without doubt have the best functioning lineout in the competition having lost only two on their own throw this season.

This semi-final sees a meeting of two teams who play a very similar style of game. Last time they met (a mere 3 weeks ago), Canterbury won 31-7. Since then, Canterbury’s game has grown and whereas earlier in the season they squandered a few scoring opportunites, in recent times they have been nailing most of them and in Crusader-like style. Hawkes Bay have performed well all season, interestingly having only lost to the three other semi-finalists. They will be hoping for a dry ground, as their game relies on the pace of their backline and keeping the ball moving.

Key players: Canterbury have the luxury of starting All Black captain Richie McCaw this week, and also have 2008 All Blacks Greg Somerville and Andy Ellis in their lineup. Add to that seasoned campaigners Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Casey Laulala and Scott Hamilton, All Black-in-waiting Keiran Reid, plus the youthful talent of Tim Bateman and James Paterson, and this is a side that will be hard to beat at home. Hawkes Bay have their hard-running, accurate-throwing hooker Hikawera Elliot, the up and coming George Naoupu at No 8, and a good deal of talent in their backline with the likes of Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Jason Shoemark, Matt Berquist and seasoned campaigner Danny Lee.

Key areas: both teams are aggressive at the breakdown, so watch for a battle royale there. Can the Canterbury side upset Hawkes Bay at the lineout, or will Elliot’s excellent throwing continue? Hawkes Bay have a pretty good scrum, but Canterbury have given most sides a testing time in that area. Keep your fingers crossed for a dry track, because there should be some wonderful running rugby on display from both sides. Question is, will Hawkes Bay be able to combat Canterbury’s great defence?

Likely result: potentially this game could be the master teaching the student a lesson or two. While both sides play a very similar style, Canterbury simply have more experience and the better bench. Expect a Canterbury win, but for the Bay to keep themselves in the game until midway through the second half when the Cantabs start to bring on fresh legs.

Canterbury: Scott Hamilton, Paul Williams, Casey Laulala, Tim Bateman, James Paterson, Colin Slade, Andrew Ellis, Kieran Read (c), Richie McCaw, Hayden Hopgood, Isaac Ross, Michael Paterson, Greg Somerville, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett. Reserves: Steve Fulau, Owen Franks, Nasi Manu, George Whitelock, Tyson Keats, Hamish Gard, Adam Whitelock.
Hawkes Bay: Israel Dagg, Jason Kupa, Jason Shoemark, Sam Giddens, Zac Guildford, Matthew Berquist, Danny Lee, George Naoupu, Karl Lowe, Michael Johnson, Bryn Evans, Johan Snyman, Anthony Perenise, Hikawera Elliot, Sona Taumalolo. Reserves: Ash Dixon, Josh Keys, Matt Egan, Pama Petia, Chris Eaton, Aayden Clarke, Mark Jackman. />

4 Sep

Wellington and Christchurch to host RWC Quarter Finals
by Tracey Nelson
4 Sep 2008

Rugby New Zealand 2011 Ltd in conjunction with Rugby World Cup Limited (RWCL) today announced that the venues for the quarter-final games will be in Wellington and Christchurch. Auckland will host the play-off bronze medal game for third place.

With RWC Ltd’s preference to have just two cities hosting the quarter-finals, it came down to a three horse race between Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. With Auckland already allocated the two semi-finals and the final, it was hoped that the quarter-finals would be hosted elsewhere in the country to truly live up to the slogan “a stadium of 4 million people” but there were doubts that this would happen given that Auckland is home to the country’s biggest stadium, and therefore the source of greatest revenue from ticket sales.

But despite IRB chief executive Mike Miller’s “clear and strong preference” that Auckland and one other city host the quarterfinals mainly on the grounds of financial reasons, RNZ 2011 decided to compromise and use Wellington and Christchurch as the two hosts regardless of the fact it could cost the NZRU up to $10million in gate revenue due to both stadiums being smaller tha Eden Park.

While Wellington’s stadium has a current capacity of 34,500 seats, temporary seating could increase that to 40.000.Likewise in Christchurch where the redeveloped stadium will have a capacity of 38,6000 this too could be increased to 45,000 with temporary seating.

Rugby World Cup 2011 Ltd chief executive Martin Sneddon said that even with Auckland not hosting a quarter-final, financial losses could be contained. The government has already unwritten the $30 million loss the tournament is expected to record, but hosting the RWC is likely to provide $112 million in tax revenue.

The only downside is that tickets are likely to be more expensive than ever seen before at a RWC tournament, with premium seats at the final potentially costing up to $1000. But with 40 pool games likely to be spread over 11 venues throughout the country, the average New Zealander is likely to be able to afford a seat even if it isn’t to watch the All Blacks.

The four quarter-finals will be played on the weekend of October 7, 8 and 9, 2011. The semi-finals will be played on the weekend of 15 and 16 October while the Bronze Final will be staged one or two days prior to the Final which is scheduled to be played on Labour Weekend (October 21-23) 2011.

3 Sep

RWC 2011: Where will the quarter-finals be?
by Tracey Nelson
3 Sep 2008

In its bid to host the 2011 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand took a campaign theme to the IRB that the tournament would be hosted in a stadium of four million people. It wasn’t just the NZRU backing this message, it was supported by the New Zealand government who are underwriting the tournament to the tune of $30 million dollars of our tax-payer money. But on the eve of the announcement of which cities will be hosting quarter-finals, just how many of our nation of four million will actually be getting a piece of the RWC pie?

Auckland’s Eden Park has already been committed to hosting the two semi-finals and the final, on the back of stadium capacity (62,000 for the RWC) and the logistics of moving more than 40,000 people between the South and North Islands in one weekend to attend both semi-finals games. Nobody is arguing the financial and logistical realities over that decison.

But just where the quarter-finals will be played will be revealed tomorrow, following approval by the Board of Rugby World Cup Limited earlier that morning. Proposals to host the quarter-finals have been lodged by Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch, with Auckland and Hamilton also bidding to host the play-off for third and fourth.

Rugby New Zealand 2011, the company established in 2006 on behalf of the NZRU and the government charged with the responsibility for the planning and delivery of the 2011 RWC, has supposedly assessed the proposals on the following critieria which align to their four key strategic goals. These are:

1. Delivering an operationally excellent tournament
2. Achieving capacity crowds and achieving the budgeted financial result or better
3. Inspiring a nationwide Rugby World Cup festival
4. Creating enduring benefits

Martin Sneddon, CEO of Rugby New Zealand 2011, stated ‘There are tensions between those strategic goals and therefore a delicate balancing exercise to be undertaken when we assess the various proposals and venue allocation options’. The cynical amongst us – and let’s face it, our numbers swelled after the last RWC – would suggest that such a statement is a back-out clause to explain why the likes of Wellington and Christchurch will miss out on hosting quarter-finals.

Despite the fact that Christchurch is already in the midst of up-grading its stadium to be at a capacity of 45,000 for RWC 2011 making it the second biggest stadium in New Zealand (and without any of the $190 million the government has thrown in for the redevlopment of Eden Park) , many suspect that the travelling logistics card will be pulled on the country’s most successful professional province. Likewise Wellington with the third biggest stadium, who have hosted the incredibly successful New Zealand leg of the World Sevens tournament for several years now, are also threatened with the same travel logistics smoke screen.

According to NZRU Chairman Jock Hobbs, our bid to host the tournament ‘emphasised the rich heritage and history of New Zealand rugby’ in a country where ‘rugby is the pre-eminent sport’. If we spread the quarter-finals around the country, then yes we will be inspiring a nationwide festival and will certainly create enduring benefits. The fact of the matter is that hosting quarter finals in Wellington and Christchurch would not be setting a new precendent. Afteall, Cardiff hosted a infamous quarter final last year despite the fact the tournament was hosted by France and if fans didn’t have many problems getting from Cardiff to Paris in the space of seven days then they shouldn’t be too hard pressed to make their way to Auckland from Wellington or Christchurch.

Then there’s the ‘pre-eminent sport’ comment. If there is a one city in this country that doesn’t generate excitment before a big rugby game, it’s Auckland. The fact they get more people turning out to watch Americas Cup yatching kind of sums it up for the rest of New Zealand. It would be a slap in the face to the real rugby fans and the pro-active local councils in our other main centres if the quarter-final matches were all played in the Auckland region.

Given the vast amount of central government money being spent on upgrading Eden Park for RWC 2011 versus the local council and rate-payer funding of stadium up-grades outside of Auckland, there are compelling grounds for awarding quarter-final matches to Wellington and Christchurch. If the NZRU choose to argue they need to generate as much revenue as possible from ticket sales to the quarter-finals, it makes sense to base two games in Christchurch given their greater capacity. Indeed, concerns for the tournament to be a New Zealand-wide occasion led four government MPs to recently write to Rugby New Zealand 2011 to call for two quarter-finals to be held in the South Island. Christchurh MPs Lianne Dalziel, Tim Barnett, Ruth Dyson and Jim Anderton all noted that it was important to recognise the rest of the country outside of Auckland.

So all is set to be revealed at 3.15pm tomorrow in Wellington, headquarters of Rugby New Zealand 2011 and the NZRU. One can only hope that thecampaign theme of a stadium of four million has not lost in the the myriad of key strategic goals, budget sheets and the headache that has been the up-grade of Eden Park. This is New Zealand’s chance to show-case rugby to the world, and as such the quarter-finals need to be shared around. Closet all the tournament play-offs in the Auckland region and there will be a backlash from the rest of the country that willmake the fall-out from the 2007 RWC quarter-final loss look like a handbag fight in a rest home.