5 Jun

The Greatest Crusader of Them All?
by Tracey Nelson
5 Jun 2009

In the 13th year of Super Rugby Leon MacDonald became the third most-capped player for the Crusaders. No other 2009 player involved in Super 14 rugby in New Zealand can boast such a lengthy career, having started his Super rugby career in 1997 at the age of 19 he has only missed two seasons with the Crusaders – once in 1998 when he was drafted to the Chiefs, and the other in 2004 when he spent a season with the Yamaha club in Japan. Having completed his 11th Crusade he is once again heading back to Japan to play club rugby.

In a year where the Crusaders were rebuilding, having lost 11 of the players that took them to their 7th Super title in 2008 including the likes of Dan Carter and Scott Hamilton from the backline, the experience of MacDonald was vital in a very young team – many of whom were having their first year of Super rugby. He seems to have a real belief that rubs off on the team, particularly when you have a young team like this year’s Crusaders where belief can take a while to develop. In some cases the players have performed above a certain level just because they’ve had Leon there said assistant coach, Mark Hammett.

The measure of the quiet, unassuming man known as Rangi to his teammates is no better illustrated than the way he stepped up this season to take over the goal kicking duties when the two young 1st 5s in the side, Stephen Brett and Colin Slade, were struggling with their kicking percentages. A load he was happy to assume, despite goal kicking causing him problems with a tight groin. He nailed a last minute penalty from the sideline for the Crusaders to win their match against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and calmly dropped a goal against the Blues to win the last round robin game that assured the Crusaders of a place in this year’s semi finals.

Coach Todd Blackadder mused To me he’s our best Crusader, the length of time he’s put into the game, his professionalism to keep performing – he’s still got that enthusiasm about him, he still wants to compete and do well.

Never one to want the limelight, MacDonald epitomized everything that was great about the Crusaders franchise – a franchise that promotes the team ahead of the individual, where everyone is valued, and where there is no room for egos. Hammett summed MacDonald up, saying It’s a bit hard to do him justice in words. It hasn’t just been the last couple of years that he’s been instrumental and inspirational in what he’s achieved here, it’s been right from the start. He’s has had this attitude of how can I improve, where can I communicate, how can I give to the team’. The team always seemed bigger than him as an individual.

While MacDonald has never said much off the field, he has certainly stood out when playing. With an uncanny ability to seemingly find gaps where there were none, his counter-attacking skills from the fullback position were instrumental in the success of the Crusaders over the years and his courage on defence was second to none. But he would also add his efforts elsewhere around the field, as Hammett commented He’s a bit forward-like himself, he likes to get in and clean out and rucks, and run hard close to the rucks. That was something I used to really enjoy when I played in teams with Rangi.

It was in 2000 following the Crusaders’ third Super title that MacDonald was first selected for the All Blacks, and it started a career in the black jersey that spanned eight years and amassed 146 test points. MacDonald also represented New Zealand Maori, and was part of the side when they beat the British Lions 19-13 in 2005, scoring their only try of the game.

MacDonald is the third most capped Crusader with 122 appearances, only Reuben Thorne (129) and Caleb Ralph (126) have numbered more games for the franchise. With a total of 42 tries to his name only Ralph has eclipsed him in the try scoring stakes, while Andrew Mehrtens and Dan Carter are the only two players to have tallied more points overall. Todd Blackadder makes no pretense that they would like him to become the most capped Crusader, I’m hoping it’s not his last game, we’re desperately working hard behind the scenes to get one more Crusade out of him because his experience has just been critical this year. You can’t buy that sort of experience.

I don’t think there’s been anyone more consistent than him, which is why he’s been both a Crusader and an All Black all these years added Hammett, I should hope in time that he should become a very good coach himself, so that’ll be exciting and we’ll watch closely. As will the rest of us, although no doubt fans would love to see MacDonald back for one last Crusade.

Leon MacDonald’s player stats:

Provincial caps: 70 (37 Canterbury, 33 Marlborough)
Provincial debut:1994 v Buller (for Marlborough)
Super caps:127 (122 Crusaders, 5 Chiefs)
Super debut: 1997 (v Hurricanes)
Super points:351 (42 tries, 28 conversions, 27 penalties, 1 drop goal)
Test caps:56
Test points:146 (15 tries, 25 conversions, 7 penalties)
Test debut:2000 (v Scotland)

26 Jun

Lions first test — heroes v zeroes.
by Rick Boyd
26 Jun 2005

There are a couple of notably good things to come out of the first Lions-All Black test 2005.

First, let’s not neglect to mention that it was a win, and a good win — 21-3 to the All Blacks.

Second, how heartening was it for the average All Black fan to see the New Zealand national team playing good, hard, consistent rugby from a strong forward platform? Well, bloody heartening, I can tell you.

But let’s not get carried away. What we’re after here is the long haul, an actual winning season — and what a season it is. The British lions, the Tri Nations and a Grand Slam. And to do that we not only need quality, we need consistent quality; and that’s where the All Blacks have fallen down in recent years.

And it wasn’t all sunshine and wine gums in this game. For a start, sunshine was a bit unlikely as it was played at some bloody silly hour of the night for the convenience of a nation of fat, lazy poms and other sundry inhabitants of Britannia and Hibernia. Let the useless sods get out of bed at 3 am like real men used to when called upon to watch black and white TV broadcasts from Cardiff Arms Park in days of yawn.

Added to that was fairly copius amounts of finest Canterbury mositure descending from the heavens at various rates of knots and in two of its naturally occuring states — all three, actually, once it hit overheated bodies in soggy rugby jerseys.

I didn’t believe Honest Graham’s proclamations of a ten man game Due to Forecast Rain any more than the next hardened cynic. But playing open, running rugby with horizontal sleet in your face and a ball — even one developed by NASA with a textured vinyl casing designed to stick like superglue to teflon — like the proverbial bar of Lifebouy, is not the idea situation and is unlikely to achieve big Super 12 scores, however noble the intention.

A short round of applause to the All Blacks though, they did a damned good job of it in the circumstances, and were maybe a tad unlucky not to have a couple more tries to their name. Let’s hope for some fine weather at Wellington — all right, you may laugh — and see what they’re really made of.

So, in the face of it, a 21-3 win in shipwreck weather should be worth the odd Speights or 19, right?

Like I say, let’s not get carried away. There is always the temptation to ascribe any win to the qualities of the winning team and forget that there was another side on the paddock contributing to proceedings. And contribute the British and Irish Lions did — mostly by taking a careful aim at the foot region and letting go with both barrels.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Lions team play so poorly. It was a puzzling, and really rather sad, sight. Did any of them really want to be out there? They looked like a very unhappy team with deep internal divisions who didn’t want to play together and made an extremely poor job of the attempt. Did they have a plan? What was it?

I know they had one plan, a Cunning Plan My Lord, fielded once or 17 times by Sir Clive Would-would of Greater Whingeing, which mainly involves cheating like buggery, killing the ball whenever possible and slowing play down so a raft of elderly poms can keep up with play.

Well, bad news, it didn’t work.

Were there any other plans? Their lineouts made the All Blacks’ lineouts of Bledisloe Cup games in the early noughties look accurate, efficient and rock solid. Their scrum, supposedly a demonstration of how the northern hemisphere is leading the rugby world in rugby forwards basic, was barely able to tread water. Their kicking game was a travesty and they never looked remotely like scoring a try.

So all in all, they didn’t provide much competition and the All Blacks shouldn’t put too much store in the way this game was won. They’re unlikely to face such crappy opposition in red jerseys again any time soon. I hope.

Still, a good solid performance from the All Blacks forwards in most departments. All the tight five did the business, with a special mention to Chris Jack, and not too shabby by Ali Williams either.

The loose forwards did all that could be expected of them without being utterly God-like, and Richie McCaw, THE MAN, didn’t get hit in the head more than necessary.

Thanks and So Long to Justin Marshall, who played well without dominating the game as he has done on occasion. Daniel Carter, apart from a plethora of idiot charged-down kicks, kept up to standard. Mauger also looked steady in trying conditions, and made a pleasing half-break to set up Sivivatu’s try. Umaga in good form, one dazzling break, one superb lob pass, and lots of solid defence — and all the back three performed creditably in weather more suited to freezing inactive wings and fullbacks into blue, shivering sculptures while the forwards form barely mobile steam-lodges somewhere beyond the curtain of rain. Howlett looked to be trying too hard to redeem himself, running the ball when it was never really on.

We don’t want to damn the All Blacks with faint praise, considering the conditions, but on the other hand, we don’t want to give them delusions of grandeur, considering the opposition.

Battle has commenced, the victory of the first engagement is ours to savour, but it is only the end of the beginning. Wear your laurels proudly, All Blacks, because you deserve them: but don’t rest on them. There’s a couple more lions heads to go on the trophy room wall yet.

13 Apr

Its An April Fool or Off With His Head!
by Colin Johnston
13 Apr 2005

Off With His Head!

Can history repeat itself? Can Clive Woodward take his England 2003 World Cup winning squad to the Southern Hemisphere and win with the 2005 English, whoops sorry, British Lions?

No of course not. Sir Clive doesn’t have Johnny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson. Instead, he opted for his security blanket of 20 England internationalists in his Lions squad. Some of these are retired from international duty and some, that saw the way the wind was blowing, jumped before they were pushed. Other have failed to play since then and some have been persistently injured. But, make no mistake, this Lions squad is England ’03 revisited and Woodward has taken his chums for one last ‘Huzzah!’. The Lions’ selection smacks of arrogance, xenophobia and a level of myopia that hasn’t been witnessed since Mr McGoo to took the screens in his comical bubble car. This England outfit has stuttered, farted, wheezed, bleated moaned and bitched its way to two successive crap 6 Nations and a Southern Hemisphere white wash since the heady days of Wilco’s injury time drop goal. Clearly, Sir Clive wasn’t watching those matches.

Lets look at some of the personalities that Sir Clive has taken along. If you start anywhere it has to be the most over rated, underperforming internationalist in the Northern Hemisphere. Step forward Steve Thompson, hooker. In the 6 Nations this year he added a new dimension to every other teams line out stats by regularly missing his man but unerringly finding the opposition. He gifted France and Ireland penalties and generally took England’s lineout to a record low. Impartial viewers thought he would struggle to get on the plane, but not Sir Clive. Thompson is not a patch on the player he was in 2003 and the hype of being an RWC winner and what that is all about clearly has gone to his head.

Next up, the best stand up comic on British gameshow TV, yes its Matt Dawson. Matt was voted this accolade by my 12 year old son,s mini rugby team on their tour bus recently. He was so pleased with the honour, when they told him,he gifted them his rugby mits, nice one, Matt. For those that don’t know, Matt ‘I’m not available for England training because of my TV commitments’ Dawson places a greater priority on TV appearances than training duty with his country. He declared himself unavailable to train but okay to play. The biggest irony here is the Woodward ostensibly resigned as England coach because he couldn’t get the players for training as much as he wanted due to their club commitments. Hypocricy? Contradiction? Come on Clive ‘Give Us a Clue’ (Oops that’s another gameshow – cue for Matt!) No, Matt was in RWC ’03 so it doesn’t count – my mistake. Harry Ellis, England’s starting half back and Andy Gomersal, England’s other RWC halfback don’t even get a mention. I feel sorry for them as they are the best in their country. Maybe Dawson has some dirty photos of Woodward, who knows?

Then we move to the main event. The selection that redefines arrogance and misplaced loyalty. Yep, its Dallaglio, Hill and Back. They had an excellent RWC but now 2 have retired from international duty and one is constantly on the injured list. Everyone has been singing big Lawrence’s praises this year at club level. No surprises there though is there? He isn’t playing internationalist backrows every week and he is playing 30% less games as he isn’t on international duty. Oh, did we mention his club, the former holders got an early exit from Europe this season so even less games to play?

Neil Back, who ignominiously got the Order of the Boot from Woodward last year and retired from England in the huff, complete with recriminations and name calling, is straight into the Lions squad. This is amazing as the last time he played in NZ he was 2 yards off the pace and that was 2 years ago. McCaw and Co must be relishing seeing him trotting out on to the paddock. This year Back hasn’t held his club place, never mind getting a shout from the Lions. Lewis Moody, his replacement at Leicester, is yards faster and on the plane anyway, so why take Neil Back? An apology for last year’s England exit, a final pay day – can’t be more dirty photos, surely? We shall never know.

Richard Hill, exemplary player that he is, had approximately 120 minutes of rugby to prove to Woodward that he can tour with the Lions. The likes of Jason White, Johnny O’Conner et al that have had an outstanding season at club and international level must be gutted.

Is it me or do you think Sir Clive is trying to say sorry and give his old chums one last pay day before they are forced to call time on their professional careers? This is the British Lions not some benefit tour for semi-retired warhorses, for Christ’s sake, Clive.

In all honesty, Graham Henry was a crap Lions coach in 2001, absolutely no doubt about it. We in the UK can only hope Henry is as divisive to the All Blacks as he was the Lions but somehow I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it. He split the Lions squad and eliminated any chance they might have had to build team spirit. Matt Dawson (he of TV gameshow fame) and others were reduced to reporting the squads discontent in the papers back in the UK and the whole thing degenerated into a shambles.

Woodward has however gone with another tactic. He has gone for polarisation, them and us Celts and Poms. Winning the Grand Slam or the Triple Crown doesn’t count. Being English is the precursor to getting on Sir Clive squad. Undoubtedly, we shall have the most polarised squad ever with cliques established before we even start that will not be easy to break down. We will have the England ’03 troops with their toadying acolytes that have come into the frame since then. We shall have the Welsh, nursing a grievance that they won the Grand Slam and have been largely ignored and we will have the Irish and the 3 Scots that Woodward has taken along to hold the tackle pads. Advantage NZ? I would say so. It will be so easy for the NZ media and coaching staff to start driving wedges into the very framework and spirit that is the British Lions. Result? Three test wins to the All Blacks.

What then do we do with the omnipotent Woodward on his return to Britain? In days gone by the fate of treasonous knights was a short time in the Tower and then they got the chop. Now, in the 21st Century apparently this is a wee bit extreme for the bleeding heart liberals amongst us. Personally, I say it depends how bad the results are. So what is a just punishment for a treacherous knave these days? Woodward should, as a minimum, get his knighthood revoked and then spend the rest of his life coaching soccer at a girls school. Joking apart, his next job is coaching an also ran soccer team in England’s Premiership. God help them when Dallaglio, Back and Hill pitch up for preseason training!

30 Sep

The Difference
by Rick Boyd
30 Sep 2001

One of the most interesting things about current rugby is how New Zealanders and Australians evaluate their relative positions after the recent Tri Nations series, and more generally, rugby in the last five years — to choose an arbitrary figure.

The general consensus is fairly consistent in each country but remarkably divided between the two countries.

In New Zealand, the feeling is that the All Blacks have not been performing to standard. In Australia, they feel that the Wallaby team over this period is not only one of the most successful in the world, but arguably the best team in Australian rugby history. A quick look at the results will reveal a picture remarkably at variance with these attitudes. And thereby hangs the tale of The Difference.

In 1997, the All Blacks defeated the Wallabies three times, and the Wallabies never got closer than 12 points to the All Blacks in any test. At the same time, they went 1-1 with South Africa (although the loss was a 61-22 hiding) and with Argentina, and recorded a win and draw against England. Not a great year. By contrast the All Blacks won all their Tri Nations games and were looking pretty damn good, but only to the uninformed. The inconsistent nature of their play worried more experienced observers, but results like these were hard to argue against.

In 1998 the All Blacks lost a core of experienced players and experienced their annus (or anus, take your pick) horribilis, losing all three games to Australia, although two of these were by 5 points or less, and two against South Africa. Australians were understandably on a high even though they lost two games to South Africa, even if one was by one point, and squeaked home by one point against England. New Zealanders, on the other hand were deeply depressed, although the margins were close enough for informed observers to note that the results might not necessarily reflect the play to any great accuracy.

The world cup year, 1999, saw the Wallabies go 1-1 with the All Blacks, both by big scores and both where the losing team lost it rather than the winning team won it. The Wallabies also went 1-1 with the Springboks, with a good win in the first game but losing the second game by 1 point. They got their revenge in the world cup with a close, late win over South Africa and demolished France in the final. In balance, Australia had the world cup and a 2-1 margin over South Africa and could reasonably describe the year as a success despite a drawn series with New Zealand. Conversely, New Zealanders could only view the year as an abject failure particularly given the humiliating surrender to France in the world cup semi-final. But to look at it objectively, the All Blacks won the Tri-Nations, a competition arguably a better indicator of success than the knock-out world cup, and drew a series with the world cup holders.

The year 2000 started well for Australia with two solid wins over South Africa by a good margin. An astonishing opening game against New Zealand saw them haemorrhage three tries in 7 minutes but come back to play the better rugby and lose only to a late and fairly lucky try to big Jonah. The return game was less dramatic in play but not in conclusion, with a penalty kick in injury time retaining the Bledisloe Cup by the narrowest of margins and winning the Tri Nations for the first time into the bargain, and giving Australians plenty to celebrate. The All Blacks played some wildly inconsistent rugby and the general feeling in New Zealand was disappointment yet again, but in reality the All Blacks had again drawn a series with Australia and with such close results that it would be a brave man who would proclaim one side clearly superior to the other.

Stranger results were to follow in 2001, with the Wallabies winning a close series against the British Lions but losing a series against the Springboks with one close loss and one draw. On the credit side of the ledger they beat a woeful New Zealand in the first test but needed a fortunate late try in the return game to win a series against New Zealand for the first time in three years. The All Blacks won both their tests against the Springboks, the second by a good margin, but were their own worst enemies against Australia. As Australia won the Bledisloe Cup and the Tri-Nations they had much to celebrate while for New Zealanders there was only the by-now familiar bitter pill of defeat to swallow. The objective view, however, reveals that all three teams in the Tri Nations remained within a whisker of each other and there is much credibility to the theory that the Australian victory was technical more than actual.

What does the overall picture tell us? The All Blacks are inconsistent but so close to the Wallabies that finding the better side based on play, rather than results, would be a struggle. The Wallabies are more consistent, but the roll of the die has been in their favour at key times when it could just as easily not have been. And the Springboks are therebaouts as well.And here’s The Difference. Why do All Black supporters view this state of affairs as an unimagined horror, while Wallaby supporters celebrate with unbridled glee?

Firstly, there is undoubtedly the shallow end of the pool, where the results are on the scoreboard and the silverware is in the cabinet. Right now this looks better for Australia than New Zealand but it’s not by a lot, seven wins to five.

But for the better informed there is the matter of play, a subjective topic open to much debate. The All Blacks’ play has undoubtedly been less consistent than Australia’s and their error rate undeniably higher, especially this year, but at times they have been more potent in attack and arguably had the better of the forward exchanges, in the balance. No seasoned rugby observer should really be pleased with the standard of play in this year’s Tri Nations, quite apart from its value as a spectacle. New Zealand has been found seriously wanting in some basic areas of play and subject to a range of errors unacceptable in professional athletes. Australia has done little to capitalise on this and have been dragged down to New Zealand’s standard. The Springboks seem simply devoid of any serious attacking options.

And for everyone there is the matter of EXPECTATION. The All Blacks have a culture of winning, a tradition of success built on great teams of the past. The Invincibles early in the century, the great teams of the 60s who just won and won and won. Buck Shelford’s mighty All Blacks of the 80s, fifty games without loss, four years unbeaten. Rugby is New Zealand’s national sport, the yardstick for New Zealand sporting pride. Too many wins are barely enough.

No matter how objective you care to be about the recent results, being on a par with Australia is not seen as success in New Zealand, it is not even seen as a passing grade. Being on a par with Australia is seen as losing and it’s from this perspective that New Zealanders’ reactions must be judged. Australians, on the other hand, were once widely regarded as a rugby joke, burdened by tags such as The Woeful Wallabies and the Awful Aussies. Their rugby history resounds not with titanic battles on the high veldt but humiliating losses to the likes of Tonga or Scotland. Their meteoric rise to genuine rugby superpower status and current keeper of the silverware cannot be dimmed by allegations of lucky wins, close scores and undistinguished play. A win is a win is a win, and any win will do the job as long as it’s an Australian win.

Perhaps some of this relates to the unenviable rise of Australian urban youth culture best reflected in the underarm bowl and the parochial parodies of Roy and HG, where sportsmanship is an optional extra way down the list from winning. But most of it, it may be contended, stems from the lack of tradition in Australian rugby, the lack of expectation to always win, and always win well. The lack of pressure as the national sport to carry the nation’s psyche into battle and return with victory honours — any sort of win is great and a loss, well, it’s only rugby union after all, not anything really important like cricket.

And there’s the bottom line. We’re pretty even in play, the results are slightly Australia’s way. Australians think this makes the Wallabies the best team in history, New Zealanders think it makes the All Blacks bloody pathetic.

Perspective is an amazing thing, isn’t it?