29 Aug

Battered in Brisbane – What Now?
by Paul Waite
29 Aug 2011

After the All Blacks ‘thumped’ the Wallabies at Eden Park I said that the score flattered them, and that but for a poor start and missed kicks it would have been very tight. The test in Brisbane proves that was correct, and our foe over the ditch are our biggest threat in this coming World Cup.

This test loss has been a wake-up call for the Men In Black, of that there is no doubt. They were bested up front by a country mile in the first half and despite a second half rally failed to reverse the situation. The parallels with RWC 2007 are all too painful to draw.

As it transpired this test was a fabulous example of what the All Blacks
will face at the sharp end of the World Cup, and was exactly the kind of
test which has been their downfall in past World Cups. The way they
were shocked into mistakes by a hungry and passionate opponent that had worked them out and
then, forced into playing catch-up rugby, failed to reverse the scoreboard was a
classic and all too familiar example.

Graham Henry couldn’t have provided a better build-up for his men if he’d had Robbie Deans on the NZRU’s payroll.

In previous World Cup years the All Blacks have sailed along garnering a series of easy wins, lulling themselves into a nice warm fuzzy state of superiority, and then run aground on exactly these rocks.

But the question on our lips now is "how will the All Blacks react?".

If I was writing this in the so-called ‘amateur’ era, I would be 100% confident that the All Blacks would, as one, silently take the loss to heart, work out what went wrong and then, in the return test visit a fury of power rugby on their hapless opponents, taking it to a much higher level of clinical rugby, and emphatically cleansing themselves of the loss.

Sadly we are in the professional era, and we have no such cast iron guarantees. Some players are in exactly the same mold as those of yesteryear, an example being All Black skipper Richie McCaw. But the squad also contains a newer type of player, as concerned about the latest playing contract negotiations by their managers, as they are about the old-school All Black ethos and traditions. So as a whole the reaction of the team, although it will definitely be close to the old style, will probably not be quite the same.

That said there is undoubtedly still a lot of mileage left in All Black tradition, and we can assume that they will be hurting enough as a group to come together, sort out with the coaches what went wrong out there, and bring the memories of that loss to a possible World Cup re-match against Australia.

That’s on the plus side. On the negative side the Aussies, as if they of all teams needed any fillip for their confidence levels, will now know (or think they know) that they can best the All Black forwards and shock us into stupidity with rush-umbrella defence. That means the rematch, if it occurs, will probably turn on what happens in the first 20 minutes, where the All Black forwards must deliver a lesson in hard rugby to their opposites. Nothing else will work.

So what of the details? Unfortunately the All Blacks also had injuries in this test. The good news is that Kieran Read’s ankle knock does not seem to be serious, and that is the crucial one. Slightly less crucial, but still important is the potential loss of Adam Thomson who was our fill-in No.6 and 7. His arm/elbow injury does seem to be serious which leaves us short in the loose-forwards before the World Cup starts.

Finally I would just like to mention the Australian defensive approach in this test. In a surprise tactic Deans had them operate a system often used to great effect on us by South Africa whereby they cut down the space quickly close in (rush defence) and had the outside backs come around infield in an umbrella formation further cutting down space.

This is effective against the All Blacks because they tend to operate their ruck ball in a fairly predictable way, getting the backs moving through midfield. Pressure the first-five and cut down the space out wider, and you cause hurried plays and mistakes which we saw on Saturday in abundance.

So there are two issues for The Three Wise Men to deal with here. The first and most important is to play with more variety from the ruck. It is simplistic but true, that if the opposition is unsure of how you are going to play from there, then they will be unsure of how to defend as well. This will force them to back off, or risk coming up too quickly and creating the opportunity for a line-break.

The variations are all well documented and no big secret. The halfback probing and kicking (with support runners to pressure the kicks), and well-drilled forward drives either striaght from the ruck or one or two out. Similarly kicking from first-five and (if you have a 12 who can kick) second-five to vary the point of attack. We have become too predictable.

Of course Ted might have us running the ball predictably just to stop his opposing coaches developing counter-measures, but I have tried this as a working theory for previous World Cups and found it wanting.

Generally the All Blacks play in World Cups as they are playing in the tests leading up to it and, apart from the odd worked backline move, that’s the way it stays.

So, having had any possible remnant of over-confidence smashed out of them in the humbling loss to a better team in Brisbane, the All Blacks had better do some serious work back at the drawing board in the last two weeks before it all kicks off.

Good luck boys.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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17 Aug

A Stain On The All Blacks
by Paul Waite
17 Aug 2011

stainThe Telecom-sponsored official fan website for the All Blacks, ‘BackingBlack’ is about to launch what it thinks is a cool advertising campaign, called ‘Abstain for the All Blacks’ next week.

So all you school-kids from 5 years and up, show your support for New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup All Blacks and DON’T HAVE SEX.

What a piece of ill-advised, inappropriate, marketing masturbation this is. To me this looks like yet another case of what we rugby fans have had to put up with in the professional era. Namely, that the game is no longer ours and belongs to a bunch of corporates who employ marketing morons to come up with ‘ideas’ such as deafening us with FM Radio Dickhead at games, poisoning us with smoke effects, and assailing us with shitty bad-taste advertising campaigns like this one.

The fans don’t seem to have any control over things rugby any more. Jerseys are molested by ads and colours changed at whim by gear sponsors who think they own it because they supply them free and pay some money over. Don’t get me started on the Adidas debacle. Grounds with great tradition are renamed year by year, games played at night to suit breakfast advertising over the other side of the World, and schoolkids can’t even run sausage sizzles around World Cup venues on match day.

Apparently the NZRU is ‘backing’ this campaign, and former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick will be handing out black rubber rings, which are (apparently) meant to be slipped over the fingers of abstainers. All jolly good, friendly, family fun. Not.

Telecom Director of Marketing Kieran Cooney says it was intended to be ‘tongue in cheek’. No, Kieran, it’s ‘head up arse’.

Auckland University senior marketing lecturer Tom Agee has a slightly different take on it. ‘I’m gobsmacked. The idea behind the campaign is to get some attention
and to get some talk, but I can’t believe anybody would participate in
that’ (from this Stuff article).

Next I’m waiting for the negative reaction from the fans and general public, which will be inevitably followed by a raft of self-justification from Telecom, citing some non-existent ‘market research’, some backing off from the NZRU, and finally the campaign being pulled.

At least that’s what should happen, and I hope it does.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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31 Jul

Two Flashes of Genius From Jane
by Paul Waite
31 Jul 2010

The All Blacks took it to the Wallabies on their own patch at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, scoring a resounding 49-28, 7 tries to 3 victory.

It has to be said that what could have been an absolute cracker of a test match was ruined by the muppet with the whistle. I don’t have an issue with referees being reasonably strict interpreting the Laws, but South African Craig Joubert obviously studied at the Hitlerian University of Rugby Refereeing, then presumably went on to do a Ph.D. in ‘The Effects on a Rugby Game of Blowing A Whistle and Waving Yellow and Red Cards Around’.

To say that Joubert had an eagle eye for an offence is the same as saying Stalin was a bit of a naughty boy. It wouldn’t be so bad if all, or even most other referees did the same things, giving the players a heads-up on what to expect, but he’s so different it just makes it all very silly.

Just to show you how silly I thought it was, when Drew Mitchell was yellow-carded for the second time for interfering with the ball after the whistle had gone (preventing a quick play by an All Black) and therefore had to march off for good with Joubert waving him goodbye with a shiny red piece of plastic, I actually felt sorry for the Wallabies! Which, I have to tell you, was quite unnerving since it has never happened to me before.

Well of course we then had a test match with 15 men against 14, with three-quarters of the time left – pretty much a ruined game if ever there was one. Yes, Australia did rally in the second half and provide a huge amount of fight, but the result was never in doubt and that was hard to take.

The kicker was, the game would have been a hum-dinger with 15 vs 15, and the All Blacks would have had to fight that much harder for supremacy.

So let’s get to a bit of the actual rugby. The test started out with two mistakes by the No.10′s Carter and Barnes. Carter was up first, doing that lazy clearance thing I’ve seen as an intermittent fault in his game for a long time. He received the pass, then took ages to run and clear, getting it charged down and giving away a soft try. Just to show that whatever the All Blacks could do, they could match it, the Aussies passed the ball to their own idiot, and Berrick Barnes proceeded to gift none other than Dan Carter himself with a charge-down and resulting try. All within 5 minutes of each other which was quite bizarre.

After that the teams started playing some real rugby, and the All Blacks looked the better side immediately. Their carries went further, and their defence was harder. They also seemed to have that little bit more variation moving the ball. Though the Wallabies moved the ball energetically and fast, it tended to get too lateral too quickly, and they ended up going from side to side.

Of course the refereeing wasn’t helping much. With both sides determined to keep the ball in hand the breakdown and tackling came in for some very anally-retentive rulings from Joubert. Every little real and indeed imaginary thing was picked up by his antenna. A case in point being a collision/tackle made by Whitelock and I think McCaw which had the unfortunate Wallaby sandwiched and flipping horizontally then falling onto the deck. Joubert erroneously saw this as a ‘tip tackle’, but luckily his brain didn’t manage to conjure up a jersey number so nobody got sent to the bin in error that time.

The test was notable for two pieces of shear magic conjured by All Black winger Cory Jane. The first involved the ball being spun to his right wing on the Wallaby 10m mark where he made ground but encountered the fearsome Rocky Elsom coming at him to barge him out of play. Jane calmly fended Elsom with his left hand, giving him time to drop the ball from his right and put in a beautifully weighted centring chip for Mils Muliaina to run onto and score.

In the second he received the ball out on the same wing 15m out with a player to beat and Genia coming at him like an express train from in-field. He fended the first player, stepped past, judged Genia’s speed and angle and checked then changed direction in-field to wrong-foot him just enough to be able to step through and score the try. The clever way he assessed and used all of the dynamics of everything going on around him with split-second timing were just a joy to watch.

Unfortunately for the All Blacks late in the first half Jimmy Cowan got a rib injury and Piri Weepu had to come on. Weepu is a redoutable half-back but we needed Cowan’s style of game against the Aussies, and we greatly missed his fast pass, and darting runs around the ruck. That, together with a game Aussie fight-back saw the All Blacks game drop off in the second half to a level that they will be disappointed with when they review the recording of the test. In the final quarter they were not supporting the ball-carrier anywhere near the level they had been, and lost possession to turnovers several times as a result. This saw the momentum gained in the first half dissipate somewhat, and the machine stuttered.

Even so it had enough umph to score a couple more tries, and the eventual tally of 7 tries to 3, 49 points to 28 will have Graham Henry chortling over his glass of medicinal port tonight. With a 15 point maximum out of three 3N tests so far, only an idiot would put money against the All Blacks for the Tri-Nations this season, although the Bledisloe Cup is the real prize everyone wants to see retained in the NZRU’s trophy cabinet.

The Wallabies will take a little bit of comfort from the fact they battled well with the deficit of 14 men, however it was only a winger they lost, and they were being beaten quite handily before it happened, and now have to play the All Blacks back here in New Zealand. So I doubt much celebrating will be going on over in Camp Dingo tonight, and basically they have to face up to the fact that they were given a good hiding on their own turf whilst probably playing to their best abilities.

For the All Blacks, it was a good performance but it was definitely very patchy. The second half saw some of the wheels wobbling, if not coming off, and there is certainly a lot of improvement to be had.

As for the referee, there was nothing that a cold bath followed by a double labotomy couldn’t see right. I’m not sure how SANZAR or the IRB handle their referees, but I’d like to imagine that a report is being written which contains the phrases ‘over-zealous’, ‘utter wanker’ and ‘should never be allowed near a rugby pitch again’.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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5 May

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.


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.

20 Dec

New Domestic Competition for 2011
by Tracey Nelson
20 Dec 2009

Air-NZ-Cup-Logo3A new domestic competition structure and player contract agreement has been announced for the 2011 season.

The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) and the New Zealand Rugby Players Association (NZRPA) have agreed settlement terms for a new Collective Employment Agreement for 2010 to 2012, and decided upon the structure of the domestic competition.

The competition will remain at 14 teams for 2010, with a full round robin followed by semi-finals and a final exactly as the 2009 competition was played. But in 2011 the 14 teams will split into two divisions of seven teams, based on their fiinishing positions in the 2010 competition. The top seven sides from 2010 will form the 2011 Premiership, and the bottom seven will form the Championship.

Within the Premiership and Championship, each team will play the other teams in their division plus four teams from the other division (a total of 10 games). The process on how teams will select their cross-division opponents will be finalised early next year. All ten matches will carry full competition points. There will also be automatic promotion/relegation, with th winner of the Championship receiving automatice promotion to the Premiership while the seventh placed side in the Premiership will drop down to the Championship for the following season.

So this will create a lot of interest in the 2010 ANZC season, with all games having a huge bearing on deciding the split of teams into the two divisions for 2011. However, the first season of the Premiership and Championship format will be restricted to an eight week window due to the hosting of the Rugby World Cup. This will result in three mid-week matches over the eight weeks of the compeition, and there will be no semi-finals that year. From 2012 the competition will commence mid August and be played over 12 weeks.

Player contracting and the salary cap will also change. The Provincial Union Salary Cap will no longer include notional values, but discounts for All Blacks, veteran players and injuries will continue. The level of the new Salary Cap will be set at the lesser of:

  • $1.35m; or
  • 36% of a Province’s commercial revenue based on prior years.

This is a reduction on the current cap of $2.2 million (which included notional values).

The revenue sharing model introduced in 2005 will continue, with the Player Payment Pool to be used for Player payments and initiatives agreed at 36 per cent of the Player Generated Revenue (this inludes all NZRU broadcasting revenue, sponsorship and match-day revenue). Franchise Revenue above a total revenue level across the five New Zealand Franchises of $24 million per annum will also added to the PPP from 2011.

The maximum amount provinces will be able to play an individual player will be capped at $60K, with the exception of two marquee players who will be capped at $90K. Any exisiting provincial union contracts in excess of $60K will be added to that player’s NZRU contract and become payable out of the Player Payment Pool.

Franchises will be allocated a budget from within the Player Payment Pool with a maximum amount that a Franchise will be able to pay a player to be agreed. The existing Wider Training Group of a further eight players per Franchise will remain.

The settlement terms will now be drafted into a full Collective Agreement which will be presented to the respective stakeholders for final ratification. Further details of the agreement will be announced once those processes are concluded.

11 Dec

ANZC Competition to remain unchanged
by Tracey Nelson
11 Dec 2009

The NZRU Board has decided that the current 14-team premier competition and 12-team Heartland Championship will be retained in the same formats as the 2009 season for the forthcoming 2010 season.

The current collective employment negotiations still underway with the NZ Rugby Players’ Asoociation, and the threat of several of the provincial unions lodging appeals and potential legal action were major factors in the board’s deliberations yesterday at NZRU headquarters in Wellington. The overall decision was based on a recommendation from NZRU Management to maintain the status quo for next year, following many months of consultation and fact finding on how to make the the new competition format viable. NZRU Chairman Jock Hobbs said that with the competition formats now being a key component of the collective employment negotiations, it was unlikely that any resolution would have been found before March of 2010.

The combination of appeals lodged by the Tasman and Counties-Manakau unions, and the likelihood of legal action from other unions has essentially left the NZRU with no room to manoeuvre. With supporter numbers up in the non-Franchise unions across New Zealand, the ground swell to keep the current 14 team Premier Division as it is reached a fever pitch towards the end of this year’s competition and to cull the top division of four sides would have seen an ill-afforded backlash against the NZRU. Many of the smaller unions have also disupted that there was blanket approval from them to change the domestic competition, despite NZRU CEO Steve Tew noting that the intial call for change came from the nine non-Franchise provincial unions back in April this year.

However, the problem of the window for the competition remains – exacerbated by the lengthening of the TriNations series into October and end of year tours that see the All Blacks only making token appearances in the national competition. Along with a realistic competition structure, there will need to be an affordable and sustainable player payment model and a salary cap. It is unfeasible for the domestic competition to continue to play out until early November, and player welfare along with viewing numbers will have to come into force. Meanwhile, the Board’s previous decision to structure the domestic competition as a 10-6-10 format in 2011 and 2012 remains, subject to continued negotiations with the NZ Rugby Players’ Association and the NZRU.

While the outcome may not be what the NZRU had in mind, there will no doubt be plenty of celebration at the grass roots of the game. This year proved to many that the lifeblood of our national game still lies in the provinces, and with unions such as Northland, Manawatu and Tasman all finding ways to get their finances out of the red this season (unlike many of the bigger, Franchise unions) they now have the chance to continue to foster the next generation of All Blacks in their home regions. Indeed, a victory for the game itself.

27 Oct

Can A Great Competition Get Better
by Tracey Nelson
27 Oct 2009

There are many reasons to love our domestic rugby competition, the Air New Zealand Cup. We also saw that the magic still exists when Southland took the Ranfurly Shield off Canterbury last week. But with the shadow of demotion facing four of the fourteen sides, is there a way to make this competition even better?

History was made in the last round with Southland lifting the Shield off Canterbury – a feat all the more remarkable because it had been 50 years since they last held the Log of Wood. If any grey-suited NZRU member had any doubts over what the Shield means to New Zealand rugby, they needed only to look at the two sides when the final whistle blew on Thursday night. One side had their arms held aloft to the heavens with many players actually leaping in the air with delight, whilst the other side stood as one with heads downcast and shoulders sagged.

Likewise, the week before we had seen an epic game where the lead see-sawed and it was only the individual contributions of All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter that saw Canterbury get up over Hawkes Bay. Hawkes Bay, at that stage with no current All Blacks in their side, had pushed a team boasting eight All Blacks to the very limit before being denied a potential draw at the final whistle. But there in lies the rub.

The All Blacks have, for all intents and purposes, been withdrawn from the ANZC and were it not for the five week gap between the end of the Tri-Nations and the start of the end of year tour to the northern hemisphere, they wouldn’t feature in the competition at all. But because they need match time and a gallop before going on tour, they are thrust back into the competition for a couple of weeks in October – around weeks 11 and 12, which is basically coming into the business end of the draw as places for the semis are starting to heat up.

It seems inherently unfair that teams like Northland, Counties, Bay of Plenty, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and Tasman have a 23-man squad that play week in and week out, with the associated player/injury management required for the duration of a 13 week competition (and longer if you make the play-offs), yet teams like Canterbury, Wellington, Auckland and Waikato essentially have a squad of 28+ players that they can rotate and rest because of All Blacks popping in to play a couple of games just at the point of the competition where player wear and tear starts to mount up.

If we must have the ABs coming back in to play the odd game here and there, despite the fact that overall the ANZC is apparently a bit beneath them to play more than two or three games because they need a rest after playing six games over a three month period, then perhaps the following rules should apply:

1. Any province can nominate up to three of their current All Blacks (ie. have played in the Tri-Nations) to turn out for them during the comp.

2. The remaining All Blacks from that province go into a pool that provinces who have no All Blacks at all (eg. Counties, Manawatu, Northland etc) get first dibs at – and they can pick up to three All Blacks. Teams with major injuries to key players/positions get first choice of the pool to fill that position.

3. Any remaining ABs in the pool can then be picked up by any other province not already fielding 3 All Blacks.

So teams like Northland, Counties, Manawatu with no All Blacks get 3 from the pool. A team like Southland with just one All Black would be eligible to get two from the pool.

Using this structure All Blacks would still get some game time prior to an EOYT, but it wouldn’t create the huge imbalances you see – for example, when Canterbury took on Hawkes Bay with eight All Blacks, because we all know that without those All Blacks Canterbury would have lost that game. It would also mean that the smaller provinces and the players would get the benefits of having some All Blacks spending time with them.

Given the the NZRU sold out our domestic competition by agreeing to extend the Tri-Nations into September and insist on treating ABs as demi-gods when it comes to participating in provincial rugby, then I think it’s only fair that they should be dispensed in equal amounts into the competition to compensate. As it stand at the moment it makes it a farce that the big guns suddenly overtake the so-called minnows solely due to having their All Blacks back en masse for a few games.

It could also potentially sort out the salary cap problem too, because a province would then only ever be covering the salary of three All Blacks – and if a minnow province felt that they couldn’t afford All Blacks for a couple of games then they wouldn’t have to pick them out of the pool.

Food for thought?

7 Aug

ANZC – Bring it On!
by Tracey Nelson
7 Aug 2009

Thank goodness for the Air New Zealand Cup competition. At a time when we are all feeling rather jaded after a few poor All Black performances and a less than satisfactory Super 14, it’s been refreshing to get back to basics with New Zealand provincial rugby.

Despite the looming cull of four teams from the Premier Division at the end of this season, the crowds have been good and the rugby has been of a far more entertaining and error-free standard than is usual for the start of our domestic competition. Interestingly enough, the television audiences for the opening round have been better than those for most of the S14 games – although if you bothered to watch any of the games (with the possible exception of the Southland v Waikato match) you could see why. None of the same-old same- old in this competition, instead we have many different styles of rugby on offer and what a breath of fresh air that has been.

From the Run It At All Times style of Counties-Manukau through to the good old fashioned forward play of the likes of Southland and Otago, there is something for everyone – and better yet, we get to see contrasting styles of rugby instead of the kick-fest that was Super 14 2009. Add to that the lack of TMOs for this competition, and suddenly we are seeing Assistant Referees actually moving to get into good position to make their rulings and giving the referee something other than a feeble shrug of the shoulders and a referral to the replay upstairs.

Of great interest in the first round was three of the five Super franchise bases losing their opening matches, with Canterbury going down by three points to Harbour, Waikato dipping out to Southland in Invercargill, and most tellingly Hawkes Bay giving Auckland a spanking in their first win over the Queen City boys since 1974. Hawkes Bay not only out-passioned Auckland, but comprehensively outplayed them in the contact area stealing ball at the breakdown almost at will at times, and showing far more organisation and accuracy on the counterattack.

Not only is contesting in the lineout evident in our domestic competition, but to everyone’s delight the rolling maul is still alive and well in New Zealand. Perhaps it’s time the All Black coaches got themselves back to grass roots because there are plenty of sides in this country that employ the rolling maul – they just don’t happen to be Super 14 sides.

I suppose it’s the David v Goliath factor that most endears our provincial competition to us, that and the tribalism – something you tend to forget about until it comes to this time of the year. But when you see supporters decked out in their team colours, especially the likes of the Bucket Heads from Manawatu, it fair strikes a chord deep down and you can’t help but cheer along with them. It probably helps that the rugby we are seeing is actually recognisable as rugby too, the way we used to know and love the game. So far it’s been great viewing, and judging by the crowds we’re seeing in the provincial centres the nation are sending the NZRU a big message. Long may our provincial competition rule supreme!

13 Jul

To coach, or not to coach?
by Tracey Nelson
13 Jul 2009

Last week All Blacks Coach Graham Henry and his two Assistant Coaches, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, were re-appointed to take the All Blacks team through until the end of 2011. This will extend their reign to eight years and will encompass the 2011 Rugby World Cup. So what lies ahead for Messrs Henry, Hansen and Smith as they get a second bite of the cherry?

There was some eyebrow raising at the timing of the annoucement, given the outgoing NZRU board made the decision in April and the All Blacks were coming off the end of an Iveco series against France and Italy that had failed to inspire and resulted in France winning the Gallagher Trophy. But there can be no denying that statistically speaking their coaching record looks good. Under Henry, Hansen and Smith the All Blacks have won 57 out of 66 Test matches, a winning record of 86 percent that includes defending the Bledisloe Cup in five successive seasons, winning the Tri Nations four times, a clean-sweep of the British and Irish Lions series in 2005, and two Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008. NZRU Chairman Jock Hobbs said the current All Blacks coaching panel was a very strong and experienced team.Graham, Wayne and Steve are outstanding coaches. They have a formidable record and we hold them in very high regard.”

Ah, this is the crux of the matter though. The use of the word “coach”. These three men, at this level of rugby, aren’t as much coaches as player managers – much in the way of the Alan Ferguson’s of this world. Which had been fine and dandy up until about 2007. They had all played rugby and coached their first rugby sides in a different era, when you still had players who had learnt their trade via the club scene, then the NPC before hitting the Super 12 comp. That was the era of the “rugby-intelligent” players – the likes of Fitzy, the Brooke brothers, Andrew Mehrtens, etc. But now we are in an era where most players leave school, enter the development squad systems and never really got a chance to play club rugby surrounded by older, wiser heads.

In the 80′s and 90′s, and even as late as 2003, the top players participated at club level and the newbies came up through the ranks playing alongside All Blacks. One past-Crusader who played club rugby alongside Richard Loe made the comment that back then if the ball needed to be kicked out, you made damn sure you got it out otherwise you risked being either thumped or rucked by Loe himself. And while he may have ruled with a reign of terror, equally there were techniques and tactics he and other senior players employed that junior players learned from. It was learning in the school of hard knocks, not watching data streams of your tackling technique sitting indoors at a computer.

All the basic core skills of the game were coached and learned at club and provincial level, so that by the time a player made the Super comp or the ABs, they had all the skills required for that position and the coaches didn’t have to spend hours teaching the basics. Instead they could just concentrate on the moves, or the finer points of lineouts or scrummaging. The All Black coach could tell the players to employ umbrella or inside out or whatever other defensive system he wanted to use and know that the players actually understood what he were talking about rather than having to explain it from scratch and then hope like hell they could do it right in a game.

You also had players with not just a good grounding in the core skills but also an understanding of the laws. Mehrts might be an extreme example here but he could actually discuss rulings with the ref as could Fitzy, Zinny etc. But you look at today’s players and outside of McCaw the bulk of the forwards are clueless when it comes to the laws. One All Black lock admitted during the S14 that he didn’t actually know or understand all the laws around a lineout. Unfortunately in the modern game you can’t bluff your way as a rugby player without eventually being found out. And I think we’re about at that stage now with some of the players.

Now, before someone starts bleating about the laws being too difficult or that there are too many of them, here are just a few examples where players have cost the All Blacks penalties in the recent Iveco series:

1. Continuing to chase a kick when infront of the kicker
2. Forwards running outside the 15m to take a long throw at thelineout before the ball has even left the hooker’s hands
3. Backs running up offside before a lineout has finished
4. Not retiring 10m from a kick and actually continuing to move forward and make the tackle from that offside position

There is no way a coach should have to be coaching ANY of those four examples, even at Div 2 club rugby. They’re basics of the game and haven’t been fiddled with by the law makers for some years now. So the dilemma we find ourselves in is that we have just appointed three coaches through to 2011 who have not had to really *coach* rugby for the last decade but are now finding themselves faced with the serious problem of having a lot of players lacking in the fundamental basics of the game. Add to that the recent ELVs in the S14 and switching back again for test rugby and the problems just increase. The biggest task infront of the All Black coaches in the next two years is learning how to coach again, rather than just manage.

12 Jun

First test preview – All Blacks v France
by Tracey Nelson
12 Jun 2009

Is the opening Iveco test against France threatening to be the biggest banana skin to slip on for the 2009 All Blacks? With the non-availability of Dan Carter, pre-existing injuries ruling out Richie McCaw, Ali Williams and Sitiveni Sivivatu, and a plethora of new injuries plaguing the 26-man squad, suddenly the All Blacks are looking down the barrel as they get set to face France in Dunedin this weekend.

In the first week of the squad commencing training, Richard Kahui’s shoulder injury was deemed to require surgery thus ruling him out of rugby for the next six months. With a replacement needed in the squad the NZRU invoked its discretion clause, where Luke McAlister could come directly into the All Blacks squad without having to play for the Junior All Blacks should injury rule out other players.

But it didn’t end there. Two days after the test starting lineup was named there was a training injury to Rudi Wulf, who suffered a small fracture to his shoulder that will require up to six weeks recovery and effectively puts him out of the Iveco series and the first Tri-Nations test. This has resulted in another call-up from the Juniors with Chiefs winger Lelia Masaga brought in as cover. The reshuffle now sees Cory Jane take over the right wing position with Joe Rokocoko moving over to the left wing, and Masaga taking a seat on the bench next to McAlister.

Meanwhile the French have quietly slipped into the country and based themselves in Auckland, apparently on the recommendation of Byron Kelleher who has no doubt endeared himself to his former province Otago by claiming it’s too cold and wet in Dunedin in June – although the joke is on them with Dunedin enjoying unseasonably mild weather this week while rain has persisted in Auckland. No doubt they were quite pleased to arrive to dry weather when they flew south on Thursday.

Despite claiming they are tired after a long season – funny how you never hear the All Blacks complaining as they continue to spank the Northern Hemisphere sides on their end of year tours to the UK and Europe – the French are never a side to take lightly. World Cup games aside, the French have an uncanny knack of pulling off unlikely wins and there is a certain frequency to those wins on New Zealand soil. Every 15 years or so the French manage to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, and the last time they did so was in 1994. You do the maths.

Meanwhile, back in the All Black camp Richie McCaw has been working with Adam Thomson to school him up on the finer points of openside flanker play. This becomes more crucial than ever this weekend, not only because Thomson has not been playing regularly at openside, but because of the new interpretation at the breakdown allowing the first player on his feet to get his hands on the ball to continue to play the ball regardless of whether a ruck forms thereafter. Quite how this will be refereed will be of great interest to everyone.

There is no doubt that the French will start with fury and pace, and try to upset the All Blacks by playing a very physical, confrontational style up front. And so they should, as sides that have done so in recent years have shown the All Blacks can be rattled. It will be imperative for seasoned forwards such as Woodcock, Hore and Thorn to lead the way and ensure the hard yards are put in to allow a loose trio that have only played one test (v Scotland 2008) to function as a combination.

With no less than three new caps on the bench and one in the starting lineup, this is a very inexperienced All Black side. The importance of Brad Thorn lasting as much of the 80 minutes as possible cannot be understated. The new midfield pairing of Nonu and Toeava will be tested by the hard running Matheiu Bastareaud – a fearsome brute of a young man far removed from the silky runners France has traditionally played in the 13 jersey over the years. While this will be his first test cap, half back Julien Dupuy has been great form with Leicester in the Heineken Cup this season and is a dangerous runner from the base of the scrum.

So it becomes an exciting prospect not quite knowing how an early-season test match is going to unfold. All eyes will be on the All Blacks and how they function without the likes of Carter and McCaw – remembering that it was without McCaw that the All Blacks lost two test matches last year, one of which was at Carisbrook in Dunedin. In theory the All Blacks should win. But theory can’t compete with passion.

All Blacks: Mils Muliaina(c), Cory Jane, Isaia Toeava, Ma’a Nonu, Joe Rokocoko, Stephen Donald, Jimmy Cowan, Liam Messam, Adam Thomson, Kieran Read, Isaac Ross, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock. Reserves: Keven Mealamu, John Afoa, Bryn Evans, Tanerau Latimer, Piri Weepu, Luke McAlister, Lelia Masaga.

France: Maxime Medard, Cedric Heymans, Mathieu Bastareaud, Vincent Clerc, Damien Traille, Francois Trinh-Duc, Julien Dupuy, Louis Picamoles, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Thierry Dusautoir (captain), Romain Millo-Chluski, Pascal Pape, Sylvain Marconnet, William Servat, Fabien Barcella. Reserves: Dimitri Szarzewski, Nicolas Mas, Thomas Domingo, Sebastien Chabal, Remy Martin, Julien Puricelli, Dimitri Yachvili, Yannick Jauzion, Alexis Palisson (two to be omitted).