6 Sep

Some headaches are good to have
by Tracey Nelson
6 Sep 2001

Canterbury have a little problem on their hands at the moment. Actually, it’s probably slightly on the larger side of little, but having said that – it’s a very nice problem to have.

With over half the pack away on All Black duty, and missing their lynch pins of Marshall and Mehrtens from the backline, the Canterbury boys have kept the home fires burning brightly and have sucessfully clocked up maximum points in their three NPC games to date – playing some pretty impressive rugby in doing so.

While the old stalwarts of the team such as Toddy, Greg Feek and Daryl Gibson have helped guide the team along the way, it’s been the young up and comers such as NZ Colts captain Richard McCaw (openside flanker) and past colts Nathan and Aaron Mauger, and Ben Blair that have really been sizzling in the red and black jersey.

Also looking hot to trot has been Scott Robertson, playing at No 8 this season and definitely looking the goods in this position. Combined with Sam Broomhall and McCaw, the Canterbury loose trio really took it Bay of Plenty in last weekend’s Ranfurly Shield defence and were instrumental in the 72-3 drubbing that was handed out to the luckless Bay.

Now with the finish of the Tri-Nations the All Blacks will return from duty to join their provincial sides, and what a headache this is going to be for coach Steve Hansen.

While his front row of Feek, Sexton and Hewitt demolished the BOP front row last week, he will have an All Black hooker and TH prop to add to the mix.

Toddy and league-convert Brad Thorn have done a stirling job winning lineout ball and locking the scrum, but now he has two All Black locks to choose from as well.

Sam Broomhall has been outstanding on the blindside, but Reuben Thorne is now returning to the fold.

And in the backline the youthful pairing of Ben Hurst and Aaron Mauger are going to be competing with the duo of Marshall and Mehrts.

It’s going to be very hard for Hansen to drop his galant provincial troops to the bench or beyond to make way for the returning All Blacks. But certainly, if you’re going to have selection headaches this is the sort of headache you’d want!

1 Aug

NPC 2001 – Division One Preview
by Euan Kilgour
1 Aug 2001

Now that the dust is settling from a turbulent S12 for NZ franchises, the business end of the NZ rugby season is nearing kick off. As we have seen in recent times the NPC First Division is one hot ticket with the rugby faithful of NZ and the large number of expats living overseas, and the competition this year looks to be as good if not better than last year.

There are a number of exciting prospects to look forward to:

Just how far as Canterbury Rugby fallen? The Ranfurly Shield holders will have to be at their best to repel challenges this year from Auckland, Wellington, Taranaki, the Bay of Plenty and Waikato.

How much will the Blues poor S12 performance affect Aucklands performance in the NPC?

Harbour this year have regained an old hand in Glenn Osbourne, are they going to realise their potential and become a real threat?

Who is this Bay of Plenty team and what role will they bring to the First Division, an easy 5 points or a real test of a sides ability?

Northland and Taranaki have always been dark horses. Will they be able to go all the way in spite of continual plundering of their talent by other unions?

Will Southland finally get themselves off the bottom of the table?

How will Waikato go playing at home at Westpac Trust Park because the Rugby Park upgrades have struck a few snags?

These questions and more will become apparent after a few rounds, but I for one am definitely looking forward to the start of the best national rugby union competition in the world.

30 Jun

The Chief's 2001 – A Season Review
by Paul Kendall
30 Jun 2001

Many people within the region would have regarded John Mitchell’s appointment as the new Chiefs coach a surprise. Although he had established a successful career in England, firstly with Sale and latterly as an assistant coach with England, his lack of coaching experience in New Zealand was expected to count against him.

More surprises were to come when the Chiefs squad was announced, which featured 9 players in their first season of S12 rugby and the return of former All Black Mark Cooksley from the rugby wilderness. Mitchell, himself a former no.8 and captain of the successful Waikato NPC and Ranfurly Shield team of the early 1990s, predictably chose Deon Muir to led his team.

The results from the first three games were mixed and included two heavy defeats away to NSW and the Crusaders either side of a close win over Queensland at their new home – Rotorua International Stadium. Although these games were used to give most squad members an opportunity to cement a regular starting position the season was very much in the balance entering week 4 of the competition. The local derby against the Blues proved to be the pivotal game in the fortunes of both teams for the remainder of the S12. A convincing win to the Chiefs over their northern neighbours, including a hat-trick of tries by centre Keith Lowen, gave them the confidence and self-belief before an important series of home matches in the upcoming weeks.

The next game against the Highlanders was undoubtedly the Chiefs’ best game of the season to date resulting in a comprehensive victory due to an outstanding display on attack and defense, much to the delight of the capacity crowd in Rotorua. The 50 points scored in this match were also the most by a Chiefs team in the S12, while halfback Danny Lee matched Lowen’s try scoring feats from the previous game.

The new-look attitude and resolve of the Chiefs was never more evident than in their next game against the Cats in Tauranga where the visitors dominated both possession and territory but were denied victory by a courageous defensive effort from the Chiefs, who tackled themselves to a standstill. The fact that Cooksley played the game in spite of suffering the effects of a severe stomach bug was an example of the team’s resolve on the day.

Their last home game in Taupo proved to be a disappointment as the Sharks were far too clinical and the Chiefs were reduced the surviving on scraps of possession. Despite being outmuscled in the forwards captain Deon Muir led superbly from the front, while openside flanker Marty Holah was another to impress. The South African trip was to follow and started with a high-scoring win over the Bulls but ended with a loss to the Stormers, where Chiefs’ mistakes and turnovers proved costly in the final analysis.

An arduous trip back to New Zealand for a crucial game against the improving Hurricanes at the Cake Tin was next on the agenda. This was a game where both teams knew that a loss would effectively end their season.

Against all the odds, 3 tries in quick succession prior to halftime paved the way for a deserved Chiefs victory, which Mitchell described as "the defining moment of the season". Given the importance of the match I would label it the best performance of the season and arguably the most complete by a Chiefs team since the inception of the S12.

This win meant that for the first time since 1998 the Chiefs began the last round knowing that their destiny was in their own hands. The bad news was that they needed to beat the Brumbies in Canberra – a near impossible task. Injury disruptions before the match didn’t help their preparation, nor did the fact that they had 2 players in the sinbin during the match, but in the end the eventual S12 champions were far too good and highlighted the difference in class between the teams on the night.

Despite stumbling at the final hurdle I look back on the Chiefs year with some satisfaction and I am optimistic about next season. Mitchell has brought a refreshing back-to-basics approach to the team where he places an increased importance on the fundamentals of the game; skills which have steadily disappeared from New Zealand forward play over the past decade.

He has also created a strict work ethic, injected a professional attitude into the players, and the team spirit looks to be at an all-time high. I’m not sure Chiefs teams of the past would have beaten the Cats and Hurricanes under similar circumstances. At the start of the season Mitchell viewed his job as a 2-year project, and while the Chiefs’ sixth place finish equals their best ever position in the S12, much more will be expected of them next year. Their first objective must be to secure that elusive semi-final berth.

Five players (Roger Randle, Lowen, Mark Ranby, Holah and Cooksley) were rewarded with selection in the All Black training squad, while Muir, Royce Willis and Bruce Reihana were desperately unlucky to miss out.

A total of 14 players had their first experience of S12 rugby and the likes of Deacon Manu, Dennis Hazelton, Holah, Jonno Gibbes, Kristian Ormsby and David Hill look to have promising careers ahead of them.

Holah was undoubtedly the find of the season but if I was single out one player for special praise it would be their inspirational captain Muir. His performances during the S12 seem to epitomise the Chiefs motto – "It’s all about heart".

6 Oct

Those blasted lineouts – The Video Analysis
by Tracey Nelson
6 Oct 2000

Talk about a heart-stopper! It’s long been known that the lure of the Ranfurly Shield can lift challenging teams to new levels, and that’s certainly what happened on Saturday night when Otago came north to take on Canterbury.

Otago were desperate for a win – not only to finally get their hands on the Log, which they haven’t held since the late 1950′s, but for NPC points to claw their way into semi-final contention. Along with these incentives were the All Black careers of several Otago players; notably the front row and the halfback/first-five pairing of Brown and Kelleher.

Canterbury had a hard ask, after a huge struggle the previous week to remove the Shield from Waikato, we now had to turn around and defend it against a focussed Otago side. Going into the game as favourites was no help either. In honour of the Shield’s return, the embankment was re-opened at Jade Stadium, and the faithful flooded onto it along with many Otago supporters, all hopeful for a great game of rugby. They weren’t disappointed in that respect.

In windy, nor’west conditions which kept the air temperature balmy throughout the evening and prevented any chance of dew, the game kicked off and from that moment on the pace was frenetic. A Tony Brown drop goal early in the opening minutes signalled Otago’s intent, and the game became fast and furious as both sides went in with all guns blazing.

Canterbury struck back with a counter-attack move from their own 22 to put Vunibaka into space, and his speed burnt off the cover defence to score in the corner. Then Otago replied with two tries from seemingly nothing – both came from high kicks put up into the swirling wind by South African import Justin Swart, cleverly pinpointing a Canterbury weakness behind the right wing to put Otago ahead 18-14 at the break.

No doubt Canterbury were feeling a bit rueful with the amount of possession they had turned over in the first half, not to mention a couple of botched scoring opportunites and the bounce of the ball for Otago to score their tries – but four points in arrears didn’t seem insurmountable. One imagined that the word from the coach would be to hold on to possession a bit longer before spinning it wide, as this over-enthusiasm to play attacking rugby appeared to be the problem.

The second half began with a strong surge from Canterbury, only to see the ball turned over again and Otago move the ball back to within striking distance. A fast break by Kelleher saw him score in the corner, followed not much later by a penalty goal from Brown and suddenly things were starting to look grim for Canterbury down 14-26 on the scoreboard.

The next 10 minutes saw the ball turned over several times by both teams, a continuation from the first half and proof of the strong offensive defence from both sides. Canterbury launched a strong attack after a massive break by Reuben Thorne, only to see the ball knocked-on metres from the line. Otago got the scrum feed, but a missed kick for the line saw the Canterbury backline swing the ball left then cleverly switch play back to put Vunibaka into a gap. The try was scored and the deficit became 19-26. Moments later a penalty was awarded to Canterbury and the gap closed to 22-26.

However, by now the clock was beginning to tick by, and only 10 minutes remained. Knuckles on both sets of fans were starting to get white, and it was obvious that whoever scored next would probably go on to win the game. Play see-sawed back and forth as both teams put in some incredible defence, until Canterbury received a penalty to relieve the pressure in their own half with seven minutes to go.

Mehrts kicked the ball out just inside the Otago 22 and we had the throw to the lineout. Something went horribly wrong with communication, and the ball was thrown to no-mans-land at the back. Randall pounced at the ball on the ground and it seemed our chance was lost, but somehow the ball was turned over and Canterbury surged up the left wing side of the field. Then followed a series of rucks going back and forth, with seemingly no way through until a half break by Mehrts fed Caleb Ralph who had come over from the left wing. Ralph took the pass and surged through the only two poor tackles of the night from Otago to score under the posts.

The crowd went wild – strangers were hugging strangers, tonsils were raw from hollering and the relief in the Red n Black supporters was palpable. The conversion went over and Canterbury took the lead 29-26 with three minutes left on the clock. Everyone was on the edge of their seats for the restart, but Canterbury took the ball in and then another break was made as we stormed down into the Otago half. Another mistake was made by Otago, and from the ensuing scrum Marshall hoofed the ball into touch and the final whistle sounded.

What a game! What an adrenalin rush! One has to feel slightly sorry for Otago, who seem destined to come close in Shield challenges, but never win. Otago played their best rugby so far this season, and had the win in their sights, but it was not to be. Standout players for them were Kronfeld, Randell, Kelleher and Swart. Unfortunately, Meeuws left the field early on in the game whilst Carl Hoeft was his usual lazy self around the field after his intial 10 minute effort. Surely he must be under the microscope as far as re-selection to the All Blacks goes.

Praise must be given to this Canterbury side, who showed tremendous composure and confidence to get up and win the game. Player of the day was Reuben Thorne, who was everywhere both on defence and attack, and put in a gutsy 80 minute effort. Vunibaka was lethal on attack, Ben Blair once again goal kicked admirably getting 5/7 in very windy conditions, Mehrts showed his class in setting up Ralph’s try, the front row and replacements gave the Otago set a good run for their money, and the rest of the team were just plain bloody marvellous.

The Ranfurly Shield lives on for another week in Christchurch, and we now look forward to a challenge from Northland. Well done boys, and we’ll see you again this Friday.

29 Sep

Log of Wood heads to Christchurch
by Tracey Nelson
29 Sep 2000

What a great win by the Red and Blacks! Playing Waikato in Hamilton is always hard – the Mooloo men have a proud rugby history, and always lift an extra notch when playing with the Shield at stake, so it was a great effort to absorb the pressure and noise at Rugby Park last weekend and come away with the win.

Choosing to play into the wind in the first half was perhaps a large part in the Canterbury win, as playing into the infamous “referee’s corner” in the second half has always been a Waikato ploy. This time the tables were turned and Mehrts kept them pinned back in their own half for most of the final 40 minutes.

As per usual, this was always going to be a game won up front, and the Canterbury pack delivered. Our scrum had the slight upperhand, although David Briggs at loosehead for Waikato looks to be a very promising prop, and made life for the Cantab backs a lot easier than the Mooloo backs had it.

But the highlight from the forwards had to be the way we contested the opposition lineout throws, and won ball off them in doing so. Todd Blackadder was outstanding in this area, and he also contributed well both in the tight play and out wider – giving the pass to Justin Marshall for our all important second try to get us the win.

Even Marika “butterfingers” Vunibaka pulled one out of the box this week, scoring a cleverly worked try from a kick and chase up the sideline that bounced horribly away from the covering Rhys Duggan for Vunibaka to fall on over the line.

Ben Blair at fullback took the kicks once again, and it has to be said that this kid has nerves of steel. Against a huge uproar of noise and cowbells (and it’s loud, believe me – I’ve been there before!) he kicked goal after goal, only missing one from close to halfway. Defensively he put in one of the most important tackles of the day, dropping Scott McLeod after he had burst through a gap and looked t be likely to set up a try. On attack, he was fast and his step deceptive.

It was a great team effort from the boys, and a deserved win from a team that really seems to have it’s sights focused on each game, week to week. The commitment and team work we are seeing is commendable, and they certainly deserve to be top of the table in the NPC at the moment.

Congratulations must also go to Waikato, who have been worthy Shield holders for the last three years and have demonstrated time and time again that rugby is all about being a team, not individuals. To have defended the Shield 22 times is an almighty effort, and this team will go down in history as one of the greats.

So the Ranfurly Shield, bastion of all that is good and true in New Zealand provincial rugby, has returned south to Canterbury. Can this team go on to retain the Log and win the NPC, to join the S12 trophy that is now residing for it’s third summer down here?

This weekend we take on Otago – a team that hasn’t held the Shield since 1957. Not only is the Shield on the line this Saturday night, but so are positions in the All Black squad to tour France and Italy at the end of the year. Certainly there are one or two Otago boys who really have to front in this game to prove they should stay as All Blacks. The danger for Canterbury is that if they do manage to finally put it together, they could be a very hard team to beat.

History is on the side of the Cantabs, as Otago haven’t won at Lancaster Park for a while and have failed in every Shield Challenge in the last 40 years. But then this is Ranfurly Shield rugby, the holy grail – anything could happen…

19 Sep

The Red 'n Blacks march onwards
by Tracey Nelson
19 Sep 2000

This game turned out to be a bit of romp in the sun for Canterbury, as we dished out a 71-8 hiding to the boys from the deep south. Southland played valiantly for the first 10 minutes of the game, but then Canterbury hit it’s straps and the try-fest began.

Ben Blair took the field about 15 minutes into the first half after MacDonald left with an ankle injury, and proceeded to set the game alight with his running and also some excellent goal kicking. His incisive running and lethal sidestep were a delight to behold, and he was obviously relishing the dry conditions. With Blair taking over the goal kicking duties, Mehrts was freed up to really cut loose and set the backline in motion, which he did admirably with some very good running from Gibson outside him.

Of course, none of this could have taken place without yet another great effort from the forwards, in particular Reuben Thorne who really stood out around the field both in his linkage play on attack and his strong defence. While it was a quieter game this week from Toddy and Maxwell, they both did their job well and provided good ball from the lineouts and some strong driving play when taking the ball up.

However, it was the front row that really stood out for me this week. The scrums were massive, with Southland being shunted in every direction, even on their own feed. The workrate from the fat boys were outstanding, especially at ruck and maul time. One of the standout plays of the game came after reserve hooker Cuttance scooped the ball off the ground from a Southland error, stepped a player then ran before passing out to loosehead prop Hewett running the tramline. Hewett then looked back infield to the supporting runner who was none other than his fellow prop Somerville, who crashed over the line to score. A magnificent piece of play, made all the more glorious by the slightly embarrassed looks on their faces afterwards.

All in all it was a pretty good dress rehersal for the big game this weekend, which is the Ranfurly Shield challenge up in Mooloo land. Canterbury look focussed and have been very professional in their last two outings. The scrum is looking massive, the lineouts are tidy and the workrate is pleasing from the pack. The backline is looking sharp and is being directed well by a very in-form Mehrtens. Other than MacDonald, there are no injury concerns in the camp, and with the depth we can boast on the bench, things are looking very positive heading towards Saturday. Of course, Waikato defending the Shield in Hamilton is going to be no easy team to beat, but I believe this Canterbury team has peaked just at the right time and I am very hopeful of a good win. Touch wood, of course!!

13 Sep

Canterbury march onward
by Tracey Nelson
13 Sep 2000

After the previous weekend’s win against Auckland, I was slightly concerned that some of our key players (namely the All Blacks) hadn’t performed too well. I’m pleased to say that after our win 43-9 over Naki at the Bullring on Saturday night, I’m feeling a lot happier about their form.

This week our pack really got stuck into the tight stuff, and provided the backline with the perfect platform to play from. It was wonderful to watch, with not a sight of any fatties loitering in the backline and everyone doing the job they were supposed to.

One thing that was evident in this game, played on a rather muddy field (no thanks to a stupid cricket pitch plonked in the middle), was the speed and precision that Canterbury played with. Quick ruck ball was secured, it was moved swiftly through the line and the backs ran hard onto the passes. All simple enough stuff, but done slickly and professionally as one would expect from the S12 champions.

Naki were stung early on by a rampant Canterbury team, and hardly saw the ball for the first quarter of the game as we quickly racked up 24 points. To their credit they came back at us in the last 10 minutes of the first half, but our trademark defence held the line intact and we went to the break feeling pretty pleased with our first half effort.

Obviously the word was said at halftime not to lift the foot from the pedal, and the second half saw more of the same as our forwards continued to dominate, and the backs kept up their brilliant handling in trying conditions. Certainly it was notable that whenever Taranaki did mange to get the ball, strong offensive-defence from Canterbury invariably led to a turnover whether it was in the tackle due to technique and numbers to the breakdown, or just straight out handling errors. In comparison, the Cantabs had a low error rate, which was a credit to their concentration and attention to the basics of the game.

Given that Naki have a pretty formidable forward pack, there was some impressive stuff from the Canterbury boys who had the acid on them in the scrums (Dave Hewett is certainly an unsung hero at loosehead), stole a couple of throws off them in the lineouts and certainly had them on the backfoot at ruck and maul time.

Players to stand out (although it was hard to pick from a forward pack that played as a complete unit for the full 80 minutes) were Maxwell and Blackadder – the latter having a storming game and showing superb touches such as offloading the ball to winger So’oalo to score when he could easily have strolled over himself – Thorne, who worked tirelessly all game, Gibson who scored three tries all thanks to great strength close to the line, the two halfbacks Hurst and Fulton who both contributed brilliantly, and of course Mehrts who had a dream ride behind a rampant forward pack and dictated play all night. Mention must also be made of fullback Ben Blair, who came into the starting line-up at the eleventh hour and did all the goal kicking not to mention made some sharp runs into the backline.

This weekend we play Southland at home, and the worry must be the boys are starting to think ahead to September 23rd when we head to Hamilton to challenge Waikato for the Ranfurly Shield. It is important to continue on from how we played against Naki, and get a good win under our belts before heading north next week – 5 championship points are vital to maintain our lead in the competition, and focussing on the game at hand is all important.

13 Sep

Looking good
by WAJ
13 Sep 2000

The NPC is five rounds old and its looking as good as it always has; better in fact.

Get ready to march on NZRFU headquarters in Wellington should they succumb to market pressures to turn our season upside down for the accomodation of more money-making.

Last week I heard them pouring oil on the waters after SARFU honcho Mr. Oberholzer proclaimed that it was all a done deal.

For those still wishing to know what its all about, the idea seems to be to run the Club and NPC seasons right at the start followed by Super 12 then International rugby. Have a nice orderly ring to it?

The catch is that its mooted that the NPC will then be able to overlap with the Super 12, and hence there will be no professional players in the NPC any more. The advantage (the be-suited organisers of the game will say) is that the pressure on the rugby season is thereby released.

The big disadvantage to New Zealand rugby which they will play down is that the NPC will become a second-rate competition which is simply a feeder for the Super 12. The Ranfurly Shield will also suffer in this case, unless some marketing “genius” decides it should be hi-jacked into the Super 12 somehow.

Here we have the classic dichotomy. The linear right-brain thinkers (accountants, organisers etc.) versus the more holistic left-brain thinkers – those who make assessments which involve a multitude of life-affecting aspects, not just money.

Removing the Super 12 players and All Blacks from the NPC will do far more damage than simply killing the NPC competition, which it will. It will jam a massive divide in between the small elite group of professional rugby players, and the amateur grass roots of the game.

Instead of being able to play alongside these skilled elite, and otherwise learn from and socialise with them, they will be removed from down to earth rugby life and placed in a parallel universe – one which can only be viewed from afar.

If this were to happen it might well look like a fine decision for a few years, however it would kill off that unique strength of New Zealand rugby – its unity throughout all levels of the game from top to bottom.

Let’s stop it from happening!