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The All Blacks have, for all intents and purposes, been withdrawn from the ANZC and were it not for the five week gap between the end of the Tri-Nations and the start of the end of year tour to the northern hemisphere, they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?

16 Oct

Haka's possible All Black squad for end of year tour
by Tracey Nelson
16 Oct 2009

The Haka team have mused over who the likely candidates will be when the All Black sway is named this Sunday for the end of year tour that takes in Australia in Tokyo before test matches against Wales, Italy, England and France, and finally the Baabaas game.

With a reduced squad of 33 players (compared with last year’s tour squad of 35) it is likely the coaches will stay loyal to most of the players who played in the Tri-Nations series. As such, we have gone for a split of 18 forwards and 15 backs.

With Isaac Ross possibly left behind to "bulk up" in the gym we see Anthony Boric as likely to be re-called after missing selection earlier this year due to injury. While Zac Guildford has been a standout winger on form in the ANZC, with only 15 backs in the squad and Cory Jane able to cover fullback and wing he is the unlucky one in our books with Sivivatu, Rokocoko and Rico Gear the front runners. Should Sivivatu not be considered due to injury, we thinkGuilford would go in his place.

We think it is unlikely the coaches will risk exposing Aaron Cruden so early in his career, particularly without any S14 rugby under his belt, which is why we haven’t named him. We’ve picked three 1st 5s in Dan Carter, Stephen Donald and Colin Slade (who can also cover fullback) but the bolter may be Bay of Plenty’s Mike Delaney, who is the form 1st 5 in the ANZC and has played a season of S14 with the Chiefs this year.

Hawkes Bay’s Karl Lowe gets our nod as Richie McCaw’s back-up after his display against Canterbury last night, backed up by other performances during the ANZC. Lowe played for the Hurricanes this year, so ticks that key box for the coaches. However, Canterbury’s George Whitelock and Bay of Plenty’s Tanerau Latimer have both been part of wider training squads this year and as such may have the front running.

The squad we think likely to be named is:

Props (5)
John Afoa (Auckland)
Wyatt Crockett (Canterbury)
Owen Franks (Canterbury)
Neemia Tialata (Wellington)
Tony Woodcock (North Harbour)

Hookers (3)
Aled de Malmanche (Waikato)
Andrew Hore (Taranaki)
Hika Elliot (Hawkes Bay)

Locks (4)
Anthony Boric (North Harbour)
Tom Donnelly (Otago)
Jason Eaton (Taranaki)
Brad Thorn (Canterbury)

Loosies (6)
Jerome Kaino (Auckland)
Adam Thomson (Otago)
Karl Lowe (Hawkes Bay)
Richie McCaw (Canterbury)
Kieran Read (Canterbury)
Rodney So’oialo (Wellington)

Halfbacks (3)
Jimmy Cowan (Southland)
Brendon Leonard (Waikato)
Andy Ellis (Canterbury)

First fives (3)
Dan Carter (Canterbury)
Stephen Donald (Waikato)
Colin Slade (Canterbury)

Midfielders (4)
Luke McAlister (North Harbour)
Ma’a Nonu (Wellington)
Conrad Smith (Wellington)
Tamati Ellison (Wellington)

Wingers (3)
Siteveni Sivivatu (Waikato)
Joe Rokocoko (Auckland)
Rico Gear (Wellington)

Fullbacks (2)
Mils Muliaina (Waikato)
Cory Jane (Wellington)

Possible bolters: Liam Messam (Waikato) getting a re-call at No 8 in place of Rodney So’oialo, Israel Dagg (Hawkes Bay) at fullback, Zac Guildford (Hawkes Bay) on the wing, Mike Delaney (Bay of Plenty) at 1st 5, Aaron Cruden (Manawatu) at 1st 5.

The squad is named at 10am this Sunday, 18 October.

9 Oct

All Blacks Test Venues 2010
by Tracey Nelson
9 Oct 2009

The All Blacks will play their opening test match of 2010 in New Plymouth as the Taranaki city secures its second test match after the All Blacks played Samoa there in 2008.

Six venues in total will host the All Blacks’ home games next year, with Dunedin hosting Wales for the very first time in what could be an historic occasion as it is likely to be the last time the All Blacks play at Carisbrook with the new Otago Stadium due for completion in 2011.

The June international series sees a one-off test against Ireland in New Plymouth, followed by two test matches against Wales played in Dunedin and Hamilton. The Investec Tri-Nations kicks off with the All Blacks hosting South Africa at Eden Park in Auckland, and then again the following weekend in Wellington. The All Blacks have a two week break before travelling to Australia for a test against the Wallabies before returning to New Zealand to host them at the newly completed AMI Stadium in Christchurch the following weekend. After another break the All Blacks travel to South Africa to take on the Springboks in Johannesburg and Pretoria, before returning to Sydney to play the Wallabies in the final game of the Tri-Nations.

The June-September 2010 schedule is as follows:

Date Match Venue
June 12 All Blacks v Ireland New Plymouth
June 19 All Blacks v Wales Dunedin
June 26 All Blacks v Wales Hamilton
July 10 All Blacks v South Africa Auckland
July 17 All Blacks v South Africa Wellington
July 24 Australia v South Africa Brisbane
July 31 Australia v All Blacks Melbourne
Aug 7 All Blacks v Australia Christchurch
Aug 21 South Africa v All Blacks Johannesburg
Aug 28 South Africa v Australia Pretoria
Sept 4 South Africa v Australia Bloemfontein
Sept 11 Australia v All Blacks Sydney

18 Sep

How to win friends and influence people
by Tracey Nelson
18 Sep 2009

If we thought John Hart and John Mitchell were All Black coaches who could raise the ire of the New Zealand public like no other, then step aside everyone – because while the current coaching trio may not be winning on the field, off the field they are excelling in statements that have wound New Zealand rugby supporters up like a spring.

Let’s start with that C word – Confidence. Or should that be contradiction. Because certainly there have been plenty of contradictory statements stemming from the 2009 All Blacks. The lineout is just the start, where on one hand we have Steve Hansen stating that the All Blacks haven’t lost confidence and that they aren’t going to change what they’re doing because "Our issue with the lineout is not that we can’t lineout, it’s just that we’re making mistakes."

Yet Graham Henry then comes out and says "I guess it’s about confidence. If you don’t hit the jumpers early, then confidence starts to wane and that’s what happened." And listening to Andrew Hore talking about lineouts in the lead up to the test against Australia in Wellington this weekend using langauge such as "hopeful" and "we think" and "we’re pretty sure" just reinforces the fact that confidence is definitely down.

There have been the recent comments about rugby being a simple game. Henry confirmed for us that "It’s a basic game. You have to have quality first-phase ball. You have to build a foundation through the set-piece and get across the advantage line. That sets the platform." Hmm, yet Wayne Smith and Henry himself both still back playing an expansive game that hasn’t come to fruition all this season because we are failing to win our set pieces and get front foot ball.

Last year we were told the side "would have learned a great deal from the defeat" after losing the first test to the Wallabies in Sydney, and we were told at the start of the Tri-Nations this year that "we are a work in progress". But have we made any progress? Forward progess, that is?

Comments such as "the sort of pressure Habana applies at kick is a good lesson for our blokes" seems to have fallen on deaf ears, as the All Blacks time and again have failed to put any pressure on their opposition at the restart and actually managed to put pressure on themselves last week in Hamilton by kicking two restarts out on the full.

Equally we’ve heard this week that "You can’t (win games) if you’re not able to execute your set piece platforms or catch and pass. We’ve got to find the players who we know can go out and perform on that stage accurately" and yet Joe Rokocoko keeps his spot on the wing despite reaching double digits for the number of knock-ons he’s contributed this Tri-Nations.

That was followed up with the re-call of Neemia Tialata who was initially dropped after the first two Tri-Nations tests due to poor form, with the reasoning "We are a bit concerned about the amount of football he’s played in recent times, but we think that’s the best selection". Sorry? Can you repeat that? Owen Franks, who has more than held his own at tighthead prop and has proved to have a very high workrate around the field, is supposedly being "rested" and isn’t being made a scapegoat for the loss in Hamilton. Quite what Franks needs a rest from, averaging only 51 minutes play in each of the five tests he’s played in over the last 8 weeks – that works out to be around half an hour of playing per week – is anyone’s guess. But that’s what we’re being told.

Ah, and don’t forget that despite the All Blacks being our premier professional side – the side that all other players, teams and competitions in this country have to take a back seat to – that at the end of day it is, according to Hansen, "just a game". He reckons that public pressure on him to get the lineout working right was nothing compared to his previous life working in the police force. Well, if the All Blacks’ lineout implodes again this weekend he may just need a police escort to leave the stadium.

It’s been all well and good for the coaches to tell us that the players have the right attitude, and that they’re trying the best. But I’m afraid that when you’re an All Black trying your best isn’t good enough – you need to be better than your best, because that’s what wearing the black jersey is all about. Excuses about the high error rates from Hansen by suggesting that if there were no mistakes in sport Roger Federer would win every Grand Slam missed the obvious point that Roger Federer doesn’t consistently double-fault on his own serve the way the All Black lineout has tended to this season.

So thank goodness for Dan Carter who has come out with the only worthwhile statement this week, saying "Pressure is just part of the territory and you’ve got to use it to your advantage." Let’s hope the All Blacks can channel that pressure, because a loss this weekend will make them the only All Black team to ever suffer three home defeats in one season. If the coaches want to quote Lombardi by quipping "they have not built any statues yet for critics and wannabes" they may also want to consider another of his quotes:

If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?

16 Sep

Beyond reasonable doubt
by Tracey Nelson
16 Sep 2009

Rugby, according to Graham Henry, is a simple game. So if that’s true, then why are the All Blacks making it so complicated?

Let’s start with the biggest bug-bear of them all. The lineouts. Our lineout woes have been going on for a few years now under this coaching regime and while they may have briefly improved last year where the All Blacks were winning around 87% of their throws, this season it has slipped to 75% . It reads worse against South Africa, where the All Blacks could only win 59% of their own throws across the three Tri-Nations tests.

Steve Hansen has blamed the current lineout problems on human error, but when you look at what those errors are the question has to be asked whether those errors could have been avoided in the first instance. Claiming that jumpers didn’t have back lifters is just "a human error" is up there with suggesting it would be human error to jump out of an aircraft without a parachute.

The technical aspects of the All Blacks’ lineout are flawed, and they are not helping themselves by making their lineouts prescriptive rather than thinking on their feet and reacting to the conditions at the time. It’s all well and good to have set moves you would like to use on given parts of the field, but if the opposition are on to you then you need to act accordingly rather than doggedly sticking to "the plan".

Test match rugby is all about pressure, so what was the thinking to give a rookie lock the job of calling the lineouts? Equally, the process of subbing him off in two of the tests and then getting the substitute player to take over the lineout calls also seemed nothing short of premeditated chaos. Hansen is quick to point out that Isaac Ross should not shoulder all the blame for the lineouts, "..there’s a lot of responsibility on his shoulders and he’s just a kid" – so surely the buck falls back on the coaches who decided it was a good idea to laod this responsibility onto a new All Black.

There weretheludicrous claims from the All Blacks that they suspected their lineouts were being spied on while they were in South Africa, but the fact of the matter is that the All Black throws are easy to read and therefore easy for the opposition to match up against. Not to mention the All Blacks seem to like helping the Springboks out by throwing to the spot Victor Matfield is jumping in.

But if lineouts weren’t bad enough, there is the backline. A backline that has failed to produce any cohesion or strike power, and one that has continued to operate poorly even after the return of Dan Carter. Quite why the All Blacks were running moves with Donald at 1st 5 and Carter at 2nd 5 at training last week when Carter was named to start at 1st 5 we can only put down to some form of smoke and trickery in lead up to the test – and it was a gamble that ultimately backfired in Hamilton.

To see a player of the calibre of Carter throwing a pass that was easily intercepted for a try was bad enough, but that it came from an overly complicated move from one of the few of our own lineouts we actually managed to win really just summed this season up. Add the continued selecion of out-of-sorts Joe Rokocoko on the wing and the inability of most of the backs to get into position and take control of high kicks from the opposition, then you really have to start wondering what is going on in the All Black camp.

There have been plenty of noises about how the team is building this season, but even the players must be starting to switch off when the coaches look for things to build on after yet another loss. Commentsfrom Hansen such as "the positive thing about the lineout for me in that first half was that we managed to put them under a lot of pressure. The ball they won was pretty untidy too" is merely grasping at straws. Untidy it may have been yet the All Blacks never profited from it, and it was a botched All Black lineout the Boks scored their first try from. Nothing too positive in that for me, I’m afraid.

The high error rate from this side is simply not good enough. While the coaches stress that it is not a lack of confidence, the questions must now be asked why the errors continue to come. The lack of composure, inability to execute anything under pressure (and sometimes under no pressure at all), and the general poor decision making point to a distinct lack of self confidence in even the senior players in this side. Sure, there are some key All Black unavailable due to injuries but to see the likes of Muliaina, Carter and McCaw all well short of their best must surely be more than ringing the alarm bells.

10 Sep

All in the Numbers – Match Preview, Hamilton
by Tracey Nelson
10 Sep 2009

The win by the Wallabies over the Springboks last weekend has left the Tri-Nations door ajar for the All Blacks. But the road to winning the Tri-Nations crown is far from easy, and with South Africa sitting at the top of the table and with a handy points differential, the All Blacks are going to have to pull out all the stops this weekend.

According to a study released by Auckland University this week, New Zealanders are not particularly good at linking maths to everyday life and it suggested that we have neither the ability nor the inclination to use mathematics effectively. However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that to stay alive in the TriNations the All Blacks neeed to do three things on Saturday:

1. Win

2. Deny South Africa any bonus points (which means don’t let them score four tries and/or be within seven points of our score)

3. Preferably score four tries in winning the game, or if not then win by more than 25 points.

Of course, those who can do maths will quickly work out that the best way to win by 25 points or more is by scoring tries because it is fairly unlikely the Springboks will concede 9 penalties within kicking distance and that Dan Carter will nail them all – not impossible, but I’d say improbable.

The likelihood of the All Blacks scoring four tries is also in the improbable basket. Namely because so far in 2009 they are only averaging 1.4 tries a game, and in Tri-Nations test matches it lowers to just on one try per game. The 10 tries scored so far in 2009 is the worst try tally since 1978, and given we haven’t scored a bonus point win in the last 8 test matches against South Africa you wouldn’t be putting money on it happening this weekend – especially with wet weather forecast for Saturday night in Hamilton.

However, there is one number I like and that is the one on the back of Dan Carter’s jersey. Thankfully he has been selected at 1st 5, and despite the All Black coaches suggesting that they will use two pivots on attack and either Carter or Donald will call the plays, hopes of the All Blacks winning – and winning well enough to possibly score four tries – surely lie in the hands of the world’s best playmaker.

A few eyebrows were raised over the lack of specialist lock on the All Blacks’ bench, but given our current lack of international locks and the prowess of the Bok lineout there really was little to be gained by having specialist cover there. By including Adam Thomson, the All Blacks are allowing themselves the luxury of fresh legs and a player who has shown great form in the ANZC with his speed and skills at the breakdown. As the Wallabies proved last weekend, it is the contest at the breakdown and speed of play that is vital to beat this South African side.

This test match will the be third in a row on the road for the Springboks, and while they are making noises about wanting to atone for the loss against Australia in Brisbane last week, they will be feeling jaded. Add to that the insult they handed Hamiltonians by delaying their arrival into NZ because "there is nothing to do in Hamilton", I would expect the crowd to be baying for blood when they run out on the field. It will be the first time the Springboks have played a Tri-Nations test in New Zealand at a ground where the crowd is so close to the sidelines, so I expect the atmosphere to be well and truly charged in favour of the All Blacks.

Kick off is at 7.35pm in Hamilton, Saturday 12 September.

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).

6 May

Headlines May 6th 2009
by Tracey Nelson
6 May 2009

MacDonald farewells NZ rugby

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

Key All Blacks re-sign with NZRU

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

Latest Playing Apparel Revealed for All Blacks

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

New referees secure Test appointments

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

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

Heartland Championship teams to trial Player of Origin

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

SANZAR

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

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

5 Dec

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

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

COACHES:

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

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

Inability of the team to win without Richie McCaw

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

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

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

Continuing to play players out of position

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

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

PLAYERS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OVERALL:

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

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

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

28 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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