Saturday, 5 November 2011

Get Your Rugby Off-Season Fix From American Football

Although southern hemisphere rugby is over for 2011, rugby and league fans downunder can still get their fix by watching American football, otherwise known as gridiron, where the standard of athleticism and football is outstanding. Take a look at the incredible attacking game of the Oregon Ducks in these highlights from their recent game against Washington State:

Thankfully rugby never took off in the USA, because if it did the existing rugby playing nations would have no hope of matching them. There are enough athletes of sufficient standard in the Oregon college team to fill most of the places in the Wallabies!

Although there are more more 'blow-out' scorelines, it could be argued that the college games are better to watch than the NFL. Similar to the difference between the style of rugby played at the world cup and that played in SuperRugby, in American college football  the defenses are not as tight as in the NFL, allowing offense to dominate the game, with the resultant spectacle of exhilarating running and passing plays.

The pomp and ceremony at the college games is mind-boggling, particularly to anyone who has experienced the muted atmosphere at sporting fixtures in Australian universities. At American college football games, crowds of 80,000 are the norm, with incredible pageantry, marching bands, and nation-wide television coverage.

Perhaps because the athletes are ‘amateur’ and there is a greater emphasis on fair play, ethics, and morality, college games are not blighted as much by the ugly spectacle of helmet to helmet hits, which are seen in almost every NFL game.

This type of hit occurs when a defender aims his helmet into the head of another player, usually the player carrying the ball. This is the equivalent of a “deliberate high shot” in rugby or league. But its worse than that, because the weapon is harder. 

In the recent Patriots v Steelers game, I was disturbed to witness numerous deliberate helmet to helmet hits which were not mentioned by the commentators, even though clearly visible on slow motion replays. Perhaps fearful that highlighting these hits would draw attention to the endemic nature of the problem, leading to a ratings backlash, TV commentators mostly turn a blind eye to it. Or are they catering to a macabre streak in the viewing public that wants to see it?

Research carried out amongst retired American football  players has found a direct correlation between concussion and a variety of neurological disorders, including early onset dementia. Although there is growing support to rub helmet to helmet hits out of the game, the best the authorities have managed so far is to apply penalties with qualifications. 

One such stipulation is that to be penalised, the contact must occur on a so-called “defenseless” player. Clearly this is absurd, because the focus should be on the actions of the player that leads with the head, not the recipient. Whether the recipient is deemed defenseless or not is irrelevant when concussed by a fibreglass, steel, and bone missile mounted on the top of 120kg of rippling muscle running at full pace and aimed directly at his head.

What’s worse is that, in the Patriots v Steelers game, it was noticeable that most of the helmet to helmet shots were coming from one side – the Steelers – indicating that it was a deliberate policy by this team.

A calculated policy designed to intimidate opponents, with the ultimate outcome of brain damage…..

Penalties for these hits, when they occur, are usually fines, which are often paltry compared to the incomes of the players. What is really needed are lengthy suspensions.

NFL administrators need to remove this ugly blight on the game. In the meantime, viewers can vote with their remote  control by instead getting their football fix from college games. 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

French Were A Rabble From Go To Whoa

After 6 weeks and 48 matches, the winner of the Rugby World Cup was decided by a single point. 

Despite holding the number one ranking and home ground advantage, the All Blacks only just scraped home by the slimmest of margins, in a tournament dominated by defense. 

Antagonism between French coach Lievremont and his players ultimately cost them the Cup. In the last quarter of the match, when advice  to position for a field goal was needed, there was no sign of communication between coaching box and players. Numerous opportunities to set for a shot at goal were spurned in favor of attempts to run wide around an impenetrable All Black defense.

Camped well inside the All Blacks half, the game was there for the taking; a field goal would have ensured an improbable French victory.

On the podium at the post-match presentation it was noticeable that the positioning of a group of officials ensured distance was maintained between a solemn Lievremont and his players.

As if they needed anything further to tarnish their dubious reputation,  the dark side of French rugby was once again unveiled with indisputable video evidence of a despicable eye gouge by Aurelien Rougerie on a defenseless Richie McCaw.

Although the IRB took action against the French for taking a few steps towards the hakka, and against players for wearing non-sanctioned mouthguards during the tournament, in their wisdom they intend to do nothing about the eye-gouging. 

There were further accusations that a photographer was spat on by lock Pascal Pape amid a physical altercation between French players and photographers, and recent reports quote Harinordoquy as saying that the team ignored Lievremont from the early stages of the tournament. 

Had the French not been such a rabble, they would have won the Cup. 

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Time For Deans To Go

The best teams play consistently well. Other teams can lift their games occasionally to match better rivals, but the effort takes its toll, resulting in inconsistency from week to week. The Wallabies lifted to beat the Boks, but looked tired when asked to repeat it in the semi-final. Ireland played above themselves to beat Australia, then were unable to repeat it against Wales. France lifted to beat England, then just scraped home against Wales despite playing with an extra man.

Against the All Blacks in the 2nd RWC semi-final, the Wallabies were woeful. Cooper, whose previous indiscretions had put him under enormous pressure, looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. 

Without a functioning fly-half, the team was rudderless.

They compounded this with missed tackles, dropped high balls, mis-directed kicks, and fumbles. The previous week's herculean defensive effort against the Boks had taken its toll. Although the All Blacks were excellent defensively, the Wallabies' constant errors gifted the Kiwis the game. 

With the pressure lifted from them, we can only hope that Australia can produce  their much admired running game in the consolation final against Wales next week.

Where to then?

Robbie Deans has had 4 years as Wallabies coach. It's time to move on. Ewan McKenzie is his obvious successor.

Peter De Villiers did the honourable thing when the Boks were knocked out of the RWC: he announced he was stepping down.

Deans is a coach with a talent for developing young players. He developed many superstars of the game during his time at the Crusaders. Then in Australia, Cooper, O’Connor, Beale, Pocock, Slipper, Simmons, Daley and others were fast-tracked at the expense of older players considered to be approaching their use-by date. 

When Deans first became the Wallabies coach, several journalists attended his training sessions. One of them reported that the secret to Deans’s coaching is that there is no secret

That’s the way the Wallabies have played ever since: no set moves, no obvious game plan, and no tactical nouse. There is no plan B when things go wrong because there is no plan A to start with. As Bob Dwyer observed, they rely on “wonder plays from the wonder boys”. 

With so much talent at the Crusaders, this was very successful. But with the limited player resources of the Wallabies, a superior game plan is needed.

Deans is much admired as a man. If he wants to stay in Australia, the ARU should find him a job in player development, or as coach of a SuperRugby side. He has a lot to offer such a role.

As the post-mortems are held, however, far more important than simply changing the coach is to expand the Australian player base, which is just too small. Australian rugby does not have enough players to fill their super rugby teams, most of which are full of expatriots from across the ditch.

Radical change is necessary. The Parramatta NRL club offered to finance both the Parramatta union team and a Western Sydney Super rugby team operating out of Parramatta stadium. This was rebuffed by the ARU.

There are many league players who are interested in union, and it is time to say goodbye to the 100 year old schism between the two codes. Embrace the leagues clubs and get them on board. They have the player base,  the elite development pathway,  and the money that Australian rugby needs.

Something also needs to be done about New South Wales. Although it produces the bulk of Australia's home-grown rugby players, the NSWRU's gin-swilling rah-rah management and the petty-politicking and poor morale that results from it are a turn-off to many players and fans. 

The Waratahs must be sold off to private enterprise. 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Irish Forwards Highlight Wallaby Selection Blunders

The Irish outplayed the Wallabies. They won at the breakdown, they destroyed the Wallaby scrum, they won the line-outs, and they were better defensively.

Irish defensive coach, ex-Australian rugby league international  Les Kiss, was prominent in the coaching box and post-match celebrations,  and clearly played an important role in the win.

Its impossible to see the Wallabies winning this tournament after that performance, and the game has shown up the Wallabies Tri-Nations win for what it really was: a trophy gifted to them by two opponents that weren’t on the job.

But the loss has also focused attention on the coaching ability  of Robbie Deans. When the Wallaby RWC team was chosen, eyebrows were raised. Why did Deans go into the tournament with no back-up number 7 to Pocock? 

Australia were totally dominated by the Irish at the breakdown and failed to win any turnover ball. The absence of Pocock was a major blow which could not be overcome because Deans chose to leave Beau Robinson and other specialist fetchers in Australia. Instead he chose a host of players capable of covering 6 & 8 (Elsom, Higginbotham, Palu, McCalman, and Samo).  

Surely the Wallabies could have done without one of these, making way for a back-up number 7? Indeed, Pocock’s replacement, McCalman, with no experience at number 7,  was not sighted during the game.

Furthermore, Deans’ failed to bring on potential game-breaking replacements such as Higginbotham until the 75th minute of the match, by which time the Wallabies had no chance of reigning in the deficit, indicating a paralysis in the coaching box.

Deans also chose a host of injured players in his squad (Mitchell, Barnes, Polota-Nau, Horne, Slipper and Palu) who are clearly still not fit to play at this level, leaving a dearth of able-bodied replacements that could be called on when he needed them. 

The coach decided to leave Matt Giteau at home and instead gave his position in the team to Pat McCabe, who has never played in the inside backs, has no ball playing skills, no side-step, no creativity, can't kick, and has failed to break the line in any of the games he has played in the position. 

Indeed, Deans has revealed that he is no master coach, with his selection decisions making the tag of ‘dunce’ more appropriate. The recent decision to re-appoint him for another two years was premature. He needs to move on after the RWC and allow  Ewan McKenzie, his obvious successor,  time to re-build the team.

The only positive to come out of a likely early Wallabies exit from the RWC  is that perhaps administrators will be forced to go back and take a good hard look at the player development process in Australia, which for far too long has relied on a player base that is just too small. 

Unless that is improved, it won't matter which coach they appoint.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Team That Wanted It Most

In the Tri-Nations, the Springboks sent their B-team to the Antipodes. The All Blacks responded by sending their B-team to South Africa. These somewhat cynical ploys, which trivialised a great tournament, also decided its outcome.

Having not won any silverware for a decade, the Wallabies, by contrast, did not hesitate to  put their best side on the park in every game. After such a long drought, it was important for them to win something – anything

At Eden Park, the All Blacks blew the Wallabies off the park with a first half of total intensity and intimidation. The game was over by half time. In Brisbane, the Wallabies used the same tactic, from the kick-off throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at the ABs. Adam Ashley-Cooper stated afterwards that at half time of the Brisbane test,  he had never been as tired in all his life. No wonder that the opposing team in both games outscored the hosts in the 2nd half.

In the end the Tri-Nations was effectively decided by one man. With the Wallabies clearly spent, Will Genia yet again produced an inspirational run that led to the match-winning try. Genia reminds this blogger of George Gregan at his peak. Gregan had the ability to dictate a game and lift the side. But Genia may turn out to be even better than Gregan. As Farr-Jones predicted, he could be the best Australian half-back since Catchpole.

Speaking of comparisons with past greats, it was surprising to read comments in the press that James O’Connor may have trouble re-claiming his spot in the side. There is a touch of Campese about this boy, and the Wallabies cannot afford to leave him out. 

So to the World Cup. Can the Wallies win it? With excitement machines like O'Connor, Beale, and Quade Cooper, anything is possible. Sekope Kepu has been the front row find of the season, and with the return of James Slipper there is some hope that the team’s perpetual achilles heal-- the scrum – might hold its own.

Despite his age, Radike Samo is the best Wallabies number 8 since Totai Kefu. With Elsom, Higginbotham, and Pocock, Australia has an imposing set of loose forwards, while Horwill and Vickerman are a fine pair of locks.

But to win the WC, a team needs to have a reliable goal kicker; a nerveless character like Matt Burke, Elton Flatley, Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter.

The Wallabies don’t have such a player.

Despite the Tri-Nations result and their reputation for choking in previous World Cups, the All Blacks, with the home advantage,  should win it.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

The ability to control the momentum of a game is a feature of great teams. Once it changes, so do the fortunes of the participants. 

In the first twenty minutes of the Blues-Waratahs quarter final, there was only one team in it. The Tahs controlled the ball superbly, mounting raid after raid, with the Blues continually on the back foot. After Tom Carter muscled his way over in the corner, victory appeared to be theirs for the taking.

But then came the turning point of the game: with the Blues at sixes and sevens, Lachie Tuner collected the ball in midfield play, ran a few steps, and needlessly kicked it away……

From this the Blues were able to regain possession, build pressure, convert it into points, and take the lead. The Tahs entered the dressing shed at halftime with the game having already slipped from their grasp.

Old habits die hard, and Josh Holmes was guilty of kicking the ball away on several occasions just when there appeared glimmers of hope that the Tahs might retain possession and re-build momentum. 

The value of kicking for touch was also nullified as wayward throwing from third string hooker John Ulugia made the Tahs lineout a liability.

In a further cruel reflection of the Tahs’ season, any hope of a comeback in the second half was crippled when key forwards bit the dust:  Kane Douglas had his knee sickeningly rearranged, Timani hobbled from the field, and Phil Waugh was clearly struggling before being replaced.

Holmes had a poor game, with his  service to the backs far too slow, and should have been replaced by McKibbin much earlier than the dying minutes.

But there were positives.  Pakalani, who hitherto had reminded this writer of a schoolboy playing in the big league, had an excellent game, regularly getting involved and threatening the opposition line.

Fourth string tighthead, Paddy Ryan, is a big unit who held his own against the powerful Blues scrum and looks to have a bright future ahead of him.

Like he had done all season, Kurtley Beale played his heart out in his final game for the team, and as the camera zoomed in on him after the final whistle, he struggled to hide the tears in his eyes. 

One more Tahs player to mention: this was Phil Waugh's last game. As he rides off into the sunset, he will be remembered as one of  the toughest players to ever wear a Waratahs jersey. 

Kurtley and Phil, the Tahs' will miss you. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Last Man Standing

In the cult film from 1975, Rollerball, teams from cities around the world compete in a brutal contest that inflicts a crippling injury toll in a competition that consolidates the power and wealth of corporate owners via a worldwide viewing audience. In the final game, only one player is left standing: Jonathan E, played by James Caan.

With the SuperRugby finals now upon us, one can’t help but see similarities to Rollerball in this ferocious, gruelling marathon of a competition. There has been a horrific injury toll, with crippled knees, dislocations, broken limbs and jaws and multiple concussions, jeopardising not only players’ careers but their long-term health.

The Waratahs enter the finals missing most of their first choice players due to injury. Gone are fly-half Berrick Barnes, his back-up Halangahu, half-back Burgess, winger Drew Mitchell, outside center Rob Horne, Palu, Kepu, Baxter, Polota-Nau and second-string hooker Damien Fitzpatrick, while skipper Phil Waugh is playing with a snapped biceps tendon.

After last month’s show trial where team members and coaching staff were virtually paraded with dunces’ caps while members of the public threw the verbal equivalent of rotten eggs, the Tahs have morphed into a team that runs with the ball and scores bonus-point tries rather than kicking it away at every opportunity, giving some citizens of New South Wales the courage to once again whisper that they are Waratahs supporters.

The Auckland team are rightful favorites for the first qualifying final, with the Tahs’ front row  -- which includes the third string hooker and fourth string tighthead prop -- sure to be targeted and exposed.  But Tahs fans will be hoping they have their own Jonathan E in the shape of Kurtley Beale, who has played like a man possessed in his last games for the team, almost single-handedly lifting New South Wales into the finals with his individual brilliance.

In Rollerball, the game's corporate owners ultimately stand accused of putting profits before player welfare. As rugby's administrators join the worldwide audience enjoying an armchair view of the game, perhaps they should take stock of the carnage that has resulted from SuperRugby's expanded format, and consider ways to reduce the injury toll so that future generations might be willing to play rugby in the professional era.