Thursday, 31 March 2011


The sickening sight of Berrick Barnes totally ga-ga in the dressing room after the Waratahs game on Saturday was disturbing.

Research from America’s NFL has found that players that suffer repeated head knocks have a likelihood of early onset dementia. The NFL is now fielding lawsuits from ex-players suing the NFL for not protecting them against this. The ARU should take note.

In Australian rugby, because there are not enough players, small guys are thrown into positions they don’t have the build for. Berrick has a body frame that would have been better suited to playing half-back (where he played in the NRL).

The inside backs at international level have to face behemoths like Sonny Bill and Nonu running at them like runaway trucks. A little guy like Barnes playing in the centres is at particular risk of head injuries because the only chance he has of bringing those attackers down is to stay low and tackle them front-on around the legs. Sometimes the head gets in the wrong position…..

Another brave little player who would have been safer playing half-back, Matt Giteau,  has also suffered repeated concussions trying to bring big men down.

It is now being suggested that James O’Connor will be moved to inside centre for the Wallabies, at 20 years of age, raising similar concerns for his welfare.

Berrick Barnes has been an incredibly brave defender, but for the sake of his health, he should retire from rugby now.

With his good looks, perhaps a career as a TV commentator awaits him. He has the world at his feet.

Berrick, hang up your boots. 

Monday, 28 March 2011

A Tale Of Two Cities

As new teams in the heart of AFL territory, the Rebels and the Force have much in common. But there is a significant difference in their licensing conditions: the team from Melbourne is allowed to sign ten overseas players while the Perth franchise is only allowed one.

It is unlikely that the Rebels’ first year would have been anything but a disappointment had the ARU not given them special dispensation to sign foreign players, and failure to win the hearts and minds of Melbournians could well have seen the Rebels go the same way as their namesake in the now defunct ARC: confined to the dustbin of Australian rugby history.

The Rebels’ overseas players have been adopted not just by their supporters, but by the Australian rugby public as a whole.

Somerville is a mountain of strength in the engine-room, and with Polota-Nau and Moore injured, Ged Robinson has been the best hooker in Australian rugby.

Delve is always in the thick of things, Lipman has arguably been the stand out number 7 in Australia this year, and Cipriani has given his local counterparts a lesson in tactical kicking.

These charismatic players, together with the wily old warriors Mortlock and Gerrard, added to the coaching genius of Rod Macqueen, have provided the ideal environment to nurture aspiring Australian players such as Phipps, Saffy, Vuna, Kingi, Blake, Rooney and Mitchell.

But awarding the last two SuperRugby franchises to cities with no local player base is like trying to build tables without legs.

The alternative venue of Western Sydney, populated by the sons of rugby-playing islanders and kids who know how to pass a ball without hittting it with a closed fist, offered the potential to build a club that could have produced its own players.

Rugby’s missed opportunity is AFL’s gain.

Perth is further hamstrung by the unwillingness of many players to cross the Nullabor.

The Force consists of a group of hard-working forwards supported by a couple of clever backline generals in O’Connor and Shepherd.

John Mitchell instilled a laudable work ethic, but with few exciting players, they’re a dour team that is not  particularly attractive to watch.  Despite this, they still fill the ground for their home games, confirming that there is a market for a team in Perth. 

But with the club perpetually battling for the wooden spoon, the fate of league’s Western Reds is a reminder that the Force’s long-term viability is not assured.

Allowing them the same dispensation given to the Rebels to sign overseas players could only be good for Perth and their long-suffering rugby supporters, as it has been for Melbourne. 

Monday, 21 March 2011

Back to Basics for Australian Rugby

Complacency and a string of key injuries conspired to send the Waratahs packing on Saturday night. Like most of the pundits, the Tahs thought they only had to turn up to ensure victory against the lowly Cheetahs.

But they were missing their two inspirational forwards, Waugh and Polota-Nau, and in a short space of time Palu and Robinson were also sitting on the sideline.

The failure of the line-out placed self-doubt in inexperienced minds, and as the game progressed the forwards lost structure and increasingly were strung out across the park, enabling the Cheetahs to set a nonporous, flat defensive line.

This type of defense is seen in the NRL every weekend and is what contributes to the often mundane, humdrum complexion of that code.

But when applied to rugby it is even more stultifying because there are 4 extra players and no equivalent of league’s 10 metre rule. 

All the Cheetahs had to do was make their tackles.

To counter this, forwards need to hunt as a pack, stay tight, pick and drive, off-load in the tackle, and use rolling mauls to suck in the opposition and create space for the backs to run into.

These are all things that the Tahs, up until 2 games ago, were good at.

Well-directed tactical kicking can turn defenses around, but most Australian teams usually end up compounding their problems by relinquishing possession to the opposition with misdirected punts. Gerrard and Cipriani are exceptions to this.

Another sad indictment of the basic skill level in Australian rugby was  the amount of ball that was dropped in the two local SuperRugby games on the weekend.

Despite this, at Suncorp the Reds still managed to look good because only one team turned up.

In reality the main shining light was the introduction of Mike Harris, who although 99% Kiwi, was immediately touted as a future Wallaby.

Why not? Half of the Wallaby team is of Kiwi origin, such is the dubious quality of the locally-grown product.

Inconsistency has plagued the Wallabies in recent years, and this season the Force, Reds, Rebels, and Tahs have all been afflicted with the same malady. 

The Brumbies buck the trend, managing to be consistently disappointing.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

NRL Betting Scandal: Could it happen in Union?

In Australia in decades past, you could only legally bet on horses or greyhounds. This, presumably, was because  animals will not act dishonestly in return for money.

A further safeguard was present: every race was scrutinised by a panel of stipendiary stewards. If a runner did not perform to expectations, or a jockey did not appear to be ‘on the job’, or the betting signaled something was amiss, the stewards would investigate.

These safeguards didn’t always work, because those wishing to influence the results of races have, at various times and to varying degrees, been able to infiltrate the racing industry from top to bottom. Stablehands, jockeys, and trainers are obvious targets for organised  crime. But also stewards, bookmakers, administrators, journalists, and even high court judges have all been ‘on the take’.

So the history of the racing industry in Australia has involved a constant battle between the forces of good and evil, and through various eras one side or the other appeared to gain the upper hand.

But with the internet revolution the gambling industry  has opened up, and it is now possible in Australia to legally bet on competitions where the athletes involved are humans. The safeguard implicit with animal racing  – that the athletes are incorruptible – is gone.

The second safeguard is also missing: there is no panel of stewards watching for irregularities in the performance of those involved in these events.

The forces of evil have got an unopposed ride.

So the recent NRL betting scandal comes as no surprise, and is unlikely to be an isolated event.

Furthermore, it is very unlikely that such corruption is confined to the NRL. Wherever you have gambling, there is the potential for corruption.

The relative ease with which a match outcome might be altered will vary from sport to sport depending on how many key participants would need to be influenced to achieve a pre-determined outcome.

Rugby union would appear to be particularly vulnerable in this regard. Firstly, the refereeing of the game is open to considerable interpretation, and decisions are often contentious.

Secondly, there is one position in the team that has a disproportionate influence on the result. The player in that position is not only responsible for navigating the team around the park, but he is usually also the goalkicker in a sport where points from the boot make up a large part of the score. That player has the number 10 on his back.

So to ‘fix’ a game of rugby would not be particularly difficult. Is it already happening? Money is being taken by bookmakers and betting agencies around the world on the outcome of SuperRugby games, and in many of these games only one person would need to be corrupted to ensure a result.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Of Angels and Demons

To some South Africans, criticism of Springbok players is close to blasphemy.  This week’s blog stirred up a veritable hornets’ nest over at, where a link to this site had been placed. Many negative and often personal criticisms were spat back at the “Saffa-hating” “tosser” who authors this dispatch.

Tosser I may well be,  but I can tell you, dear readers,  that Saffa-hater I am not. I have many wonderful South African friends and colleagues. But, unlike my accusers, I am not so nationalistic that I cannot accept criticism of the behavior of my country’s sportsmen.

The Australian cricket team of the 90’s was one of the greatest ever, but I was often ashamed of their offensive on-field conduct. The sight in 2003 of half-starved Bangladeshi test players, so bright-eyed and excited to be visiting our great country for the first time, only to be shamelessly sledged by the arrogant Australian cricket team filled me with disgust.

Steve Waugh was one of Australia’s greatest batsmen, but I was appalled by the strategy he described as “mental disintegration”, seen at its worst in the infamous “choo-choo” sledge directed at Chris Cairns in 1993.

The final straw came in the 2008 Sydney Test between Australia and India, after which many Australians, led by a damning newspaper article from Peter Roebuck, finally spoke up and said we’ve had enough of this behaviour.

If you Google the names du Plessis, Burger, or Bakkies Botha, followed by the words “dirty player”, you’ll get many pages of results. The majority of the condemnations found on those pages have come from South Africans themselves.

But dirty Wallaby players? I cannot think of a single one.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Hippocratic Oath

When I was growing up I looked up to doctors as role models and pillars of society.  They take an oath to treat all people fairly and to do no harm. So for those unfamiliar with his playing history it might come as some surprise that a doctor was caught on camera  doing this to David Pocock in last week’s game:

As Pocock’s body contorted, his knee was sacrificed to prevent his neck from being broken. Dr. du Plessis got off scot-free while Pocock will be out for at least 6 weeks. Pocock quoted du Plessis as saying "Next time I'll break your (expletive) neck." 

Why wasn't du Plessis cited?

Those who are familiar with Dr. du Plessis’s history will know that this is not the first time he has been caught on camera in acts of blatant thuggery.  Here is a previous example of the good doctor's handywork:

Apparently eye-gouging runs in the family. Here’s his brother in action:
The camera doesn't lie. The du Plessis brothers are thugs. Rugby administrators have an obligation to rub these sorts of players out of the game.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The World's Most Dangerous Game?

It was pleasing to read today that SANZAR referees boss  Lyndon Bray promised a return to last year’s interpretation of breakdown rules that favor the attacking side.  The rules adopted last year were widely applauded by the public and had been described by Robbie Deans as “close to perfect”. In contrast, the opening rounds of this year’s competition have seen a relative dearth of tries and the outcome of games more regularly determined by penalties.

But Bray’s announcement begs the question: why weren’t last year’s rules applied in the first 3 rounds of this year’s SuperRugby comp?  Did the referees just forget about them? Or was a conscious decision made to change them? If so, can someone please explain just who is running the show?

This week’s rugby blogs have included some vigorous debate about improving the laws of the game. However, any contemplation of improvements to the game should not exclude some careful thought regarding the horrific injury rate in professional rugby. The game at the elite level is being played with a much higher level of fitness, intensity, and strength than in the amateur days. The downside of this is that in almost every game we are witnessing serious injuries with potentially life-long repercussions for the player. Rugby involves a lot of unstructured play, and many of these injuries are occurring at the breakdown where limbs are dangling in all directions and players are flying in to the ruck at speed.

Sport is supposed to promote health, not the maiming of those that play it. It’s time to give some careful thought to improving this when tinkering with the rules. 

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Tahs and Scribes of Australia

The fly-half in rugby, like the quarterback in American football, is the most important player in the team, and from the moment Berrick Barnes was ruled out of this weekend’s contest, the odds of a Tahs’ victory lengthened considerably. And so it played out, with Halangahu having a forgettable game before being hooked from the field in the second half.

The Tahs' chances took a further nosedive when Polota-Nau hobbled off, with the scrum resembling a pack of cards thereafter. If the Tahs' are Australia’s best forward pack, there is little to support Robbie Deans’ claim that “the final piece of the Wallabies jig-saw puzzle – the scrum -- has fallen into place”.

As Williams and Fruean carved up the Tahs’ midfield I was reminded that Greg Martin had brazenly predicted that Sonny Bill would be a failure in rugby union. Another player on the park, Brad Thorn, long ago confounded another opinion spruiked by Australian union scribes,  that league forwards would not adapt to the 15-a-side game.

When Matt Rogers retired he was reported to have said, “I was never made to feel as welcome in union as I was in league”. Despite many of our best union players having league backgrounds, there is still a prejudice against league converts by some sections of the Australian rugby community.