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Holmes had a poor game, with his  service to the backs far too slow, and should have been replaced by McKibbin much earlier than the dying minutes.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

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Wallabies’ Achilles Heel

With the regular season drawing to a close, it’s that time of year when coaches pick their train-on squads and scribes pick their prefered national teams. The selection of this year’s Wallabies should be relatively straightforward with most positions having one or two obvious stand-outs. 

With the likes of Quade Cooper, Genia, Beale, and O’Connor,  the Wallabies will field one of the most exciting backlines in the world.

Australia also have two of international rugby's best hookers in Moore and Polota-Nau, and the team should hold its own in the second row and loose forwards.

However, for over a decade one position has been Australia’s achilles heel: the tighthead prop. 

This blogger recalls that a pressing need to develop Australia’s front row stocks was elucidated by Eddie Jones as far back as 2003, yet here we are two World Cups later still having failed to produce a single world class tighthead. With such a small player base in Australian rugby, perhaps this should not be overly surprising. But there are enough kids of suitable body size in Australia to suggest that either the ARU’s talent scouts or the development pathway have failed.

After the fly-half, the tighthead prop is the next most important player in the team, for he is the anchorman.

It doesn’t matter how good the backline is, if the scrum can't hold its own, the team will concede penalties and the backs will receive poor ball.

The Wallabies have several good looseheads, but although shuffling props from one side of the scrum to the other is often adequate at provincial level, it is questionable whether a makeshift tighthead would be able to stand up to the working over expected from the All Blacks, Springboks, or England.

Suggested Wallaby team:

1 Robinson
2 Polota-Nau 
Kepu or Daley
4 Horwill
5 Sharpe
6 Elsom
7 Pocock
8 Samo 
9 Genia
10 Cooper
11 Ioane
12 Giteau
13 Fainga'a
14 O’Connor
15 Beale 

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Away Goals Rule

Last weekend’s Crusaders-Reds game lived up to the pre-game hype. It had test match intensity from start to finish dominated by ferocious defense, hand-to-hand combat between the forwards, touches of brilliance from Quade Cooper, and hard running from both teams.

Unlike some referees who seem to be under the impression that they are the evening’s main attraction, by underplaying his hand for much of the game Stu Dickinson allowed a free-flowing contest.

But with two minutes to go, as the Reds drove into position in front of the sticks,  the Crusaders’ captain  made a fateful decision to crash through the Reds' ruck. He gambled that Dickinson would interpret the rules in his favour, and lost. It was a throw of the dice that cost his side the game.

The Reds scored two tries to one, so at least by this statistic, they were the deserved winners.

However, your blogger counted nine Reds’ passes (most of them thrown by Genia) that were marginal enough to have been called forward, and three Reds’ offside plays, none of which were called by the referee. The Crusaders’, by comparison, threw only one marginal pass that wasn’t called. In Dickinson’s favor, the discrepancy could be explained in part because the Reds’ played with a very flat offense, such that players constantly received the ball close to the gain line.

The Reds will need to watch this, because when playing away from home, it is unlikely that referees will interpret such flirtation with the rules so favorably. Just like the players, referees are influenced by the crowd, resulting in a tendency to make decisions that favor the home team. In SuperRugby, and even more so in the Tri-Nations, the result of most games goes the way of the home side.

Soccer (dare I call it football), has long recognised this phenomenon, and has attempted to counter it with the “away goals rule”. In the event of scores being equal after a home and away leg, the winner is the team that has scored the most goals away from home.

In other words, away goals count double.

SuperRugby and the Tri-Nations should introduce something similar by awarding more points for an away win than for a win at home.