25th November 1999
Wisdom from Pinetree
Gordon Tietjens announced a 40-man squad to attend trials for the New Zealand Sevens team. They are, in alphabetical order:
Orene Ai'i (Auckland), Luke Andrew (Otago), Mana Ashford (Northland), Shane Austin (Taranaki), Todd Blythe (Waikato), Craig de Goldi (Bay of Plenty), Brad Fleming (Wellington), Rico Gear (Auckland), Jared Going (Northland), Brendon Haami (Taranaki), Marty Holah (Waikato), Craig Hudson (Canterbury), Tafai Iaosa (Hawkes Bay), Carl Izatt (Manawatu), Damien Karauna (Waikato), Hayden Martine (King Country), Carl McWilliam (Otago), Ben Meyer (North Harbour), Tony Monaghan (Northland), Malili Muliaina (Auckland), Craig Newby (North Harbour), Ryan Nicholas (Otago), Shannon Paku (Wellington), Dan Parkinson (Auckland), Matua Parkinson (North Harbour), Amasio Raoma-Valence (Auckland), Eric Rush (North Harbour), Owen Scrimgeour (Waikato), Dallas Seymour (Wellington), Rodney So'oialo (Wellington), Noa Soqueta (Counties), Aaron Steel (Thames Valley), Paul Steinmetz (Wellington), Arapeta Tahana (Bay of Plenty), Karl Te Nana (North Harbour), Jason Tiatia (Canterbury), Rua Tipoki (North Harbour), Allan Tubbs (Northland), Massey Tuhakaraina (Bay of Plenty) and Justin Wilson (Bay of Plenty).
There are 3 notable absentees from that list. The first is Caleb Ralph, who had a superb National Sevens Tournament. He was unavailable for the Sevens World Series because of his Super12 contract. The other two are Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen. Both these players have expressed a desire to play Sevens for New Zealand in the current series. All Blacks of their standing have far more say than most when negotiating contracts. If they were released (Jonah is yet to sign a Super12 contract, but would presumably stipulate that his signing would be subject to that release) they would miss a maximum of five Super12 rounds.
The Sevens series begins in Dubai, on December 2nd and 3rd, before heading to Stellenbosch, South Africa the following weekend. The Latin American leg starts in Punta del Este, Uruguay, January 6th and 7th and moves to Mar del Plata in Argentina five days later. The new stadium in Wellington hosts at the beginning of February, followed by weekends in Australia and Suva, Fiji. The Australian venue is yet to be announced, maybe because they can't decide between Homebush and the new Colonial Stadium in Melbourne, with its retractable roof. Then Hong Kong will stage its classic tournament on March 24th, 25th and 26th. Tokyo plays host in the first weekend of April, and the series winds up in Europe, Paris at the end of May and Twickenham in June.
Everything points towards a brilliant showcase for the game. Played well, there is nothing quite so exciting as seven-a-side rugby. All the skills are on show, and the crowd gets to see every team in the course of one day. Don't be surprised, though, if the series is a close run thing between us and the Fijians. If anybody manages to beat the home side in Suva, it will be a major upset. Let's hope the same proves to be true of the home side in Wellington.
The New Zealand Rugby Awards Dinner was held on Wednesday. A century of All Black rugby was revisited, and the giants of the game sat (comfortably enough) at table, having swapped their training gear for monkey suits worthy of the occasion. Suit-hire firms ran out of 22-inch-necked shirts by Tuesday night, though, so a few late-comers had to buy theirs from XXXXOS, the oversize men's clothing shop in Otahuhu. They've been a thriving South Auckland business for years, each year's sales having a direct correlation to the yield of the taro crop.
The NPC Divisions 1, 2 and 3 Players of the Year Awards went to Filo Tiatia (Wellington), Warren Johnston (Nelson Bays) and Victor Taingahue (East Coast) respectively. The NPC Coach of the Year went fittingly to East Coast's Joe McClutchie. They started the third division season as outsiders, but won in some style.
The Super12 Player of the Year was the Highlanders' Byron Kelleher. He went from little-known bench-warmer to star player in the competition's most exciting side, and won fans all over the world for his bushy-tailed heroics. Wayne Smith and Steve Hanson deservedly won the Super12 coaching award, having fielded their disciplined Crusaders unit week in and week out fuelled with self-belief and peaking right on time.
The Age-Group award went to Samiu Vahafolau, and the University Player of the Year was Paul Steinmetz. You'll remember he teamed up with Jason O'Halloran to set the Wellington midfield alight. The Maori Player of the Year was the indomitable Norm Maxwell, who rightly joined a long list of great names on the trophy after a top season. The Sevens Player of the Year was Orene Ai'i, which was no surprise to anyone who saw him play this year. He's like both Bachop brothers rolled into one. And the Women's Player of the Year was Black Fern game-reader Susie Shortland, who's good enough to get an All Black trial and probably the hardest nut in New Zealand sport. If you thought Frank Bunce was an animal, check out this girl next chance you get. I'm making her sound like a tight-forward, though, when she's actually a second five-eighth. Silky-smooth with the ball in hand, when she tackles someone she looks like she's going to cave in their rib-cage.
Andrew Merhtens won the Kel Tremain Award for personality of the year, more than likely because he had that little "access of thanksgiving" at Loftusversfeld. Jonah Lomu was always going to win the People's Choice Award for All Black of the Year, and would have won it no matter which country they solicited votes from.
The special moment of the night came when Colin Meads was given the Salver, a new award to be given each year to one of the legends of the game. Any young subscribers who didn't ever see him play missed one of the great sights in sport. A tireless, hard-boned draught-horse of a man, who yet could move like a thoroughbred when he got up speed, he embodied something essential about the game in this country that no-one had before or has since.
He spoke quietly and emotionally, about five-month-long tours, and friendships formed over the years with his team-mates. An era was etched in the lines of his face, and he graciously passed on some wise and comforting words to the younger All Blacks seated, transfixed...
"We didn't win every game either."
Quelle catastrophe! 4th November 1999
Fourth place... even worse 11th November 1999
"Dream" team? Stop dreaming. 18th November 1999
Wisdom from Pinetree 25th November 1999
4th November 1999
Normally I would review the games in order, but the French victory over New Zealand deserves the lead in this weekend's coverage. It was one out of the box, and the ramifications are huge. Hart was entirely correct in calling the French "world beaters", and who now would dare question that or continue to fatuously criticise the New Zealand coach for "talking up the opposition"? It is his job to take any opposition seriously, and a loss is always one game away.
This was more than a loss, though. It was an assassination in full view of the rugby world. Recriminations can wait, because with the exception of Jonah Lomu we were outplayed to a man. After the Cup I will give you, with the benefit of hindsight, my assessment of our squad. I will also name a Tournament XV, in which there will not be many All Black names.
If the French victory was the World Cup's biggest ever upset, the first semifinal produced what must be described simply as, so far, the World Cup's greatest game.
We agreed before kick-off that it had extra-time written all over it, and from the opening minutes it was blow for blow. The fullbacks exchanged booming sixty-five metre punts, the goalkickers traded missed penalty attempts, and the fly-halves both missed field-goals. It was tight and tense, with territory crucial. Suddenly Burke scythed through, and bumped off his opposite number before being pulled down. Springbok forwards infringed at the resulting ruck, and Burke landed the first points. Next Horan burst arrogantly past two tacklers, and there was another game-killing foul by the short-of-pace Africans. Burke landed again.
The first Bok points came from a de Beer penalty, but Burke landed another to maintain the six-point gap. The game was flowing back and forth now, with Derek Bevan controlling it beautifully; both sides retained possession well and probed intelligently, turning territory into three more points each before half-time. Cynical South African fouls were beginning to leave a bad taste in the mouth, though, and the Wallabies looked a little frustrated. They should have been further in front than 12-6, and the Boks didn't need any encouragement...
And sure enough, Joost had them charging out of the blocks in the second forty. He and Andre Venter played brilliantly, and de Beer rewarded their work with a penalty and his first successful droppie. That made it 12-all, and every watching Aussie shuddered. But when he tried and missed another, with unmarked men outside him, it was the turn of the South African fans to squirm uncomfortably.
The obligatory sixty-minute-mark substitutions were made, but there was no fresh-legged policy change from the Springboks and they continued to kill it. Burke kicked his fifth. It seemed to be the signal for Aussie to explode. Eales was robbed by a technicality, and after seventeen phases of relentless assault Gregan was denied the try of the tournament by van der Westhuizen. When Burke goaled again, the six-point gap looked good. But by sheer weight of resolve, and with the momentum swinging in their favour, the Springboks finished with two penalties at the end of regulation time.
The tension was unbearable as de Beer and Burke traded penalties to begin the extra period, and everyone suspected that a dropkick would settle it. But nobody was prepared for Larkham's fifty yard screamer (with wet ball, wet jersey and wet headgear in swirling wind, no less). Nor will anyone who saw it ever forget it. One for the ages, it made me wish I was listening to those same Aussie commentators that last week I accused of being too partial...
And Burke kicked another to make the final score 27-21. Make no mistake, this was a flat out, full-bore classic. There were no tries, but hell - it was Twickenham, after all.
The French had no such respect for the hallowed turf.
They ripped it up in great chunks. They were helped by Oliver's throwing, and Umaga's dreadlocks obviously affected his peripheral vision to the extent that he dropped more ball than he caught, but the main reason that the All Black machine never got rolling was the French never letting them settle.
Even two moments of magic from Jonah Lomu had the wrong effect. At 24-10, after seeing the big freak score two of the best wingers' tries of all time and obviously thinking "yes, it's ours", the All Blacks went to sleep.
So began, considering what was at stake, the finest half-hour of French rugby ever played. Benazzi, Ibanez, Magne, LaMaison, Dominici, Dourte, Bernat-Salles...out of nowhere, and with a combination of their trademark flair and some dogged defence, they blew the All Blacks off the park with 33 unanswered points. The tries were opportunistic, but brilliantly taken. Wilson's late try was irrelevant, and not even consolation really. The damage was already done, 43-31. Le plus grand, plus sa descende...
What a final it will be. Although one suspects that the French would be struggling to reproduce such a display against the ruthlessly-disciplined Aussies, who would dare to disrespect them now? The Wallabies have already had a game on the transplanted Arms Park, and may have some advantage from knowing the unpredictable nature of the turf there.
The loser of the third-place play-off must suffer the ignominy of having to qualify for 2003. But then again, Australia had to qualify for this one. All that remains for the All Blacks is to make some changes (Osborne,Jones and Hammett for starters) and try to roll South Africa by a face-saving margin. I believe they'll do it.
The quote of the week goes to Inky's mother-in-law. Without realising that she was talking to someone in shock, whose reaction might be unpredictable, she matter-of-factly said within hours of the loss, "I knew you were being a little too optimistic."
In order to remain married, I bit my tongue 'til it bled.
11th November 1999
Fourth place... even worse
If the game against France was an assassination, this last week was more like a crucifixion. The emotional ride the country took was of astonishing intensity, and the build-up of pressure on the boys could be likened to a walk up Golgotha with the means of your own demise or redemption strapped to your back.
Either the All Blacks or the Springboks were going to have to qualify for the 2003 World Cup. Whereas the South African public had been critical of their team all year, New Zealanders had only in the last week been anything other than totally behind theirs. Wins this year had been seen as proof that last season was an anomaly, and the loss at Homebush was a timely warning that the opposition weren't always going to lie down for us.
We'd all expected to see a match against either Australia or South Africa in the World Cup final, and that we'd be a good bet to take it if we did things right. Get past England, put together the right sort of game plan, and therefore deserve the trophy by playing the best brand of footy. But the walls fell down around our ears when France posted a record score against us in the semi-final. Qu'elle catastrophe!
The shock and dismay of the nation was fearful to be a part of. I read and listened to some real reactionary bunkum. It showed how tough it is to be an All Black, to be expected to win, and represent a pride so fierce. To be sure, there was plenty on this game.
It was a brutal, mistake-ridden affair, and those reactionaries calling for a cleanout in All Black culture were given plenty of ammunition. The Boks did what they do best, and killed the ball at every opportunity. The All Blacks turned it over in desperation, not recycling possession carefully enough. Breyton Paulse gave us a horrible action-replay of the French tries, when he toed it through from his own half and the bounce kept favouring him. We played our guts out until the end, especially Mark Hammett and Kees Meeuws, putting the necessary steel back into our forward drive. But no matter how much ball we secured, the knock-ons kept coming.
South Africa made just as many errors, but produced enough grit to hold their 22-18 lead. They forced many of our mistakes with close marking, and their policy of infringing rather than allowing us quick ball frustrated the men in black. The rest is history.
All the room-temperature-IQ boneheads who suggested that Jonah would go to League should shut their traps for a while. He will stay where he belongs, and that's not only great news for Rugby but also shows how smart the guy is. And if you're feeling down about the World Cup losses, set your video on super-slow-motion and watch some of his tries.
This week an Australian, a real sweaty butt-crack type, told me that the All Blacks lost the World Cup because they were too lazy.
"What do you mean, lazy?" I asked.
"Lazy. Everyone knows that New Zealanders are lazy."
Needless to say, I violated his right to free speech, and then outlined a few of his own unsavoury national characteristics...
There are, however, some parts of the Aussie character that make them very hard to beat at anything. They were expected to put away the French in the final, and be untroubled by the burden of having to look good doing it, simply because it was a showcase for the game. Where winning is concerned, Australians can be very cold-hearted. Finishing on top is what counts, and the manner of victory is appreciated but of secondary importance.
This time, though, they came through with more than just the goods. They flew the flag for Southern hemisphere rugby, and dominated. Not completely, but convincingly. Their game plan was brilliantly simple; play the match in the French half, and kick the penalties that would inevitably come their way if they maintained their own discipline. The French tried to mix it up again, and sailed very close to the wind all game long, but the Wallabies did not retaliate. Burke kept banging over the kicks that resulted, and Australia at 21-12 looked to be doing it comfortably.
Then came the knockout blows, two of the finest tries you'll ever see. Ben Tune got on the end of a sweeping movement that involved many hard-won phases of play, and proved what a lethal finisher he can be. And Georgie Gregan gave his Brumbie colleague Owen Finegan a trademark backflip pass, that put the big guy through a hole twenty metres out. With Frenchmen hanging all over him, he crashed over to put the game beyond doubt, 35-12. The world's most powerful sporting nation took the one they most wanted, and the celebrations began. Our congratulations are extended to them in the spirit of good sportsmanship.
My Players of the Tournament are as follows:
1. Richard Harry, Australia
2. Michael Foley, Australia
3. Kees Meeuws, New Zealand
4. John Eales, Australia
5. Abdelatif Benazzi, France
6. Andre Venter, South Africa
7. Olivier Magne, France
8. Toutai Kefu, Australia
9. Augustin Pichot, Argentina
10. Jannie de Beer, South Africa
11. Jonah Lomu, New Zealand
12. Tim Horan, Australia
13. Daniel Herbert, Australia
14. Ben Tune, Australia
15. Matthew Burke, Australia
16. Shane Howarth, Wales
17. Stephen Bachop, Samoa
18. George Gregan, Australia
19. Martin Leslie, Scotland
20. Martin Johnson, England
21. Budge Pountney, Scotland
22. Keith Wood, Ireland
It is a list that a month ago I thought many All Black names would be on, but I cannot let bias corrupt my judgement. I thank all the young men who strived on their nations' behalves to entertain us. Winners and losers, including those whose personal form was disappointing, can all hold their heads high. It's what representing your country is all about.
We will be back. We will avenge our losses, and play with the memory of them fresh in our minds for some time to come. Pity the poor side that meets us first up in 2000 A.D.
18th November 1999
"Dream" team? Stop dreaming.
The finals of the Telecom National Sevens Tournament were held over the weekend, at the New Zealand Institute of Rugby in Palmerston North. Seven-a-side rugby is played under the same rules as the fifteen-a-side game. With a total of only fourteen players on the field, though, the tactics are rather different.
Most breaches of the defensive line result in tries, so teams keep as many of their own players behind the ball as possible. Possession is crucial. Opposing teams will not come up in a line, preferring to hang back and hedge their bets. It is a kind of roving stand-off, and it takes a lot of good passes and well-run attacking lines to create a hole. Players are picked for their speed and fitness, their initiative and their tackling ability.
This year the final, over two ten minute halves, was fought between Auckland and North Harbour. The brightest prospects in New Zealand rugby were on show, but perhaps it was the wise old head of Eric Rush that made the difference in the end, as Harbour ran out winners by 20-5. Rua Tipoki, Matua Parkinson and Ben Meyer provided the speed and brilliance to complement his captaincy, and they proved too much for the Aucklanders, led gallantly by Caleb Ralph, Rico Gear and the little wizard Orene Ai'i.
Assessing the form on show at the National Sevens is, to a large extent, how Gordon Tietjiens picks the New Zealand team. Tietjiens coaches the Bay of Plenty in the NPC, but is better known for the outstanding success he has enjoyed coaching our national seven-a-side rugby team. There are high-profile competitions in many countries, but the highlights of the Sevens calendar are unquestionably Hong Kong and the World Championships. New Zealand players to find stardom first at these tournaments include Glen Osborne, Adrian Cashmore, Christian Cullen and Jonah Lomu.
Each year Tietjiens relinquishes his newest superstars to the contracts that inevitably come their way from exposure in his team, because it can make for a long year when you are also playing NPC, Super 12 and, in some cases, test matches as well.
This length of season is topical, with the fallout from the All Blacks' World Cup continuing...
Admit that you thought Josh, Merhts and a few others had earned themselves a rest after the Super 12, and that you thought John Hart was right to keep the All Blacks out of the NPC. Looking back, was this molly-coddling? No, it was common sense.
Well, I've started now, so I may as well go on...
Cast your mind back to when he announced his 30-man squad. Didn't you think he'd got the mix about right, the old Todd Blackadder vs. Robin Brooke argument notwithstanding? If you were one of Hart's detractors, of course, then nothing he ever did was good enough; every victory was a fluke, and every loss was an opportunity to stick the knife in and bore the true fans.
Still, the hard questions must be asked. Rather than ask them all, though, including the facile ones, I have narrowed it down to two.
"Where was the leadership?" and "Were we too soft?"
The answer to the first is obvious. The leadership was always there. Taine had the respect of the players, and implemented the game plan to the best of his abilities. But what would have stopped the French in that mood anyway? Some idiot taking matters into his own hands and getting himself sent off? Taine's leadership and John Hart's disciplined agenda prevented this.
It leads to the next answer, as to whether or not we were too soft. Of course we weren't, unless by soft you mean well-disciplined. These were highly trained, extremely fit rugby players, giving their heart and soul on our behalf. In the heat of battle, when they managed not to react but simply outscore the French 24-10, they were doing things exactly right. And then the French simply exploded. If the Tricoleurs had played that game against the Wallabies, they would have beaten them too. As to whether we would have beaten Australia if we'd made the final, we'll never know.
All the critics who think they could have sorted those Frenchmen out with a little biff should crawl back under the nearest rock. And I would dare them to say anything like "you were too soft" to an All Black's face. Sure, they're courageous enough to call talk-back radio...
But if you're still not satisfied, try a little therapeutic exercise, even though it won't necessarily make you feel better. With your 20/20 hindsight, pick an All Black team that would have won the Cup if the NZRU had been brilliant enough to make you coach and selector. Some players shone in the NPC, but then again none of the internationals were playing. Still, selecting with the benefit of that hindsight has huge advantages. Mine goes like this...
Firstly, a playing fifteen.
1. Craig Dowd
The meanest tight forward in rugby, and a good tackler with many ball skills.
2. Norm Hewitt
All over the ball like a rash, all day long. A precision-artist of the set pieces. Captain.
3. Kees Meeuws
A Dutch-Polynesian milk-baby of the staunchest kind. Pound for pound the world's best tighthead prop.
4. Ian Jones
The Kamo Kid. A ball-winning legend, and pops up where no other tight forward gets within 20 metres of.
5. Norm Maxwell
The young successor to Jones' lineout crown. Raw, brilliant. Head down / arse-up at ruck time.
6. Taine Randell
Peerless skills. As fast as most open-sides, and the world's best ball-and-all tackler. Always at the shoulder, creating continuity.
7. Josh Kronfeld
The one and only. First to the breakdown every time. Greased lightning with the turnover, and has the vision to distribute pre-emptively.
8. Isitolo Maka
A giant with soft hands. A no-nonsense driver up the middle, and guaranteed to get over the advantage line from the base of the scrum. Almost impossible to stop close to the line.
9. Byron Kelleher
The Pocket Rocket. A distributor first and foremost, can also spot the gap. Kicks beautifully. Cover defense exceptional.
10. Andrew Merhtens
The Baby-Faced Assassin. Given enough ball, this guy will bury them for you. A visionary, and runs like a scalded cat.
11. Jonah Lomu
The Freak. The one you turn to. Contact sport's most potent attacking weapon. Scores and scores and scores and scores, tries that make the heart pound.
12. Walter Little
A magician, a game-breaker. Finds the men outside, takes the right options and tackles well. Made scapegoat last year by the rush-to-judgement brigade.
13. Christian Cullen
The Paekakariki Express, silkiest gap-finder in the game. Tackles like a torpedo. One of a kind.
Reads the game. Guards the touchline fiercely. A man for crisis situations, possessing the purest of rugby instincts. A lethal finisher.
15. Jeff Wilson
If not a try every time he touches the ball, a guaranteed 25 yards at least, by hook or by crook. A game-turner, with more gas than most wingers and hands like glue.
Add seven reserves to make up the test team...
16. Tana Umaga
Huge-hearted warrior. Unbelievable ball-skills.
17. Carlos Spencer
Precocious talent. Keeps opposition guessing.
18. Justin Marshall
A die-for-the-cause team man. Like an extra loose-forward.
19. Michael Jones
The Iceman. Proved this year that he was still the Greatest. Hart was forced into retiring him early, by pressure from the media.
20. Glenn Taylor
A hard-as-nails engine-room type. Dominates at the front of the lineout.
21. Carl Hoeft
Covers both sides, and never stops doing the business in tight.
22. Mark Hammett
A motivator. Explosive, and hungry for hard work.
And eight others to make up the thirty...
Gordon Slater, the stony-hearted killer.
Royce Willis, the grinder.
Scott Robertson, the shark.
Andrew Blowers, the blue-collar diehard.
Craig Innes, the brick wall.
Caleb Ralph, the dasher.
Tony Brown, the mind-reader.
Norm Berryman, the free spirit.
Only minor changes, but oh, what a team that would have been! A mix of flair and grit, with plenty of leadership and experience...
Now stop dreaming.