Hart transplant scheduled 1st December 1999
      Sunburnt and dehydrated... kung fu, anyone? 8th December 1999
      Hard Stellenbosch track suits Islanders 15th December 1999
      Smithy steps up, a popular choice 22nd December 1999
 

    1st December 1999
      Hart transplant scheduled    

 

Jonah Lomu signed with the Hurricanes, and will make Wellington his home for the next couple of years at least. This is great news for the capital, and their new stadium will be packed every weekend this Super12 season. They will look to fulfill the promise they have shown in recent years, and try to take the extra step past merely being one of the competition's most exciting sides.

The search for an All Black coach continues in earnest. He will be one of the following confirmed applicants.

Gordon Hunter
Ross Cooper
Wayne Smith
Tony Gilbert
Buck Shelford
John Mitchell
John Boe
Peter Sloane
Bryan Williams

Brad Johnstone has withdrawn his application in order to accept a tenure with the Italians. Neither Robbie Deans nor Grant Fox actually applied, although it is generally thought that they would have been good candidates.

A Super12 coach will have a greater chance, and especially if a former All Black. This obviously means that Smith is the front runner, but the others all have good chances. Gilbert, Williams and Sloane seem to be hugely popular with the players. Boe and Mitchell both have impeccable credentials also, while Hunter and Cooper are respected and vastly experienced. Shelford is the sleeper. He's nothing short of a legend, but he might be waiting a few more years yet. A combination to anticipate in the years to come, perhaps, could be Shelford and Fox...

All the latest news on the coaching job will be forthcoming. And brace yourself for the start of this World Sevens Series. The Fijians are apparently miffed that we are seeded ahead of them for Dubai, having lost to them in last year's final, so there'll be a bit of feeling in the coming games. One of the great Pacific Island rivalries is about to be resumed.

Tietjens named his team to contest the Dubai and Stellenbosch Sevens. In alphabetical order, they are;

Orene Ai'i
Craig de Goldi
Brad Fleming
Rico Gear
Craig Newby
Matua Parkinson
Amasio Raoma-Valence
Eric Rush (c)
Dallas Seymour
Karl Te Nana
Rua Tipoki
Justin Wilson


Two players are on standby because of injuries to Rico Gear (hamstring) and Amasio Raoma-Valence (shoulder). They are Brendan Haami and Malili Muliaina.

Initially I was stunned to see that there was no room for Owen Scrimgeour in the team, or Ben Meyer for that matter. Meyer was brilliant at the Telecom National Sevens Tournament from which the trial squad was picked, and you'll remember Scrimgeour from our gold medal-winning side at the Commonwealth Games. He was the lanky, bow-legged playmaker with the turn of speed that so often gave Jonah and the others their first few yards of space. It's a sign of the class in the squad, that someone of his talents is surplus to requirements. This twelve obviously has some real star quality.

Everyone by now is aware of Orene Ai'i, who dazzled everybody playing for Samoa at Kuala Lumpur before we "poached" him for this year's Hong Kong Sevens, and who was such a revelation at first-five for Auckland in the recent NPC. He will be a big star this year. Seven-a-side rugby is perfectly suited to his game. Rua Tipoki is another whose precocious skills will be on show, the same skills he brought to the fifteen-a-side game this year for North Harbour.

But the one I'm picking to really excite the spectators is Amasio Raoma-Valence. Here is someone whose work-rate is high and whose homing instinct for the loose ball is uncanny. We've had our eye on him for a while now, but in the Sevens tournaments of the last few years he's had only moments of greatness, being understandably happy playing second fiddle to the already established superstars. This year, and over a great many more games than any previous year, Titch is going to unleash our newest monster.

I was tempted to continue and say "...on the unsuspecting opposition," but the opposition almost know in advance at the beginning of the season that we're about to unleash a new monster on them. Ah, the ongoing nightmare... even after the crash-tackling, bloodthirsty phenomenon that was Dallas Seymour and the ghostly rubber-man Osborne, they were probably still shocked by the juggernaut Lomu coming along the following year and laying waste to all those who stupidly got in his way. We all were. And then Christian Cullen had them falling all over themselves in fear and confusion, a lethal, missile-like little robot with a titanium shell and a soul-less stare in his eyes...

OK, we won't build Amasio up too much. We won't say he's the hottest thing in sport since they started allowing negroes onto golf courses.

Our game plan has always been to harry the opposition mercilessly until they kick the ball in desperation or turn it over in error, and then do the basics perfectly ourselves until a hole opens. Those basics are the same as the fifteen-a-side game, and revolve around jealously guarding possession. The finer points are all about the creation of space without isolating oneself from support.

The Fijians play it a little differently, with less emphasis on the basics and a tendency towards the outrageous in their pursuit of tries. But they are not undisciplined; their tackling is fierce, and their patience is endless. Often they have denied us possession and simply outlasted us. No other team requires so many defensive miles to be run against them. And they, too, could have a monster up their sleeve, a new Tabua, Vidiri or Vunibaka.

 

    8th December 1999
      Sunburnt and dehydrated... kung fu, anyone?    

 

Dubai was a real treat for rugby fans. Everybody who's been there raves about the place, and from what I saw on television it certainly looks enticing. It might seem a little odd, as a venue for a rugby tournament, but this splendid event has been going thirty years now and it's great to finally get some decent coverage. A lot of Europeans work and play there, so there is a cosmopolitan interest and enthusiastic rugby support. This year, as every year apparently, the temperatures soared, and while a mostly pink and overweight crowd stayed out of the blazing sun and drank gallons of bottled water, the fittest young men in the world ran around and wrestled in the desert to entertain them.

The only upset in pool play came when Canada beat Zimbabwe, and advanced to meet New Zealand in the first quarter-final. There, however, they showed that their earlier result was no fluke, and pushed us to the wire. We held out, 21-19, but heeded the warning. South Africa, having whipped France in their quarter, were our next opponents so there was every reason to suspect that we would have to raise our game significantly.

A pattern started to emerge in that semi, where our forwards began to look for the first opening themselves instead of securing possession and feeding the backs immediately. The too-big South African forwards were completely unprepared for this, and it wasn't long before the little drives in close were sucking a man in. Rush or Seymour would pick that moment precisely and then spin it wide, where backs like Ai'i, Gear and Fleming made the defence look ordinary. The Africans won't want to go down 31-0 again in front of the Stellenbosch crowd next week, so they've got a bit to work on.

The other half of the draw saw Fiji account for Tonga in one quarter-final easily enough. Tonga don't look that far off the pace, though. They gave us a tough game in pool play. But against Fiji they were, unenviably, 21 points down after only three minutes, and it was always going to be a long way back from there. Samoa beat Australia in the other quarter, mainly through better handling and greater enterprise. And they gave Fiji a good go in the semi as well, but Fiji prevailed.

So we got the expected final, but after that the script went out the window.

In the lead-up I have been trying to share the limelight around, and profiling players you might still be unfamiliar with. Many players rewarded that close attention in this tournament, and Brad Fleming especially came good big time. In particular I avoided giving Orene Ai'i more of a build-up than was absolutely necessary, because I didn't want to be repeating myself every week.

But he simply exploded, and deserves a big write-up. Supported by his team-mates, who played to the pattern I described earlier and seemed to know where he was at all times, the little wizard went berserk. Stepping off both feet and finding holes at will, he scored I can't remember how many tries without a hand being laid on him. Except afterwards that is, in frustration by the Fijians, who probably can't remember being handed such a thrashing and didn't enjoy it in the slightest. When did anyone last score 38 points against them, if ever?

The full squad then acknowledged the home support in the crowd with their victory signature, the shirts-off haka. I get feedback from all over the world, and based on this feedback I can tell you that nothing is as rewarding for our ex-pats as having the team salute them, and especially in this way. Everyone knows that partially-homesick, partially-xenophobic feeling, when a little bit of home culture is so welcome. Jammed into an over-populated foreign land, where the customs are strange and you can't bend an elbow to chuck down a cold one without knocking over some fuzzy-wuzzy's wierd-looking smoking contraption or listening to some filthy din that passes for music in those parts, you wear the Fern and the Kiwi proudly and you cheer twice as hard for your sports team. And when they dish out a hiding of that sort to the World Champs, and give you a sweaty celebration dance up close to thank you for the back-up, well... it makes it all worthwhile, doesn't it?

Anyway, the first tournament of the series is ours, and crowds around the world will be expecting similar magic from New Zealand in the coming months. Except against Canada, who will have some of the more fancied sides now looking over their shoulders, we fully justified our top seeding. We will do our utmost to continue that standard, but the other teams also will realise that the stakes have been raised. They will try to step up, and may even try to work out a game plan for neutralising the threat Ai'i poses. It will be fascinating to watch.

He seems destined for greatness, and may even push some ranking All Blacks pretty hard for their spots very soon. He's signed with the Blues for the Super12, and will be running alongside Carlos Spencer, Walter Little and Craig Innes in a backline stacked with class. We'll see how he goes at Carisbrook with Josh Kronfeld breathing down his neck, and we'll relish the tactical battle between him and Merhtens when the Blues play the Crusaders. My understanding is that Super12 contracts take precedence over the Sevens Series, but either way we're going to see a lot of this guy.

 

    15th December 1999
      Hard Stellenbosch track suits Islanders    

 

Stellenbosch is going to be one of the great future venues for Sevens Rugby. Hospitality in the Republic has always been legendary, and now their sports administration is catching up.

I'm still undecided about whether or not South African television cameramen should be encouraged to home in on every young blonde woman they can pick out in the crowd. I figure so long as they don't do it when the ball is in play it will be alright, but they cut to one obviously compelling specimen a couple of times when the ball was kicked into touch, and that's sailing a bit close to the wind no matter how comely she is. It's a habit they picked up covering test cricket, and it's hardly an issue there because there is so much time between overs and deliveries. Rugby, however, has very little down-time, so somebody in charge should perhaps tell the cameramen to stay focused.

Somebody in charge obviously knows something about the seeding. Remember in Dubai, when we were ranked ahead of the defending champions and reining World Cup holders, Fiji? We justified that seeding with a comprehensive victory. But the following week we got seeded behind them for Stellenbosch, which seemed strange.

Well, it seemed strange until the final, when they held out to beat us 12-10. Their defence was extraordinary, against the weight of possession and therefore the odds. We threw the kitchen sink at them, and they simply put up a brick wall. Our tries were good scoring moves, but theirs were right out of the top drawer. Both the expected stars of the game, Ai'i and Serevi, were replaced. But two new stars emerged for Fiji, and they showed the kind of big match class that we had last week. One was their halfback Kiliraki, who was everywhere at once, tackling like an octopus and wriggling through where no gaps seemed apparent. And the big speedster Delasau showed his class, outstripping our fastest easily and bounding away from our best tacklers.

So it's all locked up at the top of the table, and the others could be playing for minor places. Samoa, France, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Tonga look to be fighting for that third rung, but Argentina, Zimbabwe and Scotland are similarly committed to making life difficult for anybody they face. In January we move to Punta del Este in Uruguay, and from there to Mar del Plata in Argentina.

The SANZAR members submitted their proposed rule changes to the IRB this week. There seems to be a consensus among the unions that referees need greater powers to deal with disciplinary issues, and help when it comes to tight decisions on which a test match could turn. Of the proposed changes to the rules of actual play, the major one concerns the tackled-ball law.

As in a ruck or a maul, where a player is penalised for joining from the wrong side, it is suggested that the same should apply to the way players approach the post-tackle situation. They may still pick the ball up if they are on their feet, but effectively must be between the tackled man and their own goal-line to do so.

Some ambiguity for the referee is removed. Those defensive players on their feet, contesting the tackled ball, need not suddenly become offside at that moment when he decided that a ruck or maul had formed, as they had previously. I must say that as a spectator I never had a problem understanding the old law, but I could also see how the Kronfelds of this world might feel a little aggrieved occasionally. They would, after busting a gut to get there first, legally be contesting the pill, and be so single-minded of purpose in doing so that they didn't notice one or two more players arriving, that they were then infringing by still trying to rip it clear.

Do not think that flankers and cover would necessarily have to run deeper defensive lines, or that the advantage would immediately go to the attacking side at the breakdown. Think how important a tackle that drove the ball-carrier backwards would become. Of course there could be a tendency for those on the defending team not actually tackling to hang back slightly, and in fact the proposed change was suggested with the expressed intent of creating more space in the over-crowded midfield. But by the same reasoning attacking players in support would stay a little deeper too, and the principal effect would be the tidying of a rather complicated part of the game.

It was also suggested that the "use it or lose it" rule should be applied to the scrum, and this is a good proposal too. No more time should be spent scrummaging than is absolutely necessary. We don't mind too much about having to reset scrums occasionally, because a fair contest is crucial. But watching games these days, I do hear plenty of vendective directed towards front-rowers and their tendency not to engage cleanly every time. Speaking as an ex-tighthead prop, though, I can tell you that it's a dark and mysterious place in there, where the big men come together to discuss things political. There's not a lot of room, so it's no place for sissies who don't like their personal space encroached upon, and the coach didn't tell anyone before sending them in there that they should play nicely with the other boys...

A friend of mine observed that sponsors have an excellent opportunity with Rugby, to support a contact sport that is as exciting to play as it is to watch. Other sports have been dominated by the dollar to the extent that the game revolves around commercial breaks on television. When they come back from a break the audience doesn't want to waste any time watching forwards rumble around, so the Americans have refined it to the point where the forwards don't even touch the bloody ball. Even though rugby is in no such danger, encouraging the last man down to release it still makes sense.

As for the sin bin and the policing of substitutes, these have been introduced in some form or another whenever any sport has become professional. Livelihoods are at stake. And so why not a video referee as well? The officials must have absolute control over discipline, and similarly the option to go upstairs if necessary for a slow-motion replay. At present, ironically, final decisions on discipline are made days after the game using video evidence, and game-turning points decisions involving many moving parts are made in real time by one man in the midst of a heated battle.

I will not hear a word said against the referees and the job they currently do. The international standard is uniformly high. But they will appreciate the ability to show certain players their teeth, because those players who most often commit indiscretions seem to do so more and more cynically these days.

Administrative and rule changes may or may not be in effect by the start of the Six Nations or the Telecom Super12 in February. Either way, do not be alarmed that the sport is changing too quickly for you to keep up with. The game will be pretty much the same. Intelligent, well-spoken, mild-mannered men with excellent standards in personal hygiene will still meet in properly-organised groups every weekend to practise their life skills. Crowds of various sizes will continue to disagree on the merits of certain policy decisions. There will always be winners and losers, beer will still taste sweet afterwards (win or lose) and Inky will be here every Monday to tell you all about it.

 

    22nd December 1999
      Smithy steps up, a popular choice    

 

Wayne Smith was named as coach of the All Blacks on Friday. His assistant will be Tony Gilbert. It came down clearly to these two when Peter Sloane withdrew a week ago, and it became a race between them as to who would be head and who would assist. Sloane will hopefully fill one of the Telecom Super12 jobs left vacant by these two. The third selector and manager will be appointed in the New Year.

It was decent of the administration to ensure this difficult decision was made before Christmas, especially for the sake of the unsuccessful applicants. They can finally relax. Many will apply again in the future, and be disappointed once more. I think that if you want this job, you have to want it badly. A media discussion on your relative merits can't be pleasant, no matter how many times you are told it "comes with the territory", and the public aren't known for being either sympathetic or forgiving.

I've never liked that expression, "it comes with the territory". Anyone who is surprised by the territory should have kept their application to themselves. Aussies say "don't choose Banana Bending as a career if you'd rather not live in Queensland" which also, typically, is rather inelegant. Saddam Hussein, though, had a lovely little saying, "throne dwarf", meaning "unfit for the position". The appointment committee didn't rush to judgement on this one, and their criteria were very strict. Throne dwarves were weeded out at round one, and anybody who got to the final stages was hardly in need of platitudes explaining either the lay of the land or what was expected of them in crossing it. Hmm, I would try that hat on for size, but it's getting awfully hot here in this kitchen...

I always admired the attitude John Hart took in relation to the media. He knew which opinions were legitimate, and which were simply factious, and treated them according to their merits. Right through his tenure he was prepared to answer criticism from people whose knowledge of rugby was less than his own, and ignore the parochial slant obvious in so much of it. Hopefully the South will get in behind our coach this time, and not be so quick to find fault according to their thinly-disguised dislike of Auckland.

Before Wayne Smith has done anything, I see no point in writing anything about his suitability for the job except to say this; he was obviously the best candidate, in that the committee were unanimous and unequivocal in their recommendation. He was certainly a great first-five in his playing days, and has since then proved his ability coaching the Crusaders to successive victories. His biggest challenge lies ahead, and for my small part as a member of the media, I will be giving him some breathing space and not making his life any more difficult than it needs to be.

The NZRFU also made the easiest decision required of them all year, reappointing Matt Te Pou coach of the NZ Maoris. This guy has coached the Maoris to 21 wins in a row in his 5-year tenure, and although there were other applicants I imagine they probably all knew he was applying again and that they might as well get a job in hell making snowballs.

And they made Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen available for the New Zealand Sevens in Wellington, releasing them from any Telecom Super12 obligations for the first week of February. At that time of the year their obligations would only amount to practice sessions and meeting fitness targets anyway. The Hurricanes' first match isn't until three weeks later, and Graham Mourie may even see the Sevens as good practice in itself. I hope that the Sevens side and the Hurricanes will train together at least once in Wellington, and that Christian and Jonah slot into the side without too much hype.

These two young men have been the most exciting players of the game in their time, and the new stadium hosting New Zealand's first Sevens tournament is wonderful for the game of rugby in this country. It is important that our greatest stars are included.

They both made such an impact in Sevens that they were immediately snapped up by the All Black selectors, who every year watch Gordon Tietjens' latest discoveries with great interest. Titch has gotten used to losing his stars every year, and maintains the continuity in his squad by building around a core of specialists. Lomu and Cullen's respective rises were so meteoric that they never played together for New Zealand at Sevens. The prospect of them both in the same side, with talent like Ai'i and Fleming inside them, is mouth-watering.

I will be in Wellington that week cheering them on, starting the rugby season as early as possible but trying not to distract the squad with my over-enthusiasm. You see, most people start getting excited much later, like over the last few round-robin games leading up to the Telecom Super12 semi-finals, and are only fully primed when the first test rolls around. But not me. I am seeking out the game wherever it is played and watching videotapes in the absence of live action, I give current Rugby Almanacs as Christmas presents and read the old ones before sleep every night; over the bed is a poster of the Iceman breaking clear from that famous maul against Aussie, and in the background you can see an out-of-focus JK screaming for the ball...

Every morning I wake up looking for some nice person to bore silly with my obsession. I manipulatively look for opportunities to change the subject when someone is talking about art or politics, and have been forcibly removed from polite company for raving too wildly after wins by big margins. But the keyboard is waiting for me every evening, and I can let myself go uninterrupted in the hope that my subscribers are the same way inclined.