Pacific Barbarians dispatched 6th November 2000
      Referees spoil Paris test 13th November 2000
      Bad start fatal in Marseilles 20th November 2000
      Too flighty against Italy 27th November 2000

    6th November 2000
      Pacific Barbarians dispatched    


I am sometimes coerced into hosting undesirables for rugby games, people either whose understanding of the sport is extremely limited and who have no inclination to learn from silent observation, or whose annoying habits include talking on other subjects while watching the game. For the All Blacks versus Pacific Barbarians match, I somehow got saddled with that Australian mate of mine, whose line in prattle this week was about how much Rugby had borrowed from League.

Most Aussies are only slowly coming to realise how dull League is, and were it not for the fact that the brilliant Wallabies are World Champions, they would continue in large numbers to keep their heads buried in the sand. As we witness the slow and painful death of the other code, a common theme amongst its diehard fans is to blame Rugby for the demise, failing to see that a game where sides do not contest the ball is doomed from the beginning. Buttcrack was blathering on right through the first half, even ignoring me when I pointed to the phone and told him to "call someone who cares".

I was engrossed in the game, worried about the second-string players' inability to gel against a Barbarians team that were playing out of their skins. They held us to 14-10 five minutes into the second half. Blair Larsen and Graham Bachop in particular, both former All Blacks playing out their careers in Japan, were having blinders and making the rearranged New Zealand team look ordinary. Mike Edwards was giving Greg Somerville a hard time playing out of position at loosehead prop. Bruce Reihana and Pita Alatini scored good tries in the first half, but a tighthead given away on our own line had seen Bachop muscle past Byron Kelleher and put the Baabaas well in the running. Bash was a huge loss to New Zealand rugby, leaving for a lucrative Japanese contract only a year or so before the game went professional everywhere else.

Wholesale changes were made at half-time. Justin Marshall came on for Kelleher. Carlos Spencer went to fullback, replaced at first five-eighth by Andrew Mehrtens. Daryl Gibson and Tana Umaga became the new midfield pairing instead of Jason O'Halloran and Alatini. Scott Robertson took over at openside flanker from captain Taine Randell. Randell stayed on, moving to blindside where Filo Tiatia had started. Tiatia and Reuben Thorne were paired as locks because both Troy Flavell and Norm Maxwell had gone off injured. Anton Oliver replaced Mark Hammett.

What had looked disjointed and untidy suddenly came together nicely. Ball retention was better, and with some quicker recycling came the flow that was missing previously. Spencer enjoyed the move to fullback, having more room to attack. But it was Mehrts in particular who took control of the game. His long, precise passes made space for the men outside, and gaps began to appear. The combination with his Canterbury team-mate Gibson was fluid, and Umaga added a little extra spark out wide. From 14-10, the All Blacks ran in five more tries, to Howlett, Gibson, Marshall, Spencer and Reihana. The final score of 50-10 was closer to what we had expected than what they looked like posting with half an hour to go.

And a few questions about the make-up of the test squad against France were answered, although cover might be needed for the injured locks. Luckily Glenn Taylor and Royce Willis will be close by, touring with the New Zealand A side. The French side has a strong, settled look about it and will be very tough to dominate with new combinations, but this could be a good test of our depth.

I mentioned this to my guest, always looking ahead to the next game. But, typically, he took an opportunity to gloat, implying that we underestimated the French at the World Cup and paid for it dearly. And of course he did not fail to mention who the eventual champions were. I sighed - we had been through this before. Many times I had pointed out that it was just a question of timing, contending that if the World Cups had been held in 1985, 1989, 1993 and 1997, we would have won all four. Of the last fifteen years, the Wallabies had dominated three, the Springboks one, and the rest had been all us. But sophisticated mathematics of this sort are beyond most Australians. As are many social refinements, by the way - this guy will assume he's invited to stay for dinner and drink everything you have in the house unless you actually tell him to sod off, so I didn't forget to add this...

Handling defeat well is all about understanding it, learning from mistakes. I take All Black losses hard, like most fans, but I always try to remind myself of how the players themselves must feel, and keep things in perspective. Amidst all my darkest wishes for a bloody and terrible revenge against the French, I realise it's only a game. Sport is better read about on the back pages than the front. Satan dabbles in rugby results, but they're only a sideline to his real work in places like Bosnia and Rwanda.

You would probably be surprised at how often I watch the truly satanic 1995 World Cup final, searching for that perspective. My brother has a comprehensive collection of All Black tests on tape, and we occasionally pull out such ghastly classics to refresh our memories. We'll probably watch last year's semi-final sometime this week, looking for clues. I wonder if Wayne Smith and Tony Gilbert will be doing the same thing?

A replay of the 1999 World Cup final was played in Paris on Saturday night. French flair provided most of the highlights, but the home side were frustrated by two things - firstly, the tight Wallaby defence, and secondly, an inability to kick the simplest of goals. Christophe Lamaison was snatching at them, yanking them left by lifting his head and not planting his pivot foot properly. The Tricoleurs had to score the hard way, with the ball in hand, through some of the world's most brutal and committed tackling. They managed to, Fabian Galthie getting the only try of the game, but it came too late. At 18-13 the French were left to rue the inaccuracy of someone whose goal-kicking is usually so reliable.

Once when France did land one, it was ruled no goal by touch judge Jim Fleming, whose sporadic blindness at key moments has spoilt or turned many test matches (I'm not going to be too hypocritical, after defending officials all year, but the ones I defended were Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders, clearly superior to their Northern hemisphere counterparts). A New Zealander, Paul Honiss in fact, was in charge of this test, but despite his best efforts and insightful use of the advantage law the two teams never really fired. Aussie got away with one, in a display of ugly rugby that illustrated how important the Larkham-Gregan combination is to their pattern.

The Telecom National Sevens were held over the weekend in Palmerston North, at the adidas Institute of Rugby. North Harbour and Wellington were looking to defend their men's and women's titles respectively. From the men's competition, Gordon Tietjens would be picking a squad of sixteen from which the team of twelve would come for Dubai and Stellenbosch. He spoke about how the loss of such players as Caleb Ralph, Orene Ai'i, Rua Tipoki, Justin Wilson, Rico Gear, Mils Muliaina (all touring with New Zealand A) and Brad Fleming (injured) might affect his team, and typically he put an optimistic slant on it, emphasising that it was an opportunity for some newer players to step up. He said that he always knew Super12 and All Black selections were goals of those players, and that their promotion would serve as good incentive for more youngsters to play seven-a-side rugby.

Bay of Plenty came through as the surprise package in the Women's competition, towelling Auckland in the semi-final 24-0 and going on to thrash Otago 33-5 in the final. Otago had knocked over the defending champion Wellingtonians in their semi. Bay of Plenty looked the fitter team, lasting the ten minute halves well after two solid days' rugby. They chased down the Otago players whenever they made breaks, and had the speed to outstrip defenders when they had the ball. Exia Shelford was their chief playmaker, her speed a major weapon and her reading of play impeccable. She ensured that her team dominated every team they played, but aside from the margin of the Bay's victories the women's tournament was as closely fought as ever. From their competition, Darryl Suasua would pick a training squad of forty women to prepare for several international tournaments next year (I'll give you the squad when they whittle it down a bit).

The Cup final was between Waikato and North Harbour. Waikato had won three times in a row before North Harbour took the title last year, so no-one was taking them lightly, but when push came to shove the class of the North Harbour side was too much. Roger Randle opened the scoring for Waikato, but after that it was practically all North Harbour. Eric Rush, Matua Parkinson, Toots Tuilevu and Craig Newby each scored two tries, but Harbour's defence was equally significant in gaining the win. Whenever Waikato had the ball, they were tackled and dispossessed. Karl Te Nana, Newby and the feral Parkinson were especially hard to shake, causing one turnover after another and sapping the spirit of the Waikato players. 52-12 probably sounds one-sided - it was.

Tietjen's satisfaction in the form of his available core players was reflected in the squad that he named, but there was room for the odd new face. The sixteen are - Eric Rush (North Harbour), Craig de Goldi (Auckland), Craig Newby (North Harbour), Matua Parkinson (North Harbour), Tony Monaghan (Northland), Dallas Seymour (Canterbury), Rodney So'oialo (Wellington), Jared Going (Northland), Amasio Valence (Auckland), Damian Karauna (Waikato), Karl Te Nana (North Harbour), Roger Randle (Waikato), Donovan Nepia (Wanganui), Ilesia Tanivula (Auckland), Marty Holah (Waikato), Joeli Vidiri (Counties-Manukau). Others might be available in late January for the Sevens World Cup in Mar del Plata, but they will have to play their way past these squad members first - Titch has a knack for bringing players on quickly.


    13th November 2000
      Referees spoil Paris test    


This was one of the longest weeks of my life. Every time the All Blacks pull on the jersey for a test match, the significance is huge. Fanatics like me (and you, I suspect) cannot help themselves. People for whom rugby is less important probably wonder about my mental health, if they didn't already. My adrenal and pituitary glands secrete some weird combination of chemicals, or something. Maybe my sympathy diet of French food was destabilising me, and the French feel like this every day of their lives. That would explain an awful lot.

But I anticipated this test as keenly as any I can recall. Would I be high-fiving everyone on Monday, sharing fondly-remembered moments with other enthusiasts, or not go to work at all, staying at home under a blanket with a radio? Luckily there was other rugby to keep me from derailing completely, plus a pre-fight build-up in Las Vegas that proved almost as fascinating as the bout itself...

Between the All Blacks playing the Pacific Barbarians and their first test against France, the New Zealand A side played two games. Their tour opener was (as the NZ Commemorative XV, in honour of Dave Gallagher, captain of the 1905 side and casualty of the Great War's French and Belgian campaigns) against the French Barbarians at Lens. They looked to be doing it comfortably, as Scott McLeod's and Caleb Ralph's tries had them 14-3 up after half an hour. But just before half-time, a shot at goal bounced off the posts, number eight Koula Tukino missed touch and the French team scored a try that brought them right back into it.

Several New Zealand A side players in key positions were being outplayed. Dave Hewett at loosehead prop was bent over backwards a few times, Tukino's hands and decision-making let him down, and Tony Brown's inclination to set his backline too shallow or run blindside more than half the time eliminated the edge that our loose forwards should have had. I love the fact that Brown can tackle, it's a skill that first five-eighths aren't always well known for, but what good is your first five buried at the bottom of the last ruck? And he also seems to take an inordinate number of blows to the head.

Meanwhile, others were playing out of their skins. Mark Robinson was dynamic at halfback, both an extra loose forward and a legitimate threat on attack with his pace. His passing and kicking were immaculate and his cover defence was exceptional. Flankers Jerry and Justin Collins were first to every breakdown, and look to be a great combination. Hooker Slade McFarland popped up everywhere. But errors from those who were off their game meant that the Baabaas weren't put away like they should have been. And all Barbarian teams ever need is a sniff, to make a real dogfight out of it.

In the second forty they came storming back. Diego Dominguez began to exercise control, being given plenty of set-piece ball from David McHugh's busy whistle. Where before the classy New Zealand backs like McLeod, Ralph and Ben Blair had been having their way out wide, now they were fighting to keep possession in a desperate scramble to hold off the resurgence. A try to the sensational Russian lock Sergei Sergeyev gave the Barbarians the lead, and the rock-steady boot of Dominguez put them six points up. David Holwell's injection into the game for Tony Brown couldn't come soon enough. He probed, looking for gaps, and when none opened he went to the air. A lovely kick over the heads of the French bounced nicely for replacement Rua Tipoki, and New Zealand went back in front with only minutes remaining. But what long minutes they were - McHugh was enjoying himself so much that he allowed eight minutes for stoppages. Just long enough for a front-rower to stupidly infringe and give away a kickable penalty, which is exactly what Hewett did. Ecstatic victory laps followed the successful penalty and final whistle, but the New Zealanders did not stay to watch.

They then travelled to Cardiff, to play Wales A on Friday night. This was a totally different kind of game. The Millennium Stadium is gaining a reputation for untidy matches, affected by a playing surface that, all things considered, is a disgrace. Referee John Barnard presided over a stop-start, muddy and bad-tempered affair, sinbinning props in pairs and resorting to uncontested scrums. Twenty minutes into the second half, the score was 9-9, and no-one had really come close to scoring a try. But the New Zealanders were guilty of overcomplicating even the simplest of plays, and with the scores as close as they were the extravagance was doubly inappropriate. Fresh legs seemed to make a major difference. On came Royce Willis, Slade McFarland and Justin Collins, revitalising and focusing the forward effort, and Justin Wilson replaced Rua Tipoki at centre.

Tipoki, although renowned as a stepper, sometimes seems to do little else but. His style is exciting, and his precocious talent means that his future at top level is almost guaranteed, but he may also be one of those players that take time to settle into combinations. Under the wing of Walter Little, for instance, in their midfield pairing for Harbour this year, he came on in leaps and bounds. Wilson is far more subtle. Another of the freaks regularly discovered by Gordon Tietjens, he puts his seven-a-side team-mates into one gap after another, also possessing more outright speed than most wingers. The two New Zealand A wings, Rico Gear and Caleb Ralph, were members of that same sevens side that he helped to a world championship this year, and know his game well.

Immediately Wilson put his outsides into space. And David Holwell found him twice at hand for the short pass after otherwise-suicidal runs straight at tacklers. The last ten minutes saw three brilliant tries in quick succession, breakaway Kupu Vanisi, prop Nick White and Wilson all finishing off sweeping movements. The final score of 30-9 showed the value of our superior fitness.

And then finally it was kick-off time at Stade de France. 80,000 people packed the ground, showing how popular the All Blacks are (the week before, only half that number had turned up to see the world champion Wallabies). But they would not have enjoyed the spectacle. Referee Gus Erickson and his touch judges Ed Morrison and Jim Fleming collectively almost destroyed the game. Incessant whistle kept the game from ever really starting, except for a brilliant spell from the All Blacks before and after half-time when they scored thirty unanswered points. Andrew Mehrtens kicked nine penalties, Christophe Lamaison four, and the constant shrieking blast of Erickson's whistle punctuated play which didn't often get past first phase. With Morrison and Fleming on the touchlines, both bleating constantly into the microphones in their flags, you could forgive Erickson for having a shocker. And in fairness to him as a referee, he was probably due a bad one after presiding over many of the best test matches in recent memory.

Doug Howlett scored the first and best try. Instead of kicking for touch inside their twenty-two, the All Blacks spun it. Christian Cullen gave it the gas, put Tana Umaga away, and Natty only had to draw the fullback to give Howlett a clean run in under the posts. Mehrtens had already kicked six penalties, and immediately kicked two more to make the score 31-12. Then from a turnover he ran a blind, the loosies setting up quick ball for Justin Marshall to swing it wide to the right. A deft little chip from Cullen bounced horribly for Xavier Garbajosa and perfectly for Jonah Lomu, who passed back to Cullen for the try. A ricochet off Olivier Magne's headgear made the pass look forward, but this was one call that Erickson got right.

Magne and Garbajosa were easily the two best Tricolors, and were instrumental in orchestrating the almost-obligatory French comeback. Garbajosa put Philippe Bernat-Salle through to cap off a sustained period of attack, lending some respectability to what otherwise was a whipping. And Magne's leadership by example inspired his other forwards, who crashed over the line only minutes later and were awarded the try even though the ball clearly did not come anywhere near the ground. So seven undeserved points made the scoreline 39-26. It was not as close as that, but then it was a fitting final act in a performance by the officials which I hope they'll have the good grace to be ashamed of.

Mehrts knows what to do when the match officials are in that kind of mood. He banged it down the French end of the field at every opportunity, keeping them in the danger zone and his own side in a position to force the issue. His kicking was artful and bloody-minded. Given enough ball he will bury any opposition, and the All Black forwards made sure he had plenty to work with.

The revenge was satisfactory, but Smith and Gilbert were not thinking vengefully before the match. They wanted to establish a pattern, and would have been happier with a close win where combinations came together well than any free-for-all where we ran away with an easy but untidy victory. So in that respect they will not be sharing in too much of the happiness back home that followed this win. They will regard it as a performance to build on, with another test in Marseilles next week to win before the series is salted away and the next World Cup in 2003 to always keep in mind.

There was once a time when to get a decent atmosphere for the viewing of rugby games you would have to seek exclusively male company. And on the weekends when not only rugby but world heavyweight championship bouts took place, bloodsport spectators would be given sneering, disgusted tellings-off about how barbaric it all was. Remember? Sure you do. Women have since come around in large numbers, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the Black Ferns and other women rugby players, but it got so bad for a while there that even some men got infected and subscribed to the same viewpoints. Admittedly, such men shared more with the no-fun sisterhood than just this (odd dress sense, for instance).

Thank God for rugby. As the number one introduction for New Zealanders to team sport, it serves a vital purpose. I don't know at which stage kids decide it's not the game for them, and I suspect that the prejudices of their parents, too much oestrogen clouding their higher brain function, have a lot to do with it, but there's a road that starts with not playing rugby and ends you know where, through an earlier-than-necessary introduction to anti-establishment ways of thinking. A little further down the track and such lost sheep are dabbling with vegetarianism, and of course losing energy, then getting all negative and cranky. After a while, inevitably, they become interested in politics and the rainforest, and before they even realise the danger they're in, they're buying the complete works of Oscar Wilde and Barbra Streisand albums...


    20th November 2000
      Bad start fatal in Marseilles    


The tone for the second test in Marseilles was set by the haka. The French decided to face it this time, and the All Blacks responded with a spine-tingling challenge. Their faces were creased with defiance, and they looked more than ready to take the next step back from the limbo the French left us in last year. But the haka seemed to inspire the home team more than it did us - ten minutes into the game it was 17-0 to France.

I find it almost impossible to stay calm during test matches anyway, but when I use up all my reserve inside the first ten minutes like this, you might as well start scheduling commitment hearings. For the next few tests I will remember to pad the Bunker, but more to protect the value of the real estate than through any concern for my own safety (if I was worried about my health, I wouldn't be putting my major organs in such danger with this sympathy diet. Apparently the French cheese I've been struggling with is supposed to smell like this, but it's like it came here by boat and stopped for a week unrefridgerated in every port along the way).

Anyway, unpredictability is something else, besides their rotting dairy products, that the French are more deservedly famous for, and no-one could have predicted the start that they made. The brilliant Xavier Garbajosa ran a little blindside, shimmying to wrongfoot Justin Marshall, then kicked ahead and beat Bruce Reihana to the corner for the try. Minutes later Olivier Magne ran through a gaping hole, on the open side this time, and coasted in for another.

Had Laporte perceived a weakness around our fringes, and instructed his players to exploit it? Certainly the All Black pack were spread across the field, letting their backs face the brunt of the French assault. I saw Anton Oliver in the tight making tackles, but the rest were fanned out in midfield, gesturing at each other to make sure no-one got offside while the French forwards smacked relentlessly into our halves and three-quarters.

Our first opportunity came when quick hands gave Doug Howlett an extra yard. He swerved infield, looking to link with someone and draw the fullback. Marshall was there as always, and we were back in it. But the fightback was still slow in coming. Possession was not protected jealously enough, either spilled by forwards whose unity was being tested or kicked away by backs on the occasions that they did manage to secure it. Christophe Lamaison's goalkicking was on song, and a number of frustrated infringements were converted into points to keep the French well clear.

But our momentum continued to build, and with ball in hand we were as dangerous as ever. Howlett illustrated this well, as slick passing on the blindside exploited an overlap and he bolted down the touchline to score again, untouched. Just before half-time, replacement prop Gordon Slater crashed over in the corner and reduced the deficit to only two points. As scrums had ceased to be an issue from the moment he entered the game, the selectors will be thinking seriously about starting him next time.

In the second half there was little time to think clearly, let alone implement a game plan. Every tackle signalled the beginning of a bloody struggle, and more often than not the second or third phases never eventuated. I've heard stories about what goes on at the bottom of French rucks and I've always ignored them, unimpressed because I know what the bottom of New Zealand rucks are like. Besides, it's not a game for sissies. But this game was heating up quickly, and even the television was picking up instances of French forward play that looked as cruel and unusual as some of their cuisine...

Two penalties from Andrew Mehrtens put us four points up, and I was feeling better. Couldn't we just have the final whistle now, then quit this strange and perilous country a little early, before they access their fervent nationalism and sneak another one past us? No, Inky, shame on you - it probably has been too long a year.

I will not make excuses for the All Blacks, though. Their fightback had been truly heroic, but they had little left and the French forwards drove over for a try to regain the lead. The commentators talked about how the New Zealanders would respond, but I knew at that point that the test was won for France. I have seen this sort of try often, when a forward pack proves irresistible close to the line. It is the sort of try that is either the icing on the cake of an emphatic win or the defining moment in a close one. This was the latter, and the crowd began to sing La Marseillaise. Two dropped goals from Lamaison had them in a quickly-increasing frenzy.

I fought the sinking feeling, hoping against hope. But it was never really our day. Every time someone had gone up to contest ball in the air, and then simply slapped at it with both hands, I cringed, clenching my teeth so hard that my forehead ached. Every time someone decided to needlessly kick away possession, straight to a waiting Garbajosa or Sadourny, I swore out loud, snapping one pencil after another. And around about the time Lamaison was dropkicking us into oblivion, I was looking for more sizeable inanimate objects than pencils to destroy. Still, because I believe in following the All Blacks' example where sportsmanship is concerned, I remembered to salute the bravery and great rugby displayed by the French. They had taken down their most-respected foe and risked much in doing so, not sacrificing any of their famous flair and probably doing the game of rugby an enormous favour.

The Wallabies had fallen at Twickenham, too, in a match that (of course) wasn't a patch on this one, and the offer of a warm, flat beer afterwards would have done nothing for their homesickness. Ireland A had beaten the Sprinkbok midweek side, and the Africans only just prevailed in the test match days later. The enduring myth of Southern Hemisphere rugby dominance was pretty much in tatters, a paper tiger for the mischievous and the stupid. Inky unconditionally apologises if ever he was perceived to be seriously contributing to it. And all you ex-pats, take it on the chin. Show the same good grace that the All Blacks always do, and contribute well therefore to the memory of a great test match.

The World Sevens Series began over the weekend, this year starting in Durban. The stadium was a quagmire after torrential rain that continued into the final day, but even in conditions as beastly as those that Durban turned on, Sevens can be extremely exciting. In the mud, it is harder for the speedsters to find space, but the extra skill required and brutal tackling always make for a worthy spectacle. High-impact is a term I don't use lightly ever since I watched the fight scenes from "The Matrix" in slow motion, but I still rate the New Zealand Sevens team as better value than "The Matrix", "Braveheart" and even "Raging Bull" for pure full-contact kung fu action.

We qualified for the championship round fairly easily, but met Canada in the quarter-finals and found things far tougher. Matters weren't helped by giving away an early intercept, but the New Zealanders clawed back doggedly to score three well-worked tries before letting in another at the death. Canada have continued to improve, with consistent selections and regular fixtures against the top international sides. They and the Argentinians have added an edge to the competition in recent years. Argentina beat Samoa in their quarter-final to set up a showdown with the New Zealanders. Fiji and Australia squared off in the other semi-final.

We beat the Argentines well, sticking to the task and not getting drawn into the wrestling match they seemed so set on. Australia could have beaten Fiji, and would be disappointed that they didn't make more of their opportunities. So the two top teams from last year began the 2000 / 2001 season where they left off, scrapping over the number one spot. They both acknowledge that the gap between them and the rest has closed so much as to be nearly indistiguishable, but if pressed on what the difference actually is they would probably both put it down to killer instinct, the ability to put a side away when the game is close. The individual skills are pretty much on a par among most players in the top eight sides, but New Zealand and Fiji have an edge in experience on the big occasions.

The final was one-sided, though - New Zealand ran away with a 34-5 win. Some would say that Fiji were missing Waisale Serevi and some of their other stars, but New Zealand are used to having their top players poached by fifteen-a-side, and could name six of their seniors from last year that were unavailable too. The other teams would have looked at our squad before the tournament and thought that we were more beatable than we've been for a long time. So the quality of leadership shown by those who last year were still regarded as relative newcomers, players like Tony Monaghan, Karl Te Nana and Amasio Valence, was outstanding. They put the Fijians under enormous pressure, and when the ball came loose they pounced and punished them. Conditions will be radically different in Dubai next week, and by half-time I think the islanders were already looking ahead.

Earlier this week, the New Zealand A tourists had beaten French Universities 33-21 in Bayonne. David Holwell controlled the game, mercilessly slotting every kick and being tactically just as cold-hearted. So far he has been the find of the New Zealand A team's tour, looking more and more like a young Grant Fox with every game. He may not (yet) have the attacking flair of Mehrtens or Spencer at this level, maybe because he is making sure the job gets done first, but he has left the out-of-form Tony Brown in his dust.

The French Universities side were no pushover. Winning the last three university world championships, they have size, speed and an inclination to live and die by the sword. The game failed to ignite, however, because the referee did not play a lot of advantage and often failed to instruct pre-emptively before whistling. Southern hemisphere referees, for instance, will tell a team that he has deemed a maul to be stationary, giving them a few seconds to clear. This chap just blew, and quickly. The only points for the first twenty-five minutes came through shots at goal. Then Universities scored a good try, slicing through past Jason Spice, but New Zealand hit straight back through Mils Muliaina. Tidy ball won well gave the backs an opportunity to work a move, and the young winger bolted clear. After the break Justin Collins added another, deciding not to use the seven or eight man overlap available because the French backs were sprinting sideways in desperate cover, and backed himself close to the line. Holwell's conversion and a subsequent penalty had the New Zealanders comfortably ahead at 23-10. But the locals were undaunted. An intercept try and two penalties brought them within two points.

Ben Blair, touted before the tour as the brightest prospect in years, would himself admit that he has yet to properly make the step up, and was having another bad night with his hands. He knocked on repeatedly and made a horribly telling forward pass, that would not have been so bad except that it exposed an inability to throw the overhand left (spiral pass to the right). But not everybody can have a dream debut at senior international level. He is obviously a class act, and will learn a lot from the tour. I will never forget seeing the thrashing the Under-21s administered to their South African counterparts earlier this year, when he showed just what he was capable of.

Older, more experienced heads were needed to hold off the French fightback. Caleb Ralph, whose timing is always immaculate, ran onto a perfect short pass from and into a mile-wide gap, outstripping the defence to put the match beyond doubt. The following day he joined the All Blacks as cover for the injured Jonah Lomu.

The Divisional XV opened their tour of the Pacific with a good win against Apia Union. In penally hot conditions, they punished every error, but the game was fiercely contested. The Samoan tackling was typically bone-jarring, and the Divisional XV knew exactly what to expect, even that the bones getting jarred would sometimes be cheek and jawbones. In the best Samoan tradition, though, there were broad smiles at every breakdown, even after the stiffest of tackles or most purposeful rucking.

The New Zealanders scored six tries, to King Country centre Hayden Martine and replacement halfback Lee Peina, Nelson Bays fullback Mark Milne, Hawkes Bay flanker Tafai Ioasa, and two to the flying King Country left wing Kuke Asolupe, each being a good example of fourteen men making a try for the fifteenth. Their defence was extremely tight, too, although they let in one try. Their annoyance with themselves was obvious, after Feleti Feleti slipped through. Feleti scored all eleven of the Apia team's points. They play a Samoan XV before moving to Tonga, while the New Zealand A side travels to Romania, the Sevens series shifts to Dubai and the All Blacks go to Italy.

Italian food is apparently both less strange and less expensive, so I am looking forward to significant savings on the shopping bill. Apart from various unleavened combinations of flour and water, they say that all you need is garlic, oil and tins of tomato paste. And some guy called Al Dente has even invented a system so that it can be served without being cooked properly. Fine, I'll buy his book, it sounds like all I'm capable of in my current mood.


    27th November 2000
      Too flighty against Italy    


No-one expected Italy to seriously trouble the All Blacks on Saturday, so the New Zealanders were left in that nasty position of clear favourites, who must totally demolish the opposition to escape without criticism. The Italians were raked over the coals at the World Cup, when we thrashed them by a hundred points, but since then have entered the Six Nations competition and come on in leaps and bounds. They got themselves a New Zealand coach, Brad Johnstone, and he stiffened them up in the forwards and curbed their inclination to kick foolishly from every position in the backline. They may not rate as a genuine threat, but to expect the All Blacks to flog them as badly as last year would be asking too much.

It was willing from the opening whistle, and the breakneck speed that the All Blacks attempted to play at may not have helped. The last pass was not going to hand, no matter how confident the buildup. Justin Marshall was running things, taking responsibility for attacking options in place of Andrew Mehrtens, so Carlos Spencer was free to express himself. This he did by not kicking at all, preferring to run or pass, and the concentrated defence had its hands full. But the newer combinations had difficulty putting the finishing touches on the moves they attempted. So the win was called "lack-lustre" and "not a vintage performance", and the press seemed glad to be able to continue concentrating on their perceived failings. But it was better than that. Even though many times they failed to score, eight times they did manage to make the final pass. The tries, two each to Reihana and Cribb and others to Tiatia, Howlett, Marshall and Spencer, were all top quality.

The first three seemed to take forever, but by half-time the game was safe at 25-9, and the All Blacks were urged at the interval to go on with the job. Accordingly, the forward play became even more bloody-minded and hard-nosed, and the backs more adventurous and ambitious. All the Italians could do was to spoil and frustrate, by coming up far too flat and leaving their feet at every breakdown. But this gave the referee the excuse he was looking for, to whistle too often and slow it down, thereby protecting the Italians from the sixty-point stomping the All Blacks looked in the mood to administer. Five more tries followed. The only thing the All Blacks will be unhappy about is conceding two to the Italians towards the end. Both were mauls driven over, and highlighted what Johnstone would like to make a strength for all future Italian teams, power up front. And both were highlights for the crowd. After the first, Mexted came up with a pearl describing the joyous scenes -

"Down in front of me, two beefy men are embracing with apparent passion..."

With such narration, and now that it's only northern hemisphere referees he's bagging, I'm warming to Mex's work. I was left regretting that the Genoa test hadn't been scheduled between the Tokyo game and the French tests, when as a test for a new side it might have been extremely useful.

The Dubai Sevens were held on Thursday and Friday, second leg of the World Sevens Series. New Zealand were untroubled until their semi-final, when Samoa held them to a single try in the first half. The pattern was lacking, but then the Samoans rattle all sides with their murderous tackling. Lesser teams tend to flinch before the ball arrives, and even New Zealand were suffering a little under heavy pressure. Old Koro knew what to do, though, and settled it down with some old-fashioned straight running. Karl Te Nana stepped back infield to set him up, and Rushy hit the short ball like a runaway train. He turned the sweeper inside out with a speed that belied his advancing years.

Fiji and Australia contested the other semi, the new young Fijians taking the Aussies apart. Serevi, the Satalas and others were missing, but their typical free-spirited style was still favoured. The discipline was not as good as when Serevi is in charge - Kaumaia returned to his awful habit of sticking the foot out when side-stepped, and tempers flared occasionally after hard hits, but they needn't have resorted to such methods as they had Australia's number from the opening whistle. Australia will threaten again this season, though, as they also keep on discovering new talent. Their latest find is Tom McVerry, who steps off either foot deceptively and can really motor. He scored two good tries, for pride mainly seeing as the game was already gone. The Fijians set up their second final in a row against the New Zealanders.

The final saw probably the most complete performance by the men in black since Suva or Hong Kong last season. They imposed themselves on the Fijians, forcing them into errors and busting through their usually-mean tackling. Amasio Valence got the first try, intercepting as the Fijians threw it around on their own line. Then Karl Te Nana scored the try of the season so far, picking up from a breakdown and running the blind. He wrong-footed Kaumaia not once but twice before being caught, but then carried the two tacklers with him for the final ten yards. Tony Monaghan twisted and turned to make a hole for Joeli Vidiri to score the third. The Fijians finally replied as Senerusi Rauqe chased down a clever kick in behind our defence. Then Jared Going scored before half-time. Amasio wriggled and offloaded to Te Nana, who went to ground, Rush picked up the well-presented ball and flicked it over two Fijians to Going, who cantered in.

After Rauqe opened the second half scoring and kept the game alive, New Zealand struck the killer blow. This try was all about work ethic. At 26-14, the New Zealanders were under huge pressure inside their quarter and the Fijians were coming in waves. But Amasio came up with the ball and hoofed it downfield. Black jerseys outnumbered white chasing by five to two, and after some determined interplay involving all five and some (necessarily) gutsy defence from the two Fijians, Going took the final pass from replacement Johnny Leo'o to score his second. Another for Amasio followed, in similar fashion. The Fijians were spent, and couldn't touch Muji as he got on the end of a superbly elaborate series of passes and support play.

It was a good sign for the World Cup in Mar del Plata, but the Fijians will be back to full strength by then. They will also have blooded a nice mix of newcomers, like Jona Tareki and Rauqe, so there was no extravagant back-slapping from Titch after the Dubai tournament, just a quiet handshake for his squad and a focused call to arms. They want this Cup so badly they can taste it.

New Zealand A disappeared into Romania, where they were scheduled to play next, but that's all Inky can tell you at this stage because my deadline has expired. Information does not leave eastern Europe any more quickly than it used to, and every Romanian I managed to speak to on the telephone sounded like Dracula anyway, which made me less inclined to persist with my questioning. Ah, Romania, last bastion of vampirism and steroid use - they probably have a pretty good side... Our people on the ground over there cannot transmit, for unknown and probably ungodly reasons, and the supply of crucifixes, garlic and bottled water may run out before they escape.

No, wait, a weak signal is getting through, it's a bit scrambled - reports are filtering through that we have ridden rough-shod all over them, twelve tries to none. Maybe the natives play better in night games... When less-sketchy details emerge I will take great interest, particularly in which New Zealanders continued their good play. They must run some All Blacks close, if their form continues into Super12. The players of the tour so far have been the hookers Slade McFarland and Keven Mealamu, tighthead Carl Hayman, lock Royce Willis, flankers Kupu Vanisi, Justin and Jerry Collins, halfback Mark Robinson, five-eighth David Holwell and three-quarter Caleb Ralph.

The NZ Divisional XV beat a Samoan Presidents XV and a Tongan Invitational side to end their tour of the Pacific Islands. The Samoans gave them a run for their money. Leading by twenty points, as the backs finished well with their steady supply of good ball, after an hour or so the New Zealanders started to wilt in the mercilessly hot conditions. Meanwhile, rugby-phenotype Samoans will keep on running hard all day, it's the same tendency that made David Tua impossible for Lennox Lewis to knock over. As the spectators on the sidelines became more and more animated, the locals stormed back into the match, bringing the margin down to four points before the relieved tourists kicked one final penalty. Even then, the Samoan pack nearly drove over in the final minute.

By the time they played the Tongans, the NZ Divisional side had recuperated a little. Only days after facing the Samoan team, though, the prospect of running out against a Tongan war party on a hard-as-concrete pitch would have had little appeal, were it not for the chance to pull on a black jersey with a silver fern on it - aching bones aside, you need serious motivation to suppress the self-preservation instinct. They lost, to what was almost the Tongan test team, but the tour would have to be regarded as a success. We will see the Bay of Plenty players, Keith Pryor, Clayton McMillan, Steve Simpkins, Thompson Tapsell and Paul Tupai in the first division next year, but none of the others on tour would look out of place in the top tier. Standouts were King Country prop Daniel Godbold, flankers Cory Holdaway, Tafai Ioasa and Chris Masoe, from Nelson Bays, Hawkes Bay and Wanganui respectively, utility forwards Kahu Marfell from Nelson Bays and Reece Robinson from Hawkes Bay, utility half Lee Peina and centre Hayden Martine, both from King Country, and Nelson Bays' midfielder Joe Fa'aiu.

I hope all the tourists from the All Blacks, the Sevens, New Zealand A and the Divisional side can get some hard-earned rest. Not too much, though - next year is a big one. We're all square on a win-loss basis with the world's best other teams, which is an improvement from where we finished last year, so next year will be about continuing to build. And that means beginning the season fit, maintaining an edge over the summer. Being packed away in cotton wool is not what New Zealand rugby players are about, they don't expect to be pampered. This isn't England. We don't squeeze lemon into our beer, and that's not Barbra Streisand on Jonah's walkman...