Storm's success worthy of close attention 7th October 2002
      Sudden death 14th October 2002
      Auckland and Waikato two deserving finalists 21st October 2002
      Bitter pill for Waikato 29th October 2002
 

    7th October 2002
      Storm's success worthy of close attention    

 

When College Rifles knocked off Marist to claim the Auckland women's club title a couple of months back, I suspected that the Auckland Storm were going to have a vintage year. Marist had half the Black Ferns in their team, and for Rifles' new breed to knock them over said something significant. Both about growth in women's rugby and the talent pool for Davida White to pick from, when selecting the Auckland Storm.

They hammered the Wellington Pride to win the inaugural Lion Foundation Cup on Saturday, running up a scoreline of 53-3 and therefore costing Black Ferns' coach Darryl Suasua his dreads. He said he'd cut them off if the Storm posted fifty, and when Tammi Wilson sliced through for the final try, I noticed a small section of the Eden Park crowd laughing loudly and high-fiving more enthusiastically than everyone else.

Investigating, I found that he had laid the challenge on Thursday, and had suspected his locks were in jeopardy at half-time. It was 21-3 to the home side, after Anna Richards, Cheryl Waaka and Dianne Kahura had scored tries. First five Richards had run in on the right wing after a series of phases stretched the Wellington defence past breaking point. Waaka had finished powerfully when the forwards got an accelerated roll on, and wing Kahura's try was a blistering solo effort.

Popping up on the left wing, still well-marked because they were double-teaming her all day, she ran at the Wellington line with the ball in two hands. Their eyes widened. And then she blew by them with a withering burst of speed. The cover converged in a panic but she stepped on and on through them, cleanly past three tacklers with perfect balance. They fell helpless in her backdraft (perhaps even admiringly), and she swooped under the posts.

I was sitting in the press box, trying to concentrate on the game and ignoring the blather of the journalists, who really had only turned up early for the excellent Eden Park food. I hear many old curmudgeons mutter about how women's rugby doesn't excite them. I haven't seen them at any of the games, so I don't know what they're going on, and here was a gift-wrapped opportunity that they seemed a bit ambivalent about. Hell, they were even talking about golf, as if some bunch of white-bread mamma's boy millionaires, who can't even tote their own gear, are more interesting than the world's best women in contact sport. I was just about to tell a couple of eminent old grumps with permanent toothache in their expressions to stop reciting out their hindquarters and watch the kung fu, when Kahura broke into space and lit up the park with her sparkling run. And crikey, if they all suddenly weren't up off their feet whistling and murmuring their approval!

Which was extremely gratifying - the girls had drawn the attention themselves, and saved me an awkward moment with two ranking seniors. Thenceforth, I'm happy to say, the beards watched the awesome performance of the Storm avidly.

The Wellington girls had been toiling bravely, but they had no answer to the force of the Auckland pack. Hooker Fia'ao Fa'amausili's lineout throwing was perfect, an exhibition of class and authority which gave her locks Vicky Heighway and Monalisa Codling an armchair ride ten feet off the ground. The two-handed ball off the top from the set pieces gave Anna Richards the kind of front-foot ball that usually first fives only dream about. She used it with purpose, and not a little flair.

Perhaps halfback Monique Hirovanaa got bored with delivering bullet-like service to her pivot, and decided to make use of some herself, beginning the second half with her signature blindside dash for a try. The great vision that she and Richards share is the reason why Auckland dominate so easily - two legends at the peak of their powers. The forwards were enjoying themselves by this stage, rolling forward from the lineouts with good weigh on, and number eight Rochelle Martin scored a try that any one of the pack could have claimed, so tightly were they bound as they drove over.

Kahura's second try was as sweet as the first, this time a team effort of compelling precision. Richards called a double-round, contrary to her instructions at practice that week to leave them out. It was 34-3 in the Cup final, and the Storm have an excellent sense of occasion. Perfect ball was delivered, once again, and Richards snuck around behind her midfielders as the Wellington backline raced off its line. Tammi Wilson was running straight from fullback as the dummy, and she drew two tacklers which meant that Richards had them on toast. The ball went wide and left to where Kahura was lurking, and she showed them a clean pair of heels for the second time.

They scored two more, replacement half Waimania Teddy finishing off after one of loosie Tala Mulipola's trademark rampaging runs, then Wilson icing the cake with some stylish lines and a vicious step. The crowd were delighted, and applauded them warmly as they paraded the new trophy.

It had been an emotional day for them. Their manager's baby had been rushed to hospital, Wilson had announced her engagement, and the pressures of the final didn't decrease just because they were the defending champions with a virgin tryline to protect. Celebrations went on long into the night. Tala Mulipola led the singing and pick-up jazz band with a sensational version of Jackie Wilson's "Reet Petite", and I joined in with no shame. But the Wellington girls were all there too - this sort of thing would open the eyes of the journalists just as much as the rugby itself, seeing two teams like this party together. And in such style, an expression of a vital culture that is presently going from strength to strength.

The NPC games this weekend were such that I could relax a little - only the main game at Eden Park and the Sunday fixture would have much bearing on the play-offs. Canterbury whipped Taranaki 46-15 on Friday night, after being down 12-0 early. But the lights went out in New Plymouth, and there was a fifteen minute break in total darkness before play resumed. When it did, Canterbury sailed away with it. Individual game-breaking power proved too much, although as a team Canterbury looked disjointed at times.

Auckland put fifty points on Otago in a bit of a surprise. They scored eight tries to three, including a hat-trick to Doug Howlett, and re-emerged from the untidiness of last week to bill themselves as legitimate contenders again. Otago were flat for some reason, and Auckland blew them away with greater urgency and skills. Carlos Spencer made a big move towards selection for the end-of-year tour, toying with the opposition and showing his full bag of tricks.

Waikato gave Northland a 73-33 roll in the hay, proving their attacking power in quite breathtaking fashion at Waikato Stadium. Their forward platform is rock solid. Defensively, they have some pattern issues out wide - only because they attack with single-minded passion at all times, though. We'll forgive them a few untidy moments, when Northland made turnover ball count. Waikato are some rugby team at the moment, really special. They almost (almost) make me wish I was a Mooloo, so I could enjoy them to the full...

Harbour struggled to beat Southland in Albany that night, because the Southland pack gave them a grizzly workout. The home side prevailed 24-15 eventually, but never looked comfortable and didn't use their possession well. Tight affairs like this are often very entertaining, but the unforced error rate was a bit high to be giving it many marks for spectacle. Southland almost got a crucial bonus point on full time, prevented by a perhaps hasty (albeit unassisted) referee's decision.

Wellington went to Tauranga on Sunday for the first time, and blew Bay of Plenty off the park. 6-0 down after twenty minutes, they simply exploded to win 74-20. Their Rolls Royce backs, Christian Cullen, Brad Fleming and Tana Umaga with assistance from Jonah Lomu and Pita Alatini off the bench, turned on a great display of long range strike power. Every attacking opportunity was taken, and the visitors relished the hard ground. David Holwell scored a Wellington record thirty four points. Quite simply astonishing, the speed and guile of the world's premier attacking outsides.

Put that Wellington backline together with the Canterbury pack, and what have you got?

Waikato.

The semi-finalists are confirmed in the second division. Hawkes Bay will have a home semi, after towelling East Coast 85-12. Couties-Manukau will also play at home - they thrashed Mid Canterbury 66-7. Nelson Bays beat Manawatu 8-7 in a thriller, but remained a point behind them in fourth. Marlborough beat Thames Valley 50-22, but left their playoff run a bit late. The Magpies will host Nelson Bays and The Steelers will host Manawatu, both games scheduled for this Sunday afternoon. Our friends at Sky are doing their best to bring these matches live, so with the benefit of digital I will be doing a lot of channel surfing.

Only the fourth spot is still up for grabs in the third division. North Otago beat Wairarapa Bush 27-14, and are now guaranteed a home semi-final, but face King Country in Taupo for their last game to decide first place. King Country squeaked past South Canterbury 20-14, leaving the defending champions in limbo. They and Wanganui are fighting it out for fourth, Wanganui back in contention after beating West Coast 33-25. They have third-placed Horowhenua-Kapiti to get past next week in order to qualify, while South Canterbury have West Coast. Horowhenua-Kapiti dropped their bundle against Poverty Bay, going down 31-22 in Gisborne.

Did I foolishly promise you a form guide last week? Man, what was I thinking? There are so many players in form it's not funny.

All the following are in form, uninjured and available -

Dave Hewett, Carl Hoeft, Andrew Hore, Mark Hammett, Keven Mealamu, Deacon Manu, Kees Meeuws, Clarke Dermody, Greg Somerville, Carl Hayman, Chris Jack, Simon Maling, Filipo Levi, Bradley Mika, Royce Willis, Norm Maxwell, Paul Tito, Taine Randell, Jono Gibbes, Troy Flavell, Justin Collins, Marty Holah, Richard McCaw, Daniel Braid, Johnny Leo'o, Ben Herring, Sam Harding, Craig Newby, Josh Blackie, Kupu Vanisi, Neil Crowley, Rodney So'oialo, Xavier Rush, Deon Muir, Scott Robertson, Paul Miller, Blair Urlich, Rhys Duggan, David Gibson, Justin Marshall, Jason Spice, Byron Kelleher, Andrew Mehrtens, Dan Carter, David Hill, Glen Jackson, Riki Flutey, David Holwell, Derek Maisey, Blair Feeney, Shayne Austin, Mils Muliaina, Jonah Lomu, Caleb Ralph, Keith Lowen, Aaron Mauger, Pita Alatini, Jason Shoemark, Regan King, Tana Umaga, Mark Robinson, Ryan Nicholas, Nathan Mauger, Nick Collins, Doug Howlett, Roger Randle, Joe Maddock, Brad Fleming, Carlos Spencer, Christian Cullen, Ben Blair... and let me tell you something, you who insisted on this list - I've just annoyed a hundred times your number, by leaving off one solid player whose game I've missed.

Youngsters - Keith Cameron, Tony Woodcock, Vula Maimuri, Ali Williams, Ashley Barron, Hale T-Pole, Aleki Lutui. Veterans - Todd Miller, Gordon Slater. My point? Don't expect me to name everyone in form. Somewhere between the veterans and newbies are a bunch of hardened professionals in their prime. The other main factors to consider are previous form at international level and the low-error pattern that Mitchell and Deans are trying to instill. From the list above I would personally choose a twenty-seven man touring party - jumping the gun by three weeks, mind.

Hewett, Hore, Hammett, Meeuws, Somerville, Hayman, Jack, Maling, Willis, Maxwell, Randell, Holah, McCaw, So'oialo, Robertson, Marshall, Kelleher, Mehrtens, Mauger, Lowen, King, Umaga, Lomu, Howlett, Randle, Cullen and Spencer.

Why not give two youngsters their chance, a forward and a back? It worked in spades with McCaw.

But has anyone been able to second-guess John Mitchell yet? We know certain things for sure - he will not be devaluing the jersey by taking a B team or resting players he wants fresh for the World Cup. He will be changing his pattern ever so slightly, because of injuries to ranking personnel and the different styles of opposition to those we've faced already this year. Apart from that, he has one criterion - it will be a team of warriors, picked expressly to thump the Europeans for their presumption.

And he will be watching the next few weeks nervously, hoping the injury count is as low as possible.

 

    14th October 2002
      Sudden death    

 

Wellington and Auckland began the weekend in style, their Friday night clash in Wellington a virtual quarter-final. The winner would advance to the semis, and the loser's season would be over. Eyeball to eyeball... who would blink?

The strike power of Wellington is enough to scare anybody, but it wasn't enough to cancel out the domination of the young Auckland pack. Wellington began the match with two early tries, the first to halfback Jason Spice and the magnificent second to Christian Cullen - Tana Umaga handed off Carlos Spencer, who made the classic mistake of going high on the big centre, and Cullen was where he always is, on the outside shoulder for the put-away.

Spencer recovered instantly, though, and totally controlled the game for the next hour. His passing, kicking and running were all spellbinding, and he frustrated the Wellington tacklers as they dived everywhere trying to contain him. His forwards gave him almost every scrap of possession to do it with, too. They hit back for him before half-time, Kees Meeuws mauling superbly to make a hole for Keven Mealamu after the five-eighth had orchestrated a few phases in the right hand corner.

And after the break Dion Waller got himself binned. This is what I based my Virtual NPC pick on - Spencer and the Auckland pack, the Wellington strikepower, with the Wellington ill-discipline tipping the balance. In a tight game, Waller usually has a frantic look in his eye and very few other attributes. Spencer scored immediately, patiently waiting for the hole, then Meeuws, who was everywhere, offloaded for Doug Howlett's first from another of Carlos' thrusts. They hit top gear, and Wellington's reinstatement of an eighth forward had little effect - from one side of the field to the other Auckland swept, focused completely on continuity and showing the handling they're capable of with front-foot ball. Justin Collins romped in with Wellington players lying everywhere.

Rodney So'oialo was toiling heroically in a beaten pack, and featured three times during a movement which resulted in Wellington's next points, a try to hooker Shane Carter. It only served to anger the Aucklanders, though - they weren't going to let this result get away. Xavier Rush and Spencer worked the blind off the back of a scrum, and Spencer's stab-kick through was brilliantly regathered by Howlett for his second try.

Then young giant Ali Williams intercepted and raced sixty yards for the knockout blow! I can't remember the Wellington backs being outpaced ever, let alone by a lock forward. Substitute hooker Luke Mahoney got Wellington a bonus point at the death, but the deal was done and the Auckland side had qualified in third place - not only that, but also as the team in best recent form.

Taranaki beat Harbour 24-19 at New Plymouth, in the best-of-the-rest battle. Harbour were in control at the break, leading 14-3 after a brilliant try to young Anthony Tuitavake and some excellent kicking from Luke McAlister. Taranaki came right back into the game after half-time, though. They tend to get very forward-oriented anyway, but when the team-mates with high numbers on their backs waste good possession, given begrudgingly anyway, the Taranaki pack usually decide not to give them any more for a half-hour or so.

Number eight Chris Masoe, hooker Andrew Hore and flanker Neil Crowley scored a try each in pretty gruesome, rumbling fashion, and Harbour couldn't do much about it. They hit back with a try to Snowy Walsh, but when they tried to mount their own forward charge towards the end the Taranaki pack held them out with authority. It made for a good finish, unless you're a Harbour supporter.

Bay of Plenty made Waikato look a little ordinary in Rotorua, losing 21-33 but coming as close to upsetting the form horses as anybody has. Even a bonus point would have made the Bay's weekend a little less nervous, seeing as a high-scoring or close win to Northland could see them in relegation position again. They were denied that point when Jason Tiatia failed to catch a perfect kick by Glen Jackson in the dying seconds - Jackson had been superb all game... well, all season. Waikato, meanwhile, only needed a hat-trick from Mark Ranby and a penalty try from insistent scrum infringements to gain yet another five-point haul and finish the round robin in top position. They were thoroughly unconvincing, and face Otago next week - Otago are the only side to have beaten them this year. That was at Carisbrook, though.

Canterbury and Otago then did battle for the Ranfurly Shield. Otago have not held it for forty-six years, and recently have lost in Christchurch God knows how many times in trying to take the trophy home with them to Dunedin. Some trends are destined to continue indefinitely, and some are overdue to be reversed. Hindsight has me no wiser, in my attempt to decide which scenario best fits the recent Canterbury-Otago rivalry.

Otago made the majority of play, scoring the only try of the first half to second-five Seilala Mapusua. The challengers exercised amazing control, keeping the attack focused on the blind in that familiar pattern of theirs but this time with the intense pressure befitting a Shield challenge, and a commendable lack of errors. Mapusua finally bust through the fanned defence on the blind, and the cold-blooded calm with which his team-mates greeted the try spoke volumes about the seriousness of their intentions.

Andrew Mehrtens landed a penalty, and Justin Marshall a dropped goal, to have the holders within a point at half-time. The famous Canterbury defence had been sorely tested, and the deficit could easily have been greater but for some gruelling resolve on the part of their tacklers. Blair Feeney turned Otago's territorial advantage into points as the second half played out the same way as the first, and the challengers led 13-6 with fifteen minutes remaining. If they had been able to get themselves a cushion greater than seven points, they would almost certainly have held on.

But the doggedness of Justin Marshall was enough to get him over for the levelling score - the Canterbury forwards mounted an all-out assault, and Marshall was in his pack's hip-pocket watching for the opportunity. The attack was straight up the middle, and it looked like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, until the Otago fringes finally gave an inch and Marshall took a mile. Over the course of the game, he regained the form he was lacking last week. He outplayed Danny Lee, who could not quite find the killer options down the other end, that Byron Kelleher surely would have.

Mehrtens gave Canterbury the lead 16-13, and they were able to hold it until the final whistle under the same intense pressure Otago began with. Losses like this one are heart-breaking for challengers, but in perfect keeping with the greatness of the Shield's history - the memory of challenges like this are what define the great tenures.

Southland needed to beat Northland in Invercargill on Sunday to be totally safe, and even though they lost ended up heading Bay of Plenty courtesy of a close-loss bonus point. Northland almost ran away with the game early, their Fijian wingers scoring three spectacular tries in the first half against one by Southland's Sam Hall. The home side made it close, with number eight Paul Miller and halfback Jimmy Cowan scoring typically bruising Southland tries in the second spell, but another try had the visitors clear. Northland's season would not end in misery after all, and Southland's loss was offset by their finishing off the bottom.

Counties-Manukau beat Manawatu 36-10 in Pukekohe, to book their place in the second division final which would decide who met Bay of Plenty in the promotion-relegation match. Zimbabwean winger Taff Manyimo scored the first try to put Manawatu ahead, but it was all the Steelers from then on. They scored four tries, to second-five Duncan Bell, breakaway Wayne McEntee, halfback Kevin Farrell and the bruising Kristian Ormsby. Hawkes Bay drilled Nelson Bays in the other semi, by 30 points to 3 with tries to wing Ray Karauria and the two loosies, Mike Johnson and David Gower. Nelson Bays had no answer, but no side has all year against the well-schooled Hawkeye pack and their smart backline. They are likely to get a far closer game from Counties-Manukau than the pounding they administered in the round robin, but must still be strong favourites.

Sky televised each of these games, in what must be acknowledged as a great effort. Seven live broadcast crews in forty-eight hours is no mean accomplishment. The Bunker needed extra technology, in fact, to cope with three feeds simultaneously on Sunday, two video recorders and only one monitor not nearly enough to celebrate the feast day properly... a cast-iron excuse to buy more hardware, right?

Remember I was talking about a real estate agent wiith a dehumidifier and an extension cord? After a few dramas (What, you don't like how I worded the ad? No, I just wanted to show you the FONT, you worthless, bloodsucking little parasite), he managed to sell for the right price and I forgave him. Anyway, the new Bunker is not only concrete, but actually below ground! So please, forgive any tendency of this raving old vet to use too much war imagery during the next few weeks, it's systemic when you spend your weekends in a reinforced cement shell with limited daylight.

In third division, North Otago beat King Country 27-16 in Taupo to claim top spot. Horowhenua-Kapiti wanted to thrash Wanganui in Levin and get a bonus point to tie King Country, but ended up defending desperately and winning 24-17. This means King Country will host next week's semi-final between the two. South Canterbury hit form at the right time to beat West Coast 54-22 in Greymouth, setting up a replay of last year's final for their semi in Oamaru. They'll be hoping for an upset like last year, too. Buller held on against Poverty Bay 21-17 in Westport.

I'd better clarify what I said last week (i.e. the All Blacks touring squad will not be a B side and John Mitchell will not be resting players for the World Cup), because Mitchell has spent the week fending off just such questions. He never lost his cool (and said what I would have said - run along and find something to do for a few days, like your JOBS, and I'll tell you when I tell you).

We're not buying papers to read speculation. We can speculate perfectly well ourselves, thank you very much. (A) He has not begun to select his World Cup side yet, so how can he be resting them? (B) He is recommending to players who need operations that they use the November-January window for that very purpose. Which means he will be taking every top player available. If that sounds like semantics, eat my shorts - try calling it a B side after it has beaten Wales, France and England.

Here's the team I made clear was my own last week - in brackets, I have added alternates. The number of names being bandied around in the press is way smaller than the actual number of players in contention. Lists are only worth listing if they're comprehensive in some way.

Hore, Hammett, (Mealamu, Lutui), Hewett, Meeuws, Somerville, Hayman, (Woodcock, Manu, Dermody, Hoeft), Jack, Maling, Royce Willis, Maxwell, (Flavell, Keith Robinson, Tito, Levi), Randell, Holah, McCaw, So'oialo, Robertson, (Broomhall, Harding, Blackie, Rush, Masoe), Marshall, Kelleher, (Gibson, Spice), Mehrtens, (Hill), Aaron Mauger, (Alatini), Lowen, King, Umaga, (Ranby, Nicholas, Mark Robinson), Lomu, Howlett, Randle, (Ralph, Fleming, Maddock), Cullen, (Blair), and Spencer (no equivalent).

Believe me, there are plenty more players who feel they've got a shot at inclusion as well (Mika, the two Williams, Maimuri, Muir, McMillan, Paul Miller, Braid, Justin Collins, Vanisi, Urlich, Mark Robinson, Duggan, Steinmetz, Nathan Mauger), and an injury list serving as proof that Mitchell's thinking is spot on - Oliver, Tom Willis, Thorne, Gibbes, Jerry Collins, MacDonald. Either way, the coach will start 2003 having over sixty players familiar with his style. Those that needed a break will have had one, those that needed to be brought on and given experience will have been. He's doing everything possible to win the World Cup in the two-year period he was given. So if you think that's devaluing the black jersey, wise up in a big hurry.

 

    21st October 2002
      Auckland and Waikato two deserving finalists    

 

For their Friday night semi-final, Auckland went to Christchurch with a completely single-minded determination to attack and the result was a breathtaking spectacle. Don't let the 29-23 scoreline fool you - the scoreboard was the only place where this game was even remotely close. Auckland put together an amazing display of proto-rugby. Every forward was committed to the breakdown, and you could have thrown a sheet over their loose forward trio all night. The tight forwards arrived more quickly and in greater numbers than their red and black counterparts, and delivered non-stop clean phase ball for their backline. The set-pieces were flinty and precise, and Carlos Spencer had a young team of warriors outside him who had picked up the mood he's been in all season.

They scored five tries to Canterbury's two. The flankers were rewarded for their work ethic, both Daniel Braid in the first half and Gus Collins in the second being in the right spots to finish when Spencer artistry had put Auckland into Canterbury's danger zone. Mils Muliaina provided two courageous offloads, the first a pinpoint pass for a Doug Howlett try just as Caleb Ralph caught him flush in the chest and half-volleyed him five yards backwards, and the second for Ben Atiga who seemed to know instinctively that his centre would make the pass, even though well-held and about to face-plant. Sam Tuitupou got the other try - a lineout move had opened up the Canterbury defence, some great continuity had made the yards count, and Xavier Rush's strength opened up the line for the young midfielder.

Every time Mehrtens banged the ball downfield, young fullback Brent Ward tucked it under his arm and sprinted it straight back up the park. Auckland would not be drawn into a kicking duel with the Assassin, and it almost appeared to confuse the home team. No-one had been so insanely ambitious in Christchurch before... and crazy people are scary.

Some nutters are outwardly well adjusted. Only certain key words and phrases give them away - I'm much more comfortable with myself than I was, that was when I had my first panic attack, I've been a buddhist for three years now, I try to avoid soap etc. As I watched the Aucklanders go berserk, though, I cottoned on to their intentions. They were the exact opposites, outwardly crazy but inwardly calm. At first I thought it would only make for a spectacular suicide, but then I saw how unsettling it was for the Cantabrians - if Pivac and Fox had guessed that Canterbury's tank was almost empty, and therefore that a relentlessly weird inclination to run at them from all angles would freak them out, it was pure coaching genius.

At the same time, Auckland were doing the hard yards as well. Kees Meeuws and Bradley Mika were rampaging around, smashing straight over the top of their opposites and giving Spencer options with front-foot ball. Slowly but surely, what began as outright mayhem began to look focused and clever.

Their purpose was demonstrated by a refusal to celebrate early with each try. Celebrations can wait until the final whistle, in my opinion, and I don't really enjoy the sight of teams kissing and grab-assing like soccer players whenever a try is scored. New Zealand rugby teams are beginning to cotton on to this, now that their matches are televised and replayed in such detail. Occasionally the odd winger comes running in for a hug, and that's okay. But how many times have you seen League teams get excited because they hit the front against Australia, only to be left reading in the Sunday papers about how they lacked the mental resolve in the final ten minutes when it counted? Anyway, when a late try to Aaron Mauger made the final scoreline close, Auckland didn't even bother charging the conversion. They were huddled on the goal-line, and Rush was telling them exactly how proud he was. They had kept their nerve, they had done exactly what the coach had told them, and as a result had been the better team. They had, in fact, made the defending champions look like disorganised primates, and it was entirely appropriate that they finally gave themselves a cheer.

The crowd did not join in. The third half would not be as much fun as usual in the Garden City.

Waikato beat Otago 41-37 in the second semi-final on Saturday night, to celebrate captain Deon Muir's hundredth game. Both teams scored five tries, sharing possession and territory evenly. But where Bruce Reihana couldn't miss, Blair Feeney's goalkicking was disastrous. He sprayed five penalty attempts and two relatively easy conversions, and any one or two of these kicks could have changed the tenor of the match considerably. Two weeks ago he was the darling of Carisbrook after kicking seven penalties, and now he'll be feeling sick to his stomach. Nineteen points gone begging, eight that even other dwarves like Ben Blair or Ashley Barron could have back-heeled over... who would be a goalkicker at top level?

Waikato were compelling in the face of the Otago assault. They have built their whole season on continuity, and Marty Holah is now shading Richard McCaw as the world's best fetcher. He scored a magnificent try before half-time, charging through traffic and brushing tacklers aside where other players had been flattened for such presumption. His opposite number, Sam Harding, got a mirror-image try just after the break, but could not dominate at the breakdowns and affect the game as positively as Holah.

Regan King and Keith Lowen got two each, for the other four Waikato tries. Lowen's strength was instrumental in both of his, and King's uncanny ability to glide around tacklers made his two look slightly easier. They weren't. All four were built on many phases, the forwards outlasting the fringe defence to ensure that the possession they delivered was ball going forward, and the backs executed with confidence in the face of equally savage midfield tackling.

Otago's tries were less convincing. Danny Lee burrowed over for their first after a long build-up based on one-up hits, and flyer Rabeni scored once the blindside defence was beaten by fullback Neil Brew. But perhaps because they were insistently plugging the blind or one-out (while Waikato were flinging it as wide as they could), the visitors' attacks looked less exciting. Harding's try was an individual piece of brilliance - he and Lee scored another each at the end, when Waikato looked tired. Harding's was similar to his first, and Lee was the final receiver on the end of a move that had swept the length of the field twice through innumerable phases. But Marty Holah had been substituted by this stage, and I wonder if he would have granted the late consolation scores if still on. Or, in fact, whether they would be substituting him had Feeney kept Otago more closely in touch with the lead.

I had guests, all too excited by the high-class rugby to realise how quickly they were drinking. They had to leave their vehicles and catch taxis home, while my Aussie mate starfished on the floor by midnight. I let him sleep, thinking he looked more comfortable there than he would be if he tripped over his own front steps or firetrucked the spare bed. It's like christening the new Bunker, having a senseless boofhead face-down and drooling on the carpet after an NPC game... almost classic, in a way. Thankfully he was gone in the morning, when the kids and I went off to mini-golf.

Hawkes Bay beat Counties-Manukau in the second division final, 37-16, to book their place in the promotion-relegation match against Bay of Plenty next week (a replay of last year). It was close in the first half - two try-scorers from Hawkes Bay's semi-final got on the scoresheet again, wing Ray Karauria and flanker Mike Johnson, but the Steelers made a lot of their possession and were well in it after a try to blindside flanker Buck Saukawa. Then the Bay got rolling in the second forty, breakaway David Gower and midfielder Davis Norman scoring tries. The Hawkes Bay pack demolished the Counties scrum, and the win was built on a platform worthy of first division status whether they make it next week or not. Norman's try, in fact, looked more like one a forward would score, as he was bound with eight other men driving him over.

Sitiveni Sitivatu went through a hole in midfield with quarter of an hour to go, and brought Counties back to within twelve points. All game, the Steelers had tried to get ball to him because his blinding speed is the best weapon they've got. But Richard Kinnear kicked three more penalties to extend the Bay's lead, and the scoreline was a pretty fair reflection of the match. Hawkes Bay were as disciplined and close-knit as they've been all season, and victory was assured once they settled into their pattern.

Bay of Plenty will be a far bigger hurdle. The two sides might be evenly-matched, but one team has been playing against first division teams all year while the other has been playing less imposing opposition. That may or may not be the difference in the end, but Bay of Plenty had better take them very seriously or they'll be given a huge fright - Hawkes Bay are a tight unit.

Horowhenua-Kapiti beat King Country in a thriller, to claim a place in the final of division three. First five-eighth Dion Nepia scored all twenty of their points, with five penalties and a try. Four of his penalties had the home side 12-0 ahead at half-time. Then they turned into the howling wind, and held on as King Country came at them. It has to be said that the distribution and timing of the King Country inside backs was off, and their tactics of running from everywhere were not helped by this, but they had a gale at their backs and should have been playing down the other end of the park anyway.

Roger Warren brought them within range with a try soon after the break, a good one that went from one end to the other with great handling. A sixty metre penalty got them within two, and showed just how strong the wind was, but this was as good as it got for the visitors. Horowhenua-Kapiti kept winning turnover ball, arriving at the breakdowns in greater numbers and keeping their body positions low. Nepia's try restored a seven point margin, and although a late try to Luke Gates in the corner gave King Country a shot at forcing extra time, the conversion was too difficult - the attempt was aimed twenty yards right of the posts, and was flagged away to the left...

North Otago thrashed South Canterbury 58-10 in the other semi, to claim home advantage against Horowhenua-Kapiti in the final. Second five-eighth Mike Mavor's scything runs left the South Canterbury midfield in tatters, and he put Fepikou Tatafu and Pila Fifita in for tries in the first half with some lovely heads-up playmaking. After the break (during which the wind magically turned through a hundred and eighty degrees to favour the home side in both halves) North Otago cut loose. Simon Porter began the second half scoring with a sixty metre breakout from a turnover, Tatafu and Fifita got one more each, while winger Toetu Palamu, halfback Ryan McCarthy, utility back Tevita Asi and prop Alatea Katoa got the rest of the points. It was a drubbing, and South Canterbury looked absolutely shattered by it. They were almost walking at the end.

The two first division semi-finals made for spectacular rugby. Next week's final between Waikato and Auckland will be a beauty, with match-ups to savour all over the park - Howlett and Reihana, King and Muliaina, Rush and Muir, Braid and Holah... the two sides playing the most attractive rugby have hit their best form at the business end of the season, both completely positive in their approach and both with memories of below-average performance from the year before to erase.

I will be making the journey to Hamilton, and like my visitors on Saturday night it sounds like I will be in no state to leave under my own steam, whichever way the result goes. A group of vengeful Mooloo fanatics who call themselves the Panel will be looking out for me, and I expect they have some horrendous local custom in mind for the express purpose of my embarrassment... I am Joe's fear of the unknown. Perhaps I should be hoping for an Auckland win, so they don't feel like making a night of it. Or perhaps I should be hoping they didn't read this far down the newsletter, and that last sentence in particular.

The All Blacks touring squad will be announced the following Monday. With his licence to kill, John Mitchell can name the most exciting side in recent memory, purpose-built to win three tests in style. There are always unlucky players, men regarded by their home province as the best in their position but who the national selectors cannot find room for, and in this unusual situation it is debatable whether there will be more or less of these than usual. Sit tight.

 

    29th October 2002
      Bitter pill for Waikato    

 



Waikato versus Auckland was the perfect final. Both teams had earned their place without question, and the season would come down to who could execute when it counted. I drove to Hamilton in a relaxed state, time behind the wheel giving me the opportunity to think clearly about black jerseys and the players whose touring spots were in the balance. It seemed more important than winners and losers. The result hadn't really occupied my mind (Inky is unaffiliated anyway), because both teams would be such worthy champions, and I think the whole country apart from the provinces in question felt the same way. A bunch of colourful young locals yelled threateningly at me when I pulled up at some lights about a mile from the stadium, but that might have had nothing to do with rugby of course, or maybe they just assumed I was from out of town because my car had a warrant of fitness...

The packed ground was awash in red, black and yellow. A furious chorus of clanking bells accompanied every whistle in the home team's favour. Man, I'd forgotten that live sound from Hamilton. The last time I was there was for the Italian test, and they hadn't brought the Mooloo bells that night. Can you imagine a European soccer stadium allowing about 10,000 loose and sharp metal objects into a packed space, without partitioning the visiting fans in a safe area? I scanned the ground for a second, and saw the brave huddled group of blue and white, holding their end up respectably and keeping the Auckland sudden death dream alive. They left miserable the last time Auckland crossed the Bombays, but their boys were now a different team and could reverse that result in very stylish fashion if they played like they had in Canterbury the week before. It seemed to me that they'd left Jade Stadium in top gear and would hit the ground running in Hamilton, on the best playing surface in the country no less.

It was a surface that deserved a great game, and got it. The opening arm wrestle lasted ten minutes, while Reihana and Spencer traded penalties, then Mils Muliaina scored the first try. Ball was turned over on halfway, after a couple of phases had broken the field wide open. Muliaina was close to the touchline, and kicked ahead twenty yards while almost falling into touch. Four people raced for the ball, but Muliaina had the drop on all of them, and skilfully toed it through to score. Next time down that end, only a few minutes later, Auckland contested a short Waikato lineout five yards out. NOT the place for off the top ball, right? Keith Robinson slapped it back untidily under pressure, Keven Mealamu pounced for the try, and got up grinning from ear to ear.

Deon Muir had a quiet word to his tight five behind the posts. Quiet? I couldn't hear what he was saying, but it wasn't warm and fuzzy. Five minutes later, though, they were on their heels again - a long range droppie from Spencer had hit the post and been carried back. Auckland were hard on attack, with a twenty yard blind to the left.

Xavier Rush didn't need to call Lefto, and the players involved will enjoy watching this replay.

Off the back came Rush, never looking to tuck it under his arm, rather giving Devine a soft little pop pass. Devine's quick transfer past Rhys Duggan and the Waikato loosies was flat, and Carlos hit the advantage line at top (this is the secret to Lefto, it only works at full speed). Spencer had Keith Lowen on the hook, with Ben Atiga outside him running straight at Roger Randle. Lowen took the dummy, and Spencer was moving too low and hard to be stopped.

Cowbell, anyone?

20-3 to Auckland, at a point-a-minute. Once again Muir laid it down to his men, and the rest of the half was about Waikato pride.

Their pack still had trouble advancing, but their ball maintenance was much better. With a few phases being strung together, the backs began to see yards where before there had been only inches. Keith Lowen suddenly exploded through a couple of holes, both times bisecting the Auckland backline, and the last line of defence was called on. The clanging resumed in earnest, and Waikato lifted in classic fashion to meet the crowd volume. Auckland's defence held for a few minutes, but the home team maintained possession and laid siege inside the twenty-two. The hits became harder and harder. Waikato weren't looking to bust through hits, though. They were looking to recycle and find the inevitable gap.

When a simple miss-one pass from Derek Maisey found Regan King's outside stride, he sailed between Muliaina and Tuitupou with a graceful turn of speed and brought the house down. Halting Auckland's momentum was one thing. Scoring one of the season's most perfectly executed tries, in response to one equally good down the other end, was entirely another. Reihana landed two more penalties to make the half-time score 20-16, and we had already seen double our money's worth.

The second half began with an arm wrestle like the first. Both teams have emphasised attack all year. Waikato's points have come quickly, but their defence has hardly been impregnable. Auckland analysed their oppositions' offences one-by-one, and over the 2002 season came up with easily the best defensive record.

Another horrible lineout error cost Waikato dearly. On their own line, they threw straight over the jumper to where Xavier Rush was waiting fifteen yards in. He sidestepped off his left to leave Muir standing, and crashed over. It was a huge body blow, and the Waikato forwards were still reeling from it five minutes later when possession was turned over on Auckland's twenty-two. Some knock-ons cost more dearly than others - this one bounced straight into the arms of Doug Howlett. He ran eighty yards with Bruce Reihana chasing, but it was Katie bar the door as soon as he touched it.

Waikato rallied heroicly - they didn't know they were beaten. After having given away two tries with poorly-executed lineouts, they went some way to redressing their dishonour with a beautifully-worked move. A long one to the back was brought down tidily, Rhys Duggan went blind to where the thrower Greg Smith had stayed hugging the touchline, and the hooker drove over the line to resurrect a faint hope at 21-32. But they had run out of time, and Auckland were irresistible. Immediately they camped down Waikato's end, throwing together the same sort of frenzied attack from all quarters that Canterbury couldn't contain the week before.

As the tackles were made and each ruck formed, Howlett roved from one side of the field to the other, looking for his spot and almost building up a static charge. When it came left and he finally had the chance to run onto a flat pass, he arced the fifteen yards to the tryline like high voltage through wet air. The cover converged, but they couldn't stop him earthing in the corner, as cold-blooded and absolutely lethal as electricity itself.

Keith Lowen finished the game with a well-taken try to post the final scoreline of 40-28. It was almost like a reminder to the selectors about who the season's best midfield pairing has been, but the cheer that greeted the try was resigned. Was there anything even bittersweet about this pill the Waikato crowd were being asked to swallow? Their team had failed at the final hurdle, after running the race of their lives. I'm not going to say they peaked too early, because Auckland would have stopped anyone that night, peaking or not. Like Wellington in 2000, where the vistors made their run late in the season and had to contest a final away from home, Auckland knew they had to be truly great on the night to take it. It was that kind of game... along with being just another out-of-this-world Air New Zealand NPC final. It happens year after year, and the selectors had as many late decisions to make as ever.

They still had thirty-six hours. North Otago beat Horowhenua-Kapiti easily in the third division final, winning 43-19 and erasing the misery of 1997, 2000 and 2001 when they were beaten finalists. Wing sensation Pila Fifita got the first hat-trick ever scored in an NPC final, and his centre Fepikou Tatafu got a couple as well. They ruled the third division with ease, and will be an excellent addition to the second division next year. No-one all season was able to handle the scrummaging of loosehead Hotili Asi or the high-stepping Mike Mavor in midfield. Cam MacKenzie created havoc for the Horowhenua-Kapiti lineout. Simon Porter's tactical kicking was sound, and he brought up both North Otago and third division point-scoring records, but his main job along with halfback Ryan McCarthy was distribution. The crowd had come to see tries. Even if next year they will need to play more conservatively, Sunday was a celebration day for them.

Bay of Plenty beat Hawkes Bay in the promotion-relegation match for the second year running, and the pattern was the same as in 2001. Hawkes Bay began well, but Bay of Plenty had the heavier stones when it counted. Glen Jackson was too classy, and ran things well once his forwards got their routine established.

Hawkes Bay were all over them to begin with. Early tries to flanker Michael Johnson and fullback Jacob Kennedy gave them a 14-3 lead. From then on, though, a failure to protect possession properly cost them dearly. Lock Dave Duley, midfielder Dale Rasmussen and prop Sims Davison scored tries, all resulting from Hawkes Bay errors, and Jackson kicked everything adjacent including two droppies. A late try to number eight Mutu Ngarimu made the 37-21 scoreline more respectable for Hawkes Bay, but the game was well gone by then.

The All Blacks touring squad to England, France and Wales was finally announced on Monday, thank God for a blessed relief - if you're like me and almost die from anticipation before such announcements, you'll know what I mean. I hadn't had any sleep, lying staring at the ceiling all Saturday and Sunday nights going over combinations in my head. If I dozed at all it was to dream of ball being flung wide, by a team hell-bent on the same fierce style that our top teams defined in the domestic competition. I believe New Zealand rugby has gone up yet another gear. The Europeans meanwhile can dream all they like about victory, over what their press might foolishly call a second-string side, but this team will punish them soundly for any such presumption -

Joe McDonnell (Otago), Tony Woodcock (Harbour), Andrew Hore (Taranaki), Keven Mealamu (Auckland), Kees Meeuws (Auckland), Carl Hayman (Otago), Bradley Mika (Auckland), Keith Robinson (Waikato), Ali Williams (Auckland), Taine Randell (Otago, captain), Marty Holah (Waikato), Daniel Braid (Auckland), Rodney So'oialo (Wellington), Sam Broomhall (Canterbury), Steve Devine (Auckland), Danny Lee (Otago), Andrew Mehrtens (Canterbury), Carlos Spencer (Auckland), Jonah Lomu (Wellington), Keith Lowen (Waikato), Mark Robinson (Canterbury), Tana Umaga (Wellington, vice-captain), Regan King (Waikato), Doug Howlett (Auckland), Christian Cullen (Wellington), Ben Blair (Canterbury).

Do you see the way small squads these days have as much cover in midfield as they do in the loose forwards? It's a sign of the times - expect wear and tear in midfield, a very smart strategy.

The players not considered, for reasons as varied as the muscles and bones of the human body, were Anton Oliver, Tom Willis, Corey Flynn, Mark Hammett, Dave Hewett, Greg Somerville, Greg Feek, Chris Jack, Norm Maxwell, Simon Maling, Royce Willis, Reuben Thorne, Jerry Collins, Richard McCaw, Scott Robertson, Ron Cribb, Justin Marshall, Byron Kelleher, Aaron Mauger, Caleb Ralph and Leon MacDonald.

Unluckiest were Filipo Levi, Troy Flavell, Xavier Rush and Roger Randle. Randle's form was not enough to oust Jonah Lomu - tries in the NPC final may or may not have changed the selectors' thinking on that point, and they admitted that Jonah was not picked on form. The Big Fella needs work. But Caleb Ralph was being rested anyway, and it seems there were only two wing spots in the twenty-six. Umaga covers all three quarters, and we may very well see the Predator back wide (where some say he belongs).

Not named either were three former All Black halfbacks, Rhys Duggan, Mark Robinson and Jason Spice, so Lee and Devine have come from practically nowhere in June. I regard that as a very good sign, that the selectors should go on NPC form rather than Super12 - recent form being worth more, obviously, when time is short. John Mitchell always said his programme was accelerated, having only two years available to him.

The logic is faultless. He has made next year's Super12 a level playing field, and therefore created the environment from which a signature All Black World Cup squad can be picked.

These new All Blacks will accept this honour with the crucial humility a black jersey demands. So the most exciting and interesting short tour by any All Black side in recent memory is about to take place, and Mitchell has a new band of young zealots in his service to strike directly at the confidence of Greater Europe. Stand by for a defining month in New Zealand rugby.