After watching the first match of the Tri Nations, that hearty whipping of South Africa by the ABs, I couldn't help but think back to the same time last year. That test match was against the English, and was a fair indication of the season to come. To barely beat an under-strength group of Poms was not that much fun at the time, but we thought, "a win is a win"!
We couldn't imagine that the records to be broken that season would of the kind the rest of the world crows about! 5 Test losses in a row... (Yeah that's something that John Hart will put up the top of his CV!) I had the small joy of being away from a TV for three of those games, so I was saved from some of the heartache, but I assure you that I still felt the pain.
One of the dramatic differences between last year and this, is that of selection difference. I don't mean by that that there was any dissention amongst the selectors. I'm sure, where there was a difference of opinion, that John Hart listened objectively and carefully to the point, before ignoring it and going with what he thought was best.
No, what I meant was that so many "armchair selectors" disagreed with a large portion of the All Black side. It is quite normal for one or two positions to be disputed, I'm sure that Talkback Radio regularly rely on this as a key topic. But last year it seemed that the selectors didn't had a friend outside Auckland!
Such selections as: Michael Jones when he couldn't last a half, Mark Carter whose whole game revolves around a pack that is going forward (unlucky!), and the dubious play of the aging locks. Ofisa (Junior) Tonu'u not impressing as replacement halfback, and then Justin Marshall being rushed back into the team too soon. Scott McCloud not impressing as a centre, coupled with the threat of Craig Innes as replacement! Caleb Ralph failing to impress at wing, and unfortunately Jonah Lomu starting to go the same way.
In short far too many Aucklanders, who were not displaying much form.
This year we have an All Black team that is demonstrably chosen on form in the Super 12. Not surprisingly it is Otago and Canterbury biased (which is also nice for a change). This turn around alone has had a dramatic effect on fan support for team management.
Talking about the management, they now have Peter Sloan as specialist forward Coach, and Wayne Smith as Advisor for the backs. Can somebody remind me - just what does Mr. Hart do again?
There were many low-lights to the AB's season. Not meaning to rub salt in, but here are some briefly:
- The Andrew Mehrtens verses Carlos Spencer swap-feast,
- A back line that didn't seem to be able to get it together when attacking, and totally lost the plot on defence,
- The All Black Corp. image, and associated talk of loss of atmosphere within the camp and the joy of being an All Black,
- The bizarre dropping of Todd Blackadder.
But as we found out for certain last year, the All Black International Season is not the "be all and end all" of New Zealand Rugby. And two things of particular interest happened:
- A successful NPC
- The departure of Graham Henry
I had been a bit slow to get into the Super 12 last year, it just wasn't doing anything for me, especially with the early form of the Crusaders. But by the time the NPC started I was ready and rearing for some good rugby, which is perhaps a strange side-effect of the AB's results. But certainly it was interesting to see the dramatic change in attitude from players, Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens, especially. They were fair fizzing to play well!
And what a competition it turned out to be, with the Cantabrian's making it as far as the semifinals before losing to Waikato. That was a hard game, and it proved some of the knockers right about too much rugby (damn! I hate it when that happens!). There were so many walking wounded on the field, that the game turned into a real game of attrition, with Waikato having just enough energy left to roll the Cantabs.
I personally was not too surprised to see Otago win the final (OK, I was supporting them as well, but one can be parochial and logical as well). The semi had taken a lot out of the Waikato team and they didn't have much left to repel a particularly strong Otago team. I don't think that even the "Cantab heart factor" would have won the day if they had been in the final instead.
I'm sure that this is the overriding reason for the World Cup squad missing the NPC. Nice to see somebody learning from history. And anyway it is good to foster a bit of local provincial talent, especially if this Fox Network Rugby competition is going to get underway in the States. We are going to loose a bit of talent, young and old, to that!
Ah yes it's a funny old world, and with that in mind lets move on to the Graham Henry saga. Mr. Henry has done a lot for Auckland Rugby, and he like other Auckland coaches before him, was looking forward to a crack at coaching the AB's. But unlike one particular other person (very similar to the current coach in fact) he realised that he had to wait for the vacancy to come available. So sick of winning trophy after trophy in NZ he was looking for two things:
1) An overseas Posting that would be worthy of his ability,
and 2) An assurance from the NZRFU that he would be the next AB's coach.
I not sure which of these incensed the NZRFU the most, but they certainly spat the dummy in a big way. They huffed and puffed and said that if Henry wasn't going to play with their ball... well... then they didn't want to play with him anymore! I thought that the request to be pre-assigned as next ABs coach was a bit much (although no more than John Hart has asked for in his time). But I also thought it a bit petty of the NZRFU to pass a rule especially to prevent Henry from coaching the ABs if he coached another national side.
But they did, and it didn't have much effect on Graham Henry. When he left for his new job with Wales, he effectively did so without a backwards look, and with a one fingered wave to the NZRFU.
I think that the logical outcome of the whole affair can be predicted with the following misquote: Committees come and go, but good coaches just get better!
Anyway, if John Hart does return to his form of old, we may need Graham Henry to pull another national side out of mediocrity - ours!
So what about the future of New Zealand rugby? Well the near future is fairly busy, with the Tri Nations still running, a full NPC to follow, and near the end of that the World Cup in England and Wales.
We are looking pretty awesome on paper, so far in the Tri-Nations. But one of those stats don't look too good, and that is only one try against Australia. It's not that I think that we have any real problems, but Australia could push us the next time we meet. We do have a trip to South Africa before the next Bledisloe cup match, and that will take a bit out of the team. It might be just the excuse that Mr. Hart needs to play Carlos Spencer. Personally I would play him "left right out", one good game for the A's does not a comeback make!
Nick-Farr Jones on the "Tight Five" last week predicted a close win to the ABs in Auckland, but an Australian win at Stadium Australia. And he may not be too far wrong. Certainly South Africa will be stronger at home, and then to play Aussie at home - well the boys are going to have to dig deep (have you noticed my Justin Marshall style of writing? Readers of the Christchurch Star will recognise it).
And then to allow for a bit of refocusing on Gods-own, the NPC. Ah, this will be fun, l think the way that the Hurricanes, Chiefs and even the Blues were playing at the end of the Super 12 it could be one of the closest NPCs for years. The lack of All Black's will be a test for the player depth of at least the South Island, and that will make it interesting as well.
We Cantabrian's may not have Marshall, Mehrtens, Maxwell, or Gibson to watch, but we will still have Toddy, Razor, Gardener and several other "energizer batteries" to watch rush around the field. There are some young understudy players who have had to play away from home recently for various reasons, so the Halfback and 1st Five positions should be safely covered. We should even see teams better able to last the distance this year, which will make consistent form as important as ever.
And then the World cup. OK so we won't have tired players, and they shouldn't be carrying injuries, but what worries me is match fitness. The ABs have never been great at leaping up to 1st class level, and have been lucky to have such good preparation this year. To play Manu Samoa and France was an excellent way to get ready for the Tri Nations. And I believe that the fast start against Australia is directly attributable to the hard but untroubling game against South Africa.
So some type of internal series seems logical to me, especially as the Pool of Death isn't going to offer up many easy matches. The New Zealand A side is the perfect choice for one or two games, especially as it gives those on the edge of the squad a last chance to impress. Whether we will see this I don't know - and it has probably already been decided. So my hopes of influencing the powers that be, who no doubt read this site for insights, are probably in vain.
But I won't let that worry me too much - there is rugby to enjoy, and I'm ready to get my hands dirty... well at least covered in salt and chip crumbs!