Ah, late February 2005.
Every year the old line about it being "too bloody early for footy" is heard in conversations all over NZ (and, I assume, Australia and South Africa) but once the season kicks off you can't help but take an interest.
Of course in NZ at least it helps that the usual cry of "but it's still cricket season!" has been muted somewhat by the dominating form the touring Aussie cricket team have shown in the first two one-dayers. Cocky bastards. I hope they go down tomorrow, although I must admit I won't be watching the end of the game as it will clash with the Crusaders vs Brumbies match!
Blues vs Highlanders
Friday 25 Feb, 2005 7:35 pm
Ref Steve Walsh
Half time Blues 16-9
Full time Blues 30-14
This year the season was kicked off on a balmy night in Dunedin, with the home town Highlanders hosting the fancy boys from up north, the Blues.
The Highlanders are my number two team, getting my support in every match apart from the southern derby against the Crusaders. It certainly makes it even easier to support them when two of last seasons' Crusaders regulars, Ben Blair and Cameron Mcintyre, were in the Highlanders run on squad tonight.
Blair started at fullback and had the kicking duties and Mcintyre played at first-five. It will be interesting to see where Nick Evans plays when he gets fit. At number 10 I suspect but that might depend on how well these two Cantabs go in his absence.
Once the two teams settled down and stopped the aimless kicking the game was pretty enjoyable on the whole.
I won't give a full match report, you can get that from TVNZ, but I will give a few thoughts on the match.
The Highlanders obviously had a game plan of playing for territory, and trying to use their forward pack as much as possible, given that if they had any advantages across the park it was in the engine room. By and large it worked pretty well but they just made too many mistakes when they were in the strike zone (the Blues 22') to really take control of events.
I don't think that any players had a stand-out performance but there were certainly some good signs from a few guys.
For the home side Anthony Tuituvaki in the Highlanders 13 jersey looked really good, putting in some big hits (including a cracker on Joe Rokstar in the early going) and showing his sevens skills and gas when given the opportunities. Cameron Mcintyre's running game was strong (but his kicking game was woeful) and Blair was solid on the whole. In the forward pack Hayman and the centurian Anton Oliver (congrats on that milestone) were very solid.
In white the guy that showed the most for me was young Luke Mcalister at 13. He kicked goals superbly (which could be very valuable for the Blues this year as it's been an achilles heal in recent seasons), his defence was sound and with ball in hand he always looked dangerous. Spencer, Tuitupo and Mcalister as an mid-field back lineup is just awesome I reckon.
Carlos "I-dare-you-to-grow-a-muttle-like-this-Dan" Spencer pretty much just cruised through this game, hardly taking on the line at all (he seemed to be more interested in putti up speculator kicks than running the ball). He didn't do anything wrong, he just obviously didn't feel he need to take over the game.
In the Auckland forward pack Captain Rush and Ali Williams were the standouts for me. I still don't think Rush is international quality but he certainly is a good player at this level. So many times he did what was required to shut down a Highlanders attacking phase or finish of a Blues attack and Williams just dominated the lineouts and restarts.
The home side wore their regular blue uniforms meaning the visitors had to wear their lovely alternate White strip. I was secretly hoping that the old "dress like england play like england" curse - that's England pre-2001 (and 2005!) - was going to come into affect, but unfortunately it was not to be. As expected the Blues ran away with it in the end but the Highlanders weren't totally outclassed and if they can sort out the problems with maintaining their possession at lineout and restarts then they will surprise a few teams in this competition I think.
All in all the result I expected (although I picked at 8-14 margin rather than the final 16 pointer) and a reasonable start to the season.
Chiefs vs Waratahs
Friday 25 Feb, 2005 7:35 pm
Ref some Rookie South African
Half time Waratahs 17-0
Full time Waratahs 25-7
Then at 9:30pm the coverage switched across to Sydney for the Waratahs vs Chiefs.
I found it interesting that the Aussie commentators were going on about some of the "unknowns" in the Chiefs backline, whereas I was thinking pretty much the same thing about the Waratahs backline! I guess that if I had been watching Sydney club footie (yeah right!) and they had watched the NPC (not likely, they'd just get jealous) then they might have known who the likes of the Chiefs wingers Anesi and Tagicakibau were (two of the top try scorers in the 2004 NPC) I would know who this big lug of a first-five Mackay was for the home team.
I had picked the home side to take this one by 8-14 and it really looked like Chiefs might make that look silly in the first 10 minutes when they just dominated possession and spent most of that time in the Waratahs half.
However they couldn't convert that into any points and in typical annoying Waratahs (or should I just say Australian?!?) style the first chance the home side got to attack in the Chiefs half they scored, with Mat Rogers chipping the defensive line to put Turinui in under the sticks.
As it turned out this was just the first of four and Mat Rogers was a prime play maker in most of them, the guy is a freak. The sooner he gets injured again the better. :D
Why they don't play him at first five I don't know. The 'tahs always seem to be a class first-five away from being in the top 4 and surely it's easier to find another class fullback.
I must admit I didn't pay huge attention to this game but one thing that did stand out was just the impact that a class back can have on a team. These are the guys that create the opportunities for their team. They generally make the game easier for everyone else on their team and can make an ordinary guy look good. The Waratahs have two really classy players in Rogers and Tuquiri and both those guys proved to be the difference on many occassions.
For the Chiefs Byron Kelleher was probably the only guy on the park in that category and he had a frustrating night on the whole. I guess Sivivatu (who is injured currently) is the other back in their squad with the X-factor and they may well miss Glen Jackson's input in that area too, David Hill is a solid player but just doesn't have the vision or feel for the game that Jackson has.
All in all it was a good win for the Waratahs and a disappointing outing for the Chiefs. Don't expect it to get any easier next week you Chefs, you're coming to Jade!