The Strange Case Of The Bug In The Armchair

Before the first Bledisloe Cup match last year in Sydney a listening device was found in the armchair in the All Blacks team room. Now if you are familiar with the All Blacks you will be aware of their paranoia when it comes a good conspiracy theory. They lost the 1995 world cup because they were poisoned by dodgy milk and would have been world champions in 2007 if Wayne Barnes didn’t hate the Kiwis and of course there have been numerous bugging scandals from both sides of the Tasman. Yet the recent the alleged involvement of Adrian Gard, the security guard who found the bug in the first place, in Autumn’s scandal takes this latest bugging story to a whole new bizarre level.

Gard has been charged with public mischief by the New South Wales police which wouldn’t be too strange except for that fact that Gard is a well-respected security consultant who was working for the All Blacks at the time. Gard may be New South Wales police’s number one suspect in the strange case of the bug in the armchair but would he really be so stupid to commit the biggest career suicide since Grab the Cash Sam fell from grace as the England Manager? And if not Gard then who placed the device, here are the main suspects:

Adrian Gard

As far as the New South Wales police are concerned the Kiwi security consultant is the main suspect but this is a professional who has guarded some of the most famous people in the world and runs his own highly successful security business. If this was a BBC crime drama you would be asking what was his motive and unless some new information comes to light, then there doesn’t appear to be one.

Michael Cheika

Not actually the Wallabies coach himself but someone part of the Aussie’s back room team. The Aussies clearly have the motive in wanting to beat the All Blacks for the first time in what seems like whatever. They would normally be the number one suspect, and they allegedly have previous, but they have been cleared by the police and as much as you may not like his gruff persona, Cheika doesn’t seem the type of person who would be involved in such shenanigans.

Steve Tew

Again not actually the CEO of New Zealand Rugby himself but as a man who seems to be concerned with cashing in on the All Black brand what must he have thought as England dominate the summer rugby press with their first whitewash on Australian soil? With the Northern upstarts showing potential to be the All Blacks main challengers in upcoming years and facing a match that might have meant something if Australia had a team which could play rugby what better way to add spice to what many viewed as a dead rubber

The Aussie Press

In a sports mad nation have the Aussie Press have to be considered as one of the more likely suspects but would they have been after team tactics or some juicy gossip like when Ben Smith is sitting his accountancy exams?

Aaron Smith

Once more a name picked out of a collective group but if this was a practical joke by the All Blacks that has spectacularly backfired who would you expect to be the clown in the Kiwi pack, as long as he wasn’t taking a toilet break

Mr or Mrs X 

As none of the above suspects seem to be a likely fit the possibility that there is still an unknown player in the equation seems plausible. The only problem is that the New South Wales police have made a mistake and that could never happen. Could it?

Rugby’s Team Of The Year

With the Autumn Internationals coming to an end so does the international rugby season and after an eventful year I thought I’d put together my team of 2016. Not surprising, since they only lost one match between them, England (with 5) and New Zealand (6) make up the majority of the team, whilst Australia (2), Wales (1) and Ireland (1) are also represented:

Loose Head – Mako Vunipola

Jack McGrath had and impressive Autumn but Vunipola just edges it for his performances over the course of the whole year.

Hooker – Dan Coles

It really pains me to admit the Hurricanes hooker is the best in the world at what he does because I think he is also one of the nastiest players in the game at the moment but his all round game sadly does make him the stand out player in his position.

Tight Head – Owen Franks

The best scrummaging front row in the world easily gets the nod at tight head.

Lock – Brodie Retallick

In my opinion the most important player for the All Blacks.

Lock – Maro Itoje

Probably the toughest decision because I believe Sam Whitelock is almost as important to the All Blacks as his fellow lock but Itoje gets the nod for a fine six nations and a sensational tour of Australia. Has to be considered the most exciting young player in the game and I can’t wait for Itoje to come up against Retallick next summer.

Flanker – Elliot Dixon

I admit this one may be considered left field but as a Highlanders fan I feel Dixon is one of the most underrated rugby players in New Zealand. Similarly, Ardie Savea is another who may not be as well-known as his older brother but he plays for the Canes!

Flanker – Sean O’Brien

Normally David Pocock would nail down this slot but I was underwhelmed with the Wallaby this year so O’Brien gets the nod.

Number Eight – Billy Vunipola

The second Vunipola in the team and Billy must thank Eddie Jones for his inclusion. Since Jones took over as England coach the younger Vunipola has been the player who seems to have benefited the most. Some would argue for Kieran Reid’s inclusion but he is not the player he was two or three years ago and players like Vunipola and Wales’ Faletau have now caught him up.

Scrum Half – Aaron Smith

As this is a team of 2016 Smith has to get the nod for the way he was playing before he got caught in a hospital toilet. His performances after that incident have shown that the media scrutiny has affected him and, as a Highlander fan, I hope it is the pre-toilet Smith that returns next year.

Fly Half – George Ford

I know this is sacrilege here in New Zealand but whilst Beauden Barrett, the gut kiwis think god looks up to, he does not have the game management that Ford has.

Inside Centre – Owen Farrell

Perversely Farrell’s inclusion could have opened the door for Barrett because the Englishman’s kicking accuracy would make up for Barrett’s limitations when it comes to goal kicking. Farrell may not be the most physical centre but a place has to be found for him simply because of his goal kicking.

Outside Centre – Tevita Kuridrani

I could have gone for Farrell’s England team mate in Jonathon Joseph but whilst the Englishman just wins in attack it is the Wallabies defence which earns him a place in the team

Wing – Liam Williams

Finally, a Welshman made the team! One of the few players who shone in what can only be described as a depressing year for Welsh rugby.

Wing – Ben Smith

I don’t personally think playing on the wing is his best position but he is still in the top two. Amazing under the high ball and breaking from deep it often overshadows the amount of defensive work he gets through in a game.

Full Back – Israel Folau

I think it is neck and neck between Ben Smith and Folau as to who is the best full back in the game at the moment but Smith’s versatility enables both to be included. Like Smith he is one of the best, if not the best, under the high ball and a real threat both breaking from deep and injecting himself into the line.

Is Aaron Smith Really being Punished?

This week the All Black scrum half, Aaron Smith, voluntarily stood down from the third Bledisloe Cup match against Australia as a punishment for his indiscretions with a female, who was not his girlfriend, in a disabled toilet at Christchurch Airport. In effect what this means is that after missing a dead rubber in South Africa, Smith has voluntarily taken himself out of a potentially history making match against Australia. On face value this may seem a genuine act of contrition on the part of the Highlander’s player but for Smith, and New Zealand rugby in general, there are a few questions that still need to be answered.

Are Smith’s actions as serious as the media storm surrounding them suggest?

In today’s promiscuous society I would argue they are not, indeed you could argue his only crime was getting caught. But Smith is a role model here in New Zealand, part of arguably the greatest team the country has ever produced in a nation where Rugby is more than a religion and as such he should be acting in a manner which befits his station. Smith, and his fellow All Blacks, are paid more than handsomely for playing a sport they love and in return we, the paying public, should expect more than just an eighty-minute performance once a week. Imagine what the dad who, taking his kid down to watch the Highlanders to Forsyth Bar must now be thinking after he told his child that if they work hard they could one day be like Aaron Smith?

Do Smith’s actions reflect poorly on New Zealand Rugby?

Simply, yes. Taken in isolation, the fact one of their players was unable to keep his pants on is a problem no doubt encountered by many a club coach as they have taken their young charges on tour but for New Zealand rugby this is not an isolated instance, over the last few months the behaviour of Kiwi rugby players have been brought into question on more than one question. Last month a talented young Wellington Lion’s player was in court charged with assaulting four people, including two women, and earlier in the year the Chiefs’ players were accused of inappropriately touching a stripper who had been hired for their end of year party. Smith’s actions, you may argue, are therefore being judged in a harsher climate than they might have been but in contrast is this the beginning of a worrying trend where rugby players begin to act like their spoilt, over paid, football cousins in Europe?

What action is the New Zealand Rugby Union taking over these incidents?

Not a lot. In the case of the Chiefs’ end of season party the NZRU’s found the allegations of sexual assault could not be proven, findings which have been widely condemned here in New Zealand, and it appears that, for the NZRU at least, this is the end of the matter. There seems to be no condemnation that a stripper was hired for an end of season party or the message this sends out about these men’s views on women in general. It seems that dad can’t take his kid to watch the Chiefs either! The official statement in regard to the Wellington Lion’s player is that his contract has been terminated by mutual consent which, whilst I appreciate the player in question did not want to lose his job, means that the perpetrator has had a say in his sentence. Why? If the club believes the player to be at fault they should have taken action not held a conversation which in itself leads me to the next question.

Why is Aaron Smith deciding his own punishment?

The statement this week that Smith has stood himself down from the Australia match does demonstrate Smith, at least on the surface, recognises he has done something wrong but instead of the player standing himself shouldn’t the NZRU be suspending the player themselves? If the player’s actions are deemed worthy of censure, then the censure should come from his employers and not the player himself. In deciding to let Smith drop himself the NZRU are in effect washing their hands of the incident, a behaviour they are all too familiar with. The suits who preside over the game in this country are happy to take centre stage when the All Blacks are winning but when the shit is about to hit the fan they quickly manage to dissolve into the background.

What is more important to the New Zealand Rugby Union, legacy or results?

You could argue that these two are intertwined. This All Black team, no matter what its players get up to, are going to be remembered as one of, if not the greatest sports teams of all time. Their record over the last six or seven years has been nothing short of phenomenal and list of rugby legends who have appeared for the All Blacks would no doubt fill many places in an all-time greatest ever rugby XV. But one of the joys of watching rugby here in New Zealand is the special relationship between the players and the fans. Does this generation really want to be the ones who breaks this relationship? If not then indiscretions, like Smith’s, must be seen to be properly dealt with, otherwise what is that dad going to be able to tell his children?

Would Smith not playing really be a blow to the All Blacks?

As a rugby fan who has grown up disliking the All Blacks, to me they are the Manchester United of the oval ball game, this is the hardest one for me to answer because I know my answer would have to be no. In TJ Perenara, think of a more annoying Gary Neville, the All Blacks have a more than able deputy who is amongst the best in the world and both in the pack and outside him they have players who are simply world class. Ally the fact that both the Australians and the teams they will play on their American and European tour are probably the weakest they have been in years and it is safe to say that if the All Blacks do lose in the near future it will not be down the fact that Aaron Smith isn’t in the team. Bearing this in mind wouldn’t it be better for the game’s legacy here in New Zealand, its reputation overseas and for the player himself, if the NZRU decided to make Smith illegible for the remaining All Black games this year? If they had the balls to do this it would show their fans they care more about the game than a few results and it would allow Smith’s deputies to stake a claim, and hopefully provide competition in the future. It would also send a warning to the rest of the rugby playing fraternity that they are expected to behave like role models and most importantly it would give Smith time to get his own house in order and give him time to reflect on his actions. Which leads me to my final question:

Is Aaron Smith really being punished?