A Slap In The Face For Georgia

After one round of the Six Nations most people’s predictions, if they haven’t already fallen off, are teetering on the edge of a cliff. England, so majestic throughout much of 2016 looked slow and ponderous during most of their match against France, whilst a lot of people’s favourites, Ireland, suffered an agonising defeat against Scotland at Murrayfield. Even Wales, whose 33-7 victory against Italy on paper looks impressive, had to wait until the Italians were down to fourteen men before they pulled away in Rome.

Yet whilst most people would say that Ireland were the big losers at the weekend I would suggest that Georgia may be the nation who are rueing most the competiveness shown by all teams in a tight fought opening weekend. Georgia are by far and away the seventh best rugby team in the Northern Hemisphere, having one the last six “Best of the Rest” Northern Hemisphere rugby championships and a disappointing display by Italy or Scotland would have furthered their argument to be allowed to play off with the bottom placed team for a place at the top table. Yet what this weekend showed us is that whilst Scotland are not going to win the Six Nations and Italy may struggle to win a game, they can both be competitive on their day.

So where does this leave Georgia? Like the Pacific Islands and Japan, smaller “tier 2” nations need to be able to play the big boys more often than they do, not just every four years at the World Cup. Every “tier 1” nation should be committed to playing at least one of the smaller nations once a year. What harm would it do if England preceded their summer tour with a stopover in Japan or Fiji and surely instead of playing money grabbing friendlies in America, wouldn’t the grass roots of the game be better served if the All Blacks warmed up for their Autumn tour by playing the likes of Western Samoa? They could even play the game here in New Zealand if they were worried about the travelling!

Finally, on the subject of “tier 1” and “tier 2” nations I have been amused that as England close in on New Zealand’s record of consecutive wins the Kiwi press have started to follow the All Blacks record of 18 with the words “against tier 1 nations”. Surely a win is a win and if England do manage to get to 19 by completing a second consecutive grand slam their achievements should be recognised and not diminished because they had the temerity to play Fiji! And if they do fail will the Kiwi press remove the addendum?

If they do I am afraid they will have to add another because between 2008 and 2014 Cyprus won 24 consecutive rugby matches, 6 more than the All Blacks managed and a total which would mean England would have to win every match until the end of the year!

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People In Glass Houses Shouldn’t Throw Rugby Balls – Part II

A recent, rather thoughtful, article in the New Zealand Press highlighted that the British Lions had to win the first test otherwise they would end up losing the series 3-0. Whilst I disagree with this statement, Warren Gaitland demonstrated in Australia he is up to the task of rotating his team to fulfil a gruelling schedule, I do agree that the two blocks of friendly internationals, in June and November, are timed such that the home team will always have the advantage.

The article then went onto call for a global season yet I fear this is always going to be impossible. Whose season would you adopt, north or south? Or if you met half way what happens to the traditional season highlights? Would you want to watch the Six Nations in October or the New Zealand Championship in January? The only solutions I feel would be acceptable to both sides would be minor yet even minor tweaks might level the playing field no matter how unpalatable they are for Rugby’s authorities.

Firstly, the northern hemisphere would need to finish their season earlier and perhaps not make the Heineken Cup the culmination of the season. The teams which make up the final usually have a greater proportion of players going on the summer tours and most of these players are usually unavailable or unfit for the first international of the tour. And secondly push the dates of the summer tour back a week, this would give a two week break between high intensity matches which would be on par with what the All Blacks faced between a dead rubber in South Africa and money spinning match against Ireland in Chicago.

Finally, the author of that article finished implying a global season would never happen because England are too focused on revenue to care about the rest of the global game. Their reasoning being Fiji were only paid $172,000 dollars for their game at Twickenham! I have previously stated in this blog the gap between Tier 1 nations and the rest need to be addressed but the implication that this is England’s fault or responsibility is just another example of the All Black Presses sour grapes and hypocrisy.

If New Zealand Rugby really do care about the Pacific Island rugby playing nations on their doorstep, then they need to do something about it. Instead of trying to break the American market, and with it scoop up all of those Trump dollars, New Zealand could have kicked off their Autumn tour with a match against Fiji, Tonga or Western Samoa but that would be bad for revenue, sound familiar to you? Are we talking about the All Blacks or England?

Instead Fiji played England whilst Tonga played Italy, Samoa played France, Japan played Wales and Georgia played Scotland, yet can you recall when one of the SANZAR teams played any of these nations outside a world cup?

Maybe that article was correct and we should consider a global season but instead of the northern hemisphere teams touring one country they could share the love, and the revenue, around. England could play one match against the Wallabies then one against the All Blacks before finishing their tour by playing one of the Pacific Island nations, which would provide much needed revenue for these nations!

Of course this is not going to happen because the rugby super powers, including the All Blacks, don’t want to lose revenue so I would suggest, once more, to the New Zealand rugby press that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw rugby balls.

End Of The Autumn Internationals

With one last match the Autumn Internationals ended on Saturday, and what a match of contrasts. For all of Australia’s attacking intent, in the first half, you always got the feeling the Wallabies were in the match because England were not playing as you knew they could and how that theory was proved in after the interval.

Who won the battle of the scrum?

It is fair to say one of the biggest highlights of the build up to the match was the bickering in the press between the two head coaches, with both complaining the opposition infringed on the rules when the two packs went into battle. In reality I feel this was a pretty even exchange, with the biggest moment actually arising from a bad hook by the England captain which cannoned past the legs of his gleeful opposite number.

Did England deserve to win?

Put simply yes. Sure they were fortunate to be in touching distance at half time, thanks to a poor pass from Nick Phipps, which was further compounded by Kepu and gratefully pounced upon by the grateful Joseph. But after the restart England showed why they were unbeaten in over a year with a mental fortitude which has not been seen in a major England men’s team since Sir Clive and the boys lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy

Who was Man of the Match?

It has to be the aforementioned Joseph. Not only did he score two intercept tries but his deft kick into the corner provided Yarde with the try which surely knocked the stuffing out of the Wallabies. An honourable mention has to go to England’s other try scorer, Ben Youngs, who showed once more he is as good as anyone else on his day.

How Good is this England team?

Eddie Jones said after the match his team is not as good as the world cup winning team from 2003 and I have to agree with him but they are close. Reading the Kiwi press this morning one comment jumped out was that England do not have any players who would get into the All Blacks team and even though, as I have mentioned before, you have to take anything written about the New Zealand rugby team in their own papers with a very large pinch of salt, I would take this as a massive compliment to the current England team because their press are not only wrong but scared. Whilst Aaron Smith is undoubtedly the best scrum half in the game at the moment he has been out of form and Ben Youngs is just as good, if not even better than TJ Perenara. Moving outside Ford might not have the explosive skills of Barrett but he is better at managing the game and Owen Farrell is surely the premier goal kicker in the world game at the moment. Both teams have yet to decide on their best midfield partnerships and the players in line are pretty much of a muchness, it is only when you reach the back three that New Zealand are clearly dominant.

In the pack Coles would get my nod over Hartley but the best of the front rowers is again English with Marko Vunipola. Even the back row, usually an area of Kiwi dominance is well balanced with Read, Cane and Vito being matched by Robshaw, Haskell and Billy Vunipola with each team also having impressive back up players. In the second row once more New Zealand are dominant with Retallick and Whitelock the best pairing in world rugby, yet England’s Itoje clearly showed in the summer he has the potential to match them.

So would England have beaten the All Blacks?

Honestly I don’t know. At the moment I think the All Blacks are the better team but not by much and the fact these matches are played at the end of the southern hemisphere season arguably does have an effect on the southern hemisphere teams. But not as big an effect as kicking off a southern hemisphere the week after the Heineken Cup Final!

Finally, Tevita Kurindrani

Of course I wanted an England win, and a convincing one, but after that I was really hoping Kurindrani could have crossed to score the try which would have given him a personal slam by scoring in each of Australia’s Autumn International matches.

Autumn Internationals Round Up

Another round of the Autumn Internationals has come and gone and once more there are a few talking points and for once talk of dirty play and refereeing doesn’t centre on the All Blacks, who finished their year with a hard fought win over the French.

The All Blacks Finish Their Year Off With A Win

Although the All Blacks left Paris with a win and despite what he says to the press, Steve Hansen has to be a little concerned at the apparent closing of the gap between the All Blacks and the Northern Hemisphere teams. Coming off a dominant defence of their Rugby Championship no doubt the Kiwis were expecting to blast away their Northern Hemisphere opponents but, Italy aside, this has not been the case. Yes, the All Blacks got revenge against the Irish at the Aviva but this match is going to be remembered as a collection of what ifs. Fast forward a week to Paris and again, although the All Blacks were victorious, more questions than answers were raised, most notably:

  • Are the All Blacks as dangerous if both Israel Dagg and Ben Smith are missing? In my opinion no, they need at least one of these players on the pitch to provide the spark which can unpick opposing defences.
  • How important are Brode and Sam Whitelock? These two locks are going to go down as amongst the best who have ever played the game and it is a testament to their characters that they don’t complain when the ball players get the limelight. Along with Kieran Reid they are the reason why the All Black defence is so impressive. Like Dagg and Ben Smith, if they both get injured the All Blacks will find themselves missing a key component to what makes them so daunting
  • Has the Aaron Smith airport fiasco affected the player? Without a doubt but here at least there is some good news for the Kiwis. TJ Perenara, whilst not of Smith’s quality when the Highlander is at his best, is a more than capable replacement and would walk into most international sides.
  • Has this been a good year for the All Blacks? Not really. They may have won the World Rugby team of the year but in the last few weeks their aura of total dominance has slipped. Last year most people would have been surprised if France had run the All Blacks so close, at the weekend I don’t think too many people were surprised at all.
  • Should the All Blacks have won team of the year? Let’s wait and see what England do against Australia

The Red Cards and Penalties at Twickenham

England’s match against Argentina had more plot twists and considerably better acting than Shortland Street but what it also had was a group of officials who, in the main, had a good game and were not afraid of making the big decisions.

To send a player off after only five minutes takes balls as this could have completely ruined the game but Pascal Gauzere got the decision spot on. Elliot Daly may argue, and it must be noted that neither Daly or anyone associated with England are complaining about the decision, that the contact was accidental but it was foolish and most importantly dangerous and he deserved to be sent off because it was dangerous and not because of how the Argentinian player landed.

Later in the game there was a similar incident with Johnny May being taken out in the air but this only resulted in a penalty because May landed on his side. This is a ludicrous rule where the outcome of an act of dangerous play is taken into account when deciding on the punishment. A dangerous tackle is a dangerous tackle, intent may be considered but it doesn’t matter if one injures an opponent more than another, they should be both receive the same punishment. It is these types of grey areas in the game which I feel are letting the match officials down and allowing modern players to manage the referees.

Has the Northern Hemisphere pulled level with the Southern Hemisphere?

It is fair to say South Africa and Argentina will be heading home shell shocked by their performances on tour. To lose to England was perhaps expected, as the current incarnation of the Springboks is not even an average team compared to their predecessors, but to return to South Africa without a win has got to send shockwaves through the country.

Argentina may not have expected to win all of their matches they would have felt confident of beating Scotland and let’s be honest they lost against England despite playing against a team reduced to fourteen men after only five minutes.

Despite the soundbites Steve Hansen gives out he will not be too pleased with how their Northern tour panned out which just leaves Australia, who may yet claim to have had a successful tour if they manage to beat England at the weekend.

For years the Rugby Championship has been applauded whilst the Six Nations has been derided on this side of the equator but in the last month England, Ireland and even Scotland and Wales have shown that when they play their games against the supposed Southern Hemisphere heavyweights they can compete and win. These game plans may not always be successful all of the time but they will be more successful more often than trying to play the likes of New Zealand and Australia at their own games.

Team of the Week

After all I have just written about the Southern Hemisphere teams you may be surprised I am nominating one as my team of the week but Tonga deserve to be mentioned for their thrilling last minute win over Italy.

It has been well documented in the press about how Tier 2 teams don’t get the big games they deserve so to see Tonga get the win in Padua was fantastic. Italy being in the Six Nations hasn’t really worked for them yet, and I would be great to see the likes of Georgia being able to challenge for their place but the lack of matches the Pacific Island teams play is an injustice. I know there will be financial constraints but expanding the Rugby Championship to include the winners of a pre-tournament, tournament amongst the likes of Japan, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga would allow these countries to have more games and provide a carrot to strive towards.

The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Awards

All is right in the world of New Zealand rugby once more, the aberration of a defeat to an Irish team who had never previously beaten the all-conquering All Blacks is in the past as another unbeaten run beckons and at the World Rugby Awards last week New Zealand picked up team, coach and player of the year.

With Italy vanquished the All Blacks attention turns to revenge next Saturday as they prepare to avenge the ignominy of a defeat in America, where they travelled to demonstrate to one of the world’s largest sporting economies that they are THE team in world rugby. It is hard to argue with the confident vibes coming out of the All Black camp after a second string New Zealand thoroughly demolished an abject Italian team but it must be noted that this current incarnation of Roman rugby is at the start of yet another new dawn and as such anything other than a walloping would have been a bad result for the men in black. The real test of whether all is good with New Zealand rugby will take place in Dublin at the weekend against a coach who is more than capable of outthinking Steve Hansen, which leads me to the World Rugby Awards.

Breakthrough Player of the Year

I admit as an England supporter I am biased but the one award I have no issues with was Maro Itoje who won breakthrough player of the year. Itoje was one of the standout players in the summer tests against Australia and the player I am most excited in seeing, fitness permitting, when the British Lions tour New Zealand next year. An honourable mention has to go Ardie Savea who, along with Itoje, could in the future be challenging year after year for the main award.

Player of the Year

Listening to New Zealand rugby commentators you would be justified in believing Beauden Barrett was Jesus’ more successful brother. In their eyes the Hurricanes fly half can do wrong and whilst Barrett was a key member in his team’s maiden Super Rugby championship he did mistakes and although personally I cannot stand the player I believe Dan Coles has been a bigger influence for both club and country than his teammate. In addition, Owen Farrell has had a stellar international season and for me it would be a straight fight between the All Black hooker and the English goal kicker.

Team of the Year

This is where I begin to question the World Rugby awards. True, New Zealand had an impressive year, they won, and were unbeaten, in their international championship but so were England. They beat Australia three times, but so did England, and so far they have only lost once this year but so did . . . In fact England are still unbeaten this year yet I feel the international rugby team of the year should have gone to the Fiji sevens team who not only won the World Sevens Series but also picked up their country’s first ever Olympic gold medal, if the rugby authorities are really interested in growing the world game they need to ensure they look outside of New Zealand’s shores. This was the fifth time in a row that the All Blacks have won this award and whilst I agree for the four previous years they have easily been deserved winners, this year two more deserving teams have been overlooked.

Coach of the Year

Finally, on a similar theme to the Team of the Year, I do not believe Steve Hansen was one of the top two coaches in World Rugby this year. His All Black team came into 2016 in a position of strength, world champions and easily the best team in the world and will leave it as world champions and probably the best team in the world, in short in relative terms they have gone backwards. In contrast Eddie Jones’ record with England has been just as impressive yet his England team have gone from being a laughing stock to possibly the only genuine challengers to the All Blacks.

But yet again I feel World Rugby should have looked outside the traditional rugby super powers and rewarded Ben Ryan for the achievements and the pride he has instilled in Fijian rugby.

The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Team of the Year – Fiji Sevens

The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Coach of the Year – Ben Ryan

The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Player of the Year – Dan Coles

The Lemon Giraffe Rugby Breakthrough  of the Year – Maro Itoje

Was Warren Gaitland Right?

Last week the newly appointed British Lions coach, Warren Gaitland, began the mudslinging a little earlier than usual for next year’s British Lions tour by criticising the Kiwi coach, the team and the Kiwi rugby public. Whilst anyone with half a brain cell must surely understand his comments were nothing more than the opening salvo in a psychological war which will rage for the next eight months did Gaitland’s comments actually have any merit?

  • Anyone in New Zealand could coach the All Blacks?

Whilst I admit I wouldn’t be up to the job, Gaitland does have a point. The talent pool from which New Zealand can select their team is staggering in its depth and all of the players who progress to wear the Black shirt are natural rugby players who are able evaluate how a game should be played and are able to implement the strategies required. Allayed to the players is a structure of coaches who are responsible for different facets of the game and with this in mind it is fair to question whether Steve Hansen’s job is more to do with man management and the big picture, phrases which you associate more with briefcases and suits than tracksuits.

In addition to this you have to acknowledge that most of the top rugby playing nations currently are the weakest they have been in a number of years. Whilst Australia dismantled Gaitland’s own Wales, a result which says more about Wales than Australia, the Wallabies were truly awful earlier this year. South Africa only just managed a draw with the Barbarians and whilst Ireland are probably the closest challengers to the current England team in the northern hemispehere, they are nowhere near as good as they were a couple of years ago.

  • Are Kiwis arrogant when it comes to rugby

The short answer is no, well at least the rugby public aren’t. I have attended many rugby matches here in New Zealand and the rugby going public can be best described as knowledgeable and fair. Yes, they know they are the best in the world but they like to see rugby played well and will freely admit when another nation plays well.

The problems arise when you take a step up the rugby pyramid and look at the administration and press around the All Black machine. Here, once more, they are extremely knowledgeable but there is a belief that the Kiwi way is not just the right way but the only way. In today’s sport there is a common misconception that to beat the best you have to play like the best which is why I suspect England used to be so loathed on these shores, we didn’t use to play the Kiwi way.

When you consider the press you also have to deal with the double standards which they employ, a high tackle is usually a certain red card if committed against the All Blacks whilst if the referee or TMO is lenient towards the Kiwis then they are often applauded by the commentators. I know this bias is prevalent throughout sport but in New Zealand it is mandatory and if the All Blacks lose it will continue to the end of time, just ask Wayne Barnes.

Being the best always brings a Fergie effect from the referees but is amusing how much column and air time is taken to justify the referee’s mistakes when they are in the All Blacks’ favour. An example occurred in New Zealand’s recent match against Australia when the Wallabies had a try ruled out for interference. After the referee had awarded the try, and whilst Bernard Foley was lining up to take the kick, the TMO intervened and pointed to an alleged infraction, which in the end Nigel Jones, the referee, was forced to accept against what appeared to be his better judgement. I say alleged because the Wallaby player should have rights to get on the outside of his player and in the end any obstruction did not stop the try being scored, yet I was forced to listen to the Kiwi commentators justifying the TMO’s decision for what seemed like the rest of the match. Thank god for the clowns otherwise I’d probably still be listening to it.

You may ask what the last point has to do with arrogance but my point is that the All Black media expect their view to be shared by the rest of the wold. The try should not have been allowed and the All Blacks would have won the world cup without the intervention of Wayne Barnes.

And then there is the implied criticisms, especially when the All Blacks are losing a game! If the Lions do, heaven forbid, look like they have a chance of winning count how many times a player is referenced by the country of his birth, as in Mark Vunipola the Kiwi born prop, even though the current All Black squad contains half a dozen Pacific Islanders and an Australian.

I have deliberately avoided discussing whether the All Black players are arrogant because as professional sportsmen they have to, by nature, contain a certain amount of arrogance in their make-up. Any sportsman must believe they are going to win otherwise what is the point of stepping onto the field of play?

So no, I don’t believe the New Zealand rugby public are arrogant and I think the All Black players have to be, but I do think Warren Gaitland is correct when you consider the media and personalities that hover like gadflies but unlike in Socrates’ time they have not the slightest interest in the truth.

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?