Thursday, 25 June 2009

I worry about Wayne.

He’s been an integral part of two failed World Cup campaigns and once famously committed sporting suicide by publicly questioning his own qualifications to coach the All Blacks. That foolhardy lapse of judgment cost us a joyless journey with John Mitchell.

Sure Wayne Smith was a good All Black and is reportedly a nice bloke. Sure he’s passionate about rugby to the point of obsession and a real student of the game, its history and heritage. He’s also a highly technical analyst, as can be witnessed by his preoccupation with his laptop during Saturday’s test at the Cake Tin.

But is Wayne, his laptop and his failed backline experiments (think Isaia Toeava) the yellow brick road to rugby utopia? The answer is self evident when you count the miserly two tries the All Blacks backs have scored in the past two tests.

Then there’s the sushi in the All Blacks changing room in Wellington. Don’t get me wrong. I love sushi. But where’s the fear factor?

Call me old fashioned, out of touch, politically-incorrect, whatever! But I want the All Blacks to be gladiatorial warriors striking fear into the heart of the opposition. What’s next? Hors-d’oeuvres and canapés? Or maybe we put on a Devonshire Tea for Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha after the Springbok test?

And just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water again and trust Graham Henry, he blows his credibility by blowing a kiss in the direction of his beloved Mils Muliaina. Then he caps it off with a headmasterly display of the highest order, not telling his pupils they needed to beat France by six points or more to retain the Dave Gallagher trophy.

His excuse that he did not want to put added pressure on his young All Blacks side (who just happened to have more test caps than the French) does not wash. For goodness sake, they are the All Blacks! They should eat pressure for breakfast before dining on raw meat for lunch!

We are just over two years out from the World Cup. Can anyone, hand on heart, say they reckon the three wise men can bring home the bacon? We are too dependent on two marquee players and as soon as Robbie Deans finds two props we might find ourselves chopped liver!

I hope I’m wrong. Bring back Jimmy!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

I love test weekend. A few beers, a bash of golf and some male bonding.

As was the case for last year’s Springbok clash, Dunedin came to the party for test weekend. The Octagon on Friday night was humming and, straight off the plane from the Mystery Creek Fieldays, I had the good pleasure of the company of some of Invercargill’s finest business elite and some of Riversdale’s rugby royalty.

Lights out at 2-30am turned into a rude awakening at 7am for tee-off at Balmacewen at 8am on a gloriously fine Dunedin morning, the first such occurrence since February.

My first hack for a several weeks resulted in a well-compiled 98. And as lousy as that sounds for a 12 handicapper it was still good enough to defeat Rugby Southland’s dynamic duo of Roger Clark and Craig Morton for the beer haggle. The result was a damning indictment of all involved!

Worse was to follow. Behind us was a foursome causing much consternation for the Balmacewen officials, almost resulting in a red-carding for slow play. Greg Mulvey, superb gentleman that he is, would have to be the most pedantic golfer to have ever pulled graced a green.

Watching him painfully standing over the golf ball going through his pre-shot routine, conjured comparisons to the David Bain jury, which was much quicker to deliver a result. And while Mulvey’s playing partner, Wayne Sutherland, is no Usain Bolt on the fairways, by comparison he’s a lightning bolt.

Following the golf was a client function where guest speaker Laurie Mains said Adam Thomson, fine player though he is, was too loose and would not make enough breakdowns. Bingo Lozza!

Then it was on to Carisbrook which, like the Octagon 24 hours earlier, was electric. Dunedin mayor Peter Chin belted out a splendid rendition of the national anthem. I haven’t felt such nationalistic fervor at a test match since the third British Lions test of 1993. Then the game kicked off and ruined it all.

As disappointing as the All Blacks’ performance was, it wasn’t the low point of the evening. That belonged to the dickheads on terrace who pelted the magnanimous French side with bottles as they tried to complete a much-deserved victory lap of Carisbrook. Not much better was the booing of the French goal kicker.

As a rugby nation we have some growing up to do. On and off the field.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

They bombed the Rainbow Warrior and torpedoed two Rugby World Cups but surely it’ll be France sinking without trace tomorrow night. Despite that, it will be a great occasion at a great old ground, albeit one facing its last rites.

My memories of the grand old lady, Carisbrook, date back to 1969 when my father took me to watch the touring Welsh side beat Otago 27-9 (Strangely the only Otago player I could remember was a bloke Hunter on the wing. When New Zealand 800 metres champion, Bruce Hunter, was selected for the All Blacks tour to South Africa the following year, I naturally assumed they were one and the same. But a check of the programme revealed my man was actually one Gordon Hunter, who later went on to coaching greatness).

Wales included the likes of Barry John, Gareth Edwards, John Dawes, Gerald Davies and JPR Williams in its ranks but was no match for the All Blacks, losing the two tests 19-0 and 33-12 (with Fergie McCormick scoring a world record 24 points in the latter).
Two years later the Welsh wizards were back with the all-conquering Lions and with the help of Mike Gibson and David Duckham, formed the greatest backline ever to grace New Zealand soil.

I begged my father to take me to the first test at Carisbrook. Mercifully he didn’t, as Barry John cruelly finished McCormick’s test career with a brilliant display of tactical kicking, the Lions prevailing 9-3.

My next trip to the ‘Brook wasn’t until 1979 to cheer on Ken Stewart in his comeback game in the unofficial test against the Pumas, the New Zealand XV winning a dour encounter 18-9. My abiding memory of that game was Stewart smashing the great Hugo Porta – hard and late!

In the intervening years my test match appearances (as a spectator only, unfortunately) in Dunedin have followed at regular intervals, although I can lay claim to making my debut (as a radio commentator) for the Independent Radio Rugby Network in the first Scottish test of 1996.

They say you never forget your first test and I’ll certainly never forget this one. A week earlier, in the first ever night test played in New Zealand, a young Christian Cullen scored three sensational tries against Samoa. At Carisbrook he went one better with four stunners as the Scots were hammered 62-31.

A year later I was in the commentary box again when Cullen scored one of the great All Blacks tries in the bizarre 36-24 win (after leading 36-nil at the break) over the Wallabies.

A dozen years on and I’ve been put out to pasture in the corporate box. I’ll still be offering expert comment but this time there’ll be no listeners, only fellow experts!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

It’s an old cliché, I know, but you should never judge a book by its cover. I can think of several sporting examples of yours truly being guilty of just that.

All Black Adam Thomson’s acquittal on the assault of his girlfriend is a good example. Late last year, when the allegations were made, I wrongfully assumed his guilt. An acquaintance of mine, who played a considerable role in Thomson’s development, admonished me for having such thoughts. Thomson, he declared, was not only an outstanding athlete and rugby player, he was an outstanding young man of irrefutable character.

I feel bad about slagging him off now. Sorry about that Adam!

A broadcasting competitor, Richard Loe, is another who springs to mind. I had played some age-grade rugby against him when he was a man amongst boys but other than that my impression of him was formed by what I had gleaned from television watching him crush Paul Carozza’s nose and eye-gouge Greg Cooper.

Yet, off the field, Loe is a very intelligent, engaging and charismatic character despite what you might think of his on-the-field antics.

I feel bad about slagging him off now. Sorry about that Richard!

I once recall, with the blissful ignorance of relative youth, referring to John Hart on radio as a “divisive little snipe”. Last year I met him in his professional capacity and a more charming and personable man you would not meet.

I feel bad about slagging him off now. Sorry about that John!

This week I had the good fortune to interview a current All Black I genuinely admire and would never think of slagging off.

Admiration is largely the domain of the young. Most of my All Black idols (Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, Ian Kirkpatrick and Earle Kirton) belong to a bygone era. There’s something slightly sad about admiring someone nearly young enough to be your son, but with Richie McCaw I’ve made an exception.

The injured All Blacks captain is man of mana, the modern-day equivalent of a Sir Wilson Whineray or a Sir Brian Lochore. His knighthood could come as early as the New Year’s Honours List of 2012 if he brings home the World Cup bacon in 2011.

What’s more McCaw told me he listened to the Farming Show on Radio Sport.
I feel good about not slagging him off now. Thanks for that Richie!