Thursday, 25 February 2010

While it’s too early to write the obituary for the Highlanders, I can’t help but feel the narrow loss to the Blues at Carisbrook could prove fatal.

An away game against the Crusaders is a tough way to start any Super 14 campaign and three matches on the road in the heat and height of South Africa is one hell of a hurdle to leap.

The window of opportunity was the Blues game. In a brave effort to woo a diminishing fan base, the Highlanders played well enough to win, but didn’t. A case of déjà vu all over again!

And while the on-field performance still offers some hope, the head office once again leaves a sour taste. I was not alone last week in not having calls returned from the Highlanders media liaison officer, who is doing a wonderful job in media prevention for a struggling franchise I’d have thought needs all the profile it can get.

The players themselves are fine, providing you can get to them. But it does say something about rugby in this country when it’s easier to talk to the Prime Minister than a player.

* On a winning note, former Southland Times sports editor Lynn McConnell really has struck gold with his Jack Lovelock book Conquerors Of Time.

As chronicled last week, the story revolves around the 1932-36 period and looks at the lives of Lovelock and his rivals for gold in the 1500 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. His two main rivals were the Italian Luigi Beccali (who won gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932) and the superstar American Glenn Cunningham, whom many considered the favourite for Berlin.

The chapter on Cunningham makes compelling reading. Growing up on a remote farm in Kansas, Cunningham triumphed over terrible childhood burns in 1917 that left one leg shorter than the other and took several years of constant self-massage before he was able to maintain balance, let alone run properly.

He escaped another childhood brush with death by hanging on to a cow’s tail in a snow blizzard (a practice he’d developed during his recovery process to help regain his balance), the family cow getting him home safely to the barn when he would’ve otherwise perished.

Then in 1928, as his athletics career was starting to flourish, a high school baseball accident saw him ignore the ongoing pain of several loosened teeth. It was only when he undertook a medical for entry into the US Navy at the advent of the Second World War that the full extent of the injury was realized.

His teeth were badly abscessed, the dentist saying with all that poison flowing into his system, it was a wonder he could walk during his athletic career, let alone run through the constant pain he’d wrongly associated to his legs!

For the record, Cunningham finished second to Lovelock in Berlin with Beccali third. Sports historians will thoroughly enjoy Conquerors Of Time.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Jimmy Cowan’s re-signing with the Stags is obviously great news for Southland rugby but it was tempered by the confirmation Jason Kawau may well have pulled on the maroon jersey for the last time.

Cowan is undoubtedly Southland’s marquee player and despite his modest protestations about not feeling like he’s an established All Black, 2009 saw him cement the hitherto hotly-contested number 9 jersey from Piri Weepu, Brendon Leonard and Andy Ellis.

I don’t know what you think but I reckon, in recent seasons, Cowan has played his best rugby for the All Blacks and not the Stags? That’s not to say he’s played badly for Southland. Far from it! He’s inspirational, his courage beyond reproach, his defense insurmountable, but I’ve sometimes felt he’s taken on too much himself whereas with the All Blacks he only has to worry about his job as he is surrounded by excellence.

I read with interest Logan Savory’s column yesterday about Kawau and have to take issue with his comment that he wouldn’t rate him as one of the better players he’d seen go through the Southland set up and that he lacked the flair some of his team-mates possessed.

Logan, Logan, Logan! Sure Kawau is not Jeff Wilson or Robbie Robinson but he has in bucket loads that most endearing quality of all good second five-eighths. A safe pair of hands – metaphorically as well as literally. And a better passing midfield back, save maybe Steve Pokere, I’ve yet to see in a Southland jersey.

Cowan is star of the Southland backline but Kawau, the shearer’s son from Balfour, has been the guts of it for the past five years. He will be sorely missed.

* I love getting sports books in the post. I’m like a kid unwrapping a Christmas present. Yesterday’s offering in the mail was Conqueror’s of Time by former Southland Times sports editor Lynn McConnell.

It’s the story of Jack Lovelock, describing the period between the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and Berlin four years later where Lovelock was victorious after his previously disappointing seventh placing in LA.

McConnell’s latest literary effort brings, to three, my total of Lovelock books, alongside As If Running On Air by David Colquhoun and Lovelock by James McNeish.
It promises to be yet another fascinating insight into one of the more intriguing sports figures of the 20th century.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

‘ Tis the silly season!

While most of us are still thinking about Twenty20 cricket, the Highlanders kick off their Twenty10 campaign in that most English of New Zealand cities, Christchurch, tomorrow night. You can’t help but sympathize with Jimmy, Jamie and the other Bravehearts for having a Mel Gibson moment as they charge into battle.

The Crusaders might be warm favourites at the TAB, but I’m not prepared to write off the southerners just yet. It’s rugby blasphemy, I know, but there’s an almost human look about the Crusaders forward pack with Brad Thorn starting off the bench, Wyatt Crockett, Corey Flynn and Chris Jack all injured and Richie McCaw watching from the Deans Stand.

Admittedly Dan Carter’s presence will do little for the southerners’ confidence, but they can take some consolation Sean Maitland is not starting on the wing in tandem with Zac Guildford. I’m picking these two speed demons will demonize all comers in the Super 14.

As for the Highlanders, there’s a more mature look about the team this year with All Blacks Tom Donnelly, Adam Thomson and Jamie Mackintosh anchoring a pretty useful forward pack. The question will be whether the other ABs, Jimmy Cowan and Ben Smith, can do likewise for a vanguard that’s been average, at best, in recent seasons.

While it’s disappointing Robbie Robinson is not getting a start (his time will surely come if the Highlanders are serious about sparking their backline), of more concern is the omission of Tim Boys from the playing 22. If there’s a better open-side flanker in the Highlanders, I’ve yet to see him.

Win, lose or draw in Christchurch, the true litmus test for the Highlanders will come next Friday night when they host the Blues at Carisbrook before embarking on their arduous South African tour. The Blues are beatable and if the home side is to win over the home fans - who’ve deserted the ‘Brook in droves in recent years - nothing less than victory will suffice, satisfy and save their season.

Let’s hope some of that successful Southland psyche has rubbed off on the southerners.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

This belated column was originally going to be a colour piece on the New Zealand Masters Games in Dunedin.

Tragically though, a dodgy knee put paid to my half marathon and indoor rowing aspirations, leaving only the less onerous events of golf and wine options (tasting) on my sporting itinerary.

Again, tragically, a morning tee off for my age group coupled with a desire not to add the burgeoning 7.3% unemployment figure, instead necessitated my entry in the afternoon competition with the 60-70 year olds (as a non-competitor). All of which rendered me ineligible for a medal, had my golfing prowess not already done so.

All was not lost, though, because I still I had wine options at 6-30pm to garner my gold! I can tell a red from a white, a chardy from a sav, as good as the next bloke, so I was in with a show until age again conspired against me. But this time it was in the form of the golfing group in front of us who moved at a pace more akin to 80-90 year olds than sprightly seniors 20 years more junior.

A very late finish, after more than five hours battering from the wind, the sun and the bone-dry Chisholm Park golf course, meant wine options at the Alhambra-Union rugby club on the other side of town was now no longer an option. That meant beer options in the golf clubhouse. Then it was home to watch the Halberg Awards on telly.

Always a source of controversy, for the presentation if not always the result, the Halbergs again didn’t disappoint in that regard. There were some nice touches. The show finale, a rap song mimicked by some of our leading sports stars including Valerie Vili, Mahe Drysdale, David Tua and Laura Langman, was very clever. And having Sir Murray Halberg, resplendent in all his bling, topped it off brilliantly.

Not so flash were some of performers who paid musical tributes to their respective decades. Ray Columbus is living proof growing old is not for sissies. His “Till We Kissed” rendition needed the kiss of life. Dave McCartney, from that great 70s band Hello Sailor, wasn’t much better.

Master of Ceremony Stephen McIvor is an acquired taste. I know it’s a Sky TV gig but it’s a shame we can’t have a real professional such as Peter Williams fronting our most prestigious sporting celebration.

I think Andrew Mulligan (Crowd Goes Wild) is a genuine talent but even he let the side down with some inane questioning. “How are you?” is a dumb opening question and asking Susan Devoy if she could’ve beaten Jahinghar Khan got the bollocking reply it deserved from the Dame.On a positive note, I’m glad the Evers-Swindell twins won the sports champion of the decade award. As athletes, they could well be inferior to Vili, Drysdale, Rob Waddell or Sarah Ulmer but you can’t argue against two successive Olympic gold medals. And the Halberg judges wisely didn’t.