Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Am I slightly cynical or did the “Project Manager” Roger Clark play a blinder with the late-Friday afternoon announcement of the demise of Highlanders coach Glenn Moore?

It was rugby’s worst kept secret but the timing on the eve of the final Carisbrook test meant that any backlash, sympathy or disappointment at Moore’s non-reappointment was buried by the occasion.

Throw in all the hoopla around the Soccer (I can’t bring myself to call it football) World Cup and Moore’s axing was confined to the small print of the papers and the end of sports bulletins in the electronic media.

I have a degree of sympathy for Moore. He had, without doubt, the least talent to call on of any of the New Zealand franchises and during his unsuccessful three year tenure I would hate to think of the number of games lost within the seven-point margin.

Jamie Joseph looks odds-on to be his replacement for one of the tougher jobs in New Zealand sport, with Simon Culhane his assistant. Geographically that’s a good Otago/Southland split and it leaves David Henderson free to plot Southland’s defense of the Ranfurly Shield.

Besides if the Henderson/Culhane combo was chosen alongside Project Manager Clark, then the Highlanders may as well pack up, relocate to Rugby Park Stadium and call themselves the South-Landers. Leicester Rutledge could manage the side, Jimmy Cowan and Jamie Mackintosh already call the shots on the paddock, so only the appointment of Craig Morton to carry the drinks (and he’s had plenty of practice) would be needed to complete the Southland mafia.

And then what would become of the new permanently-enclosed Dunedin Stadium? At $180 million-plus it’s a hell of an expensive hot-house for growing tomatoes post the Rugby World Cup.

* Like many fair weather fans I’m loving the Soccer World Cup, if not the nocturnal viewing times. The beautiful game is aptly named because of the athleticism, balance, grace, poise and pace of its proponents. Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo in full flight is a thing of beauty and off the pitch the females in our office tell me he makes Dan Carter look like an ugly duckling!

Like many workplaces we have an office sweepstake on the World Cup. Currently of the 14 entrants, I’m second-to-last, having used the FIFA rankings as the basis for my predictions. Our receptionist, who made her random selections on the good looks of the South Americans and the nice sounding names of various countries is leading the pack.

And therein lies the beauty of the beautiful game! Easy to watch, easy to understand and easy on the eye.

P.S. Here’s my favourite English soccer joke:

Fabio Capello was wheeling his shopping trolley across the supermarket car park when he noticed an old lady struggling with her bags of shopping. He stopped and asked, "Can you manage, dear?" to which the old lady replied, "No way! You got yourself into this mess, don't ask me to sort it out."
Tomorrow night we farewell Carisbrook, one of the grand old venues of New Zealand test rugby.

Test match rugby was first played in Dunedin in 1905 against Australia but that battle was waged at Tahuna Park. Carisbrook had to wait until the 1908 clash against the Anglo-Welsh.

In the intervening 102 years there have many great test matches. The Springboks mauling the New Zealand front row in 1956, Don Clarke kicking six penalty goals to sink the 1959 Lions, Barry John extracting revenge for the Lions in 1971 by kicking (literally) Fergie McCormick out of test rugby and Bevan Wilson’s brilliant debut against the 1977 Lions are just four that readily spring to mind.

However if I had to pick a favourite it would be June 15, 1996, when the All Blacks walloped Scotland 62-31.

With the exception of Scott McLeod, who was filling in for Walter Little, this was arguably the greatest All Blacks team of all time:

Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson, Frank Bunce, McLeod, Jonah Lomu, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall, Zinzan Brooke, Josh Kronfeld, Michael Jones, Robin Brooke, Ian Jones, Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick and Craig Dowd (three weeks later, with Little back on board, this team produced the finest All Blacks performance I have ever seen in the 43-6 drubbing of Australia at Athletic Park).

The undoubted highlight of the Scotland game was the four brilliant tries scored by Cullen in only his second All Black test (he got three in his debut against Western Samoa a week earlier).

The other reason I fondly remember the match is because it was my (and Lee Piper’s) debut as a test match radio commentator. Our careers were brief.

My only playing experience at Carisbrook was for a slightly worse-for-wear Gore St Mary’s team in the 1983 South Island Marist tournament. We played for the wooden spoon against a West Coast team and our only claim to fame was hauling in former New Zealand fast bowler Brendan Bracewell, who was a barman at the pub where the team was staying, into our playing ranks.

My only contribution to the game was a long-range dropped goal attempt that ricocheted off the woodwork.

Years later Piper and I were discussing our Carisbrook experiences (he tragically lost all his Otago representative rugby photos in a house fire) and he was bemoaning his first experience on the ‘Brook as a 13 year old ball boy for the South Island Marist tournament.

He said how he was gutted to miss out on being selected for ball boy duties for the Christchurch Marist v Dunedin grand final, instead being landed with some losers from Gore in the play-off for last place. The only thing he could remember about the game was the Brendan Bracewell cameo appearance and a dropped goal that hit the upright from a long way out.

It’s a small world eh?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Is it just me or does tomorrow’s first All Blacks line up of the year have a less-than-invincible look about it?

Admittedly Graham Henry can, unlike this time 12 months ago, call on the services of his two marquee players, but after Richie McCaw and Dan Carter the cupboard has a slight Mother Hubbard look to it.

Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Reid, Jimmy Cowan, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane are now proven performers. I really like the cut of youngsters Owen Franks and Israel Dagg. But the jury is surely still out on Ben Franks, Anthony Boric, Benson Stanley and Joe Rokocoko.

Piri Weepu and Neemia Tialata (who I’ve never rated) aside, there’s blessed little experience on the bench. While I don’t expect the injury-plagued Irish to taste victory for the first time in over a century, this is an All Blacks side that would not beat the Boks and could well struggle against Robbie Deans’ up and coming Aussies.

* Otago rugby has gone back to the future by naming Des Smith manager. Smith managed Otago during a golden period and his appointment is yet another example of what a cunning choice Aussie Phil Mooney might end up being.

Initially Mooney was greeted with howls of derision but the former Queensland coach has not put a foot wrong thus far. He was smart enough to realize he needed the iconic David Latta on deck and with a board headed by Wayne Graham and Laurie Mains, he has some real rugby grunt behind him.

I’d suggest Southland’s defense of the Ranfurly Shield has just got a little more difficult. Not only do we have to face the might of Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington later in the season, we’ve also got to get past Counties Manukau with the possible prospect of Sonny Bill Williams and Tana Umaga in the midfield.

Throw in a rejuvenated Otago and August 7 at Rugby Park promises to be day not to be missed!

* I’ve just returned from a week’s golfing holiday in the Fijian sun. The weather was stunning, the beer expensive and my holiday reading could not be more contrasting.

If you haven’t already, you must read Andre Agassi’s best-selling Open. Agassi’s life story is a cracking read, from his tough upbringing in Las Vegas, to his love affairs with Brooke Shields and Steffi Graf, to his absolute disdain for the likes of Jimmy Connors and Boris Becker. He’s a gifted, complex, caring, yet surprisingly needy and insecure character.

By comparison Chris Laidlaw’s take on modern rugby, Somebody Stole My Game, was so dry it threatened to combust upon opening. I’m surprised they let me on the plane with it.

Laidlaw is a very interesting and intelligent man. His early 1970s critique of rugby Mud In Your Eye is an absolute essential in any sporting library. I’m afraid his latest offering will go straight to the pool room.