Why the All Blacks can still win without Carter

The entire nation of New Zealand had a collective tightening of their sphincters upon hearing that Dan Carter injured his groin last Saturday. The fears were realised when it was announced on Sunday that he was out of the Rugby World Cup, replaced by Aaron Cruden.

Dan Carter is the best playmaker in world rugby. His ability to read and direct the game is equally matched by his tackling, and defensive skill. He is the highest points scorer in international rugby history, and is arguably one of the greatest All Blacks of all time. In essence he is irreplaceable, however he must be replaced.

Much debate has erupted about who should take over the playmaker role and wear the number 10 jersey, and what this means for the ABs shot at glory. Doomsayers stated the All Blacks cannot possibly win without the man known as ‘DC’. However I disagree and here’s why:

He’s just one man

The All Blacks are a great team from 1 to 15. A strong forward pack, tenacious loose-forwards and electrifying backs enable them to execute a gameplan based on winning and retaining ball, and the ability and strikepower to score from almost anywhere on the field.

There are standout players in most positions, and I expect they will show the leadership to step-up and push NZ deep into the tournament.

Carter is a massive loss, but whoever slots in at 10 will have the ability to execute the game plan – maybe a slightly simplified game plan. Knowing the strike force outside you in the back would be a massive fillip. All that is required is balanced decision making, not trying anything to flashy, and executing the basics and knowing the star players will do the rest.

Knockout games will be won in the forwards

The key to winning the knockout games will be the winning and retention of the ball. Having a good forward pack to compete at the breakdown and win the set-pieces is the key. New Zealand has the most dynamic loose forward trio and an excellent scrummaging pack.

I firmly believe the All Blacks will win the game in the forwards when it matters.

The competition

The All Blacks have looked strong throughout the pool play. The percieved major threats – Australia, South Africa, England and France – haven’t looked all that exciting.

Even if the All Blacks don’t play to the best of their ability I still believe they have the goods to beat all of these teams.

The biggest threat is from South Africa, but they too are hurting after the loss of Frans Steyn. If the All Blacks compete with their hulking forwards, they will outclass them in the backs.

The home ground advantage

The All Blacks record at home speaks for itself. Playing the quarterfinal and potential semis and the final at the fortress of Eden Park cannot be understated.

The last time they lost there was in 1994. In 1994 the NZ population was 3.6m, Jim Bolger was Prime Minister, Once Were Warriors was just released, and the Auckland Warriors hadn’t even joined the NRL!

The All Blacks lift at Eden Park. It’s their spiritual home and hopefully where they will raise the William Webb Ellis Cup on October 23rd

Rugby Word Cup Digest #2

Halfway home!

Well after just over two weeks, we have seen half the matches of Rugby World Cup 2011 played. There have been some fantastic games so far, and a fair few points of interest.

Contenders kick into gear

After some strong showings by the minnow nations in the early games, the elite teams have put them to the sword as they build towards the knockout stages. New Zealand dismantled Japan – albeit a weaker Japanese side who are saving their best players for more winnable matches, and South Africa and Australia duly dealt to weakened Namibian and USA teams respectively.

In fact a lot of the smaller nations are targeting games they can win. This in some respects is a pity for their top players who don’t get to challenge themselves against the best, but these nations needs some wins to keep getting funding and sponsorship at home.

Goal kicking

After the first games there was a lot of talk about the Gilbert Virtuo ball, and how kickers (especially 2003 England hero Jonny Wilkinson) were finding it difficult to kick. All of this talk seems to have died down in recent games however.

The big talking point for me at this stage is the Australian goalkickers. Against USA, Quade Coopers goalkicking was decidedly sub-par. The injection of Berrick Barnes righted that ship, and it’s impossible to see how he can be left out of the team. With Australia midfield injuries, Barnes will slot nicely into the no.12 jumper to provide a steadying influence outside Cooper, and a much more reliable goalkicker.

Referees

The overall standard of refereeing continues to impress me. The refs are being very consistent around the tackle ball and ruck, and this is allowing players to adapt and use the ball well. Refereeing of scrums whilst at time frustrating has been quite consistent. Teams going backward who drop the scrum or stand up, and incorrect binds (especially tighthead props binding on the arm of the opposition loosehead) are correctly penalised.

This is allowing open and entertaining rugby if teams can maintain accuracy and possession.

The Contenders

Finally my thoughts on the teams that are in the mix to lift the cup on October 23rd.

New Zealand

The All Blacks continue to build towards the knockout stages. Their strong showing against France has regained the favoritism that waned after the loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane. Good ball retention in the forwards, and slick work in the backs, along with improved set-pieces makes them dangerous in all phases. Their defence against the French onslaught at the start of the game was highly impressive. With Kieran Read still to return, they will only get stronger.

Why they will win: The All Blacks just look too strong in all facets of the game, and they have plenty of room for improvement.
Why the won’t win: It’s a World Cup. One bad knockout game will see the quadrennial pain return for all New Zealanders

Australia

After a loss to Ireland many have written the Wallabies off. However, this will have acted to steel them and refocus their campaign. It will also have helped in showing them the areas of their game that need to be worked on. They were much improved against the USA, but I felt they spread the ball wide too early, and haven’t put enough work into dominating up front.

Why they will win: Australians love a challenge and the RWC is the ultimate challenge in rugby terms. A returning David Pocock and smart tactical play from Berrick Barnes will see them start to dictate to other sides during the knockout games.
Why they won’t win: Simply not good enough in the forwards to secure enough front-foot ball against the stronger teams. Scrum is again being exposed as the weak underbelly.

South Africa

The Boks are hitting good form at the right times. Frans Steyn really look good at either 15 or 13, and Morne Steyn’s educated boot allows them to play the game on their terms. Bismarck du Plessis is easily the scariest man at the World Cup. He is not happy sitting on the bench behind John Smit, and this anger shows through when he comes on the field and tears through the opposition.

Why they will win: Mad professor coach Peter de Villiers has played things perfectly. Having du Plessis and Francois Hougaard coming off the bench against tiring teams will see them run right over the top of anyone before them.
Why they won’t win: not enough imagination, and no plan ‘B’ if they are starved of ball up front

England

After a rusty start England were much improved against Romania. They have some talented outside backs, and the usual English grind in the forwards.

Why they will win: Coming through the ‘easier’ side of the knockout draw, the likes of Tuilagi and Cueto will burn through the backline of whoever has been bashed up in the more difficult games on the other side of the draw.
Why they won’t win: Boring old England. Trying to relive 2003 with Jonny while a far superior player in Toby Flood is on the pine will only spell doom.

France

Les Bleus will be knocked back following their loss to the team they refer to as the black beast (bete noir). However they will still play in the knockout stages and will push England closely in a Quarter final.

Why they will win: They have nothing to lose. They will thrown the kitchen sink at their remaining games, and a little bit of luck and a tonne of flair will see them challenge for the Webb Ellis cup.
Why they won’t win: Stage fright against England will see them topple out in a QF.

Ramifications of the Wallabies loss

The Wallabies loss in their Pool C encounter with Ireland has pundits exclaiming that Rugby World Cup 2011 has been turned on it’s head. The brilliant display by the Irish forward pack really left the Aussies shellshocked, and they didn’t seem to have an answer – or a Plan B.

But what does this mean for the rest of the tournament?

Well the obvious result is that Ireland are likely to win Pool C – assuming they get past Italy – and will face the 2nd place team in Pool D, which on form is likely to be Wales. That will leave a likely Australia vs South Africa quarter final with the winner likely to play the All Blacks in a semifinal.

At the end of the day if you want to win a World Cup you need to be able to beat top teams. If Australia are to triumph they will need to beat both of their tri-nations counterparts, and if they achieve this feat they will deserve the title of World Champions.

New Zealand were originally going to need to beat both South Africa and Australia, but now it’s likely that they will only need to beat one of them. Although this looks easier on paper, it will still be a one off game that they will have to fight very hard to win.

This loss does not spell doom for Australia, and expect them to be there near the pointy end of the tournament. However, the Irish have shown that the key to beating this Wallaby team is to take them on and bash them up in the forwards, deny Genia and Cooper front-foot ball and force them into trying to change the pace of the game.

I have longed believed that one of Robbie Deans’ weaknesses as a coach is his poor management of the reserves bench. This again came to the fore last night. His forwards were struggling and needed an injection of fresh legs, but the reinforcements arrived too late. Scott Higginbotham is a dynamic player and should almost be pushing for a start in this current Wallaby line-up.

Quade Cooper deserves a special mention for yet another ridiculous no-look flick pass in the dying minutes. This guy has ‘Carlos Spencer’ written all over him, and expect more big errors as the pressure piles on him later in the tournament.

Expect the Australians to play a more possession based game in their final pool matches. If they are serious about developing they will have to play a forwards oriented game to prepare for South Africa and New Zealand.

Rugby World Cup Digest #1

Well the Rugby World Cup kicked off in New Zealand last Friday, and it was great to see a vibrant opening ceremony with a distinct Polynesian flavour. There were some cracking games over the first few days and here are some of my thoughts on what transpired.

Minnows bare teeth

Previous World Cups have often been plagued by early games where the powerhouse nations ran riot over the patsies, often running up cricket scores in the process. It was good to see some really spirited performances by these smaller nations. Key things I liked about the ‘minnows’:
* Tonga’s 2nd half against the All Blacks – particularly where they camped in the AB’s 22 and piled on the pick-and-drive
* Romania’s beastly forward pack – led admirably by Marius Tincu – their scrummaging was old school tough
* Namibia’s first-five Theuns Kotze and his massive boot. Whilst other whined about the ball he just slotted droppies at will. I expect to see him in a SuperRugby franchise in the next few years
* Japan and USA not taking backward steps against higher ranked opposition

Refereeing Standards

I felt the refs were excellent in the opening rounds. They stuck to their guns with the five key areas discussed prior to the World Cup by refs boss Paddy O’Brien. They were accurate and consistent within the game.

As for the Wayne Barnes Welsh penalty kick controversy I think people need to respect the decision made on the field. Judging whether or not a kick went over – especially as it was above the height of the goalposts – is best done directly under the posts. Vinny Munro was the assistant under that post and I believe he made the correct call. Video evidence from afar can often deceive. As Welsh coach Warren Gatland pointed out, the Welsh missed other opportunities to win the game.

The English Jersey Debacle

Much has been mentioned about the English choosing to wear black. I don’t care too much either way about that, but if Nike and the RFU wanted to make a statement it failed miserably as the numbers kept peeling off the backs of players. I imagine there were a few hasty phonecalls and emails sent during and after the game. With Nike eyeing an extended contract with the RFU they will be hoping to sort it all out prior to England’s next game against Georgia.

On the subject of uniforms, it’s refreshing to see strips that are devoid of advertising. I have always respected the major sports in the USA, which although very commercial, keep the uniforms sacrosanct.

Dunedin’s fabulous new stadium

After much controversy in the planning I think the people of Dunedin and Otago really have a stadium to be proud of. Not only is it very nicely designed, the cauldron-like atmosphere there was palpable even through the TV. Can’t wait to see more games there.

Games coming up

Hard to see any upsets in this weeks games, but look to Fiji to push the South Africans all the way. If the Bula Boys can maintain their discipline and play their trademark power game we could see an entertaining contest. Not one the South Africans will be looking forward to!

I’m looking forward to the ‘Cold War’ battle between USA and Russia. Two very proud nations will be looking for bragging rights. The last time these teams met in June it was a close affair with the USA winning by seven points. Look for the battle up front and at the breakdown to be key. I think Todd Clever the USA no.7 will be too good and the USA will win, but by less than a converted try.

Until next time……

Injury taken into account – but not common sense

Jake King is the latest to fall victim to a ridiculous ruling by the AFL Match Review Panel (MRP), who have given him a one-match ban. It seems the decision was based primarily on the fact that the Adelaide medical reports stated that Andy Otten was concussed (although they didn’t attribute the concussion directly to the tackle).

I think the AFL and the MRP get it completely wrong when they take injury into account when assessing incidents and possible penalties. Under the heading of ‘impact’ the MRP considers injury reports provided by team medical staff. It must also be pointed out that these are not independent reports, but reports provided by club doctors and ancillary medical staff.

The human body is a strange thing. Sometimes a seemingly innocuous stimuli can result in a major injury, and sometimes something that looks more severe results in minor injury. We have all heard of stories such as skydivers who have parachutes that don’t open, and crash to the earth, but walk away with relatively minor injuries. On the other hand there are people who fall from a standing height and have severe and sometimes lethal head injuries.

When I used to referee rugby union, we were taught not to take into account injury when looking at incidents of foul play or dangerous play, but to just look at the event/action by itself. I believe this is a much more sensible way of looking at things, especially given the vagaries of the human body and it’s response to assaults on it.

Jake King has been hard done by. He’s not the first and he certainly will not be the last, unless the AFL and the MRP change the way it assesses these incidents.

Youth vs Experience

Interesting to see the comments made by Danny Frawley about the lack of older coaches in the AFL.

With the sacking of Rodney Eade, there is now only one coach over the age of 50 in the league. That of course is Mick Malthouse who at 58 is the oldest, the most experienced and arguably the best coach in the league.

Lately there has been a tendency to employ untried, inexperienced, younger coaches in head coach roles in the AFL. The old route to a head coaching role in the AFL often involved time as an assistant in the AFL system as well as head coaching in other leagues or underage competitions. These days 1 or 2 years as an assistant and a good PowerPoint presentation will get you a gig.

So is the game evolving at such a pace that older coaches are losing touch. Do the younger assistants have a better perspective on todays game?

Alex Ferguson (Manchester United; currently 70 years old), and Phil Jackson (NBA; last championship won at age 64) have found much success beyond age 50. Joe Paterno, coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, is still Head Coach at age 84 – having held the job since 1966!

Most major company CEOs are in their 50s or 60s, as a key to their appointment and success is their experience.

So if you were a Melbourne, Adelaide or Bulldogs supporter, would you rather have Malthouse, Paul Roos, Leigh Matthews, Gary Ayres (currently dominating the VFL with Port Melbourne) – or an untried inexperienced assistant.

Boned

Channel Ten has decided to relegate AFL commentator Kelli Underwood to boundary line duties this year after the two year ‘experiment’ of her calling games from the comm box. Underwood did very little wrong in her time calling the game, but fell offside with the AFL public for little more than the fact she is female.

Underwood’s career started on local radio in Murray Bridge, South Australia before she moved to Melbourne, eventually working as a gameday reporter and sports reporter on 3AW. She eventually moved into television with channel 10 and in early 2009 was the first female to call a game during a NAB cup game between Geelong and Adelaide.

Having a female commentating on AFL struck a nerve of the typical vocal, sexist, beer-swilling, loutish AFL supporter. In a Herald Sun poll she was voted as the most annoying commentator, with 39% of the vote, with Robert Walls a distant second with 13%.

Channel 10 are a business and they realise that their viewers aren’t huge fans of Underwood. Having heard her commentary myself, I think the only thing that separates her from many of the other below par commentators is her female voice.

A successful sports commentary requires a couple of key attributes. It requires a fluent and eloquent description of events as they unfold – with some excitement thrown in – and also an expert and detailed analysis of the tactics and technical aspects of the game. Underwood was a game caller rather than an expert commentator, and I thought her description of games was reasonable. It was certainly no worse than some of the other commentators we are subjected to reguarly. Bruce McAvaney has become a rather ‘special’ caricature of himself. Anthony Hudson is like an excited schoolboy.

Unfortunately the majority of the predominantly male sport supporter base do not like ‘girls’ making any comment on their games. They feel that their masculinity is called into question if a female has a better knowledge about sport than them.

There are some excellent female sport journalists who put a lot of their male counterparts to shame. Arguably the best AFL journalist, regardless of gender, is Caroline Wilson. She too has been subjected to sexist comment, most noticeably by serial idiot and perpetual buffoon Sam Newman. However she continues to tackle the big issues in AFL with insight, depth and a clear knowledge of the game and how it works. Emma Quayle has few peers amongst AFL journalists as far as knowledge of up and coming young players and draft hopefuls. Sam Lane and Rebecca Wilson are other sporting journalists in Australia who have good knowledge of a number of sports and provide good comment.

I prefer their insight over the like of Damian Barrett and Craig Hutchison who prefer sensationalism, gossip and innuendo. They always try and pitch the ‘exclusive breaking story’ rather than offering any decent comment on the game.

Kelli Underwood will still be on our screens as a boundary reporter, where she will continue to do a professional job. I’d hate to think that’s the last time we will see a woman in the commentary box.

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