Monthly Archives: July 2009

Review: Stylista – The Evil That Men (And Women) Do

Stylista

Stylista comes to the end of its run tonight, with one of the terrible trio above to become a Junior Editor at Elle at the conclusion of tonight’s broadcast (7.30pm Friday 31 July, TV3). It’s proved an adequate soldier to step into the appalling vacuum in our lives created by the end of cycle one of New Zealand’s Next Top Model, characterised by truly breathtaking bitchiness and lack of anything resembling self-awareness, particularly from Dyshaun (left) and Megan (centre), who have made reducing your housemates to tears look like a crippling lack of ambition.

They managed to hospitalise poor Jason, who suffered a truly monumental anxiety attack after one prolonged argument, and his throat closed to the extent that his breathing pretty much stopped. Was kinda horrid to watch, but these bitches don’t play. I can’t tell who’s worse – Dyshaun, who called the diminutive, feisty Kate ‘Chlymydia’, for no good reason; or Megan, always floating round in Chanel and refering to her own experience with a high end store she somehow found the (trust fund?) cash to open at 22. Each is unspeakably horrible, but I think I’m going to give it to Dyshaun, for the moment when he asked poor Kate whether she liked a pair of denim shorts, and she quickly deduced that he was only going to use them if she didn’t go for them ‘because you’re so trashy’, then had the temerity to call her team underhanded for mooching all of the swimwear.

It’s been that kind of a season, lurching madly from one skin-crawlingly unpleasant exchange to another. This would have worked fine if there was someone you were rooting for, but Stylista‘s most prominent failing is the lack of any truly likeable characters. Cologne came closest (plus was ridiculously pretty), but set against the mad savages around her she kinda seemed a little too nice. I ended up barracking for Kate (because the whole show lined up against her), but in truth she was as delusionally convinced of her own genius as the rest, just an army of one rather than part of the pack.

Ashlie was gorgeous, but too easily baited down to the bullies’ level – her elimnation last week did help spice up the finale, though, because she seemed the only remaining candidate who could possibly win the whole thing. And that’s what’ll make tonight’s episode so worthwhile. Elle has to employ one of these reptiles for a whole year, and each is manifestly unsuited to the job.

It’s funny, because Running In Heels, which finished a short run on E! a few weeks back, and was pretty much the same show less the elimination format (switch Marie-Claire for Elle, and that horrendous Anne Slowey for a very reasonable Englishwoman and you’ve got it), had three perfectly reasonable candidates for the job. I mean, Ashley was a mean, conniving bitch, Samantha too unserious and Talita a Victoria NZNTM-scale cloest exhibitionist (with no follow through), but they could all do the work.

The Stylista crew seem to have been cast principally based on Rorschach tests which prove they will work single-mindedly to break one another’s spirit. Even those who initially seemed fairly innocuous, like cockney shoe shine William or young NYU wannabe Devin, took their first opportunity to twist the knife. As a result the show mostly felt like some kind of bizare, unpleasant flashback to the worst points of high school majority rules politics, sucking any element of good grace out of proceedings and rendering it a game of moral limbo, to see who could stoop the lowest fastest.

Even the guests got in on the act. The model whose room they had to prep for one challenge, in addition to having a viciously plain face, had an appalling personality, snooty and acid without any perceivable talent to justify it. Even more outrageous was the niece of Slowey, who might be one the great televisual creations of ’09. She made the Gossip Girl mini-mes of mid-season two who harrass Dan Humphrey seem Anna from The OC. The whole of life had been sucked out of them til all that remained was an entitled scowl. It was very entertaining, and extremely scary.

Judge-wise there wasn’t much, no CMJ or Nigel Barker to liven things up. Even Joe Zee, who has a name which makes you think he pals around with Squidward Tentacles and the less-famous Wiggles on weekends was mostly just a sour old disappointment factory. Slowey just gazed haughtily from her impassive botox bank of a face and uttered vaguely dispeptic inanities, while the guests singularly failed to animate proceedings. Plus as a departing sign off goes ‘you’re not the right fit’ is no ‘pack your knives and go’ or ‘you’re fired’.

Yet… I’m counting down the minutes til 7.30, and it’s not (entirely) because I’m no longer a socially functional human being. The way they’ve completely excised all joy and laughter from the contraption, steadily eliminating those who display even the slightest pleasure in anything other than the suffering of other humans… Something about this dark, vicious world is very compelling. And it’s this very perverse reasoning which makes me hope Dyshaun wins. I hate him as much as I’ve ever hated a reality TV contestant* (though Megan might be a worse human being, for being so sly about it), but it feels like Stylista deserves such a malignant winner.

It might well mean that Elle disappears from the magazine ranks within six months, unable to withstand the combined powers of a once-in-a-century recession and Dyshaun’s cancerous presence, but that might be the price they pay for assembling such a bizarrely unpleasant group of people in one strange, yet undeniably watchable show.

– Duncan

* Spencer obviously excluded, because he’s kinda transcended the genre and the universe as we know it. His response to being told exactly what the whole world thought of him by Al Roker proved he is operating on another level from what we previously thought were the rest of his species.

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The Same Old Story

Sad All Blacks

Another year, another Tri-Nations, another All Blacks loss to the Springboks.

Despite the altitude and a stupid travel schedule that meant the AB’s had to board a plane within hours of their hard-fought win over the Wallabies in Auckland, this was a game the AB’s totally could have, and even perhaps should have won. I would propose that one key factor contributed to this loss – a lack of accuracy.

Lack of accuracy in all phases of the game, but particularly the renewed problem of the lineout, and the all-important collision area at the breakdown. In much the same way as veteran number 8 Rodney So’oialo was vilified for the single point loss in Rustenburg a couple of years back, this time it was replacement lock Jason Eaton who seemed to cop the King Midas in reverse act – he managed to consistently be in the wrong place at the wrong time, failing to secure an admittedly shonky pass from Piri Weepu with the All Blacks hot on attack, which led to the Jacques Fourie try, and conceding a silly penalty which goal-kicking robot Morne Steyn converted from 55 metres out to put the game firmly out of the tourists’ reach (and lose a bonus point in the process).

Those contentious changes at halfback (Brendan Leonard for Jimmy Cowan) and right wing (Joe Rokocoko for Cory Jane) made you wonder why they had bothered – Leonard looked rusty and conceded two free kicks for failing to put the ball in straight into scrums (which is ridiculous), whilst Smokin’ Joe is barely giving off enough heat to toast a marshmallow, and spent most of the game catching up and unders (just as Jane had done in Auckland – which, admittedly, Joe did perfectly adequately).

Problematic prop Neemia Tialata looked to be trying a bit harder in the opening 40 than he had the previous week, where he failed to make a single tackle, and was consistently the last forward to hit the rucks (btw I dislike seeing tight forwards standing two off the ruck or, wore, in midfield – Tialata is a singularly ineffective ball carrier, and I reckon his lack of workrate means Brad Thorn in particular ends up shouldering a massive workload at the breakdown).

Big Neyza’s next contribution was a numbskulled attempt at a sneaky 22 dropout which put us under more pressure; he then promptly got injured, and was replaced by impressive young Crusaders tyro Owen Franks, who looks as undaunted by test match football as fellow Cantab, lock Isaac Ross. Franks could well get the start next week in Durban, whether or not the Hurricanes tighthead is still crocked, which does beg the question as to exactly why John Afoa has fallen from favour.

Positives? Conrad Smith, who had a massive game on defense in Auckland, was far and away the pick of the All Black backs – his try was an outstanding testimony to a player whose effectiveness comes from his smarts and his running great lines, on top of his excellent tackling technique and ability to read a game, rather than the bullish strength most modern players employ. Stephen Donald backed up a much improved performance against the Wallabies with a solid effort, kicking intelligently and standing tall in defense (proving that he perhaps is fit to keep Dan Carter’s seat on the bus warm).

Jerome Kaino has surprisingly been the pick of the loosies, shouldering a huge burden as senior pros McCaw and So’oialo get back up to test match fitness, and bringing a hard-nosed approach to the game that recalls his immediate predecessor in the number 6 jersey, Jerry Collins. Sitiveni Sivivatu injects some real pace and vision running from the left wing, and looks like he is coming into vintage form, and the bench (with the exception of the aforementioned Eaton, who illustrated perfectly why he has been largely out of favour in the last couple of seasons) has made a real impact. We are developing depth in key areas, and plenty of young players are putting their hands up, which is surely the best thing that can come out of this midway point between World Cups.

Furthermore, there is no great shame in losing to the World Cup champion Boks at home, and at altitude at that – and we have, after all, lost in the Republic virtually yearly under Henry and co. South Africa have some truly magnificent, match winning players – Matfield, in particular, was his usual inspirational self, not only in the lineouts (where they distinctly edged us out), but in general play, where he can sometimes go missing. Hooker Bismarck Du Plessis was also impressive, as was openside newbie Heinrich Broussow, who was named man of the match. What was interesting, however, was which of the Boks big game players failed to ignite – brilliant halfback Fourie Du Preez, second five Jean De Villiers and winger Bryan Habana were all well short of their best.

Which may hold the key to next week’s rematch in Durban, a match I would strongly suspect the All Blacks might win. With another week to get over the travel factor, iron out kinks in the line-out and tidy up the play of the inside backs, I really think Henry’s men can come home with one out of two, which could be a handy outcome with the Boks yet to travel, which they often don’t do all that successfully, and so little separating the teams. Accuracy will be the key – mistakes and turnovers are usually punished with points, and whichever side gets the basics right – winning their own ball (and keeping hold of it), and makes the fewest glaring errors will likely walk away the winner.

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Perfection, Presidents & Yoga Butt

pg1Both these men bleed for the White Sox. Sadly, only one of them can actually pitch.

One of Barack Obama’s favourite phrases over the last year is “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
It’s from Voltaire and the way he means it, it makes a lot of sense. Better to do SOMETHING positive now than delay until you’ve found the ‘perfect’ solution.

Except Yesterday.

Yesterday, a baseball pitcher slipped into a historically important category and just to show that whatever’s happening with his economic reboot Obama hasn’t lost his sporting mojo, it was a White Sox pitcher to boot.

Mark Buehrle (pronounced burly and splendidly accurate that is) pitched a Perfect Game against Tampa Bay.
27 batters faced, 27 retired with no walks or errors. Only 18 of them have EVER been thrown in baseball’s long history, because even if you have everything and a ton of luck working for you as a pitcher, that will only guarantee a no-hitter.
That’s not a small thing (usually only 1 or 2 no-hitters are thrown in a 2,300+ game season) but it’s not the great white whale that is The Perfect Game. Because for a Perfect Game to occur you need your team-mates to be perfect as well.
A single error in the field (a misjudged bounce that a player should have caught or fielded, a ball falling out of a hand as he threw, any one of a million basic failures of hand/eye co-ordination) and a runner may get on base without technically spoiling the ‘no hitter’. But the Perfect Game is gone.

Whenever a pitcher starts edging toward a no-hitter, when about the 5th inning everyone becomes aware that something amazing might be happening,  the entire team starts to move differently. There’s more urgency in the dives for groundballs hit into the hole, a bit more zip on the throws to first. The custom is to not speak to the pitcher from then on unless you have to. Some players even stop LOOKING at the pitcher lest it curse him. Jaws clench, backs straighten, fist bumps and high fives disappear, and there’s less grabbing of one’s crotch while on camera. This is serious business.

By the 8th inning, even the other team have become involved. Each batter now dreads being the one to end it, and if its a Perfect Game even more so. Yet once the pitch has been made, once the ball is in the air hurtling toward him, instinct takes over and the swings will still be made with utmost ferocity. Whenever you see a sportsperson on the verge of history, you have to wonder what the opponent(s) are thinking. According to his Letterman appearance even Stewart Cink was rooting for Tom Watson, yet he gave no quarter and probably never thought to. And this was the Tampa Bay Rays, newly risen power in the brutal AL East, and kings of the deadly single. These guys were not cheap outs.

So, in the top of the 9th, with Buehrle three outs away from being the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2004 to achieve a Perfect Game, over 12,000 or so games ago, this happened:

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For video go here.

Dewayne Wise, a nobody brought on late by manager and certified lunatic Ozzie Guillen because he can field a bit, made the catch of his career to rob Gabe Kapler (sorry, had to pause for a quick Welcome Back Kotter flashback) of a heartless dagger of a home run.

He bobbled it sure, but caught it just the same, and it will be a long, long time before Mr Wise has to buy his own beer on the South Side of Chicago.

How meaningful is it?

For Mark Buehrle its a defining moment in a quixotic career and a direct path to the Hall Of Fame for a solid but not exciting pitcher few would remember otherwise. He even got a call immediately afterward from the world’s most powerful White Sox fan.

For baseball, mired in a season so lacklustre Manny Ramirez NOT playing for 50 games was an exciting highlight, its a huge news story not related to PEDs or empty seats at Yankee Stadium.

And for me it was a phone call while I was down at the beach enjoying an afternoon scoping Yoga Butts.

yoga350God bless Juicy Couture & Lulumon.

“Hey, you got to get to a TV.”

“Uh-huh,” attention focused solely on scoping Yoga Butts.

“Buehrle’s throwing a Perfect Game! Seriously, you gotta catch it.”

” Holy Shit!” and I got on my bike and rode to the nearest bar to catch the last inning and a half.

So, how meaningful was it? It got me to RIDE A F*$KING BIKE. That’s Hall Of Fame worthy right there.

– Mark Tierney

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Filed under Baseball, Cycling, MLB

Le Boss, C'est Contador

Alberto Contador powers to a win in the 2009 Tour time trial

That was the headline of French sportspaper L’Equipe the day after Contador’s commanding, insolent stage win at Arcalis in the Pyrenées. If that was the first sign that the Spaniard wasn’t buying the story which Armstrong had been trying to sell the world in the days prior, of the Tour’s rightful owner returning for what was rightfully his, this morning Contador emphatically proved himself the most complete rider on the tour.

After seven Tours which saw him impose his will on European cycling, it’s been interesting to watch Armstrong respond to his demotion. I gotta say, for someone I actively loathed throughout his reign, I admire the character he’s showing now. He’s playing second fiddle (arguably third when Kloden’s on song), and has undeniably lost minutes as a result.

On yesterday’s brutal stage into Le Grand-Bornand Armstrong was, yet again, unable to match the exquisite acceleration of Contador, who danced away up the road behind the indomitable Schleck brothers. Armstrong remained stuck with Wiggins and company, non-climbers doing it on will alone, and when the latter couldn’t be shaken from his wheel he dutifully sat back and let the pace dwindle, his last fading hopes of an eighth tour with it.

You get the feeling he’s writing off the 2009 Tour as a PR exercise now, a chance to rehabilitate his appalling reputation in France and play the magnanimous loser and Livestrong charity man. Make no mistake, this is gnawing at his insides, and the fact that he’s confirmed a return next year indicates that unequivocally. In some ways he’ll be in better shape next year, with thousands more kilometres of comeback in his legs than he was in ’09. But I have to say I foresee an entirely different outcome.

Armstrong has the potential become a Holyfield-like figure, obsessed with extending a record he already owns, such a slave to his competitive nature that he’s unable to recognise his own sporting mortality when it’s staring him in the face. He seems an extremely competitive guy, very driven and determined, and his incredible successes might have made him complacent to the threat Europe poses.

Because Contador is unquestionably Le Boss now. And frighteningly, he’s about to take home a second Tour at just 26. At that age Indurain was still searching for his first, as was Armstrong – of the other great riders Merckx had his second, as did Hinault, while Anquetil had a lone win. All that is by way of pointing out that Contador is positioning himself extremely well to become the next great Tour champion. If he is able to keep riding well into his thirties, as both Armstrong and Indurain did, then the records will inevitably fall.

Standing in his way are those pesky Schlecks, both brilliant climbers, both just average time trialists (though Andy rode very well this morning to retain second place, and could improve into a genuine challenger). Unfortunately Contador looks like the best at each discipline in the world for the time being. It’s hard not to call this the beginning of a dynasty. Watching Contador blast around the lake at Annecy this morning you could draw no other conclusion.

Just a day after toying with the field over four first category climbs, and gifting Frank Schleck a stage win simply to keep the peace, when he should have had legs a mess of lactic acid, he beat out Fabian Cancellara by three seconds in a performance which should have convinced Armstrong to retire right there. The Swiss powered home ferociously, and it was all Contador could do to hold on to his 30 seconds at the top of Côte de Bluffy. He eventually won the time trial by three seconds, but it was more that he had no need to ride like he did which impressed.

The main reason Ventoux holds so much fear for the remainder of the Peloton (apart from the fact that it’s the most terrifying climb in all cycling and callously killed Tommy Simpson on a scorching day in 1967) is because they have to follow Contador up it, and are subject to his whims and weightlessness. So Contador could have cruised round the lake to a 50 minute time trial, lost no time to any of his challengers bar Wiggins (who will be aiming to limit his losses on the great mountain), and still won the 2009 Tour at a canter. In some ways slowing down a touch might even have been a wise tactical move, a way of blunting the ability of the Schlecks to attack him the next day.

Instead he tore up the tarmac, sent a blunt message to every other rider in the Tour (and any coming up in the next decade or so) that he is its master, and the road to Paris goes through him. In a few short weeks he’s gone from a strong contender to the Boss, and everyone in cycling must bow to his rule.

– Duncan

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John Daly: A Deadball Icon

John Daly topless

“I never liked to read, and I didn’t see the point. Shakespeare sucked.”

John Patrick Daly is not one of world’s great intellectual forces, but he sure can hit a golf ball a long way. Over the past couple of decades his renegade influence has played a large role in having golf shed its image as a sport of the monied elite, and in between extended bouts of alcoholism, losing tens of millions of dollars on pokies and four tumultuous marriages he has remained one of the most popular golfers in the world.

It’s the combination of a loud, borderline insane personal life and frequently breathtaking golf which has endeared him to fans, and after the first round of The Open Championship at Turnberry he sat at two under, four shots off the lead, and yet again had the chance to prove the doubters wrong and his own self right. He closed out with three straight rounds of 72, fading from contention. But for golfers arrested outside Hooters by the Winston-Salem police less than a year ago he was unchallenged at the top of the leaderboard.

Daly loves playing golf in Scotland – anyone watching overnight (thanks, jetlag!) would have noted that the crowds only wake up for a truly miraculous shot. Bunker it at Turnberry and only the bitter wind will whistle in your ears. He considers them the purest golf fans in the world, and has rewarded them with a truly heroic playing ensemble. Even granted that golfers aren’t known as the prettiest of athletes, his garb throughout The Open was pretty outlandish.

Daly green_phixr

Having noted that, atop the leaderboard after the first round sat Miguel Angel Jimenez after a scorching 64, and he looks like the kind of guy who made Creasy Bear so angry in  Man on Fire.

Man on Fire Jimenez

Anyway, so he might be in a tight two-way tussle for ugliest man in the tournament, he also has no right to even be playing golf at this point. Daly’s life is a catalogue of misfortunes as long as your arm, and for every triumph there have been at least five disasters to offset it.

Growing up in Dardanelle, Arkansas, golf was an escape from an alcoholic father who would one day pull a gun on his son in a stupor, and a mother absent more often than not. Daly and his brother Jamie raised themselves as soon as the latter could be considred a babysitter for his younger sibling, with the Daly brothers opening up the family ranch for all-night keg parties from their mid-teens, which their parents never picked up on upon their return due to John’s extreme OCD cleaning tendencies.

He could always hit a golf ball a long way, but started working on his short game by chipping his way round a baseball diamond. It was this kind of dedication which garnered the man a scholarship to the University of Arkansas. The coach there presciently noted that even then, Daly was a little overweight (his pre-round meal to this day remains multiple McMuffins), and told him to start smoking Marlboro Lights as an appetite suppressant, and switch Jack Daniels and diet coke from beer.

He’s attended rehab twice for alcoholism, smokes at least two packs a day, and ealier this year had stomach-limiting lap-band surgery, so that prescription obviously worked out real well for him. His lovelife has been scarcely less extreme, with his second wife Bettye turning out to be a decade older than she had told him (and have a 14-year-old son – this when Daly was still in his twenties), and fourth wife Sherrie (unconventional spellings should be a red flag for Daly) attacked him with a steak knife in 2007, resulting in him playing the second round of Memphis’ Stanford St Jude championship with his face even less pretty than usual.

Picture 48

If he was just a marginal professional (he’s ranked 414 in the world as of today), this would be just a tragic story, but Daly had won two majors before he turned thirty, including a heartstopping PGA Championship in 1991, which he started as ninth alternate. He was the longest driver on the US PGA Tour for more than a decade, has amassed 19 titles as a professional, and when his game is working he has a subtlety around the green which belies his boorish image.

That’s certainly important to his fans, but equally attractive to his rabid, establishment-baiting newfound golf fans is his unashamedly hillbilly lifestyle. He travels by a US$1.5m custom tour bus, rather than squeeze himself onto domestic plane seats and put up with hours without a cigarette between his lips. He’s recorded country albums, with songs like All My Exes Wear Rolexes, and has seen Dead Solid Perfect and Caddyshack (his favourite golf movies) over 70 times between them.

6a00d8341caaef53ef01156f135c90970c-800wi

He’s like a regular guy who won the lottery, only the ticket keeps paying out. So he buys a house in Colorado on a whim and hangs out with the Denver Broncos (and also has a Madden card from his fame explosion in ’91 due to place kicking during an NFL game), lost US$50m when they installed pokies in Vegas that let you crank through $5k at a time, and his fourth wife and her family have all done Federal time for drug trafficking (while he was married to her). Plus he’s a big time rooter: “I want to have sex three or four times a day. I mean, I’m horny all the time.”

Keep that image in your mind, kids. He last won on the PGA Tour in ’04, has lost his long driving title to the likes of Bubba Watson, and most things in his life seem to be pointing to a gradual fade from the limelight. But with Daly you feel like the moment he’s counted out is the one he’ll pick to come storming home. He finished second in the Italian Open this year, and tied for 27th at The Open. The tummy tuck seems to have reinvigorated him, along with his wardrobe, and something about his character, the things he’s endured and survived convinces me he’s got one more triumph in him.

Even if he doesn’t, he’s made golf bearable, and played as a big a part as Tiger in breaking its historic class/race barriers. And for all the madness and bewildering moves he’s made in his personal life – he might be the most confounding figure in all sports over the last couple of decades – you can’t help but love the guy. If nothing else, you have to respect a guy who wandered out onto the hallowed fairways of the PGA Tour in the early ’90s looking like this.

daly_92_brit_smoke

Legend.

– Duncan

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Filed under Dead Ball Icons, Golf

Tr-Nations 2009: Only McCaw Can Save Us Now

Richie McCaw 3

The Iveco series came and went with much gnashing of teeth from the Great New Zealand Rugby Public. Stephen Donald was hung, drawn and quartered for the grievous sin of not being Dan Carter (one wonders how his Mum might have felt upon seeing her son on the cover of this month’s NZ Rugby World mag atop the headline “The Weakest Link – should we say goodbye to Stephen Donald?”); likewise, Luke McAlister for failing to hit the ground running after three months out injured, having not played test football for a couple of years. They are the All Blacks, after all, and defeat is not an option.

The scrum, once a symbol of our obvious masculine superiority to those puny Australians and soft Northern Hemisphere teams, is now a source of some consternation. Liam Messam has been talked up, and just as comprehensively talked back down again by recently re-signed coach Graham Henry; never mind the fact that his criticisms could just as easily been directed at underachieving wunderkind Isaia Toeava, or faded superstar wing Joe Rokocoko. The ‘back in the day’ crowd – David Kirk, Robin Brooke, Taine Randell et al have been wheeled out to offer variations on the ‘they need to harden the f*** up’ theme. So where does all this leave us, ahead of a Tri-Nations that offers no certainties for any of the three competing southern hemisphere sides?

Well, for starters, let’s take the Boks. Whilst they were good enough to defeat the touring British and Irish Lions 2 to 1, there is no ignoring the fact that the Boks actually played progressively worse with each 40 minutes of the three tests. A friend suggested that this may be due to the players starting out with formations and patterns they had used over the Super 14 (especially those of the champion Bulls), and then rapidly losing this structure under the influence of their half-witted coach, Peter de Villiers. His comments in the wake of the Schalk Burger gouging incident were nothing short of appalling, while the players demonstrated clearly that they are equally capable of misplaced team loyalty with their ‘Justice 4 Bakkies’ armbands – when you have gotten away with as much as Bakkies has over the years, I reckon you need to take the crunchy with the smooth…

The Boks clearly lack depth just as badly as the All Blacks do – clearing the bench in the first test nearly cost them the game, and PdV’s arrogance in naming of a second-string side in the third test probably cost them the clean sweep that the AB’s achieved over the Lions in ’05. Now that Burger is out for most of the Tri-Nations, young Cheetah (yes, that was a pun) Heinrich Broussow will most likely start on the openside, giving the Boks strength in an area they have not traditionally concentrated on, but weakening one of their strongest plays, the lineouts. Habana still looks short of a gallop, while inspirational skipper John Smit is clearly marking time on the tighthead, making way for superior rake Bismarck du Plessis. Plus their head coach, who could euphemistically be described as a ‘political’ appointment, is clearly an imbecile. This is not a team without its problems.

The Wallabies, on the other hand, look to be a fairly settled unit. They too have had a little controversy in the form of the Lote Tuquiri debacle – if rumour is to be believed, he was threatening a return to League in an effort to drive up the value of his contract with the ARU. Unfortunately for him, Robbie Deans is an excellent coach and selector whose succession planning has given the Wallabies a plethora of wing options – Drew Mitchell, Lachie Turner, Adam Ashley-Cooper and teen sensation James O’Connor – and is able to ditch a player whose ego had outgrown his value to the team. He has the luxury of having the world’s best first five (at least while Dan Carter is out of commission) in Matt Giteau, and another quality pivot in second five Berrick Barnes (who, together with fellow Reds midfielder Quade Cooper, has the silliest name in world rugby). He also has a steadily improving tight five – especially hooker Stephen Moore and hard-edged second rower James Horwill.

Lookng at it purely objectively, the Wallabies would seem to have the most going for them on a number of levels. However, the suspicion that they may have flattered to deceive with two wins over Italy that were no more convincing than the AB’s scratchy victory, and a win over a French side who were still congratulating themselves on their win over the AB’s in Dunedin hint that they may not yet have the wherewithal and self-belief it takes to win what is still a grueling competition that generally requires wins away from home to secure the title, wins they may not be equipped to effect. Not yet, anyway.

And then there’s the All Blacks. The return of the peerless Richie McCaw as both captain and number 7, and his trusty cohort Rodney So’oialo on the back of the scrum will add starch, workrate, and much needed experience to a green-ish forward pack; Sitiveni Sivivatu’s dazzling broken field running, and returning-from-injury first choice centre Conrad Smith’s excellent defence and positional nous should settle down what has been a terribly skittish 2009 effort from the All Black backs.

Other problem areas include the aforementioned scrum, where the inclusion of young Crusaders tighthead Owen Franks hardly bespeaks the selectors’ faith in either Neemia Tialata or John Afoa, and similarly at ruck and maul time, where only veteran Brad Thorn’s superhuman effort in Wellington kept the AB’s in the hunt – the lack of assistance he received was truly terrifying. Curiously, the lineout – our Achilles heel for a decde or more – seems to have improved in inverse proportion to other aspects of our forward play.

And then there’s the massive, gaping chasm that lies between the absent Dan Carter and his would-be replacements, Stephen Donald and Luke McAlister. Given that both of them are presently injured, leaving the possibility that Piri Weepu (our best halfback) or even featherweight rookie Stephen Brett may be tried at 10 in the opening match in Auckland against Australia, this is far and away the All Blacks’ biggest hurdle in 2009. If this hurdle is overcome, however, it could be very timely for RWC 2011 in terms of developing depth in this most crucial position.

So, it’s really anybody’s contest. My money would still be on the Boks – they have the most experienced side and are just too strong in many key areas. If the Boks don’t win this year, de Villiers is history (which may actually be some incentive for the team to lose…) On the other hand entirely, Robbie Deans is very astute, and Australian rugby sides are often just too smart – and this is perhaps shaping up to be the strongest, canniest Wallabies side since ’99. As for the All Blacks, they know only too well how unacceptable defeat is.

If the 2009 Tri-Nations were New Zealand’s Next Top Model 2009, the Boks would be talented, charming Christobelle, the Wallabies the crafty, hard-grafting Hosanna, and the All Blacks the slightly plain-Jane Laura. Just like NZNTM, this is shaping up to be a very interesting competition.

– Jeremy Taylor

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And Then a Hero Comes Along

Monty close

England is a nation which has long become obsessed with odd characters, perhaps in lieu of real sporting success. Eddie the Eagle might be the perfect example, but without question the most pertinent current specimen is Monty Panesar. That’s him smiling above, having just played a not inconsiderable role in scraping a draw for England from the yawning jaws of defeat. I have to say that this was the most enthralling last session of a win-impossible test match since Graeme Smith and his broken limb strode purposefully (but ultimately fruitlessly) to the wicket at the SCG six months ago.

Unlike that instance, when South Africa froze on the brink of pulling off an unlikely draw on the way to a dominant series win, the game was already an outlier, a consolation prize for an aging team on the verge of some public and private humilations. Here we’re being asked to believe that a team with a few substitutions is now young and dynamic, balanced by age and experience in a few key areas. That description far more aptly fits this English side, who had an appalling game, particularly with the ball, but will come out of this shot full of adrenaline, whereas Australia will be thoroughly deflated.

That the latter could dominate so comprehensively and still be psychologically damaged from the match is, in large part, down to the courage and cockeyed skill of James Anderson and Monty Panesar. This is noteworthy because, as mentioned above, the English public largely took Panesar to heart because he can play the part of the fool so well. He has been a very effective spin bowler for a team which suffered through the Wiseman-esque era of Ashley Giles for a number of years, but it is the way he approached the other elements of the game of cricket which drew the obtuse love of his public.

Put simply, Panesar was a bumbling incompetent at all disciplines save the one he was selected for. He has amassed 14 ducks in his 51 innings test career, and scored zero in six of his first ten turns at bat. His fielding was similarly awful, he would bound around the boundary from wherever Michael Vaughan had tried to hide him, and collapse in a mess of limbs while the ball more often than not eluded his enthusiastic attention. And let’s not start on his arm from the deep. For these reasons the deeply perverse English sporting fan embraced him with a rare fervour. The fact that he was a patka-wearing Sikh, a brown face the country could wholeheartedly embrace when race riots and tube bombings were ringing in its ears, surely added to his appeal.

But this evening he used the bat which had so bemused him early in his career to help England to a draw which stretched unlikely to the limits of its definition. I can only hope that every one of the 20 newly-contracted New Zealand cricketers was watching, because the bravery Collingwood, Flintoff, Swann, Anderson and Panesar displayed today was stirring stuff, and starkly contrasted with our own recent efforts to save games which appeared lost. After Pieterson went at 31, and Strauss not long after, few in the boistrous Cardiff crowd would have had much hope for the match, but they were treated to a near-classic in the end.

This was as much due to the Australian bowlers as the English batsmen, which raises my hopes that this series might challenge the ’05 version for interest, if not quality. Hilfenhaus looked penetrating, asking pertinent questions in both innings, Hauritz was searching and Siddle (who sported some truly appalling slave beads – Austrlian cricketers’ pieces of flair are invariably truly frightening) balanced a couple of critical four balls late in the day with the absolutely essential wicket of Collingwood. Mitchell Johnson though, who I picked, with little originality, as the breakout star of the series, was terrible, spraying a new ball which should have perfunctorily cut through the lower order all over the crease. He was not the worst Australian of the day, though.

That honour goes to Ricky Ponting, who appeared to lose his nerve with England nine down, and began equating balls bowled with chances created. He gave North and Hauritz the final few desperation overs, when Hilfenhaus should have been bowling yorkers on middle and off, and as a result gave numbers ten and eleven the seeds of confidence which would grow to a draw which felt like an emphatic win.

The series moves to Lord’s, and England will need to reflect their averages and (sometime) reputations with the bat to change the script. With the likes of Cooke, Strauss, Flintoff and even Pieterson underperforming, and an opposition attack which is solid but not lethal, that is a good possibility. The country is definitely engaged now, which should help, and the way an oddball spinner wielded the willow will galvanise his teammates – now they have to turn this minor miracle into resolve and strength, and make this series sing like it has so many times in the past.

– Duncan

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