Tag Archives: Conrad Smith

Guest Post: Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

After a week in which a massive earthquake slammed the Canterbury region, causing massive damage to Christchurch’s brick and stone buildings (including the home of All Blacks’ assistant coach Steve Hansen), and aftershocks continued to jangle the nerves, nobody will be thanking the AB’s for leaving their winning run quite so late, even if the victory itself will be some sort of salve.

With Daniel Carter undergoing surgery on his troublesome right ankle (which may, in part, explain his poor 2010 goalkicking form), coach Graham Henry took the chance to blood Carter’s understudy, 21 year old Aaron Cruden at five-eighth, together with run on starts for blindside Victor Vito and wing/ fullback (they’re all doing it these days) Israel Dagg. They encountered a Wallabies outfit returning from the Republic who could have reasonably been expected to be weary, but still fired up from their win in Bloemfontein, their first on the high veldt in 46 years. Despite the fact that the match was a dead rubber where the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe were concerned, this was still a game that both teams very much wanted to win – the Wallabies to carry on from last week’s victory, and to gain some momentum leading into next year’s World Cup, the All Blacks seeking to hammer home their dominance over the Wallabies (ten in a row), and to continue a fifteen test match winning streak. Continue reading

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Guest Post: "It Could have Been Worse…"

The All Blacks have the 2010 Tri-Nations all but in the bag after a third bonus point win, this time over a willing, but ultimately outgunned Wallabies outfit in Melbourne.

After both teams had routed the world champion Springboks using a similarly pacy game plan in the previous three weeks, anticipation ran high for a high-paced, high scoring game, and with a whopping 49-28, seven tries to three scoreline, no-one should have come away disappointed. Indeed, the only disappointment for All Blacks supporters would have been that their team allowed a Wallabies side down to 14 men in the second half to remain in the match.

A freakish start in which Dan Carter, and then Berrick Barnes had defensive clearing kicks charged down and tries scored set the scene for a game that, whilst being consistently entertaining, was at times an almost bizarre spectacle. The ball seemed to be almost constantly in play, and the much talked about playing surface at Melbourne’s covered Etihad Stadium was barely tested, with a paucity of scrums – it was only at the very end that it started to cut up in the left hand corner of the AB’s 22. Kicking was again minimal; ergo neither high ball reception nor lineouts were really a factor. One would have to conclude that the set piece is just not as important as it once was – something the Northern Hemisphere controlling powers will no doubt be desperate to address before next year’s World Cup. Continue reading

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Guest Post: Stayin' Alive

dead springbok

Thanks to an astonishing form turnaround from the Wallabies, and the familiar traveling woes of the Boks, the All Blacks find themselves in a position where, despite their own struggles this year, they are still in contention to win the 2009 Tri-Nations.

Birthday boy Robbie Deans wielded the selectorial axe ruthlessly (as perhaps Henry should have done), culling halfback Luke Burgess in favour of promising rookie Will Genia, moving makeshift captain George Smith to number 8 to replace the underperforming Richard Brown, and restoring Mark Chisholm, Drew Mitchell and Berrick Barnes to starting roles. Almost without exception, these changes reaped rewards as these players rose to the challenge of defending a proud 38 year undefeated record in Brisbane against the Boks. Genia in particular was superb – snappy passing, hustling feistily around the rucks, and meticulous tactical kicking that suggest Dingo has finally unearthed a worthy successor to George Gregan. Blindside flanker Rocky Elsom, too was nothing short of inspirational.

The Boks, however, looked every bit as shonky and one dimensional as they had looked polished and multi-faceted when they won handsomely (and with a bonus point) in Perth the previous week. Where in Perth previously underperforming marquee players like Jean de Villiers and Bryan Habana looked like they had finally broken the shackles of the very limited kick-and-chase game they had employed to great effect at home, here they once again looked one dimensional and utterly unable to put points on the board. The penalties that they have been able to draw with their speed and aggression attacking the ball at the breakdown were simply not forthcoming from English referee Wayne Barnes, who gave a very composed and accurate account of himself (quite unlike the barely contained shambles of Cardiff in ’07 in THAT quarterfinal).

It is this inability to really put a team that is down to the sword that belies claims that this is a truly great Boks side. Just as they failed to put away the Lions in the third test this year, they failed to take a golden opportunity to complete a double header on the Wallabies in Australia; after playing magnificent, flowing, expansive, winning rugby in Perth, they reverted to type in Brisbane and looked dull, flat and uninspired.

With the All Blacks currently sitting on 8 points in the competition, and the Boks on 17, the AB’s will need to come away with two victories and at least one bonus point win in the next two weeks to perform the greatest resurrection since, um, last year and win the Tri-Nations. They will also need to deny the Boks a bonus point for losing by less than 7 – a pretty tall ask, but not unachievable, given that the Boks appear to be conforming to type and underperforming on tour.

Which really begs the question as to which Boks team will show up in Hamilton this weekend – the sleek, streamlined machine that ruthlessly dispatched the Wallabies in Perth, or the feckless, dreary unit who only avoided a 25 point thrashing in Brisbane by virtue of two last gasp, try saving tackles. And then, how best to choose a team and prepare for a team who seems to blow almost as hot and cold as the French.

Surely Stephen Donald deserves the chance to be paired with Dan Carter in the ten/ twelve roles that was afforded to Luke McAlister in Sydney – this gives the left/ right foot kicking option that the Wallabies enjoy with Giteau and Barnes in their backline, and presents the opportunity to test the Boks three quarters with some of the up and unders that the Africans have employed so effectively. Carter and Donald are also fine defenders, which will be crucial to keep the sizable Boks midfield of de Villiers and Fourie in check.

The issue then becomes who takes over Conrad Smith’s vacant 13 jersey, the obvious solution being to move Ma’a Nonu (with his improved distribution and defensive game) out one place. Bringing Mils Muliaina up from fullback has also been mooted, with Cory Jane providing fine cover, but I would suspect Jane is better deployed in place of Joe Rokocoko on the right wing.

The forward rather pick themselves, particularly with Mealamu injured and Tialata out of form and out of favour. The tight five will need to get through a power of work to repel a Springbok pack who will feel they have something to prove after looking decidedly below par in Brisbane – captain John Smit in particular had a torrid time in the scrums against Wallabies loosehead Benn Robinson, and their champion second rowers Victor Matfield and ‘Justice For Bakkies’ Botha were at least matched by the young Wallabies pairing of James Horwill and Mark Chisholm.

The loose forwards will need to play an effective linking game, functioning dually as extra bodies in the tight, and like auxiliary backs in the loose – it looks like Kieran Read will be fit to be selected at number eight over veteran Rodney So’oialo, so the only issue will be whether Adam Thompson’s stellar Air NZ Cup form makes him a contender on the blindside over Jerome Kaino (for my money Thompson is still a bit loose in the role).

Can they do it? Sure they can. Will they? Well, if we knew that there would be no point in playing.
The All Blacks have maintained such a standard of excellence since 2003, that the few games they have lost have been burned into the memory (Rustenberg, Sydney, Cardiff…) Lots of surprises in the Tri-Nations already this year, and it has already held more interest and intrigue than in recent years – is there room for one more dramatic twist in the tale?

–Jeremy Taylor

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Guest Post: Dance of the Desperates

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This week’s Bledisloe showdown in Sydney is shaping up as a huge matchup, in which a number of reputations may be salvaged or irreparably damaged – not least of which those of head coaches Graham Henry and Robbie Deans.

Both are coming off a pair of losses, and while their jobs are both (theoretically) safe through to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, neither’s paymasters (or public) are likely to be overly thrilled with the way the Tri-Nations has been going for them thus far. Whilst both may protest that they are now starting to build towards 2011, both will be conscious that losses don’t put bums on seats at a time when rugby is struggling to hold people’s attention, and competing for a tightly stretched entertainment dollar.

For the All Blacks, the first step on the road to recovery is the thoroughly warranted return of star playmaker Daniel Carter. Quite aside from the obvious appeal of his ‘aw, shucks’ demeanour and underwear modeling credentials, Carter is a superlative footballer who in the past has been able to step straight back into the highest level of international competition after recovering from some serious injuries.

He has looked in fine fettle in a couple of outings for Canterbury, and despite accusations of panic in the All Black camp in rushing him back, this was a decision that had to be made. Carter should be able to exercise a level of control over the backline that Stephen Donald has been unable to muster, although Luke McAlister’s selection outside him at second five is perhaps the most perplexing of Henry’s changes to the starting XV that was so comprehensively beaten in Durban.

Whilst it may be true that McAlister adds a hefty right boot to complement Carter’s left, I am with former All Blacks prop Richard Loe when he states that he has seen nothing from McAlister since his return from England that would have warranted All Black selection, and that kicking seems to be the only aspect of his game that has improved during his time at Sale. To be fair, his path back into the black jersey was to have been via some game time for the Juniors, but with the season ending injury to Richard Kahui, and Carter’s absence leaving the AB’s short of goalkicking inside backs, he was rushed back with what has been called ‘indecent haste’. The jury’s out.

By far the luckiest and unluckiest of those selected (and not) are wing Joe Rokocoko, and stalwart number 8 Rodney So’oialo. Both had good Air NZ Cup outings for their provinces in the weekend, Rokocoko scoring a brace in helping Auckland defeat Northland, and So’oialo coming off the bench to spark a Wellington second half revival that nearly got them over a spirited Bay Of Plenty after a perfectly awful first 40. Rokocoko’s form has been consistently terrible this year; So’oialo on the other hand has been merely adequate – Rokocoko gets picked, So’oialo gets benched in favour of young Cantab Kieran Reid. One also feels for Cory Jane, denied a chance to sharpen his chops with an outing for Wellington by a staunch Jamie Joseph’s refusal to kow-tow to the national selectors.

My ‘Southern Man’ friend will be thrilled with the excising of most of the Wellington contingent – Weepu (injured, but gone), Tialata (too fat, gone), Nonu (can’t kick – benched), So’oialo (umm… benched), Jane (umm…gone from the bench entirely) – in fact, only centre Conrad Smith has survived the cull. When the All Blacks lose they often resemble none so much as the Hurricanes losing yet another game against the Crusaders, and in ditching most of his Wellingtonians, Henry is perhaps seeking to eliminate this comparison – maybe this spells an end to the harem scarem histrionics that failed so dismally in Durban.

In its place, look for an improved set piece; a lot of territorial kicking and a significant improvement in accuracy at the breakdown. Helping this will be the presence of the world’s finest referee, South African Jonathan Kaplan, who shouldn’t have nearly as much problem finding the advantage line as his Northern Hemisphere colleagues, and with whom Richie McCaw has an excellent rapport. The fate of the Tri-Nations may now be out of our hands – to keep it we would need to win all our remaining matches, and for the Wallabies to beat the Boks in Perth, but like I said at the start of the tournament, I think that retaining the Bledisloe means more to most Kiwis anyhow.

– Jeremy Taylor

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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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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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Conrad – Outside the Game

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Most people seem resigned to the fact that Richard Kahui, effortless and infinatly more handsome,  will eventually, if not soon,  claim sole possesion of the All Blacks number thirteen from Conrad Smith.

Smith is the type of player no longer welcomed in the world of marketable sports. Every step he takes seems on the verge of castostrophy – his limbs flail awkwardly and legs move slowly.  Like a distant observer or watchful prey, he reacts to the defense rather than impinging any will upon it. Yet , oddly, things happen when he touchs the ball – a gap is stumbled upon, an awkward pass made to support, a timely tackle in the oppostions 22.

Conrad Smith is so outside the game that it’s hard not notice when he intervenes on its course. Unfortunately, his outsiderness also limits the credit he recieves. Henry reluctantly keeps Smith on the field, as though his presence is an affront to the harsh efficiency the All Blacks aim to cultivate. Smith does not fit the interchangability that Henry cherishes, precisely because no one can replicate the randomness of his play. This individuality may be his ultimate downfall. Kahui waits patiently.

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For Kahui, every move is a coalition between his body and the game.  Nothing is strained -passes crisp , moves decisive. He is inside the game – so much so that he is in danger of dissapearing into its rhythm.  Kahui plays rugby the right way, but he’s yet to work out how to translate this into a true controlling presence. He’ll probably get there, but let’s not forget Conrad, who steped out of the shadow of the All Black brand purely by virtue of his own limitations and shambolic success.

– David

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