Rugby regards to you all, welcoming you to a new feature on ‘Rugby from New Zealand’. I will look to report on the overall matches for this week, including representative and provincial games and for this week in particular, focus on the Maori All Blacks playing New Zealand Barbarians.
I’m sure you will agree, there is no better time to experience rugby than in July at Eden Park (or November in Europe). Night time rugby now can involve layers of clothing and braving the elements, which goes world-wide but the interaction with fellow supporters gives you a ‘feelgood factor’. And at the very heart of New Zealand (NZ) rugby is our players preparation and good execution on the field. On this cold, wet and windy night we saw some mostly good and some bad handling that fairly represented the final result.
Maori All Blacks V NZ Barbarians
Venue : Eden Park, Auckland
Score : 34-17
The scene was set for an epic encounter between the Maori All Blacks [est. 1910] who were on a credible run of unbeaten games stretching back over a decade. Their proud record and strong Maori culture is the perfect breeding ground for some of the ‘next best’ NZ players to demonstrate their abilities and claim that all important recognition from All Blacks coaches. This side was coached itself by Colin Cooper and had only just escaped with victory the week before, against a torrid Fijian side. That win bode well as a good indicator of this sides ‘brotherhood’ and desire to perform.
Facing them at Eden Park tonight was the NZ selection from the famous Barbarians Club. Formed in the 1930’s, this side too have a strong history themselves and the players who gathered together would have wanted to gel early, in a match played on a wet ground with on/off rain that was drizzling one minute, a down pour the next – perfect in other words.
Meeting friends, we prepared to enjoy some ‘exhibition style rugby’ but quickly acknowledged that the game would be compressed by the wet conditions. A fair crowd built-up to around 5000 fans, wearing their NZ and All Blacks branding to salute this all-kiwi fixture. A reason why I chose this game above the [more expensive] Bledisloe Cup match in August, was that it represented two sides who in most cases want to use the ball. All the predictions were put aside as both teams lined up for the national anthem followed by the Maori All Blacks haka – respect paid by all present, with a quiet respect for our culture and the challenge laid down.
Kick-off saw the Barbarians with a slight wind advantage, and surprisingly they literally ‘parked themselves’ inside the Maori half for the next 25 minutes. A constant barrage on their line, good Maori defense did hold out well and then occasional dropped ball was used in quick counter-attacking moments that almost always ended in them handing possession back to the home side (this match was hosted by the Eden Park based NZ Barbarians club) Handling errors mounted over the game with poor interplay from the Maori often breaking their continuity.
Continued attacks saw skipper Brad Shields go very close to scoring, only to be called back by the TMO. It was all Barbarians rugby and we didn’t get to enjoy much ball for wing Matt Proctor or fullback Damian McKenzie, as his brother Marty ran the backline with an ineffective attacking style. With little ball to play with, their forwards were called on many times to protect their own line and then young Blues flanker Blake Gibson broke the try drought. A good bust for a loose forward, that made the score 10-3 after shared early penalties.
Sitting there, calls from the crowd asked for each team to “hold the ball” as too often the chip kick was used poorly, as it simply gave possession back to the opposing team. A Barbarians forward pack seemed more able to apply control and Maori flair was pretty much capped for the first half which ended with a slick try for Crusader halfback Mitchell Drummond, slicing through Maori defense. A bright spark from a dour first half, both sides would need to be more accurate first before they could put together any serious phases to attack from. Cooper needed to ask his men to respect the ball, chase up-and-under high kicks together and to show some respect for the jersey.
The Barbarians were stacked with high performing Super Rugby players, and one who many focused on was Cory Jane. Selected in the All Blacks wider-squad, this was his chance to shine and to play for a spot in the Rugby World Cup, but when he emerged from a breakdown reaching for his leg, we all let out a gasp – was it was his hamstring again? The sad sight of him being led off the field was disappointing for him, and for the All Blacks coaches watching from the stand. Later news explained he had injured an ankle.
Besides that bad news, the ball didn’t seem to reach the Maori wings as often as it should have. Fringe All Blacks Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Captain Charlie Ngatai not being able to free either Reiko Ioane or McKenzie to penetrate often enough, that was until the Maori launched a semi-comeback when fullback Damian McKenzie crossed after a sweet long pass from his brother. Drawing the scores to 10-17, it was matched all too soon by Barbarian flair. Centre Seta Tamanivalu scored an extraordinary solo try from 35m to extend their lead.
In fact Patrick Osbourne from the Baabaas side looked even more likely to cross as he had been very active throughout the match, and was rewarded in scoring next from good forward build-up. He clearly puts his hand up as a likely All Black contender. Dynamo Richard Buckman replaced Jane, the team playing in red had much more attacking chances now as the play broke down, with only a second try from the Maori substitute Codey Rei putting up any threat. They didn’t have the penetration, often being sent back into their half and unable to exit it often enough. Not patient enough, it all seemed rushed from the sidelines.
The final plays of the game was shear Barbarians brilliance. Using a set move, the familiar wall of forwards took a couple of tap-kicks – Ben Tameifuna almost scored [very close Ben] and then the backs released the ball to Buckman who offloaded beautifully to first-five Tom Taylor who capped off a fine match with a try and a haul of 14 individual points. That demonstrated their total application against a side who seemed hamstrung by over-complicating their gameplan.
Maybe not knowing your opposition [against a selection IV] they didn’t use the ball as planned. They looked concerned about their own position, so maybe Cooper had pressured them all to perform and some didn’t do justice to earlier Super Rugby form. Elliot and Ash Dixon both seemed tired, and that hindered the sides effectiveness on the night.
So a proud record unbeaten sequence since 2003 comes to an end. That is not reflective of this sides whole record, they are very strong and would pressure most national teams but tonight saw a more energetic and strong willed Barbarians side add another great win to this clubs formidable history. On the first halves display alone, they were fairly punished in a five try to two win for the Barbarians.
The crowd left happy but concern will lay ahead for the All Blacks management on the recovery of Cory Jane and which players claimed a spot of the ‘next best New Zealand players’ list – Osbourne, Buckman, Taylor, Kerr-Barlow and Moala all in the frame for higher honours if they perform well and are given the chance of a lifetime.
ALL BLACKS ASSEMBLE IN CHRISTCHURCH
Returning from 30′ degree plus weather back into a chilly Canterbury winter might have been one of the main physical concerns for test week build-up in Christchurch. A huge climate change to accommodate for players and officials, the measured recovery programs that this group incorporates are well respected and with the combination of up-coming travel soon [to Ellis Park, SA] I really hoped that the players would all be in their best physical peak of fitness by kick-off Friday night.
Players selected this week included established experience from a ‘100th Starting Cap’ player like Tony Woodcock, who as the quiet achiever in this side. His accomplishment might have been overshadowed as we recognised that this would very probably be the final test in Canterbury for their leader Richie McCaw. Possibly too for Dan Carter (he may return after his european contract expires) and such an achievement is testament to those players stamina and physical fitness. Woodcock, along with forwards partners Keven Mealamu and Jerome Kaino will again stand beside him, as does Blues team mate Charles Piutau, That player was selected ahead of Julian Savea; a move underlining All Black decision making on rest and rotation.
Fresh faces we heard of in selection talk was proved correct, as we saw Super Rugby MVP Waisake Naholo chosen. That was exciting in itself, adding a touch of fresh ‘flames’ firing out of the All Black engine block. Codie Taylor would gain a probable start off the bench after a strong Crusaders season; which is great personal reward, and the pack itself would have been given a good ‘rev up’ during the week, to play to the strengths and counter the likely physicality expected from an Argentinian team who are still looking for their first ever taste of victory against the All Blacks.
While the focus has been on integrating guys back into this group who had competed in Wellington a fortnight [Ma’a Nonu, TJ Perenara and Naholo] Nonu was paired at centre for this game with Sonny Bill Williams who needed to show strong form at second-five. Selection did still favour players from non-final Super Rugby sides but team members representation to media had been secondary at training. Coach Steve Hansen even went so far as saying on record “We’ve told them all to forget about that, in regards to this group. That final doesn’t matter anymore” and Ben Smith agreed when he said there were a few chuckles in camp over who held the silverware, but it was straight back to business.
That is always a good sign, train hard first, then discuss it with the press later. But with so much distraction from the upcoming World Cup selection, I hoped the build-up does not get too overwhelming for this side. An over-analyzing public expect the best from these men, along with full access to players that is sometimes an unexpected element of selection. Media now need to advise NZ Rugby earlier of requested interview times, and it has needed to become more rigid like this to stay away from the American role model where players private lives become affected. Gladly, only the occasional Womans Weekly column or photos are that truly invasive.
Cold, did I tell you it was Cold! Minus degree temperatures greeted all players at mid-week training, so the visiting Argentinian side too needed to became accustomed as well to the conditions; a near arctic windchill added to the frozen-grass welcome. This all made for an appreciation of the true Winter setting, so to then generate genuine match conditions would be difficult for both teams to manage. By the Captains run on Thursday, each side just set about getting on with it. Israel Dagg was given a chance to impress from fullback again, as was Perenara who was asked to work in tandem with Carter. This match would be interesting to see how the new mixed with the old.
Sanzar Rugby Championship – New Zealand V Argentina
Venue : AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Score : 37-18
For once I can report that the All Blacks exceeded our expectations in delivering a 21 point win against the Argentinian Pumas side Friday night. While not the only match of significance; Australia upset the Springboks in Brisbane, many thought that rust would still be an issue for this team. Bringing in new blood like Naholo and TJ Perenara at halfback, we were impressed early by their organisation and they attacked the Pumas line well all night.
Both starting forward packs were aggressive, and impact substitutions each played their part over the game. Carter worked well with both Sonny Bill and Nonu. Those two play similar games, so the variety of Conrad Smith will be welcomed back but they were effective enough. The opening try from McCaw was greeted with applause and tries to Nonu, Piutau and Read were well taken.
Luke Romano claimed after the match “We hung on to the ball more, which allowed us to get into the game and run through our structures and patterns. That helped a lot.” His forward pack were more proficient tonight, matching and bettering a committed Argentine squad that only lacked in backline flair. Otherwise they would have challenged more, but after the opening 20 minutes the All Blacks overwhelmed their opponents.
They now head to the South African republic with a squad re-gigged to bolster some players game time and to work on combinations. That type of squad rotation will be important with so few tests before the World Cup, which is why a bonus point tonight was a key objective reached. The Rugby Championship could be determined by a single point due to the shortened comp, and any advantage they can take over this next weeks preparation may help us gain this all important victory.
A loss now will not be ‘earth shattering’ but it will make us all feel a little more uncomfortable. A winning team is best, but a well managed team heading towards September is at the forefront of all NZ rugby fans minds.
In other RugbyNZ_ news, the Ranfurly Shield was defended by holders Hawkes Bay. This piece of grassroots history always generates interest, and combined with celebrating their 125th anniversary, Horowhenua-Kapiti “gave it a good old crack”. The home side were more favoured, but in a shield challenge anything can happen and it was only in the second half that a determined challenger was disposed of 50-16.
The Lions 2017 tour itinerary announced last week has been digested by the NZ rugby public, with arguments over the two matches awarded to Eden Park upsetting the southern unions. Due more to an income making venture, rather than a pure rugby decision, in my own mind it is remiss of NZ Rugby to ignore the fabulous facilities of Forsyth-Barr Stadium in Dunedin. We all know the large touring party and the massive logistics involved, but for fans of the Lions ‘brand’ of footy who live south of the Bombays they will have to settle for Sky Sports coverage I’m sorry to say.
Next weeks fixtures.
All Blacks travel to South Africa to play at Ellis Park on Saturday 25th July (Rugby Championship match #2)
Finals for many different provincial unions and regions will be played, including the Gallagher Shield final – Grammar Tech v University, at Eden Park and in Harbour Rugby, we see Massey v North Shore at North Harbour Stadium.