CAN'T WAIT FOR '98
A look back at the 1997 Rugby Year and a bit
of speculation on what 1998 might bring
by Paul Waite
The 1997 Southern Hemisphere rugby season is over, and as the
New Year is upon us it's time to reflect on all it brought and
yes, try hard to see it in some kind of perspective.
The Final Test
If you happen to engage a kiwi, ex-patriot or otherwise, in
conversation over a beer or three talk will inevitably stray
to "the footy" if it didn't begin there in the first place.
While you listen to the inevitable proclamations of how
amazing the 1997 season was for New Zealand Rugby and the
arguably justified assertion of the All Blacks being Numero
Uno, watch for subtle signs. The puckered brow, the focus
on the Super 12 and the Tri-Nations games, and in particular
the tendency to avoid talking about the last test of this
Whether they admit it or not, that last test against a very
able England side dominates the flavouring in the stew of
1997 rugby memories - how could it be otherwise?
The funny thing is, the signs were there from the Tri-Nations,
where up-and-down performance was the norm rather than the
exception, the unpleasant reality of All Black fallibility
masked by winning scorelines even if it was only by a narrow
margin. The All Blacks made the classic "game of two halves"
into an art-form culminating in that astonishing test against
Australia down at Carisbrook. But I've discovered that Kiwi
rugby supporters quite often have a marvellous capacity to
forget the actual content of a rugby match, and focus instead
on the result when it's in their favour as validated by many
a past All Black skipper's cliche: "A win's a win.." or
"We'll take the win".
So that last epic test against England, the final act in a
much too protracted performance (a 10 month rugby season is
plainly ridiculous), taints the flavour of the season somewhat.
A game which should have sent Zinzan Brooke off in style, in
a showcase of All Black pizazz was turned instead into a
party celebrating the launch of the New Age of English Rugby.
As a test match it was fantastic of course, since the result
was in doubt until the very end but a draw, like a trial
without a verdict, satisfies no-one. However this game did
contrive to encapsulate where the All Blacks stand presently,
in the World of Rugby - a supremely gifted team with flaws,
an unfinished product with two seasons to find the answers
and take them along to the Rugby World Cup.
The Big Picture
The All Blacks have had a great season in 1997, looking at
the record books. This follows on from 1996 which was also a
fantastic year as the men in black wreaked revenge on South
Africa for the 1995 World Cup Final defeat by winning a test
series for the first time on their soil; the Holy Grail of
All Black Rugby.
But record books alone are too simplistic for us to use them
in judging a season just gone. In later years 1997 will indeed
probably be judged by its results, but this close by in time we
should look at the big picture and not simply the impressive
12 played, 11 won, 1 drawn statistics.
Three of these test matches were hardly a test of anything
other than the aptitude of All Black players for not becoming
bored with scoring tries against weak opposition. Fiji and
Argentina were barely worthy of warm-up status. Australia were
on a different level of course, but our cousins across the ditch
were in the hands of a coaching clown in the shape of Greg
Smith who was incapable of raising either a laugh or a decent
Wallaby team performance. His chop and change approach to
front-row development, ignoring of first-five eighth David
Knox whose partnership with George Gregan was a highlight of
the Super 12 and his persistant playing of Tim Horan out of
position brought disaster on the Wallabies this year. By the
time he was dumped and ACT coach Rod McQueen handed the job
it was too late, and next season the Wallabies have to make
up a great deal of lost ground.
South Africa too were in a state of flux but at least they
were used to it, having languished in that situation for the
past two years. SARFU changed coaches more often than its
players did on tour, and this revolving door policy had a
predictable effect on the performance of the Springboks as
a team. South African rugby has also been slow to adapt to the
professional era and the style of rugby now required to win
matches at the highest level.
The All Blacks, by contrast, were superbly positioned to take
full advantage of a disorganised Springbok and Wallaby effort
in 1997. John Hart is a coach with amazing qualities and
insights into the game. His organisational and man-management
abilities are second to none, and these were as well utilized
in 1997 as they were in 1996. The subtleties and depths of
this man can't be over-emphasised, and this season is therefore
a bit of a puzzle. The All Blacks developed a tendency to become
very loose and unstructured where it matters - up front, and
showed a distinct disregard for some of the basics of the
game, such as support of the ball-carrier. This was exposed
most cruelly in the final test of the season against England,
but had been present to greater or lesser degree throughout
the whole season. Hart talks of that final test being a
"wake-up call", which taken at face value would be a worry
indeed. Another less worrisome explanation would be that
Hart and his coaching team had concentrated this year on the
kind of skills and fast running game which can tear the
opposition to shreds once *** (or at least parity) up
front has been established - perhaps at the expense of
reinforcing the basics.
Meanwhile Back On Earth
My opinion is that the result against England was a benificial
one, and this view has been echoed by numerous former All
Black captains, such as Wayne Shelford, Graham Mourie, Andy
Leslie, Wilson Winneray and David Kirk. The result has brought
the coaches, and the players back to Earth. The same goes for
a great many supporters who were already worshipping the All
Blacks as a "Great Team", holding them unbeatable, and not
only that but routinely expected 50-plus margins against
all opposition except perhaps South Africa.
Some of us have never seen them as a Great Team. A team
capable of ascending to that hallowed yet ill-defined eyrie
undoubtedly but the ascent still involves a great many test
matches. The next two years will show whether they are the
stuff of which legendary teams are made.
It's Not All Black
Enough of the negative - it's time to emphasise the positive.
Thankfully there is an abundance of it and emphasis is hardly
necessary. Although the drain of NPC tier players is a problem
which must be addressed, the Super 12 tier has improved in depth
quite markedly over the past three years. Within this tier,
strength at All Black and "midweek" levels is very high indeed,
as we saw on the tour of England, Ireland and Wales. There are
now two or more players of quite definite World Class available
for every position in the team.
The only problem is therefore experience. Every good side must
have a balanced mixture of youthful enthusiasm and solid test
match experience. The loss of Sean Fitzpatrick on tour in the
UK had a very marked effect and caused the team to become
inflexible in playing pattern and easily rattled when under
pressure. In 1998 the end-of-year Barbarians tour will be
used by Hart to officially begin his World Cup build-up, but
the 1998 season itself will also undoubtedly bring in one or
two of those who are currently on the fringes.
The "wake-up call" alluded to previously may or may not have
been a surprise to John Hart - he is a man of many facets
indeed, but the position New Zealand Rugby is in at the
present time is indeed an enviable one. The player resource
is at its strongest and getting stronger each season, and
any idea that the All Blacks had peaked has been exposed as
a complete nonsense. In true cliche fashion "there's plenty
for us to work on" before the first test in 1998 against,
appropriately enough, England.
Let's Polish Up the Crystal Ball for 1998
Prediction is a mug's game unless your name is Nostrodamus, but
nevertheless it's harmless fun to speculate on what might
happen. Here are a few guesses from yours truly.
will be at risk there. It will be interesting to see if it
is refereed in a manner more in line with the recent test
matches instead of "Super 12 Rules" as last year, and what
effect it will have. I think it will be refereed to a tighter
line, the neutral refereeing scheme adding a helping hand, and
that it will be just as successful in terms of shear rugby
thrills. With South Africa now adopting the Super 12 Squad
system which New Zealand has used since 1996, they will be
tougher than ever and I feel 1998 will be their year. New
Zealand Super 12 sides have also changed since last year as
players have moved and fine-tuning has gone on. The Auckland
Blues will be as strong as ever, but they will be joined in
a much more concerted effort from other sides this time.
The Crusaders have the advantage of a nucleus which has remained
the same from last year's Super 12, through this season's NPC
and onto the 1998 Super 12. They will do well this time around.
The Hurricanes are looking to repeat their form of 1998, and
a much stronger front row of Gordon Slater, Norm Hewitt and
Orcades Crawford should ensure that they do just that. The
Otago Highlanders and Chiefs are less easy to predict at
this stage, but I fancy the Chiefs to at last come up to
scratch and play to somewhere near their potential, given the
I rather fancy that a South African team will win the Super
12 in 1998, with the Crusaders in the final with them. I
pick the Blues to get into the playoffs and maybe the
Hurricanes, if they can beat an ...
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