Super Rugby descends into farce

Last year I wrote about the parlous state of sport in Australia, including rugby union:

Australia is also going through a low point in Rugby Union, which I don’t think is a mere blip.  Following a strong showing in the 2015 RWC (where they avoided South Africa and rarely worried the Kiwis in the final), their Super XV franchises did spectacularly badly the following season

Were it not for the wildcard system that ensures the playoffs are not dominated by the Kiwis, the Brumbies – Australia’s best side – would have finished joint 7th on points and miles adrift of 5 of the 6 New Zealand sides.  The Brumbies got dumped out of the knockout stages in the first round, and that was the Australian effort over for 2016.

Things are even worse this year, and this is the table as it stands today:

Once again the Brumbies are Australia’s best side, languishing ninth in the overall table standings, but thanks to the “conference” system they now enjoy a home quarter-final against the Hurricanes! Meanwhile, the Auckland Blues are eliminated. There has been some considerable grumbling about this on Twitter, particularly from South Africans.

The four best sides in the competition by a mile and a half are the Crusaders, Hurricanes, Chiefs, and Highlanders – all from New Zealand. The South African Lions finished top of the combined tablebecause they’re in a weak conference with only 3 other teams, whereas the Kiwis had to play proper opposition most weeks, i.e. each other. This season has seen the Kiwis see off most foreign opponents with ease, and usually only tasting defeat against one of their own teams (which makes the British & Irish Lions fighting them to a standstill all the more impressive). The conference system is supposedly designed to keep the competition interesting and all nations involved until the end, but what they mean is they don’t want four Kiwi teams contesting the finals every year with the Australians sulking on the sidelines. I have long suspected that much of the IRB’s efforts – including some decisions in matches, e.g. the penalty against Scotland in the last WC – are expended towards keeping Australia winning, thus ensuring interest in the sport Down Under. Australians are notoriously fickle when it comes to sport, and if their teams aren’t winning they’ll pretend they don’t exist (see their TV coverage of the Ashes when things aren’t going their way, for example). Australian rugby falling by the wayside will be a disaster for the international sport, which even now lacks top-tier sides that can make for proper international contests.

From what I am reading on Twitter, there are murmurings that the South Africans may leave the Southern Hemisphere setup and join the French Top 14 competition. This would makes sense for two reasons: the South African franchises are being stripped of talent by players leaving for the better money on offer in France, and it’s on a similar time zone (unlike NZ and Australia).

The Super Rugby organisers are trying to do something about this by reducing the number of teams and making the competition more sensible, but it might be too late. In a few years we might see the premier rugby competition in the Southern Hemisphere consist of five good NZ teams and two Australian ones.

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Holidays and Sport

Tomorrow I’m off to visit some friends in Baden-Baden until Friday, so no blogging next week I’m afraid.

I was going to write a post on the Lions v New Zealand, but what’s there to say? The Lions played well but didn’t take two golden chances when they ran right up to the line, which you can’t afford to do against the All Blacks. The pack played well but so did that of the Kiwis, cancelling each other out. There was little penetration by the Lions for whole periods of the game, but the breaks by Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies were very good indeed and justified their selection. Nobody played badly for the Lions, in fact everyone played well, only the Kiwis played better.

It’s hard to know what to do for the second test. Perhaps play Itoje instead of Kruis? As I said, nobody played badly. The worrying thing is the All Blacks generally put in their weakest performance in the first test and get progressively stronger thereafter. Gulp.

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Gatland’s Lions

This is a good line, from an article on Warren Gatland and the Lions:

But sport is about guff and myth-making: it’s why Manchester United are criticised for not playing attacking football even as they grimly gather up trophies, like body collectors trudging through a medieval village.

And this:

Gatland has seen all this before. Dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the final test in 2013 was transformed from a tough but logical selection decision into a rugby version of the killing of Bambi’s mother.

Mostly this was because of the embarrassing Irish reaction, the dangerous mix of Liveline and sporting controversy once again leaving us in an irrational heap; but there was also some blather about the essence of the Lions being disrespected by treating a former captain so callously.

Of course, he was only trying to win a Test series, which he duly did.

I watched that final test when I was in Melbourne in a pub full of Irishmen. They were moaning from start to finish, and even when I pointed out that O’Driscoll’s replacement, the Welshman Jonathan Davies, had set up a crucial try in their 41-16 drubbing of the Australians they still stuck to the line of “Ah, but he should have kept him in, all the same.” They still complain about it to this day.

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The Lions v The Highlanders

Last night I watched the British & Irish Lions lose a closely-fought, scrappy match against a depleted Highlanders side.

It was a completely different Lions side from the one that beat the Crusaders, and they were playing a very different opposition. The Highlanders have always been a side that plays by creating as much chaos as they can and hassling the opposition in defence and at the breakdown. Predictable they are not, and the Lions are probably pleased that scrum half Aaron Smith, who excels at orchestrating the chaos, was not playing.

The loss was not a bad one: 23-22 is a close match, and it was hard-fought on both sides. More importantly, it gave Gatland another look at those players who didn’t play against the Crusaders. Certain questions have been answered, and the outline of the test side is becoming more clear.

Jared Payne cannot play full-back: in the absence of Hogg, who has had to withdraw from the tour through injury, Leigh Halfpenny will surely fill that slot. O’Connor is probably preferred over Webb at scrum half; Webb played well yesterday, but not as well as O’Connor. Biggar had a decent game yesterday, particularly when he delayed his pass to send Joseph in for his try, but I think Farrell will get the No. 10 shirt given his performance against the Crusaders (whose style of play is closer to the All Blacks’ than the Highlanders’ was). Both Joseph and Te’o have played well and look dangerous in attack. Can we play both of them? I don’t know, but I hope so. I’d rather see that than Farrell at centre and Sexton at 10. Sexton isn’t in top form, and I’d prefer to see Biggar on the bench instead of him.

The back row didn’t play especially well: Faletau is better than Stander, and unless Gatland is seeing something I’m not – which he normally does – I’m not sure how he can play Warburton. The second row will cause him the biggest headache: Lawes played well last night and the experience of Alun Wyn-Jones was invaluable, but Kruis impressed against the Crusaders and Itoje is too good to leave out. Marler didn’t impress much yesterday, and the scrum didn’t perform particularly well against a Highlander pack that was a lot weaker than the Crusaders’. They were unable to defend against the lineout drive too, conceding a try. Ability to do so will be vital against the All Blacks.

Two aspects of the Highlanders’ play came as no surprise. Firstly their use of the width of the pitch, bringing Naholo into the game at every opportunity. The Kiwis like to stretch the opposition, and they’ll do that all tour. Secondly, did you see what happened before Naholo’s try? The ball went wide to the Highlanders’ No. 6, Gareth Evans, who was roaming out on the touchline, just as I described here. Joseph went in to tackle him and bounced off, meaning that instead of being bundled into touch as he should have been, he was able to get the ball back inside keeping it in play. A phase or two later and Naholo is running in for a try. The Lions need to make sure these mis-matches out wide are dealt with properly: you don’t want a Lions centre or wing having to tackle Kirean Reid or Ardie Savea and stop him offloading the ball. You can be sure this will be a major part of the All Black’s game, and it is very effective.

The Lions disappointed yesterday but didn’t disgrace themselves by any means. The game, insofar as it showed us who is who in the Lions squad, served its purpose. The match against the New Zealand Maori on Saturday will be as close to a test match as they will come before the real thing. Let’s hope they do well.

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The Lions v The Crusaders

Following a lacklustre match against the New Zealand Barbarians and a hard-fought loss against the Blues, the British & Irish Lions responded in style this morning by beating the Canterbury Crusaders 12-3.

This may have been a warm-up match against a franchise side and not a full test, but this was an important victory for several reasons. Firstly, the Crusaders have been the best side in New Zealand – and the entire Super Rugby competition – this season, and were unbeaten until today. Even the Kiwis will have been impressed by a touring side that can beat this Crusaders team on only their third match. Secondly, the team features several All Blacks, particularly in the forwards. The Lions got a good look at Sam Whitelock today and helped themselves to what ought to have been his ball in at least one lineout. Thirdly, even though the Lions didn’t score a try, nor did the Crusaders. This is almost unheard of: the Crusaders normally accumulate cricket scores against their opponents, and I suspect this is their lowest match score for several years.

The Lions started exceptionally well, thanks to Luke Romano fumbling the kick-off. The first ten minutes belonged to the Lions, and the superiority of their pack was already beginning to show. The second of the Lions’ two early penalties came from the Crusaders infringing at the scrum, and at the next scrum the referee had a word with Whitelock to sort it out. This was a massive moment: the Lions pack is easily their most potent weapon, especially at the scrum and lineout, and both worked brilliantly today. Given Warburton didn’t play it is hard to see how he will get his spot back to captain the side. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Lions dominated the scrum – the Crusaders got fired up shortly afterwards and put on an almighty shove to win a penalty of their own – but they certainly got the best of their opponents. George Kruis was superb, and with Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje as options the Lions are extremely well covered in the second row and loose forward positions.

I had written earlier saying how I thought the Crusaders would switch the ball wide one way and then the other, creating huge gaps to exploit as the Blues had done, but this didn’t happen. Why? Well, either Warren Gatland reads this blog or he and his team know a thing or two about rugby instructed his men to deny the Crusaders time and space on the ball. They came up extremely fast in defence and for the first time this season I saw the Crusaders unsettled, if not quite rattled. Both Richie Mo’unga and Luke Romano made unforced errors, something they rarely do in a normal match. The Lions defence, as the score would suggest, was absolutely superb and not only kept the Crusaders out but stopped them playing. This will be important in the tests: there’s no point trying to defend your line against the All Blacks for half and hour, it won’t work. But if you stop them from playing how they want, you get to keep them away from your line.

It wasn’t all good, though. Owen Farrell had a brilliant game, one of the best I’ve seen, and with his kicking it’s hard to see how he can be left out of the side. He is infinitely more mature than he was during his early England days and the last Lions tour and it shows. Ben Te’o was also good as well, and sucked in players.

But a lot of people are also praising Connor Murray and although he did have a good game on some levels, if that had been a test match people would be cursing him. Around the 30 minute mark the Lions were ten or fifteen metres out in a brilliant attacking position with all the momentum, a serious try-scoring opportunity, and his pass went to somebody’s ankles. Thirty seconds later the Crusaders are on the Lions’ line where they are unlucky not to score. The All Blacks would have punished that, and it could well have been the best opportunity for the Lions to score all game.

Unfortunately, this happened several times. Jonathan Davies spilled a ball that a Kiwi probably wouldn’t a few metres out, and when Ben Te’o broke the line brilliantly he flung the ball miles over Liam Williams’ head. Had it gone in front of his chest, Williams would have been in for a try. Anthony Watson made a terrific line break and ran up half the pitch, but timed his pass badly and the ball got dropped a few metres from the tryline. These will be costly, costly mistakes against the All Blacks.

So there is still a lot of work to be done on the basic ball handling, but already it’s a massive improvement from the Lions, the forwards are shaping up to be formidable indeed, and they’ve secured an important win. Let’s hope they can keep this going all the way to the first test.

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The Lions v The Blues

Back in March I wrote about the yawning chasm between rugby played by the Kiwis and that by the Six Nations sides:

A Welsh side will be attacking the opponent’s line at the five metre mark and the scrum-half will, from the base of a ruck, fling the ball to the inside centre who has made a charge from miles back and is at full pelt. Only the ball will be either way above the centre’s head or down by his knees, meaning he will have to check his run and reach up or down for it. By the time he’s got going again, he’s tackled. Watch a Kiwi team in the same position and the ball will be taken right on the chest, nine times out of ten. That’s just one example, but it is representative of almost every aspect of the game. The Kiwis have not only mastered the basic skills at age ten, they’ve then gone on to master the secondary skills such as offloading in the tackle, passes out the back of the hand, and all the other little tricks that make for good viewing.

When I saw yesterday morning that the British & Irish Lions had lost 22-16 to the Auckland Blues, I had an inkling how it happened before I’d seen anything other than the score.

Last night I went home and watched the match, and nothing surprised me. The Lions can compete in the forwards at set pieces: they were solid at scrums and lineouts and there are easily enough players in the squad to compete with the All Blacks, let alone the Super Rugby franchises, in these areas. It was wholly unsurprising that the Lions’ solitary try came from a lineout drive: New Zealand teams have never been the best at defending against these, something that the good Australian and South African teams have taken full advantage of in the past. I predict that the areas in which the Lions will do well on this tour is in winning penalties at the scrum and lineout drives close to the line.

The forwards are pretty good in open play too. Both Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje played very well, making plenty of tackles and challenging at the breakdown. I think the Lions forwards can compete in open play on the defensive, at least against the Super Rugby sides.

It is in the backs where the gulf in class really opens up. A tactic the Kiwis love is to shift the play out wide, stretching the defence, and then quickly shift it back the other way leaving a huge gap to be exploited. This is how they scored their first try: a superb kick sent the play out to the righthand touchline and a long, floated pass sent it back to the left where Rieko Ioane left Jack Nowell for dead and ran through empty space to score. The Kiwi teams do this time and time again, and the worrying thing is the Blues are probably the worst at it. The Crusaders absolutely excel at it, as do the Hurricanes, and they will certainly use this tactic against the Lions. Of course, playing like this requires the halfback to be able to kick from the hand with pin-point accuracy and the centres (and everyone else) to fling long, floating passes across half the pitch that go straight to hand. The Kiwis can do this all day long (particularly Beauden Barrett) but, as I said in my piece in March, the Six Nations sides simply lack the skills to do so.

To make matters worse for the Lions, the New Zealanders have taken to leaving a lock or No. 8 roaming out near the wing when on the attack: Kieran Ried and Sam Whitelock seem to spend more time as attacking centres than they do in the pack during some matches. The Hurricanes hooker Dane Coles is another one who likes to loiter on the wing, but he might be injured for this series. What this does is force the defending side to commit one or two players to a proper tackle, leaving space open for the wing running up in support.

This is made possible by the New Zealand forwards being extremely good at offloading in the tackle, so much so they’ve made it a central part of their game. Ihaia West’s try near the end came as a result of a superb offload out the back of the hand by No. 8 Steven Luatua to Sonny Bill Williams, who then did the same for Ihaia West. Of course we all knew SBW can offload, that’s a half his game, but the forwards are now doing the same. Can we expect the Lions forwards to loiter on the wings providing an extra attacking option, or to offload in the tackle to release a centre flying up the inside? Probably not.

I also said this in March:

It wasn’t only the skill, it was the thinking behind it all. One of the things that frustrates me the most when watching Wales is how damned thick they are: there is no imagination, no inventiveness, no sneaky cleverness.

A telling moment came in the first half when Jarod Payne almost scored a try but was forced into touch by the tackler. The Lions back line pressed forward at speed and with quick hands, but they did so in a straight line. When Leigh Halfpenny – who had an excellent game, particularly when he joined the line in attack – got the ball he just ran straight and passed to the man outside in a manner that was wholly predictable. What a Kiwi would have done is move inside slightly, draw the defence in, and delay the pass to open a large gap on the outside (watch Ryan Crotty play). This would have given his winger the extra room to run in and score, and as we saw on the replay inches matter. Such small differences in skill and thinking make all the difference, and the northern hemisphere is someway behind the curve.

Of course, the Lions haven’t been playing together very long and the team is far from settled. I don’t buy the excuse about jet lag, the Kiwi teams routinely fly to South Africa for Super Rugby matches (and vice versa) and they seem to manage. But they are rusty and they didn’t get much rhythm going. I am sure they will improve as the tour goes on and the first team starts to take shape, but I fear the fundamental gaps in skill and class will remain. I think the Crusaders will beat them, and so will the Hurricanes (depending on what side they put out). The Lions ought to beat the Chiefs and the Highlanders, who have been inconsistent this season and might not be able to match the Lions’ pack.

As for the All Blacks? Well, the Lions need to win the first test to avoid a whitewash. History shows the All Blacks perform badly in the first test and are absolutely devastating thereafter. I only hope the Lions play as well as they can and make a decent fist of it.

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The Bundesliga Fails Again

I’ve been critical of the cosy arrangement between Bayern Munich and the Bundesliga before:

It has long been my opinion that the Bundesliga is run for the benefit of Bayern Munich and the national football team, whereby anyone who shows a smidgen of talent in the other clubs is snapped up by Bayern Munich who immediately trebles the player’s wages.  Other clubs have almost no chance of competing unless they could stumble upon a few youngsters and assemble a side that could be held together long enough to win before the bigger clubs came and swiped their best players, as Klopp managed to do.  As a method of winning the World Cup it proved successful as Bayern Munich players formed the core of the German team that won in Brazil in 2014, but I am doubtful that it benefit the long term health of German football.  Bayern Munich won the league by 10 points last year, 28 points ahead of the 3rd placed team; they won by much the same margins the year before that; in the 2013-2014 season – Guardiola’s first in charge – they won with 90 points, 19 ahead of their nearest rival and 26 ahead of third place; much the same was true for the season before that.

Last week Bayern Munich crashed out of the Champions League quarter finals with a 6-3 aggregate defeat to Real Madrid. This is the shape of the Bundesliga table right now:

As usual, Bayern are cruising to a 5th successive Bundesliga title having lost only 2 games in the league (and they’re still in the cup). Probably the first difficult match they had all season was when they met Real Madrid. Little wonder that, despite the vast array of talent on their benches, they lost. The players probably forgot what it’s like to have to mark the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a hat-trick in the second game, including one with his head.

The other German teams aren’t doing much better: Borussia Dortmund also lost their tie 6-3 on aggregate against Monaco in the CL, and Shalke went out of the Europa League at the hands of Ajax the next day.

Despite the entire German football system favouring Bayern Munich at the expense of all other teams, they’ve not won the Champions League since 2013, and before that it was in 2000. This is not a great success rate. True, they have a good history of getting to the semi-finals, but this is hardly worth sacrificing an entire league for.

The problem was summed up neatly by two of the English commentators during the Real Madrid match. One speculated what would happen when veterans like Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller retire. The other quipped that they’d just buy Borussia Dortmund’s best players in those positions.

The quality of football in the English Premier League might not be as good as that of Spain’s La Liga or even Italy’s Serie A, and English clubs have performed woefully in Europe for several years now. But at least the EPL is fiercely competitive and hasn’t become the farce that the Bundesliga now is. I’m wondering how long German football can continue like this before people start losing interest.

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The Price of Winning

Sometimes I wonder what the hell people really want:

A “medal at any cost” approach created a “culture of fear” at British Cycling, says former rider Wendy Houvenaghel.

The Olympic silver medallist accused the organisation of “ageism” and having “zero regard” for her welfare.

British Cycling subsequently admitted it did not pay “sufficient care and attention” to the wellbeing of staff and athletes at the expense of winning medals, an approach Houvenaghel attested to in her BBC interview.

Houvenaghel, 42, spoke to BBC Sport during its State of Sport week, which on Thursday examines the issue of athlete welfare versus a win-at-all-costs culture.

A government-commissioned review, headed by 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Grey-Thompson, into safety and wellbeing in British sport, is due to be published imminently.

It is expected to recommend significant reforms designed to improve the way athletes are treated by governing bodies.

Okay, right. But I remember years ago Britain was spectacularly crap at sports, damned near all of them, and we reached a particularly low point at the Atlanta Olympics 1996 when we won a single, solitary gold medal. One of the reasons offered for why British teams and individuals did so poorly at sport was that we didn’t take it seriously enough, we lacked professionalism, and we did not have the ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality that others, particularly the Australians, seemed to live by. The government decided that this was not good and Something Must Be Done.

So they hosed money at the Olympics, particularly at those sports where Britain stood a good chance of winning medals in the future, one of which was cycling. With the money came professional coaches, many of them pinched from Australia, and the adoption of highly-professional training regimes aimed solely at delivering medals and securing victories. And it worked: Britain finished 4th in the medal table in Beijing, 3rd in London, and 2nd in Rio de Janeiro. We also saw a British rider win the Tour de France in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 as Team Sky practically dominated those years. Whatever we once were, British cycling is now a serious force to be reckoned with, and similar stories can be found elsewhere, particularly in those niche sports which for which decent funding makes a big difference and which deliver easy medals at the Olympics. No longer are we a nation of bumbling amateurs who believe taking part is all that matters and winning not really all that important.

Until today, that is. Now it appears that winning medals at any cost is unacceptable, particularly if sexism is involved, and our athletes have been treated unduly harshly. So here’s my suggestion: defund all efforts to win Olympic medals immediately and let these sports go back to people doing it for fun. If we get laughed at for finishing behind Latvia in the medal table, then so what? At least we know everyone will be happy, including the taxpayer.

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Ford, Farrell, and Rugby League

Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s it was common to see articles in the English press taking swipes at rugby league in favour of rugby union. This was particularly the case when, as rugby union became professional and the money started coming in, the trend of high-profile union players switching to league reversed and union clubs in England began to pinch what were thought to  be the best league players. Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell, and Henry Paul all switched codes, although only Robinson really made the impact everyone hoped for. There was a lot of talk around 2000 about Kris Radlinski, the Wigan fullback, being enticed away from league and this was seen by some as being the death-knell of rugby league. The transfer never happened: Radlinski stayed at Wigan until he retired, to be replaced by Mike Ashton who did make the switch, but there was a lot of animosity between the codes at the time.

There were a lot of complaints from rugby league fans about bias against their sport in the “southern” press. Stephen Jones at the Times was particularly idiotic in this regard, coming out with demonstrable nonsense regarding the state of rugby league (e.g. denying the league clubs’ extraordinary ability to replace departing stars with talent coming through the youth systems and feeder clubs). The league fans also took aim at the BBC for not covering their sport, particularly in relation to televised games. The supreme irony was that the bulk of rugby league fans were dyed-in-the-wool, old-school lefties who worshipped the BBC and absolutely despised Murdoch, yet it was Sky TV which single-handedly save their sport from oblivion while the BBC, even by their own admission, ignored them. If you ever want to know why English rugby league – which was probably the superior code in the period I am talking about – never managed to grow beyond its heartlands as their union cousins went from strength to strength, just spend a couple of hours on the forums of a rugby league fansite and see what kind of morons you’re dealing with.

Anyway, I say all this in order to explain why I found this article on the professional relationship between George Ford and Owen Farrell refreshing:

Ford and Farrell were first introduced to each other’s abilities while playing rugby league as under-11s, Farrell at the famous Wigan St Pat’s club, Ford from 30 miles east in Saddleworth. But they were already linked, both born into league royalty, raised with ball in hand and obsession the all-around norm.

Ford, the son of Mike, scrum-half for Wigan, Oldham and Castleford; elder brother Joe, a Premiership 10 himself; younger brother Jacob to scrap with and wrestle; his next-door neighbour Paul Sculthorpe, St Helens and Great Britain great, always happy to throw a ball around with the kid on the street outside.

Farrell, his dad Andy making his full Wigan debut at 16, winning the Challenge Cup at 17, playing for England at 18, becoming the youngest Great Britain skipper in history at 21; his uncle Wigan captain Sean O’Loughlin; his grandfather Keiron O’Loughlin, who played for 260 times Wigan and 119 times for Widnes, including at stand-off in the Challenge Cup final win over Wigan at Wembley in 1984.

The young Farrell had sat in a Wigan dressing-room containing talents like Jason Robinson, Kris Radlinski and Denis Betts. Ford, 18 months younger but never deferring to his older and bigger friend, had followed his father through his peripatetic coaching career: living in camp with Ireland aged eight; going on the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour as an 11-year-old; sitting in England’s dressing-room before the 2007 World Cup final.

I liked that nod to the rugby league influence on the current England rugby union halves combination. I never quite understood the animosity that existed between the two sports, a century after the split. In many ways they are quite different sports utilising different skills watched by different people for different reasons. Like the animosity which sometimes exists between fans of rugby and association football, I don’t know why people cannot enjoy both. I know I do.

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A Question on Rugby

Tom Fordyce, Chief sports writer at the BBC, asks:

England equal the All Blacks – but are they on their level?

I can answer that emphatically: no.

Don’t get me wrong, England are good – and I say this as a Wales supporter. Since Eddie Jones has taken over he has given what was already a talented squad the ability to both win games with some style and, if necessary, grind out a win by holding off defeat. England have become extremely difficult to beat as their 18-match streak attests, and they are by quite some margin the best team in the northern hemisphere.

But there is one thing here that is not being acknowledged: there is the entire rugby playing world, and then there are the All Blacks. This has been the case for some years now: Australia has always been able to beat them in the odd match, but they haven’t held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002. Australian rugby is still strong enough to beat Wales, Scotland, France and on most days England and Ireland, but as I wrote here, Australian rugby is in somewhat of a slump and has been for a while. South Africa are in even worse shape, having taken a reasonable team to the last world cup but are now fielding an embarrassment of a side ridden through with racial politics which are borne out in performances on the pitch. Meanwhile New Zealand have just gone from strength to strength as Fordyce notes on the way to answering his own question in much the same manner I did:

The World Cup-winning All Blacks side contained arguably the two finest ever in their positions, fly-half Dan Carter and flanker Richie McCaw, as well as other superstars in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. They were the first team in history to retain the Webb Ellis trophy, like the Brazil side that won football’s World Cup in 1970 at a sanctified level, taking their sport to heights that none before had touched.

When McCaw and Carter stepped away, the team continued to develop rather than atrophy. The XV that set the original 18-match mark with the 37-10 Bledisloe Cup win over the Wallabies contained eight players who would make most critics’ fantasy world team: Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read.

Most England fans don’t watch the Super XV rugby, and I suspect even fewer Wales supporters do. The Super Rugby is shown at odd times on Sky TV, meaning most people in the northern hemisphere won’t have the time to watch this tournament which produces something like eight or ten games per weekend. This isn’t a problem for me: lighthouse keepers go green with envy when they see how much time I have on my hands. At least those guys have to polish the lamp every now and again. Ever since I went to Nigeria in 2010 I’ve watched most Super XV matches in which at least one New Zealand team featured.

I’ve also watched almost every Six Nations game played over that same period, and the difference couldn’t be more stark. I might have mentioned this on TNA’s old blog, but the basic skills of the New Zealand players are an order of magnitude better than those of their northern hemisphere counterparts. A Welsh side will be attacking the opponent’s line at the five metre mark and the scrum-half will, from the base of a ruck, fling the ball to the inside centre who has made a charge from miles back and is at full pelt. Only the ball will be either way above the centre’s head or down by his knees, meaning he will have to check his run and reach up or down for it. By the time he’s got going again, he’s tackled. Watch a Kiwi team in the same position and the ball will be taken right on the chest, nine times out of ten. That’s just one example, but it is representative of almost every aspect of the game. The Kiwis have not only mastered the basic skills at age ten, they’ve then gone on to master the secondary skills such as offloading in the tackle, passes out the back of the hand, and all the other little tricks that make for good viewing.

The weekend before I went to Portugal I watched a Six Nations match with a foreign friend of mine, who (thanks to a Welsh ex-boyfriend) was not a complete stranger to rugby. Shortly afterwards we watched the Chiefs play the Blues in the Super XV, and even she noticed the difference in speed and skill. It really was like watching another sport. It wasn’t only the skill, it was the thinking behind it all. One of the things that frustrates me the most when watching Wales is how damned thick they are: there is no imagination, no inventiveness, no sneaky cleverness. They can’t even manage angled runs half the time: Jamie Roberts is incapable of doing anything other than barelling straight into his opposite number, who in the modern era duly tackles him with ease. England aren’t much better, with the geniuses running the show on the pitch taking an entire half to work out that Italy were playing within the laws during their recent Six Nations match. Watch Aaron Smith and Dane Coles for a while and see how finely tuned their match awareness is, or track the off-the-ball movements of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith. As my friend pointed out, they’re passing the ball without even looking because they know damned well a support player (or two or three) will be hurtling up on their shoulder.

The All Blacks are beatable, very occasionally, as Ireland proved a few months back. The opening test of a series is normally quite close as the Kiwis overcome some sort of lethargy before obliterating their opponents in the final two matches. Anyone who has watched the All Blacks over the past five years or so will know that they can be beaten over 60 minutes without much difficulty. Only they bring on five or six world-class players from the subs bench and never let up on the intensity, which almost always secures them a comfortable victory by the time the final whistle blows.

England are good, and they might even run the All Blacks close in a single game, and half time could well see the men in white leading comfortably. But over a three-match series we would see that, despite being top of the rest of the pile in world rugby, New Zealand are way off on the horizon and the distance is growing.

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