Barrett not the All Blacks Goal Kicker

The All Blacks vs Namibia was not a great night for the boot. There were only 6 kicks out of 10 that went between the posts. The All Blacks kicked 5/9 conversions, but only 4 of the 8 conversions that Barrett attempted were successful, along with one penalty kick. Beauden’s personal goal kicking success rate in this game was only 55.5%.

1443128715255Barrett also was quick to line up his kicks, looking like he was rushing the process. This is on the back of a year of disappointing kicking in Super Rugby with a success rate of just 64%. He missed three crucial penalty kicks in the first half of the Super Rugby final; 9 points that could have won the Hurricanes the game. It would have been nice to have seen Colin Slade given a go in the second half at the goal kicks against Namibia.

However, South African statistical analysis website  goalkickers.co.za offers an even more troubling picture for Barrett’s performance.  The website not only takes into account the success rate of each goalkicker in the Rugby World Cup so far, but also the difficulty of each kick depending on position on the field based on angle, distance, altitude, side of field, the foot being used, and the score at the time (to suggest the level of mental pressure on the kicker).  Each kick taken in the tournament can be assigned a success probability and compared to the average success from that position among other players at the tournament.

The average rating at the World Cup after two weeks of play is 4.75 out of 10.  Dan Carter scores 5.620, making all of his kicks in the Argentina game.  Beauden Barrett scores only 2.960 from his performance against Namibia.  The average kick difficulty for Barrett during the game was calculated to be 5.16.  This is below the standard of what would be expected of an AVERAGE professional goal kicker in his situation.  While few goal kickers in the tournament could nail all 4 kicks that he missed, it left 8 points on the field that would be crucial in tighter, higher pressure game.  Based on the performance of the average kicker so far, Barrett should have been able to at least make one more of 4 kicks he missed.

Barrett made all three of his easy kicks from within 12 metres of the posts but when the angle got tougher he was found wanting.

He nailed his first conversion from out wide, a 41m kick at a 34 degree angle to the posts with an average success in professional rugby of 50.76 per cent, and his second, but then the radar started to malfunction.

First there was a 39m kick with a 58.69 per cent success rate, then one with a 47.95 per cent success rate, then a 57.7 per centre, and one with a 50.76 per cent rate. – Ben Strang, Stuff.co.nz

Hopefully Hansen finally learns from this that Beauden is simply not getting his radar back and is too much of a liability. 8 points left uncollected from tries did not matter against Namibia, but if Dan Carter is not available in the knockout stages, we are in serious SERIOUS trouble if we are expected to rely on Barrett’s boot. This could be a coach killer.

Barrett is a great tactical commander on the field and is excellent at running the ball, especially as an impact player from the bench.  There is no disputing that.  But entrusting him with the additional duty of goal kicking in the knock out stages is tournament suicide for New Zealand.

Exiting the 2015 World Cup due to an inability to accept the stats on the part of the coaches will make for an extremely frustrating “four more years.”  If the England vs Wales game needed to remind anybody of anything, it is that kicking is the most important aspect of scoring points in a world cup.

Can Japan Back Up their Win against the Boks?

One of the best games of rugby I have watched in terms of sheer elation, was last weekend when after 75 minutes of watching Japan actually compete with the number 3 ranked rugby nation in the world, they managed the impossible.  They won!

japan beat south africa rugby2It wasn’t until the 85th minute that Japan secured their world shaking victory over the Springboks.  And while I was delighted with the Brave Blossoms’ incredible performance, I never believed they were going to pull the upset off.  I didn’t even believe they would manage a draw.  These things just don’t happen in rugby when we are talking about one of the world powers vs a minnow.  I accepted that Japan was going to have a very close loss to South Africa rather than being crushed by the Springboks, as I, and nearly everyone had predicted.  In fact, I wasn’t even planning on watching the whole game…

Japan had other ideas.  They made it impossible for me to stop watching.  I never expected they would last the full 80 minutes, but I could not help but watch what was clearly one of their greatest performances.  To have come close would have been unexpected, memorable, and impressive.  But in the last few minutes they had a real chance to draw the game, something that would have been amazing in itself considering who they were playing.  A historic draw against historically the best performing rugby nation at a world cup would be something to celebrate.

When Japan turned down the penalty kick that, if successful, would have ended the game with a draw, I thought that was it.  They had played not only with amazing courage, but incredible determination and skill.  This game would be talked about for a long time and unsettle the Springboks in a massive way.  But it would still be a loss for Japan.  And then Japan scored the try that won the game.  I think it was the 83rd or 84th minute.

A win in extra time.

A win for Japan over the Springboks most experienced side ever fielded.

Incredible!

Coach Eddie Jones and Captain Michael Leitch said that they had targeted this game against the Springboks for the last two years. The Brave Blossoms had found the self-belief to take on the side that has consistently been the number 2 rugby nation in the world over the last decade.  They had gone over every scenario for the game in their preparation.  The players had given everything, and their win was one that showed the world how serious Japan can be as a rugby nation and as a worthy host of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
The win was so shocking that for a few minutes, I wondered if the Springboks had thrown the game.  I wondered if the game could have been an example of match fixing.  Had this been done as a favor on the part of World Rugby’s administration to boost stocks in Japan given their status as the hosts of the next world cup?  Or perhaps the Springboks wanted to finish their pool as runners-up to avoid a possible match with the All Blacks?

japan win against south africa rugbyI was able to quickly dismiss these when I looked at the time on the clock.  If the Springboks or the referee had wanted to give Japan the win then they would not have waited until extra time.  If you go out there with the intent to throw a game, then why were you still in the lead in the 80th minute?  Clearly, this was a case of Japan playing their best ever game, and the Springboks playing below their usual standard.  Suddenly Argentina’s victory over the Springboks in Durban a couple of months ago looks less impressive.  The Springboks have serious problems within their camp, and even more serious problems in terms of political pressure and lack of support.  The combination was enough for the Brave Blossoms to create the biggest upset in rugby history.

So, was this game a fluke?  Can Japan back this up with another win, this time against Scotland on Wednesday?  With only a three day turnaround before once again taking the field, the Japanese players will be sore and perhaps mentally exhausted.  Scotland, on the other hand, will be fresh and itching to play their first game in the 2015 tournament.

Ah, but the Springboks were ranked no. 3 in the world, and Japan was no. 13, whereas Scotland is, as of Monday, Sep 22, now ranked just below Japan.  If Japan can slay a giant, then surely they can beat a relative equal?

Scotland always knew that their toughest games in their pool would be the Springboks and Samoa, in that order.  Japan would have been challenging, but not exactly a threat.  Japan is a team, after all, that has only ever won two world cup games.  Suddenly, the other top five nations, New Zealand, Australia, England and Ireland (and perhaps even France, who should have already learned this lesson), were given cause for alarm.  I think everyone felt the Springboks’ pain, even though everyone but South African supporters would have been cheering Japan’s unbelievable result.  Scotland now have a must win first game against Japan, or their hopes of a real shot of getting into a quarter final will be gone.

Like I mentioned above, Japan put everything into their game against South Africa, including their hearts.  They will be more than just physically exhausted and bruised.  They are also dealing with a massive amount of media attention as they have become the darlings of the world cup and the feel good story that the media and public want.  They are not used to the attention, and they are not used to winning on such a high profile tournament.  They are going up against Scotland, who have been alerted to the threat Japan poses.  Scotland will be extremely fresh and prepared.  Back to back excellence is hard to achieve.

It will come down to skill and endurance on the day.  While I may be cheering for Japan and hoping they can continue their success, I think it will be too much to ask.  They aren’t quite the consistent side they need to be… yet.  Here’s hoping I will be wrong.  And as Japan have proved already, anything can happen in sport.

Richie McCaw, King of Cheats?

Rugby is meant to be a gentleman’s game.  There is a code of conduct that is at the core of the sport.  You get roughed up now and then, but you don’t complain.  You be a man and take it, quietly and without complaint.  This is not a sport for babies or playacting on the field.

riche-sin-binWhen Richie stuck his foot out and tripped Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe during the All Blacks vs Los Pumas match last weekend, I was shocked, along with the rest of the household watching the TV.  To give you some context, both Leanne and I were wearing our No. 7 All Blacks jerseys and had just been talking him up to our friend who was new to rugby.  Richie doesn’t normally do things like that.  And it is true, he doesn’t.  In 143 international test matches, this was only the 3rd Yellow Card offense he had been pinged with.  And what has been the nature of those Yellow Cards?  Breaking the rules, or resorting to violence?  Until now, it has never been the latter.

Three Yellow Cards.  Does that mean he has only offended three times?  Of course not, but he is no where near the “cheater” that rugby fans outside of New Zealand want him to be.

In this case, however, he had legitimately indulged in perhaps his only moment of genuine on field thuggery in his career.  By thuggery, I mean actually maliciously lashing out.  This is a guy who is famous for taking the physical abuse and bullying that has been dealt to him over the years.  In the last four years, he has been punched in the face, elbowed in the head, kneed, and no doubt much more that we don’t see in the mix of the ruck.  In his twelve or more years as a professional rugby player, he has often been a target due to his ability as a good openside flanker to disrupt the ball at the breakdown and force turnovers.  For the genuine thugs out there, this is enough to cause them to take a shot at him.  Does Richie punch back?  No.  I have never seen him retaliate when he has been attacked.

So that’s why it is such a surprise to see him have his “brain explosion” on the field and deliberately trip up his opposite number among the Argentinians.  Lobbe had just picked up the ball from the ruck and was starting to run.  There were few defenders left among the All Blacks line and Richie suddenly poked his foot out and tripped Lobbe up.  The TMO caught it, alerted the ref, Wayne Barnes, and a yellow card was given.  Riche was sent to the bin as the crowd, rightfully, booed.

Given what an upstanding guy Richie McCaw is, there are two possibilities that could explain his surprise actions.  1.) He saw a hole in the All Blacks defense and in that split second made a stupid choice to trip Lobbe to try and stop a potential try being scored.  2.) The Argentinian players had been provocative and managed to get under his skin enough for him to finally retaliate in the heat of the moment and the pressure.  I think the real answer is a mix of the two.

Richie does not do this sort of stuff.  To openly trip someone for the first time in 143 tests, with his level of experience and leadership is just not his character.  He is often depicted by New Zealand fans and media as a super human, perhaps even angelic in that he can do no wrong.  The trip is a reminder that yes, he is human and capable of frustration and desperation born cynicism like the rest of us.

But let’s remember something… he is not Quade Cooper.  Nor is he Scott Higganbotham, or Dean Greyling, all players who have physically assaulted McCaw during games.  That’s why it is sad to see the ignorance out there when people try to compare the booing of Richie McCaw to New Zealand’s booing of Quade Cooper.  A recent New Zealand Herald cartoon depicts New Zealand fans at the game being shocked that Argentinians would villainize and boo a player, the irony of the cartoon being that this is supposedly exactly what New Zealand fans have done to Quade Cooper.  This does show the ignorance and casual rugby knowledge of the cartoonist.  Richie has never thrown a punch, elbow or knee at anyone.

Quade earned his place as a pantomime villain for NZ fans by his thuggish behaviour.  Quade has 4 yellow cards in his relatively short test career, while the most capped test player in the world just hit number three in 143 games.  And this is the first instance of McCaw lashing out physically, although it was a trip, not a punch.  There is little room for comparison.  McCaw’s record is overlooked by those that envy his skill and secretly wish he was playing for their national team.  It’s that simple.

Richie apologized publicly at the press conference and privately to the team.  He acknowledged the stupidity of his action and that he knew he had made a mistake the second he gave in to the impulse.  For one minor indiscretion though, he hardly deserves the treatment he is being given by a rabid and envious media.

Finally, to go back to the gentleman’s game.  Rugby is a sport for men.  Boys play it, but they pride themselves on behaving like tough guys who aren’t there to complain.  They are there to play.  If Richie was indeed stirred up by indiscretions and taunts from the Pumas players, then he would not use this as an excuse to the public.  You don’t make excuses.  You man up, take the criticism and get on with the game.  Telling the media what led to his “brain explosion” would just sound like making excuses, but it is worth considering that Richie is human and we all have limits to our patience.  The Pumas already had one player sent off by Yellow Card earlier in the first half.  They were pushing their luck like everyone else.  Lobbe is also a great player, and like Richie, an openside flanker whose position often makes him an irritant at the ruck.  Richie may not have been so cynical as he appeared in the replay when you consider his record and past conduct over the years.

Is he a cheat?  No.  He’s an openside, the same as Michael Hooper and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.  Their job description is to disrupt at the ruck and to do that well, you have to be able to walk the fine line of the rugby laws.  Does this have anything to do with tripping someone?  No.  In this case, this is not about “cheating”, this is just about red mist.  Is Richie human?  Yes, he is.  That is what makes his achievements on the field in 143 international tests so worthy of respect.