Category Archives: End of Year Tour

The killer rugby season

Daniel Carter of New Zealand walks off injured

It looks like recent efforts by players, administrators and coaches to push the governing bodies to institute a synchronous global rugby season between northern and southern hemispheres have come to naught.  The NFL and NRL both have mandatory 16 week breaks between seasons.  Whereas top level rugby union players in the Southern Hemisphere, in order to fit in with northern hemisphere international playing windows, only get four to five weeks off to recover each year!

In their inevitable retirement from sports, players in their 30s and 40s face a life with a broken body, chronic pain and mental illness.  The obvious physicality of rugby has changed very little over the years with the exception of the pace and the length of the season which continues to increase.  Broadcasters want more games and rugby’s regional governing bodies want more money with the welfare of the players taking a backseat.

The existing season format in the southern hemisphere delivers 14 international tests a year in addition to 25 weeks of Super Rugby for top level players.  Current deals between broadcasters and rugby’s governing bodies like SANZAR interrupt the Super Rugby season to allow the June international tests, effectively placing that tournament on hiatus to accommodate international tours from the northern hemisphere.  Super Rugby then resumes through July and August, followed by the Rugby Championship which commences the full international test season.  

Players who are not selected for the international sides have a little relief, continuing in their domestic tournaments in New Zealand and South Africa which end in October.  While  the players who have not been selected to represent their country enjoy an 11-12 week break, the internationals continue until the last week of November.

Contact sports like rugby put players’ bodies through enormous physical abuse over their years crashing into one another on the pitch.  Calls for better monitoring and treatment of concussions have been growing among leading sports authorities around the world.   Rugby players selected for international sides receive the worst of it with no sign of the seasons getting shorter despite efforts by the International Rugby Players Association attempting to bring the governing bodies to the table.

One simple solution is to move the June internationals to late July, allowing Super Rugby to conclude and creating an unbroken second half of the year for international tests.  Meanwhile, the New Zealand Rugby Union clearly has no intention of shortening the playing season despite giving players its sympathy.  The NZRU added a 14th Test this year against Japan and will likely repeat this in 2014 with a match in the USA in the name of exporting the brand.

709934-richie-mccawSo, will players continue to exhaust themselves, heighten the frequency of injury and shorten their careers?   It seems it doesn’t matter who is wearing the jersey, so long as the financial machine keeps on moving.  A far cry from Rugby Union’s once vaunted idealism.  But what can be done to protect the players if one of the longest playing seasons of any contact sport can not be reduced in length?  Are players going to be the victims?  Or is the expectation for them to play every game of the season simply unrealistic?

The NZRU has tried several tactics to protect and prolong its key All Blacks, using the rotation of players in the starting XV and more recently, six month sabbaticals.  Conrad Smith is currently on sabbatical, following Richie McCaw’s example. It worked wonders for McCaw as he was finally able to get over compounded injuries and rekindle his passion and energy for the game.  However, paid leave is only an option for star players.  

With little other choice available for players to survive, rotation seems like the only available option.  With this in mind, perhaps the tour squads need to be expanded, much like the All Blacks have done in 2013, albeit with financial resources to do so thanks to healthy sponsorship deals.  With a wider squad, players can routinely be rested and their physical work load reduced with the added benefit of building depth for the side.

The dangers of not managing player welfare may be bad news for the fans and national pride, but it is far worse for the players themselves.  Look at Dan Carter, a player whose talents are universally recognized, yet he has suffered a string of injuries that have denied him continuity of play since the 2011 World Cup.  In 2013 he managed only a handful of games before celebrating his 100th cap by hobbling off the pitch at Twickenam in the 25th minute with an ankle injury.  He will now start his six month sabbatical rehabilitating rather than recovering.

Top level international rugby is brutal.  All Blacks who struggled to make the Starting XV have taken lucrative off shore contracts to play shortened, less merciless seasons in Japan.  They are thinking of their future beyond rugby and making the most of their personal playing window.  Arguably, they can make more money and prolong their careers outside of the international destruction derby.

Perhaps the onus is on the coaches and selectors.  Perhaps the culture itself needs to evolve.  Selectors must take more deliberate and overt steps to manage their players with the stress and endurance of the year long season in mind.

2013 England vs New Zealand @ Twickenam, England

Dan Carter 100 Test Caps

All Blacks win 30-22 v England

It was perhaps the most intimidating Test match on the All Blacks calendar for 2013: the return to Twickenam after their loss at the end of last year’s international season.  In 2013, beating the Springboks at altitude in Johannesburg was a great challenge, but the All Blacks have risen on every occasion to match and overpower their opposition.  Whether they play beautifully or just well enough, they get the job done.

Like the Wallabies, the English confidence doesn’t need much to  fire them up and lift their game.  For the All Blacks, the sting of having lost after playing so atypically could only be soothed by victory on the same ground. After all, England’s 2012 win was not entirely their own.

autumn-union-blacks-lee-dickson-england-aaron-smith_3036678

The norovirus that had the majority of the team, including the team doctor vomiting and barely eating just days before last year’s lone defeat was the most obvious reason for their lack of form.  If England wanted to prove their victory last year wasn’t a fluke, then they needed to back up their performance during the All Blacks’ return. The true test was whether the All Blacks, while fit and healthy, had anything to fear from England.

The loss to England last year left that question mark hanging in the air over just how dominant the All Blacks could be. While their historical winning percentage since 1905 is an impressive 75%, the Graham Henry / Steve Hansen era has risen to an incredible 86%. This partially coincides with the epoch of Dan Carter, and yet he lasted only 25 minutes, reminding us that he is just one of many talents in the All Blacks’ very deep pockets.

Saturday’s Test served to reinforce those stunning statistics to the English.   Once again, the All Blacks came out on top.  In the last 11 games played between the two sides, England have only managed a solitary win.  

Like last year, they stand on the verge of making history.  If any team can complete a year with a perfect record, it is this current All Blacks team. They have set themselves up for that achievement after a great performance in one of rugby’s most hallowed and vocal grounds.  Although the All Blacks wobbled in the middle period, after falling behind briefly, they slowly took back control of the game.  It was a real scare, but less so it seems for the All Blacks themselves.  Keeping their cool, focusing on the tasks at hand, they reasserted ownership of the pitch and outclassed their opposition.

Julian-Savea-New-Zealand-try-v-England-2013_3036721Julian Savea profited from the skilfull passes of both Kieran Read and Ma’a Nonu to score twice.  His final try overcoming not one or two, but three defenders to ground the ball!  Read scored the second try himself thanks to an unusual break by Owen Franks, linking through Isreal Dagg.  Piutau had flashes of brilliance and Cruden managed yet another charge down.

The big story of the day was Carter’s ankle injury that saw him come off the pitch early.  It was his 100th cap as an All Black and an unhappy twist of the knife after battling injuries that have plagued him since the 2011 World Cup.  Carter was hoping to find a little rhythm before the end of the season, but he never had time to flourish.

Carter has been an outstanding shepherd for the team, directing them with his boot and accumulating penalties and conversions that have so often made the difference in tight games. He has six months to heal during a pre-planned sabbatical, but it is now impossible to shy away from the question of his longevity.

In the week building up to the Test against England, Carter spoke of how he planned to play two years beyond the 2015 World Cup.  We all hope this is possible, but in purely pragmatic terms, the All Blacks have to continue building Cruden and Beauden Barrett as alternatives.  Fortunately this is something they are already doing nicely.  Cruden had a good game and appeared comfortable at the helm against the roar of spectators.

All-Blacks-with-the-Hillary-Shield_3036751Much has and will be made of England’s performance, particularly their come back around the half way mark.  But the truth is that England rarely threatened on the attack and it was chiefly Owen Farrell’s pin point boot in response to penalties that  kept the game tight. England made no line breaks, and their only try came after five minutes of sustained pressure five meters from the All Black’s line which led to a rare fumble by Kieran Read and a favorable bounce of the ball for the hosts.  The experience should serve to ground England a little, but I doubt it.

It has been said that the only team that can beat the All Blacks are the All Blacks themselves.  It was through their infringements and ill discipline, not forgetting referee Craig Joubert, that England found their way back into the game.  Although the refereeing was far from perfect, the skill of the All Blacks more than redressed the situation by sealing the win.

The side that scored three tries and even had a forward make a line break was unequivocally the better side on the day.  The All Blacks succeeded in probing and driving most of the game, particularly in the last 20 minutes.   They were masters of the lineout thanks to Sam Whitelock and centurion Keven Mealamu.  They even had the edge in the scrum, an area that England went into the game believing they  would dominate.  With this in mind, England’s performance was little to crow about.  A good test for the All Blacks and likely one that gave invaluable experience to the younger members of the squad.

State Secrets and Rugby Espionage

Steve-Hansen-chatting-in-the-changing-room_3014706Is it a tale of rugby espionage?  Ahead of the England vs New Zealand match on Saturday at Twickenan, a reporter from the Daily Telegraph seized the opportunity to note down team mantras in the All Blacks’ hotel meeting room before the team briefing.  Was it a momentary lapse on the part of the All Blacks or hotel security?  Do the team messages really tell the English much?

“We are the most dominant team in the history of the world.”

“On Saturday, don’t moan, even to yourself.”

“Reach new levels mentally as a group”

“We are playing England – this is about history, about human nature.”

“Use your shoulders, see both sides, and concentrate on your breathing”.

International coaches have often sparred publicly, both directly and indirectly in the past, trying to find ways to effect the other team’s psyche.  Using the media as a distraction can be an effective weapon.  England coach, Stuart Lancaster has not only been studying the All Blacks for what feels like much of the Rugby Championship, but appears to want to model aspects of his team after them.  Lancaster attended more than one of the All Blacks’ matches this year in person!  Now that is dedication.

“It is hard to copy because what we do suits our players,” explained assistant All Black coach Ian Foster.  “I guess the challenge for other teams is to get a style that suits their players.”

Clearly there is an acknowledgment from Lancaster that the All Blacks are the greatest threat to his team and also the greatest reward if they can be conquered a second time.  But is his fixation born out of an obsession or fear?  If the All Blacks are focusing on the mental and emotional challenges of high pressure football, then so too are the English.

Winners of their last encounter or not, England have a mighty challenge ahead of them.  Manu Tuilagi is injured and the All Blacks’ streak is once again intimidating for all opponents.  England flanker Tom Wood spoke to the press about the two sides last meeting.  “We were brave, we weren’t in awe of them as some teams often are – some teams are beaten before they even take to the field – and we’ve got to make sure we do much the same.”

Lancaster talked about the team’s need to have self-belief.  “New Zealand are a team apart, but if we want to be genuine World Cup contenders we’ve got to have the belief that we can win these games,” he said.

So, does Lancaster benefit from the All Black mantras, dishonorably swiped by the journalist from the hotel meeting room?  Probably not.  They don’t give any real indication of the state of mind or feeling within the camp.  The All Blacks have been on a quest for constant improvement ever since their World Cup victory in 2011.  Their greatest competition has been within themselves to seek the perfect game.

Attainable or not, the perfect game is a noble goal.  The holy grail of All Blacks rugby.  If anything, the newspapers and England could stand to learn that the secret weapon is the quest to master one’s self rather than sneaking away with the rival teams’ memos.