Category Archives: June Internationals

2014 New Zealand vs England Test Series

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Yes, it was a clean sweep against the English tourists, though the points don’t tell a complete story.

The first test in Auckland was a typically rusty first performance of the year.  It was also the most consistent and threatening performance from the English.  Even though the final score of the second test was closer in final points, the All Blacks dominated the game and bad refereeing gave England at least 7 points that should never have been their’s.  The final game of the series was a return to good form for the All Blacks.  Again, still rusty and unable to sustain the momentum for a full 80 minutes, they managed to deflate the English ego and send them packing.

My feelings toward the series were mostly ones of relief and satisfaction.  Although it wasn’t always pretty rugby, the All Blacks managed to walk away from each game the winners.  People talk about it being important psychologically to get this sweep over England to keep that nation’s confidence in check ahead of the 2015 World Cup.  However, I think both England and Australia have the sort of sports and media culture that a single win against the All Blacks is enough for them to think they are the new kings of the roost.

Sometimes it almost feels like the All Blacks record counts for nothing from the perspective of English media.  They loathe to admit on television and in the papers that the All Blacks are the best in the world.  Instead they will add caveats like “at the moment”, or “one of the best”.  Dudes… We have only lost one game since the 2011 World Cup!  What do we have to do to get a little acknowledgment for that hard graft?

As for the individual performances over the series, Malakai Fekitoa obviously made a huge impression with the selectors and public through his Super Rugby season and he looked good in the mid-field.  The guy hasn’t spent a lot of time in New Zealand and is a Tongan citizen, so I think we’re lucky he’s chosen the All Blacks.  Might he switch back to representing Tonga internationally in the future, or is he here for keeps?

rugby-rugby-union-new-zealand-v-england-jerome-kaino-joe-launchbury_3161512On the other hand, Ryan Crotty continues to be both solid and, at times exceptional.  Sometimes I think it’s a shame that selectors and the media get so excited looking for the next Jonah Lomu superstar and waste opportunities to develop talented workhorses who lack frills but can still deliver.  I like Malakai, but I also like Crotty. Both need more time on the pitch because they are both the future and there is a huge experience disparity between them and our first choice aging mid-fielders.

Ben Smith continues to be as close to perfect as one can possibly hope for in a full back, and I’m grateful he has finally taken possession of the number 15.  Dagg remains a great player, but right now Smith is just too good to be placed anywhere else.

Finally, Jerome Kaino returned to New Zealand and the All Blacks this year and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.  He monstered the English and is making a case to get the number 6 back on a regular basis.  The All Blacks are incredibly lucky to have him back and still in such great form.

07/Jun New Zealand v England Auckland 7:35 pm?  20-15
 14/Jun New Zealand v England Dunedin 7:35 pm?  28-27
 21/Jun New Zealand v England Hamilton 7:35 pm?  36-13

More Machine than Man – Richie McCaw June 2014

Richie McCaw – broken foot, broken rib, play on…

Richie McCaw limps off the field. He'll be back!

Playing for the All Blacks since late 2001, Richie McCaw has remained the incumbent Number 7 since 2003, and captain since 2006.  One of New Zealand’s greatest rugby players, McCaw has been a talisman for victory during his tenure with the team.  The chart below lists the mounting injuries McCaw had acquired prior to his six month sabbatical in 2012/2013.  The chart does not include the knee to the face and headbutt from Scott Higginbotham in the subsequent test!

McCaws Injury Sept 12What makes McCaw’s longevity so amazing is the fact he plays Openside Flanker.  “As scavengers for possession in and around the rucks and mauls, they are often faced with 50-50 balls and therefore need to put their bodies on the line with little thought for the consequences.”

He played through the later stages of the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament with a broken foot, refusing to allow it to be X-rayed.  The nation was already in panic after vice captain Dan Carter’s tournament ending injury and McCaw was determined not to pull out.  He contented himself with painkillers and kept the extent of the injury from his coaches.  In the presence of the team and the media he grit his teeth and tried to walk normally.  The seriousness of the injury was made all the more amazing after the final whistle blew and Richie’s All Blacks were once again world champions!

Following the third and final Test match against England in June 2014, a scan revealed that McCaw had been playing with a broken rib for three weeks.  He and the doctor had believed it to be bruising and McCaw continued to train and play International Test rugby against the much vaunted muscle of the English Forward pack.  Think about that for a minute.  Playing one of the most physical of all contact sports for at least 180 minutes at International level.  The guy must routinely beat pain in staring contests!

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.