Wednesday, 26 August 2009

IRB Threatens Springbok World Cup Ban

The IRB has at long last published the findings of the independent review of the Bakkies Botha "Justice 4" incident which took place in the third British Lions test a few weeks ago. The Springboks wore armbands in a show of solidarity with their star lock who was cited and subsequently banned for two weeks for clearing out a player at a ruck, an action which is seen as a standard part of the game by most, happens in virtually every match, and rarely results in a penalty let alone a ban.

The review found the South African Rugby Union and Springbok team guilty of bringing the game of rugby into disrepute by daring to question the ban and subsequent rejection of their appeal. However it appears the sanctions imposed by the committee are not punitive enough for the IRB and they are hinting that they may pursue the matter further, even going so far as to ban the Springboks from the 2011 World Cup!

Quite frankly I find it ridiculous that the IRB could even make such a statement. I very much doubt that they would be able to follow through on the threat even if they wanted to, but in my opinion it is the IRB which has really brought rugby into disrepute. The IRB act as if they own the game, but seem to forget that without the players there wouldn't be anything to administer.

I truly hope this doesn't affect the Springboks' preparations for what promises to be another cracking game against the Wallabies in Perth on Saturday. Because if the threat of exclusion from the World Cup has any substance, the Springboks' best defence is to keep playing winning rugby. It would be a lot harder to exclude the world's number one team than say the third or fourth best.

And the IRB should cut out the power plays (leave that to the players!) and concentrate on sorting out the apparent inconsistencies in the disciplinary process. That, in my view, is the only way for them to regain the trust and respect of the players and sporting public, and restore their image which has suffered immensely due to the authoritarian manner in which they have handled this entire episode.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Australia 18 - 19 New Zealand: Tri Nations round 5

Saturday's Tri Nations encounter between the Wallabies and All Blacks in Sydney was every bit as entertaining as we could have hoped. Both teams played with ambition and intensity, but the All Blacks broke Australian hearts by edging it in the last few minutes to keep hold of the Bledisloe Cup for another year, and more importantly, to keep alive their chances of winning the 2009 Tri Nations.

Backline play

It was refreshing to see both teams try to bring their backlines into the game, in contrast to the effective but rather boring tactics we've seen from the Springboks in the tournament so far. Dan Carter had a clear impact on the game in respect of moving the ball out wide and bringing his outside backs into the action, and while neither backline really fired on all cylinders, the teams are to be commended for their efforts.

Defensive pressure

The fact that we only saw a single try in the game is testament to the commitment of both teams' defence. It was positively ferocious at times, a fact underlined by the amount of blood lost by players from both sides! In fairness the All Blacks could have scored several tries in the second half, but were let down by minor infringements at the last moment each time.

New Zealand had all the territory, possession and momentum in the second half, and probably deserved their victory in the end. But by now the Wallabies must be wondering what they have to do to get a win in this competition. They didn't play badly at all, and showed clear improvement in some of the areas that have let them down in previous matches. So far this year they've been starting well, but have proved unable to keep hold of their lead for the full 80 minutes.

State of the competition

Things are nicely poised going into round 6. All teams still have a chance of winning the tournament, although Australia must beat South Africa in the next match to stay in it. The Springboks have the "luxury" of being able to afford a couple of losses and still win the tournament, and although I'm sure they will want to nail it down at the first opportunity, that knowledge in the back of their minds may be their undoing on Saturday. One thing's for sure, you can never write off a side like Australia while they still have a fighting chance.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Teams for Tri Nations round 5: Wallabies vs All Blacks

Having reached the half-way point in the 2009 Tri Nations, we return on Saturday with the Wallabies hosting the All Blacks in a crucial match in Sydney. This Bledisloe Cup match is a must-win for both teams, as whoever loses can kiss their chances in the tournament goodbye. Both sides have a point to prove after unconvincing starts to the Tri Nations, and even their respective Prime Ministers have gotten into the act with a friendly bet on the outcome of the match: the loser has agreed to wear the official tie of the opposition on Monday!

Wallabies team

The Wallabies will be without talismanic captain Stirling Mortlock who was injured in their last game against the Springboks. But James O'Connor is a tremendously exciting prospect and seems very comfortable in the test environment. The team is also bolstered by the timely return of Rocky Elsom, who will no doubt make his presence felt around the pitch.

15. James O'Connor
14. Lachie Turner
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper
12. Berrick Barnes
11. Drew Mitchell
10. Matt Giteau
9. Luke Burgess
8. Richard Brown
7. George Smith (captain)
6. Rocky Elsom
5. Nathan Sharpe
4. James Horwill
3. Al Baxter
2. Stephen Moore
1. Benn Robinson

Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Benn Alexander, Dean Mumm, David Pocock, Will Genia, Ryan Cross, Peter Hynes.

All Blacks team

The All Blacks welcome Dan Carter back at flyhalf, and will be hoping he can put them back on the front foot. It's a lot to ask from one player, but if anyone can deliver, he can!

15. Mils Muliaina
14. Joe Rokocoko
13. Conrad Smith
12. Luke McAlister
11. Sitiveni Sivivatu
10. Dan Carter
9. Jimmy Cowan
8. Kieran Read
7. Richie McCaw (captain)
6. Jerome Kaino
5. Isaac Ross
4. Brad Thorn
3. Owen Franks
2. Andrew Hore
1. Tony Woodcock

Replacements: Aled de Malmanche, John Afoa, Jason Eaton, Rodney So'oialo, Brendon Leonard, Stephen Donald, Ma'a Nonu.

Kick-off is at 8pm Australian time (11am GMT).

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Springboks 29 - 17 Wallabies: Tri Nations round 4

The Springboks completed a clean sweep of home games on Saturday with a deserved 29-17 victory over the Wallabies at Newlands in Cape Town. The Wallabies got off to a great start, scoring in the corner from a set move in the 2nd minute of the game. But it was all South Africa thereafter, their pressure game once again squeezing the life out of the opposition.

Wallabies lineout woes

The Wallabies had a dismal day in the lineout, conceding numerous turnovers on their own throw, while not managing to put any pressure on the Springbok lineout. To be fair, the Springboks didn't have too many throw-ins, because the Wallabies refused to kick for touch. One has got to give credit to the Boks here for their dominance though - the Wallabies are generally regarded as having one of the better lineouts in the game, but Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha were all over them on Saturday. And added to the way they performed against the All Blacks in the last couple of games, one has to admit this is the best lineout around at the moment.

Wallabies ill-discipline

The Australians were also guilty of giving away too many penalties, mostly in kickable positions. Once again the reliable boot of Springbok flyhalf Morne Steyn kept the scoreboard moving for the Springboks - he ended the match with a personal tally of 24 for the day. The frustration began to tell towards the end of the first half, which the Wallabies ended with only 13 men on the field: Matt Giteau was given a yellow card for a dangerous aerial challenge on Fourie du Preez (and was fortunate not to be cited after the match), and Richard Brown followed barely a minute later for a professional foul. George Smith also picked up a yellow in the last couple of minutes of the game for a similar professional foul, but the match was sealed by then.

By contrast, the Springboks kept their discipline throughout the match, and when they did concede penalties, they were mostly not in kickable positions. Obviously it's easier to keep your composure when things are going your way, and so far this season the Springboks have had most things their way.

Springbok backline?

Even though the game was won in convincing fashion, the Springboks once again failed to show much on attack via the backs. Sure, they were good on defence and putting pressure on the opposition, but one can't help feeling they are not living up to the potential they have. It's hard to criticise a winning strategy, and in fact it would be foolish to suggest the team abandon what is working so well for them at the moment, but one hopes they have a few moves up their sleeve in case they need to resort to Plan B one of these days...

State of play

The Springboks are currently in a strong position on the table ahead of their overseas leg. But let's not forget they are not the best of travellers. The other thing to bear in mind is that there have still not been any away wins this year; if that trend continues it will be a tight finish and will come down to bonus points or points-difference to seperate the teams. And so far the only team to have a bonus point are the Wallabies.

With the way they've been playing one should back the Boks to register at least one away win, which should see them win the tournament for only the third time - especially if the All Blacks and Wallabies split the rest of their matches. But there's still everything to play for when the tournament resumes on 22nd August.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Teams for Tri Nations round 4: Springboks vs Wallabies

Here are the teams for the Tri Nations clash between the Springboks and Wallabies in Cape Town on 8th August 2009.

Springbok team

The only change to the Springbok team is that fit-again Ruan Pienaar comes back into the squad for Wynand Olivier, having recovered from an injury sustained in round 2. Morne Steyn has been rewarded for an excellent game last week by retaining his place in the starting lineup.

15. Frans Steyn
14. JP Pietersen
13. Jaque Fourie
12. Jean de Villiers
11. Bryan Habana
10. Morné Steyn
9. Fourie du Preez
8. Pierre Spies
7. Juan Smith
6. Heinrich Brüssow
5. Victor Matfield
4. Bakkies Botha
3. John Smit (captain)
2. Bismarck du Plessis
1. Tendai "Beast" Mtawarira

Replacements: Chiliboy Ralepelle, Jannie du Plessis, Andries Bekker, Danie Rossouw, Ricky Januarie, Ruan Pienaar, Adi Jacobs

Wallabies team

The Wallabies also retain the same starting lineup from their previous match, with one change on the bench: Peter Hynes in for Phil Waugh. To be honest, with the way Heinrich Brussow has been playing at the breakdown, I'm a bit surprised they've left Waugh out - he could have provided cover in case George Smith gets injured (or as part of a fetcher "double team" which they've employed in the past).

15. Adam Ashley-Cooper
14. Lachie Turner
13. Stirling Mortlock (captain)
12. Berrick Barnes
11. Drew Mitchell
10. Matt Giteau
9. Luke Burgess
8. Wycliff Palu
7. George Smith
6. Richard Brown
5. Nathan Sharpe
4. James Horwill
3. Al Baxter
2. Stephen Moore
1. Benn Robinson

Replacements: Tatafu Polota-Nau, Ben Alexander, Dean Mumm, David Pocock, Will Genia, Peter Hynes, James O'Connor

Match Preview

This should be another fascinating clash. The Springboks deservedly start as favourites after back-to-back wins over the All Blacks, but despite the Wallabies poor record playing in South Africa, they are a serious threat. I thought they had the beating of the All Blacks in the opening game, even though they ended up losing, and I expect they'll be very competitive again today. The Springbok backline defence has looked a bit fragile this season, and if anyone can exploit that, this Australian team can. Of course, a lot depends on the quality and quantity of ball their forwards can provide, and the Springboks look to have the advantage in this area.

The Boks will also have to be spot-on if they employ their kick-and-chase game again - the Wallabies are very good in the air and can be dangerous on counter-attack.

Kick-off is at 4pm GMT (5pm SA time).

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Tri Nations round 3: Springboks 31 - 19 All Blacks

The All Blacks were once again comprehensively outplayed in yesterday's round three Tri Nations encounter with the Springboks in Durban. While the Kiwis looked dangerous with the ball in hand, they were once again let down by indiscipline and numerous basic errors which robbed them of any momentum. The Springboks' superior tactical game also meant the majority of the game was played in the All Blacks half, so even when they did get their hands on the ball, the Springboks were able to scramble their defence and neutralise the attack.

Springbok records

In contrast to the All Black woes, it was a game of records for the Springboks. John Smit became the most-capped test captain of all time after leading his team for the 60th time, and is fast approaching the status of a legend of the game. His influence has undoubtedly had a lot to do with all that the Springboks have achieved over the last few seasons.

Another player who wrote his way into the record books was Morne Steyn, who scored all his team's points, and in so doing became the highest individual points scorer in a Tri Nations match. Not bad for a player who many critics have been saying is one dimensional! Steyn was once again impeccable with his goal-kicking, missing only one of ten attempts. But he was also good on attack and solid in defence - in fact, apart from one kickoff which went directly into touch, I don't think he put a foot wrong all day. After an excellent Super 14, he has successfully broken into test rugby and shown that he can cut it at the highest level.

Also worth a mention is new boy Heinrich Brussouw, who has been particularly impressive since making his international debut for the Emerging Springboks against the British Lions a few weeks ago. He has had a lot to do with South Africa's dominance at the breakdown, and is going to make it very difficult for the coach to leave him out when Schalk Burger becomes available to play again.

All Blacks not out of it

The All Blacks will be disappointed with their performances in South Africa, and will have to face the inevitable media frenzy when they get back home. But it's too soon to write them off in the competition - the points table is still "on serve", as it were, and the Springboks and Wallabies still have their main overseas leg to come. The other advantage the All Blacks have is a three week break until their next match on 22nd August, then another three weeks before the next on 12th September - time for them to regroup, review their game plan, and possibly bring in some fresh blood (Dan Carter, anyone?). And in between they have South Africa and Australia knocking the stuffing out of each other.

Still anyone's tournament

The Springboks are in pole position to take the tournament at the moment, but in my opinion, the All Blacks' "ordinariness" simply opens up the tournament, meaning it could come down to bonus points in the final analysis, depending how the chips fall. The Wallabies are certainly in with a good chance themselves - remember they dominated the first half of their match against the All Blacks.

I for one am expecting this tournament to go right down to the wire.