Saturday, 26 May 2007

Predictions, Ponderings and Hybernation

The Rolling Maul has a history as indeed everyone does. The Rolling Maul developed from my weekly rant to the tipsters in a tipping competition I run. Tipsters compete for the My Boy Sherman perpetual trophy, a rubber Crusaders sword which hangs proudly and permanently (except for my bucks party where it was taped into my hand for the night - a night that just happened to coincide with the Crusaders defeating the Waratahs in the Super 12 final) in My Boy Sherman's spare bedroom, My Boy Sherman being the inaugural and only two-time winner of the trophy which bears his name.

So the Rolling Maul has been designed to keep tipsters and others punters and fans entertained during the dark months, those months when Australian Provincial Rugby teams are flogged unmercifully from one side of the Southern Hemisphere to the other (it beginning and ending somewhere just outside of Christchurch I imagine).

Of course the Rugby season never sleeps and nor should it. Already the Australian season extends from February till October if you include the World Cup. This is plainly unacceptable as Rugby should be played all year round including during major religious festivals, indeed big games like Randwick vs Easts should be public holidays with matches played in front of hundreds of thousands (unlike current games which are played in front of hundreds and thousands - not people of course, those tiny multi-coloured balls of sugar that go so yummily on fairy bread at kids, and my, parties).

Nevertheless, the Rolling Maul is a hobby and not a career, not yet anyway, and, much like a Wallaby forward, must catch its breath from time to time. So between now and the World Cup (when the Rollong Maul will be back with a vengeance) postings to the Rolling Maul will be occasional and irregular, much like Matt Dunning's appearances for the Wallabies.

But I leave you for the meantime with some predictions about the upcoming international (and other bits) season:

1. The Wallabies take comfort from easy wins over Wales and Fiji and being competitive against an All Blacks side weakened through injuries and an insane policy of resting players for half the Super 14. They come back to earth at altitude against South Africa and lose by 50. The Bring Back Eddie campaign begins in earnest now that he's got his Queensland baggage out of the way.

2. Australia A win the Pacific Nations Cup in a thrilling court case against the Junior All Blacks when it is revealed that most of them are well over school age. New Zealand argues that most of the Junior All Blacks never finished school so it should count.

3. The Australian Rugby Championship is declared a success by the ARU and the 17 people who went along to watch a game during the season. The Sydney Fleet take the title and declare the trophy, made from the discarded remains of the ARU trophy cabinet which was sitting around empty for years, justifies the long and proud history of the club.

4. England struggles in the Six Nations to victories over Italy and Wales. Their coach says they've turned a corner, everybody else knows they've turned four and are back where they started.

5. Italy again win a couple of Six Nations matches and claim to be a chance of making the World Cup knockout stage. That's a load of bollocks and they get flogged.

6. New Zealand experiment with 54 players during the Tri-Nations and other lead up games. They have to though as 19 of them get injured through poor conditioning and match practice. Come World Cup time the recriminations have already begun and Graham Henry's team struggle all the way to an embarassing loss in the semi-final, again.

7. South Africa make the final.

8. But France win it.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Deserved NZ Humiliation Leads to Wallaby Glory

Could be a great final. Might be some amazing trys scored. May be outstanding action-packed thrill a minute stuff. Just a shame that no one in Australia and New Zealand will get to see it, unless they have cable and unless they're prepared to stay up late or get up early (of course you could record it or watch a reply but as anyone into sport knows that doesn't count).

And who can we blame? New Zealand.

By Graham Henry forcing New Zealand's provinces to rest their All Blacks for the first seven rounds of the Super 14, the New Zealand coaching staff have not only shot themselves in the foot by condemning their best players to being injury prone and under-prepared, but they've deprived the Antipodes of the pleasure of at least getting to watch the final (and the semis for that matter).

So Australia's teams didn't make the final? So what? While Australia's best (and by this I don't mean you Peter Hewat - quit whinging and score some tries for a change - and while you're at it try kicking goals when it counts) are taking a good hard look at themselves in the room of mirrors, New Zealand's best (and that's not much) are nursing their wounds after flogging their guts out at altitude and being humiliated. Again. And we didn't get the pleasure of seeing it.

And they know it. Why else would seven Crusaders get into a brawl outside a Christchurch nightclub after their loss to the Chiefs in the final round? Because the pressure's on and I can hear the choking from here. Why do you think Ali Williams went on a 10-day bender across two continents? Because he's an All Black. And he's shit scared.

So South Africa get the dream final we've been waiting for. As William Webb Ellis flew down the sideline in 1583 or whatever it was he no doubt was thinking to himself, "one day they'll play a final of a Southern Hemisphere provincial Rugby tournament in South Africa between two South African teams, and in the best spirit of the ball-in-hand game, one of those teams will make the final through only scoring points off the boot".

The good news of course is that we now have both South Africa and New Zealand exactly where we want them. With the All Blacks shooting themselves in the foot by resting players, now the South Africans will get a few months of strutting and boasting as only South Africans can. As the Cricket World Cup taught us when the South Africans entered it ranked no 1 in the world, there is no confidence like overconfidence. Let's just hope that the South Africans win the Tri-Nations. The best bubble is an over-inflated bubble, because when it bursts it makes even more of a mess.

Friday, 4 May 2007

Australian Super 14 Team of the Year

Rugby is ultimately about enjoyment. Success on the field isn't necessarily relevant, and given the form of Australia's teams this year that can only be a good thing. So with that in mind The Rolling Maul presents the true Australian Super 14 team of the year – those players and coaches who made the season as memorable as last year’s when, um, err.

On with the team…

Fullback
Matthew Burke – Burke’s influence on this year’s Super 14 was immense. After the injury to Chris Latham it wasn’t enough for the nation’s fullbacks (and wingers and centres and five-eighths) to compete against each other for a Wallaby spot but they also had to compete against a guy who hadn’t been seen publicly in the country for three years.

Wingers
Clyde Rathbone
– With the departure of Matt Rogers from Rugby Union someone had to take up the mantle of most injury prone and Rathbone passed with distinction. Rathbone barely survived more than one match intact but will probably make the Wallaby squad anyway as selectors are on the lookout for a replacement for Rogers to unsuccessfully substitute for every spot in the backline.

Ben Tune – Eddie Jones convinced Ben Tune to delay his retirement by a year to go round one more time with the Reds and what an inspired choice that turned out to be. With no tries until round 12 and a team that redefined languishing, Tune must wonder what he was thinking.

Centres
Ryan Cross
– In what can only be applauded as superb timing, Cross made the switch to Rugby Union just in time to see his former League team – the Sydney Roosters, start the season with five straight losses and they still sit on the bottom of the ladder. By making a success of his transition and proving that even moderately successful Leaguies can play Rugby Union, he’s provided more ammunition for League types who claim that their sport produces the better players. Fortunately Clinton Schicofske is not being considered for the vacant Wallabies fullback spot as his positional play and defence is considered ordinary. Let the argument continue.

Timana Tahu – With more sleight of hand, jinks and dummy passes than the Waratahs displayed on the field all season, Timana Tahu, currently in contention for a New South Wales State of Origin spot, signed with the Waratahs after telling the world that he didn’t like Rugby Union because you only got to touch the ball once a game. Lote Tuquiri also played a role by playing obstruction, leading the media, the ARU and Rugby League heavyweights on an annual dance. If you can believe Tuquri then he had an extra role convincing Tahu to sign, or maybe it was the other way round, or maybe the money had something to do with it.

Five-Eighth / Fly-Half
Quade Cooper
– Blond tips are really yesterday’s hairstyle but no one seems to have told Matt Giteau and Matt Henjak. So it was left to Cooper to take up the mantle, not only as most over-hyped young player but also as having the worst hair. Part Mohawk, part mullet, part crew cut, Cooper was last seen cutting his own hair with garden shears.

Halfback / Scrum Half
Josh Valentine / Brett Sheehan / Josh Holmes
– It wasn’t enough that the Waratahs five-eighth position was the revolving door of Australian Rugby, but with the departure of Chris Whittaker just about every spot in the backline, but especially halfback, seemed to cry out for someone who could last at least a few games. Valentine, Sheehan and Holmes must have got dizzy waiting to see if they’d be lining up for the Waratahs or their club. By season-end Holmes seemed to have a mortgage on the position and just in time – he’s signed with the Brumbies.

Number 8
Scott Fava’s sideburns – Fava has had ridiculous sideburns since even before they were popular the first time and that was in the 18th century. Indeed for some time they were leading him astray as after each overseas win Fava would be found the next morning either in a gutter or a police lock-up. Fortunately he had the sideburns under control (or maybe it was the other way round) by the time the Force started winning at home, otherwise the Force would be facing Ben Cousins like damage control and Perth would be flattened.

Breakaways / Flankers
Phil Waugh
- For a team that only won three games, Waugh's contribution of captaining the first round win, a stirring speech before the victory over the Reds, and playing only the first half of the victory over the Highlanders in the final round is revealing. Here's hoping Waugh gets injured early in the first test against Wales before coming back from injury in tine for the World Cup final and playing only 10 minutes before being rested.

Daniel Heenan - Five years ago Daniel Heenan was touted as not only the next Big Thing in Australian Rugby but the next John Eales (which is a little strange considering he's a backrower). So highly regarded was the Queenslander he played for the Wallabies in 2003 (one test). But by 2005, when he signed for the Brumbies, he was already well entrenched in the 'injury prone' category and sure enough injured a shoulder playing his second and most recent Wallaby test in 2006, from which he still hasn't recovered, but he is still on the Brumbies' books so qualifies for Team of the Year.

Second Row / Locks
David Lyons - Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so desperate was Ewen Mackenzie that he even started a game with David Lyons as one of the nominated line out jumpers. The only problem is that, relatively speaking, Lyons is a short fat guy (although he's no doubt taller, fitter and with an ability to pass skin fold tests that exceeds normal humans). The experiment lasted all of one week.

Nathan Sharpe - The captain of the Western Force looks more and more like his coach John Mitchell every day. He got sent off a few times and may have scored a try or two and given the occasional rousing speech, but I just like his head.

Front Row
Waratah Beards
- If there's one thing that's becomes apparent in this article, if you want to get noticed by The Rolling Maul for an Australian Team of the Year then do something weird to your head (or get injured). With this in mind, the Waratahs' front row of Al Baxter, Adam Freier and Matt Dunning, no doubt inspired by Lote Tuquiri's new luxuriant growth, all grew beards. Sure they were all pretty scraggly and Dunning's did nothing to make him look less like an overgrown newborn, but it worked for Ray Price and Greg Cornelson 30 years ago, so much so that Cornelson scored four tries in one memorable Bledisloe Cup match. It didn't work for the Waratahs though.

Coach
Eddie Jones - It what can only be called an inspired choice, the Queensland Rugby Union pulled off a stunning coup in signing Eddie Jones. Within weeks he was calling his own team gutless, blamed and almost threatened referees and commenced feuds with ARU officials and Wallaby coaching staff. Extraordinarily, so impressed with his performance was the QRU they fought tooth and nail against rival offers from Japan, Fiji and a number of European clubs to resign him. Given Queensland's last match resulted in the Reds losing 92-3 expect Jones to be offered the job of Premier of Queensland any day now.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Rugby - The Game They Play in Heaven and in Boardrooms

Can you imagine if Rugby was only played on the field?

Can you imagine how dull it would be if the ARU wasn’t constantly bickering about who’s doing what and which state they’re from? If the CEO, directors and chairman had regular civilised and open discussions that left the media and the Rugby community in perfect understanding as to the direction of Australian Rugby? If everyone acted with Rugby’s best interests in mind when nominating office bearers and had no interest in power or waving their genitals in the air and there were no factions based upon personality or state?

And what if their negotiations with Fox and the free-to-air channels led to a mutual understanding and guaranteeing of the rights of the general public to watch some Super 14 on free-to-air while ensuring significant content for Fox. And the commercial channels agreed to do their bit to promote the game by talking about Rugby rather than pretending it doesn’t exist until just before the internationals kick-off.

What if the NSWRU was a settled and content organisation running in perfect harmony, talking openly to its Queensland and ACT colleagues and happily beavering away leaving the running of the Waratahs to team management while ensuring club and junior rugby was fully funded.

And how boring would it be if the clubs accepted their lot in life and just got on with the job of playing rugby for fun and supporting the third tier, the non-controversial and well-thought out Australian Rugby Championship that highlights the best that the club system has to offer?

And if everyone acknowledged that buying the occasional League player was fine as long as they were dedicated to and interested in playing Rugby and that it was all about having the best players available irrespective of their background. And if League players stopped using Rugby as a time-wasting bargaining chip to talk up their price and just stuck to being mercenaries in their own code.

What if the rules of Rugby were easy to understand, scrums, rucks and mauls moved like finely tuned powerful machines, there was no inconsistency between refereeing interpretations, the advantage rule was declared king, and everyone accepted that referees are only human.

And can you imagine if not losing wasn’t more important than winning and teams played with freedom to throw the ball around and players played for fun and not money?

I can’t. Alas. Sob. I can imagine though that if Rugby is the game they play in heaven then God and St Peter probably are arguing over the ruck and maul laws.