Super Expansion

Expanding the Super 14 does not look like a good idea.

I think it has all come down to money, and what the aim behind super expansion is, it can only be money.

More teams mean more matches. More matches mean more attendance and more TV and that means more money. 22 games definately mean more money.

Do Super rugby need more games? Money is needed, certainly, but is more Rugby good for Super Rugby? Everybody seems to agree with the idea that the level has been dropped a level or two since the las Super Expansion. No, Cheetahs and Force are not responsible for it, but could it be that more games on an already crowded calendar are killing the cow?

14 Super rugby games + 6 3N games + at least 5 or 6 ANC or Currie Cup games + 4 November tests = 30 games per season.

Do we really intend to increase the number of the games a player must play and at the same time ask the player to maintain top form from week 1 to week 52?

Super Rugby needs a re-think and a schedule from January to June cannot be mantained. Beside, the expansion does not take into the equation both Argentina and the Islanders... which would certainly make for a healthier pool of players.

Please, Marinos, O'Neill and Tew, don't look at the short-term. I don't want enough money to retain the required players in order to win the 2011 RWC; What I want is to enjoy the Rugby from 2009 on.

Message in a bottle

The following message has been put in a bottle and the authors hope it will pass from hand to hand until it reaches Jonah Lomu. The message at the moment of writing this post is thought to be in Dublin.

Dear Jonah,

We are writing to you because we think you are the best rugby player in history and also because you are our model to imitate these hard days. We are player aged from 11 to 14 playing in the Vigo Rugby club. Vigo is an industrial city in the Atlantic Coast of Spain. There is not much passion for rugby here, but you know, when rugby is inside you, it does not really matter how many people might be attending the game.

You can figure out that not even in normal conditions it is easy to play rugby here. But with the economic crisis things are much worse. Unemployment increases all around, companies close and it's all looking so bad. We feel it both in our families and also inside our rugby club. We started the season with no sponsorship, as the ones we had last season couldn't stay any longer. In the end, we could kick the season off due to the help of the senior players who put money of their own to keep it going.

As you can see, we don't have many reasons to be happy, but we have got one reason to keep fighting for: rugby. We don't want to write a letter to make people cry. This is a letter of fighting, a letter of the ones who don't give up. We hail you, Jonah, aiming to maybe one day be as strong as you are. Mind and body. Cheers from all players from 11 to 14 years old and all players in the schools of the Vigo Rugby Club.

(thanks to Fermin de la Calle from for this very special story)
(and my best wishes to all young players of the Vigo Rugby Club)

Super 14 round 7 predictions

Step by step we have reached halfway at the Super 14 (and me fool thinking it had just started). Bulls and Sharks are clearly ahead of the rest, and behind, at least 8 or 9 different teams are fighting to make the semifinals.

This week's match-ups are really interesting:

Blues 38 - Waratahs 27 (This is the no-returning point for the Blues. Last year the game at Sidney showed how poorly prepared were the Blues to be among the top 4. This year it is the Waratahs the bad-looking team)
Highlanders 19 - Bulls 17 (I cannot resist to draw a win for the Highlanders. I just like them)
Crusaders 26 - Stormers 18 (Which Stormers' face shall we see in Christchurch?)
Reds 25 - Chiefs 33 (This should be this week's game)
Sharks 32 - Brumbies 25 (Tough times for Canberra)
Lions 16 - Hurricanes 23 (Which of the two would be harder to imagine: two wins in a row for the Lions or two losses in a row for the Hurricanes?)

Best goal kicker?

Who's the best goal kicker in the NZRU?

Daniel Carter? Stephen Donald? Jimmy Gopperth?

Well, you would be wrong. The golden boot, the man-who-nearly-never-misses has not played a single game of rugby... union.

Yes, Michael Witt, former and I do mean former rugby league player for the Auckland Warriors has just switched codes and will be playing for Otago at the Air New Zealand Cup. He had a wonderful 2008 NRL season, kicking over 90%.

Could he make attendances boost in Dunedin? Can he lift Otago to a decent campaing this year? Will he be playing for the Highlanders next year?

With Daniel Bowden heading to Auckland next year, there's a gap that could be perfect for Witt; the aussie-born has already expressed his desire to perform the haka at test level.

Super 14 2009; players on a roll

Sharks, Bulls and Chiefs have been the most competitive of the last three rounds. But who are the key players that are making the difference?

Halfback: Brendon Leonard. He's astonishingly better every week. How can he? He was impressive against the Western Force, but he did really kick the ass of the Blues last Saturday. Children in New Zealand must be watching him and wishing they will grow up as halfbacks just as he is.

First five: Sorry, Mr Giteau, but the in-form player of the tournament is Morne Steyn. Simply unbelievable with the Bulls, he (and not Mat Goddard) was the main cause of the Bulls win last week in Wellington; he must be in the mind of de Villiers, come Lions time.

Hooker: Aled de Malmanche. True, he has got to improve (and improve and improve and improve) his ball throwing at the line-out, but he's the best battering-ram in the competition by a whole lot. All of a sudden, Hika Elliot is his back-up and it is not for nothing.

Lock: Bakkie Botha. Oh, hell, yes. I know what I said just yesterday about him, but that does not mean that he is not both ruling the line-out in the absence of Matfield and powering everywhere in the field as he always did.

Wing: Sorry for this one, Sivi, but not even 4 tries in a game is enough to cast shadows over the great great great season of Lelia Massaga. He has produced some blistering game so far. I hope Graham Henry will have noticed.

Loose forward: Pierre Spies. Oh, please, I know I'm selecting almost every player of the Bulls here, but who wouldn't?

Prop: You can have two: Chris King and Clint Newlands. Is it a mere chance that they come from the same franchise where Jamie Mackintosh and Carl Hayman grew up?

Midfielder: It must be one of these: Adi Jacobs, Jaque Fourie and Richard Kahui. And... ok, we'll please Spiro Zavos by naming an aussie here, Stirling Mortlock.

Fullback: I see Isaia Toeava in his best Super 14 season.

Bakkies Botha ain't a good guy.

Rugby, as any sport, is a psychological game. As such, psychology tricks work, both on one self, and on the others. Players do know it, coaches do know it and even fans know it.

So, the typical prop tactics of looking upong you as if you were unable to match him in the front row of a scrum, as if silently saying: "What are you doing here, son?" simply work. They do.

The Bulls did win the physical battle against the Hurricanes and they played better in a game that had more of the old Springboks-All Blacks rivalry than it had of the Super 14 Bulls-Hurricanes.

Or so it seemed as fellow Bakkies Botha, not very clever, perhaps, spear-tackled a Hurricanes player and while he was being warned by the referee he made jokes (in Afrikaans, I imagine) of the tackled player (that all his teammates around him laughed, of course).

Two things are clear to me:
- Bakkies Botha ain't an intelligent guy.
- Bakkies Botha ain't a good guy.

A force, a brute, a power of the nature, but not a good guy, for sure.

I do think, however, that the Bulls are the strongest side of a very very open super 14 season.

Super 14 round 6 predictions

Things start to click. I predicted (luckily or by own merits) the trouble that both 'tahs and Sharks had last week. I expected the Sharks to overcome them, but for once the Sharks didn't look so strong this season. The Crusaders-Force was a real difficult one to predict and in the end it could have gone either way.

What's on this week?

Let's see:

Hurricanes 24 - Bulls 21 (The Bulls usually have trouble in New Zealand)
Highlanders 27 - 19 Cheetahs (in a second)
Chiefs 31 - Blues 28 (I cannot really foresee what will be the outcome of it)
Waratahs 15 - Crusaders 12 (A good tactical game, but not very pretty)
Western Force 18 - Sharks 32 (The Sharks strike back)
Lions 14 - Brumbies 26 (Eloff's problems are a mortgage for the struggling Lions)

Frans Steyn at 10

If we are to pay attention to Andy Marinos, Super Rugby is a Sotuh African matter more than anything else.

Therefore, let's pay attention to what really matters: South Africa, South Africa and South Africa.

South Africa lacks a 10. Unlike Australia or New Zealand, there has been no player able to claim a regular start at 10 for a long time. James, despite what my good friend Miff thinks of his (James') performance during the last RWC, has not managed to show he's the right owner of the jersey. The fact that de Villiers is picking Pienaar, a halfback, ahead of him reveals that he's got not much to choose from.

What about South Africa's boy, Frans Steyn? He's gifted, he's strong, he's fast (the only player I have witnessed to ever see a ball of him intercepted by Habana and yet be able to run backwards 50 meters and tackle him) and he's loved by anyone in South Africa.

This weekend he's got a chance. With Pienaar out for 3 or 4 matches, Steyn has got a shot to show his credentials at number 10. What will he show? Will be we all grateful enough to Andy Marinos for letting us watch this pearl playing at 10 ? Do we really deserve such kindness?

Open for everyone.

The 2009 Super 14 is more open than ever. With 11 teams within just 8 points after round 5, even these strange Crusaders can make the semifinals.

Only Cheetahs, Lions and... *sigh*, Highlanders seem not to be contenders. No, I don't resign. The Highlanders are only 10 points away. They can. Yes, they can.

Th point is that this season, specially after this week 5 has witnessed that any team can beat everyone. Waratahs and Sharks lost to Brumbies and Reds respectively. Waratahs have also suffered yet another blow to their front row, with Freier out for the rest of the competition. Something must be asked to their backs when the forward pack is decimated little by little.

Should the Bulls win at Westpack stadium this week, they would be clear favourites to get the first semifinal spot. If they crack like Waratahs and Sharks (and remember that is possible, given the record that the Bulls have in NZ), the Hurricanes will place themselves among the top 4 with ease and looking to the eye to anyone.

Blues, Stormers seem to be back, and the Chiefs didn't look so good at Invercagill as they did two weeks ago in Hamilton.

Things change from week to week and this is, once more, a marathon, a competition to be regular. Who can demonstrate the recipe of what is needed to be a super champion?

Super 14 round 5 predictions

Little by little, the competition begins to get some sense to my dumb understanding.
Last week's results were more understandable for me, although I had not realised (or didn't want to believe) how low have the Crusaders fallen.

The Sharks continue their Australasian trip with a game in Brisbane, while the Bulls and Hurricanes rest with their sights put on the next weekend clash.

This would make some sense to me:

Blues 36 - Cheetahs 18 (Don't look back, you need five from this one)
Brumbies 25 - Waratahs 21 (Canberra vs Sydney games have always favoured the home team)
Crusaders 18 - Western Force 24 (I prefer to be ready for the worst scenario)
Higlanders 23 - Chiefs 34 (Go Highlanders!)
Reds 13 - Sharks 16 (Sharks would do well to start putting an eye on the second part of the competition)
Stormers 20 - Lions 15 (This year the Stormers don't look so good. They need de Villiers to lead them)

Fourth place's curse

The fourth place is one of the most desired places when a team look to their position in the ranks.
While positions one and two usually have long-term owners, there's an enormous fight to get the other two positions that qualify for the playoffs.

Last year, there was hardly a week when the fourth placed would not go down to lose the next game and fall to 5th, 6th or 7th. Force, Blues, Chiefs, Stormers and Hurricanes kept fighting to the very last game for the possibility to classify as 4th. In most of the cases, being placed 4th was a curse for the next game.

So must be John Mitchell thinking right now. After last week's display at Canberra and being able to get as far as 4th placed, they have fallen at Hamilton 31-13 to the Chiefs who get 5 points from this one and blow the starting whistle, signalling that their season is finally started. Depending on the outcome of this weekend's games, they may well be just 6 points away from the playoffs. May the others start running as the Chiefs run has already started.

But beware Chiefs. Getting there is not enough. Last year you kept climbing on until you reached the fourth place. Then you fell.

Get classified, but you'd do well to avoid resting at the fourth place.

Super 14 round 4 predictions

Naked, "crystal ball"-less and having misserably failed to understand what would happen in round 3, I'm only proud for my right prediction of the game at Cape Town.

The game at Canberra was a shock, and the one at Hamilton, a pity.

So, without any skills or preternatural aid, let's see if I have enough wits to decypher what's going on.

Chiefs 33 - Force 26 (I still believe in this team)
Waratahs 23 - Reds 15 (Who can stop the 'tahs?)
Hurricanes 38 - Cheetahs 18 (Things start going smoothly for the 'canes)
Blues 24 - Sharks 20 (Defense against the Sharks. Defense)
Highlanders 22 - Crusaders 34 (The Crusaders are a very good team)
Bulls 15 - Stormers 13 (I have got a friend who says that games between SA sides follow their own logic. I agree)

A little help for the Crusaders

The Crusaders are the Super team. They have the tradition, they have the passion and they have the winning attitude.

What they may be lacking is luck.

Forced absences: Robbie Deans, Daniel Carter, Scott Hamilton, Greg Sommerville, Mose Tu'iali and Ali Williams.

"Bad-luck added absences": Leon MacDonald, Andy Ellis, Brad Thorn, Corey Flynn.
Besides, a number of other senior players, most notably Richie McCaw, have not featured in at least one game due to injury.

And after this long list, their brave coach, takes it on the chin and says that it is due to their own errors (mostly at goal kicking, where Colin Slade is 4 from 11 and Brett is 2 from 4) that they have lost against Brumbies and Hurricanes.

The Crusaders are an amazing team; no doubt I will pick them for five points against my beloved Highlanders next week and perhaps they will cement their position on the upper part of the ranks.

But one bad news at a time, please; injuries to Flynn, Ellis, Thorn and MacDonald seem a plot against them.

Not my team, but a team that I admire; may goddess Nikhé smile upon them again.

Hurricanes, eternal contenders

Shwalger, Hore, Tialata, Thrush, Eaton, Waldrom, Lavave, So'oailo, Weepu, Kirkpatrick, Gear, Nonu, Smith, Guilford, Jane.

Would anyone dare to deny Hurricanes claims to have a team good enough to win it all? And yet, only after rounds one and two we have started to see them playing the way we know they ought to.

Only a good win against the Cheetahs next week is acceptable. If we are to think that the loss against the Waratahs was an exception, the Hurricanes should show it on the field. Winning at Christchurch was a good effort, but we all know they are capable of good efforts. What we do need to believe is that they can win 5 games in a row.

Or else they are not ready to win this Super 14.

Beware Blues

Three rounds are gone now, and from the "big three" (Crusaders, Waratahs and Sharks) of the opening round, we have moved onto the "new big three" where only the Bulls have replaced the Crusaders and nothing else has changed.

If only, the Hurricanes begin to deliver while Blues and Force have surprisingly performed quite well.

Auckland's fans, quite particularly, seem to have tons of reasons to be happy. Their point is that in a talented team, plagued by injuries and an unusual share of fatherhood leaves, 10 points from the first three rounds is a good record, provided the three games have been away. Defence way seems to have been learnt this weekend when the Stormers were only able to score 8 points.

Good one. Can't argue with it, can you?

Well, let's see. I remember last year's Blues season and their first three rounds were quite impressive. 3 wins and 15 points were clearly a better start of the season. The trip to South Africa started in round 2 and it also included 2 wins and one defeat and the Blues collected 11 points compared to this year's 10. The problems with the Blues came after it. Losses to the Force (at home), Waratahs and Brumbies (at home) almost automatically left them out of the semifinals race.

This year has not started better for them and the hard yards lay ahead. Hurricanes, Sharks, Waratahs and Brumbies await. While it is true they are on the good track, the main obstacles still are to come.

So beware, Blues.