The old cliché about a champion team beating a team of champions is a pretty tired one. But in the first half of Super Rugby this year it’s been proved to be true.
At the start of the season all the hype about New Zealand teams was centred away from the Blues. The Chiefs were champions, the Crusaders were the Crusaders, the Hurricanes were the big improvers, and the Highlanders had been flashing their chequebook at All Blacks. The Blues had been awful last year and most of the comment around their new coach centred on his background.
So here we are, halfway through the season, and the top placed NZ side is the one showing selfless, non-glamorous teamwork. And look at that; it’s The Blues. They are enjoying their rugby, playing to a plan, and are not leaning on any star players.
As an aside, I refuse to use the term Conference. It is an artificial constraint that adds nothing. New Zealand is a country, not a conference. And seeing three separate points tables in the paper makes it way more confusing than it needs to be.
The other thing wrong with the pre-season predictions was that the New Zealand teams were the strongest and Australia, in particular, was rubbish. Well it hasn’t quite turned out that way; Australia 9 New Zealand 2 in head to head contests, including the defending champions getting thrashed by the Reds at Fortress Hamilton. In fact the Reds have beaten all four NZ sides they’ve come up against. That wasn’t part of the script.
There is a range of reasons for this happening, but it is hard to refute the growing theory that regular All Blacks have effectively given up on this competition; especially the early season part of it.
In fact, the only regular All Blacks from last year to have enhanced their reputation have been Sam Whitelock and Julian Savea.
The folly of signing big name players for the Highlanders was pointed out in this column over a month ago. Adding comic value to the situation is Brad Thorn. Last weekend he ran into the Crusaders dressing room at halftime. A lack of commitment or just simple Alzheimer’s?
What’s going on with Richie McCaw? There is no doubt McCaw needed a break, but not an indefinite one. Popping up on the Letterman show is one thing, but it’s actually pretty rank to not specify when he is going to return. It is pretty hard to plan a season around that kind of indecision, and hardly adds to team spirit or respect for team management.
Dan Carter has had an injury and the arrival of his first child, but even when he has played he has been a long distance off his best, and most worryingly didn’t really seemed that concerned about it. All is not well at the Crusaders.
And let’s face it, sacred cow or not, was Conrad Smith even playing in Palmerston North on Friday night?
Instead it has been players like Alapati Leueua, and Steven Luatua who have been the best performers; players who were barely known at the start of the season.
This is not an attack on the players. The season is ridiculously long and most of these people have been playing against the same teams, year in year out, for a decade or so. And it can’t be easy to get motivated for rugby in February.
Just like how it was with the NPC, before the NZRU decided to throw it under the bus of professionalism, Super rugby sides are best served by not hiring players who do not see this as a priority.
Finally, there has been speculation as to Jamie Joseph’s Sacred Cow status with the media, especially when contrasted with Pat Lam had to endure this time last year. There may be a range of reasons for this but mostly it’s a symptom of how the NZ sports media, and the electronic media is particular, is so Auckland centric. Would the TV channels even have cameras and reporters in Dunedin to send around to stalk his house?