Thursday, 28 March 2013

The problem of Robbie Fruean and the joy of George Whitelock

One of the benefits of going to live rugby is the ability to watch a single player for a concentrated period of time. The difference between rugby as a mediated event or spectacle where every view and image is pre-chosen for you, with commentary continuously telling you what you have seen and often what often to think and the live event is staggering when we return to the live game after prolonged periods of what is, truly, 'virtual' rugby.
The last two games of live rugby I have attended, watching the Crusaders play, I have paid close attention to two players: Robbie Fruean and George Whitelock. Sitting on the 10 yard line, 3 rows back from the ground, I get a close-up view of the game that means I am close enough to  really see, hear- and almost- feel it. Such a position allows me to closely watch different players for a period to see exactly what they do, when and how- both on and off the ball.

Robbie Fruean is a player of immense potential- or more truly, was such a player. As Gregor Paul noted in the season preview edition of NZ Rugby world, he is one of 5 players who have to perform.
The fact about Fruean is that he can perform-in patches. This is not in patches in the season but, more worryingly, in patches in a game. When he does perform he is like a rhino on the charge: he has speed, strength and an excitement factor that is infectious. He is the favourite of kids and all those fans who like rugby to be a spectacle. But in both home games this season the off-patches in the game have been longer than the on-patches. Early in both games he looks very short of breath, often hidden away on the wing, hands in knees, looking like he is about to be sick. His health issues are well known and the courage he has shown to be able to return to top-level rugby deserves respect. Yet something is obviously wrong this season. More often  than not he is out of play, resting, hidden in fact. When the ball does come his way there is the short burst if necessary, but too often it is more a case of shovelling it on. Watching him off the ball he is a sick man and in that condition the rest of the team has to cover for him. The strength of the Crusaders is that they are, so far, able to cover for him on the field while he recovers. But his confidence is waning and sooner or later teams are going to figure out something is wrong with him and target where he is.

George Whitelock on the other hand is a player teams target because of his central value to the side. He is a player is the great tradition of Canterbury no 6s. There is the no-nonsense leadership of Don Hayes about him, the willingness to throw himself around and tackle, leap and wrestle like Andy Earl; he has the undervalued aspects of Rueben Thorne and  is the self-less team-man in the manner of Todd Blackadder. What is so important is not only what he does in the tight- both during and after contact, but also his covering, positional play. His ability to read a game is second to none and this means he is a very economical player. Never flashy, never doing the big breaks, he is the master of the hard-graft elements of rugby. He is the centre of the team in a way that the purist appreciates. In days gone by he would have been a certainty to be picked for those long-haul All Black tours where he would have captained the mid-week dirt-trackers, played many games  for his country but few tests, yet could always have been relied upon to step up if required. Next time you get a chance to watch the Crusaders live spend 5 minutes watching George to see how rugby should be played. He may never again play a test, but he is actually far better than so many players who have - or will play many more than his solitary one.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The situational tribe of the Crusaders

At one stage during Saturday night's defeat of the Bulls by the Crusaders, as I looked around the crowd I was reminded that sports- and in this case- rugby- or more specifically the Crusaders - operate as what we can term a situational tribe.
 By 'situational tribe' I mean that in particular contexts we experience new forms of tribalism, new forms of tribal experience and identity that are specific to particular contexts. There in front of me were a couple of Filipino dads with their sons and daughters, to my left were Maori and Samoan dads and kids, to my right was an Indian dad and his son. Behind us sit a NZ-Scots family; we came to the game with a family of mixed pakeha-chinese identity. In the wider crowd are a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds and identities, a wide range of ages, a mix of males and females, a mix of ethnicities all united, for the period of the match into a particular, transitory tribe called the Crusaders. Of course the Crusaders are first and foremost a professional rugby franchise and this means they are a business and fans are their customers. The success is really that what the Saatchi guru and rugby-head Kevin Roberts terms a 'lovemark"- a brand, a brandmark that creates and inspires a different level of brand loyalty and devotion. The Crusaders have been perhaps the most successful lovemark or superbrand in NZ Rugby outside the All Blacks. The Crusaders management recognize the importance of the event- so we get the horses, the conquest of paradise theme,  the free flags for everyone, the scarves for season ticket holders; yet to keep the tribe coming the team needs to inspire loyalty not only by winning, but even more so by the way they play. This is what was so worrying about the opening games for the Crusaders- and made this past weekend so central. It was not so much that the Crusaders  had lost, but the manner in which they played to loose. The situational tribe identifies as much with the manner in which the team plays as the results they achieve. The manner of play, what they represent in the style they play is what is the transcendent claim of the tribe. For the tribe is, in the end, 'buying' into a particular idea, an identity, a symbolic representation. The transcendent claim is what allows such a disparate group come together to symbolically affirm the situational tribe. The transcendent claim is what is celebrated in a brief overcoming of every-day differences. Last weekend there were positive signs that the transcendent claim was on the way back.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

a worrying- if understandable- lack of depth in NZ rugby

The performance of the NZ super rugby teams over the opening rounds of the competition has reignited a question about player depth in New Zealand. At All Back level there has always been a question of depth in certain positions at particular times- some years at lock, others at first-five, currently at centre and hooker. Yet there have been very few seasons when the overall quality of the All Blacks has been in doubt resulting in the question as to whether they can competently and consistently compete at International level.  In fact it is interesting how often the excuse for failing to win at previous World Cups came down to anything but player depth and competency.

This year however we may need to start thinking about an overall lack of depth across New Zealand rugby to consistently achieve success at Super Rugby. Can New Zealand actually provide 5 quality teams? Do we have the depth? Is this actually where the player drain overseas hits the hardest? Player drain is not an issue at the level of the All Blacks for in the end all that is needed is a quality player in each of the 15 positions and hopefully an adequate backup. We are not yet in a position whereby we do not have 15 All-Black quality players- even though sometimes we have weaknesses within a position and within the larger squad. 

The issue currently facing New Zealand is whether we can truly sustain 5 Super Rugby teams- and in fact, whether we actually should? 
 The problem facing all the franchises is that of choosing a team- in competition from 4 other franchises, from a limited pool of players. It has become quickly and cruelly evident that there is now a  huge leap in quality and performance expected between ITM and Super rugby. The gap between these competitions is nowhere more evident than in the differing performances of the Crusaders and Canterbury. The dominance of Canterbury at ITM Cup does not translate into dominance at Super Rugby. This is surely a very worrying sign regarding the gap between the two competitions. Canterbury has been increasingly caught out by believing the gap can be easily crossed with most of the same players. More widely, many players who perform well at ITM level are increasingly out of their depth at Super Rugby level.  Furthermore, when Super Rugby players head overseas, or relocate franchises within New Zealand, there is increasingly an issue of depth to replace them.

  So, what if we retracted to 4 Super rugby teams? Australia likewise needs to retract to three. South Africa seems to have handled their issues with the threat of relegation, but we need to locate South African rugby with its depth, finances, crowds and internal competitions outside the debates on depth in New Zealand and Australia.  What advantage is there- especially for New Zealand, to have underperforming teams, exposing the lack of depth? Do we need an intermediate tier competition that sits between Super Rugby and ITM Cup? Or do we need a tier one and tier two competition within super rugby itself?

What is evident is that many players are making a leap into - or staying within - Super Rugby who are clearly not really up to Super Rugby standard. It is always easiest to blame coaching for poor performances- yet usually we blame the coach if a team loses and praise the players if the team wins.
 Good coaching can make good players better- and can create a team that plays more than the sum of its parts. Yet too often it appears that we are trying to turn base metals into gold- and coaches are not  alchemists. What needs to be urgently reconsidered is player development and how to overcome the gap between ITM cup and Super rugby. The expansion and continuation of the current number of franchises is in the end a financial decisions. More Teams means more games to cover, more crowds to sell to. This is a global problem with the mediaization of professional sport. In the end the sport and teams are a product to sell. Yet if the product is one that declines in quality, that declines in performance, then the customer (the supporter) decides to send their money and time elsewhere.

Central to the experience of the fan is the emotion of a tribal identity- and this is where super rugby is increasingly failing in NZ. The Crusaders thrived upon such a tribal identity for a number of years as we became accustomed to the realities of professional rugby. But in professional sport we need to remember that the tribe is the supporters - not the team itself. The mistake the Crusaders have made is that of confusing the notion of the tribe with the team. The Highlanders also did this with their emphasis on Otago and Sothland  ITM players. And yet, we must also remember that not only is this a question over where players are drawn from, it is, in the end, that of how many quality players are available.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Clumsy with flashes of brilliance

One of the hallmarks of the title-winning Crusaders teams was a clinical ability to shut-down games. A lead, once gained, was never easily given up - if at all. The aim was to win and to win the opposition had to be starved of the ball and lured into frustration. Even the journeymen were professional in their dedication to clinical play. Acts of brilliance were used to gain the lead and then a rugged, professional attitude was employed to keep the lead. Opposition teams and fans of course are always going to substitute  such terms as illegal and foul for rugged and professional- and at times there were of course cases when this was so. But the other side  of such an approach was the ability to change a game-plan from attack into a defensive attack and to cut out all forms of clumsy play that might or might not come off. Last week  the Crusaders were mentally tired and clumsy, unable to adjust to the game they encountered. This week they played with flashes of brilliance and at time glimpses of the old, often lost, clinical attitude. Yet the Crusaders team of the past would have shut the game down-even of attack and never instituted a play involving a long cut-out drift pass on their 22. While Adam Whitelock threw it, the team itself should never have attempted such move-especially against a team of such ragged possibilities as the Hurricanes. The other area of clumsiness was the number of kickable penalties given away and of course that can be labelled a continuation of the 'rugged, professional attitude'-just wrongly applied.
The signs are there for an improvement and most pleasing is the maturity of Ryan Crotty. The midfield of the Crusaders has lacked a maturity in attitude, that is a consistency, a professionalism, for the past few seasons. Crotty and Fruean were very young-and still are young players; but youth as not the issue, it was one of consistency. Crotty's try was an act of brilliance that he often hints of but, with only 6 super rugby tries, has rarely delivered given the number of games he has played. But more pleasing was the way that, for almost all the game, he controlled the mid-field defence. If Tom Taylor's injury is only minor it could be worth starting him at 2nd-five and pushing Crotty out one position to centre. Fruean can then be used as an impact player if and when required.
 For the skill of a good mid-fielder is to be enact rugby hermeneutics- that is, to be able to interpret the context and offer new understandings and responses. Crotty tonight demonstrated that he is indeed capable of hermeneutics.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Blues 34 - Crusaders 15

Those of us living in Christchurch are aware of the creeping effects of earthquake fatigue.  2011 was a year lived on adrenalin; 2012 was a year when the realities of the long-term effects took hold. No longer could we bluff it that things were going to be be easily-or quickly- or smoothly fixed.  By 2013 we became truly aware of the mundane realities of living in a city that is not really working in a number of ways: bad roading, transport blockages, on-going EQC head-aches, apparent CERA inaction and local council dramas and failures, an inner-city re-build that is really a dystopian no-build and, perhaps most importantly, the awareness that everyone is worn out, emotionally and physically.
 In such a context mental staleness is a reality that has to be worked hard at to overcome.

This is a Crusaders team that has seen little change in on-field personnel for a number of years now. Further more, it is made up of players who went through the quakes and now live in the post-quake realities. More than that they have played together for a number of years without winning a championship. Stale teams often look first to change the coach. Yet as was done at the Chiefs and now at the Blues, the changes in coaching need also  to be accompanied by a change in on-field personnel. Of course the mix has to be right, as is demonstrated by the on-going problems of the Highlanders. Change in itself is not the answer. 

But is the backline in particular that looked tired tonight for the Crusaders - as indeed it did last year. Again it was too lateral without the necessary speed to make it work, too lateral without a straightening punch-runner, too disorganised on both attack and defence. Blackadder has made coaching changes but now must make selection changes. But it is really too late, for what was-and is-needed is a refreshment of personnel from outside Christchurch, outside both the Crusaders and Canterbury squads.  In fact for the good of the players themselves  they need to be able to relocate and learn new systems with different players- and live in a different, un-broken city.

The secret of coaching is often who you don't choose to play. This is going to be the test of Blackadder as a coach if the Crusaders under him are to win a championship.