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.