Sunday, 23 June 2013

the All Black problem

On Saturday night two games of rugby were played. The first was bungled boring affair only redeemed by two acts of counter-attacking brilliance. The set-pieces were mangled,there was little inspiration or intelligence on set-piece attack as much of game was actually two games between the French playing rugby and the All Blacks playing their highly effective league-rugby hybrid game. New Zealand over the Henry years moved All Black rugby to a new level, but in playing a type of 'total football' whereby players all have the same skill set something has been lost. The game the All Blacks play is now closer to league than it is to rugby as it was played. Part of this is that The defensive lines are such that it becomes a crash and bash game. It is also that we have discovered that negative rugby can win, especially with a host of crash and bash players. This is why sonny bill was  revelation, he brought  subtlety new to current All Black rugby. Likewise the old fashioned skills of Beaudon Barrett and Ben Smith have brought something new to the team. But they rarely get to express them except on counter-attack. Nonu may be brutally effective, but he has killed positive back play. Slow half backs don't help, especially when the first five becomes a shoveller through necessity as opposing back lines are up so fast. We have too many forwards loitering all over the field looking to do our equivalent of the league mid-field hit-up. It is apparent too that this style only really succeeds when you have loosies on the top of their game. We sorely miss McCaw and Kaino, as well as what Thorne brought in the rucks and mauls.
 The only acts of intelligence and subtlety are those rare moments of counter-attack that seem to be the only way we can score tries. The fact that the crowd in New Plymouth booed the French drop goal should tell us all we need to know. To boo a central skill  exposes the mentality created by  All Black rugby and the crowds who turn out for these experiences in corporate nationalism.

The difference with the rugby played between the Lions and Australia couldn't have been more striking. This was rugby in all its drama, passion, flair and structured brutality.  It was how rugby should be played, with a clear distinction between backs and forwards, the desire to use set-pieces as forms of attack and defence, the use of the rolling maul. It was a game, a contest, a challenge to our senses, and not  what increasingly seems to be hybrid game of  the current All Blacks. The All Blacks probably would have beaten both teams- but it would have been a rugby tragedy if they had done so.
 Is it the coaching? perhaps. Is it the types of players who now reach All Black status? perhaps. Is it a reflection of the way that NZ rugby crowds can be divided into those that want rugby and those that want the 'winning entertainment experience?' most certainly. All Black rugby attracts a different type of crowd to that who attend Super Rugby and the ITM cup. It is not about the rugby played, it is about 'The ABs winning'- and that is the central issue.

Thankfully we can forget the current All Black rugby experience for a couple of months and wtach the Lions play rugby- and watch the rugby of the Super 15.
The All Blacks can return to playing rugby- and we may lose test in the process- but I would rather have the drama and passion of a proper ruby game- even if we lost than the boring hybrid we are currently inlficted with.
We need forwards to be forwards and backs to be backs. We need to return to the dark arts of the scrum and to reinstate the rolling maul. We need half-backs who not only can pass long and fast, but also take control of  a game.  We need a midfield that has subtlety. Conrad Smith has been  a standout in the past but has now gone one season too long. He is very good- but never has been in the class of O'Driscoll.  Nonu exemplifies the type of player and rugby we need to move away from. We need loosies who attend to core business. Yet the players are there in New Zealand rugby:
Starting 15:

Full Back:Beaudon Barrett
Wings: Julian Savea, Israel Dagg
Centre: Ben Smith
2nd 5: Dan Carter
1st 5: Aaron Cruden
Halfback: TJ Perenara
No 8: Kieran Read
Openside: Richie McCaw
Blindside: Stephen Luatua
Locks: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick
Props: Owen Franks, Ben Franks
Hooker: James Parsons

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Does Christchurch need a covered stadium?

Last Friday I went to the Crusaders-Waratahs game at AMI. My season seats are three rows back on the ten yard line behind the opposition bench. Three rows is high enough to see but close enough to hear- and almost feel- all the action. The stadium is small, compressed and  therefore engaged even when, as is almost always the case, it is never completely full. For the Crusaders- Blues match earlier the stadium was almost full and the atmosphere was similar to a test match- or Carisbrook in its heyday in the early 1990s.
 Night games in winter are always going to be an issue in New Zealand- and especially so in the South Island. Yet the compressed nature of AMI stadium, the steep stands on each side and the stadium's positioning out of the direct  blast of the easterly make it a much more pleasant and engaging place to watch rugby than the old Lancaster Park/Jade/AMI home of crusaders rugby. Even when it rains, the overhang of the roof means I have yet to be soaked watching a game at the new stadium. Likewise, because there is no blasting wind nor whistling breeze, coupled with compressed seating, the cold is never really an issue. In fact I would argue that is it is the perfect size and shape to watch rugby in New Zealand. If we are honest, Canterbury and the Crusaders are never now likely to attract more than 17000 fans to any game in winter, especially night games. Yet even more so, Super rugby in New Zealand, especially in a city of the size of Christchurch, is unlikely to attract test-match size crowds. we just don't have the population and with Sky, increasing numbers are now what can be termed virtual fans watching at home or in pubs.

The next night I was down in Dunedin and watched the Highlanders defeat the Blues in the Forsyth Barr Stadium.  I took the whole family because the attraction of a covered stadium made them feel that they could cope with the cold of a night game. Yet, ironically, because of the position of the take a kids seats near an open wind-tunnel exit, I was colder in a covered stadium than I have been in the open stadium in Christchurch. That said, if the seats could be gained closer to the middle of the field then we would have been much warmer. But we need to remember that a covered roof may keep off rain but not necessarily keep out cold winds.

The stadium itself is very impressive- and vast. It is also somewhat impersonal. There was a good crowd, but the stadium still felt- and sounded- half empty. There also seemed an expectation that the crowds needed constant entertainment to keep them engaged in such a vast space. So we had various types of performances and performers both prior to and during the match along the sidelines. This was not so much rugby as an entertainment spectacle.

 And then there was the Zoo. For some reason the take a kids seats are, on the town end, very close to the Zoo and all its antics. The positioning of students away from where the game is often played means they will of course resort to making their own entertainment when play is at the other end of the field. What is interesting is how they have costumed encourager's- in chicken suits, in a skeleton suit- and some young man who should have been wearing much more under a lycra body suit. I couldn't help thinking that it is the positioning of the Zoo at one end of the field that necessitates much of its behaviour. Because it is difficult to see play at the other end in a stadium of this size and  the screens are not really large enough. One of the joys of the bank at Carisbrook was that you were close to the play  on the field and could see well. The Zoo is not for those who want to watch rugby- and that is its problem.
 All that said,  I would go south to watch a test match there- if I could get seats closer to the centre of the field. For when it is full it would become a much different place. But the  acoustics when it is half full are woeful and so a curious disengagement occurred- even though the Highlanders won.

Of course the debate in Christchurch is whether we need a covered stadium. On my experiences I would say definitely not. It will be an expensive half-full ( at best) experience for all games  except the odd test match. What we need to do is actually only host small-capacity test matches at AMI and more so keep AMI long-term for rugby. We don't need a new stadium- and we don't need, can't fill and can't afford, a covered stadium. With only 1 million people in the South Island we can only support- at best- one expensive covered stadium and now that Dunedin has got it we need to support that and not try to compete.

 In today's world of competing options for that disposable entertainment dollar, a covered stadium isn't going to draw in bigger crowds- nor is it going to necessarily result in a better experience of rugby to watch- or even  a better  type of rugby played. It is a winter game that unfortunately has become- at super level,  primarily a night game too. The issue is actually  the prevalence of night games and that is not going to change because of broadcasting demands. Rugby is still a central sport to New Zealand culture- but for many it is  now something to be watched in TV and not in person. A covered stadium isn't going to change that.