Welcome to this week’s edition of The Tip-On!
If you want to watch Hurricanes fly-half (and former New Zealand U19 cricketer) Ruben Love have a net against his girlfriend, White Ferns and Brisbane Heat all-rounder Amelia Kerr, you can watch some clips — as well as hear the pair discussing their experiences in elite sport so far — here.
All in-game data per ESPNScrum unless otherwise stated.
Lower the stakes
A competition in which each team plays only 8 regular-season games is fodder for audience overreaction.
A short sequence of matches decided by small margins on the scoreboard — or impacted by factors outside of a team’s control — can lead to the assumption of disparities much vaster than those that are likely to exist in reality.
The 2020 Chiefs, going winless despite being only 3 points worse per 80 minutes than the thrice-victorious Highlanders in Super Rugby Aotearoa are one good example of this; the 2021 Chiefs, winning 5 games on the bounce by a combined margin of 15 points while being outscored by 15 tries to 13, are another.
It’s the Hurricanes who have fallen the furthest in the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings from last year to this — going 1W-0D-6L so far, after a 5-0-3 record in 2020 — but the majority of 2021’s hysteria has been reserved for Leon MacDonald’s Blues.
The Auckland franchise have certainly had less impressive results than last season at the same point. They are 3-0-4 in 2021 with an average points difference per 80 minutes of -0.1, after going 5-0-2 (+3.9) in their 7 Super Rugby Aotearoa fixtures last year:
However, whether the degree to which their fortunes have changed really warrants the criticism that’s been aimed their way in the last few days is another matter.
Sportswriters across New Zealand have relished the opportunity to ease back into their familiar mode of doubting the character and mentality of the Blues players: it is clear, apparently, that they “couldn’t handle a bit of expectation and pressure” and are “practically as wretched as ever”, “clueless” and “frantic and panicky”. All in all, theirs “was a campaign defined by stupidity” — and “[f]ailure is now in their DNA”.
(According to another established writer, MacDonald also needs to solve “the riddle of the Ioane brothers” — 2 All Blacks who, to be clear, have been among the best in the competition in their respective positions all season.)
Bluntly, projecting mental deficiency onto individuals you watch doing their jobs from a hundred yards away is just not a good look. It shows little awareness of the limitations of hypothesising based on nothing more than distant observation of body language and inferences according to past prejudices, and little sympathy for the fact that those players are human beings whose worth is not dictated or limited by those jobs.
Sport is a technical and tactical problem-solving exercise that can be hugely fun to play and entertaining to watch, but we should never forget that it doesn’t actually matter — nor that players’ performances never tell us much about their personal qualities beyond the way they behave in artificially and arbitrarily structured environments.
It goes without saying that the Blues, their players and their coaches aren’t exempt from criticism. There are many interesting aspects of how they have been approaching the game on the field that are worthy of detailed examination and inquiry from journalists — and, obviously, off-field issues involving teams and players deserve scrutiny (in a reasonable and proportionate manner).
At minimum, however, there should be an acceptance by all involved in professional sport that they are engaging with something that is, if they are honest with ourselves, “shallow and frivolous”— and that players should be able to do their jobs without being subjected to this sort of unpleasant commentary because they drop a pass or miss a tackle.
Sene Naoupu (12) vs. -
Amy Cokayne (16) vs. -
Chris Vui (5), Steven Luatua (6), Jake Heenan (8), Charles Piutau (15), John Afoa (18), Alapati Leiua (23) vs. -
Blair Cowan (7) vs. -
Willi Heinz (21) vs. Rodney Ah You (18)
- vs. Matt Proctor (14), Ahsee Tuala (22)
Brad Shields (8), Malakai Fekitoa (13), Jeff Toomaga-Allen (18) vs. -
Sean Reidy (7) vs. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (18), Abraham Papali'i (20)
- vs. Potu Leavasa (6)
Toa Halafihi (8), Jayden Hayward (15) vs. Nick Grigg (13), Cole Forbes (15)
Ethan Roots (6), Jordan Lay (17) vs. -
James Lowe (11), Michael Bent (18) vs. -
- vs. Blade Thomson (6), Johnny McNicholl (15)
Charlie Ngatai (12), Toby Arnold (15), Alex Tulou (19) vs. Fritz Lee (8), Tim Nanai-Williams (10), George Moala (13)
Telusa Veainu (11) vs. Siegfried Fisiihoi (1), Daniel Ramsay (19)
Charlie Faumuina (3), Iosefa Tekori (5) vs. -
Jeremy Thrush (4), Toni Pulu (14), Richard Kahui (22) vs. Taniela Tupou (3), Hunter Paisami (13)
Sam Caird (20), Charlie Gamble (21) vs. Stacey Ili (13)
Matt Todd (7), Jack Stratton (10), Johnny Fa'auli (12), Seta Tamanivalu (13) vs. Jacob Skeen (4), Michael Broadhurst (6), Elliot Dixon (8), Keagan Faria (11), Matt McGahan (15), Daymon Leasuasu (19), Ben Funnell (20)
Sione Vatuvei (8), Ryan Crotty (23) vs. Uwe Helu (5)
Beauden Barrett (10) vs. Maretino Nemani (22)
Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (7), Jackson Hemopo (8), James Wilson (10), Michael Little (12), Nicholas Ealey (21) vs. Brodie Retallick (5), Tom Franklin (6), Aaron Cruden (10), Richard Buckman (12), Tim Lafaele (13), Fraser Anderson (14), Brodi McCurran (19), Ben Smith (23)
Jimmy Tupou (4), Sekonaia Pole (16) vs. -
Shaun Treeby (12), Matt Duffie (15) vs. TJ Perenara (9), Tom Marshall (15)
Sanaila Waqa (5), Jed Brown (7), Patrick Stehlin-Grevel (12), Semisi Masirewa (15), Ieremia Mataena (20) vs. Hadleigh Parkes (12), Craig Millar (17)
Michael Allardice (5), Kieran Read (8), Jamie Henry (11), Male Sa'u (12), Charlie Lawrence (13), Rob Thompson (23) vs. Liaki Moli (4), Ash Parker (6), Nili Latu (7), Augustine Pulu (9)
Correction: last week’s edition of the newsletter initially omitted Sanaila Waqa — the Fijian-born Kintetsu Liners lock who finished his education at Hastings BHS, represented the Hurricanes U20s and played NPC rugby for Hawke’s Bay — from the ‘Foreign Fields’ section. An amended version can be found here.
In case you missed it on Twitter this week
A nice moment for Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris on his return from a long-term injury
Rieko Ioane demonstrating how his acceleration can add value off the ball in the midfield
After his request for permanent name suppression was denied, Zac Guildford was revealed to be the former All Black who has pled guilty to a charge of assault. While in a car in Napier in December 2019, Guildford punched a woman — a fellow passenger — in the face in what the sentencing judge described as “a savage blow delivered to an unsuspecting woman that caused significant injury”. He received a sentence of 2 years of intensive supervision. Stuff journalist Zoe George penned an opinion piece in response to the failed appeal, addressing it in the context of how recent offences by a number of other Kiwi rugby players (Manaaki Selby-Rickit, Sevu Reece and Losi Filipo) were treated by the judicial system:
The provincial unions will vote on New Zealand Rugby’s proposed investment deal with Silver Lake at their AGM tomorrow, and a couple more details of the terms have been revealed as this first crucial date approaches. In a piece detailing the New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association’s continued objections to the deal, the NZ Herald reported that the agreed stake to be sold in NZR’s commercial rights is now 12.5% (at NZ $388m) — down from 15% (at NZ $465m). This was confirmed by RNZ earlier today. Reporting by Paul Cully of Stuff also suggested that the hypothetical company in which Silver Lake would hold a stake would recognise NZR’s commercial revenues on its income statement but not associated costs, giving the investment firm effective rights to a larger chunk of the governing body’s overall profits than its percentage holding in that subsidiary would imply.
NZR has tried to position the financial viability of any future Super Women’s competition as effectively contingent on that Silver Lake deal, which is rather unhelpful: the body could of course choose to reallocate existing funding for the elite men’s game to the women’s if it so desired. Nonetheless, this Saturday’s one-off fixture between the Blues and Chiefs wāhine at Eden Park could give the prospect of such a competition some real impetus. For starters, there’s been a noticeable uptick in social media content (see YouTube videos on the Blues’ and All Blacks’ channels, and a video on the Chiefs’ Instagram account) and traditional media coverage featuring the women’s game this week: Stuff have published features with Chiefs captain Les Elder, Blues lock Maiakawakaulani Roos and assistant coach Cheryl Smith, while Chiefs fly-half Hazel Tubic and Blues captain Eloise Blackwell were featured on The Breakdown on Sky Sport NZ on Monday. (You can also find a breakdown of some of the key match-ups on allblacks.com.) Roos — still a teenager — put it well in an interview with Andrew Voerman:
Last Wednesday, World Rugby launched its Strategic Plan 2021-25, which will — amongst other things — seek to develop “a more…unified approach to test rugby within the July and November windows”. Yesterday, the Welsh Rugby Union’s announcement of its end-of-year schedule showed why attempting to rationalise the elite rugby calendar is worthwhile: Wales’ confirmed fixture against the All Blacks on 30th October falls outside the window for mandatory player release under World Rugby Regulation 9, and so the home side will be without a number of their key players. Japan men’s head coach Jamie Joseph is also in favour of revision to the global schedule, as it would give his team more opportunities to play top opponents:
“I think what we need to do internationally, is that we need to sort out the window that suits international rugby. There’s a conflict there between southern and northern hemisphere. Japan, even though we are based in the northern hemisphere, our rugby is played more along the lines of the southern hemisphere. We need to get that sorted and then from that you can work out your competitions.”
While Japan has typically been a destination for Kiwis towards the end of their careers, a number of younger players have begun to travel north in search of different opportunities. One of those is 2017 New Zealand U20 fly-half Tiaan Falcon, who recently spoke to Aiden McLaughlin about joining Toyota Verblitz in the Top League:
“I feel like I've grown a lot in the last few months. Living by myself in a foreign country, all those things you can't really do in New Zealand. I think that experience can only make me better going forward. All those little things as well, the team dynamic here is so different. You don't really realise until you leave New Zealand rugby all the little connections you have."
And a number of even younger players are heading in the same direction: the Otago Daily Times has reported that a member of last year’s King’s HS 1st XV is trialling for the Panasonic Wild Knights, while 2020 Chiefs U18 representative Solomona Tyrell is one of a number of youngsters emigrating to the country with the assistance of player agency LRB Sports.
The return of Beauden Barrett and the arrival of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck mean that the Blues already have a couple of star additions to their backline confirmed for 2022, but there is speculation they may yet add a third. Jordie Barrett — who has an option to switch franchises at the end of this year as part of his longer-term contract with New Zealand Rugby — has been in their sights, and Hurricanes chief executive Avan Lee spoke this week about the prospect of keeping him in Wellington:
"Jordie has been a star for us the last few years. We're talking to him and his manager and that will carry on. We're aware these guys are in demand…[t]he Blues have shown their interest before and I don't see why that would've changed. They've got Stephen Perofeta and others who have played fullback. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is coming in, you just don't know what's on their agenda, but I'd be surprised if they didn't."
Not much needs to be said about the devastating potential of a backline featuring Beauden at 10, Rieko Ioane at 13 and Jordie, Tuivasa-Sheck and Caleb Clarke in the outside backs. If it were to happen, however, it’s also worth considering that the cohesion they would have a chance to build as a club combination could significantly improve their chances of selection at test level.
The Chiefs have done some more immediate recruiting of their own, calling in 37-year-old Liam Messam — who has been training with the team at various points throughout the year — and Tom Florence as injury cover for a number of their back-row forwards. Kaylum Boshier and Simon Parker are set to be out for the rest of 2021, with Mitchell Karpik also expected to be unavailable for up to 3 months.
Tim Bateman isn’t quite as old as Messam, but he too has been summoned to his old franchise to help them out after a serious injury. Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson is never short of a kind word about the experienced midfielder, who will cover for Jack Goodhue:
“He’s pretty endearing to our group, he comes in and understands how it rolls, adds where he needs to, articulate man, trains bloody well and runs the guys that aren’t in the 23 incredibly well. Smart man.”
His chances of getting actual game-time are probably decreased by the news that Braydon Ennor’s recovery from injury has been successful thus far; Robertson noted that if the centre can make it through a second club game this coming weekend, he may be available for the Super Rugby Aotearoa final against the Chiefs.
The Highlanders had a pretty successful week at the recent Super Rugby Aotearoa Under 20s tournament in Taupō, and head coach Mark Ozich was positive about the players coming through the franchise’s system in an interview with Stuff’s Paul Cully:
“A successful environment also looks like guys being able to promote themselves to higher honours, and to create a game plan where people can be acknowledged for their performances. I thought guys like Sean Withy, Nathan Hastie, Noah Hotham, Cam Millar, Fabian Holland, they are all examples of guys who have rugby potential and talent who were able to play well and get some pretty good accolades, and hopefully promote themselves into higher honours.”
Openside flanker Withy won the overall award for player of the tournament, and should be involved again for Otago in the NPC later this year.
Tyler Bleyendaal, who is in his first season as an assistant to Jason Holland at the Hurricanes, gave a long interview to the Irish Examiner this week. Speaking to Maurice Brosnan, Bleyendaal — whose playing career with Munster came to a premature end last year — explained how his time as an injured squad member helped him hone the skills he now uses every day as a coach:
“I guess the good thing is I could try and contribute even though I arrived injured…[t]here was never a time I could switch off. I was always thinking, challenging, imposing something new. I like to get stuck in. I think when you have a long-term injury, you have to. It comes from that rugby brain or whatever you want to call it, I love to keep involved. Problem solve, challenge, refining what we were doing.”