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Truth or Dare: Hansen’s Poker Face May Come Undone

Finally, after the Rugby Championship has concluded and they went through it undeservedly unbeaten, the All Blacks came a cropper against a determined Australian outfit this afternoon at a Suncorp stadium that belied its name. Brisbane has so far been the most difficult place for recent All Black teams to tour, with their results being less than fashionable against the Wallabies at the venue. And with the conditions being as you may expect in Dunedin, Wellington or Glasgow the going was only going to be tougher.

It was to be Stephen Moore’s last game on Australian soil. The former captain will not be part of Australia’s World Cup bid. The 125 test veteran deserved a win over the old enemy and he, together with the rest of his Wallaby team, will savour this win for many months. If Michael Cheika can stay focused, another win may not be too far away. That Australia won this test match cannot be argued, as opposed to New Zealand losing it. The Australians led at the start, trailed by one at half time and dominated the breakdown to lead at the death when it mattered. Reece Hodge relieved the stuttering Foley of the kicking duties and knocked over the five points that eventually mattered, three of them from 53m out.

This loss was a long time coming though. The All Blacks should, ideally, have lost more games in the rugby championship. Their blushes were saved only by some outlandish skills and finishing from the likes of Havili, Barrett and MacKenzie. But that’s not how the All Blacks will be wanting to win games, especially not in long campaigns like a World Cup where luck tends to even itself out and one bad day is enough to spell disaster. They cannot rely therefore, on the flash. They have to rely on the steady. The basics. The things they do better than anyone else, so that the marauding finishers can actually finish.

During this tournament, and the third Bledisloe test, the All Blacks have made a habit of camouflaging their weaknesses to the uninitiated. While fans rave about Barrett’s no-look, behind the back flick to Nehe Milner-Skudder against South Africa, the fly half will know that he only cut in to make the conversion easier. When he found he’d made the wrong decision, instead of finishing easily on the outside, he threw the pass to avoid being chased down by Jesse Kriel. It was a high risk manoeuvre that was unnecessary, uncommunicated and fuelled by insecurity of his placed kicking. The fans rave at how skilled his is, and everything is right with the world. They can’t see the enemy beyond the wall. However, the Northern Hemisphere coaches are hardly blinkered fans. They know where the chinks lie and they will attack them like hyenas. They will also take heart from the Lion’s performance and adopt the strangulation formula which worked so well in the tests, the Maori All Black test and against the Crusaders, on that tour. Barrett, MacKenzie and Moanga were made to look ordinary in the face of the Lions’ defensive line speed. Coupled with uncertainty in midfield and the jury still out on SBW, the NZRFU’s expensive experiment, things are not looking as chill as Steve Hansen’s unflappable countenance would suggest.

With Ben Smith on concussion probation and being given a sabattical, so that the Blacks don’t haemorrhage talent like Cruden, Fekitoa and Carl Hayman before them, the back three is a huge worry for Hansen. Jordie Barrett is injured and Damien MacKenzie is just not looking like a worthy replacement for Dagg or Smith. He is brilliant in the broken field aspect of the game as his lateral step around the flailing South African defence showed. However, the diffusion of bombs under pressure, and providing that aura of solidity, while at the same time sparking counter attacks seems a lot to expect from him in a short time. Israel Folau exposed Naholo for the hesitant defender he is and McKenzie made three tackles in a game where the All Blacks missed 26 in total. One was the tackle that Korobiete fell over in for his try. If that doesn’t show his inability to defend the correct channels, I don’t know what does. Add to that the fact that the entire back three for Australia scored and Reiko Ioane made zero tackles, you have to ask yourself whether this unit was ad hoc. I hope it was.

Add Brodie Retallick and Jerome Kaino to this forward pack and the All Blacks will not suffer a possession reversal of 57 to 43, and neither will they concede the breakdown battle in the way they did. Sam Cane infringed as often as he did because he was the only one really defending. He made 27 tackles. Gave away one silly penalty and knocked on the last possession. But he made 27 tackles. Liam Squire is a good player. But he’s no Jerome Kaino. What this proves is that the All Blacks are a couple of injuries away from being completely without match-winning options. Retallick, Kaino, Cane, Read, Crotty and Smith are irreplaceable at the moment. That’s right, irreplaceable. The going is such that at the moment you take one or two of those players out of the mix and the Blacks look vulnerable. Given the scars of having to dig so deep into the fly-half pocket in 2011, Hansen would do well to remember that squads win World Cups and not just good first xv’s. And at the moment he doesn’t have one.

In midfield, there is cover. Crotty and Williams, together with Laumape, Lienert-Brown, Moala and Goodhue can all deliver some good combinations, with the latter in particular being really impressive. However, Hansen’s insistence on the battering-ram Laumape option is puzzling. Crotty is the best decision-maker on the field and should be closer to the ball. We haven’t seen the All Blacks create tries this season. Most have come from good defensive turnovers, counter attack and brilliant individualism. The team tries that we have come to expect from them have been few and far between, proving that their combinations are not right. It’s been two years since the last World Cup where Hansen lost some of the best players of this generation. They can hardly be replaced. Ironically though, the best of those players, McCaw, Carter and Conrad Smith (not necessarily in that order) have adequate replacements in Cane, Barrett and Goodhue. Like for like.

Inexplicably though Hansen has departed – in un-All Black like fashion – from what works for him. Good players who do the basics well, do not take undue risks and have the intelligence and selflessness to make their team mates better. Conrad – despite not being the biggest or fastest player on the pitch – was famed for not making mistakes. His contributions were always telling if not always noticed. And as a defender he was unparalleled in his positioning and execution. Ryan Crotty is a similar player. Unspectacular but solid, selfless and an excellent decision maker. His Crusaders partner Goodhue is the same. So was Aaron Cruden, who was told he was surplus. The rest of the new breed though, the backline Barretts, Laumape, Havili and MacKenzie are not of that ilk. They are more from the Carlos Spencer mould. And we all know what Carlos Spencer can do to a World Cup campaign. It would seem the All Blacks have not learned from the Luke McAlister saga. Flash players don’t win you trophies that matter.

Let’s not put too fine a point on this. The last few months saw the British and Irish Lions become only the second touring party not to lose against the All Blacks in New Zealand. The only match the Kiwis looked comfortable in was the one that Aaron Cruden ran from fly-half. There’s a lesson there somewhere if Wayne Smith can get his successors to see it. Despite their one-eyed crassness (which they think passes off as humour) the Australian commentators did use one word to describe Kurtely Beale’s afternoon. They said he’s better when he ‘underplays’ instead of trying to do too much. We’d have to agree. Hopefully, the current All Black crop will learn as Beale has done.

 

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Hayman: Thomians Weather the Storm

Whattamatch!

Somehow, as a Thomian, I had a bad feeling about the game going in. Warden Billimoria’s taciturn face at the team introductions was gloomier than the weather. Almost like he had a premonition of what was to come. It was not for the faint hearted.

Taking a four cushion into the second leg of the 26th annual RL Hayman encounter, thanks to their 4 goal lead Saturday last, S.Thomas’ could have been excused for being a little relaxed. Despite looking chilled out at the warm-up though they seemed to clam up as soon as Royal scored their first goal when Shamod Edirisinghe smashed a long-range shot home to cancel out Kahandawala’s early penalty.

The penalty in the first thirty seconds of the game, seemed to lull the Thomians into a false sense of security. Kahandawala’s 6th goal seemed to suggest more of the same from the Thomian’s prolific goal scorer in the first leg. However, it would be the first and last goal he scored in the match, being completely marked out of the game by a well prepared Royal. Deprived of their goal machine, S. Thomas’ seemed to come apart at both ends of the pool. Having relied heavily on individual performances in the previous four years, namely from custodian Kosala Wijewardena, former skipper Deelaka Weeraratne and last year’s 9 goal blitz from Sachitha Jayathilaka, the Thomians suddenly seemed unable to find goals from elsewhere in the pool.

After going behind and slipping to 5 goal deficit on aggregate, Royal threw the kitchen sink in the form of a couple of long range bullets from Shamod Edirisinghe whose early hat trick gave the Royalists a sniff. The massive margin prompted the Royal coaching staff of Hassen and Kankanige to play a man up so that Royal could score on the break. This forced S. Thomas’ to play a defender deep in their half, meaning their attack comprised only five players. Unfortunately, this duty was entrusted to skipper Shakya Gunatillake, without whom the Thomian attack looked a little rudderless. Their heads fell further when Gunatillake made his way onto the 2m line only to have a flawlessly executed goal disallowed by the game clock. This seemed to set S. Thomas’ back and Royal rode their luck fearlessly in the second and third quarters.

Royal skipper Basith Yakoob switched between playing on the right bar and the point position and made two telling contributions with his left hand to take Royal to the brink of victory. In between Sawinda Dissanayake with some excellent centre forward play and Isiwarana de Silva with some opportunism had pulled Royal out of the darkness and into the position of firm favourites to take the match and the tie. They peppered Dilith Kumarasinghe in the Thomian goal, who was helpless with Gunatillake suffering three exclusions and his defence outswum by a determined Royal.

A timely strike from Ebenezer and a scrambled own goal kept S. Thomas’ in the tie, but firmly out of the game. At 10 – 5 in the final quarter and the momentum all with Royal the blue and gold crowd was in fine voice, opposite a stunned Thomian contingent. While STC were fading fast, the Royalists seemed to gather strength in the final quarter. Kumarasinghe, uncharacteristically beaten ten times in the game, managed to find a good long pass to Wickramaratne who was left open in the middle of the pool. One of the stronger swimmers in the Thomian team he swam it up to the 5m while his prop struggled to get out of the way. With a defender closing him down and his options limited, the Wickramaratne lobbed over the head of Hettiarachchi in the Royal goal with the ice-cool precision of a trained assassin. For an inexperienced player it was a commendable piece of thinking under extreme pressure. Royal’s willingness to go forward to the end had exposed them ever so momentarily and the Thomians salvaged a draw in probably the most memorable encounter on record yet.

Only once have a team comeback from a deficit to win the Hayman. That was Shan Laksitha’s Royal team in 2012. Those heroics were not to be repeated, and by virtue of their recent dominance, the Thomians kept the trophy for a fifth consecutive year.

It was a tactica masterclass from Royal who forced the influential Gunatillake out of the game with their ‘man-up’ tactics. They also allowed the Thomians to attack up the right flank by dropping a defender onto the left post to assist their goal-keeper. The Thomians couldn’t find a way through that double door and were frustrated for large parts of the game without being able to switch the ball back to the point or the opposite wing. It was street smart play by Royal and the Thomians needed to adapt faster than they did. Credit though to both sets of coaches who gave the crowd a stunning display of technical, proficient, uncontroversial but exciting waterpolo.

Having been part of the Hayman for 23 of its 26 years as a player, referee and now commentator, this was without a doubt the best match the series has seen. Yakoob and his team deserve every accolade, as to Gunatillake and his scrappers who didn’t give up until the literally the last few seconds. It is this sort of performance that makes Royal-Thomian rivalry what it is.

Which Pride Will Prevail?

It’s been nearly six years since a match this big has taken place at Eden Park. Even that game, the RWC 2011 final, was not anticipated to be as close as it was, given the way Dan Carter had dismissed Le Frogs from his presence in the group game. It was probably his most influential performance in Black since the Lions drubbing of 2005. His absence in the Final, made inescapable by the groin snap that shook the Southern Hemisphere, resulted in New Zealand domino-ing through two more fly halves before Stephen Donald won them the World Cup.

France have spoiled New Zealand parties before, most memorably in the RWC 2007 QF, once again with Carter being dragged off injured with nearly half an hour to go. It was a bizarre game which didn’t see a penalty awarded to New Zealand in all of the second half. It was also a game that Thierry Dusatoir scored in, as he did in the 2011 World Cup Final to make the All Black win wafer thin.

The injury to Carter almost certainly cost them that 2007 game and almost cost them the 2011 title, despite them being the best team in the world at both moments in time. Injuries have a history of derailing the best laid plans of the All Blacks. As do the French, this time in the form of Jerome Garces.

Why an injury to Dan Carter is a cataclysm, is self – evident to even Northern Hemisphere fans, given the man’s legacy. However, the injuries to Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty are less obviously, but equally, catastrophic. Both men are leaders. And with Kieran Read in the forward pack, and the back line being relatively inexperienced, both Crotty and Smith’s calming presence would have been absolutely necessary. Both men are also multi-skilled, in that they can kick, run, pass and are solid defenders. Smith’s inclusion allows Hansen to play two full backs in the back three alongside a rookie. His absence, and poor selection otherwise, left Dagg isolated in Wellington. Not having played a lot of rugby with either Naholo or Ioane, Dagg lost his confidence. He didn’t have nearly the same game he had a week before and trust is a huge factor in his performance. Rugby is made up of units. Every player in a unit needs to instinctively understand the other players. The front, second and third rows, the half backs, midfield and back three. These are the primary units. And if they don’t gel, your entire unit is compromised. Going into a wet, windy, Wellington cake tin, Dagg knew the high ball was his. He dropped more balls than Ioane and Naholo did, but also caught many more. Naholo dropped one under no pressure and Ioane’s misjudgement could have led to a try for a more predatory Faletau. When your full back sees that happening he gets stressed. And Dagg played like a man under enormous pressure.

The entire back line, apart from Dagg – including replacement debutante Laumape – had 67 run- on caps between them. Dagg has 64 caps in total. It was a mistake. and the mistake was by Hansen. Regardless of the weather, when any Northern Hemisphere team visits, especially the Lions, they are going to kick. To leave Cory Jane out of the squad entirely, and to pick Ngani Laumape over Jordie Barrett in the match day 23 was where the game was won and lost.

Laumape’s inclusion seemed knee-jerk and uncharacteristic from the usual All Black mantra of patience. The same selection ethos which meant that Beudan Barrett started 30 of his 52 tests on the bench. The same ethos that was slow to jettison a clumsy Fekitoa and underperforming Colin Slade, allowed Savea 50 tests before he was found wanting under the high ball and gave Dagg loads of time to re-prove himself. To allow Laumape onto the bench after one, admittedly barnstorming, game for the Hurricanes when his placed kicking, all round team mate Jordie Barrett may have been better suited seemed almost a gamble.

While everyone debated the selection of Gatland’s ‘Faxton’ (or is it Sexrell) axis, everyone missed the fact that this was quite possibly the tipping point of some poor All Black selection. Naholo for Smith is not a like for like replacement, and in the conditions (surely someone looks at the forecast, and also realises its Wellington), he was hardly the go-to man. The absence of an ageing, but an experienced squad player like Jane was sorely missed. These players who have played in big games, generally step it up.

To compound the uncharacteristic selection, the reaction to SBW’s red card was, and still is, unfathomable. Bringing in a debutante to plug a midfield hole was one thing. But it also exposed the All Blacks’ unwillingness to shift from their pre-match plan. Clearly, they wanted to attack the 10-12 channel. Most of their game was built around that. But to take off one of your most destructive loosies, and at the same time opting to pack a centre on the flank, didn’t make any sense. If you lose a back, then drop Sam Cane into the first five position, or the blind side wing (field position permitting) on defence, and move everyone one over. Either that or bring on Cruden to send Barrett to full back and Dagg to the wing. But replacing the hard working Kaino compromises the line out, the breakdown and the defensive line. Three areas in which the AB’s were outplayed on the day. Laumape adds to one dimension, which is the ball carrying, and the AB’s have two very similar players in the backline in Naholo and Laumape who don’t address the problem that the red card created.

Eventually, what last Saturday showed was that the Lions are a good side. A side definitely good enough to beat 14 All Blacks over the best part of an hour. Even that took 3 missed penalties from Barrett (his brother was kicking their last Tuesday), and two poor games by both himself and Aaron Cruden and a dodgy Faumuina penalty to create the loss. Fortunately, Garces, Vunipola and Itoje combined to keep the All Blacks in a game they really should have lost by more.

Back at Eden Park the discipline of the All Blacks will be tested. The discipline that dictates that one must stick with what works. If Smith and Crotty are still injured, then Jordie Barrett, Jack Goodhue and Malakai Fekitoa must come into the mix in that order. The think tank is unlikely to plonk two rookies at outside centre and wing, so Fekitoa may start. But if they do use him, Goodhue will not disappoint. The lad is perhaps going to be better than Conrad.

What the All Blacks’ selectoral hubris has done, is allow the Lions a sniff. And National Geographic tells me a Lion who has had a taste of blood is lethal. Despite all the aspects that combined to allow them a win on Sunday, they have now been given belief. And belief does wonderful things, the absence of which Israel Dagg will testify to. This will be a true test of character for Steven Hansen and his team. If a series loss will set up a non-smug preparation for the hat-trick in 2019. So be it.

Liam Dunseath: A Response

The preamble to the first Test between the British and Irish Lions and the defending World Champions the All Blacks has degenerated into an A&E crisis for the Lions with their ever faithful media doing their best to camouflage the unavailability of some key players. Stuart Hogg has gone home after being reverse clotheslined by Connor Murray, and Owen Farrell has a quadriceps strain. Courtney Laws came off second best while trying to head Waisake Naholo’s shoulder clear, and Leigh Halfpenny also had an HIA after an unscheduled meeting with Lima Sopoaga.

With the writing on the wall being in black ink, rather than red, it’s not surprising that the referees are becoming the focal point. Both camps though are equally guilty of this, in a manifestation of the North/South divide of the globe, and with it, international rugby philosophies. This series is more than a clash between two teams. It is a clash between cultures; one that loves to run, and the other that loves to smash into things.

The men that police the game are also of a similar bent. Some who appreciate the technical aspect of the game and insist on them to the point of boring pedantry, and those that appreciate that some breaches of the law are less ‘material’, than others.

There’s a video doing the rounds compiled by a Northern Hemisphere analyst named Liam Dunseath, where he credits referee Angus Gardner with the Highlanders’ win against the Lions midweek team. Apparently the referee’s mistakes cost the Lions the win.

With the greatest respect to Mr. Dunseath, who has coached sevens at international level (the Iranian team, no less) and was a member of Eddie Jones’ back room staff, it is possible to see the mistakes in a different light. Dunseath makes some valid points, and in order to counter those points it’s also important to consider a viewpoint that is not clouded with mist the same colour as the Lions’ jersey and their wearers’ faces after losing to a veritable Highlanders ‘B’ team.

With several of the Otago franchises’ players off on All Blacks and All Black Maori duty, the side that turned up on Tuesday was hastily put together and not expected to trouble the might Lions who put away the Crusaders a few days before. Gatland picked, from his treasure trove of riches, a team that was more than capable of beating any Club side. Yet, despite the best efforts of those international stars, Mr. Dunseath would have us believe it was Angus Gardner who changed the game.

He analyses several instances in his video.  While agreeing with the basis of his observations, it is also necessary to provide context and alternative view. Hearing the other side of any situation, is a good habit. And while the Southern Hemisphere rugby players are certainly a cut above, the position is inverted, when comparing journalists from opposite ends of the world.

1.  Lawes Offside – the first grouse Mr. Dunseath has is that Courtney laws is never offside. There is also a graphic at the top of the rugbypass.com column which is aimed at proving this. However, what the straight line drawn in the graphic shows, is not that Lawes was not offside, but that the Lions were never ON side. The line that is drawn in the graphic goes straight through the ball which is the half back’s hands. That, Mr. Dunseath, is not the offside line. None of the Lions, Lawes included, are behind the last foot on your own evidence. Lawes did not advance incrementally, he flew up from a standing start which shows he started well in front of the hindmost foot. The entire defensive line was offside which is why Gardner moved the penalty to where the ruck was, and did not award it where Lawes actually took off from. Please have a fresh look at it. I was inclined to agree with you, till you drew the line. In the grass. The place the scrum half picks the ball up from is not where the offside line begins.

2. Ainley Obstruction – There is a ruck 5m out from the Lions’ line. The half back passes it back about 7 or 8 metres to Waisake Naholo who runs in almost untouched. The Highlanders’ second row Alex Ainley is standing at first receiver well wide of the break down but almost directly in front of Naholo. This is not an offence as he is behind the ball. Naholo takes the pass well behind Ainley who moves towards, and admittedly does get in the way of Robbie Henshaw the would-be defender. Mr. Dunseath would have us believe that this is dead-cert obstruction. He has a case. However, the referee consults the TMO and rules that Henshaw probably wouldn’t have got there in time. It’s Naholo, he probably wouldn’t, given the amount of space the winger had. Also Henshaw chose a  line going inside Ainley rather than outside. So even if Ainley had stood still he wouldn’t have got a good enough shoulder on Naholo who would certainly have gone outside him. It was poor defending and duly punished. The man most to blame is probably Jared Payne who lost his defensive alignment with the rushing Henshaw inside him. What’s important is that Gardner noticed it, checked it, and made a call. The fact that his opinion is different is fine, given that it is certainly not an unreasonable decision. The try would probably have been scored. Referees are not on the park to bail out poor defensive decisions by applying technicalities.

3. Rhys Webb Pass – Dunseath argues that Ainley’s lazy running forced this error from the Lions’ Welsh scrum half. From the footage, it is not clear if the breakdown from which Rory Best clears the ball is a ruck or just a tackle. If it is the latter there is no offside line. Since there are no bodies contesting the three Lions flopping over the ball, it is difficult to tell from this video whether Ainley was actually offside or not. Assuming he WAS offside, the Webb pass was to nobody in particular. In fact, it looks like he may have been trying to pass it to Ainley and milk a penalty under the posts. The ball is well in front of his support runner and well short of the next man. Ainley is allowed to get back onside, and Gardner deemed he was far enough away not to impact things. Webb stuffed up. Henshaw knew it. The Lions’ – especially their half backs – are not averse to a little whinge, and we didn’t see Webb insisting on Ainley’s offside. The non-conspiratorial alternative, is that the scrum half just stuffed up.

4. Dillon Hunt Entry – This is a really interesting one. Hunt is the tackler before the ruck is formed. The arriving Lions clean out the Highlanders 12 and the ruck lasts barely a second or two. Now a ‘ruck’ is when two or more players are bound over the ball on the ground. As soon as the clean out went beyond the ball, the ruck was over. Does Dillon Hunt then, being the tackler, have to come back through the gate, or can he play the ball from where he stood? The grouse here is that he may not have been within one metre of the tackle to enter. Dunseath has a point, but it’s not as obvious as he’d like us to believe. Hunt doesn’t ‘enter the ruck from the side’. There is no ruck when he enters. It’s a grey area of the law, and certainly wasn’t a game changing call.

5. Dan Cole Scrum Penalty  – Scrum penalties are a lottery. That is accepted fact. However, in this case, serial offender Dan Cole is hardly an innocent babe. Mr. Dunseath would have us believe that Aki Seiuli was solely responsible for the penalty that went the wrong way. He accuse replacement loosehead Seiuli of dropping his bind and ‘hinging’, where a player bends at the waist collapsing the scrum. While we will never know what actually happened, the evidence gives us some clues. The tighthead, i.e. – Cole, is expected to bind on the arm of the loosehead. Cole, typically, goes just under the armpit and on the jersey of his opposite. It’s true that Seiuli goes to ground. However, if a player hinges, he must bend from the waist. If he does that in the propping position then it is the opposite player that will go to ground first because he is pushing forward against a weight that collapses against away from him. In this instance Seiuli goes forward under Cole. You can also see Dan Cole’s arm pull backward on Seiuli forcing him into a twist. Watch the video, watch Coles’ forearm. If you are genuinely pushing forward, that sort of a pull back is not possible. Cole is going sideways and pulling the loosehead with him. The tell-tale sign is when the Highlander’s jersey gets pulled upwards towards his arm. His movement is always towards – and not away from – Cole, and his jersey is also being pulled towards by Cole, who drags him inward. It is a master of the dark arts against a rookie replacement prop. Gardner had done his homework.

Mr. Dunseath is right to bring up these issues. However, they must be brought up for discussion and not as some evangelical crusade against the referee. None of the calls above were clearly and obviously wrong as the video and article suggest. Debatable, certainly. But not anywhere near worth crucifying Angus Gardner and blaming the Lions’ poor showing on him.  Read more…

Sri Lanka’s Cricket Hilarity

Talking to Dom and Asanka on the ‘Fix’ on Monday morning, I think I described our win against India as a ‘flash in the pan’ and anticipated that things will be ‘business as usual’ pretty soon. Despite the horror of my own cliches, I realise that cliches are all that can be used to describe what has turned out to be a hackneyed modus operandi by Sri Lankans, both in the SLC jumpers, and not.

I only watched the India game when we were nicely poised and the place I happened to go to for dinner, had the cricket on. It was a pleasant surprise and a good come back for Mathews. Watching this team otherwise, is rarely worth the investment. Later we found out that this atypical performance was galvanised by some uncharitable words from Virender Sehwag. Hardly the motivation that professional sportspeople should aim for, but whatever works right? Fortunately, I was working for most of the Pakistan game, but didn’t anticipate it going any better than it did. Sri Lanka’s weaknesses against fast bowling have been well documented. And Pakistan, with their battery of left-armers, debutantes and match-fixers gave the Sri Lankan middle order some real trouble. Some batsmen got out to excellent deliveries and a few others to bad shot selection, forced by good bowling.

I have little grouse with the batsmen. Sometimes – especially when you’re playing Pakistan – the opposition just bowls really well. Dickwella needed to go on, and he and Mathews should probably have been a little bit more switched on.

The real grouse is with the fielding side. The complete lack of effort is now, finally, obvious to everyone. A few of us journos have been banging on about the fielding for years now. It reflects the state of the dressing room. Regardless, of your batting talent and bowling resources, most teams should be pretty even on the fielding charts. True enough, you sometimes have some exceptional fielders like Jonty Rhodes or Ricky Ponting. That is fabulous. But by and large any athlete – for that is what professional sportsmen should be – in the international arena, possessing the hand-eye coordination cricket requires, should be able to feckin’ field. Especially in the modern game, where skills have advanced so much, you should not be allowed anywhere near an elite team unless you can field competently. Not exceptionally, just competently.

Sarfraz’s incredible inside-edge catch off Dickwella, changed the game in Pakistan’s favour. Thisara Perera’s simple catch could have changed the game in Sri Lanka’s favour. It was one of many drops on the night, all of which were unacceptable from international cricketers. What has riled people up mostly, is that the incompetence is now blatant. It is not limited to a few players on the team, it is a pandemic level malaise that infests the entire side.

Lasith Malinga can’t field anymore. But he still bowls his heart out and is still, one leg, pot-belly, lion’s mane and everything, still one of the best exponents of his craft in the world. None of the other Sri Lankan cricketers – with the occasional exception of Mathews – can lay claim to that kind of reputation. Fans and analysts are likely to cut players of that quality, some slack. Nobody would have complained if Shane Warne refused to field at fine leg. Because he took blinders at slip. But if you’re not Shane Warne, you jolly well field where you’re asked to, and do it well. Not long ago an ageing Mahela Jaywardena had to be employed in the outfield because he, at 35, had more pace and a better arm than most players on the team. That is not acceptable. Nobody expected this team to go out and win. They did expect them to look like they were trying though.

It is for this reason that Chandimal and Perera have copped the flak. Understandably so. Chandimal should have realised that Sophia Gardens was not the flat batting track the Oval was. He barely got a knock at the Oval in any case, and then flailed expansively at the second ball he faced. There is something to be said for playing your natural game, but there is more to be said for circumspection and respecting the conditions and the bowler. You need to earn your right to dominate the opposition and unfortunately, talent is not enough of a wage to buy that right.

It is this kind of brain freeze, and lack of application, from highly paid professionals that is beginning to upset Sri Lankans islandwide. The memes and vitriol have been hilarious and scathing. Some do-gooders have called for ‘those who have never dropped a cricket ball to cast the first cherry’, but that kind of Biblical forgiveness is not the remit of cricket fans. From the perspective of Sri Lankans who see their politicians fiddling while Ratnapura floods, seeing the highest paid professionals in the country arsing about, clearly unqualified for their roles, is a legitimate source of chagrin.

Some ex-cricketers have rushed to the aid of their buddies on social media, asking us to applaud the effort of a team that ‘gave everything’ and ‘sacrificed so much’ to get where they are. Bollocks, mate. Speak about sacrificing time with their families to soldiers fighting a war. Speak about giving everything, to the mother who works a full day and has to get squashed on a train back home to feed and nurture her children on a measly stipend. Don’t ask those Sri Lankans and many others on the spectrum of every day struggle, to believe that showing up for cricket practice is an inconvenience on any level. Dedicated sports people sacrifice a lot. No doubt. But their rewards are also great. It doesn’t take an avid sports fan to take one look at Rafael Nadal and Thisara Perera and discern which one makes more sacrifices and gives more.

For the Sri Lankan cricketers of late, their rewards are relatively great without any manifest effort. It is reasonable therefore, for the average fan to ask how – if they are ‘sacrificing so much’ – did they acquire those pot bellies? How, did they become so inept at one of cricket’s most basic skills, i.e. – catching dollies. It doesn’t add up.

Yes, it’s cold. But it’s 19 degrees. Not 5 degrees. Making an effort in the field will keep you warm. Deal with it, or don’t tour abroad. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan all come from the tropics and they all made the semi-finals.

This particular team is a reflection of everything that’s wrong with this country. It is inconsistent and mediocre. It finds excuses and refuses to accept responsibility. Leadership is under constant threat, and communication – judging by the amount of run outs – is not optimal. Some guys try valiantly hard, some guys are good at what they do, but one or two morons spectacularly cock up everything for everyone.Whether it’s the parliament, an international cricket match, or being stuck in traffic, that seems to be how the story unfolds.

Hold people accountable. Put them under pressure. Fashion credible alternatives. Call for heads to role. Things will improve.

Don’t accept any old crap coming your way. Take pride in what you do, and hold professionals to the standards you’d like to see. It’s a long process. And our cricket team holds a mirror up to all of us. You don’t want to be the metaphorical Thisara Perera, do you?

Lions stifle Crusaders in ugly win

It’s been a trying week in Warren Gatland’s hotel room, that much is sure. The Lions coach, back in his native land of the long white cloud, had a countenance that would put any rain cloud to shame for much of the first two games on tour. The first, a narrow win against a team of Johnny Nonames comprising the Provincial Barbarians and the second, a convincing loss against the country’s weakest Super Rugby franchise. There was, it would appear, cause for some concern, if not alarm.

To be fair to the touring Lions, the first Barbarians game was played in front of a 90,000 strong crowd in the north of country at Whangarei. It seemed that the Lions had to pay their respects to the region of Tane Mahuta and the people it gives shade to. Only three days after landing and less than that in training sessions, the Provincial Barbarians, playing what is likely to be the biggest match of their careers were leading until an Anthony Watson try in the 52nd minute quelled their hopes of a famous victory. It was a lacklustre performance from what seemed like a hotch-potch ensemble of Lions.

The second game, three days later, against the Auckland Blues would have allowed for better acclimatisation and preparation. Or at least it should have. However, the second row unit of Laws and Itoje, together with the starting centre combination of Henshaw and Payne could not exert dominance on New Zealand’s weakest Super Rugby franchise. Tana Umaga is used to beating the Lions. First with the captain’s armband in 2005, and now in the coaches’ box in 2017. However, unlike the first essay, this was not a win any right-thinking Blues fan was expecting. When they got it, courtesy of a couple of magical offloads from Steven Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams finished off by blistering pace from Ihaia West, Umaga’s coaching box was as elated after a long season as Gatland’s was dour prior to a long tour.

When the head coach announced his team to play the Crusaders therefore, the only unbeaten team in the Super Rugby competition, he had to unleash a few of his trump cards. The XV that lined up at Christchurch was one that was picked to redeem Gatland. Not one that was picked in an effort to challenge for starting berths. This team was as close in the key areas to what the Lions’ starting XV would look like. It is unlikely that he would have wanted to show Steve Hansen that lineup until later in the tour. However, Umaga’s Blues forced his hand.

The resulting ugliness was not entirely a bad thing. Fans of Super Rugby will be disappointed by the anomalous lack of tries. Fans of the hard grind would have been delighted with the tourists’ defensive effort and line speed. Mako Vunipola personified the kind of effort that will be needed to make a mark in New Zealand, with some outstanding commitment in shooting up defensively, making big hits and carrying the ball strongly. His team mates obliged and willingly smashed into the Crusaders from kick off.

The determined line speed of the Lions, fuelled by their mid-week loss, rattled the Crusaders. Richie Mo’unga likes time on the ball. He was denied any of it by an outstanding rush defence that shut down all his options forcing him to kick the ball away. Without the reassuring presence of the injured Ryan Crotty outside him, Mo’unga functioned well below par, knowing that the long ball used to such good effect domestically was not available to him with the umbrella formation Andy Farrell had drilled to perfection. The Crusaders struggled to get wide, and the Lions kept making the tackles. The pressure was evident when Sam Whitelock fumbled at kick off. The Crusaders rarely mess around in set pieces and losing three crucial line outs with their all All Black second rowers was a factor that Alan Wyn-Jones and George Kruis can feel extremely happy about.

The hosts should have gotten closer though, with Joe Moody and Wyatt Crockett being penalised unreasonably by Mathieu Raynal when they were clearly dominant against the Lions front-row. The scrum penalties hurt the Crusaders, so much so that they spurned the opportunity of a scrum under the posts for a 5m line out, which was again spoiled by the excellent Vunipola.

Apart from Jack Goodhue’s (watch this lad) superb break which was fumbled by a nervous George Bridge, the Crusaders never came close to scoring with their 30% possession. Israel Dagg showed solidity, but none of the game breaking counter attack that even David Havili possesses. With Ben Smith under an injury cloud, Cory Jane’s exile may yet come back to haunt Hansen.

The Lions’ win, like Mako Vunipola, was unspectacular but hard working and physical. It will be the recipe that helps them get close. Without some finishing ability and creativity though, they will not be able to beat the All Blacks. Steve Hansen would not have failed to spot the acres between the onrushing first line of defence and the back three. No doubt Barrett will spot it well before Mo’unga did as well. Sean O’Brien was excellent for the Lions, as were Peter O’Mahony and Taulupe Faletau. Whether O’Brien will be in the Test XV though, is doubtful. If he isn’t, it will be a crying shame.

The All Blacks will definitely be better than the Crusaders. Retallick, Barrett and whoever starts at half back will ensure that. The worry for the Lions is whether they can get any better than they were on Saturday.

30 Years and Counting: Can Trinity Salvage Their Season?

Watching the Exeter Chiefs string together 34 phases in the build up to their Premiership win over the weekend was pretty exhilarating. The fact that the Wasps didn’t concede a penalty in all those phases was also an extraordinary performance. But watching the Premiership final, I was reminded, glaringly, what a cruel game rugby can be.

A devastated Nathan Hughes watched the ball sail through the posts after he conceded a penalty in the 78th minute of the game after being outstanding in attack and defence for the 77 minutes prior to that. The Chiefs tied it up and won with a scrum penalty in extra time. A scrum penalty which came, because the Wasps chose to send back their substituted prop and play without a tighthead to avoid uncontested scrums. It was sporting positivity that did unfortunately didn’t get rewarded on the day. Spare a thought for Hughes though, who was monstrous with ball in hand, and equally wall-like in defence. All it takes is one mistake at a crucial time, a refusal to heed JP Doyle’s call to ‘let it go eight’ and suddenly you’re a runner-up and not a champion.

Trinity College tasted much the same medicine last week when they made some crucial errors to allow Royal seal the league title up in Pallekalle. A much improved Royal side, were almost unrecognisable from the first round to the second. A side which began the season with plenty of holes in their wider defensive channels seemed to understand themselves much better in the second half of the season. The Guneratne Trophy win against STC seemed to herald their arrival as genuine contenders. Trinity began the season with a bang against Wesley, but since then, lost several key players to injury and seemed to spiral into a pressure-driven dissipation.

Royal’s outstanding run of results led them to a deserved league title. One that looked almost impossible with their shaky start against St. Joseph’s and close rum wins over Dharmaraja and St. Anthony’s. In a way, that start probably strengthened Royal’s resolve, while Trinity’s start made them a little complacent.

Lote Raikabula, despite being a World Series winning sevens player, is unlikely to have found himself – or expected to find himself – in the kind of cauldron that Pallakelle turns into on Bradby day. While skills and game plans are important, coaches also need to focus on the kind of discipline which prevents errors like crooked throws and errors on touch kicks. These are mistakes that happen after a stoppage, without any opposition player pressuring an error. Trinity were guilty of several unforced errors which cost them the game. They were also guilty of allowing their intensity to spill over into aggression. An aggression that saw them running at the man instead of letting the ball do the work as they did for their first try.

They paid the price for being psyched out, instead of being psyched up – a balance that previous coach Neil Footie had mastered. No surprise then, that Irish Lion Eric Miller, and All Black sevens star Raikabula emerged second best to Sanath Martis who in many ways is as street smart as Footie was for his four years in charge.

Imagine my surprise then when I saw Trinity keeping the ball in hand for as long as they did. Yes, the opening exchanges are always good to show the opposition you mean business, but the only way this Royal pack is going to be demoralised is if you send them backwards constantly. It’s as if Trinity had not even considered kicking as an acceptable tactic. Royal on the other hand knew what Trinity would try to do and matched them with some ferocious midfield defence.

With the kind of power in the forwards that Royal possess and then the driving maul which is their piece de resistance, the only way try and play them is by dominating field position. By forcing them to play in the wrong half of the pitch. I often find that foreign coaches, who come from much cooler climes where rugby is a winter sport, don’t like to kick. However, in Sri Lankan rugby it is a crucial part of the game. What is baffling is that even after several months, some coaches don’t cotton on. They do deserve some sympathy though. Unless one referees the driving maul like JP Doyle did so astutely in the Premiership final, the defending team have no chance. The fact that Sri Lankan referees go mute when they are expected to say ‘that’s once’ or ‘use it now’ make life almost unliveable for most teams, especially when they are playing Royal. But even though Trinity should have got more than one turnover last Saturday, coaches need to come up with a Plan B.

After the debacle against Isipatana, where the Royal full-back was all at sea, Shaqir Naufer has emerged as one of the Royalists’ best players when he was asked to play there. His placed kicking takes the pressure off captain Askey and adds tremendous value to the team. That Trinity have not even attempted to pressure him consistently, is another trick the Lions seem to have missed. Kicking and chasing is a a facet of the game that only Royal and Isipatana seem to have got right. And it is not surprise that they are deservedly at the top of the leaderboard.

Trinity have to ask themselves whether their high profile coaches are the way to go. Neil Footie was certainly not a British Lion nor an All Black Sevens player. But he brought home some Bradby Shields. After waiting 30 years for a league title they will be pretty gutted to cough up the Shield for the third year in a row.

Royal won this league and have taken a step towards the Bradby on the training paddock. Not in the 80 minutes that constitute a rugby match. Other teams will do well to appreciate the difference.

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