OPINION: NZ should add maul to attacking repertoire

ROLLING ROLLING ROLLING: The maul is fashionable again and has become a big part of the game.

THE ROLLING maul is back with a vengeance and this scribe – along with countless gnarly forwards who long for the rough and tumble of yesteryear – couldn’t be happier.

But it is the South African sides that are reaping its benefits during in this year’s instalment of the Super 14.

The Bulls have showed how effective it can be. They have bullied, smashed and out-muscled every team they’ve played this season and that’s because they’ve used this piece of old-fashioned forward play to devastating effect.

New Zealand – like we were last year under the high ball during the Tri Nations – has once again been caught short by the old foe.

Although Graham Henry tried reinstalling the maul during the early part of his All Black tenure, this pillar of New Zealand forward play in the 1960s and 70s is very much a forgotten art at the top-level these days.

In fact, when is the last time you saw a New Zealand Super 14 franchise – or NPC team, for that matter – getting their drive on and rumbling up the field in unison?

East Coast captured the nation’s admiration using this tactic. The minows from Ngati Porou rolling mauled their way to back-to-back NPC Third Division titles and a Second Division finals appearance during a fairytale run between 1999 and 2001.

But I digress.

Kiwi sides would rather play free flowing rugby. And that’s fine. After all, attacking rugby is entertaining rugby. It ensures bums on seats, so I’m told.

But this style of play requires space, which is a rare commodity at international level. How often have we seen the All Black simply shuffle the ball from one side of the field to the other in recent seasons trying to find holes in the watertight defensive screens that plague the game?

With the opposition no longer committing players to the breakdown, there are no gaps to be exploited, no acres of space for the likes of Cory Jane and Ma’a Nonu to cut some merry cappers out wide.

This is where the maul could help. If done correctly, it can aid the attempt to play open rugby, as it provides the ideal conditions to move the ball wide.

In short, mauls are designed to draw defenders in. And with the new rules outlawing the collapsing of mauls, the opposition are now forced commit players in order to stop a team gaining momentum from a lineout drive.

That opens up space, which in turn leads to opportunities and, most importantly, tries (provided you’re any team but the Hurricanes of course).

Even if defenders aren’t sucked in, they’d likely try to stop the opponent’s weigh on by pulling the maul down illegally, meaning a possible three points or chance to reset and have another crack.

So really it’s a win-win.

Defending the maul, however, has left a few players and coaches baffled this year.

Which is surprising, as it’s Rugby 101, the stuff you learn when you’re a kid running around on a cold Saturday morning.

But the Sunday Star Times ran a story two weeks ago in which Highlanders coach Glenn Moore said it was difficult to stop when a team has its platform set.

That may be true, but like former All Blacks Craig Down and Ian Jones said in the same story, it can be defused before any damage is done.

From my experience, the key is to get in early, hit it hard and make sure you have the numbers. Good body positioning is also paramount. Go too high and you’ll get smashed, as the South African teams have shown.

As well as going in hard and low, defenders must firmly place their feet by digging their sprigs into the ground. That will help set a good foundation to counter the drive. Should you lose your footing, then peel off and re-enter the back of the maul and re-establish your footing.

It’s hardly rocket science, eh?

So the maul is fashionable again. No doubt Messers Henry, Hansen and Smith would have noticed this during their eight-week diet of Super rugby.

The good thing is time is on their side. They can analyse the maul, develop methods to combat its effectiveness and look at incorporating it into the All Black’s repertoire.

Hopefully the ‘three wise men’ will heed the call.

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King Carlos to make Super Rugby comeback

FORMER All Black first five Carlos Spencer will play in the Super 14 this season – but not for his beloved Blues.

Website Supersport.com reports the 34-year-old (left), who played 34 tests for the men in black between 1997 and 2004, has signed with South African outfit the Lions.

He replaces former Springbok pivot Andre Pretorious, who will turnout for the Western Force this season.

Spencer represented the Blues between 1996 and 2005, playing a key role in Auckland-based franchise’s three championship victories.

He has been plying his trade with Gloucester in the Guinness Premiership after a stint with Northampton. CLICK HERE to read more.

Another Asian Bledisloe on the cards

THE ALL Blacks and Wallabies look set to play another Bledisloe Cup test in Asia this year, according to the Australian Press Association.

But with the 2011 Rugby World Cup and the expansion of the Tri Nations to include Argrentina on the horizon, it could be the last time the teams play an additional Bledisloe test.

The announcment comes after the two sides played matches in Hong Kong in 2008 and Tokyo last year – both of which were won by the All Blacks. CLICK HERE to read more.

OPINION: Thomas should be praised and applauded

KIA KAHA, Gareth Thomas. It takes a player with great courage and big stones to come out of the closet.

In an interview with British newspaper the Daily Mail, the former Wales and British Lions captain (left)  put it all on the line when he broke a long-standing taboo in male sport by speaking openly about being a gay for the first time.

It was a tough decision for Thomas – who endured the break up of his marriage and even contemplated suicide at one point – one that weighed heavily on his conscience since his teenage years given the stigma that unfortunately still surrounds homosexuality in some circles.

By becoming rugby’s first openly gay player, however, Thomas joins the likes of Welsh whistleblower Nigel Owens, retired NBA star John Amaechi and former rugby league player Ian Roberts as those sports personalities who are out and proud.

So far reaction to the news has been positive, with many of the outside back’s colleagues hardly batting an eyelid.

And that’s how it should be, as far as this humble scribe is concerned.

The fact Thomas fancies blokes instead of sheilas shouldn’t matter or tarnish everything he has achieved during an impressive career which saw him lift the Heineken Cup with Toulouse and play 100 tests for Wales, scoring 40 tries and captaining the Bhoys to their first Six Nations grand slam in 27 years in 2005, and three internationals (two as skipper) for the Lions.

After all, the world has changed. It is no longer the anti-queer and homophobic place it once was, with the majority of people (though sadly not all) nowadays far more accepting and tolerant of homosexuality and same sex relationships.

Even rugby is slowly veering away from the tough, macho, manly image it established after a certain William Webb Ellis choose to pick up that soccer ball and run with it many moons ago.

Rugby’s new face: Dan Carter

While players are still physically strong, one only has to look at players like Daniel Carter to see how much the game is changing.

The All Black kingpin is a far cry from the red-blooded, square-jawed, hetrosexual gib players were cut from during the era of ‘Pinetree’ Meads and Brian Lochore, a time where men were men and nothing more.

Instead Carter is a ‘renaissance man’, a well-groomed fashionesta who sports the latest styles and designer labels, owns his own chain of clothing stores and is just as comfortable modelling Jockey underwear on the catwalk, attending events like Fashion Week and fraternising at the trendiest bar and cafes as he kicking goals and making the big hits on the footy paddock.

The same  can also be said of his fellow All Black teammates Richie McCaw and Ali Williams who feature just as much on the social pages as they do the sports section of New Zealand newspapers these days.

So if society can accept that some modern day players are metrosexual males who enjoy drinking soy lattes, wearing the latest threads and being snapped with the in crowd at high profile nightclubs and bars – things which heroes of yesteryear would have been ridiculed for – then surely they should have no issues with an openly gay player.

After all, people are people at the end of the day. You get good and bad people from all walks of life. They should not be judged on gender, race, religion or sexuality, but rather who they are as a person.

The same applies to Thomas. The Welsh legend should be judged by his exploits on the pitch and his individual qualities like his exceptional leadership and sense of humour. What he does behind closed doors is up to him and should not be used a fodder to undermine him or his achievements in any way.

Neanderthals with ingrained prehistoric views will label the 35-year-old as a sissy, a wet blouse, a Nancy boy. They’re entitled to their opinions, no matter how derogatory or narrow-minded they might be.

But as far as Yours Truly is concerned, being gay doesn’t – and shouldn’t – make Thomas any less of a man.

If anything,  he’s probably more of man for being honest and should be applauded for the way he’s spoken about a difficult subject, especially given the smell of testosterone and all things bloke still lingers strongly in the rugby fraternity.

It would have been a tough decision – the hardest the man nicknamed ‘Alfie’ had to make in life, no doubt – but by coming out and saying “I’m gay, big deal, get over it”, he has made strong stand and hopefully set a precedent to encourage other gay male athletes to do same.

He has become a trailblazer by speaking openly about a subject that many have steered away from or denied exists and for that, his mana levels are through the roof.

OPINION: Depth at lock runneth over

Tom Donnelly

ONE OF the real positives to emerge from the 2009 season is the sudden depth at lock. Put simply, the number of quality options New Zealand rugby has in second row has never looked better.

And that’s a good thing, as far as  Yours Truely is concerned, because there was a time when the cupboard was looking a little sparse and the lineout a tad shaky.

One only has to cast their mind back a season or two when Chris Jack, Greg Rawlinson, Troy Flavell, Keith Robinson and James Ryan – all of whom had worn the black jersey – announced they were either cashing up and heading to greener pastures overseas or pulling the pin on their respective careers.

That left a gaping hole, and although Graham Henry and co. were able to fill the void, there was a feeling that if injuries struck, the selectors would be scrapping the bottom of the barrel to find suitable replacements to do the business.

Fortunately those fears have been alleviated following the emergence of some fantastic exponents of second row play this year.

Top of the list would be Otago and Highlanders beanpole Tom Donnelly.

Although the tough-as-teak southerner has been on the scene since 2002 and has come close to cracking the national side in the last couple of seasons, it was this year he came of age and showed his wares after being gifted a chance against the Wallabies in the final Tri Nations match of the season.

The 28-year-old grabbed the opportunity with both hands, bringing some much-needed organisational skills, simplicity and stability to what had been a farcical All Black lineout display up until that point by doing the type of stuff he had been doing at super and provincial level for a number of years.

The fact the men in black dominated the airways during their recent European jaunt had much to do with Donnelly, who has made every post a winner in his six tests since his debut at the Cake Tin and is now an integral cog in the All Black machine.

Brad Thorn

On the subject of integral cogs, one cannot look past Brad Thorn, who in his second season of his second All Black coming continued to produce consistent displays that defy his 34 years of age.

NZ Rugby World editor Gregor Paul named the former Brisbane Broncos star as the player of the tour and described him as “the glue that held the All Blacks together” in December/January’s issue of the magazine.

It is a pretty accurate assessment, for not only did Thorn perform strongly on tour, his heavy workload in the trenches, around the fringes and up the guts were at the fore during all 14 internationals the All Blacks played this year.

The fact he also played every minute of every test, except for the final 15 minutes against the Frogs in Marseilles, was a testament to his ability and value to the team.

So inspirational were Thorn’s performances in the black jersey, it is hard to believe the second rower was not nominated for the big gong at last week’s Steinlarger Rugby Awards.

Another to have caught the eye with some scintillating displays was young Isaac Ross, who, after initially struggling to buy a start for the Crusaders, was an All Black by the end of the Super 14.

Isaac Ross

The son of former All Black Jock did a superb job deputising for the injured Ali Williams in his debut season and by the time the Tri Nations rolled around, he had become well known for his mobility, aerial prowess and honest attitude.

His career may have stalled somewhat after being unfairly dropped for the final Tri Nations test and then being left at home to bulk up while the All Blacks jetted to Europe, but the 24-year-old looks a world class player in the making and it will be interesting to see how he comes back in 2010.

Others on the comeback trail include ‘Comical Ali’ and Hawke’s Bay lock Bryn Evans, who like Ross, could not crack the Hurricanes starting XV, but did enough in his limited appearances to impress the three wise men with his skill set and earn two caps for the All Blacks before injury curtailed his season.

Throw All Black tourists Anthony Boric and Jason Eaton – as well as proven performers like Jeremy Thrush, Craig Clarke, Kevin O’Neil, Josh Bekhuis, Hayden Triggs and the returning Jack – into the mix and it appears our stocks in the locking department are overflowing.

All of which means messers Henry, Hansen and Smith have some difficult decisions to make as they look ahead with one eye to the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

BOP secure ‘Flash’ service for 2010

Lelia MasagaCOUNTIES Manakau speedster Lelia Masaga will be sporting Bay of Plenty colours in the Air New Zealand Cup from next season.

According to the Bay of Plenty Times, the one-test All Black (right) wing has signed with the Steamers until 2011.

That means he will still be eligible for the Chiefs, for whom he has made 42 appearances for since his Super 14 debut in 2006.

Masage made his All Black debut against Italy earlier this year in Christchurch.

The Bay have secured the services of Brett Mather (Otago) and Daniel Waenga (Hawke’s Bay) for next season, too. CLICK HERE to read more.