Thursday, April 05, 2007

What is James Sharman talking about?

March 29, 2007

I like James Sharman. Really, I do. As host of the daily TV program Sportsworld on The Score, he talks about international sports that the rest of the Canadian sporting media won’t touch.

Sharman’s coverage includes rugby. Every week he does a Rugby Report, generally featuring interviews with ex-Canadian rugby legend Gareth Rees. That’s one of the big reasons I watch Sharman’s show.

Having said all that, every week Rees and Sharman take turns throwing out information and/or providing commentary that is utterly devoid of logic. I try to catch the segment every week, but I’m beginning to wonder what purpose it serves for anybody that actually follows rugby on a semi-regular basis.

Early this evening Sharman and Rees were discussing Portugal’s surprise qualification into this years’ 2007 Rugby World Cup. Portugal is the last qualifier, and slots into RWC Pool C. This pool comprises the following five teams:

New Zealand

Scotland

Italy

Romania

Portugal

In discussing this Pool C, Sharman makes the comment on a pair of occasions that the All Blacks are “arrogant” because they will be taking their group opponents lightly and concentrating on the knock-out finals stage.

This is less a case of “arrogance” by the All Blacks, than it is near-total ignorance from Sharman. Anybody that has been following international rugby at even a cursory glance for the past three years is well aware that New Zealand coach Graham Henry has implemented a “rotation” policy for his team. This policy was initially disdained. Indeed, Henry copped a lot of stick back home for supposedly “cheapening the jersey” by starting players in test matches against Top Tier international teams like England and France who weren’t regarded as that nations’ very best at their position.

Henry has always defended this policy by stating, time and again, that what he is working toward is DEPTH — a complete 30-man squad where any of his players can be confidently called upon to perform at the highest level, having undergone the cauldron of test match rugby and demonstrating that they are more than capable of performing.

The only way for Henry to create true depth was to give his bench players genuine test match experience and have them compete for the starting positions. By and large Henry has succeeded — last November, for example, the deep “rotational” All Blacks dealt record losses to England, Wales and France. Not surprisingly, Henry’s countrymen have tempered their stinging criticisms.

Sharman seems to be clueless about past lessons learned, so let’s step back in time and revisit ghost of NZ’s RWC-passim:

At RWC 1995, New Zealand elected to rest their biggest superstars, the giant Jonah Lomu and goalkicker Andrew Mehrtens against Japan. The ABs had already defeated Wales and Ireland at the group stage and were assured a berth into the playoff stage. Lomu's replacement was Marc Ellis, who torched Japan for a world-record SIX tries. Mehrtens replacement was Simon Culhane, who scored himself a try, and converted 20-out-of-21 conversions, for a world record haul of 45 points. The final score was NZ 145 vs. Japan 17. Was it arrogance that made AB coach Laurie Mains rest some of his players? Or was it confidence that his bench replacements were equal to the task?

At RWC 1999, NZ was famously eliminated by France at the semi-final stage. The big issue All Black coach John Hart had going into the tournament was four backline superstars (Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson and Tana Umaga), but only three vacant positions to slot them into (the two wings and fullback positions). Hart's fateful decison was to go into the RWC playing Cullen -- ordinarily a fullback -- at outside-centre, a position he was not overly familiar at the highest level. The experiment was a failure.

At RWC 2003, possibly the worst blow for New Zealand occured in the first match of their group stage against Italy. A freak mishap saw centre Tana Umaga trip over the leg of his own player, Carlos Spencer, and damage the ligaments in his knee. Umaga's World Cup was over in the first half of the first pool stage test. Coach John Mitchell then had to initiate an experiment tinkering with backline combinations at the worst possible moment. His desperate solution saw fullback Leon MacDonald slotting into the unfamiliar position of centre, and worse, take over goal-kicking responsibilities, which is something MacDonald didn't even do at club or provincial level, to say nothing of the semi-final of the World Cup. Alas, the experiment was another abject failure.

Could Graham Henry have learned any lessons from these three examples? If he has any common sense, one would have to assume Henry had witnessed and processed what had previously transpired, and worked to design a strategy that would assure, as best as possible, that the same mistakes would not be repeated.

If a player like, say, Mils Muliaina was going to play out of position, then he would get experience playing that position over the development of a couple years, not thrown into a sudden crash course in the middle of the world’s biggest tournament.

Moreover, NZ’s backline coach Wayne Smith is on record as saying that only two All Blacks — captain Richie McCaw and goalkicker Daniel Carter (coincidentally, the last two IRB World Player of the Year recipients) — are guaranteed roster spots. And that’s taking into consideration that McCaw is injury-prone with recurring concussions that have regularly sidelined him, and Carter is currently rehabbing a strained neck.

See, one of the things you learn when you follow rugby is that it’s a tough physical collision sport where participants frequently get injured. Just ask Keith Robinson, who was on the rack for well over a year recovering from a neck and spinal injury. Right now there appears to be incredible depth and balance in this current All Black team. Virtually any of the 30-man roster can be pencilled into any starting lineup. What exactly does Sharman think Graham Henry has been doing the past two years?

I’m almost afraid to hear the answer.

I know Sharman follows soccer. If Sharman can step outside himself for a minute and imagine a scenario where Chelsea FC has a Saturday EPL fixture against, say, West Ham, followed by mid-week UEFA Champions League final-round match against, say, Bayern Munich, would it be “arrogant” of manager Jose Mourinho to rest Thierry Henry Frank Lampard against West Ham in order to keep his legs fresh against Bayern Munich? Seriously ~ is this arrogance, or prioritizing sheer common sense? And if it’s common sense for soccer, then why is it not equally true for a sport like rugby union where the risks and incidence of injury are substantially greater?

1 Comments:

At 5:48 AM , Anonymous Thandeka said...

This is great info to know.

 

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