By TONY SMITH, The Press
Wednesday, 08 October 2008
Wednesday, 08 October 2008
What coach in his right mind wouldn't bring the world's best rugby player back for a national championship quarter-final? A superstitious one, perhaps. Rob Penney will welcome with open arms All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw for Friday's sibling spat with Tasman. I'd be surprised if the Canterbury coach hasn't already hongied his marquee man, though rubbing noses with a gnarly old ex-No 8 can be a bumpy ride.
Penney knows McCaw will slot seamlessly into a backrow bereft of former All Black No. 8 Mose Tuiali'i, now nobbled by a neck injury. But keen students of recent rugby history (that's both of you) may be feeling a mite anxious about the McCaw move.
The sad fact is Canterbury has not been all that crash-hot when it has whistled up its superstars for provincial play-off matches.
Remember 2006? McCaw came in for the quarter-final against Wellington but could not prevent the Cantabs crashing 23-36 to the Lions. It was the All Black ace's first Air New Zealand Cup match. Dan Carter was playing his second after returning for the last round-robin game.
And what about 2005? McCaw, Chris Jack and Aaron Mauger were back for the last three NPC games and Carter came in for the final two. Yet Canterbury lost two out of three - both to Otago - including a 15-point blow-out at the hands of the southerners in the semi- final. That was the year Otago had McCaw's measure by double- teaming Josh Blackie and Craig Newby in the quest for breakdown ball.
In 2004, McCaw led Canterbury to the NPC title, but he and his All Black buddies were available for the second half of the season after the Tri Nations tournament terminated.
The All Blacks were at the World Cup in Australia in 2003. They were on deck, en masse, for the entire second stanza of 2002 yet Canterbury just squeaked past Otago by three points in a Ranfurly Shield match before losing to Auckland by six in the semi-final.
Now I am not saying Richie McCaw is a jinx. The best backrower since Michael Jones is a true talisman. It was no coincidence that the All Blacks' only Tri Nations reverses this year occurred while they were without their inspirational captain.
But, while the advent of All Blacks in the Air New Zealand Cup should see the rickety turnstiles whirring this weekend, it will not necessarily guarantee on-field success.
Take Canterbury's class of 2002. There was only one non- All Black in the side which succumbed in the semi-final to Auckland. That was wing Joe Maddock (still starring for Bath), who was then one of Canterbury's top performers.
Few coaches will admit it publicly, but there is a school of thought that reintegrating All Blacks into a third tier competition is a classical catch-22. You are damned if you don't, of course. But with the best will in the world, it must be very hard for an All Black to motivate himself for a provincial match before two men and a hot dog after winning the Tri Nations in the white-hot heat of Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium.
Is a coach better to bring back the big guns or stick with a side full of hungry grafters and rookies for whom winning the Air New Zealand Cup might be the highlight of their entire careers?
Canterbury - second in the minor premiership - has been travelling well without McCaw. But this is a no-brainer for Penney. After losing the Crusaders coaching job to Tasman counterpart Todd Blackadder, he'll be keen to secure some silverware. He needs McCaw as much as Winston Peters craves a clearance from the Serious Fraud Office.
Brad Thorn's call to make himself available to the Tasman Makos is a measure of the man. Shame he didn't feel the same stirrings before the Ranfurly Shield challenge against Wellington though. But I wonder whether it is time for the national rugby union to implement an Air NZ Cup qualification test similar to the one used across the Tasman to assess if aspiring Australians are fair dinkum, ie "Who is Donald Bradman?"
So let us put big Brad in the Who Wants to be a Millionaire chair and test his knowledge of Nelson and Marlborough.
Who scored the winning try for Marlborough when it wrested the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury in 1973? Where is the clothes-optional beach between Nelson City and Motueka? How many traffic lights in Blenheim? Nelson is the major town but what is the province called? Which town basks in more sunshine hours each year?
Just a tip, Brad. In the interests of diplomacy, the last answer is "a draw".