Monday, November 27, 2006

One moment in time

Picture the scene....

It's the 10th minute of the Tri Nations final, arguably the biggest and most important game of your season, if not your career. It's the last tackle, and due to some poor handling and communication the ball ends up in the hands of you, a back rower not renowned for your kicking game. Do you...

a) Hand the ball (and the responsibility) on to your outside backs - after all, they're the flair players, not you?

b) Take on the responsibility yourself, and kick the ball as far down field as you can. Course, there's no real guarantee of accuracy and it could go anywhere - including out on the full?

c) Weigh up your options while moving forward with the ball in two hands, and throw a flat cut out pass to your right to a player in space hitting the ball at speed?

If you're playing in Super League, including those at the peak of the game in this country, then I suspect the answer may well have been a), or possibly b) for those who like to see themselves as multi-skilled. If you're Canterbury captain Andrew Ryan and the date is Saturday November 25 2006 however, the answer was c), and seconds later Australia were touching down for the opening try and had a lead they were never to lose.

So why the difference? Why was Ryan so able to sum up the situation, weigh up the options and execute something that had looked beyond even Great Britain's half backs in the previous four weeks in delivering an accurate pass to a colleague in space?

If you want my opinion - and you must do, otherwise why would you even be here - it comes down to intensity. Andrew Ryan plays week in, week out in a competition that asks him to make snap decisions under pressure umpteen times a game. When he was presented with such a decision on Saturday, it was second nature for him to weigh up the pros and cons of various forms of action and make his decision in adequate time to put whatever he decided into action. How many times are players in Super League challenged to make similar decisions, particularly forwards? Their main objective in attack appears to be either make as many metres as you can then try to slip the offload, or find the floor quickly then generate a quick play the ball. It's all stuff you can do without thinking or in many cases without a significant level of basic skills such as the ability to time and deliver a pass.

Why is this the case though? To me it comes down to the refereeing interpretation in our competition. Often it's all too easy to break down a defence with a simple play, so keen are referees to increase the speed of the game by penalising holding down. When that tactic was taken away from GB by Paul Simpkins' interpretation in recent weeks they looked lost for ideas on how to break down a well organised defence. Take away the quick play the ball and scoot, and suddenly players have to start thinking of ways to create chances, to unlock defences. Often this means challenging the defensive line and then having to make decisions and execute skills with a defender right in your face. The more you do it, the better you get at it and the more like second nature this split second decision making becomes.

By looking to make our domestic rugby league a television product and keep up the pace of the game, are we strangling the creativity out of the national side for the sake of allowing an extra second at every play the ball and denying the attacking side such an easy ride?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

GB on the slab

So - the dust has settled, the gnashing and wailing has quietened and it's time to give Great Britain's 2006 Tri-Nations campaign a thorough post mortem and a burial according to the religion of its choice.

What started so positively with the narrow and controversial defeat to the Kiwis followed by the win in Sydney finished with a sense of deja vu and a couple of substantial defeats. The usual culprits have already been trotted out by players, coaches and pundits alike - too many foreign players, too many games, schedule against us etc. While each has an element of truth to it, are they alone enough to explain the difference between the two hemispheres?

Since the lifting of the international ban in the 1980s, the UK has been an attractive place for Australian and Kiwi players to ply their trade, and even more so in recent years with the exchange rates making Super League more attractive despite competitions in both hemispheres operating under a salary cap. While there is little doubt that some sides in SL have more non-GB qualified players than is necessarily healthy, developments in employment legislation such as freedom of movement for people with EU passports and the Kolpak ruling have made it much harder to control numbers in the domestic game. The presence of high quality overseas players such as Jamie Lyon and Trent Barrett is undoubtedly beneficial, but I'm not sure the same can be said for many of the others.

Too many games? I'm not going to sound like one of the dinosaurs often reeled out to provide local radio commentary by banging on about the number of games they used to play in the depths of winter in their day. The fact is that the game has changed and there is only so much abuse the human body can take and still perform to its full potential. Including league, cup, playoff and representative games some of the GB players will have been racking up their 40th appearances of a season that began with pre-season training in January. Their antipodean counterparts will have played roughly ten less games and had an extra month's rest before the start of their season. Does it make a difference? It's hard to see how it doesn't, but until the tail stops wagging the dog and SL is no longer run by those with petty club loyalties and pound signs in their eyes it isn't going to change radically for the better.

Scheduling is probably less of an issue, but it's one just the same. Given the timetable for the Tri Nations and the respective Grand Finals, it's hard to see how much can change to stop GB having to play four weeks on the bounce while allowing Australia and New Zealand vital time off mid competition. The only way you could accommodate it in the present situation would be to start the competition two weeks later, but then you wouldn't be finishing it until some six weeks before the start of the northern hemisphere season and thereby increasing the risk of player burnout. Forget Ricky Stuart's protestations that he'd rather play four weeks in succession, and ask his players instead. I doubt you'd find many complaining about not having to play every week.

There may be lots of easy questions and plenty of easy targets for those who wish to pick over the bones of another ultimately disappointing international campaign, but unless some minds, hearts and wallets are opened there appear to be very few easy answers.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Pride of Lions

In the words of Eminem, "if you had one shot, one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?"

Great Britain's one shot at making the 2006 Tri Nations Final comes up tomorrow in Brisbane where they take on Australia, knowing that a win or a draw will put them into the decider against the same opposition next weekend.

They have the memories of their win in Sydney two weeks ago to feed off and counterbalance the disappointing performance last week against New Zealand. They know what it takes to beat this Australian side, but can they put it into practice and win back to back Tests against the green and gold for the first time in 30 odd years?

You don't see many bookmakers sitting in the gutter with "hungry and homeless" signs so you'd have to go with their assessment of the home side as hot favourites, but then again they said that last time the two sides met and look what happened then.

It's imperative that Great Britain get off to a good start and dominate field position in the early exchanges. If the Australians get their noses in front and build up some momentum, they could be very difficult to peg back although it must be remembered that they scored first in Sydney off the back of a British mistake, and it was the try from Paul Wellens right on half time that gave GB momentum going into the second half. The forwards have to dominate up front and win the collisions to give our good runners from dummy half such as Roby, Newton, Pryce and Raynor the opportunity to pick holes in a retreating defence. Whoever takes on the kicking game from the departed Sean Long needs to get it spot on to pin the Australians back in their own half.

Perhaps more importantly, the GB players need to take a long hard look at the badge on their chests and consider whether they did it justice last week, and what they can do to put it right. In a tight game, that Pride of the Lions could make all the difference.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A week is a long time...

... in politics apparently. It must seem like an even longer time in sport for Brian Noble and the Great Britain boys.

This time last week the players would have still been basking in the reflected glory of their outstanding performance in Sydney and preparing to book their spot in the Tri Nations final by turning over the Kiwis. Sadly, it appears that there was a little too much basking, and not enough thinking or working going on as Britain were rolled over by an enthusiastic Kiwi outfit 34-4.

Scrum half Sean Long was then involved (or not) in some unspecified shenanigans (or not) on the flight back from New Zealand to Australia which may (or may not) have involved the consumption of alcohol in breach of a ban that may (or may not) have been in place. Alternatively, if you believe the official story he was mentally and physically exhausted and needed to come home to be with his heavily pregnant partner. Either way up, it has provided an unwelcome distraction at a time when the focus needed to be on the must-win game against the Aussies in Brisbane this coming Saturday.

In a bid to seal their place in the final, coach Brian Noble has made a number of changes to the side beaten last week. Hull half-back Richard Horne replaces Long for his first competitive game since the Grand Final a month ago while Sean O'Loughlin returns to the side after missing last week's debacle through injury. Gareth Ellis moves forward to the second row and Jamie Peacock to prop while Adrian Morley is among seven replacements to be trimmed to four.

Perhaps the most surprising change is the dropping of Hull centre Kirk Yeaman to be replaced by Martin Gleeson, who was himself dropped after a below par performance in GB's first game of the series. Yeaman wasn't the worst player in a GB jersey last weekend, and played a full part in the previous week's win in Sydney yet appears to have been a sacrificial lamb to enable Noble to bring back another of the tried (and failed) old guard. One of the criticisms of Noble's selection policy since he took on the GB job is that it has had an air of "jobs for the boys" about it rather than players being picked on form. This selection does nothing to quiet those accusations.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Putting the Great back into Britain

"Phil Gould, Rolf Harris, Willie Mason - your boys took a hell of a beating..."

Apologies for getting a little carried away, but given recent results against the bread stealers it was nice as a GB fan to be able to spend Saturday afternoon searching the TV schedules for re-runs of the victory in Sydney.

From the moment Mason popped one on the button of Stuart Fielden, you could see the visitors resolve increasing by the minute. The Aussie media likes nothing more than whaling on the Poms, and they've been in good voice in the build up to the series, describing GB as amateur, average and capable of getting beaten by Australia's third/fourth/fifth choice side* (delete as appropriate).

Well on Saturday, the lion stuck it's teeth in the Kangaroos arse and refused to let go until it had finished picking the bones clean with a late drop goal. Once the initial charges of Mason, Hindmarsh et al had been repelled, the lack of quality in depth on the Aussie bench backfired on them, with the likes of Thaiday and Tupou looking well short of the required standard. Sure, the injury to Gasnier won't have helped - but isn't this Aussie side supposed to be so far ahead that surely losing one player wouldn't make such a difference? And weren't GB equally disrupted by losing Brian Carney to injury and Stuart Fielden on a day trip to Disneyland for a chunk of the game?

The GB forwards were led from the front by Jamie Peacock, ably backed up by club colleague Gareth Ellis and another electrifying spell of the bench from James Roby. Finally, Sean Long converted some of his club form into the international arena and the centre pairing of Keith Senior and Kirk Yeaman were manful in defence when required and strong in attack.

Perhaps more significantly, when put under pressure the Australians turned almost exclusively to Darren Lockyer for a piece of magic to pull them out of a hole. It seems hard to conceive, but are the self proclaimed best team in the world very far away from being a one-man side? Certainly the captain was one of the few players in green and gold who looked capable of making a break or creating an opportunity other than from a British mistake. More needs to come from the players around him if the home side are to hit the heights they are universally expected to achieve.

A word of warning however - in the 2004 Tri Nations, Great Britain finished top of the table after the group phase. Come the final, they were on the receiving end of a blistering first half performance that blew them away and showed the gap between the two sides. It's not just the Aussies who need to improve if they are to be walking away with the trophy in three weeks time.