Chris Rattue on sport

The latest sport analysis and comment from Herald columnist Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue: Mil's fading star burns too long

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Israel Dagg scores a try in the opening Rugby World Cup match against Tonga. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Israel Dagg scores a try in the opening Rugby World Cup match against Tonga. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Japan will be chuffed. Having scared the daylights out of France in their opening match of the Rugby World Cup, they are now cast - allegedly - as the make-or-break opponents in Mils Muliaina's All Black career.

Unsure of their best fullback, the All Blacks will start Muliaina against Japan on Friday night when he can prove himself the better No 15 choice over Israel Dagg.

After 98 tests, and deep into the 2011 season, Muliaina's last-chance saloon is against a team the All Blacks should beat by a zillion points.

Are these blokes having us on, or what? Where are the Punk'd cameras? After all those grand plans, the All Black selectors are still holding trials - against Japan. They might as well pull names out of a hat, which some of us suspect they are doing anyway.

Or is Assistant coach Steve Hansen giving Muliaina a false glimmer of hope rather than casting him as a setting sun against the rising sun?

Call this an old-fashioned view, but Dagg should be firmly planted in the side. He is young, and has not played much this season. He doesn't need a break and won't be helped by one. The more Dagg plays, the better he will be.

And if Muliaina is relegated from the top lineup, it is doubtful Dagg will get all the remaining games anyway.

If this team is picked from here on with a plan to build a cohesive unit, and with Dagg at fullback, then Muliaina will be stranded on 99 tests after the Japan test. A dedicated fullback, especially a slow one, is not a bench option. So the likelihood is that Dagg will get another break against Canada.

Eight years of endless tampering and theorising has taught Graham Henry and his mates very little. Maybe all those meetings have twisted their thinking.

Nothing is to be moulded without their clammy paw prints all over it. The natural dynamics that occur between players, the relationships that are built on the field in battle, must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the three superheroes in charge created it all. They think far too much, especially of themselves.

There have been so many selection shenanigans going on, especially in Wayne Smith's backline, that you can't be sure of all that much. It is difficult to even work out who they believe their top halfback is. Now we find out, supposedly, that there is a battle on at fullback. At least Hansen's organisation of the forwards is more logical.

In a sea of uncertainty, here's a jagged rock to sit upon briefly: There is no way that Henry will leave Muliaina, a favourite son, marooned on 99 tests. Canada looms as the century game for Muliaina. Another option would be the dud bronze-medal match. The All Blacks won't want to rely on being in that, although they are a good chance with all this selection nonsense.

Go Samoa!

Let's hope Samoa find their best form in Hamilton on Sunday and give the Welsh one heck of a hiding.

A stirring Samoan victory would fire the tournament up, represent a victory for rugby in the more interesting form and give the northern mob a well-deserved rocket.

England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and France were mainly diabolical in the opening-round games, although at least the French remain interesting. Wales were lively and actually good to watch in the way that a demolition derby is good to watch if there is no Formula One available.

But even then, they managed to lose against one of the worst Springbok displays imaginable in a World Cup. The world champions appeared gun-shy, and fired up for about only 15 minutes.

New Zealand and Australia won't be delighted with their first-up showings, but they did produce one half each of excellent attacking football. South Africa are the most limited of the Tri-Nations sides, yet their tries were still more daring than anything the dominant Welsh could muster.

Closing the gap is the tournament catchcry at the moment. Ireland closed the gap by going backwards against the United States.

England were atrocious against Argentina - their liveliest player is probably Manu Tuilagi who has made his way into the English side via a bit of work permit fiddling. The attacking standout for Wales was No 8 Toby Faletau who, like Tuilagi, is hardly British born and bred.

What can we say about Scotland? They were appalling against Romania. And France were actually in danger of losing to Japan, who were close to taking a lead midway through the second half at Albany.

Wales versus Samoa is one of the most tantalising World Cup pool games and I hope the Samoans get through to the playoff stages. Shuddering collisions are in store in Hamilton, where the stadium is perfectly sized and shaped to encourage a gladiatorial cauldron. Wales' physical showing against South Africa has further raised the expectations.

Wales based their plan against South Africa on sending giant midfield back Jamie Roberts on angled torpedo missions into the Springbok defence.

This will only get the Samoan juices flowing. They thrive on such confrontation, and will be licking their lips at the thought of blunting the torpedo and sending a few in return. Wales have a plan B involving their ancient trickster Shane Williams, who can pop up all over the place and put defenders in doubt. Samoa will seek to nullify Williams in their traditional manner.

The northern frights are mainly a hopeless lot though. Wales have announced themselves as remote, dark-horse contenders and France can never be discounted. But England, Scotland, Ireland and Italy deserve to be sent packing, as early as possible, unless they pick up their acts.

- NZ Herald

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