Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue: Troublesome signs of empire in decline

The remarkable talents of McCaw may have masked what we feared - that we're not producing the calibre of players needed in the All Blacks to remain a great side.

Are we witnessing the decline of an empire, the developing of a rot that will also inevitably seep into the All Blacks? Photo / Getty Images
Are we witnessing the decline of an empire, the developing of a rot that will also inevitably seep into the All Blacks? Photo / Getty Images

Let's play the party pooper. New Zealand rugby remains a balloon ready to be popped after the latest round of Super 15 matches, no matter what the scorelines might say.

I've long wondered whether the true state of New Zealand rugby has been masked for an incredibly long time by one extraordinary man - Richie McCaw. The World Cup did nothing to dispel the concept, although the rise of the Chiefs last year offered a reasonable argument against. McCaw theory back on, though, I'd suggest.

As New Zealand battles through a competition they once dominated - thanks mainly to the Crusaders - it begs a question: Are we witnessing the decline of an empire, the developing of a rot that will also inevitably seep into the All Blacks?

In contrast, Australia - which still operates on a shoestring of world-class players - has cleverly marshalled its resources while South Africa is flexing considerable muscles, particularly through the Bulls and Stormers.

The party occurred at the most unlikely of places these days, the cold house in Dunedin where the Highlanders notched their first win of the season to celebrate Brad Thorn's 100th Super 15 match. As All Blacks coach Steve Hansen tried to tell the smattering, Thorn has become a legend, although the way he is celebrated often sounds like a yearning for the old days that his short back and sides persona represents.

Thorn hugged little Aaron Smith and gave a nice home-grown speech to the crowd, who have this year been subjected to the most disjointed rugby by a New Zealand team in the professional era.

It's easy to smile along with Brad Thorn, because everything he does feels as if it comes from the heart.

Reaching 100 games is no mean feat, but not nearly as impressive as still playing at this level aged 38. Then again, maybe he wouldn't be if New Zealand was producing the depth of players to match the game's profile.

The Highlanders were naive and damn lucky at the end, with refereeing generosity and a charge off the wing by Hosea Gear saving them at the death, with the Sharks poised to send Jamie Joseph's beleaguered mob to a ninth successive defeat.

Over in Melbourne, the champion Chiefs were hampered by a couple of bum video refereeing decisions that allowed Rebel forward passes to create tries (should the TMO get his sight checked out, he might take former Wallaby-turned-commentator Phil Kearns along with him).

Those poor calls shouldn't hide that the Chiefs are not a patch on the 2012 version, and the way Aaron Cruden is playing or being used is frustrating. The heir apparent to Dan Carter neither exerted his authority nor cut decent capers against a team that has been thrown together as a rugby PR exercise. He was completely overshadowed by the late-appearing Kurtley Beale.

Hansen's claims it's too early for the All Blacks to be hitting their straps is a nonsense more than two months into the competition, and the rising star cupboard looks bare apart from the main exceptions, Blues' battering ram Steve Luatua and the Chiefs' little rocket Tim Nanai-Williams.

The Blues were outplayed by the Stormers at North Harbour Stadium, where goal kicks beat a try scoring South African team better known for defence. We used to scoff at South African teams for winning like that.

Over in Pretoria, the Hurricanes were pummelled by the Bulls, who demolished their opponents' lineout and out-muscled them. Another Carter heir, Beauden Barrett, was also impotent against the onslaught and the Hurricanes' helter skelter response to a horrible halftime scoreline was about as threatening as the cheerleading squad.

The Crusaders are credible but short of former standards. They lack the precision and purpose of their great old teams and good work goes nowhere through poor penetration which turns into a sideways shuffle. Keeping the coaching in the family has capped ingenuity - they stifle opponents and themselves.

But they are New Zealand's best bet to win the title. After a stilted first half, the Crusaders found a creative burst in the 51st minute to edge ahead of the tactically astute Brumbies in Canberra. They battled home in third gear - top gear might not be far away but unlike the past, that isn't automatically good enough. National fortunes will ebb and flow of course. Still, New Zealand - the world champions - aren't where they should be.

Warriors get pulses up

Never mind the quality, feel the finish. Don't you love a cliffhanger in sport - a tight finish more than makes up for a loose match.

The Warriors held the Titans at bay to claim their second NRL win of the year, an absolutely vital one. They were close to gone for the season otherwise.

The match went down to the wire and sent hearts racing, especially when Pita Godinet chucked the ball to nowhere after a magical run at the death. Don't do that to us, fella - what the hell were you thinking?

Over to rugby, where the spirited Blues faced enormous late pressure from the Stormers, but held the strong South Africans out and did enough to ruin their last-gasp drop goal attempt. The Chiefs hung on against the Rebels and strange TMO decisions to retain their lead in the New Zealand Super 15 conference. Once again, it was a very close run thing. Down south, the Sharks hammered the Highlanders' line, forced a yellow card on Brad Thorn, and looked set to barge over for the winning try from a lineout. But they couldn't close out a game in which a dreadful first half was obliterated by a thrilling conclusion.

None of those games were peak quality, but the nail-biting entertainment built on desperate and successful defence made for an excellent sporting weekend.

The Warriors are way off the pace set by teams such as Souths and the red hot Roosters. At least all is not lost.

- NZ Herald

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Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Chris Rattue writes about a wide range of sports for the New Zealand Herald. He has covered numerous sporting events for the Herald including Rugby World Cups and the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

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