Chris Rattue on sport

The latest sport analysis and comment from Herald columnist Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue: Lam should know identity of his No 10

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Piri Weepu passes the ball during the Blues pre-season match against the Rebels. Photo / Getty Images
Piri Weepu passes the ball during the Blues pre-season match against the Rebels. Photo / Getty Images

Apart from Jerome Kaino turning up early for work, having forsaken the full extent of his post-World Cup holiday, the vibe out of the Blues camp has been underwhelming so far.

Indeed, with the Super 15 season less than a fortnight away, the general rugby atmosphere is lacking. The long-standing, unwritten rule is that the media leaves the rugby mob alone over the long Christmas break, and we've discovered that even a World Cup triumph won't change that.

Apart from a deluge of player weddings and magazine cover shoots, Sonny Bill Williams has been left to carry the publicity for rugby alone, something he has done manfully by offering his considerable physique up to the brutal sport of boxing.

Sonny Bill, the PR king and headline hogger, comes at a reasonably high price but he never gets close to charging by the hour. He needed just one round to dismantle Clarence Tillman III, about the same amount of time he was required for in the World Cup final.

Yet this was even more time than he spent parading the trophy around.

Never let it be said that this country has over-celebrated the Great Triumph - a quick tickertape parade and a couple of gongs and life goes back to normal, which in the case of the Blues is not a good thing.

They scored a come-from-behind win over the Melbourne Rebels in a trial match across the Ditch on Saturday. Pre-season games mean diddly-squat in assessing the season proper, so it would be pointless to point out that the Chiefs smashed up the Melbourne mob last week.

What can be pointed out, though, is that if the public utterances are to be believed, the Blues' coach, Pat Lam, is still working out who is his best first five-eighths.

The smart money says that the World Cup halfback Piri Weepu will start at No 10 in the Super 15 and won't stay there, because such consistency just isn't the Blues way.

As most of us understood the situation, Weepu, who helped keep rugby in the headlines of late (although unlike Sonny Bill's camp, he doesn't milk situations), was hired to play at first five-eighths.

Weepu has become immensely popular because he has a manner at odds with the superior demeanour that rugby projects. Peak condition can elude Weepu, but every sport needs a few characters not cut from the same rippling mould.

Vague reports also claimed the Blues had interest in the Argentine No 10 Juan Martin Hernandez. Rookies Gareth Anscombe and Michael Hobbs were tried at No 10 in the opening trial game against the Hurricanes.

"It's a chance for Piri to have a shot," is how Lam put it before the Melbourne game, which is all a bit too spin-the-wheel considering the first match against the Crusaders is close.

Ideally, Lam would have said: "Piri is our man, he has the experience, he will run this team, we all have faith in him". If Anscombe is the man, so be it. But let someone be the man.

In other words, nothing has changed at the Blues, who have chopped and changed their way off a mighty perch, failing along the way to produce and retain a new world-class No 10 since Carlos Spencer departed.

Well-run teams keep internal pressure on players and develop succession plans. Not-so-good ones disrupt confidence and combinations.

All this will be of more than passing interest to Alby Mathewson, the Blues halfback. Mathewson scarpered from Wellington where Weepu's presence made it hard to nail down a spot. Now Weepu has followed him north and may well usurp Mathewson at halfback should Lam wind up his merry-go-round. Mathewson would alight grumpily, one would imagine.

Veteran test prop Tony Woodcock is another mystery. Woodcock appears to have awarded himself an early season sabbatical and is not a player who hits the ground running any more. Ma'a Nonu is still fluffing about in Japan, where he is getting filthy rich by rugby standards and will some day join his new Super 15 team already well satisfied.

Call me a pessimist when it comes to the Blues. Because I am.

An early injury crisis for Warriors

The Warriors have a dead-set injury crisis on their hands if Sam Rapira's shoulder damage, suffered in a trial game against South Sydney, is serious. Losing Jacob Lillyman and Micheal Luck to long-term injuries was a blow, but such a heavy contact sport will always have casualties.

To lose a third key forward before the first round of the NRL would be a massive hit.

Departed coach Ivan Cleary left the Warriors in decent shape in forward depth and the recruitment of workaholic hooker Nathan Friend will help cover for the loss of Luck's massive tackle counts.

But new boss Brian McClennan faces unexpectedly tough hurdles if Rapira joins the long-term casualty list.

McClennan will keep his fingers crossed that his star backs stay injury-free, and especially rising playmaker Shaun Johnson.

Big, tough, resilient NRL forwards can be created, but the brilliant Johnson is one of a kind.

- NZ Herald

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