Scotty Stevenson: Squeezing it till it squeaks

After weekend's weighty games Kiwi's will know what doesn't kill you makes you strong.

Jamie Joseph, left, and Sir John Kirwan won't be the only coaches with squeaky bums this weekend. Photo / Getty Images
Jamie Joseph, left, and Sir John Kirwan won't be the only coaches with squeaky bums this weekend. Photo / Getty Images

I'm not entirely sure exactly at which part of the season Alex Ferguson's bum got squeaky, but there may be a few humming rumps on the New Zealand coaches this weekend as things get very real indeed for the Kiwi conference.

I'm all for it. Pressure is a wonderful thing: it makes diamonds, it powers hydraulic equipment, it offers a great excuse for a holiday from Parliament, it makes John Kirwan talk in the kind of riddles that would inspire Nik Kershaw, it gives columnists angina, and it gave Queen and Bowie a chance to make a song together.

Pressure is the name of the game this week: exerting it, sustaining it, surviving it, absorbing it. I can't look, especially not at the Sharks and the Brumbies. If that scoreline is not divisible by three at the end of 80 minutes, one of those teams would have pulled off the greatest double bluff in the history of rugby.

So averse to a deep-running counterattack are the two table-toppers that it wouldn't surprise me if, at some point, Glen Jackson pockets his whistle and jumps in at first receiver, just so someone passes the ball - or, heaven forbid, runs it - from inside their own half.

But enough of that. Let us turn our attention to the petroleum capital of the nation, where the Chiefs will run out at their new home away from home, New Plymouth. Or, as we now know it, Hamilton-on-Sea. Local rugby fans are bound to turn up in numbers for this, even though they are more concerned with the pressing matter of restoring to the sidelines a live bull mascot for the ITM Cup season.

More pressing still should be the small matter of nicknaming the stadium for Chiefs home games. After all, this is the ground that, courtesy of the team captains, has been known variously as the Bull Ring, the Fish Bowl, the Hore House, the Pig Pen and the Kane Field. I'm not sure where to go here. Perhaps the coach can get a nod and we'll refer to it as the Dave Yard.


Worryingly for Chiefs fans, the coaches have made just three changes to the starting team which is so far below their season average that one wonders whether this is by design or simply a result of having run out of players to choose from.

Still, and I don't know if anyone's brought this up lately, the Blues have a terrible away record. In fact the last time they won away was last year, in February, against the Hurricanes. You remember them, Taranaki, don't you? There would be a certain slice of succulent irony if the Blues were to reverse their travel fortunes against Taranaki's freshly adopted franchise. Or maybe that's just me being whimsical.

What is not prone to whimsy of any kind is analysis of the Crusaders' game plan, which is the rugby equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld. The Reds still harbour hopes of showcasing some sort of flair against the rapid risers of the competition but they need to be warned there is zero emotional quotient on the other side of this contest.

The Crusaders' game plan is simple: think of a rugby field, reduce it by half, play all of your rugby inside it, repeat. I pity the Reds at Suncorp, the Crusaders' recent struggles there notwithstanding. The only thing they can hope for is that the visitors keep up their amazing track record of blowing try-scoring chances inside the opposition red zone. And that Richie McCaw breaks another thumb.

Speaking of thumbs, the Hurricanes were all them against the Waratahs. We thought we'd seen the last of the old-school Canes handling woes but they were back in Sydney on Saturday. You have to feel for the coaches - just when they've fixed three things with that team, something else goes wrong. Coaching the Hurricanes is like owning a Volkswagen.

The good news is Rebels captain Scott Higginbotham will give away enough penalties to ensure the Hurricanes win. Higginbotham is whistled so often that apparently he now answers to the name "away eight".

And that leaves us with the Highlanders. Of all the New Zealand teams the Highlanders must be the most excited about their opposition this week. The Lions are a 2am text from your ex - they know it's over but they refuse to accept it.

At least the Highlanders will get a break from all the tackling - the Lions force the fewest tackles in the competition - and that could be just the ticket on their return home.

Put it this way, if the Highlanders crush the Lions as expected, Jamie Joseph's bum won't be squeaky at all. It'll be fair whistling Dixie.

Busting out

One thing's for certain, pound for pound New Zealand rugby still makes the best running players in the game. Partly that's because most Kiwi game plans allow for it, but maybe it's an instinct thing. Either way, consider this: the top five tackle breakers in this year's competition are all from New Zealand teams with Alapati Leiua leading the charge. Better still, 10 of the top 12 are from NZ teams.

Expect the expected

With the All Blacks' first training squad of the season set to be announced on Monday, one source close to the team has warned not to expect many surprises. And that goes for players and for game plan.

The message seems to be simple: the same players doing the same thing, but doing it better than last season. Any room for a bolter? It seems unlikely.

Big Brad branches out

Big bad Brad Thorn will be joining the Sky team on the preview show for the Highlanders v Lions game tomorrow, but the veteran has taken some convincing to pick up the microphone. On being asked to join the team his response was: "I don't have a voice for radio and I don't have a face for television."

- NZ Herald

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