Wynne Gray 's Opinion

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Wynne Gray: Opening whistle rewards patience of hungry fans

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Piri Weepu. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Piri Weepu. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Time! When Chris Pollock blows a start to Super 15 rugby tonight at Eden Park, a 124-day hiatus will be over.

It has been four months since the hordes traipsed away from the same venue, the bulk of them New Zealanders, delighted and relieved that the All Blacks had, by the barest margin, repeated their World Cup triumph after a 24-year lull.

Since then the local rugby itinerary has been dotted with games of sevens, Super 15 trial matches and television footage from north of the equator.

But tonight more than 25,000 are expected to rock up to Eden Park to watch the Blues host the Crusaders while a much larger audience will dissect the match on television.

Almost two dozen All Blacks are spread through the squads as the Kiwi sides favoured to do best in the competition unfurl their armoury for the 17th edition of the professional Southern Hemisphere rugby series.

There's already curiosity about team selections with rival coaches Pat Lam and Todd Blackadder leaving test men like Piri Weepu and Owen Franks on the bench as they begin to deal with the demands of an expanded season which will further test their resources, management and coaching nerve.

Settling on a Super 15 champion in early August is a fair old slog, a voyage that will need skill, tenacity, insight, flexibility and good fortune.

Referees like Pollock will require similar traits as they begin their work, which puts them under as much public scrutiny as those who run the country.

The breakdown, scrum and offside line are bound to be the areas of controversy, for a stack of reasons.

Supporters are usually quick to point out the infringing opposition and less inclined to accept that their side has been at fault. It is a natural reaction from fans wanting more balance in the match officials' decisions.

Sanzar boss Greg Peters is after improvements, hoping his referees will get 70 per cent of the scrums underway on the initial ponderous crouch-touch-pause-engage call while he wants better control of the breakdown areas.

Too often in 2011, he agreed, the breakdowns were too much of a free-for-all, where referees had allowed too much leniency from players leaving their feet.

They wanted to return to their stricter rulings which had been such a part of their work in 2010. Officials have also warned teams they will be far stricter on the offside line at breakdowns. Players guarding the fringes of rucks and who cribbed half a metre, or those wider out on defence who did the same behind the referee's back, cutting down the already limited space, would be targeted.

The intentions may be honourable and put into practice in pre-season trial games, but when competition points are on the line, players will try to get away with as much as they can. That is the nature of the game. The wishlist might have more chance of succeeding in New Zealand and Australia than in local derbies in South Africa. (All letters postmarked Bloemfontein to the sports editor, please).

A competition interrupted by test matches in June and where sides do not play every other team represents a flawed system, but that is what we have until Sanzar's five-year deal with broadcasters, sponsors and administrators ends in 2015.

Referees are trialling a system which adds a white card to the yellow and red dockets. Match officials who suspect there has been skulduggery out of sight, or who are alerted to some misdemeanour by a player's complaint, can hoist their white card for a judicial officer to investigate later.

Where possible, one officer will deal with every case during the season with the idea that penalties will be more uniform than they have been previously. Hearings will be completed on video to reduce costs, while players will be offered the chance to accept more manageable penalties if they acknowledge their guilt.

The Blues have a tough start to the season, hosting the Crusaders then off down the road to play the Chiefs before travelling to South Africa for the Bulls and Stormers. After this, the Crusaders meet the Highlanders and Chiefs, then they have a bye.

All of which means the stakes are a little higher for this match - bring it on.

- NZ Herald

Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

NZ Herald senior rugby writer Wynne Gray has been covering the All Blacks for almost 25 years and has attended more than 230 All Blacks tests live for the Herald.

Read more by Wynne Gray

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