Rugby struck again, and not in an entirely good way.

The latest ITM Cup clash between Hawkes Bay and Counties Manukau had potential, and there is something promising and interesting about Tana Umaga's Steelers including observing what a legend such as Umaga might achieve at a struggling union.

Sky's pre-match buildup to the game was very good. Free of all the patriotic nonsense that blights test matches, Ian "Kamo" Jones and Scotty "Sumo" Stevenson did a very good job. The analysis was enlightening, specific and not covered in guff. I wondered why we couldn't have more of this type of stuff for the big games.

Jones is a pro-establishment bloke, which limits the possibilities, but he does his homework. And he had done plenty last week.


Stevenson once did a series on rugby clubs and in small doses this proved warm and endearing, like gathering around the fire on a winter's day. He is an unashamed spin doctor for rugby and the bigger the occasion, the bigger his spin. In his hands, a spectator becomes a hero of the masses.

As Sumo and Kamo chatted about the game on Friday night, complete with relevant video clips, the thought did occur that the ITM Cup was bringing out the best in Stevenson due to the lack of blather. Even Scotty Stevenson would have trouble hyping the ITM Cup. By kickoff time, we had been informed. I was enthused.

Then the game started, which ruined the moment. The referee, Richard Kelly, went to town with his whistle. Penalty. Move. Penalty. Dropped ball. Penalty. Mistake. Penalty. Try. Penalty. Scrum. Penalty. Penalty. Kick. Penalty. The man's arm was going up and down like a toll gate on an inner-city carpark.

The fleet of famous people covering the game mainly backed his decisions - in other words, the two teams were, apparently, transgressing to a remarkable degree. The eyes glazed over, the mind wandered. Action replays of the offences left me none the wiser, even though the fleet of famous people appeared to know what was going on. The game did improve, but only marginally.

Maybe rugby is too complex and awkward to be consistently played well. The rule-makers aren't to blame, because there aren't any rules that can sort out such a random, unholy mess of a sport. On its good days, rugby is fantastic, a nerve-jangling mix of trench warfare and fabulous skill under intense pressure. But there are too many bad days.

Maybe it is unfair to expect too much from the ITM Cup, which is only a reserve-grade feeder competition and barely rates as representative any more. Perhaps the rugby expectations need to be reprogrammed. Perhaps penalties are integral, like netball, although this is not a heartening thought.

When you see provincial footballers playing the game so erratically, while the referee blows a tune, the admiration only increases for what the finest test players achieve. Characters like Richie McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams really are worth going nuts over. And apologies, Alain Rolland, because whistle-happy refs do not only reside in the Northern Hemisphere.

Good causes taken to extremes

Sport is supposed to be fun, an escape of sorts. It can also help good causes, but the NRL image-makers take this to an extreme. During a first-grade rugby league match over the weekend, a commentator announced: "One in five children are sexually molested before the age of 18" to explain the NRL support for yet another cause. This off-hand soundbite didn't sound right. Can't we watch footy without being doused in shallow references to the ills of the world?

Bulldogs glorious to watch

The Canterbury Bulldogs are the most deserving NRL minor premiers for many years. They play smashing rugby league, from the rampaging giants who maraud as a pack to the unbelievably good Ben Barba at fullback. The Bulldogs operate to the adage of doing things in numbers on attack. The twin towers Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard are a fearsome double act. Des Hasler, who won the NRL title with the Manly Sea Eagles last year, has done an amazing job with the Bulldogs. He's also shown to what extent coaching does count in the NRL. His triumphs include getting the best out of Krisnan Inu - no mean feat - but his work with the forever underachieving Pritchard is the standout. The Sea Eagles have been noble and impressive champions. At this point, anything other than these two meeting in the grand final will be a disappointment. To whet the appetite, they clash in the initial finals match on Friday night and the Hasler factor will add spice to the occasion.

Warriors not so much

The Warriors cemented their place as the worst chokers in NRL memory against Canberra. Micheal Luck was denied the farewell he so richly deserved - the Warriors were a downright embarrassment by the end. The club is in desperate need of a proven, outstanding coach. They are in an absolute mess, and cannot afford half-hearted solutions. As for player of the year - Ben Matulino has been superb. A huge amount of their best moments this season occurred when the top prop was present.

Southee surprise

There is always a surprise around the corner in sport. Tim Southee produced one of the best bowling performances in New Zealand cricket history against India and a platform to relaunch his international career. Northlander Southee, who was just 19 when he made his test debut, was a popular teammate distracted by the trappings of fame. People in high places predicted amazing things for the young fast bowler, but doubts quickly set in.

Will this performance prove to be a watershed moment, or an anomaly in an ultimately disappointing career? There are so many distractions for and pressures on young sportsmen. Richie McCaw-types don't grow on trees. Cricketers have the added problem of adjusting to different forms of the game. We live in new hope for Southee, but that's about it. I wouldn't be overly optimistic.