A few lessons and observations from the weekend ...
1 Each to their own whether it be rugby league or rugby union, or both. But for thrilling finishes league stomps all over union. The two NRL finals games in Sydney at the weekend were fantastic heartstoppers. There are too many ways to dominate the ball and slow the game down in union and when you throw in the mass substitutions modern coaches are obsessed with, potentially exciting finishes too often become fizzers. There is nowhere to hide in rugby league, no way of owning the ball. League can be too predictable but has the capacity for amazing punch and counterpunch conclusions, helped by crowds living every moment. The Roosters v Cowboys and Bulldogs v Manly matches were crackers, with the most thrilling footy finishes of the year.
2 The NRL's golden point rule is a pointless distortion during the season and should be scrapped, but it works fine in the finals where there can't be draws.
3 Rugby league crowds have it all over rugby union crowds. The fans were going off, particularly in the Bulldogs-Manly game. It's hard to remember an atmosphere like that, ever, at a rugby game.
4 In a more perfect world, the Cowboys' no-try to Johnathan Thurston would have been a fair try, giving North Queensland a deserved victory. I still don't believe there was a clear knock-on when the ball brushed Cowboy Robert Lui. The situation wasn't clear enough to rub out a winning try. But the forensic search for perfect decisions does not always play out fairly. Microscopic scrutiny means the officials can't see the forest for the trees. One thing needs changing -- if the onfield referees can't make a decision, the entire judgment should be left to the video officials. At the moment, the video refs' support of preliminary decisions skews outcomes.
5 Have the rules changed in the NRL playoffs? There was more tolerance of roughing the kicker (to steal an NFL phrase) at the weekend.
6 The NRL is a reminder of what we have lost in NZ. Genuine domestic rivalries rock. Super rugby is too contrived.
7 On the other hand ... the NRL playoffs show why rugby has happily gone the other way. The crowds were average to poor for the playoff games in Sydney. Just 18,300 spectators watched the Roosters beat the Cowboys. Rugby's expansive approach reduces the vagaries of domestic support and funding.
8 Steve Hansen is bang on. Former All Black coach Graham Henry's assertion that a loss would help the All Blacks' World Cup campaign is a crock of you know what, although Hansen didn't put it quite like that. Indeed, the All Blacks will lose an important psychological advantage the day their unbeaten run ends. Hansen's uncomplicated communication style is a key to his success and it reflects that he's not into strange head games.
9 Auckland v North Harbour in rugby is the worst local derby in sport. There were just 5000 people at Eden Park on Saturday. I've long argued that Auckland should become one union again, so it pours all resources in one direction behind the Blues. North Harbour's collapse strengthens the argument.
10 Rugby scheduling is rubbish -- here we are, in the height of the season, with nothing high class to watch yet again.
Pre-season footy matches mean diddly squat. English Premier League side West Ham were in supposed disarray because of a disastrous tour Downunder, manager Sam Allardyce allegedly for the chop. The Hammers beat Liverpool at the weekend, and are decently placed on the EPL table. All Whites captain Winston Reid scored one of West Ham's goals -- he is on the way to becoming the new Ryan Nelsen for New Zealand sports fans. I would love to see him move to one of the big EPL clubs.
11 You never know what is around the corner. Tony Iro is back at the Warriors, as an assistant to Andrew McFadden. It's a wise move by the Warriors -- Iro is among the most popular characters I have met in any sport and will have learned plenty of good stuff during Ivan Cleary's reign. It's also a good thing overall, and for the club, to have a New Zealander highly placed on the Warriors coaching staff. A prediction: Iro will be the next Kiwis coach.
12 Now there's a surprise. Sonny Bill Williams won't play for Counties-Manukau in the ITM Cup. The lesson is hardly a new one -- the ITM Cup is a development competition to be used and abused by people at the top. This is the natural order of things, but forget that PR hogwash about it being the heart and soul of rugby. The ITM Cup has the odd good moment -- particularly when the Ranfurly Shield helps out around the provinces -- but the competition is increasingly irrelevant in the general sports chat. Canterbury's dominance doesn't reflect their provincial clout -- it reveals the depth and effectiveness of the Crusaders.
13 An odd observation hit me over the weekend, spurred by Patrick Tuipulotu's return with the Auckland side. Canterbury has a strange lock on our best rugby locks. Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and Dominic Bird play there, although they weren't born there. Brodie Retallick and Tuipulotu were born there, although they don't play there. Jeremy Thrush -- the Auckland-born Hurricane -- is doing a decent job as injury cover but he's probably No6 on that list.