Bravo to the conference system — we ought to take it as a compliment.

It's going to be long night but a great one, I think. Thanks to the commercial demands of professional rugby, New Zealand has been presented with a challenge it has never faced before.

I may be the only rugby fan in this country who likes the conference system. It's not that hard to understand and it made the matches last weekend more interesting than they would otherwise have been. Four New Zealand teams were going to make the play-offs and, as it turned out, none of them are playing one of the others this weekend. What could be better than that?

The gripe we've been hearing ad nauseam is that three of the Kiwi sides finished in the top four on points and all three should be having a home game. But for the sake of audiences and gates in Australia and South Africa, the Highlanders had to play in Canberra last night and the Crusaders and Chiefs have made the trek to Africa.

So in the early hours of tomorrow, after watching the Hurricanes dispatch the Sharks in Wellington tonight, I'll probably wake in time to watch the games from Johannesburg and Cape Town. I'll record them in case the body clock doesn't work, but it usually does. It's uncanny how the sleeping mind knows the time.


Worry helps set the mental alarm. Those of us who grew up on the great All Black-Springbok rivalry can never stop worrying how our teams will fare over there. It's still far away, a place of thin air, harsh light and heat, hard ground, hostile crowds and ruthless players. It's hard to believe they are weaker now, though I can understand why the Stormers' coach is worried they haven't had to face a New Zealand team in their conference.

New Zealanders complain that our teams come up against each other several times in the new format, but that is to the advantage of our game. Long may it last. The conference system is a compliment to our rugby, an admission that without this sort of engineering, our teams would be too dominant.

The enduring excellence of our rugby in the professional era is astonishing really. Its administration has overcome the disadvantages of a small population, distance from competitors and limited domestic sources of sponsorship, to remain ahead of the game. Its success all rests on the All Blacks, acknowledged now as probably the most successful competitors in any sport. They bring in big money from international sponsors and television. And their success has been built on astute development of players and selections.

Even as we watched six veterans retire at the end of the World Cup last year, we had already seen the natural heirs for all of them. I thought we had seen the next centre too. It puzzled me during the June series against Wales that Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors appeared not to have seen him. He was right under their noses.

When the All Blacks went to Apia last year to play Samoa, they rested Hurricanes players who had just won the Super Rugby final. At centre they put Ryan Crotty and he was a revelation. Crotty was so tidy, direct, near perfect in his timing and distribution that he looked as good as Conrad Smith.

Every chance he got at centre subsequently confirmed that impression. I'm sure the selectors agreed, one or two things Hansen said last season suggested he had caught their eye at Apia. Yet for the Welsh series, they picked just about everyone except Crotty at centre.

23 Jul, 2016 6:00am
5 minutes to read

Maybe they had nobody else to fill in for Sonny Bill Williams at second five, and felt obliged to give Malakai Fekitoa a chance further out. The June series looked more like All Black trials than tests. When Fekitoa went down in the first minute of the second test, the Chief's Seta Tamanivalu got a chance. Then, with the series won, they brought in the Blues' George Moala for the third. He made breaks but died with the ball too often.

They kept Crotty at second five where he has been playing for the Crusaders this season too. But for the big match tonight, Todd Blackadder has placed him at centre and I wouldn't mind a small wager that when Williams returns from the Olympics and the All Blacks line up for a real test, it will be Crotty at 13.

Selection must be tough. It has been great to see Israel Dagg recover his zest this season after being dropped for the World Cup, but they are going to have to drop him again. Ben Smith does more from fullback. Then there is Damien McKenzie. How long can they keep him out? Our riches get better and better.