Any Given Monday with Dylan Cleaver
When the Chiefs named their team for the opening match of the 2019 Super Rugby season, a learned colleague of mine took one look at the list and said: "How are they going to win a game with that backline?"
The question remains in play.
The team that in 2012 brought a version of "Moneyball" to New Zealand rugby is now giving us Funnyball, an awkward and unintentionally humorous example of how not to build a backline.
Given that backs provide almost half your team, then by extension it's a textbook example of how not to build a squad.
If you are a Chiefs apologist you might point to the fact there are 83 All Black caps assembled in the backline and think, "well, that's not too bad", but that raw number does not survive scrutiny.
Some 23 of those caps belong to Stephen Donald, who will not play another test and needed an uncanny set of events to get his 23rd. Brad Weber has played one test coming up four years ago and, at 28, might be running out of time to add more. Another halfback, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, is more likely to add to his three caps, but remains a fringe player.
The only two All Blacks in this backline with substantive ongoing international careers are Anton Lienert-Brown (33 tests) and Damian McKenzie (23). You could argue that both have shown more capacity off the bench than they have as starters (of the Chiefs' 83 caps, more than half have come from the bench). That's no bad thing; rugby is a 23-man game now, but are bench players the rocks upon which you build the foundations for a competitive squad?
Watching the Crusaders toy with McKenzie reminded me of my cat when she brings cicadas inside. Occasionally she'll let the poor things buzz around aimlessly for a while, all in the knowledge she has the power and killer instinct to shut them down at any moment.
The Chiefs are providing salutary lessons for our rugby bosses at a pivotal time in the World Cup cycle (and beyond).
Lesson one: New Zealand's depth is finite. This leads on to…
Lesson two: The national provincial championship is becoming a less reliable gauge of talent. Some of the players struggling so badly for the Chiefs – and the Blues for that matter – look pretty spectacular at the level below.
Lesson three: New Zealand's famed coaching tree is providing more fruit to export markets than it is for the domestic consumer. I spent the weekend in Taranaki and there were some fairly loud rumblings that at least two of the Chiefs' coaching panel do not see eye-to-eye. If this was English football, or an American franchise league, the owners would not hesitate to make a change. New Zealand Rugby doesn't behave like that and it's mainly a good thing, though it's also a way of
never admitting they were wrong to make such a cosy appointment in the first place.
Lesson four: The Six Nations countries, with the exception of the useless Italians, employ far more sophisticated defensive patterns. Ronan O'Gara already told us that last year but the Chiefs conceding close to 43 points per game is as fine an illustration of that as possible.
Yet while we tend to sneer at the institutionalised failings of the Blues, we should embrace the Chiefs' newfound haplessness.
Their wretched defensive line is providing much-needed comic relief in a year when every rugby follower tends to get a bit uptight.
They made the Sunwolves look cool.
As discussed, they're instructive.
Most of all they're just bad and when you see something bad it makes you appreciate that it's no simple matter being great.
What Neil Wagner does isn't just legal, it's borderline brilliant.
I mention this only because when play ended early last night I heard our fine radio commentators debating whether Wagner's short-ball tactics crossed a line. I love a good cricket argument, I like to seek them out, but as I indicated left in compliance with the two-second rule, I couldn't help but wonder: "How is this even a debate?"
In an era when most of cricket's advances and advantages have tended to favour the batsman – better bats, smaller grounds, better wickets – Wagner has bucked the trend by finding a new method of making batsmen uncomfortable.
He does this all at only a tick above medium pace, with an old ball and by taking two of the most common modes of dismissal out of play: bowled and leg before wicket. He does it with aggression, funky angles (left-arm around to lefthanders) and an indefatigability that inspires teammates.
I wish he'd shut his gob more. I despise sledging, a hatred that's becoming more intense the older I get. But the short-pitched stuff? Bring it on Wags.
It's up to the umpires to say when the line is crossed. More than that, it's up to batsmen to play better. The rules are in their favour: you're still only allowed two bouncers per over and still only allowed two fielders behind square on the leg side.
To be fair, few batsmen complain about it and the days of going easy on the tail are long gone and will never return. They know the score. And on the flipside, batsmen aren't inclined to go easy on part-time bowlers, are they?
Wagner would be the second-best flat-wicket seamer New Zealand (via Pretoria) has produced in my lifetime, behind only Sir Richard Hadlee who was the best any-kind-of-wicket bowler we've produced.
That's something to celebrate.
THE MONDAY LONG READ ...
Bit of a change of pace here and it's well worth a read, even if you think Football365's John Nicholson is a bit soft on bampots. Warning: piece contains strong asterisked language.