ANY GIVEN MONDAY with Dylan Cleaver
Rugby fans and refs are being conned. It's time somebody did something about it.
Let me explain with the help of a stat or two.
The Chiefs and Highlanders played out a 31-31 derby thriller in Dunedin on Saturday night. The match was refereed by a New Zealander, Mike Fraser, and he saw fit to dish out 12 penalties during the match – total.
The three other New Zealand franchises were playing overseas opposition. In two cases they were reffed by Australians. All three of them matched or exceeded that penalty count on their own.
You don't need to be a false-flag conspiracy theorist to come to the conclusion that the best way to beat New Zealand teams, and this extends to the All Blacks, is to convince referees that they are guilty of breaking one of rugby's most arcane laws on a regular basis.
The best place to do that is in the one phase of the game where very few people have any idea of what's going on – the scrum.
Welcome to modern professional rugby, where the biggest coaching gains involve getting ahead of the curve when it comes to conning officials.
After a weekend of occasionally enthralling, mostly disappointing Super Rugby, it is clear rugby is in the midst of the Great Scrum Swindle.
Twist it here, lift it a bit there, take a step back at the hit, whatever it takes to try to convince the ref the other team is cheating – is this really the new front-row currency?
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It would seem so.
The Crusaders-Sharks, Hurricanes-Rebels and certainly Blues-Brumbies matches were all blighted to differing degrees by scrum chicanery.
Twice in two weeks, the Crusaders feel they have been the victims of refereeing naivety. It didn't matter as much against the Lions, but it cost them two points against the Sharks who until time added on stayed ahead of the game via Brendon Pickerill's whistle and Curwin Bosch's boot.
It left Kieran Read – who, for all his leadership qualities, has yet to master dialogue with refs – frustrated enough to exclaim that teams have gone from using scrums to try to get or deny front-foot possession, to manipulating the set piece solely as a means of winning penalties.
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While it's tempting to say "it's always been that way", that statement shows only how conditioned we've become to the con. Scrums have morphed from a strength and technique battle between endomorphic humans to a debating contest.
It wasn't just the Crusaders-Sharks match that was affected. The Blues were put in a straitjacket by the scrum rulings of Damon Murphy and even in Wellington, the fast-starting Hurricanes were brought back to a more manageable pace, largely through a bushel of penalties awarded to the Rebels by Nic Berry.
The penalty count against the Blues, Hurricanes and Crusaders – the three New Zealand teams playing overseas opposition – was a combined 40-22.
Not all of these were scrum penalties, not by a long shot, but there is enough there to suggest that opposition see the scrum con as a way to attack New Zealand sides.
It's not being unnecessarily jingoistic to think it's dubious that a country that has some of the finest front-rowers in the game and a renowned scrum guru, Mike Cron, overseeing operations, is suddenly capitulating in the face of pressure.
The very worst of it is not even the sense of injustice (don't believe for a second that New Zealand teams are above trying "win" penalties), or the concern a World Cup knockout game could be decided on a scrum collapse, but the fact it is so goddamned boring to watch.
All the while teams are trying to con referees, it is the paying spectator that ends up being fleeced.
There was some interesting feedback on last week's column that highlighted the declining fortunes of club rugby, best (or worst) exemplified by Glenfield defaulting a premier North Harbour club match.
Wrote Rob Rush, brother of former All Black Eric (abridged for brevity and clarity):
A good mate of mine at Auckland Marist was lamenting the fact that his traditional strong club, is also struggling to even field an U20's team. Their senior B teams are non-existent. He told me there are a number of premier clubs in Auckland who no longer have a team in the once prestigious U20 grade. The blow-out scores you see in club rugby results are sad reading, and unfortunately the likes of Ponsonby continue to have players in their reserve and U20s teams who would walk into any other team in Auckland. As always the rich continue to get richer. Back in the boondocks of Kaeo Rugby Club in Northland (where Eric and I played our junior rugby), our small club had an U14, U16 and U18 team four or five years ago. This year we have none. We lose so many of our 12-14 year olds to Grammar, MAGS, St Kents, Hamilton BHS... it's just ridiculous. The parents are making "educational decisions" for rugby reasons, and there are other clubs in the North having this same player drain. The standard is dropping due to everyone being sold the dream of higher quality rugby programmes and competition down country. It's becoming increasingly hard to not agree with their decisions when we have four teams in our local U14 comp now, with two being combined ones. The Kaitaia U14 team from last year saw eight of their best players leave to attend school over the Harbour Bridge. It kills a club. Junior rugby in the Far North is becoming unsustainable. What are the answers? It's incredibly difficult one to answer and the Northland Rugby Union is working hard to address this player drain. At the end of the day parents will decide what's best for their kids, and unfortunately it comes at the expense of junior rugby in the North. Your article highlights for me we are not alone in these increasingly difficult times.
If you have similar laments to Rob, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm not sure there are any quick fixes to the withering of the grassroots, but the first step is acknowledging the scale of the decline and the pace of it.
Another sad example of the ebbing fortunes of club rugby comes from Hawke's Bay where Central defaulted their premier club match against Clive because, wait for it, duck-shooting season was starting .
It was pointed out that defaults are not just painful for the club that can't field a team, but also the opposition who lose the bar takings that a home game attracts.
P.S. Glenfield turned up in the weekend, losing to Silverdale.
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