Super rugby is (finally) getting interesting(ish)

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number nineteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

When Super Rugby arrived on the scene in 1996, it was brilliant. Colourful jerseys, mullets, cheerleaders. Even the word ‘franchise’ sounded exotic back then. 12 teams, everyone played everyone else, two semi finals and the whole thing took about three months. Fans were more interested in smoking a packet of durries before the match and going to an Exponents concert afterwards than loading up the credit card on replica jerseys at Rebel Sport.

But – no-one tinkers with a winning formula like rugby, and in 2018 we have a schedule that starts firmly in cricket season (the BLACKCAPS and England played a three Test-series during the 2018 Super Rugby season) and takes a three week break for a meaningless Test series to be played in June.

Teams from Argentina and Japan are included now, but overall, southern hemisphere rugby is going backwards faster than post-Joshua Tree U2, with former powerhouses Australia and South Africa nowhere near their 1990s form or organisational strength.

For New Zealand rugby fans, it means the same interminable local derbies week after week, with hard earned quarterfinal spots going off shore thanks to a complicated conference system that makes as much sense as those self-service machines in McDonalds.

Drivers for this mess are the desire to grow the game in new countries and the need to generate revenue, but we’re left with a competition solely geared to TV that leaves fans bloated and bored by the time it’s finished. 

It’s not *all* bad – the Chiefs and Hurricanes produced a fantastic match last Friday night, despite star players being out injured, and are set to do it again tonight. The playoffs, now they’re finally here, look tasty.

What’s the solution? For fans, I say don’t reward bad behaviour and vote with your wallet. Watch cricket in the summer, and don’t watch rugby until after the international break, when the matches start to mean something.

Let’s rip the game back from the administrators, referees and sponsors and bring back the Super 10, that ran for three seasons between 1993 and 1995. Four NZ teams, two Aussie, Three South African and a Pacific Island international team. Two round robins, one final. Simple. Let’s do this.

No future in England’s dreaming

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number eighteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

World cup business ends aren’t a pretty place. Minnow nations’ fans waving frantically at the camera, probably dressed as their national parrot, are replaced by people quietly weeing themselves with tension.

England, who’ve previously gone for shyster foreign coaches and superstar-ego-pandering, are young, open, funny and likeable this time around, lead by the superb Gareth Southgate, all waistcoats and earnestness.

They’d overcome the long shadows of world cups past by winning a penalty shoot out for the first time and actually having a strategy on the pitch to reach their first semi final for 28 years. That’s roughly the same length of time between Martin Crowe’s 1992 semi final heartbreaker and Grant Elliott’s Eden Park heroics.

Going ahead early yesterday morning, they were reeled in and eventually passed by Croatia, every football hipster’s favourite team, all never-say-die determination and hard Adriatic noses and elbows.

Like someone said on Twitter, it’s the hope that kills you.

This is a young England team with an exciting future ahead, but with big guns like Brazil, Germany and Spain more disappointing than a dropped ice cream, 2018 may have been their chance to win it.

It’s France’s to lose now, although underdogs Croatia have some magic about them.

Big picture, England seemed to be part of a new wave of team-first-cultures, where it’s all about the group rather than superstars, along the lines of the BLACKCAPS under Mike Hesson. It’s a modern, inclusive way to do things, diametrically opposed to say the Australian cricketers, with their sandpaper and shouting at people.

These teams are fun and rewarding to support, but are they a way to win trophies? Let’s hope the BLACKCAPS show us how it’s done at next year’s world cup.

We’re nearly there for Russia 2018 and disappointingly, life will soon be back to normal. It’s been one of the best ever, with plenty of goals, upsets and a different set of teams at the pointy end. We still haven’t solved the problems of nations South America and Europe dominating the tournament – and hard to see that changing in Qatar next time. It’ll still be fun.

Best goal – Kevin de Bruyne v Brazil. Fantastic run from Luakaku, and a stonking finish

Best fan – the guy dressed as chips

Best meme – Neymar. So good.

Welcome to planet football

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number fourteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here
World Cups generate memories – goals, like Micheal Owen’s solo effort as an 18 year old in ’98 and Brazil 70’s supreme team goal in the final. There’s the craziness of Luis Suarez biting a defender, or the great Zinadine Zidane’s red card for a brutal head butt, and even whole games, like Italy v Brazil 1982 or West Germany v England 1990.

You can watch at the pub of course, but the real work is done on the couch, with a milo. Football fans live a half-light solitary existence, mapped by World Cup wall charts, time differences and time-shifted recordings for the month. You basically turn into Renton in Trainspotting, but for football. It’s hard to resist.

Hosts Russia kicked things off this morning with a match against Saudi Arabia and, inexplicably, Robbie Williams. And we’re off. Here’s the build up, teams and how you can follow along.

Last time out
Germany won the last tournament in Brazil in 2014, taking the hosts down 7-1 in a seismic semi final. The champions are just as strong this time around, and seeing how Brazil, who live for World Cups, bounce back will be one of the great storylines.

Russia welcomes you! 
Russia won hosting rights in 2010, with Qatar announced as 2022 cup hosts at the same time, in a bidding process shonkier than your un-consented deck. Since then, FIFA has been discredited by massive systemic corruption while Russia has hosted the drug, human rights violation and judging scandal-plagued 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, had state-sponsored  athlete doping exposed, interfered with the US elections (allegedly!) and annexed Crimea. Expect some pretty painful Putin photo-ops over the next month.

The telly
It’s a fairly challenging time difference for New Zealanders, with most of it happening in the middle of the night, but there’s a game on at 6 or 7am most days. All the matches will be live on SKY Sport, with quite a few free to air on Prime including the semis and final – here’s the list.

The internet
The FIFA World Cup app looks pretty decent for yer fixtures and standings, but they’re not giving much video away – for that, sashay over to r/soccer, where you’ll find goal clips within seconds of them going in, and all the highs and lows of internet fandom.

I really like the Guardian’s football coverage – this preview is an amazing effort and achievement – and recommend the Football Weekly podcast, which is going daily. At home, Radio New Zealand have the Squeaky Bum Time podcast running for the duration.

Selected team previews
Brazil 
History: Winners in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002. Often called the All Blacks of Football by people who don’t know much about either sport, those yellow shirts and languid skills are everyone’s favourite second team.
Chances: Depends on how they bounce back from 7-1. They have the best players around, but as always, it depends on how they knit together.

England 
History: Winners in ’66. Penalty shoot-out horrors, comedy goal keeping, non-qualification and general over promising and under delivery ever since.
Chances: Harder to predict than what’s going on with David Seymour. Harry Kane is the marvellous Tottenham striker who can’t stop scoring, if he can do the same for England they’ll be well placed. Come on!

Spain
History: Winners in 2010. Perennial underachievers, they finally put together a special team and tactics to match in South Africa, starting a golden run.

Chances: Boldly sacked their coach a week out, but are still laden with talent. The world’s caught them up somewhat, but this golden generation will have some life left, no doubt.

Germany
History: Winners in 1954, 1974, 1990, 2014. England’s worst nightmare.
Chances: More efficient than a Kraftwerk bassline, but not quite as stylish. Will be very, very organised and very, very hard to beat.

Argentina
History: Winners 1978, 1986. England’s worst nightmare.
Chances: If Messi gets injured, they’re in trouble. It’s not a LeBron – Cavaliers situation but close.

Elsewhere
There’s loads more of course. France have a fantastic team, Ronaldo’s Portugal are flying and all previews are obliged to mention Belgium, who have their own golden generation happening, and replace Croatia as hipster tipsters’ European dark horses.

Australia are there, but up against France, Denmark and Peru, who put the All Whites out, so will have a tough time making it out of the group.

Brilliantly, there’s always an unlikely nation like Cameroon in 1990, Romania in 1994 and South Korea and Turkey in 2002 who become global superstars for a couple of weeks. And there’s no way of knowing who it will be. Enjoy it.

Magic Mike – a Mike Hesson top five

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number thirteen – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here
When Joni Mitchell wrote ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’, she probably had this golden BLACKCAPS era in mind. We’ve gone from one great captaincy run to the very start of another under coach Mike Hesson’s leadership, and after he dropped yesterday’s resignation bombshell, everyone on Twitter pretty much wanted someone to just carry on doing what he’s doing.

He’s made a monumental and worthy contribution – here’s a Mike Hesson top five:

5. Mikes Hesson and Sandle, Brendon McCullum and Bob Carter meet in a South African hotel room to lay out the plan for the team’s future, shortly after being bundled out for 45 in a Test innings. They set the blueprint for building a team with flair, a united culture and that New Zealanders could relate to and be proud of. We’re still reaping the benefits.
4. Planning, planning, planning. Remember when Grant Elliott was a surprise selection and Trent Boult wasn’t a white ball bowler? When was the last time we had so many all rounders? The preparation that goes into talent identification and team selections is meticulous in the extreme, and Mike’s hit rate is high.3. Just getting on with it. When he was appointed NZ coach, only people paying attention knew who he was, and the  captaincy change meant he was well on the back foot with the talkback crowd from the start. He kept his head down and let the results speak for themselves, slowly revealing his deep thinking and dry humour as he went on. It wasn’t the Mike Hesson show, but he was running it.

2. Forming the right team around the team. The core support staff are the part of the story you don’t often hear about, but they’re a massive part of the consistency and results we’ve enjoyed over the last few years. These guys work super hard to make sure everyone knows their job, has what they need to succeed and the encouragement to pull it off.

1. Building one of the great eras in NZ cricket. We’re a tough Test team to beat, can take down  anyone in ODIs and were even the number one bloody T20 side for a while there. We were World Cup finalists for the first time ever, hover in  respectable Test ranking spots, and put together a really solid run of wins, especially at home. These are wonderful times to be a NZ cricket fan, and we’re well placed to build on what we have now, with the right appointment.

And so, rarely for an NZ cricket coach, he gets to leave the job with oodles of goodwill and on his own terms. If he ever sits down in Dunedin to write a book, I’d love to read it, as it’ll be more The Art Of Captaincy than Lifting The Covers. It’s a great shame he’s lost to the ICC Cricket Committee before he got started as he’d have loads to contribute.

Let’s see what happens next – if he does end up in the Big Bash or the IPL, he’ll Moneyball it like nobody’s business. And when they hand the trophy out, he’ll just be standing to the side, looking proud of his players and satisfied with doing his bit and a job well done. Go well.

Auckland stadium power rankings

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number eleven – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

Auckland’s stadiums are like Stuff commenters – there are too many of them, and they’ve all got something wrong with them.

This week’s Auckland venue development strategy, handily summarised at sportsfreak.co.nz, confirmed that as ever, the sticking points are Eden Park, Mount Smart and Albany Stadium. There’s an argument for knocking at least two out of three over and starting again.

A waterfront rugby / league/ football / concerts stadium must happen, with a retractable roof and meaningful connection with the CBD. To help push things along, behold the Sport Review Auckland stadium power rankings:

#5 – Eden Park 
What’s it good for? Rugby, and history. It was fantastic for RWC 2011, but that relied on temporary seating being put in. The number two ground is lovely for second tier cricket, with the old stand and the service station over Sandringham Road to aim at.
What’s wrong with it: It’s basically the world’s largest Back Yard Cricket venue, and no-one turns up for Test matches despite best efforts to put on a show. It’s too far out of town and your transport options are highly variable. Residents permanently terrified of Otago students vomiting on the Q7. No concerts allowed.
Personal high point: Cricket World Cup 2015 v Australia and the semi final, Waikato winning the Ranfurly Shield in 1993.

#4 equal – Albany Stadium
What’s it good for? Has potential but needs lots of work. Why not embrace the Shore’s culture and make it Stadium South Africa, home base for visiting Super Rugby teams, with Braai?
What’s wrong with it: Frustratingly far away from the bus station. Could be an ideal NZ Football venue and high performance set up but needs to get a pro team of its own, which is a can of worms bigger than Dune.
Personal high point: I saw the Kingz there once.

#4 equal – Mount Smart
What’s it good for? Spiritual home of the Warriors, in spite of itself. Close-ish to public transport if you’re up for a bit of a walk or are into industrial areas.
What’s wrong with it: Tired, needs a lot of fixing up. Despite having roots in South Auckland, the owners are keen as beans to move into town. Where Carlaw Park was. Ahem.
Personal high point: Paul McCartney last year, Big Day Out ’94.

#3 – America’s Cup village 
What’s it good for? Drinking beer beside the Waitemata water while watching yachts. Simple pleasures. It’s right beside the Viaduct where it all started, and takes advantage of all the development since.
What’s wrong with it? Nothing so far – there’s a lot to do, but it’s going to be in Auckland, not Italy, which is a great start.
Personal high point: When we retain it.

#2 – Vector Area 
What’s it good for? It’s downtown, still pretty modern and great for netball, basketball and concerts.
What’s wrong with it? The trains go straight past it, meaning an awkward walk back from Britomart. Would be the ideal location for a waterfront stadium.
Personal high point: Luckily, courtside for the Breakers one time, Pixies Dolittle tour in ’10.

#1 – Western Springs, cricket venue 
What’s it good for? The boutique ground to rule them all. OK,  it doesn’t technically exist, but if we can build a venue that can handle 5 or 45k fans just as easily, with lights, green top pitch, craft beer and some kind of artisan meat snacks that can still handle big summer concerts, it’s going to be an absolute winner. Victoria Park would be even better but it’s hard to see this flying.
What’s wrong with it: Residents permanently terrified of Guns n Roses showing up in speedway cars to poo on their begonias.
Personal high point: U2’s Love Comes To Town show in 1989, it was ace.

Make rugby great again

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number ten – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

Rugby in 2018 is rubbish. Scrums that last longer than an Easter traffic jam. A Super Rugby comp that’s as organised as spaghetti. Justin Marshall.

But it used to be brilliant – we just need to bring back these top innovations from the past and everything will be sweet.

  1. Day time rugby. Playing under lights used to feel like the height of sophistication. We’re sick of that now. Day time games means a dry ball and running rugby, university students really enjoy getting drunk in the daylight and it’s heaps easier for mums and dads to take the kids without a meltdown.
  2. Angry coaches. Media training means you never see a decent blow up, walk out or swearing from a coach these days. We used to have an All Black coach called Grizz for goodness sake. Have some pride.
  3. Fighting. They say you can’t get away with dirty play anymore because of all the cameras, but I say just think of all those sweet YouTube views and get stuck in.
  4. Short back and sides. Remember when everyone got on Carlos Spencer’s case ‘cos he had a haircut? Now they’ve all bloody got them.
  5. Terry Wright. What with your ‘nutrition’ and ‘gym’, rugby’s no longer the game for all shapes and sizes. Bring back skinny guys, short arses and fat blokes, and make our national game relatable again.
  6. Tours. Three tests, and playing in the provinces. Seriously though, tours.
  7. Amateurism. Sure, everyone deserves to get paid, but wouldn’t it be better if Sam Whitelock always had time for a yarn at the butchers, Beauden Barrett delivered your Amazon packages and TJ Perenara was the kids’ PE teacher?
  8. Cotton rugby jerseys – jersey grabbing, and carrying twice your body weight in water when it rained added an exciting dynamic imo.
  9. On-field interviews with kids leaping around and pulling faces in the background.
  10. Australia. They were great, we should get those guys involved again.

Like playing in the highlights

This content first appeared in Sport Review newsletter number nine – if you’d like to receive articles like this and much more every Friday, you can sign up here

Watching sport online in 2018 is a bit of a minefield – sure there’s BeIN for football fans, or League Pass for the NBA and SKYGO, run by the national set-top box business. But nirvana, or being able to see that amazing shot / try / catch / tackle / goal on your Twitter / Instagram / Facebook as it happens is still a little way off for most sports.

Sure, you can usually track down someone who’s pointed their phone at their TV and hit record, but shouldn’t we be able to get a quality, not to mention legal, product these days?

Most sports would see this as cutting their own lunch, or be handcuffed by their broadcasting agreements that pay the bills – but not the NBA. In this fascinating interview with Commissioner Adam Silver, he outlines how fans using NBA clips to create their own content isn’t just allowed but encouraged:

We promote the posting of our highlights. The highlights are identified through YouTube’s software, and when ads are sold against them, we share in the revenue. We analogize our strategy to snacks versus meals. If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals — which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.

In other words, if you create a YouTube clip of your favourite player picking their nose, you’re more likely to get a viral hit than a legal letter, because it all drives fans back towards live games on their TV’s.

That means accounts like House of Highlights or content like the Ringer’s NBA desktop not only exist with the league’s blessing but get huge engagement numbers. It’s mature and refreshing, and really, really successful for one of the most popular sports in the world.

Here’s a subjective selection of how other sports stack up:

  • I’ve watched more Indian Premier League on my computer and phone than the TV this year, thanks to the exhausting amount of video, from the seven minute match highlights reels to the stunning catches and sixes to the individual player highlights. The ICC does this really well at tournament time also
  • New Zealand Cricket send you highlights of the day’s play to your phone an hour or so after close of play, if you’re happy to give them your email address – it’s a simple concept but bloody handy if you’re at the beach or work. They also get highlight clips of the amazing moments on social media swiftly
  • The Premier League has some average video ‘content’ on their site, and some retro stuff – wouldn’t it be amazing if they made more of the clips from its history? The teams themselves have some limited highlights and content they’ve created themselves on their own sites
  • Rugby isn’t really in the game, as Elliott Smith pointed out in the Herald this week – and the NRL are leaving them in the dust. And Super Rugby really needs to fix their website for mobile, it’s a shocker
  • Other US sports like Baseball and the NFL have loads of high quality content available, fast

It’s not easy putting a model like the NBA’s in place, which requires not just the vision to accept fans taking control of your product, but either a great relationship with your broadcaster or complete control of your rights.

While most NZ sports well recognise the importance and value of video to create and reward fans, it’ll be interesting to see who’ll be the first to take it to the next, mature level.

Chipping in for Kane on The Spinoff

sportreview.net.nz was lucky enough to contribute to top website The Spinoff, plumping for Kane Williamson as our greatest ever batsman, despite him only being mid-career. Have a read.

Then, come back and watch this video of Kane in the IPL – I love seeing what he can do in games like this, when he’s given a bit more license to improvise. With arguably less pressure on him, he can be as inventive and outlandish as anyone. And as always, matching his approach to what’s required for his team.