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The internationals are upon us


The landscape is about to change for a few weeks, so before that, some random musings:

Were the forthcoming test matches a factor in the string of rogue results over the weekend?

Were players in self-preservation mode, or taking their eye off the ball, thinking about next week rather than this? Or was it just the unpredictable nature of the derby matches raising its head again?

The attrition-based game served the Sharks extremely well on tour, especially in the wintry New Zealand conditions, but this time they kicked the ball away once too often. However you shake it, the Sharks have missed a great chance to move into an impregnable position at the top of the table.

It shows just how tight the margins are this year when one result can mean so much difference.

They will sit out an anxious weekend when the competition resumes, with both the Waratahs and Crusaders able to overtake them simply by winning. The Crusaders have exactly the same points difference, so they wouldn’t need a bonus point to overtake them (and I doubt they’ll get it against the Highlanders).

Credit to the Stormers, they battled away without a couple of their talisman players to win a fairly torrid sort of match, and the return match in Cape Town on July 12th, the final game of the round robin, will be massive.

They’ve long been out of the hunt, but they could be the big party spoilers.

On the evidence of last weekend we’ll be looking at a new champion, come what may.

The Chiefs turned in an insipid performance and were well beaten by a very impressive Waratahs side. All year the defending champs been scrambling, doing just enough to stay in the hunt, but it seems that their injury toll, and their inability to find consistent form has caught up with them.

They could still make it if they win all of their last three games, but on that sort of form it’s hard to see. I suspect they’ll be back with a vengeance next year with both Sonny Bill Williams and Sona Taumalolo set to return, because they’re exactly the sort of power players they’ve been missing.

If its curtains for the Chiefs, then it probably is for the Bulls as well. I felt quite sure they would come through the pack and claim a wildcard spot, but after their defeat to the fired up Lions in Johannesburg, it would take an extraordinary string of results.

Again, a crying shame we have to stop when everything is so delicately poised.

I worked the first day of the IRB JWC tournament, and have to say how mightily impressive the Baby Boks were.

They were up against a Scotland team that put on a brave first 40 before being completely overpowered.

The South African team looked so much more physically imposing, so much more decisive in their attack, and clearly they showed the benefits of a thorough preparation.

Right-winger Lloyd Greef looks a fantastic prospect…to me he was the best player on display during that first round of matches. Obviously Handre Pollard is a class act, and another who stood out was flanker Jacques Vermeulen.

Losing Vermeulen for the match against New Zealands is a big blow, alongside the injuries suffered by Rohan Janse van Rensburg and the powerful Andre Esterhuizen, who got his head in the wrong place when flying up to make a tackle.

I’m sure the depth is there to cover, and I fancy the New Zealand team is going to have to be a whole lot better than they were against Samoa to have a chance of winning this Friday's big pool play clash….especially with the match in the North Harbour area, home to about 20 000 expat South Africans!

So the June internationals are upon us, although there has been an almighty stuff-up over the start of the England series, with half of the English front line unavailable for the first test, either through injury or the fact that they played in the English premiership final.

We had the same thing last year with the French, as the Aussies are now experiencing. It’s incredible that this could not have been sorted out, and maybe the host nations have tried to use the situation to leverage their case for a globally aligned season.

It also shows what happens when the clubs have control of the players, something that goes way back to the advent of professionalism, when the RFU was still in denial about having to pay its players, and the clubs swooped.

New Zealand will be without Kieran Read for the first test, and quite possibly the whole series, after he suffered a relapse of his concussion symptoms.

Read has been the most influential player in the All Blacks for the last two years, and if they have to, they’ll sit him for the rest of the year in order for him to be right for RWC 2015.

History suggests that if a player is given sufficient time, they can fully recover from concussion problems without ongoing issues, with Richie McCaw and Leon MacDonald, two All Black players who had big problems early in their career but were able to go on and play for a long time because they were handled right.

The Read situation is being handled responsibly, but it’s not always the case, and again you have to question the attitude of some of the big money clubs who are determined to get a return on the cash they splash.

The recent case of Florian Fritz in France graphically illustrated just how irresponsible some people can be.

Just this week, former Chiefs captain Craig Clarke has been forced into retirement after suffering repeat concussions over the past year, while the New Zealand Herald recently ran a very disturbing story about the former Kiwi league turned England rugby international Shontayne Hape…it’s well worth a read, and the link to cut and paste is :

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11264856

I know one bloke who played in France for years who has difficulty with his speech as a result of being knocked out too many times.

It’s not just the clubs either…last year we had the case of a stupefied George Smith being sent back onto the field against the British and Irish Lions.

Concussion is a massive issue right now in several contact sports, with NFL players in the United States, notably Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino suing the games governing body over brain injuries.

Rugby has taken some affirmative steps with the sideline concussion protocols, while a trial is being held in the Northland province here in NZ where any ref suspecting a player of having a concussion will produce a blue card to ensure he is taken off for a thorough check.

There also have to be greater deterrents to stop players inflicting head injuries in the first place.

Mike Fitzgerald, the guy who collected Kieran Read with a swinging arm to the jaw, got a one-week suspension. Read's whole season is on the line.


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