• Is It All Michael Cheika’s Fault?

    As the Bledisloe Cup slipped from his grasp yet again on Saturday, despite a much-improved Wallaby performance, Michael Cheika’s critics will have a field day.  But Cheika is by no means the first Wallaby coach to have trouble trying to beat the All Blacks on a regular basis.  The list of those of his predecessors who failed to overcome similar problems is a long one.

    It includes Eddie Jones, now reincarnated as England’s saviour, and our own Robbie Deans who – despite his success in producing a silk purse with Canterbury and the Crusaders – found he couldn’t make much from a Wallaby sow’s ear.

    The list includes other good coaches – Greg Smith, John Connolly and Ewen McKenzie among them.  So, should we (and the Aussies as well) moderate our criticism of Cheika, on the basis that he may be no better, but is certainly no worse than many of those who went before him?

    We should first salute Cheika’s earlier successes with the Waratahs and Leinster, and his achievement in taking the Wallabies to the 2015 World Cup Final.  But we are surely entitled as well to register that his performance as coach of the current Wallabies is disappointing, not just as shown by the statistics, but in the manner of it as well.

    His selections have at times been hard to fathom, and – despite his reputation as a good motivator – he has sometimes seemed unable to get the best from his players.  We have had little chance to judge his ability as a tactician, since his teams have often been so much behind the eight ball as to offer little clue as to what he, and they, were trying to do.

    His personality, too, has sometimes seemed unattractively ill-suited to overcoming the odds.  He seems more inclined to complain about ill-fortune (and referees) rather than overcoming it, and – as a consequence – he is less useful to his team than he could or should be.

    But none of this fully explains the plight in which Australian rugby now finds itself – and Michael Cheika’s deficiencies or otherwise can only be a small part of the story.

    Rugby, and the Wallabies, are having a hard time, especially by comparison with their trans-Tasman rivals, for more deep-seated reasons.  Rugby in Australia faces powerful competition from other codes, and struggles – given the Aussie demand that their sportspeople should be winners – if the results are less than stellar.

    And, unlike in New Zealand, rugby has not played a major part in shaping the national consciousness and identity, and has not served the vital and valuable purpose, as it has here, of bringing the races together.  Nor has it, as it has for New Zealand, brought to international notice some of the strengths and virtues of the society that their rugby represents.

    Whereas the All Blacks are instantly recognisable as manifestations and exemplars of what New Zealand is about, the Wallabies have a much less prominent image.  There is something of the virtuous circle about New Zealand rugby; success produces prestige and prestige breeds success – and that is why New Zealand rugby enjoys the great advantage that many of our best athletes play rugby and that many of our best coaches and thinkers devote their talents to the game.

    The difference is, in other words, that rugby occupies a place in New Zealand’s national life and culture that is not even remotely approached in Australia.   And because Aussies are accustomed to such a high level of international sporting achievement across the board, their only occasionally high-performing national rugby team simply does not earn from them the respect and acclaim, either domestically or internationally, that the All Blacks have been able to treat as their birthright for more than a century – and that our Women’s World Cup holders are also now building for themselves.

    While replacing the coach has not been overly successful in curing the lack of Australian rugby success, this should not mean that they should accept a coaching record from Michael Cheika that is spotty at best.  If all the other problems (and there are many) are to be addressed, not least by appointing a more competent administration, there is then no reason why Michael Cheika, too, should not come under critical scrutiny.

    Bryan Gould

    26 August 2017


  • What Happened to That Penalty?

    Let us be clear.  The Lions deserved to draw the series.  Given the odds they faced, they showed great skill and commitment to play the world champions to a draw.  Warren Gatland, his captain and his team can depart these shores with honour and the sense of a job well done.

    Nor was there anything fortuitous about their comparative success.  They presented the All Blacks with real challenges, with their rush defence, the accurate box kicking and the physicality of their Irish loose forwards in particular.  There were some aspects of their game on the other hand that, by contrast, did not quite live up to their billing – the scrum in particular – but, on the whole, they deserve the plaudits they have received.

    It is in no sense an attempt to deny that credit to them that, reflecting in part the sense of unfinished business that both sides must feel, we must register the critical influence of the referees on the results of the two tests the All Blacks failed to win.  Those disappointed by match outcomes are always likely to complain about refereeing decisions – but there can be little doubt that the All Blacks, in the second and third tests, were done no favours by the inconsistent (at best) rulings of the two French referees.

    A couple of instances will make the point.  It is no exaggeration to say that the critical moment in the series was the deserved red card for Sonny Bill Williams in the second test for an unintentional shoulder charge to the head. It meant that the ABs played the greater part of that match a man down, and he was then suspended for the following match so that the ABs were denied his particular skills and experience in the third test.

    Contrast that with the yellow card given to Mako Vunipola in the second test for what was undoubtedly an intentional shoulder charge to the head of a player – Beauden Barrett – who was sitting on the ground.  Vunipola received the lesser penalty of the yellow card and was able to play in the third test.  Referee Garces was hardly a model of consistency.

    An even more striking instance of refereeing frailty and inconsistency can be seen when we compare the closing moments of the second and third tests and the impact of referee’s decisions on their outcomes.

    Owen Farrell kicked the winning penalty in the second test when a penalty was awarded against Charlie Faumuina for tackling Kyle Sinckler in the air in front of the ABs’ posts.  The Faumuina tackle was perfectly lawful – even run-of-the-mill – in itself.  What converted it, according to the referee, into an illegal action was that, as Faumuina launched himself to tackle a player about to receive the ball, that player happened to jump a few inches off the ground as the ball from Conor Murray reached him.

    The episode was completely innocuous and it was the most technical of offences, but the referee had no hesitation in awarding what was likely to prove, and was, a match-winning penalty to the Lions.  Let us now switch focus to the last couple of minutes of the third test.

    In this case, in an incident all too familiar to anyone with any knowledge of rugby, a Lions forward failed to take the ball cleanly when the ABs kicked off, the ball bounced forward, and it was instinctively but no doubt inadvertently handled by the replacement Lions hooker, Ken Owens, who was standing in an offside position.

    He immediately realised what he had done and threw up his hands in an apparent attempt at disclaimer.  The referee immediately awarded a penalty in a kickable position.  Anton Lienert Brown, who had snapped up the ball when Owens threw it away and was heading for the try line, stopped when he heard the whistle and saw the referee’s uplifted arm.

    The referee almost immediately recognised the possibly match-deciding significance of what he had done.  He then asked to look at video footage of the incident, perhaps expecting or even hoping that he would see something that might get him off a potentially painful hook.

    The video footage showed, as conformed by the video referee, that Kieran Read had legitimately challenged for the ball and that the ball had indeed gone forward – albeit marginally – from the failed catch.  There was therefore no reason to change his original, and clearly signalled, decision.  He nevertheless did so.

    The opportunity for Beauden Barrett to kick the goal,(and who knows whether he would have done so) and thereby win the test and the series was therefore denied.  Why?  We may never have a satisfactory explanation.  The weighty implications of the decision, and the point reached in the match and the series, should not have been a factor, just as they seem not to have been for referee Garces in the second test.

    It is at the very least unsatisfactory that a great series should turn on a referee apparently chickening out in this way.  We take nothing away from the Lions, but we should expect better, and the match deserved better, than this from an international referee.

    Bryan Gould

    9 July 2017


  • Who or What Is “Ridiculous?”

    Stephen Jones is the rugby correspondent for the Sunday Times.  He has a long record of, as he puts it, “winding up” the New Zealand rugby public by pooh-poohing New Zealand’s rugby success and criticising just about everything about the way it is played by the All Blacks and other New Zealand teams.

    It is perhaps unfortunate that a supposed expert on rugby matters should deliberately, on his own admission, fail in his duty to provide a balanced and accurate analysis to his own readership and give priority, rather, to the pleasure he apparently derives from irritating readers in another country.

    He then seeks to deflect the criticism that inevitably comes his way from those who dislike the obvious bias and spleen by accusing the New Zeal rugby public of being unable to “understand irony” – the classic defence of the intemperate across the ages.  A rugby correspondent worth the name might do better to focus on rugby rather than supposed irony.

    It is not that he is bravely ploughing a lonely furrow.  His bile is best regarded as the distillation of a puzzlement no doubt shared by many for whom the All Blacks’ success is an impenetrable mystery.  Rather than use what limited expertise he might possess to unlock the secret, he takes refuge in a range of explanations – the All Blacks cheat, they practise foul play, they are favoured by referees, and so on.  The possibility that the All Blacks, and New Zealand rugby in general, might be better – not on every occasion, but most of the time – cannot, apparently, be admitted.

    But he has now broken new ground.  He no longer limits himself to denigrating New Zealand rugby but has taken on the role of social critic.  We are treated to a further display of his supposed expertise when he says solemnly (oh, I forgot – with irony) that New Zealand is obsessed with rugby and that the obsession is “ridiculous”.

    I do not claim to be an expert commentator on rugby (though I share an interest in it or “obsession” as Stephen Jones would have it) but I do rather fancy myself as a student of New Zealand history and society.  It is true that many New Zealanders – but far from all, perhaps not even a majority – are proud of and interested in the dominance of world rugby (and I don’t think that is an over-statement) achieved by our teams.

    But there is no shortage of Kiwis who regret and criticise what they see as the intrinsic violence of rugby as a game, the macho and sexist attitudes it promulgates (though that has been tempered by the growth of women’s rugby and the success of the Black Ferns) and its record of accommodating apartheid – though that unfortunate episode now dates a long way back.

    To describe the country’s attachment to rugby as ridiculous, however, is to betray a total and disqualifying ignorance of rugby’s history and continuing role in this country.  Despite the understandable reservations felt by many Kiwis, most of us would – I believe – recognise the seminal influence rugby has had on our development as a nation.

    I recall my long and dear departed mother telling me how, as a girl, she and thousands of others would assemble in 1924 outside the Wellington Post Office to see the results, delivered by telegram, of another Invincibles victory posted on public display – and those triumphs, following on the success of the Originals of 1905, were hugely important in developing a national identity and in convincing us that a tiny and new-born nation could achieve distinction on the world stage.

    We now know that we can lead the world in many spheres – not a vainglorious claim, though no doubt producing a smirk from the Stephen Joneses of this world.  But it was rugby that first showed us that we could excel.

    Even more important were the other lessons we learned.  We could excel, even against our former colonial masters.  The skills and aptitudes needed for success in rugby seemed perhaps better developed in our small country than in countries with apparently much greater resources.

    Those skills and aptitudes were not only more likely to develop in a pioneering society where self-reliance, effort and teamwork were prized, but they were also – mirabile dictu – particularly suited to the combination of individual and collective effort that characterised Maori society and, in due course, that of the Pacific Islanders who made their homes in New Zealand.  There is probably no factor that has done more than rugby to bring races together and foster mutual respect in an integrated society that, while far from perfect, leads the world – yes, that again.

    I write this after the Lions’ deserved victory last week and before the game to decide the series on Saturday.  I don’t apologise for hoping that the ABs reinforce their claim to be the most successful team in the whole of international sport.  But if they lose, that’s rugby.  Nothing changes; they will live to fight – and win – again.  And rugby, with no help from Stephen Jones, will have done what it should be allowed to do – bring people and peoples together.

    Bryan Gould

    3 July 2017

  • TV Commercials – How Bad Are They?

    When my wife and I returned home from England 23 years ago, one aspect of New Zealand life we noticed was the length of the commercial breaks on television.  I could get down to the end of a long drive to pick up the mail and get back to resume watching a favourite programme, to find the commercial break still going on.

    The compensating factor was that many of the commercials were made with charm and wit.  We quickly grew to enjoy some of our favourites, which exhibited much of the flair and technique that came to characterise New Zealand film-making more generally.

    I later served on TVNZ’s board, at a time that television – so long a “licence to print money”, as British commercial television was once described – was beginning to feel the heat from commercial rivals, particularly on the internet.

    That heat has intensified over recent years.  One of the factors that has made life more difficult is the new-found ability of the average viewer to avoid having to watch or listen to television commercials.  If they cannot pre-programme their television sets to switch off during commercial breaks, most viewers are at least able to record programmes and then speed through the commercials, or at the very least they can mute their sets when the ads appear.

    These responses are surely all the more likely if the viewers expect that the commercial will introduce a distracting or irritating or otherwise unwelcome intrusion into the domestic living room.  Most viewers will know what I mean – those ads where manic faces shout and scream at the tops of their voices, where the women’s voices are shrill and piercing , and where voices seem to be deliberately distorted in terms of tone or accent so as to sound positively unpleasant.

    If challenged, those responsible for making such commercials will say that they are deliberately produced to sound like that so as to attract attention – and that they serve their purpose when viewers (or listeners) who complain have at least noticed them.  I am sure I am not alone in saying to myself that an advertiser who so gratuitously offends my eardrums does not deserve – and will not get – my custom.

    The complaint that the commercials are louder than the programmes is of course a perennial one – as is the television companies’ assurance that this is not the case.  But what the companies seem deliberately to ignore is that while commercials may be broadcast at the same level as other programming, some are made at high volume in the first place.

    In broadcasting commercials that are made to “grab attention” – in other words, to be deliberately annoying – the television companies are playing with fire in a self-defeating fashion.  By allowing advertisers to use such techniques, they are, whether realising it or not, encouraging viewers to avoid the ads altogether; they thereby reduce the commercial value of, and therefore the price they can charge for, the airtime they are selling.  It’s surely time the television companies pointed out to their advertisers that this serves neither of their interests.

    In pointing the finger at commercials that sound terrible, I say nothing of those ads whose content is an insult to the viewers’ intelligence – whoever thought, for example, that adding caffeine to shampoo, without any attempt to explain how that might be beneficial rather than simply a gimmick, could be described as “German engineering”?  Or of those ads that are repeated with such monotonous regularity as to bring to mind the tortures inflicted on the inmates of Guantanamo Bay – is there really such a huge market for insurance to cover funeral costs?

    There are of course still the commercials that are made with real flair and wit.  They often seem to involve children or dogs – the attempt to involve an Australian playmate in the building of a retaining wall, for example, is a joy.

    And there is one tv ad that should serve as a model to all those who want to get the best return for their outlay.  It has no moving film or complex soundtrack – merely still photographs and three sounds of breaking glass.  It must have cost next to nothing to make and lasts just a few seconds.  But everyone knows the six-word punchline.

    Bryan Gould

    24 June 2017

  • A Naughty Boy

    We have been able to obtain a recording of a telephone call recently made by an early childhood educator (we’ll call her Miss X) to the parent of a newly enrolled small boy who was just completing his first day at his new pre-school.  The following is a transcript.

    Miss X:  Is that Mrs Trump?

    Mrs T: Yes

    Miss X:  This is (Miss X) from the NATO/G7 pre-school.  We met briefly when you dropped Donald off this morning.

    Mrs T:  Oh yes (pause).  Is everything all right?  I hope he hasn’t been any trouble.

    Miss X: No, no.  He’s fine.  But I thought you might like to know about some of his behaviours that might cause you – and us – some concern if they continue.

    Mrs T: Oh dear. I thought that might be the case.

    Miss X:  Don’t worry – it’s nothing too serious.  The problems – such as they are – will probably resolve themselves as he becomes more familiar with sharing and thinking of others.  He’s an only child, I assume?

    Mrs T: Yes – I’m afraid he’s used to getting his own way.  What’s he been up to?

    Miss X: Well, he’s quite big boy for his age – so there’s been a bit of pushing and shoving which has upset some of the smaller children.  And he seems to think that everything is there for him and him alone.  He tends just to grab what he wants.  Oh! (speaking past the telephone) Donald, don’t do that please.

    Mrs T:  Is that Donald?  What’s he done?

    Miss X:  He’s sitting on Charlie.  Donald, let him go, there’s a good boy.

    Mrs T:  Oh dear.

    Miss X:  Donald, give it back.

    Mrs T:  What’s he taken?

    Miss X:  He’s eating Billy’s sandwich.  Donald, that’s Billy’s.  You wouldn’t like it if someone took your sandwich, would you?

    Mrs T:  Oh dear.  I thought he’d learn to socialise quite quickly.  He promised me he’d behave.  Should I come and get him?

    Miss X:  No, no need.  He’s just a bit aggressive.  If he doesn’t get his own way, he tends to lash out.  And I’m sorry to say that he has a tendency to tell tales on the other children, not always truthfully – probably at times to shift the blame.  I’m sure he’ll – Donald, why did you hit James?  He was only trying to play with Jane.  Donald – oh dear!  (Sound of a child crying).

    Mrs T:  What’s he done?  Is he getting violent?

    Miss X:  No, not really.  Donald, Jane is a little girl.  You must treat her gently.  No! Donald!  You can’t put your hand there!  I’ll have to put you in the naughty corner.

    Mrs T:  He doesn’t have much experience of girls.  He seems to think that they are a different species and are just there for him to play with. It’s not his fault really.

    Miss X:  Donald – ouch! (Sound of a scuffle).

    Mrs T:  What’s he done?

    Miss X:  He’s bitten me on the leg.  Donald, naughty boy.  I think, Mrs Trump, that perhaps you had better come and get him.  Some of the other children are in tears – and I’m not far off tears myself.  I’m a bit concerned about possible complaints from other parents.  Perhaps he can start again when he’s a little more able to conduct himself properly.  He’s a bit too disruptive at present.  No Donald!  (Her voice sounds more distant).  Give it back. (The line goes dead).

    Bryan Gould

    29 May 2017