Heart in mouth as shield upset threatens

S econds. That's all there was between Taranaki's Ranfurly Shield dream being shattered and North Harbour causing one of the season's great upsets.

North Harbour would have struggled to beat themselves heading into the match, yet somehow managed to conjure up some decent rugby to almost take the shield off Southland and back to where it doesn't deserve to be. After all, rugby is so sterile over that side of the bridge, they could safely hold surgical operations in the stands with no chance of patients ever catching an infection.

Still, they showed the enterprise that is usually enough to snatch the Log and revealed where Southland are most vulnerable - right across the park.

It's hard to know who would have felt the sickest had the Log headed north, the Southland fans or the Stags' coaching staff who nearly made a fatal mistake in resting several key players.

For the layman watching from the confines of a public bar many miles from Rugby Park, in Invercargill, it was difficult to understand why Southland were so poor.

For a team that has spent more money than they're allowed on players in recent years, they looked a rabble under pressure and were ripped apart far too easily by simple passing and pace.

The Southland lineout was in disarray and there were no variations called when they needed to counter the problem.

The most committed Taranaki supporter I know replied to me after the game that his confidence about next week's shield challenge had not grown at all from watching Southland bumble their way around the field.

While the bloke is a great supporter, he is such a pessimist he makes former US presidential candidate Al Gore look optimistic about the earth's future.

"Southland won't play that poorly again," he insisted.

While he is probably right, Taranaki should head south knowing they stand a good chance of not only wrestling the shield away, but taking another step towards an elusive national championship final.

Yesterday's Tri- Nations victory by Australia in Durban will have Wallabies supporters back to thinking they are a genuine chance of picking up their third World Cup after scraping through to a 14-9 win over the Springboks.

They did it off the back of a dominant scrum - yes, a dominant scrum - in the last throes of the match after Springboks skipper John Smit slid over a place and pretended to be an international tighthead prop.

While we are all happy in this part of the world to see Springboks coach Peter de Villiers continue to make more mistakes than a dyslexic novelist, it beggars belief that he can think Smit's leadership can somehow compensate for his obvious shortcomings.

Not that Smit is alone there. Almost the entire Springboks pack, and the odd back as well, came out of the Rustenburg rehab centre looking out of shape and off the pace.

They do, of course, have more than two months to prime themselves for a likely semifinal showdown with the All Blacks.

Hopefully by that stage the IRB will have appointed three officials who can actually spot disgraceful Springboks lock Bakkies Botha put in his usual repertoire of filth.

Botha spent most of the test diving, shoulder first, into prone Australians on or near the ground, while he also had his elbows squarely targeted at any Wallaby unfortunate enough to have passed the ball three movements prior. All without being spotted.

The Springboks looked ungainly in their efforts to play expansively and it will only be a matter of time before they revert to type and start punting the proverbial out of the ball.

De Villiers also has a problem when it comes to settling on a No 10 who can actually lead his side around the field because Butch James is still a journeyman who looks out of position.

The start of the English premier league season was also a highlight of the weekend, although Liverpool supporters might have felt their optimism disappear down Anfield Rd - the same direction the ball was last seen heading after Luis Suarez sent it flying over the bar from his penalty attempt.

The atmosphere might have been "crackling" as one commentator put it for the season opener, but Liverpool have already dropped the same number of points at home as champions Manchester United managed all last season.


Taranaki Daily News