AS I SEE IT (4 Sept)

     By Terry O’Neill.
 Our world is highly technical. Often we’re encouraged to believe answers to sporting problems come from scientific or medical discoveries and analyses.

It was refreshing to learn of Highlanders and All Black winger Waisake Naholo apparent rapid recovery from his officially announced serious leg bone injury sustained during the test against Argentina. Word from the All Black camp shattered Naholo’s aspirations for World Cup inclusion. End of story? Not quite. Naholo returned home to a small Fijian village and a local doctor utilised leaves of specific plants to bring about a spectacular cure.

Advance to early this week. Notably, upon Naholo’s inclusion in the World Cup squad New Zealand, medicos immediately expounded to claim the fracture was not in the serious category after all. The same medical expertise so quick to sideline the winger after the Argentinian test? Former All Blacks doctor John Mayhew earlier this week stated that Naholo’s recovery was “not a surprise” and claimed that the All Black medical teams original claim that the injury would require a three month recovery period was a “ridiculous over-estimation”. 

Maybe this illustrates that modern science does not necessarily embody all answers. If it did, surely Steve Hansen and company would be replaced by a bevy of scientific professors, psychologists and motivators to guide the All Blacks to their third World Cup. But it takes more than a purely scientific approach to win world trophies.

Does rugby history harbour answers? The All Blacks played 43 World Cup matches in the seven World Cup tournaments. The All Blacks are the only team to make all semi-finals 1987 to 2003; the only team never to have lost a pool game; have always been top qualifier in its group; and won the Webb Ellis Cup twice, 1987 and 2011.

In the 1987 Cup team under Brian Lochore the All Blacks won all its six games and hopes were high in 1991 under Alex Wylie and John Hart. However in the post group games it was Australians, especially their precious David Campese, who brought about our downfall in the playoffs with a 16-6 win.

1995 under Laurie Mains carried all before it in South Africa before a field goal from Joel Stransky, ably assisted off-field by hotel waitress Susie, gave the home team a three point win in extra time. 1999 under John Hart closed with losses to France and South Africa. Frustratingly, more of the same in 2003 under former Waikato number eight and linguist John Mitchell. We watched Carlos Spencer’s long hopeful pass gratefully intercepted by Australian centre Hedley Mortlock who galloped away to knock the All Blacks out of contention. Little consolation emerged when the All Blacks defeated France 40-13 to attain the bronze medal.

Graeme Henry had his first joust for the Cup in 2007 and the French cavalry knocked out the All Blacks, 20-18. In Henry’s second chance in 2011, and in a thrilling final, a would-be white-baiter Stephen Donald kicked a penalty to hand the All Blacks an 8-7 win. Hysteria floated New Zealand heaven high, and now the agenda is to recover that blueprint of success.

Will science and planning carry national rugby through to World Cup glory?

Or will an explosion of spontaneous brilliance from one like Naholo bring the Cup home?


As I See It

To open 2015, I’d like to welcome my Dad, Terry O’Neill to the The World writing team. Dad’s been covering regional sport in New Zealand in print and radio for as long as I can remember and his As I See It commentary delivers insights into contemporary sports issues…

We had planned to launch this at the end of the year but a major computer meltdown on my part delayed proceedings until I could rebuild and recover everything…


Springboks vs All Blacks, 1956 (c)

The picture is of my choosing as I always like to lead a post with a picture, all the rest is Dads…

By Terry O’Neill

The 1956 Springboks New Zealand tour, concussion, the rapid development of gymnasiums, and Irishmen Brian O’Driscoll and his uncle Barry O’Driscoll, appear to have little in common.

That tour was the first by South African since 1937, and prior to it All Black selectors stated that back trialists, midfield in particular, must weigh at least twelve stone, an indication of the approaching tour’s intensity. Since then, players have pursued improved performance through intense physical development. Increased muscular bulk multiplied by greater pace, and changes in defensive techniques may be spectacular entertainment but raise serious concerns about head injuries. Significantly last season’s English Under 18 team were, player for player, heavier than those of the 1991 World Cup English side.

That Irish prince of centres, Brian O’Driscoll, the most capped test player with 141, believes the All Blacks will win the next World Cup because of their higher skill factor. “I don’t think the gym monkey thing applies to them as much as it does over here. They have farmer strength. The Polynesians guys are pretty strong without going to a gym. They focus way more from an early age on skills. They do everything with a ball. They have balance. They have that physicality, but they are able to mix their game up.”

Barry O’Driscoll, former early 1970s Irish fullback and a medical doctor, served the IRB medical committee 15 years but resigned in protest at the trial of their new head injury protocol. Previous policy stated that any player suspected of suffering concussion had to leave the field and not play for a week (incidentally reduced from three weeks in earlier policy). New IRB guidelines state a player can return to the field five minutes after an injury providing a medical inspection has cleared him of concussion.

The game has changed admits Barry O’Driscoll. “Rugby’s now a big community sport. So what’s important is to get the spectators in? The TV in? They love big hits.”

Current players’ size and weight is accentuated by the tackling technique change from “around the legs” to the defensive side’s emphasis on the all-encompassing upper body tackle. This attempts to jolt the ball loose, or to try and smother it and force a turnover, leading to more head clashes.

Brian O’Driscoll said he’s not a fan of gymnasiums. “In Ireland there is a huge focus on the weights room, as opposed to whether a player can throw a 10m pass on the run. They should be rugby players becoming athletes, not athletes becoming rugby players.”

Statistically 50 percent of injuries occur in tackles. Under 18 schoolboys have half the injuries of those in professional ranks, and hookers and flankers are most susceptible.

Does the IRB care about players’ wellbeing? Or do these practices attract more dosh from TV moguls?
But change is on the way. In the Saracens/ London Irish rugby game played a fortnight ago the Saracen players wore a device behind the ear referred to as the X patch which measures the size and direction of hits to the head. The X patch is currently being used in American football as well.
Tradition is a terrible reason to give people avoidable brain damage.” – Chris Nowinski, co-dir. for study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, Boston University School of Medicine, former Harvard Ivy Football player.



First published in The North Otago Times 10 January 2015.