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UNSUNG HEROES
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Somewhere in Dallas tonight, if he isn’t in scrubs bloody to the elbow, Tiger Woods’ orthopedic surgeon Richard Guyer is leaning back in a comfortable chair in front of the television, maybe even lighting himself a Cuban to savour a moment of quiet, well-deserved satisfaction.
 
Until he performed the kind of medical miracle we risk taking for granted these days, most people put the chance of his most famous patient ever winning another major championship at around the same likelihood of a woman ever walking to the toilet at a leisurely pace. Tiger didn’t need his spine fused to lag an immaculate twenty-yarder down the precipitously slippery ninth green, which was when I knew he would win, but that was the moment I realized exactly what we were witnessing and began to wonder who’d operated on him.
 
Guyer won’t be aware that an obscure rugby tragic in New Zealand is the only sportswriter to have mentioned his name in the wake of Woods’ odds-defying victory. Nor will he mind.
 
The mental strength of a surgeon is very different from that of modern sportsmen. For surgeons success isn’t about recovering from inevitable mistakes because they can’t afford to make any. They certainly don’t allow their Twitter account to cloud their judgment, in fact you shouldn’t trust one who isn’t 100% comfortable with anonymity.
 
Next time you have a friend or family member undergoing a life-threatening procedure, spare a thought for the professionals who can’t just change their grip on a scalpel to cure the yips.
 
Personally I watch golf for the unique pleasure of seeing badly dressed millionaires miss multi-thousand dollar two foot putts, and it’s especially amusing when goobers like Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy are thrashing around in the undergrowth while better men are making off with the prize money. Mostly the coverage, between moments of intense pressure, involves being very patient as lickspittles blow way too much smoke up the asses of over-privileged sissies.
 
There are very few unsung heroes in golf.
 
Rugby on the other hand is full of them. Take tighthead Michael Alaalatoa and hooker Andrew Makalio, toiling away in a dominant scrum as the Crusaders put the Highlanders away in Christchurch on Friday night, lifting their more famous jumpers as part of a well-oiled machine at lineout time, hitting every ruck and making every tackle.
 
Heavy contact team sport relies on many indispensible cogs, whose names are usually mentioned only to point out a vital penalty they’ve conceded... usually in the process of trying to win ball for more handsome men to place daintily beside corner flags. The Crusaders are a team in which the core tasks of such brutes are no more complicated than elsewhere but whose winning ratio, admittedly, allows them to average a little more enjoyment from their post-match beer.
 
Being on the losing end of a result is even less fun for front rowers than it is for the players with lower BMIs. A fullback can lose sleep over a funny bounce or being wrong-footed by a faster man. A front rower must stand under the same goalposts as the conversion is taken, having won the engagement and given a halfback shit ball to distribute, only for someone with a more expensive haircut to miss a tackle and for the whole collarbone-wrenching process, necessary either way, to be for nothing.
 
Sometimes they’re even ascribed more blame than they deserve, like the only time the Highlanders front row was pinged for a scrum that night was a penalty try.
 
The Crusaders seem to have that effect on referees. In a match where they conceded sixteen penalties to the Highlanders’ five, it wasn’t until the eightieth minute that they were carded for repeat offending, by which time it was way too late for the visitors to take advantage. The Highlanders had spent the previous seventy nine listening in disbelief as a variety of big name players in red jerseys finessed referee Ben O’Keeffe, using all manner of equivocation to avoid harsher punishment.
 
I say all this as a diehard Crusaders fan who loved every well-practised bit of it.
 
Crusaders 43 Highlanders 17
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLblSuxf4ng
 
I may have spoken too soon last week about Kieran Read. Having identified his bad habit of “keeping ball on the toe at the base of scrums going sideways” I watched as he did exactly this when O’Keeffe stung the Highlanders with that controversial penalty try. While it will remain a pet hate when scrums are set within sight of one’s own goalposts, I recognise its value as an option when the pushover is on.
 
Read also (alongside flanker Matt Todd) had a conspicuous role in the comedy called Cajoling The Ref. When it comes to hamming it up, captain Sam Whitelock is a masterful lead with flawless delivery and a remarkably subtle manner for such a big man, but for the desired effect a synchronised chorus is of great importance and his bit players were in fine form.
 
This is a World Cup year when the art of referee manipulation may be crucial and in this often overlooked discipline, Read has honed his craft. The character flaw most common in sporting officials seems to be a desire to be liked. In this regard it helps to have relationships already well established.
 
As in Christchurch, the unsung heroes in Hamilton on Saturday night were also front rowers. Backs and loose forwards scored all the tries but lower numbers did most of the heavy lifting as two desperate teams fought themselves to a standstill.
 
None were required as Chiefs halfback Brad Weber intercepted and raced away for the opening try, but the next was a perfect illustration of how mobile front rowers help maintain continuity. It started with a scrum in the shadow of the Blues’ goalposts, won well and held steady by Angus Ta’avao, Nathan Harris and Nepo Laulala, but their efforts were wasted when Weber and number eight Taleni Seu couldn’t connect. Amazingly, fifty yards downfield after the Blues broke clear, all three front rowers were among the first to get back in support and contribute in a fourteen phase attack once possession was won back.
 
Handling seven times between them, including a Ta’avao tackle break, a Laulala offload and not counting cleanouts, they kept the Chiefs on the front foot all the way back to the Blues’ line where flanker Lachlan Boshier got his name on the actual scoresheet with the final pick-and-go.
 
Thirty seconds after the halftime siren had sounded, the Blues hit back. This time it was loosehead Karl Tu’inukuafe and tighthead Ofa Tu’ungafasi with momentum-maintaining carries and offloads as ball was patiently worked into the hands of fullback Melani Nanai for the try.
 
After the break Harris found Brodie Retallick at the back of a lineout thirty yards out and joined his props at the back of a textbook triangular pod, controlling direction perfectly as the Chiefs drove deep into the Blues’ 22. Ta’avao waited until the unit was stabilised when forward motion stopped, then released the ball for Weber. Second five Anton Lienert-Brown was waiting to hurtle onto Weber’s pass and after smashing through the startled fringe defence had wing Ataata Moeakiola on his inside to take his offload and smash over one last tackler.
 
Again the Blues struck back, Ma’a Nonu sending a group of Chiefs defenders flying close to the open side of a five yard scrum, tacklers who initially seemed to have the goal-line well covered. They couldn’t stop the juggernaut because he was able to start his clattering run-up from a long way back and hit the halfback’s pass at full speed, Tu’inukuafe and replacement tighthead Sione Mafileo holding the set piece rock steady and square for his strike.
 
No front rowers were needed for the Chiefs’ fourth, wing Sean Wainui hackysacking a low offload up into his own hands with a reflexive left foot and finding Boshier in support for the try, or for the Blues’ third, wing Rieko Ioane finishing in the corner with less than an inch of room to spare when midfielder TJ Faiane found a gap, but by now almost every passage of play was total collision war and the appreciative reactions of the crowd were in direct proportion to the mass of whichever bodies were colliding.
 
Not all tackles were direct front-on impacts of course, and stereotypes meant little. Nineteen stone Mafileo was one of the only Blues players to grass Moeakiola cleanly.
 
The Chiefs’ fifth try, by replacement flanker Jesse Parete, came after ten phases of battering from the home pack with Ta’avao and Laulala either carrying or prominent at each recycle.
 
This gave the Chiefs an eleven point lead and with only eight minutes to play looked to have sealed the deal, but after a prolonged seventeen-phase barrage at close quarters Nonu crashed over to close the gap and set up a final two minutes of lung-busting hell. Laulala was the man he beat on the line to do it but, being one of only two starting front rowers left on the field and Laulala’s earlier tackles having been partly the reason the Blues had needed so many phases to bust through, it feels harsh to point the finger.
 
The last period of play was both frantic and gory, kind of like an animated Hieronymus Bosch painting with a Ridley Scott soundtrack. The Blues threw themselves into every Chiefs player left standing, desperately trying to break the line. It was only two minutes but seemed an eternity until the shoulder of replacement hooker Samson Taukei’aho met the ribcage of substitute prop Alex Hodgman, separating man from ball and ending the fiercest battle of the season to date.
 
Chiefs 33 Blues 29
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQfY8Ncre48
 
By comparison the rest of the weekend’s games were G-rated. The Stormers found more holes in the Rebels’ defence than they’ve found in total against all other teams this year so far...
 
Rebels 17 Stormers 41
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm3TzG-R9pg
 
...the Brumbies found the Lions toothless in Canberra...
 
Brumbies 31 Lions 20
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xb5lBk3NEkA
 
...the Jaguares caught the Sharks on their worst night defensively since the retirement of Butch James...
 
Sharks 17 Jaguares 51
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Va7XTuBtLk
 
...and the Bulls hardly broke a sweat as they trampled the Reds in Pretoria.
 
Bulls 32 Reds 17
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_J3_kKS-36c
 
A subscriber, having watched the weekend’s action with a similar perspective to my own, just pointed out that the 2020 competition might very well be less entertaining because a straightforward round robin means there’ll be only half the number of New Zealand derbies.
 
That’s the trade-off for any fairness of outcome gained by ditching a conference system and returning to the old format. You’ll see twice as much foreign talent or lack thereof.
 
Sadly, Israel Folau won’t be one of the few foreign players impressing New Zealand fans on a more regular basis next year, having foolishly been way too specific in his latest outburst. Even the ARU, whose contract he breached and whose repeated warnings he ignored, wouldn’t have bothered passing comment if only he’d said “sinners” must repent instead of giving us his personal laundry list of what he considers sinful. He certainly ignited a firestorm of outrage but the debate he sparked has nothing to do with hate speech, despite what that stoner Fitzsimons thinks (he also thinks we don’t know his ridiculous pirate scarf is really just to hide baldness).
 
Fitzsimons’ scolding sounds just as intolerant and divisive as Folau’s because such science-based progress tropes have been tired for decades. The LGBT community is more powerful these days than any sect of Christian outliers, just ask the next Kenyan woman who loses an Olympics gold to a transgender athlete with the full blessing of the IOC. If Laurel Hubbard can claim to be born a woman in a man’s body or Gareth Thomas can claim to have been born homosexual, Israel Folau can make just as strong a claim to have been born homophobic.
 
He broke his contract after repeated warnings and should have just stuck to his knitting. He was within his rights to express religious views and his employers were within their rights to sack him for it.
 
My question is becoming almost the only one I ask these days... how soon before the next storm in a teacup prevents full enjoyment of our favourite wholesome organized violence?

Until next week,
Inky remains at your service.

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