Kiwis hard on themselves — and the refs

In South Africa we’d take five from five in the Vodacom Super 14 any way it comes. New Zealand critic Marc Hinton is not convinced all is well in New Zealand rugby, despite their five wins at the weekend.

Hinton, on the MSNXtra website, wrote that first glances can be deceiving.

Hinton, like his New Zealand colleague Wynne Gray, had a pop at the referees and also the standard of rugby.

“The referees aren’t helping, it must be said. And the current crop of whistle-blowers appears to be an horrific mix of power-tripping zealots and out-of-their depth incompetents. How else can you explain what we saw in Timaru, not to mention Wellington, Brisbane and just about everywhere else?,” wrote Hinton.

“And second, not one of the five New Zealand victories over the weekend were what you could term conclusive. The Kiwis may be flying high, but there’s as much stagger as swagger about all five franchises at the moment as they take the early steps in the expanded competition.”

Hinton was critical of league leaders the Canes and Crusaders: “Let’s look at the big two first: the Canes and Crusaders. Both have won all three matches and appear to be cruising along as semifinalists elect. And to an extent they are travelling nicely, particularly if competition points are your sole basis of judgment. But scratch beneath the surface (and scratchy is the ideal adjective when describing the early rounds of the Super 14) and you get a truer picture.

“The Hurricanes may have the maximum haul, but you couldn’t say they’ve produced maximum performances. They played one good half to wallop the Blues, hit their straps for barely a quarter to easily see off the struggling Western Force and then at the weekend stumbled their way to a 29-16 win over the Cats that was much harder than any scoreboard will ever show. It was only a last-seconds try to Isaia Toeava that ensured that. We will probably get a more accurate measure of just how good these Hurricanes are over the next three weeks in South Africa where the Cheetahs, Stormers and Bulls will provide more accurate measuring sticks on their home turf.”

Of the Crusaders, Hinton wrote: “And then you have the Crusaders who continue their remarkable dominance in this competition with still nothing like their best form to show for it.

“The weekend’s 22-20 victory over the Sharks in Timaru was probably the least convincing of their trio to open the season, though the degree of difficulty was exacerbated by a series of howlers from George Ayoub and his fellow officials who conspired to deny the Crusaders two legitimate tries, allow the Sharks one that clearly shouldn’t have been and even permit the visitors to play with 16 men for over a minute at one stage.

“The five-time champions remain a long way from their trophy-lifting form and have shown only sporadic patches of their best in the wins over the Highlanders, Reds and Sharks, all of which have required something special in the closing stages.

“But the thing with the Crusaders is they’ve always been notoriously slow starters and clearly this year is no exception. However, with Richie McCaw really lifting his game in the second spell against the Sharks, Rico Gear continuing on with his try-snaffling form of last year and signs that supremo Dan Carter is beginning to find his feet again, well, you just know their best is just around the corner.”

Hinton was not as flattering of the rest of the New Zealand’s sides.

“It was not pretty from the Blues who had to overcome a kicking shocker from Tasesa Lavea and an attack that has all the fluidity of mud. Lukily for them, there was enough resilience up front, including from Troy Flavell who came through his first hitout well all things considered, and a heady stand-in effort with the boot from Isa Nacewa to get them home by the barest of margins.

“The Highlanders produced two fine tries in the wet in Bloemfontein to grab winning points against the combative Cheetahs and will be rapt with opening their three-week stand in the republic in such fashion. But they, too, were a long way from their best, a fact conceded by skipper Anton Oliver afterwards when he remarked: “That was ugly, eh.”

“The Chiefs will also have gained plenty from their 26-9 win in Perth, which included arguably the try of the season to centre Mark Ranby as fullback Sosene Anesi and wing Sitiveni Sivivatu combined to showcase their scintillating speed and skills. But against a side with massive limitations, it was otherwise pretty turgid stuff from Ian Foster’s Chiefs who like the Blues will be rapt to secure their first win, but will know further improvements must follow.”