They are teammates and they are also rivals but Dan Carter could be the making of Stephen Donald as an All Black.All the moves point to them operating in tandem when New Zealand host the Springboks in Hamilton next week.That’s not new and there have already been successes with the pair playing together at 10 and 12 in three important wins against Australia, including tight Bledisloe Cup-clinching victories last year in Brisbane and this year in Sydney.Donald makes no secret of the gains he finds in training alongside Carter. To literally be rubbing shoulders with him in the heat of a test battle can only be better.There is genuine appeal in having a two-pronged approach with their five-eighths as the All Blacks signalled with their move to give Luke McAlister a start outside Carter in Sydney.With McAlister now out of the equation it seems sensible to try to continue that theme against the Springboks where field position is going to be crucial to the All Blacks’ attempts to beat the world champions for the first time this season.The improved kicking game is the most obvious gain with this sort of combination. But there’s also the ability to split the backline and have options at either side of rucks and set pieces. In addition, if one is caught in a ruck, they have a reliable alternative to step into the first receiver for the next phase of play.There is a risk of course. No one can argue that the team looked all the better for Carter returning to the helm against Australia. He’s one of those rare players whose genius sees them capable of stepping into any level of the game despite lengthy absences. He has that little bit of extra time on his side when he has the ball in hand, simply because of his calm head. He’s unflappable.To suddenly move him out a position threatens the assuredness he was able to bring when the Bledisloe Cup really was on the line a week or so ago.But there’s every chance that Donald and Carter will mix and match a bit between the two positions anyway and that has real benefits. As All Blacks midfield great Frank Bunce suggested, Donald has the attributes to make a real go of second five-eighths at international level and these are the sort of situations to test those theories.Donald didn’t have the happiest of times when he had to operate as the No 10 without Carter in sight earlier this year. But sensibly the selectors kept their faith in him, realising they had made a considerable investment in the Waikato and Chiefs playmaker. Like it or not, he remains the next best option.He was solid in his rookie season of test rugby last year and there’s nothing unusual in experiencing some sophomore struggles.What better way to get some added confidence than having the apprentice work right alongside the master?Of course there’s another plus out of all this – the All Blacks are still able to keep Ma’a Nonu involved, even if it means moving him out one spot to centre after his big gains at No 12.To still have Nonu’s attacking force on hand will be vital against the Boks and he might find there’s just that little bit of added space that comes with playing at 13. And like Donald, Nonu will enjoy operating off the shoulder of Carter.It seems there are plusses all round.
Toulon came from behind to defeat French Top 14 rugby leaders Clermont 26-21 on Wednesday with new star signing Jonny Wilkinson contributing three penalties and a drop goal.Trailing 9-0 after just 11 minutes Toulon went on to dominate the encounter, particularly in the scrum.On 35 minutes Toulon got one of their two tries with Wilkinson feeding the ball to Wales centre Jamie Robinson who took on the Clermont defence before finding To’omaga Sinoti for the touch down.Wilkinson converted to put Toulon into the lead for the first time only for Clermont to regain the initiative two minutes later when Seremaia Bai struck a penalty to give the visitors a 12-10 lead.Bai added two more quick penalties to stretch Clermont’s lead after the break but Toulon then raised their game, producing their second try on 50 minutes with Clement Marienval getting the valuable points.Wilkinson, who got the conversion, was replaced by Sebastien Fauque and the move paid off with the England 2003 World Cup hero’s replacement coming up with three penalties of his own to bag the win for Toulon.Toulouse kept up their decent start to the new campaign with a 21-17 home win over Bayonne which put them top, but only on better points difference from Toulon.Bayonne, who have been linked with signing sacked Wallabies star Lote Tuqiri, proved to be a tough nut to crack as they were leading for over an hour before Frederik Michalak and Shaun Sowerby made their night a winning one.Stade Francais suffered their first loss of the season when they went down 35-40 to bottom club Montaubun, who were forced to call off last weekend’s game against Castres due to a swine flu scare.Their surprise win was due in no small part to the metronomic kicking of Cedric Rosalen who was responsible for seven penalties and two conversions.Stade Francais boast the league’s worst defence with 126 points leaked in four games.”It’s not possible to go on like that, it was catastrophic” said Stade coach, former NSW Waratahs mentor Ewen McKenzie.”We tried to set the pace but our defence was terrible.”Reigning champions Perpignan easily saw off Brive 21-9.Cash-strapped Bourgoin, who have been rescued from financial oblivion by a new deal involving player wage cuts and fresh investment, celebrated with a 17-13 success over Racing Metro.Montpellier gained their second win of the fledgling campaign, a 22-18 victory over Biarritz.The game between Albi and Castres was postponed due to swine flu with seven of the Castres players laid low with the virus. AFP
St George Illawarra playmaker Jamie Soward has vowed he won’t succumb to the pressure of big-game footy in tomorrow’s blockbuster against Parramatta.The Dragons premiership credentials go on the line when they play the red-hot Eels at WIN Jubilee Oval.Soward is a confidence player and has been somewhat subdued in recent weeks, but he insists he will be at his scheming best in the sold-out match.”Three losses won’t change the way I play footy,” Soward said.He believed the atmosphere created by a sell-out crowd on Friday night would be enough to lift the Dragons out of their slump.”If we can’t get up Friday night in front of our home crowd, where we’re going to be playing our first final, then we’ve got something wrong with us,” he said.”The last few weeks have been a little bit lean, but we’re still bubbly and we’re ready to go on Friday.”Asked where the enthusiasm had come from after three straight losses, Soward replied: “You’ve got to be confident.”It’s come to the end of the season we’ve been training nine months for.”You don’t want to bounce into training after three losses thinking ‘it’s over’. We’re still in second spot and we’ve worked really hard to get there.”Some have blamed the Dragons’ recent flat performances on an increased training workload ahead of the semi-finals. The theory is that coach Wayne Bennett has poured the work into his team in anticipation of having a week off during the semi-finals.While hooker Nathan Fien gave no indication if there had been an increased intensity at training in recent weeks, he was quick to put things in perspective.”We work hard week in, week out. That’s part of what we do, but there’s really no excuses for our performances over the last few weeks,” Fien said.”The sides that we have played have really lifted and we’ve probably just come up a little bit short.”Having said that though, there’s 14 or 15 other sides that would like to be in our position, sitting up the top end of the ladder. We’ve got a big opportunity to get things back on track against the form team in the competition this week.”Fien said being guided by a coach with Bennett’s experience had put the Dragons at ease.”Wayne knows what he is doing, he’s been doing it for 20-odd years. We’ve just got to get back on the horse this weekend.”We haven’t played our best footy over the last few weeks and we’re playing the form team in the competition. As a playing group we’re very much looking forward to the challenge.”
RICKY STUART, resilient man, sits quietly, talks forcefully.”I don’t give a stuff about the wooden spoon,” he says, his dagger-eyes daring you to suggest that he must.Stuart is coming to the end of every coach’s nightmare. A season of dramas on and off the field that briefly threatened to make the Sharks extinct, headlines flogged black, white, blue by the ugly stick, trashed reputations all over the shop, enhanced reputations out of the mire, a litany of losses.On top of that, there’s now the reality that if his side loses to South Sydney on Saturday night, and the Sydney Roosters rouse themselves sufficiently in Craig Fitzgibbon’s farewell to topple North Queensland on Sunday, Stuart will be left with the distaste of having coached the worst team in the competition.His reaction? An invitation to send him a spoon in the post. Go on, send him all the wooden utensils you can find. Send him a hundred. Wrap them all up really nicely, ribbon on top, smart-arse messages attached, post them to the Cronulla club with his name on the front of the package and then sit back and see if he cares.”I won’t,” he says. ”People can send me a hundred of them, so what? I hope they do. I’ll keep them. I’ll use them all. Thanks very much, I need a few new spoons. We know we don’t deserve to come last. We never threw the towel in all year, which some other clubs did.”This is just a guess but for ”some other clubs”, read one club: the Roosters.The Sharks’ two-point loss to Manly last weekend was most notable for highlighting the dangers of inexperienced referees making the wrong decision. Luke Douglas’s send-off was wrong, ruinous and another dagger to Stuart’s heart. Mentioned less was his feat in getting the Sharks, lacking superstars and within their rights to have given up the ghost long ago, to fight as if their lives depended on the result. Who cares if the Sharks won or lost? The only people that mattered. The Sharks.”I feel dirty for the players,” Stuart says. ”I can handle a rough year. But I feel for them because they don’t deserve the spoon. We’re a tough footy team. We’ve got blokes here on $20,000 a year and they have busted a gut every week this year. You going to call him a failure? We haven’t failed, mate. We’re not going to win the comp but we haven’t failed.”We really don’t deserve to come last and every person in the NRL knows it. What these blokes have been through this year, any number of other clubs and individuals wouldn’t have gotten through it. Every second week there’s been a major problem. People getting sacked, someone injured and out for the season. All the garbage we have been through and these blokes have been as solid as a frigging rock.”Given the resilience, of coach and players, the pride shown in the jumper, the respect of other teams who view you as a bruising if outgunned side, any satisfaction in having soldiered on?”None,” Stuart says. ”You get through it all but there’s no satisfaction in any of this. We’re fighters and we’re proud of that but you don’t get any satisfaction out of not winning.”We knew it was going to be a tough year. We were going to find out a lot about our characters individually this year.”I said to them, ‘If you want to follow me, follow me. If you don’t want to, see you later’. They’ve followed and they have been great. I don’t ever need any more character in a footy team than I’ve got here. You only learn about your character when you’re put to the test and we’ve been put to the test about six times this year.”We’re still aiming up. No other joint has the same character as this. There have been lessons this year that will stick with me as a coach for the rest of my career. And I have learned things about character this year that I will use, away from coaching, for the rest of my life.”
IT’S a week that has heard talk of the NRL requiring a re-branding so in the spirit of that a suggestion – Nonsensically Resilient League.Nearing the end of perhaps its worst season for off-field behaviour, and in a tough economic climate, the code released figures yesterday that showed it was also arguably more popular than ever.With the highest attendance (outside a 20-team competition) set to be recorded and total attendances for home and away fixtures approaching 3 million, NRL chief executive David Gallop reeled off a list of positive statistics for the code.”The season’s had its fair share of difficulties,” he said. ”Some of it you would have thought was possibly fiction at times … if rugby league was a ship, you’d say it’s hit some heavy weather during 2009 but along the way the old girl was paddling away under the surface and making some pretty good progress.”What can’t be changed is that rugby league’s year of living dangerously has been bookended by two of the most recognisable names in the game, Manly’s Brett Stewart and Melbourne’s Greg Inglis, being charged by police with serious offences.In between, there have been allegations of sexual misconduct in a damning Four Corners report, the demise of Cronulla chief executive Tony Zappia and the various misdemeanours by the likes of Nate Myles, Brad Fittler, Brett Seymour, Jake Friend, unnamed but unrepentant Queensland representatives as well as only this week Setaimata Sa.Compare that to the figures yesterday, which when placed in the context of the annus horribilis are bordering on remarkable. The 2009 season is set to bring the game the highest total attendance recorded in NRL history, with average crowds up more than 2 per cent and television ratings and club memberships up even more.Everywhere from Sydney to cyberspace, improvement was being claimed. ”There’s no doubt that rugby league has achieved some extraordinary results in the context of global and domestic issues this season,” Gallop said.Asked if he was surprised by the results given the shadow of off-field problems, Gallop said: ”I’d like to think some of this stuff will make some of our critics eat some of our words.”But he added: ”It’s unrealistic to think that we won’t have young men making mistakes from time to time. Alcohol is an issue, it’s often the issue … they don’t get a chance to drink very often like a lot of young people do, so the opportunity to make a mistake, to overindulge, to then make a bad decision, is there. We’ve got some challenges in that regard, and in all the good facts that we showed you, we don’t shy away from the fact that we’ve got to try and address those issues as best we can. I’d like to think the game in 2009 has demonstrated that we do take those issues seriously and we are trying to address them in the best possible way.”Gallop said it was a ”good day to be standing in front of the rugby league media”. And he did so flanked by three nominees, announced yesterday, for the annual Ken Stephen Medal, which will be awarded this year for the first time with the public afforded a one-sixth share of the vote.One of them, Parramatta’s Nathan Hindmarsh, spoke of his passion for visiting sick children in hospital but said: ”We’re not doing this to improve the game, we’re doing this because that’s what we do as people. We go out and try and help people.”The last word should go, as it generally does, to Wendell Sailor, who returned to rugby league last year after a stint in rugby union and a two-year drugs suspension, surely varying degrees of the term wilderness. And the NRL, or whatever it is called, can take heart from his words.”When I had time out of the game, you lose your way a little bit … I said, ‘Whenever I came back to the game, I was going to get the respect back of the community’,” Sailor said. ”Now I can finish my career holding my head up.”The code might have lost its way somewhat, but yesterday at least, could hold its head up.Meanwhile, AAP reports that the hunt is on for a stand-in North Queensland fullback following confirmation Cowboys custodian Matt Bowen requires radical knee surgery – yet again.Arthroscope results yesterday showed Bowen’s right knee must undergo the same ”ground-breaking” operation that was successfully completed on his left knee last year.Bowen is expected back on the paddock within the first two months of the 2010 season.Cowboys boss Peter Parr said there was ”no reason at all” why Bowen couldn’t make a full recovery from his latest injury setback.The injury cloud over Bowen has perhaps provided a silver lining for his teammate Ty Williams, who is off contract at year’s end. Whoever comes on board is expected to make way for a rejuvenated Bowen by May.