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Rugby World: NRL targets wounded All Blacks, RA's Rory Arnold roadblock, Mitchell explains England shock

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9th December, 2021
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The rugby world is getting into the spirit of the festive season with end of year parties, arguments between family members and ambitious plans for the year ahead. This also means there’s lots to talk about so let’s get stuck in.

With the international season over, teams and governing bodies are working hard to position themselves well for 2022 and beyond.

This has seen the All Blacks conduct a year in review analysis while in quarantine and the Wallabies trying to recruit crucial talent back to Australia, along with cutting ties with Scott Johnson.

But both of these efforts are at risk from different threats and both the NZRU and Rugby Australia are going to have to work quickly and effectively to achieve their goals.

Meanwhile it’s awards season with the French picking up a number of well earned accolades and James Haskell has shared how he became part overseas import, part sex advisor during his time in Dunedin. Oh and Eddie Jones admitted he was wrong all along, while John Mitchell spoke about his time with England.

NRL has the All Blacks in its cash rich sights
It might not be part of Sun Tzu’s Art of War but it makes good sense to strike your enemy when they are already injured and it appears that the NRL believe that the All Blacks and Rugby Union in New Zealand are wounded.

With an impressive new broadcast deal for New Zealand signed between the NRL and Sky TV to start in 2023, NRL CEO Andrew Abdo has made the organisation’s intentions very clear.

“We will invest aggressively in NZ pathways and go head-to-head with rugby union,” said Abdo as reported by Trevor McKewen writing for BusinessDesk.

The new broadcast deal includes crucial access to the New Zealand population with games such as the ANZAC Day clash, State of Origin and a Finals game on free to air television to complement the comprehensive Pay TV coverage.

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On top of that the NRL plans to create new competitions and player pathways, invest millions into marketing, support the NZRL in their mission to improve the international standards of the Kiwi and Tonga sides, and launch a brand new team in Wellington or Christchurch from 2024.

With the percentage of Maori and Polynesian players in the NRL now at over 45% it is felt that the timing is better than other to appeal to a New Zealand based audience both in terms of attracting new playing talent and fans who engage with the game.

These are impressive plans for sure but what will have rugby union more worried than ever is that their own house is not as strong as it could be. 2021 has brought an unusually high loss rate for the All Blacks and while Kiwi sides have dominated Super Rugby for years now, the quality of the competition has decreased in many people’s eyes and another tournament win by the Crusaders isn’t really attracting new fans or players.

There will be those who feel that the NRL as an organisation is hardly fast moving or entrepreneurial, but as McKewen writes, they are a speed boat compared to the Titanic-esque nature of the rugby union world that the All Blacks and NZRU have to operate.

Rugby union in New Zealand is not dead and buried by any means and there is a big difference between exciting plans, and successful delivery. But the NRL have been clear in their intentions – they are coming after rugby union in New Zealand and they are playing to win.

All Blacks use quarantine to conduct post mortem on troubling year
The All Blacks probably weren’t thinking too much about the NRL while they were in quarantine following their return from Europe but they were definitely busy it turns out with a thorough analysis of their 2021 short comings.

Sam Cane – who resigned with the All Blacks for another four years – shared at press conference earlier this week how the Kiwi side used a series of Zoom calls while in quarantine to explore the areas that needed improvement in 2022.

The flanker explained that as a result, they have been able to identify a number of key areas including skill set execution, attack structure and game management. He also explained that the forwards had all agreed that they needed to provide a better platform for the team – something they were unable to do against Ireland or France who had the Kiwis on the back foot for most of their clashes.

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When speaking about the attacking aspect of their game plan, Cane shared some more specifics about what they were wanting to achieve.

“So it is about making small tweaks to our attack structure. We have identified we need to be better at creating two or three rucks of quick go-forward ball,” Cane said.

Sam Cane of the All Blacks looks on

Sam Cane. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Rugby Australia fighting the clock and themselves to bring Rory Arnold home
Rugby Australia’s Recruitment Panel are keen to agree a new contract with Wallaby lock Rory Arnold that would see the 29 Test player return to the Brumbies and leave Toulouse.

However as time ticks by and the talented second rower needs to decide between his current French club’s offer and the offer from RA, one issue is getting in the way – RA haven’t actually formally offered Arnold a contract.

According to Georgina Robinson in the Sydney Morning Herald, Arnold is one of RA’s top targets in their recruitment plans after his recent strong performances for the Wallabies on their European tour. But despite this eagerness, RA run the risk of missing out on their man as their own processes get in the way.

An internal review of their high performance unit and careful analysis of their budgets have meant that the governing body haven’t been able to put a final offer in front of Arnold.

This is an important test case for RA as they look to streamline their operations and evolve their recruitment and selection policies in order to give their national side the best chance of picking the best players.

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With the recent embarrassing affair involving Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Sean McMahon, missing out on Arnold would be an unwanted sequel and something RA will be keen to avoid.

James Haskell had quite an impact on New Zealand according to new book
In his new book, “Ruck Me”, James Haskell shares a number of entertaining stories about his times in New Zealand including two that focus on the topics of love and war.

The former England flanker tells one tale about how he shared some advice from a sex book he’d been reading with his team mates at the Highlanders and had quite the response from them and their partners.

According to Haskell, he was approached on more than one occasion by players’ partners who said “Thank you, just thank you” and “I can’t thank you enough for your book recommendation . . . it’s been, well, amazing.”

Hask also tells another story about how he wasn’t quite so popular with a number of people at a Napier bar. In 2010, the England team had just lost to the New Zealand Māori at McLean Park and after the game, some of the players had gone to a bar that Haskell describes as “a bit spit and sawdust, a bit naughty, with a real Once Were Warriors vibe.”

Through a case of mistaken identity, Haskell found himself facing a very angry local who felt that the back rower had thrown ice at him. When the man’s wife then also fell over as she entered the fray, the situation got very tense and in Haskell’s words, “The place went quiet, you could have heard a pin drop.”

Luckily for Haskell, as more locals started to circle him and he was panicking, some other guys stepped in to explain what had happened and reassure the angry drinkers that Haskell wasn’t to blame.

“I almost s**t myself,” explains Haskell as he describes the incident.

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For anyone who has watched or heard Haskell, it’s pretty easy to understand how he gets himself into these sorts of situations and he certainly left an impression on New Zealand.

Eddie Jones admits he was wrong about Itoje
In his recently published book, the England coach shared that he believed that Maro Itoje didn’t have the influencing skills to be a future international captain. Considering how highly the England and British and Irish Lions lock is regarded, this statement shocked and angered many.

But Jones made it clear that he hadn’t given up on Itoje and had sent him to acting classes to help him develop his communication skills.

This week the coach did a 180 turn and freely admitted on the Telegraph podcast with Brian Moore that he had been very impressed with Itoje’s contribution to England’s defeats of Tonga, Australia and South Africa in November.

“I’ve never seen a guy mature as much as he has in the last six months,” said Jones and went on to confirm “I’ve got no doubt in the future he will captain England.”

It’s been another big year for the Saracens star – he was one of the success stories from the Lions tight series in South Africa and was in dominant form against the Southern Hemisphere sides on their Spring Tours. His issues with giving away penalties that had infected his game in 2020 and early 2021 seem to have been addressed and he’s a player that opponents genuinely fear.

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Jones has been using a number of other players in leadership roles outside of long term skipper Owen Farrell as he looks to build the leadership IQ of the England team in the lead up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Courtney Lawes, led England against Tonga and South Africa while Tom Curry and Ellis Genge took on vice captain duties. With Itoje now likely to get more on field leadership exposure, Jones will feel confident that his team are moving in the right direction.

Ex defence coach John Mitchell pinpoints lifestlye and family as reasons for leaving England set up
The well respected Kiwi coach John Mitchell has provided some insight into his thought process that led to him resigning from the England set up just months after he signed a new multi year contract.

“I woke up one day in April, having been thinking about it for a month and just thought, ‘I’ve got to make sure I live by what I value the most.’ It was an easy decision actually in the end,” explained Mitchell to The Times this week.

Mitchell decided that he valued “life more than just winning a World Cup” and made the decision to step away from the pressures, expectations and restrictions of international coaching and instead has joined the English club side Wasps.

“I wanted to get out of international rugby. You’re sick of the bubbles, sick of the time away from home and I wanted to look at returning to club rugby,” shares Mitchell.

The former All Blacks coach is keen to dispel the rumours that he moved on from England because of rifts with Eddie Jones and a desire to step away from the intense culture that Jones is famous for cultivating.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time with England, I had an awesome time,” Mitchell says. “I also had a very good relationship with Eddie.”

Wasps have had a tricky start to the 2021/22 season and are sitting 9th in the Premiership with just three wins from their nine matches. But with Mitchell onboard, they are likely to become a very effective team indeed.

French rugby earn more accolades
Having impressed many throughout the year with their improved performances which culminated in that fantastic defeat of the All Blacks in November, French rugby is picking up plenty of trophies as we enter rugby awards season.

First of all France won the International Rugby Players Men’s Try of the Year award for Damian Penaud’s try against Scotland in this year’s Six Nations.

To go with this first award, the French Women’s side also picked up the International Rugby Players Women’s Try of the Year award with Emilie Boulard’s score against Wales earning Les Bleus the set. The Women’s side also had six of their players selected for the World Rugby Dream Team of 2021.

To continue the Gallic theme of awards, Antoine Dupont was nominated as the best player in the world right now by Rugby World magazine. The French skipper is also in the mix for World Rugby’s player of the year award which is announced this week.

While scoring impressive tries is not exactly something new for France, this collection of awards across both the mens and womens game is a demonstration of the big changes that have been happening within French rugby over the past few years.

They’ve evolved from being regarded as a team where you never knew whether the good or bad version would turn up, to a genuine threat for the World Cup in two years.

Aussie Sevens Teams impress in Dubai
The Australian Womens Sevens side won a second successive Dubai Sevens tournament in successive weeks with a dominant display throughout. In their five matches they scored 26 tries with Faith Nathan scoring in every match.

Meanwhile the Men’s side were agonizingly close to matching the Women’s success but in the end went down 7-10 to South Africa’s “Blitzboks” in the Final of the Men’s tournament.

Despite this success, the Women’s team coach – John Manenti – is at risk of losing his job as Rugby Australia is seeking to resign the services of Olympic gold medal winning coach Tim Walsh. This move is part of a reshuffle to the entire Sevens program for Australia that would see the men’s side scaled back to just a few fulltime contracted players while the women’s side would be elevated to the top of the Australian women’s rugby operations.

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