Rugby's burning questions: Israel Folau, Ma'a Nonu, Beauden Barrett, Kiwi derbies

2019-04-12 03:18:10

Israel Folau's latest social media outburst has finally seen his Aussie bosses declare "enough is enough" and sever tiers with the outspoken fullback. It's a dramatic development that has dominated the back half of the rugby week.

Stuff's rugby scribes weigh in on this and some of the other burning issues of the week that sit a little closer to home in our regular Friday segment.

Good call by Rugby Australia to effectively cut Israel Folau loose after his latest rant on social media? And what do you see as the outspoken one's next move in the sporting world?

Marc Hinton: It's hard to fault the decisive action finally taken by Rugby Australia. But you could make the case that they were so backed into a corner, they really had no other choice (especially when he refused to even take their phone calls). And that his utter lack of repentance for his earlier offence illustrated the softly-softly approach last time was a serious misjudgment. No-win situation for Raelene Castle really as she's effectively blunted the Wallabies' World Cup hopes. And now? France or Japan appeal as logical destinations. But wouldn't it be nice to think rugby as a sport will say "we don't need you".

Paul Cully: It's a good call. Israel Folau can't pretend he didn't know the implications of more inflammatory posts. An employees we all sign up to agreements that put boundaries on what we say publicly and Folau is no different. It's hard to see where he can go next. For many organisations Folau is now virtually unemployable – even maverick Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal doesn't seem likely to indulge Folau and his fringe views.

Robert van Royen: They really had no other choice. What did Folau think was going to happen after he was reprimanded for a similar post last year? As for his next sporting move, can he box?

Aaron Goile: He had to go. How can an employer take that, having essentially given the guy a final warning a year ago? It's understood his lavish four-year contract penned last year contained extra social media clauses. RA CEO Raelene Castle has been sage in acting swiftly, but also holding fire before contacting Folau to investigate any potential mitigating circumstances. Assuming there's none, no one's bigger than the game and his post essentially read like a resignation letter. Regarding his next endeavour, the NRL have said 'no', Toulon's owner has labelled him a "moron", so it's not looking good. I'm picking he sits idle for a while.

Is Ma'a Nonu now a legitimate All Blacks World Cup contender on the back of what we're seeing from him for the Blues?

Hinton: Has to be. He has all the experience, nous and skill that Steve Hansen could possibly want in a No 12. All that remained to be proved was his form and fitness. Both appear pretty decent based on what we've seen so far in 2019. This is no ordinary 36-year-old, and he could be in the process of completing one of the great Kiwi sporting comeback stories. Still ground to make up (I have him 4th on my No 12 rankings) but things change quickly in this business (see Sonny Bill Williams' injury).

Cully: If he performs well against Anton Lienert-Brown on Saturday then pencil him in – and there are no signs that he won't. Those involved with the 'World XV' side that beat Japan last October were telling me even way back then that Nonu was in unbelievable nick and since then he has had the huge benefit of a full pre-season at the Blues. The guy is a one-off.

Van Royen: He's on the right track, but he'll need to make last week's performance against the Waratahs the norm if he's going to jump into contention. There's simply too many good midfielders around.

Goile: On just the evidence of that 80 minutes against the Waratahs, I'd now have to say yes. Prior to that I wasn't convinced he'd quite be up to the required standard, and the man will be 37 come World Cup time. But he's still got it, indeed – the speed, the hard carry, the deft touch, the educated boot, and the nous. Throw into the mix not just the injury to Sonny Bill Williams but also how fragile his body has been over recent times, and maybe that also opens the door. What a midfield selection quandary it promises to be.

Are you worried about Beauden Barrett's lack of spark for the Hurricanes?

Hinton: No, no, no. And no. Steve Hansen's memorable quote about Richie Mo'unga playing behind a "Rolls-Royce" pack springs to mind. Barrett hasn't had the flashest of starts for the Canes, but he hasn't exactly been given a dream ride behind an eight struggling for parity. This is a world-class playmaker with nothing to prove at Super Rugby level. Put him behind the All Black (or Crusaders) pack and the magic comes flooding back. Keep calm everybody.

Cully: Is he really playing any differently to last year? Or for much of 2017? Not to my eyes. In fact, his goalkicking is probably better. The time to worry about Barrett has come and gone. He has had frailties for two years now, offset by his capacity for brilliance. That's the sort of player he is and the danger of a Barrett 'off day' is one risk the All Blacks will carry into the Rugby World Cup.

Van Royen: No. He doesn't always have to be flashy. He was actually very good, particularly his kicking in general play, against the Highlanders last weekend. He needed that after a poor performance against the Crusaders the previous week.

Goile: Not so much worried about a lack of spark, but some of the simpler things not getting done well is a cause for a furrowed brow. The man will always be able to produce the game-breaking magic touches – think last weekend against the Highlanders when he zoomed to the line and offloaded beautifully for Ngani Laumape's try. However, you'd like your All Blacks first five to control a game, certainly at Super Rugby level, without having passes intercepted or average options taken. Some rather important games loom in a few months' time.

Who's more likely to get a Kiwi derby road win this round – the Highlanders or Blues?

Hinton: The numbers actually say the Highlanders who have won three of their last seven against the 'Saders, including a 2015 victory in Christchurch. And it is Ben Smith's 150th. The Blues, on the other hand, haven't beaten the Chiefs in their previous 14, with their last Hamilton victory way back in 2011. But Leon MacDonald's men have already snapped one Kiwi hoodoo in 2019, and look in the mood to end another on Saturday night. This might tell us all we need to know about their so-called resurgence.

Cully: The Blues. I think they have been incredibly clever the way they have managed their front-rowers this year and Karl Tu'inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi will be ready to rumble in The Tron. You'd still fancy the Chiefs on their home patch but this game is too close to call confidently.

Van Royen: The Blues, simply because they don't have to play the reigning champions at Christchurch Stadium, where the Crusaders have won 23 straight games.

Goile: The Blues. They're on a roll and have a reasonable chance of continuing that against the Chiefs in Hamilton, where they will be desperate to show they can win away and that their derby drought-breaking win against the Highlanders wasn't an aberration. The Highlanders, on the other hand, have their work cut out in Christchurch. It's more about the opposition, with the Crusaders looking virtually unstoppable when their key men are on the park, while the Highlanders have been struck down by injuries to several influential figures.

Should Super Rugby take its grand final to a neutral venue and cash in on its biggest game of the season?

Hinton: Money always talks in these situations. So if there's enough of a sweetener, the tricky geographical and calendar logistics line up and teams are willing to effectively sign away home advantage, why not? It works for the Champions League and NFL, after all. But if the cash doesn't cry out "no-brainer" then leave the hard-earned home advantage as it is. It's why you play the regular season. And history says it's a big, big factor in where the trophy ends up.

Cully: It's nice in theory but when you dig into the detail you can see why it fits the European model better than the Sanzaar one. For example, the Heineken Cup semifinals are held three weeks before the final. In Super Rugby teams play the semifinals the week before. So, if the final is in Buenos Aires and the semifinals are held in, say, Christchurch and Durban, what state are the players going to be in for the decider after that mad dash across half the planet?

Van Royen: Absolutely not. There's been some rotten ideas floated when discussing the future of Super Rugby, and this one might just take the cake.

Goile: Not at all. It's not like the NFL, football's Champions League and even the NRL where the neutral venue works because they are grand events, travel is feasible and time zones line up. In a competition played across (soon to be) four countries with plenty of distance apart, you're just not going to get people buying tickets in advance in the hope their team makes it, considering how costly the trip would be. I doubt the likes of Ellis Park or Eden Park would even get a third full, and how dumb would that look for your premier game of the year?

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