Loose Pass

Date published: June 20 2012


This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with hemispherical malaises, new calls and fresh European problems.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with hemispherical malaises, new calls and fresh European problems…

What do Wales, Ireland, France and England have in common?

Well, aside from not having won a Test down under since the World Cup, they have all blown potential positions to do just that in matches this past weekend.

It's perhaps slightly tenuous to claim England were on top after they burnt themselves out bouncing back from the concession of those early tries, but within a score is within a score and any professional team should be able to conceive producing the goods from there somehow.

Wales blew it good and proper with a silly penalty. Ireland were unfortunate at a couple of key moments but certainly let the All Blacks out of jail, while the pitch in Cordoba was littered with the ghosts of French opportunities that slipped – literally – through the fingers. England clearly had the beating of the Boks, but just left themselves a little too much to do.

It's certainly an improvement on the busts of a week ago, but taking all the games into consideration it's worth asking: are we looking at a general mental block among the northern hemisphere teams?

They've been taking beatings for aeons down under now – with England's class of 2003 a notable exception – but there's little doubt that both the re-structuring of the Super Rugby season which causes a run-in to the June Tests, and the improvement in conditioning and fitness of the northern teams has proved to be game-levelling.

This weekend past saw all four with huge opportunities to exploit this game-levelling factor, yet there seemed to hang over all four an air of their having crumpled in an air of inevitability as the killer blows were struck.

When the dust settles on these June Test defeats, and while we all laud the improvements shown between last week and this, the nagging question might remain: did any of them really believe they were going to win this weekend…? That tiny element of belief makes a massive difference in the closing moments of matches.

The scrum – or rather the officiating of it – is up for minor surgery again. A new call – “crouch, touch, set” – will replace the current format of “crouch, touch, pause, engage” when trialled across the globe next season.

It's certainly an improvement, one that removes the appendix-like 'pause' that currently tempts front-rows to do anything but, and presumably it will shorten the time wasted by the referees who currently tend to order a round of drinks and a massage between the 'crouch, touch, pause' signal.

People complain about time wasted on scrums at the moment: about half the wasted time is spent on the referee calling the engage sequence.

But in among all of the research and trialling is one aspect that you aren't going to get rid of: two 850kg piles of muscle and adrenaline all looking to push the margins as tight as possible in order to win the collision and gain a competitive edge. Be those margins in engage timing, engage angles, whatever. Someone's going to be doing something dodgy somewhere, and in among those sorts of physical forces, something will often give.

Reducing the time spent on the engage call will stop some of the time being wasted, but it won't solve the scrum problems, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Finally, the Heineken Cup is on the brink of anarchy again. The English look set to pull out, the French are following, there is dissatisfaction among the PRO12 benches, all at the Heineken Cup's proposed restructuring from a two-tier competition to a three-tier one, reducing the number of HEC participants from 24 to 20.

If the Daily Telegraph is to be believed, the PRO12 teams stand to lose most. Virtually guaranteed qualification these days, only half of the dozen would qualify under the proposed structure, with the French and English retaining six spots apiece and the remaining two of the 20 going to the Amlin and Heineken champions.

We're not really sure what all the fuss is about from the English? The number of matches would remain the same, the number of Premiership teams would remain the same, so there's no drop in prestige or revenue. It may be a concern that the basement-dwellers of the English top flight end up in the third tier of European competition, but it's not like the pool stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup are ground-fillers anyway. There's not much difference between Bayonne's reserves and Bucuresti's first-choice team.

The countries set to feel the most injustice would be the PRO12 ones, who have seen their chances of qualification drop significantly. But from them there's been little noise – perhaps they are happy to wait it out and kiss the English sides goodbye!

But for now, we reckon this is a storm in a teacup, probably caused by some other sub-section of some new suggested document which recommends that Premier Rugby officials don't get refined sugar in their post-match function coffee as they have before.

We sincerely hope so – but just as we sincerely hope that ERC do at least ensure that one team from each of the Six Nations is represented in Europe's premier pan-European competition.

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson