Loose Pass

Date published: August 29 2012


This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the highs and lows of the Rugby Championship and Europe's troubles…

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the highs and lows of the Rugby Championship, Europe's troubles and a happy precedent…

Are the Springboks entering a transitional phase? We'll see, but there's an air of tension surrounding the new coach and his side not seen since Jake White's barely-concealed spat with Victor Matfield and the 49-0 defeat to Australia.

But at least that was a weaker Bok team. Most worryingly for SA fans, the insipid effort in Mendoza was delivered by Heyneke Meyer's strongest-available side. Admittedly that takes into account the absences of the likes of Schalk Burger, Pierre Spies, two first-choice hookers and a couple of backs, but there's no doubt that the rugby delivered by this team was distinctly sub-standard.

Among several peers in the rugby world, the gut feeling was that Meyer's appointment came perhaps a couple of years late, that Bulls rugby is no longer enough to conquer all in the modern era, that South Africa produces some fine physical specimens but that the skill level – and attention to skills generally in the rainbow nation – is tumbling into the dust kicked up by the acceleration of other nations.

On Saturday's evidence, you'd have to say that gut feeling was right. Every time the Boks got the ball, it either went up in the air or got shipped out to backs running nondescript lines and forwards running in predictable pods. It was a defence coach's dream, and Argentina lapped it up.

The same fate ultimately befell the Stormers and Bulls in Super Rugby. Predictable rugby well-executed was tough to cope with, but once the physical defensive veneer was broken there was no substance under the surface. Both SA's flagship teams crashed out unable to chase down opposition leads. Had Frans Steyn not got a lucky bounce on Saturday, the national team was heading the same way.

The leading rugby culture in South Africa has long been based on the smash, suffocate and strangle rugby that brought home the 2007 World Cup, delivered by a corps of experienced players who had it down to a tee. Those players have gone and the rest of the world has been busy moving on, as South Africa are now discovering.

Without a willingness to admit the game has changed and an initiative to try and weave those changes into the national culture from Meyer et al, the Springboks could find themselves facing – relatively – a lean few years ahead.

Robbie Deans is also facing problems, but of a very different nature. Nilled for the first time by the All Blacks in 50 years is probably the low point of Deans' time with the Wallabies thus far.

Not that it's for the want of trying in terms of gameplay, but Australian rugby generally is in a deep rut. The Super derby matches in Australia are just dismal in quality, and none of the current coaching crop – with the possible exception of Richard Graham and Ewen McKenzie – looks even remotely capable of taking on a national role should Deans bite the dust. It must be a worrying time for Aussie fans when they see their most impressive franchise marshalled by a South African.

Deans' game is a tough one to execute, relying on minimum numbers at rucks, deep wide passes to the backs and a great deal of fitness to move the ball as much as desired. It's quite credible to suggest that Australia don't really have the players to carry it off at the moment, hardly Deans' fault, but a coach ought always to build a gameplan around what he has, not what he wants.

There might also need to be a willingness to adapt in Australia, or Deans could find himself just behind Meyer in the queue at the job centre.

As a shining example to both, let us present Argentina.

Pumas teams have traditionally been as physical as they are hirsute, limited in playing standards and skills (with notable exceptions) and full of indiscipline.

Not this one. There were no yellow cards, the try and several other movements were born of some stellar running angles and timing, not to mention a serious upsurge in the skill levels. All still founded on a massive physical presence and naked Latin aggression and passion.

This Argentina team now looks to be moving towards complete. Physically dominating, subtle of pass and quick of thought, able to live on the edge without toppling over it. Santiago Phelan has shown a willingness to adapt, an ability to introduce new aspects yet still maintain his national rugby culture, a flexibility that allows him to plan around what he has, not for what he wants.

It took them to the brink of victory over the Boks – and who'd bet against them at home to Australia from here?

Is the Heineken Cup really about to end? Please no. Please?

We are, we must confess, siding with the English and French on this one: it makes sense for six teams each from the three European leagues to qualify rather than a system which allows for near-equal numbers of teams from the six nations.

As the English and French rightly point out, it flaws the competition at club level when the Pro12 teams/squads can saunter rotationally through their season with near-impunity in the knowledge that nearly all of them will have HEC rugby to look forward to. Once that balance is flawed, the international balance is flawed too, with some squads better rested than others.

On the other hand, while English and French clubs play in more lucrative domestic leagues, the Pro12 sides see the Heineken Cup as a financial lifeline. Should you have only one Welsh region in the Heineken Cup, the other three are in serious trouble in terms of being able to promote themselves and retain their best players. Scotland might have no teams at all – you can only imagine where all the best Scottish players will go then.

This is a dispute with no easy-looking resolution, with the sands of time beginning to run thin on the deadline for a resolution as well. We're looking forward to the forum comments on this one – is there anybody who can find the balance between competitive integrity and financial survival across the board? A pan-European salary cap perhaps?

Hats off to London Welsh. When the Exiles take to the field on Saturday against Leicester they will probably do so in hope more than expectation.

The drawn-out period it took them to finally win the court case and get their promotion has hampered their recruitment and ability to raise sponsors and while the squad will surely fight gamely, it's tough not to see them as relegation fodder.

But they've already achieved something far more significant. The rules pertaining to promotion criteria will now be set well in advance of the end of the season, with the RFU actually appearing to pro-actively take into account European laws and the fundamentals of pure competition. Rob Andrew even looks like he's doing something!

It's great news for the English leagues, it opens up the door to the teams below and gives us all clarity,