This week we will concern ourselves with tumult in Europe, unrest in South Africa, referee complaints and a week of tragic losses.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with tumult in Europe, unrest in South Africa, a new perspective on referee complaints and a week of tragic losses.
This week in South Africa: The coach apparently called up an aged lock from France as an emergency measure after the first-choice lock was banned for head-butting, only for that call to be denied by the French club and then the existence of any call-up denied. One of the country's brightest players spoke publicly of his irritation at not getting any game time. Another of the country's better back-row talents exited in disgust at both his lack of chances in the national team and his Super Rugby team having the rug pulled from under its feet. He says he is now gunning to play for Scotland. The national side stumbled to another defeat, with another ridiculous loss of discipline costing them at a crucial moment and the same weak links in the side costing them the rest of the time.
It's a tough time to be a South African rugby fan right now, even more so to be the national coach. But two things we will say for Heyneke Meyer: he appears to be significantly better at handling criticism – deflecting is probably the better word – than his predecessor, and the game-plan so lambasted from every corner does have its merits at times; had the Boks beaten the All Blacks on Saturday, few would have been able to say they hadn't earned it.
Yet – and we have said this before – it was the lack of elite skills that looked the most costly. A dreadful pass from Zane Kirchner to an even worse flat-positioned Bryan Habana. A similar pass direct to touch later on, the pass delivered with twice as much power as required and less than half the accuracy. Two tries gone begging, both of which would have seen the Boks hit the front long before Habana's moment of magic. They can blame the ball all they want for missed kicks, but had the Boks just been able to play when required, they would have won. No game-plan is going to make up for that aspect this year.
It's been touched on elsewhere, so we're not going to ramble on too much about it, but the BT deal with Premier Rugby is nothing short of a revolution. It's whipped up a frenzy in all European rugby's offices, sent hordes of officials into dark filing cabinets and contractual clauses to find out just exactly who has rights to what, from and until when and who the best people to align with are.
And nobody knows right now. Premier Rugby (PRL) appear to have all this money promised, but for a tournament which doesn't actually exist yet. ERC also have a lot of money coming from BSkyB, also for a tournament which is now threatened with serious devaluation should the English clubs not participate.
It's ironic that the French – often the lone mavericks sparking such situations – are the ones sitting back and looking to choose their allies – on the one side England, fighting for a fairer future in terms of European qualification and structure, but on the other the Celtic Nations and ERC's stability – and the French are financially independent enough to more than survive under any circumstance. Meanwhile, Welsh, Scots, Irish and Italians are all now carrying on as best they can but labouring under a deeply uncertain top-end competition future over which they have little control. It was a wobbly future anyway, but the way PRL has gone about this business has enraged most of the other parties.
What is significant is how bold this move is by PRL, how much conviction it carries. They've had hissy fits before: strikes and threats and posturing, but to put pen to paper over so much money, to destabilise their European relations so thoroughly, is a real statement, one strong enough even to make the RFU make a comment.
European rugby now really does stand on the brink, but so might PRL. If the French decide that the possibility of losing matches like Clermont v Leinster is too much of a risk, they may side with the Pro12 clubs, leaving England alone. What happens to English rugby then? No European competition? Catastrophe…
PRL have taken a massive risk with this move, the risk factor shown in the rumbles of discontent from some club owners in England, not sure if it was a risk worth taking. Meanwhile, the French are asking lengthy and valid questions of PRL and the Celts are manning the battle stations. Once again, European rugby is drawn into discussion in a hostile and reactive atmosphere rather than a pro-active one.
Tuesday's ERC meeting is going to be a watershed moment. For some more than others.
There were plenty of disparaging comments on George Clancy's officiating on Saturday, which is par for the course these days. Elite referees just don't get a break.
But here's a perspective: in America at the moment, the NFL officials are on strike over certain conditions of their contract. That's a lot of officials too – you're talking about 150 plus.
In their place are 'replacement' officials, pulled up from amateur or semi-professional ranks and thrust into cauldrons all over the country. While their endeavours are earnest, their performances are at times almost comical in their ineptitude. One – four weeks ago just another NFL-mad American – was pulled from the roster for a game this weekend after it was revealed his Facebook timeline contained pics of him wearing fan gear of the team he was supposed to be officiating!
The highest level of the sport just moves at a different pace and with a whole host of different tricks. Elite referees know how to handle it way better than anyone else, even if they don't always get it right.
Can you imagine how rugby would be if that happened? Aside from your team winning more, obviously…
Outside of all the politicking, it's been a rough week for the fraternity all over the place.
In Ulster, the squad and community are still reeling from the dreadful loss of Nevin Spence to a bizarre farm accident over the weekend, while Perpignan's big day out – and big win – in Barcelona were tainted by the loss to a sudden heart attack of team bus driver Paul Okesene. In South Africa, the almost as sudden loss of former Springbok analyst Malome Peter Maimane has left many saddened.
Our condolences to all. Kind of makes all the unnecessary politics taste a little sour doesn't it?
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson