This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Lions, New Zealand, stadia and the mystifying case of James Horwill.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Lions, the current status of New Zealand, stadia and the mystifying case of James Horwill…
The drama goes on… and on and on and every time it gets us right to the final minute! It's lacked the controversy of South Africa, the disintegration of New Zealand and the viciousness of the last tour here, but this Lions Test series has been among the best we can remember.
Two Tests both going down to the final kick is a good start, yet it has been the tactical chess match that has us so gripped. Breakdown interpretations and adaptation. Game-plans tailored to stifle individual players. Breathtaking moments of individual game-turning skill, power and coolness. Selection quandaries – before, during and after matches (remember how the Wallabies nearly won the first Test with a flanker in the centre?) It's just been riveting, even if Test two was not a free-flowing exhibition of end-to-end rugby.
There is talk now of the Lions potentially having missed their chance at glory as historically the team that wins the second Test goes on to win the lot (if they haven't done so already). Certainly Australia will be buoyed that this time they not only whisked up a winning score from a move involving much of the team, but also shut the Lions out from the tryline. The kicker held his nerve this time too, albeit with fewer chances at goal.
But this Test was not like the last second Test in Melbourne, where the Wallabies annihilated the tourists with an avalanche of second-half points. This one came down to margins the metaphorical thickness of a cigarette paper. There were disappointed Lions this time, where last time they looked tired and dejected. They could have won this game if a couple more bounces had gone their way. This was a technical defeat. Last time they were KO'd.
What it could come down to in Sydney is the ability to break a game, which is where we now think the Wallabies have the upper hand. Once again this weekend the Lions did a lot of running, a lot of kicking and chasing, a lot of tackling, but could not find a single line break. Australia could. It made all the difference and it piles the pressure on the Lions. How they react to this glaring hole in the statistics will define the series.
A small word about New Zealand. They are current holders of men's and women's XV World Cups, men's and women's Sevens World Cups, and lest we forget, they are also current rugby league world champions – at least until October of this year. You can chuck in last year's clean sweep of the Rugby Championship too. Only the Junior World Championship has eluded them this time, a tournament they won four times in a row before losing it last year in the mud of Stellenbosch and a partisan crowd in Cape Town.
It's hardly common knowledge that New Zealand have been getting it spectacularly right for years, but given the roll of honour above, it is worth tipping hat to the All Black fraternities and sororities. That list of credits is a fantastic and enduring achievement.
Yes, the Sevens was superb. And yes indeed, the Luzhniki Stadium is an impressive cauldron of colour. But thousands and thousands of empty seats was not really the stage in front of which a World Cup ought to have been decided.
As we have learned from Hong Kong and Dubai and many other venues on the Sevens circuit, not to mention the Junior World Championship, the sport of rugby is frequently best served with filling smaller stadia to capacity than having a few thousand well-oiled voices echoing round an arena designed to cope with the volume of 80,000. As with rugby's schedules these days, we'd love quality over quantity.
Finally – and not to let the IRB too far out of our sights – just what on earth is this case of James Horwill?
OK, it was boot contact to the head and the replays don't look good. They look worse every time in fact.
But the only one that counts for us is the first one, which is a game-time speed. That, whilst not looking great, does not look half as bad as the slo-mo, hi-def ones which seek to prolong the ugly moment where Horwill's boot does indeed rake itself down the side of Alun-Wyn Jones' face. Horwill's movement is not that of someone stamping – if you stamp on someone, you usually know where your weight is balanced. Horwill certainly did not.
Anyway, the judicial officer was appointed. He looked at the evidence, presumably from all angles and from all speeds, concluding that while it was not a particularly nice moment, he could not be sure there was clear and obvious intent. There the matter should have lied – after all, the IRB appointed him didn't they? The general legal principle is to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt isn't it?
No. Someone in the blazer brigade wants blood to match the trickle of claret Jones had to endure and so the IRB are appealing. Not the Lions, the IRB.
This is an appalling precedent. There have been several miscarriages of justice from the judicial officers over the past couple of years, never mind the TMOs, many of them dealing with things far more serious than a glancing blow to the face by a misplaced boot. But the IRB sticks by the process and always backs its system – delegating so much to individual unions and tournament bodies that it barely has ever needed to do anything anyway.
Suddenly this. A sudden resolute determination to nail James Horwill for an act that while not pretty, was hardly anywhere near as bad as some of the things that go unpunished in SANZAR's seasons.
The IRB has so often insisted it is impartial, administrative and overseer of process. Ok, that's what it is. So stick to it, and trust the appointed judicial officers. Suddenly intervening in a fairly harmless case does not serve the desired image of impartiality one jot.
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson