This week we concern ourselves with the weekend's action, the latest innovations from SA, and what happens when rugby meets art…
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the weekend's action, the latest innovations from SA, and what happens when rugby meets art…
Takeaways from the weekend's internationals:
1. England might be making winning as hard as possible for themselves, but they are also making themselves as hard as possible to beat. There are few teams who can claim to have led New Zealand this year (next best thing to actually beating them), but England were good value for their lead and put up a well-organised and credible fight with a depleted team. Oh for a creative playmaker…
2. Australia are not as bad as everybody thinks are they? OK, they lost to England, a result which England are slowly putting into context. Since then they have swept Italy aside and backed that up with a more impressive domination of Ireland. Better at the set piece, more disciplined at the breakdown, more incisive in attack… Whatever was going wrong, has been righted.
3. Ireland are significantly less good than everyone thinks. Victory over Samoa was a false dawn for an Ireland team looking more and more in transition. Joe Schmidt talked after the game of 'disconnect' between some of the playing units and players, which more often than not was between the older heads and the newer ones. It should get better, but next up are the All Blacks, hardly what you want after a defensive horror show like this.
4. New Zealand are still the best in the world, Kieran Read is still the best player in the world.
5. Wales can score tries after all! Mike Phillips might find a few more offers dropping into his letter-box after Saturday's efforts, Toby Faletau yet again proved his worth to any team he plays for with a Read-esque performance and surely Dan Biggar is now nailed on as Wales' first-choice number ten…
6. Scotland can't. In the absence of any kind of elite creative talent, Scotland are going to continue painting by numbers in every game they play. Lots of passes, lots of endeavour, all slow, static and way behind the gain-line. Scottish rugby is deep in the doldrums.
7. Currently, we predict a three-way competition between France, Wales and England for the Six Nations, with Ireland a distant fourth and Scotland and Italy scrapping against the wooden spoon. Still can't see past an SA-NZ World Cup Final though.
8. The tastiest-looking match this coming weekend: France v South Africa. Miss this at your peril!
Back in South Africa, next year's Varsity Cup is once again to be the testing ground for a brace of innovations to help sort out the officiating – or rather, to help ease the officiating.
Props are going to be equipped with 'grip patches' on their jerseys, on the back left for the loosehead props and on the right for the tighthead prop – allowing the opposition props to get a better grip when binding and, thus, to keep scrums from collapsing.
Meanwhile, each game will be officiated by two officials in the middle, with the referees operating in tandem during the match, both able to roam the field as they please in order to police the off-side line, the breakdown, forward passes, etc.
We'll hold fire on the jerseys as we're not convinced they'll make a massive difference, but the referees one deserves some comment as we're uncomfortable with it.
Not that the concept of having two referees is a problem – indeed, we've mooted it before – but it's the freedom they have that worries us. Referees make instinctive decisions and react extremely fast to a number of different actions. Jonathan Kaplan once cited to us a piece of research which showed referees had to make an average of about 600 decisions a game (including decisions which don't result in a whistle). Double the referees and you are doubling the number of decisions to be made, which seems to make the job harder, not easier.
When you think about a ruck, think about the chaos going on and the number of actual infringements that happen as teams desperately fight for the ball, there can only be one voice making decisions there. It is more than conceivable that you might get simultaneous blasts of the whistle, the arms straight up in the air pointing in different directions…. Who makes the final call then? How does that produce clarity? Do they have to consult before making a call – in which case you have an official's attention diverted elsewhere while they do…
We could of course be missing some info here. A sensible solution might be to have one referee at any given ruck, with the other one stationed away in anticipation of where the play would move to next. It will be a blessing to have officials on both sides of a scrum as well as level with a kicker, positioned by the posts for a drop goal, and on both sides of a driving maul. Lots of benefits.
But the messages in a game have to be clear, and for clarity, one voice is better than two. So keep a close eye on how this is managed.
Finally, a set of goal-posts arrived at France's training centre in Marcoussis this week. Not ones for Morgan Parra to practice kicking through though.
Former international centre Franck Mesnel bought the two sets of Eden Park goalposts back in 2010 (he also runs the Eden Park clothing label), when the stadium was being revamped for the World Cup and with the money raised donated to the Christchurch earthquake fund.
Belgian sculptor Anre Quinze has turned part of them into the sculpture pictured, which now greets visitors to the French national rugby centre. The other parts have apparently been sliced up and divided among the players – of which Mesnel was one – who took part at Eden Park in the first-ever Rugby World Cup Final.
“For Franck to be able to get a piece of history means a lot to him,” said former All Black fly-half Grant Fox, himself no stranger to slotting a few kicks through what is now the FFR's sculpture.
“The French are quite emotive and, as a team, they can get to a level of emotion that no other side in the world can reach.
“Sadly from an All Black point of view we have been on the receiving end of a few of those performances. It's the emotional side of things that led Franck to buy the posts. France and New Zealand, from a rugby point of view, are extremely close.”
The teams have swapped paintings, phials of blood… and now goalposts. It's a little beyond that old shirt-exchanging tradition!
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson