Loose Pass

Date published: February 3 2015

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This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with some bold name calling, England’s unorthodox training methods, playing with injuries and Super Bowl hangovers.

Is the Six Nations the ‘greatest’ rugby championship?

Six Nations chiefs not only unveiled a smart new trophy at the official media launch last week – it now has six sides don’t you know – but also a rather intriguing strap line that labels the northern hemisphere showpiece as ‘rugby’s greatest championship’. A bold call.

No doubt sponsors RBS are the driving force behind this headline-grabbing piece of marketing that is certainly up for debate. They claim it warrants the controversial moniker due to the fact that it is the oldest rugby union championship and also the ‘best attended’ competition in the world with an average attendance of 72,000 per game.

Not convinced? Tournament chiefs also point to millions of TV viewers with the Championship broadcast in 190 countries and streamed live in another 20 making it the ‘most-watched annual rugby championship on the planet’.

There is one final element to their argument buried half way down the accompanying press release – as if they are not quite convinced themselves – that states that the Six Nations boasts the ‘best players in world rugby’. Oh dear. They were doing so well.

Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton may have made the World Rugby player of the year shortlist last year but the world’s best players continue to ply their trade in the Southern Hemisphere.

New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick deservedly took out game’s top honour and was joined by team-mate Julian Savea and the South Africa duo of Wille le Roux and Duane Vermeulen in the mix.

The Championship’s unrivalled history, much-loved traditions and its ability to transcend the usual sporting landscape and engage millions across the continent are the Six Nations’ trump cards and it is those that should be used to justify its status as rugby’s greatest championship.

Turn it up to 11

It appears that the Six Nations are not the only ones struggling to get their message across.

England have reportedly used loudspeakers as part of their preparations for the Six Nations opener against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Friday night in a bid to replicate the wall of noise that will greet them in Cardiff.

Lancaster’s players struggled to communicate on their last visit to what is – in my book at least – the best rugby arena in the world and it is hoped this unorthodox training technique will help them not only survive but thrive on their latest visit to the ever-impressive Cardiff cauldron.

However, I’m not sure what the other residents at England’s luxurious Pennyhill Park training base in leafy Surrey will make of the sound of Tom Jones and Max Boyce disturbing the peace offered by their expensive salubrious surrounds.

All joking aside, if you ever wanted evidence of the positive impact of ‘the extra man’ that is a packed house and a vociferous crowd on your side’s fortunes there it is – and I feel for you if your team rattles around in a stadium they rarely fill.

Breaking point

Sir Clive Woodward is rarely short of an opinion and his status as the only coach to have steered England to World Cup glory continues to command attention whether you like him or loathe him.

Woodward’s latest lecture centred on the hot topic of player welfare with England’s Six Nations preparations having been disrupted by a catalogue of injuries. He believes that English rugby’s leading names are playing too many games and an equally worrying number are playing on with injuries. It is hard to argue, despite not being a fully paid up member of the Woodward fan club, so I won’t.

England’s best players are being pushed to breaking point by a calendar that demands too much of them and offers far too little time to recover from the brutal nature of the modern game.

The Rugby Football Union needs to dip into their unrivalled reserves and secure the services of the country’s leading players and ensure they decide how many games they play each season and more importantly – when they must rest.

The seismic shift in player management could help ease the financial burden on the leading clubs with loan deals for players still guaranteeing access to top talent but without the commitment of a long-term contract.

There is no point having some of the brightest talents in the game if they are perpetually pushed to breaking point and denied the chance summon their best when it matters most.

Super Bowl hangover

Rugby may not be the only sport that continues to suffer from a reluctance to acknowledge the severity of injuries and a culture that allegedly accepts such questionable behaviour.

Super Bowl XLIX served up one of the most thrilling clashes ever seen in the NFL title game with tension at every turn and the drama building with every down.

A fitting finale included an outstanding showing from New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman who was a key figure throughout but specifically during a drive that sparked their comeback win against Seattle Seahawks.

During that drive he was on the receiving end of a huge hit that reportedly left him dazed and prompted medical concerns about a possible concussion but the player never left the field for any kind of assessment.

The NFL continues to work hard to restore its reputation regarding player welfare and such a high profile incident – nor the apparent reluctance to discuss the issue – like this will not help to convince their critics they are treating the issue with the it deserves.

A similar incident when Australia’s George Smith was clearly concussed during a clash with the British and Irish Lions served as a key turning point in rugby’s battle to manage the potential dangers and concerns of those involved in the sport.

Neither sport can afford to applaud warrior-like performances without ensuring they adopt and strictly implement promises to safeguard the sport and those that play it.

Missing Mallett

The Six Nations is poorer for the absence of Nick Mallett whose presence brought both honest opinion and insightful analysis during his tenure as Italy coach.

Thankfully his voice remains through his media and sponsorship commitments and his comments remain compelling.

His most recent headline centred on his belief that England would be in better shape right now had the Rugby Football Union opted for the dream coaching team of Mallett and Kiwi mastermind Wayne Smith instead of Stuart Lancaster back in 2012.

In particular, he has highlighted the magic wand Smith could have waved over England’s often-criticised back-line.

There can be little doubt about Smith’s knowledge or ability to convey that expertise and I do not know of another coach who commands as much respect from his peers – including the England boss who is a keen student of the game and successful sports management in general – but I do believe England got it right with their appointment of Lancaster.

England needed to restore their reputation both on an off the field in the wake of a disastrous 2011 Rugby World Cup and Lancaster’s efforts to rebuild a desirable culture within the squad while nurturing the next generation of players has rightfully earned him many plaudits.

England are not the finished article – and results have illustrated that – but Lancaster has successfully steered English rugby out of some of its darkest days.

Loose Pass is compiled by former scrum.com editor Graham Jenkins

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