Welcome to Loose Pass, Planet Rugby’s weekly collection of muttered ramblings, frenzied rants and disjointed thoughts.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Six Nations, England’s need for a cup competition, the battle between television networks and Super Rugby…
The start of the Six Nations is still a couple of weeks away but it is already making headlines around the world.
Wales’ decision to draft Kiwi playmaker Gareth Anscombe into their World Cup plans this week will have understandably raised a few eyebrows in his native New Zealand – and elsewhere.
Anscombe is not the first and will not be the last player to switch his international allegiance in search of the game’s highest honours – having starred for the 2011 Junior World Championship-winning New Zealand U20s side – but should he be allowed to make such a move? Not in my book.
It is of course not Anscombe’s problem. He is just leveraging the current World Rugby regulations to chase an international dream with his Welsh mother and a perceived lack of opportunities in his native New Zealand paving the way to Wales.
It grates a little that Anscombe committed to New Zealand as he embarked on his representative career but having performed the haka countless times and belted out ‘God Defend New Zealand’ he appeared to change his mind as the path to the All Blacks got a little rough.
What grates even more is that the system would not allow such a move in the opposite direction.
As Wales do not have a ‘B’ team, like the England Saxons, Irish Wolfhounds or Junior All Blacks – a financial decision taken some time ago by the Welsh Rugby Union – the U20s side is designated as their second team.
World Rugby rules stipulate that a single appearance for that ‘second’ side ties you to that nation for the entirety of your playing career.
In my opinion, any player who embarks on an international career with one country at age-group level must honour that pledge and the system should offer no escape clauses.
In contrast, England are having great difficulty picking a player who is better qualified than almost anyone to pull on a red rose.
Another week, another Man of the Match honour for Toulon’s Steffon Armitage begs the question as to how long can England go on ignoring his undoubted talents?
England head coach Stuart Lancaster revealed this week that outstanding form week in, week out on the domestic stage remained the driving force behind selection but clearly not in the case of last season’s European Player of the Season.
Lancaster’s hands remain tied by Armitage’s decision to pull a pay cheque in France and the Rugby Football Union’s insistence on only picking players based overseas in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Armitage’s excellence at the breakdown is impossible to ignore and Lancaster is in danger of being seen as foolish for not forcing through his selection although the injuries that continue to ravage his plans for the Six Nations may make that decision a little easier.
The forceful flanker is on England’s radar and his selection in the Rugby World Cup training squad in the summer is a near-certainty but surely his form warrants a chance to get up-to-speed ahead of that time?
The recent injury to number eight Ben Morgan appeared to bring that eventuality a little nearer but Armitage is seen as an openside option and with current number seven and captain Chris Robshaw’s stock at an all-time high with the England management they do not feel compelled to make that call – yet.
You may think that English rugby fans have very few reasons to envy their football counterparts outside of the astronomical TV rights deals that have fuelled the growth of the Premier League – but this past weekend highlighted one other trump card their rival code possesses.
The FA Cup served up the kind of drama and fairytale storylines that rugby union can only dream of with League One Bradford City sending Premier League leaders Chelsea packing, Championship side Middlesbrough man-handling Manchester City out of the competition and League Two outfit Cambridge United holding their own against the might of Manchester United.
English rugby has been without a national cup competition since the demise of the Powergen Cup – previously the RFU, John Player, Pilkington and Tetley’s Bitter Cup – with the Premiership clubs now restricted to the Anglo-Welsh Cup alongside the Welsh regions.
The demands of the rugby calendar may make the resurrection of such a competition unlikely without a major overhaul of the season but ‘the magic of the Cup’ and the chance for the grassroots clubs to dream – no matter how unlikely those aspirations are – could inject fresh impetus into efforts to grow every aspect of the game.
As the Six Nations approaches we can expect a plethora of pundits to deliver some engaging and not-so-enthralling comment on the latest battle for northern hemisphere supremacy.
While the make-up of the respective squads maybe a hot topic among the ex-players and coaches that will hope to bring insight and colour to your Championship, selection is not such a pressing issue among TV producers – but should it be?
A host of familiar faces will front the BBC coverage in the UK from the comfort of seats they have occupied for many years and surely it is time for a shake-up.
We all have our favourites and those we’d happily kick into touch but perhaps that ability to irritate is valued as any expertise?
A team can always benefit from some new ideas so how about a recently-retired player? Or a coach who is actually earning a living working at the elite level right now?
Rival broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports have their own shortcomings when it comes to rugby coverage but at least they see the value in figures fresh from the fight in the form of Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Wilkinson respectively.
The big money contracts that lured them to a media career and the BBC’s own budgets are unlikely to allow them to moonlight but don’t be surprised if ITV stumps up the cash when they take on the honour of host broadcaster for this year’s Rugby World Cup.
Hot on the heels of the opening exchanges in the Six Nations will come the new Super Rugby season and it’s not just the players getting ready for the southern hemisphere’s showpiece.
The referees are sharpening up their act in an attempt to avoid the gaffes that marred the start of last season and SANZAR Game Manager Lyndon Bray has revealed that the core objectives for 2015 are ‘high intensity, high octane’.
It is hoped that this approach will ensure ‘quick ball at the tackle’ and ‘faster and more positive scrums’ which in turn will ‘consolidate Super Rugby as the best rugby competition in the world’.
The proof will be in the pudding but SANZAR and Bray deserve credit for inviting the media to their pre-season camp although how exactly an ‘egg separating stress test’ will prime them for the season is beyond me.
Such access should be the norm throughout the season and ideally referees would be allowed to front up after games to discuss the action and explain any contentious elements of their performance.
They have lived in the shadows for too long and their silence is often detrimental for the officials themselves and the game in general.
Loose Pass is compiled by former scrum.com editor Graham Jenkins