Welcome to loose pass. This week we’re looking at a comical referee, the contrasting fortunes of two European giants and a new rivalry.
Who needs a whistle to be heard?
A thrilling weekend of top-class European rugby was punctuated by several outstanding performances including Bath’s Jonathan Joseph, Saracens’ Billy Vunipola and Wasps’ James Haskell all rightly showered with praise but their brilliance was eclipsed by that of referee Nigel Owens.
The Welshman may irritate those who have suffered at his whistle – Clermont Auvergne fans are no doubt still seething about the penalty try awarded to Saracens at Twickenham last season – and those who believe a good referee is one who doesn’t claim as much air time as the players, but you simply have to applaud his game management.
A heated confrontation between Quins’ George Robson and Wasps’ Bradley Davies during their European Champions Cup clash at the weekend inspired just the latest classic one-liner from Owens who diffused the situation by telling the grappling duo that ‘if they wanted to cwtch, they should do it off the field’.
His humour may have been lost at first on those not familiar with the Welsh language but his request that they stop cuddling soon went viral. Of course, such recognition is nothing new to the openly gay ref. Who can forget his lecture to Leinster and Scarlets, the hilarious ‘This is not football’ comment – what would he have made of Yoann Huget’s dive’ at the weekend? – or his description of a wayward lineout thrown by Quins hooker Dave Ward – ‘I’m straighter than that one’.
Some may say that his style and apparent willingness to fuel his fame on social media leads to a lack of respect on the field but don’t buy it. If anything, it earns him and the sport more respect.
For some unknown reason, presumably to get as many refs as possible primed for the World Cup, Owens will take charge of just one Six Nations clash this year – France v Scotland – and the Championship will be poorer for that fact. But don’t be too surprised if he is handed the honour of taking charge of the biggest game of all later this year.
Make no mistake, Owens is not all quips and quiffs.
His recent contribution to the on-going scrum debate is just as compelling as any of his one-liners – although sadly unlikely to notch up a similar number of ‘likes’ and retweets.
Owens is adamant the laws are not the problem and lays the blame for endless resets at the feet of the players, quite literally. He insists players are packing down with their feet too far back with gravity then doing the rest.
If Owens had his way, he would be allowed to give his yellow and even his red card an airing in order to punish the offenders. What better way to encourage positive play at scrum time than wield the very real threat of losing a player to the sin-bin at the first offence?
However, Owens’ hands are currently tied by World Rugby and referees manager Joel Jutge who must act now to preserve the scrum as a key aspect of the game and the sport as a spectacle with the World Cup looming.
But they are unlikely to be seen to act on his word – unlike the players he so delightfully manages on a weekly basis.
End of an era?
Almost as ugly as many modern scrums was Munster’s capitulation at the hands of Saracens at Allianz Park that all confirmed their European Champions Cup exit at the pool stage for only the second time in 16 years.
It was the worst Munster performance I can remember and the manner of their defeat was alarming with one horrific – almost comical – lineout malfunction set to haunt those responsible and those fans who witnessed it for many seasons to come.
They met a Sarries side brimming with confidence and packed with players such as Vunipola with points to prove but that cannot disguise Munster’s shortcomings.
At such a pivotal point of the season we are so used to seeing Munster deliver but there was to be no Munster ‘miracle’ like that memorable showing against Gloucester in 2003.
The performance on Saturday was so far removed from that on that famous day at Thomond Park it is not funny and Munster’s ever faithful following will rightly demand urgent attention to ensure they are not absent from Europe’s top table for too long.
Toulon too good for words
Munster can take some heart from the fact they were not the only Irish province humiliated at the weekend with Ulster handed a lesson by Toulon.
The French giants may well have playing riches the rest of the world can only dream of but blending that talent – and the egos for that matter – into a formidable team cannot be easy and so head coach Bernard Laporte deserves immense credit.
Clearly not content with back-to-back Heineken Cup triumphs they are determined to raise the bar again and claim an unprecedented hat-trick and in this kind of form it will take a very special side to prevent them from doing so.
If you haven’t already, make a point of watching what is sure to be one of the tries of the season that was scored by Mamuka Gorgodze but carved out by his star-studded and insanely talented teammates. And when you’ve done that, watch it again, and again, and again. It is a thing of beauty – as is the newspaper celebration.
But a 60-22 and a try for the ages was clearly not enough for Laporte: ‘This is not good enough, we need to do more’. You have been warned.
Boudjellal better get his chequebook out again but I don’t think he needs to worry about losing the services of current stars Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell as they teased this week – they know they have got it good in the south of France.
How to get ahead in advertising
Leicester Tigers may not have hit their usual heights on the field this season but it appears they are still setting the standard off the field.
They may not be struggling to sell tickets with around 15,000 season ticket holders flocking to Welford Road each matchday but they are not getting complacent – especially with some new kids on the block.
Wasps’ recent move to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, just a short trip down the M69, prompted the Leicester marketing team to invest in a billboard outside their rivals’ new home that explains to any new fans that the Tigers have been ‘on your doorstep since 1880’.
That stroke of genius should add a little more spice to their Premiership clash on May 10.
Loose Pass is compiled by former scrum.com editor Graham Jenkins