Loose Pass

Date published: January 8 2015

A new year is upon us and Loose Pass kicks off 2015 with a new author, but the same old ‘shoot-from-the-hip’ style.

While many dread the post-festive period, the return to work, the credit card bills and the queue to return that Christmas jumper, rugby fans have reason to rejoice with the imminent arrival of the Six Nations.

The welcome return of the glorious feast of rugby that is the battle for northern hemisphere supremacy will be even more enthralling than normal with the small matter of a Rugby World Cup looming later in the year.

The Test results back in November suggested all the leading European nations are raising their game at just the right time but none as high as Ireland who will rightly enter the Championship as favourites on the back of victories over South Africa and Australia propelling them to third in the world rankings.

And with France and England both set for testing trips to Dublin in this year’s Championship, Joe Schmidt’s side look good value for back-to-back titles.

The Six Nations looks set to come too early for an England side that requires some refinement if they are to topple the world’s best while France and Wales also have some ground to make up. And don’t bet against Scotland and even Italy continuing their improvement and throwing a spanner in the works of their title rivals. The stage is set for the most competitive Six Nations in years.

As we’ve got the crystal ball out, let’s cast an eye over the rest of the rugby globe.

Expect the usual suspects of Northampton, Saracens and Leicester to challenge for the Premiership crown and Bath to continue their resurgence by returning to the play-offs. But it will be the Saints, powered by the monster and future Player of the Season that is Samu Manoa, who will be celebrating once again at Twickenham.

English rugby’s HQ will also be the venue for the first Champions Cup finale where Toulon will continue their dominance of Europe’s top table but they will relinquish the Top 14 crown to Clermont Auvergne.

Glasgow will make history in the PRO12 with their first title while the Crusaders will reclaim Super Rugby supremacy and further New Zealand success will follow in an abbreviated Rugby Championship.

As for the big one? Expect the biggest and best tournament ever and the All Blacks to underline their dominance by becoming the first country to notch back-to-back World Cup crowns.

Saracens have never been satisfied with just making headlines with their performances on the pitch, just take a look at the red posts and the hi-tech plastic pitch that adorn their Allianz Park home.

Chief executive Ed Griffiths’ attempts to shake things up in English rugby appear to endear some and alienate others – a fact we have been reminded of in recent weeks.

He returned to one of his favourite subjects – the scrapping of the Premiership’s salary cap – last month and claimed that seven clubs now backed his proposal. That figure is still short of the 75% required to enforce such a change and it appears he will even struggle to secure that level of support from his fellow owners and chief executives come crunch time with none apparently prepared to back him publicly.

No-one appears prepared to help Saracens rock the boat with even the players themselves coming out in support of the salary cap. There may come a time when such a free market will be the best move for the game in England but now is not that time.

Griffiths will probably find more friends with his efforts to safeguard the future of his players that have included post-rugby career advice and philosophy classes and now the club’s new concussion programme.

The players wore impact sensors during their recent clash with London Irish to help determine the effects of concussion and their proactive stance on one of the hot topics not just in rugby but in sport in general must be applauded.

“We don’t want to meet our players in 20 or 25 years’ time, to find them suffering from dementia or any similar condition, and to reflect we suspected something was going on but we didn’t really know. We want to know,” insists Griffiths.

It appears the Saracens really are onto ‘something special’.

Many people may have woken on New Year’s Day with a sense of regret, for many that may have followed a drunken night of revelry but not Jonny Wilkinson who appeared to acknowledge what he seemed to think was an impending knighthood.

‘So many more deserving amongst you who won’t get recognition’ he tweeted, only to find out that all the congratulatory messages – and the newspaper ‘exclusive’ that prompted them – were incorrect.

Wilkinson brushed off the disappointment and took his frustration out on a bag of balls – old habits clearly die hard – but rest assured it will not be too long before he joins the ranks of rugby’s knights.

A World Cup winner and one of the most respected players of all time, thanks to an unrivalled dedication to the art of kicking and a legendary work ethic, Wilkinson’s high standards on the pitch were matched off the field where you would not encounter a more modest, generous and eloquent player.

That regrettable tweet on the eve of the New Year is probably the nearest Wilkinson has come to negative publicity in 15 years at the top of his and our game.

Oh how some of today’s leading stars could do with some of the self-discipline that helped make Wilkinson into one of the greatest to ever play the sport.

Last month Northampton and England hooker Dylan Hartley was quite rightly sent off for elbowing Leicester’s Matt Smith in the face and more recently the red mist descended on Stade Francais and South Africa fly-half Morne Steyn who got his marching orders for kicking Lyon wing Mosese Ratuvou.

Both players claim to have been provoked into reacting so badly but their behaviour is inexcusable given their experience and status and bordered on stupidity. Steyn’s dismissal cost his side what could be a crucial victory in the battle for the Top 14 title and while Northampton may have weathered the loss of Hartley, the player himself jeopardised his international future with just his latest indiscretion.

With more eyes than ever on the sport as we build to the biggest ever World Cup – and advert for the game – such acts could come at en even bigger price in terms of the development of the game.

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