Loose Pass

Date published: December 29 2015

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with a little look back and a little look forward…

What a year!

2015 will go down as a watershed year, the year professional rugby turned 20 years old.

We’ve had the biggest upset (Japan beating the Boks), the most complete team ever seen (The All Blacks), backed up with the international exit of the two most complete players (Carter and McCaw), all integral parts of the best World Cup – in terms of playing and officiating quality – ever. 

We also had the sad departure of the man whose sheer physical attributes were a better promotional tool for the sport than anything any marketer could have dreamed up (Jonah Lomu). 

The sport is unlikely to have such an outstanding and all-conquering player ever again. 

It’s difficult to look back beyond the wonderful seven weeks that was England 2015 (many English are probably only trying to look forward anyway), but it should not be forgotten that 2015 was not only about RWC 2015. 

We had the best Six Nations finale ever, culminating in England’s extraordinary 55-35 win over France which left them (and Wales, who ran in 60 in Italy) just behind Ireland (40 in Scotland isn’t half bad either) on points difference.

The first champions of the new European Champions’ Cup were crowned – it was a nice twist of irony that for all the wrangling off the pitch that had preceded the tournament in 2014, 2015 brought little change on the pitch; only the runners-up were different. 

Toulon continued their European hegemony and continue to set the pace in terms of rugby’s answer to a glamorous Real Madrid galacticos-style team – even if domestic glory is still apparently harder to come by.

While there was no change in Europe’s status quo, down south a new face was on the flagship trophy. The Highlanders, at times with some mesmerizing rugby, upset the Hurricanes in Wellington in an exhilarating all-New Zealand final to take their first Super Rugby crown and doing it the hard way, winning an away semi-final in Sydney in perhaps the sub-international performance of the year.

All of those tournaments were marked by the general improvement in the quality of rugby, the willingness to attack and go for tries and most notably, the slow step-down from the obsession with size that has for too long been the watchword – perhaps even since Jonah Lomu’s time. 

Toughness, speed, dexterity, intuition, decision-making and knowledge have become the attributes of the great, with the old benchmarks of stones and inches merely nice-to-haves. A new breed of player is coming to the fore: the Nehe Milner-Skudders and Michael Hoopers. Rugby may once again be a game for all shapes and sizes.

Was it all good? No. As befitting a 20-year-old looking to greatness but still inexperienced, there were mistakes. Neither Premier Rugby nor the RFU covered themselves in glory: the former with a disgraceful hush-up and let-off of some English clubs’ salary cap breaches which eroded any trust remaining after the European Cup upheaval. 

Meanwhile the latter continues to behave in a manner befitting the RFU of a long-gone era, seeing it as a divine right to ride roughshod over anyone when it comes to getting their way and to hell with existing contracts. English rugby administration needs clearing up and clearing out in equal measure.

French rugby is in a real mess, with the clubs and players overplayed, too many foreign players churning up French pitches and the national side compromised in both quality and identity as a result. There’s been some French collapses in the past, but to see them give up as they did against New Zealand was just sad.

Down south, the warnings in 2014 preceding the wilting of SANZAR to political pressure from SARU have proven to be true, leaving us facing a Super Rugby format including two under-prepared and under-financed teams (one teetering on the edge of bankruptcy), a new tournament format nobody understands and a calendar with too much rugby and not enough of other things. Only in Argentina has this reshuffle been a good thing.

Maybe too much rugby is the general malaise still affecting the sport. The European Cup began not two weeks after the World Cup Final. When asked if he fancied popping over to watch, a staunch rugby fan of several decades of age confessed to being a bit ‘rugby-ed out’, a condition with which Loose Pass could easily sympathise. A tremendous year it was, but boy was there a lot of it.

The next cycle

Thus are there both things to hope for and to look forward to. Once again the laws are being reviewed and experiments conducted in various territories and competitions, with a wide scope of initial trials including changes to the points system, multiple referees, and time-keeping technicalities.

There’s a link to the full range of tweaks – trials and official amendments – halfway down the page here. Have a read. 

Some of the trials are intriguing to the purist – such as Law 19 about being in-touch – although I have to confess I am looking forward to some spectacular aerial tap-backs as a result of b), but others are going to have big consequences.

Six for a try and two for a penalty skews the value too far and could lead to a glut of penalties being conceded as preferable options to a possible eight-pointer. The penalty try, which has become a little too commonplace, is now a catastrophic concession because of its automatic eight-point value. 

Expect more dogged mauls and driving scrums as a result. Either six for a try or two for a penalty would have been better balanced – and was there no consideration over the value of drop goals?

The new scrum-half put-in technique and stance is a victory to the serial feeders and hands a big chunk of advantage to the attacking team – rendering a scrum almost as valuable as a penalty because of the space available and sureness of possession. But teams will at least be looking to score tries from such a platform, so it’s potentially good news for the viewer.

And any major criticism probably ends there. Allowing teams winning a penalty to kick for touch with that penalty even though time has expired is excellent and will add plenty of last-minute drama. 

The new scrum engagement call may not please those better-versed in the dark arts than I who actually like their spines being crunched between two tonnes of human bone and muscle, but anything that might get us fewer collapses is worth looking at. 

The enforcement of usage of maul possession is good news IF it is actually policed (the ‘use it’ call has not been too well). The 5m drop-out option bows to rugby league a bit, but gives extra exit options to scrum-lighter teams. 

As for the amendments, many will not make a big difference, but do reflect the subtle change in culture that might be World Rugby’s next big battle: coping with things like simulation, preventing quick line-outs and calculated time-wasting. As Nigel Owens revels in reminding us: this is not soccer. 

On that note too, imagine two of Mr. Owens on the pitch! That’s what is facing New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup teams this season: all the matches will have two referees. Interesting if it works, but given that there is a shortage of referees in general globally, will it ever be practicable on a large scale?

Laws aside, international teams all around the world, many armed with new coaching staffs, will be plotting their seasons building up to 2019. England could achieve greatness under Eddie Jones. The Gatland years continue in Wales with a new generation. Are Ireland in flux? Can Scotland continue the renaissance? Can France find their identity under Guy Noves? Who will coach the Boks? Is the new generation of All Blacks just as good? Is this Argentina here to stay?

A new Super Rugby format, a new set of laws, a new phalanx of coaches and we’re set for more interesting times as the game grows up. Oh yes – and don’t forget the Olympics! But that one thing the sport needs more than anything else to reach full maturity: a properly-integrated global fixture calendar that bows to the players’ interests and keeps the fans fresh, remains frustratingly elusive. 

That, perhaps alongside maintaining and refreshing the structures that have enabled the likes of Japan and Georgia to thrive, should be World Rugby’s biggest priority this next four years. 

All the very best for 2016 to you all!

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.