Loose Pass

Date published: January 5 2016

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This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with southern imports, damned statistics and tricky fixture lists.

The new Riviera

Welcome to the Aviva Premiership, Schalk Burger! Welcome to the Aviva Premiership, Amanaki Mafi! Likewise Jamie Roberts. Ditto Ben Te’o and Greg Holmes.

Thank you for snubbing French overtures, James Haskell! Thank you for snubbing French overtures, Manu Tuilagi! We’re also looking at you Nick Evans, Adam Jones and Ben Foden.

And with Louis Picamoles on his way to Northampton, all eyes turn to Wales superstar Leigh Halfpenny who is allegedly poised to turn his back on Toulon and join Wasps. A back turned on Toulon!

Sure, the dawn of a new year always heralds a raft of transfers, but there’s something distinctly different about these latest headlines.

But one season ago, you would have bet that the likes of James Horwill, Jean de Villiers, Ben Franks and Victor Matfield would have chosen to play out their days in the Top 14. Yet they all now earn their crust in the Aviva Premiership. England is the new France.

What’s going on?

Well, the new recruits certainly haven’t been lured by the weather or – we dare to suggest – the quality of the rugby. It’s all down to market forces.

French rugby bosses, evidently shaken by the slide of their national team have from this season introduced fines for clubs that fail to field a match-day squad containing a minimum of 12 ‘home-grown’ players. These are the JIFFs (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) – players registered with the FFR for at least five years before they turned 21, or have spent three seasons in an FFR-approved training centre if currently U21.

From next season, clubs will have to actually field 14 JIFFs during each league game.

This is not quite music to the ears of economic migrants of the egg-carrying persuasion, but changes in France have dove-tailed quite nicely with changes across the English Channel.

With the RFU awash with money and the Premiership basking in a new TV deal, the bigger clubs are pushing for higher salary caps – and they are being heard. The salary cap for this season is £5.5m, rising to £6.5m in 2016-17 and £7m the season afterwards.

What’s more, each Premiership club is allowed two ‘excluded players’ – Dan Carters, basically – whose wages do not count towards the overall salary cap. These guys can earn as much as the club (well, the club’s owner) can afford to pay.

Quite what effect this will have on the English game remains to be seen, but France’s retreat from a completely open market should be setting alarm bells ringing.

Les Bleus once exuded a self-confidence that dwarfed their actually ability. It was in their nature; it was their trademark. Their defiance of all logic was the toast of our game. But they were last seen raising a white flag in the face of the Haka. 62-13!

The aplomb has gone. You can see it in the players’ eyes. And you don’t have to be a sport psychologist to reason that it might have something to do with being first-choice for your country when only second-choice for your club.

Lies, damned lies and statistics

World Rugby recently released its statistical analysis of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. If you are a rugby anorak, it makes for a fascinating read. For those of you with actual lives, we’re happy to condense its 96 pages.

But be warned: it makes for sobering reading for Europeans. Indeed, the failings of the northern hemisphere are examined with something approaching relish. They’ve even seen fit to include a prominent yet totally ancillary post-mortem of the 2014 November Tests in which we are reminded that three-quarters of all tries were scored by the four southern hemisphere teams!

That aside, a rather pretty picture emerges from all the data: rugby appears to be in good shape.

We were particularly taken by a comparison of RWC 2015 to RWC 1995. Over the last 20 years, ball-in-play per match has increased by 26%, passes per match has gone from 201 to 282, kicks per match has gone down from 59 to 39 per game, scrums per match has gone down from 23 to 13, with lineouts per match going down from 37 to 26. And perhaps most tellingly, rucks and mauls per match has nearly doubled, going up from 94 per game to 178 per game – an increase of almost 90%.

But if you are looking for just one jaw-dropping stat to deploy at the pub, might we suggest the following bombshell?

New Zealand and Australia scored 25 tries in their seven RWC matches against other tier-one team; the remaining eight tier-one teams managed 26 tries, but they needed a full 21 matches to reach that figure.

Yonks!

You can read it and weep right here.

Clear as mud

As with other fatally flawed souls, Loose Pass spends New Year gripped by the nagging compulsion towards self-improvement.

This year, being too old and wise to make another foolish commitment to the local gym, we turned our attention to the new Super Rugby format. We vowed to finally make sense of it all. High time, you might say, and you’d be right on the money: we’ve been winging it for years.

So after a week of intense investigation – featuring countless calls to countless officials on no less than four different continents – this is what we have surmised.

There’s now 18 teams in the competition. The Sunwolves of Japan have joined the party, as have the Jaguares from Argentina, and the Kings of South Africa return to the fray.

These 18 teams will be grouped geographically. There are two regional groups, each consisting of two conferences.

Still with us? Great.

The Australasian Group features the Australian and New Zealand Conferences, each comprising their existing five teams.

The South African Group contains two Conferences with the Bulls, Cheetahs, Stormers and the Sunwolves making up Africa Conference 1 and the Kings, Lions, Sharks and the Jaguares in Africa Conference 2. We can only presume that this split came out of a hat, but no one was able to furnish us with precise details, so let’s move on swiftly.

Each team will play six matches within their own Conference, five against an Australasian Conference and four against a South African Conference.

So far so good – and it was comforting to be told, consistently, by everyone we contacted “to just simply remember the six-five-four rule”.

But the more astute among you will have already grasped that it’s hard to play six home-and-away fixtures in your own Conference if there’s five teams in your Conference. So, no, it won’t be conducted on a strict home-and-away basis (unless you are a member of one of the four-teamed South African Conferences): some teams you will play home and away, some only at home, some only away. We can only presume that this split came out of a hat, but no one was able to furnish us with precise details, so let’s move on swiftly.

Muddying the waters ever so slightly further is the fact that 6 5 4 doesn’t even equal 17. In other words, teams don’t play all the other teams. Instead, it has been decreed that Africa Conference 1 will play against the Australian Conference in 2016, and Africa Conference 2 will play against the New Zealand Conference.

We did receive a relatively plausible explanation to this part of the freakish format: it will alternate annually. But this only throws up further quirks, not least the fact that the likes of the Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls won’t face any Kiwi opposition during the regular season. Instead, they’ll be extracting ten-point hauls from their two meetings with the month-old Sunwolves.

And that takes us to the play-offs – and this is child’s play in comparison. The winner of each of the four Conferences earns automatic entry to the play-offs. The next highest-ranked team from the South African Group will also be placed in the play-offs along with the three next highest-ranked teams from Australasian Group.

Clear as mud, right? Hmmm. We’re staring cross-eyed at the logo of the new-fangled Jaguares and suspect you are wearing that same pained expression.

Just forget you ever laid eyes on this and we’ll get back to the gym.

This week’s Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson

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