Loose Pass

Date published: January 19 2016

London Irish v Wasps - Aviva Premiership

This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with the new England squad, age-group rugby and nine-point tries.  

Ticking every box

So new England coach Eddie Jones has shown his hand by naming his first squad, and who would have guess that the one glaring absentee would be that stalwart performer, media skepticism?

Rarely has the English press been so united in approval. Against all odds, the wily Australian has played the media on-side with his first roll of the die, sending the Barbour-clad curmudgeons of the press box cooing into the night. 

When it comes to reviewing squad selection, it's standard journalistic procedure to voice at least one reservation – a muted quibble that can be quickly re-nosed as a stark told-you-so when it all goes wrong. 

But precious few fail-safes were deployed. Sir Clive Woodward declared that his former nemesis's squad "ticked every box", and even Stephen Jones of the Sunday Times could not find a bad word to say. He confessed to coming over all funny, a condition he later diagnosed as pure optimism – an aliment long thought eradicated from Twickenham.

Well, Loose Pass ain't so cocksure. We'd much prefer to cover our bums, so here are a few observations we'll be re-visiting when Eddie's sweet chariot veers off the road.

Firstly, Tom Youngs. Currently tearing up trees for Leicester, many saw him as a possible captain, but he's not even in the extended squad! Jones hasn't elaborated on this startling omission, but it appears to be down to his insistence that hookers actually need to hook. 

Huh? Given that the last straight put-in occurred circa 1994, does this not seem like a slightly bizarre imperative for a modern-day number two? Jones might as well also exclude those who refrain from cigars during the half-time break. 

And can't a vastly experienced hooker learn to hook? After all, Leicester's eight-man shove is surely Welford Road policy rather than some sort of make-do designed to mask the personal failings of their resident British & Irish Lion.

But we're more taken aback by the absence of the other Tom: what exactly is the thinking concerning Mr Wood? Sure, the Saint is getting on a bit, but he's still younger than James Haskell and Chris Robshaw – and, of the three, who's been the most tenacious performer in an England shirt? 

And when it all went array against Wales during the World Cup, it was Wood who fronted up to the media – he took the slings and arrows after Robshaw fled the flashbulbs, and he took them like a man, speaking such earthy sense in the process. 

What's more, it's becoming increasing obvious that either Matt Kvesic or Jack Clifford will wear seven against Scotland, and if I was either, I'd love a Test-hardened out-and-out six next to me – and if not on the pitch, at least in the blooming squad! 

Finally (and it's really just the three objections), what happened to all that previous chat about wanting players who "express themselves" on the pitch? Proper expression flows from first-phase possession, but Jones has pointedly refused to pick expressive first-phasers, most notably Danny Cipriani and Joe Simpson.

Either you want players to take the initiative or you want them to do as they are told. Either way is just fine, just spare as the double-talk and give it to us straight. That's all we ask of you, Eddie. Lord knows England fans have endured our fill of bogus chat-up lines. 

Child's play

From the top end of English rugby we move to the bottom. This correspondent has taken to hanging around his local club's U6 side (not in a creepy way, I hasten to add) and it has been heartening to see how much emphasis is put on simply having the ball in hand.

Tackling is taboo, that comes way down the track – and don't you dare put boot to ball. Enjoyment is paramount. It's just run and pass, run and pass, run and pass. 

And yet the system is still fundamentally flawed: the fixation of grouping children by age rather than by size persists. Thus the boys closer to six than to five have the upper-hand in terms of dexterity and size, and invariably it is they that find themselves listed under 'A' on the team sheet. And things get seriously out of kilter during puberty. Early bloomers find themselves at the top of the pile by dint of body size alone. Those that are slower to develop – or simply born a little later – will generally have to content themselves with a place in one of the lower sides before, inevitably, drifting away from rugby altogether. 

So it's no surprise whatsoever that the one rugby nation that has successfully tackled this 'outlier' conundrum is the world's most successful.

Club and schoolboy rugby in New Zealand is governed by weight categories, not by age. A big boy faced with big boy will need to use more than mere brawn to succeed – it's suddenly a fair fight where other attributes will be required if one is to succeed. Similarly, a fair fight would allow a smaller boy to catch a coach's eye through innate ability alone. 

The proof is in the pudding: New Zealand are back-to-back world champions. Their system has created a scenario where only the most skilful brutes rise to the top. To a man, the sheer footballing ability of each and every All Black trumps his mere physical presence. Their locks aren't that tall, their props aren't that strong. Look at little Sam Cane. Look at Nehe Milner-Skudder! 

England fans will be heartened to hear that Bath has recently introduced 'bio-banding', but age-group rugby needs an international overhaul if New Zealand's rugby hegemony is ever to be challenge. 

Over to you, World Rugby.

Try inflation

For those of you upset with World Rugby's decision to trial six-point tries, we bring you news that will have you grinding your teeth down to the nerve: nine-point tries will be scored during South Africa's forthcoming Varsity Cup. 

Why? Good question. We'd love to be able to tell you it's April 1, but we can't because it isn't. This is for real. 

According to World Rugby, the six-pointer is designed "to promote the continuity of the match and reward scoring tries over penalties". 

One would assume that similar reasoning was employed by the brainiac who came up with the nine-pointer, but it's extremely doubtful given that there isn't a loose forward alive who wouldn't willing concede a penalty (just two points, we should add) if the alternative was conceding up to 11 points. It's going to be a kick-fest littered with yellow cards.

So perhaps it's all just an opportunity to test undergraduate maths skills as they've decided that tries will carry all sorts of different values. 

There remains what they call "normal" tries (those scored from within 22 metres out) and they will still be worth five points. Seven points will be awarded for tries that start between the halfway line and the opponents’ 22, and the nine-pointers are the reserve of those tries which start from the attacking team’s own half.

But where exactly does a try 'start', and who exactly will be policing this? 

It will make for fascinating viewing, but almost definitely not in the way that the law-tinkerers would have envisioned.

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

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