Loose Pass

Date published: January 26 2016

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This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with brutality, dictatorship and debt mountains…

All of the above makes this column sound like a review of a bad day under Jacob Zuma rule, but actually this is mostly about European rugby.

List of shame

It’s always vaguely interesting when the citing update mail drops into the inbox after a good hard Euro weekend, but last Monday’s effort made for some gruesome reading. Testicle grabbing, gouging, biting and shoving a referee all made the list to back up the ubiquitous punches and dangerous tackles.

Fortunately the supposed ball-squeezer and gnasher were both cleared, but Chris Ashton’s moment of lunacy cost him the England place he has worked so hard to win back and deservedly so – considering some of the sanctions that have been handed out for ‘contact with the eye area’ in the past, he can probably count himself lucky to have any rugby left this season.

But the one that stood out for me was Vita Kolelishvili’s shove on Wayne Barnes. 14 weeks is a long time – Kolelishvili won’t be playing again until late April – but only 14 weeks?

Referees do get in the way sometimes. Those who are ex-players often find that one of the first things they need to correct is an ingrained instinct to stand in the key tactical zones for defensive players who need to see what’s going on just as much as the ref does: at the offside line and third man out from the ruck (where Barnes was standing). They can also get caught out by quickly recycled/distributed ball and find themselves in the 9-10 channel of the attacking team.

Outside of the breakdown, there’s a fair few referees who find themselves subconsciously forming an integral part of the chase line after a territorial kick – many are the coaches who instruct the kick returner to run directly at the ref in those situations, as he’s the only one in the chase line who will voluntarily make way and create a gap.

So it happens. It’s annoying for a player. I know a few who openly say they will run as they would run anyway and if the referee is in the way, well so be it. Collision and scrum. A couple more admit they’ll shove a ref out of the way in action if he obstructs their running path because the obstruction gives them a vague right. Others will not touch and just get on with it as best they can – the majority.

None of the players I have spoken to have said they’d politely ask him to move, which was Barnes’ suggestion to Kolelishvili for the future. But then all of them also watched Kolelishvili step up, shove bodily, and step back into the defensive line, all well before the ball even looked like being passed, and all of them said they would never do that. Ever.

It was an unsightly incident, aggressive, clearly premeditated and a terrible example to watching masses. And ok, at the hearing the initial punishment was 26 weeks – 2 of them because of his poor disciplinary record. About right. But halved thereafter for his ability to brown nose and crawl with an apology? That’s some serious spadework! Kolelishvili is a lucky man… but does reducing a suspension by that much for a well-delivered apology set a good example?

Just do it

Oh to have been a fly on the wall of Super Rugby coaches’ offices this week. Not content with presenting fans, players and administrators alike with a bizarre, flowchart-ridden, geographical spaghetti of a tournament format, SANZAR, evidently in the belief that they had not changed enough, decided three weeks out from the start of the 2016 tournament, that the points-scoring system needed an overhaul.

It’s not the system itself that is the problem – we’ll freely admit it makes attacking bonus points harder to earn and does away with the chances of a losing team gaining the same number of points as they could have for a draw. Neither of those are bad things.

But SANZAR has been working on this car crash of a tournament for a fair while now, so surely if this was to be a consideration there should have been A) due notice and B) a period of consultation?

Alas no. Not one of the coaches says he was consulted or forewarned, which is a terrible piece of top-down administration from a tournament body explicitly required to take into account the interests of the tournament’s major stakeholders.

Super Rugby has for so long been the global benchmark sub-international rugby competition. This year’s is threatening to be a farce. South African franchises are running empty of cash and players. There are grave doubts about the viability of the Japanese franchise, while the Pacific Islanders look forlornly in. And now, not only are we not going to know who’s top of which table and when, we’ll be adjusting to the new scoring system to help us work it out…

Or turning off to watch other things.

How much???

I am aware that professional sport frequently operates from a foundation of asset valuation that is often barely acquainted with reality (although bosom bar buddies with frenzied ambition). I am aware that this process creates operating debt. I am aware that businesses have an optimum debt level, optimum because interest paid on outstanding debt can be written off from tax, reducing the tax bill and buoying profits at certain levels of revenue. Debt is not always a bad thing and in the current low-interest climate, it is a less bad time to go into it.

But I’ll confess to feeling a bit surprised at how much of their assets Saracens appear to have mortaged. £45m ($64m) is a huge amount of money, even if the annual loss has been reduced to the comparative loose change of £4m ($5.m) last year.

But you match that up with Exeter’s net profit of just under £1m ($1.4) last season and you find a picture of two clubs chasing the same aspirations (top two in the Premiership, both in the European Cup quarter-finals), but one of them living well beyond means and the other enjoying life well within.

Saracens were already under heavy peer scrutiny last year during the shambolic wage cap breach cover-up and many were the grumbles in April as to why they should be allowed to be so frivolous.

Exeter Chief Tony Rowe made lighter of it than most at the time, saying: "We run Sandy Park as a business, which means we run at a profit. If we can't run at a profit then we shouldn't be in business. It does feel a bit unfair that other people can buy players and run sporting businesses as a tax loss. But things come home and bite you on the bum at some stage."

Saracens’ reasoning for their deep well of debt does also sound like those plaintive murmurings from over-valued unicorn companies in Silicon Valley: "This is a long game and we are playing it. I have no doubt we will create tremendous value here, both in the financial sense and in doing a lot for our community” from CEO Nigel Wray last year was backed up with: “having a smaller squad and finishing 11th is an obvious way to cut the debt, but that would send out a terrible message to players that we weren't ambitious and would hardly attract sponsors," this year.

We’ll see. But at least we know: sustainable can also be successful. Surely at some point we could introduce a financial fair play mechanism that ensures this maxim is adhered to?

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.

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