Loose Pass

Date published: May 31 2016

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This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Wales, England and Pat Lam…

Changing lanes

Rugby at international level most certainly moves in cycles. It is rare indeed for a coach or his staff to be shaken up outside of certain intervals, namely immediately post-World Cups or at the halfway point between World Cups. Four-year plans and strategies abound.

Yet there can be little doubt that both of Sunday’s Test participants are on very different places in their cycle. However well England – shorn of some key players who were strutting their stuff in an altogether more important match one day before – and the new crop of youngsters played, their cause was helped by a really shabby performance from Warren Gatland’s troops, most certainly raising questions about where Wales are on their particular cycle. Or indeed, whether a new direction is even needed generally.

Disclaimers abound: it was hardly a welcome Test. Professionals should not think like this, but it’s hard to lose from the back of the mind the fact that this game was a bit of an irritation before the hard yards coming up in New Zealand. The sight of Dan Lydiate leaving the pitch with tour-ending injuries visibly left the Welsh deflated and Lydiate himself beyond frustrated. Another game in a slog of a season claimed another couple of victims – the theme of too much rugby has been well-covered by my colleague recently, it never goes away.

There is also the fact that while many of the Welsh’s opponents had been honing their big-match temperament in play-offs and the competitive Premiership over the past month, many of the men in red have been kicking their heels reflecting on a disappointing club season. There were more red cobwebs than white ones to blow off – and remember Wales started Sunday’s game looking a little better.

But England’s young players have clearly evolved. Space has become something to be created, not shut down. Running lines tend to be at gaps, not shoulders. Passes are accurate, to hand, to the right recipients. Options are offered and taken both sides of rucks, making predictability for defences a nightmare.

Contrasting all these positives with the non-cohesive linking and mystifying decisions from the Welsh leads to a lot of questions opening up. Both teams are looking to be more reactive and more deadly from turnover ball and broken play. Only one is becoming so.

Are we harsh to keep lambasting ‘Warrenball’ as we do? Wales have consistently punched above their weight in international rugby for years, with the blows they land rooted in their ability to play out their basic strategy with near-flawless execution.

Often it’s embellished by another specific detail, such as at the last World Cup against Fiji when the tactic in defence was clearly to target the ball in the tackle and render Fiji’s strength a weakness. It’s been effective and it’s always worth remembering that for a country of that size to even mix and match with the Englands and Frances is an impressive achievement.

On that basis, ‘Warrenball’ should be untouchable and to hell with making friends or not. Saracens have just done a deserved double, their popularity rating is hardly stratospheric.

But Wales did deviate from ‘Warrenball’ style. From the outset there was a willingness to run the ball from deep. Regrettably, it was backed up by misunderstandings, poor personal skills, abysmal decision-making on the rare occasions they broke and – for the first time in a while – poor defence. 20 missed tackles is the kind of stat that causes Shaun Edwards and Gatland to froth around the mouth.

Even the scrum and lineout looked faulty. England’s machine was well-oiled; the Welsh have had significantly more time together post –World Cup so this really should have been the other way round.

Tough tours loom for both teams. Wales could get slaughtered if they play like they did yesterday in New Zealand. England will compete in Australia but there’s not enough reason for confidence yet, despite the rising hopes.

Strategic changes are tough asks, generally taking a good couple of years. England’s is accelerating. Wales have a lot to do.

Pat Lam’s fine hour

The big Samoan number eight will have had a few of them in his time, but while Connacht’s players and Galway faithful emptied Murrayfield of its Guinness and whiskey on Saturday night, you’d have forgiven Pat Lam for seeking out a quiet corner and reflecting alone on a win which must have been one of his most satisfying moments.

Lam exited the Auckland Blues for Connacht three years ago, in the wake of an emotional season in which he had endured some ugly racial abuse from disgruntled sections of the public for a slow start, and following a very undignified and drawn-out re-interview process where he lost out to John Kirwan. He appeared to have been somewhat written off by many.

Twice – at least – Lam, an Aucklander who was born, grew up, played and coached in Auckland, was left in tears at press conferences, visibly so when his services were dispensed with. But he quickly picked himself up and found a home in Galway, where on his appointment he talked about the “fighting spirit of the team and supporters to persevere against all the odds.”

Persevere he has now done. Connacht’s triumph will rightly be regarded as a triumph for all players and staff who have played a part in this extraordinary ascendancy, but for Pat Lam, this triumph against the odds will be a moment to cherish forever.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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