Loose Pass

Date published: April 5 2016

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This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with sparse crowds and amusing kicking styles…

Something is rotten in the state of…

Your trusty correspondent has been in South Africa this week, where the locals tend toward a sense of morbidity when asked about the likely identity of their new national team coach.

Apparently nine days now stand between us and the official naming ceremony; whoever it is will have a monumental amount of PR duty first up, as he is likely to be repeatedly called upon at length to defend his employers. One of the more educated and succinct responses to a question about SARU posed this week was: “It’s a s*** show which never stops.”

The South Africans are, relative to other countries, hyper-critical of their national team and union and have been so for a long time. The ugly shadow of transformation and the desperation to rediscover the unifying miracle of 1995 give an extra impetus to every opinion. But the spread of the voting with feet to the provincial level is pretty disturbing.

Two matches I watched while down under: the Brumbies’ visit to Bloemfontein and the Kings’ hosting of the Sunwolves were marked by row upon row of empty seats, despite the obvious quality of the rugby on show. Tickets are hardly at exhorbitant prices. Yet the fans stay away.

“We’ve developed a TV dependence,” said one fan when asked about the Cheetahs match. Every bar will be showing it, every living room is kitted out. There’s no conflict between rugby and other sports so there’s no chance of the pub not showing the game. And to be honest, it’s a lot easier and cheaper to cook dinner on the braai at home and just watch the game with a few beers there.”

All fairly plain and obvious stuff. And three other teams: the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers, have less of a problem, but even then there seems to be less to the atmosphere than in days of yore. The Lions have it tough: Ellis Park is in an ugly part of Johannesburg, yet they are managing gamely thus far.

As for the Kings… well, the same respondent who was so eloquent about his opinion of SARU was no less eloquent about the reason for the empty seats there: “Who wants to watch them? They’re not even good. It’s a fake team, built on a fake premise and initiated by a crook. It a s*** show…” you can guess the rest.

This is not an attack on the teams, who are very much contributing to the tournament – in as much as anyone can understand its structure – with some good rugby. The Sharks-Crusaders game recently was a belter, a terrific clash of contrasting styles. The Stormers are their usual belligerent selves and the Lions are terrific at times.

But something seems up in the relationship between the sport and its public in the rainbow nation – and unless the new national coach is a popular choice, the separation could last a while.

The smiling assassin

It was probably Neil Jenkins who perfected the first truly idiosyncratic kicking style of the modern era. His awkward shuffle, the cleaning of mud from the planting heel, the series of twitches and jerks and the sudden flurry of limbs before the calm swing of the boot that so often sent the ball sailing straight through the uprights.

Since then there’s been a fair few. Gavin Henson’s sudden knee-up halfway through his approach. Jonny Wilkinson’s effort at laying eggs. Aaron Cruden’s foot-planting that occasionally deceived opposition players into a chargedown. Stephen Jones’ curiously straight-on approach and Ronan O’Gara’s tilting of the ball to the right to help it fade back in.

For a year or two, we had the ‘take-off formation’ sweep of the arms that was the ‘Quade Cooperman’. At a club level, a Youtube search for the enigmatic steps of Romain Teulet will instantly reveal why his nickname was Robocop. And lest we forget, the last World Cup saw the official launch of the ‘Dan Biggarena’.

Add one more to the list: the smiling assassin. Damian MacKenzie is a name you will likely end up hearing about down the years for different reasons, as he is a terrific player, but this clip, more than any other, might explain the new nickname…

And there are surely more, so feel free to add some links below and let’s have a celebration of the points machines and their little quirks!

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.

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