Loose Pass

Date published: June 7 2016

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This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with a lack of rugby, Duane Vermeulen, fractious Frenchmen and the June Tests…

French stick

The irony is thick. After bleating on for months about the scourge of too much rugby, this column finds itself in the awkward position of having to reflect on a weekend of almost no rugby whatsoever. 

What's that you say? There's still plenty of rugby being played in France? We've taken some stick for not covering French rugby in more detail, but we actually do rather well for an English-language publication. But, we hear you: let's talk about France. Why in God's name have the Top 14 play-offs not even begun?

It's nothing new, of course. This has been their way for far too long. French players make the foreign peers look like part-timers. The league's grand final will take place just hours before France faces Argentina in the final round of this month's Tests.

It's simply ludicrous – there's no other way to describe it. 

So it was with some interest that we read of Mourad Boudjellal's latest gambit: the owner of Toulon is seeking financial compensation from World Rugby over the issue of player release. 

He might have a point. Take Duane Vermeulen for instance. The big Bok, one of Boudjellal's key employees, will play no further part in Toulon's season having just reported for Test duty in South Africa.

It's still unclear whether Vermeulen took his leave with Boudjellal's blessing, but he did travel under a degree of duress: the Boks had threatened to 'retire' him for six months had he chosen club over country. 

Who's the biggest loser in this sorry affair? It's probably a three-way tie between Toulon, Vermeulen and the Boks. 

But even bigger losers lurk on the periphery – namely those players who were not excused leave and the countries which have been denied their services over the coming weeks. 

It's a mess that needs sorting, which is why we laud Boudjellal for attempting to shunt the issue into the spotlight. 

But we can't help but feel he's picked the wrong target. World Rugby isn't responsible for the excessive demands placed on players – that's down to clubs and countries. He'd be better advised to direct his anger at the French union for organising unfeasible Tests or, better still, the Top 14 itself for concocting a season that runs for ten months. Ten months! 

The solution is obvious, isn't? Simply lop off the Top 14 play-offs. What's wrong with 'simply' topping the table? Or lop off a couple of teams: 'Le Top 12' carries a certain je ne sais quoi, non? The French union could then meet the clubs halfway and lop off a Test or two.

A leaner season would make for a fitter product. It will produce a better national side – and heaven knows that France needs one. The second-string outfit selected for battle in Argentina will be shamed, of that we have no doubt.

But none this will come to pass until French rugby is able to see beyond profit margins. Until then, agents of the Top 14 – men like Boudjellal – do not harbour the solution, they are part of the problem.

Testing times

Right. With that epic whinge out of the way, let us list the reasons why we are so excited by what awaits us over the next few weekends. In no particular order, here are some of the questions that are currently keeping Loose Pass up at night…

England: Can they kick on from where they left off in the Six Nations? One win over the Wallabies in Australia – just a fourth since Captain Cook arrived (to paraphrase Eddie Jones) – would be enough to convince us that the Grand Slam wasn't simply yet another false dawn. But we suspect it was simply yet another false dawn.

Scotland: Same as above, really. Was that win over France just a flash in the pan? Vern Cotter seems to be on to something, and the two-Test tour of Japan should bolster Scotland's growing confidence. Anything less than two wins from two will be a serious backward step. 

Wales: Can they avoid humiliation in New Zealand? 'Warrenball' appears to have run its course and the path ahead looks very unclear. Forget the Tests, even that mid-week fixture against the Chiefs looks beyond them – but we love them for having teed it up. Modern tours need more of this.

Ireland: Again, this looks to be merely about saving face. The injury-ravaged Irish will be chewed up. Their goal, one imagines, would be retain some semblance of dignity as they are spat out. 

Italy: Will Conor O'Shea breathe new life into the Azzurri? Resting Sergio Parisse seems like a decent opening move: the rest of the team needs to start shouldering some of the great man's myriad responsibilities. We foresee two wins from three from an epic tour that spans Argentina, USA and Canada.

France: Please refer to our opening rant. One can only hope that the experience doesn't break the resolve of all those involved.  

Australia: In their last outing, Michael Cheika's Wallabies almost shocked the world – with the most shocking part being that they actually had a decent pack. The Aussie forwards now get the chance to test their mettle against one of the best set-pieces in the world over three weekends. It should be titanic.

New Zealand: Is there life after Dan Carter and Richie McCaw? Is that history's simplest poser? The new backbone might take a while to properly fuse, but chances are it will be an issue of minutes rather than days or months. 

South Africa: Under new management. How will Allister Coetzee cope? You need to be either supremely self-confidence or terminally daft to promise Bok fans a new brand of winning rugby. We're soon find out which it is. 

Argentina: The Jaguares have underwhelmed, but will the experiment pay off for the Pumas? Surely it will – but their weakened opponents threaten to instil a false sense of security. The real test might have to wait until that Rugby Championship opener against the Boks in Nelspruit.

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson

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