Loose Pass

Date published: November 1 2016

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This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with an alternative look at Australia’s woes, the future of England’s top league and November’s possible storylines…

Tough, and getting tougher…

It has not, in any way shape or form, been a good month for Michael Cheika. Humiliated by – in no particular order of intensity – the New Zealand Herald, the All Blacks, and his own lack of composure behind a microphone over the past fortnight, Cheika’s latest error of judgement was his decision to get stuck into a little hands-on training with his Wallabies team ahead of their tour.

Up went Cheika for a high ball in contest with Israel Folau. On the one side, a 49-year-old ex-number eight, on the other a 103kg, 1m 93 colossus with the physique of a terminator.

Cheika apparently hit the ground first after the mid-air collision, and was unlucky enough to hit the particular piece of ground that Folau wanted to land on. The latter simply made do with landing on the former instead, sending the former into surgery and the rest of November sporting a sling. When it rains, it pours.

Cheika has had a beast of a year. Argentina aside (and the Pumas are hardly pushovers anyway), Australia have played exclusively against the other members of World Rugby’s top four. There’s no other team has had such a brutal run of tough fixtures.

It gets no easier for Cheika this November either. While most teams make do with three or four Tests, his cash-strapped bosses have insisted the Wallabies play five.

All four home nations and France await Cheika and his charges this November, meaning that by the end of the year, the Wallabies will have played New Zealand three times, England four times, South Africa and Argentina twice each, and Ireland, Scotland, France, Wales all once (and all away).

It’s been understandably hard to fill the gap left by David Pocock, while fluctuating form has affected pretty much everyone who has pulled on a Wallaby jersey since Halloween last year. Cheika’s recent tendency to melt down in public is a sign of the pressure the schedule is putting on them.

But it should lurk at the back of minds that this year could be the making of Cheika’s Wallabies. Nothing teaches you like adversity. England’s fans would know: remember how much Sir Clive Woodward reckoned he learned about his young fringe players during the ‘Tour From Hell’ early in his tenure.

Cheika is surely doing the same with the players he has brought through to debut this year – and doubtless he’ll take time at the end of November to reflect that he might just have learned a couple of things about himself as well.

Eddie Jones pointed out quite accurately last week that whatever the result ended up as, Australia had taken New Zealand ‘ to a place they had not been for a while and it showed there is an opportunity to get at them’.

Students and practitioners of mental toughness will remind you that to be mentally tough is to maintain maximum levels of performance irrespective of circumstance. To achieve this, you should attempt to control only that which you can control – and outcomes are not controllable.

You could point to Australia’s results this year and be derogatory, but underneath it all, there is a little feeling that Australia’s 2016 was about building a little mental resilience and focussing on that performance maximisation. And if you get that right, eventually the outcomes take care of themselves…

Dare we mention it?

I’ll hold hands up and confess: this is a sharp about-turn. But there is something inescapably ugly and drawn out about Bristol’s woes that have led me to believe that scrapping promotion and relegation from the Premiership might not be such a bad idea after all.

For London Welsh, promotion was nothing short of a catastrophe – not entirely of their own making it is true – but it’s unlikely they would have survived even had the season run normally and it has led the club to financial peril and cost it a huge chunk of its identity. For Bristol it looks all but over already. Worcester just made it in their first season back up. Just.

But the new rise in the salary cap, coupled with the way in which the established are able to get their transfers in early and leave the newcomers to pick up the scraps, has created a wider gap than it looks possible to feasibly bridge without unduly straining a club’s resources.

If this is the case, fine. The academies at clubs have produced handsomely, while the Championship is a fine competitive league, also breeding some exceptional talent. Infrastructure is producing enough competition in other places which means the promotion-relegation competition is less relevant than it used to be.

The Premiership’s clubs are relatively evenly distributed around the country and the competition within the league is fierce – all except for the one team.

So if the promoted teams are not going to add to the competition within the league, is it really necessary to keep it on?

November’s storylines

Can Wales finally hold on to beat a southern hemisphere team?

Will England sweep all before them?

Does anybody have a clue who plays for France these days?

A two-Test series between Ireland and New Zealand is fun isn’t it (albeit with one of them in Chicago). Wouldn’t a series be a more fun way to shape November’s Test schedule?

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens.

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