Loose Pass

Date published: December 6 2016

This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with diminishing pools of talent, resurgent Englishmen and armchair medics.

Green and gold rush

Here’s what you missed whilst you were sunning yourself in the Test window.

Saracens, runaway leaders of the Aviva Premiership before the start of the internationals, lost to Bath and struggled to see off Gloucester at Allianz Park.

Wasps, darlings of the early season, actually lost to Gloucester – a team which had just one win to its name prior to November. Elsewhere, Northampton scraped past Worcester by the narrowest of margins before going down to Newcastle.

And speaking of ‘going down’, lowly Bristol managed to exorcise some of their recent ghosts (22-70 at Wasps, to name but one) by snatching a bonus point against Leicester.

And the rash of loopy results didn’t stop there – they fanned out across the PRO2 and the Top 14.

Amazing, right? Is this Chicago all over again and everywhere?

Of course it isn’t. Not one of these results forced a single eyebrow out of place. Why? Well, these games were all played in November, so they basically don’t count. Everyone is either elsewhere or looking in that direction.

That two vast swathes of the domestic season – November (plus perhaps a week or so either side) and the months of the Six Nations – can be accepted as openly heretical seems totally bonkers given that professional rugby is now into its third decade.

We rugby folk like to look down on our round-balled counterparts, but do you think they’d ever be stupid enough to allow an England XI to mince around Wembley during a full weekend of Premier League fixtures? Which other sport would accept the fielding of weakened teams for up to a third of the season? What would their sponsors make of it?

Yes, we concede that this is beginning to look like another of our rather tedious too-much-rugby rants, but this particular issue goes much deeper than player welfare.

Given the need for sturdy understudies for their itinerant Test stars, European clubs are hoovering up talent from across the southern hemisphere. We all know that the Pacific is a favoured spot to sling a hook, but recent evidence suggests that both Australia and South Africa are now in acute danger of being over-fished. Their fabled and once fathomless pools of talents are no more.

There’s said to be around 100 Australian-qualified players currently playing professional rugby in Europe, and South Africans outnumber them to the tune of around two to one. A full 15 current or former Springboks made the move ahead of the current European season alone.

That’s over 300 eligible players lost to the national cause. And for what? Europe’s concurrent fixture lists.

Rugby’s administrators really need to get to grips with this aberration – if not for beleaguered clubs, befuddled advertisers, short-changed fans or mere sanity, then for the health of the world game.

Feel the burn

Hats off to England. Who’d have thunk that they’d ever follow up their darkest hour by reeling off 14 wins on the bounce? And they weren’t any old wins – there’s a Grand Slam in there, and an aggregate 4-0 humbling of Australia. Bosh!

Suddenly the future looks decidedly lillywhite, but one suspects that the hard work is still ahead of Eddie Jones. Sure, concocting a palatable encore in 2017 will be tricky, but trickier still will be keeping feet firmly on the ground.

England have a habit of being taken in by the hype that they create, and some rather lofty paeans have been penned in the last few days.

If they want to kick on and continue to improve they’d be best advised to disregard the acclaim and keep playing like they’ve just been knocked out of their own World Cup before the quarter-finals have begun. Nothing hones the mind and body quite like being pursued by past demons. Just ask the team that England so desperately wishes to emulate.

Heads down, lads. Heads down.

Post-truth rugby

The was something a little unsettling about the incident that left George North needing to undergo yet another pitch-side ‘Head Injury Assessment’ at the weekend.

The good news is that the Saints star passed with flying colours. He was deemed “fit to return to play”, missing just five minutes of the action at Welford Road before returning to finish the game.

The unsettling bit is that it looked very much like the Welshman suffered a straight KO. We say ‘looked’ as we are not doctors and were far from the action – as was the former international turned BT Sport pundit who was quick to declare: “George North just got knocked out.”

This set the stage for howls of incredulity as the wing was subbed back on, with anger surging through social media at Northampton’s apparent disregard for their own star player.

Whilst it’s become highly fashionable to disregard the opinion of experts, who are we to second-guess the trained medics who actually examined North and passed him fit to play on? Would they really return a player to the field in the full knowledge that they’d just sustained a light-switching blow to their brain? Why? Cui bono?

But perhaps it’s best to eliminate all possible accusations of conspiracy or subterfuge or quackery by removing ‘bias’ medics from these Head Injury Assessments.

If unions can throw five-man teams of match officials at each and every top-flight game, surely they can stump up for a single independent medical assessor.

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson

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