Loose Pass

Date published: January 10 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with head injuries, head counts and head coaches. And bottom lines…

There’s nothing like a good acronym to make a regulation sound really official and menacing, so the new HIA (Head Injury Assessment) protocols, which went distinctly south during Northampton’s treatment of George North, were given a good airing at the weekend by club officials all a-tizzy to make sure they were doing the right thing.

Problem is, it’s possibly the other regulations concerning tackling heights that are increasing their workload. Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth reckons the new tackling laws might change the game for the worse, not the better and it was hard to argue with him when his team’s game against Exeter lost three players to head injuries as a more or less direct result of tackling lower (all three injured by contact between head and hip).

Unfortunately of course, these were all after Richard Barrington had been given his marching orders for shouldering Geoff Parling’s head as the latter ducked into a tackle (Brad Barritt could have seen red for the same offence in the same tackle).

Who’s going to risk a mistake and a red card after that? Rather knock yourself out on someone’s hip. Five players out of the 46 were treated for concussion on Saturday, which is a statistic that all anti-contact campaigners will have taken good note of.

It’s baffling and frustrating in equal measure to suddenly have the tackle eviscerated halfway through the season rather than at the end of it, and it’s especially frustrating to have the governing body duck out of full responsibility by heaping the pressure on referees to determine intent for high tackles, rather than simply lowering the legal tackle area and giving them a black and white to work from.

The evidence at Allianz Park was that lowering the tackle area might shovel the risk over onto the tackler as opposed to tacklee – which makes sense, after all, tackling low is ducking into the head-on charge of a 110-kg ball of muscle and sinew, hardly a recipe for safety.

Rugby’s place in a world where safety is paramount is increasingly fragile. Not without good reason, but knee-jerk punitive measures that simply shift risk rather than diminishing it is not going to make the problem go away.

Where are they all?

Meanwhile, Eddie Jones must have a sore head of his own this morning, as he works out where all his Grand Slam winning forwards from last year are. Chris Robshaw and James Haskell added themselves to the body count over the weekend, as did Parling, while there is a plethora of calf strains doing the rounds and Joe Marler may have succumbed.

The Vunipoli and George Kruis are longer-term casualties, leaving Dan Cole as the only recognised starter playing in his preferred position (although Maro Itoje is still healthy) heading into that most gladiatorial of phases: the final European Cup pool matches. Dylan Hartley’s ban is an annoyance, but at least he can’t get injured!

Out of the frying pan…

It took four days for Richard Cockerill to find new employment, but he must be feeling a little shell-shocked today after his new side’s desperate showing in defeat on Sunday night.

Cockerill only arrived at the club at the start of this week and if he wanted to prove he was better than Leicester considered him when sacking him last week, he’s walked into the perfect place to do it.

Toulon were dreadful on Sunday. A team laden with more Test experience than most test teams is perfectly within its rights to lose a top-of-the-table clash away from home, but not to take a 30-point drubbing like that.

The scrum, which went backwards even after the replacement of both props on the half-hour mark, was the epitome of the galacticos’ woes.

In fact, everything about what Toulon did wrong was screaming out for the kind of menace, heart and fight that Cockerill is reputed to bring. He’s in the right place at the right time – will he be the right man? Given that Mike Ford was doing a good impression of someone who feels he has only a tenuous hold on his dressing room, he needs to be.

A rich man’s game

Cockerill’s departure from Leicester last week did feel a little like a shedding of a certain skin of identity for the Midlands club which, despite being England’s best-supported by some distance, is falling away in the glamour stakes.

It will be interesting to see in which direction Leicester do go. They’ve prided themselves down the years on that fan base, which has enabled them to live within their means for a long time. The Tigers’ nearest and dearest at Northampton have done the same, as have Exeter.

But the current pattern of clubs moving towards running on the indulgence of rich owners and perplexing financial calculations is inescapable. Saracens made a monstrous loss last year despite their success, a loss gleefully absorbed by their parent company Premier Team Holdings Limited (whatever that is).

Wasps have issued GBP35m of debt bonds. Gloucester could be the next team to get an injection of cash/debt finance from a private source, if it can get past European rugby’s equivalent of the monopolies and mergers commission (i.e. if it can convince them that one person owning two clubs potentially playing in the same competition is not a possible conflict of interest).

The more it goes on, the more the top of the table looks like a battle between the homeowners who scrimp and save for the roof over their heads and those who would finance their gleaming new mansions from a vast trough of cheap credit.

But Leicester’s dispatch of Cockerill somehow felt like it presaged a sea change, a moment where Leicester might decide to keep up with the Enfield Joneses. It will be interesting to see what happens.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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