Loose Pass

Date published: August 22 2017

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with timing, fallen trees and a strange silence over Europe…

Even for a body as dysfunctional as the ARU it was odd timing. Barely hours had passed since Damian Mckenzie's try had once again tipped the All Blacks' 'points for' tally beyond 'minutes played', when an ARU press release announced a spanking new High Performance model, with emphasis on grass roots.

That moment in the match, around 50 minutes, may have marked the lowest point yet in Australia's decline. More All Blacks tries would have been new lows each time but it did at least seem from that point on as if the Wallabies still had a bit of fight. The press release from the ARU was the same. The fight is still there. 

But it's the prominence of grass roots in the release that catches the eye, a resolution to focus on a bottom-up approach in a week where a frenzied sea of blue-clad Force supporters took to Perth's streets to lament the very top-down decision of cutting the Force adrift.

The ARU has never had it easy in terms of competitive strategy. The union has been forced to spend disproportionate amounts of its income just to maintain the presence of star players and to maintain a high profile media presence under the competitive pressures from AFL and league, something neither New Zealand nor South Africa have had to worry about. The consideration has always been a need to keep the Wallabies both competitive and noticed. Money and resources which would have gone to grass roots has had, by necessity, to go to the elite, in the hope that grass roots would drag itself up behind an inspiring Wallabies team.

But with the Wallabies now noticeable for little other than their lack of competitiveness, the strategy has to change. Inspiration and innovation, in remarkably short supply at elite level, need to be drawn from below. 

A focus on grass roots in Australian rugby would be the start of this, but it's a long road. Just getting the playing numbers back at base level could be an effort lasting an entire World Cup cycle. 

The timing of the release may indicate that Saturday's capitulation in front of a sparse crowd was deemed the lowest point possible. It may, in all possibility, have been a defiant pledge to do better by someone who doesn't yet have an actual plan but does have an idea of where he wants Australian rugby to go.

But a focus on bottom-up is long overdue down under, not least because Australia hit rock bottom on Saturday. 

The fall of Pine Tree

When Colin Meads passed away last week, it was the end of an era. Youngsters of our generation will doubtless speak far more of the Richie and DC All Blacks for years to come, in starry-eyed wonder at the former's durability and the latter's skill, but the Meads era was not one that could be compared. His was the era of rugby as a game of barely – controlled violence, of beat them up before you beat them on the scoreboard, of self-policing and of survival.

Meads was sent off against Scotland in 1967 and was often worried he'd be defined by his act: an attempt to fly hack a loose ball which connected more with Scotland fly -half David Chisholm. It did seem at the time that it was his reputation which got him his marching orders more than the act itself. Two years later he broke the jaw of Wales hooker Jeff Young with a punch. 

But he insisted – and remember this is the era of self-policing – that he was only ever so draconian with his hard body parts when he felt there was something to police. "No one will beat me by constant use of dubious tactics…there is no worse player on the rugby field than the one who is looking for trouble,” he insisted, referring to players who would kill the ball or hang around offside. His violence was not strategic or wanton, it was punitive. It still is a benchmark attitude from Kiwis to their sport.

He was also a wonderful, hard, skilful and versatile player. He dropped a goal early in his career and played one match on the wing. He played an entire match in the Transvaal with a broken arm. His ability to run with the ball in one hand was a trademark, bolstered by an attack of scarlet fever early in life which left his hands clawed. He played 133 matches for New Zealand, 55 of them tests, an extraordinary number back then. 

His nickname 'Pinetree' was given to him during the 1957 New Zealand colts tour; someone who would not be felled. Adversaries, officials, team-mates all saw him as uncompromising, hard, but ultimately fair. 

His obituaries all say the same thing: father, farmer, rugby player. Despite his services to the game, that was the order of priority his life followed.

In an era of video replays, lawyers and citing commissioners, Meads may never have become a legend. The era in which it was possible is gone, and one of the greatest has now gone with it. RIP.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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