Loose Pass

Date published: November 21 2017

This week we will be mostly concerning ourselves with Welsh props, Michael Cheika and Rugby World Cup 2023.

Uncontested scrum-duggery

The injustice rankled. It made us want to rip off our headphones, clap sarcastically and mouth a few choice profanities.

No, we’re not talking about Australia’s ordeal at Twickenham. You’ll have to scroll down for that bit. Right now we have Georgia on our mind.

There they were, the brave Lelos, camped on the Welsh line at the death, just seven points adrift and itching for the chance to unleash their gargantuan scrum. The chance would come. They’d just have to be patient.

Right on cue, Wales replacement prop Tomas Francis lets out a sizable brain fart by leaping off-side. He’s sent packing by referee Mathieu Raynal and the visitors win a penalty in the shadow of the sticks. It’s on! Scrum, please, sir!

But wait! Wales were out of props! This meant that all ensuing scrums would need to be uncontested and, at a stroke, Georgia’s most potent weapon was rendered absolutely redundant. They were forced to go for the line-out and lost the game – and the chance to make history – just moments later.

Both starting props, Nicky Smith and Leon Brown, had been replaced, together, in the 56th minute of the game but appeared hungry to donate a few more minutes to the national cause.

Alas, it was not to be. Their rampant enthusiasm was checked by a Welsh official armed with a clipboard and an earpiece. Smith and Brown were suffering from a calf injury and cramp respectively and could play no further part in the game.

Wales coach Warren Gatland later confirmed the genius of his Prop Whisperer by declaring that there was no attempt by Wales to “manipulate the laws”: Smith and Brown had suffered genuine, match-ending injuries.

Georgia coach Milton Haig was not so sure. But, to his immense credit, he kept his council, consoling himself with the belief that “there is a process for looking at whether the correct procedure was followed”.

Well, to date, there’s been no word of an investigation. You’ll remember that Wales were on the wrong end of an untimely injury to a French prop during this year’s Six Nations, so perhaps World Rugby has decided that it’s all swings and roundabouts.

If that is the case, then it’s just not good enough. This column has long advocated the appointment of an independent medical officer to sort out the mess that is the HIA process, and we now double down on that demand on the basis that the same official could make similar, independent assessments on other body parts.

Of course, the existing third official could just ask why players are being replaced and if they’d be fit to return if called upon to do so. But we suppose that would necessitate a courtesy that has become conspicuous by its absence from the upper echelons of our game: honesty.

Either way, here’s to hoping that Georgia will soon get the chance to exact their revenge in the confines of the Six (or perhaps Seven) Nations.

Yes, they have their limitations, but going on their performance in Cardiff, it’s their due.

Cheika checked

Perhaps World Rugby will look into the kerfuffle in Cardiff once it has concluded its investigation into Michael Cheika.

The Wallaby coach reacted angrily to a series of decisions that went against his side as it went down to a humiliating 30-6 defeat at Twickenham on Saturday. He is also said to have been vocally unamused by ‘banter’ directed his way from the stands.

Whilst we by no means condone his behaviour, Loose Pass does feel for him.

Firstly, film anyone undertaking a high-pressured task and you’ll catch a few profanities.

Here’s an exercise for you: pretend you are being tailed by a film crew during the course of your working day and then assess how you would come across once the editors had done their work. If you’re all sweetness and light, it’s only because you don’t have the weight of a nation hanging around your neck.

Our point is that broadcasters have some responsibility in all of this. They obviously have every right to film Cheika, and of course they always will: his temper is pure box office.

But do we really need slow-mo replays of his episodic traumas? Should we really be invited to lip-read?

Secondly, some his fury was justified.

You can always expect a few marginal calls to go against you in a match. It’s accepted as you know the opposition will suffer similar dosages of outrageous fortune. After all, the referee and his assistants are as human and as prone to error as those they officiate.

But even the most ardent of England fans would have to concede that their side got the rub of the green – and then some. Indeed, any more rubbing and it would have grown distinctly pornographic.

Again, it was nothing egregious. It was just a case of Lady Luck totally abandoning the Aussies. Sometimes it happens.

England, on the other hand, played brilliantly and took full advantage of their opponents’ hunched shoulders. The All Whites are reaching levels in which you no longer need to rely on luck, it simply flows from your positivity. Indeed, fresh from last week’s “grindathon” and Saturday’s “slugathon”, we would not be at all surprised if Eddie Jones’s next pearler for the press related to him having ‘wonamillion’ on the lotto.

But we must confess we were left a little nonplussed by a rather static performance from the day’s TMO, Ireland’s Simon McDowell.

Yes, Michael Hooper was, indeed, in front of the kicker in the build-up to Australia’s first disallowed try, and this was the frame that was picked out by McDowell and replayed – ad nauseam.

Unfortunately he didn’t think of rocking the tape forward a little to show the Aussie skipper throwing up his arms and checking his run until the kicker had past him by. Given the impossibility of stopping dead (see Isaac Newton, circa 1686), it’s all he could have done.

For the Wallabies’ second disallowed try, McDowell made more good use of his pause button. Stephen Moore was clearly between Chris Robshaw and his prey, but did he do enough to prevent the try? Going by the freeze frame, you’d have to say that Moore did resemble a solid barrier, but the incident looked markedly different in real time.

By dint of actually being part of the game, referees are able to ‘feel’ it. They have direct access to what’s unfolding in front of them, and their decisions are informed by their empathetic understanding of contributors such as intent, probability, inertia and momentum.

But all these factors are rendered null and void by the freeze frame, so we see absolutely no sense in handing the big decision to a retired ref in a distant studio, armed with only a pause button. But this is what’s happening – and it’s happening more and more and more and more.

In short, it’s high time we review the reviewers. If not for the good of the game, then just for Cheika’s mental health.

Pipped at the post

Completing our hat-trick of injustices is the decision to award Rugby World Cup 2023 to France.

Yes, a couple of weeks back we balked at World Rugby’s decision to recommend South Africa over France and Ireland, but that doesn’t stop us feeling desperately sorry for the team that fought so hard to bring the tournament back to the Rainbow Nation.

Whilst the South Africans rested on their laurels, safe in the knowledge that they held pole position, France got to work on making deals, and in Bernard Laporte they boasted a seasoned politician operator – a former Secretary of State, no less.

Who knows what last-minute shenanigans took place behind closed doors, and what was promised to whom. Indeed, we’d give our right arm to know how and why Ireland was abandoned by their Celtic brethren at the eleventh hour, with Scotland choosing to back South Africa and Wales throwing its weight behind France.

Whatever the reasons, it should add a little spice to the next meeting of the PRO14 blazers – not to mention the Six Nations!

Bring it on.

Loose Pass is compiled by former Planet Rugby editor Andy Jackson


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