Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly assortment of topped drives, sliced nine-irons and snap-hooked approaches.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the final weekend of Rugby Championship action, the tempest in Twickenham and a shining example of sensible regeneration at a club.
Congratulations to New Zealand, as deserved as ever. Unbeaten and any whiff of detraction from their performance and standards has been met with an inevitable answer.
But let nobody now dare write off the final weekend of the tournament as a dead rubber, even if the places on the table are all certainties.
South Africa’s tilt against the ABs this Saturday will be the tenth since they won in Hamilton in 2009.
The Boks have won just one match against the All Blacks since in that time, 18-5 in Port Elizabeth against an All Blacks team very much drawn from the rising stars and fringe players.
These matches are always touted as the clashes between the best two in the world, which is statistically right, but given the dominance of the All Blacks over the recent past, any game against them has more of a Ranfurly Shield or heavyweight boxing element: one holder/undisputed world champion up against its nearest challenger.
It doesn’t matter if it is South Africa or Australia doing the challenging.
For South Africa, this is becoming a psychological problem they need to get shot of fast.
RWC 2015 is only twelve months away and should the Boks fail to win this weekend, you’d fancy that beating the All Blacks might become an unhealthy obsession in the rainbow nation, leading up to the World Cup.
For Heyneke Meyer, a win on Saturday would represent a chance to make peace over those twelve months.
Until South Africa’s late charge on Saturday, social media was alive with derision and frustration at the Boks’ perceived lack of imagination and plan – and I’ll be fair, I thought the game might be lost in the strict adherence to stifling structure as well.
Fortunately, Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger, who have won a big game or two in the past, gave captain’s performances in the final ten, but there remains a nagging doubt about the over-reliance on the old guard in this team, that the younger players don’t yet know what the older ones have which gets them over the line and won’t be able to learn what it is until they get to do it themselves.
For players like Handre Pollard, Tebo Mohoje and Cornal Hendricks, the match against the ABs is of monumental importance.
Meanwhile, Argentina are also facing a mental block of their own. The rugby culture seems to have been reinvented for the Pumas, who mixed 85 per cent dazzling skill with 15 per cent looseness against New Zealand – aspects which have defined their tournament.
This appears a team as yet unable to make the decision over when and where to open up a game and when and where to close it down for a bit – if for no other reason than to take the pressure off themselves of playing such a high-tempo game.
However, with Australia, knackered from a bullying 252 tackles made in Cape Town, injury disruptions and the additional time-lag coming to town, the Pumas have to learn that lesson fast.
If they do, I have no doubt they will beat the Wallabies. Then they will know how it feels and be able to remember what they did right – and how valuable would those feelings and scraps of extra experience be when taken into the World Cup next year?
Virtually dead the Rugby Championship may be in statistical outcomes, but this is as vital a weekend as any for the teams taking part.
Leicester and Harlequins. Utter that phrase in isolation and you would be forgiven for thinking I might be referring to the English teams with the most internationals or the longest tradition, perhaps to a Cup Final.
Well, this is about two teams sitting in the bottom half of the table, with decidedly negative points differences, both recently nilled by significant rivals and feeling the heat.
Leicester can quite justifiably point to an unavailability list of some 20 players, from the Argentine prop Marcos Ayerza to the injured Manu Tuilagi as the reason for their stuttery start, and while Richard Cockerill has been his usual venomous self over perceived injustices – such as referee Greg Garner’s refusal to acknowledge a punch from Blair Cowan on a Tigers player Saturday – over his team’s form he has been – relatively – sanguine and philosophical.
Those were aspects in short supply after Quins took a hiding from Exeter on Sunday.
Conor O’Shea’s analysis was succinct: “We should be written off, that’s not an acceptable performance. To say we’ve had an average start to the season is an understatement.”
He subsequently added that he was ‘pretty embarrassed’ and ‘furious’, also admitting that it takes a good deal of bad work to concede a cross-kick try to a team which has just had a winger yellow-carded.
Quins cannot point to an injury list. The England captain and probably England’s most talented back are in their ranks, along with several other exceptional players.
The leadership qualities of Joe Marler have been called into question, but when the coach rounds on the squad like that, you can see the club straining at the seams from the frustration building up within. This is not just Marler, it is a squad malaise.
The hapless London Welsh are next up. A perfect match for Quins to record a big fat ‘W’ and cut loose. If not…
And finally, what does a club do when relegated? Do a Toulon, open the wallet and get in a load of old internationals to get back up again? Disappear into oblivion?
In Worcester, the club has opted to regenerate from within, creating another one of those ubiquitous academies in order to try and prevent rising stars seeking fortune elsewhere.
That is a story that has been heard before. But further examination reveals this academy might be the best of the existing bunch.
Six regional centres, meaning parents of teenagers do not have to make thrice-weekly pilgrimages down the M5, are chock-full of specialists on nutrition, rugby skill and management, while the centre of it all works hard to facilitate flexible studying positions for the players who are encouraged – more than a little – to do their schoolwork and get their qualifications. In short, the academy wants people, not just players.
As academy head Nick Johnstone said to the Guardian this week about a player who was intending to study medicine somewhere: “He’ll still be one of our players but things will just be done a bit differently.
“Ideally you want them local but you’ve got to accept some may have to go out of the area. You’ve got to develop the person as much as the talent. It’s a key thing for me.”
Hallelujah. Sensible player development. As Graham Henry insists at the start of any of his seminars: “You are not just a coach, you are a person developer.” Would it were that all rugby managers thought that way.
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens