Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly collection of hamstring twitches, high ankle sprains and shoulder reconstructions.
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the opening month in Europe, standards and player management…
Five weeks down in the Top 14, three weeks each down in the Premiership and Pro12, and I will confess to how surprised I am at the ease of choice when watching the live weekend action between the three. Gloucester v Exeter won hands-down on Friday night. How things have changed.
I have – well, I had – a baby’s bum-soft spot for French rugby. Way back in early days on the PR desks, I was responsible for the Top 14 getting its own section on the site. Not having this mesmerising league in detail on a global rugby website was becoming a serious hole, especially as the Heineken Cup began to be Europe’s pinnacle.
A couple of busman’s holidays watching league action in France’s south-west revealed to me a domestic game thriving on the excellence of its commercial management, yet revelling in the superbly-retained sense of identity among the participants.
It was rugby as brilliant as it was physical, thunderous hits in local derbies punctuated by moments of magnificent off-the-cuff skill, played by teams drawn largely from the local populace laced with a couple of marquee names from overseas to add a little glamour.
Meanwhile, back in England, many a game was tryless and much of the rugby played by numbers. There were many foreign players marking time, while the Celtic League lurched from one disgruntled sponsor to the next, identities worn away by franchising, teams weakened by international requirements, results too often skewed by the league playing second fiddle to some outside influence.
How things have changed. This weekend in England, only three teams out of the 12 failed to register 20 points. Two of them are simply the weak links in the league while the third had one of those days.
There was some brilliant rugby, not least from Bath. In France, six of the fourteen teams failed to register more than 20 points. The benchmark performances came from Clermont and Toulon, who between them had 17 out of their combined starting 30 hailing from overseas. Bath’s line-up had just two – or three including Welshman Paul James. Of the other pace-setters in the Premiership, Saracens also had twelve English in their starting line-up, even if some are decidedly colonially English. Saints had nine. Local players are ruling in England again and it is clearly doing the league as much good as the national side, with the opposite palpably true in France.
It was also worth noting Daniel Leo’s evaluation of the Top 14 this week: “France is very behind in strength and conditioning and I knew I was not in top condition,” he said.
“Looking ahead to next year’s World Cup I wanted to come back to the UK because I knew that would be beneficial for my career. ” The implication that France is more beneficial for the bank account than the rugby is clear.
Glancing down the headlines list of the Top 14 from the past few weeks, it’s difficult to escape the notion that the league appears to have forgotten about the rugby a bit. Endless headlines of signings or possible signings, bitchy Presidents complaining and playing schoolyard name-calling with each other, countless injuries brought on by too much rugby, suspensions for fighting, inordinate and unjustifiable amounts of money being paid to players.
Watching the games is rarely inspiring – most of the time it is an ugly scrap littered with errors. Classy players go to France and seem to lose their skills.
Returning to the Premiership, and several lessons are there for the French to learn. The salary cap has retained competitive integrity superbly. Teams cannot spend 10 times as much as others on their squads to win, keeping them relatively equal.
Competitive advantage – as Leo also pointed out – is coming from sensible investment in facilities and infrastructure and development of young players, while in the first team it comes from simple rugby excellence, helped by those passionate and locally-raised young players.
Off the pitch the Premiership has improved too. Fan bases are more vocal than ever while clubs have managed to cut away the irrelevant parts of the corporate side of the professional game and have managed to foster thriving and unique identities within communities. Better and more involved fans have created better and more involved teams, meaning a better ‘product’ overall – ghastly though that term is when applied to a game.
Ghastly it is, but nothing like as ghastly as the overflow of money into the Top 14, the dilution of its culture by those who would spend rather than invest, the scant attention being paid to infrastructure and to sustaining what was once the Top 14’s competitive advantage.
This Friday sees Bayonne take on Toulouse in France, while in England London Welsh are hosting Gloucester and there’s the clash of the unbeaten Glasgow and Connacht in the Pro12. All the games are significant – are Toulouse really going to go down five times in a row? Is this an early relegation match in England? Who will be four from four among the Celts? A decade ago there would have been no contest – listening to Bayonne’s fans alone would have been worth it. But now, you feel the better game will be in Glasgow, with Oxford worth keeping an eye on, while you can simply read about the cards and penalties in Bayonne later. Oh, French rugby, where have you gone?
All Blacks standards are still the benchmark. Not that Aaron Cruden has been left behind – that would surely be a standard decision for any team in those circumstances – but it was the language and measure of contrition in his public apology.
Many such apologies are clearly written by some PR guru. We doubt Cruden’s was. Given the language and almost-pleading nature of it all, you can almost see him in a dark, cold schoolroom with Steve Hansen peering over his shoulder!
Even in the asinine situation of a player getting too smashed to make a flight ahead of a crucial international match, the All Blacks have set a benchmark for apologies.
Sam Warburton’s contract, stipulating he may only play 16 games for Cardiff Blues while 60 per cent of his pay comes from the WRU, could be a seminal moment for professional players.
Wales is by no means the only country with player management issues, but for the first time there seems to be a genuine measure of good sense and balance around the terms.
Of course, events may occur. As Blues coach Mark Hammett – no stranger to such contracts after his time in New Zealand – points out, injuries cause unplanned periods of absence which will need to be looked at in terms of the agreement.
The contract is essentially a ‘living document’. But there is one, which represents a huge step forward for Wales. Hopefully the two sides can continue to keep it working going forward.
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens