This week we will be exploring the Rugby Championship, national selection rules and a review of the craziness that is French rugby…
Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly collection of Alpine peaks, Belgian flats and deep sea trenches. This week we will mostly be exploring the Rugby Championship, national selection rules and a quick review of the craziness that is French rugby at the moment…
The weekend past is, traditionally, the one I spend having absolutely nothing to do with rugby at all. There is, almost literally, nothing on bar the Currie Cup – which I used to think was predictable although the results have pleasantly surprised, not least the Kings losing.
It is also the week I look ahead to the forthcoming Rugby Championship with relish. After all, it is not often you get the top three teams in the world playing each other home and away within the space of a couple of months. And of course, Argentina are there as well.
New Zealand remain the benchmark and favourites for me, while South Africa are close second favourites and Australia are the team who might decide those fine margins. Argentina, unfortunately, are going to have a tough year, but the home games for the Pumas should be exciting in terms of whether the guests can cope with the home fervour.
Bok captain Jean de Villiers this week made it his known target for his team to beat the All Blacks this year – something the Boks have managed only once in the past five years – and on current form it's hard to bet against the Boks at home at least. New Zealand's invincible mantle took an assault against England. Even if it remained intact, it looked more vulnerable than it has for a while.
Yet it is hard to see the Boks, whose Super Rugby teams have – Sharks excepted – been utterly dire this year, winning in Australia, whereas the All Blacks have the wherewithal to manage that one and maintain a record which has seen Australia triumph only once in the Tri-Nations or Championship since 2008.
So I predict the following… New Zealand with five wins and a defeat in South Africa, South Africa with four wins and defeats in Australia and New Zealand, Australia with three wins and defeats in New Zealand and South Africa and at home to New Zealand, and Argentina… bonus points at home will be all they pick up. But the Pumas will give some hard times in Argentina and it is important they continue to do so.
We'll move over to France shortly, but the Armitage brothers affair is becoming evermore significant for the club game in Europe. Ireland and Wales have both – deeply reluctantly – caved in to picking players based abroad, Scotland were left with little choice long ago.
That Stuart Lancaster flew across to Toulon personally to explain to Delon and Steffon his predicament regarding selection rules and overseas-based players is a reminder that Lancaster holds the pair in the highest regard, while Steffon's soundbite of: “…the World Cup is more than a year away and a lot can happen. He said he has kept an eye on me and is happy, but there's rules and they have to stick by them” is as clear an indication that behind the scenes 'a lot' might be asked in order for Lancaster to get his men. Particularly in Steffon's case, there are very very few in England anywhere near as good on current form.
Armitage is apparently looking for loophole chances to play for France, which would be the ultimate V-sign to the RFU from a player talent point of view, but it does show how precarious the Top 14's riches is beginning to leave the balance.
I have long been an advocate of the excellent work being done by Lancaster, and he will hold his team together ahead of the next World Cup, at which England ought to be serious contenders. But in the aftermath, will the ban on foreign-based players continue to keep players in England or will there be a glut of English players heading across the channel, and how much pressure will that put on the rules in place? And if push comes to shove and Armitage continues his stellar form, will the World Cup – and the inherent requirement to have nothing but the best a country has to offer – count as the 'exceptional circumstance' under which a foreign-based player might be called up? Or is England's plan mindful of such a scenario and hoping to produce enough talent to replenish the stocks on a quadrennial basis? It's a fascinating conundrum.
Meanwhile, in the French national team hierarchy, it is stone-age stuff. One former great (Philippe Saint-Andre) in charge of the team has made a hash of things a bit – with no help from the domestic game – with another former great (Serge Blanco, PSA's once team-mate) bullocking his way into the set-up and making sure we all know which of the long-term foreign imports is going to be eligible and which not. Also, for that matter, what some of the selection criteria are.
The impression is that neither party knows what the other one is doing – indeed, that the federation knows little of what either is doing. Under such circumstances, how the hell is anything going to work?
Once upon a time, Serge Blanco and Philippe Saint-Andre were the starter and finisher respectively of what I regard as the best international try of all time considering the context – it was scored in a Grand Slam decider. Enjoy here.
You get the impression that such skill remains within the French hierarchy, and indeed, that such brilliance might be achieved now and then. But looking at the parlous state of the current French rugby team, you also would do well to remember that brilliant though that team was in 1991, they lost the Grand Slam to a more methodical and significantly more united England team. Perhaps it is time that the FFR balanced out their mavericks with someone a little more pragmatic?
Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens