This week we will concern ourselves with Europe and the onset of Super Rugby…
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Europe and the onset of Super Rugby…
It seems that Europe is reaching a significant tipping point.
In France, the national coach asked for 12 of his national squad players to be rested this weekend. Five of the 12 were. The rest all had some form of run-out, a couple even had a full 80 minutes. 24 of the 30-strong squad played, with three picking up injuries, one serious and another potentially so.
This all happened just three weeks after L'Equipe reported that the money-spinning Top 14 was being rendered something of a con because the national call-ups and extensive injury list meant that 100 players were missing league action. The season has been marked – particularly from Toulouse and Toulon – with soundbites from coaches fed up with the season structure and the quantity of rugby their senior players do not play. The clubs opted for a new European competition, the national union for status quo. Agreement is being reached there, but it is tenuous.
In Italy, Treviso's resignation from the PRO12 – made in the face of the continued wrangling over Europe's club competition – is a clear sign that Italy would rather do their own thing than get caught up in all the sniping, but the way in which Treviso were annihilated at the Ospreys on Sunday is just as clear a sign that players are pretty fed up with it all. There is talk of an eight-team domestic Italian competition, which sounds great, but will almost certainly see many Italian international players heading overseas to France and England, leaving Jacques Brunel with a lot less control over his squad than he now enjoys. The future of Italian rugby at club level is therefore very uncertain, which will do the national team no good at all.
In Wales, lots of positive press releases – usually the platform the Welsh bodies use for the ugliest sniping – have given a positive impression. Indeed, the reports on Saturday suggesting accord was all but reached bar the TV rights brokering had us raising hopes. Alas, almost at the same time, a paper was released from former WRU CEO David Moffett, the man who regionalized rugby in Wales in the first place, accusing the WRU of not giving the regions a pot of cash they ought to have done. The regions are yet to react publicly, but behind the scenes the phone lines and email inboxes are melting. Watch that space.
With Welsh and English clubs happy in principle at the possibility of the BT Sport deal covering an Anglo-Welsh competition, the French surely at some point set to look at their bloated calendar and consider their options and the Italians seemingly washing hands of it all, the person or persons who are chairing these discussions about Europe's future have a huge task ahead – and we haven't touched on the issue of how TV rights are to be sorted out. Sky and BT Sport are apparently yet to even make contact with each other (RFU CEO Ian Ritchie playing the middle man), both feel they have exclusive rights, but neither set of rights is to the tournament that is slowly taking shape. Yet both will surely push for some form of exclusivity.
Something over the next few weeks – time is most certainly running out – will give. But you look at the above and it's impossible to work out what. One thing is clear though: the World Cup will wait for this house to be put in order, and the longer this all drags on, the slimmer the chances of northern hemisphere success on home soil become.
Meanwhile in the south, Super Rugby got underway. It was only the South African teams, but already you see the culture difference. The Cheetahs' opening try was born after almost two minutes' continuous play and was the result of the third counter-attack in a row. The second was a mesmerizing piece of peripheral vision from Willie Le Roux, backed up by a sumptuous pass. Some truly silly penalties were their undoing.
The Sharks – dodgy substitution policy aside – were no less impressive in destroying the Bulls, who look to be in a real trough at the moment. But the team prepared to attack almost relentlessly and with pace emerged the winners.
The referees played their parts, penalizing players whether their inability to roll away was incidental or deliberate and making sure a tackle assister was treated just like a tackler in terms of releasing and letting the tackle play the ball, both concepts utterly alien to northern officials despite attempts to make them not so. Scrum-halves flew in and zipped the ball out at speed, with little of the 'arrive, look at the ball, think a bit, glance both sides, ask someone for their opinion, look at the ball again, make a call nobody listens to, look around for help, then throw it to the nearest big guy' process that seems to pervade among half-backs up north.
Yes Super Rugby game quality can get ragged, but that's often to do with the speed of it all. More often than not it is just enthralling – it's the speed that creates the spaces which open up late on.
Also appearing this week was an interesting interview with New Zealand exiles Neemia Tialata and Jimmy Cowan, who were quite precise in naming the culture of wanting to score every time their team had the ball as setting New Zealand apart from other countries, equally as precise in stating that the demands made on them in terms of what is expected on the pitch significantly less.
Only one team out of 24 managed four tries or more in the Top 14 and Premiership combined this weekend. Anybody care to throw some money down that the number is higher after Super Rugby's full program start next week?
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson