This week we'll be concerning ourselves with the Heineken Cup, Wales and Quade Cooper…
This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Heineken Cup, Wales and Quade Cooper…
What a weekend of Heineken Cup…
The most underwhelming weekend the tournament has had for some time. Test match intensity it may have been at times, but the evidence is very clear: either the officials need to change their methodology, or the mindset needs to change… or…. something needs to change.
We had a terrific Saturday all lined up. A feast. Toulouse, as so often, provided. Nobody else did. Toulon, laden with proven global stars in nearly every position, simply kicked into Sale's half and relied on the pressure to pay off, eventually nicking a fortunate try.
Munster and Saracens spent 80 minutes in a desperate effort to either slow each other's ball down or run extremely hard at each other with little thought for guile or skill. Munster prevailed in a battle of kickers
Cardiff and Montpellier's clash was riddled with penalties; the tries only really came once Lloyd Williams had been dispatched. Neither Leinster nor Clermont looked remotely capable of striking more than once against each other. Eventually, neither side managed even one strike; the game was decided by a drop goal.
The officiating is not top drawer. Far, far too much leeway is allowed at breakdown time, too many players are allowed to lie all over balls, too little attention is afforded to the offside line outside the rucks. A stricter stance at ruck time would enable players to play the ball and scrum-halves to distribute properly rather than the undistinguished digging through bodily parts that goes on these days.
But the players and coaches are not encouraging anything. I can't remember one time I saw a fly-half taking a ball on the run this weekend. Nor can I remember – again, Toulouse were the glorious exceptions – much in the way of creative running angles, forwards and backs intermingling skills and muscle, slick hands or variety of tactic.
Once again we were treated to a thumping row of hoisted 50-50 high balls and grinding territorial kicks to corners. Then from the line-outs, crash went the forwards, bash went the centres, boomp went the ball off boot.
When the SH teams arrived in November, we all thought Australia and South Africa looked vulnerable. Both have been in ruts of different kinds, both have under-performing flagship domestic teams. Yet once again, both left British shores unbeaten while only France managed to produce the real performance of pace, power and precision to account for Australia.
If the North was left wondering why it had such a poor November – England's freak win over the ABs notwithstanding – it should look hard at the weekend just past. Look through the videos, look at the number of overlaps wasted, promising positions kicked away, poor decisions in contact made, negative efforts made by defences at breakdowns, indulgence of officials to cynical defensive tactics.
It's grim up north right now. It's time for a change.
Just how much of a hole is Wales in right now?
A year ago, all was rosy. The WRU was dripping with liquidity, the players were celebrating after a stellar World Cup and working towards a Grand Slam…
But yet the players just drip away. Dan Lydiate is the latest to head to France, Dan Biggar is set to follow, hot in the footsteps of such illuminaries as Gethin Jenkins, Mike Phillips, Jamie Roberts, James Hook and several others. The exodus seems not set to end there just yet.
Then there's the injury list. Roberts is the latest on it (how much has he really been off it recently), joining almost an XV's worth of internationals on the sidelines.
You've also got an accounting firm releasing a report on regional rugby's viability so troublesome to the WRU that they've set up a new body to help the franchises defend their territory.
Then you've got a sudden fall from grace to ninth in the world, a fall that means among other things you will be facing two nemeses and a bÃªte noir in the next World Cup…
Where did it all go wrong? Was it letting Warren Gatland indulge his Lions dream? Bad player management? Bad financial management? Bad luck? Is, as Wales CEO Roger Lewis has intimated, the economic crisis gripping Wales so hard that progress is just not possible right now?
The World Cup is still two years away. But Wales have a monumental rebuilding task to get on with, starting in February with the Six Nations.
Finally, it did not pass unnoticed this week – despite the lack of fanfare and bunting that might normally surround such a signing – that Quade Cooper seems to have been forgiven down south.
It's been a bizarre process. There's been some intolerable critique from Cooper over the Australia camp and its atmosphere, a declaration of intent from both he and his agent that boxing might be a way forward and a frank admission from Cooper that his career was 'on hold'.
Still only 24 and with a nasty knee injury behind him on top of all this kerfuffle, Cooper now appears to have a real chance to show his talents once more.
It's been an up and down journey. The ill-discipline that culminated in the bizarre burglary incident, backed up by a flawless season that culminated in the Reds' Super Rugby triumph, backed up by an indifferent season riddled with injury that culminated in poor form and public spats with the administration…
It seems a down has just finished. Dare we look forward to another 'up' year from one of the game's most idiosyncratic talents?
Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson