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Loose Pass

09th September 2013 10:51

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mckenzie australia

In a hot seat: Ewen McKenzie

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Australia, South Africa's sixth franchise and keeping a culture alive...

The hole into which Australia are slipping, scrabbling at the soft soil around the rim, is a deep and ominous one. It's not just that the Wallabies are going through a lean spell in terms of emerging talent or that there are a couple too many wide boys around the squad, it's the very nature of the current game that is moving away from Wallaby rugby.

Power, strength and size is everything at the moment. The All Blacks are ahead because of their ability to mix those three with soft skills the best, but the manner of the British and Irish Lions' tour victory in Australia and the way South Africa have managed to stay on New Zealand's heels with as unsophisticated a game plan as you could find is testament to how far power, strength and size alone can get you.

It's just not Australia's forte, nor has it been anything important to Wallaby rugby for some time now. The Wallabies like to run and move the ball from side to side, to avoid tying it up in mauls or scrums. But the scrum has become such a focal point - and under the new regulations it has become a good deal more about the power mustered in the shove - as well as the ability to get a big body leading a counter-ruck, that it is now an unavoidable mantra in the game: either dominate or be dominated. The days of being able to break a game up are slipping away.

So it's not just a turnaround of a team's fortunes Ewen McKenzie has to manage, it could be a shift in the way players are brought through the system, the types of players being paid attention to, the skills given priority down the coaching structures... in short, it could be a shift in national rugby playing culture is needed, no short-term project.

McKenzie is certainly one who could do it. But with a few daggers already twitching in sheaths after three defeats from three, he will need to hope the ARU give him enough time... either way, Australia are in a dreadful state at the moment.


So SARU have finally got what some of them wanted: a guarantee of there being six South African teams in Super Rugby from 2016 onwards.

What happens in the interim will be interesting. Do they continue with the promotion-relegation shenanigans, thereby risking the disappearance of other franchises from the Super Rugby landscape for a year? Or do the Kings now concentrate on getting into the Currie Cup proper and developing a real base of players over the next two and a half years?

On account of stability of the national rugby scene, surely the latter is now the mature choice. The Kings were propelled upwards into Super Rugby by non-sporting forces and, after an initial show of bravery and fight, were shown up as clearly out of their depth - their points difference was nigh on twice as bad as the next worst.

Assuming they do get promoted to the Currie Cup - by winning, rather than cajoling - two seasons at the top level is a good amount of time to garner the support that was most certainly there, spend good time bringing players in and up, and arrive in 2016 with a settled squad well-acquainted with itself and already playing together.

This must be what all parties aim for, an accession to Super Rugby on a basis of sporting achievement and common sense patient development. Not politics and soapbox ranting about the apartheid era. Please, now a satisfactory solution for all has been found, let this solution create a satisfactory interim situation as well.


Revisiting the theme of culture: New Zealand once again are leading the way. The maintenance of the Ranfurly Shield as an object of desire as opposed to its relegation to history is as clear a sign as any that lower-level provincial rugby in New Zealand is every bit as healthy as the All Blacks.

Every year the ITM Cup raises eyebrows in our offices, with the mix of speed, power, skill and intelligence shown by so many of the players streets ahead of other nations' equivalents.

The involvement of the fans and communities continues to give the tournament proper vibrance and atmosphere, creating memorable moments such as Counties Manukau's impromptu tour of South Auckland in the wake of their first-ever Ranfurly Shield win.

That kind of thing just makes it a more enjoyable experience all round and makes sure that for every player jetting off abroad to get a payday, there are others coming through.

Props to the NZRU. They could have let the ITM drift into obscurity and staleness as other unions have allowed their domestic tournaments to do, but the introduction of the salary cap - not without teething problems - and the determination to ensure as much variety and competitive integrity as possible has ensured there is now a genuinely open tournament where teams are always capable of beating each other.

It's kept fans from all corners interested, which has ensured that players from all corners can be noticed and given a chance; exactly what you want from a national sporting culture. The ITM Cup remains the benchmark domestic tournament.


Finally, a word of thanks to Ed Morrison, who was England's most pioneering spirit when it came to refereeing. England's first full-time professional referee and head of elite refereeing development, Morrison remains the only Englishman to take charge of a Rugby World Cup Final, whistling the historic victory by South Africa in 1995.

He had a calm demeanour on the field, yet he was no stranger to issuing marching orders to those who did not maintain his standards. He sent off James Small in 1993 for being rude.

The abruptness of his departure is a little peculiar, on the eve of the Premiership he was so busy behind the scenes with helping. Many referees and coaches are set to miss his advice and experience. But we at Loose Pass hope he enjoys a long and rewarding rugby retirement.

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson

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