Planet Rugby

Loose Pass

03rd February 2014 12:08

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Conor Murray Ireland v Scotland SN 2014

Ireland: Six Nations favourites at the moment?

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the Six Nations, curious concepts and our quick tips for fantasy rugby...

Takeaways from the weekend's action:

1) Ireland must be favourites at the moment. Only they really looked as though they were at anything approaching full speed this weekend, with important players in good form and looking from 1-23 on the same page. It's a tough ask for them with their away games in England and France, but a home win against Wales this weekend - eminently achievable on Saturday's form - ought to be the springboard that sets a palpably confident Irish team on its way.

2) Wales look under the weather. This is a team that ought to be kicking on from the lofty achievements of the past couple of years, yet there seems to be little elements of disconnect between some units, a slight drop-off in fitness and a continued lack of ability to inject extra pace at the crucial moments. Several times later in the game on Saturday the field was open, yet the ball took too long to emerge from rucks and be distributed, and when it was it was nowhere near crisp or straight enough to beat Italy's drift. There were one or two clean breaks - most notably Rhys Priestland's - where the supporters were not quick enough to react. Precise though they may be, Wales are still painting by numbers a little too much.

3) The same aspect of distribution applies to France. Had the half-backs been more urgent, France could have run a good couple more tries in, but hesitancy at scrum-half especially was costly in terms of allowing England to regroup at crucial moments. Solve that problem of pace and France are dark horses.

4) England look every bit as youthful as their average of 13 caps per man in the squad suggests. It's been a while since England played with that much freedom; when Owen Farrell is making searing breaks you know that something special is unfolding. It got them a handy lead, so why, why, why did they start to kick possession away more and sit on the lead in the final quarter? What happened to backing yourselves and going for the kill?

5) Italy were extremely impressive, especially in defence. But the attack showed the most noticeable improvement, with the runners making more metres and hitting more gaps and the team co-ordinating itself better than it has done for a long time.

6) We do not know what it will take to inspire Scotland. Some great players, but this team has to be able to manufacture more in terms of open field attacking and incision than that.


Still maybe the slowness at half-back and in decision-making, alluded to above many times, is down to something else.

It certainly will be so in about 15-20 years in Surrey, where children are now supposed to be playing rugby 'not to win or to lose'. Under the new rules, teams must also be "mixed ability", and must be weakened if they are winning too easily and there must be no overall winner. It's some bizarre attempt at value correctness apparently, encouraging children to play sport for the exercise rather than the glory.

Understandably, the idea has not been popular, with former England international and Esher board member Simon Halliday saying: "We are appalled and have withdrawn from all Surrey rugby competition. In sport there are winners and losers. As long as you don't demean the loser it's straightforward."

Surrey Rugby has diverted all enquiries to the RFU, where development director Steve Grainger issued this rather bizarre explanation: "It's a fine line - when you allow the experience to be driven by what the adults want rather than what the kids want. If we are not meeting children's needs and not presenting them with a format that suits them, we are not delivering to our customers."

Happy though most of the world would be were England to adopt a culture of not playing to win, this is absolute codswallop. Rugby does not have customers, it has players, players of a sport where the objective is to win a game, shake hands afterwards and learn all sorts of things from the microcosmic but intense experience that sport is: thinking tactically, working to the end, accepting things beyond your control, respect in victory and defeat... and those are off the top of my head in about ten seconds of thought.

What will a child learn from a game manufactured to ensure a neutral emotional and tactical experience? Inclusivity at the expense of quality and improvement? Dumbing down of a child's propensity to want to succeed?

We've heard of some bad ideas in the past, but this one is right up there with trying to ban the phrase 'Merry Christmas' or give the B&I Lions a national anthem...


Finally, as promised the first set of tips for testrugby.com's superb fantasy game, which you should all by now have signed up for...

Draft strategy: some positions score more than others, so spend the money there first. Hookers consistently score high points by dint of their being involved in winning scrums and all line-outs. Stephen Moore and Bismarck du Plessis have been consistently the best down the years.

Obviously you should make sure you have one good fly-half and kicker; Dan Carter is virtually indispensible. Identifying a free-running, ball-carrying back row player who plays a significant line-out role is important as well - like Kieran Read. And you will need one marquee back three player, Hosea Gear, Willie Le Roux, Israel Folau, for example.

Aside from that, there is many a bargain to be found. There is always a lock or two in the game lists who you pick as a lock but who ends up actually playing the season in the back-row and is available on the cheap. Locks do not score well generally, with a tiny handful of exceptions, but back-rows do.

So if you have a lock playing in the back-row, you're in. The same applies to the centres, you often find a centre who might be actually playing on the wing and thus in line for a couple more tries, or find a new youngster full of beans - as Bundee Aki was last year.

Hookers are not always expensive, so definitely pick two of those rather than looking at a prop. Only two props have been worth picking over the past couple of years: Coenie Oosthuizen and Sona Taumalolo.

There is rarely any point going for a scrum-half in the half-backs either, two fly-halves - preferably two kickers - need to be picked. In terms of back-three players, you are definitely looking for one who is a runner.

Backs who catch high balls and don't kick them back are going to get points for catches and defenders beaten all day long - and if you have them up against a kick-happy team like the Bulls... happy days!

And finally, look at the top teams and see who the youngbloods are. The Crusaders often have a couple of up and comers - like lock Dominic Bird last year - who are available for pennies and who are nevertheless starting for the best teams for a reason... so don't draft until you know the starting teams on matchday!

More to come next week ahead of the opening weekend of action.

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson

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