Planet Rugby

Loose Pass

29th April 2014 07:15



Nigel Owens: Not the most popular man in Volcano Country

Welcome to Loose Pass, our weekly collection of booming up-and-unders, deft chips and awkward grubbers. This week we will mostly be booting the leather off the Saracens victory, questionable tournament systems and internationalities...

It's reasonable to assume that many in the Auvergne might like to see Nigel Owens disappearing down one of the craters in the Chaine des Puys region at the moment. It's also reasonable to assume Owens himself will be rueing a number of slips on the big stage, a poor game all the more noticeable because of his usually high standards as well as the high profile of the game.

Clermont can quite justifiably claim that only one team was refereed on Saturday, although the outcome of the game probably would not have been different. Certainly they were both slow out of the blocks and mentally weak in the face of adversity.

But the two turning point moments in the game were the penalty try and a non-penalty for Clermont early in the second half which absolutely spelled the end.

The penalty try has been talked about to death. From a personal point of view, I am not even sure James intended to knock the ball back. My take was that he was reaching for it a second time in panic, a claim I will back up by looking at his body language after he knocks it away. A player who knows a ball has been batted into touch because he did so on purpose does not sprint after it in panic as James did. James thought the ball was still live after he had knocked it. And Owens' line of questioning was aggressive to say the least.

But be that as it may, the law - many of them have the same wording but the relevant one here is 22.4 (h) - states: "A penalty try is awarded if a try would probably have been scored but for foul play by the defending team."

Now watch the replay again (and pay a little attention to James' body language too - is he even looking at the ball when it comes down?). It's at 0.57 onwards here:

There is not a Saracen even coming close to the ball as it comes down, no way a try would probably have been scored. A seven-point swing right there. Not many arguing either.

Meanwhile, early in the second half, Clermont were building momentum a little. After one good meterage gain, Morgan Parra went into the ruck and picked the ball up, then shaped to go right. Instead of a pass though, he ran smack into Kelly Brown who was running back from the Clermont side straight past the ruck, straight down the fringe channel, straight into Parra's line. Parra turned down a blind alley and was snared, two phases later Clermont knocked on and Saracens had the scrum. Parra was livid - understandably so as his attacking move had been consummately ruined by Brown's lazy running. Owens' reply ran along the lines of 'you played for the penalty, so I am not going to give it to you'.

Excuse me? Have referees not been instructed to ignore intent and focus on the strictest application of the law, especially with regard to lazy running and clearing out the tackle area? Is a penalty not a penalty, regardless of whether the attacking team wants it or not?

Owens would not have been the first referee to take a slightly dim view of negative play like this, but there's another aspect to it too: Clermont's first penalty was won by Parra singularly failing to even attempt to catch a ball flicked back to him while advantage was being played - he wanted the penalty. Owens duly whistled. So Owens went back on his own precedent.

Parra visibly lost it at that point. Not his cool, but the stuffing went out of him. Clermont's went too. But I'd be very interested to hear your views on this one... is it up to a player how to use his penalty advantage (not a scrum - we all remember Alain Rolland's 'I am not responsible for your incomeptence' when Ronan O'Gara made a meal of a scrum advantage with a poor decision) or must he use it in as positive a manner as possible? Answers to the mailbox please...

Leaving aside Owens and his vaguaries anyway, Clermont were probably seething days before the kick-off because of where they were playing.

Neutral semi-finals, the way they are done now, is not working. It might work if you could choose them to be genuinely neutral, meaning after the quarter-finals had been played and in a neutral country. Right now, it just hands one team a luck-of-the-draw advantage in a huge match in a competition where home advantage is a huge factor.

But even if you had completely neutral venues, you would end up forcing two sets of fans to travel a very long way once again, probably a little more than most pockets can take these days.

Yet for Saracens, eighth seeds, to end up playing comparatively just down the road from the Allianz Park, while Clermont, second seeds and deservedly so from the pool stages, end up forfeiting the home advantage they worked so hard to gain, is just not representative of competition integrity. Competition integrity would have seen either a game in Ireland, Wales, Scotland or Italy, or an attempt by the Jaunards to get consecutive home win number 77.

Moreover, despite everyone's efforts, a three-tier stadium with one tier three-quarters full is not good club rugby. A seething mass of yellow flags in Clermont-Ferrand is good club rugby. A boisterous Saturday in Barnet is good club rugby. The best teams earning the right to home advantage in a tournament is good club rugby. Trust me, it's a lot harder to sell rugby to sponsors when played in empty stadia than it is when played in full ones.

To that end, was it just I who found the shadows caused by the incomplete roof on the Stade Velodrome a total nuisance on Sunday?

Two Kiwis look likely to head for international pastures at the moment, Bundee Aki to Ireland and Gareth Anscombe.

The difference between them being of course that Anscombe has a Welsh mother while Aki is about as Irish as... well, as an Auckland-born youngster of Polynesian descent.

I know that this subject has been touched upon several times in this column down the years, but really, Aki's attitude is as clear a sign as can get that the IRB now needs to insist that players either carry a passport - or at least can lay ancestral claim to a passport - of the country for which they wish to play, or they just do not become eligible. How hard can it be to insist that national teams are made up of nationals?

I also read with interest Steve Hansen's take on it - "Players here have a dream of playing for the All Blacks and then they suddenly give it up when an easier option comes along" - and the reactions of many who pointed out that 'Hansen was also one to go overseas and cut his teeth when opportunity passed him by at home'.

Which is a lot of rubbish. Hansen went abroad knowing he could come back. Coaches can change countries. Players who go and play for another country do so knowing they cannot. Hansen is making the right call, laying down a challenge for the mentally strongest players to stay and fight. Mental toughness is important in rugby - just ask Clermont.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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