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Loose Pass

28th October 2013 11:54

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Mike Phillips dive pass

Club-less: Mike Phillips

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with finals, the drunk and the wayward and the Pumas. Or the good, the bad, and the ugly if you will...

What a treat this weekend was! From Tasman's early-Friday breathless win to the helter-skelter Currie Cup final, via Northampton's annihilation of Sarries, the Clermont-Brive clash and Canterbury's dominance of all things ITM we had yet another belting weekend of global rugby.

Finals day can often be where stars are born, but on a day when the SA press was rumbling with rumours of Bakkies Botha being coaxed out of retirement, Pieter-Steph du Toit delivered a terrific lock performance. Charl McLeod at scrum-half was also vastly superior to his counterpart.

The Tasman-Hawke's Bay game was one of the best this writer has seen this year in terms of skill and endeavor. The passes, running angles, rucks and counter-rucks, the speed of it all and the willingness to attack and score at all moments just kept you glued to the screen.

With a handful of internationals away on duty from Saracens, Northampton smelled blood right from the off. A different kind of game, with a lot more thunder and a little less lightning, but there was no doubt which of the teams has the squad depth from these two - which may stand the Saints in good stead when it comes to the business end of the season.

Clermont and Brive traded a series of quality blows, none of higher quality than the wonder pass from Brock James that led to Napolioni Nalaga's killer try eight minutes from time. Youtube is not up yet, but we are sure it will be soon.

On the pitch, this was a weekend for rugby fans all over to remember.


Off the pitch, less so. The Mike Phillips affair took away a lot of the attention from the rugby, not only because of the drink-fuelled nature of the incident, but also because Bayonne chose to pursue a little war of words of its own with the paper that originally reported Phillips as having been sacked.

Newspaper Midi Olympique and its website rugbyrama.fr had posted on Friday news of Phillips' offloading, but Bayonne responded angrily, insisting Phillips was only suspended and raging at the paper for "deliberately trying to destabalise the club on the eve of an important match."

Turns out the paper was right after all, so Phillips is now sans club and might be a little at a loss for what to do next. None of the Welsh teams are financially stable enough to look after the players they already have under contract, never mind go shopping for seasoned local internationals, while given Phillips' age and track record of disciplinary problems others are unlikely to be queuing up. Three months out from the Six Nations, that is not a good position for the Welsh scrum-half to be in.

There are two others in Phillips' situation at the moment, one with the problem now solved and one looking as though he might have it solved. James O'Connor is right in that he can learn from playing at 10 or 15 in the Premiership, but he is going to have to cope with an inordinate amount of pressure to perform in the short-term as well as having to be prepared to fit in significantly better than he liked to do back home. In some ways, he has set himself the toughest test possible as he looks to bring his career back on track.

Ma'a Nonu's problem is solved, but that will be one of the most intriguing storylines of next year's Super Rugby. He's fallen foul of one coach because he was so apt to undermine authority, reneged on a handshake deal from the very coach he is about to play for, then apparently been so disruptive to a third - including being red-carded in his last game - that all the domestic coaches were ready to wave goodbye.

But the NZRU was not. For whatever reason, Nonu - not dissimilar to Phillips - seems more prepared to toe the line and play better the higher up the ranks he goes. Put him in an All Black jersey and he is one of the first names on Steve Hansen's team sheet. There were even disgruntled rumbles of how Hansen was prepared to bend the NZRU rules on domestic play to ensure Nonu's continued presence in the side.

Three superb players, three large egos, three men with lessons to learn on team belonging and behaviour. Interesting times ahead.


Even more interesting is what happens now in Argentina. Santiago Phelan is gone and so is Graham Henry, with Phelan visibly shaken at the division that opened up in the squad under his tenure and Henry privately deeply unhappy with some squad members' conduct.

Patricio Albacete is the one most have named the disruptive force - one source used the word 'poison' - and his statements after Phelan's resignation (which had long been communicated to the UAR as a distinct possibility this year) were less than warm and loving. And it is certainly true that the Pumas have performed better as a team when Albacete was not there.

For so long, Argentina has been the success story of the transition from amateur to professional. The Pumas, not yet professional domestically, have nevertheless continued to churn out high quality players in all positions to bolster the squads of the top leagues, while the national team weathered a lack of competition and all manner of obstacles to realize its talents and take third in the 2007 Rugby World Cup and maintain its position near the top of the pile for long after that.

But the unity for which and with which the Pumas fought for so long is now seemingly gone. One wonders if, with that unity gone, the golden generation of Argentina rugby will have gone with it. Next coach up has a big job to do.

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson

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