Loose Pass: An unfortunate XV and an unlucky Irishman

Date published: September 4 2019

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the best of the unfortunate ahead of the Rugby World Cup, and a poor show from a union…

So the dice are, for many of the armies marching down on Japan, cast. The 31 finest players in the respective lands have been chosen.

But those with real aspirations but who just couldn’t find form at the right moment, or inadvertently insulted the coach’s mother, or got injured at an inopportune moment, or maybe just didn’t have the right passport (more on that in a moment) are left to sit at home.

They’ll try to motivate themselves to keep fit, hoping for the injury that brings opportunity their way without wanting to hope for it. They’re alone now, no camps, no team-building activities, no fancy hotels. Just a local gym, a local running track and that faint remnant of hope that the very thing they might wish on nobody does in fact happen to somebody, that the dream will be reborn.

There’s no chance to show off what they have to offer any more. But what if there was? What if we could get an all-star line-up of the unfortunate brought together to play the eventual winners in a beer match at some point after the final (when they are all fit), just so they could prove a point?

The stuff of idle dreams. But at least here, we can give you perhaps a flavour of what that all-star team might look like…

15 Alex Goode – No, we still don’t know what Eddie Jones doesn’t like about him. He just gets better and better at club level, yet never even gets a training camp look-in. Weird.

14 Tom Banks – His best-ever season for the Brumbies and at 25, in his prime. Seemingly jettisoned for a stripling who’s only played 100 minutes this season and would have been 23 at the next World Cup…

13 Mathieu Bastareaud – Granted, he’s getting on a bit. But if you need go-forward ball up the middle, he’s your man. Perhaps the New York thing was seen as a distraction, but we’d take him as a space-creator for…

12 Ngani Laumape – Cut in favour of the oft-crocked Ryan Crotty on the basis, apparently, of experience. It’s a formula that’s worked for the All Blacks before, but Laumape really would walk into many other teams…

11 Steff Evans – A rough season with injuries cost him, but his ability to conjure up a bit of magic at the drop of a hat is still there. In Llanelli anyway…

10 Gareth Anscombe – Was the decision to play on in obvious discomfort for another 10 minutes decisive? We won’t know any time soon, but Anscombe’s loss is a big blow for Wales, with only Dan Biggar now carrying significant pivot experience going into the World Cup…

9 Rhys Webb – Crocked on the eve of the last World Cup, then victim of Wales’ rule change about playing domestically going into this one, then forced to look on while the WRU considers changing said rule once again, Webb was a shoo-in for Wales for a long time. Gareth Davies has filled the gap extremely well, but Webb would surely have been in the squad, bureaucracy notwithstanding…

8 Taulupe Faletau – The hits just keep on coming for Wales’ Tongan Lion. But on his day, he’s one of the world’s finest back-rows.

7 Sam Simmonds – Another one bitten by the injury bug. A bright future is ahead for the versatile back-row who knows his way to the try-line.

6 Liam Squire – His absence is likely down to his self-enforced break for mental health reasons from international rugby this season (for which he has drawn deserved praise), but we’d love his dynamism in this one-off team…

5 Will Skelton – Rumours abounded that he might be a bolter in Australia’s final selection. But he himself opted to stay in England and thus all but rule himself out of contention. Once a 140kg one-dimensional mastodon, Skelton has shed 20kg and is in the form of his life for Sarries.

4 Devin Toner – See below…

3 Owen Franks – People said he’s slow and heavy-footed. He says he’s way better than when he got back from an Achilles injury a couple of years ago. Maybe the truth is in the middle of those two, but to not have him in the All Blacks squad is to run a policy different to that which jettisoned Laumape…

2 Tatafu Polota-Nau – A veteran with a wealth of experience, perhaps unlucky is not exactly right for Polota-Nau, but we reckon he’s the best hooker not going to Japan…

1 Rob Evans – Another one bitten by injury after injury since he was voted into the 100 best players in the world last year and four out of five starts in Wales’ recent Grand Slam. But his reputation for non-durability means youngster Rhys Carre is off to Japan instead.

When World Rugby sympathises, you know you’ve been hard done by…

The residency rule will change after this World Cup, and not before time. For frankly, the insertion into Ireland’s squad of two-cap, three-years-and-a-few-days Irishman Jean Kleyn at the expense of one of the most Irish fellows in Ireland in Toner is a travesty which we can’t help think might come back to bite somewhere along the line.

Kleyn is, unfortunately for what I am saying, innocent here. He’s just playing rugby and the cards have fallen his way, mostly because he’s an excellent player.

But they simply shouldn’t have. You can pop in someone from overseas ahead of a Six Nations and give him time to bed in. But ahead of a tournament where the team is in camp for two months, where they rely on national pride to see them through some unimaginably tough moments, where experience is, we are told, so imperative, omitting a native with 64 senior international caps for a newcomer with two seems illogical and out of touch.

Moreover, it seems to ruffle the team dynamic. Toner has played in 50 games since Joe Schmidt took charge. He runs line-outs and has done for yonks. Many Irish observers opined, after Ireland’s line-out crumbled against England, that Toner was needed to come on and take control.

To return to the squad atmosphere though: Ian McGeechan has always maintained that the best Test squad players are sometimes the ones on tour who don’t even play, but have the sense of identity and the ethic to back it up that the squad needs, to create the atmosphere of identity that inspires the chosen Test team. To cut Toner for Kleyn just seems, however good a player Kleyn is, to dilute Ireland’s Irishness, something the Irish feed off more than other teams. If the chips are down, will Kleyn understand how to draw out his own inner Irishman? Does he have one?

It will hopefully be the last such case under World Rugby’s new international qualification rules too, as project players are simply too commonplace these days and are applying unjust handbrakes to too many international careers.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan