This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with unwanted celebrations, pragmatism, refereeing styles and concussion…
It’s 32 years ago since this writer was taken to the Arms Park to watch Wales play Scotland, a game marked by an exquisite solo try from Jonathan Davies, magnificent mullet and all. Davies received the ball under heavy pressure from a creaking scrum (and a fabulous reverse pass from Robert Jones), stepped, grubbered into a hole behind the line and outpaced the Scots defence to touch down.
One of those things only Jiffy could do in his day. But this section is not, sadly, dedicated to his try, rather his celebration afterwards. He got up, had a brief word or two with the Scottish would-be tackler and then trotted away, taking a couple of handshakes and with perhaps the slightest of smirks twitching the corners of his mouth.
How times have changed. On Saturday, Wasps hooker Tom Cruse got the ball on the opposition 22 under a bit of pressure too, but managed to step and accelerate away and dot down for what was also an excellent solo try – if a little less visionary.
What was that celebration, Tom Cruse? 🐶
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) December 12, 2020
Cruse’s celebration however, was to walk on all fours towards the corner flag and then cock his leg like a dog. For which we would love to see Cruse sent to the doghouse.
Celebrations were bound to get more and more exuberant the more money poured into the game and the more and more personal glory and TV drama, highlight reels and theatrics became a feature. But pretending to pee on the pitch is not something that really makes anyone’s highlight reel. High fives, arms raised, big smiles, whoops, hugs… all of those are good. Even this irritating habit of the bench pouring into the in-goal area despite their not being active players at the time of scoring can be ok.
Anything other than pretending to pee on the pitch in fact. That’s just disgusting. But nothing a quick citing and one-match ban wouldn’’t sort out…
Boring boring rugby?
It was the most-repeated mantra during the autumn internationals. ‘Where’s the creativity, why are they kicking all the time, the laws need changing, defences rule, blah blah blah…’
It might be the case at international level, for reasons briefly expanded upon last week. But for good parts of this weekend’s Champions Cup action, it was far from it.
Bristol and Clermont in particular served up a terrific game, while the Bath-Scarlets match was equally as enterprising, if a little more robust among the defences.
It wasn’t all of the games, mind. La Rochelle’s match at Edinburgh was a real dog of a game, and Munster’s win over Harlequins not a great deal better (the wind didn’t help, mind). But for those who would re-organise everything in the desperate quest to see more tries, Bristol-Clermont was a reminder that the laws work just fine when two teams who really want to go at it do.
And those who would damn pragmatism and favour side to side passing and sweeping moves every phase should also watch a re-run of that game carefully: Clermont won not because they were better at going wide and finding the spaces, but because they were better at going forward at close quarters and earning the right to go wide.
The best rugby is pragmatism and inspiration mixed, not one or the other.
Something else very apparent this weekend, while talking about style and evolution and such, is the difference between the new, young up-and-coming referees and the older school.
It’s about the precision of command, explanation and experience of seeing details. The newbies (relatively) such as Andrew Brace and Luke Pearce, are crisper, quieter and icier in their delivery of analysis, not to mention quicker on the draw. Meanwhile, the game between the Dragons and Wasps, officiated by Romain Poite and Nigel Owens upstairs, was much different.
There was more of a conversational style, slightly to the refereeing but very much to the conversation between them. No modern officiating buzzwords, more openness to consensus, more time taken over decisions. And yet Mr. Poite – and Mr. Owens once on the video – still see things that all of us miss. But in the banter and handling of the players there is a more open tone, more of a personality to it.
This is not to say that one style is better than the other. Nor is it to say that messrs Pearce and Brace do not referee with personality. Mr. Pearce did a terrific job of staying calm and ordered when presiding over the morass of inaccurate bodies that constituted Edinburgh v La Rochelle on Saturday, while Mr. Brace’s handling of Clermont v Bristol was so precise that in no time at all the game was running itself and was full of personality.
It’s just an observation. As World Rugby endeavours to simplify the laws and make their application more consistent, the newer breed of referee will need the iciness, clarity and speed of decision referred to here. And older refereeing styles will likely die away a bit. But hopefully not outright, for the variety between them all was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the weekend’s officiating to watch.
And while on the subject, Alex Ruiz’s handling of the Bath-Scarlets game was superb.
"If it dripped once or twice, there'd be no mark on the floor but if it dripped for 14 years, there would be a big hole."
Aged just 40, former rugby international Alix Popham was diagnosed with early onset dementia. He could be in a care home by the time he's 50.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) December 8, 2020
‘Rugby on the brink of crisis’ is hardly a headline these days. But the revelations of early-onset dementia and the links to the repeated rattling of players’ cerebellum have provided unions and governing bodies alike a proper headache, adding to those piffling issues of coronavirus and no fans and such.
It’s tough initially, as an ex-player of third-tier level, to understand completely. We all took the hits, we all had a few bangs to the noggin, we all were out cold once or twice, we all took and gave a few tackles that left both involved seeing stars or a little giddy for a few moments.
But understanding comes from context. Not just from reading the words of Steve Thompson or Alix Popham, but from taking the words – Popham’s sentence about signing up for bodies in bits later without knowing the brains would be as well are particularly pertinent – and then watching the modern game with those words in the back of the mind.
Clermont’s seemingly endless troop of hulking Pacific Islanders taking the ball into collisions at speeds of under 12 seconds for a 100m, for example. The collision between Lima Sopoaga and Josh Lewis. The bang to Taulupe Faletau’s head. That game losing three players to HIA in the first half-hour.
You watch the heads snap back, watch the momentary lifelessness of limbs after contact as the nervous system reboots. And you think back to Popham’s words.
Yes, as many players have said, you sign up for it. But most of them signed up before this was the burning issue it is now. Before the widespread awareness. Will so many sign up in the future? This issue will need rugby’s management to have its finest hour.
Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan